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My Three Dads

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Tony’s feet left the ground as he leaned deep into the food truck’s engine with his ratchet, determined to fix that oil leak. It wasn’t critical yet, but there was a seafood festival next week down at the Outer Banks, and Bucky really wanted to be able to send the truck. Dockside was a diner, nothing fancy, but regulars swore by their crabcakes, which had been Bucky’s mom’s recipe.

Behind him in the parking lot, Billie was practicing her skateboard flips on the rail Tony and Bucky had installed for her. Tony could hear the rattling whir of the wheels and the thunk-thunk of it flipping, each one punctuated by her muttered “yesss!” of triumph or one of the wholly-invented “curse” words that she and her friends used in lieu of the real thing.

Bucky was inside, working up the new summer menu and trying to convince their other daughter, Livvy, to take a nap. Tony had his doubts about the success of that endeavor -- Livvy was every bit as stubborn as either of her fathers -- but maybe she’d fall asleep out of sheer boredom. Miracles had been known to happen.

Tony tried to imagine his reaction, if someone had told him ten years ago that this would be his life. He couldn’t quite fathom it. He’d never meant to leave New York. But he had a good life in Virginia now, with Bucky and the girls and their little chosen family of friends, and he couldn’t imagine wanting anything else. The last year, since Livvy’s birth, had been quiet and happy, and Tony almost wished that it could stay like this forever.

He was, naturally, elbow-deep in the engine when his phone rang. “Buttercup, see who that is for me?” he called.

“Okay!” Billie yelled back. Tak-whirrrrr-skrtch from the skateboard as she rolled over to him. “Oh, it’s Uncle Phil! Can I answer it?”

“Yeah, go ahead. Tell him I’ll be right there.” Tony suppressed a moment of worry -- his mother’s bodyguard didn’t call often, but he did occasionally feel the need to report in. Tony wondered what ridiculous thing his mom had done this time.

“Hey, Uncle Phil!” Billie chirped. She was still rolling the skateboard back and forth under one foot, tak-tak-tak, fidgeting in the manner that was 100% Barnes and had gotten her in a lot of trouble at school for being utterly unable to sit still unless really into her studies. Which happened… well, sometimes, at least. “Yeah, Dad’s here, he’s just up to his elbows in engine grease. Uncle Bucky’s gonna make him eat a cake of lava soap before he c’n come in the kitchen again. Oh. Yeah, okay. Hang on.” She sat the phone down gingerly on the sidewalk and looked around through Tony’s toolbox until she found his cleaning rag. “He says he needs t’ talk to you. Right away.”

Of course he did.

Tony re-tightened the bolt he’d been working on and pushed back until his feet hit the ground again. He took the cleaning rag from Billie and wiped his hands until they were... well, clean enough that the smear they’d leave on the phone case was manageable, anyway. He resisted the urge to ruffle Billie’s hair -- it was so long that washing it was a real chore, and he didn’t want to jump it up an extra day if he didn’t have to -- and scooped the phone up off the pavement. “Phil! How’s New York?”

“Difficult,” Phil admitted. “Allow me to apologize, first. I…” Phil took a deep breath as if steeling himself. “I'm tendering my resignation effective immediately. I know this leaves you in a bit of a sticky spot. For the time being, until you have an opportunity to find a… someone else. A replacement. Uh. I left my protege, Mr. Grant Ward, overseeing Mare’s-- er, your mother's security. I personally vouch for him. He's a fine young man.”

“Wait, what?” Tony glanced at Billie, who’d gone back to her skating, and took a few steps away, as if that were going to help him understand better. “I don’t... Why?”

Phil sighed. “Mr. Stark--” and when the hell had Tony been Mr. Stark to Phil? They'd been on first names for quite a while now. “-- I'm afraid there is a conflict of interest. I cannot, in good conscience, continue to hold employment with your family.”

What the hell had his mother done? “I’m... Okay, if you really can’t stay, then... I’m sorry to see you go. If Mom’s okay with Mr. Ward, I guess that’s fine with me, too. Uh. Good luck. Let me know if you need a reference or anything.”

“No--” Phil protested, which sounded pained, and almost forced. “No, I don’t think I’ll be requiring anything further. I’m fi-- Thank you, sir.” And the phone went dead in Tony’s ear.

Tony stared at the screen for a moment, then called his mother. “Mom,” he demanded as soon as she picked up. “What did you do?”

“Good morning, Antonio,” his mother said, crisp and cool and sharp. “It’s lovely to hear from you as well. I’m quite well--” and that didn’t sound anything like quite well at all, that sounded like the days when she put on a pretty smile for company and pretended that Howard was everything desirable in a husband “--thank you for asking. How are the girls?”

Tony huffed out a sigh, letting her hear it. “They’re great, thanks. Why did Phil just call and give me his resignation?”

“Well, I assume that’s because he quit, darling,” Maria said. “Is… er, is he all right? Did he say anything?”

“He said there was a conflict of interest and he couldn’t work for us anymore. What does that even mean?” Tony leaned against the side of the food truck and shoved his free hand through his hair. ...Damn it, now he was going to need a whole shower, not just a quick scrub from the elbows down.

“Well, that was very discreet of him,” Maria said. “I’m sure I appreciate his professionalism. I suppose it’s just as well.”

It was the soft little catch in her voice that brought Tony up short. “Mom,” he said, trying to calm down and listen properly, “what happened?”

“Antonio,” Maria said. “I’m not so very old, you know. And Philip… Well, nevermind. It isn’t what I thought it was. He’s quite right. It was… not professional. You must think I’m dreadful.”

“Of course you’re not dreadful, you’re-- Wait. You mean you and Phil?” He all but screeched the last bit, swallowing it down when Billie looked around curiously. He somehow summoned a smile and waved at her -- everything’s fine, you can keep playing -- before turning his attention back to the phone. “Mom!”

“Antonio, is that tone truly necessary?” Maria sounded actually upset, and it had been a long time since Tony got much of a look at his mother outside her mask -- sometimes when she was with her grandbabies, she didn’t see the need to keep up her society pretenses. “It was a… momentary distraction, that is all.”

Tony tried to consider the situation, but his brain seized up and refused to function beyond the data point of: my mother has a sex life.

“I’m... sorry?” he tried. “I’m... uh.” He pushed the thought of his mother’s love life as far into the back as he could and forced himself to focus on the logistics. “Is the new guy going to be okay, or do I need to start looking around again?”

“Mr. Ward came highly recommended,” Maria said, sharply. “He’s very young. You needn’t fret, there shan’t be a repeat of this incident. He’s barely your age.” She sniffed, a little disdainful, as if Tony was still wet behind the ears, for all that he’d been married and running a joint business venture for several years now.

“Okay, okay, that’s not what I-- You’re okay with him, that’s... that’s good. I’ll get Matt to send over a contract for him in the next day or so. Uh. I guess I’ll let you go, then.”

“Thank you, darling,” Maria said, firmly back on safe ground. “Give my love to James and the girls, if you’d be so kind.” She hung up, less forcefully than Phil had done, but just as final, somehow.

Tony took a breath. Another. ...Nope, still couldn’t quite wrap his brain around it. “I’m going in for a minute,” he told Billie. “Don’t leave the lot.”

He took the stairs two at a time up to the house and barged into the living room where Bucky was poking at his laptop. “My mother,” he announced, “has been having an affair with her bodyguard.”

Bucky made a neutral sounding humming noise. “Yeah? Is it official, now, then?”

“Bucky! Is it-- What does that mean?”

Bucky made a squinched face, the sort he made when Livvy was practicing her pterodactyl impersonation. “I assumed they were keepin’ it on the downlow. I dunno, for society reasons or somethin’.” He actually looked up. “You didn’t know?”

“You did?” Tony stared at his husband in utter betrayal.

“Well, yeah,” Bucky said. “I mean, they ain’t been much but making mooncalf eyes at each other for a while now. I thought he was better for her than those men she was meetin’ on the dating service.” He shook his head, obviously disgusted. “Gold diggers, every one of ‘em.”

Dating service?” Tony’s voice was reaching dangerously screechy levels. “What-- Oh, god, my mother has a sex life.”

After several years of being married to Tony, Bucky didn’t blush as much as he used to. Built up tolerance or something, but he lowered his eyes, and his cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink. “Well, I didn’t ask about that part,” Bucky confessed. “But I helped her-- oh, musta been about, I dunno, before Livvy was born, leastways. She put her net-worth in her damn dating profile. Me an’ Nat helped her put together somethin’ a little more appropriate, but… she had us take it down. What, about four months ago, now, I think.”

Tony sank onto the couch and buried his face in his hands. “My mother has a dating profile,” he groaned. “I did not need to know that. And now she’s down a bodyguard, because Phil decided it was a conflict of interest and quit. So she’s being tailed by some guy Phil trained, who I don’t know a damn thing about except Phil liked him.”

“Oh, man,” Bucky said. “Is she okay? I thought-- I thought it was going well.”

“I don’t know,” Tony grumbled. “I know I’m not okay. She didn’t sound great. Maybe he quit because they broke up, I dunno. Fuck.”

Bucky sat down on the couch next to him and slid an arm around Tony’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey,” he said. “I… well, I thought you knew. That it was just one of those things you didn’t wanna talk about, kinda like I don’t like talkin’ about Loki and Becca.” He made a face that Tony saw out of the corner of his eye. “It’s just weird an’ freaky, knowin’ that Bex’s lover and one of my lovers were. Related. It’s like all incestuous and stuff.” He shuddered.

Tony sniffed. “At least you didn’t find out about that until years afterward. This is now. Or. Recent, maybe. Uggggg.” He groaned again and leaned into Bucky. “I’m never having sex again.”

Bucky made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat. “Think I’ve said that a few times, too,” Bucky reminded him, gently. “Never sticks.”

“You could at least pretend to be worried about it,” Tony pouted. “Stupid Mom. Stupid Phil. Stupid... Grant Ward, whoever he is.”

“That th’ new guy?” Bucky asked, and then went on when Tony nodded. “Well, even if he quit because they broke up, I don’t see Phil bein’ irresponsible. Let ‘im do a trial run an’ we’ll meet th’ guy next time we see her. If you want, I’ll talk t’ Phil, see if I c’n figure out what happened.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Might have to give it a day or two. He went all Mr. Stark starchyshorts on me.”

“Well, yeah,” Bucky said. “S’gotta be weird for him, too. When your ex’s son is your boss. We had some of that ‘round here, after… well, after the shit with Rumlow, and what happened with Peter. Wanda was terrified for a few weeks that I was gonna fire her as soon as I got back from Azzano.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Tony said confidently.

“Well, no, of course I wouldn’t have,” Bucky said. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t weird for her.”

Tony leaned further into Bucky’s warmth. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“I dunno, I guess I thought you knew. Like, when we all knew ‘bout Sam and Wanda, but no one wanted to say anything, ‘cause we didn’t want to jinx it?”

“Yeah, but they were really obvious,” Tony pointed out. “And she’s my Mom.”

“An’ she was playin’ footsie with him under th’ table the last time we went out t’ Aldo’s,” Bucky exclaimed.

Tony stared up at Bucky in horror. “No.”

Bucky laughed, his ears turning pink. “Oh, yes, they were. She bumped me with her knee like three times and I don’t even want to know what he did to her stocking. You didn’t notice?”

“She’s my mom,” Tony said again. “Moms don’t have sex!” He knew that was possibly the stupidest thing he’d said in at least the last year, but he couldn’t quite stop it from coming out of his mouth. “Shut up, I know, I know, I just. I didn’t think it was possible.”

“Tony,” and Bucky’s voice was painfully gentle. “Your mom’s a good looking woman. She’s independently wealthy, she’s polite. She can be really damn funny when she wants to be. Of course men are gonna find her attractive. An’... you know, that’s okay, don’t you think? Shouldn’t she be happy? Don’t you think she deserves that? I mean, I guess I can see not noticin’, if you don’t like thinkin’ about it. That’s okay, too.”

“You’re just going to give me hell about it forever,” Tony grumbled. Now that he was -- reluctantly -- thinking about it, his mom and Phil had been a little friendlier than a society matron and her bodyguard generally were. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice.”

“Next you’re gonna tell me you don’t know that Billie’s goin’ out with Bryan Bain-- and ain’t that the dumbest phrase? Goin’ out? They’re not going anywhere--”

“WHAT?” Tony all but shrieked, sitting bolt upright. “NO. NO, I will not--”

Bucky started laughing, hard enough that he almost fell off the couch. “Calm your jets, Lord Montague,” he said, between giggles. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

“Oh my god, you are actually the worst,” Tony complained. “Literally and actually. Worst. I don’t know why I even love you. You’re so mean.”

Bucky couldn’t even stop laughing long enough to give Tony an appropriately contrite pout; he kept losing it at the last second. “Sorry, sorry,” Bucky said, pressing his lips together to try to keep from busting out laughing again. “Seriously, you should have seen your face, oh, my god…”

“Hmph. Just for that, I’m not even sorry that I got my greasy hands on you.”

Bucky pulled himself together long enough to give Tony a sultry look. “I happen to like your hands on me, greasy or otherwise.”

Tony tried to fight the smile that tugged at his lips. “Yeah, I like that, too.”

“An’ look, you have a clean spot… right here.” Bucky leaned in, nuzzling at the corner of Tony’s mouth, tongue flicking out to brush against his lip.

“Yeah?” Tony leaned in a little. “Want to see if you can find any more?”

Bucky nosed around Tony’s ear, then-- “Wow. You have engine grease in your hair, baby.” But that didn’t seem to deter him much, as he licked at the sensitive patch just behind Tony’s ear.

Tony shuddered and tipped his head for more. God, the reactions that Bucky got out of him... He slid his hand around Bucky’s shoulders and pulled Bucky closer, wanting more and more and more. They had to stop soon, he knew -- he needed a shower, and the couch wasn’t really an option for serious makeouts unless Billie was safely off with a friend. But for now, just for a little longer, he wanted to feel Bucky’s touch, gentle fingers and sensitive lips.

Tony was going to blame distraction, because Bucky’s hand was creeping up his shirt, pushing the fabric up and running a teasing hand along Tony’s skin, but the door crashed open and Billie stopped dead in the doorframe. “Ug, gross,” she said, her tone mimicking Steve’s whenever he caught Bucky and Tony necking in the restaurant’s kitchen. “Dads should not be kissing.”

“Go on, be like that about it,” Tony said, “and we’ll just do it more.”

Billie made a face. “I know, I know.” She sounded extremely put upon. “Gonna put you two on rations!” She stomped off into her room, her skateboard gear littering the hallway as she went.

Bucky shook his head, grinning. “How is it that Becca raised her, you an’ I take care of her, an’ she acts just like Stevie?”

“Maybe he’s slipping something into the food,” Tony suggested. “That mac and cheese he makes her is very suspicious.”

Bucky gave a quick peer over his shoulder to see that Billie’s door was still safely slammed shut, and then gave Tony a quick kiss. “You need a shower, grease monkey,” he said. “Want me t’ wash your back?”

“Always,” Tony agreed.

 

Chapter Text

“I don’t know,” Tony said carefully. “I mean, it looks pretty good, except that battery compartment might make it a little top-heavy.” There, that was hopefully diplomatic enough that Billie wouldn’t accuse him of trying to take over her project.

“I need six AAs to run it,” Billie explained, between clenched teeth, so obviously not quite diplomatic enough. “So, unless you want to help me redesign basic battery cell size?” She actually looked a little hopeful at that, although she was trying hard to keep her voice sarcastic. “I need seven and a half volts to run it, I can’t cut that down.”

“We could switch to button batteries,” Tony suggested. “Or you could--” He snapped his mouth shut; Billie was glaring at him again. She hated it when he redesigned her projects, even when she’d asked for his help. There was a fine line to walk, apparently, between helping and taking over. He crossed it regularly. “Okay, okay. Build it your way.”

Billie picked up the schematic again, scowling. She had a very impressive scowl; Tony admired her ability to keep it up so often. Didn’t her face ever get tired? “It could run with a wider tread, that’d keep it from falling over,” she said, tentatively. “We’ve got spare power for that much, it shouldn’t increase the weight?” She started digging through her box of parts, looking for the wider treads. She had a pretty big box of parts, and it was even mostlyorganized.

She sighed, scowled harder, and then pulled out a smaller battery pack, designed to hold button batteries. “Why are you always right?” she demanded of no one in particular. She tucked the battery box under her knee and started to remove the hull of the bot, to get to the screws.

“It’s probably something to do with being older and wiser or something stupid like that,” Tony said. “Also, the extra half-dozen years of school don’t hurt.”

“But you’re always going to be older than I am,” Billie muttered, putting the screws in her mouth, which Bucky would be having a conniption about if he were there. It wasn’t entirely the only reason they worked on bots when Bucky was taking his shift as cook, downstairs, but it was one of the louder reasons. “It’s not fair.”

“Life is rarely fair,” Tony said. “On the plus side, you’ll catch up to me in years of school. And, hey, you’ll always be older than Livvy. So you’ll get to lord it over her when she gets old enough to make robots instead of just trying to eat them.”

“Livvy doesn’t want to make robots,” Billie said. “She wants to be a ballet dancer. She told Auntie Nat so.” She screwed the new battery pack in place and flipped her bot over. Tested the load balance, rocking the whole thing around. It was a lot more stable, and despite rolling her eyes, she powered it up and let it amble across the floor before it ran into a leg of the coffee table and buzzed, annoyed.

After trying to run through the leg a few times, the bot backed itself up, course corrected, and continued on its way. “Ha! It works!”

“Hey, that’s awesome!” Tony held up a hand for her to high-five. “And I’m pretty sure Livvy did not suddenly start talking but only to Aunt Nat. Aunt Nat just wants to dress Livvy in tights and tutus.” To be fair, the little ballerina costumes were kind of adorable.

“Well, I’m not going to dress up in tutus. Tutus are itchy,” Billie said. “And stupid. It doesn’t keep you warm. It just sticks out so you have to walk around like this--” Billie demonstrated a very bad ballerina walk, her arms spread out and wafting around like a butterfly that had been drinking too much vodka. She went over to fetch her bot, which was diligently trying to find a way around the wall.

Tony swallowed the first three comments that came to mind about the size of her princess wardrobe a couple of years ago, before she’d traded in all the crinoline and taffeta for sturdy jeans. “Which is why we’re not arguing with Aunt Nat about Livvy’s ballerina aspirations,” he agreed solemnly.

“Although the bee outfit is cute,” Billie said, offhanded, like she was granting some great concession. “Until she whacked me in the face with the stinger-thing.” She flipped the bot over and turned it off. “I need t’ reprogram this. It’s the same code we’ve used for the last three. I can’t believe I have to wait ‘til high school t’ take programming classes. That’s like forever from now.”

It wasn’t forever, not at all, Tony thought. She was just starting middle school; high school was three short years away. Terrifying, really, how fast she was growing up.

“Khan Academy has some programming courses,” Tony offered. “Or we could do the unthinkable and get a couple of books.”

Billie’s mouth twitched a little. Tony could almost see her thinking; on the one hand, she loved programming and working on the bots. On the other hand, taking an extra class was akin to volunteering for torture. Or promising to do more than her share of the household chores. She turned the bot back on and let it bump into the wall a few more times, then, “Will you take classes with me?”

“The programming classes? Sure,” Tony agreed. He’d already taken several programming classes, but that was all right. It was fun watching Billie soak up information; she was smarter than she thought she was and her leaps of intuition were fantastic, uninhibited by knowledge of “how things are done.” He disassembled an arm that had been discarded, dropping the pieces into their slots in the box. “We should find a pretest so we know what level you can start at. I think you’re already past the beginner level.”

She waggled the bot around. “This? I just copied this off th’ internet, Dad. I mean, there’s lots of that. It’s like the bot pieces, I just stick it together. I’m not… making it. It’s not real coding.” She flopped back onto the floor.  

“Pff,” Tony scoffed. “Okay, maybe you should take the beginner level stuff so you know how the pieces work and why, but no programmer worth their salt starts from scratch every time. Everyone uses bits and pieces that someone else wrote, or things they wrote themselves previously. Much faster and more efficient. You found the pieces, you figured out how to put them together, and you managed to make your bot do what you wanted it to do. So in my book, buttercup, you’re coding.”

“Uncle Bucky says even th’ best cooks start with cupcakes,” she decided, philosophically. She started to say something else when Tony’s cell phone started buzzing.

He glanced at the caller ID. “Just a minute,” he told Billie. “This might be important.” He thumbed on the phone. “Matt, hey, what’s up?”

Matt made a squeaky sort of noise before clearing his throat. “Eeeeh, technically, I probably shouldn’t be talking to you, but…” He hemmed and hawed for a few minutes and then said. “Um. One of yourmothersemployeesisbringingalawsuitagainsther.”

What? What for?”

Another squeak. “Sexual harassment.”

“...What.” Tony tried to imagine his mother doing any such thing. Lewd suggestions, or unwanted groping, or... Nope. Couldn’t imagine it. His father, sure, when he’d been alive. But not his mother. “Who’s bringing the suit?”

“The new bodyguard, Mr. Ward?” Matt said. “He cleared an extensive background check, we weren’t expecting anything like this. It’s being kept quiet at the moment; I think he’s looking for a settlement, and a sizeable one at that, but you know how these things are. Keeping a lid on it’s gonna be tough, and… well, you know how rumors are.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony sighed. Outright abuse was invisible, but the merest hint of a scandal had the old biddies chirping for weeks. “Thanks for the heads-up, Matt. Let me know if you need anything from us. Even if it’s just for me and the girls to put in a Respectability Visit.” Tony mostly avoided going to New York if he could help it, and traveling with a toddler was bound to be painful, but if it would help…

“That could be helpful,” Matt admitted. “There’s a few events that could benefit from a friendly face. Stane International is having their annual gala, and it looks bad if she’s not there, but that’s where the worst of her critics are.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “Let me talk to Bucky, and I’ll plan a trip up in the next couple of weeks. What’s Mom say about it all?”

“Very little,” Matt admitted. “She told me to make it go away. I don't think she did anything untoward. But with Mr. Coulson disappearing like he has… well. It doesn't look good.”

Tony sighed. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll let you know when we’re coming up. Keep me posted.”

Billie was looking at him through the curtain of her hair when he got off the phone, her I wasn’t listening in, really, Dad look firmly in place. “Where are we goin’?”

Tony sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. Of course she’d caught that. “To visit Grandmama, probably. In a week or two. I need to get some details first.”

“C’n we… c’n we… c’n we take Livvy to the Hall of Science? Oh, oh, and Secret Garden, I wanna do that again,” Billie asked and pleaded and suggested enough outings to fill two or three vacations and none of them included having to get a new formal dress and look pretty for the first hour or so of a soiree for Obadiah Stane showing off his company in front of the people who used to own it, but that would probably be included, too. Ug.

“Tell you what; pick three things you want to do the most,” Tony said, “and we’ll see what we can do. But it’s going to be a business trip, partly, so don’t get too wound up.” He looked down at the screen of his phone and wondered how to spring all this on Bucky. What the hell was going on up there, anyway?

***

Billie looked up from her phone, scowling. “Dad, what’s a cougar?”

Tony blinked up at her from where he was reading Red Hat, Blue Hat to Livvy for the four thousandth time. Today. “It’s a wild cat. Did you really not know that one already?”

“Why would someone call Grandmama one, then? She ain’t even the least bit wilderness-y. She gets all cringy around fish an’ hermit crabs an’ all that.”

Tony’s brain fuzzed out for a second. “Who... who’s calling her a cougar?” he asked carefully. Shit, shit, shit, what the hell was Billie looking at? He did not snatch the phone from her hands, but he kind of wanted to. Livvy kicked and grabbed at the book, and Tony had to hold on to it or lose another book to Livvy’s sharp little teeth.

“Well, I was snapchatting with Kendra an’ Bryan and told ‘em we were going up to New York, an’ Bryan asked if Maria Stark was my grandmama, because my last name is Barnes-Stark, and he said that his mom said that Mrs. Osbourne said that your mom was a cougar, so Bryan’s mom asked her what she knew about that, an--” Tony’s eyes were probably glazing over a little trying to keep track of Billie’s active online social life, and she just handed him the phone. It had a screen-cap of one of those grocery aisle newspapers spread out on what was probably Bryan Bain’s kitchen table.

Oh, damn. Damn. “Damn it,” Tony said aloud, squinting at the picture while trying to keep Livvy from grabbing the phone. Maria was fairly clear in the shot, walking back to her car with her bodyguard -- it looked weird, now, to see her with anyone but Phil -- and her hand was hovering over the guard’s butt. Tony couldn’t tell if it was photoshopped or just an awkward angle, but he knew it definitely wasn’t what it looked like. Even if his mother was harassing the man, she’d never be so classless as to do it in public.

At least the Starks weren’t famous enough to have made the front page. Only the sort of people who read supermarket tabloids cover-to-cover were going to see it. Which, apparently, included Sunset Bain. “Damn,” Tony said again, closing his eyes as he handed the phone back to Billie.

“Aah!” Livvy put in forcefully.

With a scrabble of paws, Lucky pushed inside, followed closely by Bucky, who was dripping wet. “Ug, it’s raining about four houses down, but not here, jus’ yet.” He shook his hair out. “What’s wrong?”

Billie was poking her phone again. “Grandmama’s in the papers,” Billie reported, cheerfully. “Look!” She held the phone up for Bucky to look at, who peered at the screen dutifully, then--

“Tony, who is that?”

“Mom,” Tony said, stating the obvious, absently bouncing one leg to keep Livvy entertained. “And her new bodyguard.”

Bucky touched the phone screen lightly, blowing it up. “Grant Ward…” He said the name with the sort of tone a person usually reserved for a crazy ex, the sort of person who might be found boiling a pet into pate. “Grant Ward? Oh, my god, Tony.”

Tony took his hand off his face at Bucky’s distressed tone. “What? It’s not real, it’s doctored, or at least angled.”

“Not that,” Bucky said, dismissively. “This. This man. Tony, I know this man. Grant Ward. Holy shit.”

“Uncle Bucky, language,” Billie said, shaking her finger at him. “You don’t want Livvy picking up your bad words!”

Bucky didn’t even bother to apologize, or look embarrassed. He handed Billie’s phone back to her, then shoved past into the hall, headed for the storage room. Lucky took that moment to shake, spinning water droplets everywhere, eliciting a giggling “gross” from Billie before Tony had time to figure out what the hell was going on.

“Ish,” Livvy complained.

“I know, baby girl,” Tony said. “Stinky dog. Go lay down, Lucky!” He leaned to look down the hall. “Babe?”

From the hall, Bucky unleashed another torrent of cuss words, which had Billie widening her eyes with awe. “Way t’ keep it one hundred, Uncle Bucky,” she said, impressed.

Tony winced when something obviously fell over, then Bucky was back -- with one of the photo albums. Not the one with its carefully culled and chosen memories, but one of the older ones, tattered, from the era before Tony became part of Dockside’s family. “Tell me I’m wrong,” Bucky said, and he put the photo album down on the table in front of Tony, spread open about halfway, indicating a picture of Bucky, standing next to Alexander Pierce, looking every inch the bastard that he was. And next to him was a seventeen or eighteen year old boy with a fall of dark hair and a brilliant, shy smile.

Tony looked at that photo, then reached out to snare Billie’s phone hand and tip the screen back in his direction. “...It sure does look like the same guy, doesn’t it? He was one of Pierce’s...” Tony hesitated, considering ten-year-old ears. “...friends?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “I remember this one, particular… he was… that was… the first year when Nat an’ Steve started running interference. Nat dumped a pitcher of tea on Ward, like two minutes after this picture was taken. I… yeah, I hated those guys, Tony. Hated them, all of them. I only saw ‘em for a few minutes, but there’s no way I could forget any of them. Not even if I wanted to.” Bucky’s jaw was tight with remembered jealousy.

That was... one hell of a coincidence. Tony stared at the picture some more. It was hard to focus on the boy with Pierce dominating the center, but the kid was almost exactly the same as the one in Billie’s photo. And if one of Pierce’s proteges had turned up in Tony’s mother’s employ, then it was almost certain that Pierce himself had something to do with it.

Pierce couldn’t attack Bucky directly -- they had security footage of him assaulting Bucky that would ruin his career if it ever came out. He hadn’t come back to Dockside since that incident, and they’d thought he’d forgotten them. But apparently he’d just planned a longer game of revenge, starting with Tony’s mother.

“Fuck,” Tony breathed. Billie’s eyes widened in delight, and Tony clenched his teeth on the rest of the things he wanted to say. “I need to get Matt on the phone, now. And call Mom, too.”

Livvy managed to lean off the side of Tony’s lap and grab the book, chewing on the corner with all the concentration and diligence that she was capable of, then dropped it. She looked mournfully down at the book on the floor, then up at Tony. “Fu’k,” she said, pointing.

Tony was torn between cursing again, laughing, and giving up to just lie on the floor in a stupor of despair. Billie’s eyes were going to fall out of her head if they got any bigger. Tony took a deep breath. “Book,” he corrected Livvy, as calmly as he could. “That’s a book, honey.” He looked at Bucky, whose pressed lips and reddening face suggested he was facing the same dilemma. “Can you take her for a few?” he asked. “I need to make some calls.”

Bucky held out his arms and took Livvy, leaning over to get the book, which made the baby squeal with little baby giggles. “Yeah. Yeah, this... can’t even. Here, Briar Rose, here’s your book.”

Tony was most of the way into their personal den and a bit of privacy when he heard Billie demanding, “So, will you tell me why they’re calling Grandmama a cougar, Uncle Bucky?”

Tony waffled between calling the lawyer or his mother first. But who he really wanted to talk to was Coulson. How had he come to pick up Ward as a trainee? How much of a background check had he done? And why, for the sake of every little god, had he left?

His finger hovered over Phil’s name in the call list for a moment, but Phil hadn’t taken any of Tony’s calls since quitting. Tony considered his contacts list for a moment, then was struck with an idea. “Be right back!” he called, dashing back through the living room and down the stairs into the restaurant.

Sam was washing dishes and trading ridiculous stories with Steve, like usual. “Sam!” Tony all but shouted. “I need a favor!”

Sam scoffed. “Las’ time I did a favor for you, I ended up making street-mix painkillers in exchange for strawberry waffles from a computer hacker. I am leery about doing any more.”

“I need you to find Phil Coulson for me,” Tony said. “Seriously, I need to talk to him, like, now. As close to now as can be arranged.”

Sam made a strange grimace. “That… might be less difficult than you imagine. What do you need him for?”

 

Chapter Text

The little mother-in-law cottage that Sam had directed Tony to was rustic, painted a late seventies shade of avocado green, and had a huge screened-in porch that faced one of the endless inlets and bays and rivers that dotted the area. Tony climbed up the stairs that led to the front door to find Phil Coulson sitting on the porch in a white wicker rocking chair, a cup of coffee next to him on the table. “Stark,” Phil said, calmly. “Wilson called to give me a heads up that you were on your way. He seemed concerned that I might taze you and leave you to drool on the carpet, if you surprised me. Funny. I thought I was clear that I quit.”

Tony already felt a little angry and defensive on his mother’s behalf. “Yep, I got that. The bit that took me a while was the part where you broke my mom’s heart by skipping town on her without any warning.”

Phil was somewhere in his late thirties, early forties, but he managed to give Tony a withering stare that implied decades of experience in dealing with impulsive kids. One of these days, someone who wasn’t ten years old was going to come to the stunning realization that Tony was, actually, an adult. “Mare never gave me her heart to break, so I don’t see what concern it is of yours.”

“Maybe not, but I know she misses you. I haven’t seen her so lifeless in years.”

Phil scowled. Usually the man looked like a somewhat more-fit-than-expected history teacher or something, but that particular expression reminded Tony that he was a combat veteran. “It’s a little awkward to discuss my personal life with you, I hope you understand that,” he said with a sigh. “Come have some coffee and have a seat. You can disapprove of me just as much from a chair as you can looming over me like some sort of vigilante superhero.”

The coffee pot was tucked into the neat little kitchen, more than half-full and still piping hot. An eclectic collection of mugs were hung on hooks above the sink. “World’s Okayest Bassist” and “Supernanny!” were painted in eye-searing colors on them.

Tony waited impatiently for Phil to hand him a mug (“Supernanny!” in pink and lime green polka dots; that was a mug for a man comfortable in his masculinity) and pour coffee into it. He followed Phil back out onto the porch and rather pointedly sat in the second chair. “Coffee,” he said, and slurped it. “So we’re back to the starting point. Mom’s having a rough few weeks, here, and it started with you leaving. Why?”

“It did not start with me leaving,” Phil said, angrily. He gritted his teeth for a moment, then heaved a sigh that left him looking smaller when he was done. “You know, it was Audrey who figured it out, first. Do you remember her? The cellist I was seeing, for a while? She was very understanding when she broke things off with me. Because she knew I had… improper interest. I should have quit, then. Mare and I might have been able to make a go of it, if we’d… Look, it happened. I’m not proud of it. And we kept pretending that it wasn’t happening. We didn’t talk about it. Nothing was ever defined. It was the most ridiculous, high-school, afternoon special sort of stupid thing… that maybe I’ve ever done.” He stared off into the distance, seeing something that wasn’t the admittedly lovely view of the inlet in front of them. “We didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t have to think about it. Until it got shoved in my face what was really going on.”  

“And what, exactly, was that?”

“If she’d actually cared about me, I don’t know... I could take the little digs about my looking for a sugar-mama. I’m not wealthy, but I’ve never been uncomfortable, and greed’s not really in my nature. I know my own worth. And maybe, it was awkward, being reminded, very pointedly, that your mother’s at least ten years older than I am. I could have handled that. What I couldn’t handle is… Colonel Phillips’ wife came on to me. Told me that she and Mare and Gillian were good friends, and friends share caterers and pool boys and manservants.” Phil took a deep breath, his knuckles going white around his coffee cup. “I’m not a fool, or a child. I didn’t expect some whirlwind romance, but I thought that it meant something. That I wasn’t just providing a service.”

Tony’s gut churned. He knew well enough how some of the ladies of his mother’s coterie were. They treated people like things, and disposable things, at that. But he couldn’t see his mother doing anything like that. Could he? He hadn’t been able to imagine her having a romance, either. He squeezed the handle of his mug a little tighter. “So you confronted her about it, and she laughed in your face?” he suggested, voice dripping sarcasm.

Phil rolled his tongue around in his mouth, licking at his teeth, before saying, “I won’t sugar-coat it. Your father was a monster. Having a discussion with Mare is like walking a tightrope over alligators. But I’m not the one who’s going to be hurt. She is. I… try very hard not to put her in a position where she feels like she has to… placate me.” He jerked his chin a little. “If she thinks I’m angry, or upset. She’ll lie. She’ll deflect. And I understand that, I do. But I didn’t want her to lie to me about this.”   

“Nice excuse,” Tony said, and if it came out a little snappish, he didn’t much care. “So instead of asking her what her feelings were, you ran for the hills, leaving her with another monster.”

Phil very carefully put his mug down and turned to face Tony. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Grant Ward having once been one of Alexander Pierce’s stooges,” Tony said. “I’m talking about him filing a lawsuit against her for sexual harassment less than a month after you cleared the scene. While she was, I might add, still giving me all those sad sighs and then telling me she was fine.”

“What? Pierce. Alexander Pierce? District three’s state senator? Are we talking about the same man? He gave Ward a stunning recommendation. He’s been behind some of the particularly progressive state legislation for military benefits. What the hell does he have to do with anything?”

“Sam’s never told you about--” Tony sighed. “Pierce has a... grudge against Bucky. And me, because I got in his way a few times. Which means he’d be delighted for an opportunity to slip one of his proteges into my mother’s household.”

Phil made an undignified sort of snort. “Pierce doesn’t have the money for proteges and stooges. At the most, he can afford goons. His ex-wife took him for everything he had and then some, few years back.” He rubbed his face with one hand. “Is Mare okay?”

“Probably not,” Tony said. “She wasn’t doing great before the lawsuit hit, and now it’s... Well. We’ll weather it, if we have to. Just tell me this. Or at least think about it: Who recommended that you take Ward on?”

Phil tapped his chin a few times. “It was a recruiter, actually,” he said. “Um… what was his name? Anyway, they sent me an enquiry about a side-contract for my line of work, doing some on-the-job training. Movies make bodyguarding look glamorous, so they wanted to send their up-and-comings out with an established mark. See how it really is, most of the time. Nobody shoots at Mare, and it was an extra-- well, that doesn’t matter. I thought it would help out, Mare said she didn’t mind. Oh.” Phil snapped his fingers. “Sitwell. The man’s name was Jasper Sitwell. He does head hunting for an all-purpose security company. They do everything from cyber security to warehouse patrols.”

The name jolted through Tony, though if he hadn’t been thinking about Pierce already, he probably wouldn’t have remembered it. “I’ve met him,” he said. “Funnily enough, in Senator Pierce’s company. They were having lunch at Dockside.”

“What the hell did your husband do to a senator to get him to put all of his rather unimpressive resources together in an effort to make your mother miserable? That just seems beyond the pale. Did Barnes stab him or something?”

“Technically... yes, actually.” Tony couldn’t help but feel a fierce pride at the thought. “In the midst of a sexual assault. The Senator doesn’t like being told no. But the whole thing was caught by the security camera, so he can’t come after us directly anymore.”

Jesus,” Phil said. “I… uh. Didn’t know that. Shit. Mare… whatever happened between us, Mare doesn’t deserve this shitstorm to come down on her. She’s had more than her share of being treated like a pawn for powerful men.” He ran one hand over his thinning hair. “What can I do to help?”

“Talk to her.” Tony gulped down the last of the coffee, and set the mug aside. “Tell her what happened, ask her why Mrs. Phillips would say such a thing. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it was a passing fling for her. But she’s never been the sort of person to do anything halfway, Phil, not even when she was stuck living under my father’s thumb. Talk to her. She’s living with the Danvers again, since Ward quit to file his suit. Bucky and I are going up there in a week or so for the company’s annual gala to shield Mom from the gossipmongers, but we wouldn’t mind bringing you along for the ride. She probably could use another friend.”

That was probably enough to get Phil’s wheels turning, at least. And before he went back to Dockside, Tony had a rather pointed set of questions for his lawyer.

***

Tony leaned in the doorway to their rather luxurious bathroom, watching Bucky brush his teeth for bed. It had been a fairly good day, but busy, so Tony had waited until the girls were both asleep and likely to stay that way before getting ready for this conversation. It wasn’t going to be easy.

“Want to hear something wild?” he started.

Bucky held up a finger, then spat. “Wild stuff, go.”

“When I was talking to Phil this morning, he happened to mention that Pierce’s ex basically took him for everything. And I was curious, so I asked Jenn to look into it for me -- not really digging, just the public record stuff? Did you know she took the Spanish villa? And he had to sell his place in Richmond to pay off the rest of what he owed. I wish to heck I knew what she had on him.” The Spanish villa had been Pierce’s vacation home in Sandbridge -- it had been in his family for decades.

“Huh,” Bucky said. “Wondered why we ain’t seen ‘im this last year. Thought he might, you know, not come in, or nothin’, but walk around in front of th’ place, just long enough to make sure I saw him.” Bucky angled a sharp glance at Tony. “You think that’s why he’s chasin’ after your mom, via Grant freakin’ Ward?”

“Maybe. Whatever the reason, he’s down to his last few semi-loyal hangers-on. Makes it a good time to hit him where it hurts.”

“You’re hittin’ back now?” Bucky splashed water on his face then toweled it off. Damp strands plastered themselves over his forehead. “How?” There was a certain tenseness in his voice and the way his eyebrows furrowed that said he was just playing at diffident.

“He broke the deal,” Tony pointed out. “He was supposed to leave us the fuck alone, and we wouldn’t give that tape to Jenn and let her stuff and mount him.”

Bucky closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he wasn’t looking at Tony, finding something fascinating with the floor, maybe. “That’s a last resort option, Tony. Like a nuclear bomb sort of last resort. That’s what you want to do?”

“I’m feeling pretty nuclear about him messing with my mom,” Tony said. “The timing will never be better! He doesn’t have the resources to fight the scandal right now.”

Bucky gripped the rim of the sink. “I… you use that tape, you’ve lost any hold you ever had, any chance you ever got to make him back off. Once it’s out there, there’s no takin’ it back.”

“We don’t use it, and he’ll think he’s gotten away with it. He’ll come after us again. Maybe use my mom’s money to rebuild his collateral, make it that much harder to touch him.”

“I don’t… No,” Bucky said, firm. Still not looking at Tony. “No, I’m not gonna do this. Think of something else.”

“Like what?” Tony demanded. “Babe, we’ve got solid proof in our hands! God knows, I wish sometimes we’d used it while it was still fresh!”

“Oh, yeah, that’da gone over well, while Loki was still potentially fightin’ for custody,” Bucky said, sneering. “Bad enough that I’m gay, but havin’ people see me like that, cringing against the wall like a goddamn coward? No, Tony. I ain’t havin’ no truck with that shit. I look weak. I’ll lose every bit of goddamn standing I’ve earned back ‘round here.”

“That’s your father talking, and you know it,” Tony snapped, frustrated. “You aren’t weak, you weren’t weak! You stabbed him with the freaking letter opener!”

Bucky had a mobile, expressive face; he could convey more meaning with a twitch of his eyebrow and the way his mouth curled than most men could with an entire paragraph. And Tony had never seen him look so utterly betrayed as he did when he finally drew his gaze up from the floor. “There’s nothin’ else you can do? You end up in a mudslingin’ contest with him, you know he’s gonna let out everythin’ that happened with me. It’s all gonna get stirred.”

God, that look hurt. And Bucky wasn’t wrong about that. Pierce could drag up plenty of dirt on Bucky just from the public record, never mind spending what little influence he had left to dig deeper. Tony chewed on his lip. “What if we don’t take him to court? What if we release it on the sly, hide your identity. He’ll know it’s you, but no one else would have to. And if he tries to out you, then he’s admitting it’s real. And either way, his reputation is dirt; the sort of asshats who wouldn’t care about the assault will get turned off because it’s gay. Turn their prejudices against him.”

“I don’t understand this at all, Tony,” Bucky admitted, and his eyes were shining and wet with unshed tears. “I don’t understand why he don’t jus’ leave me alone. Before you came ‘long, I did near everything he wanted, ever. He coulda had me, he just had to say so an’ I’dda done it, glad to, even. Why’s he gotta be like this?”

“Because you told him no, I guess,” Tony said. “Because you made the decision it was over, instead of him.” He reached for Bucky’s hand, squeezed it. “We can’t stop him from being a pathetic, bitter old man, now. All we can do is teach him not to leave his shit on our door.”

Bucky made a soft, whimpering noise in his throat. “I dunno if I can do this, baby. I don’t know… you know how long it took, after… after Azzano, that I could look people in th’ eye and not wonder if they knew? Jesus, baby, I hate this, I hate it so fucking much.”

Tony pulled Bucky into an embrace, lightly rubbing his back. “I know, honey. I mean. We could just threaten him with it, tell him we know he’s behind it and to back the fuck off. But it won’t have teeth if we’re not actually ready to do it if he calls our bluff. I’m just so... fucking mad. I don’t want him to get away with this shit again.”

Bucky buried his face in the warm hollow of Tony’s throat and Tony could feel the slow, wet trickle of tears. “You’re smarter’n me, baby, an’ I know that. This may not be th’ world you live in anymore, but you know it, you been here, politicians an’ favors and blackmail. And I know that’s a big part of why you left it behind. But you know what you’re doin’. You say this is how it’s gotta go, an’ I believe you. I’m… I’m jus’...” Bucky shook his head, still hiding his face, arms tightening around Tony’s waist with desperate strength. “Tell me what’s gonna happen, when we do this.”

Tony let out a shaky breath. They were back to being we, and together, they could do anything. “I’m thinking... We won’t release the whole thing. Just a short little snip. Something to get interest up. I know spin; we can make a clip look so much worse than the whole video. And then let him know that he can fuck off and leave us alone, or find himself choking on all the mud that’s hitting him in the face.” Tony considered it, like a chessboard. “If he backs off, then he’s still got no resources, and it’ll be that much harder for him to get any more. If we’re lucky, his ex’ll drag him back to court for damages, or someone else will go public. If he doesn’t... Another clip. And another. It’s not like he didn’t give us lots to work with. Jenn will help us. Mail the chosen clips from her office so it can’t be traced.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, still shaking. “Okay, Tony. Okay. I jus’... I don’t know that I’m worth all this. It’s a shitshow, an’ if I’d jus’ never gotten involved with him in th’ first place, none of this woulda happened.”

“Don’t say that,” Tony said, holding him tighter, nuzzling at his neck. “You’re worth everything.”

Bucky shrugged. “Don’t feel like it, with this. Jus’ makes me feel dirty. Like, I know, I know, baby. Doc an’ I talked about it, a lot. An’ I know this ain’t my fault, that Alex manipulated me and got me all twisted up, but… I still did those things. I did them.”

“I know, honey,” Tony sighed. “You made some mistakes. Everyone does. But we’re not a mistake. And no matter what you did in the past, I love you now. I want you to be safe and happy, with me.” He kissed the rim of Bucky’s ear. “C’mon, let me make you happy for a while, hmm?”

Bucky shivered. “Cheater,” he accused Tony, succumbing to that kiss, that touch, with ease, letting his head fall back to give Tony access to his neck.

Tony accepted the invitation happily, nibbling gently down the side of Bucky’s neck, tongue flickering enticingly. “Mm-hm,” he agreed. “Terrible cheater. Can’t be trusted at all. Gotta watch me every second.” He took a step back toward their bed, pulling Bucky along with him.

“Gladly,” Bucky told him. He slid back another step, his hands going down to Tony’s wrists, spreading their arms a little, giving Tony a thorough inspection, eyes hot. Undressing Tony with his gaze, as if he hadn’t seen Tony a million times, as if it was still fresh and new as when they’d first fallen in love. “Tony. God, I love you.”

“Love you too, sweetheart.” Tony pulled Bucky another step closer to the bed. “Let me treat you right, honey. Tell me what you want.”

“What… I want…” Bucky walked his fingers up Tony’s arm. “What I want… is to feel good, honey. I want to get out of m’ head for a while, want t’ feel safe an’ loved and protected. Want… want you to take care of me, like you always do. I might need a little coddlin’ tonight.”

Tony smiled, warmed all over by that. Bucky didn’t often let Tony take care of him; it was like a gift when he relaxed enough to allow it. “I’d love to do that for you,” Tony said.

He pulled Bucky into a kiss, slow and thorough, mapping every sensitive spot on Bucky’s lips and mouth, sliding his hand along Bucky’s jaw, fingers threading into Bucky’s hair. Bucky shivered for an instant -- tempted to take control, Tony thought -- and then surrendered to it, mouth turning pliant under Tony’s as they kissed and kissed.

Bucky sighed into Tony’s mouth, drawing out Tony’s tongue. Sliding against Tony, moving his body with sensual brushes, until he was rubbing against Tony’s thigh, sleep pants not doing anything to conceal his erection. “God, Tony,” Bucky murmured. “Wanna be sweet for you, you’re so fuckin’ gorgeous.”

“You’re always sweet for me,” Tony said. He slipped his hands under Bucky’s t-shirt, teasing at the skin around the waistband of his pants. “Just want to love you like you deserve, try to show you how much I love you. How much I need you.” He slid his hands up over Bucky’s stomach, rucking up the shirt until he could tweak Bucky’s nipples.

Bucky hissed with pleasure, mouth moving more aggressively, hands tugging at Tony’s clothes. Impatient, he yanked his own shirt off, whining at the loss of Tony’s mouth, before going back to devouring Tony’s lips. He nipped at Tony’s lower lip, tugging at it. Drew Tony back another step until they were finally on the bed. Bucky sat, spread his knees, inviting Tony to cradle in between them. Moved his mouth to Tony’s belly, kissing a hot line just over the waistband of his sweats.

Tony stripped off his shirt and pulled Bucky up to kiss him again. “God, I could kiss you for hours,” he sighed happily. On the other hand, adventures in parenting had taught them to be wary of dragging things out too long. He nudged Bucky to lie back, nuzzling and nipping his way down Bucky’s chest, pressing his erection into the curve of Bucky’s hip, teasing them both.

Bucky writhed and squirmed under Tony’s weight, dragging them together in delightful torment. When Tony finally pulled back to tug Bucky’s pants off, Bucky arched up, locking his legs around Tony’s waist and yanking him in to rub and rut against that glorious ass. “Hmmm?” He hooked one leg even higher, until he practically had his ankle over Tony’s shoulder, spreading himself out gorgeously for Tony’s benefit.

Tony shuddered with the force of his wanting. “Yeah, honey, just let me...” He leaned over, holding onto Bucky’s leg for balance as he scrabbled in the drawer for lube. “God, you’re so damn beautiful,” he breathed. Coated his fingertips with the lube and rubbed a little to warm them up, then teased at Bucky’s entrance, tracing circles and spirals until Bucky was gasping.

Bucky was twitchy, rotating his hips and lifting off the bed every time Tony made a pass, sensitive and lithely flexible. There were times Tony could swear Bucky’s lower spine didn’t make contact with the bed at all as he moved. “Oh, my god,” he kept saying, hands twisting into the blankets, holding himself back. He threw his head back, showing off his throat, adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed back his cries.

“That’s it, sweetheart,” Tony crooned. “Just relax and let me make you feel good, hmm?” He pressed in with one finger, letting Bucky’s body pull him in deeper. “Like that, honey?” He bent to lick a quick stripe up Bucky’s cock as he twisted and curled his finger, stretching Bucky out for him.

Bucky scrabbled behind him for a pillow, covered his face with it and wrapped both arms around the plush surface. A thin, heated whine leaked out from behind the pillow as Bucky jerked Tony closer, legs tightening as if trying to impale himself on Tony’s fingers. He finally emerged out from under the pillow, which showed wet teeth marks in the center. “Tony, Tony, baby,” Bucky gasped.

“Yeah, honey,” Tony said, “I’m right here. Going to make you feel so good.” He pulled free, slowly, testing the give in the muscle, then started working back inward with two fingers. He flicked his tongue against the head of Bucky’s cock, tasting the bitter salt of precome there, circling the slit until Bucky was forced to retreat back into the pillow.

Evil,” Bucky accused, then threw himself back with another groan as Tony sucked him in, hips rocking up to meet Tony’s mouth. “Oh, my christ, your wicked fucking mouth, I…” He shuddered all over, breathing through it until he visibly backed himself up off the edge.

“You love it,” Tony said. He scissored his fingers, twisting and kneading at Bucky’s hole as it slowly loosened around him. “God, you feel so good, honey. Hot and tight. Can’t wait to be in you.”

Bucky scoffed. “Waitin’ on you, now…” Bucky let his legs fall all the way open, inviting and wanton. “Come on… you want me, come take me.”

Tony gasped at him, mock-offended. “Sass!” he complained, fighting hard to hide his grin. “I try to make love to you slow and tender and all I get is sass.” He dropped another dollop of lube on his fingers and started easing in a third. “Ought to make you wait even longer, for that.”

Bucky looked torn between desperately wanting to sass Tony more, and just desperately wanting. Bucky almost never backed down from a challenge, especially in the bedroom where he seemed to make it some sort of Olympic sport to drive Tony out of his mind.

Three fingers deep, and Tony could only watch Bucky with a kind of awe as he rocked into the touch, trying to draw Tony deeper with each shallow thrust. Bucky’s pupils were blown wide, the stormy-ocean gray of them barely visible. His cock was red and hard and leaking against his stomach, jumping and twitching as Tony’s fingers curled in search of Bucky’s prostate. “Almost there, baby,” Tony promised. “Just want to make sure it’s perfect.”

There was visible effort that Bucky put out to untwine his hand from the sheets where he had twisted them. “Baby, you’re always perfect,” he said, soft, reaching out and brushing his knuckles over Tony’s cheek. “Ever’ single time.” He appeared to consider that for a moment, then added, “well, except for that picnic, with th’ ants, remember? Not that that was your fault, ‘cept for poor picnic location choices. But mostly…” The casual tone of the conversation was belied by the strain in his jaw, the way the cords in his neck stood out, the sheen of sweat across his forehead that dripped into his hair.

Bucky flexed one leg, nudging Tony’s shoulder with his knee. “I’m ready, you know it… please, Tony.”

“Okay, honey,” Tony agreed. He slid his fingers free and slicked up his cock, shuddering at the slide of his touch. God, it was going to be hard not to shoot off too fast. He lined up and pressed forward, just a little, just the lightest pressure against Bucky’s hole. “God, I love you.” He leaned down to catch Bucky’s mouth in a kiss, sloppy and wonderful.

Bucky made a sound, a utterly sweet noise, relieved and luxuriating, like slipping into a hot bath after a long, cold day. Or the sort of noise Tony made after that first sip of coffee. “So hot,” he said, hooking his leg over Tony’s hip, struggling to pull Tony closer.

Tony pushed in a little further, testing the give in Bucky’s ass. “You feel so damn good,” he groaned. Tight and heated, the best kind of sinking sensation. Bucky’s leg tugged again and Tony had to grin, but he let Bucky’s urgency bleed through, let Bucky pull him deeper yet. “So good,” he sighed.

Finally, he was in as deep as he could get, and he folded, propping himself on his elbows as he waited for Bucky’s body to finish adjusting. God, it was hard, when he wanted to just take everything Bucky had to offer and make it his. Tony nuzzled at Bucky’s shoulder and bit down, just a little, to satisfy that hungry urge.

Bucky hissed, twisting his hips a little. “God,” he said, clamping down on Tony’s dick before relaxing again. “You feel huge.” He lifted, groaned again, and it was delicious agony, trying to hold still, and then he yanked at the pillow, shoved it under his back, and that changed the angle to something nearly impossible, sweet and slick and perfect. “Oh, oh, yeah, that’s… that’s good, right--” He arched into it.

“Yeah?” Tony rolled his hips a little, teasing himself, testing Bucky’s response. “You ready, sweetheart?”

“Mmmmhmmm,” Bucky murmured. He rubbed one leg along Tony’s hip, no longer tugging or nudging, but stroking him. His hands threaded into Tony’s hair, one settling at the back of Tony’s neck, the other continuing to roam around, like he couldn’t get enough of Tony’s skin. “Feels good. God, you make me feel so good.”

“Glad to hear it,” Tony said. “That’s what I want, that’s what I need.” He pulled out halfway and then pushed home again, a slick slide that tore a groan from his throat. “Feels pretty good on this side, too.” He thrust again, watching Bucky’s face as he set up a slow rhythm, the way the flush climbed up Bucky’s cheeks, the way Bucky’s jaw worked, the way his eyelids fluttered. “Going to make it even better.”

“Yeah?” Bucky asked, and it might have been a challenge, or a question, or a prayer, except he was too breathless to make it anything except encouragement. “Feels amazing.” His voice was slurred. “God, you’re so… gentle.” Bucky rocked with him, slow and easy. He groaned, throaty, and opened his eyes, gazing up at Tony through the shield of his eyelashes. Tightened his legs around Tony’s hips. Deeper. He was shuddering continuously, trembling with need.

Tony let his need drive him a little harder, a little faster, utterly fascinated by how beautiful Bucky was like this. So trusting and generous and gorgeous. “Amazing sounds better, let’s go with amazing,” Tony said. He pushed up on one arm and reached between them with the other, curling around Bucky’s cock, stroked it to match his thrusts. “Want to watch you fall apart,” he said. “So hot.”

Bucky’s hips stuttered wildly. “Don’t need me t’ tell you,” Bucky said, gasping between words, his eyes rolled back. “How ‘mazin’ you are. Incredible. Oh, god, Tony.” He lunged up, his teeth came down on Tony’s shoulder, a sharp, perfect little nip. His dick jerked in Tony’s grasp, throbbing, and then he was clenching down, squeezing Tony with delicious tightness. His powerful arms closed around Tony’s back, hands seeking until they came to rest on Tony’s ass, encouraging him to thrust even harder.  “Now, oh, yes, now.”

Heat and wet flowered between them as Bucky threw his head back, showing off his throat. A few jets of come spurted out from where their chests were pressed together, a rivulet of it dripping down Bucky’s shoulder.

“Oh god, baby, that’s perfect, you’re so damn gorgeous,” Tony panted, nuzzling at Bucky’s exposed throat, licking and scraping his teeth along the soft skin. He stroked Bucky through the aftershocks, then braced with both hands and drove into Bucky’s body, chasing his own orgasm. He teetered on the cusp of it for a moment, and then Bucky tightened around him again, arms and legs drawing Tony in deeper. Tony bit back a shout, only a thready whine escaping between his teeth as he lit on fire and melted in a white-hot flash of sheer ecstasy.

He fell onto Bucky’s chest, gasping for breath. He felt Bucky’s hands stroking over his back and hair, but for a long moment, couldn’t move. When he could, he lifted his head, seeking Bucky’s eyes. “God, I love you.”

“No arguments here. I’m incredibly lovable,” Bucky said, teasing, and when Tony pouted, he licked at Tony’s lower lip. “Love you, too, baby. You know I do.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony admitted. He leaned up to kiss Bucky again, slow and easy and warm. “Mm. But probably now we should take a shower.”

 

Chapter Text

Obie Stane had continued Howard’s tradition of holding a formal gala every year to celebrate the company’s achievements. Under Stane’s influence, the event had only gotten more clogged with C-list celebrities and rich socialites who were only there to show off their latest scorecard of wealth.

It was everything that Tony was grateful to have escaped, in his move to Sandbridge, but he remembered well enough how the game was played. At least Billie and Olivia weren’t being subjected to it; the girls had stayed behind at the Danvers’ town home with Mrs. Danvers as their personal guardian.

Obadiah Stane was trying to make his way to them and get his digs in, and Tony was determined not to let it happen. He exchanged a look with Bucky, who nodded -- he’d noticed Stane’s progress across the huge ballroom, as well -- and offered Maria his arm. “Care for a dance, Mother?” he said lightly. “I promise I won’t try to dip you.”

Maria was, of course, much too well-bred to roll her eyes at her only son, even if he was being exasperating. “You haven’t dropped a dance partner in years, Antonio,” she said, “and I’m not so old that I can’t still cut a rug, if it becomes necessary. The question is… it is necessary?” She gave him a smile that was painful in its complete falsehood. Too wide, too brittle. She put her hand on his elbow and allowed him to lead her toward the floor, and by some wide stretch of coincidence, away from Obie.

“Necessary,” Tony complained with a reasonable facsimile of a grin. “You’ve never been the wallflower type.” That was a lie, and they both knew it; she’d pretended to prefer to stay away from the dance floor while Howard was alive, because Howard wasn’t much of a dancer. She’d only danced in private, that Tony knew of, when she was teaching him his first steps. “We’ll have your dance card filled in no time.”

“I dare say, you are meddling,” Maria said, verbally sparring with him as they made their way onto the floor and into the first few steps of a fairly unimpressive two-step. Obie might have been trying to keep up SI’s standards, but the musicians were decidedly sub-par. It would have been embarrassing, if Tony had really cared all that much. Bucky, on the other hand, if someone got him out onto the floor, Tony could only begin to imagine his outrage. “I’m not in such dire straits, yet, Antonio.”

“Consider it payback,” Tony told her brightly, “for that last time you came down and bought half the city for the girls.”

The music wandered in and out of proper tempo. They maneuvered around revolving couples with ease, and then--

“Excuse me, Mr. Stark, but I believe this might be my dance,” a warm, familiar voice said, accompanied by a steadying hand on Tony’s shoulder, and he looked around to see Phil Coulson. Almost a shock, to see the man decked out in a tuxedo that was decidedly not off the rack, and showed off broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and drew attention to Phil’s elegant posture. “Mare?”

Tony kept hold of Maria’s hand, but he stepped to the side, making room, if she wanted it. “I think you might be right. If that’s okay with you, Mom?”

Maria’s eyes widened and she put her hand up to cover her mouth with a startled, “Oh.” She squeezed Tony’s fingers, hard, and for just a moment, her lips turned into an angry little grimace. She looked up, to deliver what Tony believed was going to be a devastating set-down, but stopped short. Actually looked at Phil. “Very well, then. One dance.” She took Phil’s hand, lightly, and let him spin her off, away from Tony.

Well. If anyone could talk her around, it would be Phil. And if not... they’d just deal with it. Tony watched them for a moment, causing eddies in the current of dancers, and then turned to make his way back to Bucky.

“Aw, Tony, look at you,” said a voice Tony had neither expected nor wanted to hear, “suddenly partnerless. Even your mother’s abandoned you? Such a shame. Let me give you a little assistance. You wouldn’t want people to think you were unwanted.” And Ty fucking Stone took Tony’s hand and swept him into waltz as the music changed over. Ty looked the same as he ever did; overwhelmingly handsome, hair cut in the latest trend to emphasize his beautiful features, drawing attention to that lush mouth and those brilliant eyes. His suit, too, fit to perfection. He certainly hadn’t let himself go to seed in the last few years, and in fact seemed almost surreal, like a fallen angel, the way the light glittered off his hair and gave warmth to his expression.

What the--” Tony cut himself off before he could draw too much attention. That wouldn’t help his mother. And would probably make Ty happy, which should be avoided. “What the hell are you doing here, Ty?” As the movements of the dance took them around, Tony glanced toward Bucky, hoping for an interruption, but Bucky had been cornered by... Zeke Stane. Damn and double damn. This was planned, no doubt about it. “What do you want?”

“It’s not enough to be happy to see you?” Ty wondered. “It has been a long time, but we did mean so much to each other, once. Mistakes were made, I’m man enough to admit it. I could have done better, so much better for you. Come, say you’ll forgive it, and we can, at least, be friends?”

“If I thought one word of that was sincere,” Tony growled, “I’d eat my tie. How did you get in here?”

“People can change,” Ty said. “I know, Tony. I know I hurt you. I know I can’t possibly make it up to you.” He heaved a great sigh, and while he didn’t release Tony’s hand, he did keep a proper, passable amount of space between them. “I wrote you-- no, not that letter. I never sent it. My therapist said it would help to find closure, even if you can’t forgive me. To say everything that I should have said, before.”

“You,” Tony said disbelievingly, “have a therapist.”

“I do,” Ty said. “I was… you don’t believe me, I know. I was heartbroken when you left. I had trouble. Everything seemed very dark, once you were gone. Like you’d taken all my happiness with you.” Ty shrugged, self-deprecating. “You saw how well I handled it. Not very, I daresay.”

“Not even a little bit. ‘Rue the day,’ Ty, who the hell even says that?” Against his will, Tony was almost amused at the memory.

“How’s your friend?” Ty asked, suddenly. “The one with the mean right hook?” He didn’t even seem angry, as if they were talking about some drunken shenanigans when they were just out of school.

“Nat? She’s great,” Tony said. “We have a standing date once a month for breakfast, because no one else appreciates the genius that is raw bar and mimosas for breakfast.”

Ty laughed, not the cynical, sly thing that Tony remembered, but that sweet, genuinely happy sound. The one that Tony sometimes wondered what had happened to; the one that had charmed him so easily. “I’m glad to hear it,” Ty said. He squeezed Tony’s hand a little, like they had some old in-joke. “You should be happy. I always wanted that. Didn’t… I didn’t do it right. But it’s good. I’m happy for you.”

Tony stared at Ty as they spun, trying to figure out what Ty’s angle was. What he was after. “I hope you’re right,” he said finally. “That you’ve changed, that you really know what you did to me and why it sucked. I hope your therapist is helping and not just stroking your ego. I hope whoever you’re with in the future can benefit from that. But the part of my life that had you in it is done now, Ty. I can only hope you understand that.” He dropped Ty’s hand and turned to make his way back to Bucky’s side, his thoughts reeling.

“Tony,” Ty pleaded, catching up, but not touching. “just wait a minute. Can you? I still… I have some things of yours. Kept them for you. They're all boxed up. I meant to ship them, but… you’re in the city. Why not just come get them?”

“What things?” Tony asked, the words dragged out unwilling.

“Some clothes,” Ty said. “Your books. A whole engineering kit. I think it was your Uncle Greg’s, you told me once. Pictures. That stupid leather jacket that belonged to your friend, what was his name? Ronald? No, no, I remember. Rhodes.”

Tony had never expected to see any of his old things again. He’d made that choice when he left, and didn’t look back. “Why didn’t you just toss all that stuff?”

“Thought about it,” Ty admitted. “At first I kept it, in case you came back. And then I thought about throwing it out, junking it, or burning it. You know, all Carrie Underwood, crazy ex-girlfriend style.” He actually laughed at himself, a little dark and bitter. He shrugged. “I don’t know, really. I guess. I destroyed your life. Our life. It seemed a little, I don’t know. Anticlimactic to destroy your things. And then, they’d been there for a while. A comfort for me, sometimes. A reminder, at others. But I don’t think I’ll have closure, until they’re gone. It would be the best kind of closure if you came to get them, and… we could have some sort of peace.”   

“Ty, whatever you want from me, I’m--”

“I know what we had, that’s over, that’s gone. I accept that. Let me… just let me do this for you, okay, Tony?”

It was so weird to contemplate that, for once, Ty might actually not want anything from him. It was surreal. Unreal. There had to be something... “I’ll bring Bucky with me,” Tony said, warning. Bucky wouldn’t let Ty get away with anything.

Ty grimaced, just a bit, the barest flicker of his lip curled, then, “Yes, you should do that.” He glanced over Tony’s shoulder in the direction where Tony’d last seen Bucky. “It’s a lot to carry. I… I’m still at the old place, you remember the address, I’m sure?”

“Yeah, of course.” Tony hesitated, wanting to say something and not sure what it was, then pulled away, angling toward Bucky. Halfway there, he glanced back toward the dance floor, but Ty had melted into the crowd. Phil was standing just off the side of the floor, having what looked like an understated, terse conversation with a man carrying a clipboard. Where was Maria?

Tony scanned the dance floor, but she wasn’t there. She hadn’t gone back to their table. She wasn’t chatting with any of the other matrons who lined the walls. Tony spotted the Phillips’ by the bar, but she wasn’t there, either. Where the hell--

There. On the far side of the room, chatting with Obie, which Tony had gone out of his way to prevent, damn it. Even as Tony spotted them, Obie took a step closer to her, and she shuffled back, away from him. She was going to run out of space to run, soon, or be forced into one of the smaller conference rooms that lined the main ballroom.

Son of a bitch. Tony dodged a waiter and made a beeline toward his mother.

“Excuse me, ahem hem, excuse me, Mr. Stark?” That was a voice he didn’t recognize at all. He turned to see a man dressed in a black suit that was decidedly off-the-rack, not even properly tailored. “Excuse me, Mr. Stark? If you have a moment, please?” The man adjusted something near his ear; an opaque curled wire ran down behind the man’s ear and disappeared into his shirt collar. Security, then.

Tony groaned inwardly, but these were not guys you wanted to piss off. “Yes, what’s the problem?” He glanced toward his mother and Obie. Damn it, they were almost into the side room already.

“We have an issue with the guest list, if you could come clear it up with the boss? Man says he’s here on your invite, but he’s not on the list?” The security guy was short, but broad, probably capable of picking Steve up and showing him the door, if he wanted to, which was saying a lot. Like a very, very compact linebacker.

“What, who?” He looked up and saw Phil still arguing, politely, with the other security guard. “That’s Phil, I vouch for him. Now, I need to--”

“From your mouth to God’s ears,” the security guy said. “Three minutes, promise, and that fussy little man will leave everyone alone.” He nudged Tony’s elbow, drawing him toward the little tete-a-tete.

Tony couldn’t help looking back over his shoulder, just in time to see the door to the conference room smoothly close. Fuck, he had to take care of this fast. He pulled on his old memories and drew himself upright. “What’s all the disturbance?” he demanded as they approached Phil and -- Tony checked the man’s nametag -- Officer Smith.

“No disturbance, sir,” Smith said. “Just need you to sign off on Mr. Coulson here. I’m sorry, I really do need to have a signature in the log, since he’s not on the list. Security. Of all people, I’m sure you understand?” He thrust the clipboard in Tony’s direction.

Phil gave Tony a tired little smile. “I did have an invitation, back in March, but I guess it got rescinded with all the moving about, and I was never notified.” He gave the security guards his best aw shucks face, but his eyes were a little narrower than normal, squinting across the room where Maria had vanished with Obie. “I’d hate to miss the next dance.”

Tony took the clipboard and scrawled a signature across it. He all but shoved it back at Smith. “There. All good? Great. Let’s get you that dance, Phil.”

As soon as they turned away, all traces of good humor dropped off of Phil’s face. “Stane’s up to something,” he said. “That man--”

“I know,” Tony said, striding toward the closed door, Phil matching every step. “He’s a slimy scumbucket who can’t--

Maria strode out of the room, her chin tilted up with icy indignation. She was speaking as she walked, not looking back, directing her words to Obie, who was practically jogging to catch up to her. As it happened, sometimes, in large parties, there was a temporary lull that brought her words clearly to every corner of the room, and then no one spoke out of sheer astonishment.

“For the last time, Obadiah Stane,” Maria was saying, “I have been neither lonely nor desperate during my widowhood. I am certainly neither interested nor equipped to take on the emotional labor of looking after you in our autumn years. I suggest you search elsewhere for comfort and security. As for me, should I wish to wed again, I daresay it would not be to anyone such as yourself, but to someone kind and generous and good-hearted, who has the courtesy to believe me the first time I say something. If you don’t mind, Mr. Stane, I believe I shall return to him now.”

With all the grace and air of a queen, Maria Stark strode across the ballroom in a straight line, not looking around, as everyone got out of her way and cleared a path… directly to Phil.

“Mr. Coulson,” she said. “We were interrupted, were we not?”

The expression on Phil’s face was soft, almost reverent, and it might have been sweet if it hadn’t suddenly occurred to Tony that Maria was all but declaring herself engaged. Which meant Phil was going to be his stepfather. “You’re right, Mare, as always,” Phil said, taking her hand. “Would you like to dance with me?”

“Yes, I would.”

Loftily ignoring the stares from around the room, Phil led Maria back onto the dance floor. Tony could only just watch. He could do worse for a stepfather, he supposed. Almost anything would be better than Obie.

“Hey,” Bucky said, coming up behind him. “We should… uh… give them some support?” He held out a hand to Tony. “Dance with me, husband?”

Tony shook himself out of his daze to take Bucky’s hand. “With pleasure. I don’t know if this band can put together something as complicated as a tango, though.”

“Probably not,” Bucky said. “I don’t know where all of SI’s money’s flittered off to, but Stane hasn’t been investing it in the entertainment, at least. The booze is watered down and the catering is shameful. I want a burger and a decent glass of whiskey after this… charming little soiree is done with. How you holdin’ up, babe?”

“I need some non-watered booze as soon as possible,” Tony admitted. “Ty almost apologized to me. He wants me to come get my stuff.”

“Z’at so?” Bucky’s hands tightened on Tony’s hip and shoulder for a moment, then, “not without me, you ain’t.”

“That’s more or less what I told him,” Tony said, smiling up at his husband. “He said he had a therapist. I’m still not sure whether to believe it. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to pick up my stuff, anyway. Maybe.”

The party had picked back up again, dancers moving to the music. Obie had taken up position at the bar, where he could watch the room with a gimlet gaze, a tumbler of bourbon in one hand. There was a small, but noticeable, circle of empty space around him. Either no one was willing to inflict what was sure to be a horrible mood on themselves, or the tide had turned and Obie was on the receiving end of some societal disapproval.

“We can do that, if you want,” Bucky said, cautiously. “Rather just send Happy t’ get it, if you gotta have your stuff. But I’ll try not t’ be actively rude, leastways until your bags are in th’ car. ”

“Well, don’t strain yourself or anything,” Tony said.

 

Chapter Text

Tony debated with himself for a good hour before he dragged out the box of stuff he’d recovered from Ty’s apartment. It was good to be back in Sandbridge, and he didn’t want to waste that feeling with a bunch of tired old memories from that time of his life.

It had been weird, how settled Ty seemed with Zeke Stane. Not that either of them had blossomed into anything other than they’d ever been -- shallow, money-grubbing, self-centered adult brats, the both of them. They deserved each other, and it had taken Tony a while to decide that he was okay with them being... happy together, for some definition of happy.

Ty didn’t deserve to be happy, after everything he’d put Tony through, but he seemed to have grown up some over the last few years. He hadn’t harassed or pestered Tony at all when they’d turned up to pick up the box, and while that might have been due to the slightly murderous glint in Bucky’s eyes, maybe -- who knows? -- maybe he’d finally figured out how to be a person.

Whatever. Happy or not, Tony was never going to have to deal with him again.

The only question that remained was, what was in this box? Tony hadn’t opened it -- he’d made Happy take them directly to a shipping store and arranged for it to precede them home. Which meant it had been x-rayed and probably didn’t contain any actual bombs or drugs or anything else Ty might have once thought would make for a funny prank. That didn’t mean there wouldn’t be some emotional bombs in there.

He was going to have to open it eventually, though. And now, with Bucky going over the books from their absence, Billie at school, and Livvy down for a nap, was the closest Tony was going to get to privacy for it.

He dragged the box over by the couch and flopped down with a sigh. Sliced through the packing tape with his housekey, because he still hadn’t put his multitool back into his pocket. Took a deep breath, and flipped open the flaps.

Nothing burst out at him. He reached into the box and pulled out the thing on top: an old engineering textbook. Tony set it aside -- he’d already repeated that class at the local school. Next was a toolkit that had once belonged to Tony’s Uncle Greg. That was good to have back, actually; it was a nice kit.

An old MIT sweatshirt that Tony had stolen from Rhodey. Tony grinned as he set that aside: he knew what he was giving Rhodey for a birthday present this year. A pair of skinny jeans that Tony was positive no longer fit, because Bucky liked to feed people.

The shift of color just behind him was unusual; Bobbi and Clint had been sticking close to home recently, and while they still brought Lucky around (on the reg, as Billie would have phrased it, stupid modern kid slang that sounded weird to Tony’s ears) there shouldn’t have been anything in the house that was that… large. Bucky always slammed the door like he was planning to barricade it against zombies, and Billie wasn’t much better.

Tony turned to see-- legs, clad in a purple paisley pair of leggings.

He lurched off the couch, swinging up the toolkit defensively. “WHAT THE--” And then he had to stop swinging before he actually hit Nat. “Natalia,” he gasped, staggering and holding his chest as if he could physically calm his pounding heart. “Don’t do that. We’ve talked about this.”

Nat raised one finger, head cocked to one side. She took a few breaths. “I did not want to wake up Liv, if she was napping.”

“Well, giving me a heart attack is not exactly conducive to her sleeping,” Tony groaned. He slumped back onto the couch. “What’s up? Bucky run into a snag in the books?” Bucky liked to keep his hand in with the accounting, but difficult knots usually fell Tony’s way, these days.

“A snag, yes, but not the books,” Nat said. She had tucked under her arm a copy of the local newspaper, another newspaper. A third newspaper. A local magazine, and one that wasn’t so local. Despite having the internet at her fingertips in her back pocket, Nat was subscribed to dozens of periodicals and magazines. Tony suspected that at one point she’d been ambushed by one of those door-to-door salespeople and ended up with ten years of subscriptions. “He will see, soon enough, but I wanted you to know, before…”

She handed over the Virginian Pilot.

Local Accounting Company fires Man after complaints of Sexual Harassment: Lawsuit Pending

A locally based accounting firm released employee Daniel Young in 2016 after complaints that one of the firm’s clients was making lewd remarks and inappropriately touching. No official reports were given to Human Resources, and Young was released from employment on the third unsubstantiated complaint that a client, Alexander Pierce, had been touching his groin, buttocks, and at one time, pushed the man against a wall.

Representatives for Zumetti’s claimed that protecting their client’s reputation took precedence over unsubstantiated rumors of sexual harassment. The case has recently been brought back to light (Young v. Zumetti’s) with new evidence that Young’s complaints may have held more weight than previously thought… (see page 15)

Tony skimmed it, let his eye snag on Pierce’s name, and then looked up at Nat and the stack of paper under her arm. “What else?”

Wired magazine.

Senator’s website DOS attack.

Virginia State senator Alexander G. Pierce’s Facebook, Twitter feed, and personal campaign sites came under attack from Anonymous after rumors of sexual harassment, underage sexual relationships, bribery, blackmail, and extortion have come to light in recent days. Users attempting to access these sites were treated to stills from a recently uncovered surveillance video...

“Wow,” Tony breathed. “He’s really getting hammered, huh?”

She tapped her phone and handed it to him. Twitter: Trends: #HeToo.

“He is not the only name coming up here, but… this seems to have started something,” Nat said. “Others are coming forward, speaking out. It is political, at the moment, and getting pushback from some groups. But the movement, it is growing.”

Tony bared his teeth in something like a smile. “Good. He deserves to get dragged through the mud.”

“There are others,” she said. “I think Bucky will not be happy. He will see it wrong. That he is to blame, that Pierce was not stopped sooner. You will need to be prepared.” She sighed. “It is good, that someone came forward. To start the avalanche, one only needs a few pebbles at the right moment. But Bucky… you know how he is.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “I’ll try to head him off before he starts picking up the guilt. This is a good thing.”

“It is,” Nat agreed. “Someone had to stop him. He was certainly not going to stop himself.” She sighed, folding her legs until she was seated on the floor, then leaned against Tony’s knee. “We didn’t know. We thought he was only treating Bucky with a heavy hand, and Bucky… we could not convince him, for many years, that it was not the way he should allow himself to be treated. The senator’s other young men that he brought here, they seemed happy. Bucky is not the only one touching that guilt.”

Tony brushed his hand over her hair. “Don’t beat yourself up, either,” he said. “It was consensual for a long time, if... unhealthy. And when it happened, Bucky didn’t want anyone to know.” Tony huffed. “I had to fight him pretty hard this time, for that matter.”

Nat nodded. “It will all be well,” she said, in that fatalistic manner of hers. “And even if it is not, we will all get through it, together. That is what is most important, anyway. Family. Do you wish to keep these? They are not for the wall, of course, but Bucky likes to keep scraps. Or, sometimes, I think he feels compelled to keep them.”

“I think... it would be good to have some good news to close out that file with, yes.”

***

“You left your phone inside,” Billie reported. She had Livvy tucked up on one hip, leaning pretty far to the left in order to compensate for the toddler’s weight. “It rang a bunch. Liv an’ I’s gonna go down and play in the sandbox for a bit.”

The sandbox wasn’t, really, anything except a bit of beach that had crept up toward Dockside’s ocean facing side and that Bucky and Clint had bordered off with some old split-rail fence logs they’d scrounged. One of Billie’s projects was often -- for no reason that Tony could see was entertaining at all, but she seemed determined to do it anyway -- to drag buckets of sand from the beach and pour it into the sandbox, like some third circle of Hades task.

Tony checked that both children were more or less appropriately dressed, and nodded. “Okay. Watch Livvy and don’t let her out of the ‘box, ‘kay? I’ll be down in a little bit to help keep an eye on things.”

“Okay. There’s an extra bucket, inside th’ door,” Billie informed him, as if Tony was going to help her empty the beach one shovelful at a time. “Let’s go, Liv. Look at shells?”

“Shew! Shew!” Liv agreed. “Bi!” She waved one fat little fist in Tony’s direction. “Bi, Yiv!”

“Bye-bye, Livvy!” Tony said in dutiful response to the prompting. “Be good!” He watched as Billie staggered under her sister’s weight out into the bright sunlight, then went in search of his phone.

You have 1 missed call from Phil Coulson.

Tony’s heart skipped a beat. If anything had gone wrong... He thumbed the phone on and hit the redial.

“This is Coulson,” the man said, the hollow, bottom-of-a-barrel sound vanishing in an instant. “Let me get you off speaker-phone. Sorry, Mr. Stark, I-- er…”

“We’re back to Mr. Stark again?” Tony said, dismayed. “Are you going to quit again?”

Phil laughed, then covered his laugh with a cough, which got him actually coughing and Tony had to wait, impatiently, as Phil got himself back under control. “No, well, yes, well,” Phil sounded desperately nervous. “Actually, sir, I thought I’d speak with you about a more permanent position.”

“What?” He hadn’t exactly hired Phil on as a temp.

“I was,” Phil stammered, then cleared his throat and finally, “wondering if we might get your blessing for… if you’d be okay with… I’d like to marry your mother, if that’s okay. I mean, not that it needs to be okay with you, but Mare, you know she likes a little bit of tradition. And, there’s some… legal issues, and everything. I mean, I already asked her, and she…” Phil coughed again. “If you’d do us the honor of giving your blessing, Mr. Stark?”

Tony sat down with a thump, torn between relief that nothing awful was happening and shock over the news -- though why he should be shocked, a calm, detached part of his brain said, he didn’t know. Things had certainly been trending in that direction.

“I want you to know,” he said slowly, “how hard it is for me to repress the urge to fuck with you right now. What legal issues, dare I ask? Don’t tell me Dad’s still half-alive like a brain in a jar or something.”

“Something that daredevil lawyer of yours cooked up,” Phil told him, seemingly calmer now that they were talking about non-personal matters. “Something to keep Stane’s hand out of the cookie jar. I mean, her trust, and all the Carbonell fortune, that still goes straight to her, no matter what, so it’s not like I’ll have to support your mother on my paycheck from you, which really, that would be weird, don’t you think? I think it would be weird, at least.”

“Phil, focus. What did Matt cook up?”

“You’re the guardian of the Stark Industries fortune, and all the stocks and company shares therein. Mare can’t get married without your legal consent without losing all of it. Which would revert, in toto, to you.”

“Well, except for the shares that I sold to Obie, those are-- Wait, what?” Tony felt like someone had hit him in the back of the head with a very soft baseball bat.

“Seventeen percent,” Phil told him. “Stane was given six percent, at Howard’s death. And your ten percent took him to sixteen. The rest of the high end board members hold the rest that’s not in the public trading. Enough to control the board, most of the time. Especially since Mare doesn’t really want to steer the company. Those shares would come to you, on her death, or in the case of her re-marriage. We don’t think Stane knows about that.”

“H-uh.” Tony hadn’t known about that. “That was a clever move on Matt’s part. And if I, uh, agree to this marriage, then the seventeen percent stays in Mom’s name, and she can continue to live the life to which she is accustomed, I take it.”

“That’s the ideal, yes,” Phil said. “The thought was, if Stane actually wanted the marriage, for reasons of… I don’t know. He’s a lizard. Can he be in love? Nevermind. You know what I mean, that you’d want your step-dad to have controlling interest. Which, I don’t. We don’t. You know. Care about that. Your mother’s will, as it stands, divides that controlling interest between the girls, if something happens to her. You get bypassed entirely, which your mother thought was what you wanted. Obviously, we should talk about all this, legally.”

“I absolutely do not want interest in the company. I’m not even sure I want the girls to have it, but I guess they should make that decision themselves, hopefully many years from now. Uh. Yes, obviously I’m going to need to call Matt and have a long talk with him. Again. But you’re not Obie, and I’m pretty sure you’re not marrying her for her money. And you’re scarier than anyone else I know, so I can’t even give you a proper shovel talk.”

“Don’t worry on that account,” Phil said. “Gillean already called, like not five minutes after we returned last night, to blister my ear. I think I was threatened with the entire United States Air Force, honestly.”

“Oh, well, that would do it,” Tony said. “Um, so... yes?” It seemed oddly anticlimactic, like he’d skipped a step. Well, Matt would probably make him sign a document giving his approval, if there was money riding on it. That would make things seem very official indeed. “When’s the wedding?”

“Well, Mare wants something small,” Phil said. “She’s already done the big production, she said. We were thinking, once the weather warmed up, we might have a beach wedding. Down with you and James. Your mom likes Virginia Beach, and it was my home for a few years. Something simple, uncomplicated. Like your wedding was.”

Tony almost choked. His and Bucky’s wedding hadn’t been the spectacle that his mom’s set usually planned, but it had been a lot less simple and a lot more complicated than either he or Bucky had really wanted. They’d have been happy with the same City Hall and luncheon with friends that Steve and Nat had done. “You’re going to have a beach wedding? Here?”

Phil made a noise of agreement. “That’s the idea. Mare was looking into some catalogs and saw some adorable little flower girl and junior bridesmaids dresses. Oh, and she wants you to give her away.” This was sounding like a lot more planning than just popped the question last night, but Tony was almost terrified to ask for fear that Phil might actually tell him.

“Uh. Yeah, of course, whatever she wants,” he said, because he was not dumb enough to try to tell his mother no when it had anything to do with her wedding. “I’ll talk to Bucky, too -- the beach right here in front of Dockside is pretty decent, if you want to do that and then have a little reception here.”

“That sounds lovely,” Phil said. “Thank you for offering.” And Tony had just swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. Yep. Thanks, Mom.

 

Chapter Text

The smell of new truck still hadn’t faded from the cab -- when the transmission went out of his ancient vehicle, Tony had thrown up his hands and bought Bucky a new Ram for his birthday, sleek and black and chromed -- and the music was vibrating the windows as he drove into Virginia Beach to pick Billie up from soccer practice. The spring training had just started for the tryout teams, and Bille was playing center.

Picking her up from soccer was their time -- Bucky would crank the music and they’d both sing. Billie was getting pretty good at chair dancing, and they’d talked about her taking band as her elective class next year.

Except when he pulled into the municipal parking lot that bordered the park, there was a cluster of parents, coaches and kids, all huddled together with purpose. Bucky got out of his truck, and almost recoiled when a group of adults turned on him. He was starting to relax again, but every time someone looked at him, really looked, there was a brief moment of panicked, do they know? What do they know?

Billie squirmed out of the mass of people and ran toward him at top speed. “Uncle Bucky!” she yelled. “It’s not fair! Tell ‘em it’s not fair!” She had a fat lip, rapidly darkening to purple, and a few more bruises on her arms than she usually picked up from even her rough-and-tumble style of soccer. She flung herself against him, wrapping her arms around his waist.

She was getting way too big to be picked up, so Bucky went down on one knee to wrap his arms around her. “What happened, honey?” He pushed her hair out of her face; she usually kept it braided and pinned tight to her head for practice, but it was a disaster, half out of its style and there was a bloody patch on her scalp where someone had obviously yanked some of it out. “Good god, Billie.” He pulled his fingers back when she flinched away from the touch.

“He started it!” she said insistently, twisting to point at a boy probably half again Billie’s size. “It was all his fault, I don’t see why I should get suspended!”

Bucky glanced over at the boy; he looked quite a bit worse for the wear. He was bleeding from his nose and kept wiping it away with his arm, which gave him the look of a horror movie extra, as well as displaying a round red mark on his other forearm that Bucky had the sinking feeling would probably match his niece’s mouth. “You bit him? Didn’t we talk about that?” He resisted the urge to see if she’d knocked a tooth out while she was at it.

Her face scrunched up stubbornly. “It was a special case,” she said, belligerent. “He was callin’ names at you an’ Dad!”

“Jesus,” Bucky muttered. He hugged her again, then brushed off the front of her tunic. It didn’t do much good, she was all over mud and blood. “Gimme the what happened, before we go be civilized and sort it out?”

“He was callin’ you nasty stuff,” Billie said, “an’ I told him to shut up, but he wouldn’t! An’ I told Coach Talbot, but he just said to ignore it an’ that’s stupid, that never works. He was bein’ all nasty an’ gross, an’ I told him if he didn’t stop I’d hit him and he said I never would ‘cause I’m a sissy. So I did.” She made a face at him. “An’ Coach says I gotta sit out three games when he started it!

“I know,” Bucky said. “That was some pretty bad sportsmanship on his part, too--” There was a shifting in the little crowd and-- “Jesus, Billie, did Bryan get into it, too?” Bryan Bain was one of Billie’s best friends, despite Tony having a very unpleasant relationship with his mother, Sunset. Sunset was going to have kittens, puppies, and cows. And then she was probably going to insist they all go out to dinner as a family in some show of solidarity or something.

And she’d probably end up sitting next to Tony, because that’s what she always did.

“Maybe,” Billie hedged. “An’ Kendra, too.”

“Great. Inciting to riot. This keeps gettin’ better and better,” Bucky said. “Come on.”

They ended up having to wait for the rest of the parents to arrive -- none of the injuries being severe enough for more than basic first aid, thank Christ -- and the instigating kid, Lester something or other, made enough snide faces and crude gestures from behind his coach that Bucky actually had to yell at Billie to make her go sit down on the bleachers and keep still, which he really didn’t want to do, but her tackling the kid again wasn’t going to help anything. Sunset arrived and immediately went into conniptions about the state of Bryan’s face. And the fact that he’d knocked a tooth loose, but it was still a baby tooth and was going to come out anyway, and mom, get off me! Bryan escaped his mother’s clutches to sit with Billie on the bench, while Bucky did his best to calm Sunset down before, finally, Lester’s mother arrived.

It wasn’t fair, how normal she looked. Just a woman, her off-brown hair tied into a ponytail, wearing Target’s store-brand clothing and Ugg boots. Like anyone, just like anyone that Bucky might have run into at the grocery store, or served at Dockside.

She didn’t seem particularly interested in her kid’s bruises, either. Made a tired, I do this every day sort of apology. Didn’t meet Bucky’s gaze, and the way her lip curled as she listened to the incident’s explanation, Bucky didn’t have to wonder where the kid had gotten it from.

The coach’s decision wasn’t challenged. Billie was suspended from three games -- and she’d have to come sit on the bench for those games, support her teammates, for them to count -- and Lester was suspended for one. Coach gave a pass to the other kids who got involved on both sides with a lecture about letting one’s emotions get the better of them.

Bucky wanted to argue, but aside from Sunset, he didn’t think anyone else was on his side, and he didn’t particularly want to draw more attention to Billie or her family situation, now that the kids were getting old enough to understand what two dads really meant.

“Come on,” Bucky said, flat and tired, when they finally left. “Let’s get home.”

“But it’s not fair!” Billie complained. She stomped to the truck and climbed up into the cab, scowling the whole time. She slammed the door shut and defiantly put her feet up on the dashboard, crossing her arms across her chest as she pouted.

“Get your feet off my dash,” Bucky snapped. “It’s a new truck, for Christsake. And buckle your belt.” He started the truck, not even enjoying the way the machine purred around him. He punched the radio off and Taylor Swift’s voice died with a startled squawk. “An’ that’s as fair as it’s goddamn gettin’. He started it, he takes a game off. You escalated, you get three. And you got your friends involved and they got hurt, too. I ain’t pleased about none of this, young lady.”

She did as he said with as little grace as she could possibly muster, angry and close to tears, from the way she kept blinking hard. “But he deserved it. I warned him!” She folded her arms again and twisted away from Bucky, as much as the seatbelt would allow. “I thought you’d understand.”

“Do I like what he had to say? No. An’ that’s his choice to say it,” Bucky said, gritting his teeth, because he did understand. It was something he’d been dealing with his whole life. “It was your choice to take it up to the next level. There are some good reasons for fightin’. This wasn’t one of ‘em.” Christ, he could not cope with this; he’d gone through most of his life, from second grade on, trying to keep Steve out of fights when people would say shit about Bucky. (or Steve’s dad, or Sam, or… or… or… There was, really, no keeping Steve out of fights.)

“But you got in fights!” Billie protested. “You got ‘rested for fightin’, even!”

Bucky choked, jerked at the wheel, then swore, wrenched it the other way as he started to drift into the middle lane. “Fuck.” There was a medley of horns and at least one person that Bucky saw flipping them off.

He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles screamed a protest. “How th’ hell do you know about that? Who told you about that?” If it was one of his staff, Bucky would swear before God, that person was getting a pink slip. For once in his life, he was just gonna stick it in and break it the fuck off.

“No one told me,” Billie said in her best adults-are-stupid voice. “It was in th’ paper clippings in that folder in the junk room.” She sounded almost admiring, that Bucky had done something newsworthy enough for the paper.

Panic swamped him. The papers hadn’t had anything good to say about Bucky, at all. The list of charges he’d been arrested for were damning as hell. What the fuck did she think of him, knowing… “Christ, Billie,” he managed. What was he supposed to do, or say, now? “That’s why I’m tryin’ to tell you not to fight. I went to prison for that.” And that wasn’t the whole truth at all; he didn’t regret getting involved, not even after what happened at Azzano. What Rumlow had been doing was so much worse, deserved so much more than just a broken arm and some lacerations.

Billie scrunched down in her seat. “I did like you said. I told him to shut up, and I told the coach. If I hadn’t punched him, he wouldn’t even of got the one game off! He’d’a just gotten away with it!”

“That doesn’t matter!” Bucky exploded. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand, he understood far too well. He was the one who’d gone to jail. Not Rumlow. Not Kurt. “It does not matter if he gets away with it. What matters is you! You getting suspended from the games is the very least bad this coulda gone. Because you know what, Billie? The rest of the goddamn world doesn’t give a shit about you, or me, or your Dad. You need t’ stop gettin’ in fights before someone tries to take you away from us, do you understand that?”

Silence. When Bucky glanced over at her, she was staring at him, her eyes huge and watery. Another couple of seconds passed, and she hitched a breath, and then another, and then she was pushed up against the door, arms folded around herself, sobbing.

God, he hated that. Hated that she was crying, hated knowing that he’d probably made her cry. Hated what she probably thought about him, and that there was no way to make it better.

“Look, when we get home, you go on up to your room for a bit, okay? I wanna talk to your dad, an’... I’ll come up later and we’ll talk this out. Now you know what happened, I best explain it. And we’ll talk about fighting, when we’re both a little less upset, okay?”

That was as much of a peace offering as he could make, because she really did need to stop trying to solve problems with her fists. Right now, she had the benefit of being utterly fearless and a little experience. But the boys were going to start outweighing her soon, and despite what Hollywood wanted to tell people, in a fight between a skilled little guy and an unskilled big guy, the big guy was still likely to win. Physics was against her. If she kept this up, someone was going to hurt her, and Bucky’d rather lose an an arm than let anything happen to his kid.

She didn’t stop crying until they were nearly home, and then she still didn’t talk to him, just wiped her nose on her sleeve and trudged up the stairs into the house like she was going to meet her doom. Or maybe English homework.

Tony came out of the kitchen door to greet them, and watched her go with an eyebrow slowly climbing toward his hairline. “Everything okay?”

Bucky shook his head. “Not even a little. I’ll start with th’ least bad thing and work backward.” He slanted a gaze at Tony, because despite everything, his expression was going to be priceless. “We hafta have a consolatory dinner with the Bains this weekend.” Not Mr. Bain. God only knew what that man did, but Bucky’d never met him. If Sunset didn’t have a handful of kids and more money than she seemed to know how to spend, Bucky might have thought he was imaginary.

“It gets worse?” Tony came nearer, close enough to touch. “Okay, next item, I’m braced.”

“The reason we’re having dinner with Sunset and her broodlings is because Bryan jumped in to defend Billie, when one of her new teammates elbowed her in the mouth and pulled out a chunk of her hair. Which they did because Billie bit him, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him a half dozen times at least. After punching him in the eye.” Bucky took a deep breath. “Which she did because he was harrassin’ her about having a couple of faggots for dads, and gettin’ a little more detailed about our sex life than any eleven year old kid should have workin’ knowledge of.”

Tony huffed out a huge sigh and reached out for Bucky’s hand. “How delightful. From that performance going up the stairs, I’m guessing you already read her the riot act.”

“I ain’t even done,” he admitted. He could feel his neck heating. “She… uh… mighta brought up my own past. Turns out she’s been pokin’ around in th’ storage room and found those clippings.” Why the fuck had he kept those goddamn things, anyway? “She knows I been arrested.”

“Well... shit.” Tony squeezed Bucky’s hand. “Let me guess -- she thought you would champion her cause.”

“It sure as fuck ain’t like I don’t understand,” Bucky said. “But… Tony, she’s gotta be better’n me.” He was suddenly fucking grateful that Ma had died before any of that had happened, that he hadn’t had to face her, disappointed in him, maybe believing what everyone said about him. “An’ you know, she said it wasn’t fair, that he just got away with it. God, I know how that feels, I do.”

“Life’s not fair,” Tony agreed. “You think Steve is grooming her for a future as a vigilante, or is that one hundred percent Barnes blood talking?” He smiled, just a little. “It’s going to be okay, honey.”

“Hell, half of Steve’s stories about him an’ me growin’ up end up with his sorry, skinny ass in a Dumpster somewhere, or bleedin’ in an alley,” Bucky said. “What th’ hell, Tony? How’m I supposed to handle this?”

Tony cocked his head to study him. “Handle which?” he asked, a little carefully. “There’s a lot of moving parts, here. What are you worried about?”

Bucky coughed uncomfortably. “Mostly me, if I gotta be honest,” he said. “She might not have put it together jus’ yet, but… Well, you know what th’ paper said ain’t true, but if she doesn’t think I’m some sort of sex offender yet, she will, soon enough.”

“So we need to explain that the papers didn’t get the whole story, that you were helping someone who was being hurt,” Tony said. “That makes sense, yeah? Defending yourself, or someone else, that’s one of the acceptable reasons to fight. We can even use it to underscore the lesson for her. Though we might need to take her back to the therapist for anger management issues if this keeps up.”

“She’s gonna end up feelin’ justified about startin’ a damn little league riot at soccer practice,” Bucky muttered. “Kendra got in on it, too. I expect we’ll hear from Sarah sometime this evening. Lucky Sam was pickin’ her up, or--”

His phone buzzed. “Yep. Like clockwork. Fuuuuck.” He hesitated, finger over the button, and then-- “Hi, Sarah,” he said, trying to keep his voice light.

“Mr. Barnes,” Sarah started in that voice that generally meant Bucky was in for a lecture. Sarah tended to treat everyone like they were ten, despite the fact that she was, in fact, younger than he was by a year or two. “I wanted to inform you--”

Bucky put his hand over the mic. “Oh, she’s pissed,” he told Tony in an undertone. “I’m Mr. Barnes again.”

“Stand your ground,” Tony said, obviously amused. “Kendra jumped into that fray of her own accord.”

Sarah was still talking, but-- “Wait, what?”

“Kendra and Ororo decided, and she’s called like half the rest of the team. It’s official.”

Bucky blinked. “What’s official, I think I missed something.”

“Kendra and Ororo are sitting out, in protest. And Kitty Pryde’s mom called us, to say Kitty was in. And Bobbie Drake, too. Can’t imagine Bryan will do any less. And with Billie benched for three games, that’s five. We just need to talk one more kid into it, and that’ll be three forfeits. They can’t field a team with less than seven players.”

Bucky’s eyes were stinging. “Did you--”

“Heaven forbid, Bucky Barnes, I would not! Kendra came up with it on her very own. She likens it to Rosa Parks, not giving up her seat,” Sarah said. “I’m so proud I could jus’ bust.”

“Jesus, that’s… well, that’s something else.” Bucky took a deep breath, pushing the heel of his hand against his cheek. “Right. Right. Tell Kendra thank you. I appreciate it. An’ Billie will appreciate it. Holy shit.”

“Yeah. I’m gonna get on th’ line with Lizzie Braddock’s mom. She can usually be counted on to go with the majority, but I wanted to let you know. Was Billie hurt?”

“Just her pride, mostly, an’ she’s got a fat lip and some missing hair.”

“Poor kid. If you all are gettin’ geared for ice cream tonight, let us know, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Bucky was stunned. Absolutely fucking stunned. He could have been knocked over with a paperclip at that point. “Yeah, we’ll do that. Thanks.”

He hung up and then just stood there, staring at his phone.

“Did that just happen?”

Tony blinked. “Did what just happen? What did she say?”

Bucky swallowed, and Jesus, he was going to cry, because it was so damn rare that anyone ever fucking stood up for him. “Th’ team,” he said, and his voice broke. “Those little kids… Tony…” And then he was crying, because he was so damn touched. “They’re sitting out. In protest. Half the damn team.”

“Oh my god,” Tony said, and he was tearing up. “God, kids can be so fantastic sometimes. Billie is going to flip.”

“Right,” Bucky said. “Right. She’s gonna hate me, you know that, right? Because she was right, and… and I wasn’t. I was so damn worried about her gettin’ in trouble that… Steve could never be talked out of it either. He’d plant himself on that hill and die for it. I… Jesus, I don’t deserve her.”

“Neither of us deserve our kids, but ‘hate’ seems a little strong,” Tony said. “She’ll probably be mad for a little bit. Tell her you were wrong, that you were upset and not thinking right. I expect she’ll forgive you. She’s pretty good like that.”

“A’ight,” Bucky said, squaring himself. “I got some work t’ do in the office, an’ then we’ll go up and have us some talk. An’... Tony, I’m gonna need you, t’ get through this. I don’t… I don’t like talkin’ about it. Not Rumlow, an’ not what happened. You got my back, right?” Not that he didn’t think Tony didn’t; Tony’d been right there, at his side, the whole time, through some of the worst shit imaginable. But sometimes Bucky still needed to hear it, to get his strength from it, and to keep going.

“Whatever you need,” Tony promised. He leaned in and kissed Bucky’s cheek. “Whenever you need it, I’m there.”

 

Chapter Text

Billie was still subdued, her lip sticking out like the world’s most epic pout, when Bucky came upstairs a few hours later. She’d made herself dinner, as evidenced by a bowl left on the coffee table that Muffin was industriously removing every last bit of cheese sauce from. “Hey, kiddo,” he said. “You ready to talk?”

Tony brushed past him to check on Olivia, who was napping. Billie watched him until he went into Livvy’s room, as if hoping for a reprieve, but then slumped. She pulled her feet up onto the couch and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I guess.”

Tony came back out of Livvy's room and threw Bucky the thumb’s up that meant she was still napping. He sat down next to Billie on the couch. “We’re going to all talk,” he told her. “Some of it is good news, which we’ll save for last. And some of it is very serious and grown-up stuff, so we need to know that you’re ready to listen. Can you do that, buttercup?”

Billie looked from Tony to Bucky and back again. “Okay.”

“So, uh, you got into my old clippings,” Bucky started, “an’ really, I don’t even know why I keep that stuff. I shoulda tossed it a long time ago. Can you tell me what you know, so I know where t’ start? Did you talk to anyone about this?”

Billie shook her head. “Just you. It, uh, it said you got in a fight with some guy -- I don’t ‘member his name; I think it started with an R? And you hurt him a lot, so you had to go to jail. An’ he said you didn’t give him a chance to fight back? But that didn’t sound right, you wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“Okay, okay,” Bucky said. He took a few deep breaths. “This is hard for me to talk about, honey. Do you understand that? Like, sometimes you get all choked up when you talk about your mom, an’ Atlanta? This is hard for me. Things are hard, sometimes, for grownups, too.” He reached out for Tony’s hand, because he needed it. There was too much wrapped up in what happened with Rumlow and how it had bled all over his life to manage it without at least that much.

Tony took Bucky’s hand and squeezed it tight, a lifeline. “Even worse than that,” Tony said, “because when you think about your mom and Atlanta, there’s good memories mixed up with the bad ones. These are all bad memories for Uncle Bucky, so we’re going to let him go as slow as he needs to, or--” He redirected his focus to Bucky. “--I can take over, if you need me to. I know enough for this purpose.”

Billie was wide-eyed and nodding; it was rare they involved her in anything serious. Bucky tried not to burden her with stuff that she didn’t need to know about. Sometimes they’d had to go over some serious things, but a lot of times, it got brushed off for “later” or “when you’re older.” Bucky remembered being a kid and being frustrated with it, too.

“So, uh…” Bucky licked his lip, tongue dry. “An’ this is part of why it’s important to you, and what happened at soccer. I got in trouble, a lot, when I was young. Did some stupid stuff. Boosted a car once, with your uncle Steve an’ accidentally ran it into one of those concrete posts in front of a convenience store. Other stuff. Not important what, but what I’m gettin’ at here is that by the time I got in real trouble, serious trouble, I’d already burned out everyone’s patience.

“What you did today, I ain’t sayin’ you didn’t have reason for it. But if it keeps on goin’ the way it is, people might not sympathize with you later, when you really need ‘em to. Like… like remember the boy and the wolf story?”

Billie nodded. “That’s a baby story, it’s easy.”

“Okay, in this particular circumstance, I was the boy, you get that? I’d been arrested twice before this happened. One for the car, and the other for… other stuff,” he said, waving it off. He’d gotten a little too close to actual criminal behavior, delivering “packages” around town and making fake IDs. “And… I started datin’ a guy. Rumlow. His name was Brock Rumlow, and he was a bad, bad man. I don’t know if I knew that at the time. He was good-lookin’ and excitin’ to be around. He came to work for my dad, rebuildin’ the outdoor seating area.”

He had to stop for a minute; remembering how Brock had smiled at him, like Bucky was his partner in crime. Like everything was an open secret. They danced together, sometimes, at the clubs down in Norfolk, and Bucky’d never been wanted by anyone, before, who was okay with being seen with him. It’d been heady. Intoxicating. There’d been a lot of booze involved, too, so it was sometimes hard to tell what was real and what was the drink wearing off the edges.

“And we used to hang out with this guy, this kid, really. Kurt was, I dunno, fifteen, maybe? We shouldn’t have been letting him tag along with us. But he was cute, and he thought Brock and I were awesome, so it was hard to push him away. Like kicking a puppy or something.”

Tony’s thumb was stroking back and forth along Bucky’s hand, soothing, his grip firm. Billie nodded, understanding -- at least as much as she could -- so far. For all he knew, she was picturing Kurt as an actual puppy now.

“Not all bad guys are bad all the time,” Tony added. “Brock wasn’t bad where Bucky could see it, not at first. That’s why he didn’t know.”

Bucky bit his lip. It was just like Tony to excuse Bucky’s behavior, but it always felt, maybe, like he should have known. That he shouldn’t have been so shocked. Or he should have been more careful. But he’d been young, and optimistic and convinced that everything was going to work out just because it should.

“Honey, do… do you know what rape means?” He didn’t want to ask that question, he didn’t want to know that a ten year old could know about those sorts of things, but if the story was going to make sense, if she was going to understand what he meant when he said the right reasons, then she needed to understand this. A little, at least.

She frowned. “That’s, like, bad touch, where you run away and tell someone you trust?”

“Sometimes, yeah,” Bucky said. “This… went a hell of a lot further than bad touch. And Kurt couldn’t run away.” Bucky stuttered to a halt. Of all the things he remembered about that night, it was always the smell that came back to him. The sharp, sticky smell of warm trash, the sweet breath of Brock’s cologne. Tang of sweat and sour stench of fear. The booze that Kurt had spilled on his shirt.

And the way Bucky had just stood there, for a long moment, just stood there like a fucking idiot, watching. He didn’t know how long he stood there until Brock had turned, gave him that partners-in-crime grin and said, “You wanna turn, Buck? Think I got him loosened up for ya.”

And Kurt had shuddered, looked away. Had stopped struggling against Rumlow’s hold.

“I… I…” Bucky didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to explain it without horrifying Billie. “I made him stop.”

Billie was frowning, still, concentrating. “Howcome that’s not in the paper story?” she asked. “Kurt wasn’t even in there.”

“I yanked Brock off him, shoved him into a wall,” Bucky said. “Punched him. Broke his arm. Heard sirens. Brock couldn’t run, he was already drunk. An’ I didn’t think to. But Kurt did. He bolted. He… uh. He was scared and hurt, and he was underage. He wasn’t s’posed to be at a bar, wasn’t s’posed to be drinking. And… well, Kurt was gay. Like me, and his parents didn’t know about it. They… they were like the guy you hit today. Thought that sort of thing about people who were gay. So, he ran. Police never saw him.”

“But the newspaper is supposed to tell the truth,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell? You wouldn’ta been in trouble then. You’da been a hero!”

Bucky drew in a quivering breath. “Remember when I said the world doesn’t care? And I’d already been in trouble. From what th’ cops saw, there was me, in total control. And Rumlow drunk, with a broken arm and his pants around his ankles. It didn’t look good for me, kiddo.” He couldn’t do this, he could not do this. “And Kurt. Remember his parents? They hate people like us. Kurt was just a kid. They woulda thrown him out, or taken him to one of those conversion camps. He lied. Got someone to give him an alibi -- that’s a cop word, it means someone verified his story, that he was somewhere else. That person lied, thinking he was keeping Kurt out of trouble for drinking underage. And so I took the blame. For everything.”

She wanted to protest that it wasn’t fair; Bucky could practically see the words bubbling up in her throat. But they didn’t come out. Instead, she asked, “What happened to him?”

“I don’t… I don’t know,” Bucky said. “I ain’t seen him since that night. There was some fuss, after the judge handed down a sentence, when Peter tried to confess to lying about what happened that night, I thought he might have come forward then, but he didn’t. I didn’t make much effort to see him. I didn’t. If people saw us together, after what people thought I… with what happened with Rumlow. I didn’t know if people would think I was tryin’ to hurt Kurt.”

“Huh.” Billie was chewing on her lip, thinking it over.

“This is not something you can talk to your friends about,” Tony cautioned. “It happened a long time ago, and people have mostly forgotten it, or decided that Bucky learned his lesson and stopped misbehaving. And like he said, it hurts to think about it. So we don’t want anyone else stirring it up. But we wanted you to know, since you saw the newspaper stories, that they didn’t have all the right information, and that Bucky got in that fight because he was defending someone else, someone who couldn’t defend themselves. Okay?”

Billie nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“An’ do you understand why I get so upset about this? What happened to me wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And Rumlow got away with it. Sounds familiar, right? I… what happened to me was terrible, and the kind of trouble that I got in went way beyond being suspended from a couple of games. I almost lost your dad because of it, because someone told him, and-- well, he made a mistake and he didn’t know he could trust me. So… I want you to think really hard, next time, before you start throwing punches. Is this worth it? Can you understand that, Billie?”  

She sighed a little and fixed Bucky with one of those too-sharp looks she sometimes got. “If it’s not fair but it’s worth it anyway, is that okay?” she challenged. “‘Cause he deserved to get punched for sayin’ all that stuff. And Coach Talbot wouldn’t even tell him to knock it off, and that’s not okay.”

Deep breath, push all the negativity out. His therapist had been working with him on the breathing techniques, and while Bucky still thought it was stupid, at least when he was doing it, he was thinking about how stupid the breathing was, and not about whatever it was that was pissing him off.

Bucky made a seesaw with one hand. “It wasn’t okay, what he was saying. And it wasn’t okay that your coach was ignoring it. But just because someone’s talking trash, that doesn’t give you the right to hit them. What I did, I did because someone was hurting Kurt. He was in physical and emotional danger. There are also better ways to deal with people talking ugly, kiddo. Which is where the good news comes in.”

That stubborn Barnes chin. However much like her biological father Billie looked, with that black hair and green eyes, Bucky would recognize the pugnacious set of that jaw anywhere. “What good news?” she asked suspiciously.

“Your team’s decided t’ sit the games out with you,” Bucky told her. “As a protest, that Lester should have gotten suspended as well, and that Coach Talbot should have done something about it before it devolved to a fight. If it goes like Kendra’s plannin’ it, your team’ll lose the first three games, and they’ll all sit on th’ bench with you.”

Billie’s eyes opened so wide her eyeballs were in danger of dropping out. “Everyone?”

“Most of them,” Tony confirmed. “Enough that there won’t be enough players left to play.”

“Kendra, Ororo, Kitty, Bobby, Bryan, maybe Elizabeth. And you. And Lester, who has to sit out the first game. Which is how you fix these kind of problems, honey. You stand together with your team. Lester’ll learn that if he wants to be on the team with you, that he’ll need to change his attitude,” Bucky said. Bit his lip for a moment, then added, “it’s possible that your coach will kick you all off the team. But, if he does that, you didn’t really want to play under him anyway, right?”

Billie hesitated at that; she loved her soccer team. “We’d find a new team, right?”

“Obviously,” Tony said, ruffling her hair.

She brushed him off, too distracted by the show of team support to really be annoyed by it. “That’s so cool! Can I call Kendra?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” Bucky told her. It seemed to take forever for him to stand up, like he’d suddenly gained a hundred pounds, or become a hundred years old. “Yeah, you do that.”

He found himself in the doorway, looking in at Livvy still sleeping in her crib, in what used to be Bucky’s old room. His body on autopilot, he was halfway to throwing himself on a bed that wasn’t there anymore. He hitched in a breath.

Okay, that was… not so bad.

He put Livvy’s bear back in her crib -- she had a tendency to throw him out when she was resisting sleeping -- and headed back to the master bedroom. Let himself drop face first onto the bed.

The bed dipped -- Tony was there. Gentle fingers slipped through his hair, stroked down his back. “You going to be okay, honey?”

“Hate thinkin’ about that night,” Bucky confessed. He hesitated, then told Tony what he’d held back, and how Kurt had just… quit. Thinking that Bucky was going to join in. “I don’t even know if Kurt ran because of me.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Tony stretched out beside Bucky to wrap around him in a full-body hug. “That’s a terrible thing to have to wonder. I’d hope he’d know, what with the broken arm and all, that you were fighting in his defense. But short of finding him and asking...” He shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

Bucky curled up against Tony’s chest, pushing his face into the warm, safe spot, right at the crook of Tony’s neck. Inhaling Tony’s smell, feeling the line of muscle playing out under Tony’s skin. He hitched in a few breaths, waiting until that tightness in his throat eased. “I’m okay. I’m okay. You think… you think that did her any good?”

“God, I can only hope,” Tony sighed. He petted Bucky’s arm and back, long, slow strokes. “Pretty sure if that didn’t do the trick, the only other option is to put her on a harness and leash.”

When he was certain that he wasn’t going to cry -- and he knew Tony would never judge him for that, not crying for Kurt, or even for the boy that Bucky had been, but at the same time, it was damn hard for him to just let go of that control -- he sat up, shoved his hair away from his face. “Yeah, okay. ‘Nuff wallowin’. Gonna go finish up that proposal letter for Gordon Foods, while I’m doin’ things that leave a bad taste in my mouth. An’ maybe after dinner, we’ll go celebrate a bit of I Will not Be Moved with the Caspers?”

“That sounds great,” Tony said. “Hey, Bucky? You know it’s all right, if you’re not okay, sometimes. Yeah?”

“I know.” His therapist had said the same shit to him sometimes, and Bucky continued to agree with it, because what the hell else was he supposed to do? He’d tried not being okay for a while; it had just made things worse. So, he gave all the not-okay stuff a shove back into its corner. “But I am. I’m okay.”

“I believe you.” Tony sat up and kissed him. “I love you.”

Bucky gave Tony an exaggerated pout. “If you loved me, you’d volunteer to do this damn proposal with Gordon Foods, but nooooo, you’re making me carry on a correspondence with Angie Martenelli, just because her mom and my ma were classmates.” Not, mind, that he was expecting Tony to take that particular bit of work off his plate. Angie would be upset, and then there’d be all sorts of hell to pay.

“Nope!” Tony said, cheerful about it. “I do the tech, you do the business shit, that is our rock-solid partnership deal. Also, it’s my turn to watch Livvy tonight.”

“Oh, it’s bath night, nevermind, I have the better deal.” Livvy was like some sort of flood insurance disaster waiting to happen with the bathtub, honestly. It was impressive. And funny. Whenever Bucky wasn’t the one getting drenched.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, that one is getting swimming lessons the instant she hits the minimum age limit. I’ve never seen anyone get that excited about water.”

 

Chapter Text

Bucky swore, scratched at his chin and swore again. He’d spent three days without sleeping very well and trying to keep that under his hat. Of course Tony’d called him out about it on the third day, but that hardly mattered. And then Dr. Michaelsson had finally rolled his eyes at Bucky during their monthly appointments.

“Just find the guy, if it matters that much to you,” he had suggested. “Look him up on Facebook or something. My third grade crush did that, emailed me out of the blue. It was both flattering and weird, but at least she’s no longer convinced that I’m the one who got away.”

He had paused, waiting for Bucky to ask, like he had the story all planned out, so Bucky had gone ahead and given it to him. “Why?”

“Because I married her three years ago, last fall,” Michaelsson had said.

Bucky had laughed, like he was supposed to. “You think it’s that easy?”

“Why do you always think everything is so hard?” Michaelsson reminded Bucky. Bucky had a tendency to build shit up in his head so much that he was often shocked, when he finally got around to doing it (like remodeling his parent’s bedroom, for instance) how easy it was. And how much better he felt, when it was done. Like everything he pushed aside and ignored was a pile, one shake away from falling on him.

Over the last few years, Bucky had started digging at that pile, picking it up and getting rid of stuff he didn’t need anymore. Settling things that needed to be settled.

Except.

“Fuck,” Bucky hissed. He scraped at his jaw again, feeling the rasp of stubble on his skin. He’d skipped shaving for a few days now, and his hair was dark, grew fast, so he already had almost a finger’s width of beard, deep brown, except where it was a little gray at the side of his chin. Maybe he’d just grow it out, see how it went. “It’s like the guy doesn’t exist anymore.”

Kurt didn’t have a Facebook account. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Or any sort of social media where Bucky could find him. If he was using tumblr or something, he was doing it under one of those blog-names and Bucky couldn’t even guess what topics would be of interest to Kurt after so long. He had to be, what, twenty-five or so, now.

Nat poked her head into the office. “What are you cursing at? That is a new computer, it cannot be broken yet.”

“Nah, it's me that's busted,” Bucky said. “Tryin’ to find someone who probably don't wanna be found. S’far as I can tell, he ain't on Facebook. But sure there's gotta be some other way aside from Googling things. People used to do stuff the hard way. Problem is, I don't even know what the hard way is.”

“Who else knew the person you are trying to find? Maybe they know something.”

Rumlow was, for very obvious reasons, right out. Even if Bucky had known where that fucker was.

“How did Borja find you?” Bucky asked. Nat’s ridiculous bear of a brother had shown up a few years back after tracking her down.

“He contacted the school, and charmed them into giving him the last address on file. And my old landlord, she did not know where I went, but she knew I worked here.” To Bucky’s look of disbelief, she added, “Borja can be very charming, when he wishes to be. What did you know of your lost... person?”

“Well, his folks are right out,” Bucky said. “But they live down on the south end of the culvert, past the S-bend. So he went to high school here, I think. He’s younger, so we weren’t in school together. He and… Oh.”

Oh! That was a idea. Peter and Kurt had been close. Close enough that Peter had lied for him. If anyone knew where to start… “Peter might know. Thanks.” Bucky got to his feet, dropped a kiss on Nat’s waiting cheek. “You’re a lifesaver.”

Bucky practically danced out into the kitchen, getting a startled look from Steve, who was mixing up a ridiculous amount of -- Bucky stopped, dipped his finger in and got a whack with the wooden spoon, but escaped with his taste intact -- oooh, crab dip. Yum. “Where is my other, lovely waitress,” he asked, sticking his head out the batwings. “Wanda, darling, moon of my night?”

There were not words for the look Wanda threw at him. Or maybe there were, but they were dark, terrible words that would summon up demons and nightmares. “What can you possibly want, Bucky?”

“Many things, but only one in particular from you,” Bucky said, grinning until Wanda’s dark lord expression shifted and she tipped her head to one side, curiously. “Where might I find your brother, this time of day? Or, you know, soonish.”

Wanda pulled her phone out of her apron pocket, checked it. “He should still be at Winesette’s, until nine tonight.” She squinted at him. “Why?”

God, Winesette’s was across the Back Bay, so while he could almost literally throw a baseball across the bay, driving around was going to take at least an hour. “Just want to talk to him, an’ I think it’d go better face-to-face, rather than texting him.”

“Oh, well,” she said, waving a hand, “it can wait.”

Bucky scowled. “Possibly,” he said. “It certainly ain’t urgent. But--”

“But Bucky has obtained himself a bee in his bonnet,” Nat said, pushing past them with her tray. “Go. Chase down your wild goose. We will be fine without you hovering.” She was gone again, talking in her rich -- and completely fake -- Georgia peach accent for a middle-aged couple and their very bored-looking adult child who was pretending very hard not to be texting or Snapchatting or something under the table.

“I don’t hover,” Bucky protested.

There was that look from Wanda again, and Bucky decided to make himself scarce before his waitresses ganged up on him or something.

The drive over was mostly calming, even if the traffic would have made most people curse and snarl. Not in a particular hurry, he wandered around Winesette’s, poked at some of the succulents in their ornamental pots, admired some of the stonemason work, until he finally tracked down Peter, who was loading terra cotta pots onto a flat.

For twins, Peter and Wanda didn’t look much alike. Even for siblings, they were remarkably different, but that might have been partially due to Peter’s excessive fondness for hair dye. His roots were showing, which would have given him a color close to Wanda’s maybe, but the rest of his hair was practically white, with silver and ice blue underneath. He was also quite a bit taller than Wanda, but then, Bucky had children (well, Billie, at least) who were taller than Wanda.

“Hey, Peter,” Bucky said, moving into Peter’s line of sight. “You gotta few minutes, maybe?”

Peter looked at Bucky, and his eyebrows went up in surprise, but he nodded. “Let me finish loading these, and I’ll take my break.” He worked fast, not a single movement wasted. It was fascinating to watch. He finished the task and then jerked his head for Bucky to follow him. He led Bucky through the pots, down a row of particularly fragrant bags of mulch, and out a back door onto a patio covered with -- what else? -- plants. There was a picnic table to one side that had seen better days. Peter eschewed the long bench and climbed up to sit on the table. “What’s up?”

“You want me t’ skip directly to it, or give you the scenic route to th’ mess in my head?”

Peter considered him. “Something tells me I’m going to need the scenic route.”

“Semi-short version, then,” Bucky said. He took a seat on the bench. His fingers twitched toward his breast pocket; even more than a year after quitting, he still wanted a cigarette. He vaguely wondered if he’d ever stop wanting them. “Billie was goin’ through some of my old things, and damned if I remember why I did it, but I clipped all the Pilot’s articles ‘bout what happened back in ‘12. She… had questions. Which stirred up all that… sludge, really. Mostly I just tried not t’ think about it. But now it’s all, you know. Active in my head. An’ I’m trying to find some closure, this time, rather than just stuffin’ it back down the rabbit hole.” He pulled his leg up and leaned his chin on his knee. “What can you tell me about where I might find Kurt Wagner, these days?”

Peter straightened and rolled his shoulders, shoved his fingers through his hair. “I wondered when you would ask me that,” he confessed. “I knew it would happen eventually.” He leaned his arms on his knees, hunching over. “He felt terrible, you know. When he heard you’d been sentenced. I guess he’d talked himself into believing they’d let you off with a fine or something. It was a shock, when he got the news.”

“I spent a lot of time tryin’ to convince myself it didn’t matter,” Bucky said. He wanted a beer. Or a goddamn cigarette. He took a toothpick out of his pocket instead and viciously chewed it. “An’ you know, trying to see him while he was still in school? Bad plan. With what ever’one thought happened between Rumlow an’ me? I didn’t want to make trouble for Kurt by bein’ that sexual predator tryin’ to spend a minute alone with him. You know? Bad enough everyone thought that’s what I was. Didn’t need to act like it.”

Peter nodded. “You did the right thing. Don’t know if he would’ve seen you, anyway. Bad as he felt, he... tried to not be gay, for a while, there. His way of punishing himself, maybe. Anyway, it would’ve been bad, all around.”

Bucky chewed the toothpick, wrapped his tongue around it and moved it to the other side of his mouth. “Was he… how the hell did you get involved in everything in the first place, I never-- sorry, I know. I don’t blame you, I just. I don’t have all the pieces and it eats at me.”

Peter shrugged, eyes fixed on a small table covered with ailing plants that had obviously been “rescued” to this break area. “I was a senior when he was a freshman, and we were both on the track team. He was good, really good, and the coach asked me to give him some tips, maybe some extra training now and then. We got to be friends, kind of. We worked pretty hard -- college scholarship was going to be his only chance out, probably, and sports was something his parents actually approved of. Sublimating sexual urges or some bullshit like that, probably.”

Heh, yeah, Kurt had been fast. Fucking greased lightning. They’d raced a few times, joking around. Bucky was faster than Steve. Slower than Kurt. By a long shot. “You were better, I heard,” Bucky said. “Good job, for your coach, working you together, though.”

“No one’s beaten my standing record yet,” Peter said, not without some pride. “But he was second, even as a freshman. Practically teleported from one end of the track to the other. I liked him, he was like a kid brother. We kept in touch, a little, after I graduated. I went to all the track meets, still, ‘cause I had so many friends on the team. And I kept training him, some, when I had time.

“So one night, he showed up on our doorstep, frantic and scared. And he told me he’d been drinking on a fake ID, and some cops had come in and one of them recognized him, and he’d bolted. You remember what his folks were like. They’d probably have beat him senseless if they’d known he was drinking. He thought he could deny it -- say it must have been someone who looked like him -- if someone would vouch for him. So I said I’d do it if he promised to throw out his fake ID.” Peter pulled a long face. “Obviously, that wasn’t what actually happened, but I didn’t find that out until months later. After it was too late for you.”

“Not like the cops didn’t raid the bars, from time to time. Especially the ones that we tended to be at… you know, us gays with our agendas, we’re gonna take over the world with karaoke and fluffy drinks and little umbrellas.” Bucky’s laugh was a little bitter. “I guess… he wasn’t okay. Not really.”

“I found him down on the beach, maybe a week after your trial. He was hysterical, couldn’t stop crying. He told me what’d really happened. I got mad at him, I admit, but I couldn’t... I couldn’t work out what was worse -- prison, or those fucking conversion camps. His dad had threatened a camp at least once before, just for being a little effeminate -- runner’s build, you know? Those places are suicide factories. But Jesus, you in prison, on public record, and it’s not exactly like you were on vacation for two months.” Peter ran his hand through his hair and squeezed the back of his neck. “Kinda flipped out over not knowing who to support, if I should’a pushed harder for the cops to listen to me, or kept my trap shut in the first place... You know about that. I was still kind of a mess when you got home. S’why Wanda had to go work for you in the first place, ‘cause I couldn’t hold down a job, then. This place pays pretty decent, but not enough for one job to feed the both of us.”

Bucky wanted to scream, or throw something, or maybe just puke. God, so many people had been so fucked up over it. “I don’t… you know I don’t regret it,” he said. “I mean, I’d rather Rumlow had paid. For what he did. But if it had to be me, or Kurt? I was good with that. I don’t regret the choice I made. And I don’t blame you, neither, for your part in it. You didn’t know. Nobody knew, I guess, how it was all gonna shake out, in th’ end.”

“Yeah...” Peter shifted, scratched at his ribs, twisted his long fingers together. “Anyway, I... don’t think I’ve seen him since then, really. He stopped coming around. I heard about him trying to go straight from a couple of others on the track team -- reading between the lines, you know? He got a girlfriend and all. But then he dropped off the team, and I lost touch. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

Bucky gave a one-shouldered shrug. “You were a lot of help, actually, Peter. Even if I can’t find him, just knowing a little more. I’m trying to make peace with it. Not entirely sure he needs me poking into his life if he’s found any peace with it, either. Still... you know anyone else, who might know him, or who mighta seen him, lemme know?”

Peter nodded. “Will do. You might know better than me where to look, anyway. If he’s still in the area, where would a closeted gay guy go to blow off steam?”

Bucky snorted. “I was probably out before I was more than walkin’ and talkin’. Everyone seemed to know about it, leastways. Don’t ever know what I did t’ tip people off. But I was out, to the town, by th’ time I was ten. Out to myself at fourteen. But I know a few places to cruise. Pick up a fella or two.” He gave Peter a bit of side-eye. “If he was looking for nothing more than sex. Oh, that’ll be fun. I haven’t been down that side of town in a while.”

Bucky had stopped screwing around after prison. He’d come home and just… not felt the need. Sure, he’d missed sex, but found himself just not trusting anyone enough to let himself be that vulnerable again. Not until Tony had showed up and turned his world upside down. “Thanks, Peter. You’ve been helpful.”

“No problem,” Peter said. He held out a hand for Bucky to shake. “If you find him, tell him I wouldn’t mind if he wanted to drop by. For old time’s sake.”

 

Chapter Text

“He just doesn’t exist,” Bucky waved both his arms around, frustrated. He’d cruised around and gotten nowhere. He’d sweet talked Billie’s second grade teacher -- Pepper, who hung out with them now, sometimes, for game nights -- into doing a little illegal poking into school records to see if the high school had kept tabs on him. Nothing.

“I swear,” he told Tony over the phone after another night of unsuccessful searching the bars and dives and back alleys (and seeing entirely too many people’s sex lives by accident) “I might just go to his parents after all. Anyway, just wanted to let you know, I’m on my way home. I should be there, twenty minutes, tops.”

“Looking forward to it,” Tony said over a highly indignant-sounding squawk from Livvy. “This one woke up on me, but I should have her back in bed by the time you’re home. I do appreciate your clubbing clothes.”

“Yeah, so do some other people ‘round these parts,” Bucky said, grinning. Not that he hadn’t gotten his fair share of shade from the baby-gays, too, but there were still some people who appreciated a man with a little gray in his beard. Not that he was going to do anything more than smile about it, but it was nice to know he was still getting checked out. “See you soon.”

He hadn’t quite tucked his phone back in his pocket when he took an early drunk to the shoulder, knocking the device out of his hand where it skittered away and under a table. He blinked after it, looked up to make a sarcastic remark to his accidental assailant--

“Jesus Christ!”

“Naw, just me.” Brock fucking Rumlow put a hand out on Bucky’s shoulder, all amiable charm and drunk grin. “Lemme buy you a beer, make it--”

Bucky twisted, knocking Brock’s hand off his arm. “No, thank you.”

“You… you look familiar. Do I know-- did we fuck? Yeah, I never forget a blowjob mouth, and you got one hell of a mouth.”

“You’re really that drunk that it’s my mouth you remember?” Bucky was incredulous. How was Brock not knowing who he was? Why was Bucky even having this conversation at all? When the hell had Brock even gotten back to Virginia Beach? He was a transient worker, up and down the East Coast, doing jobs. Bucky would have thought anyone with an ounce of prudence would have skipped the area as a working environment, after what had happened.

Then again, Brock had never been prudent.

“No, I definitely know you,” Brock said. “You know how it goes, right? So many cities, I probably tole you before, I like to wander. But you… yeah, I know you, because I know just how you like to be kissed, and you take it on your knees, with my arm around your throat, I remember that.” His eyes widened a little, and then. “Right. My pal, my buddy. My Bucky.”

“Step off, Brock, I don’t want to do this again,” Bucky said. He was shaking with sudden rage.

“Aw, soldier, you holdin’ a grudge, honey? What’s done is done. We’re square. You broke my arm, I sent you to jail. Even Steven. How th’ hell is your old pal, Stevie, anyway? You ever tap that ass? Either of them, because I remember that little red-headed commie of his had some sweet tits. Nah, you never did seem man enough for that.” Brock gave Bucky a shove, probably meant to be almost playful, because he hadn’t stopped grinning the whole time, like Brock and Bucky were friends, old friends, meeting again after a long while. Except that Brock was drunk.

And he pushed harder than he meant to. Bucky staggered back a few steps, hit the bar with his lower back.

Grabbed someone’s drink over a started and offended “hey!” and threw it in Brock’s face.

“Fuck you, dude,” Bucky said. He reached for his wallet, grabbed a couple of twenties out of it and handed it to the person whose beverage he stole. “Thank you.”

He shouldered past Brock on his way out the door.

He’d wanted closure. Running into Brock freaking Rumlow was not what he’d had in mind. He spared a brief thought to his poor phone, kicked under a table somewhere and probably sticky with spilled booze and other, less pleasant things that ended up on the floor in bars. He’d call from home tomorrow, see if it turned up in lost and found. Or just buy a new one. Hell it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford it. And if it spared him crawling on the floor in the same room where Brock Rumlow was, Bucky would kiss it goodbye without a regret.

He powered down the street; the parking garage where he’d left his truck was a couple blocks away. A few people had thought they knew the guy Bucky was looking for, but no one seemed to have the right name. Maybe Kurt was still hiding in the closet. Giving out fake names for a five minute blowjob in the men’s room.

He checked behind him when he turned down the side road toward the parking garage elevator. There were a few people on the streets, in little clusters of two or three, or more. A whole group of tipsy girls from one of the local colleges, giggling and clinging to each other in their ridiculous heels. No one on their own, wet and angry and looking to fight. Okay, just being paranoid. He huffed out a breath.  

Thumbed the elevator, stepped in. The doors closed behind him and he punched the second floor.

He’d get in his truck, drive home, and tell Tony about his horrible shock. Tony would be sympathetic, and maybe, maybe Bucky could put this ghost to rest. He wasn’t going to find Kurt, and all he was doing was digging up bones.

The elevator door opened and Brock punched him in the face.

Bucky went down in a heap.

“This is gonna hurt,” Brock informed him cheerfully. “I been waiting ten years for a little bit of payback. There’s no mercy in payback, there’s no prisoners. There’s just order, and order comes from pain. You ready for yours?” There was a flash of metal in Brock’s hand and Bucky rolled, trying to get out of the way.

When Brock punched him in the kidney, his fist weighed down by a steel tube in his hand, Bucky screamed, pain searing up through his spine and turning his bones to water.

He turned, kicked out and caught Brock in the chest. The elevator door closed on his thigh, bounced open.

Brock threw the cylinder. Bucky had time enough to see several sparkles of light reflect off it -- like  a polaroid flash -- before it struck him in the temple.

Another dull flare of heat, and…

The elevator doors bounced off his leg again. He was laying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. The light dome was filthy, full of dead insects. His head hurt. God, dear Christ, everything hurt, and he couldn’t remember why.

“Doesn’t matter--” someone was saying. “And I will mace your ass, motherfucker. Don’t even try it.” A familiar voice. Somehow.

Bucky decided to listen to that voice. It didn’t matter.

He closed his eyes.

***

Everything hurt, dully and constantly. From behind him, he heard a steady, low beeping, and the air smelled of alcohol -- the disinfectant, not the drink. Hospital. Okay, then.

There were other sounds -- voices, the rumble of passing carts, the occasional tak of hard-soled shoes. They were muted and muffled. Distant. He was in a room. He tried to turn his head, but even the slightest movement made the pain flare so sharply that it made his gorge rise. He opened his eyes for an instant, but the flare of light left him whimpering.

Okay. Not moving or opening his eyes, then. Maybe he could go back to sleep. Sleep sounded good.

He was hovering right on the edge of it, caught in that half-dreaming state, when the door opened.

“--still unconscious,” a voice said, very quiet, naggingly familiar, “and they said it was better to wait for him to wake up on his own, so don’t disturb him.”

“I won’t. Oh, god.” That was Tony. There was a soft creak next to the bed, and a hand, Tony’s hand, touched his. Warmth filled him. Everything would be okay, now. He could relax and let Tony handle things. Bucky let himself drop a little deeper into his drowse.

“Oh, god, honey,” Tony whispered. “What happened to you?”

“Brock Rumlow,” said the familiar voice. The name made Bucky feel queasy again. “He was in the club, and they exchanged words -- I don’t know what, I wasn’t close enough. But Brock followed him when he left, and he didn’t look like they were going to meet out back for a handjob, you know?”

“So you followed them, too,” Tony guessed. “Why?”

“I know what Brock’s capable of. And I guess I felt responsible. Bucky was in there looking for me.”

“Ah,” Tony breathed. “So you’re Kurt Wagner.”

“I’m afraid so,” Kurt said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough.”

“Who knows how much worse it would be if you hadn’t been there?” Tony said. “But if you knew he was looking for you, why didn’t he find you?”

“First, I wasn’t sure it was Bucky -- my friends were telling me that some dark haired guy with a beard was looking for me. Coulda been anyone. My dad’s sent people looking for me, sometimes. Then, when I knew who it was… I was still deciding if I wanted Bucky to find me or not,” Kurt said. “I’m... I owe Bucky a lot, but seeing him stirs up a lot of bad memories and shit.”

“I’m pretty sure that Bucky would be the first person to tell you that you don’t owe him anything,” Tony said gently.

On his better days, Bucky might have agreed with that assessment.

It really wasn’t a better day. Bucky moved his tongue around in his mouth a little, trying to work up enough spit to say something. Complain, probably.

The amount of pain he was in was almost stupefying, like nothing wanted to work right. His mouth felt gummy and dry, like days when he’d had a bad cold and spent all night breathing with his mouth open. He couldn’t seem to find the gearshift for his brain; mouth wasn’t working. He couldn’t even seem to focus enough to breath deeper, even though his chest felt squashed, like something was sitting on him.

A spike of fear; had he gotten hurt badly enough that he was trapped? Mind aware, body not functional? No, no, he’d moved, earlier, when he first woke.

Maybe they’d doped him with something.

Start small. He struggled with the fog in his head and managed to twitch his fingers, the ones that Tony held, clasped, against a warm palm.

“Oh! Bucky? You waking up?” Tony’s hand tightened on his, just a little. “I’m right here.”

Another colossal effort on his part, and he managed to curl his hand around Tony’s. Squeezed. Pain radiated up his shoulder, a jagged spike that forced a low groan out of his mouth. And once his mouth was open, it seemed to go a little easier. “...ony?”

“Yeah, sweetheart, I’m right here. How’re you feeling?”

That got a laugh out of him that was more like just an extra hard puff of air. “Awful,” he croaked. He made a second attempt to open his eyes, and that was a mistake. Pain stabbed into his brain, hard enough that he recoiled, which pulled and yanked and burned at an assorted bunch of injuries. His shoulder was killing him. His head nearly exploded. When he grimaced, his face ached, like scabs tearing or tape or stitches or… He tried to reach for his cheek, to touch, to get some sort of understanding of how badly he was hurt, and he couldn’t move his arm any higher than his belly.

Finally, he collapsed onto the bed, trying not to move anything and letting all the pain settle again. “ow.”

Tony leaned over him, hands fluttering as he tried to find somewhere to touch that wouldn’t make Bucky hurt worse. “Shh, hey, baby, you’re going to be okay, I promise. Just. Try to lay still, and I’ll get the nurse to come and give you some more meds, okay?”

There was no way Bucky could hold Tony if he wanted to leave, but he couldn’t quite help it, plucking at Tony’s shirt. “M’okay,” he said. “Stay.” Wow, two whole words, and if that wasn’t pathetic… he coughed up another laugh. They had to have drugged him at some point, but why was he still hurting so much? Things were weird, floating in and out of focus, at one moment making him want to laugh and at the next moment, wanting to sob like a baby. “Thirsty.”

“We can fix that, hang on. Hand me that-- Yeah, thanks.” Kurt handed Tony a styrofoam cup with a bendy straw in it. “Here.” Tony put the straw against Bucky’s lip. “God, this is...” He made a frustrated noise, unable to come up with a word that properly encompassed the awfulness of the situation.

The water was cold, at least. Soothing to his mouth and throat. He took a few gulps, then had to work on remembering how to breathe. But he started to feel a little better. A very little.

He squinted his eyes into almost slits, enough to see, and it didn’t drive the spike quite so deep that time. Tony was right there, those honey and brown eyes wide with concern, the wrinkles in his forehead that always made Bucky want to push them smooth with his thumb. “Hey, you,” he said. Moved his hand again until he found Tony’s. “What… how’d I get here?”

“I brought you,” Kurt said. “After Rumlow cleared out. They already yelled at me up front for putting you in my car instead of calling an ambulance, but...” He shrugged. “Didn’t want to deal with cops.”

That much Bucky agreed with. “Cops suck.” He squinted again, trying to bring Kurt into focus. Dark hair fell over most of his face, but short and spiky in the back, dusted with glitter for the club, giving him an emo-goth vibe. Taller than Bucky remembered, and skinny as fuck, with a long, pale throat. He’d drawn on a series of eyeliner swirls and Bucky thought the tribal collar around his neck was a tattoo.

“New look for you,” Bucky said. “I like it.” Different from the clean cut, desperately earnest kid. Like a younger Ezra Miller, the kind of guy who’d have a pack of illegal clove cigarettes in his vest pocket, tucked inside a silver cigarette case.

“Not that new,” Kurt said. “But it’s been a while. You went and got yourself hitched.” Tony sniffed softly.

“... wounded by how surprised you sound,” Bucky said. “Did… are you hurt?” He didn’t know what happened after Brock had hit him in the head. Remembered laying back and staring up at the elevator’s ceiling.

Vague, very vague, memory of practically sobbing as someone helped him sit up, stagger a step or two into a battered Subaru. A cold hand that pressed on his face, and then more blackness.

“You’re asking me?” Kurt snorted. “I’m fine. You’re the one in the hospital bed.”

“I didn’t get near a good lick in,” Bucky said. Brock had taken him by surprise, and Bucky’d been down. Which was the worst place to be in a fight. He wasn’t sure that Brock was gone enough to try murder, but it didn’t seem like anything else had happened. “You… heard you? How’d you run ‘im off?”

“Came up behind him with a primed can of mace. No way was he going to get close enough to tag me before I melted his eyeballs, and he knew it.”

Smart.

Bucky opened his mouth to say something else, he wasn’t sure what, but a nurse came in, then, checking vitals and pushing Tony to one side with a professional smile. Asked Bucky how he was feeling, but was already prepping a needle and stabbed it into a shunt that he hadn’t even realized was attached to his arm. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so. If you’re still coherent, I’ll give you some more pain meds, before they take you back to xrays.” She wiggled her eyebrows at Bucky. “So, you know, you get the good drugs. Getting up’s gonna hurt, I expect.”

“Lucky me,” Bucky said. He could feel the cold cotton wrapping around his brain. As soon as she was out of the way, he was trying to twist around -- ow, neck -- to find Tony again. “Do I look even half so bad as I feel?”

“Not gonna lie, sweetcheeks, you look pretty rough,” Tony said, wincing in sympathy as he took Bucky’s hand again. “But that might just be the beard, I dunno.”

“Bastard had a fistload,” Bucky said, gingerly adjusting his jaw. “Clipped me good.” The meds pulled up further, like the tide coving pilings. Bucky let his eyes slide shut, his eyelids were so heavy, suddenly. “‘M still here, jus’ restin’ my eyes.”

“Yeah, you rest, honey. I’ll be here.” Tony’s voice followed him into sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Livvy was gleefully trying to eat the seashells Billie was piling up near Bucky’s beach chair. It wasn’t quite warm enough to go in the water yet, at least not for the girls, and Bucky was still sore enough that he didn’t want to try to fight the tide to swim, but sitting out on the beach was nice. The sun was warm, but not too hot, and the girls were having fun.

The hospital had let him go the next morning, along with a bottle of pills and instructions to get some rest. And while he and Tony didn’t fight much, Tony had absolutely refused to give Bucky any leeway on rest at all. The first day, he’d pretty much sat on Bucky to keep him in bed, and even after the end of the third, he was barred from working. Bastard had even gotten the rest of the staff involved, and when Vic had actually put a chair under the knob to Bucky’s office to keep him out, Bucky’d gotten the freaking point, okay, Tony? You happy now?

So. Beach. Because Bucky didn’t want to fight with his husband about not needing to be coddled when Tony was looking at him with those huge bambi eyes, like Bucky had almost died or something.

Livvy turned Bucky’s hand over and put a shell in it. “Ba!” she told him, gravely. Maybe she thought he needed something to do.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty shell,” Bucky agreed. “Put your hat back on.”

“Ba!”

“Your hat, Livvy, where is it?”

Billie sighed, very put upon, before fetching the battered bit of white cotton material and shaking it out. “She don’t like to wear it,” Billie reported, as if this was suddenly news.

“She’ll like having sunburn on her scalp a lot less,” Bucky said. Livvy had been born with a whole head full of thick, black hair, but when she was about six months old, most of it had fallen out and come back in thinner and paler.

Kurt came down the beach and folded himself onto the sand on the other side of Bucky’s chair. “Very domestic, all this.”

Bucky beamed at his daughters. “Looks better from this side of things,” he said. He jerked his chin at the girls. “Billie and Olivia -- we call her Livvy and she hasn’t objected yet.”

Kurt waved somewhat uncertainly at the girls. “Nice to meet you?”

“Uh-huh,” Billie responded, digging through the sand for another shell. Livvy tried to pull her hat back off by way of greeting.

Awkward introductions done, Kurt looked back at Bucky. “Tony is still freaked out?”

Bucky chuckled. “My mother-in-law saved me from a complete freak-out by saying she wanted to have a beach wedding. Something small, she says. Simple and intimate. Like ours was. Obviously I have no idea what a big-assed fancy wedding is, ‘cause we wound up with like five hundred people at Valhalla, but Tony’s havin’ a pullin’-his-hair out meltdown.” He glanced over. “He’s still a little stunned at the idea of his mom gettin’ remarried at all. Subject change: wasn’t sure you were gonna come by.” He was pretty sure his domestic issues interested Kurt not at all, although Bucky was still finding it amusing to poke his husband about his impending step-father issues.

“Neither was I,” Kurt said. “It was sort of a last-minute decision. But I’m not going to flake out on you again. The prosecutor’s got my number, I’ll see you in court.” Kurt was pale, and probably not even aware that he was shaking, but his chin was set, and his voice determined. Bucky, at least, wasn’t in trouble this time -- the whole club had watched Bucky try to walk away from it -- but if Brock was ever going to see any time for his various crimes, Kurt’s testimony was necessary.

“You know I never meant to get you messed up in more shit,” Bucky said. The tide was coming in, each few waves reaching further up the shore than the last. They were still a good ways above the high tide mark, but in half an hour or so, he’d want to keep an eye on Livvy, who was utterly fascinated by the waves, and not particularly keen on staying within arm’s reach. “That was… not the plan.”

“I know,” said Kurt. “Happened anyway. Maybe it’s just something about the combination.” He sighed. “What were you even doing, looking for me?”

Bucky tried to piece it back, that little spark that had escalated into a trash fire faster than it should have. “Lookin’ for some peace of mind, I guess. Closure, if I could have it. It’s fuckin’ overrated, an’ I’m sorry. I didn’t mean t’ dredge up this shit for you. Just… thought if I could find you, find out you’d, I dunno, gotten over it, gotten on with things. That I could let it stay in the past. That one dug up some of the old news articles, asked some questions. Got it all stirred up in my head.” He flicked his fingers in Billie’s direction. Billie was digging industriously in the sand, her I’m not listening expression plastered over her face. Maybe she wasn’t actually listening, but Bucky kinda doubted it.

“It took a while,” Kurt admitted. “But I’m okay now. Mostly. Call it closure, if you want.”

“I… I want you to know I don’t regret steppin’ in,” Bucky said. “Only that it took me so long. That I didn’t realize th’ kind of man Rumlow was. I shoulda been payin’ better mind. But what happened after, I don’t… that wasn’t your fault, an’ I don’t blame you for it. In case that was somethin’ you worried about. I don’t know. Maybe you never did.”

Kurt was quiet for a long moment, watching the waves. “For a while,” he said, “I did. For a long while. But then I thought... if it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else. Because he was -- is -- that kind of scumbag. It was inevitable, probably. And I thought, if you hated me for it anyway, you would’ve done something to get back at me. It would’ve been easy to out me. Or tip the cops off to that fake ID. Or... Something. If you wanted to. So I thought, maybe you didn’t want to. Maybe you really were just as good a person as I’d thought when I knew you.”

“I stayed away from you, you know, after,” Bucky said, taking another shell from Livvy absently, “because I didn’t want to out you. I was afraid, if I showed up, jus’ to talk, that… your parents might put it together, and I didn’t want that. You… Jesus, you were a kid, and what happened? I didn’t know if I’d make it worse, so I didn’t do anything.”

Kurt sighed. “It was worse anyway. Though you’re probably right that you showing up wouldn’t have helped. I couldn’t tell anyone, though, and I blamed myself. Thought it was... Maybe my parents were right, and it was God’s way of telling me not to be gay. I tried. I tried hard. But it didn’t work.”

“I like to think, if there’s a God, He doesn’t punish people for bein’ the way He made ‘em,” Bucky said. “God’s not a toddler tryin’ to make a mud pie.” Sometimes Bucky wondered if he believed in God at all. His Ma had, although she’d never been one for church, more than a few times a year. Dad, well, Dad had never quite brought up Bucky’s gay as sinning, more unnatural and unmanly.

“That was more or less the realization I came to,” Kurt admitted, picking at the hem of his shirt. “It took me a while. And a whole string of unsatisfied girlfriends. And moving out of my folks’ place, though they still think they own me.” He glanced up at Bucky, and went back to digging his toes in the sand. “Do owe you an apology for being there in the first place. I was a dumb kid, trying to grow up too fast, and that... shouldn’t have been on your shoulders.”

“If I had th’ sense God gave a sea urchin, I wouldn’ta let you be there in th’ first place. I encouraged it. We both did. Rumlow, because he’s an asswipe. An’ me because--” Bucky rubbed at the back of his neck, flushing “--you thought I was cool, an’ I didn’t… I ate that shit up. I wasn’t gonna, you know, do anything about it. But it felt good, so I let you hang ‘round with us. Selfish, really.”

Kurt grinned, even if he didn’t look at Bucky again. “Thought more’n that. I had the worst baby crush on you, back then. As if you didn’t already know. God, I was so obvious. What a dweeb.”

Bucky gave Kurt’s shoulder a shove, knocking him sideways a little in the sand. “More’n a dweeb. You thought a line-dancing, karaoke night was a good time. Which don’t say much about me, either, so, there’s that.” He’d known. Of course he had, Kurt hadn’t been exactly subtle. Hell, if Bucky had taken one more page out of Pierce’s book… but even then, the idea of going after a kid, and Kurt had been a kid, had made him feel a little sickened.

Kurt had been at that age where holding hands and a little bit of necking would be exciting and thrilling and send butterflies sailing. Bucky hadn’t wanted to ruin that. “I knew,” he said, at last. “But I wanted it… My first time was with a guy my age, that I cared about, and it was crazy and exciting and ridiculous. I wanted that, for you. For you to have that. And that wouldn’t have been me. So yeah.”

“Yeah,” Kurt agreed, sitting up and brushing the sand off his shirt. “For the best, really. I’m better, now. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Bucky uttered a little self-deprecating chuckle. “Have you even met me? Worrying about people is kinda my thing. But I’m glad to hear it.” He glanced at Kurt, trying to read the expression on his face, trying to reassure himself that everything was… better. Better could mean anything, he supposed. “You probably don’t know it, but… if you need anything, you can ask me, okay?”  

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Kurt promised. He glanced back over his shoulder, and climbed to his feet. “Your nursemaid is coming, so I’ll get going.” He paused then held out his hand. “Thanks, Bucky.”

“Thank you,” Bucky stressed, taking Kurt’s hand and shaking it. “Take care of yourself.”

***

Leaving the doctor’s office had Bucky a little off balance; it wasn’t all that terribly long ago that, if Bucky was injured and been told “follow up in a week or so with your regular doctor” that that particular piece of advice would have been ignored. Bucky hadn’t really had a regular doctor, and he certainly didn’t follow up. If he healed, he was fine, and if he didn’t heal, that was a job for going back to the ER or the urgent care.

So, a wellness visit was just something that the kids did -- there were a ton of vaccinations and checks and whatnot that Billie had to do in order to stay in school -- and not something that Bucky, himself, worried about most of the time.

But Tony had insisted -- especially when the lingering headache and dizzy spells kept putting Bucky in a chair.

Finally, though, the doctor had given him the all-clear.

With that in mind, he parked his truck and headed into the restaurant. Tony would probably be in the office as he’d been splitting the managerial load with Victoria. Bucky checked the time; school was still in session until three-thirty, and Billie wouldn’t be home until almost five, because her after-school sports kept her occupied and then the activity bus would bring her home.

And it was Wednesday, so Livvy was at her three-times-a-week daycare/preschool thing, mostly so she could spend time with other babies and toddlers her age. Socialization, it was a thing. And gave Bucky and Tony some spare energy for running Dockside and Tony finishing up his grad work.

Bucky paused in the door to the office to look at his husband, buried in papers and staring at the computer screen like it had personally offended him.

“Hey, baby.”

Tony looked up with a quick smile. “Hey, yourself.” He went back to scowling at the computer. “The invoices don’t match the inventory. Again. How was your checkup?”

“They never do,” Bucky said. “Back when Ma was runnin’ the place, guess and golly were good enough. The new software doesn’t like playin’ it so fast and loose. And the doctor says I’ve got a clean bill of health. Well, aside from a cholesterol thing that’s not yet worrisome, as he says, but worth keepin’ an eye on and I should cut down on the number of french fries I eat.” Ha, that wasn’t happening. “Clear to return to work and all other normal activities.”

Tony looked him up and down suspiciously, as if expecting to see the lingering bruises through Bucky’s clothes. “That seems awfully fast,” he said. “I’m not sure I trust that.”

“I ain’t fragile, you know,” Bucky said, shaking his head. He’d been out of work for two weeks and it was about to drive him flippin’ mad. There was only so much Netflix he could binge before he was just restless as hell. Bucky stepped all the way into the office and closed the door behind him. “Look, come here, it’s not that bad anymore. All healed up, just a little bruising left, an’ you can’t even see it hardly unless you’re partin’ my hair.” He brushed his fingers through his hair, head tipped to one side to show off the remains of the bruising, a faint grey-purple smudge just on the edge of his hairline. He’d been lucky, the doctor had told him, that his skull hadn’t gotten cracked, but it had caused a bit of swelling on his brain for a while. Thank god the headache had finally gone away.  

Tony followed Bucky’s fingers with his own, slower and more carefully, eyeing the remnant bruise. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. That scared the hell out of me.”

“Good as new,” Bucky said. He captured Tony’s fingers and dropped a kiss on the back of his knuckles. “Should I prove it?” He let a mischievous smile paint itself onto his mouth and gazed at Tony from under heavily lidded eyes.

Tony looked startled for a second, and then delighted. “Yes,” he said firmly. “Yes, I think you should.” He trailed his fingers down Bucky’s jaw and throat. “It’s the only way to be sure.”

Bucky leaned in for a kiss, flicking his tongue over Tony’s upper lip for just a second, a brief tease. Grinned as he felt Tony’s mouth drop open, inviting him in. Instead, he flexed his knees just a bit, gathered Tony up into his arms. Double checked the wall, just to make sure he wasn’t about to plant Tony’s back in the middle of a pair of coat hooks or something, and pinned him to the wall.

“Gotcha,” he told Tony, smug, and then, while Tony’s brain was still catching up to what Bucky had just done, descended on Tony’s mouth like he was going to war, kissing him hard and fast and furious. Bucky ran his tongue over Tony’s bottom lip, sucking it into his mouth and tugging lightly. He took a deep breath, let it out. Retreated from his assault on Tony’s willing mouth. Stared at Tony like he could never get enough of those honey brown eyes. Tony was such a beautiful man with such a beautiful mouth. “Just wanna eat you up.”

Tony curled his hands in Bucky’s shirt and tugged him closer, nuzzling at the underside of Bucky’s jaw. “I like this plan. I’m proud to be a part of this plan.” He licked at the shell of Bucky’s ear. “Going to do me on the desk?”

Oh, god. Bucky went a little weak in the knees. Jokes aside, and the occasional blow job, they’d really never defiled the office before. “You are an evil man,” he accused Tony, fondly. Eyed the desk; yes, absolutely, he could fit Tony on it, and probably not knock over the computer, if they were careful, although when had they ever been careful? “An’ only if you’re exercizin’ your secret powers of bein’ a lube ninja. ‘Cause I ain’t prepared.”

“Honey,” Tony said, with just a hint of disappointment. “I am always prepared. Check the third drawer, way in the back. File marked ‘Personal’.”

Bucky let Tony slowly slip back down until his feet were on the floor, relishing the drag of their bodies together, before he went to investigate Tony’s preparedness claim. All the way in the back, inside a damn file folder, were two ziplock baggies, each holding two condoms and packets of sample lubes. They didn’t usually bother to use condoms upstairs; but for a quickie someplace they weren’t supposed to be having sex, it’d make cleanup a lot faster.

Curious, he checked the dates; condoms lasted a while, he knew but-- huh. “What do you do, change these out once a year on the chance that I’ll decide to fuck you bent over the desk?” He gave an involuntary little shiver at the thought. There had been times, if he’d freaking known it was that easy…

“I only just put it in there a few months back,” Tony admitted, “but that’s an excellent idea. Include it with the spring change-out of the smoke alarm batteries.” He grinned and leaned against the desk with one hip. “Well?”

“God, I love you,” Bucky told him with all earnestness. “You… diabolical little menace.” He moved into Tony’s personal space again, spearing his fingers into Tony’s hair, holding the back of his neck to keep his mouth right where Bucky wanted it. Ran his free hand down Tony’s chest, thumbing at one nipple, enough to make it peak and poke at the fabric of Tony’s shirt, on his way down.

Quite frankly, the little sound that Tony made was enough that Bucky wasn’t sure he cared whether or not they knocked the computer on the floor, except someone would probably come investigate and that would put an end to their fun. Bucky swallowed the sound, catching it with his lips. He licked his way into Tony’s mouth, drawing out the kiss, teasing and light and playful until Tony was chasing him down, both of them breathing harder.

I’m a menace?” Tony demanded, trying yet again to capture Bucky’s lips, but he was laughing. He slid his hands down Bucky’s sides, slipped his fingers up under Bucky’s shirt to trace idle designs on Bucky’s skin, working slowly closer to the waistband, to the front button of Bucky’s jeans. “These starting to feel snug, honey? ‘Bout ready to get some relief?”

Bucky rocked against Tony’s hand, and when it wasn’t quite enough pressure, he grabbed Tony’s wrist, pushing Tony’s fingers against the denim. “You make me so hard, baby,” he told Tony. He thrust one more time against Tony’s palm, then, “unzip me.” Knowing what he sounded like, practically begging for it already.

“Yeah?” Tony cupped his hand around Bucky’s cock, as much as the jeans allowed, warmth but not nearly enough friction. “Want me to take this out for you? Make sure you’re hard enough to fuck me?” He popped the button and toyed with the zipper a little. “You sure you’re ready?”

Bucky tried to agree, to tell Tony he was ready, god, he was so fucking ready. And even if he wasn’t, there’d be time, little soft moans and noises as Bucky got Tony prepped, but he couldn’t even talk, so full of need and want. He settled for actions instead of words, finally kissing Tony deep and thorough, Explored his mouth, mapped it out as he’d done hundreds -- if not literally thousands -- of times, but it was always so sweet and perfect. Nice and eager, Tony went where he led. Tried to let Tony set the pace, but he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. He wasn’t that strong. Clasped Tony’s hips and yanked him in, pressing against Tony’s groin, feeling how hard Tony was behind his pants as well. The contact, even through all those layers of cloth, shot sparks along his spine and ripped an animal sound of lust from behind his teeth.

Tony’s breath caught, and he was kissing Bucky again, hard, frantic. He fumbled Bucky’s zipper open and slid his hand down inside, closing around Bucky’s cock with a groan. “God, babe, yes, want you...” He released Bucky -- Bucky whined at the loss -- and went to work on his own pants, yanking and pulling them open, shoving them down his thighs. “Come on,” he urged. He turned, spreading his legs as far as the pants would allow, and bent over the desk, showing Bucky that sweet, perfectly round ass. “Come on, I need it.”

Bucky couldn’t help it, he took two handfuls of Tony’s ass, loving the soft skin, the way the muscles flexed under his palms. Spread him and massaged Tony’s ass, brushing his thumbs along Tony’s crack to wind him up. Tony’s hands were splayed over the desk, keeping him in place, beautiful and needy and achingly delicious.

He barely remembered to peel his own jeans down before stepping into the vee of Tony’s legs, rubbing his cock against that perfect skin. Slid his hands under Tony’s shirt, teasing at his sides, along the flat planes of Tony’s belly, up to pinch and torment Tony’s nipples until he was arching up, squirming and writhing. He wanted… wanted to roll Tony over, to feel those stiff points against his tongue, but didn’t. Bucky slowly stroked down Tony’s chest, then around again, bracing one hand in the small of Tony’s back while he struggled with the lube packet.

He let half the packet dribble down, sliding over Tony’s hole with two fingers, smearing the goo around. “Shhhh, baby,” he said as he rubbed that furled skin, “gotta be quiet.” And god, Bucky was a bastard, because he took his time with it, teasing and tormenting Tony until he was whimpering with need before he finally breached him.

Tony made a half-swallowed, hitching moan, a sound he usually pulled out when they were trying not to wake the girls. “Oh, god, Bucky,” he groaned. “Need... I need you, need more.” He tried to arch back into it, but his position against the unyielding desk didn’t allow much movement. He pressed his forehead against the top of the desk, gasping for breath already.

Bucky slid the condom on, a little awkward, one-handed, while he worked Tony open, spreading two fingers inside that heat, twisting his wrist. “I got you,” Bucky told him, “Gonna take care of you, baby, make you feel so good. So loved. Love touching you, love how wrecked you look, how you sound, everything about how you feel when you clench on me.”

Everything about Tony was exciting, Bucky thought, from the way he writhed against the desk, so perfectly willing and wanting. How they seemed to almost always be on the same wavelength. It was humbling and thrilling and perfect all at the same time. “Oh, god,” Bucky managed to say, his jaw tight, as he rubbed the head of his dick against Tony’s hole. Marveling, a little, at how Tony’s opening stretched to receive him.

“Oh god, yes,” Tony breathed. “Come on, honey, I need you. Need you in me, need all of you, want to feel it.” He arched his back a little, begging, and Bucky slid further in, that welcoming heat squeezing and pulling at him. “Come on, need you now,” Tony demanded.

Bucky took a deep, steadying breath -- Tony was often not nearly as gentle to himself as Bucky wanted him to be -- and it was hard not to just push in, to take, to feel, to let that part of him that was greedy and selfish and just do it. He rocked slow against Tony, testing his reactions, the give and flex and push of muscle. The condom helped, a bit, kept it from feeling exactly right. Tony was still warm, but not hot, against his dick. He thrust, a bit. “Oh, god,” he said. Pulled back and let Tony move with him.

Watched, fascinated, as Tony’s shirt stuck to him, half rucked up his back. The way Tony’s spine moved, and the way he kept pushing up on his toes to get a better angle.

Tony’s grip on the far edge of the desk was white-knuckled. “God, Bucky, honey, yes, give it to me, give it to me hard. Please, baby, I need you.” He rolled his hips as much as the desk allowed. It wasn’t much, but it enough to make Bucky see sparks behind his eyes. Was anything as sweet as this? Tony hitch-moaned again, trying (and mostly failing) to stay quiet. “Please...”

Bucky huffed out a breath, leaned forward enough to press a kiss against Tony’s spine. It slowed down the driving rhythm that Bucky had been setting, and Tony turned his head just enough to give Bucky an almost exasperated look; the kind of look that turned Bucky’s bones to water, full of desire and lust and enough heat to scorch him all the way under his skin.

His body wasn’t his own, it was Tony’s, responding instinctively to Tony’s need. Sparks of heat dripped down his spine. Hard and slick and thrusting into Tony, Bucky put his hands on Tony’s shoulders, pulling him back, using the leverage to bring them both together. The sounds of Bucky’s thighs against Tony’s ass was like someone clapping, sharp eager noises came out of Bucky’s throat despite his wishes to keep them stifled.

“What you let me do to you, baby,” Bucky gasped, aching with need. He maintained just enough presence of mind to not slam Tony into the desk.

Potent heat raced along Bucky’s spine, through his thighs, into his balls. He reached around, let his fingertips brush up Tony’s cock, that velvet-soft skin, that steely, perfect hardness underneath. “I got you, Tony, you give it to me.” He stroked, trying to match the movement of his hand to the delicious things he was doing with his cock, thumbed over the crown and smeared Tony’s pre-come down the sensitive length.

Tony’s back arched desperately, his thighs trembling as Bucky slammed home again. His head tipped down and in the glimpse Bucky got of his face, he was squeezing his eyes shut and biting his lip to keep from crying out. Tony let out a desperate whine between his teeth, soft and verging on broken, and his whole body tightened. Another stroke, two, and a violent shudder ripped through Tony’s body, his cock in Bucky’s hand pulsing as he came. The whine spiraled upward, but somehow Tony bit it off, panting open-mouthed through the aftershocks.

It was too much all at once. Tony was so sweet, so perfectly needy and vulnerable, that Bucky was shaking. Overwhelmed and destroyed and remade in one culminating second. A trembling wave of pleasure shimmered out of him as his dick pulsed and throbbed and swelled inside Tony, drawing heat and gratification out of him. He gasped, nearly collapsed onto Tony, the last echoes of his pleasure making him quake. “Oh, god. Tony, oh god, Tony.” A satisfied, smug grin stretched his mouth, even as Tony’s spill was leaking over his wrist and onto the floor. Let them make a mess, Bucky did not care. He felt too good to care about anything other than the heat seeping off Tony’s skin and the way their breathing seemed to align and the way Tony’s body still clutched at him.

Tony laughed a little, weakly. “Mm, that was fun. I guess I have to let you do stuff again, now, hm?”

Bucky managed a soft whimper. “Maybe not immediately,” he said, a little plaintive. He really did not want to move, but his calves were already tightening and he really didn’t need a charlie horse right now. He rocked back on his heels, pulling out of Tony with reluctance. Grabbed a baby wipe out of the box on his desk -- having an actual baby around seemed to lend itself to needing wet wipes every damn place -- and cleaned his hand off. Used a second (and then a third) one to wipe down Tony’s thighs for him while he braced against the desk, almost drowsing. “You are beautiful,” he told Tony, leaning over to kiss his cheek.

Tony hummed, and lifted his head enough to wordlessly demand a proper, if slightly sloppy, kiss. “Glad you think so,” he said. He wiggled his ass a little, then pushed off the desk with a groan and a mild hiss for cramped muscles and bits of anatomy that had been pressed against the corners of the desktop. “Guess I’ll have to get around to refilling that stock sooner rather than later.”

He hiked up his jeans, but left them open as he turned around to lean against the desk again, a lovely visual that would’ve done unspeakable things to Bucky’s libido if he hadn’t just come. “Glad you’re feeling better.”

Bucky just let himself gawk, not even trying to hide it. He wasn’t sure how he was ever supposed to think straight in his office again. The air reeked of sex and lube and Bucky was a little too aware of the rub of his skin against his jeans as he tucked himself back in. And knowing, Jesus, that Tony was actually going to restock his supplies? “Menace,” he accused his husband. “It’ll be a miracle if I get any work done in here, ever again.”

Tony grinned and hooked his fingers through Bucky’s belt loops, pulling them closer together and tipping his chin to claim a brief kiss. “I’m sure I’ll think of some way to motivate you.”

 

Chapter Text

One’s offspring was an energetic sort. That was good -- an active child was a healthy child -- but it did rather lend to an excess of fidgeting when she was attending the family dinner. Loki had found that it was best to arrange some sort of activity beforehand, to bleed off some of that energy. Not that it stopped the fidgeting, but it delayed it somewhat.

Thus, he found himself at the park on a late Wednesday afternoon, on the phone with one of his managers and keeping half an eye on his daughter’s romp through the playground.

“Father, watch!” she demanded. He obediently turned his face in her direction, but continued his business conversation -- it was imperative that the man understand his place and cease arguing with him.

Billie grabbed onto the angled support strut of a swingset and climbed up, hand over hand, like some sort of long-haired, demented squirrel. When she reached the top, she swung her leg around the bar across the top of the swingset and flipped around it, ending up sitting on top.

Loki was about to say something -- a dozen memories of Thor and his tendency to fall off, over, and beneath various objects when they were but boys came to mind -- but then the manager made an implication that, perhaps, Loki was more concerned with his personal profit than the overall fiscal health of the casino, which was just infuriating. Loki gave his daughter a quick, sharp smile and turned his attention back to the idiot on the phone, who was one more stupid statement away from finding himself on a personal improvement plan.

Billie grinned back at him, then dragged herself up into a crouch, and stood, remarkably steadily, as if the top bar of the swingset were a balance beam. “Watch, Father!” she called again, and began to walk the bar.

That… looked particularly unsafe. Loki hesitated, not wanting to startle her. And also not wanting to be that parent -- Billie’s antics on her skateboard often gave him a weird, tight feeling in his throat, but she’d rarely done more than skin her knee or her hand -- to be fussy, as Billie called it. “Excuse me,” he said to the phone, then, “Isabelle, do you think that quite wise?” She hated the longer, more formal version of her name, but at least she usually stopped to listen to him when he used it.

“It’s fine!” she said. “I do this all the time at schoo--” Her arms windmilled, and she wobbled. First one way, and then the other, overbalancing. For an instant, it looked like she would regain her steady balance. And then she went over with a short scream of fright, arms flailing and legs kicking.

Her foot twisted in the chain of a swing and it jerked violently as she landed on the ground.

For an instant, she was silent, and then up went a wail like a siren.

Loki knew -- knew mind you -- that he could not possibly catch her, but it hadn’t kept him from bolting upright, leaving the phone and squawking manager behind. He reached her side only a moment after the screaming started, and each piercing shriek felt like a knife in his chest. Returned instantly to childhood, when Thor had wiped out on his bike and slid straight into oncoming traffic, Loki took several gulps of air, trying to still his panic. He didn’t want to touch her, didn’t want to hurt her worse. Dropped to one knee by her side. “Billie,” he said, knowing it was the wrong question, but-- “What hurts, child?”

She reached out her arms to him, face streaked with tears. She was not a child easily given to tears; she shrugged off minor falls and scrapes from her sports practice with ease. The pain and residual fear must be overwhelming for her to make such a spectacle now. “Everything! Everything hurts!”

Loki pulled a handkerchief out of his suit pocket -- Stark had teased him once about carrying pocket watches and kerchiefs unironically, whatever that meant -- and wiped her cheek carefully. “Let me see,” he told her, steady. Thor had always panicked worse, whenever Loki gave voice to fear, maybe it would save him here. Looked at her eyes, which she kept squinching shut to whimper and sob, but the pupils appeared to still be the same size. Ran a hand carefully through her long hair. There was no blood, not that he could see, beyond a few scrapes along her arms.

The chain had torn her leg, just below the knee, a bit, nothing more than a cut, but when he moved to inspect it, she screamed. Loki’s stomach turned. Limbs were not supposed to bend like that. The skin was already purpling and swelling.

She had hold of his jacket, fingers tight white in the fabric. It made him want to fight someone -- as if it were a thing he could do -- to make her stop hurting. “I believe you may have broken your leg,” he told her, very seriously. “Loose your grip a moment and we shall use your phone to call an ambulance?” He didn’t want to leave her long enough to get his own, still back in the packed earth in front of the bench.

Guilt throbbed at him; he had not been paying nearly close enough attention to her.

“Father, it hu-ur-urts,” she sobbed, not really listening to him.

“I know,” Loki told her. He brushed a hand down her hair, then glanced around to see if there was anyone in range, but there really wasn’t. “I know. That was quite a fall. Your uncle Thor will be very impressed.” He patted his daughter down and found her phone, half in and half out of her back pocket. The screen was cracked, but it flickered and came on when he tapped the home key. Password locked, of course. He scowled, considered asking her for her password, but she had become utterly incoherent with sobs. There was an emergency call button, and he pressed it, raising the phone to one ear as the dispatcher came on.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

Loki managed to give the dispatcher the pertinent data. Billie was still crying, and he was doing his best to rock her comfortingly without jarring her leg. Not something he had much skill at; she was a resilient child and not always affectionate. When he was assured the dispatcher knew how to find them, he hung up.

“Here, do you think we might move? I can carry you, if you like,” Loki offered. “There’s a bottle of water and my phone, over by the bench.” Get her something to drink, splash some water on those cuts. And call Stark. That was a conversation he wasn’t looking forward to. Barnes, at least, was just as rough and tumble as Thor, but Stark had always seemed a little more tightly wound.

Billie managed to sit up a little, but the instant her leg moved, she let out a little shriek and went pale. “No,” she whined, “no, no no, don’t touch it, don’t, it hurts too much!”

“All right, darling, I won’t,” Loki told her. He shifted a little to let her lean on him. “We’ll just wait here, for the ambulance, all right? Can you unlock your phone for me? I should like to let your uncles know that I am taking you to the hospital, that they might meet us there.” He held out the phone for her. He was petting her hair absently with the other hand, feeling hot and sticky where she was laying on him, an ache in his back from sitting on the ground. He really was too old for this, too inexperienced, too caught up in a world that had nothing to do with family.

He had no idea how to be a parent. Not a real one.

She took the phone, but looked at it uncertainly. “Do we hafta?” She paused to sniffle and shudder out another sob. “They might be mad.”

“They will assuredly be angry,” Loki told her. “But that will be directed at me, for allowing you to be harmed. You needn’t worry that they will punish you for it.”

She shrank a little, and her sobbing increased in pitch. “I don’ want them to be mad!”

“Do you recall,” he said, carefully, “that we have spoken about accountability, before? That owning up to what has happened as quickly as one can, prevents a problem from becoming a disaster? I’m afraid this is one of those cases. I am, both morally and legally, required to inform your guardians of record that you’ve been hurt badly enough to require medical attention. Will you please help me do that?”

She sobbed a little more. “We hafta call?” she clarified. At Loki’s solemn nod, she heaved a huge, shuddery sigh, and unlocked the phone for him. “Here.”

“Thank you,” he told her. He checked the time; from what little he could remember, emergency services were placed around the city at strategic points, to be rapidly on site. Perhaps another five minutes for them to get to the park, and then to locate him. He couldn’t hear sirens yet.

He thumbed through the contacts list until he got Stark’s number pulled up; he almost smiled at that. His daughter had used a picture of the two of them together, beaming over one of her ridiculous little robots, as his profile picture. Punched the button and brought the phone up to his ear. There was a loud crackle of static, and then the ring started. Hoped the man could answer promptly, but Loki would keep calling if necessary. Due diligence.

A click signaled the connection. “Hey, buttercup!” Stark’s voice said cheerfully. “How’s dinner going?”

“I regret,” Loki said. “Dinner is not going at all, as we will not be able to attend. I wished to inform you--”

“What’s happened?” Stark demanded, suddenly sharp.

“She fell,” Loki said, as simply as he knew how. The sound of sirens was finally rising in the background. “It’s quite serious. I believe she might have a fracture, at the very least.” He glanced around the park, saw the EMTs with their stretcher carried between them. “I believe the closest hospital is Bons Secour, if you should meet us there?”

“A fracture-- in what? Is she conscious? What--” Stark cut himself off abruptly, and Loki could hear him taking a deep breath. “Bons Secour,” he repeated. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“Here, speak with your guardian,” Loki told Billie and handed her the phone in order that he could wave wildly, gain the attention of emergency services. “Hallooo!”

The medical team headed toward them, if not quite as fast as Loki would have prefered but at least not slacking.

“Dad!” Billie gasped into the phone. “Don’t be mad, it-- No, but my leg hurts a lot. Uh-huh. But I have to go ‘cause the people from the amb’lance are here an’--” She hesitated and looked up at Loki. “They’re gonna move my leg, aren’t they?” Her eyes filled with tears, preemptively reacting to the anticipated pain.

“It will be hardly convenient for them to treat you here, so yes. But I’m told they will be very careful with you,” Loki told her. “They do this sort of thing all the time. And I shall be with you.” Much good that would do her, Loki thought, his presence. But it was all he had to offer.

The medical techs were there, then, and Loki was holding Billie’s hand as they wrapped her leg in an inflatable cast. Loki helped her to scootch over to the stretcher where they started questioning him as to what happened, and to touch and check her for neck pain, back pain, anything else. Took her blood pressure and spoke some medical babble into a radio attached to his shoulder pad.

“One moment,” Loki said, reluctantly recovering his hand from Billie’s white knuckled grasp. “My car keys and phone.” He stepped away to fetch them. He could call Thor from the ambulance, or perhaps the hospital, and get him to pick up the BMW, make his excuses to their parents. Thirty plus years, he’d been hoping for an excuse to get out of this ridiculous weekly dinner and now that it was finally managed, he found himself rather wishing he hadn’t.

Billie was teary-eyed again by the time Loki made it back. “It squeezes,” she complained about the temporary cast. “I wanna go home.”

“Of course it squeezes,” Loki said. “It holds your bone together, so the edges don’t cut you on the inside. And I’m afraid we cannot go home just yet. Even faith healers go to doctors for broken bones.”  

Loki had noted before, from time to time, that EMTs tended to travel in matched sets. If one was short, they were both short, but it had never before occurred to him to wonder why. Save that when they lifted the stretcher together, they kept it on an even keel, neither of them straining to carry his daughter as smoothly as possible.

When they reached the ambulance, Loki was directed to the front, where he could be properly belted in, which was much further than he particularly wanted to be from his child, who started crying again as soon as they were seperated. Aggravating, that the one time he should give some comfort to her, he was prevented.

He sighed, stayed turned in his seat as much as possible, and began the distasteful task of notifying the rest of the family what had befallen them.

***

Hospitals were very bland, somewhat unpleasant sorts of places. The air was scented with antiseptic and soap, the walls were cream and the floor was a particularly unpleasant shade of green, dotted here and there with a random pink tile that Loki’s well-ordered brain couldn’t help but snag on and try to figure out if there was some pattern to it.

“No!” Billie gasped. She tried to sit up on the stretcher. When the medical techs gently pushed her back down, she fought, kicked and then screamed as it jarred her leg. “No! I don’t wanna, don’t-- NOoooooooo!

Loki’s heart kicked into overdrive. “Darling, what? What’s the matter?” He nudged the tech out of the way and let Billie sit up so he could put his arms around her. “It’s all right, I promise.”

“No!” She was sobbing again, and clinging to him like she was going to try to climb him. “I can’t go in there! I can’t, Father, tell them, tell them, no no no no no no--” She was pointing toward the emergency ward doors.

“Tell them what, Isabelle? I don’t understand. Why are you so--” Frightened was the only word that could possibly apply. “... upset?” he finished lamely. The techs were giving him a moment, obviously familiar with children’s distress, but Loki felt as though someone had trained a spotlight on them, pointing out how very badly he was handling this. “Can you tell me?”

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t--” She was on the verge of hyperventilating. “Not in there, I can’t, I can’t!”

Loki looked around, almost expecting to see something sinister, the way she was panicking. But no, it was just a hospital. Not, perhaps, the most cheerful place, but just doctors and patients, orderlies and support staff… doctors and nurses.

Fuck.

“Billie,” he said, softly, touching her hair. “Are you thinking about your mother?” A sudden squeeze in his chest and Loki was almost as breathless as she was. Nurses in scrub uniforms, which Billie must have seen every day while she was in Atlanta.

She nodded frantically, relief showing in her eyes, though her knuckles were still white on his jacket. “That’s-- It’s Mom’s place,” she panted. “It’s, she, she...”

“Give us a moment,” he told the med-techs. “Her mother--”

“Your wife?” one of them asked, eyebrow going up.

“No,” Loki practically snarled. “We weren’t married. But her mother was a nurse, and there are… associations.” He turned back to his child. “Darling, we have to. You cannot let a broken limb just heal on its own. It’ll just hurt and hurt and hurt. Can you be brave for me? I’ll be with you the whole time. Or until your uncles come, okay? I won’t let anything happen.”

He knew that was a promise he couldn’t keep; they were going to have to set the leg, and that was going to hurt -- he knew that from experience. Thor had a half dozen or more broken limbs in his childhood, and Loki had snapped his wrist once. Not fun. Not even a little.

She was huffing, her eyes wide in fear. “No,” she whimpered, “I can’t, I-- Please!”

“Oh, darling, I’m sorry, I am. But we have to,” Loki told her. “The doctor’s going to help you and we’ll leave as soon as we can. Your uncles are on their way, and truly, we will only be here for a little while. A few hours, at most.” He was going to be ill; her fear was practically contagious. She shook in his arms like she was a tree in a windstorm. And then a sudden thought; he raised her chin to look at her. So much like her mother, he noticed, again. Wondered if it was fear of being harmed, hurting because her mother was gone… or worried that something might happen to one of her other guardians, while they were in the hospital? “Everything will be fine. I’m here with you.”   

Tears were streaming down her face. “Hafta, hafta?” she asked, pleading silently. And then, perhaps reading the resolve in him, she sagged. “You hafta hold my hand,” she insisted. “The whole time. Promise!”

“The whole time,” Loki told her. It was strange, and at the same time, added to his load of guilt for letting her be hurt in the first place, the way his chest seemed to constrict and expand at her declaration. “I promise.”

Assuming Barnes and Stark didn’t outright murder him on arrival. But that was on them, since Loki would be beyond protesting at that point.

“All right, I think we can move her again,” he told the techs.

They pushed her into the emergency room and across a few halls before finding an open stall. Holding her hand was difficult, and she was clinging to him like a leech, requiring him to do some particularly interesting twists as they settled her into place. But finally they were there, in the curtained-off area, where she couldn’t see anything beyond the bits of medical equipment and green hanging curtains.

“What now?” she wanted to know. She looked around curiously at the equipment, even if her hand was still trembling in his.

“Well, first, they’ll come and make me sign a lot of paperwork,” Loki told her. “And someone will check your vitals; heart rate and such. Very tame. Put antiseptic on your cuts, more than likely. I don’t think that gash in your leg will need stitches, maybe just a few bandaids. You might have a scar; your Uncle Thor will be very proud of you. And then someone will come take you for an x-ray, so they can look at your bones and see what’s wrong with your leg.”

He was not, actually, sure that they’d let him be in the room with her while she had an x-ray. Damn it. He hadn’t thought of that, before just now. Even the x-ray techs left the room for the shots. Well, one bridge at a time, he supposed.  

Billie sniffled. “Can I get princess bandaids?”

“I daresay not,” Loki said. “They have to carry bandaids for everyone, and I, for instance, would look quite ridiculous with a princess bandaid. But if you have to have a cast, we can draw princesses on it.” Or, at least, Rogers could. He was artistic. Of a sort.

Maneuvering around the whole “holding hands” thing was quite trying, and he had to switch hands in order to sign the paperwork required. And again, shifting around, when the nurse came to take her blood pressure. She panicked again the first time a nurse in scrubs entered the room, crying again, but not quite so noisy, just a steady stream of tears until the nurse left again.

Then the curtain was jerked back and Stark practically stormed in, all five-foot-nine of indignation and worry.

“Billie!” He ignored Loki entirely for the moment, zeroed in on his niece. “Buttercup, are you okay? What happened?”

Billie stretched out her free hand to Stark, who took it automatically, and she started sort of hiccuping her breaths. “I fell off the swings an’ my leg hurts a lot an’ I wanna go home!”

“I know, honey,” Stark soothed, “but we have to get your leg fixed, first. I mean, unless you want us to just cut it off and make you a pirate peg-leg. That could be fun, right?”

“Dad!” she protested, trying not to smile or laugh. “No!”

“Oh. Well, I guess we have to let the doctor fix it, then. Okay?” Stark smiled at her.

She pouted and sighed. “Okay.”

There was nothing rational about the surge of jealousy and dislike that swept over him. Loki had been calm and patient and as reassuring as he knew how to be, but it took Stark only two sentences to get her calmed, and almost back to smiling? Infuriating. Useless. Petty. Loki squeezed Billie’s fingers and tried not to glare at her guardian.

“Awk!” a tiny, high pitched voice announced. “Yiv awk!”

“Yes, yes,” Barnes said. He was half bent over, letting their younger daughter use his hands to help the child walk. “Livvy’s walkin’, I know. Hey kiddo, how are you feelin’?”

“Awk!” Olivia declared, although it did seem more she was trying to climb up the side of Billie’s hospital bed.  

“My leg hurts lots and lots and lots,” Billie told Barnes.

“I offered her the ‘cut it off’ option,” Stark put in, “but she didn’t want to go for it.”

“I’ve seen you in th’ kitchen,” Barnes pointed out. “I wouldn’t want you handlin’ a knife ‘round my limbs, either.”

“Maligned!” Stark mock-complained, throwing up his hands. “If it’s coming off anyway, a couple of extra cuts won’t matter.”

“Ew, gross, Dad,” Billie said.

The easy banter and sarcasm and obvious affection flowed around the group of them, leaving Loki feeling very much like the orphan, pressing his nose against the window and wishing he were warmer. Not necessarily undeserved, as he’d let her be injured in the first place. He was just about to attempt to extract himself, perhaps seek out a vending machine, when the orderly came back.

“X-rays,” he announced, cheerfully. “Let’s scoot you over here, and--” The orderly looked around, eyebrow going up at the collection of men, and one tiny girl in the room. “Only one of you can come with us.”

Stark and Barnes exchanged a quick look, and then both of them looked at Loki. Stark opened his mouth, but Billie beat him to it. “You promised,” she reminded Loki, squeezing his hand tighter.

Stark’s eyebrows went way, way up, but he released her hand. “Okay, we’ll be waiting for you when you get back.”

Loki told himself he wasn’t smug.

Well, maybe only a little bit.

Being draped in a heavy lead apron was, if nothing else, uncomfortable, but Loki was able to stay in the room while the films were taken. Billie complained about the apron they draped over her stomach, but subsided over that when she was crisply informed by the radiation tech that x-rays could hurt her chances of being able to have a baby later. They took off the blow-up cast in order to take the films and Loki winced at how purple and swollen her leg looked, after only an hour since the fall.

“Don’t look at it,” Loki told her. “It’s one of those funny things. It will hurt more, if you see. Look at me, instead.”

Billie swallowed hard and focused her gaze on him. “It hurts more without the squeezy thing,” she said, voice wavering. “But it’s gonna hurt a lot to put it back on. How come everything hurts so much?”

“It’s your body’s way of telling you there’s something wrong, so you don’t injure yourself more,” Loki said. “I know, it’s terribly unfair, especially now that you’re here, and we’re trying to get it fixed. It’d be very nice if we could just say ‘all right, I know,’ and have it just stop hurting. Evolution has not caught up yet to technology. The doctor will probably give you something, soon, to help with the pain. It might make you very sleepy, too.”

Billie bit her lip. “You’re gonna stay with me, tho, right? Even if I go to sleep. You promised you would!”

“I keep my word,” Loki told her. “Do not worry, I’ll stay. The whole time.”

 

Chapter Text

The hospital was cold and the shivering was making Billie’s leg hurt more. Loki managed to get out of his jacket and draped it over her. A nurse came in with an IV kit. “We’re going to put a little tube in your arm,” she told Billie, “so that we can put medicine inside without poking you full of holes. That’ll be good, right?”

She blinked at the collection of men (and Livvy, who Barnes was entertaining by showing her little videos on his phone, mostly of chickens, which seemed to delight the toddler) and scowled. “Has she had a tetanus shot in the last-- which one of these is your Dad, dear?”

Billie huffed at the nurse. “They’re all my dads,” she said.

“Which is to say,” Stark interrupted smoothly, “that Mr. Odinson there is her biological father, and my husband and I are her legal guardians. And yes, her shots are up to date. We saw the doctor last July.”

“I… see,” the nurse said, and Loki found himself reading all sorts of things in the shift of her stance and the way she eyed them all.

Probably nothing that the Barnes-Starks didn’t find themselves dealing with regularly, but Loki rarely found that disdain directed at him. There was a certain amount of unfairness involved, but Loki was used to being treated with respect. As a single father, whenever he’d taken Billie on outings, or explained their relationship to anyone, there’d been tones of admiration in what a good father he was.

Like doing the bare minimum for fatherhood was more than what was expected. Despite the fact that Loki saw his daughter only a few times per month and no more than a week at a time for their annual vacations.

The nurse was giving them all some serious side-eye, and Loki did not like it, not at all.

She directed all her attention onto Loki and held up a shot. “This is morphine and ibuprofen -- Advil. The doctor’s going to have to set the bone, so we’ll see how this affects her, and if she needs more, we’ll give her more.”

“How do you determine enough?” Loki’s eyebrow went up. Morphine was a powerful analgesic and opiates could be addictive.

“If she’s still talking, she hasn’t had enough, yet,” the nurse said brightly. “This is going to make the pain go away,” she told Billie. “You might get a funny taste in your mouth, or get sleepy, or have a little trouble seeing. All of that is normal and just something the medicine does to you, okay?”

Billie eyed the needle suspiciously. “When I got a shot last summer it hurt a lot.”

“Well, the first one will pinch a little, while we get the tube set up, but everything after that will just go right into the tube, so you won’t feel it at all,” she said. “And I’m going to use a tiny, tiny needle, so it’s just a little prick. Nothing near so unpleasant as a broken leg.” The whole time she was talking, she got Billie’s vein to pop out-- “Squeeze your fist a few times, open and shut, look at that, that’s a nice, big vein. I bet I could hit that with my eyes closed.” --and daubed her up with iodine before… “And there we go, look at that. No fuss, no muss.” She pushed the needle full of morphine into the tubing. “See?”

Billie leaned forward to watch the morphine drip into the tube in her arm. “That’s so cool.” She watched for a moment, then leaned her head against Loki’s side. “Ooh, my head feels all... swimmy.” She slumped entirely back onto the bed, her eyes blinking, unfocused, at the lights.

“Well, that’s unsettling,” Stark said.

“I’ll come back and check on her in about twenty minutes,” the nurse told Loki.

Which left Loki standing there, awkwardly, as she left. He kept his eyes on Billie’s face, which went slack and dreamy, rather than acknowledge what had just happened. He certainly had no issue with the Barnes-Stark marriage, or their care of his child. There were many things for which he disapproved of his brother, but his brother’s sexuality wasn’t one of those things. (He might, honestly, have preferred that Thor not be quite so… eager to share his favors, but Loki told himself that was more a matter of health and mental wellness -- and perhaps a bit of jealousy -- and not that he was slut-shaming his own brother.)

“Princess,” he said, low, “how are you feeling? Does it hurt less?”

Billie seemed to consider it for a long time. “It’s very far away,” she decided.

Barnes snorted. “Yeah, she’s high as a kite,” he said.

“Ite!” Olivia agreed, pointing at her sister. “Ye!”

“Yeah, kite, honey. You know that word, don’t you? That’s very good,” Barnes said. “Billie’s high as a kite.”

“I daresay that’s probably not the vocabulary lesson you wish your youngest to learn,” Loki pointed out.

“Had t’ spend two months teachin’ her that the word for book wasn’t--” He cut himself off with a snap, the back of his neck turning red. That was an interesting reaction, Loki thought.

“Do I even wish to inquire?”

Stark looked a little sheepish. “She caught me cursing at my homework and decided that the word for book was F-U-C-K. It’s a disturbing word to come out of a toddler’s mouth.”

“I was enlightened, most recently,” Loki said, thoughtfully, “that S.O.L. no longer is a word that Navy personnel use exclusively, but is a sort of test that Billie must pass at school. And that, she told me with all due amusement, that she was going to be SOL on her SOLs. Sort of Out of Luck. Thor found the announcement quite hilarious.”

Stark laughed. “Yeah, she picked up the joke at school somewhere and we had to think fast when she asked us what SOL meant outside of school. We’ve had to really step up the self-censorship game. Kids repeat everything.”

The nurse came back, prodded Billie into some semblance of awareness, asked a few questions. Decided that since Billie could do some math in her head -- that had to be environmental, living with Stark -- that she needed another dose of morphine. Good heavens, were they trying to drown her in opiates? Loki was uncertain if he should voice concern or not; but Stark didn’t seem to object, so Loki held his own counsel about it.

When the doctor finally arrived, bearing a few sheets of x-ray film, Loki began to see the extent of why they wanted her so heavily medicated.

The bones on either side of her knee were broken, the lower part misaligned. “We’re going to have to pull the leg down to get the break to align,” the doctor said. “And then x-ray it again to make certain it will heal cleanly. If not, there may be surgery required.” The doctor glanced at Billie. “She’s young, however, and healthy. She should regain full use, in time.”

Barnes uttered a strangled sound. “Should?”

“It’s an ugly break,” the doctor reported. “Far more severe than I would have thought someone got from falling off a swing.”

“She did not, precisely, fall off the swing,” Loki reported, flinching.

Stark’s eyes narrowed. “What, precisely, did she fall from, then?”

Loki sketched a quick triangle in the air. “She claims to have walked the beam, across the top of the set, many times, at school,” he told them. “She was, perhaps, showing off. I suggested that she might wish to climb down, and then she fell. She caught her foot in the swing’s chain, on the way to the ground.” He shuddered, that instant as she fell was perhaps permanently etched in his memory, the way she’d screamed when she struck down. “There was no time to do anything.”

Stark went pale. “Are you insane?” he hissed, leaning angrily toward Loki across the narrow bed. “Letting her climb that high? Letting her stand up on top of it? Jesus, she could’ve been killed!”

“I did not let her do any such thing,” Loki snapped. “She just… did it. What do you expect, I might magic her down?” Stark didn’t have to tell him Billie might have been killed. He was fair certain he’d lived that moment in the whole second it took her to fall.

“I expect you to watch her more closely when she’s in your care!” Stark snapped, lips curled into a snarl.

“Well, if we had any doubt as t’ her blood relations,” Barnes said, smoothly, “it’s pretty certain that Billie is a Barnes. Broke my arm fallin’ out of a tree once, least twice as high as any swing set.” Barnes set his hip between Stark and Billie’s hospital bed, twisting a little to push his husband back. “Here, hold Livvy for a moment, would ya?”

It was difficult, perhaps, to maintain a murderous rage when confronted with a toddler that wanted, very much, to put both of her hands in Stark’s mouth. “Da!”

Stark quivered for a moment, then sagged against the side of the bed, wrapping both arms around Olivia and holding her tightly. “Yeah, chicken, it’s Daddy.”

The doctor, who was observing them all with a keen and interested eye, broke in at that point. “Provided we can set the break properly on a first attempt, she’ll need to be kept relatively confined; no weight on the leg, the entire six to eight weeks she’s encasted. It will probably be longer, if we have to insert medical pins.” He jerked his chin at Barnes. “Can you rouse her? I don’t want to set the leg if she’s going to feel it; that sort of break is quite painful.”

Billie didn’t respond to Barnes’ attempts to wake her up; the most he managed was a sad little whimper when he jostled her enough to move the leg, but she never opened her eyes.

Stark flopped into the visitor’s chair with Olivia. “If she can’t have weight on her leg, how are we going to manage the stairs? That seems tricky, with crutches.”

The doctor stepped outside the curtained area, calling out to a nurse, and an orderly. The tiny emergency room was very crowded, suddenly.

“Muscle relaxer,” the nurse said, holding up a needle, and then sliding it into the catheter.

“‘Scuse me,” the orderly moved around to the head of the bed, looped his arms around the mattress -- good heavens, that man had long arms -- and held Billie’s shoulders down. She barely stirred, her eyelids flickering.

The doctor, and he seemed quite young, suddenly, to be in such a role, took a few deep breaths, gripped Billie’s lower leg and pulled. Slow and steady, keeping his hands firmly under the break.

Billie screamed, surging up against the orderly’s grip. The doctor glanced up briefly, then kept pulling. The orderly tightened his hold, and Billie kept screaming. Olivia started to cry, and Stark, looking greenish, quickly took her out into the hall.

“I’m here, princess,” Loki told her, his fingers still laced with hers. “I’m sorry, I know.” His throat tightened and his eyes prickled, wishing desperately that he could do something for her, knowing that this was for the best, that it had to be done, and yet, she was in so much pain.

The doctor made a strained noise, sweat beading up on his forehead, and then he shifted, letting the leg ease back into place. He circled the broken area, prodding at the bone. Billie’s screams tapered off into agonized whimpers, and then she was all but asleep again, her fingers going lax in Loki’s hand. “Feels right,” the doctor said, sounding satisfied. “We’ll give her a few minutes, and then take her to radiology again, just to be sure. Don’t want any nerves or vessels caught in the bone.”

“Jesus Christ,” Barnes said. “My Ma was some sort of saint or masochist. Went through this with me, an’ then made me climb th’ damn tree again? Holy mother of God, if I never hear somethin’ like that again, it’ll be too soon.”

Crass as the sentiment was, Loki found himself nodding in agreement. “I daresay I would willingly forgo a repeat performance.”

Out in the hallway, Stark’s voice was a low, soothing murmur over the sound of Olivia’s slowing cries. “--okay, it’s all done, it’s okay.” He leaned in the door, still looking pale. “See? Billie’s okay now.”

Olivia stuffed a hand into her mouth and sniffled, big eyes red-rimmed. “Bee,” she said, reaching with her slobber-covered hand.

“Yeah, that’s Billie. We’re going to let her rest for now,” Stark said. “She’s tired.”

Loki took a deep breath, certain his suggestion was going to be met with quite a bit of resistance, but-- “She can stay with me, at Valhalla,” he said. “I have a private elevator to the living quarters and she would be able to get around easily enough. The whole building is wheelchair accessible, as required.”

“No,” Stark said immediately, just as Loki predicted. “She needs to come home.”

“Valhalla is near enough her home, just as much as Dockside is,” Loki pointed out. “She has her own room, and her grandmother nearby, should she require additional aid.” Loki was fairly certain he didn’t want to give his pre-teen daughter a shower, and Mother would be well able to help her, there. They even had a spa and jacuzzi in the adjoining hotel. “She will be comfortable and well provided for, without the risk of stairs.” He did not wish to insult Barnes’ home, but the stairs to the second floor were wooden and narrow.

Barnes made a face. “He’s kinda right, honey. I ain’t gonna be able to carry her up there all th’ time.”

Stark stared at his husband in betrayal. “But...” He hesitated, mental wheels obviously churning, and sighed. “Weeks,” he complained softly, defeated. He closed his eyes, then opened them again, piercing Loki with his gaze. “We’ll bring some extra clothes over. Some sweats or something that we can ruin by cutting open the leg for the cast. And her school stuff. They’re pretty picky about drop-off and pickup times, so you’ll want to be ready to deal with that.”

Loki nodded. The heavy traffic, especially during commuting hours, was going to be the biggest factor. “I believe arrangements can be made. And should you prefer to have family time, I can arrange a suite for your use, whenever you like. My home is open for you.”

“That’s right kind of you,” Barnes said. He put one hand on his husband’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Tony. Like, two months, tops. Think of it as more time t’ spend one-on-one with Liv.”

Loki watched the wheels spinning in Stark’s head and wondered how long it would take the man to decide to build an addition onto their house that included an elevator. “Then unless Billie has objections, we shall make the change.”

***

At least Thor had arrived at the hospital, driving Loki’s BMW -- and Loki was immediately filled with certain concerns for the state of his vehicle -- by the time Billie was fitted with her cast. Somewhat amusing, they discovered that Billie could not fit, turned either way, into the back seat the way her cast kept her leg, and Thor had to be mashed into the back for the drive back to Valhalla. Thor had suggested that he could drive and that his brother could sit in the back, but Loki was unwilling to risk his car any more than strictly necessary.

There was a reason, after all, that Thor tended to rely on Ubers and lifts from friends. He would, Loki thought, be a much better driver if Thor could be bothered to pay attention to what he was doing.

At least, however, Thor had a great deal of bulky muscle and was able to carry his niece into the bar, and up the elevator, as Billie was still too drugged, tired, and in pain, to attempt to learn the use of her crutches, at least for today.

She directed Thor imperiously, which he accepted with grace, until he had set her gently amongst the cushions of the long sofa. She looked around, as if she had never seen the place before, and then twisted around to tell Loki, “I want to watch TV!”

“For a little while, and have a little something to eat,” Loki agreed. “Then you must rest, and regain your strength.”

At least for the rest of the week, he would keep her from school, until she was not so heavily medicated and had a chance to learn to get around on crutches. The cast wrapped her from thigh to ankle, keeping her leg immobilized, with only the slightest bend at the knee. He poked his phone a few times, setting a reminder to call the school and make her excuses, which he was told by Stark would have to be done every single day, no matter that her leg would not heal overnight and any reasonable person would expect her to be absent.

He brought her the remote for the television, then a coffee travel mug filled with water to sip on, and some grapes and apple slices to nibble. He had just settled in the chair across from her, braced to endure whatever drivel she settled on watching, when she said, “I hafta go pee!”

Loki’s eyebrows went up and he found himself at an utter loss. As he’d not made the acquaintance of his daughter until she was well into her school years, bathroom issues had not been a thing he’d ever had to deal with, beyond occasionally having to keep his back to the door while shoving a roll of paper at her because she rarely thought ahead far enough to realize that she should get a fresh tube after using up the last of the old one.

“Right,” he said, wishing Thor had not already departed with a quick wave and wink for having swiped himself up another evening’s entertainment on his hook-up ap. “No weight on your leg. I shall carry you this once, and tomorrow, we will give some practice with the crutches, yes?”

Getting her in to the bathroom was easy enough, although she weighed more than he expected. Quite a solid child, she was getting to be, and he’d never carried her particularly much. Very rarely, an enthusiastic hug had ended with her weight dragging his neck down, but unlike Thor, or her other uncles, Loki preferred to let her walk -- or run -- on her own power. She cuddled against his chest like a boney little monkey, all sharp elbows and hip. The cast itself was scratchy against his arm, and he had to be very careful in the hall and doorways to keep from bumping her outstretched limb.

But once in the bathroom, things rapidly got awkward. She couldn’t balance on one leg, in order to get her shorts down. And the leg on the wrong side was broken, which meant holding her arm while standing in the bathtub so she could keep upright and he wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t quite certain who was more mortified about that, her, or him.

“Don’t look!” she insisted for at least the third time. It was almost impossible not to look, though, the way she was squirming around. Finally, she did her business and got herself cleaned up.

“I think we shall invest in some loose fitting skirts or dresses for you, princess, for ease of using the facilities,” Loki said. He scowled down at his shoe prints, left in the bathtub. The cleaning service that he employed for the hotel and bar kept his own house tidy as well, but he supposed he should notify the staff that there would be extra work. Loki himself was rarely in his own home except to sleep. He certainly didn’t eat snacks while watching television, or even, for that matter, eat there much at all. It was only luck that he kept snacks on hand for more than just his monthly parental visitation.

He got her settled back on the sofa, turned on the television, and suddenly--

“Where are your glasses, child?”

“Uh.” She rubbed at her face, as if expecting to find them there despite his question. “Prob’ly on the ground at the park.”

“Well, I shall make the attempt to recover them tomorrow,” Loki said. It was already after dark and the parks were closed at sunset, unless there were public events. He brought up his reminders program, stared at the schedule of the day for quite some time, wondering when he might arrange for someone to sit with his child while he made the trip out, and at the same time, had at least four meetings on the books, plus following up with the interrupted call to his idiot sub-manager. And getting food, since Billie would be needing breakfast and other meals.

Just considering it -- plus getting her into bed, back and forth to the bathroom, to school and back, and any doctor’s appointments -- was exhausting.

“Can I have some more grapes, please?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts. She was slumped on the sofa, eyelids drooping.

He eyed her plate. “Finish your apples, then grapes, if you’re still hungry. It’s almost time for bed.” His own stomach was feeling a bit hollow and he considered ordering something up from the kitchens -- but a quick check of the time told him it was too late for that, unless he wanted to pay someone overtime. Bother.

Billie grumbled wordlessly, but managed another slice of apple before dozing off. Her normally mobile face went slack and smooth, long eyelashes brushing her round cheeks. Her hand fell limp, dropping a half-eaten apple slice on the floor.

There was a surge of something in Loki’s chest, frightfully like pity, but tinged with warmth. Strange, he thought. Pushed himself to his feet. He’d have to carry her to bed, hopefully without waking her up too much; she was a stubborn child on good days.

Lifting someone who was asleep and therefore not even remotely trying to assist, was somewhat more difficult than he expected. And then, once in the bedroom, he realized he couldn’t turn down the blankets and hold her up at the same time. With a sigh, he settled her on top of the covers, divested her of one shoe -- the other one might have been in the bag he took away from the hospital, or might have been lost completely -- and found a spare blanket to cover her with.

She was… very small, suddenly.

Tiny and defenseless, and, heaven help her, entirely in his keeping for the moment.

He leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Sleep well, child,” he told her.

Pulled her door most of the way closed, enough of a crack that he might hear her if she needed anything in the night.

Went to his own room. He usually did not sleep until much later, but the day had been sadly exhausting, even without having to listen to his father over dinner. Sat on his bed, put his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands.

He had no idea what he was doing; his daughter was still mostly a thing of notions. They had their time together, but it tended to be activities and outings. What was he supposed to do with a child that needed constant care?

Somewhere, he had the idea that Rebecca Barnes was laughing at him. There was, perhaps, a reason she’d never told him that they’d made a child together.

He pulled out his phone, cancelled his morning meetings for a family emergency.

Considered very carefully what he was doing.

And called his mother.

 

Chapter Text

There were three things in Loki’s life that he tried, with varying degrees of success, to avoid at all costs. Expecting his brother to do anything was a distant third. Loki had pretty much given up barking up that tree. Thor did as he damned well pleased, and whenever he was scolded for it, felt apparently no remorse whatsoever for his failure of diligence, accomplishment, or personality. In a manner that Loki would admit upon pain of death only, he was greatly jealous of Thor’s ability to not only brush off a reprimand with a shrug and a grin, but the fact that people continued to like him after he did so. There was some sort of magic to it, was all that Loki could figure.

The second thing, and he was getting a lot more practice at it these days, was to avoid drawing his father’s unfavorable attention. George Odinson was a hard man, expected the best of his sons, and accepted no excuses. (Watching Thor and their father fight it out for most of Loki’s teenaged years had been one of his highest forms of entertainment. Until George had done the unthinkable, and actually given up on Thor. Which put the entire weight of his expectations directly on Loki’s slender shoulders. Not so funny, anymore.)

And at the very top of his list of activities to avoid?

Asking his mother for help.

Ever.

At all.

About anything.

One’s offspring had been entirely in too much pain to attend school for the better part of a week. The medication that kept the pain at bay also made her either very sleepy, or sometimes made her throw up. Loki had started keeping a paint bucket lined with a trash bag nearby to keep that problem somewhat contained. Most of the time, she could actually hit the bucket.

That had, however, led to one of his daughter’s friends, Ms. Casper, delivering a packet of homework.

And of course one’s mother would arrive at the exact time Loki attempted to broach the subject with Billie about actually doing her homework.

“I don’t wanna,” Billie complained, staring with dismay at the half-inch tall stack of worksheets. “I just wanna watch TV.”

“I’ve little doubt as to the veracity of your statements,” Loki said, “but the fact remains that you must make up the time missed from school. Broken leg or no.”

Billie set her jaw mulishly. “I’ll do it later.”

The worst thing about her expression, Loki decided, was that it made him look just as foolish to snarl back at her. He was uncertain as to how Barnes and Stark managed to get her to do homework -- he’d seen her report cards dutifully every quarter, and while she was by no means a top student, her grades averaged at a low B. “You will do --” he thumbed through the stack quickly “--three sheets. And then you may watch television.” That was reasonable, wasn’t it? She wasn’t one of his employees that he could raise an eyebrow at, which was usually enough to make them work harder, lest they find themselves on probation, or without employment.

Threatening a child seemed like bullying of the worst sort.

And at the same time, he had to clasp his hands behind his back as her voice spiraled up.

“But my leg hurts!” she whined. “I can’t concentrate!”

She was concentrating well enough to argue with him, Loki thought, and was about to say something -- he wasn’t even certain what -- when the door chime sounded. Well thank the heavens. “Three.” He placed the stack in front of her, pushed the table closer, and set a pencil on the top. And went to let his mother in.

Frigga had claimed a rather exceptional number of appointments and meetings over the past week. She tended to the publicity and marketing of Odinson’s vast conglomerate of quality hotels and bars, but still, Loki was starting to feel as though his mother was avoiding him. Which was ridiculous, wasn’t it?

Nonetheless, he was relieved to open the door and welcome her inside.

“Mother,” he greeted her. “You’re looking well.”

“It’s kind of you to say, darling,” she said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. She looked around the room curiously. “I haven’t been up here for some time. I like the new drapes.”

Loki avoided making an exasperated face only by sheer force of will. The drapes had been replaced because during the last lengthy visit, Billie had insisted on bringing her cat. Muffin had found the sheer drapes to be absolutely irresistible for climbing. They might have been repairable, but Billie had panicked, taken them down, and attempted to glue them back together. He had a new dining room tablecloth, too, after that incident, but decided not to mention it.

Aaaand, there went the television. How in the hell had she gotten ahold of the remote?

“Mother, I desperately need your assistance,” Loki confessed, taking Frigga’s hands and kissing the back of her fingers.

“So I gathered, from your numerous messages,” she said, patting his hand as if he were a child again. “What seems to be the problem?”

Loki glanced back over his shoulder. “I may have… caused a demon to spring into being,” he said. “Surely you must know what to do, with the challenges that Thor and I caused. How do I get her to mind?” There were any number of other questions he had, many of them to do with the absurd length of her hair and brushing out the tangles, which seemed to multiply every time she was unattended for more than ten minutes, or getting her to eat anything beyond cheeseburgers. Or stay asleep in the morning. That would have been useful to know.

Frigga laughed, and Loki couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was laughing at him. “She’s only a child, Loki. You’re so dramatic. You manage entire staffs; surely one child shouldn’t present such a problem for you?”

“I may be dramatic from time to time,” Loki admitted, “but that child is a full-tilt diva. And I can hardly fire her from the position of being my daughter. Although--” He eyed his mother slyly “--I seem to recall you bemoaning the lack of snow banks and wolf packs from time to time.”

“Sometimes, I still do,” Frigga said. “For instance, when my grown sons expect me to continue to mother them.” She raised an eyebrow at him, which was grossly unfair, because that was his trick. “You are her parent, Loki. Parent her.” She swept past him and into the living room. “Billie, darling. How are you feeling today?”

Billie looked up from the television with a bright, not at all guilty smile. “Gran’ma Frigga! Did you come to visit me?”

“Of course, as soon as I could. Are you behaving well for your father?”

“Mostly,” Billie said.

Loki couldn’t quite refrain a snort of disagreement. If that was mostly, Loki would be appalled, no doubt, of a no.

“I’m glad to hear it. Maybe someday, the answer will even be a resounding yes?”

Billie looked doubtful. “Maybe.” Loki doubted it, himself. “Will you get me a glass of water, please?”

“Of course,” Frigga said. She bent over the couch to kiss Billie’s forehead, then made her way to the apartment’s small kitchen.

“You--” Loki pointed a finger at his daughter, “are a deceiver and a fraud. And supposed to be doing your homework, not watching Teen Titans.” What even was his life that he knew which cartoon it was at a glance?

“I said I’d do it later,” Billie said, half-cajoling, half-stubborn. “I didn’t lie!”

“Loki!” called his mother sharply. “What on earth is all this?”

“You shall have to be more specific, Mother,” Loki said. He wanted it noted that he did not yell at his daughter, who smirked at him when Frigga started bellowing. Was he to be outnumbered in his own home?

Frigga reappeared, brandishing a takeout container from the restaurant down the street from the club. “This,” she said. “From the look of your trash bin, you’ve been eating out exclusively for the last week!”

“You say this as if it has not been my habit for many years now, Mother,” Loki said. “We have to eat, do we not?” He neglected to mention the number of grilled pita roll ups he ate on a regular basis; the shop just down the road knew his order well enough that they often had the bag ready to go before he even arrived.

“You can’t feed a child on nothing but takeout!” she exclaimed. “Children need fresh food. Fruits and vegetables!”

Loki glanced over -- Billie was stifling a giggle behind her fist, the little traitor. “She eats vegetables,” he protested. Pickles counted as vegetables, didn’t they? And potatoes. And she went through more grapes than a winery. “She’s not in any danger of starving to death or contracting scurvy. What she is in danger of is failing out of fifth grade because she won’t do her homework. Isabelle!”

Billie made wide eyes at him. “I’m gonna do it!” she protested, in stark denial of the fact that the homework packet had been sitting already for three days, untouched.

Frigga sighed. “You can’t simply call me because you don’t know how to parent your child, Loki,” she said firmly. “You must assess the situation, make a decision, and take action, all on your own. These are skills that you have. I am confident that you will be able to determine the correct course -- through trial and error, if no other way.” She hesitated, then patted him on the shoulder. “Because you are new to this, I will offer this advice: why did you ever mind, as a child?”

Loki stared at his mother. Had she, in more than thirty years of marriage to Loki’s father, not actually met the man? For that further matter, had she not realized how very often Loki had (or Thor) had done exactly as he pleased? So long as their mischief had not come to Frigga’s attention. “See the aforementioned wolf packs,” Loki muttered. Any other area of his life, consulting an expert was what he did, when he ran into difficulty. Why was parenting supposed to be this mystical thing that he was just supposed to know how to do?  

“Take heart, my son,” Frigga said. “A child who is exactly as biddable as her parents might wish is a child too cowed to ever become her own person. A little defiance is a healthy thing, in a child. You must decide where you will tolerate such defiance, and where you will not. And what you will do, in the event that your tolerance is exceeded.” She raised both eyebrows at him that time, expectantly.

This was… not going to work. How was it that his mother could arrive and instead of granting him some sort of assistance, she, instead, made him feel like the worst sort of disappointment? He sighed. “Isabelle, homework. You have a great deal of it to do and should you put it off for another day, you will have no time to spend with your friends, visiting. I shall be forced to call Mrs. Casper and tell her so. Kendra will have to visit after you finish your work.”

Billie actually dragged her eyes away from the TV to stare at him in betrayal. “No!”

“It is your choice,” he reminded her. “The homework must be completed. If you wish to do it tomorrow, then Kendra’s visit will be cancelled.” He couldn’t seem to keep Billie from taking up the remote, or finding yet another piece of electronics that he hadn’t yet confiscated (he really must have words with Anthony about the sheer number of… gidgets his daughter possessed) but he could call Sarah Casper and put an end to the visit.

Billie pouted at him. “But I haven’t seen her in forever!”

“And so it shall be forever plus several days, if the homework remains incomplete. Your choice, princess. Be about it. It would be rude of me to have to call Ms. Casper tomorrow.”

Billie gaped at him, then set her jaw and yanked at the stack of papers, snatching up the pencil with ill grace. “Fine,” she huffed. “If you’re gonna be a meanie about it.”

Frigga smiled brightly. “There, you see? You don’t need my help at all.”

“It becomes apparent that… how did she phrase it? Being a meanie… runs in the blood,” Loki said. “My own fault, I suppose. You asked for a grandchild, and I delivered one already well grown. That is what we both get, for a rush job.”

“I rather think it’s a job well done,” Frigga said. “She reminds me of your father, in this mood.” She kissed Loki’s cheek and moved toward the door. “I shall leave you to it.”

Loki had, he would later consider, completely taken leave of his senses. “Do come by, if you care to, on Friday? And Father, as well? We shall have dinner here. I am, you know, capable of cooking.” That was mostly true. He’d made a few meals, here and there, although he generally decided that it wasn’t worth the effort when it was just himself to feed.

Frigga brightened. “Oh, that would be delightful! Your father and I will be here at seven sharp.”

Loki rolled his tongue around in his mouth a moment and considered that he might have just done exactly what his mother wanted him to do. Again.

And look how well that had worked out for him, the first time. “I’ll look forward to it,” he told her. Never let them see you bleed.

***

He wasn’t entirely certain when Billie became his ally as well as his daughter; it might have been when he dragged out an old box of papers and found the index card on which Becca had jotted down a recipe for him.

“I don’t want to go out,” Becca had told him. She had been wearing nothing but one of his lemon-yellow bedsheets and it was a remarkably good look for her. “Look, run to the store and pick up some things, I’ll make food.”

She’d worn one of his button-down shirts and cooked pasta with button mushrooms and -- perhaps inspired by the sheets -- a lemon-cream sauce. He had tossed a salad for them to eat on the side. They had drunk most of a bottle of wine and eaten the pasta right out of the skillet because Loki only had four bowls at the time, and two of them had already been in the dishwasher.

“Your mother made this for me, once,” Loki said, finally finding the scrap of paper with her handwriting on it. “Lemon and bowties. Did she make it for you?”

Billie scrunched up her nose, trying to think. “I... don’t know.” She seemed distressed by the possibility. “I don’t remember it.”

“Shall we try it, then?” he asked her. “I shall depend on your direction, being raised in a kitchen, as you are. And later, when you decide you must learn to play Blackjack, I shall teach it to you.”

Billie eyed the recipe card closely, chewing on her lip in unconscious imitation of her uncle. “What’s Blackjack?”

“It’s a card game, Princess,” Loki told her. “One that, if you are a skilled player, and have quite a bit of luck, you can make money playing. Or, so goes the theory, which is where my money comes from -- people who think they’re good players, and are not.” Anthony would probably not appreciate him teaching Billie to gamble, but then again, Anthony needed to be taken down a peg or two. Billie didn’t have quite Anthony’s gift for mathematics, but given time, she might match her foster-father.

“Oh. It’s a deal, then,” she agreed. “I’ll show you how to cook, and you can show me how to play Jackblack.”

“Blackjack,” Loki corrected gently. “Jack Black is the voice actor who played Po in Kung Fu Panda.” He stifled a groan. Why did he even know that? Jack Black was a low brow actor, barely comical at all.

“Blackjack,” she agreed. “I can make eggs, too. This doesn’t look like it makes very much,” she said, waving the card.

“We can certainly double the recipe,” he said, peering at it over her shoulder. “Well, if your uncle decides to accompany our parents, then we should probably double it again. Thor must eat a great deal to maintain his thick head.”

He read through the directions a few times. “Should you like to go to the grocer with me? You’ve been pent up in the apartment quite some number of days now, but you’ll have to use your crutches for a spell.”

“Yes!” Billie immediately started trying to lever herself upright, groping for her crutches. “I wanna go to the store! I wanna help pick out dessert!”

“Of course you do,” Loki said. “If you like, we can get some of that sparkling cider you like, as well.” His father would expect mead, and Loki kept a few bottles on hand, for those rare occasions when he hosted an event. He sent a text to his bartender, to bring one up.

Dinner. It would be fine.

The grocery shopping went well, if it took quite a bit longer than he’d been anticipating. And the fact that neither Billie nor Loki was well acquainted with the layout, they had to tour each aisle to make certain they didn’t miss anything. The placement of some items, however, was frustrating. Why, Loki found himself wondering, did they place capers with pickles and not in spices?

Billie seemed to find at least three things on each aisle that they simply must have, despite having no connection whatsoever to the meal at hand: snacks and chips and cookies, Loki had expected, but where had she come by a fascination with pickled ginger? Or gourmet olives? There was no rhyme or reason to the child’s selections. Reminding her of their mission sufficed to rein her in only about half the time; the rest of the time he was presented with huge, liquid eyes and a heartfelt, “Please, Father?” that was damnably hard to resist.

The cereal aisle netted an entire batch of toaster pastries, which Loki at least knew Thor would eat, if Billie managed to stuff herself full of pseudo-breakfast food.

Loki was a well-to-do man; his vehicle stood out in the lot from the numerous SUVs and minivans. But even he made a slight face at the cost of their trip. Not to mention that packing it all in the trunk of his BMW proved to be a reminder of an old game he used to play when he was younger. Grocery Tetris, good lord, how the mighty have fallen. Finally everything was in place, even if he would need to borrow a luggage rack to get it all up to his apartment.

“I pray that we did not forget anything,” Loki told his daughter as they rode the elevator back up. “I daresay my cabinets will never forgive you.”

“That was awesome,” Billie chirped. “I can’t wait to go again!” Naturally, she abandoned him as soon as they entered the apartment, flopping onto the couch to “rest her leg” rather than help him figure out where to put any of it.

After finding a home for most of the foodstuffs -- well, at least she would still be here for the better part of another month, surely some of the food would get eaten -- he discovered the next problem.

While he had invested in more cutlery and dishes in the years between when he’d first taken up residence, he owned… two pots. And one tiny fry-pan that was just barely of a size to cook a single egg.

“That’s not gonna be big enough,” Billie observed, back on her feet again now that the tedious chore was done.

Loki exhaled. “I am gathering that,” he said. There was part of him that wondered if he could get away with one of Thor’s date tricks that usually involved getting veal parmesan from the local Italian place just up the road and moving it into a serving dish.

Probably not. Not only would his mother never believe it, he wasn’t certain he actually had a serving platter.

Loki eyed his daughter. Despite being upright, he was starting to recognize that glazed look in her eyes that meant she needed some rest and perhaps another one of her pain pills. He pulled out his phone and thumbed through the icons. “Do you think you could tell me what cooking implements we’ll need?” The service charges for less than an hour’s delivery weren’t terrible; he could order most of the items he needed and have them delivered.

Which he probably should have thought to do with the damn groceries.

“Uh. A pot to make the pasta in. And a big skillet. Bowls for the salad. And, uh...” She swayed on her feet a little. “I dunno what else.”

Loki dragged a chair over. “Here, sit, please,” he said. “Your uncles will execute me, and that slowly, if I allow you to hurt yourself again.” Come to think of it, Billie’s uncles would probably know what to do.

He scowled at his phone, clenching one hand and then spreading his fingers wide, before switching away from the ordering app.

Stark, I could use some advice, if you’ve a moment? Texting was his least favorite form of communication, but actually speaking to Anthony while he was holding on to his sanity would probably not be a good plan.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Evythng OK?

Delightful. In an effort to prove to my mother that I was qualified to attend my child’s needs, I may have gotten myself into some trouble.

Why were texts so short? Bothersome device.

My personal kitchen is not robust. Would you be so kind as to tell me what cookery implements i might need to make pasta, perferably in sizes that can feed the entirity of my famiyl?

He hit send before correcting the typos, which made him grit his teeth a little. Anthony was sure to notice those errors.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Big pot, psta spn if spgtti othrwz slotted srv spn. Pan 4 sauc, probly. Ladl r spn 4 that. Sides?

Or perhaps Stark would not notice Loki’s terrible spelling. It took him a few moments to make his eyes stop crossing long enough to interpret.

Salad, pre-sliced rosemary bread and butter. Turtle cheesecake for dessert. My mother will either be impressed or appalled.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Bwls 4 salad, sep plates 4 bred & dessert. Bredbasket if ur feelng fancy. But it’s u, so def basket. Ur not mkng chscake are u?

“Your Uncle Anthony is very rude,” Loki told his daughter, who was practically drowsing at the table.

Heavens, no. Pre-made. Isabelle picked it out.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Gud, chscake is hard. Billie has good tste tho. Oh, and srving dshes. Big 1s if thors eating.

Loki considered the list. Nothing terribly difficult to obtain, he hoped. My thanks, Anthony. For your service, I shall give you my firstborn child.

Anthony sent back a picture of a laughing face, and then followed that with, hopefly soon. We miss her.

 

Chapter Text

Billie stood in front of the three-way mirror, fluffing her skirts and twisting to watch them twirl. The seamstress didn’t seem remotely bothered by Billie’s fidgeting as she pinned up the hem. Anthony had offered to pick Billie up to take her to this fitting for her dress -- only just, as the wedding was for Anthony’s mother -- but he’d sounded so harried that Loki had found himself agreeing to handle it. He’d gotten quite used to ferrying Billie around with her crutches, anyway.

“You’re going to be so very pretty,” the seamstress promised. “You’ll be even prettier than the bride!”

Billie cocked her head, considering this. “Maybe,” she allowed. “Grandmama is pretty old. But she’s still pretty.” She stood still to ponder it, and the seamstress took advantage of the momentary stillness to check her sleeves. Billie looked up and found Loki in the mirror. “Were you ever married before?”

Loki did not allow himself to fidget. What an idea, the poor, deranged child. “No,” he said. “I fear one pales in comparison to one’s brother, and sadly, by the time I came into my own, most of my age-mates were long since spoken for.”

He’d dated, a little, but seldom found a woman who didn’t mind the hours his job kept him away, or if she did not, she was a little more enamoured of the money than the person. It wasn’t difficult, most nights, to select a partner for the evening from those who patronized his establishments, even if he did not make so much of a production of it as his brother. But dating someone seriously enough to find a bride?

His mother had threatened him once, with a chosen mate, and truthfully, Loki might have taken her up on it, but the promised girl had never made an appearance.

“Huh,” Billie said thoughtfully. “But you might’ve married my mom,” she said, confirming.

“Certainly,” Loki said. Absolutely, he would have done. If Becca had come to him, pregnant, or shortly after Billie’s birth, he would have. It, perhaps, would have been a mistake, as he’d have done it as the proper response to the situation, and quite frankly, Becca was nothing that could be mistaken for proper. “I fear it is more that she would not have me.”

Billie nodded solemnly. “She said I didn’t need a father. But I kind of like having one now. And my dads.”

“And we are delighted to have you, as well,” Loki said. He shot his cuffs, looking down at his hands. “She did not, then, have a partner of her own, while you were in Atlanta?” He didn’t know why he was torturing himself with that information. How did it matter if Becca was alone, how did that information do him any good? But, perhaps, if she had no one, then the problem was not Loki at all.

Billie shook her head. “Mostly she just hung out with Aunt Jessie, sometimes, if they both weren’t working. Aunt Jessie always brought me a snack for the ‘pigs.”

“Very admirable role models, your mother and aunt, both,” Loki said. “A nurse and a police detective. Quite altruistic. Your uncle tells me that she didn’t prefer our oceanfront resorts, but I am glad she was settled and comfortable. Perhaps our timing was just wrong.” She had been Thor’s friend, at first, one of the band mates that Thor brought home.

Loki wasn’t even certain if she had remembered him, when he’d come across her drinking in his bar.

She’d been a fright, really, still wearing clothing from her mother’s funeral, her mascara smudged around her eyes from -- she said -- a fight with her father after the service.

The seamstress poked the dress one more time. “All right, dear, you can change,” she told Bille. “The alterations will be ready in ten day’s time.”

Billie paused for one last twirl in front of the mirrors. “Don’t worry,” she told Loki. “I’ll help you find someone to marry.” And then she dashed for the changing rooms as fast as her crutches would allow.

Both Loki’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t… what possible use could I have for a wife, at this point?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said the seamstress, obviously trying hard not to burst into laughter.

“Do hurry along,” Loki called, checking his watch. “We have your movie outing with Mr. Bain in an hour, and we have to determine how, exactly, you are sitting in a theater seat with a broken leg.”

Billie didn’t answer, but she emerged from the changing room only a few minutes later. “I can sit sideways,” she said. “Bryan won’t mind if I have to put my leg on him.”

“If only because it means you are not running him down on the soccer field at the moment,” Loki pointed out. His child was a tyrant on the pitch, something she had either gotten from Thor or her uncle Barnes, as that sort of athleticism had not come from him.

He got her out of the shop and into his car, which had accumulated, once again, a full collection of soda cups and paper wrappers. Too many trips to the doctor, out to see her family at Dockside, back and forth from school. At least Loki did not, in fact, own an SUV. Getting her into and out of a high-bottomed car would have been tedious.

And Thor would have been entirely too amused. Loki’s car was one of his prized possessions, a deep, rich wine color. Classy, and not quite sedate, but packing a punch under the hood. Of course, going to the movies with the Bains meant having to make small talk with a woman he’d nearly committed an indiscretion with, and no longer desired to do so. They’d met for coffee twice and once ended up kissing and groping in his car like teenagers.

A third outing had been planned, and he might have sealed the deal. At which point, Thor had crisply informed him that his assumption -- that Sunset was, in fact, divorced -- was untrue. And that was trouble Loki did not need.

He couldn’t… quite ghost the woman, as she was the mother of his child’s friend, but he’d rather have not…

Then they were pulling into the theater parking lot.

Billie shrieked with delight, far too loud for the enclosed space of the car. “There they are! There!” She pointed frantically, as if Loki could not already see them himself.

“O frabjous day,” Loki said, under his breath. Always so dramatic, his mother would accuse him. Well, Sunset Bain wasn’t the jabberwock, but she was a right piece of work. “Do settle, child. The theater is not going anywhere.”

Bryan practically got himself run over, trying to help Bille get the car’s door, before Loki had even pulled all the way into the parking space and the two of them were headed for the theater doors without a look back.

“Sunset,” Loki greeted her, a trifle on the cool side.

“Loki,” she purred. “How have you been?”

“Making adjustments to being a full-time single parent, for the time being,” he said. “Isabelle cannot manage stairs yet, easily, and we removed her to my apartment as she recuperates. Shall we join them, before my child buys out the concessions?”  

“So I heard,” Sunset said. She tucked her arm through his as they crossed the lobby. “Look at them,” she said, waving at their children. “Aren’t they adorable together?”

Loki blinked. “She looks much the same as she did only a few moments before,” he said. “And quite a bit messier than she did before the seamstress appointment.” How had she managed, already, to get butter flavored oil down her shirt? Really.

“Look!” she told him, “I got the big popcorn so Bryan and I can share!” Bryan was holding the popcorn so she could manage her crutches, and it was, in fact, nearly the size of the child’s entire torso.

Sunset tinkled out a laugh. “Oh, you two. Have you decided where you’re sitting?”

Loki waited until his daughter took her seat, next to Bryan, and then sat next to her, assuming that Sunset would sit on the far side, but of course not. She squeezed in at the end with a titter and a “boy girl, boy girl,” like they were all in middle school.

“Oh, excuse me one moment,” Loki said, getting up. “I should text Anthony. He wished to know about the fitting. I believe his mother is driving him to distraction.” He hesitated, not quite wanting to scoot by her, facing either toward or away, but getting around Billie and her cast would be even more awkward.

Dear lord, did that woman have no subtlety? He restrained himself from brushing off the back of his slacks as he headed into the lobby.

You are required to rescue me.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Frm what?

Two hours in a dark theater with Sunset Bain. You introduced me to her. What were you possibly thinking?

New text from Anthony Stark:
Was thnking: dear gd get her away frm me!

She’s horrific.

Loki paused, watched the theater staffer dump a batch of popcorn. How long could he reasonably delay?

You at least have the relative comfort of your husband as a shield. She’s quite aggressive. Also, the jr. bridesmaid’s dress will be ready in ten days.

New text from Anthony Stark:
10 days gotit, thx. Dunno wht u thnk i cld do vs snset. Gd luck!

Loki scowled. She’s trying to marry off our child to her son, just so you’re aware. He was pretty sure that was Sunset’s aim, at least. She was an ambitious sort, and even if she did not know about Stark’s fortune, she had to be aware of Billie’s place in the local hierarchy. He heaved a sigh. He could probably get away with another minute or two, and then he’d have to go back in and pretend fascination with the movie.

New text from Anthony Stark:
Yep. P sure Billie’s rxn so far is “ew yuck”

I expect some sympathy from you, Anthony, or I shall invite her as my plus one to your mother’s wedding and spend the whole time pointing out how lonely you look.

New text from Anthony Stark:
U wdnt dare.
All th sympthy u want jst keep hr away frm me!

Loki allowed himself a brief smile. If he had to suffer, someone else had to, as well. Try me.

He turned his phone off and went back into the theater.

Billie more or less ignored him as he resumed his seat. Sunset, alas, did not. She leaned close enough to press her bosom against his arm and whispered, far too close to his ear, “Shall I catch you up on what you’ve missed?” Her hand came to rest on his thigh.

Loki wasn’t even certain what the movie was, to be honest. Something Billie had been eager to see, a sequel to something else that he’d probably sat through at least once. The child had an endless supply of movies he had to see, Father, you have to see it, it’s so good! “I’m a quick study,” he said, keeping his voice low for the comfort of those around him, and not because he wanted to be leaning any closer to Sunset than necessary. “I daresay I’ll muddle it out.”

She stopped trying to talk to him, thank the gods, but she didn’t sit up again, either. Instead, she nestled her head down onto his shoulder as if planning to settle in for a nap.

Well, perhaps she had the right idea. Whatever the movie was, the acting was poor, the special effects flashy, and the soundtrack, entirely too loud. Sunset was at least plump in the right places. Loki settled into his seat and let himself drift off.

He woke to a sudden increase in light as the house lights came up, and Sunset sitting up to stretch, thrusting her chest in his direction indelicately. “Oh, dear,” she tittered. “It seems we slept together.”

Loki clamped his teeth together on the first dozen or more comments that came to mind, before giving her a tight lipped smile. Hoped she didn’t repeat that around town, but when was Sunset Bain ever discreet? “My dreadful manners,” he said. “Parenting has been somewhat tiring. Valhalla still requires a great deal of my attention and I think sleep has gotten the shortest shrift, of late.”

“Oh,” she pouted, and trailed her finger down his sleeve. “Does that mean we can’t take the kids out for ice cream?” Damn her, she said it loud enough for them to overhear.

At least they had to take separate cars to the ice cream shop; even Sunset was not so eager to spend time with him that she’d cram herself into the BMW’s miniscule backseat and Billie’s broken leg wouldn’t fit. For a laugh, he turned his phone back on as they were getting out in front of the cheery pink sign.

Of course he would not bring Sunset as a date anywhere, and not to such an intimate family function as a wedding, but Anthony certainly did not know that. He employed his time with a fond smile, reading through Anthony’s increasingly annoyed and desperate (and badly spelled) texts while his daughter dithered over what flavor of ice cream she wanted.

Finally, finally, the day’s adventures were over. He tucked Billie into the front seat of his car and headed for home.

Ten minutes into the drive, Billie suddenly gasped and sat up straight. “Father!”

Loki’s hands tightened on the wheel; had he missed some car cutting them off? After a panicked moment, he relaxed. “You needn’t think quite so loudly, child,” Loki said. “It makes it difficult to drive.”

“But I got the best idea! You could marry Bryan’s mom! And then Bryan and I could hang out all the time!

That time, Loki did almost take his hands off the wheel. “That would be a simply wretched idea,” he said. “Mrs. Bain is already married.” Thank all the gods that there ever were. Because only they knew what Sunset would do if she had managed to get her claws into him. “You wouldn’t want Bryan to lose his father, would you?”

Billie considered it. “I think he’d be okay with it. Mr. Bain is never home anyway. At least I’ve never met him.”

That might have been true, Loki considered. “That being the case, I can think of other reasons to wed, but very few of them involve making it more convenient for you to spend time with your friend. My own comfort, in such a case, must by necessity, rank somewhat higher.”

Billie slumped in the seat with a huff. “You could just say you don’t like her. Dad doesn’t like her, either. I dunno why, she’s always nice to me.”

“Anthony has good taste,” Loki agreed. “She is very kind to you, and Bryan is a good friend. For those things, she will do well enough as a friend. But for myself, I’m afraid I cannot hold her in much esteem. Whether he is in attendance or not, she made a promise to Bryan’s father, and then fails to keep herself to it. It is… no fault of your friend.”  

“Oh,” Billie said. She kicked at the seat with her good leg, pondering, then perked up. “Don’t worry, Father, we’ll find someone for you!”

“Truly, child,” Loki told her as earnestly as he knew how. “I am well enough without someone. You needn’t put yourself to the trouble.”

Good lord, next she would be suggesting that he take up with Barnes’ waitress, Sharon, who had a son Billie’s age as well.

 

Chapter Text

Loki had run into the hurricane that was Maria Stark several times, when Maria was meddlesome mothering her way around the Stark-Barnes wedding. (He distinctly recalled yelling at one of his underlings, “you had one job, one!” when she’d managed to corner him in his office for just a few quick questions about the catering.)

That woman was nowhere in evidence when Loki escorted his daughter to the wedding rehearsal. Instead, Maria Stark had turned into a nervous, but happy, friendly woman, who looked with soft eyes at her husband to be, and deferred to the opinions of her wedding planner.

Billie was beyond excited to be part of the wedding, especially now that her cast was off and she could walk again -- well, hobble, with the continued aid of the crutches. She’d “tried on” her dress so many times that she was in danger of wearing it out before the wedding actually began, and it was the first topic of conversation whenever she talked to any of her friends. She had, of course, insisted on wearing it to the rehearsal, though Loki had made her bring a bag with a change of clothes for the dinner. The last thing they needed was for her to spill something on it at this late stage.

The wedding rehearsal itself was -- as most of them were -- a benign mixture of utter chaos and dragging boredom. They were waiting for the planner to rearrange the bridesmaids yet again when Stark wandered over. “I see you made it through a whole month and a half of mostly solo parenting relatively unscathed.”

Loki wasn’t quite sure that scathed was a word, but at times, he’d certainly felt like it should be. “Of course,” he said. “She’s hardly on a scale with a hostile takeover with particular New Jersey families.” Really, she wasn’t. That had been revoltingly difficult, and Loki had put a bottle through a plate glass window in frustration during that particular event. He was proud to say he hadn’t thrown a single thing while parenting Billie, except, perhaps, a temper tantrum. Once. Maybe.

Stark just shrugged. “That’s why I got out of the business end of things,” he said. “Hostile takeovers and contract bidding wars -- ug. But Billie can be a handful. I admit, I was half-expecting you to call it quits and send her back to us after the first couple of weeks.”

“She is well spirited,” Loki admitted. “Naught that I could not manage. And she was no more capable of climbing stairs up until two days ago than she was at the start -- well, perhaps a little more able. The medication they gave her at first was quite potent.”

“Yeah, we talked about it and decided if she got you tied up in knots, we’d get a hotel room for the duration. Glad you managed okay, though. That would’ve been hell on the commute.”

Billie, whose place at the end of the bridesmaid line was fixed, turned around in her seat a few rows ahead of them to say, “Father was a great dad! And when he got stuck, Grandmama Frigga helped!”

Loki heaved a sigh and glanced sideways to see Stark covering his mouth, which did nothing, because the man smiled with his entire face. “That was one time, only.” Well, and about ten phone calls, one bottle of bourbon that he kept in his desk drawer for medicinal purposes, and actually went to the gym with his brother, for the purposes of getting out some pent up nerves. Admittedly, the nerves had been more brought on by Sunset Bain and her devil-take-her “we slept together” bit of nonsense.

Stark spread his hands. “Hey, far be it from me to cast stones. I’d have called my mom about six times a day when Billie first arrived, if I thought she’d have anything useful to contribute.”

“You refer, possibly, to your mother’s penchant for wantonly buying out entire shops? I encountered that particular tendency at the local grocers. I promise, I shall send her home with every bit of pickled ginger and licorice root that she managed to wheedle into my basket.”

Tony grimaced sympathetically. “Yeah, that’s why we don’t take her to the store very often. We usually do that shopping while she’s at school.”

A sharp clap caught their attention -- the wedding planner, Val. Val stood for something, but Loki wasn’t sure what. She was a beautiful woman who took absolutely no nonsense from anyone; Loki had admired her masterful way of cutting through red tape like a Gordian knot, with an attitude she wielded like a sword. “Everyone! Places! Let’s go through this one more time. Go on!” She pointed at Stark and shooed him toward the back of the room. “That means you, too!”

Stark sighed and shuffled off as he was told. Loki was grateful to not actually be part of the wedding party.

Although, for someone who was only tangentially related to the Starks/Barnes contingent, he certainly seemed to be spending more and more time with them and at their family events.

There were truly a ridiculous number in the wedding party, from Stark, who was giving away the bride, to Barnes and Wilson as groomsmen, as well as some number of Coulson’s contemporaries and military acquaintances and a whole floral bouquet’s worth of bridal attendants. Barnes turned in his seat to wink at his husband as Stark scampered up the makeshift aisle to grab his mother’s veil from where she’d left it.

“Aw, baby, lookit that, you were talkin’ with your friend. How sweet.”

“Stop that,” Stark hissed, “or I am going to kill you. We’re not friends.”

Barnes just laughed. “You ain’t gonna kill me,” he said, utterly confident. “Not until after the weddin’, leastways. Ain’t so often you get me in a tux.”

Stark scowled, then sagged in mock-defeat. “You have a point.” He straightened his shoulders and offered his arm to his mother. “Let’s get this over with so we can have dinner.”

It was, in fact, four more run-throughs before Val was satisfied with the timing, the appearance, the aesthetic (whatever that meant) and the flow of motion down the walkway. And then one more time after that, which Loki rather suspected was simply because Stark had been complaining in his aggrieved voice, and Val wanted to make certain Stark was absolutely clear on who was in charge, here.

“I think I like her,” Loki aired that particular thought to no one in particular.

***

While the early morning had dawned with a gray sky and threatened to rain all over Stark’s mother (and his child’s grandmama), it had cleared up in time for the wedding, with just enough of a breeze to make for dramatic wedding photographs. They’d moved indoors for the reception, once again taking advantage of Barnes’ prime real estate to host the happy couple. The wrap-around deck had been converted to a dance space, along with the bar, and indoors was occupied with those attempting to eat their weight in buffet style seafood.

Loki had obtained a fairly sizable goblet of wine and was mostly engaged in following his daughter around from one group to the next, demanding that people admire her dress, or share off their plate, Stark and Barnes being otherwise engaged in wedding party duties. Loki believed it was very handy for them to have a spare parent in attendance.

Maria wore a gown that could have graced runways instead of being worn at a beach wedding, a silver laced thing that faded into white near the narrow skirt. Billie did not, at all, pay any attention to such niceties as a receiving line, instead, butting all the way to the front to greet her grandmother and Maria’s new husband.

“Grandmama! Your dress is almost as pretty as mine!” She threw her arms around Maria’s neck, leaving Loki to catch the dropped crutches and heedless of her fine clothes or the hairstyle that had likely taken hours to secure.

“Your dress does, indeed, suit,” Maria said, kissing Billie’s cheek. “And you look quite lovely.”

“However, it’s kinda a rule,” Phillip Coulson said, putting his hand on Maria’s back lovingly, “that as the bride, your grandmother is the most beautiful woman in the room today.”

The look Coulson directed at his new wife was wide-eyed and starstruck. Loki was quite certain that the man would not have noticed being run through, so long as no one got in the way of his being able to admire her.

“Since Isabelle has cut us through the line, allow me to extend my sincerest best wishes, and a welcome to the -- somewhat extended -- family,” Loki said, leaning on his relationship through his daughter to give Coulson a quick handshake.

Billie barely waited until Loki had released Coulson’s hand before giving him another of those crushing hugs. “And now I can call you Grandpa Phil!”

Coulson swallowed audibly. “Well, I suppose you can, Billie,” he said, coughing awkwardly. “Huh. I don’t know how that particular fact escaped my attention.” The man blanched a little, as Billie turned away to spin around, sending her skirts swirling.

“And you’ve obtained a stepson, as well,” Loki said, not without some sympathy. He knew about later-in-life acquisition of family and the havoc it could wreak on one’s peace of mind. He clapped the man on the shoulder with a show of good cheer. “I’m sure he’ll be delightful, come Father’s Day.”

Stark, positioned on his mother’s other side, leaned over to say, “Yes, I will. I’ve already started planning. Dad.”

Coulson spluttered, giving Stark a particularly terrified look.

“Shall we fetch a glass of wine for your grandfather, Billie?” Loki asked. “He looks as though he might require some fortification. I know I would, if I were confronted with your dad as a son. Quite fearsome, indeed.” Maria Stark-Coulson was utterly unfooled by any of Loki (or Stark’s) nonsense, giving them both quite the gimlet stare. “Perhaps for both of the happy couple, but then I should be out of hands. Come, Stark, you can fetch and carry, can’t you?”

Stark glared at him, but when Maria expressed her delight at the idea, caved and followed Loki to the bar. “Only because it’s my mother,” he said firmly.

“I should expect no less,” Loki said, easily. Stark was so easy to rile up, it was almost as much fun as teasing one’s brother, back when Thor had been more susceptible to such tricks. Thor had finally outgrown such notions ‘round about the same time Loki had taken his position within the family business. “Today, of all days, belongs to your mother. Quite a happy occasion, as well, for one’s child, reunited with her family again.”

Billie was transferring back to the custody of her adopted fathers after the wedding, no longer needing the comfort and convenience of Loki’s home. He hadn’t quite decided how he felt about that circumstance. It was a thought that would wait, he supposed, until he was confronted with an empty home and no child in need of his attention.

“She’s been with family all along,” Stark said, uncharacteristically sincere. “But we’ll be happy to have her back with us. Livvy’s been despondent without her.”

Loki was unsure how to respond to that; while Stark had been his greatest ally in the family, Loki believed it was more from Stark’s innate sense of fair play, rather than any particular affection toward Loki himself. Barnes, of course, loathed Loki -- probably some ridiculous brotherly sort of thing. As if Loki had been the foul seducer of Becca, when, in truth, he’d only sat down to speak with her, and ending up with her in his bed (well, to be quite honest, on his desk, first) was entirely unexpected.

“Well,” Loki said. He contemplated his wine glass and found it empty. So long as they were making their way to the bar, he would refill his own glass. “Thank you. I cannot say the circumstances were ideal, but I find myself somewhat reluctant to give her back.” He allowed himself a small smile, to let Stark know he was only (mostly) kidding.

“She does grow on you, doesn’t she?” Stark said, watching her excitedly twirling for someone who hadn’t already seen it a thousand times.

“Much to my surprise,” Loki said. “Her mere existence was reason enough for me to love her, but getting to know her better, I find myself exceptionally grateful that we were all able to come to this, best, arrangement. Should you… wish for time to spend with your other daughter, or if you and Barnes need to vacation, I should be delighted to take her again, for another lengthy spell.”

“Thank you,” Stark said. “We’ll keep that in mind.”

“Loki! Brother!” That voice was decidedly unwelcome, and Loki only barely managed to keep hold of his glass of wine as Thor thundered up to him, pounding him on the back jovially. “Look at this, you’ve found yourself a boon companion! How amusing!”

Loki choked on a nonexistent swallow of wine. “What? No. No. We are merely discussing one’s offspring’s arrangements.”

“Why do people keep making that assumption?” Stark demanded. “Thor, what are you even doing here?’

Thor, the big oaf, didn’t even look offended. Loki certainly wasn’t offended that Stark didn’t consider Loki a friend. Their relationship was, really, quite a bit different than that, although Loki didn’t have quite the words on hand to define it.

“‘Tis a wedding, friend Stark,” Thor said. “Food, drink, music, and dancing. I love weddings.” He gave Stark a sly wink. “I’m Eric’s plus one. We shall have quite the revelrous evening.”

“Of course you are,” Stark sighed, then pointed at Thor. “No kissing Bucky.”

Thor scoffed. “But he’s so good at it.”

Loki raised an eyebrow delicately. “Really, Thor? After all this time, have you finally found love… with a married man?”

“Nonsense,” Thor said. “Even you have to admit, brother, that Bucky has a beautiful mouth, very kissable.”

“I am not part of this conversation,” Loki insisted. “I have no opinion, whatsoever, on that particular Barnes’ mouth.”

“Good,” Stark said, smiling just a bit wider than necessary, “because it’s mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my mother and stepfather require refreshment.” He collected a pair of wine glasses and left.

“I cannot determine, brother, if you are a blessing in disguise, or a curse hung ‘round my neck,” Loki said. “I shall not forgive you for the mental picture of you kissing Barnes.”

“I kiss everyone, brother,” Thor said. “I’m very generous that way.”

“Indeed.” That didn’t even require begging his brother’s leave, and Loki turned away. One’s offspring had managed to engage herself in something of a dance with Barnes’ foster brother, and the big blond man was waltzing around with Billie standing on the toes of his dress shoes, while the man’s wife stood to the side holding the crutches and watching fondly. Relieved, for the moment, of childcare and other social obligations, Loki refilled his wine glass and made his way to the bar that overlooked the ocean for a bit of privacy.

Val had beat him there, and was watching the waves curl. She held a truly impressive glass of wine negligently in one hand. She glanced over at his approach, then looked back at the water. “This is a good spot,” she observed. “I’ll have to add it to my list of suggestions and options.”

“Destination weddings,” Loki said. “Feel free to add me as a consultant. The Valhalla can accommodate most wedding parties and guests in casual luxury. I believe I’ve heard your name, Miss Val, but we have not been properly introduced. Loki Odinson, manager of the Valhalla.”

She switched her wine glass to her left hand and offered him her right. “Sian Bowen, actually. Owner and manager of Valkyrie Weddings. Everyone calls me Val.” She smiled, just a little. “It would be appropriate, perhaps, for me to deliver my customers to Valhalla. Got a card?”

“Sian,” Loki said, rolling her name around in his mouth. “Delighted to make your acquaintance. And while I have several cards, they are back at my office. I had not quite expected to mix business with pleasure, this evening.” He eyed her, sidelong. She was a very handsome woman, fiery and no nonsense, but also with a doll-like, almost ethereal elegance. “As happens, I find it difficult to leave business behind entirely, but…” He set his wine goblet on the railing. “Perhaps one might be tempted to combine the two?”

She arched an eyebrow at him. She glanced toward the restaurant interior and checked her watch. “Coming up on time for the first dance, so... you’ve got until I finish this glass of wine to make your pitch,” she said. And then she started drinking.

No nonsense. Loki liked that in a woman, quite a good deal. She wasn’t going to make him flutter about her for the evening, nor would she say anything more than she actually meant.

And… she was chugging that glass of wine like she was dying of thirst.

“I should like very much,” he said, eying the contents as they vanished with alacrity, “if you would take the first open dance. With me. I found myself very taken with your command, poise, and grace. Not to mention, just a dash of petty, since I do believe that last rehearsal was to spite Stark and for no other reason whatsoev--” he stopped as soon as the glass left her lips.

She looked him over, appraisingly. “I like a man who knows how to follow directions,” she said. She leaned close, running her fingers down the length of his tie. “You’ve got yourself a dance.” Her breath ghosted over his cheek, intoxicating in more than one sense, and then she was gone, her glass left next to his on the railing.

He followed her in, a swift shadow behind her, noting while he was at it, that she was just as delightful to look at from behind, her hips round and mobile, waist trim. She was tall, and even so, wore high heeled boots that covered to just above her knee, her blue dress stopping an inch or so above the boots to reveal a glimpse of rich brown skin.

Val cued the musicians, a quartet of no small talent, heaven only knew where she’d found them, and then nudged a blushing Mrs. Coulson onto the floor with her new husband. There would be a few dances before the floor would open to general couples; bride and groom, bride and her son, Coulson with that redhaired woman that waitressed at Dockside, but then… Loki found himself watching Val move, attending her duties, with avid interest. Not quite so much that he was gawking, but enough that when she looked his way, as if feeling his gaze on her, she gave him a slow smile, like pouring honey off a spoon.

When the floor finally opened to general dancing and Val’s duties were discharged for the moment, she made her way to him. “I believe I promised a dance?” she said, offering her hand.

“I like a woman who stands by her word,” Loki said, echoing her comments back to her. It had been some time -- he glanced over at Barnes, who was leading his husband onto the floor -- since the last time he’d danced, when he’d taken Janet VanDyne to the floor to escape an awkward conversation.

It took him a moment to gain the proper way of it, his hand going to her hip with grace, and then they were moving to the music. Slow, easy, old and romantic, the music swelled and dipped, like the tide’s rhythm. “Well, I have not entirely lost the trick of it,” he said. He didn’t have to look down, she was exactly of a height with him. That amused him, that he would merely have to turn his head to avoid bumping her nose, if she was interested in a kiss. Her eyes snapped a challenge at him, as if reading his mind.

But what she said was, “Good. I’d hate to think you’d ask me to dance without actually knowing how.”

“Never,” Loki said. “I know well my value, skills, and abilities. I should not offer anything I cannot adequately provide.” That was a little dangerous, the edge of a more intimate offer, but still able to step away from it, if she wasn’t interested. “Nor, I think, are you the sort who overstates her own expertise.”

Her mouth curved, a little, and it felt like victory. “I make good on my promises,” she agreed, “and I do what I set out to do. But I’m sure you can do so much better than... adequate.”

“It is not for me to judge my own performance,” Loki said. “If you would allow it, I should like to take this time to get to know you better. One’s offspring might make some of that difficult; she’s a curious child, but, a few drinks, some dancing, and perhaps, if we both find ourselves delighted, we can discuss it further?”

Val considered him again, then tipped her head in acquiescence. “All right,” she said. “Delight me.”

The music switched, the band taking a few moments and the DJ stepping in, something pop-synth. Had to be Barnes’ suggestion, because Loki honestly couldn’t see Maria making anything like that as a selection.

“As the colloquialism goes,” Loki said, “challenge accepted.” He took a few steps back, checking his dance space. Raised his hands as if he was summoning up an army of admirers, and kicked it out.

Slow dances, waltzing, those sorts of things that his mother had always insisted he learn in order to woo women (he wondered how those particular lessons worked out for Thor) were left behind. Loki knew how to move.

Dancing was not entirely about one’s own moves, although Loki admitted, he was showing off a bit, his feet quick and graceful, legs working with each pulse of the music, but about connection. Making contact with one’s partner, pulling them into the rhythm of his body, drawing her in with sensual moves and tempting her to let go. With him.

His dance was a challenge, as well as blatant swagger. He tucked his hips, letting her see all the grace and measure he possessed, then offered her his hand, to lead her out, to match their moves together, to twist and sway to the music.

She smiled, and this time he saw a glint of teeth as she took his hand let let him pull her in. She moved carefully at first, watching him, learning his steps, and then with more confidence. Val had obviously spent a lot of time on dance floors. She challenged him right back, sinuous to his swagger, elegant and surefooted, matching him step for step, and exhilaration that was more than sexual.

There was a crowd now, watching them, but there was no time to think of them. The music moved him, and she moved with him, as easily as if they had choreographed the entire thing in advance. When the music wound to its conclusion, he took a chance -- more than adequate -- and caught her around the waist, dropping her into a showy dip.

Val’s arm was firm on his shoulder, holding herself up, but she threw her head back and laughed. “All right,” she conceded as he lifted her back up again. “I’m duly impressed and delighted.”

There were cheers and a few scattered wolf-whistles. A quick scan of the crowd caught Barnes looking at him with something like grudging respect. One’s brother, of course, who held out one enormous hand and waggled it back and forth. Mediocre. The oaf.

The crowd went back to their own dancing, and Loki turned to address Val, only to find himself accosted by his offspring. “Father! C’mon! There’s a photographer setting up to take pictures of everyone and I need a picture with you and Dad and Uncle Bucky!”

Of course she did. And right at this very instant, too. He almost apologized, but at the last minute, kept that clamped between his teeth. “We all have our duties,” he said to Val. “Isabelle, say hello to Miss Bowen, if you would be so kind. She did all the planning for your grandmother’s wedding, so I’m certain you’ve met, but do thank her, for giving us such a lovely event?” He put his hand on Billie’s shoulder, turning her toward Val. “One’s daughter, Isabelle Barnes-Stark-Odinson. Although, I believe in school, she still only signs Barnes out of pity for her teachers, if nothing else.” He very much hoped that Billie did not drag out the misconception she’d had about the state of his manliness in producing a child, which she had done a few times before.

“Thank you Miss Val,” Billie said, somewhat perfunctorily. “I saw you dancing with Father! That was so cool!”

“I enjoyed it,” Val agreed. “I hope I’ll have the chance to dance with your father again.” She gave Loki a heated glance at that, but stepped back. “We all have our duties. You, to the photographer, and I, to the kitchen to check on the cake. Do be sure to find me later, Mr. Odinson.”

Loki gave Val a quick flash of teeth, before allowing Billie to lead him off to the more brightly lit corner of the room. Set off to the beach theme of the wedding, and Barnes’ own personal style of seaside decrepitude, the photo corner was populated with several groups of guests, doing the posed shots. Another photographer circled the room, taking candids. Loki reminded himself to inquire later; shots of his dance with Val might be worth collecting.

Billie deposited him quite neatly at Stark’s side.

“Didn’t know you could dance,” Barnes remarked, almost casually.

“One has acquired some talent,” Loki replied. “Your sister was light on her feet, as well.”

“Mom could dance?” Billie asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes, indeed,” Loki said, just as Barnes was nodding.

“She an’ I took lessons together, for a while,” Barnes said. “She was… oh, lots better’n me. Then our dad tried t’ get her into the Governor’s School f’r the Arts, an’... yeah, she dropped it like a hot potato.”

Stark was leaning back, looking between Barnes and Loki. “I can’t decide,” Stark said slowly, “if watching the two of you dance together would be hot as hell, or vaguely terrifying.”

Barnes made an entirely unnecessary face at the idea, and Loki felt obliged to say, “Thank you, no. I do not… stray onto my brother’s old stomping grounds.” Which, perhaps, was a mistake, since Billie then demanded what that meant, and Loki managed a brief, “Your uncle and my brother went on a date, once. But only once, because your uncle Thor is a bit of a Holly-go-lightly, when it comes to matters of the heart.”

Barnes scoffed. “There’s better choices out there than Thor.”

“I am all astonishment to find we have matters upon which we are in wholehearted agreement,” Loki said.

“All three of us, even,” Stark said, tucking his arm through Barnes’ somewhat possessively.

Billie bounced on her toes and then winced at the strain in her still-weak leg. “Is it our turn for a picture yet?” she demanded of the photographer. “I want a picture of me with my three dads!”

The photographer waved them over, and spent a while trying to arrange them by height, which kept putting Stark on the far side of Loki, and they wiggled around for a while trying to get the proper sitting to clearly mark who belonged to whom. Loki rolled his eyes, allowing himself the luxury for a change.

He was starting to wonder if Val would, actually, be interested in finding him for another dance, or maybe even more intimate activities. Billie, stars love her, was a hell of a roadblock for dating. Both Barnes and Stark had made remarks to that effect before, when handing her over for a week’s vacation. Of course, they had a new child now, and the trials that went along with an infant as well as a pre-teen.

Finally, they settled out, Loki on the far side, his hand on Billie’s shoulder, and Barnes and Stark with their arms linked, on the other side.

Several blinding flashes later, and they were making room for the next set.

“Are you happy to be heading home, tonight, princess?” Loki asked her, as they made their way out of the crowded photography area.

She considered it seriously for a moment. “Mostly,” she said. “I missed home. But I’m gonna miss you, too.”

Loki tipped Billie’s chin up and kissed her forehead. “I’m going to miss you, too, princess,” he said, which was true, if a bit surprising. “But my home is also your home, whenever you wish it.”

Billie flung her arms around him. “I love you.” She clung for a moment, then beamed up at him. “You’re my favorite. Don’t tell Dad or Uncle Bucky!”

“We’re standing right here,” Stark said mildly, looking amused. He’d recovered the dropped crutches, this time.

“Love you, too.” He ignored Stark loftily. It seemed the best course of action. “You can rely on my discretion. Since I was promised another dance by Miss Val, I believe I shall go look for her. Therefore, I return you to your uncles, mostly intact.”

Loki did a sweep of the floor, but didn’t see Val. Still managing the wedding. Or she’d decided that a single father was not entirely to her liking.

Perhaps bringing up his daughter to a potential date-mate had been ill-advised, but Loki found himself musing that if Val was uninterested in him because he was Billie’s father, she probably wasn’t worth bothering with. His daughter existed; she was part of his life. There was no denying it, nor would he wish to. He was proud to claim her as his child, happy to share what part of her life he could.

He made his way out to the deck again, the night air a bit bracing. Liberated another two glasses of wine from the bartender, and rested one on the railing. Looked out to sea, where the stars were gradually coming out.

Inside, the noise suggested that the cake-cutting had begun. Val appeared next to him, making a pleased noise as she took up the wine glass he’d left for her. She took a sip, much less heroic than earlier, and leaned against the railing, close enough that he could feel the heat radiating from her body. “No cake for you?”

“Knowing what I do of Rogers, there will be cake for days,” Loki said. He turned, leaning against the rail and looking at Val. She was so, so lovely. “They shall be giving it away on the streets to keep it from going stale. I shall liberate a few slices before I retire for the evening. And perhaps another bottle of wine; the vintage is quite superior; I’m impressed.”

“An advantage of wealthy clients who are old enough to know what they like,” Val observed. “Would you feel inclined to share any of that bounty?”

Loki lifted an eyebrow delicately. “I would love to share wine and cake with you, Sian, and the privacy of my suite. I have a very nice balcony that looks out over the ocean, if sunrise views are to your liking.”

She looked back at him, a smirking challenge. “It would be more to my liking if I were too exhausted from the night’s amusement to see the sunrise.”

“Well, I hope I shall be... adequate to your needs.”

“If you dance horizontal half as well as you do standing up, I think you’ll be more than adequate.”