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Sing Your Song (I'm listening)

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“So it’s really young James you’ve come for?” Mrs. Zola said, wiping delicately at her face with her white handkerchief.

“Yes,” Phil replied. He watched out of the corner of his eye as ‘young James’ wandered around the too-white kitchen. To the untrained observer, it would look like James was completely oblivious to his almost-former foster-mother and the other person sitting at the kitchen table. Like he wasn't part of the world. But Phil had been a police officer with the NYPD for nearly thirty-three years, the last fifteen of which were spent as a Detective in several investigative units. He could see the tension in James’ shoulders underneath the bulky hoodie he wore, the way that he tilted his head slightly to capture the conversation going on behind him. James was clearly paying attention, no matter how much it seemed like he was blithely ignoring everything going on around him.

“I can’t say I’ll miss him,” Mrs. Zola sniffed, taking a sip of her tea. Phil had drunk some of the offered beverage merely to be polite. It hadn’t been steeped long enough, and was as pallid and insipid as the woman in front of them.

“Oh?” Phil had been in Mrs. Zola’s house for less than an hour, but already he couldn't believe that Child Protection Services had felt that she'd be a good match for James, even on a short-term basis. Clearly Melinda hadn’t been involved in the original placement decision because she would never have let this stand.

“Yes,” Mrs. Zola continued, putting her cup delicately back on the saucer and then adjusting the handle so the patterns lined up. “His silence is…” she paused for drama, “unnerving.”

Over her shoulder, Phil watched as James went to the fridge and took out the milk. He then took down a glass from the cupboard, carefully filling it up two-thirds full before putting the jug back. James was missing his left arm from just below the elbow but his movements were as graceful and deft as someone with both hands.

“I could see how it might be,” Phil said. He forced himself to not cross his arms while he was speaking to her, keeping his hands lose and ready on the table and his expression open. be nice! he reminded himself. It would do James no good if Phil alienated Mrs. Zola before the transfer of care was complete.

Still looking over her shoulder, he watched as James pulled a jar of peanut butter and then a plate out of a cupboard and then a knife from the drawer, clearly planning on making himself a sandwich. He was still acting like he was the only one in the room.

“Oh yes.” She nodded. “More so than you could possibly imagine.” She sighed. “I had so hoped for some company from some lost little boy or girl after my Arnim died. How unfortunate that the boy I was given to foster was more damaged than one would have expected.”

Phil’s eyebrows drew down. “You think James is damaged?”

“Obviously,” she sniffed. “I mean the arm would be difficult enough, but the not talking…”

“James doesn’t speak because of the trauma he experienced as a child,” Phil said flatly. “That’s a coping mechanism. Not ‘damage.’”

She sniffed again. “Either way, it’s very peculiar.”

Behind Mrs. Zola’s chair, Phil saw James stiffen at her words and carefully put down the knife he’d been using to put peanut butter on his bread. Phil could see the hurt and anger in every line of James’ back, and it took all his self-control to not run over to comfort the boy. He forced himself to smile blandly. “I’m sure it’s been quite difficult, which is why I’ll be happy to take him off your hands. As I’m sure James’ case manager has told you, I have a particular knack for children with his type of history. Now if you’ll just let me gather his things…” he made to rise.

“I think he’s soft,” Mrs. Zola continued as if Phil hadn’t spoken.

Phil sank back into his seat. “I beg your pardon?”

“Soft,” she repeated, “You know, in the head? I think that when his parents were killed—poor souls!—that perhaps he received some brain damage.“

“No that’s not what—!“ Phil exclaimed, just as James, very deliberately, picked up his glass, turned towards their table, and then dropped it on the tile floor.

“Goodness! James!” Mrs. Zola cried as she sprang to her feet. “So clumsy!” The floor was covered in a spray of glass and liquid, the white milk blending seamlessly into the white tiles. “He breaks something every day,” she continued as she went to the counter to get the paper towel. “If that doesn’t show brain damage, I don’t know what does!”

James was standing by the counter, his shoes and the bottom of his jeans were splattered with drops of milk. His one hand was clenched in a fist, but other than that reaction he looked like he wasn’t even aware of Mrs. Zola as she minced around trying to pick up the shards of glass and liquid at the same time.

Phil found himself smiling. “Hello, James,” he said as he stood. James’ eyes snapped to his, the hurt and anger reflected in them was as plain as day. “My name’s Phil Coulson and I’m going to be your new father. Now, if you wouldn’t mind getting your things…”

Phil let his voice trail off as James had left the room halfway through his sentence, stamping heavily through the glass-and-milk combination as he went.

“There’s no point in talking to him,” Mrs. Zola said, crouching down to gingerly swipe at the milk. “He doesn’t understand.”

“Oh, I think he understands all right,” Phil said musingly, looking upwards. He could just hear the sound of drawers being slammed shut in one of the upstairs rooms. He’d bet his old badge that it was the sound of James packing. “I think he understands everything.”

“Well, I hope you have better luck with him than I’ve had!” Mrs. Zola exclaimed, rising to her feet.

“Me too,” Phil said. “Me, too.”

James didn’t like sitting in the car.

It wasn’t anything hugely obvious, but Phil could see it almost immediately; the way the young man withdrew into himself as soon as he sat in the back seat, pulling his bag onto his lap like a security blanket and hunching over it like it was a shield from the world.

Of course, the fact he’d squeezed his eyes shut and was rocking just enough for Phil to notice, was a bit of a tip-off, too.

The file Melinda had given Phil almost six weeks ago had mentioned that James lost his arm in a car accident when he was six, the same accident that had killed his remaining family. It wasn’t a massive leap in logic to think that James might be experiencing a trigger.

“James,” Phil said quietly, coming to crouch by the back seat, balancing himself on the open back door.

As Phil had expected, there was no response. James had made it very clear back in Mrs. Zola’s house that he didn’t really engage with others, apparently drifting through their conversations rather than attaching to them.

But Phil had also seen James’ reaction to Mrs. Zola’s insensitively, and he knew the teenager wasn’t as disconnected as he seemed to want to appear.

“James,” Phil said again. There was no change in James’ gentle, closed-eyed rocking, and Phil could tell that mere words weren’t going to reach him. “I’m going to touch you now,” Phil said, mimicking the words his Use of Force instructors had used when he’d been a raw recruit three decades earlier. And slowly, even though James’ eyes were still closed, Phil reached out and put his hands on James’ shoulders, gripping them tightly enough for James to feel it, but not enough to hurt.

James’ eyes flew open, focusing on Phil’s.

“You’re safe,” Phil said, injecting as much surety and calmness into those two words that he could. “My name’s Phil and you’re sitting in the back seat of my car and you’re safe. Nothing bad is happening. You’re okay.”

James’ eyes were grey, as deep and impenetrable as a winter sky and for an unsettling moment, Phil felt like he might be falling into them. James blinked, steady and slow, and then dropped his gaze.

Like a wild animal, Phil thought immediately and then shook it off. James wasn’t an animal. He was a young man, a child, trapped deeply in a history so painful that it'd stolen his voice.

“You’re safe,” Phil said again, hoping that at least his calm tone would get through even if his words didn’t. Melinda had told him that no one who’d been involved with James since he’d been six was entirely sure what his first language was, but it was probable that it was English. At that moment, Phil hoped to hell it was true.

James flicked his gaze back to Phil, and then away again. He shifted slightly, tilting his shoulders just enough that Phil got the message to let go.

“You don’t want to be touched, huh?”

James flicked his gaze again, those deep grey eyes touching his briefly before moving away.

“Do you want to get out of the car?”

James didn’t look at him, but he looked back at the house they’d just left and then looked down.

Phil blinked. “James,” he said again. “Do you want to get out of the car?”

Once again, James focused his gaze onto the house, and then dropped his eyes.

Phil licked his lips as he thought about what James had just done twice in row. “Are you worried that if you get out of the car you’ll have to stay here?”

Another eye flick, brief but real.

Phil felt a surge of glee that he did his best to contain. He hadn’t just made that up. James understood English and had responded to his question. The eye flick was a kind of ‘yes.’ They were actually communicating.

“I think I just figured something out,” he said to James. “I’m going to ask you some questions, and you continue answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with your eyes, okay?”

Another flick, and Phil grinned. “Okay,” he said, “I know you don’t want to stay in the car, but I also know that you don’t want to stay here. So,” he paused, trying to figure out how to phrase the question, “is the problem with being in the car?”

No eye contact.

“Alright,” Phil said. He shifted in his crouch. He was too old to kneel for such a long period of time, and the temperature even in mid-February was still too cold for comfort, but he didn’t want to disturb this fragile dialogue he and James seemed to have created. “So if the problem’s not the whole car, is it the backseat?”

Eye flick.

“Okay,” Phil said again, beginning to feel some real excitement. They were talking; maybe he could make this work. “So you don’t like the backseat. Would you be okay riding in the front?”

And James got out of the backseat, neatly stepping around where Phil was still crouched and slid into the passenger side, pulling on his seatbelt and deftly buckling it one-handed.

“Well that answers that,” Phil muttered as he went around the vehicle to the drivers’ side.

He buckled up and turned on the motor. “I think we’re off to a great start.” He smiled at James as he put the car into drive. There was no eye flick in response. Instead James turned away and gazed out the window, only the back of his head in Phil’s line of sight. “Point taken,” Phil sighed. Apparently it was going to be a quiet ride back to Poughkeepsie.

As expected, James didn’t make a single sound for the entire drive.

It was disconcerting to be with someone so silent. It was like James even knew how to breathe so that he didn’t make any noise. If Phil hadn’t kept glancing over, he would’ve sworn that he’d been completely alone.

However, James’ silence wasn’t completely uncommunicative. As they drove, Phil told him about the other children at the farm, and out of the corner of his eye he’d seen James shift in his seat and let his storm-grey eyes land on Phil’s while Phil was speaking. Only ever for a moment or two, and as quick as lightning, but it was there. He’d been intrigued by Natasha, interested in Clint and Steve, and perhaps even impressed by Phil’s description of Tony’s bombastic personality.

He’d even met Phil’s gaze for a full second when Phil had told him about the horses. It made Phil want to pump his fist in triumph.

Phil had also learned that James preferred alternative rock to dance, and if the tiny curl of his lip meant anything, he wasn’t a fan of country music at all.

But it wasn’t enough. In the few moments that Phil stole from paying attention to the road, he studied his young passenger. James’ hair was shoulder-length and completely un-styled. Unlike Tony’s carefully created ‘I don’t give a fuck’ look, James’ hair truly looked like he’d just let it grow and then forgotten it. But it was thick and dark and contrasted beautifully with his light eyes. In fact, everything about the boy was beautiful. He was extraordinarily handsome, with the sultry looks of a 1940s movie star and a body like an athlete. He was nearly as tall as Steve and leanly muscled, like he spent a lot of time outdoors.

Or, Phil thought, he might just do a lot of P90X in his room. It was extremely frustrating not being able to just ask James about his life.

The little he’d gleaned from dropped gazes and eye flicks barely gave Phil a sense of who James Barnes actually was, let alone any idea of how Phil could help him fit in with the other children. While his flash of insight about how James communicated was gratifying, it actually only pointed out how difficult communication with this boy would actually be. The elation that Phil had been feeling earlier began to sink under the realization of what he’d gotten himself—and the other children—into.

Phil glanced over to James who was once again staring silently out the window. “How am I going to help you?” Phil murmured, his eyes tracing the edge of James’ cheek. “What am I going to do?”

James was out of the car as soon as Phil parked it by his truck at the end of the driveway.

He shivered elaborately, reminding Phil of the way cats shake off tension after they’ve been frightened. It was that moment that Phil realized that James was just wearing the over-large hoodie that he’d had on in Mrs. Zola's house. The left sleeve was knotted below what must've been the stump of his arm.

“Where’s your jacket?” Phil called to him.

There was no answer. James merely used his right hand to sling his backpack onto his left shoulder and walked straight into the house, forcing Phil to jog to keep up. He entered into the house a few steps behind James.

Natasha, Clint, Steve and Tony were clustered in the living room. Pepper was there too, standing between Natasha and Tony, her hand placed comfortingly on Natasha’s shoulders. Natasha was shy and suspicious of newcomers and Phil immediately appreciated Pepper being there to help support her friend. Clint was standing with Steve on Tony’s other side. He was shirtless as usual even though it was only February and there was still a trace of winter in the room. They were all quiet, looking at James expectantly.

James wasn’t looking at any of them. He was looking around the living room, his eyes darting as he clearly took everything in. His face was blank, the only hint of what he was thinking was the slight drawing down of his eyebrows. Phil had studied him for so long in the car that to him his tiny frown might have been a billboard proclaiming to the world how scared he was.

“James,” Phil said loudly, hoping that it would attract the teen’s attention, “these are the other children I was telling you about. Natasha is the small redhead, Pepper is the taller woman. Steve is the blond and Tony is the one with dark hair. The one without a shirt is Clint.”

There was no indication from James that he’d even registered that Phil had spoken.

Pepper shot Phil a curious glance, and then stepped forward from the cluster of kids. “Hello,” she said warmly, extending her hand. “I’m Pepper. We’ve all been very curious about you—“

He walked right by her to look out the window.

Steve frowned. “That was rude.”

“Steve,” Phil admonished. “James has just arrived. Give him some space.” He’d explained to everyone about James’ selective mutism and how that’d make it difficult to communicate, but he hadn’t known about James’ disengagement until he’d met him just that morning. He’d had no chance to warn anyone about James’ apparent disinterest in advance and it was easy to see how quickly they were all getting riled up.

“We’re giving him space,” Tony said, “he’s got so much space, he’s like Chris Hadfield.” He was glaring at James’ back the whole time he was talking.

“Hi,” Clint said, moving so that he was standing by James, close enough that he’d be in James’ peripheral vision, but far enough away to not look like a threat, and once again Phil was impressed with how sensitive Clint could be about others. “I’m Clint.” He grinned in that infectious way he had. “Wanna share my room?”

James slid his eyes to look at Clint, and then slid them away, the movement almost too quick to see. The way Clint’s face fell at James’ non-reaction was heartbreaking.

Clearly Tony saw it, too. “Don’t waste your time,” Tony’s arms were crossed, a dark look on his boyishly handsome face. “Obviously we’re not good enough for the one-armed bandit over there. Don’t waste your breath.”

Pepper’s mouth fell open. “Tony!”

“What?” Tony snarled. “We’re all thinking it.”

“Don’t say things like that.” Steve turned on him, but his arms were crossed as well. “I’m sure James’ll realize that he’s being rude soon enough.”

“Enough!” Phil said sharply. He’d have to sit down with them sooner rather than later to explain what was going on, but right now he knew he’d have to get James out of there before he had a riot on his hands. “Natasha,” he said, choosing the only child that hadn’t yet reacted to James. “Could you please show James upstairs to the—“

Just like before, halfway through his sentence, James walked right past everyone and up the stairs. His boots left muddy footprints on the wood floor in his wake.

“I don’t think he needs any help,” Natasha said wryly as she watched James go upstairs.

“Oh I think he needs a lot of help,” Tony said nastily.

And in that second Phil was hard-pressed not to agree.

There were people in the house.

The man who called himself ‘Phil’ had said that there were other people where he was going to be staying, but until Bucky had walked into the living room, he hadn’t really thought about what that would mean.

But there were people here. A lot of them.

Bucky's heart sped up, his blood making a loud shush, shush, shush in his ears.

People meant curiosity and questions, and things he’d be expected to answer. But no one understood that the words were tied up in Bucky’s throat, like a ball of barbed wire ready to stab him if he nudged them even a little bit; ready to choke him if he tried to speak.

The other people wanted to speak with him. The tall girl, (Pepper?) Wanted to speak with him, so he moved to look out the window. Then the boy with no shirt, (Clint?) came to talk to him, so he went upstairs.

There were no people upstairs, and it felt like maybe he could take a breath.

One of the rooms had a sign on the door saying ‘Keep out!’ so he did. He turned into the first room that he came to without signs on the door. It was big and there was a bed by the window and sunlight streaming in, and if he looked out he could see horses running in the paddock behind the barn.

Just watching the horses made him feel a bit calmer. Animals didn’t need any words. He’d be safe with them.

The bed by the window had some things on it, so he moved the things and then took off his boots and put them carefully by the end of the bed and lay down.

He was exhausted by the car ride. Phil hadn’t talked too much, and he’d even let him sit in the front seat. Most people didn’t notice that he hated the back seat. Most people didn’t notice him very much at all.

Phil noticed him. Bucky wasn’t sure what that meant, but he wasn’t sure he liked it. Being noticed meant that you got asked questions.

He put his arm over his eyes and tried to make his mind blank. A long time ago someone had told him that if he made his mind blank, he'd feel better. Sometimes it even worked.

Phil asked me questions, Bucky thought, remembering being invited to move to the front seat of the car.

He closed his eyes. He remembered that Phil had asked him questions, but he hadn’t needed Bucky to say anything to understand his answers. Bucky didn’t know what that meant.

He fell asleep with his heart still going shush, shush, shush in his ears.

“He’s still rude,” Steve said, arms crossed as he sat on the couch.

Phil had called a family meeting after James had gone upstairs. It was painfully obvious that his description of James’ selective mutism hadn’t gone far enough to explain the boy’s actions.

“Yes, it looks rude,” Phil agreed with a small sigh. “But he’s not actually trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. His silence is protective.”

“It’s not going to protect him from a punch in the face,” Tony muttered. He was sitting beside Steve on the couch, his arms also crossed and a dark scowl on his face. “Fucking mental case.”

“You will not use that language!” Phil corrected him immediately. “James deserves your compassion and respect and that language will not be tolerated.”

“Whatever.” Tony pointedly looked away.

Clint cleared his throat, the tension between Phil and Tony plainly getting to him. “So, he doesn’t talk because it makes him feel safer?”

“That’s right.” Phil nodded. “For whatever reason, speaking makes James feel unsafe, so he doesn’t talk.”

“But he could, if he wanted to, right?” Steve asked, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward.

“Of course he could,” Natasha said with authority. “There’s nothing wrong with his throat. You’d see the scars otherwise.” She got up and went to stand beside Clint, taking his hand.

Phil decided not to correct her medical knowledge for the moment since a damaged larynx wouldn’t always show. “From what I understand from his file, Natasha’s right. There’s no medical reason for him not to speak.”

“But what about how aloof he was?” Pepper asked from where she was perched on the armrest of the couch, her thigh resting against Tony’s shoulder. “Even when Clint and I spoke to him, he didn’t react to us at all.”

“Yeah,” Clint chimed in. “He understood us, right? Like he speaks English?” He paused. “Okay, he doesn’t speak obviously, but if he did, it’d be English?”

“Does he look like he’d speak Mandarin?” Tony sneered. “Captain Hook is whiter than Steve.”

Phil inhaled deeply. “Tony.”

“What do you mean ‘whiter than Steve?’” Steve turned to Tony. “Are you making fun of my Irish heritage?”

“God!” Tony rolled his eyes. “Why do you have to be so serious about everything?”

“Why do you have to be so antagonistic?” Pepper frowned at him. “We’re all upset. You don’t have to make it worse.”

“I’m not upset,” Clint smiled at Phil. “I think he’s nice.”

“And how the hell would you know that?” Tony spat at him. “By the way he didn’t look at you when you offered to share your room?”

“Tony’s right,” Natasha said. “He ignored you. That’s not nice.”

Clint shrugged. “He probably just needs time to settle in.” He looked at Phil. “He just needs time, right?”

“Yes,” Phil agreed readily. “And he’s also going to need you all to remember that speaking is frightening for him. Which means that he’s not going to engage when you talk to him because he doesn’t want to talk back.”

Natasha shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense. If he won’t talk, and he won’t listen when we talk, how are we meant to communicate with him at all?”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded. “Are we just meant to let him wander around and ignore us because he’s scared?”

Phil opened his mouth to answer but Tony beat him to it. “I, for one, am not going to let him ignore me. That’s bullshit.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Phil’s mouth tightened. “We’re not letting him ignore us, we’re working with him so that he feels safe.”

“Yeah, well maybe I don’t feel safe receiving the silent treatment from Luke Skywalker,” Tony said. “Maybe being ignored makes me feel totally unsafe. Maybe someone should’ve thought of that before bringing Groot there home.”

“Groot could talk,” Clint said.

“Maybe it’s not just about you.” Pepper glared at Tony.

“Yeah, well tell me something I don’t know, sweetheart.”

“Tony,” Phil said imploringly. “If I’d asked you—any of you—if you’d wanted me to bring in other children, I have the sense that Natasha’d be the only child in my life right now. Change can be difficult, and James represents a lot of change. But I’m sure it’s something we can all handle.”

“I would’ve always wanted you to bring Clint home.” Natasha looked at Clint, adoration clear in her eyes. She turned back to look at Phil. “I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say at all.”

Phil took another breath. “I just meant that it might’ve been hard for you to want another person here, before you met him. Obviously you feel different about him now that you know him. And I’m sure you’ll all feel that way about James, once you get to know him, too.”

“Maybe the horses will help him open up,” Pepper said.

“And maybe he’ll murder us all in our sleep.” Tony glared at Phil. “He’s a fucking one-armed freak and you should’ve never brought him here!”

“Tony!” Phil admonished.

“Here, take my fucking phone.” Tony stood and pulled it out of his back pocket and lobbed it at Phil. “I don’t give a shit.”

Phil caught the phone. “Tony, wait.” But Tony had already gone upstairs. He sighed. “I know this is going to be a hard adjustment for all of us,” he said. “But—“

“Tony’s right,” Natasha cut in. “You should’ve thought of us before you brought James here.”

“What’d you expect Phil to do?” Clint said, “Abandon him? He needs Phil.”

We need Phil!” Natasha yelled, dropping Clint’s hand. “This boy is going to ruin everything!” And she took off up the stairs after Tony.

“This did not go as well as I expected.” Phil sighed.

Steve stood. “I know you meant well, Mr. Coulson, bringing him here and everything.” Phil cringed inwardly hearing Steve’s overly-polite words. It was a sure sign that Steve was upset and trying to hide it. “But I’m not sure how it’s going to go, if he stays so silent.”

Pepper stood as well and shook her head. “I can hardly wait to see him in class with Ms. Carter,” she said sardonically.

“It’ll be fine,” Clint said to Steve and Pepper. He turned to Phil. “It’ll be fine, won't it?” But then he bit his lip and looked towards the stairs, clearly thinking about Natasha’s reaction.

“Of course,” Phil said with more confidence than he felt. He knew he’d have to do some damage control after the explosive way everyone reacted when James arrived, but he hadn’t thought it’d be this bad. He certainly hadn’t expected Natasha to be this upset. Now he had to figure out whether to go to her or Tony first.

Predictably, Tony took the decision out of his hands.

“Hey baby bear!” Tony called halfway down the stairs. Steve and Clint exchanged a look. “You’re gonna want to come see this.”

“Baby bear?” Clint said as Tony walked back into the living room.

“Not you!” Tony looked at Steve. “Him.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Yeah?”

“Someone’s been sleeping in your bed.”

Steve stood in the doorway of his room, arms crossed, looking at James.

“You gonna kick him out?” Tony whispered, standing on tiptoe to see over his shoulder.

“Why didn’t you wake him when you first saw him here?” Steve whispered back. He frowned. “Why are we whispering?”

“Because he’s a fucking psycho,” Tony continued to whisper. “He’ll probably wake in a murderous rage and kill us both.”

Steve tilted his head, contemplating what Tony was saying. “He doesn’t really look dangerous,” Steve said. In fact, James looked kind of, sweet, really. He was lying on his left side, his partial left arm tucked up under Steve’s pillow, his right hand resting on the bed beside him. His features had softened in sleep, and Steve couldn’t help but notice the line of James’ jaw, or the sharpness of his cheekbones, or the perfect shape of his mouth. He swallowed.

“He’s really pretty, isn’t he?” Tony said quietly, like he was reading Steve’s mind. “You know, when he’s not being all ‘na na na I can’t hear you.’”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed and then immediately shook his head. “But the fact he’s attractive isn’t important.”

“You think he’d be quiet during sex?” Tony mused. “Like, do you’d think he’d whimper or just be all silent sex-face?”

Steve whipped his head around to look at Tony. “Shut up!” he hissed. “Phil’ll hear you!”

Tony made a face. “So what? He’s already got my phone.”

“He’ll take your car keys.”

Tony’s scowl deepened. “He won’t hear me. He’s with Natasha trying to do damage control.”

“Shut up anyway,” Steve said quietly. He gestured towards James with his chin. “The kid doesn’t need your crap. He’s messed up as it is.”

“I thought you were on my side!” Tony whispered harshly.

“Look at him,” Steve muttered. “He’s asleep, but he’s still frowning. And the shadows under his eyes are so deep they look like they’ve been painted on. And his boots…”

“What about his boots? They’re boots!”

Steve licked his lips, trying to figure out how to explain. “They’re so neat,” he said finally.

“So?” Tony sneered. “Your stuff is neat. It’s crazy neat. You alphabetize your fucking socks! Who cares how psycho-silent-type takes off his boots?”

It was Steve’s turn to scowl. “I don’t know.”

“Whatever.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Anyway, are you going to kick him out, or what?”

“No,” Steve said after a moment. He had been prepared to wake James’ up and move him, but now… Steve shook his head. “He can have my bed. I don’t care.”

“He left your sketchbook in the middle of the floor!” Tony protested. “You threaten to kill anyone who even touches your sketchbooks!”

“That was only you, and only because you were using them for your blueprints!” Steve whispered fiercely. “Besides, it’s not like he dropped them, or anything.”

Tony shook his head. “You’re a fucking sap.”

“It’s just a bed, Tony.”

“Right,” Tony drawled. “And are you going to feel the same way when he takes your desk, or your clothes, or—or the picture of your mother?

Steve narrowed his eyes. “He wouldn’t dare.”

“Well, you could always ask him to leave your stuff alone,” Tony said. “Oh, wait…”

“Why are you being so hard on him?” Steve said, turning to face Tony full-on. “You heard what Phil said, he doesn’t talk because something terrible happened to him. He lost an arm for Christ's sake!”

“Yeah, well we’ve all lost something, haven’t we?” Tony glowered. “It’s not like the armless wonder over there has a monopoly on shitty childhoods!”

“Too bad yours didn’t affect your ability to speak.”

“You know what?” Tony said in his normal voice. “Fuck you. And fuck your new roommate, too. You’re both such assholes you’re perfect for each other!” He stalked off.

Steve let out a breath and closed his eyes. He hadn’t meant to provoke Tony like that, but sometimes the guy was just too much. He’d apologize later, once Tony’d cooled off. He opened his eyes.

James was looking at him.

Steve blinked in surprise, and then smiled. “Hello,” he said.

James rolled onto his other side.

It was amazing how much that small rejection hurt, even though Steve knew it wasn’t really a rejection. “You’re welcome for the bed,” Steve said loudly to James’ back.

There was no reaction at all.

James didn’t come down for dinner.

Phil had sent Clint to invite him after Natasha had refused with a shake of her head, Steve had politely declined, and Tony had said something too rude to repeat.

Clint disappeared and came back a few moments later saying that James appeared to be asleep, but he was facing away from the door and Clint didn’t want to bother him anyway.

Phil had made spaghetti with garlic bread for dinner. It was a favorite of everybody’s, but especially Tony. His mother had been from an Italian background and apparently her country’s cuisine had featured prominently on the Stark’s chef’s menu. Phil’s version was ‘adequate,’ which he took to be high praise indeed. He hoped that it might help cheer Tony up a bit and help remind him of how much Phil cared.

Their meal was uncharacteristically quiet. Natasha only picked at her food, and both Tony and Steve ate like their plates required their full concentration. Even Clint’s characteristic chattiness was subdued. It was worrying to say the least.

And then James walked in.

“Hey.” Clint smiled at him. “You want some spaghetti? I’ll get you a plate.”

Just as before, James ignored him, instead he went to the cupboard and opened and closed every one, one at a time until he found a plate and a jar of peanut butter. Then he opened and closed every drawer until he found a knife.

The other children were looking at Phil, waiting for him to do something, anything to help ease the tension that James’ non-reaction to Clint had caused.

“James.” Phil stood and went over to the boy. James’ eyes flicked to him and then away, his full attention focused on opening the jar of peanut butter.

Phil gently took it out from under where James’ had trapped it against his side with his left arm. James went perfectly still, his eyes locked firmly onto the counter.

“James,” Phil said again. “In this house we eat together as a family. No one is going to make you talk, but you need to sit with us. It’s important.”

“The spaghetti’s really good,” Clint chimed in. “You’ll like it.”

James didn’t move. His shoulders were stiff, his eyes still on the countertop. Phil could see the rapid beat of his pulse in the hollow of his throat.

“You’re safe here,” Phil said quietly. “No one is going to make you speak. You’re safe.”

James’ eyes flicked to Phil’s and then away, and Phil felt a small sense of relief. James was listening to him. It was a start.

“Sit with us,” Phil said. “Have some food. Then you can go back to your room”

James flicked his eyes again. He moved his head just enough to glance at the table where the other children were sitting out of the corner of his eye.

“That’s right,” Phil said encouragingly. “Just sit and eat with us. That’s all.”

James swallowed, a lightning-quick tightening of the tendons in his neck. His fear was rolling off him in waves, almost palpable. But he hadn’t left yet. He was listening and he hadn’t left. Phil felt so close to a breakthrough that he could practically taste it.

“Do you want me to get you a plate?” he asked. His own food was slowly growing cold. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the other children, all riveted on his and James' interaction with intense interest. No one was eating, it practically felt like no one was breathing, as they all waited to see what James would do.

James flicked his eyes to Phil, and then looked at the pot on the stove. Phil found himself beginning to smile. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll just—“

“Jesus fucking Christ!” Tony exploded. “Who the fuck can eat with this bullshit? I’m going to my room.” He stood and stormed out, leaving his food half-eaten.

“Oh that’s just great Tony!” Steve hollered after him. “Real helpful!”

“Don’t yell!” Clint said to Steve. “Can’t you see you’re scaring him?”

“Boys!” Phil said sharply. “None of this is helping!”

“Why do you care about him so much?” Natasha leaned over the table, glaring at Clint. “You like being ignored? Well I can do that, too!” She got up from the table and went to the door. “I’m going to Pepper’s.”

“No!’ Phil called to her. “Natasha, don’t you dare—“

The door slammed shut behind her. Phil grit his teeth.

“I’m going after her,” Clint said. He got up to and went to the door.

“Clint!” Phil was really angry now. “I’ll deal with Natasha in a moment. No one else is going to leave. You got that?”

Clint finished pulling on the sweater he’d left with his jacket at the doorway. His expression a combination of anger and confusion. “But you let James leave.”

Phil immediately looked around. Clint was right. James was gone.

“Where’d he go?” Phil demanded.

“Outside,” Clint said. “He left right before Natasha.”

“Damn,” Phil muttered. “Steve, Clint. Get your stuff on. We need to go look for him.”

“Okay,” Clint said, grabbing his mitts. He turned to Steve. “You can take my coat.”

“I’ll take my own coat,” Steve said.

“You’ll need your own coat anyway,” Phil said, “it’s after dark in February. It’s too cold to go in just a sweater.”

“Okay,” Clint said again, slipping on his jacket. “But he’ll have to wear one of yours.”

“Why?” Phil said just as Steve dropped his head.

“He took my coat, didn’t he?”

Clint gave a half-smile. “At least he won’t be cold?”

“He’s gotta stop taking my things,” Steve said through clenched teeth.

“Let’s find him first, and then we’ll deal with his appropriation of your stuff.” Phil handed Steve his extra coat. It was the coat he wore for winter sports and he’d bought it a bit loose to make it easier to move in. Even with the extra cloth, it was still tight across Steve’s shoulders and an inch too short in the cuffs.

“Great addition to the household,” Steve muttered under his breath as the three of them grabbed flashlights and went out the door.

Phil pretended not to hear him.

Even though it was only around seven p.m., it was still fully dark and cold enough that their breath was misting in the yellow of the lights that shone from the porch and the barn.

Clint was studying the ground intently. “There’s been too many people walking here,” he said after a moment, indicating the tracks of slushy mud and snow leading away from the house in several directions. “We won’t be able to find him just by following his boot prints.”

“Of course,” Phil said tightly. Why would it be easy? “So we’ll split up. Steve, can you please check the barn, I’ll follow the driveway to the road, and Clint—“

“Woods. I’m on it.” He flashed Phil a grin and took off towards the woods, the beam of his flashlight bobbing ahead of him as he ran.

"What do you want me to do if I find him?” Steve asked.

“Text me,” Phil said as he sent a text to Clint with the same instructions. “And, depending on how he’s doing, we’ll decide from there.”

“Okay,” Steve said. He looked over to the barn, and then back to Phil. “What happens if he won’t—“

Phil stopped Steve by putting his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “He probably won’t acknowledge you,” Phil said, answering Steve’s unanswered question. “Just do your best.”

“Okay,” Steve said again. “I’ll let you know.” He had a determined expression as he headed off to the barn.

Phil turned up the driveway and started walking its long length towards the road, his boots making almost no sound on the slushy ground. The temperature was cold, but there was no wind, and the night was clear and crisp with hundreds of stars visible above the tree line. It was peaceful and beautiful, and Phil wished that he was in any kind of headspace to enjoy it. But the first night with James had been an unmitigated disaster, and unless the boy made a radical change soon, it seemed that the disaster would continue with no end in sight. Phil made a mental note to call Sam first thing in the morning to see what the counsellor could suggest.

Of course, that was assuming that they found James within the next half-hour. Otherwise Phil knew that he’d be calling the Poughkeepsie Police Department to report James missing and start the official search. It was dark and cold and James didn’t know the area. And it was painfully obvious that there’d be no way he could call for help.

Steady, Phil thought to himself. There might be a thousand different and equally disastrous scenarios going through his head right now, but panicking wouldn’t get James back any quicker. He checked his watch. “Half-an-hour,” he reminded himself, and then he’d make the call.

“Where are you?” Phil muttered as he shone his flashlight down the drive. “James!” he called loudly into the darkness.

Naturally there was no answer.

When the boy (Tony?) started yelling, Bucky had grabbed the first coat he’d found on the coat-rack and left.

The house was too crowded and too loud and Bucky knew he’d die if he stayed there even one more second.

He didn’t like Mrs. Zola. Mrs. Zola hadn’t understood how he knew the words would kill him if he tried to speak. She didn’t look at him the way that Phil did. Like he existed. Like he was real.

But at least her house had been quiet. Bucky had gone days without Mrs. Zola noticing him. Here? Everyone noticed him. Everyone spoke to him, and wanted something from him, and everyone yelled.

It made him feel like he couldn’t breathe.

The night was cold, and dark and completely silent. The only sound came from his boots on the ground and the shush, shush, shush of his heart. He focused on his breathing, watching it mist in front of his face; the sharp way it felt in his lungs as he forced himself to inhale slowly.

The coat he wore was too big. It hung off his shoulders and gaped at the neck, and he couldn’t easily do up the zipper with only one hand. He had no gloves or hat and his right hand was cold where he was gripping the coat closed around him. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stay out too long like this. But he didn’t want to go back.

The barn would be warm. The horses would be there. It’d be quiet.

Bucky eased open the door and went inside.

Immediately he was enveloped in the warm, familiar smell of horses. The barn was dark, but pale yellow light from outside came through the windows, making it possible for Bucky to see. He took off the jacket and dropped it on a bale of hay by the door, breathing deeply of the barn’s horsy scent, and listening to the peaceful rhythms of the horses’ sleeping.

One of them whiffled softly, a forceful exhale through its nose. Bucky went to its stall and patted the silky muzzle. He saw a nameplate on the door identifying the horse as ‘Ginger’ in curly white script. He smiled. Hello girl, he thought.

She whiffled again, nuzzling against his palm. He took it for the invitation it was and quietly he opened her stall door and went inside.

She turned her neck to bump against him with her jaw, a gentle tap of greeting.

Bucky put his arm around her back, resting against her shoulder, his forehead pressed to her neck. He breathed in her scent, feeling her muscles shift subtly under his arm. She was so quiet and peaceful. He wanted to stay with her like this forever.

He heard the barn door open.

Bucky stiffened, as the tension that had drained out of him came flooding back. He pressed himself closer to her and closed his eyes, hoping that whomever it was would just leave. He heart started pounding again and he clenched his fist into Ginger’s mane. The coarse hairs felt solid and real against his skin.

“Hey,” the person said, and Bucky kept his eyes shut tight. The voice belonged to the large blond boy (Steve?). The one who'd been looking at him while he slept. Steve talked to him. Just like the rest of them. None of them understood about words. Bucky turned his head so he was facing away from the stable door, his eyes still closed.

“It’s okay,” Steve said. Bucky could hear that he’d dropped his voice so that he sounded quiet and less frightening. “You can stay in here as long as you want. I’m just going to text Phil to let him know where we are.” There was the rustling sound of something being pulled out of a pocket and then a moment of silence while Steve was texting. “There,” Steve said. “He knows we’re safe.”

And then Steve stopped talking.

Several minutes went by. Bucky still had his eyes closed, his ear now up against the horse’s shoulder. He could hear the steady beat of her heart, and its rhythm was quieting the rhythm of his own heart back down to something slow and peaceful. Steve still hadn’t made a sound.

Slowly, Bucky opened his eyes and turned around. Steve was leaning up against the top edge of the low stable door, his chin cushioned on his forearms. He smiled.

Bucky studied him. Steve’s features were shadowed in the low light, but they were perfect. His deep blue eyes, his even cheekbones, the soft curve of his mouth, the width of his shoulders as they stretched the fabric of the coat he was wearing… Everything about him was stunning.

“That’s ‘Ginger’,” Steve said quietly, indicating the horse with a small movement of his head. “She’s one of the first horses that Phil bought. She’s really sweet and patient. I think she’s helped all of us to learn to ride at one point. Well, except for Clint. I think Clint was actually born on horseback.”

Bucky tilted his head, holding Steve’s gaze for a moment. Normally he didn’t like looking people in the eyes at all. It usually meant that you were willing to talk to them, and Bucky never was. But Steve wasn’t asking him anything. He was talking about the horses, and horses were interesting. Bucky moved his chin towards one of the other stalls, letting his gaze briefly meet Steve’s again.

“Oh, you want to know about the other ones,” Steve said, and then immediately continued. “Okay.. Well, ‘Beauty’s’ been here as long as Ginger. She’s also really nice, but she’s not as patient as Ginger. You have to've ridden for a bit before Beauty will cut you some slack and be nice. That one…“ He pointed down the barn to a stall that Bucky couldn’t see. “That's ‘Captain’. He’s a big gelding that'll let anyone ride him as long as they’re prepared to show him who’s boss.” Steve’s smile widened. “He’s mine.”

Bucky found himself smiling in reaction to Steve’s happiness. I’d like to ride a horse again, he thought. He wondered if it'd be possible to have a horse of his own.

“All the kids get their own horses,” Steve said, as if he’d read Bucky’s thoughts. “We have eight already, and there’s only five of us now. So I’m sure that Phil wouldn’t mind you having one of them that’s not already claimed. Tony has ‘Iron’ over there, and Clint has the pretty girl called, um, ‘Horse,’ I think. Clint’s not big on naming things. Natasha’s had Ginger since the start though, so don’t fall in love with her even though she’s so nice. Mr. Odinson—he's our outdoor ed teacher—he he usually rides that big grey brute over there when he takes us out on the trails. His name’s ‘Mjolinir’ and Thor’s the only one big enough to ride him. Phil rides one he calls ‘Skye,’ which I think is an inside joke because her real name is ‘Daisy.’ Pepper boards her horse here. She’s a real spirited filly called ‘Hera,’ So that leaves ‘Beauty’ and the white gelding called ‘Winter’ without any primary riders. Maybe you’d like one of them.”

Steve didn’t make it a question, so Bucky didn’t have to answer. Winter he thought. He liked the sound of the horse’s name. Cool and calm and white.

“Winter and Captain are friends,” Steve said. “They like to run together when they’re out in the paddock. If you want, I’ll show you tomorrow and maybe we could even go for a ride. Which horse do you think you’d like to ride first?

It was a question, and Bucky balked. He hated questions, especially those that weren’t ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ like the one Steve had just asked. He hated having to answer in words that people expected you to tell them no matter how much the memory burned in your mind, of cars and noise and spraying glass and blood—

“It’s okay,” Steve was saying, “you don’t have to answer that. I’ll just choose one for you tomorrow. It’s okay.”

Bucky opened his eyes, realizing that he'd ended up crouched down by the horse’s hooves with his eyes squeezed shut and his one fist pressed to the side of his head. Steve was looking at him with concern on his face. But he hadn’t come any closer and he hadn’t asked Bucky what happened.

Bucky stood, fist still clenched at his side, his gaze focused on the sawdust on the stall floor.

“You don’t like questions much, do you?” Steve asked. Then, “I just asked you a question. Sorry. Ignore it.”

Bucky flicked his eyes up to Steve. Steve looked chagrined, but also a little pleased with himself, like he’d just figured out something important.

“It’s getting too cool in here for me.” Steve shivered. “I’m heading inside. You’re welcome to join me if you like. Phil will probably make us hot chocolate.” He grinned.

Bucky found himself smiling back for a brief second. Steve had understood how much Bucky hated questions. Steve wasn’t going to ask him anything, at least not now. Bucky could let himself relax, like his lungs were able to expand. He stepped out of the stall and came to stand a few feet from Steve, glancing at him and then away, over and over.

Steve picked up the coat where Bucky had dropped it. “This is my coat, by the way,” he said conversationally. “And that was my bed you were sleeping in. But now I know that you hate questions, so you’re probably not going to ask me if you can use my things, so I’m just going to say that you can. Okay? Anything of mine that you want to borrow, feel free.”

Bucky drew his eyebrows down. He hadn’t meant to take Steve’s things. He wasn’t used to other people at all, really.

“I mean it,” Steve said. “You can use my stuff. Honest.”

Bucky nodded to let Steve know that he’d understood. Steve grinned at him.

“You really can communicate,” Steve said. His smile widened. “I’m really happy to know that.”

Bucky smiled back, and he even held Steve’s gaze for a second. Bucky really liked the way Steve looked when he smiled.

“Come on,” Steve said, gently slapping Bucky on his shoulder. “Let’s go inside.”

The touch was a bit of a surprise, but not unwelcome, and Bucky realized that he might not mind it too much if Steve touched him. He pulled on Steve’s jacket and followed him out.

Phil texted Clint to let him know that James had been found, tucked his phone back into his pocket with a sigh of relief and turned to head back to the house.

In the short time he’d been out looking, the temperature had dropped further and his breath was misting with every exhale. This late in winter the cold was damp and seeped through his coat straight into his bones. His right shoulder ached where Loki’s bullet had smashed through it and he winced as he rotated it backwards. I should probably take a hot bath tonight, Phil mused as he followed the curve of the driveway. He knew how stiff his shoulder could be after a night like this.

He slowed and looked speculatively at the barn as he passed, wondering if he should check up on Steve and James before he went inside. He decided not to. Steve’s text might've been short, but he'd obviously used the word ‘safe’ so Phil would know he was okay. Maybe Steve and James were actually making friends there in the barn, and wouldn’t that be a miracle.

Phil took a quick glance at the woods to see if Clint was on his way back. In the distance he could see the bobbing of a light coming towards the house and Phil smiled to himself. Pepper had texted him before to let him know that Natasha had arrived safely too, so as of this moment all the children were accounted for.

He took a moment before he opened the door, feeling the post-adrenaline exhaustion wash over him. He’d been terrified when he'd realized that James left. James seemed so vulnerable in his silence and separation from the world. The minute Phil had opened his file back in January, he’d known he’d wanted this boy, wanted to do whatever he could to make him feel safe.

Today may have been a train wreck, but tomorrow was another day.

Feeling marginally better, Phil opened the door and went inside. The house was dark. Phil frowned, remembered distinctly that the lights had been on when he’d left with Steve and Clint. He turned on the living room lights before he took off his winter gear and hung it up.

He could hear the unmistakable sound of someone trying to stifle their crying.

Phil went into the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks.

“Oh my God.”

It looked like a bomb had gone off.

The cupboards were open, with at least two hanging from torn hinges. One had been pulled off completely and was on the floor, cracked in two. All of the cupboards were empty, with every cup, bowl and plate smashed across the floor and every surface. The drawers had been ripped out, cutlery and cookware scattered everywhere. The plates from dinner had been thrown against the sink’s back splash, splattering congealing masses of pasta and sauce and broken pottery like a particularly gory murder scene. There was even a dent in the dishwasher.

And sitting right in the middle of it was the dejected figure of Tony Stark. He had a red-stained tea towel wrapped around one hand. His other hand covered his face as he wept.

“Tony!” Phil dropped to his knees beside him. He lifted the hand holding the tea towel, his chest seizing when he realized it was soaked through with blood. “What the hell happened?”

“He wouldn’t talk to me,” Tony wept, his words muffled by his hand. “He wouldn’t look at me! It was like I didn’t exist.”

“I’m going to turn the light on,” Phil warned as he flicked on the overhead. He knelt back down and carefully pulled the towel off of Tony’s left palm. “How bad are you hurt?”

“I don’t know,” Tony moaned. He wiped at his eyes but the tears were still falling.

The gash on Tony’s palm was nearly three-fourths across and deep enough that Phil could see muscle. “Jesus Tony,” Phil muttered. “You’re going to need stitches."

Tony shrugged, then winced as Phil bound it up again with the towel and pulled it tight.

“I’m sorry I’m hurting you,” Phil said.

“No you’re not!” Tony spat. “You’re the one who brought the freakazoid here. You don’t care at all!”

“Of course I care,” Phil said immediately. “You matter to me. So much.”

“But you don’t care that mute-boy won’t talk to me!” Tony cried. “You’re so worried about his safety, and his feelings! What about me?”

Carefully, Phil sat beside Tony, moving so that one arm was behind Tony’s back, Tony’s bloody hand clasped tightly in his as he applied direct pressure. “I need to get you to the hospital,” Phil said, holding Tony tightly to him. “Can we talk about this later? Please?”

“Why don’t I matter?” Tony bent his knees up and wrapped his arm around them, pulling away from Phil as he did so. “Why am I never important?” His shoulders were shaking with the violence of his tears.

“Tony.” Tony's sobs were heartbreaking. “Tony, I don’t understand. James isn’t ignoring you, he’s scared to death of talking. He doesn’t talk at all. To anyone. Not just you.”

“I don’t care!” Tony shouted. He pushed away from Phil and clambered to his feet. “I don’t give a shit about James! Or his fucking problems or—or the reason why he ignores everyone!” He swiped a knife off the counter top with his right hand and threw it against the fridge as hard as he could. It hit the stainless steel surface with a sharp clang, and fell to the floor, leaving a long scratch in its wake.

“Tony!” Phil cried. “That’s enough!”

“What’s going on?” Clint said from the doorway. He was still wearing his coat. His large eyes were wide with fear.

“It’s all right,” Phil said. “Tony just needs a moment here, so if you could just go upstairs—“

Go away!” Tony screamed. He grabbed a cup that'd somehow managed to stay intact and flung it towards Clint. It smashed against the doorframe beside Clint’s head. A second later Clint bolted through the door, slamming it closed behind him.

“Clint!” Phil called fruitlessly. He turned back to Tony, grabbing at his shoulders. “That’s enough!

“Don’t touch me!” Tony shoved against Phil with both hands, leaving a bloody smear on Phil’s shirt. His foot came down on some shards, catching on the bottom of his shoe and he slipped.

Phil caught him before he fell. “Enough,” he said again, pulling the boy in for a tight hug he tried to make confining and reassuring at once. “That’s enough Tony. I know you’re upset, but I need you to calm down.”

“You don’t know how I feel!” Tony struggled against him. “You don’t care!

“That’s not true,” Phil said. “And like I said before, I really want to talk to you about this. But I need to get you to the hospital. And now Clint’s run off. So I need to find him, too. I can’t take care of either of you if you continue to carry on like this. Understand?”

“No one cares about me,” Tony continued as if he hadn’t heard a single thing Phil had said. “Not you. Not my dad, not Obadiah. Not anyone!”

“Tony,” Phil said sharply. “I care about you. I care deeply about you and I really want to talk to you about this. But if I don’t get you to hospital you’re going to lose the use of your hand!” Phil wasn’t sure if that was true, but at this point he’d say just about anything to get Tony to listen.

Luckily, it seemed to work. Tony moved so he could stare at the bloody cloth wrapped around his palm. He looked at Phil, his brown eyes filled with pain and fear. “The cut’s that bad?”

“It’s really deep,” Phil said. “It needs stitches and a proper bandage so that it doesn’t get infected. And I need a hospital for that.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and keyed his contact list. “And I also need to call Natasha. Clint’s gone and she’s probably the best person to try to find him right now. As soon as I call her, we can leave.” He put the phone to his ear.

It was Pepper who answered. “Hello?”

“Where’s Natasha?”

“In the bathroom,” Pepper said. “I saw it was you so I picked up her phone.”

“Pepper, I need you both back here immediately,” Phil said without preamble. “Tony’s hurt and Clint’s run off. I need—“

“Tony’s hurt?” Pepper interrupted. “How bad?”

“He’s sliced up his palm,” Phil replied. “I need you to bring Natasha back here so that she can go find Clint. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” Pepper said. “We’ll be there in five. Do you want me to take Tony to the hospital?”

“I just need you to bring Natasha here—“ Phil started when he heard the door open. He turned to see Steve and James standing in the foyer staring at the wreck of a kitchen, a look of total shock on both their faces.

“What the hell happened?” Steve’s face was a mask of disbelief. James immediately moved towards the door.

Don’t let him run!” Phil bellowed at Steve in panic.

Immediately, Steve turned and grabbed James by the arm. His left arm.

James lips curled down in a silent snarl and he slammed his fist into the side of Steve’s head.

Steve reared back, grimacing in pain, but to his credit he didn’t let go of James’ arm. Instead he threw his weight forward, shoving his shoulder into James’ chest and sending them both crashing to the floor.

“Phil?” Pepper was shouting through the phone. “Phil!”

“I’m going to need you to take Tony to the hospital,” Phil said. “Get here as fast as you can.” He keyed off the phone. “Tony, I need to go help Steve.” He gripped the boy’s shoulders. “Will you let me do that?”

Tony nodded, his wounded hand now clutched tightly to his chest. Blood was trickling down his forearm and dripping off his elbow. “I think I need to sit down,” He said faintly.

“Absolutely,” Phil said, helping him to the ground. He turned back to Steve and James, who were still fighting each other. Steve was clearly trying not to hurt James, who seemed to have no such compunction. Steve’s cheek was cut and his left eye was already blackening.

“Stop!” Steve was shouting at James. “I’m not gonna fight you! You’re my friend!”

James’ mouth moved in a silent yell and he lashed out at Steve again, managing to loosen his right arm out of Steve’s grip and hitting him in the face.

Instinctively Steve moved away from the blow and James took advantage to shove Steve off him. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the door.

“No!” Phil shouted, running towards him, ready to bring James down to the ground himself.

He needn’t have worried. There was a streak of red and James was suddenly back on the floor, Natasha pinning him to the ground with her knees. “Don’t you dare!” she hissed at him. She turned to Phil. “I’ve got him, papa,” she said, and then her eyes grew large. “What happened?”

Pepper stepped into the house, her expression grim as she took in the destroyed kitchen, Steve’s battered face and the fact that Natasha was now holding James against the floor. “Come on Tony,” she said as she helped him to his feet. He weaved as he stood, but Pepper steadied him and he nodded at her when he was ready to walk. She took his jacket off the hook and slung it over his shoulders. “Let’s go.” Meekly he followed her out.

Steve groaned and sat up. He wiped at his nose. The side of his hand came back smeared with blood. “Ow.”

Phil knelt beside him. “Do you need a doctor?”

“Just some ice.” Steve winced. He looked over at James, who had gone very, very still under Natasha’s weight. “He sure packs a punch.”

“Definitely the strong, silent type.” Natasha smirked without humour. She looked at James again. “Are you going to try to run?”

He met her gaze for the barest of seconds and then looked away.

“Good,” she said, and then got off him. He immediately got up and went upstairs.

“I’m going to…” Steve gestured at the stairs as well, indicating he was going to follow the other teen.

“Thanks,” Phil breathed. “Thanks for keeping an eye on him.”

Steve nodded and headed for the stairs. He contemplated the fridge briefly in the disaster of the kitchen and then shook his head. "I think I’ll wait for that ice.”

“I’ll bring you some. And maybe some Tylenol?”

Steve nodded at Phil and then went up.

Natasha was at the door, wrapping a thick scarf around her neck. “Why’d Clint run? Was it Steve fighting with James?”

“Tony threw a cup at him.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Tony can be so stupid sometimes.”

“Yes.” Phil had to agree. “Do you know where he is?”

Natasha nodded. “I’ve got a good idea.”

“Let me get my coat,” Phil said. “I’ll help you find him.”

Natasha shook her head. “I don’t need any help.”

Phil took her rejection for what it was. She was subtly telling him that she was still too angry to want his company. He could respect that. “Alright,” he said. “But please text me as soon as you find him, or in half-an-hour. Whichever comes first.”

“Yes.” She grabbed the flashlight Clint dropped before and left. Her boots crunched on the shards of the cup as she left.

“I love you,” Phil called after her.

“I love you too,” she sighed as the door closed. It was a small victory, but after the night that they’d all had, he’d take it.

Phil turned back to the kitchen. It looked even worse than when he’d first come in and would probably take several hours to set to rights.

“Fuck me,” Phil muttered. He scrubbed his face with his hands as he reviewed the day in his mind: The children’s reactions to James; Natasha’s anger; Tony’s unexpected violence; Clint’s running and Steve and James’ fight. In one evening it felt like each child had experienced a profound setback. James was apparently a massive trigger for all of them.

Phil closed his eyes. He’d wanted to help James so badly, but it was brutally evident that James’ issues were well beyond his skill set. He had four other children to think about. There was no way he could continue to let this happen.

He’d never felt like such a failure in his life.

He picked up his phone from where he’d dropped it on the floor and pulled up a number, then place the phone to his ear, the other hand pressed over his eyes.

As he suspected, the line was picked up on the first ring.

“Melinda?” Phil said, “I need to talk to you.”

Steve’s face was a mess.

Bucky hadn’t meant to hit him that hard. He hadn’t meant to hit him at all, really. It was just that Steve had grabbed his left arm. And he'd remembered.

Bucky shuddered and rolled over on his bed to face the window. He’d left the curtain up so he could see the barn and the paddock beyond, dimly lit from the outside lights. The moon was out, a thin crescent and there were hundreds of stars.

In the reflection of the glass, he could see only the barest outlines of his face, like he didn’t really exist at all.

But Steve had seen him. Steve had stood with him in the barn. He’d been quiet. And what had Bucky done to thank him? Punched him in the face.

But Steve had grabbed his left arm.

Bucky shuddered again. The sick feeling of being held, of being trapped still clung to him. He rolled over onto his back and rubbed the remainder of his left arm with his right hand. You’re okay, he thought, echoing Phil’s earlier words in his mind. Nothing bad is happening.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Steve sit up and lean against his headboard. The ice Phil had brought him before was melting in a bag on his night table beside an empty glass and a bottle of Tylenol. The cut on his cheek was superficial, but it was still bruised. It and the bruising around his eye looked nearly black in the low light.

Steve was looking at him. “I’m sorry I grabbed you,” he said.

Bucky sat up and swung his legs over so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. He was still wearing his jeans and shirt from before, unwilling to get changed with so much tension coursing through him. Steve was wearing sleep pants and nothing else. The skin of his broad chest gleamed softly in the near-darkness.

Bucky shrugged and dropped his eyes.

“No, I mean it,” Steve said, moving so that he was sitting on the edge of his bed, facing Bucky. “I didn’t want you to run, but I probably could’ve found a better way to stop you than grabbing your injured arm.” He winced. “Did I hurt you?” Immediately he shook his head. “Sorry. Question. Never mind.”

Bucky tilted his head. Steve’s question wasn’t actually bad. Steve wasn’t asking for words; Bucky knew how to answer without words. He lifted his stump and shook his head ‘no,’ letting his gaze touch Steve’s eyes for a brief second, then dropped them again. He shrugged.

“Oh, good.” Steve sighed. “With the way you reacted, I thought I must’ve hurt you.”

Bucky looked up at the intense sound of relief in Steve’s voice. Steve really hadn’t wanted to hurt him. He probably didn’t even know why holding Bucky’s left arm was so terrible.

Bucky shook his head again. He crossed the room and sat beside Steve on his bed, far enough away so that their legs weren’t touching. Slowly he reached out and gently pressed against Steve’s cheek with the tip of one finger.

“Yeah, it hurts.” Steve grinned. “But I’ve had worse. Not recently mind you, but…”

Bucky frowned and dropped his gaze, then looked up to meet Steve’s eyes.

Steve’s smile widened. “Apology accepted.”

Bucky smiled back and for once he didn’t drop his eyes. Normally he hated holding people’s gaze, but it was easy to look Steve in the eyes. There was nothing hidden there.

Bucky traced the edge of Steve’s eyebrow and around the curve of Steve’s eye, where the area was swollen and purple. Steve swallowed visibly. “That hurts too,” Steve whispered.

Bucky nodded, letting his fingers rest on Steve’s cheek. He had the sudden desire to touch Steve everywhere, to let his hands follow the line of Steve’s neck to his shoulders and across the hard muscles of his chest and then lower. He licked his lips.

Steve inhaled sharply but didn’t move. Bucky took that as permission and let his hand drift along the side of Steve’s neck to the junction of his shoulder, feeling the warmth of his skin under his palm. He moved closer.

“I—I like you too,” Steve said softly, “but I’m not sure we know each other well enough for this.”

Bucky nodded. That was probably true. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually wanted to touch someone. And Steve made him feel safe. He slid his hand down Steve’s back, then up again to Steve’s neck, stroking the other boy like he had Ginger.

“That’s nice,” Steve murmured. His head dropped forward. Bucky grinned to himself, glad his touch could make Steve happy. He started rubbing the base of Steve’s neck with the pad of his thumb. Steve made a contented noise as Bucky began working out the knots in Steve’s neck. He worked on Steve until his hand started aching and he gently let it drop to Steve’s waist.

Steve turned his head so that his forehead was touching Bucky’s. “Thanks James,” he murmured. “That was nice.”

Bucky pressed his forehead against Steve’s, enjoying the sensation of being so close to him.

“If getting beat up means I get a massage, I’ll let you hit me anytime,” Steve chucked. He straightened and shifted so he and Bucky were no longer quite so close together, gently breaking the spell that had formed between them. “And now I’m totally ready for sleep.” He eyed Bucky’s jeans. “You going to get changed for bed?” He winced. “Damn! Question!”

Bucky shrugged and smiled.

Steve blinked. “That’s okay? Me asking you stuff. It’s okay?”

Bucky nodded, and then moved his hand by his mouth and then moved his hand in a negating gesture. It'd been a long time since he’d tried to communicate like this, and gesturing felt weird. But it’d be worth it if Steve understood. He looked at the other boy and waited.

“So,” Steve said slowly, clearly figuring out what Bucky was trying to tell him, “I can ask you questions as long as I don’t expect you to tell me the answer?”

Bucky nodded again, smiling broadly.

Steve smiled back. “I can do that.”

Bucky gave a sharp nod of approval and then stood, shucking off his shirt in one swift movement. He knew Steve was watching him but he didn’t mind. Part of him liked the idea of Steve looking at him. He moved his hand to the button of his jeans.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Steve swallow again. “G’night!” he said quickly and turned over so he was facing the wall.

Bucky chuckled silently at Steve’s reaction. Maybe he was shyer than he seemed. Bucky finished taking off his jeans and then he folded his shirt and pants as well as he could with one hand and then put them neatly over his boots, ready for the morning. He climbed into bed, pulling the blankets up to his shoulders and turned to look out the window.

He could hear Steve shifting in the bed beside him as he settled into sleep. He could hear the rhythm of his own breathing, the gentle beating of his heart. He liked the fact that Steve was in the same room. It made him feel calm; content and safe.

He fell asleep easily. His last thoughts were of watching the horses running in the paddock in the morning.

Pepper glanced over to where Tony was resting in the passenger seat and bit her lip.

She was taking the back roads into town towards the small hospital. The main streets would be better lit, but she wanted to be able to speed a little to get there. The Poughkeepsie police department might’ve been small, but they took their jobs seriously. She didn’t want to be stopped for speeding when Tony needed to get to a doctor.

He’d tilted his chair back and curled up with his eyes closed, his coat still around his shoulders. There were blood stains on the front of his shirt from clutching his hand to his chest, and more blood soaking through the tea-towel, and slow, purple drops rolling his arm and drying somewhere around his elbow. A few had stained large, dark circles on his jeans. His skin looked terribly pale against his dark hair, and for a terrifying second she couldn’t see the rise and fall of his chest.

“Tony!” She said, fear making her voice sharp.

His eyes flew open, large and nearly black in the dim light from the dashboard. “What?”

“I…was scared you’d died. I wanted to see if you were okay.”

He looked at her. “I’m fine.”

She frowned at him. “No, you're not.”

He frowned back. “Then why’d you ask if you know so much?”

“Why’d you trash the kitchen, if you’re ‘fine’?” she shot back.

He turned to look out the window. “I’ll call some people tomorrow. It’ll be fixed by dinner.”

“The fact you can use your mother’s money to fix it doesn’t really explain why you trashed it in the first place,” she said. “Having the financial means to correct your mistakes doesn’t mean you can just make them with impunity.”

“Thanks for those words of wisdom, Gandhi.” He scowled at her. “Maybe I wasn’t thinking of my ‘financial means’ when I was doing it.” He made air quotes with his right hand.

“Well, what were you thinking?” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Obviously not your siblings, because it sure as hell looked like the damage you caused set a few of them off—“

“Jesus Christ!” Tony swore. “Why does everyone care so fucking much about James?

Pepper turned to cast him a swift glance before turning her attention back to the road. “I meant Natasha and Clint. Natasha was planning on staying at my place until Phil called us back to help find him.”

“Oh,” Tony mumbled.

“So, you trashed the kitchen because of James?” Pepper said after Tony had gone uncharacteristically quiet.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“But you do want to slice your hand up while trashing the kitchen.”

Tony scowled at her. “I didn’t mean to hurt myself.”

“Only the kitchen?”

He shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Seemed like you were pretty angry.”

“Well, wouldn’t you be?” He shifted in his seat so he was facing her. “Phil invites Edward Scissorhands home and then acts perfectly okay with him ignoring everyone?” He sat back. “You can’t tell me you’d be okay with that.”

“No, I probably wouldn’t,” Pepper agreed. “But I can honestly say that I don’t think I’d tear apart the kitchen to let everyone know.”

He turned to face her. “What do you want me to say, Pepper? That I’m happy that James is here? I’m ecstatic to be ignored in my own house? Again?” He shook his head. “I just can’t do that. Sorry.”

She pulled up to a stop sign, checked the road and made a left. They were about ten minutes out from the hospital. “How’s your hand?” she asked quietly.

He shrugged and turned back towards the window. “It hurts. I’ll be fine.”

Pepper allowed herself the luxury of looking at him for a moment. She remembered the first time she’d seen him, in his fancy clothes and his even fancier car. He was only a month older than her, but she’d been star-struck just the same. His dark good looks and toned body hadn’t hurt either, and his easy athleticism when he rode his horse or sparred with Thor during their martial arts instructions had certainly been a turn-on. It'd taken all of her self-control since he’d arrived in October to not just swoon at his feet.

But he’d been living with Phil and the others for over four months, and in that time she felt like she was getting to know more of the real Tony; the true parts of him that he kept so carefully separated from the public image. That Tony was caring, and kind, and immensely generous and could be incredibly thoughtful. Everyone who’d ever seen one of his TV interviews knew that he was fiercely intelligent and hilariously funny, but Pepper felt very privileged to have seen the softer, more vulnerable side of him.

And when she was honest with herself, she’d admit that somewhere along the line she’d fallen in love with Tony Stark, warts and all.

“What’d you mean ‘ignored in your own house again?’” she asked after a couple minutes of silence.

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

She smirked. “I don’t think you’ve ever said something that meant ‘nothing’ in your life.”

He looked at her, but there was a small smile on his lips. “How’d you know?”

“Maybe I pay attention, Mr. Stark.”

His smile broadened. “Maybe I like being paid attention to, Ms. Potts.”

She smiled back. “Just answer the question.”

He let out a breath. “My dad didn’t really talk to me when I was growing up. That’s what I meant. Okay?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said immediately. “That must have been awful.”

He shrugged again. “You get used to it.”

“I don’t think that’s something you can actually get used to,” she said. “I can see why James not responding to you would hurt so much.”

“It didn’t hurt.”

She made a face at him. “And the kitchen just trashed itself.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine. Whatever.”

“Have you told Phil how James is making you feel?”

“I didn’t really get a chance, what with my cut hand and James trying to kill Steve and all.”

“I think he’d like to know.”

Tony looked away. “I don’t think he’d care.”

“Of course he would!” Pepper said immediately. “He loves you!”

“Yeah? Well, that’d be a first.”

Pepper’s heart clenched with the audible pain in Tony’s flippant remark. “You don’t think you’re loved?”

Once again Tony shrugged. “Never gave it a lot of thought, really. Dad didn’t. Obadiah didn’t. Mom was too stoned on Valium to show it one way or the other.” He smiled, but it was all sadness. “Maybe Phil loves me. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe I just wouldn’t know what it’d look like if I had it.”

“I love you,” Pepper blurted before she had a chance to think about what she was saying. “If that matters.”

Tony stared at her. His eyes huge and dark. “What?”

“I love you,” she repeated. Her heart was hammering. They’d arrived at the hospital, and deftly she maneuvered her car into a parking spot by the ER. “Do you have any change? Because I only have bills and my credit card, and parking here is always so expensive—“

“How?” Tony had undone his seatbelt and he was turned entirely to face her. “Why?

Pepper snapped off her belt and turned in her seat to face him too. “Because you’re wonderful,” she said simply. “You’re sweet and kind and funny and caring and incredibly smart and really handsome. Kind of ridiculously handsome actually—“

And then Tony was kissing her. His mouth covering hers and his unhurt hand tangled in her hair, pulling her close to him. He kissed like he did everything: with intense curiosity and all-consuming focus, and Pepper never, ever wanted it to end.

Finally, and way too soon, he pulled away, his forehead resting against hers and his hand against her cheek. She had her arms around his shoulders, her hands stroking the lean muscles of his back.

“I love you, too,” he whispered. “Ever since you told me you read Car and Driver, I’ve been madly in love with you. I just never thought you’d feel the same.”

“How could I not?” She laughed, feeling light and giddy and overwhelmed with happiness. “I love everything about you. How could I not?”

“So many reasons,” he murmured against her mouth. “But I’m not going to tell you them so you don’t change your mind.”

She laughed again. “I’m sure I know a lot of them already, Tony. I’m pretty good with social media.”

“Don’t believe any of them,” he said quickly. “None of them are true.”

She laughed another time and brought him to her, running her fingers through his thick hair.
He kissed her again, soft and sweet and full of tenderness. Reluctantly he pulled away. “I wanna do that all night,” he breathed. “But I think I’m getting blood on your seat.”

“Okay,” she said, forcing herself to exhale. “Stitches first, then kissing.”

“Sounds like a plan.” He moved to get out of the car, and then stopped to kiss her again. “I love you.”

“I love you,” she answered back immediately.

His grin was blinding.

“Get out of the car,” she giggled.

“Ma’am,” he winked at her. And they both stepped out into the harsh lights of the hospital parking. Tony reached for her hand.

“You need to keep direct pressure on it.” Pepper gestured at his bleeding palm.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Ms. Potts.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Stark.” She grinned as she adjusted his coat around his shoulders. She fell in step beside him.

Natasha entered the arena on silent feet, keeping to the shadows.

It had taken her only as long to find Clint as it took her to cross the yard and go into the arena through the doors that connected it to the barn. Carefully, shielding the phone’s light from horse and rider, she sent a quick text to Phil, letting him know that she was with Clint and they’d be back in a while.

Clint was riding his big grey mare he’d lovingly nicknamed ‘Horse.’ He was shirtless and shoeless, bent over the horse’s neck, gripping her bare back with the power of his legs alone. He hadn’t put on a bridle either and they were cantering around the arena. Natasha knew that if it were even marginally warmer Clint would’ve taken the horse onto the driveway and down the road and probably wouldn’t have returned until morning.

Even inside it was cold enough that Natasha could see her breath, but Clint's torso was sheened in sweat.

And, as always, she marveled at how gorgeous he was. The grace and strength of the muscles on his well-formed body, and the look of intense concentration on his face. He was a good-looking boy with a quirky handsomeness that Natasha had always found deeply appealing. But he was absolutely devastating when he smiled.

He wasn’t smiling now. He circled around the farthest edge of the arena, and even though she could see how hard he was pushing himself and Horse, she could also see that it hadn't taken the edge off whatever it was that Clint was feeling.

On the next pass, Clint stood up. His bare feet conformed completely to Horse's back, his knees and hips easily accommodating her balanced gait. He extended his arms out to the sides, standing as smoothly as if he were on the ground.

Natasha caught her breath as she watched him. In the eleven months since Clint had arrived, she’d seen Clint trick ride before. Phil had even bought him a trick riding saddle as a present when Clint had fully healed from his injuries. But she’d never seen him ride like this. Like he was trying to lose himself in the cadence of the animal. It was stunning and tragic and thrilling all at once as he stood on the horse for two more loops around the track. Then he started adding jumps and turns and balancing on one foot, his tricks getting more elaborate and more dangerous, and Natasha suddenly knew she had to stop him.

“Clint!” she hollered, sure he wouldn't falter from her calling his name. He’d been a circus performer since he was very young after all, and those audiences weren’t known for their refinement.

Clint turned to look at her and immediately sat down on the horse’s back, moving her to a trot and steering her over to where Natasha stood.

“Natasha?” He stopped the horse right in front of where she was standing. He was breathing heavily, mist forming with every exhale. His chest was gleaming with sweat and his hairline was damp. The scar that neatly bisected his upper abdomen was clear even in the low light. He wiped at his forehead with his wrist. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to find you,” she said, tossing him his t-shirt. He might be warm from his ride but she knew he’d become chilled quickly in the cold air. “Phil was worried.”

“I was right here,” Clint said as he pulled on the t-shirt and used the hem to wipe at his face.

“I don’t think he knew that,” she said drolly. “That’s probably why he sent me to find you.”

Clint grinned. “You knew where to find me.”

She grinned back. He was so beautiful when he smiled. “I know you pretty well.”

He gestured towards his pile of clothes and she tossed him his sweater. “It’s cold in here.”

“It sure is when you’re not working hard,” she agreed. “Why were you doing that?”

“I thought Horse could use the exercise.”

Natasha cocked her head. “At nine at night? She was probably sleeping.”

His grin was back. “She can nap tomorrow.”

“Maybe, but we can’t,” Natasha said. “Its school tomorrow and you know that Mr. Odinson likes an early start. Come on, I’ll help you brush down Horse and then we can get back.”

“I need to cool her down first.” Clint slung one leg over Horse’s back and pulled on the socks and boots that Natasha handed him. “I’m okay to take care of her. You go in.”

Natasha frowned. “Not without you.”

He slid off the side of the horse and landed gracefully on his feet. “I’m not really ready to go in yet,” he confessed. “Maybe in a bit.”

“Tony’s gone to the hospital,” Natasha said as she fell into step beside Clint as they walked around the track to help cool Horse down. He was leading Horse with a hand on her mane and promises of sugar when she got back to her stall, and like magic she was following. “So you don’t have to worry about him throwing anything else at you.”

“That didn’t bother me,” Clint said quickly. Too quickly.

Natasha shot him a look. “I know you’re lying.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are,” Natasha said. “I know how much conflict bothers you, and I’d bet that getting a cup whipped at your head would probably bother you a lot. So, admit it.”

“I just hate fighting, okay?” Clint said. “And Tony was yelling and bleeding, and throwing things around… You would’ve left too.”

Natasha shook her head. “No I wouldn’t.”

“Sure you would,” Clint said. “No one wants to be around that bullshit.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Natasha repeated. “I stay and fight. You know that.”

Clint stopped walking. “Are you saying I don’t?”

She stopped too. “Are you saying you do?”

“You don’t think I’d stay and fight,” Clint said, incredulous. “You think I’m a coward!” He started walking again, his jaw clenched. Natasha immediately followed.

“I didn’t say that.”

“But you thought it,” he insisted. “You think that, because I don’t fight every chance I get, that I’m a coward.”

“Well, do you?” Natasha was getting angry. She hadn’t come into the barn to fight with him, but clearly he wasn’t going to let this go. “Because to me, it looks like you take off when things get even a little bit scary.”

He blinked, and then opened his mouth as if he were going to deny it, and then just shook his head. “You don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?” Natasha said. He and Horse had sped up and she needed to jog a few steps to catch up.

“My past—my life!” he snapped at her. “If you had any idea of what I grew up with—“ He shut his mouth abruptly. “Never mind.”

“Well, maybe I’d have an idea if you’d ever told me!” Natasha snapped back. “I’ve known you for almost a year and you haven’t told me anything!”

“Well, maybe I want to spare you the gory details.” Clint reached up and touched the horse’s ears. “Getting cooler, girl,” he said to the animal with a pat on her neck.

They continued to walk around in silence for another several minutes as they waited for Horse to cool down.

“Maybe I don’t want you to,” Natasha blurted when the silence had gone on for too long. “Spare me the gory details. Maybe I want to hear all of it.”

Clint sighed and touched Horse’s ears again, and then slid his hand down her neck and to her chest, evaluating her temperature. “We can go in now,” he said as he led Horse to the arena gate and took her through. He maneuvered Horse into the barn with a gentle shove of his hips, and then coaxed her the rest of the way with some solid pats to her haunches. “Here girl,” he murmured to her, grabbing some sugar cubes from a container propped on a ledge, feeding her from his palm.

Natasha picked up two curry combs and handed him one, taking her spot on Horse’s far side. She started to brush the animal in a circular pattern, getting the sweat out of her hide. “Clint,” Natasha tried again. “We’re friends. Friends should be able to tell each other anything.”

“And you’ve told me everything?” he challenged. “Really.”

She paused. “I’ve told you enough.”

“Nice, Tash,” he said. “So there’s two sets of rules. Nice.”

“At least I’ve told you something!” she protested. “You haven’t told me anything!

“Fine!” He raised his hands in defeat. “Okay! What do you want to know?”

“Why’d you run away when Tony threw the cup at you?”

Clint narrowed his eyes. “It’s too hard to explain.”

“Fine!” she shouted at him. “If you won’t tell me that, tell me this! Why do you hate wearing clothes so much?”

He blanched. “I can’t tell you that.”

“Christ, Clint!” she swore. “How can we be friends if you won’t tell me anything?”

“Because it’s hard!” he said. “Why can’t you understand--?”

Because you don’t tell me anything I can understand!” she shouted at him. “You don’t tell me anything! She threw the curry comb at him, making Horse shy.

“Hey!’ Clint protested. “You’re scaring her!”

“Fine. I’ll leave then.” Natasha stormed out of the stall.

“Tash!” he called after her, coming to the stall door, “Tash! Wait!”

She stopped with her back to him, her hands in tight fists. “Well?”

She felt him put his hand on her shoulder, and almost against her will she leaned into his touch. He was her closest friend here. Probably her closest friend in the whole world besides Pepper, and yet she hardly knew anything about him. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

“I’m not a coward.” There were tears in Clint's voice, and Natasha turned to look at him. “Please, Tash,” he whispered. “You’ve got to believe me.”

“I want to,” she said back. “I really do, but you haven’t told me anything. What I see is you running from fights, and…and trying really hard to make everyone happy, and pretending that James ignoring you doesn’t bother you, when I know it does! Why do you do that?”

He rubbed his face with his hand and swiped at one eye with his fingertips. “Why do you gotta ask me this?” His voice was plaintive. “Why does it matter so much?”

Because you matter, she wanted to say. Because you shouldn’t have to be so afraid. “Because I want to be a police officer like Phil when I grow up,” she said. “And police officers aren’t friends with cowards.”

He looked like she’s slapped him. “Tash....”

“I’m going in,” Natasha said, unable to bear the devastated look on his face one second longer.

And just as she thought he wouldn’t, he didn’t come after her.

“So what’d Melinda say?”

Phil was sitting at the desk in his study, looked out the window, letting his gaze fall on the frozen landscape outside.

The morning was even colder than yesterday had been, the entirety of New York State seemingly sunk into an unseasonable cold snap that was turning February into a trial.

Phil turned to look at Sam who was sitting across from him in the comfortable leather chair in front of his desk. “She said that’d take at least a week for her to find another suitable placement. So it looks like status quo for now.”

Sam tilted his head. “So how’s status quo looking?”

Phil shrugged. “I haven’t seen anyone yet this morning.”

“So, so far, so good?”

Phil shook his head. “I asked you to come because of how badly last night went. The fact that everything seems calm right now in no way indicates that the issues are gone.”

“Point,” Sam agreed.

“Plus,” Phil continued, “You still haven’t seen the massive bruising on Steve’s face.”

“I know he didn’t walk into a door last night,” Sam said sardonically. “But I also know from what you’ve said that it seems like James might’ve been triggered by both Tony’s trashing of the kitchen and then Steve grabbing his left arm.” He raised one shoulder. “I’ve read James’ file, and he’s not listed as being a violent kid. I sincerely doubt that beating up Steve is going to be James’ usual pastime.”

“And that’s another thing.” Phil leaned forward on his desk. “Tony trashed the kitchen. He sliced his hand nearly down to the bone, Sam! I’ve never seen him that upset.”

Sam looked at him. “You know that I feel that kids sometimes need to get upset.”

“I remember with Natasha,” Phil sighed. “And in that instance, you were right. If I hadn’t pushed Natasha last year, she probably wouldn’t have started grieving her mother’s death properly. But I’m not sure that Tony falls into the same category.”

“Regardless of his privilege, Tony’s background is as hard as the rest of them,” Sam said. “Maybe harder because of how he’s had to work to maintain that public façade. He probably got very, very good at shoving it all down.”

“Maybe,” Phil agreed with a small frown. “But I’m still not happy with the results. You going to talk to him this morning?”

Sam grinned at Phil. “I sure didn’t get up at oh-dark-early to drive here in sub-zero temperatures in order to just sit with you.”

Phil grinned back. “It’s a twenty minute drive.”

“It’s the thought that counts.”

“You know how much I appreciate you coming out here,” Phil said. “I’ve asked Thor to rotate the kids through their lessons this morning so each one has some time with you.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Even James?”

Phil hardened his mouth. “I’m not sure there’d be a point.”

“This doesn’t sound like you,” Sam said. “You seem pretty shut down about this kid.”

“He’s been here less than twenty-four hours and already everyone’s in crisis,” Phil said. “Clint ran for the first time in months, James blackened Steve’s eye, and Tony…“ He shook his head. “The kids don’t feel safe with James around, Sam. I don’t think he can stay.”


Both Phil and Sam whirled towards the door.

Steve was standing there, he was in a sweatshirt and jeans and he had a jar of peanut butter held in one hand. His expression showing utter betrayal.

“Steve?” Phil said stupidly.

Steve marched into the room, his eyes narrowed and his mouth a firm line. He stopped by Phil’s desk. “What do you mean, James can’t stay?”

Phil glanced at Sam, who made a face of ‘it’s all yours’ and sat back in his chair. “After the events of yesterday—including the fact that he hit you—I'm not sure that this is the best place for James to be,” Phil said in what he hoped was a calming tone.

“What?” Steve said again. “Tony hit me practically the second he got into the house and you didn’t make him leave!”

“The situation was different—“ Phil started, but Same was looking entirely too curious as to how Phil would explain that, which made him pause.

“How was it different?” Steve said. “Tony hit me, James hit me. Even Natasha’s hit me, and you let her stay.”

“Natasha was here first,” Phil said. The reason sounded lame even to his own ears.

“So why didn’t you make me leave after Natasha hit me, then?” Steve spat. “I even offered to go!”

“Because it wasn’t your fault,” Phil said. “Just like Tony hitting you and James hitting you wasn’t your fault.”

Steve crossed his arms, the jar of peanut butter resting against one bicep. “James hitting me was my fault, Mr. Coulson. I grabbed his arm.”

Phil exhaled forcefully, wincing internally to hear Steve switch to his formal way of expressing himself. “It’s different.”

“So, it’s not an issue if it’s my fault when it’s James?” Steve’s lips twisted. “That’s not fair.”

“Maybe I don’t like seeing you get hit!” Phil said, angry now. “And maybe I don’t like seeing Clint running away, or Natasha feeling like she has to leave, or Tony so upset that he slices his palm nearly to the bone!”

“And maybe I don’t like seeing you being so unfair!” Steve shot back. “You’ve given all of us second chances! Why not James?”

“I just don’t think this is the best place for him to be.” Phil said, trying to sound calmer than he was.

“I completely disagree,” Steve snarled. “This is the best place for James to be, and you know it!”

“Steve,” Phil said, trying to keep his growing anger out of his voice. “I appreciate that you feel strongly about this, but my conversation was with Sam, and therefore private. I’d be happy to talk to you about it later, but—“

“I came to ask you a question,” Steve interrupted. “Your door was open.”

“What was your question?” Phil sighed, trying to get a rein on his temper.

“If I could bring the peanut butter upstairs for James,” Steve said, gesturing with the jar. “But maybe feeding him might make him feel too welcome.”

“Sarcasm! Ouch,” Sam said.

“Steve! That’s enough!” Phil snapped. “Of course James can eat!”

“But he just can’t stay here.” Steve crossed his arms.

“Yesterday was very difficult,” Phil said. “Awful, actually. And I’d rather never have a repeat of anything like that again. And if that means that James is placed elsewhere—“

“James is my friend!” Steve shouted. “And what happened yesterday that was so bad that he’d have to leave?”

“Natasha left!” Phil found himself standing as he spoke. “Clint ran off! You got into a fistfight with him! Tony ended up in hospital! How much worse does it have to be?”

Natasha poked her head around the doorway. She was dressed in jeans and a sweater and she was eating an apple. “I heard my name,” she said by way of explanation. “Like, a couple of times.”

“James is my friend,” Steve said again. “And—and if you sent him away, I’m leaving too.” He stormed out of the room.

Phil sagged back into his chair and covered his eyes with his hands.

“That went well,” Sam said.

Natasha came further into the room, apple dangling forgotten from her fingers. “Why was Steve so angry?”

Phil looked up. “I’m having a conversation with Sam,” he said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d go finish your breakfast and get ready for today’s lessons. Thor will be here in about an hour—“

“Are you sending James away?” Natasha cut in. “Is that why Steve’s upset? Because you’re sending James away?”

“I’m not sending anyone away,” Phil said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. James wouldn’t be going anywhere until Melinda had a new placement for him. “But it is something that I need to discuss with Steve. So if you could go…“

Natasha looked between Phil and Sam, then clearly decided that Sam would be more forthcoming. “Sam, what’s going on?”

Sam looked at Phil and then raised his hands. “I’m just here to debrief with y’all about yesterday,” he said.

“I don’t need to talk about yesterday,” she said. “It was fine.”

“Great,” Sam said. “That’ll make our conversation real short.”

“Why did Steve say he was leaving?” Natasha asked Phil again.

Phil thinned his lips but said nothing, still unwilling to bring up the topic when he hadn’t sorted anything out with Steve.

“You are sending James away!” she exclaimed. “And Steve’ll leave too!” She slammed her empty hand on Phil’s desk. “Steve can’t leave!” she shouted. “He’s mine!” She bolted out of the room.

“Well,” Sam said, looking out the door where the two children had left. “That went terribly.”

Phil rubbed his eyes with one hand. “I really didn’t mean for Steve to hear any of that.”

“Or Natasha too, I’ll bet.” Sam looked towards the open door. “And there they go.”

Phil looked up. “What?”

“Steve, Natasha and a boy I haven’t met, whom I’m assuming is James, all just put on their winter gear and went outside. I guess they’re going to the barn?”

“Either that or it’s a mass exodus,” Phil muttered. He stood. “Come on,” he said to Sam. “Let’s get you some coffee and then you can set up here for your sessions. Anyone you want to talk to first?”

“Probably Tony,” Sam said, “sounds like he had the biggest issue last night. Plus it might give Steve and Natasha a chance to calm down a bit before their session.”

“And give Clint the chance to come in from the barn,” Phil said. “Oh yes,” he said at Sam’s questioning look. “Clint slept in the barn last night. I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing you’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“Don’t forget to schedule yourself some time,” Sam said as they left the study. “Our discussion about James isn’t done yet.”

“Lucky me,” Phil murmured. “Can’t wait.”

Steve and Natasha were upset.

Bucky had seen that as soon as Steve had come back to their room that morning. He had said he was going to get toast and peanut butter but he’d come back with just a grim look on his face and no food.

“Come on, we’re leaving,” Steve had said without changing his expression. Bucky had gotten up and dressed and even put on the sweatshirt that Steve had offered him to wear over his long-sleeved t-shirt. Bucky had wanted to leave quickly from Mrs. Zola’s place and hadn’t really thought to pack all his clothes.

Obediently he’d followed Steve downstairs and out the door. Natasha had joined them and now Bucky was following quietly as they ranted on their way to the barn. They were both very angry at Phil, and apparently it had something to do with him.

They weren’t angry at him, though. Steve kept touching Bucky’s shoulder as if he were making sure he were still there, and Natasha was walking close enough to him that her arm would occasionally brush against his.

It was his left arm, which made Bucky nervous, but it didn’t seem like she was going to grab it, so he was probably fine.

He was wearing a different coat today. The one that Phil had let Steve borrow that was a little smaller and fit Bucky better. Natasha had zipped it up for him. He was wearing one of Steve’s extra hats, and a purple scarf that belonged to Clint. The glove on his right hand seemed to belong to Tony once upon a time, but he’d lost the other one and Steve had said that he could probably have it.

Bucky was warm and comfortable in his borrowed layers of winter clothes, and even though Steve and Natasha were angry, he kind of enjoyed the fact that they were ranting at each other with him right there. It was almost like he was included in what they were doing, but neither one of them seemed to want him to answer, so he was safe. It felt good.

He turned to look at Steve, enjoying the way his eyes flashed bright blue in the sunlight. Steve was wearing a pair of blue earmuffs with a small white wing on each side and his blond hair was gleaming in the sun. Bucky decided he could probably look at Steve forever.

“Don’t worry, James,” Steve was saying. “If Phil kicks you out, I’ll go too.”

Bucky blinked at Steve’s words. He hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation, just letting the words drift over him as he usually did, becoming meaningless sound in the background of his mind. But these words were startling. He put his hand on Steve’s chest to stop him and tilted his head to the side.

Steve stopped walking and Natasha stopped as well, moving around Bucky until she was standing beside Steve. Steve was looking at him with a small lopsided smile. “What’cha doing?”

Natasha had tilted her head in a mirror image of Bucky. “I think he doesn’t understand what you’re saying.”

Bucky nodded. He flicked his eyes at Natasha and then glanced back at Steve.

“Oh,” Steve said. He tilted his head too, until all three of them looked like they were off-balance. It make Bucky smile. “What part don’t you understand?”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “How’s he meant to answer that?”

Bucky glanced at Natasha quickly and then looked back at Steve. He nodded his head.

“See?” Natasha indicated Bucky with her hand.

“Okay,” Steve said. He blew out a gust of air and then jammed his gloved hands into his jacket pockets. “But could we go inside first? It’s cold.”

“Wimp,” Natasha muttered, but they all went inside the barn.

Clint was there, shoveling oats into a bucket. He looked up and smiled at Steve, but the smile morphed into something confused and even sad as he looked at Natasha. He shifted his stance as if he was making himself smaller. It made Bucky feel uncomfortable and he moved closer to Steve.

“Did you sleep here?” Natasha said to Clint, and the inflection of her voice told Bucky that sleeping in the barn wasn’t something that Clint was meant to do.

“Maybe I didn’t want to come in.” Clint pretended to focus on the oats he was shoveling, but it was clear that he was just avoiding Natasha’s eyes.

“Join the club,” Steve said grimly. He then proceeded to tell Clint something about Phil and mentioned the words ‘leaving’ again and Natasha added something and Bucky stopped listening. He let his gaze drift around the barn, noting the way the light was coming through the windows; the spider webs up in the rafters; the way the sun glinted off the handles of the tools stacked neatly against the wall.

Clint was looking straight at him, which Bucky didn’t like. There was something about Clint’s eyes that set Bucky on edge. They were big and perceptive and he always looked like he was seconds away from asking Bucky something. It made Bucky feel unsettled.

Bucky looked away. He noticed that the horses’ stalls were empty and he debated going outside to the paddock to watch them run. Steve had said that Winter and Captain liked to run together. He wanted to see that.

He could see that Clint had been putting fresh oats into the stalls’ feed buckets. Bucky had a happy memory of helping the father of one of his first foster families care for horses. They had even taught him to ride before his silence became too much for them. They kept asking him questions about his arm and the accident and—

Bucky shook his head, trying to dispel the thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him. Clint and Steve and Natasha were still talking, so he picked up an empty bucket and moved it to the bin where Clint had gotten the oats. It took a bit of maneuvering to prop the bin open with only one hand, but he managed it and he scooped out the oats, eyeballing the amount that Clint had put into his bucket. He filled his bucket and then took it and emptied it into the feed bucket in the nearest stall, and then returned to the oat bin and filled it again.

It took him a moment to realize that everyone had stopped talking.

Clint, Natasha and Steve were all looking at him, their eyes big and staring.

“James,” Steve said and took a step towards him. “What are you doing?”

What are you doing? It was a question. A question that Bucky had been asked before. Before when he’d been in that car and his father had turned around—

Bucky dropped the bucket and walked outside.

“Nice going.” Natasha glared at Steve. “You were the one who told me he didn’t like questions, and what did you do? Ask him one!”

“But he was helping to feed the horses!” Steve protested. “He’s paying attention to things. I thought that was good.”

“Not the way you said it.”

Clint looked out the door James had just used, biting his lip. James looked really sad standing against the fence. “Should we follow him?”

“He’s just at the paddock,” Steve said. James was leaning up against the fence, watching the horses run. He gave a half-smile. “He’d probably like some time alone.”

“Away from you, you mean.” Natasha was still glaring.

“Why are you defending James?” Clint asked. “I thought you hated him.”

“No.” Natasha turned her glare on Clint. “I hated the way you pretended to be fine with him ignoring you.” She shrugged. “I’ve never had a problem with him.”

“Well, I don’t have a problem with him ignoring me!” Clint crossed his arms. “Dude’s dealing with a shitty childhood.” He looked away. “I kinda know what that’s like.”

“Do share with the class,” Natasha snarked. “Oh wait, you don’t do that.”

Steve looked back and forth between the two of them. “Am I missing something here?”

“No.” They both said at the same time. Clint looked away from Natasha. She was so angry at him for not sharing stuff, but he just couldn’t. Why couldn’t she leave it alone?

“Okay.” Steve raised his hands. “As long as you’re not going to kill each other right here.”

“My bet’s on Natasha,” Tony said, stepping into the barn. He was wearing his winter gear over a pair of flannel sleep pants with pictures of zombie teddy bears on them. He shivered dramatically. “Fuck, it's cold!”

“How’s your hand?” Steve asked, motioning towards Tony’s left side.

Tony pulled off his glove and lifted his hand to show off the pristine white bandage that covered his palm up to the base of his fingers. “Twelve stiches from the doctor, and the nurse bandaged it so I can’t move my thumb,” he said cheerfully. “She was sadistic!”

Steve winced. “I’m glad you didn’t cut yourself worse.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony shrugged. “Not for lack of trying.” He peeked up at Clint. “Hey.” His smile was sheepish. “I’m sorry I threw a cup at you.”

Clint licked his lips. It was really bad when Tony threw the cup at him. It'd been just like some of the stuff he’d lived through as a kid, when his dad would grab anything within reach and whip it at him, hoping it’d hit. He glanced quickly at Natasha and then looked back at Tony. Nat wants you to be brave. “I—I really didn’t like that,” he said, forcing the words out. “I don’t like it when people throw things at me.”

“I don’t think anyone does,” Steve said kindly.

“Yeah,” Clint said. He opened his mouth to explain, to maybe try to tell them why he didn’t like it. But he shut it instead. He looked out to where James was still standing by the fence. “I get why James is so quiet.”

“Yeah,” Steve echoed. “Me, too.”

“You gotta deal with your shit better, Tony,” Natasha said, poking him in the shoulder. “Clint’s my friend, and if you hurt him, I’ll hurt you. Promise.”

“Ow!” Tony rubbed his shoulder. “Possessive much?” Then he sighed. “I get it. Trashing the kitchen, not the best way to deal. Message received.”

“Why were you so upset, anyway? It’s not like James said anything to you.” Clint smirked.

“Oh ha ha, Oliver Queen.” Tony frowned at him. “Maybe my personal reasons are personal. Ever think of that?”

“Sometimes it’s better to talk about this stuff.” Steve shrugged. “It can help.” But Clint saw him look out at James, his expression wistful.

“Um. No,” Tony said. “In fact, the whole reason why I’m out here hiding in the barn instead of eating a nummy breakfast in the warm house is because Phil invited Sam over to chit-chat with me about feelings. I don’t do feelings.” He shuddered dramatically. “Steve, you should go in. You love that stuff.”

Steve made a face. “No I don’t. I don’t want to talk to Sam. Or Phil. Especially not Phil.”

Tony blinked. “What? Why?”

“Phil’s going to send James away and Steve’s upset,” Clint said. He was a bit upset too by the idea, actually. As far as Clint could tell James hadn’t really done anything except not talk. Clint had probably done worse than that in the year he’d been there. It made him wonder if Phil would send him away that easily, too.

“That sucks,” Tony said. He looked around the barn. “Where is Snake Eyes, anyway?”

Steve rolled his eyes but then pointed to where James was still standing by the paddock. “He’s out there, watching the horses.”

“He looks cold,” Tony mused. “And hungry. Like he didn’t have any breakfast. Like I didn’t. Anyone else hungry?”

“Yes, actually,” Steve said. “I left before I had breakfast.”

Natasha shrugged. “I ate an apple.”

“I’m hungry,” Clint said. Natasha looked at him. “What?” he said. “I slept in the barn.”

Tony made a face. “Why’d you do that?”

Natasha turned her look on Tony.

“Oh,” Tony said. “Smashed crockery. Right.”

It wasn’t exactly right. It was more the fight he’d had with Natasha than Tony destroying the kitchen, but he didn’t want to get into it. Natasha was talking to him again, and even though he didn’t know if she was still mad, it was good enough for now.

“Anyway, breakfast!” Tony continued. “So, where are we going?”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Steve said. “Sam’s here and class is going to start in less than half-an-hour.”

“Bzzz. Wrong answer!” Tony turned to Natasha. “So where are we going?”

“There’s a diner by my dance class in town,” Natasha said.

“Perfect!” Tony snapped his fingers. “Okay,” he said to Steve. “You go get Boba Fett out there and the rest of us will pile into my car.”

“Boba Fett could talk,” Clint said.

“Your car’s a two-seater,” Steve said. “We won’t all fit.”

“We will if…” Tony paused. “Damn. You’re right.”

“We could take Phil’s car,” Clint said. He went over to the ledge by the door and swung out a small piece of wood that was nailed just above it, revealing three sets of keys. “He keeps his spares here.”

“Oh my God you’re excellent!” Tony exclaimed and Clint couldn’t help but blush at the praise. “So what are we taking? The truck? The mid-sized sedan?”

“The Ford Flex,” Natasha said decisively. “It will fit all of us.”

Clint handed Tony the keys to the Ford. He knew taking Phil’s car would make him angry. Probably really angry. Maybe angry enough to send Clint away, too. And if Phil was going to send Clint away like he was sending away James, then Clint didn’t want to wait for it to happen. “I’m in.”

“Um, no,” Steve said. “You guys do realize this is stealing, right?”

Tony’s eye roll was epic. “Do you want to stay here and talk to Sam?”

“Well, no, but—“

“Then breakfast it is! Hey James!” Tony called out the door before Steve could protest further. James turned to look at Tony. “We’re going out for breakfast. You in?”

James came back into the barn, his hand jammed into his pocket. He flicked his eyes at Tony and then went to stand by Steve, eyes downcast.

“So I think that’s a ‘yes’ vote from Captain Hook,” Tony said. “And Natasha and Clint are in, so it’s only you, Boy Buzzkill. You coming?”

Steve sighed. “Okay,” he said. “But only if I can drive.”

“Fuck that!” Tony shouted gleefully, “Clint already gave me the keys!” He turned to James. “Jimmy, you’re shotgun because you won’t harsh my mellow with your conversation and since you’re missing your arm you can’t fuck with the radio.”

“Tony!” Steve objected.

Tony looked at him. “What? Am I lying?”

“No,” Natasha said, moving to walk beside him as they all went out towards the big blue SUV. “But you are a little insensitive.”

“James can take it, can’t you big guy?” Tony said to James as he slid into the front seat and James climbed into the passenger side. Natasha and Clint took the next row, forcing Steve into the back.

James, predictably, said nothing.

“Are we there yet?”

Tony looked into the rearview mirror where he could just catch the edge of Clint’s face. “Clint, you trying to piss me off?”

Clint grinned wide enough that Tony could just see the corner of his mouth. “Is it working?”

“Eyes on the road!” Steve scolded from the far back seat.

“Yes, mother.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Jeez.”

“Papa called me again,” Natasha said, and Tony could hear the frown in her voice.

“Are you going to call him back?” Steve asked.

“No,” Natasha said. “He wanted to send James away. He can feel what it’s like to have us all gone.”

“Oh, nasty!” Tony exclaimed. “I like the way you think, Red.” He tossed a quick glance to where James was sitting in the passenger seat, staring out the window. “Hey, we got your back Jimmy,” he said. “One for all and all for one, here.”

James made no response.

Tony felt a flare of anger. Thanks to his talk with Pepper the night before, he’d kinda figure out that his issue with James’ silence had more to do with Stark Senior than James himself, but he couldn’t help the fact it still rubbed him the wrong way. “Hey, don’t feel the need to thank us, or anything,” he snarked. “Or, you know, reply.”

“Cut him some slack, Tony,” Steve said from the back.

Tony glanced up at the rearview mirror again. The way that Steve was sitting meant that he could clearly see the blond glowering at him. He bet that Steve had shifted in his seat for just that purpose.

“You know what?” Tony said loudly enough that he was sure it’d carry to the back. “I think we need some music for this road-trip!” He reached over and turned on the radio, and then reached further towards the passenger side to change the balance so the music would play from the speakers at the back of the Flex, blocking out the sound of Steve’s voice.

The flare of pain in his palm hit him by surprise. Tony let out a yelp and the car swerved violently into the oncoming lane.

“Fuck!” Steve shouted as Clint gasped and Natasha let out a little shriek.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Tony chanted as he grabbed the steering wheel with his right hand and got the car back under control.

“What the fuck was that!?” Steve yelled from the back seat. “You trying to kill us?”

“My hand!” Tony protested immediately. “I forgot that I can’t really bend my thumb in this bandage, and when I tried to do it, it pulled my stitches and it hurt and—“

“Pull over,” Steve cut him off. “I’m going to drive.”

“I’m fine!” Tony protested. “There weren’t any other cars! We’re fine.”

“No!” Steve said forcefully. “You can’t drive with your hand. You’re putting us at risk—“

James opened the door.

“What the fuck!” Tony yelled just as Natasha shrieked again and lunged forward, trying to grab onto James’ arm.

“He’s scared!” Clint explained unnecessarily. He had undone his seat belt and now had both his hands on James’ shoulders, gripping tightly. The seat-belt alarm was wailing, the wind loud where it was whistling by the open door and Steve was shouting at Tony to ‘pull over! Pull over!

“I’m trying!” Tony cried back to Steve. James had his seat belt off and was struggling with both Natasha and Clint as they were working to keep him in the car. He was wild-eyed and obviously terrified, more scared of being in the car than leaving it at high speed.

He wrenched his arm out of Natasha’s grasp, hard enough to send him toward the open door.

Tony lunged for him and grabbed him by the sleeve of his left arm. He cried out as pain flared up from the palm of his hand where he was holding the steering wheel.

The car swerved violently into the oncoming lane again. Right into the path of a large truck. There was a sound of screaming and Tony twisted the steering wheel back towards the right just in time to avoid a collision. The truck passed in a blur of blaring horn.

The car careened back towards the shoulder, the passenger side wheels hitting gravel before Tony’s over-correction sent it back into the lane again and towards the centre line, hard enough that Clint, Natasha and James both fell sideways and further into the car. The passenger door shut with a bang and Natasha’s head smacked into her window with a painful-sounding thump.

PULL OVER!” Steve bellowed from the back.

Tony slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a stop mostly on the shoulder. Tony turned off the motor, flicked on the hazard lights and then fell back in his seat. “Jesus Christ!” His heart was pounding like a jackhammer and his left hand was fucking aching.

“What the fuck was that?” Steve was still yelling.

Clint had clambered over to Natasha’s seat and was now cradling Natasha against him, rubbing the back of her head. “You okay, baby?” he was whispering to her.

Baby? Tony thought. He’d moved his left hand against his chest and it was throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He hadn’t realized that Clint and Natasha had that kind of relationship…

“James!” Steve hollered from the back, and Tony whipped his head around to see that the passenger side door was open and James was gone.

Well, not gone, but just out of the vehicle and walking down the road. Well, running actually. He’d only walked like, half a step before he’d just started running. His gait was pretty good for a guy who was missing half an arm.

“He’s gonna get killed!” Clint was out the door a second later. Steve was scrabbling to get out of the back seat, hindered by his size in the relatively small space.

You’re going to get killed!” Natasha yelled after Clint, before throwing open her car door and jumping out.

Tony and Steve got out a fraction after Natasha, just in time to see Clint tearing down the road after James.

James was running flat-out and had a head start, but Clint was in wicked shape and apparently highly motivated because he was catching up like crazy.

Natasha started running after them, but luckily Steve’s reflexes were stupid fast because before Tony could even shout a warning he’d yanked her back, right before the speeding SUV that had come up behind them passed them within a hair’s breadth of taking her out.

That move saved Natasha’s life, but it wasn’t going to do anything to help Clint or James. The SVU was still pelting down the roadway coming up far too fast behind the two boys. Either the guy was blind, texting a manuscript or just plain sadistic because at his rate of speed Clint and James wouldn’t stand a chance.

“CLINT!” Natasha was screaming. “CLINT!” But he was too far away to hear.

“Oh, no,” Tony breathed. Steve had let go of Natasha, his hands on his head. Natasha was screaming Clint’s name over and over.

And then, like a miracle, Clint looked over his shoulder, saw the SUV and in some incredible move that should’ve gotten him an immediate spot on the Olympic team, did a flying leap that managed to have him tackling James off the road and onto the shoulder within seconds of the SUV mowing them down.

The SUV driver, seemingly getting his bearings at the last second, swerved away from them just as they hit the ground. He drove off at an even higher rate of speed, his horn bleating the whole way.

Natasha took off towards them, Steve and Tony hot on her heels. The way his hand was being jostled wasn’t doing him any favours, but Tony would be damned if he stayed by the car.

Tony skidded to a halt by the puppy pile of Clint and James, his boots slipping on the gravel and snow on the shoulder. Natasha had pretty much just jumped on Clint when she’d reached him, and he was now on his back with her lying on him, her arms around his neck gripping him like a vise. She was crying and swearing at him in Russian, her face pressed against his coat.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Clint was saying over and over as he patted her back with his left hand. He’d lost his hat somewhere in his run and his head was resting directly on the slushy ground.

Steve had helped James to his feet and was hugging him just as tightly, one of his big mitts pressed against the back of James’ head, the other wrapped firmly around his torso.

Tony pressed his wounded hand against his chest, feeling it throb. The wind was blowing through his pajama pants, and now that the gallons of adrenaline were wearing off he was really feeling his total lack of hat and scarf. He totally missed Pepper.

“Uh, guys?” he said, wincing at how he was interrupting some pretty tender moments, but kinda wanting really badly to get out of the cold, “maybe we could continue this in the car? Go have some breakfast? Continue the touchy-feely somewhere where the wind isn’t freezing my balls off?”

“Uh, sure,” Steve said, reluctantly disengaging from James. James was staring at the ground again. His face looked as impassive as usual, except for the high colour on his cheeks from his recent running and the way his right hand was clenched. Steve was gripping his wrist tightly, as if he were afraid James was going to make a break for it again.

There was a red welt on James’ right cheekbone from where his face must've contacted the ground when Clint knocked him over. The right side of Steve’s face was still bruised purple from the fight he and James had the night before, and Tony couldn’t help the thought of totes twinsies! that flickered through his mind.

Clint and Natasha had climbed to their feet as well. Natasha was wiping tears off her face and Clint had his left arm around her shoulders, pressing her against him. The back of his head was wet with dirty snow, but instead of brushing it off, he was holding his right arm against his chest, just as if—

“Did you break your arm?” Tony blurted.

Clint grimaced. “Yeah, pretty sure. I must’ve fell on it wrong when I tackled James. It’s the one that got broken before.”

Before? Tony thought. He was just about to ask when Clint had previously broken his arm when Natasha stepped out of Clint’s embrace. Her face so dark with anger that Tony actually took a step back. Without a word she slapped Clint across the face hard enough to make his head snap to the side. She turned and stalked back to the car.

“What the hell?” Steve’s mouth was hanging open. “What the hell was that for?”

“That girl is vicious.” Tony shook his head at Clint. “You sure she’s good girlfriend material?”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Clint said immediately, his hand against his cheek. It had started to redden from the blow.

“My mistake,” Tony said. “Just, you know, the way she was crying all over you—“

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Clint repeated.

“Cool.” Tony raised his hands, and then immediately put his left one back against his chest. It hurt.

James appeared beside Clint, silent as always. Tony started at his sudden arrival. Even though James had been the cause of this disaster, with the drama of Natasha slapping Clint he’d practically forgotten the boy was there. James stared at Clint, and then slowly lifted his right hand to gently touch Clint’s right wrist. He frowned and tilted his head to the side.

Clint looked at James and then shot a glance at Steve, who nodded. Clint cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah, it hurts,” Clint said. “But saving your life was worth it.” And then he smiled.
And to Tony’s complete shock, James smiled back. It was brief and he didn’t look Clint in the eye, but it was there.

“Holy fuck,” Tony exhaled.

“I know, right?” Steve’s grin was enormous.

James put his hand on Clint’s shoulder, and tugged at him lightly, gesturing towards the car with his head.

“I totally agree,” Tony said. “It’s freezing out here, and we need breakfast!”

“We need a hospital,” Steve said, as they all fell into step towards the car. “Breakfast will have to wait until we get Clint’s arm looked at.”

“We should probably call Phil, too,” Clint said. ‘You know, to tell him what happened.”

“I can’t,” Steve said. “I left my phone at home.”

“My phone’s out of juice,” Clint said. “I don’t have a charger in the barn.”

“Phil has my phone already,” Tony said, and then winced. His hand was really painful.

“Natasha has hers,” Steve said, gesturing towards the car where Natasha was visible in the far back seat. She was playing some sort of game on her phone. “We’ll get her to call.”

“Phil likes her best anyway,” Tony agreed. He went to the front seat and then paused. “Here,” he said, handing Steve the keys. “You should probably drive.”

“Yeah,” Steve took them. “And maybe we can get you some painkillers at the hospital too. It looks like your hand’s really sore.”

Tony blinked. He couldn’t remember the last time that someone had noticed that he’d been in pain when he hadn’t been actively bleeding. “Uh, yeah. Yeah it is. Thanks.”

Steve opened the side door for Clint, who was looking paler by the second.

“Thanks,” Clint mumbled. He climbed in and went to the far seat, glancing forlornly at Natasha, who was doing an excellent job of ignoring everyone. Wincing he managed to buckle himself in, then settled back, eyes closed and hand held loosely by his shoulder.

Tony was in pain and hungry and freezing and he just wanted to get inside the car and shut the door, but he knew that he should wait until James decided where he wanted to sit. After his attempt to pull a Fast and Furious just minutes before, it didn’t take a genius to know that James had issues with cars. The last thing anyone needed was for James to freak out again.

Steve turned to James. “So, uh,” he started, and then took a deep breath. “Look,” he said. “I know that Tony’s driving wasn’t great.” He shot Tony a look at his immediate protest but kept talking. “I mean, I was scared too! But if I’m going to drive us anywhere, I need to know that you’re going to keep your seatbelt on, keep the door closed, and stay in the car. Can you do that?”

James was hugging himself, good arm over missing one. The red mark on the side of his face was rapidly turning purple, and he looked beaten and small and scared and cold. But he was looking Steve straight in the eye, and when he nodded his head it was like he’d answered Steve out loud.

“Great!” Tony exclaimed. He was so close to getting out of the cold. “So Road Runner,” he said to James. “Which seat? Front or middle?”

“Road Runner beeped,” Clint said without opening his eyes.

James flicked his gaze to Tony, and then patted him on the upper arm before climbing into the car to settle in the back beside Natasha.

“Hey,” she said to him without looking up from her game. He nudged her with his shoulder.

“Wow,” Tony said. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to have James acknowledge his existence, and part of him wished he didn’t care so much. He looked at Steve. “He’s changed a lot in, like, twelve hours.”

Steve was grinning like his face was going to split. “Yeah.”

“Shotgun!” Tony called and dashed around the car to climb into the passenger seat as Steve shut the side door.

“Just don’t mess with the radio,” Steve sighed as he slid into the driver’s seat. He keyed on the engine and immediately the car was flooded with warmth.

“Luckily the hospital’s not too far.” Tony exhaled with relief as he was coated in warm air. “And I have it on good authority that they have a coffee shop on premises that has fairly good scones.”

“Excellent,” Steve said as he pulled the car out into the lane.

“Parking’s fucking expensive though,” Tony said. “Anyone got any change?”

“My wallet’s in the house,” everyone except James said at the same time.

“I hate you all,” Tony muttered.

“Looks like Tony’s going to be late for his appointment,” Sam said as he settled into the big leather chair across from Phil. “Guess I’ll start with you.”

Phil looked up from his desk where he’d been checking an invoice. “Surely one of the other children must be available.”

Sam shook his head. “They’re all still in the barn, apparently trying to avoid you for the last few precious minutes before class starts.” He took a sip of his coffee. “So, it’s all you.”

Phil licked his lips and settled back into the chair. “Isn’t it against your college to counsel your friends?”

Sam smiled. “We’re just talking here,” he said. “I’m allowed to talk to my friends.”

“Alright.” Phil rolled his eyes. “What do you want to talk about?” He made sure his inflection showed his use of air quotes on the word ‘talk.’

“So, what is it with you and James?” Sam said, taking another sip of his coffee.

Phil looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Sam shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t think Steve’s totally off-base here. He has gotten into a fight with every kid here except for Clint, but you’ve never even suggested sending him away. What’s the difference?”

“Steve’s fights never resulted in anything like what happened last night.”

“Well, I haven’t seen the damage, but I heard you say that James hit him pretty hard,” Sam said. “But I saw the bruise after Natasha smacked him, and that took a while to fade.”

Phil winced. “This is a bit worse than a bruised cheek.”

“I’m sure.” Sam nodded. “But sadly this isn’t the first time Steve’s been punched in the face.”

“No.” Phil shook his head. “Unfortunately not.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “So Steve’s been in a fight before. So that’s not new. What was?”

“I really didn’t like how both Natasha and Clint bolted.”

Sam looked puzzled. “But I remember you told me that Clint also bolted when Natasha hit Steve that time. Pepper found him in the rafters of the barn.”

Phil gave a light laugh. “That boy can climb anything.”

Sam returned his smile. “Clint certainly has a lot of athletic ability. But the point here is that he ran that time, just like he ran last night. So that sounds like something that happened before.”

“Tony threw a cup at him this time.”

“That would be new.” Sam raised his eyebrows. “What happened?”

“Well, you know that Tony trashed the kitchen.” Phil waited for Sam’s nod of agreement. “So, I was with him, trying to help him calm down. He was screaming and crying and his hand was bleeding and—“ Phil stopped and rubbed his forehead, the image of the bloody mess that was Tony’s hand overly clear in his mind.

“His hand was bleeding, huh?” Sam prompted.

“Yeah.” Phil pressed his lips together.

“Sounds bad.”

Phil huffed out a laugh, but it sounded brittle even to his own ears. “He’d cut himself nearly down to the bone.”

“You mentioned that. A couple of times, actually,” Sam said. “You know, when you and Steve were screaming at each other.”

“It’s kind of a tough image…” Phil circled his splayed fingers around the side of his head.

“I’m sure.” Sam nodded. “Someone you care about, bleeding right in front of you. Probably a lot of blood, right?”

Phil swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Was he in pain?”

“Of course.”

“So if I’m hearing you correctly,” Sam said, “Tony was really upset and crying, and he was bleeding and in a lot of pain. Am I right?”

Phil's throat was suddenly thick. “Yes.”

“Sounds rough,” Sam said softly.

“It was,” Phil agreed immediately. He shook his head. “I mean, I don’t even know why it felt so rough. Because, sure it was a deep cut, but it wasn’t fatal, or anything. He hadn’t been shot after all. I was able to get the bleeding under control pretty easily, really.”

“No, he hadn’t been shot.” Sam shifted so he was leaning on his forearms, his gaze directly on Phil. “But you were.”

Phil blinked. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Sam raised his hands and then dropped them again. “Maybe nothing,” he said. “Or maybe something. You tell me.”

“So, are you saying that when Tony was bleeding, it reminded me of being shot?” Phil asked. “That doesn’t make any sense! The situations were totally different.”

“Maybe on the surface,” Sam said. “But maybe, deep down? They’re the same.”

“How could they be the same?” Phil said. “I wasn’t in pain. I wasn’t the one bleeding last night. It was Tony.”

“True.” Sam nodded. “But when you were with Tony, seeing him bleeding and freaking out and upset enough to throw a cup at Clint. How did you feel?”

“I didn’t like it,” Phil said.

“I didn’t think you would.” Sam smiled. “But how did ‘I didn’t like it,’ actually feel?”

“Like shit,” Phil said immediately. “Like I couldn’t get the situation under control. Like no matter what I did Tony was still going to be upset, and in pain, and bleeding.”

“Sounds like a pretty helpless feeling,” Sam said.

“It was.”

Sam tilted his head. “How’d you feel when you got shot?”

Phil paused for a moment and then laughed. “Okay,” he said. “I get it.”

“Get what?” Sam said, eyes wide in mock surprise.

“That because I couldn’t immediately help Tony I felt helpless,” Phil explained. “And that feeling, combined with the sight of the blood, reminded me somehow of how it felt the night I got shot.”

“Sounds about right,” Sam said. “And then what happened?”

“Before or after he threw the cup?”


“Okay.” Phil paused for thought. “Well, I called Pepper to get her to bring Natasha back to help find Clint, and while I was on the phone with her, Steve and James came in. James wanted to run so I told Steve to stop him and they got into a fight…“

Sam was shaking his head. “No, I didn’t mean what actually happened. I mean, what happened in your head?”

“Oh.” Phil concentrated for a moment. He remembered how he felt when he called Pepper, the send of control he felt knowing that she’d be by in a moment with Natasha and that Clint would be found, and then how, not even a minute later, James and Steve came in and James threw everything back into chaos, when it’d been James' fault that it’d all happened in the first place— “Oh,” he said again. He looked at Sam.

“Any conclusions there?”

“Probably the same one you reached at the beginning of the conversation,” Phil said wryly. “That I was taking out my anger at feeling helpless on James.”

“James certainly didn’t make your life easy last night.”

“No.” Phil shook his head. “But neither did Tony when he first arrived. Or Steve, for all that.” He smirked. “Even Natasha had her moments, and she’s been the easiest of all.”

“Except for her tendency for violence,” Sam said with a smile.

“True.” Phil smiled back. He tilted his head. “So,” he paused. “I’m guessing that my desire to kick James out may not be entirely an objective decision?”

“You tell me,” Sam said.

“It’s not.” Phil rubbed his face. “Jesus. Steve was right. I really wasn’t being fair.”

“Well don’t tell him!” Sam exclaimed. “He’ll be insufferable!”

Phil laughed, but then frowned. “I’m going to have to apologize. And probably to all of them. Natasha and Steve most likely told everyone about my terrible decision as soon as they went into the barn.”

“Yep,” Sam said with a grin. “I can hardly wait.”

Phil rolled his eyes. “Thanks.” He stood. “Might as well get this over with.” He checked his watch. “They should be downstairs with Thor by now.”

As if on cue there was a knock on the door.

Phil looked at Sam as he went to open it. “That couldn’t possibly be Tony.”

Sam chuckled. “He probably suckered Steve into coming first.”

Phil opened the door to find the towering frame of Thor Odinson, the children’s outdoor education and martial arts teacher on the other side.

“I’m sorry to disturb your conversation, friend Coulson,” he said in his noticeable Norwegian accent, “but I’m wondering where the children might be?”

Phil's heart thumped loudly in his chest. “They’re not in the barn?”

“T’was the first place I looked,” Thor said. “But the barn is empty.”

“Damn.” Phil ran a hand through his hair. He looked at Sam. “Where do you think they’ve gone?”

“Would they’ve taken the horses?” Sam asked.

“I think t’was your giant car they took,” Thor said. “I saw it not when I arrived.”

“Damn!” Phil pulled out his phone. “I’m going to call them.”

The phone on his desk rang.

“Isn’t that Tony’s phone?” Sam asked.

“Fuck,” Phil muttered. “I’m going to try Clint.” It went right to voice-mail. Steve’s phone was barely audible, but it was obvious it was ringing upstairs and Natasha’s rang and rang and rang and rang. “She’s not picking up,” Phil stated flatly.

“And I’m going to guess that James doesn’t have a phone,” Sam said.

Phil just looked at him.

Thor stepped all the way into the room. “So, what should we do now?”

“Call the cops?” Sam raised his eyebrows in question.

Phil shook his head. “I don’t want them to get into that kind of trouble. I’m going to check the property in a minute, but I think the evidence is clear that they’ve taken the Flex and gone somewhere. Probably into town, and probably for breakfast.”

“Yeah.” Sam shrugged. “That’s what I’d do if I was hungry and mad at my dad.” He pointed his thumb towards the kitchen. “Plus, Steve left the jar of peanut butter there. I’m betting they haven’t eaten.”

“So they’re together, they’ve got a goal, and they’re safe,” Phil said. “Let’s let them eat and calm down, and then I’ll try calling Natasha again.”

“Okay,” Sam said.

“Fine idea,” Thor agreed.

“Great,” Phil said. “I’m going to get my coat. And when they do come home, I’m going to apologize for being unfair to James and have them apologize to Thor for missing their lessons.”

“Sounds good,” Sam said. “And then what?”

“And then I’m going to ground them so hard they won’t be able to see daylight for a week!”

Sam laughed. “That’s my boy.”

It was easy to tell that James hated hospitals.

Almost as soon as they’d arrived, Natasha traded her phone for Tony’s wallet and had gone to find food for everyone. A few minutes after she’d left, Tony was taken off to a treatment room to get his stitches re-done, and then Clint had been sent to x-ray for his broken wrist.

That left Steve and James alone in the waiting area. It wasn’t all that busy, considering it was just after 9:30 on a Monday morning, and Steve had never been so happy for the lack of people in his life.

Steve totally understood James’ hatred of hospitals. He hated them too; he’d spent far too much time in them when he’d been sick as a kid, and he’d absolutely despised them ever since a hospital bed was where his mother had died. Hospitals always made him feel weird and edgy.

James had gotten more and more tense as time wore on, until he was practically vibrating with strain by the time the doctor arrived to assess him. She’d taken James off to a recess bay, clearly expecting to check him over on his own. But James had grabbed Steve’s wrist and wouldn't let go.

Which was why Steve was watching the doctor flash a beam of light into each of James’ eyes.

“Pupils are even and reactive to light,” she’d said to no one in particular, and then proceeded to somehow get James out of his coat and shirt without him fighting back.

“How’d you lose the arm?” she asked.

James squeezed his eyes shut at the question, and Steve could see his pulse drumming in the base of his throat. He was still gripping Steve's wrist, hard enough to hurt.

“He, uh, doesn’t like to speak,” Steve said, trying to twist his wrist in James’ grasp to loosen it a little.

In a strange way it reminded him of how he’d gripped his mother’s hand while she was dying; how light and formless she'd felt, like even her bones were fading.

The doctor blinked at him. “He doesn’t like to speak?”

Steve shook his head, trying to shake off the thoughts of his mother. “He’s had a lot of trauma?”

“I can see that,” The doctor said. “That’s kind of obvious from the amputation. Do you know how he lost it?”

“No,” Steve said truthfully. Phil had only told them that James had had something bad happen when he was very young. Steve had just assumed his arm had something to do with that. “But it was a long time ago.”

“I gathered from the way the stump has healed,” she said. She turned back to James and started running her hands efficiently over his body from his head to his neck and then down his arms. “Any pain?” she asked him.

“He doesn’t like questions, either,” Steve said after James swallowed convulsively.

“Okay.” The doctor took a deep breath and paused. “James,” she said after a moment. “If I touch anything that hurts, I need you to raise your right arm. Raise your right arm if you understand.”

Obediently, James raised his right arm taking Steve's with him.

“Excellent.” The doctor continued her examination, stopping at different places to see if James raised his arm. When she reached James’ ankles without him moving, she turned back to Steve. “I assume the cut on his cheek is from the accident?”

Steve nodded. “Clint knocked him down—“

“I got the story from the other boy.” The doctor turned back to James. “I’m going to need to clean it before I put a bandage on it,” she said to him and then went to a cupboard to get some strong-smelling liquid and some gauze.

The smell immediately threw Steve into another memory of his mother in her hospital bed, and he covered his nose with his sleeve, trying to block out the scent.

James sat patiently while she cleaned his cheek and closed it with a neatly placed butterfly bandage.

“How about you?” she said to Steve as she threw the gauze away. “Did you get pushed out of the way of a moving car as well?”

“What?” Steve said, dragging his thoughts back to the present. He’d been thinking about how pale his mother had looked at the end, and the way her breathing had sounded, loud and harsh. His throat felt tight and it was suddenly hard to swallow.

“The injury to your face.” She gestured at his face with her forceps.

Steve immediately touched the side of his eye and then winced. He’d forgotten that the right side of his face was still purple from the pounding that James had given him. “These bruises are from last night,” he mumbled.

“You guys have really exciting lives,” the doctor said. “So, if you don’t need to get those bruises checked…”

“I’m fine,” Steve said.

“Then you’re both free to go.”

James pulled his both his shirts back on, grabbed his jacket and was out the door of the recess bay before the doctor finished speaking.

“Uh, I’d better…“ Steve started, gesturing towards where James had fled with his thumb.

“Take care,” the doctor called after him. “And tell him to stay off the road!”

Steve nodded, and then took off after James.

He breathed a sigh of relief as soon as he was outside. He hadn’t realized just how badly being in a hospital again would affect him. He found James a few feet away from the main doors of the ER, walking swiftly through the ambulance bay towards the sidewalk and presumably freedom. Steve fell into step beside him.

“We can’t go too far,” Steve said. “Natasha and the others won’t know where we are.”

James, as usual, acted like he hadn’t heard him. His hand was jammed into his coat pocket and his head was down. It looked like he'd withdrawn into himself, putting up an invisible barrier against the world.

His coat was undone, and the hat and scarf he’d borrowed from Clint were missing, probably left behind in the hospital. While the day had turned out to be sunny, it was still bitterly cold, and Steve knew that James would have to be feeling it.

“Here,” Steve said, purposely moving in front of James. “Let me do up your coat.”

James stopped walking and stood very still as Steve zipped up his coat for him. He kept his eyes on the pavement, his face nearly expressionless except for the small wrinkles between his eyes. But Steve could feel the anxiety rolling off him in silent waves, like the air around him was vibrating.

He knew what it felt like, because he’d felt like that too. While his mother was dying, and then when he was bouncing from foster home to foster home. Before Phil took him in, there were moments when Steve thought he’d never feel anything else.

“Hey,” Steve said softly. “I thought you were really brave in there, letting the doctor check you out like that.” He tried to smile.

James didn’t even meet his gaze. The second his zipper was up to his neck he neatly stepped around Steve and kept walking.

“Wait!” Steve called as he jogged a few steps after him. “James,” he said, catching him by his right shoulder, “I told you the others will be waiting for us. You can’t just leave.”

James went totally still again under Steve’s touch, like an animal trying to hide from a predator. It was actually heartbreaking. Steve dropped his hand.

“We need to go back, James,” he said. “Please.”

Only the quick movement of James' eyes towards Steve gave any indication that he’d even heard what Steve had said.

Steve felt his heart sink. It was hard—no it was impossible—to understand what James needed from him. And short of dragging him back inside, Steve didn’t know what to do. He raked a hand through his hair, frustration building inside him. He hadn’t felt this helpless since his mother had been dying, and all he could do was sit beside her bed, holding her hand and begging her not to die…

And to Steve’s utter horror he started crying.

The tears came hot and fast, burning a path down his cheek. He covered his face with his hands, his chest aching with sadness and shame. He hadn’t cried since he was twelve years old, watching his mother’s ashes blow away from Steeplechase Pier.

Someone was stroking his back.

Steve sniffed and wiped his eyes, forcing himself to stop crying, hoping that some stranger hadn’t come by wondering why Steve was bawling his eyes out in front of the hospital’s ambulance bay.

But it was James who had moved closer to him and was stroking his back in the big sweeping movement that he’d used the night before. James wasn’t looking at him, not quite, but he was peering at him from the corner of his eye and obviously offering comfort.

“Thanks,” Steve said roughly. He coughed and cleared his throat, hating how choked up he still sounded; hating how he still felt like he could start crying again at any second. “Thanks.”

James met his gaze for a brief second, and then gently reached out and touched Steve’s wet cheek with one finger and tilted his head. The question was obvious.

“I was just thinking about my mom,” Steve said. He tried to smile.

Once again James reached out and touched Steve’s face, but this time he trailed his finger down Steve’s cheek like he was tracing a tear, and then let his palm rest against Steve’s face, his thumb stroking against his skin. His gaze brushed against Steve’s for a second before he looked away and dropped his hand.

Steve swallowed again, but this time for a very different reason. His skin felt overly warm where James had touched him and his heart was pounding. He’d felt an instant attraction to James when he’d met him the day before, and if anything it’d only increased in the few hours they’d been together. “I’m fine,” he said finally in response to James questioning glance, feeling anything but.

Phil was going to send James away. Steve was going to lose someone he cared for again.

He shuddered, feeling desperate and overwhelmed and like he was going to start crying again. He swiped at his eyes.

James tugged on his shoulder just like he’d done to Clint that morning, directing them both back towards the emergency department doors.

“Okay,” Steve said, relieved. “We can go back inside.” It wasn’t going to help with anything he was feeling, but at least finding Natasha most likely meant food, and even though he wasn’t hungry he knew he should eat. And Tony would be an excellent distraction from everything he was feeling, and he’d like to make sure Clint was okay.

James nodded again, and then touched Steve’s left palm and then his right wrist and then rubbed his stomach.

Steve blinked, and smiled at how James was thinking about the other kids, too. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ll go find Tony and Clint and Natasha. She’ll probably have food.”

James smiled quickly in return, his eyes still on the pavement. He took Steve’s wrist and started walking.

Which was exactly when a familiar red Subaru pulled up in front of the ER. Sam Wilson was in the driver’s seat, with Phil in the passenger’s side. He was halfway out the door before the car fully stopped.

“Shit,” Steve muttered and closed his eyes.

“Inside please,” Phil said as he held the door open.

Dutifully the five children went into the house, one after the other like a line of ducklings. Tony was still licking the remains of burger off the fingers of his good hand and seemed profoundly unconcerned by whatever consequences there'd be from that morning’s events. Natasha was clutching her garbage, her arms crossed over her chest and her expression pinched and tight. She looked scared and angry and Phil had to keep himself from reaching for her to pull her in for a hug. He wanted to comfort her—he wanted to comfort them all—but he had to deal with their actions first.

Clint wandered in with a small smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. He was cradling his casted hand against his chest and holding his bag of fast food in his other hand. It looked like he hadn’t eaten anything. Phil frowned. It wasn’t like Clint not to eat, and he wondered if he was in more pain than he’d let on when Phil’d picked him up from the hospital.

Steve came in next with James trailing behind him. Steve had James’ wrist clasped in his hand and was obviously offering silent support to the other boy. Predictably James’ gaze was focused steadfastly on the floor, but the look Steve shot Phil was anything but friendly.

Sam Wilson came last. He’d dropped Phil off at the hospital and then waited until everyone had been located and packed off into the Ford before following them home. He gave Phil a sympathetic look and patted his shoulder.

“It’ll be okay,” he whispered as he passed.

Phil gave him a wan smile and closed the door behind everyone, purposely standing there and waiting while they all took off their coats and boots and filed into the living room.

James stayed by the door, his entire body exuding tension.

“It’s okay,” Phil said to him quietly. “You can go sit beside Steve.”

James flicked his eyes to Phil’s for a moment before going over to sit next to Steve on the couch, practically pressing himself up against Steve’s side. Steve put his arm around James’ back, his expression still dark with anger.

Clint sat down next to James with a heavy sigh. He dropped his untouched bag of food on the coffee table, tucked his casted arm high up on his chest and closed his eyes. To Phil’s surprise Natasha didn’t take the spot beside Clint but went to the armchair to the left of the couch, curling up in it, arms wrapped around her knees.

Tony sat down beside Clint and put his wounded left hand up on his chest as well. The two of them looked like sad mirror images.

Sam came to stand beside Phil in front of the group, his body language relaxed and his face open. “Tough morning, huh?” He said to all of them.

“Depends,” Tony said, stretching his unhurt arm along the back of the couch. “How much trouble are we in?”

“That’s up to Phil,” Sam said, glancing back at Phil for a second. “I’m here to actually have those counselling sessions that y’all blew off this morning. You know, before you stole Phil’s car.”

“How is it stealing when Clint knew where the keys were?” Tony raised one eyebrow. “I think that’s just being opportunistic.”

“So Clint gave you the keys?” Phil asked quietly. He’d wondered who’d been the one to locate the spot where the spare keys were kept in the barn. He knew Pepper knew about it but he wasn’t sure who else did. It made sense that Clint would’ve been the one. He was highly observant and spent the most time in the barn over all.

“Shit.” Tony looked immediately contrite. “Sorry for throwing you under the bus.”

“It’s okay,” Clint said, cracking his eyes open. “I was gonna tell him anyway.”

“And that would’ve been a good choice,” Phil said. “But not taking the keys would've been a better choice. Anyone care to explain how that happened?”

Tony made a face. “Clint gave them to us.” He turned to take in the other kids in the room. “Didn’t we just say that? Because I’m pretty sure we just said that.”

Phil exhaled slowly, working hard to keep a grip on his temper. He was totally positive that his fight with Steve that morning had everything to do with their running off, and he knew that the fight had been entirely his fault. But he couldn’t help the intense anger he was feeling from their actions. Anger he knew was more based on having to pick them up from the hospital than anything.

“I meant the choice to take the car in the first place instead of coming to talk to me about what you were feeling,” Phil said pointedly. “Anyone care to explain that?”

“I did tell you what I was feeling,” Steve said. He’d moved so he was sitting ramrod straight on the couch, one hand gripping James’ knee. “You told me to talk to you later.”

Phil opened his mouth to respond and then shut it again. “You’re right,” he said finally. “You did try to tell me how you were feeling and I shut you down. I’m sorry.”

“You should be,” Natasha said. She was still wrapped around herself on the couch. “You want to send James away!”

“Yeah!” Steve chimed in immediately. “You can’t do that!”

“And you can’t just steal a car and run away anytime you’re upset!” Phil said, anger tightening in his chest. “Do you have any idea how it felt when I found out you were gone? Do you have any idea what it was like to find out you all were in hospital? You could’ve been killed!”

James immediately got up from the couch and headed for the door.

“No!” Phil said sharply. “James you are part of this discussing and you will not leave!”

“He’s scared!” Steve shot to his feet.

So was I!” Phil realized he was shouting, but he couldn’t seem to contain it. He kept thinking to how it felt to receive that text from Natasha: Clint, Tony and James got hurt. In hospital. and to have no clue how badly they’d been injured; the terrible sick feeling of fear and helplessness that rocketed through him. He'd been so happy that Sam was driving because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get there safely. He scrubbed his face with his hands.

“It’s my fault,” Clint said miserably. “I should never have given the keys to Tony. You should send me away, too.”

“Well, as the driver, it’s probably like, eighty-eight percent my fault,” Tony said. “Giving me the keys is only, like, twelve percent of the fault so if anyone gets sent away, it should be me.”

“It was also your idea,” Natasha said helpfully.

“You suggested the restaurant!” Tony replied instantly.

“No one is getting sent away!” Phil shouted.

“Except for James!” Steve shouted back. “You seem pretty keen on sending him away!” He shifted beside James and the other boy pressed up against him, fist clenched, staring at the floor.

“Look,” Sam said, cutting in. “We’re all upset here. I think we maybe need to take some time to cool down before we talk about this. Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Phil nodded. “That’s probably a good idea.”

Steve put his arm around James’ shoulders. His eyes were like blue stones. “I just need to know one thing. Are you going to kick James out or not?”

Phil saw James visibly stiffen at Steve’s words and his heart sank. He’d been so overwhelmed with what he’d been feeling that he hadn't really thought about the end result of his shouting match with Steve that morning. He’d known that Steve and Natasha would tell the others, but for some reason he hadn’t thought about what his decision would mean for James. James might not talk, but Phil was extremely aware of the fact that he listened and understood. Being threatened with getting kicked out less than twenty-four hours after arriving would be terrible for him.

“No, I’m not.” He took a breath. “And in fact, I owe James an apology. I owe all of you an apology for even suggesting that I'd send James away.” He looked at Steve. “My end of the conversation this morning came from a really bad place which actually had nothing to do with James and everything to do with my own history. I took it out on James, which was unfair and wrong, and I’m very sorry.”

“Oh,” Steve said, his whole demeanor softening as he absorbed Phil’s words. “So James doesn’t have to leave?”

“No.” Phil shook his head. He moved closer to James, but still far enough away so that the boy wouldn’t feel crowded. “In fact, I hope that James will want to stay here. I hope that he can forgive me and that he’ll want to stay.”

James was looking at the floor, his right hand still tightly clasped in a fist. Steve’s arm was still over his shoulder but it might as well have been a coat for all that James was reacting to it. He looked as alone and isolated as he had when Phil had first met him.

I’m sorry James,” he said quietly. “I should never have threatened to send you away. I was wrong and I’m sorry.”

The room had gotten very quiet. James was still looking at the floor, but all at once he cast his gaze upwards and suddenly Phil was staring into storm-grey eyes. James reached out and touched Phil’s chest lightly with his fingertips. He nodded.

The weight on Phil's chest suddenly lifted. “Thank you,” he said to James, still held by his eyes.

“Well, I’m glad that’s over!” Tony said as he stood and stretched. “James is staying, car’s in the driveway and everyone’s accounted for. So I’m gonna take a shower.”

“No you’re not.” Sam crooked his finger at him. “C’mon.”

Tony’s eyes grew comically wide. “What?”

“You trashed the kitchen,” Sam said. “We need to talk about that.”

“But the kitchen guys are coming in this afternoon! We’re getting new cupboards and everything!” Tony protested. “It’s all fine!”

Sam shook his head. “You trashed the kitchen, Tony. That’s not the way we like to deal with stuff around here.”

“Steve?” Tony said imploringly to the other boy. “You like talking about emotions. You wanna go first?”

“You tried that already today, remember?” Steve said. “I’ll go after.”

“You’re all going to ‘go after,’” Sam said. “All of us are gonna have a little talk by the end of the day.” He turned to the young woman still seated on the armchair. “Natasha, you’ll be next.”

She sat up straight. “What?”

Tony burst out laughing. “Burn!”

She made a face at him. “I don’t mind talking to Sam.”

“You could go first…”

“Tony!” Phil admonished him.

“Okay,” Tony sighed and went over to where Sam was standing. He frowned at Sam. “But I’m going to be really boring. Like, so boring you’ll wish you were an accountant.”

Sam clapped Tony on the shoulder. “I don’t think you even know what the word ‘boring’ means.” He guided Tony into Phil’s study and shut the door.

“What do you want the rest of us to do, Mr. Coulson?” Steve said into the silence after Tony’s departure.

“Well,” Phil said. “I sent Mr. Odinson home and cancelled the lessons for this afternoon, so you’ll all have some make-up reading to do. However, you also haven't finished feeding the horses before you took off this morning, so that chore needs to be done.”

“Sir,” Steve said. “I’ll take James out to finish, with your permission?” Phil winced internally hearing Steve speaking so formally. It meant the boy was still upset and trying not to show it. He may have said that James could stay, but clearly Phil had more work to do. He hoped that talking with Sam would help Steve start that process.

James was already at the front door and putting his winter gear back on, but Phil guessed he'd reached his limit at that point and let it go. Phil nodded at Steve and the older boy immediately threw on his boots, coat and gloves and went outside.

That left only Natasha and Clint.

“What would you like me to do, papa?” Natasha asked. She had curled up on the armchair again and she looked small and much younger than her fifteen years.

“Could you please wake Clint up and help him get to his room?” Phil said softly. As soon as Tony left the couch Clint stretched out on it and fallen dead asleep. Phil knew he’d slept in the barn last night, which would have been cold and uncomfortable. And that, combined with the intense drama of the morning and his newly broken wrist had knocked the stuffing right out of him. Clint hadn’t touched his lunch either, which concerned Phil. Clint never missed a chance to eat.

Natasha looked at Clint and bit her lip, the gesture an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability. “Shouldn’t we just let him sleep here? I’ll be quiet.”

“He’ll be more comfortable in his bed,” Phil said, studying her. It wasn’t like Natasha to refuse to help, especially where Clint was concerned. It made him wonder if he might be missing something.

“Okay,” she said and went to the couch, acting like she was walking to the gallows. “Clint,” she said, shaking his shoulders. “Clint.”

His eyes sprang open and he let out a startled cry, his whole body jerking back.

“It’s okay,” Phil said. “You fell asleep in the living room. It’s okay, you’re safe.”

“Oh,” Clint said as he sat up. He knuckled one eye with his left hand and then blinked slowly. “Where’d everyone go?”

“Tony’s with Sam and Steve and James are feeding the horses,” Phil explained. “Natasha’s going to help you upstairs to your room.”

Clint turned to see that Natasha was now sitting beside him on the couch, and Phil was startled to see Clint visibly move away from her. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can go on my own.”

“I’d like to help you,” Natasha said, her expression strangely uncertain. “Please?”

There was definitely something going on between the two of them. Phil had never seen them this unsure of each other, not even when Clint first arrived.

Clint looked at Natasha, his face a mixture of longing and fear. “Phil can take me up.” He swallowed.

“Fine,” Natasha hissed, and in one fluid motion she stood and ran up the stairs. A second later there was the unmistakable sound of her door slamming shut.

“I wish she wouldn’t do that,” Clint muttered.

“Slam her door?” Phil asked.

Clint shook his head. “Run away like that,” he said. “Every time she’s upset she always runs away.”

“Strong emotion scares her,” Phil explained. “She goes to her room because she feels safe there.”

“Kind of like when I bolt?” Clint said, his large eyes on Phil’s. “Or when James walks away?”

Phil nodded. “Exactly like that. Or like when Steve gets really formal, or Tony gets loud. We all do certain things that make us feel more comfortable when we’re scared.”

“Huh,” Clint said. He looked towards the stairs and then turned to look at Phil. “Does doing that—that running away thing—does it…make me a coward?”

Phil frowned. “Of course not! It’s a natural reaction to want to feel safe. Especially for children such as yourselves who've lived through so many bad things.” He shook his head. “You’re not a coward. Don’t ever think that.”

“Okay,” Clint said. But he still looked unsure. His gaze drifted back to the stairs.

“Did you and Natasha have a fight?” Phil asked.

Clint looked down. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right,” Phil said. “You don’t need to talk about it with me. But I think you’ll need to talk about it with Natasha.”

Clint sighed. “Yeah.” He turned his big eyes back to Phil. “But maybe after I’ve slept a little more?”

“Of course,” Phil smiled and helped Clint to his feet. “And then maybe after you can have something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry,” Clint said. He must have seen the worry in Phil’s expression because he immediately continued. “But I’ll probably want something after.”

“Sounds good,” Phil agreed as he helped Clint upstairs, maneuvered his shirt sleeves off around his cast, and once Clint was half-naked and therefore happy, tucked him into bed.

Clint was asleep again in moments.

“God, what a day,” Phil muttered as he headed back down the stairs. It was barely afternoon and he’d already felt exhausted, like he’d been up for hours. He could only hope things would get better from here.

Bucky liked working with Steve.

Steve smiled a lot, and he didn’t mind talking to Bucky even though Bucky wouldn’t talk back. It was as if Steve understood about words and how impossible it was for Bucky to use them.

Though now, as he watched Steve fill up the horses’ troughs with water, there was a small part of him that wondered what it might be like to have a real conversation with Steve. To actually answer his questions and even ask some of his own.

Like why Steve had been crying that morning at the hospital. Steve had said that he’d been thinking about his mom, but that hadn’t really explained why he was so sad. Is she dead? Bucky wondered. His mother was dead. They’d buried her on the same day he’d lost his arm—

Bucky wrenched his thoughts away from that path. Thinking about his mother would mean he’d have to think about that night, and the sounds of the car as it skidded off the road and into the trees.

It made him want to run again, like being in the car with Tony and the others and the way the car had swerved so violently and how Natasha had screamed, and instantly he’d been right back there with the glass and the blood—

‘Hey,” Steve said. He put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder and squeezed gently. Bucky’s eyes flew open and he realized that he’d curled into himself, the empty feed-bucket laying at his feet. “You didn’t look so good there for a moment. You okay?”

Bucky nodded, holding Steve’s gaze. He straightened and flashed Steve a brief smile. He didn’t actually feel okay, but then again he wasn’t sure if he’d even know what okay felt like. He’d been fighting the memories for so long that he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t. But he wasn’t hunched over any more, and Steve was smiling at him, and Bucky felt that maybe this was okay enough for now.

“Good.” Steve grinned at him. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed their work. “So the horses are all fed,” he said and turned back to Bucky. “Wanna go for a ride?”

Bucky’s eyes grew wide as he smiled as broadly as he could.

“Excellent!” Steve exclaimed. “We don’t have any classes this afternoon, so why not?” He clapped Bucky on the back and then directed him towards the paddock. “We’ll have to go get them since Clint let them out this morning, but it shouldn’t be too hard to convince a couple of them to come back.” He went to a sack that was hanging on a hook beside the bin that contained the oats. “Plus a little bribery never hurts.” He grinned as he reached into the sack and pulled out two apples clearly past their prime and handed one to Bucky. “Just hold that out for whichever horse you want. They’ll come.”

Winter, Bucky thought immediately. He’d watched the pretty white gelding run around with Captain that morning and had been instantly taken with him. He tucked the apple into his pocket and accepted the lead rope that Steve passed him, draping it around his neck to leave his one hand free for apple-offering.

“Once we bring them in, I’ll show you how to put the saddle on,” Steve said as he led them outside. “It might be a bit tricky with only one arm, but I’ll help you.”

Bucky nodded vehemently to let Steve know he understood.

They made their way to the paddock, and like Steve had promised, it only took a little cajoling and the apples to get both Captain and Winter back into the barn.

Bucky fastened Winter to the wall by his halter and went with Steve to the tack room to fetch the gear. Luckily Winter’s bridle and saddle were on one of the lower shelves so Bucky could reach them easily. Deftly he slung the bridle over his left shoulder and then scooped Winter’s saddle with his right arm, using his left for balance.

Steve was looking at him with obvious admiration. “I wouldn’t’ve thought to do that.”

Bucky grinned and hefted the saddle onto Winter’s back, maneuvering it into place. He knew he was showing off a little, but Steve’s admiration felt good. Everything Steve did felt good, and Bucky was really enjoying just being with him.

He hooked the girth with his hand, and holding it in place with his left arm, he managed to get the belts into their buckles, pulling it as tightly as he could without hurting the animal.

Steve had stopped getting Captain’s equipment on and was just watching Bucky. “Looks like you know what you’re doing. You've ridden before?”

Bucky nodded and grinned as he lengthened the stirrups. He’d learned how to saddle horses with his first foster family, and although it’d been at least six years since he’d ridden, he still remembered everything they'd taught him. He went to Winter’s head to put on the bridle.

That was going to be tricky. It meant he’d have to undo the lead holding Winter still, but he didn’t know the horse well enough yet to know if Winter would stay put or start moving as soon as he was free. He paused, contemplating.

Steve came up beside him. “Do you want some help?”

Bucky nodded, and let Steve hold Winter’s halter while he put the reins around the horse’s neck. He and Steve then worked together to get the bit into Winter’s mouth and the bridle into place. He grinned at Steve when it was all finished, making a small flourish with his left arm, thinking ta da!

And for the first time that he could remember, he actually wished he could say it out loud, and maybe even make Steve laugh at his joke.

The smile dropped off his face and he looked down. He couldn’t think that. He knew what would happen if he spoke. The words would tangle in his throat like barbed wire. He’d choke and die. He could feel his heartbeat accelerating in his chest, the shush, shush, shush getting louder and louder. He leaned his forehead against Winter’s shoulder, feeling the subtle movements of the horse’s muscles against his skin.

“James?” Steve said coming up behind him. “James, what’s wrong?”

Bucky turned and threw himself into Steve’s arms, burying his face against Steve’s neck. The material of Steve’s coat was rough against his face and the edge of his collar was poking him right in the bruise on his cheek, but Bucky didn’t let go.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Steve said, putting his arms around Bucky’s back.

I want to talk to you, Bucky thought. And he shuddered.

“It’s okay,” Steve said again. “We don’t have to go riding if you don’t want.”

Bucky lifted his face away and shook his head. He did want to go riding. But he also wanted to stay like this with Steve. He felt so safe in Steve’s arms. He tucked his head back against Steve’s neck.

Steve rubbed his back. “I don’t understand. Do you want to go back inside?”

Bucky sighed and stepped away from Steve. He tilted his head towards the horses.

Steve’s expression still showed his confusion. “You want to go riding?”

Bucky nodded and Steve grinned at him, his face clearing with his happiness. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he said as they led the horses outside. “Do you need a boost? Because there’s a mounting block that Natasha sometimes uses—“

Bucky hoisted himself neatly onto Winter’s back, tucked his legs in and using his hand and teeth, got the reins in the right spot. Winter was a bit taller than the horses he’d ridden before, but already Bucky could tell he’d be easy to ride. The twitching of his flank told Bucky he wanted to run and Bucky grinned in response. They were riding Western style, so it was possible to control the horse with only one hand and Bucky took full advantage. He kicked Winter into the run they both wanted and took off down the trail, laughing silently.

“Hey!” Steve shouted. It took him a minute to mount on Captain’s back, but once he’d gained his seat he took off after Bucky, his laughter audible even over the horses’ hoof beats.

Bucky turned to look at him, the way his blond hair shone in the sun and his eyes sparkled with the joy of their ride. He was perfect and wonderful and Bucky had never seen anything more beautiful in his life.

And he’d never be able to tell him.

“So,” Tony said, about to stand. “We done?”

Sam leaned back in his chair. “Are we?”

“Is that a test?” Tony asked. “Because that totally sounded like a test. If I say ‘yes’ then we have to talk more about why I think we should be done, but if I say ‘no’…”

Sam smirked. “It’s not a test, Tony. I just wanted to make sure you’d said everything you wanted to.”

Tony raised one shoulder and peered at Sam through his eyelashes. “I didn’t want to say anything in the first place. Remember?”

“Yes,” Sam replied. “But I’m really glad you did open up. Being neglected like that, first by mom and dad and then Obadiah? That’s rough.”

“I guess,” Tony said noncommittally.

“I’d guess that too,” Sam said.

Tony jumped in. “So, since we’re done here…” he stood.

“Wait,” Sam said. “I got a question.”

Tony groaned as he sat back down. “I thought we were finished!”

“We will be.” Sam put up his hands placatingly. “I just want to know what happened in the car this morning. You know, from your perspective.”

Tony’s head fell back. “You already know what happened! Car swerved, James pulled a ‘silent runner’ and Clint’s super-fast reflexes saved his life.” He straightened to look at Sam. “Any more’d be TL;DR.”

“I got that,” Sam agreed. “But it doesn’t tell me what you thought happened there. Why’d you think James reacted like he did?”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “You’re trying to get me to have insight into James’ behavior.”

Sam grinned. “And what if I am?”

“You want me to have more empathy for James by understanding that he’s just reacting from his terrible, no-good, very bad childhood, which in turn, should help me stop doing things like, I don’t know, trashing the kitchen.”

“Yup,” Sam said. “Damn, I’m good.” He laughed.

Tony’s return laugh was short. “I figure James was probably triggered by my weaving all over the road or something.” He carefully inspected the bandage on his left hand. “And, um, I didn’t mean to do that. To him. I didn’t want to upset him.”

“I get that,” Sam said gently. “Even though you were really angry at him, I know you didn’t want to set him off.”

Tony nodded, worrying the edge of the bandage. “His silence kinda freaks me out sometimes, you know?”

“I know,” Sam agreed. “And I think, like anyone, he’d feel better if he allowed himself to talk about what happened to him. It might help reduce his triggers to situations like what happened in the car.”

“Or when he saw the kitchen last night.”

Sam huffed out a laugh. “You two seem to trigger each other pretty well.”

“I’m not doing it on purpose,” Tony said.

“No one thinks you are,” Sam said kindly.

“I’m not a bad person,” Tony said softly. He picked at the edge of his bandage.

“No, you’re not,” Sam said immediately. “Do you think you are?”

Tony shook his head ‘no’, but then he shrugged.

“Tony,” Sam said, still using that gentle tone. “I know that you were treated pretty badly when you were a kid, and I know that not being loved the way we deserve can make all of us feel like it might be our fault. But you were not responsible for your parents’ treatment of you. You were never responsible for that. Their inability to love you in no way means that you’re not worthy of love. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” Tony nodded, still focused on his bandage. “Like, intellectually, that all makes sense. But inside…?” Suddenly he moved so that he was lounging back in the chair. “But enough about me,” he said, gesturing at Sam with his uninjured hand. “How about you?”

“Okay,” Sam smiled at Tony. “I’ll let you off the hook for now. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to be talking more about that at our next session.”

Tony groaned. “More?”

“Absolutely.” Sam smirked. “You know us counsellors. If you don’t come back we don’t get paid.”

Tony grinned at that. “You know I’d pay you just so I didn’t have to talk.”

“Of course you would.” Sam grinned back. “You hate this shit. I think you’d rather go without your phone for a week than talk about feelings.”

“That’s not true!” Tony said immediately. “I’d never go without my phone for a week! And speaking of phones…” Nimbly he scooped his Starkphone off of Phil’s desk. “So that’s where I left it!” He gave Sam one of his most innocent smiles.

Sam wasn’t buying it. “Phil say you could take that back?”

Tony’s face fell. “No. But then again, he didn’t say I couldn’t.

Sam grinned again. “Not the same thing.”

Tony sighed heavily and slouched down in his chair. “But I need it!” he cried. “Please?”

“Five minutes,” Sam said and smiled wider at Tony’s instant cry of glee. “But I supervise and you put it back the second you’re done.”

“I only need three,” Tony said, He didn’t up from where he was typing rapidly with his right hand, phone balanced on the side of his left thumb. He held his left hand stiffly, obviously worried about tearing the stiches again. His mouth curved up into a smile as he was typing.

“Tell Pepper I say ‘hi’,” Sam said and then laughed at Tony’s horrified expression.

“How did you…?”

“You’ve only mentioned her about twenty times in this conversation, Tony,” Sam said. “And you’ve lit up each time.” He shrugged, still smiling. “It’s cute.”

Tony’s eyes widened with concern. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Sam shook his head. “Counsellor, remember? Nothing you guys say to me goes anywhere else.”

“Thanks,” Tony said quietly. “It’s still really new, and, uh.”

“I get it.” Sam said. “And honestly?” He waited until Tony looked up. “I think it’s a good thing. You guys’ll be good together.”

Tony blinked and then grinned. “Thanks. Me too.”

Sam let Tony go back to his texting. He assumed Pepper had texted him back by the way Tony was grinning.

“’Kay,” Tony said after a moment and put the phone down. “She knows I’m totally destitute in the phone department until Phil liberates me from my phoneless prison.”

“Torture,” Sam said.

“I know, right?”

“You might even have to use the house phone to call her!” Sam exclaimed in mock horror.

Tony shook his head. “No way. It’s total secret squirrel. Remember? I really don’t want the rest of the orphan brigade to know.”

“Oh yeah,” Sam said. He raised his eyebrows. “But isn’t Natasha Pepper’s best friend?”

“Oh shit,” Tony breathed. Sam burst out laughing.

Clint woke with a start. The light in his room showed that it was late afternoon. He figured he’d been asleep for maybe a couple of hours at most. His stomach growled.

“I brought you some food,” Natasha said. She was sitting on the edge of his bed by his feet, with one ankle tucked up underneath her and a plastic bag on her lap. “It’s a sandwich.”

Clint sat up, rubbing his face with his good hand. He’d been dreaming about Barney and the circus. Something about a lion and wanting to hide but Barney pushing him out of their hiding spot…

“Were you having a bad dream?” Natasha asked, too perceptive as always.

He shrugged. He sat up and scrunched himself to the far end of his bed, pulling up his feet so that he wasn’t touching her. His heart was still pounding, but now he wasn’t sure if it was from his nightmare, or because Natasha was right there. “Why’re you in my room?”

Natasha tilted her head. “I always come into your room.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t.” Clint didn’t reach for the offered sandwich. He felt a strange surge of emotion as he said it, like he was nauseous but full of energy all at once.

She narrowed her eyes. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Maybe—maybe I’m just tired of this!” he said, feeling the emotion flare further. “Maybe I’m tired of you!

Natasha bobbed her head back. “Are you actually angry?”

He hadn’t had a name for what he was feeling, but as soon as Natasha said it, he realized she was right. “Yeah, I’m angry!” he shouted.

“You never get angry.” She frowned. “Why are you angry?”

“You hit me!” he yelled at her. “And yelled at me! You called me a coward!”

“No I didn’t,” Natasha said immediately.

“Yes, you did!” Clint glared at her. “In the barn!”

“I didn’t mean it,” she said. “I was just upset.”

“It doesn’t matter if you meant it,” Clint narrowed his eyes. “It still hurt. A lot! You shouldn’t've said it.”

“Well you shouldn’t always not tell me stuff!” Natasha said. “You never talk to me about anything important!” She stood up. “Here, take your damn sandwich.” She dropped the bag on his bed and stalked towards the door.

“See!’ Clint shouted at her back. “You called me a coward for always running, but what’d you think you’re doing? You’re always running to your room when you’re upset! You run away too!”

She stopped and turned. “I do not!”

“You do, too!” Clint stood as well. “What do you think you’re doing now?”

“Maybe I just don’t want to listen to you yell at me!”

“Well maybe I don’t want you to hit me anymore!”

Natasha’s eyes widened, dark green in the low light. She looked stricken. “I didn’t hit you.”

Clint made a face. “Why do you keep saying you haven’t done stuff? I was there. I know what being hit feels like! You’re not the first person that’s ever hit me.”

She shook her head and took a step closer. “I didn’t hit you. I couldn’t’ve.”

“You did! Stop lying!”

“I only slapped you!” she cried. “That’s not hitting!”

“It’s the same thing.” Clint was getting confused. Natasha looked horrified at the thought that she’d hit him, but she had.

“My mom used to slap me,” Natasha said. “When I did bad things, like when I got a bad grade on my report card, or if I ran across the street without looking.” Gently she reached up and touched the red mark on Clint’s face where her palm had connected. “That’s not hitting. It’s what you do when you care about someone and want them to understand.”

Clint turned his head so that more of her hand was against his face, all of his anger immediately draining out of him. “Slapping is still hitting,” he said. “Phil said, and so does Sam. Sam said that when someone loves you, they should never hit you. No matter what.”

“Slapping’s not hitting.” She dropped her hand from his face. “My mom never hit me. Never! She only slapped me because she loved me. And that’s why I slapped you.”

Clint shook his head. “No, Natasha. You hit me. And…“ He licked his lips, his heart starting to pound in his chest like before. “And if you’re going to hit me, I can’t be your friend anymore?” He cringed as he said it, his whole body screaming no, no, no! as he spoke the words. But Sam had been very clear with him that hitting wasn’t love, and that no one should ever touch him like that again.

But he’d never dreamed he’d be saying it to Natasha. He’d been in love with her since he’d first met her a year ago. He’d told Phil it was okay if he didn’t get adopted if it meant he could marry her one day. Not having her in his life was the worst thing he could ever imagine.

But he wasn’t going to be hit any longer. Not even by her.

“But I want to be your friend,” she said. He could hear the anxiety in her voice.

“I want you to be my friend, too.” He took her hand in his. “I love you, and I know you love me, too. But friends don’t hit each other. Not even when they’re angry. You can’t do that to me anymore.”

Natasha let go of his hand and wrapped her arms around herself, dropping her gaze to the floor. “I didn’t mean to hit you,” she said softly. “It’s just, you were in the middle of the road, and that car was coming—“ She broke off. “I wasn’t angry,” she whispered. “I was scared.”

“I was scared, too,” Clint said. He moved closer to her, so that his arm was touching her back. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to be hugged right now. Sometimes Natasha got touchy about being hugged. “But you know what?”

She looked at him, and her eyes on his felt like a punch to his gut, every single time. “What?”

“I was more scared when you told me you didn’t want to be my friend, last night,” he said. “That was the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me. And I’ve been told some pretty shitty things.” He tried to smile, but the memory of last night was too raw to let him.

“I will always want to be your friend,” she said solemnly. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Clint said.

She put her arms around him and hugged him and he hugged her back, careful to not hurt her with his cast. She was perfect in his arms, her forehead resting against his neck. He could smell her hair and feel the way her back moved as she breathed. It was the most perfect thing in the world.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured against his bare chest. “I’m sorry I called you a coward and I’m sorry I hit you. I shouldn’t've done that.”

“It’s okay,” Clint said.

“I won’t do it again,” she said. “I promise.”

“I believe you,” he said, holding her tighter.

He loved her so much. He would do anything for her. She shifted in his arms until she was looking up at him, her green eyes open and vulnerable in a way that she almost never let show.

Her throat moved as she swallowed. “Clint?”

“Yeah, Tash?”

“Can I tell you something?”


“I love you,” she said.

He grinned. “I know.”

She grinned back, but the vulnerability was still there. “More than a friend.” She licked her lips with uncharacteristic nervousness.

For a third time since she’d come into his room, Clint felt his heart speed up. They’d never talked about this: their feelings for each other. They said ‘I love you,’ to each other all the time, but they’d never said exactly what those words really meant. Clint had promised Phil over half a year ago that he wouldn’t tell Natasha how he felt about her until they were ready for an adult relationship. But she was fifteen now, and he’d just turned sixteen, and while that certainly wasn’t adult yet, it was maybe old enough for them to at least talk about it?

“Like a brother?” Clint’s voice squeaked.

She shook her head, eyes huge.

He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat. “I love you too,” he said.

“Like a sister?”

He shook his head.

“Oh,” she said. Her mouth slowly curved up into a smile.

“Yeah.” He smiled back at her, feeling like he might burst with happiness.

“Could you—could you be my first kiss?” She said breathlessly.

“Yeah,” he said just as breathlessly. And then he lowered his head and kissed her.

It was a little awkward and clumsy at first, but then it was like they both suddenly figured it out at the same time and it changed into something amazing. Natasha’s arms were around his neck, their bodies touching from chest to hip. And when he got brave and gently touched her tongue with his own, her mouth had the summer sweet tang of apples.

“Wow,” she said when they finally broke apart. She slid her hands to rest on his chest, her palms warm against his skin. The light of her smile was reflected in her eyes.

“Wow,” he agreed. “I love you,” he said, because he could.

“I love you, too.” Her smile got even broader, but then she looked worried. “Are we gonna tell papa?”

“Um.” Clint took a breath. “I kind of promised him I wouldn’t do anything until we were older?”

She nodded. “Me too.”

Clint bobbed his head back in surprise. “What?”

“He asked me how I felt about you, about six months ago,” she explained. “Right after Steve came. And after I told him that I loved you—“ and here Clint just had to kiss her again—“he asked me to promise him that we wouldn’t do anything until we were more mature.” She made a face. “Whatever that means.”

“Well, we are older,” Clint mused. “At least six months.”

“Yeah.” Natasha nodded firmly. “And that counts.”

“For sure!” Clint agreed readily. “And I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make this relationship work.”

“Me too.” Natasha smiled at him. “It’s important.”

“So, no more hitting?”

“No more hitting,” Natasha said. She traced the scar on his abdomen with one finger, making him shiver before she looked up at him again. “And no more secrets?”

Clint swallowed. “I’ll tell you,” he said. ‘I promise.”

“And I won’t run away anymore,” she said seriously. “At least I’ll try.”

“And I won’t run away anymore, either.” He echoed her words back to her. “At least I’ll try.” He swallowed. “I really want this to work, Natasha,” he said softly. “Forever.”

She nodded, her cheek resting against his collarbone. “Forever.”

They held each other, both quiet with the knowledge of what they had just said to each other; the vow they’d made.

And then Clint’s stomach growled, breaking the mood and making them both laugh.

“Go eat your sandwich,” Natasha said.

“Keep me company?” Clint asked as he sat back down on his bed. He opened up the bag. “Peanut butter!”

She grinned. “With honey. Your favourite.”

“My favourite!” He grinned back as he took a huge bite. “Thank you,” he muttered, mouth full.

“Welcome.” She moved closer to him, so that their legs were touching. “So,” she said after a moment filled only with Clint’s chewing, “We gonna tell papa?”

Clint stopped chewing and looked at her, eyes wide.

“Pizza!” Clint whooped as he came down the stairs.

“Shirt!” Phil called to him and Clint stopped mid-step before turning around and racing back up.

Phil felt somewhat bad that he was feeding the kids pizza for dinner, especially after giving them burgers and fries for lunch. But while Tony’s workers had done an admirable job, the kitchen still wasn’t finished, and frankly Phil had been too damn tired to attempt any kind of home cooking.

“Why does naked boy get to skip setting the table?” Tony groused as he put a paper napkin beside a plate. “If I’d known I’d get out of helping if I wasn’t dressed I would’ve left my pants upstairs.”

“Then we’d all be too sick to our stomach to eat,” Natasha said sweetly as she put the pitcher of water down on the table. “Besides, Clint wasn’t feeling well this afternoon, because of his broken wrist.”

“I’m shocked you just took his side,” Tony said dryly as he placed another napkin. “But he’s taking the pizza boxes outside to the recycling, no matter what.”

“It’s my turn to do that,” Steve said as he placed a fork and knife by each plate.

“We don’t need forks, its pizza.” Tony made a face. “And I still think Clint should take the boxes out, because he’s not helping.”

“We need forks for the salad,” Steve explained as he turned a knife so the blade was facing outwards. “And Clint can help clean up.”

“But he’s not helping now

“It’s pizza,” Steve sighed. “It’s not like it’s hard to set the table for pizza!”

“I’m sure Clint will do his fair share, as usual,” Phil said in a tone meant to end Tony and Steve’s argument. He turned towards the stairs. “Clint, pizza’s being served—“

Clint was standing in the entrance to the kitchen, James just behind him.

“Look who wanted to come for dinner.” Clint was beaming.

James, as usual, was looking down, his expression totally shuttered and his one hand clenched into a fist. But he was there. Even after everything, he still wanted to sit with them.

His courage was extraordinary.

“Welcome,” Phil said to James, forcing the words out through a throat gone suddenly tight with emotion. “Where would you like to sit?”

James glanced at Phil, and then moved to stand beside Steve.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Steve whispered to him. James bumped him with his shoulder.

“Thanks for bringing James down,” Phil said to Clint, who had immediately taken his usual seat beside Natasha. Phil was gratified to see that whatever tension had existed between the two of them was apparently gone. They were smiling at each other brightly.

Steve had grabbed the missing items for James’ place and quickly set it all down. James flicked his eyes to him and then sat, staring at his plate. Phil and Steve sat as well, leaving only Tony standing.

Tony was eyeing the door expectantly. “Is Pepper coming?”

“And why would Pepper be coming?” Natasha said as she deftly slid a slice of pizza onto Clint’s plate.

Tony made a face at her. “Because she’s practically a member of the family and therefore deserves a place at our table?”

“She has her own family,” Natasha said, folding her hands underneath her chin. “Why would she want to be here tonight?”

“No reason,” Tony said quickly. He sat down and grabbed two slices of pizza. “Let’s eat!”

“Um,” Clint said, immediately drawing Phil’s attention. “Could we, um, would it be alright if we said gratitude tonight?”

Natasha gently set her slice back on her plate. Steve stopped from where he’d been serving James a helping of salad; Tony stopped mid-chew.

‘Saying Gratitude’ was a ritual that Phil had started when Clint had first joined them. He wasn't particularly religious and saying Grace before his meals had never been part of his tradition, but he’d wanted to encourage the children to have a moment of reflection before they ate, a chance to think about the good things that they’d experienced and a chance to share those good experiences. They’d all lived such difficult lives that Phil wanted to ensure that they took every opportunity to celebrate the positive.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Phil said slowly, feeling a little stunned. It was extremely rare for Clint to ask for anything. Phil was inordinately pleased that for whatever reason, Clint felt like he could now.

Clint smiled broadly. “Can I go first?” And when Phil nodded Clint immediately sat up straighter. “I’m grateful for a home I can feel safe in,” he said. He was looking at Natasha the whole time.

She squeezed his hand, and they shared a moment that felt far too private for the dinner table.

Tony cleared his throat. “Okay, lovebirds,” he said. “Me next. I’m grateful for solid healthcare--” he waggled the fingers of his left hand to illustrate—“and the fact that Phil didn’t actually kill me for borrowing the car this morning.” He made air quotes around the word ‘borrow.’

Phil laughed. “You should definitely be grateful for that!”

“And I’m grateful for Pepper,” Tony said really quickly before he shoved nearly the entire slice of pizza in his mouth.

“Okay,” Phil nodded at Tony. He wasn’t sure where the ‘grateful for Pepper’ came from, but if the faint blush colouring Tony’s cheeks and the studious way he was eating was any indication, something might've changed between the two of them. Phil decided to leave it for now. Tony would tell him when he was ready.

Natasha smirked at Tony. “Smooth.”

“Shut up,” he mumbled around a mouthful of pizza.

“Why don’t you go next,” Phil said to Natasha.

“Okay,” she placed her hands careful at the edge of the table. “I’m grateful for my papa,” she said, “and my brothers.” She smiled at each of them in turn, “Steve, Tony and James.”

“Aww, thanks Natasha.” Steve grinned at her.

“That was actually sweet,” Tony said. “When you’d get sweet?”

James flicked a glance at her, accompanied by a small smile. It was like he’d stood up on the table to thank her.

Phil smiled his thanks at her, but he was more focused on the name she hadn’t said.

“And I’m grateful for Clint,” she said, as if she was reading Phil’s mind. She took Clint’s hand.

So that’s how it is, Phil thought. Plainly Natasha and Clint had cleared up their tension in more ways than one.

Clint was looking at him, his big eyes wide and his lip between his teeth. Natasha’s look was more challenging, but it was obvious that both of them were waiting for his reaction to their subtle declaration of their new relationship.

“I trust you,” he said, making sure he made eye contact with both of them. He smiled. “This is a good thing.”

“Finally!” Tony collapsed back in his seat. “I thought the two of you were never going to get together!”

“Congratulations.” Steve grinned at them. “I’m really happy for the two of you.”

“Thanks.” Clint went to rub the back of his neck with his casted right hand, thought better of it and put his hand down. “I’m really happy, too.”

“Great!” Tony exclaimed. “Can we eat now?”

“Weren’t you already eating?” Natasha eyed his half-empty plate.

“I’m a growing boy.” Tony grabbed two more slices, then slid another one onto James’ now-empty plate. “And James is, too. Right James? We need to eat.”

James nodded without looking up. Carefully he folded the slice with his one hand so he could lift it to his mouth.

“It’s my turn, for Gratitude,” Steve said. He looked at Phil. “Can I go?”

“Of course,” Phil said over Tony’s groan of protest.

Steve nodded his thanks. “I’m grateful that James can stay,” he said.

Phil winced. It was going to take a while before Steve was completely able to let that go. “I’m grateful that James decided to stay,” Phil said, looking at the boy in question. “Especially after how unwelcome I must've made you feel.”

James acknowledged Phil’s words with a small nod and a quick eye flick, and Phil felt something ease a little in his chest.

“How ‘bout you, Soul Surfer?” Tony said to James as he jammed another bite of pizza into his mouth, “Anything you’re grateful for?”

“Tony,“ Steve started, clearly annoyed.

James was looking at Tony, but his expression was thoughtful rather than frightened.

“Would you like to add something?” Phil said quietly.

“Yeah.” Clint smiled at him. “We won’t laugh or anything. I promise.”

“Well, unless it’s funny,” Tony added. Natasha elbowed him in the side. “Ow!” he glared at her. “Fine, killjoy, no laughing even if he’s hilarious.”

James’ head was down, the small furrow back between his eyebrows. But instead of looking concerned, this time he looked like he was considering something.

“You don’t have to,” Steve whispered to him. “Just ignore Tony, everyone else does.”

“Nice.” Tony rolled his eyes.

James stood.

Phil immediately shifted his weight, ready to grab James if he headed for the door, but James stayed put.

Still looking down, he touched his heart with two fingers of his right hand. He then started moving counterclockwise around the table, touching first Tony’s shoulder, then Natasha’s, then Clint’s and finally Phil’s in turn. He stepped neatly around Steve and ended back at his seat.

“We’re grateful for you, too,” Clint said. James flashed him a brief smile.

He then turned to Steve, and very seriously, moved his hand as if he was going to touch his shoulder, but then at the last second, he pointed at his pizza slice instead.

Tony and Clint both burst out laughing. Natasha elbowed Tony in the side again, which only made Clint laugh harder.

James wasn’t looking at anyone, but he was grinning at his joke.

Steve shook his head, mirth in his eyes.

This might actually work, Phil thought. We might all be okay.

Bucky was lying on his bed in Steve’s room, staring out at the sky.

The room was dark, the only light from the barn outside and from the moon and stars. The night was clear and velvety dark and Bucky couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so at peace.

He touched the window with his right hand, feeling the cold of the glass against his fingertips and watching how condensation blurred the glass from the heat of his body. He could feel his heartbeat, slow and steady in his chest; the evenness of his breathing, and from across the room the quiet rustle of Steve’s sketchbook and the gentle scratch of pencil on paper.

What’re you drawing? he wanted to ask, but as soon as the thought came he let it go. Nothing would ruin his calm faster than thinking about words, so he focused on the sounds of Steve drawing in his bed and thought about their day instead.

He purposely skipped over the terrifying car ride and being in the hospital. There was nothing peaceful about those thoughts. Instead he turned his mind to being with Steve.

The ride with Steve had been fantastic. He’d forgotten how liberating it was to ride a horse, how much fun it was to work hard with an animal and run and run and run until both rider and mount were pleasantly tired. It was immediately obvious that, regardless of the fact that he hadn’t ridden for six years, Bucky was actually better at it than Steve. Steve had been able to keep up, but he was less well-balanced and a more erratic rider than Bucky was, testament to Bucky’s history on horseback and Steve’s more recent learning.

It had seemed like a natural progression for Bucky to take Clint up on his offer to join everyone for dinner. It had been hard at first—he'd felt naked and exposed in a way that he hadn’t even felt like when he’d been in the car—but after only a few minutes Bucky realized that no one expected him to do more than what he was okay with. Everyone treated his silence like it was something normal. Like he was normal.

He really was grateful for them all.

He turned his head away from the window to look over at Steve. The blond boy was hunched over his sketching, his book balanced against his bent legs. The tip of his tongue was peeking out between his lips as he concentrated, making him look younger than his seventeen years. He'd clipped a small book light to the edge of his page, and the yellow light washed out his skin and made the bruising on his face look dark and painful. Bucky flinched as he looked at it. He knew that Steve’d forgiven him for hitting him, but he still felt bad.

Steve looked up, his eyes meeting Bucky’s, and once again Bucky felt himself being pulled into Steve’s gaze. Steve’s mouth immediately curved into a smile.

“I thought you were asleep.”

Bucky shook his head and sat up. He gestured at the window.

“Stargazing, huh?” Steve nodded. “I liked to do that too, when I slept there.”

Bucky frowned and indicated the mattress. He raised his eyebrows.

Steve shook his head. “No, it’s okay. I don’t mind sleeping here now.” He pointed at the window with his chin. “It was just different, you know? I grew up in Brooklyn. And there aren't a lot of stars in a city. It’s nice, being able to see them.”

Bucky nodded. He liked the stars, too. He pointed at Steve’s sketchbook and tilted his head.

“What am I drawing?” Steve shrugged. “Nothing important. You can come see if you like.”

Bucky grinned at him and crossed the room to Steve’s bed. Steve shifted so Bucky could slide in beside him, both of them with their back to his headboard and Steve’s shoulder’s brushing against his. There really wasn’t enough space for the both of them to sit like this, but Bucky wouldn’t have moved for anything.

“Here.” Steve moved the pages so Bucky could look at them. It was an image of a woman with long, light-coloured hair and big blue eyes. She looked young and happy and she was holding the hand of a small, blond boy. The child was frail, and even in the simple line drawing it was obvious he wasn’t healthy. But he was smiling up at the woman like she was his whole world.

Steve’s mother, Bucky thought. He reached across his body to touch her image, and then the child’s. Then he leaned further so he could touch Steve’s chest, above his heart.

Steve nodded. “If you’re asking if that's my mom, you’re right. It was only me and her when I was growing up. My dad had been in the army and he died in a training accident just before I was born.” He swallowed. “Her name was Sarah. She, uh. She died when I was twelve.”

Bucky put his hand around Steve's wrist. He knew what losing your mother felt like.

Steve turned in Bucky’s grip until their fingers were loosely linked, comforting and thrilling all at once. “I know you can’t tell now,” Steve said into the quiet of the room, “but I used to be really small and sickly when I was a kid. I was really skinny and tired all the time and I never seemed to grow. My mom was a nurse, and she used to take me to see the doctors at the hospital where she worked, I must've seen hundreds of doctors!” He huffed out a weak laugh. “My mom ended up having to work two jobs just to pay for my hospital bills, and that was even with her being a hospital employee.”

Bucky gently squeezed Steve’s fingers, giving support and feeling a warm glow inside when Steve squeezed back.

“All the doctors said the same thing, that there was a problem with my heart, and it'd need surgery to fix. But here’s the catch. My mom earned too much money for us to get a break with the medical bills, but she didn’t earn enough to actually be able to pay for them. So she…”

Steve stopped talking.

Bucky frowned and looked at his friend. Steve’s eyes had gone red and he was biting his lip, trying not to cry. Bucky put his arm around his shoulders, pulling him so that Steve’s head rested against his own. You don’t have to tell me. Bucky shifted so that his forehead was touching Steve’s; wishing Steve could read his thoughts. Wishing he could just talk to Steve. He even opened his mouth, but like always the words couldn’t come, too tangled up in his throat. He closed his mouth on a silent sigh instead.

“Thanks,” Steve muttered, as if he understood that Bucky wanted to comfort him. He moved so that his temple was against Bucky’s forehead, still close but slightly less intimate than before. He scrubbed at his eyes with his fingers. “I’ve never told anyone this,” he said softly. “I’m sure that Phil knows already. It must be in my file, but I’ve never said it.”

Bucky nodded and patted Steve’s shoulder.

Steve smirked. “Yeah, I’m sure you’d understand how hard it is to talk sometimes.”

Bucky shrugged with a small smile. He moved his hand to the back of Steve’s neck.

“She made me a ward of the State of New York,” Steve said softly. “She gave me up to save my life. And…and it killed her. She got cancer and died the same year that I got my heart surgery. She died because of me.” Steve covered his eyes with his hands, his shoulder’s shaking as he cried. His sketchbook and pencils slid off his lap to land forgotten on the bed.

Bucky stroked his back, long stripes up and down as he bit his lip. His heart was breaking with the pain he could see in every line of Steve’s body. The agony that his mother had given up everything for him, and the guilt that he’d lived when she hadn’t.

“It’s my fault,” Steve sobbed, curled into himself like he was still the small boy he used to be. “I should’ve fought her, or run away, or—or done something so that she didn’t have to die. It’s my fault. All my fault.”

The desire to tell Steve that he was wrong was so fierce that for a moment Bucky felt like he couldn’t breathe. The words: No it’s not! were sitting like jagged stones in his throat, choking him as they fought to be said.

Wildly, he grabbed Steve’s sketchbook and a pencil and wrote ‘It’s not your fault!’ on the first blank page he found, underlining it hard enough to dent the paper. He shoved the book in front of Steve, tapping him repeatedly on the shoulder until Steve finally looked up, his face streaked with tears.

“You okay?” Steve croaked, and Bucky’s heart broke a little more thinking that, even in the midst of his despair, Steve’s first concern was for Bucky. Bucky tapped the words on the page, searching Steve’s face for his reaction.

Steve read the words and then whipped his head around to look at Bucky. “You can write?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. He tapped the words again.

“I get it,” Steve said. “You don’t think it’s my fault my mother died.” He shook his head. “I appreciate it, but you don’t know. She was so strong and healthy before she gave me up, and then she got sick so quickly…”

‘Cancer can work like that,’ Bucky wrote. ‘Still not your fault.’

Steve shook his head again. “I wish I could believe that,” he said. “But giving me up killed her.”

‘NO!’ Bucky wrote in dark and underlined capital letters. ‘She gave you up to SAVE you. You dying would have killed her. Not you having a chance to live.’


Bucky put up his hand to stop him, then started writing again. ‘She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.’

“Probably not,” Steve agreed. His eyes filled with tears again. “I just miss her so much.”

Bucky dropped the pencil and wiped at Steve’s tears with the pad of his thumb, leaving his hand pressed gently to Steve’s face. Purposely he held Steve’s gaze. It felt uncomfortable, but not scary. He was getting used to the idea of Steve looking into his eyes. He certainly liked looking back.

“You’re pretty brave, aren’t you, James?” Steve whispered as he looked at him.

Bucky shrugged. He didn’t feel brave. He felt anxious and scared most of the time. This house, this room was one of the first times in his life that he could remember actually feeling like he might be safe.

But Steve thought he was brave, and that made him feel like he could be. He dropped his hand and grabbed the pencil again, scribbling as fast as possible before he changed his mind.

‘My nickname is Bucky,’ he wrote. He wanted to tell Steve this, wanted so badly to hear Steve call him Bucky. But no one had called him that in ten years. He hadn’t told anyone. Not since….

He pushed the sketchbook and pencil away and threw himself onto his bed, with his eyes squeezed shut, covering the back of his head with his arms. The stump of his left one pressed into the forearm of his right. He didn’t want to remember the last time he’d been called ‘Bucky,’ and he was terrified Steve would ask where that name came from, or why he wasn’t called that any more.

Bucky started to tremble as the enormity of what he’d just done hit him. The air stuttered in his lungs, like they’d stopped working.

“James?” Bucky felt Steve’s weight settle on the bed beside him, Steve’s big hand resting on his back between his shoulder blades. “You okay?”

Bucky shook his head without moving his arms.

“Didn’t think so,” Steve muttered. He began to move his hand in a circle on Bucky’s back, his palm heavy and warm through the fabric of Bucky’s shirt. “It’s okay,” he murmured. “I won’t call you ‘Bucky.’ I won’t tell anyone else, either. I promise.”

It would be so easy to let Steve do that, for Bucky to let him keep stroking his back and have him keep calling Bucky ‘James,’ and forget that he’d ever told Steve any different.

But that wasn’t what Bucky wanted. And Steve had called him brave.

Bucky took a deep breath, willing his lungs to fill and his heart to slow. It took a few moments, but finally the shush, shush, shush of his pulse stopped filling his ears. He sat up.

Steve was smiling at him. “Better?”

Bucky nodded. He let his hand rest in his lap, unsure what to do next.

Steve yawned. “I’m going to get changed, brush my teeth and go to bed,” he said. “How about you, James?” He asked. “You ready to sleep?”

Before he realized what he was going to do, Bucky put his finger over Steve’s lips.

Steve jerked back. “What?”

Bucky tapped his chest, and then pointed at the sketchbook still lying on Steve’s bed, and then tapped his chest again. It was harder to hold Steve’s gaze this time, but he made himself do it, willing Steve to understand.

Steve frowned in confusion. “You want my sketchbook?”

Bucky shook his head and repeated his gestures with more force.

Steve blinked. “You want to be called Bucky?”

Bucky nodded and smiled even though he knew it was tremulous.

“Okay,” Steve said slowly. “I can do that.” He tilted his head. “But from the way you reacted, I thought you didn’t like that name?”

Bucky shook his head and then shrugged. It was the best explanation he could give.

“Okay,” Steve said again. “Do you want me to tell the others?”

Bucky froze. He hadn’t thought about that.

“It’s okay if you don’t,” Steve said quickly. “I’ll just use it in private.”

Bucky tried to imagine what it might be like to have his nickname said by Phil and the other kids.

He thought of the way that Natasha had said she was grateful he was her brother, and the way Tony teased him just like he was the same as everyone else. He thought of the way that Clint had said it was okay that he’d broken his wrist because it’d been worth it to save Bucky’s life. Bucky tapped his chest again. He smiled.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying that you’re okay with everyone knowing your nickname?”

Bucky nodded vigorously.

“Great!” Steve beamed at him. “I like the name ‘Bucky,’ it suits you.”

Bucky bumped him with his shoulder.

Steve bumped him back. “Thanks for telling me about your nickname,” he said quietly. “I like learning things about you.” His smile was shy.

Bucky smiled back, and gently stroked his hand down Steve’s face, careful of his healing bruises. He let it drift down the side of Steve’s neck until it came to rest against his heart. He could feel it beating under his palm, strong and steady. Thank you, Sarah, he thought.

Steve covered Bucky’s hand with his own.

Pepper leaned over and whispered, “Tony’s going to get his ass kicked,” in Natasha’s ear.

Natasha looked over to where Clint, Tony and Steve were getting ready to spar together under Thor’s watchful eye. They were in the sprawling basement of the house, which Phil had turned into a gym soon after Natasha’s arrival. The floor was covered with thick exercise mats that could be pulled back to reveal a hard-wood surface perfect for dancing. One wall was covered in mirrors with a bar attached for Natasha to practice her ballet.

Sometimes she and the boys would come down, turn off most of the lights and blast their music and just dance until they could barely stand. Clint was an excellent break dancer and Tony wasn’t horrible. Steve’s sense of rhythm wasn’t great, but with enough coaxing he’d get up on the floor and flail around to the beat.

There were two treadmills and benches and free-weights and even a heavy bag hanging from the ceiling, but today the area was set up for one of their martial arts classes taught expertly by Thor and Jane.

“He’s not that bad.” Natasha shrugged. Actually, Tony was one of the better martial artists in the class. While Clint was a natural when it came to anything athletic, Tony’d been practicing Wing Chung since he’d been able to walk. It’s just that Thor was teaching them Muay Thai, which was a very different style. Tony was having a bit of difficulty adapting from one to the other.

Clint, on the other hand, had thrown himself into the lessons like a fish to water. It was obvious that he enjoyed knowing how to protect himself when no one was actually actively trying to hurt him. He and Tony were often paired up in class.

Clint and Tony were wearing headgear and chest protectors, and Thor had warned Clint and Tony to only use their kicks in order to protect their injured wrist and hand from further damage before setting them loose on each other. Pepper winced as Clint immediately landed a solid kick to Tony’s middle, causing the older boy to take several steps back. “Clint’s better.”

“Yeah.” Natasha smiled. As usual Clint had his shirt off, and Natasha was enjoying the way his muscles flexed and rippled under the chest protector with his movement, and the way his skin was beginning to shine with his sweat.

In a separate section of the gym, Thor was going through some kicking exercises with Steve, helping him to increase his range and power. Steve was giving it his all but he had to work at it in a way that neither Tony nor Clint needed.

And then there was Bucky.

Natasha shifted her gaze to her newest sibling. Jane Foster, their science teacher and Thor’s fiancée, was showing Bucky the basics. Normally Jane worked primarily with Pepper and Natasha because the three women were of a similar size. But today she’d asked them to spar on their own so she could help him. It was obvious that neither one of them were totally sure how the boxing part of the kick boxing would work with someone missing an arm, but it looked like Bucky was having fun figuring it out.

Bucky’s face was a picture of intense concentration, the collar of his T-shirt already damp with sweat. It was strange to see him working so hard and yet maintaining his total silence.

Of course, Pepper and Natasha had immediately blown off sparring to watch the boys.

“Didn’t he attack Steve for touching his left arm?” Pepper asked as they watched Jane trap Bucky’s stump against her side and pull him in close to show him how she’d knee him in the abdomen. Jane was being gentle and projecting her movements but Bucky’s face still showed his surprise.

“I think it was because he was already upset from the kitchen being trashed,” Natasha explained softly. “He seems okay with it if he knows it’s going to happen.”

“That’s good.” Pepper nodded. “Otherwise this class would be hellish for him.”

“I’m sure Jane told him that she was going to touch him,” Natasha said. She figured that Phil had thoroughly briefed all the teachers on what'd happened the night before last and then yesterday morning so they knew about Steve’s bruises and Clint and Tony’s injuries as well as Bucky’s potential triggers. No one wanted to accidently send him running off again.

“The name Bucky works for him,” Pepper said. Steve had let them all know about Bucky’s preferred name over breakfast that morning. Bucky had stood back while Steve was talking, gaze on the floor as usual, but he’d been smiling. “He never seemed like a ‘James’ to me.”

Natasha nodded, watching as Bucky kicked the pad Jane was now holding hard enough to send the small woman back a step. He grinned.

“It’s nice to see him smiling like that,” Pepper continued. “I remember when he first came in. He was so scared! And then the way he attacked Steve…” she shook her head, wisps of strawberry-blond hair coming loose from her pony-tail. “Well, I’m just glad things are going better.”

“Me, too,” Natasha agreed. She switched her focus from Bucky back to Clint and Tony. Tony was wearing a sleeveless top and already there was a visible bruise forming on his upper arm from where Clint’s foot had gotten past his defenses. She made a face on his behalf. “Tony is getting his ass kicked.”

“Told you.” Pepper looked pained, but then her expression changed to something more wicked. “Guess I’ll have a lot to kiss better later.”

Natasha flinched. She’d been expecting Pepper to tell her about her relationship with Tony since the gratitude at dinner the night before. But she hadn’t expected it to actually hurt when she finally heard it. Pepper’s mine! she thought fiercely. She clenched her hands into fists, trying hard to stop herself from running over to Tony and pounding him into the ground.

“I’m happy for you,” Natasha finally managed to get past her teeth. “You’ve been crushing on him for a long time.”

Pepper looked at her sidelong. “This isn’t how I thought you’d react.”

“How’d you think I was going to react?” Natasha crossed her arms.

Pepper titled her head. “I thought you’d go and kill Tony for taking me away from you. Because I’m your best friend.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.

Natasha stiffened anyway. “I don’t do that anymore.” She turned away. “You can go do what you want. I don’t care.”

“Oh Nat,” Pepper said, “I don’t want you to get upset.”

“I’m not upset,” Natasha lied. “Like I said, do what you want.”

“I’m sorry,” Pepper said. “I meant to tell you better than this. Let me try again.” She turned to face Natasha head-on. “I’m in love with Tony,” she said. “And I think he loves me too. And I plan to work hard on this relationship, because I’d like it last a long time. But no matter what happens, what we have”—she gestured between the two of them—is just as important. You’re my best friend, Tash. I don’t want anything to get in between that. Ever.”

Natasha searched Pepper’s face. There was nothing but sincerity reflecting back. “But what if you break up?” She said after a moment. “You’re my best friend, but he’s my brother. Who am I meant to pick if you two break up?”

“Both, neither.” Pepper shook her head. “What I mean is, I can’t promise what Tony will or will not do, but I can promise you that I won’t cheat on him, or lie to him, or do anything that would affect our friendship, okay?” She put her hands on Natasha’s shoulders. “I really mean that.”

“I know.” Natasha looked past Pepper to where Clint and Tony were resting against the mirrors now, drinking water and laughing. Their skin shone with sweat and both of them looked as open and happy as she’d ever seen them. Tony kept glancing over at the back of Pepper’s head, grinning like his face was going to split. “I just…“

“What?” Pepper asked gently.

Natasha bit her lip. “You’re mine,” she said finally, voice low. “I mean, you were my friend first. Not Tony’s.”

“And you were my friend before Clint,” Pepper said, equally as softly. “But I’d never make you choose between the two of us. Not when I know you can love us both.”

“I do love you,” Natasha said.

“I know you do,” Pepper said back. “I love you, too. And nothing’s going to change that. Not Tony, not Clint, nothing.” She reached over and pulled Natasha into a hug.

The two women embraced each other, and Natasha felt herself settle. She trusted Pepper, probably more than she’d trusted anyone in her life, except for Clint. If Pepper said she loved her and always would, then Natasha could believe her.

“So,” Pepper said after a moment, “when were you going to tell me that you and Clint finally got together?”

Natasha bobbed back to look at her. “How’d you know that?”

“Tony.” Pepper laughed. “Phil must’ve given him back his phone. He sent me several texts about your new relationship, most of them a variation of ‘it’s about time.’”

Natasha scowled. “I’m going to kill him.”

“Not too dead, I hope.” Pepper laughed again. “I kind of like him in one piece.”

At that moment there was a yell and the sound of a body smacking into the mats and she and Pepper immediately turned to see Steve lying on top of Clint and Tony, having apparently leaped on both of them and tackled them to the floor. Bucky, not wanting to be left out, ran across the room and jumped on the boys, the four of them ending up in a massive, giggling pile of flailing limbs and ineffective headlocks.

Thor was laughing so hard his eyes were watering.

Jane came to stand beside them, arms crossed. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a messy bun and her loose gym wear was damp with sweat. She indicated the boys with a jerk of her chin. “You’re not going to join them?”

Natasha made a face. “Do you want to end up in the middle of a pile of sweaty, stinky boys?”

Jane laughed. “Well, when you put it that way…” She indicated the centre of the mat with the tilt of her head. “But I do know that you two have done a lot more looking than actually practicing this session. Time for some sparing, ladies! Let’s show the boys how it’s done.”

Natasha and Pepper gave a half-hearted groan but moved to where Jane directed them and went into a fighting stance.

“Prepare to die, Romanov!” Pepper smirked at her.

“Potts,” Natasha said calmly, “I’m going to kick your ass.”

And the fight was on.

The rest of the week passed in a blur of classes, homework and chores until finally it was the weekend again and the kids had two whole days to themselves.

Tony sat in his car on the main street, playing with his phone. He’d just finished sending Pepper a Snapchat of his stitches ('They’re so itchy!') when Natasha opened the passenger door and slid inside.

“How was dance class?” Tony snapped a picture of Natasha, her hair pulled back with a thick hairband and her scarf up to her chin.

Natasha scowled at him. “Did you just send that to Pepper?”

“Yup.” Tony grinned at her. “Don’t worry!” he exclaimed when she swatted at him. “It’ll only last for ten seconds!”

“It better,” Natasha mumbled. She did up her seatbelt. “Class was good,” she finally replied to his original question. “But Ms. Grey was in a bad mood. I think we must’ve done a hundred pliés and she still wasn’t happy with our form! I think she made Pyotr cry.”

“Pyotr’s the big guy from Russia, right?” Tony said as he pulled away from the curb. He was driving his Spyder again, having been given back the keys on Friday after a whole four days of good behavior which didn’t involve taking any more of Phil’s cars. It felt amazing to have his hands on the steering wheel of his baby again, especially as the thick bandage on his left hand was gone so steering wasn’t quite the dangerous pastime that Monday’s aborted trip to the diner had been. It took all his self-control to not just floor it.

“Yes.” Natasha nodded. “He’s actually a pretty good dancer, just not today.”

Tony smirked. “Pyotr the periodically poor plié practitioner.”

Natasha laughed. “Sounds about right.”

Tony turned onto the road that headed out of town and back towards Phil’s farm. It was mid-morning on a Saturday and the sun was shining brightly, reflecting off the snow that still covered the ground. But in a change from the recent frigid weather it was actually above freezing for the first time in weeks. It almost made Tony want to open his sun-roof. Almost.

“Thanks for picking me up,” Natasha said.

Tony shrugged. “Steve was going to do it, but Bucky wanted to go for a ride so I volunteered.”

“That was very nice of you.” Natasha’s look was more skeptical than appreciative.

“What?” Tony said. “Can’t I do something nice for my friends? My siblings? Blood is thicker than water.”

Natasha’s expression didn’t change. “We picking up Pepper on the way back?”

Tony glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “This is a two-seater.”

“And I’m sure it never crossed your mind that I could sit on Pepper’s lap for the five minute drive?”

“Never, ever,” Tony agreed immediately. “Not unless I can take pictures.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “You’re such a pig.”

Tony grinned. “You love it.”

“Not as much as Pepper, apparently,” Natasha said dryly. “It’s okay Tony,” she sighed at his flash of panic. “I know you and Pepper are together. It’s okay.”

“It’s okay?”

“Yeah.” Natasha nodded. “I think…I think the two of you'll be good together. You’re the first guy she’s been interested in who’s actually smart enough for her.” She smiled. “It’s a nice change from all the dumb pretty-boys, actually.”

Tony blinked. “Was that actually a compliment? Wait. Did you just call me ugly?”

Natasha laughed. “I did say you were smart....”

Tony laughed as well. “I’ll take it.” He watched the road for a bit and then looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “So no shovel talk?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Do you need one?”

Tony bit his lip. “Would you believe me if I told you that I’d rather die than do anything to hurt her?”

“Should I?”

“Yes,” Tony said immediately. “Yes, absolutely.”

Natasha leaned back on the seat. “Then we’re good.” She pulled out her phone.

Tony let go of a breath. “Good.”

“Good,” Natasha repeated. “I just texted her to let her know we’re almost there.”

“Thanks,” Tony replied absently. A few drops of rain hit his windshield, and then a few more. He turned on the wipers. “I didn’t know it was going to rain today.”

“The temperature’s dropping.” Natasha frowned at her weather app. “It’s going to turn freezing soon.”

“That sucks,” Tony said. “We’ll have to get the horses in early.”

Natasha’s thumbs flew over her keypad. “I’m letting Clint know.”

“And Steve too,” Tony said. “Before he and Bucky get too far on the trail.”

“I’m sure they’ve noticed the rain,” Natasha said, but Tony saw her pull up Steve’s name to text him. “I’m texting Phil, too.”

“Aww!” Tony complained. “Don’t do that! He’ll come back early!”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Phil’s not that bad, and you know it.”

“But he’s in New York with Melinda and Nick for the whole day!” Tony grinned. “That means we have the house all to ourselves!” He waggled his eyebrows. “Don’t you and Clint want to have a private party in the penthouse?”

Natasha frowned at him. “No.”

Tony blinked. “No? Really?”

“Well, not yet,” she amended. “Phil wants us to wait.”

“TMI!” Tony cried, then, “You talked about this with Phil?

“Why wouldn’t I?” Natasha looked at him. “He’s my dad.”

“Oh.” It would’ve never occurred to him to talk to his father about his relationships in a million years. And now that Howard was dead, Tony’d never get the chance. The thought was a sharp and unexpected pain in his chest. He found himself suddenly blinking back tears.

Natasha was still looking at him. “You could talk to Phil about Pepper, if you wanted.”

Tony nodded, afraid to speak.

She smiled, but it was sad. “I wish my mom could’ve met Clint.”

Tony cleared his throat. “My dad would’ve said Pepper was too good for me.”

“He’d be wrong.” Natasha put her hand on his where it rested on the gear shift.

They stayed like that for a moment, the only sounds the low hum of the car’s engine and the rhythmic motion of the windshield wipers. Tony glanced at Natasha out of the corner of his eye. She was looking straight ahead, her profile as perfect as a Roman coin. “I’m grateful you’re my sister,” he said softly.

She dipped her head towards him, her lips curved up in a smile. She squeezed his hand.

Tony turned down the long driveway towards Pepper’s house. She was standing on the stoop in her dad’s old coat, hands jammed in the pockets. There was a yellow rain hat on her head and a pair of lined rubber boots on her feet. He’d never seen anyone more beautiful.

“Ugh.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “Stop looking at her like that. I’m going to throw up.”

“Only if you promise to never look at Clint again.” Tony grinned, never taking his eyes off Pepper.

The smack Natasha gave him was totally worth it.

By the time Steve finished reading the text from Natasha the rain had already changed from a light drizzle to a steady downpour.

“Time to head back,” Steve said. He sent a text to Natasha to let her know he’d gotten hers, and then sent one to Clint as well. Tony wouldn’t worry because he was with Natasha, but he wanted Clint to know that they’d be back soon.

Bucky nodded, already looking cold and miserable. It'd been warm when they left: sunny and above zero for the first time in weeks, so the change in temperature was distinctly uncomfortable. Steve could feel the rainwater beginning to soak through his hat, dampening his hair. He moved Captain closer to Winter, mindful of the narrowness of the trail.

“Here,” he said, and leaned over to pull up Bucky’s hood. He let go of Captain’s reins so he could tighten Bucky’s hood to keep it from slipping back.

Bucky looked over at him and put his left arm over his chest in a hugging motion, making an exaggerated shiver.

Steve nodded. “I’m cold too,” he said before turning his attention back to controlling his horse. It was pretty obvious that Bucky’d more practice riding than Steve. Steve was a city boy who’d also been sick for most of his childhood. He’d played more sports in the nine months that he’d been living with Phil than he’d done in all the years previous, and while he really enjoyed it, he wasn’t exactly a natural. Carefully he began to turn Captain on the trail. It was narrow here, more suited to riding single file than side-by-side and Steve didn’t want to accidentally run the horse into any of the trees that lined the trail.

Bucky waited for him to make the turn before they started back. The rain was coming down now in full force. Icy drops of rain were soaking through his hat and trickling down the back of his neck to saturate his sweater. His gloves and jeans were wet, and his fingers and thighs were starting to burn with the cold. Ice crystals were forming in Captain’s mane.

“We should hurry,” Steve called to Bucky. Bucky nodded without looking back and urged Winter into a jog. Steve waited for Bucky to get a horse-length ahead and then pressed his heels into Captain’s sides. Normally he felt comfortable trotting or even cantering on Captain, but now the ground was wet and becoming icy. He really didn’t want the horse to slip and hurt himself.

They rode for about ten minutes, getting even wetter and colder. Even Steve's feet were wet now, from the rain dripping into his boots.

He was thinking longingly of a hot shower when the flash of lighting caught him completely by surprise. The boom of thunder came right afterward. It cracked through the sky, sudden and very loud.

Both Winter and Captain immediately reared in terror.

Steve yelled in panic, slipping on the rain-slicked saddle. He yanked Captain’s reins, trying to get the horse under control. Captain came down with a jarring thump and took off at a run. Winter was running ahead as well, but Bucky had his horse under control and Captain was coming up way too fast.

Steve hauled back on the reins as hard as he could, desperate to stop Captain before they collided with Winter. Captain stopped so suddenly that Steve went right over the horse's shoulder to the ground.

He landed on his outstretched hands, feeling a sharp snap as his right clavicle broke apart. His arm collapsed beneath him, and his chin smacked the ground so hard his jaw slammed shut, driving his teeth deep into his tongue.

He lay on the ground, the taste of blood thick in his mouth. Captain was standing a few feet away from him, snorting and tossing his head. He felt dazed and cold and his first instinct was to get up, get up! and he pushed off from the ground with his hands, to get away from the wet and the cold and the pain.

The agony burst through his shoulder like lightning.

He didn’t know if he screamed but the next time he could focus he found he was lying on his back, staring up into the bare tree branches and the dark, rainy sky beyond. His shoulder hurt so much he couldn't move, could barely breathe through the pain. He couldn’t see Bucky, couldn’t see anything but the trees and the rain. He tried to call, but his tongue wasn’t working right. His mouth was full of blood.

He swallowed it automatically and suddenly he was sitting up and puking blood and bile and rainwater and the pain was so bad and he just couldn’t breathe.

Everything greyed out

Winter reared with the crack of thunder.

Bucky gasped silently in shock. He purposely loosened his grip on the reins to let Winter have his head and land safely. The horse took off as soon as his feet were on the ground, tossing his head with his eyes rolling with fear.

It’s okay, Bucky thought as he leaned over to hug Winter’s neck. Winter was still running, making little side-steps and small jumps. The path was too narrow for Bucky to turn the horse to slow him down. So he just held on and let Winter go until the horse calmed on his own.

Behind him, Steve screamed.

Bucky whipped his head around. Captain was still behind him, riderless and afraid.

And then he saw Steve.

Bucky halted Winter and was out of the saddle and beside Steve in the next instant. Steve was on his back, his left hand pressed against his right collarbone. His eyes were unfocussed and the yellow-green of his healing bruises stood out starkly against his too-pale skin. Blood leaked out of the corners of his mouth, turning pink and washing away in the rain.

Bucky took off his glove with his teeth and touched the side of Steve’s face, feeling the coldness of his skin. His heart was pounding so fast he thought he was going to be sick. He forced himself to look at Steve’s eyes, to look anywhere but at the blood trickling down his chin.

There was so much blood. And the sound of the car as it hit, glass spraying--

“Bucky?” Steve said. His words were unnatural and heavy.

Bucky nodded, trying to smile. Gently he slid his arm behind Steve’s shoulders, helping him to sit up. Steve’s face contorted with pain and his breath hitched.

“Hurts,” Steve muttered. He spat a glob of blood onto the slushy ground.

Bucky could feel Steve shivering from cold and shock. He wasn’t sure what was wrong but he knew it was bad and that Steve needed help immediately. He had to get Steve up and back on his horse. He tapped Steve on his left side with the stump of his arm. Steve looked up at him, eyes dull. Bucky tossed his head towards Captain, then raised his eyebrows.

Steve blinked, then slowly tracked Bucky’s head movement until he was looking at his horse. He blinked again and then nodded.

Bucky sagged with relief that Steve understood him. If he could get Steve back on his horse, he’d be able to lead him home. Bucky tapped on Steve’s arm again until Steve focused on him, then slowly tapped on Steve’s back with his right hand, one, two, three, holding Steve’s gaze the whole time.

“On three?” Steve asked. More blood came out of his mouth as he spoke. His words were slurred and indistinct, like his tongue wasn’t working right. Bucky forced down the stab of fear from all that blood. He hoped it wasn’t because Steve was bleeding somewhere inside.

Bucky nodded and then tapped against Steve’s back again. When they reached ‘three,’ Bucky gripped Steve’s ribs and lifted.

Steve cried out, but he managed to get himself onto his knees, and then to his feet with Bucky supporting him. He was panting by the time they got up. His right arm hung useless by his side, his left hand pressed hard against his right shoulder. If possible he looked even more ashen than before. Blood was still trickling out of his mouth.

So far, so good, Bucky thought. Gently he moved Steve around until they were facing Captain, taking one step and then another until they’d reached the animal. Captain looked at them and tossed his head, his ears flattening. It was obvious he could smell the blood on Steve even through the incessant rain, and he didn’t like it.

Bucky shifted and gently pulled at Steve’s left arm, trying to position it on the saddle so Steve could help Bucky lever him up.

Steve nodded his head and slowly brought his hand away from his shoulder. He’d only moved it a fraction towards Captain’s saddle when he cried out, slapping his hand back.

“No,” he sobbed. He shook his head, tremours coursing through him. “Can’t. Hurts.” Captain shifted, nervous from the sound of Steve’s crying. His flank bumped Steve’s right arm.

Steve screamed and fell back. He ended up on one knee on the ground, head down, crying softly.

Bucky clenched his fist. His fingers were aching with cold. He looked over at Winter, who had turned himself into the wind and was waiting patiently for his rider. I could ride him back, Bucky thought, and then immediately dismissed it. Steve was hurt and it was bitterly cold. Bucky would never leave him.

Steve had staggered to his feet again, still gripping his shoulder. His eyes were cloudy from pain but he hobbled back towards Captain, a look of fierce determination on his face.

Bucky stopped him. He shook his head vehemently.

“W’gtta gt bk,” Steve mumbled. Something must be wrong with his tongue because he could barely speak. He was still shivering, head hanging.

Bucky shook his head again, pointing to Steve’s arm and making a grimace of pain.

“Cn do it,” Steve said, but he stopped.

Bucky sighed silently in relief and put his finger and thumb up against the side of his face, mimicking a phone. He hadn’t been given one yet. Probably because he didn’t talk.

Slowly, Steve turned so his right side was presented to Bucky. “M’pckt.”

Nodding his thanks, Bucky gently fished Steve’s cell out of his pocket and pulled up the contacts list. He went to text Phil before he remembered that the man was in New York and wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to help. His fingers were getting colder by the second, and the screen of the phone becoming coated in a film of freezing water. He shook the phone off and tried to pull up Steve’s list of contacts, but the phone wouldn’t read his thumb through the layer of water. Bucky snarled silently in frustration.

He looked at Steve to see if he could help. Steve’s eyes were closed and he was swaying on his feet.

There were two missed calls on Steve’s phone: one from Natasha and one from Tony. He should be able to swipe across it, and then hold the phone up to Steve’s cheek so he could talk.

He bumped Steve’s left side until Steve opened his eyes. “Wha?”

Bucky showed Steve the phone and then held it up to his ear.

“K,” Steve said. Bucky looked at the phone and tried to swipe across the first missed number. He couldn’t do it. There was too much cold water on the screen. He wiped the phone against his pant leg and tried again. This time the phone activated. Bucky smiled in relief and turned to hold it up to Steve’s ear.

“Gna st dwn,” Steve muttered, and sat heavily on the ground.

Bucky's eyes shot wide. He dropped next to Steve and wrapped his right arm around Steve’s back, shaking him lightly.

“Cold,” Steve said. His eyes were half-closed, ice crystals forming in his lashes. His lips were tinged blue.

Steve’s eyes slipped shut and he listed to the side, falling against Bucky. Bucky shook him again, his chest seizing with fear. He was still gripping Steve’s phone in his right hand, but he couldn’t use it and support Steve at the same time. He didn’t know how he was going to get them home.

Bucky sat, letting Steve slide down until he was lying partially in his lap. It was awkward and uncomfortable and the ground was soaking and freezing. He managed to get his right hand over Steve’s bulk and dropped the phone into his lap, desperately pressing his fingertips to Steve’s neck. His fingers were so cold that it took a frighteningly long time for him to feel Steve’s pulse. But it was there, strong and steady against Bucky’s fingertips. He shook Steve again, even harder than before.

Steve’s eyes opened a crack, then closed again.

Bucky felt close to panic. Steve was hurt and cold and wet and if he didn’t manage to get him home they both might freeze to death. Winter and Captain were both standing stoically in the rain, waiting for their riders to do something. Unfortunately the animals were too well-trained to just go home on their own, so there’d be no alerting the others they needed help that way. He turned back to Steve’s phone in his lap.

The surface was covered in icy water again, and Bucky managed to brush it off against his jeans, leaving wet smears on its surface. He activated the message icon and chose the first name that appeared, which was Clint’s. He started typing.

The phone’s surface got too wet to read his thumb after the first few letters. Bucky shook it off and tried again, but shaking the phone erased the message so he had to start over. He held his left arm over the screen, but it offered no real shelter from the pouring rain. He bared his teeth in a grimace of impotent rage. There was no way he could text one-handed in the pouring rain with Steve semi-conscious on his lap.

The phone rang.

Bucky's heart leapt up, the shush, shush, shush of his blood shut out the noise of the horses and the wind and the rain all around. There was only one way he could save Steve, but it meant that he was going to die.

He lifted up the phone to his ear with a shaking hand, hitting the green ‘call answer’ circle.

Tears ran down Bucky's face, burning against his freezing skin. Steve, he thought. He forced himself to keep looking at his friend, to remind himself why he was doing this. So that when the words finally choked him to death, he’d know it’d been worthwhile.

“You scared the shit out of us!” Tony said on the other end of the phone. “Why didn’t you—“

“Tony,” Bucky rasped. The sound of his own voice terrified him. “It’s Bucky. Steve’s hurt. We need help.”

Tony sat in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the OR waiting room, staring at his hand.

Well, to be more specific, he was staring at the line of stitches across his left hand, and idly wondering when he’d have to go to the doctor’s to get them removed.

It was way better than thinking about why they were back in the hospital again, waiting.

Tony had sent Clint, Natasha and Pepper on the ATV with the trailer attached to go find Steve and Bucky, and their horses. He’d borrowed the big four-door farm truck and gone to where the trail met the road, driving like a blind grandma in the freezing rain. Pepper had been tasked with taking the horses back to the barn and was waiting for them back at the house.It'd felt like forever before Clint and Natasha finally emerged from the woods, Bucky and Steve literally in tow on the trailer bed.

Steve looked like shit. He’d been pale and blue-lipped, barely able to help Clint and Tony as they half-dragged, half-pulled him into the truck's back seat.

They’d propped him up between Natasha and Clint, and Tony had told Bucky to sit in the passenger seat and to stay put, Goddamn it! And then Tony drove the five of them to the hospital with excruciating care.

Tony had cranked the heat in the truck until it was as warm as the tropics and almost as humid thanks to the incredible wetness of Steve and Bucky’s clothes. Steve had perked up by the time they reached the ER; his lips had lost their frighteningly blue colour and he was coherent and responsive when questioned by the hospital staff. It turned out he’d bitten his tongue bad enough to need stitches and he’d snapped his right collar bone clean in half. He was in the OR now, getting a metal plate put in to hold the bones in place while they healed.

And the rest of them were waiting in this sterile room with chairs that were way too uncomfortable, and if Tony had to sit in them for one more minute he was going to buy the whole damn building and turn it into a furniture factory that only made really comfy chairs. Maybe couches. Really big couches. With cushions.

Tony stood abruptly and went to the window. Rain was still streaking down outside, leftovers from the violent storm that had upset everything a few hours before. But the massive amounts of ice were melting; he could see it dripping off the signs and trees and stuff outside. If it stayed warm like this Phil’d be able to make it home the next morning, easy.

Thinking of Phil made Tony turn and look at the others. Natasha was huddled next to Clint on the only soft chair in the whole place. She was still on the phone with Phil, giving him an update on Steve and reassuring him that everyone else was okay.

Well, kinda.

Bucky hadn’t made a sound since he’d spoken to Tony on the phone. He was wearing the clothes Natasha had brought for him and was therefore nicely warm and dry, but he was still miserable. He was bent nearly double in his hard plastic chair, covering his head with his right arm, the remainder of his left arm held across his eyes and he was rocking. He looked like he was going to implode or pass out or both.

Tony fisted his hands, feeling the stitches pull on his palm. He hated seeing Bucky like that. It sucked.

Clint got up from the soft chair and pulled one of the plastic horrors over before he sat down on Bucky’s right side. “Steve’s gonna be okay,” Clint said quietly, rubbing his back. “Don’t worry. He’s gonna be fine.”

Bucky shifted just enough so Clint dropped his hand. His face fell.

Tony totally knew that Bucky was going through some hard shit. The fact that he’d only spoken once and then stopped was kind of a huge indication that things were still not smooth sailing on Lake Bucky’s Brain. But seeing Bucky kinda sorta ignore Clint caused all kinds of rage-like feelings in Tony. He turned back to the window, watching the rain and reminding himself of the Sam-talks he’d been having. His anger at Bucky had nothing to do with Bucky and everything to do with his shitty childhood.

So he really didn’t need to put his fist through anything. Like Bucky’s face.

Tony rubbed his face with his hands, feeling the stiches scrape along his skin. He wished Pepper were there, or Phil. Or Steve.

God, he wished Steve was okay.

Tony turned and leaned his back against the window, feeling the cool of the glass against the back of his head. He’d only been living with Phil and the others for four months, and he’d absolutely hated Steve when he’d first arrived. Big blond self-righteous asshole that he’d been. But somewhere along the line Tony’d started to appreciate the guy. Steve was hopeless at sports, and about as graceful as a Coke machine, but damn if he didn’t try. And he might be self-righteous, but he was also extremely fair-minded and always determined to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. And he had a great sense of humour.

So, at some point in the last less-than-half-a-year, Tony’d started to love the guy. Like the older brother he’d always wanted.

In fact, Tony thought as he looked at Natasha and Clint, he’d developed a soft spot for all his pseudo-siblings. He’d probably started falling for Natasha in a brother/sister way when she’d tried to kill him when he’d first shown up. And Clint was just…Clint. Short and sweet and amazing. Tony had been born an only child, and he’d spent most of that childhood lonely and alone, but there was small part of him that thought that maybe he’d had to live through all that so he’d have room in his heart for Steve and Natasha and Clint—and yes, even Bucky—when he’d finally met them.

It was awesome to not feel alone anymore.

And Tony knew that Phil was also a big part of that, but he wasn’t really ready to admit that out loud, even in his own head.

Tony shifted his gaze to Bucky, who was still wrapped up in himself literally and figuratively, looking as lonely and alone as Tony’d ever felt.

And Tony remembered what that was like, when he’d been at M.I.T. Even before his parents had died he’d known he hadn’t really belonged there. Too bright and too brash and too damn young to really fit in. He remembered feeling so exposed and vulnerable that he’d pushed everyone away, through his snark and the dumbass shit he'd pulled and his alcohol and drugs.

Bucky might not be snarking at them, or drinking his face off, but he was definitely pushing everyone away. Bucky was feeling horribly vulnerable, and it probably wasn’t just because he was in a hospital and his new best friend was having surgery. It was probably something else, and Tony would bet that he probably knew what that was.

He cleared his throat. “Uh, Bucky?” he said, moving closer to the other boy. “Um, I’m guessing that you might be a little worried about your spoken word performance on the phone before.” He glanced at Natasha and Clint, who were both eyeing him with patient curiosity. Natasha still had her phone up to her ear.

Bucky didn’t raise his head, but he’d stopped rocking, so Tony took that to mean he was actually listening. “But, I just want to tell you that, well, you telling us that Steve needed help doesn’t mean that we’re going to expect you to speak all the time now. In fact,” he continued, and he made sure he looked at Natasha and Clint when he said the next part, “none of us ever expect you to speak, like, ever again. So you don’t have to worry about that. Like, at all.”

“That’s right,” Clint said. “No one’s going to make you talk if you don’t want to.”

“We promise,” Natasha chimed in. She put the phone back to her ear and continued her soft conversation with Phil.

“So,” Tony said. “There’s that.” He went and sat down in one of the uncomfortable chairs and stretched his legs out.

Bucky was looking at him.

“No talking,” Tony said to him. “We promise,”

Bucky gave a curt nod before he sat up and leaned back in his chair. He was still holding himself too stiffly, but some of the tension had eased out of his frame. He looked…considering, which was way better than looking like he was falling apart.

Natasha came over to Tony, holding out her phone. “Papa wants to talk to you.”

Tony licked his lips as he took the phone. “I know you said to never, ever take your cars again without asking,” Tony said, super-quick. “But firstly, we took the truck not a car, and secondly, Steve was hurt and—“

“Tony!” Phil interrupted. “Tony, I’m not mad! It’s okay.”

“It’s okay?” Tony repeated. “Well, of course it’s okay. I mean, we had to help Steve.”

“That’s exactly right,” Phil said, and his voice was stupidly kind. “You made a really good choice, Tony. You got Steve to the hospital safely. I’m really proud of you.”

Tony blinked. He couldn’t remember the last time someone told him they were proud of him. “You are?”

“Yes, Tony. I’m very, very proud of you. I’m proud of all of you. It was a difficult situation and you all solved it beautifully. Steve was hurt, and it was really cold, and I’m stuck in New York and—“ Phil broke off. There was a strange, strangled noise from the other end of the phone.

“Phil?” Tony said. “Are you crying?

“My eldest son owes his life to his brothers and sister,” Phil said fiercely. “If you all hadn’t been there for him, he could’ve died! I’m a parent! Of course I’m crying!”

Tony blinked again. A powerful certainty settling through him. “You really love us.”

“Yes,” Phil said. “Absolutely.”

“Like, all of us,” Tony said.

“Yes, of course,” Phil said. “Tony, I thought you knew this. Where’s this coming from?”

Tony pulled his legs in, wrapping his free hand around his middle. His heart was pounding. “You love me?”

“Yes,” Phil said simply. “You’re my son, Tony. As much as you’re a Stark, you’re also mine. I love you.”

“Oh,” Tony breathed. He swiped at his eyes which had suddenly gotten wet for no reason. “Well, that’s good.”

“You’re my son and I love you,” Phil repeated. “And I’m so proud of you. So very proud.”

“You wanna talk to Clint?” Tony said, his voice cracking. He got up and handed the phone over without actually hearing Phil’s answer.

Tony went back to the window, watching the rain fall and pretending he wasn’t crying. Phil loves me, he thought. He’d even said it. Like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Tony couldn’t remember ever hearing his own father say it.

“I love you, too,” Tony whispered to the rain. And after a moment, he smiled.

Phil brought Steve home the next afternoon, tired, achy, and nearly unintelligible thanks to the black stiches holding the sliced edges of his tongue together. Phil led him to the couch in the living room, and he and Steve's siblings gently helped him to settle on it. It was harder to manoeuvre that he’d thought with only one functional arm. It made him feel even more impressed with Bucky’s perseverance.

“I’m going back to town,” Phil said. “I need to get Steve’s prescription. Does anyone else need anything?”

“Can we have ice cream?” Tony asked, making his brown eyes ridiculously big. “Steve really likes ice cream.”

“Oh?” Phil said dryly. “And what kind of ice cream does Steve like?”

Tony glanced at Steve. “Chocolate? With bits in it?”

“I can’t eat bits,” Steve said. It came out like “I cnt it bths.”

“You can’t take baths?” Clint asked, moving closer. He turned to Phil. “Maybe you should get some sponges or something so he can sponge bath?”

Steve rolled his eyes and pointed at his mouth. “Bths!” It made his tongue hurt and he winced.

“He can’t eat bits. In the ice cream,” Natasha clarified. She moved over to sit on the far end of the couch, near enough to touch him but far enough away that she wouldn’t bump his right side. She started running her hands through Steve’s hair. “So we’ll need the plain kind.”

“Excellent. Plain chocolate ice cream, coming up.” Phil made a note on his phone. “Anything else?”

“I can eat bits,” Tony grumbled.

“Soup?” Clint said. “Can Steve eat soup?”

“Soup’s on the list.” Phil nodded while Steve made a face. He’d spent a lot of his childhood too sick to eat anything else but foods like soup and unsweetened porridge and dry toast. The idea of having to eat that kind of stuff again was less than appealing.

Phil, of course noticed. “It’s only for a few days, until the swelling in your mouth goes down and you can chew properly. I’ll get the soups you like, promise.”

Steve sighed and nodded. He shifted closer to Natasha so she could reach his head better. Her gentle scratching was incredibly soothing. “I’ll make you a Kogel Mogel,” Natasha whispered. “It’ll help your tongue and you’ll like it better than soup.”

“I’m not sure raw eggs would be the best thing for Steve right now,” Phil said. “Especially while his mouth is injured. But I’ll buy some beets and sour cream if you want to make some borcht.”

Steve loved Natasha’s home-made soup. He nodded enthusiastically as she smiled at him, full of affection.

“My mom always makes me milk toast when I’m not feeling well,” Pepper said to Steve. “Do you think you’d like that?”

Steve nodded and smiled at her.

“Extra bread with…“ Phil raised his eyebrows at Steve. “Chocolate milk?”

Steve nodded again. He loved chocolate.

“Do you need to take your medicine with apple sauce or pudding or something?” Clint asked Steve. “Because I do.”

Steve started to shake his head, but then paused. Pudding sounded pretty good, actually. “Pdng, pls.”

“He’d like pudding,” Natasha said for him.

Phil nodded. “Chocolate?” Steve nodded again and Phil added it to the list. “Okay,” he said, “I need to go before it gets dark, so anything else?” He turned to look specifically at Bucky, who’d been hovering by the bottom of the stairs, looking small and scared. “Is there anything you’d like from the store?” Phil’s tone was gentle. “You could write it down for me.”

Bucky shook his head, never looking up from the floor.

“Okay,” Phil said, equally as gently. “Please text me if you need anything.” Everyone nodded and Phil left.

The second the door was closed, Bucky came and sat down beside Steve, curling up into his left side like some kind of big cat. Steve put his arm around him. It was good to be home. He looked over at the group. Pepper and Tony were sitting together on the love seat and Clint was perched on the arm of the couch, shirtless as usual. Natasha’s arm flung over his leg. They were all focused on him, all doing a really bad job of pretending that he hadn’t accidentally scared them nearly to death.

“M sry,” Steve said, suddenly feeling miserable. “M sry I skrd u.”

“You don’t need to be sorry for that!” Natasha said vehemently. “You didn’t mean to get hurt.”

“And we know what a shitty rider you are,” Tony said. “It made sense that you’d fall off your horse.”

Steve scowled at him while Tony laughed. Pepper smacked him. “Tony!”

“Sorry.” Tony raised his hands. “Too soon or too real?”

Pepper smirked, but smacked him again.

“Thnk u, fr helping me.” Steve continued. It hurt to talk, but he wanted to make sure they understood. “Thks a lt.”

“Stop talking,” Natasha pulled his hair. “We know it hurts.”

Steve winced and nodded as much as her grip would let him. She let go.

“It was Bucky who actually saved you,” Clint said. “He told Tony when he called that you were in trouble. That’s how we knew you needed help.”

Steve snapped his eyes to Bucky, who had sat up as soon as Clint said his name. He pulled away from Steve, his gaze once again locked on the floor, his right hand clenched tightly in a fist.

Natasha was glaring at Clint. “Why’d you tell him?” She said at the same time Tony raised his hands and shouted: “Aw, come on!”

Clint was looking back and forth between everyone. “What I do?”

“You should’ve asked Bucky if he wanted you to tell Steve.” Pepper’s expression was sympathetic. “I’m not sure he wanted Steve to know.”

Steve was looking at Bucky, the enormity of what Clint had told him beginning to sink in. “Yu spoke?”

Bucky nodded, eyes still down.

“Wow,” Steve breathed.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “It was pretty impressive.”

Steve was still looking at Bucky. “Thank yu.” Bucky didn’t move but he acknowledged Steve’s words with a small dip of his chin.

“He, uh, hasn’t spoken since,” Tony said. “And that’s cool!” he added quickly when Bucky flicked his gaze to him. “Totally cool. But, you know, don’t ask him to?”

Steve shook his head. He placed his hand on the back of Bucky’s neck, rubbing circles with his thumb. Bucky slid his eyes over to Steve. “I won’t,” Steve said to him. “Promith.”

Bucky nodded and some of the tension left him, but he didn’t settle back down.

“Sorry I said anything about it,” Clint muttered. “I just thought it was pretty cool.”

Bucky shrugged in a silent ‘apology accepted,’ and Clint looked marginally happier.

Silence descended over the group, and Steve suddenly realized how tired he was. The pain in his shoulder had crept up a notch and was bordering on uncomfortable. His tongue was sore, and he was already annoyed with not being able to speak properly.

And Bucky was still sitting on the edge of the couch, still obviously unhappy and Steve couldn’t even really say anything to comfort him.

“Should we watch a movie?” Tony said. “I can pull up Netflix…”

“What about Mario Kart?” Clint said, and then looked at Steve’s right arm in its sling. He flexed his fingers in his cast as if he’d just remembered it. “Or not…”

“We could play cards,” Natasha offered. “Or Monopoly?”

Tony made a face. “Maybe if you didn’t always win.

“Maybe if you didn’t suck at it,” she retorted.

“Maybe if you didn’t—“

“I lost my arm in a car crash.” Bucky said.

Everyone stopped dead.

Steve’s hand stilled on the back of Bucky’s neck. His eyes had gone wide in shock and his mouth had fallen open. “Bucky?”

Bucky was still looking down at the floor, and his throat was working convulsively, as if it wasn’t sure what to do with the sound it was producing. But he had a determined look on his face, like he’d rather die than stop speaking now that he’d started.

“I was six,” Bucky continued. His voice was raspy and deep and pleasant and Steve felt a jolt so profound that he wasn’t sure he was still breathing. He had no idea why Bucky had decided to speak, but he’d give his other collarbone to make sure he didn’t stop. “My—my dad was driving me and my sister home from my mother’s funeral. He’d been drinking. He was drunk. He was always drunk. He swerved off the road—“

Bucky stopped talking.

No one moved. Steve could hear his heart pounding in his chest, his pulse racing from shock at Bucky speaking combined with the horror of the story he knew was coming. He swallowed.

“Uh,” Tony said quietly. His voice sounded as loud as a gunshot in the silence of the room. “You don’t. You really don’t have to continue.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, just as quiet. “If it’s too hard….“

Steve’s eyes were still locked on Bucky. He saw the tiny shake of Bucky’s head.

“I was sitting in the back seat. My sister’s car seat was behind my dad. She was crying. I asked him to stop.” There was an audible tremor in his voice. “I begged him. He turned and slapped me. And then the car swerved off the road. It rolled down the embankment. My sister was screaming. I hit my head on the window. When I woke up the car was upside down and there was glass everywhere from the windshield where it’d smashed into a tree. My sister’s car seat was wedged against me—against my arm. Somehow the clasps that should’ve held it in place came undone and she was—“ He stopped again and swallowed, the tendons visible in his throat. “Her blood was all over me. My dad was dead, too. I had to kick out my window to get out and then climb up the embankment. A woman stopped her car and helped me, and then I don’t remember what happened until I woke up in hospital. They had to cut off my arm.”

“Bozhe moy,” Natasha whispered.

“I think I know why you don’t like to speak,” Clint said softly.

Steve could hear the sounds of Tony comforting Pepper, who was sniffing like she’d started crying. Steve knew the feeling. He felt like crying himself, thinking of Bucky as a small child, hurt and alone and his whole family dead.

“That’s not why I don’t talk,” Bucky said. “It’s because of the questions.”

“They asked you, didn’t they?” Natasha said. “When you woke up, they asked you what happened.”

Bucky nodded. There were tears running unchecked down his cheeks.

“And it was easier, not to talk,” Clint said. Something in his voice made Steve turn to look at him. He was looking at Natasha, his expression bleak and resolute all at once. “Because once you started talking, once you heard yourself say what happened…”

“You’d die,” Bucky finished for him. He wiped at his eyes.

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. “But you don’t die, do you?” He wasn’t asking Bucky.

“Not when people are there to listen,” Natasha said. She turned her whole body towards Clint. “Not when people care what you have to say.”

“My father used to pull my shirts over my head but leave them on my arms,” Clint blurted. “I’d be trapped by my own clothes. And then he’d beat me and I couldn’t defend myself.” He shrugged and smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “So I stopped wearing them. It was safer.”

Natasha got up on her knees on the couch and held him tightly. He gripped her back, small tremours running through his body as he hugged her.

“Since it’s true confession time,” Tony said, “my father never paid any attention to me. Like, ever. I remember once I was in his workshop, running around trying to get him to notice me. Just being a stupid little kid. Anyway, I fell or tripped or something, and broke my wrist. Kind of like you, Clint. So, I’m lying on the floor, crying with this busted arm, and my dad says: ‘Get out of here if you’re going to be noisy.’ So I stopped crying and I got up and went back to my room, and it wasn’t until the nanny came to see why it was taking me so long to brush my teeth that anyone realized my wrist was broken. So, yeah.” He gave a short laugh. “I mean, I wasn’t beaten or anything, and wow, I’ve got nothing on your horror show, Bucky, but it wasn’t fun.”

Clint looked up from Natasha’s shoulder. “That’s awful.”

Tony shrugged. “Not as bad as what you guys went through.”

“It’s all relative,” Pepper said, she was wiping at her eyes. “Pain is pain. It’s not a contest.”

“My mother loved me,” Natasha said. “But she became a prostitute when we came to New York because she didn’t speak enough English to find better work. And she felt so bad about it that she started taking drugs. And I couldn’t stop her and she died.” Her smile was watery. “And I miss her. Every day.”

“I know what that’s like,” Steve said. It hurt to speak and his words were muddled and slurred from his injured tongue, but he forced his mouth to work, wanting to share with his friends. “My mom gave me up to the foster care system so I could get an operation to mend my heart. I was sick all the time as a kid, and I was in hospital and on medication…but she never gave up on me. She got cancer around the same time I had my operation.” He looked at Bucky who was looking intently back at him. “I still feel like it’s my fault she died.” It was only the second time in his life that he’d ever said that out loud, and it felt like the words were choking him, stuck in his throat, too large to get out.

Oh yes, he understood what Bucky had meant.

“Oh God,” Pepper moaned. She was crying freely, ineffectively wiping her cheeks with the sleeve of her shirt. “My parents are both still alive, and they’re wonderful people who’d do anything for me and my brother, and the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with besides Steve falling off his horse was the death of my grandmother last year. And here you all are, having survived things that are so sad and horrible, and I don’t have any idea what I could possibly do or say to even help at all. But I am so incredibly proud to know all of you. And so grateful to be your friend.”

“And that’s why we love you,” Natasha smiled at her. “You show us that it’s actually possible to be safe, and happy and normal. And you love us, even though we’re not.”

“I really need to hug you.” Pepper stood and Natasha ran into her arms.

“Come here,” Steve said, pulling Bucky against his side, and to his relief Bucky collapsed against him. “I’m glad you told us that,” Steve murmured into Bucky’s hair. “I’m so glad I know your story, and I’m so sorry you had to live through that.”

“I’m glad I’m here,” Bucky said.

Natasha and Pepper sat back down with Clint and Tony, who both drew them into cuddles. Silence settled again as everyone absorbed what they’d said, and what they’d heard. Steve wasn’t sure about the others, but he felt lighter somehow. Like saying his guilt out loud to everyone lessened it in some way. He stroked Bucky’s back, thinking about the tragedy of Bucky’s story, but also how he finally wasn’t holding it in any longer either. Steve hoped that talking about it had helped Bucky feel lighter, too.

“So, Netflix?” Tony said after several minutes had passed in contemplative quiet.

“God yes!” Pepper exclaimed. “Something happy and mindless.”

“Return of the Jedi it is!” Tony exclaimed as he set up the TV, and that was the way that Phil found them when he came back: all of them cuddled up on the couch watching the Rebels take on the Imperial forces, viewing it much more intently than the story actually deserved.

Phil paused and took them all in. He frowned. “Okay guys,” he said. ‘What’d I miss?”

That night Bucky had a nightmare.

He dreamed about the car. Specifically about waking up with his sister’s blood all over him and her body pressed up against his side. Only this time it wasn’t Becca, but Steve. His eyes were cracked open and lifeless, with water dripping off his hair from the frigid rain. His lips were a pale shade of blue.

Bucky woke, automatically stifling the cry pushing against his teeth, forcing himself to remain silent. He sat on his bed, feeling the cool air against his clammy skin. Tears were dying on his face and his breathing sounded overly-loud in the silence of the room. He could hear Steve’s rhythmic inhale-exhale in the other bed. Bucky tried to match his breathing to Steve’s, to get his heart to stop the noisy shush, shush, shush in his ears.

And then he realized that he didn’t have to be quiet any longer; He'd spoken out loud already and the words hadn’t killed him. He realized that he didn’t have to be alone and silent any more.

“Steve?” His voice sounded small and broken to his own ears. “Steve?”

Steve’s breathing changed and a moment later he lifted up his head. “Bucky?”

“Could you--?” Bucky didn’t even know what he was asking.

Steve sat up and swung his legs over the edge of his bed. His wince of pain was visible even in the low light. “You okay?”

Bucky shook his head.

Steve crossed the short distance between their beds and sat down on Bucky’s. “What’s wrong?”

“I had a nightmare,” Bucky said.

Bucky moved over so he and Steve could sit next to each other against the headboard. Steve's left hand was intertwined with Bucky’s right. “Wanna talk about it?”

Bucky gripped his hand, feeling the strength in Steve’s fingers, the comfort. “I dreamt about the car crash,” he said. “Only this time it wasn’t my sister dead in the car. It was you.”

“That sounds awful.” Steve grimaced. He rubbed the side of Bucky’s finger with his thumb. “But it was just a dream, Buck. I’m right here.”

Bucky nodded. He was feeling calmer now, soothed by Steve’s solid form beside him. It'd been really hard when he’d told his story that afternoon. He hadn’t spoken about it—hadn't spoken a word—in ten years. But once he’d started talking he hadn’t wanted to stop. He’d wanted Steve and the others to know what’d happened to him. He knew they’d understand. Like Natasha had said, the words wouldn’t kill you when the people you told actually cared what you said. Steve cared.

And Bucky cared about Steve.

Steve slept shirtless, and his pale skin was practically glowing in the soft light coming through Bucky’s window. Bucky could see the muscle definition in Steve’s chest, the light indentation of his rib cage and ridges of his abs. He frowned. “Why don’t you have any scars?”

Steve looked down. “You mean on my chest? It’s because I had minimally invasive surgery. The scar’s actually here.” He let go of Bucky’s hand to point to a spot somewhere under his sling. “They cut through the space between one of my ribs.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. He reached up to touch Steve’s chest, feeling the warmth of the skin beneath his palm. Steve’s breath hitched.

Bucky looked at him. Steve’s eyes were wide, the pupils large in the dim light. His whole demeanour was of anticipation.

So Bucky got up on his knees, leaned over, and kissed him.

They were both terribly inexperienced, bordering on inept. Bucky’s teeth clacked into Steve’s hard enough to hurt; Steve bumped Bucky’s cheek with his nose and Bucky was off-balanced enough that he nearly tumbled into Steve’s lap.

Steve pulled back, panting. “Wait,” he said.

That seemed like a terrible idea to Bucky, but dutifully he sat back on his heels.

Steve smiled. “It looks way easier than this in the movies.”

Bucky nodded. He reached over to gently grasp the back of Steve’s head with his hand. Slowly he leaned in to kiss Steve again. This time he kept going slow, first just brushing his lips against Steve’s, and then pressing in gently. Once they seemed to be able to do that without risking injury, Bucky increased the pressure, then gently bit Steve’s bottom lip. Steve let out a small gasp so Bucky did it again. And then Steve opened his mouth under Bucky’s and they were finally kissing for real. It was fantastic.

Bucky leaned against Steve as Steve’s hand moved up and under Bucky’s shirt, exploring the skin of Bucky’s back. It felt amazing. Bucky immediately returned the favour by stroking along Steve’s unbroken collarbone and down his chest. He let his hand slide further, his fingertips brushing against the waistband of Steve’s sleep pants.

Steve pulled back for a second time. “Wait,” he repeated. Bucky stopped. He raised his eyebrows.

“I—I’m not ready for that,” Steve said, his cheeks were faintly pink in the low light, but he was still meeting Bucky’s gaze. “But when I am, I’d like it to be you.”

Bucky nodded his understanding, knowing he was grinning like an idiot. He moved in to kiss Steve again.

Steve halted him with gentle pressure to his chest. “You’ve stopped talking,” he said. “Is everything okay?”

Bucky blinked. He hadn’t even realized he’d gone silent. “Sorry,” he said.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Steve said. “It makes sense you’d not be a big talker after so many years of, well, not talking.”

“Yeah.” Bucky looked at Steve through his lashes. “Is that okay? If I don’t remember to talk?”

“As long as it’s okay if I ask you about it,” Steve said. “I don’t want you to ever feel alone like you did before. Ever again.”

Bucky swallowed. “Thanks,” he whispered.

Steve placed a soft kiss on his lips. “Welcome.” And then they were kissing again, and it was the best thing that Bucky had ever done in his whole life.

“Wow,” Steve breathed after they’d kissed long enough for Bucky to feel lightheaded. He pressed his forehead against Bucky’s and smiled. “You know once Phil finds out he’s gonna make us move rooms.”

“I call Tony,” Bucky said immediately.

“You can have him.” Steve grinned, then his expression sobered. “We can’t both be adopted and be together,” he said. “I think Phil should adopt you.”

“Me?” Bucky sat back down on the bed. “But you’ve been here longer.”

“I love Phil,” Steve said. “But I loved my mother. She was everything to me, and—and I don’t want there to be anyone else in her place.” He looked at Bucky, his eyes pleading. “Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, sure.” Bucky agreed readily. “You already had a great parent. You don’t need another one.”

“But you—maybe you do?” Steve said uncertainly. “I mean, you’ve had nobody since you were six…”

Bucky nodded, swallowing against the sudden thickness in his throat.

“Aw, Buck,” Steve whispered. He pulled Bucky to him, his hand combing through Bucky’s hair.

They stayed like that for a while; Bucky’s cheek against Steve’s chest, his heartbeat echoing in Bucky’s ear. It was quiet and soothing and very comfortable. Bucky’s eyes began to drift shut.

“So which one of us is going to tell Phil?” Steve asked.

“You,” Bucky said immediately, and Steve burst out laughing.

Phil had just enough time to make himself a cup of coffee after his morning run before the daily procession of teenagers came down the stairs.

“Of course I want Bucky to move into my room!” Tony was saying loudly as he ran down the stairs. “He’s quiet and good-looking and way more charming than you are, Rogers. So I call dibs on Bucky.”

“Why can’t Bucky move into my room?” Clint said coming into the kitchen behind Tony. “My room’s awesome!

“It’s also too small for two people,” Natasha said sagely. She kissed Phil on the cheek as she came into the room. “Morning, papa.”

“Morning, sweetheart,” Phil returned. “Morning,” he said to Clint as the teen gave him a high-five as he went by. There was something a bit different about Clint that morning but Phil couldn’t immediately put his finger on it.

“What if Bucky doesn’t actually want to move in with either of you?” Steve said to Clint and Tony.

“Of course he does,” Tony said, “I’m going to build him an amazing prosthetic arm. He’ll love me forever.”

Phil saw Bucky roll his eyes, but then pat Tony on the back and grin affectionately at him.

“See?” Tony gestured at Bucky. “I’m his favourite already!”

“Steve’s his favourite,” Natasha said as she got herself a mug. “That’s why he’s moving rooms. Duh.”

Bucky ruffled Natasha’s hair.

She swatted his arm and he laughed silently.

Phil grinned at their antics as he moved the tea pot to the table. “Tea’s ready.”

“I’m having coffee!” Tony grabbed one of the new mugs out of the cupboard. Tony had replaced every single thing he’d broken with understated and tasteful cookware. Phil was sure that Pepper had a hand in choosing it. “And, oh. Morning dad.” Tony pecked Phil on the cheek.

Phil’s “coffee will stunt your growth,” died on his lips. “You kissed me.”

Tony’s shrug was more nonchalant than his blush. “You’re my dad,” he mumbled. “Kids do that, right? Kiss their dads?”

“Absolutely,” Phil affirmed. He pulled him into a tight hug, only letting him go when Tony squawked. “I could get used to multiple kisses in the morning.” He grinned at the rest of them, and then blinked when he realized what was different about Clint. “Clint, are you wearing a shirt?”

Clint was not just wearing any shirt—it was the purple sweatshirt that Natasha had bought him for his birthday in January. Clint shot a fleeting glance to Natasha. “I just wanted to get dressed this morning,” he said. Natasha beamed at him.

“Well, that’s great,” Phil said. “That’s really great that you’re dressing for the weather.” He grabbed a cereal bowl down from the cupboard, and then reached for another when Tony indicated he’d like one.

Clint gave Phil a brief hug before going to raid the fridge. “Do we have any more souvlaki left?”

Steve made a face from where he was adding boiling water to his oatmeal. “Souvlaki for breakfast? Ew.”

Clint peeked out from the fridge, grinning wickedly. “You’re just jealous because you have to eat baby food.”

“I still wouldn’t eat souvlaki for breakfast,” Steve turned to Bucky, who had been quietly getting himself toast with peanut butter. “Would you?”

Bucky looked straight at Steve. “Nope,” he said. “That’s dinner food.”

The bowl Phil was holding fell to the floor with a loud clatter. “Bucky?”

“Did no one tell you?” Tony said, looking far too gleeful. “Did we forget to tell you that Bucky was talking?” He looked at the other kids. “I think we forgot to tell him, guys.” Clint, Steve and Natasha were all laughing at Phil’s expression.

Phil knew his eyes were absolutely huge. “Bucky,” he said again. “What happened?”

Bucky shrugged. He looked down, but then seemed to catch himself and met Phil’s gaze. “I wanted to talk,” he said. He looked at Steve. “I guess I didn’t want to be alone anymore.”

“You are not alone,” Phil affirmed. He moved closer. “Can I hug you?”

Bucky nodded and Phil pulled him into a tight embrace, feeling tears slipping from the corner of his eyes. “I’m so proud of you,” he murmured against Bucky’s head. “You are so brave and I am so proud.”

Bucky hugged him back. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

Phil leaned back, gently grasping Bucky on either side of his head so that he could look deep into Bucky’s extraordinary storm-grey eyes. “I am so glad you’re here with us,” Phil said. “And you’ll never be alone again. I promise.”

Bucky’s smile was shy. “Thanks,” he said again. “I know.”

“That was a pretty good trick, huh?” Clint said, sticking a cold piece of souvlaki into his mouth.

Phil let go of Bucky and rolled his eyes at Clint. “Some warning would’ve been nice.”

Tony shook his head, still grinning. “Not with your reaction.”

“Yeah!” Steve chuckled. ‘You should’ve seen your face!”

“I hate you all,” Phil said, but he was laughing.

“No you don’t,” Natasha said as she stole a piece of souvlaki off Clint’s plate. “You love us.”

“Yes,” Phil said, taking them all in. His family. His children. “I do.”