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Hands of Clay

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The rain was pouring down outside when James finished tidying the living room. "Nat!" he shouted up the stairs. "They're going to be here soon, are you ready?"

Natasha pattered down the stairs in bare feet, clutching her teddy bear under her arm. "I'm ready, Daddy!" She hurried to the window so she could look out on the sidewalk. "Are they going to be wet when they get here?"

"Probably." James eased himself to the ground beside Natasha, stretching out his legs. In anticipation of a quiet day around the house, he was wearing old jeans and a flannel shirt over his faded US Army shirt. "If you go outside in the rain, you're bound to get a bit wet."

Natasha patted her teddy bear's head absently. "You know, Daddy," she said after a minute. "When I'm outside in the rain, and I get cold, there's one thing that always makes everything better." She was watching him out of the corner of her eye.

James, who had heard this pitch before, said, "Oh really?"

Natasha nodded. "When your best friend gets cold, you have to have hot chocolate so they get warmed up."

"Hot chocolate," James repeated.

"It's a law," Natasha said solemnly.

"Really?" James tugged on the teddy bear's leg. "An actual law?"

Natasha let James take the teddy bear as she resumed her vigil of the sidewalk. "It's a law in Canada," she confessed. "Maria told me."

"Well, if Maria said so." James tossed the toy onto the sofa before pulling out his phone. No messages from Steve, but it was only five to eleven. "We can ask Clint and Steve if they want hot chocolate when they get here."

Natasha let out a shriek of happiness, flinging her arms around James' neck. "Daddy, you're the best!"

James hugged his daughter until she wiggled away. She had been so happy all week, talking about Clint and how fun it was to have a best friend… James would do anything he could to make sure Clint and Natasha's friendship had its best chance at success.

"Is that them?" Natasha asked, poking her finger at the glass. Amid the rain drops outside, James saw two figures moving down the sidewalk, one tall, one small. The smaller figure was wearing a knee-length purple raincoat.

"It looks like." James climbed to his feet. He made it to the front door just as the doorbell rang. Deactivating the alarm, James opened the inner and outer doors to let Steve and Clint inside. "What did you do, swim?" he asked as Steve dripped on the mat.

"You're hilarious," Steve grumbled as he shucked off his raincoat. Clint waited patiently, arms held out to the sides like a little purple starfish. "You sure you don't want to go to the zoo? There won't be any crowds."

"Nah, I already had a shower." James hung up Steve's coat while Steve helped Clint out of his rain-gear. The boy was wearing his sunglasses, in spite of the grey clouds in the sky. "Hey, Clint, how are you doing?"

Clint gave James the thumbs-up as Steve removed the boy's sunglasses and put them on the bench.

It occurred to James at that moment that Natasha was nowhere in sight. "Nat?" he called.

A distant crash, then silence. "Daddy?"

"Go," Steve said, and James hurried through living room and into the kitchen, where he found Natasha kneeling on the counter, the cupboard door open and the hot chocolate jar smashed open on the kitchen floor, powdered hot chocolate mix covering every surface.

Natasha looked at him, her lower lip trembling. "I wanted to make hot chocolate for Clint," she said in a tiny voice.

Thankfully, Steve arrived on the scene before James had a mental breakdown. They shooed the children into the living room, then Steve took control of the broom while James went to find the mop.

"I'm going to get ants in here," James muttered.

Steve emptied a dustpan of hot chocolate mix into the sink and shook his head. "We'll get it all," he said. "It was nice of Natasha to want to make a hot drink for us."

"All I got now are coffee and whisky," James said. "I know which one I want."

"I brought some apple juice for Clint. We could put that in a sauce pan, make apple cider," Steve suggested. His wet hair was drying into adorable blond spikes, and James had to suppress away the urge to smooth those spikes down. "You've got some spices around here, I saw them last week."

"Does apple cider go with pizza?" James wondered aloud.

"Everything goes with pizza."

It took the grown-ups about ten minutes to get the powdered chocolate mix cleaned up, then James told Steve to go see what the kids were doing.

Steve hesitated, looking at the mop in James' hand. "I could do that," he offered.

James tightened his grip on the mop handle and stared Steve down. "I got this," was all he said.

With a nod, Steve turned into the living room.

Now that he didn't have an audience, James set about mopping as best he could with his metal arm. The rhythm was easy to get into, lift the mop into the bucket, wring out the water, slap the mop to the floor and push with the right hand, guide with the left. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

He had to stop once to change the water, but eventually, the floor was sparkling. With one final heave, James emptied the mop bucket into the sink, rinsed it and the mop until they were clean, then carried both to the back door to sit outside on the back stoop in the rain.

His torso ached with the pull of the prosthesis' harness, but he did not slow down. The soreness would lessen once he stopped putting weight on the metal arm; that he knew from hard experience.

Keeping an ear on the sound of voices in the living room, James pulled the stand mixer out of the cupboard, then set the pizza dough ingredients on the counter. Lastly, he poured water into the coffee maker to start a new batch of coffee going for him and Steve, then left the kitchen.

In the living room, Steve, Natasha and Clint were all coloring on large sheets of paper. Clint and Natasha were drawing Natasha's teddy bear, which was propped up on the sofa. Steve in turn was sketching the children. "All clear?" Steve asked as James collapsed into the armchair behind him.

"Yup." James shifted around so he could see Steve's picture more clearly. "That's really good."

"Art school," Steve said by way of explanation. His pencil flew over the paper, capturing the children in quick shades of movement, before he moved on to another scene. "I don't get to do much drawing in my day job."

Meanwhile, Natasha had put her crayon down and was getting to her feet. She made her way over to James and leaned against his knee, looking sad and tragic.

With an effort, James sat up. "Hey, pumpkin. You okay?"

Natasha nodded. "I'm sorry."

James pulled Natasha onto his lap and she cuddled up against his shirt. "What are you sorry for?" James asked.

"For making a mess," she said.

"I can help you clean up next time," Clint offered.

"Thanks Clint, that's a nice thing to say." James turned his attention back to Natasha. "Thank you for apologizing, Nat. What are you going to do different next time?"

Natasha winkled her nose as she thought. "Don't drop things from up high?" she suggested.

"Or," James said, "You could ask for help in getting something from the top shelf."

"All right," Natasha said in a long-suffering voice.

James kissed her cheek and set her to the ground. "Do you guys want to start the pizza dough?" he asked. Loud assent met this suggestion, and everyone crowded into the kitchen. With help from James, Natasha and Clint measured the ingredients into the bowl and supervised the mixing process, Steve watching from the sidelines. When the dough was ready, James instructed the children to wash their hands before setting them loose on the dough.

Clint was intent on kneading just so, patting the dough over and then giving it a big push with his tiny hands. Natasha was more haphazard about things, randomly pushing and slapping at the dough. She chattered away as James sprinkled flour around in hopes of preventing the dough from sticking to every available surface.

"…and Clint has archery class on Friday and swim class on Monday," Natasha was saying. "Right?"

"Uh huh." Clint paused to poke a smiley face into the dough's surface. "I shoot arrows on Friday and swim on Monday."

"Where do you swim?" Steve asked from the sidelines.

"At the YMCA," Clint said with careful pronunciation. "I'm a ray!"

James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "It's a swim level," Steve clarified. "Clint's going to move up into the big kids' swim classes this fall."

"Daddy," Natasha said hopefully, pressing her dough around the counter. "Can I go to swim lessons?"

James reached for Natasha's dough and gave it a few one-handed turns. "There's too many things in your schedule right now," he said, not looking at her. "Come on, we're almost done."

After a few more minutes, James helped Natasha and Clint put their dough into oiled bowls, had them cover the bowls with dish cloths, and got them washed up and sent them off to play.

"They have classes at the Y on Wednesday nights," Steve said as he filled the sink with soapy water.

"What?"

"Swimming on Wednesdays," Steve repeated. "You said that Natasha's art classes are done at the end of May, right? That's in a couple weeks."

James closed the lid on the flour container with more force than was necessary. "Can you drop this?" he said sharply.

"It's okay if she's never swum before, they have parent and kid starter classes—"

"I said drop it!" James barked, slamming his hand onto the counter. Steve went still. James had to push past the roaring in his head, tried to find some words to deflect Steve, because he couldn't put on a bathing suit and take Natasha into a pool, he just couldn't.

The kitchen got so quiet that James could hear the soap bubbles popping in the sink, the faint sounds of children's footsteps upstairs.

Then Steve asked, "Is this about your arm?"

James curled his metal hand into a ball, watching the play of light on the shining metal. The frustration and anger and self-loathing was thick on the back of his tongue; he couldn't even take his daughter swimming, couldn't bear the thought of people looking at him like he was some kind of freak, missing an arm, scar tissue twisted up all along his left side.

He couldn't do it.

After a moment, Steve cleared his throat. "There's also classes on Monday that I could take Natasha to. I mean, if you wanted. I have to be there anyway to drop Clint off, I just usually hang out in the observation area, but I could suit up and take Natasha into the pool for the class. It's only about forty-five minutes."

James forced his metal hand to uncurl. "Can you let it the fuck go?" he said, voice coming out ragged.

"If you want," Steve said. He went back to washing dishes while James put things away. The faint sounds still came from the upper floor, but the direction of the sounds changed slightly and it took James a moment to realize something was wrong.

"What the…"

"Everything okay?"

James threw his dishtowel on the counter. "I think they might be in my room."

Steve was at James' heels out of the room and up the stairs. "Do you have any weapons in the house?" Steve asked.

James paused mid-step to glare at Steve. "Everything's in the gun safe, which is behind a locked door with a ten-digit number code and a thumbprint scanner," he said. "I'd never let Clint go anywhere where he might get hurt."

"Good," Steve said, and he brushed past James up the stairs.

The door to James' bedroom was half-open, and James could hear the children inside speaking in hushed voices. On silent feet, James moved to push open the door, Steve hovering at his shoulder.

The closet door was open and Natasha and Clint were sitting on the floor, James' old prosthetic arm on the floor between them. The children looked up guiltily at the adults' entrance. For a moment, no one spoke.

"All right," James said finally, entering the room and crouching down. "Who wants to go first?"

Clint looked at his knees, while Natasha clasped her hands behind her back like she always did when she knew she was in trouble. "We were only looking," she said.

"I wanted to see it," Clint said in a whisper.

James sighed. "This is not a toy," he said, picking the arm up off the floor. "This is a piece of medical equipment that I still have to use sometimes."

"I know, Daddy."

"I'm going to put this back in the closet, and I need you both to promise that you won't come in here to play with it again."

"I promise."

"Me too."

Taking in the dejected expression on Clint's face, James' curiosity got the better of him. "Why did you come up here?"

Clint looked over James' shoulder to Steve, then at James' metal hand. He whispered something that James didn't catch.

"What's that?"

"He said," Natasha interjected loudly, "That he wanted to know why you had a fake arm like he has a fake ear but he's not supposed to ask you 'bout it."

James could hear Steve shifting behind him. "And you thought it was a good idea to come up and get the old arm out of the closet for him?" James asked Natasha.

Caught now, Natasha squirmed in place. "We were only looking," she said again.

James stood, put the old prosthesis back on its shelf in his closet, and closed the closet door behind him. He went back over to where the children were standing huddled together and he sat on the floor, letting his aching muscles relax.

"Clint, did your dad tell you that you shouldn't ask me about my arm?" James asked. Clint nodded, looking miserable. James sighed. "Is it okay if I tell you a story about my arm?"

Natasha perked up and jumped at James, moving around to sit on his knee. Clint, interested in spite of himself, wiggled closer to James. A shifting out of the corner of James' eye told him that Steve was moving to sit on the edge of James' bed.

"Okay, here's the story." James took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to say. "When I met your dad again last week, it was the first time I seen him since we were twelve. That's a very long time."

"Daddy is old," Natasha contributed solemnly.

"And when I saw him, I wasn't ready to talk about what happened to my arm, because all I could think about was how long it had been since I saw him and all the stuff that's happened since then."

Clint was nodding.

"Nat already knows about this, because she and I have been a family for so long." James put his right arm around Natasha. "But I didn't think about what questions you might have. You can ask me anything you want, and I'll try to answer."

Clint rubbed behind his right ear, just below the hearing aid. "Do you have any of your real arm at all?" he asked.

"I do. Not a lot, but a bit."

"What happened?"

James tried to think of how to explain such a bloody and violent thing to a young child who, at five, would be able to understand more than James would have liked. "I was a soldier, in the Army," he said carefully, knowing Steve was listening to every word. "And I was in Iraq. Do you know where that is?"

"Uh huh," Clint said. "I saw it on the television."

"And there was a bomb, and it went off and my left arm got hurt really bad."

The words were inadequate to describe what had actually happened; the bomb going off too close to James' body, shards of shrapnel cutting through his arm and shredding his body amour, the blood and flesh and the burning and all James could do was scream.

He breathed through the memory, using his right hand to pat Natasha gently on the back, to centre himself in the present.

Clearing his throat, James went on. "They took me to the hospital and the doctors operated to save what was left of my arm, and I came home to New York. A few months later, I met Natasha when she was just a little baby, and we've been a family ever since.

Clint put his index finger in his mouth and chewed on it. "Did it happen 'cause you were bad?" he asked after a moment.

Behind James, Steve let out a soft, pained sound. James looked Clint straight in the eye and said, "Absolutely not. Sometimes things happen that aren't our fault but we get hurt anyway."

"Does it still hurt?" Clint asked as Steve got off the bed and went over to sit beside his son.

"Sometimes it does," James said. A boy as young a five wouldn't understand phantom pain, how James' brain kept sending nerve impulses to parts of his arm long since gone. "Most days I'm okay, but some days it still hurts."

"Daddy, show them," Natasha ordered. "Show them your arm."

"Nat, they don't want to see that," James said, but he knew it was a lost cause as Clint's eyes grew wide and he stopped chewing his finger.

"Is it scary?" he asked in a whisper.

"It's not scary," Natasha said indignantly. "It's my daddy!"

James looked Steve. "You okay with this?" he asked, and it was entirely possible that he put a little challenge in his voice.

Steve lifted his chin. "If you are, then yeah."

James shifted Natasha down to the floor, then pulled his flannel shirt off. "Here goes nothing." With that, he grabbed the collar of his t-shirt and worked it off over his head.

Clint was silent and Steve couldn't stop staring, but James had set this up and damn it, he was going through with it. Turning so Clint could see better, James curled the prosthetic arm up then straightened it out.

"See?" Natasha said, going around to James' left side. "It's not scary." She patted the metal sheath that covered his shoulder, to give him better leverage and to even out the weight and pull on his body. "It's just how dad is."

Something in Steve's expression made James want to go all the way, just do this, stop worrying if Steve would be repulsed by his body and just show him. "You okay if I take the arm off?"

Steve put his arm around Clint's shoulders. "What do you say, buddy?" he asked. "Would it be okay if Mr. Barnes took off his metal arm?"

Clint nodded vigorously.

With practiced fingers, James undid the metal arm's three harness straps from around his torso. When the arm was only held on his body with the anchor strap hooked around his right underarm, he took hold of the metal bicep with his right hand and eased the prosthesis off the stump of his left arm.

Carefully, James placed the metal arm on the floor. Clint was staring at him, open-mouthed, but somehow James could not make himself look at Steve's reaction.

"See?" Natasha said, putting her arms around James' neck. "It's not scary."

James knew what Steve and Clint saw; the disfigured stump of his left arm, the scars running along his left side where bomb shrapnel got under his body armor. This was why he couldn't take Natasha to swim lessons; if Steve stared at him so, what would strangers do?

"Not scary at all," Natasha went on. She patted James' left arm just below the shoulder. "You gotta be gentle but it doesn't hurt."

Clint climbed to his feet and moved slowly over to James. "It's just like a normal arm," James said, holding his left arm up for Clint to see. "It's not sticky or slimy or gross."

Carefully, Clint reached out to touch one of the scars on the arm stump. He snatched his hand back as soon as he made contact. Then, slowly, he reached out again to place his hand on James' arm and give a soft pat-pat, mimicking Natasha's actions.

"See?" Natasha said, beaming at Clint. "It's okay."

"It is okay," James agreed. "Do you see now why I need to use the metal arm?"

Clint nodded. "I won't play with your arm ever again," he promised.

"Good." James lifted the prosthesis onto his lap. "Why don't you two go play in Natasha's room for a while, then we can go down and finish the pizza?" Once Natasha and Clint had scampered out of the room, James slumped back against the side of the bed. "And that," he said after a minute, "Is why I can't take Nat to swimming lessons."

"My offer to take her still stands," Steve said.

James glared at him. "If I tell you that I'll think about it, will you shut up about the whole thing?"

"Yeah, if you really do think about it."

James shook his head. "You're a real jerk, anyone ever tell you that?" he asked, straightening out the prosthesis' straps in preparation of putting the arm back on his body.

"You, and often. You need a… um, any help with that?"

James paused with the strap halfway down his right arm. "Steve, I swear to god, if you ask me if I need a hand I'm going to punch you in the nuts."

The smile on Steve's face was small, but real. "You always knew how to fight dirty," was all he said.

"It's called fighting to win, Rogers," James said as he slipped his left arm into the socket of the metal arm. He could feel the implants activating, sending commands to the metal arm. Curling his left hand into a ball as a test, he went to work on the rest of the harness straps. "I need all the advantages I can get these days. Come on, help me up."

Steve sprang to his feet; James took his offered hand and let Steve haul him bodily upright. "You seem to be doing all right," Steve said, still holding James' right hand in his.

James didn't speak for a moment. Things hadn't been weird when the kids were in the room, but now it was just him and Steve, in James' bedroom, and James wasn't wearing a shirt, and Steve wouldn't let go of his hand.

If this had been some kind of movie, this would be the part where James would lean in for a kiss, and the music would swell and the credits would roll, but this wasn't a movie, this was real life.

Steve cleared his throat. "Thanks for showing Clint your arm," he said softly, still holding James' hand. "It's good for him to know what happened to you."

Swallowing hard, James took a step back, easing his hand out of Steve's grasp. "It's one day at a time, you know?" he said, his heart pounding hard as if he had just run a sprint. Turning, James went to retrieve his t-shirt.

"Yeah." When James turned around, Steve had the flannel shirt in his hands. "But still, thank you."

"It is what it is," James said, shrugging into the t-shirt. "I didn't want Clint to think there was anything wrong with it. Or with me."

There was so much unsaid in Steve's expression, so much emotion, that James didn't want to try to decipher, especially not in his bedroom.

"Come on," he said instead, tucking his hair behind one ear. "Let's go grab some coffee before the kids come down, okay?"

Steve smiled at him, a small smile that sent a thrill down James' spine. "I'd love some coffee," was all Steve said.