Sam found Trey sitting in the sandbox, studiously ignoring both the staff workers and his dad in favour of driving a toy truck through the ‘sandcastle’, which the girl next to him had just formed by tipping over a bucket full of sand.
Expecting a squeal of outrage from his son’s companion, Sam was relieved when both kids shouted in glee. Pippa even shoved a leg through the remnants of her castle and demanded, “Again!” Which, Sam reflected, was probably about right for this kid given her mother.
But it was entirely her father’s friendliness when she looked up at Sam and grinned, all blue eyes and wispy blond curls. “Hi, Sam!”
“Hey, Pippa. How are you?”
“We just stormed the castle, Sam!”
He grinned at the unfettered delight in her declaration as he regarded the sandy splatter across Trey’s shorts and t-shirt. “So you did. Looks like you and Trey are having fun.” But all fun had to come to an end, and getting home was going to be something of a nightmare tonight thanks to an accident on the Beltway. He’d be glad when the renovations were done on the apartment so he and Trey could move back in to the neighbourhood, but in the meantime, it meant early mornings and late nights of driving.
“Alright, my T-Rex. Time to go, buddy.”
Trey glanced up, his ridiculously long lashes adding to the pout on his lower lip. “I don’t wanna go home, Daddy! I wanna stay and play with Pippa!”
“And I’d love to let you. But we have to go home – Pippa’s going home, soon, too – right?”
“Yes! Uncle Bucky is coming around and we’re going to play—” But what they were going to play was never realised. She squealed, ear-shatteringly high, and leapt out of the sandbox, hurtling towards a man who’d just come through the doors leading into the child care center. “Uncle Bucky!”
The newcomer laughed and crouched down to sweep Pippa up as she flung herself at him. “Pippa! There’s my best girl!”
She squealed as he lifted her up, not quite tossing her in the air, although from the size of those guns he surely could have done so without any particular effort. Built big, although not as big as Steve, and considerably more rough with his five o’clock shadow, jaw-length hair, and the black tattoo that crawled from the back of his hand to underneath the ratty grey Justice League t-shirt he wore. Still, however much he presented as a roustabout, his grin was broad and open as Pippa babbled excitedly at him about the little details of her day.
Sam dragged his gaze back to his son, who was scowling at Pippa and the newcomer. “See? Pippa’s uncle is here to pick her up, so she’ll be going home, too. You can come back to the sandpit tomorrow.”
Trey took the hand Sam offered him and climbed to his feet, still clutching the truck in his other hand. “I wish we could play in the sandpit all the time.”
“Me, too, kid.” Sam hoisted his son up onto his hip and brushed off some sand that had gotten stuck in a fold of Trey’s t-shirt. Trey was getting big – give it a year and there’d be no more casually swinging him up, a little monkey on his shoulder. “Now, how about we get your pack and head out?”
“Can we sing songs on the way home?”
“We sure can!”
Sam started towards the doors leading back into the center, and paused by the guy holding Pippa. “Hey.” He held out a hand. “Sam Wilson. I take it you’re Steve’s ‘Bucky’?”
The smile took a rueful turn. “Hardly his. But yeah, Bucky Barnes. I’ve known Steve since, oh, since we were Pippa’s age. He said you’re a vet yourself?”
A little surprised to know that their friend had talked about him, Sam nodded. “44th Pararescue.” He didn’t ask the return question – he already knew about Barnes and Steve and their time in Delta Force from his years of association with Steve. “Anyway, nice to meet you, but I gotta get this kid home before he turns into the hangry monster...”
“I’m getting HANGRY!” Trey yelled, right on cue.
“HANGRY!” Pippa echoed, equally deafening.
“WE’RE HANGRY,” they howled together. Little beasts.
Sam shook Trey lightly. “Hey, stop that now! You’ll get a snack when we’re strapped in the car on the way home, okay?”
“Yeah, about that— Sorry, ma’am.” Bucky stepped out of the way of a mother trying to get past him. The movement put him close enough to Sam that their arms brushed. And maybe it was just that it had been a while, but Sam would have sworn he felt the heat of skin through the cotton of his shirt. “About going home? Maria said she texted you. Dinner’s at their place – Steve is doing ribs and the house smells amazing.”
Fishing his phone out of his pocket, Sam found the text in question.
“‘Dinner at our place. Steve is doing ribs with the trimmings. We feed Trey, he falls asleep, you drive home later and avoid worst traffic.’” Sam shook his head, grinning. “With an offer like that, how could I resist?”
“You’re coming home with us!” Pippa shrieked.
Trey looked at him, wide-eyed. “I go Pippa’s house for dinner?”
“We’re going to Pippa’s house for dinner. And Uncle Stevie is making ribs. Now go get your backpack.” He put Trey down, and Bucky put Pippa down so she could grab Trey’s hand to skip the room to the cubbyholes where their bags were stashed. “Ribs. Shit, that’s gonna be a mess.”
“Well, it’s not like they’re unfamiliar with small children eating.”
“True.” Sam was just conscious that he was in his work clothes, and he’d planned to wear the suit for the rest of the week, then get it cleaned on the weekend.
Ah, well, he’d grown accustomed to dealing with change in the two years since Aleysha had relinquished custody of Trey and Sam had taken up primary carer status for his son. They’d finally gotten their lives into a rhythm that worked for both of them, not really helped by the changes each year as Trey got older and he went from child care to a combination of child care and prep school. Next fall, though, Trey would start ‘big kid’ school and things would settle into a pattern for at least a few years.
Luckily, the apartment renovations were to be completed by the start of summer, so they could move in and get used to their new place before the school year began.
Sam was looking forward to it.
First, though, he had to get through Christmas again.
Maybe this year Riley’s family wouldn’t invite him to visit, and he wouldn’t feel obligated to go. Riley’s ghost wouldn’t walk with him through the streets where Riley had grown up, and he wouldn’t sleep remembering that last Christmas together, warmly curled up together on the pull-out...
“Hey.” Bucky touched his arm, and the grip was, indeed, warm. “You okay there?”
“Yeah. Fine.” Then because the other guy was also a vet, Sam added, “An old memory.”
“Ah.” The other man studied him for a long moment, then turned away as Pippa bounced up with her backpack, one arm stuck in her black cardigan with the white unicorns, the other side dragging along the floor behind her like a really short gothic bridal train.
“Are we riding your bike, Uncle Bucky?”
“Fuck, no.” Sam stifled a laugh at Bucky’s sudden look of horror as he heard his language. “I didn’t say that, Pip. Don’t tell your mommy I said that. And no, we’re not taking the bike, your daddy gave me the SUV with your seat in the back.”
“You gotta bike?” Trey’s eyes were huge as he let go of his bag and it fell over on the floor. “Can I ride it? Daddy? Can I? Please?”
Hell no, was Sam’s instinctive response. “When you’re older,” was the response he’d learned to give when his son expressed a desire for things that were flatly out of the question for the next dozen years.
“I turn five next year!”
“Older than that.” Sam helped Trey into his jacket and then picked up the backpack. “Quite a bit older in fact.”
“When I’m six?”
“Older than that, too.” Sam caught the eye of the center’s director and lifted a hand in farewell. She simply nodded, being involved in a conversation with a blonde woman whose daughter was tugging at her sleeve, desperately trying to get her attention.
Sam didn’t answer his son’s hopeful query, because the corridor out was narrow, and Bucky had just leaned in. “Sorry,” he muttered, flashing a slight twist of a smile that made Sam’s heart skip a beat. It took him a moment to remember that Trey was impatiently waiting to see if he’d be old enough to ride a motorbike when he was seven.
“Add at least ten to that, and I might think about it.” Sam told his son. When Trey scrunched up his face trying to work out how many that was, he added, “No more math tonight. Hold my hand.”
When he turned back to the path, he found Pippa holding the gate open with one hand, her hand clinging firmly to Bucky’s left, while Bucky was holding his hand out to...Sam?
“You did say ‘hold my hand’,” the other man said with spurious innocence. Beside him, Pippa giggled, delighted at the joke.
“On the first date?” Sam retorted, his stomach in freefall.
In the late afternoon light, the other man’s blush was vivid across his cheekbones as he dropped his hand. “Well, so long as you’re amenable to a second one.”
“We’re already having dinner together,” Sam replied. “How about we at least wait and see how that goes?”
This time, the smile gleamed with promise. “You got yourself a deal. Come on, Pip.”
Sam watched them go for a moment, then shook his head, hoisted Trey into his arms and went to get him in the car.
It was definitely going to be an interesting night.