Ever since he’d started having short tutoring sessions with Charles Xavier, Clint had felt incredibly guilty that all of Loki’s friends were adults.
It didn’t matter how many times Phil pointed out that Loki had a large family and seemed perfectly content with adult playmates. Or that Clint really hadn’t had many friends as a kid. Or that Phil had never had many friends growing up. Not when Loki didn’t have anyone who was around his own age to even bounce an idea off of.
“Can’t you find someone?” he asked after one session. Loki had gone off to watch some Disney movie with Storm and Nightcrawler. Two more adult friends, which probably brought the grand total up to sixty or so. Storm, or Ororo, had a great deal with weather-related powers and was a very regal lady. Nightcrawler, or Kurt, was blue and furry and had been in the circus so Clint couldn’t fault Loki’s choices.
“I can certainly try,” Xavier said. “I must warn you that I am not sure how successful I will be. You must understand that Loki is a very lucky child.”
“And a lonely one.”
Xavier smiled gently. “Lonely because he doesn’t have a five year old companion?”
“Don’t do your Vulcan mind-meld on me.”
“I rarely need to read your mind, Clint. My children may be considerably older, but I have had similar concerns myself.”
“Yes. Truth be told, I have never seen a child with more friends in my life. As he tends to be the only child wherever he goes, he is more likely to be spoiled than he is to be left alone. Loki also seems to be well-liked, and he seems to like nearly everyone he meets.”
Clint blinked. “Nearly everyone?”
“Loki seems conflicted when it comes to Cyclops and to Jean Grey. In fact, he often bares his teeth at Scott in a very hostile way. I suspect it is because of the affection and bond he has with Logan.”
A bond that was totally Uncle Steve’s fault. Clint made a note to speak to Wolverine about passing on his stupid biases to a very impressionable five year old.
“However, it could be any number of things. Scott is not blue, for example. Nor does he have the sort of powers that would provide a child with any sort of amusement. He is, I must admit, also the least willing to indulge in anything remotely whimsical. He ducks out of tea parties and is quick to find somewhere else to be when it’s time to play Troll in the Dungeon.”
Clint laughed. “Does Loki actually learn anything when he’s here or…?”
Xavier smiled warmly. “I see I’ve digressed from the original topic. My apologies. As I said, Loki is a very lucky child. Most mutant children develop their powers when they hit puberty. Their families cannot cope and they themselves cannot cope.
Sometimes they find us or we find them. Sometimes they are found by someone else. Sometimes…” Xavier cleared his throat, angling his chair away briefly before turning back. “It pains me to say this, Clint, but sometimes they lose hope and by the time we can find them… It’s far too late.”
Clint frowned and didn’t ask Xavier to clarify. The fierce grip the professor had on his chair told the archer everything he needed to know about what “too late” meant.
“You and Coulson are to be commended for having such open hearts and minds. I am truly thankful to have met you both. I am blessed to work with your son. But you must understand that Loki is the first and youngest child I have ever worked with, mutant or otherwise. He is also the first who doesn’t come from a broken home and who is unlikely to lose his entire family because of what he is.”
“I just don’t want…”
Xavier waited patiently.
“I want him to have friends. I want that badly.”
“To have any sort of a friend is a gift,” Xavier said. “To have any sort of love is precious. You have taught these lessons to your child already, but it seems you must also learn to take them to heart. And you mustn’t dismiss what Loki has now in light of what he might have someday.”
As annoying as it was that Steve’s friends were usually the worst influences on his kid, Clint had to admit he was thankful for them. It was good practice for Loki in terms of meeting new people and overcoming his shyness around strangers.
Even dealing with some weird Russian assassin called the Winter Soldier had been worth it in when it wound up the guy was just a brainwashed Bucky who had been given something called the Infinity Formula. And having Bucky around had made things a lot better for both Steve and Natasha. Clint had been a little jealous since he sort of hated sharing Natasha with anyone, but he’d gotten over it fairly quickly. In part because Clint had no business being jealous when his attention was already divided amongst at least eight people. But also because Bucky was sort of like the brother Clint could have conceivably had growing up. One that he would have actually deserved, instead of the absolutely awful one Clint had gotten.
Wolverine, or Logan, had a tendency to lurk around Xavier’s office. At one point, he’d seen Clint drop Loki off and Logan had recognized Clint from some news footage. When Clint came back to pick Loki up, he’d asked about Steve and then mentioned that they’d fought together once upon a time. He did so in a gruff almost casual way that seemed totally feigned, and that ultimately made Clint decide to take pity on the Canadian mutant. So Clint brought Logan home for an impromptu reunion. Then one thing lead to another and pretty soon Logan was over all the time. Then he was on the team. Then he was babysitting Loki with Steve on a regular basis. Then, once he’d aced Phil’s bogus tests and after writing copious amounts of essays about different hypothetical emergency situations, Logan had been allowed to babysit on his own.
Despite his tendency to fill up the swear jar like there was no tomorrow when not actively involved in some small aspect of child rearing, Logan actually did a good job of catering to Loki’s whims. And Phil seemed to approve of Wolverine much more than he had their previous attempts at finding someone to look after Loki when they wanted to go out for dinner or to a movie that didn’t feature talking animals. Phil seemed in no great rush to tell Logan this, however.
True to form, the Canadian was lurking in the hallway when Clint was finally done trying to wrangle a straight answer out of Xavier.
“What did Chuck say?” Logan asked.
“He’s like a freakin’ fortune cookie sometimes,” Clint groused. “Or Yoda.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I have a bone to pick with you, by the way.”
Logan rolled his eyes. “Now what?”
“Loki apparently hates Scott and Jean.”
Logan smiled. “He’s a great kid. You raised him right.”
“You’re hilarious, but he’s also growling at them.”
“He might have picked the general habit up from me,” Logan readily admitted. “I kinda growl at anyone. But it’s nothing personal.”
“It could be for Loki. He knows how you feel about them.”
“He knows I respect Scott even if I don’t like him. And he knows that Jean… That things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. That’s all.”
“I get picking sides,” Clint said gently. “I get having favorites. It’s not your fault if Loki thinks you’re like the best thing ever. And I don’t mind that he likes you a hell of a lot more than he does Jean or Scott or whoever, but he might have to work with them someday.”
“I get it, Barton,” Logan insisted. “I’ll talk to him about dialing it back a bit. I don’t want to make trouble. Or make it so you won’t let me watch him.”
“You can watch him, but I didn’t think you liked kids.”
“I don’t, but Loki’s different. He likes hockey.”
Logan shrugged. “Hey. If I’m the best thing ever, I ought to play the part. Besides… Steve’ll punch me into next week if he hears about the growling thing. And Thor might help him.”
“There is that.”
“Speaking of Steve, his birthday’s coming up. I was wondering if I could borrow most of your family.”
“We’re gonna watch some lame-ass documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers and go to a baseball game.”
Clint made a face.
“If you’ll notice, I said your family. I’ve watched hockey with you before. I’m never watching any kind of sport with you ever again.”
That seemed perfectly fair to Clint. He liked playing sports, but he hated watching them. The one time he’d made an effort for Loki’s sake, Logan had kicked Clint out of the room eight minutes into the game. He’d been able to play pool with Kurt and reminisce about circuses, but since then only Loki had been allowed to attend hockey nights. Sometimes Phil joined them because Logan didn’t mind Phil and Loki occasionally got anxious if he didn’t know where either one of his parents were.
Clint would tag along in order to hang out with whoever happened to be around. And sometimes Phil would stay with him in order to avoid leaving his husband alone in the same room as Gambit no matter how often Gambit insisted that he was harmless.
“But we both like curling,” Clint pointed out.
“Which is why I put up with you.”
“Who else will be attending?”
“Natasha, Bucky, Pepper, and Rhodes. The rest of you clowns can just stay home.”
“Then Phil and Loki can go. If you keep an eye on them.”
“As if I wouldn’t anyway.”
“I am too.”
Back at home, Clint had to forcibly evict the Maximoff twins from his son’s room. They were the newest recruits to the team and although they were well into their twenties, they acted a bit younger. As a magic user who had spent her formative years being bullied and harassed, Wanda took comfort in Loki’s presence. Pietro remained on edge and restless most of the time. But that had more to do with his mutant ability to move at lightning speeds. Clint had learned not to take it personally. Pietro always slowed down for his sister, and over time he was learning to do so for his teammates.
Upon hearing he was getting to go to an exclusive birthday-related event, Loki had been beside himself with glee. Then he seemed to realize birthday parties meant presents. At that point, he started fretting over what he’d get for Uncle Steve and there didn’t seem to be much Clint could do to stop him.
Phil had assessed the situation. He decided that they would go shopping and that they would bring Virginia with. And then Loki was beside himself with glee about getting to spend time with Pepper. The kid took after Clint in a lot of ways what with the climbing and jumping off of everything. And the getting along with a lot of weird people, but Loki was also a lot like Phil. He had a deep, abiding love for all of Phil’s people and he seemed determined to do right by all of them all of the time.
Clint didn’t mind Pepper coming with, but he wasn’t sure why they needed Pepper until Phil quietly explained that she’d finally bit the bullet and broken up with Tony. Then it made some sense.
She seemed a bit grim when she joined them, loosening up a bit as Phil, Clint, and finally Loki gave her a hug.
“So. Shopping for Steve,” Pepper said, offering up a small smile. “Should be fun.”
“I need help finding the best gift ever,” Loki told her.
Phil seemed both amused and touched by his son’s devotion to his hero. It made Clint alternate between wanting to make out with his husband and also wanting to gag over how freaking ridiculous his family was.
“I could just go shopping with Loki,” Clint offered. “If you need to talk or something.”
There had been a time ages ago when the idea of leaving Phil and Pepper alone together would have made Clint anxious as hell, but he was long since passed that point. Now Pepper was basically the sister they never had, and Clint wasn’t sure he wanted to hear about just how lousy of a boyfriend Tony had been. Phil, on the other hand, already knew. More importantly, he would readily take Pepper’s side.
“No!” Loki insisted.
“Manners,” Phil scolded. “No what, Loki?”
“No, please. Pepper has to stay,” Loki begged, latching onto her arm. “She has to shop with me.”
“Don’t worry. Pepper’s sticking around,” Pepper said, petting Loki’s hair. “I wouldn’t ditch you. And I could use the retail therapy.”
“What’s that mean?” Loki asked.
“It means you buy a lot of things until you feel better.”
Loki’s eyes widened. “Can I do that?”
“When you’re older,” Phil said. “Much older.”
As they headed out to the car, Pepper said: “I heard you’re not going to the baseball game, Clint.”
“Nope,” Clint agreed. “Not allowed. Pretty much banned from all sporting events. Logan says I get restless and that tends to piss people off.”
Pepper laughed. “James thinks you piss people off? That’s rich.”
“Clint’s trouble wherever he goes,” Phil said in an affectionate tone.
“Hold up,” Clint said. “Since when does anyone call Logan James?”
Pepper colored slightly. Loki gave her another hug, which she quickly returned.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Loki said with a smile.
Pepper laughed. “That’s because you’re the world’s sweetest kid raised by the only nice guys on the planet. Don’t ever change.”
Clint had always found shopping to be agonizing, but once he had a kid and certain responsibilities, it came clear that he just hated shopping for himself. Or shopping around major holidays. Since the only holiday coming up required a ton of fireworks and not much else, Clint felt sort of relaxed watching Loki tear through whatever store they were in looking for the right gift.
“You know,” Pepper said around the eighth store. She looked very relaxed while Phil looked just about done with the day altogether. But then he was carrying about forty different shopping bags and none of them his. “Uncle Steve will like anything you get him.”
“Because it will have been a thoughtful gift from someone he cares about.”
Loki made a face. “Father always says that.”
“I’m not wrong,” Phil pointed out.
“I dunno about that,” Loki said in a stubborn tone that indicated he didn’t care either. “I just want to get him the best present ever.” Then he trotted off to the other side of the store where the stuffed animals were.
“If Loki was older, I’d point out that he’s got some stiff competition,” Clint said.
Pepper shrugged. “Namor will send him something expensive and Logan will dig up something cool, but even they can’t win against a five year old. Whatever Loki gets him, is going to be the thing Steve likes the best.”
“I’m more than willing to get Steve a present,” Clint said, trying not to look disappointed that the King of Atlantis wouldn’t end up making even a small cameo, “because I like Steve. But I am so glad I won’t be there for the Festival of Mush.”
Pepper grinned. “That’s what you think. We’re doing presents and cake after the big game.”
Clint groaned as he walked away from them in order to keep a closer eye on Loki. He might have seen better at a distance, but he liked having Loki close by, especially when they were at the mall. Loki was a good kid and unlikely to run off, but Clint didn’t trust other people very much at the best of times. He trusted them even less where his son was concerned.
Loki hurried over to him, looking concerned. He was holding the cuddliest looking unicorn Clint had ever seen. It had a pink bow and a pink horn and it was so freakin’ cute that Clint almost burst out laughing.
“Are you okay?” Loki asked.
“I’m fine. For now, anyway. What’s this?”
“A unicorn. Duh,” Loki said. “Can I get a unicorn for Uncle Steve?”
“Do you think it’s something he’d like?”
Loki looked at the carpet beneath his feet.
Clint frowned and crouched down in front of him. “Hey, I’m just asking, baby. There’s no wrong answer.”
“I like it but… this is hard.”
“I don’t want to disappoint him.”
Clint was pretty sure that if Steve even acted disappointed, he’d end up breaking his own hand trying to punch Captain America in the face. But he honestly couldn’t imagine it happening. Steve was pretty easy-going and didn’t really want anything most of the time. “You won’t.”
“Do you like it?”
“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Clint said. “You know what might be good though. How about if you get him this guy—”
“Girl. Her name is Susan.”
“Okay. How about you get him… Susan. And then when we get home, you can draw him a picture? That way he gets something you bought and something you made. Or… Oh, hey, look at this one.” Clint gently steered his son over to the stuffed animals where there was a bald eagle wearing an Uncle Sam hat. “Do you like this one?”
Loki gave the eagle a very skeptical look. His green eyes narrowed into slits as he studied the hat. “I don’t trust him.”
Clint couldn’t help laughing very loudly.
Phil and Pepper wandered over to them. Loki caught them up to speed.
“Eagles are very proud and majestic birds,” Pepper pointed out.
“Not in that hat,” Loki insisted looking very putout when everyone laughed.
“I think the unicorn’s a good idea,” Phil said. “And I think your dad’s right. You should draw something for Steve.”
“A less doofy-looking eagle,” Loki muttered.
Phil smiled. “Whatever you want to do. It’s your present.”
“Well, I feel bad for this guy so I’m getting him for Steve,” Clint decided, picking the bald eagle up. “I’m sure he’s perfectly nice once you get to know him.”
“Uncle Steve will like mine best,” Loki declared.
“I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” Pepper murmured as Loki dragged Phil up to the register.
In the end, the baseball game was a success. Steve had a great time, which was the most important part. Phil had apparently had a great time hearing Steve go on and on about his favorite sports teams from the 1940s. And from the way he was glowing, Steve might as well have proposed to him at the same time.
Loki seemed pretty happy to be home. He’d spent most of the baseball game sleeping and drooling on Bucky’s shoulder. Clint liked to think it had been in self-defense, but he suspected it was more the heat and the fact that the game took place right in the middle of naptime.
“I joined him for a while,” Bucky admitted quietly. “We were in a shady section and… it was pretty boring.”
Bucky tended to do a lot quietly, but then he was still recovering from not being his own person for far too long. Clint could emphasize, but he tended to feel guilty if he thought too long or too hard about what being the Winter Soldier must have been like. In the grand scheme of things, Bucky’s experience had been much worse and much longer than Clint’s. But Clint never said so because he knew Natasha would probably have punched him in the nose or something.
Rhodey seemed pretty proud of himself when he followed Bucky and Loki inside the tower. He’d been put in charge of sunscreen and Clint had to admit that he’d done a really good job.
“Next year we should go to an amusement park,” Rhodey said when he handed Clint a tote bag full of whatever supplies Phil had decided were essential. “Might be more fun for Loki.”
“You do know we’re celebrating Steve’s birthday, right?” Tony asked as he joined them.
“Yeah, but if you’re going to drag a kid with, you have to make it fun. Roasting in the hot sun is not very fun for a little frost giant.”
“Uh huh. And you are the fun expert since… When, exactly?”
“Zip it,” Rhodey said.
Clint left them to squabble in a corner next to Steve’s heap of presents.
In the living room, Steve was sitting on the couch with Phil and Thor. The Asgardian was in the process of sharing some exciting epic tale from his youth.
Over in the kitchen, Bruce and Wanda were getting the cake ready. Wanda had made it herself without the use of magic but with Bruce’s help. She seemed very proud, and Clint had a feeling they were all going to tell her the cake was the best they’d ever had even if that didn’t end up being quite true. Across from them, Pepper and Pietro were still debating the number of candles they ought to go with. Clint had feeling they’d pick four since it was an easy, even number that related to Steve’s actual date of birth.
Kay was outside drinking beers with Logan, a stony sort of silence that both of them seemed to think was perfectly natural.
Clint yawned and sat down in a chair closest to Phil. He smirked a bit when Loki came over to him with his presents in tow.
“Are you ready to give Uncle Steve the best gifts ever?”
“I think so.”
“Go put them in the pile that’s next to crazy Uncle Tony. Then come back.”
Loki did as instructed.
Clint noticed Steve and Thor were both looking at him. And their questioning glances were pretty intently. “Lighten up, you two. Tony is a bit crazy.”
Steve shook his head. “Geez. Is that what Loki’s been fretting about? He didn’t have to worry.”
“It was unavoidable. You mean a lot to Loki,” Phil said, sounding proud.
“I would be very surprised if my brother did not give you a most excellent gift, Friend Steven,” Thor said.
“I know all that,” Steve insisted. “He didn’t have to get me anything. I have all of you and a world-class nephew to boot. That’s the best gift already.”
Clint forced back a sudden rush of deep affection for pretty much everyone around him and shrugged. “Yeah well. These are pretty good.”
Loki frowned thoughtfully when he returned. Then he gave both of his parents a hug before going over to sit on Uncle Steve’s lap. “Can there be presents soon?”
Steve smiled. “Sure. After they get this cake served.”
“Open mine last. Please?”
“Sure if you help me open all the presents I got. It looks like there’s a ton of them over there.”
“Should I count them?”
Steve smiled and picked Loki up. “Let’s go count them together.”
After cake, there were some corny, mushy speeches. Steve seemed unspeakably moved by all of them except for Tony’s. Natasha rolled her eyes at everyone except for Phil. Bucky just smiled as he listened or let Loki feed him another forkful of cake. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Loki was convinced that Bucky didn’t eat enough.
“Presents now,” Loki insisted when people had run out of things to say and before anyone could come up with something else to add.
“Kid’s right,” Logan chimed in. “This is a birthday party not an intervention. Save the sob stories for later.”
“Or never,” Pietro coolly suggested.
“Seconded,” Clint said.
“Thirded,” said Pepper.
“Motion carries,” Phil murmured.
“Mine first,” Tony said, rushing to get his gift from the pile.
Loki and Pepper both rolled their eyes at him.
Tony got Steve a Tourbillon watch that had cost about a million dollars. Thor got Steve some kind of legendary sword. He had a tendency to give Steve some kind of rare something or other for every birthday. Clint had no idea where Steve stored them all.
Phil got Steve three tickets for the vacation Steve kept talking about taking and never going on. Steve seemed confused but also pretty amused by Clint’s gift and Loki’s warning about the eagle being bad news. The best part was that Thor seemed to agree that the eagle was indeed a very suspicious-looking fellow.
“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Steve promised. “I’m used to weird birds.”
Thor snorted, and Clint gave him a dirty look.
The other gifts were fairly nondescript but good: a leather jacket, cufflinks, a sweater, several DVD box sets, and other things along those lines. Clint was just happy that no one had gotten him the socks Steve insisted would have made for a perfectly adequate and practical gift. He really was, in a lot of ways, such an old man. It had been a close call with Wanda and Pietro. Both were on the young side and very desperate to please their teammates. But Thor had eventually been able to convince them to think outside the box without fear of banishment or exile.
By the time he got to Loki’s, Steve seemed to be gifted out but he managed a smile and seemed genuinely moved when he saw the unicorn he’d been given. He nodded when Loki explained that her name was Susan. Then Steve had to take a moment to study the framed picture Loki had also given him, but it looked more like he was trying not to tear up in front of everyone he knew.
“It’s you,” Loki pointed out, looking a little worried.
“I know,” Steve said, giving Loki a hug. “It’s just that I really like, and you’re right. It’s the best present ever.”
An hour later, and at Pepper’s request, Logan and Clint did the dishes together. Logan was washing, Clint was drying.
Steve had insisted on reading Loki a bedtime story and putting him to sleep. Since it was his birthday, Clint hadn’t argued. Phil had gone up with them to film the event because he was the world’s biggest dork. Everyone else was playing a very heated game of Pictionary in the next room.
“Still worried about Loki having friends?” Logan asked, handing Clint a bunch of forks.
“No,” Clint said. “I guess I’m not.”