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Year 2

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“You could just relax a little,” Bucky suggested, and Steve grit his teeth to keep from rolling his eyes. “I heard that.”

Steve frowned. “Heard what?”

“You make a noise when you’re trying not to roll your eyes at me. It’s like a weird snort and grunt all rolled into one.” Bucky closed the carton of eggs and added them to the grocery cart. “And roll them all you want, I’m not changing my position on this.”

“You’re acting like this is the nineteenth century and somebody’s about to lose their dowry,” Steve retorted, and Bucky actually did roll his eyes before he steered the cart into the dairy aisle.

Steve sighed at his back and scratched his fingers through his hair. To be as fair as possible (even though Steve felt a little like somebody’d lit his heart on fire and then forced him to hide the light under a bushel), Bucky was at least half right about their engagement. Sharing it with even one of their friends guaranteed that the rumor mill’d start churning, and suddenly, their relationship’d belong to everyone; Stark, Darcy, and Jessica Drew’d clamp down first, of course, but the rest of the staff, their heckling, and their inevitable comments about sex toys and self-warming lubricant would follow right behind. Never mind the parents and students who’d sniff it out in record time and open them up to god-alone-knew what other color commentary. And none of that even considered Natasha’s sudden silence, or her distance, or the way she’d drifted past them in the hallway like a red-headed ghost.

But at the same time, a guy only got engaged once in his life. (At least, Steve hoped that’d be the case for him.) And when he loved you as hard as Bucky did, as loyal as Bucky did, it was natural to want to shout it from the rooftops, right?

“You can’t blame me for wanting to shout about this from the rooftops,” Steve said a minute or two later, and Bucky jerked his head up from his very serious study of non-dairy creamer. His jaw was tight, almost angling for a fight, and Steve sighed and rubbed the side of his neck. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. You might even be right about most of it. But you’ve gotta understand where I’m coming from, Buck.” When Bucky glanced back down at the containers of creamer, Steve nudged his shoulder lightly. “Just put the Thin Mint flavored stuff in the cart and talk to me.”

Bucky snorted. “Maybe I wanted something new.”

“You threatened to move back in with your mom when I bought the Almond Joy flavor last month,” Steve retorted with a little grin. “You’re not fooling anyone.”

Bucky shot him a sharp little look, but he dropped the bottle of Thin Mint creamer into the cart at the same time. For a second, Steve thought he might walk off in another huff and abandon him there, but instead, he reached back and snagged Steve by his belt loop. Steve grinned and let Bucky drag him along like that, all the way to and through the check-out line. It maybe should’ve bothered Steve—not the public display of affection as much as Bucky’s silence—but every time their eyes met, he saw the storm brewing on Bucky’s face, in his far-away gaze.

They’d barely carried all the groceries into the house before Bucky crowded up behind Steve and rested his head on the back of Steve’s shoulder.

“I love the hell out of you,” he said, his voice low. “It’s not like I don’t want the world to know it. I just want it to be ours for a couple seconds, you know? No comments, no jokes, no nosy questions about when and where and how many people and what kind of ring. Just the two of us, no interlopers.”

Steve grinned. “You’re sounding like you wanna elope.”

“If it involves you in thin linen pants on a beach, I am there,” Bucky returned. Steve laughed a little, and Bucky kissed the back of his neck. “I know it’s hard for you,” he said as he pulled away and reached for the grocery sack, “but it’s—”

“As much about Natasha as everybody else?” Bucky froze at the question, and Steve huffed a sigh. “For the record, that didn’t exactly come out the way I wanted it to.”

“What, you can’t handle being right for the hundredth time?” Bucky retorted with a shrug. He tried to sound casual, almost disinterested, but Steve couldn’t miss the tight line of his shoulders or the way he kept his head dipped, his face half-hidden from view. “I’m trying to be a better friend,” he said quietly. “I texted her, I called her, and I keep getting the silent treatment. Which, according to you, I deserve, but—”

“I never said you deserved the cold shoulder,” Steve defended.

Bucky snorted. “Either way, pretty sure that ‘hey, got engaged while you were hiding from whatever’s eating you’ isn’t the way I’m gonna mend this bridge.”

He shook his head, almost like when he cleared the cobwebs after a lousy dream, and for a few minutes, Steve just stood out of the way and watched him start filling the pantry with a sort of surgical precision. If he kept his face tilted away from Steve a little, almost like he felt some kind of shame, well—

Well, it honestly made Steve’s heart hurt a little, and he hated himself for it.

“You’ll see her tomorrow,” Steve said, shrugging when Bucky glanced up in confusion. “We’ll be back at work full-time, complete with greasy Mexican food and brain-melting staff meetings. You can corner her and apologize to her face.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Because Nat just loves being cornered.”

“Consider it revenge for all the times she cornered you and asked pointed questions about that cute art teacher across the hall.”

Bucky whipped around so sharply, he almost dropped a can of soup. “There’s no way you could know that.”

Steve smiled serenely. “She’d close your door, but I’d catch you peeking at me through the window. Sometimes, your ears’d go red.”

Bucky almost grinned. “This from the full-body blusher.”

“Nice try with the deflection, but I know better.”

“So you think,” Bucky returned, but he also shivered when Steve reached up and very gently traced the curve of his ear with his fingertips.

Late that night, after they’d organized their work bags and set their alarms, Bucky’d traced lazy patterns on Steve’s arm in bed. “She might not talk to me even if I corner her.”

Steve pressed his lips to Bucky’s shoulder. “You never know until you try.”

Phil walked into the music room and felt a pang of sadness. He missed walking in and not immediately smelling May Parker’s perfume, seeing her desk littered with coffee mugs, or hearing her sing under her breath. But that emotion quickly ebbed as he saw what updates the large classroom had been given. “Are those original pressings?” Phil asked as he walked toward the wall with new décor. A series of records and their sleeves were framed and hanging from a row of corkboard attached to the cinder block. Phil knew exactly what all the albums were titled, what tracks were on each record, and an embarrassing amount of random trivia about each. His father had raised him to love all things from the forties, including the jazz band The Howling Commandos and their lead singer, Peggy Carter.

If he had to pick a woman, it would be Peggy.

Just even thinking about the swinging tunes made Phil feel like he was on a road trip with his father on the way to some lake to go fishing. The music brought forth precious memories from his childhood and never failed to make him smile.

“I’d take them out and let you touch them for yourself, but my mom would kill me,” the new music teacher answered.

Antoine Triplett—nicknamed Trip—had been hired at the end of the previous school year to take May’s position as music teacher. Phil was immensely grateful that the man hadn’t bragged about his musical lineage in the interview, because there was no way he wouldn’t have geeked out. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Phil caught wind of the fact that Trip was the grandson of legendary jazz trumpet player, Gabe Jones.

After learning this, Phil proceeded to apparently play a little too much jazz music in the house, because Clint kept turning off his hearing aids.

“As your mentor for your first year, I have a little tradition that I do with each mentee,” Phil offered. “You’re more than welcome to come over to house for dinner once a week—or every other week if that’s too much of a commitment. My husband does the cooking, and it’s really good food. We can discuss how things are going, get some out-of-school meeting hours logged, I can help you with lesson planning—as much as I can without being a musician, and whatnot—up to you.”

“Sounds great,” Trip replied with an easy smile. “What night works best for you?”

“We have a standing engagement on Wednesday nights,” Phil said. He considered saying that Tuesdays were off-limits, too, but it’d been weeks since Natasha had come over for dinner and Phil wasn’t entirely sure if she would ever resume her weekly meal date with him and Clint. “Other than that, we’re really boring and free most nights. You’re not allergic to dogs, are you? We have a bulldog.”

“No, that’s cool. Thanks for doing all of this.”

Phil shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Trip shook his head. “Man, I’ve heard some horror stories of mentor teachers from my education program. I’m glad I’m not going to be stuck in a situation like that.”

“Thanks,” Phil said as he shuffled on his feet slightly. “Everyone here is usually really nice, especially if you ply them with coffee. Only a few people you have to avoid, like old Missus Howard.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Phil then gathered his wits long enough to run through the important things Trip would need to know: how to enter grades, who to contact in what situation, the schedule for his classes and when he’d be on recess duty. He also warned the first-year teacher about the downside of filling someone else’s shoes. “You’re going to hear a lot about how ‘that’s not how Missus Parker did things’ over your first year. Some days it will drive you insane, but just think about how the next person in this classroom will hear about all the great things you did.”

Trip nodded and gave a shy smile. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”

Phil went on to let him know about the breakfast spread Thor had set up in the cafeteria, how his group of friends sat together in the library for the staff meetings (which Trip was more than welcome to join), and how odds were good they’d be going out to lunch together today. “Not that you have to do any of that, well, I mean, you have to go to the staff meeting, but—“

“Nah, I appreciate the invitation. Thank you.”

Phil nodded and turned to leave when something gleaming in his peripheral vision caught his eye. He looked in that direction and froze. “Is that your grandfather’s trumpet?”

“Yeah,” Trip chuckled. “I think he’d want me to bring some noise and funk into my classroom, don’t you?” Phil didn’t trust himself with any other response than a polite grin. “You wanna hold it?”

“Oh, no,” Phil said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to break it.”

“It’s made of metal. Seen a lot of action, so I don’t think one new dent will make too much of a difference,” Trip reassured.

The offer was incredibly tempting, but Phil declined. “Maybe some other time.”

Trip shrugged. “It’ll be here.”

When Phil walked out of the music room, he saw Clint leaning against the wall in the hallway. His husband was smirking, arms crossed over his muscular chest, and staring intently at Phil’s crotch. “Is my fly unzipped?”

“No, I was just looking for a wet spot.” Phil rolled his eyes while Clint’s smirked grew. “If you’re going to blow his trumpet, I should at least get to watch.”

Clint laughed as Phil shoved him into the wall.

Have a good first day with the staff. Don’t kill Stark.

Principal Fury smiled at the traditional first day of school (with his staff at least) text from his wife. He was sure to get random updates from Melinda throughout the day on how the middle school was going to shake out this year. He was especially looking forward to her being on the same team as Wade Wilson. They were either going to work amazingly well together, or Melinda was going to kill him before October.

Jasper ducked into his office and placed a paper plate with a couple of frosted doughnuts on Nick’s desk. “Made sure to steal a couple good ones for you before the staff descended in their feeding frenzy.”

Nick arched an eyebrow at him. “You just happened to find time in your busy schedule to help Odinson set up the breakfast spread?”

Jasper shrugged. “Starting off the school year with a good relationship with the PTO president.”

“You still have sprinkles on your shirt.” Jasper swore and brushed himself off while Nick hid a smile. “I know how many texts I’m going to be getting from the middle school today. What about you?”

“Maria and I are keeping things professional, sir.”

“Oh, is that why you spent half of your summer in her office?” Five years ago, his assistant principal would’ve floundered around for an answer. Now he just glared at Nick; he’d been trained well. “You two do what you want as long as it doesn’t affect how my school is run. Her kids still staying with their dad?”

Jasper nodded. “At least till Christmas. Then they’ll reevaluate things.”

Nick didn’t respond to that. He hoped the kids found the stability they didn’t think they had with their mom, but his gut said the kids’ dad was a pile of shit. And his gut usually wasn’t wrong. “Well,” he said as he stood, “I guess we should get this show on the road.”

He gobbled down his doughnuts on the way there, and ignored Lewis glaring at him as he approached the library. “If your wife knew—“ she started.

“My wife is well-aware that my doctor believes me to be pre-diabetic, whatever the hell that means, and yet she bakes cookies all the damn time. Pretty sure she just married me for my life insurance policy.”

The office assistant had the nerve to look impressed, and Nick suddenly found himself pitying the men in her life more than usual.

Nick entered the library and moved to the head table where Pepper was organizing all the handouts and forms for the first half of the day’s monotonous review of rules and regulations. The guidance counselor kept glancing over her shoulder at the room’s other occupants.

The principal was proud of how well his staff bonded together. Sure, there was always a teacher or two who was hell-bent on keeping their private life private, but for the most part everyone seemed happy to be around each other. Half of the staff was practically each others’ relatives at this point, and that usually made Nick happy.

It also made him pop antacids at night for fear that something could go wrong. And apparently his fears were valid. Because instead of sitting at the long table with men who were practically her brothers, Natasha Romanoff was sitting at a table with the two teachers who didn’t believe in socializing with co-workers.

“You wanna tell me why Romanoff looks like she wants the earth to up and swallow her?” he asked Pepper.

The counselor’s eyes flickered from Natasha over to Stark’s end of the table, and Nick sighed as he spotted an extremely forlorn Bruce Banner.


He’d heard rumors about the two of them being an item, and he’d sincerely hoped it’d worked out. Both of them deserved some happiness in their life. But instead, it looked like he might have a major problem on his hands, because half of the long table seemed to be focusing on the kindergarten team leader, while the others were whispering to each other while unsubtly looking at the gym teacher.

Barton rose from his seat and stood next to Natasha, arms crossed. The two exchanged some words that Nick couldn’t quite hear before Natasha shook her head, gave in, and moved to the open seat between Barton and Danvers. At the opposite end of the table from Banner.

“Is this gonna be a problem?” Nick quietly asked Pepper.

“We’re trying very hard to not let it become one, sir.”

Nick Fury’d sat in on a lot of parent conferences with Pepper Potts over the last four school years. Which meant he knew exactly what her face looked like when she wasn’t able to fully tell the truth.

It wasn’t until they were making car pool arrangements to head out to La Mesa that Bucky realized someone’d slipped away. He pressed his hand to Steve’s back, leaned in, and said, “I’ll be right back. Leave without me if I’m gone too long.” Steve’s face turned concerned for a moment, but he nodded and played along.

Bucky spent the walk from the library to the gym with his heart thudding in his chest. Cornering Natasha was never a good idea, no matter what Steve thought. She could be like a wild animal, and when she was scared and hiding, confronting her usually resulted in both of them walking away with injuries.

He found Natasha messing with papers on her desk, and she jumped when she saw him standing in the doorway of her office. “Sorry,” he apologized as he raised his hands in a surrendering gesture.

“What are you doing here?”

“Came to ask you the same question. Why aren’t you coming to lunch?”

“I’ve got work to do.”

“We’ve all got work to do, Nat,” he said as he slowly moved into her space. “It’s forty-five minutes with your friends.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Bucky rolled his lips to keep himself from calling her out on her shifting excuses. Instead, he took note of how she continued her morning trend of avoiding any and all eye contact with him. “Natasha,” he whispered. It only caused her to still, nothing more. “Please tell me what I have to do to earn your friendship again.”

He’d apologized more times than he could count, even consulted all his sisters and his ma on what to do, but nothing seemed to work. It only served to deepen the tear in his heart that his best friend of a decade couldn’t even look at him.

“Why aren’t you telling everyone about the engagement?”

The question literally knocked Bucky back on his heels. “How did you—“

“You told me you had lunch with Steve’s mom,” Natasha answered in a tone that dripped in the mood of you’re an idiot. “Did you really think I thought you were just going to exchange favorite recipes?”

“Sorry,” he whispered.

“And you’re not telling everyone? I figured Rogers would hire a sky writer.”

Bucky scratched the back of his neck, a tic he’d picked up from Steve. “I kind of want to keep it quiet for a while.”

She stared at him intently for a moment. “I don’t need you protecting me.”

“That’s not—“


Bucky sighed and hung his head. He apparently wasn’t going to win anyone’s favor with this whole mess. “I didn’t want to rub it in your face.”

Natasha snorted. “Because the two of you aren’t sickeningly sweet all the time anyway.”


“You’re going to be late for lunch. You should go.”

She turned her back on him, and Bucky had a sudden flash back to a moment years ago. Natasha was wearing black then, even though it’d been two months after Alex’s funeral. Bucky’d been deployed overseas when his friend was buried. He’d heard from mutual friends that Natasha wasn’t handling Alex’s death all that well, which was to be expected. She'd looked thinner and empty, and it’d completely gutted Bucky. He’d made a promise then and there that he would never let her look like that again, and he’d failed.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized.

“For getting what you want?” she questioned. “That’s a stupid thing to apologize for.”

“For letting you down,” he corrected.

She shook her head. “Things fall apart, James. I don’t know why I didn’t expect any other outcome for my life.”

The silence hung heavy in the air between them, and Bucky felt at a loss on what to do. Comforting words never soothed Natasha. Physical contact like a hug could end in him limping out of her office. He knew that she was basically walking around like a spiky porcupine to keep everyone away, but he couldn’t find a weak spot in her barrier. It needed to be found soon or else he was going to lose her forever.

“I need a best man.”

The words were out of his mouth before he knew the thought was in his head. He wanted to kick himself for pulling her into wedding planning, but he needed an excuse to keep her close and talk to her often.

“Call your brother, maybe you two can have an actual conversation,” Natasha replied, face still hidden from him.

“I want it to be you,” he told her, and that finally caused her to look up at him. “I know it’s really shitty of me to drown you in wedding planning when you’re going through this, but your best man is supposed to be your best friend, and you’re the only person in the world who fits that bill.”

He could see the rebuttal on her lips and he held his breath. “I don’t know,” she started. “Shouldn’t you pick a sister?”

“You are my sister,” he replied honestly. “C’mon. Put on a hot dress and make everyone there drool all over you.”

She shook her head. “The last time I did that at a wedding—“

“He’s an idiot.”

For a second, the fierceness he associated with her flared back into her green eyes, and he didn’t even care that it was directed at him. “You don’t get to say that about him. You don’t know what happened.”

“Then tell me,” he pled. “Please—“

“You’re going to be late for lunch,” she repeated as she once again when back to organizing whatever she could get her hands on.

“Yeah,” he sighed, feeling like a deflated balloon. “Want me to bring you back something?”

“I’ll be fine,” she huffed.

He debated his next question before giving in to full-on brother mode. “But you’re going to eat something, right?” Her glare was all the answer she was going to give, and he once again raised his hands in surrender. “Okay. See you later.”

“Are you, uh, okay?” Peter Parker asked, and Bruce blinked over at him.

In retrospect, Bruce probably should have expected Peter’s question, nervously blurted as he peered down at his lesson plans and pretended to look busy. Bruce knew Peter’d finished his first set of plans weeks ago, because Bruce’d looked over them then, the same way he’d looked over Peter’s proposed room layout and some of his ideas for different learning stations in the classroom. Peter approached everything with a sort of twitchy enthusiasm that generally made Bruce smile even if, sometimes, he suspected it all came down to not disappointing the beloved Aunt May (and the memory of his equally beloved uncle).

Bruce’d wandered over to Peter’s classroom specifically to look in on his progress and maybe glance over his first week lesson plans one last time. Now, standing in front of Peter’s (oddly arranged) bookshelves, he watched the other teacher shuffle papers nervously.

Bruce forced a smile. “Pardon?”

“I just—” Peter started, but then he frowned at himself and shook his head. “I’m not saying that you’re giving off bad vibes or anything, but I thought maybe you, I don’t know, wouldn’t be fine? Since Miss Romanoff’s living back at her own place and all?” Bruce frowned, and Peter threw up his hands. “Not that it’s any of my business, but I know what that sort of thing means, and—”

Bruce shook his head and waved him off. “I’m fine.”

“It’d be okay if you weren’t fine, too.” Bruce felt his brow crinkle at that, but Peter just shrugged and fidgeted a little in his chair. “My freshman year of college, my high school girlfriend and I split up,” he said after a moment. “I was, well, kind of a huge mess. We’d planned our whole lives together, and even though that’s not the same thing as whatever’s up with you and Miss Romanoff, I kind of thought . . . ”

He trailed off, his lips pressing into a tight line, and for a moment, Bruce watched him shuffle his lesson plans. He knew Peter meant well—May’d once rolled her eyes and called him incapable of both common sense and intentional insult—but at the same time—

Bruce sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. “It’s not the same as what you went through, no,” he admitted, and Peter flinched slightly. “I’m not devaluing what you said. Or your relationship. In a way, your breakup was probably worse.”

Peter frowned. “Uh, how exactly does that work?”

“You planned your future together. Had a unified vision, from the sound of it.” Bruce shook his head and glanced down at his hands. “My relationship was, well, different.”

The last word hung in the air, and Bruce turned away, back toward the bookshelves. He ran his fingers over the spines of titles he’d seen time and time again at book fairs or up in the library. Somehow, they reminded him of the life plan he used to have and, worse, the one he’d briefly imagined with Natasha.

When he finally drew his hand away, he sighed. “Fool me twice, shame on me,” he murmured to himself.

“Aunt May says that all the time,” Peter chimed in, and Bruce twisted around again to see that the other man’d ditched his lesson plans to come over and sit on one of the student desks nearest the bookcases. “It was kind of her favorite saying when I was growing up.”

Bruce’s lips quirked into a tiny smile. “Did you get goaded into a lot of trouble by your friends?”

“More like I goaded her into believing me when I was totally lying,” Peter retorted, and he grinned when Bruce chuckled. “I sort of got into more trouble than I was worth? And every time, once the dust settled and she picked me up from detention or somebody’s house or from the police station—which only happened once—she’d just shake her head and say ‘fool me twice.’”

“It’s the risk you run when you care about someone,” Bruce pointed out.

“That’s exactly what she said, too.” Bruce fell quiet at that, his hands sliding into his pockets, and Peter glanced down at his sneakers. “I’m not qualified to actually help you with any of this,” he admitted, “but I’m pretty good at listening to people talk about things I have no experience with and offering pretty useless advice.”

Bruce almost chuckled. “I’m not sure there’s any advice you could offer. I think the situation is what it is.”

“Maybe, but you still obviously care about each other.” Bruce frowned, but Peter just shrugged. “Trust me from my college break up: you don’t carve out that wide a berth when it doesn’t matter. Or spend all your time and energy avoiding eye contact during a staff meeting.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t avoiding—”

“Yeah, and Barton didn’t keep stroking the inside of Mister Coulson’s thigh when he thought nobody was looking.” Bruce snorted a laugh, and Peter mock-glared at him. “It was disturbing. I’m pretty sure my aunt looks at them as, like, her hot younger brothers or something. I don’t need to think about them like that.”

“You’re starting to sound like Tony.”

“Maybe Tony’s saner than I usually give him credit for.” Bruce actually laughed at that, and Peter grinned as he hopped off the desk. “My point,” he said after a beat, “is that you can care and be not-fine, and that’s okay. It probably makes more sense than all the other reactions you could have.”

“Such as?”

“Silly-stringing her car, for instance.” When Bruce blinked, Peter raised his hands. “I absolutely don’t know anything about this from experience. It’s just an example.”

Bruce grinned. “Did you fool your aunt twice, in this hypothetical?”

Peter shrugged. “Well, I did mention that she once picked me up from the police department . . . ” he replied, and Bruce couldn’t help laughing again.

“Care to make a wager on today’s game, Mister Rogers?” Barnes asked with a gleam in his eye, and Tony seriously considered vomiting all over the gymnasium.

As far as Tony Stark was concerned (and don’t repeat this to another human being or even particularly intelligent house plant), the yearly dodgeball game between the various grades and the specials was a sacred ritual. It deserved its own Olympics-style fanfare and theme, never mind an opening ceremony and symbolic fire-phallus.

But instead of participating in the pageantry their teambuilding rightfully deserved, Tony had to suffer through nauseating display that was the Rogers-and-Barnes flirtation hour.

He wondered whether he’d been a merchant of death in a past life or something.

“You’re going to hurt yourself if you keep rolling your eyes like that,” Pepper commented as she walked past in her capri yoga pants and perfectly sized school t-shirt. Tony pursed his lips, ready to whistle at her magnificent ass, but he stopped when she held up a finger. “No.”

Tony plastered on his most innocent face. “No what?”

Pepper narrowed her eyes. “I can practically smell when you’re about to make a lewd comment, and the stack of paperwork on my desk promises that I am not in the mood.”

“Unless I put you in the mood,” Tony returned, and she rolled her eyes at his eyebrow waggle. She bent down to tie her shoes, which offered so much fuel for so many amazing comments that he literally had to bite the inside of his cheek for a second. At least, until he added, “I can be an equal-opportunity letch if you’d prefer. Wolf-whistle at the Jessicas. Ogle Darcy’s terrifyingly tight t-shirt. Snap Danvers’s bra.”

“If you want to lose your hand, you go right ahead,” Danvers said from behind him, and Tony nearly leapt out of his shoes. She wore a tank top and shorts, because apparently, dodgeball counted as uniquely serious business. She also crossed her arms under her chest. “What, no witty comeback?”

“No, just picturing whether you’d use a butcher’s knife or a katana, because I think it’s kind of fifty-fifty,” Tony retorted, and Danvers actually cackled before she went to join her team. Tony’s nigh-on scientific selection process for the two Specials teams once again relegated Natasha and Carol to the same group, only this time, they also included Mount Rogers and the new music teacher. Tribble? Triple? Something like that, anyway. Tony’s group of pathetic stragglers (including Coulson and, sadly, his wife) looked like limp-wristed diaper babies compared to all the corded muscle before them.

Tony wondered if somebody’d rigged his deck of team-selection notecards.

“Today’s tournament is brought to you by the new coffee pot in the teacher’s lounge,” Darcy Lewis announced from atop the bleachers, and everyone turned to her in appropriately reverent admiration. She wore a skin-tight Procrastinators of the World Unite Tomorrow! t-shirt that kind of made Tony wonder what her after school plans were. “Coffee: the lifeblood that helps us survive all those very persistent small people who clog up our lives for eight hours a day. And a moment of silence for Greta, our sadly dead old coffee pot that Stark still denies breaking.”

“I deny it because I’m innocent!” Tony reminded all of them for the fifty-seventh time, and he swore to god that the entire staff rolled their eyes in perfect unison. “The Constitution says that I’m innocent until someone proves me guilty.”

“Bill of Rights,” Barton corrected.

“You only know that because you’re married to the most boring man on Earth,” Tony retorted.

“And still we probably have more sex than you,” Coulson said blandly, and Tony shuttered.

“Enough heckling from the peanut gallery, your master of ceremonies is talking to you!” Darcy shouted into the bullhorn, and the feedback alone was enough to make them all cringe. She planted her free hand on her hips. “You know the rules: double elimination tournament brackets, team with the last teacher standing advances, no bonus points for bloody noses. By popular vote—and by that, I mean I had my b—buddy pick a team at random last night—Specials 2 has a bye on the first round. Let us now pause to threaten their reproductive livelihood and insult their mothers, because they deserve it.”

Most the “insults” came in the form of everybody laughing at Darcy’s line while the shitheads on the second specials team—you know, the hot, muscular shitheads who Tony wanted to systematically destroy—exchanged high-fives and congratulatory back pats.

“We are so fucked,” Tony muttered to no one in particular.

“Speak for yourself,” Jessica Drew returned. She’d smeared liquid eyeliner on her cheeks like war paint. “We’ve got the new kid, and he’s spry as shit.”

“I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not,” Peter Parker muttered. Drew clapped him on the back hard enough he almost fell over, and Tony snorted at both of them.

“And now that Specials 2 knows that their asses will be well and truly handed to them in the next round,” Darcy cut in, “our first round is Specials 1 versus the kindergarten, first grade, and pre-k teachers! Noncombatants, clear the gym, and let’s play ball!”

Darcy then immediately held her cell phone up to the bullhorn and blasted the Olympic Fanfare through it while the teams lined up, mostly because she understood the pomp and circumstances in a way that others didn’t. Tony surveyed the competition with his best and most ruthless face, trying very hard to swallow down his disappointment that Bruce hadn’t shown up. If anybody needed to blow off some steam, it was his platonic life partner and forever-BFF.

“He wanted to work on his room,” Pepper said at Tony’s side. He blinked at her, and she cocked her head. “You really think I don’t know who you’re looking for?”

“Maybe I’m just running the odds in my head,” he shot back. “I might be the Nate Silver of elementary school dodgeball statistics.”

On his other side, Coulson huffed a laugh. “And I’m the most boring man on Earth.”

Tony shrugged. “Another thing proven by statistics,” he said, and barely dodged the guy’s very well-thrown elbow.

The games went by as quickly and sloppy as they usually did, with Tony’s team trouncing their competition and the fourth-and-fifth grade team doing the same to the second-and-third grades. But the second-and-thirds rallied in the second elimination round, advancing just in time to face—and then lose to—Tony’s team. True to Tony’s predictions, the second specials team roundly smeared the fourth-and-fifth grade teachers into the ground without breaking a sweat.

Tony hated them.

“And now, for the championship!” Darcy announced once they’d gulped some water and stretched, and there they were: Tony’s band of idiots versus the most terrifying clump of teachers the world’d ever seen.

“You know I ran a whole lot this summer, right?” Danvers asked as they assumed the usual positions.

“You know I spent a lot of time in my pool?” Tony fired back, and half their damn team snickered.

In retrospect, because hindsight (like the other specials team) was a bastard, Tony didn’t know how the teams got whittled down to just him and Pepper versus Natasha and Danvers. Maybe it was fate, dumb luck, or just the fact that Rogers kept mooning over his fucking boyfriend instead of throwing the dodgeballs, but either way, Tony ended up staring down the two women with fire in his eyes—and in his heart. Balls flew around him, flung with a vengeance, as he and Pepper both hopped, skipped, and jumped out of the way.

“This is still not a better workout than sex!” he reminded her at one point, and she rolled her eyes before flinging a ball right at Danvers’s midsection—and missing by a half-inch at most.

Tony grinned at her, even winked, but then he saw his opening. Because in the Pepper-versus-Danvers exchange, Natasha’d lost track of a couple of the balls, and now she was running off to collect them. She bent to pick one up, and Tony— For the first time all afternoon, he had a clear shot. The clearest shot. The kind of shot that, in a movie, would involve heavenly choirs and a spotlight on Natasha’s not-unimpressive rear end.

He pulled back his arm back, ball clutched in his hand. The crowd was laughing and cheering, Darcy was commentating, and Bruce—

Bruce wasn’t there.

It hit Tony like a flash of vengeful lightning that Bruce, the guy who’d been part of the staff longer than most of them, the guy who’d brought Tony to the damn school, he was not in the room.

He knew the second he released the ball that he threw it a whole lot harder than was maybe recommended.

Natasha raised her head just as Tony released the ball, her eyes wide with surprise either at who’d thrown it or how fucking fast it was coming. She moved like a blur of red hair and white tank-top, her body twisting to get her hands in front of the damn thing. She clamped her fingers around it a half-second before it slammed into her gut, and by some miracle, she held onto it even as she staggered back a half-step.

“And that’s Stark, down for the afternoon!” Darcy crowed from her spot in the bleachers, but Tony hardly heard her. No, instead, he just saw (and felt, and maybe even somehow heard) the red-hot flash of anger across Natasha’s face and the way she tightened her jaw.

Because she knew how hard he’d thrown it.

She knew why he’d thrown it.

And when she spiked that ball into the ground before she stalked off to help protect Danvers from Pepper’s last couple futile throws, Tony knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was so, so fucked.

Chapter Text

“So, are you seriously cool with your aunt having a younger boyfriend, or are you faking it?”

Peter jerked his head up from his stack of spelling pre-tests to find Antoine Triplett looming in the doorway to his classroom. They’d only talked once or twice—mostly during some of the “new teacher” orientation stuff down at the district offices—and even then, it’d been polite conversation and nothing in the soul-baring or male-bonding departments.

“Ten-out-of-ten would bang,” Wade Wilson’d said after their last day of orientation, and Peter’d rolled his eyes. “What? You know what they say about once you go dark mochalicious brown, right? Because from what I hear, once you go brown, you’re going all the way—”

“Please stop talking,” Peter’d cut in, and that’d ended any further conversations about Antoine Triplett.

“I hit a nerve?” Triplett asked, and Peter only really realized he’d fallen into his own thoughts when the other man raised his hands. “Because I don’t mean to go there, it just kind of struck me that—”

“You saw my aunt with her—whatever-he-is?” Peter blurted. “She’s not bringing him around to the school, is she?”

“Nah, nothing like that,” Triplett promised, and Peter finally felt like he could breathe again. “She called me over the weekend and asked if I wanted a couple of old songbooks she found when she was cleaning out the basement. I headed over there, her guy answered the door, and that was that.” He shrugged. “He seems okay. For the record.”

“He’s something,” Peter muttered.

Triplett cringed a little. “Okay, since I definitely hit a nerve, I’m gonna—”

“No, it’s okay, I—” Peter started, but the words got stuck somewhere in the back of his throat. Triplett leaned back against the doorjamb while Peter shook his head and tried to clear all the stupid cobwebs that kept refusing to go away. “Aunt May’s never really introduced us,” he said after a beat, “and she— She doesn’t really do cagey, but she’s about as secretive with her and him and what’s going on over there as she’s ever been. And even though the guy’s staying in my old room and not with her, it’s still . . . ”

“Weird?” Triplett suggested.

Peter snorted. “It’s crazy weird.”

Triplett grinned a little. “I hear you on that. Especially if they’re not in some sort of romantic relationship, because then, it’s kind of like you’ve been replaced by a guy who’s got twenty years and a lot of worry lines on you.” Peter scowled, and Triplett laughed. “Hit another nerve?”

“You didn’t until you started referring to the mystery guy as the replacement Peter,” Peter grumbled.

“Barney,” Triplett said out of nowhere. Peter felt his brow crinkle in confusion, and Triplett shrugged. “Heard your aunt call him Barney, if that helps.”

“It’d only help if he turned into a big purple dinosaur and got lost,” Peter retorted, and Triplett laughed again.

Bruce loved the beginning of the school year. He enjoyed the challenge of learning all the new names and faces that would come through his classroom. He spent most of the day smiling as he listened to new stories and memorized names of siblings, pets, and parents.

That joy ebbed slightly this August, and Bruce hated himself a little for it. His stomach churned whenever he had to line up his students to go to gym class. He and Natasha barely made eye contact during the drop-offs and pick-ups. It didn’t mean he didn’t crave hearing reports from his students about what they did in her class; that, he desperately wanted to know. Even if he knew he was overanalyzing every single line that came out of their mouths. In the past, some of his kids were scared of Natasha until they got to know her. She was very intimidating, but this school year it was difficult for Bruce to convince himself that her attitude didn’t have anything to do with him. It probably did, and he deserved that.

He hated how conversations seemed to suddenly hush whenever he walked into the staff lounge for coffee in the mornings. On the second day of school, Natasha had walked in a few seconds after him, and he swore that he heard an anticipatory gasp. Whether the others expected an all out battle between the two of them or for Bruce to sweep Natasha into some romantic and repentant kiss, he wasn’t sure.

When Bruce told Tony about it, the technology teacher said he was crazy.

But the way he avoided making eye contact with Bruce said something else entirely.

Gossip and rumors, and the damage they caused, were something he tried to eliminate in his classroom as much as humanly possible. The lessons and warnings against it might leave his students’ minds as soon as they matriculated to the first grade, but at least he could comfort himself with the knowledge that he tried.

There were very strict rules for sharing time in his class. The first was that the story had to be true. Imagination could be used in many other parts of the day, but not during this time. The second was that they couldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, even if that person wasn’t in the room. It always took a few weeks for these two things to get stuck in his students’ brains.

On the fourth day of school, Alva—the last of the Odinsons for Bruce to teach—raised her hand. Like her classmates, she squirmed in her seat as she did so. “Yes, Alva,” Bruce said, calling her before she pulled something trying to restrain her excitement.

“I get to go to a party,” she announced, her features lighting up so much that even Bruce couldn’t help but smile a little.

“Oh yeah?” Bruce asked. “Is it a birthday party?”

“No,” she answered as her face crinkled in thought for a second. “I think it’s a ‘Miss Darcy and Uncle Loki are going to get married’ party.”

Bruce felt his eyebrows shoot towards his hairline while his class broke out into murmurs about weddings and wondering who Alva was talking about.

The girl sighed wearily. “Miss Darcy works in the office. She does the announcements. You don’t know my Uncle Loki because he only comes here to pick up me and my brothers if our Mama and Daddy can’t and we’re not allowed to go to daycare because the boys did something bad.”

“Alva,” Bruce responded in his warning tone, “what’s rule number one?”

He watched her eyes squint as she tried to remember one of the many new rules in her life thanks to the elementary school. But then her shoulders slumped. “But it is true, Doctor Banner. There’s going to be a party because they’re going to get married.”

“Why do you think they’re getting married?” Bruce questioned.

“Because George and I saw them holding hands and kissing,” the girl answered. “That means they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, and that means they’re going to get married. And I’m going to be the flower girl.”

“Alva, I—“ Bruce stopped himself. The girl was looking up at him with the biggest brown eyes imaginable, and he knew what words he was about to spit in her face. Words about how not all boyfriends and girlfriends get married. How sometimes, it goes up in flames, or fades away into a whisper, or becomes such a huge mess that you really have no idea what went wrong.

“I think you need to check with Miss Darcy about what kind of party it will be,” he said to correct his original train of thought.

Alva shrugged. “She said it was a party about her and Uncle Loki.”

A couple of hours later, Bruce ducked into the front office after walking his morning students out to the busses. Darcy paused in her scribbling on a neon orange post-it to look up at him with a smile. “What’s up, Doc?” she asked.

“Alva thinks you’re going to have a party with her Uncle Loki to announce your engagement and name her flower girl.”

Darcy visible paled at Bruce’s words. “That little twerp said what?” Her head flopped backwards with a sigh. “You cannot tell Jane or Thor about this. At all. We’ve been hiding from them all summer. Alva and George spotted us a couple weeks ago at Henry’s baseball game.”

“What’s it worth to you?” Bruce asked. Normally he’d say it as a joke, but an idea sprang into his head that he couldn’t quite ignore.

“Dude, I would do anything if you don’t tell her parents about this. They’d either murder us for lying to them or murder us with joyful hugging. Have you seen Thor’s arms?”

Bruce leaned in a little closer. “I’ll keep quiet as long as you do something for me.”

“Anything,” Darcy breathed.

“Any time you hear someone talking about me and Natasha, you shut the conversation down.”

Darcy crumpled in on herself a little, but nodded. “Is there a word in the English language that combines ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry?’”

“Not that I know of,” Bruce replied. “But I’d appreciate it if you kept your end of the bargain.”

Darcy nodded. “Consider me on rumor mill police.”

“You’re stressed out,” a shockingly familiar voice said from inside Aunt May’s living room, and Peter froze with his hand around the doorknob. “You need some stress relief.”

“Because you’re the expert in that department?” Aunt May asked.

The other voice laughed. “Well, obviously, or did you miss that when I crept out the back door last weekend?”

Aunt May laughed too, and for a second, Peter considered turning around and leaving the scene of the crime. But he’d promised up, down, left, right, and backwards to fix Aunt May’s computer, and that meant walking through the front door.

He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and headed inside.

“Hey, Pete!” Jessica Drew greeted from where she was, weirdly, stretched out on the couch and armed with a hand of playing cards. “Long time no see!”

Peter frowned and dropped his bag by the door. “You saw me at school today.”

“Two whole hours ago,” she said with a wave of her hand. Across the table from her, Aunt May shook her head while releasing the sort of long-suffering sigh she usually saved for Peter himself. “A lot can change in two hours, May. You know that.”

“I left for two hours last Saturday, and look what happened,” Aunt May deadpanned. Jessica cackled at that, her voice a little like a cartoon witch, and Aunt May rolled her eyes before she glanced over in Peter’s direction. “If you’re hungry, there’s leftovers in the microwave, and I think there’s still beer in the fridge.”

“You think?” he repeated dumbly.

She shrugged. “Barney’s the one who drinks it, not me,” she reminded him as she discarded the six of hearts, and Peter forced a smile as he walked into the kitchen.

He skipped the food but grabbed a beer from the fridge, trying very hard not to listen in on Jessica and Aunt May’s conversation as he retreated into his aunt’s home office. Jessica kept laughing about something while also complaining about her gin hand, and every time, Aunt May came back with a wry, amused retort. Peter buried himself in the tasks at hand—running virus scans and drinking beer—and desperately avoided thinking about his aunt, Jessica, and—

The door popped open out of nowhere, and Peter spilled beer down his shirt as he whirled around in the desk chair. Looming in the doorway, naked from the waist up, was his aunt’s whatever-he-was. They stared at each other for a moment, and Peter pretended not to notice how Barney’s hip bones jutted out over his waistband like something out of that male stripper movie Gwen made him watch.

“Uh, sorry,” Barney half-mumbled, shoving his hands in his pockets. “May keeps the extra towels in the closet, and I—”

“Needed one?” Peter asked dumbly.


“Right,” Peter echoed, and they sort of nodded at each other awkwardly before Barney headed to the closet.

Peter stared back at the computer screen, his heart rate slowly returning to normal, and he definitely resisted his urge to turn around and give Barney a second once-over. Down the hall in the living room, his aunt laughed, and her warm voice wrapped around him like an embrace. He swore under his breath and rubbed a hand over his face.

“Thanks,” Barney said suddenly, and Peter jerked around to see that he’d slung a towel around his neck. “See you around.”

“Yeah.” He watched the other man step out into the hallway before he blurted, “Hey, Barney?”

Barney blinked at him over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

“I, uh,” Peter started, but the words dried up. He stared at his beer bottle and scratched a hand through his hair. “You’re good for Aunt May,” he decided. “Good to, I don’t know, have around.”

Barney pressed his lips together. “Thanks, I think.”

Peter nodded and even sort of waved at him on his way out the door. Problem solved, then.

Well, except for the way Jessica’d laughed like a banshee when she saw him at school the next morning. No, that felt like a problem that was just barely starting.

Pepper strode into her home after school and felt her blood start to boil at the sound of the television echoing through the house. She’d stoked her anger all afternoon, fanning the flames through two district-level meetings for school psychologists; now, striding into her living room, she felt the heat lick at her face.

“Hey, Pep,” Tony greeted without glancing away from American Chopper, “I ordered you one of your super-healthy white pizzas for dinner, so when my extra-large Brooklyn-style pepperoni shows up, you can’t— Ow!”

Tony whirled around, his hand clamping down over where Pepper had just smacked him on the back of his head. “What the hell, Pepper?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded.

“Today, or in general?” he retorted. “Because if it’s in general, I warned you about nine-tenths of my shit before we ever walked down the aisle, and we’re kinda past the statute of limitations on—”

“That is not what I mean, and you know it,” Pepper shot back, and he snapped his mouth shut. They stared at each other for a moment, Tony’s eyes wide with confusion as Pepper worked to keep her barely contained temper from scalding both of them. “Natasha,” she said after a beat.

Tony frowned. “As in Romanoff?”

“As in what you are doing to Natasha Romanoff.” He rolled his eyes, all his surprise replaced by open disdain, and Pepper grit her teeth as he slid to his feet. “I saw how hard you threw that dodgeball,” she pressed as he turned off the television and started to walk away, “and I have tried to let it go as one of your ‘moments.’ But between the nasty side-eye during bus duty—”

Tony snorted and waved a hand over his shoulder. “I don’t side-eye.”

“Would you rather I call it open glaring?” He ignored her to walk into the kitchen, and she followed on his heels. “Between the nasty side-eye,” she repeated, “the cold shoulder, and your participation in the rumor mill—”

He thumped a hand against the front of the fridge and whirled around. “I am not participating in the rumor mill.”

“I heard Darcy shut you down three times today,” Pepper shot back. He tried to turn back toward the fridge, but she stepped between him and the offending appliance. “I don’t care what you do with Bruce to help him through this,” she informed him curtly, “but if you’re interfering with Natasha, that’s a problem.”

He scoffed at her. “Because Natasha Romanoff deserves even one iota of the benefit of the doubt, here.”

Pepper resisted her urge to roll her eyes. “You of all people should know that it takes two to tango.”

“Not when it’s Bruce, it doesn’t,” Tony returned.

“Because Bruce is incapable of all wrongdoing?”

“In this case, yes!” His voice rose, almost cracking, and Pepper blinked and reared back half a step. Tony stared at her for one wide-eyed beat, their kitchen impossibly silent— And then, just as quickly, he deflated. “That day he and I came home to watch bad movies and drive you crazy, I found him at Xavier’s,” he said for the first time, and Pepper swallowed as her mouth dried out. “Brother in sobriety, guy who literally hasn’t touched booze since his wife died, and I find him at a dive bar in the middle of the day, staring at a ginger ale like maybe it needs a spike of something stronger to help solve his problems.” He threw up his hands. “He’s avoiding every school activity where he might run into her, he’s ducking out early or staying late, and worse of all, he’s avoiding me. And all of that shit, Pep? That’s on her.”

“Natasha isn’t responsible for Bruce’s happiness,” Pepper reminded him, and he rolled his eyes. “You know she’s not. Worse, you know that whatever happened between them—”

“Is part of their joint effort to become miserable misers who cut their best friends out of their lives?”

“—is something they need to work out themselves,” she finished. He waved her off to stalk out of the kitchen, and she trailed after him. “I know you think Bruce is somehow your responsibility,” she said, “and that you need to take care of him for some reason, but treating Natasha like public enemy number one isn’t going—”

“She got one chance,” Tony broke in suddenly, jabbing a finger in Pepper’s direction. “She got one free heartbreak, one no-judgment fuck-up, and she blew that on the first time they split up. And now, Bruce is a mess all over again and I can’t— The guy who helped me figure out what to do when my life was a mess, and I’m not even able to—”

His voice and hand both shuddered slightly, and just like that, Pepper felt her whole body soften. By the time she curled her fingers around his fist, the last remnants of the fire in her belly’d dimmed to embers; once she wrapped arms around Tony, only steam remained. “Bruce isn’t going to fall apart over this,” she assured him, her fingers carding through his hair. “Even if it’s hard right now, he’s survived so much worse that I can’t imagine—”

“I’ve never seen him look this bad, Pep,” Tony murmured against her neck, and Pepper sighed as she pressed her lips against his temple. “I’ve known him for years, and I’ve never seen him look as lost and alone as that day I swung by Xavier’s and found him staring at his glass.”

They lingered in the kitchen for a long time after that, Tony’s breath warm against her skin as she held onto him. They only broke apart when their pizzas arrived, and even then, they sat together on the couch to eat, Tony’s thigh pressed to hers. He never promised to be better to Natasha, exactly, but he showed it somehow in the way he brushed Pepper’s hair out of her face as they cleaned up the dishes and in how he ran his hands over her skin in bed. And if she goaded him into apologizing to the gym teacher somewhere in the middle of it all— Well, you couldn’t blame a woman for playing to her strengths.

After Tony fell asleep, though, Pepper picked up her phone and flicked through her contacts until she reached the Rs.

I’d like to talk sometime, she texted Natasha, and fell asleep waiting for a reply.

“You seen Banner around?” Clint Barton asked Tuesday afternoon, and Peter almost nailed his head on the bottom of a student desk.

To be fair, he’d ducked under the desk to scrape gum off the floor. Grape-flavored Bubbilicious, to be exact, and he scowled when he realized some of the sticky devil-goo had even lodged under his fingernails. He wiped his hands on his pants before he climbed up off the floor. “Turns out that second graders don’t really believe the ‘no gum in the classroom’ rule until they’ve smeared it all over your life,” he said.

Barton snorted. “You think they’ve learned that lesson by the time they get to fifth grade?”

Peter cringed a little. “If I say that I hope so, are you going to pull a Stark and mock me for my boundless youthful optimism?”

Barton shrugged. “Probably not to your face, no.”

His grin—warm, toothy, and only vaguely evil—coaxed an unexpected laugh out of Peter, his first since bubblegeddon. “To answer your question,” he said after a moment, “I haven’t talked to Bruce yet today. He’s implemented this rule where I need to, quote, ‘cool my jets’ for the first ten minutes after I think I need him, and I still have—” He glanced at the wall clock. “Six minutes to go.”

Barton’s eyebrows climbed almost to his hairline. “Please say you’re jerking me around.”

Peter scratched the back of his neck. “I’m maybe one-fifth jerking you around?” he replied a little shakily.

“God, you’re worse than when Steve first started here. I thought I might be in the market for a second husband, the way he flashed puppy-dog eyes at Phil every afternoon.” Peter laughed again, and Barton offered him one of his easy smiles. “Well, if you see Banner, can you tell him I’m looking for him? In a professional capacity.”

Peter blinked. “As opposed to . . . ”

“He’ll know what I mean.”

“Okay,” Peter agreed, and Barton nodded. He looked about ready to leave, too—at least, until Peter shoved his hands in his back pockets and fidgeted like an idiot. Then, Barton raised his eyebrows all over again and lingered.

Peter swallowed. “Can I ask you a question? Sort of a tit-for-tat kind of thing?”

Barton smirked. “Unless your girlfriend’s packing heat, the only kind of foursome we’re interested in is—”

“I— Oh god, no, I didn’t—” Peter stammered, and just to punctuate his point, he waved his hands in front of his face. Embarrassing and shameful heat climbed up out of his collar and spread all over his face. He wondered for a half-second if he could kill himself with his gum-scraping spade, but Barton just laughed. “Please never tell Gwen I almost propositioned you for a foursome,” he said quickly.

“You think she’s not into that?” Barton asked smugly.

“I think she’d want to go for Rogers and Barnes next, actually,” Peter retorted, and that wiped the grin right off Barton’s face. He decided to save his victory for later, though, and dropped his hands back into his pockets. “I just wanted to know if my aunt and Jessica Drew ever, I don’t know, hung out before I started working here.”

Immediately, Barton frowned. “Hung out?”

“Yeah. Like, spent time together. Outside of school, just the two of them.” Barton’s confused expression grew, and Peter sighed. “You know what? It was a stupid question. I mean, just because two grown women play gin together and talk about their crazy Saturday nights doesn’t mean—”

“Wait, Jessica was at your aunt’s house?” Barton suddenly cut in. Instead of looking confused, he looked almost like those weird paintings of newly enlightened religious leaders, his eyes wide and his jaw slack. Peter blinked blankly at him. “If Jessica’s at her house, she could— But, if it’s Jessica, then—”

“Are you having a stroke?” Peter asked carefully.

Barton shook his head hard enough that it rattled Peter’s teeth. “New rule,” he said, holding up a hand. “Never tell me when and if Jessica is over at your aunt’s. I don’t care if she’s saving orphaned puppies from a fire, I don’t want to know a single thing about what she is getting up to over there. You understand?”

“Getting up to?” Peter squeaked.

“On second thought,” Barton said, backing out the door like he’d missed Peter’s very important question, “I’m just going to pretend we never had this conversation. Better for my mental health.”

“But what did you mean ‘getting up to?’” Peter called after him, but he knew from the echo of his own voice in the hallway that Barton’d already fled.

Bruce stepped over the Xavier’s threshold and felt his skin tighten. The last time he was here, Tony pulled him away in the middle of the afternoon. Bruce, despite his AA chip, never really considered himself an alcoholic. Sure, he had a couple nights of heavy drinking in undergrad, but that was about it. His choice to be in Alcoholics Anonymous was one to pay respect to Betty.

But that afternoon, Bruce would’ve been happy to drink the world away. Sober was the last state he wanted to be in. And while he was grateful that such an urge was no longer something coursing through him, it still made him a bit uncomfortable to think about how low he’d been.

Tony waved him over to the small table he sat at with Pepper. “Get this man an iced tea,” Tony shouted into the air. Pepper, who rolled her eyes, seemed to be the only who paid attention to him.

“You guys want anything?” Bruce asked once he got to the table.

“A time machine to go back to the start of summer,” Tony answered. “I swear I can already feel a cold coming on.

“We're good,” Pepper said. “But if you want to split an order of fried pickles, we can gross out Tony.”

“Got it,” Bruce chuckled before heading towards the bar.

Payday happy hour was a tradition that stretched back before Bruce's time. He was pretty sure that the group of teachers kept the dive bar afloat with their biweekly patronage.

Bruce placed his order and drummed his fingers along the scarred bar top. But a second later, he smelled faint perfume that weeks ago had inhabited his bathroom. The scent caused his stomach to coil, and he suddenly thought Tony might be on to something with his desire for a time machine.

“Hey,” Bruce greeted.

“Hi,” Natasha replied.

“School year starting off okay for you?” he asked.

Natasha shrugged. “No one's peed on anything yet. You?”

“Same,” he said with a small smile. “Umm, there's an open seat over at our table if you want to join.”

Natasha looked past him to where Tony was sitting, and her expression darkened slightly. “I don't think that would be a good idea,” she said. “But thanks.”

She moved away to retake her seat at the table with Clint, Phil, and the new music teacher. A minute later, Bruce's order was ready. As he walked back to the table, he thought about whatever look Natasha had aimed at Tony and Pepper. Bruce was fairly certain the guidance counselor was not the target of the glare.

Bruce set down the fried pickles between him and Pepper, ignored her excited noise, and kept his focus on Tony. “What did you do?”

Tony's eyebrows rose in confusion. “You're going to have to narrow the timeline when discussing my awesomeness.”

“Tony,” Pepper warned.

“What did you do to Nat?” Bruce questioned.

Tony ducked his head, which was as chided as he ever bothered to look. “It was-- I let my emotions get the better of me.”

“He already apologized,” Pepper interrupted. “I made sure of it. And we have a new rule about not letting him near any dodge balls.”

Bruce gave a disgruntled sigh and didn't push the issue, figuring it would only lead to more conflict, and he'd had enough of that in his life lately. But that didn't necessarily keep him from sending the occasional glare in Tony's direction.

He loved his friend like the sober brother in arms he was, but Tony hadn't been home a lot this summer. He and Pepper usually spent most of their time off traveling. Tony hadn't been around all that much when everything went to shit, and he really didn't get to be judgy about things now. He hadn't earned that right.

Bruce kept quiet and munched on his fried pickles. Pepper at least picked up on his foul mood and did her best to distract her husband. While she did that, Bruce looked over to where Natasha was sitting.

At the moment, she was engaged in a conversation with the new music teacher, Trip or whatever. Their heads were ducked together as they talked, and the sight of Natasha smiling caused a bit of the tension in his shoulders to relax. But then, his brain started to go into horrible overdrive.

If Trip could make her smile, and Bruce knew it was a genuine one, then what else was he capable of? Would he become her new friend? Maybe even her new friend with benefits? His mind immediately flooded with those potential images: Natasha in bed with the new teacher, her pale body against his dark skin, two incredibly athletic bodies moving together and--

“What do you think, Bruce?”

He shook his head and swallowed thickly. “Sorry, what?” he asked Pepper.

“Peter Parker,” she clarified. “How do you think he's doing?”

“Umm, I think so far he's okay,” Bruce said, scrambling for an answer. “We've only been in school for a few days, so kind of hard to tell.”

Pepper redirected the conversation on to another topic, the grocery list for her and Tony maybe, but Bruce was already tuned out again. Natasha laughing was a distracting thing. And apparently not only for him, because a pair of third grade teachers at the next table over we're looking back and forth between him and Natasha, whispering loudly to each other. Bruce caught their eye and send them a dark look, and they immediately pulled innocent faces and shut up.

He wondered how many other people were talking about his personal life right now. Where was Darcy when you needed her? Probably with the famed Uncle Loki.

“I'm gonna go,” Bruce announced as he stood from his bar stool.

Pepper and Tony looked up at him in concern. “Big guy, it's barely after four. Normally you hang out for at least another hour.”

Bruce shrugged and waved a hand around his head. “Fall allergies are giving me a headache. I'm just going to go home.”

“Feel better,” Pepper said as she squeezed his arm.

“We still on for tomorrow?” Tony asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Bruce answered. As he walked out into the parking lot, he wondered how many of his friends he could push away this school year.

“Please tell me that’s not a conspiracy wall,” Gwen said Saturday night, and Peter immediately angled himself to stand in front of the refrigerator.

In Gwen’s defense, he’d called her that afternoon and invited her over for dinner, just the two of them, away from all the distractions in the world. But in his defense, Gwen’d showed up a half-hour early, keyed herself into his apartment (important side note: how amazing was it that his girlfriend had her own key to his apartment?), and snuck up on him.

She planted her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Peter defended.

“You mean there’s not a low-budget conspiracy wall on your fridge?”

Peter heaved a sigh. “Okay, it’s slightly what it looks like,” he admitted, “but in my defense—”

“Oh, stop acting like this is the first time I’ve caught you doing something ridiculous and let me see,” Gwen cut him off, and before he could scowl at her, she nudged him out of the way. All things considered, he’d done pretty well for himself with Batman magnets, leopard print duct tape, and a ball of kitchen twine. He watched for a few seconds as Gwen tipped her head at the various notes and (hastily printed) yearbook pictures before he slid in to start explaining.

“First, we have Miss Romanoff and Bruce, who broke up but are keeping it all very quiet,” he said, pointing to his notes by the fridge handle. “Darcy—she’s here—is helping keep their business under wraps, but I have no idea why. Meanwhile, I am pretty sure Tony—” He gestured along a line of twine. “—is stirring the pot. He and Bruce are, like, platonic life partners or something, which I think is inspiring him to be a good, if meddlesome, bro.”

“So, he’s the Harry to Bruce’s you,” Gwen surmised.

“Only with more insanity and— Well, they’re about equally rich, so just more insanity.” She grinned a little at that, and Peter couldn’t help smiling. “Over here, we have Steve and Bucky,” he continued after a beat. “They’re dating, have been since last year, but according to a bunch of people at Xavier’s—”

Gwen wrinkled her nose. “The dive bar?”

“The site of payday happy hour, but yeah, the dive bar,” he said, and she screwed up her face in mild distaste. He ignored it to point at Steve and Bucky’s pictures. “According to the people I overheard, something’s wrong in paradise because Steve’s walking around like a little black rain cloud. Worse, nobody can get information out of Bucky’s best friend Miss Romanoff—”

“Because of her secret break up?” Gwen guessed.

Peter grinned. “Right!”

She chuckled and shook her head, her face warm with amusement, and Peter almost steered her away from the fridge to kiss her when she pointed at the row of photos at the bottom of the arrangement. “Why is Aunt May on your conspiracy fridge?” she asked.

He frowned. “I’d rather call it a thought cloud.” She cocked her head at him, and he sighed as he dug his fingers into his hair. “Aunt May, Jessica Drew, and the mystery man known as Barney,” he said, “are all spending time together. Barton—the one with the messy hair, the balding one’s his husband—freaked out when I told him and sort of ran away from me.”

“Ran away,” Gwen repeated skeptically.

Peter raised his hands. “God’s honest truth,” he replied, and crossed himself for good measure. She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know if they’re dating or just spending time together,” he said after a beat, and he felt his own shoulders slump. “I don’t know what they do together. I just know that something fishy’s going on at Aunt May’s now that I’m not living there, and I don’t like it.”

Gwen smiled softly and rested a hand on his shoulder. When he leaned into her touch, she rested her cheek on his upper arm, swaying with him. “Aunt May’s been widowed a long time,” she said quietly. “Maybe it’s time she had something fun in her life.”

Something twisted in his stomach at that, so he shrugged. “Maybe,” he agreed, and smiled when Gwen kissed him on the cheek.

Later, after Gwen’d headed home for the night, Peter froze in the middle of the loading the dishwasher and stared helplessly at the row of pictures taped to the bottom of his fridge.

“Fun with who?” he asked exactly no one.

He threw out the conspiracy wall that night.

Natasha walked in to James’s classroom. The students were gone for the day, and he already had the morning problem on the board for tomorrow. She wondered how pissed James would be if she messed with it a little. She was pretty sure she could still remember how to forge his handwriting from doing his homework in college.

“What are you doing here?” James asked as he walked into his room with an arm full of photocopies.

“Felt like going on a stroll.” She caught James smiling at her, and she sent him a warning look. “What?”

James shrugged. “Just think it’s cute how recess duty brings out your freckles at the beginning and end of the school year.”

Natasha pulled a face and rubbed at her nose. She didn’t even know her face was capable of freckles until she moved to America. James always found it hilarious that the oh-so-serious Soviet had such a happy facial feature. “When are you going to start telling people about the engagement?”

James snorted. “You do an amazing impression of Steve.”

“I haven’t quite mastered the puppy dog eyes.”

James shook his head. “No one can beat him in that arena.”

“That’s not an answer to the question.”

James slumped into the seat behind his deck and ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s not their business.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re not talking about it right now.”

“What do you mean?” James asked.

Natasha perched herself on a student’s desk. “Jessica Drew asked me if I’d seen you naked.”

“You didn’t tell her about that, did you?”

“Which time?” Natasha asked and then smiled as James cringed. They both knew he had a habit of stripping when he got drunk. “Jess wanted to know if your dick was capable of some magic spell that made Steve feel amazing, but now its magic is wearing off and Steve is fighting some kind of Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing because he goes from looking like he’s about to burst with excitement to looking like a kicked puppy.”

James looked at her horrified. “I don’t even know what to do with that statement.”

“I’m not sure what anyone would do with that statement,” Natasha muttered.

“I just don’t want everyone talking about us,” James whined.

“You get used to it,” Natasha groused.



“I’m sorry, Tasha,” James apologized quietly.

She shrugged. “I’ll adjust.”

“You won’t have to if Darcy’s in the room.” Natasha gave him a questioning look, and he continued to explain. “It’s happened to me three times this week. I’m trying to make copies or getting coffee, someone starts talking shit about you and Bruce, and before I can even turn around to tell them off, Darcy’s lecturing them about gossiping and shutting them right up.”

“I would’ve thought she would’ve jumped right in.”


“Hmm,” Natasha hummed. “You should still start telling people.”

“You should still agree to be my best man,” James countered.

“This again?”

He grinned brightly. “This again forever and ever until you tell me yes.”

Natasha shook her head and walked out of the room.

Her feet, on their own accord, led her down the steps to the front office. She noticed she took the long loop around past Steve’s art room and the cafeteria in order to avoid walking past Bruce’s classroom. She’d been doing it often since the school year’d started.

When she walked into the office, Darcy was on the phone, politely answering what sounded like the same three questions over and over again. When she noticed Natasha walking toward her, the office manager mimicked hanging herself with a noose.

Natasha perched herself on the counter that served as Darcy’s massive desk while waiting for the other woman to get off the phone. Once she’d finished her conversation, she muttered a string of swears under her breath before looking at Natasha. “What can I do you for?”

“Why are you shutting down conversations about me and Bruce?” Natasha asked.

“Because my livelihood depends on it,” Darcy answered. Natasha waited until more words tumbled out of the young woman’s mouth. It didn’t take long. “I’m getting blackmailed. And that’s fine, because your relationship isn’t anyone else’s business, which is the whole reason I’m being blackmailed. You aren’t mad, are you? I didn’t think you would be, but you could also kill me with a stiletto heel.”

“Not mad,” Natasha reassured. “Just… confused.”

“Then maybe you should have an actual conversation with Banner,” Darcy replied. Her eyes bugged a second later as she probably realized she said the words out loud instead of just thinking them.

“You’re right,” Natasha said, and Darcy visibly relaxed in her chair. “He hasn’t left for the day, has he?”


“Okay,” Natasha said as she slid off the counter. “And Darcy? Thank you.”

She waved Natasha off and pretended to jump into something else to avoid any more sentimentality, which was something Natasha could appreciate.

When Natasha got to Bruce’s classroom, she knocked on the door.

“Peter, I’m sure your lesson plans for tomorrow are fine,” Bruce said without looking up from where he was reorganizing a bookshelf. “We’ve gone over them five times now.”

“That needy already?” Natasha asked. She didn’t know whether to smile or feel guilty at the way Bruce jumped at the sound of her voice. She leaned out into the hallway to make sure there weren’t any prying eyes before shutting the door. “You put Darcy on rumor patrol?”

Bruce nodded. “I had a convenient piece of information that she didn’t want to get out: she’s dating Thor’s brother.”

Natasha snorted. “Thor Odinson—wedding planner. I’d want to keep that a secret, too.”

“That’s only if Alva doesn’t beat Thor to the job.”

They shared a small laugh and then fell quiet again, Bruce shuffling slightly on his feet. “Thank you,” Natasha said. “That was a kind thing for you to do after I—“

“You weren’t the only one at fault,” Bruce said. “The last thing I’d ever want to do is hurt you. I just knew that we couldn’t—“

“Yeah,” Natasha said to cut him off. She turned towards the door, but paused with her hand on the knob. “I never wanted to hurt you either,” she said quietly. “I hope you know that.” She left him alone after that, not quite willing to hear whatever he would’ve said in response.

Chapter Text

“Mister Rogers?” asked a small voice, and Steve glanced up to find Luci Delgado standing in front of him.

Luci Delgado was one of his first graders, a girl with more curiosity than six Alva Odinsons and long pigtail braids that the boys in her class desperately wanted to tug. Better still, Luci possessed a mean right hook that she used on any boy who dared touch those braids without her permission. “Not without asking,” she’d sneered at a half-dozen sticky-fingered six-year-olds, and now, they all cowered when she strode down the hallway.

Steve—still hovering over the table where Jayden and Paul had started a war with their watercolors—smiled down at her. “Is your table done painting the grass and the sky already?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, but I had a question.”

“An art question?”

“A private question.” She pronounced the word very carefully, like she expected one of the syllables to escape. Steve felt his smile falter. “Can I ask it not by everybody else?”

“Sure,” he agreed. He quickly redirected the boys to work on their group landscape one more time before he steered Luci over to his desk. His head swam with a thousand awful possibilities: sick or dying relatives, horrible personal tragedies, problems with classmates. Not many students trusted Steve as a confidant, but he’d discovered early on that those who picked him brought the hardest stories along with them. He sat Luci down in his desk chair, her sneakers dangling off the floor, and then crouched down in front of her. “Okay,” he said gently, “I’m ready for your question.”

Luci looked at her hands in her lap. “Promise I won’t get in trouble for asking?”

Steve offered up his most reassuring smile. “Of course not. Anything you say is just between you and me, okay?”

She nodded, her little face steeling with something like resolve. She drew in a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and then asked, “Why are you sad?”

The question almost literally knocked Steve off balance, but he caught himself on the corner of his desk. He blinked at Luci and her very serious expression. “You think I’m sad?”

“No, I know you’re sad,” she corrected, her arms crossing over her chest. “My mom says that when you’re sad, you should tell people so they can help fix what’s making you feel bad. And ‘cause you’re always sad, I asked.”

Steve frowned slightly. “I’m always sad?”

Luci nodded. “Last year, when I was in kindergarten, you used to look out the door and smile and get all silly. Now, you look out the door and your face goes like this.” She stuck out her lower lip and flashed Steve puppy-dog eyes, and Steve barely stifled a laugh. “It’s sad.”

“That is a pretty sad look, yes,” Steve admitted, still smiling. Luci raised her eyebrows expectantly, still just as curious as when she’d interrupted him with the boys, and Steve rubbed his neck as he glanced back out across the classroom. Next week, his students would cut out a variety of tissue paper buildings, trees, and clouds to add to their landscapes and hang them out in the hallway for the world to see. Today, they were just paint-stained first graders.

Finally, Steve sighed. “I’m not really sad,” he said. Luci scowled at him, her mouth popping open to argue, and he raised a hand. “I promise, I’m not sad. I just . . . Well, let me ask you this. Has anybody ever asked you to keep a secret?”

She grinned. “I’m the best secret keeper,” she confided.

Steve chuckled. “I believe it. And is it easy to keep secrets?”

Luci screwed her face up in thought. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”

“Exactly.” She wrinkled her nose, and Steve gently touched her arm. “Somebody I love very much asked me to keep a secret. It’s a hard secret to keep. And sometimes, it pops back into my head, and I get stuck thinking about it. But that doesn’t mean I’m sad.”

She peered at him, her lips pursed into a tight line as she studied his face. “Is it a sad secret?” she asked.

Steve laughed and quickly shook his head. “It’s a fantastic secret,” he promised. “I just can’t tell it to anybody yet.”

Luci’s face immediately brightened. “Okay!” she said cheerfully. She slid off his chair and patted him on the shoulder. “Good talk.”

He couldn’t hold back a second laugh. “‘Good talk?’” he repeated.

She shrugged. “It’s what my mom always says,” she replied, and then ran off to rejoin her table.

The first graders eventually left, but even after that and bus duty, Steve lingered in his classroom. He tried to convince himself he was monitoring the paintings so he could roll them up and add them to the pile of other first-grade artwork, but his mind drifted back to Luci more than once. He wondered whether he actually did look sad when he thought about his “fantastic secret” and how much his other students picked up on that.

Worse, he worried how much Bucky picked up on that.

He pushed the thought from his mind as he started collecting the paintings and setting up the tables for the fifth graders’ art history game in the morning. He was so busy arranging his artwork bingo cards that he missed the door opening until hands touched his waist and he nearly leapt out of his skin.

“Dammit, Buck,” he muttered, and he pushed Bucky’s hands away when the jerk started laughing. Undeterred, Bucky waited until he twisted around to hook his fingers in Steve’s waistband. “You’re lucky I wasn’t holding a bottle of paint or something.”

Bucky shrugged. “You get paint on you, I get to help clean up.”

“Your version of ‘cleaning up’ usually leaves us messier,” Steve reminded him.

Bucky grinned. “You weren’t complaining in the shower this morning,” he teased. Steve rolled his eyes, but heat still flooded his belly. “Besides,” Bucky continued, “I wanted to see if you’re ready to get out of here.”

“Almost, yeah.” Bucky nodded at that and started to slip away, but Steve caught him by the elbow and held him there. Bucky’s wide-eyed look—soft but confused—almost stole Steve’s breath right out of his chest. He smiled. “You know I’m happy, right?” he asked after a beat. “Like, I’m still gonna ask almost every night whether you’re ready to share all this—”

“Part of your ‘is Natasha Romanoff still ready to burn the world down?’ line of questioning, probably,” Bucky cut in.

Steve snorted half a laugh. “I’m still gonna ask,” he said again, “but I just— I need to make sure you know I’m happy. And ready to drive everybody nuts with just how much they hate our sappy crap, but on your schedule.”

Bucky grinned at him. “They don’t just hate our sappy crap, they loathe it,” he corrected, and Steve shook his head. At least, until Bucky reached up and touched his chin. “Steve,” he said, voice low and gentle, “I trust you to tell me if you’re not happy, or to say you’re sick of waiting for me to stop waiting for Nat. Hell, out of the two of us, you’re the guy who always finds his words first. I don’t think I could stop you if I wanted to.”

Steve glanced at the floor for a second, but he also smiled. “You did do a lot more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’ when you proposed,” he pointed out.

Bucky shoved his hip. “And just for that, I’m not helping you set up bingo,” he countered, but that hardly stopped Steve from drawing him in for a kiss.

“Which kid is being a shit this time?” Natasha asked before sinking into the chair across from Pepper’s desk.

The guidance counselor steeled herself internally. She’d put a meeting down on Natasha’s Outlook calendar, but she hadn’t added a description for which student they’d be discussing.

Because they weren’t going to talk about a student.

“I’ve sent you a couple of texts,” Pepper started.

Natasha shifted in her seat. “Yeah, sorry, I’ve just been busy getting settled back into my place and getting the school year started.”

Pepper flashed her a small, polite grin. “Natasha, I’m not Tony. I know it takes two people for a relationship to... do anything . I just want to help.”

Pepper watched as Natasha tried to hide the series of emotions that crossed her face. Sadness flashed across her face for a second, as well as a few others, but the dominant expression seemed to be skepticism. “Help how?” she asked.

“First, anything you say to me will be kept confidential,” Pepper explained. “Especially from my husband. I know Bruce is his best friend, but I’m willing to talk to either one of you, or both if I need to mediate between you two, and no one else will know about it. Consider me Switzerland.”

“Okay,” Natasha responded, clearly still unconvinced. “So I’m just supposed to spill my guts to you or something?”

“If you want,” Pepper said. “Talking is always good. But I have a certification that lets me help people heal without a lot of talking, if you prefer that. Or there’s always boozy mani-pedi time.”

Natasha looked around the office for a minute, weighing her options. Pepper just leaned back in her seat and waited patiently. “While the last option sounds easier,” Natasha said, “I think booze hasn’t helped, even if my nails need touched up.”

“How much have you been drinking?” Pepper gently prodded.

The other woman shrugged. “I’m not driving when I do it, and I’m not showing up to work drunk.”

“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ at the end of that.”

Natasha picked at her nails. “It’s not enough to make me forget or numb anything, but I know I can’t have more or else I will be showing up here hungover, and I’m not willing to give some people around here that satisfaction. Not Bruce,” she corrected hurriedly. “I know if he knew I was doing that--”

“It would tear him apart even more than he already is,” Pepper finished for her . “As well as the rest of your friends here.” They sat in silence for a moment before Pepper started placing art supplies between them. There was a giant white sheet of paper for each, as well as magazines that had already had things cut out of them, paints, markers, and glitter. “I want you to put whatever you consider to be beautiful on this paper,” Pepper instructed, while gesturing to the empty canvas. “It can be words, pictures, sketches, whatever. Make the most beautiful thing you can think of. Some place where you wish you could curl up and stay in forever.”

Natasha looked unsure about things, like most of Pepper’s students did when she gave that direction. Setting an example, Pepper picked up blue paint and began coloring in a pale sky on her giant sheet of white paper. They worked in silence for a little over ten minutes, Pepper focusing on recreating the landscape of her home state of Virginia and the farm where she grew up. She cut out words and images from the magazine that fit the image she was creating, and kept working until she sensed Natasha was done.

When she looked over at what the gym teacher had created, her heart twisted. Natasha had put together a picture that depicted a room with books everywhere, and even featured a pair of reading glasses on an end table. She’d also found a picture in a magazine of a green afghan that looked very much like the one Bruce kept in his study.

Pepper swapped the pieces of paper so that she had Natasha’s. “With your permission, and you’re allowed to say no, I’d like to destroy this. You have my permission to destroy my work.”

Natasha’s eyes dropped to the art she’d made, and her lips pursed for a second. “Yeah, okay.”

Again, Pepper was the first to make a move. She took a bottle of black tempera paint, drizzled it all over Natasha’s creation, and folded the image in half to smear the paint around like flattening out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When Pepper unfolded it, the cozy image was drowned in blackness. Her next step was to start shredding the page into strips before tearing the pieces even more until it resembled large, black confetti.

Natasha followed her lead, picked up a red marker, and furiously scribbled over Pepper’s painting. Once that was done, the gym teacher balled up the sheet of paper before she, too, began to tear it into pieces.

Once they were each done massacring the other’s work, Pepper returned the paper scraps to their original creators. “And now, we take what’s left and make something new,” she instructed.

Natasha eyed her pile of sodden, black paper for a second before shaking her head. “How am I supposed to make something out of this?”

Pepper shrugged and smiled what Tony referred to as her “infuriatingly know-it-all smirk”. “I’m sure you can figure something out.” She, herself, began picking up her shredded page and began twisting the pieces so that they began to look like petals of a flower, the scribbled red marks giving a lovely appearance. By the time Pepper was done, her side of the desk was littered with a handful of small, red blossoms.

Natasha, on the other hand, was muttering Russian words under her breath, and it took Pepper a moment to realize what she was creating. A few minutes later, Natasha gently sat her finished work down on Pepper’s desk: a small, black spider. There was even a small, proud smile on the woman’s face for what she’d accomplished.

“And now,” Pepper said, “I would normally start talking about how you created something great, endured having it destroyed, and proceeded to make something you never even thought you could when you first walked in here. But suffice it to say, I’m tired of seeing my friend stuck looking at ruins.” Natasha’s green eyes flickered up to meet Pepper’s, and she could see the question in them. “And I’m not just talking about Bruce. You’re my friend, too. It’s time to start building something out of the mess. And I don’t care what that is or what it looks like, as long as you’re not harming yourself, obviously. But, please—enough with the being stuck with broken pieces all around you.”

Chaos, Phil decided, was the word of the day. Add in a couple adjectives, and you could even call it massive, unadulterated chaos.

And all because of a scavenger hunt.

Phil loved his beginning-of-the-year scavenger hunts, ones that reinforced good library habits while also introducing the students to new, more advanced skills. First and second graders focused mostly on how to alphabetize or where to find certain resources, and third and fourth graders learned various aspects of the Dewey Decimal system. But the fifth graders, in the crowning glory of his scavenger hunt scheme, put all of these skills together in a paired race to find at least six different resources (not all of them books) for a hypothetical report topic.

Usually, the hunts happened on each class’s second library visit of the year, but thanks to meetings, a late shipment of new children’s picture books, and a catastrophic card catalogue crash (proving once again that not everything needed to be digitized and upgraded, Tony), Phil’d needed to wait several weeks to bring out the big guns.

Only this time, those “several weeks” translated to “the first truly crazed Friday morning of the school year.” He blamed the rain, mostly. The rain, the gray-skied misery, the giant puddle on the kickball field and under the swings that prevented students from running off their energy before school), and also—

“I don’t think so,” he said, and firmly pried Anton’s hormone-riddled hands away from the giant anatomy book he’d pulled off the nearest reference shelf. Anton blushed beet red, and with good reason: he and his partner Ricky had been studying the pages on female and male reproductive organs very closely.

Ricky scowled. “But our topic is—”

“The red-tailed hawk,” Phil informed him. Both boys stared up at him, and he resisted his urge to roll his eyes as he gestured toward their assignment paper. “I can read it from here.”

“But it’s upside down,” Ricky pointed out. Phil raised an eyebrow. “People can’t read upside down.”

“Maybe not, but they sure can throw you in detention for mouthing off instead of getting back on track,” Clint suddenly said. Both boys jerked to attention as their teacher approached, his hands crossed over his chest. “You got another excuse waiting for Mister Coulson?” he asked. They shook their heads in unison. “Good. Now go do your assignment.”

The boys grumbled some, but they also darted off, glancing over their shoulders two or three times to make sure Clint didn’t tail them. Phil sighed as he slid the book back into place. “I admire your restraint in not making a ‘shake your tail feather’ joke,” he said under his breath.

Clint grinned. “That mean you’re gonna show me your appreciation when we’re—” he started to ask, but a crash from the other end of the library cut him off. Over in the stacks devoted to the 700s (arts and recreation), Peter Norman was frantically trying to shove an entire shelf’s worth of books back into their rightful places.

Clint heaved a sigh. “Hold that thought?”

“He’s all yours,” Phil said, and he waved his husband away before heading over to break up a gaggle of girls who were trying to access Facebook on one of the card catalogue computers.

By the time the fifth-graders left, their pissed-off teacher taking up the rear (and, as a small favor from the universe, providing Phil a wonderful view), Phil’d course-corrected another dozen children from such quality activities as looking up and underlining swear words in the dictionary, purposely hiding resources from other groups, ripping an article on One Direction out of a recent magazine, and leaving piles of books strewn around his library. Twice, Clint’d finished redirecting one of his hellions only to sign sorry from across the room.

The honeymoon period is clearly over, Phil’d signed back, and Clint’d grinned at him.

The rest of day involved vomit, a torn dust jacket (and hysterical, guilty tears), two loud fights between fourth-grade scavenger hunt partners—and that was all before lunch.

At one point during the second-grade hunt—after an argument about the alphabet ended in more tears—Jessica Drew walked over to rest her elbow on Phil’s shoulder. “Should I ask?”

“Do I look that bad?” he asked, and sighed when she shrugged. “In that case, no. Don’t ask.”

“Okay then.”

Really, the best part of Phil’s day was when it finally ended and Clint met him in the library doorway armed with a steaming cup of fresh coffee.

“Got a fifth-grade team meeting to get to,” he said, pushing the cup into Phil’s hand, “but I want you to know I’m sorry.”

Phil shrugged. “It’s not your fault the day unraveled like a cheap sweater.”

Clint grinned. “You’re such a fucking dork,” he declared, but he kissed Phil soft and sweet while Phil rolled his eyes.

That night, after dinner and a greater-than-average amount of shitty television, Clint walked up to Phil while he rinsed the dinner dishes and pressed his forehead to the back of Phil’s shoulder. Phil smiled and let him linger—at least, until Clint commented, “After today, I’m pretty glad we don’t have one.”

Phil stilled before twisting just far enough to glimpse his husband’s messy hair. “A child or a library?”

“Well, since your comic collection’s pretty much the second one . . . ” Clint replied, but he laughed when Phil smacked him with the dish towel before he used it to reel Phil in for another, much longer kiss.

Darcy flopped onto Loki’s mattress—what little space wasn’t covered with the abysmal persuasive papers he was grading—and let out a low whine. “Not that I don’t mind you moaning into my pillow,” Loki stated without looking up from the latest travesty of the English language, “but what, pray tell, is the problem today?”

She looked up at him, blew hair out of her face, and said, “’Pray tell? ’ Seriously?”

“I’m preparing myself for my next unit, which happens to be about Shakespeare. Not that any of these Neanderthals will appreciate it.”

“You’re such a dweeb.”

“And yet you’re in my bed.”

“Technically, Mister English-Language-Know-It-All,” Darcy argued as she propped herself up on her elbow, “I’m on it.”

“For now,” Loki returned with a smirk . Hastily, he put the papers in semi-organized heaps and tossed them onto the floor. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

Darcy groaned again and shoved her face back into the pillow. Loki simply waited for the latest round of theatrics to be over with so she would get to the point. He enjoyed Darcy immensely, but still was unaccustomed to being around a woman who was so boisterous and theatrical.

But if anyone asked, he’d prefer you used the adjectives energetic and lively. Or really, anything else that didn’t fall into the pejorative category.

She was right. He did sound like an English-Language-Know-It-All.

“We have to do something about the kids,” Darcy exclaimed. “As if it wasn’t bad enough with just George asking about ice cream and sprinkles whenever he sees me, Alva now has her little gal pals ganging up on me. Pretty sure half of them expect a wedding invite.”

“They’re five-year-old girls,” Loki attempted to reason. “Are you really this concerned about them?”

“You know nothing, Jon Snow ,” Darcy returned. “What are we going to do?”

Unlike Darcy, Loki had no hang ups about announcing their relationship to the world. He’d only spent the summer sowing lies because it’s what she wanted to do, and he wanted her to remain his… He’d say girlfriend, but any use of titles beyond the level of “buds” typically caused her eyes to bug.

“Remind me again about the downside of letting people know about us?” Loki asked.

He listened to her usual arguments: Thor flipping out, the nephews and niece clobbering them with questions about weddings and babies, how it would give her mother too much smug satisfaction, etc. “Don’t you want to keep it a secret?” she questioned at the end of her rant.

“No.” The word slipped out of him before he could reign it in . Every other time, he’d say the answer in his mind and then lie to keep her pleased. He knew it wasn’t the best basis for a relationship, but it worked for them. At least on surface levels.


Loki sighed. “I don’t want to keep it a secret. Why would I? There’s not a man in the world, not mention a few ladies, who wouldn’t be extremely jealous of me .”

“So this is all about you?” Darcy fired back. He knew from her tone of voice he needed to defuse the situation, and quickly.

“That’s not what I meant,” he responded. “If everyone already knows or has suspicions, then what’s the point of carrying on this charade?”

“It’s not any of their business,” Darcy hissed.

“I never stated that it was or it would be,” he said gently. “But if everyone already—“

“I gotta go,” she huffed as she climbed off his bed.

“You just got here.”

“Yeah, well, now I’m leaving,” she told him without turning around before stomping out of his apartment.

Loki let his head fall back against the wall with a thud. His father’s voice sounded in his head, reminding him that the key to a happy life was a happy wife. And while they certainly weren’t at that level of relationship yet, he hated admitting when his father was right.

“And then,” Carol continued, waving her wine glass idly, “I had to listen to an ode to his fucking tongue.”

James Rhodes’s laugh always reminded Carol of a caramel latte; warm and sweet, it pooled in her belly and its heat radiated outward. At least, those things were true when he wasn’t laughing at her expense. When he was

“Hey!” he protested when she twisted to kick the side of his leg, and again when she crossed her ankles over his shins. They’d grabbed greasy Chinese takeout on their way back to James’s to watch a truly shameful Saturday night baseball game on some cable sports network, and now, game over, they were lounging on the couch with their feet propped up on the coffee table. Or, rather, with his feet propped up on the coffee table. Carol’s, on the other hand—

“You have the boniest heels on the planet, Danvers,” he groused as he readjusted his legs.

She smirked and stretched further out. “You don’t complain about my heels when they’re digging into your back.”

“Yeah, because you’re that flex—” he started, but the word transformed into a whole different one (still starting with F) when she dug one of those bony heels into the side of his leg. “You know what? I’m just gonna concede that you’re a sex goddess and save myself the trouble.”

Carol raised her glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

“But not to Barney Barton’s magic tongue,” James retorted, and she almost choked on her drink. This time, she smacked him with a pillow while he laughed. “I don’t know what your problem with the whole Barney thing is,” he said once he’d wrestled the pillow out of her grip. “She’s happy.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“And yet, she’s happy about it.” Carol huffed a breath at him, and he raised his hands. “I’m not saying a convicted felon’s her best choice for a long-term boyfriend, or that she should be going on sexcapades while he’s living with one of your co-workers—”

“Ex-coworker,” she corrected.

“Funny how that’s no less disturbing for everybody involved.” She rolled her eyes, but he just shrugged. “Maybe this isn’t her best decision,” he pressed, “but from what you’ve told me about her, it’s not her worst. Letting it play out might not be so bad.”

“Yeah, but you’re not living ‘The Days of our Elementary School Lives,’” she complained.

He snorted into his beer. “That bad?”

“Are you kidding? Judge Judy and Jerry Springer could have a baby together and it’d still be less dramatic than what’s happening in that building.” James laughed again, and Carol thumped her head against the back of his couch. After a beat, she sighed. “It’s not really Jessica.”

“No, really?”

She shot him a dirty look, but he just smiled innocently and sipped his beer. “Nobody’s saying it with words like the adults they pretend to be, but it’s pretty clear Romanoff and Banner broke up. And all of that has—”

“Sent Tony into a crazy tailspin?” James asked. “‘Cause if he sends me one more text asking how you’re doing, I won’t be accountable for my actions.”

She laughed. “What, you don’t like that your bestie’s checking up on us?”

“I don’t like that he’s hovering like some dime-store yenta, no. Couple more days of this and I’m investing in a Pepper intervention.”

Carol shrugged. “Could just tell him we’re on a break.”

“And die by his hand?” He shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Worth a shot,” she replied, and he rolled his eyes at her as he tried to hide his smile. She leaned her head back to stare at the ceiling. “So, there’s that,” she explained, “plus Darcy running around shutting people up every time it comes up in conversation, plus Rogers and Barnes acting as squirrelly as two kids who just stole the last cookie out of the jar.” She closed her eyes. “I already need a break, and we’re barely into the school year.”

“Bodes real well for the next couple months,” James intoned, and Carol groaned. For a few minutes, they lingered silently, her feet propped up on his legs and her face still trained toward the ceiling. Then, he touched her knee. “I could help, you know.”

She twisted toward him for the express purpose of raising her eyebrows. “You didn’t miss the earlier part of the conversation where I warned you about how the Red Seas are flooding, did you?”

“No, but I really hate that that’s the euphemism you and Jessica chose,” he returned with a scowl, and she grinned. His thumb traced funny little patterns across her jeans. “The social work conference I go to every October is down in Austin this year. Just a week of barbeque, country music, and bad hipster facial hair as far as the eye can see.”

Carol ignored the flutter in her gut to snort at him. “You trying to make me jealous?”

“No, I’m trying to invite you.” He said it easily, his voice as nonchalant and matter-of-fact as usual. Carol finished her wine in one huge gulp. “It’s the same week as your fall break,” he said after a couple seconds. “You might be bored during the days, but I figure at night, we can go out to eat, mock Texas sports fans, whatever you wanna do.” He shrugged. “Might be fun.”

Carol stared down at her empty glass. “James . . . ”

“I’m not asking you to pressure you into anything,” he added once her voice faltered a little, and she nodded unevenly. “You don’t want to come, you don’t have to. But this summer was good. We’ve been doing good. And I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t ask.”

She glanced over at him. “And if I need some time to think about it?” she asked.

He grinned. “Why do you think I asked you this far in advance?”

She reached out to smack him a little at that, but he caught her by the arm and pulled her toward him, instead. She swung her legs off his and ended up pressing against him, his grip as warm and welcome as his laugh. “Let me think about it, okay?” she asked, looking up at him. “Not because I don’t want to, but because I live in a soap opera and want to make sure I can leave it in good conscience.”

“Long as you don’t accidentally screw my evil twin Reynaldo, we’re golden,” he replied, and she laughed.

Darcy paced along the fence line of her backyard. She didn’t want to know how long she’d been out here. Certainly not enough for her mother’s foul mood to improve, not that Darcy’s mood was any better.

She could take out her cell phone and look at the time, but that would probably mean seeing another string of texts from Loki. Darcy was sure they’d all be innocuous, but despite the lack of actual blood relations, Loki could be as subtle as Thor when his emotions were too heavily in play. Which was to say that even though he’d be trying to play it cool, no one sent five texts in a row about pizza toppings . I mean, if you were Darcy? Sure. But the man who could quote Nordic folklore in its original ancient tongue? Not so much.

Darcy heard a door slam and looked over to see Jane trudging out of her house, coffee mug in hand. She paced the deck a moment before spotting Darcy in the darkness. Busted, Darcy waved her fingers at her neighbor.

“Why are you out here?” Jane questioned when she got closer.

“I needed to think,” Darcy answered with a shrug. She’d needed to do a lot of thinking, but still had yet to get her mind to shut up for half a second so an actual thought could pass through. That’s why she’d left Loki’s place in a hurry, and why she'd then spent the next two hours driving laps around the city’s interstate bypass.

“About whether or not to come clean about you and Loki?” Jane asked with an arched eyebrow .

Darcy grit her teeth in frustration. She knew it was only a matter of time before her neighbors found out. She just wanted more time. “Alva spill the beans?”

“Not directly. More so with how she took a Sharpie to Ken’s plastic hair, and renamed her Skipper doll after herself. She then proceeded to have wedding after wedding with you and Loki and your Barbie franchise stand-ins.”

Darcy couldn't help but smile a little at that little revelation, but then dread and fear pooled in her belly once more. “Thor knows?”

“Yeah,” Jane answered. “Not that Loki would own up to it when he was over this morning for an impromptu visit. Said he wanted to bring the kids donuts for breakfast, but the way he kept looking over at your house made it clear he was lying a little.” Jane took another sip from her mug while eyeing Darcy in that stupid super smart scientist way , the kind that told you that if she could break down the secrets of the universe, Darcy’s should be cake to unravel. “What’s your hang up?”

Darcy felt her chest squeeze and her lungs threaten to stop working all together. She wanted to run away and hide, but that was apparently no longer a viable option. “I’m going to fuck this up,” she admitted, the words tumbling out of her. “You know me, there’s no other option. Hell, I probably already have.”

“Of course you’re going to fuck up, Darcy,” Jane said like it was an obvious constant of the galaxy. Which, to be fair, it probably was, but hearing the words come out of her friend’s mouth gutted her. “I mean, you’re human,” Jane continued. “Making messes of things is what humans do best. It’s a relationship, of course you’re going to screw up.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Darcy answered unconvincingly.

Jane just sighed and shook her head. “Do you know why I’m out here?”

“To watch some meteor shower only nerds care about?”

“No,” Jane answered with sarcasm heavy in her voice. “Besides, there’s too much cloud cover for that,” she muttered. “I’m out here because I couldn’t get anything right at work. And instead of leaving it behind me when I left the planetarium, I came home and took it out on the kids and Thor. So now I’ve been banished to the backyard to calm down before I’m allowed back into my house. But at least I managed to spike my coffee on the way out,” Jane added before offering the mug to Darcy.

She took it and sipped, the bitterness of the coffee and the strength of the booze causing her to cough. “You’re not a bad mom and wife,” Darcy said to reassure her friend.

“I am tonight,” Jane admitted. “Because I’m human, and I fuck up when it comes to relationships. But you know what I’m not going to do?”

“Run away and hide?” Darcy asked meekly.

“Exactly. I’m going to get my shit together, go back into my house, kiss my kids good night, apologize to my husband—probably in some form of sex. I mean I’ll probably still lay awake in bed wondering how much money I need to put away for my kids’ therapy sessions, but I’m not going to run away.” Before Darcy could open her mouth to offer another mandatory sentimentality about the situation, Jane cut her off with a stare. “I will be the first and loudest to admit that I’m not mother material, but I still made the little people in my house and it’s my job to take care of them. And I’ll be damned if something stops me from doing it. Yes, I’m going to mess up. Yes, there will be nights where everyone is in tears, but they’re my kids. And no one else gets to be their mom but me.”

The tightness in Darcy’s chest barely ebbed away as she thought about what Jane said . “Exactly what is the coffee to booze ration in that mug?” she asked to deflect any hint of emotion. Jane’s only response was to frown down into her cup. Before either of them could say anything, the back door to the Odinson house swung open, and Thor’s broad silhouette filled the frame.

“That’s my cue,” Jane said. “You’re going to mess up, but you have to make sure whatever you screwing up is also worth fixing. And if it is, don’t ever let it go.”

Chapter Text

“The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we are going for a drive,” Tony announced on Bruce’s doorstep Sunday afternoon, his eyes obscured by enormous sunglasses.

Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked.

“Time for a drive. The open road in front of us, the wind in our hair, an iced hazelnut latte in your hand.” Bruce frowned at him, but Tony just waved a hand. “Go on, get dressed. I’ll wait.”

Bruce sighed but trudged inside to turn off the documentary he’d been dozing in front of (as much as he tried, he really wasn’t sleeping that well lately) and throw on clean clothes. When he stepped back into the sun, he discovered that Tony was leaning up against the side of an unfamiliar car and talking to—

“Did you just invite me to be a third wheel?”

Tony and Pepper’s conversation stopped abruptly, but only because Tony whirled around and spread out his arms. “You’re only a third wheel in the sense that you’re part of a bicycle that happens to have three wheels. Naturally. Like a tricycle. Or one of those old-timey bikes with one big wheel and—”

“Only one small wheel?” Pepper asked. Tony’s grin immediately faltered, and she smiled as she shook her head. “Tony made me promise to sit in the back.”

“Because this is a boy’s day out and you’re only here as the eye candy,” Tony said. It sounded mostly like the continuation of an earlier conversation, but Pepper rolled her eyes as she and her coffee slid obligingly into the back seat. “She’ll also charm random gas station attendants. Did it on the way here. Frustrating, yet oddly sexy.”

Pepper sighed. “Remind me why I married you.”

“Because you thought you had eighteen years of Stark-spawn ahead of you,” Tony fired back. She pulled a face, but he ignored it as he gestured to the passenger side. “Hop in, loser, we’re going driving.”

Bruce rolled his lips together. “Did you really rent a four-seat convertible just to take me and your wife driving?” he asked.

“No, I rented a four-seat convertible because my two-seater’s in the shop and because I needed to take my best friend and my wife driving.” Tony shook his head. “It’s like you don’t even listen to me anymore.”

“That would mean he listened to you in the first place,” Pepper replied with a little shrug, and Bruce pretended to smile as he climbed into the car.

“It’s not like I’m not ready for it,” Jasper said a few nights later, after Tony’d dragged him into Bruce’s classroom at the end of the day and announced all three of them were going out for Mexican. “Sure, I maybe talk a good game about being casual and taking it slow. But deep down, I’m ready for more.” He sighed and reached for his beer. “I mean, is this the face of man who’s not ready for commitment?”

Tony snorted. “To be fair, it’s mostly the face of a guy who needs to give up on facial hair before he looks like a dime-store replacement of yours truly.” Jasper glared, and Tony shrugged. “Bruce, weigh in on this. How much does the new goatee look like he’s practicing for his Stark Halloween costume?”

“Scariest costume on the damn planet,” Jasper muttered.

“Scariest because of its untamed sexiness, maybe,” Tony retorted, and Bruce rolled his eyes at both of them. Tony grinned as he clapped Bruce on the shoulder—apparently a reward for responding at all. “You want commitment, you tell her you want commitment,” he continued, waving a hand. “Women like a man who can be straightforward about that kind of thing.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “This from you?”

“This from the happily married man at the table full of bachelors, yes.”

Tony tried to punctuate his point by stealing the last of Bruce’s nachos, but Bruce slid the plate out of the way. Tony huffed while Jasper continued, “It’s just hard, you know? She’s all ‘once bitten, twice shy’ about the divorce, and fuck if I know how to fix that. But I don’t want to be that guy who waits forever and then watches her walk because he’s waited too long.” He sighed. “Shit, listen to me. I sound like a sap.”

“You sound like a guy who wants his girlfriend to stick around,” Tony replied, leaning on the table. “Nothing wrong with that. Right, Bruce? Tell Sitwell there’s nothing wrong with wanting his girlfriend to stick around.”

Bruce glanced down at his nachos. “Right,” he echoed.

Carol slid into the booth at the Mexican restaurant with a hefty sigh. “I hate life,” she announced, and Jess had the nerve to smirk.

“I didn't know what you wanted so I didn't order anything,” she said as she sipped what Carol doubted would be her only margarita.

“One of those,” Carol told her, “but laced with Midol.”

Jess snorted. “This place has enough legal trouble with its immigrant workers. I don't think they'll give you a drugged beverage. Cramps still that bad?”

“I don't understand the point of having a uterus. I think you should get to check a box when you're ten swearing you'll never conceive and then you won't ever have to deal with this shit.”

Jess arched an eyebrow at her. “You sure about that? Seems like you and Señor Chocolicious are getting pretty cozy again.”

“Señor Chocolicious?” Carol questioned.

Jess shrugged. “I went with the ambiance.”

“Whatever,” Carol sighed. The waiter came by to take their order of another round of margaritas and plates upon plates of tacos. “But speaking of getting cozy, he asked me to go on a road trip with him.”


“Austin, Texas,” Carol answered.

Jess nodded approvingly. “If you have to go somewhere in Texas, that's definitely the most survivable city if you're not from the Bible Belt. When's the trip?”

“Over our fall break.”

“Let me get this straight,” Jess started, and Carol immediately recognized her you’re mistaken tone of voice. “Your hunk of a…whatever title you aren't afraid of using is offering to take you on a trip where you won't have to pay for a hotel. You'll get away from here on a few days instead of holing up with your cat, being pathetic—


“You should totally do it,” Jess told her. “And it's also really stupid that you're looking for validation in someone who can't do this kind of thing with the guy she's banging without a parole violation landing on the vacation itinerary.”

“You're the one who's made the choice to shack up with a felon,” Carol pointed out.

Jess smirked around her margarita straw. “At least he's willing to enter the danger zone during monthly maintenance.”

“Gross,” Carol replied.

Jess waved her off. “You put down a towel, no big deal. I swear it will help with your cramps.” Carol cringed and shook her head. “Hygienic freak,” Jess muttered.

“I know you meant that as an insult, but I really don't see it that way.”

“So are you going to go knock boots in boot country?” Jess asked.

Carol considered her options for the hundredth time since James asked her about it. She had no objection to spending time with him, and God knew she needed a vacation. But heavens above, she didn't want others finding out about it. She could only imagine the ten gallon cowboy hat Tony would fill with lube and toys if he found out.

“Stop worrying about what Stark’ll think,” Jess said while loading up a chip with salsa.

“Get out of my head, freak.”

“You know Tony will be happy as long as you keep his buddy happy.”

“True. I mean, it's not like I'm secretly banging his brother or anything.”

Jess froze with another chip halfway to her mouth. “You haven't said anything to Barton, have you?”

“Oh no,” Carol chuckled. “That would deprive me of the joy of watching all this explode all over you.”

“Why do I call you my best friend, again?”

“Because no one else will come pick up your drunk ass after last call on weekends.”

Jess nodded. “Fair point.”

“This is officially the weirdest double-date you’ve ever dragged me on,” James Rhodes said the next night.

“You’re just a sore fucking loser, Rhodes,” Carol Danvers countered. She rubbed his hand over his head in some kind of open-fist noogie, and he laughed as he pulled her down next to him. The bowling alley was mostly filled by members of the local sixty-plus bowling league, but Tony’d conned the girl behind the counter into giving them a lane.

Tony was also studying his seven-ten split like it held the secrets to the universe.

“Seriously, though,” James continued, and Bruce raised his eyebrows as he glanced over. “Tony tells me we’re going on a mid-week double date, and I expect Pepper. Instead, I get you. Not something I’m complaining about, but it’s a little out of character.”

Bruce shrugged. “Tony likes reminding me to live a little,” he said. His voice sounded almost aggressively casual.

Carol rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure mid-week bowling counts as living.” James laughed at that, but when she leaned over to murmur something close to his ear, the laughter morphed into a whole different noise. She smirked before pulling away. “I need more beer. You good on soda, Bruce?”

He nodded. “Thanks, though.”

She waved over her shoulder as she disappeared, and James actually patted Bruce on the shoulder before he stood to replace Tony as the active bowler. Tony dropped into the seat on Bruce’s other side and promptly hooked an arm on the back of his chair. “We having fun yet?”

Bruce forced a smile. “Sure,” he said, and turned to watch James bowl.

“Come on, I know you have extra and I need it,” Carol Danvers said, and Peter almost closed his arm in the copy machine’s front door.

He’d come into the copy-slash-mailbox-slash-gossip room to run a handful of copies for the rest of the week, but the machine—a plastic behemoth at least as old as him that sounded a little like a jet engine—had decided otherwise. In fact, it’d jammed so spectacularly that Peter’d needed to kneel down, open up all the doors and trays, and grope around in its great mechanical bowels.

Somehow, he’d gone totally unnoticed as Carol Danvers walked in to collect her mail.

And, apparently, as Jessica Drew hoisted herself up onto the little work counter that separated them from the copier and cackled.

“Tough day to be Carol Danvers, if you’re coming to me for help,” Jessica mocked, swinging her legs. She’d stolen a popsicle from the freezer in the teacher’s lounge earlier, and now her lips were stained red. “Aren’t you a former Girl Scout? Be prepared and all that?”

“That’s Boy Scouts,” Carol huffed.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m going to show you what you can do with your question in about ten seconds,” Carol grumbled, and Jessica laughed again. Peter tried to focus on his mission—extracting tiny shreds of paper from tray 6B—but Carol’s groan of frustration distracted him. “Don’t make me beg.”

Jessica snorted. “Because you ain’t too proud to beg?” she asked in almost a sing-song.

“I am not playing the song title game with you today, Jessica. Either you have extra, or you don’t, but I—”

“God, okay, wow, your attitude is way worse when your sexy-times are being interrupted by natural processes,” Jessica cut in. She hopped off the counter, and Peter glanced over to watch her plant her hands on her hips. “You sure this is just about you and your need for—”

“If you weren’t my best friend, I might actually punch you right now,” Carol threatened. She sounded genuine enough that Jessica raised her hands. “I thought I had some in my bag, but I didn’t. And since you’re always afraid of going without—”

“Because you don’t remember the Desperate Times, Desperate Measures incident of Aught-Seven,” Jessica retorted.

“—I figured you could hook me up.”

“Well, you are in luck in that department, friend,” Jessica replied, hooking her arm around Carol’s neck. “Let’s get you what you need.”

They shut the door behind them, their voices disappearing almost immediately, and Peter flopped back against the copier. A tiny cloud of toner rained down around him, and he groaned as he started brushing it off his clothes (thereby making it worse). He tried to be a mature adult about it—fix the copier, run the copies, do not think about Jessica Drew, her best friend, or her mysterious “stuff”—but, well, his mind reeled anyway. He’d already overheard Jessica and Carol talking about some strange, secretive trip to Texas earlier in the week; now, suddenly, Jessica had something Carol needed but wouldn’t actually name.

She also hung out with his aunt and her creepy boarder-slash-whatever, meaning—

“Okay, how are you still in here?” a voice demanded, and Peter almost lost his arm to tray 6B as he jerked around to see Darcy Lewis standing in front of him. “Please tell me you’re not actually checking every tray for a jam. I trained you better than that.”

He blinked. “I was just—”

“Get up, get up,” she demanded, and when he hesitated, she treated him to a lot of emphatic gesturing. Once he moved out of the way, she slammed all the doors shut, lifted the cover off the glass, and closed it again. “All you need to do is trick it into thinking that you cleaned the trays out,” she explained. “The sensors are busted and full of toner. There’s almost never an actual jam.”

Peter scowled. “But—”

She thumbed the start button, and immediately, his copies started racing through the machine. She smirked. “Next time, pay attention to my trainings. They’re literally invaluable.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Thanks,” he said, and she nodded like she deserved it. He watched her fill mailboxes for a few minutes—it seemed like the boxes were constantly stuffed with book order forms, catalogues, notes, and other various paperwork—before he thought to ask, “What do you know about Jessica?”

Darcy glanced over her shoulder. “Drew or Cage?”


Darcy shrugged. “She’s pretty cool. Nuts, but cool.”

Peter rolled his lips together. “Nuts how?”

“Just— I don’t know, you know how sometimes there are those people who are so smart that they’re eccentric and ridiculous?” she asked. “Like Stark, only the ridiculousness is accidental and not a front for a billion weird insecurities.” Peter frowned a little, but he nodded. “Jessica’s like that, but without the ‘so smart’ part. She’s just, you know, weird. I think she was dropped on her head as a baby.”

“Is that really a thing?”

“That’s what she tells everybody, so maybe.” Darcy shoved a stack of papers into Stark’s already overflowing mailbox before turning back around. “She’s mostly harmless. Sort of a ‘her bark is worse than her bite’ kind of thing.”

Peter nodded a little, not that Darcy’s reassurances really helped to soothe any of his fears. “And Danvers—”

“Do not fuck with Carol Danvers,” she immediately returned. He opened his mouth, and she pointed her index finger at him. “Trust me, Parker, if you value your life? You do not ever fuck with Carol Danvers or her weird symbiotic relationship with Jessica Drew. They’re synched. I mean synched. They’re a hive-mind. You do not touch that.”


“You do not touch it,” she repeated, and when she strode out of the room, she left Peter alone with his copies, his new toner freckles, and a sinking feeling that he’d just witnessed something a lot weirder than a Danvers-Drew “hive-mind” (whatever that meant).

“So, you’re coming for dinner tomorrow night?” Steve asked on Thursday, and Bruce froze.

He stared at his desk for a long time, the book orders blurring in his vision for a moment before he managed to lift his head. Steve hovered in the doorway, face expectant and eyebrows raised.

Bruce forced himself to breathe. “Sorry?”

“Dinner tomorrow. Tony said— Well, that’s probably my first mistake, trusting Tony to tell any two people the same thing.” Bruce pressed his lips together to keep from frowning, but Steve just leaned against the doorframe. “Bucky and I are trying to invite people over for dinner every once in a while, and when I asked Tony if he and Pepper wanted to come, he said Pepper had plans but you were available. I just assumed—”

“That Tony would’ve told me?” Bruce tried to smile through the question, but he heard the tension in his own voice. Steve nodded uncertainly. “That makes four times this week.”

“Four times?” Steve repeated.

“Sorry, just— Tony.” Bruce shook his head a little, feeling very small under Steve’s intense gaze. He returned to sorting through the book orders and ignored the way his temper fizzed just under his skin. “I actually don’t think I can come on Friday night,” he said after a few more seconds. “Tony didn’t really give me advanced notice, and—”

“Hey, I totally understand,” Steve replied, his tone purposely light. “Bucky’s kind of the same way. Or at least, he claims to be when my mom suddenly shows up on our doorstep.”

Bruce forced a little smile. “It might just be your mother,” he pointed out.

“Or having to wear a shirt,” Steve joked. Bruce actually chuckled a little, and Steve grinned as he pushed away from the door. “I just— I wanted to make sure you know you’re welcome,” he pressed, and Bruce rolled his lips together. “Dinner or no dinner, Tony or no Tony. Okay?”

Bruce nodded slightly. “Okay,” he said. He held his smile all the way until Steve disappeared down the hall, and when he finally exhaled, it rushed out in a sharp, ugly noise. “As though ‘no Tony’ is ever really an option, anymore,” he muttered to no one, and returned to his book orders.

The knock sounded around ten on Friday night. Bucky sighed wearily. He’d just finally settled into his sweatpants, dammit. Steve’d insisted on going out for dinner and a movie, even though Tony and Bruce had canceled on them. And since Saturday was going to be occupied with the annual binging on college football and food at the Barton-Coulson residence, Steve wanted them to sneak in some alone time. Bucky would’ve been just fine ordering a pizza and renting some flick from through OnDemand, but no. That wasn’t good enough for Steve.

Why he’d agreed to marry a man with such strong puppy dog eye game was beyond Bucky.

Granted, the food at the diner on the edge of town was amazing, and the movie hadn’t been half bad, but Bucky was tired. Once Friday night came, he just wanted to crash and not have to suffer with being out on the town. Even if his date had an ass that refused to quit.

“I’ll get it,” Steve offered as he started to rise from the couch.

Bucky pulled him back down by the arm. “Be really quiet, and maybe they’ll leave.”

The knocking sounded again, followed by, “James, I know you’re in there.”

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered under his breath.

Steve frowned slightly. “Maybe she’s finally ready to talk. You should let her in.”

Bucky bit his tongue, but he got off the couch anyway. Of course it would be great if Nat wanted to get some things off her chest. But odds were any venting session she’d have would end in the mother of all hangovers for Bucky, and he was too tired for that shit.

When he opened the door, the bottom of a vodka bottle landed in the middle of his chest. Natasha had her hand wrapped around the neck and used the booze to force him back inside the house. “I’ve come with conditions,” she announced.

“Conditions for what?”

She tilted her head and gave him her patented You’re an idiot stare. “For being your best man?”

“Sure you should call her that?” Steve asked as he leaned into the doorway separating the entryway from the kitchen. “She’s a lady.”

“You clearly do not know her that well,” Bucky commented before Natasha slugged him in the arm.

“C’mon,” Natasha said as she led the men into the kitchen. Bucky watched as she opened cabinet after cabinet until she found shot glasses. She paused as she reached for them and looked over her shoulder at Steve. “I guess we’re now splitting these bottles into thirds?”

“I don’t have to—“ Steve started.

“Please,” Bucky interrupted. “We all know you’ll still drink most of it, Nat. Which is probably for the best. Now pour the shots so we can get this over with.” He reached behind him, fisted the hem of Steve’s t-shirt, and pulled him closer to the kitchen counter.

Natasha passed around the glasses, lifted hers, and toasted them in her native tongue before throwing back her shot. Steve looked at Bucky with a bit of concern. “Was that a blessing or a curse?”

“Probably both,” Bucky answered before throwing back his drink. Steve did the same and immediately started coughing. Bucky slapped him on the back a few times until he was sure that his fiancé was still able to breathe.

Natasha started to pour another round, but both men quickly stopped that nonsense. “I’m not spending all day around Tony Stark with the mother of all hangovers,” Bucky said.

“Wuss,” Natasha returned before throwing back a second shot for herself.

“So what’re your conditions?” Steve asked, his voice still a little rough from his coughing fit.

“One,” she said as she began to tick off points with her fingers, “I’m throwing your bachelor party.” Bucky felt his stomach drop in dread at that, but nodded nonetheless. “Two, I’m not doing any wedding showers. I’ll make up all the games about penises you want, but I’m not suffering through some trivia game about who said ‘I love you’ first.”

“Fair enough,” Bucky agreed.

“Three, I’m picking out my own dress. Steve can assign me a color, but I’m doing the shopping.”

“We haven’t gotten that far yet with planning,” Steve told her. “But I’ll make sure it’s not something like fuchsia.”

Natasha wrinkled her nose at that. “Please don’t. There’s no way that color would work with my hair. I’d have to dye it blond or something.” She paused, her eyes flickering back and forth between Steve and Bucky, before landing squarely on her best friend. “Fourth, the final one: you have forty-eight hours to start telling people about the engagement, or I’m out.”

Bucky looked over at Steve just in time to see him roll his lips to hide a smile and duck his head. He turned back to Natasha. “Are you kidding me?”

“Grow a pair, Barnes. Everyone knows you two are a sure thing. Hell, you’ll probably be the first of us to have kids, even if your parts aren’t compatible for that sort of thing .” She arched an eyebrow at him. “Quit using your privacy as an excuse, man up, and start telling people. Because if you don’t, Steve’s going to spontaneously combust, and out of the two of you, he’s the one everyone likes the most.”

“Gee, thanks,” Bucky replied. Natasha looked at him expectantly; he didn’t even really want to look in Steve’s direction right now. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed. He heard Steve suck in air beside him and he couldn’t help but smile a little. “Tomorrow?” he asked. “Kill a bunch of birds with one stone?”

“Yeah,” Steve said quietly as a thousand-watt grin took over his face. “Sounds like a great idea.”

“Get a room,” Natasha muttered as she closed the cap on the vodka bottle.

“You can’t drive with that,” Steve warned. “It’s an open container.”

“Only if I get caught,” Natasha returned. The pair of them stared each other done for a second, and Bucky had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning. A moment later, Natasha rolled her eyes, and put the bottle in the back of their freezer. “I’ll come back for that later. You may or may not be home when I do.”

“Stop being a menace,” Bucky warned as he nudged her towards the front door.

“Have a good night,” Steve called out to her, and she waved over her shoulder at him.

When they stepped out onto the front stoop, Bucky leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

“For being your best man?”

“For including Steve in our—” He paused to flap a hand between them. “—whatever this is.”

“Friendship, you dumbass.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. Bucky looked at her closely. The fiery part that made Natasha who she was had been absent for weeks, but now he could see the faintest hint of its return. “You doin’ better?”

She shrugged. “I’m not worse. That’s something, I guess.”

He nodded. “Text me when you get home.”

“I live five minutes away.”

“Humor me,” he told her.

“Pretty sure you guys will already be busy screwing each other’s brains out by then.”

“You could stay and watch,” he offered with a smirk.

“I’d rather go home and watch porn,” she said. “While they may not be as hot as the two of you, at least they won’t be shouting about how much they love each other when they come.”

“Hey,” Bucky said in a defensive tone. “I only do that when he’s sucking my dick.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, climbed into her jeep, and drove away. When Bucky walked back into the house, Steve stood there with his arms crossed over his broad chest. “Only when I’m sucking your dick?” he asked, a not-impressed expression on his face.

Bucky felt like his skin was just turned inside out. He was eighty percent sure Steve was playing with him, but at the moment, he couldn’t get enough blood to his head to know for sure.

Steve stalked toward him, and Christ on a cracker, Bucky felt like he was already about to explode. His fiancé stared him down for a moment before he beamed an infuriating smirk. “You and I both know that isn’t true.”

“Wow, looks like you’re really busy with all your other plans,” Tony said on Friday night. He stood on Bruce’s doorstep, still dressed in his work clothes; when Bruce hesitated to invite him in, he slid right into the foyer.

Bruce rolled his eyes. “I didn’t know I needed to clear my schedule with you.”

“Ordinarily, no, but right now? Definitely yes.” Tony’s gaze swept over Bruce—already in his pajama pants and a t-shirt, his feet bare and his hair rumpled—before he glanced at his watch. “If you throw your work clothes back on, we can show up before dinner’s cold and just claim we’re fashionably late.”

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tony—”

“Actually,” Tony continued with a shrug, “it might be for the best. Rogers and Barnes can exchange quick back-bedroom blowjobs, keep the sexual tension down to a simmer until we leave, and then everybody—”

“Except I’m not going to the damn dinner.”

The tension in Bruce’s voice crackled like electricity on the air, and Tony blinked blankly at him. He looked halfway between surprised and hurt, and Bruce dragged a hand over his face. “I’m not really in the mood for—”

“Human interaction?” Tony demanded. “Dinner with people who like you? Something that doesn’t involve sitting alone in your house?” Bruce pressed his lips together, still silent, and Tony rolled his eyes. “If I’m interrupting your busy schedule of shitty history documentaries and science journals, just say the word and I’ll split, but the way I see it, you need to actually hang out with—”

“With your wife and other couples!” Bruce shouted, and for the first time in weeks, the dam that held back his temper finally buckled and burst. He threw up his hands. “Has it ever occurred to you that what you’re doing is maybe the last thing I need right now?”

Tony swallowed. “Bruce, I didn’t—”

“You didn’t what? Mean to remind me about how badly I just fucked everything up?” he demanded. Tony’s jaw snapped shut, and Bruce snorted out a bitter half-laugh. “You didn’t mean to subject me to your happy marriage, or Jasper’s desperate need to commit himself to his girlfriend, or all these happy couples? Because you’re usually not that stupid, even if you are that thoughtless.”

The last word cracked like a whip, harsher than even Bruce expected, and Tony’s shoulders tightened. “That’s not fair, and you know it,” he said. “You’re allowed to be hurt, and you can even be pissed off that I accidentally—emphasis on the accidentally—elbowed you right where it hurts, but you don’t get to call me thoughtless when the only thing I’ve spent the last week doing is looking out for you.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Because I need a babysitter.”

“Because you need to do something other than hiding!” Tony snapped back, and Bruce twisted away to glare at the floor. Tony scoffed, his hands fluttering agitatedly in Bruce’s peripheral vision. “You think I don’t notice the way you avoid everybody? The way you leave group outings early, the way you stay later than everybody else at work just so you don’t run into us in the parking lot?” Bruce’s jaw trembled without his permission, and he ground his teeth together. “Parker’s driving everybody up the wall because you don’t reply to his e-mails,” Tony pressed, “you don’t reply to my texts, and as far as I can see, you’re just turning into a recluse who looks sad all the fucking time.” He sighed. “Bruce, I want to help you through this, you know I do, but if you just stay silent, I can’t—”

“You can leave.”

The words escaped unevenly, a half-hiss, half-whisper that Bruce felt more than heard, and once again, Tony fell abruptly silent. Bruce swallowed around the lump in his throat and forced himself to glance over at his friend. At his happily married best friend, a man who proudly told the world time and again that he’d never loved someone the way he loved Pepper Potts.

A man who’d never felt what Bruce’d felt, this slow descent into silence and loneliness.

Bruce shook his head. “If you want to help,” he said, “you can leave.”


“You can stop barging in, and you can leave,” he repeated, and when Tony refused to do nothing more than stare at him, he turned and walked away.

He closed himself in his bedroom, his back against the door and his face tipped up toward the ceiling, closing his eyes as he listened to the front door close behind Tony. His jaw ached, but not nearly as much or as deeply as his chest, and he fought against both as he curled his hands into fists. He hated his bedroom now, like he hated most of the house; the silence hollowed him out, and worse, he still imagined hints of Natasha’s scent lingering in the air.

The empty, lonely feeling followed him like a shadow.

Like Tony, he thought, and he forced himself to step away from door.

He wasn’t surprised, necessarily, to find Tony waiting for him on the couch, the light from the television playing across his features. He stared straight ahead, turning the remote over in his hands in an endless, twitchy loop that faltered when Bruce stepped into the room.

Bruce wet his lips. “Tony—”

“Maybe you need to be alone,” Tony said quietly, his eyes big and brown as he turned to glance up at Bruce. “Maybe being around other people, other couples— Maybe that’s the wrong way. I mean, I didn’t know you when you lost Betty, and I’ve never really gone through what you’re going through now, so maybe I don’t know how this part works. I just—” He paused to swallow audibly. “I’m worried, okay? I’m a stupid worried asshole, and barging in is kind of what I do.”

Bruce felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “I know.”

“And I’m probably not going to stop until I know you’re okay. You get that, right? I’m not going to be able to turn it off until I’m sure that the Bruce I know is going to be all right.”

Bruce nodded a little, walking almost automatically over to the couch. He mirrored Tony’s posture, his hands folding between his knees as he stared out at the bare shelves he’d cleared for Natasha and had yet to refill. “It could be a while,” he admitted quietly.

Tony shrugged. “I am the very model of a modern patient gentleman, you know,” he deadpanned, and for the first time in what felt like ages, Bruce actually laughed.

Clint had a love-hate relationship with the annual football get-together that took place in his living room. The group made sure to keep a Saturday clear in their schedule so that they could have time to bet money, commit gluttony, yell at each other, and generally relax.

Tony’d already set up his stupid white board in the living room, marking picks for the few who were present. Phil’d already yelled at him twice about how the wheels of the collapsible thing were going to scratch the hardwood floors. Clint had rolled his eyes and pulled Pepper into the kitchen so that they could escape their bickering spouses.

“Are you sure you didn’t put too much garlic in here?” Pepper asked as she taste-tested the chili.

Clint snatched the spoon out of her hand. “There is no such thing as too much garlic. Don’t make me throw you out of my kitchen.”

Others began to trickle in slowly. They deposited drinks into the fridge and tried to sneak chili out of the large pot on the stove, only to be chased away by Clint and his wooden spoon. Bucky arrived, stuck his pesto pizza into the oven, and then joined Clint in standing guard until food was ready.

They were all settled in for the first game of the day—Oklahoma at Tennessee—when Clint finally squeezed onto the couch next to Phil. Clint wasn’t one for mushy sentiment, but it was nice to see all his friends crammed into his living room, and—for the most part—happy. Carol didn’t seem to mind being cozy with her guy in front of everyone, which was something Clint made a mental note to bring up on Monday.

Darcy came in later, traditional vat of neon pink homebrew in her arms. A tall man Clint didn’t recognize trailed behind her. “Everyone,” Darcy announced, “this is Loki. We’re a thing. You can ask questions after I’ve had two glasses of this stuff,” she said while jostling her mystery-recipe booze.

“Thor’s brother?” Tony asked skeptically.

Clint understood why Tony was dubious; the stranger’s arms weren’t nearly as close in size to the president of the PTA. In fact, the two didn’t really resemble each other in looks at all.

“Adopted,” the stranger answered in the British accent, a trait that Clint never really understood since the family was supposed to be Swedish or whatever. But his answer explained a lot.

“What do you do, Loki?” Phil asked.

“I’m a doctoral student, doing a thesis on ancient Norse literature.”

Both Clint and Darcy noticed how Phil immediately perked up at the answer. “I’ll let mine make out with yours if we get to make out,” Darcy offered Clint.

“No deal,” he told her.

“Sorry I’m late,” Jessica Drew announced as she ducked inside the door. “My thing from this morning ran a little long.”

“Thing?” Carol questioned.

Clint noticed two things right off the bat: the comment made Peter Parker twitch, and, for the first time all day, Birdie didn’t bark at the newest visitor to the house. Almost like she was used to the person.

“Where’s your boyfriend, Drew?” Clint asked. He felt Phil shoot him a dirty look, but he ignored both it and Carol’s snort.

“Uh, he had a… thing.”

“A thing?” Carol asked again with a quirked eyebrow.

Jess shot her best friend a dirty look, clearly not pleased that she was ganging up on her with Clint. “Yes, a thing.”

“That’s a shame,” Clint replied. “It’d be nice to meet him. I mean, I don’t know how much I’d have in common with a guy whose girlfriend leaves red, lacy bras in the front bushes of someone’s house, but—“

“You told him!” Jessica half-shouted, half-hissed at Carol.

The woman raised her hands in defense. “Wasn’t me.”

The whole thing just seemed to make the Parker kid twitchier, but Clint wasn’t going to touch that with a ten foot pole. It was disgusting enough to think about Jessica Drew banging his brother.

It wasn’t until halftime of the second game of the day that Nat snuck into the kitchen with Clint. He was busy cleaning some of the dishes, but really was ready for any excuse to get away from Tony and his endless breakdown of betting pool stats.

“Hey stranger,” Clint greeted.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Nat replied as she pulled a beer out of the fridge.

“Had enough time skulking in the corner?”

She flipped him off. “So, I know I’ve missed a lot the last couple of months, but if you guys are still free on Tuesday…”

Clint bumped his shoulder into hers. “Tasha, you’re welcome here no matter what day of the week it is. You know that.”

“Thanks,” she told him softly.

Before she could say anything else, Birdie started going berserk again. Both he and Nat craned their necks to see who the new arrival was. When he spotted Bruce, Clint tried his best not to look worried. “You okay with this?” he asked quietly.

Natasha huffed at him. “It’s fine, we’re adults. You should try it sometime.”

“Just say the word, and I’ll literally throw him out of the house.”

Nat stomped on his toes for that, but he decided to take it as a thank you.

Once everyone was settled back in their seats, Steve stood, cleared his throat, and rooted himself in front of the television.

“Dude,” Carol’s boyfriend warned. “That is not a smart thing to do.”

“I’ll make it brief,” he said despite pausing to scratch the back of his neck. Clint shot a quick, questioning look to Phil, who merely shrugged his shoulders. “Uh, so, Buck and I just wanted you all to know that umm…”

“Waited weeks to tell everyone and now he can’t get the words out,” Bucky muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear.

Steve shot the man a dirty look before continuing, “Bucky proposed the week before school. We’re getting married.”

The room immediately erupted into cheers, slaps on backs, and a series of hugs. Clint let the celebration go own for a couple of minutes before whistling everyone silent. He leveled a stare at Steve and crossed his arms over his chest. “When?” he asked.

“We haven’t picked out a date yet,” Steve answered. “But odds are good you guys will maintain your record. I don’t think we could plan this out that quickly.”

Bucky snorted. “Says you. I’m still good for eloping.” Steve gave him a hurt look, but Bucky shook his head. “He who doesn’t have four sisters doesn’t get to give me that face.”

“I’ll plan it,” Tony announced from the couch. “You just tell me what you want for the date and general ambiance, and I’ll make it happen.”

“No,” half the room said in unison.

Tony put on an expression of mock hurt before turning to Pepper. “Tell them I plan fantastic weddings.”

“You’ve only planned one. Three people were involved, and it came together in two days.”

“It was still a good wedding,” Tony muttered.

Chapter Text

In Trip’s defense—not that it’s that great a defense—he missed most the warning signs.

Years ago, back in his middle school days, Trip’d scrapped with the best of them. He’d never considered himself a violent kid or a bully, but he’d grown up in the days of “boys will be boys,” and sometimes, being a boy’d included shoving somebody around at the bus stop. But the first time he’d landed a punch on someone—Emil Walker, out on the ball field on the second-to-last day of eighth grade—his parents’d sat him down and dragged him through the longest, most heart-wrenching we’re not so much mad as we are disappointed talk of his life. If somebody asked, he’d deny crying, but he’d sat in his room and thought long and hard about his mistakes, after that.

But he’d taken his parents’ speech to heart, too. Learned to soothe people instead of riling them up. Developed a knack for talking folks out of their conflicts and smoothing out the wrinkles. He liked all that.

So, like he said: he missed the warning signs.

See, Jessica Cage’s fifth grade class included a clump of four little hellions that Trip only trusted as far as he could throw him. Most the kids’d already warmed up to Trip—they’d finally stopped complaining about how he didn’t do things the same way as May Parker, at least—but these four were a whole different level of trouble. Because while most of the kids recognized his authority on some level, Pedro, Jaxton, John, and Mike seemed hell-bent on showing him (and everybody else) who was boss.

He thought he knew their game by the time the third or fourth week rolled around; they were mostly just a clump of big, mean boys with bigger, meaner attitudes. He’d worn out his voice at bus duty redirecting them before they bowled over the smaller kids or bullied some girl into tears, and for all the real apologetic expressions they flashed him, he knew they wouldn’t mind it if he bought a one-way ticket for Puerto Rico.

This particular day—a day that Trip felt pretty confident would live in teaching-career infamy—the gruesome double-twosome’d paired off the second they walked in the room. Trip sensed the dissent in their ranks like a dog sniffed out fear, and for a while, he eyed them cautiously: Pedro and Jaxton on one side of the room, John and Mike on the other. Pedro mean-mugged John like his life depended on it; John avoided eye contact.

“You good?” Trip asked at one point as he passed out one of their assignments.

Jaxton nodded. “Fine,” he said.

Pedro never stopped glaring.

Trip kept his eye out for trouble as long as possible, but he was one man in a room full of needy kids who still didn’t know a staccato from a slur. He crouched down between two girls to help them with their assignment—a crazy-fun puzzle where identifying the music symbols and the notes on the bass clef answered a riddle—and for the first time all period, dragged his eyes away from the four boys.

It meant he missed when Pedro slid out of his chair, or when John stood up unexpectedly.

Well, until Pedro pounced on John, that is.

It happened in a heartbeat, but suddenly, the boys were on the floor, worksheets flying everywhere as they thrashed into tables, chairs, and other people. A bunch of girls jumped out of the way, Mike shouted at them to stop, and Trip—

Trip somehow remembered how to smash the intercom button and ask Darcy to send somebody down to the room. His voice shook, but not as much as his legs as he charged across the room. Practically had to vault a couple girls to do it, but somehow, he crossed the distance just as John staggered to his feet.

Jaxton grabbed Pedro’s arm, but John lunged at his buddy-turned-enemy, his arms outstretched like he planned on throttling him. Mike yelled again, louder, and it distracted John just long enough for Trip to step between them. John almost slugged him somewhere in the gut, but he pulled back the second he realized who exactly’d blocked his approach.

Stop,” Trip said, loud and firm as possible even as his whole body felt like it might rumble apart at the seams. John stared up at him, tears and blood from his nose (and maybe his lip) mingling on his face. Pedro false-started, rage still in his eyes, and Trip spread himself out. Stood as strong as he could, his hands out and ready to deflect another grab.

John balled his fists. Pedro squared his shoulders.

“You need—”

“He talked bad about my mom!” Pedro roared, cutting Trip off. The collective gasp of scandalized fifth graders almost drowned out the sound of his heart racing in his ears. Pedro reached toward John, and Jaxton pulled him back by his shirt. “After everything, he called her—”

“That’s not what I said!” John defended. “I never said anything like that, you’re just making it up because—”

What is going on in here?” a whole new voice roared, and all the kids shut up like their lives depended on it as Nick Fury and Jasper Sitwell flew into the room. Sitwell looked about ready to grapple some kid to the ground, and Fury—

Fury’s eye swept out across the room like he planned on developing laser vision just to set every one of Trip’s fifth graders on fire. When his attention finally landed on the four boys, they cowered in unison. Even Pedro’s rage dimmed to a simmer. “Cartwright, Tanner, Ramirez, in my office,” he said sharply.

Jaxton gulped. “But we didn’t—”

“You want to make me repeat myself, Mister Cartwright?” Fury demanded. The boys all snapped to attention before shaking their heads in terrified unison. “Mister Lane,” he said to John, “you’re with Mister Sitwell. He’ll get you cleaned up.”

John wiped his face with the back of his hand, but he nodded, too.

Fury marched the kids out of the room, quick as anything, and only paused for one half-second to touch Trip on the shoulder. Trip found his eye and nodded—affirmation, he thought, that his hands’d steadied enough to keep handling the class. Fury nodded back before disappearing.

Disappearing, and leaving him with twenty wide-eyed kids and a floor covered in worksheets.

He swallowed the lump in the back of his throat before he turned to all the students. A couple of the girls looked about ready to cry.

“How about I break into the suckers we save for review games and we watch a video on how they make pianos?” he asked.

He swore the whole class nodded as one.

“Shit,” Clint said, dragging his hand through his hair. “You sure?”

“Uh, I’m calling their parents the second I’m off the phone with you,” Darcy retorted. “Do I need to start calling you geriatric hottie?”

He snorted. “Leave that one open for Phil,” he joked, and hung up while she laughed.

In all his years teaching, Clint’d learned that three things spread through an elementary school like wild-fire: crushes, pregnancies, and fights. The kids whispered the news about who liked who and which teacher’d shoved a bun in an oven like nobody’s business, but fights— Fights raised Clint’s hackles like nothing else. Fights pitted kids against each other until they ended up acting like prepubescent Sharks and Jets, and Clint hated policing his classroom for secretive rhythmic snapping.

(He also hated Phil for dragging him to that art house screening of West Side Story over the weekend, but he’d save that for a different day.)

His kids appeared mostly clueless about the whole “brawl down in the music room” thing when they stomped back through the door from gym, and Clint spent most of their actual class time charming the hell out of them with vocabulary games and really bad puns. “Blame Mister Coulson,” he said about the even the cake was in tiers joke, and the class rolled their eyes pretty much in unison.

But of course, all good things end eventually.

He wasn’t really surprised to find Cage out in the hall, her arms crossed as she supervised the switch with a face Grumpy Cat would’ve envied. He caught her eyes just to mouth How bad? over the sea of heads.

Her jaw tightened. Good luck, she mouthed back, and Clint grimaced.

The lesson plan of the day was really just to review vocabulary words and work on polishing up the first persuasive essay of the year (topic: one thing you’d change about school if you could). Clint plastered on his best and biggest smile as he handed out the game pieces to the vocabulary match puzzle, but he knew halfway through his loop of the room that no amount of smiling was actually going to help. The kids were twitchy and full of whispers, a bad sign.

“First group done earns my undying respect for their speed and accuracy,” he joked as he handed over the last envelope. “Last group done earns my undying respect for their thoroughness. And go.”

Two thirds of the class dove right in, but the other third—

“I think it’s messed up,” Callie stage-whispered to the other three kids in her group, and Clint worked hard not to roll his eyes as he wove his way across the classroom. “Pedro’s just mean.”

“Maybe John had a reason to say it,” Louie replied with a shrug. At least he was pretending to sort through the game pieces. “I mean, you don’t just call somebody’s mom a—a that unless you—”

“Don’t you know about Pedro’s mom?” Callie interrupted. The other three all blinked at her, and she gaped at them. “Didn’t your parents tell you? Because my mom told me—”

“That it’s not cool to talk about people who aren’t around to defend themselves?” Clint asked. Callie froze, her mouth hanging open; the eavesdroppers at the two pods nearest to hers immediately snapped back into gear. Clint snagged an empty chair from a nearby desk and dragged it over. “You know that’s a problem, right?” he asked the group of them. “Talking about people when they’re not around, I mean.”

“We all saw what happened in Mister Triplett’s room,” Finn pointed out. Callie nodded emphatically. “Pedro said John called his mom something.”

“And John said he didn’t,” Lyssa chimed in. The other three shot her dirty looks. “What? That’s what happened.”

“But John’s a liar,” Callie retorted. “He always—”

“It doesn’t matter if John told you the moon’s made of cheese and that I’m the guy in the William Tell story,” Clint broke in again, “he’s not here to defend himself.” The kids frowned at him, and he sighed. “William Tell? Apple on his head? How have you not heard this story?”

“We’re not old?” Louie suggested.

His friends snickered at the joke—and at the way Clint narrowed his eyes like he planned on threatening the kid. At least, until Finn looked up from the game pieces. “We still saw the fight. We know how it happened.”

“No, you know what you saw, and that’s different from the whole story.” Finn’s brow crinkled, so Clint leaned forward, his arms on his elbows. “Let’s say I know a guy,” he explained after a couple seconds. “And I tell you that he’s the meanest guy I’ve ever met. Makes all kinds of bad choices, never apologizes, drives me up a wall. He doesn’t treat his friends right, doesn’t treat his family right, doesn’t even really treat dogs right.” He shrugged. “What would you think about the guy?”

The kids all glanced at each other before Lyssa volunteered, “I’d think that he’s mean.”

“Anybody who’s mean to dogs is really bad,” Callie agreed.

Clint nodded. “Right. But then, let’s say I brought Miss Parker in here. You guys like Miss Parker a lot, right?” The kids hardly hesitated before they all chimed in with their yeahs. “You know what Miss Parker’d tell you about the mean-to-dogs guy?”

From somewhere else in the classroom, a student asked, “What?”

When Clint looked around, he discovered that most of the room’d fallen into his conversation with Callie and her group mates. He grinned over his shoulder at all of them. “I thought we were trying to earn my undying respect.”

“We got it when we won the spelling game,” Hannah informed him, and her pod (minus the still-missing Mike Tanner) nodded right along.

“And when we helped clean up after the soap thing in the bathroom broke,” Chris added in from across the room.

Clint sighed. “Really got to be stingier with my respect.” He hopped up out of the uncomfortable plastic chair to head back to the front of the room. “If you asked Miss Parker about the mean-dog guy,” he said again as he perched on the edge of his desk, “she’d tell you he was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. Helps her out with stuff around the house. Never disrespects her at all. Treats her good as gold and better.” The kids all sort of stared at him, and he shrugged. “Who do you believe, then? Me or Miss Parker?”

The room fell silent for a couple seconds before Callie, all the way in the back, shifted around in her chair. “We don’t know if he’s nice unless we meet him, do we?” she asked.

Clint grinned at her, and her face lit up like a firework on the fourth of July. “And that,” he said, pointing a finger in her direction, “is why we don’t talk about people unless they’re there to tell us their own stories. Because until they tell us themselves, we don’t know. You got it?”

For the most part, the students nodded.

“Good. Now, seriously, somebody needs to earn my respect, I’m sick of hanging onto this stuff.”

Nick Fury drummed his fingers against the conference room table as he waited, maybe a little impatiently, for Antonio Ramirez to join him, Sitwell, and the Lanes. They’d met with Jaxton Cartwright and Mike Tanner first, walking them through all the reasons that tagging along to a fight counted as fueling the fire. The boys’d fidgeted and stared at their hands, unwilling to offer any sort of defense until Sitwell’d finally said, “Who wants to go first?”

Mike’s face had turned cartoon-ghost white, but Jaxton’d blinked. “First for what?”

“For being in the room when I call your parents to pick you up for the rest of the day.”

Nick’d never seen a kid go from confused to tearful so damn fast.

Mike and Jaxton were both home now, presumably learning valuable lessons from their harried parents; after all, Madeline Cartwright had leveled Nick a terrifying glance before promising, “This will never happen again.” From the stricken look on Jaxton’s face, Nick’d believed it.

(Connie Tanner, on the other hand, had apparently passed the buck to her mother, a tiny old lady with a cane and a fiery disposition. “You wait until we get in that car, young man,” she’d snapped at Mike, and Mike’d dropped his eyes to the floor.

Sometimes, Nick really wished he could be the fly on his students’ walls.)

Without their co-conspirators, Pedro and John spent a lot of time studying their hands, the wall, or the floor. John’s parents, who’d both left work to meet with Nick and Sitwell, spent most their time glancing at their watches. Nick remembered Darcy muttering something about them working for an investment firm; from the way they fidgeted every couple seconds, he wondered whether their time really was money.

“I’m sorry, Mister Fury,” Mrs. Lane said after the tenth or eleventh time she shifted around in her seat, “but we don’t have all day. And given that our son is the victim here—”

“He started it,” Pedro muttered.

Mr. Lane’s jaw tightened, but Sitwell offered him one of his doing-this-because-I-have-to smiles. “We’re not placing blame on anybody,” he said, “but until your parents get here—”

“Not placing blame?” Mr. Lane demanded. “With all due respect, Mister Sitwell, this boy attacked our son in the middle of class, unprovoked, and you expect us to believe that no one is to blame?”

Pedro’s whole body jerked as he sat up on the edge of his chair. “But John said—”

“And right now,” Nick cut him off, “we’re not discussing who said or did what.” The boy sunk back down in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re here to figure out why this happened so you can both go back to class later this week without me or any of your other teachers worrying about another fight. No he-said, he-did.”

Mrs. Lane snorted and shot Pedro a hard glance. “I think I know why things like this happen.”

Nick almost challenged her on that—in his experience, pretty white ladies in pearls only side-eye you like that when their theories begin and end with the color of your skin—but right then, the door to the conference room opened. “Sorry,” Mr. Ramirez said as he rushed into the room, his hat literally in his hand. “Pedro’s sister’s home sick from the middle school today, and I had to find somebody to take her before I could come over here and talk to you about this.” He slid into the chair next to Pedro. “I’m so sorry. About all of this, this isn’t like Pedro. He’s rough sometimes, but he doesn’t fight.”

The Lanes both looked about ready to roll their eyes, but John kept his attention fixed on the floor.

“We’ll get to that,” Nick promised, and Mr. Ramirez nodded unevenly as he reached over to pat his son’s leg. “Like I was just trying to tell the Lanes, Mister Sitwell and I like to bring in all the parents when things like this happen and try to get to the bottom of it. No finger-pointing, no placing the blame, but a dialogue to figure out why what started as a battle of words turned into a full-on fight—and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He glanced at both the boys. “So far, none of the boys are willing to answer that question.”

Mr. Lane sighed. “Again, Mister Fury, there’s no question to answer. That other boy attacked our son because of a misunderstanding, and I’ll not have—”

“He called my mom a bitch!” Pedro suddenly roared, rocketing out of his chair. Sitwell started to stand, but Nick stilled him with a hand. “He thought I wasn’t listening, but he told Jaxton and they laughed about it! And when Mike told him to stop, he said, ‘Maybe that’s why she went away, because she’s a bitch and mean and—’”

His voice shook, the words catching in the back of his throat, and when he dropped back down into his chair, his father reached for him. Pedro fell halfway into his grip, his shoulders trembling, and Mr. Ramirez shook his head. “My wife, she’s been—struggling, a little, with some issues she had back before we married,” he said gently. “She’s gone to a facility, I guess you’d say. To get better.” He stroked Pedro’s hair. “She’ll get better.”

For the first time since the conversation started, something halfway to sympathy flashed across Mrs. Lane’s face. Her husband, sitting on the other side of their son, swallowed audibly. “Did you know that?” he asked John. “About his mom?”

John shifted his weight. “I was joking, I didn’t—”

“Jonathan,” Mr. Lane snapped. When John nodded sheepishly, his father sighed. “I can’t believe you,” he said, disappointment overtaking his tone as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “I— Mr. Ramirez, I am so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Mr. Ramirez replied in a voice that proved just how not okay it all was.

Across the table, Nick—level-headed peace keeper of the universe to these parents and a whole different person to his staff—forced a calming smile. “Now, let’s start getting to the real bottom of what all’s going on here,” he suggested, and thank god that all three parents nodded.

Pepper tried to smile warmly as she led Pedro and his dad into her office. She pointed at a small, older laptop that was set up on a kiddie-sized table in the corner. “Pedro, you can play games on that while your dad and I talk, okay?”

The boy eyed the outdated technology suspiciously. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything fun on there.”

Pepper placed her hands on her hips. “I’ll have you know that Mister Stark built that computer specifically for my students.”

Pedro shot her an unimpressed look. “Mister Stark’s class isn’t always as fun as he says it’s going to be.”

“Pedro,” his father warned softly. “Manners.”

“It’s okay,” Pepper reassured him. “I’m well aware of how much Mister Stark can exaggerate when describing how enjoyable something will be.” She turned her attention back to the fifth grader. “If it’s as boring as you think it’s going to be, you get to point that out to him when you have computers again. But I will warn you, every student who’s played that game has gotten pretty addicted to it.”

Pedro looked warily between Pepper and the laptop for a second before turning his attention to his father. “Go play,” the man said. As soon as the boy was absorbed in the game’s tutorial, Pepper waved Mister Ramirez toward the seat in front of her desk.

“Mister Fury made me aware of what happened today, both in Mister Triplett’s classroom and in the parent meeting you just had, and I wanted to talk to you to see if there was anything we at the school could do in order to help you and your family.”

Mister Ramirez quickly looked over at his shoulder at his son before speaking. “What do you mean, ‘help us?’ Have there been other incidents?”

Not today, Pepper thought but didn’t say. “Certainly nothing as drastic as what happened this morning. I have a friend who’s a social worker—“

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head rapidly and rising from his chair. “I can take care of my kids just fine on my own.”

“Mister Ramirez, please—“

“My kids are clean and fed. Just because their mother is away doesn’t mean someone needs to take them—“

“Mister Ramirez.”

“Someone’s going to take us away?” a young, fearful voice called out.

Both adults turned to Pedro, and Pepper fought off an audible sigh. “No one is taking you or your sister away, Pedro. I promise.” She refocused on his father and once again gestured at the chair across from her desk. “Mister Ramirez, that is not at all what I meant. Please forgive me. If you have a seat, I’d be happy to clarify what I was trying to say.”

He stared her down for a minute, and Pepper did her best to keep her body language as open, relaxed, and welcoming as possible. “I don’t know how a social worker could help us,” he grumbled as he sat. “We’re doing fine on our own.”

“I have no doubt that you’re doing an amazing job being a single dad for the moment,” Pepper replied. “And I agree—we haven’t had any reports of Pedro being hungry or unkempt, but there are some services that could be made available to you if you wanted to take advantage of them.”

She pulled one of Rhodey’s business cards out of her drawer and slid it across the desk to him. “This is my friend. I’ll give him a call and tell him to expect to hear from you if you want. He can help get Pedro and his sister into some group therapy.”

“They don’t need therapy, they’re fine,” he reiterated.

“Sir, with all due respect, your son punched another student in the face today.” When he started to bristle and draw in another breath for an argument, Pepper raised her hands in a defensive gesture. “I’m not saying it was out of the blue or a random attack, but he still did it.”

She paused to lean forward on her elbows. “I know what it’s like to live with someone who battles an addiction. I know that it can sometimes take a toll on you, whether you realize it or not. I can find some groups for you to meet with if you need to talk with people who are in the same circumstance you are.”

The father bowed his head for moment, focusing on his hands. Pepper flicked her eyes over to Pedro; the boy was already focused back on his game and didn’t appear to be eavesdropping.

“Asking for that kind of help is seen as a weakness in my family,” Mister Ramirez admitted quietly. “Probably one of the reasons it took so long for my wife to find help.” Gingerly, he reached out for the business card and turned it over a few times with his fingers. “If their grandparents find out—“

“Who’s going to tell them?” Pepper asked. “I’d be in breach of several confidentiality laws if I picked up the phone to call them, not that I ever would. And so what if they find out? You just said this kind of thing could’ve helped your wife out sooner if she’d pursued it.”

“I know,” he sighed. “And I know she’s scared that our kids will pick up on her habit.”

Pepper nodded sympathetically. She’d heard Tony talk too many times about the effects of alcoholism running through his family tree. “Whether or not you want to call is up to you, but there are few better in the field than Mister Rhodes.”

He stared down at the business card for a few seconds before nodding. “Thank you, Miss Potts.”

Phil leaned his head into Trip’s classroom. The teacher sat hunched over his desk, scribbling into a journal. When he caught on to Phil lurking in the doorway, he jerked. The tension in his face dropped away and he smiled—not as easily as Phil was used to seeing, but it was a step in the right direction . “So you’ve had a bit of a day, huh?” Phil asked.

“Man,” Trip sighed as Phil pulled up a chair to sit across for the music teacher’s desk. “I know it was only a matter of time before a blow up happened, but Lord have mercy.”

Phil smiled and nodded. “Classroom management classes in school are a joke. They run you through hypotheticals and best practices, but this kind of thing is really only learned through trial by fire.”

Trip slid his journal across the desk. “I figured an incident like this would need to be written up for our mentorship thing, some report or whatever. So here are my notes. And Mister Fury already asked for my account of what happened, so this is my first draft.”

Phil skimmed the neat handwriting and noted how methodically Trip recounted what happened. “You keep the facts clear and simple, without any bias. Takes some teachers years to learn how to do that.”

“Thanks,” Trip replied. “Still feel like there was something I could’ve done to keep it from happening.”

“Do you have eyes in the back of your head?” Phil asked.

“No,” Trip answered with a hint of a smile.

“Have as many arms as an octopus?”

“No, sir.”

“Then I guess you’ll just have to be reduced to mere mortality like the rest of us teachers.”

Trip nodded and ducked his head. “About how long am I allowed to let this eat at me?”

“Long enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but not so much that you get stuck on it,” Phil answered. “Clint would call this a four beer kind of day.”

“How does that translate into tequila shots, exactly?”

Phil smiled. “Ask Jessica Drew or Carol Danvers.”

Trip sighed and ran his hand over his face. “I should’ve seen it coming.”

“We all saw it coming,” Phil said in attempt of reassurance. “We all knew it was a matter of time—we’ve had these kids for years. You just happened to draw the short stick. But honestly, I’m glad it happened this year,” he admitted quietly.

“Why’s that?”

Phil paused to weigh his words. “Don’t get me wrong, I love May Parker to death. Even more so since this summer, but I don’t think she could’ve handled a situation like this as well as you did. She puts up a front of being a spitfire—and she absolutely is with her personality—but I think she would’ve gotten hurt today, and the thought of that makes me sick.”

Trip nodded. “I’ll make sure to do my cardio before breaking out the tequila tonight.”

“Because you’re clearly so unfit,” Phil muttered. “I guess as your mentor, I’m obligated to tell you some story that’s nine hundred times worse than what happened to you today to make you feel better about life.”

Trip raised his eyebrows expectantly, and Phil began searching his memories.

“I worked at the high school down the road before I came here,” Phil said. “You think fifth graders are bad, try know-it-all seventeen-year-olds chock full of hormones.”

Trip laughed. “You couldn’t pay me enough money to revisit any age between sixteen and twenty-one.”

Phil squinted at him. “How old are you now?”


He shook his head. “Wait five years, and that time frame will get bigger. Anyway, I was by myself that day—the other librarian was out on some mental health day, and I still hate her for that.” Phil paused to sigh and cringe at some memories. “Let’s just say odds are good you’ll never have to endure finding evidence of both drug and condom use in your classroom, let alone all in the same morning.”

Trip shuddered at that possibility. “Guess I’ll count my blessings.”

“And your tequila shots.”

Steve tracked Phil back to the library. He trailed after him by about twenty feet after he left Trip’s music room, up the stairs, past Barton’s (and Bucky’s) classrooms, and into the library. Steve could’ve called out to Phil at any point along the way to get his attention, but he choked on the librarian’s name every time he tried. He could hear his mother chiding him for doing such a thing, especially considering what Steve needed to discuss with Phil.

Steve crossed the threshold of the library just in time to hear Clint whine, “Can we please go home now?” The fifth-grade teacher then picked up on Steve’s presence and rolled his eyes. “Of course, another one of your teachers needs help with something. Who cares about the state of your husband?”

Phil mocked glared at Clint. “Stop whining and get your feet off my counter.”

Steve bit down on his smile and just raised his eyebrows in a silent request to have a word with Phil. When Phil nodded, he spoke. “I can do this another time if you guys really—“

“Oh no,” Clint answered. “If I take him home without you telling him what you need, do you know how much shit I’ll catch? And do you know how bad I need laid tonight, like—“

“Please stop talking,” Phil interrupted before turning back to Steve. “You were saying?”

On impulse, Steve felt his hand begin to rise to rub the back of his neck, but he fought off the nervous tic. “Bucky asked Natasha to stand up with him at the wedding. And, apparently, I’m not allowed to ask my mom to do the same. Bucky said the moms needed to be moms or something, I don’t even know.” He paused to take a deep breath before his rambling got out of control. “I had to think of someone else and… You were such a good mentor to me when I started working here. And I know Natasha and Trip, even though he’s only been here for a month, would immediately vouch for the same thing. You take such good care of us—always willing to let us step out and try new things, but there in a second as back-up if it doesn’t work out.” He stopped and rolled onto the balls of his feet for a second before continuing. “I want someone up there who has my back. Someone I can go to not just for work, but for help on how to be a good husband.”

“We have a mentorship-worthy marriage?” Clint jokingly asked.

“Hush,” Phil hissed.

“Anyway,” Steve continued, “if you’d be willing, it’d mean a lot to me to have you up there. And if it’s not something you want to do, or you’re uncomfortable—“

“I’d be honored,” Phil responded. Throughout Steve talking to him, the man’s eyes had bugged and his eyebrows had made a slow ascent, but now he had that vintage Coulson look of determination and humility. Steve crossed the distance between them, held out his hand, and firmly shook Phil’s.

“I’m totally planning the bachelor party,” Clint announced as he stood from his seat behind the circulation desk.

“He’s not going to do that,” Phil promised.

Clint rolled his eyes. “If it were up to you two bores, it’d be some art museum or book signing.”

Phil flashed Steve an evil grin. “I could always bring May out of retirement to help with the planning if need be.”

Steve cringed and shook his head. “There are still gaps in my memory from Tony’s party.” He was about to leave when the events of the day crashed into his mind. “Anything special I should do when I have Cage’s class on Friday?”

Phil shrugged. “I’ll see how they do in my class tomorrow and let you know.”

Clint snorted in disgust. “Are you two seriously concerned about seeing them for forty-five minutes once a week? Because I have to work with them for over an hour a day.”

“I’ve had them since they were in pre-school,” Phil challenged.

“If we’re going to have a pity-off, can we at least do it without our pants on,” Clint responded.

“And that’s my cue to leave,” Steve said. He turned to Phil one last time. “Thank you,” he said with as much sincerity as he could muster.

Phil nodded. “It’s my honor.”

Chapter Text

“Wow, all this splendor might kill me,” Harry said when he stepped into Peter’s classroom, and Peter promptly smacked him. Harry laughed. “What? You asked me to help lug in this junk, not compliment you on your— What is that?”

He gestured to the nearest bulletin board, and Peter rolled his eyes. “It’s a spelling word wall. When we finish a word, they work in groups to write and illustrate it, and then—”

“Hang it up as a reminder?” Harry guessed. Peter nodded, and Harry huffed out a breath. But in a good way, because the corners of his mouth twitched up into a smile as he did. “You really are an adorable second-grade teacher.”

Peter snorted. “You mean you didn’t believe me when I told you?”

“I believed that you somehow conned a school into hiring you, sure. That you’d turned into a combination of your aunt and— God, what was her name? The blue-haired old study hall lady from high school?”

Peter stopped emptying the Whole Foods bag he’d stolen from Aunt May to frown. “Miss Robinson?”

“Right!” Peter rolled his eyes, but Harry just grinned brighter. “You’re an adorable male them.”

“And you’re an asshole,” Peter retorted.

Harry flapped a hand at him and wandered off to “admire” the bookshelves in the back of the room. Back in high school (which felt like a million years ago or just last week, depending on the day), Harry’d teased Peter ruthlessly about all of his random job aspirations: journalist, scientist, photographer, and finally, elementary school teacher. “Come work at Dad’s company,” he’d goaded more than once in the hallway, or lunch room, or study hall. “We’ll figure out something for you to do, and you won’t need a million student loans to do it.”

“I’m not sure I’m cut out for being all . . . corporate,” Peter’d always replied, and Harry’d always scowled at him.

Sometimes, Peter wondered how they’d stayed friends after all these years. He mostly credited Aunt May’s cooking, and Gwen’s, well, Gwen-ness.

But Harry also knew a ton of people in all sorts of other businesses, and he’d somehow charmed twenty-five empty plastic soda bottles off some friend-of-a-friend he’d met at a corporate networking whatever. Those, combined with the bags of soil and the tiny, happy plants Peter’d bought at Home Depot over the weekend, would become a long line of homemade windowsill terrariums for the kids to manage through the winter. At least, theoretically.

Peter worried a lot about dead plants, okay?

Worse, he worried about unloading the billion and a half canvas bags of supplies while his friend (in a suit with no tie and shoes that cost more than three months of Peter’s rent) browsed Caldecott award winners, but he kept that to himself. Incidentally, he also kept his bubbling nerves to himself when someone rapped on his classroom door and announced, “You know, if you make me look bad with this gardening project, I will collude with your aunt to dye all your underwear pink when you come over to wash it.”

Peter swallowed around the spike of dread in his stomach. “Hi, Jessica.”

“No, not hi,” his team leader said as she waltzed right into his classroom and started—Well, “fingering” was probably not the best word, but she definitely started feeling up one of the little plants. Back by the bookcases, Harry raised both eyebrows; Peter quickly shook his head. “I know I’m not a scientist,” Jessica continued, “but I kind of have the market cornered on ‘cool stuff in aquariums on the windowsill.’ You can’t trump my spiders.”

Spiders? Harry mouthed.

Peter shook his head harder. Too hard, apparently, because Jessica followed his gaze over her shoulder and whipped around to investigate. Her vampire-style smile—all teeth and glinting eyes—made Peter groan aloud. “I didn’t know you brought a friend.”

“Just to help me unload the bottles and stuff,” Peter said.

“New bottles, donated to the school with my help,” Harry clarified, voice oozing with charm. Peter hated his charming tone almost as much as he hated his charming smile-and-handshake combo. Again: how were they still friends? “Harry Osborn. I’m an old friend of Peter’s.”

“Given that Peter’s about twelve, you can’t be that old,” Jessica retorted. Harry laughed. “I’m Jessica Drew. I’m kind of his boss.”

“Except in the hundred ways you’re not,” Peter muttered.

“Team leader is like ‘boss light,’ thank you.” He rolled his eyes at Jessica—and again at the way Harry just kept grinning. “You’re pretty overdressed for swinging by an elementary school at four in the afternoon.”

Harry shrugged. “I took a late lunch,” he replied, and then paused. Peter knew that pause. He knew and hated that— “If you’re ever interested in a late lunch with me—”

“I’ll run it by your nanny first?” Jessica finished. This time, Peter laughed, and Harry glared at him. Jessica grinned. “Seriously, it’s flattering, but you’re a hundred and ten percent not my type.”

“Maybe if he had a rap sheet,” Peter mumbled.


Like an idiot.

Jessica and Harry both turned to blink at him, but while Harry just looked confused, Jessica looked like she wanted to light him on fire with the power of her mind. Heat crept up his neck as he glanced down at the floor. “I just mean—”

“I’m pretty sure I know exactly what you mean, thanks,” Jessica cut him off. “I’ll catch you later. Good luck with your plants. Nice to meet you, Osborn.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, and waved at her back as she stalked out of the room and slightly slammed the door.

Peter groaned aloud and thumped his head, purposely, against the whiteboard. Multiple times. “Should I ask?” Harry interrupted as he erased part of the date with his forehead.

“She’s messing around with my aunt’s—I don’t know. Her roommate?” Harry blinked at that, obviously surprised, and Peter shook his head. “It’s a really long story. But Barney’s not my aunt’s boyfriend, he’s Jessica’s boyfriend, and I’m pretty sure at least one of them is a drug dealer or something, and—”

“Aunt May never did get that upset about the joint she found in your jeans,” Harry mused. Peter stopped beating his head against the wall to glare at him, and he held up his hands. “I’m just saying. If ever somebody’d take in a drug dealer—”

“Next time I need bottles, Harry, I’m just drinking fifty liters of Mountain Dew and leaving it at that,” Peter snapped back, and Harry, his best friend and total bastard, laughed.

There was a loud scraping noise as a stool was dragged along Xavier’s bar floor. Bucky looked over Steve’s shoulder and swore something vicious under his breath. Natasha smirked into her beer, and Steve reluctantly twisted his head around to see Tony Stark approaching their table, bar stool pulled behind him. Pepper caught his eye and mouthed an apology.

This would be the fourth time this week Tony approached him and Bucky about ideas for their wedding. There was everything from private beach ceremony to scouring for some rustic barn and anything in between. Steve always knew Tony’s mind worked about a thousand times faster than anyone else’s, but he never had a true appreciation for its speed and abilities until it started churning out wedding theme after wedding theme.

“What about a bed and breakfast?” Tony suggested as he angled his way into a spot around the small table. The occupants of the already crammed space—Steve, Bucky, Natasha, and Trip—all glared at the intruder, but Tony was completely unfazed. “Something nice and quiet. But wait, how many people are coming? Barnes, isn’t your family tree more populated than some small countries?”

“Tony,” Steve warned.

“Not like it’s untrue,” Natasha muttered.

“You’ve gotta give me something to work with,” Tony whined.

“Who said you were planning this thing?” Bucky asked.

“I would be amazing at this,” Tony declared. “It would be meticulously organized—“

“Thanks to Pepper,” Natasha pointed out.

“—beautiful, and classy,” Tony continued.

“Also thanks to Pepper,” Natasha said.

Tony flipped her off and continued. “It would memorable, but I swear not over the top.” Natasha opened her mouth again, but Tony glared her into silence. “If you don’t want help, fine. But I have connections who could give you the wedding of your dreams. Just think about it.”

He pulled his stool away and rejoined his table with Pepper, Bruce, and Peter Parker. Steve watched him walk back, and then turned to Bucky. He expected his fiancé to have some snarky comment, but instead, Bucky looked at his beer bottle like it would reveal all the answers to life’s questions. “New guy, what’s your dream wedding?” Bucky asked.

“Me?” Trip questioned.

“Anyone else at this table a rookie?”

Natasha shook her head. “He’s just rubbing in the fact that he’s not new to the school this year. Ignore him.”

“But still answer my question,” Bucky said.

Trip tilted his head to the side and shrugged. “I dunno, man. Haven’t really had a reason to think about it. Figured whatever woman I marry would have a grand plan already laid out and I’d just play along.”

“You may not want to use the phrase ‘play along’ when it happens,” Natasha warned.

“Fair point,” Trip admitted. He thought about possibilities for a minute before saying, “if I had my druthers, it’d be some big party. Ceremony all short and sweet, and then a celebration that lasted for hours with good music and food.”

“And what about you?” Bucky asked Natasha.

She snorted. “You and I both know I’ll never get married.”

“You’ve at least kind of planned one,” Bucky pointed out.

Steve felt his stomach clinch and wanted to kick him under the table for the comment. While Natasha had been slowly becoming herself again after her break-up with Bruce, asking about her dead fiancé probably wasn’t the smartest thing. Her face contorted for half a second before her usual mask slid back into place. “I was just using the wedding as an excuse to try and bankrupt my asshole father. I didn’t really care what my dress looked like or what my bridesmaids were going to wear. I just wanted Alex to be home, safe, and mine,” she said quietly. “The wedding was just a thing.”

Trip’s gaze bounced back and forth between each person at the table, trying to find some context to the situation. Bucky and Nat looked at each other, and she shrugged. “Her fiancé was killed in action six months before their wedding,” Bucky explained.

Trip let out a low whistle. “Sorry, Nat,” he apologized.

Natasha picked at the label on her beer bottle. “It happens.” Steve watched her build her walls back up, straighten her shoulders, and put on her usual air of indifference. “But if I had to do it again—which I will never do—I’d just say fuck it and go to Vegas.”

Bucky smiled ruefully at Steve. “Now there’s one option we haven’t considered yet.”

“No,” Steve said firmly. “My mother would kill me.”

“We could take her with us.”

Steve shook his head. “We’d never be able to pull her away from the craps table long enough to get her to act as a witness for the ceremony.”

“I’ve planned weddings,” Tony pointed out.

“No, you’ve planned a wedding,” Pepper reminded him and promptly ignored his huffy little eye-roll. They were cleaning up after dinner, but everything from picking up their flatware to rinsing plates before loading them into the dishwasher was punctuated with Tony’s continued complaining. Not about the dishes, of course, but about—

“I planned a great wedding,” he said, one hand on his hip while he gestured with the other. “At least, I thought it was a great wedding. One of the greatest weddings of all time, possibly. But lemme tell you, a guy can develop a complex when his friends and wife keep reminding him that it was only a single, small wedding.”

She stopped wiping down the table to half-glare at him. “If you’re accusing me of hating our wedding because I’m not fully on board with—”

He raised his hands. “I’d never accuse you of that to your face because I want to live to see fifty.” She cocked her head at him, but he just pursed his lips. A thousand different expressions cycled across his face in the next couple seconds, and she felt her own shoulders soften when he dropped his hands. “You know I want to do something nice for them, right?” he asked. “Something honestly nice, no strings or bullshit attached?”

Pepper smiled gently. “I know.”

“Because the way they’re acting—never mind everyone else who overhears our conversations, like Banner—”

“Or literally everyone else on staff,” Pepper muttered.

Tony scowled at her. “My point,” he pressed after a beat, “is that everyone we know seems to think I’m going to, I don’t know, rent out the county fairgrounds, fill the exhibition hall with doves, and hire an entire pride parade as the opening act to their wedding. Which’ll have a Freddie Mercury impersonator presiding, apparently, because I am that inherently untrustworthy.”

He kept his tone light, but Pepper easily read the hurt in his expression as he turned back to the dishwasher. By the time she’d crossed the room and dropped the dishrag in the sink, he’d loaded up the whole silverware basket and started on the plates. He only paused when she slid a hand up his back. “You’re not untrustworthy.”

“To you, sure. To Banner, maybe, depending on the existential angst of the day.”

She sighed. “Tony.”

“But to the rest of the staff—”

“You’re a force of nature.” He jerked his head up at that and twisted to face her, and she shrugged. “Bucky’s still pretty new, and Steve— Well, Steve’s one of the most understated people we know, with the exception of Bruce and maybe Phil.”

“Coulson,” Tony corrected.

She rolled her eyes. “Phil,” she repeated, and he wrinkled his nose. “You’re the man who once spent a weekend rearranging acoustic tiles himself to run upgraded cables in the computer lab because, hey, why not? You donate money half-anonymously to any cause you decide you like, you squirrel away canned goods during the food drive and hand them off to the kids who can’t otherwise participate, you have bankrolled at least three of Phil and Clint’s anniversary dinners in the last five years.” He huffed out a breath at that, almost rolling his eyes, and she spread her fingers across the small of his back. “There’s no limit when it comes to making your friends happy,” she reminded him, “and that’s intimidating to a lot of people. Especially, I think, to Steve and Bucky.”

“Yeah, except I’ve promised them creative freedom,” Tony stressed. “Veto power. Budgetary power. I’ve done everything short of write them articles of wedding planning confederation and they’re still acting like I’ll invite the cast of three top-billed Broadway musicals just to up the gay factor.” She frowned at that, and he threw up his hands. “Am I wrong?”

“No, but if you’d cracked those kinds of jokes when planning our wedding, I would’ve been nervous, too.” He snorted and reached for the last few items in the sink, but Pepper reached out and grabbed his hands. “Maybe the problem’s that you’re starting with the biggest thing.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You never complain when I start with the biggest—”

“I have bigger things that don’t involve a second player, and I know how to use them,” she interrupted, and he grinned at her warning tone. She almost laughed at him. Instead, she squeezed his hands. “Offer to do something small, first,” she suggested. “Help them pick out just one thing, like a venue or a photographer. Invite them over here to meet with one of the thousand event planners in your address book. Do something that doesn’t begin and end with ‘let me handle the whole thing all at once.’”

The corner of Tony’s mouth kicked up in a little smirk. “Incidentally, that’s exactly what she—”

She released one of his hands to smack him lightly in the chest. “Tony—”

“You can’t hand me innuendo like that on a platter and expect me to ignore it,” he defended. She rolled her eyes and started to pull her hand away, but he caught it. His thumb brushed over her knuckles for a few seconds before he finally asked, “You really think that starting small and working my way up to the big stuff will win them over?”

Pepper pursed her lips. “Will every comment about working your way up to their wedding sound like a thinly veiled sex joke?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Some of them will actually be explicit sex jokes with no veiling whatsoever,” he admitted.

She laughed and shook her head. “Then I’m sure you’ll have no problem earning their wedding-planning trust.”

Sunday nights were reserved for the calm before the storm, as Bucky called it. It usually meant they were ordering food in (enough to leave them leftovers for lunch tomorrow) and watching shitty TV. Part of Bucky was surprised at how easily he and Steve fell into these habits like they'd been doing them together their whole lives and not less than a year.

Tonight's shitty television was courtesy of Steve since he was the first to grab the remote. That meant it was going to be an evening of shows about house renovations. Bucky was a little terrified about how he was able to know the various carpenter TV hosts by name at this point.

He tried to listen to yet another tip on how to install a subway tile backsplash for the kitchen, but his mind kept wondering to all the needling Tony had done this week. The technology teacher had a point: he and Steve had no idea what they wanted for a wedding.

“We need to make a decision,” Bucky announced.

Steve looked at him strangely. “I already put in a backsplash, but if you don't like it, we can redo it.”

“I don't give two shits about tile, Steve. I mean, what you did looks fantastic and helps the flow of the room, or whatever other bullshit compliment I'm supposed to say to that.” He paused to try and frame his words together. This was one of the advantages to Steve usually being the first to do everything—Bucky only had to respond, not open the frightening can of worms. “I'm talking about the wedding. We need to make some decision—hell, any decision—sometime soon or we're going to be catching hell from a lot more people than Stark.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “I've just never cared too much about a wedding,” he admitted. “I just want a good, solid relationship. A wedding is just one day. And honestly, I never pictured myself getting married.”

“Well, while you might be okay with us living in sin for the rest of our days, my ma certainly isn't. And if we don't make some decisions fast, she’s going to take over things, and then will be kicking ourselves for not letting Tony run the show.”

Steve nodded. “Where do we start?”

Bucky shrugged his shoulders. “I guess big stuff first. Where do you want this to happen?”

“Jersey would probably be easiest for your family, since it's just me and my mom on my side.”

Bucky shook his head. “Let's not make it too easy for all my relatives to be there. There are some cousins I'm just fine with never seeing. Besides, the bigger the wedding, the more money we'd have to spend.”

“We have the money you were going to use for down payment on a house,” Steve pointed out. “And I've got some savings to out in that, too.”

“I was kind of hoping to save as much as that as we could,” Bucky said. When Steve looked at him with obvious confusion, Bucky felt his mouth go dry. “I know we haven't really talked about kids, but I'd like at least one of them. And they're not going to come cheap for us.”

“Oh,” Steve said quietly.

Bucky felt his face flush, grabbed the remote, and turned up the television. “Forget it. I shouldn't have brought it up.” He wanted to bolt. He wanted to kick himself for saying something stupid like that. An embarrassingly large part of him wanted to run to Nat’s, get drunk, and forget about his stupid mouth. But then Steve turned off the television.

“Buck, I thought I was going to die by the age of fifteen,” he started. Once Steve was sure he had Bucky's attention, he kept talking. “When you go to sleep each night wondering if you're going to wake up in the morning, you tend not to make grand plans for your life—like weddings and kids. It's not that I don't want those things, I do—especially with you—but I just never thought I'd get there. And even now, it's a little hard to believe that I could be a husband and maybe even a dad.”

Bucky smiled at him. “To be fair, even without fighting cancer I didn't think I'd get here either. But since I am, I think we should make the most of it.”

“And how do you suppose we do that?” Steve asked.

“I think it's time we bite the bullet and call in Tony, because we clearly can't get our shit together on our own.”

Steve cringed. “Are you sure about that?”

“I think with Pepper, Nat, and Phil reining him in, it might be okay.” Steve still looked unconvinced by this thought, so Bucky tried another approach. “Maybe we offer to let him throw us some kind of shower. We'll call it a test run.”

“You think he can pull it off?” Steve asked.

Bucky shrugged. “I think at the very least we’ll get a free wedding shower.”

“I don't know,” Steve said. “That doesn't completely feel right with me. Feels like we're tricking him or something.”

“Steve, it's Tony Stark,” Bucky argued. “It's never going to completely feel okay.”

“But I thought the knight moved up two and over—”

“Hang on, the internet is surprisingly unhelpful on chess rules.”

An adorable little brow crinkled as adorable little eyes peered up at her, and for one, unglorious instant, Jessica Drew cursed her weakness for chubby Asian children. Especially chubby Asian children in ill-fitting polo shirts who gushed over all of Peter Parker’s science lessons and obsessed over chess club. And especially those who had also joined her exotic lizard club for three months last year and really liked it, despite the fact that they lacked any exotic lizards and mostly just poked the class taran—

“Should we ask Mister Stark the rules again?” the very not-chubby, not-Asian Miles Morales asked.

“Mister Stark always knows,” Ganke Lee agreed.

“Absolutely not in a million years, now keep your shorts on,” Jessica informed both boys, and she swore they sighed in unison.

In case you’re wondering how Jessica Drew, a woman who had literally never played non-computer chess until six months ago came to run an elementary school chess club, here’s what happened:

A bunch of fifth graders begged Barton for a chess club, but Barton muttered some bullshit about accelerated reader and helping his husband in the library (closet sex is not help, Barton!) and passed the buck to Stark. Stark considered it for a day and a half, decided (quote) “I am literally richer than the rest of the staff combined, why do I need a microscopic stipend for wiping extra noses?”, and punted to Carol.

Carol laughed for ten minutes and dropped the whole thing on Jasper Sitwell’s lap.

And Jasper Sitwell—

“Sitwell, you’re a bastard and a half,” Jessica muttered under her breath. Both of the small children blinked at her, and she blinked back. “How much of the actual content of my last sentence did you hear?”

“Something about half of Mister Sitwell?” Ganke replied.

She shrugged. “Far enough away that I won’t get fired.” The kids looked at each other, but she ignored them to hoot in triumph at the latest website. “Okay, so, officially, knights can move two spaces in one direction and one space in another. Either up, down, left, or right.”

Miles scowled, but his adorable friend beamed like he just won the elementary school lottery. (So, what, free M&Ms for life?) “I told you!” he gloated.

Miles pulled a face like he wanted to roll his eyes, and his friend dragged him off. In the back of the room, the fifth graders who loved chess club like most fifth graders love make-believe dating relationships snickered together. Probably at their club advisor’s stupidity. Everyone always snickered at Jessica’s—

“You ready for a rematch, or should I come back when you’re not googling the rules?” someone asked from the doorway.

Jessica heaved a sigh. “Don’t you have computers to caress?”

“Caressed them all in the last half-hour. Renamed one the Pepper Two, Little Shop of Horrors style.” She rolled her eyes as Tony sauntered into her room and planted his ass on the corner of her desk. “I’m running Mavis Beacon updates all afternoon. No time for computer club.”

“But time to annoy me?”

“If the price is right. And since I’m literally richer than the rest of the staff—”

“The more you say that, the more I want to punch you,” Jessica cut him off. Tony feigned innocence, one hand to the center of his chest, and she scowled at him. “Seriously, why are you here?”

The feigned innocence suddenly included equally feigned hurt. “Can’t one teacher help another teacher in her time of need?”

“Not if one teacher is Tony Stark, no.”

“And that,” he replied, pointing a finger at her, “is why people both admire and fear you. That attitude.” He wiggled the finger around, and for two seconds, she considered breaking it off. “I know you doubt my motives,” he continued, “and I know you definitely are worried that Pepper Two will someday become sentient and need blood for sustenance—”

“Okay, who let you near that movie?” she asked.

“Bruce, but don’t change the subject.” She crossed her arms over her chest and nodded at him to continue. “My point is that I’m actually here to help. You. With chess.”

She rolled her lips together. “Seriously?”

He raised one hand. “Higher power I’m supposed to believe in’s honest truth,” he swore.

She nodded a little unevenly and glanced out at her rag-tag bunch of chess players. The fifth graders had created some kind of complicated round-robin system where you play until you lose a piece, then switch (a chess relay race, perhaps?), the third graders mostly just played checkers with the chess pieces (whatever), and Ganke and Miles kept staring at the board like it held all the secrets to the universe. They were good kids. They deserved a club advisor who didn’t need to google how to castle every time the fifth graders asked.

She dragged fingers through her hair. “You’re going easy on me,” she informed Stark. “None of this ‘win in four moves’ bull-crap you pulled the first time you came in here.”

Tony grinned. “You mean the time you threw a queen at me and threatened to put your hairy spiders in my bed?”

“They’re tarantulas,” Jessica reminded him for the hundredth time, “but otherwise, yes.”

He laughed and grabbed a chess board.

Halfway through the game, after Jessica’d actually captured a couple of his pieces (who knew?) and the second and third graders had formed a loose circle around the teacher-versus-teacher deathmatch (Tony’s name), she paused with her hand hovering over a rook. “Stark.”

“Ask me whatever you’re about to ask me after you move that piece to exactly where I think you’re going to move it,” he said with a little wave of his hand. “I want to savor this first taste of your defeat.”

Jessica immediately dropped her hand into her lap, and the kids laughed. “Stark,” she repeated, “could it be that you’re here because certain other teachers kicked you out of their classrooms because of a certain party you’re trying to plan?”

The younger kids looked at each other. The older kids stopped playing to look over. Stark just looked vaguely seasick.

At least, until he shook it off. “No idea what you’re talking about,” he replied. “Now move.”

Jessica smirked. “Gladly.”

(She lost eight moves later, a small price to pay.)

While Tuesday was usually reserved for Natasha, Phil decided to have all his mentees—present and past—over for dinner. Clint begrudgingly agreed to cook for all of them, and Phil was grateful for a husband that was easy to bribe.

It hadn’t been the easiest start of the school year for most of them. Phil and Clint started the school year still dealing with the Barney aftermath. Natasha had just moved back into her condo after breaking up with Bruce. Trip was in the specific set of tall weeds associated with starting your first year . Honestly, the only one who started off in August in a good mood was Steve.

Phil wanted to have a night where they could just hang out and be friends, to take a moment to catch their breaths—and eat Clint’s cooking. Phil just really wanted to have an evening where they could all relax and maybe share some stories to let Trip know the first year of teaching is actually something a person can survive. And since Tony wasn't ever his mentee (Bruce had thankfully fallen on that particular sword), the technology teacher wasn't invited. He made his displeasure about this known over the last few days, but Phil had gotten pretty used to ignoring Tony Stark.

Trip arrived first, followed by Natasha, then finally Steve. Phil and Natasha shared concerned looks about the normally prompt art teacher being the last to arrive, but shrugged it off. If Steve had been wearing a dopey grin while showing up late, then fine. They'd all witnessed that post-coital phenomenon over the last ten months or so, but the art teacher’s mouth was drawn in a hard line, and it was obvious to those who knew him that he was putting on a polite face.

Clint served them all one of his magic casseroles for dinner. “I know it's probably nothing compared to the Italian Wonder,” he told Steve, “but hopefully you'll deem it good enough.”

“And if he doesn't, more for us,” Trip commented while spooning out an extra helping on to his plate.

They told stories about what had happened in their classrooms in the last couple weeks, discussed strategies to more effectively monitor the students during recess, but then quickly abandoned work talk to get to know each other better.

Trip talked about how a science teacher and the technology teacher at the middle school next door helped him get his job. “Even though they're younger than me, they graduated ahead of me. They're both really smart. But I guess they were able to put in a good word about me to the gym teacher.”

Phil nodded. “And since said gym teacher is married to out principal, I'm sure that went a long way. It's good that you impressed May. The teacher she was mentoring last year ended being horrible and was let go at the end of the year. That's how Wade got the art position.”

Clint snorted. “I'm still amazed he hasn't blown anything up yet.”

“Not for lack of trying,” Steve muttered. When he realized everyone was looking at him expectantly, he shrugged. “He may have called me a couple weeks ago with a kiln crisis.”

“Somehow I'm not surprised,” Phil said.

Clint turned to him. “It's still weird that you’re buddy-buddy with the terrifying wife of Fury.”

“She's not that scary,” Natasha said.

Clint shook his head. “Only people who are just as bewildering would say that about Melinda May.”

Natasha sent him an unimpressed look. “Quit trying to work your spelling words into normal conversation. You sound like an idiot.”

“How did you meet May?” Trip asked Phil.

“We were both new teachers in the same year,” Phil answered. “After surviving all the meetings the newbies in the district have to suffer through the first few days of their contract, we became friends. She actually convinced Fury to hire me, too, when I wanted to leave the high school.”

Clint groaned. “Can you please stop reminding me that those two are responsible for my amazing sex life?”

Steve jumped after that comment from what Phil suspected was kick under the table from Natasha. “What's wrong with you?” she asked. “I'm used to you staring off into space, but that's not the face you make when you're thinking about a naked James.”

“Sorry,” Steve apologized. “Just already regretting the decision to not run off to Vegas.” He looked back and forth between Natasha and Phil. “I have a humongous favor to ask of you.”

“Keep Stark in check?” Natasha asked.

Steve nodded. “I know he's not always everyone's favorite person to be around, but he is doing something really nice for Bucky and I, which I have to keep reminding myself. Even if he's pestering us will questions and texting us pictures for some story board or something that I don't even understand.”

“We'll certainly do our best,” Phil promised as Natasha nodded in agreement.

Steve seemed to relax somewhat after that, but only marginally. Once dessert—Phil’s favorite cake—was finished, the teachers began to help clean up, but Clint shooed them out of the kitchen and on out of the house. “This was part of Phil’s deal,” he explained. “I cook, he cleans, and then some other fun stuff happens.”

Phil and Clint said their good nights, but then Phil reached out to grab Natasha's wrist. “Hang back a second, would you?”

She nodded, but her face made it clear she wasn't sure what was happening. Once Trip and Steve were gone, Phil led her to the couch. Birdie, who'd been banned to their bedroom to keep from begging for scraps all during dinner was released from her prison by Clint and bounded onto Phil’s lap. “Yes, you poor thing,” he said sarcastically while scratching between her ears. “How dare we lock you away when your friends were over?”

Clint whistled at the dog while he made his way to the kitchen. “Outside, mutt.” The bulldog jumped off Phil's lap and bolted for the back door.

“What's going on?” Natasha asked.

“Two things,” Phil told her. “And they both involve someone you aren't too comfortable being around.”

“That's a very long list of names,” she muttered.

“I think we're going to need help keeping Stark in check for this wedding. I know his intentions will be good, but you know how he gets an idea and then rockets off with it before thinking about whether or not it's a good plan,” Phil said.

“I'm sure Pepper will help us keep him in check,” Natasha replied. “And I don't have a problem with her.”

“He's dancing around telling you that he thinks Bruce would make a good ally.” Phil didn't have to turn around to know that his husband had snuck back inside the house and was leaning in the doorframe between the kitchen and the living room. He also wasn't surprised to see Natasha's face open up for a split second to show some vulnerability only to have her usual mask quickly shoved back into place.

“We dated for a few months, and it didn't work out,” Natasha said with a shrug. “It's not like we divorced after twenty years of marriage and three kids.”

“We all know it meant more than that to you,” Phil commented gently. “But, yes, I do think he'd be a good resource in making sure no one will be murdered before Steve and Bucky can get married.”

“It's fine,” Natasha told them. She was almost convincing about it. “What's the other thing?”

Phil fought back a sigh. “My mother is already calling me twice a week to ask about who's coming to Thanksgiving.”

Natasha frowned. Phil had brought her and Bruce to his family's holiday celebration for the last five years. They were both practically family in the eyes of Phil’s parents and sisters. “Does she know about what happened?”

Phil nodded. “Not that she would bring it up if you two came, but she made it clear that she's not going to pick favorites. It's an all or nothing kind of deal—either you both come, or neither of you do.”

He watched Natasha bristle slightly at that. And Clint caught it, too. “Nope,” he said before joining Phil on the couch. “Don’t just shut down and pretend you're too good for Thanksgiving. We all know that's a lie.”

Natasha nodded, but didn't say anything.

“I'll talk to Pepper in the morning,” Phil said. “Maybe Team Restraint can have a coffee meeting or something later this week to talk strategy. Do you think you could talk to Bruce?”

“Sure,” she answered.

“If you don't want to—” Phil started.

“It's fine,” she told him curtly.

She said her goodbyes after that, and as Phil watched her drive away, he couldn't ignore the twist in his stomach. “Are we doing the right thing with this?” he asked.

Clint shrugged. “Either it will make them stop talking to each other forever, or it'll be the kick in the ass they both clearly need.”

Chapter Text

“You realize you're not leaving for another twelve days, right?” Jess asked while draped across Carol’s bed. “I mean, I know you military people are all about ‘always be prepared’ and whatever, but twelve days in advance?”

“That's the Boy Scouts,” Carol corrected while pulling a shirt out from underneath Jessica’s body.

“Whatever,” Jess responded. “Still doesn't answer my question.”

Carol sighed. She knew she was acting like a maniac for getting ready this early. And it was inevitable that she'd pack something away that she'd need in the next two weeks, which would make her feel like an even crazier person while she tore apart her condo looking for whatever it was.

Her brain really sucked ass sometimes.

“Just let me be insane, okay?” she told Jess while digging through her underwear drawer.

“Oh, no no no no no,” Jessica said while propping herself up on her elbow. “You're about to have your first getaway trip with Sir Dark Chocolate.”

“You really need to stop with the somewhat racist nicknames,” Carol warned.

“And you really should not be packing pre-existing underwear into your suitcase. This requires a whole new set of bras and panties.”

Carol cringed. “I hate that word.”

“Does he make your panties moist?” Jess asked with an obnoxious smirk. Carol threw a pair of pants at her head. “Seriously though, a road trip requires you to step up your game. It's not like there's a ton of stuff to do in Texas besides each other.”

“Ugh, that reminds me I have to go shopping for a cocktail dress.”

Jess squinted at her closet. “I’m pretty sure you have a number of dresses in there.”

“Not slutty ones for going to the club,” Carol replied. “I need something a little more respectable.”

“Maybe James will respect you more for showing a little leg and cleavage?”

Carol sighed. “I’m trying to act like an adult here.”

Her friend ducked her head and began tracing the print on Carol’s bedspread. “Am I bad a person?”

“Define ‘bad,’” Carol joked back. But when Jess didn’t respond, Carol tossed a pair of socks into the suitcase and sat on the edge of the bed. “Who do I need to beat up?”

“I can beat up my own people, thank you,” she retorted while sitting up. “The Parker kid said something the other day.”

“You know you’re going to have to keep going,” Carol said. “There’s no way I’ll let you leave it there, not that you would anyway.”

Jess blew bangs out of her face before continuing. “He originally thought Barney and I had dragged his precious Aunt May into some drug dealing ring.”

“Please,” Carol laughed. “If there’s some shady business going down in that house, May isn’t going to let anyone but her be the kingpin.”

“Right?” Jess agreed. “Parker finally has it through his brilliant but thick head that May isn’t doing anything illegal, but I don’t think he believes the same about Barney and me.”

“Do I need stage an intervention?” Carol asked. “I know we don’t make shit as teachers, but if you’re making serious bucks on the side, I either need to keep you out of harm’s way or demand I be let into the inner circle.”

“Fuck off,” Jess said while she shoved at Carol’s shoulder.

Carol managed to keep from falling off the bed, and while she readjusted her position, she took a second to eye her best friend. “This is really bugging you, isn’t it?”

Jess shrugged. “The dichotomy of dating a felon while teaching mostly innocent eight-year-olds is a tricky line to balance.”

“Anyone else giving you shit about this?”


“Parker’s a naïve kid who’s probably only seen drugs, fist fights, and anything remotely criminal on television,” Carol pointed out. “Don’t pay attention to him.” Jess kept her focus on her fingernails and didn’t say anything else. “Oh my god.”


“You have feelings.”

“Shut up,” Jess hissed.

Carol didn’t know whether to laugh, hug her, or fall off the bed in shock. “No, seriously, you have feelings for Barney Barton. More than just ‘I want an orgasm’ feelings.”

Jess shrugged. “He’s not a bad guy. I know he has a rap sheet and Clint probably—“

“Yeah, we’re not discussing Barton family issues right now. Back to you.”

Jess flipped her off. “It’s not like that.”

“Not like what?”

Jess’s mouth worked for a few seconds before she groaned and fell back on the bed. “I really thought we were just fucking.”

“For, what, six months now?”

“Five,” Jess corrected.

“Close enough. How many other relationships have you had that didn’t last that long?”

“We’re not talking about this,” Jess mumbled into a pillow. “Let’s go back to you and your need to go shopping to be a good, sexy girlfriend.”

Carol snorted. “I’ve already bought supplies for when I don’t need clothes; stuff to wear can wait. Let’s talk more about you and your feelings.”

“I think we should start with basic—”

“Ground rules? Parameters? Guidelines?” Tony kicked his feet up onto the coffee table, and Bucky tried not to roll his eyes at the way Steve’s jaw tightened. “I know you’re afraid I’m going to rent out Radio City Music Hall and hire the Rockettes as the opening act to your three-part wedding shower, but you have nothing to worry about. I throw you an awesome party, you profit, and we all bask in the glory of my mad party-planning skills, as the kids say.”

Bucky sighed. “Tony—”

“Okay, you’re right,” he admitted, “the kids don’t say that. I’m just trying to bring ‘mad skills’ back, because I’m sick of ‘on point’ and ‘ratchet.’”

Steve’s jaw clenched even further, and for the second time since Tony’d swanned into the house ten minutes ago, Bucky put his hand on his fiancé’s knee to keep him from storming out of the room. Despite Pepper’s hundred e-mails promising that Tony’d behave himself, the computer teacher’d shown up with vouchers for the upcoming bridal show—“I know it’s pretty heteronormative, but all the best caterers in town will be there,” he’d said—and brochures for a half-dozen private venues.

“Are those for the wedding or the shower?” Steve’d asked suspiciously.

Tony’d shrugged. “Whatever floats your dirigible,” he’d answered, and tossed himself onto the couch.

He’d totally missed Steve’s discomfort, too, because he spread his arms along the back of the couch and flashed him a million-dollar smile. “Obviously, you have a whole host of unnecessary reservations about this situation. First, though, I want to talk about—”

“Ground rules,” Steve ground out. It sounded almost like a grunt.

Tony blinked. “I thought we just—”

“We appreciate your expertise,” Bucky interrupted. Steve snorted like he wanted to laugh, and Bucky dug his fingers into his leg to shut him up. “And after talking, we figured out we’re maybe not the guys to do this totally on our own. I think Steve’d happily go down to the courthouse on a Wednesday afternoon, and I don’t like cake.”

The corner of Steve’s mouth kicked up into a grin. “But if it’s anything with peaches in it . . . ”

Please do not let that be some kind of euphemism,” Tony complained, and this time, Bucky joined Steve in glaring at him. He waved a hand. “You’re both very attractive, and I’m not sure Pep and I would kick either one of you out of bed, but—”

“This was a terrible idea,” Steve said suddenly. He started to push up off the couch, but Bucky physically shoved him back down. “Buck, I agreed to try this, but if he can’t even get ten minutes into the conversation without being—”

“Himself? Because as much as he’s just ruined Sheila’s peach rolls for me, he’s just being himself.” Steve pursed his lips and crossed his arms, but he stayed put. Bucky, on the other hand, turned back to Tony. “We have conditions,” he said. Tony scoffed and started to roll his eyes, but Bucky stopped him by raising a hand. “You can throw fifteen fits if you want, but you either follow the conditions, or we walk.”

Tony huffed a laugh. “And what? Throw the classiest wedding the meeting room at the public library’s ever seen? Be my guest.”

“That’s fine by us.” Tony’s face crumbled into a frown, and Bucky shrugged. “You think we need a big, showy wedding to be happy together? Because I’m pretty sure you know both of us well enough by now to know that that’s not the case. Plus, I have four sisters. I say ‘go,’ and they’ll plan the wedding shower like their lives depend on it.”

Next to him, Steve smiled slightly. Bucky grinned and knocked their shoulders together, but Tony just scowled. “You’re bluffing,” he accused. “There’s no way you’d actually disappoint Sainted Mama Rogers and the Barneses by going for a low-maintenance non-wedding.” Steve raised his eyebrows, his face all innocence, and Tony squinted at him. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Do you want to find out?” Steve asked.

“As I have a reputation to maintain and a wife who thinks I am on my absolute best behavior right now, no, I do not.” Steve’s whole face brightened as he tried to stand on his victory grin, and Tony heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Fine. Ground rules. Name them.”

Bucky grinned. “You might want a pad of paper and a pen.”

“Bite me, Barnes. Or, on second thought, list out your stupid rules and then bite me, because I’m sure I’m going to make the same offer again once I hear your ridiculous terms and conditions.”

Steve smirked. “You’re the one who’s always encouraging us to read the terms and conditions, you know.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Only because you’d agree to hand over your first-born child to Apple if the iOS update required it, and as someone who will later want to ruin that child, I’d appreciate you not doing that.”

In the end, Tony agreed to allow them to pick the party venue from Tony’s top three, preview the menu, and approve the budget. As for the last condition, well—

“Wait, wait, back up,” he said, raising his hands, and Bucky cast an admittedly worried look in Steve’s direction. “You’re requiring that I run all of my decisions—from guest list to flowers to managing your registry—”

Steve frowned. “We don’t need a registry.”

“And even if we did,” Bucky pointed out, “we wouldn’t let you manage it.”

“—by a panel of busy-bodies?” They nodded, and Tony scowled. “Including my wife, Coulson, Red—who still hates me after the dodgeball incident, by the way—”

“And Bruce.” Bucky blinked as he turned to stare at Steve, and he wasn’t really surprised to see Tony doing the same. Steve shrugged. “Pepper can’t shoulder the whole burden alone.”

“Ignoring the burden comment, Pepper is all but contractually obligated to shoulder all of this.” Tony gestured to himself, and Bucky rolled his eyes. “Bruce—”

“Is a reasonable adult,” Steve finished.

“—is still not talking to Natasha unless he is absolutely required to—and given his talents at avoidance, that is literally never.” He and Steve stared at one another until the silence overwhelmed him; then, he groaned and tossed his head back. “It’s like you’re trying to clip my wings.”

Steve’s mouth curled up into a smirk. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

“Or you’ll ruin my lucrative future as the school’s only successful party planner.”

“Or that,” Steve replied, and against his better judgment, Bucky laughed.

Peter kind of wanted to throw up.

His whole body vibrated as he stood outside Jessica Drew’s closed classroom door, his hands in his back pockets and his heart hammering like a snare drum. Ever since his idiotic comment about Barney (which only happened because Harry insisted on flirting with every pretty, dark-haired girl in a fifty-mile radius regardless of whether she was a flight attendant, a police officer, or Peter’s team leader), he and Jessica had kind of started mutually avoiding each other. Nobody’d set any ground rules or anything, but it felt like that episode of Full House where two of the girls divided the room with masking tape and each resolved to never leave their “side”: Jessica worked in her room, Peter worked in his, and they never made eye contact in the hallway.

Also, why did he always watch old Full House reruns on the weekends? He really needed to invest in a better cable package.

A quick glance at his watch revealed that it was still about twenty minutes until Jessica left for the day, which was good. It meant he could maybe pin her down and talk to her without any sort of disaster or distraction. At least, he hoped.

On second thought, if he started grading his spelling tests right now, he could save time on the weekend and not—

“Augh!” he shrieked, not because of the spelling test but because somebody touched his shoulder from behind. He whipped around, heart now firmly in the back of his throat, to find Bucky Barnes standing all of two feet behind him. He stepped back, hands in the air, and Peter released a shuddering breath. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“I guess so,” Bucky replied, his eyes still wide. “You okay?”

“Me? Okay? Of course I’m okay.” Bucky’s brow furrowed, and Peter forced a smile. “I just, you know, long day. My mind wandered off on me. Did you need something?”

Bucky shrugged. “I wanted to see if I’d left an assessment book in my old room, but if now’s a bad time—”

“Now’s a totally fine time,” Peter cut him off. “Let’s go do that right now.”

“If you say so,” Bucky replied, a sure sign that he believed exactly none of the words pouring out of Peter’s mouth.

As organized as Peter tried to be, his supply cabinets were kind of a mess, and he apologized to Bucky a bunch of times as they rooted through all his various books, papers, blinders, and boxes of markers. To Bucky’s credit, he only twitched twice, and given how perfect his room always looked, that was pretty impressive. They were just about done with the last shelf when Peter finally asked, “Have you ever pissed off your team lead?”

Bucky jerked his head up and frowned. “Is this hypothetical?”

“If I lie and say it is, will you believe me?”

“Since you just said it’d be a lie, no.”

Peter sighed and leaned against the nearest group of student desks. “I said something stupid to Jessica,” he admitted. “I didn’t even mean to, but it just came out, and now I’m pretty sure she wants to light me on fire with her mind.”

Bucky snorted. “Sounds like Jessica.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather not be cinders and ash.”

“Then you tell her that.” Bucky closed the cabinet and stood up, his hands falling to his hips. For a second, his posture looked almost exactly like Steve’s. “Jessica’s kind of a spitfire,” he said after a couple seconds, “but she’s also good at blurting things she doesn’t mean. I think if you talk to her, she’ll come around.”

“But you’re not sure,” Peter pointed out.

The fourth-grade teacher shrugged. “Nobody’s ever sure about Jess Drew.”

By the time Bucky finally left (without his book), Jessica’s classroom was dark and her door locked. Peter stared at his reflection in the little window on the door before he turned on his heel and ran toward the entrance. He probably looked like a crazy person, and he took the corner so fast that he almost lost his glasses, but suddenly he was standing outside and panting in the glaring October sun.

Jessica’s car was still in the parking lot, but she herself was nowhere to be seen.

At least, not until somebody said, “Parker?”

Turns out, Jessica Drew was standing behind him, her bag in one hand and a stack of papers from her school mailbox in the other. For the first time in forever, she looked less pissed and more confused. She didn’t even glare at him, which he appreciated.

She stared at him, her eyebrows raised. He stared back, his breath still coming a little too fast. He really needed to exercise instead of watching Full House.

Finally, though, she rolled her eyes. “Well, good talk, but—”

“I’m sorry.” The words fell out of his mouth quickly enough that Jessica reared back and blinked a little. Peter heaved a sigh. “The thing I said about Barney was really inappropriate. I think I’ve been a little inappropriate all along, really, with the conspiracy fridge and wondering why you and Aunt May are friends and accidentally hearing you and Carol in the copy room—”

Jessica frowned. “Conspiracy fridge?” she asked. “And when did you hear Carol and me in the copy room?”

“Neither of those things are important,” Peter immediately retorted. They spent another couple seconds staring each other down before he rubbed a hand over his face. “Can we just start over?” he asked. “I’ll be normal and not make crappy comments about your boyfriend, and you can stop wanting to kill me with your mind.”

Her mouth twitched like she wanted to smile. “If I wanted to kill you with my mind, you’d already be dead.”

“And you wonder why people think you’re kind of creepy,” he said without thinking, and Jessica actually laughed. It boomed out of her and carried into the fall afternoon, and Peter finally released the breath he’d been holding since Harry’d come to school. “Aunt May’s making a roast Sunday night. You should come for dinner.”

She cocked her head at him. “Shouldn’t you let May decide whether she wants me there?”

“She already told me to invite Gwen, and it’s not like you won’t swing by to see Barney anyway.” She started to narrow her eyes, and he held up his hands. “No judgment! I just meant it would be kind of nice for everybody to be there and not let it be, you know—”

“Weird?” she guessed.

“I was going to go with ‘horrifyingly awkward,’ but weird works, too.”

Jessica rolled her eyes, but in a good-natured kind of way. “I don’t hate you, you know,” she said after a couple seconds. “You’re a little squirrelly and you can’t keep your mouth shut, but I definitely don’t hate you.”

Peter grinned. “Hey, I’ll take it.”

Bruce was almost finished with his classroom for the week when the knock came at the door. The kindergarten teacher had seriously just wanted to clean up and run away for the week. His young students had reached the point where the newness of school had ebbed, and that always made life a little more challenging. Plus, Bruce had the added bonus of it not being a payday Friday; he wouldn’t have to try and fake his way through a good time in order to keep Tony from mother henning him about finding joy in life and whatever.

Finding joy was still exhausting, Not as much as it bad been, but it still took a lot of work.

That was why Bruce had a swallow a sigh when he heard the knock. He knew it wasn’t Tony—he’d just barge in already halfway into a conversation. But Bruce wasn’t expecting Clint.

“Got a minute?” he asked.

Bruce nodded and waved him toward one of the few adult-sized chairs he had in his classroom while taking a seat at his desk. “Everything okay?”

“Not if your last name is Coulson.”

“What’s wrong with Phil?”

Clint gave a hint of a rueful grin. “He has Judy for a mother.”

Bruce withheld his groan. “She’s asking about Thanksgiving already?”

“It’s the beginning of October and Thanksgiving is nine weeks away,” Clint quipped. “Of course she’s asking about it.”

Bruce ran his fingertips along the edge of his desk as he did his best to come up with a legitimate excuse to get out of the mess. Clint and Phil had been kind enough to take him in for the last four years, but they weren’t really his family, and it was probably time to end things now instead of letting them drag on until he was clearly taking advantage of their hospitality.

“I don’t have to go this year, or again,” Bruce offered. “It’s your guys’ family, not mine.”

Clint mumbled something under his breath, got up to close the door to the classroom, and reclaimed his seat. Before talking again, he propped his feet up on one of the student tables and gave it a disappointed face that it wasn’t taller. “I’ve been a shit friend to you for the last couple months, and I’m sorry.”

Bruce shrugged. “Natasha is basically your little sister.”

“And you’re my oldest friend here. This is our, what, tenth year teaching together?”

“Eleventh,” Bruce corrected. It was hard not to forget exactly when your wife died. Or how this was a year that you were supposed to be a father to a child the same age as your students. Because the thought of losing Natasha hadn’t been rough enough to start the school year with, he was also haunted by the specter of a child that never came to be. Not that he mentioned that part of things to anyone, not even Tony.

His heart felt almost as raw as when he’d lost Betty. The double whammy of losing two potentially great things in your life had made him want to avoid everything and everyone lately. He was fine hiding behind the idea that it was his breakup with Natasha that caused all of it. Well, he didn’t want the blame to fall entirely on her shoulders, but he wasn’t about to open up to the other side of things.

He really should avoid the Coulsons for Thanksgiving. He didn’t need to be depressed and sour the entire time hanging around someone else’s family and being reminded that he’ll never get one of his own.

“Eleven,” Clint said. “That’s more than any other teacher here. Well, except for crazy old Howard, but she clearly doesn’t count.” He waited for Bruce to at least acknowledge the joke, but Bruce didn’t have the energy for that. “What I’m poorly trying to say is, I should’ve been more supportive to you in the last couple of months. You both mean a lot to me, and I shouldn’t have picked sides. I’m sorry if I offended you with that.”

Bruce shrugged. “It’s fine.”

Clint stared him down in the creepy way only he could, and Bruce fought the urge to break eye contact. “It’s not, but we’ll readdress that later. Look, here’s the deal with Thanksgiving: either you and Nat both have to come, or neither of you is allowed.”

Bruce felt his temper flash at what felt like manipulation. He was fine not going to see Phil’s family; he knew Tony would take him in or someone else would have pity on him. But unless Steve and Bucky did the same for Natasha, he knew she’d be alone. And she didn’t deserve that.

“Whose idea was that?” Bruce asked as calmly as he could.

“Judy’s. Consider it her attempt to be ballsier than the rest of us in trying to help get you and Nat to at least be friends again.”

That did cause Bruce’s anger to flare, and he ground his teeth together. This had been one of his fears, that everyone around them would try and meddle after they’d all been conspicuously absent when things went to shit over the summer.

“Look, I know locking you guys up in a closet and forcing you to be friends again is a terrible idea. And I know I haven’t been through a breakup in a decade and really don’t have room to act like I know what you’re going through, but Judy has a point. You guys are our family, both of you. And we’re not going to pick favorites.” Clint paused to frown apologetically. “Not anymore than we already have. And again—I really am sorry about that. But really, you are family, whether you believe it or not, and it wouldn’t be the same without the two of you there. I’m not saying you have to make a decision right now. Hell, you can you show up just in time for dinner for all I care.”

“Won’t Judy have a conniption if we try that?”

Clint smiled. “We both know she’ll cook enough to feed a dozen Hobbit families regardless of whether or not you give her a heads up.” He cringed in embarrassment. “Please don’t tell Phil I made a Lord of the Rings joke. That is a nerdy road I do not want to travel down.”

“Secret’s safe with me,” Bruce promised.

Clint nodded in gratitude. “Nat already knows about the deal, and this here officially ends all the meddling Phil and I will be doing. You two talk it out, decide what you want. No pressure from our family. Well, I can’t necessarily promise anything on my mother-in-law’s behalf, but I can from Phil and me.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said as Clint got up to leave. He sat at his desk for a moment considering his possibilities. Just as he somewhere drudged up the courage to send Natasha a text to talk over coffee, a new message popped up on his screen.

Pepper Potts: Inaugural meeting to contain my husband’s wedding planning crazy is tomorrow afternoon at the Starbucks on Fourth. Be there at one, please and thank you.

“And then, the evil queen says— Miss Darcy.”

Alva’s huge sigh snapped Darcy right out of her hyper-vigilant state, and when she glanced down, she discovered that the little girl’d crossed her arms over her chest. She forced a smile. “Sorry, kid, what’d I miss?”

Alva jabbed a finger at the crazy scene in the middle of the coffee table. “The evil queen has to stop Elsa from saving the town from the fire pony,” she instructed. “Because if the evil queen doesn’t stop Elsa, then the car prince can’t come and fall in love with her.”

Darcy squinted at where the “car prince” laid in “the dark pit of darkness” (a balled-up black scarf shoved inside a shoebox). “I think that’s a Transformer.”

Alva narrowed her eyes. “If you’re not going to play right—”

“Sorry, sorry, evil queen,” Darcy apologized, and fished the Barbie with the permanent marker tattoos out of her pile of toys.

She tried to focus on the whole storyline that Alva’d concocted—her Fisher Price Little People town had been infiltrated by a My Little Pony that the boys had painted red and yellow a couple months back, and Elsa and the marker-stained Barbie had to simultaneously menace the little people and save the day—but she kept glancing at the clock on the cable box, too. She blamed Loki’s tongue, silver in more ways than one, for tricking her into coming to an Odinson family dinner. After all, she’d happily avoided Thor and the kids like a particularly awful strain of the plague after finding out that Thor knew her secret.

Her tall, dark-haired, very distracting secret, with the hands and the smirk and—

“Miss Darcy!” Alva snapped, and Darcy jerked back out of her thoughts to find the girl glowering at her. “The evil queen can’t stand in the farmyard. It will suck out all her magic.”

Darcy blinked down at her Barbie, who was in fact standing in a square of white, plastic fences. “Sorry,” she muttered, and returned to menacing.

The car prince had just about saved the village from certain death when a door opened somewhere else in the house and Thor’s booming laugh carried into the living room. “Daddy!” Alva crowed. By the time Darcy managed to stand up, the girl had already disappeared into the kitchen and started fighting with her brothers (Jane’s little helpers) over who got to hug Thor first.

Most of the time, Darcy found their bickering cute.

Right now, she kind of wanted to throw up.

She wasn’t sure why, exactly, she felt so nervous—she’d dragged Loki to a work party, after all, and he’d survived that with flying colors—but sitting down with Thor, Jane, and the kids felt real. Like an actual, tangible, adult thing she could touch in a world where her mom harped on her about turning all her adult things into ash and misery. Good as Jane’s pep talk had been, it didn’t really overcome the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach.

“You’re glaring at that Barbie awfully hard,” a familiar voice commented lazily, and she rolled her eyes as she glanced over at Loki. He loomed in the doorway to the living room, his shoulder propped against the jamb and a tiny smile on his face. A self-satisfied smile, Darcy thought, and snorted to herself. He frowned. “What? You don’t see me for five days, and this is how you greet me?”

“Not my fault I didn’t see you for five days,” Darcy reminded him as she ditched the stupid doll.

“I believe you said you were being supportive of my ‘academic rigor.’”

“No, I was trying to be sexy by saying ‘rigor’ in a sentence, and you didn’t bite.” The grin returned, and she smacked him lightly in the chest as soon as she could reach him. “Not that kind of biting.”

“You certainly didn’t complain about it six days ago,” he returned. She tried to toss her head and play hard to get, but he touched her cheek so lightly that she forgot about acting entirely. “I missed you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you getting sentimental on me?”

Loki shrugged. “Depends on whether you enjoy it,” he replied, and leaned down to kiss her.

He kept the kiss light, nothing too dirty or desperate for a house full of children and Nordic busy-bodies. But even a tiny kiss was apparently too much to ask for, because the second Darcy touched Loki’s waist, a gasp sounded behind him. They jerked apart to find Henry gaping up at them.

“You’re kissing,” he said, more shocked than accusatory.

Standing at his shoulder, Alva bounced and clutched her hands to her chest. “Does that mean it’s not a secret anymore and you’re getting married for real?” she demanded.

Henry whipped around to face her. “What secret?”

George frowned. “I never told.”

Alva huffed at both her brothers. “The secret that Miss Darcy and Uncle Loki hold hands and kiss.”

“You only hold hands and kiss when you like somebody,” Henry informed her with all the third grade authority he could muster. “You do it with your boyfriend or your girlfriend.” His brow crinkled, and he glanced back at Darcy and Loki. “Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?”

“Uh-huh,” George confirmed with a nod.

“And they’re getting married,” Alva stressed.

Darcy raised her hands. “Nobody’s getting married to anybody,” she reminded all the kids. “But yeah, Loki and I are—”

“Mister Rogers is getting married to somebody,” George volunteered out of nowhere. Darcy frowned at him, and he scuffed his socks on the floor. “Mister Stark said so. He’s making a wedding.”

Alva beamed. “Then he can make Miss Darcy’s wedding!”

“Tony Stark is never planning my wedding,” Darcy retorted. All three kids turned to look at her while Loki, helpfully, snickered. She stood on his toe. Hard. “We’re not getting married,” she said again, a little pushier than the last time, “but we are, you know, kissing. Like boyfriends and girlfriends do.”

The kids all fell silent, which felt like a major reminder that Darcy’d never really called Loki her boyfriend aloud. Apparently Loki noticed too, because he released a tiny choking sound and dropped his eyes to his feet. Meant he missed Darcy’s truly epic blush, but whatever.

Finally, though, Henry pursed his lips like he was working a really hard math problem. “So you’re boyfriend and girlfriend?” he asked carefully.

Darcy opened her mouth to answer, but Loki beat her to the punch. “Yes, we are.”

“And Alva and George knew but kept it secret?” the third grader continued.

George’s face lit up in the most devious smirk Darcy had ever seen (and she worked with Tony Stark). “Yup! They told us when we saw them kissing in the summer.”

Henry blinked. “In the summer?”

His brother nodded. “All the way back in the summer.”

For one brief, heart-stopping moment, absolutely nothing happened. At least, until Henry’s face flared an amazing shade of fire-engine red. “Mom! Mom, they kept secrets!” he shouted, and by the time Darcy’s ears stopped ringing, all three kids had charged into the kitchen to address the alleged secret-keeping.

Loki flinched. “My nephew has quite the set of lungs,” he observed.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Like that’s not genetic.”

He grinned at her, his face warm and kind of the perfect sight for sore eyes, and she slung an arm around his waist as they started toward the kitchen. They hardly made it three steps before Thor appeared in the hallway, his hands on his hips. His gaze flicked over the two of them, and Darcy fought down her weird urge to raise both hands and back away slowly.

“I see you have once again brought havoc to this house,” he said, his voice creepily even.

Darcy swallowed—mostly to stall as she searched for the right words—but Loki just shrugged. “What of it?” he asked.

Thor lasted exactly half a second before breaking into an enormous grin. “When it comes from the two of you, it is more than welcome,” he replied, and he clasped them both in a bone-creaking hug before leading them into the chaos.

The four of them—a quartet Clint dubbed Team Restraint—nestled into a corner booth at Starbucks. Collectively, they side-eyed the hipsters meeting in the other corner. Phil was the only one at risk of having a former student among the group, but thankfully the librarian didn’t mention any familiar faces.

Pepper quickly ran through what they needed to address in her mind before she started. “We’re here to make sure Steve and Bucky’s wedding doesn’t become a… What’s the word?”

“Tony-centered extravaganza?” Natasha offered.

Phil shrugged. “I think it’s well-known that if I had to be stuck on an uninhabited island with any other staff member, Tony would be my last choice, but he has thrown Clint and me some very nice anniversary parties and a somewhat-perfect wedding reception.”

Bruce smiled behind his coffee cup. “But if Tony’s busy planning something for Steve and Bucky, I’m sure you and Clint won’t mind that you can come up with your own anniversary plans this year.”

Phil merely grinned his response.

“The trick to this is for Tony to not realize what we’re doing,” Pepper declared. “We have to let him feel like he’s the one making all the decisions, when in actuality we’re the ones guiding him there.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “Are you seriously giving us blanket permission to manipulate your husband?”

Pepper waved her off nonchalantly. “I do it all the time. How do you think our marriage has survived this long?”

“Fair point,” Phil muttered. “So what do we do?”

“We need to plan the wedding,” Pepper answered.

“I thought they were doing some shower first,” Natasha pointed out.

Pepper nodded. “It’s basically Tony’s interview for the wedding. Right now, they’re meeting with one of Tony’s photographer friends—the kind that does classy portraits and candids, not the paparazzi kind.”

“Important distinction,” Bruce said.

Pepper turned her focus to her fellow redhead. “You know Bucky best, what’s he going to be looking for with this engagement party?”

Natasha sighed. “Honestly, if he could convince Steve to go to the courthouse this afternoon, he’d do it. But he knows that both of their families want to be in on it, even though the thought of four Barnes sisters and their mother fussing over him during the ceremony terrifies him.”

“So family needs to be involved,” Pepper said, taking notes. “Have they set a date for the wedding? It will help us know when to schedule the party.”

“No,” Natasha answered with a shake of her red curls. “I think that’s the only reason they’re allowing Tony to help out is because between the two of them, they can’t make a single decision.”

“What about Christmas break?” Bruce suggests. “Sometime where it’s easier for everyone to travel?”

“Why not fall break?” Pepper said while she opened the browser on her phone. Natasha supplied the city where all Bucky’s relatives lived, and Pepper pulled up the school district’s calendar. “They have their fall break in three weeks. We could do it then?”

“You don’t think that’s cutting things a little close?” Phil asked.

“Tony planned our wedding in three days,” Pepper reminded them.

“Yeah, but this time he doesn’t have a false positive on a pregnancy test hanging over his head,” Bruce pointed out.

“No, but he still has his reputation on the line,” Pepper said. She opened up her calendar up and only had to swipe a couple of months forward before an idea set into her mind. “Phil, do you and Clint hate to have to important dates stacked on to the same day?”

It was long bemoaned by Clint that his biggest mistake in marrying Phil was that they decided to get married on the anniversary of their first date, thus depriving them of one less special occasion to mark during the year. “I’m fine with it. Clint is the one who does the whining, but he usually can find some excuse for us to have sex, so it’s not really a problem. Why?”

“What about New Year’s?” Pepper asked the table.

Phil and Natasha made positive-sounding mumbles, but Bruce stayed silent. Pepper looked at him expectantly. “I don’t know why I’m here,” he admitted. “I can plan school lessons, but that’s all I can really manage.”

“You’re here to help me keep my husband in line,” Pepper informed him. “And if you don’t have opinions about wedding planning—which is fine—then just nod encouragingly.”

Together, the four of them (well, three plus Bruce’s nods) planned out loose ideas for the engagement party and the wedding. The party would be in a few weeks at one of several locations Pepper would lead Tony to suggesting. All were small and cozy, and they had the added bonus of being child-friendly for all of Bucky’s nieces and nephews.

Tony would suggest New Year’s Eve for the wedding. There were finer details to nail down, but a ceremony ending just in time for a midnight kiss to seal the nuptials and ring in a new year—and a new life together—sounded sickeningly romantic enough for Steve and Bucky. Pepper promised that there would be no doves released at any point during the wedding. She told them she’d go put ideas in Tony’s head and fill them in on Monday on how progress was going.

“Oh, Phil, I have that book you let me borrow in the car,” she said as she gathered up her purse and planner. “Walk out with me and I’ll get it for you.”

“Sure,” he said as he too rose for the table and followed her out of Starbucks. Along the way to the door, Pepper kept trying to sneak looks over her shoulder at Nat and Bruce, but she sighed and her shoulders fell when she watched them go their separate ways.

“Subtle,” Phil commented as he put on a pair of sunglasses that he shouldn’t have been able to pull off, but totally did somehow.

“There’s nothing more depressing than a broken-hearted Bruce Banner.”

“We can’t force them to do anything,” Phil told her.

“You’re telling me you haven’t tried anything?”

“Me? No. My mother? Different story.”

“I’ve always liked your mom,” Pepper said with a smile.

“That’s because you’ve never been part of one of her schemes.”

Chapter Text

Carol drummed her fingers along the chair’s arm and sighed. She probably shouldn’t have conned James into buying her a giant mocha-frappa-whatever from the Starbucks kiosk.

James reached over to put his hand over hers. “I hate it when I’m flying and I’m not the pilot, too.”

Her lips rolled into a smile. “I’d be better if it weren’t delayed.”

“Or if you were the one doing the pre-flight check?” he asked.

“That, too.”

He started to quell her anxiety with tales about studying avionics and engineering at MIT. He threw in the occasional story at Tony’s expense, and surely but slowly, Carol felt her nerves start to relax.

She didn’t want to be nervous, not about this. James was better than she could ever ask for, and she still kicked herself for causing their relationship hiatus in the spring. He, on the other hand, acted like it never happened, that they had just picked up where they left off and nothing more. She didn’t know whether to kiss him or smack him for that.

When they finally boarded, there was a family sitting across the aisle from them. On the mother’s lap sat a toddler with Down’s Syndrome. Carol’s heart pulled at the sight, and her mind flashed back to when her cousin was little. She smiled at the boy and waved; he held up his Ziploc bag of treats to share. “No, thank you,” Carol replied. “But good of you to share. You should come in teach that trait to my students sometime.”

She felt James lean around her so he could see what was going on. A small smile crossed his face as he nodded to the family. He then took her hand in his. “Last chance to bail,” he said softly.

“I’m good.”

The door opened just as Bruce raised his hand to knock. “Thank you for coming,” Pepper said, “because I need to tag you in.”

He frowned. “Tag me in for what, exactly?”

Not for the first time in their lives, she leveled him the most dubious look on the planet. “What do you think?” she asked.

Bruce sighed. “I’m already rethinking my stance on sobriety,” he muttered, but he stepped into the house, too.

In truth, Bruce loved Tony like the brother he’d never had. For all his lumps and quirks, Tony’d somehow become a constant in Bruce’s life, a fixed point in a chaotic universe. Bruce needed that sort of certainty in his life, and he never stopped appreciating Tony’s willingness to play that particular part.

But sometimes, he deeply regretted ever bonding with the maniacal stranger from his AA meeting.

“Follow my lead,” Pepper murmured as she led Bruce into the living room. He’d just started to agree when he stopped to gape at the sight in front of him. In the space usually occupied by the coffee table, Tony sat cross-legged and surrounded by no fewer than four electronic devices and even more glossy pamphlets. Animated splash pages from various sites cast weird shadows across his face as he peered at a tablet or laptop screen.

Bruce pursed his lips. “Was this what he was like planning your wedding?” he asked under his breath.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “Worse,” she intoned, just as quietly. Before Bruce managed to ask the obvious follow-up (namely: how did I miss this level of crazy back then?), she plastered on a huge smile. “You know, I heard the same thing about Hamilton House from a lady at the nail place a couple days ago,” she said, her voice much louder than required for a normal conversation. “I just don’t know if there’d be enough time. The turnaround on the party’s pretty fast.”

When Bruce blinked at her, she gestured for him to pick up the loose thread on the conversation, so he shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “To be fair, my friend, uh, Hank, he’s not a ‘big venue’ kind of guy, so . . . ”

He trailed off (mostly because he didn’t know what else to add to the entirely fake conversation), but Pepper just winked at him. She paraded him past Tony and into the kitchen, her voice still carrying. “Did he give you any idea on the turnaround?” Pepper asked as she started to bring down coffee mugs just like every other time Bruce visited. “Tony’s found a lot of good places, but if it’s a little smaller and really as nice as Hank said—”

“What’s this about Bruce’s friends and Hamilton House?” Tony suddenly asked, and Bruce nearly leapt out of his skin when he realized his friend was now standing right behind him. Tony held up his hands. “Sorry, Science Brother, I just happened to overhear you and my wife discussing one of my top five favorite wedding shower venues, and I had to ask.”

Pepper sighed. “We were having a private conversation.”

“In my kitchen, at a volume I can hear. Therefore, not private.” He jabbed his phone in Pepper’s direction, and she shook her head at him. He glanced back at Bruce. “Why are you here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be spending your break watching Mythbusters repeats on Netflix?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “It was one time, and you and Pepper were in Montreal for the long weekend.”

“And I am still offended you didn’t take my phone calls,” Tony needled. When Bruce waved him off, Tony poked him in the side with his phone. “Tell me more about Hamilton House.”

“It’s a fancy bed-and-breakfast with a room for private parties,” Bruce provided (thanks primarily to the e-mail Pepper’d sent out after their meeting at Starbucks). Tony raised his eyebrows expectantly, and Bruce shrugged. “That’s all he told me. Said it was a nice place.”

“For what event?” Tony pressed.

“Tony,” Pepper warned as she finished filling the kettle.

“Please, Pep, I’m learning things that might help me plan this party. A party that you do not want to plan, no matter how much Barnes and Rogers try to reassign it to everyone except me.” Pepper raised her hands in supposed defeat, but Bruce caught the tiny smile pressing at the corner of her mouth. “From what I remember,” Tony continued, turning back to Bruce, “your science friends don’t have horrible taste. Do you know the turnaround on renting out the private room?”

Bruce opened his mouth to fabricate some slightly believable answer when Pepper, very subtly, rubbed her chin with two fingers. “Two weeks?” he guessed, and Pepper nodded before returning to the coffee mugs. Bruce grinned. “I think it’s their slow season. You should call.”

“Do they do their own food, or do we cater in?” Tony asked.

“They have a kitchen with a very good chef,” Pepper volunteered. Tony whirled around to blink at her, and she pulled at face. “The woman next to me at the salon where I get my nails done was telling me about it. Raved about the food. And from the sounds of it, her party couldn’t have been much bigger than ours will be.”

“Hank’s wasn’t either,” Bruce lied.

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to look into this,” he decided, his attention already dropping back to his phone. “And then, once I’ve called them, we’ll put on some Mythbusters.”

“I don’t—” Bruce started to say, but Tony was already retreating back into the living room, phone pressed to his ear.

He waited until his friend was out of earshot to lean in closer to Pepper. “I’m pretty sure the Hamilton House has much longer than a two-week turnaround,” he murmured.

Pepper smiled. “Not if you call them ahead of time with a huge deposit and a request they lie to your husband when he calls,” she replied, and Bruce laughed as she handed him his tea.

The conference was three days. Fly in Wednesday night, fly back Sunday afternoon. No big deal. James apologized multiple times that he’d be busy with workshops and boring keynote speakers. “Just remember there’s a weight limit for the bags, and if you buy a bunch of new clothes, you have to pay for a new suitcase and the extra baggage fees.”

“I’ll try and contain myself,” Carol’d replied before shoving him away and watching him leave their hotel room.

She’d done some research before coming down here. She wasn’t really someone who loved shopping, which James knew. TripAdvisor had mentioned a number of parks in the area, so she tugged on some exercise-friendly clothes and her running shoes.

Today’s park was actually pretty for being located in Texas. Despite it being mid-October, it felt like summer. Carol stretched and turned her face to the sun with a sigh. The warmth melted through her body and untangled knots within.

After a four-mile run, she went back to the hotel. Since it was still in mid-eighties, she took advantage of the temperature and changed into her red bikini. The hotel’s pool was mercifully quiet, and she gleefully opened one of the smutty romance novels Jessica had not-so-subtly packed into her carry-on. She lost track of time and was interruption free until a shadow fell over her.

“Here I was thinking sneaking back here to find you for lunch would be a good idea,” James half-heartedly complained. “But now I’m going to be stuck in sessions thinking about how good you look right now. I’m not going to learn a damn thing.”

Clint groaned. “Kill me.”

He tried to keep it under his breath, but Phil nudged his ankle under the table anyway. He plastered on his best smile as he reached for his wine glass. Across the table, Barney kept flipping the pages of his menu like he thought a snake might climb out from between them; next to Barney, well—

Phil cleared his throat all of a sudden. “Jessica,” he murmured, and Jessica Drew—as in coworker and bra-abandoner Jessica Drew—glanced away from her menu and down at her cleavage.

Her freaking Jakarta Trench of cleavage.

“Shit,” she muttered, and tugged at her dress.

Clint decided against downing his wine in one big gulp.

Barney’s offer to buy him and Phil dinner for their anniversary had sounded pretty good on paper (or over text message, whatever), but at this point, all the flaws in the plan are blinking up at them like the neon signs outside a strip joint. For one, the restaurant boasted one hell of a line even for a Friday night, requiring that they stand out in the October chill for an hour before being seated. For two, everything on the menu was pretentious as hell and possibly (probably) outside of Barney’s price range. For three, Jessica had shown up on Barney’s arm wearing this slinky red dress and showing off—

“For the last time, I didn’t know you were coming,” she stressed as she tugged at her neckline. “Barney said he was going to surprise me—”

“What were you expecting?” Barney grumbled.

“—and after I googled the address, I figured hey, why not? My best friend’s off finding out whether everything’s bigger in Texas. I might as well play the same kind of game.”

Clint choked on a mouthful of wine hard enough that it almost shot out his nose. “Danvers is in Texas?”

Jessica shrugged. “Sure, with her hot chocolate sundae.”

Phil raised his eyebrows. “Meaning Rhodes?” he asked, and Jessica nodded. “You know that’s vaguely racist, right? Calling him—”

She rolled her eyes. “Carol says the same thing.”

“She’s maybe right.” She swung around to glare at Barney, but he just raised his hands. “Read an article on the internet about comparing skin colors to food. Article said it’s pretty racist.”

“Whose side are you on?” Jessica demanded.

“And when’d you start reading articles about race relations on the internet?” Clint added.

Barney’s whole face tightened, but Phil distracted him by snapping his menu shut and smiling. “I think what Clint means,” he said while he squeezed Clint’s knee hard under cover of the tablecloth, “is that he’d like to hear more about what you’ve been reading.” When Clint didn’t immediately nod, he dug his fingernails in. “We talk about books all the time. I think I’ve converted him into a couple dozen different series he wouldn’t have read, otherwise.”

“You know I only read what you tell me so you won’t kick me out of bed, right?” Clint asked.

Phil’s eyes glinted when he replied, “Whatever works.”

“Uh, well,” Barney said after a couple seconds, his fingers digging under his shirt collar, “it’s not like I read a whole lot of anything. May’s nephew, he just left a bunch of tabs open on the computer, and that one sounded kinda, I don’t know. Interesting, I guess.”

“You read the first Hunger Games book, didn’t you?” Jessica asked.

“Nah, just watched the movie.” Barney mouth twitched like he wanted to smile but couldn’t quite make it all the way there. “It was pretty okay. I kinda just like that girl. Jennifer whatever.”

Mercifully, the waiter killed that conversation by showing up to take their orders—and again, a minute or two later, to bring more wine.

All the way through their appetizers and salads, it continued on like that, an awkward dance between interests that nobody at the table shared. Clint tried to con Barney into talking about college football until he discovered that the bastard’d turned against their Iowa Hawkeyes (and seriously, the thought of picking any other team over them felt like a stab to the heart); Jessica steered them to movies just long enough for her and Phil to fall down the Star Wars versus Star Trek rabbit hole (and put Clint to sleep).

As for Phil, well. Clint loved Phil down to the bottom of his soul, he really did, but that didn’t stop him from groaning when the guy leaned his arms on the table and asked Barney, “How’s the landscaping business going, anyway? Are you winterizing all the school grounds? Raking leaves?”

Barney scratched his fingers through his hair. “My contract’s up at the end of the month,” he said, his voice tight. “I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do next.”

For one half-second, all the embarrassment in the world rushed across Phil’s face. He stamped it down quickly before saying, “I did not know that about your job.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t really telling the world that one,” Barney replied as he pushed back his chair. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom.”

He’d hardly walked ten feet before Jessica smacked Phil with her napkin. “Smooth, Coulson.”

Phil raised his hands, not that it stopped her from hitting him again. “How was I supposed to know that his work was going to—”

“Stop hitting my damn husband on our anniversary,” Clint snapped, and grabbed the napkin right out of Jessica’s hands as he stood. She huffed and crossed her arms—at least, until she realized it only made her whole dress situation ten times worse. “I’m gonna go fix this before it officially turns to shit. While I’m gone, I need you two put your heads together and come up with something we can talk about that isn’t awkward as hell.”

Jessica stopped tugging on her dress to blink at him. “You really think I can come up with something that’s appropriate and not awkward?”

Phil just smiled. “We’ll think of something,” he promised, and squeezed Clint’s hand as he walked away.

In the bathroom, Barney glanced up from where he was leaning down over the sink and immediately rolled his eyes. “Lemme guess,” he said as he reached for a towel, “you’re here to tell me this was a stupid fuckin’ idea and that we should cut our losses.”

Clint frowned. “You think I’m pissed at you about this?”

“Why not? We stood around for an hour to order prissy food that’s gonna cost me more than I figured, and all while Jess sulks that the surprise isn’t the hometown equivalent of whatever her best friend’s getting.” Clint almost smiled at that, but Barney shook his head. “I wanted to do somethin’ nice, but it blew up. Story of my life. I get it.”

“Nice for us, or nice for the girl you like?”

Barney’s jaw clenched, same as a thousand times during their childhood. Clint ignored it. “This is probably one of the best things you’ve done for me and Phil,” he said, and he watched as all of Barney’s anger morphed into something a whole lot softer. “Maybe it’s not perfect, but we know you’re trying, and that’s pretty much all either of us ever wanted. I think the conversation only sucks because we all want it to be TV-show perfect.”

Barney snorted. “May likes classy fuckin’ TV.”

Clint grinned. “You mean our reality shows are too low-brow for you now?” he returned, and Barney actually laughed for a second. “But you know that we do mediocre Thai food for our anniversary,” Clint pressed, “and you brought us and Jessica here, instead. And her as a surprise.”

Barney ducked his head a little. “Think it’s that obvious?” he asked, scratching the back of his neck.

Clint shrugged. “For me and Phil to figure out, sure. For Jessica Drew? You’d need a marching band and some skywriters, and that’s just for a start.” When his brother grinned, Clint jabbed a finger in his direction. “Not a suggestion for next year, Casanova.”

“You never know,” Barney joked, and clapped Clint on the shoulder before they both left the bathroom.

“Sorry,” Carol apologized while trying to catch her breath. “I really thought it was on silent.” James tried to respond, but it just mostly came out as a moan against her shoulder. Nothing like having Jess’s obnoxious text notification sound on her phone seven times in the last three minutes.

Three very fun and important minutes.

Not that it stopped them.

And, for the record, things between them could last for more than three minutes, thank you very much.

“Answer it,” James said as he rolled away. “If you can move enough to text her back, then you’re in better shape than I am.”

She was, but barely. It took a few seconds of groping in the general area of her night stand for her to grab her phone. Carol unlocked the screen and groaned at the flurry of text messages that had come through from Jess.

“Good or bad?” James asked.

“With her? Crap shoot.” Carol scanned the words, telling James as she went along about Jess’s misunderstanding of her date with Barney and how she’d ended practically throwing her boobs in Coulson’s face all night long.

“Which one’s Coulson again?”

“The saint of a librarian who Tony hates.”

“Right,” James replied.

Before she responded to Jess’s latest text of complaining about how she was taking the relationship more seriously than Barney and when did she become that person , Carol switched over to her group chat with Clint and Phil. Happy anniversary! Congrats, Phil, on getting through another year without murdering Clint.

It didn’t take long for a response to chime through. Work Huzz : How’s tx?

“Shit,” Carol muttered.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m going to murder Jess.”


Carol sighed. “Look, this isn’t like before, just so I’m clear.” James rolled up onto his elbow, and Carol felt her stomach swim. “Jess is the only I told about coming down here with you. It’s not that I’m trying to hide you, it’s just… I wanted this to be ours.”

James grinned shyly. “I didn’t tell Tony. Thankfully, he has some wedding to plan or something, or else I’m sure he would’ve picked up on it.”

“You’re not mad?” Carol asked.

“I’m too post-coital to care right now.”

“This was a horrible idea,” Rebecca Barnes half-hissed, and Steve forced a smile.

Outside the safety of the kitchen, Bucky’s groan echoed over the sound of their respective mothers laughing. “Ma, we really don’t have to look at all the pictures,” he complained, but Winifred just tsked at him. “Seriously, the last thing Steve and his mom want is to—”

“Is Steve’s mother complaining?” Winifred asked sharply.

Bucky fell suspiciously quiet for a few long seconds before answering, “No.”

“And was Steve complaining before he ducked out to use the bathroom?”

Bucky heaved a sigh. “No.”

“Then you do not get to rain on our parade,” Winifred finished triumphantly, and even in the kitchen, Steve swore he heard her turn to the next page of the photo album.

“Here,” Rebecca said suddenly, and Steve glanced down just as she pushed her half-full wine glass into his hand. When he raised his eyebrows, she shook her head. “You need this more than I do.”

“I think I need the whole bottle,” Steve admitted, and she grinned as he downed most the glass in one greedy swallow.

Inviting his mother to visit the Barnes family on fall break had sounded like a good idea when Bucky’d suggested it, a way to cut down on potential awkwardness during their actual wedding shower. “If we’re stuck with Stark on this, at least we can make sure our families like each other,” Bucky’d said, his legs in Steve’s lap as they’d channel surfed.

Steve’d frowned. “You really think our families won’t get along?”

“I think your mom could get along with a rabid pit bull no problem,” Bucky’d replied with a shrug, “but between my ma and sisters? She needs to know what her son’s marrying into.” He’d paused for a moment, lips pursed. “And she maybe needs to learn how to brace for impact.”

Chuckling, Steve’d shaken his head. “They’re not as bad as you think they are.”

“The fact you say that means it’s too late for you. They’ve already dragged you into their clutches.” Bucky’d sighed solemnly. “I’ll be sorry to lose you. You were the greatest man I ever loved.”

“Opens me up for that cute guy who runs at our park, then,” Steve’d mused, and Bucky’s offended face had been ten times better than the punchline.

When Steve walked back into the living room to join Bucky and their mothers, however, the punchline was apparently Bucky’s baby fat. “He had so many tiny rolls!” Winifred declared, flipping through another couple pages of the photo albums. “Tammy loved to take baths with him, too. Said he reminded her of a fat little doll.”

Bucky’s ears burned bright red. “She never said that,” he muttered.

“She absolutely did,” his mother immediately replied. “She’d wanted a baby sister, but she decided a ‘fat little doll baby’ was a good consolation prize.”

From her place over in an armchair (a safe distance, Steve supposed), Bucky’s sister Kristin snickered. “Baby doll Jamie,” she sing-songed.

Bucky glared at her. “At least I had hair before I was three.”

“You had so much hair,” Steve’s mom said suddenly. She was leaning over the album, admiring pictures of a frankly adorable toddler-aged Bucky, complete with fat cheeks and the messiest swatch of dark hair Steve’d ever seen. He reached over to thread his fingers through the hair on the back of Bucky’s neck, and Bucky squirmed a little. “Your girls had fairer hair, it looks like.”

Winifred grinned. “Until Rebecca came along, George accused me of sleeping with the mailman.” Steve’s mother laughed, but Winifred’s face turned softer. “He was the sweetest baby. Always wanted to cuddle, never talked back. At least, until he learned that he needed to stand up for himself with his older brother and the girls. Then, there was no shutting him up.”

Bucky pulled a face. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“I think Steve would’ve liked having a sibling or two to fight with,” Steve’s mom admitted. Steve whipped his head up to blink at her, and she smiled gently as she shrugged. “I always wanted a big family, and given how many fights you picked at school—”

Heat blossomed across Steve’s face while Kristin started cackling. “You?” she demanded, waving off Winifred’s warning glare. “Mister All-American Boy-Next-Door? You’re like this generation’s Fred Rogers and you have the cardigans to prove it!”

Steve rubbed the side of his neck. “I never really liked bullies,” he said. Bucky squeezed his knee, but not without a shit-eating grin. “When older kids—or just meaner kids—would swoop in and start bothering the little ones—”

“Never mind how much bigger they were,” his mom interjected fondly.

“—I’d, you know, help out.” Bucky snorted a laugh, and Steve rolled his eyes. “You weren’t there. You couldn’t possibly know.”

“You really think your ma never told me the stories?” Bucky retorted. “‘And then there was the time that Steve came home from the eleventh grade with a black eye because Justin Baker wouldn’t leave poor Amanda Dwyer alone.’”

Kristin and Winifred both laughed, but Steve groaned. “You told him that story?” he demanded.

His mother shrugged. “You were very noble,” she defended.

“Right up until Amanda cold-clocked me, sure,” Steve retorted, and Kristin almost fell out of her chair laughing. Winifred at least managed to hide her shocked bark of laughter behind her hand. “How was I supposed to know they had some sort of hot-and-cold thing going on?”

“You’re great with women, all right,” Bucky muttered.

Steve knocked their legs together. “Like you can talk. Or should I remind you about the incident with Lainey’s best friend that I’m not supposed to know about?”

All the humor dropped off of Bucky’s face as Kristin’s laughs morphed into rough, uneven wheezing. “Oh, if Steve’s about to retell this story, I am in,” Rebecca announced as she burst in from the kitchen. “Because if Lainey told you her side of the story—”

“The only side Lainey ever tells,” Kristin added between breaths.

“—your face is going to turn the best colors.”

Winifred raised her eyebrows. “I don’t think I know this one,” she said after a beat.

Bucky groaned and hid his face in his hands. “I never thought it’d come to the point where I was repeating this to my mother,” he moaned, and rested his head against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve grinned and stroked his fingers through Bucky’s hair, shaking his head. Except when he glanced up and away from his suddenly horrified boyfriend, he caught his mother watching him from the chair she’d dragged up next to the couch. Her smile, soft and fond, cut right into his heart, and when she nodded, he nodded back.

“We can always look at more baby pictures,” she suggested to Bucky, and they all laughed together when Bucky groaned again.

Their goodbye kiss in Carol’s entryway was as searing as the Texas sun . It was just after midnight, which meant today was technically a work day for Carol. But she didn’t care because James’s hand was gripping her hip and he was doing that thing with his tongue. When he pulled away, she wasn’t even ashamed of her whimper. “You could stay,” she offered.

He smiled. “Tempting.”

“Then do it. Didn’t you take tomorrow off to rest up from the trip?”

“It’s mostly to rest up from you, but yeah.”

“Then stay,” she repeated. “It can be your turn to stay in bed while I have to crawl out from under the sheets for work stuff.”

When morning came, Carol swore and punched her alarm. James chuckled, but kept his eyes closed. “Shut up,” she warned.

“That’s no way to talk to your guests.”

“I was saying plenty of complimentary things to you five hours ago, deal with it.” She didn’t move, despite knowing she needed to. There was a shower to take, a cat to feed, students to teach, and either a whiny or shit-eater-grinning Barton to deal with . None of those things sounded appealing.

“You could take the day off, too,” James suggested as he wrapped an arm around her waist.

“Don’t tempt me.”

“If I wanted to tempt you, my hand would be lower.”

“Yeah, okay,” Carol said as she climbed out of bed. “I think I’ve stroked your ego enough this weekend . Any more, and you’ll turn into Stark.”

She darted around her condo getting ready. Before she left, she went back to the bed and placed a kiss on James’s forehead. “Stay as long as you like. There’s a spare key in the kitchen drawer next to the sink for when you leave.”

“I could keep the key, if you wanted,” he suggested.

“One step at a time.”

Bruce swore to himself that he was going to have a talk with Natasha about the Thanksgiving predicament before fall break was over. On Monday morning, forty-five minutes before school started, it was still fall break. Technically.

His stomach churned the entire walk to the gym. He knew Natasha would be there; she had a habit of showing up early on the first day back from breaks in order to double-check everything and to psych herself up for crazed children coming back from an extended weekend. His dress shoes echoed as he walked across the wooden floor, and knowing that Natasha would hear the noise was the only thing that kept him from turning around.

That, and maybe some disappointed looks from people tied to Phil Coulson.

He tightened his grip on the coffee carrier in his hand. With the other, he knocked on the doorframe of Natasha’s little office.

“Yeah?” she said distractedly, looking over a calendar and not raising her head.

Bruce swallowed his nerves and the overwhelming urge to flee. “You got a minute?”

Natasha’s head snapped up, and he caught a quick glimpse of confusion on her face. “Sure,” she answered. “What’s going on?”

Her puzzlement only grew when he pulled out one of the coffees and set it down in front of her. “Two sugars, no cream, pinch of cinnamon.”

“Thanks,” she said as she picked up the cup and sniffed the aroma. “So, what’s going on?”

Bruce scratched his head and took a deep breath. “Phil and Clint talk to you about Thanksgiving?”

“Yes,” she said tightly. “Clearly you’ve heard about Judy’s ultimatum, too.”

“Yeah. Um, if you don’t want to go, I’d understand. I’m sure there are other people that you’d rather be around for the holiday.”

“And if there isn’t?” Natasha asked. Bruce clamped his mouth shut, scared to respond around the tightness in his chest. “We’re adults, Bruce. Surely we can be around each other for six hours. And if we’re too far gone for even that, then I hurt you a lot more than I realized.”

“Pretty sure the hurt went both ways,” Bruce said quietly. “But if you want to try it and go to the Coulsons, that’s fine with me. Just didn’t know if you would hang out with the Barnes family or go see your dad.” He tried his best to keep the bitterness out of his voice for those last two words, but it didn’t work. He still hurt over the fact that she up and left him over the summer to spend time with the father she couldn’t tolerate. That he was better company than Bruce.

The corners of Natasha’s mouth tipped downward, not in anger but in hurt. “You still don’t get why I went to see him do you?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “I went there to remind myself what I would turn into if I wasn’t careful. I needed to see what I’d become if I didn’t… Not that it mattered,” she finished quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said.

“Me, too. But you were probably right to end it. Try as we might we’re just not that kind of couple.”

He nodded. “But you’re still okay with us being friends, right? I mean, I’m sure you’ve got other guys forming a line, but if we could—“

“Forming a line?” she asked in a mocking tone that was usually reserved for Clint.

Bruce shrugged. “You and Trip seem pretty close, which is fine. I’m sure he’s—“

“Not dating me,” Natasha finished for him. “According to the rumor mill, he has some kind of deal worked out with a couple of the teachers at the middle school.”

Bruce felt his eyebrows shoot up. “Seriously?”

Natasha shrugged a single shoulder. “Guess he’s really lucky, or just amazing in bed.”

“I remember what it felt like to be that lucky,” Bruce commented. The words flew out of him in a Stark-like manner, just shooting from one quick thought and out into the air in a nanosecond.

Before he could stammer through an apology, Natasha said, “And I liked being with someone that amazing.”

Bruce blinked a few times. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“I’m over a decade older than you, have hair everywhere, and a paunch.”

“You can believe me or not, but I mean it.”

Bruce was about to make another comment at his own expense when he noticed the look in her eye. He knew that look and had seen it a number of times in the last year since they started sleeping together. “What are you thinking?”

“Just about how you said we should go back to how things were before.”

He nodded. “When we were friends.”

“Only friends?” Damn. The thought was enticing. So very, very enticing. Memories of Natasha in his bed crashed into his brain, and yeah, it was hard to try and pass on that kind of offer. “Just an offer,” she continued. “You don’t have to follow up on it if you don’t want to. There won’t be any hard feelings from me. We can be people who avoid eye contact with each other, just friends, or friends who have sex every now and then and don’t get tangled up in feelings.”

He wanted the third option, and badly. So much so that if he continued thinking about it, he wouldn’t be fit to teach small children without some alone time. But he also knew it was a slippery slope. Yes, their sex was great, but would it restore their friendship or destroy what little was left of it?

“Just think about it,” she said. “You know how to get in touch. And thanks for the coffee.”

Chapter Text

“Plus, her dad hates me,” Peter babbled as they waited for their coffees. “Sometimes, I’m over there for dinner, and I think he’s actually wondering what it’d be like to shoot me. Just a little, and in a totally justified show of police force, but still.” He rocked up on the balls of his feet, hands held out in front of him, and Bruce shook his head. “Plus,” he continued, “there’s the whole ‘I’ve never been with a girl besides Gwen’ factor. I mean, I love Gwen, and things are great, but what if our great isn’t objectively great?”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Is that rhetorical, or are you actually asking?”

“I don’t know,” Peter lamented. He pushed up his glasses to cover his eyes while Bruce nodded his thanks to the barista. “You’ve been in relationships, right? With women?”

“Not simultaneously, no.” His mentee glared at him, and Bruce raised his hands. “I’ve been in relationships,” he admitted, “but I’m still not sure I’m the person you should ask. Not about commitment, at least.”

Peter frowned. “Is this just a Miss Romanoff thing, or . . . ”

He trailed off, the question heavy in the air, and Bruce stopped stirring cream into his coffee to roll his lips together. Against his will—against his better judgment, really—his mind drifted to Natasha and the promise in her voice when she suggested they return to their previous arrangement. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the warmth of her smooth skin under his fingertips and the rasp of her nails against his back as she clawed closer to him.

He’d imagined those things a lot in the last few days.

He shook off the distraction to glance back at Peter. “It’s mostly a ‘me’ thing, honestly,” he replied. “Because as good as I am at some things, I am not very good at relationships.”

Peter worried his lips together for a moment. “So, what you’re really saying is that it’s totally a Miss Romanoff thing.”

Bruce shot him and his shit-eating grin the sharpest glare he could manage. “Let’s talk about science,” he suggested, and led Peter to a table.

Carol heard Clint walk into her room. She listened to the familiar cadence of footsteps approach, heard to the familiar creak of the desk as he leaned his weight against it, and ignored him. She could visualize him sitting there, arms crossed over his broad chest and shit-eating smirk plastered on his face. It was too early the morning to deal with that level of fuckery.

She didn’t bother paying attention to him until Clint loudly cleared his throat. With a sigh, she finished grading her last literacy test and put down her pen. When she looked up, Clint was posed exactly how she imagined. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Was everything really bigger in Texas? And was a little blue pill needed to achieve that kind of thing?” Clint questioned.

“God, I hate you,” Carol grumbled.

Clint laughed, and Carol flipped him off. He turned serious for a minute. “I know you don’t have to tell me everything that happens in your life, but—“

“You just thought I’d run to you and spill my guts about a trip with my boyfriend?”

He shrugged. “Maybe not spill your guts, but at least mention it. It would’ve saved me from awkward moment number twenty-seven on the worst double date in history.”

Carol snorted. “I’ve heard Jess’s side of things. What’s yours?”

Clint rolled his eyes. “I’m so glad my husband isn’t into tits, since his face was basically in her cleavage all night long.”

“She thought—“

He waved her off. “Yeah, I know. It was sweet of Barney to do it and all, and I’m glad he’s trying to be an adult and everything with feelings and wanting to find a steady job, but—“

“Feelings?” Carol asked. Her three mugs of coffee seemed to have magically changed into a pit of dread and despair at the word. “Please tell me your brother isn’t having feelings.”

Clint’s face hardened. “My asshole brother not good enough for your friend?”

“Do you listen to the words that come out of your mouth?”

“What’d she say?” Clint demanded.

Carol shook her head. “Nope. Not doing this. I refuse to act like our students when it comes to spreading rumors about relationships. And this school staff is getting way too incestuous for my liking.”

“You’re dating Stark’s BFF,” Clint pointed out.

“A fact I try to forget about as often as possible.”

Clint sighed. “Let me at least try and guess what happened.” Carol mulled over the idea for a second before twirling her finger in the air as a go-ahead signal. “Jess was starting to get feelings about him, and then the idiot invites her out to some big dinner but doesn’t mention the fact that it’s a double date, and now she’s pissed at him.”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Carol answered while over exaggeratingly nodding her head.

“Shit,” Clint swore under his breath. “Barney can be a dick, but I want him to be happy. And he’s actually trying to be a normal person, despite his choice in women.”

“Watch it,” Carol warned.

“So what do we do?” Clint asked.

“We?” Carol responded skeptically. “We are going to do nothing. Because they’re adults and they need to figure their shit out on their own.”

“You do realize who we’re talking about here, don’t you?”

“And you do realize that I’m hardly qualified to give advice, right?” Carol told him. “And like you have any right to be a relationships expert.”

“I’ve been married for six years,” Clint argued.

“Not all of us got to fall into the perfect marriage with zero problems. When was the last time you guys actually had a fight?”

“Over Barney,” Clint answered quietly.

Carol felt a little bit guilty over that, but was too stubborn to let go of her point. “And before your brother moved in?”

Clint shrugged. “Probably me leaving my socks everywhere. Not my fault I married a guy with a great ass whose revenge for bending over a bunch of times to pick up after to me is to start a weak-ass fight that ends with crazy awesome sex.” Carol just stared at him until her point sunk in. “Yeah, okay, we don’t have a lot of room to talk about dealing with hardships in our relationship, but I’m not going to apologize for that.” He sighed and ran his hand over his face. “This still needs fixed.”

“Yep,” Carol agreed. “But we’re not the ones who are going to fix it. We’re going to listen to them bitch and take them out for margaritas, but we’re not doling out advice. We’re awful at that in this situation.”

“Yeah, fine,” Clint agreed. He stood and started to head toward her door, but paused before reaching the hallway. He waved his hand around the empty air of the room. “Don’t think that this whole talk made me forget about how you haven’t shared any sexy details about what went down in Texas.”

“Not everyone is as keen to share every detail about their sex lives as you are.”

Clint smirked at her. “That’s because yours could never be as awesome as mine.”

“I know I’m not supposed to open that door back up if it means hurting her,” the man said, his fingers digging into his hair as he slumped over in his chair. “Part of making amends means not making amends to the ones it’ll hurt more. But god, my bed’s empty without her.”

A murmur of support rose up from the rest of the group, but Bruce just glanced down at his coffee cup. Even after the initial sting of his failed relationship’d healed over, he’d continued attending an extra weeknight AA meeting—a secret he still held close to his chest. This group met in a different church basement on the other side of town, and the coffee always tasted like ash.

Tonight, it turned cold in Bruce’s cup as he listened to Ron, the sharer, huff out a few, shaky breaths.

“Deep down,” Ron said once he found his voice again, “I know things can never be the same. I know even if she takes me back, we’d be starting from scratch. I’d be the new me, and I’d be proving myself to her. I just wish I had that second chance. I wish I could ask her for that second chance, instead of breaking her apart.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Bruce just barely heard the group leader thanking Ron for sharing his struggle.

But the rest of his mind, every inch of it, replayed the speech from Natasha’s office like a broken record.

Steve walked into the library and couldn’t help a bit of a smile. He loved the smell of his classroom—crayons, glue, and finger paint—but he also cherished the scent of books. He meandered through the shelves until he found Phil rearranging the well-loved Nancy Drew series.

Phil looked up, slightly startled, and started to stand, but Steve waved his hand to keep him from getting up. “You need something?” Phil asked.

“If you’re busy—“

“Steve, I’m putting the series in numerical order. It’s not a big deal unless you’re my husband, who thinks it’s the beginning manifestation of a larger problem.”

Steve smiled. “I’m sure his level of disorder balances out anyone’s OCD.”

Phil grinned. “We do keep each other in check.”

“Speaking of that, I just want to thank you guys for what you’re doing for Bucky and I.”

The librarian looked up at him with an innocent expression. “Standing up with you at your wedding?”

“No,” Steve chuckled as he sat down on the floor with Phil. “Buck and I know what you’re doing with getting Tony to give us what we want without him realizing it.”

Phil shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Steve just stared at him like he did a student who was lying through his teeth and waited until the other man sighed. “How’d you find out?”

“Pepper kept trying to sneakily ask Bucky and I questions about preferences on stuff, and then our choices would magically appear in Tony’s next presentation.”

“Presentation?” Phil asked while his eyebrows shot upward.

Steve nodded. “Last time we met, he’d made a Prezi. I swear if he could figure out how to make holograms, he’d do it. Next thing we know, he’s going to use the wedding as a teaching tool for his class. ‘Today, we’re going to make invitations in Publisher. Tomorrow, we’re going to schedule the caterers in Outlook.’”

Phil laughed quietly. “Don’t say that too loudly. He might hear you and, for once, be ahead on his lesson planning.” Steve smiled in return. Thanking Phil wasn’t the only reason he’d stopped by the library. He missed their mentorship talks, but always felt like he was intruding on Phil’s time once their internship year was done. “Talk to me,” Phil said. The three words were well known in the school. It was like some magic spell that caused everyone—teacher and student alike—to spill their guts.

“I don’t… It’s personal, and if you don’t feel like discussing it—“

“I think Clint’s shared enough personal details about our marriage for you to know that you shouldn’t have to preface your question with that,” Phil said. “What’s on your mind?”

Steve looked down at his hands and picked off spots of paint. “You guys ever talk about having kids?”

“Sure,” Phil replied easily. “Mostly lists of why we aren’t going to have them—our ages, we’re surrounded by kids all the time, Clint’s family history not being the best, and the fact that we already have spoiled brat child living with us. She just happens to be covered in fur. Are you and Bucky talking about it?”

Steve shrugged one shoulder, still picking at the paint on his fingers. “He’s brought it up. And it’s obvious how much he loves his huge family, but I was an only child who was raised by a single mom.”

“Not used to having to share your love and time with so many people?”

“Maybe,” Steve said softly. He knew that wasn’t the reason for his hesitance, but looking for an answer meant unearthing something he didn’t want to think about. Ignorance truly was bliss.

“Well, I think you can handle it. You do it well around here every day.”

“Thanks,” he replied. “Oh, that reminds me. Carter from Cage’s class?”

“Acting up recently for you, too?” Phil asked.

Steve nodded. “Glad to know it isn’t just me.”

“It’s not. Something new is going on. Clint’s mentioned it a few times. I think they’re trying to reach out to his parents but keep hitting dead ends. He and Jessica are getting ready to take it to Pepper.”

“If they need anything from me, just let me know,” Steve offered.

“Appreciate that. You haven’t seen him acting up on the playground, have you?”

Steve racked his brain to what trouble he’d recently broken up during recess, but nothing involving the fifth grade boy sprang to mind. “I think he’s usually on the kickball field with Tony.”

“I have yet to understand why kids bond with him,” Phil muttered.

“Access to technology,” Steve answered.

Phil grinned. “I always thought it was because they were the same level of maturity.”

“Can I ask you a hypothetical question?”

“Technically, I think you just did,” Clint responded. When Bruce glanced over at him for the express purpose of rolling his eyes, he cackled like a Disney villain. “Being married to Phil’s ruined me for decent jokes, and I’m not even sorry.”

“Being married to Coulson’s ruined you for something,” Tony commented as he wandered past the circulation desk. When Clint raised an eyebrow at the enormous stack of Beginning Chess books in his grip, he rolled his eyes. “I’m tormenting your future sister-in-law.”

Clint grimaced. “Never call her that.”

Tony grinned. “Why? If she changes her name, people might start thinking you’re married to somebody interesting.”

Bruce actually chuckled as Clint flipped Tony off, but the second the technology teacher disappeared into the hallway, Clint buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know why my brother’s first act as a functional human being had to include sleeping with one of my coworkers,” he lamented, and Bruce bit down on the edges of his laugh. “A couple billion women in the world, and that is the one he decides to bang.”

“Or date,” Bruce pointed out. Clint jerked his head up to glare at him, and he raised both hands. “Not to play devil’s advocate, but I overheard you complaining about your surprise double date. It sounds like Jessica could someday be Jessica Barton.”

“And make all my nightmares come true, maybe,” Clint complained. Bruce shrugged, but he only maintained his smile until the other teacher squinted at him. “You had a question?”

“I—” Bruce started to say, but the words caught in the back of his throat. He thought of Natasha’s weekly dinners with Clint and Phil and their shared fondness for one another—like found siblings, really—and something in the pit of his stomach clenched uncomfortably. He swallowed. “I guess I just wanted to know if you think people are doomed to ruin things.”

Clint frowned. “People in general?”

“Sure, yeah. People in general. Do you think there are certain situations where we, as humans, are just predestined to fail?”

Bruce watched for a few seconds as Clint’s whole expression tightened and his brow furrowed. He shifted his weight against the desk and crossed his arms before finally shrugging. “I think people in general have their stuff,” he said seriously. “Sometimes, they make their stuff work. Sometimes, they don’t. And I think when it falls apart, that’s not the situation’s fault as much as it’s that one person’s fault.” He glanced over at Bruce. “I think if you want your stuff to work—I mean really want it, no bullshit—then you can get there.”

Bruce nodded slightly. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re probably right.”

Bucky felt his stomach drop when he opened the door to find a smirking Natasha standing on the stoop. “I’ve come to drink the vodka I put in your freezer, and you’re going to join me.”

“You know we have a full day of wedding planning stuff with Tony tomorrow, right?”

“Then it’s a good thing you look good in a pair of shades,” she replied as she brushed past him. Bucky knew he was screwed. He considered texting a pre-emptive apology and plea to come home early to Steve, but he didn’t want to interrupt his and Sarah’s dinner. “You weren’t invited along?” Natasha asked over her shoulder.

“I figured after we dragged her to Jersey, she needed a break from anyone named Barnes.”

Natasha froze on her tip toes as she reached for shot glasses. “Are you taking his name?”

“What?” Bucky asked.

“His name, idiot. Are we going to have two Mister Rogerses? Two Mister Barneses? Are you going to hyphenate? Come up with a new name using the letters in your last name?”

“We haven’t really talked about it.”

Natasha sighed and rolled her eyes. “Do we have to plan everything for you two?”

Bucky gave her a dark look, took the shot glasses from her hand, and put them back in the cabinet. “I hate doing dishes, and I don’t need you to plan my life.”

“If you’re too lazy to wash little shot glasses, then clearly you do.”

He glared again knowing full well it wouldn’t do any good. “Kitchen table?”

Natasha shook her head. “Outside. I already asked Steve’s permission for a drunken bonfire.” Bucky swore under his breath at that, and Natasha just smiled. She then led him outside and made herself comfortable in one of the lawn chairs while ordering Bucky to start the fire.

He did so, but kept one eye on her. “What’s up with you?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Why?”

“You just seem normal for the first time in a long time. You back in the wham-bam-thank-ya-ma’am club?”

Natasha snorted. “The only thing I have any kind of relationship with right now is with a fine man named Duracell.”

“Well, whatever it is, I’m glad to being more like yourself,” he said as he fanned the small flame into the start of a large fire.

This was the first week where the fall chill had really gotten to him. It reminded him too much of his days of being deployed and Bucky did his best to surround himself with heat to chase the cold and the memories away. Normally, he’d prefer Steve to supply that warmth, but tonight he’d settle for his best friend, a roaring fire, and some potentially lethal vodka.

Natasha, per usual, was fine with all of that as long as sentiment was directed at her. “Tonight’s about you. We’re not getting sappy about me. There’s nothing to be sappy about.”

“Fine,” Bucky conceded before taking his seat next to her and grabbing the bottle from her grip. “We playing the game, or just shooting the shit?”

“Talking,” Natasha answered. “I don’t want you wasted in three minutes flat.” He flipped her off but didn’t respond. Despite wanting to talk, they were both content to watch the flames lick the air and stare at the stars peeking out from cloud cover. “Think Steve and his mom are talking shit about you?” Natasha asked.

“Probably,” Bucky replied. “I’m sure I’ve given him ample reason to. Still can’t believe he’s willing to marry me.”

“That makes two of us,” Natasha said as she pulled the vodka bottle from his lap for a swig. “You ready for all of this?”

Bucky thought about the question, not that he really needed to. His mind bounced back to a year ago and the delicate dance he and Steve performed before they both finally gave in to the inevitable. “Yeah,” he answered. “I’ve officially become a sappy shit, and I don’t care.”

“Then good for you,” Natasha replied.

“I’d say the water’s fine and you should join the pool party, but I think you’d end up doing unspeakable damage to parts both Steve and I really enjoy.”

“Probably.” She took another pull from the bottle before passing it back to him. “You know it’s not too late for you guys to elope in Vegas.”

Bucky smiled. “Tony driving you guys that crazy, too?”

“Pepper’s taking the brunt of the storm. I just kind of think it’s all hilarious.”

“Think Tony’s figured it out yet?”

“No. He’s not nearly sulky enough. Which reminds me—you sure you don’t want some fancy cake for the shower? He keeps talking about all these upscale bakeries that make cakes that don’t look like cakes.”

Bucky looked at her skeptically. “What’s he wanting it to look like?”

“Who the hell knows, but I’ll text Pepper and let her know to keep pushing the idea for Sheila’s bakery.”

“You know we really appreciate all of this, right?”

Natasha grinned. “Anytime I get blessing to screw with Tony is fantastic. Your gratitude isn’t necessary.”

“Shit or get off the pot, Banner.”

Bruce glanced up from the mess of papers on his desk to discover Jessica Drew standing in his classroom doorway, her hands on her hips. The second he blinked at her in confusion, she glared. “I don’t—”

“Oh, please,” she huffed, walking into the room. “You play like you’re deliberate—like everything needs to be considered, reconsidered, and rereconsidered—but deep down, I think you’re just scared.” Something like panic raced through him as she leaned forward and planted her hands on his desk. “Whether you think you’ll just mess it up for yourself or that you’ll take everybody else down with you, I don’t know, but meanwhile? Nobody else can do anything because you’re stalling.” Her dark eyes flared. “So, like I said, shit or get off the pot.”

The panic receded into something sharper and hotter, and Bruce heard more than felt the bitter half-laugh that rushed out of him. “Because that’s gone so well in the past,” he muttered.

Jessica cocked her head to the side. “Who says it hasn’t?”

“How about my empty bed?” he retorted, and the edge to his tone caused her jerk back from his desk. He dragged fingers through his hair. “You’re right: I’ve considered it. I’ve considered it a hundred different times, and every time, my lizard brain leads me all the way to the gym before I remember how being friends with benefits turned into something more and then crumbled without warning.” He shook his head. “Despite what’s probably said at your manicures, I do miss her,” he said, his voice sounding mostly like a sigh. “I just want to make sure I’m ready to go back to that version of the way things were.”

For a moment, Jessica stood stark still in front of his desk, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping open slightly. Finally, she pursed her lips. “Uh, Bruce?” she asked carefully.

Bruce sighed. “Sorry for unloading on you, I just—”

“No, no, that’s not an issue,” she replied with a wave of her hand, “but I, uh, was just asking about the group shower gifts.” He blinked at her, and she rolled her eyes. “There’s been like ten e-mails in the last half hour about everybody going in together on Rogers and Barnes’s gifts. You’re the only one who hasn’t replied.”

Heat crept up the side of Bruce’s neck. “So you weren’t asking about—”

“Natasha? No.” A slow-burn smile kicked at the corners of Jessica’s mouth. “At least, not yet.”

Bruce didn’t even bother to cover up his audible groan.

“You know, I’ve got to admit—”

“No,” Bucky interrupted, and clamped his hand over Steve’s mouth. Steve’s eyebrows shot up immediately, curiosity dancing in his eyes, but Bucky just shook his head. “You say it out loud, and he’ll hear you. He hears you, and we’ll have to listen to—”

“That sad little voice in the back of your head telling you I actually put together a fantastic party?” Bucky almost leapt out of his skin as Tony materialized behind him, but the other man just smirked and crossed his arms. “You know, Pepper told me I wasn’t allowed to buy you anything from the ‘adult catalogue’ in our spare bathroom, but now I think an actual gag might’ve been in order.”

He nodded to where Bucky was still covering Steve’s mouth, and Bucky immediately dropped his hands into his pockets. Steve rolled his lips together like he was trying not to smile. “We were just trying to figure out how to break it to you that this is a disaster,” Bucky replied dryly.

Steve shot him a disapproving look. “He knows it’s a good party, Buck,” he pointed out. “You might as well admit it now. Get it over with.”

“Yeah, Buck,” Tony echoed, waving off Steve’s glare. “Admit that I’ve made the magic happen. In record time, on your tiny budget.”

“We know you cheated on the budget,” Bucky replied.

Tony shrugged. “You say ‘cheated,’ I say ‘supplemented,’” he replied breezily, and Bucky rolled his eyes.

The technology teacher wandered off a few seconds later—well, more like he chased down a caterer armed with crab puffs—and the sudden silence allowed Bucky a moment to grudgingly appreciate the party Tony’d assembled. The private room at the Hamilton House mostly resembled an old-timey sitting room, complete with over-stuffed couches and fluttery drapes that swayed in the breeze. At the end of the room, a pair of French doors opened out onto a sunny terrace, and guests kept wandering in and out as they enjoyed one of the last nice days they’d have for a while. Better yet, caterers kept coming by with trays of savory canapés to counteract the piles of desserts over next to the gift table, and the free (or at least, allegedly free—Stark kept doctoring the receipts before handing them over) drinks flowed easily.

Bucky drew in a long breath, and after only a second or two, all the tension he’d carried around in his shoulders and chest for the last couple weeks finally loosened. “Okay,” he said, glancing over at Steve. “Stark did good.”

Steve quirked an eyebrow. “Just good?”

“If I can eat this food for the rest of my life, Stark did more than ‘good,’” Clint chimed in suddenly. Steve grinned at his heaping plate of appetizers—and at Phil’s long-suffering sigh as he walked up to join his husband. “I don’t know what’s in half this stuff, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to dream about it later.”

“In case you wondered what long-term marriage is like,” Phil commented, “this is it.”

He gestured to the man at his side, and Clint rolled his eyes. “Everyone in this room knows how much sex we have, Phil. You’re not fooling anyone.” Ten feet away, on one of the couches, two of Bucky’s sisters visibly froze in the middle of their conversation with Pepper and Carol. They stared openly at Clint for a few seconds before Clint just shrugged. “They would’ve found out eventually,” he commented.

Phil cocked his head slightly. “You think our friends were going to share the details of our sex life with strangers?”

“No, I think Stark was gonna go over and preen any second now and leave me to take him down a notch.” Phil shook his head, but Clint just shoved his plate in his husband’s direction. “Eat the gray stuff. It’s pretty great.”

“And to think I’m offended when people ask why I married you,” Phil muttered, but Bucky caught the fondness in his voice and the way his eyes twinkled.

The first half of the party felt like any other school party as Bucky drifted around and talked to people—sometimes with Steve, sometimes without. Everybody pretty much showered them in congratulations, big grins, or hugs, and more than once, Bucky felt just a little overwhelmed by all the attention and kindness. His old school’d never felt so warm and welcoming—if anything, he’d felt like an outsider looking in on all the people who had great stories about their coworkers—and he still wasn’t used to having people like this in his life.

People who knew him, accepted him, and cared about him. And not just as Steve’s fiancé, either (because everybody loved Steve), but as an independent person.

“Are you going to cry?” Jessica Drew asked at one point when Bucky stepped out onto the terrace. He blinked at where she’d perched on the wide, stone ledge, and she shrugged. “I needed a break from all the mushy couple feels. I was getting cavities. But back to my original question: are you going to cry?”

He rolled his eyes. “Because all gay men cry at their wedding showers.”

“Lots of men cry at their weddings. Luke Cage blubbered like a baby, not that he’ll own to it.” When Bucky snorted, she nodded back toward the doors. “Speaking of Cages and babies, did you see what your decidedly better half is toting around?”

“Only because Tony crossed himself,” Bucky replied with a shrug. He tried not to look—he’d already spent enough time admiring Steve’s huge arms that morning, no need to add a baby to it—but he ended up twisting around anyway. Steve threw back his head and laughed at something their friends said, and Dani giggled with him. Something clenched in his stomach, but he ignored it to glance back at Jessica. “Why are you outside?” he asked.

“Like I said, couples and cavities, I couldn’t—”

“I mean the real reason, and you know it.”

She paused at that, her mouth still halfway open. It hung like that for a few long seconds before she shook her head. “Go back inside,” she advised. “Stark’s planned a bunch of games he swears he didn’t find on Pinterest. They’re only slightly embarrassing.”

Bucky frowned. “That doesn’t sound fun.”

Jessica grinned. “Too bad you don’t really have a choice.”

As it turned out, the first two games—a wedding-centric version of Pictionary that Bucky suspected Tony ordered online and a wedding trivia contest—weren’t so bad, but the third— Dread rose up in Bucky’s stomach as Tony stood for the third, a stack of white index cards in his hands. “Over the last few days,” he said, grinning wickedly, “I asked our coworkers to fill out notecards with their favorite one-on-one memories with the grooms-to-be. Nothing too salacious, unless they actually could drum up something salacious. Here’s hoping that Romanoff’s memory of Barnes is filthy.” Everyone, including Bucky’s mother, laughed at that, and even Natasha’s glare seemed a little forced. Tony winked specifically at him before clearing his throat. “The game is simple: I read a memory. You—and by ‘you,’ I mean the audience, not ‘you’ as in the grooms—guess who among you has which memory. Winner earns bragging rights and an extra free drink.”

In one of the overstuffed chairs, Carol flared bright red from hairline to shirt collar. “You never told us what those were for,” she said in her most strangled voice.

Bucky almost frowned at that—but then, her eyes flicked over to Steve, and Steve’s face also warmed. Suddenly, Bucky remembered a conversation from the very start of last year, one about Steve and Carol going on a few dates before the relationship petered out.

His stomach dropped into his shoes.

Tony, on the other hand, cackled. “And suddenly, everything is ten times better than the internet promised,” he announced, and flipped dramatically to the first card.

By the end of the game, Bucky’s stomach hurt too hard from laughing for him to remember all the cards, but highlights included:

Kristen MacMillian throwing up on Steve’s shoes his third week of school because she’d eaten a whole jar of paste (Bruce)

Darcy proposing marriage to Bucky over his pesto pizza (Jessica Cage)

Escaped tarantula bonds with abandoned cardigan sweater on art teacher’s desk (Jessica Drew)

Accidentally walking in on Steve changing in his classroom after the paint incident (Darcy, which Steve knew about and laughed uproariously at)

Finding out that Barnes extended his weird relationship with color-coding the Outlook calendar to the shared school calendar (Tony)

Accidentally walking in on Bucky changing in his classroom after dodgeball (Darcy, which Bucky didn’t know about and turned him beat red)

The rise and fall of the history club I started with Steve (Phil)

Learning that the future husband of the art teacher can’t draw his way out of a wet paper bag (sorry, Bucky) (Pepper)

Discovering that Rogers leaves his guy adult-rated notes that sometimes end up in the wrong office mailbox (Barton, which left Steve hiding his face in his hands)

Four words: lizard tongue first kiss (Carol, and Steve hid his face all over again)

After the games, more food, and entirely too many nice gifts (all of them off the registry Stark’d backed them into and none of them particularly cheap), Bucky stood up in front of everybody and cleared his throat. As much as he loved talking to small people five days a week, he felt itchy standing in front of all their friends—at least, until Steve offered him one of those glimmering, breath-taking smiles of his. Then, he huffed out a breath and forced himself to grin.

“I’m not a speech kind of guy, so I won’t turn this into something big,” he said, his palms sweaty around his glass. “I guess I just wanted to thank everybody for being here. Well, unless you wrote down something horrible on those notecards. Those people aren’t getting invited to the wedding.” Everybody laughed, and his nerves receded slightly. “If you’d told me a year and a half ago that starting at a new school meant all of this—not just meeting Steve, but meeting all you guys, becoming your friend—I don’t know if I’d have believed you. Might’ve run the other way, actually.” A couple people chuckled, and Natasha flashed him one of those private smiles she hid from most other people. He smiled back. “My point is just that I wanted to thank you. We both did. For being here, with us, and being our friends.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Tony announced, and all their friends humored him as he toasted the whole room with his glass of water. Bucky tried to follow suit, he really did, but when he turned back to Steve and found the full force of that smile still on him, he forgot all about the toast.

As the party broke up about a half-hour later and Bucky hugged Pepper goodbye (complete with a murmured thank you at a volume Tony definitely could not overhear), Steve walked up and lightly touched Bucky’s elbow. “Don’t be obvious,” he murmured under his breath, and nodded subtly toward the terrace.

Bucky said his final goodbyes to Pepper before glancing toward the French doors—and spotting Bruce and Natasha standing outside in the last hazy fingers of sunlight, their shoulders touching as they talked quietly.

He frowned slightly as he turned to Steve. “How—”

“Only about ten minutes,” Steve said with a shrug. “Bruce went out after Tony tried to stuff his pockets with the last couple shrimp puffs, and they’ve been talking ever since.” Bucky bristled slightly at that, some strange fight-or-flight reaction that bubbled up out of the pit of his stomach, but Steve quelled it with a hand on his back. “You said the other day that it’s good to see Natasha back to her old self,” he said quietly. “Maybe this is part of it.”

“Maybe,” Bucky echoed.

Steve sighed. “Are you going to ruin the rest of our wedding shower day by worrying about this?” he asked, a hint of exasperation inching into his tone.

Bucky glanced over at him and grinned. “Only if you can’t distract me with something else,” he teased, and Steve rolled his eyes before leaning in to kiss him.

Chapter Text

In the end, Tony wasn’t exactly surprised that Tommy Carter’s full-on meltdown took place in the middle of his class. Frustrated a little, sure, but definitely not surprised.

Here’s the thing: for some reason that Tony never quite figured out, boy kids—especially the upper-grade boy kids—liked him. They clung to him like spiky-haired, prepubescent barnacles, and sometimes, he needed a crowbar and a whole lot of elbow grease to pry them off. But more than that—worse than that, at least for some values of the word “worse”—his weird powers as boy-child whisperer meant that the kids sometimes opened up to him. They walked into his classroom or into computer club, and they poured out their secrets whether Tony wanted them to or not.

Usually, he just learned about crushes and new siblings, no big deal. Other times, though, he learned about sick grandparents or a mom’s new, very shouty boyfriend, and those situations were a lot harder to handle.

In all honesty, Tony’d spotted the warning signs with Tommy a good week before Cage and everybody else started complaining about the kid’s behavior, but he’d elected to sit back and watch for a little while. Tommy’d never stuck out as the bubbliest or brightest in the class, but he’d always worked for every grade, his brow furrowing as he fought his way through a particularly complicated assignment or a super hard level of the math game he liked. So when Tommy’d come in with a little black rain cloud hanging over his head and the worst case of the field in which I grow my prepubescent fucks is indeed barren Tony’d ever seen from a fifth-grader, he’d started to suspect trouble in paradise.

Then, Cage and Barton’d started with the e-mails about Tommy’s missing assignments. Rogers’d remarked after work that Tommy’d snapped back at a redirection about putting his head down in class. And even Darcy—a master at complimenting girls on their daring hairstyles and patterned leggings—had frowned one morning and commented that Tommy seemed “out of sorts.” Really, the only place the kid still bothered giving his all was at their weird kickball sessions at recess, and even then, Tony’d noticed the luster starting to dim.

And so, on the Monday before Halloween, Tony was absolutely not shocked at all to turn away from his PowerPoint to find that Tommy’d pushed his keyboard off to the side, balled up his hoodie, and put his head down on the desk like he was attending nap time down in Bruce’s room. He finished up the instructions for the rest of the kids—how to build a fun little webpage in six easy steps (with the content to be composed during another class) and flicked the lights back on before sauntering over to Tommy’s table.

“Head up, bud,” he said, and knocked lightly on the tabletop.

He’d planned to just loop past Tommy, give him a chance to correct his behavior, but the kid just grumbled and shoved his face further into his crossed arms. “Whatever.”

Tony paused and rolled his lips together for a second. A couple nearby kids glanced up at him, and he waved at them to turn back to their computers. “Not whatever,” he told Tommy, gently as he knew how. “You know the rules. So unless you’re sick and need to see the nurse, head up. Your assignment’s waiting.”

Tommy snorted. “Your assignment’s stupid,” he said, but softly, like he wanted a chance to retract the statement in case Tony lost his head.

Which was precisely why Tony blinked owlishly at him. “What was that?”

“Your assignment’s stupid,” Tommy reiterated, “and I don’t want to do it.”

The nearest couple kids ooh-ed and aah-ed at that one, and Tony almost redirected the lot of them before he caught sight of Tommy. Tommy, with his bloodshot eyes with the dark bags under them, with the slack face and slumped shoulders, with the messy hair sticking up at the wrong directions. Tony recognized the same exhaustion on the kid’s eleven-year-old features as he sometimes saw in the mirror, and his heart dropped into his stomach.

“If you’re sick—” he prompted again, an offer for an easy way out.

An easy way Tommy immediately refused by shoving his mouse so hard it dropped off the table. “Why does everybody keep asking if I’m sick or if something’s wrong?” he demanded, his voice cracking almost immediately. “I just don’t want to do your stupid assignments, I don’t want to be in this stupid school, I don’t—”

Tony was about ninety-two percent sure that he noticed Tommy’s tears before Tommy himself did, big streaks of wet that rolled down his cheeks and onto his chin. “Okay, you know what?” Tony asked. “I think it’s hallway time. Hallway time for you, and maybe Mister Coulson can come over and hang out with the rest of your class, because—”

“I’m fine,” Tommy said. A valiant attempt at a lie, what with the tears he kept wiping on his shirt.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m not,” Tony retorted, and steered him out of the room before his sniffles turned to sobs (or worse).

And that was how Tony Stark, quite possibly the least touchy-feely teacher in the history of all teachers everywhere, ended up with his back against the hallway wall and a box of tissues while Tommy Carter blew his nose.

“They want a divorce so bad,” he said helplessly, his voice shaking, “but my mom can’t work because of my little sisters, and my dad’s job isn’t good, and so nobody can move and they’re just both there. And they fight all the time, or he leaves and then comes back in the middle of the night all mad, and I—” Tommy hiccupped a little, the words catching in the back of his throat, and Tony resolutely pretended that his heart did not break a little from that. “They yell at each other instead of talking,” he said after a couple seconds, “and it’s always one of them saying they’ll take all three of us and we’ll never see the other one again. And I hate it.”

His shoulders shuddered when he said it, this little clench of anger (or worse) that felt like it cut Tony in half, and Tony reached over and gripped his shoulder. He squeezed for a second, just a silent reassurance before he said, “You know there are people here you can talk to, right? Not just me or your other teachers, but any one of the adults here. Miss Lewis, Mister Sitwell, my personal favorite Miss Potts—”

Tommy snorted and dragged the back of his hand across his face. “I’m okay.”

“You know, I used to say that a lot too,” Tony admitted, and he shrugged a little when the kid blinked up at him with wide, wet eyes. “What, you think my life’s been as smooth sailing as a slip-and-slide? Because let me tell you: when I was young and things hurt, I swallowed them down a lot, and in the end? They only ended up hurting more instead of less.”

“But you stopped,” the kid pointed out.

“Only because I learned how to talk about the hard stuff. With my friends, or my teachers—or Miss Potts.”

The corner of Tommy’s mouth ticked up into a smile. “You talk about Miss Potts a lot when people have bad days.”

Tony grinned. “What can I say? She’s a pretty okay lady,” he replied, and he felt a lot better when Tommy finally laughed.

Pepper sighed. “You’re making me nervous,” she said for the fifth time in as many minutes.

Tony snorted, idly swinging the leg that dangled over the arm of his chair. “You don’t believe in nervousness,” he accused. “You’re cool as a cucumber, as easy Sunday morning, while I—”

“Spread your nervousness around this office like sowing wild oats?” Pepper suggested. He huffed at her, and she sighed. “Tony, you need to relax, now.”

Tony wrinkled his nose, but at least he returned to his phone.

In truth, Tony’d been a bit of a twitchy wreck for the last forty-eight hours, but now, waiting for Jessica Cage to deliver Tommy Carter to Pepper’s office instead of music class, Pepper watched all his worry come to a head. Of course, Tony kept attributing his collection of nervy tics to other things—Steve and Bucky’s wedding, an upcoming server update with promises to bring their attendance system to its knees (his words), too much coffee after dinner, their Halloween party—but Pepper knew better.

Because in the last two days, he’d sent more than seven e-mails to various teachers, administrators, and Pepper herself, asking for help with Tommy Carter and attempting, with limited success, to rally the troops into a team meeting with the boy’s parents. To at least try and fix this, one e-mail’d read, and Pepper’d pursed her lips together in her office.

Tony rarely worried this loudly about his students.

She wondered exactly how much of himself he saw reflected in Tommy—and how much he thought he could stop Tommy from ending up like him as an adult.

She planned on asking him all those questions and more later. For now, she watched him swing his leg while he typed on his phone, oblivious to the world until someone knocked on her office door.

“Come in,” she said as she stood, but Tony barely moved. Tommy Carter was a tall, sandy-haired kid with dark eyes and a wrinkled hoodie, and he forced a tiny smile as Jessica nudged him into the office. His face only brightened for real when he spotted Tony in the chair. “I hope you don’t mind,” Pepper said, “but Mister Stark wanted to help introduce you to me, since it was apparently his idea that we have a talk.”

“I just don’t want her taking all the credit for my good ideas,” Tony said, and Tommy snorted. Pepper nodded at Jessica to close the door behind her, and Tommy only hesitated for a split second before moving to the other empty chair. “Besides, I wanted to check in on you, and since I don’t have you again until Monday—”

“I’m okay,” Tommy broke in, but Pepper instantly recognized the bravado in his voice. “Dad stayed at somebody else’s house last night. It was kind of nice.”

“Means you maybe won’t nod off in the middle of English again, right?” Tony said. It was light, almost gentle, and Tommy nodded unevenly. Tony reached out to plant a hand on his shoulder. “Well, listen, my lesson plans aren’t going to lesson-plan themselves, so I’m going to go back to the computer lab. I’ll see you at recess, right?”

“Your team hasn’t beaten my team in two weeks,” Tommy boasted.

“We’ve been saving our strength for today’s victory,” Tony promised, and they grinned at each other before he slipped out of Pepper’s office.

Pepper waited until Tommy stopped staring at the closed door to come around the desk and claim Tony’s seat as her own. “Should I ask how much Mister Stark’s told you about me?” she asked.

Tommy grinned. “He talks about you all the time.”

“You’re not the first student to tell me that.”

“Yeah, well, he said you’re good to talk to. When things are, you know. Not good.” Tommy shrunk into himself a little, his hands disappearing into the sleeves of his hoodie. “I guess he told you what I said to him about my mom and dad?”

“Only the basics, but yes,” Pepper answered with a nod. “He said your parents are divorcing but still live together, right?”

Tommy mirrored her nod as he shifted around in his chair. “They, uh— It’s always been kind of bad,” he said haltingly, his voice softening. “Like, they’ve always fought a lot. But at the end of the summer, my dad . . . I don’t know what he did, exactly, but my mom said that she was done and wanted a divorce. And for a while, he tried to be nice to her and change her mind, but we went to my grandma’s to visit over fall break, and ever since then . . . ”

He trailed off to stare down at his scuffed shoes, and for a few seconds, Pepper just waited. She knew that prodding students sometimes only chased them further into themselves, like backing a scared animal into a corner. When he glanced at her briefly, she smiled, and his mouth twitched slightly in return.

“They fight,” he finally said with a tiny shake of his head. “They fight a lot. Sometimes, one of them leaves mad and doesn’t come home until really late. My mom locked my dad out the last time. He didn’t know she took the house key off his key ring, but she did, so when he came home, he couldn’t get in.” He shoved his hands into his hoodie pockets. “That’s why he stayed away.”

Pepper rolled her lips together for a moment and let Tommy’s words fill her tiny office. “Have you talked about this with anybody?” she asked gently. His shoulders bunched as he shook his head again. “What about your mom and dad? Have you said anything to—”

“What am I supposed to say?” the boy interrupted, his head jerking up. “My mom’s always crying, my dad’s always mad, it’s not like—” He huffed out a long breath. “My sisters come in my room at night,” he said. “They come in, and they want me to make it better, everything’s just— It’s messed up, and I can’t—”

His words cracked, then, caught somewhere between helplessness, rage, and sorrow, and Pepper leaned in closer to him, her arms resting on her thighs. “It sounds like you’re handling a lot at home right now,” she told him, and he dragged a sleeve-covered hand across his face before he nodded. “And it sounds like maybe you don’t really have anybody to talk to about it. Am I right?”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” Tommy replied, peering up at her with big, dark, damp eyes. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or how I’m supposed to—”

He cut himself off by pressing his lips together hard, and Pepper offered him a small smile. “You know, I have a trick that I like to do when I know I want to say things but I’m not sure what I want them to be or who I want to say them to,” she confessed. “And if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay, but sometimes, it helps.”

Tommy sniffed, but his mouth kicked into a quirky little half-smile. “Is this the part where you make me do arts and crafts? Because Mister Stark said you make him buy stock in glue sticks.”

Pepper actually rolled her eyes at that. “Mister Stark apparently told you a lot more about me than he told me about you,” she retorted, and Tommy actually huffed a little laugh. “But yes, I was going to suggest we do some ‘arts and crafts,’ as he put it, and make some postcards. Nothing you ever need to send,” she added when the boy’s eyes widened, “but just something that shows how you’re feeling on one side and that you can write your thoughts on. And if you want to give them to people later, that’s okay—but if you just want to rip them up and throw them away, that’s okay, too.”

He worried his lower lip between his teeth. “That helps you feel better when you don’t know what you’re supposed to say?” he asked carefully.

Pepper smiled. “It’s never hurt,” she said, and reached for the box of art supplies waiting on the corner of her desk. “And just to be fair,” she added, “I’ll make one too.”

Tommy grinned as she handed him a blank four-by-six notecard. “To Mister Stark?” he asked.

“And covered with glitter,” she retorted, and he laughed when she winked.

Clint rested his chin in his hand and tried really, really hard not to scowl.

He supposed that, to the Carters, he looked engaged and interested, but he gave exactly two shits about the conversation. No, actually, conversation felt like too nice a way to put it; Harry Carter kept talking, his hands darting in circles as he explained away all his son’s behaviors and all the teachers listened. The meeting’d been thrown together at the last minute thanks to the Carters just randomly showing up at school ready to talk, and here they sat: Clint and Phil, Jessica Cage, Steve, Tony, and Trip, with Sitwell as the afternoon’s designated administrator. Down the hall from the conference room, Tommy met with Pepper in her office and the little Carter kids, both of them blonde toddler girls with huge grins, hung out with Darcy at her desk.

Across the table, Harry Carter shrugged and slung an arm over the back of his chair. “My point is, I don’t know what to do with the kid,” he said, the end of his long line of explanations that never hit at the heart of the matter. “I mean, how do you cope with a kid who won’t go to bed on time? I don’t want him mouthing back at you all, of course, but there’s only so much you can say to him before you’ve just gotta throw up your hands and let him learn his lesson the hard way.”

“We’re really very sorry,” Amy Carter echoed. She was pretty, with Tommy’s same big eyes and sandy hair. “He’s trying, I know he is, but—”

“You don’t gotta apologize for him,” her husband cut her off. “He’s old enough that he’s got to learn this himself.”

Amy nodded unevenly and glanced down at her hands.

Over at the far end of the table, far enough away that he only really counted as a blip in Clint’s vision, Tony squared his shoulders hard. Steve apparently caught glimpse of it right away, though, because he smiled at the Carters. “You have to understand that we’re just concerned,” he said in his usual, too-kind Mister Rogers voice. “Tommy’s slowly becoming a different kid. I think everyone at this table’s seen some sign of him struggling in the last couple weeks, and that’s not like him.”

“He missed his first assignment all year three weeks ago, and he’s barely turned in anything since,” Jessica said.

“He tried sleeping through music last week,” Trip volunteered.

Phil nodded. “He’s become less willing to participate in any of our activities, including—”

“Yeah, okay, we get it,” Harry cut him off with a wave of his hand, and Clint ground his teeth together as a little flicker of anger sparked in his belly. Phil rolled his lips together, but he nodded, too. “I’ll talk to him. That’s what you want, right? You want to know that we’re aware of this problem and that we’ll talk to him. And since we already got Mister— What’s your name, Mister Bastion?”

Clint forced a tight smile. “Barton.”

“Right. Since we already got all Mister Barton and Miss Cage’s messages about being worried, we’re on top of things.” He glanced over at his wife. “Right, honey?”

Amy nodded again. “Right,” she said, her eyes darting quickly down the line of faces. “And again, for what it’s worth, I’m so sorry. I keep working with him, trying to help him get his homework done and make sure—”

Harry snorted. “Heard you the first time.”


“Shit, Amy, they don’t need a song and dance about how bad you feel about the damn kid. They got it.” The edge to Harry’s tone—never mind his glare—snapped Clint into sitting so bolt upright that Phil shot him a tense look. At the one end of the table, Tony balled his hands into fists; at the other end, Sitwell rose out of his usual slouch. Harry either missed it or ignored it. “I gotta get back to work. You let us know if he doesn’t start getting it together, right? More messages from Mister Bartheon.”

“Barton,” Clint said again, and Harry flashed him a fake-apologetic grin as he rose back out of his chair.

Sitwell walked them out, presumably to help collect Tommy before they took off, and Jessica Cage actually growled the second the door closed behind them. “I could punch him,” she declared, glancing around the room. “I could actually punch him in the face and not feel bad about it.”

“You want me to hold him while you do it?” Trip asked with one of his easy grins.

She slugged him lightly on the arm and he laughed, which almost covered Clint muttering, “Guys like that don’t learn from being slugged by anyone.”

Almost, but not quite, because Phil squeezed his knee before they all stood to shuffle out.

Clint knew he should head back to his classroom to pack up and leave—to get out of the building before he started imagining what Harry’d smell like drunk or whether he wore the same kind of plaid shirts that were popular in Iowa a couple decades back—but he lingered downstairs anyway: checking his mailbox, leafing through some classroom supply catalogues, that kind of shit. He knew from the sound of Phil’s voice echoing down the hall that his husband’d once again stopped to geek out over Trip’s grandfather, and he at least smiled at that as he browsed new release Scholastic books.

“Men like Harry Carter shouldn’t have children,” someone said behind him, and Clint jerked his head up to see Tony lingering in the doorway to the copy room, his whole body tight. “Because as much as they seem strong and stalwart, it turns out when the dust clears that they’re piss-poor role models trampling on people who’re too scared to stand up to them.”

Clint snorted and glanced back at his catalogue. “Preaching to the choir, there, Stark.”

The room fell quiet then, quiet enough that Clint assumed that his husband’s number one professional rival’d slunk off to go caress his computers or his wife (in that order), but when he flipped the catalogue shut and spun back around, Tony still stood in the doorway. Under all the bravado—the crossed arms, the squared shoulders, and set jaw—Clint saw an expression he recognized from his own childhood, an expression he still caught in the mirror sometimes. He rolled his lips together, studying Tony’s face and knowing full well that Tony was studying him right back.

Finally, Clint shrugged. “All things considered, I think we turned out okay despite the— How’d you put it? Piss-poor role models?”

Tony’s mouth quirked into half a smile. “At least one of us did, maybe,” he returned, and ducked out of the room before Clint could even roll his eyes.

Darcy did one last check of her costume before heading out of the house. She’d found a Marge Simpson wig, recolored it into a Bride of Frankenstein masterpiece, and was all dolled up for her favorite holiday. She blew herself a kiss in the mirror and walked over to her next door neighbor’s home. When she rang the doorbell, her boyfriend—making an excellent appearance as a vampire —opened the door. “Trick or treat,” she greeted with a twirl to show off her outfit.

“Am I allowed to wait until later to answer?” he asked with a glint in his eyes.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she warned.

“I was expecting a little more… décolletage,” Loki commented, not quite able to keep his eyes on her face.

“We’re taking your niece and nephews trick-or-treating. It would be inappropriate for the ladies to be out for show.” She paused to press herself into his personal space. “But don’t worry, there’s a sluttier version I’ll change into for Stark’s party.” Darcy walked into the house and made her way to the kitchen where she heard the majority of the Odinson family.

“You sure you’re up for this?” Jane asked her while eyeing her practically bouncing children. Henry was dressed as Batman, George as a baseball player, and Alva’s costume was Jessie from Toy Story—anything so she could carry around one of her many toy horses.

“We’ll be fine,” Darcy reassured. She pointed between herself and Loki. “It’s two against three; we can take them.”

“And if worst comes to worst, we’ll just impose a candy tax,” Loki threatened.

“What’s a tax?” George asked.

“He means that if you act up, we take your stuff,” Darcy explained. Before they all started complaining about how disastrously unfair life was, Loki began the process of shuffling the kiddos out the door for trick-or-treating. “You gonna make it?” Darcy asked Jane.

The other woman sighed. “Thor’s out of town for a home building convention. I’ve got a conference in two weeks that I’m never going to feel ready for, and I know I’ve been ignoring my family because of work. Life’s just a little crazy right now.”

“Do you want Loki and me to man your front door while you go out with the kids?”

“No,” Jane said while shaking her head. “I’m tired and grumpy, and I’d just snap at them. Do you think it would be wrong to greet trick-or-treaters with a glass of wine in your hand?”

“I think if you started selling glasses to other parents you could pull in a pretty penny tonight,” Darcy suggested. Jane smiled and shoved her toward the door to join Loki and the kids.

The sidewalks were already cluttered with costumed kiddos. Since the neighborhood was in the district for the elementary school, she knew nearly all of the kids who were out searching for candy. Most recognized her, and nearly all of them were disappointed when she told them she was only handing out high-fives and not chocolate.

Halfway down the street, Darcy heard another round of “Miss Lewis! Miss Lewis!” When she turned around, she spotted two boys shouting for her attention. “What’s up, guys?” she greeted. Ganke Lee, ninja, and Miles Morales, a spider complete with an extra trio of appendages dangling from each arm, beamed at her. “Dude,” she said to Miles, “I heard you were one of the costume winners today at the school assembly.”

The boy smiled shyly at her, and a woman rested her hands on his shoulders. “His teacher, Miss Drew, was kind enough to help him out.” She extended a hand for Darcy to shake. “I’m his mother, Rio.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Darcy said. “I didn’t realize you guys lived in this neighborhood.”

“We don’t!” Ganke exclaimed. “But Miles’s mom said we could come over here to the big houses so we get good candy.”

Rio ducked her head in embarrassment, but Darcy just laughed. “You’d better give her a huge thank you. Like king size candy bar thank you.”

The boys were quickly distracted by mapping out what houses they hadn’t hit yet, so Darcy said her goodbyes and caught up with Loki and the Odinsons. “You’re very popular,” Loki commented.

“You sound surprised,” Darcy replied.

“Not in the least,” he answered with soft smile that absolutely contradicted not only his makeup but the personality Darcy’d believed he’d possessed for so long.

But the Odinkids quickly ruined that moment. “Stop stealing my candy, Henry!” Alva shouted at the top of her lungs.

“You don’t even like that stuff,” her oldest brother argued back. George, meanwhile, clutched his own trick-or-treat bucket to his chest while watching his brother and sister fight with each other.

Loki sighed softly beside her. “Candy tax?” he asked.

Darcy nodded. “Candy tax.”

Darcy looked around the living room and smiled. The Starks had of course gone all out for their annual Halloween bash. She was a little surprised that the house looked this amazing since Tony (and therefore Pepper, Phil, Natasha, and Bruce) were all consumed with planning a shower and a wedding for Steve and Bucky, but she shouldn’t have expected anything less. If there was anyone in the world who loved a good party more than her, it was Tony Stark.

The house was decorated with jack-o-lanterns, bats, bubbling caldrons, and cobwebs as far as the eye could see. There was even a cemetery erected in the front yard with names of all the guests and a sentence-long history of their life inscribed beneath their dates of birth and death. While Phil hadn’t been pleased to see that Tony only expected him to live a few more years, Darcy was already planning on stealing hers and hanging it in her room.

All around, her friends were dressed up in costume. There were, of course, those who refused to change it up from year to year—Bruce in his lab coat, Phil as Harry Potter, Clint repeating his ring master get up, Steve in his baseball uniform, and the veterans in the crowd (including Carol’s dude ) in fatigues. But there were some new looks among the teachers, too. Tony and Pepper were teaming up as Fred and Wilma Flintstone this year; Pepper had complained about spiky boots for her previous costumes and declared that this Halloween, she was going barefoot. Jessica Drew stood with Carol and her man, dressed in some sparkly dress and holding a microphone. She made a pretty good Katy Perry, but Carol had already begged her ten times not to start singing. Next to her stood a broad-shouldered man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. Clint’s brother was giving off nine kinds of “I feel awkward as hell being here” vibes in his roadie getup.

A glass appeared in front of her face, and Darcy happily accepted. “No pink mystery drink this year?” Natasha asked. She was dressed as a knock-out Hollywood starlet from the forties—sparkly dress with a low cut V in the front, fur wrap, fake beauty mark, and one of those Cruella Deville cigarette holder things—and even Darcy would readily admit to wanting to hit that.

“Nah,” Darcy answered. “We were out trick-or-treating with his niece and nephews. Besides, for someone who is a life-long AA disciple, there never seems to be a shortage of booze at a Stark party.”

Natasha toasted her with her glass. “You’re welcome.”

Darcy fought back a groan. “If you made a mixed punch instead of me this year, then we’re all screwed in the morning. Even the brothers of sobriety or whatever. The fumes alone will give them hangovers.”

“You all are wusses,” Natasha commented.

“No, we’re just not Soviet bad asses like yourself.”

Natasha shrugged and sauntered off as Loki approached. He took the cup from her hand, took a sip, and nearly had an asthma attack after he swallowed. “What is this?” he spat.

“The hammer-and-sickle special. Watch yourself with that.”

“That’s worse than Thor’s so-called cocktails.”

“Thor makes cocktails?” Darcy asked, suddenly intrigued at the idea of the mountain of a man tending bar and serving girly drinks with little umbrellas in them.

“They’re vile. Please don’t ask him to make them.”

“Can I do it and just not tell you about it?” she asked.

“You’re taking your life into your own hands when you do that.”

Darcy shrugged. “If I can handle a cup of Natasha’s mixed drink of death, I’m pretty sure I can survive whatever your brother wants to throw at me.”

“Suit yourself.”

Loki graciously made the rounds with her as she integrated herself into various conversations. When she approached Steve and Bucky, she wormed her way between them and wrapped an arm around each of their waists. “How’s it hanging, boys?” Bucky rolled his eyes while Steve tried to avoid looking nervously over at Loki. “Oh, don’t worry,” Darcy reassured the adorable art teacher. “He knows I’m not going to cheat on him. But if you guys are into foursomes…”

Bucky grinned. “We’ll add you to the list of offers.”

“Please tell me I at least rank higher than Tony,” Darcy said. “I mean, I can understand if you want to invite Pepper into your bed, but Tony…”

“I’m not quite sure,” Loki argued. “Someone whose mouth works as much as that one can surely put it to good use in the correct circumstance.” Darcy gaped at him, and Loki’s eyes slowly drifted down to the drink in his hand. “Maybe you were correct about this Natasha’s mixology skills.”

That earned a snort from Bucky. “Don’t mess with the Soviet,” he warned. “Especially when booze is involved. Trust me.”

“I think I should sit down for a second,” Loki commented while pulling at the collar of his Dracula cape.

Steve looked down at Darcy expectantly. “You going to help him out?”

She looked back and forth between the two oh-so-delectable men. Her brain reminded her about how last Halloween she’d learned that they weren’t in fact dating some mystery coffee girl and Jessica Drew, but rather each other. And now, she had to stop being the meat in their man sandwich because her boyfriend couldn’t listen to warnings about Natasha’s alcohol potency. Steve and Bucky were trying to undermine her favorite day of the year.

With a sigh, she relinquished her spot between the two men and guided Loki to the nearest seat. For the next few hours, she forced glass after glass of water on him. They spent the rest of the night talking with whoever stopped by, but mostly making observations of the people at the party. From time to time, Darcy caught Natasha looking over at Loki’s way and smirking a little bit. Darcy flipped her off.

As the party began to break up, Loki stood from the couch, grabbed her hand, and gently tugged her toward the door. “Ready?” he asked.

“You sure you’re okay?”

He nodded. “I believe the worst is past, and I’m no longer seeing double. If you would like me to walk along some sort of a line for a sobriety test, I’d be more than willing to reassure you.” Once they were in his car, she began the process of extracting the giant wig from her head. “Pity,” he commented. “I was looking forward to a little pretend wedding night with the bride of Frankenstein.”

“Since you’re not Frankenstein yourself, isn’t that a little twisted?” Darcy questioned.

Loki shrugged. “Maybe you’ve been widowed. Or maybe you realized you made a mistake by marrying the giant, muscular man and should’ve gone with the lither, albeit darker, persona instead.”

Darcy side-eyed him. “This isn’t your way of confessing that Jane should married you instead of Thor, is it?”

“No,” Loki answered emphatically. “I am grateful for my sister-in-law for a number of reasons, but I certainly do not appreciate her in any other way than that. I don’t think there is a single viable timeline or alternate universe, if such things are true, where Jane and I would make a suitable couple.”

“Just checking,” Darcy commented. “And, besides, if I left my wig on, I’d go from being sexy bride of Frankenstein to Quasimodo in a heartbeat. Don’t think that really sets the mood you may have planned tonight?”

His face became the picture of innocence, as much as it could anyway while painted to resemble a pale and gaunt vampire. “What makes you think I have but the purest of intentions this evening?”

“You greeted me with disappointment over lack of cleavage, and then once I changed you’ve been doing nothing but stare at my tits.”

“Merely appreciating two of the natural wonders of the world,” he commented and then smiled when she slugged him in the shoulder.

“Plus, you’re on autopilot for your apartment without any discussion about at least taking me back to my place to pick up a few things before we spend the night at yours.”

“I believe you’ve stockpiled enough clothing and personal beauty items at my apartment that you could stay there for a week without any issue,” Loki argued.

“Like you’re actually upset by that,” she returned, and his small smile was all the answer she needed. She turned her attention to watching the scenery fly past them and grinned. “Thanks for tonight,” she said quietly.

His eyebrows rose in surprise. “We haven’t removed our clothing and you’re already thanking me? This is quite promising.”

Darcy slugged him in the shoulder again. “I’m trying to be nice to you for thirty seconds, stop thinking with your dick.”

“Sorry,” he apologized. “Everything alright?”

“Halloween is like my New Years Day, and my favorite holiday of the year,” Darcy said.

“I knew about the latter, but why is it like January for you?”

She played with the skirt of her dress while trying to properly find the words. “You know how I can’t always stand my family, especially my mom?”

“I have a heard something along those lines a time or two, yes.”

“Well, on Halloween, I got to be whoever I wanted—princess, superhero, random kitchen appliance, whatever. I got to be that thing for a night and not me. This awesome thing with a family that didn’t suck, and it was great. It was like shedding my skin for a second and getting to start something new.”

“Just like one might do with resolutions?” Loki asked.

Darcy nodded. “And even though I knew deep down that it wouldn’t last, because things like the holidays and lots of family time were around the corner to bring me back down to reality and drown me in mundane shit, I had that moment where I was free to accomplish anything I wanted and be whoever I dreamed of.”

“And that you’re an adult?”

“I’m hyper-aware of the shit lurking around the corner with holidays.” She turned to look at him. “Can it stay Halloween for just a little while longer?”

Loki pointed to the clock in the car’s dash. “Unfortunately, November began approximately eight minutes ago. But I’m willing to pretend we live in a more western time zone for tonight if you’d like. And, you know, if you need an excuse to avoid your relatives for the holidays, and if you’re terribly desperate, there’s always my side of the family.”

“Are you asking me to stay with your family over the holidays?” Darcy questioned. “Are we that couple now?”

“If you want,” Loki offered. “I’m not saying my relatives are any easier to deal with for long periods of time, but I’m sure Mother wouldn’t mind, and I know Thor, Jane, and the children wouldn’t either.”

“And your father?”

Loki tilted his head while composing his answer. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to follow his five minute limit on showers, but Mother would smooth things over.”

“I don’t know,” Darcy replied. “Wouldn’t want to usurp Alva as your holiday roommate.”

“Very funny,” Loki muttered.

Chapter Text

“An aversion to yams?” Monica Rambeau (part-time school speech therapist to the stars, as far as Jessica was concerned) demanded. She even lifted the hot towel off her eyes to stare-gape at Ororo, who raised her hands. “What does that even mean?”

“I don’t know, but it is making our ‘college friend Thanksgiving’ ten times more complicated than necessary. I’m terrified someone’s going to suggest we have tofurkey instead of the real thing, and everyone else will walk.” Monica snickered as she replaced her towel, but the fourth-grader teacher just sighed. “Please tell me someone else’s Thanksgiving will be dramatic.”

“Dani’s still fighting sleep thanks to that horrible stomach bug I brought home from work,” Jessica Cage offered as she reached for her (disgusting) wheat grass drink. “The rate this week’s going, Luke and I might doze off in his mom’s greens.”

Carol smirked hard enough that it cracked her face mask. “If it helps, it sounds like Jessica’s going to be tasting May Parker’s yams.”

Jessica Drew, maturely, missed her mouth as she tried to sip her drink and instead slopped it all down her front.

Despite their official founder retiring into the lap of middle-class luxury, May Parker’s traditional demand that the ladies of the elementary school retreat for a Thanksgiving break spa day remained strong, and Jessica tried not to swear too severely as she flicked strawberry-banana smoothie off her chest and onto the floor. Down the line of lounge chairs, the other four harried schoolteachers stared at her like she’d grown an extra head and then spilled smoothie on it.

She scowled at them. “What?”

“You’re going to May’s for Thanksgiving?” Monica asked. “How’d you even get an invite?”

“I don’t think you actually want the answer to your second question,” Carol said smugly, “but last I heard, she’s definitely going.”

“I’m not—” Jessica started to defend, but Carol raised her eyebrows in that mock-innocent way that made Jessica want to smack her. She narrowed her eyes, trying to shoot her best friend a look that clearly communicated just how desperately she wanted to kill her with her mind before hiding her body in one of the mud baths down the hall, but Carol just shrugged it off. “You know what?” Jessica asked their still-staring coworkers. “Ignore her. She’s obviously high, and you don’t need that kind of drama in your life.”

Ororo frowned. “She’s high on kale smoothies?”

“More like on her boyfriend’s dark-chocolate d—”

“Did you or did you not get invited to Thanksgiving at May’s?” Carol cut her off, and Jessica crossed her arms over her smoothie-soaked robe instead of answering. Carol knew the answer, because Jessica’d texted her about it three days ago. Not in a raw and unadulterated panic, of course. Jessica was an adult and totally capable of dealing with things like certain broad-shouldered felon inviting her to two family-style dinners in the same decade.



She could handle it, promise.

But because she continued to handle it by not answering Carol’s question, Carol sighed and rolled her eyes. “She got invited because she’s dating Barton’s brother,” she explained to the rest of the group, “and now, she’s—”

“Wait,” Monica interrupted, emerging from under her towel again. “Barton has a brother?”

“Does he look like Clint?” Ororo asked. When Jessica glared at her, she shrugged. “It’s just a question.”

Cage bit her lower lip. “If he’s got even half of the arms that Clint has—”

“Okay, I still need to be able to look at him naked without thinking of his brother, thank you,” Jessica cut them all off, and she swore they snickered in unison like teenagers from a bad cartoon. She huffed out a breath. “Barney and I, we’re a something,” she said with a glance at Carol, “but it’s not like we—”

“Have feelings?” Carol asked. Jessica pressed her lips together, and her friend shrugged again. “Last month, you were admitting to feelings.”

“And last month, you were finding out whether Rhodey’s bigger in Texas, so . . . ” Monica choked on her iced tea, the perfect reward for Jessica shouldering Carol’s angry glare. She waved her off. “Look,” she pressed, “you can try to peer pressure me into talking about my soft and squishy parts or whatever, but you all know as well as I do that I don’t really have those parts. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the ones that I’m bumping against Barney’s when we’re—”

“He invited you to Thanksgiving,” Ororo interrupted. Jessica rolled her eyes as she reached for her drink, but the other teacher just quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t invite someone you don’t care about to Thanksgiving.”

“Or on a double-date with your brother and his husband,” Cage added. When Jessica twisted to blink at her, she shrugged. “Clint’s voice carries.”

Monica huffed a laugh. “No kidding.”

“The invitation must mean something,” Ororo continued. “Even if it isn’t— How’d you put it?”

“Feelings and squishy parts,” Carol supplied.

“Right. Even if it’s not that, it’s definitely more than a causal relationship. At least, to him.”

Ororo punctuated the sentiment with one of her pointed looks, the kind that always left Jessica feeling like someone’d caught her stealing the last Thin Mint of the season right out of the freezer, and Jessica held her gaze for a record-breaking three seconds before she scoffed and glanced away. “It’s an invite, not a marriage proposal,” she informed them all, “and I have definitely not said yes.”

Carol frowned. “I thought—”

“Never said yes,” Jessica repeated, and reached for a hot towel to put over her face. Not because she liked hot towels over her face (they actually left her feeling super claustrophobic), but because it hid all her usual I’m lying through my teeth right now tells. “I’ll probably just stay home with Netflix, the way God intended.”

Cage sighed. “I remember uninterrupted Netflix time,” she lamented, and the conversation continued from there.

Without Jessica chiming in again, but whatever.

“How are you, really?” Judy Coulson asked, and Natasha stilled like a deer in headlights.

She faked calm, of course, because someone in Natasha’s mysterious “Soviet gymnast” past had trained her how to hide all her emotions, but Clint still caught the way she froze, glass halfway to her lips and shoulders tight. He caught it, winked at her, and then reached over to lightly grab his mother-in-law by her upper arms.

“Run, Natasha!” he mock-shouted, and Judy laughed as she swiped at him with the dishtowel. “I’ll pin her here. Go join them in the living room and save yourself!”

“I think they’re discussing Waiting for Godot,” Judy warned.

Clint let his face fall. “On second thought, run anywhere else but the living room,” he told Natasha, and he only released Judy once his friend’d rolled her eyes and waved him off.

Thanksgiving at Judy and Greg’s always felt to Clint like he figured coming home on holiday breaks from college felt to other people: a return to the warm and familiar, a trip home. He loved his house with Phil and their high-maintenance pooch, sure, but he loved this just as much, pecking Judy on the cheek before he returned to the very serious task of assembling the cranberry sauce.

He glanced over at Natasha as he picked up his spoon. “Unless you want to taste test before—”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not on your life,” she warned, and he grinned. “And I promise, Judy, I’m fine.”

Judy raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Natasha sighed. “Does your son tell you literally everything about my personal life?”

“My son, no. His husband, on the other hand . . . ”

Clint swore he felt the full force of Natasha’s glare on the side of his head—not that it stopped him from holding up his hands. “We’re the boring couple that hasn’t forked over grandkids,” he defended. “We have to talk about something on the phone, and Tony stories only stretch so far.”

“Attractive though he is,” Judy intoned.

Natasha and Clint actually groaned in unison at that, and Judy shook her head in disappointment as she returned to her gravy-related voodoo (a secret she promised to share on her deathbed, but never before). Natasha glanced down at her barely touched glass of wine before she shook her head. “We’re doing . . . better,” she admitted after a couple seconds. Her tone sounded a little bit like a kid reluctantly answering the dentist’s question about flossing. “It helps that we’re on Pepper’s secret wedding-planning committee together. It gives us an opportunity to talk without tiny people staring at us—Clint included.”

Clint flashed her his most wounded look. “I resent that.”

“This from the man who reads strangers’ lips at the grocery store,” Judy chided, and he at least faked being sorry as he tossed a couple more whole cranberries into the sauce. She twisted to look over at Natasha. “For what it’s worth,” she said after a few seconds, “you look good. Better than Clint’s whole apocalyptic carrying-on—”

Mama Coulson,” Clint groaned.

“—and promise that Thanksgiving would never be the same again led me to believe.” Natasha actually smirked at that, weirdly smug, and Clint narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m glad that you’re friendly with Bruce again. Especially since it’s still so clear he cares about you.”

She clapped Natasha’s shoulder as she said it—like dropping that sentence on the two of them wasn’t the conversational equivalent to freaking Hiroshima—but before either she or Clint could respond, Phil’s sister Susan burst in the front door with her family. Judy excused herself (with explicit instructions to not even look at the gravy) and disappeared into the living room.

“That’ll hopefully be the end of Godot,” Clint muttered. When Natasha snorted a laugh at him, he rolled his lips together. For a second, he almost decided to just drop the whole topic—after all, nothing spoiled Judy’s amazing turkey like sore spots in ex-relationships.

But then, he remembered that he really never caught onto the whole let sleeping dogs lie thing.

“You sure you’re actually okay?” Clint asked. Natasha jerked her head up from her glass to glare at him, and he raised his spoon like a defensive weapon. “This whole time, I braced myself against the new gold-standard of awkwardness, but aside from your lingering viral thing—”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Cage is a walking plague.”

“—you’ve been good. Normal, even.” She shot him a dirty look, and he shrugged. “Bet Barnes would agree with me.”

“If I could pry him up off of his knees long enough to have a conversation, maybe,” Natasha returned, and Clint choked on air. She grinned at that, but not before she reached over and slugged him (hard) in the upper arm. “I’m fine,” she promised. “For the first time in a long time, I actually feel like everything’s back to normal. Like we’ve reached equilibrium.”

Clint grinned back at her. “Ten bucks says that equilibrium falls apart the second Stark realizes he’s got a month to plan a wedding.”

“Ten bucks says he’ll have texted Bruce seven times by the time we’re done with dinner, freaking out about that very thing,” Natasha returned, and he laughed.

In the end, Thanksgiving with the Coulsons felt exactly like Clint expected it to: warm, inviting, and full of family—a grinning Natasha and a laughing Bruce included.

And the day after Thanksgiving, Clint woke up with his own version of Jessica Cage’s freaking death flu, but that was a story for another day.

“You’re going to crush my mom,” Steve warned from his seat at the kitchen table.

Bucky peeled away from his soon-to-be mother-in-law with a shit-eating grin. “Like you, your mother loves my hugs.”

“I passed on my good taste in men,” Sarah proclaimed proudly. “Are you sure you want to cook the whole meal, Bucky?”

“You’re saving me from almost half a dozen sisters who ask way too many questions about wedding plans. Cooking a Thanksgiving meal for you two is the least I can do to show my gratitude for having somewhere to escape from Jersey,” Bucky reassured.

“Just hope you don’t mind trading in turkey for Italian,” Steve said.

Bucky pointed a finger at him. “For the millionth time, it’s not a family meal unless there’s red sauce.”

“The more garlic, the better,” Sarah replied.

“A woman after my own heart,” Bucky smiled while wrapping Steve’s mom up in another hug.

“Alright, alright, break it up,” Steve said while prying the two of them apart. “I thought the wine was for cooking, not drinking.”

Bucky shrugged. “I’m multi-tasking.”

Sarah pulled on Steve’s arm. “Leave him alone to cook. Let’s go talk.”

Steve felt his stomach drop at those three words. They were always a precursor to a serious conversation. While Bucky’s Ma would yell and dramatically bemoan her displeasure at something, Sarah Rogers was the master of the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” lecture.

“How was your appointment?” she asked as she pulled Steve down to sit on the couch in the living room.

Around this time every year, Steve had a standing appointment with his oncologist. Even though he’d been in remission from his leukemia for years, the check-in was mandatory to make sure his body wasn’t trying to betray him again. “All my tests came back clear,” Steve answered. “You don’t have anything to worry about.” The way her lips pursed told him she was still somewhat upset about something. “What’d I do?” he sighed.

“It’s more what you didn’t do.”

“I’m sorry the last few days have been busy with wedding stuff and I didn’t call you as soon as I got the results,” Steve apologized.

“I appreciate that, but that’s not what I’m talking about,” Sarah replied. When Steve still didn’t put two and two together, she shook her head. “When your fiancé asks to go to your doctor’s appointment with you, you don’t tell him no.”

“I left you two alone for thirty seconds while I got stuff out of the car,” Steve muttered.

“Steven,” Sarah softly reprimanded, and shit, he know that tone. It meant he was about to be gently lectured; he’d rather be yelled at. “Do I need to show you studies of how much better patients fare when they have loved ones around them?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Do I need to tell you how hard it was for me to not have your father around when you were sick?”

“No, ma’am,” he answered guiltily.

“Then why on earth are you pushing away the man you’re going to marry in a month? Should there even be a wedding?”

Hearing that question made Steve’s stomach drop. “What are you talking about?”

“Marriage is about ripping off all your masks and being fully exposed. You can’t hide anything from your husband. If you’re not willing to make that step, then—“

“It’s not like that,” Steve argued. “I’m not hiding from him.”

“You’re pushing him away. Is that any better?”

Steve sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “He doesn’t deserve to be caught up in the crap of when I was sick. He doesn’t know that version of me, and he shouldn’t have to. He doesn’t need to worry about that like we do.”

Sarah leaned back against the sofa and crossed her arms. “Seems to me that I remember a phone call from my son a year ago. Something about indecisive test results and how he confessed a little while later that this amazing man he’d gone out with only once or twice was willing to do anything to help him. Even stand there while a terrified son called his mother.”

Steve ducked his head and swallowed. He’d never forget the day that Bucky found him drowning in emotions and bad memories. How he’d stayed by his side, checked in on him constantly, and brought him soup when it turned out the high white blood cell count was due to an oncoming cold.

“He didn’t leave you then,” Sarah said. “And he could’ve. God knows that would’ve scared off most people. But not him. And if he’s willing to marry you in a month, I’m pretty sure he’s sticking around.” She leaned forward and rested a hand on his knee. “So are you going to let him see all of you, or just the parts you want him to see?”

Hours later, Steve nuzzled his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck. It wasn’t hard to do since they were sharing Steve’s full-sized bed from his teenage years and there were limbs everywhere. “I’m sorry,” he apologized before kissing Bucky’s pulse point.

“That’s a good start, but I don’t know what you’re sorry about.”

“My doctor’s appointment,” Steve answered while propping himself up on an elbow. “I should’ve let you come with me.”

“You saying that or your mom?”

“Both,” he admitted with a shy smile. “But she’s usually right about everything, so.”

Bucky traced his fingers over the scars on Steve’s torso left from his cancer treatments long ago. “I don’t care about this, you know. I mean, I care that you stay healthy because I want you around for as long as possible, but I don’t care about your history.”

“That makes one of us.”

The third time Barney glanced out the front window like a forlorn puppy, May sighed and shook her head. “Come help Gwen and me in the kitchen until she gets here,” she said.

Barney checked the street one more time before he scrubbed his hand through his hair. “I don’t think—”

“Barney, the day Jessica Drew is on time is the day I eat my hat,” she cut in, and Barney hid his grin by rolling his eyes. “Now either you come help, or you stop staring at the street like you think she’s going to materialize out of the sewer grates. Understood?”

He hung his head. “Yes, ma’am.”


When May returned to the kitchen, the slightly recalcitrant Barney (a grown man sulking like a fourth grader!) on her heels, Gwen glanced up from the cutting board. “Which hat?” she asked.

May frowned. “Pardon?”

“You’re eating a hat, right? Which one?”

May rolled her eyes. “As though I’d ruin my hair with a hat,” she returned, and Gwen grinned.

In truth, May Parker prided herself on her small, intimate Thanksgivings, if only because they reminded her of the days where she and Ben would host Peter’s family and no one else. But this year, the group had surged to an unprecedented six people. After all, Barney now belonged in the fold (and had invited Jessica as his plus-one), Gwen had cajoled her parents into allowing her to come (since they ate fish at noon and had the gall to call it Thanksgiving), and Peter—

Well, Peter had invited his odd friend Wade who had no local family—or apparently, any friends apart from Peter, to hear Peter tell it.

“I’m just saying,” Wade commented as if on cue, trotting behind Peter as they returned from the dining room. “Because if you take one life-drawing class with a super-sexy model, that’s a nice little gift, but if you take three life-drawing classes with that same super-sexy model, you start to think that maybe the universe is telling you something about him and his enormous shoulders.”

Peter sighed as he opened the cupboard for plates. “So ask him his name,” he suggested.

Wade blinked. “Why would I do that? That’s unprofessional.”

Peter actually stopped, one plate in each hand, to stare blankly at his friend. “And on what planet is professionalism your primary life concern?”

Wade pulled a face. “I can be professional when I want to be.”

“So, never,” Peter replied.

Wade stuck out his tongue.

May shook her head at their bickering as she steered Barney toward the bag of potatoes she’d just opened. “Peel them, quarter them, and drop them in the pot of water,” she instructed. “Gwen will tell you when to stop.”

Gwen paled. “I don’t know—”

“He’s boiling potatoes for the mash, sweetheart. There’s no way either of you can mess it up.” May patted Gwen on the shoulder, and Gwen nodded like a soldier going off to war. “Help him if you finish all the chopping for the stuffing, will you? I don’t want to give Wade a knife.”

Again as if on cue, something in the dining room rattled and Wade (who had disappeared in the last ten seconds) swore loudly. Gwen forced a smile and returned to the celery.

Which allowed May an opportunity to duck out onto the front porch with her cell phone and dial Jessica Drew’s number.

Ordinarily—as a rule, really—May tried not to meddle in her (former) colleague’s lives. Okay, well, no. May meddled constantly, helping to set up Steve Rogers with several young ladies (for all the good that had done) and always leaving one seat between herself and Phil Coulson at staff meetings back in the days before he and Clint finally figured themselves out. But Jessica counted less as a colleague these days, and Barney—

May already had one lost boy she considered a son in her life. Barney counted as a distant nephew—or maybe a second cousin—who needed guidance and a roof over his head. And a new pair of work boots, but she’d leave that for Christmas.

Barney counted as family, at any rate, and May knew from experience the waves you could make by sticking your fingers in a family member’s personal life.

She pressed the call button anyway.

Jessica’s voicemail message started playing exactly one ring in, a sure sign she’d cancelled the call, and May sighed down the line as Jessica’s recorded voice encouraged her to do what you’re supposed to do on these things, because really, who needs instructions anymore?

“Jessica, look, I don’t know what’s happened,” she said, “and I’m sure I will feel very guilty if you’ve been in a fender bender or, I don’t know, killed by a home invader. But Barney’s waiting on you—we all are—and since you vowed to be here with the wine a half-hour ago . . . ” She trailed off and glanced down the street although she expected to see Jessica’s car. “Just show up, okay? I never ask you for anything, so that’s what I’m asking. Show up for this dinner.”

She hung up the phone immediately, but lingered on the porch, waiting for Jessica to call her back—or, more likely, to text. When neither thing happened within about five minutes, she turned around to walk back inside and almost collided with Barney’s broad chest.

“Sorry,” he said, steadying her with a hand on her arm. May smiled at him, about to wave away the apology, but his frown silenced her. They stared at each other for a couple long seconds before he finally said, “She’s not coming.”

May sighed. “Just because she’s not here yet does not mean—”

He snorted. “May, I’ve been screwing around with her for, what, six months? I think I know when she’s standing me up.” She pressed her lips together, unsure what to say, and he shrugged. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Gwen’s freaking out about how big to cut the onion.”

May rolled her eyes. “I think she’s ten times more afraid I’ll disapprove of her than Peter ever was,” she complained. Barney smiled a little at that, turning around to go inside, but May stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “It matters,” she said gently.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t—”

“It does, Barney,” she assured him, and he swallowed thickly before he nodded. “Now, come on. Let’s go save Gwen from an onion-related meltdown.”

“You sure you were ready for this?” Jane asked as Darcy joined her on the front porch swing of the Odinhome.

Anything can be used as a suffix with the Odin name, okay?

“That’s the eleventh time someone has asked me some variation of that question today. And for the eleventh time, you all have clearly not experienced a Lewis family holiday.”

Jane grinned her response, and together, they watched crazy Norwegians and their kin play in an early Thanksgiving snow in the massive front yard. Darcy wasn’t the only guest this year at Thanksgiving. Thor’s business partner and longtime friend, Heimdall, was also in attendance. Darcy’s brain had nearly exploded at the awesomeness of learning that the stunner of a woman accompanying him, Sif, was actually Heimdall’s kid sister. Kudos to that awesome family.

“He doesn’t usually come here,” Jane had explained while they let the others cook dinner—for some reason they’d been deemed a hazard to everyone’s health if they’d cooked. “But ever since Thor had his accident last spring, he hangs around a lot more.” She started telling Darcy about how Sif actually was Thor’s high school sweetheart, but unfortunately Alva interrupted juicy story time to complain that her brothers were once again being unfair to her.

Granted, Darcy did feel bad for the girl. Normally, she got to be Uncle Loki’s roommate during the holidays, but this time, she’d been usurped by Darcy. Her parents treasured alone time at the in-laws’ and hesitated in letting Alva stay with them. At the suggestion of sleeping in the same room as her brothers, Alva adamantly said no. “They’ll just fart in my face.”

Frigga had taken pity on her granddaughter and set up a special sleeping tent in her bedroom. Despite getting her own unique space, complete with twinkling lights, Alva still turned a cold shoulder to her Uncle Loki and Miss Darcy whenever possible. But what Loki and Darcy did on their own time wasn’t appropriate for kindergarteners.

“I can’t believe you’re having ‘adult time’ here already,” Jane commented while pushing them off to let the porch swing creak and move them back and forth slowly. “It took me until after we were married before I could work up enough courage to have sex under Thor’s parents’ roof.”

“Are you serious?” Darcy scoffed. “Like Thor’s parents didn’t know you two were knocking boots as much as possible.”

“His dad has that eye patch. I was always scared that underneath was some cybernetic implant that had x-ray vision and he was going to watch. He’s creepy enough sometimes to make you think he’d do that sort of thing.”

Darcy shrugged. “Well, as someone who’s seen you and Thor in action, your father-in-law wouldn’t have been disappointed.”

Jane bumped her shoulder into Darcy’s. “You should stop snooping.”

“You should stop forgetting to close your blinds.”

A moment later, a snowsuit-bundled Alva toddled up the porch and shivered dramatically. “Mama, I think I’m done.”

“Are you sure?” Jane asked. “Because once I get you out of that thing, you’re not going back in it until tomorrow.”

“I promise. Uncle Loki said he’d make me hot chocolate once I was done.”

Darcy smiled. “Sounds like someone’s trying to suck up.”

Alva shot her a dark look before turning back to Jane. “Please, Mama. Henry put snow down my back.”

“Alright, come on,” Jane said as she ushered her daughter inside.

Darcy pushed the swing into motion once more and watched the boys—both adult and child—continue to play in the moonlight. There were only a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and it was powdery, which made a snowball fight impossible. At the moment, the two sets of brothers plus Heimdall were content with yelling and chasing each other around.

If she were home, Darcy would’ve already slinked away to her bedroom hours ago. Despite all the warnings from pretty much every member of the family, the day hadn’t been all that bad. Replacing a bird with turkey meatballs was actually kind of awesome. And sure, the family was loud and crazy, but it was a good crazy. Even Papa Odin, who had a reputation of being a major dick, was nice enough to say her name correctly—something half of her senile great-aunts still couldn’t accomplish after over twenty years.

A moment later, Loki trudged up the porch steps to join her on the swing. “How are you faring on this frigid evening?”

“Rumor has it there’s going to be some hot chocolate action going on, and I’m not referring to your brother’s business partner.”

Loki cringed. “Actually, that’s only for my niece and nephews. It’s a tradition.”

“Oh, really? And here I was going to suggest that we do some fun things later, but since you’re busy, I’ll just do those things myself.” She leaned over to kiss the tip of his freezing nose. “Have fun with the kids.”

“You can come in, if you want.”

The words were spoken softly in the hotel hallway, and Bruce froze as he was about to put his plastic keycard in the door’s lock.

He and Natasha had agreed on separate rooms this year while visiting the Coulsons for Thanksgiving. Last year they’d shared a room—and a bed—but Bruce couldn’t this time. They were just now talking to each other comfortably, and he didn’t want to ruin that. And despite the fact that they’d resumed their friends with benefits relationship a couple of times, he’d been reluctant to push for anything this long weekend.

“But you don’t have to,” Natasha said.

She apparently had other plans.

Slowly, he turned and looked over his shoulder at her. She was doing that infuriating and tantalizing thing where her face looked like it could switch to any emotion on the planet in a half second, but for now was stoically neutral so as not to let on about what she was thinking . A tactic to not let anyone in, and one Bruce was incredibly familiar with.

She showed the faintest hint of a smirk before opening the door to her room and walking in. Bruce nearly jumped across the hall to catch the door handle before it latched and locked itself.

This could be a mistake, he thought to himself. It was the same thought he’d had three times now. The first time was about six weeks ago after he’d misunderstood what Jessica Drew was saying to him and blurted his guts about the whole thing. He’d tried to distract himself with errands around town, but his car had eventually wound up in the parking lot of Natasha’s condo and before he knew it, he was knocking at her door. He’d stayed long enough afterward to ask about a dozen times if this was okay.

“Shouldn’t you have asked before?” Natasha challenged with a smile. True, but his brain had lacked sufficient blood flow.

The second time, three weeks ago, she’d shown up at his door on a Sunday afternoon claiming to be “bored and horny as hell.” Afterwards, they’d shared a pizza. Just as she was getting ready to walk out his door, they’d kissed, and things had started up all over again.

Talking had been easier after that. Which he kind of hated. Don’t get him wrong, sex with Natasha was incredible. Better than even the theories Tony’d spitballed over milkshakes a time or two. But Bruce didn’t feel comfortable making it the basis of a relationship.

But he was also an adult male who had trouble saying no when a woman as fantastic, gorgeous, sexy, and funny as Natasha willingly offered herself to him.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door to Natasha’s hotel room and let himself in. Natasha had already removed her coat and was sitting on the foot of the bed to unzip her boots. She looked up at him, the damned neutral expression back on her face.

“You sure about this?” he asked. “I mean, I ate a lot of Judy’s mashed potatoes.”

“I’ve got my vibrator with me in case you fall asleep.” How much that mental image had piqued his interest must have shown on his face, because her eyebrows rose. “We can play if you want,” she offered.

“Tempting,” he replied while removing his coat and toeing off his shoes. “Maybe next time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Natasha told him as she rose from the bed and sauntered up to him. She always waited for him to make the first move, some final measure of making sure he was okay with this . He snaked his arms around her thin waist and pulled her flush against him.

The first time they got back together, it’d been quick, rough, and dirty. It’d been fucking, pure and simple. A physical means of expressing their frustration that their relationship had become what it had.

The second time, they’d gotten drunk off of being around each other. They were addicts who didn’t know how to kick a habit.

This time… Well, this time Bruce had a niggling feeling in the back of his mind that this time was going to be the hardest one to walk away from. He could feel it in the air that this was going to be a long and slow night. One where they took advantage of not having anything to do the next day with a gluttonous and leisurely pace. And it scared him a little.

Not enough to stop, but still.

The feeling of coming home—that elusive warmth and safeness others associated with childhood homes and scents of their mother’s cooking—wasn’t something Bruce ever felt until he was married to Betty. And obviously, that hadn’t lasted long. But deep down, there was a part of him willing to frighteningly admit that he’d found it in Natasha, too. He tried to keep that part of himself quiet.

But she was home—safe and familiar. He’d know the scent of her, the feeling of her fingernails, her breathy moans anywhere. He knew the sights, sounds, and sensations of her better than he knew himself. And Bruce gasped as he was reminded that she knew just as much about him as he did of her.

They helped divest each other of their clothes and she pushed him down on to the bed. He laid back obligingly, heart thudding in his chest. Natasha straddled his hips, and his hand trailed up from her thighs to rest on her waist. “Since you ate so much, I guess I’m going to have to do all the work,” Natasha quipped.

Bruce smiled. “I’m certainly not going to complain about this view.”

Chapter Text

“So, you gonna tell me what’s up?”

Barney stopped chewing the second Clint asked, and Clint watched as a glob of cranberry sauce slid off his sandwich and splattered down onto his plate. All around them, other intelligent, enlightened diners also scarfed down on the limited-edition Holiday Leftover Sandwich like their lives depended on it. Phil, on the other hand, had texted Clint a vomiting emoji when Clint’d invited him to lunch.

His loss, Clint’s gain. Especially since Phil’s absence meant nobody’d criticize him for ordering a side of gravy for dipping.

Barney swallowed hard before he shrugged. “Who said anything’s wrong?”

“You mean beside how your face looks? Nobody.” The guy rolled his eyes at that, but Clint jabbed a finger in his direction. “We talked about Thanksgiving, and you promised me—and Phil, not that I read your text message conversation over his shoulder or anything—that you wanted to stay here with May. And since I don’t think you’d bullshit Phil—”

Barney snorted. “‘Cause I’d bullshit you?”

“You want a list of all the times you’ve bullshitted me? Because if I start back when you told me about our old man shooting Santa and work my way up . . . ” Barney’s mouth twitched like he wanted to smile, and Clint flashed him a grin. “You wouldn’t bullshit Phil,” he continued, “and so I figure whatever’s going on with you isn’t my fault and I can help you fix it. Or, if it is my fault, it’s something besides Thanksgiving, and you should tell me so I can pretend to be sorry.”

“Pretend?” Barney repeated.

Clint shrugged. “Can’t promise you didn’t deserve whatever I did.”

His brother actually kind of laughed at that, but the corresponding smile never quite crawled its way up to his eyes. He stirred his water for a couple seconds before he sighed. “It’s not important,” he finally said. “I mean, it’s just my usual shit, and you don’t want to—”

“If nothing else, the fact I’m buying you the greatest sandwich this side of the Mississippi proves how much I want to hear about your shit.” Barney grimaced at that, and Clint frowned. “I lay it on too thick?”

Way too fucking thick,” Barney agreed. Clint grinned again, but Barney shrugged him off. “It’s nothing big,” he promised. “Besides, don’t you spend all your busybody points annoying your friends?”

“Actually,” Clint replied, “I saved some of my November points for this very lunch.”

“And if I don’t want you nosing around in my business?”

“I’ll remind you that it’s a great nose.”

“Really, the way it’s crooked, it’s practically two,” Barney retorted sharply. Clint laughed, and Barney rolled his eyes again. Dismissively, like he wanted to end the whole conversation. “Like I said, I’m fine. Go back to bitching about whatever Stark did to your husband this month.”

Clint groaned. “Don’t even get me started,” he complained, and Barney grinned like the incorrigible asshole Clint knew and (mostly) loved.

After they cleared their plates (including the huge slices of pumpkin pie that accompanied the meal) and Clint paid, they wandered out into the cold winter air. Barney dug his hands deep into his coat pockets on the sidewalk but paused, his face tipped up to the sky. “Went by the mall to apply for this janitorial job the other day,” he said out of nowhere. “And I figured, hey, might as well grab a slice in the food court. And on the way, I passed one of those shops where edgy teenagers buy their ripped jeans and saw one of those t-shirts with a saying on it. You know the ones, right? Like, I can only please one person today, and today is not your day or whatever?”

Clint frowned slightly. “Sure.”

“Well, this one said, The only thing all your failed relationships have in common is you.” Barney tossed him a sideways glance before shrugging. “I think maybe the shirt’s got a point, you know?”

Something deep in Clint’s chest tightened a little. “Barney—”

“‘Cause here’s the thing,” his brother continued, almost like he hadn’t heard Clint at all. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so fucking hard. At work, with her, with May— And every time, it just feels like everything’s stacked against me. Jobs turn me down ‘cause of my record, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna short May on the rent, and that’s not even counting—” He cut himself off, his throat bobbing, and shook his head. “I try every fucking day,” he finished, “and far as I can tell, the only reason everything’s still fucked is because I’m the person trying to make it right.”

He shook his head again, like trying to clear the cobwebs, and Clint stared at him for a second before reaching out and clasping him hard on the shoulder. “You can’t control what other people do,” he said, even as his brain kicked him in the ass and told him how trite that sounded. “You can only keep trying, and whatever May or some theoretical employer or Jess thinks—”

Barney jerked away from him like his hand’d just transformed into a brand. “Like I said, I don’t need you nosing in,” he snapped, and immediately stomped off toward the car.

Clint swallowed slightly, but he nodded, too. And better still, he kept his mouth shut as they drove home to the tooth-rotting awfulness of the local holiday radio station.

But the second May Parker’s door closed and locked behind his brother, he threw the car in park and dragged his cell phone out of his pocket. i don’t know what’s going on, he typed, but we need to compare notes asap.

Predictably, Carol’s reply chimed through not even a full five seconds later. About?

who do you think? he returned, and he waited until she texted back fuck before tossing his phone into the passenger’s seat and heading home.

“And then?”

“I push ‘custom install’ and deselect all the garbage,” Tommy Carter recited like an exceptionally smart parrot, and he rolled his eyes when Tony raised his hand for a high-five. For a minute, they stood there in suspended animation—Tony with his hand up, Tommy with his arms crossed over his chest—before the kid finally sighed. “You are so weird,” he decided.

“Weird like a fox,” Tony reminded him. “Now, slap me some skin and show me your computer skills.”

“Is it really skills when I’m following directions?”

“You know, when your voice comes out all full of attitude like that, my brain immediately translates it to I want to go help Mister Coulson manage the card catalogue, and if that’s the case—” Tommy snorted like he wanted to laugh, fifth-grade posturing at its finest, and finally reached up to slap Tony’s palm. Tony grinned at him. “See, was that so hard?”

“Whatever,” Tommy grumbled as he dropped into a chair.

But he smiled, too—mostly to himself, mostly hidden by his hoodie—and Tony counted that as a victory.

According to Pepper (and to the fragmented updates that Tony occasionally coaxed out of Tommy after class or a cold-weather kickball game), the Carter household continued to be a hive of scum, villainy, and manipulative asshole parents. Tony’d never say that aloud, of course—despite his reputation, he knew how to behave himself—but sometimes, the way Tommy’s face fell when Tony asked him about his day . . . Well, point was, you didn’t have to be a former rocket scientist to notice the little black raincloud that still stormed above Tommy’s head.

Which was why Tony called the Carters and said that he needed Tommy to start staying after school with him for an advanced computer club. An advanced, one-student computer club where Tommy helped him inventory old equipment, run Java updates, and rearrange the bank of computers in Danvers’s room thanks to her most recent rash of weird special educational feng shui.

Not that his parents necessarily knew that part. No, that smelled too much like mentoring for Tony’s taste.

Tony flopped back into his chair, ready to grade some second-grade Power Point projects while Tommy clicked the appropriate buttons to install the newest version of Media Player. He’d barely opened up the appropriate folder when somebody knocked on the doorjamb, but the second he jerked his head up, he grinned. “Finally done cheating on me with Parker?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised you haven’t requested best friend forever tattoos to insure I never leave you.”

“You know, I thought about it, but I’d want it to be at least a back piece. With dolphins jumping over a rainbow while a unicorn trots underneath.” Tommy snickered into his hoodie, and Tony waved off Bruce’s little eyebrow raise. “Ignore the slave labor, he’s just jealous about the werewolf that’ll be riding the unicorn.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Tommy deadpanned.

“I’m more concerned about how much you’ve thought about this tattoo,” Bruce replied, and he only really grinned after Tony laughed. A laugh that lasted about half a second, because when Bruce stepped into the room—

“Please tell me that urine wasn’t involved,” Tony groaned.

Bruce smiled sheepishly as he placed the keyboard on the nearest table. Even from his desk, Tony could see that it’d lost a handful of keys and one of the little kickstands in the back. “It may have gotten slightly trampled,” Bruce explained hesitantly.


“Slightly.” The kindergarten teacher scratched the back of his head. “There was an incident during our ‘counting by tens’ game. It’s a long story.”

“And there’s probably snot involved, so I don’t want to hear it.” Bruce snorted at that, clearly still a little embarrassed, but Tony just swiveled his chair over in Tommy’s direction. “Chief Deputy Gruntwork, would you mind fetching Doctor Banner a spare keyboard?”

Tommy sighed as he half-slithered out of his seat. “I guess.”

Tony shrugged. “I mean, if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, but for a guy who desperately wanted to learn my inventory system—”

“No, I’m going,” Tommy cut him off, his fake disinterest fraying at the seams. “I’ll be right back.”

“Nothing too fancy, he’s the definition of why we can’t have nice things!” Tony called after him, and Tommy waved him off as he disappeared in the direction of the supply closet. Bruce, on the other hand, just smirked. “What?” Tony demanded.

His friend shrugged. “Nothing.”


“Except I didn’t actually believe Pepper when she told me you made a new friend.”

Tony snorted. “Pet,” he corrected. “He’s mostly a gloriously well-trained pet. Like a, I don’t know, service dog, just in a hoodie instead of a vest.” Bruce cocked his head to one side, and Tony frowned. “You don’t believe me, do you?”


“Worth a shot,” he grumbled, and Bruce chuckled. For a couple seconds, they studied each other across the room, Bruce all soft-faced and amused and Tony feeling— Honestly, Tony didn’t know how he felt, exactly. “Are we going to have to talk about my feelings?” he finally asked, and Bruce’s brow furrowed. “Because I can justify hanging out with a sad kid who’s home life sucks, but since you’re pretty much my backup singer on that particular song and dance, I figure—”

“I think it’s good,” Bruce interrupted, raising his hands, and Tony rolled his eyes like the comment wasn’t actually a compliment. “You’ve spent a long time pretending you’re not a good role model. It’s nice to see you own up to it.”

Tony scowled, his nose wrinkling. “Visionary inspiration to the youth of America, maybe, but to call me a role model is a little—”

“Inventory number seven-eight-two,” Tommy announced suddenly, jogging into the room and practically thrusting the keyboard into Bruce’s waiting hands. “A two-year-old keyboard with only one mismatched key.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “And?”

Tommy heaved a sigh. “And I filled in all the columns on the sheet and forged your signature, just like you showed me.”

“Just what I like to hear,” Tony replied, and he grinned when Tommy trotted over and accepted his second high-five of the afternoon. Bruce frowned a little at that, but Tony just shrugged it off. “Like I said before: inspiration, not role model.”

“And I said good, not perfect,” Bruce reminded him, and Tony only allowed himself to smile at that after his friend left the room.

Carol walked into Clint’s class the morning after he’d gone off in a flurry of angry texts over Jess’s Thanksgiving-related behavior. The man was pacing the length of his room like a caged tiger. In the corner, Phil messed with his phone and pretended like he wasn’t keeping one eye on his upset husband. Carol got Phil’s attention and jerked her head toward the door. Phil brushed fingers along Clint’s back as he walked past him and wished Carol luck before he walked out.

She was going to need it.

“We gonna do this or what?” Clint asked hotly.

Her stomach churned. She’d reluctantly agreed to mediate a conversation between Clint and Jess before school. It was a tough call, but doing it now meant it couldn’t drag on forever, and maybe they wouldn’t have enough coffee in their systems to get fully worked up. But the way Clint’s eyes were darting everywhere told Carol he had enough caffeine in his system in his blood stream for all three of them.

Carol took another swig of coffee from her monster-sized travel mug that accompanied her to school every morning. She really had meant what she’d told Clint weeks ago after the anniversary double date fiasco: she didn’t want to meddle between the two couples. But if she didn’t do it, Clint and Jess might cause the elementary school to explode. And while of course Carol woke up some mornings hoping that a very small meteor had crashed to earth and given her the day off, she didn’t want to be out of a job or even her closet of a classroom.

Steps away from Jess’s door, Carol grabbed Clint by the arm. She wondered if it was a move Phil did often, because the fifth grade teacher immediately flexed his bicep at her touch. “Really?” she asked.

“What?” he questioned. Probably didn’t even realize he did it anymore. Pathetic.

“You cannot go off on her.”

“You’ve already said that about a hundred times.”

“And your memory is shit,” Carol shot back. “What are the rules?”

Clint ground his jaw, but answered anyway. “No raising my voice. No flappy arms, not that I do that anyway but whatever. And no turning off my hearing aids if she goes on a tirade. ”

“And if you do any of those things?”

“You beat the shit out of me, then tattle to Phil.”

“Damn straight.”

“Does Jess have a similar set of rules?” Clint asked.

Carol grimaced. “Jess doesn’t know. I figured if I gave her a heads up, then she’d call in sick or something. Her fight-or-flight response usually defaults to flight, despite what people may assume about her.”

“Yeah, the whole reason we’re here is because of her flight away from Thanksgiving,” Clint muttered before storming into the second grade teacher’s room.

Carol followed hot on his heels. She was proud of Clint for taking a couple of deep breaths as soon as he made his way to the middle of the room instead of fully stalking up to Jessica’s desk where she was messing on her computer. At least, she was a second ago; at the sudden appearance of guests in her classroom, her eyes bugged out while she looked back and forth between Clint and Carol.

“How was your Thanksgiving?” Clint asked, and Carol wanted to smack him. Sure, his tone was pleasant and polite, but shit, man. That’s how you want to get things started?

Jess turned her attention to Carol. “I thought you were Switzerland or whatever.”

“I’m just here to make sure no one kills the other,” Carol responded.

Her friend pursed her lips and squared her shoulders. “I never said for sure that I was going to May’s for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Bullshit,” Carol said. The word fled her mouth before she could follow her own rules regarding civility. Both Jess and Clint looked at her with surprise. “Fine, I’m also here to keep both of you from lying.”

“I wasn’t lying,” Jess ground out.

Carol tilted her head to the side and tried to contain a look of exasperation. She wasn’t entirely successful; it was early in the morning. “We talked about this at spa day, and you said you were going.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Jess, you asked me for wine suggestions.”

“But I never said I was definitely going.”

“It was enough,” Clint argued. “Enough for my brother—“

“The one you kicked out of your house this summer?” Jess questioned, venom slipping into her tone.

Carol could feel the sudden tightness in Clint’s broad shoulders, but he kept his voice calm. “The same brother who thought he was actually in a serious relationship, but instead had his girlfriend flake out on him.”

Jess snorted. “He made it clear when he lied about taking me out for a special dinner in October that I’m not the person whose favor he’s trying to earn. I’m a fling, nothing more.”

“Is that why he was willing to joke about how to invite you to next year’s anniversary dinner?” Clint asked.

She paled slightly at that question. “He did?” she questioned quietly.

Clint stuck his hands in his pockets and followed Carol’s rules about not raising his voice, even though Carol was sure he desperately wanted to. “Barn and I don’t have the greatest relationship, and I will be the first and loudest to say that. But it doesn’t mean I won’t stick up for him. Especially when he isn’t in the wrong.”

With that he turned his heel and left. Carol and Jess stared at each other for a moment before Jess flopped backwards into her chair. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”

“End it or fix it,” Carol said simply.

Jess huffed a bitter laugh. “And why am I bothering asking you for relationship advice? Current boyfriend excepted, you’re shit at relationships.”

Carol felt a spark of her temper, but stamped it out. While Jess preferred flight, her other go-to defense mechanism was to say the meanest thing she could think of to scare the other person off. “At least I don’t shit on my friend’s holiday dinner while I’m too busy hiding from being a damn adult. Fix it or end it, Jess. But both of those require you to grow up.”

Steve rearranged the snippets of magazine photos; he didn’t put them in any real pattern, just shuffled them all around while his mind worked. Next to him on the couch, Bucky sighed. “It’s fine, Steve. Stop overthinking.”

“It’s our wedding,” Steve pointed out.

“And as much of a pain in the ass as Stark can be, you have to admit that he can throw a decent party.”

Steve rolled his lips but didn’t say anything. He let the background noise of Bucky’s football game drone on in the background. His fingers grazed over glossy photos of flowers, dinner plates, and elaborate setups for light fixtures. His eyes then drifted over to the chicken scratch notes from Tony about how much everything would cost the grooms. “It doesn’t add up,” Steve muttered.

“I know, their defense is shit tonight. There’s no way they should be winning this game.” Steve looked over his shoulder to give Bucky a slightly exasperated look. “You weren’t talking about the football game, were you?” Bucky asked.

“What do you think?”

“I think I’ve had enough beer to automatically assume that you would want to give commentary on a sport other than baseball,” Bucky retorted as he set down his bottle on the end table. When Steve gave him another sharp look, Bucky sighed and moved the bottle to set on a coaster instead of the bare wood. “What exactly doesn’t add up?”

“How much we’re paying for this thing,” Steve answered. “I know Tony said he had connections and could get us some friends and family deals, but we should still be paying more than this. If he wanted to do that with our shower brunch, then fine. But I don’t feel comfortable about it for the wedding.”

“That makes one of us,” Bucky countered.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Absolutely,” Bucky replied. “Stark is rich as hell, and I’m fine with him footing part of the bill. Besides, I plan on having to be his co-worker for a long time, and I’m sure there are moments where I’m going to need to remember that he was kind enough to pay for some of our wedding so I don’t kill him.”

“We should still be paying more than we are,” Steve argued.

“Or we could use the money for other things,” Bucky suggested. Steve tried to figure out what he meant, but the honeymoon was already paid for, they didn’t need to move anywhere, and in fact, they hadn’t even registered for that many gifts. Just some new dishes and cookware, bedding and towels, but that was about it. Their guests could donate to a fund that would go to supplementing classroom supplies or help reimburse the honeymoon costs to New Orleans. “Steve, I swear we’ve had his conversation before,” Bucky grumbled.

“Remind me?”

“Kids,” Bucky answered. “Or just kid, if you only want one.”

Steve swallowed. “I don’t know how many I want.” He watched Bucky tense ever so slightly at the comment, and he reached over to lay a soothing hand on his thigh. “I want them, I just… Do we have to start planning this early?”

“It’s going to take us a while,” Bucky pointed out.

“I know, it’s… I mean, I know I was the one who rushed into a lot of first steps for us, but now that we’re here, I just kind of want to enjoy it for a while, you know?”

“Sure,” Bucky said quietly before picking up his beer again and returning his attention to the football game.

Steve felt guilty, but he wasn’t lying. He’d waited a long while to get to this point in his life with someone special, and he wanted to savor it for as long as possible. Plus, honestly, the idea of kids scared the shit out of him. He was fine being a teacher and mentor at work, but having one that relied on you that much? Terrifying.

He knew Bucky would be great at it. Despite being one of the youngest siblings in his huge family, he was amazing with his nieces and nephews. He’d take to fatherhood like a duck to water. And because of that, the kid would probably like him more.

And now the hypothetical kid Steve didn’t want for a while was already playing favorites. He sighed and knocked his knee against Bucky’s. “What would it look like?”

“Hmm?” Bucky hummed.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t play all passive-aggressive dumb.”

Bucky shrugged, still keeping his eyes on the television. “Since you saved me from buying a house, we’ve got what we’re not spending on the wedding as a base for adoption fees.”

“You sound like that’s not your first choice.”

Bucky made a non-committal noise. “An option, yeah, but you’re right that it’s not my favorite. It’s hard to get a newborn, or even a kid younger than a toddler. And even though I’m sure I won’t think of them as anything other than mine, there’s still a selfish part of me that wants one of us to pass down genes. Preferably you, since God knows there are enough Barneses in the world already.”

“A surrogate?” Steve asked.

Bucky nodded. “But again—can be hard to find. And it would have to be someone we like who isn’t shitty and won’t try to scam us. And then what if we have to go to someone else to be an egg donor? It could be a mess.”

“So what would the first step be?” Steve asked.

“Honestly? I keep wanting to ask Natasha about it. I mean, I know it would be terrifying that our kid would be half-Soviet, but…” His words drifted off with a shrug. “She’s my best friend and basically family already. Might be nice making it official. Besides, you could balance out her crazy, and we could end up with a normal kid.”

“You wouldn’t want there to be one more Barnes in the world?”

Bucky grinned. “I’d take another Rogers any day of the week.”

Twenty minutes later, and Jessica still sat in her driver’s seat, listening to the rain.

The weather forecast had promised snow with its usual apocalyptic fervor, but in the end, the temperature had stubbornly stayed above forty and blanketed them all in miserable, hazy rain. Twice, Jesssica’d almost turned the car around and headed home under the guise of slippery roads and idiot drivers, but every time she’d hit a stoplight, she’d kept driving straight ahead. Like a gravitational pull of some kind, dragging her closer and closer to May Parker’s house.

In truth, she’d visited May’s house three times in the days since her so-called conversation with Clint and Carol, she’d just never stopped long enough to climb out of her car. Actually, she hadn’t stopped at all the first two times, just looped the block before driving home and drowning her misery in the last of her Thanksgiving wine. The third time, she’d parked across the street for about five minutes before losing her nerve.

And now: attempt number four.

Jessica smashed her forehead against the steering wheel and groaned.

Fix it or end it, Carol’d told her like a vindictive fairy godmother with a relationship divining rod. A fairy godmother whose own relationship history read like one of those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, not that Jessica’s was any better. In the last couple days, Jessica’d repeated that advice in her head, the world’s worst broken record: fix it, end it, fix it, end it, fix it, end it.

She’d consulted a Magic Eight Ball, three different novelty coins, and even randomly asked Ganke Lee for his opinion.

(Ganke’s advice: “Girls like Miles better. Ask him.”)

And after all that, she’d given up, climbed into her car, and driven to May’s house.

Only to sit in her car like a big weenie and—

Something hit the driver’s side window right next to Jessica’s head, and she practically leapt out of her skin as she jerked her head away from steering wheel. Two big, pleading eyes stared down at her from under a hooded coat, and she almost screamed aloud before she recognized the worried face under the eyes. She sighed as she rolled down her window. “Listen, I just—”

“Can I come in and talk?” May Parker asked. Jessica blinked in surprise, and her former coworker—her friend, really—shrugged lightly. “I’ve been watching you out here for the last fifteen minutes. You’re clearly not ready to come inside. So I thought I’d come to you.”

Jessica pursed her lips. “I’m that obvious?”


She sighed. “Fine, yeah, come on in,” she said, and popped the locks.

May shook some of the water off her arms and shoulders before sliding into the car, and for a long minute, they just sat there together, silent except for the pitter-patter of the rain. A couple different times, Jessica opened her mouth to explain—or at least, to break into the quiet—but every time, the words dried out before they ever left her tongue.

May, confirming once again that Peter was definitely not her son in any way, shape, or form, said absolutely nothing.

After what felt like three eternities and a lifetime, Jessica dragged fingers through her hair. “I know you’re not even the person I should apologize to, but—”

“No, I’m not.”

The other woman’s voice was tight, and Jessica accidentally revved the engine slightly as she jerked around to stare. May kept her eyes trained straight ahead, but Jessica sensed anger in the line of her shoulders and the clench of her jaw. She drew in a long breath. “May, listen—”

“He expected you,” May said, once again proving her reputation for never yelling either in or out of the classroom. “He pretends to be strong—like nothing ever bothers him—but he’s had such a difficult time in the last few months, and the one thing he expected was you.” She flicked her eyes toward Jessica. “Do you have any idea how that feels?”

Jessica dropped her gaze into her lap. “I,” she attempted, but the words caught in the back of her throat.

May sighed. “Ninety percent of proving you care about someone—of proving you’re in their corner, no matter your relationship—is showing up. You of all people should know that. And even after giving Barney your word, you didn’t come.” Heat prickled against Jessica’s eyelids, and she forced herself to swallow around the feeling. “And I’m not sure an apology is the way to fix that.”

Jessica twisted her hands together in her scarf. For a minute, she just focused on finding her voice again. “I got spooked,” she admitted. May snorted slightly, and Jessica yanked her head up to glare at her. “That’s what you want to hear, right? That I got scared and let him down, but don’t worry, I’ll never do it again? Because I know I messed up, so if I need to say it a thousand times—”

“You need to stand by it, Jessica.” For the first time in the whole conversation, Jessica heard a definite spark of anger in the other woman’s voice, and she immediately pursed her lips together. May shook her head. “Maybe there are people out there who love the chase. I never did, but then, Ben and I were practically babies when we got married. If you’re one of those people—or you need one of those people to be happy—that’s okay.” She caught and held Jessica’s gaze, and Jessica swallowed thickly. “But Barney’s not one of those people. And because I care about both of you, I’m telling you this: until you know exactly what you want, I’m not letting you in to apologize.”

Jessica drew in a shaky breath. “And if I say I want to fix it?”

May shrugged. “Then you need to mean it,” she said seriously, “because even if Barney will forgive you twice, I won’t.”

Pepper poured coffee into mugs and just waited. Sure enough, thirty seconds later she heard a door being thrown open and Tony proclaiming their houseguests to be “a horde of traitors.” She sighed, rolled her eyes, and sent a silent prayer to whoever would listen that her husband wouldn’t be so obnoxious that Natasha murdered him while Phil supervised . She placed the mugs (only four) on a tray and walked out to the living room. She passed around the coffee, and as Tony’s hand swooped in to steal the last mug, she claimed it for herself. “You’re not invited to this.”

Her husband gave her a thoroughly unimpressed look. “Seriously? Because I’m pretty sure we could just cut out the middle groomsmen and save everybody some time by talking together.”

Pepper could feel the heat of Natasha and Phil’s glares without even looking at them. “Tony,” she warned.

“Don’t ‘Tony’ me,” he replied.

“How did he find out?” Phil asked.

“This one,” Tony answered while pointing at Pepper, “talks in her sleep. She kept mentioning names of musicians, and then whadda you know—they showed up in Bucky and Steve’s list of suggestions. Like they’d been planted there or something.”

“Why did I have to marry an insomniac?” Pepper questioned as she sat down on the couch next to Phil.

“It’s all part of my charm,” Tony smirked from his armchair turned throne. “So you four are conspiring against me, hmm? I certainly expected more from my own wife and my brother in science and sobriety. Not so much from the Soviet and the crusty, old librarian.”

“I’m two years older than you,” Phil pointed out, but Tony just waved him off.

“We’re responsible for reining you in,” Natasha explained. “Because if you screw up my best friend’s wedding—”

Tony squinted at her. “You’re not going to act like another redhead and try to steal your BFF from a blond like in that movie from back in my booze days that I can’t quite remember, are you?”

“It’s literally called My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Phil sighed.

“Of course you would know the name,” Tony snorted.

“Tony,” Pepper warned again. “We all know that you can be a little heavy-handed.”

“Our wedding—“

“Was thrown together in three days,” Pepper finished. “If you’d had even the few months you’ve had to plan for Steve and Bucky, I would have probably left you at the altar.”

Tony looked at Bruce with a horrified expression, but he shrugged a reluctant agreement with Pepper. “Fine,” Tony huffed. “I won’t discuss Steve and Bucky with all of you. We’ll play along for their sake that this little charade is still going.”

“Thank you,” Pepper said.

“Instead, we’ll talk about all of you. What are you going to wear?” he asked while staring down the trio of houseguests. “I’m not going to interrogate my wife, because she looks good in literally anything—or nothing—and I would like to have sex tonight.”

“You’re the only who thinks that’s a guaranteed thing,” Pepper muttered.

He ignored her and turned his attention to Phil. “You’re probably going to wear the same suit from your wedding, aren’t you?”

The librarian shrugged. “It’s black and in good shape. I’m going to get a new shirt and tie, but—“

“You’ve been married forever,” Tony interrupted. “There’s no way it’s still a fashionable cut.”

“Six years is not forever,” Phil pointed out. “Again, only two years something that is only two years older when compared to you and your life.”

“Bet Clint would say it feels like forever,” Tony shot back and then whined when Pepper reached over to slug him in the shoulder. “Sorry,” he fake apologized. “But seriously—get a new suit. You’re standing up there with a couple supermodels in tuxes. You’re going to want to help yourself out as much as possible.” Before Phil could argue some more, Tony moved his attention to Natasha. “Please tell me your dress isn’t black.”

“Haven’t bought it yet,” she confessed. “But what if it is? It’s a black tie wedding. And why would I wear some bright color when I’m not the center of attention?”

“Because you’re bat-shit terrifying in your spiky heels and flawless black gown. At least try and balance your ruthlessness with some happy color,” Tony suggested.

“The day I take fashion advice from you is the day hell freezes over,” Natasha said.

“Fine,” Tony responded with an eye roll. “We’ll move on to Brother Bruce.”

“Let’s not and say we did,” Bruce answered.

“Aw, c’mon,” Tony prodded. “Get you a new suit, make you look all dapper. All the more easier to find some gorgeous gal to hang on your arm—not that you couldn’t get one without getting all spiffed up.”

Pepper watched a slight blush creep up Bruce’s neck and noticed how he managed to look everywhere but at Natasha, who was smirking like the cat who ate the canary. Apparently she wasn’t the only one who saw the half-second reaction, because Pepper practically felt Tony start to vibrate in a mixture of anger and anxiousness.

She, personally, didn’t care of the pair of friends were dating or screwing or whatever again. Tony? Whole other story. Once he reconstructed something, he didn’t want it to become broken ever again. It was why they had so many vacuums in the basement—he still had yet to give up on them. And now here was his best friend, freshly healed, and possibly trouncing back into dangerous territory (again—only in Tony’s mind).

Sex was probably going to have to be guaranteed tonight if only to keep Tony from obsessing about all the ways Natasha might break Bruce’s heart this time around.

Tony forced a gentle (somewhat fake, to the trained eye) smile. “Well, couldn’t hurt to have a new suit.”

Bruce turned to Natasha. “Mind helping me? I can judge dresses.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Tony cut in, almost able to cover up the tightness in his voice. “We’ll go next weekend after milkshakes. Or before, if you’re worried about your figure.”

Chapter Text

Natasha woke up Wednesday morning with her back exploding in pain and the urge to vomit all over her sheets. “Fuck,” she groaned as she slowly made her way out of bed and literally crawled to the bathroom. She lay on the cool tile for a moment assessing herself. She catalogued each twinge of pain and everything off feeling in her body. “Dammit,” she cursed. She knew exactly what was wrong: kidney stone.

She'd had two before and had grown up watching her mom battle the issue more times than she could remember. Natasha stayed on the floor waiting for this wave of pain and nausea to pass so she could get herself to the hospital. She knew she'd be able to drive herself there, and hopefully, she could get herself back home without any issue.

Once she felt like she could handle upright movement, she slowly peeled herself off the floor and threw on her nearest bra and pair of sweatpants before pulling on her winter coat over the t-shirt she’d gone to bed in. Grabbing her cell phone, she saw that it was just after two in the morning. Quickly, she pulled open the school website and followed the link to the page to set up an absence. With Wilson now teaching at the middle school, she didn't have go-to subs that would be the first on the automated system’s list for her sick day. But she also knew it was only a matter of time before she didn't feel like giving a fuck about who oversaw kickball games or freeze tag or whatever today.

“Your emergency contact is a James Barnes,” the nurse said while reading off her chart. “You want us to give him a call?”

“No,” Natasha answered. That was not the person she wanted to see right now. He was stressed enough with the wedding that she didn't need to add to his list of burdens.

The nurse, a heavyset woman in her fifties, gave Natasha a stern look. “Nobody's going to let you drive yourself home when you're like this. We're going to have to call someone.”

Natasha wanted to argue that she was fine, but even she knew it was an obvious lie. Her hands wouldn't stop shaking, she had to fight to breathe normally, and her mind felt like it would never stop racing. She'd shoved the informational papers the doctor had given her about her condition into her purse, trying to block out their words. “Pepper,” Natasha said when she belatedly realized the nurse was waiting for her to say something. “Call Pepper Potts, please.”

Natasha knew that, despite Tony’s numerous complaints on the matter, the guidance counselor always had her ringer on through the night just in case she was needed in an emergency. It was currently a little after five in the morning, and Natasha knew Pepper would be up soon anyway for some pre-work yoga.

Pepper got to the hospital half an hour later, concern evident on her face. “What happened?”

Maybe it was the pain meds or the shock, but whatever the influence, it caused Natasha to spill what all she'd gone through and learned in the last few hours. When she finished, Pepper nodded slowly, licking her lips as she put a plan together. “Have you called in for a sub?” She asked, and Natasha nodded. “Do you want me to call in and stay with you?”

“I think I'd rather be alone for a while,” Natasha answered.

“That's fine,” Pepper responded, “but I'm not leaving you alone until you're stocked up on everything you need, and I'm going to check in every few hours.”

“Can't promise I'll be coherent with the pain meds they're prescribing me, but sure. Just do me one favor? Well, one more than coming here and helping me with all of this?”

“Of course,” Pepper said.

“Don't tell anyone about this. If they ask, all you know is that I'm sick.”

It was obvious from Pepper’s face that such an approach to answering coworker’s questions wouldn't have been her first choice, but she nodded anyway.

“You know, I tried to run away when I was fifteen.”

Barney just about jumped out of his damn skin at the sound of Peter’s voice, but when he whirled around, the porch was still empty. Empty and bare except for May’s plastic light-up snowman, the one that glowed too bright in the dead of night. He nudged his boot against the base like he expected to find Peter hiding behind it.


Just the quiet of a dark house and a cold winter afternoon.

He shook his head. “Losing your mind, Barton,” he muttered to himself, and he dropped his keys onto the top of the snowman’s plastic hat before stepping down off the porch.

“No, just not too observant,” Peter supplied, and Barney jumped again. This time, he turned around just as Peter swung his sneakered feet down to hang off the roof. Barney glared at him, but the kid just grinned. “Christmas lights,” he said, holding up a string of the things. “Aunt May’s wanted one of us to do it for weeks.”

Barney rolled his eyes. “Don’t you spend Saturdays at your place?”

“Usually, but Gwen’s busy today and I figured it’s about time somebody got the lights done.” When Barney narrowed his eyes, Peter’s grin turned sheepish. “Not that I’m blaming you. We’re both equally responsible for the housework around here. At least, for right this second.”

The kid’s gaze dropped down to the bag that Barney’d slung over his shoulder, and Barney shifted his weight slightly. “Yeah, well,” he said limply, and left it at that.

Peter swung his legs idly, his mouth shut for the first time in probably his whole life, and for a couple seconds, silence washed over them. It was the itchy sort of silence, the kind that climbed under your skin and lodged there like a bug, and Barney worked hard not to reach up and scratch a hand through his hair. The cold wind cut through his coat—he’d bought it cheap at Goodwill, but it hardly helped against the real winter weather—and the slush on the front walk soaked in through a hole in his boots.

Soggy, cold, and nowhere to go. Story of his life.

He hiked the bag up a little higher and turned around, away from Peter and the skin-crawling quiet.

“I was just pissed off at the world,” Peter said the second Barney stepped forward, and he almost groaned aloud. When he shot a glare back over his shoulder, Peter just shrugged. “My uncle’d died a couple months before, and I— I felt responsible, mostly. I’d been a total pain in the ass to everybody, I kept mouthing off or running off, and Uncle Ben . . . ” The words kind of got away from him, and he shook his head. “Anyway, one night, I decided it’d be better off if I left. I packed a bag, snuck out the window, went down to the bus station. I had just enough money to buy a ticket out of town. Stood there for an hour and tried to figure out where I wanted to go.”

Barney felt his shoulders soften a little. “And?” he asked after another couple beats.

Peter’s mouth twisted into a crooked grin. “Aunt May was waiting for me right outside the station when I lost my nerve.” Barney snorted at that, and the kid’s grin grew. “I thought she’d throttle me, but she just grabbed me by the arms like she does sometimes and said, ‘Peter, what happened is horrible but it’s not your fault. Nothing that bad could ever be your fault.’” He twisted the lights in his hands for a second before he shrugged again. “Cheesy, I know, but it was kind of the thing I needed to hear right then. That what happened to Uncle Ben— It was awful and sad, but I didn’t make it happen. And I couldn’t stop it, either.”

He dropped his eyes down to his lap after that, his body slumping a little, and Barney watched as the kid hiked his legs back up onto the roof. He hung the lights quick and easy, like a spider spinning a web, but the longer Barney watched him, the more he transformed into a big blur in Barney’s vision. Because instead of thinking about Christmas lights or the bus schedule, Barney thought about that shirt at the mall that’d reminded him that everything was his fault—and then, about all the shit that’d led up to that point, all the mistakes and fucking misery he’d spent his whole life fighting through.

He’d screwed up a lot. Not just by breaking the law, but by shitting on Clint. By letting all his worst memories sink into him ‘til it created this trench of darkness that ran through him. By hitting everything and everybody who ever stood in his path, ‘cause that was the only thing his dad ever taught him.

Like Harold Barton counted as a role model.

Barney shoved his hands in his pockets. “Your aunt gonna come look for me at the bus station?”

“Knowing her? She’ll drag you back by the hair. Make you promise to load up on sandwiches and coffee before you leave or something.” Barney rolled his eyes at Peter again, but when he glanced up, the kid was sitting back on his knees, watching him. “If you’re just leaving because of Miss Drew, that’s kind of a permanent solution for a temporary girlfriend.”

Barney almost grinned. “This the ‘plenty of fish in the sea’ speech?”

“No, but it’s the ‘Miss Drew’s terrifying and beautiful but probably never going to be somebody you put a ring on’ speech.” He blinked, and Peter held up his hands. “At least, not right now. I don’t know long-term. I would’ve said it about Miss Danvers, too, but—”

Barney frowned. “You call them both ‘Miss’ all the time?”

Peter blinked at him. “You don’t?” he returned, and Barney actually laughed. The kid grinned like maybe he’d planned the joke, but he also plowed on. “If you’re leaving because your girlfriend broke your heart, that’s a little ridiculous. If you’re leaving because you’re running out of money and afraid my aunt’s going to kick you out, I promise there’s at least three home improvement projects you can bribe her with.”

Barney glanced at the ground, the itchy feeling crawling all over his skin again. “It’s not that easy.”

“Yeah, well, maybe nothing is.” He jerked his head back up, and Peter shrugged. “Life’s always throwing curveballs at people. Uncles who die or girlfriends who freak out or, I don’t know, strangers moving in with your aunt and becoming almost-family. You can’t run away every time. You’ll just end up with nowhere to run to.”

Barney rolled his lips together, but for some reason, he almost smiled. “You got it all figured out, don’t you?” he asked.

Peter grinned. “With this stuff, sure. With hanging Christmas lights, on the other hand . . . ”

He trailed off, waggling the plug end of the string (which’d somehow ended up on the whole wrong end of the roof), and Barney sighed. “You’re fucking useless,” he informed the kid—and dumped his bag on the porch before heading to join him on the roof.

Despite taking the prescribed pain meds, Natasha still felt awful thirty-six hours later. The medication made her nausea worse, but she wasn’t about to go without something to take the edge off of her pain.

All she could do was alternate between lying in bed and trying to pee all the time. Both activities were frustrating and awful. She was about to grab her phone to put in a third straight sick day when someone knocked on her front door.

James: open up if you’re still alive appeared at the top of her phone’s screen. Moaning, she complied and slowly made her way out of her bedroom.

“Whoa,” James said when she opened the door. “You look like shit.”

Natasha flipped him off and slowly started back toward her bedroom. James had seen her fight a kidney stone before, as well as strep and the aftereffects of some rancid cheese . She wasn’t embarrassed to look this awful in front of him, and she wasn’t about to fake feeling better. She didn’t have the energy.

Before she could reach the bedroom, James grabbed her gently by the shoulders and steered her toward the couch. “When was the last time you changed your sheets?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” she answered.

He helped her ease down onto her sofa and pulled a blanket over her. “You still have a pair of those t-shirt sheets, or was that just a college phase?”

She didn’t even bother trying to cover up the fact that she still found some strange measure of comfort in that particular bedding. “They’re gray and on the shelf in my closet.”

He made sure to get her a fresh glass of cool water before going making his way to her bedroom. She lay on the couch and listened to him strip her bed, probably mutter a few curses for untidiness, and snap out fresh sheets to cover her mattress. He walked out a moment later, arms full of bedding and towels. “You don’t have to do my laundry, too,” she mumbled into the couch cushion.

“God knows I owe you a few clean-up sessions for all the hangovers you saw me through. Don’t worry about it.”

She managed to doze off for a little bit, listening to the sounds of James puttering around her place like the absolute mother hen he denied being. When her traitorous urinary system woke her up again, she once more cursed her existence. After another fruitless trip to the bathroom, she crawled into her freshly made bed and closed her eyes again.

The mattress dipped beside her when James joined her, sitting up against the headboard. He started rubbing his hand up and down her arm; she rolled over and scooted up next to his leg. “I know this probably isn’t the best time,” he started.

“Is this why you cleaned my place?”

“No, that’s because it needed it,” he sniped back. “I was talking to Steve about kid stuff.”

Her stomach swum at the k-word, and not from her kidney stone. “Decide anything?”

“Any chance you’d be willing to act as a surrogate?” When she didn’t answer, he continued on nervously. “I mean, this probably isn’t the best thing to ask when you’re trying to expel something else out of that general region, but—“

“James,” she sighed. “Trust me when I say I’ve thought a lot about kids, and I’m not exactly mother material.”

He poked at her arm. “Hey, I know this kidney stuff scares you, but just because it made your mom sick doesn’t mean you’ll be the same way.”

Natasha’s stomach churned once more, and she shook her head. “Can we stop talking about moms right now?”

Fury kept himself from grumbling as the cell phone buzzed against his desk. Again. And of course he looked at the screen to read the incoming flood of text messages . It wasn’t his fault Darcy had left her cell in his office during their daily “Get Shit Done Meeting ” (her words, but he approved). They met at seven every morning to run through teacher absences, parent meetings, morning announcements, and whatever potential powder kegs the day held for them.

His office manager had gotten so tied up fielding phone calls from parents that she had yet to retrieve her phone. Fury had heard of the term “blowing up” (he wasn’t that old, thank you). And if he kept track of the messages scrolling along the screen, it was merely checking in with his staff, not necessarily spying, despite what Sitwell would probably say about the situation.

The nonsense had started as soon as Darcy had left. The only challenge for Fury was deciphering Darcy’s codenames for everyone, which wasn’t much of a challenge at all.

Tech Support: Looks like Red is out for a third day in a row. Is December’s chill caused by hell freezing over? Bets on what has her out?

Mrs. Bad Ass: Tony, no.

Tech Support: Tony, yes . I vote Return of the Cage Flu 2.0

Old Hottie: Don’t even joke about that

Book Nerd Hottie: Please do not get him started whining about that. And, for your own safety, leave Natasha alone.

Tech Support: C’mon. You know the deal: 5 bucks in. Winner takes the pot. I vote Death Flu Strikes Back. The best one of the Death Flu trilogy .

Mrs. Bad Ass: Let’s hope it’s not striking again. I can’t handle you having the flu twice in two weeks.

Tech Support: She who has inside information about the betting pool is not allowed to contribute to this conversation.

Mrs. Bad Ass: I’ll be sure not to contribute to other things later.

Tech Support: Where’s a begging emoji when you need one?

Miss Bad Ass: Nat already had flu, and nothing beats Natasha Romanoff twice and lives to tell about it . I bet something happened with her dad and she had to take care of it.

Cray Cray: Ito

Cray Cray: Dammit. Ducking autocorrect.

Cray Cray: UTI

New Hottie: Saw her last night. She’s in rough shape, but she’ll be fine. I’m sure she’ll be back Monday.

Tech Support: Which means you are also eliminated from competition. And even though you are still a few weeks away from an actual marriage bed, I’m sure Rogers is out too.

Future Mr. New Hottie: Wasn’t going to bet anyway

Fluffy McFlufferson: was she okay?

Tech Support: I’M SURE EVERYONE’S FINE. Just c’mon. It’s Friday. Amuse me.

Book Nerd Hottie: Some of us have actual work to do.

Tech Support: Whatevs. Anyone else in on the action? New guys? Darcy?

Even Newer Hottie: I’m with Coulson. I’m not going to mess with Natasha.

Tech Support: Suck up

Baby Nerd Hottie: Alien abduction

Baby Nerd Hottie: But that might be the late night x-files binging talking

Tech Support: I’ve heard worse ideas. Darcy?

Tech Support: Yo Darcy

That Boy: There’s a delectable red lace bra gracing my bedroom floor. I’m assuming it’s yours since all of mine are black.

“Not the mental image I need to get me through the day,” Fury muttered.


Tech Support: Do I need to instigate a paper jam in the copier to get you to answer? You know I’ll do it.

Mrs. Bad Ass: And probably start a small fire while you’re at it.

Fury supposed that was all the information he needed for the morning, and he certainly didn’t need any more details about his office manager’s love life from whoever That Boy was.

His mind clicked in a memory from somewhere that Darcy was dating Odinson’s brother.

Yeah. He was definitely done for the day.

He grabbed the phone and rose from his desk. Out in the main office, Darcy was fielding multiple phone calls, as well as a dozen kids handing her notes from doctors and parents. A couple of the kids—the ones who didn’t give him big eyes and run away in fear—waved , and he returned the gesture. Once Darcy was in between phone calls, he placed her cell in front of her. “Forgot this,” he said.

“Oh, th—“ The word faded to nothingness as she saw the text that was presumably not from a fellow coworker. “Umm…”

“I’m going to pretend I never saw it, and you can pretend you never left your phone in my office this morning.”

“Deal,” she said with a sharp nod.

He was halfway to his office when he turned around. “Out of curiosity, even though I may regret asking this: what am I listed under in your contacts?”

She gave him a huge grin. “One-Eyed Wonder.”

“I think Natasha might be avoiding me.”

Bruce’s murmur barely carried over the usual din of the diner’s sizzling grill and whirring milkshake machine, and Tony showed great restraint by pursing his lips and not commenting. At this point, Tony deserved an Academy Award for Best Actor in an Awkward Situation, because he’d stalwartly not mentioned Bruce and Natasha’s renewed flirtation since all the eyelash batting on his couch. Admittedly, his wife’d inspired about two-thirds of his restraint, what with her glares, threats, and general disapproval, but the rest of it—

Look, Tony hated owning up to shit like this, but the sorry fact was that he could count his friends—his up-close, personal, take-a-grenade-for-you friends—on one hand. One hand minus a finger or two, because he tended to like other people at least a little more than they liked him. And while Rhodey’d known him long enough to forgive him for everything short of a mass murder, Bruce was different.

Tony worried sometimes that poking Bruce with too many pointy things might just make him explode.

Which was why, when Bruce murmured about certain redheaded gym teachers avoiding him like the plague, Tony blinked innocently and sipped his milkshake. “She who?”

Bruce rolled his eyes, but for the next couple seconds, he stayed focused on their half-finished crossword. The fancy paper bag from Tony’s favorite cobbler—because yes, Bruce, everyone should have a professional shoe repairman on retainer—sat next to Bruce on his side of the booth, along with the bag containing Bruce’s new cufflinks. As for the suit, they’d tried two different high-end shops, but neither really offered anything that gelled with Bruce’s style. After the second failure, they’d decided to pause the suit hunt for their meeting and usual milkshake bonding time.

Except Bruce’d fallen quiet the second they’d pulled into the church parking lot, and he’d checked his phone at least ten times in the last hour. A record, given that he also sometimes forgot to turn the ringer back on at the end of the school day, or—

“You know I mean Natasha,” Bruce broke into his thoughts, and Tony almost choked on his next swallow of milkshake. His buddy just shook his head. “I’m not blind, Tony. I saw the face you pulled during our last planning meeting—”

“To be fair, that’s sometimes just my face.”

“—and Pepper more-or-less confirmed my suspicions when I talked to her the other day.” Tony frowned, a little defeated by his traitor of a wife, but Bruce just sighed. “I know she’s been sick,” he continued quietly, “and I know that the last thing she needs while she’s sick is me worrying about her. Or, worse, me treating her like we’re back to . . . Well, you know what I mean.”

“Do I, though?” Bruce’s jaw flexed, the start of one of his whole-body protests, and Tony held up his hands. “That’s not what I meant. The mock-confusion and hint of hurt that you once again kept your sex life from me, yes, but not the part that implied that I’m super judgy and disapproving this time around.”

Bruce snorted. “At least you admit to judging me last time,” he muttered.

“Oh, there’s still thinly veiled judgment, but I plan to leave that for an afternoon when we’re not obligated to two more menswear retailers and my favorite barber.” Bruce rolled his eyes, but his mouth almost twitched into a smile. “Besides, Pepper gave me a very convincing lecture about being a good friend. I’m trying to abide by it.”

“For today,” Bruce pointed out.

Tony shrugged. “Better than nothing. So, again: do I really know what’s going on with you and Red October, or are you just hoping I’ll jump to all the right conclusions and save you the uncomfortable explanation?”

Bruce fell quiet again, his lips pursing uncertainly, and Tony watched as he filled in one final crossword clue before passing the newspaper across the table. He’d left only a handful of words, most of them long and needlessly complicated, and Tony ignored the challenge to keep his eyes on his friend. Bruce pretended to ignore him, studying his own drink or the remnants of his sandwich instead of meeting Tony’s eyes, but Tony knew better. He felt Bruce’s nerves like a physical presence, a heat that radiated off him and soaked right into Tony’s skin.

Like an impossible-to-scratch itch, he thought, or a Romanoff-shaped rash that only time and effort could really heal.

Finally, though, Bruce sighed. “Things were finally back to normal,” he said, dragging a hand through his messy hair. “Not just because of the sex, which I know you’ve imagined in horrifying detail. But for the first time since we tried living together—maybe even for the first time since we tried actually dating—I felt like I had my friend back. Like whatever we’d been building before everything blew up last year was finally back on solid ground. But now . . . ”

He shook his head, his shoulders slumping, and Tony forced himself to remain calm, cool, and collected. He didn’t want to, necessarily—in a lot of ways, he wanted to shout about the path of destruction Natasha Romanoff left in her wake, about how she’d abandoned Bruce to wake up in a cloud of her dust once before and undoubtedly planned on doing it again. But at the same time, he knew that all of Pepper’s warnings and advice was actually right, and that pushing Bruce away again might actually ruin everything.

Especially when Bruce might actually need him. Again.

He pushed Pepper’s voice out of his head and drew in a long breath. “She’s sick,” he reminded his friend, and he waved off the guy’s surprised little blink with a flick of his wrist. “She’s crazy private, she hates showing weakness in any form, and right now, she’s probably suffering some kind of unspeakable body horror that nobody, least of all me, wants to think about.” When Bruce snorted, Tony jabbed a finger at him. “You are one of about four people who avoided the Thanksgiving Break Plague, Banner. You don’t get to chuckle at everyone else’s turkey-flavored misery.”

Bruce cringed. “No, but you may have just ruined turkey for me.”

“Consider it a tax on your weirdly good holiday health.” He rolled his eyes, but Tony just shrugged. “Whatever’s wrong with Natasha right now isn’t your fault,” he pressed, and Bruce looked away even as he nodded. “It’s nothing you did or didn’t do, no preventable screw-up or promise of future doom. If she’s still ducking your calls and texts when she’s back at school, then you should worry about the status of your not-relationship. Until that happy day arrives, there are more important things for you to worry about.”

Bruce arched a monumentally suspicious eyebrow. “You mean my suit for the wedding, don’t you?”

“You know, funny you should mention that without any prompting whatsoever . . . ” Tony immediately replied, and he only grinned—actually, really, fully grinned—when his sober science buddy finally laughed aloud.

That evening, when Pepper returned from wherever she disappeared to on milkshake days, Tony slid up behind her and buried his face in the back of her neck. She still smelled like cold from outside, and for a couple seconds, he breathed in her scent like he was gathering strength from it.

“I can’t play nice about this forever,” he admitted after a while, his lips still close to her skin. “I can’t look at him, already coming apart at the seams again because of her, and just ignore that it’s happening. Not when he’s still hurting from the last time around. Not when he still cares.”

For a long time, longer than usual, Pepper just stood there, her body warm and still as he nuzzled into her neck. Finally, though, she twisted around to wrap her arms around him. “I know,” she said, and Tony closed his eyes as he tipped into her touch. “But like I said before: good or bad, he’s going to need you.”

Tony snorted. “As overwhelmingly perfect as you are, there’s no way you could know that.”

“And here, I thought I was always right,” she teased—but she pressed her lips to his temple, too.

Early Sunday morning, she found relief. Which was good, because she didn’t want to use up any more sick days. She could’ve probably handled work tomorrow physically, but whether she’d be fine mentally was another question.

Following James’s lead, she slowly made her way through her condo, cleaning up her place. She almost didn’t hear the knock on the door because of the vacuum’s engine. When she opened the door, she found Bruce on the other side, offering a sheepish smile. “Pepper spilled the beans,” he announced. Natasha felt her stomach drop at that, but he held up his hand to reveal a large bottle of cranberry juice. “Heard this helps kidneys.”

She pushed a smile onto her face and stepped back so he could come in. “You want a glass?” she asked as she grabbed the juice from his hand.

“I’m good, thanks. How are you?”

“Things passed along about six hours ago, so much better.”

“You know, you could’ve told us,” he said gently. “I mean, you told Pepper, and I’m guessing Bucky knew since he wasn’t participating in the betting pool.”

She rolled her eyes at that thought. Stark’s way of poorly showing that he cared, no doubt. “It’s complicated.”

“I can do complicated,” Bruce responded.

She paused and studied him for a moment, debating how much she was willing to let him in. It was a constant, seemingly never-ending debate. But it needed to find a conclusion soon. “My mom, she was sick when we came to America.”

“Renal issue?” he asked, his face assuming the intrigued expression of a scientist.

Natasha nodded. “Kidney stones were something she faced often, and it eventually led to renal failure. She died when I was twelve, a year before her fortieth birthday.”

“And you’re worried you might have the same thing happen to you?” he questioned.

“Something like that, yeah.”

Bruce simply stared at her for a moment. His face held so much empathy and care that it was nearly suffocating, but he inched toward her and gently wrapped her up in a hug. When she took in a deep breath, her face smashed against his chest, she felt for the first time since Tuesday night that things might be okay. “I don’t know how to fix kidneys,” he told her. “But I do know where all the ice cream places that are still open in December are located.”

Chapter Text

Darcy straightened Jasper’s beard, smoothed hands down his fuzzy red sleeves, and gave a nod of approval. “You have all the candy canes?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“And they’re organized by class?”

“Pepper double-checked and arranged them accordingly in my bag,” he said while gently shifting the sack he’d pulled over his shoulder.

“And you didn’t steal any for yourself?” Darcy questioned.

Jasper gave her a hard look. “I don’t eat candy canes. If I need something minty to celebrate the holidays, there’s peppermint bark you can get at this chocolate shop down—“

“You’re ridiculous.”

He gave her a smirk. “And yet, my Secret Santa still got some for me. Because they love me.”

“Or they’re kissing your ass,” she muttered.

He ignored her comment and headed out of the office. Every year, Ms. Monroe and her class put together a candy cane-gram extravaganza. For a quarter, students could send a candy cane and a note to whoever they pleased. Profits from the effort went toward buying gifts to donate to a charity Ororo worked with to make sure all kids had at least a couple gifts to open on Christmas. And every year, Jasper donned a Santa costume to deliver the festive messages and candy.

Before he entered the first classroom, he pulled out his cell phone. A message from Maria was waiting for him, but unlike Darcy, he was smart enough to change his settings so you had to unlock the phone to read the texts.

Her: Pics or it didn’t happen

He smiled, ignoring the itch of his fake beard. Want me to see if I can sneak the whole ensemble home? You can tell Santa about what a naughty girl you’ve been.

Her: Gross.

He chuckled and snuck a quick selfie of himself anyway to send to her. He then pulled up his music app to select a very special album. Trip, the new music teacher, had worked ceaselessly during the month of November to put together an album of Christmas carols. He’d put it online for five dollars a pop for parents, grandparents, and every relative imaginable to purchase. The younger kids played carols with color coded bells, which even Jasper had to admit was pretty damn cute. Each grade level got its own song, and the selected students who participated in the after-school fifth grade choir had four different tracks to offer. All the music was secular and church-and-state friendly, and last Jasper had checked, it’d earned a few hundred dollars for Trip’s classroom.

His first stop was to the pre-school classroom. What few recipients he doled out were from older siblings (really, their parents) or from “Santa”. Nine times out of ten, “Santa” was a parent wanting to prime their kid for the upcoming holiday festivities. But it could just as easily be a teacher making sure none of their students were overlooked.

After the pre-school classes came kindergarten. In Dr. Banner’s class, students were cutting paper snowflakes in a lesson about symmetry. In newbie Parker’s class, as Jasper had a habit of calling him, the second graders were studying difference in Christmas weather between the northern and southern hemispheres. Barnes had his fourth graders in an impromptu spelling bee using only winter-themed words. Jessica Cage had a group of advanced fifth graders calculating how many houses Santa would have to visit in an hour in order to visit all the kids of the world. And Barton had another group of eleven- and twelve-year-olds writing out what they hoped their own Ghosts of Christmas Future would show them.

All the students were excited to hear their very own Christmas album being played in addition to receiving an infusion of sugar. Jasper, on the other hand, loved the chance to hang out with six hundred plus students for a fun reason and to have a break from dealing with discipline issues. His good mood carried over to a holiday gathering as Maria’s date. The secondary principals and assistant principals had an annual gathering to celebrate the holidays. They took turns having it at each other’s homes, and this year, it was located at the home of the principal of the middle school where Maria worked.

Robert Gonzales owned a large piece of land outside of town that included access to a large lake where he enjoyed sailing a small boat around in nicer weather . He greeted the door with a smile. “Evening, Jasper. Sorry I had to recruit your date into decorating my house. Laura would’ve killed me if I was her only hope in getting ready.”

“Can’t piss off wives, sir,” Jasper responded.

“Nor assistant principals. So go save Maria and make sure she has a good time tonight, alright?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jasper passed off his coat and sought out his girlfriend. Maria was in the kitchen, wearing a dark green dress that hugged all the right places while still being professional enough for a work party. A small smile crossed her lips when she caught sight of him. She excused herself from the small group she was talking with and sauntered up to him. “How many times did you call Gonzales ‘sir’?” she asked.

“Shut up,” he muttered before kissing her cheek.

Sure, there were plenty of things worse than candy canes bought at the dollar store. Jasper had to deal with them almost every day. But there were also things like Maria’s smile, happy students, and belonging to a great work family that could beat out things even as delicious as peppermint bark.

“I feel like I’m searching through a pile of needles for one special needle,” Carol grumbled as they walked out of The Sharper Image and into a throng of giggling teenagers. She glared at a couple until they moved out of the way, then started down the crowded corridor. “What am I even supposed to buy him? Stark’s suggested no fewer than ten model planes, but I’m pretty sure he’s fucking with me.”

She glanced over at Jessica and discovered her friend staring at the big plastic ornaments hanging from the mall’s sky lights. Again. For the hundredth time. “You still on this planet with me?” she asked.

Instead of responding, Jessica started twirling the end of her scarf around her fingers.

Carol sighed. “Jess—” She reached out to touch her friend’s arm and nearly jumped back into an old lady when Jessica responded with a full-body jerk. For a second, they stood frozen, staring at each other while all the other shoppers walked around them.

Carol frowned. “Are you—”

“Crotchless panties,” Jessica immediately said, her face splitting into an enormous and obviously forced smile. Carol felt her frown deepen, but Jessica shrugged it off. “What do you get the boyfriend who has everything? Crotchless panties. Maybe with a garter belt? High heels? I bet Pepper could—”

“Okay, no,” Carol cut her off, holding up her hands. “As far as I am concerned, Stark and Pepper are in a loveless marriage of convenience, and no one can ever tell me otherwise.”

A little bit of genuine mirth sparkled in Jessica’s eyes. “The September 22 supply closet incident begs to—”

No,” Carol emphasized, and her friend actually laughed.

They wandered in and out of a half-dozen other stores—including Things Remembered (which Carol’d mostly like to forget), a menswear boutique, and, out of desperation, Victoria’s Secret—before ending up on a bench across from Mrs. Field’s cookies. Carol scrubbed her hands over her face. “This is useless,” she decided. “I am going to be that woman who gives her boyfriend a ‘free hugs’ coupon book or something equally stupid, and all because he’s impossible to shop for.” She heaved a sigh. “This is Stark’s fault. He set us up. I should make him pick out James’s present and just put my name on it.”

She waited for Jessica’s usual snide comment about her wrapping skills, but when she glanced over, she discovered her friend frowning into the distance. When she followed Jessica’s eye-line, she discovered a clique of college-aged couples congregating over by the Starbucks. A man with brown hair and broad shoulders kept tugging on his dark-haired girlfriend’s ponytail, and the girlfriend kept smacking him in the stomach while laughing.

Carol rolled her lips together and waited for Jessica to say something, but her friend just returned to her scarf-twirling. “Okay,” she said finally, lightly kicking Jessica’s ankle, “what the hell happened?”

This time, Jessica only flinched instead of jumping out of her skin. “I don’t know what you’re talking—”

“Aside from one joke about crotchless panties and Pepper Potts’s horrifying sex life, you’ve been dead silent all morning.” Jessica rolled her eyes and tried to look away, but Carol tugged her scarf gently to keep her attention. “No comments about how I should really just buy an edible bra and call it good. No suggestions that we run to the sex shop and buy some hot-pink contraption that requires an engineering degree just to read the directions. No references to him being my dark chocolate brown sugar love bucket.”

“Every time I compare him to food, you say I’m being racist,” Jessica pointed out.

“But you do it anyway.” Her friend jerked her scarf free and twisted to face the college students again, and Carol rubbed her temple. “Look, if you’re not in the mood to be here, that’s fine,” she said. “But you’ve barely crawled out of your hidey-hole long enough to see your shadow, lately—”

“You’re confusing Christmas and Groundhog’s Day again.”

“—and even you have to admit how weird that is.”

Jessica huffed out a breath. “To be fair, I’m the textbook definition of weird.”

“Which is why I hang out with you.” A tiny smile nudged at the corner of Jessica’s mouth, but when it failed to reach her eyes, Carol knocked their shoulders together. “Don’t make me guess what’s going on. Because you know me, I start at brain tumors, double back to accidental pregnancies, then—”

“Everything I touch turns to detention,” Jessica interrupted quietly. Carol blinked, and her friend shook her head. “It’s a line from a TV show, I don’t remember which one. But this kid, she has a master plan, and she ends up saying that everything she does turns to shit . . . ” She sighed and glanced back in Carol’s direction. “Sometimes I do things,” she said after another second or two, “and I don’t think about the big picture. I see three steps in front of me, but not six. Not eight, or ten, and then—” She cut herself off and dropped her eyes into her lap. “I’m like the adult version of the kid in the TV show. Everything I touch turns to shit. The grown-up version of detention.”

Carol nodded slightly. “If you want to talk about it—”

Jessica snorted. “If I wanted to talk about it, I’d be talking about it,” she returned, her voice a little sharp. “But I don’t. Like how I don’t want to be out at payday happy hour with our incestuously coupled-up coworkers. And like how I really don’t want to go to the Rogers-Barnes wedding, but I’m trying to not be an asshole.” She shrugged. “What’s that Rolling Stones song? ‘You pretty much never get what you want and rarely get what you need?’”

Against her better judgment, Carol grinned. “It’s ‘you can’t always get what you want.’”

“Yeah, well, at least we know Rhodey can get exactly what he wants for Christmas: his vanilla bean girlfriend in crotchless panties,” Jessica returned, and flashed Carol another one of those big, fake grins.

“I feel like a fucking moron,” Barney muttered.

And just like it heard him or something, the tape popped off the end of the present in front of him and the side flap fell down.

If he really wanted to, Barney could count on maybe two hands how many Christmas gifts he’d wrapped in his lifetime. He’d grown up in the kind of family where Santa brought you a couple pairs of socks and a single toy car he’d probably found at a garage sale and you still counted yourself lucky that Santa’d scraped together those kinds of pennies at all. By the time everything unraveled into shit and left him and Clint to more-or-less fend for themselves, Christmas’d become like new sneakers and warm coats: a thing that belonged to other people, but never the Barton boys.

Sometime after he’d dropped out of high school but before jail, he’d dated a nice girl. Bought her this candle-holder thing she’d spotted at the mall. Just a little gift, but it’d felt big, like turning over a new leaf in life. He’d sprung for decent wrapping paper, taped it up nice, the whole nine yards.

She’d thanked him, but without sounding like she’d meant it. A couple weeks later, they split up.

He glanced back over his shoulder at his closed closet door. In the bottom corner, sort of under some of his dirty clothes, was another nice box for another nice girl. Except he hadn’t bothered wrapping it, because Jessica—

He huffed out a breath and reached for the tape.

No use thinking about Jessica.

Clint and Phil invited him for Christmas proper—an actual family Christmas, half out of guilt over the Thanksgiving thing (even though Barney kept telling them that no, really, he gave all of two shits about missing out on an awkward Coulson family gathering)—but the second he’d told May, she’d demanded they spend the Saturday before Christmas together. “We’ll do presents, dinner, and dessert,” she’d said in that you just try arguing with me tone of hers. “A dry run for Christmas with your brother.”

Barney’d grinned. “Ten bucks says that your Christmas is better.”

She’d pointed a finger at him. “If that is the case, you keep it to yourself until you can report back to me,” she’d told him, and he’d cracked up laughing.

Except he just spent an hour wrapping up the gifts for her, Peter, and Peter’s girlfriend. And another half-hour muttering to himself about how stupid he felt about the whole damn thing.

Christmas, he reminded himself, belonged to other people. Like Parkers and Coulsons, not—

“Merry Christmas!” May announced as he walked into the living room with his sad couple boxes, and he actually froze in the doorway to stare at the pile under the tree. For the first time in his life, the room looked like a TV-show Christmas, with sparkling packages, shiny bows, and all the lights on. His chest tightened up a whole bunch, but May just walked over and grabbed his arm. “I’m sending a lot of those gifts to relatives out of state,” she told him as she dragged him toward the tree, “and a couple are for charity. But we can’t have an early Christmas without the full effect—especially since I’ve got all of Peter’s gifts hidden.”

“She thinks I still believe in Santa,” Peter explained as he walked in from the kitchen with Gwen. They wore sweaters and jeans, like something out of a catalogue, and Barney actually laughed. Peter scowled. “What?”

“I told him it was loud,” Gwen said, gesturing to the bright red and green stripes that spread across Peter’s chest. “He never listens.”

“You liked this sweater!” Peter half-squeaked. “I got the same one in red and blue, because you said—”

“Nah, it’s not that,” Barney cut in, mostly ‘cause Peter’s face had started turning bright red. “This whole thing’s just—”

“We all need our traditions,” May offered when his voice stuck a little. She’d already stolen the gifts out of his grip and arranged them around the tree with the rest. Her hand felt warm and soft on his arm. “And as long as you’re here, you’re part of ours. A member of the family, as far as I’m concerned.” She paused to glance up at him. “Even if you decide to leave, you’re still one of us.”

Barney swallowed. “May, I—”

“After we eat,” she said, and led him into the kitchen.

Gwen and Peter’d already spread out a whole feast of Chinese food across the kitchen table, and they passed around containers of fried rice and crispy duck while May, Peter, and Gwen told stories from Christmases past and Barney laughed so hard he almost choked. Peter talked about growing up Jewish and his parents’ decision to create Jewish Santa—“I sometimes wonder what they were thinking,” May lamented with a sigh, but grinned when Peter scowled—and Gwen regaled them all with her years of ransacking the family’s apartment in search of presents. May shared tales of her childhood Christmases, complete with “more oranges than you ever wanted in your stocking,” and by the end of dinner, Barney even talked about the year he and Clint helped their dad chop down a tree. They’d accidentally stolen it off somebody else’s land, not that anybody’d realized it ‘til the guy’d walked his property in spring thaw, and for months, their whole corner of Iowa’d speculated about who’d snatched up that one tree.

Barney’d carried the secret around like a weight, but sharing it with the Parkers (and Gwen) felt right. Like being part of something.

Afterward, when they opened presents, he felt it so hard that his breath stuck in his throat.

“I don’t—” he started to say as he cracked open the box, but he ended up swallowing around the words. ‘Cause not only were they brand new boots, newer than Barney’d owned in a long fucking time, but May’d tucked in a little note about buying him a coat.

“I didn’t want to guess,” she said, leaning in close. “Boots are easy to size, but I don’t know how you like your coats. Maybe after Christmas, we can shop around. If you don’t mind being seen with a little old lady.”

Barney blinked a couple times before he managed to roll his eyes at her. “Nobody who meets you thinks you’re little,” he said, running out of anything else to say. He glanced to her present, a paper weight he’d found at this weird discount store with a design—in this case, music notes—etched in glass so it looked like it was floating. “I should’ve gotten you something better, but—”

“The moment you find something better than this, you tell me, because I’m not sure I believe it exists.” He tried to snort at that, but May squeezed his wrist so warm and kind that he couldn’t even fake it. When she smiled, he smiled back. “Merry Christmas, Barney.”

He nodded and swallowed again, maybe even rougher than the first time. “Merry Christmas,” he murmured, and reached to wrap her up in a hug.

Bucky looked out across the bar and pathetically tried to hide his smile by taking a swig from his beer bottle. Apparently, it was tradition that whenever a specials teacher gets married, May Parker planned the bachelor party. And just for Steve, because people did anything for Steve (not that Bucky blamed them), May came out of retirement.

He was a little relieved this was one area of the wedding business that Tony didn’t have a hand in planning. While the technology teacher had done an amazing job so far on keeping to Steve and Bucky’s wishes for their big day, Bucky feared the man might go crazy with an all-night party and strippers as far as the eye could see.

And when you were marrying Steve “Adonis” Rogers, who needed strippers?

Unless Steve wanted to strip. Bucky wouldn’t have any issue with that, but he was pretty sure Steve would give him big, disappointed eyes if Bucky asked. Maybe if he got Steve drunk… No, probably still wouldn’t happen.

May, God knew how, had managed to clear out the bar for the evening. The place was new to Bucky; all lighting was furnished by neon signs that littered the ceiling, the burgers were meaty nectar of the gods , the beer list was as long as his arm, and there was live music. Currently, Trip was guesting as front man and killing a cover of a blues song that Bucky couldn’t quite remember the name of.

This wasn’t his first bottle of beer.

Across the room, Steve was laughing at some joke Clint was telling. Judging from Phil’s eye roll, it was probably at his husband’s expense. There were small pockets of close friends scattered across the room, and it added to the warmth in Bucky’s belly that the alcohol had started.

“You can’t be buzzed already,” a voice stated behind him. He turned to find Natasha smirking at him.

“I’m fine,” he lied, and she rolled her eyes. He looked down at her drink and frowned. “Since when do you drink vodka and cranberry juice without the vodka?”

“Since my kidney had another mutiny.”

“You’re not still having trouble, are you?”

“This one?” a new voice asked. “She’s always trouble. You of all people should know that.”

Bucky spun his heel—a little too quickly—to greet the newcomer. Standing there with a wide, gap-toothed smile was Sam Wilson, special education teacher extraordinaire. Just don’t tell Carol Danvers he said so. “Sam!” he said with a shout before wrapping his former collaboration teacher up in a hug.

Sam slapped him on the back politely, but asked Natasha, “How far gone is he?”

“Not far enough,” she answered, and Bucky could feel the evil intent in her voice.

Sam laughed and pulled away to kiss her on the cheek. “How you doin’?”

“Missed you,” Natasha replied.

“Feeling’s mutual,” Sam said before turning back to Bucky. “Place isn’t the same without you, man. Miss teaching with you.”

“Willing to transfer?” Bucky asked. “Rumor has it the SpEd teacher who collaborates with the younger kids is retiring. I can introduce you to Carol if you want, she’s chair for the department.”

“How ‘bout you introduce me to your fiancé instead,” Sam said.

“You haven’t met Steve yet?” Natasha asked. “Oh, this I have to see.”

Bucky rolled his eyes because he knew exactly why Natasha was basically licking her lips at this opportunity. He never dated seriously before Steve. Tried a time or two, but it never took, thankfully. But he did have a type. And Sam, someone who used to hang out with him on the regular and was one of the few former co-workers who knew about the kind of person Bucky liked to date, also knew exactly what Bucky’s type was.

And Steve? Steve was the epitome of it.

As soon as Steve shook his hand, Sam cracked up. “Oh man, Facebook pictures did not do you justice.”

“Shut up,” Bucky muttered, but the words didn’t have any heat behind it. He was just getting used to the idea of Steve and Natasha sharing secrets about him, but adding Sam to the group? He was screwed.

He also couldn’t care less.

By the end of the night, Sam and Steve were pretty much inseparable, just as Bucky had expected. The only person who’d offered to strip was Darcy, and Bucky’s head buzzed with a hum of happiness from being surrounded by his friends.

“You’re handsy,” Steve laughed while trying to unlock their front door. Unlike Bucky, he was careful with his drinking tonight, which was a damn shame. When he got drunk, it was like his tongue had a magnetic attraction to Bucky’s body, and it was pretty great.

“That’s not really a complaint.”

“No, it’s not,” Steve replied. He pushed open the door, grabbed Bucky by the belt loops, and pulled him inside their home. “So, you were disappointed that I didn’t give you a striptease?”

“Who told?”

“You did,” Steve replied. “Twice on the way home just now.”

Bucky grabbed Steve by the hips and pulled him close. “You offering?”

“You gonna remember in the morning?”

“If I don’t, I guess I’ll just have to get a repeat performance.”

“I don’t think I can ever move from this spot again. Ever.”

From his place just inside the bedroom doorway, Loki smiled. At times like these, Darcy always reminded him a little of a goddess from an art museum painting, complete with warm alabaster skin and dark, messy hair. But unlike a woman in a painting, Darcy lived and breathed—and scowled at him as he leaned his shoulder against the doorframe.

“Stop,” she groaned, burying her face in his pillow.

He raised his eyebrows. “Stop what?”

“Stop looking smug. It’s not attractive. It’s actually the opposite of attractive.”

Loki bit down on the corners of a truly triumphant grin. “I believe you said the opposite as you dragged me into bed and—”

“Seriously, stop,” she half-begged, and he laughed when she flung what appeared to be her undergarments at him.

They flopped ineffectually to his feet, but as much as Loki wanted to tease her about her failed assault, he ended up just watching her: the line of her back, the sweeping curves of her hips, the way she balled herself into his comforter in an attempt to hide from his smugness (and, more likely, from the December cold outside). The longer he watched, the more his mind promised to betray him, kicking around the same offer he’d fought off a thousand times before:

Stay the night. Don’t go home. You know you’d rather be here, anyway.

Deep down, of course, he knew those words to be foolish ones, a promise only he could keep. Because Darcy struggled to maintain peace with her mother on the best days, and on the worst—

“She’s getting married.”

Darcy blurted it out of nowhere, a complete non sequitur, and Loki blinked as she rolled to face him. She sighed, blowing hair out of her face. “My cousin Deidre—”

“Not the one who assaulted me in the coffee shop?” Loki asked.

She snorted. “Wrong side of the family, so no. Deidre’s about a year-and-a-half older than me, but she’s practically super woman. Finished college in three years, jumped straight into a super-competitive MBA program— At the rate she’s going, she’ll be running the world before I decide what’s really my favorite flavor of ice cream.”

Loki walked over and nudged her until she allowed him to crawl into bed. “I thought we’d settled on Moose Tracks.”

She shot him a truly withering glance. “Or you settled on Moose Tracks because you and Alva both like picking out the peanut butter cups.”

He shrugged. “I can admit to my weaknesses.”

“Yeah, since when?” Loki scowled, but she just shook her head as she settled next to him. Crowded into his space, actually, and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. “She’s bringing her fiancé at Christmas,” she continued after a few seconds of silence. “Her perfect dermatologist fiancé who keeps e-mailing my mom about wine-and-cheese pairings like we’re in some sort of preppy movie, and I—”

She scrubbed a hand over her face, her words devolving into a quiet, frustrated noise, and Loki reached to brush hair off her forehead. “You’re not required to live up to your mother’s obscene expectations,” he reminded her.

“Oh, trust me, I stopped caring about her expectations about a million years ago,” Darcy spat, and Loki rolled his lips together to prevent himself from objecting to her lie. She flopped back to stare at the ceiling. “But we’re going still going to have conversations about it. About my ambitions, my priorities— And I swear, the second she uses the words ‘life plan’ in a sentence, I am not going to be responsible for my actions.”

Loki nodded slightly. “You’re not forced to go.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not that simple.”

“You’re a grown woman. You can certainly—”

“And still try to live with her?” Darcy demanded, and Loki looked away. He listened to her huff out a breath; for a brief moment, he imagined that he felt her frustration swell and deflate like an invisible balloon. Finally, though, she snaked her arm around his waist and pressed close. “I know I need to stop whining about living with her and just find a way out, but every time I log into Craigslist, I hear the roommate ads in Lester Holt’s voice and freak myself out.”

He glanced down at her and grinned. “You don’t relish the thought of being the latest episode of Dateline: Mystery?”

“You know almost all those girls die, right? And not in that ‘quickly smothered in a peaceful sleep’ way, either.” He almost laughed at that, and she propped herself up on an elbow. When she loomed halfway over him, her hair tumbling around her face, he swore his heart stuttered. “No more buzzkill, I promise,” she said, the fingers of her free hand splaying across his chest. “Especially since there’s only an hour before I need to split and leave you alone through Christmas.”

Loki glanced at his alarm clock. “Sixty-eight minutes, actually.”

She grinned. “You know, I like the way you think,” she replied, and leaned down to kiss him.

Sixty-seven minutes later, Loki untangled his fingers from her messy hair and shoved his hands into his pockets. Darcy grinned at him, her cheeks ruddy and eyes sparkling, and he resisted the temptation to drag her back upstairs and forget about their respective holiday plans. A week in bed with Darcy Lewis—

He would die, but with a smile on his face.

“There will come a day,” he warned seriously, “when I will tempt you to stay for at least a weekend. Maybe longer.”

Darcy’s cheeks flared even pinker, but she hid it by wrapping her scarf tight around her face. “You talk like that, it sounds like you’d want me to stay forever,” she warned, and ducked out the front door of his building before he could say anything more.

Tony lay in bed, his head turned toward the large window in the bedroom. Outside, the sky was graciously obliging the area with a white Christmas. The fat flakes fell gently to the earth, and it was peaceful and beautiful enough to deserve a sigh, but Pepper’s head rested on his chest. He didn’t want to wake her.

Normally Christmas was spent with her family in Virginia, but with Steve and Bucky’s wedding in a week, they’d elected to stay here so that they could handle any last-minute wedding-related explosions while the grooms enjoyed the holiday with their families. For weeks, Tony feigned relief at not having to travel: no absurdly tall brothers-in-law to stare him down, no faking an appetite for his mother-in-law’s ridiculously caloric casseroles, no cow-shit laden fields, no screaming nieces and nephews constantly begging for his attention. He had made just enough comments to keep up with the image of a relieved man, but not so much to become an abandoned husband.

But truth be told, he was a little worried about not traveling to the Potts family farm.

December hadn’t always been kind to him. Growing up, his father did his best to be present on Christmas, but doing so just made his absence the other 364 days of the year all the more noticeable. December was when his parents were killed in a car accident. It was the month when Tony woke up in an unknown hotel room with a strange woman in his bed and a circular tattoo etched into his chest. He didn’t even remember getting the ink injected into his skin, wasn’t even sure what the design was supposed to be. All he did know was that it was red, angry, and infected. That was when he knew he had to be done with his lifestyle or he would be done with life all together.

December was cold, dark, and lonely.

December was death.

But then came Pepper, and a whole new meaning to the end of the year.

The month was now, unbelievably, the reminder of how he was ready to accept the responsibility of a tiny human and the thought of not being an abhorrent father. Not great, but not awful. And even though all of that was only a false positive on a pregnancy test, it caused December to become a wedding anniversary. The month gave him a wife he would never deserve even if he lived to be a million, but one he’d work his ass off every day to try and be worthy of.

And as much as he could complain about it, December now included the family-filled Christmas the small boy inside of him always longed for. Pepper Potts and her family had brought a new meaning to the last month of the year, and Tony was fairly certain she had no idea how much she’d transformed him in four short years of marriage.

But old fears crept into his mind this winter. He worried that by changing their new traditions, he’d jinx things. Something would happen to Pepper or him, or to someone else. December would become dark and awful again.

He didn’t say all of this to Pepper. Judging from the extra touches and small smiles she’d given him in the last week, he didn’t have to. He wanted to open up to Bruce about it, but Pepper still dropped occasional hints that his brother in science and sobriety would need Tony more than he needed Bruce. Tony still didn’t have a clue what that meant, but he loved Pepper and Bruce enough to follow his wife’s advice.

But still, more anxiety and uncertainty for this month. Great.

Pepper stirs and places a kiss to his bare chest, now ink-free thanks to some laser assistance. He runs fingers through her gorgeous hair. “Go back to sleep if you want,” he rumbles quietly. “No kids to demand opening Christmas presents.”

“Other than you?”

“Hilarious,” he says before kissing the top of her head. “But seriously, stay in bed. You look really good in it.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Make you breakfast.”


“Can I cook anything else?” he replied. “And I’ve got five pounds of bacon in the fridge in case you’re feeling homesick.”

Pepper groaned. “I’ve got a dress to fit into in a week.”

“And you’ll look gorgeous no matter what,” he said before kissing her head again and slipping out from underneath her. She wrapped her slender fingers around his wrist as he tried to walk away and pulled him to a stop.

He turned and looked at her and could tell that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. Despite being a counselor, she still didn’t always know what to say to him. Which was more disparaging against him than her.

After a few seconds, she settled for a smile. “Merry Christmas, Tony.”

Chapter Text

Steve knew that if he kept fiddling with his cufflinks, he might actually break one in half.

He fiddled anyway.

The hall Tony—or maybe Pepper, because Steve could no longer tell who’d planned which elements of his wedding—had picked out for the ceremony and reception felt big and airy, but the little side room Steve’d claimed as his dressing room bordered precariously on claustrophobic. Usually, Steve liked small spaces—they felt cozy and warm, like his own private corner of the world—but right now, he wished he could crack a window and suck in a breath of cold winter air.

He tugged at his collar and tried to remind himself that all his discomfort came from nerves.

He and Bucky’d worked hard all week to keep some of the mystery in their big day, but as the clock ticked closer and closer to their actual ceremony, Steve had started to wish Bucky was at his side. They’d parted ways after a big brunch with both their families, and Steve’d spent the whole afternoon and evening with his mother. They’d gone to the salon (some nameless, faceless benefactor—possibly with strawberry-blonde hair and access to Tony’s checking account—had sprung for his mother to have her hair done), to a movie, out to dinner . . . Everything on the planet to keep Steve from vibrating out of his clothes. Still, his nerves’d plagued him, an itch under his skin that he knew he could never scratch.

His mother’d smiled every time and squeezed some part of him: his arm, his hand, his knee. “Nerves are natural,” she’d promised.

She had also ducked out of the dressing room about fifteen minutes earlier, leaving Steve to sweat and fidget like one of his students.

A knock sounded lightly at the door, and Steve jerked around just as Phil poked his head in. “Afraid I might be Bucky?” the librarian asked.

Steve snorted. “Hopeful, more like.” Phil’s laugh lines crinkled, and Steve sighed as he glanced back at the mirror for the last time. “I thought I’d prepared for how I’d feel, how nervous I’d be, but in reality . . . ”

“It’s a lot more nerve-wracking than you think, isn’t it?” Phil finished for him. Steve nodded slightly, and his friend—his best man—smiled. “Clint practically mauled me when we saw each other before the wedding. He’ll tell you it was my suit, but I’m pretty sure it was his nerves.”

Steve grinned back. “And you?”

Phil shrugged. “Excited, more than nervous. In part because I knew us spending the night apart—and him staying with Tony of all people—would be as much as he could handle.” Steve’s nerves bubbled together into a little burst of laughter, and he swore for a second that Phil winked before unbuttoning his suit coat. “But I’ve been a groomsman to a lot of worried men before,” he continued, reaching into his inside pocket, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you sometimes need a little extra help.”

Steve blinked as Phil pulled his hand back out. “Is that—”

“We each take a shot,” Phil explained, his flask glinting in the dressing room’s overhead lights, “and we never tell Tony that we needed a hit of liquid courage.”

This time, the laugh that tumbled out felt like actual relief, and Steve grabbed two of the tumblers on the complimentary water tray and held them out to Phil. “Do I want to know what we’re drinking?” he asked as the clear liquid sloshed into his glass.

Something wicked sparked in Phil’s eyes. “Let’s just say it’s probably very similar to what Natasha’s plying your fiancé with,” he replied, and tapped their glasses together.

The vodka burned the back of Steve’s throat, but he happily welcomed the warmth that spread in the pit of his stomach. When Clint came to collect Phil for “that thing we talked about in the car”—which Steve understood to mean a dirty blowjob in one of the hall’s other side rooms—Phil left the flask behind. Steve poured another shot but left it on the little side table, electing to finish dressing instead.

He’d just finished adjusting his tie for the fifth time when his mother walked into the room. Even as the mother of the groom, she glowed, her face radiant and her sparkly wrap glimmering like starlight. When she smiled at him, his heart fluttered slightly. Out of nerves, sure, but out of excitement, too.

His mother’s smile grew rapidly, tipping quickly into a troublesome grin, and Steve almost groaned. “Please don’t tell me you went to see Bucky.”

She raised her hands. “I’m not responsible for Winifred Barnes’s actions.”

Steve heaved a sigh. “Mom,” he complained, but his mother just shrugged innocently. He allowed her a full ten seconds of a straight face before asking, “How does he look?”

She beamed. “Almost as wonderful as his groom.” Heat immediately rose into Steve’s cheeks—half from the compliment, half from the word groom—and he swallowed around his embarrassment as his mother manhandled him away from the mirror. She adjusted his tie and tuxedo jacket for a moment before planting a hand on his chest. “I’m the happiest woman in the world today,” she informed him. “Remember that.”

The swell of emotion that rose up in his chest threatened to choke him, but he forced a shy little smile. “That happy to gain a son-in-law?” he teased.

“That happy that you’re with me now,” she replied honestly, and a whole new kind of heat prickled Steve’s eyes. He blinked against it, but his mother just smiled. “Happy that you’re able to experience this. To start another new chapter of your life. After everything, I’m just—” Her voice trembled, but even when she cleared her throat, she never looked away. “I’m so happy for you, Steve.”

For the first time all day, all of Steve’s nervousness and uncertainty drained out of him and allowed him to reach down and wrap his mom in an enormous, desperate hug. “Me too,” he murmured, and held her tight.

Bucky swatted at the nearly dozen hands all trying to fix his hair or pull invisible pieces of lint off of his tux. “Leave me, alone,” he begged. “There’s another son in this family, and odds are good that he needs more help looking presentable than I do.”

“If we mess with George, it’ll just piss off his wife,” Tammy argued.

“And she already thinks we’re a bunch of crazy, meddling sisters,” Lainey added.

“Can’t imagine where she’d get an idea like that,” Bucky muttered, but it was still loud enough for Kristin to hear, and it earned him an elbow to the side. “Go distract Ma or something, I need a minute.”

“We’re just trying to help,” Rebecca replied, her voice sounding somewhat pitiful. She was the only sibling younger than him and took advantage of that fact as much as she could. “Don’t you want your sisters to help get you ready for your wedding day?”

Bucky sighed and caught Natasha’s eyes in the mirror. It took her a second to realize that he was looking at her, and an insufferable second longer for her to understand his silent plea. “Sorry, ladies,” she said. “James and I have a ritual to complete. I promise to have him ready for the ceremony in one piece and looking gorgeous.”

His four sisters took their turns giving him hugs and whispering little bits of encouragement into his ear. His mother had already sobbed her way through a speech about how she was so happy for him. Bucky’s father had clapped him on the back and given a nod of support—something that basically equated to a lecture of how happy he was, considering how much the Barnes patriarch let his wife do all the talking. His brother, George, well. There were too many years, sisters, and differences in opinion for them to really have a moment. Bucky was pretty sure George and his wife just were grateful simply to have a family get-together where they could easily run off to their own hotel room if Ma Barnes got too overwhelmed with everything.

Once they were alone, Natasha walked up to Bucky’s side and examined their reflections in the floor length mirror. While she had abstained from wearing black, her gown was still gray. The dark silver material wrapped around her body in a way that showed off her curves but flared out at the knees, with a small train following her as she walked around. The strapless neckline highlighted her pale and flawless skin, and for once, her hair was down in soft curls instead of pulled back into a ponytail to keep her field of vision clear while refereeing games of freeze tag. “You look gorgeous,” he said.

Natasha shrugged. “I guess you look alright.”

He rolled his eyes but checked his reflection once more. He’d been surprised when Steve decided they should get tuxes, but if his suit could make him look this good, he couldn’t wait to see what his fiancé looked like.

Fiancé. Almost husband.

His breath caught and he expected Natasha to mock him for the noise, but instead, she was quiet. “You okay?” he asked.

She walked in front of him to look him in the eye and gave him a small smile. “Just thinking about how far we’ve come. Alex would lose his shit if he saw you right now.”

He snorted. “Since he was planning your wedding as soon as he met you and never knew me as someone willing to try a relationship—“

“That lasted for more than a night?” Natasha questioned.

“Yeah, I guess he’d be a little surprised.”

“And proud,” she added. “Just like me.” Her voice caught ever so slightly and she leaned forward to kiss the corner of his mouth. “Congratulations, James.”

His chest tightened. If Natasha Romanoff was willing to show this much emotion, hell must be close to freezing over. And since he was about to get married, it seemed like a reasonable theory. Natasha sniffed and quickly swiped at her tears as she collected herself. “You sure okay?” Bucky asked.

“Just disappointed that I have to find someone new to bitch to about life being unfair and awful. You won’t be able to understand things at all what with your perfect husband and—“

“Yeah, whatever,” Bucky said. “What’s this ritual we have to do?”

“Oh, nothing,” Natasha answered. “I promised Steve that you wouldn’t be drunk for your ceremony, so no last minute game of Drink the Truth or anything. You just seemed like you were being overrun with sisters.”

“I’m always overrun with sisters, including you,” he told her as he tweaked her nose.

She swatted his hand away and looked him up and down. “Ready for this?” she asked.

“Ready? No idea. Just know I’ve been waiting on it for years.”

Bucky patted his mother’s hand where it rested in the crook of his arm. “Nervous?” Winifred asked.

He rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“There's nothing wrong with being nervous,” she told him. “As long as you're not feeling dread, it's fine.”

Dread was absolutely not one of the emotions he felt. Mostly, he just wanted this whole thing over already. Get married, have a nice reception, fly to New Orleans for the honeymoon. In essence: become a husband. That's all he cared about.

In the room where the guests were waiting for the ceremony to start, music swelled. Bucky couldn't remember what piece was selected for each individual part of the ceremony, and again, he didn't care. It could be one of Bruce's CDs full of songs about letters of the alphabet and it would've been fine with him. Natasha, who was standing at the door, threw a smile over her shoulder before she walked in. On the other side of the room, Phil would be entering at the same time.

His Ma’s hand squeezed his arm, and he leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Love you,” he said.

“Not nearly as much as I love you,” she replied.

He took a deep breath and tried to slow his thudding heart, but it was pointless. He just hoped he didn’t look sweaty and clammy when he walked in; he didn’t want to give the wrong impression. Appearing nervous might give his guests wonder if he was ready to take the plunge, and Bucky was a thousand percent sure that marrying Steve was exactly what he needed to do with his life. Bucky couldn’t imagine doing anything without Steve at his side. As cheesy as it sounded, it was like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy stepped out of the house and was surrounded by color for the first time. That was what it was like being with Steve, and Bucky didn’t ever want to go back to black-and-white vision.

The music gracefully shifted into a new melody, and Bucky had enough sense to remember that the change was his cue to enter. Patting his Ma’s hand one more time, he straightened his spine and pushed his way through the door. As soon as he was in the room, he immediately began to crane his neck to the right to find Steve. His eyes locked on the tall blond, and Bucky feared his face might split open from his enormous grin. His feet, of their own accord, began to pull him faster and faster towards the makeshift altar until his mother tugged on his arm. “No so fast,” she whispered.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

Bucky was pretty sure she snorted at his absolute lie of an apology, but again—didn’t care. Seconds—even though they felt like minutes—later, he and Steve stood with their mothers in front of their wedding guests. The officiant, Steve’s pastor from growing up, asked everyone to have a seat. The man was a gruff, older gentleman named Phillips who’d proceeded to scare the shit out of Bucky over the last few weeks in his and Steve’s mandatory pre-marital counseling sessions. Steve swore he was a good enough guy once you got to know him, but Bucky still wasn’t so sure.

“Who gives these men away to marry, love, and spend their lives together?” Phillips asked.

“We do,” the mothers answered in unison. They each kissed their sons on their cheek, then traded places to hug their almost son-in-law before sitting down beside each other and holding hands . Steve and Bucky turned to face each other; neither of the men could help the idiotic grin that overtook his own face.

Bucky wanted to listen to every word Pastor Phillips said about cherishing each other and what marriage and love meant, but he couldn’t. He knew the ceremony would be a blur in his memory, and he fought hard to memorize every detail he could, but in the end, it was pointless. He would remember how Steve’s eyes watered as Bucky recited his vows, how heavy but right the wedding band felt on his finger, and how sweet their first kiss as husbands tasted.

Once they exited, Bucky took advantage of the few seconds of privacy they had and pushed Steve up against the nearest wall. A moment later, Phil cleared his throat, and Natasha snorted. “Save it for the honeymoon,” Natasha told them.

Phil grinned and stepped forward to shake Bucky’s hand. “Congratulations,” he said.

Natasha merely eyed Steve up and down. “You remember what I threatened when you two first started dating?”

“You threatened him?” Bucky responded.

Steve raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “I swear I’ll never give you a reason to break my kneecaps.”

“Tell me, Miss Potts, how does it feel to be married to a literal genius?”

Pepper rolled her eyes as she sipped her champagne, but the corner of her mouth kicked up in a totally involuntary smile, too. All around them, the happy revelers—their friends, their less-friendly colleagues, and the newlyweds’ families—ate, danced, and drank their fill. The hall glowed warmly, chasing out the winter chill and snow flurries that threatened to batter down the doors.

Of course, it helped that the glimmering spots of silver light from the (totally tasteful) disco ball above the dance floor reminded Tony a little of snowflakes.

But they also reminded him a little of the first sparkle of fireworks, proof they’d all rung in a new year together.

“You can at least admit I did a good job here,” he said as Pepper lowered her glass.

Pepper raised her eyebrows. “You?”

“Yes. Me.” She tipped her head slightly to one side, and he sighed. “Fine. Me and my traitorous overlords who made the exact same decisions I would have but while ingesting a whole lot less coffee.” She chuckled, and Tony leaned his shoulder into hers. “Come on. Admit that it all turned out exactly according to plan.”

“Only because you worked with people who had a plan.”

He jabbed a finger in her general direction. “You keep talking like that, and I won’t invite you to our two a.m. victory toast. It will be a traitor party without the queen traitor.”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “Like you would ever be able to hold that toast without me,” she chided, and Tony held onto his very stern expression for at least ten entire seconds before leaning in to kiss her.

They kissed long and lingering, almost swaying to the music, and Tony chased the taste of bubbles on her lips as she ducked away. “You’re the self-proclaimed host with most,” she reminded him, one hand pressed to his chest. “Go mingle.”

Tony smirked. “Or you won’t be responsible for mauling me in the bathroom?”

Instead of her usual long-suffering wife of an incorrigible asshole routine, Pepper just shrugged. “Maybe I’m just waiting for later.”

Tony worked very hard not to mark down Pepper’s comment as an absolute, cast-in-stone promise as he walked away from her, but his brain definitely struggled to keep up with the message. The usual suspects had all broken up into comfortable clumps around the room, heads ducked together as they talked, laughed, or in Darcy’s particular case, angled for the last shrimp puff. Three of the four Barnes sisters clumped around Carol and Jessica Drew, a combination that filled Tony with indescribable terror; over at the drink table, Clint, Jessica Cage, and a couple other teachers held court with the youngest Barnes sister and Bucky’s hurricane of a mother. Triplett and his dates—yes, plural, and Tony was still trying to fully appreciate that particular revelation—cracked jokes with Darcy, her shrimp puffs, and her skinny boyfriend, Parker and his girlfriend had yet to leave the dance floor, and a variety of other teachers and plus-ones lingered in the various corners of the room.

As for the happy couple, they drifted between pretty much every conversation, shaking hands or accepting hugs, and Tony decided right away to stay as far from that particular love fest as possible. After all, every greeting came complete with dopey smiles and Steve’s arm around Bucky’s waist.

Tony paused for a couple seconds to wonder when he’d last seen Steve so impossibly happy.

He smiled to himself when he decided the answer was never.

Over at yet another table, Bruce and Phil charmed Bucky’s older brother and father. Tony figured he belonged over there with the nerd contingent—or, as he preferred to think of it, the poke-Phil-and-also-Bruce contingent—but before he finished crossing the room, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

The man behind him wore a charcoal suit and flashed him a killer (if gap-toothed) smile the instant he whirled around. “I’ve been waiting to congratulate the man of the hour. Well, besides the grooms, at least,” he said, sticking out a hand.

Tony squinted at him. “I feel like I should know you, and yet—”

The man laughed. “Sam Wilson. Friend of Bucky’s and future friend of Steve’s. At least, I’m hoping.”

Tony grinned. “Bribe him with art supplies, you’re a friend for life,” he advised, clasping Wilson’s hand. “Good to meet you. I’m—”

“Tony Stark,” Wilson cut in. “I’ve heard a lot about you. You might even want to say your reputation precedes you.”

“And if I said the same thing about you?” Tony asked.

Wilson snorted. “I’d ask how much of it’s bad, ‘cause knowing Barnes—”

“He’s heard literally nothing about you,” Natasha suddenly volunteered, and Tony almost jumped out of his damn skin as he whirled around to stare at her. She rolled her eyes before promptly ignoring him. “Don’t reveal anything you wouldn’t want repeated or made the subject of a convoluted bet,” she warned Wilson, “and you’ll be fine.”

“Where did you even—” Tony started to ask, but his voice sounded squeakier than normal. Natasha quirked her eyebrows and sipped her whatever-and-tonic (Gin? Vodka? The tears of mortal men?), and Tony scowled at her. “Your shoes are too tall for you to be that sneaky,” he decided.

Wilson cackled. “You really do not know who you’re messing with, do you?” he asked, and Natasha smirked as she walked (silently) away.

Tony glared after her, but a quick glance at his watch revealed that the lead singer of the (very excellent, very affordable) cover band he’d hired for the evening would soon be jumping in to arrange mother-son dances. Tony’d begged and pleaded for embarrassing, over-the-top speeches—he’d even created a special bet which groom cries first spreadsheet for the occasion—but Natasha’d glared at him until he’d backed down. Instead, the usual suspects had all bet on which mother-son songs they’d pick, which elated-but-emotional mother would break down first, and whether Steve and Bucky would voluntarily part long enough to even hug their mothers, let alone dance with them.

Given how often Sarah Rogers kept ducking into her clutch for the Kleenex, Clint was about to become a very rich man.

“Please tell me you’re not going to find a garter for one of them to fling,” a familiar voice commented offhandedly, and Tony grinned as Rhodey stepped up next to him. “Because knowing you, you’ll want them to snap it in my direction, and—”

“No, you’re definitely never allowed to marry Danvers,” Tony interrupted. Rhodey rolled his eyes, but Tony just held up a hand. “No, see, acrobatic ex-military sex is one thing, but my wife and your girlfriend becoming besties-by-default—”

“Pretty sure that’s not a thing,” Rhodey pointed out.

“—guarantees my demise. I can’t have it.”

“Says the man who set us up.”

“Only because I wanted you to be deliriously happy. Never thought it’d backfire into marriage jokes.” Rhodey sighed and shook his head, but not without smiling. Tony considered him for a moment longer before adding, “But even I can admit that deliriously happy is a good look on you.”

Rhodey hid his little grin behind his beer—and behind a quick, unconcerned shrug. “As long as you’re not taking the credit for my relationship.”

“Well, not today,” Tony replied lightly, and Rhodey snorted before elbowing him.

Not ten minutes later, the conversations in the hall all lowered to a whisper as Steve and Bucky stepped up onto the dance floor. In their tuxes and shiny shoes, they looked a little like they’d just stepped out of a magazine spread, and with the slightly dimmed light, they looked younger and fresher-faced than they were, a new couple just starting out.

Tony sipped his water and pretended that he felt absolutely no sentiment or emotion about that. From the way Pepper smiled at him and tangled her fingers in his, he knew she’d caught him red-handed.

“Uh, hi,” Steve said into the microphone, his voice a little uncertain as it rang out across the hall. “We obviously don’t want to keep you—mostly because Tony’s paying for the open bar and we really want you all to enjoy it—but we wanted to thank you all for coming and being with us, here, tonight.” He waited for the chuckles to die down and shifted his weight slightly. “It’s safe to say that neither of us ever expected this day to come, or that we’d be surrounded by this many people when it finally arrived. Life sometimes comes at you fast, catches you off guard, and— Well, we lucked out this time around, I think.”

The sparkling, private little smile he cast down at Bucky could easily have melted steel, and Tony purposely glanced around the room to avoid infringing on their private moment. All the couples leaned on each other or held hands, himself and Pepper included, while the folks who’d shown up stag ranged from looking touched and a little emotional (like, weirdly, Natasha) to looking incredibly bored (like, predictably, Jessica Drew). Tony ignored the latter group to reach out and slide an arm around his wife’s waist, drawing her close.

Steve, meanwhile, jerked his attention away from his new husband to smile. “Our point is: thank you. For being here, for being our friends and family, and for being part of this journey.” His eyes landed on Tony, and Tony raised his glass in a tiny salute. “And now, I guess, there’s going to be a lot more dancing.”

The rest of the reception—or at least, the part of the reception leading up to Tony’s victory toast, something he absolutely was not kidding about (thank you, Pepper)—flew by in a blur of good food, better laughter, and despite what Rhodey said about Tony’s rhythmic grace, fabulous dancing. By the time two a.m. rolled around, Tony swore he belonged on one of those dance contest shows with his beautiful wife.

His beautiful wife rolled her eyes and went to fetch champagne (and ginger ale) for their toast.

“Okay, Team Traitor is meeting over by the drink table for a celebration,” he said as he wandered over to where Clint and Phil were standing together, Clint’s hands splayed on his husband’s waist. “All the champagne you can drink, and all because I put on a great party.”

“You mean you all put on a great party,” Clint corrected.

“You say tomato, I say you have no idea how much work I put in compared with the meddlers.” Clint rolled his eyes as he started to walk toward the drink table, his hands still all over his dorkier half, but Tony planted a hand in the middle of his firm chest. “You,” he emphasized, “are not invited. This toast is for mutinous party planners only.”

Clint sighed, but before he could chime in with a witty retort, Phil swayed. He tipped back a few inches, teetered dangerously, and immediately scrabbled for Clint’s arm. Clint rolled his eyes and looped an arm around his husband’s waist. “You want to prop him up?” he asked Tony.

Phil shook his head. “Pepper,” he said randomly. When Tony and Clint both squinted at him, he pulled a face. “I wouldn’t lean on Stark,” he clarified, poking Clint in the shoulder. “I have taste. And I like nice arms. I’d lean on Pepper.”

He poked Clint’s upper arm this time, and Tony heaved a sigh. “Fine, you can come,” he informed Clint, “but you don’t get any of our victory booze.”

By the time he arrived at the drink table, Clint and his relatively drunk husband trailing behind him, Pepper’d already lined up the champagne flutes in a neat little row. Tony smiled at her as he glanced over his shoulder.

His smile dried up quick as he scanned the room behind him—and then, the room behind Pepper.

“Wait,” he said, and he covered Phil’s glass with his hand because the last thing the universe needed was an even-tipsier nerd librarian. When he craned his neck to survey the room a second time, he felt Pepper tracking his gaze. “Where’s Bruce and the Soviet Sneakmeister? I told them to meet us over here promptly at—”

“Two-eleven?” Clint asked, smirking.

Tony glared at him. “Two. Promptly at two. It’s not my fault we had to stop for ten minutes to allow Coulson to ‘survey all that is his.’”

Phil smiled sappily. “I have a husband with a great ass,” he informed no one in particular.

Pepper nodded sagely. “As asses go—”

“We are not starting our new year with a mutiny, Miss Potts,” Tony warned, and Pepper rolled her eyes at his accusatory finger. “And how’d Coulson get this drunk, anyway?”

Clint shrugged. “He takes his best man duties very seriously.”

Phil nodded. “And best men start the wedding with a shot, even if it’s on an empty stomach.” Everyone, Tony included, frowned at him, but he shook it off with a dopey grin. “And Natasha and Bruce are probably doing what we all wish we were doing,” he said, gesturing to the four of them. “Not together, but separately. Although, Pepper’s arms—”

Pepper snorted, and Tony rolled his eyes. “I need something stronger to toast with than ginger ale,” he grumbled, and grabbed Phil’s wrist before the man groped Pepper’s arm. As he handed Phil back to his husband, he glanced around the room one more time—and discovered no traces of Bruce or Natasha. Like they’d disappeared off the face of the earth, two puffs of misty breath that’d dissipated into the cold.

When he looked over at Pepper, he caught a flash of something dangerously close to worry flitting across her eyes before she smiled at him. “Let’s toast with just us,” she suggested, “and we can do it again with Natasha and Bruce when they come back.”

Tony rolled his lips together. “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly, and Pepper squeezed his arm as she handed him his ginger ale.

It was nearing two in the morning. Half of Bucky’s nieces and nephews were running around, hopped up on cake and the gourmet after-dinner mints Tony was so worked up about. “None of those chalky, little shit mints,” he’d grumbled under his breath during one of the planning meetings. The other half of the kids were sleeping on a collection of couches in the corner of the room. They draped across the cushions and each other, and it was one of the cutest things most of the people there had seen.

Bruce watched Natasha sit at the front table. Her attention was somewhere far away, that much was evident. She’d been busy all night with her groomsperson duties—getting Bucky ready, giving a toast, and mandatorily mingling with the guests. But even though she was clearly worn out from the day and slightly disheveled, she was still so gorgeous Bruce couldn't breathe.

A slow song started playing over the speaker. In the middle of the dance floor, the grooms were already wrapped around each other and slowly swaying, absolutely oblivious to everything around them. Most of Bruce’s heart was happy for the two of them, but there would always be the little bit that ached. Of their own volition, his feet started walking him toward the head table.

“If I mention something about missing sex, any chance I’d get to have another dance with you at a wedding reception?” he asked.

Natasha jumped when he started speaking, and blinked a few times—actions that weren’t really like her, even if she was exhausted. “What?”

“You wanna dance?” he repeated. “Or we can just sit here, and you can keep sleeping with your eyes open,” he offered.

She stayed still so long Bruce started to wonder if he had food in his teeth, but then, she said, “Yeah, sure.”

They hadn’t danced all night. Neither wanted too many rumors to swirl about them when the night was supposed to be about Steve and Bucky. And already, Bruce was pretty sure he felt Tony’s eyes on him. His back tightened at the thought of disappointing his best friend, but then he remembered he was a grown ass man and he could dance with his…whatever Natasha was, if he wanted.

Easily, they fell into place on the dance floor. Bruce closed his eyes and rested his cheek against her head, his thumb idly brushing back and forth against the material of her dress. He didn’t notice it at first, but it didn’t take long for her breathing to speed up, her steps to falter, and her movements to stiffen. She stepped out of his hold and looked up at him. As she licked her lips, his gut dropped at the emotion on her face. Most people wouldn’t be able to see it, but it was an expression he had seen too much this past summer: fear.

“Can we talk outside for a second?” she asked quietly, barely loud enough to be heard. He numbly nodded and let her pull him toward the nearest door out onto the ballroom’s expansive patio. On instinct, he took off his coat and wrapped it around her. She muttered her thanks and pulled them down to sit on the frigid cement ledge. Natasha kept his hand in hers, even though his suit jacket enveloped everything but her fingertips.

She said two words, spoken so quietly that he almost asked her to say them again. But then, they clicked in his brain and the whole world tilted for a second. “You’re…” he started, but couldn't quite finish.

“Pregnant,” she repeated.

Bruce could barely hear the tale of how she thought she’d been able to keep all her birth control pills down when the evil Cage flu hit over the buzzing in his mind. Natasha continued to say that she believed she’d had enough built back up in her system before they spent the night together in the hotel after Thanksgiving dinner, but apparently not. He tried to keep his attention focused on her as she went on to recount how she found out at the emergency room with her kidney episode.

“They needed to do a scan to see where the kidney stone was, and I had to fill out this form to confirm I wasn’t pregnant but realized I couldn’t check any of the here’s the reason I know for sure I’m not knocked up boxes with certainty, so they gave me a pregnancy test. I was barely four weeks at that point,” Natasha said.

Four weeks then. That was three weeks ago.

Seven weeks.

Seven weeks pregnant. With his—

Well, probably his. God, he’d be an asshole to ask. If her math was right, then he hoped he was the only possibility for being the father, but—

“I haven’t been with anyone else since the first time we slept together,” Natasha told him, apparently reading his mind. “It’s yours,” she said gently.

His. His child.

The realization started to course through him, elation at the possibility of getting something he’d wanted for so long and basically given up on. But then, reality crashed around him, and he was reminded of the nature of his relationship with Natasha and the few opinions she’d given on whether or not she’d ever want a family. The sheer joy seeped out of him, and it took all his strength to say, “If you don't want to keep it... I'll do whatever you want.” He had to look at his shoes while he said it, and he felt sick to his stomach as he did, but he couldn't not give her the option.

She was quiet for so long that he had to look up at her. Her face was a mask, one that some days he could almost read, but not tonight. He knew her eyes were filling with tears, but he didn’t know why, and all of this made his chest ache.

“I’ve been debating with myself for the last three weeks on what to do. But I knew whatever choice I made, you had to know about it.” Natasha stared at their hands for a moment before quietly telling him, “I think we should try.”

He swallowed his instantaneous excitement because he couldn’t live through another summer, another time period where they tried to pretend they were ready for something when they weren’t, especially when something as big as this was on the line. “Why?” he asked.

She bit her bottom lip and looked over his shoulder at nothing for a second. “Because I won't ever do it otherwise. I'll never feel ready for it, never be able to plan this. Honestly, the thought of me being a mother is a terrible one, but with you as the father? You might be the only one in the world who could balance it out into something good. So this may be our only shot if you want it.”

“I do,” he finally admitted, his voice nearly breaking. Hesitantly, the fingers of his free hand reached out to touch her stomach. She allowed it for a second before grabbing his hand and using it to pull them both back to standing.

“I want to keep it quiet for as long as possible,” she instructed. “If you need to tell Tony for some AA thing, fine, but let him know I'll kill him if he tells. Besides, Pepper will probably be relieved since she’s known the whole time.” Bruce’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and Natasha shrugged. “I had her come pick me up at the hospital and I was so… I don’t even know, still, that I had to tell someone. And she knows how to keep a secret.”

Bruce could only nod, not trusting his mouth to speak at the moment. But it was still good for other things. He grabbed her and kissed her, gently at first and then with more passion. At least, until Natasha hissed and pulled away. “My chest is already ridiculously painful. Just—“

“Be gentle?” he asked, a sparkle in his eyes. His throat tightened; this could be the first joke of many of how her body was changing. The thought smacked into him that there are three of them standing out in the cold, and the idea was enough to keep him warm.

A small voice warned him not to get too hopeful, that his luck didn’t work like this. But Bruce did his best to shut it up.

He had no clue how they'll pull this off. And he was pretty sure she didn’t either. But she’d given them permission to try.

Chapter Text

Bucky let out a low whistle, and Steve’s head came up from where he was once again studying Sam Wilson’s list of “Must Eats.” The New Orleans native had given Bucky and Steve a self-made tour guide book to the city as part of their wedding present.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked. Bucky took a step to the right so Steve could see the television screen. While Louisiana was calm and mild for the beginning of January, home was anything but. A huge swatch of bright blue seemed to be stuck over the area, only willing to budge for a line of angry magenta. “Does that say six inches of snow?”

“With ice on top,” Bucky answered. “I’m going to start checking our flights.”

“I’m going to call Mom.”

They stepped to opposite sides of the hotel room, and Steve pulled up his mother’s cell phone from his list of favorites. She answered on the second ring. “What’s wrong?” she demanded.

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” he replied.

“Steven, why on earth are you calling your mother on your honeymoon?”

“I’m calling because Buck turned on the TV and it looks like you’re on the verge of a blizzard.”

Sarah made a noise letting Steve know she was anything but concerned. “They’ll keep the highways cleared. I can still come pick you up at the airport tomorrow afternoon if you want.”

Steve fought the urge to roll his eyes; Sarah seemed to have a supernatural ability to know when he was making the disrespectful gesture. “For the hundredth time, you don’t have to get us from the airport. It’s two hours away from you. We’ve got friends in town. Don’t risk the roads.” He heard Bucky groan from his side of the hotel room. Cancelled, he mouthed. “Besides,” Steve continued to his mother, “sounds like our flights are cancelled.”

“Already?” Sarah asked. “There’s not even a full inch on the ground, and your flight is tomorrow.”

“Apparently the airlines are bigger wusses than you,” he told her. “You gonna be okay? Got enough food to last you a few days? Are you going to need to stay at the hospital to make a shift?”

“Worrying about your mother on your honeymoon?” Sarah paused to make a tsking noise at him. “Surely you should have better thoughts to occupy your mind.”

Steve felt heat creep up his neck. “Bucky and I are fine. Getting ready to head out to dinner, actually. But you didn’t answer my questions.”

“I’m three blocks from the hospital. I’ve got a set of skis somewhere in the garage if things get desperate. And I think I’ve still got some canned goods hidden away somewhere from when I dated that apocalyptic goon.”

Steve cringed at the memory of that particular relationship. “Thank you for dumping that one.”

“Trust me, it was my pleasure.”

Steve felt arms wrap around his waist before Bucky pressed himself along Steve’s back and rested his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “Hi, Ma,” he said loudly.

“Oh, let me talk to my son-in-law,” Sarah requested excitedly.

Steve realized that he was officially chopped liver from now until the end of time. “You just like saying the word,” Steve told her.

“Like you haven’t said the word ‘husband’ a thousand times since the wedding,” Sarah shot back.

Steve passed the phone to Bucky because he couldn’t argue with his mother on that point. Husband was Steve’s favorite new word. He’d hummed it in the shower in disbelief, whispered it over Buck’s skin, changed Bucky’s contact name in his phone to the particular title. The word was constantly on the tip of his tongue and firmly nestled in his heart. He was both ecstatic to use it and in shock that the term applied to his life.

Steve listened to the end the call before Bucky slipped the phone into the back pocket of Steve’s jeans. “So, bonus extended honeymoon?” Bucky asked

He rolled his lips. “We should probably reach out to Fury after dinner.”

“Find a place yet?”

“We still haven’t been to that Creole place down the block,” Steve suggested.

“Sounds good to me,” he said before kissing Steve slow and sweet. Those two adjectives had been the theme of their honeymoon: taking their time while wandering down streets and through museums, lounging while soaking in live music. And, of course, they’d taken their time tasting and touching every possible square inch of each other’s bodies.

The kiss deepened and they eventually broke apart, slightly short on breath. “Or we could get room service again,” Steve offered.

Bucky smiled. “I think the wait staff might be a little tired of having to bring food to our lair of debauchery. Besides, now I’m craving more gumbo. Don’t tell Sam his isn’t up to snuff compared to the real thing.”

“Secret’s safe with me,” he said. His phone buzzed in his back pocket and he pulled it out to read a text from Fury. If you aren’t back yet, take your time. There are rumblings of a snow week. Not that you heard it from me. Steve turned the phone so Bucky could read the screen.

“Maybe we should see if room service has gumbo.”

Darcy’s special hell started on the first snow day of the year.

“Are you ready to marathon House of Cards like you’ve never marathoned it before?” she asked down the phone as she flopped into bed, her laptop bouncing precariously on the lapdesk she reserved only for the very best horizontal television watching. “Because trust me when I say that your reluctance to start watching is nothing compared to—”

“Are you aware of what time it is?” Loki interrupted, yawning. “Because according to my watch, it’s hardly eight in the morning. And given that it’s a snow day—”

“I’ve been up pretty much all night making sure the phone tree thing worked properly and answering texts from like a billion teachers about whether school’s really cancelled?” Darcy retorted. Loki sighed. “That’s what I thought. So, like I said when I woke you up twenty minutes ago, queue up the first episode, brew yourself a drink in your off-brand Keurig—”

“You really are every bit the coffee snob I was warned against,” he grumbled.

“—and come back when you’re ready to go. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

On the other end of the phone, her boyfriend huffed out a sleepy half-laugh. “You really are persistent, aren’t you?”

“That’s pretty much my middle name,” she replied, and laughed at the sound of him dropping his phone back onto the bedspread.

She sprawled out on her own bed, all languid and messy-haired, and she was about to pull up the camera and text him a very tantalizing early-morning selfie when an e-mail chimed through. An e-mail from her mother, of all people, which left her scowling as she opened it.

The scowling turned promptly to vague nausea when she read the message:

I sent your résumé to a recruiting firm. They found a job for you. Write a cover letter, and I’ll send it in.

“Great,” she muttered—and then, she deleted the e-mail.

Big news this week: Hands and feet are emerging from developing arms and legs, although they look more like paddles at this point than the tiny, pudgy extremities you’re daydreaming about—

Bruce closed out of the browser tab and pinched the bridge of his nose.

He’d woken up early, earlier than usual, and spent a long time lying awake in the eerie gray-white light of a snowy winter morning. For the first few minutes, he’d fought against his own brain, reminding and re-reminding himself of his new reality: that Natasha was pregnant, and he was going to become a father. The idea’d rolled around in his mind, and the longer he laid in the middle of his bed, the more he’d felt both anxiety and excitement battling for dominance in the pit of his stomach.

Natasha was pregnant.

They were going to try to move forward together. To have the baby.

Natasha was seven weeks along.

She could still, theoretically, change her mind.

Natasha was pregnant, and they were having a baby together.

Except the last time they’d tried a relationship, they’d crashed and burned so spectacularly that they’d struggled to maintain eye contact for more than ten seconds at a time.

That last thought—the one about crashing and burning—had hit him like a cold blast of winter wind, and he’d forced himself out of bed.

He’d showered, dressed, and settled down in front of the computer. For lesson-planning purposes, he promised himself. Nothing baby related.

Six different fetal development websites later, he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” he told the empty room. Unsurprisingly, no one answered.

“It’s for you.”

Clint half-moaned as he rolled onto his back on the couch. Birdie growled her displeasure at him for disturbing the perfect nest of blankets and legs she’d made for herself at the end of the sofa. Clint didn’t care. He’d been this close to another glorious nap and now there was a phone being shoved in his face. He hated talking on the phone. Especially when he could’ve been asleep.

He grabbed the cell out of Phil’s waiting hand, mumbled his thanks, and tried to sound coherent when he spoke. He didn’t do a great job on that last part.

“When was the last time you talked to your brother?” someone asked. It took Clint a few seconds to realize who was talking to him.


“Yes, congratulations on being able to read the caller ID on your phone,” the retired music teacher replied, sarcasm thick in her words.

“Gimme a second,” he told her as he sat up, shooed Birdie to go bug Phil, and ran a hand over his face. “Why are you calling me about Barney? What’d he do?”

“He has a brother who asked that kind of question first instead of ‘is he okay?’”

Clint cringed. Not only was she right, she was using that tone of voice that he’d heard enough times in the school hallway and when sneaking out to see Phil on playground or bus duty to know he was in deep shit. “Let me get a cup of coffee and—“

“He’s going to run away, Clint. He’s already tried twice.”

Clint swore under his breath. “Look, this is just a cycle he does. He gets settles somewhere, has to deal with responsibility, flakes, and bolts. Usually with a lot of whining and woe-is-me thrown in.”

“Clinton ,” May warned. “He’s your brother.”

“Yeah, May, I know. Which is why I know what he’s up to.”

“And what have you done to stop it?”

“You can’t do anything,” he answered as he stood from the couch and started to pace around the living room. “You can try and help him out—give him money, encourage him, whatever—but then he just gets pissed because you somehow lucked into a perfect life and he didn’t and it’s not fair.”

“He actually said those words to you?” May questioned.

Clint sighed. “Words? No. But, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, his body language is loud enough.”

“Clearly that doesn’t run in the family,” May said. “You need to talk to him. Peter and I have both changed his mind before, but I’m not stupid enough to think it’s going to last. He needs family. He needs to know you want him to stick around.”

There was a whole host of words that Clint wanted to shout down the phone, but he refrained. Instead, he tightly wrapped up the conversation and chucked his cell phone at the couch. When that wasn’t enough, he slapped the front door with an open palm and yelled. The action caused Birdie to scurry to the safety of their bedroom while Phil cautiously stepped into the living room. “What’s wrong?”

“My brother’s an asshole, and it’s all my fault.” Phil took a breath, inevitably about to try and defuse the situation, but Clint cut him off. “I’m sick of this shit, Phil. Barney won’t listen to me because I got my ‘fucking happy ending’ and he didn’t. Who cares that I worked my ass off to get to where I am? And who cares that I’ve done everything I can—sent him money, let him live with us, covered for him with a shitty dad when we were little—to help him out in life, but it’s still not good enough. It’s my fault he’s fucked up. It’s my fault he won’t get better. It’s my fault he’s going to ditch town again. It’s my fault he’ll end up back in prison.”

“Clint—“ Still not in a mood to listen, Clint slammed his palm against the door again. “Enough!” Phil yelled. He took a deep breath and continued in a calmer voice. “You’re not staying in the house while you’re this angry. Go shovel the driveway.”

“It’s going to be a nightmare with the ice.”

“You can go shovel, or you can fight with me,” Phil said. “And I don’t want to fight with you when we’re going to be cooped up for the next few days. Go shovel the driveway.”

Clint glared at his husband for a full minute, then stomped past him toward the bedroom. He took out his hearing aids and muttered angrily to himself while changing into tundra-appropriate clothes. He then spent the next three hours shoveling his driveway as well as two neighbors’. He only stopped because the sun was setting and he didn’t want to be out in the dark. When Clint walked back into the house, he smelled that Phil had heated up some leftover lasagna from the night before, but he didn’t have a stomach for it. Instead, he went to the bathroom and stood under the hot shower spray until he regained feeling in all his fingers and toes. It still wasn’t long enough to wash away his anger and resentment. He pulled on a pair of boxers and a well-worn t-shirt and crawled into bed. Not that sleep was going to come easily.

Twenty minutes later, he felt the mattress dip and Phil rest his hand on Clint’s upper arm. “Tomorrow, Phil,” Clint said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Do I need to stage an intervention?” Tony asked on the second day of what threatened to become a snow week, and Bruce groaned as he rubbed a hand over his face. He’d fallen asleep reading a science journal, but his cell phone’d woken him up. Worse, he’d discovered sixteen missed text messages and seven missed calls.

The eighth time Tony called, he picked up.

“I’m fine,” he said, stretching. “I fell asleep on the couch.”

“Because you’re lonely, bored, and in need of a human-contact intervention?” Tony needled.

“Given the number of voice mails you’ve left me, I don’t think I’m the lonely one.”

“Oh, trust me, big guy, I’m not lonely. And with the weather outside being this delightfully frightful, I’ve had all the human contact I can handle.” Bruce refused to chuckle at the smugness in his voice—after all, it only ever encouraged him—but he felt Tony grin down the phone, anyway. “I’m actually just making the rounds. Checking in with all my favorite people—”

“So just Pepper, Rhodey, and me?” Bruce guessed.

“—and ensuring that the abominable snow monster hasn’t eaten them alive. Or, in your case, the abominable snow Russian.”

Bruce heaved a sigh. “Tony—”

“You don’t want to tell me about your disappearing act at the reception, that’s fine,” Tony interrupted, and Bruce frowned at the slight tinge of hurt caught in his tone. “I thoroughly enjoyed our later-than-planned victory toast. But as your brother in sobriety, science, and sanity—”

Bruce snorted. “Sanity?” he repeated.

“—I’m obligated to check in on you. Make sure you’re all right, Red Scourge or no.”

Bruce rolled his lips together, certain he could hear Tony gulping—and worse, worrying—on the other end of the line. Finally, he sighed again. “I’m fine, Tony.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m not trying to be a busy-body, but if you need me—”

“I’m sure,” Bruce said, but he wondered whether Tony could hear the lie.

“How am I supposed to know what happened to it?” Darcy demanded, and her mother rolled her eyes. She’d braved the kitchen for a sandwich and maybe some chips—after all, she’d depleted most of her secret snack stores during the House of Cards marathon—but instead, she’d run into her mother.

Her mother, and a massive pot of stew that smelled like meaty heaven, which sent kind of a mixed message.

She reached to dip her fingers into said pot of meaty goodness, but her mom smacked her on the back of the hand with her big wooden spoon. “First: that stew is for dinner, which is a meal people eat outside of their bedrooms, not that you’d know. And second: you’re the most technologically savvy person I know. How you could lose an e-mail—”

“Knowing how to pick which Instagram filters I want is a little different than dealing with e-mail servers, thanks,” Darcy said. Her mother shot her one of those patented dirty looks of hers, and she held up her hands. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Sounds like you really put yourself out there on my behalf, looking for a job I’m not interested in. But since the e-mail’s gone forever—”

Her mother waved her off. “Don’t worry, I printed out the recruiter’s information. It’s in my purse.”

Darcy banged her head against the cabinet. “Of course you did.”

My road’s mostly clear, if you need anything, Bruce typed into his cell phone—and then, he deleted it.

He stood in the front window of his house, his fingers sweaty and clumsy around his phone, and stared out at the glare of bright sunlight on white snow. The forecast promised an ice storm for that night—the perfect addition to three days of on-and-off snowfall and dozens of school closings—but for one, glorious moment, the world looked warm and bright. Twice already, junior high kids in snow boots had run by, dragging brightly colored sleds behind them.

It was a perfect day for sledding, snowmen, and hot cocoa in front of a fire.

Bruce opened up his text message window for the fifth time.

My road’s mostly clear, he typed carefully, and with the storm tonight, it might be the last time until this weekend. I know you’re probably fine—there’s that convenience store, what, two blocks down the road? Grilled cheese and cranberry juice for everyone—but I wondered if you might want some company. Just for the day. I’d leave before the ice started, but we could—

His half-finished message disappeared suddenly as his phone started ringing, and he jumped so hard that he almost dropped it. Either way, he stared at incoming call screen for a few seconds too long before he decided to accept it.

“Hey, Peter,” he greeted the man on the other end. “What’s up?”

(An hour later, he deleted the unfinished text.)

“You’re taking your life into your hands,” Jane tried to warn Heimdall, but Alva’s shrieking cut her off.

Jane loved her children. As much as they sometimes drove her up the wall by starting food fights with their miniature waffles (Henry), crying hysterically at the beginning of The Land Before Time (George), or drawing ponies all over her notes on particle data (Alva), she adored the three of them. They kept her young, inspired her, and encouraged her to discover the secrets of the universe—if only so she could leave them that legacy, her tiny pieces of stardust.

But instead of waking up to feed and dress children for their first day back to school on Monday, Jane woke up to a winter wonderland.

A winter wonderland that now equaled well over a foot of snow, a thin layer of ice on top of the snow, and no school.

Jane loved her children, but pretty soon, she was going to tear her hair out.

“Ah, that is a penalty box offense, daughter!” Thor’s booming voice announced from upstairs, and Jane sighed as she steered Heimdall away from the front door—and, more precisely, away from Leg 4 of the Odinson Family Obstacle Course. Leg 4, as far Jane understood, required spinning the color dial from Twister and then climbing the stairs by stepping on the corresponding circles of colored construction paper that Thor’d taped down that morning. She’d approved of that leg, as well as Leg 2 (kitchen masking tape hopscotch) and Leg 3 (spelling out a word selected from a bucket of folded-up paper slips with refrigerator magnets), but Thor’d forbidden her from learning about any of the other challenges.

“Keeps the love alive,” he’d teased, his eyes sparkling.

“Keeps you alive, you mean,” she’d replied, and playfully shoved his stomach when he’d tried to lean down and kiss her.

Speaking of leaning down, Thor ducked as he bounded down the last few steps, but only to keep Alva—who he carried over his shoulder like a sack of flour—from knocking her head against the ceiling. “I wasn’t being that loud,” she complained.

“But what rule did we start when we began the game?” Thor asked, glancing over his shoulder.

Alva sighed. “No yelling or interrupting Mama.”


“Or we go to the penalty box for two whole minutes.” Thor beamed as he swung her around to sit on his hip, but she scowled at him. “But the boys were cheating, and I—”

She buttoned her lips when Thor raised a finger. “Who is the final arbiter of the penalty box?” he asked. Alva crossed her arms, and he raised his eyebrows. “Well?”

“You are.”

“And so?”

“I go without complaining.” Thor grinned again and ruffled her hair as she slid down his side, but she ducked away. “I don’t like the penalty box,” she informed the room as a whole—including Heimdall, who couldn’t quite contain his smirk—and sulked off to the arm chair with the PENALTY BOX sign hanging over it.

Thor waited until she set the kitchen timer to turn to Heimdall. “You are brave for testing the roads today, my friend,” he greeted, reaching to clasp his hand. “If I’d known you needed me for something, I would have met you halfway. Kept you from driving in this weather, when—”

“I only came out to make sure you didn’t need help with your driveway—or your children,” Heimdall interrupted, and Jane rolled her lips together at the glimmer of shocked surprise that crossed Thor’s face. “I knew Jane was finishing up a paper, and given how stir-crazy this family can be, I thought I’d offer to come shovel the walk or build snow fortresses, whichever you might need.”

Thor rolled his eyes. “We are not so stir crazy.”

“Aren’t you?” Heimdall tipped his head toward the penalty chair, and they all turned to discover that Alva had, in the course of the last thirty or forty seconds, gouged the eyes out of the TV Guide’s cover model and turned it into a mask. When Ellen Pompeo hissed threateningly at them, Heimdall shook his head. “We can manage the three of them together,” he told Thor.

Thor glanced down at Jane. “We’ve been trying to keep them from trailing the entire arctic in from outside, never mind the demands for hot chocolate. After all, the last thing you need is to clean up soggy mittens and—”

“How many bed-jumping contests are involved in Legs 5 through 7 of the obstacle course, Thor?” Jane cut in, and her husband—her strong, stalwart, loyal husband—rolled his lips together instead of answering. She smiled and patted him on the arm. “You’ve done better keeping them entertained than I ever could have, but now? It’s time to go build an ice fortress with questionable structural integrity.”

Thor scowled at her. “My ice fortresses are paragons of structural integrity.”

She shrugged. “Then prove it.”

For the next almost three hours of her afternoon—the fourth snow day in a row, her private hell—Jane worked on her paper without any squeaking bedsprings, irate children, or questionable refrigerator spelling words to interrupt her. And for the last fifteen minutes of those three hours, she prepared hot cocoa on the stove while cleaning up the construction paper mess on the stairs and throwing out the soggy paper boats that her children had been racing in the bathtub as part of Leg 6. It meant that by the time her cold, wet, and exhausted little people (and her cold, wet, less-exhausted big person) wandered back into the house, she felt warm and content.

She buried her nose into heads of damp hair and collected soggy mittens with a smile on her face. And only after the kids all settled down to watch Lady and the Tramp with their beloved Heimdall did she walk up to Thor and sling an arm around his waist.

He grinned down at her and drew her in close, his frigid fingers snaking under her sweater. “Exactly when did you and Heimdall plan this coup?” he asked.

She shrugged. “We all have our secrets,” she replied, and leaned her head against his shoulder.

If you are reading this message, it means some sort of harm’s befallen me. Here’s a handy guide to help you avenge my death:

- Drowned in the bath: Mom (unless I’m pretty like that painting of Ophelia, that might be me)
- Suffocated in my sleep: Mom
- In some sort of compromising position with a battery-operated device: Loki, via steamy text message
- Choked to death on the out-of-date Chex Mix I found under my bed: all me
- Found wandering through the cold in my—

“Darcy!” her mom called from downstairs. “Are you working on that cover letter?”

Darcy stared at the open Word document in front of her and sighed. “Sure, Mom,” she yelled back, and started mashing backspace.

“You sure you don’t want to talk about it?” Tony asked over speakerphone Friday night.

Bruce rolled his eyes as he scraped the carrots off his cutting board and into the soup pot. “Don’t you have a wife or another best friend to bother?”

“The wife is settled down with a bubble bath and very strict instructions to shoot me with a Nerf gun if I interrupt her, and the other best friend is apparently slightly iced-in with his own private ice queen.” Bruce twisted to blink at the phone just as Tony huffed out a breath. “I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Also, we’re banned from telling anyone about Danvers’s ice-time sleepover.”

Bruce snorted as he reached for the celery. “Meaning you were banned and let the secret slip?” he asked.

“You know, funny how similar those two concepts are when you think about it,” Tony replied, and Bruce actually chuckled as he shook his head. He spent a few seconds chopping before Tony pressed, “But seriously. You sure there’s nothing to report on the Natasha front?”

Bruce stopped chopping just long enough to stare at his hands. “Yeah,” he promised, “I’m sure.”

That night, once the soup was simmering and he’d sent Tony to bother Pepper (Nerf weaponry be damned), Bruce unlocked his phone.

Want to come over tomorrow for dinner? he typed. I made a huge pot of soup.

And if he checked his phone a hundred times for an answer, well, that was a whole other story.

“It’s like we can’t even have a rational conversation!” Darcy shouted, and if the silverware she was supposed to be rinsing sort of clattered into the bottom of the sink, well, whatever. Her mother stared at her, hovering somewhere between pissed-off and shocked, but Darcy— Darcy threw up her hands. “How many times do I have to tell you that I really do not want this job? Do I need to hire the Blue Man Group? Sky-writers? Maybe somebody can pee it in the snow for you, because—”

Her mom tossed the dish towel onto the counter just to jab a finger at her. “Do not take that tone with me, young lady.”

“Or what?” The fire and brimstone Darcy felt rumbling inside herself—the fire and brimstone that always lived there, that sometimes threatened to climb out and consume her because she felt so frustrated all the time—came rushing to the surface, and she actually laughed a little. “Aren’t you sick of this stupid dance, Mom? This stalemate? Because the more you tell me I’m not living up to my potential or whatever you’re calling it this week, the more I just push back until you’re going crazy, and at the end of the day, I’m still—”

“An ungrateful fucking brat!”

Her mother shouted it, roared it, and for the first time in her life, Darcy understood all Jane’s jokes about how Thor’s shouts could shake windowpanes. Because even if the windows didn’t rattle, something inside of Darcy—something as thin and breakable as glass—shook hard enough that she felt it in her teeth. She stared at her mother, open-mouthed and empty all at once, but her mom—

Her mom just shook her head. “That’s where we are at the end of the day, Darcy,” she said, her voice quieter but no less angry. “I’m still trying to help you, and you still just don’t care.”

Darcy swallowed. “Yeah, well. Maybe I learned that skill from you.”

Bruce opened the door to his house, and Natasha offered a faint smile; she got a hesitant one in reply. He stepped back so she could walk in. She lifted her foot, but then froze. “Is there meat in the soup?”

“Chicken,” he answered. “It’s chicken noodle.”

“Have you already cooked it?” she asked.

“Last night,” he said, his face growing concerned.

“Good,” she sighed as she finally made her way inside. “The smell of cooking meat is a guaranteed vomit-inducer.” She shucked her coat and was about to kneel down to untie the laces of her boots when she caught the look of surprise on his face.

“You’ve been getting sick?”

She heard a faint note of guilt in his voice. “Just a few times. It’s caused by smells, mostly.”

“What smells other than meat cooking?”

“Coffee,” she half-snarled. “Bad enough I can’t drink any, but the fact that the smell of it makes me want to puke everything I’ve had in the last three days is just rude.”

Bruce’s gaze slowly moved down and back up her body, and she wondered what changes, if any, he noted. She was wearing baggy sweats that didn’t show a lot of her figure, not that it had changed too much. “You’ve been sick,” he repeated quietly.

She took a step into his personal space and shoved her hands into the pocket of her hoodie—one she had stolen from James back in college. She wanted to reach out and touch Bruce, but he still (nearly a week after finding out) looked shell shocked and terrified.

Natasha knew exactly how he felt.

“I’m a big girl,” she reminded him gently. “I can take care of myself on my own.” That was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Bruce collapsed in on himself a little.

“If I had a nickel for every text I started this week,” he tried to joke.

“That makes two of us,” she said, and she finally gave in to running the knuckles of her right hand along his cheek. He leaned into the touch, the stubble of his jaw scratching against her fingers. “Are we talking or eating first?” she asked.

“Considering it’s the two of us, we better talk. Or else we’ll avoid things until you’re in labor.” She knew that he was trying to joke, but something about the humor didn’t quite reach his eyes. He pulled her hand from his face and used it to tug her towards his couch. She quickly kicked off her boots so as not to leave a trail of melted snow and ice on his carpet before joining him.

“Talk to me,” she said. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but you’ve had some time and you still haven’t talked to me since I left here the morning after the wedding.” He’d been kind enough to drive her back to his place, since she was pretty certain that she’d fall asleep at the wheel at that point. They hadn’t said much to each other in the morning as they’d gotten up and Bruce drove her back to the location of the wedding to pick up her car. And then after that, it’d been complete radio silence.

He licked his lips, his fingers absentmindedly tracing the back of his sofa. “You’re sure you’re keeping it?”

“Yes,” she answered as steadily as she could. Because while it was an honest answer, it was still a terrifying one. “If you don’t want to be involved, you don’t have to be—“

“I do,” he answered quickly. He ducked his head. “I’ve spent all week trying not to get excited. If you want to change your mind, it’s fine. I don’t want to push—“

She grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “I’m batshit terrified, but I’m not changing my mind. Okay?”

“Okay,” he breathed, and she could practically watch weight fall off of him.

“You talk to Tony about this?” she asked.

He shook his head. “He’s still pissed about us sneaking off and holding up his victory toast.” She snorted in amusement but saw worry creep back into his eyes. “Tony’s not— I don’t think he’ll take this well. And I’m sorry in advance if he… Lashes out might be too strong of a term, but—“

“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s just being protective. But you need to talk to someone. Me, Pepper, Tony. One of us.”

“Have you told Bucky?”

Her stomach twisted at that thought. “No,” she told him. “Considering he asked me to be an egg donor and surrogate two days after I found out I was pregnant, I don’t think he’s going to be thrilled that I’m using my one-and-done card for myself on a surprise baby.”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “I can beat him up a little if he causes trouble.”

Natasha laughed. “It’s sweet you think you could take him.”

“C’mere,” he said as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her down to lay beside him on the couch. It took a few seconds for her to find a comfortable position lying beside him. He waved a hand in the vague direction of her chest. “Still sore?”

She nodded. “And getting bigger. Which I absolutely don’t need to happen. Nor do I need you smirking about there’s more for you to play with.”

Bruce raised a hand in a gesture of surrender. “Never would I do that.”

“At least not to my face, right?” she asked, and he grinned.

“So if I’d had the guts to text you at any point this week to ask how you were doing, what would you have said?”

“That I’ve napped more in the last three weeks than the rest of my life combined. Only puked twice. And that I’m relieved to get to postpone going back to work and hiding this from everyone for another week.” She readjusted her head against his shoulder so she could see his face. “What did you do this week?”

“Told myself I was going to lesson plan, but kept looking up what happens during the seventh week of gestation,” he confessed.

“Eighth,” she corrected. “It switches on Thursdays.”

“Eight,” he whispered quietly, with just a hint of awe. “Are all parents as scared as we are?”

She smiled. “I hope so, because if we’ve already fucked up less than two months in, then this kid is beyond screwed.”

“No kidding,” he laughed. “I forgot to ask about your due date.”

“August twentieth,” she said.

He made a humming noise. “So once school gets out in May, you won’t have to go back until, when, beginning of October? Nice long break.”

“Or I could work until the baby comes and not waste a week or more of sick days.”

“I have a feeling this is going to be a popular debate between us,” Bruce said.

“Or you could just listen to me and leave it alone,” she told him. He grinned, one of mischief, and kissed her forehead. Natasha burrowed deeper into his warm and familiar hold. It felt right, and she clung to that thought with all her might to keep the worries and doubts at bay. The steady sound of his breathing began to pull her down for another nap, but she shook it off. “If you’re going to feed me soup, you’d better do it now.”

Tear-sticky, shaky, and stupid (because that’s how she felt, deep down to her core, just dumb), Darcy said, “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Jane’s whole body slumped against her back door. “Oh, Darcy,” she murmured, and she barely even stumbled when Darcy reached forward and basically forced her into a bone-crushing hug.

Chapter Text

“I hate January,” Jess grumbled as she climbed atop her bar stool.

Carol smirked into her margarita. “We got an extra week off, how can you be whining?”

Jess shot her a dark look. “You’re familiar with my life, right? How it is never fun and a constant stream of obnoxious shit?”

Carol swallowed a sigh. She loved Jess; while they would never develop stupid and ridiculous titles for each other like Stark and Banner, there was no less love between them. Carol desperately wanted Jess to be happy, not just because it would mean less whining that Carol would have to endure, but because her friend deserved it. Yeah, Jess was a ball of crazy. But she was Carol’s ball of crazy. “Just not getting back in the swing of things?” Carol asked. “Kids being shits?”

“Yes to the first question and no to the second, actually. I keep waiting for my kids to turn and become a bunch of White Walkers—“

“Ugh, why are you still watching Game of Thrones?” Carol groaned.

“But so far it hasn’t happened yet. At least there’s one good thing going on in my life.” Carol pursed her lips in concern. She leaned over to bump her shoulder against Jess, who just shrugged. “I’m tired of my life being a shit hole.”

“What’d you do over break?” Carol asked.

“Felt sorry for myself.”

“On a scale of one to that guy who stormed out on you in the middle of dinner at that place downtown, how sorry were you feeling for yourself?”

Jess munched on a chip thoughtfully before answering. “Where exactly does lying on the kitchen floor and drinking from the bottle of peach schnapps you have hidden under the sink fall on the scale?”

“Oh, Jess. Why didn’t you call me?”

“And interrupt the sex-fest?” she questioned.

Carol tried to hide her cringe. “Who spilled the beans?”

“Stark was bragging on behalf of your boyfriend about how you two got snowed in together at James’s place and basically spent the whole time naked,” Jess said.

“We weren’t naked the entire time,” Carol corrected. “It was fucking freezing outside.” Jess arched an eyebrow waiting for the other shoe to drop. “There may have been some blanket togas involved,” she admitted quietly.

But Jess (and therefore Stark, whom Carol would deal with at a later date) was right. Neither she nor James had paid attention to the weather reports when Carol spent the night at James’s house. James’s driveway was on a sharp elevation, and with the weather, it was impassible. Thankfully Carol’s neighbor, Helen, was able to trudge across the street to make sure Chewie had food and a clean litter box.

“You remember what caused James to, admittedly, make the right call and dump me?” Carol asked.

“There’s only one correct answer?” Jess replied.

Carol stole a chip from her plate in retaliation. “I couldn’t spend the night at his house,” Carol reminded her. “Tried to, once again, sneak away in the middle of the night. But it didn’t work. We had a huge fight, and that was the end of that. Or at least, I thought it was going to be.”

Jess sighed. “The last thing I need to hear right now is another story about how great your love life is and that if you can make it work, then so can I. I just—“ She paused to run a hand through her hair. “I know my life is shit, Carol. I just don’t know how to fix it.”

“No one can tell you how to fix it, Jess,” Carol told her. “Because no one else is living your life.”

“I feel a ‘but’ coming,” Jess murmured.

Carol smirked. “I’m just saying, I lost a great relationship because I couldn’t spend eight hours under the same roof as someone else. And I just spent five days with the guy, and I didn’t spontaneously combust.” She let her thought try and sink in while she swiped another chip from Jess’s plate. “Acting like an adult sucks ass, everyone knows it. But for some reason, if you trudge through all the shit, you do actually sometimes end up being happy.”

“And if I do a ton of work for nothing?” Jess asked.

“Then you call me, and we’ll drink sink schnapps together.”

Everything was fine: Phil was rambling about the bicker session with Tony he’d already had in the two days they’d been back at school (over a bottle of White-Out, no less), Birdie was unusually cuddly with her (draped herself over Natasha’s thighs as soon as she sat down on the couch and refused to budge, which was a first ), and Clint was in the kitchen making pancakes. Natasha had fibbed a little and said that she and Bruce made a resolution to be all-around healthier people this year, so she’d given up booze and meat. Clint had respected her wishes and decided to make breakfast for dinner this Tuesday evening. Natasha had never been one to desperately desire sweet breakfast foods—waffles, pancakes, French toast—instead trending more towards the savory and hearty end of the spectrum with oatmeal, eggs, and potatoes. But as soon as Clint had thrown out the idea of pancakes, Natasha’s mouth had nearly watered at the thought of drenching a full stack in maple syrup and cleaning her plate as soon as possible.

Everything was fine. And then it wasn’t.

She heard the crackling first; the tell-tale sound of bacon frying in a pan. Her pulse rocketed, and she started to calmly breathe through her mouth. Natasha repeated to herself that she would not get sick at the smell of meat cooking. She would not let her stomach betray her. She would remain in control.

Her body had other ideas.

“Um, I think I left my phone in my car,” she said quickly before dumping Birdie off of her lap and bolting for the front door. Even though the record low temperatures that had caused half of the snow week had passed, the air was still bitterly cold and stung her lungs. She focused on the pain and not how she could already smell bacon all over herself. Natasha placed one hand on the hood of her black Jeep to steady herself as she breathed deeply. Her fingers went numb before her stomach settled, and she cursed in her mother tongue as she twisted to lean her back against the vehicle.

Just when she started to feel normal again, she heard the front door to Clint and Phil’s house open. Birdie darted out, clearly enjoying the freedom of exploring the front yard sans leash, but then she spotted Natasha and once again made her way to sit and stand guard near Natasha’s boots. Natasha reached down and picked up the pup, snorted when she realized Birdie was dressed in a Gryffindor sweater to help keep her warm.

“This was on the couch next to you,” Phil said as he approached, hand extended to offer Natasha her cell phone.

“Thanks,” she said quietly as she took her phone and shoved it in back pocket.

“I’ll tell Clint to open the windows and air out the kitchen if you want to come back inside in a few minutes.” Natasha worked her mouth trying to come up with a cover story, but she couldn’t create one fast enough. “Or I can just tell him that something came up and you need to go home, if you can’t walk back in there. If you puked in the yard, I’ll just blame it on Birdie. Happens often enough that Clint’ll believe it.”

“Why would I throw up?” Natasha challenged, and her nerves were heightened by the way Phil tilted his head at the question. It was the look he gave a student whenever they were too obvious with their lie about why they didn’t return their library book on time.

“For my older sister, it was the meat thing, too. Chrissy, on the other hand, had a strong aversion to her husband’s deodorant. And his body odor. Might be why they only had two kids.”

“Maybe I’m just not a fan of bacon,” Natasha argued.

“Please,” Phil scoffed. “I’ve seen how much you can put away when my mom makes her huge breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving.” His eyes drifted down to Birdie. “Besides, we both know she’s never spent this much time wanting to be near you. It’s nothing against you,” he amended quickly while raising his hands in defense. “But she’s Clint’s dog through and through. And she loves bacon as much as you do.”


“We had a bulldog when I was growing up,” Phil continued. Natasha would’ve been relieved that she didn’t have to concoct another lie if she wasn’t so terrified that he her secret had slipped. “That’s why Clint got us Birdie after we got married. But my parents had another dog once all the kids moved out of the house. She clobbered my sisters with attention whenever they were pregnant. Pretty sure Juliet knew about impending grandbabies long before my parents did.”

Birdie yelped softly, and Natasha apologized quietly as she loosened her nervous grip on the poor dog. “We’re not telling anyone,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to tell anyone until we have to. I can’t take another round on the gossip express, and I know we’ll eventually have to, but—“

“You didn’t tell me,” Phil pointed out. “And I’m not asking any questions. I mean, other than if you want to come in for dinner or not, which you don’t have to. I’ll make sure Clint sticks to actual vegetarian meals in the future. If he complains about a lack of meat—“

“Please don’t make a dick joke right now,” Natasha groaned.

Phil smiled. “You didn’t tell me anything,” he repeated. “But if you had, I’d make sure you knew that we’re always here for you, and that I’m going to be checking in with you to make sure you’re doing okay. Alright?”

Natasha nodded and internally swore at the hot tears that stung her eyes. She’d already cried more since Thanksgiving than possibly the rest of her life. Stupid hormones and friends caring about her.

Phil stepped forward and gently scooped Birdie out of her arms. The dog whined, and Phil shushed her until she was quiet. “If you need anything…”

“Yeah,” Natasha replied. She paused to look back at the house. “He figure it out, too?”

“No one believes that you need to be healthier. You can kick all of our asses at once,” Phil said. “But it makes sense that you and Bruce would want to do it together. It’s a decent cover, but Jessica Cage is the only pregnant woman Clint’s been around, and I’m pretty sure he’s repressed last year in his mind already. Besides, Barney is bouncing around too much in his head for him to think about anything else.”

“They okay?” Natasha asked.

Phil shrugged. “We’ve been together for seven years, and I still don’t get that relationship. Not sure I ever will.” They stood in the quiet darkness for a moment before he asked, “Is your coat still inside?”

Natasha nodded and worried that it might reek of cooking meat by now. “It might be best just to burn it.”

“Why’d you run away from home?” Alva asked, and something in the pit of Darcy’s stomach curdled.

She’d promised Jane and Thor one night to themselves—a chance for dinner, a movie, and probably some filthy car sex out behind the Cineplex—but while the boys had happily settled down with pudding cups and a movie, Alva’d transformed into Darcy’s shadow. A clingy, whiny shadow with a cough (thanks to the petri dish Darcy called a workplace, most likely) and slightly glassy eyes. Darcy tried her best to distract her with board games, card games, and plastic ponies, but to no avail; even now, Alva leaned on her, more focused on cuddling than on her My Little Pony coloring book.

She paused in her scribbling to glance up at Darcy, and Darcy forced a smile. “You sick of me already?” she teased. “Want me to go blow this popsicle stand and head back across the fence to the land that time forgot?”

Alva wrinkled her nose. “No.”

“You sure? Because I’ll happily pack my bag. It’s over there, except for the bra your brothers stole, and—”

No,” Alva repeated, and only returned to her coloring when Darcy flashed her a smile.

Deep down in her heart of hearts—inside the electric fence with the barbed wire and under the crunchy candy shell—Darcy felt nothing but gratitude for Jane and Thor. After all, in the six days since she’d thrown some clean clothes in a bag and trudged through snow and ice to her neighbors’ house, the Odinsons had worked harder than ever to include her in the fold. They woke her with bicker fights over the last freezer-burnt waffle, regaled her with recaps of the same six school stories every afternoon, and created dozens of games with her as the pirate princess—or, as the pirate prince’s captive, depending on the afternoon. And even though she didn’t necessarily enjoy waking up with a five-year-old crowding her onto the edge of the sofa sleeper or discovering her bra strung up like a slingshot on the footboard of George’s bed, she knew most people would sell their left arm for friends as warm and welcoming as Jane and Thor.

But she still stood at the back door sometimes and stared at her parents’ house.

She still snuck back in to steal clothes out of her bedroom or repossess her DVDs.

And she still felt a huge, gnawing hole in her chest from fighting with her mother.

She’d drawn a line in the sand that afternoon when they’d screamed at one another, and she’d bricked up a wall on top of it.

But not even the strongest wall chased away the weird pang of homesickness she felt in the bottom of her stomach.

“Henry said you ran away,” Alva volunteered suddenly, and Darcy blinked down at her as she reached for a purple crayon. “He said your mom’s like a dragon and chased you away with fire. You can’t go back until you defeat her.”

Darcy snorted. “All that time and energy coming up with the ‘my mom’s an evil naval officer’ metaphor, and he makes her a dragon.”

Alva glanced up. “What?”

“Never mind.” Alva squinted slightly, her face considerate, and Darcy wrapped an arm around her shoulders to squeeze her close. “This why you’re following me around? You think I ran away from my dragon-mom and I’m sad?”

Alva shrugged. “I’d be sad if my mom turned into a dragon.”

“Honey, your mom’s already kind of a dragon, you just don’t know it yet.” Alva’s expression softened, her lower lip quivering slightly, and Darcy sighed. “Look, kiddo, life with your parents when you’re a grown-up, it’s not always . . . ”

She tried to grapple with the words for a second, but as usual, they all spiraled out of her reach and out into the ether. She felt that a lot lately, like when she sat down for a heart-to-heart with Jane or when Fury paused to flash her a worried glance across the office: the words existed, sure, but they never lined up exactly. All the frustration and hurt and helplessness she felt ran too deep for her to verbalize. Until she broke down sobbing somewhere (or snapped and went full Carrie Underwood on her mom’s car), words failed.

Except fail-whale words paled in comparison to Alva’s sweet, curious, worried little face.

Darcy sighed. “C’mere,” she commanded, and they abandoned the coloring book on the kitchen table as Alva climbed into her lap. “You remember back on Tuesday, when you wanted to play the turtle game in computers but Mister Stark said you needed to play the game with the numbers?”

Alva wrinkled her nose. “The turtle game is better.”

“Hey, I’m not here to argue that one. But you got mad at Mister Stark, right? Told me and your brothers and your parents all about it, how unfair it was that you couldn’t play the turtle game, yeah?” The little girl nodded, and Darcy forced a smile. “My mom and me, we had a fight kind of like that. I really want to do one thing—the best thing, the thing I love most in the world—but my mom wants me to do something different. Something I really don’t want to do.”

Alva pursed her lips. “You should always listen to your mom,” she said, sounding remarkably like Thor.

This time, Darcy actually grinned. “Yesterday, you told me I was more grown up than Mister Wilson.”

Alva beamed. “Because one time, he let little girls put bows in his hair!”

“Stylish bows?” Darcy double-checked, and she cracked up at Alva’s enthusiastic nod. The laugh felt good, almost freeing, and she realized for the first time how much of a mope she’d been over the last couple days. “When you’re a kid,” she said after a couple more seconds, “you should always listen to your mom. When you’re a grown-up, sometimes, you have to listen to what lives in here.” She tapped the center of Alva’s chest. “Even when it’s hard, and even when doing it means you can’t live with your mom and dad anymore.”

The little girl studied her for a few seconds. “Doesn’t that make you sad?” she finally asked.

Darcy snorted and pulled Alva close. “A little,” she admitted, and smiled when Alva hugged her back.

“Can you believe the nerve of her?” Tony asked as he flopped into their normal booth at the diner, his blood pressure still hovering somewhere around nuclear meltdown. “Isn’t the whole point of being in an anonymous support group that we can’t be peer-pressured into sharing? Isn’t that in the by-laws or something? I wonder if there’s a governing body I can write to about her little stunt.”

Bruce raised his eyebrows. “You mean like you wrote that letter to Taco Bell about their vegan beans?”

Tony jabbed a finger across the table. “First: the only redeeming quality about refried beans is the lard content, and you know it. And second, I still intend to write that letter. I’m just not done working through my feelings about the bean-change.” Bruce snorted and rolled his eyes. “Besides, Taco Bell only offended my palate. Cindy-the-group-leader offended my platonic life partner and occasional work spouse. That is serious business.”

Said platonic life partner pressed his lips together and glanced down at his menu. “It’s fine.”

“No, fine is a marker thickness. This is—”

“Tony, it’s fine,” Bruce insisted, and his tone left no room for argument.

In Tony’s defense—and really, it said something about the state of his life that he always needed a defense—the whole nightmare’d started during the sharing portion of group that morning. Usually, people just talked about whatever they wanted, but for some reason, a theme’d emerged over the course of the hour, and Tony’d grit his teeth as he’d listened to story after story about parents and children. Kevin shared about how his father’s alcoholism had informed his own addiction (preaching to the choir there, Kev), Alicia had discussed repairing her relationship with her teenagers, and— Actually by the time Alicia’d finished sharing, Tony’d zoned out, itchy and uncomfortable about the whole topic-of-the-day.

Bruce’d shifted around, too, just as miserable—and their group leader’d picked up on it. “You’ve been quiet lately, Bruce,” she’d said with a smile. “Anything you’d like to share? About this topic or anything else?”

Bruce’d frozen like a deer in headlights. Big, glaring, eighteen-wheeler headlights.

And Tony still wanted to lob Cindy’s head off with a rusty spoon.

The waitress stopped by for their orders—a huge milkshake with two glasses for Tony, a cup of tea for Bruce—and as soon as she disappeared, Bruce dragged their usual crossword puzzle out of his bag and started working on it. Now that Tony stopped seething to think about it, Bruce had been pretty quiet lately. Distant. Contemplative. Tony’d tried blaming it on the weather, on Steve and Bucky’s wedding, even on Bruce’s obvious return to Natasha-flavored hookups, but something . . .

He sipped his complimentary water and thought of Pepper’s warnings to be a good friend.

Something definitely seemed off.

He set down his glass with a loud enough thump that Bruce looked up. “Come clean,” he said.

Bruce blinked cluelessly, but there was no missing the way his shoulders tightened. “Excuse me?”

“I told you I wouldn’t pry—promised it, really—but it turns out I’m a dirty liar.” Bruce snorted, but when he tried to return to the crossword puzzle, Tony snatched it out of his grip. “Something’s clearly bugging you. I don’t know when it started, and I don’t know what it is, but the longer you sit here in silence, the more it eats at you. To the point where Cindy-at-group noticed, and given that she thinks my name is Tommy, that’s pretty telling.” Bruce’s mouth twitched into a smirk, but only for a split second. Tony sighed. “Buddy, I can’t be a good friend if I don’t know what I need to be a good—”

“Natasha’s pregnant.”

Even as a murmur, the words slugged Tony hard enough that his breath caught, and for one slightly embarrassing moment, he just gaped at his friend. Bruce raised his eyes without raising his head, his whole expression reminiscent of a recently kicked puppy, and Tony—

Tony drew in a long, halfway shaky breath, and fought down all the emotions that immediately swirled around in the pit of his stomach: shock, hurt, fear, cautious optimism, dread, and definitely more hurt. When his brain finally caught up to the rest of him, he asked, “And you’re sure that it’s— I mean, not that I think Natasha’s the type to over-fill her dance card, but since you two split for a while—”

“No, the baby’s mine,” Bruce answered, and Tony appreciated the little wave of relief that ran up his spine. Bruce dragged fingers through his hair. “She told me at the reception, when we missed your toast. And even though she told me I could tell you, I didn’t know . . . ” He paused to shake his head. “I spent the whole snow week afraid that she’d change her mind because we were apart, and the whole school week afraid that she’d change her mind because we were back in our normal routine.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Change her mind about having the kid?” he asked carefully.

Bruce nodded. “And about giving me a chance. Giving us a chance, really, to put the pieces back together. To be a family.” He kept his voice low and steady, but there was no mistaking the little lilt of hope that ran through it, or the warm sparkle of a smile that danced in his eyes. “I’m terrified and overwhelmed, but I’m also— Deep down, I feel almost good.”

Tony’s head bobbed, mostly without his permission, and he almost kissed the waitress in sheer gratitude when she arrived with their drinks. He focused the whole of his energy in flirting with her and making her blush—not his usual routine, given that most their waitresses were either in their early sixties or their late teens—but he needed something to distract him from the writhing pit of uncertainty that’d replaced his stomach. He wanted to be happy for his friend, to celebrate that a guy who wanted kids like most people wanted fame and fortune might actually have his diaper-wearing dream land in his lap, but on the other hand—

On the other hand, he remembered the summer. He remembered a lost Bruce at the bar, a cold-shouldered Natasha skulking around school, a chasm not just between him and his friend but between his friend and the world. Worse, he still remembered the overwhelming weight of Pepper’s pregnancy scare a few years back and how even though he’d loved Pepper—loved her in ways he couldn’t describe, that beautiful and vital cog in the machinery of his life—he’d still fluctuated between excitement and dread.

As he stopped pouring milkshake into the two smaller glasses, Pepper’s voice echoed in the back of his head again. Be a good friend, he reminded himself. Sit on your feelings and be a good friend.

“I can’t really say I saw this coming,” he admitted as he nudged the little glass across the table with the tips of his fingers. “I mean, I knew you and Red were back to doing the beast with two backs—don’t roll your eyes, you’re not at all subtle when you’re getting laid—but I never thought it’d end in . . . ”

He waved his hand helplessly between them, and Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Is there a ‘but’ coming?” he asked, and Tony swore he could feel his friend’s nervousness.

Which was why he smiled—open and genuinely, like he felt nothing but joy—and said, “But I’m happy for you. Both of you. Hell, even all three.”

When Bruce smiled, he glowed like the sunrise.

Tony forced himself to keep smiling back.

“This is some next-level romance movie shit, Drew,” Jessica muttered to herself as she climbed out of her car and into the frigid January evening.

In truth, the next-level romance movie shit had really started three days ago, when she’d trudged home from her bar outing with Carol, sat down on her kitchen floor, and seriously reconsidered her bottle of schnapps. She’d stared it down for twenty minutes, half-expecting it to inspire some “Pink Elephants on Parade” action (she liked drunk-watching Dumbo, okay?), but instead, it’d just sat in front of her, waiting.

She’d eventually shoved it back between her empty bottle of Mr. Clean and that canister of Comet she’d used exactly once and grabbed her cell phone.

Three days and no new text messages later, she was finally taking matters into her own hands.

(Her stomach swirled around like a bunch of snakes tying themselves into knots. Normal, right? She really hated snakes, too.)

She’d practically wrung Barney’s whereabouts out of Parker, begging and pleading with the kid until he’d stammered his way through an actual answer. “He’s tried for like a week to get a meeting with his probation officer. It’s at six tonight. Not that I think he’s really leaving, but I think he’s thinking about it and wants to know the next steps.”

“Leaving where?” Jessica’d asked.

Parker’d raised his eyebrows. “Town?” he’d guessed. “I don’t know for sure. I just know that even before Christmas, he was ready to go. Thinks he’s a burden.” He’d paused, which had just allowed her heart more time to crawl into her throat and choke her. “Or maybe that there’s nobody here for him. I’ve never figured out which it is.”

And with that information burning a hole in her gut (acidic snakes, she decided, were worse than the regular kind), Jessica Drew squared her shoulders and headed straight into the police station that housed all the probation offices.

Or at least, she tried to.

Because the second she reached to push the door open, the door swung away from her and her palms hit cold, empty air. She stumbled and reached for the doorjamb to regain her balance—or to avoid face-planting, whatever sounded better—and ended up grabbing a fistful of somebody’s coat, instead. She jerked her head up, lost her balance anyway, and collided with a man’s broad chest.

“I—” she blurted, and then she realized that she knew the chest. Or maybe not the chest. Maybe the shampoo, deodorant, or shaving cream.

She swallowed and jerked away like somebody stung her.

Barney Barton blinked. “Jessica?”

Poets and writers, they knew how to describe moments like these, where your heart hammered and all your carefully planned words flew out of your head. Jessica, on the other hand, stared at him blankly. He looked as good as she remembered (smelled that good, too), but his stubble now qualified as scruff and his face—

He looked drawn, she realized. Drawn and tired.

Barney reached to touch her arm. “Jess—”

“I am a monumental fuck-up but that doesn’t mean you should go anywhere,” she interrupted.

His mouth hung open for one terrifying second before he finally pursed his lips. For the first time, Jessica noticed two cops—including one in plain clothes who was probably Barney’s probation officer—watching them.

“Let’s talk outside,” he suggested.

Jessica just nodded.

“Parker told you, right?” Barney asked once they climbed into her car and cranked up the heat, her mostly broken gas gauge be damned. “‘Cause Clint and I aren’t really talking, and—”

She whipped her head around to blink at him. “What?”

He shrugged. “It happens.”

She rolled her eyes. “Not talking to your brother is not a thing that just happens.”

“And skipping out on Thanksgiving is?”

The sharp edge to his words caught her off guard, and she grit her teeth. They stared at one another for a second, the silence in the car almost as thick as the plastic smell from the car’s heater. Finally, though, Jessica sighed and dragged her fingers through her hair. “Look, Barney, I’m—”

“A monumental fuck-up, if I heard you right,” he finished. She narrowed her eyes, and his mouth twisted into a crooked grin. “Doesn’t count if I’m quoting you.”

“Do it again, and I won’t be responsible for strangling you with your seatbelt,” she threatened, and he snorted a laugh. “But yeah, I am. My life’s this constant shit-show, but I’m sort of the architect of that disaster.”

Barney raised an eyebrow. “Sort of?”

“Okay, always. I just . . . ” She rolled her lips together and glanced outside at the weird shadows the streetlights cast on the remaining black-gray snow. “I’m horrible at relationships,” she said after a couple seconds. “I can own that. But I am a freaking fantastic friend. I’m loyal, persistent, and I will always threaten death on anybody who fucks you over.” When she tossed Barney a sideways glance, he flashed her a crooked grin. “I don’t know where the rest of this goes, but I can give you at least that. Friend-feelings, as far as the eye can see.”

His grin wavered slightly. “You think that’s all it takes to make me stick around?”

Jessica shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know anything that happens next. I just know that I’m sorry and I miss you. I just kind of hoped that’d be enough.”

She watched as Barney’s shoulders softened. “I don’t know what enough looks like, anymore,” he said quietly.

Jessica huffed out a breath. “Me neither,” she replied, and reached across the center console to squeeze his hand.

Loki looked up from his mound of papers to watch Darcy sleep. He wasn’t doing it in a creepy or stalker way, more of a I’m-terribly-worried-about-my-girlfriend manner. At the moment, said girlfriend was snoring under a pile of her clean clothes. She’d elected to take a nap to rest up for all the folding. “They’re all nice and warm right now,” she’d mumbled into a pillow two hours ago. “Lemme sleep.”

“They’ll get all wrinkled,” Loki’d warned.

“Downy wrinkle release,” she’d responded before drifting off into sleep.

He sighed and tried to turn his attention back to his students’ papers, but it was an effort. Why he still thought it was a good idea to have students write a three-page essay explaining themselves as a preliminary assignment was beyond him. It just meant he had over seventy pages to read on a weekend, none of them entertaining. His course was on storytelling, but the majority of his students apparently didn’t have the faintest idea on how to keep the reader interested. It was going to be another long semester.

He shrugged and marked B- on the top corner of a paper before throwing it down on the too-short graded pile. He capped his pen and picked up his cell phone to open the string of texts between him and his brother. Thor had kept him up to date on all that was going on with Darcy. Granted, some of it was gleaned from Jane and the kids and wasn’t necessarily accurate, but it was enough to get the gist, and Loki was grateful to get the information from someone.

Loki admittedly had hopes of being a knight in shining armor, there to rescue his fair maiden if need be. But whenever Darcy was around him, she refused to discuss anything about her home life, claiming she didn’t want to infect him with that particular toxin.

Like he couldn’t empathize with having a parent who never thought you lived up to your expectations. No, he hadn’t a clue what that might be like. At least Darcy had never found out she was adopted by eavesdropping.

He desperately wanted to help her but didn’t know how. He’d tried taking her out to dinner several nights this week, but she’d just made up excuses as to why she couldn’t go. When she was babysitting the kids, he offered to come over and help her watch them, but she pointed out that his papers weren’t going to grade themselves.

If only he could figure out how to create that particular magic spell. He could retire to his own private island.

From under the pile of clothing, Darcy groaned and stretched. Loki didn’t even bother trying to hide his smile at the sight.

“Hey,” she greeted. “What time is it?”

“Time for you to get a watch,” he replied.

“Hilarious. Can you seriously just tell me the time? I don’t want to look at my phone and see all the missed, annoyed texts from my mom.”

“It’s nearly six. Do you want to go somewhere for dinner? Further procrastinate from folding your laundry?”

“I’m okay,” she told him, even though a second later her stomach growled loudly enough that Loki was sure his neighbors heard it.

“Sure about that?”

She threw an arm over her eyes and pursed her lips. Loki immediately felt guilty; he knew what she looked like when she was desperately trying not to cry. “I can’t afford to eat out,” Darcy admitted quietly. “I need to get a place of my own, and I don’t make shit for pay. I’m going to have to live in a box and eat Ramen for the rest of my life.”

Loki rose from his chair, gently moved away some of her clothes, and lay beside her on the bed. “You’re talking about this to a graduate student. I am well aware of your financial woes, but at least you don’t have to take out loans to live in a luxurious studio apartment such as this one,” he said while waving an arm across his cramped expanse.

“I still can’t believe that your dad owns a chain of banks but you live here and refuse to let your mom give you money for bills,” Darcy said.

“If your mother offered you financial assistance, would you take it?”

“No,” she answered quietly.

“And neither do I. I’m not going to let my father lord that over me. He has enough ammunition as it is.” Loki paused to brush a lock of hair off of Darcy’s face. “But, if you want, you could move in with me. I know it’s not a lot of space, but it’s cheap. And with two people in the bed, it might cut back on heating expenses.”

“Loki, everything I touch turns to shit. I’m honestly shocked that we haven’t ended in a blaze of glory yet.”

“Well, then consider a temporary stay-over. You don’t have to stay with me forever if you don’t want to, but at least will get you off of that dreaded sleeper sofa. You’re going to have to give your retirement to a chiropractor if you keep sleeping there. Plus, you won’t be able to look out the window and be haunted by your mother.”

“That’s because you live on the basement floor, Loki,” Darcy pointed out.

“You did hear the part about being a poor graduate student, didn’t you?”

Darcy sighed. “Just short term? Nothing permanent?”

“You can stay as long as you please. I just want you to be happy.”

She paused and looked at all her laundry strewn on the mattress. “If I say yes, do I have to fold my clothes?”

Chapter Text

When Darcy leaned her head in Nick’s office on Monday, he knew right down to the pit of his stomach that his week was about to get ugly.

“You know that scary gym teacher at the middle school?” Darcy asked. “With the glare and the physical inability to smile?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You mean the one I’m married to?”

“I thought you were technically divorced and trying all over again. Not that I follow office gossip, but—” He shot her a dirty look, and she raised her hands. “Okay, since the glare’s apparently inherited through marriage, I retract my statement.”

Nick sighed. “There a point to all this?”

“Yeah, that your scary wife’s called. Three times, all while you were on that call with the central office.” Nick swore he felt the vein in his forehead throb as Darcy bounded up to his desk with three of her While You Were Ignoring Your Phone and Forcing Me to Pick Up the Slack message sheets. “The first two times, she just asked me to have you call her back. But the third time, she had me take a message.”

He accepted the slips with a forced smile and immediately flipped to the third. There, Darcy’s loopy handwriting read:

Triple W might die this week, and it’s only Monday.

“Hey, Boss?” Darcy asked from the doorway, and Nick lifted his gaze from the note. “Who’s Triple W?”

He snorted. “Melinda’s mentee teacher, Wade Winston Wilson.”

It was only a matter of time, really. Bucky was just glad his students gave him a few weeks of privacy before their curiosity got the better of them. He was also grateful that he was only on his second class of students. He couldn’t imagine if two people like Nat and Trip—two teachers who taught every student in the building—were married. There’d be non-stop interrogations from all the kids, instead of Bucky’s mere twenty-seven.

Steve said the questions hadn’t been too bad for him. Thankfully he was able to distract kids with scissors, glitter, and finger paint. But still, it was only a matter of time.

“Daddy’s ring is gold,” Gloria commented while looking at Bucky’s hand as it rested on her desk while he helped her with math. “Why isn’t yours gold?”

“I liked the white gold better,” Bucky answered. He took a breath in to redirect his student back to her multiplication problem, but Hannah joined in.

“My mom says that if you get the wrong kind of gold jewelry, your skin turns green. Does your ring make your skin green?”

“My skin is just fine,” Bucky replied.

“What about Mister Rogers’s ring?” Gloria questioned, a new worry etched in her face. “Does his turn his skin green?”

“No one has green skin,” Bucky reassured his students.

“Did you smash cake in each other’s faces?” Ryan asked from across the room. “My aunt said that if her husband smashed cake in her face at their wedding that she was going to punch him. He did it anyway, but she never punched him. Guess girls can’t punch after all.”

“First of all, I grew up with four sisters and all of them can punch. So can Miss Romanoff if you take her last piece of chocolate out of her desk. You’d be smart to leave girls alone. You’ll just get yourself hurt,” Bucky warned him. “And no, there was no cake smashing. At least not between Mister Rogers and me.”

“Did you kiss a lot?” Kacie asked with dreamy eyes. Jeffrey, sitting next to her, started making loud kissing sounds, and Kacie turned a death glare on him.

Bucky sighed, but everyone was staring—albeit with either bated breaths or looks of horror—so he clearly had to give an answer. “What qualifies as a lot ?” Various numbers rang out into the air, and Bucky waved them quiet after a few seconds of the cacophony. While they were at least back on the topic of numbers, this wasn’t the math lesson Bucky had planne d. “There was kissing,” he admitted finally. “But we’re not going to talk about it in my class.”

“Can we ask Mister Rogers?” Kacie asked.

“No,” Bucky answered.

“But we’ll be in his class and not yours,” Marcy pointed out.

“Still not allowed.”

Adam raised his hand with a dangerous grin on his face. “Can we ask Mister Rogers the same questions we ask you to see if one of you is lying?”

“We don’t lie about our relationship,” Bucky answered. “And we don’t lie to each other. We just aren’t going to tell you everything that happened or will happen.”

“Yeah, but what if one of you is lying?” Adam pushed. “If you find out now, it’ll be easier.”

“Easier for what?” Bucky asked, even if he knew in his gut he would regret doing so.

“Mom says that if she’d known sooner that Dad was a liar, it would’ve been easier,” Adam informed the class. “But now they have to fight over who gets what and custody and stuff. So if one of you is a liar, you should find out now so you don’t fight over who gets the TV.”

“We don’t lie to each other,” Bucky repeated.

“Never ever?” Elijah asked, a skeptical look on his face. “Nana says that everyone lies. And even if you think it’s for a good reason, you shouldn’t do it.”

Okay, sure, there may be some white lies in their relationship, but Bucky wasn’t about to divulge any of that to his students. A room full of ten-year-olds acting like relationship counselors was a terrible thing to go through. But at least his students couldn’t now start singing commercial jingles for online dating services at him like they used to do at his old school.

“Never ever,” Bucky swore, or at least pretended to swear.

“And when we have art tomorrow, we can ask Mister Rogers the same thing, right?” Ella questioned, a mischievous grin plastered underneath her too-big glasses.

“Sure,” Bucky told them while making a mental note to remind Steve what answers he should give during his interrogation in the morning.

“She call yet today?”

Nick turned around on his way out to visit a couple classrooms to find Jasper Sitwell sitting at Darcy’s desk and eating a Toblerone. He scowled. “The hell do I pay you for?”

“Besides my good looks? My ability to answer phones while Darcy’s heating up a Hot Pocket.” Nick rolled his eye, but Jasper just popped another little triangle of chocolate into his mouth. “You get a murder call yet today?”

“Depends on what the hell a murder call is.”

“‘No, Mel, listen, I don’t care how many weird animal sculptures he blows up in the kiln, you can’t bake him in there like a goddamn Christmas turkey.’” Even though Jasper’s impression sounded nothing like him, Nick bristled anyway. Jasper just grinned. “You’re not subtle when you’re talking her off the ledge.”

“This from the guy who spent a week convincing his girlfriend not to fire those science teachers over the liquid nitrogen incident,” Nick shot back, and that shut Jasper right the hell up.

“Is Mister Stark gone?” a voice asked, and Clint glanced up from his phone to discover Tommy Carter standing in front of him.

He wore the same hoodie as during the school day, his hands stuffed in the pockets, but for the first time in a long time, he looked kind of, well, hopeful. Since Tony’d tucked the kid under his wing and bonded with him, his classroom performance had improved, but his attitude still left a whole lot to be desired. Tony sometimes prodded him into a smile, but it usually faded once Tommy returned to his usual fifth grade classes. Maybe he wasn’t a hurricane anymore, but he still reminded Clint of a thunderhead every time he left his beloved computer lab.

Someday, Clint’d figure out the secret to Tony’s magic touch.

Today, he shoved his phone in his pocket and turned his full attention to his student. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just . . . ” Tommy paused, his eyes darting around the library like he expected to discover Tony hiding behind a bookcase. “I wanted to talk to him about something.”

“Well, he’ll be back in maybe an hour.” The kid jerked his head back to Clint, who shrugged. “Meeting at the central office for all the technology teachers. He rambled about it a little, but I didn’t follow.”

Tommy snorted and almost smiled. “Mister Stark does that sometimes.”

“You mean all the time, right?” Clint teased, and this time, the kid actually hazarded half a grin. Clint swung his legs where they dangled from the circulation desk and studied Tommy for a couple seconds. “You can talk to me, you know.”

Tommy blinked. “Oh, it’s not—”

“No pressure if you don’t want to,” Clint promised, raising his hands. “I know you like talking to Mister Stark, but you kind of look like a kid who needs to talk now.” Tommy slumped like he wanted to hide in his hoodie and ducked his head. “Hey, listen. I know the feeling. Back when I was in school, I needed to talk, too. Not all the time, just when stuff outside of school got too intense. You know what I mean?”

The boy nodded jerkily, but he kept his head down, eyes trained on the carpet. Clint remembered that posture from his childhood—defensive, sunken, like a thief slinking away in the night. Blend into the carpet or the wall, and you just might avoid hell raining down all around you.


Tommy toed the floor with his battered sneaker. “My dad— He kind of left,” he said, his voice low and a little shaky. “He’s gone away before, disappeared for a day or two, but this time, he left right after our snow days ended. No warning or anything, and he— We’re still waiting for him to come back.” He flicked his big, damp eyes up at Clint. “He’s mean. You met him, you know he is. And so, I think I shouldn’t care. But he’s still my dad, and I still want him to be okay.”

The last couple words caught in his throat, and Clint hopped down off the desk to walk over and place a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Let’s sit down,” he suggested, and led him over to a nearby table. Over at the card catalogue, Phil glanced up from his (ridiculous, boring) inventory project and raised his eyebrows. Clint just shook his head.

Later, he signed, and Phil nodded before returning to his work.

Tommy, on the other hand, sniffled into his hoodie sleeve. “I hate this,” he confessed, and Clint’s heart tightened a little as he remembered using those same damn words a couple decades earlier. “I hate when he’s home, but I hate him being gone. Because my mom’s freaking out, my sisters are scared, I can’t make it better, and—”

He released a tiny, hiccupping noise, and Clint reached out to squeeze his shoulder again. “You know this isn’t your job, right?” he asked softly. Tommy jerked his head up again, surprise etched on his face, and Clint smiled gently. “Lemme guess: nobody’s ever said that to you before. Your whole life, you’ve helped your mom and kept your sisters together. Picked up the pieces. Right?”

Tommy swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Clint echoed, mostly because thoughts of Barney flooded into his head and refused to leave for a couple seconds. He shook them loose and fought to hold onto his smile. “Problem with being all those things to your mom and your sisters,” he continued, “is that you feel all the weight of it inside you. Like it’s a real thing, pulling on you and dragging you down. And even if you can’t escape it, you’ve gotta tell somebody about it. Let them help lighten your load a little.”

The kid snorted huffily—and right away wiped his nose on his hoodie. “That’s why I came to talk to Mister Stark.”

“And why you wanted to run for it the second I said he wasn’t here?” Clint challenged. Tommy scowled. “That’s what I thought. So right now, I want you to make me a deal, okay? Next time things are bad and Mister Stark’s not around, you come see me or Miss Potts. Think you can handle that?”

Tommy rolled his lips together and lost a second to studying Clint’s face. “What if I say no deal?”

“Then I tell Mister Stark about all this, and you’re forced to listen to one of his Miss Potts is the best, you should always talk to her when you feel blue rants.” Tommy actually laughed aloud, his face brightening, and Clint grinned at him. “Deal?” he asked, holding out a hand.

“Deal,” Tommy replied—and high-fived him instead of shaking.

The next day, Tony crossed his arms and glared at Clint from across the teacher’s lounge. “I think you stole my favorite student,” he accused.

Clint shrugged. “Or the kid just developed a little common sense,” he retorted, and laughed when Tony flipped him off.

“He’s how many weeks behind on lesson plans?” Phil asked cautiously.

“Six,” Nick answered, leaning back against the nearest bookcase. Phil nodded a little, but Nick caught the way he frowned down at the newly refurbished collection of Lemony Snickett books. “She’s never had a mentee get so far behind before. And it’s not that he’s pulling shit out of his ass, either. He’s got plans. Complicated plans about sculpting a zoo for display at the children’s hospital or mimicking impressionists. He just never fills out the template, you know?”

Phil tipped his head up in Nick’s direction. “Then how does she know—”

“Because he showed her his vision journal. Complete with rough outlines of his lesson plans and a weird color coding system representing the different standards.” Nick shook his head. “And no matter how many times Melinda tells him he can’t submit that to the office, he photocopies the damn thing and shoves it in her mailbox.”

Phil snorted. “To be fair, I’m surprised Clint’s never tried that.”

Nick glared at him. “You better knock on some goddamn wood, Coulson,” he warned, and Phil laughed.

“Just make sure no one is running around the playground with icicles,” Phil warned. “The last thing we need is someone to get impaled like Cristina Yang, because I’m pretty sure none of us have the medical knowledge and quick thinking of Owen Hunt.”

“You’re the only one who gets your Grey’s Anatomy references,” Natasha replied dryly.

“You at least knew what characters I was talking about,” Phil said.

“Only because you talk about them all the time,” Steve muttered causing Natasha to smirk. Phil waited for the two of them to fist bump or something.

“Think he ever makes Clint pretend to be this Owen guy?” Natasha asked Steve. The art teacher at least had the manners to only grin and not reply with an answer.

For the record: Clint has never pretended to be Owen Hunt. While attractive, Phil didn’t want to deal with all of Owen’s angst. And Clint had plenty of that on his own.

Normally it would be Tony who was giving him a hard time during the bi-weekly specials team meeting, but today the technology instructor was sitting miserably in a chair with an ice pack mashed up against the side of his face. Phil, not entirely heartless when it came to Stark, had offered to delay the meeting until tomorrow in case Tony wanted to go home as soon as possible. They’d all had a ball kicked in their face at least once on the playground. It was a rite of passage, and Phil knew exactly how badly it could hurt. But Tony had grumbled something about getting things over with and sulked in his chair the whole meeting. While Phil certainly didn’t mind him finally being quiet, something was definitely off and he was pretty sure it wasn’t just the fact that Tony was probably fighting off a headache.

“Anyone have anything else?” Phil asked.

Steve cleared his throat. “I just wanted to thank everyone again for all you did for Bucky and I’s wedding. It really means a lot to both of us.”

“You don’t have to keep thanking us for that,” Phil commented.

“He should, though,” Natasha replied. “We threw an awesome wedding.”

Steve smiled innocently—at least it appeared innocent if you didn’t know him that well—at Natasha. “Any time we can return the favor, let us know.” Natasha did her best to cover up any reaction on her face, but Phil saw a bit of surprised discomfort float to the surface for a split second. They hadn’t really talked about the latest development in Natasha’s life since he confronted her about it in his driveway, and Phil certainly wasn’t going poking at the marriage beehive any time soon. Phil didn’t think Steve had any idea exactly how likely such a scenario could be. But Phil guessed Tony did since he’d gone completely still in his chair.

Mercifully, the discussion was interrupted by the sound of someone whispering Psst. Everyone turned to see two young women standing in the doorway to the library. Phil thought they looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place them.

“Sorry, so sorry,” the one on the right apologized with a lovely British accent. “I told her we could wait in our building, but she wanted to go on an adventure.”

The other woman shrugged. “I got tired of running virus scans. Again. You know what I’m talking about, right Stark?”

Instead of answering the question, Tony turned to Phil. “We done?”

“Yeah, go home.” He muttered his thanks and then left the library, brushing past the newest guests without a word.

The one who had asked him a question pulled a face. “Rude.”

Trip sighed. “In case you didn’t meet them at Steve’s wedding, this is Skye and Jemma. They work at the middle school next door.”

“One of us teaches science and the other technology,” the woman named Skye said. “I’m sure after talking to us for thirty seconds you couldn’t guess which is which.”

“Weren’t they both your dates at the wedding?” Steve asked. “Pepper handled the RSVPs, but I thought I remembered—“

“Yep, totally,” Skye answered for Trip as she stepped into the room, Jemma smiling nervously as she followed suit. “We live together, and we live together.” She added a dramatic wink at the end.

“Girl, come on,” Trip half-whined. “Don’t freak out my co-workers like that.”

“It’s technically not untrue,” Jemma commented. “While we do live in an atypical relationship, it’s mutually beneficial for—“

“Stop talking,” Skye stage whispered before looking back at Trip. “We have got to go grocery shopping, and we wouldn’t want to steal your couponing joy.”

“You mock my mad coupon skills, but it means we get to splurge on your ridiculously high bandwidth,” Trip replied.

“Is it splurging if it’s mandatory?” Skye questioned.

“You’re the only one who thinks that fast of an internet speed is mandatory,” Jemma told her.

Skye rolled her eyes. “Are you good to go, Trip, or not?”

Trip looked at Phil, and the librarian nodded his permission. “Get out of here. But we’re still good for after school tomorrow to get some mentorship hours?”

“Absolutely. You all have a good night,” Trip said before gathering his more-than-roommates and leaving.

“I can’t imagine dating two women,” Steve said.

“Me neither,” Phil replied.

“Can’t imagine why, since you both have husbands,” Natasha commented.

“I’ve dated women,” Steve pointed out, a slight tone of hurt in his voice.

“I’m not sure how hard you were trying when you did that,” Natasha told him. “We’ve all heard stories from Carol.”

“Wait,” Nick said, somewhere in minute six of what promised to be the world’s longest tirade. “Back up a couple sentences.”

Immediately, ice-cold silence prickled down the phone line. “How far?” Melinda asked after ten painful seconds.

Nick pursed his lips. The pile of paperwork that he kept fighting with the central office about loomed ominously on the corner of his desk, a leaning tower of red tape that he needed to work through, lest he risk the wrath of his superiors. At the same time, ignoring Melinda during a Wilson-shaped crisis risked her wrath, and he knew from experience the fury of scorning that particular woman.

He sighed. “I followed up to the seventh-graders with the paint in their hair,” he admitted, “but lost track around the time you got to— What was it again? Kinesthetic movement and poster board?”

Melinda snorted. “Interpretive dance and butcher paper.”

“Right. That.” He paused, scowling. “How the hell do you work interpretive dance into the art curriculum, anyway?”

He swore he heard Melinda smile on the other end of the line. “Be Wade Wilson.”

Pepper, for the third night in a row, found Tony working in the garage. While she was normally a sucker for her husband smudged with grease, eyes wild from his mind racing on how to better machines, tonight it made her nervous . Since Tony got home from his AA and milkshake ritual with Bruce on Saturday, he’d been on edge. She didn’t even have to ask to know that Bruce had finally fessed up to Natasha’s pregnancy.

Pepper hadn’t pushed Tony about it. As long as he wasn’t doing anything harmful, she knew he needed some time to process things in his head before he could work on verbalizing his emotions. And he was right on schedule, complete with manic car repairs and an increased need for sex, if that was possible. He’d barely stepped out of his garage-shaped armor in three days, and in the brief moments where he had, he’d held Pepper so tight she thought he was trying to absorb her into his body.

Tony finally noticed her standing in the doorway and gave her a weak smile. “How was your day at central office?”

She pursed her lips and shrugged. “Good as it can be, I guess. Nothing like starting your week listening to endless threats about not violating rules of administering state tests.”

“Even though those things don’t start for like another three months?”

“Pretty much,” she replied while slipping off her heels. It was then that she caught a good look at his face. She grabbed him by the chin and jerked his head to the side to look at his left eye. “Please tell me you didn’t run your mouth at Natasha and she punched you.”

Tony flinched as she poked at his swollen face. “No,” he answered before hissing as she prodded his injury again. “I swear. I just… I got distracted during recess and got nailed in the face with a ball. At least it was a third grader who did it. Pretty sure enough of the fifth graders have cell phones that it’d be wide-spread on snapchat or something if it’d happened with them.” He sighed and hung his head. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Other than rebuild engines?” He looked up at her with those big, brown, hurt eyes, and she felt herself break on the inside. “Tony,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“We shouldn’t be sorry, though. That’s the thing,” he told her. “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him, and it’s obvious that he’s reining it in.” He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face, only further smudging the grease there. “He’s my best friend and he’s getting his lifelong wish granted, and I… Why does it have to be with her?”

“Natasha isn’t that bad, Tony,” Pepper said.

“She stomped on his heart six months ago,” he argued.

“Pretty sure that went both ways.”

“I just now got him pieced back together,” Tony said softly. “And now she’s going to break his heart all over again.”

“Tony,” Pepper sighed. “Do you know how many people told me it was a terrible idea to be in a relationship with you? Let alone marry you?” A glare was the only response she got. “But we’re making it work. They’ll figure it out, too. We just have to be ready to support them when they hit rough patches.”

“Which they clearly will,” Tony muttered.

“Of course they will—they’re in a relationship. It happens to everyone.” He opened his mouth to argue again, but she placed a finger over his lips. “Here’s the deal: you go support Bruce like you did on Saturday. Lie through your teeth about how happy you are for him and be his best friend, and when you get home you will have an allotted amount of time—“

“Allotted amount?”

“To complain to me,” Pepper finished. “Like you said, this is the happiest he’s ever been, and we both know that’s a rare emotion for him when it comes to his personal life. And as much as you may not like Natasha sometimes, the times in her life where she’s been happy are even rarer than Bruce’s.”

Tony looked back down at the bench and absentmindedly twisted a screwdriver in his hand. “Did we do it wrong?”

“Do what wrong?”

“The baby thing. Should we have been more excited? Should we… I don’t know. Did we do it wrong?” he asked again.

“You’re not Bruce, Tony. You’re allowed to not want kids.” She paused to study his face for a moment. “Is this changing your mind on the kid thing?”

“No,” he replied quickly. “No, absolutely not. I just— I did okay handling that, right? I mean, we were both clearly scared shitless, but if it hadn’t have been a false positive, you know I would’ve been excited about it eventually, right?”

“Eventually, yes,” she replied with a small smile. Pepper leaned in to kiss his temple. “Stop worrying about that, and about Bruce. How was your day?” she asked while running her nails along his scalp. His eyelashes—insanely thick and long as they were that always spiked a bit of jealousy in Pepper—fluttered shut at the contact.

“Had a team meeting today,” he answered.

“And you behaved?”

“Barely said two words. Looked at the floor the whole time, which turned out to be a shame since Trip’s ladies—emphasis on the plural—showed up at the end.”

“You honestly didn’t make a single crack?” Pepper questioned.

Tony shook his head. “I can’t look at her, Pep. I’m scared that if I do I’ll either her shake her and yell or I’ll drop to my knees and beg her not to do anything to hurt Bruce again. It makes for a really fun work situation.”

“It’ll get easier,” Pepper said.


“When you start trusting her.”

Tony snorted. “That’s never going to happen.”

“For Bruce’s sake, it might have to,” Pepper warned before grabbing his hand. “I’m going to go take a shower.”

“Okay,” Tony responded, still clearly drowning in his own thoughts.

“And you’re going to join me.”


“Guess he’s calling it ‘the art of dance,’” Nick explained as Darcy squinted at his iPhone screen, her head tilted to one side like a confused Labrador. “Bare feet, bare hands, any motion they want in any color they want. A chance to ‘see how movement looks,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

Darcy grinned as she handed back his phone—and, more importantly, the picture of Wilson’s rainbow-colored monstrosity. “Your lady-friend kill him yet?” she asked.

Nick raised his eyebrows. “Lady-friend?”

“You won’t answer my questions about your mysterious love life, so . . . ”

He rolled his eye at her shit-eating grin, and she immediately burst out laughing. “As a matter of fact, she actually kind of liked this one,” he admitted. “Something about combining art with active movement. And it knocked out a whole bunch of art standards, so she’s over the moon—except maybe for the fact he wants to paint all the walls in his house like that.”

Darcy frowned. “House?”

“I guess Wilson wants to rent a house not too far from here,” Nick said, crossing his arms. “He’s not sure he can afford it on his own, but the owners offered him free reign on everything. Painting, planting, installing some kind of ninja warrior training course in the basement—anything he wants, as long as he keeps the lights on.” Darcy nodded, her lips pursing, and Nick shrugged. “He’s asked Melinda to move in with him. Three different times, actually. Promised her a private tai chi studio—at least, until she threatened to show him a whole different kind of martial art move.”

The distant, half-wistful look snapped right off Darcy’s face when she snorted. “Sounds like Wade,” she replied.

Nick grinned. “No kidding.”

Ten minutes later, Nick poked his head out of his office to find Darcy chewing on her thumbnail and flipping through pictures of houses to rent in the general vicinity of the school.

I might have a nibble for you—or Wade, Nick texted Melinda, and smiled.

“Do all brothers fight a lot?”

Jessica Drew jerked her head up from what was definitely not a text message from Barney Barton just as Miles Morales sidled up to her desk. With the weather still being hit-or-miss, most her chess club regulars had headed straight home after school, but not Morales or—

“She looks busy,” Ganke Lee said. He hung back, his hands in his pockets. “We should just play.”

Miles shot him a dirty look. “You don’t have a brother,” he informed his friend, “and I don’t either. But Miss Drew might.”

“Uh, Miss Drew definitely does not,” Jessica replied, raising her hands. “Miss Drew’s apple fell from a tree that should have been cut down a long time ago. Cut down, burned, and the ashes scattered to keep them from ever recombining, actually.”

Both boys blinked at her, faces blank.

She sighed. “No brothers.”

“Oh,” Miles said, the determined expression on his little face faltering. Ganke flashed Jessica an awkward grin before physically dragging his best friend back to their chess board. They set up the pieces haphazardly—Jessica wondered sometimes whether they actually knew the rules—and she watched them nudge some pawns around the board for a few seconds.

Her phone buzzed again to remind her of the (flirty, stupid) text she’d yet to respond to.

She groaned quietly.

“If you don’t have a brother, why do you want to know about them?” she asked as she crossed the classroom. Both boys glanced up at her, and she shrugged. “Seems to me, a kid asks about brothers for two reasons: either he has one who’s giving him grief, or he’s about to have one and is worried about the impending grief. Which is it?”

Miles glanced at Ganke for a second, his lower lip caught between his teeth. “It’s not either of those.”

“Then what—”

“It’s his uncle,” Ganke said, and he cringed when Miles kicked him under the desk. Jessica raised her eyebrows at him, but he still hesitated. “His uncle and his dad fight. Like, all the time.”

“Not all the time,” Miles grumbled. “Just . . . some of the time.”

“What kind of fights?” The kids jerked their heads up again, and she plopped down in the nearest chair. “I don’t have any siblings,” she explained, “but from what my friends say, some brothers and sisters fight a lot. Mostly about silly things—where to eat dinner, what to buy their parents for Christmas, who broke a vase when they were little kids. That kind of fighting is pretty normal.”

“This isn’t fun fighting,” Miles replied right away. “This is like . . . ” He chewed on his lower lip again, and Jessica barely resisted her urge to grin at his adorable, crinkled brow. Eventually, though, he glanced back up at her. “My dad says my uncle is bad,” he finally said. “He says he’s a bad person who did bad things. And my uncle says my dad is just as bad for not being nicer to him about it and not loving him.”

Ganke nodded. “And Miles really likes his uncle, so he’s sad.”

When Miles tried to kick him again, Jessica caught him by the shoulder. He ducked his head at her quick, disapproving head shake. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“You should say sorry to the person you kicked,” Ganke griped, and he paled when Jessica shot him a sharp glance. At least, until he added, “Miles used to go over to his uncle’s house after school. But his dad and his uncle had this big fight about his uncle being a bad guy, and now he’s not allowed to visit his uncle anymore.”

Miles huffed out a hard breath. “And it sucks.”

“Only vacuums suck,” Jessica reminded him, and her heart felt a little lighter when both kids flashed her tiny grins. She squeezed Miles’s shoulder lightly. “I have a friend who sounds a little like your uncle,” she said after a few seconds. “He made some bad mistakes, and his brother worries he might make those mistakes all over again. They fight about it. A lot, actually. But only because the brother is scared.”

Miles’s face crumpled. “Why’s he scared?”

“Because—” Jessica started, but she hesitated slightly under the eager stares of both second-graders. She glanced back over her shoulder at her waiting cell phone before shaking her head. “Because they love each other,” she answered. “And because no matter how many bad things my friend did, his brother wants him to be happy and safe. When you love someone a lot, them being unhappy or unsafe is the scariest thing in the world.”

Miles nodded unevenly, but Ganke narrowed his eyes at her. “You think Miles’s dad is scared?”

Jessica shrugged. “I don’t know Miles’s dad or his uncle,” she admitted, “but I know my friend and his big brother. And if Miles’s dad is anything like them, then yeah. He’s really, super, mega scared, and that’s a hard thing to get over.”

In the end, they traded in the chess board for Uno cards and played the most cut-throat game of Uno in the history of mankind until Ganke’s mom came to collect the boys.

And once her classroom emptied out, Jessica picked up her phone and texted, you need to talk to your freaking brother.

Chapter Text

“Stop,” Natasha mouthed across the table, and Bruce ducked his head to hide his smile.

Their weekly all-school staff meetings usually felt a little like a root canal, but today, Bruce felt like he’d won the lottery. Sure, Cami Murthy dumped paste all over her desk within ten minutes of the first bell, and yes, Arnold’d brought his dead dog’s collar for show and tell, but not even the usual trials and tribulations of a room full of kindergarteners could defeat the warm feeling that kept spreading through Bruce’s chest.

Because according to his most recent number-crunching, Natasha’s first trimester ended this Thursday.

And very soon—possibly in a matter of days—he could tell everyone he knew that they were about to become parents.

He smiled again, mostly to himself this time, and Tony heaved a sigh as he flipped over his agenda. I am going to throw up in my mouth, he scrawled, ignoring Bruce’s eye roll. You’re disgusting. It’s like a disease.

Bruce borrowed his pen and responded, I don’t complain about you and Pepper.

Tony wrinkled his nose. Because Pep and I are—

“I can’t believe I’m about to ask my staff whether they have something they want to share with the class,” Fury broke in all of a sudden, and Bruce nearly leapt out of his chair. “Please don’t tell me I need to separate you two like a couple of first graders.”

A few of their coworkers snickered, and Natasha’s mouth curled into a tantalizing little smile. “Tony wanted me to read his latest dirty limerick,” Bruce defended.

Tony grinned and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a masterpiece.”

“It rhymes ‘legs’ with ‘beds,’” Bruce returned, and he crumpled up the agenda while Tony pretended to sputter.

Peter Parker cornered him the second the meeting ended, and Bruce pretended to listen to the new teacher’s worries while he watched Natasha walk out of the library. Her curls bobbed as she disappeared through the doors, and for a moment, he fought down against the proprietary instinct that rose up in him, the one that insisted we’re each a part of the other, now.

He fell so completely into that thought that Peter poked him with a pen. He jumped and forced a sheepish smile. “Long week, sorry,” he half-lied, rubbing the back of his neck. “Will you take a rain check?”

Peter smirked. “Hot date with a new physics journal?” he teased.

“Something like that,” Bruce replied limply, and beat a hasty retreat.

“You keep staring at me like that, they’re going to start a betting ring with or without Tony’s approval,” Natasha chided as he walked into her office. He smiled, leaning against the doorjamb, and she blessed him with one of her soft, half-amused looks. “Dirty limerick?”

“Harsh critique of my emotional transparency,” Bruce admitted, and she snorted as reached for her bag. He watched her for a moment—the way her hair fell in her face, the dark sweep of her eyelashes—before he said, “You know, you’re almost finished with your first trimester.”

She stilled. “And?”

“And since the most immediate risk drops off after the twelfth week, I thought—” She glanced up at him, her eyebrows raised, and he swallowed. “I didn’t know when you wanted to start telling people. About the, you know. The baby.”

He gestured weakly in her direction while he said it, the word clumsy on his lips (because as often as he thought about the pregnancy, he rarely said the terms aloud), and Natasha pursed her lips. She ducked her head away as she zipped up her bag, but her voice was clear as day.

“I don’t.”

Bruce blinked. “Pardon?”

“I don’t want to start telling people about the baby. Not yet, and not if we don’t have to.” He stared blankly as she slung her bag over her shoulder, her face still hidden by her position. He recognized the tactic as one he sometimes used, an unsubtle way to hide a tidal wave of emotions.

His chest tightened slightly. He drew in a steadying breath and tried to smile. “We can’t hide it forever.”

“You underestimate the number of baggy hoodies in my closet,” she immediately replied, and all hints of a smile fell off Bruce’s expression. When she finally turned to meet him head-on, he discovered that she’d fought down whatever she felt and replaced it with a perfect, calm mask. They watched one another for a few seconds before she sighed. “You remember when Jessica Cage got pregnant,” she finally said. “Within ten seconds, it was everyone else’s business. Our coworkers had opinions, the parents had opinions . . . Everyone associated with this place inserted themselves into her life. I can’t do that.”

Bruce frowned involuntarily. “They’re our friends, Natasha.”

“Some of them, yes. The rest of them, plus the parents and the PTA?” She paused just long enough to shake her head. “You can’t honestly tell me you’re prepared for that kind of scrutiny. For every aspect of this pregnancy to be shoved under a microscope.”

“And that’s honestly what you’re worried about?” Bruce returned. She blinked, her mask slipping, and for the first time, Bruce caught a hint of emotion on her face. He stepped forward, close to her desk. “You’re a master at shutting down busy bodies. Hell, I think you’re the only person in this building who can make Tony wet himself in fear—excluding Pepper, of course.” She snorted slightly, and he closed the last few feet of distance between them. “I can’t imagine that the only reason you don’t want to share this is because a few people might—”

“And what about why you want to tell people?” The question caught Bruce off guard, and once again, Natasha glanced away just long enough to shake her head. “You don’t have to believe me, but I need you to respect that I don’t want to tell people. Not before I have to, and not in some public spectacle that Tony will probably want to curate.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Tony won’t want to—”


She touched his arm as she asked, her fingers warm and soft against his skin, and he jerked his head up to meet her eyes. For a moment, he thought only of his Google Calendar Event set for this weekend and his grand plans of telling their friends about their baby, about their chance to celebrate this new phase of their life with the people they loved. Clint and Phil, Steve and Bucky, even Carol, Jessica Drew, Peter, and Darcy— They’d all be elated. Maybe even over-the-moon.

But Natasha kept watching him, her face calm and expectant, and his resolve crumbled. “Okay,” he agreed, nodding slightly. “We keep it under wraps for the time being.”

She smiled softly. “Thank you,” she murmured, and leaned up to kiss him on the corner of his mouth.

He kissed her back, long and sweet, and tried to ignore the part of his heart that hurt.

“Isn’t it awesome?” Darcy asked with a wide grin.

“Are you sure you want the upper loft all to yourself? Doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of air circulating up here?” Loki replied warily.

Darcy shrugged. “Blanket fort in the winter, and in the summer, I can put a bunch of fans up here. It’ll be like a Beyoncé stage show. Plus, it will give me a sanctuary from Peter and Gwen’s constant banging and Wade’s constant crazy.”

“You know, you could wait a little bit longer. See if some more… sane roommates come up on the market,” Loki offered.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Loki, we’ve been through this. With three of us splitting the rent, plus all of us taking turns carpooling to work, it makes it affordable for me to live in a house. Besides, I thought you were tired of finding my hairballs in your shower drain.”

He pushed a smile on to his face before leaving the room to go grab the next box from his car. Loki reminded himself that he wanted Darcy to be happy, that it was his greatest goal. But he won’t deny the fact that he’d been sulking behind her back as she packed up her few belongings in their—his—apartment.

Of course, she’d been correct. His small, underground studio apartment wasn’t enough space for the two of them. With her clothes strewn about, and papers for his research and homework to grade on every conceivable surface, tensions had run high a few evenings. But it had been worth it to Loki. He just wished he had the ability to voice his opinion. His annoying, older brother had been texting him consistently about the matter for the last few weeks. Loki had ignored most of the texts.

But perhaps it would be good, Loki reasoned. With Darcy back in her own space, he would be able to better focus on preparing his lectures and writing his thesis.

Although it would mean not turning on his laptop to find Darcy’s personal edits filling Word. Most of them raunchy and hilarious, and all of them thankfully saved on a copied file and not the original.

He tried to shake off his feelings as he grabbed another large, heavy box—DVDs—and began the trudge up to her loft bedroom. Along the way, he overheard his girlfriend’s new roommates talking. His girlfriend’s new, male roommates. Yes, Loki knew Darcy wouldn’t ever cheat, but most men wouldn’t be comfortable with the person they were dating living with two other potential boyfriends. Even if one was already in a serious relationship and the other was Wade Wilson.

Loki had butted heads with the middle school art teacher last year before he’d started dating Darcy. Loki knew for a fact that Wade had been interested in dating Darcy as well. He wasn’t sure if Wade was over those feelings yet or not. He certainly hoped so. Regardless, Darcy confessed that morning that during a late-night-roommate-initiation-drinking-binge, Wade had admitted that he thought Loki was some sort of vampire with his dark, long hair and spookily pale skin. If Loki would spend his future idly eyeing Wade’s neck whenever he was around, then so be it. If Darcy caught him, surely Loki could tie it back to his thesis on studying the current culture’s view of mythology.

The group’s laughter bounced around the bare walls, and Loki swallowed a frown as he trekked up the stairs. Darcy’s loft was an open space, or at least it had been before she’d started moving things in. Now there was her double bed as well as clothes and boxes everywhere. The Cape-Cod style house meant the ceilings to her left were slanted, and it left Loki feeling like he had to stoop over whenever he stood. She’d traded the extra-private living space for cleaning and garbage duties. A perfect ploy when living with two men.

“You think my posters will look okay at angles?” Darcy asked while staring at the slanted ceiling.

“As long as you’re happy with them, who cares? That’s the joy of having your own living space,” Loki told her.

Darcy grinned at him—the full-on smile that caused his heart to skip a beat—and Loki couldn’t help but return the expression. “What?” she asked. “You’re staring.”

“Because you’re gorgeous,” he answered quickly and honestly.

“You already moved all my heavy boxes, you don’t have to suck up to get laid.”

“Nothing wrong with covering one’s bases,” Loki countered. He pulled his cell phone from his back pocket. “Alva demanded a picture of you in your new room.”

Darcy put on a cheesy grin, threw out her arms, and posed for the photograph. “She’s going to be mad that there aren't horses everywhere.”

“And mad that you haven’t invited her over for a sleepover.”

Darcy snorted. “I’m not exposing a kindergartner to Wade Wilson on his down time.” She sauntered over to stand in front of him. “But her uncle is welcome to sleep over whenever he likes.”

“Careful with such an offer,” he responded. “You might just find yourself with another roommate. And I’m not sure there’s room for five of us to live here.”

“You’d make four,” Darcy corrected.

“Alright, I’ll make you a deal. If Gwen spends less than half of her free hours here, I’ll do your laundry for a month. But if the reverse is true, you’re washing my clothes.”

Darcy turned her head to listen to the conversation downstairs for a second, specifically Gwen and Peter’s laughter. “No bet,” she conceded.

“Does Steve know that you’re out on a date?” Natasha asked as she perused the menu.

“I’m not cheating on my husband,” James replied. “Did you tell Bruce you were out with me?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Because I strive to be honest with my relationships. You didn’t tell Steve we’re out together—or at least, you didn’t tell him why we’re out together, which you still have yet to tell me.”

James waved down a waitress. When one appeared, he ordered a Moscow Mule and pointed at Natasha. “And she’ll have the same.”

“Actually, I’ll just stick to water, thanks,” Natasha corrected.

James shot her a funny look as the waitress walked away; she ignored it. He apparently didn’t care about what she did or didn’t want to talk about. “You’re seriously still on this sober kick? It’s not like you have a drinking problem.”

“I never said I did.”

“Then why do it?” James asked.

Natasha rolled her lips. “Bruce and I are trying to make a serious go of things. I don’t want to be around him with alcohol.”

“Pepper drinks in front of Tony,” James argued.

“Please tell me you didn’t invite me out to dinner to lecture me on whether or not I consume booze,” Natasha said.

“No, but I guess it’s a good thing that you’re not drinking considering what I want to talk to you about.”

Natasha felt her stomach twist and not because of the overpowering smell of different dinners around her. She and James had been going to this restaurant for years, and she’d always loved it. Now she couldn’t wait to get outside and breathe fresh air. And then maybe eat a piece of cake. “Yeah?” she asked. “Why is that?”

James swallowed, and she watched him try to fight a smile from covering his face. “I know it was stupid of me to first ask you about it when you laid up with that kidney stone a couple months ago, but I was still serious. Steve and I want kids, and I would really love it if you would be our surrogate.” Before she could open her mouth to say anything, James plowed right on through. “I know it’s absolutely asking a ton of you, but I think you and Steve could make a really cute baby. And I would really like to be a dad to that baby.”

“Have you thought about one of your sisters?” Natasha asked. “Best chance of getting a kid that looks like both of you.”

James grinned. “The kid doesn’t need to inherit my ugly mug.” He paused as the waitress delivered their drinks. Natasha watched him take a healthy swig of his beloved Moscow Mule, as if even though the question was out in the air, he still needed to steel himself. “We could try as soon as the school year ends,” James suggested. “We’re going to use the money I was saving up for a down payment on a house. That way, you have a few months to get used to the idea, have the summer off to deal with any first trimester woes, and if it times itself out just right, you can start your maternity leave at spring break and be done with the school year in April.”

Natasha knew the words she needed to tell him, the simple sentence that would end this once and for all. But she saw the light sparkling in his eyes. In all the years that she’d known James, this was the happiest she’d ever seen him. And after fighting a war, and both of them losing Alex, she didn’t want to be the person to end the happiness he’d finally found.

She thought about Bruce’s conversation after staff meeting a couple days ago. He was right, and she’d known it even as he broached the subject with her. But she was still sussing out her own feelings on being pregnant. She wasn’t ready to deal with how everyone else felt about it.

And she certainly wasn’t ready to watch her best friend’s face fall as she told him she was getting a kid on accident and couldn’t give him the one he was planning for and wanted so desperately.

Natasha considered asking a series of questions that would make it sound like she was considering things, but she couldn’t lie to him and lead him on. So instead, she just made some remark about how she needed to talk things over with Bruce. The look on James’s face told her he hadn’t even considered what the kindergarten teacher would think about his girlfriend acting as a surrogate. Natasha felt a whole new series of doubts well up about how her friends viewed their relationship and what kind of thoughts they would have when they found out she and Bruce were going to be parents.

She faked a good time through dinner and was grateful that James let her go easily instead of trying to talk her into bar hopping for a couple of hours—another tradition of theirs when they were out by themselves. She drove a meandering path back to Bruce’s house—the place she slept most nights now. Natasha pulled into the driveway, cut the engine and headlights, but didn’t make any other movements. She sat there reliving the conversation from dinner and putting together the honest words that she should’ve told James. But even in the car by herself, mentally saying those things still caused her heart to seize in fear.

Natasha jumped when there was a knock on her car window. Bruce held his hands up and mouthed an apology. She waited for him to move aside before opening the door. “You okay?” he asked, concern evident on his face.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she admitted.

He gave her a small smile. “And here I thought I was the only one feeling like that.”

“It’s like the more space I give her, the less she wants to even talk about it!”

Bucky threw up his hands without really thinking about it, aware (too aware) that Steve kept watching him. He’d smiled and laughed through his dinner with Natasha, the old, comfortable reactions of old, comfortable James, but the second he’d sat down in his car, something inside his chest had rattled and cracked. Not broken, not yet—he refused to break until Natasha actually answered him—but it definitely had started to pull apart at the seams.

He’d held onto the steering wheel with white knuckles, his brain fluttering back and forth between anger and disappointment.

The former’d won out by the time he burst in through their front door.

Steve’s eyes followed him as he stopped in the middle of the room and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I wouldn’t care if I felt like she was actually thinking about it,” he admitted after a beat, “but I think she’s avoiding it. If I’m out of sight, then being a surrogate is out of mind.”

“She might not be ready to talk through it with you, yet,” Steve suggested. Bucky glared at him, and he raised his hands slightly. “You’re not asking to borrow her car, Buck. You’re asking her for a year of her life. Maybe more, if takes more than one try.”

“Yeah, but she knows I’d do the same for her,” Bucky argued. Steve raised an eyebrow, his mouth almost quirking into a smile, and Bucky jabbed a finger in his direction. “You know what I meant.”

“That you’d lend Natasha your uterus?”

“Shut up.” This time, Steve grinned, and Bucky worked hard to scowl at him. He walked over and flopped next to Steve on the couch. “She wants to talk to Bruce,” he said, dragging his hands over his face. “Maybe that’s why I’m pissed off. Because she wants to talk to the one person who has nothing to do with this.”

Steve pursed his lips. “He’s her boyfriend,” he pointed out.

Bucky snorted. “Until they fall apart again, maybe.” His husband’s jaw tightened—patented Steve Rogers disapproval—and Bucky sighed as he thumped the back of his head against the couch cushion. “I know they’re trying to make it work,” he admitted. “I know it’s important to her. But her track record with him isn’t good. She shouldn’t rearrange her life just because—”

“She cares about him?” Steve interrupted. “She’s been through a lot more than either of us.”

Bucky flicked his eyes over to Steve. “And I’m not saying their relationship should look like ours. I’m just—”

“Saying that it’s doomed to fail because their first attempt was a little shaky,” Steve fired back. Bucky rolled his lips together, and for the first time since he climbed into the car, the fight started to seep out of him. “You want her to blow Bruce off because their relationship isn’t perfect. Even though you know, deep down, how unfair that is.”

Bucky held Steve’s eyes for several long seconds, a game of relationship chicken he lost when Steve’s earnestness overwhelmed him. He rolled his head back against the couch and stared up at the ceiling. He wanted to be fair to Natasha, to give her all the time she needed to decide, but silence— This time, silence felt different. Like waiting for a bomb to explode.

He wondered whether she would have dodged the questions all those years ago, when Alex was alive. But if Alex’d lived, Natasha might already have children of her own. A little horde of red-headed trouble-makers who’d love their Uncle James.

When he smiled slightly at the thought, Steve poked him in the ribs. He squirmed, but he also looked back at his husband. “No fair keeping your thoughts to yourself,” Steve chided.

“Since when?”

“Since you snuck off for secret surrogacy dinners and came back fighting mad?”

Bucky snorted at that—never mind Steve’s tiny, shit-eating smile—but he knew there was no room for deflection. He sighed. “I just wish she understood that this might be the only way we can have a baby,” he said. “I feel like she doesn’t see that, and—”

He shook his head instead of finishing the thought, his voice sounding sticky even to his own ears. Next to him, Steve nodded unevenly. He stayed quiet for a moment, his expression both completely present and light years away, and Bucky wondered for a few seconds where his mind had wandered off to. He seemed to do that every time they talked about children, to lose himself for a few seconds.

But unlike Natasha, he always dragged himself back into the conversation.

Like now, when he smiled softly as he glanced back at Bucky, and as he slid his fingers through the soft hairs at the back of Bucky’s neck. “If I’m honest,” he said quietly, “I think you don’t see how much pressure you’re putting on someone you love. Especially when that someone’s your best friend, and you want to see her happy.”

Bucky snorted slightly and tipped to rest his temple against Steve’s shoulder. “I really want all of us to be happy. Her with Bruce—or whoever else she wants to be with—and us with a baby.”

Steve’s fingers stilled for a moment. “I know,” he murmured, and leaned his cheek against Bucky’s hair.

“Phil sick?” Barney asked as he walked up behind Clint. When his brother didn’t turn around, Barney shook his head and felt like an idiot. He was meeting Clint at his weekly coffee shop gathering with his deaf friends. He should’ve known that Clint would see this as a break from the hearing aids that annoyed him to no end.

Barney stepped around Clint, who was hunched over his phone, thumbs going wild. He waited until Clint noticed he was there. He could’ve reached out and touched his arm, but Barney’d paid the price plenty of times for sneaking up on his little brother. But with each incident, Barney was proud of how Clint had taken his lessons on how to throw a punch or an elbow to heart.

Clint’s head finally came up and he smiled. Barney returned the lopsided grin. “Phil sick?” he repeated once he was sure his brother was ready to read his lips.

Clint held up his left hand in front of him, then with his right hand he extended his index and middle fingers and waved them up and down in front of his left hand.

Reading, Barney understood. Clint punctuated his thought on the nerdiness level of his husband with an eye roll.

For the next two hours, Barney stuck pretty close to Clint’s side as he made the rounds and caught up with his circle of hard of hearing friends on what they’d done in the past week. It wasn’t the first time that Barney had joined Clint on one of these nights, but his presence was infrequent enough that it took him the first hour to stop being clunky with his fingers and asking the others to move their hands a little more slowly so he could understand what they were saying. The second hour went a little more smoothly, and Clint’s friends were generous in their patience as he tried to remember something or signed the wrong word. Most of them would reach out to correct his fingers with a smile.

As the group slowly left the coffee shop, Clint nudged into Barney while putting his hearing aids back in. “You got a ride home?”

“There’s a bus stop that runs close enough to May’s house, I’ll be fine.”

Clint gave him an unimpressed look. “Unless ‘close enough’ is to-your-door service, then it’s stupid for you to walk in two degree weather when I can drive you. C’mon.”

“I don’t want to be a burden,” Barney said as he trudged behind Clint.

Clint paused before unlocking the car to focus on him. “When are you gonna learn that you’re the only one who sees you as a burden?”

Barney rolled his lips and kept quiet. He was tired of the pity. That was why he’d tried to leave a couple times now. He didn’t want to be someone’s pet project, didn’t want to be the thing that made people feel better because they helped the ex-con. He knew guys in prison with the same mindset. Tired of being the target of goodwill because people thought they were helpless, so they left.

And went right back to the thing that got them in trouble, and then it was only a matter of time before they were incarcerated again.

Barney thought that was a likely fate of his. People would get tired of being nice to him and doing him favors. Eventually, he’d be politely asked by May to find somewhere else to live. Clint, he was sure, would be just fine going back to the monthly letter instead of having to invite him to things.

“Get out of your damn head,” Clint told him. “Pretty sure I could hear you without my hearing aids in.”

“Sorry,” Barney grumbled.

Clint slowed to a stop at a red light and looked over at him. “We’re not doing this for charity. We want to see you back on your feet.”

Barney snorted. “You say ‘back’ like I was ever there in the first place.”

“Fine, then we’re here to get you upright and stay there. So stop fighting us and trying to run away.” Barney huffed and shifted in his seat, but he didn’t say anything else. He could feel Clint’s eye roll as the car started moving again. “How are things with you and Jess? And before you answer, please know that I don’t want to hear anything that involves either of you being naked.”

“We’re just friends,” Barney said.

“You don’t sound thrilled about that,” Clint commented.

Barney shrugged. “That’s what she wants for now, and it’s not like I have any other girlfriend options in my life. Well, other than May.”

“May would be a dream catch, just so you know,” Clint pointed out. Barney did know. He ran his fingers down the sleeve of his new winter coat as a reminder. “But you and Jess are okay?”

“Why do you care?”

Clint rolled his eyes again. Barney was sure if he did it anymore before they got to May’s, he was going to need medical attention for eye strains. “Because I care about my brother and my work friend. I know, it’s some newfangled way of living life.”

“We’re fine. I’m fine, just leave it.”

Clint opened his mouth like he was going to argue, but just shook his head. He miraculously stayed quiet until they pulled into May’s driveway.

“Is Bucky driving you crazy?”

Natasha didn’t jump or even flinch at Steve’s voice, but he suspected he’d still surprised her. He blamed the tightness in her back, or maybe the way she paused with her arms raised.

But the tension disappeared a split-second later, and she huffed at him. “You’ll have to be more specific. James minored in driving me crazy.”

She arched onto her toes to pluck a box off a high shelf, but Steve reached over her to bring it down. When he handed it over, she narrowed her eyes at the contents; Steve guessed she actually wanted to glare at him.

He tried on a smile. “He says the same about you,” he pointed out.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “He would.”

Steve held his smile, even chuckled at the dryness in her tone, but she ignored both as she started dragging brightly colored mesh practice jerseys out of the box. The PTA (led, as always, by Thor Odinson) desperately wanted to supply the school new sports equipment for spring. As a side effect of that kindness, Natasha had to spend her afternoons digging through the dusty boxes in the back of the storage room and figuring out what items actually needed replaced. She’d mentioned her inventory project during their last specials meeting, but she’d also brushed off any help.

She also brushed off Steve as he hovered a few steps behind her, her lips moving as she counted jerseys.

He toed the concrete floor for a moment, his eyes wandering. He studied her face, the wall, the yellow-white bulb in the room’s only light fixture, and even the ceiling before finally drawing in a breath.

“Can we talk?” he asked.

Her eyes flicked over to him. “I thought we already were.”

“Yeah, but can we actually—” She quirked an expectant eyebrow, and he exhaled shakily as the words dried up. He rubbed the side of his neck, his ears burning slightly. “About the surrogacy thing,” he said. “Bucky’s driving you crazy about being our surrogate.”

Natasha froze, but somehow, she maintained her neutral expression. They stared at each other for a beat before she shrugged again. “It’s nothing I can’t handle,” she said dismissively. “James and I have been friends long enough that—”

“He’s moved from ‘needling’ to ‘pushing,’” Steve pressed, and she fell silent. “I know. He’s doing the same thing to me.”

This time, surprise did flash across her face, and she blinked exactly once before schooling her mask back into place. Steve sighed and rested his weight against a ball cart. “Not that it’s news to you,” he said, “but Bucky loves kids. Ever since we got engaged—maybe even before—he’s had this tunnel vision about becoming a dad. About us being dads.”

She pressed her lips together. “And you’re not interested?” she asked carefully.

He snorted. “Interested, yes. Ready?” He chuckled slightly and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know. Maybe no one’s ever ready.”

Natasha nodded, her eyes still trained on his face, and for a few seconds, they watched each other in the dingy, dusty light. Even though Steve had rehearsed this conversation a dozen times—in the shower that morning, during his planning period, on the walk down to the storeroom—the words kept sticking in the back of his throat.

He swallowed thickly. “I don’t know exactly what you two have talked about,” he finally told her, “but it’s okay if you don’t want to be a surrogate for us right now. Or ever. It’s a big thing to ask someone, and if you need time—or if you don’t, and you just know the answer’s no—that’s okay. We’ll be okay.”

Her jaw worked slightly. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” she said—but hesitantly, like she barely believed her own words.

“Sounds like what I say to myself every morning,” he murmured, mostly to himself. She raised her eyebrows, and he met her gaze for a moment before shaking his head. “I’m not sure I want it either,” he admitted quietly. “And I don’t think I’ll feel that way forever, but right now—”

“Have you told James that?” Natasha broke in. Steve rolled his lips together, and her shoulders softened. “If you don’t want children, he needs to know—”

“It’s not children in general, it’s—” he started, but he ended up sighing, instead. “I’ve tried to explain to him why having one that’s mine isn’t a great idea, but you know how Bucky is when he decides something.” She snorted slightly, and Steve almost smiled. “Plus, he’s convinced I’d be a great dad.”

“He’s not wrong about that,” she immediately replied. He started to roll his eyes, but she reached out and put a hand on his arm. “He’s not. You’re wonderful with your students and your Little League team. You’d be a good father.”

“Maybe.” Natasha’s hand lingered, and Steve reached over to squeeze it. “I just wanted to make sure that someone reminded you that this whole surrogacy thing is your decision. That we’ll survive without it.”

One corner of her mouth twisted slightly. “James might not.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Steve retorted. “And if he bothers you again before you’re ready to answer us, I’ll talk to him about it.”

She raised her head just far enough to meet his eyes. “I think you need to talk to him either way,” she pointed out, and waited until he nodded before drawing her hand away.

Chapter Text

Steve woke with a jerk, sweat lining his brow and breaths coming in rapid gasps. Thankfully, Bucky was a heavy sleeper and didn’t wake up too. Steve slowly made his way out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. Turning on the faucet, he splashed cold water on his face. He caught his reflection in the window and quickly turned and leaned his back against the counter. Running his hands through his hair, he tried to push the images from his dreams out of his head, but they wouldn’t budge. To his left, he spotted a magazine Bucky had left behind. It was left open to a page advertising top notch strollers. Steve knew it wasn’t an intentionally passive-aggressive move on Bucky’s part, but it was the last thing Steve needed right now.

He wondered what he should do. He needed to burn energy and wear himself out, but it was three in the morning and his options were limited. He could go for a run, but his sweats and shoes were in the bedroom. Besides, there was probably black ice on the sidewalks or roads, and he didn’t need to fall and hurt himself. He was about to move into the living room to do a series of push-ups, sit-ups, and planks when Bucky stumbled into the kitchen.

“Wanting to re-enact last year’s Valentine’s Day a little early?” he asked with a sleepy smile. “My sisters didn’t send a sextravaganza bouquet, but we can improvise.” He reached in the cupboard for a glass. Steve didn’t respond, just kept his eyes on his bare toes, which became an issue since he was blocking Bucky’s path to the sink. “Steve?” he asked.

Steve could hear the note of worry in his husband’s voice. As he looked up, he saw that Bucky’s eyes were now bright and nervous, a soldier’s instinct to wake up at the sign of danger. Steve took a shaky breath for resolve and said, “We need to talk.” Before Bucky could respond, Steve moved into the living room and sank onto the couch. He listened as Bucky filled one glass then another with water before he joined him on the sofa. Steve muttered a thanks before reaching for the cup in Bucky’s outstretched hand and took a long gulp.

“What’s going on?” Bucky asked. His voice was almost full of warmth, but Steve could still a thin line of nerves.

“I can’t be the father of any kid we have,” Steve said. Bucky opened his mouth to start the familiar argument of how there needed to be more Rogerses in the world, but Steve gave him a sharp look. “For the third night in a row, I’ve had nightmares. A kid who looks like me, sick in the hospital, then dying. We bury them—sometimes it’s a girl, sometimes it’s a boy, and the age varies—but we bury them and then you just hate. Everything, everyone, me. You can’t even look at me.”

“Steve, I would never blame you—“

“You would,” Steve interrupted. “And you should.” He paused to take another sip of water. “When Dad was killed in Iraq, he was in the hospital a couple of days before he passed. They did some tests and scans to see how bad his injuries were, and they found tumors. He’d been hiding how he felt from the medics so he wouldn’t get sent home.”

Bucky shrugged. “Just because he had tumors doesn’t meant they were cancerous, and even if they were cancer, it doesn’t mean it was something passed on.”

“Dad didn’t smoke or drink, Buck. It runs in the family, and he passed it on to me. I should’ve died when I was a teenager. Pretty sure I saw the light myself a time or two, and the thing I remember the most is the look on my mother’s face as she watched me lie there in that hospital bed .” He shook his head. “I can’t do that to you, and I can’t do that to a kid. You would hate me if that happened, Bucky, and I couldn’t blame you at all.”

Bucky swallowed. “If you don’t want to be the father, then all you have to do is say so.”

“I have said so; you’re not willing to listen.” Steve said the words as gently as possible, but there was enough emotions racing through him that it didn’t come out as calm as he hoped.

“Okay,” Bucky said slowly. “So you don’t want to be the father, that’s fine. We can still get Natasha to be the surrogate, and I can be the sperm donor.” Steve shot up from the couch in frustration and moved away from Bucky. “What?” Bucky snapped.

“Natasha doesn’t want this either,” Steve replied, trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re not listening to her, too.”

“She said she’d think about it,” Bucky argued.

“When have you ever known Natasha Romanoff to be indecisive?” Steve fired back. “And as you always point out, you’ve known her a lot longer than any of us.”

Bucky looked up at him, his face hard. “Do you even want kids?”

“No,” Steve said softly. Bucky shot up from the couch and began to storm back toward the bedroom. “Not right now,” Steve shouted after him. “Later, not now.” The only response he got was Bucky slamming the bedroom door shut. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” Steve sighed.

“You don’t have to do that,” Bruce said as Thor bent over to pick up some more Valentine’s Day party detritus.

The PTA president offered a smile. “And you don’t have to clean up your room during the brief time the school system calls a lunch.”

Bruce shrugged. “I usually just eat a Cliff bar while making copies. It’s fine.” The two men continued cleaning Bruce’s classroom in silence. Thor had shared his excitement about getting to spend his morning with Alva’s class before moving on to George’s class this afternoon. Alva made sure everyone knew exactly who her father was, and Bruce couldn’t entirely blame her. A part of him couldn’t help but watch the man interact with his daughter and silently wonder if maybe one day he’d get to have that kind of relationship with a little girl. Then, he’d pushed away the thought and focused on watching his young students enjoy games and passing out colorful valentines signed with carefully written names.

But now his room was quiet, and the silence only made his thoughts grow in volume.

“Can I ask you a question?” Bruce asked, while picking at a spot of glitter glued to one of the tables. “It’s a little personal.”

Thor smiled easily. “You’re in your third year of a child of mine oversharing tales from home. I’m not sure anything about my family is ‘too personal’ at this point.”

Bruce grinned back and ducked his head, continuing to busy his hands with anything he could find. “When did you and Jane tell people you were expecting? Umm, just asking for a friend,” he added hastily.

Thor straightened from where he was pushing small chairs into their rightful spots under tables. “Depends on the child,” he said thoughtfully. “With Henrik, I of course wanted to shout it to the world, but Jane was more timid. We compromised when the second trimester started. With Goran, we were busy with a toddler and nearly forgot to tell everyone before Jane started showing. And with Alva, we’d just had our second, and Jane was concerned about her reputation with work. She wanted to wait as long as possible before telling people we were having a third child.”

“And you?” Bruce asked. “What did you want to do?”

“It is difficult,” Thor admitted quietly. “Part of you wants to announce to everyone you see that you have created life. But there is something very special about keeping that secret between you and beloved .” A wistful smile crossed his face for a moment. “If you don’t mind me being too personal, do those answers help your friend?”

Bruce shrugged a shoulder as he sat on the edge of his desk. “My friend—he’s like you and wants to tell people. Thinks it’s been long enough and that they’re out of the greatest danger for miscarriage, but she disagrees. She doesn’t want to hear everyone’s opinions about how to raise a kid and have a bunch of parents sticking their noses where they don’t belong. She’s really private, and she’s even more fiercely protecting this secret from as many people as she can.”

Thor nodded. “The unwanted and unsolicited advice can be absolutely infuriating at times. Especially from complete strangers in grocery stores. That unfortunately never goes away.”

Bruce tuned out as Thor went on to share a tale of a woman chiding Jane at Target a couple weeks ago. Instead, he once again tried to put himself in Natasha’s shoes. She hadn’t told her father he was going to have a grandchild, and Bruce wasn’t sure she was going to do it anytime soon. That, he could understand. But she also had her best friend asking her to be a surrogate. She’d quietly confided in Bruce her fears about what would happened to her relationship with James when she told him the news, and Bruce knew she had a reason to worry. Everyone, or at least everyone in their circle of friends, was starting to pick up on the fact that the fourth grade teacher was quickly approaching baby crazy. She didn’t want to be seen in the eyes of her best friend as the physical incarnation of some kind of cruel taunt.

And Bruce completely understood Natasha’s worries about the ongoing rumor mill of the school. There was still chatter rustling around about the two of them getting back together after the summer’s turmoil, mostly from co-workers who didn’t really know them that well.

Silence caused Bruce to jerk back to attention. He faked a grin for the end of the story and nodded in acknowledgement, not entirely sure what Thor had just said. The men spent a few more minutes putting everything back in its place, which was really a fruitless effort since Bruce’s afternoon class would just have another party in ninety minutes.

“Any ideas on how to charm Miss Howard?” Thor asked as he made his way towards the door.

“Rumor has it that whiskey will do the trick, but the PTA president didn’t hear that from a school employee.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Thor responded with a grin. “And let me know when the PTA can throw a baby shower for the Starks.”

Bruce’s took a breath to respond, but he couldn’t find anything to say before Thor was gone. He just ended up standing with his mouth hanging open for a moment. He then grimaced and dug his cell phone from under the perpetual mess on his desk. With a few swipes of his thumb, he opened his group chat with Tony and Pepper. I’m so so sorry, he typed.

“Mister Odinson!” called one of George’s classmates, and Thor turned just in time to intercept not one but four small boys careening in his direction. They boasted red cheeks and noses from their brief outdoor recess, and one’s windswept hair proved that he had forgotten his hat at home this morning.

The hatless one huffed out a breath. “George said you planned the best snacks and games in the whole school. The kind that will make even the fifth graders jealous.”

Thor chuckled. “Is that so?” he asked, and the boys nodded furiously in agreement. Over near where Thor and the other room parent had moved some of the desks, George scuffed his shoes together and gazed at the floor. “Did George inform you of any particular older students he wants to make jealous?”

“Not fifth graders,” the hatless boy answered.

“But the third graders, yeah,” his friend with the exceptionally wet nose reported.

Thor smiled. “I see.”

Miss Howard called for their attention then, and all the boys—including the reluctant George—rushed off to gather in the reading area as instructed, lest they face her wrath. Thor winked at his son as he passed, and his face brightened. That morning, the boys had fought feverishly over why Thor had chosen to attend George’s Valentine’s Day party and the vast unfairness of the world. “As your mother often reminds us both, life is not always fair,” he had reminded Henrik, and the boy had huffed before stomping off to find his shoes.

Alva, on the other hand, had spent the whole ride to school singing a song about the superiority of kindergarten class parties.

Thor smiled to himself as he bent to finish taping the “track” for their Valentine’s Day relay race to the tile floor. As president of the PTA, he had experienced many parents—mothers, primarily—disapproving of his involvement in his children’s classrooms, finding his presence at the school to be a sign that Jane spent too much time working and not enough time mothering. Early on, he’d squared his shoulders and railed (politely) against such accusations, remembering his childhood of scanning the crowd at the Christmas program and finding only his mother. But as time passed, he simply redoubled his efforts, volunteered as many times as possible, and ran for office with the PTA. And now, as Miss Howard and the other volunteer parent explained the order of events—a snack, a project, and then a game—he grinned at their excited faces.

Especially when his quiet, thoughtful son peeked back at him.

“Do you build mansions?” a little girl asked a few minutes later, as Thor knelt at a group of desks to help the children assemble their craft: tissue paper heart arranged to resemble stained glass. “Bigger than my house and the whole school?”

She spread out her arms, nearly dumping the paste, and Thor grinned. “Where did you learn that I build anything?”

“From George,” the hatless boy from earlier replied. “He talks about you all the time.”

“But not as much as he talks about his mom,” another girl chimed in. “He says that she counts the stars and you—” She paused, squinting slightly. “—build pretty houses with yards where you can count them at home.”

“That’s not what I said,” George grumbled shyly. He sat at the end of the table, his face hidden as he studiously stuck tissue paper to his heart. “I said she helps watch the stars. Like when Miss Howard watches us at recess and counts our heads.”

“And he is not wrong,” Thor replied. George stole a glance at him, and he smiled. “George’s mother— Sometimes, I do not understand everything she studies. Her job is much more complicated than mine. But every day, she looks up at the stars and tries to discover new things about them. To make sure we learn everything we can about space.”

“Except space goes on forever,” the first girl informed him. “You can’t learn everything about forever.”

“True,” Thor admitted, “but George’s mother will try. And she is very smart and works very hard, so she may actually succeed, too.”

George grinned. “See? I told you she was the smartest.”

“And that your dad is the strongest,” the hatless boy retorted.

“A theory we will not test in your classroom, I’m afraid,” Thor told the table, and they groaned in overwhelming disappointment.

They split the children into teams once the craft was completed, assembling them into awkward groups of five and handing each team a small bowl of red and pink M&Ms and a spoon. The goal of the relay was of course to fill the spoon with candy, follow the masking-tape paths on the floor to the bowl at the other end of the classroom, and run back to allow the next child to do the same. Except first graders as a whole lacked the kind of hand-eye coordination required for a complicated relay race, and Thor and the other parent wheezed with laughter as M&Ms pinged all over the floor and children collapsed into giggles.

Miss Howard rolled her lips together and glared unsubtly.

“We will clean it up,” Thor promised, and deftly caught a boy by the shoulder before he crashed into another giggling classmate.

After the final bell rang, Thor collected the broom from the janitor’s closet (by bribing Darcy, naturally) and returned to Miss Howard’s classroom to find George waiting for him.

He raised his eyebrows. “You are meant to be with Darcy in the office.”

George dropped his eyes to his sneakers. “I know. But I wanted to tell you something, first.”

“Which is?”

“That you’re the best dad.” Thor smiled, but George simply shrugged. “Henry always brags about you, says he loves you most. But you’re the best, and I love you, too.”

Thor leaned the broom against the wall to crouch down in front of his son. “A fact I will never doubt as long as I live,” he promised, and swept the boy into an enormous hug.

“Oh yeah, baby, that is the stuff.”

Darcy almost ran into the wall as she heard Wade Wilson, well, groaning from the kitchen. Not even a subtle, muffled groan, either; a full-on groan like the ones Darcy herself saved for the middle of some pretty intense intimate action.

Not, of course, that her roommates needed to know that about her.

Or that she needed to know anything about Wade’s sexy-time groans.

She glanced down at her half-melted pint of Ben and Jerry’s and debated her options.

“Girl, here’s what I love about you,” Wade continued, his voice low and a little shaky. “You’ve got layers, you know? Every time I reach inside, I think I know what I’m about to get, but you still surprise me.”

Darcy cringed, because ew.

“Because it’s not just your special sauce,” Wade half-purred, “or the spice you bring to my life. There’s also the cilantro-lime rice, the sweet splash of fresh corn salsa, the—”


Wade nearly fell off his kitchen chair as Darcy stomped into the kitchen. And there, spread out in front of him, was an enormous, over-stuffed burrito (plus a side of chips and guacamole). She glared at it for a moment and shook her head.

“You,” she decided, “are the worst.”

He blinked as he righted himself. “Why?”

“Because of all that.” She gestured at the table, and his brow crinkled. “You’re, like, sexy-talking your burrito in the middle of the kitchen!”

He scowled. “Yeah, because she’s my one true love.” Darcy groaned and banged her head against the fridge, and he raised his hands. “Look, you all have your hot Valentine’s Day dates, and I have mine. Just because she’s a little non-traditional—”

“If by non-traditional you mean inanimate,” Darcy snapped.

“—doesn’t mean our love is any less pure.” She slammed the freezer, and Wade shrugged. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Just keep the noises down to a minimum, okay?” Darcy asked.

Wade huffed. “Philistine.”

She rolled her eyes as she turned to walk out of the kitchen. However, when she heard Wade tell his burrito that they just don’t understand our love in a husky voice, she decided to half-jog, instead.

“Do we seriously have to watch this?” Skye whined for the fifth time.

Jemma shushed her. “We all get to pick something we wanted to do for tonight. You got your vodka and tequila shots. Let me have my Harry Potter movie.”

“But the first one is so dumb,” Skye complained. “They all look like babies, which makes me feel old. And I’m too young to feel old.”

“This one isn’t sad,” Jemma fought back. “Would you rather I spend my turn on watching the last movie and sobbing over everyone I love dying?”

“I don’t need to live through that again,” Trip muttered. Skye opened her mouth again to lodge another complaint, but Trip elbowed her in the side. “The thing I want is to watch the two of you go at it. Don’t ruin this for me.”

Skye gave him that smile that made his skin feel like it was on fire. “You wanna be my foreplay?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “But right now is about Jemma, so we stay and watch the movie with her.”

“Fine,” Skye sighed.

“What about Tonya?” Gwen asked, looping her arm in Peter’s as they stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Peter frowned at her. “With the overbite?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Modern dentistry fixed that three years ago, and you know it.” When he laughed, she smacked him. “Lisa?”

Peter shook his head. “Too aggressive.”


“Too passive-aggressive.”

Gwen’s mouth tipped into a tiny smirk. “Mar—”

“Do not even finish that thought,” he warned, and Gwen flashed him a million-dollar smile. He smiled back, a little intoxicated by her—and the wine from dinner, to be honest—but he cocked his head to one side, anyway. “Why do you want to set Wade up with someone so bad? He does okay on his own.”

Gwen shot him a dirty look. “By spending Valentine’s Day alone with a burrito?”

“I take it on good authority he likes those burritos more than he likes other human beings.” She rolled her eyes, but Peter stopped her, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, and stared her down. “Gwen, I love that you care about the people I’m friends with—”

“Or bromantic with,” she mused.

“—but the fact of the matter is that Wade Wilson—” Peter’s brain caught up with Gwen’s comment, and he scowled. “We are not bromantic.”

“Except you are.”

“No, we’re not.”

“Except you definitely are,” she retorted smoothly, drawing up close to him. She smelled like raspberries and snow, and Peter wrapped his arms around her. “Which is not, by the way, why I want to help your friend Wade find a girlfriend. Although if Darcy’s boyfriend knew about your bromance—”

“Really not a bromance,” Peter muttered.

“—he might not look like a kicked puppy every time he leaves the house.” She smoothed fingers down his scarf, and he shivered. “I want to help Wade find a girlfriend because I think he’s a little like you at heart.”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Meaning what?”

“Meaning he’s a hopeless romantic who would take his girlfriend to a very nice restaurant even when he’d rather have pizza and sit on the couch.” Gwen smiled softly. “I like that about you, Peter Parker.”

Peter grinned, and he knew without a second thought that he looked like a lovesick dope. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Gwen replied warmly, and reeled him in for a kiss.

“You swear this isn’t racist?”

Melinda gave him a strained look. “For the millionth time, surprising me with Chinese take-out isn’t racist,” she responded around a mouth full of sweet and sour pork.

Nick shrugged before digging a fork into his white box of combination fried rice. Yes, for the record, he knew how to used chopsticks, but using two sticks to eat tiny grains of rice was an exercise in pointless patience. He had enough of that to test him at work. “After spending eight Valentines together the exact same way, I’m not sure it still counts as a surprise.”

The corner of Melinda’s mouth ticked upwards in that little smirk that still made Nick grin. “Change the tradition, and things won’t work out well for you.”

“Would never dream of doing something like that,” he said as he thumbed the remote to start up the first of the Jackie Chan films. “By the way, when your mother calls me and asks me what I did for her daughter this year, what am I supposed to say?”

Melinda shook her head. “The truth, and she wouldn’t care. I, on the other hand, need to make a present for you, oh revered and treasured son-in-law.”

Nick’s grin widened. “I do love your mother,” he said. The smile remained even when Melinda dug her elbow into his ribs.

“Yeah, except think about it,” Barney said seriously. “Faster than a train and a bullet. Able to leap tall buildings. Super strength.”

“Compared with endless money and, like, engineering genius?” He frowned and wrinkled his nose, and Jessica shoved his arm. “Wasps are super fast, but you know what kills them?”

“If you say kryptonite—”

“Wasp spray. Which is exactly what Bruce Wayne could whip up to take care of Superman. The super-human equivalent of wasp spray.”

He rolled his eyes, and she grinned as she bumped their shoulders together. After all the trials, tribulations, weird silences (both in real life and through the magic of text messaging), and awkward almost-apologies (from both of them, even though Jessica held the lion’s share of the blame for, well, everything), Jessica liked spending time with Barney Barton. She liked arguing about superheroes or movies, playing checkers outside of Cracker Barrel without ever actually going inside the restaurant, and convincing him to drink coffee with her when she felt desperate to leave the house.

All of which happened more and more often lately.

She blamed the shitty winter weather. Made her itchy.

“Can I take your order?” the barista asked, and Barney rattled off their usual coffee orders automatically. Jessica thought she heard something about cake pops, too, but she ignored it to poke through a rack of easy-listening CDs for sale.

And through a tub of individually wrapped biscotti.

Barney snorted when she added one to their order. “I bought two cake pops.”

“Woman cannot live on cake pops alone,” Jessica informed him, and the barista grinned.

Once they staked out a couch in the corner (near the fireplace, but away from the door), she tucked herself up with coffee and cake pops while Barney dismantled the newspaper. “What’s the occasion?” she asked.

He blinked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Double the cake pops, double the fun?” He grinned crookedly and renewed his search for the Sudoku, so she prodded his thigh with her foot. “You hate them, and you mock me for liking them.”

“Because they taste like uncooked batter.”

“Which is the allure.” He rolled his eyes, and she poked him again. “Baaaarney—”

“Kid said they were on sale, okay?” He glanced up at her, his face almost worried. She frowned at him. “Two for one deal, and I figured it’d keep you happy.”

Jessica watched him for a few more seconds, mostly to try and puzzle out his weird expression. Finally, she shrugged. “Okay,” she said, sticking the rest of her cake pop in her mouth. “Now, let’s murder us some black belt Sudoku.”

They stayed at the coffee shop until close.

And as they walked out, Jessica huddling close to Barney but only for warmth, she caught sight of a sign:


Well, shit.

“I know, honey,” Maria said, her fingers in her hair, “but just because they didn’t pick you this year doesn’t mean—”

“But I tried so hard!” Keith interrupted, his voice trembling, and Maria sighed as he burst into tears for a second time.

Sorry, she mouthed to Jasper, and Jasper smiled tightly as he glanced at his watch. A year ago, when the boys still lived with her (and worse, tormented Jasper and all of his coworkers), Maria had dreamed of nights like this one: she and her boyfriend in jeans and sweaters, ready for a leisurely dinner and a late movie. But now, instead of enjoying Valentine’s Day together (their first, really), Maria had to cope with a broken-hearted sixth grader and his unsympathetic father.

Sometimes, she wanted to punch her ex-husband in the head.

(And sometimes, even though she knew they were doing better with their father, she wanted to bring them home and never let them go.)

“Keith, sweetheart, you need to breathe,” Maria soothed her son, and she dropped her eyes to the coffee table as Jasper walked out of the living room. “You’re going to be okay. And I’m sure whatever your dad said—”

“Dad hates me!” Keith announced, his voice cracking.

“No,” Maria said. “He doesn’t.”

By the time she finally extracted herself from the phone a half-hour later (and a full hour after their dinner reservation time), she felt completely wrung-out. Worse, Jasper had disappeared into the bedroom. “Probably asleep in front of the TV,” she muttered to herself—not that she blamed him. She deserved that much.

But when she walked into the bedroom, she discovered Jasper standing next to the tub in her bathroom.

The full tub.

With a bottle of wine waiting next to it.

She sighed. “Jasper—”

“I know you’re going to apologize,” he interrupted, holding up his hands, “and worse, I know you’re going to mean it. Which sucks, because the last thing you need is to feel guilty about being a good mom. You had enough of that when the kids lived with you.” He gestured to the tub. “So you’re going to soak, I’m going to go pick up the food I just ordered, and you’re not going to say you’re sorry.”

Maria’s heart clenched against her will. “I don’t know if I deserve that much kindness.”

Jasper smirked. “Make it worth my while after we eat, and I can call it even.”

And despite the tension of the last hour, Maria laughed. “How about a sneak preview before you go?” she asked, and when she hooked her fingers in his belt, he grinned.

“You have two options,” Rhodey greeted as he opened the door.

Carol side-eyed him as she walked into his place and started to take off her coat. “Okay,” she replied slowly. “What’s going on?”

“First, happy anniversary,” he said while leaning in to kiss the corner of her mouth.

Carol froze. “Not our anniversary,” she told him quietly. She felt her stomach clench and braced herself for a fight.

“Sure it is,” Rhodey said. “Tony gave us tickets to the comedy club a year ago. That was our first date, so this is our anniversary. Although I’m surprised someone like you would have a sappy anniversary date like Valentine’s Day.”

“James, it’s not our anniversary. We broke up after that.”

Rhodey shrugged. “We just had a phase where we were having less sex. Now c’mon.”

Carol ground her jaw for a second, but she didn’t say anything else. She didn’t want to start the night with an argument. Rhodey took her by the hand and led her into his kitchen.

“We have two options. We can be schmaltzy with a candle-lit dinner and food that I cooked. Or we can skip the romantic dinner and go to the bar for some wings and beer. Whatever you’re more comfortable with.”

When Carol sniffed the air, her stomach growled. “Steak?” she asked.

Rhodey nodded. “Plus salad and my mom’s secret recipe for mashed potatoes.”

“And why is this the first time you’ve cooked for me?” Carol questioned.

“Because you have a habit of freaking out if I do something demonstrative about our relationship, so I’ll ask again: my cooking, or the bar.”

Carol knew he was asking about more than just what she wanted to eat; the food was analogy for their relationship. They could keep things safe and casual, or they could deepen it to something richer. Regardless, Rhodey would be with her in either scenario. But she knew what option he wanted to pick. And, slightly surprisingly, she felt the same way. “Are you going to be offended if I dump A1 sauce all over my steak?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” he answered while pulling a face.

“Well, you’re just going to have to deal with it.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, wait, slow down.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure that’s possible,” Jessica Drew retorted, and Carol worked very hard not to roll her eyes. Across the kitchen, her (often unbalanced) best friend kept pacing the floor. At this rate, the linoleum wasn’t long for this world. “I’m trying, you know? Actually trying to be a good friend, to be supportive and decent and answer his text messages instead of hiding my phone under my pillow and ignoring it for three days—”

Carol frowned. “Is that why I never heard back from you about whether you changed your insurance plan back during open enrollment?”

“—and now, he goes all, you know, this.” Jessica stopped just long enough to slump against the counter and scrub a hand over her face. “We tried this before. We sucked at it. It only involved bolting and feelings.”

“And we all know how you hate feelings.” When Jessica glared at her, Carol raised her hands. “Fine, sorry. No snide comments while you’re in your moment of distress.”

“Thank you.”

“But you do realize that I have no idea what you’re talking about, right?” Jessica huffed and rolled her eyes, and Carol sighed. “Jess, you barged in—”

“It’s not barging when you knock,” Jessica defended.

“—and started ranting about cake pops and Sudoku. Not exactly a world-ending crisis. So, I ask you again, for the third time: what’s going on?”

For one brief, glorious second, Jessica rolled her lips together and stared Carol down. Carol, still surrounded by IEP documentation and Twix wrappers (because she needed some help to survive paperwork hell), raised an eyebrow and waited.

Finally, Jessica thumped her head back against the cabinet. “I think Barney thinks we’re dating again.”

And credit where credit was due, Carol held off a full minute before she burst out laughing.

“Oh, fuck you,” Jessica spat, and she threw the scouring pad at Carol when she nearly doubled over. She covered her mouth with a hand. “It’s not funny. It’s bad. Because last time—”

“You freaked out, realized you cared about him, and had to learn that love sometimes does mean having to say you’re sorry?” Jessica flipped Carol off before she started pacing again, but Carol shrugged. “I don’t know why you’re panicking. Because aside from the fact that a cake pop isn’t an engagement ring—”

“Buys my love faster than one,” Jessica argued.

“—you two seem to be doing okay this time around.” Carol paused, frowning. “You are, right?”

“Yes!” Jessica announced, throwing up her hands. “But don’t you get it? That’s the problem. Because there is nobody in this world better at throwing a wrench in something good than me, except maybe you.”

“Watch it,” Carol warned. Jessica rolled her eyes. “And for the record, I’ve learned my lesson about walling myself off in the name of, I don’t know, whatever it is that makes me wall myself off in the first place.” When her friend cocked an eyebrow, she swallowed. She’d avoided thinking about Valentine’s Day too often in the last week, but now, it loomed large. “I let James make me dinner,” she finally said.

Jessica blinked. “Define ‘make.’”

“Steak, potatoes, candles?” Jessica released a low whistle, and Carol shook her head. “I just wanted to go to the bar, but he thought it was our anniversary—”

“Yeah, because Stark totally paired you off on V-Day,” Jessica reminded her.

“And we broke up!” Jessica huffed at her, and she rolled her eyes. “Glad to see you and my boyfriend are on the same page.”

“The one benefit of you two dating is that I can conspire with him.” Carol wrinkled her nose, but Jessica just crossed her arms. “You let him make you dinner,” she repeated, tone half-accusing.



“Because—” Carol started to answer, but she stopped. She thought of James that night, of the hope in his expression as they stared at each other across his kitchen, and finally sighed. “Because I did a cost-benefit analysis a long time ago and decided that sometimes, things being good means stepping out of my comfort zone. Accepting a free meal that’s also a metaphor for my relationship. Or, in your case, a disgusting cake pop.”

“If by disgusting, you mean delicious.”

“I definitely don’t.” When her friend snorted at her, Carol finally stooped to pick up the scouring pad. “If you don’t want to date him again, don’t date him,” she said. “Just let him down gently. But since you want to be his friend, and you do care—”

Jessica shrugged. “Assuming that I feel human emotions.”

Carol lobbed the scouring pad at her, and Jessica finally grinned. “I’m just reminding you that this is not a crisis. That’s all.”

Jessica nodded slightly, and they stared at each other for a few seconds before Carol returned to her computer. She typed in a couple updates as she listened to Jessica move around her kitchen, opening cabinets and rooting through the fridge. She only bothered glance up again when her friend set something down on the table and flopped into the chair across from her.

She watched as Jessica pulled the cork out of the wine bottle with her teeth. “So,” she said as she reached to fill a glass, “how bad are you freaking out about your ascent into domestic bliss?”

Carol rolled her eyes. “One dinner does not domestic bliss make.”

“Yeah, but I know you. You’re always wearing your running shoes.” Jessica held out the now-full glass, and Carol sighed as she accepted it. “You twitchy to head for the hills yet?”


“Carol . . . ”

“Fine. A little.” Jessica smirked, and Carol scowled at her. “For the record, though, I’m not going anywhere. Like I said, I learned my lesson.”

“Doesn’t mean you aren’t itching to freak out about it,” Jessica pointed out.

Carol waited one full beat before she shook her head. “Fine, okay, I do need to talk about this,” she said, and shut her computer while Jessica grinned.

The specials teachers trickled out of the library after their weekly team meeting broke up. The team was a mess, but there wasn’t enough money in the world to persuade Phil to try and solve some of the issues by himself.

Instead of his usual avoidance tactics, Tony seemed to be acting overly nice to Natasha. The new change in attitude only seemed to put Natasha on edge, which just made Tony seem to push harder.

Trip was trying to keep his head above the first year teacher currents. Phil had repressed most of those memories and felt sorry for the young man.

Then, there was Steve. Normally Phil could count on the art teacher to bring a faithful calm and optimism to group meetings, but he spent the entire hour staring at his shoes. Phil’d noticed the downturn in his co-worker’s mood in the last week. Each passing morning, it seemed the bags under Steve’s eyes were growing proportionally to the number of cups of coffee he drank. Phil hadn’t heard anything about whatever was bugging Steve affecting his teaching or how he interacted with the students. But, like it or not, Phil knew it was only a matter of time before it happened. Even if it was an accident.

And apparently whatever was eating at Steve was causing him to feel the need to talk about it. Or he was still so busy memorizing the features of his brown leather shoes to notice that everyone but he and Phil had left for the day.

“Honeymoon over?” Phil asked. He immediately regretted saying the words after watching Steve flinch at the question.

“Something like that.”

“You need to talk to someone?”

Steve shoved his hands into the pockets of his khakis as he stood. “What was the first big fight you and Clint had?” he asked.

Phil cleaned his glasses with the end of his tie as he pulled up memories in his mind. “First fight? Clint’s inability to pick up his dirty clothes. Man can hit a target from anywhere with his eyes closed, but consistently leaves his clothes where he was standing when he took them off.” Phil had hoped the joke would’ve brought some kind of levity to Steve’s face, but no such luck. “First big fight?” Phil asked. “Probably Barney.”

“Probably?” Steve questioned. “You don’t have it etched in your memory forever?”

“Definitely Barney.” Phil sighed. “He’s really the only thing Clint and I really butt heads about. We’re old enough and have gone through enough that we can let most things roll off our backs. But Barney-- I’ve never had to deal with a sibling being arrested or the kind of childhood Barton men endure.” His voice trailed off as he shrugged. “It’s impossible for us to see eye to eye on it, and therefore the biggest source of our arguments, which, thankfully, are few and far between.”

Steve nodded. “Bucky and I had a huge fight last week. We’ve barely spoken to each other since.”

“Formerly incarcerated siblings to blame?” Phil asked.

“Kids,” Steve answered. “He wants us to become dads yesterday, and I’m not there yet, especially not how he wants us to do it.”

“And you told him that?”

“More or less,” Steve muttered. “Could’ve come out better. But apparently, dropping hints and politely asking to delay things wasn’t getting through. But a full-on fight at three in the morning isn’t the best way to handle things either.”

“Sleeping on the couch? Taking different cars to work?”

Steve shook his head. “Slept on the couch once, but then I wouldn’t let us do it anymore. We said for better or worse. And my couch was old when I was in college,” he added with a hint of a smile. “But just because we’re sharing a bed doesn’t mean we sleep. Keep lying there hearing him breathe knowing he’s doing the same thing, but we can’t find the words to talk about it. We’re both too sore still.”

“You have to,” Phil said. “I know it’s hard and it hurts like hell, but if you let the silence fester, things will just get worse.”

“I know,” Steve admitted quietly. “You two ever talk about kids?”

“The idea has come up from time to time,” Phil replied. “But most of the time we’re happy with our lives, our dog, and our students. It’s enough.”

“And the times where it’s not?” Steve pushed.

Phil rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet while he tried to come up with an answer. “When those times come, it’s usually only one of us feeling that way. And we agreed we’d only do it if both of us wanted it at the same time. So far that hasn’t happened. And at this point, doesn’t look like it’s going to.”

“Is that fair, though?” Steve questioned.

“We’re in marriages,” Phil answered. “Things are rarely fair. That’s the only point of it—finding a way to overcome that and have both people mostly happy most of the time.”

Bruce pursed his lips as Tony’s car slid to a stop. “This,” he observed, “is not the diner.”

“You know, I thought a doctor of physics and card-carrying genius just might notice that. Glad to know I’m right.” Bruce shot the other man a tight look, but his friend just raised his hands. “Consider this the first part of a two-phase afternoon, and all of it my treat. Unless you skip the milkshake to order a kale salad. Again.”

Bruce snorted. “Kale is—”

“The replacement for baby spinach in every fad diet this side of 2011. And now, as long as we’re talking about babies . . . ”

Tony sprang out of the car without another word, leaving Bruce alone in the passenger seat with his eyes trained up on the brightly colored sign hanging over the nearby storefront. It loomed ominously above them both, complete with its ten-foot tall purple letters and cute butterfly logo, and something deep in Bruce’s stomach twisted.

Nearly two months since Natasha first told him about the pregnancy—about their baby and impending parenthood—and he had still never set foot in a baby store. Hell, he’d barely risked googling information about cribs and car seats, still afraid that everything might evaporate if he inspected it too carefully.

Tony knocked on the windshield, and Bruce jumped reflexively. When his friend opened his arms in a coming? gesture, Bruce sighed. “Into the fire,” he muttered, and opened the door.

“I’m actually pretty sure my nightmares consist entirely of baby stores,” Tony commented as they finally entered the brightly lit store. Bruce raised an eyebrow at him, but he waved away Bruce’s concern to lead them through the rows of baby clothes. “Seas of pastels, special pastes for unspeakable post-pregnancy ailments, and hordes of unapproachable women with serious feelings about attachment parenting?” He paused to shudder. “If my whole theory of theology is wrong and there really is a hell, it probably looks a lot like this.”

He gestured to a pyramid of diaper boxes, and Bruce nearly smiled. “I’m just impressed you know the words ‘attachment parenting.’”

“Trust me when I say that the sanctimonious mommy blogs have scarred me for life.” Bruce snorted, and this time, Tony grinned. “Anyway, future father of the year, I figured we could at least start with you taking a gander at the car seats. Because according to the blogs—”

Bruce blinked. “How many blogs did you read?”

“—two of Consumer Reports best-rated models are in recall right now, but the one that’s still available has a memory foam feature and—”

“Okay, what’s going on?”

Bruce heard the edge in his voice, caused more by confusion than annoyance, and he knew Tony heard it too when he stopped in the middle of the aisle. For a beat, they just stared at each other, surrounded by receiving blankets, tiny hats, and newborn-sized onesies.

And just when Bruce expected a deflection, Tony shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re—”

“You forward me articles on fetal development,” Bruce cut in, and he watched as his friend shoved hands in his pockets. “You leave parenting magazines in my desk drawer and feign innocence when I return them. You installed a Cyrillic keyboard on your phone to call Natasha ‘mother’ in Russian.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “This from the guy who told me ‘Big Red’ was off the table.”

“No, I told you Natasha would kill you if you used that nickname. I stand by that position.” The other man snorted, but Bruce held his eyes. “I’m not trying to be ungrateful, Tony, but now that we’re on a field trip to a baby store so you can recommend the top-tier car seats—”

“Top-tier memory foam car seats,” Tony corrected.

“—I need to ask what’s going on.” He paused, watching as Tony pursed his lips. “And whether you’re okay.”

“Except even if I wasn’t okay—and trust me when I say I’m great, maybe even peachy—you are the one you should be worrying about.” Bruce frowned, and Tony sighed at him. “Bruce, you’re about to have a very tiny human on your hands. And now that you’re past the point of scary statistics, you need all the accessories: a crib, a car seat, a stroller, a weird plastic bath container—”

“You mean a tub?” Bruce asked.

Tony snapped his fingers. “Yes! Okay, one less thing I need to worry about on your behalf, but still. And because I’m one of your best friends in the known universe—”

“You want to prove to me that you’re here. That you’re rooting for us.” Tony snapped his mouth shut, and Bruce nearly smiled. “How long have you been worried about everything going up in smoke?”

Tony immediately pulled a face. “You know, if you think my unerring support means I’m also waiting for some kind of crisis, then—”

“I think you’re trying to pretend like you’re not worried about my relationship. The fact that you show it through excessive support, well . . . ” Bruce shrugged slightly, trailing off. For a moment, the same old thoughts flooded his mind: worries about being a parent, questions about living arrangements, fears about pushing Natasha too hard or backing her into a corner. Finally, though, he just looked back at Tony. “For what it’s worth,” he added, “I worry about a crisis, too.”

They stood in silence for a minute, staring one another down among all the various baby accessories. At least, until Tony narrowed his eyes. “Except you’re not melting down about it,” he pointed out. “Why aren’t you melting down about it?”

“Because I’m trying to believe in the both of us. And maybe that’s because I need to in order to keep from melting down, but I also think . . . ” Bruce paused, a smile creeping onto his face without his permission. “I think, deep down, she and I really just want the same thing.” He shrugged. “In the end, I have faith in that.”

Tony pursed his lips again, his eyes still trained on Bruce. “And in top-rated memory foam car seats your best friend researched to show his continued support in your impending parenthood?” he asked hopefully.

Bruce laughed. “And those, too.”

“Got a second?” Natasha looked up from scowling at her laptop and nodded at the chair on the other side of her desk. Her office was tiny to begin with, and it felt even smaller when crowded with brightly colored parachutes, cones, jump ropes, and other gym paraphernalia. Bucky was just happy that the seat he was offered wasn’t child-sized. “Parent e-mails?” he asked.

“How’d you know?”

“Your face made it obvious.”

That brought a hint of a smile to her lips. “Just more endless e-mails about why we shouldn’t play team games or keep score or have winners or other lack of feel-good bullshit. I really just need to write a standard e-mail that gets sent out as an automatic reply to everything that tells people to get over it.”

“Good luck with that,” he commented.

Natasha shrugged. “I have tenure now. It’s fine. What’s up?”

“Am I an asshole?” he asked.

“Only on days that end with y,” she replied smartly. He sighed and looked at her, not trying to hide his torn up emotions that had been twisting up his insides for a week now. “James,” she said softly.

He ran a hand over his face and shook his head. “You know how I am. I see something I want, and I just go after it. Nothing gets in my way and distracts me. I don’t know how to do anything else. But this time, the two things getting in my way are my two best friends. And instead of listening to you and Steve, I just mowed you down and now I don’t know how to get out of it.”

The tip of Natasha’s tongue darted out to wet her lips. He recognized it as one of her incredibly few nervous tics. “I actually may be able to help you with that.”

“What do you mean?” Natasha slid the long center drawer of her desk open, the battered metal creaking as she did so. She grabbed a small piece of paper and slid it across her desk to him. Except it wasn’t a piece of paper, it was a photograph. Black and white and grainy, it took him reading the letters OB-GYN after a stranger’s name to realize what the white blob in the middle of the picture was. “You’re pregnant?”

“Yeah,” she replied softly. Emotions warred inside of him. He wanted to be excited for her, but knowing Natasha, he thought it would be a good idea to tamper his excitement since he wasn’t sure how she felt about it. But there was also an undeniable spike of jealousy and the faint feeling that his plans were officially starting to fully unravel, never to be put back together again. “Say something,” she pleaded.

“When did you find out?” he asked numbly, still staring at the ultrasound picture in his hands.

“A few hours after you stopped by to ask me to be a surrogate when I had that kidney stone thing.”

Bucky groaned. “I am an asshole. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I still didn’t know what to think about it or what I was going to do. Wasn’t like I was planning for this to happen,” she replied.

“Bruce?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t stepping too far out of bounds by pushing for the father’s identity.

Natasha nodded. “It’s not the only reason we’re trying to make things work again, but clearly, it plays a big part.”

They both sat quietly for a moment, and it clicked in Bucky’s head exactly how long it’d been since Natasha’d had her kidney incident. “That was two months ago,” he said quietly. “How far along are you?”

“Fourteen weeks today,” she answered.

Bucky felt his eyebrows rise. “Fourteen?” he asked. “I thought you would’ve told me sooner.”

“You were a little busy being self-consumed and having your head up your ass,” Natasha said bluntly. “How am I supposed to tell my best friend that I’m accidentally getting something he wants so badly? And,” she paused and he could tell she wanted to grimace, “that I only want to go through this once, so I won’t be available to rent out my oven to you and Steve.”

Bucky ran his hands over his face again. “I fucked up.”

“You’re human, it’s what we do. And we’re really good at it.”

“You okay?” he asked.

He saw her eyes start to tear up, and she quickly swiped at her face and swallowed. “I could’ve really used having my best friend around,” she answered quietly.

“C’mere,” he said as he rounded her desk and pulled her into a hug. He shoved his nose into her hair and tried to wrap his brain around the thought of Natasha Romanoff becoming a mom. He couldn’t help but smile. “You’re going to be amazing.” He felt her collapse a little more against him, and she squeezed his waist tighter until she pulled away with a sniffle.

“Damn hormones,” she muttered.

His eyes dropped to her waist. “Showing yet?”

Hesitantly, she lifted the hem of her oversized hoodie up over her waist. The navy tank top she wore underneath was flush against her body and showed the slightest of swells in her lower stomach. Without thought, his finger reached out to poke at her bump, but she swatted his hand away. “Poke me too hard, and I’ll pee my pants.”

He laughed and looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry,” he said.

She nodded. “Appreciate it. But we both know there’s someone else who needs to hear that.”

Steve drew in a deep breath as he killed his car’s engine.

No matter how hard he tried to ignore it—to stay even-keel, to plaster on a smile for his students and friends—he felt every inch of distance between him and Bucky like a physical barrier, and the longer it stood between them, the more it drained him. He barely slept, he poked at his meals, and every part of his body felt heavy.

Worse, he and Bucky barely spoke, and the silence— Somehow, it was the silence that exhausted him the most. In only a little over a year, Bucky had broken through a lifetime of easy quiet, destroyed Steve’s comfort in stillness. After all, Bucky talked through everything, filling their days with color commentary and his usual incorrigible smirk. Steve had no idea how to live in a house where Bucky’s cold shoulder felt more like an iceberg.

Or where he felt like the Titanic, slowly sinking.

Still, he checked his e-mail and some basketball scores (as though he cared about basketball) on his phone before forcing himself out of the car. He didn’t know whether to be a grateful or annoyed that the first coach’s training for the park district’s Little League program started when there was still snow on the ground.

He just appreciated the break in the silence.

“I’m—” he started to say as he opened the front door, but the wall of amazing smells that smacked him in the face stopped him. He smelled tomatoes and garlic, herbs and fresh-baked bread, and his stomach growled immediately. For a brief second, he considered pinching himself.

The urge doubled when Bucky emerged from the kitchen. “Hey,” he said, hands in his pockets. “I cooked.”

“I could tell,” Steve replied, but he kept his tone neutral. “Invite somebody over?”

“No. I—” Bucky hesitated, his posture tightening. “Come in, yeah? We kind of— I need to talk to you.”

Steve nodded as he shed his coat and bag, aware of the way Bucky watched him the entire time. Like he expected Steve to either snap at him or disintegrate. The thought alone tied Steve’s stomach back into knots. They maintained their same, long silence until Bucky led him over to the couch.

“I— I have this bad habit,” he said. “One I’ve never learned to break.”

“Just one?” Steve asked.

Bucky snorted lightly, but for the first time all week, a genuine smile nudged at the corner of his mouth. “One bad one, maybe. Because as much as I overthink pretty much everything—plan it out like I’m leading an army into war—the second I decide for sure I want something, I dive in. I don’t hesitate. I don’t stop. I charge straight to the end.” He paused to find Steve’s eyes. “And I sometimes stop thinking about everybody else.”

Steve rolled his lips together. “That’s not always a bad thing.”

“It is when you ignore your best friend and your husband.” He sighed and shook his head. “You grow up in a family like mine, you imagine your life with your person and your kids, and I— It got to the point where that’s all I could see. Like I had blinders to the fact that maybe you weren’t ready to dive in head first. That Natasha—” He stopped for a second, his gaze dropping to his lap. “I want us to be parents. I’d think we’d be great at it. But if the choice is between us being okay or a baby, the choice is you.”

“Even if I’m never ready for exactly what you want?” He snapped his head up, his expression suddenly paler than before, and Steve raised his hands. “I want kids eventually,” he clarified, “but I meant what I said on Valentine’s Day. I don’t want to risk passing down my health problems.” Bucky’s throat bobbed, and Steve reached out to touch his hand. “I’m not my mom, Buck. I can’t handle that. And I can’t handle what it’d maybe do to us. Because like you said: if it’s you or a kid, the answer’s easy.”

They watched one another for a moment before, finally, Bucky nodded unevenly. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, and Steve swore his voice trembled. “I was an asshole, and—”

“We were both assholes.” Bucky frowned, and Steve shook his head. “This whole time, I worried so much about letting you down that I talked to other people instead of coming straight to you. Phil, Natasha—”

Realization dawned over Bucky’s face. “That’s why you said Natasha didn’t want to be a surrogate. You already knew.”

“That she wasn’t interested? Yeah. When you were railroading her, I—” Bucky narrowed his eyes slightly, the expression he usually used when trying to peer through a student’s lie, and Steve frowned. “That’s not what you meant, is it?”

Bucky shook his head. “No,” he admitted, “but it’s maybe not my story to tell. At least, not when everything’s still all . . . ”

He gestured weakly between them, and Steve smiled slightly as he caught one of his husband’s hands. He felt warm and familiar—solid, even—and Steve worked hard not to drag him into his grip. “I’m not going to deny that you were an asshole,” he finally said, “but I forgive you for it. At least, if you can forgive me for not being totally forthright.”

Bucky smiled. “Stevie, I’d forgive you for anything,” he said quietly, and Steve barely made it a full second before he reeled his husband in for a hug.

They held each other for long enough that the oven timer finally chimed, Bucky with his face in Steve’s neck and Steve clinging on like he felt they’d both drown. Bucky waited until the beeping stopped to sigh against Steve’s skin. “You want some forgiveness mostaccioli?” he asked.

“In a minute,” Steve replied, and pulled him a little closer.

“Hey, Miss Potts!” a little voice sounded at the same time someone started tugging on her skirt. Pepper looked down and heard a snap come from Darcy’s desk. The office manager shot the girl—Alva—a warning look. The kindergartner’s shoulders slumped as she sighed before trying to once again steal Pepper’s attention from Tony. “Excuse me, Miss Potts,” she said in a practiced and polite voice.

“Yes, Alva, what can I help you with?” Pepper asked while moving her coffee mug away from Tony’s grabby fingers.

“Oh, I don’t need your help,” she replied as she pulled her My Little Pony backpack off of her slim shoulders. “You need mine.”

“This oughta be good,” Tony muttered under his breath. He then pulled a face of mock innocence when Pepper stepped on his foot.

“Here,” Alva announced as she pulled a tattered and faded bundle of cloth free of her backpack.

Tony recoiled from the sight, and Pepper tried not to roll her eyes at his perpetual fear that his students would literally be the death of him with some all powerful, antibiotic-resistant, super bacteria. She, however, plastered a smile on her face and took the bundle of cloth from Alva’s outstretched hands. “Thank you. How is this going to help us?” she asked, even though she would have preferred inquiring what it was and how many times she needed to run it through the washer before Tony felt like it was safe enough to enter their house again.

“It’s her stupid baby blanket,” Henry grumbled, his eyes glued on the handheld gaming device that Tony probably knew inside and out, but video games were never part of farm life growing up. Much to Pepper’s brothers’ chagrin.

“It’s not stupid,” Alva shouted back. Darcy snapped again before making a v-sign with her fingers.

“I’m not getting in trouble when you two get to three and she calls Mom,” George said as he picked up his backpack and the book he was reading and scooted further away from his siblings.

Alva glared once more at both of her brothers before turning her attention back to Pepper and Tony. “I heard Daddy talking about how you two are going to have a baby, so I thought I would give it my blanket since I’m a big girl and don’t need it anymore.”

Henry snorted. “Yes, you do. You cried for an hour last night over a stupid cartoon.”

Pepper expected to hear a third snap, but instead Darcy was sitting at her desk, mouth hanging open. She managed to sputter a response to one of the parents calling their kid in sick for the school day before quickly avoiding all eye contact with Pepper and Tony. The guidance counselor was slightly afraid to let her eyes sweep around the room. Maybe it was her imagination, but it seemed like the bustling elementary school office had suddenly gone still and quiet. The only sound in the air came from Henry’s video game.

“Yeah, see, here’s the thing,” Tony started.

Pepper plastered a smile on her face and interrupted her husband. “This is a very kind gift, Alva. Thank you very much. Did you ask your Mom and Dad if it was okay to give away your baby blanket? Sometimes parents like to keep those things even when their kids don’t.”

“No,” the girl answered with a shrug. “I’m sure they’d say it’s okay.”

“Well why don’t you ask them tonight, and I’ll keep it in my office just in case you need to take it back home with you.”

“But it’s a gift for your baby,” Alva argued, a thin note of hurt evident in her voice.

Pepper could feel Tony getting ready to reason with the five-year-old, and she knew no good would come of it. So she smiled at Alva once more, grabbed Tony by the belt loops, and began to calmly but quickly march towards her office.

“We’ve got to put a stop to this,” Tony said once she closed her office door behind them. “I get that at first they didn’t know what they were going to do, and I love Bruce like a long lost, hairy brother, but I think everyone and their dog knows why we married each other and how I had a special surgery on my dick to make sure we never needed that.” He punctuated his last sentence by pointing at Alva’s blanket and cringing.

“Two weeks,” Pepper said. “Give them two weeks to come clean about it.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then we deny that we’re expecting, but we don’t say if or who any impending parents might be,” Pepper said.

Tony rolled his lips into a thin line, clearly unhappy about the idea, but nodded anyway. “I’ve got bus duty.”

“Be nice to Natasha while you’re out there,” Pepper warned. She stood in her office alone for a few seconds before there was a knock on her now-open door.

“You wanna tell me why in between parent phone calls for sick kids Darcy is doing a Pinterest search for ‘baby showers for rich people?’” her boss asked.

“Not really,” Pepper answered.

Fury’s mouth hardened into a flat line. “It’s a pain in the ass finding a sub for a teacher’s maternity leave. You wanna know how much harder it’ll be finding someone to step in for a guidance counselor?”

“It won’t be an issue,” Pepper said. She gave him credit for not blatantly staring at her stomach, but she could almost see him count months in his mind.

Tony was right. Bruce and Natasha owed them big time.

Chapter Text

Here, in Darcy’s defense, was how she ended up in the conference room with five of her coworkers and a plastic tub of fruit-center shortbread cookies from Trader Joe’s one afternoon:


8:15 a.m.

Jessica Cage raised an eyebrow. “What about a baby shower?”

“Baby shower?” Darcy squeaked, jerking her head up from her cell phone. “Who said anything about a baby shower?”

“You mean besides the way you just muttered it?” Jessica asked. Darcy blinked, and Jessica frowned. “Are you okay? You look a little—”

“I was just talking about showers in general,” Darcy lied quickly. “Wade did something completely unspeakable to the shower at the house, and now, I’m haunted by the sight and probably scarred for life.”

Jessica rolled her lips together. “Right.”


9:32 a.m.

“Please tell me you have change.”

Darcy clutched a hand to her chest as she said it, mostly for dramatic effect, and Clint frowned. “Are you—”

“I skipped breakfast,” she said, “and I desperately need sustenance. Specifically, the last packet of Red Vines from the vending machine next door. Wade’s on his planning period and standing guard, but at any second—”

“Wade keeps you up-to-date on their vending machine?” Clint wondered aloud.

Darcy glared at him. “Right now, Red Vines are the only thing that sound remotely edible. So, I ask: do you have a quarter or not?”

Clint snorted as he dug into his pocket and tossed her a quarter. “Sometimes, this place makes me feel normal.”

“Says the guy I just caught drinking out of the community coffee pot,” Darcy retorted, and she beat a quick retreat while he scowled.


11:04 a.m.

“How many pastel cakes have you pinned this week, anyway?”

Darcy nearly spilled free-trade organic coffee down her cleavage as she jerked her head up and discovered Carol Danvers looming in the office doorway. “Say what?” she sputtered.

Carol waved her phone in Darcy’s general direction. “I was looking for something to spice up my squat-and-plank routine—”

Darcy scowled. “Please let that be a euphemism for something other than exercise.”

“—and noticed your recent pins.” She unlocked her phone, and Darcy watched in mild and barely contained horror as she started flicking through her Pinterest home screen. “Light green with polka dots, light pink with flowers, white and blue with ducklings . . . ”

“Wait,” Darcy interrupted, and Carol glanced up. “Since when do you have Pinterest?”

Carol shrugged. “Since Jessica stealth-installed it on my phone,” she replied, and continued scrolling.


1:04 p.m.

“Are those Trader Joe’s cookies?”

Jasper Sitwell glanced up from his gyro, tzatziki sauce on the corner of his mouth. For a terrifying moment, Darcy thought he might be kind of cute. In certain lights, and with better glasses. Seriously, had he bought his glasses in 1982? Either way, he frowned. “What?”

“Those.” Darcy gestured to the plastic tub on one of his chairs. “With the fruit centers, right? Tiny shortbread circles of joy?”

“Uh, I guess? Maria picked them up by mistake and told me to leave them in our lounge. Something about Fitz on a sugar high.”

“I will definitely take care of that for you,” Darcy said, and grabbed the tub without a second thought.


2:42 p.m.


Darcy frowned at the e-mail. why?

Jessica Drew replied mere seconds later. BECAUSE REASONS. IMPORTANT. SECRET. TELL NO ONE.

Darcy rolled her lips together. do you know you have caps lock on?



And all of this brought her to—

“Is this a weird intervention?” Darcy asked as Jessica, Carol, Clint, Jasper, and the other Jessica all stared at her. Examined her, really, so thoroughly that she checked her shirt for (more) shortbread crumbs. “Are you upset about the cookies? Because I share a lot of things, but these cookies—”

“Why don’t you sit down?” Jessica Cage asked gently. Too gently. Gently enough that Darcy felt herself scowl. “We’re just here to talk.”

“About?” Darcy prompted.

Clint shrugged. “How you’re doing, mostly.”

“And Pinterest,” Jessica Drew chimed in. Carol glared at her. “What? I’m not going to lie to her. Because if she’s in the family way, beating around the bush is not—”

“Wait, what?” Darcy recoiled like they’d collectively punched her. “You think I’m— Okay, first, are you living in an episode of Little House on the Prairie? No one says that anymore.”

Jasper snorted. “Told you.”

“And second,” Darcy continued, holding up a hand to keep Jessica from responding, “I’m not pregnant. Are you kidding? I can love-glove somebody hands-free and blindfolded.”

“That’s a mental picture I did not need,” Clint muttered. Jessica Cage, however, nodded in approval.

“There is no way I’d end up knocked up!” She paused long enough to narrow her eyes at Carol. “Is this really because of the Pinterest cakes?”

Carol shook her head. “The cakes barely pinged on my radar. But with your weird Red Vine and cookie cravings, your muttering about baby showers, and your . . . excessive talent—” She gestured vaguely in the direction of Darcy’s chest. “—we put the pieces together.”

“Seriously?” Darcy demanded. Jessica, Jasper, Jessica, and Clint all nodded solemnly. She heaved a sigh. “The Red Vines and cookies are because I live with boys who eat my food all the time and leave me without any lunch. The whatever you called my chest is the miracle of a new bra, and yes, Jessica, I’ll send you the website I bought it from.” Jessica Drew closed her open mouth. “And with the Pinterest and the baby shower thing, well . . . ”

She rolled her lips together. Her five coworkers all stared.

She drew in a breath. “Okay, well. Can you guys keep a secret?”

“No,” Kelsi Horton said simply.

“I— What?”

Peter stood just to the left of Kelsi’s pod of desks, armed with his big blue art supply tub. Across from Kelsi, her two pod-mates Darren and Heath exchanged uh-oh glances and resumed packing away their crayons. Elsewhere in the classroom, other second-graders wielded smaller art supplies for specific items—glue sticks, scissors, feathers and pom-poms—but anything used for coloring belonged in Peter’s big bin.

Kelsi reached for another marker without glancing up.

“Kelsi,” Peter said, a little pleading. She uncapped the marker. “Kelsi, what time is it?”

She shrugged. “Pick-up time.”

“And why is it pick-up time?” he prodded.

“Because it’s almost lunch,” Heath volunteered. Peter glanced at him, and he dropped his gaze to his lap. “Sorry, Mister Parker.”

“That’s okay,” Peter promised, because Heath sometimes cried at the drop of the hat. The Dead Moth Incident of October 19 still loomed large in his mind. He shuddered and turned his attention back to Kelsi. “And what happens at pick-up time?”

Kelsi wrinkled her nose. “I’m not done,” she said. “I’ll pick up when I’m all done.”

“That’s not exactly how we do things,” Peter said, maybe a little helplessly.

Kelsi reached for another marker.

Just then, an argument broke out about the proper way to organize all the paper bag characters on the window ledge, and Peter left his bin to break up the scuffle. All week, they’d read various versions of Cinderella from around the world, culminating in this, a chance for each child to create their own paper bag Cinderella and share his or her story with the class. His life had quickly devolved into a nightmare of glitter, tape, markers, and paste-covered fingers, but at least the kids were learning about character development and cross-cultural storytelling.

At least, according to the lesson plan in his binder. Whether he pulled off all his noble goals continued to be a mystery.

But Kelsi— As he straightened out the mess of paper bags (thanks, Ashleigh and Miranda), he glanced back at Kelsi. The other students were all in the process of clearing their desks for their pre-lunch ritual (him reading from a Bunnicula book, because who didn’t love a vampire rabbit?), but Kelsi just kept coloring Cinderella’s dress. Or rather, her hoodie, because Kelsi had restarted her Cinderella to perfectly match her: hair, eyes, clothes, you name it.

Peter wished he’d paid more attention in his childhood psychology classes.

“Mister Parker?” Peter jerked out of his (probably creepy) staring session to discover Pilar peering up at him, scissor box in hand. “I got all the scissors except from Kelsi. Kelsi said no.”

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Did you ask nicely?”

Pilar huffed. “That’s the first rule, Mister Parker. ‘Ask nicely, don’t just grab.’ And I didn’t.”

He forced a smile. “Go ahead and put the box away, and we’ll start the book in a minute,” he told her, and her ponytail bobbed as she— “Walk, Pilar!” he called, and she slowed to a moderate gallop.

Over at her pod, Kelsi kept coloring. “Kelsi,” Peter said as he approached, and she pressed the marker harder to Cinderella’s blue jeans. “Kelsi, I gave you as much extra time as I could, but—”


She ground the marker down even harder. Peter sighed. “Kelsi, I don’t want this to be your final warning, but—”

Deep down, he swore he knew how he planned to end that sentence.

But on the next stroke of the marker, the bag—totally ink-soaked and soggy at this point—ripped right down the middle, and Kelsi burst into tears.

These weren’t the tears Peter had encountered on the playground or when Marcus decided to tell the whole class about his grandmother’s death (in worrying detail), no. Kelsi cried like someone had just ripped her heart out, and the whole room froze. Peter stopped breathing, Darren stopped picking his nose, Pilar stopped showing off her new sneakers, everything just halted.

At least, until Kelsi shoved her bag, markers, scissors, and glue off the desk, shouted, “Nobody loves Cinderella anyway!” and buried her face in her hands.

Somehow, that pulled Peter right out of his shock, but only in that surreal way he always felt during a crisis. Like a mushy, out-of-body experience, and all thanks to the little girl literally melting down at her desk while twenty other small people gaped at her. He glanced quickly around the room, cataloguing the shocked (and in Heath’s case, tearful) faces.

“Okay, you know what?” he announced. “Let’s line up for lunch in order of height! Fun game, right?” The kids hesitated for a moment, and he clapped a couple times to get the party started. By the time they’d arranged themselves in a freaking pathetic nightmare line, he’d popped out into the hallway just long enough to flag Jessica down and convince her to lead his kids to lunch.

“Three lattes,” she bargained.

Peter sighed. “Fine, whatever,” he grumbled, and added his little ducklings to hers.

And caused a massive pileup in the middle of the hallway, but whatever.

But when he returned to his quiet, empty, peaceful room, his nerves steeled against the reality of talking to an inconsolable seven-year-old, he discovered the still tear-streaked Kelsi carefully placing her markers back in their box. Her glue, scissors, and (unloved?) Cinderella sat nearby.

He frowned. “Are you—”

“Sorry I got mad,” Kelsi said without looking at him. All at once, he realized how Kelsi had barely talked to anyone in the last few days, like words had suddenly become the enemy. “I just wanted to finish my Cinderella.”

Peter nodded weakly, his fingers threading through his hair. He only decided for sure to sit down next to her after his butt hit the empty chair. “Listen, Kelsi,” he said carefully, “if something’s wrong, you can talk to me. Or if you want to talk to someone else and not me, that—”

Kelsi wrapped one of her braids around her fingers. “I just wanted a pretty Cinderella,” she said, but her voice wavered. “So people would want to play with her and be her friend.”

Peter scratched his head. “Yeah, okay, but—”

“Can I go get lunch?” she interrupted, almost like he never started talking in the first place. “I’m hungry.”

He closed his mouth. “Uh, okay,” he agreed, and she smiled as she slid out of her chair.

Later, after he dropped her off at the lunch room, he wrote talk to ms potts about kelsi on a post-it note.

And, on second thought, he circled and triple-underlined it, just in case.

“This is stupid,” Bryant grumbled as Tripp passed around maracas for everyone.

The music teacher smiled at the third grader with as much patience as he could muster for it being a Monday. “There’s a whole culture of people who think these are pretty great. Why don’t you give them a try?”

Reluctantly, Bryant grabbed a blue and red plastic maraca from the large box and glared up Tripp. He gave the student another smile and then finished passing around instruments. Once every student was armed with their knock-off, cheap shaker, Tripp turned on some Latin music. He and Natasha had coordinated to teach the third graders some dance moves. But watching the class move about his room, Tripp wondered just what level of a retention rate he was dealing with because there was no way Natasha Romanoff considered this to be dancing. Most kids were happy to stand in place and shake their arms in some semblance of a rhythm. There were a few who might be suffering from seizures, but they were at least remaining upright at the moment. Tripp himself had told Skye and Jemma about today’s lessons, and the ladies in his life had demanded a preview. He’d grabbed couple wooden spoons and begun to lead a conga line around the kitchen.

All was going well until a blue maraca went flying across the room, nearly beaning Tripp in the head. Once his brain put together what just happened, he killed the music. Bryant had his arm ready to launch his other maraca any second. “Stop,” Tripp ordered, and everyone in the room froze. He walked over to Bryant, took the instrument from his hand, and pointed towards the door. “I’ll be out there to talk to you in a second.” Bryant complied and headed towards the hall, grumbling and dragging his feet the entire way. Tripp turned the music back on and asked everyone to continue their dance party in hopes that it would distract them from the conversation he was about to have in the hall. He knew it wouldn’t because kids are nosy as hell, but it was worth a shot.

As he put his hand on the doorknob of the door that Bryant had tried to slam shut mere seconds before, Tripp took a deep breath. He tried his best to shove down his worry and nerves at the situation and walked into the hallway. “Want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked as he slid down the wall to sit next to Bryant. The boy scooted away from him and scowled at his shoes. “Well, as I see it, we’ve got two options here. The first is you can talk to me about what’s making you angry and then we can both get back to our little fiesta in there.”

“Or?” Bryant questioned.

“Or we can go down to the office and look for Mister Fury, Mister Sitwell, or Miss Potts to call your parents.”

“Which one?” Bryant asked.

Tripp knew there was something in the question but couldn’t figure out just what in that instant. He scoured his mind for any recent bits of information pertaining to Bryant and his sister, but it was hard keeping track of six hundred kids day in and day out. “Whichever one we can get a hold of,” Tripp answered.

“My dad’s at work and he’s not allowed to use his phone there. And my mom--“ He paused, his scowl only darkening. “My mom is too busy.”

Tripp studied the boy for a minute. His auburn curls looked clean, as did his freckled face. He didn’t smell like he’d been neglected in any sort of way. “Well, then I guess you’ll have to talk to me about things.”

“What if I’d rather just sit out here by myself?” Bryant asked.

Tripp shrugged an apology. “Unfortunately, that’s not one of your two options.”

It was a battle of silent wills for eighty-seven seconds before Bryant confessed, “Those things are stupid.”

“Which things?”

“The shaker things,” Bryant said.

“Yeah, I heard you mutter that the first time.” That comment made Bryant’s cheeks flush red. Tripp wasn’t sure if it was because of his building anger or if the kid was finally feeling a little guilty for acting up. “Why do you think they’re dumb? Not a fan of music you can dance to?”

“It’s not that,” Bryant said. He picked dirt off the bottom of his sneakers for a second before he looked up and made actual eye contact with Tripp. “Can we say this talk was good enough? I don’t want to think about this stuff anymore, and Mister Fury scares me.”

Tripp weighed his options and sighed. “You gonna throw anything else at my head?”

The boy shook his head. “Promise.”

“Alright,” Tripp said as he stood, “then back to the dance party. And you better show me some moves.”

After school let out, Tripp pulled up Bryant’s information in the computer database. He tried the dad first, but as Bryant had predicted, the phone call went straight to voicemail. When he called mom, who Tripp noticed was sporting a different last name, there was at least a series of rings before it too went to voicemail. Tripp left messages for both parents asking them to call him back to discuss a classroom incident. He then sent an e-mail to Pepper explaining what had happened and what steps he’d taken before letting Darcy know that he might be expecting a phone call back.

Tripp’s eyes wandered over to the box of plastic maracas in the corner. “Never gonna look at those the same way.”

It happened quickly, it always did. One second, hundreds of students were streaming off school buses with a mere half dozen teachers and administrators overseeing the entrance, then next, it was like a cattle stampede.

Tony didn’t know exactly what had set off the siblings this time. He’d heard reports floating around that the two had been terrors lately, both from various staff members and his wife, who had been trying to contact their parents. But whatever it was, it unfortunately happened far too close to Tony.

It was the shouting he heard first. Screaming at the top of their lungs and in each others’ faces. And then, as Tony approached, tiny fists had started flying. One in particular, and he wasn’t even sure whose arm it belonged to, swung wildly and quickly right into Tony’s crotch.

He stayed on his feet, and that said something. But he still doubled over in pain and saw only white light. By bending over, he left his face in the danger zone, and it, too, took a hit.

Familiar voices approached quickly, and he could hear a scuffle of footsteps as Steve and Phil pulled apart the quibbling siblings. “Man, you okay?” Tripp asked as he rested one hand between Tony’s shoulder blades.

The technology teacher shook off the contact. Tripp hadn’t earned touching privileges yet. In fact, those only belonged to his wife and Bruce. “Fine,” he grunted as he tried to stand upright and play things off as coolly as possible.

“From the look of how that went down, it’s a good thing Pepper already has one in the oven.”

The comment almost caused Tony’s vision to cloud over once more in a solid color; this time red. He’d heard enough scuttlebutt and had enough conversations suddenly cease as soon as he walked into the door to know exactly how badly Odinson’s misunderstanding had spread through the school. He grit his jaw and stayed silent, because any words coming out of his mouth in the next ten minutes were not going to be kid-friendly.

Fury gave him a pained look and waved for him to go inside. Tony hobbled his way into the office entrance, ignored all questions from Darcy, and went straight for Pepper’s office. He figured he’d be kicked out rather quickly as the kids were brought in for a conference with the famous guidance counselor, but Tony needed all the few seconds of solace he could get.

“What happened?” Pepper asked as she shot out of her desk chair and rushed up beside him.

“It’s embarrassing to admit,” he answered before hissing as she poked at the injury near his right eye.

“I’m going to go get you some ice,” she said.

“Two bags, please,” he called out after her. He gently lowered himself into a chair and sighed at what his life had become. When Pepper returned, he thanked her and placed a bag of glorious ice at each wound site.

“There was a fight?” Pepper questioned.

Tony nodded. “But I’m not yet ready to admit that I had my ass handed to me by either a second or third grader, so if we could keep that quiet from your farming, muscle-strapped brothers, I’d appreciate it.”

“What else is wrong?” Pepper pushed.

“Nothing,” Tony replied too quickly. She sat on the edge of her desk and stared him down until he sighed again. “You know sometimes, it’d be really nice if you could turn off that counselor switch and just be a normal human.” When she continued to just look at him, he took the ice off of his face and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “You know they all think you’re pregnant, right? Tripp made some comment about how it was a good thing I’d already knocked you up since he mistakenly thinks I’m now put out of commission. I mean, we’re probably not going to be able to have sex for six hours--“

“And since we’re at work for seven, I don’t see how that’s a problem,” Pepper shot back.

“For one of us, it’s not a problem,” Tony grumbled. He tried to make it sound humorous but he knew Pepper saw right through it. “I’m trying to be good to them and for them, and if that means falling on a pregnancy rumor sword, then so be it. But for how much longer? Are we supposed to start putting pictures of baby outfits on Facebook? Do we need to start asking for advice on baby names?”

Pepper reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, and he could feel her smile as he leaned into the touch. “We’ll figure it out. Or they will.”

“Hopefully they will,” Tony replied. “And soon.”

“That’s it,” Tony declared and tossed a (bow-topped) copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting onto Pepper’s desk. “I have completely and officially had enough.”

Pepper sighed and barely resisted the urge to rub her forehead. “We agreed to give it—”

“No, Pep, you agreed, and you cornered me like a caged animal.” She raised her eyebrows at him, and he huffed out a hard breath. “A five-year-old handed you a germ-soaked pile of old tears and despair, and I elected to be a big boy and take one for the team. But while it is one thing for a kindergartener to think you’re knocked up, it’s another thing for our coworkers to start leaving anonymous cards and gifts about how we’re in the family way.”

She frowned. “When did that phrase make a comeback?”

“I blame Drew, and do not change the subject.” She narrowed her eyes at the finger he’d jabbed in her direction, and he promptly retracted it. “We need to put a stop to this. Both of us, since nobody will believe just me. Two to tango, and whatever.”

“That is usually how babies are made, yes,” she offered dryly.

Tony snorted, but she saw the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Too bad nobody warned Banner about that one,” he replied, and waved away her disapproval.

Usually, Tony barged into her office for coffee, companionship, or advice (not, of course, that he’d ever admit to needing her guidance), but lately, most his visits involved their fictional pregnancy. In a way, she found his daily updates endearing, almost like worrying over an actual baby.

But in every other way, she wanted to lock herself in her office and hide the key.

Tony, of course, wasn’t the only problem. Every day, from the first bell to the last, Pepper noticed the whispers that surrounded her, never mind the piercing looks at her middle. Jessica Drew and Darcy were the least subtle about it, but she’d caught Jasper and Carol staring, too. Worse, George Odinson had charmed an office pass off Mrs. Howard for the express purpose of asking Pepper to “touch the belly.” Pepper’d sputtered slightly and, ignoring Fury’s stare, had shooed the boy back to class.

“That,” Tony had said smugly that evening, “is the point I keep trying to make.”

“That was just an Odinson being an Odinson,” Pepper’d replied blandly, but Tony’s smirk had proven how unconvincing she’d sounded.

Tony watched her now, his eyebrows raised and his shoulder propped against her office wall. “It’s bugging you, too,” he accused.

“It’s not ideal, no,” Pepper admitted. He cocked his head slightly, and she sighed. “I recognize the situation is about ten seconds from spiraling out of our control, but if we can insulate Bruce and Natasha a little longer—”

“Insulating them was fine when the rumor mill consisted of one nosy Odin-child and Darcy Lewis’s mad Pinterest skills, although I’m still not sure what a mad Pinterest skill even is.” She snorted, but Tony’s expression remained serious. “And as much as I love your loyalty—”

“Our loyalty,” Pepper corrected.

He paused just long enough to purse his lips. “Fine,” he agreed, “our loyalty. Which, like I said, I love, but there is a difference between being a good and true friend and being a sitting duck for ten kinds of insanity as people wait for us to acquire a child we don’t want.”

He hesitated on the last few words, his eyes travelling over Pepper’s face, and Pepper nearly smiled as she rolled her eyes. “Still not interested in parenting two of you,” she assured him.

He grinned. “I resemble that comment, you know.”

“Oh, trust me: I know.” His eyes twinkled, and she crossed her arms as she stared at him. “What’s your plan?” she asked.

Tony blinked and pressed a hand to his chest. “Plan? Why would you think that I’d have any kind of—”

“Apart from the complaining, the grumbling, and the draft e-mails you keep banging out while you pretend to ‘work’ at home in the evening—” At that, Tony glanced guiltily at the ceiling. “—I’ve met you. My guess is that your solution involves sky-writing, fireworks, and a marching band.”

“To be fair,” Tony replied, “the middle school marching band is horrible and needs all the practice they can get.” She narrowed her eyes, and he held up his hands. “Nothing bombastic,” he said, crossing his heart when she raised an eyebrow. “Just a simple, universal message to ensure our friends and colleagues that we are definitely not breeding.”


He shot her a wounded look. “Pepper, have I ever lied to you? About something important, I mean, and the incident with the car battery doesn’t count because I contained the fire in record time.”

She rolled her lips together, still watching him and his enormous, pleading brown eyes. “Monday,” she decided.


“Meaning that, if this rumor issue is still an issue on Monday, you can release your three-dozen carrier pigeons to deliver the message of our non-pregnancy.” He opened his mouth to protest, and she pointed a finger at him. “I’m not fighting with you about this, Tony. Wait until Monday.”

He studied her face for a moment. “And if I decide I’ve endured enough torture and execute my master plan before then?”

Pepper smiled sweetly. “I guess you’ll just find that out the hard way.”

Tony swallowed audibly. “Duly noted.”

“A new baby?” Bruce asked, eyebrows raised in surprise and hand halted as he was about to reach for another fried pickle. Natasha took advantage of his hesitation and stole the last two for herself. “That’s what all this was about?”

Pepper nodded. “Mom remarried a few months back after she’d gotten pregnant by the guy she cheated on her husband with. But she has custody of the kids because Dad travels all the time and can’t be reached by phone when he’s on shift. Here comes the new baby and—” Pepper paused to make some Tony-like hand gesture (not that she’d ever admit to such a thing, Bruce knew.) “—chaos.”

Natasha sucked a drop off ranch dressing off her thumb before saying, “So girl student--who shall not be named because we are all law-abiding citizens--became obsessed with Cinderella because she thought her Mom was going to make her the maid of the house and dote on her half-sister.”

Pepper nodded. “And boy child threw a fit in music because he thought the maracas were oversized baby rattles.”

“What caused the fight at the buses?” Bruce asked Tony. “Or is it still too touchy to talk about?”

Bruce smiled with Tony flipped him off. “I never found out, and I’d really like to forget the whole thing as quickly as possible.”

“You know we’re never going to let you live that down, right?” Natasha asked. It was then her turn to receive the bird from Tony.

“They were fighting over who was in charge,” Pepper clarified. “Boy child said he was the oldest and therefore could boss both of his sisters around. Girl child said she could at least boss new sister around, but he said she couldn’t because the baby isn’t really their sister, just half.”

“Sounds like a great family,” Bruce muttered. “Is it bad that I’m kind of glad I never had to teach either one of them?”

“No,” Tony and Natasha answered simultaneously.

Suddenly, the waitress appeared with a fresh basket of fried pickles in each hand. “Can I get you all anything else?” she asked.

“The biggest and dirtiest martini you can find,” Pepper answered.

“We didn’t order these,” Bruce said as he pointed to the new appetizers.

“Who cares?” Natasha responded as she pulled a basket over in front of herself.

“They’re from that table over there,” the waitress informed them as she pointed to a waving and smirking Carol Danvers and Jess Drew.

“That can’t mean anything good,” Bruce said. As he turned back to his tablemates, he saw Tony and Pepper exchange an unhappy look. “What’s going on?” he asked.

There was more communicating with facial expressions before Pepper sighed. “That rumor Thor started has gotten a little out of hand.”

“What rumor?” Natasha asked.

Tony rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me. You don’t even know about this?”

“Know about what?”

Tony glared at Bruce, and the kindergartner teacher cringed. “I, uh, may have asked for some not-so-hypothetical fatherly advice when Thor was in my room helping out with the Valentine’s Day party. And he took it to mean that I was asking on Tony’s behalf.”

“Why would he think that?” Natasha questioned.

Bruce felt his cringe deepen. “Because I may have used the phrase ‘asking for a friend.’”

“You can’t drink that,” Darcy shouted from across the bar. Everyone at the table froze, including Pepper, who held her just-arrived martini a mere inch from her lips. “Didn’t you read that new study? You’re not supposed to have any alcohol at all when you’re... You know...”

The secretary’s voice trailed off as she realized everyone in the bar was staring at her. Guilt washed over Bruce as he watched Tony and Pepper’s faces harden into something not quite reaching a polite and neutral mask. But before he could say anything to the silent bar, Natasha spoke up.

“Pepper isn’t the pregnant one. I am.” It was Bruce’s turn to feel shocked. “What?” Natasha asked him when she caught the look on his face.

“We go back and forth for weeks about when to tell people, and then without warning you just announce it to a bar full of people?” Bruce questioned.

Natasha shrugged. “Someone at this table deserves to drink alcohol. Desperately.” She paused to turn back to the still-silent and surprised group of co-workers. “But just because she’s not the one who is pregnant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop sending fried pickles to our table.”

With that she turned around and reached out for the remaining basket of appetizers, but Tony beat her to the punch. “We’ve been playing along about this baby thing for over a week now, even though everyone should know the story of how we got married and how shortly thereafter I had a very special surgery on my very special dick--“

“Tony,” Pepper warned before taking another drink of her martini.

“I get this basket of pickles,” he finished.

Natasha nodded and withdrew her hand. “Thank you,” she said with as much sincerity as she ever put into her voice. Tony nodded. She then looked at Bruce and reached out to touch his arm. “You okay?” she asked.

His head was spinning. People were starting to come up and offer their congratulations on how they were going to have a baby, how they were going to become parents. He didn’t have to sit on it any longer, didn’t have to swallow his joy. It was out there for everyone to enjoy. “I just really love you,” he said.

Chapter Text

“The house is full of children,” Peter said, blinking. “Why is the house full of children?”

“Mister Parker!” Alva Odinson crowed, jumping to her feet. Her plastic tiara tumbled off her head as she careened toward him, sparkly pink cape flowing behind her. Peter seriously considered ducking right back out the front door. “Do you want to help with our movie? It’s about a pirate and a princess fighting a monster.”

Panic crawled up Peter’s throat. “A movie?”

From where she sat in the middle of the living room, Darcy shrugged. “Jane and Thor both had random meetings today,” she replied, her attention focused on Henry Odinson’s pirate headscarf. “I offered to babysit before I knew Jane’s meeting was actually at the house.”

Peter frowned. “They have meetings on Saturday afternoons?”

“She has a star meeting.” Peter almost leapt out of his skin as a six-year-old wearing a green Frankenstein mask wandered in from the kitchen, juice box in hand. George, maybe wisely, ignored his strangled almost-scream. “With other science people who look at the stars. Do you look at the stars?”


Alva interrupted with a sigh. “I told her to name one with my name, but Daddy said no star is as pretty as I am.” She craned her neck to stare up at Peter. “But stars are pretty too, right?”

“Uh,” Peter said helplessly.

“Okay, let’s give Mister Parker at least five feet of space,” Darcy decided. The two smaller Odin-children stared blankly until she waved them over toward her. “You guys wanted to swashbuckle, right? That’s the next scene. Meaning you need to finish building the pillow fort to fight over, and—”

“Can Mister Parker be one of the heroes?” Alva, now draped over Darcy like a loose-limbed blanket, twisted to peer at him. Peter momentarily forgot how to unbutton his coat. “I need more pirates to rescue me.”

Henry crossed his arms. “A movie only has one hero,” he insisted.

Big Hero 6 has lots of heroes,” Frankengeorge reported around his mangled juice box straw.

His brother huffed. “Well, our movie only can only have one.”

Alva scowled. “Nuh-uh.”





“And we’re done with that fight,” Darcy interrupted, holding up her hands. Alva shot her a pouty look, and she immediately rolled the little girl off her lap and onto the rug. Lucky for probably everyone within earshot, Alva just giggled. “You want to swashbuckle, you build the pillow fort. Otherwise, I’m finding us some internet math worksheets.”

Henry’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Not math,” he complained.

“I like math,” Frankengeorge muttered.

“Make that some super boring math worksheets about, I don’t know, triangles,” Darcy appended, and Frankengeorge’s shoulders slumped. “Seriously, guys. Five minutes to pillow fort this place up, or the movie’s cancelled.”

The kids all sprang into action, tearing the cushions off the (bargain-bin Goodwill) couch Wade allegedly spent actual currency on and adding them to the heap of fluffy pillows from Darcy’s forbidden fortress of a bedroom. (Oh, and also, Wade’s One Direction body pillow, which brought a whole bunch of horrifying thoughts straight into Peter’s head.) Peter soaked in about ten seconds of their boundless energy before finally shedding his coat and retreating into the kitchen for a sandwich.

And he had his second near-miss heart attack of the day when he discovered that, somehow, Darcy beat him into the next room. “You’re a teacher,” she said, crossing her arms.

He heaved a sigh. “Darcy—”

“You hang out with little kids for a living.” When he tried to reach around her, she flopped bodily against the front of the fridge. “You literally spend almost forty hours a week with a room full of second graders. Three Odin-spawn should not freak you out.”

“Their reputation precedes them,” Peter reminded her.

“No, Henry’s reputation precedes him. George is the human embodiment of starlight and Alva will one day either rule the world or destroy it.” He raised an eyebrow, and she frowned slightly. “That’s maybe not a selling point.”

“But a good reason to keep her out of Jessica Drew’s class in another two years.”

Darcy snorted at that, and Peter smiled a little. At least, until she squinted at him and said, “You still shouldn’t freeze at three kids in your living room. What gives?”

For a couple seconds, they stared at each other, caught in the sort of stand-off that Peter usually reserved for big fights with Aunt May. (They’d only ever fought three times. All three times, he’d snuck out, lied about it, and regretted his entire life when she’d caught him red-handed.)

Finally, he sighed. “My uncle died when I was in high school, right?”

Darcy frowned. “I don’t get—”

“All my friends babysat or snuck out to help their girlfriends babysit, but I never really learned how to do the whole ‘completely unstructured time with kids’ thing. Even with Gwen’s brothers, I—” He lifted his hands in a gesture of total uselessness, but Darcy just blinked at him. “At school, I know exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “I have plans, back-up plans, and a lot of training. Here, I’m just a weird guy who spent his whole morning at Barnes and Noble and never bought anything.”

The corner of Darcy’s mouth lifted. “Maybe don’t lead with that.”

He rolled his eyes. “You know what I—”

“I know that kids like you,” she cut him off, flapping a hand when he gaped at her. “Kids talk about your cool science games all the time. I think George might actually break down into tears if he misses out on having you as a teacher next year. And not because of your neurotic triple back-up plans.”

Peter huffed. “I don’t have—”

“Come make a movie with us,” Darcy encouraged, and he rolled his lips together. “Or at least, hover around and prove that both my roommates are awesome.”

Peter blinked. “They think Wade is awesome?”

“Are you kidding?” Darcy asked with a grin. “They think Wade rules Planet Awesome with an iron fist. You need to dethrone him.” He snorted slightly, and she reached out to throw an arm around his shoulders. “C’mon. My boyfriend ditched me for his thesis, and I am in desperate need of some backup. Be the child-wrangler you want to see in the world.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Can I eat a sandwich first?”

“No, but I’ll share my giant bag of peanut butter M&Ms with you,” she replied, and he groaned as she dragged him out of the kitchen.

Don’t get her wrong, Darcy loved her job. She loved getting to interact with hundreds of awesome kids, ruling the front office like an evil dicatoress (just don’t tell Fury she thought she was the one in charge), and feeling like she actually made a difference for people. But there were still sucky parts to work.

This morning’s downside involved the plague that was going around the school, which meant that as soon as she entered the building and turned the phone system from automatically going to voicemail, the ringing never stopped. Thankfully the school nurse, Helen, was able to help out some and field some parents calling in. But unlike Darcy, the nurse had yet to master politely ending the conversation after thirty seconds. No one wanted to hear about the exact disgusting symptoms your child was suffering from, how there was a daycare conspiracy to make kids sick all the time, how your in-laws had to cancel their trip to visit because of the epic flu, or any other way too detailed personal stories that came with talking to people who clearly didn’t have enough friends in their lives. The other downside of having Helen help answer phones was that once students started to trickle into the building, they all wanted to immediately start a line for Ms. Cho’s office. Helen did her best to send most of them on to class and quell their hypochondriac fears, but there were a few who were legitimately ill, and Darcy got to overhear the conversations of “No really, your child is sick. Come and get them.”

Stark and Banner meandered into the office to check their mailboxes. Darcy heard the kindergarten teacher complain about how Natasha shouldn’t be around sick kids and something about yopi, a word she probably misheard due to the non-stop phone calls. Stark, on the other hand, just nodded politely. He had his scarf wrapped around most of his face and even had a knit cap on, something he usually avoided to keep his hair in perfectly styled condition. If she asked, Darcy knew he’d complain about being cold while facing the late-February weather, but everyone really knew that Pepper had refused to let him wear his haz-mat suit to work again. He would fake the heater in his classroom not working all week and stay bundled up in winter accessories as a yarn-woven substitute for a surgical mask.

“He’s just trying to look out for you,” Darcy heard Steve say as he walked through the office with Natasha on their way in from bus duty.

“No, he’s hovering,” Natasha corrected.

“Is this about your man?” Darcy asked, butting her way into the conversation as was her God-given right.

Natasha’s lips pursed. “My man?”

Darcy shrugged. “I figured if I said ‘baby daddy,’ you’d kill me.”

“What did he say to you?” Natasha asked.

“Me? Nothing,” Darcy answered. “But he was talking to Tony about Yogi the Bear or something.”

Natasha shook her head. “YOPI,” she said. “Young, old, pregnant, and immuno-something-or-other. He’s got it stuck in his scientific head that my students are going to make me wither up and die in my fragile state.”

Steve smiled. “And what’s your response been to that?”

“That if the plague hasn’t killed the ancient she-beast known as Howard, I’ll be fine.”

“Of course I’m eating, Mom. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because that’s what girls do sometimes when they’re in stressful situations,” her mother chided. “They stop eating. Not that you need to eat more, but I just wanted to remind you—”

Darcy bit down hard on the edges of a groan as she pulled her phone away from her ear. According to the call timer, her mother’s weekly check-in started three minutes ago.

Three terrible, horrible, not good, very bad minutes ago.

This time, she definitely groaned aloud.

going to kill myself please bury me in sexy underwear, she quickly texted to Loki before pressing the phone back to her ear. “Yeah, Mom, I’m here,” she said, replacing the phone. “Ready to hear more about my quarter-life crisis and impending depressive meltdown.”

Her mother sighed, but before she jumped back into her latest lecture, Wade appeared in the kitchen doorway, his nose in the air like a bloodhound. “Please tell me ‘meltdown’ refers to marshmallows in s’more form.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Do you smell s’mores?” He eyed the pot on the stove, face immediately hopeful, and Darcy brandished her spoon at him. “You touch my Rice-A-Roni, Wilson, and I swear to you—”

“But it’s the San Francisco treat!” Wade protested.

“And I will personally mail you to San Francisco in tiny little pieces if you move any closer.”

Darcy!” her mother half-yelled in her ear, jerking her back into the phone call. Wade obviously heard her, too, because he immediately raised his hands and backed slowly out of the kitchen. “I cannot believe that you would threaten one of your friends over some boxed rice.”

Darcy resisted the urge to beat herself with her wooden spoon. “Because I am literally going to murder him for eating my dinner.”

“You don’t need to be rude to those boys. They’re letting you live with them, after all.” Darcy clenched her fists to keep from actually shouting, but her mother just clucked her tongue. “And that Peter is such a nice—”

“Wasn’t Peter,” Darcy interrupted automatically.

“Oh, it was Wade?” She stopped fighting with her packet of pre-cooked chicken at the immediate curiosity in her mother’s voice. “He’s single, isn’t he?”

Darcy heaved a sigh. “Technically, yes. But since I am definitely not available on the open market—”

“Tell her there’s a hot male model!” Wade shouted from the next room. Darcy closed her eyes and thumped her forehead against the nearest cabinet. “From my figure drawing class! With dumps like a truck!”

“Dumps like a what?” Darcy’s mother asked.

“Ignore him,” Darcy grumbled. “He’s just being Wade. He’s not serious.”

“I am heart-attack serious!” Wade fired back. “And the hot model and I will totally adopt brown babies if he ever learns my name!”

For the first time in slightly more than three minutes, Darcy’s mother fell quiet. So quiet, in fact, that Darcy checked the nearest clock to make sure time hadn’t just stopped.

Finally, her mother sighed. “I’m not sure how I feel about your living situation,” she said.

Darcy snorted. “I had no idea.”

By the time she chased her mother off the phone (complete with a promise to investigate low-carb diets while eating an ice cream sandwich from Peter’s not-so-secret stash), her rice looked sad and dry. Still, she dumped the pre-cooked chicken bits on top, mixed it around, and stomped out into the living room with the pot and two forks.

When she flopped down on the couch next to him, Wade frowned. “I don’t—”

“If anyone asks, I’m sharing against my will and your body parts are on their way to California.” She waved a fork at him, and his mouth twitched a little. “Last chance. Wait a second longer, and I’m saving it for Peter.”

Wade crossed his arms. “Pretty sure Peter and Gwen are out sharing spaghetti like the Disney dogs while an Italian man sings about it being a bell notch. I’m almost definitely your best offer.”

“Almost,” Darcy emphasized, but she handed him a fork anyway.

Halfway through dinner and a third of the way through a super boring rerun How I Met Your Mother, Wade stopped comparing Robin to his boss and cocked his head at Darcy. “You want to talk?”

She frowned. “Talk?”

“Yeah. You know. Words in sentences, about feelings or life or—” Her frown obviously deepened, because Wade waved his fork helplessly. “You fight with your mom, like, every time she calls. Which is fair, because she sounds a little like a hell beast from, I don’t know, wherever hell beasts hail from—”

“Ohio, originally.” Wade blinked, and she shrugged. “My mom grew up in Ohio.”

“Gotta brush up on my infernal geography, because I figured they all grew up south of the Mason-Dixon.” She huffed a laugh, and he grinned as he bumped their shoulders together. “You fight with her a lot. And while my relationship with my parents is as empty as the jar of peanut butter that I definitely did not finish last week, I’m pretty sure the fighting’s not normal.” He paused, frowning. “It’s not, right?”

She rolled her lips together. “No.”

“Okay. So. Because the fighting’s weird and because you always steal Peter’s ice cream after, I’m going to ask again if you need to talk.”

Darcy poked at a piece of chicken before shaking her head. “No,” she answered, “but thanks for caring.”

“Least I can do for the San Francisco treat,” he replied, and laughed when she kicked him in the shin.

After dinner, she flopped out on her bed to discover three new text messages from Loki.

Is everything all right?

I will certainly respect your wishes, but I do worry.

I hope the silence means you opted for vengeance instead of self-harm.

She rolled her eyes at the last one before thumbing open her reply. bad phone call with mom. had dinner with wade and talked a little. it helped.

Ah, he replied almost immediately (and after a suspiciously long text-writing animation bubble). Well, as long as you’re feeling better.

i am, she typed, smiling to herself. now tell me about the sexy underwear i’m being buried in.

“I cooked, you clean,” Darcy ordered. She rolled her eyes immediately as Wade and Peter both instantaneously touched their fingers to their noses.

“Nose goes,” Wade announced while pointing at Loki. “All you, dude.”

“You don’t force a guest to do the dishes,” Darcy argued.

“Nose goes, Darcy, you know the rules,” Wade replied. “Not my fault your dude isn’t hip with the times. And really, is he still a guest at this point? That’s like calling Gwen a sometimes visitor.”

“You’re just jealous you don’t have a ‘visitor’ around,” Peter joked.

Wade grinned. “Trust me, as soon as art class sexiness notices I exist, we’re not leaving a room for days.”

“Please don’t make it a common room,” Darcy whined. “Especially on a surface where I cook or eat.”

Wade rolled his eyes. “Like you two have never had some breakfast nook nookie.”

“No,” Loki answered tightly. “We have not.”

Darcy noticed how Wade paled slightly at Loki’s tone and bit down on a grin. The two boys quickly ran off to the living room where they were going to set up for the second half of the dinner-and-a-movie evening. She tried calling after them to clean up after themselves, but it was useless. “Idiots,” she muttered as she started to gather up dishes.

Loki took the plates from her hand with a smile. “You cooked, I’ll clean.”

“You’re a guest,” she reiterated. “You shouldn’t have to do that.”

His smile grew into a slightly devious smirk. “I’m sure you’ll find some means of suitable retribution for their lack of manners.”

“And I promise to send you pictures when I do,” she replied.

“That’s all I ask.”

He gently shoved her out the door toward the living room. She considered hanging back and helping him out, but Loki would just get frustrated that she wasn’t letting him be as chivalrous as possible. Besides, he probably needed the space. Peter and Wade had dominated the dinner conversation with a series of inside jokes and stories about their students’ classroom antics. Darcy had tried to get Loki to talk about what he was teaching about in his own classroom, hoping that since it was mythology (an adult word for fairytales), it would play on Wade and Peter’s level. No such luck.

When Loki sat on the couch next to her fifteen minutes later, his confusion was plainly evident on his face. “What movie is this?”

“You’ve never seen Mystery Science Theater? What kind of deprived childhood did you lead?” Peter asked.

Darcy shot him a death glare before turning to Loki. “It’s this series where you watch an old and outrageously terrible movie and these three guys--“

“Correction,” Wade interrupted, “two of them are robots. And since I was told last week that robots aren’t really people—“

“Anyway,” Darcy cut in. “The three of them make fun of the movie as it plays.”

“So, we’re spending the evening watching an admittedly terrible film?” Loki asked.

“Yeah,” Peter answered with a grin. “And we listen to them be snarky about it.”

Loki nodded but didn’t say anything else, just quietly settled into the corner of the couch and put his arm around Darcy’s shoulders. She leaned into the embrace and rested her head on his chest. It let her listen to his steady heartbeat, a sound she’d be absolutely mortified to admit was soothing. But it also meant she spent the next two hours never hearing him laugh. Not even a little chuckle. Wade and Peter lost their shit a number of times, and even Darcy found a few zingers pretty funny, but nothing fazed Loki. With each passing minute, she felt guilty for trying to force another evening of showing him that her roommates weren’t total men-children. Seemed like this was going to be another bust.

Once both sets of credits rolled, Darcy smiled up at Loki. “Want to stay for a little bit longer?”

He grinned politely but shook his head. “I’ve got to finish writing that exam.”

“I thought you said it was done already.”

“The first draft, yes, but I walked away from it for a couple days so I could look things over with fresh eyes. I’ll call you in the morning.”

“And he’ll have— Sorry, did you want the small-sized burger with extra steak sauce or a big giant burger smothered in onions and mushrooms? Because last time, you ordered both and Gwen ate one, but I don’t remember—”

“I can order my own dinner, Wade,” Peter grumped, elbowing Wade out of the way to smile oh-so-extra-charmingly at the Five Guys order lady. “And I, uh, actually do want a small burger with extra steak sauce.”

“And no pickles,” Wade hissed, close to his ear.

“Would you not—” Peter smacked him in the stomach with the back of his hand, mostly a love tap. The order lady raised an eyebrow. “And, yeah, no pickles,” he added.

“See, like I said, I know what he likes,” Wade said as he handed over his credit card, and Peter actually groaned aloud like an appendectomy patient before trotting off to the soda machines.

Once every week, like the clockwork of a very specific (and maybe sort of broken, since it only happened once a week and everything) clock, Wade and Peter ditched their evening sweatpants for evening real pants and ate dinner together. Darcy called it their “weird platonic love-fest,” Gwen called it “proof of their bottomless bromance,” and Skye and Jemma from work called it “suspicious that you keep claiming to have huge crushes on us when you buy another guy dinner twice a month.” But Skye and Jemma from work also kept missing little Leo’s totally drool-faced crush on the built-like-a-Mack-truck high school physics teacher, so—


Back up.

He’d wandered off track a little.

The point: Wade and Peter ate dinner together. They switched off paying. Peter liked his girlfriend a lot, but he also liked burgers, pizza, and the occasional trip to the Olive Garden. (But not if Wade brought his work bag. Not that Wade would. It still smelled like breadsticks from that one incident.)

Wade flopped into the chair across from Peter, and Peter slid him his usual drink (half Dr. Pepper, half Sprite, all deliciousness). He slurped for a second before saying, “Gwen’s bromance theory weirded you out, and you do not know how to deal with your feelings.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Not you too.”

“Yes, me too. Partially because I am an excellent observer of human nature, and partially because I am one half of this not-romantic partnership and expect you to respect my emotional needs.” Peter released another super-pained groan (seriously, he sounded like five feet, ten inches of actual pain) and cast his eyes up at the ceiling. Wade pointed his cup at him. “It’s okay if you don’t know how to deal with a new sexual awakening,” he reassured. “I still remember mine. Aaron Hansen, eighth grade gym class. Shoulders like—”

“I am not having a sexual awakening,” Peter cut in. He sounded super shrill and fed up.

“You sound super shrill and fed up,” Wade told him.

“Because you’re being all—” He flapped a hand across the table, his mouth moving without noise, and Wade nodded like he understood his incoherence. (Which, actually, he sort of did. Side-effect of the whole bromance thing.) “Can we please change the subject to something other than my supposedly latent crush on you?”

Wade cocked his head to the side. “Are you admitting to—”


Peter’s squeak drew the attention of at least three other people, and when they dismissed him as another crazy person shouting nonsense in a Five Guys, he flipped Wade off. Wade grinned and enjoyed his soda. Well, okay, he enjoyed his soda for a sip and a half. On the second full sip, he rolled his lips together. “Do you think Loki likes us?”

Peter blinked up from his cell phone. “What?”

“You know, six feet of greasy-haired hipster angst, sometimes sleeps upstairs in Darcy’s room and avoids eye contact in the morning?” Peter snorted, shaking his head. “I know you think I’m being weird, but I’m actually serious about this one thing. Do you think Loki likes us as people?”

“I don’t know,” Peter answered, shrugging. “He’s never said anything, and he’s always polite.”

“Melinda May is polite, but trust me: somewhere in her desk is a black list longer than my arm. And Ruth Howard—”

Peter shuddered. “I can’t believe you call Mrs. Howard by her first name.”

“—is polite, but she threatened to run me over with her Buick two years ago.” Peter rolled his eyes. “It happened.”


“Someday, I will find an eyewitness, and when I do . . . ” Peter waved a dismissive hand, and Wade flopped back in his chair. Not in defeat. No, defeat involved slouching like a human-jellyfish hybrid. He flopped in some kind of monk-like contemplation. “Loki’s nice in that way you’re nice to a new neighbor or a really eager church lady: you smile and laugh a little, but the smile never reaches your eyes. And you end up looking dead inside.”

Peter frowned. “How do you know anything about church?”

“I worship regularly at Our Lady of Taco Bell, home of truly dead-eyed women and their screaming children.” Peter cracked a smile, and Wade shrugged. “We need to do better. Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. How do you win over a friend’s empty-souled hipster boyfriend? Would Gwen have suggestions?”

“Why would Gwen—” Wade raised his eyebrows at Peter’s plaid shirt, skinny jeans, and thick-rimmed glasses, and after a minute of blinking, Peter kicked him under the table. “You’re an asshole,” he decided as the counter lady called their number.

“But you still go on man-dates with me anyway,” Wade reminded him, and he laughed when Peter flipped him off over his shoulder.

“I don’t know what to do,” Loki admitted while throwing another shovelful of snow into the yard.

Thor grinned. “Clearly, if you’re asking me for help.”

Loki bristled. “I wasn’t asking for help, I was just answering your question on the state of my relationship with Darcy.”

Thor chuckled. “You must be where Henry gets his independent attitude.”

“Of course, because neither of his parents ever display such a trait.”

Thor flung a bit of snow in Loki’s direction in weak retaliation for the comment. “Have you tried talking to her?”

“No,” he answered. “She’s happy, which is what I want her to be.”

“But you aren’t,” Thor pointed out.

Loki sighed as he began clearing off another line of snow from his brother’s driveway. No, he wasn’t happy. But he was willing to sacrifice that emotion—most days, anyway. Darcy’d had a rough couple months in the end of living with her mother, she’d said adamantly that she didn’t want to live forever with Loki (at least, not yet), and she did honestly enjoy living with the likes of Wade and Peter even if she complained about living with two imbeciles most of the time. Loki didn’t want to rob her of that joy for his own selfishness. And if Darcy had to move a third time in as many months, he was pretty sure he’d never hear the end of it. “Her roommates just aren’t the kind of people I’d normally be around.”

“Since when are you normally around anyone?” Thor asked. When Loki opened his mouth to argue (even if his older brother may have had a valid point), Thor raised his hand to keep him quiet. “No one says you have to like her friends. You just have to tolerate them and be polite about it.”

“That’s what I try to do,” Loki replied.

“I’m sure you do, but you struggle with keeping your face neutral when you feel disgusted,” Thor said.

“So I should talk to her and say . . . what?” Loki asked.

“The truth,” Thor answered, as if life was ever that simple. “I know you don’t want to scare her or turn things too serious--heaven knows we’ve finally gotten Alva to stop bringing up being a flower girl once a day--but you should be honest with her about your feelings. It pleases me to see that you care so greatly for her, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your desires to keep her happy.”

Loki swallowed, almost too afraid to ask his next question. “And what if she doesn’t want what I want?”

“Then you have to decide if you want things to stay the way that they are and you be only somewhat happy about it, or if you should walk away to find full joy in a relationship.”

Chapter Text

“And now,” Nick said, “for the final item on the agenda—”

“I’m sick.” Everybody in the room, Nick included, shifted to glance at Stark. Make that Stark and the box of tissues that had materialized in front of him in the last two minutes. Nick raised an eyebrow at Banner, who shrugged. “I know I don’t look it,” Stark continued, “but I’m sick. Or at least, definitely coming down with something. Between the tickle in my throat and the fullness of my sinuses, I’m lucky to be alive.”

“But our prayers for laryngitis go unanswered,” Coulson muttered, and Nick bit down on the edges of his smile.

Stark snorted. Into a tissue, probably just for dramatic effect. “I realize a man who last took a sick day in 1975 might not understand the human immune system—”

“How old do you think Coulson is?” Drew asked.

“—but I think everyone else at this table understands that I am very near my death bed right now.” He dabbed at his nose while Pepper and Banner rolled their eyes in almost perfect unison. “And since I’m not long for this world—”

“You’re not helping out with any field trips?” Nick surmised.

Stark shrugged. “Completely out of my hands, but yes.”

Nick sighed. As much as he loved his job—from the kid wrangling to the teacher wrangling and back again—micromanaging field trip season still felt like some kind of prolonged torture. The central office freaking loved when schools sent kids out for “authentic learning experiences in the real world” but conveniently forgot about chaperones, substitutes, bus schedules, and budgets.

Worse, Nick had somehow approved three major field trips for the same damn week.

He rubbed his forehead for a moment before glancing down the table to where Barton and Danvers kept flicking little balls of paper at each other. “Let’s start with you and work our way down. Fifth grade?”

Barton shrugged. “Middle school tour’s pretty well set,” he replied. “Jessica’s coordinated with their counselor to arrange all the student diplomats—”

Cage rolled her eyes. “For the last time, they’re ambassadors.”

“—to handle the tours, we’ve got the full list of the teachers the kids get to meet, and since Gonzales is out at some conference, Hill’s handling the middle school readiness lecture.” Sitwell jerked his head up at that reference, and Nick snorted. “We’re still down a chaperone, but I figure after a couple more calls—”

“I can do it.” Nick immediately jerked his head to blink at Sitwell, but his assistant principal just raised his eyebrows. “What? Unless some kids start a fight club in the middle of art class—”

“The first rule of art club is you don’t talk about art club,” Barnes muttered. Rogers promptly elbowed him in the ribs.

“—nobody really needs me. Besides, I never go on field trips.”

“Yeah, because you hate kids almost as much as Tony,” Darcy said. Sitwell glared at her, and she raised her hands. “Hey, I just said what literally everyone at this table was already thinking. Well, minus the part about how you just want to bat your eyelashes at Hill the whole time.”

Sitwell rolled his eyes. “Just because you think that doesn’t mean—”

“You want a show of hands?” Darcy challenged. Sitwell hesitated for a second before flopping back into his chair and shaking his head. “That’s what I thought.”

“Looks like the fifth grade field trip just scored their last chaperone,” Nick said, mostly to keep the whole meeting from descending into chaos. “What about you, Barnes?”

“All set for our trip to the state Capitol,” Barnes replied immediately. “The cafeteria there confirmed our box lunches, my chaperones are ready to go, and—”

“You imbedded tracking devices in all your kids?” Drew asked. Romanoff and Rogers both tried to hide their immediate smirks, but Nick suspected Barnes’s beet-red face was visible from space. Drew, on the other hand, just leaned back in her chair. “The Capitol building’s a big place. Lots of switch-back hallways. Easy to—”

“I’m not going to lose track of anyone,” Barnes cut her off, his voice a growl through gritted teeth. “I learned my lesson last year. Which, like I keep saying—” He flicked his gaze toward Romanoff. “—was a one-time fluke.”

Romanoff shrugged. “Unless we count student teaching,” she mused.

“Student teaching does not count!”

Drew snorted hard enough that she choked on air, and Rogers reached over to pat his husband on the wrist. Nick bit down on his own grin as he glanced down to the end of the table. “Any concerns about losing children at the observatory, Doctor Banner?”

Banner grinned a little as Barnes groaned aloud. “I think we’re all set,” he answered with a small shrug. “Doctor Foster recommended a number of children’s books on stars and constellations, and the kids are pretty hooked. I’m a little afraid we’ll be talking about space for the rest of the school year.”

“He’s also absolutely squared away on chaperones,” Stark volunteered. “But in the unlucky event that Marta’s pregnant mom pops out a baby that day and therefore prevents Marta’s not-pregnant mom from attending, I am definitely too sick to fill in.” He coughed pitifully into a tissue. “Someone else will have to cover.”

Banner sighed. “If this is about you covering my class for ten minutes last week—”

“Big guy, I don’t know what you think happens in your classroom, but let me tell you: that day, I stared into the abyss, and the abyss smeared paste on my pants.”

Banner rolled his eyes, but Nick just raised a hand. “Stark, you are officially excused from field trip duty. If push comes to shove, we’ll send Darcy.” Darcy jerked her head up from her phone, and Nick rolled his eye. “Just all of you please keep this field trip week to a low hum of chaos for once, okay? The last thing I need is a misplaced permission slip or another lost kid.”

“Oh, for the love,” Barnes complained, tossing up his hands.

Nick smiled.

George Odinson sighed.


For like the fifth time in two minutes.

Parker shot Jessica a panicked glance, but Jessica just shrugged. With Banner running around like a headless chicken in preparation for the big kindergarten field trip in the morning, she’d (stupidly) agreed to combine chess and science clubs for the afternoon. “Because we’ll only have a couple science kids,” Parker had justified, “and they’re finishing up their fish projects.”

She’d stopped poking her horrifying kale salad (courtesy of Carol) to frown. “Fish projects?”

“Yeah,” Parker’d replied. “It’s actually a multi-level assignment that pairs up older kids with younger ones. They’ll research different types of fish, and then the older kids will try to identify important characteristics of the class while the younger kids . . . ”

He’d continued talking, but for some reason, his voice had morphed to match the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. “Whatever,” Jessica’d interrupted. “Just share your chips, and we’ll call it good.”

Except a handful of Baked Lays felt like insufficient payment for George’s pathetic, kicked-puppy sighing.

“I don’t know what to do,” Parker hissed, sidling up to Jessica. “He’s been super into learning about fish. Now, he’s just—”

“Lying face-first on my reading rug like someone forgot to charge his batteries?” Jessica finished.

Parker frowned. “I don’t think that was the analogy I wanted, but kind of.” Jessica rolled her eyes, but her coworker just shifted his weight awkwardly. Nervously, like he expected her to—

She jabbed a finger at him. “No.”

He blinked. “I didn’t—”

“Yeah, but I know that look,” she retorted, her finger flicking up toward his face. “That look corners me into early-morning runs and kale salads way more often than I’m willing to admit. And since you’re definitely not my best friend, I’m not falling for your contemplative lip-rolling and long, fluttery eyelashes.”

Parker cocked his head to the side. “My eyelashes aren’t—”

“Two-thirds of the women in this building would light themselves on fire for your eyelashes, kid. They’re second only to Stark’s.” She crossed her arms. “And my answer is still no. You fix your science baby by yourself.”

After one last, forlorn glance, Parker rolled his eyes and trudged off. For a full five minutes, Jessica divided her time evenly between tweaking her lesson plans and dutifully watching her six chess children.

Until her mismatched little hive-mind clones, Miles and Ganke, wandered over. “What’s wrong with him?” Ganke asked, pointing directly at George.

Miles pushed his friend’s hand down. “Don’t point.”

Ganke frowned. “But if I don’t point, Miss Drew won’t know who I’m talking about.”

Jessica raised a hand. “Trust me, Miss Drew knows all,” she promised, and the boys grinned at her. Over on the reading rug, Parker sat cross-legged next to a still-despondent George. She pursed her lips. “And I don’t know what’s bothering George,” she admitted. “Mister Parker tried to ask him, but he’s not saying much.”

Her little chess twins nodded in unison even as Miles chewed slightly on his lower lip. His gaze flicked between George and Jessica for a second before he asked, “Can I go talk to him?”

“But he’s not in chess club,” Ganke pointed out.

“So? He looks sad.” Miles shoved his hands in his pockets. “You started being my best friend because I looked sad on the bus in kindergarten. Maybe George is sad about the bus.”

“While I’m pretty sure it’s not the bus,” Jessica said before Ganke started arguing, “I think that’s a great idea. Especially since you two keep sword-fighting with your chess pieces.”

Both boys froze. “We weren’t—”

She cut them off with a corralling motion. “Come on. Field trip to the reading rug.”

George’s head popped up off the floor the second he heard the words field trip, but when he spotted Jessica and the boys walking over, he hid his face again. Undeterred, Miles immediately knelt down right next to him.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Miles. Are you sad?”

Ganke scowled. “Don’t ask if he’s sad right away!”

George picked up his head enough to nod weakly. “Yeah.”


“Because my sister gets to go on a field trip to see my mom.” His voice wavered slightly, and suddenly, Jessica remembered that Banner’s horde of tiny children were slated to visit Jane Foster’s observatory. Realization dawned on Parker’s face, too, but George just rubbed his eyes with his hand. “Last year, they were fixing things, and my class couldn’t go. Now Alva gets to see Mom at work, and I don’t. Because you only go with your own class, not with other classes.”

Miles nodded like a sage little field trip expert. “If all the classes went on field trips, there’d be nobody in the school.”

“But not everybody wants to go. I just want to go.” George shoved himself up into a sitting position and picked at the rug. “Everybody knows all about my dad. I want them to see my mom being smart. And her big telescope.”

All at once, Ganke and Miles lit up like tiny, tinkling Christmas trees. “You like telescopes?” Ganke blurted. George blinked a little before nodding. “We know all about space. We watch Star Wars a lot. And play the games on Miles’s Wii.”

George’s eyes widened. “There are space games?”

“Yeah!” Miles answered enthusiastically. “With spaceships and space swords called lightsabers.”

Jessica grinned at the way George’s whole body vibrated with excitement. “There are space swords?”

Parker cringed. “George, the boys are talking about a movie, not—”

“Hey,” Jessica interrupted, not that her chess boys (now schooling George on aliens) even noticed. “You had a despondent first grader, and now you don’t. Count that as a win, and leave it.”

Parker frowned at her. “You want to explain to his astrophysicist mother why he thinks lightsabers are real?”

She grinned. “No,” she admitted, “but Carol has a life-sized replica of Obi-Wan’s ‘space sword’ and owes me at least three favors.”

“One of the things we like to focus on here is that careers in STEM are for everyone, regardless of how much money your family has, what you look like, or if you’re a boy or girl,” the British science teacher said with an encouraging grin.

A hand raised, and the teacher—Jemma, Clint remembered—pointed at Lucia. “We already know about that,” the fifth grader said confidently.

“Know about what?” Jemma asked.

“That we can all be scientists and stuff,” Lucia answered. “Our math teacher told us so,” she said while pointing back to Jessica. The math teacher in question grinned tightly and offered a little finger wave.

“And Miss Danvers tells us that girls can do anything boys can do,” Hannah—a member of Carol’s service—added. “We already know about that.”

Clint watched the science teacher push a polite smile on to her face, but he recognized the sudden appearance of fear in her eyes. It was the look of watching all your excellently planned lessons vanish into thin air.

“Well,” Jemma said calmly. “I look forward to encouraging that sentiment next year when some of you have me for science. What questions do you have for me about my class?” she asked, more than likely as a cover.

Clint knew what would be asked: When did we get to blow stuff up? Will we get to set anything on fire? Do we get a class pet? And so on. He’d heard it every year of his fourteen years teaching fifth grade and taking his students next door to get a glimpse of middle school life. Which meant he could check out for a few minutes and talk with Jessica. “How dare you not encourage our female students to be mathematicians and world-famous scientists?”

She turned to glare at him. “I’ll punch in the junk in front of all these kids. You know I will. And no world-famous mathematicians? Who’s selling who short now?”

Clint shrugged. “I thought it was all done by robots these days.”

“You would,” Jessica said as she rolled her eyes. “This is why we only let you read them stories.”

“Fine by me,” Clint said. He looked back over at the young woman at the front of the classroom. “Young woman” was being generous; she looked like she’d just graduated from high school, adorable in her little cardigan set and wavy hair. Just seeing her made Clint feel a little old. He knew he’d seen her face somewhere, and it took a second before he remembered it was at Steve and Bucky’s wedding—and who she was with. “You know she’s one of Tripp’s ladies, right?”

“Sad you’re not in a three-way relationship?” Jessica questioned.

“No,” Clint answered honestly. “I’d get way too jealous. You?”

Jessica shrugged. “Depends on who the third was.”

“Yeah, because you and Luke don’t have enough…adult times as it is.”

“The kid did throw a cramp into our style,” Jessica said.

“Poor thing,” Clint replied sarcastically.

“From the look of things, Carol might be into it.”

Clint shuddered. “I think you guys would literally destroy the world with all your…fun.” He hated having to constantly censor himself, but his kids were always too nosy. And their parents were even worse.

“Luke and I at least managed to break another bed frame a couple nights ago,” Jessica told him with a victorious smile.

“Good Lord, how many is that now?” Clint asked.

“We’ve lost count.”

“There’s something wrong with the two of you,” he told her.

“Or awesome. Besides, you’re just jealous. When’s the last time you and Phil had to rush out for a new piece of furniture?”

“Never,” Clint admitted. “Because Phil and I are both physically and fiscally responsible.”

“And old,” Jessica mocked.

“You’re only three years younger than I am,” Clint pointed out.

“Still younger.”

Jemma’s voice brought their focus back to what was happening around them. “Perhaps your teachers would like to contribute,” she said, her eyes pleading for some assistance to kill time. “What are the two of you discussing?”

“Physics and the economy,” Jessica answered easily.

Clint nodded. “The merits of playing it safe versus being reckless and irresponsible.”

“Also, just how old Mister Barton is,” Jessica said, causing the students to giggle.

“Thanks again for putting this all together for us,” Bruce whispered just loud enough to be heard over the movie’s narration.

Jane smiled. “My pleasure. I always seem to have a conference or big meeting whenever the kids need a chaperone for a field trip. This is my penance.” She paused to once again wave to Alva, who’d told everyone about a billion times who her mom was and just how smart she is. “Also, I wanted to apologize about Thor and the pregnancy misunderstanding with the Starks a few weeks back. He just gets really excited about babies.”

Bruce chuckled. “I don’t think Tony is permanently scarred by everyone thinking he’s going to have a kid, but I’ll pass the word along.”

They stood quietly for a second, watching the various constellations pass by on the IMAX screen. “Darcy did let it slip who actually is expecting,” Jane said softly. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Bruce replied with a grin. “Umm, if you don’t mind--“

“The kids won’t know about it unless it’s from you or Miss Romanoff, and neither will any of the parents. Darcy and Thor’s guilt for making everyone think the Starks were expecting will make sure of that.”

“Thanks,” Bruce sighed.

“But I still get to ask about details, right?” Jane asked. When Bruce’s eyebrows raised, Jane shrugged. “Thor isn’t the only one in our house who likes babies. I’m absolutely sure I don’t want any more of my own, but I will gladly hear stories and steal snuggles from other people’s. Until it’s time for a diaper change.”

“Done with that part of things?” Bruce asked.

Jane nodded. “Potty training felt like a multi-year war in our house. I still have nightmares about it.”

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to fall into the one and done category, thankfully,” Bruce said.

“Do you know gender yet?”

Bruce shook his head. “Think we’ll get to find out over spring break. If Natasha wants to find out.”

“Do you?”

“We’re scientists. We want to know all the information, right?”

Jane grinned. “Thor wanted them all to be a surprise, but it was one of the many times I used the ‘my uterus, my decision’ card. Well, boy or girl, let me know. I’m sure Thor hoarded some baby clothes in the basement.”

“As a just in case measure?” Bruce questioned.

“More of a sappy yet adorable father not quite willing to admit how big his kids are getting.”

A soft murmur went through the theater full of small children as the camera began to zoom past each of the planets in the solar system. “I’m still mad they kicked out Pluto,” Bruce muttered.

“And here I thought you and I could be friends,” Jane replied with a shake of her head.

Bruce grinned as he looked back up at the giant screen. “No one’s ever gotten motion sickness in here before, have they?”

“Not that I know of, but I have the cleaning crew on alert just in case anything happens,” Jane reassured him.


“I’ve had enough experience to know better,” Jane half-joked. “Just have to find a way to make things up to George.”

“And here I thought I was the most disappointed about not getting to come here last year.”

“Not quite,” Jane said. “Need to clear my schedule this weekend for a Mommy date with him.”

Bruce smiled. “It’s nice you make sure to do that for your kids.”

“Half the time it feels like it’s more out of guilt than an attempt at good parenting,” Jane admitted. “Jealous that once yours gets to be school-aged you can still see them every day.”

“I’m sure Natasha and I will be happy about that. Our kid might have a different opinion on things.”

“They will always have a different opinion,” Jane warned. “I want to do a study to see if there’s some disorder that causes constant opposition toward authority until humans reach their mid-twenties or so. Know anyone researchers who’d want to work me on that?”

“Scientists? No. But I can hook you up with a couple administrators and an art therapist who I’m sure have plenty of opinions on the matter.”


The word rolled off Clint’s tongue like instinct, and right away, Jessica Cage shot him one of her I’ll murder you with my mind glares. Woman swore like a sailor off the clock but acted like the profanity police during school hours. “And it’s not ironic,” she’d said a couple years back. “It’s how I police myself.”

Literally everybody at her usual table at Xavier’s, Clint included, had rolled their eyes.

A couple feet away, fifth graders shuffled out of Wade Wilson’s art room, weighed down with geometric coloring pages and eyeing Wade’s manic smile. Clint liked Wade just fine, provided he kept his insanity level to a dull roar.

And when he didn’t—

“Most of our art projects get hung up in this hallway,” Wade said, gesturing out at all the gray cinderblock. “All the grades cover different projects at different times. See, the eighth grade’s working on scale drawing and perspective. Well, the ones who didn’t hurt themselves with the tape measures are. Some are maybe just using pastels this month.”

Wade steered the kids over to admire the line-art perspective drawings, all of them just sloppy copies of the school’s front foyer. Jessica heaved a sigh, checking her watch for the third or fourth time, before she finally noticed one of the other art displays in the hallway. She frowned, blinked, and tilted her head to one side.

And Clint smirked as her eyes bloomed to ten times their normal size. “Are those—”

“Pretty sure,” Clint replied with a nod.

“I knew health class got more intense in middle school, but . . . ”

“Not life-drawing intense?” he finished. Jessica snorted a laugh before glancing over her shoulder. Wade, clueless, just kept explaining how scale drawing from life-sized models worked. “Think we should send them over to the gym early?” he asked.

Jessica raised an eyebrow. “You want to barge in on Melinda May before she’s ready?”

“No, but the last thing we need is—”

“The sixth graders,” Wade suddenly burst in, gesturing to the next clump of artwork, “all picked two artists out of a hat and did a mash-up. See? This one’s a water lily in the style of Picasso.”

He tapped a water-color painting of a pink square sitting on a green rectangle. One of the fifth graders frowned. “That’s a water lily?” he asked.

“It’s a cubist water lily,” Wade corrected. He tipped his head at the painting. “Maybe too literal on the ‘cube’ part, but mostly okay. Actually, now I kind of wonder if I ever really explained cubism. Like, at all.” He shook his head a little. “Here, let’s look at the Seurat-style ballerinas. I know I explained pointillism right. Or at least, better.”

He pointed to a couple more paintings while Jessica chewed on her lower lip. “They’re fifth graders,” she said to Clint, mostly under her breath. “Maybe they don’t know.”

Clint crossed his arms. “Fifth graders with the internet at home won’t realize that those paintings all look like—”

“Fine, yes, they’ll realize.” She huffed out a long breath. “Shit.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth.”

She shot Clint another dirty look at that, but before he managed to shrug her off, Wade appeared at his shoulder, gaggle of fifth graders still politely pretending to hang on his every word. “These are my favorites,” Wade said, gesturing to the pinkish pastel pictures in front of them. “For the seventh grade, I brought in a bunch of votive candles, and we practiced trying to capture the fluttery flame in pastel.”

Clint scanned their breakout group, fifteen kids in all. In the back, two boys glanced at one another, nodded in agreement, and started snickering. A third, flushing bright red, elbowed one of his friends in the ribs. And in the front of the pack, two girls drew in sharp breaths as realization smacked them in the face.

Jessica hid her own laughter behind her hand as Wade blinked. “What?” he asked, his expression honestly confused. “If it’s because candlelight isn’t usually pink, well, the perspective artists who I banned from tape measure duty ended up using a lot of my pastels. We improvised, which is why—”

“Wilson, please tell me I’m hallucinating.”

Clint and everybody else in the hall, snickering students included, just about jumped out of their skins at the sound of Melinda May’s voice. She stood just a couple feet behind them, her arms crossed and her whole body tense as she flicked her gaze between Wade, the kids, and the candlelight pictures. The smooth, fluttery-edged, flesh-colored ovals of flame, hanging neatly in the hallway.

Wade swallowed. “Uh, you’re hallucinating?” he tried.

Her jaw clenched. “Take those down before the next tour group shows up to hear about art class,” she instructed, “and we’ll talk about them later. Otherwise, the kids are with me.” A few students hesitated, still studying the art display, until Melinda snapped, “Now.”

They fell in line like fifth grade soldiers marching off to war while Wade stared after them, crestfallen. “We drew candlelight,” he said a little helplessly. “What’s wrong with candlelight?”

Clint glanced at Jessica, who sighed. “Come here,” she said, steering Wade back a couple steps. “Now, tilt your head a little and think of Georgia O’Keefe.”

Wade frowned. “I don’t—” he started, but then, abject horror settled across his face. “Shit.”

Jessica patted him on the shoulder. “Congratulations,” she said. “You had thirty seventh-graders paint pastel vaginas for an art project.”

Bucky entered Steve’s classroom, collapsed into a too-small chair, and faceplanted onto a table before letting loose a ridiculous groan. Steve swallowed his smile and did his best to go into supportive husband mode. But judging by how ridiculous Bucky’s entrance was, Steve knew it was going to be hard to keep a straight face. Already, he started to decide what information he would and wouldn’t share with Natasha and their other co-workers. “Bad field trip?” Steve asked.

Bucky looked up just enough to prop his chin up on the table. “Swear not to tell Fury?”

“You lost another one?!” Steve exclaimed. Bucky flapped his arms to keep him quiet, and Steve shut the door to his classroom before he sat down next to his husband. “What happened?”

Bucky sighed. “Everything was going fine. The kids were being polite, no one laughed too hard at the ridiculous murals on the wall, it was fine. Then it came time to climb up to the rotunda if you wanted. I stayed on the main floor with the kids that didn’t want to.”

“Because you’re scared of heights like they are?” Steve asked.

Bucky glared. “I can handle heights when I want to. Today just wasn’t one of those days. Anyway, I only had about thirteen kids—“

“About?” Steve questioned. “I’m beginning to see why there was a problem.”

“I had thirteen kids with me,” Bucky said tightly. “All the nerdy, scared kids. Figured it wouldn’t be a problem. But apparently this girl from another class, Erin?”

Steve nodded in sympathy. “Mitchell, yeah. Likes to play hide and seek.”

“You couldn’t have told me this yesterday?” Bucky asked.

“Sorry. She likes to play this game where she sneaks off and hides and tries to set a new record each time for how long it takes for someone to find her. She hid in the kiln room for an hour when she was a first grader. Somehow managed to weasel behind the damn thing where I couldn’t see her.”

“Well, this time she decided she wanted to pretend to be a state senator and play her favorite game all in one,” Bucky told him. “Found her forty minutes later sitting at a desk. Playing with the phones gave her away. Who knows what would’ve happened if she hadn’t tried to order a bunch of pizzas for her class? We almost made the buses miss picking up students from the high school.”

“Fury hear about this yet?” Steve asked.

“Don’t think so,” Bucky answered. “But it’s only a matter of time. And I know it’s better coming from me than from someone else.”

“Everyone came back fine. He’s just going to give you a hard time and laugh in your face a little,” Steve said in an attempt to be a reassuring husband.

“I’m never going to be allowed to take my students on a field trip again,” Bucky whined. “But in all reality, that might be a blessing. They’re a pain in the ass.”

“Field trips, or the students you keep losing?” Steve joked.

“Both.” Bucky went back to his face resting on the table. Steve was grateful he’d taken the time to clean the surface as soon as the buses pulled out of the parking lot. “You owe me pity sex for this.”

“Owe you?”

“I’ll make it worth your while,” Bucky replied while looking up at him through his eyelashes.

Steve chuckled. “Doing that to me doesn’t usually require bribery.”

“I can always change my mind about that,” Bucky threatened.

“Sure you can,” Steve said sarcastically. He reached out and played with Bucky’s hair, smiling when his husband let out a little whimper at the touch. “So, is it too soon to joke that it’s a good thing we’re not having kids anytime soon because apparently you’d lose them?”

“You’re hilarious,” Bucky commented before swearing under his breath. “Natasha’s going to hear about this. There’s no way she’s going to let me anywhere near her kid.”

“Probably not, no,” Steve agreed. “But I’d be more worried about your sisters finding out about it. They might start sending you milk cartons with your students’ face on them.”

Bucky looked questioningly at Steve. “That’s oddly specific. Do I want to know what you’ve been saying in your group chat with them?”

“Not even a little.”

Chapter Text

“Like it or not, your brother’s an adult.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Yeah, because I forgot since the last time you reminded me.” Phil stopped reaching for the bulk pack of coffee to raise an eyebrow, and his husband sighed. “I know Barney’s an adult. And yeah, okay, I know he’s doing better. But I just want to make sure—”

“That you meddle?” Clint scowled and wrinkled his nose. Phil shrugged. “Clint, you’re no longer the only person in his life. You need to trust other people to look out for him. Like May and Jessica—”

“I wouldn’t trust Jessica to dog-sit without disaster,” Clint muttered.

“Only because Birdie would eat her alive.” Clint huffed a laugh, and Phil dropped the coffee into the cart before touching his husband’s wrist. “If he doesn’t call by next Saturday, worry,” he suggested. “In the meantime—”

“Well, if it isn’t the Barton-Coulsons.”

Phil immediately flinched at the familiar dryness of the greeting, and next to him, Clint bristled. For one brief, naïve moment, Phil hoped that the hustle and bustle of Costco on a Saturday had played tricks on his hearing, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he knew he’d lied to himself.

“Felix,” he greeted. Even to his own ears, he sounded like a man trudging to his inevitable death.

Felix Blake flashed him a wry smile. “Phil. And Clint, of course.”

Clint grit his teeth. “Blake,” he said tightly, flicking his gaze toward Phil. “I’m going to go grab ketchup or something.”

“Mayonnaise, too,” Phil suggested, and he quickly squeezed Clint’s wrist as he stormed off.

As far as Phil could tell, just about everyone on the planet had one ex-something who loomed over their life like a lurking, malevolent storm cloud. Tony, for instance, had his former career and all the people associated with it. Jessica Cage had an ex-boyfriend she referred to as the purple bastard and rarely discussed. And Jasper still complained about one of his supposed friends from college a full fifteen years after graduation.

In Phil’s case, his storm cloud worked at the district’s central office and answered to the name Felix Blake.

And he always turned up like the world’s worst penny.

“It’s good to see you,” Blake said casually. His cart contained a giant bottle of pinot grigio, two bulk-sized boxes of Pop Tarts, and a copy of Bill O’Reilly’s latest book. Phil worked hard not to roll his eyes. “I actually planned on calling you later this week. Before you disappeared for spring break like usual.”

“Deciding not to answer your calls is not the same as disappearing,” Phil pointed out.

Blake snorted and shook his head. “And I worried that age might mellow you.” Phil’s jaw twitched slightly, but the other man just waved it off. “I’m going to an educational technology conference in Orlando in May,” he continued. “I’d originally invited someone else from central office to come along, but we’re not really . . . ”

He hesitated, and Phil raised an eyebrow. “Sleeping together anymore?” he suggested.

Blake’s expression darkened slightly. “We’re not on good terms, no.”

Phil barely held back his smirk. “A shame.”

“You’d say that less sarcastically if you’d met him.” Phil huffed at that, but Blake leaned his arms on his shopping cart. “The central office approved the budget for two people. Conference registration, airfare, a hotel room, the whole nine yards.” He paused, his eyes sweeping over Phil’s face. “I thought you might like to join me.”

Phil blinked. “Excuse me?” he blurted.

“Phil, as far as I’m concerned, what happened before my promotion is in the past. Water under the bridge.” Blake shrugged. “It might be nice for us to spend some time together. Reconnect—”

“You remember that I’m married, right?” Phil interrupted. Blake rolled his eyes. “You left for the central office, I changed schools, and I—”

“Settled down with another teacher,” Blake finished for him. “And I don’t plan on interfering with that. There’s no harm in spending three days—”

“Reconnecting in a hotel room?” Phil cut in. Blake snapped his mouth shut, scowling. “Sorry, Felix. Ask one of the technology teachers. Or, you know, anyone else in the district. But I’m not interested.”

All of Blake’s forced politeness suddenly disintegrated into an accusatory glare. “You’re making a mistake.”

“Same thing you said when I switched schools,” Phil replied, “and look how that turned out.”

He abandoned a sputtering Blake in the coffee aisle and, unsurprisingly, discovered Clint two aisles away, glaring giant bags of paper plates into submission. He jerked slightly when Phil touched his back, residual frustration from their close encounter of the Blake kind, and Phil stayed still until his husband finally relaxed into him. “For the record,” Clint said after a few seconds, “I don’t know what you saw in that asshole.”

“You know,” Phil admitted, “I used to wonder the same thing.”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “And now?”

Phil shrugged. “Now, I just comfort myself with the fact that I married way better,” he replied, and Clint grinned.

Bucky heard the cell phone chime and on instinct reached for it to read the notification on the screen. It wasn’t till he saw his own face as the background that he realized it was Steve’s phone making all the fuss. He honestly wasn’t snooping on his husband; they just had identical phones and matching text alert notification sounds. Plus, they trusted each other and were fine with answering messages on the other’s phones.

Matt: Finally have approval from boss for the week off still good to help you out this week?

Bucky searched his memory for someone named Matt, but nothing was coming to mind. Maybe it was someone in the PTA that Thor had introduced to Steve. Or one of Sarah’s friends that could help Steve with one of the endless half-finished restoration projects in the garage.

“My phone or yours?” Steve asked as he walked out of the bathroom, a trail of steam following him.

“Yours,” Bucky answered. “Some guy named Matt. Said he was cleared to help you out this week.”

“Great,” Steve said with a smile. “I’ll text Fury and let him know.”

“Fury?” Bucky asked.

Steve nodded. “Matt’s one of my art buddies from college. He’s going to come help teach my class this week.”

“Look what the cat dragged in.”

Tony rolled his eyes at the familiar voice. “Trish, don’t you have some Oklahoma production to practice?” he asked while leaning his shoulder against the doorway leading into Jessica Cage’s classroom.

The blonde grinned dangerously. “Actually, the high school is putting on Godspell this year.”

Tony faked a shudder. “Scintillating.”

“I’m so glad you two didn’t work out,” Jessica muttered.

“Me, too,” Trish replied.

“Me, three,” Tony admitted. “You must’ve been my good luck charm. Next woman I dated after you was Pepper. You were this close to becoming Missus Stark .”

“Dated, or just slept with?” Trish challenged.

Tony ignored the valid comment and turned to Jessica. “Halfway done coding your new knock-off math game. Just wanted to see if there’s anything else you want to add in before I finish it up.”

“Like what?” Jessica asked.

“I don’t know—adventures to the moon if you master long division, blowing up battleships if you can add fractions—“

“Monkeys with his face on them,” Trish offered.

Tony glared at her. “I can put some red-headed dogs in there all named Patsy.”

Trish smiled as she rose. “I actually have to go chat with your wife. See if she’d be willing to talk to my AP Psych class about art therapy.”

“And talk about me, I’m sure,” Tony added.

“Not everything is about you, Stark,” Jessica grumbled. She turned to Trish. “Thanks for listening to me bitch.”

“Anytime,” Trish responded. “Let me know when I can steal my goddaughter for a night.”

“You can have her for the rest of her nights if you want her,” Jessica called after as she walked out of the classroom.

“Why did the two of us ever date?” Tony asked.

“Because you were both trying to relive your glory days and trying to be a still-relevant power couple,” Jessica answered. “Thankfully, you both wisened up.”

Tony studied Jessica’s demeanor for a moment. She’d never be a Miss Congeniality winner, but the ever-present storm cloud over her head seemed to be larger and thicker this afternoon . “Everything okay? Do I need to mess with Barton’s computer to punish him for something?”

“Dani’s teething. No one’s slept in my house for days,” Jessica answered. “But still feel free to mess with Clint’s laptop.”

Tony waved her off. “Too easy.”

Jessica stared at him for a moment. “You really just need to talk about knock-off math program?”

Tony ran his hand down the front of his dress shirt to unnecessarily smoothe his expensive tie. “You guys weren’t planning on the kid, right?”

“Eventually, sure. Just not conceiving one thirty seconds after we said ‘I do.’”

Tony’s eyebrow quirked up. “Is that honestly when it happened? Because if so, Danvers owes me money.”

“Because you don’t have enough as it is,” Jessica shot back. “What are you actually trying to ask me?”

“Say you have a friend who’s going to be a parent,” Tony said.

“Should we call them Nuce and Bratasha?” Jessica asked.

“Nuce is the only one who’s my friend,” Tony admitted. “Or Bratasha. Whichever one is the dad.”

Jessica leaned back in her desk chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “My first recommendation is for both of them to be your friend, or a whole lot of shit is going to hit the fan super fast.”

“She hurt him before,” Tony pointed out.

“Takes two to tango, and with those two in particular, I don’t think we’ll ever get the straight story of last summer. Doubt they’ve even gone over it,” Jessica said.

“But isn’t that a gigantic land mine waiting to go off?” Tony asked.

Jessica snorted. “Trying to impersonate your wife?”

“My wife tells me to leave it alone.”

“That’s why she’s the smart one in the marriage,” Jessica responded. “Look, you think you’re scared about all of this? Trying being in their shoes. Luke and I are still terrified, and we were at least together for years when Dani was born. You can’t imagine what they’re feeling like.” Tony opened his mouth to argue, but the look Jessica gave him shut him up instantly. “I wasn’t kidding a minute ago when I said everything isn’t about you.”

“I’m not great at being the supportive friend,” Tony admitted.

He expected a response of no shit, but Jessica just did more of that creepy staring thing, and it took all of Tony’s self-control not to squirm in his seat. “Be there when they need you—be there for both of them. Don’t judge, don’t insult, just be there.”

It wasn’t unusual to hear laughter coming from Steve’s room. Bucky just didn’t recognize one of the voices. When he walked into the art room, Steve was cleaning up the aftermath of another school day, while an auburn-haired man wearing sunglasses sat at Steve’s desk.

“Hey,” Steve greeted with a smile. “Thanks for saving me a text to get you down here. Bucky, this is Matt Murdock. Matt, this is my husband.”

The stranger smiled politely and held and held out his hand. It was directed slightly to Bucky’s right, and he figured out why the man wore his sunglasses inside. “How ya’ doin’?” Bucky asked as he gripped Matt’s hand.

“Not used to having so many kids in one day,” Matt answered.

“Matt teaches art at the School for the Blind downtown,” Steve clarified. “We worked it out to start a program where we spend a week in each other’s classrooms. I’ll be working there for a week at the end of April.”

“Nice,” Bucky commented.

An electronic voice started to repeat the word foggy. Matt’s hand scrambled along the surface of Steve’s desk until it landed on a cell phone. “You outside?” he asked as a greeting. “Be there in a few.”

“Ride here?” Steve asked as Matt disconnected and stood up.

“Yeah, Foggy’s in the front outside the office,” Matt answered as he grabbed his cane.

“Want me to walk you out?” Steve asked.

Matt shook his head. “Counted steps on my way in this morning. I should be good. See you tomorrow.”

Bucky waited for a hundred beats to make sure Steve’s friend was out of earshot and then some. “Foggy?” he asked.

“Bucky?” Steve countered. “Foggy’s name is Franklin.”

“Not sure Foggy is better,” Bucky muttered to himself. “How’d you guys meet? Foggy an artist, too?”

“No,” Steve laughed. “Foggy’s a lawyer. Matt was going to be one too but decided to help others with education instead of the law.”

Bucky grimaced. “Is it terrible of me to ask how blind kids do art class?”

“Yes,” Steve answered firmly.

“So, what, you guys roommates? Classmates?”

“Lovers,” Steve told him, and Bucky was about to laugh until he realized Steve wasn’t joking.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“We were friends with benefits for a while. But then Matt started a relationship with Foggy.”

“You’ve never talked about him before,” Bucky pointed out.

Steve shrugged. “We never went through and listed all of our exes. Should we have?”

Bucky wanted to say yes, but he didn’t think he had a right to. “It’s fine,” he replied.

Steve walked over to kiss him on the corner of the mouth. “I didn’t invite Matt here to start an affair in the kiln room.”

“You’d do it in the tech closet to gross out Tony?”


“If you’re looking for James, you’re on the wrong floor.”

In many ways, Sam Wilson’s grin reminded Natasha of an infectious disease: it spread easily to other people and weakened the knees of the vulnerable and elderly. Today, it nudged the corners of his eyes before overtaking his entire face, and Natasha resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “That stopped working on me years ago,” she reminded him.

“Nah, the smile works on everyone. You’ve just built up a little immunity.” She snorted, but Sam—slouching comfortably in one of the lobby chairs—just shrugged. “Besides, maybe I’m not here for Bucky. Maybe I’m just admiring the scenery.”

He nodded in her direction, and she planted her hands on her hips. “I have a strict policy about flirting on school property.”

“You might be the only one in this whole building, then, ‘cause that girl in the office . . . ” He released a low whistle, and Natasha bit back a laugh. “You want to sit down and chat with an old friend?” he asked, gesturing to the chair next to him. “You don’t look like you’re in a hurry.”

“And you’ll tell me why you’re here?” she replied.

Sam heaved a sigh. “Between you and those all-American pretty boys we just married off, it’s like a man can’t keep a secret.”

“James always said you crack easily under pressure,” she pointed out.

“James is a liar who neither of us should’ve ever trusted,” he retorted, and Natasha finally smiled.

He gestured to the chair again, and she glanced briefly at the clock. Her planning period ended in about fifteen minutes, more than enough time to catch up with Sam. And, more importantly, to actually sit down. She tried not to sigh as she leaned back against the thick cushions. “And now that I’m sitting—”

“Danvers offered to show me around a little.” She raised an eyebrow at that, and Sam shook his head. “Look, I’m not advertising this to anybody, not even our James—”

“Must be serious if you’re calling him James,” Natasha pointed out.

“—but I’m as sick of the politics at that school as he was. And since he offered to hook me up with Carol . . . ” He shrugged. “Guess we’ll see where it goes.”

“Just be careful using the term ‘hook up.’ Carol’s definitely got a type.”

He grinned. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Ex-military guys who fill out their polo shirts. Her boyfriend’s a perfect example.” She shrugged as Sam’s face fell. “Just being honest.”

“Yeah, and speaking of honest: how are you doing?” Natasha frowned slightly, and Sam crossed his arms over his chest. “Every time I ask those newlyweds about you, they stop talking marital bliss and dissolve into one-word answers. You got an explanation for that?”

“James and I had a couple difficult months recently,” she admitted after a beat.

All of Sam’s usual warmth drained from his face. “I need to talk to him about it?”

Natasha rolled her eyes at the absolute sincerity in his tone. “Because you’re better equipped to fight with James than I am?” she questioned. He grinned, raising his hands in defense, and she studied him for a moment. “I’m okay,” she said. “And before you ask, James shouldn’t be grunting his responses anymore.”

“Except to questions like ‘you treating that guy of yours right,’ you mean.” She huffed a laugh, but Sam kept staring her down. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I—” She hesitated a moment, her lips pursed, and Sam raised both his eyebrows. She sighed. “I might as well tell you before James spills the beans for me,” she decided.

“Tell me what, exactly?”

“That I’m pregnant.”

Sam blinked at that, surprise spreading across his face, and Natasha repositioned herself just enough that he could inspect her midsection. Not, of course, that her hoodie didn’t cover the swell of her stomach. After a few seconds, Sam grinned. “No kidding,” he said.

She cocked her head slightly. “That’s your reaction?”

“Well, I mean, give me a second, you kind of dropped this on me.” He flopped back in his chair, still watching her. “Yeah, that’s definitely my reaction. Because the woman I dated—”

Natasha wrinkled her nose. “Going on three dates is not the same as dating.”

“—seemed a little disinterested in settling down.” Something in Natasha’s stomach twisted at that, but Sam immediately touched her arm. “That’s not a judgment on you. Especially since none of us were ready to settle down back then, Bucky included.” He paused, his expression softening. “You good with this? Not just the being pregnant part—you wouldn’t still be pregnant if you weren’t interested. I mean with everything that comes with it.”

She smirked. “Like exploding diapers and midnight feedings?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure, and the life change. The eighteen years of being tethered to another person.” She snorted a little, and for some reason, he smiled. “Yeah, you’ve got this.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You got that just from looking at me?”

“Nah, I got that from knowing you.” Natasha shook her head, and Sam grinned before glancing at his watch. “Danvers told me about twelve minutes ago to meet her upstairs in ten. You mind if I—”

“Go impress your new boss?” He rolled his eyes at that, and she smiled. “Go get the full tour. Just avoid Jessica Drew if you can. She’ll pump you for information the second she figures out we’re friends.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “Is she—”

“If the next word out of your mouth is ‘single,’” Natasha warned, “I will punch you.” Sam laughed as he climbed out of his chair, but after bending to kiss her on the cheek, he paused. She frowned at him. “What?”

He shrugged. “I was just thinking that ‘Sam’ is a really good name for a baby.”

Natasha shoved his shoulder. “Never in a million years,” she retorted, but when he winked, she smiled.

Bucky sighed and rolled over. His students had come back from art class that morning talking about how their art lesson from Mister Murdock was sculpting simple objects with their eyes covered with blindfolds. They had learned about how people who are visually challenged learn through touch.

Since then, Bucky couldn’t help but picture Matt learning Steve’s body through touch. He’d dreamt about the blind art teacher’s hands on his husband’s skin. Yes, it was somewhat hot, but mostly it burned him up with jealousy.

But Bucky couldn’t do anything about it. All of it happened years before Bucky and Steve met. He didn’t have a right to judge Steve for his previous relationships.

Doesn’t mean sleep came back to him easily.

“I never knew you to have such a work ethic.”

The rise and fall of a familiar voice caught Thor off guard, but he somehow managed to finish the last line of his spreadsheet despite the smile that immediately bloomed across his face. When he finally glanced up, his expression deliberately neutral, Sif raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize your paperwork is more important than an old friend,” she accused.

He bit down on the edge of his smile. “According to her brother, my old friend is meant to be at a conference this week.”

She huffed. “I tired of the conference. Too many old men droning on about historic preservation while pretending not to look down my blouse. If I’d wanted to work with fossils, I would have studied geology.”

Thor snorted half a laugh. “Clearly, they do not know you curate a collection of historical weapons.”

Sif smirked. “They will when I eventually use one on them,” she replied, and Thor grinned.

She smiled in response, a hint of that good humor he knew so well, and Thor’s heart warmed. Even with many miles and years between them, Sif remained dear to his heart—and, sometimes, counted as one of his deepest regrets. Oh, he loved Jane deeply and truly, his feelings as sure as the ebb and flow of the tides. But some days, he hated the way he’d hurt the first woman he’d ever loved, the one who had helped him find his footing and become the man Jane married.

He owed her far more kindness than he’d shown her at eighteen.

A slightly uncomfortable silence settled over the office, and Thor broke it with a shake of his head. “Heimdall’s client meeting ran late,” he explained. “You are free to wait for him here. I know he’s excited to see you. Even if you don’t update him on your life nearly enough.”

Sif promptly rolled her eyes. “He acts as though there is something to update him about,” she replied. “I’m either at the museum, fundraising for the museum, or at home in sweatpants and slippers.”

“With Netflix, or with ice cream?” Thor asked.

“Why not with both?” He chuckled. This time, when Sif smiled, it faded quickly. “Heimdall told me about your accident last spring. I wanted to call or send flowers, but I didn’t know . . . ”

“They would have been more than welcome,” Thor assured her, and she nodded unevenly. “Sif, I know we parted unpleasantly, but I never—”

“Meant to hurt me,” Sif finished automatically. He frowned, and she sighed. “Thor, we have this conversation every time I come to town. You feel guilty for the sins of your eighteen-year-old self, and I try not to feel responsible for your guilt.” She shook her head. “Five years ago, I might have still viewed you as the one who got away. Now, you’re a man I miss calling my friend.”

He pursed his lips. “I suppose that is my fault, too.”

“No. If anything, we both bare responsibility.” His frown deepened, and she sighed heavily as she drew a chair up next to his. When she sat down, she studied him for a moment with sharp eyes. “Heimdall warned me his meeting would run late,” she admitted. “I came because I wanted to see you. To put the past behind us in hopes that you can stop imagining me as a broken-hearted girl chasing your shadow.”

Thor snorted quietly. “The first time I visited after we broke up—”

“I cried and pouted like a fool,” Sif replied sternly, and he barely bit back a laugh. “No. You will take no pleasure the pain of a stupid teenager who wrote you unsent love poems her first semester of college.” His urge to laugh grew, and she smacked him lightly in the arm before settling her hand there. “You are a good man, Thor, and a million miles from the lost boy who got kicked out of his house at seventeen and who ran from everything that reminded him of home—girlfriend included—a year later.” He opened his mouth to argue, and she raised a hand. “And I don’t blame you. Not for being hurt, and not for accidentally hurting me. I just wish we could be better friends. That I could see the man you’ve become.”

The sincerity in her voice warmed somewhere deep in his chest, and he smiled. “I would like that.”

“Enough to join Heimdall and me for lunch?” she challenged.

He frowned. “I wouldn’t want to intrude—”

Sif rolled her eyes. “Please. Do you think I can entertain my brother for more than ten minutes at a time? He glazes over whenever I try to explain my work.”

Thor bit back a grin. “And you think I will be any more interested in swords and armor?”

“Knowing you as I do? Yes.” He huffed a laugh, and she smiled. “And if all else fails, you and my brother can entertain me.”

He cocked his head to the side. “And how exactly will we do that?”

She shrugged. “You’re very clever. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

“To your new job!” Natasha crowed as she led the table’s occupants into clinking their glasses together.

“Thanks,” Sam said with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Bucky only has good things to say about your school.”

“Our school,” Bruce corrected. “Your part of the family now.”

“The incestuous family,” Bucky muttered. Steve may have been the only one who heard him, but his husband definitely gave him a questioning look for it.

“I will wish you good luck on surviving Carol,” Steve told Sam.

Natasha patted Sam on the shoulder. “Like I already told you, you’re her type. You should be fine.”

“You could set him up with someone, Nat,” Bucky suggested. “You know what he likes.” That earned him a raised, questioning eyebrow from Natasha. Sam, on the other hand, was oblivious due to his good mood.

“You’ve set me up before; I trust you to work your magic again,” Sam said.

“True,” Bucky responded. “But I never slept with you. So I’ll have to rely on her for help with that,” he said while pointing the mouth of his beer bottle in Natasha’s direction.

Steve slapped a twenty down on the table and put a hand on Bucky’s forearm. “Just remembered we have somewhere to be. Congrats again, Sam. Natasha and Bruce, we’ll see you on Monday.” With that, he dragged Bucky through Xavier’s and out into the parking lot. He pressed Bucky up against the car, but the action didn’t have its usual sexy feel to it. “Say it,” Steve ordered.

“Say what?”

“Whatever is eating you up. Whatever’s been keeping you up at night and making you act like an asshole to our friends.”

“It’s nothing,” Bucky said.

“Bullshit,” Steve fired back.

Bucky ran a hand through his hair. “You should’ve told me up front that Matt and you used to be a thing.”

Why does it matter?” Steve asked.

“Because I don’t want to think about anyone else touching you,” Bucky admitted.

“Not going to happen anymore,” Steve said as he brushed his knuckles along Bucky’s cheek. “I picked you to marry. Sometimes, I don’t know why…”

Bucky snorted and smacked Steve’s hand away from his face. “Sorry for being a dick.”

Steve looked over his shoulder towards the bar’s entrance. “I’m not the only one you should apologize to.”

“I’ll make Nat some cannoli. She’ll forget about everything in ten seconds.”

“You know they’re closed, right?” Loki asked as Darcy pulled the car into the observatory parking lot. Specifically, the lead researcher’s parking space. Loki wasn’t sure if his sister-in-law would be mad or thrilled at them usurping her boss’s reserved parking spot.

“You know I have connections, right?” Darcy challenged. “C’mon.”

The observatory had closed hours ago, but Darcy had persuaded him to join her on an outing. That was a polite way of saying she’d lured him out of his apartment and much-needed thesis writing time with promises of lurid events.

It’d worked. Of course it had. She was Darcy, and he was a heterosexual male.

She took his hand and led him to a side door to the massive building. She smiled up at him while performing an elaborate knock sequence. Despite the doubts he’d been feeling, her smile unabashedly made his stomach turn inside out.

A second later, the door opened to reveal a man their age. Judging by Darcy’s face, it wasn’t the person she was expecting. “Ian?”

“Hey, Darce,” the man greeted with an obvious amount of familiarity.

“Where’s Jane?” Darcy asked.

“Said one of the kids was sick and she had to rush home. Don’t worry—everything is set up to your specifications. Even made sure the pizza had your favorite toppings.”

Darcy glared at him as she stormed inside. “Then it’s not set up to my specifications.”

“Since when do you like anchovies?” Ian questioned.

“I don’t, but I’m not the only one here, now am I?”

Ian looked over Darcy’s shoulder at Loki. He gave the man a tight smile and tried not to focus on the fact that Ian looked like could very well be the love child of Peter Parker and Wade Wilson.

“Who’s this?” Ian questioned.

“Loki. My boyfriend,” Darcy answered tightly. “You think I begged and bartered Jane to let me in here for a private date by myself?”

Ian visibly shrunk at the question and turned his eyes to his shoes. “The movie’s set to start in ten minutes. Just text Jane when you’re leaving, and she’ll call security to lock up behind you.”

“Thanks,” Darcy said brusquely before once again grabbing Loki’s hand and dragging him toward the theater. Loki had been in the room a number of times. The reclining chairs allowed the observatory visitors to watch images of constellations and planets projected along the domed ceiling. There was a dais in the center of the room where observatory employees took turns narrating some of the films. But for tonight, a blanket had been laid out on the floor with a pizza box on it.

“No anchovies?” Loki asked, trying to contain his smile.

Darcy’s shoulders slumped. “I tried to accommodate you and your freakish Swedish delights but was thwarted.”

“Who is that Ian fellow?”

“A living, breathing example of why Jane shouldn’t be allowed to set people up. Ever,” Darcy answered.

“You dated?” Loki questioned.

Darcy nodded. “Not for long. He did everything I asked and suggested and made sure every date was exactly what I wanted it to be, which at first was great. But then it just became obnoxious. I’m not the princess type of girl who needs doted on. I want someone to occasionally pick a fight with, not someone who will bow to my every whim.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Loki said, and Darcy slugged him in the arm for it.

“C’mon,” she said. “Let’s eat before the pizza gets cold.”

“What’s this movie about?” Loki asked.

“I know you’re busy with your thesis, so I thought we could have a date that was still somewhat educational. Jane found a film about what the constellations mean to different civilizations, including the Vikings. Didn’t know if it could help your research on storytelling and lore or not.”

“It might. Thank you,” he said genuinely. “And for the parts about other civilizations?”

“Oh, we’re totally making out during those scenes.”

Chapter Text

“You told him no gifts, right?” Natasha asked.

Bruce nodded. “I’m sure everyone else on the invite list will understand that, but I make no promises for Tony. I’m scared to think about what his baby shower gift will be.”

Natasha wrinkled her nose. “As long as there are no stupid baby games.”

“Tony swore. Just a near-unlimited buffet of all the things you’ve been craving lately appropriately dyed to match the baby’s gender,” Bruce replied.

“I don’t want to eat pink or blue salsa,” Natasha said.

“Then we’ll just tell him to keep the food coloring to the bounty of cupcakes he’s promised.”

Bruce tried his best not to fidget while sitting in the lobby of Natasha’s doctor’s office. There were a few other women in the room, two with bellies bigger than Natasha’s. This morning was their anatomy ultrasound. He’d done his best to avoid the internet and reading horror stories of what all could be spotted and worried about during the forty-minute procedure. Natasha would never admit it, but he knew she’d fallen in to the wormhole of WebMD a few nights ago. She’d handed him her phone after dinner and made him swear not to let her look at it for the rest of the night.

They hadn’t really talked about whether they wanted a boy or a girl. Bruce always thought that he’d lean one way or the other, but he found himself in the same camp as all parents before him, simply wishing for a health child. In weak moments, he let himself imagine tea parties or needing to learn the name of every train or heavy piece of machinery on wheels as possible. But for the most part, he shut that off. He was more relaxed about the idea of the three of them being a family, but was still scared to do any ore than dip his toe into that pool of thoughts.

A nurse called Natasha’s name, and the pair of them walked back to a room. “We’ll start with the examination first. Do you want Dad to go back to the lobby until we’re ready for the sonogram?” she asked Natasha.

Natasha shook her head. “Seeing that much of me is why we’re here in the first place.” Bruce tried to contain the blush he could feel creep into his cheeks.

The nurse nodded. “You know the drill—strip from the waist down. You can store your things in the bottom drawer. You can use the giant paper towel they call a sheet to cover yourself, and the doctor will be in here in a few.”

Bruce had the urge to turn around as Natasha undressed, which was stupid because as she’d said, he’d seen her naked enough not to feel embarrassed about it. Especially with all the times he’d seen her naked in the few weeks. Once her morning sickness had passed, the uber-libido had hit. There’d been a few times that Bruce was tempted to raid the Viagra stash everyone knew Tony had despite his vehement denials.

The doctor went through her usual routine of taking measurements and asking questions. Natasha was feeling good; yes, there were some new strange cravings; she thought she was getting enough calcium; and she’d felt the baby move for the first time this past weekend. When she’d told Bruce about it, he’d been extremely happy and jealous. “It just feels like little flutters,” Natasha had told him. “You’re not missing out on too much.”

Then came time for the ultrasound. Bruce was about to stick his hand in his pockets when he noticed Natasha’s fingers tighten on the edge of the exam table. He edged closer and held his hand out near hers. She immediately took it and squeezed his fingers tightly. Together, they watched image after image—learned how the baby’s body was catching up with its head, studied the spinal cord, and were mesmerized by the beating heart.

“Is that a hand?” Bruce asked, pointing to the extremity floating near the baby’s face.

“Foot, actually,” the doctor replied. “One of you an athlete?”

“I have a feeling I’m going to dread life if I passed on my gymnastics habits,” Natasha commented.

The doctor smiled. “Just prepare yourself for a lot of tumbling and kicks. This is one active baby. Do you want to know the gender?” They both nodded. The doctor maneuvered the wand around Natasha’s stomach, pressing in a little too much for Bruce’s comfort. “Active and stubborn,” the doctor muttered. “Natasha, I’m going to poke you in the stomach to try and get the baby to shift so we can see between the legs.” She paused to look up at Bruce. “It’s going to look like I’m trying to hurt the baby, but I promise it’s fine.”

“Okay,” Bruce said with only a slight hint of doubt in his voice. She was right. It was not fun to watch, but it apparently worked.

“Congratulations,” the doctor announced a moment later. “It’s a boy.”

Bruce’s ears filled with buzzing for a second. He did his best to savor the thoughts of building Lego towers and exploring animals at the zoo with a little boy while trying adamantly to shut up the small niggling voice that his father’s curse would be passed down to damage another Banner son.

Natasha squeezed his hand again to bring him back in the present. “You okay with that?” she asked.

“I don’t think I get a choice at this point,” he answered before leaning down to give her a quick kiss. “Never been happier,” he whispered. “You okay with it?”

“Yeah,” she breathed. “Text Tony and tell him to bring on the blue.”

Carol sighed. “I’m not listening to you.”

“Except you totally are,” Jessica retorted, and Carol rolled her eyes as she reached for her drink. “You’re hearing every word I say, and you’re committing all of them to memory. Maybe even in order.”

“I’ve had too many daiquiris to remember them in order,” Carol retorted.

“Well, maybe you’ll remember a song instead. I call this little number ‘Commitment in D-Sharp-Flat.’”

Carol frowned. “Is that even a real key?”

“Do I look like Trip?” her friend shot back, and Carol actually snorted at her indignation. She stirred the dregs of her daiquiri (complete with extra umbrellas) while Jessica cleared her throat. “Vacations,” she sang a second later, “are serious. They mean you wanna get hitched. Or at least, Rhodey does, because he keeps inviting you. And if—”

“Wait,” Carol interrupted. “Are you singing that to the tune of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner?’ Because you’re off key, but I think—”

Jessica huffed. “Times like this, I wish I could punch you through the phone.”

“Not the first time you’ve threatened that,” Carol reminded her, and she swore she heard Jessica’s eye roll.

She waited until Jessica changed the subject to her new binge-watching obsession to stretch out across her deck chair and sigh. When James had suggested a spring break trip to Florida, Carol’d scowled. “Do you actually want to spend a week surrounded by drunk co-eds? Someone will throw up on your flip-flops.”

He’d smirked. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”

“Don’t change the subject,” she’d threatened, jabbing a finger into his chest when he’d snickered. “We’re too old for that kind of spring break.”

When she’d jabbed him again, he’d raised an eyebrow. “What about spring break somewhere quiet? A friend of mine offered to lend me his place.”

“Wait, you have friends besides Tony?”

He’d muttered something about “having friends all day,” but the second he’d shown her the pictures of the beach house, the almost-white sand, and the near-perfect water, she’d folded like a bad poker hand. A fact Jessica enjoyed more than cake pops, tequila, and her (weird) chess club, because she kept poking Carol about—

“He could propose,” Jessica commented suddenly, and Carol groaned. “Now that you sleep over and eat dinners in? That could be the next big step. A princess-cut ring and—”

“Aren’t you seeing Barney sometime this week?”

Jessica squeaked before snapping, “We’re not talking about that.”

Carol raised an eyebrow. “So, is that a yes?”

“Listen, Danvers, I’m here to torment you about your relationship, not the other—”

“Are you going to finally admit that you’re back to dating?” Carol pressed, ignoring her friend’s weird sounds of distress. “Or did you decide you don’t want to marry into the Barton family? I can’t remember.”

Jessica heaved a sigh. “It’s official,” she decided. “I hate you. You’re fired. I’ll find a new best friend.”

Carol grinned. “Good luck with that.”

“Hey, like your chocolate-covered banana of a boyfriend, I have friends all day,” Jessica shot back, and Carol laughed.

When they hung up a few minutes later, Carol abandoned her glass and swimsuit cover-up to wander down onto the beach. The sun warmed the sand without turning it lava-hot, a nice contrast to the cool, salty breeze. She walked all the way up to the water’s edge, humming—

“You know, much as I like that you’re patriotic, the national anthem’s a bit much.”

Carol grinned as James jogged up next to her, his t-shirt almost translucent thanks to sweat and the misty air. She spent a couple shallow seconds studying his chest and stomach before asking, “Good jog?”

“Until I ran into the old guy running naked, sure,” he replied, grinning when she laughed at him. “What about you? Jessica driving you nuts?”

“She spent most of the call teaching me a new song.” He frowned in confusion, and she waved him off. “It’s a long story, and I need to wash her crazy off me. Want to go for a swim?”

James eyed her for a moment, his brow still a little creased. “This one of those situations where you tell me everything’s fine but go on a rant a couple days later?”

“No.” He narrowed her eyes, and she sighed. “What do you want me to do, swear on a stack of Bibles? Make Girl Scout fingers?”

He smirked. “Now I just want to hear about your wayward Girl Scout days.”

“Says the Eagle Scout,” she retorted, shoving him in the shoulder when he laughed. Except he felt so good, so warm and certain, that she slid her hand along the side of his neck instead of releasing him. “I think I’m finally immune to her teasing,” she admitted honestly. “And to celebrate, I want to take a dip in the ocean with you.”

James smiled. “Maybe in a minute,” he replied, and he tangled his fingers in her swimsuit strap to draw her in for a kiss.

“They’re sixth graders, Jasper.”

Jasper grit his teeth as his sometimes lovely, sometimes terrifying girlfriend appeared at the end of the toy aisle. For a couple seconds, they just stared one another down: Maria with her arms crossed and eyebrows raised, and Jasper with his lips in a tight line.

“Maybe I’m shopping for me,” he finally said.

“In the Hot Wheels section?”

He shrugged. “Adults like Hot Wheels, too.”

“Some very specific, very stunted adults, maybe. You, on the other hand . . . ” Snorting at the amusement in her voice, he glanced back at the ridiculous display of tiny cars. “You know, you didn’t worry this much about meeting my parents.”

“You mean when I brought you gas at that rest stop?” She rolled her eyes, and Jasper pointed a finger at her. “You didn’t warn me.”

“Because I didn’t know you’d show up in your superstitious Miami Dolphins sweatpants.” He scowled—mostly because he still remembered the way Maria’s mother had stared at his thighs in those threadbare aqua monstrosities—but Maria just walked over and touched his arm. “You don’t need to buy their love,” she reminded him.

“In case you forgot, they think I’m some kind of octopus overlord.”

“And as much as I wish you had eight hands, we already survived that disaster.” He snorted, and she leaned their shoulders together. “They’re only visiting for four days,” she said, “and Colin knows that their trip with their dad is contingent on a good report from me. They’re not going to stage a coup.”

Jasper frowned at her. “At the risk of pissing you off: you’ve met your kids, right?”

She screwed up her face, probably to hide her little smile. “You’re lucky I like you,” she replied, smacking him when he grinned.

They finished at Target in record time, no Hot Wheels in sight, and Jasper felt a slightly queasy feeling wash over him as they climbed back into Maria’s car. He liked that she’d asked him to tag along to pick up the twins at the prearranged exchange point—it meant she trusted him—but shit, those boys hated him. He wasn’t just an unpleasant authority figure from their past, he was the authority figure from their past who still dated their mom.

Worse, and unlike a year ago, he knew all sorts of probably embarrassing details about them, like how Colin loved Disney movies and how Keith’s favorite color was actually purple. Maria usually dropped these gems into conversations without thinking, and every time, Jasper imagined the boys’ twin scowls. Not because he’d ever harass them about that—they were kids, and pretty vindictive ones at that—but because he knew how much they’d hate him having that information.

Even if he liked knowing these facts about Maria’s kids. And even if, deep down, he felt bad about Keith’s recent homesickness and Colin’s struggle to keep his grades up.

They pulled into the rest stop—the regular site of Maria’s custody exchanges—right on schedule, and Jasper swallowed around the huge ball of dread in his stomach as he climbed out of the car. A couple parking spots down, Maria’s ex-husband leaned against the side of his (annoyingly expensive) sedan, talking to the boys. For a second, they looked kind of like a normal, happy family.

At least, until one of the kids glanced over and shouted, “Mom!”

Jasper could barely tell the kids apart up close, never mind at a distance, but both barreled over to Maria and halfway tackled her in a hug. She staggered a little, her face as surprised as delighted, and despite feeling like a huge interloper, Jasper smiled. The ex-husband smiled too, almost fond, and glanced in Jasper’s direction.

Jasper shrugged, the weakest damn hello of his life.

The ex-husband nodded back.

The boys kept talking a mile a minute, regaling Maria with the plans for the second half of their spring break until she finally nudged them away. “I need to talk to your dad and grab your bags,” she said. “Go bug Jasper for a couple minutes.”

The twin who’d shouted—Colin, Jasper was pretty sure—frowned. “Who?”

Keith elbowed him. “Mister Sitwell,” he hissed. “Mom’s boyfriend.”

Colin wrinkled his nose. “I didn’t know his real name was Jasper. That’s stupid.”

“Tried changing my name to Dragonfire when I was ten, but it didn’t take,” Jasper said with a shrug, and both kids jerked their heads in his direction. Keith grinned, but Colin crossed his arms. “What? I liked dragons a lot as a kid. Dragons, snakes, and octopi.”

He somehow kept his face completely neutral even as Keith, probably fearing his mom’s wrath, clamped a hand over his face to hide his laugh. Colin narrowed his eyes. “Did you really like octopi or are you trying to get us in trouble?”

Jasper shrugged. “You sure you want the answer?”

The boys exchanged glances. Eventually, Keith nodded. “Okay, yeah,” he decided. “We want to know.”

After checking that Maria was still negotiating with her ex-husband, Jasper leaned down to their level. He spent so long looking at them that they started to shift their weight nervously.

Finally, he smiled and whispered, “Hail HYDRA.”

Their immediate, shocked laughter almost deafened him, but hey. Worth it.

“So Carol’s practically married now,” Jess grumbled as she plopped down on the catch.

Barney quickly pulled his mug off his knee before the shockwave of Jess’s collapse caused his hot coffee to dump all over his lap. “Rhodey proposed?” he asked as he handed Jess the cake pop he’d purchased for her.

“No,” she answered with a mouth full of sweetness. Possibly the only sweetness left in the galaxy, now that her best friend had turned to the dark side. That wasn’t a racial joke, she swore. The dark side meant that her sister in singlehood—that alliteration was five hundred percent Stark’s fault—was now totally calm when discussing her boyfriend, which was also Stark’s fault. “Not yet, anyway.”

“And it would be the end of the world if he did?” Barney questioned.

Jess heaved a dramatic sigh. “A little, yeah.”


Jess sucked off the remains of cake batter from the white stick as she considered her answer. “It’s just… It’s hard to find someone with your bitter, jaded world view. And when you do, you finally feel like you’re not alone. But now she’s met someone. And don’t get me wrong—I’m happy she’s happy.”

“But now you’re alone again,” Barney summarized.

“Yeah. Why? Something you can identify with?” she asked.

He gave her an unimpressed look she’d seen way too many times on Clint’s face. “You remember that I’m a felon, right? Sat in prison for a couple of years?”

“Are you saying I have the mindset of a dark, disturbed criminal?” Jess questioned.

“Dark and disturbed, definitely,” Barney responded with a grin. “Criminal? You probably just haven’t been caught red-handed yet.”

Jess arched an eyebrow. “What crime would I be arrested for?”

“Murder,” Barney answered without hesitation.

Jess’s jaw dropped in mock horror. “What makes you say that?”

“The number of times you’ve texted me knife emojis whenever you feel like your class is out of control. Also, I’ve been in the car with you while driving. That’s scarier than prison.” Jess shrugged at his answer. He elbowed her in the arm, and she glared at him. “You’re not alone,” he told her softly. “Just remember that.”

The two sentences caused her pulse to quicken. Jess wasn’t sure at all if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She honestly didn’t want to think about it. A voice in her head—she decided to name that voice “new Carol”—mocked her for that. “Thanks,” she mumbled after too long of a pause.

Barney snickered and shook his head. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”

“Actually, that is something I’m well aware of.”

“So what should lonely people like us do with our lives?” Barney asked before taking a sip of his coffee while staring her down.

“I’m not having sex with you.”

Barney choked on his drink. “That’s not what I meant,” he said.

“I’m not saying the sex we had was bad, I’m just saying that I’m not sure—“

“I can’t imagine why you end up feeling alone if this is how you handle a conversation,” Barney grumbled.

“You’re such a Barton,” Jess sighed.

“Was that a compliment?” Barney asked.

Jess gave him another dark look. “So what do you suggest, oh wise relationship guru?”

Barney shrugged. “We could make a pact.”

“Is this a murder pact?” Jess asked.

“No,” Barney said as he shook his head. “I don’t need to go back to prison, thank you very much. This is a ‘if we never find anyone in x amount of years, we’ll end up together’ kind of pact.”

“I think I’d rather marry a dog,” Jess replied before she could stop the words.

She watched Barney quickly change his face into a mask of humor. “I can arrange that. Birdie could use a good kiss.”

“You do know we're off school, right?” Henry asked with a ridiculous amount of side eyeing.

“No,” Darcy replied, “I hadn't noticed that I hadn’t been at work all week. Thanks for clarifying that for me.”

“Why are we going to a school?” George asked.

“To see Uncle Loki teach,” Alva answered with a slight hint of exasperation. “He's going to tell us fairy tales. Miss Darcy has told us that a hundred times.”

If Alva weren't strapped into a booster seat in the back of the Odinson SUV, Darcy would have high-fived the girl. “We're going to watch your uncle teach a class, then we're all going to lunch, and maybe we can have play time on the quad.”

“Do they have a playground?” George asked.

“Not quite,” Darcy answered. “But there's plenty of room for freeze tag, or maybe some college students will let you join in on a game of ultimate frisbee.”

“Is that better than regular frisbee?” Henry questioned.

“Uh, it has the word ultimate in it, so yeah,” Darcy said. That seemed to appease the boys well enough. Alva happily swung her feet back and forth, grateful for any chance to see her beloved Uncle Loki. Darcy understood that feeling.

She was able to park the SUV with minimal swearing under her breath and together, the four of them formed a human chain as they began to traverse campus. Thankfully, Loki was earning his Ph.D. from a small, private college and not the huge state university downtown where Darcy had earned her degree in political science.

The classroom was small, four tiers of wooden desk-and-chair combinations. Darcy corralled the kids into a corner in the back. She was worried that she’d have to bribe them with Netflix or games on her phone, but they at least feigned interest as soon as Loki strode into the room. He looked up into the corner where they were all sitting and smiled for a split second before his typical professor mask slipped back into place. Darcy knew it was supposed to be an intimidation factor for his students, but all she could think of was role playing some scene where she was a student needing to find a way to boost her final exam grade. If it could involve Loki’s actual office desk, all the better.

But she tried to shake her head free of those thoughts. She didn’t need to get carried away with her imagination and have the Odinkids stare at her when she accidently let a moan slip out. Again.

Since she’d been off all week, and too poor to go anywhere, she’d sacrificed some amazing alone time at the house to sit in on Loki’s lecture two days ago. Darcy honestly had no idea what he was talking about in his Viking folklore class. Sure, he’d tried to explain it to her, but unless he paralleled the unpronounceable names to television characters, Darcy couldn’t bring herself to care enough to track what was happening. She’d suggested time and time again to rewrite the tales as a telenovela for his thesis, but apparently, that wasn’t a good idea. What did the academics know anyway?

Knowing how short the attention spans of his nephews and niece could be, Loki called them down to the front of the room. He assigned them each a character, and for the next forty-five minutes, he had the kids act out the particular story he was telling that day. They earned a round of applause by the end of the lecture and were begging to miss school to help Uncle Loki teach all through lunch in the commons.

As promised, Loki led them all out to the quad. All three kids looked confused at the co-eds who were out sunbathing in sixty-degree weather. Darcy couldn’t blame them. She and Loki got them started with a game of freeze tag before they both proclaimed that as adults, they were already exhausted after two rounds and would just sit in the grass and referee.

“I wish you could miss school and come sit in on all of my lectures, too,” Loki said as he ran his fingers through Darcy’s hair.

She hummed appreciatively, her head resting in his lap. “Do you know how hard it was for me not to make obscene faces and hand gestures while you were talking?”

“Should you be rewarded for controlling your behavior or punished for thinking such dastardly thoughts?”

Darcy smiled while biting her bottom lip—a move she knew for a fact drove him crazy. “Actually, I was wondering. If a student came to your office after bombing her final exam, is there anything she could do to bump her grade up a little?”

He visibly swallowed, clearly catching on to what she was suggesting. “Would be difficult to say. But my office hours are from ten to noon tomorrow morning, if she wanted to stop by. God knows none of my other students will be there.”

“To be fair,” Bruce said, “you told him to ‘bring on the blue.’”

“And your encouragement means absolutely no complaining about my décor choices.” When Natasha sighed, Tony jabbed a finger right at her. “No. You said no presents, and there are no presents. There are also no stupid games, no cakes with weird blue innards, and no blue salsa.”

“Not for a lack of trying,” Pepper muttered as she passed.

“It’s not my fault that purple salsa is an affront to god and man!” Tony shouted after her. Steve hid his grin behind his drink, and Bucky snickered—at least, until Natasha shot him her don’t you dare egg him on death glare. “The point,” Tony continued once Pepper waved him off, “is that I followed all the rules. Meaning that all this is entirely on you two.”

He spread his arms wide, and for the second time that afternoon, Bucky soaked in the “splendor” of the big gender reveal party. Unlike the grayscale invitation from a week ago—appropriate for tiny humans regardless of genitalia, Tony’d noted in fine print—the actual party looked like someone had broken into Steve’s paint supplies, stolen six gallons of blue tempera, and dumped it on all of the decorations now littering Stark’s living room. Scalloped blue streamers trimmed the windows and doorways, blue tablecloths covered the tables and even the island in the kitchen, blue balloons swayed on their blue strings, and guests drank suspicious blue punch out of blue plastic cups. Aside from “Natasha’s Craving Bar” (labeled by a predictably blue sign), guests could decorate blue-frosted cupcakes with sprinkles, little silver ball-bearings, or more blue embellishments.

Bucky’s eyes actually hurt from it all.

The only non-blue decoration in the whole room was a sheet of butcher paper taped to the wall by the snack table. There, in big block letters, Tony encouraged the guests to SUGGEST THE MANLIEST BOY NAMES KNOWN TO MANKIND. Unsurprisingly, the biggest name, written in bright red, was TONY.

(And immediately under it, a line of Clint’s handwriting read please anything but that.)

Just as Bucky finished scanning the room—or recovering from the color overload, either way—Natasha reached over and grabbed his cup. “What are you drinking?”

“Whatever it is, it’s not for pregnant ladies.” Bucky laughed as Bruce sniffed the concoction and immediately cringed. “I think it’s about three-hundred proof.”

“At least,” Steve agreed.

She scowled and handed it back. “Remember Maizy Henricksen?” she asked.

Bucky frowned. “From when we student taught?”

Natasha nodded. “That concoction reminds me of when she ate six blue raspberry ring pops and threw up in the gym.”

Bucky glanced into his drink—bright blue with a hazy white foam around the edges—and felt a wave of seasickness wash over him. “I’m switching to water,” he decided, and like a bastard, Natasha smirked.

Over in the kitchen, Pepper leaned against the counter, talking to Clint and Phil. “If you think this is bad,” she told them, “know that Tony’s original plan included a game.”

Phil raised an eyebrow. “I thought Natasha said no games.”

“Natasha said no stupid games. Tony swore that ‘pin the anatomically correct genitalia on the baby’ was not stupid.” Clint snorted his drink, and Pepper almost smiled. “I reminded him about his lifetime Kinkos ban.”

“You can get banned from Kinkos?” Clint demanded, holding up his hand when Pepper nodded. “Nah, you know what? I need three more of these before I find out how that happened.”

“Do you really need to ask?” Bucky questioned as he rinsed out his cup.

“Need to? No. Want the blackmail once I’ve built up some liquid fortitude?” He waggled his eyebrows, and both Phil and Pepper rolled their eyes. “C’mon. He’d want to know if the roles were reversed.”

“And you think you’re mature enough to be this baby’s favorite uncle,” Phil sighed, and Clint wrinkled his nose at his husband.

Bucky laughed, drifting back into the accidentally blue-tinted sunlight in the living room. At the snack table, he dipped carrots into normal-colored ranch dressing and watched as Darcy scrawled a name on the page of suggestions.

He tipped his head to one side. “D’artagnan? Like the musketeer?”

“Like the hottest musketeer-in-training known to man,” Darcy retorted, and he snorted. “Haven’t you seen the Disney version with Tim Curry as the creepy cardinal? Chris O’Donnell is young and baby-faced. He could totally get it.”

Bucky frowned. “Even over young Kiefer Sutherland?”

She wrinkled her nose. “You and blonds,” she complained, and he smirked into his water. “What’s your name suggestion? ‘Steve Rogers, Junior?’”

The question curled in Bucky’s stomach for a split second, but he pushed it away to shake his head. “Natasha’s had too many awful students with that name to ruin her life with another. Same with William and— Who suggested Algernon?”

“Clint,” Darcy and another voice said in unison, and Bucky smiled as Natasha sidled up to him. She leaned over to peer into his cup. “No more vomit,” she pointed out.

Darcy’s whole face crumpled. “What?”

“Long story,” Bucky said, and she held onto her grimace even as she added Athos to the list. When she wandered off, he glanced back at Natasha. “Is Clint really teaching that story again?”

She shrugged. “I think he finds crying in class cathartic.” Bucky huffed a laugh, but she kept studying her face. “Should I ask if you’re okay?”

He rolled his eyes. “Pretty sure that’s my line, given what you’re growing in there,” he replied, jerking a thumb toward her belly. “It’s not just a thing anymore. It’s a human. With all the human parts.”

“It was never just a thing.” Even though she kept her voice low, Bucky heard the seriousness—and more importantly, the meaning—in her tone. Better still, her expression softened, no sign of her usual mask. “I’m not sure what I expected. Even feeling it—him—move, it still seemed surreal.” She shrugged. “Less surreal now.”

“Yeah, but are you okay with that? Okay with your baby being a—” He scanned the list of names. “—Talon instead of a Tallahassee?”

She shot him a withering look. “Please let Steve name all your children.”

“I figured we’d just take the leftovers off the poster,” he replied with a shrug. She snorted, but he knew she bumped their shoulders together on purpose. “It’s only going to get more real, you know.”

“I know,” she admitted. “But I think we’ll be okay.”

Bucky smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she agreed, smiling back.

Chapter Text

“Aren’t you hot?” Raven, a typically shy third grader, asked Natasha. The girl’s best friend, Maya, eyed Natasha up and down.

“Not really,” Natasha lied. “Why do you ask?”

Raven swung her arms open in an attempt to encompass everything around her. “It’s really warm outside, and you’re wearing a sweatshirt.”

Maya nodded. “My mom even said it was warm enough for me to wear shorts,” she said as she pointed to her bare legs. “But I still have to wear a jacket when I get on the bus in the morning,” she moped.

“Well, sometimes the gym can get cold,” Natasha said. The girls gave her a look like she was crazy, which was an accurate reaction. That gym could get hotter than the fire pit of hells in the spring and fall. Even in the cooler outdoors, Natasha could feel beads of sweat gather at her hairline.

Three days later, as she was making her usual patrol of the playground during recess duty, Natasha felt eyes on her. A gaggle of fifth grade boys were staring her down instead of looking at whatever anime card game they played every spare second they could. “You look different,” one of them—Adam—said.

Robby nodded. “We all think so, but we can’t figure out what it is.”

Natasha shrugged. “Guess you’ll just have to keep thinking about it.”

At the end of March was the annual gymnastics unit. Everyone but the really young students in the school knew that it was the time for Miss Romanoff to shine. Normally, she wouldn’t have an issue drudging an old balance beam routine out of her memory or doing a decent tumbling pass across the gym floor, but her center of gravity was starting feel just off enough that she didn’t trust herself to do a cartwheel. It only caused the odd looks and whispers to increase. She tried to blame it on an old ankle injury. She did have one of those—probably kept her out of the Olympics (or at least that’s what her disappointed coach told her)–but the joint wasn’t acting up at the moment.

“Can I help you with something?” Clint asked the next Tuesday she was over at their house for dinner. Natasha had slipped away while Clint and Phil bickered over who would take Birdie to the vet for her annual check-up and had been discovered in the master bedroom closet.

“I’m running out of hoodies to wear. Need something new,” she answered. “But all of yours have holes, so I can’t steal them.”

“You know you could tell people,” Clint offered.

Natasha half-shrugged. She was proud of how few freak-outs she’d had, but this was a big step. It was one thing to tell thirty co-workers. It was another thing to have over a thousand tiny hands constantly want to grope your stomach. “I could,” she replied.

“I’m not an expert on pregnant ladies—“

“Or any type of lady in general,” Natasha corrected.

“—but I’m pretty sure that when school lets out in a couple of months, not even a hoodie large enough for Thor to wear will be covering up your bump,” Clint said.

“I don’t want to deal with it,” Natasha said softly. She looked over to Clint to see him fighting a horrified expression. “I don’t call the baby ‘it.’ At least, not since we found out it’s a boy. I just— I know the kids mean well and are just trying to get to know you and be friendly and all the things we’ve taught them, but I don’t want to deal with all their questions. Who’s the dad? Where is he? Are you married? And all of that stuff.”

“Don’t want to hear the questions, or don’t want to have to answer them?” Clint asked. “You’re Natasha Romanoff. Since when have you given two shits about what anyone thinks about you?”

“Since I wasn’t the only person involved in the opinion,” she answered before sighing. “I don’t know what to do about Bruce and how much of an us there is or will be. I don’t know how to have that conversation.”

“But you know you need to, right?” Clint pushed. “Because I’ll be the first to admit I lucked my way into one of the easiest relationships on the planet. I mean, most of our fights end in sex, so it’s not like even arguing is necessarily a bad thing for our marriage.”

“We were talking about me, not your sex life,” Natasha replied dryly.

“My point is that you can’t just blindly go into things, try your best to step around land mines, and ignore any kind of conflict. Pretty sure that’s what you two did last summer.”

“I know,” she admitted softly. “I just don’t know how to get from point A to point B.”

“Pretty sure the answer isn’t in any of my sweatshirts, but if you’re that desperate, take whatever you want.”

“A musical,” Trip said.

Sitwell shrugged and sucked cucumber sauce off his thumb. “It’s mostly just each grade singing a different song,” he said, glancing over. “All strung together with a rough plot. I think last year’s involved a lost cat.”

“Dog,” Coulson corrected, unwrapping his sandwich. “He went on an adventure. Ended up in— Alaska, maybe?” He glanced over at Trip. “May had a whole stack of books. Never did the same show twice.”

“Yeah, ‘cause that’s not a tough act to follow,” Trip muttered, and he shook his head when the other guys frowned at him. “I’m just having one of those weeks, you know? I knew the spring music program was sneaking up on me, but I never thought—”

“That you needed a plot and probably some speaking roles?” Sitwell guessed, and Trip nodded. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a different kind of program. Everybody just likes the musicals.”

“And,” Coulson added, “we can always help. May, too.”

Trip forced a smile. “I’ll come up with something,” he lied.

And as soon as he finished lunch, he texted the girls: 911 music emergency

Steve planted his hands on his hips and peered at the fourteen little kids gathered around him. “All right,” he said. “Who knows the number one rule for baseball?”

About half the kids raised their hands—a couple even jumping up and down—and Steve rolled his lips together before pointing to a girl in a very pink hat. “Lilian?”

“You hit the ball and run the bases.” A couple of her teammates snickered, and she scowled. “My dad watches baseball on the TV all the time, and that’s what they do! Like ca-rack!”

She mimes swinging a bat, and Steve smiled. “That’s definitely a big part of the game,” he agreed, “but not the most important rule. Darby?”

A shaggy-haired kid in baggy gym shorts brushed his (or maybe her?) hair out of her eyes. “You don’t kick dirt at the other team?”

Steve frowned slightly. “Uh, well—”

“Or throw the bat at them,” a boy in a Yankees t-shirt offered.

“Or the ball,” the girl next to him chimed in. She tipped her head to one side. “Unless you’re the person who throws the ball to the person with the bat. But you’re not allowed to hit them with the ball.”

Steve raised his hands. “All those things are absolutely true,” he said, and Darby the dirt-kicker grinned smugly. Still, Steve surveyed their little faces one more time before glancing over to the dugout. “What about you, Mister Barnes? What do you think the number one rule is?”

Bucky blinked in surprise as fourteen tiny, eager faces twisted to stare at him. Despite knowing that Steve coached little league—an under-seven, co-ed, coach-pitch team, to be specific—he’d purposely kept his distance last spring, occasionally showing up with juice boxes but otherwise letting his boyfriend run the show. Now, he stood with his back against the chain-link fence, watching his husband herd cats.

Or, really, watching his husband point the cats in his direction. He crossed his arms. “The number one rule according to Coach Rogers?” he asked.

Pink-hat frowned. “Who’s Coach Rogers?” she whispered to the boy next to her.

“Mister Steve,” the boy answered. His brow bunched. “I think.”

“And you’re right,” Steve said, tapping the bill of the kid’s baseball cap. The boy beamed at him before glancing back at Bucky. “But we’re still waiting for an answer.”

Bucky shrugged. “Knowing you,” he said, “the first rule is always playing fair, even when you don’t want to.”

Steve grinned. “Exactly,” he said, and the kids all craned their heads back up at him. “So let’s talk about good sportsmanship, and afterwards? We’ll run a base race.”

The words “base race” lit those kids up like Christmas morning, and Bucky smiled as he watched his husband crouch down to explain how to be a good team player. Thanks to his new position with the fourth grade, Bucky almost never got to watch Steve work with kids anymore, and seeing it live and in person left him grinning like an idiot. Better still, at least two of the kids knew Steve from last year, and they occasionally finished his sentences for him.

Bucky only stopped admiring Steve (and the way the sun turned his white t-shirt almost translucent) when a kid tugged on his shirt. He glanced down to discover Darby frowning at him. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she (or he?) said.

“Okay?” Bucky replied.

Darby huffed. “Mister Steve says the bathrooms are too far for us to go without a buddy. Can you be my buddy?”

Bucky glanced around, but the rest of the team still hung on Steve’s every word. He shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

By the time Darby finished up in porta potty, the kids were playing clumsy games of catch in the outfield. Darby slotted into a group of three kids already throwing the ball around, and Steve sidled up to Bucky. “You’re making friends fast,” he commented.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Pretty soon, they’ll want me to be their mascot.”

“Oh, that ship already sailed into harbor.” He frowned, and Steve shrugged. “Alexa asked if you were the juice box man from last year. When I said you were, she declared you her ‘favorite.’” Bucky elbowed him for his finger quotes, and Steve grinned. “They want you to be assistant coach.”

Bucky almost laughed. “You tell them that I only watch baseball?”

“Don’t worry. I promised to teach you everything I know.” The teasing edge to Steve’s smile twisted Bucky’s stomach into knots, especially when he brushed knuckles along Bucky’s side. “But as a warning,” he added, “they want us to kick off the base race.”

Bucky stepped back far enough to scowl. “You’re a machine,” he accused as Steve raised his hands. “You could probably run a marathon without breaking a sweat. I wouldn’t race you to the fridge.”

“I’m just telling you what your fans want, Coach Barnes.”

“Does that mean Mister Juice Box is our helper coach?” a voice suddenly asked, and Bucky glanced over to discover Yankees-shirt and two other kids standing a few feet away. “And bring apples with the juice boxes?”

Steve glanced over at Bucky. “That’s up to him,” he said, smiling.

Bucky sighed. “Selling me out to first-graders is low, Rogers.”

Steve shrugged. “Had to do something to keep you coming to practice,” he replied, and he dropped his official park district little league hat onto Bucky’s head.

“What about an original work?” Skye asked, her legs dangling over the arm of the couch. “A pint-sized hacker overthrowing some elementary-school friendly version of the NSA, all in the name of—”

“Are you actually listening to yourself?” Jemma demanded as she glanced up from her grading. “Tiny hackers and fictitious versions of the National Security Administration are certainly not—”

“An after-school program in San Francisco totally dealt with gentrification in their musical,” Skye cut in, and Jemma rolled her eyes. “I’m just saying—”

“Go ahead and say whatever you want, but I don’t have time to write an original musical for a program that’s scheduled for the end of the month.” Skye wrinkled her nose, and Trip grabbed the next book out of his bag. “Here, what about this one? Charlie Brown and Snoopy solve the mystery of Linus’s missing pencil.”

Jemma’s shoulders fell. “Oh, Trip. Are you really that desperate?”

He glanced over at Skye, who raised her hands. “I’m with Jemma on this one,” she agreed.

He sighed. “Guess we’re back to Oscar the turtle’s underwater adventure.”

Jess moaned dramatically as she buried her face in a pillow on the Cage couch. She then mumbled something incoherent into the furniture. Carol smacked her leg. “No one can understand you but the couch.”

Jess sat up with a sigh. “Why doesn’t my uterus understand that I don’t want to use it? When I don’t get picked for a team, I don’t cause extreme pain for everyone else and squirt blood everywhere.”

Trish cringed. “Is she this graphic all the time?” she asked Jessica Cage.

The woman nodded while moving her wine glass out of the way of Dani’s grabby hands for the third time in a minute. “A class full of second graders are her only filter. And that only works about eighty percent of the time.”

“It’s not like you don’t have a period, Trish,” Jess pointed out. “You know how things go. As a side note: how much Midol can you take with a bottle of vodka? And screw you for not bringing the good stuff,” she said while pointing to Natasha. “Just because you’re knocked up and can’t have it doesn’t mean you can gift us all with your Russian Mafia hook-up when it comes to stellar booze. And also screw you for getting away without a period for nine months.”

It was supposed to be a girls’ night—drink, chat, relax. But it had quickly devolved into the woes of Jess’s uterus. Thankfully, there was an ample supply of booze and food to occupy everyone else.

Before Natasha could speak, Jessica took up her defense. “Trust me, what she has to deal with for these nine months makes what you’re going through a walk in the park.”

“Bull—“ Jess started until she looked at not-quite-one-year-old Dani sitting in her mother’s lap. “Lies,” she amended.

“You want to tell them, or should I?” Jessica asked Natasha.

The redhead shrugged. “It hasn’t been too awful. Nausea is over with, which is nice.”

“Yeah, but you know what you have ahead of you, right?” Jessica questioned.

Natasha shrugged. “From what I’ve read—“

Jessica cut her off with a knowing shake of the head. “Never believe the books. They sugar coat everything. Has no one given you the real talk side of pregnancy?”

Trish rolled her eyes. “That’s not how you use ‘real talk.’ My high school students are cringing at you right now. And since I’ve already heard this horror story too many times to count, I’m putting my niece to bed.” She scooped up Dani, helped her blow kisses to everyone in the room, and then disappeared down the hallway to the baby’s bedroom.

“Horror story?” Carol asked. “Am I going to need a refill before you start?”

Jessica nodded. “And be grateful that you are allowed to drink right now.” She paused to turn to Natasha. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to do this to you, but this is one instance where ignorance will not be blissful. Nothing is going to be blissful.” She took a sip of her wine as she debated where to start. “If you’re shitting normally now, just enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Why?” Carol asked, half with curiosity and half with trepidation.

“It’s something to do with the hormones, I don’t really remember,” Jessica answered with a wave of her wine glass. “It causes you to be constipated like no other. Unless you’re in labor, and then it’s entirely possible that you’ll shit the bed in front of all your nurses and the doctor.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jessica Drew replied.

“Nope,” the mother replied.

“Did you do that?” Carol asked.

Cage nodded. “But at that point, I’d in been in labor for twenty hours and didn’t care.” She looked at Natasha. “What would like you to hear about next: the hemorrhoids, how much your tits are going to grow and hurt, how you’re going to need to take a squirt bottle with you when you pee, the frozen maxi pads after you give birth, or how your vagina will be torn into pieces?”

“Do I want to know how many pieces?” Natasha asked.

Jessica let out a little laugh. “Just hope your baby doesn’t come out as sideways as physically possible like mine did. So many stitches. Sex sucked at first. Which sucks, because we hadn’t had any in like three months.”

“Why?” Jess asked. “You brag all the time about how much you bang. Isn’t that supposed to help labor?”

“It’s hard to stay in the mood when you can make out actual body parts trying to poke out of your stomach and you’re the size of a house.”

“What if Oscar’s brother fights?” Henry Odinson questioned. “Like, with swords.”

Trip frowned. “What?”

Henry planted his hands on his hips. “I’m Oscar’s brother, Otis,” he said for the fourth time that class period, and Trip resisted the urge to rub his forehead. “I’m helping him take back the coral from the sea monkeys. And I should have a sword.”

“Except you take back the coral by bargaining with the sea monkeys, not by fighting.” Henry huffed, and Trip nudged his shoulder. “Come on, get back in line. We have to rehearse the song.”

“Pirate turtles don’t sing, they fight,” Henry justified.

“Lucky for us,” Trip replied, “Otis works in accounting.”

When Carol invited Jess out for dinner at their favorite Mexican joint, she fully expected her best friend to two margaritas right off the bat just for herself. She was not, however, expecting Jess to play the quiet game and wallow in some yet to be named misery. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?” Carol asked as she dipped a tortilla chip in the too-small bowl of salsa.

“I’m fine,” Jess replied as she looked over the menu they both had memorized.

Carol kicked her under the table. “I get enough moody passive aggressiveness from Clint, and now I have to get it from Bucky, too . Now stop acting like a whiny baby man and talk.”

“You’re a peach of a best friend, you know that right?” Jess asked.

“And yet, you’re still here,” Carol replied with a smile.

“Yeah, because it’s either you or a dog, and at the rate you’re going, I’m going to need to start stalking the county’s animal shelter website.”

“Okay, you’ve even confused me at this point. What the hell are you talking about?” Carol questioned.

“Barney and I went out for friend coffee while you and Dark Chocolate went away,” Jess said.

“You know if you have to call it ‘friend coffee’ that—“ Carol stopped talking when she saw the dark look on Jess’s face . “Never mind. Continue.”

“He offered to make one of those dumb cliché deals where if we’re not with anyone by a certain age, we’d be with each other.”

“And what did you say?” Carol asked.

“That I’d rather be with a dog.”

“You hate dogs,” Carol pointed out. “What’d you say? Too cute and normal for someone like you?”

“Yeah, but the idea of marriage creeps me out more,” Jess said, running her finger along the stem of one of her margarita glasses. “I never imagined my dream wedding, never had the urge to put on a wedding dress, and certainly never entertained the idea of spending a lifetime with someone else. And by a lifetime, I mean no more than five years before they divorce my ass.” She finally looked Carol in the eye. “I thought you were like that, too.”

And there was the crux of the issue. Carol used the time of the waitress taking their usual taco orders to try to put together an answer. “There’s no ring on my finger,” she started.

“I think we both have finally come to understand that that’ll only be a matter of time,” Jess returned.

“Maybe,” Carol half-admitted, and mentally took a second to pat herself on the back for being able to say that without stuttering or convulsing. “But I’m still me. And if I were to get married—and that’s still a big if—Rhodey knows that you still hold the best friend title. I’m not ditching you, Jess, and I won’t no matter what changes in our lives.”

“What changes are you thinking about?” Jess asked. “Because in case you weren’t listening to the other Jessica during our girls’ night, marriage leads to horrible, disgusting things—and she only talked about the parts leading up to having a kid. Not all the gross disasters that happen after the kid shows up.”

Carol waved her hands back and forth in front of her. “No one is saying anything about kids. I’m barely comfortable having a conversation about Rhodey proposing. Let’s not rush things.”

“But it’s going to happen,” Jess mumbled. “Even Natasha is spawning and acting happy about it. Well, as happy as a cold-hearted Soviet P.E. teacher can be.” She paused and shook her head. “I’ve always felt like I was stuck in life, but it was okay because you were stuck with me.”

“Jess, I’m not going anywhere,” Carol repeated.

“So if Barney brings up a timeline again and I say I’ll have a dog instead of him?”

Carol nodded. “I will still be your bitch.”

“You’re allowed to ask for help,” Jessica Drew said, and Trip glanced up from his mess of role assignments to find her standing in the doorway. “Or to put it in a words you’ll understand: You’re allowed to ask for help. You’re allowed to need a hand.

She punctuated the line with spirit fingers, and Trip snorted. “You know the tune to ‘Teamwork Calypso?’”

“Only because my whole class keeps singing it. Oh, and nice touch putting Morales on the kid-sized steel drum. That definitely won’t drive me crazy.” Trip grinned until she nodded over at his desk. “You’re drowning. Which, while an appropriately dark end to Oscar’s underwater adventure, is maybe not great for a first-year music teacher.”

Trip leaned back in chair to scrub a hand over his face. “You think I need to rally the specials teachers?”

“And burn that bridge before Rogers offers to paint your backdrops in his free time? No.” She sauntered up to him and tucked a folded piece of paper into his breast pocket. “I know a guy.”

“You sound like a mafia hitman,” Trip pointed out.

She grinned. “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

“Subtle as a brick to the head,” Bruce muttered, shaking his head at his cell phone.

Natasha raised an eyebrow as she reached for the syrup. “Tony?”

He nodded. “He keeps texting me coupons from different baby stores. Today’s is from Pottery Barn Kids.” His phone vibrated again, and he frowned. “I didn’t think he knew Pottery Barn existed.”

“Could he remember it from some outing with Pepper?” Natasha wondered.

He snorted. “Given that he spent three years complaining about trips to ‘Crate and Bucket,’ no. I think he came up with this on his own.”

She smirked at that, almost chuckling, and he flashed her a quick grin before picking up his (still vibrating) cell phone. For the first time in years, Natasha had woken up craving something sweet for breakfast—preferably French toast, with a boat-load of fruit on the side—and Bruce’d kept his mocking to a minimum as they’d headed to a local breakfast joint. She swore that she’d need a nap just to recover from the massive plate of food in front of her, but the sticky goodness hit the spot.

She suspected the baby had a sweet tooth.

He squirmed, a return of the weird fluttering sensation that still sometimes caught her off guard, and she pressed a hand to her side as Bruce finished texting Tony. But instead of checking up on her, he drummed his fingertips against the tabletop, lost in thought.

Finally, he said, “We could head over there.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “I know he’s your best friend, but I need at least twelve hours of warning before voluntarily subjecting myself to Tony. Besides, I think your kid wants a mid-morning nap.”

Bruce blinked at her. “My kid?”

“Between the sweet breakfast and the exhaustion, definitely your kid today.”

She nudged his ankle under the table, and he smiled sweetly. Just for a moment, though, because his thoughtful expression swept back in. “I meant Pottery Barn.”

Natasha froze, her fork halfway to her mouth. “You’re serious.”

He shrugged and expertly avoided her eyes. “We’re almost halfway there,” he said, “and we don’t really have, well, anything. And other than that link to the Consumer Reports car seat ratings from Tony—”

“For a man who claims to hate children, he loves researching them,” Natasha muttered.

Bruce’s mouth kicked up into a grin. “Remind me to tell you about being the baby’s ‘Uncle in Sobriety,’” he replied, and Natasha scowled at the air quotes. “I know we still haven’t really talked about it,” he continued, glancing across the table, “but we need to buy furniture. Figure out a plan, whatever that looks like.”

He toyed with his coffee mug, and Natasha rolled her lips together. In a lot of ways, Bruce was right: even now, with the initial uncertainty about the pregnancy a not-too-distant memory, they still avoided talking about anything permanent. Last summer ached like a fresh wound, most the time, and some days, she still felt awkward spending time in the house she’d briefly lived in. She doubted Bruce noticed—after all, he’d refilled the shelves he’d cleared for her, if not all of the drawers—but she—

Her throat tightened, and she cursed her hormones under her breath. Concern flashed across Bruce’s face. “You okay?”

“Just a cramp,” she lied before steadying herself with a deep breath. “I know we haven’t talked about a plan. And I’m pretty sure we can’t afford two of everything—with or without Tony’s help,” she added when Bruce started to smirk. “I just don’t know what to do about the rest of it.”

He sighed. “Me neither,” he said. “I know that last time, nothing really went the way we pictured it. And I’m pretty sure I’m still terrible to live with.” She snorted, and he almost smiled. “But the spare room’s already half-empty, and like you said: no point in getting two of everything.”

Something in Natasha’s stomach clenched at the thought of moving back in with Bruce—returning to the scene of the crime and the summer that’d torn them apart. She tried to smile, but she knew from the way his brow creased that she’d failed miserably. She pushed the last of her breakfast around on her plate. “Maybe we just start with shopping,” she finally said.

“Before we know the delivery address?” Bruce asked.

She raised her eyebrows at him. “You really think we’ll find everything on the first trip out? Especially when one of us obsessively comparison-shopped tablets for months.” He wrinkled his nose. “Besides,” she added, “we always have a fallback option if we want to order something right away.”

Bruce snorted. “Tony might panic if mysterious baby furniture starts appearing at his front door,” he pointed out.

Natasha ignored her uneasy feeling to grin. “Now we’re definitely buying something today,” she decided, and Bruce laughed.

Trip leaned forward, his coffee mug cradled in his palms. “I know you probably have much better ways to spend your time,” he said, “and I definitely know I should be able to handle all this. But between all the lesson planning, the mentorship meetings, the self-evaluations, and the administration walk-throughs . . . ” He shook his head as he glanced across the living room. “I dropped the ball, and I need a pinch hitter.”

Over on the couch, May Parker crossed her arms. “What exactly are you asking for, Mister Triplett?”

He rolled his lips together. “Help. Guidance. Hell, just a nudge in the right direction, if you’re not in the mood to impart the knowledge of the ages.”

She snorted. “Are you calling me old?”

His heart dropped into his gut. “No, ma’am. I just meant that with all your experience, I thought you might—”

May held up a hand, and Trip clamped his mouth shut. “I’m kidding,” she assured him. “And even if I wasn’t? We have a lot of work to do.”

He frowned. “We do?”

She grinned. “Kid, you have no idea.”

Chapter Text

“I’m looking forward to your ritualistic murder. Knowing Carol, it’ll be really bloody.”

The sound of a woman’s voice startled Clint enough that he jumped, even though he recognized it as Jessica Drew’s about a half-second after he heard it. He jerked his head up to frown at her. “What happened to running out of the building the second your contracted time ends?”

She shrugged. “Needed to finish up my photocopies. You know how territorial the third-grade teachers get in the mornings.” He snorted at that, and she narrowed her eyes. “You know this isn’t your classroom, right?”

“Wait, it’s not? I thought for sure all the special education supplies belonged to me.” She rolled her eyes at him as he pried open Carol’s desk drawer. He rooted through a pile of highlighters before asking, “You here to supervise or to help?”

“Maybe a bit of both, depending on my mood.” He cringed at two half-eaten protein bars and their friend, the mostly empty packet of raisins. “What are you doing, anyway?”

“Carol reuses the same base password every time Stark forces a reset. She just changes the symbols at the end. And she keeps track of those—” He moved a packet of rubber bands and grinned. “Post-It’s green, this time around.”

He held it up for Jessica’s inspection, but she just crossed her arms. “How do you know about this when I don’t?” she wondered.

“Work husband thing,” he answered. When she snorted, he added, “Plus, I needed to glance over this half-finished IEP back when she caught the death flu in October. She forked over her secrets to keep from coming in.”

She sighed. “Just promise me her password’s not some Star Wars reference.”

“Definitely not,” Clint lied, and typed chewie%&= into the dialogue box.

If a random stranger on the street stopped and asked Clint why he and Carol pranked each other a couple times a year, he’d probably shrug and play innocent about the whole thing. After all, they both counted as (mostly) mature adults with jobs, pets, and partners. And on paper, they definitely both had better things to do than swap out healthy lunches with spam sandwiches or wrap each other’s desk chairs in foil. In that light, the prank war seemed pretty unnecessary.

But if Phil asked—and he always asked, every time—Clint’d grin and answer honestly:

He pranked Carol because it was fun.

Just as he double-clicked on Carol’s control panel icon, Jessica’s voice blared, “What’s the evil plan, anyway?” He jerked back from the computer to discover her standing behind him, her face almost even with his and her mouth way too close to his hearing aid. He glared, and she raised her hands. “Sorry! I didn’t know you missed me creeping up on you.”

Clint pointed to his ear. “Deaf, remember?”

“Deaf and intensely into your prank craft, apparently.” He rolled his eyes as she leaned back over his shoulder. “Come on, what’s your poison? Adorable corgi on her wallpaper? Dinosaur mouse cursor? Changing her homepage to Modern Bride?”

He frowned. “Why that one?” he asked, peering at her.

She shrugged. “Anything else going to freak her out that much? Besides fried Mars bars, which is so not a story for mixed company.” He snorted a laugh as he opened up the accessibility settings and started scrolling through his display options. “Doesn’t Carol owe you still?” she asked after a beat. “Because last time I checked, you sent her the singing telegrams on her birthday—”

“Yeah, and she hid thirty-two horrible pun cartoons all around my classroom,” Clint returned. She snickered, and he stopped changing all the screen settings to high-visibility colors to shoot her a dirty look. “The kids just found one of a number seven eating a number nine. They’re still cracking up.”

“Uh, yeah. That’s hilarious.”

Clint sighed. “And I wondered why you two were friends.”

Jessica grinned. “Do me a favor and remember that comment when I help Carol exact her revenge,” she said sharply, and Clint ignored the curl of dread in his stomach as he watched her stride out of the room.

Twenty minutes later, as they walked out to the car, Phil paused and frowned at Clint. “Why are you smirking and humming?” he asked.

Clint shrugged. “Just happy, I guess,” he lied, and Phil sighed.

And the next morning, just as Clint dropped his bag onto his desk chair, his cell phone buzzed in his pocket.

Carol: When I figure out how to make my mouse stop moving backwards on my upside-down display, you’re a dead man.

Clint grinned. bring it on

Bruce handed Natasha a lidded Tervis cup as she climbed into his car. She eyed it suspiciously. “What’s the concoction of the day?”

“Kale, apple, and carrot, if you want it,” Bruce answered. “If you don’t, I’ll drink it at lunch.”

“I guess I’ll try it,” Natasha replied. She felt him eye her outfit: one of Clint’s hooded zip-up jackets with a new maternity active-wear shirt underneath. Natasha wasn’t entirely sure who had stuck the gift card to the maternity clothing store downtown—which featured a wealth of yoga apparel—in her mailbox last week, but she had her guesses. Hell, it could’ve even been Bruce himself.

“You’re sure want to tell everyone about him?” he asked.

Natasha nodded. “Too fun not to do it today, don’t you think? With the day and the fact that I’ll have your class?”

Bruce smiled, shook his head, and drove them to school. While Natasha was on bus duty, she barely acknowledged the knowing and anticipatory smiles of the other specials teachers. She kept Clint’s jacket on as she helped guide the students inside. With her hands in the front pockets, she could still conceal her April Fools’ Day revelation.

Once everyone was inside the school building, she headed for her tiny office in the corner of the gym. She slipped off Clint’s jacket and spread her fingers over the plainly evident bump. The baby must’ve been feeding off her nerves, because he was extra wriggly this morning. He was almost big enough for Bruce to feel his kicks and punches, but for now they were still all Natasha’s to cherish. She closed her eyes and soaked that thought in—hers. Her son. No matter what might happen with Bruce, she’d still have someone with her. A year or two ago, that idea would’ve been cloying and terrifying, but now it was comforting. But still slightly scary.

Natasha had planning period first on Thursdays. She distracted herself with running through inventories and tallying what purchases she’d need to make before the end of the school year. But her thoughts were interrupted soon enough when she heard the echoing voices of Bucky’s fourth grade class in the gym. She took a deep breath; it was now or never. Okay, not never, since she’d probably be the size of a house when the school year ended in eight weeks. But it was definitely now or have someone else give her secret away.

“You know the drill,” she said loudly as she walked out of her office. She saw Bucky’s wicked grin before he departed and left his students under her care. “Five laps around the court as a warm up—one walking, one skipping, one carefully backwards and two running. Let’s go.”

She waited until the pushy, show-off boys reached her spot at the corner of the court. The pile-up of ten-year-olds was even more hilarious than she could’ve hoped, and she struggled to keep a straight face. There was grumbling and complaining from the back of the pile of twenty-some kids until they were all staring at her and her stomach.

“Are you… What is that?” Tyler asked.

“She’s going to have a baby!” Elise squeaked.

“Are you sure?” Raul asked. “My big sister told my mom she was going to have a baby this morning as a joke. She didn’t think it was that funny.”

Suddenly, an index finger was making a beeline for Natasha’s middle. She diverted the small hand gently but firmly, so as not to be sued and fired. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

“Seeing if it’s a pillow,” Hunter answered. “What if this is an April Fools’ Joke?”

“Guess you’ll just have to come back tomorrow and find out if my stomach is still this big,” she answered. “But for now—and for forever more—no touching. Not me or anyone else without their permission.” She paused to eye them all. Most of them still looked confused or unsure. Today was going to be a fun day. “Now are you guys going to stand here and stare at me the whole time, or do you want to play scooter board soccer?”

Darcy hung up her phone just as the three Odinchildren rushed up to her desk. “Miss Darcy, guess what?” Alva asked excitedly. “I got on red today.”

Darcy’s eyes bugged out. The younger classes in the building operated on a traffic light color coding system when it came to a daily behavior report. While Alva was no angel—earning yellow on occasion for talking too much, being too bossy, or adopting an attitude—she’d never been on red. Unlike Henry. “Wait,” Darcy said once she replayed the girl’s words in her mind. “How could you already be on red if you haven’t had class yet today?”

Henry rolled his eyes while his brother dramatically slapped a hand against his own forehead. “You weren’t supposed to tell her until after school,” George pointed out.

“At least she didn’t start by saying she had an April Fools’ joke like she did in the car with Dad,” Henry said.

Alva sighed and looked pathetically up at Darcy. “I’m not good at this. It’s going to be a confusing day.”

Darcy crossed her arms under her chest and stared the boys down. “I guess your brothers didn’t prepare you as well as they thought. They were just trying to find a joke that would get you in trouble.” George and Henry immediately adopted their terrible “it wasn’t me” faces while Alva spun to spit fire at the two of them.

“You tricked me!” she nearly shouted.

Before the boys could fight back, Darcy loudly snapped her fingers at them. “If you fight in the office—or anywhere else in the building—it’s an automatic trip to Mister Fury’s office,” she warned. “Do you want to get in actual trouble today? All three of you?”

“No, Miss Darcy,” they answered in unison.

“Good,” she responded. She then tapped her chin in faux thought. “So you want to play an April Fools’ joke without anyone getting in trouble?” Three heads bobbed up and down to answer her question. “You should tell everyone that Mister Barton was raised by carnies.”

“Who’s Mister Barton?” Alva asked.

“And what’s a carnie?” George added.

“Okay, never mind that one. Who’s someone you all know… Oh! Mister Coulson. You should tell everyone he’s a ninja,” Darcy suggested.

Henry wrinkled his face. “No one’s going to believe that. He’s too much of a dork.”

“You sound like Mister Stark,” Darcy muttered. “And also Mister Barton.”

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know who that is,” Alva reminded her.

“Alright, fine. Who is… Oh! Got it. You all know Mister Barnes. You should tell the people in your class that he’s a robot.”

Henry looked at her skeptically. “A robot?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said. “Have you ever seen him in short sleeves? No. That’s because his hands look real, but his arms and legs are made of shiny, silver metal. Because he’s a robot.”

“You think people will believe it?” George asked, excitement growing in his features.

“Only one way to find out,” Darcy answered before shooing them out of the main office.

Despite what some believed, Tony Stark really wasn’t a prankster at heart. He didn’t have time for practical jokes. He was too busy trying to improve the world by using technology, which sometimes blew up in his face—literally and figuratively—and gave the impression of a practical joke. That he apparently pulled on himself. Honestly, when the first shot was fired, it took Tony a couple of minutes to connect the action to the date.

Front Office HBIC: I swear I didn’t do it. I was just trying to upload the daily announcements like I do every morning. Repeat: I. DIDN’T. DO. IT.

Tony scowled at his phone’s screen. He hadn’t had enough coffee to deal with Darcy’s vague text. Or really anything in the entire world, for that matter. He flopped into his desk chair with a grunt. The action caused some of the fifth graders in his room to look his way, but he waved their attention back to the screens where they were practicing their coding skills. Once they were all redirected and focused, he pulled up the school’s website.

“What the fu—“ he muttered, censoring himself just in time. He double-checked the URL. “Huh,” he said. The address correct, but the website was a nightmare he’d long repressed. Despite years of perfecting and improving things, this morning the page looked exactly like it did when Tony was first hired at the school, which was politely described as “not good.” Tony had a sudden flashback of ranting to Bruce over milkshakes that it looked like a blind kook who loved comic sans and rainbows vomited on the internet in a barely-discernable-as-Java manner. Tony poked around the hideousness some more. It wasn’t exactly the same site that represented the school nearly a year ago, since all the staff names and email addresses were current. That meant that someone had taken the time to rebuild the thing from scratch and make it look like the evil ghost of Christmas past on purpose.

Tony dug into the data of the site to track down the IP address of the person who did the last edit. After a few minutes, he let out a grumble. The call wasn’t coming from inside the house, but rather the next door neighbor’s.

You sure you want to dance? he texted.

Trip’s hippy named girlfriend: Bring it, old man

No, Tony Stark was not a prankster. But a sucker for revenge? You bet.

After a morning of anticipation, Bruce barely had a chance to blink before his students shared the news about Natasha.

“She’s going to have a baby!” Ross announced the second he spotted Bruce waiting outside the gym. Bruce raised an eyebrow, and the boy dropped back down into his inside voice. “Miss R,” he said, pointing back to the gym. “She’s all big, and she’s going to have a baby.”

“Babies are magic,” Josie shared as they walked back to the classroom. “It means Miss R is magic too.”

August huffed. “Babies aren’t magic.”

“Uh-huh. My mama said. All babies are magic, that’s how they work.”

“No, babies are science,” Alva corrected primly, glancing up at Bruce. “Right? Because my mama said that they come from a science that’s not about stars. Bimolgy.”

Bruce bit back a smile. “Biology,” he said, herding the kids toward their reading corner for their after-gym story time. “The study of living things. And—”

Alva wrinkled her nose. “That’s what I said,” she insisted, half-stomping over to the carpet.

Bruce tried his best to send her a stern look—after all, he rarely tolerated sass and back-talk—but the touch of excitement brewing in his stomach kept him from really scolding her. His kindergarteners always left gym class vibrating with energy, but hearing them talk about Natasha’s growing belly instead of their scooter races left him with the same buzzing feeling. He’d hoped they’d be excited in their nosy way, and now—

“Maybe it’s not a baby,” Luke commented, craning his neck up at Bruce. “It’s the tricky day. Are teachers allowed to play tricks on their students?”

“My brother says Miss Darcy always plays tricks,” Eduardo agreed, “and she’s almost a teacher.”

“And Miss R didn’t let me touch it,” Sasha chimed in, crossing her arms. “My aunties let me touch their babies before they came out. They kicked.”

“Because you can’t touch without asking,” Lia sing-songed as she finally joined the rest of the class. “It’s not polite, and people might get mad.”

“Like when I do this?” Nika asked, holding her finger all of two inches from Lia’s nose.

“Exactly like that,” Bruce told her. He gently directed Nika’s hand away before Lia’s scowl dissolved into tears. But the second his students registered his voice over the din of baby-debate, they all fell completely silent. Twenty eager faces tipped up at him, their eyes wide. He pursed his lips to keep from smiling. “What?”

“Did you know about the baby?” Sasha accused.

“If it’s a real baby,” Luke reminded her. “Because maybe she’s faking.”

“Like when my brother had pretend snake hair,” Benji chimed in, nodding. “It scared me, but it was fake.”

“Do you think there’s a baby?” Bruce questioned. He abandoned his battered copy of If You Give a Moose a Muffin as he sat down in front of them. “Because Luke’s right: today’s a holiday called April Fools’, where people sometimes play funny jokes on each other. Do you think Miss R’s joking?”

Bickering immediately broke out between his students, complete with Nika threatening to poke Lia’s nose again, and they only stopped when Bruce held up both his hands in their quiet sign. Together, they voted and discovered that only seven of the students believed that their beloved gym teacher was tricking them. The rest firmly believed in Miss R’s baby—except from Sasha, who refused to vote until she could “touch the baby.”

Just as they finished tallying the votes, Marques’s hand shot up. “What about Mister R?” he asked.

Bruce frowned slightly. “Mister who?”

Marques wrinkled his nose. “Miss R’s husband,” he said. “You can’t have a baby if you’re not married. It’s a rule. We can ask Mister R if she’s faking.”

Bruce’s heart crawled into his throat, but before he could respond, Benji scowled at his classmate. “That’s a lie,” he said sharply. “My mom’s not married, but she has two babies, me and my brother.”

“You’re not babies,” Luke retorted. “You’re in kindergarten, and your brother is old.”

“Not as old as my brother!” Alva chimed in helpfully. “My brother’s in third grade!”

“My brother’s in fifth grade,” Eduardo offered.

“Okay, we’re not arguing about our brothers—or sisters,” Bruce interrupted just as Nika raised her hand. She sulked as she lowered her arm. “But let me ask you all a question: who remembers the story we read a couple weeks ago?”

“The one about the turtle?” Alva asked.

Bruce mentally cursed Trip’s choice of spring music program as he shook his head. “Good guess, but no, not the turtle. It talked about families.”

The kids exchanged nervous glances for a moment before Josie raised her hand. “Is that the one about how all families are different?” she asked carefully.

“Exactly,” he replied, and she beamed brightly enough that he couldn’t help his smile. “And does anyone remember the different kinds of families we talked about after we finished the story?”

August’s hand flew into the air. “Families where there’s an aunt and uncle instead of a mom and dad.”

“Or a grandma or grandpa,” Lia added.

“Or two moms and no dads,” Sasha pointed out.

“Or no dad,” Benji chimed in, his voice a little quieter than the rest.

“Right,” Bruce said, and Benji almost smiled. “Just because someone’s not married doesn’t mean they can’t have a family. Baby included.”

Alva narrowed her eyes. “But don’t you need a daddy to make a baby?” she asked, and Bruce bit back a flinch. “Even if you don’t need a daddy for a family, a baby is half from the mama and half from the daddy. My mama said so.”

Bruce forced himself to smile. “Maybe we can talk about that after story time,” he said, and he ignored all the disappointed groans to lunge for their book.

Tony smirked as he finished typing the commands. Anyone who tried to access the middle school website would now be redirected to the homepage of that terrifying she-beast of the Republican party. The one who hunted and talked in such a nonsensical way that Tony swore she needed a translator.

Five minutes later, the elementary school’s front page was plastered with various pictures—all of them at least fifteen years old—of Tony at get-togethers and press appearances. And all of them showed him shaking hands or talking with the loud-mouthed business man turned politician currently—and terrifyingly—leading in the presidential polls.

Every afternoon, like clockwork, Clint engaged in one simple ritual: his recess-period coffee break.

Teaching fifth grade, after all, felt a little like herding a whole bunch of curious, easily distracted cats who wanted to learn almost as much as they wanted to push each other’s buttons. Worse, Clint’s afternoon classes this year pushed his buttons. He needed the extra cup of coffee to survive.

Except when he ducked into his room to grab his trusty mug off the corner of his desk, he came up empty-handed.

He scowled at the blank space for a second. “Mug, now is not the time,” he grumbled, rounding his desk. He reached into the spot by his computer where he usually stashed it during his second period—and discovered it empty, too.

He shuffled around books and papers, desperate to find it in the low-level chaos of a typical work day. But after a brief search, he knew only one thing: his damn mug was missing.

He grit his teeth to keep from swearing. “Low blow, Danvers,” he grumbled, immediately trudging down to the teacher’s lounge. Because an afternoon without his coffee, especially this year, felt mostly like—


Shit. And he needed to teach similes this week, too.

“Shouldn’t you be out refereeing awkward pre-teen flirting?” Sitwell asked when he strode into the lounge, and Clint promptly rolled his eyes. Leaning back in his chair, Sitwell grinned. “Looks like Mister Barton is having one of those afternoons.”

“Blame Danvers,” he replied, and the assistant principal snickered. “She’s retaliating by keeping me from my fix.”

“Pretty sure the first step’s admitting that you have a problem.” Clint snorted as he unearthed a dusty Styrofoam cup from the back of the cabinet next to their state-of-the-art coffee machine. “And according to other members of our staff,” Sitwell continued, “you basically asked for this.”

“Pranks are one thing, but keeping me from coffee—”

The rest of Clint’s sentence died in the back of his throat as he caught sight of the bone-dry carafe sitting under the machine’s spout. Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the coffee can from the next cabinet. He filled up the filter to the sound of Sitwell crunching on his weird lunch of the week and flicked the switch to “on.”

Nothing happened.

Blinking, Clint flipped the switch off and back on, but still, no red light. He frowned, fiddled with the filter basket, and tried again, but the tell-tale hiss signaling a fresh pot of coffee never came. And when he peered behind the machine—

“You have got to be shitting me!” he exclaimed aloud.

Behind him, Sitwell stopped crunching. “Problem?”

“She took the fucking cord!” Sitwell actually choked as he tried not to laugh (or maybe as he started laughing), but Clint felt a spark of pure fury claw through his veins. He ran his fingers along the back of the machine, just in case, but no: someone had definitely removed the power cord from where it plugged into their industrial-grade machine.

He drew in a breath. “I am going to kill her,”