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you want a garden (but you got a balcony)

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“Okay,” Steve mumbled to himself. “Okay, it’s okay. Okay? It’s - it’s okay .”

 

He said it like a mantra, okay okay okay , but the words felt like they were floating around him rather than seeping into him. As much as he tried to make himself believe that the apartment complex wasn’t, in fact, a skyscraper in disguise, his heart still fluttered in his chest feverishly while he peered up at the building in front of him. It’s going to be okay , he said again, only this time in his head, and he took a long, shaky breath. It has to be okay.

 

“Dad?” said a young voice behind him, cutting through his mind. He spun around to smile, only half fake, at the boy in front of him.

 

“Hey, Petey,” Steve answered, and stuck out a hand to ruffle his son’s hair.

 

Peter tipped his head forward into the pressure against his curls. Steve thought to himself briefly that if kids could purr, Peter certainly would be doing so; Steve ran his hand through Peter’s hair, a fluid, back and forth motion that probably would have put Peter to sleep if it weren’t 2:00 in the afternoon.

 

“You’re distracting me,” Peter murmured. Steve laughed, and Peter reached out to poke at Steve’s rib cage. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m okay, sweetheart.” Steve shifted his hand so it cupped Peter’s cheek, and tilted his face upward so they were looking at each other. “Don’t worry about it.” Steve inhaled deeply through his nose, taking in all the smells around him; Peter’s was the strongest, somehow, and his maple scented shampoo overpowered the gasoline and sewage of the dirty Queens street they stood on. Peter, for every second of Steve’s uneventful life, had been a beacon of light that draws the focus from anywhere else unto him, drowning out the noises of the city with even just a half assed chuckle.

 

In response to Steve’s sort of lie, Peter narrowed his stare, and Steve watched as his big, brown eyes focused on Steve’s blues. “Captain Dad, sir, I’m ‘a need you to be real with me here. No bullshit.”

 

Steve gaped at him, blinking in surprise. “Language!” he squeaked. “Who on Earth taught you to think it was okay to speak to your father like that?” Peter grinned.

 

“There’s the grumpy old man I know and love,” Peter teased. Steve rolled his eyes at his son’s antics, but the fond smile on Peter’s face quickly dampened to a sympathetic one. “C’mon, Dad. Tell me what’s wrong.”

 

Steve watched him for a moment, before sighing and bringing Peter into his arms, against his chest. “I’m nervous,” he admitted. “We’re saying goodbye to, what, our fourth apartment?” He frowned and looked away, eyes burning with unshed tears. “I’m just thinking, you know, why haven’t we found a permanent home yet? What am I doing wrong?”

 

Peter wrapped his arms tighter around Steve’s waist and pushed his forehead further into his father’s sternum. “You’re not doing anything wrong, Dad. And, besides, the first apartment building burned down and the third was literally the grossest place ever. We’ve only been evicted from two.”

 

“It’s no life for a kid,” Steve responded quietly. “It’s time I get my act together. Get us a nice house. With a dog and - and an apple tree, and we’ll bake cookies together in a big kitchen, with marble counters and two whole ovens. Right?”

 

“Maybe you need a sugar daddy,” Peter remarked, which earned him a smack on the shoulder.

 

Steve pushed their bodies apart. “Peter Benjamin Rogers, I will pull you out of nerd school and send you to that private junior high if you say crap like that again.”

 

“Aw, with the ugly uniforms?” Peter pouted. When Steve rolled his eyes again, Peter plastered on a sparkling grin and tilted his head gently. “Really, Dad. I know how hard you work. I don’t blame you. I love you, and you’re the best dad in the entire world. Like, seriously, even - um, uh - Joe West! From The Flash - can’t even compare.”

 

“He’s your favorite character!”

 

“Yeah, but you’re Capt. Steven frickin’ Rogers, A.K.A. the coolest teacher in town, A.K.A. Dad Extraordinaire . Don’t worry about it, Dad. I know you do everything you can for me.” 

 

Steve held Peter’s face in his two large hands and pressed their foreheads together. Steve shut his eyes as he felt his son’s small, tender hands reach around and lay flat against his back. “What did I do to deserve such a good kid, huh?”

 

“I don’t know, man, you probably had to murder a lot of people.”

 

Steve laughed and tucked his son under his arm. “I love you, goof,” he whispered.

 

“You too,” Peter responded, equally as soft and quiet as his father. After a few long moments of holding each other - tight and only a little afraid - Steve pushed his son away. 

 

“But really,” Steve said with narrowed eyes. “Tell Wade I will wash that kid’s mouth out with soap if he teaches you any more bad words. If I hear you say bullshit or sugar daddy ever again, I will end you and Wade.”

 

Peter giggled, rolling his eyes. He knew Steve was being serious. He didn’t care much. “Alright, Captain Dad. Next stop, Sgt. First Class James Buchanan Barnes.” He saluted and winked.

 

Steve spun on his heels, and Peter followed, curling himself into Steve’s side while his father wrapped an arm over his shoulder. “I dare you to call him James to his face,” Steve said with a wink.

 

Peter scoffed as he swung the car door open and crawled into the passenger seat. “Bet,” he challenged, with a smirk on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes. Steve had to bite down the goofy grin that bubbled up in response, but he didn’t bother shielding the warmth that spread from his heart to his eyes.

 

This was their fourth move. Fourth . The first apartment was lost to a huge fire that took every other apartment on that floor, and on the floors two above and two below. The second was an eviction, because Steve wasn’t exactly making bank as a veteran and high school art teacher; he was late to pay their crazy overpriced rent one time too many, and came home from work one afternoon to find an eviction notice pasted to his door and no more than 45 minutes to collect all of his and Peter’s belongings. 

 

The third apartment was the only one Steve chose to leave. It was located in a really bad neighborhood, pretty much completely run by two rival gangs, and Steve was terrified to let Peter stay there for very long. Virtually as soon as they were able to move all their belongings to Bucky’s home, they did. As far as Peter knew, they moved because it was dangerous, too small, and the most disgusting apartment in the world; Steve wouldn’t tell Peter this, but it was also more than just a little bit because the superintendent was actively super creepy to a lot of the adolescents who lived there, and Steve could no longer put up with that shit, especially with the impending fear that Peter would be next.

 

And this was their fourth home, fifth if you counted Bucky’s (which you probably should, for all the times that Steve and Peter stayed there). They were being evicted once more, because Peter needed braces and glasses, and the district was making a lot of cuts so the art teachers had to buy their own supplies at the start of the school year, and Steve indulged himself a little too much and bought himself new pens. There was a lot of reasons Steve couldn’t afford rent this month. There was a lot of reasons he couldn’t afford it during other months too. Their landlord had never been very merciful at all.

 

But despite all of those moves, all of those times Steve was a complete and utter disappointment as a parent and father and caregiver, Peter had remained as bubbly as ever. For the first two apartments, he was too young to understand why they were leaving, especially the second one, but Steve sat him down and explained the dangers of being poor tenants in Queens and Brooklyn when Peter was 10 and they were planning to leave the third apartment.

 

Four homes in five years

 

Steve never thought he’d be a bad dad, a bad provider, even when Mary spoke to him on her deathbed and begged him to do right by Peter. I will , he promised, and he almost believed it himself; in the years that he served, Mary spoke highly of him to Peter, so whenever he was visiting home, Peter held no resentment toward him. Instead, Steve would help him with his school projects and take him to ice cream and let him watch movies Mary was less inclined to agree with.

 

(Every day, Steve thanked God that Mary was the sort of mother to put her child’s love of his father over her anger towards him - not that Steve had ever doubted, not even for a second, that Mary wouldn’t be that mom. It was more that Steve thought maybe she should have been such, with Steve’s consistent absence and unavailability when Peter was younger.)

 

These days, Peter was growing to be like a mini Mary. He was snarky like her, funny and smart. He liked science - something Steve knew was not inherited paternally - and provided the same sense of direction for Steve that Mary once had done. They were like compasses to Steve, the two of them, always knowing exactly what to say to make everything better. If Mary were still with them, Steve knew that she’d know exactly what to do, how to deal with all the losses Steve faces.

 

Mary is gone now , Steve reminds himself. It’s just me and Pete. I have to figure this one out.

 

He promised - to himself or to Peter or to God, he didn’t know - that he was going to be better.

 

He drove himself and Peter through the clogged 5:00 traffic, laughing as Peter called out letters on street signs in a weak attempt to play The Alphabet Game , and managed to perfectly parallel park his car directly outside of Bucky’s one story, two bedroom home. Peter unbuckled his seatbelt and tumbled out of the car before Steve even turned off the engine. He ran up to the front door, but barely needed to knock, as Bucky had been - presumably - waiting for the two of them to arrive. Steve followed, watching with fond eyes as his son wrapped his arms tight around Bucky. When Steve finally made it up to the porch, Bucky beamed at him, and it’s almost as blinding as the afternoon sun.

 

“Well, well, well,” he quipped, arms still holding Peter, prosthetic cold against the kid’s neck, as he walked their two bodies towards Steve. “If it isn’t my two favorite couch hoppers.”

 

Steve rolled his eyes. “Bucky, I clean your entire house every time we’re here. Be grateful.”

 

Peter pulled away to beam up at Bucky, his hands still fisted in Bucky’s cotton shirt. “Hi Uncle Bucky!” Bucky laughed and waved to shuffle Peter past the adults and inside the home.

 

“In you go, kiddie. TV’s all yours until dinnertime.” 

 

Then, once Peter was out of earshot, Steve stepped up to Bucky and let himself be tugged into a tight hug. “Hey,” Steve whispered, holding Bucky as fiercely as he himself was being held. “Thanks for letting us stay again, Buck.”

 

“Always, Steve,” Bucky said. “Well, as long as you keep making dinner whenever you’re here.” Steve unfurled himself from Bucky’s arms, and Bucky put a firm hand on Steve’s shoulder. He stepped back, threw some distance between him and his best friend in a futile attempt to make the air feel less heavy around him. Bucky didn’t seem to notice, and said, “Anyway, I’ve got beer and Chinese take out with your name on it.”

 

Steve grinned. It’s what best friends are for , Bucky had said after Steve lost the first home. As they walked inside, he turned his head towards Bucky and asked, as if Bucky’s an idiot, “Did you get Peter the broccoli beef thing?”

 

“Dude,” Bucky snarked, “what do you think I am? A moron?” When Steve muttered a, I mean, yeah , Bucky slapped the blond man’s shoulder. “Whatever. Of course I got him the damn broccoli beef. Can’t kick Sam’s ass in the Best Uncle competition without it.”

 

“You two take that thing way too seriously. You know Peter will never choose a real favorite, right? But he will keep stringing you along, ‘cause he’s a spoiled brat.” 

 

Bucky only spared Steve a glare before pushing him into the kitchen.

 


 

Later that evening, when Peter was dead asleep in the guest room and Steve and Bucky were curled up on the couch, The Good Place reruns playing softly in the background, the T.V. a source of dim light in the darkness of the night, their Chinese food cold in their lap and chopsticks mostly abandoned in their hands, Bucky asked the question he asked every time Steve’s here: “How long do you want to stay?”

 

Steve never said what he really wanted to say. I don’t want to stay at all. I want to stay forever. I want to leave Peter here so that he has a home, he has stability, he has a nice warm bed and dinner on the table every night, but I’m selfish so I want to keep him with me too. I don’t want to put you out by staying here, but your house is so nice and you are so nice and I feel like I might be taking advantage of your niceness by staying here whenever I fuck up, but I want to stay forever because it’s so easy here. You, me and Peter is so easy.

 

Instead, he said, “Not long.” It was easier to lie like that, it came to him like it was a part of him, rolled off his tongue like it’s always fit there so perfectly, like it was meant to tumble out and explode in front of their eyes like a star. “If it’s okay, I can pack up all our crap, leave the less important stuff in the garage and take the rest with us to a shelter. Probably two weeks here is all we need.”

 

“Steve,” Bucky sighed, and set down his take out on the coffee table. “You know you’re good to stay as long as you want. Forever, if you need it.”

 

Steve put his food down next to Bucky’s and turned his body so they were facing each other. Bucky leaned forward, pushed his shoulder against Steve’s in that you’re my best friend, I love you way he did whenever he worried about Steve. His blue eyes were icier than Steve’s, but somehow, warmer too. When Steve put his hand out, Bucky grinned and laid his hand right on top. “Thanks,” Steve croaked, the emotions overwhelming him more than he could manage. “It’s okay, Buck. We’ll be out of your hair soon.”

 

“You’re never out of my hair, punk. I’ve been taking care of you since we were kids, Stevie,” he said, grinning, and Steve rolled his eyes.

 

“You don’t have to take care of me anymore,” Steve answered quietly. “I’m not that sick kid I used to be. I’m a captain, now.”

 

Bucky laughed. “Sure, you’re my superior, but you’re always gonna be my little brother, Stevie.”

 

Steve blinked at him, watched him with wide blue eyes and wonders; Bucky had always been such a good friend. Always been such a good brother. Always been so willing to take care of Steve before they served, Steve while they served, Steve’s girlfriend when she was pregnant, Steve’s son when his dad was job hunting. He was always the guy Steve could turn to, whenever he needed to. Steve wondered if he’d even been good enough - would ever be good enough - to be that guy for Bucky too.

 

A wave of feeling overwhelmed Steve, and for a second, he drowned in it, but when he wrapped his arms tight around Bucky, it was like coming up for air. Bucky buckled down laughing again, relishing in a rare display of emotions from Steve, and with both hands, pat Steve’s shoulder blades firmly.

 

“I got you, Stevie,” he said, and it’s light but it’s full of something Steve didn’t understand, too.

 

He sniffled, and smacked Bucky on the back with everything he could, hoping it conveyed everything he couldn’t find the strength to say out loud. “I’ve got you, too,” he responded. Bucky pulled away and smiles.

 

It was bright, and Steve thought that it might light up the room even more than the T.V.

 


 

The next morning was a Friday, and Steve thanked God that the weekend was within reach. Peter woke up early, which Steve was grateful for, because Peter was ready to leave with half an hour to spare, so he had more than enough time for breakfast and morning cartoons before they left. Steve was an early riser and a good cook, so he made blueberry pancakes - Peter and Bucky’s favorite.

 

Bucky came downstairs about ten minutes before Peter left for school. Silently, he poured himself a cup of coffee and slumped onto the kitchen table. Peter’s nose was buried in a book, but he looked up at Bucky when he crumpled into his chair, and giggled.

 

“Be nice to your uncle,” Steve scolded, sliding a plate of steaming pancakes in front of Bucky’s face. “He’s not a morning person.”

 

Bucky made a sound, some sort of blend between a grumble and a moan. Peter laughed again, harder now, and crossed his arms on the table and buried his face in the skin there, muffling the noise. Bucky sat up to lean over and flick Peter’s ear, but it only made Peter laugh more. He rolled his eyes and slumped down in his chair, pulling his plate to the edge of the table and digging into the food in front of him. Steve pat his back as he passed by and sat in the chair next to him.

 

“School today?” Bucky asked, voice riddled with sleep. Peter nodded, bright and excited all over.

 

“Bunch ‘a tests,” he answered. “But I’ll probably ace ‘em.”

 

Bucky grinned. “Did you study?”

 

Peter rolls his eyes. “No?” he answered, brows furrowed in faux confusion. “When have I ever studied for a test?”

 

Steve sighed around the pancake in his mouth. It was true - Peter never studied. He was a genius, which both drove Steve insane and made him the proudest dad alive. He only ever did homework because it counted to his grade, but it never really helped him learn anything, because he’d always been smarter than the other kids his age. Steve worried about him, sometimes; worried that Peter would start feeling all empty and bored, with the lack of actual work he had to put in for school. He was attending a STEM school, Midtown School of Science and Technology, but still in the top of his class without even trying.

 

Steve was proud, sure, but he was also afraid that nothing would ever challenge Peter. It didn’t sound like such a bad thing to the preteen, but Steve, a parent, was fully aware it was absolutely a bad thing.

 

Bucky beamed, though, because for Bucky and Steve and even Sam, too, Peter was the best thing that God ever created. They all looked at Peter like he hung the stars, and he was completely unaware of it.

 

“I’m gonna set you up with a tutor,” Steve quipped. “Someone to make your brain exercise.”

 

Peter shrugged, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his chins. “Sounds good,” he answered. “Maybe then I’d actually learn something I didn’t already know.”

 

Bucky grinned at Peter, but Steve whipped around to stare him down. Bucky huffed sheepishly, lips still upturned, and looked back down at his food. Steve turned his wrist over to stare at the clock. 7:24 .

 

“We’re leaving in six minutes, Pete,” Steve instructed, and Peter nodded, kicked his feet back to the floor to stand, and moved to his backpack. He rummaged through it for a little while before switching his book out for his MP3 player. Steve smiled, a little bit pitifully.

 

He couldn’t afford to buy Peter a phone. It sucked. It really sucked. He knew Peter felt a little left out sometimes, his only access to the internet being his school appointed Chromebook and Steve’s laptop, but they just couldn’t afford it. Peter needed braces this year, otherwise he’d have to wait until high school (which would screw up his performances in band) or until after high school and pay for it on his own (the thought of which made Steve’s stomach twist in that fatherly way), and he needed glasses, not only this year but every year after and probably before, too, so that he could actually see things further than three feet ahead of him. And Steve had to buy all of those stupid art supplies at the beginning of the year, since the rich parents he worked for refused to fork up any money to donate to the art program. And Steve was selfish and materialistic and bought himself a fancy pack of pens and bought Peter a better MP3 player and they were already late for rent and they couldn’t afford a phone too .

 

It made Steve feel guilty and bad and kind of evil too, sometimes, when Peter got upset about it. But it was just another one of the many things that sucked about being poor.

 

When the time came for them to leave, Peter was more than ready to. Something Steve had always admired about Peter was his love of learning; when Steve was in middle school, the only thing worth going to school for was art class with Mrs. Lewis and lunch with Bucky. Even in high school, after Steve’s grades started improving (what with Bucky’s parents, Eleanor and George, being his caregivers, rather than Joseph Rogers) and he started bench warming for the baseball team in his freshman year, Steve never looked forward to any part of school beyond getting his hands dirty with clay and paint and charcoal (and whatever food Bucky decided to throw at him that day).

 

But Peter loved school. Always had, and (hopefully) always would. He was bullied, not very popular, a total geek, etcetera, but he had his best friend (and, more recently, a couple others - Wade, an 8th grader who had taken Peter under his wing - though Steve was pretty sure Peter was the grown up one of the two - and Michelle from the Pentathlon team) and pretty nice teachers and a fondness for learning.

 

“Bye, Uncle Bucky,” Peter chirped, throwing his arms around Bucky’s neck. Bucky chuckled and grabbed Peter’s forearm with his prosthetic, patting Peter’s face on his shoulder with his non-metal arm.

 

“Have a good day, gremlin,” Bucky told him, and Peter’s cheeks might have just ripped apart with how widely he beamed. “Good luck with those tests, okay?”

 

He nodded, and pressed a kiss to Bucky’s cheek. “Later, Serg!” Bucky threw a peace sign up, still not looking at Peter directly, and the twelve year old scampered off to Steve’s car, pulling the keys out of Steve’s hand as he ran by.

 

“I’ll make dinner tonight, if you want,” Steve offered. Bucky spun around at that, and Steve would have been happy to see his face if not for the icy stare in his eyes.

 

“Why don’t you two just stay here? Why do you have to go to a shelter?” He stood, and stepped closer to Steve, but Steve moved back just enough for Bucky to notice. Bucky sighed and crossed his arms tight over his chest, muscles flexed and taut. “I like it with you two here. You cook and - and Peter’s the best, and the thought of you sleeping in a shelter-” his voice broke off there, and he looked down at the floor. “I don’t like it. Steve, just stay .”

 

Steve frowned, biting the inside of his cheek in a poor attempt to keep the unbridled tears welling in his eyes in check. “Buck,” he started, but Bucky huffed.

 

“You do this every time,” he whispered. “Every time something goes wrong, you come, you apologize, you act like this is the worst thing that could ever happen to me, and then you leave. Why, Steve? Have I done something to make you believe you’re a burden? ‘Cause you’re very much not .”

 

“No, Bucky, not at all.” He rushed forward, put his hands on both of Bucky’s biceps. Bucky’s eyes flicker back up to meet his own. “You’re the best. Seriously. Peter says that you’re a god amongst mere men. I think that’s like, high praise.” Bucky laughed, and it was wetter than Steve wanted it to be, but he thought anyway, Good enough . “It’s just - I can’t explain it right now. I’ve gotta go. Tonight, okay, I promise.”

 

“You do that every time too,” Bucky pointed out, and Steve knew as much, but he’d rather they both just pretend that wasn’t the case. “You always promise we’ll talk about it, but you avoid talking about it until the morning you’re already packed up and driving away.”

 

Steve sighed, maybe gasped, and it sounded broken and a little bit exasperated even in his own ears. He swallowed, dropped his hands and began to walk towards the front door again. “Peter’s gonna be late,” he whispered, and Bucky only shrugged.

 

“See you tonight, then,” he answered, no longer looking at Steve and studying the floor instead, like if he stared long enough, Steve would change his mind. His voice was monotonous too, and Steve had never thought that it pissed Bucky off whenever he left until now , but he supposed it makes sense.

 

Steve wasn’t grateful enough, he decided. He’d be better. He’s going to be better.

 


 

That night, they didn’t really talk about it. Steve only told Bucky, “It’s just what a dad has to do.” Bucky didn’t understand, but he said that he no longer intended to. Steve hugged Bucky, hoped that Bucky would forgive him, and prayed that, no matter who Steve turned out to be, Bucky would never change.

 


 

A week later, Steve had finished reorganizing all of his own things. His art supplies were stuffed into two small, cardboard boxes, taped shut and tucked away in the corner of Bucky’s garage. All of his winter clothes - coats, sweaters, socks, and more - were boxed up next to the art stuff, and Peter’s were on top. He basically packed up everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary for teaching (and his sketchbook, along with the corresponding pencils, because he, selfishly, couldn’t imagine going a day without it) and stuffed it all into the garage, taking up as little space as possible.

 

It only took a few more days for him to go through all of Peter’s things. Peter had probably twice as much stuff, but Steve let him keep twice as much as he let himself keep (because Peter was a kid and it’s just what a dad has to do and Steve thought he might be able to impress some kids and make more friends at the shelter with all the knick knacks he has). Once everything they needed was separated from everything they didn’t, Steve started to pack himself a bag for the shelter. He figured, if he left something behind, Bucky was only a call and a twenty minute drive away.

 

After two Friday’s, they left for the shelter. It was the same one they went to after the last eviction, located close enough to Peter’s school for him to walk if the second job Steve intended to get required him in the mornings. Peter never disliked shelters (another thing Steve loved about his kid: his flexibility) and often, in fact, looked at them like a new, fun adventure for him and his dad to muscle through. 

 

Bucky hugged Peter first when they were about to drive away. He leaned down and whispered something in Peter’s ear, and Steve didn’t think much of it because it’s Bucky, who cares?

 

Peter clambered into the car and starts the engine. Steve watches for half a second while Peter plugged Steve’s phone into the aux cord and started up his favorite playlist. Bucky pulled Steve’s vision away, though, when he put a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

 

“Come back if you change your mind,” he instructed. Steve smiled.

 

“Thank you, Bucky.”

 

They hugged each other too, bidding each other goodbye with a promise to get dinner sometime the following week lolling off their tongues. Peter waved to Bucky through the window when Steve drove away, and Bucky waved back, his metal arm stuffed nervously into the front pocket of his jeans. He was always afraid whenever they leave for a shelter, like how Steve was whenever he heard on the radio there was an active shooter situation or a high speed chase or an armed robbery, because even without hearing Bucky’s badge number, he always felt sure Bucky was there, doing his job, like he always did; they were both afraid that one day, one of them wouldn’t come home.

 

They always did, though. Steve never let anything happen to Peter, and Bucky’s partner was a crazy badass woman, Natasha, who would die before letting Bucky get hurt, if only for her own pride. They always came home. Steve thought they always would.

 

The shelter they were staying at only housed people for a month. Steve called in a few days before to make sure there was room for a family of two, and the receptionist - May, who was very nice and thanked Steve for his service, which always struck Steve smack dab in the heart - confirmed that he and Peter could stay for thirty days, so long as they check in before 5:00 PM on the first of the month.

 

They arrived around 4:30 PM. May was working, so she helped them sign in and said that she remembered Steve from the phone. She told Peter, “There’s some other kids your age, dear. You’ll do just fine here.”

 

Peter smiled politely at her, and Steve was flooded with love for that kid. Both of them thanked May, and she called over another volunteer - a tall man with brown hair, shaved on the sides, and a name tag that read Clint - to show them to their room. They thanked Clint profusely too, but he said, “It’s no problem,” and waved it off. He added, as he turned back down the hallway, “Dinner is in an hour. And breakfast starts every morning at 7:00, goes until we run out of food. Be on time - we run out pretty quickly.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve said again, and Clint smiled. Peter parroted it, so Clint paused.

 

He stepped towards Peter, the grin on his lips looking more like a grimace, like he was irrevocably, impossibly sad for Peter, and said quietly, “Don’t worry about, kid.” Peter smiled at him so warm that Steve thought he must have been the best kid alive.

 

At dinnertime, the two of them sat together, and talk about their day; Peter had a presentation in his Spanish class on direct and indirect object pronouns, and Steve’s class had to turn in their rough drafts for the art show in two weeks. Steve asked Peter if he was alright with Steve getting a second job, and though there really isn’t much room for Peter to say no, he made it as clear as he could that if Peter did disagree, Steve would listen.

 

Peter told him, “It’s okay with me, Dad. Whatever you think you need to do.”

 

Steve didn’t sleep until 1:00 AM that night; instead, he worked on his resume, and made an organized list of every place he could apply to that would work with his hours. He was going to be better.

 


 

Pretty much immediately, Steve found an opening to teach lessons at Color Me Mine. It was part time and minimum wage, but it was better than nothing. He still got some benefits and money from the VA, and those two, combined with his teaching, would make him enough money to get them a new apartment by the end of the month. Briefly, he toyed with the idea of buying them a house, but he wasn’t sure they could afford the everything that came with that.

 

Still, the image of the two of them, drinking lemonade on a fresh cut lawn, burned into Steve’s mind and closed up his throat. He thought about it a lot - when he was job hunting, when he was tapping his foot and waiting for his interview with the manager, when he was laying in bed at night, one arm curled around Peter and the other propping his head up. He let himself imagine, if only for a second, what life could be like if they just had enough to give.

 

They could have a couch; big and long, that spread across the expanse of the living room and maybe curved like an L, that didn't have any gross, unidentifiable stains, that wasn’t from some used furniture garage sale because it was all they could afford. Steve could paint Peter’s room like the galaxy, like he’d always wanted to, and Peter could have a little set up for experiments or projects in the garage. They could eat blueberry pancakes every Saturday morning, have Bucky and Sam over for dinner every Friday evening, watch the Sunday cartoons together or sleep in until noon. It could be good.

 

But that’s not real , Steve reminded himself whenever the daydream sucked him underwater. It’s just a dream, just pretend. It’s not real. (Steve was afraid that it would never be, could never be - that it would always be some story he had to make up in his head, but he tried not to let that fear fester or spread; he just ignored it instead.)

 

“Dad,” Peter said one Friday morning, after almost eight days in the shelter, before Steve left for work and Peter went down for breakfast. “I think you work too hard.”

 

Steve blinked in surprise. I work too hard? Steve thought to himself, I don’t work hard enough .

 

(To Steve, there was too much stuff and not enough time; to Peter, it was the other way around. That’s how it should always be with a parent and their kid. Steve would bear the weight of the world on his shoulders if only so Peter never had to break a sweat; no matter the consequences, Steve was his father , Peter was his son, his baby , and so Steve would do anything it took to make life okay for him.)

 

Even though those thoughts were swirling through his head, he didn’t voice as much; still, he did say, “I can’t really stop working, Petey.”

 

He used Petey whenever something was wrong. He knew Peter had figured it out,  but he still dropped the nickname whenever he needed to soften the blow. It was something Mary used to call Peter - sweetie pie , Petey , amongst other things - so it held a special spot in both their hearts. Normally, Steve said it, and whatever was on Peter’s mind quiets enough that he decides he could wait for a while until he brings it up again; this time, though, Peter was unaffected by the name.

 

“I know you think this is like, the worst thing ever, but it’s not. We’re saving up for a good place. A better place. I’m not upset or bitter or anything, Dad, but I - I kinda miss you. We used to eat breakfast together, but now you work after school, so you do all the prep and grading before school, so I never see you anymore.” Peter blushed at his admission, like he didn’t mean for it to come out that way but the words barrelled through his lips before he could stop them.

 

Steve sighed and dropped down to kneel in front of Peter, who was sat at the edge of his bed, tying his shoes. “Peter,” he said, voice firm but warm, too, “I miss you like crazy,” he admitted. Peter smiled a little bashfully - if not fully embarrassed - and kicked at Steve’s foot with his own.

 

“‘Kay,” he mumbled, cheeks still pink. Steve smiled sadly at him, and waited as his heart cracked inside of his chest.

 

He put a hand out onto Peter’s knee. “But I can’t stop working, sweetheart. I promise, at the end of the summer, I’ll drop this job, and we’ll go back to how it was before. Eating breakfast together and all. But for a while, this is how it has to be, okay?”

 

Peter pulled his bottom lip beneath his two front teeth. He chewed on it for a moment, and Steve would scold him for it if he wasn’t already feeling so guilty for everything. When Peter let go of his lip, he whispered, “Okay.”

 

Steve pulled him in to drop a kiss on his forehead. “Love you, kid.”

 

It was faint, not loud enough to echo inside the room, but it was there and it managed to reverberate inside of Steve’s chest when Peter said it back: “I love you too.”

 

Chapter Text

Once Steve left for work, Peter flopped backwards onto the bed to look at the clock behind him. 7:12 . Breakfast started at 7:00, and homeless people were hungry - which was, by the way, completely understandable, and Peter fully related - so all the (good) food was usually gone by 7:30. There was no way in hell Peter was going to eat oatmeal for breakfast, so he dragged himself out of their little closet sized room and down the hallway, to the dining area. He strolled up to the end of the line, which curved around half the room, and grabbed a tray as he passes by.

 

Peter scanned the room, looking out for what didn’t make his stomach churn. He hated savory breakfasts with everything in him, but it looked like a lot of the other kids here did too; there was only (most likely cold) pancakes, something that vaguely resembled coffee cake, and, at the very end of the line, three sugar donuts surrounding a single jelly donut.

 

Peter wanted - no, needed that donut. It was perfectly round, perfectly cooked, and Peter’s favorite kind of donut, but more than that, Peter was starving and if there was one thing he wanted for his last meal, it was that.

 

The line moved slow, but the longer the wait was, the more Peter craved that stupid jelly donut - and it was the last one , which made it all the more tempting. He hadn’t had donuts in forever , because as much as Bucky (and Sam) loved him (and Steve), donuts were kind of expensive. One last jelly donut , he thought, and he needed it.

 

Eventually, Peter was only a foot away from it, and as soon as he was able, he reached out to grab the donut swiftly, but before his fingers even brushed against it, another kid’s nimble hands snatched it away. He looked up at them with a surprised, even betrayed stare, and a pout formed over his lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but blinked in confusion as he studied the floppy haired boy in front of him.

 

The kid looked even skinnier than Peter, which was a feat in itself. He was tanner, though, and the smirk on his lips made Peter’s belly twist and curl in the way that it did when Liz Allen told Peter he was super duper crazy smart . Peter swallowed, and dropped his hand in defeat. “Sorry,” he offered weakly. “You can have it.” The smirk - which, now that Peter thinks about it, was probably less of a conscious thing and more like the natural state of his face - dropped from the boy’s lips and he furrowed his brow instead.

 

“No, you - it was kind of yours first. I probably like, stole it. Here-” he thrusted the donut towards Peter- “you take it.”

 

“Wait,” Peter said, now even more confused than before. “You look hungry, and I already have some food. Don’t worry about it.”

 

The kid looked over him, eyes trickling over Peter’s face and body studiously, as if he was drinking in every one of Peter’s cells to try and understand him. Peter’s chest clenched for a second, and he wasn’t sure but it felt like a blush was making its way up his neck and cheeks. Then, after a moment, the kid grinned at him, brighter and more genuine than the smirk that’d been on his face moments before.

 

“What if…” He stepped towards Peter, his free hand coming up to grasp the other side of the donut and pull it in half. “We share?”

 

Peter blinksed “Okay,” he said slowly. He nodded, and then added, “They - um - they have good juice. I’m gonna get some. Do you want any?”

 

“Sure,” he answered. “Apple juice. OJ will kill you.”

 

“OJ was found not guilty, so for legal reasons, that joke is in poor taste,” Peter remarked, as if his mouth was working on autopilot. He blushed when the words catch up to him, but bit down the apology that bubbled up. “But, um, yeah. Apple juice.”

 

Peter stepped away to get apple juice for himself and the boy, who he was slowly realizing looked a little bit older than Peter - not much, though, probably only a year or two. When he turned back to face where he once stood, he saw that the boy hasn’t moved a muscle and is, in fact, waiting while he watched Peter intently. Peter smiled nervously and stepped up to him.

 

“Do you usually sit with anyone?”

 

The boy shook his head. “I’m here alone,” he admitted quietly. “What about you?”

 

“Uh, my dad’s at work right now. He got a second job when we started staying here, so I don’t see him much anymore.” Peter shrugged, only a little hurt, because as much as he tried not to let it bother him, he kind of missed his dad. And he hated sitting alone. Every morning. All the time.

 

“One day, he’ll get a hot sugar daddy and all your woes will be washed away.” Peter laughed brightly, and almost said That’s what I said! but bit down the remark. Instead, he began to look over the room for a place to sit. Before he could point to an open spot, the boy gestured to the very same table Peter had in mind and asks, “There?”

 

“That’s perfect,” Peter answered. “Hey,” he said as they walked towards their seats, “I never got your name. I’m Peter.”

 

“Harley,” he responded, grinning at Peter so sweetly Peter thought he’d like to drown in it. “It’s nice to meet you, Peter.”

 

Peter smiled, and warmth spread over his spine in the same way a blush would. He set the tray down in front of him, looking up into the dark blue eyes that peered down at him. He didn’t look away when he sat down, or when Harley sat down, or even when he said, “You too.”

 

They talked for a while. Peter learned that Harley was smart, maybe even smarter than anyone Peter had ever met before. Harley said he liked to build stuff, and Peter said he liked to blow stuff up. Harley laughed at all of Peter’s jokes, picked at his food when Peter asked about his parents, smiled in thanks when Peter changed the subject and asked about his robots instead; he talked really fast when they were on the topic of science, apparently hated math but loved engineering (which Peter was pretty sure had more to do with math than science, technically), and he waved his arms around passionately when Peter asked him about the best robot he’d ever built. (It was a robot named Ab-E, like his little sister, who he refused to mention beyond she exists and I named a robot after her . Peter didn’t press.)

 

Peter told him stuff, too. Like how his favorite class was chemistry, but he always wished he could paint and draw like his dad could. He talked about Steve a lot, really, and Bucky and Sam too; how afraid he was whenever Sam was overseas; how he wished Steve could stop being so proud and just let them stay with Bucky in his nice, air conditioned home; how Peter missed Steve in the early mornings when he was alone and his dad was at work, but he couldn’t miss his dad, because he was only gone for Peter.

 

He talked about all the things he was too scared to tell Steve, like how there was this chemistry set he wanted to save up for but didn’t even know where to start, and how the kids at school - namely, Flash Thompson - were mean to him whenever he got the answers right in class, and how there was only twelve school days left before summer and how he woke up every morning to check another day off, because he couldn’t wait until he’s free from all the bullshit.

 

“You know,” Harley said at some point, after Peter had been talking about his current chemistry project for longer than probably socially acceptable, “there’s this rich guy who comes around sometimes and buys stuff for us. Gets everyone nice shit - kids toys, parents supplies. He donates to the shelter too, helps cover the cost of food, beds. That’s why this place is so nice.”

 

“Yeah?” Peter asked, because he didn’t really know where Harley was going with this. Maybe he should have though, he realized, but didn’t bother trying to figure it out when he knew Harley would just explain anything.

 

“Yeah,” Harley confirmed. “Next time he’s here, ask him for that chem set. He loves the nerdy kids. That’s how I fixed Ab-E. He bought me all the stuff I needed to repair her.”

 

“Oh,” Peter responded, nodding thoughtfully. “That’s cool.”

 

He probably wouldn’t ask. Steve wouldn’t want him to, anyway, because he was vehemently against handouts , or charity , or pity parties , or whatever else he called that stuff to Bucky when they didn't think Peter could hear. Still, he was tempted - more than tempted, really; he was desperate , for a couple of reasons, and only one of them was that he kind of wanted Harley to work on this set with him, and he couldn’t really invite Harley to if the set didn’t even belong to him.

 

Steve couldn’t afford it, though. And Peter really, really wanted it. And it wasn’t really a handout if this rich guy was super duper crazy rich, like a millionaire or something, and was just buying stuff for kids because he was nice like that. Maybe I’ll ask , Peter thought. He probably won’t be able to find it anyway, so there’s no harm in asking, right?

 

He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll ask.”

 

When Harley smiled at him, Peter thought he’d like to spend hours counting the stars in his eyes, but he almost shut that down in realizing there were far too many to count. Still, he thought to himself, I’ll just try to count them anyway .

 


 

Peter left for school pretty soon after that. He ended up being a little bit late because it was, unsurprisingly, extremely hard to convince himself to leave the conversation he was having with Harley. He walked to school in the morning - it only took 20 minutes or so, generally - and pretty much spent the entire trek thinking about Harley.

 

Why was Harley at the shelter alone? Did he not have to go to school? He hadn’t even seemed like he was going to leave any time soon when Peter (so, so hesitantly) left for school. How old was Harley? What if Harley was, like, 16? He didn’t look that old, Peter was sure he wasn’t any more than 14, but he was smart enough to be 16, so Peter wasn’t really sure. (An even more horrifying thought: what if Harley was a grown up , like 18 or 19 or something, and Peter was feeling this way about a grown up ?)

 

Peter arrived in class 2 full minutes after the bell rang. His first period teacher, his chemistry teacher, Ms. Cowell, was extremely forgiving and kind of loved him, so she didn’t ride his ass about it for very long. Peter was immeasurably grateful for this. Thankfully, since he wasn’t late for any of his other classes, the office never called Steve about the tardies. Peter probably would have died if the school did such a thing.

 

During lunch, Peter sat with Ned and Michelle; the latter of which had recently joined them at lunch time after Peter was really nice to her in Academic Pentathlon for the entire school year. Michelle was quieter than Ned and Peter were, but she was really funny in a dark and kind of mean way. Peter didn’t really mind it at all, honestly.

 

“Ned,” Peter said as soon as his friend sat down across the table with a lunch tray. “What the hell is that? What are you eating? That’s-” Peter choked on a laugh. “That’s disgusting.”

 

Ned whined and flopped his head down, hiding his face in his hands that were tucked into his sweatshirt sleeves. “It’s mashed potatoes,” Ned answered dejectedly. “I thought it would be like, you know, healthier than the pizza they were serving, but-” he sighed. “I guess not.”

 

Ned was on the same reduced lunch program Peter was. They both were in food insecure homes , as National Geographic liked to call it. The only difference was Ned’s mom had a lot more kids and a lot more shit on her plate, so she always got Ned and all his siblings fast food. It wasn’t her fault, but that’s why Ned was chubbier than Peter and still just as hungry. Peter’s dad had enough time to force a healthy meal into him. Ned’s mom? Not so much.

 

“Here,” Peter offered, because his breakfast was still working through his body. “Take my veggies. That way you don’t have to eat the potato slime.” When Ned looked like he was going to argue, Peter waved him off. “I had a big breakfast,” he insisted firmly, and Ned hesitated, but stuck out his hand anyway to grab the plate off of Peter’s tray.

 

“You’re sure?” Ned asked.

 

Peter nodded furiously. “Yes!” he promised, laughing and shoving the plate further towards Ned. Michelle, without looking up from her book, leaned away from Ned to protect herself from the potato slime as Ned slid it away from him. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

 

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Michelle chided, still not lifting her head. Peter spared her a glance and rolled his eyes, still grinning widely at his two friends. “ Hope to die is pretty strong.”

 

“Swear on my life,” Peter joked, turning to Ned. “Swear on my uncles’ lives, on my dad’s life, on Tony Stark of Stark Industries’ life, on Doctor Bruce Banner, the icon himself’s life, on Michelle’s life-”

 

“Hey!” She peeled her face away from her book and narrowed her eyes at Peter. “Don’t bring me into this,” she said in a low voice, but her lips were twisting into some sort of a smile. Peter giggled.

 

“Okay, Michelle,” Peter teased. “I won’t swear on your life.”

 

“Good,” Michelle responded, turning back to the novel still open in front of her. “‘Cause then I’d have to kill you.”

 

Peter laughed, but Ned decidedly did not. “You scare me,” he said, voice so deadpan Peter knew he wasn’t lying. That only made Peter laugh more. “Dude,” Ned hissed at him. “She’s scary.”

 

“I know,” Peter agreed, and just then, someone came up from behind Peter and planted two warm hands on his shoulders.

 

“Petey-pie!” Wade cheered, and Peter jumped probably half a foot out of his seat.

 

He glared at wade as he turned around. “Wade,” he scolded half heartedly. “Warn a guy next time, okay?” Wade only giggled and sat down next to him - extremely close. Peter used to think Wade was flirting with him whenever he did that, but that would be weird because Wade’s an 8th grader; fortunately, Peter recently uncovered the existence of one Vanessa Carlysle, and has since made it his mission to embarrass Wade in front of her at all costs.

 

“How’re you feeling about starting high school soon, Wade?” Ned asked conversationally, picking at the unidentified chopped vegetables Peter gave him with a scrunched up nose.

 

Wade shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s fine,” he responded, sliding a chocolate bar out of his backpack. “Gonna miss you dickwads, though.”

 

Michelle rolled her eyes at Wade’s swearing, but didn’t comment on it. Peter, on the other hand, had never been afraid to get on Wade about it. “You’ve got such a potty mouth,” he said, stuffing his mouth with the sandwich he picked up from the lunch line. “My dad said he’s gonna kill you if you keep cussing in front of me.”

 

“He can’t kill me, I’m immortal. Tell Steve to fight me. And also that I love him.” Wade winked.

 

Pretty much every lunch went this way. Peter had a countdown until summer, and there were only twelve days left, and Peter was very sure that this - sitting with these weirdos, listening to Wade blabber about how hot Peter’s dad was and to Ned groan about how gross Wade was and to Michelle complain about how annoying they all were, this - was the only thing Peter could miss in the summertime.

 

Wade was going to high school in the fall. He could stay at Midtown, if he wanted to, but Wade always talked about how much he wanted to leave. What if Wade didn’t come back next year? And in the summer, what if Peter and Ned and Michelle and Wade all lost touch and stopped being friends? What if Peter was all alone?

 

He stuffed his sandwich further into his mouth. He wouldn’t think about that for now. For now, he’d focus on the sounds of his friends’ conversation delving into chaos while he sat, peacefully, in the middle of it all.

 


 

Steve didn’t hate work.

 

In fact, he loved teaching . Art was his passion, but teaching was too. And ultimately, at the end of the day, Steve couldn’t say he disliked teaching art classes in any way, shape or form. His shift at Color Me Mine wasn’t as great, but Steve did appreciate when he got a friendly customer just looking to have some fun with some paint, and the regulars had started to get to know Steve well enough. And Cardozo High was everything Steve wanted in a job, pretty much; the students were all pretty amazing and even liked him enough to have a little cult for him. (That was, yeah, really weird. But also kind of satisfying and they were harmless little art nerds who asked him about painting a lot.)

 

But there was something Steve hated about work.

 

The parents.

 

Listen, Steve understood them. Hell, he even was one of them. But he also was a teacher , which allowed him the luxury of knowing when his crazy emotional dad side was overpowering the ever logical educated teacher man side. Other parents did not have that luxury. This meant Steve often suffered at the hands of an angry email sent by a poor student’s guardian, who was truly baffled that not turning in any of the assigned work would result in a grade drop. Steve, more than once, had to explain that homework actually did matter and yes, your child is a great artist but that doesn’t make up for the fact that they have four missing assignments .

 

Today was one of those days. Full of emails from badgering parents who really do mean no harm, and he had a meeting with the principal about curriculum, and had a few students turn in late assignments for him to grade (that, he actually appreciated, but just wish they would’ve done it earlier, when there was more than seven days left of school), and he still had Color Me Mine at the end of the school day.

 

By the time Steve got back to the shelter - home , he wanted to say, because it’s home wherever Peter is, but the shelter certainly wasn’t home - he was exhausted. He just wanted to eat something warm and drink something cold and sleep for twelve hours. He expected to see Peter in the room when he got there, but-

 

Peter was nowhere to be found.

 

Well. Peter didn’t have a phone, so this concept - Peter, being out of Steve’s line of sight when he was very much supposed to be - left a gaping hole in Steve’s stomach. He was completely sick at the thought of Peter being anything but in perfect condition, and, worst of all, he couldn’t text Peter to ask because, yeah - no phone .

 

“Have you seen Peter?” Steve asked, perhaps a little hysterically, after running back to the front desk and catching May in between calls.

 

She paused, and shook her head. “No,” she responded with furrowed brows. “But,” she added, “I know he’s been hanging with the Keener boy today. How about I have Clint take you to Harley and you can ask him?”

 

Steve nodded and slumped over the desk. “That’d be great, thanks, May.” Just then, Clint came bouncing around the corner with two curly heads of hair following close behind.

 

“We could put chilli flakes in the- Oh! Hey, Steve,” Clint said cheerfully, if not a little bit breathless. “These monsters enlisted me for pranking. I was forced to do it, I definitely did not agree slash volunteer to partake on my own volition.” Clint definitely directed that last part to May, who sighed, but was grinning nonetheless.

 

“Hey, Dad!” Peter said, jumping out from behind Clint. “Sorry, I was gonna go back up to the room, but I lost track of time. Did I freak you out?”

 

“No,” Steve lied, ignoring the look May was giving him. “I just got back. Haven’t even made it to the room yet.” He shrugged his shoulders, gesturing to the bag he’d not yet put down; he was far too distracted by the idea of Peter being hurt or lost or worse. “Don’t worry about it, bud. What trouble are you causing?”

 

Peter giggled, and his smile doubled in size when the boy standing behind him popped his head out and poked Peter’s side. “So much trouble,” the boy responded, and Steve smiled at him.

 

“Hi there. I’m Steve, Peter’s dad,” he said and stuck his hand out. The boy blinked at him for a minute, but retaliated the handshake.

 

“Hi,” he responded, less confidently than he had been with Peter only moments before, but Steve had expected that. “I’m Harley Keener, sir.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Harley,” Steve said, voice soft and light despite the pitter-patter in his heart that was just barely slowing down. Harley is not a bad guy, Steve told himself. He’s a kid Peter made friends with. Peter made friends!!! “May was just telling me you and Peter have been hanging out.”

 

Peter blushed, and Steve knew he would be getting on Peter’s ass about that in the near future. Harley might have blushed too, Steve thought, but he couldn’t say for sure. Harley nodded, though, clearly comfortable talking to adults for the most part. Steve was impressed.

 

“Anyway,” Peter cut in suddenly, before Steve could push the conversation any further. “Maybe we should finish scheming another time? We could hang out tomorrow, if you want.”

 

Harley beamed at Peter and Steve’s heart exploded into a million little pieces. “Sure,” he said, voice very obviously affected, though Peter was very obviously oblivious. “I’ll see you at dinner, then. And breakfast.”

 

“Yeah,” Peter responded. “And, uh, you too, Clint,” Peter added, a very clear afterthought. Clint was fully unbothered by this, and was watching with May and Steve as the two boys had their little young love moment.

 

Steve slung an arm around Peter’s shoulders. “Alright,” he said, taking pity on Peter and tugging him in close. “Let’s head to our room, huh?” Peter nodded and stumbled along.

 

“So,” Steve said as soon as the door swung shut. “Harley, huh?”

 

“Nope,” Peter squeaked, jumping on the bed and covering his ears. “Not doing this, nopity nope nope. Find another child to harass, I will be sitting here, in peace, ignoring you completely-”

 

“Peter,” Steve chuckled. “I won’t bother you about it. For now. But it’s cute. But you’re too young. But it’s still cute.”

 

Peter sat up and huffed. “I’m almost in 8th grade,” he said with narrowed eyes. “Wade had his first kiss last year. When he was in my grade.”

 

Steve glared at him. “Peter, you are not allowed to kiss anyone. If I find out you are kissing someone, I will have to share embarrassing baby photos with their parents to blackmail you and whoever you’re kissing.”

 

Peter giggled. “Sure,” he said, drawing out the vowel as he rolled his eyes. “Anyways, how was your day? Did you meet any weird old people?”

 

And then Steve said, “I sure did. It was near the end of my shift…”

 


 

There was a recurring dream that Steve kept having. Peter was setting up a picnic table with plates and forks, and Steve was flipping burgers on a grill. Sam, Bucky, and Natasha - Bucky’s partner - were all drinking beers, talking to the group of Peter’s friends over by the picnic table. Peter’s group kept growing; at first, it was just Ned, but in recent dreams, it’s grown to include Wade, Michelle, and as of late, Harley. Steve served Michelle and Natasha veggie burgers. Peter hugged Steve, arms wrapped around his waist and head buried in his chest, hair bristling Steve’s collarbone.

 

It wasn’t real life. Steve had to remind himself. It felt real. He wanted it to be real. But it wasn’t.

 

It was just a dream. It took everything in Steve to wake up, to not stay in dreamland until that world became his reality.

 

Steve woke up.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Steve didn’t wake to an alarm or the sunlight prodding at the backs of his eyelids impatiently. Instead, he woke to a soft but incessant vibration from the phone he had tucked and hidden underneath his pillow. He pulled it out, barely opening his eyes to look at the caller ID, and in his rough, croaky just-woke-up voice, started the call with, “Hello?”

 

“Steve,” a familiar voice breathed back. “Hey. It’s Bucky.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said, somehow both extremely taken aback and not surprised at all. They hadn’t talked much since Steve moved into the shelter, because Steve was - he can admit it - kind of a dick to Bucky. They texted, met for lunch and dinner once or twice, but really, there was an underwhelming tension always lingering between them. Which is why Steve hadn’t really expected Bucky to call him. He wasn’t mad though, not at all; he missed his best friend. “Hey.”

 

Bucky laughed, and it wasn’t as all-consuming or blinding as it would’ve been if it weren’t for the telephone line, but Steve didn’t mind. It was still Bucky’s laugh. “I miss you,” Bucky admitted.

 

Steve huffed out a breath that was part-sigh and part-chuckle. “I miss you too,” he said, voice embarrassingly wet.

 

Before their conversation moved any further, Peter unburied his face from Steve’s warm chest and mumbled, without even pretending to be awake, “Tell Unc’e Buck I miss him th’ mostest. And also if he got me ‘n’ Harley donuts he’d win th’ Best Unc’e comp’tition.”

 

“You catch all of that?” Steve asked Bucky, a little smile dancing on his lips while he looked over at his son, who was wrapped around Steve’s waist like a little koala bear.

 

Bucky snorted. “Pete sounds like he’s drunk,” he teased. “And who’s Harley?”

 

“Peter’s new BFF,” Steve explained, chuckling. “They met yesterday, Peter is definitely in love, and they’re literally inseparable. Today, they’re hanging out again . Apparently, Harley likes donuts and science too.”

 

“Does Mister Peter Benjamin Rogers have a crush? I can’t believe our baby is growing up so fast. I swear, it was literally yesterday when Peter was asking me to build his LEGO thing with him.”

 

Steve chuckled and said, “No, I’m pretty sure that was last Thursday.”

 

In the absence of Bucky’s response, there was the sound of shuffling and quiet whispering through the phone. For a moment, Steve was worried, but after quickly tuning into the distant sounds and being the nosy smartass he was destined to be, he heard a very familiar, far away voice through the phone.

 

He couldn’t make out what the voice was saying, but he knew damn well who it belonged to. “Is that Sam?” Steve asked excitedly. Is Sam at Bucky’s house at 7:00 on a Saturday morning? There aren’t very many explanations for that, and almost all of them are expressly sexual. “Did you two-”

 

“Stuff it, Stevie,” Bucky insisted, cutting him off very effectively. Steve laughed knowingly. “He came over to help with me with the fridge. I told you that, like, two weeks ago.”

 

“Sure,” Steve drawled in response. If he were to close his eyes, he could imagine Bucky’s mouth twitching in that blend of annoyance and amusement he always got around Steve.

 

Bucky paused for a moment. He let out a breath. Steve listened closely, waiting for what he feared could be bad news. Bucky always let out those breaths when he was giving bad news. Instead, though, Bucky said, “I really do miss you, Stevie.”

 

If that didn’t break Steve’s heart, then nothing would. (It did break his heart, of course.)

 

“I miss you too,” Steve responded in a kind of sweet, kind of whiny voice. He could feel Peter laughing at him against the fabric of his t-shirt, which was pressed against his sticky, sweaty skin. “You wanna get together soon?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky answered. “You free today?”

 

Steve laughed breathily. He’d say he was taken aback, but it’s hard to be surprised by Bucky. “Yeah, pretty much.” Finally, Steve pulled himself out of bed and sat up, causing Peter to whine and flop over onto the mattress. In his peripheral vision, he could see Peter roll over and pull the sheet away from Steve and over his own head. “What are you planning?”

 

“Well, if Peter’s doing nerd stuff with his nerd friend, we can do some grown ups activities. Drink beer. Smoke weed. As grown ups do.”

 

Steve rolled his eyes. “I can’t smoke weed, jerk. I’m a father.” Behind him, Peter laughed, and Steve waved a passionate hand over his shoulder to shush him. Steve planted his feet on the ground and stood, moving to where their suitcases sat, open and messy, to flick through what was clean and folded.

 

“Whatever, punk. It’s not like you were ever fun. Becca says that you’re my grandpa friend.” Steve snorted at that, knowing full well that Bucky's sister absolutely said that. She always called Steve grandpa anyway, growing up; apparently, refusing drugs or alcohol in high school only earned you brownie points amongst parents, and never with other teenagers. “Well, I don’t have any weed anyway. What about - um - I don’t know, what do parents do when they’re kids are off?”

 

“Bucky,” Steve said, balancing his phone between his shoulder and ear while he pulled out a pair of jeans and set them on top of the shirt and boxers he was already holding. “I have no clue. This is, like, the first time Pete’s ever rejected me for his friends. I don’t know how to not be his favorite.”

 

“You’re still my favorite,” Peter replied, voice muffled by the pillow his face was stuffed in. “But Harley’s my friend, and you’re - my dad.”

 

“Yes, sweetheart, I am aware that I’m your dad,” Steve told him offhandedly.

 

Peter whined and sat up. Steve didn’t turn around, but he could hear the rustling behind him and have every reason to believe Peter was slouching, slumped over in bed, glaring and pouting at the back of Steve’s head. “It’s too early to be sassy, Mister Captain Dad, sir .”

 

Bucky laughed through the phone, and Steve finally caved, rushing over to the bed and pressing a quick kiss on Peter’s forehead. Peter, who closed his eyes to drop the glare, but left the pout on his lips, reached up and over blindly to pat at Steve’s cheek. If Steve were a schoolgirl, he would call the sound he made giggling , but since he was a pushing-40 veteran, he would decidedly not call it that.

 

“I’m getting dressed right now,” Steve said, lugging his clothes to the little changing area they kept in the corner of their room, away from the viewpoint of the bed. “Seriously. What’s the plan? And what time? I need details, Barnes.”

 

“So demanding,” Bucky teased. “I’ll pick you up. How about I take you, Peter, and Peter’s friend to breakfast? Then we can drop ‘em off somewhere and do our own thing?”

 

Steve grinned, putting Bucky on speaker and throwing his phone on the ground. “You’re on speaker now, by the way. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want the baby to hear.” Ignoring the sounds of protest from Peter on the bed, Steve began changing his clothes, peeling off the dirty sleep shirt and grabbing the clean, freshly washed (thank you, Edwin Jarvis Homeless Center, for the free washing machine), unwrinkled t-shirt. “But, yeah, that sounds good. I’ll get Baby moving.”

 

“Tell Baby I said I love him,” Bucky said.

 

Peter called out in frustration, “Baby is not a baby!”

 

Steve and Bucky only laughed. “Okay, Baby,” Bucky responded, laughing, and Peter groaned. “I’ll see you two later, then.”

 

Before Bucky hung up, Peter shouted, “Love you, Uncle Buck,” and just like every time Peter said that to Bucky, Steve felt his heart crumple and twist and soar in love.

 

“You too, buddy,” Bucky said, and the call clicked off.

 


 

It was only a half an hour later when Bucky rolled up to the shelter in a sleek, black Mercedes-Benz AMG. He parked the car and came inside to the eating area, where Peter and Steve were sitting, along with Harley. The three of them were in a presumably riveting conversation, and only Steve had his back to the entrance, so Peter saw Bucky walk in. Bucky held up his index finger to his lips, effectively shushing Peter, who still had to chew on his lip to keep quiet.

 

Bucky slid into the seat next to Steve, who flinched in surprise. “Hey,” Bucky said smoothly, grinning lightly at Steve’s reaction and nodding at him. “Come here often?”

 

Steve laughed and shoved Bucky away, though there wasn’t all that much strength in it. Bucky knew very well that Steve could hit hard , even before he buffed out in high school, so he could always tell when Steve was pulling his punches and going easy on Bucky. “Knock it off, you weirdo,” Steve told him, attempting seriousness.

 

Bucky shrugged and winked at him. Harley turned to Peter and whispered (very loudly, actually), “Is that your dad’s sugar daddy?” The once laughing Peter morphed into an all out cracking up teenager, as he guffawed and cackled at the question.

 

“No,” Peter said finally, and Bucky snorted. “My dad hasn’t got a sugar daddy yet.”

 

Steve reached over and flicked the soft skin on the inside of Peter’s elbow. Peter didn’t care, clearly, which Bucky thought was very on-brand for the kid. “Stop talking about me like I can’t hear you, Peter.”

 

Peter only laughed some more. And Bucky could feel his heart double in size.

 


 

Bucky took them to Denny’s, obviously. It was Peter’s favorite place to eat, always had been and always would be. Neither Peter, Harley, nor Steve seemed even a little opposed to the idea; God knows how long they’d been eating cafeteria food and snack packs. Bucky didn’t let Steve pay - he never let Steve pay - and insisted they also all get milkshakes to celebrate the weekend. Harley and Peter ordered the same shake - Cookies n’ Creme - and Bucky knew that he and Steve would never let it go. (Steve got a strawberry shake, because he’s disgusting and has no taste, and Bucky ordered the best milkshake at Denny’s: peanut butter banana.)

 

At Denny’s, Bucky was hyper aware of the bones jutting out from Harley’s wrist. Steve had always made extra time to feed Peter, even coddle him a little, but Bucky was pretty sure that Harley had nobody. There was an ugly pang in his chest every time Harley hesitated before reaching for a fry off of Peter’s plate, or for the mozzarella sticks they’d all ordered to share. Bucky remembered growing up poor as dirt, picking at meals, trying to make it all last because he never really knew when he’d eat next. Sarah Rogers always made sure to feed him, even when she was drowning in the undercurrent of poverty.

 

But Harley had nobody.

 

“Harley,” Bucky said, startling the boy. “Steve says you like science.”

 

Harley nodded, slowly, and Bucky gestured for him to continue with a quirked brow and a wave of his hand. “Um, yeah.” Bucky watched as the middle schooler pushed his hashbrowns around on his plate, scooting it away from the rest of his meal. His eyes were unfocused, but unmoving, and glued to a chip in his plate. “E-engineering. And chemistry is cool too, I guess.”

 

“So, building stuff?” Bucky asked curiously. He wasn’t much into building things, but he did like fixing things. Natasha and Sam were both trying to teach him how to expand beyond just motorcycles and cars. “What stuff do you build?”

 

“He has a robot,” Peter butted in over his mouthful of burger. Steve flicked at his bicep.

 

“Chew,” scolded Steve. Peter grinned, lips still pulled open and cheeks puffy from the size of the bite he’d taken.

 

Peter chewed and swallowed, primly patted at his chin for a mess that wasn’t there, and cleared his throat. “Harley builds robots. He’s like, super crazy smart.” Peter turned to Harley, who was looking at Peter with big, heart-shaped eyes and a pinkish sheen to his cheeks. “Tell them about Ab-E,” Peter said, voice softer than it’d been to Bucky and Steve.

 

Harley took in a breath through his nose, rolling his shoulders back and sitting up straight. “The first bot I made is called Ab-E. She doesn’t do much, because I don’t know how to make a bot fully functioning yet, but she’s still super cool. She kinda just runs around and makes funny sounds.”

 

Steve asked, “Is she at the shelter with us?” Harley nodded.

 

“She’s in my room,” he admitted. “I’m scared to take her out, ‘cause, well - you know. People get stuff stolen and I c-can’t lose her.”

 

Bucky didn’t ask why. He didn’t need to. Instead, he nodded, humming his understanding. “That’s really cool,” he said, popping another bite into his mouth. “Especially ‘cause you’re only - wait, how old are you?”

 

“13,” Harley answered shyly.

 

Beside him, Bucky could feel Steve shift nervously. “When’s your birthday?” Steve asked, voice curious, although Bucky knew he was mostly just concerned.

 

“November 23rd.”

 

Peter, around another jumbo-sized bite of food, beamed. “You’re a Sagittarius,” he pointed out. Bucky rolled his eyes. “Sir, zodiac signs are cool and the fact that you hate them is only further proof that you’re a Pisces. You’re cynical, emo, and a sweetheart despite your mega-grump exterior. I rest my case.”

 

Harley laughed, forking at his food again, though now less with nervousness and more to just fiddle with something. “Wait, what are you?”

 

“Leo,” Peter chirped, popping more of his pancakes into his mouth. Damn, this kid can eat , Bucky thought, and the rock in his stomach sunk a little further in realizing that Harley hadn’t really ate much at all.

 

“Apparently, I’m a Cancer,” Steve said, and because he was just inherently a spoilsport, Peter and Harley’s eyes darted away from each other quickly. Harley stuffed a bite of hashbrowns into his mouth.

 

Bucky had to bite down his grin. The way Harley and Peter looked at each other was soft and honest in a way Bucky hadn’t seen in a very, very long time. He wondered if he’d ever even seen it at all. Still, he knew why Steve was nervous. Peter and Harley were both middle school boys, which meant they had chronically explosive tendencies and a horrifying amount of feelings. (Well. Bucky couldn’t help but think that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing between the two of them. It wasn’t so bad at all.)


 

 

Bucky drove Harley and Peter to a park and agreed to let them hang out there and walk back to the shelter as they pleased, so long as they agreed to text Steve on Harley’s phone when they were leaving, and to respond whenever Steve mothered out too hard and texted them first. As soon as Bucky pulled up to the grass field, before he even stopped the car, Peter unbuckled his seatbelt in excitement. Harley laughed at him, but followed suit anyway, scooching closer to him in the backseat. 

 

Bucky and Steve pretended not to notice, even if the latter wasn’t as successful.

 

“You’ll call,” Steve said, in a voice that made it sound half like a question and half like a prayer.

 

Peter nodded and pushed the car door open. “I promise,” he agreed. “Later, Captain Dad, Sergeant Uncle.”

 

Bucky laughed and waved at Peter and Harley, as Steve grabbed Peter’s face and quickly pressed a kiss to his temple, despite the preteen’s whining. Bucky took silent note of Harley’s blue eyes, which seemed to flare up with a quick flash of jealousy, before soothing into something much softer, fonder.

 

“Love you,” Steve and Bucky called in unison after Peter slammed the door shut and Bucky unrolled the window as retaliation.

 

Peter spun and blew a kiss, presumably unashamed. Harley laughed, saying something to Peter that was too quiet for either adult to hear, but funny enough to make Peter double over in laughter.

 

If Steve and Bucky found themselves, less than an hour later, parked outside of the building that held weekly support group meetings for veterans, both holding an XL slushie in one hand and a greasy fast food burger in the other, well…

 

Neither of them would mention it.

 


 

The phone rang when Steve was just calming down.

 

Bucky and Sam were good about therapy, real good, but Steve? Not so much. The guy was a little traditional in his views of masculinity, but only when it came to himself. He was a total hypocrite, raising a kid with absolutely no toxic masculinity, and the best friend of two men who were very comfortable in their own masculinity - but he still couldn’t cry without feeling weak .

 

At first, they ate in silence. Bucky put on the playlist Steve and him had made when Peter was born. (On Bucky’s birthday the following March, Steve gave Bucky a CD of the playlist, which he titled, Uncle Hours . Bucky definitely didn’t cry, but if he did cry, well, who could blame him?)

 

By the third song, Steve had turned his entire body to face Bucky and was animatedly talking about how embarrassing it is to be one of the homeless people the AP Government and Politics class debates about.

 

By the fourth, Bucky was sat with his head bowed, tucked against Steve’s chest, crying.

 

By the fifth, Steve was crying too.

 

And then, it was the eighth song when Steve’s phone rang, a violent trill that startled him into fight-or-flight mode. Bucky tried to calm him down, putting a soft and calloused hand on Steve’s arm, but Steve gently shook him off in favor of answering the call.

 

“Uh - um - M-Mister Steve?”

 

Steve blinked. That voice was Harley’s voice, but he was nervous, and Steve knew in an instant something bad happened. “Harley?” Steve asked sternly. “What happened?” he demanded.

 

Harley cleared his throat and sniffled. He sounds so young, Steve mused. Harley didn’t often sound young. Steve wondered if, in any other situation, it would’ve been pleasant. Instead, right then, it was just wrong. “He isn’t waking up,” Harley whispered, and Steve snapped at Bucky, prompting the man to push the keys into the ignition and turn, starting the car. At the same time, he put the call on speaker.

 

“Tell me what happened,” Steve ordered again. “Harley, what happened to Peter?”

 

There was a pause that was long enough for Steve to register the tear creeping out of his left eye, but not long enough for him to speak again. Harley responded, “There were some older boys here. They wanted my - my shoes. It was stupid. I should’ve just done it. But I got scared, so Peter told them to leave us alone, and then one of them, the tallest one, called Peter a really mean name, and I didn’t know what to do because Peter stood up and - and - he said something about not liking bullies? And then the tall’s one really buff friend like, punched Peter, really hard, and then he hit me too, and then they were beating us up and they took my shoes and now Peter isn’t getting back up.”

 

Steve and Bucky were only a ten minute drive from the park without stops or traffic. Steve thanked every god above him for taking all the cars off the road, even as they teetered closer to the afternoon traffic. “Okay,” Steve croaked, all air once in his lungs now floating around his head, dizzying him. “We’re on our way. Can you do me a favor, Harley?”

 

“Yeah,” Harley agreed, voice barely more than a squeak.

 

Steve squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to cry. His voice cracked as he told Harley, “Put two fingers on his neck. Your index and middle fingers, in the middle of his neck, right above his collarbone. Tell me if you can feel his heart beating.”

 

After a pause, quietly, Harley said, “Yeah. It’s kind of slow, though. Mine - mine’s really fast and his is really, really slow.”

 

“That’s okay,” Steve told him, impossibly relieved. “That’s because of the adrenaline. It’s okay. Hey, we’re almost there. How about you keep your fingers right there on Peter’s neck, okay? Try to slow your heartbeat down a little bit like his. Breathe real slow, okay Harley?”

 

“Okay,” Harley agreed weakly. “Mister Steve? I’m scared.”

 

“I am too,” Steve admitted as Bucky whipped around the corner. “It’s okay to be scared, though. We just have to be really, really brave, and push through the fear, right?”

 

Bucky sped to the parking lot and swung haphazardly into a spot that was more accurately three spots diagonally. “Okay, buddy, we’re here, tell me where you are.”

 

“Behind the slide,” Harley told him, and Bucky took off running.

 


 

The next hour was a blur. Peter, upon first inspection, was probably okay, but there was nothing that Steve could do to stop the pounding and consequent breaking of his heart in his chest. Harley’s blue eyes were blown wide with fear, and Steve could barely spare him a glance as he lifted Peter into his arms and carried him to the backseat of Bucky’s car. Harley sat up front, Bucky holding his hand. Steve didn’t notice until after.

 

When they arrived at the Emergency Room, a nurse helped Steve place Peter on a bed. Peter was still unresponsive, which was really the scariest part; he wasn’t all that bloody, except his head, although Steve knew logically head wounds bleed the most, and he didn’t appear to have any broken bones. Even after being hooked up to an IV and checked out by a doctor and numerous nurses, Peter was still, at best, a third of the way conscious. Every once in a while, he huffed or shuffled in his sleep.

 

Peter was moved to a room in the hospital pretty quickly. Harley and Bucky sat outside, on the ground with their backs against the wall. Steve knew they were talking, the hushed voices echoing around the corners of the room evidence of such, but he couldn’t bother participating. He wouldn’t leave Peter’s side until Peter blinked awake.

 

Well, he thought he couldn’t. But every second spent with Peter unconscious and Harley wide awake, Steve grew increasingly upset. There was a bundle of nerves tying a knot in his chest and he knew, logically, he should have been mad at the teenagers who beat up his baby and his baby’s best friend, but really, all he could think about was how much bigger Harley was than Peter, and how Peter still ended up protecting him .

 

He stomped outside. Swung the door open. Harley’s face, which was once streaked with tears, peered up at him both curiously and nervously. Bucky seemed unfazed, if not a little annoyed.

 

“You’re a head taller than him,” Steve hissed.

 

Harley blinked at him. He nodded, slowly. “Yeah,” he agreed, voice laced with confusion. “Peter’s kinda short.”

 

“You’re a head taller than him, you’re a year older than him, you - you’re stronger than him. You should’ve protected him.”

 

Bucky shook his head and moved to stand, but before he could, Steve barreled on. “He’s - he’s so little for his age. He’s little and scrawny and you should’ve protected him . But instead, he protected you. He’s just a kid, he-”

 

“Steve,” Bucky said, putting a hand on Steve’s arm. “Harley’s just a kid too. He’s Wade’s age.”

 

“Wade would have protected Peter,” Steve insisted, and that probably wasn’t untrue, but it certainly was unnecessary. “Peter is so fucking little. He’s small. He shouldn’t have been sticking up for Harley.”

 

“There was this little guy I used to know, from Brooklyn. He was so small that he used to stuff newspapers into his shoes so he’d seem taller. And he never backed down from a fight. Strongest guy I ever met. You know who he reminds me of?” Steve rolled his eyes, but Bucky ignored him. “Peter,” he said, voice firm and eyes watery. “Steve, Peter was just doing what you always taught him to do. Stand up to bullies. Fight for what’s right. Protect your friends. What the hell was Harley supposed to do? Our baby threw himself at some asshole teenagers for Harley’s shoes. What was Harley supposed to do?”

 

You see, Bucky wasn’t wrong. Actually, he was very much right . It’s not that Steve didn’t know this was the case; really, it’s more that Steve was pissed off because he was very well acquainted with that fact. Steve wanted to huff and puff and stomp back to Peter’s bedside, wanted to toss something at the back of Bucky’s head hard enough to make the guy flinch, wanted to rip his hair out and scream.

 

But Steve didn’t want to make Harley cry, and that’s exactly what Harley was doing.

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve croaked after almost a minute. “I’m sorry, Harley.” He knelt in front of the teenager, who, bless the Lord, didn’t flinch away. “I shouldn’t have blamed you. I know it isn’t your fault. You must have been really scared, huh?” Harley nodded. “I would’ve been too. But it was really good you called us, and took care of Peter until we got there.”

 

Steve wanted to curl up in a ball and bawl until he knew Peter was going to be okay, but there was Peter’s new bestie to take care of for now, and that’s what mattered. Everyone told Steve that Peter was going to be okay. Steve just had to believe them.

 


 

Peter woke up fifteen minutes after Harley, Bucky, Sam, and Steve shuffled into his room. Bucky had called Sam, who came as soon as he could leave work, after Peter got moved to a room. Once Harley stopped crying and the coil in Steve’s chest unraveled just the slightest, they made their way, with the help of Sam and Bucky, to Peter’s bedside. Harley curled up, knees pressed against his chest, in the plastic chair underneath the windows. Sam and Bucky leaned against each other on the opposite side of the bed, facing Steve and Harley, backs to the wall. Steve pretended he didn’t see Sam’s arm curled around Bucky’s waist.

 

“Dad,” Peter whispered, and that coil in Steve’s chest tore apart and shattered until he was weightless once more.