Chapter 1: Darcy and Loki
Welcome to the new series! Each chapter will focus on how one character (or couple, probably couple) spends their summer break.
Thank you so much, faithful readers, for caring about our little AU. We really appreciate it.
Don’t get Darcy wrong, she loved having students in the building, but summer. Oh, glorious summer. It meant she got to do her work without being interrupted with parent phone calls (about things they’d already been told about fifteen times, check your damn e-mail), kiddos showing off the tooth they just lost (and the blood that came with it), or chasing down adults supposedly responsible for their children in order to schedule conferences and meetings.
She got to have a set schedule and was mostly able to follow it. In the mornings, she snuck coffee out of the coffee maker hidden in Jasper’s office while he walked around the halls. She caught up on what e-mails she had and just lounged her way into the day for the first half-hour. After that, she spent time helping Pepper, who only came in during the mornings, organize rosters for next year’s classes. Darcy used what rumors from students and angry phone calls from parents to separate troublemakers.
During lunch, she helped update the school’s website with the latest news. She’d been put in charge of the school’s Twitter feed (something Fury repeatedly admitted was a mistake, but he never seemed bothered enough to assign the job to anyone else). She’d developed a daily story series that depicted the mostly empty school building as haunted. Darcy’d even convinced Clint, on a summer mission with Phil to re-color code all the Accelerated Reading books in the school, to throw a sheet over himself to look like a cartoon ghost. She’d never heard Phil laugh so hard in her life, but then again, she wasn’t sure she’d heard him laugh out loud at all.
The afternoon was spent doing paperwork for Fury and Sitwell. They were under the impression that this particular task would take her all day, and maybe it would if she were stuck in meeting after meeting like they were. Rarely did it work out like that— but she was going to admit that to her bosses.
Since it was summer, teachers filtered in and out of the building at their leisure. Most people just assumed that educators spent their summer on their couches watching Netflix, and while some did, most did not follow that misconception. Darcy always thought it was awesome that these people who spent so much energy in their work would give up their free time to come in to learn how to be better, to redesign their classrooms, or to help tutor kids who were here for summer programs or to keep from repeating a grade.
She was also grateful that crazy, smelly, old Mrs. Howard was not one of those teachers.
But Darcy’s favorite part of her work week was between the hours of one and two on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, also known as the time between the class Loki taught and his office hours. For the summer, he taught classes about Norse mythology, the focus of his studies. He then tucked himself away on a café just off campus—he was obsessed with their salads, an infatuation Darcy could never understand—before opening the door to his tiny office to help his students. And while he ate, he made sure to text Darcy.
They caught each other up on their day. Loki talked about something idiotic a student said in class; Darcy updated him on how many times Jasper’d made an excuse to go over to the middle school. They made plans for when they could see each other, made up new details about their non-existent significant others, and reviewed the rules to make sure no one named Odinson found out about their relationship.
“Am I paying you to text?” Fury asked as he entered the office from his latest meeting at the board of education’s office.
“No, the school board is paying me to text.”
Fury snorted at that before tossing a Ziploc bag full of chocolate chip cookies into her lap. “Eat those. Melinda gets bored after thirty seconds of summer and ends up baking all the time. I’m going to go into a diabetic coma if she doesn’t stop.”
Darcy gave a skeptical look at the bag and poked at it with a neon yellow fingernail. “You’re sure they’re safe?”
Fury rolled his one eye. “Of course they are. If I wanted you dead, you don’t think I’d do it myself? My wife is not trying to poison you.”
“You said she was bored,” Darcy argued.
“Suit yourself,” Fury replied as he stalked off to his office.
Darcy waited for him to close the door before she stuffed the Ziploc bag into her purse. She was tempted to pitch the cookies, but her boss would find out and then he’d actually be pissed instead of just pretending it. Instead Darcy decided to take them home and give one to her mom, just in case.
“Did you hear that?” Darcy asked.
She watched Loki’s eyes travel around her kitchen, his face growing increasingly puzzled. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Exactly!” she exclaimed with glee. “No nagging mother, and my adorable-yet-constantly-under-my mother’s-thumb father is getting his rocks off reenacting yet another Civil War battle. And the best part is that I don’t have to go with them being some water wench to grown men moaning in a field. And also—did I mention that my mother is in a different state?”
He smiled and shook his head before taking her hand and pulling her toward the kitchen. If the ten-second trip took five times longer than necessary, neither of them would complain about one of them pushing the other against a surface to make out a little. Eventually, they arrived at the trio of grocery bags Loki brought in with him. Darcy’s idea of cooking was limited to only using microwaves, so when Loki offered to cook her a meal, she was all for it. At least, after she confirmed it wasn’t some traditional Swedish dish; she refused to eat moose.
Darcy hopped up on the counter and was content to watch him work and give him directions where to locate knives, cutting boards, and a big pot. She was slightly hesitant when he offered to cook a stew in the middle of the summer, but now that aromas were tickling her nose, she was nearly drooling.
“Don’t be too impressed,” Loki warned. “This is pretty much the only recipe I know, and it’s fairly difficult to screw up.”
“Dude, my specialty is nachos in the microwave. You’re practically Mario Batali right now.”
He smiled at that, stalking over to her like a big cat to stand between her legs. His kiss was slow, hot, and promising. Basically, everything Darcy never imagined when it came to Loki fucking Laufeyson, but there it was. She moaned in delight as his nimble fingers slipped inside the hem of her t-shirt. They slowly ran up her right side, inching closer to her chest. She was about to cut to the chase, grab his hand, and put on her boob for him when the sound of little hands beating on the glass door out to the patio filled the kitchen.
“Miss Darcy! I have to potty,” Alva yelled. “It’s an emergency.”
Darcy swore under her breath and shoved Loki’s head between her legs. The act was not nearly satisfying as the many times she’d imagined it—it took them a while to learn how to kiss around his nose, but his tongue has never been an issue, okay?—including the way he also sputtered a curse. That was probably due to his hand getting caught in her shirt, causing him to bang his elbow against the counter when he ducked.
“Miss Darcy!” Alva shouted again.
Darcy jumped off the counter, looking over her shoulder to make sure Loki was hidden from sight, and opened the door. She’d been so distracted by her boyfriend cooking her food, she failed to hear the Odinkids swimming in her backyard. Thor, stuck in a cast for another three days, shot her an apologetic look from his lounge chair. “I fear I would not be able to get her to a bathroom in time,” he said.
“Please, Miss Darcy,” Alva pleaded as she bounced around. “Mama said we can’t pee in your pool, even if the boys do it sometimes, and I need help getting out of my bathing suit .”
“C’mon,” Darcy replied as she ushered the little girl into the kitchen. Alva started to head to her left, and Darcy remembered exactly who she would run into if she went to the half bath off the kitchen. “No, wait!” she shouted. Alva froze on the spot and turned to look at her with big eyes. “Uh, that bathroom isn’t working. Let’s go upstairs.”
Alva bolted for the steps and climbed up to the second floor. Darcy helped her peel off her floaties and swimsuit. Alva hugged her wet, skinny arms around Darcy’s legs from her perch on the toilet in a thank you hug. Darcy shook her head and patted Alva’s curls as a you’re welcome.
“What smells good?” Alva asked.
“Who cooked it?” she prodded. “You said you don’t cook.”
Darcy shrugged. “I thought I’d try something new.”
“You should make it for us the next time you babysit us. When will that be?”
“Well, your Dad gets his cast off in three days, so probably then.”
Alva looked up at her confused as she finished her business and started redressing. “We need a babysitter for that?”
“Not necessarily for him getting his cast off,” Darcy answered. “But definitely for after.”
“What comes after?”
“Your Mama and Daddy will want some alone time.”
“I like alone time,” Alva replied with a naïve smile.
“I was about to get some alone time,” Darcy muttered as she yanked the last floatie back into place. “Alright, kid, let’s get you back in the pool.”
She led Alva back the way they came, making sure her uncle wasn’t in sight. Once she’d ushered the girl back outside, Darcy spun around. “Loki?” she called out softly. “Coast is clear.” She gasped as arms grabbed her from behind.
“I thought I heard you say you wanted some alone time,” Loki murmured in her ear. “Should I leave?”
“Absolutely not,” she answered as she turned in his hold and pulled him down for another kiss. Unlike before their interruption, Darcy set the pace for this one, and slow wasn’t at all what she had in mind right now.
By an unspoken agreement, the pair of them began to maneuver themselves up the stairs to Darcy’s bedroom, dropping articles of clothing along the way. “Food’ll be okay, right?” Darcy asked between kisses.
“Why do you think I offered to make a stew?” Loki replied with a dangerous grin.
“We have to be quiet,” she instructed as they reached her bedroom door, mentally patting herself on the back for tidying things up in her room.
“I’m not really one to be loud,” Loki told her.
“One—I was mostly talking to myself. And two,” she added with a sly grin. “Challenge accepted.”
Darcy’s mom played dirty.
She’d started when Darcy was really young, dropping hints about her “goals” for Darcy instead of just flat-out telling her. Darcy guessed her mom meant well—she couldn’t be a complete pill all the time, right?—but she’d always resented finding flyers for tap lessons and ballet on her bed, or new girly clothes in her closet when she wanted to wear her overalls. As she got older, her mom got more subtle: signing her up for mailers from better colleges than the ones Darcy wanted to go to, circling ads in the paper for part-time summer jobs, leaving out the little newspaper write-up on her friend’s cousin’s son with the coffee shop or the dot-com or whatever.
Darcy always threw them all away.
It didn’t surprise her, really, when the Career Builder and Monster print-outs started popping up around the house the second school let out for the summer, mostly because they always started popping up when school let out. Every one was a reminder, a red flag that said, “Please remember that your mother doesn’t approve of your career choices.” Darcy pulled them off the fridge, threw them out of her car, even ran several of them through her mom’s shredder before flopping back down on the couch to watch another episode of Scandal on Netflix. She liked her job. She didn’t need a new one, no matter how feverishly her mom highlighted the salary range on the printouts.
Loki had chuckled at it the first time he spotted one; her mom, in a stroke of sick genius, had stuck it under the flag on the mailbox, and Darcy’d grabbed it before hopping into Loki’s car. She’d balled it up and thrown it at his head. “It’s not funny.”
“Your mother probably means well. Most mothers—”
“Most mothers are not my mother,” she’d cut him off. When he’d raised his eyebrows, she’d snorted at him. “Go ahead, keep talking about her good intentions and see if you find out what color bra I’m wearing.”
He’d reached over to tug lightly at her t-shirt, and she’d smacked him. He’d laughed as they’d driven away, but she’d stared out the window, back at the shadow of her mother standing just inside the house.
The last straw—the one that broke the camel’s back and left him crippled in the middle of the desert—came on a Saturday. Darcy’d spent the morning helping her mom clean, and they’d kind of laughed. At least, until her mom dragged down a box of old keepsakes and found Darcy’s high school yearbook.
“Oh, don’t,” Darcy whined, reaching over to slam it shut. “Those were the years of big hair and bigger braces. I don’t ever want to see those pictures again.”
“You were cute,” her mom insisted. Darcy scowled and went back to the rest of the junk in the box—actual junk, most of it yellowed newspaper clippings and weird clay creations from Darcy’s elementary school days—until her mom sighed. “Most likely to succeed,” she said, kind of dreamily.
Darcy glanced over at her. “What?”
“Myra Davis’s son was voted most likely to succeed, but I always thought it would be you.” Darcy bristled, her jaw tightening, and returned to the crap in the bottom of the box. “You know, I saw some interesting jobs online you might—”
“Don’t,” Darcy cut her off.
“Don’t make this the thing where you ruin an okay day by deciding my job’s a joke.” Her mom pressed her lips into a pissed off line, and Darcy rolled her eyes. “You always do this. You always pick a day where it’s going okay to decide I’m not ‘living up to my potential.’ The stupid computer printouts just serve as your back-up singers.”
“I’ve never said that,” her mom retorted.
“You say it all the time!” Darcy snapped back, almost knocking over the box. “And if you don’t say it with computer printouts, you say it with looks and sighs and that disappointed nose-thing you do every time I leave the house.” Her mom’s face crinkled, her nose wrinkling, and Darcy pointed at her. “See? That! You do that all the time!”
“I want you to live up to your potential,” her mom returned. “Myra, Bonnie, Carla, they all have—”
“Kids with two degrees and two kids of their own running around behind white picket fences?” Darcy demanded. Her mom crossed her arms over her chest, and Darcy huffed a breath. “You don’t want me to be successful unless it’s exactly on your terms, because it’s not good enough until then. Can’t brag about me at book club, and that’s the kind of kid you want.”
“I want a kid who’s not wasting her life!” her mom half-shouted, and Darcy jerked back a few inches. Anger flared across her mom’s face, and suddenly, there was a finger aimed right at Darcy’s nose. “I have done everything—everything—to give you all the advantages in life and you sit on the couch like a useless lump or read trashy books or go out with that guy! An entire lifetime of potential, wasted on Netflix and weird TV and—”
“And on trying to reason with you.” Darcy’s voice sounded distant even in her own ears as she shoved to her feet. The box of junk fell over, and she heard something crunch and break. She didn’t look back, though, not as the flush of embarrassment and guilt climbed all over her face and definitely not as she felt her throat thicken. No, even when her mom yelled at her to stop, she grabbed her bag and slammed right out the front door.
She didn’t even realize she’d climbed in her shitty old car until the road blurred in her vision. She wiped at her face as she turned corner after corner, her mom’s words (potential, success, waste, useless) running back and forth through her head like a skipping record.
She parked and climbed out of the car without really noticing where her autopilot’d taken her. And she only really registered who she’d gone to see—out of all of her casual buddies and her very best friend—when she fisted her hands in Loki’s t-shirt and dragged him down to kiss him.
Loki, caught in his doorway like a deer in headlights, stumbled them against the wall, and within a half-second, he’d pushed her away to stare at her. His eyes were huge and confused, his clothes slouchy and comfortable—and why not, it was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. He looked good, better than anything Darcy’d ever known before. Definitely better than Darcy probably looked, with her raccoon-eye makeup and tear-streaked face.
She needed a mirror. God, she was the wreck her mom thought she was, after all.
Her whole body trembled without her permission, and Loki spread hands on her sides. “Look, I know— I’m the worst, okay?” she asked, and he stared down at her like he’d never seen her before. “I’m the worst, and you can tell me that later, but right now? I need to turn it all off. My head, my brain, all of it, I need to not think.”
“It’s my mom,” she interrupted, and leaned her forehead against his chest. “It’s my mom, and it’s me, and I need—” Her breath caught, and she forced herself to look back up at him. “I need to feel like I’m worth something. Even if it’s just for five minutes.”
For a second, Loki just kept looking at her, his face so even and steady that she wondered whether she’d said anything aloud. Maybe she wasn’t talking at all, just living a bad dream that’d all go away. She could hope, right?
She almost said all that, too—about the bad dream, the silence, Loki’s serious eyes—when Loki reached up and cupped her cheek in his hand. “You are always worth something to me,” he murmured, and this time, he closed the door when they kissed.
What r u wearing?
Loki tried to keep his face straight as he slid his phone back into his pocket before helping his mother finish setting the table. He knew Darcy figured it was dinner time, and she was using letters instead of words to drive him a bit mad. And she knew that, for the next hour, his back pocket would be vibrating every five minutes or so. Each time, he’d fidget in his seat, and it didn’t take long for his relatives to notice. His mother shot him amused looks, his father sighed every time it happened, and his nephews and niece asked more and more questions as the night wore on. He dodged each about who was texting him (it’s a secret), could they read the texts (absolutely not), and could they text back some smiley faces (while Darcy would appreciate that, still no).
Thor offered to cover his dirty dish duty so he could go check his messages. Loki thanked him for his generosity before sneaking off to his old bedroom as quickly as possible. He thankfully had enough sense to shut the door behind him before he opened his messages. He tried to stop the moan that erupted from him, but wasn’t entirely successful.
“Uncle Loki, are you okay?” Alva’s little voice carried from the hallway.
He wasn’t. Not at all. He had a girlfriend who loved tormenting him. It was the best combination of awful and delicious. “I’m fine, dear. Thank you.”
“Can I get my horsey?”
Loki stuck his phone under his pillow and told her to come into the room. Thor and Jane slept in his brother’s old room. His nephews slept on the pull-out couch in Father’s office. And Alva, for the last few summers, had spent the traditional week at his parents’ house sleeping on the floor of Loki’s room in a sleeping bag. Normally, he didn’t have any issue with it, even when she talked in her sleep. But this year, he longed for privacy.
“What are you doing?” she asked, stuffed horse clutched to her chest.
“I was going to look at some pictures my girlfriend sent me.”
“Oh, can I see them?” she asked, starting to climb up on his bed before she finished the question.
“Not this time, sorry.”
“Please?” Alva pouted.
Loki sighed. He hated telling her no, but he’d glimpsed at just enough pale skin to know that showing his five-year-old niece would be a terrible idea. He had no desire to be eviscerated by his sister-in-law.
“I think I hear your mother calling you,” he lied.
Alva’s face scrunched up. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“I’m pretty sure. You better go check.”
He was a horrible person for being dishonest to his niece, but he really needed to inspect the pictures Darcy’d sent him. Thoroughly.
Alva gave him one last dubious look before running out of the room, horse tucked under her arm. Knowing she’d return a minute later to call him out on his lie, he quietly slipped down the stairs after her and out the front door. Circling around the house to the backyard, he took a seat on the large wooden swing that overlooked the lake attached to his parents’ property.
Looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t followed, Loki reopened his texts and smiled in admiration. Darcy had taking it upon herself to answer her own question. She’d apparently found a sale on bras and was determined to send a gratuitous shot of each purchase. Loki once again lamented the fact that the only place he could get some privacy was in the shower, and even then his father griped at everyone who took a shower for longer than five minutes. The owner of a chain of banks had no issue spending money on horseback riding lessons for his grandchildren, but heavens forbid Loki was able to spend some quality alone time in the bathroom. Hot water was apparently outrageously expensive.
“Mind if I join you?” Thor asked.
Loki quickly locked his phone and stuffed it in his pocket. He blamed the miles of pale skin he’d been admiring for not hearing his lumbering brother come up behind him. While Loki wasn’t in the mood for company, it was good to see Thor walking under his own power again. Thoughts of his brother’s accident still churned Loki’s stomach.
“Of course not. What’s on your mind?”
Thor pulled a look of hurt. “Can I not come and stare at a lake with my brother?”
“Not without an ulterior motive, no.”
Thor ducked his head guiltily before meeting Loki’s eyes. “I was hoping we could have a conversation about the woman you are seeing.”
Loki smiled tightly at his brother. “I appreciate your need to meddle in every one of my life’s affairs—”
“I believe that is a lie,” Thor muttered.
“—but despite what you or Mother may think, I can actually handle a relationship on my own without having advice spouted at me every two minutes.”
“I just wish we could meet her,” Thor replied in that annoyingly quiet tone of his that screamed I meant no offense and I’m just trying to protect you. Loki hated how much it still tore up his insides. “But it is good to see you happy.”
Loki turned his head to hide his small smile. Happy was rarely a word he applied to himself, but it was true. He felt the urge to spill everything to his older brother, but knew Darcy would kill him for it.
“How did you talk this young woman into dating you?” Thor asked while clapping a hand on Loki’s shoulders.
“I followed Alva’s advice and simply held her hand.”
Thor’s smile slowly faded from my face. “My daughter was giving you words of wisdom on relationships?”
“She said that was how she acquired her boyfriend.”
Thor stared him down for a moment before he rose from the bench. “Excuse me,” he said. “I need to have a conversation with my daughter.”
“You can at least tell your dear, old mother your girlfriend’s name,” his mother said, and Loki laughed as she linked her arm in his. She sent him a warning look, one eyebrow cocked. “That was not meant to be funny.”
“She says as she lays a trap for me to call her old,” Loki replied with a little smile.
His mother smiled back, her face warm. “You can’t blame me for trying,” she said, and he laughed again.
Even on the best days, the trips home to visit his parents felt daunting and interminably long. Between the lack of privacy, the constant invasion of his beloved (but high-maintenance) niece and nephews, the—ahem—shower situation, and his father’s insistence that they spend endless hours of “family time” together, Loki felt himself start to disintegrate after four or five days. But every summer, his mother discovered some new farmer’s market, walking trail, or art museum, and they spent at least one day together.
Today, she rested her hand in the crook of his elbow as they wandered through the Friday evening “art walk.” As far as Loki could tell, the event involved buskers, local artists, and a number of young women armed with free wine.
“If I cannot know her name, maybe you can tell me something else,” his mother suggested, and Loki shook his head. She nudged him gently. “I know you are still hurt by what happened with that other young woman— What was her name? Darla?”
“Darcy. But you’ve clearly moved past her. What’s more, you seem happy.” She leaned on the word, and Loki bit the inside of his cheek to keep from rolling his eyes. “Tell me something about her.”
She peered at him, her gaze pinning him down, and he forced a smile. For the last few weeks, he and Darcy’d spent considerable time creating their alter-egos, the perfect cover stories for their prying families and friends. “Believable cover stories,” she’d told him one night, her legs propped up on the couch while she laid on his living room floor. “Nothing crazy.”
“My dreams of being a body builder, dashed,” he’d teased.
She’d pulled a face. “Ew,” she’d retorted, and he’d chuckled. At least, he’d chuckled until her face softened. “Although, if you want to model yourself off one of the guys I work with, I can send you pictures and—”
He’d tweaked one of her bare toes, and she’d squeaked at him. “I would rather not compare myself to Mister Dorito, thank you,” he’d informed her, and she’d snickered for entirely too long.
His mother cocked her head to one side, and he forced a smile. He tried to remember all the various attributes of Darcy’s alter-ego—a PhD student, blonde and thoroughly tattooed, a participant in roller derby and a kickboxing class—but his mind faltered. Finally, he drew in a breath. “We met through a mutual friend,” he half-lied.
“And you were immediately smitten?” his mother asked.
“No. We— Well, you know how I tend to be with young women I admire,” he said, and her oh-so-supportive laugh caused him to roll his eyes. “We got off to a rocky start. Which, by the way, is the greatest of all understatements.”
“But you won her over,” she pointed out.
“After a time. I suppose I believed relationships to be like something in the movies—conceived in a fever, fast and frantic—when, really, it took longer than that.” He paused. “For both of us.”
His mother smiled. “Thor is not always a good role model,” she said, and he huffed out a breath to hide his laughter. She smacked him lightly. “I meant in love, thank you. He and Jane fell for each other quickly and furiously. Most other relationships smolder, instead of burning up like a wild fire.” She shrugged. “At least, in my experience.”
“You mean to say Father wasn’t leading proverbial armies to beat down your door and win your hand?” he teased.
She snorted. “Hardly. Your father was a foolish oaf when we met. A boy, at least in his actions. He’s lucky I didn’t give up on him years earlier.”
Loki grinned. “I might say you deserved better,” he said.
“You might be right,” she replied. She squeezed his hand, her face warm as she smiled, and Loki knew—despite all the anger of his youth—that she didn’t mean what she said. She led him past a street violinist. “Your father and brother struggle to doubt themselves, even when doubt is more than warranted,” she continued with a small shake of her head. “You, I think, learned to doubt yourself too much. And while that’s served you well in academics, I fear it hurt you in finding friends.” She glanced over at him. “In finding love.”
He felt a flush climb across his cheeks, and he cleared his throat. “Yes, well, it’s a bit early to talk about love, Mother. We’ve only just started dating.”
She raised a hand. “It was merely a figure of speech,” she promised, and led him into an antique shop.
A few hours later, after exploring almost every shop and critiquing endless pieces of art by local and less-local artists, they headed back to the parking lot. His mother was laden down with various bits and bobs for the house—“Your father will not scold me with my children present,” she joked, and Loki grinned. Loki himself had limited his purchases to a small abstract print in bright colors. The colors had, at first glimpse, reminded him of Darcy’s endless variety of nail polish and various bright accessories, and he thought she might like it. He had, after all, promised her a souvenir.
She’d also sent him at least a dozen texts while he was out with his mother, mostly funny little jokes or quick selfies as she prepared for her friend’s birthday party. He smiled at all of them, texting her back as his mother drove them home.
He was halfway up the stairs to his bedroom to put the art away, still texting, when his mother called up to him. When he turned, she was standing at the bottom of the steps, smiling serenely.
“Do tell Darcy I said hello,” she said, completely conversationally—and then, walked away before Loki could stammer out another word.
The inevitable finally occurred just before the new school year started.
In retrospect, Loki found each one of their slip-ups, the bits of hubris that, like with Icarus, led them to fly too close to the sun. For instance, he learned the comings and goings of his brother’s car, and still parked at the gym six blocks away and walked the rest of the way, just to avoid detection. And Darcy watched Jane like a hawk from the windows and insisted they meet on neutral territory for two-thirds of their dates. They mastered the art of deceit and subterfuge (and every stolen moment smoldered because of it).
And then, Henry had his last t-ball game of the season.
His league purposely began and ended before the school year started, one less scheduling conflict for busy parents to maneuver, and the league organizers always turned the last game into an enormous party at the park. Not only did the teams (all six of them) play their last games, but there were hot dogs, burgers, beverages, party games, trophies—everything a small child could want. Loki stood with Thor and cheered his nephew on, while Darcy slowly drank a Capri Sun and talked with Jane and the other children.
Every so often, she raised her eyes and did something indecent with her tongue and that plastic straw.
Loki hardly knew what Thor was talking about, anymore.
Somewhere near the fifth inning, his cell phone buzzed. bathrooms, five minutes, I don’t care what excuse you make up, the text read, and he felt heat splash across his face. Next to him, Thor laughed. “Your girlfriend find newly painful ways to distract you?” he asked, planting a hand on Loki’s shoulder.
Loki shrugged him off. “Nothing I can’t handle.” In response to Darcy, he typed, I am woefully unprepared for whatever you have planned.
“I can see that,” Thor teased, and Loki snapped a sharp look in his direction. He raised both hands, still grinning. “The longer you date this mystery woman, the clearer it is that you’ve met your match. I’m glad for that.”
“Glad, or nosy?” Loki retorted. Thor sent him a slightly wounded look, and he huffed off—mostly because Darcy’d texted him back to say that she was prepared for anything.
Anything, it turned out, involved the family bathroom in the park’s obscenely well-kept bathroom-and-shower area. Loki groaned as he fumbled with the lock, Darcy licking into his mouth and hooking her fingers under the waistband of his jeans. “You know we’ll be missed,” he reminded her.
“Yeah, well, you lick that straw as many times as I did, you’d want your mouth on something else too,” she shot back, and all of the blood (and rational thought) in Loki’s body pooled below his waist.
In the end, they had minimal use for Darcy’s mouth and clever tongue. Loki’s, on the other hand . . .
He ran fingers through his hair as he stepped away from the mirror, Darcy still fighting to put all of her many assets back in order. “We look suspicious,” he told her.
She rolled her eyes. “I told Jane that the sushi I had for lunch wasn’t agreeing with me. I’ll text her that I hurled a couple times and need another fifteen.”
“And what do you intend to do with those fifteen?”
“Since I don’t smoke, buy a coffee and bask,” she returned. She winked, and he grinned—at least, until she smacked his hand for skimming his fingers along the neckline of her v-neck. “You start that up again, the hurling excuse won’t even work.”
“I’m not sure I’m that concerned,” he replied, and dragged her in for a kiss by her shirt.
Nobody lurked outside the bathroom when they emerged, or along the winding path back to the baseball diamonds and parking lot. Loki considered the situation for a few seconds before pressing his hand to the small of Darcy’s back. He intended to walk her to her car, but then she leaned against him. When their eyes met, he could think of nothing but kissing her.
Slow and sweet, flying toward the sun.
“Uncle Loki?” a voice demanded, and they jerked apart as though they’d both been branded. Standing in the middle of the path were Alva and George. Last Loki knew, they’d been playing together on the nearby jungle gym; now, sweat-sticky and wide-eyed, they stared up at Loki.
And then at Darcy, who swore under her breath and ran a hand through her hair.
“You were kissing,” George observed breathlessly.
“Like boyfriend and girlfriend,” Alva added—and then paused. Darcy started to protest, mostly in the form of a strangled sound, but then Alva clasped her hands over her mouth. “You’re boyfriend and girlfriend again!” she squeaked at a pitch only dogs could hear clearly. “You’re in love and you’re going to have babies and we can be your flower girl and your ring boy and Mama’ll cry and—”
She started physically bouncing on the balls of her feet until Darcy grabbed her shoulders. “No,” she said, and Alva abruptly stopped. The joy in her eyes flitted away, and Loki felt his own stomach drop.
George shifted nervously. “You’re not back in love?” he asked quietly.
Darcy looked at him, and then, for some reason, up at Loki. Loki wet his lips trying to find an answer that didn’t reveal too much—like how desperately he cared about the woman beside him, or how many confessions lived on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he crouched down in front of his niece and nephew. “Do you remember when we planned to surprise your parents on their anniversary last year?” he asked.
George nodded, but it was Alva who said, “Yeah, and Henry blurted and told and then the flowers and the pancakes weren’t a real surprise.”
George’s face creased in a frown. “Henry ruins everything.”
Darcy snickered, and Loki bit down on his own smile. “Henry ruined that surprise, maybe, but that’s not what I’m talking about.” He glanced over at Darcy, who raised her eyebrows in curiosity. “Darcy and I, we— That is to say, while we’re not ‘back in love’ or anything like that, we’re certainly not indifferent toward one another.”
Alva mouthed indifferent, and Darcy rolled her eyes. “What your uncle means is that we’re trying the boyfriend and girlfriend thing again, but slowly.” Both kids’ faces started to light up, and she held up a hand. “But it’s a surprise. Something nobody else can know about.”
“Not even Mama?” Alva asked.
“And not Henry?” George added hopefully.
Darcy shook her head. “Neither of them. Not your dad, not your grandparents, not your friends. It’s a secret.”
Alva nodded, her eyes still darting between them, but George frowned again. “Is there going to be a party?” he asked. When Loki cocked his head, George sighed. “My friend Drew said they made a surprise for his dad when he got really old. It was a party with all these people. They even said surprise.”
Darcy shrugged. “Sure,” she said, “we’ll have a party. And, if you keep your mouths sh— I mean, if you keep the secret for the rest of today, we’ll have ice cream.”
Both children grinned. “Chocolate ice cream?” Alva asked.
“With sprinkles?” George chimed in.
“More chocolate and sprinkles than either of you can eat,” she promised, and Loki laughed when Alva actually offered her brother a spontaneous high-five. Darcy put her hands on their shoulders. “But remember: no secret, no ice cream.”
“We’ll keep your secret forever,” Alva swore.
“Until the party,” George amended, and his sister nodded.
They turned around and darted back toward the baseball diamonds, Loki realizing belatedly that they were only maybe fifteen feet from where the woods gave way to open fields. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “My brother and Jane will expect an engagement or worse if we have a ‘coming out’ party,” he pointed out to Darcy.
She shrugged. “You’ll think of something, I bet,” she told him, and leaned up to steal a kiss before she headed out into the sunlight.
Chapter 2: Tony and Pepper
Sorry for the weeklong delay in getting this posted. I (saranoh) am busy with my own beginning of the school year activities. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks for being patient with us (mostly me).
“Could we please not make this a thing?” Bruce asked, his fingers poised to pinch the bridge of his nose.
Tony raised both hands. “I’m not the one boxing up physics books to make room for my girlfriend,” he defended. Well, defended until he paused and frowned. “Well, okay, technically I am the one boxing up physics books, but under your careful tutelage. And definitely not for my girlfriend, though if you and Red are into swinging, we can talk about—”
Bruce flung a Sharpie at Tony’s head, and Tony only barely deflected it.
He also grinned, but that’s another story.
For all his laundry list of wonderful qualities—the foremost of which being his willingness to deal with snot-nosed children one-hundred-eighty days of the year—Bruce always seemed to forget how bad he was about keeping secrets from Tony. Not secrets from the general population, because lord knows nobody ever knew how to read the guy, but Tony knew Bruce Banner like the back of his hand. They’d made it halfway through a single AA meeting—paying diligent attention to the sharer, obviously—before Tony’d texted his platonic life partner. stop fidgeting, it’d read, and Bruce’d gone still and white the second he’d read it.
Pay attention, he’d texted back, and slipped his phone into his pocket.
yeah not until you stop fidgeting, Tony’d retorted, but Bruce’d just stomped on his foot without reading the message.
Afterwards, at the diner, he’d stammered and wriggled his way through the story: kid-related baggage, moving in together, the whole bit. “Red’s not gonna be able to leave once she realizes Parker’s screwed his girlfriend on every surface in her apartment,” Tony’d pointed out, gesturing with a French fry. “You’ll be stuck with her for life.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Bruce’d replied, and he’d stolen a handful of fries off Tony’s plate to prove it.
The memory sat pretty heavy in the back of Tony’s head as he watched Bruce rearrange crap on the perpetually overstuffed bookshelves in his living room. He was humming to himself, squinting as he moved around some battered science fiction novels that probably predated Star Trek. “She knows you’re a hoarder, right?” Tony asked as he dropped another of the books in the nearest box.
Bruce rolled his eyes. “She has been here.”
“Being here and living here are two different things. Has she seen the under-the-bed bin with the sweaters? Because that alone might scare her away.”
Bruce smirked. “If Pepper can endure the engine graveyard you call a garage, Natasha can tolerate my sweaters.”
Tony scoffed, which just turned his friend’s smirk into an actual grin. “I’ll have you know that every last engine part in that garage has a purpose,” he defended. Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I might not know what that purpose is, and I might not use it any time soon, but I assure you: I will someday need that one bolt in that one drawer, and I will be glad I had it.”
“And you’re worried about my relationship,” Bruce grumbled, but his voice sounded warm.
He turned back to the shelf then, leaving Tony to drop the last physics book in the assigned box. Even though Natasha planned on subletting her place, Bruce insisted on clearing out a lot of space for her—half, Tony expected, to show that he really wanted her to make herself at home, and half because—
“You’re sure about this, right?”
The words popped out of Tony’s mouth without any warning whatsoever, and he knew the second he heard them that they sounded wrong. Tighter and more urgent than he meant them, at least.
Across the room, Bruce’s shoulders tightened, and Tony could immediately imagine the half-pained, half-challenging expression crossing his face. “Excuse me?”
“That’s not how I meant it,” Tony promised, and when Bruce turned around, he didn’t look angry. No, he looked fearful, like he expected Tony might say or do something monumentally stupid. Which, to be fair, Tony’s track record lately on the Natasha front wasn’t all that great. He rubbed a hand over his face before dropping it to his side. “Look,” he said after a couple seconds, “I think you guys are great together. Honestly. And Natasha makes you happy, and I like seeing you happy, and I’d do pretty much everything in my power to keep you that way. You and Pepper, you’re my people—her in a very different, often-naked way, mind you—”
“Tony,” Bruce cut in. He sounded almost amused, but with that razor’s edge of worry, like a guy waiting for the guillotine to drop.
Tony rested his hands on either side of the box. “What I’m trying to say is that I want this to be the right thing,” he explained, and he watched as Bruce pressed his lips into a tight line. “I want you and her—my best friend and my best friend’s girl—to have your long and happy life and your fairy tale ending or whatever else you both want. And that means it’s kind of my job to, right now, make sure you’re sure. Before I’m as all-in to this thing as you are.”
Bruce snorted, his mouth not quite quirking into a smile. “You don’t need to invest all your time and energy into my relationship,” he said.
“Uh, you gave the woman we thought was pregnant with my kid the shovel talk right before we got married,” Tony reminded him, and then, Bruce finally grinned. Tony grinned too, until his face almost felt warm with it. “See? All in.”
“Is this where I point out your habit of sleeping with women of questionable taste?” Bruce asked, still smiling.
Tony snapped his fingers and pointed at him. “No,” he returned, and his buddy laughed.
A good fifteen minutes later, after Tony hauled the physics books down to the basement and cracked open an ice-cold bottled water (complete with some Crystal Light sprinkled in—recovering alcoholics lived life on the edge), Bruce glanced across the living room at him.
“I’m sure,” he said, and there was so much conviction in his voice that Tony’s stomach almost hurt.
Tony grinned. “Okay,” he said, and raised his water bottle in a silent toast.
One long weekend every summer—too long for her husband’s liking—Tony and Pepper made their way out for their bi-annual visit to Pepper’s family farm in Virginia. Pepper wished that she went out of longing, but it always felt more like obligation.
She had no issue with her upbringing at all, but she could only take so much of getting side-eyes from women her age who were still stuck on farms and never could break free. It was one of many reasons she’d stopped attending high school reunions, especially after marrying Tony. Pepper never intentionally held it over people’s heads that she had a crazy rich, crazy smart, crazy husband (unlike how some of her former classmates would). But news of her marriage had spread like wildfire through the rural community, and visits home hadn’t been quite the same since.
Trips home were hard. Her family freaked Tony out; he constantly worried that he still wouldn’t win their approval after three-and-a-half years of marriage. Some portion of their nights in bed were spent soothing his anxiety about the whole thing and reassuring him that he was doing fine with her relatives.
At the moment, Tony was inside sucking up to his mother-in-law by fixing her dishwasher. Pepper silently prayed that he had better luck at home repairs here than in their house. Needing a moment to herself, she snuck out the back door to the wraparound porch. Tony complained (out of her family’s earshot) that there was too much green for his liking in the land surrounding the farm, but Pepper didn’t see or smell the same things he did. She saw a legacy her brothers would inherit. She didn’t smell manure; her brain interpreted it as her family’s well-being.
She watched fireflies flicker their way across the tall grass and listened to the pigs snort at each other in their pens—the sounds and sights of home. She didn’t realize she wasn’t alone until she heard chain links creak. Apparently she wasn’t the only one who’d decided to sneak out the back door. Pepper turned and smiled at her father sitting in his favorite spot—the porch swing.
“He still talkin’?” he asked as Pepper sank down next to him.
“You know Tony only rambles when he’s nervous.”
“Is there any time he’s not nervous?”
“You scare him. You have eight inches on him and are twice the weight. He’s also pretty sure you have the pigs waiting for a command to attack him.”
“I could arrange that,” he replied. He used a booted foot to set the swing into motion again, and Pepper closed her eyes to listen to the familiar creaks and groans. “He good to you?”
“Yes, Dad,” Pepper answered. It was a question she was asked every time she came home. “Tony treats me very well.”
“Except for the part where he married my only daughter without letting me give her away,” her dad grumbled.
Pepper twisted in her seat to study his profile. This complaint was one he’d only brought up twice before, and as much as she’d tried to brush it away and tell him it wasn’t a big deal, it obviously still ate at him. “He didn’t want things to look bad,” Pepper explained. “We may teach little kids, but they can count to nine—or at least, their parents certainly can.”
“So damn worried about his reputation—“
“He was worried about mine,” she interrupted. She let the words sink in a moment before she continued. “He doesn’t need this job; he has money. But he knew I didn’t. And if the parents at school wouldn’t have made a mockery of things, what little press still interested in what he does certainly would have. He knew I would’ve been dragged through the mud. He was trying to protect me.”
Inside, there’s a loud bang followed by a muttered swear from Tony and a litany of apologies. Pepper heard her mother ask what was wrong, and she could barely make out Tony’s reassuring tone of voice, one that Pepper was guaranteed to hear whenever he got in the mood to upgrade something in the house.
“If he breaks that thing—“
“He’ll buy you four new ones,” Pepper reassured. They both sat and listened for a few minutes as Tony puttered around with the broken dishwasher a little bit more. “We could renew our vows if it would make you feel better,” she offered. “Don’t tell anyone, but Tony’s a closet Pinterest addict. He says he looks at it for ideas on home renovation, but I know there are at least five date nights that I can attribute to that website.”
Her father stared at her for a minute like she was speaking a foreign language, which to him she kind of was. “He’s good to you?” he repeated. “You’re happy?”
“Yes, Daddy,” she answered.
He mulled those two words over for a minute before he nodded. “Your mother giving you a hard time about how you don’t have kids? I know she wasn’t subtle at Christmas. And I warned her not to stir that pot this time.”
“She’s fine. She only drops the hint about wanting more grandkids every other month on the phone.”
Her dad snorted. “If you ask me, I think your oldest brother should’ve stopped a kid ago. I’m glad the two of you have enough sense and guts to say no to something you might not want.” He nudged his shoulder against hers. “But let’s keep the fact that I just complimented your husband a secret, okay?”
Despite what his wife and best-science-friend-forever sometimes muttered under their breaths, Tony Stark was not even a remotely stupid man. He realized that most of his coworkers had families, friends, and lives outside of school. He could even (grudgingly) admit that they had sex lives, or took vacations, or spent their spare time raising terrifying creatures who looked a lot like them and called them Mom or Dad. Fine. But he also felt these occasional spikes of “land of misfit toys” fondness for the people who, like him, lived a little on the fringes of traditional family life.
Which explained the party, maybe, but not the— “I don’t know if all of those fireworks are strictly legal,” Pepper said as Tony sorted through the giant box in the garage. The sounds of a great AC/DC playlist drifted in from the back yard, where their friends drank beers and grilled meats. When he glanced at her, she rested her hands on her hips. “I am not bailing you out of jail again, Tony.”
“You say that like the last time wasn’t an honest mistake,” he retorted. She raised an eyebrow, and he rolled his eyes. “Seriously. Two Anthony E. Starks in the tristate area, separated by a mere five years of age? It’s not my fault that my boyish good looks made the cop mistake me for a wife-beating, liquor-store-robbing convict.”
“It’s your fault you mouthed off to him,” Pepper reminded him.
“Details,” he said, and waved a hand. Her jaw tightened, and he returned to his box. “I already promised Cage that I wouldn’t set off anything too huge. Something about scaring the baby.”
“You’ll promise Jessica that you won’t start a fire, but not me?”
“Your husband isn’t the size of the Empire State Building and twice as mean-looking,” Tony fired back, and Pepper huffed as she walked out of the garage.
Look, Tony’s spent his whole life hearing about how totally sane families deal with holidays like the Fourth of July. Hotdogs, burgers, lemonade, lawn darts, the whole nine yards. The fact that he never had that—the fact that a couple times in his youth, they were in some foreign country on some contract-signing god-knows-what with his dear old dad on the fourth—has never bothered him and probably never will. But some of his friends used to have that, and now—
He’d never been a sentimental bastard, but the least he could do once a year was roast some weenies and light sparklers, you know?
He ended up dragging the whole box out of the garage.
The July sunset threw these long yellow-gold fingers of light all through the yard, fireworks in their own right, and once he ditched the box with Bruce (“Because you can’t be trusted,” he said tersely, and Tony responded with a couple rude hand gestures that made the guy roll his eyes), he surveyed his kingdom for a couple seconds. Rhodey’d offered to man the grill way back when Tony’d called him about the party, but he’d apparently handed off his spatula to Scary Husband Cage in favor of flirting with Danvers in her tiny cut-off shorts. He grit his teeth when Tony flashed him two thumbs up, but whatever—Tony knew from the way his friend held himself that he was enjoying the hell out of that conversation. Natasha hung around with Munroe, Drew, and a couple other of the lady teachers while Cage and May Parker cooed over baby Dani. Parker’d just rolled in from a ten-day retirement cruise to the Bahamas, too, so she looked a little like a tanned rock star. The disgustingly cute couples—Barton, Coulson, Barnes, and Rogers—all clumped together, and Tony tried not to throw up in his mouth a little at that. Worse, they’d dragged his wife into it.
He dug his phone out of his pocket and sent Rogers a text. don’t you dare infect her with your romantic mushy bullshit. He watched as Steve pulled out his phone, frowned at it, and then glanced over; Tony made a point of glaring menacingly at him, just to prove his point.
Steve rolled his eyes. When he showed Barnes the text, Barnes stole the phone right out of his hands. A couple seconds later, Tony’s own phone chimed.
Cardigans and Loafers: you know you’re twice the “mushy romantic” either of us are
ten bucks says that you guys release white doves with love poems on their ankles when you get big gay married, Tony returned, and Bucky turned a great shade of red as he flipped Tony off across the yard.
Tony grinned, about to return the favor, when Danvers suddenly swore loudly enough that she stopped at least three other conversations. Everybody turned to her, and she shook her head. “I need another beer,” she announced, and headed for the cooler that Barton’d brought as—
Sitwell’s appearance at the party was weird in-and-of itself, what with his weird food-based vacation habits and his occasional weird Fury playdates. (Fury, by the way, had responded to Tony’s e-mail with not on your life, Stark. Just the way Tony liked it.) But Sitwell’s date—the date he’d RSVP’d for without using a name, the date that now trailed into the yard after him—left Tony laughing so hard that he nearly choked on air.
“Do not be an asshole,” Rhodey growled. How he showed up at Tony’s shoulder at exactly the right moment, Tony would never know.
Sitwell, on the other hand, looked one part embarrassed, one part pissed off, and one part like he just realized he’d screwed the pooch in about ten different ways. And since everyone was staring at him—or, in Danvers’s case, silently seething—he cleared his throat. “Uh, so, I don’t know if you all know Maria,” he said, and man, is that how Roman emperors introduced prisoners to the ravenous lions they had to fight?
Maria Hill—mom of the worst students in the universe (well, one was the worst, one was just scared shitless of his brother) and occasional pain in everybody’s ass—raised a hand. She carried a brown paper bag with her. “Hi,” she said. “I brought tequila.”
“I forgive you for the fruits of your loins already!” Drew exclaimed. She practically skipped over to Maria to divest her of her tequila—and to drag her, somewhat awkwardly, over toward her clump of friends.
Danvers downed half her beer in one go before Rhodey came over and touched her shoulder. She relaxed a little. Slowly, everybody stopped acting like Maria’d just announced that she ate babies for breakfast and went back to boozing, or eating, or some combinations of both.
Tony didn’t really realize that Jasper was bringing him a soda until he was there, at his elbow, halfway to scaring the shit out of him. A couple feet behind him, Pepper—now talking to Bruce instead of the captain and crew of the Love Boat—mouthed behave.
Always, Tony mouthed back, and Pepper rolled her eyes.
“Listen,” Jasper said, sort of thrusting the soda at Tony until he had no choice but to take it. He looked halfway to embarrassed, which was pretty unusual. “I know that half our friends think she’s the devil incarnate because of the boys. Hell, I don’t even disagree, half the time. But they just left last week to go stay with their dad until maybe Christmas, and—” He paused for a second before he shook his head. “Shit, you know?”
Tony shrugged. “We’re kind of the land of misfit toys around here,” he said as he cracked the seal on the soda. “The more the merrier, unless Danvers shivs her in the kidney when you’re not looking.”
Jasper grinned. “Risk I’m willing to take if it means introducing her to the people I don’t hate,” he replied, and Tony— Well, he had never been a sentimental bastard, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t understand shit like that on a cellular level, either.
Tony felt no shame in admitting that he drove twenty minutes and three Krogers away to do his grocery shopping. A man needed to buy his foodstuffs in peace. So on the rare occasion where Pepper, in the middle of making a delicious dinner, realized she forgot to put an ingredient on the shopping list and she needed it pronto, Tony hated life.
Don’t misunderstand him—his tiny human students were the light of his professional life. He was just adamant about having an impenetrable barrier between them and his personal life. Call it a sour taste in his mouth from whenever a news story on who he’d banged the night before resulted in, at the very least, a meeting with Obie if not a dip in stocks for his company.
Tonight, Pepper’d realized she’d forgotten, ironically, peppers for Taco Tuesday (which tonight was technically fajita Tuesday, but whatever). Tony managed to wait until he was sitting in his roadster before letting out a remorseful sigh. Despite the sun setting, Tony put on a pair of Aviators, threw up the hood on his jacket over his ball cap, and pulled the zipper up tight. Pepper refused to be seen in public with him when he pulled this stunt, which was ridiculous because he looked awesome and one-hundred percent, straight-up like a badass spy.
He slinked into the produce department, checking around corners as he went. He knew self-checkout was a must; his former students were now reaching the age to be cashiers or baggers. Thanks to his AA chip and a little snipping, he’d never been rung up for booze or condoms by a kid who used to be in his class. He knew plenty of co-workers who couldn’t say the same.
“Mister Stark!” a young boy exclaimed.
“Damn goatee,” Tony muttered, as he quickly grabbed a bag that contained a trio of peppers.
“I told you it was him,” the boy argued smugly.
Tony turned just in time to see the kid’s older sister give a dramatic eye roll. He recognized them immediately: the snot siblings. The boy earned that name because he literally blew through half of Tony’s tissue stockpile every year, and the sister because she was the pure definition of brat.
“Students,” he greeted.
“See? It is him,” the boy bragged to his sister.
Tony couldn’t remember either of their names at the moment. He usually just referred to them by their seat number in his lab. He could, however, look at most kids and know their passwords since he seemed to have to reset them far too often for his liking.
“Where’s Miss Potts?” the kid asked, looking around.
“At home, making dinner,” Tony answered. “Not that it has to be the woman in the relationship who has to do the cooking, but… You know what? Working in a not-quite-red taco joke right now might not be the best idea.”
Brat girl scrunched up her face. “Why would Miss Potts make your dinner?”
Her brother smacked his hand to his forehead in a way that only little kids could get away with during normal conversation (or so Tony was told). “How many times do I have to tell you?” the boy whined. “They’re married to each other.”
She looked at Tony with curiosity. He waved the fingers of his left hand around before pointing out the platinum band that’d been there for three-and-a-half years. “It’s kind of the worst kept secret in the entire school, you know,” he pointed out.
She crossed her arms and stared Tony down. “But she goes by Miss Potts and not Missus Stark. You don’t act like you love her at school. You don’t talk or kiss or do anything like that.”
Tony was about to argue when he heard a woman start arguing loudly into her cell phone. Judging from the way the kids cringed, Tony wasn’t the only one who heard it. And he now understood a little bit better why girl student was a brat.
The woman’s eyes darted around while she continued her side of the fight on phone until they landed on Tony’s students. She pursed her lips and snapped her fingers; her kids ran to her immediately.
Tony fought the urge to go confront her about being a shitty parent. Maybe she was having a bad night. Hopefully, she was having a bad night.
He watched them until they disappeared around a shelf of organic potato chips, the kids keeping their heads down and trailing after their still-arguing mother. He shook it off as best as he could while walking to the self-checkout.
On the way home, he let the girl’s words worm their way into his head. He dropped the bag of peppers onto the marble counter, grabbed his wife by the hips, and spun her around. “What can I do to show you that I love you?” he asked.
“Washing the dishes wouldn’t hurt. Also, cleaning the sink in the bathroom with all the tiny hairs from your electric razor would be appreciated. And please don’t tell me if those hairs are coming from some place other than your face,” Pepper said, pointing a finger at him. “Just because I’m married to you doesn’t mean I need to know every single thing about you.”
She began to twist in his grip to start chopping the peppers when he asked, “But you know how much I love you, right?”
“I sent you to the store for vegetables and you came home with an existential crisis?”
“Yes, Tony.” She placed her hands on either side of his face. “I am well aware of how much you love me,” she replied quietly before brushing a kiss against his lips. “But seriously, clean out that sink in the bathroom. It’s disgusting.”
Pepper glanced at her husband over the rims of her sunglasses. “Are you naming every country or province that starts with an N just to annoy me?” she asked.
“That is absolutely, completely, and totally not the case,” Tony swore, his hands (cell phone included) raised up in front of him. Pepper nodded and leaned her head back against her lounge chair. At least, until Tony asked, “The Netherlands?”
Despite all the various summer obligations that one or both of them always seemed to stumble into—professional development hours, mandatory training, server upgrades, a visit to the Potts family farm—Tony always made a point of scheduling a “dream vacation” for himself and Pepper. Their first year together, they went to Monte Carlo; the next year, they spent a week in Thailand. This year, Tony’d booked a ridiculous ten-day cruise through the Caribbean and down to Panama, and Pepper’d looked forward to lounging on deck chairs, wandering old cities, and drinking ridiculous beverages with tiny little straws.
Had looked forward. Past-tense.
Because after three days on a cruise ship, Tony’d gotten bored.
She couldn’t exactly blame him, not when he had a thousand-miles-per-hour brain and the personality of an ADHD kindergartener, but she’d voiced her concerns about the cruise months before they ever packed their bags. She’d needled him about it, making him swear up and down that he could survive days with limited internet and less ability to tinker, surrounded by strangers and, worse, by sunlight.
“I’m starting to think you don’t trust me,” he’d complained during their last vacation-related conversation.
“Depends on how we’re defining trust,” she’d deadpanned, but she’d laughed when he grinned.
She flicked her sunglasses up onto her head and turned toward him on their deck chairs. In a ribbed tank and board shorts, he actually looked good—broad shouldered and healthy with the sun highlighting the flecks of gray in his temples and goatee that she loved so much. He fiddled with his phone, grumbling to himself.
“You’re bored,” she observed.
He almost dropped his phone as he twisted to stare at her. “Me? Bored? Now?” he asked. When she nodded, he rolled his eyes. “I’m on an enormous ship full of fitness rooms and activity rooms and restaurants and an actual casino with a woman who packed a different skimpy swimsuit for each day of our trip. Nice choice today, by the way. Did I mention that already?”
He traced the cut out that ran along her hip, and she snorted. “You mean besides when you peeled it off me this morning?”
“I don’t remember having that conversation. Must’ve been distracted.” His hand felt like a brand when he spread it across her bare hip, and she tried not to suck in too sharp a breath. “We’re surrounded by the sun and spray and tomorrow, we get to go develop enormous blisters in the name of learning about history or food or both. I’m great.”
She frowned at him. “Tony.”
“And the fact that I can’t even get enough cell phone reception to play Candy Crush, let alone download another Kindle book from Bruce’s ‘lending library of woe’—seriously, the man loves a depressing memoir, I think you should refer him to a therapist or something—is totally immaterial to my continued happiness.”
“Except for where it’s completely material to your happiness?” Pepper returned. He snorted at her and turned back to his phone. Or rather, he turned back to his phone until she swung around to sit sideways on her lounger and snatch the damn thing right out of his hands. “Why do you do this?” she demanded as he stared at her almost in fright. “This is just like when we went to that private gallery in Monte Carlo and you spent the whole time almost keeling over from boredom.”
“Or the sight-seeing in Bangkok where you somehow found a way to sample some new candy every stop and ignore the tour guides?” Tony glanced guiltily out at the endless blue sky, and Pepper sighed. “I don’t want to be on a vacation where you’re planning our next trip when we’re supposed to be spending time together and enjoying ourselves. And I definitely don’t need a ten-day cruise or a safari—”
“We never went on the safari,” he reminds her.
“—to be happy.” He sent her one of those sideways glances that reminded her of a lost puppy—soft-eyed, a little scared, and so stupidly fond. It took her breath away for a moment, and she smiled at him. “You don’t want to sit here and watch me get a tan, do you?”
“To be fair,” he noted, raising a single finger, “we are going on a very long hike through some set of ruins or another tomorrow, and with you being so beautifully pale and the new studies on skin cancer—”
She snorted a laugh as she reached down to her bag. “Right. And I don’t want to sit here getting a tan if you’re going to use Google Maps to find all the places in the world we’ve never visited.”
“So your solution is . . . ” Tony prompted, peering down at her.
She pulled out the giant pamphlet of daily cruise events that they’d been handed when they boarded the ship. It only took a few seconds to find the correct date and time—and, better still, the twenty-some different things they could spend their time doing. She thrust the page at him. “Pick something.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “You know we could end up doing underwater salsa lessons and—”
“I don’t care,” she cut him off. “Especially since underwater salsa lessons kind of sound fun.”
“Fun for you, the classy woman who can run in expensive heels,” Tony groused, but he grinned as he accepted the pamphlet from her.
In the end, they spent their afternoon watching the original Robocop in the ship’s theater before soaking in a hot tub until dinner.
Pepper liked the sight-seeing, the hikes, and the food, but honestly? Robocop and an afternoon in the hot tub kind of beat sunbathing any day.
“Wake up, Daddy’s home,” Tony announced as he flipped on the special switch he’d personally wired. It turned on everything in the computer lab thanks to a series of wires and relays that’d taken a month to craft and implement his first year teaching.
The lab hummed to life, a sound that was ridiculously soothing to Tony. Never in a million years would he’d have thought teaching in an elementary school would give him peace—and, okay, some days it absolutely did not do that—but there’s an odd calm that came with being back in his classroom.
Now that summer school was finished, he was able to finally come and scour his machines of both germs and the damn pop-ups the kids managed to download despite his top-notch protection filters. He spent a minimum of fifteen minutes at each seat in the lab, trying his best to bring order to chaos.
At some point, Pep stopped by to leave him his favorite smoothie and a kiss on the cheek. He was eighty-eight percent sure he muttered some form of gratitude at her before she left.
Thank goodness for understanding wives.
He was halfway through his cleaning routine when noises began to drift down the hall. People had been walking by all day, in and out of the building for the initial set up of classrooms, but Tony thought everyone had left by now. The sun was definitely closer to the horizon than the last time he looked out the window, and his watch read almost seven in the evening.
And there the noise was again: an unmistakable groan. Not an I’m in pain kind of moan. Oh, no. This clearly fell under the category of hot, sweaty, so-good-I’m-going-to-bust-out-of-my-skin sexy times moan. And clearly, it had to be investigated.
As Tony stepped out into the hall, he noted the sounds were coming from his left. That was a relief, since the library was to his right. If he walked in on Coulson getting his rocks off, Tony would have to bleach his beautiful, genius mind.
Slowly and quietly, he edged his way down the hall. He only needed to walk a couple doors down the hallway before he was standing outside Wanda’s old room.
Okay, so Tony won’t lie—if he had to watch another couple at the school have sex, it would be Bucky and Steve. Clint and Phil would be disgusting, watching his bestie bang Red would be awesome yet weird, and like hell he was going to watch Sitwell and Hill go to town on each other.
He peaked around the doorframe, fully expecting to see some bare asses, but instead saw the pair fully clothed and Bucky holding his phone in his hand with a shit-eating grin. “Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds,” the newly minted fourth-grade teacher declared. “Told you it wouldn’t take more than three minutes.”
Tony shook his head. “With the kind of sounds you were making, not making it past the three minute mark isn’t something I’d brag about.”
“I’ll brag all day long because of what that bet won me,” Bucky replied with a smirk that caused Steve’s ears to go pink.
“Yeah, like he doesn’t suck your dick all the time anyway,” Tony responded. “Oh, young puppy love. Still disgusting.”
Steve smiled softly and his left hand came up to rub the back of his neck, one of his classic gee-shucks examples of body language. “Well, actually—“
“Actually, we were just getting ready to get out of here,” Bucky interrupted. “We wanted to see if we could have some fun with you before we left.”
Steve looked at Bucky, confused, and Tony watched as they had a conversation using only eyebrows that went from curious to boring in no time flat. “Any time you two want to have fun with Pepper and I, we’d be open to it. God knows I’m not the only one in my marriage who wouldn’t mind seeing the two of you naked.”
Bucky’s face looked interested for a half a second, much to Steve’s obvious horror. “No,” the art teacher said loudly. “Absolutely not. What are you thinking?” he asked his boyfriend.
“Maybe I want to show you off,” Bucky answered
“To Tony?” Steve responded with disbelief. “There are some things, or at least one thing in particular, that I would like to show off.”
“Is it a third nipple?” Tony questioned while looking at Bucky. “Please tell me the Adonis has some hilarious flaw on his body like that.”
“No,” Bucky answered in a quiet voice. He and Steve shared another glance, but Bucky shook his head. “We’re getting out of here. You gonna have a slumber party with your computers?”
“Jealous?” Tony returned as he began walking out of the room. At the door, he spun around. “Hey, you talked to Romanoff this week?”
Bucky shook his head, jaw slightly clinched. “Heard anything from Bruce?”
“No,” Tony answered. “He has one more day before I invade his personal space.”
“Sure that’s a smart move?” Steve asked.
“I think we all know that I don’t always make smart moves when it comes to my best friends. It’s pathetically how I show my love,” Tony replied. “You two kids go home and have fun. Or have fun here and let me record it.”
“Good night, Tony,” Steve said in a cold tone.
“Seriously,” Tony prodded, “you would make my wife so happy.”
“Happy or not, I have to look her in the eye when she comes in my classroom looking for art supplies.”
“We could just limit it to making out with a little bit of grinding,” Bucky suggested.
“Fine,” Steve replied as he crossed his arms over his broad chest. “But then I get to tell him about what happened on Tuesday.”
Bucky sighed and shook his head. “Have a good night, Tony.”
Chapter 3: Clint & Phil (& Birdie & Barney)
As a rule, Phil slept soundly.
Call it a side effect of marrying the world’s soundest sleeper (deaf or otherwise, because Clint’d once snored through the worst airplane turbulence of Phil’s long life), but Phil tended to be the guy who jerked awake at random sounds in the dead of night and wee hours of the morning: the car alarm blaring half a block away, the family of cicadas screaming in their front tree, the really industrious summer paperboy who started his rounds at four-thirty in the morning. Usually, he rolled over, shoved his face into Clint’s shoulder, and fell back asleep pretty quickly. On the nights he didn’t, Clint usually sensed his sudden alertness and pinned him to the mattress.
No, not like that, just in a you are warm and familiar, don’t you dare leave this bed sort of way.
Needless to say, when a car door slammed somewhere at one a.m. on a Saturday and woke Phil, he blinked blearily, grumbled, and rolled closer to his husband.
Or at least, he tried to.
The sweltering summer heat’d cooled to a low simmer for the night, and Phil closed his eyes not to the hiss of the air conditioner but the lazy hum of their ceiling fan. He almost drifted back to sleep, too, when he heard it:
Footsteps. Uneven footsteps, crunching in gravel or mulch. Footsteps that made absolutely no sense, since the only mulch anywhere near their house was in the flower beds under the front windows, and—
Phil jerked totally awake at the sound of a voice just outside the bedroom.
Clint grunted and squeezed him tighter, trapping Phil in the bed while his pounding heart leapt into his throat. He hadn’t heard words as much as he’d just heard the cadence of a voice—the rise and fall of a murmur that didn’t belong. As he laid stock-still in bed, Clint halfway to nuzzling against his upper arm, he tried to convince himself it was all a dream, some groggy trick of his imagination.
It almost worked.
He heard the sound of wood scraping slightly against wood, and the quiet thump that followed— That came from within the house. Within Barney’s room next to their own, a room that stood empty because Barney’d left to spend the night with friends and promised to be back in the morning.
“Fuck,” somebody muttered, and there was officially no mistaking it: that voice came from the other side of the wall.
His heart racing, Phil shook at Clint’s shoulder, desperate to loosen his death grip. “‘S not morning,” Clint grumbled, and Phil almost growled when he weaseled closer. “Break. Vacation. Breakca—”
Phil shoved him hard—harder than possibly in their entire relationship, except for that one incident involving too much soap in a slippery shower—and at that, Clint jerked violently awake. “What the—” he started to swear, but Phil reached forward and clamped a hand over his mouth.
Another thump in the next room, this one louder than before, rattled against the wall. Clint’s eyes widened in surprise—not at the sound, Phil knew, but at the way Phil’s whole body jerked toward the wall when he heard it—and Phil quickly shook his head. When he released Clint’s mouth, Clint kept staring, but with worry instead of flat-out shock.
Noises, Phil signed, and Clint frowned at him. In the house. Barney’s room.
Barney’s out, Clint signed back hastily. Every motion was short and choppy, clearly frustrated.
Exactly, Phil replied. When he flinched at a third thump, this with the sound of something scraping against the floor, realization bloomed on Clint’s face. Realization followed quickly by anger, because Phil needed to grab his arm before he jumped out of bed and stormed down the hall. We can’t just go in there, he signed, and Clint actually rolled his eyes as he shook him off. He kept Phil in his line of sight as he found his boxers on the bedroom floor. If they’re dangerous, we need to—
Where’s the dog? Clint immediately started signing, and Phil blinked at him in surprise as his own hands stilled. You notice that? Noises in the house and no sign of the damn dog.
Phil’s mouth dried out, and all at once, he was out of bed and fumbling for his underwear, too.
By the time Phil stepped out into the hallway, Clint had shoved his hearing aids in and pressed himself almost to Phil’s back in the dark. They crept through the newfound silence of the house, listening again for any sign of an intruder: footsteps, a second scraping sound, a conversation. Phil’s heart hammered at every pulse point as, slowly, he pressed his shoulder against the wall next to Barney’s—
“Ow,” a voice gruff voice grumbled from inside the room. The door was cracked about a third of the way open, and light from the front windows cast funny shadows on the hallway floor. “I know you think— Yeah. Yeah, okay. That’s— Hey.”
Something about that last word—the way it lifted, maybe, or the almost-playful edge to it—released all the tension from Phil’s belly.
Clint, on the other hand, groaned. “You fucker,” he announced to no one in particular, and before Phil could grab for his shoulder, he stormed into Barney’s bedroom and threw on the light.
Barney’s room was, as it’d been most the time he’d lived with them, fairly neat and organized, with just a couple items of clothes lying haphazardly on the floor and the closet door open a couple inches. Sprawled out in the middle of the bed, half-covered by sheets, was a shocked, red-faced Barney. “Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you?” he demanded, and Phil realized a second too late that the parts of Barney not covered by the sheets were naked as the day he was born. He cast his eyes at the ceiling while Barney fought to sit up the rest of the way. “Can’t a guy get ten minutes of privacy without his damn brother barging in here to ruin the mood?”
“Can’t a guy use the front door?” Clint shot back. He gestured to the open window and the pile of random papers that Barney’d knocked on the floor when he’d climbed through it all of ten minutes earlier. “Phil woke me up and thought you were a burglar. I thought you hurt the damn dog!”
Birdie lifted her head from where she’d curled up in a pile of Barney’s dirty laundry and blinked sleepily at them.
“I left my keys here when I was going out ‘cause I thought I’d be back in the morning,” Barney retorted. “But the guys I was out with were getting into some stuff I wanted to stay away from, so I came back here.”
“And broke in,” Clint returned.
“And tried not to wake you and Phil, yeah,” Barney snapped. “Sorry if that’s a problem for you.”
For a half-second, Clint held himself like a prize fighter, his shoulders and jaw both drawn tight. But then, out of the blue, he threw up his hands and stomped out of the bedroom. “Bird!” he called when he was halfway down the hall, and Birdie yawned before she stood up and pattered along after him.
Phil dragged a hand over his face. “Next time, just ring the doorbell,” he suggested.
Barney cast his eyes down at the floor near the closet. “Sure.”
If Phil heard Barney moving around in the half-hour or so after he and Clint headed back to their bedroom (and locked Birdie in with them, this time), he burned it from his memory as he fell asleep. And if he heard a car door slam another hour or so after that, he just rolled over and hid his face in Clint’s arm.
And if in the morning, Clint wordlessly dropped both the morning paper and a bright red bra on their kitchen table—
“Found it in the bushes under Barney’s window,” he reported, and headed for the coffee pot.
Well, there were some things that not even Phil needed to know about his brother-in-law.
Birdie loved the hot months of the year because it meant her humans were home all day. Sure, she liked having the house to herself, but when they were home, they took her on adventures.
Like the last time the hot months came, they took her to the big building. She could smell lots of people, except in the parts where they were cleaning. There, she couldn’t smell anything but strong chemicals. When they walked into the big building, the lady with the hair that smelled like the drink her humans made in the morning was always there to pet her. And when Birdie's humans weren't looking, the nice lady would sneak her a dog treat. Sure, they'd make her stomach hurt later, but it was worth it.
She trotted after her people through hallways, happily panting while her short legs tried to keep up with them. When they reached the stairs, Birdie sat and whimpered. She didn't like stairs; they were too much work. Her humans turned and looked at her with the faces that meant they didn't believe her. She whined again, which caused one of her humans to wave her on with a "c'mon." When she whimpered the third time, her other human—the one who snuck her tasty, non-dog food—picked her up and held her to his chest. It was her favorite place to be.
"Brat," he muttered against her ear. She didn't know what the word meant, but she took it as a compliment since he called her that often, and she licked his face.
The other human left once they got upstairs to go to the big room that smelled like him and the things that were all over the house that Birdie got in trouble for chewing on. Both her humans had big pillows by them where Birdie could nap.
Naps were the best.
She slept until she heard something buzz on her human's desk. He picked up that thing that lit up and made noise, and Birdie could almost taste his temper flare. Concerned, she got up from her pillow and licked at his ankles. He jumped, not realizing she was there, before scooping her up against his chest once more. She lightly licked and nipped at his jaw, the best she could do to ask why he was mad.
"It's okay, Bird," he said as he rubbed between her ears. She nuzzled her head against his chest and listened to his heart rate slow down over the next few minutes. "Let's to see what your other Dad is up to," he said as he sat her back down on the floor.
Birdie happily trailed behind his heels, taking time to look into all the rooms along the way. Sometimes she got distracted staring at the objects inside, and her human had to whistle at her to keep up. She hurried along as best as she could. When she walked into the big room, her tail wagged excitedly at the smell. She loved the smell of the things she wasn't allowed to chew in because they reminded her of her humans. The scent was divine.
"Where's your Dad?" her human asked. The motion of her tail overtook her entire body, and she shook with excitement. "Call out for him." Birdie stilled, unsure. Making noise wasn't something she could usually do inside a room. "It's alright," he reassured. "Call out for him." With his permission, Birdie began to bark.
"Back here," her other human shouted. She ran toward the sound of his voice and cozied up to him as soon as she spotted him sitting on the ground. He was surrounded by sheets with little dots on them. She started to sniff the things, but he gently shoved at her hind end. "No, Bird."
"You never thought about having a Dalmation?"
"Not really, no." His smile faded; he, too, must have smelled how her human was upset. "What happened?"
"Barney texted me."
He kept talking, but Birdie didn't recognize most of the words. She knew Barney; that was the new person in the house who smelled a lot like one of her humans. She liked the Barney man. He snuck her food, too, and would rub her belly for hours while watching the glowing thing with people inside.
The voices of her humans started getting louder and it made Birdie uneasy, so she sniffed out her other pillow and laid down. She could easily hear the two of them still arguing, and she burrowed deeper into her pillow because of it. She thought about trying to find the lady who smelled like the morning drink, but she didn't want to get lost. And she didn't want her humans to worry about her; she could smell worry on them a lot lately.
Eventually, the voices calmed down. She listened to them call her name, but her pillow felt safe, so she didn't move. They found her a few minutes later, both of them kneeling down to pet her and talk at her. When she felt it was safe and they weren't mad anymore, she licked at their hands to tell them it was okay.
"Let's go home, pup."
She knew that word. While the big building was a fun and special adventure, home was her most favorite place to be.
“Don’t you guys ever go anywhere during the summer?” Barney asked, and Phil watched Clint’s whole body tense up.
They were sitting in the kitchen on Saturday morning, Phil reading the paper and Clint cleaning up after breakfast while studiously ignoring the twenty bucks Barney’d shoved under the knife block. The brothers kept stealing glances at the money all through their pancakes and bacon (Clint’s I’m sick of half-stale cereal treat), but neither acknowledged it.
Phil spent all of breakfast trying not to roll his eyes.
He glanced up from the paper as Barney put the coffee pot back on the burner, his eyes trained on his brother’s back. Phil knew at this point that Barney read Clint’s body language like a book and usually mirrored it, an unconscious reaction to years of sibling rivalry. Phil pressed his lips into a tight line as Barney squared his shoulders.
“We usually have my sisters’ kids in on a few different weekends,” he offered. Barney glanced over, and Phil shrugged as he turned back to the paper. “It didn’t really work out this year. Summer camps and school sports.”
Clint snorted. “Yeah, ‘cause that’s the only consideration,” he muttered. When he tossed Phil an over-the-shoulder glance, Phil shook his head. Don’t, he mouthed, and he knew Clint read his lips when Clint immediately rolled his eyes. “They had stuff to do,” he chimed in as he shoved another dish in the dishwasher. “And so did we.”
“Like what?” Barney asked. When Clint paused again, just for a beat, his brother cocked an eyebrow. “You work at school, you come home. Your buddy keeps standing you up for your weekly dinners, and as far as I can tell, your friends are either too busy shacking up for the summer or too sober to go out drinking. Do you have other plans? A vacation? Something?”
“You in a hurry to get rid of us for something?”
The razor-sharp edge in Clint’s voice sliced right through to the pit of Phil’s stomach. “Clint,” he said quietly. Clint’s shoulders tightened, but he didn’t turn away from the dishwasher.
Still standing by the coffee pot, Barney shrugged. “Figured I could live large if you left for a while,” he replied, his tone perfectly neutral. “Watch some adult videos on your couch. Invite friends over for a kegger. Do a couple lines off your dog before I—”
“Oh, fuck you,” Clint sneered. He threw a couple forks into the sink, the clatter loud enough that Barney flinched. Birdie raced out of the room as Clint whirled around and jabbed a finger in Barney’s direction. “You know why we’re not going anywhere, so why make this a thing?”
“Thing?” Barney glanced over both his shoulders, down at his feet, and even in his coffee mug. “I don’t see any thing around here. But if you’re interested, I can tell you what I do see.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Barney? And what’s that?”
“A jackass brother who won’t go on his vacation because he’s playing babysitter.” Phil’s heart dropped down into his stomach, and at his spot in front of the sink, Clint turned stark white. Barney huffed a dark, bitter laugh as he shook his head. “You’re loud as fuck when you’re on the phone and turning your nieces and nephews away for the summer, and you’re even louder when you and your hubby are talking about all the maybe-getaways you can’t go on because you’ve got your jackass brother stuck in your guest room.” Clint cringed at the word choice, but Barney’s mouth just curled into a sick, almost painful smile. “Yeah, I heard that too. Real good to know your olive branch of hospitality means something.”
Clint drew in a breath. “Barney—”
“And it’s extra good to know that my kid brother’s convinced I’m gonna burn down the house while it’s filled with, what? Underaged girls and meth? Hookers and cocaine? Bookies and—”
“Have you done anything to prove I can trust you?” Clint suddenly roared. The outburst rattled the windowpanes, and Phil felt his pulse jump. Barney stepped back in surprise, but Clint threw out his hands. “You show up when you want, you leave when you want, you don’t say anything about how your parole stuff’s going, and that’s just for starters.” He threw the dish towel into the sink, shaking his head hard enough that Phil swore he could feel it. “Fuck, Barney, act like a human being who can have a conversation, and maybe we’ll treat you like one.”
He walked out of the kitchen then, his pace fast enough that the front door slammed before Phil even got out of his chair. “I’m sorry,” Phil said, mostly for lack of anything better to say, but Barney waved him off before he walked out the back door. The room fell heavily silent, like after a death, and Phil shoved his shoes on without socks before he took off after Clint.
He found him a block and a half down, walking fast enough that Phil almost had to jog to catch up, and—
“You need to stop doing that.”
The words fell out of his mouth without permission, quick and harsher than he meant, and Clint whipped around to stare at him. For a second, Phil wondered how they looked to their neighbors: both of them in their pajamas and untied shoes, Clint red-faced with anger, Phil holding up his hands like white flags of surrender. At least, until Phil dropped his hands and sighed. “You don’t have to trust him,” he said, and Clint looked away. “Clint, you don’t even have to like him right now, but you have to—”
“Act like he’s not hiding shit from us?” Clint cut in sharply. “Act like he’s not lurking around, sneaking out, throwing cash at us without having a conversation? ‘Cause Phil, that’s not something you ignore. That’s not—”
Something in his expression flickered, like a match dimming before it fizzled out, and Phil watched his husband drag both hand s through his still-messy bedhead. Phil rubbed his palm over his own face before he sighed. “He’s trying,” he finally said.
“Yeah, on what planet?”
“I don’t know, what planet produces maladjusted men who’re horrible at emotions?”
Clint snorted, but for the first time in days, it sounded like a laugh. “I’m great at emotions.”
“You resorted to ball jokes the day you asked me out.”
“And you married me, so I obviously did something right.” Phil purposely rolled his eyes, smiling when it successfully coaxed a grin out of Clint. They stood there for a couple seconds, Clint’s face warm and finally somewhere close to placid. Then, Clint shook his head. “I’m sick of this,” he admitted.
Phil frowned. “Of Barney?”
“No, of being pissed off all the time. At not knowing how the hell to talk to him, to help him, to let him know I want to help him. I—” His voice caught for a split-second, and Phil reached out to skim fingers down his side.
Except fingers weren’t enough, and within a few seconds, Phil had both hands on him, holding onto Clint’s waist like the tide of his own thoughts might carry him away. Clint tipped toward him, but only by a couple inches.
They lingered in silence for a long time before Phil asked, “Are you mad at Barney, or are you mad at yourself?”
Clint huffed out a breath like an ugly laugh. “Who said I can’t be mad at both of us?”
“You have to tell him about your job eventually.”
Barney huffed out a harsh breath and Phil bristled for a second, halfway convinced that his brother-in-law might flick his cigarette at him—or worse. Clint’d grabbed Birdie’s leash and walked out of the house after another argument, but Barney’d sneered at his back before stomping out into the back yard. Standing in the shade of one of the big trees, his back slouched against the fence, Barney looked a lot like Clint.
Sure, he had darker hair and was rougher around the edges, but he held himself the same way, two parts resigned and one part combative.
Phil wondered when someone last pointed that out to either brother.
He held out one of the beer bottles in his hand to Barney, and Barney stared at it for a moment before accepting it. He twisted off the lid and flicked the bottle cap away (just like Clint) before asking, “You know about that?”
Phil shrugged. “You leave at about the same time every morning, show back up the same time every afternoon. It wasn’t hard to guess.”
“I leave before you guys get up.”
“I’m a light sleeper.” Barney snorted at that for some reason. Phil leaned back against the fence. “And even if I wasn’t,” he continued, “you keep leaving money around the house. Places you think Clint’ll notice. And places you stare at a lot when you think Clint doesn’t notice.”
Barney knocked the ash off the end of his cigarette. “He used to notice that kind of thing,” he said, something distant in the back of his voice. He stared at his beer instead of meeting Phil’s eyes. “You messed with his stuff, you snatched five dollars out of his pocket, whatever, he noticed. I leave sixty bucks under a DVD case, it sits there till the dog knocks it on the floor.”
“Trust me: he’s noticed.” Barney finally flicked his gaze in Phil’s direction, just one quick, sideways glance, and Phil shook his head. “He doesn’t want your money, Barney.”
“He think I’m dealing?” Barney immediately asked. “He think it’s drug money, so he can’t—”
“He doesn’t want your money because you’re his brother.” Barney snapped his mouth shut, and Phil ran a hand over his head. Even after months of the in-fighting and silent treatment—never mind months of him rehearsing this conversation—the words felt like lead weights, all of them falling out of his mouth at the wrong time and in the wrong order. “When we first started dating, Clint— He didn’t want to tell me everything about his life. I think he worried that I’d look at him differently or that I’d leave him for someone else. Someone with less baggage, I guess.” He glanced over at Barney. “But he never talked badly about you. About some of your decisions, maybe, but not about his big brother.”
Barney swigged from his bottle, silent for a long moment. The soft light of the setting sun highlighted his wrinkles and days of stubble, but it also found the flecks of gold in his hair that branded him a Barton. Finally, he snorted again. “Not talking shit and not giving a damn are pretty far apart on the spectrum.”
“And Clint’s a million years from either of them,” Phil pressed. Barney dipped his head again, and Phil resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “He kept every one of your letters, Barney. He searched for you when you stopped writing. He brought you in here, knowing that you were violating your parole, that you might be dealing or worse, all of it. He evaluated the worst-case scenario and he still wanted you here, with us, rather than out on the streets.”
“Yeah, so he can turn those fucking sad puppy eyes on me every time I walk in the damn door!” Barney snapped. Phil rolled his lips together and watched as he angrily stubbed his cigarette out on the fence post. “He gets his life together, and that’s great. I’m glad he got you, and the dog, and the house. Everything you could ever want, except your picket fence isn’t white. But because I’m still trying to figure out what that’s supposed to look like for me, he’s disappointed.”
“He’s disappointed in both of you,” Phil shot back. His voice echoed, louder than he expected. For the first time, he felt his frustration at both brothers boiling over. He tightened his jaw to keep from truly shouting. “He’s disappointed that you ended up in prison and he couldn’t stop it,” Phil informed him tensely. “He’s disappointed that neither of you trusts the other as far as you can throw him. He’s disappointed that he’s not a better brother, that you’re a million years distant from one another, and that he can’t help you.”
Barney dropped his eyes back to the ground, and Phil shook his head. “You listen to him talking about the Barney he knew as a kid,” he continued, “and you’d find out that his big brother’s his hero. His protector. The person who taught him how to keep hitting until the other person stopped. How to endure.” Barney pressed his lips into a tight line, his thumbnail picking at the label on the beer bottle. Phil watched him for a few seconds before he sighed quietly. “The Clint who exists now wouldn’t be here without you,” he said. “And as much as he wants to be the same person for you, he doesn’t totally know how.”
The corner of Barney’s mouth kicked up into a wry smile. “Guy’s kinda shit at the important stuff, sometimes.”
“Only when he loves you,” Phil reminded him, and he reached over to squeeze Barney’s shoulder before he continued drinking his beer.
Clint sulked. He knew he was doing it, and yeah, on some level it should’ve been embarrassing since he was a grown-ass man, but he didn’t care at the moment. His utterly transparent husband had faked a headache to get out of their traditional Wednesday night trip to the coffee shop. It was a weekly meeting with other deaf people in the community, and Clint and Phil were regulars. Clint appreciated having people around who understood his life, and Phil enjoyed the opportunity to practice his sign language.
But this week, Phil said he had a headache. Clint knew it was a lie; Phil never had headaches in the summer. Clint theorized it was because he wasn’t working with Tony Stark five days a week. Besides, Clint knew what Phil was like when his head was killing him: no sound, light, or food allowed.
He’d told Clint about his predicament while sitting in the living room (blinds all open), cleaning Top Chef episodes off of the DVR (loudly) , and munching on a Twinkie.
“You should take Barney with you instead,” Phil’d suggested.
Clint’d reluctantly followed his husband’s advice, and Barney had agreed with an equal lack of enthusiasm. When they’d left, Clint gently kissed Phil’s forehead and whispered that there would not, under no uncertain terms, be sex tonight. Phil smirked, probably because he’d heard the threat before and knew how empty it was.
“I mean it this time,” Clint said.
Phil grinned. “Have fun.”
The brothers climbed into Clint’s sedan and left the house, Birdie watching from the window. Clint’s memory flashed back to the time when he was five, Barney was nine, and their mother’d had enough of their fighting. She took one of their dad’s undershirts and stuffed them both in it. “No taking it off until you can get along,” she’d warned.
Clint still hated undershirts to this day.
“You know that most of the communication is going to be signing, right?” Clint asked.
Barney pulled a face of mock surprise. “A gathering of deaf people and they aren’t just going to talk like everyone else? You’re kidding.”
Clint ground his jaw and kept quiet for the rest of the ten minute drive. As they walked in, Barney swore to play nice. “I won’t ruin any of your friendships. Promise.”
Clint barely had the kindness to offer to buy his brother a cup of coffee; thankfully, Barney refused. Maddie—the high school barista who’d been in Clint’s class five years ago—smiled and called out his usual order before he could open his mouth. He corrected her by dropping the request for Phil’s usual coffee.
“Where’s Mister Coulson?” she asked.
Clint shook his head. “You know you’re allowed to call us by our first names, right?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s too weird. Can’t do that.”
Clint paid her and made sure to slip a five dollar bill into the tip jar. He moved to the side while waiting for his cappuccino and watched the people around him. The knot of his deaf friends congregated in the back corner of the room. Barney had slowly made his way there and was already caught up in a conversation with Hannah, which didn’t surprise Clint at all.
If there was a matriarch to the group, it was Hannah. She was in her seventies, deafened as a young child from some illness Clint couldn’t remember the name of. She was the definition of mother hen and she had some kind of sixth sense of whenever someone in the group was sick. Hannah was on your doorstep with a pot of homemade soup before you could even finish your first sneeze.
Her fingers flew through the air quickly—she wasn’t one to slow down for newbies; you had to rise to her level. Clint felt his lips roll together for fear that Barney’s ASL would be too rusty to keep up. He couldn’t have been more wrong. His brother flawlessly signed his half of the conversation, even throwing in a word or two that Clint had to stop to remember the meaning of. His cappuccino almost went cold on the counter as he stared at the pair.
Clint’s mind flashed back to another memory from childhood, when he was fourteen, recently deprived of his hearing, and walking home from school. Before his accident with the fireworks, Clint had a habit of walking with his head down, shoulders slumped, and looking as small as possible. He figured it made him look too small and pathetic for someone to waste their time with a beating—or it could at least hide his strength if someone actually picked a fight with him. After the accident, he still walked that way, but it was more because he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. His parents were dead, and he was living with Barney in a shitty apartment. They relied on government aid for Clint to see a doctor about his ears, and the funding wasn’t coming as quickly as either one would like.
He’d walked home from school since a fight on the bus had banned him from school transportation for the year. He kept his eyes on his beat up shoes, counting the cracks in the sidewalk until he was at his poor excuse of a home. The next thing he knew, Barney was lunging at him, laying flat out in the air like he was making a tackle in the Super Bowl. Clint wondered what they hell he’d done to make his brother attack him, and he’d tried to duck out of the way as much as he could, but Clint wasn’t the target.
Three kids, all seniors who’d repeated at least one grade in their lives and had the bigger and more mature bodies to show it, were stalking behind Clint. He recognized their faces—they’d been in Barney’s classes and in the circle he ran around with before he’d had to drop out of school, get his GED, and work full-time to support himself and Clint.
Barney tore into them with a fury Clint’d never seen before. They ran away bruised and bloodied, and Barney stared them down as they fled. Once they were out of sight, he turned to Clint. He opened his mouth to say something, but then remembered it would be a wasted his breath. Instead, he shook his head, gently shoved Clint in the direction of their apartment, and never brought it up again.
On the drive back home a couple of hours later, Clint felt he had to say something. “You can still sign?”
Clint watched several expressions flicker over his brother’s face in his peripheral vision. He knew Barney wanted to offer another smart-ass comment, but instead he quietly answered, “Just because I haven’t seen your sorry mug in ages doesn’t mean I didn’t keep up on the one way I knew I could talk to my idiot brother no matter what his ears were like.”
Phil sighed as he stretched in his bed. He didn’t need many things in life to be happy: his family, a good steak every now and then, his dog, and amazing sex with his husband. He hadn’t seen much of his family this summer, and that was okay. Clint was prone to stress cooking and grilling, so steaks hadn’t been an issue this summer. He was Birdie’s third favorite person in the house, but his dog still loved him. But the sex? He and Clint usually had a lot of sex. Not as much as Clint bragged to Tony, that wasn’t physically possible for a man of his age, but still a decent amount. But not this summer.
Clint seemed bound and determined to fix that the last three days.
Two weeks ago, May Parker had come over for dinner. She lamented the fact that living on her own was more of a challenge than she thought. “I miss Peter. I’ve never lived in a house by myself in my entire life. Ben and I married right out of school,” she said quietly. Before dessert was served, May had fully concocted the idea of Barney moving into her house, helping her with the home renovations she wasn’t physically able to handle, and working for a reduced rent. “You can’t do landscaping all year long,” she’d pointed out to Barney.
Barney had told Phil and Clint over breakfast the next morning that he was going to take May up on his offer. Clint had gotten up from the table immediately while Phil and Barney exchanged nervous glances. When Clint returned a minute later, it was to drop a stack of twenties in front of Barney. “As your current landlords, we’re going to transfer your rent money to new landlord. And if you need help making ends meet, you call us or I’ll beat your ass.”
Three days ago, they’d moved Barney into May’s. They’d made sure to replenish his closet with some new clothes and a good pair of work boots. They’d given him a cell phone on their plan, and they’d let him borrow Clint’s car for the time being. “We go everywhere together all the time,” Phil’d explained when Barney argued. “We don’t need two cars.”
“You get my car,” Clint’d agreed, “but you don’t get my dog.”
Phil supposed the upside of spending all summer avoiding family drama by hiding at work was that there really wasn’t much left for him to do to get ready for the school year. Hence, sexathon.
He knew it was only a matter of time before guilt settled into Clint’s bones. “We doin’ the right thing?” Clint asked as he rolled over. He still had yet to put his hearing aides in, and Phil rolled onto his side so Clint could easily read his lips.
“You love your brother, and he loves you, but I’m not sure living under the same roof is the best idea for both of you,” Phil reassured him. He rubbed a hand up and down Clint’s upper arm. “You’re not kicking him out, you’re not abandoning him, and you’re not passing the buck. Plus, god knows that May will keep him on the straight and narrow.”
Clint snorted. “She’s used to keeping several hundred students in line and now she’s going to focus all that attention on Barney. He has no idea what he signed up for.”
Phil smiled and leaned in to kiss Clint. It was lazy and slow, and something he’d missed deeply. They’d never been a couple surrounded by drama and this summer had been a little rough on them, but they’d weathered it—not that Phil ever doubted they wouldn’t. He’d cling to Clint with every ounce of strength in his body for as long he could breathe; losing him was never an option.
“What day is it?” Clint asked as he rolled over for his cell phone, giving Phil a reason to not answer him. He swiped at his screen and immediately frowned.
Email from school? Phil signed.
“It’s Tuesday, and Nat canceled again.” His frown deepened as he unlocked his phone to read the whole text message. “Said she’d see us on the first day of meetings.”
Don’t, Phil signed. She knows to ask for help.
“Doesn’t mean she will.” Clint sighed and climbed out of bed. Phil followed him and did his best to distract Clint from feeling guilt. More lazy kisses and using up the hot water heater’s reserve were deployed as a means to keep Clint from stressing that his friends and family couldn’t have perfect lives.
Once they were dressed and ready for the day, they ran errands: grocery store since they were running low on food, Target because it was there, and Office Max to restock on their personal school supplies. They went to the park with the dog, and once Birdie was exhausted, they all piled back in the car. Phil noticed that Clint was staring out the window, looking in the general direction of May’s house. “We can stop by, if you want.”
Clint was quiet for a moment before shaking his head. “I don’t want him to feel like I’m constantly looking over his shoulder. May will do that enough for both of us.”
Phil drove them home, Clint cooked dinner while Phil read on the couch with Birdie snoring at his side. Phil breathed easier at home feeling like home again.
Chapter 4: Carol (and Jess)
the_wordbutler and I are having a poster giveaway contest. Make sure to read the end notes for details. Just a way to show our gratitude to our awesome readers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Carol knew some teachers who wouldn’t be caught dead inside the school building during the summer. She was not one of them.
She devoted four weeks’ worth of mornings to helping out kids and still popped in from time to time once the dreaded summer school season had wrapped up. She enjoyed her time visiting with the summer bridge kids—students who came to school a few times a week to keep up on reading and math skills either because their parents were invested in their education or their parents wanted cheap babysitters. But Carol’s true summer love was her possible flunkees.
Every year for four weeks, a group of fifteen or so students had to hang out with Carol from nine in the morning until noon. It was their only option if they didn’t want to be held back. Carol monitored their progress as they made their way through computer-based learning modules and tests that focused on reading and math skills. She’d snorted into her coffee on the first day when she’d found a note from Tony lamenting the fact that she’d prevented him from completing his “summer scourging” of his beloved lab. She was sure some threat followed, but she couldn’t read his handwriting to figure out what it was.
Her group of students was a familiar one. A few were on her caseload, and a handful more would undoubtedly get there once they reached fourth and fifth grade. Carol had talked to all their teachers before the school year was over to see what kind of students she’d have. Some needed the extra help and time to understand things, while some were just lazy and had parents who weren’t the best at caring.
Carol spent her mornings floating around the various computer stations where she asked questions and checked up on progress. On Fridays, Phil showed up to let them into the library to work on reading skills and take AR tests. The kids were devastated to learn that their points couldn’t go towards earning prizes during the summer.
But even with all of that, it was still the computers doing most of the teaching, which left Carol ample time to do online shopping. Thank goodness for stipend pay. She always blew through all of it before the first week was over.
Carol shopped for plane tickets to go home to visit her family, shoes that she’d probably wear once and swear to never wear again because heels were the worst, and clothes for the upcoming school year. She updated her Pinterest boards with new recipes to throw in the slow cooker, researched new word wall ideas, and scoured Etsy stores for the cutest custom-made planners.
All in all, it was an easy June: check in with kids, poke around online, talk to more kids, send Jess a text to get her ass out of bed because seriously, it’s eleven already.
The rules of summer school weren’t that difficult. You show up every day on time, you get your work done, and if the computer found you worthy (which it almost always did), you didn’t fail a year in elementary school.
But rules were apparently meant to be broken.
There were a few parents who didn’t quite understand what “being on time every day” meant. And having met their kids before, Carol wasn’t at all surprised about this. Fury was willing to give them a one-day warning, but that was it. There was a phone call home when a student missed a day to let them know that if it happened again, the child would be removed from the program and would have to repeat their grade.
This year, like the others before it, always had its amusing stories. And true to tradition, they revolved around parents’ excuses as to why their kid was late or absent to the mandatory morning learning sessions. Parents couldn’t seem to settle for the typical “my car broke down” or “we all slept through alarms” business. Apparently the thought of having to explain to Principal Fury why you couldn’t get your kid to school on time was so intimidating that the list of excuses never ceased to entertain Carol. She seriously considered trying to get to get a book deal out of it.
Her favorite of the year came six days into summer school. Breanna, a pretty little girl who had trouble in Barnes’s class (trouble as in her single mom was more concerned about milking the government for every cent she could than her daughter’s education), missed a day. The girl had come running into the computer lab every morning so far with mere seconds to spare, but was a no-show that day. Once all the students were picked up by parents or daycare vans, Carol made the phone call to home.
“Breanna wasn’t in session this morning, and you signed a contract saying—“
“Yeah, I know,” her mom had interrupted. “She had a thing with her eye. I was really scared, and I know you all worry about pink eye all the time, so I had to take her to the doctor to get it checked out.”
Sounded plausible enough. “Well, I hope she’s okay, and I look forward to seeing her tomorrow.”
When Breanna reappeared in the morning—running through the door with ten seconds to spare—she handed Carol her doctor’s note. “Feeling better?” Carol asked.
Breanna nodded, sending her pigtails bobbing in the air. “All better. See?” She opened her eyes as wide as she could, and to Carol they looked perfectly healthy.
“Were they red yesterday? Did they hurt?”
“Yeah,” Breanna answered. “They did that.”
Carol’s BS-o-meter began to go off, and her gut was further confirmed when she opened up the doctor’s note. “Breanna, this is a note from the dentist.”
“Yeah, it’s my doctor note.”
“Sweetie, dentists work on teeth, not eyes.”
“Yeah, but Mommy said she didn’t want to have to reschedule my appointment so she told me to lie and say my eyes hurt.” The little girl gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that part.”
Carol sighed and waved a hand toward the bank of computers. “Get to work.”
Carol woke to the sound of someone trying to beat down her front door. If her neighbor’s drunk friend was at the wrong house again, she was not going to be held responsible for her actions. Not even bothering with pants—whoever was adamant about destroying her door at three in the morning could deal with her wearing nothing but a t-shirt from college and a pair of Hello Kitty underwear—Carol climbed out of bed to see who was causing the ruckus.
She threw the deadbolt and swung open the door, ready to tell the idiot on her doorstep to fuck off when she realized it was Jess standing on her front porch. A shocked, sex-mussed, wide-eyed Jess.
“Are you okay?” Carol demanded as she physically jerked her inside.
“I fucked Barton,” Jess admitted quietly, in some kind of stupor.
Carol’s brain was fully awake now thanks to those four words. “You what?” she yelled. She had zero tolerance for home wreckers, and if Jess and Clint were up to something, Carol would beat them both.
“Not Clint,” Jess spat. “God, I could walk naked around him days and he wouldn’t give two shits, he’s so gay.”
“Then what the hell are you talking about, and is this story going to require booze or coffee?”
“Kahlua?” Jess offered with a shrug.
Carol swore under her breath and went to the kitchen. This was going to be a tequila story; she could feel that in her bones. She grabbed the bottle and went back out to the living room. Chewie had wandered downstairs to inspect the disturbance. Upon finding out that it was only Jess, he’d fallen asleep on the armchair. Carol found herself irrationally jealous of her own cat.
She set the bottle on the coffee table and took the seat at the opposite end of the couch from Jess. “Start from the beginning and go slowly.”
Jess grabbed the bottle first and took a swig before passing it off to Carol. “So you know the groundskeeper guy I’ve been seeing?”
“The one you flirt with all the time when you’re supposed to be running with me?”
“That’s the one.” Restless, she stood and began pacing the carpet in front of the sofa. “He kind of has a shady past.”
“Let me put on my surprised face that you’re dating someone who falls in the bad boy category.”
Jess flipped her off before she continued. “He was just released from prison—“
“You’re dating a felon?”
Carol sighed. “There is no such thing as an ex-felon, Jess. Either you are one or you aren’t.”
“Fine. An ex-prison-inhabitant. Whatever.” She paused to take another pull from the tequila bottle. “Anyway, he was out with a group of guys tonight and knew they were going to be up to something shady, so he called me to come pick him up.” Carol hummed a note of approval, and Jess threw her hands up in the air. “See? Attempting to reform his ways.”
“So you picked him up?” Carol asked.
Jess nodded. “I offered to bring him back to my place and drive him to work in the morning, but he said the place he was staying was closer and he felt bad for making me go and get him.”
“And I’m assuming the night didn’t go as planned.”
“He’s a really good kisser, Carol,” Jess exclaimed. “I mean like toe-curling fantastic. I don’t want to think about who he’s been practicing these skills with the last few years, but damn. Anyway, we get to the house and he says he forgot his keys and we have to sneak in through the window.”
“And this didn’t set off warning bells in your head?” Carol questioned. “Were you even sure it was his house?”
Jess shrugged. “It made me feel like I was sixteen again. Sounded fun, so I said sure.”
“Your brain is broken.”
“To be fair, we’ve both known that for a long time.” Jess flopped back down on the couch with a sigh. “And this is where things get weird.”
“They weren’t weird already?”
“I knew the guy was living with his brother. I knew the guy’s last name, but I didn’t put two and two together until we were going at it and Phil and Clint busted into the room.”
Carol felt her jaw drop. “Wait, what?”
Jess just nodded. “I barely had time to roll off the mattress and hide behind the bed. I don’t know if they saw me or not. They didn’t talk to me—just Barney—so I’m guessing they didn’t.”
The stupor in Carol’s mind cleared just enough to remember Jess’s words from when she walked in the door. “You fucked Barton.”
Jess nodded sheepishly. “I wasn’t going to leave him all hot and bothered and just slip out the window and drive away. Besides—“
Carol cut her off with flapping arms as soon as Jess’s smirk began to spread across her face. “You fucked Barton.”
“I fucked a Barton, not the Barton.” Her face twisted into an evil grin. “But if Clint is hung anything like his brother, then good on Phil.”
Carol moaned and shoved her face into the back of the couch. “I want to hear every detail and I also want a lobotomy.”
Jess laughed. “I’m just saying, I don’ think Phil is exaggerating on what Clint is like in bed. If anything, he’s toning it down.”
“I’m begging you to stop talking.”
“His tongue is also amazing,” Jess continued before needing to dodge the pillow Carol threw at her face.
“You know I’m gonna miss hanging out with you on the regular, right?” James asked, and Carol almost spit out her beer.
They’d picked the same bar as always for their post-5K celebration, loading up on chicken wings, beer, and onion rings. She’d half-expected it to be awkward, with the race behind them and their thighs sore, but so far, it’d felt good. Talking on the track and the paths through the park had been easy, thanks to the huffing, puffing, and general complaints about the evils of running; talking at the bar without distraction’d invited raw terror into Carol’s gut.
For exactly ten minutes.
Because then, James’d insulted her taste in baseball teams, and she’d swapped out terror for lazy flirting and a lot of sneering.
Well, up until James’s comment about missing her.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, buying herself time, and James raised his eyebrows. “What? Cat got your tongue?”
“Maybe I just forgot how freaking mushy you can be,” she retorted. He rolled her eyes at her. “Somebody should tell Stark about this. He’d probably try to build something to suck out all your feelings.”
“Think he tried a decade or so ago, but it didn’t stick.” She snorted a little at that and stared down at her beer. Apparently for too long, because he sighed. “Look, Carol, I’m not gonna lie to you about this,” he said quietly. “I’m not gonna pretend like I haven’t had a lot of fun seeing you every couple days and watching you spill water down yourself because you can’t drink and run at the same time.”
She snapped her head up and glared at him. “People who can run and drink and breathe all at once are freaks of nature and I want no part in their voodoo,” she reminded him.
He laughed. “Can you walk and chew gum? ‘Cause if you’re able to do that, we can start there, work our way up to drinking.” She elbowed him hard in the ribs, and he grinned at her. Bright enough to burn the world down, she thought, and swigged her beer to avoid saying it. Silence washed over them, and James sighed as he turned his bottle around in his fingers. “I missed you before we started running,” he finished, and she pretended like her stomach didn’t twist itself in a knot at that. “I’m gonna miss you more now that we’re not.”
Carol nodded dumbly and picked at the label on her beer bottle. For weeks, James’d plagued her thoughts, but she hadn’t known how to say it. She’d tried a couple times, sure—to Jessica twice, to Chewie once—but she’d ended up hiding her face in her hands and groaning each time. At least Chewie’d groomed her temple as a consolation prize.
The ugly truth was this: she was an awful fucking girlfriend, but her life was better with James Rhodes in it. It was warmer, funnier, and she felt—
She didn’t know what she felt. It’d been too long since she’d experienced it to remember the word.
Next to her, James snorted, and she glanced up from her bottle. He’d dipped his head in the ensuing silence, his lips pursed together into a tight line. “If you’re not interested, if you’re still where you were before whatever the hell happened between us, you can just say it,” he told her, and for a second, Carol actually stopped breathing. “Because I’d rather know that you don’t feel anything than lie up at night wondering what the hell we did to each other.” He lifted his eyes, and Carol swallowed at how they managed to be so warm and sad at the same time. “Wondering how we screwed up something that, from the outside, looked pretty great.”
“You mean how I screwed it up,” Carol said immediately. He opened his mouth, ready with a comeback, and she shook her head. “If we want to talk about people having their feelings sucked out, then by all means, we should start with me,” she said. “I’m an emotional basket case. I’m bad at everything. I missed you too, but I don’t know how to start again, you know? I don’t know how to fix it.”
“Maybe we can start easy,” he suggested, shrugging. Carol rolled her lips together, but only until his mouth twitched up in a tiny smile. “Maybe with that dance you owe me.”
She frowned. “Since when do I owe you a dance?”
“Since you wanted me to comfort you in your end-of-school-years blues and I almost took you up on the offer,” he returned, and dammit, Carol laughed at that. He smirked in response, his eyes twinkling. “Is that not how you remember it?”
“I remember you wanting to comfort me and me being the bigger man, actually,” she retorted, “but your revised history sounds sexier.”
“Learned it from Tony. You should listen to my revised college stories sometime. I was quarterback of the football team and valedictorian. Saved a bus of orphans from a burning building.” She rolled her eyes at him, laughing into her beer bottle. When she finished off the last couple swallows, she glanced over her shoulder to find James standing next to her, his hand outstretched.
“One dance,” he said.
“It’s never one dance with you,” she replied, but she slid her hand into his.
The jukebox was full of the worst music imaginable—bad old bar music and rejects from the first couple Now That’s What I Call Music! collections—but James fed it a whole bunch of quarters and thumbed the random button a couple times. They fake line-danced to “Achy Breaky Heart” until Carol wheezed from laughing and James’s whole face lit up in a smile.
“Ask Tony about being sober in a country-western bar sometime,” he said at one point, spinning her around.
She grinned. “Pay me enough, I’ll host a country-western party just to fuck with him.”
“There is no price too high for that,” he replied, and she cracked up when he tipped an invisible Stetson at her.
The second song instructed them to “jump around, jump around, get up, get up to get down,” and Carol wondered how they looked as they bounced to the music: James’s brow glistening damp with sweat but his smile beaming and beautiful; Carol with her messy hair and not-quite flattering t-shirt; their laughter echoing through the bar.
But the third song—
“Hey,” James said, and he caught her by her wrist as she reached for her drink at their table. The third song was some slow, crooning thing, an Elton John or a Billy Joel, and Carol caught herself before she completely collided with his chest. She was still panting and sweating from the last song, but he spread his hand on her hip anyway, swaying to the music. She swayed too, caught in his gaze at first until the surprise wore off and she dropped her eyes.
Her heart pounded in her ears, but not in a bad way. More in that way that told her she was crossing a line into dangerous territory without any backup.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she murmured about halfway through the song. When she glanced up at James, he raised his eyebrows, a silent question. She shook her head. “We go any faster than crawling, and I might bolt all over again.”
He smiled at her, his face soft and maybe a little sad, but he also gripped her hand tighter. “I’m starting to learn that there’s not a whole lot you can do that’ll make me stop caring about you, Danvers.”
She snorted a little and leaned forward to rest her forehead against his shoulder. “Guess that’s one thing we can agree on, then,” she said, and closed her eyes as they swayed.
“You texting Jess or the flavor of the month?” Joe asked, and grabbed for her cell phone.
All at once, a lifetime of training snapped into line, and Carol swung around with her leg up, ready to kick her oldest brother in the hip. He grabbed her by the calf and stopped her, but only by inches. “You flip me, I’ll kill you,” she warned.
He glanced down at the muddy lawn just off the porch’s edge. The fall wouldn’t hurt her, but the mud’d leave her pissed for days. Joe grinned slowly. “You think I’m afraid of you?”
“I think another year from now, you won’t be able to block me,” she returned, and he laughed as he released her leg.
She kicked him in the thigh, lighter than originally planned, and finished up her text to James. She hadn’t really meant to text him that morning, but the older of her two brothers’d dragged her for a run and she’d thought of him.
Which meant pausing to tell him that, out on the porch, while Joe gloated like an asshole.
Carol loved her brothers, really, but trekking up to Boston to visit them and her dad always felt like a special kind of hell. She’d worked her whole life to prove herself to them—they were good men, mostly, but old-fashioned, fans of women who “act like women” (whatever that meant)—and even though she knew they were proud of her, she felt a little like the black sheep every time she pulled into the driveway. Steve’d gone to college right out of high school and worked some mechanical engineering job that made Carol’s head hurt; Joe’d gotten married right out of high school and popped out adorable children to love. All morning, her niece’d sung Taylor Swift songs while her nephew turned knick-knacks into guns, kid stuff that’d cracked her dad up.
Carol’d shoved her hands in her pockets and agreed to run with Steve just to get out of the house.
“You pissed about the joke?” Joe asked, and Carol jerked herself up out of her thoughts to find him leaning against the house, his arms crossed over his chest. “Because you need to grow a pair if you—”
“The guy who told me I’d never get married because I hate dresses now wants me to grow a pair?” she snapped back. He rolled his eyes. “You remember that, don’t you?”
“I was ten and didn’t realize you had balls of steel.”
“Hope you’ve learned.”
He grinned. “Learned when I jumped up to your level at karate class and you started kicking my ass.”
She laughed at him a little, shaking her head, and her phone chimed. It displayed a new message from James, but instead of reading it, she tucked her phone in her pocket. Joe cocked an eyebrow. “A friend,” she informed him.
“A friend you sleep with?”
“A friend I mind my own damn business with,” she replied. He snickered when she fell back against the side of the house next to him, and she shoved him with her shoulder. “You should be worried about your kid. She asked me what the girl in the Taylor Swift song ‘gave away,’ and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ‘all her worldly belongings before she became a nun.’”
Joe shrugged. “Her mom’ll explain it.”
“God forbid you parent.”
“This from the woman who’s gonna die alone with her cat.”
Joe said it lightly, just another brotherly jab, but the words sliced through Carol’s gut. She glanced away from him, out at the yard, and ignored the way her throat felt suddenly tight. Since their “start by crawling” conversation, she and James’d avoided talking about feelings altogether—and all while Jessica sung odes to Barney Barton’s fantastic sense of humor and other-worldly tongue. More than once, she’d laid in bed and wondered if maybe trying again with the same guy—with anyone—didn’t count as a huge mistake.
She bit down on her lower lip and glared at the nearest tree. Next to her, Joe stayed silent.
“We don’t say that shit as a slight, you know,” he said after a couple seconds, and she jerked back around to find that Steve’d joined him out on the porch. Joe looked mostly like Carol—fair hair, fair eyes, fair everything—but Steve’d inherited sandier hair and crooked teeth her parents’d never bothered fixing.
She forced a twitchy smile at him. “Here to join in on the rag-on-Carol power hour? Because we charge double after the first ten minutes.”
He snorted. “And here, I figured I’d take the rag-on-Carol second shift. Let Joe get the first punches in.”
“Almost flipped her off the porch,” Joe said with a grin.
“After I almost kicked you hard enough to bruise,” Carol retorted.
“And you all wonder why Dad likes me best,” Steve deadpanned, and they both flipped him off. He laughed and leaned against the porch railing. “I heard Joe talking about your flavor of the month,” he added after a couple seconds. Carol huffed a sigh. “What? Can’t a guy ask about who his sister’s seeing?”
“Maybe his sister’s not seeing anybody,” Carol returned.
“Then can’t a guy ask about who sister’s scr—”
“Just stop already.”
Carol’s voice rang out sharper and louder than she intended, and both her brothers blinked at her like she’d grown three or four extra heads. She sighed and dug her fingers through her hair. “I can’t do the ‘who’s Carol screwing this year’ conversation this time around, okay? I’m kind of over it, especially since I know it’ll never be good enough unless I’m barefoot and pregnant ten minutes after meeting him.”
She squared her shoulders and waited for the usual snide comebacks, but instead, her brothers just glanced at one another. Steve cocked his head, Joe shrugged, and silence washed over the porch. “Okay, what?” she asked, and this time, they shrugged in unison. “You’ve got your ‘she missed the point’ face on.”
“Yeah, because you missed the point,” Joe said, and she rolled her eyes. “Carol, every guy you’ve ever dated’s tried to save you from something. Your ‘save the children’ complex, your own screwed-up head, your obsession with hockey—”
“Us,” Steve offered.
Joe snapped a finger at him. “Especially us,” he agreed. “You’ve dated guys who’ve wanted you to rely on them like a lifeline all day, every day. It’s fine if you like that—but it’s never gonna be you in the long run.”
She felt her shoulders start to deflate and forced herself to cross her arms under her chest. She tried very hard not to think about James and their hundred conversations about their almost-but-not relationship. “What’s me, then, so-called expert?” she demanded. Joe shook his head at her. “What? If you know, you should at least tell me.”
“You’re the girl who never learned how to want somebody,” Steve said quietly. She rolled her lips together. “Long as we’ve known you—”
“So, your whole lives?” she snapped.
He smirked. “Our whole lives,” he amended, “you’ve wanted things. College, the Air Force, your special education kids, your townhouse. You’ve thrown yourself at them. And when it’s come to guys, you’ve waited for them to track you down.” He lifted one shoulder. “You never learned how to just want somebody. To open up all the stitches and let them in. And it’s okay that that’s who you are, but you can’t blame us for seeing it.”
Joe nodded silently, and Carol dropped her eyes down to the porch. For a moment, the quiet in the backyard felt peaceful, but the longer her brothers watched her, the more she felt like she might suffocate under their careful eyes.
So, like the good older sister she was, she huffed at them and tossed her hair. “I should’ve knocked you off the porch when I had the chance,” she informed Joe.
Joe grinned. “You and what army?”
“Me and this air force,” she retorted, and he squealed like a pig when she swooped in for the noogie.
Despite the 5K season ending over a month ago, Carol and James still found themselves running into each other at the bar about once a week. If she happened to the check the parking lot for his car as she drove by, then no one needed to know about it.
“How was your trip home?” he asked before taking a drink of beer.
Carol shrugged while she munched on a few fries. “Family is family. The first couple of days are great, and then you remember why you moved so damn far away.” James chuckled in sympathetic understanding. “You think I’m a stubborn asshole, you should meet my brothers.”
“That weirdly sounds like fun.” Carol looked at him like he was insane. “Only child. I find sibling interactions highly entertaining.”
“What a sad, little life you lead.”
James grinned. “You being in it makes it better.” She didn’t say anything for a minute and he shook his head. “Sorry—only crawling doesn’t include compliments, I guess.”
“It’s not that,” Carol told him. “I just— It’s hard for me to believe someone would think that about me. My students, maybe. Pretty sure Jess keeps me around because I’ll keep her ass out of jail, or bail her out if need be.”
“Then you’re an idiot.”
“Thanks,” she replied as she slugged him in the arm. They slipped back into comfortable silence while listening to SportsCenter over the din of the bar.
Carol kept stealing glances at him out of the corner of her eye. She felt like a moron for doing so and for admitting that she didn’t understand why James would feel that way about her. That was what pathetic chicks did in rom-coms, and she had no room for that shit in her life. She was a proud, strong, not-quite-Sasha-Fierce. She didn’t need a man.
But it wasn’t like James was trying to step in and save her. This wasn’t a damsel-in-distress situation, not completely. Carol needed saving from the thoughts her brain spat at her, and James was man enough to know that he couldn’t be the one to save Carol from that. She had to do it herself.
It was a struggle she recognized when they were together, and one she wasn’t yet ready to battle.
“Dance with me,” she offered.
His eyebrows rose in surprise, but he wiped his mouth with a napkin and took her outstretched hand. She repeated his music selection technique by shoving in some quarters and punching the random button. Immediately, the soft strains of some country ballad began to filter through the speakers.
“Ugh, Taylor Swift,” Carol whined.
James slipped an arm around her waist and slowly pulled her close to him. “She’s not so bad if you really listen to her lyrics.”
“You’d get along so well with my students, you have no idea,” Carol quipped.
He smiled. “Blame Tony. He’s the one who got me hooked on her songs; he’s a huge fan. Pretty sure he’s been to a concert or two.”
“That is a delicious piece of information to have,” Carol laughed.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” he replied.
“Of course not,” she answered as she stepped slightly more into the embrace. She was sure they looked like idiots, slow dancing to Taylor Swift in a sports bar. But even the ridiculous lyrics about heartbreak swirling in the air around her couldn’t keep her from melting into James’s arms. When the song ended and broke into some dance club remix Carol didn’t recognize, neither of them moved apart.
For the first time all summer, she allowed herself to luxuriate in him: the smell of his aftershave, the heat of his skin, the strong planes of his body. She missed him—his kindness, his sense of humor, how he took zero shit, his smile—and she was finally ready to not only admit it, but do something about it.
Fucking Taylor Swift.
“Come home with me.”
The words were out of her mouth before she thought was fully formed in her mind. But she didn’t fight to take them back, she just let them hang there. James took a small step backwards in surprise. “For what?” he asked.
She didn’t answer with words, just gave him a look that clearly answered his question.
He let out a low whistle and shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like crawling to me.”
“Since when did you ever complain about when I was on all fours?” she smirked. “C’mon.”
He tried to look nonchalant while quickly paying for their meals and drinks. They agreed that he’d follow her to her house. She wanted to speed away and tidy up, but didn’t want to lose him. He was used to her emotional mess; hopefully he wouldn’t mind a sink full of dirty dishes. At least she’d emptied Chewie’s litter box a few hours ago.
The whole drive home, she waited for nerves to overtake her, but they didn’t. Just anticipation, the kind that made her stomach churn in a hot and sexy way, not like she needed to vomit from anxiety.
She was fumbling with her keys on the doorstep when his hand came to rest on her back. “You’re sure?” he asked. Carol answered with a kiss, and he let it linger for a few seconds before pulling away. “Use your words,” he told her.
“I’m sure,” she promised before unlocking the door and pulling him inside. “So, this is it,” Carol announced with a shrug and a sweeping arm motion. Her townhouse wasn’t much to speak of, but James had never stepped foot inside of it.
His eyes swept across the living room and into what he could see of the kitchen. “If you really are a hoarder, you’re hiding it well.” He laughed when she slugged him in the arm. Then, his eyes darkened, and Carol felt her stomach drop again. “There’s a bedroom, right?”
“Two, in fact,” she answered as he started kissing her neck. “And a couple sturdy tables and countertops on the way. Just don’t step on my cat.”
A little while later, while her breathing returned to normal, Carol smiled as James kissed his way down her shoulder. Once he got to the top of her arm, he pulled her closer to him. She was happy to be the little spoon in his grip, mostly because she didn’t have the energy to move into another position.
“Can crawling include me spending the night?” James asked.
“I’d be seriously pissed if you left my bed,” Carol answered. He stayed quiet, but she could hear his thoughts and drudged up the energy to twist in his arms to face him. “I’m sorry I always left yours.”
It was his turn to respond with a kiss, one that soft and sweet. “Sleep,” he told her. “I’m making breakfast in the morning.”
“Definitely not allowed to leave my bed, then.”
Clint’s phone chimed at lunch, and he sighed. “Sorry,” he muttered, and wiped his fingers on his jeans as he reached for it.
They’d chosen some kind of gastro-pub for their annual let’s talk about my kids before they show up in your class lunch, and so far, the food involved a lot of pesto, truffle oil, and pretention. “I think I see why Jasper likes it here,” Jessica’d said as her appetizer of roasted red pepper hummus arrived, and Carol’d rolled her eyes. “It’s frou-frou, but there’re burgers.”
“Name of Phil’s autobiography,” Clint’d offered, and Jessica’d almost shot hummus out her nose.
Jessica wasn’t actually a part of the lunch--she’d invited herself “because food,” to quote the text message--and for the most part, she’d behaved herself through the serious discussions about Carol’s newly minted fifth graders and their myriad issues. Carol counted herself lucky that her (slightly unbalanced) best friend understood why she cared so much about her students--and why she dragged all the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers out to individualized lunches to hash out the important details before the school year started.
(“Clint’s your favorite one to meet with, right?” Jessica’d asked on the ride over, her bare feet on Carol’s dashboard.
“Do you even wear shoes in the summer?” Carol’d snapped back at her, and Jessica’d grinned at the non-answer.)
Clint’d grinned when they showed up and during most of their conversation, but his smile dropped right off his face as he read his text message. He typed something back, but not without mumbling, “I know you’re banging some bimbo, you asshole.”
Jessica choked on air.
Clint glanced up, eyebrow cocked, as she pounded her fist on her own chest and looked like a cross between Tarzan and a goldfish. Carol frowned at her, a question almost on her lips, but Jessica just shook her head.
What— Carol started to mouth, but Jessica swept a finger across her own throat. When Carol felt her frown crease, Jessica started mouthing a response of her own, something that involved a lot of overblown head-jerks in Clint’s direction and—
“Are you trying to tell me that Clint reads lips using silent pig Latin?”
Jessica groaned and smacked herself in the forehead as Clint finally put his phone back on the table. “Do I even wanna know what you two got up to in the ten seconds it took me to text my asshole brother?”
Carol was about to echo Jessica’s immediate and very loud no! when cold realization slapped her across the face. She glanced at her best friend—her horrified, wide-eyed, slightly-quivering best friend—and the corner of her mouth twitched. “Your brother’s banging a bimbo?” she asked.
All the color drained out of Jessica’s face, but she quickly hid it by reaching for her truffle fries. Clint, on the other hand, just huffed a breath. “Not that he’ll admit it to me, but yeah,” he said with a shake of his head. “He snuck her in one night. Dropped her bra in the bushes on her way out.”
Jessica released a tiny squeak and, like a mature adult, kicked Carol hard in the shin. “Maybe you shouldn’t nose in on his brother’s business,” she suggested. When Carol blinked, all purposeful innocence, she narrowed her eyes. “Clint sounds annoyed enough at him that he doesn’t need—”
“To talk about how he’s stringing some girl along?” Clint cut in with a shrug. Jessica swallowed her next fry without chewing, but he just reached for his soda. “It’s not a big deal. I mostly just feel bad for her. She probably doesn’t realize what a shit he is. My only problem’s gonna be when she figures it out and throws a brick through the window to—”
His phone cut him off, ringing loud and long, and he groaned as he looked at the caller ID. “And here’s the part where Phil bitches at me for bitching at Barney,” he said, and excused himself from the table.
Jessica waited until Clint disappeared out the front door of the restaurant to dig her elbow hard into Carol’s side. Carol swore, but not without laughing.
“You are a fucking asshole,” Jessica sneered. She swung her elbow again, but Carol ducked out of the way. “Do you want to out me to him? Because I’m pretty sure the last thing I need is—”
“Clint Barton to realize he’s seen your bra?” Carol asked.
Jessica’s flared red. “Shut up.”
“You’ve left them lying on my floor often enough, but that’s only because you can only make it two hours into a Netflix binge before you’re stealing my sweats and blankets.” Jessica leaned forward to bang her head against the tabletop. “So, which one was it? The blue one with the lace on the edges? That push up you call the ‘self-sticking envelope’ because it always seals the deal?”
“Oh my god, stop talking,” Jessica muttered against the table.
“The slinky red one that—”
“Please don’t tell me you’re talking about women’s underwear,” Clint chimed in as he flopped back into his chair. He tossed his phone onto the table with the air of man who really wanted to forget technology existed. Carol snickered while Jessica flipped her off unsubtly. “Because you know the rule.”
“Nobody wants to hear about your man-thongs, Clint,” Carol informed him as she stole the last of Jessica’s fries. “We’re eating.”
“What about my banana hammock?” he asked, and when he waggled his eyebrows, both Carol and Jessica groaned.
After Clint paid for their meals—“Phil’s already pissed, might as well go for the gold,” he’d said—and they’d all left the restaurant, Jessica slung an arm around Carol’s neck and pulled her close. “Two things as I decide how exactly I’m going to kill you to death,” she said. Carol rolled her eyes, but Jessica just tugged her closer. “One: don’t think your harassment gets you out of drinking your weight in tequila when my thing with Barney Best-Tongue Barton goes up in fire and brimstone.”
Carol pulled a face. “Stop talking about his tongue.”
“Never,” Jessica replied, and licked her lips to prove it. Carol shoved at her until she stepped away, grinning. “And thing number two, because not even Barney’s tongue can distract me from this: the next time you have a boyfriend, it is on.”
Carol snorted. “Like that’s going to happen.”
“Like it hasn’t already happened,” Jessica said knowingly, and literally skipped ahead of Carol to the car.
“I retract everything I said about you not having that much stuff to move,” Bruce jokingly complained, and Natasha grinned as she wiped sweat from her brow.
Moving day’d dawned hot and humid, and the kind of June morning where the hum of air conditioners drowned out all the birds and cicadas. Natasha’d drank her morning coffee in front of her living room window, watching sweat-soaked runners rush by despite the crippling heat.
Some moving day, she’d texted Bruce.
We can shower after, he’d suggested, and she’d smiled.
They’d worked together slowly, loading up both their cars with Natasha’s boxes and bags, her personal belongings that would be of no use to Peter as he sublet for the summer. Standing in the doorway as Bruce’d played backseat Tetris, she’d felt the hot pinpricks of nervousness crawling through her stomach again. It’d become a familiar sensation over the last couple weeks, one she’d tried her best to ignore.
Clint, predictably, had been no help. “Look at you, nervous over a boy,” he’d teased after dinner one night. It’d been the last night before she’d moved in with Bruce, and she’d dodged inviting him to the dinner for what felt like the final time. She wasn’t even sure what made Clint think she was nervous, but when she’d flipped him off, he’d laughed. “Trust me, it’s totally natural.”
“Because you felt it with Phil,” she’d deadpanned.
“I still feel it with Phil half the time,” he’d corrected. “When it matters, it’s worth being nervous over.”
She really hoped he was right.
She left Bruce to close up the cars and flopped onto his couch, closing her eyes. Her hairline and back felt damp and sticky with sweat, and for the first time all day, she stretched out her legs and lolled her head back against the couch cushion.
When a familiar weight landed on the couch next to her, the corner of her mouth kicked up almost involuntarily. “I need ten minutes before any shower gymnastics,” she warned.
Bruce chuckled. “Who said I won’t do all the work?”
“History,” she shot right back.
“Nice,” he replied, but his voice was filled with laughter. A second later, blunt fingers slid through her curls. She jumped a little at that, twisting to glance over at him, and her stomach sunk when he rolled his lips together. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Sneak up on someone who’s imagining what it’d be like to have you do all the work?” she asked. His mouth twisted into a little smile, and she leaned her shoulder against his. “I already did the heavy lifting.”
“And when was this?”
“All the times you weren’t looking.”
He snorted. “Ah,” he said. After a few seconds, his body relaxed, and he fell into an easy pattern of running his fingers through her hair. It was easy to close her eyes again, to imagine that living together would actually be this easy and comfortable. Except the pin-pricks kept tingling in the pit of her belly, sharp little jabs she couldn’t entirely ignore.
When she opened her eyes, she found that Bruce’d closed his eyes somewhere in the last few minutes, his face peaceful and slack as he half-dozed next to her. She admired him for a moment—his messy hair, his thread-bare t-shirt, his basketball shorts that he probably borrowed from Tony—before she planted a hand on the side of his neck and kissed him. He released a little content noise, and within a few seconds, she’d shifted on the couch to straddle him, her free hand clutching at his shoulder as they kissed greedily.
Like teenagers playing house, she thought, and her gut twisted one last time before she pulled away from him.
“Shower?” she asked, her fingers sliding into the damp hair at the back of his neck.
He blinked in surprise. “I thought you didn’t want hard work,” he reminded her.
“No, but I want something hard,” she informed him, and he groaned before he kissed her again.
“Most embarrassing college moment.”
“Oh no,” Natasha laughed, and when Bruce grinned at her, she leaned into his personal space just enough to elbow him in the ribs. “That’s too much like Tony’s attempts at truth-or-dare.”
Bruce raised his hands. “Guilty as charged,” he admitted, and she crinkled her nose at him as she stirred the last of her ice cream around in its paper cup. “I just thought we could talk for part of our walk.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Since when has silence made you uncomfortable?”
“It doesn’t,” Bruce assured her, and she hummed in response.
It was a beautiful, balmy Saturday morning, the kind where most of the neighborhood appeared to be out at the local park, eating ice cream or walking their dogs. Every few minutes, a handful of children ran or biked past, and Bruce smiled every time. He recognized a few incoming kindergarteners from the spring’s kindergarten round-up, although none of them seemed to recognize their future teacher.
Natasha smiled at them too, but less warmly. Eventually, Bruce forced himself to stop watching them on the playground and to focus on their walk.
“Tony invited us to his Fourth of July party,” he said after a few more minutes, and Natasha paused in eating her last bite of ice cream to glance over at him. He shrugged. “I didn’t know if you had other plans, but if you want to go—”
“We always went separately,” Natasha pointed out as she dropped her spoon and bowl into a nearby trash can. “It makes sense we’d go together now.”
“Unless you’d rather do something else,” he suggested. She quirked an eyebrow at him, and he wet his lips. “We could spend a few days at home, or go away for the weekend. Whatever you want to do.”
She smiled. “I think we spend enough time together, just the two of us.”
“I don’t know if I’d ever agree with that,” he replied, and her smile faltered a little as they continued walking.
Bruce finished up his ice cream cone in the relatively comfortable silence, Natasha’s arm close enough that they brushed against each other every few steps. After a while, he slung his arm around her waist and she leaned into his touch a little. She smelled like the summer breeze when he tipped his face close to her curls, and he resisted the urge to just breathe her in.
“I’m glad we did this,” he said finally, and the little surprised expression that flashed across her face almost stopped his heart. He felt sometimes like he always snuck up on her, surprising her in strange ways. He smiled. “I’m glad to have you in my life.”
After another beat or two, Natasha smiled back at him. “Me too,” she said, and leaned further into his grip.
It happened slowly, like tectonic plates drifting apart from each other and slowly leaving behind a canyon in their wake. Bruce thought about the various holes in the ground he’d seen over the years—a trip to the Grand Canyon when he was five, looking over the side of a cliff while hiking in the mountains in college, staring at pictures of craters in grad school for a class he could barely remember now. Each moment involved feelings of awe and appreciation of nature and its beauty.
He totally missed the fact that he was looking at gaping maws, keepers of nothingness.
Drifting was something that occurred slowly, subtle shifts in the landscape that happened right under your nose until one day you looked over your shoulder and noticed a crack had formed. It went ignored, and then a bit later, you realized it’d opened up. And then suddenly, there was a river basin separating you from the other side.
Bruce didn’t know exactly where he and Natasha fell on the erosive spectrum, but there was definitely a crack between them.
The first few Tuesdays of the summer after Natasha moved into his house, he came along to dinners at Clint and Phil’s. But with each progressing week, Natasha grew quieter and quieter over dinner. Bruce assumed she, like he, was feeding off the tension of their hosts and the stress in their lives. When Bruce made up some excuse to stay home on the fourth Tuesday, he was surprised to watch relief roll off Natasha’s shoulders for a split second.
But he wasn’t the only one making excuses to slip away for a bit.
Natasha had developed of slipping out of the house an evening a week or so. She only gave vague details about going “out”. The only upside to her sneaking away every now and then was that she came back more relaxed. She didn’t jump under his touch or spend as much time staring off into space.
Bruce never pushed for details as to where she went, and Natasha certainly wasn’t going to give them freely. He was fairly certain she wasn’t cheating on him. He’d known that one night stands were a thing in her life, but he’d never known her to be unfaithful.
If anything, it brought feelings of shame and guilt down on him. The sensations of inadequacy led him to a mixture of coming on too strongly—suspiciously cooking all her favorite meals inside of a week—and simultaneously distancing himself. He even thought back to the afternoon in his classroom and that flicker of whatever emotion had crossed her face. Bruce should’ve pushed harder, ensured moving in with him was something she actually wanted and not a stunt to keep her even with Steve and Bucky. But he hadn’t, because he was a miserable, lonely man who’d rather just be miserable than just alone.
Or so he thought.
He began to try being alone instead of miserable. Their normal routine was to eat dinner, then keep a running score on who’d win the most money on Jeopardy, but Bruce began to pull away from that a night or two during the week. He’d say he was going to call Peter about planning out activities for the science curriculum they were building while walking around the neighborhood. That wasn’t a lie, but he rarely fessed up to walking an extra meandering mile through the suburb after ending his phone call.
It was fine, right? he thought to himself while strolling down sidewalks. They were both private people who hadn’t been in a serious relationship in years. Alone time wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, was it? He desperately wanted to say that it wasn’t, but his gut churned whenever he tried to give the answer.
A few nights later, Bruce sat in bed half-reading, half-staring at a science journal. He heard Natasha unlock the front door, and they mumbled greetings at each other before she moved to the bathroom. Bruce listened to her go through her normal routine: brushing her teeth, splashing water on her face to remove her makeup, and tossing dirty clothes onto the bathroom tile to be cleaned up in the morning. She walked out in only her underwear before pulling on an oversized t-shirt and crawling into bed. She pulled the bedding up to her shoulders, mumbled a “good night”, and settled in with her back to him.
He rolled his lips for a second warring within himself if he wanted to pick this fight now. “Are we okay?” he asked, his tongue loosening before he was ready for it.
She rolled over, green eyes staring at him for a moment. “Yeah,” she answered.
Bruce really wished he could believe her.
“Bruce,” she panted, a prayer and a plea all in one, and his teeth grazed along her collarbone. She moaned then, rolling her hips without a second thought, his breath hot against her neck.
Some days—most days—she felt like she’d been set adrift, a ship without a mooring or a destination, but sometimes she felt like flying. Like right now, with Bruce’s dangerous mouth on her skin and their bodies pressed together in the insufferable July heat. Like yesterday, and like tomorrow, when words finally fell away and they could just be for a little while.
Both of them lost, maybe, but lost in each other.
Bruce gripped one of her wrists, pinned it above her head, and she released a noise like a growl, demanding and hungry as she bucked up against him. He grinned at her, his movement more erratic, more needy than in days.
Or a week.
Natasha thought, for a moment, that it might’ve been a week.
But then, her mind grew too distracted by other things to worry about issues like time.
Afterwards, her head on his shoulder and her heart slowing gradually, she closed her eyes.
“You’re good at that,” Bruce joked, his voice warm, and she elbowed him in the ribs instead of answering.
Later, she’d wish she was better at other things. Like just about everything else.
are you sure you don’t want some super high-quality bro time? skip out on the meeting, go bowling and eat junk food, cause the kind of mass chaos that’ll leave pepper mad at me for at least the next 24 hours?
Bruce snorted at the text message. No, Tony, he replied, and turned off his phone.
The Thursday night AA meeting at their usual church was the week’s smallest, featuring less than a dozen people. Most were new to the program and going multiple times a week, but they always offered Bruce an easy smile and a handshake. Bruce knew because he’d started going in the last few weeks, offering Natasha a chance to be alone with her own thoughts.
Alone in the house they were meant to share, he thought sometimes, and he hated himself for it. Alone, avoiding him, closing herself off to—
“Good to see you, Bruce,” the group leader said as he entered the meeting room.
Bruce smiled. “Good to see you,” he said, and it sounded halfway genuine.
He didn’t share—he never shared—and after, he drove over to the diner for a milkshake and some quality time with a crossword puzzle. “On the house, sweetie,” the waitress said, and squeezed his shoulder. He forced himself to thank her before he ducked his head and tried to focus on his puzzle.
He failed, but he tried.
He left enough money to cover the milkshake and a tip on top of that and snuck out before the waitress wandered back to check on him. He called Peter on the drive home, and they talked for a while before he pulled into the driveway. But even after he ended the call, he spent a few minutes sitting and staring at the house, unable to convince himself to walk inside.
Inside, the house was as cold and dark as outside, but he still toed off his shoes carefully and left his keys and wallet on the front table before coming all the way in. He slunk past the hallway like an unfaithful spouse and ducked into the kitchen. He’d check his e-mail, maybe text Tony to apologize, and then head to bed.
Except when he flipped on the kitchen light, he froze.
On the counter next to the stove was a covered plate. When he went to investigate, he discovered it was a meal from his favorite Indian restaurant, a place he’d taken Natasha maybe twice in the whole time they’d been friends. Next to the plate was a note that simply read: I wanted Indian and you’d gone out, so I thought I’d order you your favorite.
She’d signed it with an N.
He stared at the plate for a long time before he placed it in the fridge and headed straight to the bedroom.
“You’re wonderful,” he murmured into Natasha’s shoulder when he curled up behind her, and when he slid an arm around her waist, she sighed happily against him.
Natasha threw her suitcase into the trunk of James’s Corolla, dropped into the passenger seat, and slammed her door shut. “Drive,” she ordered.
“Good to see you, too,” James replied dryly as he backed out of Bruce’s driveway.
Natasha fought to keep her breathing even and did her best to keep her eyes on the road ahead of her. She didn’t want to look back and see Bruce’s sad face peering through the curtains. Or worse, not see him at all.
“I thought you weren’t going to see your dad this summer,” James commented.
“Change of plans,” she answered. She was quite proud of herself that her voice hadn’t wavered, but his words threw her into a tailspin.
She really wasn’t going to spend a week at her Dad’s in Chicago this summer. While it was a tradition to endure seeing him twice a year—summer and Christmas—she loathed the idea. But then something had changed between her and Bruce, and Natasha needed a place to escape.
Bruce knew it, too. “Is it so awful here that you’d rather be in Chicago? Am I worse that your father now?”
The fight that had followed was the most explosive thing Natasha’d ever witnessed. She’d heard stories from Tony about the rare instance of Bruce losing his shit, but she’d thought they were typical Stark exaggerations. If anything, Tony was watering things down.
But she had fought back just as loud and large as he did. Natasha wished she could say that it all happened so quick and furiously that it was all a blur, a hazy mess in her mind. But it wasn’t. She remembered every syllable they both said. It was easy to do since that was the last time they’d spoken to each other.
Living together for three days since then, neither saying a word.
Natasha knew they were rocky before, that she’d pushed them into something they weren’t ready for. She’d really hoped Bruce’s goodness would make up for her deficiencies, but no man—not even Bruce Banner—had that ability.
He’d given up the bed in that time, electing to sleep on the couch. They both kept themselves busy and out of each other’s space. Natasha couldn’t really pin an exact time and date for when things unraveled; the whole thing felt like a mudslide. But however it happened, they went from being happy around each other, to uneasy, to avoiding being in the same room as each other.
“So I had lunch with Steve’s mom last week,” James announced. His words brought her back to the present. They were already on the interstate, and Natasha half-wondered if he’d been talking the whole time and she never noticed.
“Yeah?” she replied weakly.
For the rest of the trip to the airport, James attempted to replay every action and word spoken between his boyfriend’s mom and himself. Natasha tried to pay attention and be happy for him, but couldn’t. She spent the drive silently listing things she could’ve done differently over the last six weeks. It was an embarrassingly long list.
When they mercifully arrived at the airport, James helped her get her suitcase out of the trunk. He looked at her for what felt like the first time all afternoon. “Everything okay?” he asked.
Natasha wanted to scream, cry, and throttle him. Of course it wasn’t alright, nothing in her life was. She looked like a mess—no make-up, hair pulled back in a barely there ponytail, wearing yoga paints and sneakers out in public on a non-work day—but felt even messier inside. She wanted to explode at him for not noticing until now, but she didn’t have the energy for it. “It’s fine,” she said.
James grinned brightly at her. “Whatever’s wrong will fix itself. Don’t worry about it.”
She stood slack-jawed on the sidewalk as she watched him drive away. Once she could finally move, she yanked her suitcase into submission behind her. “I miss my bitter, jaded, single best friend,” she muttered to herself.
Once Natasha was through security and an even longer line at Starbucks for an espresso, she settled down into a seat outside her gate. Pulling out her phone, she opened up the series of texts between Bruce and herself. She’d hoped to find some piece of solace in them, but it was just another example of how distant they’d grown since moving in together. Natasha touched the screen to start typing, but her phone darkened three times before she could think of something to say.
I’m sorry, she eventually typed. I knew I’d be bad at this, but I didn’t think I’d be this horrible at it. Sorry I dragged you down into my misery.
Natasha waited for a response. She imagined what Bruce would be doing now—mowing the lawn, tending to the small garden in the corner of the backyard, laundry, reading a science journal. All the peaceful things she imagined him doing in his home before she moved in. And now, she knew exactly what he looked like when doing those simple tasks.
But he didn’t answer.
She shut off her phone and tried to rest on the two hour flight, but her mind and stomach churned too much. But it got even worse when she stepped off the plane and realized he still hadn’t responded.
“We need to talk,” Bruce said, and he watched Natasha bristle.
For the last week, the house’d felt silent and lonely enough that Bruce’d crept through like a ghost, trying not to disturb the dust or break the endless wall of quiet. Most days, he’d woken up early, dressed, and spent the rest of his day out somewhere: at AA meetings, at school, at the park, at the public library. He’d brought journals to restaurants and bad novels to coffee shops, avoiding reality by slipping into their words; he’d turned down dinner invitations from Tony, Clint, and (weirdly) Bucky, and all to pick at mediocre sushi before driving home.
The silence greeted him like an old friend, every night.
And every night, after he’d changed into his pajamas and turned on the television, he’d sit on the couch and survey all the little touches that Natasha’d added to his home, all the signs that she belonged there, with him.
But Natasha’d left most of her belongings at her condo for Peter Parker to use. And she hadn’t even unpacked all the boxes that she’d brought to Bruce’s house.
Natasha maybe never planned on staying, the voice in the back of Bruce’s head’d needled, again and again, and more than once, he’d taken a late-night walk just to shut that voice up.
“I just wish we would’ve figured out how bad it was sooner,” one of the men at his and Tony’s usual AA meeting’d said when sharing, one hand fisted in his hair as he leaned heavily on the podium. “And maybe it was the drinking, you know? Fogged everything up for me. But if we’d split six months, a year earlier, maybe we would’ve been able to save something. Even if we still ended up divorced, we could’ve kept talking to each other. Kept the kids from picking sides.” He’d shaken his head. “Maybe we could’ve stayed human, you know?”
After the meeting, at the diner, Tony’d snorted into his milkshake. “Divorce guy was more depressing than last week’s ‘hurting my kid in a car accident’ guy,” he’d decided. “It’s like they’re rolling out the worst stories just in time for the start of the new school year.”
“Yeah,” Bruce’d agreed numbly, and he’d stared at the boxes on the crossword puzzle until they all blurred together.
But the man’s words— Those’d echoed in Bruce’s mind, the record skipping over and over again until Natasha’d arrived home twenty-four hours later.
She paused, her back to him, and he dragged a hand through his hair. She’d barely acknowledged him on her way to unpack her suitcase, and she stared down into it now. Tension swept in around them, its undertow threatening to pull them both under. Bruce forced himself to swallow before he said, “We can’t live in silence.”
She snorted and tossed her head. “You seemed to do pretty well for that last week.”
The bitterness in her voice felt like a knife to the stomach, and for a beat, Bruce rolled his lips together. “I probably deserved that.”
“It’s fine,” she cut in, her voice sharp as she threw a couple shirts onto her untouched side of the bed. “We won’t do the silent treatment anymore. That’s—”
“We can’t do this anymore.”
The words sounded like a whisper to Bruce’s own ears, and when Natasha whirled around to face him, he found himself unable to meet her eyes. He stared at the rest of her, instead: her tight shoulders, her slightly curled hands, her long legs, her bare feet. He’d missed her kicking off her shoes and socks, and for a split second, he almost smiled.
Almost, though, because then Natasha blurted, “What?”
“We can’t—” he started, but his tongue tripped. He shook his head again, trying to clear the cobwebs, but nothing helped. He lifted his chin, determined to find and hold her gaze even as his stomach churned and twisted in on itself. “You were my friend,” he said, his voice soft and shamefully desperate as he stepped out of the doorway. “Before everything else, before we ever decided to try this, you were my friend. You were important to me. You—”
“Were?” Natasha asked, her body tightening. “Past tense?”
“I don’t know.” She looked away at that, her jaw working, and Bruce rubbed a hand over his face. “I thought we could do this, but maybe— Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe we’re not meant to live with other people. Maybe we jumped too soon, or put too much pressure on ourselves, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened, I just—”
His voice stuck, and he tilted his head up to the ceiling. The overhead light burned his eyes—but then again, his eyes’d burned for much of the last week.
For much of the summer, if he was honest.
He drew in a long breath, then released it.
“You were my friend when this all started,” he said finally, forcing himself to look back in her direction. She tilted her face away until her curls hid her mouth and eyes. “I want us to be friends into the future. I don’t want to completely lose you.”
Natasha nodded slightly and shifted further away from him. She reached for her suitcase but ended up just wrapping her fingers around the sides, holding on. His whole body jerked, ready to reach for her, but he knew any comfort would be temporary, a bandage waiting to be ripped off.
Natasha apparently knew it, too, because she drew in a steadying breath and turned to face him. Her eyes were clear, but her expression reminded him of stone: hard, unyielding, and fearless. “What are you saying?” she asked.
Bruce swallowed. “I’m saying you should move out before we can’t talk anymore,” he said, and he watched her lips press into a tight line. “That we should go back to the way we were before you moved in, so we can at least be friends if we can’t be together.”
She stilled at the last word, her shoulders clenching, but only for a second. “Okay,” she said, and twisted back to her suitcase.
“I said okay,” she repeated, and when she started shoving her things back into the half-empty bag, Bruce turned away.
Natasha had never bothered fully unpacking her suitcase from visiting her father. Instead, she just quickly boxed up her things in whatever containers she could find so she could give Bruce his house back. She'd managed to not start crying while giving Peter Parker an eviction-and-apology phone call.
Natasha told Peter to take three days to get his stuff out. She knew he didn't have much since she was supplying him with furniture, dishes, et cetera. She felt extremely guilty for giving him the boot, but she didn't have the financial resources to find a second place and let the new teacher live in her condo.
She checked into a nearby hotel, one that was cheap enough to sustain her for a few days but didn't make her feel gross. Part of her mind said she needed to run out and get some food since the hotel didn't offer room service, just a hot breakfast. The other part of her brain never wanted to crawl out of the bed again.
She really wasn't planning on visiting her father this summer, but a couple weeks ago, she had the overwhelming need to do so. Natasha needed to reminded of what would happen to her if she didn't let Bruce into her life completely. She needed the visual of how empty and gray her life would be if she spent it alone.
Instead, she'd been worse than her own father. Bruce refused to speak to her. She and her father were never great communicators, and Natasha hadn't lived in the city since she was fourteen. What few friends she'd had coming out of middle school were long gone.
Natasha had ended up walking the sweltering sidewalks for hours trying to figure out how to make things right. Not that it made any difference now.
Once she'd dumped her suitcase onto the ground, she dug through for what clean clothes she had left and set them out. After taking full advantage of the ample hot water supplies, she pulled on underwear and a shirt. She didn't realize it was one of Bruce's until it covered her body. She stood there for a full minute debating on what to do before she figured screw it. She pulled all the curtains, and crawled into bed. She tossed and turned for twenty minutes before acknowledging the fact that she needed to talk to someone.
Opening her contact list just made her feel more alone. Bruce was obviously off limits. Tony was Bruce's best friend and was probably plotting her death. Pepper was more than likely on Bruce's side, too. James and Steve were a no go; she was nowhere in the mood to deal with the lovesick puppies. Clint and Phil had been married forever and couldn't remember what it was like to go through a break up. Jessica Drew would just want to drink and find out what it was like to have sex with Bruce, and while Natasha would appreciate the first thing, there was no way she was discussing the second. Rumors were going around that Carol was reunited with Stark's other BFF, and Natasha didn't want to smear her bad relationship karma on something like that.
Her phone contacts were full of people who either weren't in a position to understand, wouldn't take her side, or hadn't been in contact with her for months.
It was then that the crying started. Not a dribble in that movie starlet kind of way with a single tear running down her cheek. No, this was full on ugly sobs.
Once she'd cried herself out, she turned to her phone once more. Out of habit, she opened up Facebook. Jessica Jones had made a post celebrating her first wedding anniversary. It came complete with sharing a photo album from the ceremony and reception. Natasha remembered the dance she'd shared with a reluctant Bruce that night. It was then that she'd invited him to come home with her for the first time.
The experience was a mixture of exactly what she expected (Bruce sweetly and awkwardly trying to figure out how long he should stay after the deed was done) and things she never thought would happen. Like how the dorky kindergarten teacher could make her stomach drop, how extremely good he was in bed, and how she didn't want this to be some random hookup.
Natasha wondered if she would change anything if she could go back a year ago knowing what she knew now. Without a doubt, the answer was no. Yes, this was one of the worst nights of her life, but giving up the pain wasn't worth losing the love she'd received in the last twelve months.
Maybe this was how love worked. For a short period of time, everything was amazing. You got to have someone change how you view yourself, completely rewrite how your brain worked. For a little bit, it was the greatest feeling in the world.
And then, it ended.
Natasha wondered if she'd ever take that risk again. If she would just give up and become her father. Or if she would take up Bruce's offer and trying to take two steps backwards so they could take three steps forward.
She knew which path she wanted. It would take her some time to recover and start again. But she wanted to get there. And she hoped Bruce did, too.
“You know that I’ve gotta point out how bad this is, right? Like, as your brother in sobriety, I have to point out that this is kind of the worst sign imaginable.”
Bruce snorted a little as he stirred his ginger ale around with his straw. “How’d you find me here?”
“You’re asking a literal genius how he spotted your car in the parking lot of a dive bar six blocks from school?” Tony demanded as he dropped onto the stool at Bruce’s side. “Yeah, you’re worse off than I thought. Bartender, this man needs quesadillas and buffalo wings, stat!”
The bartender, the same gruff, messy-haired man who worked their happy hour nights, snorted at him, but he poured Tony a ginger ale of his own before retreating back into the kitchen. Xavier’s tended to be empty any time before about four-thirty in the afternoon, but at eleven a.m., the only other patrons were two elderly men in trucker hats and a harried-looking woman in a Starbucks uniform. Bruce watched the men drown their fries in ketchup for a few seconds, mostly to avoid meeting Tony’s gaze.
And he could feel Tony staring at him, his intent eyes waiting for some kind of explanation.
Bruce sipped his ginger ale. “You can ask, you know,” he said after a few beats.
“Yeah, see, I don’t have to ask,” Tony replied with a little shrug, and Bruce rolled his eyes. “Sober guy in a bar at high noon, staring at his ginger ale like he really hopes it’ll transform magically into the good stuff? After three days of avoiding my calls and texts? After a certain redheaded wife of mine happened to mention that Parker’s sublet situation was turning into a ‘scramble to find a new apartment’ situation?” Bruce closed his eyes. “What happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Yeah, but you probably need to talk about it.”
Bruce sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Not everything needs a discussion, Tony.”
“And I am a hundred and twenty percent in agreement except for the times when my bestie and his lady friend fall apart at the seams and—”
“Would you just shut up?” Bruce snapped. His voice, like his pulse, echoed loudly in his ears, and he realized a second later that three other patrons were gaping at him. He rubbed his face with a hand. For the first time in the last few days, he wanted nothing more than to sink into a dark room and not come up for air. He wanted to disappear, to fade to precious nothingness and drift away.
He’d felt that once before, after Betty died. He’d hoped to never feel it again.
“I failed,” he heard himself say after a few long seconds, and the resignation in those two words rushed through his body like an electric shock. His fingers sunk into his hair, and he shook his head at his ginger ale. “I thought I could do this again, that I could be someone’s partner, their other half, but instead of that, I just—”
He swallowed thickly, the words catching in the back of his throat. He tried to find them again, but all he could do was roll his lips together. Next to him, Tony sighed softly. “Listen, Bruce, buddy, it’s not your fault,” Tony said gently, and Bruce snorted. “It’s not. You know all the clichés about how it takes two to tango, right? Because whatever happened here, it’s as much on Natasha is it is on you, and blaming yourself just makes you the crazy guy who shouts at the wind to stop blowing.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “That one’s not a cliché.”
Tony shrugged. “Well, maybe it should be.”
He sipped his ginger ale to punctuate his point, and Bruce shook his head again. “I was naïve enough to believe that she wanted this,” he said after a few more seconds, aware that Tony was once again staring at him. “And worse, I was naïve enough to think that I might be what she wants in a partner. I’m a middle-aged, graying guy with a paunch and stack of science journals. I’m not Natasha Romanoff material.”
“Okay, I’m not going to argue with you on the gray or the paunch or the journals, because god knows I’ll lose,” Tony started, and Bruce tried not to snort at him again, “but I have to disagree on the Natasha Romanoff material. Because no matter what the hell went on between you two—details you will need to give me eventually, by the way—there’s one thing I know for absolute certain.” Tony shifted on his stool to face Bruce, his eyes bright and earnest as he stared him down. Bruce found it impossible to look away. “She picked you. Half the planet’s male and she picked you to be her guy for a while. To sleep with and cuddle up with and, I don’t know, assassinate world leaders with. She wanted you.” He poked Bruce in the shoulder with two fingers. “And I am willing to bet a whole lot of my good money that she still feels that way about you now, even if it’s all come tumbling down.”
Bruce dropped his eyes back down to his ginger ale. “You don’t know that,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, I do, big guy,” Tony retorted, nudging his shoulder up against Bruce’s. “Because above all else, I know you.”
The bartender arrived with their food then, heaping platters of hot wings, quesadillas, and the fried pickles Tony ordered every happy hour night. Bruce actually smiled at the last plate, a little wave of relief washing over him. Some things, it turned out, never really changed.
They were halfway through their food when Tony sucked wing sauce off his thumb and said, “After this, I’m taking you back to the house so we can mock shitty sci-fi movies and drive Pepper slowly crazy.”
Bruce huffed a laugh. “If marrying you hasn’t made her crazy, I doubt us watching Contact will.”
“There’s a first time for anything,” Tony replied, and when he knocked his elbow into Bruce’s, Bruce couldn’t help but smile.
Only one more chapter--Steve and Bucky's--to go, and then everyone heads back to school.
Do we need to pass out tissues? Are you okay?
“You sure you don’t want me as backup?” Steve asked for the tenth time, and Bucky rolled his eyes as he climbed out of his car. “Somebody to cover you? Make sure Carol doesn’t—”
“What? Bite?” Bucky retorted. “Because she can’t do much worse than you.”
Steve laughed, his voice warm even over the phone. He’d planned this outing with his mom—some giant estate sale, flea market thing featuring a ton of antiques—weeks ago, but he’d started to back down from it a little when Bucky’d (half-proudly) announced that he was the first of Carol Danvers’s here’s how you treat my kids victims. “It’s barely summer,” Steve’d pointed out, and he’d sounded slightly worried. “She usually doesn’t meet with people this early.”
“Because you’re an expert on the fourth and fifth grades?” Bucky’d returned. Steve’d huffed slightly as he’d brought down their dinner plates, but Bucky’d shrugged at him. “I don’t think she’s hazing me.”
“But she could be.”
“Yeah, she could be. She’s Carol. I’m perpetually afraid of a wedgie, noogie, or both.” Steve’d chuckled as he’d slid past Bucky, his hand on Bucky’s hip, and Bucky’d forced himself to ignore how good it felt. “She’s gonna brief me on her kids. It’ll be fine.”
“Unless you’ve got a tough case ahead of you,” Steve’d pointed out.
“I welcome the challenge,” Bucky’d returned, and when Steve’d started to protest again, he’d flicked salad dressing at him.
Bucky slung his school bag over his shoulder before he leaned back against the side of the car. “Go have fun with your ma and stop worrying about me.”
Steve snorted on the other end of the line. “So I’m not allowed to worry about my guy?”
“Not today, you’re not.” Bucky swore he heard Steve’s grin, the way the warmth overtook his entire face—and found his summer freckles. “I’ll see you when you get home tonight and dragging whatever ridiculous cabinet or table you bought into the house.”
“I am not that bad.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Steve sighed. “You’re lucky I love you, you know that?”
“I’m reminded every day,” Bucky replied, and Steve’s little hum of contentment brought a warmth spreading through his chest and up his neck. “Gotta go. Love you.”
“You too, Buck,” Steve said, and then Bucky forced himself to end the call before they went full no, you hang up teenager on each other.
He’d just shoved his phone back into his pocket when he heard somebody slow-clapping behind him. He groaned aloud as he turned to discover Carol Danvers standing near the back of his car, her shit-eating grin bright as the sun. “Congratulations,” she said smugly, still clapping.
“Do I want to know for what?” he demanded.
“For officially being one half of the most disgusting couple I’ve ever encountered.” Bucky rolled his eyes, but if anything, Carol’s grin grew brighter. “Seriously, I thought Barton and Coulson were the worst I’d ever seen, but you blow them out of the water.”
“I’m not buying your lunch, now,” Bucky warned.
“Oh, witnessing your blushing I love you is worth three lunches,” Carol retorted.
Bucky, maturely, flipped her off before they headed inside.
The restaurant—half cafe, half diner, all artery-clogging delights with dessert included—was pretty empty, and they ended up sitting in one of the big booths in the corner. They ordered drinks without incident, a sure sign that Carol’d forgotten about her whole most disgusting couple award—at least, until she closed her menu and peered intently at Bucky.
“I’m picking a sandwich,” he informed her without meeting her eyes.
“There’s about six options that won’t kill you with gravy or cheese. It’s not a hard choice.” He snorted at that and turned the page, but Carol just leaned her elbows on the table. “I have to hand it to you, you know.”
“Because I’m disgusting?”
“Because you’ve done the impossible.” Bucky finally glanced up, eyebrows raised, and Carol shrugged. “I’ve known Steve for a while now. Never took him for the move fast in the relationship type. But apparently, you’ve either got a magic personality or a magic dick.”
“Or both, because I’ve definitely got the second one,” Bucky returned. Carol laughed at that, shaking her head, and he glanced back at the menu. He tried to focus on his options, but his mind started ticking over, repeating the same thoughts he’d had for the last couple weeks. He picked at the laminated corner for a second before he admitted, “It’s not me.”
Carol blinked. “Huh?”
“It’s—” he started, but the word escaped him and he sighed. He set his menu down as the waitress brought their sodas, and he purposely took longer than necessary pulling off his straw wrapper and helping himself to his first sip. Carol never glanced away. “For the record,” he said, “I usually have people to talk to about this kind of shit.”
“Because I’m not people?” Carol asked with a little smirk.
“Yeah, ‘cause that’s what I meant,” he returned, and she laughed at him. He thought about Natasha—just for one, stomach-sinking second, because she still only returned half his phone calls and she’d waved off his offer to help her move—before he leaned back in the booth. “But I’m not exactly convincing Steve to move fast. It’s more that he’s ready for stuff half a beat before I even think about it, and we end up jumping ahead.”
She rolled her lips together. “And this bugs you?”
“Sometimes. Maybe? I don’t know.” He huffed out a breath. “Why am I even telling you this?”
“My joke hit a nerve and I have one of those open, caring faces?” Carol responded. He wrinkled his brow at that, and she rolled her eyes. “Okay, just the first one then. But seeing as we have all afternoon, my work husband is in about the healthiest marriage ever—”
“Even if it’s not the most disgusting anymore,” Bucky pointed out.
She grinned. “That, yeah. And, I mean, it’s not like my own romantic life is so fulfilling.” He frowned, about to ask the obvious question until she jabbed a finger in his direction. “Not going there.”
He raised his hands. “I said nothing.”
“My point is that you can talk to me if you want.” She paused. “Or, we can order an onion ring basket and drown our sorrows in grease before we talk about my theory of everything.”
“You mean your theory of special education,” Bucky corrected.
Carol narrowed her eyes. “Funny how I didn’t say that.”
Bucky laughed, and Carol grinned back at him. The waitress came for their orders—including the onion ring basket—and then promptly disappeared again. Bucky toyed idly with his straw wrapper while Carol—maybe expectantly, maybe not—watched him. Finally, he shook his head. “He’s too good to me,” he said, she raised an eyebrow at him. “He gives more than anybody I know. He does a lot more for me than I deserve. And I think he ends up getting to the big stuff before I do. And I don’t think I have to prove myself to him, but at the same time, I don’t always want to be the guy who says ‘I love you’ second or agrees to move in instead of asking, even though I want it.”
Carol shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. “Maybe you’re just not ready to say what you’re thinking.”
“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, but the word sounded wrong. He frowned slightly. “Well, no, actually. It’s not— I’m there, but I worry that he’s not. And then he turns out to be, and he beats me to the punch because I doubted him.” He glanced over at her. “If that makes sense.”
“Sure,” she answered, but then she pressed her lips together. “Look, I’m shit at relationships,” she admitted, “but here’s the one thing I’m starting to figure out: there’s a lot of leaps of faith involved. A lot of trust. A lot of doing a thing because you believe it’s what you both want, even if you’ve never had the conversation in explicit terms.” She leaned back against the booth’s vinyl cushion and shrugged. “Sometimes, it bites you in the ass. But sometimes, it’s pretty amazing.”
Bucky quirked half a smile. “Are you one of those single people who spends all her time advising her friends on how to be good partners?”
Carol burst out laughing. “More like I’m one of those single people who puts out the fires her friends’ relationships start. And by ‘friends,’ I mean Jessica.”
Bucky grinned. “She can’t be that bad.”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
Carol ended up spending the first half of lunch telling Jessica Drew Dating Horror Stories (so horrific, they deserved capital letters), and the second half really advising Bucky on her theory of everything. Bucky drove home full and happy, and he felt better than usual walking into their house (not just Steve’s, but theirs) and seeing all the proof of his last several months with Steve lying around. Not for the first time, he felt overwhelmed with how much this relationship meant—and how far they’d come, together, in a short period of time.
“Please tell me you didn’t make lasagna,” Steve said when arrived home just after seven that night. Bucky stopped tossing the salad to watch him walk into the kitchen, and he wasn’t entirely surprised when Steve came over to peek into the oven. “What’d she do?”
Bucky blinked. “What’d who do?”
“Carol.” When he frowned, Steve rested his hands on his hips and sent Bucky a truly dubious look. “To make you make lasagna and garlic bread when it’s not our anniversary.”
Like a supportive boyfriend, Bucky smacked Steve in the stomach. “Maybe I just wanted to,” he defended.
Steve grinned and caught him by the wrist. When Bucky tried to tug his hand away, Steve tugged back, and he ended up in Steve’s grip, right there in the middle of the kitchen. Steve smelled like sweat and dust from the estate sale, and Bucky fought against his urge to sink into him.
“I still think you’re spoiling me for some reason,” Steve said after a moment, his fingers sneaking under Bucky’s t-shirt.
“Because you’re not a good enough reason on your own,” Bucky retorted snidely, but all his fake bluster disappeared when Steve, the asshole, just smiled.
“You’re only wearing those sunglasses so that no one knows you spend the entire game staring at Steve’s ass.”
Bucky looked up just in time to see Darcy—wearing her own pair of oversized sunglasses plus a snug v-neck t-shirt and short shorts—sit down next to him on the unbelievably uncomfortable metal bleacher. “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he replied.
Darcy snorted. “Please, that man’s physique is a work of art. If I could have a statue of his naked body, I totally would. Drag it around with me and everything.”
Bucky smiled, but didn’t respond, just turned his focus back to Steve. Steve, who, yes, had a gorgeous build but would never be caught dead in front of even his closest friends due to fear about drawing attention to the scars on his chest. Even though he’s been in remission for years, Bucky knew Steve still saw his body as something had betrayed him and could do so again at the drop of a hat.
But Bucky had to agree that Steve’s ass looked amazing in a pair of baseball pants. Or whatever the official name was for the adult-sized version of the little league’s uniform was called.
“He teaches art to children, can rehab furniture, and he spends his summers coaching little league teams,” Darcy continued. “Do you know how many women hate your breathing guts right now?”
Bucky looked her up and down. “I know how girls dress when they think they’re going to be seeing someone special but still want to look casual about it. That amount of cleavage and thigh should be illegal around small children.”
Darcy wagged a finger at him. “We’re not talking about me right now.”
Bucky eyed the Capri Sun in her hand. “That wouldn’t be spiked, would it?”
“I have to watch a doubleheader for the Odinson-sons. What do you think?”
“I think you should have brought me one,” Bucky replied.
“You’re already drunk on Steve and his most likely perfect dick.” She paused to lean in conspiratorially. “It is pretty perfect, isn’t it? Do you have pics on your phone?”
“Wow, we are not talking about this.”
“That’s a yes,” Darcy muttered.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Is there something you need?”
“Nah. Just needed to talk to some hot dude to pique someone else’s interest.”
“Do I even want to know?” he questioned.
Bucky snickered and shook his head. He hadn’t spent much time around Darcy during the school year—either too swamped in putting together a curriculum for second graders or too busy making heart eyes at Steve—but she reminded him of his sisters. She was snarky, dangerous, and trouble; she would fit in all too easily with Barnes women.
“Seriously,” Darcy sighed, “he coaches little league?”
“Yeah,” Bucky answered with a smile.
If he were honest with himself, that was when Bucky knew he was fully head over heels for Steve: when he watched Steve during his first practice with his team of ten-year-olds. Of course, Bucky had seen Steve work with small children all the time at work, but giving up your summer to help young kids learn how to be a team and have some good sportsmanship skills? Bucky was done.
Also, the pants. Bucky really loved the pants. And loved peeling them off of Steve even more.
“You’ve got about five months, you know,” Darcy commented.
“I’m sorry?” Bucky asked.
“If you want to beat Coulson and Barton in the race to the being husbands. You started dating, when, November?”
“October,” he corrected.
Darcy let loose a low whistle. “Four months then.”
“It’s not a race,” Bucky argued.
“Stark’s betting pool disagrees with you. I mean, it’s fine if you wait longer. In fact, my bank account would really appreciate it you would.”
Bucky raised his chin at the challenge. “You don’t think we could end up married within a year of when we started dating each other?”
Darcy reached over and patted him on the head. “You’re adorable. Also, I thought it wasn’t a race?”
“It’s not, but—“
“But your manhood’s been challenged and now you have to prove you have a pair of balls by, what, getting down on one knee right here right now?”
A rebuttal died on his lips at the sound of a young girl shouting “Miss Darcy! Miss Darcy!”
Darcy waved at a pair of people—a tall man and a little girl sitting on his shoulders—walking towards them. “Someone missed you after you wandered off,” the man said. Bucky didn’t miss the look he and Darcy shared, and he suddenly had an idea who was the target of Darcy’s skin exposure gambit.
“Oh yeah?” she asked.
The girl pouted her bottom lip. “Mama keeps trying to talk to me about space. I don’t care about space, Miss Darcy. It doesn’t have horses.”
“It is indeed a travesty,” the man agreed as he swiped the Capri Sun out of Darcy’s hand and took a swig.
“No, Uncle Loki! You can’t do that,” the girl yelled. “You’ll give Miss Darcy cooties.”
“It’s cool, Alva,” Darcy replied. “I made sure to take my cootie shot this morning.”
The little girl sighed relief before realizing who Darcy was speaking to. “Hey, you’re Henry’s teacher.”
“Guilty as charged,” Bucky answered.
Darcy pointed to the dugout. “Did you see Mister Rogers?”
Alva gasped in excitement and screamed his name until Steve turned, smiled, and waved her direction. “He’s my favorite,” she sighed dreamily.
“Mine, too,” Bucky agreed.
“October,” Darcy said to him in a sing-song voice.
Bucky shoved at her. “Get away from me.”
A couple of hours later, after a victory and traditional trip to the Mom and Pop ice cream parlor down the road to celebrate the team, Bucky was busy wondering how long Steve’s kisses would taste like a chocolate sundae.
“What’d you and Darcy talk about?” Steve asked as they took a second to catch their breaths.
Bucky shrugged while snaking a hand under Steve’s shirt. “Cooties, favorite teachers, scheduling. You know, your typical conversation between elementary school employees.”
“Oh my god,” Tammy breathed right against Bucky’s ear, “he’s holding that baby and I can literally feel my ovaries imploding.”
Bucky twisted around to glare at his sister, but she just grinned at him, her eyes sparkling in the bright July sun. The yearly Barnes Family Picnic—an enormous party involving a lot of beer, a lot of potato chips, and enough lighter fluid to charbroil a moose—had only started an hour earlier, and already, the whole park was crowded with various relatives from all over the country. Bucky’d tried for weeks to dodge the reunion, but every time, his ma’d started ranting about gratitude and family values so loud that Steve’d grinned across the room.
Not funny if I go deaf, Bucky’d mouthed at one point, holding the phone three inches from his ear.
Steve’d shrugged. “Clint can teach you to sign,” he’d replied serenely, and Bucky’d thrown a couch pillow at him.
He’d purposely steered Steve through the crowd early, shoving him toward the tolerable cousins and away from the crazy ones until Lainey’d grabbed him by the t-shirt and dragged him away. “There are at least three babies I need to see him kiss,” she’d informed Bucky. “Go locate beer or something.”
“‘Locate?’” Bucky’d repeated.
“Or go look pretty, I don’t care,” she’d retorted, and Steve’d laughed as she’d waved her brother away. Now, Bucky loomed next to the snack table while Steve cuddled with his cousin Eliza’s little girl.
No, wait, cousin Eliza had the boy toddler with the weird teeth, this baby belonged to—
“Eleanor,” Rebecca supplied as she walked up, two beers in each hand. She shoved one at each of her siblings but kept two for herself. “Remember? She’s six months older than Lainey and Ma’s still pissed that Aunt Connie stole her number one baby name?”
“Since when was Elaine almost Eleanor?” Tammy asked.
“Since Ma keeps sitting me down for family history lessons now that I’m the only kid still living at home.” Bucky almost snorted his beer, and Rebecca dug her elbow into his ribs. “Not funny. I swear, if you don’t get engaged soon, I’m going to have to move into some creepy guy’s cat piss scented basement apartment just to avoid all her weird mama mojo.”
“We know that’s not exactly on the horizon right?” he asked. Both his sisters swiveled toward him, their expressions each brimming with patented Barnes-brand disdain. He held up his hands. “I know you think we’re on a wedding bell collision course, but—”
“But you’re constantly staring at him like he hung the moon?” Tammy asked.
“And you spent an hour last night not-so-subtly talking to Ma about when she and dad got engaged?” Rebecca chimed in.
Bucky felt the back of his neck warm. “You said you were going to Starbucks.”
“Yeah, well, you said you’d help me with my baking soda volcano when I was in the fourth grade, and look how that turned out.” When Tammy snorted, Rebecca pointed the neck of her beer bottle at their sister. “There’s still the ghost of papier-mâché past stuck to the carpet in my room, Tamara. If Ma ever finds it—”
“You might be evicted from your rent-free accommodations?” Tammy shot back, and Bucky hid his smile behind the lip of his beer bottle as he let his sisters jump into the same old argument.
Over near the picnic tables, Steve was still balancing Eleanor’s baby on his hip as he chatted idly with Lainey and a couple other relatives. The baby was probably about nine months old, a round-cheeked little thing with a massive mess of dark hair, and every time Steve stopped paying attention to her, she squealed and grabbed a fistful of his shirt. He laughed whenever she did it, bouncing and tickling her as he continued the conversation and—
Bucky sighed and dragged a hand through his hair.
Steve looked so perfect, so right in the middle of the family reunion with a baby on his hip, that Bucky felt his stomach tie itself into double- and triple-knots.
He hadn’t come for the visit with any kind of agenda or plan. Sure, he’d talked to his Ma about proposals and just starting out in a marriage, but it’d really only come up because she’d been hounding him on how it was to live with Steve: good, bad, and ugly.
“Relationships are the hardest when you first start testing them,” she’d said at one point, her elbows leaning on the kitchen table. “It’s like the first time you’re driving down a road filled with speed bumps. You maybe know the bumps are there, but you don’t know where they are yet. And so you hit them hard enough that your teeth rattle. But after a while, you figure out the places to slow down and how best to drive over them—even though they never go away.”
Bucky’d snorted. “It was like that for you and dad when you first got married?”
His mother’d grinned. “Let me tell you about when the two of us first got married . . . ”
The rest of it had knitted together that night as Bucky’d laid in bed and listened to Steve breathe next to him, his bare back beautiful and freckle-kissed even in the moonlight.
“You’ve got the magic touch or something, because that baby is usually the crankiest little shit on the planet,” Lainey said suddenly, and Bucky jerked his head over to discover that Lainey and Steve’d returned from the planet of adorable babies. Lainey stole Bucky’s beer. “Did you see him with Eleanor’s kid? He’s a baby-whisperer.”
Steve grinned. “It comes with the territory.”
“The ovary-melting territory, or the I would like the straight version of you in my bed all night, every night territory?” Rebecca demanded. When Bucky glared at her, she shrugged. “What? I’m never not going to find your boyfriend hot. That’s just a thing now.”
“She’s got a point,” Kristin commented as she joined the group. Rebecca handed her the last of the beers, and she took a long pull. “I’m starting a betting pool on how many cousins want to take him home.”
The tips of Steve’s ears flushed bright pink, and Bucky rolled his eyes. “How about we all stop tormenting my guy and somebody find me a beer?” he suggested.
The sisters all looked at one another before Lainey scoffed aloud. “Get your own.”
“I’ll go grab us something,” Steve offered. When he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, Bucky realized that his Ma and two of her cousins (members of the more reasonable generation) were manning the beer coolers. “I don’t want to interrupt sibling bonding time.”
Bucky sent him a dubious look. “Is that what you’re calling this now?”
Steve smirked. “Since I don’t have siblings, sure,” he replied, and Bucky resisted the urge to roll his eyes again.
“Okay, please tell me you’re going to make an honest man out of him,” Kristin declared before Steve’d even stepped away from the group. Bucky glared at her, and she shrugged. “What? He’s perfect, he keeps you in line, and you need to lock that down.”
Steve just grinned. “Well, I’m already pretty honest,” he teased, and he laughed when Bucky pulled a face. “When have you known me to be anything but honest and true?”
“Besides right now?” Bucky demanded, and Steve laughed before leaning down to kiss him.
He trotted off to the row of coolers after that, waving to Bucky’s Ma on his way, and Bucky tried desperately to pretend there wasn’t some sort of suffocating heat crawling up out of his stomach and curling around his heart. But the truth was, he loved Steve like breathing, and the thought of actually getting down on one knee and asking him to stick around forever, it—
Well, it kinda—
“Holy shit, you’re actually going to propose to the guy, aren’t you?” Tammy demanded, and the other three sisters shut up in the middle of their conversation. When Bucky blinked at her, she grinned. “Yeah, I know that face. You’re in it to win it.”
For the first time during their whole conversation—since the first time since his sisters stole his cell phone at Thanksgiving, even—Bucky felt his whole face flood with warmth. “Shut the fuck up,” he muttered, but he couldn’t help grinning when his sisters started exchanging high-fives.
Bucky checked his watch for the third time in as many minutes. He knew Steve’s mom had a penchant for running fashionably late, but Bucky’d really hoped that she would’ve broken the habit just this once. He nervously ran fingers through his hair and then wondered how poofy it looked. Steve called his hair height his stress-o-meter, and while Bucky rarely found it amusing, he could at least see the truth in it.
Steve didn’t know where he was, and Bucky hated lying to him. He’d stretched the truth about seeing a buddy from the Army, which he was going to do after lunch. Steve was just under the assumption that it was an all-day thing, not Bucky driving a couple of hours to meet with Steve’s mom, driving another hour to see Dugan for a bit, and then a three-hour drive home.
Sarah Rogers entered the small café, and Bucky shot to his feet. He did a little wave to catch her attention, and she smiled back at him. It was the full, bright smile he was used to seeing. That was one of the traits Steve clearly inherited from her—her smile, bright blue eyes, blonde hair (even though Sarah was letting hers gray). There was even the joke that for a short time mother and son shared the same haircut, until Steve decided to cut his a little shorter to avoid getting mocked.
“Hello, Bucky,” Sarah greeted as he pulled her chair for her.
“Ma’am,” he returned.
That earned him an arched eyebrow and immediate disappearance of the patented Rogers smile. “I’m ‘ma’am’ now?” Bucky tried to sputter a response, but she cut him off with a look. “Does my son know we’re meeting?”
“No, ma— No, he doesn’t.”
“And why would that be?”
Bucky felt two inches tall. Compared to his mother, Sarah Rogers should be a sweet, kind little water sprite or something. But sitting across the little table from her, Bucky could feel the heat from the protective mother aura she was giving off in waves. “Because I want the proposal to be a surprise.”
Sarah nodded once and then took a sip of her water. Bucky followed suit, finding his throat to be impossibly dry. “And we’re meeting why?” she questioned.
“Because it would mean the world to me and Steve if we had your blessing,” Bucky answered honestly. Internally, he was extremely proud of himself for sounding as calm, cool, and collected as he did.
The waitress stopped by to take their orders for diet cokes—not that Bucky or his nerves needed the caffeine—and the house specialty salads. “When are you going to propose?” Sarah asked once the waitress left them alone.
Bucky shrugged. “I’m still trying to piece everything together, but probably before the school year starts.”
Sarah leaned back in her chair, eyeing him up and down. “Why my son?”
Bucky swallowed hard. “A year ago, I was a completely different person. Fighting in a war and losing too many friends will mess you up like that. But I’d just come to accept that my life was always going to have holes in it, damage that couldn’t be reversed. Teaching my kids helped me feel more normal, see that there was still hope in the world and whatever.” He paused as the waitress delivered their drinks, gulping down a few swallows to bolster him. Laying out his emotions was never something he was good at, but it was needed right now. “If you’d asked me then if I’d ever be in a relationship let alone wanting to propose to someone, I would’ve blown you off. But then I met Steve.”
“And he filled the damaged holes in your life?” Sarah asked, her eyes sparkling.
Bucky shook his head. “No, didn’t even try, which is one of the many reasons I love him so much. He doesn’t try to fix me, just loves me in spite of it.” He snickered for a second. “I’m like some chair he finds at a flea market—run down, not much to look at, whatever. He doesn’t try to transform me into something I’m not, just puts in work to bring out the best of what’s already there.”
Sarah cracked the first hint of a smile since she entered the café. “Sounds like Steve.” She paused to lean forward, and her serious face returned. “That boy is my life, you know that right?”
For a split second, Bucky watched as a number of emotions washed over her face. He imagined she was trying to relive all her memories with Steve in a heartbeat. “I raised him almost entirely on my own. I saw him through a fight with leukemia that some nights I didn’t think he was going to win. I’ve watched him grow into the man that he is, and I am so very proud of him for that.” She pointed a finger at him, and Bucky felt like he was about to be dressed down by a superior officer. “If you hurt him—“
“I would never.”
“If you hurt him, I will come after you with a wrath you’ve never seen before.”
Bucky nodded. “I’d expect nothing less, and you’d be the first in a long line of people to do so.”
Sarah eyed once more before leaning back in her chair. “You haven’t even dated for a year. Are you sure you’re ready?”
“This is one of the few things in my life I’ve been sure about.”
Her smile lit up the room, and Bucky felt the giant knot that was in his stomach gently unfurl. “You know, he comes by it honestly,” she confessed with a chuckle. “Steve was born six months after I married Joe, almost on the anniversary of our first date.”
Bucky grinned. “He never told me that.”
“Probably didn’t want to scare you off.”
“I don’t think he could ever do that.”
Sarah reached across the table to put her hand over his. “I spent so many nights hoping Steve’s life would turn out well, or just get to happen at all. If he ever forgets how lucky he is to have you, I’ll be the first to remind him.”
“Thanks,” Bucky muttered.
“You have my blessing on one stipulation.” Bucky raised his eyebrows and waited for her response. A slow, dangerous smile spread across Sarah’s face. “I want grandchildren.”
Bucky walked into the elementary school and parked next to Steve’s car. Inspecting the parking lot revealed that Principal Fury, Darcy, Pepper, Clint, and Phil were also present.
He tried to think through the list of things he needed to accomplish in his room today, but his mind kept drifting to his other to-do list. The one that was coming together and involved talking to Tony about procuring technology and calling Mama Rogers again to track down the famed Sheila’s bakery.
Bucky nodded hellos to Darcy and Clint, who were huddled over some paperwork in the front office. Out of habit, Bucky missed the stairs and instead started going to his old room.
“Lost?” Steve asked.
Bucky turned to see his boyfriend standing in the doorway of the art room and smirking. “Maybe I was gonna come see you.”
“You were facing your old room.”
“Maybe I was going to back in,” Bucky returned with a smirk as he eased into Steve’s personal space. “You seemed to have a healthy appreciation of my ass last night, so…” He kissed Steve on the corner of his mouth and his boyfriend just laughed.
“What do you need to work—“
“What do you know?” Both men turned to see Pepper standing in the hallway with one hand on her hip and the other wrapped around her cell in a vice-like grip.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked.
Pepper strode up to Bucky, and he felt himself instinctively want to stand at attention. “What did she say to you?”
“Natasha,” she answered in an annoyed sigh. “You took her to the airport, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Bucky answered slowly.
“Bruce texted Tony this morning. He’s really upset and said that Natasha wasn’t planning on going to Chicago at all this summer, but changed her mind all of the sudden, and they had a huge fight.”
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug, “she said she had a change of plans.”
“Did she say why?” Pepper pressed.
Bucky thought back on the ride to the airport an hour ago, and how much of it he’d spent droning on about his life. “Not really,” he answered quietly.
“Are they doing okay?” Steve asked, concern evident in his voice and across every inch of his body.
Pepper shook her head. “I don’t think so. We’ve been hearing less and less from Bruce. We’d hoped it was because they were getting used to playing house, but someone mentioned to Tony that Bruce was coming for extra meetings during the week.” She turned her attention back to Bucky. “Did she say anything about what might be going on between them? Clint just told me she’s been canceling on them for dinner the last few weeks.”
Bucky felt his stomach twist. He knew Natasha—when something went wrong on her life, she had a habit of closing herself off from everyone. She was reluctant to let anyone watch her lick her wounds. “I noticed she looked a little… off. I asked her if she was okay, and she said everything was fine.” Even he could hear his own lack of confidence in that statement.
Pepper gave him a sharp glare, and Bucky suddenly found him feeling a lot sorrier for Tony. “I know you’re into men, but for someone who has six sisters, you should know ‘I’m fine’ is how females say their world is burning around them and you should’ve noticed already.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Steve said, and Bucky could practically hear his boyfriend grinding his jaw.
She gave Bucky on last, long look. “If you hear anything—“
“I’ll let you and Tony know.”
Steve hooked a finger into a belt loop on Bucky’s jeans and yanked him into the art room before closing the door behind them. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I just told you—“
“You’ve been distracted this last week. We’ve been bad about holing ourselves up in our house. When was the last time you even hung out with Natasha?” Steve asked him.
Bucky rolled his lips together and tried to keep his temper in check. He knew his reaction when getting called out on his crap was to fire back, but he tried really hard not to pick fights with Steve. “She’s been busy getting settled in at Bruce’s.”
“You mean busy getting into a rough spot with Bruce?” Steve shot back.
Bucky breathed through his nose. He wanted to tell Steve that he had a very good reason to be distracted this past week, but couldn’t. “I told her that if they were in rough patch they’d make it through.”
Steve gave him an incredulous look. “If you were in her shoes, would that be what you wanted to hear from your best friend?” Bucky clenched his jaw and didn’t answer. “You’ve known each other for, what, ten years?”
“Yeah,” he replied. Steve shook his head and pulled out his cell phone. “What are you doing?” Bucky asked.
“Texting Natasha an apology for hogging her best friend. You should probably apologize, too.”
Bucky grit his teeth and walked out of the art room. He spent the next hour angrily rearranging desks into different formations—not something that actually needed to be done, but it felt slightly therapeutic. He wasn’t entirely sure who what made him angrier: getting called out for poor friendship skills by Pepper and Steve or realizing how crappy he’s been acting toward Nat.
With a sigh, he pulled out his cell phone and put in her flight information. She was boarding and probably had her cell phone off. Of course in her current state, she may have turned her phone off earlier. He dialed her number anyway and waited for her voicemail greeting to pass.
“It’s me,” he said. “Sorry I’ve been a self-absorbed ass lately. You better call me if you need me or you’re in trouble.”
Bucky ended the call and knew that it would take a lot more than a phone call to earn back her favor.
“Do I need to worry about what you’re up to?” Steve asked, and Bucky blinked.
Okay, so maybe Bucky was lingering in the living room, waiting for Steve to leave for his regular Tuesday night Little League practice, his nerves buzzing like bees as his boyfriend laced up his tennis shoes. And maybe Bucky’d lingered a lot in the last hour or so, wandering around the house restlessly and checking his watch no fewer than a half-dozen times. And maybe he’d turned a little antsy during dinner and barely eaten anything.
He smiled as innocently as possible. “Worry? About me? Never.”
Steve squinted at him. “Is this going to be like when you reorganized the medicine cabinet?”
“That medicine cabinet was a tragedy, Rogers, and you know it.” Bucky leveled a finger at Steve’s chest, and Steve rolled his eyes. “You had Neosporin in there from the 1990s. It probably would’ve given you gangrene.”
A little smile touched the corner of Steve’s mouth. “You would’ve nursed me back to health.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Bucky replied, and he grinned when Steve finally laughed.
He waited on the front stoop until Steve’s car drove out of sight before ducking back into the house and finally setting his plan into action. It’d started to reveal itself shortly after his lunch with Steve’s mom, all the pieces cascading down into place like a really good game of Tetris. He’d called in some favors and pulled some strings, sure, but he knew it’d be worth it.
(Mrs. Rogers’s friend Sheila’d required the full effect of his puppy-dog eyes, and once he’d finished explaining, she’d called him a lovesick fool. “Guilty as charged,” he’d admitted, “but I still need your help.” Lucky for him, her glowing smile had lit up her whole bakery.)
He’d actually finished the last (and most complicated) piece that morning while Steve’d mowed the front yard. He’d wanted to sit on the stoop and watch his half-naked boyfriend work, his skin tan and beautiful in the sun, but he’d needed to finish.
It was funny, but he really didn’t want to wait another second before starting the next phase of their lives.
He’d just about set everything up when Steve’s car pulled back into the driveway a good two hours later, and Bucky’s heart immediately leapt into his throat. The last fingers of sun still glimmered above the horizon, and the sky was smeared with pink, orange, and purple as Bucky dumped the last bit of lighter fluid on the fire pit and added a couple lit matches. It flared to life just as he heard Steve call out to him from inside the house.
“Out here!” he hollered back, and pretended he didn’t feel sick.
Steve appeared a moment later, his shirt a little damp around the neck as he stepped out into the rapidly cooling evening air. He blinked for a second, and Bucky tried to imagine the scene from his perspective: a blazing fire, a card table full of goodies, a mysterious bag shoved under one of the lawn chairs by the fire pit. Bucky brushed his hands off on his shorts before waving Steve over.
He hoped his smile looked breezy instead of terrified.
“You want dessert?” he asked, and Steve arched an eyebrow as he headed toward the table. Bucky met him halfway and gestured to the various treats. “I grabbed us some coffee,” he said as he pointed to the carafe, “and then I’ve got actual movie-theater popcorn, some pastries, a pie, and—”
“Runts?” Steve questioned, laughter in his voice. Bucky flashed him a grin, but when he reached for the plates he’d brought out, Steve caught his arm. “I remember the Runts. From Christmas.”
“From secret Santa,” Bucky emphasized.
“Right.” Steve surveyed the table again, his eyes narrowing. Somehow, Bucky forced himself to keep breathing even as Steve’s expression slowly transitioned from suspicious to thoughtful. “Is that peach pie?”
Bucky shrugged. “Figured it was pretty summery.”
“And Sheila’s peach rolls, with it.”
“They go together, right?”
Steve pressed his lips into a small line before he glanced over at Bucky. “And movie popcorn,” he said, and Bucky nodded. “From the actual movie theater?”
“Where else do you get popcorn?” Bucky asked, aware of how nervy his voice sounded.
“Along with what I’m guessing is coffee from Prime Roasts?” When Bucky stayed silent after the question—mostly because he felt a little nauseous—Steve’s whole face softened. “My ‘dessert’ comes from our first dates and the time I called you my boyfriend?” he asked.
He sounded just incredulous enough that Bucky couldn’t help his smirk. “I know how much you eat,” he joked, and Steve actually barked a surprised little laugh before glancing back at the table. He kept staring down at all the pieces like he didn’t believe it was real, and Bucky—
Something deep in Bucky’s heart said screw it.
“Come here,” he said, and Steve jumped a little when Bucky grabbed his hand and dragged him over to the fire pit. He sat Steve down in one of the chairs and then scooted his—and the bag under it—over. “I need to give you something.”
Steve’s smile was slightly crooked and full of amusement. “I thought you were force-feeding me our dating history in dessert form.”
To Bucky’s ears, it sounded a tiny bit nervous, and Bucky’s heartbeat jumped into overdrive. “Later,” he said, and he handed Steve the paper grocery sack from under his chair.
Steve eyed it suspiciously. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Just open it,” Bucky instructed, and he watched as Steve bit down on the edges of his smile and reached inside.
The digital picture frame’d been running for the last half-hour—Bucky’d charged up its battery just for the occasion—and it meant that the first picture Steve saw was the ridiculous group photo from Tony’s couple’s brunch a few months earlier. He laughed immediately—they’d all pulled faces for the occasion, even Natasha—and Bucky watched the light dance in his eyes before the display changed. For a couple minutes, they sat there in the light of the fire, watching as dozens of stupid selfies and candid shots from the last school year flickered by. There were photos of Mister Rogers and Mister Barnes (separately and together) from the school’s Instagram, pictures from Steve’s trip to meet the Barnes family and from all the various outings with their friends, a couple lazy morning pictures from when they’d first started sleeping together—and then, from when they’d first moved in together. Their whole life so far, collected from their friends (and Tony) and stored forever in a memory card.
Steve was smiling softly at another of their pictures (one from a payday happy hour, Bucky thought) when Bucky pulled in a breath. “So,” he said carefully, “my ma told me this story about her and my dad. About how they were broke when they first got together, and how they could barely afford to do anything together other than, I don’t know, walk around in the park and hang out at parties.” Steve looked up from the frame, his face soft and beautiful in the firelight, and Bucky felt for a moment like he was soaring. “They worked hard to scrape by, so one time around their anniversary, my dad—”
“Put together a photo album of him and your mom,” Steve finished for him. Bucky blinked in surprise, and Steve’s cheeks reddened as he glanced back at the frame in his hands. “Your mom told me about it when we were in town last month. She said—” He paused, and Bucky watched his throat bob as he swallowed. “She said that’s how your dad proposed.”
“Yeah. Uh. Well.” Bucky rubbed his palms on his shorts again and waited for Steve to look at him. “I— Steve, I love you. I love you in a way I don’t think I believed in until I met you. And the more we’re together, the more I know that it’s not something that’s gonna go away. It’s something that’s gonna last us to the end of the line.” His voice started to quiver, and he gulped down a big breath. “I don’t want to wait ‘til we’ve been together for some magic amount of time to make sure it’s permanent,” he said. “And more than that? I don’t want you to ever doubt it.”
Steve’s mouth hung open, his face caught in this perfect, breathtaking surprise that Bucky wanted to freeze and hold onto forever. He wet his lips before he murmured, “Bucky—”
“Hey, I’m not done,” Bucky cut in, and Steve laughed a little breathlessly. But the laugh only lasted until Bucky drew in a deep breath and slid off his chair to kneel in front of Steve. Everything else—the fire, the frame, the table full of food, the cool night air—faded away until it was just the two of them, Steve caught in his big-eyed wonder and Bucky’s hand shaking as he gripped Steve’s in his.
God, he loved him.
“Steve Rogers,” he said, and Steve pursed his lips like he wanted to cry, “will you please marry me?”
Steve’s grin bloomed like the brightest star Bucky’d ever seen. “Absolutely,” he answered, and Bucky wasn’t sure which came first: his relieved, elated, helpless tears, or Steve’s searing, desperate kiss.
Do we need to pass out more tissues for your tears of joy? We can do that.
Two weeks from now, we return to school for continued adventures! Oh, the shenanigans that await . . .