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Hands of Clay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids were weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pew pew!" Natasha exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Bucky?"

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

"Steve?"

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

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

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

"Who's Bucky?" Natasha demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We saw dinosaurs," Clint told Natasha.

Natasha considered this. "Were they real dinosaurs?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Uh huh," Clint said, nodding enthusiastically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clint's mother.

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

"Damn it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text


Natasha was down for a much-delayed nap, giving James the time to put away the groceries, when his phone pinged with a text.

Nah Clint's mom is in England plus we're not together so no. subtle btw. What about Natasha's mother?

James read the text three times, then set the phone back on the counter without responding. He wasn't sure what to say to Steve. Yeah, they had been best friends as kids, but decades lay between them now; twenty years and a few lifetimes.

James finished putting the milk in the fridge, lining up Natasha's favorite single-serving milk cartons along the bottom shelf so the girl could reach them without pestering her old man. Soon enough, she would be big enough to pour from the big milk jug and wouldn't need him any more.

Closing the fridge door, James went back to his phone. The harness strap for his prosthesis was digging into his ribs, but he was nearly done. Soon, he could take off the metal arm for the day, set the high-tech marvel on his dresser, and be a one-armed cripple once more.

No, James typed. ill explan tmmrw. is there anythng clint cant eat?

No allergies, him or me, came the nearly instantaneous response. He has a vendetta against vegetables at the moment tho. He loves chocolate milk. I try to keep him away from too much juice.

James stared at the phone's screen, wondering at this strange intimacy. Somewhere in the city, Steve was doing the same thing, waiting for James to type out another message and send it to him.

Mouth dry, James wrote, no chollcate here – nat found the choco syrp bttle last mnth and drank it.

:D:D, then, I'll bring juice boxes for Clint. Should I bring anything else?

wel make sandwichs so no. c u at 12?

Of course :)

James tossed the phone onto the counter, wondering what the fuck he was doing. He'd told himself time and again that he needed to stop pining after straight boys, especially beautiful blond straight boys like Steve Rogers. He was only going to set himself up for disappointment, and he had too much on his plate to handle this kind of emotional bullshit.

He had responsibilities now. He was a father, had a good job, a nice house. There was no place in his life for love, especially when it came to flights of fancy about his straight childhood friend.

James just wished that reminder didn't come with such a crushing sense of loneliness.


About an hour later, Natasha stumbled down the stairs, yawning and sleep-tousled. She crawled up onto James' lap, resting her cheek on his chest and closing her eyes again.

James put his right arm around Natasha, feeling her breathing steadily. Every day, he thanked the stars and the fates and whatever else was listening for Natasha, for her health, for the miracles of modern medicine had kept her alive in that pediatric ICU ward, machines bigger than her tiny body breathing for her until her lungs healed enough for her to breathe on her own.

Now, five years later, Natasha showed few signs of her start in life, only the odd spot of breathlessness when she over-exerted herself in dance class or at the playground. She used a daily inhaler to keep her lungs clear, and her bedroom was outfitted with an air purifier and humidifier for the bad days. But she was just a normal, healthy, happy little girl.

"Daddy," Natasha said, blinked up at him. "You took your arm off."

"I did." The metal arm was up in his bedroom, recharging in its stand on his dresser. "I didn't need to wear it any more today."

Natasha cuddled up to him, rubbing her face against his chest and, James noted with deep parental resignation, wiping snot on his shirt. "Are you sad?" she asked after a moment, gripping at his shirt. Her eyes were wide and steady, bright green in the late afternoon sun coming in at the windows.

James took a moment before he answered. Natasha was such a sensitive little girl, but like most children, completely self-centered. If her daddy was sad, she would think it was her fault.

James put his hand around her ribs and lifted her up into a hug. She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed with all her might. "I'm a little sad," James said, kissing the side of Natasha's head. "But it's because of things that happened to me so long ago, before I ever met you."

Natasha shifted on his lap, her bony little knees digging into his thighs. "Who made you sad?" she demanded.

James reached out with the stump of his left arm to steady Natasha as she wiggled. "People who can't make me sad anymore." Natasha pulled back so she could look at James. "Do you know what's the most important thing in the world to me now?"

Natasha shook her head.

"You are." James poked Natasha in the tummy, and the girl's mouth turned up into a smile. "You make me the happiest daddy in the whole wide world."

The delight on Natasha's face was a sight to behold. "In the whole world?"

"Absolutely."

"Even in Detroit?"

"Yes."

"Even in Australia?"

Wondering a bit at the geographical knowledge of a five-year-old, James said, "Yes."

"Even in Sesame Street?"

"Everywhere!" James said with a smile, tickling Natasha and sending her into fits of giggles. "Everywhere you are, that makes me happy."


James woke early on Sunday. Natasha's afternoon nap the previous day kept her up until ten and she was still sleeping when James peeked in at her bedroom door. Taking a moment to straighten the covers, James left Natasha to sleep the morning out.

With the unexpected free time, James went down to his workout room in the basement and set to his usual routine, on machines that had been modified with attachments for him to be able to work his left side. James moved through his routine with less attention than normal, because this was the day Steve Rogers was coming to his house.

He didn't understand why he was so worried. Steve had been over to his house a million times when they were kids. Steve had been in foster care nearly his whole life, a scrawny kid who didn't know when to keep his mouth shut. He was always getting into trouble, and James used to tell Steve that he was lucky he was so smart because otherwise he'd have been kicked out of school six ways from Sunday.

They were best friends for over five years, from the first day of second grade to that awful day just after they both turned twelve and Steve had shown up at James' place with the news that he was being adopted and taken away to New Jersey and it felt like James' life was just ending.

James had tried to keep up with Steve after he moved away to New Jersey, really he did, but missing Steve had hurt so much. The letters James did write were pathetic things, and eventually stopped. He had Steve's last letter, sent a year after he left, still unopened in a box of things James' mother saved after he joined the Army.

His parents were dead now, his dad to an accident when James was in high school, his mother to cancer while he was in Iraq. His sister Rebecca lived in Oregon and they hadn't talked since she told him he was making a mistake in adopting Natasha.

Not for the first time, James wondered what his parents would have made of him adopting Natasha. His dad would have been outraged that James would take in some sickly infant (and her mother an illegal too, deported back to Russia) while his mother would have masked her worry with solicitude all while telling James he had no idea how to care for a baby and it might be best if he gave her up 'for her own good'.

James loved his parents, but fuck that.

Natasha was the best thing that ever happened to him.


2009

As with so many things in James' life, it was all Nick Fury's fault.

Fury, former Army Ranger, current deputy director of New York's Child Protective Services and full-time manipulative bastard, found James in the lobby of the hospital where he was undergoing specialized treatment for the remains of his left arm, and chivvied him up and along until they got to the pediatrics ward.

James argued with Nick the whole way, feeling sick and weak and sorry for himself. He just wanted to go home, and Nick responded with, "You can go home. Not everyone is as lucky."

They were at the glass window then, separating the ICU from the hallway. Nick pointed out a bed by the window; all James could see were tubes. Then the tubes moved, and James could make out a baby nearly hidden under all that medical equipment.

"Whooping cough, complicated by pneumonia," Nick said, glaring at James with his good eye. "She's two months old and she's probably going to die."

James touched the glass, unable to take his eyes off the baby. She was so small, she didn't even look real.

"The birth mother signed off on the adoption and we were going to put the baby up for placement when one of the other children in the foster home brings home whooping cough from school." Nick made a sound in his throat. "It's 2009 and I got kids with fucking whooping cough."

"Is she…" James closed his mouth before asking if the baby was going to be okay, Nick had just said she was going to die. So instead he asked, "What's her name?"

The look on Nick's face had at the time been impossible to read, but later James realized that it was an expression of triumph. "Her birth mother put Natalia on the birth certificate, but in the adoption interviews she kept calling the baby Natasha."

Natasha. James watched as the baby opened and closed her fist, her fingers so white they were nearly blue. "Why is she all alone in there?"

"ICU's a busy place," Nick said. "Nurses got stuff to do."

"Don't you have people waiting to adopt white babies?" James asked, rubbing his hand on his jeans. His left side ached with the weather, and he wanted to go home and wallow in his own misery.

"People want healthy white babies, not dying little girls."

"Why did you bring me here?" James demanded, his voice drawing attention from the nurses' station at the end of the hall. "What's the game, Nick?"

"The game, Sergeant, is simple." Nick took a step towards him. "There's a little girl in there, and I thought you might want to crawl out of your hole long enough to make sure she's not alone."

"You're an asshole," James said, moving away from the glass. "You can't order me around anymore, you got out of this game years ago."

Nick didn't say anything as James stalked off down the hall.

James made it as far as the hospital lobby. He should have left, gone home and left Nick Fury to his responsibilities, but the gift shop was open and he found himself walking inside, looking at the teddy bears and tiny balloons, and wondering if the baby (Natasha, he said to himself; she might be a baby but she had a name) had ever been given a toy.

Twenty minutes later, he was back outside the paediatric ICU, a little green teddy bear in his hand and a paperback in his back pocket.

He half-hoped the nurses would send him away, but they just checked his name against the list of verified visitors for Natasha Romanova (James could see his name written in Fury's scrawl on the ledger) and got him into scrubs and gloves and a mask and sent him into the room.

The room itself was quiet and warm, beeping noises coming from the various machines. A nurse sat James down at the baby's bedside and told him to buzz before he came out, so they could decontaminate him.

So James sat and looked at the baby. She had an oxygen tube taped in place and an IV needle in her arm. When James touched her hand, she blinked at him, her eyes frighteningly green in her pale face.

"Hi there," James said, feeling like a fool. "I'm James, I'm a friend of Nick Fury. He's off somewhere making sure you're taken care of."

The baby grabbed his finger. She was so small, her whole hand could barely wrap around his finger. How could she be two months old already?

"It's nice to meet you," James said, giving the tiny hand a shake. "Nick tells me you're having a hard time."

The baby breathed noisily, but she wasn't coughing and James figured that had to be something. Carefully, he extracted his hand from the baby's grip to retrieve the book. The gift shop clerk said it was good for little girls, whatever that meant, and anyway, a baby this young wouldn't know what he was saying.

"So," James said, fumbling open the pages one-handed. "Here we go, I hope you like it." He cleared his throat. "Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted…"

He read slowly, stumbling over the words in places. He hadn't talked much since he was shipped back to the States without his arm. But the baby didn't criticize him, didn't call him dumb or cripple or any of the other words rattling about his head. She just listened to his voice, waving her hands and feet listlessly, but her eyes never left him.

Just as James was describing how the girl Sarah was meeting a very spoiled child named Lottie, the baby's breathing changed. It took James a moment to realize that the soft hitching was Natasha trying to draw breath, to cough, but something was wrong.

A moment later, two nurses materialized at Natasha's bedside, one of them firmly moving James out of the way. They moved with assurance as they tended the baby on the hospital bed.

James couldn't take his eyes off the little girl. She was so small, so sick, and the only people she had to look out for her were the hospital staff. No parents, no family. No one cared.

Once the baby was breathing easier, one of the nurses herded James out of the ward, took him through the decontamination process, and eventually kicked him out into the hallway.

He stood looking through the glass for a while, watching as the nurses settled the baby. She wasn't even strong enough to cry like a baby should. James remembered how his younger sister cried as a baby – at two months, she was loud enough to wake the dead.

It wasn't right that this baby couldn't even cry when she was cold or scared.

James left the hospital and wandered around for a while, for once barely noticing the double-takes of strangers at this man with the empty sleeve.

He ended up at Nick Fury's office, and after a bit of an altercation with the front desk clerk, found himself sitting across the desk from the man himself.

"I know what you're doing," James announced.

"Do you now?" Nick demanded, leaning back in his chair. "What's that, exactly?"

James rubbed his hand against his pant leg, remembering the way the baby had gripped his fingers. "You said it, who would want to adopt a sick kid?"

"Is that what I said?" Nick heaved himself to his feet and walked around to close the office door. "You think this is some grand scheme to get some disabled Army vet to adopt a baby? Do you even know what to do with a baby?"

"I know which end the food goes in," James shot back.

"You're a damned fool, thinking a one-armed ex-Ranger can take care of a baby." Nick picked up a thick packet of paper from the desk and tossed it to James. "Fill all that shit out, then we'll talk."

James glanced through the first few pages. It was an application to adopt. "I didn't say I'd do this," he protested, albeit a little weakly.

"Do you know how much infant ICU care costs in this country?" Nick asked, seating himself. "And if, and I stress if, that little girl survives the next few months, how many parents are going to be lining up to pay for her medical insurance? Does the phrase 'pre-existing conditions' mean anything to you?"

James spread his hand over the packet of papers, taking a deep breath. He might not know where this was going to go, but he was here and he couldn't walk away from someone who needed him, not now. "I can get her on my benefits."

"You also need to feed her," Nick said. "Clothes, shoes, schoolbooks. You think you can hack that?"

Sitting up straighter, James glared back at Nick. "She needs someone to take care of her."

Nick's silent appraisal was unsettling, but James made himself sit still. "She's not a puppy," Nick said after a while. "You start this, Barnes, you better be damned sure you're going to stick around until she leaves for college."

College. James mind filled in the blanks on that one. College was eighteen years away, eighteen long years of school and summer camps and sports lessons and dentist's visits. Since he'd lost his arm, he'd barely thought beyond the next week, let alone years.

Maybe Nick saw something on James' face, because the other man asked, "Why are you doing this?"

James looked down at the stack of papers. "I was…" He cleared his throat. "I was reading to her today, and she kept looking at me like no one ever read to her before." He fiddled with the edges of the paper. "It's no start in life to be lying in a hospital bed. I guess I get it."

A long silence, then Nick said, "She still might not make it, Barnes. She is really sick."

James swallowed. Only four hours before, he'd been standing in the hospital lobby feeling sorry for himself, and now he was trying to adopt a baby that might not even survive the week. "Then someone should be there. So she's not alone."

Nick sighed, looking about twenty years older. "Get the hell out of my office," he said. "Go fill out that  paperwork, I pay a lot of people to figure all this  out for me."

James stood. "Thanks, I guess." He turned around to go.

"Barnes." James stopped. "Don't fuck this up."

James spent the night filling out the paperwork, carefully printing tiny blue words on the thin paper, and was at the hospital the next day when visiting hours opened. Maybe it was his imagination, but little Natasha seemed to be doing better. He read to her for a little bit, stopping when it seemed that Sarah Crewe's fates were about to change, then showed her a video of some cats he had on his phone. The baby waved her hands, trying to grab at the phone until James took it away.

"There's a bunch of people who don't think you're strong enough to beat this," he said, letting her grab his thumb. "What do you say we prove them wrong, huh Natasha?"


James was drawn out of his memories by the sound of the television on the floor above. He paused mid-pushup to listen. From the sounds of things, Natasha and the Chinese army were about to get down to the business of defeating the Huns.

James finished his workout and went upstairs. In the living room, Natasha was singing along with the movie, hopping around in her interpretation of a training montage. James smiled at the little girl's intensity as she kicked and punched the air.

"Morning, sweetheart," James called over the music.

"Not now, Daddy!" Natasha scolded, never taking her eyes off the television. "I'm busy!"

"Uh huh." James picked up the remote control to pause the movie. Natasha let out a bellow of outrage and tried to grab the remote from his hand. "We've got people coming over today, are you going to be ready?"

Natasha put her hands on her hips and glared up at him. "Of course I am!" she exclaimed.

James handed Natasha the remote control. "I have to take a shower. Can you wait to have breakfast until I'm done?"

Natasha pushed the button to rewind the movie to the start of the musical number. "Yes. Go away, you stinky." She hit play.

James gave his shirt a sniff as he climbed the stairs. He didn't smell too bad. He'd been working hard for over an hour, he was bound to sweat.

"Kids," he muttered to himself as he shucked off his clothes and headed into the shower. He took his time, washing his hair with the special shampoo that made his hair shine, and using the sandalwood-scented body wash Natasha made him buy. After his shower, James shaved carefully with one of his safety razors, instead of the electric razor he used most days.

This was not a date, he told himself firmly. This was about Natasha and Clint having a play date, not about James getting to see his childhood crush again after over twenty years.

In the bedroom, James strapped on his arm before reaching for his last clean shirt. He'd have to go to the drycleaners that week, he thought absently as he buttoned the shirt, the metal hand working carefully on the small buttons. If he dropped Natasha off at school early on Wednesday, he could squeeze the trip in before he had to head into the city for a meeting with some clients.

Taking one last look in the mirror, James went back downstairs.

Natasha had grown bored with Mulan and was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping from one of her small milk cartons. "Daddy!" she squeaked when he entered the room. "You're so pretty!"

James doubted that, but for Natasha, pretty was the highest compliment a person could receive. "Thank you, sweetheart. What do you want for breakfast?"

"Pancakes." Natasha slid off her chair and wandered over to James. "Up me."

James lifted Natasha onto the counter, then started to arrange the fixings for the Barnes family Sunday pancakes. As soon as Natasha was old enough to hold a wooden mixing spoon, she'd insisted on helping James with the pancakes. By that point, James was used to the incredible mess Natasha could make merely by existing, and if half the pancake mix ended up on the girl instead of in the bowl, well, it would wash off.

Today, Natasha was quiet as she stirred the batter. Not even James asking her to set the table could draw a response.

Finally, when they were sitting down to eat, Natasha stabbed her pancakes with her fork and said, "What if he doesn't like me?"

James paused, syrup bottle in hand. "Who?"

Natasha rested in her chin in her hand, looking pensive. "The boy."

"Clint?" At her nod, James set the syrup down. "Come here." He waited as Natasha slid off her chair and walked around to climb up into his lap. "You are a very likeable girl," he told her once she had settled herself. "But you know what? Not everyone likes everyone else all the time."

Natasha frowned. "But I want him to like me."

"I know." James bounced her on his knee, making Natasha smile. "But we can't control if other people like us. All we can do is to be ourselves and say please and thank you and if someone doesn't like you, that's okay."

The little speech was copied nearly word-for-word off one of the parenting blogs James read, but Natasha didn't know that and besides, James wasn't really good at putting things like that into words on his own.

"But I want him to like me," Natasha said, her lower lip out in a pout. "He has a bow and arrow, and he likes dinosaurs!"

"We'll just see what happens, won't we?" James kissed Natasha's cheek and set her on the ground. "Go eat, your pancakes are getting soggy."

As breakfast continued, James found that he was also worried about the lunch date that afternoon. He didn't know if he and Steve had anything in common any more, besides children of a similar age. Hell, the man James had been after he came home from Iraq missing his arm was far different than who he'd been before he shipped off for his first deployment.

"Daddy, I'm done," Natasha announced as she pushed her plate away.

And she was, fingers covered in syrup, blueberry mashed on her chin. James swallowed one last bite and gestured to Natasha to follow him. "We need to get you cleaned up before the ants get you and carry you to their nest."

"The ants won't get me!" Natasha squealed, and dashed off to the bathroom.

Half an hour later, Natasha was cleaned and brushed, and James was left trying to blot out the water stains on his shirt while Natasha considered her wardrobe. It took twenty minutes of negotiations to talk Natasha out of wearing her pink sparkling princess dress ("But you're dressed up, Daddy!") and into something that wouldn't get too wrecked when she ended up rolling in the dirt.

By eleven o'clock, James was slumped on the sofa, exhausted. The breakfast dishes hadn't been done, the living room was a mess, and he'd looked in the fridge and realized that he didn't have any mayo for sandwiches. This was going to be a disaster.

And then his phone beeped.

We still good for 12? came Steve's text. Can I bring anything?

James stared at the message for a long moment, wondering if Steve had somehow developed telepathic capabilities. i have no mayo :( can u brng that?

Of course :D see you soon.

With a groan, James hauled his aching body to its feet. "Nat!" he shouted. His daughter appeared at the top of the stairs. "Give your old man a hand in the kitchen, will you?"


At exactly twelve o'clock, Natasha and James were sitting on the front stoop watching the road. Natasha was vibrating with excitement.

"Daddy, do you think the boy will like me?"

"His name is Clint, and of course I do."

"How do you know?"

"Because you're a nice person."

"Will I like him?"

"Probably."

"Do you like him?"

"I don't even know him yet."

"But will you?"

"Probably."

Natasha paused in her questions to run to the bottom of the steps to peer out along the sidewalk. James leaned back, enjoying the sunshine. It was going to be a hot summer, but for now, the weather was perfect.

Natasha ran back up the stairs and climbed onto James' lap. He put his metal arm around her. "Daddy," Natasha said, grabbing a handful of his shirt, "How do you be friends?"

James smoothed the hair back from her forehead. "Well," he said, searching his memory to find the last time he'd tried to make a friend. Probably when he was in basic training. "You can find something that you're both interested in, and then you can talk about that thing, and be friends."

To his adult ears, the explanation sounded weak, but Natasha's eyes were wide and considering. "How do you know if they like the things you like?"

"You ask." James eased his shirt out of her grip, smoothing out the wrinkles. "And if they don't like that thing, you can find something else."

"What were you and Mr. Rogers friends about?"

James pushed his hair back behind his ear. "Honestly, Nat, I can't remember any more. It was too long ago."

"How long?"

"I met Steve when I was seven."

"How old are you now?"

"Thirty-two."

Natasha's mouth opened into a little round O. "Daddy, you're old!"

"I am not," James protested. Natasha started giggling. "You're old."

"Daaaaaddy!"

Before things devolved, James caught sight of Steve's blond head bobbing down the street. James stood up, slung Natasha over his shoulder, and walked down the steps to meet their guests.

Steve looked even better than he had the day before. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and khakis, and he was so happy to see James that James didn't know what to do.

As usual, Natasha saved him. "Hi!" she shouted, waving from James' shoulder. Clint waved back. "Daddy, down!"

James swung Natasha to the ground and stood waiting nervously as Steve and Clint approached. The little boy was holding Steve's left hand, while in his other hand, Steve was carrying a sports bag. It was just incongruous enough to snap James out of his uncertainty.

"Did you find the place okay?" James asked.

Steve nodded. "Yeah, it was easy."

"We took the subway!" Clint chimed in.

At James' side, Natasha took a step forward. "I like the subway," she said.

"I got to swipe the card," Clint told Natasha. "It was cool."

"Cool," Natasha repeated in a whisper.

"All right," James interrupted this little conclave. "Let's go inside and have some lunch."

"Good idea," Steve said, and James led the way up the steps into the brownstone.

He opened the inside door and gave Natasha a pat on the back to go in first, then held the door for their guests. Steve maneuvered past, handling boy and bag. James caught a whiff of Steve's cologne, something warm and fresh. He stopped himself from leaning forward to get a better smell because one does not go around smelling straight boys and not expect to get punched.

There was an awkward silence once the door closed. James didn't know if he should suggest they eat right away. He cleared his throat. "So, this is it."

Steve put the sports bag on the floor. "This is a nice place," he said. "Just you and Natasha?"

"Yeah."

Natasha, who had been staring at Clint, said, "I'm five and one-quarter. How old are you?"

"I'm almost six."

"Do you go to school?"

"Uh huh."

"Me too." Natasha stuck her tummy out and swayed in place for a moment, then said, "Do you want to see my spiders?"

"Okay," Clint said immediately. Natasha took Clint's hand and led him toward the basement stairs.

The expression on Steve's face was one of bemused tolerance. "She has toy spiders?"

James, who was watching his daughter with concern, said, "No," and followed the children down the stairs.

In the basement, Natasha guided Clint past the exercise room, past the laundry room, and down the hallway to the closed red door set far back in the house. As she went up on her tip-toes to open the door, something touched the small of James' back and he nearly jumped out of his skin.

"This is a spooky welcome," Steve said, his mouth so close to James' ear that James could feel Steve's breath warm on the side of his neck.

Swallowing hard, James said, "We keep all of our lunch guests down here."

"Good, I wouldn't want to feel left out."

With a mighty shove, Natasha pushed back the door bolt and pulled the door open. "Come on!" she said to Clint, and hauled him into the dim storage room.

"Where are the spiders?" Clint asked, a trace of uncertainty in his voice.

"I show you." As James leaned against the doorframe to watch, Natasha picked up the old flashlight and pointed it at the far wall, behind the dust-covered stroller. "There they are!"

And so they were; spider webs draped across the wall, with small black and brown spots sitting in the middle of the webs.

"Wow," Clint said, his eyes wide. "Are they all yours?"

"Yes," Natasha said proudly. "This is my spider family."

Steve, standing in the doorway beside James, said in a quiet voice, "You look pole axed."

"I can't figure out when she's ever been down here without me," James said, while Natasha told Clint the names of her spiders.

"You're not afraid of spiders, are you?"

"Shut up," James said, pushing his elbow into Steve's ribs. Steve let out a breathy chuckle, and James' insides started to melt. Twenty years after he developed his first crush on skinny little Steve Rogers, and the man was even more wonderful than he remembered.

"I don't know if I like spiders," Clint was saying. "They can't fly."

"Some can," Natasha said.

Clint put his left index finger in his mouth and chewed on the knuckle. "I think I like birds better."

"Birds are okay," Natasha said. "They eat spiders."

"I have a book about birds," Clint said, his chest puffing up with importance. "Do you want to see?"

Natasha jumped up and down, the flashlight sending weird light dancing around the room. "I do!"

Clint rushed over to Steve. "Daddy, did we bring the bird book?"

"Of course we did," Steve said fondly, reaching down to ruffle Clint's hair. "It's in the bag upstairs."

"Come on!" Clint said to Natasha. Natasha shoved the flashlight at James and ran after Clint.

As the footsteps retreated, James switched off the flashlight and put it back inside the room. "Kids."

"Yeah, they're a handful," Steve said, moving back into the hallway while James closed up the storage room. "Natasha's a great kid."

James slid the bolt home. "She's the best thing that ever happened to me."

"I know what you mean." Steve was staring at James, his arms crossed over his chest. Somehow, in the dim light of the corridor, James could see his old friend in this large man, and it helped ease the distance of twenty years. "Clint… well, me and his mother fucked up, but Clint… Yeah. He's great."

"You're divorced?" James asked, turning in the direction of the upstairs. He couldn't hear the children and it was making him nervous.

"Never got to the marrying part," Steve confessed, falling in step with James. "I met Sharon when I was dating her cousin in college, and Sharon and me spent some time together after I moved back to New York, but we never planned for Clint. Still, best surprise I ever had."

James, who still spent some time with Nick Fury, knew more statistics around custody and family make up than most men his age. "You've got custody of Clint?"

Steve nodded. "Sharon's job is all over the place and we thought it would be better if Clint had a stable home."

The man's voice was even and happy; no suppressed anger or irritation when he spoke about Clint or the boy's mother. That eased James' mind a bit. He knew too many men, with custody or without, who resented their children's mothers and that tainted their interactions with their kids.

"What about Natasha?" Steve asked as they came up onto the main floor.

James held off on answering, for even thought the children had only been alone for thirty seconds, they had already managed to turn the place into a disaster. The contents of Steve's sports bag were strewn across the living room floor, clothes and smaller bags and food. Clint and Natasha were sprawled on their tummies, pouring over a large book, each of them with a juice box clutched in their hands.

James rolled his eyes. "Come on, into the kitchen," he said, waving his hands at the children. Clint got to his feet without complaint, but Natasha grumbled the entire way.

Once the kids were installed at the table with the book, James went back to help Steve gather up his belongings. "You always travel this light?" James teased Steve.

"You don't?" Steve tossed a jar of mayonnaise at James. "If I bring it with me, Clint doesn't need it. If I don't… well, you know."

"Yeah." James kicked a small first-aid kit over to Steve. "For us, it's usually got glitter on it, though."

"No glitter for Clint," Steve said, shoving the last of the clothing into the bag. "Just purple. Lots of purple."

Peals of childish laughter sounded from the kitchen. Steve smiled, but the expression was enough of a slip for James to see how exhausted he was. "You want some coffee?" James asked.

"Hell yeah."

In the kitchen, Clint was standing on one leg on his chair, his arms outstretched. Natasha was laughing up at him.

"Off the furniture!" Steve said, hurrying over to the table. James left them to it, putting the mayonnaise in the fridge and going to fiddle with the coffee maker. By the time the coffee was ready, Steve had settled the children and was reading to them from the book. Natasha was looking at the page, following along with Steve's recitation, but Clint was staring up at his dad with wide eyes.

"That's a good story," Natasha said, when Steve turned the page. "Daddy, Mr. Rogers tells good stories."

"Yes, he does," James said. "Do you guys want to read more, or do you want to show Clint the back yard?"

"Back yard!" Natasha screeched, flinging herself off the chair. "Come see my garden!"

Clint was reluctant to leave his book, but he picked up his juice box and followed Natasha.

James let Steve get his own coffee, and was sitting on the back step watching the children poke around the raised garden boxes when Steve joined him. They sat in comfortable silence, watching Natasha and Clint look at the small green sprouts and pat around in the dirt.

"This is nice," Steve said after a while. "It's a great place for a kid."

"Yeah." James rested his metal arm on his knee, shifting around to take the weight off his ribs. "It's a quiet neighborhood, doesn't get too crazy."

"Good." Steve put down his cup. "Is this the part where I can ask about Natasha's mother?"

"If you want to." James watched as Natasha lifted up a double handful of dirt and looked meaningfully at Clint. James let out a whistle. "We do not rub dirt on other people!" he yelled.

Natasha frowned at him as if he'd taken away her favorite toy, but she put the dirt back down.

"We also don't rub dirt on ourselves," Steve chimed in, as Clint looked meditatively at the garden box. "Got it?"

Clint made a face as he and Natasha wandered over to the base of the large oak tree in the corner of the small yard.

"We should take them down to the beach some day, let them get dirty," Steve said. "Remember us doing that when we were kids?"

James did; hazy summer days on the beach with Steve, his parents far off in the distance with his little sister. Then Steve had gone off to New Jersey with his new family and that was that. "We could do that."

By the base of the tree, Natasha was showing Clint how to make little patterns with the small stones. Her auburn hair shone like rubies in the sunlight, a contrast to Clint's dark-gold.

"Natasha's adopted," James said after a minute. "I don't know where her mother is, I think she was deported. She could have taken the kid with her back to Russia, but she just didn't want anything to do with the baby. She was adamant that the kid stay in the States."

Steve was staring at James. "You're sure?"

James shot Steve a glare. "Yeah, I'm sure." His lawyer had insisted on reviewing the files on the birth mother while the adoption was being finalized, and James had seen the redacted deposition that the mother had given Child Services. "They put Natasha into a foster home right after she was born, but she got sick, like real sick. That's when I met her, when she was in the hospital."

"And you adopted her."

"Yeah." James rubbed his eyes. "Well, no, you know how it goes. When they let her out of the hospital I took her home as a foster parent. The adoption was finalized when she was a year and a half."

James remembered that day as if it had been yesterday – Natasha, eighteen months old, walking and talking and getting into everything. He remembered sitting on that hard bench in the courthouse, holding Natasha on his lap in her new green dress, specially bought for the occasion. Her hair was up in two tiny red pigtails and she clung to her favorite 'dolly', a stuffed penguin named Oz. She pointed at everyone who passed them, saying nonsense words, until it was time to go into the judge's chamber. James hadn't been so nervous since his first day of basic training.

"So it's just us," James finished. "But we make it work."

"Good."

The children were now storming up and down the steps to the lower level, yelling at the top of their lungs.

"Clint acts like he can hear really good," James said, draining the last drops from his cup.

"He's doing okay," Steve said. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "When he was two, he caught one of those things that was going around, you know?" James nodded. "He'd never had any problems with ear infections before, but this time…" Steve looked at his hands. "By the time I realized something was wrong, there was already some damage. The doctor said there was some sort of genetic predisposition, like that made it any better."

"Just the one ear?"

"Yeah, his right. His left ear's fine. They suggested the hearing aid so he has normal language development and stuff. But…" Steve sighed. "The docs keep saying that we need to be aware that as he gets older, it might get worse."

James looked at Clint, the boy pulling faces at Natasha as she giggled. "Does he know that?"

"We had a talk." Steve stared into his coffee cup. "I don't know if he gets it."

"How much adult stuff did you get when you were five?"

"My mom died when I was five," Steve said, voice nearly inaudible. "I went through so much shit back then, I just want to keep that from Clint, you know?"

"Yeah."

There was a moment's silence, then Steve asked, "So can I ask about the arm?"

"Nope," James said immediately. He stood. "Lunch time!" he called to the children.

The distraction of getting two dirty children cleaned up and to the table for food put enough of a barrier between him and the question.

He hadn't had time to make lunch before Steve arrived, so James just put everything onto the table for everyone to make their own sandwich. Natasha dove right in, slathering mayonnaise onto her bread. Clint was more hesitant, pulling at Steve's arm for help.

"I love cheese," Natasha said, carefully placing two slices of cheddar onto her bread before James moved the cheese away from her. "I love it so much!"

"How much?" James asked.

Natasha clenched her hands into tiny fists. "So much!"

Clint was watching as Steve spread peanut butter onto a slice of bread. "That's all," the boy said, pulling the plate away from Steve.

"Do you want any vegetables?" James asked. Clint shook his head, but Natasha put her hand up into the air.

"I do!" she shouted. James retrieved the container of the previous night's steamed vegetables from the fridge, and barely had the lid off before Natasha pulled it out of his hand. She happily piled steamed carrots and beans onto her plate. "You have some too," she said, and thrust the container at Clint.

Reluctantly, Clint took a piece of carrot out of the container and put it in his mouth. Natasha beamed at him.

James caught Steve's eye, and they grinned over Clint's head.

Once Natasha's cheese sandwich was sliced to her satisfaction, the children turned their attention back to the bird book, leaving the adults to their conversation. Steve told James that he was head of development and fundraising for a local philanthropic agency (James noted that he was careful to avoid naming it), and asked James about his day job.

"Private security consulting," James said around a mouthful of chicken.

"Like, body guarding?" Steve asked, and to his credit he kept any disbelief out of his voice.

"Not exactly." James reached out to move Natasha's hair out of her water glass. "I work with a bunch of construction firms around town. They bring us in when their clients want to talk about home security."

"That pays well?" Steve asked, his eyebrow furrowed.

James shrugged. "You remember what it was like, growing up around my dad's construction sites. It was something I could get into after the Army."

There was a lot more that James could say, but didn't – how he could work from home so it didn't matter how late Natasha kept him up with her crying, or the bullshit he used to get when he showed up on a construction job with Natasha in a baby carrier (with a tiny hard hat on her head; the crew thought that was the funniest thing ever). He just reached across the table and picked up the leftover half of Natasha's sandwich.

"You done, pumpkin?"

"Yes. Can we have dessert?"

"We don't have anything for dessert."

Natasha leaned back in her chair. "Can we make dessert?"

Clint perked up. "Can we?" he demanded, clutching at his father's shirt with peanut-butter-smeared fingers.

"If it's all right with Mr. Barnes," Steve said, smiling.

Clint shoved the last of his sandwich into his mouth and jumped off his chair, following Natasha over to the cupboards where she was dragging the stand mixer to the floor. Hauling himself to his feet, James went over to help before anyone got hurt.

Baking was a common past time in the Barnes household, but Clint watched as if he'd never seen such a wonder before. Natasha happily measured out sugar and flour while James tipped a pound of butter into the bowl. "Stand back!" Natasha shouted dramatically as she poured the sugar into the bowl. "On my mark! Three! Two!"

James rolled his eyes, but waited until she got to "ONE!" before turning on the mixer.

"You want to crack the eggs?" James asked Steve.

"No, that's my job!" Natasha objected. She frowned up at James. "Daddy, you're taking all the fun away!"

"Is that what I'm doing?" James asked. "Okay, go wash your hands."

The next few minutes were spent supervising two five-year-olds in cracking eggs into a bowl, then trying to fish out the yolks. Natasha was experienced at such things, but Clint, who made faces as the sliminess of the raw eggs, was slower at the process.

"It's squishy," he informed his father, holding out a dripping yolk cupped in both hands.

"I'll take your word for it," Steve said. "What do you use the egg whites for?"

"Breakfast," James said, distracted by how blue Steve's eyes were when he smiled, and so wasn't in time to stop Natasha from pouring the egg yolks into the bowl with the mixer on top speed.

Half an hour later, when egg yolk spatter had been cleaned off walls, ceiling and children, and the cake batter was in the oven, James slumped on the living room couch, exhausted and aching. Steve, for all his muscles, wasn't in much better shape.

The children, however, were still going strong. Natasha and Clint dashed up and down the brownstone's staircases, occasionally making a detour into the kitchen to make sure the cake was okay.

"Remember when your mom told us that if we jumped around too much, the whole house would shake and the cake would fall?" Steve asked as the children ran screaming around the couches and back up the stairs.

"I tried that with Natasha when she was three," James said. "She spent twenty minutes jumping up and down in front of the oven to prove me wrong. She hasn't listened to a damned thing I've said since."

They swapped kid stories for a while the children dashed around. When the timer rang for the cake, Steve held the kids back while James removed the pan from the oven.

"We need to eat it now!" Natasha insisted.

"The cake needs to cool down first," James told her. "I thought we were going to go to the park. When we come back the cake will be cool enough."

Grumbling, Natasha and Clint were convinced to put on their socks and shoes and head out the front door. James made sure he had Natasha's inhaler in his pocket, then activated the security system and locked the door after himself.

Out on the sidewalk, Steve had both children by the hand, and was listening to them both talk to him at the same time. James hung back, watching as Steve handled the conversation, deflecting until the children's attention was back on each other, and they chattered happily, cake angst forgotten.

It was only a few short blocks to the park. Once inside the gates, Clint and Natasha tore away from Steve and ran over to the jungle gym, screaming and laughing as they climbed about.

"How do they keep this up?" Steve asked wonderingly, collapsing on a bench at the side of the playground.

"When Natasha gets like this, she usually conks out after dinner," James said, stretching out at Steve's side. "Which gives me just enough time to get everything ready for Monday morning before I pass out."

Steve chuckled. "Yeah, Sundays can be a little crazy around our place too," he mused. "At least I don't have to be at work until ten."

"You work in the city?"

"Yeah, I can get in on the train after I drop Clint off." Steve looked at James. "It really is good to see you again, Bucky."

James let out a breath, trying to hide the sudden churning of emotions in his chest. Steve Rogers had been his childhood best friend, his first real crush, the most important person in his life for a very long time. It had taken James a long time to get over Steve, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to handle losing Steve a second time. "Same here, punk," he said, punching Steve in the arm.

Steve pretended to be knocked back under the weight of the blow. "It's good to know that twenty years hasn't improved your vocabulary much."

"Shut up." James rested his metal arm on the bench's back, taking the pressure off the harness. "That family you got in Jersey, they treat you right?"

"Yeah." Steve's smile faded slightly. "Dr. Erskine is a good man. It was a good place to grow up."

"Good." James glanced over at the children. Clint was climbing higher and higher, while Natasha was hesitating on the lower steps. "I sure missed you, though."

"I missed you too," Steve replied. He took a deep breath, let it out, but didn't speak.

James didn't need him to. He could just imagine what Steve was thinking: why didn't you write back, why didn't you come see me, why did you forget about me.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, but James didn't know how to explain how wrecked he'd been without Steve.

"I guess it's good that Natasha has such good aim," Steve said after a few minutes. "Otherwise we'd have walked out of the store without ever seeing you."

"You're the first person to appreciate Natasha's aim," James said, pushing the emotional chaos into the pit of his stomach to deal with later. "Last month she shot her old social worker in the eye patch."

Steve stared at James, clearly unsure if James was joking.

"It was funny," James insisted. "He told her it was a good thing she was so cute."

Steve opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted from a shout across the playground. Clint, who had somehow made it to the very top of the structure and was waving his hands. When he saw that he had Steve's attention, he shouted "Parkour!" and jumped into the air.

"Jesus!" Steve exclaimed, diving off the bench. James was on his feet a moment later, but it was too late. Little Clint fell like a stone, slamming into the mulch of the playground surface.

James waited for the screaming to begin, but Clint just stood up and dusted himself off. "I wanna do that again!" he told his father as Steve reached his side.

Steve went down on one knee, patting Clint's arms and legs and checking for signs of damage. "Clint, you know the rules," Steve said, his voice a mix of panic and anger. "You're not allowed to jump off anything higher than my head."

Clint shrugged. "You were sitting down," he said, but he wouldn't meet Steve's eyes.

Steve ran his hand over Clint's head, but there was no violence in the motion, not like how James's own father would have reacted. "Clint," Steve said, and it was obvious that he was trying to keep his voice even. "Did you think that jumping off something that high was a bad idea?"

Now Clint was staring at a button on Steve's shirt. "Maybe," he mumbled.

"And you did it anyway?"

"I guess."

Natasha, who had been watching this scene from halfway up the playground assemblage, suddenly piped up, "Daddy, I wanna jump too!"

This propelled James forward. "Do you want to jump from so high?"

Natasha hesitated. She wasn't that far off the ground, certainly not as high as Clint had been. James could have reached up and picked her off the equipment if he needed to. Still, for a little girl, it was a bit of a drop. "I think so," she said, but she didn't sound convinced.

"You can do it!" Clint shouted in encouragement.

James kept his focus on Natasha. "Do you want me to help you jump?"

After a moment, Natasha nodded. "But don't help me too much!"

Stifling a sigh, James moved over to Natasha's side, put his hands around her torso, and said, "On three. One, two—"

She jumped on two, and James let her down in as close to an approximation of freefall as he could. Once on the ground, Natasha beamed up at James. "I did it!" she cheered.

"You sure jumped good!" Clint exclaimed. "Let's go swing!" He grabbed Natasha's hand and hauled her along over to the swing set.

Steve swore as he straightened up. "I swear to god, that kid's going to send me into an early grave," he muttered, dusting off his knees.

"Parkour, huh," James said, pulling Steve along after the children. "That's one hell of a pastime for a kid to pick up."

"It's not safe," Steve said. By now, the kids had found the one empty swing, and were both trying to climb into it.

"Old man," James scoffed, and slapped Steve on the back. "Hey, kiddos, who wants to head home for cake?"

The screams that met this suggestion were deafening.

Chapter Text


At bedtime that evening, James tucked a very sleepy Natasha into her bed. "You had fun today, right?"

"Uh huh," Natasha said, blinking slowly. She reached out her hand to wrap around James' fingers. He'd taken off the prosthetic arm as soon as Steve and Clint had left, but Natasha was used to seeing him unarmed. "Daddy, can I tell you a secret?"

James sat on the floor, still holding Natasha's hand. "You can tell me any secret, any time," he said quietly. "What's up?"

Natasha squirmed closer to the edge of the bed. "Me and Clint," she whispered, "Are best friends."

"You are?" James said, affecting slight surprise.

"Uh huh. We said so, and he ate my cake and I ate his cake."

"Well, that certainly settles it." James kissed Natasha on the cheek. "How about you get some sleep, and you can be best friends in the morning?"

"Okay." Natasha's eyes were already closing.

James eased his hand out from under Natasha's palm. "I love you, little one," he whispered.

Natasha moved her lips but no sound came out. James sat back and watched Natasha sleep for a few minutes, then he turned off the bedside lamp and navigated his way out of the room in the darkness.

Downstairs, he wandered about for a while, unable to settle. The place was clean, the dishes done, everything ready for the next day.

Giving up on the idea of being productive, on a rare night with Natasha asleep before nine, James did his nightly walk-through of the house, triple-checked every door lock and window latch, then armed the security system and went upstairs for bed.

His body was tired, but his mind wakeful. Normally on such a night, James wouldn't be able to stop himself from going back to his time in the Rangers, about what happened in Iraq, and before that in Afghanistan. Nothing good ever came from such remembrances, but at least James hadn't woken screaming from a nightmare in over six months.

There was always the chance of it being a Bad Night, but the warning signs weren't there; no phantom pain in his missing arm, no worries that he was hearing things. The worst thing James was worried about was a few nightmares that would wake him in a cold sweat.

Still, James closed and locked his bedroom door. If Natasha needed him in the night, he would hear her. It was better than risking Natasha coming in if he was having a nightmare and trying to shake him awake.

The last person to shake him awake, one of the orderlies in the stateside hospital where he'd been evacuated after the roadside bomb blew his arm off, had ended up on the floor with a dislocated jaw and two black eyes. James hadn't risked falling asleep around another person since that day.

So James put a locked door between himself and his daughter, and went to bed.

Staring up at the shadows on the ceiling, James thought about the day, and about Steve, then about the week ahead, and then some more about Steve. The man had grown up since James knew him as a child; tall and broad in the shoulders, but he was so quick and gentle with Clint and with Natasha. He hadn't been impatient or irritated with anything the children had gotten up to, but had let them go about their business without belittling the things they did just because they were children.

A long time ago, when James was a boy pretending to be a man, he'd thought that tough was the same thing as strong, and that was the most important thing a man could be. The more time he spent at war, watching men try to hold it together in situations beyond belief, tough fell apart faster than the sand outside his tent.

Now, one-armed old man that he was, he knew the value in strength, and in kindness. Somehow, whatever he'd been through in life, it seemed as if Steve had also been able to find the value in kind.

James wondered, just for an instant, how different his life would have been if his own father had been kind.


The Monday morning before-school routine in the Barnes' household was progressing much as usual when James' cell rang.

James picked his phone up from the counter, where he'd placed it out of the danger zone of Natasha's glass of milk, and glanced at the display. "Oh crap," he muttered, and swiped to answer the call. "Hey."

"No, not 'hey'," came the voice over the line. "More like 'god damn it, why oh why,' Barnes."

"I should put you on speaker phone, you can give my kid elocution lessons," James said.

"Or you could come open your front door." With that, the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Natasha shrieked, flying off her chair and out of the kitchen.

James hung up and followed his daughter. She was already reaching up to unlock the inner door's deadbolt when James caught her up around the middle and swung her out of the way. "What have I told you about opening the door to strangers?" he asked as he opened the inner, then outer, doors.

"It's not a stranger, Daddy!" Natasha shouted joyfully. "It's Maria!"

Maria Hill, the other half of Winterhill Security Consulting, breezed into James' house with an expression that could send seasoned Marines running for the hills. "Why don't you ever actually invite me in?" she asked him, bending down to press a red lipstick kiss onto Natasha's cheek. "Even your five-year-old has better manners."

"You've said time and again that it's obvious I was brought up in a barn," James said, and smiled widely as Maria rolled her eyes. "Why are you here?"

"Coffee first." Maria dropped her briefcase onto the couch and made a beeline for the kitchen, Natasha following at her heels like an infatuated puppy.

"Fucking hell," James muttered. He didn't know why Maria Hill would deign to visit his little corner of Brooklyn before eight o'clock in the morning, but he knew whatever it was, wouldn't be easy. Or cheap.

When he made his way into the kitchen, Maria was seated at the round table, drinking his coffee and listening to his daughter talk non-stop about her new friend Clint.

"…and he likes spiders and falcons and dirt and eagles and bluebirds and chickadees and crows!" Natasha took a big breath and went on. "He likes to jump off things that are really high and he has a bow an' arrow and purple is his favorite!"

Maria was smiling indulgently at Natasha, an expression James only ever saw directed at persons under the age of seven. "And what about you? What things does he like about you?"

This stalled Natasha for a moment, long enough for James to pour another cup of coffee and slide into a chair at the table. "Um."

"Clint thought your spider family was cool," James contributed. Maria raised her eyebrows at this, but James shook his head. "And he thought it was really neat how you knew how to bake a cake, and he liked your garden boxes in the back yard."

"Yeah," Natasha said, beaming once again.

"You know what would be fun?" Maria asked. "If you made a list of all the things you want to do together with your new friend. You could write that down so you don't forget anything."

"Yeah!" Natasha jumped down from her chair and ran out of the room. A moment later, they could hear her footsteps pounding up the stairs.

As soon as the child was out of the room, Maria slumped down in her chair. "The Ryders want to a panic room in the upper story," she said.

"Fuck," James muttered. "I thought we talked them out of that."

"We did."

"Putting an enclosed panic room on the second story means going back in to reinforce three levels of load-bearing walls below."

"I know."

"Do they know how much it would cost for a fully functional fire suppression system to be built-in to support the room?"

"They do."

"So what the hell?"

Maria drummed her fingernails on the table, getting that far-off look in her eyes that James privately called her profiler glare. "I don't know," she said finally. "But you're going to the Hamptons to find out."

"What?" James exclaimed. "Why me?"

"Because Mrs. Ryder listens to you," Maria said smartly. "And because I have been trying to get this appointment with the New York coroner for over seven months now and I am not giving it up because one old woman is freaking out for reasons she won't tell me over the phone."

Maria was right. One member of the partnership was going to have to deal with the Ryders; if the project changed at this late stage, after the house's foundation had been poured, there would be hell to pay with the contractors and everyone's bottom line. And that someone was going to have to be James, because you might be able to take the woman out of the FBI's elite profiling unit, but you'd never take the criminal profiler out of the woman.

Natasha pounded back into the kitchen, clutching one of her prized notebooks. "Daddy, I found it," she said breathlessly, crawling up onto his lap. He moved his coffee aside to help her, putting out his left arm stump to keep her from overbalancing. Maria, who had seen James without his shirt more than once over the course of the firm's partnership, didn't bat an eyelash at the sight of his stump poking out of his t-shirt sleeve. "Look, I already drawed in it and purple is Clint and red is me."

Natasha opened the notebook to the first page and showed James a series of scribbles that might be interpreted as two individuals on a playground, or on Mars, for all James could tell.

"Natasha," James said, shifting Natasha until she was looking at him. "There's been a change in plans."

"What?"

"I have to go out of town for work today."

Natasha zeroed in on him, notebook forgotten. "Are you coming home?" she demanded.

"Of course I'm coming home." James tapped Natasha's nose with his finger. "But I might be a little late, so you may need to go to after-school club for a while."

"Daddy, no!"

"Natasha, it's only going to be for a little while," James said. "I'll be back before dinner."

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him, working herself up to a mighty pout. Maria saved the day by saying, "Natasha, why don't we list all the things you want to tell Clint about?"

Still glaring daggers at James, Natasha slid off his lap and went over to Maria. "I'll tell you," she said accusingly, never taking her eyes off James. "Not Daddy!"

"You can't be mad at your father if he's taking a shower before driving to the Hamptons," Maria said pointedly, so James gave up and went to get ready for a drive up the coast.

Much like Natasha, Maria Hill's entrance into James' life was Nick Fury's fault. Four years before, during one of the court mandated pre-adoption site visits on which Nick inexplicably tagged along, James had mentioned that his security business was picking up and that he was looking for someone to assist with handling clients. The next afternoon, Maria Hill appeared on his doorstep, resume in hand. It had taken James exactly thirty seconds to realize that Nick's idea of help was not a receptionist, but a behavioral profiler looking to get out of the FBI and into private consulting.

What the hell, James had thought, and hired Maria on. He'd thought it was going to be a disaster, having to work with someone else, but Maria spoke the language of local law enforcement, could decipher neighborhood crime trends, and had an uncanny knack of knowing which of their prospective clients to turn away for Reasons.

About a year after the start of the partnership, they had been in Hartford on a case when James finally asked Maria what had made her quit her rising career with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico to go into consulting in New York. She hadn't answered for a few hours, but eventually, as they were getting ready to drive back into town (separate cars; Maria always insisted on separate cars), she'd looked at him over the top of her Prius and said, "This job isn't so bad. When I wake up in the morning, I know I'm not going to be seeing any dead kids that day."

James had understood.

Now, Maria dealt with the behavioral side, James dealt with the construction teams and kept the clients happy, and that was how they worked.

It didn't hurt that Natasha simply adored Maria. For her part, Maria tolerated Natasha's adoration while using the girl to (gently) manipulate James into doing things Maria's way.

James didn't mind. Too much.

After he showered and dried off, James strapped on his metal arm and went to the back section of his closet where he hid his work suits. They had been a substantial investment, each of them tailored to allow free movement of his prosthetic arm. At least, that was his rational for the suits; Maria had pointed out (somewhat archly) that the trousers were perfectly made to show off his ass.

"Tastefully," she had clarified when James had glared at her. "They show off your ass tastefully."

He had told Maria he wasn't planning on being the eye candy of the outfit, and she'd said that she hadn't spent eight years with the FBI to be his Girl Friday. They'd left it at that, but Maria wasn't above dressing James up and sending him out to charm the clients out of bad decisions.

After a minute's consideration, James pulled out his grey suit with the dark blue tie. In spite of his long hair, the suit made him look respectable and a few years older than he was; but just a hint playful. So Maria said.

Before he left the room, he shoved a hair elastic into his suit pocket. He'd put his hair into a ponytail once it had a chance to dry.

Downstairs, Natasha was sitting on Maria's lap, watching in rapture as Maria wrote things on the pages of the friendship notebook. "Come on, Natasha, we have to get you to school. Go get your backpack," James said.

Glowering at James, Natasha slid to the ground and marched grimly out of the kitchen.

"What the hell was that?"

"She's angry because you're not at her beck and call," Maria said, rising to her feet. "It's a normal part of childhood development."

"Hey, I gotta work for a living to put food on the table for her."

"You've been her entire world for her entire life," Maria pointed out as she undid the tie from around James' neck to redo the knot. "She's out there making connections with her peers and other adult role models. It's all new and scary and you're the only safe thing for her to test her boundaries on."

"I didn't pull this shit with my old man."

Maria's eyebrow went up in eloquent silence. She smoothed the tie down on James' chest. "Make sure to smile at Mrs. Ryder," she said instead. "Tell her stories about Natasha. Show baby pictures."

"Why?" James asked as he buttoned his suit jacket.

"Because then hopefully she'll tell you if she's worried about her grandchildren's safety." Maria went into the living room to retrieve her briefcase. "If it's the grandkids, we'll pull an Italian Villa on them. If it's her husband's safety, then we'll go with the Monaco."

"What if it's her own safety?"

"You mean the husband?" Maria did not appear surprised by James' train of thought. "If she's worried about her husband being the threat, we can handle that, but I don't think that's it. Check into that, though." Maria walked over to unlock the inside door. "Just get her talking. We have to start there."

"I will." James shoved his metal hand into his trousers pocket. "Take care of yourself at the coroner's office."

Maria gave a brief smile, then called, "Natasha, I'm leaving!"

A thud from the floor above, then Natasha ran down the stairs, her backpack bouncing as she dashed over to Maria and flung her arms around the woman's legs. "Bye Maria!"

Maria patted Natasha's head and pried her way out of the child's embrace. "Have a good day at school, squirt."

"I will!" As Maria headed out the doors, Natasha ran to the front window and waved at Maria until the woman was in her car and gone.

While Natasha was occupied, James slipped into his office at the back of the house. He made sure he had his files and measuring tape tucked into the case, added a few various items that might come in handy on the drive, then closed the case and headed out into the living room.

Natasha was still plastered against the front window, staring out into the street below. "Come on, Nat, we have to get going."

Reluctantly, Natasha climbed down from the windowsill.

"Do you have everything you need?"

A glaring silence.

By now, James had had enough. "Natasha, I need you to answer me. Do you have everything you need for school?"

"Yes."

Great. James went into the kitchen to grab a protein bar for the car. On the way back to the living room, he spotted Natasha's friendship notebook, and took it with him.

The drive to school was painful. Natasha was still fuming and James was irritated enough about having to spend five hours in traffic that he didn't even try to engage with her. Parking around the school was tight, but James squeezed into a spot and got Natasha up the street and into the building before the bell rang.

"Hold on," he said, as Natasha seemed ready to walk off to class without so much as a goodbye. "You forgot this at home." He handed her the notebook.

Natasha grabbed the book and cradled it to her chest. "You're going away."

James went down on one knee and pulled Natasha closer to him. "Sweetie, I have to go to do some work. It's very important."

"But it's Monday!" Natasha said. "On Monday after school we go to the park and I get to swing then we go home! If I have to stay in after-school club we can't go to the park!"

"We can go to the park on Wednesday before art class."

"It's not the same!"

James shushed her. "Natasha, I have to go. I'll see you tonight, okay?"

Natasha's shoulders slumped. James kissed the top of her head, then stood creakily.

"I love you," James said, but Natasha just turned and walked down the hall to her classroom.

Screw this 'normal part of childhood development,' James thought as he walked to the administration office to sign Natasha up for the drop-in after-school care. When he got back from the Hamptons, he and Natasha were going to have a long talk about expectations and responsibilities.

But first, work.


Hours later, as James was stuck in traffic on the Expressway on his return to the city, his phone rang.

James answered the phone with a touch on his earpiece. "Winterhill Security Consulting," he said automatically. "James Barnes speaking."

"Hey," came a warm and familiar voice. "It's Steve."

James' irritation at the traffic melted away at hearing Steve's voice. "Hey."

"I'm not catching you at a bad time, am I?"

James let his head fall back against the headrest. "Nah, just stuck in traffic."

"The perils of city life," Steve said, and it sounded like he was smiling. James could just picture that smile on Steve's handsome face, small and private, just something between them.

Swallowing hard, James asked, "Anything I can do for you? Clint didn't leave anything at the house yesterday, did he?"

"No, we got everything. I was thinking, you know, that yesterday went really well."

"It did," James agreed. "Natasha's been talking about Clint non-stop since you guys left."

Steve chuckled. "Same with Clint," he said. "He's not usually much of a talker, but he keeps bringing up things he'd like to do together with Natasha."

James found himself smiling. "Peas in a pod," he quipped. "Nat's got a whole notebook dedicated to her plans of things to do next."

"Speaking of which, that's the reason I called," said Steve. "I don't know what your afternoons look like, but Clint wanted me to ask if he and Natasha can play some day after school."

"Yeah, of course," James said, feeling a little ashamed at how much he wanted to see Steve again. This was about the kids, he reminded himself sternly. "Well, Nat's in dance class on Tuesdays and Thursdays."

"Clint has swimming on Mondays and soccer on Thursdays. How's Wednesday?"

James accelerated as the traffic began to pick up. "We have art class on Wednesdays until the end of May."

"And Clint has archery on Fridays," Steve said. "What the hell, do you remember being so booked up when you were five?"

"Nope." James glanced over his shoulder and quickly changed lanes. "If you're free on Sunday, do you want to come over again for lunch?"

"It's a date," Steve said, and a shiver ran down James' spine. It was so goddamned unfair in the grand scheme of things that this man was straight. "Although I don't know how Clint will last that long."

"Does it have to be right after school?" James asked. "Wednesday's a write off, but Nat's dance class is done around six."

"Huh. Let me check." There was a moment's pause. "I can move things on Thursday if you want to get together for dinner or something? There's this little Italian place near the soccer field that Clint loves."

"Perfect. I'll tell Natasha, she'll be so excited."

"Good." There was silence for a moment, long enough for James to wonder if it was his turn to speak. Then Steve said, "I'm really glad the kids get along so well. Clint… well, sometimes Clint has a hard time making friends."

"He's a good kid," James said. "He seems pretty easygoing."

"He is, but…" Steve sighed. "Sometimes kids think he's weird."

"Weird? Steve, my kid introduced us to her spider collection yesterday."

Steve laughed. "Then I'm in good company." He hesitated. "It's just... Clint doesn't really care what other kids are doing, most times." It sounded like a confession. "He'll spend time by himself and he's perfectly happy like that. And he always has to wear something purple, and half the time he's got those sunglasses on…"

"Is he happy like that?"

"Yeah. He's just fine and I don't want to make him think he's doing anything wrong."

James remembered back to a piece of parenting advice given to him by Nick Fury when the man dropped in for a visit on Natasha's third birthday. "Steve, kids are tiny assholes. They aren't socialized enough to not be horrible to the people around them."

"I just want him to make friends. I know how hard it was for me."

"You had me, didn't you?" James said, the words slipping out before he could remember that for twenty years, Steve didn't have him at all.

But Steve was already speaking, "I did," he said, and James must have been imagining things, because he thought Steve sounded almost wistful. "Look, sorry to do this, but I have a meeting with R&D I need to get to. See you on Thursday?"

"You bet," James said, his heart pounding in his throat. Quickly, he pulled his thoughts back together. "Hey, Steve, wait a sec."

"Yeah, Bucky?"

"Clint's going to be fine. He's got you."

"Thanks," Steve said, his voice quiet. He cleared his throat. "So, Thursday."

"See you then," James said, and quickly hung up before he said something stupid.

This wasn't a date, he told himself again. This was about the children getting together and having kid-time together. At a restaurant. With food. Like a date.

"I am so fucked," James said aloud.

As he was alone in the car, there was no one to agree with him.


Traffic cleared up a little, and James made it home just a few minutes after six. He ducked into the house to drop off his briefcase, then quickly drove to Natasha's school.

At St. Ursula's, after-school childcare was held in the library. Some of the older children were piled up in front of the computers, while a handful of younger ones sat in a circle around the instructor, who was reading aloud.

It took James a moment to locate his own child. Natasha sat in a big armchair by the window, a picture book held open on her lap.

James signed in at the door, then quietly made his way across the library. Natasha didn't look up, so James hitched up his trousers and sat on the window ledge next to her. "Good story?"

Natasha's head whipped around. She pushed the book out of the way and crawled over the chair arm and into James' lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"Hey," James said, rubbing Natasha's back. The girl responded by squeezing his neck tighter. "I missed you today."

Natasha breathed noisily in his ear, not quite in tears, but she was definitely worked up about something.

"I thought to myself, I sure hope Natasha is having a good day at school, and I can't wait to see her tonight."

"You took forever," Natasha said, voice close to a wail. James shushed her. "I thought you weren't ever going to come get me."

"Hey." James shifted Natasha around so she was sitting on his knee. "When have I ever not come to get you?"

"Never," Natasha admitted, rubbing her eyes. "But you might forget one day."

"That's never going to happen." James shifted Natasha to his right hip and stood, reaching out his metal hand for her backpack. "I'm always going to come get you, do you understand?"

More noisy breathing in his ear, then James felt Natasha nod against his cheek.

"How about we go home and order some takeout for dinner, huh?"

Another nod. "Can we get noodles?"

"We can get noodles." James kissed Natasha's hair, wondering what had happened, why she was suddenly questioning that he might not come for her, then decided that it would be better to get her home and let her calm down before asking. "You ready to go?"

Natasha gripped the back of his neck, her sharp fingernails digging into his skin. "Uh huh." She clung to him all the way to the car, but at least her grip slackened once they were outside.

"Your backpack sure is heavy," James said conversationally as he reached the car. "Did you learn anything fun today?"

"We learned how plants grow," Natasha said, letting go of his neck to climb into the jeep. She reached for her seatbelt, helping James fit it into the buckle. "And Mrs. Singh said we have to grow a bean at home so we can see it."

"That sounds interesting." James double-checked that Natasha was secure, then shut the door and climbed into the driver's seat. "Can we work on that together?"

"Maybe."

James had to concentrate on turning the jeep into the evening traffic, and around an accident that was blocking up most of the main road. Natasha was quiet in the back, so James let her be until they were home.

Once they were inside and James had called in their takeout order, he sat Natasha on the couch and settled himself on the coffee table. "Are you still mad at me?" he asked.

Natasha ducked her head, not making eye contact as she played with the couch cushions. "I don't know."

"I don't want you to be mad at me," James went on. There were reams of parenting blog posts about this sort of thing, but James was at a loss as to what to say. "But I still have to go to work so we have money for things."

Natasha squirmed off the couch, but James caught her and made her stand still. She glowered at him, crossing her arms over her chest. "Did you have fun without me?" she asked suspiciously.

In spite of himself, James had to suppress a smile. "I did not have fun," he told her solemnly. "I had to drive a long, long way, and then I had to talk to a lady about serious things."

Natasha's glower faded, to be replaced by an expression of curiosity. "Where did you go?"

They went and got the big atlas from James' office, and James showed Natasha the route he had taken that morning.

"That is far away," Natasha agreed after a while. "It's by all that water."

"Yup," James said, getting Natasha to her feet. "Come on, we need to go pick up dinner."

Natasha made no fuss about putting her shoes back on, and held James' hand as they walked the four blocks to the restaurant. In spite of her uncertainty about any lingering anger toward her father, Natasha was her usual chatty self, pointing out things that interested her, and answering James' questions about her school day.

Half an hour later, they were back home and eating at the kitchen table. While Natasha was engrossed in her noodles, James said, "I talked to Steve today. He and Clint are going to come over on Sunday for lunch again."

Natasha abandoned her food. "They are?" she demanded, her eyes wide. "Can I show Clint my notebook?"

"Of course you can," James said, pulling her plate back from the table edge. "And do you know what else?"

"What?"

"We thought that since Sunday is so far away, that we should get together on Thursday after dance class and go for dinner, just the four of us."

Natasha clasped her hands together in joy. "Oh, Daddy, really?" she squealed.

"Yup."

"How long away is that?"

"Go get the calendar." Natasha, dinner forgotten, dashed over to the fridge and returned with the family calendar. James pointed at the current date. "That's today, that's Monday. Can you tell how many days away is Thursday?"

With his help in sounding out the words, Natasha counted through to Thursday. "Four days!" she said in dismay. "How can I wait?"

After much discussion, James and Natasha decided that, in order for Natasha to be able to wait until her next play date with Clint, she was going to send Clint a letter like people did in stories.

The letter, as dictated by Natasha to her father, read:

Hi Clint.

I will see you on Thursday. Today is Monday. On Tuesday I go to dance class. I like dance class because I wear black dance shoes and I dance. On Wednesday Daddy and me go to art class. I like art class because I can paint with a big brush. My favorite paint is red paint because it is pretty.

On Thursday I go to dance class again and I will see you and we will eat spaghetti and be friends. I like you because you are my friend.

After having looked over James' hand writing, Natasha laboriously wrote her own name at the bottom of the page.

Finally, after promising three times to send the letter to Clint via his father, James convinced Natasha to finish her dinner.


The night continued. As it was Monday, it was bath night, and Natasha grudgingly allowed her hair to be washed. After bath time it was time to get ready for bed, which involved rather a lot of preparation for someone so small. First Natasha had to brush her teeth, then carry her own glass of water into her bedroom. Wearing her Monday-night pajamas (pink and green striped ones), she deigned to be carried over to the big armchair in the corner of her room, and waited patiently for her father to open up their nightly story.

They were in the middle of a Pippi Longstocking book, one of the recommendations from the school librarian (whom James was convinced was trolling the entire class of parents.) But Natasha reveled in stories of children who knew better than grown-ups, so James went along with it, deciding to spend his parental energies on other things.

That night, however, Natasha seemed distracted. After two chapters, James put the book down and said, "Do you want me to read something else, or are you ready to sleep?"

Natasha rested her cheek on James' chest, staring up at him. "Are you a soldier?" she asked after a moment.

"I used to be," James said, not sure where this was coming from. "A long time ago, before I met you, I was in the Army. But not anymore."

Natasha rubbed her ear. "Mila said that anyone who's a soldier goes away and dies and doesn't come back."

James let out his breath. Mila was one of the girls in Natasha's kindergarten class. "Why did she say that?"

Natasha shrugged, and after a minute said, "Ricky has a big brother and he joined the Army and Mila said that he's going to get hurt and die."

James pressed his lips together, a little surprised at his anger over the thoughtless words of a child. "Nat, not everyone who becomes a soldier gets hurt."

"You did."

And there it was, the heart of the matter. James reached for Natasha's hand with his left one, the metal fingers curling to let the little girl take hold. "You're right," he said quietly. Natasha stared at him. "I was a soldier in the Army, and I did get hurt."

"When a bomb exploded," Natasha said solemnly.

"Yes, a bomb exploded and I got hurt." He wiggled his metal fingers. "But you know what? Nowadays, if someone gets hurt, they go to a hospital and get better there. Like I did."

"And me too," Natasha said. "I went to a hospital, you told me."

"You did." James let Natasha cuddle closer to his side. "You were a very little baby and you got very sick, and Fury took you to a hospital and that is where I met you and decided to be your daddy."

It was an old story for Natasha, one he'd told her after she first asked why she didn't have a mommy. She knew she was adopted, although James wasn't really sure how well she understood the concept.

"And now, you use your inhaler and I take you to Dr. Bennett every six months and she makes sure that you're healthy," James went on.

"And you go to the doctor about your arm," Natasha said. She seemed to be calming down, settling back into familiar stories. "And they make you do exercises and you make funny faces."

"I sure do." James picked Natasha up and carried her over to her little bed. "But I'm not a soldier any more, and I will come and get you every day from school." He helped Natasha climb under the covers, then pulled them up to her chin.

She pushed them down again and looked at him, a frown on her face. "What if there is a blizzard and there's too much snow?"

"Then I will get snowshoes and come get you." James placed Natasha's favorite teddy bear next to her.

"What if it's sandy and there's too much water?"

It took James a moment to make the mental jump to the hurricane that had struck the city two years before. He hadn't realized that Natasha remembered that. "Then I will find a canoe and come get you."

"What if the zoo breaks open and there are snakes and crocodiles everywhere?"

"Then I will string a rope from building to building and come get you." James bent over to kiss Natasha on the forehead. "Okay?"

"Okay." Natasha clutched at the bed sheet. "I want another story."

There were a hundred things James needed to be doing, but he pushed all that to the back of his mind as he said, "Okay, just one more."

Three stories and forty-five minutes later, Natasha had finally nodded off. James turned off her light and adjusted the blanket, then tiptoed out of the room and closed the bedroom door. In the hallway, he stopped to rest his forehead against the wall, letting the strain of the last hour slide off his bones.

He knew Natasha was growing up, and that involved learning about adult concepts such as injury and death, but hearing his baby girl talking about dying made his heart ache. He wanted to protect her from everything, but he knew that was not only impossible, but would be cheating her of a real chance at life.

Still. Knowing his daughter was growing up was one thing. Actually living with it was hard.

Resisting the urge to peek into Natasha's room one last time (because the light would just wake her), James went downstairs to his office. After a full day of wearing the metal arm, the harness was pinching painfully at his body, but he had emails to write, and while the metal hand wasn't as dexterous as he would have liked he could still use the fingers to poke at certain keys.

James turned on his computer. While the machine was booting up, he mentally composed an email to Natasha's teacher about how maybe certain children shouldn't go around telling other children that their older brothers were going off to die as soldiers. By the time he had his email program open, however, he'd calmed down, and typed out a short email suggesting that if the woman wanted, James could recommend a few folks he knew through the VA who had experience in talking to children about military life. He sure as hell wasn't about to volunteer to do it himself.

After the email was sent, James called Maria. They spent the next hour discussing his trip to the Hamptons to see Mrs. Ryder (long and tedious), the real source of the woman's discomfort (her daughter's ex-husband had been saying things that Mrs. Ryder had construed as threats against the grandchildren), what the construction of the house could reasonably handle (interior reinforced locking doors, a direct connection to a reputable alarm monitoring company set up on an independent power source, some possible on-site security) and some suggestions from Maria's contacts about lawyers and counselors to work on the situation before anyone got hurt.

As usual at this time of night, Maria was all business, so James bit back his questions about five-year-old girls and their perception of death and told Maria he'd see her on Wednesday at their meeting in the city.

After he had hung up, James stood and straightened his back. His long day in the car had left him stiff and sore. He had a standing appointment with his physiotherapist on Tuesday mornings, which would offer him a whole different kind of pain.

Leaving his computer running, James went for a walk around the house to get some of the cobwebs out of his brain. He went to the basement and checked to make sure all the doors and windows were secure, then he climbed up the stairs to the third floor and went into every empty room, walking through the rooms to make sure that every window was still firmly nailed shut.

He and Natasha didn't need the third floor; the rest of the house was big enough for them. So far, Natasha had been averse to coming up here on her own; she'd claimed once that the rooms were too empty. She preferred to play in the living room, where she could keep an eye on James in his office or the kitchen.

Dust lay in a thin layer on the floor, hardly disturbed as James moved through the rooms. He should get someone to come over, he thought, clean the place up a little. Natasha could have a play room up here, and maybe the big room at the back of the house could be an entertainment room.

Maybe if there had been more than just the two of them.

Oh well. They were their own little family, him and Natasha. Small but still good.

Back on the main floor, James went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. As he drank, he picked up the piece of paper on which he had written Natasha's letter to Clint. Natasha had inscribed her name in red and purple marker, each letter formed so carefully.

James carried the letter into his office. He took a quick snapshot of the paper with his phone, then emailed it to himself so he could figure out how to get it to Steve.

He picked up the paper again and read Natasha's words. I like you because you are my friend¸ she had said. How long had it been since James had even considered making friends with someone? For the last five years, he'd told himself that he was too busy with Natasha and with his work. Before that, before the explosion that had taken his arm, he had spent seven years in the Rangers keeping his head down, doing his job, making a difference.

He'd learned very early on in basic training that there were expectations in place for a 'proper' enlisted soldier – not too much of a jackass, dedicated to the job, able to take a joke, and above all, straight enough to pass.

All things considered, it hadn't been too hard; he'd made it through public high school in Brooklyn with the athletics crowd, pretending to be straight as an arrow. He had a whole grab-bag of tricks; vague stories of some girl back home, agreeing easily with dirty jokes, peeling off from the group early to avoid the boys trying to set him up with random girls in bars.

He'd excelled in basic and had volunteered for Ranger training; it had been the most difficult thing he'd ever done in his life, both physically and mentally, but at least he was too exhausted at the end of every day to be too worked up over pretending to be something he was not.

And if he had no real friends, he had a job to do, and damned if he'd do anything to mess up his career.

It was lonely, but after Steve Rogers fell out of his life, James was used to lonely.

Outside, a motorcycle drove by. James reached for his phone, sent a quick text to Steve asking for his email (careful to add that Natasha had something for Clint), then shut down his computer and went upstairs.

He had made his life. He had a job, a home, money in the bank. Natasha was his family now, and James didn't need anyone or anything else.

As he slipped into bed, James closed his eyes, focusing on the aches in his body to push away the icy knot of loneliness in his gut. He didn't have time for anything else; not friendship, not love.

He had made this life of his, and there wasn't room for anything else anymore.

Chapter Text


Tuesday dawned with Natasha climbing onto James' bed to ask him if it was Thursday. After the usual morning feeding and watering routine, James walked Natasha the ten blocks to her school, answering her questions the whole time, then headed to catch the subway into Manhattan.

While he was waiting for his connecting train, his phone vibrated with a new text from Steve, containing his email address. James stared at the screen so long that he nearly missed the train, then, annoyed at himself, forwarded the photo of Natasha's letter without any additional comment.

The train was packed and he ended up standing, right hand gripping the strap, metal left arm hanging loose at his side as he watched the oblivious strangers on the train.

The hospital was a few blocks from the nearest subway station, so after James climbed to the surface of the New York streets he hunched his shoulders against the unseasonable chill in the air and started walking.

A few blocks in, James felt his phone buzz. That is too cute, read Steve's text. I'll show Clint tonite. Maybe he will want to send a letter to Natasha too.

James moved with the flow of pedestrian traffic, trying to think of something to say. Nothing came to mind, not on the sidewalk, not along the long ramp leading up into the hospital, not into the lobby.

James was early for his appointment, so he loitered in the hospital coffee shop for a while, sipping at a cup of burnt coffee as he stared at his phone, touching the screen every so often to keep Steve's message illuminated. He wanted to say something, to keep Steve talking, but what could he say?

After a while, James tapped out, dont wory about clint writng back. nat can get intense somtmes and kids can gt overwhelmd.

Not a problem, came Steve's immediate response. I'll see what Clint says. What are you doing today? I'm stuck at my desk all day :(

in the city 4 an appt

Speaking of which, James glanced at the time. He had to get moving. Slipping his phone into his pocket, he stood and made his way out of the little café.

At the elevator, he checked his phone once more, but Steve had not texted back. If Steve was at work, James reasoned, then he must have a million other things to do. Turning the phone to silent, James stepped into the elevator and pressed the button to the basement.

Physiotherapy was the part of the week that James liked the least. Since he had gotten his new arm, he'd had to go in every week for monitoring and testing. The good news was that his muscle tone on the left side had improved dramatically with the new arm, even if every weekly session with the doctors left him a quivering, shaking wreck.

And yet he went, because he needed to be functional, he needed to be strong. He had a little girl who depended on him to keep her happy and safe, and to do those things he needed to be at the peak of whatever physical conditioning was left to him.

He needed to be strong.

The arm itself was a miracle. A prototype developed by Stark Industries, the arm was essentially a fully functional robot, responding to nerve impulses picked up by implants in his left arm, translating those impulses to movement. The prototype was at least three years away from market, James had been told, but they needed human subjects who were willing to test out the prototypes in every-day settings.

They'd come at James through the VA, looking for soldiers who had been injured in the line of duty. There had been some noise about breaking into emerging markets, but James didn't give a fuck about Stark's rationale – all he knew was that he got an arm that let him take better care of his daughter, one that could hold her hand while they walked, help her zip up her coat and brush her hair and all those little things he hadn't been able to do before.

So they gave him a two-million-dollar prosthetic prototype for free, injected the tiny implants into his left arm, and all James had to do was go in once a week for testing.

This week was much the same as others. While James went through his physio routine with the medical staff, the scientists from Stark Industries downloaded data from the arm and did minor repairs. James went about the routine with determination, pushing his body to take on more and more. If he had completed Ranger training with distinction, he could lift five more pounds in the basement of Bellevue.

At the end of the session, his doctor handed him a sheet of new exercises to do at home, suggested (for the third time) that he should add running outside to his weekly exercise routines, then slapped him on the back and sent him over to strap on his arm.

After he changed back into his street clothes and left the building on unsteady legs, James made his way over to one of the small parks around the hospital. The bright spring day had drawn a small crowd to the open space in spite of the cold, but James managed to find an empty space on a bench on which he could sit and just breathe for a few minutes.

Eventually, he reached for his phone. Turning the ringer back on, he saw that he had three new text messages: one from Maria, two from Steve. James read the message from Maria first; it had some information concerning their meeting the next day, and James filed that one away absently to deal with when he got home.

The first text from Steve had come just a few moments after James had put his phone away. Hey if you're in town today do you want to have lunch?

Then, twenty minutes later, or not

James stared at the words. What would that even be like, having lunch with Steve? No kids to run after, no little hands to keep out of the soup, no questions about everything under the sun, just James and Steve. They could sit across the table from each other, talking about Steve's job and his life since he'd moved to New Jersey… and then, Steve would ask about James' arm.

James shook himself out of his fantasy. Steve wasn't interested in him, and this dinner on Thursday was not a date. This was about the children, Clint and Natasha's friendship. It wasn't about anything James wanted. James and Steve had been friends when they were kids, that was all. Now, Steve was a fundraiser, while James told rich people how to build their houses. The only thing they had in common were the kids.

James' thumb hovered over the phone's touchscreen. He didn't want Steve to think he was weirded out by the question. He could just say he turned his phone off and didn't see the message in time. But that would be almost too much of a lie, and James and Steve didn't lie to each other.

Quickly, before James lost his nerve, he touched his phone screen to call Steve.

Steve answered on the third ring. "Hey."

"Hey." James ran his tongue over dry lips. "I got your text."

"Yeah. Sorry about that, I thought-"

"I was in physio," James interrupted. "My arm, I gotta go in every week, you know. I just got out."

"Oh." A pause, then, "No, yeah, I get that. I didn't want you to think that I was… Yeah."

"No, it's fine." James rested his metal hand on his knee, moving the fingers slowly just to make sure he could. "Physio sucks ass. I'm never any good company after that."

"Do you ever have to take Natasha with you?" Steve asked, sounding honestly curious.

"Not when I can get away from it," James replied. "I only started going every week this past year, with the new arm. Before that it was once a month." James took a deep breath. "Look, what I said on Sunday, about the arm…"

"It's okay," Steve said quickly.

"No, it's… I don't talk about it." James flattened his metal hand against his leg. "Like, to anyone."

"What did you tell Natasha?"

"She's always known me like this." James sat back. "I had to learn how to take care of a baby with one arm, that was just the way it was. You ever tried to change a diaper one-handed?"

Steve laughed, a quiet chuckle, and some of the tension in James' shoulders eased. "I had a hard enough of a time with Clint, just me," Steve said.

"It may take me and Natasha longer to get stuff done, but we do it," James said. "Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I wasn't ignoring you."

"I understand." Steve's voice was warm and low, almost intimate, and James wondered what it would be like to have this conversation in person. Just him and Steve, sitting together, talking. "Maybe we can get together for lunch another day."

"I'd like that," James said, breathing out slowly. He really needed to stop falling for straight boys. "I guess I'll see you on Thursday."

"I can't wait," Steve said.

James managed to end the call without saying anything embarrassing. Damn, but it was seductive, talking to Steve on the phone, his voice warm and happy in James' ear. If James had been the kind of person to delude himself, he would almost be able to imagine what it would be like if they were actually dating; sitting next to Steve on the couch, shoulder to shoulder, talking about the kids, about their day. Maybe Steve would put his arm around James' shoulders. Maybe they could send the kids to bed early and sit on the back step, drinking coffee and holding hands as the sun set over Brooklyn.

And, of course, James was not averse to the idea of sex with Steve Rogers, not in the slightest. Steve had grown up into a fine specimen of a human being, after all. James could just imagine Steve laid out on his bed, wearing only a smile as he waited for James…

But James was not going to lie to himself. Guys who looked like Steve Rogers did not settle for disfigured ex-Army vets.

He put his phone into his pocket and stood. Pining after Steve Rogers was a pleasant fantasy, nothing more.

Still, after all James had been through in life, he was allowed to have a brief moment of wishing for the things he could never have.


When James arrived at the school, the first words out of Natasha's mouth were, "Did Clint like my letter?"

They had a long talk on the way home about the virtues of patience. Once inside, Natasha ran upstairs to get into her dance clothes while James made her a snack, and then they sat down together to work on Natasha's homework sheets.

Then James and Natasha walked the mile to the dance school, Natasha carefully carrying the bag that held her prized dance shoes. James left her in class with the customary pay attention to Madame and hurried to escape the horde of mothers. He headed to his usual coffee shop, ordered his usual black coffee, and was just settling down when his phone buzzed with an email from Steve.

Clint loved Natasha's letter and wanted to send one of his own. Can you show this to Natasha?

k, James sent back. He opened the attached photograph.

 

Hello Natasha. My daddy read me your letter. It was a nice letter. No one ever wrote to me a letter before.

Daddy says I will see you Thursday. That is two more days. There is Tuesday and Wednesday and then it is Thursday. Friday is my favorite day because I go to my arrow class and shoot arrows with my bow. Thursday is now also my favorite day because I will see you.

I like to be friends. My daddy and your daddy were best friends when they were kids and now we are best friends.

I will see you on Thursday. You can have some of my spaghetti.

Beside the words, which were written in Steve's precise printing, was a drawing of a bird that looked quite advanced for a boy of Clint's age.

At the very bottom of the page, Clint had written his first name in big block letters. Under that, Steve had written Clint Francis Barton Carter Rogers.

James read the name a second time. Poor kid, saddled with a multi-barreled moniker like that. Still, what could you expect from a guy named Steven Grant.


Because James was a man who knew his own limitations, he waited until they were home and had finished dinner before he showed Natasha the letter.

It went about as James expected. Natasha was ecstatic.

At her insistence, he printed out a copy of Clint's letter for Natasha to hug, literally, to her chest. She carried that letter with her everywhere, even into the bathroom to brush her teeth before bed.

In lieu of bedtime stories that evening, Natasha and James discussed the nature of friendship. She seemed to have forgotten the Monday evening angst of soldiers and hospitals, and James was only too happy to let that subject lie.

When he tucked her in and turned off the light, Natasha placed the print-out of Clint's letter under her pillow "so it would be safe all night."


Wednesday was a busy morning. James dropped Natasha off at school early, swung past the dry cleaners to hand over his dress shirts, then drove into the city. The meeting with clients took up most of the day and it was nearly three o'clock when James and Maria escaped into the street, wrung out but inches away from securing a multi-million dollar contract.

As usual, James got stuck in traffic trying to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn in the middle of rush hour, and he got to Natasha's school in the nick of time to pick up Natasha for the parent and child art class at the community centre.

James was one of only two fathers in the room; the other one (Bill; they'd introduced themselves on the first day) was too busy corralling his twin boys to pay attention to anyone else. The others (three mothers, five nannies and one bored teenage sister) tended to give James a wide berth, especially after James had shown up for the second class without his arm (repairs). James tried to not let it bother him. He wouldn't have minded the kids' questions, but it gave him enough space to focus on Natasha.

Today was painting-on-canvas day, which caused a flurry of excitement. James went where Natasha ordered him to go, helping her pick out the best canvas from a stack of identical ones, then to get her favorite brush, then to squirt acrylic paint into the little cups for her.

Then, with great solemnity, Natasha pulled the battered print-out of Clint's letter from her backpack and set it next to the canvas. "I'm going to paint a bird," she informed her father. "For Clint. Because he's my best friend."

"That is a nice thing to do," James said, because he suspected that teasing Natasha about her new friend would be the path to family strife. "What kind of bird are you going to draw?"

"The best one." Natasha picked up the brush in her little fingers and held it to the canvas. "Mine will be the best because it will be purple and it will fly."

James helped Natasha as much as he could without getting paint on his expensive suit. By the end of the class the small canvas was covered with a shape that was identifiably a bird, a bright purple bird with black stripes.

"What's that?" James asked, pointing at a series of lines at the corner of the bird's wing.

"That's the bird's bow and arrow," Natasha said as she painted a shaky 'N' in the bottom corner of the canvas. "Because he shoots arrows out of the sky when he flies."

James took a photo of the canvas while Natasha returned her paint cups. Warning this is comng to yuour house tomorrow, he emailed Steve.

I love it, Steve texted back as James and Natasha were walking out of the community centre, Natasha's drying canvas held carefully in James' metal fingers. What is it?

James had to wait to respond until after they got home, where Natasha placed the still-sticky canvas on the back step to dry. A bird tht flies and dos archery. I think its a surpise 4 clint.

My lips are sealed, was Steve's reply, and that left James imagining Steve's face and his lips and also maybe his tongue, and Natasha ended up having to slap James' leg to get his attention.

"Daddy, listen to me!" Natasha glared up at him. "I'm so hungry."

James tossed his phone onto the countertop. Steve would have to wait.


All in all, James thought that he escaped lightly that evening from the barrage of 'Clint is my best friend.' Natasha went to bed without argument, and there were no interruptions to the bedtime story about Clint or friendship or their plans for the next day.

So James was not expecting to be woken from a sound sleep by someone shaking his foot. "Daddy, I'm ready to go."

The clock read nine minutes after two in the morning as James reached for the lamp. Little Natasha was standing at his bedside, fully dressed in her school uniform, holding the small bag with her dance shoes in it.

For a moment, all James could do was stare. "Go where?" he finally asked, trying to blink himself awake.

"Spaghetti dinner with Clint."

It took half an hour to get Natasha changed back into her pajamas and talked out of leaving the house in the middle of the night 'so I can get there on time'. James promised twice to make sure Natasha didn't oversleep, and turned off the light with the girl still wide awake in her bed, clutching her teddy bear.

James didn't even get back under the covers, just fell down on his bed and passed out.

When the alarm went off properly at six, James hauled himself out of bed and downstairs to make coffee. Thus properly fortified, he went to wake Natasha. Her late night adventure had left her cranky, and James had to deal with getting a cantankerous kindergartener to school.

He spent the morning at a job site on Staten Island, the afternoon going over blueprints with Maria, and was back in Brooklyn in time to get Natasha at school and take her home to get ready for dance class.

There was just one problem.

Natasha didn't want to go.

"What if he doesn't like me any more?" Natasha asked, eyes wide as she clutched at her dance leotard.

James, sitting on Natasha's bedroom floor, let out a sigh. "Sweet pea, he still likes you. Can you please change into your dance clothes? We're going to be late."

"What if he forgots who I am?" Natasha asked, handing James the leotard so she could change out of her school uniform.

"Natasha, Clint is no more going to forget who you are than you are going to forget who he is. Come on."

In spite of James' best efforts, they were late leaving the house, as James had to run back inside to get the painting from the back step, and then Natasha's friendship notebook. They got to dance class five minutes late and Madame's glare was strong enough to strip paint off the walls.

James couldn't muster the energy to go for coffee, so he just collapsed on a chair in the lobby and pulled out his phone. I s2g this dinnr cannot happen soon enuf, he texted to Steve.

I hear you. Clint got a time out at soccer practice for talking too much about Natasha and not listening to the coach :(

James frowned at the screen. They gave him a timout 4 havng a friend? Hes 5!!! they suk!

Luckily he doesn't care. He's on the bench now clapping on his teammates. A pause, then, I don't think he likes soccer. I was hoping he'd enjoy the running around, but he doesn't get the team part.

I say agin, 5!?!

I hear you. Hey he's off the bench I gotta watch see you at 630. And with that, Steve was gone.

James put his phone into his pocket and let his head fall back against the wall. Forty minutes left in dance class.


On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, James knelt down to give Natasha one last look-over. Her hair was still braided from the school day, but she had changed into one of her favorite dresses (one that would thankfully not show any tomato sauce stains). She had her favorite tote bag over her arm, which contained her friendship notebook, her painting, her letter to Clint and the print-out of his letter, as well as whatever crayons she could salvage on short-notice.

"Remember what we talked about," James said as he straightened the bow on her dress.

"This is a grown-up establishment," Natasha said with careful enunciation. "I have to use my inside voice and I cannot run around."

"And why is that?"

"Because I am a well-behaved little girl."

"Exactly." He held up his metal hand for a high-five. "Let's go see Clint."

Natasha held her father's hand tight as they entered the restaurant. James spotted Steve at once, at a table in the back, and led Natasha towards it.

Steve, who had been talking quietly with Clint, glanced up, and his sudden smile took James' breath away. "Glad you could make it," Steve said.

"Are you kidding? This is all I've been hearing about for days," James said, smiling back at Steve like an idiot.

Clint, who had been kneeling on his chair, slid down to the ground. "Hi," he said to Natasha, looking bashful.

"Hi." Natasha let go of James' hand, walked up to Clint and gave him a hug. Clint returned the hug instantly, giving Natasha a firm squeeze.

It was so adorable that James wished he had his camera out. "Okay," he said, leaning down to pat Natasha on the back. "That's a very nice hug."

"Best friends always give each other hugs," Natasha informed him as the children separated. "It's a rule."

"That is a good rule." James helped Natasha settle into the chair beside Clint. "But now we have to eat dinner and have friendly conversation."

"I'm going to have spaghetti," Clint told Natasha.

"I like spaghetti." Natasha looked at James. "Daddy, can I have spaghetti too?"

"Yes." James sat down and pulled his chair in. The table was so small that James' knee bumped against Steve's. James shifted position quickly and leaned across the table as if nothing happened, as if his heart wasn't racing at the unexpected contact. "Do you want to show Clint anything?"

With that, Natasha could not get the painting out of her tote bag fast enough. She turned the canvas right-side up and handed it proudly to Clint. "This is for you!" she said, leaning against his side. "It's a purple bird and he can fly high and he has a bow an' arrow!"

Clint's eyes opened wide. "This is for me?" he squeaked as he took the picture from Natasha. "For me?"

"I painted it just for you because we are friends!"

James had to shush Natasha, reminding her about her inside voice, as Clint gaped open-mouthed at his painting. "It's the best ever!" he said, still grinning. "Daddy, look!"

While Steve admired the painting, Natasha turned to James with a gleeful expression. "Daddy, he likes it!" she said in a loud whisper.

"Of course he does," James said. "You made him a present."

Natasha wriggled in her chair, grinning in excited contentment. It was one of those dad moments that James knew he would always remember, watching his little girl so happy.

The waiter came by, handing menus to the two men. Clint immediately reached for Steve's menu. Natasha mirrored Clint's actions by reaching for the menu in James' hand. "I thought you wanted spaghetti," James said, helping Natasha open the large menu without bumping into anything on the table.

"I know." Natasha, her attention on Clint, settled on her chair and held the menu propped up on her lap. Clint followed suit, almost knocking his napkin to the floor as he shifted around.

James had to hide his smile as the two children pretended to be absorbed in the menus. He made the mistake of making eye contact with Steve. The amusement on Steve's face made James let out a small chuckle.

"Daddy, no laughing," Natasha said from behind her menu. "We are in a grown-up establishment."

Steve burst out laughing, reaching over to slap James on the shoulder. "She's got you pegged," Steve said when he could control himself. "No funny business."

"Careful, Rogers," James growled, but he couldn't stop grinning. "No ganging up on me, I've had a hard day."

Natasha folded the menu closed and handed it to James. "I want spaghetti," she said.

"I want spaghetti," Clint echoed, letting Steve take the menu from him. "And two meatballs." He held up two fingers. "Two."

"Do you want a meatball?" James asked Natasha.

She hesitated, looking at Clint. "I don't know," she said after a minute.

"They are so good," Clint said, putting his fingers over his mouth. "I like them!"

Natasha looked at James beseechingly. Having spent five years deciphering Natasha's expressions, he thought he knew what was going on. "I have an idea," he said, leaning on the table. "How about we get you meatballs with your pasta, and then if you don't want them, I'll eat them?"

Natasha's expression cleared. "We'll do that," she said decisively. "Daddy, you're so smart."

"Yeah, well, I'm super old," he said, sending the children into gales of laughter.

The waiter appeared again, and food was ordered all around. Steve ended his order with a request for a glass of red wine, but James waved off the waiter when the man asked if James wanted anything to drink. As the waiter retreated, Natasha reached over to poke James' arm. "Daddy, I wanna show Clint my notebook."

"You do? Okay." Standing, James picked Natasha up and swung her into his lap as he moved into Natasha's chair. "Do you want to tell Clint what this is?"

"Okay." Natasha hauled the friendship notebook out of her tote bag and placed it on the table. "This is all the things I want to do because we're friends!"

Clint got up on his knees and bent over the book, his head next to Natasha's. "What's in it?" he asked.

"Every fun thing ever!" Natasha opened the cover. "Daddy, you gotta read it for us."

"Okay." James curved his metal arm around to hold Natasha in place. "But this is just the friendship fun that Natasha suggested. What makes it even more fun is that Clint can add his suggestions too, so you get to do things that you both want to do."

"That does sound like fun," Steve said. He was watching the three of them across the table, a small smile playing on his lips. "Wasn't that how we became friends, Buck? Finding stuff we wanted to do together?"

James took a moment to raise his eyebrows at Steve. As far as he recalled, they became friends when, on the first day of second grade, Billy Perkins called Steve homeless during recess because Steve was wearing second-hand clothing. Then Steve, little skinny scrawny Steve, told Billy to go bully someone else and Billy pushed Steve and, well, things got violent and James had to step in to make sure this little punk kid didn't get himself squashed like a bug.

However, to model good behavior in front of the children, James said, "Yeah, that's exactly how we became friends." The twinkle in Steve's eye grew. "How about we read the list now?"

The children were vocal in their enthusiasm, and after they had been quieted down James turned over the first page of the notebook.

"The first thing we can do as friends, is to make pizza," he said, reading Maria's careful writing at the top of the page.

"I like pizza," Clint said, patting his belly.

"I like pizza too," Natasha said, beaming at him.

"We'll put that on the to-do list," James said. "Okay, the next thing we can do as friends is…" he turned the page. "See dinosaurs."

"Yes!" Clint said, pumping his fist in the air. "You sure do like a lot of fun stuff, Natasha."

Natasha grinned.

"Next up, we can… Climb high."

"So high," Natasha put in. "As high as a building."

"As high as the sky," Clint added.

"As high as the moon!"

"Okay," James said. "What's next?"

They went through grow a garden and throw a ball, and James was just starting to think that Natasha was for once thinking realistically, when he turned over the next page.

"Go to Disneyland?" he exclaimed. Natasha dissolved into laughter, while Clint giggled at James from behind his hands. "What kind of a book is this?"

"The best kind!" Natasha said happily. "We can go to Disneyland and ride the rides and it'll be so much fun!"

"Daddy, I want to go to Disneyland too!" Clint said, looking at Steve with wide eyes. "Can I go to Disneyland with Natasha?"

"I don't know," Steve hedged, but he was looking so indulgent that James kicked him under the table. "Disneyland is awful far away."

"We can fly in a plane," Clint said quickly. "Daddy, can we?"

James bounced Natasha on his knee. "How exactly do you plan to pay for this little trip?" he asked her.

"I will save my allowance." She gave a quick nod. "Yes I will."

"Oh? And how long do you think you'll have to save up?"

"One month."

"One month, huh?" James shook his head. "A little more than that."

"How much more?"

"Well, you get five dollars a week, so let's see, carry the three…" James screwed up his nose as he pretended to think. "About twenty years."

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest, frowning a mighty frown. "That's too long."

"So how are you going to go?"

"Uncle Tony can pay," Clint chimed in.

"Uncle Tony?" James asked, wondering less at the name than at how quickly Steve tried to shush the boy.

"My boss," Steve said, resting his hand on Clint's back. "We talked about this, Clint. Uncle Tony talks big."

"But he has so much money," Clint objected. "He said so."

"Yes, but that's not our money. It's his. We have to earn our own way."

Clint crossed his arms over his chest, echoing Natasha's posture. "I bet he would do it."

"Anyway," James said, trying to draw the boy's attention off this rich 'uncle', "Let's see what else is on this list."

To James' everlasting relief, the rest of the headers in the notebook were your typical five-year-old fare: Eat popcorn, make bubbles, and go to the zoo. He put the notebook on the table between Clint and Natasha. "How about you two draw some pictures of the things you want to do?" he suggested, standing to put Natasha back into her chair. "And then on Sunday, when you come over for lunch, we can add in some things that Clint wants to do."

The children jostled for the crayons, bending close to each other to draw on the pages of the notebook and chattering happily the whole time. James made sure they weren't in any danger of pushing anything off the table, then sat down in his chair.

Steve took a swig from his water glass. "How was your week?" he asked.

James shrugged his right shoulder. "It was okay. Nat's art class is almost over, so we'll have our Wednesdays back for the summer."

"That's good." Steve inclined his head at the notebook. "That's a nice thing you did, helping her with that."

James, who was keeping an eye on Natasha so she didn't overwhelm Clint, said distractedly, "Love to say I did, but my partner Maria deserves the credit on that one."

Steve sat back, his expression changing almost instantly. "Oh," he said. "I didn't think…" He ducked his head to fiddle with his fork, a hint of color rising to his cheeks. "I didn't realize you were with anyone."

James caught a hint of something in Steve's voice, something he couldn't quite make out. "What? No, not like that." He reached into his suit pocket for a business card. "Maria's my business partner. She was at the house on Monday morning for work. She's Natasha's favorite person in the world."

Steve took the business card, which had the names of both founding partners under the company name. The  hint of pink on his cheeks deepening, Steve let out a bashful chuckle. "You two work well together?" 

"We do," James said cautiously. Of course Steve had made the mental leap from partner to lover; in James' experiences, straight boys always looked for any hint of straightness in other men. Stringing together a woman's name with the phrase partner was easy pickings in the heterosexual sweepstakes.

Across the table, Natasha had looked up at the mention of Maria's name. "Maria is the best," she informed Steve as she reached for the green crayon. "She is so smart and so pretty and she carries a gun."

Steve's eyebrows arched at that last, and James hastened to jump in. "Maria's ex-FBI."

"How did you two meet?"

"We have a mutual friend," James said, and left it at that.

The waiter returned with Steve's wine and a basket of bread. Clint and Natasha both dove for the bread, and there were a few confused minutes while bread and crayons vied for supremacy.

Once James was sure that Natasha wouldn't eat the entire bread loaf on her own, he sat back and loosened his tie enough to undo his shirt's top button. "This is a nice place," he said, looking around the restaurant. "How did you find out about it?"

The question made Steve look down at the table. He picked up his napkin and smoothed the fabric through his fingers. "A friend," he finally said.

From his tone of voice, James doubted that 'friend' was all it had been. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." Steve took a deep breath. "More than a friend. Sam and me… anyway, yeah, Sam brought us here a few times."

James' mind instantly filled in the blanks on this Sam person. She'd have been tall, no doubt, perfect in every way. "It didn't work out?" he asked mildly.

Steve shook his head. "Well, it did for a while, but Sam was ready for a commitment that I couldn't make."

He was looking at James now, his eyes steady, his body braced. Making sure to keep his expression clear, James gave a shrug and said, "It happens."

At James' words, some pressure eased out of Steve's posture. "Yeah, I guess it does."

James didn't want to think about Steve's past loves, so he shifted his chair closer to Steve so he could speak without the children hearing him. "So, Disneyland?"

They chatted for a few minutes about Disneyland. Steve explained how he and the Erskines had gone to Disneyworld when he was fifteen, and James said he had gone to the Anaheim park once when he was on leave in LA, after Afghanistan and before Iraq.

"That must have been…" Steve failed to find an appropriate adjective.

"Surreal," James supplied. He picked up his water glass and drained it in one go; talking about Afghanistan always made him thirsty. "Like, there's people, and these bright colors, you know?"

There were a million things he wanted to tell Steve in that moment, but the words crowded in his throat. He wanted to tell Steve how weird it had been seeing so many people in one place, moving so slowly. He wanted to explain how he felt naked, without his rifle and body armor and various knives on his person. He had spent the whole day walking around, not going on any of the rides, just walking. He'd stayed until after dark to watch the fireworks and then gone back to his car and drove until he couldn't stay awake any longer.

His right hand was trembling. James clenched his hand into a fist and ruthlessly pushed the past away. He needed to keep it together, needed to be normal. Normal people didn't have nervous breakdowns in nice Italian restaurants while talking about Disneyland.

"Ever been to Six Flags?" Steve asked cautiously, and it was enough to help James yank himself back to reality.

As they talked, the restaurant grew louder. Everything seemed to be going all right, with James keeping at least half of his attention on Natasha. The first clue he had that something was amiss was when Natasha sat back in her chair and stared at Clint, who was oblivious to her.

James broke off mid-sentence and leaned over to Natasha. "Is something wrong?"

Natasha huffed, her little hands clenched in frustration. "Daddy, he's not listening to me!"

Steve reached over to put his hand on Clint's back. The boy looked up from his coloring, startled. "Hey, Clint, it's pretty loud in here, isn't it?" Steve asked. Clint nodded, putting his crayon down. "Sometimes, when it's loud, it can be hard to get our attention, right?"

Clint nodded again.

"Can you show Natasha and Mr. Barnes how we let people know we want to talk to them, when it's so loud?"

"Okay." Clint turned to Natasha, and very gently touched the back of her hand. "That means, I wanna talk to you."

"Like this?" Natasha pulled her hand away from Clint and then echoed his action. "Like that?"

"Uh huh." Clint grinned.

Natasha touched the back of Clint's hand again. "I want the blue crayon."

Clint reached for the requested item, which had rolled against his water glass on the far side of the table, and handed it to Natasha.

"What do we say?" James prompted.

"Thank you," Natasha said, drawing out the vowel sound.

"You welcome."

"You're welcome," Steve corrected, but the children were back to coloring again.

Dinner soon arrived at the table, and notebook and crayons were packed away in a hurry. The children each had a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce, with two large meatballs on top of the pasta. Steve had roast lamb, while James made do with the fish of the day.

Clint tackled his meatballs with gusto, while Natasha avoided them entirely and twirled pasta around her fork. James looked at the pasta, then down at his fish, and wished heartily that he still had the metabolism of a teenager.

Steve lifted a forkful of lamb to his mouth. When he tasted it, his eyes rolled shut and let out an indecent sound. Fish forgotten, James said, "Any good?"

Steve nodded. "You gotta try this," he said after he swallowed, pushing his plate towards James.

James speared a morsel of lamb onto his fork and tasted it. Steve was right, that was simply delicious.

His attention was drawn as Natasha patted the back of his hand. "Daddy, the meatball's too big to eat."

James cut the meatball into small enough pieces for Natasha's approval, and then turned back to his own plate, wishing he had ordered lamb and red wine. But then, with Steve's physique, he probably spent hours in the gym every day anyway and didn't have to worry about calories.

Grimly, James ate his fish.

Dinner wound on, with Clint packing away more pasta than James would have expected for a boy his size. Natasha ate half of one meatball and a quarter of her pasta, then pushed her plate away and reached for James' plate with her fork. James let her eat what she wanted.

The conversation eventually landed on the plans for Sunday. Natasha thought they should go to the park again, while Clint was holding out for the zoo. Steve brought his phone out and was browsing for something. "It's supposed to rain on Sunday," he said, showing the weather forecast to the children. "We might want to do something inside instead."

"We could always make pizza like Natasha suggested," James said, more out of a lingering desire for carbohydrates than anything else. "That would take a while."

"How come?" Clint asked.

"Have you ever made pizza dough?" James asked. Clint shook his head. "It's just like making bread, but more fun."

"We make bread sometimes," Natasha told Clint and Steve. "I get to knead because Daddy can't."

James held up his metal hand in explanation. "If you guys come over at eleven, we can get everything started and then you kids can play while we wait."

"Okay," Clint said before Steve could react. "And we can bring the bird book and look at birds too."

"That sounds like a great idea," Steve said, smiling at James. "Something to look forward to."

Something twisted in the general vicinity of James' stomach, something small and warm. It had been less than a week since Steve Rogers had come back into his life, and he already wanted to keep Steve around forever. They hadn't even talked about much, just a few phone calls, mostly about the children, but this was the closest connection James had felt with another person in a very long time.

Natasha slipped out of her chair and walked around to James, poking at his side until he lifted her onto his lap. "Daddy," she said in all seriousness. "We need to talk."

"About what?"

Natasha pointed to a nearby table. "That lady," she said, "Has chocolate cake."

The ensuing discussion with the children about dessert captured all James' attention, but he did get a glimpse of Steve smiling fondly at the three of them, and James could not stop himself from smiling back.

Maybe, for just a few minutes, James could let himself enjoy this.

Chapter Text


The rain was pouring down outside when James finished tidying the living room. "Nat!" he shouted up the stairs. "They're going to be here soon, are you ready?"

Natasha pattered down the stairs in bare feet, clutching her teddy bear under her arm. "I'm ready, Daddy!" She hurried to the window so she could look out on the sidewalk. "Are they going to be wet when they get here?"

"Probably." James eased himself to the ground beside Natasha, stretching out his legs. In anticipation of a quiet day around the house, he was wearing old jeans and a flannel shirt over his faded US Army shirt. "If you go outside in the rain, you're bound to get a bit wet."

Natasha patted her teddy bear's head absently. "You know, Daddy," she said after a minute. "When I'm outside in the rain, and I get cold, there's one thing that always makes everything better." She was watching him out of the corner of her eye.

James, who had heard this pitch before, said, "Oh really?"

Natasha nodded. "When your best friend gets cold, you have to have hot chocolate so they get warmed up."

"Hot chocolate," James repeated.

"It's a law," Natasha said solemnly.

"Really?" James tugged on the teddy bear's leg. "An actual law?"

Natasha let James take the teddy bear as she resumed her vigil of the sidewalk. "It's a law in Canada," she confessed. "Maria told me."

"Well, if Maria said so." James tossed the toy onto the sofa before pulling out his phone. No messages from Steve, but it was only five to eleven. "We can ask Clint and Steve if they want hot chocolate when they get here."

Natasha let out a shriek of happiness, flinging her arms around James' neck. "Daddy, you're the best!"

James hugged his daughter until she wiggled away. She had been so happy all week, talking about Clint and how fun it was to have a best friend… James would do anything he could to make sure Clint and Natasha's friendship had its best chance at success.

"Is that them?" Natasha asked, poking her finger at the glass. Amid the rain drops outside, James saw two figures moving down the sidewalk, one tall, one small. The smaller figure was wearing a knee-length purple raincoat.

"It looks like." James climbed to his feet. He made it to the front door just as the doorbell rang. Deactivating the alarm, James opened the inner and outer doors to let Steve and Clint inside. "What did you do, swim?" he asked as Steve dripped on the mat.

"You're hilarious," Steve grumbled as he shucked off his raincoat. Clint waited patiently, arms held out to the sides like a little purple starfish. "You sure you don't want to go to the zoo? There won't be any crowds."

"Nah, I already had a shower." James hung up Steve's coat while Steve helped Clint out of his rain-gear. The boy was wearing his sunglasses, in spite of the grey clouds in the sky. "Hey, Clint, how are you doing?"

Clint gave James the thumbs-up as Steve removed the boy's sunglasses and put them on the bench.

It occurred to James at that moment that Natasha was nowhere in sight. "Nat?" he called.

A distant crash, then silence. "Daddy?"

"Go," Steve said, and James hurried through living room and into the kitchen, where he found Natasha kneeling on the counter, the cupboard door open and the hot chocolate jar smashed open on the kitchen floor, powdered hot chocolate mix covering every surface.

Natasha looked at him, her lower lip trembling. "I wanted to make hot chocolate for Clint," she said in a tiny voice.

Thankfully, Steve arrived on the scene before James had a mental breakdown. They shooed the children into the living room, then Steve took control of the broom while James went to find the mop.

"I'm going to get ants in here," James muttered.

Steve emptied a dustpan of hot chocolate mix into the sink and shook his head. "We'll get it all," he said. "It was nice of Natasha to want to make a hot drink for us."

"All I got now are coffee and whisky," James said. "I know which one I want."

"I brought some apple juice for Clint. We could put that in a sauce pan, make apple cider," Steve suggested. His wet hair was drying into adorable blond spikes, and James had to suppress away the urge to smooth those spikes down. "You've got some spices around here, I saw them last week."

"Does apple cider go with pizza?" James wondered aloud.

"Everything goes with pizza."

It took the grown-ups about ten minutes to get the powdered chocolate mix cleaned up, then James told Steve to go see what the kids were doing.

Steve hesitated, looking at the mop in James' hand. "I could do that," he offered.

James tightened his grip on the mop handle and stared Steve down. "I got this," was all he said.

With a nod, Steve turned into the living room.

Now that he didn't have an audience, James set about mopping as best he could with his metal arm. The rhythm was easy to get into, lift the mop into the bucket, wring out the water, slap the mop to the floor and push with the right hand, guide with the left. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

He had to stop once to change the water, but eventually, the floor was sparkling. With one final heave, James emptied the mop bucket into the sink, rinsed it and the mop until they were clean, then carried both to the back door to sit outside on the back stoop in the rain.

His torso ached with the pull of the prosthesis' harness, but he did not slow down. The soreness would lessen once he stopped putting weight on the metal arm; that he knew from hard experience.

Keeping an ear on the sound of voices in the living room, James pulled the stand mixer out of the cupboard, then set the pizza dough ingredients on the counter. Lastly, he poured water into the coffee maker to start a new batch of coffee going for him and Steve, then left the kitchen.

In the living room, Steve, Natasha and Clint were all coloring on large sheets of paper. Clint and Natasha were drawing Natasha's teddy bear, which was propped up on the sofa. Steve in turn was sketching the children. "All clear?" Steve asked as James collapsed into the armchair behind him.

"Yup." James shifted around so he could see Steve's picture more clearly. "That's really good."

"Art school," Steve said by way of explanation. His pencil flew over the paper, capturing the children in quick shades of movement, before he moved on to another scene. "I don't get to do much drawing in my day job."

Meanwhile, Natasha had put her crayon down and was getting to her feet. She made her way over to James and leaned against his knee, looking sad and tragic.

With an effort, James sat up. "Hey, pumpkin. You okay?"

Natasha nodded. "I'm sorry."

James pulled Natasha onto his lap and she cuddled up against his shirt. "What are you sorry for?" James asked.

"For making a mess," she said.

"I can help you clean up next time," Clint offered.

"Thanks Clint, that's a nice thing to say." James turned his attention back to Natasha. "Thank you for apologizing, Nat. What are you going to do different next time?"

Natasha winkled her nose as she thought. "Don't drop things from up high?" she suggested.

"Or," James said, "You could ask for help in getting something from the top shelf."

"All right," Natasha said in a long-suffering voice.

James kissed her cheek and set her to the ground. "Do you guys want to start the pizza dough?" he asked. Loud assent met this suggestion, and everyone crowded into the kitchen. With help from James, Natasha and Clint measured the ingredients into the bowl and supervised the mixing process, Steve watching from the sidelines. When the dough was ready, James instructed the children to wash their hands before setting them loose on the dough.

Clint was intent on kneading just so, patting the dough over and then giving it a big push with his tiny hands. Natasha was more haphazard about things, randomly pushing and slapping at the dough. She chattered away as James sprinkled flour around in hopes of preventing the dough from sticking to every available surface.

"…and Clint has archery class on Friday and swim class on Monday," Natasha was saying. "Right?"

"Uh huh." Clint paused to poke a smiley face into the dough's surface. "I shoot arrows on Friday and swim on Monday."

"Where do you swim?" Steve asked from the sidelines.

"At the YMCA," Clint said with careful pronunciation. "I'm a ray!"

James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "It's a swim level," Steve clarified. "Clint's going to move up into the big kids' swim classes this fall."

"Daddy," Natasha said hopefully, pressing her dough around the counter. "Can I go to swim lessons?"

James reached for Natasha's dough and gave it a few one-handed turns. "There's too many things in your schedule right now," he said, not looking at her. "Come on, we're almost done."

After a few more minutes, James helped Natasha and Clint put their dough into oiled bowls, had them cover the bowls with dish cloths, and got them washed up and sent them off to play.

"They have classes at the Y on Wednesday nights," Steve said as he filled the sink with soapy water.

"What?"

"Swimming on Wednesdays," Steve repeated. "You said that Natasha's art classes are done at the end of May, right? That's in a couple weeks."

James closed the lid on the flour container with more force than was necessary. "Can you drop this?" he said sharply.

"It's okay if she's never swum before, they have parent and kid starter classes—"

"I said drop it!" James barked, slamming his hand onto the counter. Steve went still. James had to push past the roaring in his head, tried to find some words to deflect Steve, because he couldn't put on a bathing suit and take Natasha into a pool, he just couldn't.

The kitchen got so quiet that James could hear the soap bubbles popping in the sink, the faint sounds of children's footsteps upstairs.

Then Steve asked, "Is this about your arm?"

James curled his metal hand into a ball, watching the play of light on the shining metal. The frustration and anger and self-loathing was thick on the back of his tongue; he couldn't even take his daughter swimming, couldn't bear the thought of people looking at him like he was some kind of freak, missing an arm, scar tissue twisted up all along his left side.

He couldn't do it.

After a moment, Steve cleared his throat. "There's also classes on Monday that I could take Natasha to. I mean, if you wanted. I have to be there anyway to drop Clint off, I just usually hang out in the observation area, but I could suit up and take Natasha into the pool for the class. It's only about forty-five minutes."

James forced his metal hand to uncurl. "Can you let it the fuck go?" he said, voice coming out ragged.

"If you want," Steve said. He went back to washing dishes while James put things away. The faint sounds still came from the upper floor, but the direction of the sounds changed slightly and it took James a moment to realize something was wrong.

"What the…"

"Everything okay?"

James threw his dishtowel on the counter. "I think they might be in my room."

Steve was at James' heels out of the room and up the stairs. "Do you have any weapons in the house?" Steve asked.

James paused mid-step to glare at Steve. "Everything's in the gun safe, which is behind a locked door with a ten-digit number code and a thumbprint scanner," he said. "I'd never let Clint go anywhere where he might get hurt."

"Good," Steve said, and he brushed past James up the stairs.

The door to James' bedroom was half-open, and James could hear the children inside speaking in hushed voices. On silent feet, James moved to push open the door, Steve hovering at his shoulder.

The closet door was open and Natasha and Clint were sitting on the floor, James' old prosthetic arm on the floor between them. The children looked up guiltily at the adults' entrance. For a moment, no one spoke.

"All right," James said finally, entering the room and crouching down. "Who wants to go first?"

Clint looked at his knees, while Natasha clasped her hands behind her back like she always did when she knew she was in trouble. "We were only looking," she said.

"I wanted to see it," Clint said in a whisper.

James sighed. "This is not a toy," he said, picking the arm up off the floor. "This is a piece of medical equipment that I still have to use sometimes."

"I know, Daddy."

"I'm going to put this back in the closet, and I need you both to promise that you won't come in here to play with it again."

"I promise."

"Me too."

Taking in the dejected expression on Clint's face, James' curiosity got the better of him. "Why did you come up here?"

Clint looked over James' shoulder to Steve, then at James' metal hand. He whispered something that James didn't catch.

"What's that?"

"He said," Natasha interjected loudly, "That he wanted to know why you had a fake arm like he has a fake ear but he's not supposed to ask you 'bout it."

James could hear Steve shifting behind him. "And you thought it was a good idea to come up and get the old arm out of the closet for him?" James asked Natasha.

Caught now, Natasha squirmed in place. "We were only looking," she said again.

James stood, put the old prosthesis back on its shelf in his closet, and closed the closet door behind him. He went back over to where the children were standing huddled together and he sat on the floor, letting his aching muscles relax.

"Clint, did your dad tell you that you shouldn't ask me about my arm?" James asked. Clint nodded, looking miserable. James sighed. "Is it okay if I tell you a story about my arm?"

Natasha perked up and jumped at James, moving around to sit on his knee. Clint, interested in spite of himself, wiggled closer to James. A shifting out of the corner of James' eye told him that Steve was moving to sit on the edge of James' bed.

"Okay, here's the story." James took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to say. "When I met your dad again last week, it was the first time I seen him since we were twelve. That's a very long time."

"Daddy is old," Natasha contributed solemnly.

"And when I saw him, I wasn't ready to talk about what happened to my arm, because all I could think about was how long it had been since I saw him and all the stuff that's happened since then."

Clint was nodding.

"Nat already knows about this, because she and I have been a family for so long." James put his right arm around Natasha. "But I didn't think about what questions you might have. You can ask me anything you want, and I'll try to answer."

Clint rubbed behind his right ear, just below the hearing aid. "Do you have any of your real arm at all?" he asked.

"I do. Not a lot, but a bit."

"What happened?"

James tried to think of how to explain such a bloody and violent thing to a young child who, at five, would be able to understand more than James would have liked. "I was a soldier, in the Army," he said carefully, knowing Steve was listening to every word. "And I was in Iraq. Do you know where that is?"

"Uh huh," Clint said. "I saw it on the television."

"And there was a bomb, and it went off and my left arm got hurt really bad."

The words were inadequate to describe what had actually happened; the bomb going off too close to James' body, shards of shrapnel cutting through his arm and shredding his body amour, the blood and flesh and the burning and all James could do was scream.

He breathed through the memory, using his right hand to pat Natasha gently on the back, to centre himself in the present.

Clearing his throat, James went on. "They took me to the hospital and the doctors operated to save what was left of my arm, and I came home to New York. A few months later, I met Natasha when she was just a little baby, and we've been a family ever since.

Clint put his index finger in his mouth and chewed on it. "Did it happen 'cause you were bad?" he asked after a moment.

Behind James, Steve let out a soft, pained sound. James looked Clint straight in the eye and said, "Absolutely not. Sometimes things happen that aren't our fault but we get hurt anyway."

"Does it still hurt?" Clint asked as Steve got off the bed and went over to sit beside his son.

"Sometimes it does," James said. A boy as young a five wouldn't understand phantom pain, how James' brain kept sending nerve impulses to parts of his arm long since gone. "Most days I'm okay, but some days it still hurts."

"Daddy, show them," Natasha ordered. "Show them your arm."

"Nat, they don't want to see that," James said, but he knew it was a lost cause as Clint's eyes grew wide and he stopped chewing his finger.

"Is it scary?" he asked in a whisper.

"It's not scary," Natasha said indignantly. "It's my daddy!"

James looked Steve. "You okay with this?" he asked, and it was entirely possible that he put a little challenge in his voice.

Steve lifted his chin. "If you are, then yeah."

James shifted Natasha down to the floor, then pulled his flannel shirt off. "Here goes nothing." With that, he grabbed the collar of his t-shirt and worked it off over his head.

Clint was silent and Steve couldn't stop staring, but James had set this up and damn it, he was going through with it. Turning so Clint could see better, James curled the prosthetic arm up then straightened it out.

"See?" Natasha said, going around to James' left side. "It's not scary." She patted the metal sheath that covered his shoulder, to give him better leverage and to even out the weight and pull on his body. "It's just how dad is."

Something in Steve's expression made James want to go all the way, just do this, stop worrying if Steve would be repulsed by his body and just show him. "You okay if I take the arm off?"

Steve put his arm around Clint's shoulders. "What do you say, buddy?" he asked. "Would it be okay if Mr. Barnes took off his metal arm?"

Clint nodded vigorously.

With practiced fingers, James undid the metal arm's three harness straps from around his torso. When the arm was only held on his body with the anchor strap hooked around his right underarm, he took hold of the metal bicep with his right hand and eased the prosthesis off the stump of his left arm.

Carefully, James placed the metal arm on the floor. Clint was staring at him, open-mouthed, but somehow James could not make himself look at Steve's reaction.

"See?" Natasha said, putting her arms around James' neck. "It's not scary."

James knew what Steve and Clint saw; the disfigured stump of his left arm, the scars running along his left side where bomb shrapnel got under his body armor. This was why he couldn't take Natasha to swim lessons; if Steve stared at him so, what would strangers do?

"Not scary at all," Natasha went on. She patted James' left arm just below the shoulder. "You gotta be gentle but it doesn't hurt."

Clint climbed to his feet and moved slowly over to James. "It's just like a normal arm," James said, holding his left arm up for Clint to see. "It's not sticky or slimy or gross."

Carefully, Clint reached out to touch one of the scars on the arm stump. He snatched his hand back as soon as he made contact. Then, slowly, he reached out again to place his hand on James' arm and give a soft pat-pat, mimicking Natasha's actions.

"See?" Natasha said, beaming at Clint. "It's okay."

"It is okay," James agreed. "Do you see now why I need to use the metal arm?"

Clint nodded. "I won't play with your arm ever again," he promised.

"Good." James lifted the prosthesis onto his lap. "Why don't you two go play in Natasha's room for a while, then we can go down and finish the pizza?" Once Natasha and Clint had scampered out of the room, James slumped back against the side of the bed. "And that," he said after a minute, "Is why I can't take Nat to swimming lessons."

"My offer to take her still stands," Steve said.

James glared at him. "If I tell you that I'll think about it, will you shut up about the whole thing?"

"Yeah, if you really do think about it."

James shook his head. "You're a real jerk, anyone ever tell you that?" he asked, straightening out the prosthesis' straps in preparation of putting the arm back on his body.

"You, and often. You need a… um, any help with that?"

James paused with the strap halfway down his right arm. "Steve, I swear to god, if you ask me if I need a hand I'm going to punch you in the nuts."

The smile on Steve's face was small, but real. "You always knew how to fight dirty," was all he said.

"It's called fighting to win, Rogers," James said as he slipped his left arm into the socket of the metal arm. He could feel the implants activating, sending commands to the metal arm. Curling his left hand into a ball as a test, he went to work on the rest of the harness straps. "I need all the advantages I can get these days. Come on, help me up."

Steve sprang to his feet; James took his offered hand and let Steve haul him bodily upright. "You seem to be doing all right," Steve said, still holding James' right hand in his.

James didn't speak for a moment. Things hadn't been weird when the kids were in the room, but now it was just him and Steve, in James' bedroom, and James wasn't wearing a shirt, and Steve wouldn't let go of his hand.

If this had been some kind of movie, this would be the part where James would lean in for a kiss, and the music would swell and the credits would roll, but this wasn't a movie, this was real life.

Steve cleared his throat. "Thanks for showing Clint your arm," he said softly, still holding James' hand. "It's good for him to know what happened to you."

Swallowing hard, James took a step back, easing his hand out of Steve's grasp. "It's one day at a time, you know?" he said, his heart pounding hard as if he had just run a sprint. Turning, James went to retrieve his t-shirt.

"Yeah." When James turned around, Steve had the flannel shirt in his hands. "But still, thank you."

"It is what it is," James said, shrugging into the t-shirt. "I didn't want Clint to think there was anything wrong with it. Or with me."

There was so much unsaid in Steve's expression, so much emotion, that James didn't want to try to decipher, especially not in his bedroom.

"Come on," he said instead, tucking his hair behind one ear. "Let's go grab some coffee before the kids come down, okay?"

Steve smiled at him, a small smile that sent a thrill down James' spine. "I'd love some coffee," was all Steve said.

Chapter Text


The weeks flew by as May tumbled into June. Natasha and Clint spent as much time together as they could, and when they were apart, James was treated to a daily monologue about Clint and all the fun things Natasha and Clint did together, and how much Natasha looked forward to seeing Clint again.

In spite of all that, the children's friendship might have cooled off and the two families drifted away from each other after a few months, but for one significant event:

One morning, Clint ran away from school.


It went down on a Monday in early June. James dropped Natasha off at school and then went home, dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeve t-shirt to cover his arm and went for a jog. No one looked at him funny, no one commented on his hitched stride for balance, even his shoes didn't come undone.

He made the three-mile circuit easily, thanks to his daily use of the treadmill in the basement, and arrived home just as the mailman was dropping the daily mail into the letterbox. A shower and two cups of coffee later, James settled down to review plans for a new condo complex upstate.

Work being what it was, James remained engrossed until his phone rang. Looking at the call display, James swore under his breath. It was Natasha's school. A dozen thoughts flew through his mind. Was Natasha sick? Had he made sure her emergency inhaler was in her backpack that morning?

Only one way to find out. Lifting the phone to his ear, he said, "James Barnes speaking."

"Hello, Mr. Barnes," came a commanding voice. "This is Ms. Green speaking, from St. Ursula's."

James nearly dropped the phone. Ms. Green was the headmistress of Natasha's private school. He'd seen her on the first day of classes, when the woman came in to welcome the new kindergarten students, but she hadn't been the one to call the house on the two occasions when Natasha had gotten sick in class.

What had Natasha done?

"Are you familiar with a young man by the name of Clint Rogers?" the headmistress went on.

"Yes, I am," James said, confused. "What's happened?" He envisioned a situation in which Natasha had felt the need to defend her absent best friend's honor against another student. There would probably have been name-calling involved; Natasha hadn't ever hit another student, but she had the ability to hurt feelings with unerring accuracy when provoked.

However, James was not expecting Ms. Green to say, "Young Mr. Rogers showed up in Miss Barnes' classroom this morning after recess. I was hoping you might be able to help me figure out what to do with him."

"What?" James exclaimed. "Clint's there? Is he okay?"

"He is," Ms. Green said. "He said that he wanted to see Natasha's school and came along himself in order to do so. I have been unable to reach his father at the number the young man gives, and Natasha suggested that I contact you."

"Yeah, of course," James said, pushing himself to his feet. "I'll be there in a few minutes. Clint's really okay?"

"Physically, yes," Ms. Green said. "He appears to be upset about something, however, and won't tell me what it is."

"Maybe he'll tell me," James said, hurrying out of his office and towards the stairs. "I'll try calling his dad and I'll be there as soon as I can."

"We will see you in a few minutes, Mr. Barnes," said Ms. Green, and hung up.

James sprinted up to his room. Pulling off his sweatpants and t-shirt, James wondered what the hell was going on. There was no chance in hell that Steve would have taken Clint to Natasha's school and abandoned the boy there; so how the hell had little five-year-old Clint gotten across Brooklyn?

Had someone else taken him there?

James' first thought was of Sharon, Clint's mother, but no, that made less sense than if Steve had done it. If Sharon had taken Clint out of school, she would not have left him at the school of a friend.

So if not Steve or Sharon then who?

Jeans buttoned, James reached for the metal arm, only to stop when he caught sight of the charging light on the station. The prosthesis wasn't fully charged yet, and James had been strongly cautioned against taking the arm off the power source before it finished charging.

Letting out a string of curse words that would have impressed his Ranger instructors, James pulled on a clean shirt, grabbed his wallet and phone, and tore off down the stairs with his left shirt sleeve hanging empty.

In the hallway, James paused long enough to don his jacket and grab his Bluetooth earpiece from the hall table. He shoved the thing into his ear and thumbed at the screen of his phone to call Steve.

Steve's phone went right to voice mail. "Steve, it's Bucky," James said as he activated the house alarm before slipping out the front door. "I just got a call from Nat's school. Clint's there and he's okay and I have no idea why he's there but I'm on my way to find out. Give me a call when you get this."

Touching the earpiece to end the call, James ran down the street to where he'd parked the jeep. He got in behind the wheel and went through the process of getting ready to drive one-handed; reaching across his body to pull the driver's door closed, buckling up the seatbelt, adjusting the mirror, then pulling his phone out of his pocket to drop on the passenger seat.

Steve had never given James his work number, only his cell. James didn't even know where Steve worked; the man had been very careful about not revealing the name of his employer in the few conversations they'd had about the subject. James had no way of getting in touch with Steve to let him know that his little boy was safe.

That just wouldn't do. James knew that if he was in Steve's place, if Natasha had gone missing, he would have been in a blind panic. James had to contact Steve somehow.

Well, James thought grimly, desperate times called for desperate measures. He scrolled through his phone's contacts until he found the person he was looking for, someone he would only call in when all other options had been exhausted.

"Hey."

"It's James Barnes," James said as he started the jeep. "Skye, that you?"

"Mr. B," came the voice of Skye (no last name, it's a thing), sounding heaven sent. "How's my favorite munchkin?"

"Nat's fine." James grasped the knob on the steering wheel, specially installed for a one-armed driver, and accelerated into the lane. "Skye, I need a huge favor. Are you online?"

"It's funny how you ask that like it's a question. What's up?"

James slowed at the intersection to wait for a break in traffic. "There's a buddy of mine, I need his work phone number."

"Does your buddy have a name?"

"Steve Rogers. Somewhere in Manhattan."

"Sounds fake," Skye mused. There was the briefest of pauses, then she said, "I've got about ten of those in a three-mile radius. Can you narrow that down a bit?"

James racked his brain for any detail Steve had let slip. "He works as some sort of fundraiser, I think."

"Like for a school? A museum?" Skye asked. The sound of rapid typing came over the line. "Or," she added, a note of triumph sneaking into her voice, "As head of development for the Maria Stark Philanthropic Foundation?"

"What?" James exclaimed, nearly missing his turn-off. "Stark as in Tony Stark?"

"If your buddy is six foot and wears a tux like it's painted on, then yeah, that's him," Skye said. "I got paparazzi pics from their last gala. You said you want his phone number?"

At this point, James was three blocks from Natasha's school. If he waited until he was parked to call Steve himself…. "Can you call him for me?"

"Do I have a good reason?" Skye asked.

"Yeah, tell him that his son is okay and is at Natasha's school, and I'll be there in a few minutes."

"That's not bad, as reasons go. I'll do it." A brief pause. "Hey, since you called, what are you going to do with Natasha over the summer?"

"Why aren't you dialing?"

"It's called multitasking," Skye said. "If you want me to look after Natty when school lets out, let me know."

"I'll call you tomorrow," James said as he spotted a parking space. "Skye, I owe you one."

"Just make sure the kid's all right, Mr. B." And with that, Skye hung up.

James pulled into the parking space, riding up on the curb in his haste. He ducked out of the jeep, pausing long enough to realize he didn't have any change to plug the meter, then hustled along the block to Natasha's school.

Skye had been a student helper in Natasha's preschool and babysat the girl over the previous summer. Natasha thought Skye was pretty neat, and for her part Skye was active enough to keep up with Natasha. It had been in the back of James' mind to call Skye up to see if she was willing to resume her babysitting in the summer after Natasha's classes ended, but he hadn't gotten around to it.

James knew enough about Skye's background that he trusted her with Natasha; she was a student at NYU, majoring either in computer science or psychology or both, and she had an uncanny knack of always being able to find the strangest things on the internet. Even though it had been months since he had last seen her, Skye still sent along the occasional email with updates on security holes in various systems that she happened across while online.

All in all, she was a good kid. A little weird, but Natasha liked her.

Finally, James reached the school's entrance. He went through the front doors and along the hallway to the reception area, where the school's security guard was talking to the secretary.

A few minutes later, James was being shown into the headmistress's office as Ms. Green rose to greet him. "Mr. Barnes, thank you for joining us," she said, not batting an eyelash at his one-armed state.

Behind the woman, Clint and Natasha sat on child-size chairs by a low table. Natasha appeared much as she had that morning, uniform neat and hair braided, while Clint looked ruffled; his hair mussed, shoelace untied, grass stains on the knees of his jeans. His black and purple backpack lay beside the table.

"Glad to be here," James said, going over to the children. He knelt down. "All right, what's up?"

"Clint wants to come to school with me!" Natasha burst out. "And we can play and read and do all kinds of things!"

Clint rubbed his eyes. Other than his state of general dishevelment, he didn't look too bad, but he certainly wasn't the happy boy James had known for the past month.

"Clint, are you okay?" James asked. Clint nodded, but he looked so downcast that James went on, "Do you need a hug?"

Without a word, Clint slipped off the chair and surged forward, arms going up and around James' neck as the boy collapsed against James.

"That's a big hug," James said, wrapping his arm around Clint. Unlike Natasha, who vibrated like a hummingbird whenever James held her, Clint leaned heavily against James, a small solid weight. "It sounds like you had a big adventure today."

Clint nodded against James' shoulder.

"Can you tell me about it?"

Another nod, and Clint let go. He leaned against James' side as he rubbed his eyes again, and James could see the faintest hint of tears starting.

"Why don't we all sit down," Ms. Green suggested, coming over. With deft gestures, she got James seated on the grown-up size couch across from her desk, and then the children hopped up, Clint at James' side, and then Natasha on Clint's other side. "Clint, can you tell us what happened?"

"I said," Natasha said, bursting with importance, "That Clint wants to come to school with me!"

James put his hand on Natasha's shoulder. "Nat, can you let Clint talk? I need to hear it from him."

Natasha subsided with an ill grace. Clint looked up at James, then over at the headmistress. "I don't want to go to my school anymore," he said in an almost inaudible voice. "Natasha said it's nice here, so I came here."

"Why don't you want to go to school anymore?" James asked.

Clint's lower lip stuck out in the beginnings of a pout. "I don't like it," he whispered.

Natasha wrapped her hand around Clint's. "He can come to school with me!" she said again.

"Natasha."

The girl bit her lip and sat back, still holding Clint's hand. The little boy squirmed but didn't pull away from her.

"Clint, why don't you want to go to school?"

"When Mrs. Anders teaches, she sends me to the back 'cause I'm ruptive," Clint said. "I don't wanna be ruptive!"

James exchanged a baffled glance with Ms. Green. He didn't know what word Clint was trying to use. "Why does she call you that?" Ms. Green asked.

"I don't know!" Clint waved his hands wide in a show of confusion. "She says that and sends me to the back of the room and then I have to play by myself."

James was still puzzled, but a look of comprehension passed over Ms. Green's face. "Clint, is your teacher calling you disruptive?"

"Yes!" Clint burst out, almost in a wail. "And I don't wanna be!"

Natasha flung her arms around Clint's neck in a supportive hug.

"What happens when you go to the back of the room? Why don't you listen to lessons?"

Clint leaned into Natasha's embrace. "Because I have to go all the way to the back and I can't hear!"

"You can come to my school and sit in the front row with me," Natasha promised.

Clint shook his head. "Sitting in the front makes my head hurt," he said sadly.

"Well, that doesn't sound good at all," Ms. Green said. "Clint, can you tell myself and Mr. Barnes how you got here today?"

Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "I got sent to the back again and I didn't want to be there," he said, as cross as James had ever heard him. "So when it was recess time I got my backpack and I left."

"How did you know how to get here?" James asked. As far as he could remember, Steve had indicated that Clint's school was near their apartment, in the south end of Brooklyn. "Did someone help you?"

"No," and now Clint was sitting up and looking rather pleased with himself. "Daddy shown me on a map where Natasha's school was, and he told me how to get from my school to her school, so I came that way."

"Why did your father tell you that?" Ms. Green asked.

"I asked." Clint gave a snotty sniffle. "Daddy shown me lots of things on maps on the computer. I like maps."

"When you left your school, what happened then?" Ms. Green asked, keeping them on point.

Clint poked his right index finger onto his left palm. "I walked and walked and I knew how to get to the subway 'cause me and Daddy get on the subway all the time after school," he said, drawing his finger along his hand. "And I 'memberd and I listened and got off the subway and walked here and I saw the big red sign on the corner like Natasha talked about!"

James could just imagine the scene; five-year-old Clint walking along the Brooklyn sidewalks, his large backpack taking up nearly half his small frame, alone and vulnerable. Swallowing a shudder, James asked, "Did anyone try to stop you?"

Clint shook his head. "Thomas says if you walk along behind a grown-up who don't see you, other grown-ups don't pay you no attention. So I walked behind grown-ups and no one said anything to me."

"Even on the subway?"

"Uh huh. I stood by an old lady." Clint wrinkled his nose. "She was old. She didn't see me, but no one bugged me."

"Cool," Natasha breathed, her eyes wide in amazement.

Ms. Green cleared her throat. "Clint, Natasha, why don't you go play on the computer?" she suggested. "Natasha, show Clint how to play the color game."

"Yeah!" Natasha jumped to her feet. "I love the color game, it's so fun!"

Clint reluctantly slid off the sofa. "Is it like school?" he asked warily as Natasha led him across the room.

"Yeah, but fun school!" Natasha said.

While Ms. Green got the children settled, James checked his phone. No calls or messages from Steve, only a quick mission accomplished text from Skye. Where the hell was the man?

Once the children were occupied, Ms. Green came back over to the sofa and settled into the guest chair. She was an older woman, perhaps fifty, with an iron gleam in her eyes that made James feel a bit like a schoolboy himself. "How long ago did Clint get here?" James asked, resting his elbow on his knee.

"Just a few minutes before I telephoned you." Ms. Green kept half of her attention on the children as she spoke. "Mrs. Singh tells me that she went to the back of the room and when she returned, Clint was sitting at Natasha's desk and they were both looking well pleased with themselves."

"Damn it," James said under his breath. "Why the hell hasn't Steve called?"

Ms. Green shifted her attention to James. "Natasha tells me that young Mr. Rogers is her friend, and that his father is your friend." It wasn't a question, but James could read innuendo into the words and it was just like he was back in basic training, feeling the pressures of the lies reaching up to choke him.

Stiffening his spine, James pushed that away. He wasn't in the military anymore, and he wasn't in any danger of losing Natasha if it got out that he was gay. Besides, it wasn't like he was actually involved with Steve. Steve really was just a friend.

"Steve and I were friends when we were growing up," James said, voice even. "We met up again last month and the kids connected."

"Good," Ms. Green said firmly. "Mrs. Singh had been worried at how Natasha doesn't seem to be making any deep connections with the other children in her class."

James was well aware of this; Natasha's kindergarten teacher had mentioned that issue twice in monthly parent-teacher conferences. "She also said there's nothing wrong with Natasha's social skills."

"This is true."

Thankfully, at that moment James' phone rang. "Hello?"

"Bucky, what the hell is going on?" Steve's voice came down the line. "Someone left a message with the receptionist that I needed to call you about Clint."

"Yeah, don't worry about him, he's safe and sound."

There was a momentary pause. "Of course he is; he's at school."

It was James' turn to pause. "Didn't they call you?"

"What are you talking about?" Steve demanded.

The children were looking at James, Clint's eyes wide. Ms. Green went over to distract them while James escaped into the hallway. "Steve, Clint ran away from school this morning. He made it to St. Ursula's, I'm here with him now."

"What?"

"He told me he left his school and he knew how to get here because you told him what train to take," James went on. "He snuck into Natasha's class and I'm looking at him right now playing on the headmistress's computer."

The only sound on the other end of the line was Steve hyperventilating. Remembering belatedly that Steve had asthma as a kid, James relented.

"Look, check your cell phone, maybe the school called you on there. I'll hang out here with Clint, okay?"

"Jesus fuck," Steve swore. "Clint's okay, he's really okay?"

"He's fine," James said, knowing what Steve was asking. "No one messed with him or anything."

"Oh my god."

"Do you want us to wait here for you to pick him up, or should I take the kids back to my place?"

"Could you do that?" Steve asked, relief washing into his voice. "I'm in Manhattan and it might take me a while to get back into Brooklyn."

"Sure, no problem."

"I have to call the school now," Steve said. "I just—I know you're busy…"

"I'm here as long as I need to be," James interrupted. "Anything you need, okay?"

"Thank you," Steve said, sounding so relieved that James almost felt guilty. "Just-- thank you."

When James returned to Ms. Green's office, Natasha was at the computer, but Clint was standing a few feet behind her, pointing at the screen and telling her something. Ms. Green was at her desk, watching the children with interest.

James made his way over to the desk. "Steve said I should take Clint home with us," he said without preamble. "Is there some kind of form I need to sign?

Ms. Green said, "Once a child enters this school, I and everyone on our staff becomes responsible for their welfare." She turned to James. "Is there any reason that I should contact the police or child services about young Mr. Rogers?"

"What?" James said, a little too loudly as both Natasha and Clint looked over at him. "No, Steve's a great dad. Don't you think that if Clint was running away from home, he'd have run away from home, not school?"

Ms. Green shook her head. "He seems very well adjusted," she said. "Although I do think that he would benefit greatly from an eye exam."

"A what?"

Ms. Green gestured at the children. Natasha had enlarged the image on the screen, a series of color swatches, and Clint was nodding along happily with her from his short distance away. "We used to see it all the time when I was teaching upstate. Children don't pay attention in class because they can't see the board."

"Clint can see great, though," James said. "On the weekend he picked out a blackbird from like a mile away at the park."

"When someone is reading to him, does he look at the words, or at the speaker?" Ms. Green smiled as she reached into her desk. "Eye exams are not overly expensive, but I have a list of places that Clint's father might go if money is an issue."

James started to object, to say that Steve Rogers didn't need any charity, but he stopped himself. What did he know about Steve's financial situation? Clint was in public school, but that didn't mean anything. Steve didn't own a car, again not that uncommon in Brooklyn, and Clint was always dressed in clothes that appeared new. But how much money could a fundraiser make?

Swallowing his pride on Steve's behalf, James took the sheet of paper offered by the headmistress. "Thanks," he said as he stuffed it into his jeans pocket. "So, can we go?"

It wasn't quite that simple; James had to fill out some paperwork to take responsibility for Clint, and one of the office assistants went to Natasha's class to get her jacket and backpack. Eventually, though, James guided Clint and Natasha out onto the sidewalk and toward the jeep.

"Daddy," Natasha asked. "Why are we going home?"

"Because this isn't Clint's school," James told them. "And if I made you go back to class, you'd be distracted all day. Best we go home and try again tomorrow."

As Natasha half-heartedly argued the logic of this, Clint stepped against James' right side and slipped his fingers around James' palm. James gave a reassuring squeeze as they all continued along the sidewalk.

A flicker of paper from beneath the windshield wiper warned James that parking officers had been around. Swearing under his breath, James unlocked the jeep and had the children climb inside. "Seatbelts, everyone."

Natasha settled herself into her booster seat and reached for the buckle, while Clint groped around, unsure of himself. Letting Natasha be, James went around to Clint's side and helped the boy straighten out the seat buckle. "Am I in trouble?" Clint asked in a small voice.

"Yup," James said immediately. "But that's okay. Every kid gets in trouble sometimes, and you've got a dad who's pretty reasonable."

"What's 'reasonable'?" Natasha asked.

Clint was staring at James, his big eyes wide, so James paused to think through his answer. "Well, it means that Steve has some common sense, and he understands how people are, and that he'll look at the situation and not fly off the handle." He checked Clint's seatbelt one last time, then ruffled Clint's hair. "And most importantly, your dad loves you very much and he wants you to be safe and sound."

"Is he gonna be mad?" Clint asked.

"Probably, but not at you." James closed the back door and went around to Natasha's side, checked her seatbelt, then went to the driver's seat, grabbing the parking ticket off the windshield as he went. "When we leave you kids at school for the day, we expect you to be there when we show up, not that you'll run away."

"Would you be mad if I left school?" Natasha asked.

"You bet your buttons I would." James started the car. "Because we're having this conversation, and now you know better."

"But what if I want to have an adventure?"

James had guessed this was coming; at least Natasha was asking, rather than doing something foolish like running off to join the circus on her own. "You can have adventures with your old Dad."

"Dads can't have adventures."

"This one can." James glanced over his shoulder before pulling out into the street. "What kind of adventures are you thinking about?"

The drive home did not take long, especially with Natasha talking about the sorts of adventures she wanted to go on. Clint was quiet during the drive, and remained quiet as James parked and got the kids out of the jeep and into the house.

Once inside, James got the children out of backpacks and coats. Herding the children into the kitchen, hands and faces were washed before James settled them at the table. "All right," he said with great solemnity. "Who wants a snack?"

There was some left-over banana bread from the previous day's baking experiment, and Natasha deigned to let Clint have one of her precious milk cartons. Natasha ate as if she hadn't seen food in weeks, but Clint just picked at the banana bread. James, who remembered how heartily Clint had eaten the day before, watched the boy carefully. When Clint turned around in his chair and pressed his forehead against the chair slats, James asked, "What's wrong?"

Clint picked at the edge of the chair back. "Nothing," he said unconvincingly.

"Okay." James waited a few moments, then said, "You know, even if nothing's wrong, sometimes you can ask questions. About things you want to know."

"Daddy, have you ever played the color game?" Natasha interjected.

"No, I haven't. Is it fun?"

"Uh huh." Natasha took a sip of milk. "Clint is really good at it! He saw way more colors than I did."

"That's pretty neat."

Clint finally looked up at James. "Did you ever run away?" he asked.

It was amazing, really, how one simple question (and one that James should have seen coming) could pull him back in time, stopping the breath in his chest as if he'd been thrown up against a wall. But this was not the same; five was not fifteen; running away from school was not the same as being thrown out of the house in the middle of the night.

"No, I didn't," James said, keeping his voice even. "But I can imagine what it would be like."

"There were a lot of people," Clint said. "And one time, I got scared."

"What did you do when you got scared?"

"I said, I'm gonna go see Natasha, and then I wasn't scared anymore." He slid off the chair. "When's my dad gonna be here?"

"I don't know, but until he does, do you and Natasha want to play?"

"I do!" Natasha exclaimed. She slipped out of her chair. "Let's go!"

James arrested her with an outstretched arm. "First, you need to go change into some play clothes," he told his daughter. "After that, how about we go play out in the garden?"

Natasha ran out of the kitchen. James sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. Clint, watching James steadily, let out an echo of the sigh.

"Do you want any more of your snack?" James asked. Clint shook his head. "How about your milk? Can you try to finish your milk?"

"I'll try," Clint said. By the time James had cleared the table, Clint was draining the last drop from his milk carton. The boy handed it to James, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and looked at James expectantly.

Suppressing the urge to smile, James said, "How about we go outside while we wait for Natasha?"


Gardening at the Barnes household was a serious business. James had the children weed the garden boxes, managing to stop them from pulling out too many of the planted sprouts. Then, after warning the children not to goof around too much, he gave them the hose and let them loose.

Steve texted twice; the first to let James know he'd borrowed a car and was driving into Brooklyn to go talk to Clint's school. The next text came an hour later, saying Steve might not be there to pick up Clint for a while.

Upon reading that one, James checked the time, then stood up to retrieve the children from where they were elbow-deep in the mud.

"Who wants lunch?" James asked.

"I do," Natasha said, patting the mud gently. She had dirt smeared all over her arms and stomach. Clint was in worse shape, with mud on his face and neck and his shirt soaked.

"We're going to have to clean up first," James told her.

"Do we gotta get washed with the hose?" Clint asked warily.

"Nope. We're going to go upstairs to the bathroom."

Clint thought about this. "Okay," he said after a minute. "I don't like cold water."

"Me either." James held his hand out for a muddy fist bump, and Clint obliged. Natasha was next, then everyone trooped into the house.

Even though he got them out of their shoes outside, the children dripped mud all the way through the kitchen and up the stairs. James had long since resigned himself to being unable to prevent such housekeeping disasters in his one-armed state, and just shook his head at the inevitability of it all.

In the upstairs bathroom, James got the children to stand on the little stepstool by the sink, turned on the water to warm, and handed each of them a washcloth with the instructions to clean up. While they did so, laughing and shrieking the whole time, James went in search of clean shirts. Natasha was easy; it was Monday so James pulled her green t-shirt off the hanger. Clint was a tougher case; he was taller than Natasha and wider in the shoulders; none of her shirts would fit the boy, even if Clint would wear them. After a moment's thought, James went to his own closet to dig out an old t-shirt he'd picked up on leave back while he was on active duty.

Returning to the bathroom, James found the children were done with the washcloths and were rubbing the remaining dirt onto James' white towels. James distributed shirts all around, wincing at the state of the linens.

"Daddy."

James looked around to where Natasha was holding her green shirt in her hands. A small thundercloud was brewing over her head. "Yes Nat?"

"I don't like it."

"You don't like your green shirt?" James eased himself down onto the edge of the bathtub. "You wear that all the time."

Natasha's frown grew deeper. "But Clint gets a big boy shirt."

"Because I don't have anything in his size." James glanced over at the boy, who was happily modeling the t-shirt, which was so big on him that it fell past his knees.

"I want a big shirt too."

"Natasha."

Natasha narrowed her eyes. "Please."

It was amazing how a five-year-old could put such threat into one word. James thought about saying no, but technically she had asked nicely and hadn't resorted to a tantrum, which had been her usual pattern up until she entered kindergarten. Resolving to work on such grown-up concepts as tone and sincerity at a later time, James led the children to his bedroom, where he found a t-shirt to match Natasha's exacting standards.

While this was going on, Clint kept looking down at his shirt. As James helped Natasha straighten the too-big shirt over her shoulders, he asked, "Clint, what's up?"

"What is it?" Clint asked, pointing at the design on his chest.

"That," James said, "Is a hawk."

Clint's delighted smile lit up the room. "It is?"

"Come on." James took Clint into the hallway. From their vantage point, they had a direct line of sight into the bathroom, and more importantly the bathroom mirror. "Up."

Lifting Clint with one arm took a bit of doing, but James managed to get Clint up high enough for the boy to see himself in the mirror.

"Can you see now?"

Clint shifted around, stretching out the fabric so he could see the bright red bird. "It's so cool!" he exclaimed.

"Daddy," Natasha said, tugging on his jeans to get his attention. "Why do you have a shirt with a bird on it?"

James set Clint on his feet. "A long time ago, when I was in Ranger training, I'd go into Atlanta on my time off to watch sports games. This is a sports team shirt I got there."

"Are they a good team?" Clint asked. "What do they play?"

"They play basketball," James said. "And they work very hard and play as a team and that's what makes them good."

The Hawks hadn't won a championship in decades, but James always loved the underdogs, and he had fond memories of leave weekends in Atlanta with guys from his unit, taking in a basketball game and going for drinks afterwards.

It seemed very long ago, now. Another lifetime.

"What's this?" Natasha asked, pointing at her belly button.

"That is another bird," James said. Clint backed up a few feet and looked at Natasha's shirt intently. "That's the Atlanta Falcons logo."

"Do they do basketball?"

"No, they play football."

Natasha frowned up at James. "But Daddy," she said. "You don't like football. You told Maria so, I heard you."

"Yeah, well, I was in the army and sometimes that means you gotta wear camouflage."

Natasha was staring at him, her head tilted to the side, and James suddenly wanted to change the subject. He wasn't about to explain institutionalized homophobia or Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to a couple of five-year-olds.

"Who wants lunch?"

"I do," Clint said, reaching for James' hand again.

"Me too." Natasha took Clint's free hand, and together they all walked down the stairs and into the kitchen.

They had finished lunch and were half-way through a rousing game of Candyland when James' phone pinged. It was a text from Steve, saying he was outside.

James went to open the door and Steve rushed in without a word, scanning the room. "Daddy!" Clint yelled. The boy jumped to his feet and ran over to his father, who scooped him up into a hug.

"Oh, Clint," Steve said, holding his son tight. Clint wasn't small for his age, but he nearly disappeared in Steve's embrace. "Buddy, I am so glad to see you."

"Me too, Daddy." Clint leaned back so he could look Steve in the face. "We had grilled cheese for lunch, and Mr. Barnes let us play in the mud!"

The raw emotions on Steve's face were painfully easy to read, but Steve just smiled at his son and chucked him under the chin. "Grilled cheese, huh? I know how much you like grilled cheese."

"I do." Clint collapsed back on Steve's shoulder, his arms tight around Steve's neck.

"Come on," James said quietly, putting his hand on Steve's back and moving him over to the couches. Steve sat, still holding Clint tight.

From her place by the game board, Natasha was watching Steve closely. "Clint rode the subway all by himself," she said. "And he wants to come to school with me!"

Clint squirmed out of Steve's arms. "Can I?"

Something on Steve's face made James step in. "Kids, I need to talk to Steve. Can you play here for a little while?"

"Okay," Clint said, sliding to the ground and going back over to the game board. After a few moments, Natasha turned back to the game.

James stood and poked at Steve's shoulder until the man hauled himself to his feet and followed James into the kitchen.

"You need a drink or something?" James asked as Steve collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table. "Coffee? Something stronger?"

"They didn't even know that Clint was gone," Steve said, burying his head in his hands.

James turned away from the coffee maker. "What?"

"The school didn't even know Clint was gone." Steve sat back. "When I called them, they didn't know what I was talking about."

"They didn't know he was gone?" James repeated, returning to the table. "He was all the way across the fucking city and they didn't know he was gone?"

Steve looked at James. "His class goes to the music room after recess on Mondays, there's some other teacher in charge then. She said she thought Clint was absent. None of the other kids said anything."

James pushed his hair back out of his face. "Are you kidding me?" he demanded.

"Oh, it gets worse." Steve reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper. "When I got there, they told me since Clint left school in the middle of the day, he was going to be marked as truant and suspended for leaving school."

James could only stare at Steve, speechless.

"I got my five-year-old running away and now he's suspended," Steve went on, "And then the principal pulls out this folder and starts telling me that Clint—" Steve's voice broke, and he had to take a deep breath. "They're not going to let Clint go up to first grade, he's going to have to repeat kindergarten."

James slid into a chair across the table from Steve. "That's bullshit," he said, feeling about as stunned at Steve looked. "They lose Clint for hours on end and then they turn around and pull this shit? What the fuck are they smoking?"

"The principal said that Clint doesn't pay any attention in class, he's not learning his letters, he disrupts the other kids—"

"Yeah, I'd be disruptive too if they kept sending me to the back of the room where I couldn't hear," James exclaimed. "Steve, Clint isn't like that, you know it!"

Steve was frowning at James. "What are you talking about?"

"What?"

"Sending him to the back of the room?"

"That's why he ran away today," James said. "He got sent to the back of the room again and he couldn't hear and he got upset and took off."

"He's supposed to be at the front of the class because of his hearing aid," Steve said, mystified. "I talked to his teacher at the beginning of the year about this."

"Yeah, well, I guess she forgot." James stood. "He can't hear at the back of the room, he probably can't see at the front, it's no fucking wonder that he's not learning anything."

"Clint can see just fine," Steve said, and now anger was starting to creep into his voice. "Hell, better than fine. He can see distance perfectly!"

"From what I seen today, maybe he ain't doing so good on close-up," James said. "It's not me; Natasha's principal suggested that Clint get his eyes checked, that he might not be able to see letters and stuff."

"You're out of your mind." Steve pushed himself to his feet. "Clint doesn't have any trouble seeing."

"What's the other option, Steve? That he can't learn? That's such bullshit and you know it!"

"Shut up!" Steve shouted, getting in James' face, all big muscles and anger and James steeled himself in case Steve made this physical, like Steve had always made everything physical when they were young. "Don't you dare talk about my kid!"

"No?" James shot back. "Let me tell you about your kid, Steve. He's smart and he's daring and he's so fed up with that goddamn school that he'd sooner walk all the way across Brooklyn by himself than stay there any longer!"

Steve's lip curled and James braced himself for a punch, but after a moment, Steve stepped back. "I'm taking Clint home," Steve said, breathing hard like he'd just run a mile. James wasn't doing much better himself, his body jacked up on the adrenaline from the altercation. "I don't think we should come over here any more."

The words were like a punch to the stomach, but James had had decades of hiding his feelings from the world, and just because it was Steve Rogers this time made no difference. "Great plan," James said, layering the words with as much sarcasm as he could muster. "Your son needs help in school, so you yank him away from the first real friend he's made. Good idea."

"Don't you go throwing this back on me," Steve objected. "I'm his father, I have to do what's best for him, you understand?"

James clenched his teeth. "If that's what this was, then maybe I might."

Steve glared at James for a moment longer, then whirled around and stormed back into the living room. James hurried after him, hoping that the man didn't scare the children.

In the living room, however, a new problem had presented itself. Natasha stood by herself in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind her back as she tried to look innocent.

"Nat," James said, walking around Steve. "Where's Clint?"

"He's hiding," Natasha said. "Because he doesn't want to leave and never come back."

Going down on one knee, James asked Natasha to tell him where Clint was hiding, but to no avail. All he got was for Natasha to promise that Clint wasn't in any danger wherever he was hiding.

"At least he's still in the house," James said, rubbing at the stress headache forming in his left temple.

"Are you sure about that?" Steve asked.

"He couldn't have left," James said over his shoulder. "I set the alarm when you came in; if he'd opened any of the doors we'd have heard."

Natasha, meanwhile, was looking up at the ceiling with a satisfied smile on her face.

"Well," James said, making his voice louder than usual as he stood up. "You know, Steve, I think we might just need to give up and wait for Clint to come out."

Steve was looking at James as if the man had grown another head.

"In the meantime, how about we have some coffee?" James walked closer to Steve and added, in a whisper loud enough for Natasha to hear, "I think he's in the basement."

Natasha immediately relaxed, her shoulders drooping as she swayed to and fro.

"Nat," James went on, and bent down to pick the girl up. "Can you help Steve make coffee while I go check on the laundry in the basement?"

"Okay." Natasha allowed herself to be handed over to Steve. "I will help you."

"Thanks," Steve said. With one last look at James, he turned and carried Natasha into the kitchen.

Once the two of them were out of sight, James headed upstairs.

Part of him wondered if Clint had gone up to the third floor, to hide in those dusty and empty rooms. The door to the roof was locked and bolted, so James didn't worry that Clint would make his escape that way. But that did leave two floors to search, for a little boy who could fit into tiny spaces.

The first place James checked was Natasha's room, but no luck. Going out into the hallway, James was already planning a systematic search of the house when something caught his attention, something just slightly different than he remembered.

It took a moment for it to come to his conscious mind, but there it was. In the bathroom at the end of the hall, door still wide open, the shower curtain had moved since he and the children had last been up here, was now pulled to hide the bathtub.

On silent feet, James moved down the hall and into the bathroom. Slowly, so as not to surprise anyone hiding inside, he pulled back the shower curtain, to reveal Clint sitting in the bathtub.

"Hi," James said.

Clint pulled his knees up to his chest. "Hi."

"Can I join you?"

"Okay."

Pulling his phone out of his pocket, James lowered himself to the cold floor. "I'm going to text your dad to let him know that you're up here," he said, holding up the phone. "You cool with that?"

"I don't want to leave Natasha forever," Clint said forlornly.

"I know." James stretched out his legs. "Dear Steve," he said as he typed. "I'm with Clint and we are upstairs. We're going to hang out up here for a while and will see you in a bit."

That wasn't what he actually typed; the message he sent to Steve read found clint up in bathroom gona talk 2 him make enoug coffe fr me

Setting his phone on the tiled floor, James let himself slump a little. Already, his morning run seemed days past. "So. I guess you heard me and your dad yelling."

"Uh huh." Clint folded his arms on the bathtub ledge and rested his chin on his arms.

"We shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

"I don't like it when Daddy yells," Clint said, but he didn't appear too upset. "I don't like it when anyone yells."

"Do grown-ups yell a lot?" James asked curiously.

"Sometimes, when they see my hearing aid." Clint scowled. "They don't have to yell, I'm not dumb."

"People can be pretty stupid sometimes," James agreed. "When I got back from Iraq, and was walking around without my prosthetic arm, I got some really stupid comments. I mean, like, some real boneheaded stuff."

Clint rubbed his eyes. "Why do people do that?"

"I think it's because they get nervous," James said. "They see someone with a hearing aid, or a missing arm, and they get nervous and don't know what they're supposed to do so they overcompensate."

"What's that mean?"

"It means that they try to behave like they think they're supposed to, only they don't know the right way and they go over the top."

Clint scrunched up his nose. "I don't like it when they overcompensate." He said the last word slowly but with the correct pronunciation.

"You can tell them that."

"How?"

James pressed his shoulders against the wall, thinking. He wanted to give Clint a good answer, one the boy could actually use, instead of his own coping mechanism which involved more swearing than a boy Clint's age should hear. "You can say, 'you don't need to yell because I can hear you when you talk normally'."

Clint considered this. "What if I can't hear them when they talk normal?"

"Does that happen a lot?"

"Some times. Sometimes people talk like this." Clint pursed up his lips and whistled. "Or else like this." He put his hands over his mouth and made farting sounds against his palms.

James couldn't help it; he started to laugh. "You should tell those people that they need to talk to your dad and he can tell you what they say."

Clint moved around so he could get up on his knees in the tub. "Mrs. Anders is a farthead," he said darkly.

"Is that your teacher?"

"One of them."

"Was she the one who sent you to the back of the class today?"

Clint nodded. "She calls me ruptive and I don't know what that means."

James had no idea what to say. He was used to dealing with Natasha, who absorbed language like a little sponge. "Well," he began, then stopped. "Hang on." He pulled out his phone and touched the screen to bring up the browser, then typed in the word. "This says that disruptive mean troublesome or badly behaved."

Devastation pushed Clint back on his heels. "I am not!" he protested as tears started to slide down his cheeks. "I'm not a trouble some!"

"No, you're not," James said, putting his phone down. "Clint, listen to me. I may have only known you for a month, but I know that you're smart and easygoing and a really good friend, and that you listen really well and you make funny jokes."

Clint sniffled hard. "I try to listen," he said, and sniffled again. "But sometimes I can't."

James reached over and pulled the box of tissues off the counter and handed it to Clint. "What are the other kids in your class like?"

"They're okay," Clint said as he grabbed a handful of tissues and use them to rub at his face; this only succeeded in smearing tears around. "Sometimes we play at recess, but sometimes they want to play games I don't like so I play by myself."

"Do they ever make fun of your hearing aid?"

"No," and Clint looked astonished at the mere suggestion. "That's bullying and that's wrong."

James, who had suffered through twelve years of a Brooklyn public school education, took a moment to marvel at how much had changed since he was Clint's age. "How old are you again?"

"I'm almost six."

"When's your birthday?" James asked as he scooted closer to help Clint blow his nose.

"August 9."

"Wow, only two months to go." James pulled another tissue out of the box and handed it to Clint. "That's pretty cool."

"When I'm six, I can do so much stuff." Clint wiped his cheeks dry. "I can go into the big kids swim class, and I can go to the climbing gym!"

"Tell me about the climbing gym," James said, as this was something he had not yet heard about from Natasha. Clint launched into a rapid description, the light and animation returning to his face as he talked.

This was the boy James knew, who got excited about things and was always smiling. He couldn't understand how the teachers wanted to hold Clint back in kindergarten another year. It didn't make any sense.

As Clint's explanation of the climbing gym continued, James stood and helped Clint climb out of the bathtub. Holding James' hand, Clint allowed himself be led down the stairs to the main floor, still talking.

Steve and Natasha were seated at the kitchen table, Steve hunched over a cup of coffee while Natasha sipped delicately from a mug of her own. "Daddy!" Natasha exclaimed as soon as James appeared. "We are having a tea party! I am drinking tea!"

"Is that a fact?" James shepherded Clint around the table to Steve. "Can we join this little shindig or is this an exclusive party?"

"You can come sit too," Natasha said, setting her cup on the table. "Steve makes tea the right way, Daddy."

"How's that? And what's this 'Steve' business?"

"I used about three tablespoons of sugar," Steve said, subdued as he pulled Clint onto his lap. "I figured that if Natasha and Clint are going to keep spending so much time together, we all might as well be on a first-name basis."

He looked at James as he said this, not so much an apology in his eyes as a challenge. James met this glare straight on and said, "An excellent idea. Clint, do you want to call me James?"

"Okay," Clint said, preoccupied with reaching for Natasha's mug. "And you can call me Clint."

"You got yourself a deal."

After Clint took a swig of Natasha's tea, Steve stood up with the boy perched on his arm. "We should get going. We've taken up enough of Bucky's time for the day."

"It's not a problem. You'd do the same for us."

James had spoken without thinking, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Steve gave a quick nod. "I would," he said quietly.

"Bye bye Clint," Natasha said loudly. "You can come back to my school any time."

"I like your school," Clint said. "You play fun games."

"Next time, you're taking me with you," Steve said, bouncing Clint on his arm. "No more running off, promise?"

"I promise, Daddy."

James and Natasha saw Steve and Clint out the door, Natasha holding Clint's backpack for him while Steve helped the boy put on his shoes.

"I'll wash Clint's shirt and you can pick it up next Sunday," James said, leaning against the doorframe.

"Deal." Steve stood, biting at his lip as if he wanted to say something else, but the children were watching and James wasn't really sure he could handle whatever Steve was thinking about.

"Go, take care of your son," James said, slapping Steve on the back. Then, in a quieter voice as the children said their farewells, he added, "You need anything day or night, you call me."

"Bucky, I…"

"Anything," James said again. "Doesn't matter what time. You call me."

"I will."

After seeing Steve and Clint off down the road in the direction of when Steve parked his borrowed car, James and Natasha sat down on the front stoop. Natasha was looking pensive. "Daddy," she said. "I don't like it when you and Steve yell. It's scary."

"I don't like it either," James said. "We won't yell any more, okay?"

"Good." Natasha rested her chin in her hands. "Will Clint come over to play again?"

"Yeah." James put his hand on Natasha's back. "What me and Steve said, that was us adults disagreeing. You and Clint are the most important things in the world to us, you remember that."

"Clint is the third important person I ever met," Natasha said solemnly. "There's Director Fury, then Maria, then Clint."

"What about me?"

"You don't count, you're my daddy."

"I don't count, huh?" James pulled Natasha over his shoulder and stood, making the girl shriek with glee. "Let's get changed and go to the park."

As they headed back into the house, James was struck with a pang of anxiety. After James had retrieved Clint, Steve hadn't said anything about Clint's vision or about repeating kindergarten or the suspension.

James knew better than to step on other people's parenting techniques, but damn it, Clint was a good kid, a smart little guy with daring and gumption, and James wanted to help him and Steve as much as he could.

He'd call Steve the next day, James decided. Just to talk about things, no pressure, and offer to do anything he could to help them out.

That's what friends were for, after all.

to be continued

Chapter Text

Hours after Natasha was in bed, James was in his office trying to catch up on work when he heard a knock at the front door.

James jerked upright, his hand going automatically to the knife tucked into the pen holder at the back of the desk. It was a half past midnight and people didn't just drop by at this time of night.

Adrenaline pumping, James rose to his feet, knife held loose in his fingers. Natasha was asleep upstairs and it was after midnight, and someone had knocked on his front door.

Quickly, James ducked out of his office and moved across the floor. Girding himself for a fight, he leaned around the wall jamb to look through the glass.

Steve Rogers stood on his doorstep, Clint sleeping on his shoulder.

"What the fuck?" James hurried across the floor. Tossing the knife onto the hall table, James quickly deactivated the front door alarm and opened the inner, then outer door. Cold night air blasted into the vestibule. "Are you okay?" James demanded in a whisper.

"Yeah," Steve said, but he didn't sound convincing. Behind Steve, the red lights of a taxi faded down the street.

"Get in here," James said, holding the door for Steve. One of Clint's socks had fallen off, and his little bare foot poked out of the blanket Steve had used to cover him. Just the sight made James feel the cold deep in his bones. "Is Clint okay? Is he sick?"

Steve was inside now, and James gratefully closed the doors and rearmed the alarm. "Clint's fine," Steve said. He smoothed down the blanket over Clint's back. The boy sighed in his sleep, long eyelashes fluttering on his cheek.

"Come on," James said. "You're nuts, running around the city with a kid at this hour." Putting his hand on Steve's back, he corralled Steve up the stairs, to the guest room across the hall from Natasha's bedroom. He switched on the light to reveal the small, tidy room, with a twin bed against the wall.

Leaving Steve to settle Clint, James went to the linen closet to retrieve a blanket suitable for the chill of the early summer night, all the while wondering what the hell was going on, why Steve had brought his sleeping son all the way across Brooklyn at this time of night.

Speculation was useless; and he'd get it out of Steve soon enough. James pulled a cotton blanket off the shelf and hurried back to the guest room. Steve had put Clint to bed and pulled the sheet up to the boy's chin. Clint himself was still dead to the world.

"Here," James whispered. Steve took the offered blanket and covered Clint, tucking the ends of the blanket around him.

Once Clint was secured, Steve just stood staring at his son, distress clear on the man's face.

"Come on," James said in Steve's ear. "We can talk downstairs."

"Yeah." After a moment, Steve reached into his pocket for Clint's hearing aid. He carefully placed the hearing aid on the bedside table, then followed James to the door where he switched off the overhead light.

"Is he going to wake up anytime soon?" James asked quietly.

"Probably not," Steve said, just as softly. "He fell asleep late, but who knows."

James went across the hall and noiselessly opened Natasha's door. The girl was fast asleep, sprawled on her stomach, one hand clutching the ear of her favorite teddy bear. James went over to the toy box and picked up Natasha's second-favorite bear. He carried that out of the room, careful to not disturb Natasha's slumber. Leaving her door open a crack, James went back across the hall and handed the bear to Steve.

"In case Clint wakes up."

Without comment, Steve took the bear and recrossed the room. He sat on the edge of the bed and set the bear next to Clint's outstretched hand. He stayed there for a little while, watching Clint sleep, while James leaned against the door and waited.

Finally, Steve bent over and pressed a kiss to the top of Clint's head, then stood and made his way out of the room.

James and Steve headed downstairs in silence. At the foot of the stairs, James paused and looked at Steve. "You on the run from the cops or something?"

"No," Steve said, annoyance breaking through the weight of emotions he'd been carrying around. "Look, Bucky, I didn't mean to crash in here like this but…" he swallowed. "It's just…"

James put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "Aw, shut up," he said, giving Steve's shoulder a shake. "Your boy's safe, and you need something to drink. You want some coffee?"

"You got anything to go in that?"

"I got some whisky that'll strip paint off the walls." James let his hand drop and led Steve into the kitchen. "But it'll knock you out same as the expensive stuff."

"I never got into whisky," Steve said. He slumped into a chair at the kitchen table where he could watch James. "Peggy, she was into that stuff but I could never tell what the big deal was."

"Who's Peggy?" James asked as he set about making a fresh pot of coffee. With the day he'd had, he hadn't gotten around to donning his prosthetic arm after Steve and Clint left, but he was used to moving around the kitchen in his one-armed state.

Steve picked up the little ceramic saltshaker and rolled it between his fingertips. "You remember when I told you I met Sharon when I was dating her cousin? That was Peggy."

There was a lot of weight in the way Steve talked about the woman, something more than James would expect from a casual girlfriend in college. "What did she think when you hooked up with Sharon?"

Steve set the saltshaker on the table. "We were pretty much finished by then," he said. "You know, in another lifetime, Peggy could have been the one."

James' stomach contracted unpleasantly at the thought of anyone being Steve's soul mate. "What happened?" he asked, keeping his face averted from Steve's gaze.

"We met at the wrong time, I think." Steve stood up to join James at the counter. "I was in England on exchange from college and Peggy was taking political science. We tried to make it work but we had our eyes on different prizes."

James tried to picture Steve as some young punk college kid, and couldn't reconcile it with the large man at his side. "When was this?"

"Uh, my junior year, so 2002."

In fall of 2002, James had been in Ranger training, one of the cohort's youngest trainees. The physical work had been grueling, but summers and weekends spent working for the family's construction firm had kept James strong; his high school sports training in track and lacrosse had made him fast. It had been far harder to navigate the personal tensions with the other men, all of whom had been older than James.

But he'd spent his high school years in the closet of a Brooklyn public high school, and James knew how to keep his head down, his mouth shut, and his eyes on the end goal.

All in all, James couldn't imagine a more different way to spend 2002 than being in art school in London with some poli sci girlfriend.

"Sorry it didn't work out," James said, pushing off the counter. He pulled two mugs out of the cupboard and then went into the back of the freezer for the bottle of cheap whisky.

"I'm where I'm supposed to be," Steve said as James came back. "I've got Clint now, and a good place, a good job."

James handed Steve the bottle. "Is that why you come knocking on my front door at the ass-end of the day?"

Steve picked up the coffee pot and left James to bring the mugs to the table. "Like you've never had a shit parenting day."

"Yeah, I had some." James went back to the fridge to get the cream. "Not a lot recently, but when Nat was young."

"Tell me about them."

Steve's tone was more surprising than the request itself. James came back to the table and set the cream bottle down beside the sugar bowl, then he sat across the table from Steve while he thought about it. If the request had come from anyone else, James might have thought they were looking to feel better about their parenting skills by hearing how James screwed up with Natasha, but that wasn't Steve's way.

"Okay, if you want," James said. "You know Nat was in the hospital when I first met her."

"Yeah." Steve poured the coffee with a steady hand.

"It took a while for her to get better, long enough for the social workers to do all their checks on me and approve me as a foster parent. I ended up bringing her home when she was about six months old." James added a dollop of cream to his coffee. "It was okay, she was sleeping in long stretches then, and she was okay with me feeding her while she was in one of those little baby seat things, but she wasn't gaining weight like she should have."

Steve looked up sharply. "What happened?" he asked. "Was it the formula?"

"God knows," James said. He took a swallow from his cup, the coffee thick and rich in his mouth. "I think it was just a whole bunch of things. We tried donated breast milk, then a bunch of formulas in case it was a milk allergy, but Natasha just had such a rocky start to life the doc finally said that maybe she was having a hard time settling."

"She's okay now, though, right?"

"Yeah, she's fine. She seemed to do good on one formula in the morning and another in the afternoon, and the docs had me giving her vitamins and cod liver oil and shit like that. She did okay, but the first few months were rough."

"Clint was just the opposite. He gained weight like it was nothing."

"Nat's doing okay now. Her pediatrician tells me I shouldn't weigh Natasha at home any more, though, because of eating disorders."

"She's five," Steve said, appalled.

"Like kids don't just take in everything that grown-ups say?"

"Clint doesn't." Steve was about to go on, then he visibly checked himself and sat back. "And some days I don't know if that's because he's an oblivious kid, or if the hearing aid isn't working and he can't hear a thing anyone's saying, damn it."

There they were at last, what James had been expecting ever since he'd seen Steve on his doorstep. "None of what's happening with Clint is your fault, Steve."

"I should have known something was wrong!" Steve burst out. He pushed his cup away, sloshing hot coffee all over the table.

James went for a tea towel and threw it across the kitchen at Steve. "Why, because of your deep and expansive knowledge of pediatric medicine?"

"Because he's my son and I should have known!" Steve wiped up the mess, then carried the sopping cloth to the sink to rinse out. "I took Clint to an optometrist this afternoon, and you know how long it took him to figure out something was wrong?"

Steve wrung the cloth out over and over again, and James couldn't stand to watch him. James pulled the tea towel out of Steve's hands and dropped it in the sink. "This isn't your fault."

He turned off the tap, and silence fell over the kitchen. Steve leaned on the counter, his hands pressed against the edge of the sink. "I've just been trying so hard to be a good dad for Clint," Steve said, so quietly his voice was nearly inaudible in spite of the post-midnight stillness. "I thought he was a bit scattered and wasn't interested in reading, that maybe he'd grow into it in first grade. He's not stupid, you know that."

There was a pleading in Steve's voice. James wanted to hug Steve, to tell him that Clint was going to be all right, but he worried that Steve might misinterpret his intentions. Instead, James put his hand on Steve's back and urged Steve over to the table. "I know Clint isn't stupid," James said as he pushed Steve into a chair. "He's a damned bright kid, knowing all those birds and dinosaur names."

"I can't believe he remembered what I told him about getting across town to Natasha's school," Steve said, rubbing his face in his hands. "I was thinking, tonight, after he fell asleep, about all those things about kids taken off the street and killed. Remember Etan Patz?"

"Steve, Clint's okay," James said quietly.

"He could have gotten grabbed or hit by a car or knocked off the sidewalk or—"

James reached out to wrap his hand around Steve's wrist. "Steve."

Steve stared down at James' hand, breathing hard.

"You listen to me, and listen to me good, all right?" James eased his grip, but didn't remove his hand. "Crime rates have never been so low in this city, understand? Fuck what the papers say and all that crap on Fox News. When Nat and Clint go outside, they're safer than we ever were."

"You can't know that," but Steve's voice had lost its feverish edge.

"I work with one of the FBI's best profilers," James said. "Well, former best. My point is, what Maria and I do, we know crime, we know where the real dangers are, we know the statistics. Clint was probably safer on the subway today than he is in school."

"This isn't making me feel any better," Steve said.

"Too bad." James let go of Steve's arm. "Clint's fine, and when he ran away from school today, that wasn't your fault. You can keep beating yourself up if you want to, but it's not going to make any difference."

After a moment, Steve lifted his head. "Clint's my entire life," he said, his voice gravelly. He cleared his throat and went on. "He's the best thing that ever happened to me."

"So you make sure he can take care of himself." James reached for the whisky bottle and tilted it toward Steve. "Open."

Steve obligingly removed the bottle's twist cap.

"You think I don't worry about Natasha?" James asked, pouring a healthy dose of alcohol into his half-empty mug. "You think I come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and I don't wake up with my heart in my throat about something happening to my little girl?"

It was the first time he had mentioned his military background to Steve and the starkness of it all made James' heart hammer in his chest, his mouth dry.

Steve was staring at him and it was too late for James to pull the words back now.

He took a swallow of the mixture in his cup, wincing at the taste. "I had a hard time driving Natasha anywhere," James said. "What happened to me, it was an IED while I was doing a ride-along; half the time after I got back I couldn't get into a car, let alone put Natasha into one. Most nights I slept on the floor outside her room, in case someone came for her, if someone got into the house and tried to take her."

"Jesus, Bucky, I didn't know it was that bad," Steve said.

James took another drink. "I dealt with it. I talked to this guy I know at the VA when I was getting checked up on my arm, he suggested I talk to someone. So I did."

"Did it help?"

"I guess. I can put Nat in the car and go for a drive without having a panic attack." Making a face at his mug, James pushed it away. "I can sleep in my own room. Of course, I've got a security system that locks this place down tighter than the White House, so that helps."

"She's going to be okay," Steve said. "You should take your own advice."

James ran his hand through his hair, pushing the strands out of his eyes. "Yeah, fuck that," James said darkly. "I tell you, if Nat had been the one to run away from school today, I don't know what I'd have done."

Steve reached for the whiskey bottle and poured a few ounces into his cup. "I keep trying to think of what I'd tell Sharon if something happened to Clint. Hell, I don't even know how to tell her about Clint's vision problems."

"The eye thing, that's easy." James stood, took his cup to the sink, and dumped the foul mixture down the drain. "You go, 'hey Sharon, turns out Clint's having a bit of trouble seeing so I'm going to take him to get glasses'. See? Easy."

"There's more to it than that," Steve insisted.

James rested his hip against the counter, stretching to ease out a kink in his spine. "You can always tack on, 'because you weren't here'."

"No," Steve said immediately. "Me and Sharon – it's not like that, her not being here."

James took in the defensive set to Steve's shoulders, the obstinate expression on his face. "Sorry," he said, and the tension drained away from Steve in an instant.

"Me and Sharon, deciding I was going to take care of Clint… we both made that choice," Steve said. "When I told Abraham, you know, Dr. Erskine, he was happy for me and all that. There wasn't anyone else on my side to give a damn, but Sharon's parents were pissed off. They tried to convince her that if she couldn't raise Clint, then they should. They were pretty insistent."

"That's bullshit."

"I know." Steve rubbed his hands over his face. "It wasn't that Sharon didn't want to raise Clint, it's just that her job is important to her, and she's young, she's trying to build her career, you know?"

"What if she changes her mind?" James asked, returning to the table. "You know, comes back and wants back in Clint's life?"

"We talked about that." Steve leaned back in his chair. "When she came back to visit when Clint was three. I told her if she ever wanted to move back to New York, fine, we'd figure out how we could parent Clint together, but I sure as hell wasn't going anywhere."

"Good."

"Yeah." Steve sighed, looking completely exhausted. "Now I just need to figure out how to get through tomorrow."

"What happens tomorrow?"

"Well, my son's still suspended from school, but that's okay because he has an appointment with the most expensive pediatric ophthalmologist in the tri-state area."

"Your insurance going to cover that?"

A brief flash of amusement crossed Steve's face. "One of the bonuses for working for an off-shoot of Stark Industries is that the health insurance is platinum. Money-wise we're fine."

"But is this doctor guy any good?"

"Yeah. Bruce, he's a friend, he recommends this guy highly. Which is good because Tony pulled some major strings to get Clint in tomorrow."

"Money talks."

"And Stark money shouts." The smile slid off Steve's lips. "I don't know what I'll do if Clint needs surgery or something like that."

"Hey, don't go borrowing trouble against tomorrow," James said, kicking Steve under the table. "They can do amazing things with glasses these days. You'll see."

"Do you actually know that, or are you trying to make me feel better?"

"Would I do that?" James protested. "This guy I knew, got caught in the face with some shrapnel in '07. Lost one eye, the other had bad stuff happen to the cornea. Anyway, a few years ago he got some surgery to one eye and you know what?"

"It was a modern-day miracle?"

"Well, no, but at least he can see now, well enough to walk on his own and read again. If they can do that for a busted-up Marine from Pirtleville, they can do it for your little boy. Especially when he's got Tony Stark's millions behind him."

"Billions."

"Oh, fuck off."

"Nah, we don't need Tony's money," Steve said. "I've been saving everything I have for Clint, and Sharon sends money every month. But for something like this, I've got a rainy day fund."

James raised his eyebrows. He didn't know how much pediatric eye surgery might cost, but he doubted that dimes in a coffee can could pay for it.

"You pay any attention to financial news?"

"No."

"I do, hazard of the job. Did you hear a few years ago when Tony stepped down as head of Stark Industries and moved Pepper Potts into the role?"

"I don't live under a rock, Steve. Even I heard about that one."

Steve smiled again, and it was no longer an innocent expression. "Stark Industries stock plummeted, lost nearly thirty percent worth overnight."

"Didn't someone say that might plunge the world back into a Thirties-style depression?" James asked.

"Yeah, they did. So I pulled together every penny I had, even asked Abraham for a loan, and bought all the stock I could."

James sat up. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he demanded. "Isn't Stark stock up double now from where it was before the crash?"

"One hundred and ten percent," Steve said smugly. "With Tony in R&D and Pepper in charge, the only way the company could have gone was up."

"Damn." James stared at Steve, trying to figure out if the man was joking. It didn't look like it. "And I fucking paid for you and Clint at the zoo last month."

"Hey, I'm going to get it next time!" Steve protested.

"Sure you were." James picked up the coffee pot. "Warm you up?"

It was a slip of the tongue, brought on by the lateness of the hour and the fading burn of the alcohol in his stomach, and the sudden realization of what he had just said brought James painfully alert. But Steve just shook his head with that easy smile of his. "I'm good."

Heart pounding in his throat, James put the coffee pot back on the table and let himself slump into the chair. Damn it, he needed to be more careful.

Meanwhile, Steve was rubbing his eyes, a gesture James had seen in Clint earlier that morning. "I should get going," he said. "I don't know how the hell I'm going to find a cab at this hour, though."

"Don't be a dumbass. You can't go moving Clint around at this time of night," James countered. "I can make you up a bed, we've got enough blankets."

For a long moment, Steve didn't say anything. Then, finally, he rested his hand on the tabletop and tapped his fingertips on the wood. "You know," he said, his voice shaking just the tiniest bit. "When I got in the cab tonight with Clint, I needed to get the hell away from all the noise in my head, all those things that might have happened to him, all those things that still might."

"Why'd you end up here?"

Steve looked down at his fingers. "You understand Clint," he said. "You don't treat him like he's stupid because of his hearing aid, you listen to his stories and you let him do whatever he's interested in without making a big deal out of it." Taking a deep breath, Steve sat up straight. "I just needed to talk to someone who gives a damn about my boy, you know?"

"Of course I give a damn about Clint," James said, a stirring of anger in his chest at anyone who had ever treated Clint less than the amazing little boy he was. "He's a fine kid."

"When we left this afternoon and you said you were there to talk if I ever needed it…" Steve shook his head. "I tell you, Bucky, tonight I needed it."

"I meant it," James said, standing. He walked around the table and waited until Steve stood also. "But next time, you need to call me before you come knocking at my door in the middle of the fucking night. Nearly gave me a heart attack, you jerk."

Steve smiled and put his hand on James' right shoulder. "I will. And thank you."


By the time James got Steve settled in the guest room, it was nearly two in the morning. Clint was still deeply asleep, so Steve made up a bed on the floor with the spare blankets from James' closet. The men didn't say much, and soon James was closing the door behind him and leaving Steve to get some sleep.

On quiet feet, James went to Natasha's room. She had rolled onto her side, her long red hair a tangle around her head. Her breathing was harsher than James liked, this early in the summer. James bent over to kiss Natasha's forehead, then turned on the humidifier before leaving her to sleep.

From there, James walked down the hallway to the bathroom, closed the door, turned on the light, and stared at himself in the mirror.

Sometimes, when he saw his reflection, James didn't recognize himself. Other times he wasn't so lucky. Now, at two in the morning in his white tiled bathroom, James looked at the reflection of an old man hiding behind a young man's skin. Dark circles under his eyes offset his pallor, a few-days' beard growth adding to his disheveled appearance.

When he was young, his mother would have tanned his hide for looking so disreputable. In the Army, there were standards and it was easier to stay shaved and shorn than to think about it.

But James was a long way from the Rangers, and even further from his childhood days. Life was different now, and it wasn't just his arm, wasn't just being a single father.

James was a different person.

He sighed, and the sound was loud and harsh in the cold room. James splashed cold water on his face to pull him out of the unwelcome memories. He wiped his face on a towel, turned off the light, and slipped out of the bathroom to pad down the hall to his bedroom.

He didn't bother turning on the light, just shucked off his jeans and pulled on the pajama bottoms and t-shirt he'd left on the floor that morning. He sat on the edge of his bed and tried to compose himself to sleep, but there were too many strands pulling at him to settle.

Natasha was safe in her bed, but Steve and Clint were in the house and that was not usual and James couldn't just forget that. What if either of them needed something? What if Natasha needed something? He couldn't just sleep when there were other people in his house.

He was overthinking things, he told himself as he got under the bedcovers. Natasha was sleeping and Clint was sleeping and Steve would be soon enough. The house was locked up tight, the alarm was on, and no danger could come upon them in the house that night.

James got up, walked across his room, and opened his bedroom door wide. He didn't sleep with his door open, not ever, but if Natasha needed him, if Steve or Clint needed him, he could hear them better this way.

James went back to bed, ears straining for noise in the big house. Over the usual nighttime sounds of the house gently settling, there were faint sounds of movement coming from the guest room. Steve, settling down, James told himself, as the children were asleep.

Unable to close his eyes, James pulled the blankets up to his chest. Not since he'd brought Natasha home had anyone else spent the night in the house. But this wasn't just anyone, this was Steve and his little boy.

Steve, who had come to James' door that night when he didn't have anywhere else to turn. Steve, who had trusted James to watch his son after Clint had run away from school that morning. Steve, who had once been James' best friend in the whole world.

James rolled over onto his side and looked at the red numbers on the clock. He had to be up in four hours to get Natasha ready for school before heading into the city for his physiotherapy appointment. Four hours, and he couldn't even close his eyes.

James stared at the numbers ticking over for a long time before he finally fell asleep.


James was ripped awake by Natasha screaming.

James jumped to his feet and grabbed the baseball bat by the side of his bed, distantly registering the morning light filtering in through the bedroom curtains. Brandishing the bat, James ran down the hall towards Natasha's room, but the sounds weren't coming from her room, they were coming from the guest room, and now another screaming voice joined in and James was in the doorway and turning on the light to reveal Natasha and Clint jumping up and down on the bed, screaming at the top of their little lungs, while Steve struggled in the blankets on the floor, looking as terrified as James felt.

"What the hell?" James gasped, putting down the bat. "It's five fucking thirty!"

"Clint's here!" Natasha said joyously, still jumping up and down. "Daddy, Clint's here!"

"Why are you screaming?" James asked. He moved into the room, stepping over Steve's legs to get to the bed. "Stop jumping!"

Natasha sat abruptly, Clint following suit. Natasha leaned over to wrap her friend in a big morning hug. "Daddy, can Clint stay here forever?"

"Not if you two keep giving me a heart attack!"

"What are you doing here?" Natasha asked Clint, already ignoring her father.

"I don't know!" Clint exclaimed. "I woke up and I was here!" He crawled to the edge of the bed and looked down at Steve. "Daddy, do we live here now?"

"No," Steve said, finally freeing himself from the tangled blanket. "We still have a home, Clint."

Natasha slid off the bed, tugging on Clint's pajama leg. "Daddy, can we watch cartoons?" she asked hopefully.

James slumped against the doorframe, his heart thundering with unused adrenaline. "Do whatever you want," he said.

"Come on," Natasha said to Clint. "We can go watch ponies."

"Okay." Clint jumped off the bed and landed with a thud. He picked his hearing aid up off the dresser and fit it into his ear with the ease of long-practice. "Let's go!"

The children thundered out of the room, the pitter-patter of tiny feet loud in the large house. In the whirlwind of their departure, James was left staring at Steve. "I think I lost ten years off my life," Steve said, hauling himself to his feet.

"Fuck that, I'm still having a heart attack," James told him. Turning around James stumbled back down the hallway to his bedroom and fell onto the mattress, already reaching for the covers before he registered that Steve was on his heels. "What?"

"I'm sorry the kids woke you," Steve said, lingering in the doorway.

Later, James would say it was because he was functioning on adrenaline and three hours' sleep. "Fuck that," James muttered, punching his pillow. "Unless you woke them up and told them to start screaming, drop it. Now lie down or something, I don't have to be up for another thirty-seven minutes."

He rolled onto his side, putting his left arm stump under his pillow. After a moment, the mattress dipped as Steve laid down beside James. On top of the blankets. "You remember us doing this when we were kids?" Steve asked, so close.

James put his right arm over his head. "Yeah, and I remember you used to talk as much back then too, punk."

Distantly, the sounds of the television drifted up the stairs, so quiet that the sound of Steve's breathing almost masked it. Even outside the blankets, Steve's body was warm against James' back.

As the adrenaline faded, as James felt himself being dragged back to sleep in the soft morning light, all James could think was that the children were safe, and that Steve was there, and that was enough for now.

He would have to get up soon, but for now, he could sleep for just a few minutes more.

Just a few more minutes.

Chapter Text


"Daddy?"

James jerked awake. He tried to roll over, but a large body was in the way and James was trapped under a fold of the blanket.

"Daddy, do I get to stay home from school today?"

James sat up. Natasha and Clint stood in the doorway, both still in their pajamas, but now the light shining through the curtains was stronger.

Then James saw the clock.

"Shit!" he exclaimed, kicking the blanket free. When Steve didn't move fast enough, James rolled over the man, feet hitting the ground hard. "Nat, you're late for school!"

"I know!" Natasha told him. "You slept a long time."

"Come on!" James reached for Natasha's hand and pulled her down the hallway. "Get into your uniform, we're late!"

"Can't I stay home with Clint?" Natasha protested, but she ran into her bedroom and went to her closet for her school clothes.

"No you can't, I pay good money to that school and you aren't going to miss a day!" James grabbed Natasha's backpack and tossed it on her bed. "Homework, gym clothes, move!"

Steve appeared in the doorway, Clint on his shoulders. "Anything I can do?" he asked.

"Explain to me why my alarm didn't go off?" James demanded. "No, Nat, those socks don't match!"

"But I like them this way!"

In a few minutes, Natasha was dressed in her school clothes. James twisted her long hair up into a bun without combing her hair out, and asked her to hold the hair in place while he secured a clip.

"I can make her breakfast," Steve offered from the hallway. "Unless you're going to drop her off in your pajamas."

"No time," James said, brushing past him.

"But Daddy, I'm hungry!" Natasha wailed.

"Peanut butter sandwich for the road," Steve said before James could reply. "Go on. Change."

Leaving Steve to corral the children downstairs, James dashed back into his bedroom, cursing himself the whole time. How had he fallen asleep? He had never been so late in taking Natasha to school, not once. A single father had appearances to keep up, and keeping his little girl properly dressed and on time was the absolute bottom of the barrel on expectations.

Moving with more speed than grace, James pulled on his metal arm, jerking the straps into place before pulling on a t-shirt. After stepping into the previous day's jeans, he rooted around the bed for his phone. He found it on the floor underneath a spare pillow, the tiny chimes of the alarm still pinging gently.

It was only then that the implications of the morning finally hit him.

Steve Rogers had spent the night in his bed.

Not the whole night, and it had been on top of the covers, but the realization rocked James back onto his heels. Weeks of a harmless crush on Steve, and James had been so sleep-deprived and hyped up from the children's screaming that he hadn't realized what he was doing when he had invited Steve into his bed.

The next moment, any confusion about what might have been was knocked away as cleanly as if James had been sucker-punched.

Steve didn't know he was gay. Steve had fallen into bed with him and Steve didn't know James was gay.

Oh god, what would Steve think?

Years in high school and the Army, of listening to straight boys pull the no homo card, of freaking out at the thought of sharing a locker room or tent with some little faggot and James just listened to it all, kept his head down, didn't speak up, stayed hidden to protect his place on the team, his place in the military.

Now, James didn't know what Steve would do when he found out that James was gay. That a gay man had suggested they share a bed for a few hours.

James could barely breathe around the ball of ice in his stomach, at the thought of what the word faggot would sound like coming out of Steve's mouth.

What had he done?

James got to his feet. He would walk downstairs, get Natasha, drive her to school. He could let himself worry about the rest later.

Right now, he had to concentrate on getting Natasha to school. That was the only thing he could think about. His daughter had to go to school.

Slowly, James walked down the stairs to the main level. In the kitchen, the children were talking excitedly with Steve. James stopped in the doorway to watch for a moment.

Steve was helping Natasha wrap half a sandwich in a paper napkin, while Clint sat on the counter and munched on a piece of toast. Steve was smiling at the children, talking with them in his low voice.

James couldn't believe how badly he had screwed everything up.

He cleared his throat. "Ready to go, Nat?"

"Uh huh." Natasha wandered across the kitchen to her father. Her face was clean, her hair neat, and Steve had helped her tuck her polo shirt into her skirt. Her backpack hung on her shoulders and she looked presentable. "Steve made me a peanut butter and cheese sandwich."

"Why?"

"It's good!" Natasha took James' hand. "Daddy, we gotta go."

Steve wiped the crumbs off the counter and into the sink. "Do you want us to take off too?"

James cast around desperately, trying to think of some reason to keep Steve around, to hold off the inevitable just a little bit longer. "Your appointment in the city, when is that?"

"Ten."

"Stay here, I'll drop Nat off, then come pick you up and drive you to your place. It'll take longer on the train at this time of day."

The gratitude and sheer relief on Steve's face drove a spike of guilt into James' stomach. "Would it be imposing on you too much if I gave Clint a bath in the meantime?" Steve asked. "I'm pretty sure he still has dirt up his nose from yesterday."

"I don't have dirt up my nose!" Clint said indignantly around a mouthful of toast.

"Go ahead," James said. "There's extra towels in the closet."

Natasha pulled on James' hand. "I'm going to miss story time," she said.

Right. James scooped Natasha up and carried her over to the counter. "Say goodbye to Clint."

Natasha leaned out and patted Clint on the cheek. "You can use my strawberry bubbles in the bath if you want," she said generously. Clint appeared less than enthusiastic about this suggestion, but James was already on his way out of the kitchen and out the front door with Natasha in hand.

In the car on the way to school, Natasha asked, "Daddy, why did you sleep so late?"

James wished he had an answer to that. Instead, he said, "I went to bed very late last night, and I didn't hear the alarm go off."

"Oh." A moment of silence as James negotiated the intersection, then, "Why was Steve in bed with you?"

James' fingers tightened around the wheel. For a brief moment, he could almost feel the heat from Steve's body warm against his back. "Because," James said, his heart fluttering in his chest. "The bed was nicer than the floor after you and Clint woke us up this morning."

"But Daddy," Natasha said. "Why did you make him sleep on the floor before?"

"So Clint wouldn't be scared if he woke up in the night," James said, almost desperately. "Did you remember everything for school?"

"Uh huh," Natasha said, finally distracted. "I wish Clint could come to school with me. I like Clint. He's my friend."

"Today Clint has to go see a doctor about his eyes," James told her as he pulled into a spot outside the school. "Then he gets to go back to school on Wednesday."

"He doesn't want to go to the doctor," Natasha informed James. "When he went yesterday the man was mean."

"How was the man mean?" James asked as he killed the engine.

"He made Clint look at lots of things and it made Clint get a headache." Natasha waited until James came around to the back to let her out of her seatbelt before she continued. "That's why Clint doesn't like to look at tiny things close up."

"When did he tell you that?" James asked, slamming the door behind them and pulling Natasha down the street at a fast trot.

"This morning," Natasha said. "We watched My Little Pony and I wanted to sit close but Clint wanted to sit far away and he told me."

"Clint's going to have Steve with him the whole time," James said, turning in at the school's doorway. "Steve isn't going to let him get hurt, any more than I'd let you get hurt."

"Okay," Natasha said, the tone of her voice making it clear that she didn't quite believe James.

James had to check in at the school reception to get Natasha a late slip, then they were escorted into the classroom wing by one of the receptionists. Knowing what he did about St. Ursula's security measures, James was a little surprised that Clint had managed to make it all the way to Natasha's kindergarten class without being stopped. Making a mental note to ask Natasha's teacher when he picked the girl up that afternoon, James stopped Natasha outside her classroom door and knelt down.

"You have a good day at school." He kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry that I slept in and made you late."

"It's okay, Daddy, you can make a mistake once," Natasha said graciously. She flung her arms around James' neck and gave him a squeeze.

James hugged her back with his right arm, leaving the metal prosthesis to hang loose at his side. "Don't worry about Clint, okay? He'll be fine."

"Okay." Natasha stepped back, took the late slip from the receptionist, and opened the door to her classroom. From the hallway, James could see that the students were seated around Mrs. Singh on the floor, engrossed in story time. Natasha bolted across the room, not even pausing to take off her backpack or coat, and collapsed onto the mats next to her classmates.

Mrs. Singh looked towards the door, and gave James and the receptionist a brief smile before returning to the story.

James rose on creaking knees and looked at the receptionist, a young woman hardly older than Skye. "Thanks for walking us back here," he said. "Nat was worried she was going to miss the story."

The woman gave James a smile as she walked him to the door, making small talk the whole time, and soon James was back in the car and on the drive home.

The house was still as he closed the door behind him. Distant sounds of the shower drifted down the stairs, so James tossed his jacket over the back of the sofa and went up to see how Steve was faring.

Clint was in the hallway outside the bathroom, playing with Natasha's spare teddy bear. The bathroom door was closed, the shower running inside.

"Hey," James said, drawing Clint's attention. "Is your dad still in the shower?"

Clint nodded, his blond hair standing up in wet spikes. "I wanted to go in Natasha's room but I got told no 'cause she's not here," he said sadly.

"You dad tell you that?" When Clint nodded, James crouched down. "Natasha's not here, but I think she'd be okay if you went in to poke around."

Clint brightened. He climbed to his feet and dashed off down the hall, the teddy bear bouncing along after him as he ran into Natasha's room.

James stood and went over to the bathroom door. "Hey, I'm back," he called through the wood. "Get your ass in gear."

"Be out in a minute!" Steve called.

Shaking his head, James went to his room. He was trying to not think about Steve in his shower, naked and wet and warm, lathering James' soap on those big shoulders, on his arms, moving easily in those artist's hands…

Swallowing hard, James ruthlessly pushed those thoughts away. He had no right to think about Steve like that, not when Steve had spent the morning in James' bed while under the false impression that James was straight.

He should tell Steve, he thought as he pulled the sheets over the mattress. There was always the chance that Steve would slug him across the jaw, but he should know exactly what he was dealing with.

James had made a promise to himself, one day not long after he brought Natasha home, that he wasn't going to lie about who he was anymore. He wasn't in the Rangers, and being gay or straight made no difference to Nick Fury, who'd had the final say on Natasha's adoption. Sure, James wasn't about to go shouting it from the rooftops, but he wasn't going to hide the fact that he liked guys.

Only it hadn't really mattered much, so far – James was too busy with Natasha and with work to think about dating, and he didn't have any interest in most of the guys he met day-to-day. He hadn't been on a date since he'd adopted Natasha, but then he hadn't dated in the Army either.

Not that any of that mattered with Steve; having a crush on the man was of absolutely no importance. Steve would probably say it was no big deal, but then he'd hesitate to call James back on things about the kids; would say that Clint was too busy to play with Natasha, so sorry, and that would be the end of that. James had seen it before with some of the parents in Natasha's preschool. They didn't want some faggot around their children, but they were too outwardly polite to say anything to James' face.

That was just the way it was.

Down the hall, the shower stopped. James plumped the pillows before he put them on the bed, then went to see what Clint was up to.

The little boy had settled himself in the big armchair in Natasha's room, surrounding himself with stuffed animals. He held one of Natasha's picture books and pointed at the pages as he talked to the animals. He was so engrossed with what he was doing that James backed away quietly, leaving him be.

The bathroom door opened and Steve emerged, fully clothed, in a cloud of steamy air. "Hey," he said, smiling brightly when he saw James. "Did you have any problems with getting Natasha to school?"

"No," James said, his mouth suddenly dry. "Everything okay here?"

"Yeah," Steve said, running his hand through his damp hair. "We should get going, otherwise we're going to miss our train into Manhattan from our place."

"I can drive you into the city," James said, words coming out of his mouth without his brain engaging first. "I mean, Clint can't wear his pajamas to the ophthalmologist."

"I couldn't impose," Steve said, his eyes wide.

"Shut up," James said uncomfortably. "It's quicker. And it's my fault that we overslept."

"That would be great," Steve said. "Thanks Bucky, it means a lot." While James tried to think of something to say that didn't sound too stupid, Steve went looking for his son. "Clint, what did I say about going into Natasha's room?" Steve asked, standing in Natasha's doorway, and that got James moving.

"I said it was okay," James said, just as Clint exclaimed, "James said I could!"

"Oh," Steve said, backing down instantly as Clint ran out of the room to him. "There you go."

"I wouldn't do anything to make Natasha sad!" Clint said, glaring at his father.

"I know." Steve scooped Clint up effortlessly and ruffled his hair. "I'm sorry I thought you would."

Clint leaned in and gave his father a kiss on the cheek. "It's okay," he said graciously.

"Good." Steve patted Clint on the back as he turned to James. "Shall we go?"


The journey to south Brooklyn, then into Manhattan, was actually rather pleasant. On noticing how restless Clint was in the backseat, James turned on one of Natasha's audio books for the boy to listen to, and the Wizard of Oz held Clint's rapt attention on the drive into the city.

Steve was in a talkative mood, and he and James conversed about a number of things as James navigated through the morning traffic. James got to hear about Steve's adventures in art school and then how he managed to find himself working for Stark Industries philanthropic wing. In return, James told a few anecdotes of his time in the Rangers, edited heavily for both the man in the passenger seat as well as the little boy in the back.

Too soon, James was dropping Clint and Steve off at the subway station near the hospital where he had his physio appointment. As he tried to come up with some way to say how much he had enjoyed the drive, Steve surprised him by saying, "Give me a call when you're done, I'll let you know where we're at."

"Okay," James said, too blindsided to say no. "Take care of yourself."

In the meantime, Clint was clutching his seatbelt. "I want to listen to the story!" he said as Steve tried to pry him out of the backseat.

"You can listen to it later," Steve said, trying to get leverage to haul Clint from the vehicle. "We don't want to make Bucky late for his appointment."

Clint responded to this by flopping over bonelessly, allowing Steve to manhandle the boy up and out of the car.

"Thanks again," Steve said, smiling at James. "See you soon."

"Yeah," James said, and drove off before he said something stupid.

Parking was expensive enough to make James wince, and he was late, but for once he had a hard time focusing on the exercises. He couldn't get Steve out of his head. It wasn't just the worry that Steve would pull a gay freak-out on him because of that morning; it was also what Steve had said the previous night about raising Clint on his own, about Sharon, about his life growing up in New Jersey and his life in college.

What Steve had been through over the last twenty years was worlds away from what James had experienced, but he found himself wanting to know more, to hear anything Steve would tell him about life and living and just anything, just talking with him, being with him, and it was in the middle of a balance exercise that it suddenly occurred to James that this wasn't just some stupid crush, that he was falling in love with Steve.

The realization tipped him off the balance ball and he stumbled, swearing loudly. The physiotherapist helped him back up on the ball, but it didn't really make a difference. James didn't know how to shove that realization out of his head, didn't know what to do.

The last thing he needed was something as fucking hopeless as being in love with Steve Rogers.

He managed to get through the rest of his session without hurting himself. The doctor commended James on his first run of the week, and suggested that the man make a routine of it as the weather improved. James said yes just to get his metal arm back and was out in the lobby in a few minutes.

James told himself he should go home, leave Steve and Clint to their business, get back to work and pretend that everything was normal.

He'd just text Steve to tell him that he had to go home. Reaching into his pocket, James saw that he had one message from Steve.

Clint and me stopped for a motivational hot chocolate :) :)

Below the message was a small snapshot of Clint holding a small hot chocolate cup and grinning widely.

James swiped down to get to the message box. i gotta move my car, he wrote.

Take it to Stark Tower, came Steve's nearly instantaneous reply. If you go in off Lexington there's employee parking. I'll tell the attendant that you're with me. Then come find us I'll send u the address

That wasn't what James had wanted, not at all. He stood staring down at his phone until someone jostled him from behind. fine, James typed, and shoved his phone into his pocket. He'd take the car to Stark Tower, go make sure Clint was doing okay with the eye appointment, and then head out. Steve could take Clint home on the subway later.


In spite of Steve's assurances about parking, James drove up to Stark Tower with trepidation. He turned in at the employee parking entrance and drove slowly up to the gate.

The security guard in the booth leaned out. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah, Steve Rogers told me I could park here."

The man consulted his computer. "Name?"

James gave it.

The guard's face cleared. "Sure thing. Hang on." He handed James a clear plastic card with the word GUEST stamped in big letters on it. "Drive over to the blue circle and park it."

Rather dubious, James put the jeep in first gear and moved it across the parking bay to the indicated blue circle. He turned off the engine and grabbed his phone and the guest card, then pulled his keys out of the ignition to give to the valet.

Retracing his steps to the booth, he looked around for someone, but there was only the guard, looking amused. "Check this out," the guard called, just as a metallic shifting sound began, and the blue circle where James had parked began to descend into the floor, taking the jeep with it.

James let out a whistle. "Stark really made that automated parking technology work, didn't he? I heard rumors of something like that a year ago."

"It's patented but SI isn't looking to franchise," said the guard. "One of Stark's new green initiatives, saving space in the heart of the city."

"Nice." James stuck his hands in his pockets. "See you in a bit."

He went up to street level in a fancy elevator, swiping the guest card wherever he was told to do so. The Stark Industry lobby was bright and futuristic and James couldn't quite imagine Steve working in a building like this. Something more old-school, James thought idly as he texted Steve. Like a renovated loft or some old brownstone with faded brick and worn wooden floors, not this sort of spartan white expanse.

The ophthalmologist's office was towards the park, so James set his shoulders against the crowd and started walking. The medical building lobby looked more like a fancy hotel, and James double-checked the address before he stepped in the elevator and hit the button to the twenty-first floor.

The office's reception area was half-full of patients, and James was so used to Natasha's pediatrician office that he didn't register that most of them were children until the receptionist was guiding him into one of the rooms down the hall. By then, all James could do was to push that thought to the back of his mind as he was shown into a large comfortable room full of bright colors and toys, suitable for a young audience.

Steve sat by the wall, elbows on his knees and looking about as exhausted as James felt. Clint was across the room, playing with plastic toys.

"Hey," James said, closing the door behind him. "How's it going?"

Steve rubbed his hand over his face. "Better than yesterday," he said in a subdued voice. "It's a lot for Clint to take in. I had to talk to him about the suspension and he's upset."

"I bet."

Across the room, Clint smashed one of the small toys against the others, before shoving them all away from him.

"Mind if I try?" James asked.

"Go ahead."

James walked across the room to where Clint sat. The boy didn't look up at him, but James could tell from the tense set of his shoulders that Clint knew he was there.

James put his shoulder against the wall and slid down so he was sitting near Clint, but not so close that he was crowding the boy. "Hi Clint."

Clint picked up a toy truck and bashed it against a toy piano. "Hi," he said in a plaintive wail.

"Your dad said you're upset."

"The school thinks I'm bad," Clint said, sniffling hard. He ran the truck over the piano keys, sending a cacophony of noise into the room. "I don't ever want to go back if they think I'm bad!"

"Don't listen to them, they're all idiots," James said bluntly. Clint sat bolt upright at this, barely noticing Steve's exclamation in the background. "You're not bad and because they messed up and are trying to push it onto you, that makes them idiots."

"Bucky, what are you doing?" Steve demanded, coming over to them.

"What, like I'm wrong?" James shot back. "They don't notice they're missing a kid and they try to turn it around on him so you don't sue them into bankruptcy." James moved around so he was facing Clint. "Clint, I'm going to tell you a secret about being bad, okay?"

Clint nodded, wide-eyed.

"Everyone makes mistakes," James said. "Each and every person everywhere on the planet has made mistakes in their life. If you make a mistake because you didn't know the right way to do something, that's not being bad."

"Like what?" Clint asked breathlessly.

James looked at Steve, who rolled his eyes as he sat down, pulling Clint onto his lap. "Well," James said, "If you went to eat a cupcake that was on the table, and you didn't know that it was someone else's cupcake, that's a mistake."

"What makes it bad?"

"If you knew that someone else had already picked that cupcake, but you ate it anyway even though you knew, that's bad." James held out his hands, one metal, one flesh. "Being bad needs intent and action." He waited as Clint put his hands on top of James'. "You have to know something is bad," and he raised his right hand, "And then you have to do something bad." He lifted his metal hand.

Clint considered this. "What if I didn't know something was bad?"

James carefully wrapped his thumbs over Clint's small hands and gave them a soft shake. "You're almost six now. You're old enough now to look at a situation and to ask yourself if that's something you should do or not."

After a moment, Clint pulled his hands out of James', and climbed up onto Steve's leg, balancing with a hand in his father's hair. "Like what?"

"Like, if you were painting with Natasha, and you thought about pouring paint on her hair, and then did it, that would be bad because you know better. Even if no one told you, you can figure that out yourself."

"I won't pour paint on Natasha," Clint promised. "And I won't rub dirt in her hair or on her face and only on her shirt if she asks me to."

Steve put his arm around Clint and gave his son a hug. "Is that why you had so much dirt in your bellybutton yesterday?"

"Natasha gives good belly rubs." Clint stuck his finger into his mouth. "What if I don't know something was bad and I make a mistake?"

"You listen to what your dad or your teacher says to you and you don't do it again."

Clint pulled his finger out of his mouth. "Mrs. Anders tells me that I'm ruptive and tells me to stop but I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

James had a few choice words for this teacher of Clint's, but none of them were fit for a child's ears. "Tell her you need to know what to do right instead. Do you want to try?"

Clint nodded, slumping against Steve's shoulder and wrapping his arms around his father's neck. Steve put his hand against Clint's ribs to keep him steady.

"Okay, pretend I'm Mrs. Anders." James took a deep breath and raised his voice in a falsetto. "Clint Rogers, you are being disruptive! Ten points from Gryffindor!"

Clint scrunched his face up. "Um."

"How about you ask what the right thing to do is," Steve prompted gently.

Clint took a deep breath. "What's the right thing to do?" he asked in a rush.

In his normal voice, James said, "That was pretty good. Want to try again?"

Clint nodded so hard his hair bounced.

They rehearsed this a few times until Clint was comfortable with asking the question of James' make-believe voice. Sensing the boy was getting restless, James held out his hand for a high five, then suggested that Clint tell him about the toys. This kept the boy and Steve both occupied until the doctor entered the room.

The doctor was an older man, grey hair and tan skin, like so many of Winterhill's security clients over the years. He put a small box on the table by the door and pulled up a low stool beside it.

Steve hustled Clint to his feet and tried to get him to move across the room, but Clint pulled away from his father and went back to the toys, turning his back on the doctor. Seeing the expression on Steve's face, James put out his hand. "Let me try, okay?" he said quietly.

Steve nodded, and went over to talk to the doctor while James crouched down next to Clint. "Hey Clint, can I ask a favor?"

Clint shrugged without looking up.

"You know, I'm not really good with doctors," James went on. "Sometimes, when I have to talk to a doctor, I get nervous. Would you be able to help me talk to this doctor?"

The sad thing was, even though James was trying to help the boy, nothing he'd said was a lie. Clint looked up and appeared to consider James' request. After a moment, he stood and held out his left hand.

James stood, took Clint's hand, and together they walked to the table where Steve and the doctor were speaking in quiet tones. When James sat down, Clint leaned against his leg and kept holding his hand tight.

"Hi Clint," the doctor said genially. "I was just telling your father that it looks like you're going to need glasses to help you with your reading."

"How does that sound?" Steve asked, putting his hand on Clint's back.

Clint gripped James' hand with both of his, squeezing tight. "Are you going to put knives in my eyes?" he asked.

Steve let out a pained breath, scooping Clint up and into his lap as the doctor said, "No, Clint, we are not going to do surgery. Your eyes just need a little help in getting you to focus on things up close, and we're going to give you glasses for that."

Steve hugged Clint tight, his face pressed against Clint's hair. Clint stared at the doctor for a long moment as he put his finger into his mouth. "I guess that's okay." Clint said.

"Good." The doctor smiled, his teeth white and even. "Now, the first thing we need to do is to make sure that we have the right prescription for you." He turned to the box, then paused. "But first, I have to warn you. When you try this on, you might look a little silly."

Clint pulled his finger out of his mouth with a pop and stared at the doctor uncertainly for a moment. Then the corners of his lips started to turn up.

"Are you okay with that?" the doctor asked, removing a large set of spectacles from the box. "Some little boys have a problem with being silly."

"I can be silly," Clint said, smile growing as he ducked his face against Steve's shoulder.

"Well, that's good," the doctor declared. "Can you come over here?"

Clint slid off Steve's lap and walked confidently over to the doctor. "How do I be silly?"

"First off, let's get your dad to hold your hearing aid." To Steve, the doctor explained, "Most children's spectacle frames can be worn without impact on a hearing aid like Clint's, but this test set is a bit too big."

Clint pried his hearing aid off and held it out; James' hands were free and he took it before Clint dropped the thing. "Okay," Clint declared. "I'm ready."

The doctor got Clint to stand in front of a mirror, and then placed the unfolded glasses frame over Clint's ears. "Look in the mirror and tell me what you see."

Clint looked, and his mouth opened into a wide O of surprise. With the large glasses frames covering nearly half his face, he did look ridiculous, but his expression of astonishment was so genuine that James didn't feel like laughing.

"Daddy!" Clint exclaimed. "It's not fuzzy!" The boy spun around and ran over to Steve, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste. He grabbed Steve and pulled at him until Steve got to his feet and followed Clint back to the mirror. Clint pointed at his reflection. "That's me!"

With a stomach-wrenching jerk, James realized that this was probably the first time that Clint had clearly seen his own reflection. His own face.

Eyes wet, Steve picked Clint up and kissed him on the cheek. "It sure is," Steve said. "My handsome little guy."

Clint stared at his reflection for a long minute. Then he wiggled around until he was looking at Steve. "You have a nice face," Clint said as he patted Steve's cheeks. "I seen it far away but now I seen it close up."

"I don't know," James said, needing to say something so he didn't start crying himself. "I think his nose is a little funny, what do you think?"

Clint ran his finger down Steve's nose. "I like it," he declared. "It's big."

With that, Clint turned back to the mirror to look at his reflection. The doctor caught Steve's attention, and the man set Clint on his feet and went to talk to the doctor. James moved over so he could lean against the wall beside the mirror. "Those are pretty neat glasses," James said. "How do they feel?"

Clint stuck his tongue out at his reflection. "They're heavy."

"I bet. But you know, real glasses are a lot lighter than all that metal. I bet we can even find some frames that are purple."

Clint smiled at this. "I like purple," he told James. "I like it a lot."

"I know."

Clint gave a nod, nearly sending the contraption on his head to the ground. Reaching out to steady him, James gave the boy a firm pat on the back. "I'm okay," Clint said, then went over to Steve. "Daddy," Clint said, interrupting Steve's conversation with the doctor. "Can I see Mommy?"

"Sure thing, buddy." Steve pulled his phone out of his pocket and did some swiping until he got to the right place. "Here's your mom."

Clint took the phone and held it up, close to his eyes, as he walked back to where James sat. The boy was so intent on the picture that he nearly walked into the wall; James reached up to steady him and Clint toppled into his lap. "This is my Mommy," Clint informed James, holding the phone for him to see. "She is the prettiest Mommy."

James moved Clint's hand so he could see the phone's screen clearly. The photograph showed a young blonde woman with dark eyes holding a chubby infant, smiling at the camera. She was indeed very beautiful.

"Is that you?" James pointed to the baby.

"Uh huh." Clint pointed at Sharon. "That's Mommy and me."

Clint brought the phone back to his face again, looking intently at the photo until the doctor called for him. There were some final adjustments made to the prescription, then the doctor sat Clint down for a brief lecture on how to wear his glasses, and that he was to take them off when he was playing and looking at things farther away than the length of this room, and if he got a headache he was to take them off. Clint lost interest in the lecture mid-way through and wandered back over to the toys. Steve, who was busy taking notes, glanced at James, and James went after Clint. He handed the boy back his hearing aid and got Clint to tell him a story about the dinosaur toys while Steve was occupied.

Half an hour later, they were in an optical store, James preventing Clint from running off while Steve argued with the sales clerk about spectacle frames. Most of the frames Clint wanted had thick plastic arms that didn't fit over his hearing aid. As Steve grew more desperate, and Clint started to get frustrated, James hauled Clint over to the grown-up section and helped the boy try on aviator sunglasses. To Clint, this was the epitome of cool, and he was soon all smiles again as James snapped pictures on his phone for Steve to see later.

Finally, the sales clerk found a pair of wire-rimmed frames in the back that fit Clint's face without interfering with his hearing aid, and promised them that the glasses would be done in an hour. Thus disgorged onto the street, Steve let out a garbled sound of frustration.

"Daddy, that was stupid," Clint scowled. "James said I could have purple glasses."

"They didn't have any purple wire frames," Steve said as he tossed Clint into the air, settling him on his hip. "Maybe next time."

Clint's scowl deepened.

"Or we can get some enamel paint and do it ourselves," James suggested. "I know a guy in the antiques business, he can get some quality stuff."

"Yeah!" Clint cheered, as Steve smiled at James. "Get purple. And black!"

"Your frames are already black," Steve reminded him. "Are you hungry? We have an hour, we can grab something to eat."

"I'm starving!"

"Figures." Steve turned to James. "What do you say? Can I buy you a sandwich?"

James looked at Steve, the afternoon sunshine gleaming down between the buildings and highlighting the blond and gold in his hair.

He should go, leave Steve to his lunch and his son and just go. Make a clean break of it, stop talking to Steve. Natasha would be upset but she'd get over it in time.

If James kept hanging around Steve, all he was going to do was fuck things up. Steve would figure it all out eventually, even if he didn't care about what James was, and that would be the end of that.

James should just end this now.

As James stood on the sidewalk, unable to answer, the smile slid off Steve's face. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly. "Bucky?"

James swallowed hard, a lump of ice in his throat. He had to do this. "Steve, it's like this..."

Clint, who had been waiting through this exchange, kicked Steve's leg. "I'm hungry!" he said again. "Come on!"

"Come on, Bucky," Steve said, but quietly. "Let me buy you lunch. It's the least I can do."

Trying to breathe, James gave in. "Sure," he said. "Lunch is cool."

Mentally kicking himself, James walked at Steve's side down the crowded New York sidewalk. After lunch, he'd head back to Brooklyn and get Natasha from school and try to figure out some way to extricate Steve Rogers from his life before the inevitable came, and Steve pushed him away.

After lunch.


Steve took him to a little deli near Central Park, where they grabbed some sandwiches and took them into the park to eat. At Clint's insistence, they ended up walking as they ate, Steve talking about work while Clint ran back and forth on the path. They made it all the way to the carousel, where Clint pestered his father until Steve pulled some money from his pocket and let Clint go on the ride.

Steve hung out with James at the railing while Clint rode in circles on the near-empty carousel. At the end of the ride, Clint grumbled about having to leave until Steve suggested that they come back some week with Natasha, and Clint was so enamored with the suggestion that James didn't have the heart to turn the idea down.

Clint led the way back out of the park, running ahead of Steve and James as they talked. The walk back to the optical store didn't take too long, and soon Clint was being presented with his very own pair of spectacles.

Clint examined his reflection thoroughly while Steve made encouraging noises. After a while, Clint pronounced himself satisfied, and Steve handed over his credit card to pay. As soon as they were leaving, however, Clint took off his glasses and tried to hand them to his father. "I don't want to wear them now."

While Steve tried to reason with Clint, James went back to the counter. He was back in a minute. "Come here," he said, pulling Clint out of the doorway. "Give me your glasses." As Clint watched, James hooked a brightly colored cord around each earpiece, tightened the black plastic loops, then slung the cord around Clint's neck. "There you go. Now you can take them off without losing them."

Of course, Clint had to practice putting his glasses on and off without catching the cord on his hearing aid. James watched until he noticed that Steve was staring at him.

"Thanks," Steve said quietly when James raised an eyebrow. "You always know just what we need."

"It ain't hard," James said, uncomfortable by the intensity of Steve's gaze. "You're not that hard to figure out and neither is Clint."

Clint pulled off his glasses one last time. "Okay," he said, and reached for both Steve and James' hands. Together, they navigated their way out of the store.

Getting James' jeep out of the Stark Tower garage was possibly Clint's favorite part of the day; he watched the machinery shift and wheeze with rapturous joy. Then it was out and into traffic and Clint fell asleep in the backseat to the sounds of the Wizard of Oz audio book.

"Did I say thanks yet?" Steve asked as James accelerated over the bridge back into Brooklyn.

"Yes."

"I should say it again. I couldn't have done this without you, today."

"Don't be an idiot, of course you could."

"No, I couldn't have."

James kept his eyes on the road, right hand firm on the steering wheel.

"You're so good with Clint, it's a miracle. He usually so easy going, but when he gets worked up about stuff even I can't get him to calm down."

"Redirect and re-engage," James said. "Worked in high school and in the Army, I figured it would work with Clint."

"Huh?"

"When someone's freaking out. Redirect and re-engage them, usually pulls them out of their heads."

"Does it work with Natasha?"

"No. Nat sticks to a grudge like gum on a subway seat."

Steve chuckled. "You know, I could probably deal better with that."

"Probably," James agreed. "You were just the same when we were kids. Always getting riled up about something, never letting anything go."

He made the mistake of glancing over at Steve, who was grinning now. "You always did know me too well," Steve said.

James jerked his attention back to the road. The middle of the Brooklyn Bridge was no place for him to lose his head over Steve Rogers. Especially not with a little boy in the backseat.

"You know, Clint's going to be okay."

"How do you know that?"

"He's got you, you ass," James said. "He's a good kid who can deal with all this shit. Hell, if I'd spent any time wondering if a doctor was going to come after my eyes with a knife I would have been freaking the fuck out all morning."

Steve let out a muffled curse. "I wish I knew where he got that from, he never said anything."

"He's smart, he probably made the connection on his own," James said. "That's what surgery is, knives into body parts. If he heard that quack you went to yesterday mention surgery, that's what he might have thought."

"Damn it." Steve tuned around to look in the backseat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, James could see that Clint was still passed out, cheek smushed against Natasha's booster seat, his glasses hanging by the cord around his neck. "At least we figured out how he can see. But now I have to send him back to that school tomorrow."

James pressed his lips together and concentrated on the road.

"What?"

"I didn't say anything."

"Yeah, and you were doing it very loudly." Steve slumped back in his seat. "I was thinking about what you said to Clint. About that school. I was thinking that maybe I should tell someone that they let a kid go missing and didn't even notice, you know?"

"That's a good place to start," James said as he merged towards the exit. "I could give you the name of Natasha's old social worker, if you want to talk to him. He knows everyone in the business, could push the right buttons."

"Yeah." Steve was quiet for a few minutes as James drove into Brooklyn. "Yeah, I may take you up on that."

James drove to Steve's apartment. He helped wake Clint up from his nap, but turned down Steve's offer of a cup of coffee. "I have to go pick up Nat," he said by way of explanation.

"Okay." Steve stood looking at James, holding Clint's hand while the boy yawned widely. "You still on for dinner after soccer on Thursday?"

And just like that, Steve had given James the perfect opening and it was like a punch to the gut. But still, James had spent years pretending that he was something he wasn't; wasn't gay, wasn't lonely, wasn't afraid. Straightening his shoulders, James made himself shrug nonchalantly. "We're getting near the end of the year, Natasha's dance class may go late."

"Oh." Steve drew Clint against his leg. "How about Sunday?"

"We'll see."

Steve's blue eyes narrowed. "Yeah," he said after a minute. "We'll see."

Yawning again, Clint wandered over to James and tugged on his jeans. "When are we going to paint my glasses?" he asked as James crouched down to his height.

"We'll see," James said again. He helped Clint put his glasses on, and straightened the frames on his face. "You look very dashing."

"What's dashing?" Clint asked, rubbing his nose.

"It means you look very smart and very grown up."

Clint beamed up at him, happy once again, and James heart broke just a little more. "Thanks!" Clint exclaimed, and flung himself at James for a hug.

James had to close his eyes against the stinging in his eyes. "You take care of your dad, okay?"

"Okay."

Standing on creaking knees, James shoved his hands in his pockets. "So I guess I'll see you around."

"I'll call you," Steve said, motioning for Clint to come back to him.

"Fine." And James turned on his heel and walked away from Steve and Clint, feeling like he was going to puke.

"I'm going to call you soon!" Steve yelled after him. "You owe me a phone number!"

James didn't turn around, couldn't turn around, because he knew if he did, he'd never be able to gather up the strength to walk away from Steve again, and that would make Steve's inevitable realization about what James was, even worse.

He got into the jeep and turned the key in the ignition without bothering to put on his seatbelt. He had to do this, he told himself. He had to walk away from Steve now, because when Steve realized that James was gay, if he ever figured out that James couldn't help thinking about him as more than just a friend, then things were going to get ugly and it would spill over onto the children and James could not have that.

Five years before, James had promised himself that he wasn't going to lie about who he was anymore. Up until he met Steve again, it hadn't been hard – he didn't have friends, really, but he had Maria, and Nick, and Natasha was all that really mattered anyway.

James didn't need anyone else. When he was in high school, and later the Rangers, he'd had good practice in hiding his real feelings. He had grown up pretending to fit in, pretending he was something he was not, to prove he could get the job done.

But he wasn't going to pretend any more, he'd made himself that promise. And if the cost of keeping that promise to himself was losing Steve in the process…

Well. More than most people, James understood that sometimes life ripped parts of you away and there was nothing you could do to stop it.

The trick was picking yourself up and waiting for the bleeding to stop.

Chapter Text


James dropped the jeep off before walking to Natasha's school. The long drive with Steve had jangled his nerves and he needed to walk it off before he could deal with his daughter.

He arrived at the school before the final bell, so he joined the queue of parents and nannies, letting himself be drawn into conversation with a woman he knew from Natasha's class. As it happened, she was the mother of the infamous Ricky, whose brother joining the army had sparked one of Natasha's bad days the previous month.

James was listening to the woman relate her son's experiences in boot camp, nodding in remembrance at his own time in training, when the doors burst open and St. Ursula's entire kindergarten class erupted onto the playground, ready to go home at the end of a long day. Ricky was in the lead, nearly crashing into his mother as he reached her. James bid them both farewell as he stood up to look for his child.

For some reason, Natasha had made a beeline for the school's jungle gym and was climbing up the monkey bars. "Hey," James said, walking over to join her. "How was school?"

"We got to play parachute in gym class!" Natasha said excitedly, reaching for the next bar up. Her little backpack wobbled as she climbed. "I sure am glad I came to school today."

"Me too." James stood nearby, where he could catch her if she fell, but knowing that she was too surefooted for that to be likely. "Why are you climbing?"

"I need to practice." Natasha stepped higher. "Clint can climb so high and I need to practice so I can keep up."

Her innocent words tightened the vise of guilt around his heart, but James couldn't back down now. He'd made the decision to distance himself from Steve, and he was just going to have to live with that. "Is that so?" he said vaguely.

"Uh huh." Natasha reached for the final bar and pulled herself up. "Look, Daddy, I'm so high!"

She was so happy, so pleased with herself, that James found himself smiling up at her. "You sure are. Hold on."

He pulled out his phone and took a quick picture of Natasha before helping her down. "Did you see me?" Natasha demanded excitedly as James set her on the ground.

"I did see you," James reassured her. "Come on, let's go home so you can get ready for dance class."

Natasha slipped her hand into James' and off they went, past the playground attendant and down the sidewalk.

"Daddy," Natasha said. "Is Clint okay?"

"Of course he is, sweet pea." James tugged on Natasha's hand to get her moving faster. "He went home with his dad."

Natasha stopped dead, holding James' hand so hard that he had to stop. "But what happened?"

James pried his hand out of Natasha's grip and picked the girl up, settling her on his right arm. "How about we talk over a coffee, okay?"

Natasha's eyes went wide in astonishment. They only ever had serious conversations 'over coffee' and Natasha considered this to be quite a treat. "Okay," Natasha said, then threw her arms around James' neck.

Luckily, there was a coffee shop on the way back to the house. James put Natasha down for her to peruse the pastry case as he ordered a large coffee for himself and Natasha's favourite 'fluffy pink milk' (steamed milk with raspberry syrup), then pulled Natasha over to a small table with their drinks.

Natasha took a sip from her cup, getting milk foam on her nose, and let out a satisfied sigh. "I like Tuesdays," she said. "Can I see Clint every Tuesday?"

James reached out with a napkin to wipe the foam off Natasha's face. "You have dance class on Tuesdays until the end of the month," he said to deflect her.

"Clint can come over before school and we can play." Natasha slurped at her milk. "Daddy, you're not drinking your coffee."

James made a show of picking up his cup and taking a sip of the scalding liquid.

Natasha sat back. "Tell me about Clint," she ordered, eyes bright as she stared at James.

So James dutifully told Natasha the details of the day, about how he drove Steve and Clint into the city and Clint had listened to Natasha's Wizard of Oz audio book (Good, now he and me can like that story together!) and how he had met the Rogers at the doctor's office and Clint had been playing with toys (What kind of toys, Daddy?) and how the doctor had made Clint try on the testing spectacles (Did Clint look funny?) and then they went to have Clint fitted for a pair of glasses (I bet he looked funny) then lunch and a walk in the park.

Natasha perked up at the mention of the park; James had taken her to Central Park the previous year to go to the zoo and Natasha had been clamouring at him to take her back ever since. "Daddy, I have to go to the park with Clint!" she exclaimed, tugging on his sleeve in excitement. "And we can climb high and jump off things and go swing and everything!"

James shushed her, helping her to sit back down in her seat and urging her to drink her milk, they had to go home so they could get to dance class on time. Momentarily distracted, Natasha polished off half her milk before turning back to James.

"Daddy, next time you go to the park with Clint you have to take me," she said. "It's only fair."

James looked at his daughter, her green eyes so solemn as she stared up at him, and the words he'd prepared about how she might not see Clint anymore shrivelled in his throat. "All right," he said instead, hoping Natasha couldn't see what a coward he was. "Can you drink your milk while we walk home?"

Natasha was thrilled with this grown-up responsibility; she let James put a lid on her cup and she carried it carefully in both hands as they navigates down the sidewalks on the way home, James' metal hand hovering over her shoulder in case she made a detour towards the road.

They made it home without incident. James sent Natasha up to change into her dance clothes. As Natasha disappeared up the stairs in a loud pounding of footsteps, James sat on the couch and wondered how on earth he could tell her that she wasn't going to be able to see her best friend again.

Things would have been far easier if Clint wasn't Natasha's only friend. But he was the only child with whom Natasha had ever formed a strong bond, and now James had to figure out a way to keep from breaking Natasha's heart as he tore her away from him.

"Daddy."

James nearly jumped out of his skin as Natasha materialized at his side, her eyes flashing ominously. "Geeze, Nat, what?"

"Did you move Dr. Snapples?"

Dr. Snapples was one of Natasha's stuffed toys. "Move her where?"

"Onto the chair."

James rubbed his hand over his eyes. "No, I didn't. But I did tell Clint he could go into your room this morning. I hope that was okay."

"Did Clint move Dr. Snapples?"

"Probably."

Natasha digested this. "I guess he didn't know," she said after a moment. "I'll tell him next time."

"Tell him what?"

"Dr. Snapples has to sleep until after school time, because she's a koala and she sleeps all day long." Natasha turned and went back upstairs.

Wondering where Natasha had picked up that little tidbit of information, James got up and went into the kitchen to fix her a snack.

The kitchen was still a mess from that morning; Steve might have been good at getting the children breakfast but he had been in such a hurry that he hadn't bothered to clean up the dishes.

James picked up a tea towel, letting the wash-worn cotton slide through his fingers. It had been just over twelve hours since Steve sat at his kitchen table, spilling out all his fears and worries about Clint. Twelve hours since James had lain awake, listening to the soft sounds of Steve moving around in the guest bedroom.

James pushed himself away from the counter, feeling as if he might suffocate if he stayed still any longer. He had to make a break from Steve, he had to, before everything came crashing down and the fallout hurt Natasha.

James didn't have any other choice. Everything he did, every choice he made, was to protect Natasha.

Turning on his heel, he walked out of the kitchen just as Natasha was descending the stairs, dressed in her black dance leotard and carrying her dance shoe bag in her hand. "Daddy, can I have a snack before homework?" she asked hopefully.

"Not right now." He knelt in front of Natasha and took the bag from her. "How about we walk over to the dance studio early?"

Natasha frowned at him. "But it's Tuesday," she said. "On Tuesday I have a snack and we do homework and then I go to dance."

"I know." James pushed a strand of hair out of Natasha's eyes. "How about we do something different today?"

"Okay, I guess."

"Good." He smiled at her. "Now, run upstairs and put a dress on over your dance clothes and we can head off."

Letting out her breath in a huff, Natasha climbed the stairs once again as James went to retrieve her backpack. Her homework sheets were in her red homework folder, and James glanced through them to make sure there was nothing too difficult. This close to the end of the year, the school was more intent on reinforcing existing lessons than introducing new concepts. Today was no different; some math questions, a writing exercise, and five new vocabulary words.

As James tried to return the folder to the backpack, a crumple of paper made him stop. Pulling out Natasha's gym clothes, he found a glossy folder shoved into the bottom of the bag. It took some pulling, but he managed to get the folder out of the bag without ripping any of the corners.

It was a St. Ursula's promotional brochure, identical to the one Maria Hill had pressed into James' hand when he'd told her he was looking for a school for Natasha. Poking out of the folder was a blue strip of paper. James pulled it out and read the copperplate handwriting.

Mr. Barnes, if you could, please pass this information along to Mr. Rogers - our first grade intake has nearly been finalized for September but we always hold a few spots in reserve for exceptional students. If he is looking for a place for Clint next year, he should call our offices with any questions.

It was signed by Ms. Green, Natasha's principal.

James stared at the note for a long moment, then carried the folder into the kitchen and put it into the paper recycling bin. There was no point in holding on to it, James told himself over the sound of the blood rushing in his ears. He wasn't going to see Steve again, so there was no reason to keep it.

"Daddy, I'm ready!"

Taking a deep breath, James smoothed his shirt down over his stomach. "Coming, sweetie."

He didn't look at the mess Steve had left behind as he walked across the kitchen.


Natasha must have picked up on James' mood, for she was quiet on the walk to the dance studio. She held James' hand tight the whole way, looking up at him as she described her day at school.

Soon enough, they arrived at the dance studio. They still had an hour before Natasha's class began, so James sat Natasha down on an out-of-the-way sofa by the administrators' office and together they worked through Natasha's homework. The math questions were easy for the girl – Natasha liked the straight-forward nature of addition and subtraction, and satisfaction of getting the right answers. Similarly, handwriting was tolerated because there was a right and a wrong way to form the letters, and if Natasha still mixed up G and J that was all right, she was learning.

Vocabulary was a sore spot, however, as Natasha didn't like how sometimes a word could be said in different ways, or even mean different things. The word 'read' was on this week's vocab list, and having to explain to Natasha that the same word was pronounced in two different ways depending on tense and context left James with a headache as he packed her up and took her down the hall to her class.

Leaving her in Madame's hands, James left Natasha's backpack at the back of the room with her street shoes and change of clothes, and escaped into the sunny June afternoon. He supposed he could go for coffee at his usual spot, but it was such a clear afternoon and he was only five blocks from Prospect Park, so he kept walking.

Brooklynites were out in force, dog walkers and families and sidewalk commuters everywhere. James walked down the paths, trying to clear his head. He'd made up his mind that he needed to cut ties with Steve, all he had to do now was actually do it.

It would be hard on Natasha, but it was for the best for both of them, James told himself as he stopped to pet a curious Labrador retriever and to exchange a few words with the dog's owner. Natasha would make other friends. And Clint would be okay; he had his glasses and his father would make sure that the school didn't push him to the back of the room where he couldn't hear, not after that Monday's fiasco.

Had it only been the previous day that Clint ran away from school? It seemed to James like a month had passed.

But it had been a long day indeed. It wasn't every day that James realized he was in love with his best friend.

It didn't matter, James thought, clenching his hand into a fist in his jacket pocket. It didn't matter what James thought or felt or wanted in life. Steve was straight and once he realized that James was gay, the odds were that he'd freak out on James and push him away. James just didn't want any of that to spill over onto Natasha.

Speaking of Natasha, he should head back to the dance studio. Quickly, James pulled out his phone to check the time, and was pulled up short by what was on the screen.

He had one text from Steve.

Hey you said you could give me the phone number of Natasha's social worker. Can u send it?

James shoved the phone back into his pocket, his chest feeling tight. He didn't want to think about Steve, not his face or his voice or the way he'd looked at James in the jeep on the way home, with the sunlight playing off the golden highlights in his hair, just so damned grateful.

James put his head down and started walking. He had to be back at the dance studio to pick up his little girl on time. Natasha was all that mattered. Nothing else.


In spite of the distance he'd covered, James arrived back at the studio a few minutes before class ended. He took a spot near the door to wait, pulling out his phone as a cover to avoid being pulled into a conversation with the dance moms.

This, of course, left him staring at Steve's message.

The easiest thing to do would be to delete the message, remove Steve's number from his contacts and ignore all future messages. But James had said he would pass along the phone number.

A ruckus in the studio warned James that class was close to letting out. Quickly, he typed out Nick Fury's phone number, then added say I told u to call hes busy man.

Before he could think better of it, James hit send and pocketed his phone as Natasha ricocheted out of the studio, waving a piece of paper as she ran to him. "Daddy!" Natasha squealed. "We are having a recite!"

"A what?" James asked, crouching down so Natasha could wrap her arms around his neck. With his metal hand, he took the paper from her. "Oh, a recital."

"Yeah, that." Natasha's sharp fingernails dug into James' collarbone. "I get to wear a costume and dance in front of all the people!"

James read from the paper. The dance company's younger classes were having an evening recital at the end of the month, with a special performance by a pair of dancers from the New York City Ballet.

Then James saw the ticket prices.

"Twenty bucks?" he exclaimed. "With what I pay for your lessons?"

"It's a fundraiser," Natasha said, enunciating the word carefully. "We are raising money."

"What for?" James reached around Natasha with his right hand to flatten the edge of the paper.

"The scholarship fund." Natasha pointed at the paper. "See?"

James' irritation bled away as he read the fine print. "Why the hell not," he muttered, folding the paper away. "I guess it's a good cause. Hey, where's your stuff?"

They had to go back into the studio to retrieve Natasha's backpack and shoes, then hurry out as the next class was getting underway. Natasha chattered the entire way home about how excited she was to dance in front of a real audience and how she had to practice every day so she would know her moves and dance the best of all the other dancers.

"You already dance well, Madame says so," James reminded her as they paused at a stoplight.

"I have to dance the best," Natasha said gravely. She looked up at James. "Can Clint come see me?"

"I don't know," James hedged. "He might be busy."

"Please?" Natasha begged. "Can you ask him? Please? Pretty please?"

"The light's changed, come on, we need to cross the street," James said, hustling Natasha into the crosswalk. On the other side of the street, James distracted Natasha from the subject of Clint by asking her about her costume, and that conversation carried them all the way home.


Somehow, James survived the evening. He got them through dinner by listening to Natasha talk about how much she was going to enjoy her dance recital, then broke one of his own weeknight rules by putting Natasha in front of a movie while he cleaned up the dishes from dinner as well as that morning's mess. He had to remove his prosthesis before washing the pots; the straps were chafing across his chest and he didn't trust that the metal was waterproof enough to withstand a sink full of soapy water. The work and sheer frustration it took to wash the pots one-handed kept him out of his head as Natasha sang along with Judy Garland in the living room.

Luckily, James finished up before the Wizard sent Dorothy and her friends on their assassination mission to the east, and stopped the video and hurried Natasha upstairs with a warning that she was going to turn into a pumpkin if she didn't get to bed soon.

Natasha protested as she brushed her teeth and changed into her blue and green pyjamas. She was still arguing with James as she climbed into bed. "But I'm not sleepy!" Natasha said as James tucked her teddy bear in beside her.

"It's bed time whether you're tired or not." James pulled the covers over Natasha. "You were up super-early this morning and now you need to sleep so you can go to school tomorrow."

"But I don't want to go to sleep!" Natasha snuggled up to her bear. "I want a story."

James sat on the floor beside Natasha's bed. He was exhausted, his body aching from the long day and the lack of sleep from the night before. He just wanted to pass out, and hope that his long, horrible, very bad day didn't follow him into his dreams to taunt him with all the things he could not have. "What story do you want?"

Natasha wanted Madeline. Then she wanted a re-read of her favourite chapter of Pippi Longstocking, then a fairy tale. James put his foot down after that, kissing Natasha on the cheek and turning off the light on her protests.

"But how can I sleep?" Natasha demanded.

"Hug your bear," James said. "Think of nice things. Close your eyes."

Disgruntled, Natasha pursed her lips but closed her eyes. "I'm going to stay awake all night!" she told him, eyes still closed.

He made sure the blankets were tucked around her, then kissed her hair and tiptoed quietly out of the room. Closing her door, he went to clean up the mess in the guest bedroom.

Steve had folded the blankets neatly at the end of the bed. James stood for a long time in the doorway, looking at the neatly made bed, at the folded blankets. For one night, for a few wonderful hours, James had actually thought he would be able to make this friendship with Steve work. Then he'd gone and ruined that.

James thought back to all the superficial friendships he'd had over the years, in high school and later in the Army. It was easy to be friendly without actually revealing anything of himself, James had found in senior high. Just pretend to be interested in what the other guy was saying, steer the conversation towards schoolwork and music, and eventually they'd wander off to find someone who wanted to talk about girls. Same thing in the Army, only swap out schoolwork with weaponry and you had the makings for a beautiful wartime friendship.

James rubbed at his right temple, wishing the dull ache in his head would go away. The room was fuzzy around the edges, a warning sign for a Bad Night that James didn't know if he could handle. He was just so fucking tired, but he couldn't sleep, not yet. He had to get the place clean, had to check the windows and doors and try to erase any sign of Steve Rogers, of the stupid couldhavebeen that dogged James' every thought since that morning's realization in the physiotherapy session.

He had to stop. He had responsibilities, a good life, a solid job, a wonderful kid, a nice house. In some ways, he'd had more than his share of good luck. He just had to suck it up and remember that things like love weren't in the cards for him.

He'd fallen in love, once. All it had gotten him was used, betrayed, and eventually kicked out of his house to fend for himself.

For guys like him, love was just a fairy tale.

Rubbing the aching scars on his left arm stump, James moved forward to strip the sheets off the bed. He'd do the laundry before he went to sleep.

It took him close to two hours to finish cleaning up. After putting the sheets in the wash, James walked around the living room, cleaning up Natasha's toys and crayons, then knelt down to reorganize the DVDs. The only saving grace in James' many trips up and down the stairs was that Natasha was fast asleep when he checked in on her, half an hour after he turned out her light.

Finally, when he was so tired he could barely see straight, James forced himself to check every door, every window, then triple-tested the house alarm before he would allow himself to go up to bed. He didn't bother with a shower, just stripped out of his clothes and pulled on clean sweatpants and a t-shirt before collapsing into bed.

After a minute, he got up again and padded downstairs in the dark to retrieve his phone from his jacket pocket. James checked the screen. Three missed calls and one voicemail, all from Steve.

He turned the screen off. There was no point in listening to Steve's message, especially not at this hour.

James went back upstairs. He closed and locked his bedroom door, then, dropping his phone on the bedside table, he crawled under the sheets. He was so cold he was shaking, just like when he'd been on night patrol in Afghanistan. But he'd kept it together then, and now he was safe in his own house, with the security system armed and the doors and windows locked up. He was safe. Natasha was safe.

Grey spots swam in front of his eyes, like faces watching him out of the dark. He pressed his hand over his face, telling himself that it wasn't real, there wasn't anyone else in the room, that it was just his imagination. There were no faces, no voices, no one else there, no one else there.

Curling up into a ball, James held a pillow over his head as he told himself, over and over, that he was alone.


The nightmare, when it came, ripped James apart.

It was night, and he was out on rain-slicked streets in bare feet. He had nowhere to go and he was cold so cold and he couldn't turn around, not even to look at the thing breathing down his neck, had to keep walking, couldn't turn around, couldn't turn around not even as fingers sharper than claws clamped down on his left arm and bit down to bone, hot blood everywhere and his arm was being pulled from his body and James felt it all, every muscle snapping, every inch of bone shattering and it was dark and there was screaming and it was dark and he was screaming and somewhere something was hammering and Natasha was screaming and crying and that was enough to pull James awake.

James opened his eyes to darkness, a voice yelling out of his own throat as he clawed his way to consciousness. Someone was hammering on the locked bedroom door and Natasha was crying, calling out for him.

James tried to stand but his legs were tangled in the sheet and he slid off the bed, banging his head on the floor. Out in the hall, Natasha kept calling for him. Fighting with sudden adrenaline, James kicked free of the sheets and crawled to the door, unlocked it with a quick twist of the hand and pulled it open.

Natasha stood in the doorway, tears shining on her frightened face in the faint light from the hall nightlight. "I heard a monster come to eat you!" she exclaimed, and burst into tears.

James wrapped his arm around Natasha and rocked her as she sobbed in his ear. His nightmare receded as the waking world pressed in around him; Natasha's crying loud enough to drown out the pounding of his heartbeat, her arms nearly choking him as she held on tight. The shirt clung to his body, wet with cooling sweat, and he was shaking by the time he found his voice. "Shh, Natasha, it's all right. There's no monster here."

"I heard you yelling," Natasha sobbed. "Like a monster come to eat you up!"

He shushed her, rocking back and forth as her sobs tapered off. "I had a bad dream, that's all," he told her when she quieted down. "A bad dream about a bad thing that happened a long time ago. It can't hurt us anymore."

Natasha hiccupped as she finally let go of James' neck and moved back to look at him. "If it can't hurt us, why'd you yell so much?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

"I'm sorry," James said, and pulled Natasha close for another hug. "I'm so sorry, baby."

It took a few minutes for Natasha to let James go. Clinging tight to his hand, she led him to her bedroom and let him tuck her into bed. James left the light on as he went into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. His reflection in the mirror was ghastly – red-rimmed eyes, milk-pale skin under his scruffy beard. If he'd seen himself in a dark alley somewhere, he'd have called the police.

Pushing the wet hair out of his eyes, James made himself go back to Natasha's bedroom. She was clutching her teddy bear, eyes wide as she waited for him.

"Hey there," James said. He smoothed the hair back from her face. "I'm very sorry I woke you up."

"I thought a monster comed to eat you," Natasha said again, her tiny fingers digging into the fur of the stuffed bear. "And I heard you yell and I was gonna come make it go away!"

"Were you scared?" James asked, putting his hand over hers.

Natasha nodded. "But you said scared doesn't matter, you gotta do it!"

James frowned down at her. "When did I say that?"

"You said it to Maria, a long time ago." Natasha wiggled closer to James, clutching at his fingertips. "I gonna stop the monster from come eat you."

Her words were slurring now, her eyes closing in spite of herself. James ran his thumb over her knuckles, gently so as not to rouse her. "I'm such a lucky dad," he said quietly. "To have such a brave little girl."

Natasha's breathing evened out, her grip on his hand growing slack as she fell back to sleep. James sat on the side of the bed watching her, hating himself for being so out of control, for still having these stupid nightmares about things in his past he couldn't change. He couldn't even have shell-shock like a normal man; couldn't be properly sucked back into what he'd gone through in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lots of guys like him got kicked out of the house when they were kids; you didn't see them waking screaming about it.

Fucking useless, James thought, hating the ache in his throat, the cold sweat chilling him through to the bone. Everything he did was for Natasha, but what good was that if he woke her up with his nightmares, terrifying her to the point where she thought a monster was going to eat her?

Carefully, James bent over to kiss Natasha's cheek, then attempted to extricate his fingers from her grasp. He nearly made his escape, but the movement as he stood off the bed jarred Natasha awake, eyes flying open and already reaching for him as she started to sob about the monsters again.

It took him nearly half an hour to quiet her, talking her down and then singing her favourite songs when she refused to close her eyes. When the girl finally passed out, James was so tired that he couldn't stand up straight. Moving as quietly as he could, James turned off Natasha's overhead light and left the room by the illumination of the tiny nightlight on the desk.

The hallway was cold. James shivered as he walked back to his room, unable to shake the lingering nightmare-memories of that rain-drenched September night, reaching up to choke him seventeen years later.

That's why he never understood the nightmare thing chasing him down that street; when he had been on that street at fifteen years old, he had been utterly, achingly alone.

His father hadn't even had the decency to let James put on some shoes before he threw him out of the house.

Bile burned in James' throat as he turned in at his door. The sheets lay on the ground in a tangle. When James reached out to pull them back on the bed, he realized that the sheets were still damp with cold sweat. Moving slow, more like an old man than anyone of thirty-two ought, James stripped the sheets off the bed and tossed them in the corner. Going to the closet, James pulled out the winter quilt he'd put away in March, and dragged that to the bed with some vague idea of going back to sleep.

He glanced at his phone as he heaved the quilt onto the bed. It was all that damned phone's fault, he thought numbly as he sat on the edge of the mattress. If he hadn't texted Steve back after meeting him at the grocery store, none of this would have happened. James wouldn't have deluded himself into thinking that he could have a friend, wouldn't have fallen in love with a man he'd never be able to touch, wouldn't have had to rip Natasha away from her best friend.

James reached for the phone. The voicemail from Steve was still there, and he was going to have to listen to it sometime.

Unless he deleted it.

Somehow, James couldn't bring himself to do that. This might be the last time he ever heard Steve's voice. Maybe he could listen to it, just once, and then be done with it.

"Hey, it's Steve. Thanks for the number, I gave the guy a call and he sent me in the right direction to talk to someone over at the school board about what happened with Clint's school. The more I think about things… well, you're right. Suspending a five-year-old because he ran away seems off so I'm going to follow up on this. It helps knowing what's been up with Clint was his eyes and not behavioural."

There was a moment of silence, then Steve's message went on.

"You helped with that, Bucky, and I don't know if I can ever thank you enough for what you did to help Clint." Steve took a deep breath. "Clint was talking about today, and you're pretty much one of his favourite people in the world at this point. That makes two of us, I guess. It's good we ran into each other again, Buck, and well," and at this point Steve's voice began to sound embarrassed. "I got the idea today that I said something that you took bad. I wanted to make sure you weren't pissed off at me. Call me, okay? Tell me I'm an idiot or something. Anyway, yeah, call me, just to talk or anything you need. And soon."

That was it.

James lowered his phone. He could just leave it there, delete the message, pretend Steve Rogers didn't exist in his world. But that was the coward's way out, and if his nightmare had served to remind James Buchanan Barnes of one thing, was that he'd never backed down from standing his ground, even when it might have been the smart idea.

Taking a deep breath, James opened up a text message to Steve. hey i need to talk to u abt smthng. Maybe we cn talk wo the kids one day

He hit send, then added, its importnt

There. He'd done it. He'd talk to Steve without the children around, tell the man that he was gay, and then if Steve freaked out at least Natasha and Clint wouldn't be there to witness any of it.

James doubted that Steve would take a swing at him, but even down an arm, James had years of combat training under his belt. He could handle a punch by some fine arts major.

James put the phone back on the bedside table and started to unfold the quilt, hazily thinking he might be able to get at least a few hours of sleep before Natasha woke again, when his phone rang.

It was Steve.

James dove for the phone before the ringing could wake Natasha. "What the fuck?" he demanded as he answered the call. "What the fuck time is it?"

"You were awake!" Steve objected, his voice heavy with sleep.

"Were you?"

"Sort of, yeah. I had a business call to Chennai, it was just easier to stay up to make it. Are you okay?"

James didn't mean to say anything, but the lateness of the hour and the aching in his bones pushed the words out. "It's a bad night, Steve."

"What happened?" Steve asked, his voice quiet and close, across the physical distance of the city.

"Sometimes, there's nights when it's hard to sleep." James sat on the bed, trying to slip under the quilt without letting go of the phone. "It's like, I sleep, but then I wake up, you know?"

"Nightmares?"

James used his left arm to move the pillow under his head. "Yeah," he said eventually, the word feeling like dust in his mouth. "Most times, I just wake up and it's okay, but tonight…"

"Yeah?" Steve prompted when James didn't go on.

"I was yelling so loud I woke up Natasha. I scared my own kid half to death, Steve."

"Is she okay?"

"She's sleeping now. Took forever to convince her that I wasn't being eaten by monsters."

"Things will be better in the morning, she'll be fine."

"And how do you know that?" James demanded, a sudden fury flaring at Steve. What did he know about any of it? He had no idea what James had been through, he'd moved away and didn't know anything.

"She's got you, Bucky, and that's worth everything."

"You don't know anything about what I been through—"

"But I know what it's like to be adopted," Steve interrupted. "And I know what it's like to wake up every day as a foster kid knowing the adults in the house only keep you around because they're being paid. When Natasha wakes up tomorrow she's going to know that you're there, and you're her father, and you're always going to be there." Steve's voice was thick around the edges and James didn't think it was from exhaustion alone. "You don't ever know what that means until you lose it."

James shifted onto his side, curling down into the quilt. "I didn't know you were going through that when we were kids."

"Yeah, well, there was a lot of stuff I didn't tell you. Back then, it was like you had everything I didn't, your parents and your sister and a nice house."

James couldn't stop the painful laugh that forced its way out of his throat. "Wasn't all it was cracked up to be, Steve."

"It never is."

Of all the things James didn't want to talk about with Steve, his family was at the top of the list. He cast around for something to say. "How's Clint doing?"

"Okay," Steve said. "He tried to hide his glasses at the back of his sock drawer when we got home. He said they were giving him a headache."

"The doctor warned about that, didn't he?"

"Yeah, and that it might take some time for Clint to warm up to the idea. We ended up looking at pictures of Sharon, and I tried to get him to look at one of the notebooks the school sends home, but he didn't want to pay attention to that."

"What about comic books?" James asked. "That was how I got into reading, comics in the dentist's office."

"Are there comics he could read?"

"Sure, why not? If he can't read the words yet, so just show him the pictures. He'll get into the words eventually."

Steve let out his breath in a huff. "How the hell do you know so much about kids?" he asked, but it wasn't in anger; more like admiration. "You're so good with Clint."

"Kids aren't that mysterious," James said, the sick ball of dread creeping back into his stomach. "It's no big deal."

"It is a big deal," Steve said. "And thank you."

James pressed his forehead against his left arm, feeling the lump of the prosthesis's implant pressing against the bone. "Damn it, Steve, why are you making this so hard?" he whispered.

Steve went on as if he hadn't heard. "How about me and Clint come over tomorrow after school?" he suggested. "Clint's been dying to show Natasha his practice bow, and I can bring dinner."

"Steve—"

"I'm taking tomorrow off work to go talk to Clint's principal," Steve barrelled on. "I can make my world-famous mac and cheese. I know Natasha likes cheese."

"She does," James said, resolve weakening.

"And we can talk, like you wanted to. About whatever you want."

James closed his eyes. "I don't know."

"We don't have to talk," Steve said immediately. "We can just eat."

"Steve."

"Bucky, it's just dinner. And it'll be a chance for the kids to play together."

"You're an asshole," James said, a weight lifting from his chest as he gave in. "A pushy asshole."

"That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day," Steve said. "Now get some sleep, it's fucking late."

"Bossy, too."

"I'll see you tomorrow at five."

"Bye Steve."

"Bye."

James let the phone slip out of his hand. That had gone the exact opposite of what he'd wanted; but when things came to a head, he just couldn't push Steve away. Even though Steve had only come back into his life a month before, he was still the closest thing James had to a real friend.

The heaviness of sleep was interrupted by a cry down the hall and James was on his feet in an instant, dragging the quilt along with him as he hurried back to Natasha's room, where his daughter was sitting up in bed, calling for him in a panic.

The night wasn't over yet.


When the sunlight woke James the next morning, he felt even worse than he'd anticipated. He lay on the floor next to Natasha's bed, half his body freezing while the half covered by the quilt was melting-hot. Every part of him ached.

With a groan, James sat up. Natasha was still asleep, somehow. It had taken James every trick in the book to help her get back to sleep after she woke the second time, and he'd eventually had to lie down on her floor to keep the monsters away.

Parenting was not for the faint of heart, James mused as he stood. Yawning, he meandered out of the room and to the bathroom. He'd intended to just take care of business and go back to wake Natasha for school, but he felt so gross that he closed the door and stepped into the shower to let the hot water wash away the worst of the night.

He was in the middle of washing his hair when a rush of cold air pushed against the shower curtain. "Daddy, are you in the shower?" Natasha asked.

"Who else would it be?" James asked, ducking his head under the spray.

"A monster."

"Why would a monster be taking a shower?" James asked. He wiped his eyes before poking his head around the shower curtain.

Natasha frowned up at him. "Because he likes bubble bath?"

"Out," James ordered. "I'll be done in a minute."

"Okay." Natasha walked out of the bathroom, leaving the door wide open in her wake.

James finished quickly, dried off in a hurry, then dashed back to his bedroom to find a pair of clean pants and a shirt before heading in search of Natasha. He found the little girl sitting by the bay window in the living room, staring out at the street. "Whatcha doing?" he asked, easing his creaking bones down beside her.

Natasha let out a sigh. "Daddy, is this real life?"

James raised his eyebrows. "As opposed to what?"

"A dream. Are we in a dream?"

"Nope." He held out his arm to her, and she pounced onto his lap, curling up against his chest. "Most times, when you're in a dream, you don't wonder if you're in a dream. And things are weird, but you don't think they're weird."

"If this is real life, are there still monsters?" Natasha asked, looking up at him. "Or do monsters only come out when you sleep?"

James hesitated. One of the hard things about growing up was the realization that the real monsters weren't hiding in closets and under beds. "Sometimes in real life, there are bad people," he said cautiously. "And they're usually out there in the day time."

Unsurprisingly, this did not reassure Natasha. "Are they going to come get me?" she demanded, grabbing a fistful of James' shirt.

"No, sweet pea, they're not going to get anywhere near you," he said, pulling her into a hug. "You've got me to protect you."

"What about when you're not around?" Natasha pressed.

"There are other grownups who can keep you safe," James said. Damn it, he should have kept his mouth shut. "Like Maria, and Mrs. Singh, and Skye."

"And Steve?"

"Yes, and Steve. And you and Clint can keep each other safe."

"How?"

Now James was wishing he had Maria around for this conversation; with her background in the FBI she might have known the right thing to say. "You gotta trust your instincts, Nat," he finally said, falling back on his own hard-learned lessons. "If there's a grown-up or a big kid who makes you feel uncomfortable, you tell me right away, okay?"

Natasha nodded, eyes wide. "But how will I know?"

James looked out the window at the street. This early in the morning, the only passers-by were dog walkers and joggers. "You know how you know stuff without really thinking about it? Like when you were learning to catch a ball last year in preschool?"

"Yes," Natasha said immediately. "I just knowed how to do it."

"Some people call that instinct, but what's really going on is that your brain is thinking super hard and doing all sorts of work, to figure things out. And that happens so fast that you don't even know it's going on."

Natasha frowned. "How will that help me fight monsters?"

"When you have a bad feeling about someone, sometimes it comes from instinct. You trust those instincts and they'll keep you safe."

"But how?"

James put his hand around her ribs and moved her around so she was standing facing him. "If you have a bad feeling about someone, you get away from that person and you come find me. Okay?"

Natasha nodded firmly.

"Now, how about you run upstairs and get dressed, and we'll have some breakfast?"

"Okay, Daddy," she said, and leaned over to plant a kiss on his cheek before running upstairs.

James slumped against the window. Natasha's school started in two hours, all he had to do was to keep it together until then.


While Natasha got ready for school, James strapped on his arm and set about making breakfast. Natasha wasn't in the mood for porridge, so he reheated the previous evening's dinner of chicken curry and added a scrambled egg before putting the plate in front of Natasha.

"Hey, so Steve and Clint are coming over today after school," James said as he reached for his coffee. "Steve promised to make mac and cheese for dinner."

"Okay." Natasha ate a bite of egg.

James frowned at his daughter. Normally, when anyone mentioned either Clint or macaroni and cheese, she would have been through the roof. He set his cup down and reached over to feel her forehead. At least she didn't have a fever. "Are you okay with that?"

"Uh huh." Natasha drove her fork into a piece of chicken. "I can see Clint's glasses."

James filled the quiet with talk on Natasha's schedule for the rest of the month, mostly around her dance class and her school end-of-year parties. Natasha responded to the conversation, but she didn't seem as excited about her recital as she had the previous day.

Finally, James pushed his coffee away. "Nat, you feeling okay?"

Natasha moved a flattened pea around the plate. "I guess."

"Are you tired?"

Natasha shook her head.

"Are you mad at me?"

"No."

"Then what's up?"

Natasha shrugged. "I feel sad," she confessed. "In here." She pointed to her belly.

"That's not good." James reached for a clean napkin. "Why do you feel sad?"

" 'Cause I got scared of the monster." Natasha let James wipe her mouth with the napkin. "I thought I was dreaming that I was scared but I'm awake now."

James felt the knife of guilt dig that much deeper into his heart. "No monsters are going to come get you in the day," he said firmly. "And no monster will ever come after you when you're at home, never."

Natasha just looked at him.

"Are you done? Go brush your teeth and we'll walk to school."

Natasha slid off her chair and slowly trudged out of the kitchen. James was torn; he wasn't sure she should go to school like this, but he knew himself and he knew that if he didn't have some time alone, to work or sleep or something, he wasn't going to be in any fit shape to take care of a child or to deal with Steve that afternoon.

And Natasha seemed okay with things. James said a small prayer before knocking back the last of his coffee and going to find his daughter.

Natasha's spirits revived a bit on the walk to school. She stopped James twice to point out the pretty flowers in their neighbours' flower boxes, and once to say hello to an alley cat. James kept her from getting too close to the creature, and they continued on their way.

James left Natasha in the before-school care room, barely able to get a kiss in before Natasha tore off to play with the computer. He set Natasha's backpack near the door so she could pick it up on the way to class, then left the building.

On the way back home, he caught sight of his reflection as he waited for the light to change, and he did not like what he saw. Looking like the walking dead in the privacy of his own home was one thing, but when his reflection in a bus window looked disreputable enough to give him pause, that was another.

So when he walked past the barber's on the corner, a few blocks from his house, he didn't keep on going like he usually did.

The barber, an older man with thick glasses, was talking with a customer when James entered. The man must have thought James was an easy mark, for he was in the chair in a few minutes.

"What can I do for you today?" the barber asked, reaching for his instruments.

James looked at his reflection, suddenly sick of himself. "My little girl thinks it's time I had a haircut," he lied, curling his metal hand into a ball on his lap. "Got any ideas?"

The barber beamed at him. "I do indeed."


After his stint in the barber's chair, James continued home. His head felt weirdly cold with most of his hair hacked off, and he kept waiting for the wind to push his bangs into his eyes. It had been a few years since he'd last done this and right now he was just too fucking tired to analyze his motives.

Finally, James made it home. He locked the doors, armed the security system, and on his way upstairs he texted Maria to let her know he was going to have to reschedule their planned two o'clock coffee meeting.

What's wrong with you? She sent back a minute later.

i got ptsd up the ass and need to fuckng sleep.

Is N ok

of course shes at scool see u tmrw

You text like a barbarian.

U try typing w one hand and c how u care abt spelling

James set the alarm on his phone to one o'clock, striped out of his clothes and prosthetic, then flopped into bed. At least if he had a nightmare now, he wouldn't disturb Natasha.

He was asleep before he even had time to worry about what he was going to do with Steve that afternoon.


When his alarm woke him, James was feeling somewhat human again. He rose, put on his arm, dressed in decent clothes, then went downstairs to make himself some coffee.

While the coffee dripped into the pot, he went back upstairs to shave. The barber had offered, but James had been skittish enough about letting someone near his head with scissors. He hadn't really felt up to a straight-razor shave by a stranger.

Now, as he shaved, he couldn't help staring at his new haircut. Short on the sides but long enough on the top to keep it away from Army regulation, he looked younger than he'd felt in years. Weird.

After a bit of work, he washed his face. With his haircut and close shave, he looked somewhat respectable, almost like someone he'd want to talk to on the street.

A random thought passed through his mind, wondering what Steve would make of him now, but James pushed that away. Even if Steve didn't walk out after their conversation that afternoon, the man was never going to look at James in that way.

With a shake of the head, James dried his face and went downstairs to fortify himself with coffee before heading over to pick up Natasha.

The June afternoon was bright and sunny as James walked the sidewalks, hands in his pockets. He didn't understand why he felt so much better than he had that morning; sure, he'd gotten an uninterrupted six hours of sleep, and the shave had helped brace him, but he still had to deal with Steve.

James made it to the school just as the kindergarten class was streaming out onto the playground. He didn't see Natasha anywhere in the frothing mass of children and was starting to worry when Mrs. Singh appeared, leading little Natasha out of the school by the hand. Natasha had her head down and was dragging her feet, pulling her backpack along by one strap.

"Mr. Barnes," said Mrs. Singh with a small smile. "Hello."

"Hey there," James said, hurrying over. "What's up?"

At the sound of her father's voice, Natasha lifted her head. Her eyes went round, her mouth opening in surprise. Then, as if in slow motion, Natasha's lower lip began to tremble, tears filled her eyes, and she literally collapsed to the pavement in tears.

"What's wrong?" James asked in astonishment, reaching for Natasha. She let go of her backpack and wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face against his shoulder as she let out a muffled wail.

"Natasha has had a very emotional day," Mrs. Singh told James, crouching down to put her hand on Natasha's back as the girl let out another wail. "She had a time-out after lunch because she was pushing one of the boys around."

"Bossing?"

"Shoving."

"Nat, you know you're not supposed to shove other children," James said, trying to get Natasha's attention.

The girl pulled back from his shoulder and looked at him with devastation in her eyes. "You cut your hair!" she told him.

"Is that what you're upset about?" he asked, getting a nod out of Natasha. "Why?"

"Now you're too pretty to be my daddy!" she burst out, then collapsed back on his shoulder.

James sighed as he patted Natasha's back. "Thanks for letting me know about what happened today," he told Mrs. Singh. "I'll talk with her when she's calmed down a bit. Did she apologize to the kid?"

"She did." Mrs. Singh held Natasha's backpack as James scooped Natasha up. "She's been doing very well in the last few months. I see this every year with the children who are on the younger end of the age spectrum; some of them have a harder time with their social skills. Natasha has learned a lot in the last few months about controlling her feelings and playing well with others."

"I'm very glad to hear that," James said, rocking back and forth gently as Natasha snuffled against his neck. "I'll make sure she gets a good night sleep tonight so she's ready for class tomorrow."

"Good." Mrs. Singh handed James the backpack. "I'll see you in class tomorrow, Natasha."

"Bye!" Natasha wailed without looking up.

James carried Natasha over to the playground and sat in one of the empty swings. "It's been a long day," he observed, tossing the backpack onto the gravel. "For both of us. What we need tonight is a long sleep."

Natasha sniffled as she wiggled around so she could hold the swing's chains. "I don't want to sleep," she said crossly. "Ever."

"Okay." James set the swing in motion, moving them gently through the air. "You can stay awake forever, but I can't. I need to get my beauty sleep. Of course, I don't want to be too pretty to be your father, so I need to be careful."

"You're being mean," Natasha said, twisting around to glare darkly at him.

"I'm not being mean. Why did you say that about me?"

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest and harrumphed, glaring out at the playground as James swung them back and forth. After a minute, she said, "You look like that picture you have when you were in the Army. When you weren't a dad."

"Ah, I see," James said. "That was a long time ago, before I ever met you. That was three years before you were born."

"I don't like it."

"You don't like my haircut?"

"No!"

"Oh, okay." James pushed them faster, and Natasha was soon holding the chains and urging to him to go higher. He went as high as he dared on the swing set built for schoolchildren. After a few minutes, Natasha was laughing again.

James slowed them down, and gradually came to a stop. Natasha slipped off his lap and turned around to regard him solemnly. "Maybe it's not so bad," she admitted. "I'll get used to it."

"I'm glad to hear that," James said just as seriously, although he was dying from his efforts to keep a straight face. "Can we go home now? Steve and Clint are coming over at five."

"When's that?" Natasha asked, picking up her backpack and holding out her hand for James.

They talked about the nature of linear time on the way home. Natasha then asked how long it would be before James' hair grew out again, and that diverged into a discussion into the concept of personal choice over one's hairstyle.

By the time they walked up the steps at home, James had managed to convince Natasha that haircuts were a thing to be done in the salon by a professional, not at home with the scissors. With the feeling of having dodged a bullet, James suggested a snack. After a perusal of the fridge, Natasha demanded hummus and carrot sticks, and they sat on the back steps and ate before tackling Natasha's homework.

Ten minutes after five, James' phone pinged with a we're out front text from Steve. Upon hearing the news, Natasha ran screeching for the door, James on her heels.

Out on the street, Clint stood on the sidewalk holding a long black case while Steve was paying the taxi driver. Two shopping bags were perched beside Clint on the sidewalk.

"Hi!" Natasha exclaimed, running down to meet her friend. Clint, wearing his glasses, was grinning when Natasha barrelled into him.

"You have a nice face," Clint said, moving close to Natasha. Natasha giggled and stood on her tip-toes to rub her nose against Clint's, making the boy giggle as well.

James smiled fondly at the scene, walking slowly down the steps. Steve straightened up and stepped onto the sidewalk as he looked up at James, and very nearly tripped over his own feet in astonishment.

"Not you too?" James said, raising his eyebrows. "It's just a haircut."

"No!" Steve said quickly. "It's nice, it's just…. Yeah, it's nice." His cheeks were red, probably with embarrassment of tripping, James told himself.

"Really? Because I made Natasha cry with this haircut, I think that's a high bar to beat." James reached for one of the bags. "Come on inside."

Once in the house, Steve made a beeline for the kitchen, while Clint trailed along behind him, still carrying his black case. "Daddy, can we shoot arrows now?" he asked.

"In a few minutes, I need to get the casserole into the oven." As he spoke, Steve moved around James' kitchen with ease. "Why don't you and Natasha go outside and find a good place to set up the target?"

"Okay!" Clint dropped his case and pulled his glasses from his face, letting them dangle from the cord. "Come on!"

The children ran out into the backyard, leaving the adults in the kitchen. The silence that settled set James' nerves on edge. "So," he said, to delay the inevitable. "Need anything?"

"I'm good." Steve removed a covered casserole dish from one of the bags. "It has to bake for about an hour before I can add the topping."

"I thought you said you were making mac and cheese."

"I did." Steve removed the dish's cover, revealing a panful of glistening macaroni in a pale sauce. "It's twice-baked mac and cheese. Try it."

Dubious, James grabbed a fork out of the drawer and speared a morsel of pasta. "World famous, huh?"

"World famous," Steve confirmed, smiling at James.

"Fine." James lifted the fork to his mouth. When he tasted the sauce, he wasn't able to hold back a groan of appreciation at the sheer deliciousness of the sauce. "How much butter is in there?" he demanded, going back for a second forkful.

Steve blocked him with a hip-check. "Not much. That's the two cups of heavy cream you're tasting." He reached for the aluminium foil. "If you want to help, you can put that bag of cheese into the fridge."

James did as requested. "You know, you serve my kid that for dinner, and she may decide she's going to go live with you."

"This is only for special occasions," Steve pointed out. "Plus, it's hard to make for just two. It's better for four."

"Natasha will eat enough for four, trust me."

A loud hullabaloo preceded Natasha and Clint's entry into the kitchen. "Dad, I found it!" Clint yelled, running over to Steve. "Can we shoot arrows now, please?"

"In a minute."

Meanwhile, Natasha had wandered over to James and was tugging on his shirt hem. "Daddy, Clint has glasses now," she informed him. "I told him he looks pretty."

"Clint looks very grown up with his glasses," James said, trying to herd the children out the back door. "What do you think, Clint?"

"I like not wearing glasses," Clint said as he lugged his bow case over the deck. "I wore them today in school and they made my head hurt."

"How was school?" James asked.

"Okay. Miss Spitz was there and she didn't make me go to the back."

"That's good." James reached the spot where the children had dragged a roll of paper. "How does this work?"

Steve arrived in time to help set up the target on the back fence, first unrolling a cloth pad to stop any arrows from going into the fence itself. "Is this going to work?" James asked, slightly askance at the idea of a five-year-old shooting arrows with any degree of accuracy.

"All the time." Steve slapped James on the back in passing. "Come on, let's show Natasha how to use the bow."

"Wait, what?"

But Steve was already instructing the children on weapons safety, and the importance of taking turns, and never stepping in front of an arrow and Natasha was taking it all in with rapt attention. "Now, let's have Clint go first to show you how to do it," Steve said, unlatching the black case.

As soon as James was at her side, Natasha grabbed his hand and held it tight as Clint took the small bow from his father. Steve set a quiver on the ground to let Clint select an arrow. "Are you seeing?" Clint asked, turning to look at Natasha.

"I'm seeing," Natasha said breathlessly. She watched as Clint set the arrow to the bow, pulled the string back, and let the arrow fly across the yard into the target. "Wow."

"I like bows and arrows," Clint said in satisfaction.

"Okay, Natasha's turn."

James caught his daughter before she ran across the yard to pick up her first weapon. "Hold on," he said. "Clint, come here." When he had the children's attention, he held out his hands to them. "There are two rules when it comes to this, okay? A bow is not a toy, it's a weapon. What do we do when there is a weapon around?"

"Tell a grown-up," Natasha said immediately. "And don't touch unless a grown-up says you can."

"Thank you, sweet pea," James said. "And since both Steve and I are here, and we said it's okay, there are two more very important rules. The first one is that when you're not the one shooting, you have to stand behind the shooter. Can we practice that?"

Natasha took off, hauling Clint along and shoving him to stand in a space where he had a clear shot of the target. Then Natasha ran back a few feet. "Like this?" she asked.

"Perfect. Swap spaces and try again." The children exchanged places, then James called them back over. "Do you know why we do that?"

Clint put his hand in the air. "So no one walks in front of the arrow and gets hurt."

"Exactly."

Natasha rubbed her nose. "What's the second rule?"

"The second rule is very important," James said gravely. "When there's a weapon around, sometimes things can happen. If either me or Steve yell 'stop' you both need to stop what you're doing right away."

"How come?" Clint asked.

"Because sometimes we can see things you can't. When I was in the Army, we had the same rule," James said, stretching the truth only a little. "Are we good?"

The children nodded, and Clint handed Natasha the bow and showed her how to nock her arrow and pull the string. Then everyone stepped back as Natasha let the arrow go.

It flopped to the ground two feet from the bow.

"What happened?" Natasha demanded.

"You gotta practice." Clint waited until Natasha put the bow down to go retrieve the arrows. "Then you can be like me and be excellent."

They went through a few more rounds, with Steve supervising and James hovering nervously, before Natasha turned on them and shooed them away. James and Steve sat on the steps, close enough for James to be able to make a panicked dive in case of disaster, and let Clint and Natasha take turns shooting arrows at the target.

They were quiet for a few minutes, James so busy watching the children that he didn't even try to think about making small talk.

"You're mad at me."

"Why would I be mad at you?" James snapped, hardly blinking as Natasha put an arrow to the bow. "You walk in here and hand my child a weapon without asking me first, why would that upset me?"

"I thought we talked about it last night." Steve put his elbows on his knees. "I'm sorry, Bucky."

As Natasha lowered the bow to hand to Clint, James risked a glance at Steve. "It's fine," he admitted. "It might not seem like it, but I am perfectly capable of saying no to my kid if I need to. Nat's been getting weapons safety lessons since before she could talk."

"You said you had guns in the house?"

"And I also said they're locked up tight." James turned back to the children as Clint nocked an arrow and sighted down the shaft. "Clint's safe when he's here."

"Good." Steve subsided. Natasha wasn't having an easy time of things, not being able to draw the string back as far as Clint was. After failing to make much distance with her last arrow, she handed the bow back to Clint in frustration before running over to James.

"I can't do it!" she exclaimed, falling dramatically onto James' shoulder.

"It takes practice, like everything. You just gotta keep trying."

"No."

Clint had wandered up to them, holding the bow at his side. He looked between his father and James uncertainly. "Do we have to stop?" he asked in a small voice.

"No, we don't," James said before Steve could speak. "Natasha can play other things for now, if you want to keep on practicing. Right, Nat?"

"I guess," the girl said, standing up. "I'm gonna play garden."

"And I'm gonna shoot arrows," Clint said, happy once again.

"And us old guys are going to sit here and watch," James said. "Right, Steve?"

"Sure thing, Bucky."

Natasha harrumphed, but she went over to fetch her watering can without additional comment, which, after the day she'd had, was as close to acceptance as James could expect. Clint went back to his target practice and soon the arrows were flying fast and furious.

"He's good," James said after a while. "Like, really good."

"I know," Steve agreed. "The instructors at his range don't normally take kids until they're six, but Clint was so insistent that they let him try, and he's been going since last October."

"What made him want to try in the first place?"

"I think we were watching Robin Hood, and that hooked him."

"Which one? Russell Crowe? Kevin Costner?"

Steve took his eyes off Clint to stare at James. "The one with the talking animals. You like those kinds of movies?"

James shrugged. "I'm a single dad, Steve. The only adult fun I have in my life is late-night Netflix after Nat goes to bed."

Across the lawn, Clint yelled "Clear the deck!" as he set down the bow to run out and pick up his arrows.

"Kid's got good range discipline," James observed. "Better than some punks I knew back in basic."

"He knows that arrows can be dangerous," Steve said. "Which is why I lock up the arrows and the bow when he's not at practice."

"Separately?"

"What?"

"Do you lock up the arrows separate from the bow?"

Steve looked out at Clint, who was carefully arranging the arrows back in the quiver. "I will now," he said, putting his hand over his mouth.

"It's a good habit to get into," James said, and without thinking he leaned over to bump his shoulder against Steve's. He pulled back the next moment, but it was too late. He'd already done it, and now Steve was smiling at James and that was wrong, this whole thing was wrong. He was supposed to be telling Steve he was gay, not engaging in some mild roughhousing while their children were less than five feet away.

Trying to make it look casual, James slid away from Steve, putting some distance between them. Steve's eyes followed James, but he only said, "I called that guy you told me about, Nick Fury?"

"Yeah?" James replied, focusing on Clint.

"You said he's Natasha's social worker?"

"He was, sort of," James said. Talking about Fury was easy, far easier than thinking about his feelings. "Back after she was born."

"He's the head of child services," Steve said, as if James was unaware of this. "That's a big deal."

"He helped you, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but I'm trying to figure out why."

"You have a kid, don't you?"

"You know what I mean."

"Look, Fury knows how the world works. The school tries to pull this shit with a little white boy with a stable home life? How long before they start in on the kids in more precarious situations?"

Steve rubbed his eyes. "That's fucked up."

"Which is why Fury took your call," James finished. "What happened?"

"I spent most of this morning at the school, trying to figure out how they lost my kid," Steve said, leaning back on the steps. "I'm trying to figure out if I want to make this a big deal."

"There are other schools you can send him to," James pointed out.

"Yeah, I know." There was a minute's quiet as Clint called for the all clear to gather his arrows. "So how about now?"

"Now what?"

"How about you tell me what you texted me about last night?"

James ran his hand through his hair, still faintly surprised at the short length. "Maybe I changed my mind."

"You always were a bad liar."

"Now that's just not true," James said. "I'm a great liar."

"Bucky, please."

This was it, what James had been readying himself for, and still it took him a minute to breathe himself calm enough to speak. "So, um. There's some stuff about me you don't know."

"Okay."

"And, well." James closed his eyes, then, butterflies in his stomach and his heart in his throat, he opened them again. "I'm gay."

For a moment, a heartbreaking moment, Steve didn't say anything. Then, in a voice too much like his normal voice, he said, "Yeah?"

James turned to look at Steve. The man wasn't shying away from him in disgust, wasn't jumping to his feet and grabbing Clint while calling James pervert or faggot or anything. He was just looking at James.

Only when James was staring at Steve did Steve's expression change. "Oh, is that what you wanted to tell me?"

He was so normal about it that James had to turn away, ball his hand up and press it against his stomach to keep from falling apart on the steps. "Yeah," James said, his voice catching. "That was it."

"Oh." Steve shifted around, but James kept his eyes on Clint, he had to. "I mean, I guessed."

A chill ran down James' spine. "You what?"

"It's no big deal," Steve said. "Just, there I was going on about Sharon and Peggy and everything and you never said anything about dating anyone." He coughed. "Not to stereotype, but most straight guys tend to take any opportunity to mention if they're dating someone."

"Maybe I've been busy," James said stiffly, turning to Steve. The man was looking at him with such openness and caring that a lump rose in James' throat.

"It's also less likely for single straight men to adopt unrelated little girls," Steve said. "Least it was when I was in the system."

"Not sure it's changed much," James muttered. "I don't know. I just did whatever Fury said to adopt Nat."

"Good," Steve said. "Maybe I'm biased, but anytime a kid gets adopted, I'm happy."

"Maybe you're biased?" James echoed. "Dude, you spent every weekend for five years prepping your home visit bag, just in case someone came to adopt you while you weren't there."

"And it worked," Steve said. "Abraham came, and off I went."

It hadn't been quite like that, of course; there were home visits and weekend trips while the social workers had focused on suitability and fit and all that, but James remembered acutely how much he missed Steve, just as much as he remembered how desperately Steve wanted a family of his own, something twelve-year-old James couldn't give him.

"I'm glad for you," James said, making his answer come from his grown-up self, not the sad child who'd lost his best friend. "I really am."

Steve's smile was like the sun breaking out from behind the clouds. "Thanks." He cleared his throat. "So, now that we got that out of the way…. Seeing anyone?"

"Nope, and not looking to," James said immediately. The last thing in the world he needed was Steve trying to set him up with someone. What a disaster that would be; even more so that the futility of falling in love with his straight best friend. "I don't have time to date."

"Oh," Steve said, sounding disappointed. "Ever?"

"I'm a busy man, Steve. I ain't got time for that stuff."

He was about to add something about being too old for the dating scene, when Natasha materialized at his side, watering can dripping on his jeans. "Daddy," she said, lips pursed in thought. "What's gay?"

For a moment, all James could do was look at his daughter. "What?"

"What's gay?" Natasha set the watering can down. "You told Steve, you are gay. What's that?"

For all that he had been preparing to have this conversation with Natasha for several years, her simple question caught him completely off-guard. "Uh."

Natasha waited.

"It's, well, you know how a lot of the stories have a boy and a girl and they fall in love?"

"Yes."

"Gay is when you're a boy and you fall in love with another boy. Or a girl falling in love with another girl." There, he thought. That didn't sound too bad.

"Oh." Natasha digested this. "How come?"

"I was born like that," James said. He held out his hand to Natasha, and she took it, letting herself be drawn into a one-armed hug. "When I was growing up, I realized that I was gay, and that I wanted to fall in love with a boy."

"Did you?"

James kept the smile on his face, even as the push of memory dragged painful rivets through his mind. "Nope," he lied. "But that's okay, because I know if I ever do, it'll be with a man."

"Sandra has two mommies," Natasha informed him. "She's in the third grade."

"Sandra is a lucky girl," James said.

"Will I have two daddies?"

James opened his mouth to answer, then let out his breath. "I don't know," he said honestly. "What I do know is that I will always be your daddy, forever and ever. And if I do find someone to love, you'll meet them long before anything else changes."

Natasha rubbed her ear. "Am I gay?"

James hadn't prepared for this. He foundered for a moment, before Steve rescued him. "Only you can answer that," Steve said. "You'll know when you know. You may like boys, you may like girls, or maybe even both."

"When will I know?" Natasha pressed.

"When you know, like Steve said," James said, rebounding. Natasha stood up again, going back for her watering can. "Hey, Nat." He caught her hand, making her look at him. "I want you to know something very important, okay?"

"What?"

"Whatever happens, whoever you love and whatever you do in your life, you will always be my little girl, and I will always love you."

Natasha's expression cleared as she beamed at him. "Oh Daddy," she said, "Of course you will."

She stepped back into his personal space and laid a big wet kiss on his cheek, before going over to pick up her watering can and heading back to her garden.

Of course you will, Natasha's words echoed in James' head. For a moment, all James could remember was the sting of his father's hand against his jaw after he told the man he was gay, that he needed help about some guy he'd been secretly dating please dad please I need your help, the twist of fabric of his shirt pulled tight as his father dragged him across the floor to the door, his little sister screaming as their father pushed James out of the house and into the night.

His hand was shaking. Very deliberately, James put his hand under his left arm, pressing the prosthesis against his body until the metal bit against his skin.

Five years of trying to raise Natasha right, and all she'd said when he told her he'd always love her, was of course you will.

Because of course he would.

"You okay?" Steve asked quietly, as Natasha played in the garden and Clint shot arrow after arrow at the makeshift target.

"No."

Steve shifted closer to James, and a moment later he laid his hand against James' back, out of sight from the children. James leaned into the contact, needing something to keep him grounded in this place, to keep from falling back into memories and anger.

"I take it things weren't so easy when you were a kid?" Steve asked, keeping his hand firm against James' back.

James thought back to his nightmare from the previous night, to the reality he'd lived through, all alone on that cold rainy street with absolutely nowhere safe to go. "It really wasn't," was all he said, focusing on Steve's hand, on the children, on now.

They sat like that for a long time, as James breathed his way out of the past, until it was time to go inside and have dinner, to listen to the children chatter happily about their days, just to live in the moment with the family and friends James had built for himself.

It wasn't everything, but it was enough for James on that warm June evening.

Chapter Text


Saturday morning found James in a small Brooklyn cafe, waiting for Steve to show up. Skye was already there when James arrived, and after the usual hellos and how's Nat? James ordered a latte and asked Skye how things were going.

Ten minutes later, James' latte sat untouched as he listened, aghast, as Skye continued her story. "So just as I think things are going good with this guy, I find out that he's been spying on me just to get insider information on my Aunt May's company," Skye said, her eyes fixed on James as she leaned on the table. "And he's been playing us both."

James shook his head and picked up his cup. "This douchebag was sleeping with you and your aunt?" he said, rather less tactfully than he might have with someone else. But this was Skye, and while she was a bit younger than he was, they got along well enough.

Luckily, Skye wasn't offended. "I know, right?" She sighed. "And if it had just been because of hormones, I might have been okay with it because May is, like, Gen X perfection. But no, it was all some fucked-up undercover industrial espionage disaster. And do you know what the worst part is?"

"It gets worse?"

"Yeah." Skye leaned in close. "He was running what's called a hydra scheme for his backers."

"What the hell is that?"

"Play the sides against each other so no one knows what's going on. And if someone finds out?" Skye snapped her fingers. "Cut that head off."

James set his cup down with a clatter. "Is your aunt okay?" he demanded.

"She's fine." Skye's look of grim determination told James that it was not a certain bet. "When May found out what he was doing, she confronted him in one of the new warehouses that Shield Imports is building in Jersey. He tried to shove her into a spinning table saw, so she nail-gunned his foot to the concrete before knocking him out with a two-by-four."

James stared at Skye, mouth agape. "Are you fucking kidding?"

"Nope." Skye crossed her arms over her chest. "But no one messes with Melinda May and gets away with it."

There was a fierce anger and pride in her voice. James reached for his cup again, saying, "If some punk tricked me into bed and then tried to push me into a table saw, I wouldn't have stuck that nail gun into his foot."

Skye snorted. "I know, right?"

"Where is he now?"

"Jail, where he belongs. Coulson knows a guy in the DA's office, made sure of that."

James raised his eyebrows. "Who's Coulson?"

"Aunt May's head of security."

"Wait, you call your aunt by her last name?" James asked, but Skye was looking over his shoulder at the window.

"She's not technically my aunt, it's a thing." Skye put her hand up in a wave. "Your buddy's here."

James turned around just in time to see Steve Rogers enter the coffee shop. The sun was shining behind the man, sending the motes of dust into a halo around him. For a moment, Steve was looking around, perfect in his profile.

Then he spotted James and he smiled, and James' heart skipped a beat.

"And I thought he photographed well." Skye's musing pulled James back to himself with a bump.

James didn't even have time to glare at Skye, because Steve was there at their table. "You must be Skye," Steve said.

Skye bounced to her feet and shook Steve's hand. He towered over her, inches taller than she was, but knowing Skye, she wasn't in the least intimidated. "How's Clint?"

"He's fine," Steve said, and somehow got himself seated at the tiny table without knocking over any of the coffee cups. "Bucky said you helped out when he left school."

"Just doing what I could," Skye said. When Steve turned to look for the waiter, she mouthed Bucky? at James.

"It was much appreciated," Steve said. The waiter appeared, Steve ordered, and then they were back to the matter at hand. "So, let's talk."

"All right." Skye pulled a sheaf of papers out of her huge purse. "I was talking to James here about taking care of Natasha this summer, like I did last summer, and he suggested that maybe you might be looking for someone to look after your little guy." She smiled, showing her teeth. "So I put together a proposal." She shoved the papers at Steve.

"What are the highlights?" Steve asked, taking the papers and putting them on the table.

"Well." Skye folded her hands together. "I have all my various certifications and certificates, and three years of experience. I get along with Nat, and my rates for two children would be almost the same as for one."

"Almost?" James asked.

"Just… slightly higher," Skye admitted.

"What did you do with Natasha last summer?" Steve asked, curious.

Skye went into detail about what she and James' daughter had done; activities and outings and crafts. "But, it's still summer, so we had a lot of fun," she finished.

"And this was at Bucky's house?"

"Yeah, it's pretty cool, with the back yard and all that space."

"Didn't bother me too much," James said. "When I had to work I'd just shut the door. Nat knew that she wasn't to bother me with the door closed."

"And she kept to that?" Steve asked, sounding dubious.

"About a quarter of the time," James admitted with a smile. "But nah, Skye kept her pretty busy. Natasha was having too much fun to want to hang out with her old man."

Steve leaned back in his chair, rubbing his jaw. "Clint's been having some… challenges, in school this year," he said after a minute. "We recently figured out that he was having some vision problems, and he wasn't able to pick up much reading this year."

"We could work on that," Skye said, beaming. "Part of what I do at college is in the area of early learning, so I'd be perfect. I mean," she amended hastily at the sight of James' raised eyebrow, "I'm sure I could help."

"No, anything would be great," Steve said. "I would just need a few days to think things over. Can I get back to you next week?"

"Take your time," Skye said, rising with alacrity, purse in hand. "Read my resume, call my references, and if you have any questions, ever, I'm always around."

"Thanks for meeting us on your Saturday," Steve said, rising as well to shake Skye's hand again. "I'll be in touch."

Skye smiled brightly at him, gave James a triumphant wink, and then sped out the door.

Steve sank back into his chair, pushing Skye's papers around the table. "No Nat today?" he asked.

"She's off with Maria shopping for bathing suits," James said. "She's so excited about her swimming lesson on Monday that she didn't fall asleep last night until midnight."

"Ouch," Steve said, but he was starting to smile again.

"No Clint?"

"Birthday party," Steve said. He sat back as the waiter brought over the man's latte and brioche. "One of the kids on his soccer team is having a thing at the park."

James thought back. "On Thursday you said you didn't have any plans this weekend."

"We didn't." Steve sipped at his cup. "It was last minute – the boy's dad was supposed to have him this weekend for a birthday thing but he backed out last minute. I got a call at ten last night from his mother, trying to organize something for today. Luckily Clint likes parties."

"Poor kid," James said. "That would really suck."

"Yeah." Steve stirred his drink. "You know, sometimes me and Sharon have our problems, but never anything like this. If she says she's going to be somewhere for Clint, she's there, end of story."

"Good," James said quietly. "I know how much Clint loves her."

Steve tapped his spoon against the rim of the cup. "Ever since he got his glasses, Clint wakes up every morning asking to see a picture of his mom," he said, voice nearly inaudible in the din of the crowded café. "All this time, he couldn't see and I missed it."

There they were again, back on Clint's vision problem. James was torn between wanting to pat Steve on the back in reassurance, or to kick him under the table. "Do you have pictures of Sharon?" he asked.

"No print-outs, just on my phone."

"So get Sharon to send you one," James said, wondering if Steve was being this dense on purpose. "Give Clint a picture of his mother that he can carry around, he'll be over the moon, and it'll give him a chance to practice focusing those little eyes."

Steve let his spoon slide into the cup as he stared at James. "That's a good idea," he said.

This time, James really did kick Steve. "Stop making it sound like that's some kind of miracle," he said. "With Natasha, the best way to make her happy is to let her do the little things she wants to do. We had one week last fall where she had to carry an empty glass jar with her around the neighborhood, in case she found treasures she wanted to keep."

Steve's eyebrows rose.

"Yeah, I know, but I gave her the jar and she carried it around for a few days then forgot about it, and I didn't have her pestering me. Made her happy and kept me sane."

"That's a good general approach to it." Steve was looking at James now, and the scrutiny was making him nervous. "So, Skye."

"She knows what she's doing," James said, relieved to have the topic going back to the children. "She worked at Nat's preschool for a few years. She's been going to night school for a few years and transferred to NYU last year."

"Doing what?"

"Developmental psychology. She's interested in how kids learn with computers and stuff. She's great with the internet."

"The internet," Steve repeated.

"Hey, leave me alone," James protested. "We didn't even have email until my last year of high school. Most of what I was doing in the army wasn't exactly high-tech."

"And she's going to watch Natasha all summer?"

"Monday to Friday," James agreed. "She has to leave early on Wednesdays for a summer class she's taking, but I moved my meetings to Thursdays so I can be around for Natasha. And Clint, if you want to do this."

Steve opened the folder of papers. "It feels like I'd be taking advantage," he said after a minute, flipping through the pages. "At your house and all."

"Don't be stupid," James said. "You'd be chipping in for half, same as me. And keeping an eye on Clint on Wednesdays after Skye leaves would be easier than Natasha alone; they can keep each other occupied."

Steve was frowning at the papers, and James was struck with a sudden thought as cold as ice down his spine. He and Steve had spoken only a few days previous about… about what James was, and Steve had seemed okay with it at the time, but what if the reason Steve was hesitating was that he didn't want James around his son?

The world narrowed in an icy, adrenaline rush, and James braced himself for whatever Steve might say next.

"It's just…" Steve said slowly. "With Clint's problems at school, and not being able to read… I don't want someone who's going to make him feel like he's being punished all summer."

It took James a moment to wrap his head around this, to pull himself down from his imagined disaster. "Skye's really chill with kids," he said when he was able to form the words again. "You know how intense Natasha gets; Skye was the only one in her preschool who could cool Natasha down. Nat spent last summer having a lot of fun and doing a bit of learning, yeah, but it's summer and they're five."

Steve rubbed his hand through his hair, obviously unconvinced.

"And I'll be there, just a few feet away," James went on, cautiously prodding at Steve. "If they need a break or something, I can help Skye out."

Finally, Steve looked up, and there was something in his eyes that James didn't quite understand. "Are you sure about this?" he asked. "Clint, your house, all summer?"

"It's two months," James said, relief blossoming in his stomach. "I know Skye, I trust her with Natasha, and I'll be there."

Steve let out a big breath. "Then I'm in. We're in."

James smiled, a weight lifting from his shoulders. "Great! That's great. Natasha's going to be over the moon."

"Yeah, well, we'll see if that's still the case after spending two weeks with Clint," Steve said, but he was smiling. "Do you think Skye would be up for starting the Monday after school ends? I have a hell of a month in July."

They talked about logistics for a while. James could tell that something was still bothering Steve, but figured he'd let Steve get to it on his own time. After ten minutes, however, James stopped mid-sentence and said, "What's bugging you?"

The glare Steve shot at him was not entirely happy. "Stop reading my mind," he muttered.

"Then what's chewing your ass?"

"It's Clint. I know Skye said she could help with his reading, but…"

"If you make a big deal out of it, he's going to pick up on it," James cautioned. "He's five. Give him a few months to get used to seeing things close up, and once he starts first grade, he'll start flying."

"I know, it's just… I want to give him the best chance in life."

"And if he was ten and couldn't read, then there might be a problem." James reached across the table to punch Steve in the shoulder. "He's five."

Steve batted James' hand away. "I wish the teachers at his school would think the same way. We only have a couple weeks left, and they're starting to shove all this stuff on Clint for the summer. One of them even told me he should go into remedial tutoring."

"That's stupid." James drained the last of his now-cold coffee and reached for his wallet. "How much time do you have before you gotta go pick up Clint?"

Steve checked his phone. "An hour."

"I need to get some stuff for dinner tonight. Want to come with me?"

"Yeah."

It was a busy few minutes, paying for the coffees and gathering up papers. Steve tucked Skye's resume under his arm as they headed down the street. "So are you going to send Clint back to that school next year?" James asked.

"It's close to home," Steve said.

"Yeah, so's the railyard. Clint might have more fun learning the rails than sitting through another year in that school."

"Bucky," Steve said disapprovingly. "There are laws."

"Man, you are a drag today." James turned the corner, heading toward the deli that carried Natasha's favourite 'squishy cheese'. "If you want to spend some of that Stark Industries money, you could always send Clint to school with Natasha."

"Missed that window years ago," Steve said, and that made James turn to look at him.

"What are you talking about?"

Steve stepped out of the flow of pedestrians, stopping against a wall. "All the people at work who send their kids to private school, they had to submit their applications when the kid was two or something," he told James. "Before SI stock crashed, I barely had enough money to keep me and Clint going. Private school wasn't on the radar. Now, it's too late to get in."

James stared at Steve. "What if it wasn't?"

Steve threw an annoyed glance at James. "What reputable private school just lets some kid in midway through the summer?"

"St. Ursula's. Look," James said, deciding to bend the truth a little. "I was talking to Ms. Green, and she said they always keep a handful of spots open for first grade, for exceptional kids. She asked if you might think about sending Clint there but I told her I wasn't sure. You should maybe call her on Monday."

Steve was now staring at James, his blue eyes wide and (it may have been James' fancy) hopeful. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I am," James said. "Look, call her. Maybe it'll be something."

"And she called Clint exceptional?"

"He is," James said, starting to walk again.

"I know that," Steve protested, slapping James on the right shoulder as he kept pace. "Just not all Clint's teachers see it that way."

"Dude, Clint navigated his way cold across Brooklyn, then snuck into her highly secure school building," James reminded Steve. "Most ten year olds would have problems with that, and they can read."

"And that's why she's offering Clint a spot in her school?"

"I don't know, call her and ask."

By that point, they were at the deli. James took a number from the ticket wheel and went over to look at the salami selection. He could feel Steve's gaze on the back of his neck, and wasn't surprised when the man stepped in close enough for their shoulders to touch.

"Do you think it'd be a good place for Clint?" Steve asked, his voice quiet and for James' ears only.

"Yeah," James replied, just as quietly. "This school, they focus a lot on social development and community and physical activity. With Nat, I was never worried that she'd learn to read and all that stuff, but she was so weird with other kids in preschool, I wanted her to go someplace where she could work on that."

"What do you mean?"

James was saved from having to answer by having his number called. As he asked the man behind the counter for various types of cheese and meats, Steve wandered over to look at the bread. In a few minutes, James was paying for his goods and heading out the door, Steve wandering along in his wake.

"How was Natasha weird?" Steve pressed.

James transferred the handles of the plastic bag to his left hand, willing the metal fingers to close into a fist around the plastic strips. "Just, you know, she was one of the youngest and she was so small, and she ordered the other kids around instead of asking them."

"Little kids are like that."

"Maybe. Maybe Nat was too young for school, I don't know. I just needed her out of the house for a little bit." As soon as the words left James' mouth, he wanted to take them back. He had always been so careful to keep anything like that to himself, to hide any hint that he was having trouble with his daughter. A gay single father with such a visible disability was on the edge of a lot of society's boundaries, and James had made a promise to himself very long ago that he would never let anyone see him struggling with raising Natasha.

But now, he'd just blown past all that with Steve.

But Steve didn't seem shocked or levy any judgment on James for his admission. "Natasha gets along really great with Clint now," he said.

"They're growing up, I guess." James slowed as they reached the corner. "So yeah. Call the school and see if they have any spots left."

Steve looked up at the sky. "How much does it cost?"

James hesitated. "You should call the school," he said instead.

"That bad, huh?"

"Hey, I can afford it, can't I?"

Steve shook his head. "We still on for lunch tomorrow?" he asked as he started to make his way down the sidewalk in the direction of the subway.

"See you at noon!" James shouted after him. Steve grinned before turning and heading down the street.

James was human enough to take a few moments to watch Steve walk away.


He returned to an empty house. His steps echoed on the floors as he stashed the food in the fridge. Checking his phone, James sent Maria a text message asking for an update, then while he waited he headed into his office to check his email.

Skye had sent him a message, time-stamped three minutes after she left the café that morning. James wrote her back to tell her that Steve was almost certainly on-board for the summer, and added a few words of his own about Clint's personality and interests before hitting send.

His phone beeped. Maria had texted, letting him know that she and Natasha would be at the house in about half an hour.

Glancing at the time, James made himself stand. Thirty minutes would give him enough time to put in a load of laundry. What a glamorous life, James thought to himself as he headed downstairs.

Forty minutes later, James was transferring wet clothes to the dryer when the doorbell rang. James slammed the dryer door, pressed the buttons to start the machine, then headed up the stairs at a trot. Maria was on the threshold, looking about as frazzled as James had ever seen her. Natasha was jumping up and down at her side, and when James opened the door the little girl dashed into the house and halfway up the stairs before James could even react.

"Daddy, we went shopping!" Natasha squealed, then jumped down three stairs to the floor.

"Good." James closed the door behind Maria. "Long day?" he said to her.

Maria shoved a handful of shopping bags at James. "I need tea," was all she said as she walked to the kitchen.

Natasha ran after Maria and James trailed along, bringing the shopping bags with him. Natasha hopped around at Maria's feet, giggling while the woman turned on the kettle. Taking in the expression on Maria's face, James dumped the shopping bags on the table and called Natasha to him.

"Did you have a fun time?" he asked, kneeling down.

"Uh huh!" Natasha exclaimed as she jumped at James for a hug. "Maria is my favourite person in the whole world!"

"Mine too," James said. Maria raised her eyebrows at him, but he just smiled. "But you gotta give Maria a few minutes to breathe, Nat. She's not used to all the excitement of shopping with you. Why don't you tell me about what you did today?"

Natasha launched into a long story about her day. As she chattered, James got her seated at the table and brought her a small carton of milk to drink. Maria joined them in a few minutes, carrying two mugs with teabags floating in the hot water.

"…and I tried on every bathing suit ever!" Natasha was saying, barely pausing in her tale to gulp back her milk. "Red ones and blue ones and ones with butterflies! But I didn't get any of those ones, I got the best ones!"

Maria blew across her tea. "Why don't you go try on the suits we got so you can show your dad?" she suggested.

Natasha beamed at Maria. "Good idea!" she exclaimed as she slid off her chair. The little girl bounded over to the bags and selected one to drag along after her as she ran out of the room.

In the resulting quiet, James leaned back in his chair to look at Maria. "Thanks for doing this," he said. "Taking Nat shopping and all."

Maria sipped at her tea. "It was fun," she said cautiously. "Terrifying and somewhat loud, but fun."

"Was it weird?"

"It was less traumatizing than I remember my first bathing suit shopping experience being," Maria said. "But that wouldn't be hard."

From the hallway, a warning yell was heard. "Daddy, I'm coming!"

"We're still in the kitchen," James yelled back.

In stormed Natasha, wearing a lilac bathing suit. "Daddy, this is my purple party bathing suit," Natasha informed him, putting her hands on her hips. "Look, it has ruffles!"

James made the appropriate oohs and aahs for his daughter. Indeed, the suit had tiny purple ruffles sewn into the fabric, which would probably do nothing for speed under the water, but James supposed that for a five-year-old girl, fashion was a consideration in swimwear.

"Go try on the black one next," Maria suggested, and Natasha ran out of the kitchen. "What do you think?"

"I think it's a bathing suit?" James said tentatively, not really sure what Maria was driving at.

"Natasha was adamant that she had to get a suit for formal occasions," Maria said, deadpan. "After all, you have several."

James turned and stared at Maria, not sure if she was making a joke at his expense. She stared right back at him until Natasha ran back into the room. "Daddy, look at me!" the girl shouted. She did a few pirouettes, her little belly sticking out as she spun. "This is a black bathing suit with red triangles!"

"Come over here," James called to her. She ran to his side and let him straighten out the twisted strap on her shoulder. "Is it comfortable?"

"Daddy, it has red triangles," Natasha said again, as if this was the answer to everything. "I show you one more!" And off she dashed again.

"How much did all this cost?" James asked.

"Not too much," Maria said. "She'll grow out of them by the end of the summer in any event."

"Oh man." James sank down in his chair. "I didn't have to do any of this when I was five. My mom just bought stuff and threw it at me when she got home."

"Poor thing," Maria said without the slightest hint of sympathy. "Natasha loves to shop, so get used to it."

"Ugh."

Natasha ran back into the room. On seeing what she was wearing, James sat bolt upright. "Daddy!" Natasha said, arms flung out. "This is my bikini!"

"What," James said.

"It's blue and yellow!" Natasha told him, running over to lean against his knee. "And it has green fishies!" She pointed at the fabric. "See?"

"Yes, I see," James said, glaring at Maria. "Blue and yellow make green, after all."

"They do!" Natasha said, beaming. "Daddy, I'm going to wear my bikini all day!"

"Come over here," Maria said, holding out her hand for Natasha. The woman tugged the fabric down into place on Natasha's ribcage. "This isn't a bikini, it's a sports suit."

True enough, the top was more tank-shaped than bikini-shaped, but that still left James' daughter wearing a two-piece bathing suit that exposed her pudgy little tummy.

"And it'll give her room to grow nice and tall," Maria went on, her eyes narrowing in a warning to James.

"I can't wait to be tall!" Natasha exclaimed, putting her arms high over her head. She was smiling so happily that James pushed his own discomfort back, and smiled at his little girl.

"Say thank you to Maria for taking you shopping," he said.

Natasha hugged Maria and proclaimed her everlasting love and affection for the woman, then James picked his daughter up and carried her to the door to see Maria off. "Make sure you listen at your swim lessons," Maria admonished the child. "And I'll see you later, okay?"

"Okay!"

"Thanks again," James said grudgingly. "We both appreciate it."

"I know," Maria said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go home and sleep for the rest of the day."

After waving Maria off down the street, James looked at Natasha. "What do you say we go grocery shopping now?"

"I want to wear my bathing suit," Natasha said immediately.

Luckily, James had been through this when Natasha had first started ballet class and had wanted to wear her dance leotard for four days in a row. "Sweet pea, if you wear your bathing suit today and it gets dirty, you won't be able to wear it to swim class on Monday," he said calmly.

The look of abject alarm on Natasha's face almost made James feel bad, but not enough to relent. Natasha couldn't get changed back into her clothes fast enough, and off they went to the grocery store.

However, in the middle of the produce section, as James tried to decide on which lettuce to buy for salad, Natasha suddenly let out a screech. "Daddy!" she said, grabbing at his pant leg. "I have three bathing suits! I could wear one today and another on Monday!"

She looked so mortally offended that James had to hide a smile. "You know what?" James said, crouching down, "You're right. I never even thought of that."

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest. "When I get home," she threatened, "I will put on my bathing suit and wear it!"

"If that's what you want to do."

"It is!"

"Okay, but how about you help me pick out the lettuce first?"

"I can do it!" Natasha exclaimed, satisfied with her side of the bargain.

James kissed Natasha's cheek. "You're such a helpful girl."

"Of course I am," Natasha said dismissively as she pointed. "That one. It's the best."

"Good choice."


Sunday passed in a whirlwind. James had managed to convince Natasha to not wear her bathing suit to sleep on Saturday night, and washed the three suits and hung them to dry before he stumbled upstairs to bed. Steve and Clint came over on Sunday for lunch as usual, and the children spent pretty much all afternoon running around in the sprinkler James set up in the back yard.

Sitting on the deck with Steve, a cold soda in his hand, James finally relaxed for the first time in what felt like weeks. They talked about everything they could think of, between rounds of applying sunscreen to two wiggly children, and when Steve and Clint finally left near dinner time, James was surprised at how reluctant he was to see them go.

After dinner and the usual Sunday preparation for a new school week, Natasha tried to argue that she could have a bath in her bathing suit, but James put his foot down. For the rest of the night, Natasha was grumpy, and not even a cup of hot chocolate could cheer her up.

Finally, after brushing teeth and getting into bed, Natasha finally broke down. "Daddy," she whispered, clinging to his hand as he tucked the blankets around her, "What if I do bad at swim lessons tomorrow?"

"It's your first lesson," James pointed out as he sat on the edge of the bed. "You are a fast learner, especially when you want to be. You'll do fine."

"But what if I sink?" Natasha demanded. "What if I fall all the way to the bottom of the pool and no one sees me?"

She was so honestly worried that James picked her up out of bed and hugged her. She clung to him, breathing noisily in his ear. "Steve is going to be right there in that pool with you," James said, rocking Natasha gently. "He's going to be watching you every second, got it?"

"Uh huh," Natasha said, her voice muffled against his neck.

"And there are going to be lifeguards, people whose job it is to keep an eye on all the swimmers," James went on. "And I'm going to be there too, in the stands watching you and only you."

Natasha wiggled around to look James in the eye. "Do you promise you'll come save me?" she whispered.

"I promise," James said solemnly. "That's what parents do. When their kids are little, they make sure they're safe, and teach them how to grow up so they can make good choices and protect themselves. That's the best reason to go to swimming lessons, so you can learn what to do in case you're in water and you need to get out."

Natasha snuggled against James, wrapping her fingers in the collar of his shirt. "What if I'm not good?"

"You're a coordinated little pumpkin, you will get the hang of things," James said. "Like at ballet class, you were really good at that. And in gym class, when you run around. You learned how to skip rope like a champion."

"But I couldn't do the arrows like Clint," Natasha said. "He can shoot them so far! And I can't."

James forbore from pointing out that Natasha had spent a grand total of ten minutes on the unfamiliar task before giving up. "Clint has been practicing archery for months, just like you've been practicing dance. Sometimes it takes that long to get good at something." He kissed the top of her head. "Ready for bed?"

"Okay."

James tucked Natasha into bed for the second time, and then it was story time. Soon enough, James was turning out the lights and saying goodnight to a sleepy little girl.

He kept one ear open for any sound of movement, but the night passed quietly. James spent a few hours working on projects he'd been delaying. It had been almost one week since Clint ran away from school, hard to believe given that so much had happened.

Finally, at midnight, James stood and started his nightly walk-through of the house. Everything went smoothly, and soon he was checking on Natasha one last time before heading to bed himself. Natasha was sound asleep, curled around Bear. James stood and watched her for a few minutes. Her breathing had evened out, so he didn't turn on the air purifier, just went off to bed.

Morning came soon enough. James had the foresight to hide the swimsuits before Natasha woke up, and got her moving with the reminder that her school had a uniform policy and it wasn't fair for her to wear her bathing suit under her clothes, because the other children weren't allowed. Thankfully she bought it, but made James promise that she could put on her bathing suit before going to the pool that afternoon. James promised, and off they went to school.

James had a work meeting in Queens that made him late enough to have to drive to the school to pick Natasha up. A quick dash home to change into swimsuit and her usual after-school t-shirt and shorts over that, and it was time for the swim lesson.

"You will be watching me?" Natasha asked for the third time as they walked toward the YMCA, her favorite green towel rolled up and tucked under her arm.

"All the time," James assured her. "And you need to make sure to pay attention to Steve."

"I promise," Natasha said. She squeezed James' hand as they entered the lobby. Clint and Steve were already there, sitting on the benches by the wall. Clint jumped up as soon as he spotted Natasha and ran over.

"Hi!" he exclaimed. "Swimming is so fun!"

But Natasha had more pressing matters at hand. "Where's your hearing aid?" she demanded. "Did you lose it?"

Clint shook his head, his hair flying. "Daddy makes me leave it at home for swim class so it don't get stolen," he said. "You gotta talk into my left ear."

"What if I talk loud into this one?" Natasha asked, and was about to reach for Clint, no doubt to yell into his right ear, before James could grab her to stop.

"We don't yell in anyone's ear," he said, going down on one knee to keep the children apart. "It could scare them or even hurt them. Clint already told you how you can talk to him when he's not wearing his hearing aid."

Natasha frowned. "Okay, but you tell me if I do it wrong," she instructed Clint. "I like it when you hear me best."

"Me too! You have a nice voice."

Steve walked up to the group, holding a sports bag by the straps. "We all ready?"

Natasha clutched at her rolled towel. "I guess," she said in a small voice, leaning against James' shoulder.

"Hey, we talked about this, remember?" James let Natasha drape herself over his arm. "You're going to go into the locker room and change, and then Steve will meet you out in the pool."

"I remember." Natasha stared at James, her green eyes so wide. "Where's the lady who's gonna take me?"

"We'll go meet her in just a minute." James patted Natasha on the back as he glanced over at Steve. "See you on the other side?"

Steve smiled at James and Natasha. "We'll be out in just a few minutes."

Natasha nodded. Steve corralled Clint, who waved back at Natasha, along toward the men's change room and out of sight. With a grunt of exertion, James stood up, then held out his hand for Natasha. "Come on," he said, "Let's get this show on the road."

Natasha, her face set in grim determination, took his hand.

James led Natasha to the administration office, where a nice teenager (Call me Taylor!) took charge of Natasha, promising to have her in and out of the change room in a few minutes. Wanting to avoid a scene where Natasha got clingy or outright changed her mind, James thanked the young woman, patted Natasha on the shoulder, and told her he'd see her from the stands.

It only took James a few minutes to walk back around to the entrance and find his way to the pool's observation area. The pool was starting to fill up with children, ready for their lessons.

James took a seat down by the front bar, waiting nervously. He hoped Natasha got through the locker room without too much difficulty. Sometimes, when she was in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar routine, she had difficulties. But they'd talked about this, about what to expect, and James had pointed out that she needed to take off her street clothes and to have a shower before going into the pool, that was pool rules.

After a few minutes, Taylor appeared, leading Natasha by the hand. Natasha had on her little black bathing suit, her hair up in the pigtails she'd worn to school, and she looked so incredibly tiny. James put his hand over his mouth as Taylor bent down to say something to Natasha, then the teenager went away and Natasha stood by the wall, clutching at her still-rolled towel as she waited.

Where was Steve? He'd said he'd only be a minute. But maybe Clint needed some help, James tried to reason. They'd be out quickly enough. James just hoped it was before Natasha had a melt-down.

Meanwhile, Natasha was now holding her towel to her chest and biting her lip as she looked around. James was concentrating on her so much that he nearly missed the tall man who came up to her side, and it was then that James realized that in originally objecting to Steve taking Natasha for swim lessons, he had made one very significant tactical error.

He had neglected to realize that in order for Steve to take Natasha swimming, Steve would need to be in a swim suit.

And apparently Steve favored speedos.

James could only watch, mouth agape, as Steve Rogers, all six feet and three inches of him bare skin and shiny save for the small strip of fabric covering his middle parts, knelt down beside Natasha. He spoke to her and she nodded back, then she even smiled, let Steve take her towel as he stood, and she held his hand as they walked around the pool towards the observation area.

It wasn't fair, James thought weakly, that Steve could look so good in clothes, and even better out of them. His shoulders were wide, his arms well-muscled, and the thin sprinkle of chest hair did nothing to hide the man's abs. And dear lord, it wasn't as if Steve ever skipped leg day – his thighs were muscular, his calves well-defined.

He was impossible.

James shifted around on the bench, leaning forward just a little as Natasha and Steve approached. Natasha was nearly vibrating with excitement. "Daddy!" she exclaimed, craning her neck to look up at him. "I'm going to go swimming!"

"Good," was all James could say. "And you're going to listen to Steve?"

"Uh huh."

"Good." Steeling himself, James shifted his gaze to Steve. The man had tiny droplets of water clinging to his skin from the pre-pool shower and his skin looked really soft and James needed to pull himself together. "Good luck," James said inanely.

"We're going to do just fine," Steve said with a smile. "Come on, Nat, let's go get started."

"Bye Daddy!" Natasha shouted, and off they went.

If anything, watching Steve walk away in a speedo was even worse.

Behind James on the bleachers, he heard a woman mutter "Sweet Baby Jesus," in a fervent whisper.

As the blood slowly returned to James' extremities, Steve had guided Natasha over to the shallow end of the pool. He hopped into the water and held up his hands for Natasha, but she shook her head. It took a few minutes of coaxing to get Natasha to sit on the edge of the pool and dangle her feet in the water. Even though James couldn't hear what they were saying, he could tell that Steve was talking to Natasha the whole time, his body language calm.

Natasha slowly relaxed, reaching into the water with her hands. After another minute, she held her arms out and let Steve lift her into the water. With great care, Steve moved away from the side of the pool, towing Natasha through the water. She clung to his arm, but the expression on her face was one of delight, not fear.

The class soon started. The instructor gathered five parent-child groups around him to begin. Natasha was not the smallest child there, nor the oldest, but James thought she paid the closest attention to what the instructor was saying. The lesson, as Steve had promised, was just an introduction to the water, so Natasha and Steve spent the next thirty minutes kicking and floating around. There was even one part where some of the children ducked their heads under water, but Natasha adamantly refused, going so far as to clamber up Steve's chest to cling to his neck, to avoid having to put her face in the water.

As the lesson drew to a close, the instructor motioned for the children to float on their backs, with the adults to hold them in place. Natasha obediently lay on her back, her arms and legs spread out like a starfish, with Steve's hands underneath her to keep her secure. James bit his knuckle as he watched Steve and Natasha working together. Of all the things for James to be glad about finding Steve again, he hadn't realized that Natasha would get along with Steve so well, and it made James warm down to his toes.

"Hi!"

James nearly fell off the bench. Clint had come up to the observation area, water dripping from his hair and his swim trunks. "Hi Clint, are you done your lesson?" James said, keeping his voice from going too loud.

"Yup." Clint shook his head, water droplets flying everywhere. "I got to swim backstroke today!"

"That's cool," James said, faintly surprised that they would have five-year-olds practicing such complicated techniques.

"Yeah, but then the instructor told me to stop," Clint said, looking tragic. James suppressed a smile. "Okay, bye." And with that, Clint walked off towards the locker room.

In the meantime, Steve and Natasha had climbed out of the pool and Steve wrapped Natasha in her towel. Standing, Steve looked in James' direction and pointed at the lobby. James nodded, but he waited until he saw Natasha join up with Taylor and go into the women's change room before he stood.

About ten minutes later, James was reading the notices on the lobby wall when he heard a piercing shriek of "Daddy!" accompanied by a collision against his leg. He looked down to find Natasha, hair still wet but wearing her street clothes, clinging to his leg. She was deliriously happy. "Daddy, did you see me?"

"I did," James said, bending over to scoop Natasha up onto his right arm. "You did super great today."

"I know!" Natasha puffed her chest out importantly. "I told you I would be the best!"

James kissed her cheek, then turned to Taylor. The young woman, smiling, held out Natasha's towel rolled up. "We got her changed out of her swimsuit but she didn't have any underwear, so maybe bring some next time."

"Now that is a smart idea." James set Natasha down and reached into his pocket. "Thanks so much for your help today," he said as he handed the teenager a ten-dollar bill.

The teenager grinned at the sight of the cash. "I'll be here every week," she said, and blushed. "Bye Natasha!"

"Bye Taylor!" Natasha said, and waved until the teenager was out of sight. By then Steve and Clint had come out of the locker room. James had to tamp down his hormones at the memory of what Steve looked like under those clothes. "Daddy, can we have ice cream?"

James looked at his daughter. "Really?"

"We need ice cream!" Natasha insisted, running over to Clint. "Do you think we need ice cream?" she said into Clint's left ear.

"Oh yeah," Clint said solemnly, nodding his agreement. "For sure."

James looked at Steve. "Do you have to run off?"

"No, we could get some ice cream," Steve said, smiling indulgently at the children. "But I don't know any place around here."

"How about we drive you home and we can find a place near you?" James suggested.

Steve transferred his smile from the kids to James. "That would be perfect."

His insides melting, James managed to keep his voice normal as he said to the children, "Come on, chop chop!" and herded everyone towards the door.

In the parking lot, after the adults got the children buckled in the back seat, Steve and James climbed into the front seat. With Natasha and Clint talking loudly in the back, James took a moment before starting the engine to look over at Steve. The man was looking at him, a small smile playing on his lips. "What?"

"I… that's a nice suit you're wearing today." Steve's ears had gone pink.

Okay, that was a bit of a non sequitur. James figured that Steve must just have water on the brain. "You know, work," James said as he started the jeep. "Okay, who's ready for ice cream?"

The screams from the backseat were deafening.


Weeks passed, and soon it was the Friday night of Natasha's dance recital. James, who had dutifully invited Steve and Clint at Natasha's insistence, was back-stage before the event began, talking Natasha through a case of the jitters.

"Remember what we talked about," James said, patting Natasha's back as the little girl leaned against him. "You are part of a team out there, and the way that you are the best…"

"…Is if I help everyone be the best," Natasha finished. She rubbed her nose. "Daddy, will you be watching me?"

"I will be watching you," he promised, shifting Natasha around so he could straighten her butterfly wings. "And Steve will be there and so will Clint, and we're all going to be watching you dance your very best."

"And then can we go for hot chocolate?"

James chucked Natasha under the chin. "After you dance, there's the performance by the grown-up ballerinas, remember?"

Natasha pouted. "And then hot chocolate?"

James caved. "Yes, then we can go for hot chocolate. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

"All right, high five."

They high-fived, low-fived, then Natasha gave James a sudden quick hug before running off to join her classmates, who were huddled against the far wall. James stood, dusted off his knees and went to find a seat.

While James had been backstage, Steve and Clint had arrived. There was a seat beside them with Steve's jacket tossed over it, and James inched his way through the crowd to them. "Hey, anyone sitting here?" he asked.

Steve shook his head. "Nah, make yourself comfortable." While James moved the jacket and sat, Steve pulled Clint onto his lap. "How's Natasha doing?"

"She's ready, as much as she can be for her first performance." James glanced at Clint, who had his hand clapped over his right ear. "What's up, Clint?"

Clint pulled a face. "People's too loud."

"Let me look at the volume on that," Steve said, tilting Clint's head to get a glimpse of his hearing aid. James held out his metal hand to keep Clint from overbalancing, and soon enough the adjustment was complete.

Clint slid off Steve's lap to pick something up off the neighboring chair. "Look at what I got," he said to James, climbing back onto Steve's knee. "This is a story."

James opened the comic book. The pictures were bright and happy, the characters a series of cartoon animals. The only thing out of the ordinary was that the words themselves were in Spanish.

After a moment's thought, however, James gave a shrug. If Clint couldn't read yet, then it didn't matter what language the story was in. "Do you like your story?" James asked, handing Clint back the comic.

"Yes." Clint grasped the comic in his teeth while he put on his glasses, then he solemnly leaned back against Steve's chest and opened the book.

Steve looked at James with a barely smothered smile on his face. "The librarian was really helpful," he said in a low voice. "Clint went from zero to sixty with her, came home with ten comics he wants to read."

"Good," James said, unable to keep from smiling. "Maybe the kids can look at the comics together one day."

"I hope so." Steve put his arm around Clint's torso to keep him from falling. "I should mention that to Skye, for the summer."

"Speaking of which," James put in, "Skye wanted to know what your philosophy on screen time is."

Steve stared at him blankly. "What my what?"

"Screen time. With Clint. TV and computers and stuff."

Steve ran his hand over Clint's hair; the boy never looked up from his comic. "I don't know, Clint's never really been interested in that stuff. I don't have a tablet, and we never really watch TV."

"Would you be okay if Skye used computers with the kids this summer?"

"I don't know," Steve said helplessly. "What do you do?"

James also did not have a tablet computer; he had a hard enough time using his phone with only one hand. He preferred a full keyboard for typing, one large enough that he could hit the keys with the imprecise touch of his metal fingers. Natasha was not interested much in his work computer, which she considered frightfully boring. "Last year, Nat was still learning her letters, and Skye stuck with flash cards and stuff. This year, with her reading… I don't know."

"What does Skye think?"

"Skye's working in a lab that measures computer influence on childhood development," James said with a shrug. "I told her that Natasha wasn't a good test subject, she was too wily."

"I don't know." Steve looked down at Clint, who was in the process of giggling at his story. "Maybe we'll see what happens?"

"Okay." James tapped the back of Clint's hand. "Hey, can you tell me what your story is about?"

This carried them along until the performance started. Steve moved over so Clint was seated between him and James, and made sure the boy was occupied as the ten-year-olds began their number.

James, who had spent long hours as a Ranger under cover and motionless in the field, was restless as he waited for Natasha's class to come on. Steve was pretending to be interested, but even so James could tell by the jiggling of his leg that Steve wasn't exactly captivated.

Clint, however, was so deeply buried in his story book that he didn't glance up when the applause ended a performance.

As yet another class shifted off stage, James caught Steve's eyes. They looked at each other over Clint's head, no change in expression, but James fancied that Steve was just as bored as he was, and hiding it about as well.

The things they did for their kids.

Finally, the second-to-last performance of the children's classes came on, and it was Natasha's number. Steve took the book from Clint and caught his attention; the boy quickly pulled his glasses off and climbed up on his knees so he could see the stage.

There was a hush, a few notes of piano music, and then Natasha's class danced on stage in their black leotards, brightly colored tights, and butterfly wings. They all looked so serious, all the little five- and six-year-olds prancing in a circle in time with the music, and James was struck with a wild desire to laugh. It was just all so cute.

Natasha was the easiest to spot, in her blue tights with her bright red hair. She was very intense, keeping an eye on the other dancers and on Madame, going through the steps she had been practicing all month. James was actually quite impressed at how well things were going when, after a few minutes, Natasha must have caught sight of them in the audience, for she broke into a grin and waved at him as she trotted to the far side of the stage.

James waved back, and so did Clint, his little hand waving wildly. Steve caught him after a moment and held him still, and then the class finished up their number in a running star pattern, and then they pranced off the stage. James clapped his hand against his leg, smiling as he saw Clint applauding with fierce approval.

While the stage cleared for the last dance before the intermission, Steve leaned over to James. "I'm going to take Clint into the lobby, he's on the edge," Steve whispered.

"Okay, see you in a few."

Steve scooped up child, jacket and book all in one motion, and made his way out of the auditorium before the next number began. James pretended to pay attention to the teenagers, but he was really thinking about Natasha and Steve and Clint, and how nice it was that Steve had brought Clint that night to support Natasha. Having Steve in their lives was turning out so well, and knowing that Natasha and Clint would be together all summer eased some of the tension in James' chest.

After the teenagers floated off-stage, the ballet company's president came up to the microphone and announced a twenty-minute intermission, after which the students would join the audience to watch a performance by the professional dancers. James escaped into the lobby with the mass of parents, to find Steve and Clint sitting on a couch along the far wall where Steve was reading to Clint.

James collapsed onto the couch at Steve's side, and listened to Steve's calm voice until the man finished the chapter. Then he closed the book and said, "That was a fun dance recital, Clint. What do you think?"

Clint rubbed his cheek. "I don't know about all of them," he confessed. "But I liked Natasha's dance. She danced real good."

"You should tell her that," James said, just as the dance students streamed into the lobby. Natasha bounced over to where they were sitting and jumped on James' lap.

"Daddy, did you see me?" she exclaimed. "I danced with the team!"

"You did real good!" Clint said before James could get a word in edgewise. "You were the best butterfly I ever saw!"

"Aw, thank you!" Natasha leaned over to give Clint a big hug, her butterfly wing nearly decapitating James in the process. "I like that you came, you're my best friend!"

"You did a super job," Steve put in, reaching out to prevent the children from toppling to the floor. "Was this your first recital?"

He knew it was, James had told him so the previous week when he was convincing Steve to spend his time and money on this little event, but Natasha beamed at Steve. "Yes it was!" Natasha said, disentangling herself from Clint. "Daddy, what did you think?"

"I thought you were outstanding and very professional," James said, helping Natasha and Clint stand. "Very grown-up."

As Natasha's chest swelled with importance, Steve caught James' eye. "How long is the next part?" Steve asked quietly, as the children chattered happily.

"Half an hour. You want to bail?"

"I don't think I can keep Clint quiet for that long."

"How about we meet up for hot chocolate after?" James suggested. "It's only seven. There's a bookstore down the street you could take Clint."

Steve looked thoughtful. "As long as we get home by nine. Clint's last soccer game of the season is tomorrow afternoon."

"Yeah, that'll work."

"Daddy!" Natasha interrupted. "Clint asked me to come to his game tomorrow! Can we go?" She pouted dramatically. "Can we?"

"Where's the game?" James asked Steve. Steve named the field and the time. "Sure, as long as we get the grocery shopping done in the morning."

"Yay!" cheered the children, jumping in place.

"Okay, we'll see you in a while," Steve said, gathering Clint up. Natasha waved at them until they were out of sight in the crush of the crowd.

"Daddy, I like it when Clint comes to things I do," she said, crawling up beside James on the sofa. "He's so much fun."

"Good," James said. "Are you looking forward to seeing Clint every day this summer?"

"Yes!" Natasha stretched out her feet and pointed her toes. "Then we can play games and read stories and do crafts! I bet Clint likes Skye just like I do."

"Good."

"And I like Steve too," Natasha added. "He makes you smile. Not everyone makes you smile, Daddy. Sometimes you are grumpy."

"I'm not always grumpy," James protested.

"Yes you are." Natasha looked at him. "You make the grumpy face." She pulled a face at him. "Like that."

"Is that so, huh?" James wrinkled his nose into what he thought might be an acceptable grumpy face. Natasha laughed. "Maybe I'm just a grumpy old man."

"You're silly," Natasha declared.

"Yeah, well." A bell chimed, and people started moving back into the auditorium. "Are you ready to go see the grown-up ballerinas?"

Natasha jumped to her feet and dragged James every step of the way back into the auditorium. At seeing Natasha so happy, James decided, he could put up with any level of boredom.


"I swear to god, I thought I was going to fall asleep right there in the auditorium," James said to Steve the next day as they both stood by the playground next to the soccer field, watching Clint and Natasha run wild over the equipment.

"Weren't they good?" Steve asked.

"They were great," James said. "I just…. Ballet's not for me."

"I'm the same way with opera," Steve confessed. "Pepper had me take her a few years ago, some world-famous opera, best performance in fifty years, but I just didn't get into it."

James turned to look at Steve. "Yeah, 'cause it's opera."

Steve elbowed James in the ribs. "Pepper likes it."

"From the sounds of things, Pepper has actual class, which us bums from Brooklyn are missing in spades."

"Pepper sure does have class," Steve mused. "Makes me wonder how a guy like Tony ever got her to look at him twice."

James, who knew nothing about Pepper Potts outside what had been reported in the papers (and of which he suspected ninety-nine percent of that was wrong), kept his eyes on the children.

"They offered me a spot for Clint at St. Ursula's next fall," Steve said unexpectedly.

"That's great, Steve."

"Yeah, I just… I don't know what to do."

"Is it the money?"

"Part of it," Steve confessed. "I mean, you know how much college costs now. I always thought I'd try to save up so Clint could go, save him the student loans I had."

James, who had been through a similar mental tussle when Natasha had been accepted to the pricey private school, kept his mouth shut.

"And then it's like… I don't want Clint to get spoiled, you know? I want him to understand what real life's like."

James couldn't hold it in any longer. "If real life is where the grown-ups bully a little boy because he can't see the board, then fuck real life," he said, surprised at how fiercely his chest hurt. "I don't know about getting spoiled or anything, but Nat's doing really good at that school and I know Clint would too."

"I know that!" Steve exclaimed, keeping his voice low to avoid attracting the children's attention. "It's just that this is a big step and I can't get ahold of Sharon to talk to her about it."

"What's to talk about?" James demanded. "Hey, I got our kid into a super school and I can pay for it myself? And why can't you get hold of Sharon?"

"Her company says she's in Estonia on a real estate deal and they can't reach her," Steve said.

James had never heard of a real estate agent being unreachable before. "Is she okay?"

"Yeah, they say she's fine, but she'll be unreachable for a few weeks."

James kept his opinions to himself. Sharon and Steve's relationship was none of his goddamn business. "This isn't about Clint's mother, or your problems, Steve. This is about doing what's best for Clint. If you think keeping him in public school is best, then do it. If you think it's St. Ursula's, then call Ms. Green and tell her Clint will be starting in the fall. But don't let this slip away."

Steve put his hands on his hips and watched the children for a while. Then, his back to James, Steve said, "I had to turn up Clint's hearing aid today."

"Yeah, 'cause you turned it down at the recital last night."

"No, that's not…" Steve finally turned around. "It's more than that. I think… I think his right ear is getting worse."

Oh. Oh.

"I got an appointment for Clint on Tuesday with his doctor, just in case…. You know. So I know."

"Yeah, I know." James put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "Clint couldn't have a better dad than you, you know that, right?"

"I just wish that was enough."

They stood, watching the children jump and run around, screaming at the top of their lungs, until it was time to go over to the soccer field.

The last soccer game of the year, and everyone had turned out. Steve staked out a spot by the bench to watch.

"What, we got to stand?" James demanded.

"It's only for forty-five minutes," Steve said.

"You got me out here under false pretenses," James grumbled as the coaches gathered their hyperactive charges around.

"I'll buy you dinner if you quit your yapping," Steve said, and he was smiling as he said it.

A small person cleared her throat. James and Steve looked down. "I want dinner too," Natasha said plaintively. "And I can't see."

"Well, that's not good," Steve said. "You want to sit on my shoulders?"

Natasha nodded solemnly. "Daddy never ups me," she said as Steve turned her around and effortlessly lifted her onto his broad shoulders.

"That's because Daddy only has one arm and can't," James pointed out easily.

"I know," Natasha said, grabbing a handful of Steve's hair to steady herself. "You can do all kinds of things Steve can't, Daddy."

"Like what?" James asked, momentarily distracted from the field.

"You can bake super cakes," Natasha declared. "And you tell really good stories."

"I bet Steve can do those things too," James said. "Now don't wiggle around."

"Okay."

"Thanks," James said to Steve. "It's just, my arm, you know."

"No, it's good," Steve assured him.

"Put her down if she gets heavy."

"I will."

Then the game began.

James, who hadn't ever really paid much attention to children's sports, was not terribly surprised to see the five-year-olds ignoring the rules to move across the field in a huddle around the ball. The boys ran around in no discernable pattern, and it was a miracle that anyone scored any goals. But the other team eventually pulled ahead, and the score was soon nine to four.

Clint's coach called a time out, and the boys came over. At this point, Natasha wanted down, so Steve set her on the grass. "Daddy," Natasha said seriously. "Do I have to play soccer?"

She looked so honestly worried that James knelt to speak with her quietly. "You only have to play sports you want to play," he said. "Right now, you're in dance and in swimming, and that's a lot for a little girl."

The look of relief on her face nearly made James smile. "I don't think I'd like soccer," Natasha whispered in James' ear.

"That's your choice," James told her. "But other children like soccer and that's okay too."

"Clint doesn't," Natasha confided. "He wants soccer to be over so he can play on the playground."

"Well." James wasn't sure what to say to this. "This is the last game of the season for Clint."

"I know that," Natasha said, rolling her eyes. "He told me."

Then the whistle sounded, and the children ran out to the field. Whatever the coach told them stuck, for Clint's team spread out across the field. Clint ran to the far side and stood, shoulders dropping, bored.

Natasha blew a raspberry and promptly sat on the grass.

The game resumed. Clint's team held their positions for a few minutes, but then most of the boys drifted back to the ball. Clint stayed where he was, though, and it took James a moment to realize that Clint had zoned out and was looking for birds in the sky.

"Maybe Clint should stick to archery," James said in an undertone to Steve.

Steve stepped on his foot.

It all happened so fast, James nearly missed it. One of the children in the huddle around the ball gave a mighty kick and the ball was punted down the field, landing in the grass at Clint's feet. Clint stared for a moment, uncertain, then as the coaches and spectators started yelling, he kicked the ball and started running after it.

Towards his own goal.

"Oh no," Steve said. "Clint! Clint!"

James put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, loud and clear. Clint stopped dead and looked at the sidelines.

"Go the other way!" James shouted, pointing at the far end of the field. Clint looked around, set his shoulders, and began to kick the ball back in the right direction.

The only thing that stood between him and the other team's goal was a mass of five-year-olds, all barreling down on tiny Clint.

"I can't," Steve said, grabbing at James' arm. "He's going to get trampled."

Natasha was on her feet and cheering for her friend, enthusiastic even if she didn't know why.

"Go, Clint, you can do it!" James yelled. "Run!"

Clint ran right into the huddle of children. James wasn't even sure of the boy saw them, he was so intent on the ball. For a moment there was confusion, then Clint was out the other side, still in possession of the ball, running towards the other team's goal.

The coach put his hands to his mouth and yelled, "KICK!"

Clint kicked the ball, right into the net.

The next few minutes were filled with pandemonium. Steve clung weakly to James' arm, while Natasha demanded up to cheer her friend properly. The referees gradually got the game going again.

"I swear to god," Steve muttered. "That was terrifying."

"Maybe you should stick to solo sports too," James said, elbowing Steve in the side. "That was one hell of a play."

Natasha cheered some more.

Clint's team lost fifteen to five, but Natasha made so much of Clint on the way to get ice cream that Clint was grinning ear-to-ear. "Daddy," Clint said as they all sat on a park bench. Both children had melted popsicle juice covering their hands and mouths. "I scored a goal."

"You sure did," Steve said. "How did that make you feel?"

"Okay." Clint licked his empty popsicle stick. "Do I have to play again next year?"

"Only if you want to."

"I don't want to," Clint said immediately. He shoved the popsicle stick at Steve. "C'mon, Natasha, let's go play dragons."

"Okay!" Natasha shoved her half-eaten popsicle at James and tore after Clint.

"I guess that's that," James said. He ate the purple ice off the stick before it could melt onto his jeans. "You okay with that?"

"I told him he had to stick out to the end of the year, and he did," Steve said. "I guess that's what it is."

"So now what?"

Steve leaned over to rest his elbows on his knees. "I guess I want Clint to go to that school," he said. "It's going to cost a shit-load of money, but you're right, it's a good opportunity for him."

"You're doing the right thing," James said quietly.

"I know." Steve looked over his shoulder at James. "With Clint at your house all summer, and in school with Natasha next fall, you're going to be seeing so much of us that you're going to get sick of us."

The sun was shining through Steve's hair, the gold highlights waving in the breeze, and James was struck with a pang of longing so deep that it hurt. "We're never going to get sick of you," he said, trying to smile. "You might get sick of us, though."

"As if." Steve stood. "Come on, let's go see what those kids are getting up to."

Across the playground, the children were laughing.

Chapter Text


James was just putting the breakfast dishes into the sink when his phone beeped. hey would it be okay if I showed up early? read Skye's text message.

Natasha busy at the table, James typed back how early

The response came in the form of the doorbell ringing. Natasha scrambled out of her chair and ran toward the door, her father in pursuit "Hey Nat," James said. "Remember what we know about doorbells?"

"Always got to see who it is first!" Natasha said, bouncing up and down as James deactivated the house alarm. "Who is it?"

James glanced through the glass to see Skye standing on his front porch. He unlocked the door swung it open to the sounds of Natasha's rapturous screams of welcome. "Hey."

"Hi, Mr. Barnes," Skye said, holding out her arms for Natasha. The little girl jumped at Skye, wriggling in her excitement. "I hardly recognized you, Natasha, you're growing so big!"

"I am!" Natasha said in agreement, flexing her biceps. James hid his smile. "I'm big and strong and I'm almost six!"

"Nat."

"Five and a half," Natasha amended, unapologetic. "It's the same thing."

"Sure is." Skye was smiling at the child. "I love your outfit."

Natasha struck a pose, to show off her headache-inducing combination of rainbow leggings, bright green shirt and red dance tutu. "Daddy says I gotta dress to have fun, but not princess-fun. Run-around fun."

"That was a smart idea," Skye said. "I hope we can go to the park today and have fun."

"I love the park!" Natasha squealed.

"All right, Natasha," James interrupted. "Let's help Skye get all her stuff inside, okay?"

Skye gave James a grateful glance as she picked up a large box to move into the house. "My roommates gave me a lift to get this stuff over here," she said by way of explanation. "Some stuff for the kids, art supplies and the like."

"Expense me," James instructed as he went to pick up the handles of a large canvas bag; with his prosthesis still upstairs, there was a limit on how much he could help. "Nat, pick up that roll of paper, will you?"

Natasha jumped at the order; wrestling a large roll of butcher's paper into the house. It took James and Skye a few more trips, but they got everything inside in good time. James left Natasha digging through one of the boxes for stickers and took Skye into the kitchen.

"Things should be okay this week," he said as he poured her a cup of coffee. "We have swim lessons this afternoon, but I'm going to be here all day. I've got physio tomorrow but I won't leave until nine."

"Sounds good." Skye accepted the coffee gratefully. "For this first week, I thought we could just do whatever the kids want. Playground, water sprinkler, art projects, that kind of thing. I've got some worksheets to help Clint with his reading, but I want to see how much he knows already."

James moved the last of the breakfast dishes into the sink. "He can write his name," James offered. "Other than that, he's good at drawing. He's had his glasses in school for a month, not sure how much he took in since then."

"How's Natasha with her letters?"

"She's getting better. She still doesn't like how sometimes the same letter can sound different sometimes."

Skye let out a huff of agreement. "Her and me both, Mr. B."

James turned on the tap. "You should probably call me James. Clint does."

Skye's lips twisted up in a small smile. "Sure thing, James." She set her coffee cup down. "I'm going to go get stuff set up. Living room okay?"

"Yeah." James adjusted the water temperature. "I think we might move you guys up to the third floor next week, I just need to get a cleaner to come in and get rid of the dust before I send Natasha up there."

"Okay." Skye headed out of the kitchen, and James heard her say, "Hey, Natasha, how about you show me around the house?"

"Okay!" Natasha said. "I show you the bathroom, that's the most important room. Even if it's haunted by the Fart Ghost."

James raised his eyebrows at the sink, but decided to follow up on that particular train of thought at a later time. He had dishes to clean, and he was running out of time before Steve and Clint arrived.

Luckily, over six years James had developed an ideal triage system for loading the dishwasher one-handed. He could hear Skye and Natasha tromping around on the second story, then down the stairs and presumably into the basement. Glancing at the clock, James made another pot of coffee, in case Steve was able to stay for a cup after dropping Clint off, then wiped down the counters and went in search of his phone.

There was one text from Steve, a terse running late b there soon, sent about twenty minutes before. James typed back c u then, and took the few minutes with Natasha occupied to boot up his office computer to check his email.

From the sounds of things in the living room, Skye had enlisted Natasha to organizing the art supplies. There was the occasional loud bang, but as no screaming or tears followed, James let the two of them be.

Half an hour later, James' phone pinged with a new text from Steve. Off the train see you in five. James stood and stretched, then headed into the living room to find Skye and Natasha playing a rousing hand of Go Fish.

"They're going to be here soon," James said.

"Quiet, Daddy!" Natasha scolded, never looking up from her cards. "I am winning!" She looked at Skye with narrowed eyes. "Four."

Skye made a show of disappointment as she handed over the four of spades. "You're good at this game," she told Natasha. "We should play with Clint later today."

"Okay." Natasha laid her pair of fours down beside a stack of similarly paired cards. "But I am going to win."

"What do you get if you win?" James asked, giving the room a once-over to make sure things were in place.

"A sticker sheet. Of princesses."

"Sounds good." Hoping Skye also had something in her sticker arsenal to appeal to an almost-six-year-old boy, James headed over to the front window to keep an eye on the street.

Sure enough, Steve soon appeared at the end of the street. He was moving slowly, however, and it took James a few moments to see why. Clint was dragging along slowly behind his father. James frowned at the sight of what Clint was wearing. Far from the shorts and t-shirt he had been sporting the previous day, today Clint was dressed in dress trousers and a long-sleeved button-down shirt with a collar. His head hung low and every step he took was like he was being led to the gallows.

"What the hell are you doing, Steve?" James muttered under his breath. He stepped away from the window and went to open the front door. Steve was standing at the end of the walk, trying to move Clint up to the house, but the boy had planted his feet and wasn't moving.

"Clint, come on," Steve was saying. "I need to get to work."

"Nice morning," James said casually, strolling down the steps. "Going to be a hot day, too."

Dropping the large sports bag he carried, Steve shot an annoyed glare at James. "This outfit was his idea," Steve said. "Don't start?"

James held up his hand in surrender. "Just trying to help." He edged past Steve and went over to Clint, kneeing down to talk to the boy. "Hey, Clint, I'm glad you could come over today."

Clint didn't say anything, just looked at James with wide eyes. Gone was the excited little boy who only the day before had run screaming around the playground for over two hours while Steve and James sat on a bench and talked about property taxes and boring adult shit.

James rubbed his chin on his left shoulder, his half-arm protruding from his t-shirt. Clint's eyes tracked the movement of the arm. "Skye has some fun stuff for us to do today," James went on. Clint's expression dropped. "We can do drawing, and go to the park, and play in the sprinkler. And then we have swim classes later tonight."

"That's right." Steve put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "But first, we have to go inside."

Dragging his feet, Clint headed glumly toward the house. James stood, his knees protesting. "What the hell is going on?" James asked quietly, following Steve up the walk. "He was fine yesterday."

"I know!" Steve said, turning back to talk to James. "He was like this when I woke up this morning."

"Did you try talking to him?"

Steve stopped dead; James nearly ran into him. "No, talking to him never crossed my mind," Steve said sarcastically. "I spent the entire train ride here talking about how much fun he was going to have with Natasha this summer, and you know what he did? He sat there the entire time holding onto his glasses like someone was going to steal them."

Clint had stopped halfway up the steps and was watching them. James nudged Steve. "Come on, we'll talk about this inside."

They managed to get Clint through the doors, but there the boy planted himself beside Steve and wouldn't move. James slipped past the Rogers and gestured for Skye to join them. The young woman came over, a welcoming smile on her face for Clint. "Hi there," Skye said, crouching down to talk to Clint. "I'm Skye. It's nice to meet you, Clint. Your dad and Natasha have told me a lot about you."

Clint's only response was to put his index finger in his mouth and to move further behind Steve's leg.

Skye's smile never faltered. "Natasha and I were just going to start on some drawing. Will you come over and draw too?"

Steve bent down and held Clint's shoulders while he moved back. "Clint would love to go draw," Steve said, giving Clint a little push in Skye's direction. "I have to go to work, and I'll be back in time for swim lessons, okay?"

Clint let Skye take his hand and lead him to the coffee table, all the while looking back over his shoulder at Steve with huge sad eyes.

"Is he sick or something?" James asked once Natasha's loud exclamations of welcome drowned out the adults' voices. "Did he have a bad sleep?"

"I don't know!" Steve said in exasperation. "Normally I'd stay to get him settled, but I've got a meeting I can't miss."

"I'll be here all day," James said. "If everything goes straight to shit, we can watch movies until you get back and try again tomorrow."

"Yeah." Steve rubbed his hand over his face. "I've got all Clint's stuff." He lifted the sports bag to the hall table and unzipped the bag to riffle through its contents. "Swim clothes for later, his hearing aid case with an extra battery…" This Steve extracted and placed on the table. "I brought a change of play clothes in case he wants to get out of that monkey suit. Also his water bottle, some snacks, his comic books, his blanket in case he wants to take a nap—"

James put his hand on top of Steve's. "He'll be okay," James said. "I promise."

Steve was still, staring down at James' hand. "Yeah," Steve said after a minute. "Just… yeah."

"Do you need to get moving?"

"Yeah." Steve stood back, and James reluctantly withdrew his hand. "I should bring my bike over, if I'm going to drop Clint off every morning."

"What good is a bike going to do for you getting into Manhattan?" James asked.

A sudden grin sparkled across Steve's face. "Motorcycle," Steve said. "I built it from the ground up in high school, still have it."

James was diverted from their current problems by the mental image of Steve Rogers on a motorcycle. He swallowed. "Why don't you ride it more?"

"Clint's too small." Steve slapped James on the shoulder. "I should get going."

"Yeah." James turned around, watching as Steve went over to say goodbye to Clint. The little boy was kneeling beside Natasha at the coffee table, crayon clutched in his little hand, but he hadn't made a mark on his paper. Natasha, on the other hand, was in the middle of a vibrant scrawl. Steve said a few words to Clint, patted the boy on the head, and straightened up and came back over to the hallway. "We'll be fine."

"I hope so." Steve hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. "I don't know if it'll make any difference, but you can call me if you need to."

James fixed Steve with a glare. "Go to work."

Steve left, and James closed the door before making his way over to the sofa. Natasha was chattering happily to Skye about all the fun things she wanted to do that summer, with Skye gently encouraging her on. Clint sat still and silent, watching Skye's every move.

James sat down. As Natasha talked, Skye tried to engage Clint in the conversation, but the boy steadfastly refused to open his mouth. After a few minutes, James put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "Hey, Clint," James said quietly. "Do you want to put your glasses on so you can see better?"

Clint shook his head.

"Okay." James patted Clint's shoulder in reassurance, then sat back to watch.

Skye changed her tactics, leaning against the table and saying to the children, "How about we draw something fun we want to do this summer?"

"I'll do it!" Natasha said immediately, reaching for a clean sheet of paper. "I want to do so much! I want to go swimming, and go to the park, and ride a horse, and eat pizza!"

"That's a lot of fun," Skye said. "How about you, Clint? What do you want to do this summer?"

Clint bent his head over his paper. He drew a small circle with his blue crayon, then set it down to fiddle with the edges of the paper. "Go do arrows," whispered the boy.

"That's a good idea," James said. At Skye's inquiring look, he said, "Clint is an exceptional archer. He has classes on Friday afternoons."

"Archery?" Skye's face lit up. "That's really neat. I don't think I know anyone who's into archery."

If she wanted to engage Clint in conversation, it backfired; Clint shrank in on himself and stared at the paper.

Damn it, what was going on? James slipped off the couch and came over to the table, where he knelt between the children. He put his hand on Clint's forehead, but there was no hint of fever. "Hey, kids," James said. Both Natasha and Clint looked up at him. "Now's a good time for a body break."

"What's a body break?" Natasha asked, springing to her feet.

"We look after the body. Go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, shake out the wiggles." James went up on his knees to demonstrate this last, to Natasha's amusement. "So who needs to go pee?"

"I do!" Natasha ran in the direction of the first-floor bathroom. Clint just shook his head, even though James knew it had been a long trip for him on the subway that morning.

"How about water?" James asked. "Your dad said he brought your water bottle, it's over there." He pointed at the hall table.

Obligingly, Clint stood and walked over to the table. He reached up to retrieve his bottle, uncapped the lid, then sat on the floor to drink.

With the children momentarily occupied, James turned to Skye. "What is going on?"

"Separation anxiety?" Skye suggested. "We see it a lot in preschool."

"Clint's five, not three," James said. "I've never seen him like this around strangers."

"Maybe his dad can stay longer tomorrow?" Skye said. "It may take Clint a few days to get comfortable; this is different from school."

"But he's been over here lots," James said.

"Without his dad?"

"Well, no."

Skye nodded. "Give us a few more hours, we'll figure it out."

Things did not improve. James hung back and watched the children with Skye, but Clint kept up his silent staring routine. He went where Natasha went, did what Natasha did, but he was so busy watching Skye that he kept getting mixed up. Even Natasha noticed that something was wrong, but her attempts to engage Clint were met with a silent rebuff.

Finally, after the better part of an hour, James could take it no more. He motioned to Skye to join him, leaving the children to play with the cards. "Something's gotta give," he said. "I'm going to leave for a few minutes, go for a walk, then come back, maybe Clint will loosen up with me away. You okay with that?"

Skye pursed her lips, looking over at the children. "I guess it's worth a try."

"Good." James didn't bother with his prosthesis, just went to grab his jacket from the closet. "Hey, kids, I need to run over to the hardware store. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Natasha put down her playing cards. "What are you going to buy?" she demanded.

"I don't know, something for the garden." James slipped his wallet into his jeans, then his phone into his jacket pocket. "You guys stay here with Skye, I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Okay." Natasha picked up her cards again. "But next time, I'm going to come with you."

"Deal." James looked at Clint, who appeared not to have noticed the conversation at all. A new idea occurred to James, that maybe something was wrong with Clint's hearing aid. He'd look into that when he got back. "Okay, be good for Skye."

And with that, James escaped outside.

It was a lovely day, warming up after all. It would be a good day for running around in the sprinkler in the afternoon. Maybe, after James returned, they could go to the playground, then come back for lunch and hang around until it was time to leave for the children's swimming lessons. That was a good plan.

It only took James five minutes to walk to the hardware store. As he stepped inside, breathed in the air of the dusty supplies, the faint hint of metal on the air, James felt the tension of his morning bleed away. He'd spent a good part of his childhood in hardware stores and on construction sites, and the familiarity of the place sank deep in James' bones.

Someone brushed past James on the way to the door. Shaking off his nostalgia, James headed for the gardening department.

He didn't want to be gone long, but with two children on his hands for the summer, he figured he should get equipment for the both of them to play in the backyard's garden boxes. There was a little hand-held trowel on sale, and a stout little watering can that Clint could carry easily. James dropped the trowel into the opening of the watering can, tossed on top of it two pairs of children's work gloves, and headed for the front.

There was a short line-up, and all told it took James another ten minutes before he was turning the corner onto his street. Shopping bag dangling from his hand, he hoped that things were working okay with the kids, that Clint had loosened up somewhat with Skye. He really wanted this summer to be a special one for the kids. Remembering back to his own childhood, James' best summers had been the ones where he'd been able to spend every waking moment with his best friend.

Lost in thought as his house came into view, James ran his eye over the house's exterior. He should see if he could hire someone to wash the third-story windows; they were getting a little dusty.

Still halfway down the block, James' attention was caught as a second-story window was shoved open. It was the bathroom window. Natasha never opened the window, and James himself only opened it to let out steam from the shower, so why was it opening now?

All these thoughts were swept out of James' head as Clint appeared in the window, head and shoulders poking out. James stopped, because what was Clint doing? He got his answer soon enough, as Clint vanished for a brief instant, before the boy reappeared as he climbed out of the window to stand on the shallow brick ledge outside the window.

A wave of fear and adrenaline pushed James to a sprint. There was no way Clint could stay on the ledge; he was going to fall off and land on the brick stairs and hurt himself, and Steve had left his son with James because James had promised he'd be safe.

In the space of time it took James to run half a block, Clint had shuffled along the ledge to the drainpipe and started climbing down the building, using the spaces between the worn bricks as toeholds for his bare feet. He had made it down to the level with the first floor windows when James jumped the gate, losing the shopping bag in the process. It was only a few more steps to the edge of the building to help Clint jump down. Once the boy was firmly back on solid ground, James grabbed Clint by the shoulder and had to stop himself from giving the boy a shake. "What are you doing?" James gasped. "Clint, you could have hurt yourself!"

Clint wrenched away from James, tears filling his eyes. "I'm going home!" he said loudly.

Wanting to scream, James knelt down and put his hand on Clint's shoulder again. "You can't go home, you're going to spend the summer with Natasha, remember we talked about this?"

"I know!" Clint wailed. "But I don't want a teacher!"

James slumped back on his heels. His heartbeat was slowing down in his chest, but even the memory of the little boy perched precariously on the brickwork was enough to make James feel sick. "You don't like Skye?"

"I don't want her to know I'm dumb!" Clint exclaimed, as two large tears rolled down his cheeks.

James, who had only seen Clint cry over missing his mother, gathered Clint up in a hug. The boy wrapped his arms around James' neck and held on, sniffling.

"Oh boy," James said, mainly to keep from swearing. "Come on, hold tight." He put his arm under Clint's bum and stood, lifting the boy with him. Clint was hanging on tight enough to choke James, but if it meant the boy wasn't running away, James would take what he could get.

James walked around to the steps and sat down, Clint on his lap. He waited until Clint had calmed down enough to loosen his grip on James' neck, then he reached into his jacket pocket for his phone.

"I'm going to let Skye know you're all right, then you and me are going to have a talk, okay?" James asked. Clint nodded. Quickly, James typed out a message to Skye. clint climd out a windw i have hm out on steps thngs ok.

Moments after James hit send, he heard a thunk as something came in contact with glass. He glanced around to see Skye pressed against the living room window, staring down at them in confusion. James gave her a thumbs-up as a sign everything was all right.

Natasha joined Skye, pressing her nose against the glass. "Hi Daddy!" she yelled, loud enough to be heard through the window.

James waved. After a minute, Skye drew Natasha away from the window and James could concentrate on Clint. The boy was playing with a button of James' jacket, his lower lip stuck out in a pout.

With a sigh, James said, "Okay, you want to tell me what made you think Skye's going to think you're dumb? Because you're not dumb. You are a very intelligent little boy."

"No I'm not," came the whispered response.

"Why do you say that?"

Clint sniffled again. "Miss Spitz said I'm too dumb to go to first grade. She's a teacher, she knows."

James pulled on Clint's shoulder until the boy was sitting back. "What exactly did she say?" James demanded.

Clint wiped his nose on his shirt-sleeve. "She said, if it was up to her I'd stay another year in kindergarten because I didn't learn anything this year."

James was appalled. "She said this to you?"

"No, she was talking to Mrs. Anders on Friday at school," Clint said crossly. "But they never think I can hear anything, and so I pretend I can't hear them but I do!"

James took a steadying breath. God, was he happy that Clint wasn't ever going back to that school. "Clint, can I talk to you like a grown-up? Man to man?"

Clint sat up straight, his eyes bright. "Uh huh."

"Okay." James took a moment to gather his thoughts. "So, for starters, you're a very smart kid, I've always known that from the day I met you. Natasha knows it, your dad knows it, and I know it."

"Daddy has to say that," Clint said, gloom spreading over his face.

"Maybe, but I don't. And I guarantee you, Natasha never says stuff about people she doesn't think is true."

Clint rubbed his head. "But you don't know me all that long," he said. "Miss Spitz and Mrs. Anders taught me all year long. They think I'm a dummy."

"Stop calling yourself that," James ordered, his voice a little sharp. "Rule one of summertime in the Barnes' household. No talking down about yourself."

"Why?"

"Because we are a positive household." James heartily wished he'd read those posts about childhood self-esteem on the parenting blogs; it was never a problem he'd experienced with Natasha. "We don't say things that aren't true, and we don't say mean things about ourselves, or about anyone else. You wouldn't call Natasha a dummy, would you?"

"No," Clint said, astonished. "Natasha is smart. She's the smartest girl I ever meet."

"And she thinks you are the smartest boy she's ever met." James patted Clint on the back. "You're smart and intelligent, and most of all you are kind. Now I'm going to tell you something. I've been a lot of places. I've been to Afghanistan, and Iraq, and all over Europe, and I promise you that I'm telling the truth when I say that being kind is about the best thing a man can be."

Clint stared at James. "What about girls?"

"Being kind is the best thing a woman can be, too," James quickly added. "Being kind is very important for everyone. Because it means you are understanding, and have empathy."

"What's that?"

"Hmm." James contemplated checking the definition on the internet, but the last time he tried that with Clint around disruptive, and he still remembered how that emotional disaster ended. He was just going to have to wing it. "Empathy means you can understand what someone's feeling. Like when Natasha is sad, you understand that she's sad."

James knew he was bungling the answer, but Clint was nodding slowly.

Going on, James said, "And you know that when someone gets called a dummy, that makes them feel sad. So you don't do that."

"No," Clint said quickly.

"And," James said, "Sometimes you can imagine what someone is going through. With me, you can understand that I can't pick some things up, even with my prosthesis."

"That's 'cause I have a metal ear!" Clint added, bounce coming back to his body. "And sometimes I can't hear, and when people think I can, or they think I can't hear anything, then I get mad."

"Because they might need a little empathy with what you're going through," James said. Clint nodded. "Good talk. Now, can we talk about why you tried to parkour out a second-story window?"

Clint sagged on James' knee. "Skye is pretty," he said after a moment. "And she talks real nice."

"You think so?"

Clint nodded. "I don't want her to find out I can't read. I don't want her to think I'm a dummy."

"Ah." Suddenly, everything from that morning was slotting into place. "Is that why you were watching Skye this morning?"

Clint squinted up at the sky. "I thought if I looked at her, I'd know what she wanted me to do," he said. "But I just felt sad."

"Let me tell you something about Skye," James said. "She was Natasha's preschool teacher, and she's been a teacher for a whole lot of kids. She's known kids who could read when they were really little and some who couldn't, and some who had trouble with colors and other stuff."

"I'm good at colors," Clint interjected.

"Yes you are. What else are you good at?"

Clint put his finger in his mouth and chewed on the knuckle for a few moments. "I'm good at archering," he said. "And at swimming."

"Yes. And you are also a very good friend. That's really important." He nudged at Clint until the boy stood up. "Now, we have to go inside and explain to Skye why you tried to run away. And later you and me are going to have a talk about how you can't run away."

"Okay." Clint waited while James retrieved the bag from the hardware store, then took hold of James' wrist as they walked together up the stairs.

Inside, Skye and Natasha were building a house of cards with the abandoned deck. At Clint's entrance, Natasha jumped up, knocking over the card house, and ran over to give him a hug. "How'd you get outside?" she demanded.

"We're going to talk about that," James said, urging the children along. "Everyone, sit down, we need to have a conversation."

Skye swept the cards off to the side and slipped onto the sofa. Natasha jumped up beside her. James sat on the edge of the coffee table and Clint leaned against his knee.

"Clint, do you have something to say to Skye?" James asked.

Clint scrubbed at his face with his hands. He took a deep breath, and burst out, "I climbed out a window because I like you!"

Skye put her hand over her mouth. James wasn't sure if she was exasperated or amused. He just hoped she didn't laugh. After a moment, Skye said, "No one's ever jumped out a window because they like me before."

"But I did it," Clint said, turning against James' shoulder.

James said, "Clint was worried this morning that you might not think he was very smart, because he doesn't know how to read quite yet."

"Oh." Skye held out her hands, and Clint ran over to her. "I would never think that. There are a lot of intelligent people who had a hard time learning to read. Everyone learns at their own pace. Even grown-ups."

Clint did not appear convinced. Skye helped him to sit on the sofa at her side, settling back so both children could look at her.

"Do you want to know a secret about learning stuff?" she asked. Both children nodded solemnly. "Most people can learn nearly anything, but the first thing they need is to be exposed to it."

"What's exposed?" Clint asked.

"It sounds bad," Natasha put in.

"It's not bad. It means you're around something. You can't learn to read if there's nothing to read, or you can't see the letters," Skye said. "Or, you can't learn to drive a car if you don't have a car to drive."

"I can't drive until I'm tall enough to reach the pedals," Natasha said.

"When you're sixteen," James said. His daughter ignored him.

"And then, you have to want to learn," Skye said. "That's the same thing for adults. Your dads use computers, but I bet neither off them can hack into the Bank of America, because they have different interests."

James' eyebrows went up at this, because what? But Skye was moving on.

"And the best thing that we can do this summer is to find out what things you want to learn about," she said. "Then I can help you do that."

Clint went up on his knees. "Do you think I can learn to read?" he asked breathlessly.

Skye smiled at Clint. "If you want to try, I will help you."

"I want to try!" Clint exclaimed, punching the air. "I'm gonna learn to read!"

"Me too!" Natasha said, bouncing up and down with excitement. "Daddy, I'm going to learn to read!"

"Excellent," James said. "Both of you, that's awesome. High fives."

Clint and Natasha jumped off the couch and ran over to James for their congratulatory high fives. Then Clint ran back over to Skye. "I can read my name already!" he said in excitement.

"That's a great start," Skye said, ruffling Clint's hair. "Do I get a high five too?"

Clint nearly toppled over with the force of his high five, and he started laughing. Natasha laughed too.

"All right," James said, standing up. "This is all very hungry work. What do you say we go in the kitchen and make a snack?"

"Cupcakes!" Natasha exclaimed. "Daddy, can we make cupcakes?"

"With chocolate chips!" Clint put in.

"Sure, why not," James said. "All right, everyone to the kitchen." The children ran off, screaming in excitement. James held out his hand to help Skye to her feet. "Thanks for being so understanding," he said. "I'll fix the window so he can't get out again."

"It's fine," Skye said, waving it off. "I'm glad you were there to catch him. Trust me, I know what it's like to want to escape."

"Same." A clatter of metal came from the kitchen. "Can you go help them? I'm going to get Clint's change of clothing."

Skye was already heading for the kitchen. When he was alone in the room, James sat back down and let out a groan. Less than two hours since Steve had left, and already Clint had tried to run away by jumping out a window. James just hoped that this did not bode ill for the rest of the summer.

After a minute, James heaved himself to his feet. He shuffled over to the hall table to dig out Clint's change of clothing. Maybe now that he was feeling more settled, the boy would want to switch into something he could play in.

Before heading into the kitchen, James hung his jacket on the rack. He fished out his phone, checked the screen, but there were no messages from Steve. Of course, Steve wouldn't expect his son to jump out of a window on the first day.

James' thumb hovered over the keypad. He could send Steve a message with the story, but what good would that do? Just worry Steve in a place he couldn't do anything about it. James slipped the phone into his pocket. He'd tell Steve what happened later, when the man came to collect them for swimming lessons. That would be better than a phone call or a text.

You keep telling yourself that, James thought as he headed into the kitchen, where the children and Skye were measuring chocolate chips into a bowl. Clint was just as excited as Natasha now, chattering with her and Skye, laughing and smiling. What a change half an hour could make.

James stood watching for a few minutes, then took a deep breath and said, "Who wants to change into play clothes?"

"I do!" Clint exclaimed, jumping down from the chair by the counter and running over. "This shirt is itchy!"

"I'm already in play clothes," Natasha reminded James. "These are my happy clothes. When I wear rainbow colors on the outside, I feel like rainbow colors on the inside."

"I have a bird on my shirt!" Clint said as he stripped down to his skivvies in the middle of the kitchen. "My bird shirt makes me happy!"

With the shirt on, Clint tried to run back over to the counter without bothering to put on his pants, but James caught him and made him pull on his shorts before he could rejoin the girls.

Then James went to get a cup of coffee and observe the organized chaos at the counter. Skye didn't seem to need his help with the children, deftly directing their attention to the right place as the baking lesson proceeded. So James sat, and watched the children, and finally allowed himself to think that maybe, just maybe, this summer would work out after all.


The rest of the day passed in relative calm. They got the cupcakes into the oven without making too much of a mess, then James sent the kids into the backyard with the new gardening tools. Both Clint and Natasha were thrilled to have their very own pair of work gloves, and they pottered around importantly until it was time to go back inside to have their snack.

Then it was time to go to the park, and Natasha pouted a little as Clint got to take his water bottle while she did not have one. Only after James promised to ask Steve where he'd bought it, so Natasha could have one of her very own, did the girl allow herself to be hustled out of the house and down the street.

After an hour on the playground, during which Skye was the one to keep up with the kids, pushing them on the swings while James had a protracted phone conversation with Maria about work, they all headed home and James broke out a treat he'd been saving: chicken nuggets for lunch.

Natasha was so excited she nearly fell off her chair.

After lunch, the children changed into their bathing suits and spent a few hours running through the sprinkler in the back yard. James and Skye sat supervising on the patio. Well, James supervised; Skye was doing research on age-appropriate learning materials to help Clint in his newly discovered quest to read.

All too soon, it seemed, the day was ending and Steve Rogers was knocking on the front door. James asked Skye to keep an eye on the kids while he talked to Steve, and went to face the lion in his den. All in all, Steve took the news of Clint's escape attempt better than James expected.

"A second-story window?" Steve shouted, his arms flailing wildly. "How did he not hurt himself?"

"Toeholds in the bricks," James said, slumped on the sofa, clutching a pillow to his chest. "Has he ever been on a climbing wall?"

"No, goddamnit!" Steve said, pacing in a circle. "What am I going to do with him?"

"You're sure as hell not going to yell at him like this," James said, and that penetrated through Steve's frustration. The man's shoulders slumped, and he came over to collapse on the sofa beside James. "Talk to him, Steve. He responded to that after I caught him trying to make a break."

Steve dropped his head into his hands. "Jesus, Bucky, what the hell."

James took pity on Steve, patting the man on the back. "He's got a year's worth of crap to get over, give him time."

"Fuck."

A chorus of noise preceded the children into the living room, dripping on every available surface. Skye was in their wake, holding her phone out to display the time. "I have to go, I've got a class," she said apologetically.

"No problem." James staggered to his feet. "Nat, go upstairs and change into dry clothes, we have to go to swim class."

"Bye Skye!" Natasha screeched, running up the stairs.

Clint made a beeline for his father and tried to hug the man, but Steve held him off until he could slip out of his suit jacket. "Oh, Clint, we need to talk," Steve said.

Tactfully, James saw Skye out. They stood on the step talking about the week's schedule, including James' physio appointment the following morning, then Skye's early departure on Wednesday, and the fact that Friday was the Fourth of July and did James need Skye to come in on the holiday?

"Nah, we'll be good," James said. Something about the day pinged in his head. What was it? Oh right, that was Steve's birthday. "But can you guys make birthday presents for Steve this week?"

"Anything you say, boss." Skye headed off down the steps and turned in the direction of the subway station.

Squaring his shoulders, James went back inside.

Steve was cross-legged on the ground, talking quietly to a sad-faced Clint. On James' entrance, Steve patted Clint on the head and sent him over to get the sports bag. "You in trouble?" James asked Clint.

"Yeah," Clint said. " 'Cause I tried to run away, I can't have any juice for two whole days."

"Huh."

"And I gotta 'pologize to Skye and I can't never run away from anyone again."

"Clint, go change back into your clothes so we can go to swim lessons, please," Steve said from the floor. With a huff, Clint grabbed his towel and stalked off toward the kitchen. "Kids."

"Yeah. Hey, Friday's your birthday."

"So?" Steve asked as he climbed to his feet.

"So got any plans?"

"Nah. Clint's archery class is cancelled because of the holiday. I have to work, though."

"Wow, that's shitty."

Steve shrugged. "There's a big donor we're preparing a dossier for. It was either my staff works through the day, or I take one for the team."

"Such an altruist," James said.

"No, a realist. Tony gives his employees holidays off with pay. If I ask my people to work that day, it's double-time pay and a day off in lieu. It's not in the budget."

"So you let them have the day off and keep the holiday pay for yourself."

Steve punched James lightly in the right bicep. "Shut up, that's not it at all."

"Whatever. What are you doing for your birthday?"

"I figured me and Clint could get dinner after I pick him up." Steve paused for a moment. "Oh, shit. Is Skye coming over on Friday?"

"Nope. Guess I got the kids all to myself."

"Bucky, I—"

"—Are going to shut your yap and let me take care of the kids. Consider it a birthday present."

The expression of relief on Steve's face made James almost feel bad. "You're the best friend a guy could have."

A simultaneous rush of gratitude and guilt coursed through James' body. "You'd do the same for me," he said.

"I would."

Steve's smile was almost too much, like staring into the sun. James shook his head. "How about we have a party here when you're done?" he suggested. "Some burgers, some hot dogs. I'm pretty sure I have a grill somewhere, I can go pick up some charcoal."

"Bucky, you always have the best ideas," Steve said. "You think we can see the fireworks from the backyard?"

"No, but maybe from the roof."

"What's on the roof?" Clint asked, wandering back into the room.

"Fireworks on your daddy's birthday," James said.

"I like fireworks, they go boom!"

"Same here, peanut." James went over to the stairs. "Natasha, get moving! We're going to be late!"

He turned around and nearly tripped over Clint. The boy was staring up at him. "Did you give me a nickname?" he asked excitedly.

James reviewed what he'd said. "It looks like I did."

Clint beamed. "I have a nickname!" he exclaimed, and ran over to Steve, who picked him up and swung him around. "Daddy, I have a nickname!"

"That's pretty neat."

"Daddy, does James have a nickname for you?"

"I've got a few," James said under his breath as Natasha flounced down the stairs. For some reason, she was wearing her pink princess dress.

"I'm ready to go," she said, arms crossed defiantly.

James sighed. He was too tired for this argument. "Do you have your bathing suit?" was all he asked, and then they were all heading out the door for the jeep to go to swimming lessons.

All in all, it had been a day where everything turned out okay in the end.


Compared to the first day of the week, everything else was a wild success. James' physio appointment went well, the children (and Skye) none the worse for wear at his absence. Skye's early exit on Wednesday was smoothed over by James taking the children to the hardware store for an afternoon of browsing. Clint's favorite part was the paint samples, while Natasha poked at the sharp tools and kept asking, "What's that for?"

On Thursday, Skye had the kids working on crafts to give Steve for his birthday, which let James go do a bit of grocery shopping to prepare for the cook-out on Friday. He welcomed the break, as he had been trying for days to think about what to give Steve for his birthday.

They weren't children anymore, so comic books were out. They were just so different now; James didn't know what Steve was into, besides being a dad. James supposed he could get something for Clint, but no that would be weird, and besides Clint's birthday was in a month's time.

As he neared the produce section, James was getting a little desperate. Maybe he could just give Steve a coffee gift card and be done with it, James was thinking in disgust as he selected potatoes, when all of a sudden inspiration struck.

Baseball. Steve had liked baseball as a kid. Maybe that was what James could get him, a day out at a ball game. For the giddiest of moments, James thought that maybe he could take Steve out to the game, not a date but just them, hanging out. Then reality rushed back in with a bump. If James and Steve went to a ball game, that left no one to watch the children, and taking two five-year-olds to a baseball game would turn into a babysitting experience.

So that was what James would do, he thought, feeling as though he'd lost something. He would get Steve tickets to a baseball game, two tickets so Steve could take someone he liked, and James would stay home with the children. It wasn't a hardship; James enjoyed having the two kids around. But for a brief instant, James had fantasized what it would be like to enjoy a baseball game with Steve, four uninterrupted hours of close physical proximity to Steve Rogers.

But it wasn't to be. James might be in love with his best friend, but Steve would never know. Steve was straight, and totally out of James' league.


Friday started off well. Steve dropped Clint off early, so James got the kids their breakfast and then everyone got dressed and headed off to the park. After that, the trio headed over to a small street fair by Natasha's dance studio. James had taken the precaution of pinning slips of paper with the children's emergency contacts inside their pockets in case they had any run-away incidents, but both Clint and Natasha were very well behaved as they walked the streets, holding on to James' hands. Natasha clung to James' right hand, while Clint was happy to hold James' metal hand, even if he tugged too hard occasionally.

James had promised the children that they could each buy one special treat. Clint early on picked a shiny pinwheel that spun as he walked. Natasha took more time in her perusal of the stalls, but ended up picking a long fluttery ribbon on a stick, similar to a gymnast's ribbon. James cautioned them both to make sure they didn't hit anyone with their toys, and off they went.

It was a lovely day, and the only thing wrong was that Steve wasn't with them to enjoy it. James took lots of pictures for Steve, and when they all finally made it home, everyone was tired and cranky.

James made the unpopular decision for an hour of naptime. The children argued every step of the way, but soon after James had them down (Natasha in her room, Clint in the spare room across the hall) the children were fast asleep. James could have used a nap of his own, but instead he went to the kitchen to get ready for the evening meal.

The children were up and helping James make the salad when Steve arrived. He got a round of happy birthday! and open my present! from the children, and it was a precarious few minutes before he could actually make it into the kitchen.

"We'll open presents after dinner," James told the children. "Can you set the table, please?"

As the children ran around underfoot, Steve removed his suit jacket and tie before moving over to the sink to wash his hands. "Can I help?" Steve asked, sneaking a slice of carrot out of the salad bowl.

"Sure, you're on condiments," James said, his attention divided between the pots on the stove. "The charcoal's already lit. I wasn't sure if you wanted to eat outside, it might be a bit chilly."

"In here's good," Steve said with a smile. "Thanks for doing this, Bucky, it's been a long time since anyone threw me a birthday party."

"What about your adoptive family?" James asked.

"Sally and Kimberly both live on the west coast now," Steve said as he went to gather bottles from the fridge. "Ever since he retired, Abraham spends June and part of July with them. Of course," Steve said with a smile, "These days he's sure to be back by early August."

"Clint's birthday?"

"Of course. Nothing could keep Grandpa Abraham away from one of his grandchildren on their birthdays."

Clint, who was holding two forks like drumsticks as he walked to the table, said, "Grandpa Abraham is my favorite grandpa."

"Then he's mine too," Natasha put in, carrying a stack of paper napkins as she followed Clint.

James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "What about Sharon's parents?"

Steve made a face as if he'd smelled sour milk. "When Sharon told them that she was going overseas to work and that she was signing over full custody to me, they flipped out," he said in an undertone. "Said how could a young punk like me raise their grandson, all that kind of crap."

"That sucks," James said.

Steve smiled then, sharp and not entirely pleasant. "You know what, though? They know where I live, have my phone number, and they haven't even tried to see Clint once in the last four years." He slammed the fridge door shut. "That's fine. We don't need them. Everyone who cares about us, they make time for us."

James stood watching as Steve carried an armful of bottles to the table. Clint and Natasha both 'helped' Steve set the bottles in the right order. "Daddy, are we gonna see Grandpa Abraham for Hanukkah this year?" Clint asked.

"You bet we are," Steve said. "Same as every year, we're going to his house for the first night and we're going to see your aunts and uncles and cousins."

"Yes!" Clint put his hands in the air. "I like grandpa's house, it's big and there are huge trees and when I'm big enough I can climb them! Am I big enough?"

"Not yet," Steve said, ruffling Clint's hair. "Maybe when you're ten."

"That's too long," Clint complained, smoothing his hair back in place. "I do it when I'm seven."

"We don't have Hanukkah, we have Christmas," Natasha informed Steve and Clint. "We get a little tree, and we make decorations, and I can't light a fire in the chimney on Christmas morning because maybe Santa's stuck and he gets all burnt up."

Wondering where the hell Natasha had gotten that last tidbit, James said, "You can't light the fire because the chimney's bricked up to keep the drafts out."

"Then how can Santa get down?" Natasha demanded hotly.

"He's magic," James said. "He can get through the cracks in the bricks. Who's going to help me with the potato salad?"

Eventually, the table was set and everyone crowded around the charcoal grill outside for the ceremonial laying-on of the hamburgers. After a few minutes of watching things sizzle, the kids went to check on their garden boxes while Steve and James were left standing by the grill.

"So," Steve said, hands in his pocket. "Clint's been having a great time this week."

"He's a good kid," James said, testing the edge of a burger with the metal spatula. "Those two, they keep each other occupied. I'll tell you, I've never seen Natasha so happy. Even last summer with Skye, she wasn't this into things. Having a friend is really helping."

"Yeah." Steve rocked back and forth on his heels. "I mean, other than Monday—"

"Monday doesn't count."

"—Clint has never gotten up in the morning so easily," Steve went on. "He's always so excited to come over here." Now Steve was watching the children; Clint was talking to the carrot tops while Natasha carefully turned over trowels of dirt between the beets. "It's just…"

James waited.

"This is going to sound stupid, but he's blossoming," Steve said, the faintest tremble in his voice. "With Natasha, and with you and with Skye… I didn't realize how much that school was no good for him until this week."

"You know that I'd do anything for Clint," James said as he rolled the hot dogs.

"Yeah, I know."

James kept his eyes on the burgers, giving Steve a semblance of privacy. James was aware that a lot of his coping mechanisms around emotion came from being in hyper-masculine environments, sports in high school and then the Army, but even knowing that and having a little girl who talked about her emotions at the drop of a hat, he couldn't look at Steve.

A voice in his head kept saying that real men didn't cry because their kids were doing well, real men didn't have feelings, and it took him a few moments to realize that it was his father's voice he was imagining.

Breathing over the sharp flutter of his heart in his throat, James took a step back from the grill. "Here," he said roughly, handing the spatula to Steve. "You do this, I gotta check on the cake."

The cake was perfectly fine and waiting in the refrigerator, but it gave James a momentary respite to go inside, close the door, and lean against the counter waiting for his heart to stop racing.

He wasn't his father. There was nothing wrong with Steve being emotional about his kid making progress, about good things happening, and no one was going to come in and hurt Steve because of it, James didn't have to worry about that. He didn't have anything to worry about, only the echoes of long-ingrained lessons.

James pressed his hand against the counter, the straps of his prosthetic arm digging into his ribs. He'd worn it while they were out to keep better hold of the children's hands, but now they were home, and James' wasn't the only adult hand around. Steve was there. Steve could handle things if James needed help.

Pushing off the counter, James pulled his shirt over his head and quickly undid the straps holding his metal arm to his body. The strap on his ribs had rubbed raw with all the activity of the day, first trying to hold onto Clint at the street fair and then later in the kitchen. James carefully put the arm on top of the fridge, out of the way of curious little hands, when the back door opened and Steve came in. He pulled up short at the sight of James with his shirt off. "Oh."

James made a face. Steve must have seen the raw spot on his side. "It'll be fine," James said, pulling his shirt over his head. "Give it a few days and I'll be fine. All that heavy lifting."

Steve ran his tongue over his lower lip. "I think the burgers might be done. How pink do you want yours?"

James restrained himself. "Whatever. Wait, did you leave the kids out there with the grill?"

"I told them not to touch it," Steve said as James brushed past him out the door. On the patio, Clint and Natasha were both holding the handle of the spatula and watching the sputtering grill from a safe distance.

"Daddy, we're supervising," Natasha informed him.

"Good." He ran his hand over Natasha's hair. "How about you two pumpkins go and wash your hands and we can eat?"

He grabbed the spatula from the children as they rushed into the house, nearly trampling Steve. Twirling the spatula in his fingers, James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "Hey, want to make yourself useful and lend me a hand?"

The exasperated expression on Steve's face was worth the pun.


Dinner was good, if a bit loud. The children were almost too excited to eat, but the four of them managed to pack away most of the salads, burgers, hotdogs and corn. As they ate, the kids told Steve all about their day at the street fair and showed him their new toys. The man was suitably impressed.

Then James made the kids help him clear the table before he would bring out the cake. "And you go get your presents for Steve," James said as Clint tried to grab at the birthday candles. "Remember all that hard work you did?"

Once the children stampeded out of the room, James gave Steve a rueful smile. "I didn't think this whole one-armed cake carrying thing through."

"I'll do anything for cake, including carry it myself," Steve said. He picked up the sheet cake James had bought from a bakery down the street and carried it to the table. "This looks patriotic."

The cake was decorated in icing bursts of fireworks and a large American flag. "What can I say, they had a special."

The children rushed back into the room. "Open mine first!" Clint shouted, shoving a box at Steve.

"No, open mine first!"

"Gifts on the table!" James ordered. "We'll cut the cake first. Now sit!" The children sat, giggling the whole time. James fished a lighter out of the junk drawer and headed over to the table. After lighting the candles, he sat down in the chair next to Natasha and said, "Can we sing Steve the happy birthday song like we practiced?"

The children launched into an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday, James singing along to keep them on the melody. In the light from the candles, Steve's smile was warm and happy, and James' heart melted at the sight.

"Now blow!" Clint commanded as the song ended.

"Okay." Steve leaned forward and blew out the candles in one breath. The children clapped at this feat. "Now what?"

"Present time," James said as he reached for the cake with a knife.

The children surged forward, pushing their hand-wrapped gifts at Steve. "Come here," Steve instructed, pulling Natasha and Clint onto his knees and putting his arms around them. "Now, what do we have?"

Skye's idea of a birthday craft had consisted of a paperweight (a hand-painted rock with large goggly eyes glued on; Clint's was a peacock, Natasha's a tiger) and a hand-drawn birthday card. Clint ripped open the envelope for Steve and handed his father the card. "Look, Daddy, I wrote it all myself!" the boy said excitedly. "Skye showed me but I wrote the words, 'Happy Birthday Daddy, from Clint'!"

Steve looked at the card, with its rickety large letters spelled out in purple glitter marker, and gathered Clint into a hug. "That's the best birthday gift ever," he said against Clint's hair. "Thanks, Clint."

On Steve's other knee, Natasha looked at Steve and Clint with the beginnings of a pout on her lips. "I made you a card too," she said.

"You did?" Steve said, sitting up. "Show it to me."

Natasha ripped open the envelope and pulled her card free. "This is for you," she said. "I drawed you and Daddy and me and Clint and we are all at Disneyland."

From his side of the table, James could see the artwork clear as day. Steve smiled at Natasha as he opened the card. " 'Happy Birthday Steve Rogers'," he read. " 'From Natasha Barnes'. Thanks, Nat, this is a lovely card."

"You're sure lucky to have two birthday cards," James said. He reached into his back pocket and handed a folded piece of paper to Steve. "Sorry it's so crappy."

"It's fine," Steve said before he opened the paper. "Baseball tickets?" he blurted out.

"Yeah," James said, feeling his ears going red. "I thought, you know, you liked baseball. I thought you could take someone special. I'll watch the kids."

Steve looked at the paper in wonder. "Bucky, this is just a great idea, I haven't gone to a game in years." He looked up at James, smiling. "But hey, we should go, together. It'd be great."

James' heart dropped into his stomach. He knew that Steve didn't mean it like that, but all the same some part of him wanted it to be real, wanted Steve to take him to the game because he wanted to spend time with James. But that wasn't what Steve meant. Forcing himself to smile, James said, "Yeah, sure, that would be great."

On Steve's knee, Clint reached for the paper. "What's baseball?" he asked, squinting at the page.

"You know baseball," Steve reminded him. "The kids down the street play it all the time."

"Can I come too?" Clint asked.

That wasn't what James had planned, not at all, but at least that way James wouldn't have to worry about a babysitter. "We can take the kids, make a day of it," he said, pushing down the disappointment in his chest at not getting to spend the day alone with Steve.

Maybe it was James' imagination, but Steve's smile slipped a little. "Yeah, good idea," the man said. "Family outing."

Natasha slipped off Steve's knee and went back to her chair. "I'm not going," she said. "Baseball is boring."

James opened his mouth to argue, but decided against it. He'd deal with Natasha's problems with organized sports at a later time. "Who wants cake?" he said instead, and was rewarded with cheers from the children and a happy grin from Steve.

Sometimes, James reminded himself, he had to quit while he was ahead.


After cake, after dishes, James and Steve talked the children into changing into their pajamas to watch a movie. That carried them through until dark, when James led the way up to the roof, through the dusty third floor to the bolted door. The keys turned the two double-sided deadbolt locks, and the door hinges creaked as the door opened.

Natasha clutched at Clint's arm. "Are there ghosts on the roof?" she asked breathlessly.

"Nope, just some lawn chairs." When Natasha didn't move, James went over and picked her up. "Come on, let's go."

Clint took Steve's hand to climb the stairs, and the four of them emerged onto the flat brownstone roof in one piece, even if Natasha tried to strangle James with the strength of her grip.

In the distance, the warning flares were going up. Steve and James made their way over to the lawn chairs James had put up the previous afternoon and set up the children in their own little lawn chairs. James then pulled out the bag of sparklers he'd picked up at the hardware store, and lit them for Clint and Natasha to wave around as the night darkened.

Once the fireworks started on the river, the children climbed into their respective fathers' laps. New York put on quite a show of fireworks, with each volley over the river reaching higher and higher. The children cheered on the first few shots, and then Clint promptly fell asleep against Steve's chest.

"You okay with all this?" Steve asked quietly, as Natasha's interest waned with Clint unconscious. "The explosions and all."

"I'm fine," James said. "Things blowing up miles away is fine. Just no firecrackers in the backyard, okay?"

"Deal."

They watched the fireworks go on. Natasha gave a huge yawn as she curled up against James' chest. "Daddy, I'm sleepy," she mumbled, trying to keep her eyes open.

"That's okay," James told her quietly. "I'll carry you to bed."

"Happy birthday, Daddy," Natasha slurred.

James kissed her hair. "Not my birthday, sweet pea," he whispered as he shifted Natasha up his chest, to rest her head on his shoulder. The girl wiggled sleepily, whispered something, and gradually went limp.

"What did she say?" Steve asked during a lull in the fireworks.

"I'm pretty sure she said 'farts'."

Steve let out an involuntary snort.

"Shut up."

"I didn't say anything."

"Whatever, jerk." James put his hand on Natasha's back so she wouldn't slide. "They're five."

"Like we were any better at twelve."

Steve went back to watching the fireworks, the colors from the blasts reflecting off his face. In profile like this, Steve was perfect, a piece of art in the dark of the evening.

After a minute, Steve looked over at James, and James realized that he had been staring. "Thanks, Bucky," Steve said quietly. "This… well, it's one of the best birthdays I've had in a very long time."

"Good," James said, all of the hard work from the day suddenly fading from his mind. "I mean… yeah, because it's the first time in a while with you and me, you know?"

His heart pounding in his chest, James waited for Steve to deflect, something, but the man just nodded. "Yeah, Bucky. I know."

And with that, they lapsed into a comfortable silence, their children fast asleep as the fireworks flew high over the city, celebrating the Fourth of July.

Chapter Text


A soft shuffling sound in the hallway drew James' attention away from his computer. "Hi Clint," he said, pushing his chair back from the desk. "You okay?"

"Uh huh." Clint leaned against the doorframe, his mouth turned down into a pout.

James glanced at the clock. He had to get the proposal draft to Maria before two, or else she'd have his head. But he didn't want to send Clint back upstairs without figuring out what was going on. "Do you want to come in for a visit?"

Clint nodded as he walked into the office. It was a hot day in Brooklyn and even in the house it was warm; at some point in the day Clint had shucked off his socks and rolled his t-shirt sleeves up so his arms were bare.

"You can stay as long as you want, but you have to be quiet until I finish what I'm working on, okay?" James said. "I'll be done soon."

Clint nodded again, pressing a finger against his lips, then took a running jump to land on the worn leather sofa against the wall. James went back to the proposal he was working on, but first sent a quick email to Skye to let her know that Clint was with him.

It had happened a few times in the two and a half weeks since Clint and Natasha started their summer days with Skye in James' big house, that Clint needed a bit of quiet time away from the girls (usually when Natasha was being overly excitable), and usually the boy sought James out. Eventually, Clint would get bored with James' old man ways and climb back up the two flights of stairs to where Skye and Natasha were engaged in the activity of the day on the third floor.

Today, however, something was different. Instead of his usual pattern of poking at various items lying around the room, Clint just lay on the leather sofa and sulked.

Well, sulked as much as an energetic five-year-old could; in the fifteen minutes it took James to finish the final paragraph in the document, Clint had changed position twenty times, letting out loud sighs every couple of minutes. By the time James was ready to send the saved file to the secure server, Clint was lying face down, legs sticking up over the arm of the sofa, his arms flung wide.

As soon as the file upload was complete, James sent Maria a quick text, file up ur turn k. Then he put the computer into sleep mode and turned his chair around. "What's up?"

Immediately, Clint blew a raspberry against the leather of the sofa cushion. "Reading's dumb," the boy said darkly, rolling onto his side. He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, then wiped his hand on the sofa.

James sighed, too resigned to the general destruction of his personal property by tiny children to be upset about the snot stain on the leather. "Come here," he said, and Clint slid off the sofa to meander over to James' side. "First thing, blow your nose," and Clint took the offered tissue to blow his nose with a loud honk. "Where are your glasses?"

"With Skye," Clint said, stuffing the used tissue into James' outstretched hand. "She said I could take them off if I wanted but only if I gave them to her to keep safe." He eyed James to see what the man might make of this.

"That's a good idea," James said. "Were they making your head hurt?"

Clint shook his head. "When I wear them, she tries to make me read," he said. "And sometimes I don't wanna."

"Makes sense." James heaved himself to his feet. "How about we go get Skye and Natasha and go to the park before Skye has to leave?"

"Okay." Clint took hold of James' metal hand and together they climbed the stairs to the third floor.


It was Wednesday, Skye's day to leave early for her class, so Skye packed up her things and walked with James, Natasha and Clint to the playground before giving the children hugs and heading off to the subway.

Then Clint and Natasha ran off to play dinosaurs, leaving James to slump on a nearby bench. It was a sunny day and James was vaguely thinking that he should have put some sunscreen on the children before they left the house, when his phone pinged with a new text. It was Maria, and James was soon engrossed in a good deal of back-and forth concerning their latest work project.

In the middle of the discussion, Steve sent a text that read, At the house where are you? James shot back the park w swings before returning to wrap up his discussion with Maria.

Ten minutes later, the subdued roar of a motorcycle engine alerted James to Steve's arrival. Clint and Natasha jumped down from the rock where they had been roaring their dinosaur mastery of the entire playground, and ran up to Steve as the man was removing his helmet, James on their heels. In his leather jacket and worn jeans, his hair tousled from the helmet, Steve looked like a model or a movie star; perfect.

"Daddy!" Clint squealed, flinging himself at the man as soon as he was standing on the sidewalk. "I learned to read a new word today!"

"You did?" Steve asked, catching Clint and tossing him into the air. Clint screamed with delight. "What's the word?"

"Paper," Clint said proudly. "It has two pees." He held up his index and middle fingers in a peace sign. "Two."

"That's great," Steve said, smiling widely. "Good for you."

Clint beamed.

"Hey!" Natasha said, tugging on Steve's jeans. Steve looked down. "Why'd you always fly Clint but you never fly me?"

Steve set Clint down and knelt to talk to Natasha. "Do you want me to throw you up in the air?" he asked.

The girl nodded, holding out her arms.

With a quick glance at James, Steve picked Natasha up. "Are you ready?"

So high in the air, Natasha's courage momentarily deserted her. She clutched at Steve's shirt collar. "I don't know," she whispered.

"I promise I'll catch you, okay?" Steve said.

Natasha loosened her hold on Steve's collar. "Okay." She set her jaw in determination. "You can do it."

With great care, Steve tossed Natasha approximately six inches into the air before catching her in a scoop hold. She squealed and grabbed at him, a shaky smile on her face as Steve set her on the ground.

"That was scary!" Natasha exclaimed, disentangling herself from Steve's grasp and running over to Clint. "Come on, we gotta go play more dinosaurs!" Clint took Natasha's hand and together they ran back over to the large rock.

"She doesn't like heights?" Steve asked, looking after the children.

"She's got a crippled old man who thought it a good idea to avoid throwing his kid into the wind," James corrected. "Why are you off work so early?"

Steve clapped James on the shoulder. "I had an idea."

James didn't move. "What kind of idea?" he demanded.

"A fun one." Steve smiled at James, amusement dancing in his eyes. "When have I ever steered you wrong?"

"That stunt in third grade that nearly got us suspended," James said immediately, but he let himself be pushed in the direction of the bench. "Or that time at summer camp when we were ten?"

"Shut up, this is nothing like that," Steve said, plopping down on the bench at James' side. "What do you say we take the kids to Coney Island?"

This was so out of the blue that James stared at Steve. "When?"

"Today, right now." Steve flung his arm over the back of the bench. James was painfully aware of the man's hand, barely an inch from James' shoulder. "It shouldn't be too busy."

"That's because it's three o'clock on a Wednesday," James said. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Steve let his gaze wander toward the children. "I had a good day at work, okay? Clint's been bugging me to take him on the roller coaster for ages, and I thought maybe we could go together."

As ideas went, it wasn't one of Steve's best; James could think of a dozen reasons not to take the kids to Coney Island at this time of day – what would they do for dinner, the kids had already had a long day without a nap, let alone the cost of parking. But the wistful expression on Steve's face stilled James' tongue, and he found himself saying, "All right, but you're on sunscreen duty."

The slow, warm smile on Steve's face was almost enough to make James forget his misgivings. Almost.


Upon their return to the house, Steve broke the good news. Clint screamed so loudly that James wondered if the neighbors would call the cops, but Natasha just stared up at Steve, puzzled. "What's that place?" she asked.

"They have a roller coaster!" Clint exclaimed, literally jumping up and down. "Can I go on the roller coaster, Daddy?"

"Coney Island is an amusement park," James said, kneeling down to straighten the strap of Natasha's sundress. The skin on her shoulders was still pale, they hadn't been out in the sun for too long, but James wasn't going to run the risk of his daughter getting a sunburn. "You can ride rides, or you can stay with me and hold my hand."

"Is it big?" Natasha asked, her eyes wide.

"No bigger than any other place we go." James smoothed down her hair. "I'll be with you the whole time. Now I need you to run upstairs and change into a t-shirt and shorts, clothes you can run around in. And make sure we have your inhaler."

"Okay." Natasha headed up the stairs, moving quickly. Steve had managed to reduce Clint's energy level to a low bounce and was applying sunscreen to his son's face and neck.

"Which roller coaster are you going to ride?" James asked.

"All of them!" Clint said. "I never been, but I wanna ride the fastest one."

James sighed. "All right, you corral the troops, I'm going to get supplies," he told Steve. "Meet back in five."

"What supplies?" Steve called after James as the man moved into his office.

"Road trip necessaries," James replied. He reached into the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk, pulling out the thin sheaf of papers he carried with him whenever he and Natasha were going into a situation. If Natasha was separated from him in the crowds (not impossible, given Clint's propensity to run away), or there was some sort of medical emergency, James had her health records and the legal documentation to prove his guardianship. He was less likely to need it these days, with Natasha being of an age where she was vocal and aware, but James still carried the documents with him.

The packet had been Nick Fury's suggestion, when James had mentioned to the man that he was planning on taking two-year-old Natasha on a ferry ride to Staten Island. James had never needed to use the papers, but he'd be damned if he'd leave anything behind.

While Steve was getting the children into their running shoes and exhorting them to tie their own laces, James ducked into the kitchen, pulled a knapsack from the hooks by the backdoor, then dropped in three bottles of water from the fridge, two protein bars, one bag of dried mango slices, a handful of baby wax cheeses, a travel-sized packet of Kleenex and a couple of elastic bands.

"Daddy!" Natasha screeched from the living room. "We gotta go roll the coaster!"

"Coming, sweet pea!" James made a quick adjustment of his metal arm, settling the prosthesis on his left arm stump, and picked up his knapsack. "Do you have your inhaler?"

Natasha brandished her asthma inhaler. James added that to his bag. Clint tried to take off his glasses and stuff them in the bag too, but Steve stopped him.

"All right," James said solemnly. "Before we go, I want to take a picture. Everyone up next to Steve." The children mashed themselves against Steve, and the man put his arms around the kids. James tried to ignore the look Steve was giving him. "Everyone, say pizza!"

"Pizza!" yelled the kids, and James snapped the picture on his phone.

"Okay, into the car."

The kids ran towards the door as James quickly emailed the picture to himself. "What was that about?" Steve asked, taking the knapsack out of James' hand so the man could set the house alarm.

"In case one of them runs off," James said quietly. "It's just a precaution."

"Why do you always plan for the worst-case scenario?"

"I own a security consulting firm, Steve, that's how I make ends meet." The alarm pinging in warning, James shouldered Steve out of the house, pulled the outer door closed behind him and locked the deadbolt. "Besides, after you get your arm blown off, the worst-case scenario don't seem so unlikely, does it?"

"You never used to be like this as a kid," Steve said, following James down the steps.

"And you never used to ride a motorcycle, but we all grow up." James slung his knapsack into the front seat through the jeep's open window, then went to make sure Clint and Natasha were buckled in. "Ready to go?"

While Natasha cheered, Clint nodded so hard his glasses fell off.


The drive was a pleasant one. James skipped going through the city, instead taking the shore parkway and listening to Steve point out the sights to the children.

If it had been just James, he'd have kept driving and parked in a free spot he knew, a twenty-minute walk from the waterfront, but with the added complication of herding two small children and Steve, James just gave all that up and drove into the parking lot.

The cost of parking made James wince, but he paid up and rejoined Steve and the kids on the sidewalk. Clint was jumping up and down, but Natasha was looking around her with eyes wide at the new sights.

The place wasn't too crowded for a weekday. Steve held the children's hands while James walked at their side, keeping an eye on the crowds.

"Do we want to go on some rides first?" Steve asked.

"I wanna go on a roller coaster!" Clint shouted.

"I want to ride the horsies," Natasha countered.

"We're closer to the carousel," James said, jumping in before any strife arose between friends. "Let's do that first."

Clint looked at James suspiciously. "Can we go on more than one ride?"

"Of course," James said in all seriousness. "Your dad's paying for the rides, so I say we go on all the rides."

"Hey," Steve protested, while the children dissolved into giggles. "Why am I paying for ride tickets?"

"Because I'm paying for dinner," James said, adjusting the knapsack strap over his prosthesis's shoulder. "Come on, kids, let's find that carousel!"


After the carousel, the fun continued. Steve marched everyone over to the children's rides and while at first Clint seemed hesitant, soon he was running from ride to ride with as much enthusiasm as Natasha. Steve and James watched from the sidelines, waving at the kids as they zipped past, as Steve talked about his day and the scholarship deal he'd helped the Stark Foundation set up with the New York Academy of Art. Steve was so happy, and the children so excited, that James should have known that everything would soon fall apart around him.

After the kids came off the balloon ride, James sat everyone down and handed out water and snacks for the kids while sunscreen was reapplied. Clint chewed on dried mango while Natasha made Steve peel a wax cheese for her. James concentrated on keeping the sunscreen away from the metal of his prosthetic hand as he rubbed sunscreen on the back of Natasha's neck.

During the snack, there was a serious discussion around the roller coaster. Clint desperately wanted to go on the big coaster, but, as Steve pointed out three times, he wasn't tall enough. There was another coaster Clint and Natasha would both go on if they had someone with them, wasn't that fun?

Clint, after the emotional excitement of the past few hours, couldn't handle this disappointment and burst into tears. Natasha shoved the last of her cheese into her mouth and went over to put her arms around Clint. "You okay," she said, patting him on the back with cheesy fingers. "When you are big, you can ride the roller coaster all day."

"But I want to be big now!" Clint wailed. With a sigh, Steve scooped both children up and onto his lap, patting Clint's shoulder as the boy sniffled his way back to equilibrium.

"I want to be big all the time," Natasha told Clint. "Daddy said one day I will be big enough to reach the microwave, and to drive a car, and to wear grown-up clothes!"

Clint snuffled snottily, and James dove into the backpack to retrieve the Kleenex. "My Daddy says, when I'm big enough, I can ride on the back of his motorcycle."

"Wow," Natasha breathed. She looked at James. "Daddy, can I ride on Steve's motorcycle when I'm big?"

"Yes," James said carelessly, knowing that he had a few years before he'd have to deal with this. "How about a bathroom break, then you guys ride the roller coaster?"

For all his frustrated longing for the Cyclone, Clint regained his enthusiasm as they approached the children's roller coaster. James stayed at edge of the fence to watch, wondering a little how he'd ever found rides like these exciting when he was younger. He'd graduated from Jump School when he was twenty, and even twelve years later he woke sometimes with the memories of his nighttime test jump, the roar of the plane fading as he plummeted to earth in the blackness of midnight, in the tense freefall before his parachute opened. That had been a thrill; knowing that only skill and training (and an expertly-packed parachute) would keep him alive.

"Daddy!" came a yell. James looked over to see Natasha tucked into the seat next to Steve, her red hair sticking in every direction. James waved as the ride started to move; in the seat behind Natasha and Steve sat Clint beside another child. James waved at Clint and Clint waved back, and they were off.

Everything went smoothly, and soon the ride was over and Natasha and Clint were back on the ground, both grinning from ear to ear. "Daddy, that was the best!" Natasha exclaimed, holding his right hand and jumping up and down. "Can we come back here every day?"

"Nope," James said, squeezing Natasha's hand. "But we can come back here again in a few weeks. Maybe earlier in the day."

"No, we have to come with Steve," Natasha countered. "He makes it fun."

"He sure does," James said, looking at Steve. The man was smiling almost as widely as Clint, his blond hair windswept, his blue eyes the color of the cloudless sky overhead.

Without warning, something crossed James' line of sight that pulled him back with a sickening jerk, a face he hadn't seen in seventeen years and yet still woke him screaming in the dark.

It was him.

Heart pounding, adrenaline screaming danger in his veins, James gripped Natasha's hand tight. "We have to go," he said, barely able get the words out past fear's stranglehold around his throat. "Now."

"But Daddy!" Natasha protested. "I wanted to play the frog game!"

"We have to go," James said again. It was hard to breathe, and his every instinct screamed at him to pick Natasha up and run. But he hadn't seen James, hadn't seen Natasha, and if James could just get away, get home and lock the door, then everything would be all right. "Come on, Nat. Situation Elephant."

At the codeword, Natasha stopped her struggle and moved against James' side, letting him guide her along without a fuss, just like he'd taught her, just like they'd practiced.

"Bucky?" Steve said in confusion, hurrying after Steve with Clint at his side. "What happened?"

Natasha reached out with her free hand and took Clint's hand tight in hers. "We have to go," she said seriously, pulling Clint along with her. "It's a 'mergency."

"Bucky?"

"I have to go home," James said, clipped. He had to get away before he was spotted, had to get away from all these people, these strangers. The tiny logical piece of his mind left to him knew that he was in no danger, that this was Brooklyn and there were no IEDs, no snipers around, no one coming to take Natasha away or hurt him again, but James had been living with this particular nightmare ever since he'd had his arm blown off in Iraq, the explosion and older traumas mixing together into one loud, screaming attack.

He had to get Natasha and Clint out of here. He had to get them somewhere safe.

"Okay, we'll go," Steve said. James didn't look at the man's face, just kept moving through the crowd.

James was walking too fast for Natasha's little legs to keep up. After a few more steps, Steve picked Natasha up, putting her on his hip, then firmly grasped Clint's hand and moved along at James' side. All the while, James scanned the crowd, looking for snipers he knew weren't there, looking for people moving suspicious bundles that could not be bombs, all the while dreading that he might have seen and recognized James, might be following them.

But James had changed in seventeen years. He was no longer the chubby-cheeked sophomore he'd been at fifteen years old. It was possible that he hadn't been recognized.

It didn't matter. James had to get out of there.

Down the boardwalk, toward the parking lot, over to the jeep. James dug into his pocket for the keys and managed to press the button to unlock the doors, but as he tried to put the keys into the ignition his hand was shaking so hard that he dropped them on the mat.

"Bucky," someone said, and there was a hand on his left shoulder and James barely caught himself before he lashed out. Steve, it was Steve who was holding onto him, the idiot. "Why don't you let me drive?"

James pushed on Steve until the man backed up. The kids were standing by the jeep, holding hands and looking up at James with scared expressions and James had to get them out of there. He had to get them safe.

"Get in," he said roughly, opening the back door. Natasha climbed in right away, getting into her booster seat, but Clint stayed where he was, three fingers in his mouth. "Come on Clint, we need to go."

Still, Clint stared up at James until Steve came over to lift Clint into the jeep. Steve held the door until Clint squirmed his way into his own booster seat, then he helped the boy buckle his seatbelt and closed the jeep's back door firmly.

Keys. James needed to find his keys and drive them away, somewhere safe. He went back to the front seat to look, but Steve came around and held something out. The keys.

"Bucky," Steve said, his voice unnaturally calm. "I'll drive."

Drive. The last time James had let anyone drive him anywhere in a jeep, they'd been hit by an IED and James lost his arm. Still, Steve wouldn't know what to look for, wouldn't know if they were being followed. James wouldn't be able to watch behind them and drive at the same time.

"You can drive," James said faintly. The words tasted like oil on his tongue, thick and slimy and James felt his stomach rebel. He wasn't going to be sick, he didn't have time to be sick, not until they were safe. "We have to go home."

Home was safe. No one would be able to hurt him or Natasha there.

Steve waited until James was in the passenger seat before starting the engine. He managed the modified vehicle easily, finding the signal light indicators on the steering wheel column next to the turn-knob designed for a one-armed driver. As Steve navigated them out of the parking lot, James turned in his seat to scan the surrounding vehicle traffic. It didn't appear as if anyone was tailing them. Maybe he hadn't recognized James after all.

The road outside was mostly clear; cars fighting to get into the parking lot, not leave. James scanned the road just like he was taught for patrol. His hand itched for a weapon, but he'd make do on his own if it came down to a fight. If someone came at them, James could take them out while Steve got the children to safety. No one ever thought a crippled old man posed any danger.

The jeep turned onto the wrong street and James whipped around in his seat. "Where are we going?" he demanded, heart in his throat.

"My place," Steve said. His hands held the steering wheel tight; his knuckles white with the tension of his grip. "It's closer. We can be there in a few minutes."

Right. Steve's apartment. A one-bedroom in a solidly built brick building; small windows and easily defensible. James placed his hand flat on the dashboard and tried to keep breathing slowly. He was no good to anyone if he hyperventilated.

Dimly, he heard Clint's voice in the backseat, but the sound was far away. Steve's response was somewhat more intelligible. "James isn't feeling good, Clint, so we're going to go home. We can go back another day."

The roads were flashing by, traffic light now that they were away from the waterfront. The asphalt was empty behind them, and something in James' mind eased slightly as miles passed and no one was following them.

Natasha was silent, staring at James with huge, scared eyes.

Steve pulled the jeep up outside his apartment building. "Can we go upstairs?" he asked, and James didn't understand the question so he just got out of the vehicle, watching for traffic as he went to open the back doors to get the kids out. Natasha tried to grab James' hand once she was on the sidewalk, but James needed his hand free just in case in case of what so he moved her hand to hold one of the belt-loops on his jeans.

"Come on," Steve said, slamming the jeep door behind him and urging Clint toward the building's main doors. "Let's go upstairs and we can all sit down."

The heavy outer door had a solid lock, and James watched the door swing shut after them, listening for the click of the latch. Only then did he follow Steve up the stairs, moving slowly so Natasha wouldn't lose her breath.

Steve let them into the dim third-floor apartment, turning the light on to illuminate the cramped space. The tiny kitchen lay on the immediate right, with Steve's bed in the far right corner of the living room, a screen half-heartedly folded in front of it. The sofa sat opposite to the bed, with its back to the wall between the living space and Clint's small bedroom.

The whole apartment could have fit into the main floor of James' house with room to spare. But right then, it was a place of safety and that was all James cared about.

"Do you feel better now?"

James looked down into Clint's upturned face. The feeling of relief at being in a safe space was only momentary, as James knew it would be. With the slowing of his heart rate came an ease in breathing, a drop in adrenaline, and too soon the aftermath of the attack would be upon him.

If he was in his own house, he'd have set Natasha up with a movie, then gone to the second-floor bathroom and locked the door to fall apart, but he couldn't do that here.

James took a breath, almost gagging at the air passing over the back of his tongue. "Why don't you and Natasha go play in your room?" James suggested, desperate to get the kids out of the way before he fell apart. "Go draw roller coasters or something."

"Okay," said Clint, turning to go to his room. Natasha didn't budge.

"Nat, go with Clint," James said.

"I wanna stay with you," his daughter said in a tiny voice, her hands balling up in the fabric of her shirt hem.

"Nat, go," James ordered. Small tremors were shaking at the edges of his vision, and every breath lay thick and heavy in his mouth.

"Natasha," Steve said, kneeling at Natasha's side. "Your dad doesn't feel well. I'm going to help him feel better. Can you go into Clint's room so we know you're okay?"

Betrayal on her face, Natasha inched towards Clint's room, stopping in the doorway for a long moment before letting herself be ushered inside and the door closed, cutting off the room from the rest of the house.

James had three glorious seconds of silence, before Steve turned on him and demanded, "What the fuck is going on?"

Bile and frustration and rage rose up in James' mouth, choking him. At least he made it into the bathroom before he threw up.

The toilet seat was up; a small grace from a bachelor household. James put his arms out to brace him as his knees gave out; his prosthesis jarred the stump of his arm as it took most of his weight. James heaved a few times, vomiting up everything he'd eaten that day, then he dry-heaved some more, his body trying to rid itself of the memories forced upon it.

He'd been through this before, the aftermath of a PTSD attack. He hated it, everything about this. He hated his body betraying him, thinking it was under attack from a past that was over.

Even more, he hated where it came from. Normal soldiers who'd had their arms blown off in IED attacks panicked about that; but what did James have? A head that mixed up everything he'd been through in Iraq and Afghanistan, with everything that happened when he was fifteen.

James couldn't even break down like a normal person.

He dry-heaved again, his spine bowing as his body tried to expel non-existent stomach contents, his gut muscles clenching painfully, the prosthetic's straps biting into his ribs under the contortion. There was a pause, in which James tried to catch his breath, tried to not remember, before his body doubled up again.

Something moved in the side of his vision. "Here's some water," Steve said, sitting on the edge of the bathtub with a glass in his hands.

James stared down into the toilet, spat a few times, and reached up to flush. He sat back, his ribs pressing against the cabinet, and took a few moments to catch his breath. The small bathroom was stuffy and stank, but nothing short of a fire could have pulled James out of the room in the state he was in.

After a minute, James held out his hand for the glass. He sipped slowly, wary of setting off his body again, but the water went down without protest. When the water was gone, James set the glass down, out of the way, and let himself slump against the cabinet. He needed to pull himself together.

Steve cleared his throat. "Do you want to tell me what happened?" he asked quietly.

James let out a bark of laughter, which tore at his abused throat. "I'm fucked up, that's what happened," he said, before leaning back over the toilet to spit again. "You think a guy gets his arm blown off and he's just fine?"

Steve was staring at James with a gaze too sharp for James' comfort. "Is that what happened?" Steve asked. "This is about what happened to your arm?"

James wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his t-shirt. "Fuck off," he muttered as he pulled his shirt off over his head, then set about trying to unfasten the arm's straps with a still-trembling hand.

Steve, in some flash of insight, didn't offer to help.

It took James a few tries to undo the buckle across his chest, but eventually he was easing the metal prosthetic off his arm stump and to the ground. With his arm gone, all the energy that had sustained James from Coney Island deserted him and he was left sitting shirtless and cross-legged on the bathroom floor, unable to move. He wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but no, real men didn't cry, real men didn't let other men see their weaknesses.

James pressed his left arm stump against his face, trying to ground himself. Years of dealing with this bullshit, and sometimes the only voice James could hear was his father's, telling him to man up, to stop acting like a girl, like some weakling, like some little faggot.

"You think this is about my arm?" James heard himself saying in a voice nearly inaudible. But of course, in the stillness of the bathroom, Steve heard him.

"You can tell me," Steve said quietly. James didn't laugh this time, but he felt a bubble of humorless mirth bubble in his guts.

"You think that will help?"

"I don't know," Steve admitted. "But anything you want to tell me, I'll listen."

"What, no 'I'll understand your pain' bullshit?" James snapped.

Steve's gaze was steady. "I may not be able to understand what you went through, but I can listen."

James shook his head. "Everyone always thinks it's the arm, you know?" He held up his left arm. The scars from the amputation, faded to white over time, stood out starkly in the overhead light. "And I'm not saying it ain't, because losing a fucking arm in an IED blast is a fucked up thing. I never been able to do stuff with my kid like other dads, you know?"

Steve's silence both reassured and infuriated James.

"I can't throw her into the air and catch her. I can't play catch, can't braid her hair without her help. I can't even open a goddamned fucking jar on my own, Steve."

"None of that's your fault."

"I know that!" James leaned back against the counter. The painted wood was unpleasantly cold against his bare skin. "All of this," and he slapped the side of his own head, a movement so sudden that Steve flinched. "Isn't about my arm. Not all of it."

Steve's eyes were huge in his pale face. "Then what is it?"

James let his head fall back and stared up at the haphazardly hung towels on the rack. Steve really needed to learn the benefit of proper folding, James thought absently. "Other stuff."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

"I really don't." The tile floor was cold under James' butt, but he couldn't move.

"Oh." A pause, then, "Do you have someone you can talk to?"

James shook his head. "Never have."

Steve shifted off the bathtub and settled on the floor. He should have looked ridiculous, a big man like Steve all scrunched up, but he didn't. "Sometimes it can help," he offered.

Tears pricked the edges of James' eyes, but he blinked them back. He was pretty sure that if he started to cry now, he would never stop. "I doubt that."

It took him a few minutes to get his breathing back under control. When he no longer felt like he was going to break down, he rubbed his eyes with his wrist and let his head rest against the cabinet.

"My dad threw me out of the house when I was fifteen," James said after a few minutes. Maybe if he didn't look at Steve, he could get through this. "I mean, I pretty much figured it was going to happen, but I just needed help and didn't have anyone out there to help me."

In such a small room, James could hear the change in Steve's breathing. "Why?"

"Why'd he throw me out?" James asked the towels. " 'Cause he wasn't going to have some filthy faggot living under his roof, claiming to be his son. He said he didn't raise me to be some filthy pervert."

The fading adrenaline in James' bloodstream was like cotton wrapping, muffling the memories of that horrible night. James was distantly surprised, as these memories usually bit deep whenever his mind was dragged back to that day.

"What did you need help with?" Steve asked. He was very still.

James pulled his knees up to his chest, folding his arms over his knees and resting his chin on his forearm. "There was this guy," he said, and felt the nausea return. "I saw him today at Coney Island and that brought it all back and… I mean, I always knew I was gay, I just figured that if I ignored it, eventually I'd like some girl and be normal, you know?"

In the enclosed room, James could smell the fading stench of vomit, the odor of fear-sweat coming off his skin, the faint tang of metal that lingered on his skin from the prosthetic arm. His stomach roiled.

"And then, when I was fifteen, there was this guy." James swallowed. His throat hurt. "I met him at the youth centre playing basketball. He said he was sixteen, and he…" James closed his eyes. "He wanted to be my friend, he wanted to talk about stuff I was interested in, he actually listened to me. No one listened to me back then, you know?"

Steve swallowed hard. "He said he was sixteen?"

"Yeah. Lying asshole."

"How old was he?"

"Twenty-four." James rested his forehead on his arm, so he wouldn't have to look at Steve's face. "He had a whole cover story, pretending his parents were out of town traveling so he had a place all to himself, so I'd go over to play video games and we'd, you know." James shifted around, so he could stare at the wall. "I was a little lump of a kid, Steve. I hadn't ever met anyone who was into me, you know?"

"He was nine years older than you?"

Steve's voice was blank, but James felt the lash of judgment strike out at him. He turned, looking directly at Steve. "Yeah, and you know what?" James' voice cracked. "I fell for it. Every single line."

His chest hurt like he was going to throw up again, but James couldn't stop the words, not now.

"You know what it's like to be fifteen and to think you're falling in love with someone who's only interested in fucking you?" James pressed his hand to the tiles, wondering if the bubbling constriction in his chest might be hysteria. "Or better yet, after a few months he starts getting you drunk at 'special parties' and you wake up the next morning and don't remember a fucking thing but you know something happened?"

Steve went sheet-white and he tried to say something, but James couldn't stop, not now.

"I tried to get him to leave me alone after that, but he told me that if I didn't keep seeing him, he'd tell my parents what I was doing, and what would my dad do then?" James pressed his hand into a tight ball, the words nearly tripping over each other as they fell out of his mouth. "And I was so convinced that my dad would kill me, actually kill me if he found out that it took me another month, you know?" His breath hitched in a sickening laugh. "That was the longest month of my entire fucking life."

Steve moved then, reaching out to cover James' hand with his own, and that touch was probably the only thing that kept James from falling apart right then and there.

"Bucky," was all Steve said, was all he needed to say. James stared down at Steve's hand on his, and breathed in the thick air of that bathroom and slowly, slowly, the constricting bands around his chest began to ease.

"I told my dad, eventually," James said after a very long time. "I didn't care if he beat me to death, I just couldn't live like that anymore."

A scratch at the bathroom door drew their attention up sharply. Steve went up onto his knees and opened the door to reveal Natasha and Clint huddled there. It was obvious they were trying to eavesdrop.

"Come on," Steve said, standing and taking each child by the hand. "We're going to go across the hall to say hi to Mrs. Morris."

"I want to stay with Daddy!" Natasha protested, trying to struggle away from Steve.

"Just a few more minutes," Steve said, and then he was at the door and guiding the children out into the hall.

James stayed where he was. He felt wrecked, worse than he had after any Army mission. Then, the adrenaline had at least been productive; now he was used up and wrung out and all for what? The distant glimpse of one man's face, ripping away all the walls James had built up to keep himself and his family safe.

It had been him, though. Seventeen years had passed and the man had changed, nearly as much as James had, but still James had known him. One didn't just forget the face of someone who'd broken up your life like that.

But time had not been kind. The man looked worn thin, sour and old. It might have been drugs or illness, James would never know. And it didn't matter. It had been seventeen years since James last saw him, and with any luck James would never cross paths with that man again.

(That was the one thing James had been grateful for, all those years ago. All that happened to him, and by some grace of god James hadn't caught anything. He'd gone alone to a clinic in Queens, months after it all happened, to get tested, having hoarded money from his paycheck working at the construction sites. When the public nurse told him that his test results all came back clean, that was the first and only time during the entire situation that James broke down in tears.)

The apartment door opened again and Steve slipped back inside. In that moment, his own pathetic situation became clear to him, and James made himself stand up. "The kids okay?" he asked, shuffling out of the bathroom.

"Yeah, I left them with a neighbor," Steve said. He stood in the middle of the tiny kitchen, his hands stuffed in his pockets. "She has a new dog, Clint's a big fan."

"Is Natasha okay?" James asked, going over to the counter to turn on the kettle. Steve didn't have a coffee maker, but maybe he had some tea somewhere.

"She's worried," Steve admitted. "But I told her that I was going to be with you so you wouldn't be alone."

James rubbed his hand through his short hair. "I'm fine."

"Really?"

James started flipping through cupboard doors, looking for a mug. "It was a long time ago."

Steve started to say something, caught himself, and strode across the apartment to look out the window overlooking the street. The set of his shoulders told James the man was angry, but all James felt was tired.

"Look, yeah, so my dad threw me out, so what?" James said, taking down a faded coffee mug from the shelf. "I didn't even have a chance to put shoes on, but you know what?" James glanced over his shoulder. Steve was still looking out the window. "I survived. I walked through the rain to the high school, got in at a loose window, and spent the night in the locker room, okay?"

He found a box of tea in a cupboard behind the graham crackers, and pulled out the lone remaining teabag. That went into the mug.

"I had gym shoes in my locker, and I'd had my wallet in my jeans when Dad kicked me out. I borrowed a jacket from a friend and I was set." James leaned against the counter. "For months, I'd been trying to keep the worst thing from happening, and after it did? The world didn't end."

Steve turned away from the window. "Where did you stay?"

James shrugged. "Around. A friend's one night. The shelter the next. I could shower in the locker room in the morning after track practice, it was no big deal."

That last might have been the closest to a lie James had gotten. It had been a very big deal, wondering where he was going to sleep, worrying about what he'd do when winter came. But James had known, without a doubt, that he was never going to be able to live under his father's roof again.

"But in the end, it didn't matter."

The kettle burbled, a wisp of steam appearing. James poured the lukewarm water into the mug, unable to stay still any longer.

"What happened?" Steve asked.

James stared at the teabag floating in the water. "My dad died." He gave the mug a swirl to get the tea to brew faster. "A couple weeks after I told him. Construction accident. A wall fell down, he lost his balance and hit his head. Died before the ambulance got there."

James tasted the tea, made a face at the tepid water, and set the mug down.

"I'm sorry, Bucky," Steve said from across the room.

"Like I said, it doesn't matter." James left the mug on the counter and walked over to the sofa, slumping down into the comfortable misshapen cushions. "My mother, you know, she came and got me at school to tell me he was dead. Told me she was bringing me back home and we'd just forget all this silly nonsense." James curled his arm over his chest, wondering at the ache in his gut. "Silly nonsense, that's what she called it."

And they'd never talked about it, not why James had been gone for two weeks, not what had driven him to ask his father for help, knowing what the man's reaction would be. The closest his mother had ever gotten to acknowledging that her son was gay was her slight hesitation when he'd told her he was going to join the Army after 9/11. Not that he'd be in danger; just as to whether they took 'his kind'.

Steve came over to sit on the sofa beside James. "I wish I could have been there to help you, Buck."

"Things would have turned out a whole lot different," James said. "But you know what the best part was?"

Steve looked at him as if James had finally snapped, but James just grinned.

"Guess who comes around school the day after my dad's funeral?" James asked.

"What, the guy?" Steve demanded.

"Yup." James' grin was painful. "Comes up to me and says hey. That's when I clocked him. A couple of the guys from the football team had to pull me off him, which is probably best because I was going to beat the son of a bitch to death. I told him, as he was hauling his sorry ass away down the street, if I ever saw him again I was going to break his neck."

"Did you think about going to the police?"

James raised his eyebrows at Steve. "Why?"

"If he was nine years older than you—" Steve stopped when he saw the expression on James' face.

"Ain't no cop going to listen to my story," James said. "Lot of guys my father's age figure that guys like me get what's coming to them." He leaned forward to rest his elbow on his knee. "Heard the same thing happened to some guys in the Army. Not me," he said hastily as Steve's face dropped. "I'd had enough of that as a kid, I wasn't going to let that happen to me again, even if it cost me my career. But you'd hear rumors about who to steer clear of."

"Jesus Christ," Steve exclaimed.

"I kept my head down and passed on the intel to the new guys," James said. "I was usually the youngest in my unit but things were okay."

"They didn't mind that you were…"

"Gay?" James supplied, wondering at Steve's sudden delicacy. "Homosexual? A flaming faggot?"

"Bucky, stop."

"I kept to myself, Steve," James said. "Most of the guys figured I was straight and shy, no big deal. The job was all that mattered."

"And now?"

"I'm not in the Army any more. The only thing that matters to me is Natasha." James rubbed his hand over his mouth. He wondered if a cup of strong coffee would do him any good, or just make him puke again. "It doesn't matter. It's over."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No."

"What was his name?"

James' head shot up. Steve had his arms crossed over his chest, his jaw set. "No fucking way."

"Bucky—"

"No, okay? There isn't any goddamn thing anyone can do about it now."

"But—"

"What are you going to do, huh? Find him and run over him with your motorcycle?" Actually, that didn't sound like a bad idea. James pushed the thought away. "Let it go, Steve. It all happened a very long time ago."

Steve let out an exasperated breath. "I just… I want to do something."

"You do? Okay, how about this. Can we stop talking about it?"

Steve glared at James for a long moment, then the tension went out of his shoulders. "If that's what you want."

James shook his head. "What I want is a shirt and a cup of coffee and some fucking idea what I'm going to tell the kids why I freaked out."

"It didn't look like that," Steve said, climbing to his feet. "That you freaked out. Just that you decided we really needed to go."

That was small comfort to James, but at least the kids wouldn't be scared of him now. "It's good to know that Natasha still listens to me."

"She sure does." Steve pulled a folded shirt out of a bin under his bed and threw it over to James. "You okay if I go get the kids?"

"Yeah," James muttered, shaking out the t-shirt. "We can get out of your hair."

"Or you can stay if you want."

James pulled the shirt over his head in one smooth motion. "What?"

"Stay." Steve had his hands in his pockets, trying to appear at ease, but James knew him too well for that. "For a while. I can order dinner, the kids can watch a movie. Just a chance to chill for a bit."

"I can drive just fine," James countered, suddenly angry that Steve would think that James was too weak to pull himself together.

"It's not that," Steve protested. "Just stay for a while. Hang out with us, let the kids calm down. They might do that better if they're together."

James sat back against the cushions. "Were they freaking out?"

"No," Steve said quickly. "Clint's confused by why we had to leave so early. He thinks you got sick."

"And Natasha?"

"Natasha was quiet."

Damn it. Natasha quiet in a situation like this meant she was scared. James wanted to hit himself for being so wrapped up in his own problems that he hadn't seen that. "Can you go get them?"

"Be right back," and Steve vanished out the front door.

James stared up at the ceiling. He'd tried so hard to keep his problems away from Natasha, but now in the space of six weeks he'd lost it twice, the first time when he woke Natasha with his nightmares, and now today.

The only thing that mattered to him was keeping it together for his little girl. And he'd do it. If he needed a little help, from Steve or Maria or Nick, he'd ask. James would do anything for Natasha.

Thinking of Natasha made James involuntarily remembered being a kid, of being fifteen, of being so excited to think he was falling in love with someone special, only that hadn't been it at all.

For so long, it had been easy to be angry at the guy who'd betrayed and used him, but as he sat in Steve's cluttered apartment, waiting for his best friend to bring back their children, James was hit with a sudden, blinding rage towards his long-dead father. Now that he had a child of his own, James could not comprehend how his own father could act the way he had.

"Fuck you," James said under his breath, pressing his hand against his eyes. "God fucking damn you, you bastard."

The apartment door opened with a creak, and in rushed two very worried children. Clint and Natasha ran over to James; Clint climbed up beside the man while Natasha leaned against James' knee. Her mouth was turned down at the corners and her eyes were wide. "Daddy, are you sick?" she demanded, digging her fingernails into the denim of his jeans.

"My dad said you feel bad," Clint added, burrowing under James' left arm to give the man a hug. "Do you have to go to the hospital?"

Natasha's lower lip began to tremble. Before she could dissolve into tears James pulled her up onto his knee and put his right arm around her. "I was feeling sick," he told the children as Natasha wrapped her arms around his neck. "And I do not need to go to the hospital."

"Why'd you feel sick?" Natasha demanded, leaning back to look James in the eye. "Did you eat a bad thing? Did you fall?"

"No." James kissed Natasha on the cheek, then bent over to kiss the top of Clint's head. These little ones, so young but so quick and intelligent. "Can I talk to you both like grown-up children?"

Natasha nodded and Clint sat back. Steve, who had locked the door and turned on the kettle, now came over to sit on the sofa beside James.

"Well," said James, who had no idea how to say any of this, "Sometimes, when you get hurt real bad, you get a scar on the outside of your body."

"Like your arm," Natasha said immediately. She pointed at James' arm stump supporting Clint's body. "A bomb exploded and your arm got hurt and they took you to the hospital and you got better."

"Exactly." James gave Natasha's shoulder a squeeze. "I got better, but the scar shows where my body got hurt."

Clint turned around so he could see James' arm. "Dr. Smalles said that I can't hear good because I have scars on my ear's drum," he said, gently patting James' stump.

"That's right," James said. "When we get hurt, sometimes we have scars. But sometimes, when you get hurt on the inside, you get scars there too."

The children looked at him.

"Like when something bad happens, like you get very scared or very frightened, that can stay with you for a long time," James went on, heartily wishing now that he had left this subject alone. "After it happens, you remember something and it can make you upset."

"Did that happen to you?" Natasha demanded, clutching at his shirt collar. "Did you get scared?"

James took a deep breath. He could feel Steve's presence next to him on the couch and was somehow reassured. "I saw something today that reminded me of a time I was hurt real bad," James said in an even voice. "And when I saw that thing, I needed us to leave, so that's why we left so fast. Thank you both very much for listening to me so quickly."

Clint climbed up to rest his arm on James' shoulder. "After we went away did you stop being scared?"

Absolutely not, James thought. Aloud he said, "Leaving there and coming home made me feel better."

"Then we don't ever have to go back there ever again," Clint said solemnly, and gave James a big hug. Natasha followed suit, and James was soon being strangled by two enthusiastic children.

"Okay, first of all, thank you for such great hugs," James said as he tried to pry the children off his neck. "And second, we're going back to Coney Island, all of us, and we're going to have fun."

"What if you get scared?" Natasha demanded, pinching James' earlobe.

"Then I will deal with that." James caught Natasha's hand. "That's one of the things about being a grown up. Sometimes you get scared but you have to do stuff anyway."

"Sometimes I get scared," Clint confessed, his little knees digging sharp into James' thigh.

"Everyone gets scared." James shifted the children to the sofa before moving around to sit on the small coffee table. "If something ever happens that scares or frightens you, you can come find me or Steve right away, okay? And we can help you."

"How come?" Natasha asked.

"Because sometimes when you're scared, you need to go away from the thing that scares you," James said. "And sometimes, you need to stay and face what scares you."

"How do you know which one?" Clint asked, sticking his finger up his nose. Steve reached over to pull the finger free.

"You got to figure that out," James told them. "That's part of growing up, learning that. But with us to help you, sometimes it doesn't feel so scary."

Natasha reached out to pat James' cheeks. "I will help you," she vowed. "Even if it's scary. Even if there are monsters."

"Me too!" Clint enthused.

James felt a lump rising in his throat that had nothing to do with the afternoon's disaster. "Well, that makes me just the luckiest guy in the whole of New York, doesn't it?"

The boiling kettle interrupted the scene before James really did break down, and Steve enlisted Clint and Natasha to help him make coffee for the adults and hot chocolate for the kids while James pulled himself back together. They all sat around the tiny kitchen table to sip their drinks. Then Clint asked if he and Natasha could have a story, and Steve went to get a book off the top shelf in the hallway closet.

"This is a book I've been saving for a very special occasion," Steve said, placing the paperback on the table. "It's a story about two little boys and a little girl who went to school and had to be very brave."

"What's it called?" Clint asked, wiping his hot-chocolate-covered mouth on his shirt.

"Harry Potter," Steve said. He glanced up at James. "It's a story about a boy who finds out he's a wizard."

James gave Steve the stink-eye. "Steve," he said. "I was in Afghanistan, not on Jupiter. I know who Harry Potter is."

"Harry Potter has glasses," Natasha informed her father, pointing at the book's cover. "Like Clint. But he has dark hair. Like you."

"I like him," Clint said, taking the book. "Daddy, read me the story."

"All right." Steve ushered everyone over to the sofa, settling Clint at his side. James pulled Natasha onto his lap and pressed his face against her hair. She smelled of sunshine and sunscreen and hot chocolate, and her breathing was even as she wiggled impatiently, waiting for the story to begin. Steve cleared his throat. "Chapter one is called, 'The Boy Who Lived'."

That's a good start, James thought, watching Steve. He'd told Steve the worst thing that had ever happened to him, and Steve hadn't backed away in disgust. He'd been there for James when James needed him the most, taking care of the kids, letting James find his way back to himself.

And even now, he was still taking care of James as well as the kids. For now, they'd read, then they would order dinner (James was paying, no matter what Steve said). One day they'd go back to Coney Island so Clint could ride his beloved roller coasters and Natasha could play the frog game.

It didn't matter what else happened. More than once in James' life the absolute worst-case scenario had happened to him, and he had survived to fight another day. He might only have one arm, but he could work, he could support his daughter, he could do what he needed to do.

James was a survivor. Nothing and no one could ever take that away from him.

Chapter Text


James and Natasha left Steve's house just after ten. Natasha had calmed down somewhat, but she was still too quiet for James' liking as they drove home. Once they were inside the house, even though it was late, James gave Natasha a bath to wash off the sunscreen and dirt from the day. Rousing herself, Natasha demanded James use lots of bubble bath and James complied.

After some prodding, James got Natasha talking about her favourite things at Coney Island. Natasha talked about the carousel and about the roller coaster and how much fun it had been to go to a fun place with her very best friend. "But Daddy," she added as James tucked her into her little bed, "Do you know what would be even more fun?"

James smoothed the wrinkles out of the light blanket. "Tell me."

Natasha reached for James' hand. "If we go to Disneyland," she whispered, eyes wide and solemn.

James smiled at his daughter. "Going to Disneyland would be very fun," he agreed, bending over to kiss Natasha's forehead. "Do you think you can go to sleep now?"

"No." Natasha wrapped her hand around James' thumb. "Daddy, if we go to Disneyland, will there be bad men there too?"

Sensing this was going to take a while, James settled on the edge of Natasha's bed. "What kind of bad men?"

"Bad men like made you scared today," Natasha said. Her eyes were wide and very green in the light from the bedside lamp.

James sighed. His body still ached with the remembrance of the afternoon, and he was pretty sure he'd pulled something in his back with all the vomiting. If it was up to him, he'd crawl into bed and try to forget that afternoon had ever happened, that he hadn't seen him at Coney Island. But Natasha had been there, Natasha had seen James fall apart, and he couldn't just pretend it hadn't happened.

"The man who scared me today," James said cautiously, "He's not a threat to us. He's never going to come near us again, do you understand?"

"Uh huh," Natasha said. She squeezed James' thumb with a sudden ferocity. "But if he does, I'll make him go away!"

"Nat—"

"I'll hit him!" Natasha went on, sitting up. "I'll hit him with an axe and he will die!"

Stunned at the savagery in Natasha's voice, James gathered the girl up in his lap, wrapping his arm around her. She was shivering in agitation. "No one is ever going to hurt us," James said quietly, rocking Natasha. "Not me, not you. I promise you, Natasha, I'm going to keep you safe."

He knew it was impossible to protect Natasha forever, but James would do anything at all to keep his daughter safe. Anything.

"And I'll keep you safe too," Natasha said in James' ear, hugging his neck tight. "I'll hit the bad men with an axe!"

James shushed her, and when Natasha had stopped shivering, he sat back to look Natasha in the eye. "Why are you saying that?" he asked. "Who put that idea in your head?"

"It was in a book at school," Natasha said. She wiped her nose on her sleeve before cuddling up against James' chest. "There was a bad man and he killed people with an axe and there was blood."

"Where did you get a book like that?" James asked. St. Ursula's was usually pretty good about keeping age-inappropriate reading materials out of the classroom; he'd have to have words with the school about this.

"In the library," Natasha said. She balled her hand up in James' shirt, twisting the fabric tight. "I didn't like it. It made me feel bad in my tummy."

James pressed a kiss against Natasha's hair. "You don't need to think about that ever again," he promised. "We're safe inside this house, and no one is ever going to hurt us, you understand?"

"Okay," but Natasha did not sound convinced.

"I have an idea." James shifted Natasha so she was holding onto his neck, and stood, holding her weight on his right arm. "Let's go make sure the alarm is on, okay?"

Natasha nodded against his neck.

Down they went to the house's main level. James showed Natasha the alarm panel by the front door, then they went to the back door, James keeping up a soothing flow of commentary the whole time. He talked about how it was time for sleep and then tomorrow it would be morning and Skye would be there and Clint would be there and they would have lots of fun. At first, Natasha was alert, but as James walked back and forth in the dimly lit living room, she began to fall asleep on his shoulder.

Aware that getting a sleeping five-year-old into bed was an impossible feat for a one-armed man, even with his two-million-dollar prosthetic arm, James walked them back upstairs. Natasha was barely awake when James helped her into her bed and covered her with the sheets. "Good night, baby girl," James whispered as he turned out the light.

"Not a baby," Natasha argued sleepily. "I'm a big girl."

"You're right," James conceded, placing Bear next to Natasha's hand. "You're such a big girl now and I'm so lucky to be your daddy."

Natasha let out a noisy snuffle. "One day I'll ride the roller coaster," she said, and then she was out.

James sat watching her sleep for a while. Natasha had grown so much in the last five years, but she was still so small and delicate. James would do anything to keep her safe, but he knew he wouldn't always be there for her. But he would make sure that she could keep herself safe.

Maybe those taekwondo lessons Maria suggested would be a good idea, after all.

With a sigh, James stood carefully so as not to disturb Natasha's slumber. He walked to the door and, taking one last look at his sleeping daughter, went out and closed the door behind him.

In the hallway, he took a minute to breathe. It had been a hellish day, and this from a man who'd spent years in the middle of a war zone. But at least in a war zone, he could be sure he wouldn't have seen that goddamned bastard.

Or if he had? Well, once in a while bullets had a tendency to go astray.

James shook his head sharply. He wasn't going to think like that. He hadn't resorted to fantasies of homicide when he was fifteen and still living in that nightmare; he wasn't going to do so now when he was thirty-two and safe.

Quietly, James went downstairs and into the kitchen, where he set about making a pot of coffee (decaf; he didn't really want to be up all night if he could avoid it). He hadn't eaten much dinner at Steve's, but now, with his daughter safe upstairs and his house locked up around him, James was suddenly starving.

Maybe it was the memory of that long week where he didn't have anywhere to stay and only ten dollars to keep himself fed, James mused as he opened the fridge door. He hadn't ever really been hungry as a child, and that week had certainly been a wake-up call. Now, with a fridge full of food and a warm bed upstairs, James knew he didn't have to be scared anymore. There wasn't anything that bastard could do to him.

Even the worst of it, the idea that someone might find out, hadn't been the disaster James had imagined it. He'd told Steve, and Steve had listened.

It didn't make remembering what had happened any easier, but talking about it hadn't made things worse. Steve hadn't looked at James like he was contaminated or broken or anything. Steve had still called him Bucky, after he knew. He hadn't stopped Clint from climbing onto James' lap, hadn't tried to keep James away from his son.

James reached for the peanut butter jar. He didn't think that Steve would have done those things, not really, but seventeen years was a long time to hold onto the messed-up thinking that convinced him that being taken advantage of by someone he hated was better than asking his parents for help.

James set the peanut butter on the counter, then kicked the fridge closed. James didn't want to think about his parents and what happened seventeen years before. He was a grown man now, with a daughter of his own and a nice house and a good job. Everything that happened to him, was in the past.

Pulling a spoon out of the drying rack, James carried it and the peanut butter jar over to the table. The coffee had finished brewing, so he poured himself a cup and went to sit down. The peanut butter jar was plastic, chosen specifically for the easy-to-unscrew lid. With no impressionable children around to see his bad example, James wedged the jar between his knees to unscrew the lid one-handed. A dinner of peanut butter and decaf wasn't the worse meal he'd ever had, all told.

He just didn't know what he was going to do next.

Steve had been fine that evening, but what about tomorrow? Would Steve get weird about the whole thing? James really hoped not; he wasn't sure he had the energy to deal with that. If Steve pulled some after-school-special type of intervention, James was going to sock him in the jaw. And Steve had that weird sense of righteousness; he wouldn't hit a one-armed man, not at least until after James got a few good licks in.

Putting another spoonful of peanut butter in his mouth, James wondered idly if he could take Steve in a fight, given that Steve was a mountain of muscle and James was down a wing. After a moment, he figured that he probably could. James' years of Ranger training, which included a certain prowess at hand-to-hand combat, were still worth something even with only one arm.

James dropped the spoon on the table with a clatter. His throat felt sticky and his head ached, his back pulled whenever he breathed and he was so tired. He didn't know if this was going to be one of his Bad Nights; they sometimes came up on him after he'd been reminded of the whole mess. But tonight? This was the first time he had talked about it with anyone, ever. Would that makes things better, or a hell of a lot worse?

Picking up his coffee cup, James headed into his office. He'd been dealing with his crappy childhood for years now, it didn't make any difference to his responsibilities. The next day was Thursday, and he had an important meeting with Maria in the city in the afternoon, for which James was woefully unprepared. He'd been spending too much of the summer with the children and with Steve.

Not that it hadn't been wonderful.

But James had work to do, to keep a roof over their head and food on the table and Natasha's expensive school paid for. He didn't have time for his own excuses.

Now, he would work, then he would go up to bed and lie awake, waiting for the nightmares to come for him.

Nightmares couldn't hurt him or Natasha.


The next morning, James woke before his alarm and blinked at the window, the faint glow of sunrise illuminating the curtains. When he moved, his back muscles let out a protest. Biting back a groan, James sat up and swung his legs out of bed, nearly stepping on Natasha sleeping on the rug beside his bed.

Once his heart climbed out of his throat, James slid out of bed and knelt down. Natasha's breathing was slow and even, her eyes moving under her eyelids as she dreamed. She had even dragged in her Bear and her blanket to make a little nest by the side of James' bed. He hadn't heard her, he had been sleeping so deeply.

"Crazy kid," James said fondly, and hurried off to the bathroom.

A glance in the mirror told James that he looked horrible and probably smelled worse. There were dark circles under his eyes and he needed a shave. He could shave later, but he didn't want to feel gross for a moment longer, so James stripped out of the t-shirt and boxers he'd slept in and stepped into the shower.

The hot water and steady spray on his skin helped to clear sleep out of his mind. He was mildly surprised that he hadn't woken screaming with nightmares. Maybe there was something in this whole 'talking about it' thing.

Or, James thought as he reached for the shampoo, maybe he'd just repressed the whole thing and the nightmares would come back double the next night. That was a cheerful idea.

Well, if it did, it did. James had a full day ahead of him and he couldn't be worrying about future nightmares. He had a morning with the kids, and then an afternoon with Maria and clients. He'd deal with things as they came.

With that in mind, James ducked his head under the spray to rinse his hair.

After his shower, he crept back into his room with a towel wrapped around his waist. Natasha was still sleeping in her little nest on the floor, so James quickly donned sweatpants and another t-shirt, with some vague idea of getting some exercise, but the twinge in his back warned him against it. He wasn't sure he could just step over Natasha to go back to bed, and he probably wanted to wash those sheets first too.

Natasha looked so comfortable on the ground that James gave a mental shrug and went to get a blanket off his shelf. He lay down on the rug beside Natasha, putting the blanket under his head as a pillow and watching his daughter sleep in the early morning light. He wasn't sure why she'd come into his room; did she have a bad dream? James was just glad she was there, and sleeping so soundly, and healthy, and safe.

Knowing he was smiling like an idiot, James closed his eyes. Just a few more minutes of sleep and then he'd get up to face the day.

He was pulled back to consciousness some time later when Natasha exclaimed in his ear, "Daddy, what are you doing?"

James opened his eyes to find Natasha a few inches from him, her face screwed up in alarm.

"Did you fall out of bed?" she demanded.

"I'm just fine," James said, putting his arm around Natasha and rolling onto his back, pulling Natasha along with him. She squealed in outrage. "I saw you sleeping on the floor and I thought that was a great idea."

"You are so silly!" Natasha scolded, her kicking feet coming very close to doing James a serious injury. He let her go and she got up, hands on her hips as she glared at him. "Silly!" she said again.

"Sure am." James sat up. His body protested; after five years out of the army, he had lost the knack of sleeping on floors. "Why are you in here?"

"Bear thought you might be scared in your sleep," Natasha said, picking up Bear and kissing the stuffed animal on the cheek. "So I came to make sure you weren't scared."

A wave of happiness pushed through James' chest, bringing a smile to his face. "Thank you," he said seriously. "I'm the luckiest dad in the whole world."

"The whole world?" Natasha asked doubtfully, letting herself be drawn into a good-morning hug. "That's a lot of people."

"I know." James ruffled Natasha's hair. "That's how lucky I am, to have you as my kid."

"I sure am glad you wanted to be my daddy," Natasha said, just as serious as James. "Steve didn't have anyone to adopt him until he was an old little boy."

Wondering where this was coming from, James gave the conversation the attention it deserved. "You're right. After his mom died, Steve was adopted when he was twelve."

"Steve's mom died when he was five." Natasha held up one hand, her fingers spread wide like a starfish. "I'm five."

"Yes, you are." James stood, picking Natasha up as he rose. "But I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be your dad for a very long time."

"How long?" Natasha asked as they headed to her bedroom.

"For a hundred years."

"That's a long time," Natasha told him.

"It sure is." James set Natasha on her feet and took Bear out of her grasp. "Let's get dressed."

Natasha headed to her dresser. "Daddy, why did Steve's mommy die?"

Wondering how he got himself involved in these conversations before seven in the morning, James went over to make Natasha's bed. "Steve's mother had cancer."

"Cancer is bad," Natasha said, pulling her purple socks from the drawer. "Mrs. Dellings had cancer."

Mrs. Dellings had been one of Natasha's preschool teachers when the girl was three; James wouldn't have thought the girl remembered that. "She did." He sat in the big armchair, knowing Natasha didn't need any help. "But Mrs. Dellings had breast cancer, and she took medicine and she got better. Steve's mother had pancreatic cancer, that's different."

James had been seven years old when he learned what cancer meant, laboriously reading the encyclopedia in the school library to figure out what his new best friend was talking about. He'd asked his mother but all he got was a clip across the ear for talking 'about things he shouldn't.'

"Why?" Natasha asked, sitting down to don her socks.

"It's in a different place in the body." And so deadly; from talking to Steve over the years, James eventually pieced together that once Sarah Rogers finally made it to a doctor and was diagnosed, she'd only had a few weeks to live, and no other family was around to care for Steve; his father had walked out on Sarah when she was eight months pregnant with Steve.

Jesus Christ, and James had been moping about how he had it bad. At least his parents fed him and housed him until his dad kicked him out at fifteen. James really needed to pull his head out of his ass.

"Will I do cancer?" Natasha asked, jumping to her feet and running over to James. He hauled her onto his lap.

"No," James said, deciding that a five-year-old didn't need to hear the odds of getting sick again in her lifetime. Wasn't whooping cough as an infant enough for one little body to deal with? Besides, her doctor said that Natasha was as healthy as an ox. An asthmatic ox. "You will not."

"Will you?" Natasha looked at him solemnly.

"Absolutely not," James said, pushing back the whispers in his head, the reminder that his mother died of lung cancer, exacerbated by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. "Like I said, I'm going to be around for another hundred years."

"Okay," Natasha said, although she did not look convinced. She slid to the ground and headed to her closet. By the time James found the energy to haul himself to his feet, Natasha had already picked out another eye-catching outfit of pink and yellow leggings with her green top.

Not even seven in the morning, and it appeared the day's conversation about death had reached its conclusion. James was too old for this.


Any inner peace James might have found about the previous day was quickly knocked away when Steve and Clint arrived. "Clint, go play, I need to talk to Bucky," Steve said as soon as they were in the door.

"Okay." Clint took off his sunglasses and placed them carefully on the hall table, then stormed off in search of Natasha.

Oh god, now what? James wondered, his heart sinking at the expression on Steve's face. Was this about the previous day at Coney Island, or what James told Steve afterwards?

Meanwhile, Steve's expression was flustered and if he didn't start talking soon, James was going to scream. "What?" James asked, his voice coming out harsher that he intended. "What's with your face?"

"I need a favor," Steve said in a rush, dropping the sports bag of Clint's stuff by the door. "And I wouldn't ask this if I had any other options, it's just—"

James closed the door and threw the deadbolt, the noise cutting Steve off. "You had any coffee?" James asked.

"No."

"Need some?"

"God, yes," Steve said in a rush. From the floor above came the squeals of two excited children; at least Natasha and Clint were out of things. James went through the living room and into the kitchen, Steve on his heels. "Sorry to do this, Buck, but everything just got thrown at me after you left last night."

"What did?" James asked as he poured Steve a cup of coffee. "Is Clint okay?"

"Yeah, he's fine." Steve slurped loudly at his coffee. "It's work."

"What about it?"

"There's this charity event tomorrow night, at Stark Tower," Steve went on, following James back into the living room. "I was originally just supposed to be there for the dinner, so I could take Clint to archery class and then be back to put him to bed, the neighbor was going to watch him in between, but it looks like one of the Stark Foundation's biggest donors is coming into town for the event and all my staff are already busy and they need someone to chaperone this guy around and—"

"Yes."

Steve frowned. "You don't know what I'm going to ask."

"You need someone to take Clint to archery class then watch him until you get done." James sipped at his own coffee and looked pointedly at Steve.

"From the sounds of things, I'm going to be working until the party breaks up," Steve said, but the worried expression was slowly leaving his face. "The last one went until four in the morning."

"So we have a sleepover," James said. "Steve, if you get off work at four in the goddamn morning, you can't go keeping an eye on Clint on Saturday, you know that. Come crash over here when you're done, we'll try to keep the noise down."

Steve looked at James for a long moment, then that slow, brilliant smile spread over his face and James went a little weak at the knees. "You're the best," Steve said, still grinning.

"Yeah, tell me something I don't know."

Steve took another sip of coffee before setting the mug down. "So you know Clint's birthday is coming up," he said.

"Yeah, in a couple weeks, right?"

"Yeah. I talked to Abraham a few days ago; he was planning on being home by then and we were going to head out to Jersey for a bit, but a bunch of Abraham's old colleagues are going to a medical conference in Atlantic City that weekend and he's going to go out to join them."

Atlantic City in August. James considered. That didn't sound too bad, actually.

"So that left me without plans, and anyway, Tony, Tony Stark I mean, he's got this place in the Hamptons that he hardly ever uses and I thought we could spend the week in the Hamptons at the beach house."

James blinked at Steve. "Sure, I guess," he said slowly. "Skye can watch Nat alone for the week, won't be a hardship."

"No, that's not what I meant," Steve said. "I mean, I thought we could spend a week in the Hamptons. The four of us."

"What?" James blurted out. "You mean, like, the kids and…"

"And us," Steve said. His cheeks were going pink, no doubt with the misunderstanding. "It'll be great. The big house has an outdoor pool we can use, and there's the beach, and there's things for the kids to do and some really nice restaurants if you want to go out some nights."

James put down his cup, trying to pretend that the fluttering in his chest wasn't because Steve had just asked him to spend a week at the beach. This was about the children, James told himself sternly. It was Clint's birthday and that was all that mattered. "I, uh… Yeah, I mean, let me check with Maria to make sure it's okay, but yeah. Yeah, I'd like that."

Steve smiled again, wide and bright and if the kids hadn't picked that moment to storm down the stairs, James didn't know what he would have done. "Daddy!" Natasha screeched. "Look what Clint showed me!"

She then proceeded to put her hands to her face and make farting sounds with her mouth. Clint, a few steps behind her, laughed so hard that he stumbled against Steve.

"Excellent," James said approvingly. "You can use that for your college application."

Steve steadied Clint. "Didn't you have something to show Bucky?" Steve asked.

"Yeah!" Clint yelled, bolting over to the sports bag by the door. "I brought something!"

Unzipping the bag, Clint pulled free a ratty, tattered bundle of cloth that he hugged to his chest for a moment before coming back over to the adults. He thrust the raggedy bundle at James.

"Here!" Clint said, beaming up at James. "For if you gonna be scared!"

James knelt down to take the fabric from Clint. On closer examination, the fabric was a tattered stuffed animal that had seen better days. The toy had been washed so many times that the fabric was faded and the stuffing nearly flat. One eye had fallen out, and a bright blue patch had been stitched in its place.

And, from the adoring way Clint was looking at the object, it was much loved.

"Tell me about it," James said, falling back on a piece of parenting advice he'd been using since Natasha first shoved an indecipherable 'art' piece in his face years before.

"This is Floppy," Clint said, patting the toy's head lovingly. "My mommy gave him to me before I was even a baby. He's the bestest. Whenever I get sad I hug him." Clint looked up into James' face, his eyes wide. "Maybe if you get sad you can hug him too."

The innocent eagerness on Clint's face made something deep in James' chest turn over painfully. The previous day, James had come very close to scaring the children with his panic attack, and today, Clint was handing over his very favorite toy to make James feel better.

James really didn't deserve these kids.

"Thanks, Clint," James said. He had to stop to clear his throat. "That's very kind of you."

Clint beamed. "But I gotta take him home at bedtime, in case he gets lonely," the boy cautioned.

"That makes sense," James said. "Let's put Floppy over on the couch so that he can see what everyone's doing."

"Okay." Clint took Floppy from James' hand and placed the toy ceremonially in the middle of the couch cushions.

"He's pretty," Natasha cooed, leaning over to pat the toy on the head. Pretty was the last word James would have used, but kids saw things in their own way.

"He's special, that's for sure," James said under his breath. Steve jabbed his elbow against James' ribs. "Say, are you going to tell him about tomorrow?"

"Yeah, I suppose I should." Steve picked Clint up and swung him up onto his lap. Natasha climbed up next to Steve, giggling the whole time. "Clint, there's something I need to tell you."

"I wanna go play with Natasha," Clint said, trying to slide down to the ground, squirming as his father held him in place. "Daddy, let me go."

"Just a minute." Steve got his elbow in place to hold Clint. "It's about tomorrow."

"Tomorrow is Friday," Natasha contributed, crawling over to James.

"You're right," James said, putting his arm around Natasha as the girl leaned against him.

"Clint," Steve began, "You know how I have to work late sometimes?"

"Uh huh." Clint made another attempt to escape his father, but to no avail.

"Tomorrow night, I have to work all night at the party."

Clint stopped struggling. "Do I have to miss archery class?" the boy demanded. "No, I don't want to!" He turned in Steve's grip to take hold of his father's tie.

"Easy, Clint," Steve said, bouncing the boy on his knee. "You're not going to miss your class. You're going to stay here with James and Natasha and James is going to take you to your class."

This obviously had not occurred to Clint. He let go of Steve's tie to stare at James, his finger going to his mouth.

"And then after that," Steve said, "You're going to come back here and spend the night with Natasha and James."

This was met with resounding silence.

"Like a sleepover," Steve went on, looking at James in desperation. "And then I'll come pick you up in the morning."

"I don't want you to!" Clint said. His reaction was so unexpected that James just sat there, staring. "I don't want you to go away!"

"I'm only going to be away for one night," Steve said in a hurry, hugging Clint tight. "And then I'm yours all weekend, I promise. Okay?"

Clint clung to his father, never quite descending into tears, but close enough. Steve shushed the boy, rubbing his back and trying to reassure him.

"Daddy, is a sleepover bad?" Natasha asked, crawling into James' lap and taking hold of his hand, a gesture James knew was seeking reassurance. "Why is Clint sad?"

James was only qualified to answer one of those questions, so he said, "A sleepover is when your best friend stays overnight and you get to watch a movie and eat popcorn, and then you drink hot chocolate and then go to bed. And when you wake up, you get to eat pancakes in your pajamas."

He might have been a little overboard in his description of a sleepover, but his attempt at winning Natasha over to the idea succeeded. She bounced up, mouth open in astonishment. "But Daddy!" she exclaimed. "That sounds fun!"

"It does sound fun," Steve said. "Doesn't that sound fun, Clint?"

The little boy turned his head in James' direction, sniffling mightily. "I didn't hear," he said, so sad and tragic that James had to bite back a smile. "What's fun?"

"What people do at a sleepover," James said again. He repeated the description for Clint. "Does that sound like something you'd want to do?"

"No," Clint said crossly.

"Why not?" Steve asked.

"Because Daddy not be here!"

"Clint," James said before the discussion could descend into a fight. "Do you want to play a game tomorrow instead?"

Clint glared at James. "What game?"

"It's called Camp Out," James said, reaching out his left arm stump to keep Natasha from overbalancing. "In Camp Out, you have sleeping bags in a tent, and you try to stay up all night, and you get to eat hot dogs and learn how to tie knots."

Steve opened his mouth, no doubt to tell James he was full of it, but Clint went very still. He stared at James for about ten seconds, then put his finger back in his mouth to chew on the knuckle. "I like hot dogs," the boy whispered.

Sensing he was close to a breakthrough, James pressed on. "Have you ever slept in a tent?" Both Clint and Natasha shook their heads. "It's really fun. You sleep in sleeping bags, and you have a pillow, and your very own flashlight."

"I want my own flashlight," Clint breathed.

Natasha turned and cuddled close to James, her sharp fingernails digging into his arm. "I want a flashlight too!" she chirruped.

"Everyone who goes camping gets a flashlight," James said. "What do you say, Clint? Will you give Camp Out a try?"

Clint was obviously torn between wanting to try new things, and holding onto his grudge, but Natasha had made up her mind. "I wanna do Camp Out!" she cheered, jumping down to the carpet. "Clint, we can do Camp Out together, it's the best!" She dashed away into the kitchen.

Clint took his finger out of his mouth to reach for Floppy. "Can Floppy come too?" he asked James.

"Of course," James said. "Stuffed animals are invited."

Clint slid to the ground with a bump. "Okay," he said, still sounding out of sorts. He looked up at his father. "Are you coming home today?"

"Of course I am." Steve reached down to straighten Clint's disheveled t-shirt. "And every other night for the rest of your life. Are you still mad at me?"

Clint shrugged. "I dunno." He wandered away after Natasha, Floppy hanging despondently from his left hand.

Steve sat back with a sigh. "That went well," he said.

"He'll get over it," James said. He stood up. "Well, at least until tomorrow night."

Steve glared.

"Hey, why are you looking so pissed? I'm the one who's got to go buy a tent. And flashlights." He thought back to what he had promised the children. "And sleeping bags. Jesus."

"Can't you just roll up some blankets on the floor?" Steve suggested as he shoved himself upright. "That's what we used to do."

"They'll get cold."

"It's the middle of summer," Steve pointed out, gesturing at the windows. "Cold is the one thing they won't get."

James shook his head. "Whatever. Get your ass to work, the kids will be fine."

"Yeah, sure thing." Still, Steve did not move. "I just… this means a lot to me, Bucky, it really does."

"It's no big deal," James said, uncomfortable with the way Steve was looking at him, like James had done something special. "You know I'm there for you guys, right?"

"I do." Steve took a deep breath. "Me too, same for you and Nat."

Before James could say something dumb, there came from the kitchen a loud "Uh oh," and a loud crack.

James sighed and was already on his way when calls for "Daddy!" rose in two-part harmony.


The morning progressed as usual, dented peanut butter jar excluded. Steve went off to work, Skye arrived, and James escaped to his office to get in the final touches on the afternoon's presentation.

At half past eleven, he saved the file to the server before heading upstairs to see how the kids were getting along. He could hear music on the staircase, happy and light, like something Natasha would dance to in ballet class.

Coming out onto the landing, James saw the children over by the art wall, smearing brushstrokes of bright paint onto large sheets of paper as the music played. Skye was sitting by the speakers, watching the kids and making notes on her tablet computer. When she caught sight of James, she motioned for him to join her.

"What's up?" James asked, sitting down cross-legged on the hardwood floor.

"How the developing mind can translate sensory input as creative inspiration," Skye responded. She caught James' expression. "Or freeform art day, whatever you like."

"What's the music?" James asked. Across the room, Natasha was balancing on her tip-toes as she drew circles in red paint. Clint was holding very still, painting blue lines over a backdrop of yellow smears.

"The Sleeping Beauty Waltz." Skye said. "We've got some John Coltrane coming up next."

"Sounds like fun. You guys still up for lunch at twelve?"

Skye checked the time on her tablet. "Sure thing."

"Okay, I'll see you later." James stood, crossed the room to pat both children on the head, and headed downstairs. He stopped in at the kitchen to pull food out of the fridge for lunch, then went back upstairs to get ready for his meeting in the city.

He texted Skye to let her know that lunch was ready whenever the kids were, then set the phone down to get ready. He shaved with his safety razor, grimacing a little at his reflection in the mirror. Even before he'd lost his arm, he had favored an electric razor, as the faint shadow of facial hair made him look (at least to his eyes) older than his years. With a clean-shaven face and his hair cut short, James' reflection looked so unlike himself that he just stared for a moment.

Then he shook his head and reached for the aftershave.

Twenty minutes later, James slipped his wallet into his pocket and took stock. His prosthetic arm moved easily under his suit, the tie didn't feel too tight, and to James' surprise the trousers had buttoned without strain. He'd been sure that he'd put on a few pounds, what with how much he'd been eating with Steve and Clint around all the time.

Hoping the afternoon went off without complications, James headed downstairs.

The children were already in the kitchen, chattering up a storm as Skye helped them get their lunches ready. As James entered the room, Natasha stopped talking and gaped at him. "Daddy!" she exclaimed when she found her voice. "You are pretty!"

"I'm not too bad," James said, joining the kids at the table. "What's for lunch?"

Immediately distracted, Natasha said, "I have cheese and noodles!"

"I have peanut butter," Clint put in, indicating his plate where a substantial helping of peanut butter had been spread on a slice of bread.

Skye, who was piling her plate with salad and vegetables, said, "Clint, you want some jam with that?"

Clint shook his head. "Jam is for morning time, that's what Grandpa Abraham says."

"He does?" James took the salad bowl from Skye and dumped some greens onto his plate.

"Uh huh." Clint picked up his bread and nibbled on one edge. "Jam for morning and honey at night. Sugar in the middle."

"Can I have sugar?" Natasha asked, staring hopefully at James.

"No," James said. "Eat your lunch."

As Natasha pouted at him, James reached for the sliced chicken to add to his salad. He had a feeling that he would feel better if he wasn't starving. "What are you guys going to do this afternoon?" he asked, in an effort to redirect Natasha.

"We gonna go to the park," Clint said. "Skye said we can swing!"

"That sounds like fun." James reached across the table to brush a strand of hair out of Natasha's face. "Don't you think so, Natasha?"

"I guess so." Natasha, still pouting, put a piece of macaroni in her mouth. "Can we teeter totter too?" She giggled at this accidental alliteration.

"Of course," Skye said. "We have all afternoon."

"Can I take a book?" Clint asked suddenly. "To read?"

"Of course you can," Skye said, not missing a beat. "You can each bring a book, and we can play on the playground or we can read, whatever you want."

"Reading is okay," Clint declared, reaching for his water glass. "Before, I thought reading was dumb. But I like it."

"Me too," Natasha put in, grinning at her friend. "I like it when I read, and when Daddy reads, and when Steve reads too!"

"We started Harry Potter last night," James told Skye. "Steve had been saving that for a special occasion."

Skye smiled at this. "That's certainly a fun book," she said to the children. "Tell you what. How about I get us some books to read during the weekdays when your dads aren't here?"

Excited cheers met this suggestion.

After lunch, James and Skye piled the dirty dishes in the sink for later, while the children 'helped' by carrying food over to the fridge. Afterwards, James gathered up his briefcase while Skye sent the children upstairs for their books and sunscreen.

"Hey, Skye, you got a minute?"

"Sure. What's up?"

James picked up his car keys and shoved them in his pocket before turning around to face Skye. "Steve is thinking about taking Clint up to the Hamptons for a week around his birthday, at the start of August," James said. "He asked if Nat and I could come along."

Was it James' imagination, or was Skye's smile a little too wide? "Are you going?" she asked.

"If I can get away from work," James said, unwilling to commit just yet. "But if we do, we'll still pay you for the week."

"Do you need a house sitter?" Skye asked. "Keep an eye on the place, get the mail and stuff?"

That hadn't occurred to James, but as he thought about it, the suggestion had merit. "Yeah, I'll think about it," he said. "I'll be back around five. Call if you need anything."

"We'll be fine," Skye said as the children stormed down the stairs, yelling at the top of their lungs. Natasha ran to James, while Clint made a detour to the couch.

"Daddy, can I wear my hat?" Natasha demanded.

"If you want. Listen to Skye while I'm gone, okay?"

"Okay," Natasha said as she ran over to the closet.

Clint came up to Skye and James, cradling Floppy in his arms. "Are you gonna bring my dad home?"

James hadn't thought about that. With luck, he would be getting out of his meeting around the time that Steve normally left the city for home. "I'll call him and see, okay?" James ruffled Clint's hair. "You should leave Floppy here when you go out to the park, so he doesn't get lost."

"I will." Clint laid a noisy kiss on Floppy's head, then tossed the toy onto the couch. "Where's my shoes?"

James made his escape while Skye was busy with the children. Once he was in the jeep, however, he texted Steve with the offer of a ride home, then started the vehicle up for the drive into Manhattan.


The meeting with Maria and the clients went well, and at a quarter to four James and Maria were packing up to leave when James' phone pinged with a text message.

I'd love a ride. Can u meet me in the coffee shop at Stark Tower around four?

Yp, James texted back. He slid his phone into his pocket, conscious that Maria was staring at him.

"What?"

"What was that about?" she asked, slinging her notebook back into her bag.

"Nothing."

"It's not Natasha, or you'd have called back," Maria mused. "It's not work-related, or else you wouldn't have that look on your face."

"What look?" James demanded, glaring daggers at Maria.

She was unimpressed. "Happy," she said. "You look happy."

"I do not," James said, standing abruptly. "Good meeting, I'll talk to you later."

He turned to leave the building, but Maria was already walking at his side. Since running away would be churlish, James bit his tongue and held the door for her as they exited out to the sidewalk.

"Is it Steve?" Maria asked as they crossed Forty-Third Avenue.

"It might be," James said after a minute.

"How is he doing?"

"Fine."

"And Clint?"

"Not so fine." James slowed his pace slightly, suddenly less eager to be anywhere. "Steve has to work tomorrow night and so Clint's staying at my place, but the kid seems a little worried about that."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"Have a Camp Out," James said. "You know. Make up a tent, have the kids in sleeping bags, hot dogs for dinner, all that."

Pausing at the next intersection, he saw Maria looking at him with a smile on her face.

"What?"

"You're a good person," Maria said unexpectedly. "Those kids are lucky to have you."

James made a non-committal noise. "Maybe sometimes."

Maria slipped her hand through the crook of his left arm. "That's good enough," she said. "Now, where are we going?"

Resigning himself to his fate, James led Maria to Stark Tower, through the main doors and up to the mezzanine's coffee shop. It wasn't too busy at this time of day, and James could see Steve lounging at a table by the window.

"Well, well," Maria said under her breath as she slipped her arm out of James' and took a step away from him. "Well done, James."

"What?" James asked, but Steve glanced up then and saw them. He must have been reading something strange, because Steve's expression looked like someone had slapped him in the head.

"You must be Steve Rogers," Maria said, holding out her hand as they approached Steve's table. "I've heard so much about you."

Steve stood up, nearly knocking over the little table in his haste, and took Maria's hand. "I am. Are you Maria?"

"Yes," Maria said, while James quietly plotted his revenge in the background. "Natasha was right, you are very tall."

Steve's mild confusion gave way to a sheepish smile. "Natasha's talked a lot about you too," he admitted. His eyes moved over to James then, and his smile grew stronger. "Hey, Bucky."

"Steve," James said. "Maria, you want coffee?"

"Americano and a danish," Maria said, never taking her eyes off Steve. "Now, sit down and tell me all about yourself."

Loaded down with misgivings, James left Maria and Steve to their discussion and headed over to the counter. A few minutes later and ten dollars poorer, James headed back to the table with two cups and a bagged pastry. As he approached, he could make out that Steve and Maria were deep in a discussion about Clint and Natasha.

"…has to do with early childhood interaction, of course," Maria was saying. They both looked up as James set the cups down. "Most children with moderate hearing loss don't experience any difficulties as long as their caregivers and peer groups respond favorably."

"That's what I'm worried about," Steve admitted as James sat down. "Clint's great with Skye, and Natasha doesn't notice anything, but with a new school in the fall…"

Marveling at how Maria had managed to get Steve talking about something that even James hadn't dare broach, James said bluntly, "Clint's kindergarten teachers sucked. Put the kid at the back of the room where he couldn't see the board, even though they knew he couldn't hear great."

Maria made a tsking sound. "Historically, children with hearing loss have not had an easy time in the educational system," she said as she reached for her coffee and pastry. "Those old prejudices can linger. From what I know about St. Ursula's, Clint should have an easier time of things than in his previous school."

Just as James was about to take the first sip of his coffee, Maria stood up.

"It was nice to meet you, Steve," Maria said with her FBI smile. "But I really do have to run." She gave James a significant look, then headed off without another word.

James, still holding his cup midair, said, "She does that."

Steve let out a breath. "She's interesting. How long have you two worked together?"

"A few years." James took a drink, relishing the mouthful of flavor. "I think she wanted to meet you."

"No, it was good," Steve said. The smile on his lip slowly fell away as he sat back to regard James. "Are you… okay?"

James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "Same as any other day."

"Yeah, but…"

James waited for Steve to finish that sentence, but when it became obvious that Steve was floundering, James sighed and put his coffee cup on the table. "What happened yesterday doesn't change anything," he said, pitching his voice low so they could not be overheard. "Nothing."

"But…" Steve sat forward and rubbed his hand over the back of his neck.

The coffee in James' stomach soured. "What, because you know now, I'm supposed to act all different?" he snapped.

"That's not it," Steve shot back.

"Then knock it off!" James stood up. "Are you coming or not?"

For a moment, James thought Steve might tell him to go fuck himself, but then Steve also stood. "Let's go."

His hackles still up, James turned and walked with Steve out of the building and down the streets in the direction of where James had left the jeep. James knew he was overreacting, but damn it, this was his life and he didn't need Steve Goddamn Rogers acting like he knew better than James did about anything.

The sourness in his stomach lurched up his esophagus until James tasted acid in the back of his mouth. Wishing that he had eaten something more substantial than a salad at home, James dropped his cup in a street-side garbage can and shoved his hand into his trouser pocket, his metal hand gripping the handle of his briefcase.

James didn't want to look at Steve, didn't want to know if the man thought James was a basket case or what. All the television shows James had ever watched had led James to believe that things would get easier once he'd told someone about what happened to him at fifteen. But this wasn't easier. It hurt and worried and bit and James wished now with all his might that he hadn't told Steve, that he'd lied and blamed it all on the arm.

Because that was his life, where blaming his PTSD on his missing arm would have been the easy way out.

"Fucking goddamn donkey cocksucker," James said under his breath, resisting the urge to kick a nearby fire hydrant.

"What?" Steve asked, a step behind James.

"Nothing." James stopped at a crosswalk to wait for the light to change. Steve stood at his side, close but not touching, radiating warmth like a giant hot water bottle. Normally James would have reveled in the closeness, as close as he was ever going to get to touching Steve Rogers, but now it just made him angrier.

The light changed and humanity surged into the crosswalk. James walked faster, knowing that Steve would be able to keep up regardless. A few more blocks and they were at the jeep. James unlocked the doors and got in, tossing his briefcase haphazardly in the backseat before closing his door. Steve sat down more sedately, closing the door before reaching for his seatbelt. James knew he had to put his own seatbelt on before he started the jeep, but he just sat there, staring at the keys in his hand.

"Bucky, you okay?" Steve asked after a minute.

James ran his thumb over the car key's metal edge. "It wasn't my fault."

"What wasn't?"

"What happened back then," James said. The world was wavering around the edges, and he wondered if he was going to throw up again. "It wasn't my fault."

"Of course it wasn't."

James fumbled the key into the ignition but couldn't bring himself to turn on the jeep.

It wasn't his fault that his father had thrown him out of the house. It wasn't his fault that he'd fallen in love with someone who'd only been out to use him.

It wasn't his fault that his father died on that construction site without ever seeing him again.

"I was fifteen."

"I know." Steve's hand settled on James' upper arm, a gentle pressure through his suit jacket.

"Fuck." James gripped the steering wheel, trying to regain his bearings. "Fuck."

"You okay to drive?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, just give me a minute." James took a few deep breaths, trying to get the taste of acid out of his mouth. Steve didn't say anything, just kept holding James' arm until James was able to reach out to turn the key in the ignition. He pulled out into the street and off they went.

At the next stoplight, James turned to look at Steve. "All right. Fuck that shit. What exactly happens at Clint's archery class tomorrow?"

They drove through the afternoon rush hour towards FDR Drive, getting stuck on the Brooklyn Bridge for half an hour when an accident blocked one of the lanes. The time was instructive for James, however, who now knew that Clint needed to get to his archery class at least twenty minutes early so he could watch the end of the previous class, and that he needed to take his water bottle half-full of ice water just in case he got thirsty, and that he couldn't wear his glasses on the range so Steve had to hold them for when the class was done. Steve had nearly talked himself out by the time that James pulled the jeep up out front of the house. Putting the car in park and turning off the engine, James leaned forward to look out the windshield.

"Looks like someone's expecting you."

Steve looked in the direction James indicated. Against the house's front window was plastered Clint, his nose pressed against the window as he waved at the jeep. As they watched, Clint stuck his tongue out against the glass.

"Charming," James observed as he undid his seat belt.

Steve sighed. "You sure you're okay with having him over tomorrow night?"

"Of course I am." James got out of the jeep. "You okay with being away from him all night?"

"Nope." Steve slammed the door behind him. "Knowing he'll be here with you guys will make it easier, though."

"Come on," James said, slapping Steve on the back. "Let's go see what our kids have been doing all afternoon."

Steve's smile could have lit up the whole world.

Chapter Text


To James' utter lack of surprise, Clint hit the wall after his Friday archery lesson.

The boy had been cheerful and upbeat all through the day, helped in no small part by Skye's deliberately busy schedule of events. After Skye went home, Clint had still been excited, focused on his archery lesson, and had demonstrated a seriousness at the lesson itself that had impressed James (who waited on the sidelines with a bored Natasha).

But after the lesson, as James packed both children back into the jeep for the ride home, Clint folded in on himself. Natasha kept up the chattering from the backseat, filling the air with stories about what she wanted to do on this special Camp Out night, but Clint sat quiet in his seat, finger in his mouth and eyes downcast. James could only grit his teeth and drive as fast as possible.

At home, James divested Clint of his bow case and quiver, shutting the weapons neatly into the hall closet. Clint wandered over to the front window and sat on the window seat, staring gloomily out into the street below.

"Daddy?" Natasha said, tugging on James' right hand. "Clint is sad."

James led Natasha over to Clint's side, where she scrambled onto the seat beside her best friend. "It's understandable if Clint is a little glum," James said.

Clint turned to eye James suspiciously. "What's glum?" he demanded.

"It's when you're a little sad, and a little bummed out." James pushed aside the stack of books on the coffee table, and sat down to face the kids. "It's when you feel a little like this."

He then proceeded to sigh theatrically, making sad faces until even Clint was giggling at him.

"See?" James said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Everyone feels glum sometimes."

Clint pulled his glasses off, letting them dangle from the cord around his neck. "I miss my dad," he said, lower lip going out in a pout. "Every time after I shoot arrows, he and me go have spaghetti."

"I know," James said. "He told me."

"But we're going to have hot dogs for dinner," Natasha interjected immediately. She glared at her father. "You said, when you do Camp Out, you have to have hot dogs."

"I did say that. Tonight is a special night, and we're going to have hot dogs. How does that sound?"

Clint let out a big sigh. "Okay, I guess."

"Just okay?"

"Yeah." Clint slumped back against the window. "When's my dad gonna come back?"

"He'll be here tomorrow morning." Seeing how depressed Clint looked at this, James cast about for ideas to distract the kids. "Certainly before eight."

"That's a long time," Natasha chimed in before Clint could respond. "How many times is that?"

"Too many," Clint said.

James wasn't sure how much more sadness he could stand on a Friday afternoon. If Steve had been there, or even Skye, they'd have been able to distract the kids into having a good time, but unfortunately for Natasha and Clint, they only had James.

Well, fine. He still had some tricks up his sleeve. Straightening his back, James clapped his hands together. "All right, attention!" he called in his best drill sergeant voice. The kids sat bolt upright, Clint's moping forgotten. "We need to set up camp, so everyone, on their feet!"

The kids bounced to their feet. Natasha giggled up at James while Clint stared at James with wide excited eyes.

"Do you know how to march?" James asked the kids. He received two nods. "All right, follow me, forward march!" James stood and strode in the direction of the stairs, tiny footsteps scampering after him. At the top of the stairs, Natasha dashed in front of James, through his open bedroom door to pounce on the neatly-made bed. Clint hesitated for just a moment before joining Natasha. "At ease," James said, relaxing his shoulders. "In preparation of a long night, we need to have adequate supplies, agreed?"

"Yes!" Natasha shouted.

"What supplies?" Clint asked.

James went into his closet. Up on top of the shelf, behind the folded blankets, he reached for a rusty metal toolbox. One of the blankets snagged on the toolbox and fell on James' face. This was the cause for much amusement by the children, and by the time James disentangled himself Natasha had collapsed from laughter.

"All right, all right," James said. He kicked the blanket out of the way as he carried the toolbox over to the bed. "Shove over."

He steadied the box with his prosthetic hand while opening the rusty latch with his right hand.

"This is dirty," Clint observed, peering into the box as James lifted the lid.

"That's not dirt, it's rust," James said. "This was my grandfather's toolbox."

"What's the difference?" Natasha asked, having recovered from her laughing fit.

"Dirty means you don't care," James told her. "Rust means it's just old."

Accepting this, Natasha joined Clint in looking into the box. "What's all that?" she asked, pointing at the jumble of objects.

"This is all stuff I don't use any more." James paused for a moment, looking into the box. Dim memories pushed at him, dull in their pain, no longer able to draw blood. "Most of this is stuff I had when I was in the army." Reaching into the toolbox, James pulled out the object he'd been looking for in the first place.

"That's a watch," Clint told James. "Grandpa Abraham has a watch. It tells you when you're late."

"It does indeed." James ran his thumb over the watch face. He'd been wearing the watch on his left wrist when the IED hit his squad's transport; weeks after the accident, when he was in a stateside military hospital, still too weak to take a piss by himself, he'd gotten a package from his company's field medic. The package, from Jim Morita, whom James had worked with for over six months on that deployment, contained the cleaned watch. Morita's accompanying note said that he'd found James' watch (leaving out the rather obvious fact that it still must have been on James' dismembered left wrist at the time) and sent it along as a keepsake, as he knew how much the watch meant to James.

Still doped up on opiates, James had written a reply letter in sloppy handwriting, thanking Morita for the watch and to tell him to keep an eye out for himself. He'd had one of the nurses post the letter for him, then he'd promptly thrown up and gone back to bed. When he was well enough to get out of the hospital, James had shoved the watch and everything else into his grandfather's toolbox, wishing he had the guts to throw it all out.

That had been over five years ago now, before he met Natasha.

With an effort, James pushed the memories back into their place in his head. "I've had this watch since I was seventeen," he said as he handed it to Clint. The boy took it carefully.

"Did you buy it?" Natasha asked.

"No, it was a gift. My father's friend gave it to me when I made the all-state track team in my senior year." The man had been James' father's business partner, engaged in a campaign to convince James' mother to sell off her half of the construction company after James' father's death. James hadn't minded the bribe; he sure as hell didn't want to go into the family business after high school, and it was a nice watch, not too showy, with a timer for James to use to time his laps on the track. "I thought you can use it to see what time it is, so you'll know when your dad is coming home."

Clint put his glasses on to examine the watch more closely. "What are those?" he asked, pointing at the watch's hands. "Why don't the numbers move?"

Of course. Clint had never learned to tell time off a clock-face. "This is how old people tell time," James said, moving around to show Clint the big and little hands, and to explain how they worked.

In the meantime, Natasha was rummaging through the toolbox. She pulled out a few of James' boxed medals, opening the cases before closing them again. Then she got hold of something and pulled, the silver glint of the dented dogtags catching the afternoon sun through the bedroom window. "Daddy, you have a necklace!" she squealed.

"Yes, I do." James had also been wearing these when the IED hit his transport; they'd been under his body armour and had escaped the worst of the attack. "Every soldier wears these when they're on patrol."

Natasha slung the chain around her neck, admiring the dogtags hanging against her belly. "J-A-M-E-S," she spelled out loud. "That's your name, Daddy. James."

"It sure is." James put the medal cases back in the toolbox and latched it shut again. He pushed the toolbox under his bed, giving it a firm shove to keep it out of sight, and stood. "How about we go down to the workshop and fix these things up?"

"What are we going to fix?" Natasha asked, immediately sliding off the bed.

"We can fix the watch band so it fits Clint's wrist," James said. "And that chain's too long for you to wear."

Clint took hold of James' metal hand, the watch firmly gripped in his other palm. Natasha eschewed James' hand, galloping off ahead on her own. "Where's your workshop?" Clint asked. "Uncle Tony has a workshop. With a robot!"

"No robots here," James said, guiding Clint down the stairs to the basement. Natasha was already waiting for them in the laundry room. "Just a little place where I can get some stuff done."

He went over to the far wall and opened the door to the small inner room he'd transformed into a workshop. Pulling on the cord descending from the room's single light bulb, the room's contents came into focus. Natasha just barged in like always, but Clint stood in the doorway, gazing with his mouth hanging open. "Wow," he said.

James sat on the stool by the workbench. "Who wants to go first?"

"I do," Natasha said. She took the chain off and handed it to James. "What are you going to do?"

"Well," James said, considering the assortment of hand tools arranged on hooks along the wall. "We need to make the chain shorter so you don't get tangled up."

He reached for the wire cutters, set them on the bench, then quickly popped the end of the chain out of its hook. Holding the chain in his left hand, he made a quick snip with the wire cutters, removing a third of the chain's length, then popped the end of the chain back in its holding. The entire operation had taken less than thirty seconds, but Natasha looked deeply impressed as she put the chain back over her head.

James set the wire cutters back on their hook. "Come on, Clint, your turn."

Clint advanced into the small room. "Are you going to cut it?" the boy asked, handing over the watch.

"Nope." James laid the watch flat on the workbench. "This watch wasn't designed for a little boy to wear. I need to punch a new hole in the strap."

"For me?" Clint asked, astonished.

"Of course for you," James said as he retrieved two spring clamps from a cubby. "No other little boys around here that I know about."

"Only old little boys wear a watch," Natasha said, looking at Clint with envy. "Only old little boys with jobs."

James, who was fresh out of timepieces at this point, bit his tongue on asking Natasha if she'd wanted the watch. He had committed himself, and his daughter didn't appear upset that he was giving Clint the watch. He'd ask her another day if she wanted a watch for her birthday.

"My dad doesn't wear a watch," Clint said, hardly breathing as he watched James clamp the watch straps to the workbench. "He has the time on his phone."

"Same here," James said. He plucked the awl from its high spot on the wall, then made sure the children were standing back before he pressed the sharp implement through the leather watch strap. He put the tool away before he unclamped the watch, and helped Clint try it on his wrist.

The watch face, which had been of average size on a grown man's wrist, was huge against the slender bones of Clint's arm. But the adoring glow on Clint's face told James that the boy didn't mind. Putting the clamps back in their place, James shooed the children back into the laundry room and closed the door behind him.

"Now what do we do?" Natasha asked, still admiring the dogtags around her neck.

James knelt, and they all looked at the watch on Clint's wrist. "Now, it's almost six o'clock," James said, indicating the watch's little hand pointing at the six. "We should get dinner started before we set up camp for the night. What do you say?"

"I say, hot dogs!" Natasha shouted, punching the air. Clint nodded in agreement, and then both children were running out of the room and up the stairs. James held back long enough to fasten the bolt at the top of the workshop door, in case Clint or Natasha wanted to look at the sharp tools without telling an adult, then up he went to the kitchen.

James convinced the children to go clean up the living room while he started the charcoal in the backyard barbeque. Then it was back inside, where James found the kids sprawled on the living room couch, each staring at their new treasures.

He went to his office, retrieved the box he'd carefully hidden after his shopping trip that morning, and went back to the living room. "All right, now," James said, sinking into the arm chair. "Do you guys know the most important rule for Camp Out?"

"No," Natasha said. Clint shook his head.

"You need to be properly equipped." James reached into the box and handed over two gift bags, one for each child. "Look in there."

Clint dove into his bag, while Natasha upended hers on the carpet. There were a few moments of excited shrieking as the children looked at their presents.

"Look, Daddy!" Natasha screeched, holding up her new red flashlight. "It's red!"

"It sure is," James said, ruefully remembering the search through three stores to find flashlights in just the right colors for the kids.

"Mine is purple!" Clint crowed, holding his flashlight aloft.

Cradling her flashlight, Natasha next picked up the little metal cup by its handle. "What's this for?"

"These are special camping hot chocolate cups," James said. "They won't break if you drop them, and you can make hot chocolate in them."

"Mmm," said Clint, patting his belly. "I like hot chocolate."

"Me too," Natasha said, and promptly stuck her flashlight in the cup. "Can we have hot chocolate now?"

"Nope, after dinner," James said. "What else do you have there?"

The children examined the rest of the items (Clint's favourite was the tiny first-aid kit, while Natasha liked the little reflective stickers) until it was time to cook the hot dogs. The sun was still high in the sky over Brooklyn as James drew the kids near to watch the hot dogs sizzling on the grill, and the only thing that could have made the day perfect would have been if Steve was there to share it with them.

They ate sitting on the deck. Natasha finished a whole hot dog, and Clint tried valiantly to eat a second hot dog but failed after two bites (James ate the rest for him). Then Natasha asked, "What did you eat when you were in the Army?"

This led to a long discussion about the food in basic training and then while James was deployed. It was, oddly, easier to talk about his time in the Army with the children than it would have been with Steve, as the children didn't look for hidden meaning in what James was saying (or rather not saying). Clint in particular was fascinated with James' descriptions of life as a Ranger.

"Can I be an army guy?" Clint asked as they carried their plates into the kitchen.

"Well," James said, wondering what Steve might make of this conversation. "You could try, when you're eighteen. But there's all sorts of things you can do when you're grown-up, and you don't have to decide right now."

One thing James knew for certain, he wasn't going to tell Clint that his vision and hearing problems might prevent him from a career in the military. The boy didn't need to hear that tonight.

"Can I shoot arrows in the army?" Clint asked as he climbed the footstool to rinse his plate.

"The US Army doesn't have an archer division," James hedged, turning on the sink taps.

Clint frowned. "Then I don't wanna do it. I wanna grow up and shoot arrows and have a dog and ride a roller coaster every weekend."

"That's a good plan." James opened the dishwasher so the children could load their own dishes. "You could be in the Olympics. Or you could go into the movie business and be a stunt man."

"What's that?" Natasha asked, shoving her plate off-kilter into the dishwasher rack.

James started to reach for the plate to straighten it, then made himself stop. It would get clean just fine. "A stunt man is when the movie people have to hire someone who has a really special skill, to make the movie better."

Clint considered this. "Okay, I do that," he declared after a moment. "Then I can shoot arrows all day."

"Not bad," James said. When he was five, he was pretty sure he wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up. "What about you, Nat?"

"When I grow up," Natasha said, "I am going to fix things, like you, Daddy." With a brilliant grin in his direction, Natasha took off toward the living room, Clint hard on her heels.

Smiling to himself, James closed the dishwasher door before heading back outside to make sure that the charcoal was no danger as it burned itself out.


The evening progressed. With James' help, the children set up a 'tent' in the living room (a sheet thrown over a rope tied from the bookcase on one side and the curtain rail on the other) then proceeded to make their very own child-sized bedrolls. Clint had a blast folding his sheet and blanket and rolling it up, but Natasha got frustrated when her blanket didn't fold straight. James had to jump in to prevent a melt-down, and soon enough, Natasha stood up, dusted off her hands, and declared their camp site in order.

"You need your stuffed animals," James pointed out. "Go get them and then we can start on a craft."

Natasha bolted for the stairs, while Clint retrieved Floppy from his place of honour on top of the television. "James," Clint said as he hugged the stuffed toy. "When is my dad coming home?"

"Tomorrow morning," James said again.

"When's that?" Clint demanded, holding out his wrist.

James made a show of checking the watch. "When the little hand goes all the way around again, and it's on the seven."

Clint pouted at the watch. "Can he come home now?"

"No, because he's working." James took Floppy from the boy and placed the toy on Clint's bedroll. "That's the hard part about being a dad. Sometimes you have to go to work and can't spend time with your kids."

Clint flopped down on the ground, his arms crossed over his chest. "It's not fair," he groused. "My mommy is always away because she works."

Of all the things James was not going to discuss with Clint, Sharon Carter's absence in his life was at the top of the list. "You know your dad will be here in the morning," James said instead. "And you can tell him all the fun things you did tonight."

"I guess."

Natasha came tearing back down the stairs, her arms overloaded with stuffed animals. "Nat, why do you have all these?" James asked. "You're only going to be down here for one night."

"They'll get lonely," Natasha informed him as she set Bear and Dr. Snapples alongside her two identical stuffed penguins, Tick and Tock. "This way, no one gets lonely!"

Clint crawled over to pat Tock on the head. "You have nice toys," he said. "These are birds."

"All right," James said. "I'm going to get the craft started outside before it gets too dark. Who's with me?"

Both children jumped up to accompany James. Outside, in the slant of the evening sun, James set the children up with their painting smocks before bringing out the lengths of wooden doweling he'd gotten earlier that day at the hardware store.

"What are these?" Natasha asked, picking up two of the wood pieces.

"We're going to make wind chimes," James told them. "We're going to paint these, then they can dry overnight and tomorrow we'll finish them up, okay?"

After a chorus of, "Okay!" James set out the paints, handed over the brushes, and let the children loose.

One of the things he would never cease to marvel at, James reflected, was how Clint and Natasha could entertain themselves for such long stretches of time. As he hovered in the background to make sure that there were no paint spillages or hurt feelings, James listened to the children go back and forth with things they wanted to do when they were older. After a few minutes, this morphed into Clint telling Natasha a story about climbing a tree at his grandfather's house. Then Natasha chimed in with a story about how she had pretended to be a cat one day, all the while painting stripes on her wooden sticks.

Knowing enough to keep out of things, James eventually sat on the step to watch the children. Again, he wished Steve was there to be a part of this. Maybe that's what things would be like when they went to the Hamptons in a few weeks; the grown-ups sitting back, while the kids played and laughed and had a great time with each other.

But of course, because James was James, he couldn't get rid of the feeling in the pit of his stomach that something would go wrong, that he would somehow mess things up. He ran his hand through his hair as he tried to reason with himself. All he could do, at the end of the day, was to keep the kids safe and to keep his own emotions in check. So what if he had a crush on Steve? It didn't matter, because Steve was straight.

And the fact that Steve was still James' best friend, even after so many years… well that was more than a man could hope for. That was going to have to be enough for James.

Being in love with his best friend wasn't the end of the world.


After the sun set and the paints were packed away, James got the children inside and into their pyjamas before it was time for hot chocolate and stories. He'd contemplated making s'mores for the kids, but the idea of putting that much sugar into the children before bed had scared even a seasoned Ranger like himself.

As the children drank their hot chocolate in their new cups, James read to the children from one of Skye's books. This one featured a family of children growing up in nineteenth-century Canada, which James thought was both dull and random, but Natasha and Clint drank it up. They managed four chapters before the kids started to fade, so James ended things there and herded the two sleepyheads up to wash their faces and brush their teeth.

Then it was back downstairs and into their bedrolls while James read bedtime stories. Natasha, tucked in amongst her stuffed animals, fell asleep in the middle of the fourth story, but Clint was still wide awake, clutching at Floppy.

James finished the story for the boy, then put the book aside. "Can you try to get some sleep?" James asked.

"I guess so," Clint said as he took off his glasses, then held out his wrist to James. James unbuckled the watch and handed it back. Clint set the watch next to his glasses and his flashlight. "I miss my dad."

"I know." James waited until Clint snuggled down in his bedroll before pulling the sheet up over the boy's shoulders. "He misses you too."

"How'd you know?" Clint asked, squinting at James in the dim light.

"Because that's what dads do. Now, sleep tight."

"Okay, I try." And Clint hugged Floppy tight and closed his eyes, leaving James to stand as quietly as possible and sneak away.

It was just past ten, but James was exhausted. He quietly finished cleaning up the kitchen, then poured himself a glass of water and carried it outside to sit on the back step. Night had fallen over Brooklyn, and the city's lights blocked all but the brightest stars in the sky.

Back when he was in training, and then while he was deployed, James had often marvelled at the night sky. But Natasha, who had lived in New York her whole life, had never seen the sky overhead. Maybe, when they were in the Hamptons, James could wake her up one night to go look at the sky.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Pulling it out, James saw a text from Steve, hows everything going???

James typed back, kids asleep. long day only few tears

You or them?

ur funny, James responded. Clint miss u lots

I miss him. This party blows but it's a living.

now i cry for u looser

:P, then I may be done here around 4. Can I come by that early?

ya txt me first tho

Thanks again Bucky this means a lot to me

James stared at his phone. There was so much he wanted to say, but knew he never could – that he'd do anything for Steve. He settled for, hey anyting fr clint :)

That ended the conversation, leaving James to go back to sipping his water and contemplating the sky, until his own exhaustion drove him back inside.


In the dead of night, a flash of light woke James from a deep sleep. He opened his eyes, remembering distantly that he was on the downstairs couch in case the kids needed him.

The light that had caught his attention was from Clint's flashlight. As James watched, the little boy sat up in his blankets, shining the flashlight around until the beam landed on the watch.

James thought about asking the boy if he needed help, but something in Clint's manner made him keep still.

Clint donned his glasses, then reached for the watch. He looked at the watch face intently for a few moments, then James heard him counting quietly.

A tiny sniffle, then another. The sound pulled at James' heartstrings, but he gritted his teeth and told himself not to get up until Clint did first.

Clint carefully put down the watch, then took off his glasses and returned them to the place by his pillow. Then the boy lay back down and turned off his flashlight.

In the ensuing darkness, James heard Clint say, "Daddy's not home yet, Floppy. But he will be." A few more sniffles ensued before Clint went silent.

James strained to hear in the darkness, if Clint would start to cry, but there were only a few snuffling noises before the house fell silent once again.

After ten long minutes of stillness, James closed his eyes. Clint was not the only one who hoped that Steve would come home soon.


A text message woke James while it was still dark out. Blinking, James sat up. The children were still and silent under their tent on the living room floor

I'm going to be there in 5 minutes.

With a yawn, James stood and shuffled over to the front door. He deactivated the house alarm and pulled open the inner door, the outer door, then, leaving the doors open behind him, sat on the stoop.

The dark sky was lightening in the distance, faint pinks and reds heralding a New York sunrise. James sat and waited, yawning occasionally as the odd early morning vehicle zipped past. At a few minutes past five, the streets were relatively empty of pedestrians. As James waited, a jogger ran lightly past, then a woman in nursing scrubs trudged in the other direction, her head down.

James remembered when Natasha was a baby, and he was still trying to follow all the advice about putting her to bed at seven. This, of course, got her up at five, and it took James a few months to realize that if Natasha went to bed later, she'd get up later, and he could get some sleep of his own.

He really didn't miss being up this early.

A taxi pulled up in front of the house, and Steve got out of the backseat. With a wave at the driver, he trudged up the walk, his head and shoulders drooping with exhaustion. Even so, an exhausted Steve Rogers in a tailored tuxedo was a sight to behold, and James' stomach gave a little jump as Steve lifted his head.

"Hey," was all Steve said, but the word made James' heart beat just a little faster.

"Hey," James said back. "The kids are still sleeping."

At the top of the steps, Steve dropped his sports bag, so incongruous with the tuxedo, before sitting down beside James, so close that his arm brushed James' side. "That was one hell of a night," he said, resting his elbows on his knees.

In the soft light from the street lamps, Steve looked even more handsome than usual. James swallowed with an effort. "Any more of these long nights anytime soon?"

"Nah, I told Tony that the next time he had a party like this, he could count me out." Steve rubbed his hand over his face. "You know, this is the first time I've ever been away from Clint all night."

"He handled it okay," James said. "I've never been away from Natasha overnight. Don't know how I'd handle that."

"It's probably worse for us than it is for them," Steve said. He turned to blink at James. "Were you serious about keeping an eye on Clint this morning?"

James punched Steve lightly on the arm. "Of course I was. Go upstairs, use the guest room, get some sleep. I'll hold down the fort until you're up."

Steve's tired smile was the best thing James had ever seen. "You're a lifesaver, Bucky," Steve said as he stood. "Come on, let's go in."

James took Steve's offered hand, and they went back into the house. James reactivated the house alarm while Steve tiptoed across the living room. He stood staring down at the sleeping children for a minute, then turned to James at his side.

"You're the best friend a guy could have," Steve said, and the next thing James knew, Steve was hugging him.

James' higher brain functions shorted out, but his body knew what to do; arm up and around Steve's back, chest pressed against Steve, and his hips tilted ever-so-slightly to the side, in case his body's reaction to Steve's closeness betrayed his true feelings.

That did not come to pass; Steve just gave James a squeeze (nearly choking James with the strength of the embrace) then let go. "I should go get some sleep," Steve said, and it must have been a trick of the light because James thought he saw Steve blushing. "See you in a few hours, okay?"

"We'll keep the noise down," James promised, his heart still pounding.

Steve clapped James on the back, then carried his sports bag up the stairs, leaving James standing in the living room, wide awake.

Steve Rogers had hugged him.

Giving up entirely on the idea of sleep, James headed into his office to get some work done. So what if he knew Steve only saw him as a friend? James was human enough to take what he could get.


The shuffling of bare feet drew James' attention away from his notepad. Clint stood in the doorway to his office, Floppy tucked under one arm. "Morning, Clint."

Clint held out the watch to James. "The little hand's on the seven," Clint said accusingly. "But my dad's not here."

James hurried over to shush the boy. "Clint, your dad's upstairs sleeping," James said as he knelt down. "Okay? He got here while you were still sleeping and he went up to have a nap."

Clint blinked at James. "Really?"

"Really." James got Clint to hold the watch on his wrist, then quickly buckled the strap one-handed. "Do you want to go see him?"

Clint nodded vigorously. He tucked Floppy under his arm and held the other hand out to James. Together, they went up the stairs and down the hall to the guest bedroom's open door. Gesturing for Clint to be quiet, James peeked into the room. Steve was sleeping on the bed, sheet kicked down to his waist. The tuxedo hung from a clothes hanger off the closet door, and Steve had changed into another one of his skin-tight t-shirts and sweatpants.

"That's my dad," Clint whispered to James. "He's sleeping."

"Yup," James whispered back. "Let's let him sleep."

Clint pulled Floppy out from under his arm, laid a big kiss on the dog's nose, then tiptoed into the room to put the toy beside Steve's hand. He tiptoed out of the room again without waking Steve, and James pulled the door closed behind him.

"That was a nice thing to do," James said, taking Clint by the hand to head back downstairs.

"Sometimes, when I go to sleep, I forget Floppy," Clint said, hopping a little as he walked beside James. "When I do, Daddy gives him a big kiss and then brings him to me so I won't be sad when I wake up."

"That's a very nice thing to do." James stopped Clint at the bottom of the stairs and knelt down so the boy could hear his whisper. "How about you go get your glasses and your hearing aid, and then come into the kitchen. We don't want to wake Natasha either."

Clint nodded, and tore across the living room to his bedroll. Sure enough, he was silent as a mouse, and Natasha did not wake.

Then James and Clint headed into the kitchen, where James made a pot of coffee and Clint sipped on a small milk carton, and Clint talked about his dream (there had been dinosaurs that flew) and what he wanted to do that day (the park, and playing in the sprinkler, and maybe watch a movie and eat popcorn), while James made encouraging noises and kept an ear out for Natasha.

After about half an hour, there was a thud from the living room, and the plaintive call, "Where did everybody go?"

"We're in the kitchen," James called as loud as he dared.

In rushed Natasha, her hair every which way. "You're having fun!" she said accusingly, running over to James. "Without me!"

James knelt down. "You were sleeping," he pointed out. "Can you say good morning to me and Clint?"

"Good morning," Natasha said, letting herself be drawn into a hug from her father. "Next time, you wake me up so I can have fun too."

Natasha walked over to Clint and gave him a hug. James had his phone out and took a picture of the cuteness without either child realizing what he was doing. "Good morning," Clint said, releasing Natasha to pat her on the head. "My daddy came home."

"My daddy's right here," Natasha said. "I want a milk."

"Nat, what do we say?"

"Please?"

James took the children out onto the back deck, and they sat and talked about the day until Natasha remembered the offer of post-Camp-Out pancakes. Wanting to keep the children occupied until Steve woke up, James suggested that the kids make pancake by themselves, with James supervising.

This suggestion went over extremely well, if a bit messily.

After breakfast, James helped the kids tidy up their camp site, with both Natasha and Clint demanding that they keep the 'tent' up until Monday so they could show Skye. After everyone was dressed and brushed, he herded them back outside so they could finish their wind chimes.

This part of the project took a while, not the least of which involved James needing to drill holes through the wooden doweling, which meant he had to transport half his workshop outside. Clint and Natasha were both very good about staying away from the drill, after James demonstrated how fast the drill bit could make a hole.

The drilling was completed and Clint and Natasha were tying their 'chimes' to the flat wooden slats James had grabbed from the hobby corner of the store, when the back door opened and a freshly showered Steve Rogers came out.

"Hi Daddy!" Clint yelled.

"Hi Steve!" Natasha added.

"Hey everyone," Steve said warmly. He put his hand on James' shoulder as he passed, sending James' heart rate spiralling. Damn it, James needed to get control of himself. "What are you doing?"

"Making wind chimes!" Clint exclaimed. "I painted these myself!"

"And I painted this!" Natasha put in, holding up one of her doweling pieces. "Did you ever make wind chimes?"

"I don't think so," Steve said as he settled down on the deck between the children. He ran his hand over Clint's hair. "That's a nice-looking watch you got there, buddy."

Clint held up his wrist. "James gave it to me!" he said, beaming.

A tiny frown creased Steve's forehead. Before the man could open his mouth, James interjected with, "It's a gift. For Clint. A kid can always use a watch."

Steve looked at James for a long moment, then reached for Clint's wrist to take a closer look at the watch. "This is a really nice gift," he said. "Clint, did you thank Bucky?"

"Nope." Clint jumped to his feet and ran the three steps to James, falling over his shoulder to give his neck a squeeze. "Thank you!"

James returned the hug. "You're very welcome."

Then Natasha climbed to her feet and hurried over. "Why is everyone getting hugs?" she wondered as she leaned against James' other shoulder. "I want a hugs."

James put his other arm around Natasha and squeezed both children tight, sending them into giggle fits. "All right," he said as he released them. "Are the wind chimes ready to go up?"

"Yes!" Natasha yelled as Clint dashed over to his craft.

"Where are you going to put them?" Steve asked.

Natasha pointed at the tree by the garden boxes. "So we can see them when we play in the garden," she said.

Steve looked at James then, a wide smile creasing his face. "Sounds like you two had a lot of fun while I was away."

"Yes," Clint said. "But you don't get to do it again."

Steve nodded at this. "So, what are we going to do after you finish hanging your chimes?"

"I get to clean up wood shavings," James said. "You get to pack the kiddos up for a trip to the park."

"Is that so?" Steve said, but he was smiling.

"Uh huh," Natasha said. "We have plans. We go to the park, then we have lunch, then we play in the sprinkler, then we have dinner, then we watch a movie, then we have hot chocolate."

"That sounds like an excellent day," Steve said before James could ask Natasha what she was talking about.

"It is," Natasha agreed, looking up to give Steve the stink-eye. "And you have to come and do it all with us because you left Clint alone last night and he was sad."

Upon hearing this, Clint arranged his features into an appropriately devastated expression. James rolled his eyes at the blatant emotional manipulation from two kindergarteners, but Steve just said, "You know, spending all day with the three of you would be the best day I can think of."

"And hot chocolate," Natasha pressed.

"We will have hot chocolate tonight," James said. "Now come on, we're almost done."

After hanging the completed wind chimes from the tree, James got the kids ready for the park while Steve grabbed something to eat. At the front door, Steve took the children by the hand and off they went, James bringing up the rear with the supplies, which gave James a few minutes to catch his own thoughts.

Also, this position let him watch Steve's butt without being observed.

The park was a hit. Clint and Natasha ran all over, burning off the energy from a long night and morning, while Steve and James walked around as Steve described his night and the party and the politics involved in high-stakes philanthropy. James was content to listen, feeling himself relax after a long night of solo parenting.

On the way back to the house, Steve asked if it was okay if he and Clint hung out for the planned afternoon of adventure, and of course James said it was, and then somehow James found himself inviting Steve and Clint to stay over another night for a second night of Camp Out and Steve said yes.

Actually, he said, "Yes, of course, we'd love to," and smiled so brightly that James nearly tripped on a crack in the pavement, which set the children off into gales of laughter.

Be careful, James warned himself as they headed home. Steve was his best friend, and he would not do anything to ruin that.

Nothing in the world.


The weekend was so enjoyable, with Steve and Clint around the house, that James should have known that Monday would bring disaster.

Skye, Clint, Natasha and James were just finishing lunch when James' phone rang. Seeing Steve's face on the call display, James picked up his phone with, "Hey."

"Are you at the house?" Steve said, with such agitation in his voice that James went still, adrenaline kicking in.

"Yes," James said, making himself stand up with his normal speed. The children didn't notice anything amiss, but Skye must have caught something for she was looking at him carefully. "All of us, yeah. Why?"

"It's Sharon," Steve said, and James' heart dropped. If something had happened to Sharon… what was he going to tell Clint? But then Steve continued, "She called and said she has to see Clint, today, like now, and I didn't even know she was in the country. What the hell am I going to do?"

James locked eyes with Skye. "That's a good question," he said vaguely, indicating with his head that he was going to take the call in the other room. Skye nodded and pulled her chair closer to the children, saying something to distract them as James made his escape. "What did you tell her?"

"Your address," Steve said helplessly, and James swore under his breath. "What? What the hell else was I supposed to do?"

James bit down on the number of comments that sprang to his mind, none of them particularly helpful at this point. "Is she coming here?" he asked, striding into the living room to look out the front window. "Now?"

"She said she was," Steve said. "I'm up in Yonkers for a meeting, I'll get there as fast as I can, but—"

"Do you think she's going to try to take Clint?" James asked, scanning the street.

"What?" Steve exploded. "No, of course not, I've got custody, she can't just—"

"Can't doesn't mean won't try," James said. The street was clear of blondes, so he went over to check the alarm. "I'm not letting her leave here with Clint. Do you want me to stop her from seeing him?"

"Damn it," Steve said. "I just… I don't know."

"Yes, you do," James snapped. "Or else the first thing you'd've said was, 'don't let Sharon see Clint'."

On the other end of the line, Steve heaved a huge breath. "I don't want to stop her from seeing her son," he said after a moment. "But… this is out of nowhere, Bucky, I don't know what's going on."

"Then here's what we do," James said firmly. "She comes here, she asks to see Clint, she sees him. But she ain't leaving this house with him."

"Thank you," Steve said with feeling. "I'll get there as fast as I can."

"Drive careful," was all James could say before the line went dead. Growling, James shoved his phone into his pocket went back to the kitchen.

He filled Skye in on the latest developments. She looked confused, then determined. "I'll keep them busy coloring until she gets here," Skye said. "Do you know why now?"

"I know shi—squat," James amended, conscious that Natasha was staring at him from across the room. "I don't know. And I don't like it."

"How long has it been since Clint's seen her?" Skye asked quietly, putting her back to the children.

"Over a year." James shook his head. "Some early birthday present, huh?"

Skye winced.

Leaving the lunch dishes on the table, James told the children to go clean up and brush their hair. In the five minutes that gave them, he and Skye cleaned up the living room as much as they could. It still bore the obvious signs of childhood occupation, but at least the make-shift tent was down, the crayons were no longer scattered over the rug, the playing cards shoved under the couch.

The children stormed back in, full of energy, and were obviously disappointed when James told them that they had to stay inside instead of going out to the park as they had been promised. "But Daddy," Natasha scolded. "You said."

"And you will go to the park later," James said, a little short with his daughter. "Now, go blow your nose. Clint, tuck your shirt in. Wait, why is there jam on your elbow?"

By the time the children were presentable, everyone was grumpy. It took Skye almost five minutes to coax the children to color, and even so, Natasha kept casting dark glares in James' direction. James was too busy watching for impending disaster to pay her much mind.

After another ten minutes, James spotted a dark blue sedan approaching down the street. It pulled into a space across the road, and out stepped a blonde woman with a familiar face. Sharon Carter, Clint's mother, Steve's ex, crossed the road with a quick stride on her way to the house.

James headed for the front door, slipping outside before the children could notice him. He met Sharon on the top step. He had always known she was a very beautiful woman, from looking at the pictures Clint so prized, but now, seeing her in the full light of day in her smart pantsuit and her sensible shoes, James was suddenly struck that the woman was upset and trying not to show it.

"Uh, hi," he said, standing in front of the door. "I'm James Barnes."

Sharon took a deep breath as she pushed back her hair. "Sharon Carter," she said, making herself smile. It was not convincing. "I know this is really short notice, and I'm not sure what Steve told you—"

"That you need to see Clint right away," James supplied.

"Right." Sharon looked up at James. "I need to be at the airport soon, I just… I couldn't leave New York without seeing Clint. I just need a few minutes."

All James' preconceived animosity towards this woman bled away as he looked at her. "Yeah, okay," he said as he stood aside. "I didn't tell him you were coming, I didn't know…"

"Yeah," she said. "Okay, let's do this." She let James show her into the house, closing the door behind herself. The children's voices were clear in the entryway, loud and happy, and for the first time, James saw Sharon falter. Pressing her hand over her mouth, she held still for a moment, then stepped forward into the living room.

The children didn't notice her at first, but Skye lifted her head, then Natasha looked, and finally, Clint turned around and froze, eyes huge behind his glasses.

Sharon smiled again, and said, "Hi, Clint," and then the boy was moving, running to his mother as fast as his little legs could carry him. Sharon bent down to scoop him up into a hug, collapsing to her knees as Clint crashed into her.

"Mommy!" Clint yelled, wrapping his arms around her neck as if he would never let her go. "You're here, Mommy!"

Sharon cupped the back of Clint's head with her hand. "Oh, Clint," she said in a soft voice. "Oh, my big boy."

Clint pulled back to stare at his mother in open-mouthed amazement. "Mommy, you're here!" he said again.

"I sure am," Sharon said, and now that James could see her face, he felt even more confused than before.

Sharon looked as though her heart were breaking.

"I missed you!" Clint said loudly, then hugged her again. As Sharon rocked him back and forth, Natasha edged around them to hurry to James' side and clutch his hand. Skye stood and casually moved to stand between Sharon and the exit. "I missed you every day!"

Sharon pressed a kiss to Clint's cheek. "I missed you every day too," she said, and the tears caught in her throat. "Each and every day."

"Me too," Clint breathed, and then he smiled at Sharon as if she held the sun and stars. "I got glasses. I can read now."

"They are very nice glasses," Sharon said. "You look very grown up."

"I'm going to be six soon," Clint told her.

"I know," Sharon replied. "And you've grown so big." She got to her feet, lifting Clint without effort, and James distantly wondered if she worked out as much as Steve did. "You know," she said as she sat on the couch, and Clint wiggled around in her lap, never taking his eyes off her face, "Clint, I can only stay for a little while."

The excitement vanished from Clint's face. "No," he whispered. "You have to stay forever."

Sharon brushed the hair back from Clint's forehead. "I have to be at the airport soon," she said, and Clint began to tear up. "Shh, don't cry, we have a few good minutes and you can tell me all that you've been doing since I last saw you, and then I'll see you again soon."

As Clint tried to take in this devastating news, James move forward, dragging Natasha with him. "Clint has been doing super great at reading this summer," James said. "And he's really great at telling stories."

Natasha, seeing that she could not get rid of Sharon by merely glaring at her, stepped in front of James and crossed her arms over her chest. "Clint's my best friend!" she declared hotly. "We're gonna go to Disneyland together!"

"This is Natasha," Skye interrupted, before Natasha could express further her wrath. "I'm Skye, I'm the children's tutor this summer."

"Skye's teaching me to read," Clint said, sniffling as he gripped Sharon's shirt. "And she doesn't think I'm dumb."

"That's because you're not dumb," Sharon said firmly, rubbing Clint's back. "You are very smart and very brave and very wonderful, and I love you very, very much."

"I love you, Mommy," Clint whispered, pressing his forehead against her neck.

Mostly to ward off Clint's complete breakdown, James suggested that Clint show Sharon all the fun things he had made that summer, and so everyone trouped into the kitchen to see the art wall, then out to the backyard to see the wind chimes in the tree and the garden boxes. Clint held Sharon's hand with both of his, hardly taking his eyes off her.

Meanwhile, Natasha glared daggers at the woman, and James could feel a migraine developing behind his eyes. Skye stayed between Sharon and the easiest accessible exit at all times.

Once they were back in the living room, Sharon lifted Clint up onto the couch and knelt in front of him. "Clint, I have to go now," she said. She was trying very hard to keep her voice steady, but James had heard that exact tone too many times in his life. It was the voice of someone who thought they might be saying goodbye for the very last time. "You'll be a good boy for your dad, won't you?"

"I want to go with you," Clint whispered, gripping Sharon's fingers tight.

Sharon blinked back tears as she ran her hand over Clint's head. "Your daddy needs you here," she said.

"I don't want you to go away," Clint said. "You just came back."

"And I will come back again." Sharon leaned in for another hug, and Clint clung to her, his little fingers pulling up her suit jacket. Natasha was with Skye on the other side of the room, so only James saw the handgun holstered at the small of Sharon's back.

He went still, all his remaining assumptions about Sharon disintegrating at the sight of that pistol. But he kept his thoughts off his face; Clint would gain nothing by James turning on Sharon now.

Sharon disentangled herself from Clint's grip and was trying to move toward the door, but Clint kept following her. James moved bodily between Clint and his mother. "Hey, peanut, how about we go to the window so you can wave goodbye?"

"I don't want to!" Clint said, voice nearing a wail.

"One last hug, and your mom has to leave," James said. "She has a plane to catch, and the airport's a long way away."

It wasn't, really, but the words did succeed in getting Clint to loosen his hold on Sharon's pant leg. The woman bent down for one more hug, and with a final kiss on Clint's cheek, she said "I love you lots."

"I love you lots-er," Clint echoed.

Sharon stood up. Her eyes were dry, but James wasn't fooled. He had seen that expression on far too many soldiers saying goodbye to their families and friends. She cleared her throat as she took an envelope from her inner pocket, handing it to James. "Can you give this to Steve?" she asked. At his nod, she turned her attention back to Clint. "Goodbye, Clint."

"Bye-bye," Clint whispered, trying to go for Sharon again but James held him back. Skye was the one to show Sharon out the door. When the woman was out of sight, Clint tore away from James and ran to the front window, where he plastered himself to the glass and waved with all his might.

Skye closed the door and let out a sigh. "Do you think…" she started, but James waved her silent. She instead picked up Natasha, who had been uncharacteristically silent, and together she and James moved toward the window.

Sharon was now getting into her car. She blew a kiss at the window, waving at Clint one last time, and then she drove off and around the corner.

Silence fell in the house. Clint stayed by the window for a minute, breathing hard.

The stillness was interrupted by Natasha, who chirruped from Skye's arms, "Now what do we do?"

This got Clint moving. He turned slowly away from the window and, head down, shuffled over to the coffee table where he had been coloring before Sharon arrived. Slowly, he picked up a crayon and moved it vaguely over the paper, as two huge tears rolled down his cheeks and hit the paper.

James swore to himself as he sat down on the couch. "Skye, you think you and Nat can go make some tea?" he suggested. "Maybe something with honey in it?"

"Yeah, good idea," Skye said, and hurried Natasha into the kitchen with the speed of someone escaping a storm.

"Clint," James said firmly. "Clint, can you come over here?"

Clint abandoned his crayon, walking over to James. His breathing was hitching in his throat now, tears still streaming down his face. He barely seemed to notice as James lifted him up to his knee.

There was nothing James could do to fix this, he knew. So he just took Clint's glasses off and set them aside. There was a pause, as Clint drew a deep breath, deeper and deeper down to his toes, then he let out a heartbroken wail.

James gathered Clint up, letting the boy cry. When James had been a child, his father had always told him that boys didn't cry, to suck it up, act like a man, but there had not been a single time in James' life where that had solved anything. To five-year-old Clint, having his mother come back into his life for less than half an hour to only vanish once more must feel as if his world was ending.

So James just sat there, holding Clint as the boy sobbed onto James' shoulder. In the kitchen, James could hear Natasha in conversation with Skye, and he hoped that the woman was somehow explaining this whole mess to his daughter. The last thing Clint needed was Natasha going off on a well-meaning but misdirected tangent.

After a few minutes, Clint sat back. He gave a mighty sniffle, saying, "My mommy's gone away!"

"I know," James said, and that set Clint off again. James patted Clint's back and stared up at the ceiling, wondering where the hell Steve was.


When Steve finally arrived, the house had settled down.

"Where is she?" Steve demanded as James let him in the front door.

"Gone." James closed the door and went back to the couch. "Keep your voice down, Clint's still sleeping."

"Why's he sleeping?" Steve asked, looking both angry and concerned. "Is he okay?"

"No, he's not okay," James snapped. "You try crying your eyes out for twenty minutes, see how you feel. He's down for a nap in my office."

Steve dropped to the couch beside James. "How could she do this?" he asked, pushing his hair back with his hands. "How could she just waltz back into our lives for ten minutes and then leave again?"

"She didn't say where she was going?" James asked. Steve shook his head. "Maybe she had a reason."

"What possible reason?" Steve demanded. Angrily, he unbuttoned his suit jacket to throw over the couch arm. "Why didn't she just leave, instead of coming over here to mess with Clint's head?"

"Wouldn't you?" James asked sharply, and that threw Steve for enough of a loop that the man closed his mouth. "If you hadn't seen your kid for months, and you had the chance before leaving again, wouldn't you do anything to see him for just a few minutes?"

Steve buried his face in his hands and didn't reply.

"I sure as hell would." James took a deep breath. "Look, I don't know what Sharon does—"

"She's in real estate," Steve interrupted.

"Like hell she's in real estate," James shot back. "What kind of real estate agent vanishes for months at a time and carries a concealed pistol?"

Steve sat up. "What?"

James tossed Sharon's envelope at Steve. "She left this."

Steve tore the envelope open and read it. "She says she has to do something overseas and she doesn't know when she'll be back," Steve said, incredulous. "And to tell Clint that she loves him? What the hell is this?"

"What you say when you can't say anything else." James slumped down. "I knew guys, special ops, they'd leave a letter like that before missions."

"Sharon isn't special ops!" Steve protested.

"Maybe she's into drugs?" James suggested. "Running for the cartels? Real estate would be a good cover for smuggling."

Steve opened his mouth, closed it again, then stood. "This is stupid," he said. "Sharon's just a real estate agent. Peggy got her into it, that's why she's in Europe all the time."

James looked at Steve. He wasn't sure if the man actually believed that, or if he was trying to hold on to old stories to make sense of the world. It didn't really matter to James, as long as Sharon's job didn't come back on them to hurt Clint.

"Clint's still sleeping," James said again. "Don't wake him up, okay?"

With a low growl, Steve headed in the direction of the kitchen, where Skye and Natasha were engaged in a tea party. James sighed, and made himself sit up. He did have work to do, and domestic dramas didn't mean he could avoid his responsibilities.

Keeping an ear out, James was distantly aware that Steve's voice had joined those in the kitchen. Natasha seemed to be asking a lot of questions, which James was ashamed to admit he didn't want to answer. Not right now. He'd seen too many soldiers have to say goodbye for the last time to blame Sharon for dropping into their lives as she had. If James had been in her shoes, knowing he might have one last opportunity to see Natasha… he'd have travelled through hell to get to her.

The thing was, James didn't really believe his suggestion of drug running. Not after he'd seen Sharon Carter – she was the kind of woman he'd met often in his years as a Ranger, from one of the countless agencies that dropped agents into the sandbox for undisclosed missions. It was that inner steel, along with the pantsuit and shoes flat enough to run in… those James still saw every day he worked with Maria Hill.

But, he decided, he was going to keep these thoughts to himself. Unless it came back to hurt Clint or Steve.

So he sat, and he worked, and after a while he heard a shuffling coming from his office. Looking up, he saw Clint standing in the doorway, looking hot and angry.

"You want to put your glasses back on?" James asked, putting his work down. Clint stormed over to James' side, climbing up on the couch and crossing his arms over his chest.

"No!"

"Okay." James put the spectacles on the table for Clint to pick up when he wanted them. "How do you feel?"

Clint glared at James.

"Do you feel mad?" James asked. "Naps make me feel mad sometimes."

Clint glared harder. "My mommy came and then she went away!"

"You're right, she did. How do you feel about that?"

Clint's glare turned into a frown as he wiggled around on the couch. "I don't know!"

James took hold of Clint's bare foot and gave it a tiny shake. "Can I tell you something that I learned a long time ago? A special grown-up thing?"

Lying on his back now with his finger in his mouth, Clint nodded.

"It's about the people we love," James said. "Like your dad, and your mom."

Clint sat up.

"We can love them, and sometimes we can be angry at them, but we still love them," James said. Clint shimmied closer. "Like, we love them lots, but if they do something that makes us angry, then we can love them and be angry too. At the same time."

Clint put his hand on James' arm, pinching a fold of the man's shirt sleeve. "My mommy went away," he said again.

"I know how much you love your mom," James said quietly. "And you can love her, and be happy she came to see you, and also be mad that she had to go away. You can feel all those things at once."

Clint leaned against James' side. "My tummy hurts," he whispered. "And my throat hurts."

"That's not good," James said, knowing when to quit. "How about we put on your glasses and then get you some water?"

Clint nodded, and soon they were walking into the kitchen. When Clint spotted his father, he pulled away from James and headed towards Steve. "Hi Daddy," he said sadly, climbing onto Steve's lap.

"Hey buddy." Steve gave Clint a hug. "How do you feel?"

Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "I feel everything," he said. "James said that's okay."

"Sometimes," James said as he went to get a drink for Clint, "You feel all sorts of emotions in your head and it's hard to deal with."

"Daddy," Natasha pitched in from behind her teacup. "Clint is my best friend."

Wondering where this might be leading, James just said, "Okay."

"And what do we do for our best friends?" Skye asked, her hand on Natasha's shoulder.

Natasha set down her teacup, her eyes glittering green with intensity. "We hold their hand if they are sad," Natasha said clearly. "And we make them cookies if they are sad. And we play with them at the park if they are sad."

"Those sound like good things to do with our best friends," James said. He owed Skye, big time, for whatever she had said to Natasha to turn the girl away from her vendetta against Sharon. "Clint, would you like Natasha to hold your hand?"

"When we go to the park," Clint said, taking the water glass from James. "We can play at the park too, because we're best friends."

"That is a good idea," Steve said. "Do we all want to go to the park together?"

"Don't you have to go back to work?" James asked.

"No, I took the day off… in case." Steve looked down at Clint. "What do you say? Do you want to go to the park now?"

"Okay." Clint set down his water glass and slid to the ground with a bump. "Come on, Natasha, we will go put on our shoes."

"Okay, let's put on our shoes," Natasha agreed. Skye followed the children out of the kitchen, leaving Steve and James to stare at each other over the table.

Steve broke first. "I'm still pissed off," he said, low enough that they could not be overheard by the children.

"So be pissed. She's your ex."

"You're not mad?"

"She ain't my business. You and Clint, you're my business."

There was something in Steve's eyes that James didn't quite understand. "Most guys don't stick up for their friend's ex."

James stood. "You're a big boy, you take care of your own feelings," he said curtly. "Me being angry at Clint's mother is not going to do Clint a damned bit of good."

He turned to the sink, mostly to get away from Steve's searching gaze. It wasn't like he was lying; Sharon Carter wasn't his concern. Right now, Clint was where James had to focus his energy. Steve was a grown man, he could deal with his own feelings.

Something touched his back, making James jump. "Sorry," Steve said, not sounding sorry at all. "I didn't say thank you."

"For what?"

"For Clint." Steve was standing in James' personal space, so close that James could smell the scent of Steve's soap. "Everything you do for him."

"He's a good kid," James said, hardly able to breathe over the butterflies in his stomach at Steve's closeness. "He needs one of us to have our head in the game, you know?"

"Yeah." And still Steve just stood there, looking at James, until the familiar two-toned calls of "Daddy!" pulled the men back to themselves.

"Come on," James said, taking a step away from Steve. "Park time."

Right now, Clint and Natasha and Steve were all that mattered to James. The mystery of Sharon Carter could wait for another time.

Chapter Text


A few days after the 'Sharon' incident, James sat in a café with Maria, trying to plan what Winterhill Security Consulting would do while James was on vacation. So far, Maria had managed to secure a promise for a three-week vacation of her own in the fall, and James was trying to hold strong against a month-long Christmas break.

Giving up for the moment, James went to the counter for a refill. When he returned, Maria was paging through her notebook. "We're going to be busy through September," she said, continuing the conversation. "Can your nanny stay nights?"

"She has night classes at NYU, so no." James slurped his coffee, earning him a glare from Maria. "Steve can watch the kids."

Maria sat back. "You're not going to ask him first?"

"What's to ask? It's gotta get done, and he can do me a favour." James set down his cup. "What?"

Maria, who had been regarding James with an odd expression on her face, shook her head. "Just be careful."

James felt a wave of ice shiver down his spine. "Nothing to be careful about," he said with deliberate ease. "Steve's my friend."

Maria reached across the table to lay her fingers on James' hand. "Never try to fool a profiler," she said, giving James' hand a squeeze. "You're a good man."

James took a few deep breaths. "You go right on thinking that," he said, pulling his hand away.

"I will." Maria turned back to her notebook. "So, is Natasha ready for her first trip away from home?"

"Almost," James said, relieved to change the subject. "We took the kids shopping yesterday. Nat's grown a bit since April, so I had to get her new jeans and some new leggings. Then she talked me into buying her a new party dress."

"Send me a picture of her in the dress," Maria instructed James. "What was Steve doing during all this?"

"Trying to get Clint new clothes without the kid climbing the light fixtures." James smiled at the memory. "It's hard to buy clothes for Clint, he doesn't like many of the colors they have for boys' clothes. But Steve got him new swim trunks and a few t-shirts. It should be enough for a week away."

"What about you?" Maria asked. "Did you buy anything nice for your trip?"

James wrinkled his nose. "What nice? I got shirts that'll fit over my arm, some jeans, some shorts. I'm good."

"What about a swimsuit?"

James looked down at his papers. "What for?" he asked after a minute. "I ain't taking Nat into a swimming pool."

"You told me that the beach house has a private pool, and there's the ocean," Maria said, relentless. "What are you going to do if Natasha wants to go into the water, watch her from the sidelines?"

One of the things James hated the most about Maria, was that she was usually right.

"And you said Steve's already seen you without your shirt," Maria continued. "Just get some swim trunks, stop thinking about it."

"Fine," James said. "I'll pick some up, quit bugging me." He flipped over a page in his notebook. "But I'm not getting speedos."

"Who wears speedos?" Maria asked.

James looked at Maria. "Steve does."

Maria's eyebrows went up. "Damn."

"Yeah."

"Damn."

James was saved from having to respond to this observation by the buzzing of his phone. "Winterhill Security Consulting," he said.

"Hey, it's Steve," came the man's voice, sending a curl of warmth through James' stomach. "You still with Maria?"

"Yeah, what's up?"

"I need a favour."

James couldn't help it; he sighed. "Another one? At the rate you're going, you're going to owe me until I'm ninety."

"This isn't that big of a deal," Steve protested. "I just got off the phone with Abraham. His flight lands at JFK at three-thirty."

"You need me to watch Clint while you pick him up?" James asked, not understanding what Steve wanted.

"Not exactly. Abraham drove to the airport from Jersey."

"Then what?"

"Well," Steve said in a tone James had come to dread. "I told him that before he drives home, he should stop by and we can have dinner."

James closed his eyes. "And by 'stop by', you mean…"

"At your place," Steve said. "He can spend more time with Clint and I can get there faster than if I need to pick up Clint then take the subway home."

"Steve—"

"You won't need to do anything," Steve hurried on. "I'll pick up dinner, and Abraham and Clint can hang out before I get there. I have your spare key, remember? I can slip in without bothering anyone."

It was not as easy as all that; having a guest over, especially one as important to Steve as Abraham Erskine, was going to require a full house cleaning, and James was pretty sure that most of his kitchen was the opposite of kosher after that morning's breakfast bacon. But James knew his weaknesses, and in most things he would never be able to say no to Steve.

He hoped Steve never figured that out.

"Yeah, sure," James said, feeling his shoulders hunch over under the weight of his now-complicated afternoon. "Does Abraham know how to find the place?"

"Yes," Steve said in triumph. "Bucky, this mean so much to me, I can't thank you enough."

"Yeah, well, just make sure that you get enough food for everyone," James said. "Call me when you know more." When James set the phone down, he found Maria eyeing him. "What?"

"You'll do fine," Maria said with a smile. "Do you want to do the rest of this tomorrow?"

"Yeah." James began to pack his papers together. "Come by in the morning, we can get this finished."

"I won't come by too early."

"Huh?" James asked as he stood. "The kids are done their breakfast by eight."

Somehow, from the expression on Maria's face, James knew he'd missed her point.


As soon as James closed the house's front door, he dropped his briefcase on the hall table and shouted, "Where is everyone?"

"Daddy!" came a distant shriek, then two sets of footsteps pounded up the stairs from the basement. "You came home!"

"I always come home," James said, kneeling down for a double hug by Clint and Natasha. "Why were you downstairs?"

"Skye is teaching us the washing machine!" Natasha said proudly, turning as Skye came up the last step at a sedate pace. "So we can do chores."

"Chores?" James asked. "Okay, you two can go scrub the bathroom next."

"Yuck!" Clint said, shaking his head while Natasha giggled. "No way!"

"They got the idea from their book," Skye said. "Canadian children always do their chores." Although her face was grave, Skye's eyes danced with amusement.

"Yes, they do," Natasha said primly. "And then they eat apples."

"Of course they do," James said, standing. "Okay, I need everyone to come over to the couch, I have some news."

"Is it my mommy?" Clint asked immediately, letting himself be herded to the couch with Natasha. "Is she coming home?"

"Not right now," James hedged. Once the children were seated on either side of Skye, James plopped down onto the armchair and said, "I got a call from Steve. Clint, your Grandpa Abraham is coming over for dinner."

Clint stared in amazement for about four seconds, then let out an unholy shriek as he jumped to his feet. It took James a moment to realize that Clint was bouncing up and down in excitement. "Grandpa Abraham is the best!" he shouted. "I can't wait!"

Natasha, who was watching Clint's antics in alarm, asked, "What's so great about a grandpa?"

Clint gave one last hop before turning to face Natasha. "He tells funny stories about my dad!" Clint said joyously. "And he's old! He's so old! And sometime he gives me presents."

At this last, Natasha sat up alertly. "Daddy," she said urgently. "Can I have a grandpa to give me presents?"

"Sorry, kiddo," James said. "You don't have any grandparents. But I give you presents."

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest. "It's not the same," she grumbled. "You have to give me presents."

"I do?"

"It's a law," Natasha agreed. Skye couldn't stop from laughing at this, and Natasha twisted to look up at her. "What's so funny?"

"I'm laughing because you're right," Skye said, quickly schooling her features. "It's different when a grandparent gives presents."

Somewhat mollified, Natasha slid to the ground and went to join Clint, who was still bouncing around in excitement.

Looking at Skye, James said, "I have two hours to get this place cleaned up."

"It's probably too late to move and start over fresh," Skye agreed. "If you want, I can get the kids to tidy upstairs."

"You're the best," James said with feeling. He cleared his throat as he stood up. "Hey, peanut butter and jelly." This nickname did nothing to draw the children's attention. "Kids." Again, nothing. James shifted so he was standing at parade rest and let out a piercing whistle. "Attention!"

The kids stopped bouncing and stood up straight.

"We have guests coming!" James said in his best drill sergeant voice. "This house needs to be inspection ready!"

"Yes sir!" Clint shouted, as Natasha said, "Okay."

"I need you to aid in inspection efforts!" James went on. Skye wasn't even trying to hide her laughter any more. "Private Barnes!"

Natasha frowned up at her father. "Is that me?" she asked.

"Yes," James said in his normal voice. "We're playing pretend."

"Okay," Natasha agreed. "I'll pretend."

James looked the children over, in case he was scaring them, but they both looked excited. "Private Rogers!" he added, back in drill sergeant mode.

"Yes sir!" Clint yelled, saluting so hard he almost fell over.

"You are to report to Captain Skye for cleaning detail!" James said. "We have two hours for this house to be ship-shape! Start from the top to the bottom, understood?"

"Yes, Daddy," Natasha said, while Clint saluted again.

"I can't hear you!"

"Yes!" the children shouted.

"One more time!"

"Yes!"

James came out of parade rest to full attention. "Company, dismissed!"

The children tore off for the stairs. Skye, recovered slightly from her amusement, said, "We can probably get the third floor in order in about twenty minutes."

"Sounds good," James said. He was glad to slump against the back of the couch. "I'll get the kids' water bottles ready, if you want to send them down when they're done. They can play in the backyard until Abraham gets here."

"Good idea." Skye turned to the stairs.

"Hey," James said, catching Skye's attention. "Why laundry?"

She shrugged. "They got the idea somehow, and I figured it was better they see it done the right way than to try to figure it out themselves."

"What are you washing?"

"Clint's new shirts." And with that, Skye went up stairs.

James looked around the living room. It wasn't messy, but certainly not as company-clean as his mother would have demanded.

James shook his head. He was a single father with one arm. As long as the house was tidy enough, it would have to do. If Abraham thought any differently, he would just have to lump it.

Turning, James headed to the kitchen to start cleaning.


At quarter to four, James got a text from Steve. How's it going?

After glancing at his phone, propped out of the way on the first-floor bathroom counter, James finished scrubbing the toilet, set the brush and spray bottle away, and peeled the disposable glove off his right hand with the carefully bent fingers of his prosthetic. Slowly straightening his aching back, he typed, kids in yard and hous clean.

??? u didn't have to clean up

James sent back a little thumbs-down emoji. i set good exmple 4 kids

Thanks, Steve replied, then sent a series of happy faces.

Rolling his eyes, James tossed the disposable glove into the garbage bag, pocketed his phone, and carried the garbage to the kitchen. Through the open back door, James could hear Natasha and Clint shrieking in the yard. Lucky kids, James thought as he pulled the kitchen garbage out from under the sink. They got to run around and have fun when Steve came up with his brilliant ideas. Which left James doing all the work.

James didn't mind, not really; he'd been honest when he'd told Steve that he would do anything for Steve and for Clint. It was just, sometimes, James grew tired of doing the heavy lifting.

Soon enough, James had carted out the garbage to the bins, straightened the foyer on his way back inside, and gave the living room a final once-over. It was going to have to be good enough, because James had run out of energy to care.

He stopped in the kitchen to wash his hand, then continued outside. Clint and Natasha were running in circles around the garden boxes, while Skye sat on the back step out of the sun.

James sat down, his body aching. "What are they playing?"

"Flying dinosaurs," Skye said. "Their new game."

"Sounds fun."

"Uh huh." Skye tapped on her tablet for a few moments, then set the device aside. "So, do you know what you're going to be doing in the Hamptons?"

James leaned to the side, trying to stretch out the kink in his back. "I dunno, hang out? There's a pool and the ocean, and Steve says there's stuff in town."

"Are you going to be going on any nature walks?"

It was an odd enough question that James took his eyes off the children to look at Skye. "Why?"

She met his gaze without blinking. "I have some old worksheets from the preschool for nature walk bingo," she said. "You know how Natasha can sometimes get bored unless she has a mission, something to focus on."

"And you think a nature walk bingo card will help?"

"It's an idea."

James considered. He didn't know how Clint would react to the upcoming week at the beach, but he did know his daughter, and Skye was right. Natasha could concentrate for hours when she had a task to complete. Besides, the idea of taking the kids on a nature walk appealed to James.

"I can make up a few cards easily," Skye said. "Beach walks, city walks, forest walks…"

"Forest?" James asked.

"There's a few state parks out past where you'll be staying." Skye pulled over her computer. "You can just keep driving east until you hit the lighthouse."

With a rush, the children descended upon the adults. "What's a lighthouse?" Natasha demanded, crashing breathlessly into her father.

"It's a big building on the coast to help ships at night," James said, steadying his daughter. "Are you two done playing?"

"I'm thirsty!" Clint exclaimed, going for his water bottle.

"Daddy," Natasha said urgently, tugging on James' sleeve. "Is the grandpa here yet?"

"Not yet," James said as he held Natasha's water bottler up so she would hydrate. "Steve said that Abraham's plane landed at four. What time is it now?"

Clint and Natasha consulted the watch on Clint's wrist. "It is four and some," Natasha said after a moment.

"Four and eleven," Clint clarified.

"So he's probably going to be a little while yet," James told them. "He had to get off the airplane, then get his luggage, then his car, and only then can he drive here."

Natasha handed James her water bottle. "Can I go change?" she asked unexpectedly.

"What do you want to change into?" James asked. "A giraffe? A water buffalo?"

"A porcupine!" Clint chimed in, grinning, but Natasha was not smiling.

"When I meet the grandpa, I need to wear grandpa clothes," she said.

"Sure," James said, not knowing what she meant by 'grandpa clothes' but he'd see soon enough. "Not your bathing suit or your dance clothes, okay?"

"Okay." Natasha wandered into the house, which left James staring at Clint. The boy had managed, in the space of half an hour outside, to smear dirt all over the front of his t-shirt.

"You need to change too."

Clint pulled a face. "Why?" he demanded.

"Because your grandfather is coming from a long way away and you are going to look presentable," James said. "Come on, the dryer should be done."

"You need me for anything else today?" Skye asked, standing.

"Can you hang around until I know Nat's not going to come down with socks on her head?" James asked as the adults followed Clint into the house.

"Sure thing," Skye said with a smile.

In the basement, James dug through the still-warm clothes from the dryer while Clint wrestled himself out of his dirty shirt. "What do you want to put on?" James asked.

Clint considered. "I want to wear the purple bird," he said.

Obligingly, James extracted the Baltimore Ravens' shirt from the pile of clothing, then quickly folded the rest of the clothing before they could wrinkle.

"James?" Clint asked, pulling the shirt over his head. "How come Grandpa Abraham is coming here?"

"Your dad suggested it," James said. Folding clothes with a prosthetic arm had taken some figuring, but after almost six years he had the rhythm down; pinch a fold in the cloth with his metal fingers, then fold around that with his good hand. "This way, you can spend more time with your grandfather than if your dad came to pick you up and take you home."

It occurred to James, somewhat belatedly, that he could have offered to drive Clint home so Steve could take the train all the way to south Brooklyn and thus James could have avoided all of this trouble, but it was far too late for that now.

"Good," Clint said. "I like Grandpa Abraham. He's the best. That's what Natasha says. The best."

"She does say that," James said as he folded the last shirt. "Come on, let's go upstairs and wait by the window."

When James and Clint reached the main floor, James realized that he had made one serious oversight in his instructions to Natasha. The little girl was in her new dress, an expensive creation of dark green shimmering fabric with a gold ribbon at the waist that Natasha had literally flung herself towards in the store. James had expected that she could wear the dress if they went out for a fancy dinner in the Hamptons, but he had not thought she would pull it out of her closet for this.

"Daddy," Natasha said, "Skye is braiding my hair."

James opened his mouth to tell Natasha to go upstairs and change, that the dress had cost a hundred dollars and was dry-clean only and what was she thinking, wearing it where it could get dirty? But the voice in his head was his mother's, snapping at his sister over something similar decades before, so James made himself smile at his daughter instead.

"You look very pretty, Natasha," he said. "Why are you all dressed up?"

"Because the grandpa is coming," Natasha said, letting Skye move her around. The girl's face was solemn. "It's a special occasion."

"Sure is!" Clint said cheerfully. "Hey, can I dress up too?"

James had to intervene, and in handling Clint he wasn't able to attend to Natasha, who was worryingly quiet as Skye french-braided Natasha's hair up off her face. Then the children had to say goodbye to Skye, who was running late, and that left the three of them in the house.

James checked his phone, but no messages from Steve. In an effort to contain Clint's gleeful enthusiasm, James pulled his old copy of the Hobbit off the shelf and opened it up, starting off with in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, and that held the children's distracted attention – Natasha sitting primly on the couch while Clint stood and shifted around as he listened to James.

At a quarter to five, the doorbell rang. Clint let out a yell as he raced to the door, but James beat him to it. Through the glass and the metal bars, James could see an old man standing on the front step, suitcases piled at his side.

"Grandpa Abraham!" Clint shouted. As James opened the inner door, Clint dashed through to the front door. Giving up on decorum, James scooped Clint up to let the boy turn the deadbolt and open the door. "Grandpa Abraham, you're here!"

The old man stooped down to hug the excited child. "Hello, my boy," said the man. His words were tinged with a European accent, maybe German. James put him in his mid-seventies, but he still moved spryly enough.

"Grandpa Abraham, look at my glasses!" Clint said eagerly. "I can read now!"

"That is very good to hear," Abraham said, his hand on Clint's shoulder. "But let an old man get inside, it is a hot day."

Somehow, in spite of the little boy jumping in their way, the two men got Abraham's suitcases through the doors and into the house. As soon as the door was shut, Clint grabbed Abraham's hand, grinning up at him all the while.

"And you must be Steven's Bucky," Abraham said, reaching out his free hand to James. "Steven has told me a lot about you."

James shook the offered hand, making himself smile over the sudden, irrational anger stirring in his chest. This was the man who had taken Steve away from James when they were twelve; adopted him and taken him away to New Jersey where James could not follow.

Even as the thought crossed James' brain, he pushed it away. It was an unfair and petty thing to think, even for a moment. Abraham had given Steve a family, a home, just what twelve-year-old Steve had always wanted.

It may have taken years, but James had Steve back in his life now, and things were going along just fine.

"Just James," James said, shaking Abraham's hand. "Steve should be here soon, he's picking up dinner on the way home from work."

Abraham was looking at James with a slight smile; the man's attention was sharp and encompassing, and James was relieved when the man turned his attention down to Clint.

"Come on!" Clint was saying, pulling Abraham into the house. "Come meet Natasha, she's my best friend!"

"Yes, let us go," Abraham said, smiling fondly at his grandson.

Natasha was standing in the living room, watching the greetings at the door with wide eyes. When Clint said, "Look, Natasha, it's Grandpa Abraham!" the girl did not move.

Then, to James' astonishment, Natasha's eyes filled with tears and she turned to run toward the kitchen.

"Nat?" James called, already moving to follow his daughter.

But Clint got there first. "Hey, where are you going?" Clint yelled, running after Natasha. "Come back! You gotta meet Grandpa Abraham!"

Once in the kitchen, James slowed. Natasha sat huddled on the back step, her back to them. Clint ran over to her side.

"What's wrong?" Clint demanded, plunking himself onto the step at Natasha's side. "Why'd you run away?"

James turned his head to see Abraham coming into the kitchen. The man looked about as worried as James felt. "I didn't mean to scare her," Abraham said, quietly so as not to attract the children's attention. "Do you know what is wrong?"

"No," James said, just as softly. "She's not normally like this."

On the step, Natasha gave a mighty sniffle. "You have a grandpa!" she said to Clint, almost accusingly. "And a mommy! I don't have a mommy! Or a grandpa!"

Clint moved closer to Natasha to put his arm around her shoulders. "That's sad," he agreed.

On hearing Natasha's words, James felt an almost comical rush of relief. Natasha might be having an existential crisis, but at least she hadn't run from Abraham out of fear. Natasha had never run away from anyone before, and James didn't want to consider what it might mean if she started now.

"I only have my daddy!" Natasha continued, her voice reaching a fever pitch. "And without him, I am…" She paused to sniffle loudly. "Alone!"

James sighed. He had no idea how the hell he was going to deal with this. On autopilot, he went to the coffee pot to make a fresh batch, hoping that would give him some time to think of a way to help Natasha.

"Aw, you're not alone," Clint said. He rested his cheek on Natasha's hair. "I'm your best friend!"

Sniffling, Natasha said, "Yeah! We are best friends!"

"And we'll be best friends forever," Clint said loyally. "Just like our dads. We'll be best friends until we're old like them!"

Abraham, who had been listening to this exchange in silence, let out a snort of laughter at Clint's pronouncement. "Ah, to be so old," he said at James' questioning glance. "I remember thirty."

"Come on," Clint was saying as he got to his feet. "Come meet my grandpa, he can be your grandpa too."

"Hang on a minute," James said, but he was ignored as the children walked across the kitchen towards Abraham.

"Grandpa Abraham," Clint said solemnly, "This is Natasha. She is my best friend. She can do dancing and she likes spiders and we play dinosaurs together."

"Well, hello," Abraham said. He lowered himself creakily into one of the kitchen chairs. "It is very nice to meet you."

Natasha smiled timidly at the man. "Clint's my best friend," she informed Abraham. "He has a daddy and a mommy but I only have a daddy because I am adopted."

"You are?" Abraham appeared to consider this. "Well, you know, I adopted Steven. That's why Clint is my grandson."

"Grandpa Abraham is my favorite grandpa," Clint chimed in, leaning against Abraham's knee. "He has a big house and he's a doctor man and he lets me drink as much grape juice as I want."

Natasha was busy with more pressing matters than unlimited grape juice. "You adopted Steve?" she said. "Like Daddy adopted me?"

"I adopted you when you were three months old," James put in from the counter, where he was busy fetching cups. "Abraham adopted Steve when Steve was twelve years old."

"Yes, he was," Abraham said mildly. "And you know what?"

Natasha shook her head.

"I, too, am adopted." Abraham smiled at the children. "Ever so many years ago, I was adopted. So I know how it feels."

"You got adopted?" Clint demanded. "How come?"

Abraham covered Clint's small hands with his own. "There were a lot of people who died in a war that was very long ago," Abraham said quietly. "Now, come, we should help James with the glasses, yes?"

In a few minutes, they were all settled back at the kitchen table. James and Abraham had coffee, while the children each had a small glass of apple juice, chosen so a spill wouldn't stain Natasha's dress. A light breeze blew in from the open back door, and the afternoon sun shone into the kitchen, and it was almost a perfect day. If Steve had been there, James thought, it might just be.

"Hey, Grandpa Abraham," Clint asked as he wiped his juice moustache onto his shirt sleeve. "Why'd you got your suitcases? Are you gonna live here too?"

"No," Abraham said with some amusement. "It is an important rule, never leave your suitcase in a parked car in New York. Someone may steal them."

"No they won't," Natasha chimed in. "If they do, I'll chase them!"

"No chasing bad guys," James said, handing Natasha a paper towel so she would not follow Clint's example. "You tell me or Steve if you see a bad guy."

"Will you chase a bad guy?" Natasha demanded.

"No." James took another sip of his coffee. "I would call the police. That's their job."

 Natasha did not seem thrilled with James' reply, but he was not about to start sharing details of his time in special ops just to look cool in front of his daughter.

Clint finished his last drop of juice and set his cup down, letting out a satisfied burp. Natasha dissolved into giggles.

"Clint," James said.

"Excuse me," Clint said, completely unrepentant. "Hey, can we show Grandpa Abraham the backyard?" He turned to his grandfather. "We had a sleep over and we made wind chimes."

"That sounds very nice," Abraham said. He set down his coffee cup. "Can they go out in these clothes?" he asked James.

"Sometimes I know better than to argue," James replied. "Nat, honey, come here.

Natasha slipped off her chair with a thud. "What?" she asked as she walked over to James.

"Can you be extra careful of your dress today?" he asked, smoothing the fabric over Natasha's shoulders.

"Of course I can, Daddy!" Natasha said. She crossed her arms over her chest. "A big girl always keeps her dress clean!" She threw a look over her shoulder at Abraham. "I am almost six," she informed him.

"You're five and a half," James corrected her, bending over to press a quick kiss against her hair. "Okay, you two, go show Abraham the back yard, then we can take him upstairs so he can see your artwork."

"I made a painting today," Clint said, reaching for Abraham's hand. "It has purple and black and is a dinosaur bird."

"I made a painting today too," Natasha said, taking Abraham's other hand. "Mine is red and blue and is a spider."

"They both sound lovely," Abraham said. "But first, let's go outside. An old man needs to stretch his legs. My, look at that lovely vegetable garden."

Still chattering away, Natasha and Clint led Abraham out the back door. James quickly tidied the kitchen, poking his head outside every so often to make sure the kids weren't wearing Abraham out, and that Natasha was okay.

On the third trip to the door, James paused, leaning against the doorframe to watch. Clint and Natasha had taken Abraham to the tree, to show him their Camp-Out night wind chimes. The man was managing to easily hold the conversation with both children at once, asking about the tree and the chimes and the vegetable garden. James slipped outside to sit on the steps, resting his prosthetic arm on his knee to take the weight off the straps.

"…and Daddy said that one day we can eat the vegetables," Natasha was saying, sounding rather dubious. "I like to talk to the carrots. They know secrets."

"What sort of secrets?" Abraham asked, slowing down as Natasha headed for the garden boxes.

"They know when it's going to rain," Natasha confided. Clint patted the green carrot tops with a gentle hand. "And one day, when I eat the carrot, I will know too."

"A very wise idea," Abraham replied. "What do you think, Clint?"

Clint made a face. "I don't like carrots," he confessed. "They're loud."

"Why?" Natasha demanded before either adult could ask Clint what he meant.

"In my ear." Clint pointed at his hearing aid. "When I crunch them in my teeth, they are too loud."

"That's not good," Natasha commiserated, patting Clint on the arm.

As this conversation was taking place, Abraham had gently guided the children over to James. "Hey, kiddos," James said. "You want to show Abraham your artwork?"

Both children nodded, although Clint was a little more subdued than usual. Standing, James led the group inside, closed the door behind Abraham, and then headed upstairs to the third floor.

Here, Clint's animation returned. Both he and Natasha showed Abraham their latest masterpieces, explaining what each one was. Abraham was properly appreciative of the artistic talents of two five-year-olds, and after the children were finally persuaded to place their art back in the stack and head downstairs.

In the kitchen, James pulled out his phone. "No message from Steve," he said when he caught Abraham looking at him. "He should be here soon."

"There is no hurry," Abraham said, sinking down into a chair with a sigh. "I do not have to leave until eight; there is time for me and Steven to visit when he gets here."

Great. Well, regardless of what Steve would bring home as dinner, James had some work to do to get the table ready. Work that would go a lot faster if he didn't have any 'help'. Taking an idea out of Skye's playbook, James knelt down and got the children's attention. "Hey, how about you two draw us some special placemats for dinner?"

"Why?" Natasha asked.

"Because it's a special occasion."

"Okay," Clint said immediately. "I wanna make one for Grandpa Abraham."

"No, I wanna make one for Grandpa Abraham!" Natasha retorted.

"You can both make one for Abraham," James interrupted before the discussion could devolve into hurt feelings. "Go grab some construction paper and crayons and come back in here, okay?"

As the children bolted out of the room, Abraham let out a small chuckle. "You are very good with them," the old man said. "It is good to see Clint with a friend he gets along with. Steven has been worried that Clint was not making friends in school."

"They're doing all right," James said, pushing himself to his feet. "Most days, they're great together. Sometimes, they have their fights, but all kids do."

"Yes," Abraham said. "My girls, when they were young, could fight awfully." He smiled, his eyes distant.

"Sally and Kimberly, right?"

"Yes." Abraham pulled out a well-worn wallet and removed a small photograph. "Our girls, when Kimberly was about Clint's age."

James came over to the table to look at the photo. Two little girls in a posed studio portrait, both smiling. The older girl was missing her front teeth.

"Of course, now, they are grown," Abraham went on, putting the photo back in its place. "Sally has two children, and Kimberly had a baby last year." He put his wallet away. "If only my Marta could have seen her grandchildren."

"Marta was your wife?" James asked, pulling five plates out of the cupboard. "Steve hasn't mentioned her."

"No, she died before I adopted Steven." Abraham paused as the children reappeared in a storm of paper and crayons. "We had been talking about adopting more children, before the accident."

"What accident?" Natasha asked as she settled herself in her favourite chair, crayons to hand.

"Yeah, what accident?" Clint echoed. He held three purple crayons, ready to tackle his placemat.

"I am telling James about your Grandmother Marta," Abraham said.

Clint's face cleared. "Oh yeah!" he said. "Grandma Marta was cool. Aunt Kimberly said so. When Grandma Marta was gonna have a baby, she climbed over a wall!"

This seemed so far-fetched that James could only raise his eyebrow, but Abraham laughed. "Does she still tell that story?" Abraham asked.

"Yeah, but you tell it better," Clint said. "Can you tell it again? Please?"

"Yes, please," Natasha put in. "Why'd she climb over a wall? She should have gone around."

"Ah, this was not a wall that one could walk around," Abraham said. "It was a wall that went all the way around a city."

"Why?" Natasha asked, pausing with her crayon half-way across the paper. "That's silly."

"It was very silly," Abraham said. "It was a long time ago, in a place called Germany. But then we didn't think it very silly."

"What happened?" Natasha asked. Her eyes were wide, crayon forgotten in her hand.

"It was very long ago, in 1975," Abraham said. "Long before your father was born. We lived in a city called East Berlin, and there was a big wall around the part of the city right next door, West Berlin."

"Who made the wall?" Natasha asked.

"A lot of old men who thought they knew best," Abraham said, shaking his head. "Back then, I was a doctor for athletes. We went to a tournament in America before the Olympics."

"I'm gonna be in the Olympics when I grow up," Clint interjected. "I'm gonna shoot arrows and be the best."

Abraham reached over to pat Clint on the back. "That is a good goal," Abraham said. "Now, where was I?"

"The lady was in the city with the wall," Natasha reminded him.

"Ah, yes. When I was in America, I never thought about not going home, because my Marta was in East Germany. I did not know she was going to have a baby, she had not told me before I left."

"So how'd she get over the wall?"

Abraham put his arms on the table, addressing Natasha. "One day, when she was out shopping at a store near the wall, there was a big explosion, like that!" He moved his hands wide. "A big truck was on fire by the wall."

Natasha's mouth dropped open. James had hardly ever seen her so riveted by a story.

"And all the guards ran towards the truck, thinking that some people had tried to damage the wall to escape. But Marta, who was far enough away from the explosion so that she was not hurt, immediately dropped her basket and ran for the wall, and she climbed up and over!"

"How come she did that?" Natasha demanded.

"She knew she was going to have a baby and she did not want our child to grow up under communism as we had," Abraham said. "She was very scared, but she did it anyway."

James knew that feeling. It had lived in his gut from the first day of his first deployment. Sometimes, he'd wondered if it would have been better if he didn't feel anything, if he stopped caring if he lived or died. But he had never been able to shake off being scared, and after a while it stopped bothering him. Being scared meant he was still alive.

"And my Marta, she got over the wall and the guards took care of her," Abraham concluded. "When I found out she was in West Berlin, I went right away to seek asylum in America. Then she came here too and we lived happily ever after."

"Wow," Natasha breathed. "That's a neat grandma."

"She was a very neat lady," Abraham agreed. He stood up. "Now, you children draw while I help your father with the plates." Natasha bent happily over her placemat as Abraham walked stiffly to the counter. "I sit too much, and I forget that I am not a young man," Abraham said, wincing slightly. "She is a clever girl, that Natasha."

"She sure is," James said, keeping his voice down. "Your wife escaped East Berlin in 1975?"

"She did," Abraham said as he took down two small glasses for the children. "The snipers were watching the wall, of course. Two others who tried to use the distraction of the burning truck, they were not so lucky."

"Was Marta hit?"

"One bullet, through her shoulder," Abraham said, touching the spot just below his collarbone. "She was so very lucky, she did not even lose too much blood."

James knew about bullets, knew about what damage a sniper round could do to the human body. "And the baby?"

"Yes," and Abraham smiled faintly. "Sally, my wife called her, after the American nurse in the hospital who stayed with her until she boarded the plane to the United States."

"Was there any trouble with that?" James asked. He didn't know much about the Cold War, outside of what he'd picked up in the Army, and old generals didn't exactly tell stories about defecting physicians and their wives.

"No," Abraham said. "I was an expert in what you young people call sports medicine. The Americans wanted to know all I could tell them about how East Germany's athletes were so very good." The man shrugged. "I could not tell them much. My work was primarily on nutrition and sleep. Not very exciting."

"What's not exciting?" Clint asked, appearing suddenly by the counter. "Can I have more juice?"

"No more juice until after dinner," James said. Clint frowned. "You can have milk or water, which one do you want?"

Clint let out a theatrical sigh. "Water, please."

As James went to fill a glass for Clint, the boy turned back to his grandfather. "What's not exciting?" he asked again.

"When I was a doctor in Germany," Abraham said. "I was the kind of doctor who made sure all the little boys and girls ate their vegetables and had a good sleep."

"Vegetables are boring," Clint complained, letting Abraham steer him back to the table. "And there's too much chewing."

"We can put them in the blender," James said, carrying Clint's glass to the table. "Cabbage smoothie."

"Yuck!" Clint said, reaching for his water.

"I like blueberries," Natasha said out of nowhere as she reached for another crayon. "Maria got me a smoothie once. It was blueberry and banana. I drank it with a straw."

"That sounds delicious," Abraham said, lowering himself back into his chair. "Now tell me, what are you drawing?"

Things were quiet for a few minutes as the children continued their artwork. James took the opportunity to lean against the counter, watching the three people at his kitchen table. He had wondered, over the years, what it would have been like if his parents had lived to be grandparents to Natasha. So far, he'd never been able to picture it. He couldn't see his father having anything to do with a child James adopted, and his mother… it was far easier to think of her every objection to how James was raising Natasha, than actually caring for the girl.

Maybe it would have been similar to the way things were with Rebecca. His only sister had been very clear when she told him that he was making a mistake in adopting Natasha, all those years ago, and she hadn't made any attempt to contact him after that.

Oh well. It was for the best. James and Natasha may only have each other, but there wasn't any negativity in Natasha's life. That was how James wanted it. Natasha wasn't a burden, like Rebecca had said she would be. His daughter was the best thing in James' life.

A faint click, a slam, and Steve's voice came from the living room. "I'm here!"

Natasha looked up eagerly, a smile on her face. Abraham looked up as well, towards the front door, but Clint didn't respond at all, just kept scribbling at his piece of paper.

That small thing alone was enough to tip over a month of observations: a month of Clint ignoring James when he wasn't facing the man, of Clint getting distracted in loud settings, of Steve's worries about Clint's hearing aid.

What if Clint's hearing was getting worse than even Steve suspected?

Taking a deep breath, James crossed over to the table and put his hand on Clint's shoulder. When the boy looked up, James said, "Do you want to go say hi to your dad?"

With a sudden grin, Clint jumped off his chair and ran out of the kitchen, Natasha close on his heels. In the living room, Steve was making exclamations of greetings while the children laughed, and they weren't there to see James lean wearily against the table.

"Steven told me he was worried that Clint's hearing was growing worse," Abraham said. "You had not before seen it?"

"It's just little things," James said. He rubbed his hand over his face. "We'll figure it out."

"Good." Abraham stood up, just as Steve came into the room, a child dangling from each forearm. "Ah, Steven!"

"Abraham!" Steve said, making a beeline to the counter to put down the grocery bags. "Kids, let go for a second."

Clint and Natasha both dropped to the floor as Steve went to Abraham for a hug. Steve was taller than Abraham and so had to bend down to embrace the man. "You get taller every time I see you," Abraham said with a smile as he patted Steve's back.

"Steve is very tall," Natasha observed from the ground. "Daddy, why is Steve so tall?"

"Because he ate all his vegetables when he was a kid," James said as he poked through the grocery bags. "Geeze, Steve, did you get enough food?"

"There's five of us," Steve said as he separated from Abraham. "Besides, I'm hungry." The man picked up Clint. "What about you, buddy? Are you hungry?"

"Uh huh," Clint said. "I'm so hungry!"

"Good," Steve said with a smile. "Come on, let's get the food on the table."

"Can you guys do that on your own?" James asked as Steve set Clint back down.

"Yeah, of course," Steve replied. "What's up?"

"Costume change," James said, then knelt down to Natasha's level. "Natasha, you need to change before dinner."

Natasha scowled at him, crossing her arms over her chest. "No."

"Nat."

"This is my pretty dress!" Natasha protested. "My special dress!"

"And if you get it dirty today, you won't be able to wear it when we go on vacation," James pointed out. "Come on, let's get you changed back into your play clothes and we can keep the dress special for another night."

Natasha just glared at her father, but she didn't protest as he picked her up.

"We'll be right back," James said to Steve.

"I'll get dinner on the table," Steve replied with a smile, more relaxed than James had seen him since before Sharon came back into town, since before that whole Coney Island mess.

James hated to think that he might have to ruin Steve's calm by talking about Clint's hearing.

But if their roles had been reversed, if Steve had seen something in Natasha that would indicate her asthma was getting worse, James would need to know.

He'd do it after Abraham left, James decided as he carried a still-glowering Natasha upstairs. He'd talk to Steve about Clint's hearing after Abraham left.

Up in her room, Natasha let go enough of her aggravation to turn around so James could unzip the dress. "I wouldn't get it dirty," Natasha said, stomping around to pick up her discarded shirt and leggings. "I'm a big girl now."

"I know you are." James carefully hung the dress on a hanger, then put it into its place of honour in Natasha's closet. "But even the most careful person can get gravy on their clothes at dinner."

Natasha sat down to pull on her leggings. "Now it's not a special night anymore," she protested.

"Yes, it is," James said. He sat on the armchair to wait for his daughter. "It's a special night because of who's here, not because of what we're wearing."

Natasha let out an exasperated sigh, obviously not believing this grown-up logic. "Clint gets to wear his fancy shirt," she pointed out.

"His fancy shirt is machine washable," James retorted. "Nat, honey, that's inside-out. Come here."

He helped Natasha turn her shirt the right way, then let her pull it on before tugging it straight on her shoulders. "Now I don't look pretty," the girl complained.

"You look very pretty," James said. He smoothed back the strands of hair that had escaped from her braid. "You always look very pretty. It's what's inside that counts, not the clothes you wear." Natasha looked at him. "Come here, up you get."

James pulled Natasha onto his knee, like he had done when she was smaller. The girl slumped against her father, curling up in the curve of his right arm. "Daddy," she said, "I don't have a grandpa."

"No, you don't." James sat back into the chair's cushioning. "You have me, though."

"And you'll be my daddy until I'm a hundred," Natasha finished. "Until I'm two hundred."

"Sure will be." James gave Natasha a squeeze. "And you'll always be my little girl."

Natasha appeared satisfied by this. She slid off James' lap to the ground. "Can I wear your necklace for dinner?" she asked hopefully.

"Sure, go ahead." James stayed where he was as Natasha scampered across her bedroom to her dresser, where she picked up the dog tags from their special place beside her barrettes. "You like them?"

"Uh huh," Natasha agreed. She pulled the chain over her head as she returned to James' side. "I feel all grown up when I wear this. Like I'm in the Army too, like you."

"Yeah." James put his hand on Natasha's back. "Nat, can I ask you a question? About Clint?"

"Yes," Natasha replied immediately. "Clint is my best friend. I know all about him."

James took a breath. It was always best to gather intel before a mission, and he didn't know if he'd get Natasha away from Clint again that evening. "Natasha, sometimes when you two are together, and I say something, it seems like you're ignoring me."

Natasha looked down at her toes.

"Are you ignoring me?" James asked, trying to keep the stress he was feeling out of his words. "Or sometimes, do you not hear me?"

Natasha squirmed. "Can I tell you a secret?" she asked.

"You can always tell me a secret," James said. "What is it?"

Natasha cuddled in against James' side. "Sometimes I hear you, but Clint doesn't, so I pretend I don't either so he doesn't get in trouble," she whispered.

James let out a shaky breath. He had been afraid of that. "You don't have to pretend," James said. "You can ask me to repeat myself, so both you and Clint know what I'm saying."

Natasha pressed her cheek against James' chest. "Clint doesn't want his daddy to know," she said. "He says, if his daddy knows he can't hear, his daddy will think he's a dummy. Clint doesn't want to be dumb."

James leaned forward to pick Natasha up, standing as he did so. "Clint isn't dumb, he's a smart boy," he said into Natasha's ear. "Not being able to hear has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence."

"Then how come his teachers called Clint dumb?" Natasha demanded, kicking her feet as James carried her into the hall.

"Sometimes, adults are wrong," James said. There was more he wanted to say about Clint's kindergarten teachers, but Natasha was not the right audience for such language. "That's an important thing for you to remember. Adults aren't always right."

"What about you?" Natasha asked, tugging on James' earlobe. "Are you always right?"

"Not always," James admitted. As much as he was loath to admit it, Natasha was of an age now where she could understand that not even her old man had all the answers. "If you think I'm wrong, you tell me and we can talk about it. Okay?"

"Okay," Natasha said. She clung to James' neck all the way down the stairs and into the living room, where she wiggled to get down. James set her on her feet and let her run into the kitchen. "Clint!" Natasha exclaimed as soon as she was in earshot of her friend. "Guess what?"

"What?" Clint asked. Coming around the wall, James could see that the dinner table was set and the food ready. "I'm hungry!"

"My daddy," Natasha said, hands on her hips, "said sometimes he is wrong."

"He is?" Clint asked, astonished.

"Yup." Natasha climbed up to her chair. "And I told him that sometimes you can't hear when he says things to you."

This bombshell fell into the room with an almost-audible crash. Steve jerked his head up, staring at Natasha, while Abraham just sighed.

Clint, however, looked as if his world was ending. "Aww, why'd you tell him that?" Clint asked, kicking a chair leg.

"Clint?" Steve said, putting the salad bowl in his hands on the table. "What's going on?"

Clint turned away from his father as Abraham reached out with a quiet, "Steven."

"Hey," James said, dropping to his knees beside Clint. "It's okay if your dad knows that. It's okay if you tell me to speak up when you don't hear me."

"No, it's not!" Clint exclaimed. "Boys who can't hear are dummies! They're stupid!" Clint pulled off his glasses to rub his eyes. "Their mommies go away and don't want dumb boys!"

"That isn't true," James interjected, reaching out to stop Clint from kicking the chair leg again. "You're not dumb, and your mom didn't go away because of anything you did."

"Then why does she keep going away?" Clint demanded hotly. Steve tried to reach out for his son, but Clint pushed him away. The boy was breathing hard and tears were gathering in his eyes.

"Sometimes people leave because they have to, not because they want to," James said, releasing his hold on Clint's arm. The boy didn't run, not even when Steve knelt beside Clint and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. After a moment's pause, Clint turned and collapsed against Steve, his arms going around Steve's neck.

If he had known Clint was still so freaked out about his mother's visit the previous week, James would have done things very differently. But it was too late now.

"Natasha, come here," James said, sitting down on the ground with a bump. He was too old to spend all his time kneeling on hard floors. Natasha hurried over from the table and put her arms around James' neck, staring at Clint with open-mouth astonishment. "Clint, can you listen to me for a minute? It's important."

Sniffling loudly, Clint turned in Steve's embrace to look at James.

"This is very important, and it's a very grown-up thing, okay?" Both children nodded. "Little boys and little girls who have a hard time hearing, they're just as smart as you or me. Got it? If they can't hear, it has nothing to do with how smart they are. It only means that they have a hard time hearing."

Clint sniffled again, but he was still watching James so that was something.

Taking a deep breath, James went on. "Same as if you meet someone who can't see. If they can't see, all that means is that they can't see. It has nothing to do with how smart and how nice they are. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Natasha said, but Clint was shaking his head.

"What is it, buddy?" Steve asked as he pulled Clint up into a hug.

"When I can't see the board, Mrs. Anders said I was 'ruptive," the boy wailed. "When I can't hear her, she said I was difficult."

"Mrs. Anders is wrong!" Natasha interrupted. "Grown-ups can be wrong, Daddy says so!"

"Then why'd Mommy leave?"

Steve patted Clint on the back. "I told you, your mom has to work," he said against Clint's hair. "And she loves you very much and she misses you very much and she'll be back again some day."

"But I want her to stay!" Clint exclaimed.

"I know." Steve stood up, holding Clint as he walked to the table. James disentangled Natasha's arms from his neck before standing with some effort. "Sometimes we want things we can't have. But we still love people who aren't here."

"We do," Abraham said, reaching out to put his hand on Clint's arm. "We love people still after they are gone, and they love us the same."

Clint wiped his nose on his arm. "Then why can't they stay?" he asked crossly.

"Sometimes, they cannot." Abraham ruffled Clint's hair. "Now, are you too upset to eat your dinner?"

Clint sniffled, sniffled again, then said, "No."

After James helped Natasha into her chair, dinner was quickly portioned onto the plates. Steve had gone overboard at the store, buying two roasted chickens, three kinds of packaged salads, and mashed potatoes. James put a bit of everything on Natasha's plate before serving himself. Clint refused to go to his usual chair and picked food off Steve's plate.

Abraham was the one who saved the meal. As they ate, he told stories of Steve as a teenager, funny and banal stories to get the kids through their dinner. As Abraham detailed one summer vacation at the beach, where Steve got his first driving lesson from his adoptive sister Kimberly, Natasha was giggling too hard to chew. Even Clint was smiling by the end.

After everyone had eaten, James got the children to help him clear the table. When Clint said he didn't want to, James pointed out that children in the books did chores, which got Clint moving, albeit grudgingly.

As the children helped James tidy up, Steve and Abraham sat at the table, talking in low voices. James pretended to pay them no mind, focusing instead on the children. Clint and Natasha put the dishes in the dishwasher while James scraped the leftovers into containers. There was a brief tussle over which of them could start the dishwasher, which James solved by making them push the button together.

"That wasn't any fun," Natasha told her father as the machine started to grumble.

"Next time, we can always wash the dishes by hand," he replied.

"Can we?" Clint asked, his eyes wide. "I never done that before."

"You kids can wash the dishes tomorrow morning," James promised, making a mental note to dig out the plastic dishes from the basement. "Now, what are we going to have for dessert?"

Clint and Natasha went to pull the ice cream from the freezer as James put on another pot of coffee. Whatever Abraham and Steve were discussing had wrapped up by this point, and Abraham left the room while Steve came over to James' side.

"You okay?" James asked.

"No." Steve rested his hip against the counter. "Fuck, I was not expecting this today."

This no doubt meant Clint's hearing problems, not Abraham. "It's better to know about it, so you can deal with it," James pointed out.

"I know." Steve ran his hand through his hair. "I wish I knew what to do."

"You do what you need to, that's all."

"Yeah." Steve took a deep breath. "Abraham and I were talking about putting Clint in sign language class."

James closed the lid on the coffee grounds. "It's a good time for it," he said. "While he's still young."

"Yeah." Steve took another breath, his body tense, and if he didn't just spit out what was bugging him James was going to hit the man. "I'm going to take the classes too. And I was wondering, I mean, if you and Natasha would want to…"

James punched Steve in the shoulder. "Of course we will," he said, swallowing on a lump in his throat. "You know we will."

Steve smiled. "Yeah, I know."

Across the room, Clint and Natasha were discussing which ice cream to have for dessert. James said, "When do these classes start?"

"Hell if I know. I'll talk to Clint's paediatrician, see if he has any ideas."

"We should ask Skye."

"Why?"

"Skye knows everything," James pointed out. "And there may be some stuff at the university that she can hook us up with, studies or something. You talk to St. Ursula's yet about Clint next year?"

"I've got a meeting with Ms. Green after we get back from vacation," Steve said, the tension seeping out of his posture. "She said the kids' teacher already knows about Clint's hearing, and they're ready to make accommodations."

"With how much we pay in tuition, they damned well better be ready," James said, putting the coffee container away.

With a shuffling step, Abraham came back into the room. Suddenly self-conscious at how close he was standing to Steve, James moved to go get spoons. "Now," Abraham was saying, "Who wants a present?"

The children's screams were answer enough.


When it was time for Abraham to leave, Steve carried the man's suitcases out to the car, while Natasha and Clint took turns hugging Abraham goodbye on the front step. "Now," Abraham said after his fourth hug. "You still have your presents?"

The children nodded, Clint clutching his stuffed octopus, Natasha holding tight to her squeaky shark toy. James had already thanked the man for including Natasha in the presents, to which Abraham had responded that he was glad he hadn't been able to decide which gift to give Clint.

"Now, you be good for your fathers, and have a good time at the beach."

"When you gonna come back for dinner?" Clint asked.

"I will talk to your father about coming for a visit before school starts," Abraham promised. "Now, I have to drive home."

The children crowded back in for another hug. Steve came up the steps, wiping his hands on his trousers. "All set to go," he said as Abraham stood up. "Give me a call when you get home safe, okay?"

"Ah, how the tables turn," Abraham said with a chuckle. He got a back-slapping hug from Steve, then he turned to James. "Thank you for a wonderful evening," he said as he shook James' hand.

"Come by anytime," James said. "And have a good time in Atlantic City."

"There is much fun to be had at a conference," Abraham said, turned away with what might have been a wink. "Good night, children, good night!"

The four of them stayed on the steps to wave Abraham off as he started his car and drove away. As the old sedan puttered away around the corner, James sat on the top step and let out a sigh.

"What's wrong?" Natasha asked, squeezing her shark to make it squeak.

James sighed again for effect. "I am a tired old man," he said. "I need a nap."

"I don't need a nap," Clint said, plopping down beside James.

"Me either," Natasha chimed in.

Steve sank onto the step beside James. "I could use a hundred naps," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I can't believe we only have a week until we leave for the Hamptons."

"That's forever," Natasha pointed out as she squeaked her toy in James' ear. "A whole week."

"How many times is that?" Clint asked as he looked at his watch.

"The little hand has to go around the watch fourteen times," James said.

Clint made a face. "That's too long. Let's go now."

James met Steve's eyes. He could tell that Steve was considering it, just dropping everything and bailing for the beach. In that moment, James wanted to just take the kids and run away for a week, just the four of them hiding away from the world.

Then he sighed. "No can do, peanut," James said. "Your dad has to work tomorrow and I have a lot to do before we can leave."

"But if we go now, then my birthday will come sooner," Clint tried to argue.

James stood up. "Nice try. You're not getting your presents until your real birthday."

"Daddy," Natasha said as she slipped her hand into James'. "Can I have a present too?"

"On Clint's birthday? That's not how it works, Nat, and you know that."

Natasha pouted all the way into the house.


Later that night, when the kids were tucked into their beds, Natasha in her room and Clint in the guest room, James and Steve sat in the living room, planning the trip to the Hamptons.

"So you think we can head out from here?" Steve was saying from the couch, a cold beer in his hand.

"Yeah. I mean, it's only two hours away, we don't need to leave until after ten."

"Why so late?"

"Excuse me," James said, shifting around on the armchair to look at Steve. "Have you met our kids?" It's going to take me an hour to get them cleaned up after breakfast."

"Good point." Steve took one last look at his list, then tossed it to the coffee table. "So we leave on Friday, Clint's birthday is on Saturday, and then we have a whole week there."

"In Tony Stark's oceanfront mansion."

"Not exactly."

"What does that mean?" James asked, reaching for his own beer.

"It means we're staying in the carriage house. I mean, it was probably never a carriage house, Tony's old man built the place in the fifties, but it's this small guest house away from the main house. It's small, but it'll be good for us."

At least it wasn't a tent on the beach. "And you said the pool has a gate around it?"

"Yes. The pool and the hot tub."

"Man, life in the lap of luxury," James said. He sank back into the chair. "It's okay, right, that we're doing this?"

Steve frowned at James. "Of course it is," he said. "Tony keeps the place up, it's not dangerous or anything."

"Spending a week at Tony Stark's beach house," James muttered to himself. Not bad for a couple of kids from the old neighbourhood.

That, of course, got him thinking about Abraham. The man had called Steve an hour previous, on his arrival home, and they had talked for some time while James did some work.

James had always wondered what it was like, Steve's new life, but now, seeing Abraham with Steve and with Clint, James was glad that Abraham had found his way into Steve's life, even if that meant James had to lose Steve in the process.

Maybe it was better, this way.

"Was it a good life, in Jersey?" James asked.

Steve took a pull on his beer. "Yeah," he said after a minute. "Abraham… he gave me a home. I missed that, after my mom died."

"Yeah," James said. He stared up at the darkened ceiling. "It's good, that."

"Yeah."

The room was quiet for a minute or two, then James said, unable to help himself, "I missed you, though."

Steve's reply was almost a whisper. "I missed you too, Bucky. A lot."

James closed his eyes. It had taken him over twenty years to find Steve again, and he'd do anything to keep his best friend in his life.

Well. Almost anything.

Chapter Text


James pulled the jeep to a halt in front of the metal gate. Staring up at the imposing iron edifice, he asked, "Okay, now what?"

"Try the intercom," Steve said, pointing at the metal box off to the left of the vehicle.

"Are we there yet?" Natasha whined from the backseat.

"My legs hurt!" Clint added.

James took a deep breath. Over two hours in the car with three other people, all of whom were surprisingly loud, had him near the end of his rope. "Fine," he said as he put the jeep into park, turned off the engine, and undid his seatbelt.

"Why are you doing that?" Steve asked as James opened the driver's side door.

"The arm goes stiff if it's still for too long," James said, holding up his prosthesis. If the mechanical arm had not been in sleep mode, James might have considered giving Steve the finger.

"My leg's asleep!" Clint yelled from the backseat.

"My tongue's asleep!" Natasha shouted, then ruined the effect by breaking into giggles.

At least the kids were in a good mood. Leaving the jeep door open, James pushed the button on the intercom. The box gave a buzz, then nothing. James bent over to look at Steve in the jeep. "If they ain't here, I am not driving all the way back to Brooklyn."

"Lucy said she'd be here all morning," Steve said, scrolling through his phone. "If she doesn't answer in a minute, I'll call her."

"My brain's asleep," Clint moaned.

"Does that mean you're ready for a nap?" James asked. Clint closed his mouth with a snap.

Thankfully, before Natasha could pick up the backseat tirade, the intercom crackled. "Stark Residence."

"Oh, hey," James said. "It's James Barnes. I think we're expected."

"Hi, Lucy!" Steve yelled from inside the jeep. "It's Steve!"

"Oh, hello dear," the voice said, warming considerably. "Let me just take a look at you on the security screen."

As Steve waved at the shiny black bulb positioned at the top of the gate, James looked around at the gate blocking the view of Tony Stark's beach house. On first glance, all James could make out were the old gate and the rusty intercom. But on second look, after remembering the make and model of that surveillance camera, James gave the area a closer look.

In spite of himself, he was impressed. The camera at the gate was the most obvious, but several small inconspicuous cameras were positioned along the metal grating to give a three-sixty view of the road leading up to the gate. The gate itself, metal braced with rough-hewn stone, was a solid piece of architecture with its foundations buried in the earth. The fence wouldn't be able to keep the most determined intruder out, but combined with the surveillance system (James suspected the gate had motion and pressure sensors built in; it's what he would have recommended), unwanted guests wouldn't get very far without being detected.

James' estimation of Tony Stark went up a few notches.

The gate began to open, making James hurry back to the jeep. "Drive on down to the right," the intercom said. "I'll be down in a little while to welcome you."

"Thanks," James said, starting the jeep and putting it into gear without bothering with his seatbelt. "Lucy?" he asked Steve.

"Tony's housekeeper," Steve said. He rolled his window down to let some of the sea breezes into the car. "Lucy's family has been working for Tony's for… well, decades."

As Steve spoke, James had rounded the bend in the wall, and he let the jeep roll to a halt. The emerald green of the lawn rolled out below them, a huge mansion off to the left and the small road splitting with one gravelly branch spiralling down and to the right. In front of them stretched the blue waters of the Atlantic.

"Wow," Natasha said from the backseat. "Daddy, is this where the president lives?"

"Nope," James said, swallowing his reaction at the excess. He'd worked on larger estates. Maybe it was that he didn't have to work while he was here, just relax.

He wasn't sure when he'd last had a real vacation. Certainly before joining the Army. Maybe even before Steve left Brooklyn.

"This is where Uncle Tony lives sometimes," Clint said. "Can I get out and walk?"

"Not yet," Steve said, as James took the hint and put the jeep back in motion. "We'll go unpack the car and then we can go for a walk, okay?"

Clint slumped over in his booster seat.

"Daddy," Natasha said. "I have to pee."

"You went pee in town," James pointed out as he followed the road down the hill. Large trees shaded the gravel road. "That was twenty minutes ago."

"I didn't pee all the way," Natasha said. "Just half of it."

"Well, then hold the other half because we'll be at the house in a minute."

"I can pee in a jar," Clint said helpfully.

"That's not fair!" Natasha exclaimed. "Why do boys have all the fun?"

Thankfully, the road opened up on a small white-painted house, tucked back against a treed hill. "Tell me this is it," James said under his breath to Steve.

"Yup," Steve replied. As soon as the jeep came to a halt, Steve unbuckled his seat belt, flung his door open and went to help Natasha out of her booster seat. "Come on, let's get you to a bathroom."

"Okay!" Natasha yelled, scrambling to the ground. "Daddy, I'm going to go to the bathroom, don't have any fun without me!"

"I'll do my best." James put the car in park, engaged the emergency brake, and turned off the engine for good. The sudden stillness rang in his ears.

He'd been driving for over two hours, eyes on the road while Steve engaged the children in road games and stories. They'd stopped twice for bathroom breaks, once by Melville and then again in Southampton. Even then, Steve had been the one to take the kids in to the bathroom while James waited in the car. It wasn't planned, exactly, but James could not leave the vehicle in an unfamiliar spot where anyone could get at it.

He was aware that this was exactly the type of behavior he'd fallen into when he'd first gotten back from Iraq, after he'd lost his arm, but he couldn't bring himself to walk away from the vehicle. He'd just told Steve that he was fine, just take the kids and hurry up, he wanted to get back on the road.

Now, behind Tony Stark's iron gates with state of the art security cameras monitoring the road, James could breathe enough to leave the car unattended.

With a groan, James opened his door and stepped out. From the backseat, Clint called, "Can I get out yet?"

"Yes," James said, pulling open the door on Clint's side. "Is your leg really asleep?"

"No," Clint said, unbuckling his seatbelt. "I just said that. It was pretend." With that, he climbed to the ground. "Can I go play?"

"Not yet," James said. "First, we need to off-load at our base camp. Then we do a safety orientation and then you can play."

"Aw, man," Clint grumbled, but he followed James to the jeep's back hatch to be loaded up with his backpack and pillow. "Where are we gonna sleep?"

"Hopefully somewhere soft," James said. He braced himself to pull out the heavy suitcase that held his and Natasha's gear. "Run that into the house, Clint, and come back for another load."

"Chores are boring," Clint informed James before taking off in the direction of the house.

With the boy safely out of the way, James next removed Steve's large black sports bag, then a long black case. It reminded James acutely of his sniper rifle case, but Steve had sworn it contained Clint's birthday surprise.

In fact, Steve had been a little too gleeful about this mystery present, but James supposed he'd find out what it was the next day.

As he was pulling another of Steve's bags from the car, the children erupted from the house in a cacophony of sound, Steve close on their heels. "Daddy!" Natasha yelled as she ran to his side. "The bathtub is so big!"

"Good," James said. "You will be the cleanest little girl ever." He swung Natasha's backpack into her arms. "Help Clint carry stuff inside."

"Can we go swimming now?" Natasha asked, not moving.

"Not yet." James turned back to the jeep. "We unload, then do the safety check."

"Safety check is boring," Natasha informed her father before going over to help Clint drag one of the bags into the house.

Steve, in the meantime, was gathering up armfuls of stuff. "We have to go grocery shopping," he said as he gripped the handle of the long black case. "Unless the grocery store delivers."

James pulled the last bag from the jeep and closed the hatch. "We'll figure it out."

His attention was only half on the conversation, while he concentrated on acting normal until Steve had gone into the house. Then, without an audience, James could pick up the remaining luggage to haul it toward the house. Even though his prosthesis was functioning normally, carrying weight on the metal arm was not pleasant. Over the years, James had come up with work-arounds to function like a normal human being; most of which involved more contorted strain on his spine than was good for a man his age.

Thankfully, Steve was nowhere to be seen as James staggered into the house. To the soundtrack of the kids running up and down the single flight of stairs, James let the bags slide onto the couch by the fireplace. He took a few deep breaths, letting his vertebrate re-sort themselves, as he looked around what Tony Stark considered a carriage house.

The main level was wide and open, combining a kitchen along one wall with a round dining table, and a loveseat and armchair in front of a huge fireplace. The staircase led up the beach-side wall, up to a recessed loft overlooking the open area. In addition to the main doorway, two wide glass doors opened out onto the beach.

It was almost perfect.

"Daddy!" Natasha yelled, hopping down the last two stairs. "Daddy, come see the bathroom!"

"In a minute, sweet pea." James deftly detached her grasping fingers from his jeans pocket. "Where's Steve?"

"Here," the man said, appearing at the head of the stairs. "I had to put away the stuff." As he made it to the bottom step, he frowned. "I was coming back, I could have gotten the rest of the luggage."

The comment dug into James' gut. James straightened his back without wincing at the spasm along his spine. "I got it."

"But—"

"I said I got it," James said sharply. "Where are the bedrooms?"

Steve was staring at him, something in his blue eyes that made James turn away. "Upstairs," was all Steve said.

"We'll show you," Natasha said immediately, taking James' hand. Clint put his hands around James' prosthetic wrist. "Come on!"

"Yeah, come on," Clint echoed, and James found himself being herded up the narrow staircase to the second level.

The ceiling up here was low by modern standards. James took in the landing, with a worn sofa against one wall, as the children pulled him to the open door of one room. "This is my room!" Natasha declared, letting go of James' hand to take a leap onto one of the twin beds. "This is where Bear will sleep!"

"And Floppy," Clint put in, crawling onto the other twin bed. "Not me. I'm not sleepy."

"It's a very nice room," James said, stepping inside to poke around. The small closet held no secret crawlspaces, and the window looking out over the ocean had a solid latch and opened easily. Good lines of escape in case of fire. "Okay, show me what else you got."

Natasha's next stop was the bathroom, a room larger than James thought possible from the house's exterior. The room, unlike the rest of the house, had been recently remodelled, and held a huge bathtub and a separate shower.

"Look, Daddy, candles!" Natasha squealed, running to the raised tiling between the tub and the sink. "Can I have a candle?"

"It's the middle of the day," James hedged. "Too bright for candles." He made a mental note to hide all candles and matches when the kids were occupied. "What else is there?"

"There's a toilet downstairs," Clint contributed. "But no tub. Only for if you have to pee." He let out a snort of laughter.

"I'll keep that in mind, peanut," James said, ruffling Clint's hair. "Come on, let's go get our stuff."

It seemed that Steve had carried everything up to the landing while James had been occupied with the children. Now, the man was hovering anxiously as James came back out to the landing. "So," Steve said, then stopped.

James narrowed his eyes at the man. There was only one other door on the house's second level, opening onto a small room with one bed. "What?"

Steve stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I'll take the couch out here," he said. He looked slightly embarrassed, which didn't make any sense to James.

"I thought you'd been here before."

"I've stayed in the main house before," Steve corrected. "I only ever walked past this place. I thought it had more bedrooms."

James went to grab his suitcase. "I'd've thought Stark would've done things bigger than this."

Steve relaxed. "Tony can get a little weird about this place," he said, joining James by the luggage. "This estate was his dad's, so… yeah. History."

James unzipped the suitcase. His problems with his father, combined with Steve's dad running out on his mother before Steve was even born, was enough daddy issues for one vacation. "We can figure it out no problem, right?"

Steve's sudden smile was blinding, and James had to turn away. "No kidding." Steve turned around. "Hey, kids, come get your stuff!"

The children stampeded out of their bedroom, footsteps loud on the wooden floor. "Daddy, where's Bear?" Natasha asked anxiously, nearly climbing into the open suitcase. "I need to put Bear to bed. It's his naptime."

"Here." James handed over the stuffed toy, no worse the wear for the journey in the enclosed space. "And let's put your clothes in the closet, okay?"

Clint was trying to drag the sports bag to the small room. "I'll help you, Dad!" the boy was saying.

"No, Clint, I'll be sleeping out here," Steve started to say, but James stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"I'll sleep out here," James said. "I'm good on rough surfaces."

"No, I said I'd take it—"

"Steve." James waited until the children were busy in their room before continuing. "I'll stay out here. Better to keep an eye on the place."

Steve stared at James. "The couch isn't very comfortable."

"Just…" James let his hand drop from Steve's arm. Frustration stirred in his gut, knowing that he couldn't explain, and that even if he did, Steve wouldn't get it. "I'll sleep better out here."

He waited for Steve to push back, to make some oblivious comment about good behaviour or something civilian, but Steve just gave a nod. "If you want to switch out, let me know."

James breathed in, feeling as if he'd run a mile. Steve went to move his bags into the small bedroom. Alone for the first time since New York, James sat on the couch and let the weight of his prosthesis rest on his leg. He had thought that the strain would ease up once he stopped driving, but things were just getting worse. He was in this unfamiliar place, and he didn't know how safe things were, his daughter was here with him, and he didn't know what he was supposed to do. What normal people did.

So he pulled out his phone. There was one text from Skye, saying that she was settled in for her week of house-sitting, and three emails. Two were from Maria about work. He quickly skimmed them, saw there was nothing urgent, and went on to the third. It was from Natasha's school, asking him to update her medical records for the nurse before the new school year began.

James tossed his phone onto the couch and went to help the kids. Luckily, two children at the beach didn't have much luggage, and in a few minutes their room was squared away. Steve appeared in the doorway as James was hanging Natasha's party dress in the closet to her satisfaction. "Everything's done," Steve said, scooping Clint up to toss the boy over his shoulder. "You can use my dresser if you want to put your clothes away."

"I'm fine," James said. Nothing on earth could have made him put his clothes away in Steve's bedroom. Where Steve would sleep. "All right, who's ready for a nap?"

"No naps!" Natasha exclaimed. "Big kids do not nap!"

"Only babies nap," Clint put in, wiggling out of Steve's grasp. "Babies and old people."

"Then I'm just in time," James said as he closed the closet door. "Fine, if we're not napping, how about we figure out what we're going to do for lunch?"

"I want to go swimming!" Natasha complained as she and Clint were herded out onto the landing. "Daddy, there's all that water right there!"

James was saved from having to answer this plea by a knock at the door. At the sound, Clint stopped dead on the stairs. Natasha cannoned into him, and James nearly tripped over the pair of them. Steve, who had been bringing up the rear, slipped past the chaos on the stairs and ran across to open the door.

"Hi, Lucy," Steve said warmly, stepping aside.

"Hello, dear." The woman was short and cheerful, middle-age with grey-streaked brown hair and rosy cheeks. "How good to see you again." She stepped into the house, an honest-to-god picnic basket over her arm. "Chef is up at the house today, he made some sandwiches for the little ones."

"Sandwiches?" Natasha echoed, perking up. She and Clint bounced down the last few steps over to the woman's side. "Is there cheese?"

"There certainly is." The woman sat in a chair, bending over to speak to the children. "I'm Lucy. And who might you be?"

"I'm Natasha Barnes," Natasha said loudly. "I'm five and a half, but I'm almost six."

"I'm Clint and I'm six tomorrow!" Clint put in. "It's my birthday!"

"Good for both of you," Lucy said, smiling at the pair. "Now, do you need to wash your hands before you eat?"

"No," Natasha said immediately.

"Yes," James contradicted. "And the faster you do that, the faster you can eat. Hop to it."

Natasha let out an exasperated sigh, but she and Clint ran to the little door at the back of the main level, pushing it open to reveal a tiny bathroom.

Lucy stood. "Lucy Jarvis," she said, holding out her hand to James.

He took it and shook. "James Barnes," he said. "Thanks for lunch, you didn't have to do that."

Lucy waved the comment away. "It's very quiet around here these days," she said as she began to unpack the picnic basket. "This gives us something to do."

Out of the basket came a tupperware case of sandwiches, another of sliced vegetables, followed by a covered tin that James suspected contained cookies.

"The pool cleaners came by yesterday and everything is ready for those little ones, pool nice and scrubbed and not too much chlorine," Lucy went on. "There are towels in the pool house, just hang them up to dry when you're done. Valerie and Constanza come in on weekdays, they'll get to them then." The woman pulled an envelope out of the picnic basket. "Now, here are your gate passes, and keys to the carriage house." She handed the envelope to James. "If you ever want to visit the main house, just give me a call or ring the bell, I live on the premises."

"How's your dad doing?" Steve asked, over the sound of the returning children. "Kids, sit down and we'll eat."

"My father is doing as well as can be expected." Lucy helped the children open the sandwich container. Inside lay a pile of tiny slider buns. "He's over ninety," she said to James. "Still has all his faculties, bless him, but a little shaky on his feet. His nurse comes in during the day, but otherwise it's just him and me."

"We'll keep out of your way," James said. "Natasha, Clint, thank Ms. Jarvis for bringing us lunch."

"Thank you," said Clint around a mouthful of tiny sandwich.

"Thank you," Natasha echoed. She grinned up at Lucy, baby teeth white and shining, before she ruined the cute effect by opening her jaw and cramming an entire slider into her mouth.

"You're quite welcome," Lucy said. She took a piece of paper from the picnic basket before closing it up. "Here's a map of town. Steve mentioned you'll be doing your own shopping."

"That's the plan," James said. He took the map. "It's nice of you doing this. You didn't have to."

Lucy waved her hand. "Things can be a little dull down here, these days." She picked up the basket. "I'll see you later in the week. Goodbye, children!"

"Bye!" came a muffled chorus. Steve showed the woman to the door, closing it behind her.

James looked down at the paper in his hand. On the hand-drawn map were identified various locations in town, including the grocery store, the boardwalk, the library, and a few named places that James assumed were restaurants.

He sighed. He had wanted to spend some time relaxing after the drive, but one of them would have to go grocery shopping and James had no idea how long that would take. So much for that vacation, he thought grimly.

As he tried to figure out what to say to Steve, the man was settling himself down at the table between the children, reaching for the vegetables. "How's lunch?" Steve asked.

"Good," Natasha said, taking another sandwich. "This is good cheese."

Clint nodded, reaching for his fourth slider. "Can we have tiny sandwiches for every lunchtime?" he asked.

"We'll see what we feel like," Steve said. He crunched down on a celery stick. "Bucky, you hungry?"

James shook off his malaise and went to the table. "I was thinking about what we should do after lunch," he said in aside to Steve, but Clint, who was sitting with his good ear towards James, perked up at the question.

"I say, swimming!" the boy shouted.

"Yeah, I wanna go swimming too," Natasha added. She put her half-eaten sandwich on her napkin and pushed it over to her father. "I'm full."

Before James could reply, Steve sat back with a dramatic sigh. "You know, before we go swimming, I think we should check this place out," he said to the kids. "Did you know that there's a huge beach where nobody goes?"

"Why not?" Natasha asked.

"Capitalism," Steve said, which puzzled Natasha but made James roll his eyes. "There's a lot of sand, and a long spit that goes far out into the ocean. Tony's father bought this parcel of land because the spit is a danger to boats," Steve went on, more to James. "He didn't want a lot of visitors."

"How's the undercurrent?" James asked. He picked up Natasha's sandwich and ate it in one bite. Natasha was right; this was a damned fine sandwich. James suspected the cook had used a lot of butter. "You know. If the kids want to go in."

"It's fine for a bit, until the water gets up to my chest." Steve put his hand to measure a spot just below his pectorals. "Then the shelf drops off and the current kicks in."

Great. Deceptively safe until the kids would be unable to help themselves. James wiped his fingers on the napkin. "Clint, Natasha, can we have a grown-up talk for a few minutes?"

Natasha, who had been trying to pry open the cookie tin, sat back and nodded. Clint swallowed his mouthful, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and waited.

"You know how sometimes you hear grown-ups tell you lots of things and make you follow lots of rules?" James asked.

"Yeah," Clint said. "That's boring."

"Grown-ups talk a lot," Natasha put in.

"You're right," James agreed. "For this trip, though, because you're both getting so very big, we only have one rule."

"We do?" Steve said wonderingly. Belatedly, James realized he should have had this conversation with Steve first, but things had been so hectic in the car, and besides, he didn't think Steve would disagree.

"Yes, the most important rule. It's—"

"I know!" Natasha interrupted, getting to her knees on her chair. "I know it!" She stuck her hand up, one finger raised. "Rule number one, is safety first!"

"That's right, Nat," James said. "Safety is the most imp—"

"Rule number two!" Natasha went on, cutting her father off. She now had two fingers up. "Is no hitting!"

"I like that rule," Clint said. "Hitting makes people sad."

"And we don't want to be sad." Natasha's third finger went up. "Rule number three!"

"How many rules are there?" Steve asked James.

James, who had an inkling where this was coming from, said, "I think six."

Natasha shushed her father. "Rule three is that when you don't get to do something one day, you don't get sad, because maybe you do that thing tomorrow." She turned to face James. "Like because I don't go to Disneyland today, I don't get sad. Because I will go tomorrow." Her green eyes flashed with intensity.

"Some day tomorrow," James agreed. "What's rule number four?"

Natasha pried up her baby finger and stuck her hand in Clint's face. "Rule four means eat good food and not candy because your tummy will be sad and you will cry."

"Not candy?" Clint said in bewilderment. "Why's candy against the rules?"

"She means that we don't eat candy for meals," James said. He knew now what Natasha was talking about, but he'd be damned if he knew how she remembered all this. "Candy is a treat, so we have it on a special occasion."

"Remember how we talked about a 'sometimes' food?" Steve asked.

Clint's expression cleared. "Candy is a food we eat sometimes," he informed Natasha. "And chips, and popcorn, and ice cream, and pizza."

"What about soda pop?" Natasha asked. "I can have soda pop once a time a year."

Clint shrugged. "I like juice best anyway."

Natasha grinned. "Me too!"

"Hands up if you like juice," James said. He and Steve put their hands up, and so did Natasha, but Clint flung both hands in the air. The kids burst out laughing. "All right, Natasha, that's four rules. What are the other two?"

"Hrm." Natasha made a show of thinking. "Rule number five says that if you do a bad thing, you're not a bad girl. You just stop doing the bad thing, because you are a good girl!"

The smile on Steve's face slid away at this. "What do you mean?" he asked Natasha in a quiet voice.

She turned on him, her lips pursed in concentration. "Sometimes you make a mistake and that's wrong," she told Steve. "You didn't mean to do a bad thing. But Daddy said so, everyone makes a mistake. And that's okay. You are a good person!"

James slid his chair closer to Natasha's so he could pull his daughter onto his lap. "You're right, Nat." He kissed her hair. "If someone makes a mistake, that doesn't make them a bad person. Every time we make a mistake, we learn from it. And growing up is just learning new things."

"That's right." Natasha turned to plant a big kiss on James' cheek. "Because I'm not a bad girl. I'm a good girl!"

James put his arm around Natasha. "You certainly are not." He gave her a squeeze, making her exclaim in protest. "Same with you, Clint. You're a good kid. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."

"Okay." Clint wiped his nose on his bare arm. "Are there any more rules? I thought there was just one."

"What's the last rule?" James asked Natasha, letting her go. She climbed back onto her chair, smoothing her hair down indignantly.

"Rule number six means that Daddy's the grown-up, so only he gets to be the cowboy."

Steve's eyebrows shot up as Clint pouted. "Can't I be a cowboy?" the boy asked.

"Natasha, that means that I'm the adult so I'll do the adult stuff, you get to be a kid," James said. "I'll worry about the groceries and the property taxes. You play dinosaurs and stuff."

Natasha spread her arms wide. "So why's there a cowboy?" she demanded.

"The cowboy's not a person," James said. He sat back. "The saying is, cowboy up. It means act like a grownup."

"But I want to be a cowboy," Clint repeated.

"You can be the kid cowboy." James ran his hand through his hair. "Can we go back to the first rule? About being safe?" The kids nodded. "We're in a new place, and sometimes in a new place there are things that can be dangerous. And one of the things that can be dangerous for children, even grown-up ones, is going into the water without an adult."

"I won't," Clint promised immediately. However, all Natasha did was to avert her eyes from James' face.

"Guys, I'm serious." He put his hand on Natasha's back. "This is the only big rule. And you're both old enough to understand that breaking rules can have consequences."

"Like what?" Clint asked.

James waited until Natasha was looking at him again. "If either of you go to the pool or the ocean without me or Steve with you, we're going home. No second chances."

Clint got to his knees to process this, while Natasha glowered at her father. "You're mean!" she declared.

"No, I'm not." James took his hand back. "Nat, swimming alone isn't safe. For anyone," he added, in case she started in on the grown-up angle. "For the next ten days while we're here, if you want to go to the beach or to the pool, Steve or I will go with you."

"What if we don't go in the water?" Clint asked, chewing on his finger. "What if we just stand there and look?"

"No." James turned to face Clint, and caught sight of Steve's expression. Shit. "Clint, me and your dad, we both love to swim and any time you want to go play in the water, we'll go with you."

"Any time?" Clint pressed.

"Any time during the day, and not after bed time or during meal time," James said, resigning himself to a vacation poolside.

"What if I want to go to the beach and Natasha doesn't?"

"We have two kids and two adults," Steve said. He turned to his son. "Bucky's right, Clint. Safety first. Any time you want to go near the water, even to look, you come tell me and I'll go with you."

"What about me?" Natasha asked, still glaring.

"Same with you," Steve said. "You only started swimming a few months ago, remember? You can always use a little more practice with someone who can swim with you."

"But Daddy can't swim," Natasha protested. "It's not fair."

"I can swim," James said. "Steve took you to swim lessons because he's better at that stuff." He pushed his chair back. "Now, why don't you two run upstairs and put on your bathing suits and we can go for a walk down to the beach, okay?"

Clint jumped off his chair and bolted for the stairs. Natasha, moving slower so she could draw out the death-glare at her father, followed.

That left Steve and James in the kitchen, and now Steve was also glaring at James. "What?" James demanded, standing up to clear the table.

"You could have warned me you were going to tell the kids that," Steve said. He didn't move. "It's a big deal, telling them I'll be with them at the water."

"You and me," James corrected. He snapped the lid back over the rest of the sandwiches. "I can swim too, remember?"

"It's been a long time, maybe you don't do that anymore."

James put the container into the otherwise-empty fridge. "My kid needs me, I go in the water," he snapped. "I can't wear the arm, that's all."

Upstairs, a thud and a shriek, then Natasha called, "Daddy, where's my bathing suits?"

Not looking back at Steve, James mounted the stairs to help Natasha.

The worst part was, Steve was right. James should have talked to Steve first and he knew it. But it was too late now. He'd just have to deal with it.

After helping Natasha untangle her swimsuit in the drawer, James left the kids to change. On the landing, he rooted around in his suitcase until he found his new swim trunks. Tossing those onto the couch, James removed the prosthesis's charging station from the suitcase and set it against the wall out of harm's way. After plugging it into the wall, James sat back on his heels to pull his shirt over his head.

The arm was, in theory, waterproof, but water would get into the socket surrounding his arm almost immediately, causing rubbing, and chafing under the wet straps across his chest. So James would take the lesser evil, and walk around Tony Stark's massive estate without the prosthetic.

He could swim without it, that much he knew. Part of his physiotherapy in the early days had included swimming, and James had gone to enough of those sessions to know he could swim for miles, just slower than before. If his daughter needed him in the water, he would not let her down.

James was in the middle of unbuckling the arm's straps when Steve came up the stairs. The man looked slightly less irritated that he had in the kitchen. "So," the man said. "Beach walk first?"

James eased the prosthesis off his arm stump. "Yeah, they should stretch their legs," he said, busying himself with setting the arm on the charging stand. "We can use the pool later this afternoon, after they've digested lunch."

"Yeah." Steve leaned against the railing. "What are we going to do about dinner?"

"I'll drive into town for groceries." James grabbed his swim trunks as he stood.

"We can all go."

"I can buy groceries on my own."

"I know you can." Steve's response was even and measured. James would have preferred if the man had been yelling. "But we're on vacation. There's no rush for anything."

James lifted his left arm to rub his chin. "You want to haul two excited kids into a grocery store?" he asked, finally looking at Steve. To his surprise, Steve appeared exhausted. "I mean, yeah, we could do that."

Steve smiled, but the expression never reached his eyes. "There's a candy store in town we can take them to, too," he said.

"Yeah." James held up his swimming trunks. "I should go…"

"Yeah."

James went into the bathroom, wondering what was going on in Steve's head, what was going on with him, why he felt so worried. It wasn't Natasha. She was old enough to understand the rules, and too young to spend her time testing his boundaries.

It was just… dread sat in the pit of his stomach, and James didn't know why.


The beach walk was, thankfully, a raving success. After enduring the application of sunscreen, the kids put on their hats and they all walked down the gravel path to the sandy beach. Clint walked right into the gently curling surf, declaring loudly (louder than usual, for Steve had made the boy leave his hearing aid in the house to avoid water damage) that this was the best vacation of his life, and he was never ever going home.

Natasha, however, took one look at the waves and grabbed James' hand. It took him ten minutes, and a practical demonstration on his part of going into the water up to his knees, to show her that the ocean was indeed safe, and she could venture in herself. In spite of all that, Natasha only dared go as far as her ankles, and ran shrieking whenever the next wave rushed towards her.

Steve was having a blast, playing with Clint and running around the beach with his ridiculously bounding stride. To James' relief (or disappointment, he wasn't sure which), Steve wore swim trunks that went half-way down his thighs, instead of the speedo he'd worn to Natasha's swim lessons. But at least he was bare-chested, which was all right.

(James was wearing an old t-shirt over his upper body, telling himself that it was easier than a one-armed man attempting to put on sunscreen. He was not about to ask Steve to rub the lotion on his back. He knew his own limits.)

Eventually, as the kids grew bolder in playing in the water, Steve fell in beside James. For a time, they walked in a pleasant silence, trailing in the children's wake.

"You remember having this much fun as kids?" Steve asked after a while. "When we went to the beach with your parents?"

James shrugged. "I remember bits," he said, keeping his eyes on the children. "Not a lot. But it was fun, with you."

"Yeah, it was," Steve said. James waited for him to go on, but the man just kicked at the sand. James shook the moment off, instead looking out at the wide open sea around them.

Stark's house was on a wide piece of land, hemmed in on one side by a rocky outcropping that went far out into the water. There was a small buoy floating at the end of the rocks to warn boats away from the hazard. On the other side of the estate, the sandy beach was marked with a white fence. Given the security in place on the estate's gates, James suspected that there were motion sensors and cameras on both markers.

On the sand, Natasha had grown bold enough to venture into the water up to her knees, with Clint egging her on. James, conscious of how the children usually lost their senses when this excited, started to walk in their direction. Steve caught up with him in a few steps.

"So," Steve said. "What was with those rules Natasha was talking about back in the house?"

James took in a deep breath, the clean air a refreshing change from the ambiance of Brooklyn. "Something I said to Maria, back before Natasha went to kindergarten."

"She remembered it pretty good, for so long ago."

"Nat remembers the oddest things." James broke off for a moment, watching the children as Clint made to go deeper into the water, but Natasha refused, shaking her head vehemently. After a half-hearted attempt at cajoling her, Clint relented and they went tearing off up the sand to look at some driftwood. "But yeah. Maria was over for lunch one day while we were working, and she said that I was doing a good job with Natasha."

"You are," Steve said quietly. "She's great."

Across the sand, Natasha was crouching down to look under a small log. She was so small, her pudgy tummy poking out between her bathing suit top and bottom, her floppy hat shadowing her face from the sun. "She makes it easy," James said. "She's a great kid."

"What does this have to do with those rules?"

"Oh, yeah." James shook his head. "Maria asked me how I'd been keeping up with parenting by myself, and I told her I had these rules to live by, and it made things…. Not easy. But it helped keep me focused."

"Let me guess. Safety first?"

"Safety first," James agreed. "Then, no hitting, although it's a hell of lot different than what Natasha means by it."

Clint let out a yell as he moved the log back on the sand, and Natasha pointed, then they both bent over the small depression in the sand.

"What about not doing something on one day?" Steve asked.

"I got that one from you, actually," James said. Steve looked surprised. "From when you were a kid, and you always wanted to be adopted. You'd say at the end of the weekend, it's not the end of the world. There's always tomorrow. Maybe something different would happen then."

Steve was staring at James now, something akin to a long-remembered hurt on his face, and James looked away, wondering if his honesty was a good idea. It was too late now, he supposed, to take it back.

"And it really helped me a lot, you know, remembering that when Nat was in the terrible twos. There's always tomorrow. Some days, with Nat and me at home, if she didn't change out of her PJs all day, or if all she ate was cereal and milk, it wouldn't do any good in freaking out about it. There was always tomorrow."

Before Steve could answer, the children ran up to them, brandishing handfuls of tiny shells. After a few minutes of appropriate appreciation, James convinced the kids to put the shells back under the log for safekeeping. Once the children had dashed away on their mission, James straightened his shoulders and tried to change the subject.

"And the rule about food, obviously, because Nat's deep desire for three meals of candy would make no one happy," he said after a minute. "Sometimes it was hard, you know, in getting her to eat anything that wasn't a chicken nugget, but I didn't make a big deal out of things and she didn't get fixated."

"Was she a picky eater?" Steve asked. He was holding one of the shells the kids had brought over, turning the delicate white shape over in his fingers.

"No. She doesn't like a few things, like raw mushrooms or vinegary salad dressing, but she'll mostly eat everything. Especially if I cover it in cheese."

"Clint's the same way," Steve said. He put the small shell into the pocket of his swim trunks. "I always thought it was funny, too, because that's about the only thing I was ready for before he was born."

"What, that he'd be a picky eater?"

"Yeah. I read a book and everything." At James' pointed look, Steve sighed in resignation. "I was some dumb kid who just found out he was going to have a baby, what did I know? But of course, Clint always ate everything. Right up until kindergarten started."

"He eats some vegetables," James offered.

"Yeah." Steve rubbed his hands through his hair. "But it's always, is it enough? Is he going to be okay? All that stuff."

"From the looks of things, he's not lacking in energy," James said. The children were now hopping in and out of the surf, calling out warnings to the other as the waves approached their feet. "He liked that coleslaw I made."

"I know he'll do fine," Steve said. "I never wanted to make food into a power struggle, you know? Not after what things were like for me in the system."

James did know. He remembered Steve's stories from when they were kids, of the foster home's eat all your vegetables or no breakfast rule. Steve had famously gone without breakfast for over a month when they were eight, until James found out and started bringing his friend a spare sandwich in his lunch. Even at eight, James knew that Steve wasn't healthy, even if he didn't know exactly why. "Some of that stuff you went through, Steve, it wasn't right."

"I know." Steve's shoulders were hunched as he stared at the kids. "When Sharon suggested that I be part of Clint's life after he was born, I told myself that I was going to do the best job I could do, you know?"

Steve looked so forlorn, James couldn't help reaching out to put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "You're doing a great job with Clint," James said, giving Steve's shoulder a squeeze. "The best job. I've never seen a kid as happy as Clint is."

Steve blinked hard. "Maybe as happy as Natasha," he said, smiling faintly at the playing children. "She's just so great, Bucky."

"She's the best."

"She's got a great dad." Steve pushed his toes into the sand, disturbing the smooth surf-flattened surface. "When I was a kid, I thought sometimes what it would be like if my father hadn't run out on Mom. We could have been a family, after Mom died." Glancing up, Steve caught James' expression. "I got over that when Clint was born. A man who ran out on his pregnant wife would have made a shitty father. I'm not saying foster care was great, but it could have been worse."

In a cloud of excited screams, the children descended on their fathers. "What are you doing?" Clint demanded, barrelling full-tilt into his father.

"We're talking about what exceptional parents we are," James said. "You've got a booger in your nose."

"I got no kleenex!" Clint exclaimed.

"Let me show you a trick I learned in the army." James showed the children how to blow snot out of his nose with his fingers, then wipe his hand on the sand. Natasha squealed in excited disgust, while Clint echoed the motion and ended up blowing a huge booger out of his nostril. "Now go wash your hands in the water."

"Daddy, you're gross!" Natasha informed him, tearing after Clint. "Gross!"

"That was pretty gross," Steve agreed as James stood up.

"Not as gross as you eating worms on a dare when we were nine," James pointed out. "That still makes me feel sick."

"You fell for that?" Steve said, laughing. "I palmed the worm. My social worker showed me that trick."

James turned around to stare at Steve. "Your social worker?" he repeated. "What, was he priming you for a life of crime?"

"Just trying to keep me interested," Steve said. The laugher slowly faded from his face. "What Nat said, about doing bad things doesn't make her a bad girl. Where did that come from?"

"From one of those parenting books." James scratched the skin on his left arm stump, the old scar covering the largest of the prosthesis's implants. "They all said the same thing, about kids acting out and looking for boundaries and for limits, and all I could think about was how Natasha didn't know what she was doing, she was only a baby. And I didn't want her to think she was ever a bad girl, you know? She's a good kid."

Steve was silent for a minute, watching the children. James in turn watched Steve. The man was perfect in the sunshine, his perfect hair and his perfect body and his perfect face. Only the faint sadness in his eyes marred the picture. James wondered what the man was remembering, what was pulling him out of this moment on the beach.

Eventually, however, Steve shook off his stillness. "Do I even need to ask about the cowboy?" he asked, trying to smile.

James was not fooled. But he had also had days when the echo of memory was almost too loud to bear, and no amount of talking would solve anything. "Daddy's the grown-up, so he needs to cowboy up."

"Ah." It might have been a trick of the light, but James thought that Steve quickly gave James a once over. On second thought, it must have been a trick of the light. "You'd look good in a ten-gallon hat."

James snorted. "I look good in anything," he replied, all the while thinking wistfully that if Steve had been gay, James might have thought he was flirting. But that was never going to happen. "It's getting a bit late," he said to change the subject.

"Want to head into town soon?" Steve asked.

"It's a good time for it," James agreed, noticing how the sun was beginning to head west in the sky. "Do you think we'll be able to pull them away?"

"With the promise of candy, anything is possible," Steve said, grinning as he took off towards the children at a run. The tall man entered the waves at an angle, sending up splashes of water with every stride. The children shrieked in protest, then shrieked some more when Steve picked them both up, one with each arm, and ran back up the beach to James.

"Nice catch," James said. "Do you think we should throw them back?"

"Nah, let's keep 'em." Steve set the kids down. "Hey, guess what we're going to do now?"

"Go to the pool!" Clint shouted, flinging his hands up in excitement. Natasha jumped around in delight.

"No, we're going into town to go shopping," James said. Clint dropped his hands. Natasha stopped jumping.

"No, Daddy, we have to go to the pool!" Natasha protested.

"We have to go shopping for food, then we can come back and go to the pool. Come on, let's go get ready."

Dejected, Clint followed Steve up the beach, but Natasha crossed her arms over her chest and glowered up at her father. "I don't want to!"

"You need to eat, and we don't have any food." James held out his hand. "Come on."

Natasha didn't move.

"Natasha, come on, let's go."

James let his hand drop. "Natasha, what's going on?"

"You said we could play in the pool!" Natasha exclaimed. "I want to play in the pool!"

James took a deep breath. Parenting, he was reminded, was not for those short on patience. "We will play in the pool after we get back from the store," he said. "But the longer you stand out here, the longer it'll take us in town, and then you won't get to play in the pool for as long."

From the strength of her glare, James could tell that Natasha was unimpressed by this logic.

Fine. James crouched down so he was on Natasha's level. "Nat, you know that we all have responsibilities," he said seriously. "And we made a deal when you turned four, that I'd always take you to the grocery store, and you'd always get a say in what food we eat. Now that you're older—"

"I'm five and a half," Natasha said darkly.

"Now that you are five and a half," James went on, "It's even more important."

"But why?"

"Because you're part of this family, and you get a say in what happens. That also means you have responsibilities."

Natasha stomped her feet on the sand. "But I want to play in the pool!"

James pressed his lips together, digging deep for just a little more patience. "And you will play in the pool, when we get back." He glanced up the beach, where Steve stood, Clint sitting up on his shoulders. "We all go, and we all come back. The four of us."

Natasha uncrossed her arms to fling them wide in frustration. "You're mean," she declared.

"I'm not mean, and that's not a nice thing to say." James stood up. "Will you take my hand or do I have to carry you?"

With one more dark glare, Natasha held her arms out. Stifling a sigh, James bent over to let Natasha put her arms around his neck, then scooped her up with his arm and off they went, Natasha sulking silently the whole time.


Thankfully, Natasha didn't pull her delaying act at the house. Salty feet were rinsed, clothes were changed, prosthetic limbs and hearing aids put on, and in less than half an hour everyone was piled back into the jeep. In the backseat, Clint and Natasha were deep in strategy for their upcoming visit to the candy store, while James drove as Steve navigated off Lucy's map.

The grocery store was an upscale market with artfully worn decoration, and James could already feel the upcoming hit to his wallet. He supposed it was too late to head out in search of the place the locals shopped.

Clint and Natasha bounced all the way into the store, their equilibrium restored. Steve followed close on their heels, careful to lend a steadying hand before they could crash into anything.

James looked around for a shopping cart, but could only find one half-sized cart beside a tall stack of hand-held baskets. James hadn't been able to use a hand-held basket since he'd lost his arm, so he took hold of the cart's handle, willing his metal hand to close tight around the bar, before heading off in search of the rest.

Natasha and Clint had zeroed in on the store's juice bar, their little hands clutching the counter as they waited impatiently for the clerk to pour out some green concoction into tiny sample cups. Steve had a hand on each child's shoulder, keeping them from diving for the samples. James waited far enough back to avoid being pulled into the crowd. After a few minutes, the children emerged, triumphantly carrying their sample cups.

"What's that?" James asked. Up close, the drink resembled the green scummy puddle water James remembered from one of his Afghanistan missions.

"It's a smoothie," Natasha informed her father.

"With green stuff." Clint sniffed the drink, then delicately stuck his tongue into the liquid. The change in the boy's expression, from anticipation to disgust, told James all he needed to know about the drink. "Yuck."

Natasha took a tentative sip, then made a face. "Daddy, this is gross," she said, holding out the cup in his direction. "You can have it."

"Why, thank you." James took Natasha's sample cup and knocked it back. It wasn't bad; he'd certainly had worse while in the Army, but the underlying bitterness of whatever vegetables it contained would certainly not appeal to the kids' taste buds.

Steve, meanwhile, had finished his sample and was in the process of drinking Clint's. The children watched this display with revulsion. "Yum," the man said, giving the children a smile. "Just like Grandpa Abraham used to make."

"Why?" Natasha demanded.

"If you eat your vegetables, you grow up big and strong," Steve said, in an imitation of Abraham Erskine's accent. "It's not so bad," he went on, dropping the accent. "It could do with some more honey."

"Yuck," Clint said again. He turned his back on his father. "Can I ride on the cart?" he asked James hopefully.

Before James could say yes, Natasha jumped in front of Clint. "But I want to ride on the cart!" she said.

Clint frowned. "But it's my birthday tomorrow!"

Natasha put her hand on the cart's side, and Clint echoed her. "But I want to," Natasha declared.

"Why don't you both ride on the cart's sides?" James suggested. Steve had vanished, probably to throw away the sample cups, and James was left alone with the kids. "That's fair."

"It's not the same," Natasha muttered, never taking her eyes of Clint. The little boy was standing equally firm. "You have to stand on the end for it to be fun!"

Wondering how he got himself into these situations, James looked around for Steve. At first, James couldn't see the man, but after a second look, Steve appeared, pushing another half-sized cart. James wondered where on earth the man had found the thing in a store this crowded. "Hey look," James said. "Steve's got a cart too, now you can both ride on the end."

The children looked at Steve's cart, then each other, then at James. "I want to ride with you," Clint said.

"No, I want to ride with Daddy!" Natasha cried.

Before James could lose his mind, Steve piped in with, "How about I ride with Bucky and you two push your own cart?"

Clint and Natasha both stared at Steve. "Can we?" Natasha squeaked.

"Sure, give it a try," Steve said, letting go of the shopping cart. "But you have to be careful," he cautioned as the children ran over to grab the cart. "You have to be careful about where you're going, so you don't hit anything or anybody."

"We won't," Clint promised. He and Natasha each took hold of one side of the cart's push bar, which was ridiculous as neither of them was tall enough to see over the cart.

"All right, you follow James," Steve said. He gave James a wink. "And I'll bring up the rear."

Preparing himself to have his heels banged up by the other cart, James turned resignedly into the store. "First stop, the milk aisle," he said over his shoulder.

"Slow down," Natasha said to Clint.

"Go faster," Clint said to Natasha.

Still, the children managed to push their cart all the way through the bulk section, only running into two of the bins and one other shopping cart. When James stopped in the dairy section, Natasha released the cart and went over to James' side.

"Daddy?" she asked, tugging on his pant leg. "I don't want to push anymore."

"That's okay," James said. "Will you help me pick out the milk?"

Steve pulled up with the other cart, Clint standing triumphantly on the end bar. "Hey, Bucky, you okay if we split up?" Steve asked.

"Sure," James said. "How about you get the meat and we'll get the milk and stuff for breakfasts. Meet you in produce in ten minutes?"

"Sure thing." Steve steered the cart around to head off to the other side of the store.

"Bye!" Natasha yelled, waving at Clint. He waved back, nearly falling off the cart in his enthusiasm. "No, Daddy, I don't want that milk."

There was a few minutes' discussion around the colour of the milk cartons, then which of the jugs to get. James handed Natasha a small container of cream to hold while he added butter and cheese to the cart. Then they made a quick detour to get eggs, three cartons for the week, and this led into a discussion of what a 'dozen' was, and why didn't people just say twelve, Daddy, that makes no sense!

As this philosophical discussion wore on, James quickly pushed the cart through the aisles. Knowing the children's food preferences as he did, he got pancake mix, peanut butter and jam, then went through the condiment aisle for hot dog toppings. Natasha, who appeared to have completely recovered from her earlier unhappiness, had opinions about ketchup and on what food items to eat it.

"But never on Thursdays," Natasha said firmly as James pushed the cart in the direction of the produce section. "You can't eat ketchup in Thursdays."

"Why not?"

"Because on Thursdays I have dance class and then it's Friday."

"Can we eat ketchup on Fridays?"

"Daddy!" Natasha said, her voice full of impatience at his slowness. "Of course! What else do you eat with french fries?"

James pulled the cart up out of the way beside the pineapples. "And french fries because…" he prompted her.

"Because at school it's french fry Friday!" Natasha said. "Where's Clint, I want to show him the ketchup."

"They're not here yet." James rounded the cart to crouch down by Natasha's side. "You doing okay, pumpkin?"

"Uh huh." Natasha reached up her arms again, and James picked the girl up. "I didn't like that green drink."

"Yeah, it wasn't any good," James agreed. He shifted Natasha a little higher on his right arm. "You know, I remember when you were just a little baby, and you could fit right between my wrist and my elbow."

Natasha giggled. "I'm bigger now," she informed her father. "I'm so big."

"You are. Some day, you'll be too grown up for me to pick up any more."

"No, I won't."

"You're not growing big?"

"No, you can always pick me up." Natasha leaned against James' shoulder. "Like a fireman do."

"There is always that," James said. He pressed a kiss against Natasha's hair. She smelled of sea salt and sunscreen and strawberry shampoo, a solid weight on his arm. Just for a moment, James wished he could freeze time, keep Natasha this age forever, keep her safe.

"When I'm big, maybe I can lift you up," Natasha said, pulling James back to reality with a bump.

"Probably," James said. He bounced Natasha on his arm, a one-armed man's version of a hug, and set the girl down. "I see Steve, let's go see what he's got."

What Steve had was a cart piled high with all forms of animal protein. Hot dogs, bacon, and chicken all sat atop a few flats of steaks. James raised his eyebrows.

"Does Stark have a pet lion you didn't tell me about?"

"There's four of us, and it's for a week," Steve said with a smile. "How would you feel about a beach cook-out tonight?"

"Sounds like a plan," James said. "I've got everything else. Wait, except bread."

"I can get that, if you get some vegetables," Steve suggested.

"Sounds good."

Steve turned to head back into the store, but Natasha ran after him. "I'll go with you," she said breathlessly. "Clint stays with Daddy."

James glanced at Steve, to see if the man had any objection, then at Natasha. "You listen to what Steve says, okay?"

"Yeah," Natasha said dismissively, taking Steve's hand as he pushed the cart off.

"Okay then." James looked down at Clint, who was poking at the pineapple. "What do you say? Want to help me get the vegetables?"

"Okay." Clint hopped on the end of the shopping cart. "My daddy doesn't always take me shopping. I like shopping."

"It is fun to see all the food," James agreed. "What kind of salad should we have tonight?"

"Pizza salad."

James affected surprise at this answer. "A pizza salad? What's in a pizza salad?"

"Pizza," Clint explained. "That's all."

"Hmm. Can you put pineapple on a pizza salad?" James asked, plucking heads of lettuce off the pile at random.

"Yes," Clint said, hopping down to help James put the lettuce in bags.

"What about olives?"

Clint made a face. "No, only Daddy's pizza salad. Not mine."

"What about…. Mushrooms?"

"Those are okay." Clint handed the last head of bagged lettuce to James, and off they went. The produce section was particularly crowded, and it was no easy task for James to manoeuvre the cart around, even with the leverage of his metal arm. "Can we get mushrooms?"

"We can." Locating the mushroom display, he and Clint selected a bagful of white button mushrooms, as James identified the names of the more unusual mushrooms while Clint stared in wonder. "Now, what's next?"

It took James and Clint about ten minutes to load up the cart with more vegetables than the four of them could eat in a week, but Clint was so interested in the wide fan-shaped leaves of the collard greens and the funny colours of the heirloom tomatoes, that James just decided he'd get it all and eat them himself, if need be.

Steve and Natasha rejoined them by the checkout, Natasha triumphantly carrying a baguette that was nearly as tall as she was. "Daddy, guess what?" Natasha asked.

"What?"

"Steve got hot dog buns," Natasha exclaimed breathlessly. "We get to have hot dogs!"

"When?" Clint demanded. "Tonight? Can we have hot dogs tonight?"

"Yes," Steve said, taking the baguette from Natasha. "Kids, we need to go pay for all this stuff now. Do you want to stay with us, or go look at the books?" He pointed to a magazine stand that was ten feet away, with clear sight lines to the registers.

Clint shook his head. "Books," he declared. Hand in hand, he and Natasha walked over to the magazines.

Steve began to unload his cart onto the belt. "How'd you want to pay for this?" he asked James.

"Depends," James said, keeping one eye firmly fixed on the children's position. "Do they take gold bullion, or are we going to have to start selling our organs?" The woman ahead of them in line turned around to glare at James, but James ignored her.

"It won't cost that much," Steve said doubtfully. "How about half and half?"

"Deal." James paused, eyes glued to the children as a teenage shop clerk stopped by the magazine racks to speak to the kids. Natasha looked up at the man, then pointed at James and Steve. When the man followed the direction of Natasha's finger, James gave a wave with his metal hand, mentally bracing himself to make a dash for the children. But the clerk just smiled at James, gave a thumbs up, and left the kids alone.

"You want to go over there?" Steve asked.

James shook his head. "They're fine," he said. "Maria always says that children who have supervised exposure to strangers in every day settings are far less likely to be abducted. They're better able to figure out what's normal and what's not."

"That an FBI thing?"

"She used to work child abductions," James said. Over by the magazines, Clint had selected a book on birds, while Natasha was looking over the magazine covers. "She's got some good advice on stranger-proofing kids."

"Still." Steve, finished with his cart, started to unload James' cart onto the belt. "Sometimes I think about Clint running away from school a few months ago. And just… Yeah."

"Yeah." James clenched his right hand, wanting to touch Steve, reassure him that Clint was fine, that he was a smart kid. But he kept to himself. Straight men did not go around touching each other, let alone at the grocery store. "We'll keep him safe."

"Yeah." Steve concentrated on the cart. "What does Maria say about two kids together, instead of alone?"

"Reduces the already tiny rate of stranger abduction." This time, James levelled a gentle kick at Steve's calf. "Most times, it's the non-custodial parent who tries to grab a kid."

"Sharon would never do that," Steve said, slapping down the last cucumber on the belt.

"Good, then we got nothing to worry about."

Steve let out a huff, arranging the milk cartons into a neat row. "Doesn't mean I'm going to stop worrying, though."

James wondered if he could get away with kicking Steve again. "Why do you think I'm watching the kids like I am?"

Then it was their turn at the checkout, and James moved the carts around Steve for the bagging clerk to fill. Over by the magazines, Clint said something to Natasha, then tore over to James' feet, nearly tripping two people in the process. "James," Clint said, his eyes wide behind his glasses. "Can I get this? With my allowance?"

He held up a thick glossy magazine. "Bird Watcher's Annual," James read off the cover. "Huh. Well, you need to go ask your dad."

"Daddy!" Clint exclaimed, running over to Steve's side. "Can I get it? Can I? Can I?"

Steve picked Clint up for the boy to hand the magazine to the cashier. "We'll take it out of your allowance later," he said, setting Clint down. "That looks like a really interesting book."

Clint beamed.

Meanwhile, Natasha had wandered over to James' side. "Find anything interesting to read?" James asked, his hand on Natasha's shoulder.

"No," Natasha said with disappointment. "There's only books on horses. And boats. And golf." This last she pronounced 'go-elf'.

James patted Natasha's shoulder. "We have lots of fun books back at the house. We can find something good to read there, okay?"

Natasha pouted for a moment, but she was soon too busy watching the bagging clerk filling the carts to be upset.

The final total for the groceries made James' eyes pop, but he held his tongue as they loaded up the jeep and were buckling in for the drive. He made enough money to pay that and more for a week's worth of food, but on Steve's budget… well, James would find a way to pay for other things they did that week.

"Can we make a detour on the way to the candy shop?" Steve said as James pulled into the street. "I need to place an order."

James, who was waiting at a stop sign for traffic to clear, turned to raise his eyebrows at Steve.

"For tomorrow," Steve clarified, jerking his head back towards Clint.

Right. Clint's birthday. James pulled the jeep out into the road. "Want us to wait in the car?"

"No, I'll meet you at the candy store," Steve said. "How does that sound, guys? You ready for some candy?"

The cheers from the backseat were a definite answer.


Abandoning Steve in front of a cake shop, James drove the few blocks to the beach, where he lucked out in finding a parking spot close to the candy store. Hoping that their delay wouldn't be long enough to spoil the milk, James herded the children into the candy store, where they stared around them in wonder.

"How about we get one candy each?" James suggested. "And then we can come back to the candy store tomorrow if you want."

"One big candy," Natasha countered.

"Okay, one big candy."

"Or a bunch of little candy," Natasha went on. "A whole bunch."

"Nice try," James said. "One big candy, or ten little candy."

"Twelve," Natasha offered. "One dozen."

"Deal." James reached out his hand for Natasha to give him a high five. "Did you get that, Clint?"

Clint nodded, still staring around him. "I want to look at all the candy," the boy said. "All of it."

Luckily, the candy store was rather small. Natasha zeroed in on the penny candy, while Clint looked at the lollipops and chocolate bars and jelly beans.

"Do you know what you want to get?" James asked Clint as the boy looked around with indecision.

"I like jelly beans," Clint said. "But I want more than twelve jelly beans. So I want that big one." He pointed up at the lollipop display, at the purple lollipop that was bigger than Clint's head.

James stifled a sigh. He supposed that he brought these things on himself. "Sure." Picking up the lollipop off the display, he handed it to Clint before herding the boy over to the counter. Natasha was in the middle of telling the clerk that she wanted the twelve best gummy spiders, please. The middle-age woman, who had likely had much experience in dealing with sugared-up children, smiled at James as she counted out exactly twelve spiders into a little white paper bag, then handed the bag to Natasha.

Cautioning the children that they had to wait until they got outside, James quickly paid for the sweets, collected his change with a 'see you later', and off they went.

Steve was nowhere in sight, so James sent a text telling the man that he could find them on the beach, then walked with the children across the street and up onto the hill overlooking the sand. It was a busy day on the public beach, with many people out enjoying the sunshine. A few ice cream trucks sat open for business, as well as a hot dog cart, and a few local uniformed cops kept an eye on the scene.

James helped the children onto a bench. "We're going to wait for Steve to find us, okay?"

"Okay," Natasha said. She thrust out her candy bag. "Can I have my candy now?"

"Yes," James said. "Clint, do you need help with that?"

But the boy had already unwrapped his lollipop, his face bright with anticipation. As Natasha shoved a gummy spider whole into her mouth, Clint took a big lick of his lollipop.

Later, James would describe the speed at which Clint's expression changed as almost comical, but now, there was nothing funny about the way Clint's face went from excited to devastated in under a second.

"Clint?" James said.

"It's bad!" Clint said loudly, tears filling his eyes. "I only got one candy and it's bad!"

Like all children, Clint had his breaking point, and the disappointment of his lollipop after the excitement of the day was too much for him to bear. Tears spilled down his cheeks as he shoved the candy away from him.

"How is it bad?" James asked, taking the candy from Clint and taking a small lick. Far from the grape he expected, the purple candy tasted like some overwhelming perfume. James picked up the wrapper and turned it around to see the writing on the back. "Lavender? That's weird."

Meanwhile, Clint had removed his glasses to wipe his eyes as he continued to cry. Natasha stared at Clint open-mouthed, a half-eaten gummy spider in her hand. "Now I don't have any candy at all!" Clint wailed.

"Everything all right?" came the voice of authority. James turned around to see one of the police officers standing at the side of the bench.

"Everything's fine, ma'am," James said with a polite smile.

"No, it's not!" Clint objected before James could say more. "I don't like my candy!"

"Aw, that's not the end of the world," said the police officer. She was, without a doubt, the shortest cop James had ever seen. "I'm sure your dad has a solution for that."

"He's not my dad!" Clint said, wiping his eyes. "I don't know where my dad is!"

The officer's expression changed in an instant, polite cheerfulness going blank as she took a step back to regard James. James bit back several choice swear words. "His father went to order something for Clint's birthday tomorrow," James said evenly. He didn't make any sudden moves towards the children, in case the police officer overreacted.

Because James knew what this looked like. A crying child who didn't know where his father was, a strange man offering candy. Sure, stranger abductions were rare, but that didn't mean they never happened.

"Here," Natasha said, hopping off the bench. She held out her candy bag to Clint. "You can have one of my spiders."

Clint sniffled, wiped his nose, then reached into the bag with his snotty hand. "Thanks," he said sadly, pulling out a gummy spider by the leg. "Now I have one candy."

The police officer was still regarding James with blatant suspicion. "Can you tell me your names?" she asked the children.

Clint bit off a spider leg. "I'm Clint Rogers," he said. "This is Natasha Barnes. She is my best friend."

"And Clint is my best friend too!" Natasha put in.

"Where do you live?"

Instead of responding, Natasha looked at James. "Remember we talked about what we do if the police ask you questions?" James asked.

Natasha nodded. "Can I see your badge, please?" she asked the police officer, as cute as a button and twice as innocent.

The cop cracked a smile at this. "If I show you my badge, will you answer my questions?"

"Yes," Natasha said. "Maria says, you gotta ask for a badge to make sure the police is not an impostor." She pronounced each syllable in the last word with precision.

"Well then." The officer knelt down so the children could see the shiny badge pinned to her shirt. "Now, what do you think? Can you answer my questions?"

"Okay." Natasha rattled off her address. "I live with my daddy."

"And is this your daddy?" The officer pointed at James.

"Yes," Natasha said with gusto. "He only has one arm."

"I can see that," the officer said, smiling at Natasha. Now that his adrenaline rush was receding, James could see that the woman, while probably over forty, was nearly buzzing with energy, in much the same way as Natasha did. She was short and petite, but James had known plenty of small women in the military who could wipe the ground with his ass any day of the week. He suspected this woman could do the same thing. "Now, what about you, Clint? Where do you live?"

Clint carefully recited his address. "I live with my dad too," he said. "My mommy works. I saw her last month but she had to go away. It's my birthday tomorrow and I'm gonna be six."

"Six years old, that's quite grown-up," said the officer. "How does that make you feel?"

Clint shrugged. "Okay. I get presents."

"I got you a present," Natasha said. "But it's a surprise."

"Well, good luck with being six," the officer said. She turned back to James, who was still seated on the bench, lavender lollipop in his hand. "I'm sure you'll understand if I just wait until the boy's father comes back."

Given all the scenarios of what could have happened, James was relieved this was the extent of things. "Sure, pull up some bench," he said, putting the lollipop down onto the discarded wrapper.

The woman stayed standing.

Thankfully, it was only another few minutes before James heard Steve's voice. "Hey, sorry I took so long… Wait, Jan?"

James was then treated to the sight of Steve Rogers nearly falling over himself to hug the petite police officer. "Steve, I didn't know you were down here," the woman said warmly as she pulled back. She patted Steve on the bicep, about as high as she could reach on the man without going onto her toes. "And this is your son? Tony said he was getting big, but six years old already?"

"You know each other?" James said wearily. Of course. Of course Steve Rogers knew the one cop who had happened upon James and a crying Clint.

"Yeah, Jan and Tony go way back," Steve said with a smile. The smile faltered when he saw Clint's tear-stained cheeks, the abandoned lollipop, James' glare. "Um, Police Chief Janet van Dyne, this is my friend, James Barnes."

James stayed where he was. Police chief, of course. This just kept getting better. "Ma'am."

She touched the brim of her hat. "I'm glad everything got sorted out," she said. "Steve, I do have to get back to work, but are you staying out at Tony's place?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"I swing by on occasion, to make sure Lucy and the old man are all right." A sudden smile broke over Janet van Dyne's face, giving her an air of mischief and energy. "That chef Tony has makes the world's best scones." She gave Steve's arm another pat, then turned to the children. "You two have fun while you're here, all right?"

"Yes," Natasha said through a mouthful of gummy, while Clint nodded his head.

"It was nice to meet you." And with that, Police Chief van Dyne turned and headed back down the beach.

As soon as she was out of earshot, James let his head fall, muttering "Damn it," under his breath.

"What happened?" Steve asked, but Clint was already on his feet and patting the back of Steve's hand.

"Daddy," Clint said urgently. "I got a candy and it was bad and Natasha gave me one of her spiders but now I have no candy." He stuck out his lower lip in distress.

"Clint wanted a purple lollipop and I never thought to check the flavor," James said quietly. "I'll go back and get him a grape one." He made to stand up, but Steve's hand on his shoulder stilled him.

"I've got it," Steve said. He gave James' shoulder a gentle squeeze. "We'll be right back, then we can head back to the house, okay?"

At James' nod, Steve tossed Clint over his shoulder and strode off in the direction of the candy shop. In seconds, Clint was laughing again, all his sorrow over the lollipop vanished.

Natasha came over to James. She shoved her candy bag into James' hand, then climbed onto the bench beside her father. "Why did Clint get so sad?" Natasha asked.

James leaned back. The adrenaline rush had faded, leaving him with the familiar hollow ache in his stomach. He didn't blame the police chief for leaping to the conclusion that Clint was in danger; candy and a strange man were the textbook stereotype of stranger kidnapping.

But the incident had reminded James quite clearly that he really didn't have a role in Clint's life, just like he didn't really have a role in Steve's. He was just Steve's friend. It was never going to be more than that, no matter how deeply James was in love.

It didn't matter. James would never be able to change the fact that Steve was straight, and all this pining after a man who could never love him was just futile. Not only futile; pathetic.

"Daddy." Natasha's tiny finger poked hard into James' leg. "Why was Clint sad?"

James put his arm around Natasha's shoulders. "He was really excited about his candy," James said, staring out at the horizon. "And when it turned out to be something he didn't want, then he was sad."

"That's not good," Natasha agreed. "I'm glad I gave him a spider, then. That made him not-sad."

"That was a nice thing to do for your friend," James agreed. "How many spiders do you have left?"

They looked in the bag together. "Five," Natasha counted. "Only five. From twelve."

"How many have you eaten?"

"Six." Natasha held up five fingers on one hand and one on the other. "And Clint had one too." She added another finger for a total of seven. "That's not a lot of candy at all."

"It's enough candy for one day." James stood, reaching for Natasha's hand. "Come on, let's go back to the jeep. Then we can go swimming, how does that sound?"

"It sounds good," Natasha said, skipping along at James' side. "I have spiders in my tummy, they make me bounce!"

"Excellent." As they neared the car, James spotted Clint and Steve exiting the candy store. Clint, a gleeful expression on his face, clutched a suspiciously full shopping bag.

When Steve caught sight of James, he grinned big and wide, the happy expression of a man who didn't know his best friend was lying to him. Normally, James loved that expression on Steve's face, but now it only served to remind James of all the things he'd never have.

Turning, as if the sun had blinded him to Steve's approach, James opened the door to help his daughter into the jeep for the drive back to the house.


"Are you freaking kidding me?" James said as he took in his first view of the pool behind Tony Stark's house.

"It is a bit much," Steve agreed.

"Daddy, look!" Natasha yelled, pointing with one hand as she tried to drag her father forward. "There's a pool! And a waterfall! And a dolphin!"

Keeping his hold tight on Natasha's arm, James let himself be pulled down the tiled path to the pool. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly had not been this. An Olympic-sized swimming pool lay stretched out before them, sitting just below the crest of the hill, to give the illusion that one was swimming above the ocean. A hot tub the size of James' bedroom at home lay tucked into a curve of rock that on first glance looked artificial, but on closer examination appeared to be part of the natural rock structure of the estate.

Further along the rocky outcropping, water poured over the top into a small splash pool, which curved around and down to include a fountain shaped like a dolphin spitting water out of its mouth. Between the splash pool and the large pool, a few tables were set up with sun umbrellas. On one of the tables sat a pile of fluffy towels, a silver ice bucket and a pitcher of water. Beside the pitcher sat a small white note.

"What, no water slide?" James said sarcastically. Why would Tony Stark spend all this money on an estate he never used?

"Tony thought a water slide would be over the top," Steve said, leading Clint along.

"Yeah, it's the water slide that does it," James muttered. "All right, Nat, we're almost there."

Steve and Clint had stopped at the table with the drinks, for Steve to help Clint divest himself of glasses, hearing aid and watch. Natasha hurried over to Clint's side to pick up the note. "I heard the gate alarm and brought you down some bever-ages for the little ones," Natasha read slowly. "You can turn off the waterfall by the hot tub when you are done. Lucy."

"That's very nice of her," James said. He had left his prosthesis at the carriage house, but had worn a t-shirt on the walk to the pool. Now, he didn't want to take his shirt off. The children wouldn't give a damn about his scars and his disfigurement; no, it was Steve who made James hesitate.

"Lucy is a real nice lady," Natasha agreed, putting the note down.

"She sure is," Steve agreed as he slathered Clint with sunscreen. "You know, her father used to work for Tony's father. He was around a lot when Tony was a kid. That's one of the reasons that Tony keeps this place up like he does, sort of a retirement home for Mr. Jarvis."

"An expensive pension," James said. "Nat, honey, come here. Sunscreen time."

"Tony would do a lot for Mr. Jarvis," Steve said. "I guess if you have as much money as he does, it doesn't really matter how much you spend."

"When I grow up," Natasha interjected, "I will have all the money."

"What are you going to do with all your money?" James asked, squirting sunscreen on Natasha's back.

"I will have a pool with a dolphin," she declared.

"What about you, Clint?"

"I'm gonna have a candy shop," the boy said. "In my house. Where I can keep it always."

The bag of candy, purchased by Steve after the meltdown with the lollipop, had been confiscated by the adults on arrival back at the house, for which the children were still holding a grudge.

"A wise investment," Steve said. "Anything else?"

"I'm gonna have a dog."

"Can I play with your dog?" Natasha asked, squirming as James rubbed sunscreen over her shoulders.

"Yes!" Clint beamed. "Hey, Daddy, can I go play in the water?"

Steve turned Clint so the boy was facing him. "Yes, but let's stick with the shallow pool today, all right?"

"Okay." Clint looked over at Natasha. "Hey, wanna play in the waterfall?"

"Yes!" Natasha cheered. James had to pen her in against the chair to finish applying sunscreen, then off the kids went, at a fast walk instead of a run.

"Glad to see they remember that much at least," James said, standing up with a groan. Sitting in a car for hours, followed by heavy lifting then a slow stroll, had not helped his aching muscles.

"Yeah." Steve kicked off his sandals. "What do you want to do? Swim some laps?" he asked.

Even though there was no hint of derision in Steve's voice, James still bristled. "I can swim just fine," he said.

"I know," Steve said, frowning. "You could always swim better than me, when we were kids."

The honest confusion on Steve's face flustered James. As cover, James pulled his t-shirt off over his head. He knew damn well how pale he was, but the last thing in the world he was going to do was to ask Steve Rogers to help him apply sunscreen to his back. "You go swim," he said. "I'll play with the kids for a bit."

"Are you sure?"

James picked up the sunscreen angrily. "If I hadn't meant it, would I have said it?" he demanded.

But Steve just kept staring at him, until finally James turned and headed across the tiled patio for the splash pool.

The children were both delightedly playing in the stream from the waterfall. Natasha was holding her hands in the falling water, while Clint jumped in and out of the spray.

"Hey, Nat, can you give me a hand?" James asked at the edge of the pool. Natasha immediately splashed over to him. "Can you help me with sunscreen?"

"Yes," Natasha said. "I can help."

James squirted some sunscreen onto her hands, and she immediately tackled his back. He had no doubt that she'd miss large squares of his skin, leaving him burned tomorrow, but it couldn't be helped.

Clint came over, wanting to help, so James asked the boy to put some sunscreen on his right shoulder. Clint was very careful in applying the lotion, while Natasha was perfectly willing to pummel James' skin with more force that was necessary. While the children tackled his back and shoulder, James applied the sunscreen to his chest and sides, as far as he could reach with his one hand.

In short order, James was as protected from the rays as he would get. He thanked the children for their assistance. Clint saluted and Natasha patted James on the shoulder.

"We'll take care of you," Natasha said. Then she giggled. "Because you're old."

"Thanks," James said as the children stormed back to the waterfall. "I appreciate that." Standing, he turned to see what Steve was up to in the pool, only to nearly jump out of his skin at finding Steve three feet behind him. "Fuck. What?"

"I could have helped with that," Steve said.

No, he couldn't have, because if Steve touched James at this point, James might go out of his mind. "I got it under control," James said, trying to keep the sudden flare of anger out of his voice. From the expression on Steve's face, he wasn't sure he succeeded. "Look, if you're not going to do laps, then I will, okay?"

"I'll watch the kids," Steve said, but James was already moving.

"Knock yourself out," James called over his shoulder. He had to get away from Steve, before he did something truly stupid.

Walking to the pool's deep end, James paused long enough to brace his toes against the pool's edge, lifted his right arm over his head and angled his left arm to be as straight as possible next to his ear, and dove into the water.

The shock of the cold water lasted only a moment. With only the sound of water rushing past his ears, the water's cool embrace around his body, James glided underwater before kicking on his return to the surface. He swam the remainder of the lap with the one-armed stroke he'd worked out in physio all those years ago. His body, not used to the motion, took a while to find its rhythm, but after three laps he was able to swim an entire length without faltering or needing to stop for air.

As he settled into the repetition of motion, the ache in his gut returned. It wasn't anyone's fault but his own that he felt the way he did, James reminded himself. He was the one who had fallen in love with his best friend. He was the one who had let himself care too much about Clint. But Steve was just his friend, and Clint was just Natasha's best friend. James had been a fool to think even for a minute that he might be anything more to Steve.

And it wasn't like they were even best friends. They had been, once, long ago before Steve was adopted and left New York. A few lunches and play dates didn't mean anything. James offering to watch Steve's kid while Steve was busy, to take him to his archery class and keep him overnight, that was just something Steve had needed done. Nothing more.

Even Steve inviting Abraham over to James' house, had only been the most convenient thing for Steve.

At the wall, James took a deep breath before ducking under the water. He pushed off hard, letting the underwater silence hold him for as long as he could hold his breath.

James still had no idea why Steve had asked him on this vacation. In all likelihood, it was just so the children could hang out to celebrate Clint's birthday.

Fine. James could live with that. He would do exactly what he'd been doing all summer, which was to let the kids have as much fun as possible. And then… well, he'd had almost two decades of being alone, of knowing he'd never find someone to love. Steve Rogers' reappearance in his life was not going to change that.

He broke the surface of the water, turning into a backstroke. It had been too long since he had swum, and his body was already tiring.

A yellow-and-blue flutter caught his eye, approaching the pool at a fast clip. James splashed to a halt, fearful that Natasha was going to do something foolish. But the little girl stopped at the edge of the pool, crouching down. "Daddy, come over here!" she commanded.

"I'll be right there," James said. He swam over to the side of the pool where Natasha waited. By the time he arrived, Steve was there, holding Clint's hand. "What's up, sweet pea?"

Natasha pointed at the splash pool. "Come play with us!" she demanded. "Steve's playing with us and it's so much fun!"

James looked up into Natasha's excited face, at the small pool with its waterfall and fountain and no doubt warmer water. "I don't know."

"It'll be fun!"

"Yeah, come play with us," Clint put in. "We're playing water dinosaurs!"

"Of course you are." Taking hold of the edge of the pool, James propelled himself out of the water, splashing Natasha and Clint as he did so. They both squealed. "Is Steve playing your game too?"

"Trying to," Steve said. "Apparently, I am a boring dinosaur."

James stood. "Well, obviously, you need someone to show you how it's done."

The corner of Steve's mouth curled up. "Oh yeah? You gonna do that?"

"Watch me."

Natasha let out a cheer. "Daddy dinosaur is on my team!"

With a growl, Clint stampeded back to the small pool, Natasha in his wake. The adults came along at a more sedate (or in the children's words, boring) pace.

"You're pretty fast in the water," Steve said as they neared the pool.

"For a cripple," James said dismissively. He was not expecting Steve to take hold of his arm. The sudden touch sent a shiver all over James' body and without thinking he pulled away from Steve, stepping back out of reach. "What do you want?"

Steve let his hand drop. "You shouldn't talk about yourself like that," he said.

"Why not? It's the truth."

Steve frowned, not his normal quick irritation, but something deeper. "Oh yeah?" he demanded. "And if Clint started talking about himself that way?"

"Clint's not missing an arm," James said, turning his back to the children. "Don't think you know anything about what I'm going through, Steve, because you don't."

Steve stared at him for a long moment. "What the hell is going on with you today?"

"Not a goddamn thing," James lied. "Now come on, we need to play dinosaurs."

Forcing his irritation down, past the ball of anxiety in his gut, James turned back to the children. This week at the beach was about them, not about anything he might want.


Thankfully, Steve kept his mouth shut, and the children kept going strong in the water for over an hour, interspersing their play with breaks for drinks. Natasha was particularly impressed with the water pitcher, which had cucumber slices floating in it.

Soon after five, however, the children began to flag.

At James' first suggestion that they head back to the house for dinner, Natasha declared, "I'm not hungry! I'm having fun!"

James looked at his daughter, sitting still in the shade from the rock wall as water lapped over her legs. "What about you, Clint?"

Clint, who was lying flat like a starfish in the spray from the waterfall, said, "I'm having fun. But I'm hungry too."

"It's going to take a while to build up the fire for hot dogs," Steve contributed. The man didn't appear in the least tired, which James envied. He felt as if he'd been run over by a fire truck. Had it only been seven hours before when they drove away from his house in Brooklyn?

Natasha frowned at Steve. "What do you mean?"

"We're going to have a cook-out," Steve said. "We can cook hot dogs over the fire, and we can also eat marshmallows too."

"Marshmallows?" Clint said, sitting up. "Over a real fire?"

"Yes." James hauled himself up. "But first, we need baths to wash all the chlorine off. Do you think we can head back to the house?"

"But I like the pool," Natasha protested.

"And you can come back to the pool every day for eight whole more days," James pointed out.

"That's a lot of days," Clint said. He stood and splashed over to his father. "Let's go have hot dogs."

"Natasha?"

Natasha let out a theatrical sigh. "If I have to," she said sadly. She took James' offered hand and let herself be pulled to her feet. "We can come back tomorrow."

"Excellent."

It took a few minutes to pack up. While Steve helped Clint gather up his things, James went to turn off the waterfall as Lucy had instructed in her note. The controls took a bit of figuring out, but James eventually found the right button to turn off the fountain and waterfall. Satisfied, James straightened up and turned around.

Natasha was gone.

"Nat?" James said, taking a few quick steps out from behind the hot tub. Natasha was not on the deck by Steve or Clint, nor was she in the splash pool. James' heartbeat pounded in his chest as he ran towards the big pool. He had only had his back turned for a moment, and Steve had been right there, surely she couldn't have fallen in?

"Bucky?" Steve called.

James skidded to a stop. The big pool was clear and blue, nothing lying under the water. Natasha wasn't there. "Where's Natasha?" James said, turning to look around. Had she gone back to the house? Had she gotten bored and run down to the beach?

"She was just here," Steve said. "I hardly took my eyes off her."

Adrenaline screamed through James' body. Logically, he knew that Natasha was a smart girl and she knew better than to run off without telling him, but they were in a new place and there were so many ways that a tiny child could get hurt, and all because James had foolishly turned his back on her to turn off some goddamn high-tech faucet—

"There she is!" Clint said. James jerked around, followed the direction of Clint's pointing finger. Walking up the hill on the way to the big house was Natasha.

Relief hit James like a physical blow. He took off after his daughter at a run, relief warring with anger in his chest. Relief at knowing Natasha was safe, anger at himself for taking his eyes off her for even a moment.

"Hey!" he yelled when he was in earshot of his daughter. "Nat, what are you doing?"

"I'm going to see that man, Daddy!" Natasha said, coming to a halt. She pointed up the hill at the house's porch. From this vantage point, James could see an old man sitting in a chair overlooking the beach.

James dropped to his knee beside Natasha, careful in his agitation to take her hand gently in his. "Natasha, we shouldn't bother the people in the big house," he said. His heartbeat still hammered hard in his chest at the might-have-been. "And you're not supposed to go anywhere without telling me, you know that."

"But that is Lucy's father," Natasha said, as if that excused things. "He has to be, he's so old. He waved so I came to say hi."

"We can go say hello together," James said. With a bright smile, Natasha hauled her father along up the grassy slope to where the old man sat.

And he was really very old. Over ninety, Lucy had said, and yet here he was, sitting in a chair in the shade of the porch, a blanket over his knees in spite of the warm day. "Hello," said the old man as Natasha skipped up to him. "You must be Tony's friends."

"I'm Natasha," said the little girl. "I'm five and a half. You have a fun pool!"

"Do you like it?" the man said, his old face creasing in a smile. "It's good to see someone enjoying it."

"It's a really nice place," James said, feeling awkward and embarrassed to be standing here in front of this old man, in only his bathing suit and no shirt to disguise the scars along his torso or his missing arm. "I'm James Barnes."

The old man reached up his hand to shake. "Edwin Jarvis, my boy, good to meet you."

Shaking the old man's fragile hand was rather like trying to cradle a bird, but James managed. Then Natasha stuck out her little hand. "I can shake hands too," she informed Mr. Jarvis. "I learned in school. It's polite."

"It is polite," Mr. Jarvis said. He shook Natasha's hand. "You have very nice manners."

Natasha beamed.

"Hey," Clint said, bounding up beside them. Steve was on his heels, carrying an armful of towels. "Hi! I'm Clint!"

"You must be the birthday boy," Mr. Jarvis said. "My Lucy said that you are turning six years old tomorrow."

"Yup!" Clint grinned. "My dad said we can have hamburgers for my birthday!"

"An excellent choice," said the man. "And is this your father?"

"Steve Rogers," and Steve reached out a hand to shake with Mr. Jarvis. "We'll try to keep then noise down out at the pool."

"No need, no need," Mr. Jarvis said reassuringly. "This house is very large and we aren't bothered." He looked at the two children. "Now, isn't it your dinner time?"

"Almost," Natasha said, sticking out her tummy. "We're gonna have hot dogs. And marshmallows."

"That sounds delightful." Mr. Jarvis looked up at the men. "If you are here on Wednesday, Lucy holds a lovely afternoon tea. You're all welcome to attend."

"That sounds like a great idea," Steve said. "We'll see, right Bucky?"

"Yeah," James said. He took a towel from Steve to wrap around Natasha, who was starting to shiver in the shade. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Jarvis."

"And you as well."

In a chorus of goodbyes, the children headed back down the hill, James on their heels. Steve lingered to exchange a few more words with the old man, then caught up with everyone as they were making their way along the path back to the carriage house.

"What did you say?" James asked.

"Just checking in to make sure he was all right with the kids making noise," Steve said. "In case he was being polite."

James slowed to let the children run on ahead. "And?"

"And he said it was fine, he's half-deaf anyway." Steve rubbed his hand through his hair. "Bucky, I'm really sorry."

"About what?"

"About not keeping an eye on Natasha."

"Don't be," James said. "It's not your job to keep an eye on my kid."

"Bucky." Steve took a few steps ahead of James, then stopped, blocking his path but not crowding him. "I'm sorry."

James took a few steps back, breathing over the reminder of his panic. Natasha was getting so big now, but there was still the chance that something could happen, even if he turned his back for an instant…

"She's all right," James said. "She's fine."

"Yeah."

"Yeah."

Looking at Steve hurt, so James turned to face the beach. The sun was still high in the sky, a few puffy clouds overhead. It was going to be a lovely evening.

"Let's go get the kids cleaned up, all right?" James said to the ocean.

"Yeah," Steve said. "Good idea."

They left it at that.


James and Steve ended up flipping a coin for the first shower. James won, so he left Steve to get the kids to rinse their swimsuits while he took a three-minute shower. Next, James hurried Natasha through a quick bath, giving her a shampoo so the chlorine wouldn't damage her fine hair.

Steve and Clint were up next, so James rolled Natasha in a bath towel and carried her into the kids' bedroom to get dressed. She shooed him off, so James went out onto the landing to find some clothes for the evening's cook-out.

After a few more minutes, Clint emerged from the bathroom in a puff of steam. He trudged into the bedroom, and James could hear the children talking from inside the room.

James supposed that he should put on his arm, should get up to start working on dinner, but he was just so tired. The long drive, the walk on the beach, the disaster in town with Steve's friend the police chief, and then the near heart-attack with Natasha at the pool; the events of the day had left James drained.

Maybe this vacation wasn't meant to be, James thought glumly. Maybe it would be best if he just took Natasha home after Clint's birthday. It was safe at home; James didn't have to worry about someone getting in at night, or Natasha slipping and falling into the ocean, or the cops taking Natasha away from him because of some misunderstanding.

He was just so tired.

"Hey!"

James looked up. Clint stood in front of him, dressed in clean clothes, his hair sticking up every-which-way. He held out his watch to James.

"Can you help me?"

James rubbed his hand over his face. "Sure, kiddo, come sit down."

Clint scampered over to the couch, climbing up beside James. "The pool was fun!" he chirruped, holding out his wrist so James could help buckle the watch. "That was the funnest pool I ever been in. I want to live here always."

"It was a very fun pool," James said. "And tomorrow, we can go to the pool again, and then play on the beach, all the fun things."

Clint put on his glasses to peer at his watch. "When will I be six?"

"When the little hand goes around to the twelve."

With a harrumph, Clint sat back. "That's forever."

"It isn't even seven hours." James ruffled Clint's hair. "You can wait."

"I know." Clint smoothed his hair down. "Are you going to wear your arm?"

James sighed. "I don't know."

"Does your arm hurt?"

James looked at his left arm stump. "Nope. Just, sometimes, I don't want to put on the arm."

"I know how that goes," Clint said in commiseration. "Sometimes, I don't wanna wear my hearing aid. But Daddy says I have to."

"Why don't you want to wear it?"

"Sometimes it's too loud." Clint made a face. "And people make weird faces when they see it. I like it better at swimming when I can't wear it and no one says dumb things."

"Tell me about it," James said, slouching down on the couch. "Why don't you talk to your dad about maybe not wearing your hearing aid sometimes?"

"No." Clint flopped over, putting his feet over the couch arm. "I'll get in trouble."

"Clint, you won't get in trouble by asking your dad about this," James said. "You'll never get in trouble asking your dad about anything."

Clint stuck out his lower lip in a mighty pout. "I got in trouble when Natasha told Daddy that sometimes I couldn't hear him. Now I have to go to stupid classes."

"You mean sign language class?" At Clint's nod, James put his hand under Clint's shoulders to get the boy to sit up. "Sign language isn't stupid, it's cool."

Clint eyed James suspiciously. "No it's not," he said, although with less conviction this time.

"It sure is. We used a kind of sign language in the Army."

Clint's eyes went wide. "You did?" he squeaked.

"We sure did," James replied, as Natasha came out of the bedroom wearing a sundress. "Do you kids want to learn some signs?"

"Yes!" Natasha said, pouncing on her father. "Show me."

With the children as a captivated audience, James showed them the tactical hand signs for hurry up, stop, freeze, understand and don't-understand. They were going through the number signs when Steve emerged from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist.

"Give me five minutes, okay?" he said, heading to his bathroom.

The three on the couch gave Steve the thumbs-up sign, and the children burst into hysterical laughter.

Steve raised his eyebrows at James, who just smiled. "We're good," James said, standing. "Come on, peanut butter and jelly, let's go get a head start on the fire pit."

Outside, James led the kids to the woodpile stacked a distance from the house. He told them to (carefully) put kindling chips into the empty water bucket, while James carried half-armful after half-armful of split logs to the fire pit. The pit itself was little more than a depression in the sand with a few charred scraps, ringed by chunks of old logs that had likely washed up on the beach during the Roosevelt administration. James dumped the wood off to the side of the pit, making sure that the kids were occupied while he worked.

When Steve made it down to the beach, James had already brought down enough wood for two fires. "I brought some matches," Steve said, holding up a match box. "Do you need newspaper or something?"

"Got some by the woodpile," James said, dropping his last load. He brushed wood chips off his shirt. "The kids are bringing the kindling. You want to bring down the food and then we can start the fire?"

"Yeah, I can do that." Steve said. He tossed the box of matches onto the haphazard pile of wood. "Are we okay?"

James pulled one last splinter from his shirt before looking at Steve. "Of course we are."

"You sound real convincing."

"What's to say?" James asked. He could hear the kids coming down the beach, and he would not let himself be drawn into a fight with Steve with them so close. "Great day at the beach. Nice place."

Steve clenched his jaw, but held his tongue as the children joined them. "Daddy, look what I found," Natasha said. She held out a leaf. "I like this leaf. It's the best."

"Then put it into your pocket to keep it safe." James took the bucket from the children's grasp. "Now, you go help Steve carry down the food."

Protests rose as the children demanded that they be able to build the fire. Too tired to fight at this point, James held up his hand.

"Get the food and then come back here, I'll show you how to build a fire, okay? Hurry up so we can eat." At this, the children bolted for the house. "You going to help them or not?" James snapped at Steve when the man just stood there.

Steve turned on his heel and followed the children without a word.

James took in a few deep breaths through his nose, trying to ground himself. He didn't have the space to be angry right now. He was soon going to have two rambunctious children around a bonfire, that was where his head needed to be.

Dumping the kindling beside the logs, James kicked off his sandals before heading down to the water with the bucket. Just after six o'clock, and the shadows were starting to lengthen. It was going to be a perfect night for a bonfire. Maybe the kids would even be able to see the stars.

At the water's edge, James waded into the surf. The water was cool on his legs, and just for a few moments, he stood and stared out at the ocean.

It had been a long time since he'd been to the beach like this. After high school, he'd spent his basic training inland, then spent his Army career in Afghanistan and Iraq. After he'd lost his arm, and adopted Natasha, the closest he ever got to the water was a stroll along the river with Natasha in the baby carrier.

This was supposed to be a perfect vacation, and James was fucking everything up.

Well, fucking things up was what James had always done best. He scooped up a pail of water, and carried it back to the fire pit.

In his absence, Steve had moved a couple of folding chairs outside and had propped an old board between them as a table. Natasha and Clint were smoothing a tablecloth over the board, while Steve carried food out of the house. "Daddy, look, we're helping," Natasha said.

"You sure are," James said, putting the bucket by the fire pit. "You're doing a great job. Can you run back inside to get the plates and cups?" Off the children ran. Once they were inside, James turned to Steve. "Would you be okay with me showing Clint how to start a fire?"

Steve set down his armful. "Of course," he said. "I trust you."

James narrowed his eyes at the man's tone, but the kids were coming back and this wasn't the time or the place.

"Come on, kids!" James said, clapping his hand against his thigh. "Who wants to learn how to set things on fire?"

The delirious shouts of "Me! Me!" must have carried all the way up the hill to the big house.


Hours later, James and Steve crept out of the children's (finally) quiet bedroom. The excitement of building a fire (and learning how to safely strike a match, which had wasted nearly an entire box of matches), then roasting hotdogs and marshmallows had lasted until well after sunset. Then stories around the campfire had turned into more stories as the kids were tucked into their beds, with Steve having to read four chapters of Harry Potter before the children would finally close their eyes.

James leaned against the hallway wall, wondering how he was still upright. "I can't believe they're finally asleep."

Steve shushed him. "If they hear you, they might wake up again," he whispered. He tossed the book on top of James' open suitcase. "Want to go back outside so we don't wake them?"

James considered. He'd already made sure that all the doors and windows on the far side of the house were bolted fast, and the house was as secure as it was going to get. "Sure," he said, and pushed off the wall.

Steve paused in the kitchen as James headed out to the dying fire. It was past eleven and James had no idea how he was going to survive the following day. As excited as Clint was about his birthday, James was preparing himself for a dawn wake-up call as the children would demand to start the day.

Still. In spite of his exhaustion, James couldn't see going to bed any time soon. The loft's couch didn't hold any appeal. He ached for his own bed, with its just-right mattress and his flat pillows, where he could fall asleep knowing that Natasha was safe.

James put another piece of wood on the fire. If he was going to be awake, he might as well be warm. As night descended over Long Island, a chill wind was blowing in off the ocean. James was glad that the children were snug in their beds.

"Hey." Steve appeared out of the darkness. His hands were full with two juice bottles and a dusty glass bottle. He sat down in the sand beside James, putting the bottles down. "I found Tony's secret stash."

James picked up the glass bottle. "I didn't find this on my first go through the house," he said, turning the label to the light. Vodka. "Where did he hide this?"

"There's a secret compartment beside the fireplace," Steve said, taking back the bottle. He opened it with some difficulty. "Tony told me about it when he said I could use the place. He stashed this stuff back when he was in college. He was only fifteen, and his mother used to get weird about him drinking at that age."

"I can't imagine why." James poked the fire with a stick Clint had found on the beach for just this very purpose. "You looking to get wasted?"

"No." Steve cracked open one of the juice bottles and took a few swallows. "Just one drink." He poured enough vodka into the juice bottle to fill the empty space, and gave the bottle a swirl. "You want one?"

James knew he shouldn't. Not that one drink would impair his parenting ability, but his exhaustion and the strange juxtaposition of illicit drinking at fifteen was mixing into a cold ball of worry in his stomach. "Maybe I'll have a sip of yours," he said.

Steve re-capped the vodka and set the bottles off to the side. He leaned against the driftwood log. "I'm surprised the kids got to sleep at all, with how excited Clint is about tomorrow."

"They've been running full-tilt since we got here," James pointed out. He eased back onto the log. From this position, he could see the glass doors of the house and the children's window. No one would be able to sneak into the house without him seeing. "All that candy and excitement, they should have crashed hours ago."

"Yeah." Steve drew his knees up to his chest. "Tomorrow's going to be great."

James poked at the fire, a spray of sparks catching in the wind. "Did you come out here to talk about Clint's birthday?" he asked. "Or something else?"

"I just want to hang out with you, Buck," Steve said. "That's all."

The words twisted deep in James' gut. Steve was saying these things, but he didn't know what James really felt about him. If he knew, everything would be over. All of this, everything James had built up over a web of lies, would fall apart.

Giving the fire one last poke, James set the stick aside. "Maybe…" He cleared his throat, unable to look at Steve. "Maybe, after tomorrow, I should take Nat and go back to the city."

For a long time, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. "What the hell?" Steve finally asked. "You were really into this whole vacation thing before we left, then today you've been acting like you don't want to be here. What the hell is going on with you?"

James stared into the flames. "Maybe I just changed my mind, okay?"

"For fuck's sake," Steve said. "Bucky, seriously, what is going on?"

The lateness of the hour, combined with the utter obliviousness of this man, pushed James past his breaking point. "Nothing is going on," he spat out, digging his heels into the sand. "A place like this, it ain't for people like me. It'd be better if I just took Nat home."

"Better for who?" Steve shot back.

"For everyone."

"Not for Clint," Steve said, shaking his head. "Damn it, Bucky, Clint adores you. He was so excited when I told him that you and Natasha were coming with us for this vacation!"

James balled his hand into a fist. Why couldn't Steve ever let a thing go? "He'll get over it," James ground out. "It's better this way."

Steve sprang to his feet and stalked away to the other side of the fire. "What the fuck, Bucky? This was supposed to be the perfect vacation, the four of us together!"

There was nothing James could say to that. It would be better, really, if James left. Natasha might hate him for a few days, being deprived of the swimming pool, but she would get over it.

It was better this way.

"Did something happen in town today?" Steve asked, shattering James' resolve. "You were still into everything at the grocery store."

"Nothing happened," James lied.

But Steve was like a dog with a bone, never letting go once he'd gotten his teeth into an idea. "Something changed after I came back from the cake shop," he went on. "Did something happen at the beach?"

"Shut up."

"Wait," Steve said, coming back around to James' side of the fire. "Is this about Jan? Did something happen with her?"

"Happen?" James demanded, his voice catching on the word. "Your police chief buddy comes across some crying child on the beach with some guy who ain't his father, what else was she supposed to think?"

"You didn't tell me about any of that," Steve said, sitting down with a bump. "Jesus, Bucky, what did she say to you?"

"Nothing, all right?" James hunched forward in the vain hope that something could stop his stomach from aching. "She did what she had to, to make sure I wasn't some pervert come to steal little children away."

"Bucky—"

"Shut up, all right?" James said dully. "Everything's fine. She didn't take the children away from me, everything's all right."

"Children? Even if she didn't know what to do with Clint, what would any of this have to do with Natasha?" Steve asked.

James rubbed his hand over his face. He was so tired that he felt like he was going to puke. "Single dad, with a little girl that looks nothing like him?" Maybe throwing up wasn't such a bad idea. "I used to have nightmares, that Child Services would come and take Natasha away from me, or that someone would make a fuss and the police would come for Natasha and never let me have her back."

Steve let out a pained sound, and James hurried on.

"Like, it was okay, because Nick Fury, he knew about me before I adopted Nat. There's no law banning gay people from adopting in New York State, so even if anyone else found out now, it wouldn't matter legally."

"No one will ever take Natasha away from you, Bucky," Steve said. "She's healthy, she's happy. I've never seen such a happy kid."

"What if it's not enough?" James demanded. "Today, when I lost sight of her at the pool…" He swallowed hard on a wave of nausea. "It was only a moment, but it was like everything I ever tried to do, just ended right then."

"She was fine," Steve reminded James.

"But what if she wasn't?" James could taste bile at the back of his throat. "I can't protect her here, Steve. I can't keep her safe." He rubbed his eyes. He needed to get some sleep; he wasn't making any sense to himself. "Man, just forget it. Don't fucking listen to me, I don't know."

Steve's hand settled on James' back. This time, James was just too damned tired and sick to his stomach to pull away. "We'll keep them safe," Steve said quietly. "Whatever you need, we'll do, okay?"

"Yeah," James muttered.

"Come on, I mean that," Steve said. "You and me, we've been best friends forever, all right?"

James shook his head. "Are we?"

Steve's hand fell away from James' shoulder. "What are you talking about?"

"Are we really friends?" James resisted the urge to touch his shoulder where Steve's hand had been. "We were when we were kids, but a lot's changed since we were twelve."

Chancing a glance at Steve, James could see confusion and betrayal on the man's face, but he couldn't undo what he'd said. "What the hell are you talking about?" Steve demanded. "You're my best friend. You've always been my best friend."

"Twenty years is a long time," James protested. "How do you know if you even want to be my friend anymore?"

Steve picked up his juice bottle and took a large swallow. "I know I want to be your friend because, well, I just do!" He put the bottle down. "Or is this about something else? You don't want to be friends?"

"Fuck, Steve, it isn't that," James said. "You hardly know me anymore, that's all."

"Maybe back when we first met," Steve said stubbornly. "But not after everything we been through in the last few months." He sat back against the log. "You may not think we're friends, but I'm your friend, whatever the hell you may think."

James stared at the fire. The wind had died down, leaving the flames to crackle and dance. "You've got crappy taste in friends," he said, trying to joke, but the words felt empty in his mouth.

"I know." Steve gently punched James' shoulder. "Jerk."

"Who you calling a jerk, punk?"

Steve offered James his drink, but James waved him off.

"Give me that other one, would you?" When Steve handed James the bottle, James wedged it between his knees to twist off the lid. "Grape juice and vodka, what the hell is that even."

"Some times you've got to improvise."

"High class, Steve, high class."

"I'm a lot of things, Buck, high class wasn't ever one of them."

James took a long drink from the bottle. He'd always thought that cheap juice was a thousand times better than all that fancy hippie organic shit they sold in the grocery store.

"You really going to go back to the city?" Steve asked after a minute.

"I dunno. It's just… nine more days of this, you might not be speaking to me by the end of it."

"I'll do anything to help you. Clint wants you and Natasha here." Steve hesitated. "And so do I."

James took another drink. "You mean that?"

"Of course I do."

"Even though you know how messed up I am?"

"You're not messed up."

James turned to raise his eyebrows at Steve. "The fuck I'm not."

"Not like that," Steve said, meeting James' glare. "You've been through a lot of stuff."

"All of which messed me up."

"You really think that?" Steve asked unexpectedly. "That you're messed up?"

James shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe."

"You don't seem like it. You're the most pragmatic person I have met in my entire life," Steve said. "You always seem like you've got everything together, like you'll always be able to get through anything."

"Fake it 'til you make it," James muttered. "Jesus Christ, Steve, stop it with the pep talk already."

"Just think about staying, okay?" Steve asked. "If you need anything, some quiet time or just need to go for a drive, I've got the kids, anytime. All right?"

"Why?" James asked. "Why are you doing all this?"

"I already told you. You're my best friend. I'll always be there for you." Steve ran his hand through his hair. "And you've done so much for me and Clint in the last few months, I'll never be able to repay you."

"There's nothing to repay," James said, a lump in his throat making it hard to swallow. "I'd do anything for you. And Clint."

Steve smiled, a wide, brilliant smile that made James's heart ache. "Same with me. For you and for Natasha."

James wasn't sure if this declaration made him feel better or worse. He'd always known that he'd never have a chance with Steve, but at least he would be able to count on the man as a friend. One of his only friends.

As long as he never let Steve know how he truly felt, he'd be able to keep Steve as a friend.

And really, wasn't that the best he could hope for?

Taking a deep breath, James decided that there was only one thing he could do, and that was to bury his true feelings for Steve down as far as they would go. Steve was the best friend James had ever had, and he could not lose that just because his heart yearned for more.

"So," he said. "I guess we're staying, then."

"Good," Steve said. "That's great, Bucky."

"I may take you up on that offer for watching the kids, though," James said as he rubbed his eyes again. "Fuck, I'm tired."

"Want to head inside?"

James let his head fall back. Overhead, so far from the bright lights of the city, the stars shone bright in the midnight sky. "Not yet. It's nice out here. Quiet."

"Yeah." James could hear Steve taking another sip from his drink. "I was out backpacking once when I was in Europe. We were out in the middle of nowhere in Scotland and the stars were amazing. Sort of like this."

James stared up at the heavens. "It's been a hell of a day, hasn't it?"

"Sure has."

"The rest of the week keeps up like this, I may need a vacation when we get back to recover from this vacation."

"Those are the best kind."

As he sat staring at the stars, with Steve beside him and the warmth and crackle from the fire at his feet, James wondered if he would be able to pull this off. But what choice did he have?

Everything would be fine, James told himself firmly. Steve and he were friends, nothing more. The kids were going to have a wonderful vacation, and everything was going to be all right.

He just wished that realization didn't feel like ice in his stomach.

Chapter Text


"Wake up! Wake up!"

James came to consciousness with a jolt, half-way to sitting in the soft darkness. Somewhere close by, someone was yelling.

"Wake up, Natasha, it's my birthday!"

Clint was awake. James lay back down, pulling the blanket over his head. God, what time was it? How long had he been asleep?

A rustling, the pounding of feet, and then two small wriggly creatures flung themselves onto James' body. He let out an "Ooph!" as someone's knee dug into his stomach.

"Daddy, wake up!" Natasha commanded. "It's Clint's birthday!"

Rolling onto his side managed to dump the children to the floor in a giggling heap. James pulled the blanket off his face and managed to rasp out, "Why are you even."

The dim shape that was Clint bounced to his feet. "It's my birthday!" he exclaimed. "Look, the little hand is on the five!"

Something hard hit James in the nose. Grabbing the object before Clint could hit him again, James blinked to focus his eyes. The watch read three minutes past five.

With a groan, James sat up. "Would you look at that? It is your birthday after all."

Natasha climbed onto James' lap. "Let's open Clint's presents," she suggested. Clint looked hopeful. "Right now."

"Not now." James kissed Natasha's cheek. "Clint, why don't you go wake up your dad, then get dressed and come downstairs, we'll go on an adventure."

"Birthday adventure!" Clint yelled, flinging both hands up into the air. He and Natasha ran over to Steve's closed bedroom door, hammering on the wood with all their might.

While the children were occupied, James hoisted himself to his feet. There was no possibility that the kids were going back to sleep, so he may as well get ready for the day. As James reached for his prosthetic arm, the children continued their assault on the door. Suddenly, the door flew open, nearly sending Clint onto the floor. Steve blinked down at the children. "What's happening?"

"Daddy, don't you remember?" Clint scolded. "It's my birthday!"

Steve rubbed his eyes. "Really? I always thought it wasn't your birthday until the sun was out."

"That'll be soon," Natasha promised. "It's five-and-some. The sun wakes up at five-and-some-more so it's the same thing."

"Is that a fact?" Steve asked, kneeling down. The sight of Steve Rogers on his knees like that, all sleepy and rumpled, sent a shameful shiver of desire through James' chest. He had to turn away, concentrating on the straps of his prosthesis. "Well, if you're six years old, how about the birthday bumps?"

Clint squealed and tried half-heartedly to dart away, but Steve caught the boy up and flipped him upside down.

"What's a birthday bump?" Natasha asked, honestly alarmed.

James flexed his metal arm to settle it, then hurried over to assist before Natasha got upset. "Some people do the birthday bumps on a kid's birthday to help them grow up big and strong," James said, catching Natasha around the middle before she tackled Steve.

Natasha turned outraged eyes on James. "Why'd you never bump me?" she demanded.

"I forgot how," James said. It was better than explaining how he was scared he'd hurt her, either by dropping her or being too rough.

"You gotta bump me next year, or else," Natasha said threateningly. Meanwhile, in the background, Steve was gently bumping Clint's head against the wooden floor, the boy's hands out to cushion his skull from any actual impact. Clint was laughing the entire time. "Else I'll never grow big!"

"I will give you the birthday bumps when you turn six," James promised, kissing the top of Natasha's head. "If you'll give me the birthday bumps when I get old."

"You're already old," Natasha informed him. She squirmed out of his grasp to run over to where Steve was letting Clint down. "Do you feel bigger?" she asked Clint.

Clint staggered as he regained his feet. "I'm taller," he said, straightening up to his full height. "Am I taller?"

"You look like it," James agreed, ruffling Clint's hair. "You kids get dressed and come downstairs. Remember what I said about a birthday adventure?"

"Adventure!" Natasha yelled, racing into the bedroom. Clint was on her heels. In the suddenly quiet loft, Steve and James looked at each other.

"Morning," Steve said, and yawned. "What kind of adventure?"

"You ever seen a Long Island sunrise?" James asked, reaching into his suitcase for a clean shirt.

"No."

"You're about to." James pulled the shirt over his head. "Get dressed, we're leaving in ten minutes."

Steve yawned again as he stumbled back into his bedroom. James grabbed his jeans to take downstairs. If he was going to carry through with this ridiculous plan, he was going to need enough coffee to sustain an army.

Steve and the children appeared just as the last of the coffee was dripping into the pot. Clint was in his swim trunks and a sweatshirt, while Natasha had chosen her rainbow leggings and her green shirt. Steve, as always, looked perfect in a t-shirt and colourful board shorts.

"I wanna see the sunrise!" Clint demanded, fumbling as he shoved his hearing aid into his ear.

"Soon." James poured coffee into two large mugs. "Grab a tiny milk from the fridge for each of you, okay?"

As Clint ran to the fridge, Natasha peered up at her father. "What can I do?" she asked.

"Huh." James looked around. "Why don't you get that basket over by the fireplace in case we want to collect shells or something."

Natasha scampered off before James had finished talking. "You got a job for me?" Steve asked in a quiet voice, leaning against the counter. The soft rumble of his voice sent a shiver down James' spine.

"Nah," James said over the sudden lump in his throat. "Got your camera?"

Steve patted his pocket. "You sleep well?"

"Sure," James said. It wasn't a complete lie; what little sleep he had gotten, after staring at the ceiling until two o'clock, had been fine. "May need a nap later, though."

"Think we can get the kids to nap today?" Steve asked, edging closer as the children returned.

"Our kids? Today?" James elbowed Steve in the side. "You're dreaming."

"To be dreaming, I'd have to be still asleep." Steve looked down at the children, currently standing by his feet. "Hey."

"Can we go now?" Clint asked plaintively. "Otherwise the sun will come up and we'll miss it!"

"Don't want to miss a thing," Steve said. "All right, milk cartons into the basket. I'll take that."

In another minute, they were all out the door. The children ran out onto the pre-dawn beach unencumbered; James followed with a cup of coffee in his hand. Steve came last carrying the large wicker basket that had been decorating the hearth, laden down with individual milk cartons, the kids' jackets, and snacks.

"Where are we going?" Natasha demanded, circling back on the adults.

"Out to the spit there," James said, pointing at the sandy rise topped with large flat rocks. "Come on, hurry up, otherwise we'll miss things."

"We won't!" Natasha vowed, running off at full speed. Clint was on her heels, demanding that she let him catch up because it was his birthday.

"It's going to be a good day," Steve said, smiling softly. "A really good day."

"You guys usually have a good day on Clint's birthday?" James asked.

"Yeah, usually." Steve sighed. "Sharon hasn't been around for the last two. Clint didn't seem to notice when he turned four, but last year…" Steve sighed again. "We were in New Jersey with Abraham, but Clint was upset about not seeing his mom."

"I can imagine." James slowed as they approached the rocks. The early morning dew clung heavy to the sand and the stones, not that the slipperiness slowed the children as they vied for the best space to watch the sunrise. "Kids, safety!" James snapped.

The children stopped their rock-top wrestling. "I want the best spot," Natasha said, crouching down onto her heels as James approached.

"So do I," Clint said.

"The sunrise is pretty big, you'll get a good view no matter where you are." James reached the rocks. "So I'm going to sit here."

Steve set the basket down beside James. "And I'm going to sit here." The man plopped himself down onto the stone at James' side. "How does that sound, Bucky?"

"That sounds wonderful, Steve."

The children looked at each other, then together they hurried over to their respective fathers and collapsed on their laps. "This is the best spot," Natasha declared, leaning back against James' chest. "The rock's too cold."

"Yeah," Clint said, giggling. "It's too cold for my toes."

"Do you need your jacket?" James asked.

 Natasha shook her head. "You're warm enough."

James hugged Natasha tight. "Let me know if you get chilly."

"Okay." Natasha wrapped her fingers around James' metal thumb. Beside them, Clint was chattering excitedly at Steve, and Steve was responding, if not with the same level of enthusiasm for their early morning adventure. "Daddy," Natasha said. "When is my birthday?"

"March eighth, honey, you know that."

"Is that my real birthday?"

James smoothed the hair back from Natasha's forehead with his right hand. "What does that mean?"

Natasha looked at him. "I dunno."

James kissed Natasha's forehead. "Your birthday is the day that you were born on," he said. "That was a few months before I met you, and even more before I got to take you home."

"When did you meet me?"

"In the middle of June." James pulled Natasha up higher on his lap. "I'd just come back from Germany and I was at the hospital setting up some meetings with a specialist and that's where Nick Fury found me and told me that he had someone he needed me to meet."

"I sure am glad he found you," Natasha said solemnly.

"Me too." Looking out at the horizon, James could see the beginning shimmer of the sun glowing below the horizon. "But you know what?"

"What?" Natasha asked.

"Every single thing that I'd ever done in my life, led me to that moment where I met you," James said. He urged Natasha to stand up beside him on the rock. "That moment right there, it was always going to happen."

Natasha put her arms around James' neck. "That's good," she declared. "I like that."

"Me too." James steadied Natasha with his prosthetic hand. "Now, be sure to keep watching, because here comes the sun."

"It's here!" Clint squeaked in excitement. "Daddy, I'm going to be six."

"I'm watching." Steve had his camera out and it was trained on Clint as the boy stared at the horizon.

"Shh!" Clint said. "If you're loud I can't see!"

Natasha made a show of clapping her hands over her mouth as the first beam of sunlight burst over the watery horizon. The haze in the air tinged the sky reds and oranges, as the sun rose in its inevitable splendour.

For a long time, no one spoke. Then Clint clambered down off the rock and went over to the basket. "Well," he said as he pulled out a milk carton. "Now I'm six. I'm old."

"You're holding up pretty well." James retrieved the other milk carton and handed it to Natasha. "What's this about not being six until sunrise?"

"I was born at dawn," Clint said, then took a long swallow of milk. "Mommy said so. She said, if I was a girl she was going to call me Dawn, but I wasn't a girl so she called me Clint instead."

"Of course," James said gravely.

"My mommy called me Natasha before she put me in the trashcan," Natasha contributed to the conversation. "Daddy, I can't open this milk."

James took the carton from Natasha. "Nat, for the hundredth time, no one left you in a trashcan." He handed back the open carton. "Your birth mother took you to the hospital and told the nurses that she wanted you to go up for adoption because it would be the best thing for you."

Natasha shrugged. "Sometimes when I have dreams, I'm in the trashcan," the girl said. "So I think you're wrong."

Okay, this was new. James floundered for a few moments, before pulling himself together. "I'm pretty sure I'm not wrong, but we can ask Director Fury, okay?"

"Okay." Natasha sipped at her milk. "Director Fury knows everything," she explained to Clint. "He is the best, even if he is a pirate."

"He's not a pirate," James said automatically, but the children paid no attention.

Clint shoved his milk carton at Steve. "Now that I am six," Clint said, "Can I go play in the sand?"

"Yes," Steve said. "See if you can find any shells. Stay where we can see you."

Natasha put her milk carton on the rock and tore after Clint down the sandy beach. With a sigh, James stretched out a kink in his back. "Born at dawn, huh?"

"Yeah." Steve leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Sharon was in labour for twenty hours and I remember she kept asking when the sun was coming out, something to focus on."

"Was he born on his due date?" James asked, mildly curious. He'd never had to wonder about any of that with Natasha; his introduction to parenting had taken half an hour, not nine months.

"A couple of weeks early," Steve said. "He was ready, though. Seven pounds. Sharon said she was glad it hadn't taken any longer; she was getting real tired of not being able to see her feet."

"Hmm." James, who had zero experience with pregnant women, wasn't sure what else to add at this point, so he kept his eyes on the children. They were running back and forth on the sand, picking up a stone here, turning over a shell there. After a time, Clint dropped to his knees and began digging a hole in the sand. Natasha kept running around, bringing small objects over to Clint's location.

Steve yawned loudly. "The cake's coming at five," he said. "Dinner at six?"

"Yeah, if the kids stay up for it."

"Hell, if I stay up for it." Steve reached for his coffee cup from where he had put it down on the stone. "I was thinking that we could do presents after lunch."

"Sure." James rubbed his eyes. Damn, he was exhausted. "You going to tell me what you got for Clint?"

"It's a surprise."

"You can tell me."

"I told you," Steve said as he punched James playfully in the leg. "It's a surprise."

"Fine," James grumbled. "See if I tell you what I've got planned for Natasha's birthday."

"Fine." Steve was quiet for a few seconds, then said, "You're taking her to Disneyland, aren't you?"

"Fuck off, Rogers."

Steve laughed. "She'll be over the moon."

"I hope so," James said. "With what it's going to cost me. We're going before her birthday, to skip the spring break crowds." He held up his metal hand. "This is okay, too. At least at the park. Flying there is going to be a bitch, with security."

"Isn't there some sort of doctor's note you can get?"

James shrugged, putting his hand back in his lap. "Probably. It's just such a pain in the ass."

"Do you have to fly?"

"What else could I do, drive?" James shrugged. "Not with Nat so young, it's too much driving. I thought about heading down to Florida, but even then it's too long in the car. I've got plans for a road trip when she's older, like maybe seven or eight."

"What road trip?" Steve asked, curious.

James glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "You'll think it's stupid."

"I will not."

James took a deep breath. "It's just an idea I had. When we were in Afghanistan, there were a bunch of Canadians we worked with. A few of them were talking about this thing, and I thought, after I got back and adopted Natasha and stuff, that maybe one day we could drive up there."

"Up where?"

"The Calgary Stampede," James said reluctantly. "That's in Alberta. Up north of Montana."

"I know where Alberta is," Steve said. "Just… I mean, it sounds interesting, but… why?"

James shrugged. "When you're out in the middle of a sandstorm in a place so far from home, you start making deals with yourself. If I make it through this, I'm going to buy that car I wanted. Or go places, or make things right with family." James reached for his coffee, realized that he'd already drunk it all, so went for Natasha's half-finished milk carton instead. "After my mom died, I thought I'd try to be a family with Rebecca again, but…" James looked at Natasha. His daughter was helping Clint dig, her red hair glowing in the dawn light. "What she said about Natasha put a nail in that. So all I got left are travel plans."

"What did she say?"

"About Natasha?" James shook his head. "That I was making a mistake in taking her in. That a sick kid would only be a burden. Then it turned into her saying she wasn't sure if men like me should be around little kids."

"She said what?"

James shrugged again. He'd put his mother's death to rest a long time ago, same with his father, but talking about the last time he had spoken to his sister ripped that wound open afresh. "I told her she was wrong, that she sounded just like dad, and that was the last time we spoke to each other." James rubbed his hand over his face. "Can we not talk about her anymore?"

"Sure," Steve said with some effort. "So. Calgary?"

James breathed in, forcing the memories down. "Yeah. I figured we'll drive through Chicago, then up across North Dakota and Montana. I thought that would be a nice drive, you know? May take a few days, we can stop along the way."

"That does sound really nice," Steve said wistfully. "I've never really taken Clint anywhere. Mostly just to visit Abraham. We went to Philadelphia on the train once, staying overnight. Clint didn't like it that much."

"He likes this trip," James said. "He's such an easy-going little guy."

"He's the best," Steve said. "Same with Natasha. Great kids."

"Yes." James stood. "You want to go see if they want birthday pancakes?"

 Steve, his face lit up by the early morning sunlight, fairly glowed as he smiled up at James. "I would love to," he said as he bounced to his feet.

"Ugh," James muttered under his breath, but picked up the basket and followed Steve without protest.

"What are you doing?" Steve called to the kids as they drew near.

Clint and Natasha sat back. In the bottom of the shallow hole lay a mound of tiny pebbles, shells, and scraps of driftwood. "We're building a goodbye hole," Clint said.

"A what?"

"A goodbye hole," Natasha repeated, rolling her eyes as if Steve was being particularly dense.

"We put all the bad things that happened since I was five into the hole, and say goodbye to them," Clint said. He dropped one last rock onto the pile and wiped his hands in satisfaction. "That's what Skye says her aunt does."

"No, she said that her Aunt May took her problems and put them in the ground," Natasha interrupted. "I said we should put them in the sand."

"And then we'll put a rock on top and say goodbye," Clint finished.

James, who was beginning to worry about the exact line of business that Skye's Aunt May was in, put the basket on the sand as Steve said, "Clint, buddy, can you tell me what your problems are?"

"Sure." Clint leaned into the pit to point at a collection of broken shells. "That's Mrs. Anders getting mad at me because I was 'ruptive. And that one's not knowing how to do soccer right the first time." He moved his finger to indicate a round stone. "And that's brussels sprouts."

"I put a problem in the hole," Natasha said. She picked up a broken piece of driftwood. "This is me not going to Disneyland this year." She cast a dark glare at her father.

"That is a good problem to put to rest," James agreed. "What happens when you put a problem in the hole? Do you forget about it?"

"No, you don't forget," Clint said. "It just doesn't make you sad anymore." He turned to Natasha. "Let's push all the sand back in now."

"Okay."

Together, the children filled the hole with sand. After the sand was patted back into place by tiny hands, Clint did the honours of placing a long flat stone on top of the little mound. He stood up, wiping his sandy hands on his shorts. "Goodbye, hole," Clint said seriously. Then he took his father's hand. "Daddy, I'm hungry."

"How about pancakes?" Steve suggested.

Both children burst into cheers. "I like pancakes!" Clint exclaimed. "Can you make face pancakes today?"

"I can try."

Natasha tugged on James' hand. "Why don't you ever make me face pancakes?" she asked.

"I'm not as creative as Steve is," James said. "He went to art school."

Steve raised his eyebrows at this, but Natasha nodded in understanding. "You can make the coffee," Natasha offered. "You're good at that."

"Why, thank you," James said. "Now, who wants to race back to the house?"

Natasha and Clint immediately dashed off, leaving the adults in their dust. "You okay with all that?" Steve asked, indicating the basket.

James glared.

"Just checking." Steve flashed James a wide smile, then ran after the children, his long legs eating up the distance in no time flat. James followed at what could best be described as a slow shamble. By the time he reached the house, Steve already had a fresh pot of coffee brewing and the children were helping him stir pancake mix.

Leaving the three chefs in the kitchen, James went upstairs. He tidied his sleeping area, set the children's room in order, then sat at the top of the stairs for a while watching Steve interacting with the kids.

It was so interesting to watch Clint and Natasha with other adults. When they were with Skye, the kids would often get so engrossed in their activities that they would hardly look to Skye at all, except if they needed instruction. With James, they were so involved in themselves that they barely acknowledged his presence.

But with Steve, it was different. The kids both hung on every word Steve said, took in his every action and movement. And it wasn't one-sided; Steve was paying close attention to both children, answering every question and catching tiny hands before they reached into the frying pan.

At the moment, Steve was saying, "What should I make the next pancake?"

"Make it a clown," Clint said immediately.

"Make it Mickey Mouse," Natasha added.

"I'll do a clown first, then Mickey Mouse," Steve said, handing the spatula to Natasha. "Clint, will you stir the batter?"

Solemnly, Clint twirled the spoon around in the larger bowl, while Natasha held the spatula with both hands. "Steve," Natasha said. "Can you make a special pancake for my daddy?"

"Of course I can," Steve said. Holding a small bowl, he spooned batter onto the griddle to make a shape. "What should that special pancake look like?"

This question was cause for some serious consideration. The children whispered amongst themselves for a few minutes, then Natasha piped up with, "A coffee cup."

"Of course," Steve said. "After I make the clown, and then the Mickey, I'll make Bucky a coffee cup pancake."

"My dad makes the best pancakes," Clint said with relish. "And hot dogs. And macaroni and cheese."

"My dad makes good sandwiches," Natasha said. She let Steve take the spatula from her hands. "And he makes good oatmeal. And he can order the best takeout."

"My dad makes the best drawings," Clint said.

Natasha turned to Clint, frowning. "My dad can fix anything!"

"My dad can lift me over his head!"

"My dad lets me wear princess dresses!" Natasha shot back, starting to get angry. Sighing at the brevity of his respite, James headed down the stairs.

"My dad lets me shoot arrows!"

"My dad reads me stories every night!"

"My dad lets me take bubble baths!"

James let out a piercing whistle. The children glared at him. "Why are we yelling?" he asked.

"That is an excellent question," Steve asked, flipping a clown pancake onto a plate. "Kids, Bucky's good at some things, and I'm good at some other things. Just like you each are good at a lot of things too."

"Exactly." James made show of pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee. "And it's always good to tell your friends what you like about them. For example." James took a sip of coffee, then let out an appreciative sigh. "I think that Steve makes great coffee."

"And I think that Bucky is an excellent driver," Steve said. He added a bit of oil to the griddle, then reached for the batter bowl. "Clint, what's something that you think Natasha does really good?"

Clint wrinkled his nose. "Natasha does good dancing," he said after a minute. "And she is a good dinosaur."

Natasha beamed. "Aw, thanks!"

"What about you, Nat?" James said. "What's something good that Clint does?"

"Clint is a good dinosaur too," Natasha said. "And he does good drawing. And he can climb real high and run real far."

"Right on all accounts." James set his cup down. "Now, you kids help me set the table while Steve finishes up with the pancakes, okay?"

Steve lifted Natasha and Clint off the counter before going back to the griddle. It only took James and the children a few minutes to set the table, then James sent the children upstairs to wash their hands before breakfast. In the temporary silence, James slumped into a chair at the table and let himself sit still, just for a moment.

"You up for a swim after breakfast?" Steve asked. The hiss from the griddle drew James' attention.

"Sure," James said. "What do you think they'll get up to today?"

"Dinosaurs." Steve set down his spatula. "I seem to recall Tony having some floating toys for the pool, somewhere. I'll look in the storage shed when we get out there."

"Sounds good. It would do Nat some good, to get used to playing in the water with toys. Get her used to the idea."

"Yeah." Steve went to the coffee pot. "Hey, so, Bucky."

James held in a sigh. He knew that tone. "Yeah?"

"Can I ask a favour?"

From the expression on Steve's face, James doubted that this would be about the children. "Sure."

"It's just… with sunscreen, you know, sometimes it's hard to reach between my shoulder blades." Steve's expression was as innocent and pure as new snow. "It's going to be a hot one today. Would you be able to help me out?"

James hesitated, waiting for the inevitable no homo quip or something equally asinine, but Steve was just staring at him with wide eyes. "Sure," James said, although he was casting around for some idea on not embarrassing himself while touching Steve's back. His broad, muscular, perfect back. "It's a good idea. For the kids. Set a good example." God, he sounded like a complete idiot.

But Steve was just grinning at him. "I know, right? I used to just tan, not bother with sunscreen. Had one hell of a farmer's tan one year." He laughed. "But Clint has more of Sharon's coloring. He burns a lot easier than me."

Unbidden, an image of a younger Steve Rogers popped into James' imagination. Slim and muscular and bare-chested, tanned and beautiful. James swallowed hard. "Yeah, of course."

Still smiling, Steve turned back to the griddle. James stood up, coffee cup in hand, and made his way to the doorway, where he leaned against the doorframe to look out at the beach. There, he made himself breathe evenly and waited for his hormones to get back under control.

James just didn't understand. Since the explosion in Iraq, since he'd come back home missing an arm and a few liters of blood, he'd wondered if the explosion had left him a bit more damaged than just the physical. Sure, he could still get it up in the shower, and his somewhat embarrassing crush on George Clooney had not abated, but most days, he didn't spare much thought to physical attraction.

Then Steve Rogers had reappeared in his life, and suddenly James' libido popped into high gear. Fine, on most days, but not when they were in such close proximity on this vacation.

James took a deep breath. He wasn't a kid anymore. He was thirty-two, an old man. He'd seen more and done more in life than most people. He was too old and too used up to be thinking like this. Even if Steve hadn't been straight, he'd never go for some used-up cripple like James. Especially not knowing as much as he did about James' background.

"Daddy?" Natasha called. James turned around. "What are you doing?"

"I'm drinking coffee," James said. "Is it time to eat?"

"Yes, it's pancake time!" Natasha shouted as she ran to the table, Clint on her heels.

James squared his shoulders. This vacation was about Natasha and Clint. His particular problems had no place here.

He poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down to properly appreciate Steve's pancake art. And if he didn't look at Steve until the meal was almost over… well, Steve didn't call him on it, and the kids were too excited to notice.


In spite of James' misgivings, the morning continued unimpeded. After breakfast, James and Steve cleaned up while the children dressed for the pool. James didn't feel much like another day in the pool, but he knew that if Clint would brave the deep end, Natasha would demand to be included. And Steve couldn't watch two children on his own in the water.

When everyone was ready, they walked up to the pool. The sun umbrellas were still up from the previous day, but a newly filled ice bucket sat on the table beside another note.

"I wanna read it!" Clint yelled, bolting over to the table. Steve followed him, dumping his armload of towels and books onto a nearby chair.

"Nat, sunscreen," James ordered. Natasha scowled at him, but she submitted to the application of sunscreen. She was wearing her purple 'party' bathing suit, and James hoped she could last the day without ripping any of the ruffles.

"Come on," Steve said, pulling Clint over beside James. "You can read while we put on sunscreen."

Clint stared at the note, sounding out the letters to himself while his father applied sunscreen. There was some whispered discussion between father and son as Clint attempted to decipher the note.

"All done," James said to Natasha, making one last swipe down her nose.

"Your turn," Natasha said, turning on him with the sunscreen bottle in her hands. He submitted to the manhandling, watching Clint and Steve working on the letter.

"You want to try it now?" Steve asked, patting Clint on the shoulder.

"Yup." Clint took a deep breath. "It says, 'Good morning'." He glanced up to make sure that Natasha was observing his display of literary competence. "And then it says, 'happy birthday to Clint'! That's me," Clint added, in case they had forgotten.

"What else does it say?" Steve urged.

Clint looked at the note again. "It says, 'There are cold drinks in the pool house fridge'." He pronounced the last word as 'fri-de-guh'. " 'Have a won-der-ful swim. Call the house if you need any-thing. Lucy.' "

"That's very nice of her," Steve said. "Don't you think so?"

"Uh huh," Clint said as he took off his glasses. "Can I go get a juice now?"

"You just had breakfast," Steve reminded him, ruffling the boy's hair. "How about we swim for a bit first?"

"I think we should get the juice first," Natasha said solemnly, wiping her hands on James' bicep. "Not to drink. Just to look at."

"If it's just to look at," Steve said. He held out his hand, and the children each took a hand to pull him along toward the pool house.

Quickly, James rubbed sunscreen on his chest and as much of his back as he could reach, then did his legs and the tops of his feet before heading over to the hot tub. He had the waterfall and dolphin fountain spurting water before the children emerged with their hands full of juice bottles.

"I wanna put mine in the bucket," Clint said.

"I wanna put mine in the bucket!" Natasha protested, frowning at Clint.

"Settle down, you can put both bottles in the ice bucket," Steve said. He patted them on the shoulders. "Go try it."

The children ran across the patio to the table, jockeying for position. Steve followed, picking up his sunscreen from the top of the folded towels. James joined him. "Want to lay odds that they'll get into a fight today?" James asked.

"They're tired," Steve said. He squirted a gob of sunscreen onto his hand. "They'll feel better after a bit of exercise and a nap."

"You feel like putting them down for a nap?" James asked, but his mouth was running without any input from his brain, because Steve was in the process of rubbing sunscreen all over his body.

This was unfair. Steve's muscular body moved easily, gracefully. He was downright impossible; but it was more than that. His body wasn't scarred with gruesome reminders of damage and pain.

In that moment, James wasn't sure if he wanted to kiss Steve or punch him.

"Let's try before lunch," Steve was saying. "It would be better if Clint had some sleep before he opens his presents."

"Sure," James said. He reached his right arm up and behind his head, trying to reach that spot between his shoulder blades where he was pretty sure Natasha had left a gob of sunscreen lotion. "We can try, right?"

"Yup," Steve said with one final rub. He turned to James. "Hey, want me to get that for you?"

And James' day just kept getting better. This particular situation was not one that he had dealt with before – in high school and later in the Army, men didn't usually offer to rub sunscreen on each other's backs. But James knew Steve pretty well by now, and he knew that Steve's offer of sunscreen was just that. No hidden meaning, not a way to trick James into doing anything he didn't want to do. It was just an innocent offer.

Taking a deep breath, James nodded. "Sure, could you?" he said as casually as he could. "I think Nat missed a few spots."

Steve cracked a wide grin. "It looks like," he said, moving around behind James. "She gave it a good effort, though."

Although James had braced himself for Steve's touch, the physical sensation of Steve's fingers running down his back sent a shiver through his body, and not a pleasant one. Suddenly very happy that he was facing away from Steve, James made himself hold still as Steve rubbed his hand over James' back. It took only a few seconds and then Steve's hand was gone from James' skin.

"All done," Steve said cheerfully. James closed his eyes for a moment. He needed to pull himself together. Having a panic attack on the pool patio just because Steve was helping him avoid a sunburn was not only irrational, it was pathetic. "Can you do me next?"

"Sure," James said, because apparently this was his life now. He turned around. "Where's this spot you can't reach on your own?"

Steve was still smiling as he handed James the bottle of sunscreen. "Right under my shoulder blades," he said, turning his broad back to James.

James could see what Steve meant. There was a patch of skin in the middle of Steve's perfect back that was slightly less shiny than the rest of him. "Give me a sec."

With his thumb, James flipped open the bottle's lid, then squirted a bit of lotion onto his left arm stump. Closing the lid, James tucked the bottle between his left arm and his side before scooping the lotion up onto his fingers. From there, it was only the work of a few moments to slather Steve's skin with the lotion and rub it in.

"Finished," James said. He stepped away from Steve as the other man turned around. "You should take this, though. For later." He handed over the bottle.

"Thanks," Steve said. His cheeks were slightly flushed, as if he'd already gotten too much sun on his face. James wondered if he'd put sunscreen on his own face when he'd been helping Clint earlier on.

But James wasn't about to tell the man what to do; Steve was a grown man and didn't need James treating him like a kid.

To distract from the moment, James asked a question he had been meaning to since he'd run into Steve in the parking lot months before. "How much can you lift?"

"A bit," Steve said. He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. "I mean, a lot, I guess."

"More than me," James said. The children were being suspiciously quiet over by the little table. James edged in their direction as he continued speaking to Steve. "It took me a few years to rebuild my upper body strength after the accident, you know?"

By this time, James was close enough to the kids to see what they were up to, and what he saw did not make him happy.

"I thought you told Steve that you weren't going to drink your juice yet if we got the bottles out of the fridge for you," James said to the children.

Natasha, who had been in the process of taking a hit off a bottle of juice, pulled back guiltily. Clint wiped a juice mustache from his upper lip. The children looked at each other. "This isn't our juice," Natasha said after a minute. Clint nodded in agreement.

"Oh yeah?" James raised his eyebrows. "Then what are you drinking?"

The children consulted again. "My dad's," Clint said reluctantly.

James held out his hand, and Natasha gave him the half-empty apple juice bottle. "Did you ask Steve if you could have some of his drink?"

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest. "He was sharing," she said.

James glanced over his shoulder at Steve, who appeared amused, before turning back to the children. "If he was sharing his juice with you two peanuts, then you'll share with him later on, right?"

Clint's shoulders slumped, resigned, but Natasha glared up at her father.

"Right?"

"Okay," Clint said, slipping off his chair. He tugged on Natasha's arm. "Let's go play in the waterfall."

"Okay." Natasha joined Clint, turning her back on her father and his juice rule enforcement. James put the half-drunk bottle into the ice bucket, shaking his head.

"That was a good plan," Steve said in James' ear, amusement in his voice. "They didn't actually break any rule."

"That's what worries me," James said. "They'll find ways around the rules and then they look at me like I'm the lunatic when I point it out."

"Cunning and daring," Steve said. "They're a perfect pair." He patted James on the shoulder. "Come on, let's go keep them company."

James breathed out through his nose. Not even eight in the morning yet, and he was so tired he wanted to go back to sleep. "Sure," he said. "Party time."

Across the patio, Clint let out a shriek as Natasha splashed him with water. It was going to be a long day.


"But I want to stay at the pool!" Natasha cried, trying to physically drag her father back into the wading pool.

"Natasha, we've been down here for over three hours," James said, standing between Natasha and the water. "We've all had a long morning, and now we are all going back to the house so we can have a shower and some lunch."

"But I want to stay at the pool!" Natasha repeated, stamping her bare feet on the tiles. "And so does Clint!"

James looked over to where Steve was standing. The man had Clint swathed in a big towel and was holding him on one arm, the little boy's eyes drooping with exhaustion. "We can come back after lunch," James said, holding out Natasha's towel. "Come on, we can come back to the pool later."

"You're taking all the fun away," Natasha shouted, wrapping the big fluffy towel around her shoulders. "I want to stay! And have more fun!"

"I know," James said, commiserating. He knelt down to pick Natasha up, trying not to wince as she wailed into his ear. "I'm a terrible, horrible, no-fun dad."

"You are!" Natasha said accusingly. Her arms tightened around his neck as James straightened up and headed off towards the beach house. "You're no fun!"

"Yup." James kissed the side of Natasha's head. "Did you have fun this morning in the pool, though?"

Natasha sniffled, coughed on his cheek, and said in a more subdued tone, "Yeah."

"It's fun playing with Clint in the pool, right?"

Another sniffle. "Yeah."

"And you two had a really fun game of water dinosaurs?"

"Uh huh. I like to be the big crocodile dinosaur."

Steve, who was walking at James' side, grinned at them. "Playing dinosaurs with your best friend is pretty cool, isn't it?" he asked.

Natasha leaned back on James' arm to fix Steve with a mighty glare. "Playing water dinosaurs," she informed him, "Is the best."

"I completely agree," Steve said. "I wish that when Bucky and I were kids, we had thought about playing dinosaurs."

Natasha's eyes grew wide. "You didn't?" she demanded. "What did you play?"

"Oh, all kinds of things," Steve said. By this time, Clint had closed his eyes completely and was draped over Steve's shoulder. "We played GI Joe. And Star Wars."

"What's Star Wars?" Natasha asked.

Steve looked at James, who shook his head. "That's on our list for when Nat is seven," James said.

Steve nodded in understanding. "Clint hasn't seen it either," he said. "I keep meaning to put it on, but you know how it is."

"Not a lot of time for a ten-hour movie marathon?" James hazarded.

"And Clint doesn't like to sit still," Steve said. Natasha's interest in the conversation had waned, and she was now looking out at the mid-day sea on the horizon. "He ever sit through a movie with you guys?"

James considered. "We got halfway through Aladdin with Skye, the last time it rained," he said. "But yeah, Clint was up and down."

"What do you think about showing them Jurassic Park?" Steve asked, picking his way down the slope to the beach house.

"No," James said immediately. "We can put that on the list for seven."

"Too scary?"

"We saw that when it came out in the theater, remember?" James said. "When the R-A-P-T-O-R-S came on, you nearly wet your pants."

"Why?" Natasha asked sleepily.

"Because he spilled his soda," James said smoothly. "Sometimes, in a movie, something happens that can make you jump."

"I won't jump," Natasha said. "I'm a big girl."

"Do you know what we're talking about?" James asked.

"No." Natasha yawned widely. "Daddy, I want to go back to the pool."

Inside the house, Steve and James got the children upstairs, stripped them out of their bathing suits and into the big shower to rinse them off, then into clean clothes and back downstairs without either child waking fully. James, who took a minute to change into dry shorts and a t-shirt, settled with the children onto the downstairs couch. "Why don't we sit here for a few minutes?" he asked in a soothing tone. "Just a few. Then we can have lunch."

"I don't want to sit," Clint protested sleepily, rubbing his eyes. He had refused to put on his glasses or hearing aid, and Steve had not pressed the point. "It's my birthday, I wanna have fun."

"Me too," Natasha said, as she burrowed in under James' arm. "Lots of fun."

"We can have lots of fun in a few minutes," James said. "I'll sit here with you."

Steve settled on the loveseat opposite. "Would it help if I told you guys a story?" he asked.

Clint yawned so widely that James could see the boy's back teeth. "I wanna story," Clint said as he leaned against James' other side. "A story about the bear."

"Winnie the Pooh," Steve said with a smile. "Well, Winnie the Pooh was a little brown bear, who lived in the woods, and he was friends with a little boy named Christopher Robin."

Natasha was asleep before Steve had finished the first introductions, but Clint held out until Steve was detailing the inside of Pooh's little underground house. But his weight was heavy on James' side, his fingers wrapped in James' shirt, and James knew he was stuck there until the children awoke.

"Stay," Steve whispered as he stood up. "I'll get lunch started. You stay with the kids."

James, whose eyelids had grown ever-so-heavy, settled himself deeper onto the couch, the weight of two sleeping children keeping him in place. He was so tired that he didn't even worry about waking with a nightmare or scaring the children. " 'kay," he mumbled, and let himself close his eyes.

Steve was there to keep them safe. And that was enough.


Some soft noise drew James awake. He blinked, momentarily disoriented. The room was bright and quiet, and his head felt stuffy like it always did after a mid-day nap.

Behind him, he heard Natasha speak, her voice high-pitched and questioning, then Steve's deeper voice answering her quietly. There was a soft plink of cutlery against ceramic. Had James slept through lunch?

He blinked hard, trying to rid himself of the fogginess in his head, then rolled onto his side on the couch. Clint was kneeling by the fireplace hearth, scribbling industriously on a large piece of construction paper. He was wearing both glasses and hearing aid, and his hair had dried sticking up in every direction.

When the boy noticed that James' eyes were open, he sat up. "Hi," Clint said, and sat back. "How come you fart?"

James blinked again. He wasn't awake enough for these kinds of questions. "Huh?"

"When you fart," Clint said patiently. "Can you keep a fart in your bum?"

With an effort, James sat up. "No," he said, rubbing his hand over his face. The day's stubble rasped under his palm. "When you need to fart, just fart it out."

Clint considered this. "But what if I want to save the fart for later?"

James stared at the boy. "Why would you need to do that?"

Clint shrugged. "Just 'cause."

No doubt to spring it on some unsuspecting parent. James pushed his hair back. "You'll always be able to fart when you need to," he said. "What time is it?"

Clint looked at his watch. "It is one and…" He squinted at the watch face, counting under his breath. "Twenty-two."

Crap. James hoped that he hadn't messed up Clint's birthday plans. "Did you guys eat lunch already?"

"No," Clint said, pushing his drawing back on the hearthstones. "Daddy gave us a birthday snack. Peanut butter toast with sprinkles."

That sounded disgusting, but from the grin on Clint's face, the kids had enjoyed it. "Are you ready for real lunch?" James asked, reaching out his hand to Clint. "Come on, pull me up."

Clint took James' hand in both of his and leaned back, trying to haul the grown man to his feet. James rose slowly, pretending that Clint's efforts were the only thing pulling him up. "Yeah, lunchtime," Clint said once James was standing. He was panting a little with the effort. "Hey, then can I open my presents?"

"We'll ask your dad," James said, although he knew that was Steve's plan. "What's for lunch?"

Steve looked up as Clint and James approached the kitchen. Natasha was standing on a chair at the counter beside Steve, an over-large apron tied around her waist. "Open-faced sandwiches," Steve said easily. "Natasha is helping me."

"I am making the best sandwiches," Natasha said, her very serious expression bringing a smile to James' lips. "Steve puts on the stuff but I make them the best."

"Nat is making the sandwiches look artistic," Steve said, smiling at James. He nodded to the coffee pot, where he had put his camera for safekeeping. James reached for it, wanting to capture the moment for posterity.

Clint climbed up onto the chair at Natasha's side. "Hey, that's peanut butter!" he exclaimed, pointing. "Can I have that one?"

"Yes, and that is mine," Natasha said, pointing at a piece of bread piled high with cheese and garnished with a smiling face made out of thinly sliced celery.

"You sure make good lunches," Clint said, looking at Natasha in admiration.

Natasha beamed. "Making lunches is fun!" she informed him "When I was just a little kid, my daddy made lunches and I didn't help. But I can help now because I'm almost six!"

"I help my dad make breakfast sometimes," Clint said. "But I should do lunches too."

"You can both help Skye making lunches next week," James said as he readied the camera. "Okay, everyone look over here."

Three faces turned in James' direction.

"Now, say 'gorgonzola'!"

Steve and Natasha managed the word, but Clint cracked up as James snapped the picture. Steve set about untying Natasha's apron as Clint, still snorting in hysterical laughter, jumped down from the chair to run over to the table.

In the resulting melee of getting plates and children to the table, James said to Steve, "Why did you let me sleep?"

Steve shrugged. "You looked real tired last night," he said quietly. "And Clint got you up so early. I thought it couldn't hurt."

James wanted to push back, to snap that he didn't need to be coddled; if anything, he needed less sleep than Steve, a civilian, would. But he was still so tired, and his head felt fuzzy, and the last thing he wanted to do on Clint's birthday was to get into another fight with Steve. "Thanks," James said under his breath, then went to help Natasha settle onto her chair for lunch.

The sandwiches were delicious and everyone was hungry, so the meal finished quickly. James chomped on the last celery stick as Natasha pushed her plate towards him, offering her uneaten crusts. "Daddy, can we go swimming?" she asked hopefully.

"Well," James said, looking toward Steve. "I think that there are plans already."

Steve took up this obvious cue. "You know, I think that Bucky should take you kids down to the beach to look for driftwood for tonight's fire," he said. "I'll clean up the dishes."

Clint and Natasha, who had never demonstrated any real affinity for cleaning up, scrambled off their chairs. "Go upstairs and get your sun hats!" James called after them. "And sandals!" Once the children were out of earshot up the stairs, James turned to Steve. "Time for presents?"

"I need to wrap a few of them first," Steve said. "Can you keep them busy for half an hour?"

"Sure." James stood. He wasn't sure if he should put on his arm. Carrying back driftwood would be difficult for a one-handed man. On the other hand, if something went terribly wrong and James had to make an at-sea rescue, the metal arm would only hinder.

He'd leave the arm in the house. They could always stash any driftwood above the high tide mark and come back for it later.

"Thanks, Bucky," Steve said with a blinding grin. "You're the best."

All he'd done was promise to keep two children busy for thirty minutes, James wanted to say, but his brain couldn't focus into words with Steve looking at him like that. He managed a shaky smile. "Yell if you need anything," was all James could say, then the children were storming down the stairs, ready for their beach outing.

Conscious of their cover story, James herded the children down to the stone outcropping marking one edge of the estate. The children alternated between picking up small bits of driftwood to bring over to James, and digging in the damp sand with sticks. James helped loosen the caked sand, then stood back to let the children play.

It was a lovely day, James thought as he looked out at the horizon. The calm horizon was dotted with tiny sailboats and fishing vessels, with only a light breeze blowing in cool off the water. If James had a place like this, he'd hardly ever go into the city. Everything was perfect.

Behind him, Natasha let out a screech. "Daddy!" she yelled. "I found a rock!" She hoisted it in one sandy paw. "Can I keep it?"

James went back to the children to examine Natasha's find. It was a lumpy grey stone, about the size of James' fist, that had been buried under six inches of sand. "You can bring it back to the house with us," James said. "Let's go rinse it off."

Clint walked with them down to the water's edge, where the waves were sloshing gently on the sand. Once Natasha's new treasure had been rinsed clean of sand and deposited in the pocket of James' cargo shorts, the children splashed around in the surf. James, who wanted to avoid any water-based disasters on Clint's birthday, stood knee-deep in the water, to be able to intercept any child who strayed too far into the ocean.

After a while, Steve appeared at the top of the hill. He waved at James, then disappeared back into the house. James started heading out of the water. "Come on," he yelled at the kids. "Let's go back inside, I think Steve has a super-duper surprise."

Clint stared up at James, his mouth open. "A surprise?" he squeaked. "A birthday surprise?"

James shrugged. "Why don't you go back to the house and find out?"

"A surprise!" Clint shouted, and took off towards the house at full speed.

"Wait for me!" Natasha cried out, running after her best friend. "I want to see too!"

James scooped up the children's abandoned sandals, then jogged up to the house. He arrived to find Steve holding the glass door closed from the outside, preventing the children from entering. "Daddy, what's the surprise?" Clint was demanding, hanging off Steve's arm. Natasha was attempting to pry the door open while Steve was distracted.

"Hey, give it a minute," James said, tossing the sandals down on the patio tiles. "The first rule with any surprise is you gotta be patient."

"Bucky's right," Steve said, wedging his foot against the door. "You need to wait just a few more seconds."

Clint lifted his feet off the ground, so Steve's arm was supporting his whole weight. "I want to see it now!" the boy exclaimed.

Steve curled his arm and lifted Clint into the air. "You do, huh?"

James caught Natasha around the middle, pulling her away from the door. "How about we let Clint go in first, okay?" he said.

Natasha wriggled in his grasp. "Okay, but I want to go in next!" she informed her father.

"If you insist." James looked at Steve. "Ready?"

 Steve set Clint down. "Ready."

James opened the door. Clint stormed into the house, followed closely by Natasha. This resulted in the inevitable spill, when Clint stopped suddenly in the middle of the floor and Natasha crashed into him, nearly sending them both to the ground. James and Steve hurried over to set the children on their feet. Natasha proclaimed loudly that she was fine, but Clint was too busy staring to have even noticed the impact.

James could understand why Clint had stopped so suddenly. In their brief absence, Steve had transformed the main floor of the house, streamers and balloons decorating nearly every surface, and a 'Happy Birthday!' banner tacked above the fireplace.

Clint was staring at a small pile of presents stacked on the table. It was not a large pile; James thought there were maybe ten wrapped packages, but the wrapping paper was brightly colored and shiny, and the sun coming in through the windows glinted and gleamed off every surface.

"How does that look?" Steve asked Clint, kneeling down beside his son. "That looks like an awful lot of presents."

"For me?" Clint breathed, his mouth hanging open in surprise. "All for me?"

"Yup." Steve smoothed the hair back from Clint's forehead. "You want to open them?"

Clint nodded, never taking his eyes off the presents.

"Daddy," Natasha said, taking hold of James' hand. "Did you give Clint my present?" She looked worried.

"Yes, I did," James said, bending over to pick Natasha up. "See? It's right there." James indicated a small bundle awkwardly wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper. Natasha had insisted on wrapping her gift herself, in her favorite red and green wrapping paper, and James knew better by this point than to argue on the small things.

Clint walked over to the table and climbed onto a chair, staring down onto his presents. He put his hands flat against his chest as he looked, eyes wide as saucers behind his glasses. "All for me," he breathed. "Look, Natasha, I have presents!"

"Yeah, it's your birthday!" Natasha exclaimed. She wiggled until James put her onto the chair beside Clint's. "You gonna open a present?"

"Yeah!" Clint looked at Steve. "Can I? Open a present?"

"You can open all your presents," Steve said, sitting down at the table. "You ready to start?"

"Okay." Clint pressed his hands over his mouth, staring at the packages as if he was trying to decide which one to open first.

James nudged Steve's shoulder. "Where's your camera?" he asked in an undertone. It wasn't like Steve not to be taking pictures of such a momentous occasion.

Steve inclined his head at the counter, where his camera sat, pointed at the table. The little red light on top was shining solid, an indication that it was recording video. "Abraham would kill me if I didn't record this for him," Steve said with a smile. "Come on, sit down."

James rounded the table to sit beside Natasha, ready to jump in with a constraining hand if the girl decided that she needed to 'help' Clint open his birthday presents.

"That one," Clint decided, pointing at Natasha's present. "It's like Christmas! And my birthday!"

Natasha clapped her hands in delight. "That's my present!" she exclaimed. "I got it just for you, all by myself!"

Clint knelt on the chair, holding out his arms as Steve passed him the present. With an almighty riiiip, he tore the paper open, spilling out the tissue-paper-wrapped contents. A tiny peek of shiny purple fabric shone in the sunlight. "It's purple!" Clint yelled in delight. "Purple is my favorite!"

"I know it!" Natasha tried to jump up and down on her chair, but James caught her and helped her to kneel down. The last thing they needed was a birthday visit to the ER.

Clint peeled back the tissue paper. Wrapped inside was a little purple tie, with tiny black dots woven into the fabric. Beneath the tie lay a purple paisley bandana. "Look!" Clint crowed, holding up the tie and bandana. "I can be a cowboy!"

"Nat, do you want to tell Clint why you got him those?" James asked, putting his hand on Natasha's back.

"Yeah." Natasha pointed at the tie. "You wear that when it's a special occasion. That's what the lady said when I was trying on my dress. Boys wear ties."

"It's a special occasion now," Clint said immediately. He held the tie out to his father. "Daddy, do it."

Steve patiently turned Clint around and deftly knotted the tie around his neck, leaving plenty of space between the knot and Clint's neck. "Look at you," Steve said, sounding as if he was getting choked up. "So grown up."

"I'm six now," Clint reminded Steve. "When did you first wear a tie?"

A shadow crossed behind Steve's eyes. "I wore a tie when I was five," he said, pulling Clint towards him for a one-armed hug. "This is a very nice tie, though, isn't it?"

Clint stroked the tie. "It's the best!" He looked at Natasha, to make sure she had noticed his use of her phrase. "The best!"

"The best!" Natasha agreed, breaking out into giggles.

James stood. The kids hadn't seen it, but Clint's question to Steve had thrown the man off-balance, and James was pretty sure he knew why. Once, when they were kids, Steve had told James about his mother's funeral, and how he'd worn a tie and a too-big suit and how he'd been so scared because he knew there was no one in the world to look after him.

As Clint urged Steve to tie the purple bandana around his wrist, James went to the counter, got a glass of water, and carried it back over to the table. He put it down at some middle spot between Steve and Clint, then, before he over-thought things, squeezed Steve's shoulder on his way back to his chair.

As James sat down, Steve met his gaze over Clint and Natasha, who were giggling over Clint's new purple wardrobe. Steve nodded at James, something in his eyes calmer now, and James let out a breath.

"Next present!" Clint announced, pulling James out of his thoughts. "What's next?"

It took them about half an hour to open the rest of Clint's presents. Skye had given Clint a kite with a bird painted on it, and some sidewalk chalk. Abraham had sent along a scooter and a gift certificate for a helmet. James' present of books went over exceedingly well, mostly because James had taken the bookstore clerk's advice and had bought Clint the Captain Underpants collection. Both Clint and Natasha giggled so hard at the books that Clint nearly fell off his chair.

Steve's adoptive sisters had sent cards to Clint wishing him a happy birthday. One of the cards contained a twenty dollar bill 'for candy', which Steve quickly confiscated.

Steve's next door neighbor, the woman with the puppy, had sent along a little box that contained a few wind-up toys and a whoopee cushion. Steve had to demonstrate the proper use of a whoopee cushion to the children, who laughed so hard that Natasha had tears in her eyes and Clint was snorting for breath as Steve blew up the cushion for the third time.

They took a short break for the children to recover. Steve sent the kids to the bathroom to wash their faces, while he and James cleared away the wrapping paper detritus. James, glancing over the remaining two presents, raised his eyebrows. "These are both from you," he observed.

"Yeah?" Steve didn't look up from where he was sorting the wrapping paper.

"Nothing from Sharon?"

Steve's clenched jaw was eloquent. "She'll bring something when she comes home, she always does," he said. "Look, don't bring her up unless Clint does, okay? I don't want him to get upset."

Privately, James thought that Clint was plenty capable of getting upset at his mother's absence without any reminder, but kept his mouth shut.

The children returned to the table in a loud stampede of bare feet. "Two more!" Clint yelled joyously. "Daddy, this is so many presents! So many!"

"It sure is," Steve said easily, hoisting Clint back onto his chair. "But the next present is special, do you know why?"

"Why?"

Steve helped Natasha back onto her chair, then placed a present between the children. "Because this is a present for both of you. You and Natasha."

"For me?" Natasha asked, her face lighting up. "Daddy, I get a birthday present too!"

James, who had seen the tag on the box and knew it was from Steve, said, "That's very nice of Steve. Can you say thank you?"

Natasha twisted her head to frown at him. "But I don't know what it is yet."

"Open the box and find out," Steve said. "Together."

The children fell upon the box, four little hands ripping the wrapping paper. They quickly uncovered a cardboard box, opened that, and dug out two eyeglass cases.

"This says, Natasha," said Clint, and handed it to Natasha.

"This is for you," Natasha said, and gave her handful to Clint. Together, they cracked open the lids, to reveal two pairs of child-size aviator sunglasses.

"Sunglasses!" Clint exclaimed. "These are cool!"

"These are special sunglasses," Steve said, picking up Clint's sunglasses while the boy removed his eyeglasses. "Clint's sunglasses are the same prescription as his other glasses, so he can wear them when we're outside and still see everything."

"What about mine?" Natasha asked, curiously unfolding her sunglasses and, with James' help to make sure she didn't poke herself in the eye, putting them on.

"Your sunglasses are just the right ones for you," Steve said. He settled the sunglasses on Clint's nose. "What do you think?"

Clint grinned up at his father. "These are cool! Do I look cool?"

"You look very cool," Steve said solemnly. "So does Natasha."

James' daughter peered around the room. "Do I look old?" she asked James.

"You look very old," he told her, pulling out his phone to take a picture. "Like you are already six years old."

He took a few photos of the children in their sunglasses, then showed the pictures to them. The general consensus was that they both looked very grown-up and adult, and it was possible that someone might actually mistake them for seven-year-olds, or even, daringly, seven-and-a-half.

Steve then helped Clint take his sunglasses off while James demonstrated to Natasha how to put her sunglasses on top of her head. With a promise that she could wear them 'for real' when they went outside next, James pulled Natasha onto his lap to watch Clint unwrap his last present, the large black case that Steve had brought with them.

In retrospect, James didn't know why it took him so long to figure out what the present was. It wasn't like Clint had a lot of interests outside of dinosaurs and swimming, and the shape of the case itself should have told him. But it wasn't until Clint opened the case's latches and lifted the lid, that James realized exactly what Steve had gotten Clint for the boy's sixth birthday.

A new bow.

Clint froze, staring down at the gleaming bow, nested in the black velvet of the case. The limbs of the bow were brushed charcoal, with purple accents shining in the light. On the case's top half were strapped a dozen arrows, in matching colors to the bow.

"Ooh," Clint said, gently touching the edge of the bow with gentle fingers. "Is this for me? My very own?"

"Yes," Steve said, lifting the bow out of the case. The charcoal-and-purple bow was nearly as tall as Clint. When Steve handed it to Clint, Clint took it in both hands, then pulled it close to his chest to give it a tight hug.

"I never wanted anything so much as this," Clint said, his eyes closed in contentment. "Never anything in my whole life."

"Don't forget to say thank you," James said, setting Natasha on her feet so she could inspect the bow close-up.

Clint opened his eyes. "Thank you," he whispered, smiling at his father. Steve, who was smiling nearly as widely as Clint, knelt down to give Clint a hug around the bow.

Natasha patted the back of James' hand. "Daddy," she said seriously. "Clint got a new bow for his birthday."

"Yes, he did," James agreed, as Clint pushed his father away so he could continue with the inspection of his new weapon.

"And he got a new scooter, and a kite, and a fart balloon."

"Yup." James moved the bow case back from the table's edge, closing the lid on easy access to the arrows. "Are you thinking about what you want for your birthday?"

Natasha nodded.

"Well," James said, crouching down, "How about when you have an idea, you can write it down in your notebook? And then when we get close to your birthday, you can show me and tell me what you want?"

"That's a good idea," Natasha declared. "Because, if I told you now, I might change my mind when I grow up," she said earnestly.

James, who only had Trip to Disneyland on his list for Natasha's next birthday, kissed her on the cheek and said, "Now, let's go see what present Clint wants to play with first."

Unsurprisingly, Clint wanted to take his new bow outside. Steve retrieved the makeshift target from where he'd hidden it behind the house and together they all went down onto the beach, away from anything Clint could damage with a wayward shot. Clint was so absorbed in his bow that he didn't even notice Natasha standing there, watching him. After a few minutes, Natasha joined James up the beach, her shoulders slumped in disappointment.

"He doesn't want to play with me," Natasha said sadly.

James put his arm out, and Natasha collapsed against his side. "Clint just got something very special for his birthday," James said. "Give him a little time to play with it, okay?"

Natasha rubbed her nose on James' shoulder. "Okay," she said, still bummed.

"Hey." James patted Natasha's back. "How about we go back into the house to get your hat, then we can build a sandcastle, just you and me?"

Natasha pulled back to look at James, surprise on her face. "Dads can't build sandcastles," she said. "They're too old."

James stuck his tongue out at her. "Are not."

Natasha giggled. "Are too."

"Are not." James scooped Natasha up onto his shoulder and stood, Natasha kicking and giggling. "Come on, hat first."

In the house, James retrieved Natasha's hat, the sunscreen, and the beach toys, then, on his way out the door, picked up Clint's sunhat. Together, Natasha and James walked down to the beach, picking a nice spot in the damp sand a fair distance away from Clint and Steve.

"Start digging," James instructed. "I'll be right back." Natasha adjusted the strap of her sun hat before driving the toy spade into the sand. James hurried over to where Steve was supervising Clint's archery. "Here," he said, tossing the hat at Steve. "In case Clint needs it."

"Thanks, Bucky," Steve said, most of his attention on Clint. "That went pretty well, don't you think?"

"I think Clint nearly vibrated out of his skin in excitement," James agreed. He turned slightly so he could keep an eye on Natasha. "Good idea. And hey, I'll pay you back for the sunglasses."

Steve took his eyes off Clint and looked at James in surprise. "You don't have to," he said.

"Those sunglasses ain't cheap," James protested.

"No, it's not that," Steve said. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Tony's working on some damage-proof eyewear for a new industrial safety line. He thought if the kids can't wreck them, then they can start moving forward with wider testing."

James narrowed his eyes. His first reaction was to tell Tony Stark where he could shove his experimental safety glasses, but he also knew Steve, and Steve would never let anything near Clint or Natasha if there was any possibility of harm coming to them. "Thanks, then," he said.

Steve beamed at him. "Good choice of books," he said, turning his attention back to Clint, who had already sunk three arrows into the target. "And where did you find that tie?"

"In the store where I bought her fancy dress," James said. "She saw the rack of ties and wouldn't leave until we had picked out the best one for Clint."

"She's a great friend," Steve mused.

"She's a good girl," James agreed. "Now, I have to go dig in the sand before I get disowned."

Steve's parting slap on the back nearly knocked James off his feet, but he just shook his head and kept going. Natasha was sitting on her heels in the sand, glaring at James behind her sunglasses. "Daddy!" she scolded. "You said we could build sandcastles together!"

"And we are," James agreed. He dropped to his knees in the sand. "Now, sweet pea, tell me what to do first."


The rest of the day was idyllic. After half an hour of archery practice, Steve made Clint stop so he could rest his muscles, and even that wasn't enough to send the boy into a tailspin. The children played in the sand, then they flew Skye's kite until it was time for a snack.

After the snack, Steve sat with the children on the couch, reading the beginning of Captain Underpants with them while James cleaned up. Then it was time for another swim, and the afternoon was spent lounging pool-side. Well, not exactly lounging, but James did get ten uninterrupted minutes of sitting under the waterfall while Clint and Natasha had a serious discussion with Steve around the nature of birds and their similarities to dinosaurs.

Steve ducked away at five to pick up the cake from the delivery van at the front gate, leaving James to cajole the children down to the house with the promise of the upcoming hamburger dinner. After two rounds in the pool in one day, he got the children into a bubble bath to wash off the chlorine, entertaining them with stories of his time working on construction sites as a teenager. Then it was out of the tub and time to get dressed, while Steve was downstairs on the patio outside the house, starting up the grill for the evening's dinner.

Dinner was delicious, with Steve's homemade hamburgers cooked to perfection. Steve also roasted some of the heirloom tomatoes over the open flame, drizzled with a little olive oil, and after the first bite James was certain he'd never be able to eat a regular tomato ever again.

Clint demolished his hamburger, making an utter mess of his shirt, while Natasha gave up after her first bite and made James cut up her burger into bite-sized pieces for her to dip in the ketchup.

Things were going so well that James wasn't entirely surprised when, after Steve lit the candles on Clint's birthday cake and set it before the little boy, Clint burst into tears.

Steve picked Clint up, trying to shush him as the boy wailed on his shoulder. Natasha stared in alarm, while James, sensing this may take a while, snuffed out the candles before pulling Natasha onto his lap.

"Why's Clint sad?" Natasha demanded, clutching at James' shirt collar.

"He's not sad," James said, kissing the top of Natasha's head. "He's very excited and he has lots of feelings right now. Remember how when you have lots of feelings, your insides get all twirled up?"

"Oh yes," Natasha said, her expression clearing. "I feeled like that all the time, when I was a little baby. But Clint's a big boy."

"No matter how old you get," James told his daughter, "You are always going to have days where you have lots of feelings on the inside. I do."

"But you don't cry."

"Not often," James agreed. Across the table, Clint was settling down, Steve talking quietly into his good ear. "But I cry sometimes when I'm happy."

"Like when?" Natasha demanded suspiciously.

"Like when I adopted you," James replied honestly. "When we went to sign your adoption papers, and I became your forever-dad, I cried because I was happy."

Natasha looked at James with very green eyes. "That was a good day," she said. "You're the best daddy. The best," she repeated for emphasis.

"And you are the best daughter," James said. "How about a big hug?"

Natasha threw her arms around his neck, squeezing him tight. He returned the hug, looking over Natasha's head to where Steve was just sitting back down with Clint. Steve looked back at James, and smiled.

When Natasha let go of James' neck, they went over to the sink where James wet a cloth towel, then back to the table they went. Natasha held the towel out to Clint solemnly.

"After you have feelings," Natasha told him, "Sometimes you need to wipe your face."

Clint took the damp towel from Natasha, wiped his face with the cool cloth, then handed it to his father. "This is the best birthday I ever had," Clint told Natasha, the remnants of sniffles in his voice. "I saw the sun wake up, and went to the pool, and got a new bow, and now there's a cake with a bird on it!"

"All those things are fun," Natasha agreed, climbing back onto her chair. "Daddy, make the candles go."

Lighting the candles once more, everyone sang Clint 'Happy Birthday', then Clint blew the candles out with a minimum of spit on the icing. Everyone had a piece of cake, and Clint got the piece with the special fondant purple bird on top.

They ended the day with a fire in the house's large fireplace, as the breeze was picking up and James thought it too cold for the children to sit outside. The kids were nodding off by ten, and it was the work of only a few minutes to get the little ones upstairs, into their pajamas, and into bed. Clint was asleep before Steve pulled the sheet up over his chest, while Natasha hung on for three lines of a story before she was out.

As quietly as possible, James and Steve tiptoed downstairs. For a few minutes, they just sat in front of the fire, soaking up the silence. "You want to clean up?" Steve finally asked, sinking lower onto the couch.

James stared at the brightly crackling flames. "You mean now, or ever?"

Steve groaned. "How the hell do two children make such a mess?"

"Entropy," James said, who didn't really remember much of anything from his high school science classes. "Hey, is there a laundromat in town? I should head in and do a load tomorrow."

"We can use the machines up at the big house," Steve said.

James reached out with one foot to poke Steve in the thigh. "Look at you, living all high."

Steve caught James' ankle, giving it a shake before letting him go. "If I was living high, I'd ask Lucy to do the laundry for me."

"No, you wouldn't, because I would kick your ass," James told him. "Stark probably has high tech everything, right?"

"Yeah."

"Think the kids would want to try out the washing machine tomorrow?"

"Can't hurt." Steve yawned. "What else are we doing tomorrow?"

"It's Monday, so whatever we want, I guess." James pushed himself to his feet, his back aching. "Skye told me about the parks around here, we could take the kids on a hike. Or to the lighthouse."

"Maybe not tomorrow." Steve didn't move as James put another piece of driftwood on the fire. "Give Clint some time to play with his bow. He's getting better on the draw."

"Make sure he doesn't overdo it," James cautioned as he dropped back onto the couch. "Pull a muscle or something."

"Don't worry, I got the lecture from Clint's archery instructor," Steve said. He ran his hand over his face. "Today was a good one."

"It was." James turned his head so he could see Steve. The fire's glow illuminated the man's perfect face, the soft fabric of his t-shirt riding up on his stomach to show a line of skin above his waistband. James swallowed, but did not look away. "So, um, any word from Sharon?"

Steve shook his head. "Not even a text. Clint held up okay, but… yeah. It may hit him tomorrow."

James thought back to the one time he had met Sharon Carter, the desperate look on her face as she hugged her little boy good-bye. And the handgun concealed in the waistband of her trousers. He hoped that wherever Sharon Carter was, she was okay, and would be able to come home one day. Clint needed his mother in his life.

While James kept his thoughts to himself, Steve turned to look at James. He smiled at James, slow and soft, and the warmth in the man's face curled in James' stomach. "I'm glad you're here, Bucky," Steve said quietly. "Thanks for staying."

"You were right," James said, ignoring the thrill down his spine at Steve's words. "It's good, to be here. With the kids." God, he sounded like an idiot. "And that nap today, I needed that."

"Like I said, anything you need," Steve said, still smiling. "We've got a whole 'nother week here, it's going to be great."

In spite of the warmth of the fire and the calm after a long day, James felt a sliver of worry slide through his mind. He wanted to believe Steve, he really did, but he had been through too much in his life to ever really believe that things were going to stay good.

Still, Steve didn't need his negativity. James made himself smile. "Yeah," James said. "It's going to be great."

James really, really hoped that he hadn't just jinxed himself on that one.

Chapter Text


Pat pat pat.

James gave a grunt and tried to roll over.

Pat pat pat.

Coming more fully awake, James blinked. The loft ceiling overhead was softly lit, telling James that the sun had indeed risen, despite his own exhaustion.

Pat pat pat.

"Morning, Clint," James said with a sigh, turning his head.

"Hi." Clint shuffled closer to James, leaving his fingers on the back of James' hand where he had been delivering his attention-getting pats. "Can I go shoot my bow?"

James sat up slowly "What time is it?"

Clint, who was not wearing his glasses, gave a shrug. "It's not too early," he said.

Yawning, James reached for his phone. It was barely after six. "Well," James said. "It's later than you got up yesterday."

"Please can I go shoot my bow?" Clint begged, staring owlishly up at James. "Please?"

James yawned again. "Sure," he said, and had to dive to catch Clint before the boy started yelling in his excitement. "But first, you need to do five things."

"What things?" Clint demanded.

"Hold up your hand." As Clint did so, James reached out to touch the end of the boy's thumb. "First, you gotta go put on your glasses, and then your hearing aid." He tapped the boy's index finger. "Then, go to the bathroom." A tap on Clint's middle finger. "And," James gently pinched the tip of Clint's ring finger. "Put on some shorts."

Clint looked puzzled. "But what else do I do?" he asked, holding his pinkie finger up to the sky.

"After you're done all that, and quietly, go have a glass of milk." James held his hand flat. "High five."

Clint slapped James' hand, then darted off into his bedroom. James stood up with another yawn and made his way over to Steve's bedroom door. The door was half-way shut, and from the doorway James could see Steve's sleeping form, a sheet tangled around his lower body.

James stood watching Steve sleep for a few minutes, only being roused from his stupor by the sound of Clint's bare feet pattering on the way to the bathroom. Carefully, James slipped into the room. He wondered if he should just retrieve the bow case from under the bed and not wake Steve, but no; if the situations had been reversed, and Natasha had asked Steve to take her outside, James would want to be woken up to know about it.

"Steve."

Steve didn't move.

"Steve." James touched Steve gently on the shoulder. "Stevie."

"Uuggh." Steve twitched, opened his eyes briefly, then blinked a few times before focusing on James. "What's it?"

"Everything's fine," James said soothingly, crouching so he wasn't looming over the sleeping man. "Clint woke me up, he wants to go out shooting."

Steve blinked a few more times. In the soft light trickling in from the covered window, all gentle from sleep, the man seemed unreal. "I can get up and go," Steve said after a moment, rubbing his eyes.

"No, I've got it," James said. "You sleep. We'll be just outside."

It was a good indication of exactly how tired Steve was that he just blinked up at James. "Yeah," he said after a moment. "Come get me if Clint needs anything."

"We'll be fine," James reassured him. "I'll leave the door open in case Natasha wakes up."

Steve rolled onto his side, closing his eyes again. Fighting the urge to watch Steve sleep some more, James pulled the bow case out from under Steve's bed and moved as quietly as possible out of the room.

Clint was still in the bathroom, so James quickly changed into a clean pair of shorts (he really did have to do laundry; when these shorts got dirty all he'd have left was his old PT shorts from his Ranger days, not exactly the modern fashion) and a clean t-shirt. He left his prosthetic arm on the charging station. Having watched Steve helping Clint string the bow the day before, James was pretty sure he could accomplish the task short-handed.

Hefting the bow case, James poked his head into the children's bedroom. Natasha lay on her stomach, one hand clutching Bear's paw. She had kicked the sheets off the bed in the night, but it was already so warm that James let her be. Covering her up again would only cause her to wake hot and irritated.

James headed downstairs. He set the bow case by the front door and was making a double-strong cup of coffee when Clint hurried downstairs. He wore his glasses and hearing aid, the sandy shorts from the previous day, and an expectant expression on his face. "Let's go!" the boy exclaimed quietly. "Let's go shoot arrows!"

"Milk first." James made Clint sit at the table. He poured the boy a glass, and before he even had the jug back in the fridge, Clint had chugged half the milk in one go. When Clint came up for air, James said, "You going to be okay?"

Clint panted for breath. "Yeah," he said, and proceeded to chug the rest of the milk. He set the glass down and wiped his mouth on the back of his arm, staring at James expectantly.

James knew when he was beat. Pouring the coffee into a thermos he'd found in the back of the cupboard, he spun on the lid and tucked the thermos under his left arm stump. "Come on, peanut, let's go."

Clint ran to the door, opened the deadbolt and tore out into the early morning. He ran all the way down to the high tide mark by the time James had made it to the place where they'd left the target the day before. Clint skipped back up the sand, taking a running jump to land beside James. "I'm ready!" Clint exclaimed. He punched the air. "Let's go!"

It wasn't quite as easy as that. First, they had to re-position the target so Clint wouldn't be staring directly into the rising sun. Then, they had to string the bow, an activity that would have frustrated James even if he'd had two hands.

Only then did James let Clint loose, providing verbal support around sips of coffee as the boy shot arrow after arrow into the target.

By contrast to the day before, Clint chattered non-stop as he set the bow down to gather up his arrows. James nodded and answered when Clint paused for breath, but the boy was quite content to talk on as he practiced.

James reflected on the boy's excitement. Was he more talkative than normal this morning because he was enjoying himself? Or was it because Natasha, a chatterbox herself, was not around to talk over him? James made a mental note to watch the children that day, to see if it was a case of Natasha not letting Clint talk when he wanted to, or if Clint was content with the dynamics between them. James suspected the latter, but it was always a good idea to check those assumptions.

Clint fired his last arrow, set the bow down, and ran over to the target. He had hit the round target with ten of his twelve arrows, and three arrows had penetrated the bulls-eye ring. His aim, while not as good as it had been at his lessons with his old familiar bow, was improving.

"I'm gonna shoot this one first!" Clint exclaimed as he ran back to James' side, brandishing a fist-full of arrows. "Because this was my best shot!"

"Good plan," James said. He waited as Clint set the arrows on top of the closed bow case, laying them out carefully. "After this round, we're going to take a break, okay?"

Clint adjusted an arrow. "No."

"No?" James raised his eyebrows. "Why not?"

"I'm gonna do this all day."

"No, you're not." James put his hand on the bow, preventing Clint from picking it up. The boy pouted at him. "Clint, can I talk to you, man to man?"

Clint hesitated. His obvious desire to keep up target practice warred with his need for grown-up talk. "Yeah, okay," Clint finally said, crouching down next to his bow. His fingers wrapped around the grip possessively.

"Have you ever heard of cross-training?"

"No."

"Well, it's something that we did when I was in high school, on the track team." James sat forward. "It's when you're working really hard on something, you also need to train other areas of your body, to give yourself time to rest and to be better balanced."

Clint stared up at him, wide-eyed and uncomprehending.

"So, like, if you do a lot of work on shooting arrows, you should also take some time to run around and climb things, and go swimming."

Clint sat back on his heels, rubbing his face with his hand. "I did all that yesterday," he reminded James, sticking his tongue out at the sky.

"Yeah, well, you did." James abandoned his rational reasoning. "After this round, we're going to walk down to the water for a little bit, okay?"

"Okay," Clint said, although his expression indicated that he was not a happy camper. Glowering slightly, he picked up the bow and his first arrow, and went back to work.

He spoke less, focusing more on his aim, and shortly he had fired his last arrow. Dragging his feet, he helped James gather up the arrows, set them and the bow on top of the case, and let James take his hand as they walked down to the water.

His spirits revived as James took him over to the rocks and they looked in crevices and in little pools. Clint poked at the tiny aquatic animals, exclaiming loudly over a starfish curled up on the rocks and pointing up at the birds flying overhead.

All told, they meandered down by the water for nearly half an hour when Clint's stomach started to rumble loudly. At James' question, the boy declared loudly that he was not hungry, that he wanted to go practice again.

"All right," James said as he held up his hand for a high-five. "Then we'll go get some breakfast, okay?"

Walking back up the rise to the target, James looked up when the door of the house opened and Steve came out, carrying Natasha, still in her pajamas. Clint waved vigorously at his father as he ran over to his bow. James lifted his hand in a greeting, trying not to think about how good Steve looked, hair rumpled, in a faded t-shirt stretched tight over his upper body. The man was carrying Natasha on one arm, his other arm patting her back, and it took James a moment to realize that Natasha was clinging to Steve in a way she only did when she was upset.

"Morning," James called as Steve neared. "Clint is getting really good."

"Uh huh!" Clint agreed. He expertly nocked an arrow. "Daddy, look at me. Are you looking?"

"I'm looking," Steve said, smiling at Clint. Clint turned, sighted, and let loose his arrow. It landed in the bottom left of the target.

"I'm gonna do that again," Clint said, bending to pick up another arrow.

Steve stopped close by James' side. "Hey," he said quietly. Natasha was curled up on Steve's arm, her face tucked in against his neck. "Natasha's having a tough morning. She woke up crying."

James reached out his hand to stroke Natasha's hair. "Nat, honey, you want to come to me?"

A pause, during which Clint successfully shot off another arrow, and Natasha slowly sat up on Steve's arm. Her eyes red, she reached for James without a word.

"Oh dear," James said, gathering Natasha up out of Steve's hold with only a small amount of effort. His daughter wrapped her arms around his neck in a choking embrace. "Let's you and me go in the house, okay, sweet pea?" He felt Natasha nod.

"We'll be out here," Steve said, patting Natasha's back.

"We'll get breakfast started," James said, rocking Natasha gently like he had when she was a baby. "Come in when Clint's hungry." After a smile at Steve, and one last look at Clint intent on the target, James walked back to the house, humming in Natasha's ear. She snuffled and wiggled on his arm, holding on to him tight. "How does that sound?" he asked. "We can make a yummy breakfast for everyone, and then we'll eat it up, all right?"

"No," Natasha wailed against his shoulder.

"No?" James walked through the house door, then headed to the couches by the fireplace. He sat, letting Natasha's weight shift from his arm to his lap. "You aren't hungry?"

After a moment, Natasha let go of James' neck and looked up at him. Fresh tears were in her eyes. Wiping her nose on her pajama sleeve, she shrugged.

"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"

Natasha flopped against James' chest, balling her hand up in his shirt. She didn't speak.

James kissed the top of her head. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"I don't remember," she said, turning her cheek into his chest.

"What happened when you woke up? Why were you sad?" James pressed.

Natasha gave a huge sniff. "Dr. Snapples misses me," she said, looking up at James. "So does Tock."

"I see." Natasha's stuffed animals, aside from Bear, had been left at home, with strict instructions from Natasha for Skye to keep them company while she was house-sitting. "What about Tick?"

"Tick sleeps all the time," Natasha said. "But the others miss me."

"Does that make you sad?" James asked, starting to get an inkling of the problem.

 Natasha rubbed her eyes. "I don't know."

"This is the first time we've been away from home overnight," James said, nudging Natasha until she was sitting on his left leg, curled up against his shoulder. "That's a really big deal."

"I wasn't scared," Natasha was quick to point out. "Not once!"

"I know." James held out his hand to let Natasha take hold of his fingers. "But everyone gets homesick sometimes. Even me."

"What's homesick?" Natasha asked, staring up at him with brilliant green eyes.

"That's when you miss your home, and your bed, and knowing where everything is, and you get sad." James squeezed Natasha's hand. "When I joined the Army, I missed my own bed a lot. And all the laundry smelled weird because they used a different soap."

"I miss my room," Natasha confessed. "And Dr. Snapples. And Skye."

"We'll be going home in a week," James reminded her. "And Skye's taking extra-good care of our house while we're gone."

Natasha let out a sigh. "I know that," she said, sounding more like her usual self. "But what if Dr. Snapples is sad because she thinks I'll never come home?"

"I have an idea." James reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone. "How about we send Skye a message? To tell her that Dr. Snapples needs an extra hug?"

"Koalas don't like hugs," Natasha said, shaking her head at the obtuseness of adults. "They want to sleep. And to watch Mulan."

"All right," James said. He unlocked his phone. "Now, what should we tell Skye?"

Putting the message together took the better part of ten minutes, mostly because Natasha went off on a tangent midway through, concerning plans for her sixth birthday that involved a cake with three layers and dinosaurs, Daddy, candy dinosaurs you can eat. Father and daughter eventually agreed upon the message, which asked Skye to tell all of Natasha's stuffed animals that the little girl was having a marvelous time at a swimming pool and that they should keep all their hugs for her when she came back home.

James tacked on that the kids missed Skye and that he hoped her week would go well. Hitting send, James tucked the phone away to carry Natasha upstairs to wash her face and to get started on the day.

Clint and Steve came in just as James was adding a bowlful of beaten eggs to the frying pan. Natasha jumped down from the chair at James' side to run over to Clint. "Good morning," Natasha said solemnly. "You are six years old and one day."

Clint nodded. "I think I will get a job."

"What kind of job?" Natasha asked, pulling on her earlobe. "You have a scooter, you can go to a job far away."

"I will be a dinosaur man," Clint declared, going over to the table. Natasha followed. "I will have a dinosaur and take him to the circus and we will play with the lions."

"I will play in the circus and I will walk on the elephants," Natasha said. "We will be in the circus together."

James shook his head. "You two can join the circus after you set the table. Come on, we'll be eating in a few minutes."

"That smells really good," Steve said, hovering over the frying pan. "What is it?"

"Leftovers and scrambled eggs," James said. Without thinking, he slapped at Steve's hand before the man could reach in to grab a slice of chopped-up ham. "Stop it, you'll get worms."

"Will not," Steve said, ducking away from James, taking a sliver of shredded cheese with him. "You're such a good cook."

James turned to the frying pan, not sure what to say. He personally thought he was all right in the kitchen; he'd been cooking for Natasha for years, and Clint ate James' cooking without complaint. Still, no adult had ever complimented James' cooking before.

"How's Natasha doing?" Steve asked, his voice quiet. "She was pretty upset when she woke up."

"She's fine," James said. Talking about Natasha was the safest option. "A little homesick. We talked it out."

"Good." Steve reached for another sliver of cheese. "It's always hard when the kids are upset."

"Yeah." James tapped the spatula on the side of the frying pan. "Hey, thanks for looking out for her this morning. I really appreciate it."

Steve smiled at James, big and bright and cheerful. "Anytime," he said. "Either of you two ever need anything, I'm there for you."

He was staring at James with such wide, unblinking sincerity that James' stomach twisted. How was James supposed to be able to handle a life alone when Steve kept making such sweeping pronouncements like this? James made himself look down at the frying pan. "Thanks," he said, mouth dry. "Just… You too. You and Clint, I mean."

Steve's hand settled on James' shoulder, heavy and warm. "Good," Steve said, far too close to James' ear, then he pulled away, already turning to the table to see what the children were up to.

James was left to cook in peace, if one could call weak knees and butterflies in the stomach peace.

Breakfast, which consisted of the egg scramble, toast, leftover salad for Steve, and enough coffee to keep a squadron going, went perfectly. Clint and Natasha finished before the adults, so Clint went to retrieve the first Captain Underpants book. The children giggled their way through Steve's reading, while James watched them all fondly as he ate his toast.

After breakfast, Steve sent the children upstairs to keep themselves occupied while he and James did the dishes. The house settled into a soft hum, with the children's voices faintly audible, while James washed the dishes for Steve to dry. The cozy contended feeling made the lingering tension in James' shoulders loosen. Nothing to worry about here, no need to keep his guard up that someone might see something they shouldn't, no need to pretend he was someone he wasn't. It was just Steve, and the kids, and James.

"What are we going to do today?" Steve asked after a while, putting the coffee mugs back into the cupboard. "Besides the pool."

"Laundry," James said. "I should do a run into town; the kids are going through the milk faster than I thought."

"Sounds good." Steve came back over to James' side. His elbow brushed against James' arm, sending a quiet thrill down James' spine. "I might need to go for a run later."

"Okay." James set a soapy plate in the second sink basin. "Got ants in your pants?"

Steve smiled. "No, I need to stretch my legs. Most days at work, I can get a workout in at lunch time."

"Sure, no problem." James waited until Steve was drying another coffee cup before saying, "It's also a lot to be around the kids all day."

Steve wiped a droplet of water off the cup's handle. "They never really stop, do they?"

"Not unless they're asleep, and not even then," James agreed. "At home they're less… I dunno, chaotic."

"There's all kinds of new stuff here for them to get into." Steve tossed his dishtowel over his shoulder as he edged in next to James to rinse the soapy dishes in the sink. "I'm glad they have each other, though. It's good they're friends."

"Sure is," James said fervently. He could just imagine what Natasha might get herself into if he'd taken her to the beach, just the two of them. Then, if he hadn't met Steve Rogers in that grocery store parking lot, he would never have been spending a week in the Hamptons in the first place. "So, you want to stay here for your run while I take the kids into town?"

"Sounds good." Steve set the last of the dishes into the drying rack. "I'll take care of the laundry too."

"What would I do without you?" James said, partly as a joke. But the moment the words were out of his mouth, he realized what he had said, and all of his hard-won relaxation deserted him. What if Steve got the wrong idea? What if he thought James was trying to hit on him? James had known some straight guys when he was in the Army, who had been fine hanging around with gay guys right up until they thought the gay man was hitting on them, then they just turned on a pin and flipped out.

Steve was already turning around. James tensed, wondering if this was where Steve freaked out on him, told him to fuck off, to get away from him and his son. But all Steve did was to gently slap James on the back, grinning as he said, "Hope I never have to find out, huh?"

Then Steve was heading upstairs, calling out to the children that he was going to go to the pool and did they know any kids who wanted to go swimming today? while James clung to the countertop, trying to breathe his way through the force of memory.

Steve was not like the guys James knew in the Army. Steve didn't care that James was gay. He still gave James the occasional pat on the back, and even rarer hugs, but he never pulled away from James in disgust or revulsion.

Steve wasn't like any other man James had ever met, and some days James just didn't understand him.

"Daddy."

James started. Natasha was standing at his side, holding out her bathing suit in both hands. "Hey, Nat," James said as he crouched down to her level. "You all ready to go swimming?"

"No." She showed him the strap of her suit. A thread had come loose. "It's broken."

James inspected the strap. The thread seemed more decorative than functional. "That's easy to fix," he said. "Do you want me to show you how you can fix that yourself?"

Natasha beamed at him. "Yeah!"

"All right." James draped the bathing suit over Natasha's arm, then tossed the girl up over his shoulder. "Scissors, to the rescue!"

Natasha squealed all the way up the stairs.


The morning was spent poolside. Clint braved the deep end of the big pool, drawing Natasha over to dangle her feet in the water, then, daringly, to actually go into the water, holding onto the side the whole time, and James had to be right there beside her in case the invisible octopus that lives in the drain came out to get her.

James, long used to Natasha's imagination, went with it.

The children only allowed themselves to be hauled out of the pool when they were starving. Lunch was chicken salad, in sandwich form for the children, and on lettuce for the adults. Then after a quick shower and change of clothes (and Clint and James donning hearing aid and prosthetic arm, respectively), James packed the children into the jeep and off they went into town, Steve waving at them as they drove away.

James' first stop on arriving in town was, admittedly, a bit of psychological blackmail. He took the children down the beach to an ice cream stand, where everyone got a cone of their choosing. Clint and Natasha, stunned by this unexpected good fortune, sat on a bench to eat their ice cream, giving James a full minute of uninterrupted relaxation.

As soon as the ice cream was gone and sticky hands and mouths washed with water from a nearby water fountain, they headed off to the library, a large stone building three blocks from the beach.

The library was air-conditioned and nearly empty. The children clutched at James' hands as he led them toward the children's area, with its small chairs and colourful posters on the walls. "Now," James said, crouching down to talk to the children in his inside-voice. "What do you want to do?"

Natasha put her hand up in the air. "I want to read a book, all by myself," she said.

Clint rubbed his nose. "I want to go home and shoot my bow."

"Right." James looked around. "Natasha, how about you go look at those books over there?" he said, pointing at a display of picture books. "Clint, let's go see if we can find a book about archery."

Natasha flung herself at the display, pulling down a sparkly pink book with kittens on the front. Clint dragged his heels as James pulled him over to the librarian's desk, but was soon cheered when the woman found a large picture book of medieval weaponry, including a section on archery around the world.

Thanking the librarian, James guided Clint over to where Natasha was sitting, set the boy up on a chair of his own, and sat on the floor between them. He meant to check his work email, but instead he just watched the children read. Natasha was speaking to herself as she sounded out the words on the page, while Clint poured over his picture book with wide eyes and an open mouth.

It was a shame Steve was missing this, James thought, and unobtrusively took a few pictures of Natasha and Clint for the man to see later.

Finally, James leaned against the wall, the slight strain in his back easing. He could get used to this: hanging out with the kids, knowing they'd all see Steve again in a few hours. He wondered what Steve was doing at that very minute. Maybe he was doing laundry back at the big house. Or maybe he'd finished that and was out for his run around the estate. James had a mental picture of Steve in his running gear; a tight t-shirt and running shorts to show off his long, muscular legs. He'd probably run until he was hot and sweaty, his skin flushed with exertion, then he'd go up to the guest house for a shower, stepping out of his running clothes, walking naked across the large bathroom—

"What's this word?" Natasha demanded, shoving her book in front of James' nose.

James moved the book back from his face. "Pedestrian," he said. "Do you know what that means?"

Natasha pursed her lips. "It means, you walk on the street," she said. "Mrs. Singh told us that."

James shook his head. He could fantasize about Steve later, preferably when they were all back home in Brooklyn and James wouldn't see the man every waking minute. "How about you read to me for a little bit, okay?"

"Okay," Natasha said. She pulled her chair closer to James. "Listen to me, Daddy, I can read real good."

Sparing a glance at Clint, who was still absorbed in his book, James bent his head to listen to his daughter's halting recitation of her story.


Their library stay lasted a little over two hours, in which Natasha read three books herself, then James read the beginning of Matilda to the children. Clint held onto his archery book throughout, and when it was time to leave he refused to put it down. James had to promise that they would find the same book in the Brooklyn library, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and even then Clint made James take several photographs of a few pages to tide Clint over.

Out on the street, James was about to herd the children back to the jeep, to do the milk run before driving back to the estate, when his phone pinged with a new text. Hey new idea Lucy says we gotta try the Italian place in town for dinner.

when

How about tonight? I can meet you in town.

how i hve car

I'll catch a ride from the gardener, he's leaving in half an hour. Meet you where?

James looked around, spotting a small playground a block away. "Hey kids, do you want to go try out those swings?" he asked, pointing.

"Okay," Natasha said, reaching out to take Clint's hand. "We walk together."

"Yeah!" Clint said, grinning. He swung Natasha's hand in his. "Best friends hold hands. Like that!" he pointed down the street, where a teenage couple were sauntering down the sidewalk, hand in hand.

James opened his mouth to correct Clint, changed his mind, and said, "Holding hands is what friends do, all right."

They all set off, James texting Steve about the park. It was a nice sunny day, a little humid, but the kids didn't seem to mind as they ran over to the swings.

The benches around the park were crowded, so James sat on a section of low wall. Clint and Natasha seemed okay, so James opened his email and set to work. Maria was handling most of the work that week, but with all the projects Winterhill Security had on the go, James didn't want to let things go too long without his attention.

He got through a few emails, and had scheduled a call with Maria for Tuesday to deal with a few things that concerned him about one of their projects in Queens, when he heard Natasha's voice lift sharp above the playground hubbub. Looking up, he saw that Clint and Natasha were standing by their swing, each clutching the chain, as a few older boys, probably seven or eight years old, loomed menacingly. Natasha was glaring up at the biggest boy, snapping back at him. Clint was gripping the chain tight, not speaking.

James was on his feet before he had time to fully process the scene. He'd read on all the parenting blogs about the value in letting children sort out their own problems on the playground, but they were in a strange city and he wasn't ever going to make his children go up against pushy older kids on their own.

"Hey, everyone," James said, pocketing his phone as he approached the group. "Nat, Clint, you want to swing some more?"

Natasha turned to her father, her face red with frustration. "Daddy, he said that girls aren't allowed to swing!" she exclaimed. "That's dumb!"

James crouched down between Clint and Natasha. "Girls can go on swings just like boys," he said easily. "Girls and boys both can do anything they like."

The group of boys looked a mixture of abashed and mutinous. James, who had fairly strict principles against parenting other people's children, patted Natasha on the back.

"How about I push you and Clint on this swing?" he said. "It's a busy playground, we can take turns on this one."

"Okay," Clint said, before Natasha could protest. "Natasha, you can go first."

James hauled his daughter up and onto the swing before she could find something to argue about, leaving the other boys to clamber onto the empty swing. He stepped back to give Natasha a gentle push, and nearly tripped over Clint. The little boy had put James between him and the other boys, clutching his pant leg tight.

Wishing Steve were there, James gave Clint a reassuring pat on the shoulder, then returned to pushing Natasha. After a few minutes, the children switched places, and Natasha took the opportunity to attempt to shimmy up the swings' support poles.

When James called time to switch again, Clint got off the swing and said in a quiet voice, "I don't want to swing any more."

"What do you want to do?" James asked.

"I want to go climb."

"All right." James looked at Natasha. "Nat, do you want to swing, or go climb with Clint?"

"Climb," Natasha said immediately. "Clint can climb so high. I can climb high too!"

Off they went to the playground apparatus, leaving the swing behind to be pounced on by the boys. James wondered if Clint or Natasha would comment on this, but Clint had his jaw set, and Natasha was intent on Clint.

At the playground apparatus, instead of taking hold of the hand grips, Clint took hold of the outside joints and began to scale the thing like a monkey. Natasha giggled and followed her friend, taking the normal route.

Hoping the crisis had been averted, even if temporarily, James stood around to spot Clint on his mad climbing routine. Steve showed up a while later, joining James on the playground with, "Hey, how's it going?"

James pointed at Clint, who had perched on the highest point on the playground apparatus. "I don't think he's ever coming down."

"Is he stuck? He doesn't usually get stuck."

"Nah, he's brooding." James glanced at Steve, who looked dumbfounded. "What? He's six now, lots of grown-up worries."

Steve elbowed James in the side. "I have a way to get him down." He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hey, Clint, want to go to the candy store?"

Clint looked down as an excited scream sounded from the other side of the playground apparatus. Natasha came running, her arms outstretched as she barrelled into James' legs. "Candy!" she crowed, beaming up at Steve.

Overhead, Clint had begun his descent. He jumped down the last four feet to the ground, wiped his hands on his shorts, and said, "Are we really going to get candy?"

"Yup," Steve said with a grin. "Remember, your aunt sent you candy money for your birthday."

"Okay," Clint said. "But it can't be yucky candy."

"We will make sure that all the candy passes the yum test," Steve said solemnly. "I double promise."

"Okay," Clint said again. He adjusted his glasses, rubbed his nose, sneezed, and started walking toward the sidewalk. Natasha hopped after him, her red hair bouncing in the sunlight.

Steve touched James' right wrist. "Come on," he said, his smile as bright as any star in the sky. "You don't want to miss seeing those two set loose in a candy store, do you?"

With his heart in his mouth, James shook his head. "Last one there has to pay," he said, then bolted after the children while Steve was still figuring things out.

James caught up with the children at the corner, Steve a few paces behind him. Natasha was still bouncing all over the place, but Clint was dragging his heels. Steve put his hand on Clint's shoulder and guided him over to a bus stop bench. "What's up, buddy?" Steve asked as Clint climbed onto the bench, Natasha at his side. James hung back, letting Steve handle this.

Clint shrugged, refusing to meet Steve's eyes. Natasha leaned forward and said, "Those playground boys were mean to us. They said that girls weren't allowed."

"That doesn't sound nice at all," Steve said gravely.

"I was going to kick them," Natasha went on. "I was going to kick them in the bum."

James could not let this pass. "Natasha, we don't kick people," he said sternly. "Even people who are mean to us."

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest and glared up at her father, but subsided.

Clint rubbed his nose. "Daddy," he said in a tentative voice. "Can boys and girls be friends when they are old?"

"Yes," Steve said. "Boys and girls can be friends when they are five, and when they are six, and then even when they are thirty-five."

Clint eyed his father suspiciously. "Really?"

"Yup." Steve smoothed the hair back off Clint's forehead. "I'm friends with Aunt Pepper, remember? And Bucky's best friend is Maria."

"I thought you were his best friend," Clint said.

"Maria is my other best friend," James jumped in. Steve wasn't wrong; until he had come back into James' life, Maria had been the best friend James had had in years. "Clint, you can be friends with anyone you want to be. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't be."

"Yeah!" Natasha exclaimed. She patted the back of Clint's hand. "We can be friends when we are old! When I am a grown up and I live in Disneyland, you can come live with me and be my friend!"

Clint turned to her, a smile starting on his face. "Can I bring my bow?" he asked, hopping off the bench.

"Yeah," Natasha said, following suit. "You can bring your bow and show everyone that you're better than anyone at arrows. Even better than Merida!"

"Who's that?" Clint asked.

"She has red hair and she shoots arrows!" Natasha explained. "We can watch the movie. Daddy, can we watch the movie now?"

"We can watch Brave later, sweet pea," James said. "Let's ask Steve what he wants to do."

"Well," Steve said, standing up. "First off, we have to go to the candy store so Clint can spend his birthday money."

"Yes," Clint agreed. He took Natasha's hand. "We do that."

"And then, how about some bowling?" Steve said. "It's only three, we have some time before dinner."

James looked at Steve, wondering what on earth was in his mind. "You come to the beach and you want to go bowling?"

Steve shrugged, a playful smile on his lips. "If you don't want to get beat, all you gotta do is sit this one out," he said.

"Oh, I won't get beat," James countered. "I was thinking about you, losing to a one-armed man and all that."

Steve slapped James on the back. "It's on," he said, stepping back before James could return the blow. "Come on, kids, candy time!"

Shaking his head, James followed the children and Steve down the sidewalk to the candy store. The turns this day was taking were unexpected, but so far, everything was working out great.


The visit to the candy store elevated Clint's spirits, and bowling, a new experience for both children, was a sufficient challenge to keep them going until dinner time. The Italian restaurant was a family-style place, with a view out onto the water. Clint ordered his favorite, spaghetti and meatballs, while Natasha asked for 'white cheese' sauce, which after some questioning James translated as alfredo sauce. Steve, perhaps bolstered by his afternoon run, ordered the chicken parmigiana and wine.

James, who was feeling the caloric excesses of the previous few days, got a salad with grilled chicken. He really needed to get some more exercise, he decided when the dishes came out. Splashing around in the pool wasn't enough to keep him fit.

After dinner, they all went for a walk along the boardwalk. The children were beginning to droop, as it had been a long and exciting day, but James made them complete the circuit before heading to the jeep. By the time he had driven to the grocery store, the children were asleep in their booster seats.

Steve waited in the car with the children while James ran into the store for