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Hands of Clay

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James Buchanan Barnes was woken from a deep sleep by the sensation of a metal finger poking up his nose.

As James jerked awake, a small voice came out of the darkness. "Daddy, get up. There's no more tiny milk."

Letting out a groan, James reached for the bedside lamp. The illumination revealed a tiny redheaded child glaring at him. "Daddy, wake up!" she said again, slapping his ribs with the old prosthetic arm. "We gotta go to the store and get tiny milk so I can have milk and you don't have to wake up!"

James looked at the clock. It was ten minutes past five. "Natasha," he groaned, letting his head fall back to his pillow. "Why are you even up?"

"It's Saturday," Natasha said, as if this should have been obvious. She climbed onto the bed, kneeing James in the stomach as she crawled into the empty space beside him. "C'mon!"

James closed his eyes for one last moment of rest, before he felt Natasha's tiny finger wiggle into his ear.

With a sigh, James flipped his covers off and onto the girl. He could hear giggling under the blankets as Natasha tried to squirm free. Moving the metal prosthesis to the bedside table, James sat up. Across the room, he could see his new metal arm in its stand on the dresser, ready for the day. Natasha must have gone into his closet to get the old arm while he slept, for the sole purpose of sticking its finger up his nose.

Kids were weird.

"Daddy!" Natasha exclaimed, emerging from the blankets. "Let's go!"

"The stores aren't open yet, pumpkin," James said, scratching the stubble on his chin. "It's too early."

"All of the stores?" Natasha demanded, slipping off the bed with a thud. She still wore her blue and yellow pineapple pyjamas, her long hair a tangled halo around her head. "Everywhere?"

"Everywhere," James said. He'd decided, once little Natasha began talking, that as the only grown-up in the household he was allowed to use the occasional falsehood to preserve his sanity. "We're going grocery shopping this afternoon anyway."

Natasha eyed him with as much suspicion as a five-year-old could muster. "And we'll buy tiny milk?"

"We will buy your milk cartons," James promised. With another yawn, he stood up. "But in the meantime, how about I get you some milk from the big jug?"

Natasha considered this, then dashed out of the room without a word. James could hear her pounding down the stairs to the kitchen.

James rubbed his hand over his face, wondering if he should put on his prosthetic arm for the day. The prosthesis, a replacement for the left arm he'd lost in a military operation six years before, did make lifting things easier, but the strain of the harness on his body wasn't worth the pain when they were around the house. He'd have to wear the blasted thing when they went out shopping that afternoon anyway; best save it for later.

By the time James made it to the kitchen, Natasha had turned on every light she could reach and was sitting on the counter, holding her Dora the Explorer cup. "You took a long time, Daddy," she informed him as she held up the cup. "I almost got milk myself!"

"We talked about that," James reminded her. He opened the fridge and reached in for the plastic jug. "You're not big enough to lift it yet."

"I could be," Natasha said. She kicked her bare feet against the cupboard door. "I'm so big."

James couldn't help smiling at her earnestness. Natasha had always been a small child, but what she lacked in height she made up for with sheer determination and pluck. "You're getting bigger, but you're not big enough yet. Soon."

Natasha pouted dramatically as James went through the laborious process of getting his daughter a glass of milk one-handed. With the milk jug on the counter, James twisted the lid off, set it to the side, then picked up the jug and poured the liquid into Natasha's favorite cup. Then he capped the milk jug once again.

"Do you want to sit at the table?" he asked. Natasha nodded, holding her arms up. James bent down so Natasha could wrap her arms around his neck. Once her hold was secure, he scooped her up and carried her to the kitchen table. Kissing the top of Natasha's head, he set her into her favorite chair, then retraced his steps to carry over her cup.

While Natasha chugged her milk, James poured the dregs of the previous day's coffee into a mug, decided it would taste worse if he microwaved it, and joined Natasha at the table. The kitchen was large; the house itself too big for just the two of them. But anything would have been better than the sparse studio apartment where he'd been living prior to bringing Natasha home. So he might have been a little hasty in putting an offer in on the brownstone in the heart of Brooklyn Heights, sight unseen.

Although the expression on Nick Fury's face, when he stopped by for an official visit after James brought Natasha home from the hospital, had been worth every penny.

Natasha finished her milk with a gasp. "Daddy, I had a dream last night," she announced as she put her empty cup on the table.

"You did?" James asked, reaching over to wipe the milk moustache off her upper lip. "Tell me about it."

And so, at half past five on a Saturday morning in Brooklyn, James Barnes sat listening to his adopted daughter Natasha tell him all about her dream of ballerina kitty-cats and the big bad polar bear, and everything was perfect.


The morning passed in relative peace. In the Barnes household, Saturday was chores day, and James and Natasha made a game out of the weekly tasks. That morning, Natasha wandered around the living room with a duster in her hand, 'helping' James as he vacuumed. He'd had six long years to figure out how to clean house one-handed, and if he only vacuumed under the couch once every six months that was no one's business but his own.

In the early days, he'd strapped Natasha into a baby carrier and hauled her with him as he cleaned. At first he'd been afraid to let her out of his sight in case she stopped breathing, and then as she got older, he'd talked to her the whole time, mostly as a way to keep himself from getting too frustrated at the difficulty of maneuvering with only one arm.

By the time Natasha grew too big for the carrier, James had figured out enough work-arounds to keep things clean while chasing after an active toddler who delighted in escaping him at every turn.

Now, at five years and three months, Natasha was old enough to enjoy playing house and young enough to not realize how much work she was doing.

That day, Natasha only knocked over one stack of books while 'dusting', then insisted on wiping down every door handle in the house. After that, James sent her in to tidy her room while he took a quick shower. His hair was getting ragged and his stubble long enough to make him appear marginally disreputable, but his job as private security consultant had made getting to a barber during the weekdays difficult. At least Natasha's overpriced private school had all-day kindergarten to keep the girl occupied while James worked.

It was just the two of them, and had been since James brought Natasha home from the hospital. Before that, it had just been James for a very long time indeed.

As James buttoned up his jeans, he heard Natasha tapping at his closed bedroom door. "Daddy, can we go shopping now?" she called.

James opened the door. Natasha had dressed herself in her black dance leotard and her favorite red tutu, and was brandishing the nerf dart gun he'd picked up from a yard sale the previous summer. "We need to brush your hair first, honey."

"Why?"

James picked Natasha up around the middle like a sack of potatoes. "Because your hair is a mess," he said as he dropped her onto the bed. "Birds are going to nest in your hair."

"No they won't!" Natasha exclaimed. "If I gotta brush my hair, you gotta brush your hair." She took aim with the nerf gun and shot at the wall.

"You drive a hard bargain." James went over to the dresser where his arm lay waiting. The state-of-the-art prosthesis, a development prototype from Stark Industries' medical robotics branch, was both a blessing and a curse. With the tiny implants in the stump of his left arm, the prosthesis could hold things, move things, even let him carry Natasha's weight on his left side.

The downside was that in order to do those things, James had to strap the damned thing to his body, and after a few hours, the cut of the harness straps moved from irritation to pain.

"Will you brush my hair?" Natasha asked, pulling James out of his musing.

"If you go get your brush, I will."

"Okay!" Natasha jumped to the floor and ran out of the room, still brandishing her nerf gun.

Giving his head a shake, James reached for the metal arm. Feeling sorry for himself wasn't going to solve anyone's problems, least of all his.


They left the house after lunch. Natasha had eaten a quarter of a cheese sandwich and exactly seven green beans, and was singing at the top of her lungs as James strapped her into the booster seat in the jeep. She'd refused to put on her jacket, but the early May afternoon was warm enough that James let it go; he always carried her emergency inhaler with him and she didn't need anything else.

He only had to pull over once on the drive to the grocery store, to confiscate the nerf gun after Natasha shot him in the back of the head. As a result, Natasha was still angry at him as they pulled into the parking lot.

"You're the meanest daddy ever!" she shouted, stamping her foot as James slammed the jeep door. "Ever!"

James handed Natasha the nerf gun, having removed all the darts but one from the barrel. "I bet you I'm not." He would not be baited into a shouting match with a five-year-old in the Trader Joes' parking lot.

"Yes you are!" Natasha said, her lower lip trembling. On reflection, perhaps James should have insisted on that after-lunch nap. Oh well. It was too late now. He'd best hurry the shopping along and hope to escape before his daughter melted down into a full-scale tantrum.

Natasha pouted all the way into the store, kicking at James as he tried to stuff her into the shopping cart seat. After a sharp jab to the sternum, James put Natasha into the cart instead and set off.

Because it was Saturday afternoon, everyone else in Brooklyn was out shopping as well. James dodged distracted shoppers as he maneuvered the cart around to pick up the essentials for a normal week. Natasha's school fed her lunches, so he didn't have to worry about that.

Natasha sat in the metal cart, making 'pew pew' noises as she aimed the nerf gun at passers-by. In the condiments aisle, James distracted Natasha by asking her opinion on ketchup, then quickly darted past the cereal aisle while Natasha recited the letters on the ketchup label.

He usually tried to avoid bribery with the girl, but subterfuge was not out of reach when it came to keeping Natasha away from that much sugar.

The shopping trip was coming to a close when Natasha finally snapped. James was putting two loaves of bread into the cart when Natasha looked up at him, lower lip trembling, and burst into tears.

With a sigh, James picked Natasha up and rested her on his right hip, letting her wail into his ear about it not being fair that she, Natasha, had to eat stupid healthy bread for breakfast when everyone else at school (and perhaps the world) got to eat delicious white bread.

James pushed the cart with his metal arm, holding Natasha as she wept at the unfairness of the universe. Trying to ignore the judging looks sent his way by strangers, James agreed with Natasha that yes, white bread was tasty, but brown bread was better for her, and he ate brown bread when he was a kid and he grew up big and strong and didn't she want to be big and strong?

This line of reasoning helped the tears taper off as they neared the check-out counter, enough for Natasha to acquiesce to letting James put her down to pay for the groceries. James handed Natasha her nerf gun to keep her occupied as he handed over enough cash to cover the bill.

Even so, Natasha was cranky when James put the shopping cart back with its fellows. She let James pick her up to carry her across the parking lot, but she was fidgeting and pointing her nerf gun at everything. With the groceries gripped in one arm and Natasha trying to climb onto his shoulders, James nearly dropped the girl as she brandished the nerf gun at something behind his back.

"Pew pew!" Natasha exclaimed.

"Nat, you know what happened last time," James said, trying to keep hold of Natasha as she stood on his shoulder. "Don't hurt anyone, got it?" He wrapped his metal hand around her foot. "Fury's still angry—"

The nerf gun went off with a pop. The next instant, James heard someone yell, "We're under attack!" and he was back in Iraq, bleeding all along his left side from the IED as screaming erupted all around him—

With a jerk, James pulled himself back to the present. This was Brooklyn, not Iraq, and the voice shouting had been very young indeed and he needed to keep it the fuck together.

Blinking, James looked around for the source of the shout. A young boy, maybe Natasha's age, was standing ten feet away, aiming a bow and suction-cup arrow at James and Natasha. Behind the boy, a tall blond man was prying a nerf dart off his forehead, reaching for the boy at the same time.

Natasha clutched at James' hair, her shoe digging into his throat. In the confusion, something had to give, and that something was the groceries, falling to the ground.

"Natasha, stop it," James said in his Sergeant Barnes voice. The girl stopped squirming as James set her on the ground. Her eyes were wide with alarm. "This is Situation India."

Natasha clutched at James' pant leg, still and silent. They had a code between them for Very Grown-Up Things, and India mean Important. It meant freeze and listen.

Natasha's stillness gave James the freedom to figure the situation out. The little boy was not a threat (how accurate could a dime-store bow be in the hands of a six-year-old?) but the big blond man had the look of a gym rat about him, and James knew all too well how 'roided-up muscle heads could fly off the handle at any provocation—

"Bucky?"

James went still, his right hand reaching down automatically to touch Natasha's shoulder in reassurance. He hadn't heard that nickname in decades, not since long before he'd left home, not since the last day he'd seen…

"Steve?"

The blond man grinned, big and wide, and holy shit, it was Steve Rogers, James' best friend in the whole world when they were kids. "This is impossible!" Steve was saying, his voice full of delight. "How've you been?"

James made to take a step forward, only to have Natasha clutch at his pant leg. He picked Natasha up, giving her a kiss on the cheek as he shifted her to his right side. "I've been good," he said, unable to take his eyes off Steve. Steve had grown up, taller than James now, with wide shoulders and a square jaw and a breathtaking grin.

"Good," Steve said, still smiling. He picked up the little boy and carried him over to where James and Natasha stood. "Man, Bucky, it's good to see you again."

"Who's Bucky?" Natasha demanded.

Right. James could drool over this miracle of Steve Rogers another day. "Bucky was my nickname when I was just a little kid," he said to Natasha.

Natasha frowned at this. "You're not Bucky, you're Daddy."

In spite of everything that had occurred in the last two minutes, James found himself grinning at Natasha's petulant statement. "I sure am." He glanced back at Steve. "Steve, this is Natasha."

"Hi, Natasha," Steve said, turning his wide smile on the girl. She buried her face in James' neck. "This is my son, Clint. Clint, this is my good friend Bucky Barnes."

Clint pushed up his child-sized sunglasses to squint at James and Natasha. He was a cute kid, with a button nose and blond hair. "You shot my dad," he said accusingly.

Natasha turned her head. "I didn't mean to," she said. "It was an accident."

Privately, James doubted that, but that was something he could handle when they were home. "What are you doing here?" he asked Steve, letting Natasha slither to the ground.

"We were on our way home from the city," Steve said, setting Clint down and moving to help James gather up his groceries. "Clint and I spent the morning at the museum."

"We saw dinosaurs," Clint told Natasha.

Natasha considered this. "Were they real dinosaurs?"

"They used to be." Clint lifted his arms above his head. "They were so big!"

James smiled at the boy's enthusiasm, turning to Steve to make a comment. Only Steve wasn't paying attention to the children; but was staring at James' metal hand.

All the joy at seeing Steve Rogers again was knocked out of James' head, with that one blank look on Steve's face. "Come on," James said to Natasha, standing abruptly with the groceries in his arms. He hadn't seen Steve in nearly twenty years and he didn't owe the man anything. "We need to get home."

"Wait," Steve said, bouncing to his feet. James bet that the man's perfect body didn't ache with memories of bomb shrapnel every time it rained. "Bucky, wait."

The harness from his metal arm was digging painfully into his side, from where he'd hauled a struggling Natasha earlier. "What?"

Steve's expression was one of distress, one James remembered from so long ago. "Just—it's good to see you again. Maybe we could, you know, get together?"

James bit his lip. He didn't really want to hang out with someone who had looked at him like that, like he was broken, like he was something to be pitied. But this was Steve, and James had missed Steve like… well, like a missing limb after Steve was adopted and taken away.

He swallowed hard. "You could come over to our place, some day."

Steve brightened immediately. Had he always worn his emotions on his sleeve when James wasn't looking? "How about tomorrow?"

James glanced down at Natasha, where the girl was back to clutching his pant leg. "We go to the park on Sundays around two," James said slowly. "How about you come over for lunch before that?"

"That sounds good," Steve said. "What do you think, Clint?"

As Clint turned his head to look at Steve, James spotted a hearing aid in the boy's right ear. "Are there swings?"

"There sure are," James said, careful to not change his pronunciation or tone. He'd hated how people treated him after he'd lost his arm, and could only imagine what a boy of Clint's age must go through with a hearing aid. "Do you like swings?"

"Uh huh," Clint said, nodding enthusiastically.

"I like swings too," Natasha said, her tiny fingers digging into James' leg through his jeans.

"I'll text you the address," James told Steve, recognizing the plaintive note in Natasha's voice as the harbinger of another meltdown. "Give me your number?"

Before Steve could speak, Clint quickly (and loudly) rattled off the digits.

"Thanks, Clint," James said seriously, and the boy beamed. "So yeah, Steve. Tomorrow."

Steve's mouth curled up into a slow smile, sending butterflies fluttering through James' stomach. "I look forward to it."

In a bit of a daze, James guided Natasha through the parking lot to the jeep. He managed to deposit the groceries into the jeep's backseat and was buckling a still-sulking Natasha into her booster seat when a sudden thought punctured his good mood.

Clint's mother.

Of course Clint had a mother, James chided himself. He hadn't seen a wedding band on Steve's hands (and he had been checking out those hands, fingers long and strong, like an artist or a sculptor) but what did that mean?

"Damn it."

Natasha turned her face in his direction, curiosity written on her features.

"Don't say that," he said quickly, tugging on Natasha's seatbelt to make sure it was secure. "That's a bad word."

"Then why'd you say it?" Natasha asked, cradling her empty nerf gun like a doll.

Because I'm a fool, James thought. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. "I forgot to tell Steve something."

Quickly, before he lost his nerve, James typed hey steve its james i forgot 2 ask if clints mom will b comng over 4 lunch

He hesitated, thumb hovering over his name. He wondered if he should change James to Bucky. Would Steve even know who James was?

He was dithering. Hitting send, James gave Natasha's nose a bop and closed the jeep door.

He was pretty sure he heard Natasha saying "Damn it" over and over again on the drive home.