The weeks flew by as May tumbled into June. Natasha and Clint spent as much time together as they could, and when they were apart, James was treated to a daily monologue about Clint and all the fun things Natasha and Clint did together, and how much Natasha looked forward to seeing Clint again.
In spite of all that, the children's friendship might have cooled off and the two families drifted away from each other after a few months, but for one significant event:
One morning, Clint ran away from school.
It went down on a Monday in early June. James dropped Natasha off at school and then went home, dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeve t-shirt to cover his arm and went for a jog. No one looked at him funny, no one commented on his hitched stride for balance, even his shoes didn't come undone.
He made the three-mile circuit easily, thanks to his daily use of the treadmill in the basement, and arrived home just as the mailman was dropping the daily mail into the letterbox. A shower and two cups of coffee later, James settled down to review plans for a new condo complex upstate.
Work being what it was, James remained engrossed until his phone rang. Looking at the call display, James swore under his breath. It was Natasha's school. A dozen thoughts flew through his mind. Was Natasha sick? Had he made sure her emergency inhaler was in her backpack that morning?
Only one way to find out. Lifting the phone to his ear, he said, "James Barnes speaking."
"Hello, Mr. Barnes," came a commanding voice. "This is Ms. Green speaking, from St. Ursula's."
James nearly dropped the phone. Ms. Green was the headmistress of Natasha's private school. He'd seen her on the first day of classes, when the woman came in to welcome the new kindergarten students, but she hadn't been the one to call the house on the two occasions when Natasha had gotten sick in class.
What had Natasha done?
"Are you familiar with a young man by the name of Clint Rogers?" the headmistress went on.
"Yes, I am," James said, confused. "What's happened?" He envisioned a situation in which Natasha had felt the need to defend her absent best friend's honor against another student. There would probably have been name-calling involved; Natasha hadn't ever hit another student, but she had the ability to hurt feelings with unerring accuracy when provoked.
However, James was not expecting Ms. Green to say, "Young Mr. Rogers showed up in Miss Barnes' classroom this morning after recess. I was hoping you might be able to help me figure out what to do with him."
"What?" James exclaimed. "Clint's there? Is he okay?"
"He is," Ms. Green said. "He said that he wanted to see Natasha's school and came along himself in order to do so. I have been unable to reach his father at the number the young man gives, and Natasha suggested that I contact you."
"Yeah, of course," James said, pushing himself to his feet. "I'll be there in a few minutes. Clint's really okay?"
"Physically, yes," Ms. Green said. "He appears to be upset about something, however, and won't tell me what it is."
"Maybe he'll tell me," James said, hurrying out of his office and towards the stairs. "I'll try calling his dad and I'll be there as soon as I can."
"We will see you in a few minutes, Mr. Barnes," said Ms. Green, and hung up.
James sprinted up to his room. Pulling off his sweatpants and t-shirt, James wondered what the hell was going on. There was no chance in hell that Steve would have taken Clint to Natasha's school and abandoned the boy there; so how the hell had little five-year-old Clint gotten across Brooklyn?
Had someone else taken him there?
James' first thought was of Sharon, Clint's mother, but no, that made less sense than if Steve had done it. If Sharon had taken Clint out of school, she would not have left him at the school of a friend.
So if not Steve or Sharon then who?
Jeans buttoned, James reached for the metal arm, only to stop when he caught sight of the charging light on the station. The prosthesis wasn't fully charged yet, and James had been strongly cautioned against taking the arm off the power source before it finished charging.
Letting out a string of curse words that would have impressed his Ranger instructors, James pulled on a clean shirt, grabbed his wallet and phone, and tore off down the stairs with his left shirt sleeve hanging empty.
In the hallway, James paused long enough to don his jacket and grab his Bluetooth earpiece from the hall table. He shoved the thing into his ear and thumbed at the screen of his phone to call Steve.
Steve's phone went right to voice mail. "Steve, it's Bucky," James said as he activated the house alarm before slipping out the front door. "I just got a call from Nat's school. Clint's there and he's okay and I have no idea why he's there but I'm on my way to find out. Give me a call when you get this."
Touching the earpiece to end the call, James ran down the street to where he'd parked the jeep. He got in behind the wheel and went through the process of getting ready to drive one-handed; reaching across his body to pull the driver's door closed, buckling up the seatbelt, adjusting the mirror, then pulling his phone out of his pocket to drop on the passenger seat.
Steve had never given James his work number, only his cell. James didn't even know where Steve worked; the man had been very careful about not revealing the name of his employer in the few conversations they'd had about the subject. James had no way of getting in touch with Steve to let him know that his little boy was safe.
That just wouldn't do. James knew that if he was in Steve's place, if Natasha had gone missing, he would have been in a blind panic. James had to contact Steve somehow.
Well, James thought grimly, desperate times called for desperate measures. He scrolled through his phone's contacts until he found the person he was looking for, someone he would only call in when all other options had been exhausted.
"It's James Barnes," James said as he started the jeep. "Skye, that you?"
"Mr. B," came the voice of Skye (no last name, it's a thing), sounding heaven sent. "How's my favorite munchkin?"
"Nat's fine." James grasped the knob on the steering wheel, specially installed for a one-armed driver, and accelerated into the lane. "Skye, I need a huge favor. Are you online?"
"It's funny how you ask that like it's a question. What's up?"
James slowed at the intersection to wait for a break in traffic. "There's a buddy of mine, I need his work phone number."
"Does your buddy have a name?"
"Steve Rogers. Somewhere in Manhattan."
"Sounds fake," Skye mused. There was the briefest of pauses, then she said, "I've got about ten of those in a three-mile radius. Can you narrow that down a bit?"
James racked his brain for any detail Steve had let slip. "He works as some sort of fundraiser, I think."
"Like for a school? A museum?" Skye asked. The sound of rapid typing came over the line. "Or," she added, a note of triumph sneaking into her voice, "As head of development for the Maria Stark Philanthropic Foundation?"
"What?" James exclaimed, nearly missing his turn-off. "Stark as in Tony Stark?"
"If your buddy is six foot and wears a tux like it's painted on, then yeah, that's him," Skye said. "I got paparazzi pics from their last gala. You said you want his phone number?"
At this point, James was three blocks from Natasha's school. If he waited until he was parked to call Steve himself…. "Can you call him for me?"
"Do I have a good reason?" Skye asked.
"Yeah, tell him that his son is okay and is at Natasha's school, and I'll be there in a few minutes."
"That's not bad, as reasons go. I'll do it." A brief pause. "Hey, since you called, what are you going to do with Natasha over the summer?"
"Why aren't you dialing?"
"It's called multitasking," Skye said. "If you want me to look after Natty when school lets out, let me know."
"I'll call you tomorrow," James said as he spotted a parking space. "Skye, I owe you one."
"Just make sure the kid's all right, Mr. B." And with that, Skye hung up.
James pulled into the parking space, riding up on the curb in his haste. He ducked out of the jeep, pausing long enough to realize he didn't have any change to plug the meter, then hustled along the block to Natasha's school.
Skye had been a student helper in Natasha's preschool and babysat the girl over the previous summer. Natasha thought Skye was pretty neat, and for her part Skye was active enough to keep up with Natasha. It had been in the back of James' mind to call Skye up to see if she was willing to resume her babysitting in the summer after Natasha's classes ended, but he hadn't gotten around to it.
James knew enough about Skye's background that he trusted her with Natasha; she was a student at NYU, majoring either in computer science or psychology or both, and she had an uncanny knack of always being able to find the strangest things on the internet. Even though it had been months since he had last seen her, Skye still sent along the occasional email with updates on security holes in various systems that she happened across while online.
All in all, she was a good kid. A little weird, but Natasha liked her.
Finally, James reached the school's entrance. He went through the front doors and along the hallway to the reception area, where the school's security guard was talking to the secretary.
A few minutes later, James was being shown into the headmistress's office as Ms. Green rose to greet him. "Mr. Barnes, thank you for joining us," she said, not batting an eyelash at his one-armed state.
Behind the woman, Clint and Natasha sat on child-size chairs by a low table. Natasha appeared much as she had that morning, uniform neat and hair braided, while Clint looked ruffled; his hair mussed, shoelace untied, grass stains on the knees of his jeans. His black and purple backpack lay beside the table.
"Glad to be here," James said, going over to the children. He knelt down. "All right, what's up?"
"Clint wants to come to school with me!" Natasha burst out. "And we can play and read and do all kinds of things!"
Clint rubbed his eyes. Other than his state of general dishevelment, he didn't look too bad, but he certainly wasn't the happy boy James had known for the past month.
"Clint, are you okay?" James asked. Clint nodded, but he looked so downcast that James went on, "Do you need a hug?"
Without a word, Clint slipped off the chair and surged forward, arms going up and around James' neck as the boy collapsed against James.
"That's a big hug," James said, wrapping his arm around Clint. Unlike Natasha, who vibrated like a hummingbird whenever James held her, Clint leaned heavily against James, a small solid weight. "It sounds like you had a big adventure today."
Clint nodded against James' shoulder.
"Can you tell me about it?"
Another nod, and Clint let go. He leaned against James' side as he rubbed his eyes again, and James could see the faintest hint of tears starting.
"Why don't we all sit down," Ms. Green suggested, coming over. With deft gestures, she got James seated on the grown-up size couch across from her desk, and then the children hopped up, Clint at James' side, and then Natasha on Clint's other side. "Clint, can you tell us what happened?"
"I said," Natasha said, bursting with importance, "That Clint wants to come to school with me!"
James put his hand on Natasha's shoulder. "Nat, can you let Clint talk? I need to hear it from him."
Natasha subsided with an ill grace. Clint looked up at James, then over at the headmistress. "I don't want to go to my school anymore," he said in an almost inaudible voice. "Natasha said it's nice here, so I came here."
"Why don't you want to go to school anymore?" James asked.
Clint's lower lip stuck out in the beginnings of a pout. "I don't like it," he whispered.
Natasha wrapped her hand around Clint's. "He can come to school with me!" she said again.
The girl bit her lip and sat back, still holding Clint's hand. The little boy squirmed but didn't pull away from her.
"Clint, why don't you want to go to school?"
"When Mrs. Anders teaches, she sends me to the back 'cause I'm ruptive," Clint said. "I don't wanna be ruptive!"
James exchanged a baffled glance with Ms. Green. He didn't know what word Clint was trying to use. "Why does she call you that?" Ms. Green asked.
"I don't know!" Clint waved his hands wide in a show of confusion. "She says that and sends me to the back of the room and then I have to play by myself."
James was still puzzled, but a look of comprehension passed over Ms. Green's face. "Clint, is your teacher calling you disruptive?"
"Yes!" Clint burst out, almost in a wail. "And I don't wanna be!"
Natasha flung her arms around Clint's neck in a supportive hug.
"What happens when you go to the back of the room? Why don't you listen to lessons?"
Clint leaned into Natasha's embrace. "Because I have to go all the way to the back and I can't hear!"
"You can come to my school and sit in the front row with me," Natasha promised.
Clint shook his head. "Sitting in the front makes my head hurt," he said sadly.
"Well, that doesn't sound good at all," Ms. Green said. "Clint, can you tell myself and Mr. Barnes how you got here today?"
Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "I got sent to the back again and I didn't want to be there," he said, as cross as James had ever heard him. "So when it was recess time I got my backpack and I left."
"How did you know how to get here?" James asked. As far as he could remember, Steve had indicated that Clint's school was near their apartment, in the south end of Brooklyn. "Did someone help you?"
"No," and now Clint was sitting up and looking rather pleased with himself. "Daddy shown me on a map where Natasha's school was, and he told me how to get from my school to her school, so I came that way."
"Why did your father tell you that?" Ms. Green asked.
"I asked." Clint gave a snotty sniffle. "Daddy shown me lots of things on maps on the computer. I like maps."
"When you left your school, what happened then?" Ms. Green asked, keeping them on point.
Clint poked his right index finger onto his left palm. "I walked and walked and I knew how to get to the subway 'cause me and Daddy get on the subway all the time after school," he said, drawing his finger along his hand. "And I 'memberd and I listened and got off the subway and walked here and I saw the big red sign on the corner like Natasha talked about!"
James could just imagine the scene; five-year-old Clint walking along the Brooklyn sidewalks, his large backpack taking up nearly half his small frame, alone and vulnerable. Swallowing a shudder, James asked, "Did anyone try to stop you?"
Clint shook his head. "Thomas says if you walk along behind a grown-up who don't see you, other grown-ups don't pay you no attention. So I walked behind grown-ups and no one said anything to me."
"Even on the subway?"
"Uh huh. I stood by an old lady." Clint wrinkled his nose. "She was old. She didn't see me, but no one bugged me."
"Cool," Natasha breathed, her eyes wide in amazement.
Ms. Green cleared her throat. "Clint, Natasha, why don't you go play on the computer?" she suggested. "Natasha, show Clint how to play the color game."
"Yeah!" Natasha jumped to her feet. "I love the color game, it's so fun!"
Clint reluctantly slid off the sofa. "Is it like school?" he asked warily as Natasha led him across the room.
"Yeah, but fun school!" Natasha said.
While Ms. Green got the children settled, James checked his phone. No calls or messages from Steve, only a quick mission accomplished text from Skye. Where the hell was the man?
Once the children were occupied, Ms. Green came back over to the sofa and settled into the guest chair. She was an older woman, perhaps fifty, with an iron gleam in her eyes that made James feel a bit like a schoolboy himself. "How long ago did Clint get here?" James asked, resting his elbow on his knee.
"Just a few minutes before I telephoned you." Ms. Green kept half of her attention on the children as she spoke. "Mrs. Singh tells me that she went to the back of the room and when she returned, Clint was sitting at Natasha's desk and they were both looking well pleased with themselves."
"Damn it," James said under his breath. "Why the hell hasn't Steve called?"
Ms. Green shifted her attention to James. "Natasha tells me that young Mr. Rogers is her friend, and that his father is your friend." It wasn't a question, but James could read innuendo into the words and it was just like he was back in basic training, feeling the pressures of the lies reaching up to choke him.
Stiffening his spine, James pushed that away. He wasn't in the military anymore, and he wasn't in any danger of losing Natasha if it got out that he was gay. Besides, it wasn't like he was actually involved with Steve. Steve really was just a friend.
"Steve and I were friends when we were growing up," James said, voice even. "We met up again last month and the kids connected."
"Good," Ms. Green said firmly. "Mrs. Singh had been worried at how Natasha doesn't seem to be making any deep connections with the other children in her class."
James was well aware of this; Natasha's kindergarten teacher had mentioned that issue twice in monthly parent-teacher conferences. "She also said there's nothing wrong with Natasha's social skills."
"This is true."
Thankfully, at that moment James' phone rang. "Hello?"
"Bucky, what the hell is going on?" Steve's voice came down the line. "Someone left a message with the receptionist that I needed to call you about Clint."
"Yeah, don't worry about him, he's safe and sound."
There was a momentary pause. "Of course he is; he's at school."
It was James' turn to pause. "Didn't they call you?"
"What are you talking about?" Steve demanded.
The children were looking at James, Clint's eyes wide. Ms. Green went over to distract them while James escaped into the hallway. "Steve, Clint ran away from school this morning. He made it to St. Ursula's, I'm here with him now."
"He told me he left his school and he knew how to get here because you told him what train to take," James went on. "He snuck into Natasha's class and I'm looking at him right now playing on the headmistress's computer."
The only sound on the other end of the line was Steve hyperventilating. Remembering belatedly that Steve had asthma as a kid, James relented.
"Look, check your cell phone, maybe the school called you on there. I'll hang out here with Clint, okay?"
"Jesus fuck," Steve swore. "Clint's okay, he's really okay?"
"He's fine," James said, knowing what Steve was asking. "No one messed with him or anything."
"Oh my god."
"Do you want us to wait here for you to pick him up, or should I take the kids back to my place?"
"Could you do that?" Steve asked, relief washing into his voice. "I'm in Manhattan and it might take me a while to get back into Brooklyn."
"Sure, no problem."
"I have to call the school now," Steve said. "I just—I know you're busy…"
"I'm here as long as I need to be," James interrupted. "Anything you need, okay?"
"Thank you," Steve said, sounding so relieved that James almost felt guilty. "Just-- thank you."
When James returned to Ms. Green's office, Natasha was at the computer, but Clint was standing a few feet behind her, pointing at the screen and telling her something. Ms. Green was at her desk, watching the children with interest.
James made his way over to the desk. "Steve said I should take Clint home with us," he said without preamble. "Is there some kind of form I need to sign?
Ms. Green said, "Once a child enters this school, I and everyone on our staff becomes responsible for their welfare." She turned to James. "Is there any reason that I should contact the police or child services about young Mr. Rogers?"
"What?" James said, a little too loudly as both Natasha and Clint looked over at him. "No, Steve's a great dad. Don't you think that if Clint was running away from home, he'd have run away from home, not school?"
Ms. Green shook her head. "He seems very well adjusted," she said. "Although I do think that he would benefit greatly from an eye exam."
Ms. Green gestured at the children. Natasha had enlarged the image on the screen, a series of color swatches, and Clint was nodding along happily with her from his short distance away. "We used to see it all the time when I was teaching upstate. Children don't pay attention in class because they can't see the board."
"Clint can see great, though," James said. "On the weekend he picked out a blackbird from like a mile away at the park."
"When someone is reading to him, does he look at the words, or at the speaker?" Ms. Green smiled as she reached into her desk. "Eye exams are not overly expensive, but I have a list of places that Clint's father might go if money is an issue."
James started to object, to say that Steve Rogers didn't need any charity, but he stopped himself. What did he know about Steve's financial situation? Clint was in public school, but that didn't mean anything. Steve didn't own a car, again not that uncommon in Brooklyn, and Clint was always dressed in clothes that appeared new. But how much money could a fundraiser make?
Swallowing his pride on Steve's behalf, James took the sheet of paper offered by the headmistress. "Thanks," he said as he stuffed it into his jeans pocket. "So, can we go?"
It wasn't quite that simple; James had to fill out some paperwork to take responsibility for Clint, and one of the office assistants went to Natasha's class to get her jacket and backpack. Eventually, though, James guided Clint and Natasha out onto the sidewalk and toward the jeep.
"Daddy," Natasha asked. "Why are we going home?"
"Because this isn't Clint's school," James told them. "And if I made you go back to class, you'd be distracted all day. Best we go home and try again tomorrow."
As Natasha half-heartedly argued the logic of this, Clint stepped against James' right side and slipped his fingers around James' palm. James gave a reassuring squeeze as they all continued along the sidewalk.
A flicker of paper from beneath the windshield wiper warned James that parking officers had been around. Swearing under his breath, James unlocked the jeep and had the children climb inside. "Seatbelts, everyone."
Natasha settled herself into her booster seat and reached for the buckle, while Clint groped around, unsure of himself. Letting Natasha be, James went around to Clint's side and helped the boy straighten out the seat buckle. "Am I in trouble?" Clint asked in a small voice.
"Yup," James said immediately. "But that's okay. Every kid gets in trouble sometimes, and you've got a dad who's pretty reasonable."
"What's 'reasonable'?" Natasha asked.
Clint was staring at James, his big eyes wide, so James paused to think through his answer. "Well, it means that Steve has some common sense, and he understands how people are, and that he'll look at the situation and not fly off the handle." He checked Clint's seatbelt one last time, then ruffled Clint's hair. "And most importantly, your dad loves you very much and he wants you to be safe and sound."
"Is he gonna be mad?" Clint asked.
"Probably, but not at you." James closed the back door and went around to Natasha's side, checked her seatbelt, then went to the driver's seat, grabbing the parking ticket off the windshield as he went. "When we leave you kids at school for the day, we expect you to be there when we show up, not that you'll run away."
"Would you be mad if I left school?" Natasha asked.
"You bet your buttons I would." James started the car. "Because we're having this conversation, and now you know better."
"But what if I want to have an adventure?"
James had guessed this was coming; at least Natasha was asking, rather than doing something foolish like running off to join the circus on her own. "You can have adventures with your old Dad."
"Dads can't have adventures."
"This one can." James glanced over his shoulder before pulling out into the street. "What kind of adventures are you thinking about?"
The drive home did not take long, especially with Natasha talking about the sorts of adventures she wanted to go on. Clint was quiet during the drive, and remained quiet as James parked and got the kids out of the jeep and into the house.
Once inside, James got the children out of backpacks and coats. Herding the children into the kitchen, hands and faces were washed before James settled them at the table. "All right," he said with great solemnity. "Who wants a snack?"
There was some left-over banana bread from the previous day's baking experiment, and Natasha deigned to let Clint have one of her precious milk cartons. Natasha ate as if she hadn't seen food in weeks, but Clint just picked at the banana bread. James, who remembered how heartily Clint had eaten the day before, watched the boy carefully. When Clint turned around in his chair and pressed his forehead against the chair slats, James asked, "What's wrong?"
Clint picked at the edge of the chair back. "Nothing," he said unconvincingly.
"Okay." James waited a few moments, then said, "You know, even if nothing's wrong, sometimes you can ask questions. About things you want to know."
"Daddy, have you ever played the color game?" Natasha interjected.
"No, I haven't. Is it fun?"
"Uh huh." Natasha took a sip of milk. "Clint is really good at it! He saw way more colors than I did."
"That's pretty neat."
Clint finally looked up at James. "Did you ever run away?" he asked.
It was amazing, really, how one simple question (and one that James should have seen coming) could pull him back in time, stopping the breath in his chest as if he'd been thrown up against a wall. But this was not the same; five was not fifteen; running away from school was not the same as being thrown out of the house in the middle of the night.
"No, I didn't," James said, keeping his voice even. "But I can imagine what it would be like."
"There were a lot of people," Clint said. "And one time, I got scared."
"What did you do when you got scared?"
"I said, I'm gonna go see Natasha, and then I wasn't scared anymore." He slid off the chair. "When's my dad gonna be here?"
"I don't know, but until he does, do you and Natasha want to play?"
"I do!" Natasha exclaimed. She slipped out of her chair. "Let's go!"
James arrested her with an outstretched arm. "First, you need to go change into some play clothes," he told his daughter. "After that, how about we go play out in the garden?"
Natasha ran out of the kitchen. James sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. Clint, watching James steadily, let out an echo of the sigh.
"Do you want any more of your snack?" James asked. Clint shook his head. "How about your milk? Can you try to finish your milk?"
"I'll try," Clint said. By the time James had cleared the table, Clint was draining the last drop from his milk carton. The boy handed it to James, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and looked at James expectantly.
Suppressing the urge to smile, James said, "How about we go outside while we wait for Natasha?"
Gardening at the Barnes household was a serious business. James had the children weed the garden boxes, managing to stop them from pulling out too many of the planted sprouts. Then, after warning the children not to goof around too much, he gave them the hose and let them loose.
Steve texted twice; the first to let James know he'd borrowed a car and was driving into Brooklyn to go talk to Clint's school. The next text came an hour later, saying Steve might not be there to pick up Clint for a while.
Upon reading that one, James checked the time, then stood up to retrieve the children from where they were elbow-deep in the mud.
"Who wants lunch?" James asked.
"I do," Natasha said, patting the mud gently. She had dirt smeared all over her arms and stomach. Clint was in worse shape, with mud on his face and neck and his shirt soaked.
"We're going to have to clean up first," James told her.
"Do we gotta get washed with the hose?" Clint asked warily.
"Nope. We're going to go upstairs to the bathroom."
Clint thought about this. "Okay," he said after a minute. "I don't like cold water."
"Me either." James held his hand out for a muddy fist bump, and Clint obliged. Natasha was next, then everyone trooped into the house.
Even though he got them out of their shoes outside, the children dripped mud all the way through the kitchen and up the stairs. James had long since resigned himself to being unable to prevent such housekeeping disasters in his one-armed state, and just shook his head at the inevitability of it all.
In the upstairs bathroom, James got the children to stand on the little stepstool by the sink, turned on the water to warm, and handed each of them a washcloth with the instructions to clean up. While they did so, laughing and shrieking the whole time, James went in search of clean shirts. Natasha was easy; it was Monday so James pulled her green t-shirt off the hanger. Clint was a tougher case; he was taller than Natasha and wider in the shoulders; none of her shirts would fit the boy, even if Clint would wear them. After a moment's thought, James went to his own closet to dig out an old t-shirt he'd picked up on leave back while he was on active duty.
Returning to the bathroom, James found the children were done with the washcloths and were rubbing the remaining dirt onto James' white towels. James distributed shirts all around, wincing at the state of the linens.
James looked around to where Natasha was holding her green shirt in her hands. A small thundercloud was brewing over her head. "Yes Nat?"
"I don't like it."
"You don't like your green shirt?" James eased himself down onto the edge of the bathtub. "You wear that all the time."
Natasha's frown grew deeper. "But Clint gets a big boy shirt."
"Because I don't have anything in his size." James glanced over at the boy, who was happily modeling the t-shirt, which was so big on him that it fell past his knees.
"I want a big shirt too."
Natasha narrowed her eyes. "Please."
It was amazing how a five-year-old could put such threat into one word. James thought about saying no, but technically she had asked nicely and hadn't resorted to a tantrum, which had been her usual pattern up until she entered kindergarten. Resolving to work on such grown-up concepts as tone and sincerity at a later time, James led the children to his bedroom, where he found a t-shirt to match Natasha's exacting standards.
While this was going on, Clint kept looking down at his shirt. As James helped Natasha straighten the too-big shirt over her shoulders, he asked, "Clint, what's up?"
"What is it?" Clint asked, pointing at the design on his chest.
"That," James said, "Is a hawk."
Clint's delighted smile lit up the room. "It is?"
"Come on." James took Clint into the hallway. From their vantage point, they had a direct line of sight into the bathroom, and more importantly the bathroom mirror. "Up."
Lifting Clint with one arm took a bit of doing, but James managed to get Clint up high enough for the boy to see himself in the mirror.
"Can you see now?"
Clint shifted around, stretching out the fabric so he could see the bright red bird. "It's so cool!" he exclaimed.
"Daddy," Natasha said, tugging on his jeans to get his attention. "Why do you have a shirt with a bird on it?"
James set Clint on his feet. "A long time ago, when I was in Ranger training, I'd go into Atlanta on my time off to watch sports games. This is a sports team shirt I got there."
"Are they a good team?" Clint asked. "What do they play?"
"They play basketball," James said. "And they work very hard and play as a team and that's what makes them good."
The Hawks hadn't won a championship in decades, but James always loved the underdogs, and he had fond memories of leave weekends in Atlanta with guys from his unit, taking in a basketball game and going for drinks afterwards.
It seemed very long ago, now. Another lifetime.
"What's this?" Natasha asked, pointing at her belly button.
"That is another bird," James said. Clint backed up a few feet and looked at Natasha's shirt intently. "That's the Atlanta Falcons logo."
"Do they do basketball?"
"No, they play football."
Natasha frowned up at James. "But Daddy," she said. "You don't like football. You told Maria so, I heard you."
"Yeah, well, I was in the army and sometimes that means you gotta wear camouflage."
Natasha was staring at him, her head tilted to the side, and James suddenly wanted to change the subject. He wasn't about to explain institutionalized homophobia or Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to a couple of five-year-olds.
"Who wants lunch?"
"I do," Clint said, reaching for James' hand again.
"Me too." Natasha took Clint's free hand, and together they all walked down the stairs and into the kitchen.
They had finished lunch and were half-way through a rousing game of Candyland when James' phone pinged. It was a text from Steve, saying he was outside.
James went to open the door and Steve rushed in without a word, scanning the room. "Daddy!" Clint yelled. The boy jumped to his feet and ran over to his father, who scooped him up into a hug.
"Oh, Clint," Steve said, holding his son tight. Clint wasn't small for his age, but he nearly disappeared in Steve's embrace. "Buddy, I am so glad to see you."
"Me too, Daddy." Clint leaned back so he could look Steve in the face. "We had grilled cheese for lunch, and Mr. Barnes let us play in the mud!"
The raw emotions on Steve's face were painfully easy to read, but Steve just smiled at his son and chucked him under the chin. "Grilled cheese, huh? I know how much you like grilled cheese."
"I do." Clint collapsed back on Steve's shoulder, his arms tight around Steve's neck.
"Come on," James said quietly, putting his hand on Steve's back and moving him over to the couches. Steve sat, still holding Clint tight.
From her place by the game board, Natasha was watching Steve closely. "Clint rode the subway all by himself," she said. "And he wants to come to school with me!"
Clint squirmed out of Steve's arms. "Can I?"
Something on Steve's face made James step in. "Kids, I need to talk to Steve. Can you play here for a little while?"
"Okay," Clint said, sliding to the ground and going back over to the game board. After a few moments, Natasha turned back to the game.
James stood and poked at Steve's shoulder until the man hauled himself to his feet and followed James into the kitchen.
"You need a drink or something?" James asked as Steve collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table. "Coffee? Something stronger?"
"They didn't even know that Clint was gone," Steve said, burying his head in his hands.
James turned away from the coffee maker. "What?"
"The school didn't even know Clint was gone." Steve sat back. "When I called them, they didn't know what I was talking about."
"They didn't know he was gone?" James repeated, returning to the table. "He was all the way across the fucking city and they didn't know he was gone?"
Steve looked at James. "His class goes to the music room after recess on Mondays, there's some other teacher in charge then. She said she thought Clint was absent. None of the other kids said anything."
James pushed his hair back out of his face. "Are you kidding me?" he demanded.
"Oh, it gets worse." Steve reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper. "When I got there, they told me since Clint left school in the middle of the day, he was going to be marked as truant and suspended for leaving school."
James could only stare at Steve, speechless.
"I got my five-year-old running away and now he's suspended," Steve went on, "And then the principal pulls out this folder and starts telling me that Clint—" Steve's voice broke, and he had to take a deep breath. "They're not going to let Clint go up to first grade, he's going to have to repeat kindergarten."
James slid into a chair across the table from Steve. "That's bullshit," he said, feeling about as stunned at Steve looked. "They lose Clint for hours on end and then they turn around and pull this shit? What the fuck are they smoking?"
"The principal said that Clint doesn't pay any attention in class, he's not learning his letters, he disrupts the other kids—"
"Yeah, I'd be disruptive too if they kept sending me to the back of the room where I couldn't hear," James exclaimed. "Steve, Clint isn't like that, you know it!"
Steve was frowning at James. "What are you talking about?"
"Sending him to the back of the room?"
"That's why he ran away today," James said. "He got sent to the back of the room again and he couldn't hear and he got upset and took off."
"He's supposed to be at the front of the class because of his hearing aid," Steve said, mystified. "I talked to his teacher at the beginning of the year about this."
"Yeah, well, I guess she forgot." James stood. "He can't hear at the back of the room, he probably can't see at the front, it's no fucking wonder that he's not learning anything."
"Clint can see just fine," Steve said, and now anger was starting to creep into his voice. "Hell, better than fine. He can see distance perfectly!"
"From what I seen today, maybe he ain't doing so good on close-up," James said. "It's not me; Natasha's principal suggested that Clint get his eyes checked, that he might not be able to see letters and stuff."
"You're out of your mind." Steve pushed himself to his feet. "Clint doesn't have any trouble seeing."
"What's the other option, Steve? That he can't learn? That's such bullshit and you know it!"
"Shut up!" Steve shouted, getting in James' face, all big muscles and anger and James steeled himself in case Steve made this physical, like Steve had always made everything physical when they were young. "Don't you dare talk about my kid!"
"No?" James shot back. "Let me tell you about your kid, Steve. He's smart and he's daring and he's so fed up with that goddamn school that he'd sooner walk all the way across Brooklyn by himself than stay there any longer!"
Steve's lip curled and James braced himself for a punch, but after a moment, Steve stepped back. "I'm taking Clint home," Steve said, breathing hard like he'd just run a mile. James wasn't doing much better himself, his body jacked up on the adrenaline from the altercation. "I don't think we should come over here any more."
The words were like a punch to the stomach, but James had had decades of hiding his feelings from the world, and just because it was Steve Rogers this time made no difference. "Great plan," James said, layering the words with as much sarcasm as he could muster. "Your son needs help in school, so you yank him away from the first real friend he's made. Good idea."
"Don't you go throwing this back on me," Steve objected. "I'm his father, I have to do what's best for him, you understand?"
James clenched his teeth. "If that's what this was, then maybe I might."
Steve glared at James for a moment longer, then whirled around and stormed back into the living room. James hurried after him, hoping that the man didn't scare the children.
In the living room, however, a new problem had presented itself. Natasha stood by herself in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind her back as she tried to look innocent.
"Nat," James said, walking around Steve. "Where's Clint?"
"He's hiding," Natasha said. "Because he doesn't want to leave and never come back."
Going down on one knee, James asked Natasha to tell him where Clint was hiding, but to no avail. All he got was for Natasha to promise that Clint wasn't in any danger wherever he was hiding.
"At least he's still in the house," James said, rubbing at the stress headache forming in his left temple.
"Are you sure about that?" Steve asked.
"He couldn't have left," James said over his shoulder. "I set the alarm when you came in; if he'd opened any of the doors we'd have heard."
Natasha, meanwhile, was looking up at the ceiling with a satisfied smile on her face.
"Well," James said, making his voice louder than usual as he stood up. "You know, Steve, I think we might just need to give up and wait for Clint to come out."
Steve was looking at James as if the man had grown another head.
"In the meantime, how about we have some coffee?" James walked closer to Steve and added, in a whisper loud enough for Natasha to hear, "I think he's in the basement."
Natasha immediately relaxed, her shoulders drooping as she swayed to and fro.
"Nat," James went on, and bent down to pick the girl up. "Can you help Steve make coffee while I go check on the laundry in the basement?"
"Okay." Natasha allowed herself to be handed over to Steve. "I will help you."
"Thanks," Steve said. With one last look at James, he turned and carried Natasha into the kitchen.
Once the two of them were out of sight, James headed upstairs.
Part of him wondered if Clint had gone up to the third floor, to hide in those dusty and empty rooms. The door to the roof was locked and bolted, so James didn't worry that Clint would make his escape that way. But that did leave two floors to search, for a little boy who could fit into tiny spaces.
The first place James checked was Natasha's room, but no luck. Going out into the hallway, James was already planning a systematic search of the house when something caught his attention, something just slightly different than he remembered.
It took a moment for it to come to his conscious mind, but there it was. In the bathroom at the end of the hall, door still wide open, the shower curtain had moved since he and the children had last been up here, was now pulled to hide the bathtub.
On silent feet, James moved down the hall and into the bathroom. Slowly, so as not to surprise anyone hiding inside, he pulled back the shower curtain, to reveal Clint sitting in the bathtub.
"Hi," James said.
Clint pulled his knees up to his chest. "Hi."
"Can I join you?"
Pulling his phone out of his pocket, James lowered himself to the cold floor. "I'm going to text your dad to let him know that you're up here," he said, holding up the phone. "You cool with that?"
"I don't want to leave Natasha forever," Clint said forlornly.
"I know." James stretched out his legs. "Dear Steve," he said as he typed. "I'm with Clint and we are upstairs. We're going to hang out up here for a while and will see you in a bit."
That wasn't what he actually typed; the message he sent to Steve read found clint up in bathroom gona talk 2 him make enoug coffe fr me
Setting his phone on the tiled floor, James let himself slump a little. Already, his morning run seemed days past. "So. I guess you heard me and your dad yelling."
"Uh huh." Clint folded his arms on the bathtub ledge and rested his chin on his arms.
"We shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."
"I don't like it when Daddy yells," Clint said, but he didn't appear too upset. "I don't like it when anyone yells."
"Do grown-ups yell a lot?" James asked curiously.
"Sometimes, when they see my hearing aid." Clint scowled. "They don't have to yell, I'm not dumb."
"People can be pretty stupid sometimes," James agreed. "When I got back from Iraq, and was walking around without my prosthetic arm, I got some really stupid comments. I mean, like, some real boneheaded stuff."
Clint rubbed his eyes. "Why do people do that?"
"I think it's because they get nervous," James said. "They see someone with a hearing aid, or a missing arm, and they get nervous and don't know what they're supposed to do so they overcompensate."
"What's that mean?"
"It means that they try to behave like they think they're supposed to, only they don't know the right way and they go over the top."
Clint scrunched up his nose. "I don't like it when they overcompensate." He said the last word slowly but with the correct pronunciation.
"You can tell them that."
James pressed his shoulders against the wall, thinking. He wanted to give Clint a good answer, one the boy could actually use, instead of his own coping mechanism which involved more swearing than a boy Clint's age should hear. "You can say, 'you don't need to yell because I can hear you when you talk normally'."
Clint considered this. "What if I can't hear them when they talk normal?"
"Does that happen a lot?"
"Some times. Sometimes people talk like this." Clint pursed up his lips and whistled. "Or else like this." He put his hands over his mouth and made farting sounds against his palms.
James couldn't help it; he started to laugh. "You should tell those people that they need to talk to your dad and he can tell you what they say."
Clint moved around so he could get up on his knees in the tub. "Mrs. Anders is a farthead," he said darkly.
"Is that your teacher?"
"One of them."
"Was she the one who sent you to the back of the class today?"
Clint nodded. "She calls me ruptive and I don't know what that means."
James had no idea what to say. He was used to dealing with Natasha, who absorbed language like a little sponge. "Well," he began, then stopped. "Hang on." He pulled out his phone and touched the screen to bring up the browser, then typed in the word. "This says that disruptive mean troublesome or badly behaved."
Devastation pushed Clint back on his heels. "I am not!" he protested as tears started to slide down his cheeks. "I'm not a trouble some!"
"No, you're not," James said, putting his phone down. "Clint, listen to me. I may have only known you for a month, but I know that you're smart and easygoing and a really good friend, and that you listen really well and you make funny jokes."
Clint sniffled hard. "I try to listen," he said, and sniffled again. "But sometimes I can't."
James reached over and pulled the box of tissues off the counter and handed it to Clint. "What are the other kids in your class like?"
"They're okay," Clint said as he grabbed a handful of tissues and use them to rub at his face; this only succeeded in smearing tears around. "Sometimes we play at recess, but sometimes they want to play games I don't like so I play by myself."
"Do they ever make fun of your hearing aid?"
"No," and Clint looked astonished at the mere suggestion. "That's bullying and that's wrong."
James, who had suffered through twelve years of a Brooklyn public school education, took a moment to marvel at how much had changed since he was Clint's age. "How old are you again?"
"I'm almost six."
"When's your birthday?" James asked as he scooted closer to help Clint blow his nose.
"Wow, only two months to go." James pulled another tissue out of the box and handed it to Clint. "That's pretty cool."
"When I'm six, I can do so much stuff." Clint wiped his cheeks dry. "I can go into the big kids swim class, and I can go to the climbing gym!"
"Tell me about the climbing gym," James said, as this was something he had not yet heard about from Natasha. Clint launched into a rapid description, the light and animation returning to his face as he talked.
This was the boy James knew, who got excited about things and was always smiling. He couldn't understand how the teachers wanted to hold Clint back in kindergarten another year. It didn't make any sense.
As Clint's explanation of the climbing gym continued, James stood and helped Clint climb out of the bathtub. Holding James' hand, Clint allowed himself be led down the stairs to the main floor, still talking.
Steve and Natasha were seated at the kitchen table, Steve hunched over a cup of coffee while Natasha sipped delicately from a mug of her own. "Daddy!" Natasha exclaimed as soon as James appeared. "We are having a tea party! I am drinking tea!"
"Is that a fact?" James shepherded Clint around the table to Steve. "Can we join this little shindig or is this an exclusive party?"
"You can come sit too," Natasha said, setting her cup on the table. "Steve makes tea the right way, Daddy."
"How's that? And what's this 'Steve' business?"
"I used about three tablespoons of sugar," Steve said, subdued as he pulled Clint onto his lap. "I figured that if Natasha and Clint are going to keep spending so much time together, we all might as well be on a first-name basis."
He looked at James as he said this, not so much an apology in his eyes as a challenge. James met this glare straight on and said, "An excellent idea. Clint, do you want to call me James?"
"Okay," Clint said, preoccupied with reaching for Natasha's mug. "And you can call me Clint."
"You got yourself a deal."
After Clint took a swig of Natasha's tea, Steve stood up with the boy perched on his arm. "We should get going. We've taken up enough of Bucky's time for the day."
"It's not a problem. You'd do the same for us."
James had spoken without thinking, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Steve gave a quick nod. "I would," he said quietly.
"Bye bye Clint," Natasha said loudly. "You can come back to my school any time."
"I like your school," Clint said. "You play fun games."
"Next time, you're taking me with you," Steve said, bouncing Clint on his arm. "No more running off, promise?"
"I promise, Daddy."
James and Natasha saw Steve and Clint out the door, Natasha holding Clint's backpack for him while Steve helped the boy put on his shoes.
"I'll wash Clint's shirt and you can pick it up next Sunday," James said, leaning against the doorframe.
"Deal." Steve stood, biting at his lip as if he wanted to say something else, but the children were watching and James wasn't really sure he could handle whatever Steve was thinking about.
"Go, take care of your son," James said, slapping Steve on the back. Then, in a quieter voice as the children said their farewells, he added, "You need anything day or night, you call me."
"Anything," James said again. "Doesn't matter what time. You call me."
After seeing Steve and Clint off down the road in the direction of when Steve parked his borrowed car, James and Natasha sat down on the front stoop. Natasha was looking pensive. "Daddy," she said. "I don't like it when you and Steve yell. It's scary."
"I don't like it either," James said. "We won't yell any more, okay?"
"Good." Natasha rested her chin in her hands. "Will Clint come over to play again?"
"Yeah." James put his hand on Natasha's back. "What me and Steve said, that was us adults disagreeing. You and Clint are the most important things in the world to us, you remember that."
"Clint is the third important person I ever met," Natasha said solemnly. "There's Director Fury, then Maria, then Clint."
"What about me?"
"You don't count, you're my daddy."
"I don't count, huh?" James pulled Natasha over his shoulder and stood, making the girl shriek with glee. "Let's get changed and go to the park."
As they headed back into the house, James was struck with a pang of anxiety. After James had retrieved Clint, Steve hadn't said anything about Clint's vision or about repeating kindergarten or the suspension.
James knew better than to step on other people's parenting techniques, but damn it, Clint was a good kid, a smart little guy with daring and gumption, and James wanted to help him and Steve as much as he could.
He'd call Steve the next day, James decided. Just to talk about things, no pressure, and offer to do anything he could to help them out.
That's what friends were for, after all.
to be continued