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Paternal Instincts

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Sam’s just stepping into Starbucks for his morning coffee break when he gets a text from Steve.

911 is all it says.

His heart hammering in his chest, he turns on his heel and walks right back out of the cafe, phone already pressed to his ear and ringing. Steve picks up a second later.

“What happened?” Sam asks, and Steve replies with the two words a parent never wants to hear.

“It’s Kendra.”

“What?” Sam demands. “Is she okay?”

“No,” says Steve. Sam’s eyes are already welling up, he’s planning his route to the nearest hospital— when Steve adds, “Well, yes. She’s not hurt or anything. Not physically.”

“Jesus,” Sam swears— too loud, because a white woman walking by gives him a dirty look. He turns his back on her and talks to the brick wall. “Next time, lead with that, man, come on.”

“Sorry,” says Steve quickly. “I didn’t realize how bad it sounded.”

Sam shakes his head and lets all the air rush out of his lungs. His heart starts to slow down. “What happened?” he asks again.

“She just called me, she’s skipping English again,” Steve reports. Sam frowns, but before he can comment, Steve says, “But I told her I’d write her a note, with everything going on.”

“What is going on?” Sam asks for what feels like the dozenth time.

“Bradley dumped her,” Steve tells him shortly. “In between first and second period, in front of all her friends.”

“Oh no,” Sam says with a stab of sympathy. “No wonder she wanted to skip class. Is she okay?”

“Not really,” Steve answers. “She was pretty upset, crying in the bathroom.”

Sam tsks softly. “Poor kid.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

Something hard in Steve’s voice catches Sam’s attention. He shifts the phone to his other ear. “Steve?”

Steve doesn’t need more than that to launch into it. If he weren’t so upset, Sam would think it was funny, the way he reports teen girl drama as well as — if not better than — their daughter, an actual teen girl.

“Okay, so, you know how he asked her out three weeks ago? Told her how he’d always thought she was so pretty and smart and all that bullshit?”

“Not bullshit,” Sam points out.

“Well, yeah, we know that,” Steve agrees hastily, “but it turns out this little asswipe apparently made the whole thing up to win a bet!”

Sam’s mouth falls open. “What?”

“Yeah!” Steve’s practically shouting in his ear now, he’s so riled up. “He made a bet with his shitty little friends that he could lead a girl on, so he did, and today he told her, in front of the whole school, that she’s ugly and a brainiac loser, and nobody’s ever gonna want her. Can you believe that?”

“I cannot believe that,” Sam says honestly. He feels kind of numb, thinking of how Kendra has been going on and on about this guy for nearly a month now — Daddy, he’s so sweet and handsome and thoughtful! Daddy, he’s gonna get me a corsage! Daddy, he wants to know what color my dress is, so he can wear the right tie!

“And tonight’s the dance,” Steve concludes, like he was thinking the exact same thing. “So you can imagine how she’s feeling right now.... I should pick her up at lunch and bring her home.”

“Don’t do that,” Sam says, coming out of his thoughts. “That’s only gonna make people gossip more, and come Monday morning, it’ll be even worse. Best to try and let it blow over.”

“You think?” Steve asks worriedly.

“Trust me,” says Sam, because his husband technically never went to high school, and he just doesn’t understand. “Did she ask you to come get her?”

“No,” Steve admits. The phone goes crackly as he exhales a big sigh. “You’re probably right.”

“Of course I am,” says Sam. “Still, though... poor kid.”

There’s a pause on the other end. Sam looks through the window of the Starbucks and sees that the line is longer than ever. He checks his watch, realizes that his break is almost up, and decides to forgo the coffee. He turns and starts walking back across the street to his office, his mind on his daughter.

He’s about to suggest that they take Kendra somewhere fun on the weekend to get her mind off it, when Steve speaks again.

“What I wouldn’t give to have five minutes alone with that little shit,” he says, clearly through gritted teeth.

“Steve, that’s assault,” Sam reminds him.

“You’re damn right it is,” Steve replies.

Sam is pretty sure that Steve would never actually beat up a fifteen-year-old, but just in case he’s wrong, he says, “We can’t get involved. Teenagers are shitty people sometimes, it’s a fact of life.”

“But it’s Kendra, Sam,” Steve says, almost whining.

Sam huffs out a little laugh. He gets it — they’ve been protecting Kendra since the day she moved in with them at age three. She’s their little girl, their whole world.

“I know,” he says.

“I never liked that kid anyway,” Steve goes on, not talking about their daughter anymore. “Football player with an ego the size of Mount Everest, I don’t know what our girl saw in him.”

“Obviously something,” says Sam, in Kendra’s defense.

“Obviously,” Steve mutters.

Sam’s reached his building. He pulls open the front door, steps into the quiet lobby, and waves at Jerry behind the security desk. “Look, what he did was terrible, and Kendra’s hurting about it, but all we can do is be there for her and remind her that she’s not worth nothing just because some guy tells her so.”

“You’re right,” Steve sighs. “She said she doesn’t know if she still wants to go to the dance tonight.”

Sam realizes that Jerry seems to be trying very hard not to look like he’s listening in on Sam’s conversation, so Sam ducks into the stairwell for some privacy. “Either way, we’ve gotta be there for her.”

“Of course,” says Steve, “but what I meant was that we weren’t going to get our date night.”

“Oh.” Sam had forgotten about that. “Well, we’ll figure something out.”

“We will,” Steve echoes. “Sorry to freak you out there.”

Sam chuckles. “It’s okay. I should know by now that you’re just a drama queen.”

Steve laughs, too. “All right, I’ll let you get back to work. And I’ll try not to use my Avengers privileges to track down Bradley’s home address.”

“Yeah, please don’t do that,” says Sam. “And, anyway, aren’t we supposed to be retired?”

Steve hums, skeptical. “Theoretically.”

Sam laughs, and hangs up a minute later. He climbs the three flights of stairs to where his next client is waiting and tries to put the worries about his daughter aside long enough to go back to work.

He doesn’t have much luck. Thankfully, Camilla is one of his lower-maintenance clients, so he can get away with being a little distracted through their session. 

As he’s walking her out, she asks about his family, and Sam practically bites his tongue off in an effort not to say anything about what happened to Kendra this morning. Camilla steps into the elevator none the wiser, and Sam pulls his phone out to check for updates. 

OC with Jamie for lunch, Kendra sent five minutes ago, & yes I promise to be back in time for chem.

You’d better be, or you’ll have bigger problems than a boy, Sam thinks, but he doesn’t say that. His internal voice sounds an awful lot like his mother sometimes, and he tells it to be quiet right now. Kendra’s going through something, and she needs her friends more than she needs her father nagging her. She let him know that she was going off-campus, exactly as they’ve asked her to, and that’s enough for today. 

K, he sends instead. Thanks for the heads-up. Love you.

U2, she replies instantaneously. 

Sam chuckles, suddenly struck by the question of whether she (or Steve) know that U2 is a (shitty) band. Probably not.

He takes his lunch out of the fridge and pops it in the microwave, making small talk with the other counsellors who are gathered in the kitchen. His closest work friend, Darien, asks him about Kendra as she grabs them both cutlery from the drawer. 

“Big dance tonight,” she adds, clearly fishing. 

“Yeah,” Barb pipes up. Her kid goes to the same school as Kendra. “Is your house going to be command central for hair and make-up tonight, Sam?”

Sam sighs. He’s not going to get away with not telling them. He launches into the story once they’re seated around the lunchroom table. Barb and Darien make a very good audience, gasping at all the right points and shaking their heads as the story reaches its conclusion. 

“Teenage boys, man,” Darien laments. “Just terrible. No offence, Barb.”

“Oh, none taken,” Barb says, affable. “I’ve raised three of them, and yeah, they’re terrible sometimes.”

“Your kid would never do that, though,” Darien points out. 

“If he did, he’d get a smack from me,” Barb agrees. “And one from his father, too. I’d hope that we raised him better than that.”

“I’m sure you did,” says Darien. “So what are you gonna do, Sam?”

“I’m not gonna do anything,” Sam replies. “It’s like I told Steve, we can’t get involved.”

“You have to get a little involved,” Darien protests.

“Of course,” Sam concedes. “Obviously, this is hard for Kendra. But in terms of going after that little— uh.” 

Sam falters, catching the swear word before it comes out — they are at work, after all. But Barb is there to pick up the slack. 

“Prick?” she suggests, high-pitched and innocent. 

They all crack up. “Sure,” Sam laughs. “Let’s go with that. I think Steve would love to kick the kid’s ass, but we can’t do that.”

Barb looks skeptical. Darien shakes her head. “If it was my kid,” she says, but she leaves it at that, so Sam changes the subject. 

The rest of the lunch hour passes without incident. He heads back to his office, intent on doing the paperwork that always piles up by Friday afternoon, but it’s a shoddy distraction. The situation with Kendra is still nagging at him, like a splinter in his thumb. 

He tells himself there’s nothing he can do. He reminds that angry voice inside that too often sounds like his mother that there’s nothing to be gained by making a fuss. He hears himself telling Steve that he has to cool it. Kendra won’t appreciate her father(s) stepping into this mess out of some macho protective instinct. It would be embarrassing for her, and, more importantly, it’s beneath Sam to act that way. He knows better. 

Sam does not know better.

He’s on the roof of the high school auditorium. Steve thinks that he’s on a reconnaissance mission for Fury — a last-minute, so-sorry-but-this-cannot-wait kind of thing. Fury would kick his ass if he found out Sam had dragged him into this, even distantly, but Sam is doing reconnaissance — he’s looking for the bag of crap that broke his daughter’s heart. 

Because she is heartbroken, Sam can tell. 

She came home from school upbeat; she’d been talking with her friends, and they somehow convinced her that Bradley was going to call. That he hadn’t meant what he said, that his friends were jerks, and they told him to say it. They didn’t get him. He was sensitive and sweet, and his friends didn’t understand what he and Kendra had, that was all.

Sam and Steve exchanged a look when she told them all this, but neither of them commented. Sam especially didn’t say that anyone who’d be so hurtful just to impress their friends wasn’t a very good person. Instead, he did Kendra’s hair, the same as he’d been doing since she was a little girl, and Steve made them all some dinner. 

As the time of the dance approached, and Bradley didn’t call, Kendra started to unravel a bit. Around 6:00, she gave Steve a snippy retort when he asked her to set the table, but by 6:15, she decided she didn’t want dinner, because she was so nervous about what she was going to say to Bradley that she felt sick. 

At 6:30, she cried off most of her eye makeup, and Sam spent the next twenty minutes in her bedroom helping her re-apply it. Ten minutes in, Steve, who was hovering in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest, reminded Kendra that she didn’t have to go, and that started the tears all over again. 

Finally, she got in her dress and got in the car. Sam settled behind the wheel and drove her to the auditorium, where a group of her friends were waiting. Kendra promised to call when she wanted to be picked up, and she and her friends headed into the auditorium like a herd of gossiping gazelles. Sam watched them walk inside, then pulled away from the entrance. 

He had every intention of turning around and going straight home, but then he parked the car on the far side of the building instead. For reasons that weren’t even clear to himself, he opened the door and walked around to the trunk. 

And now he’s on the roof, prowling like he’s frickin’ Daredevil. 

From his hidden perch, he watches the kids arrive to the dance in groups and pairs. Almost no one comes alone — that’s a kamikaze mission when you’re in high school. Packs of girls squeal and laugh when they see each other, while the guys bump fists with body language that screams, too cool for school.

He’s been here long enough that he’s started to think, and what he’s thinking is that this was a pretty dumb idea. Reckless, too, flying up here without a plan, and probably illegal; he’s beginning to feel like a creep.  

Then Sam sees him. Bradley. The weasel who stomped all over his precious Kendra’s heart. 

He’s surrounded by his peers, but he’s the last of them to go inside. Sam, without having any idea what he’s doing, or what he’s going to say, takes advantage of the moment and swoops down at a tight angle. 

He lands less than two feet from the kid. Sam’s lizard brain rejoices when Bradley’s face goes ashen with fear. 

“So,” Sam says.

Bradley’s barely-there Adam’s apple hops up and down as the kid gulps. “Mr. Wil— I mean, Falc— I mean Cap—”

“Son, I’d suggest listening instead of talking right now,” Sam advises. “From the look on your face, you know why I’m here.”

Bradley nods.

“I don’t need to tell you that what you did to my daughter today is wrong,” Sam says. “You know it is. You just didn’t think there’d be consequences, so you did it anyway. You thought it didn’t matter.”

Bradley says nothing.

Sam takes a few casual steps to the side, clearing a path if Bradley wants to run. He doesn’t, which shows more courage than Sam would have given him credit for. 

“Because you’ve got the power, huh?” Sam remarks. “Big man on campus, nothing’s gonna knock you down. Is that about right?”

“I— I don’t—”

Sam holds up a finger, and Bradley falls silent. 

“Look, kid,” Sam says. “I don’t care if you don’t want to date my daughter. I don’t care if you think she’s ugly, or fat, or nerdy, or whatever. You’re wrong, obviously, but you can think whatever you want to think. I don’t care about that. What I do care about is that you lied to her. You hurt her feelings, you jerked her around. You made her feel like she mattered to you, only to pull the rug out from under her. And that troubles me. You know why?”

Bradley shakes his head.

“It troubles me because it seems like this is a pattern you might start thinking you can adopt,” Sam answers himself. “You do it once, you think maybe you can do it again. You think you have the right to walk all over girls and treat them like the dirt on your Nikes. And that shit just doesn’t fly.”

Bradley’s eyes dart to Sam’s wings, and Sam lets his scowl drop for a second. It was a good, if unintentional, pun. 

“Let me give you some fatherly advice,” Sam concludes. “You want to be a big man? A real man? A real man is strong without hurting people. A real man understands that the power that comes from putting other people down isn’t power at all. It’s just cruelty, and I think you’re probably better than that. Or, you have the potential to be, anyway. You hear me?”

Bradley hangs his head. “Yes, sir, Captain America, sir.”  

Sam scoffs. “Just be glad I’m here instead of the other one.” He fires up his engines again and hovers a few feet above the ground. “Enjoy the dance. Don’t be a shithead.”

Sam lands beside his car and pops the trunk, slipping the wings off his back as he does. They fit nicely into the hidden compartment that Sam designed specifically for them, and the trunk liner rests on top without a wrinkle. 

He closes the lid and heads to the driver’s side door, but before he can open it, his phone chimes in his pocket. It’s Steve again. 

Did you write that down, Cap, or was that off the top of your head?

Immediately, Sam looks up, looks around. But the parking lot is still deserted. “How—?” he says out loud, but Steve answers him before he can finish the question. 

I may have activated the surveillance on your stealth suit remotely. 

Sam shakes his head. “May have?” Another message pops up.

You accepted a “mission” (L.O.L.) on date night. Really, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Sam rolls his eyes at Steve’s sarcastic tone and the way he still can’t figure out text speech. 

We’ll see about that, Sam replies. He opens the door and climbs into the car. 

His phone rings in his hand as he reaches towards the ignition. Thinking it’s Steve, he answers without looking at the screen.

“Seriously, man?” 

“Daddy?” comes the confused reply, followed by a pronounced sniff. “Is that you?” 

“Yeah, Kendra, I’m here,” Sam says at once. “What’s the matter, baby, what happened?”

“I want to go home,” Kendra tells him. Her voice wavers in a way that breaks his heart. “Can you come get me?”  

“Of course. I’m just around the corner. Five minutes.”

“Okay,” says Kendra, and she hangs up. 

Sam pulls up in the same place he did when he dropped her off an hour ago, but he shuts the car off and waits outside, using one hand to send Steve a quick update that they’re coming home. 

When Kendra comes out of the building, she’s alone. Her face is blotchy with tears, and she’s barefoot, carrying those super cute shoes that Misty bought her instead of wearing them. Sam meets her a few feet from the door and wraps her up in a tight hug. 

“You okay?” he asks, when she pulls away after a moment. Kendra shakes her head. “You want to talk about it?”

Another head shake. “Not right now.”

“Okay.” Sam brushes a loose lock of her hair away from her face. “Come on, kiddo, let’s go home.”

“Can we stop on the way and get stuff for sundaes?” Kendra asks when they’re both in the car. 

Sam nods. “Yeah, I think we can do that.”

Kendra exhales with relief and sinks a little further into her seat. “Thanks, Daddy.”

Sam sends her a smile and starts the engine. “It’s what dads do,” he says simply.