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Hands of Clay

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James was just putting the breakfast dishes into the sink when his phone beeped. hey would it be okay if I showed up early? read Skye's text message.

Natasha busy at the table, James typed back how early

The response came in the form of the doorbell ringing. Natasha scrambled out of her chair and ran toward the door, her father in pursuit "Hey Nat," James said. "Remember what we know about doorbells?"

"Always got to see who it is first!" Natasha said, bouncing up and down as James deactivated the house alarm. "Who is it?"

James glanced through the glass to see Skye standing on his front porch. He unlocked the door swung it open to the sounds of Natasha's rapturous screams of welcome. "Hey."

"Hi, Mr. Barnes," Skye said, holding out her arms for Natasha. The little girl jumped at Skye, wriggling in her excitement. "I hardly recognized you, Natasha, you're growing so big!"

"I am!" Natasha said in agreement, flexing her biceps. James hid his smile. "I'm big and strong and I'm almost six!"

"Nat."

"Five and a half," Natasha amended, unapologetic. "It's the same thing."

"Sure is." Skye was smiling at the child. "I love your outfit."

Natasha struck a pose, to show off her headache-inducing combination of rainbow leggings, bright green shirt and red dance tutu. "Daddy says I gotta dress to have fun, but not princess-fun. Run-around fun."

"That was a smart idea," Skye said. "I hope we can go to the park today and have fun."

"I love the park!" Natasha squealed.

"All right, Natasha," James interrupted. "Let's help Skye get all her stuff inside, okay?"

Skye gave James a grateful glance as she picked up a large box to move into the house. "My roommates gave me a lift to get this stuff over here," she said by way of explanation. "Some stuff for the kids, art supplies and the like."

"Expense me," James instructed as he went to pick up the handles of a large canvas bag; with his prosthesis still upstairs, there was a limit on how much he could help. "Nat, pick up that roll of paper, will you?"

Natasha jumped at the order; wrestling a large roll of butcher's paper into the house. It took James and Skye a few more trips, but they got everything inside in good time. James left Natasha digging through one of the boxes for stickers and took Skye into the kitchen.

"Things should be okay this week," he said as he poured her a cup of coffee. "We have swim lessons this afternoon, but I'm going to be here all day. I've got physio tomorrow but I won't leave until nine."

"Sounds good." Skye accepted the coffee gratefully. "For this first week, I thought we could just do whatever the kids want. Playground, water sprinkler, art projects, that kind of thing. I've got some worksheets to help Clint with his reading, but I want to see how much he knows already."

James moved the last of the breakfast dishes into the sink. "He can write his name," James offered. "Other than that, he's good at drawing. He's had his glasses in school for a month, not sure how much he took in since then."

"How's Natasha with her letters?"

"She's getting better. She still doesn't like how sometimes the same letter can sound different sometimes."

Skye let out a huff of agreement. "Her and me both, Mr. B."

James turned on the tap. "You should probably call me James. Clint does."

Skye's lips twisted up in a small smile. "Sure thing, James." She set her coffee cup down. "I'm going to go get stuff set up. Living room okay?"

"Yeah." James adjusted the water temperature. "I think we might move you guys up to the third floor next week, I just need to get a cleaner to come in and get rid of the dust before I send Natasha up there."

"Okay." Skye headed out of the kitchen, and James heard her say, "Hey, Natasha, how about you show me around the house?"

"Okay!" Natasha said. "I show you the bathroom, that's the most important room. Even if it's haunted by the Fart Ghost."

James raised his eyebrows at the sink, but decided to follow up on that particular train of thought at a later time. He had dishes to clean, and he was running out of time before Steve and Clint arrived.

Luckily, over six years James had developed an ideal triage system for loading the dishwasher one-handed. He could hear Skye and Natasha tromping around on the second story, then down the stairs and presumably into the basement. Glancing at the clock, James made another pot of coffee, in case Steve was able to stay for a cup after dropping Clint off, then wiped down the counters and went in search of his phone.

There was one text from Steve, a terse running late b there soon, sent about twenty minutes before. James typed back c u then, and took the few minutes with Natasha occupied to boot up his office computer to check his email.

From the sounds of things in the living room, Skye had enlisted Natasha to organizing the art supplies. There was the occasional loud bang, but as no screaming or tears followed, James let the two of them be.

Half an hour later, James' phone pinged with a new text from Steve. Off the train see you in five. James stood and stretched, then headed into the living room to find Skye and Natasha playing a rousing hand of Go Fish.

"They're going to be here soon," James said.

"Quiet, Daddy!" Natasha scolded, never looking up from her cards. "I am winning!" She looked at Skye with narrowed eyes. "Four."

Skye made a show of disappointment as she handed over the four of spades. "You're good at this game," she told Natasha. "We should play with Clint later today."

"Okay." Natasha laid her pair of fours down beside a stack of similarly paired cards. "But I am going to win."

"What do you get if you win?" James asked, giving the room a once-over to make sure things were in place.

"A sticker sheet. Of princesses."

"Sounds good." Hoping Skye also had something in her sticker arsenal to appeal to an almost-six-year-old boy, James headed over to the front window to keep an eye on the street.

Sure enough, Steve soon appeared at the end of the street. He was moving slowly, however, and it took James a few moments to see why. Clint was dragging along slowly behind his father. James frowned at the sight of what Clint was wearing. Far from the shorts and t-shirt he had been sporting the previous day, today Clint was dressed in dress trousers and a long-sleeved button-down shirt with a collar. His head hung low and every step he took was like he was being led to the gallows.

"What the hell are you doing, Steve?" James muttered under his breath. He stepped away from the window and went to open the front door. Steve was standing at the end of the walk, trying to move Clint up to the house, but the boy had planted his feet and wasn't moving.

"Clint, come on," Steve was saying. "I need to get to work."

"Nice morning," James said casually, strolling down the steps. "Going to be a hot day, too."

Dropping the large sports bag he carried, Steve shot an annoyed glare at James. "This outfit was his idea," Steve said. "Don't start?"

James held up his hand in surrender. "Just trying to help." He edged past Steve and went over to Clint, kneeing down to talk to the boy. "Hey, Clint, I'm glad you could come over today."

Clint didn't say anything, just looked at James with wide eyes. Gone was the excited little boy who only the day before had run screaming around the playground for over two hours while Steve and James sat on a bench and talked about property taxes and boring adult shit.

James rubbed his chin on his left shoulder, his half-arm protruding from his t-shirt. Clint's eyes tracked the movement of the arm. "Skye has some fun stuff for us to do today," James went on. Clint's expression dropped. "We can do drawing, and go to the park, and play in the sprinkler. And then we have swim classes later tonight."

"That's right." Steve put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "But first, we have to go inside."

Dragging his feet, Clint headed glumly toward the house. James stood, his knees protesting. "What the hell is going on?" James asked quietly, following Steve up the walk. "He was fine yesterday."

"I know!" Steve said, turning back to talk to James. "He was like this when I woke up this morning."

"Did you try talking to him?"

Steve stopped dead; James nearly ran into him. "No, talking to him never crossed my mind," Steve said sarcastically. "I spent the entire train ride here talking about how much fun he was going to have with Natasha this summer, and you know what he did? He sat there the entire time holding onto his glasses like someone was going to steal them."

Clint had stopped halfway up the steps and was watching them. James nudged Steve. "Come on, we'll talk about this inside."

They managed to get Clint through the doors, but there the boy planted himself beside Steve and wouldn't move. James slipped past the Rogers and gestured for Skye to join them. The young woman came over, a welcoming smile on her face for Clint. "Hi there," Skye said, crouching down to talk to Clint. "I'm Skye. It's nice to meet you, Clint. Your dad and Natasha have told me a lot about you."

Clint's only response was to put his index finger in his mouth and to move further behind Steve's leg.

Skye's smile never faltered. "Natasha and I were just going to start on some drawing. Will you come over and draw too?"

Steve bent down and held Clint's shoulders while he moved back. "Clint would love to go draw," Steve said, giving Clint a little push in Skye's direction. "I have to go to work, and I'll be back in time for swim lessons, okay?"

Clint let Skye take his hand and lead him to the coffee table, all the while looking back over his shoulder at Steve with huge sad eyes.

"Is he sick or something?" James asked once Natasha's loud exclamations of welcome drowned out the adults' voices. "Did he have a bad sleep?"

"I don't know!" Steve said in exasperation. "Normally I'd stay to get him settled, but I've got a meeting I can't miss."

"I'll be here all day," James said. "If everything goes straight to shit, we can watch movies until you get back and try again tomorrow."

"Yeah." Steve rubbed his hand over his face. "I've got all Clint's stuff." He lifted the sports bag to the hall table and unzipped the bag to riffle through its contents. "Swim clothes for later, his hearing aid case with an extra battery…" This Steve extracted and placed on the table. "I brought a change of play clothes in case he wants to get out of that monkey suit. Also his water bottle, some snacks, his comic books, his blanket in case he wants to take a nap—"

James put his hand on top of Steve's. "He'll be okay," James said. "I promise."

Steve was still, staring down at James' hand. "Yeah," Steve said after a minute. "Just… yeah."

"Do you need to get moving?"

"Yeah." Steve stood back, and James reluctantly withdrew his hand. "I should bring my bike over, if I'm going to drop Clint off every morning."

"What good is a bike going to do for you getting into Manhattan?" James asked.

A sudden grin sparkled across Steve's face. "Motorcycle," Steve said. "I built it from the ground up in high school, still have it."

James was diverted from their current problems by the mental image of Steve Rogers on a motorcycle. He swallowed. "Why don't you ride it more?"

"Clint's too small." Steve slapped James on the shoulder. "I should get going."

"Yeah." James turned around, watching as Steve went over to say goodbye to Clint. The little boy was kneeling beside Natasha at the coffee table, crayon clutched in his little hand, but he hadn't made a mark on his paper. Natasha, on the other hand, was in the middle of a vibrant scrawl. Steve said a few words to Clint, patted the boy on the head, and straightened up and came back over to the hallway. "We'll be fine."

"I hope so." Steve hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. "I don't know if it'll make any difference, but you can call me if you need to."

James fixed Steve with a glare. "Go to work."

Steve left, and James closed the door before making his way over to the sofa. Natasha was chattering happily to Skye about all the fun things she wanted to do that summer, with Skye gently encouraging her on. Clint sat still and silent, watching Skye's every move.

James sat down. As Natasha talked, Skye tried to engage Clint in the conversation, but the boy steadfastly refused to open his mouth. After a few minutes, James put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "Hey, Clint," James said quietly. "Do you want to put your glasses on so you can see better?"

Clint shook his head.

"Okay." James patted Clint's shoulder in reassurance, then sat back to watch.

Skye changed her tactics, leaning against the table and saying to the children, "How about we draw something fun we want to do this summer?"

"I'll do it!" Natasha said immediately, reaching for a clean sheet of paper. "I want to do so much! I want to go swimming, and go to the park, and ride a horse, and eat pizza!"

"That's a lot of fun," Skye said. "How about you, Clint? What do you want to do this summer?"

Clint bent his head over his paper. He drew a small circle with his blue crayon, then set it down to fiddle with the edges of the paper. "Go do arrows," whispered the boy.

"That's a good idea," James said. At Skye's inquiring look, he said, "Clint is an exceptional archer. He has classes on Friday afternoons."

"Archery?" Skye's face lit up. "That's really neat. I don't think I know anyone who's into archery."

If she wanted to engage Clint in conversation, it backfired; Clint shrank in on himself and stared at the paper.

Damn it, what was going on? James slipped off the couch and came over to the table, where he knelt between the children. He put his hand on Clint's forehead, but there was no hint of fever. "Hey, kids," James said. Both Natasha and Clint looked up at him. "Now's a good time for a body break."

"What's a body break?" Natasha asked, springing to her feet.

"We look after the body. Go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, shake out the wiggles." James went up on his knees to demonstrate this last, to Natasha's amusement. "So who needs to go pee?"

"I do!" Natasha ran in the direction of the first-floor bathroom. Clint just shook his head, even though James knew it had been a long trip for him on the subway that morning.

"How about water?" James asked. "Your dad said he brought your water bottle, it's over there." He pointed at the hall table.

Obligingly, Clint stood and walked over to the table. He reached up to retrieve his bottle, uncapped the lid, then sat on the floor to drink.

With the children momentarily occupied, James turned to Skye. "What is going on?"

"Separation anxiety?" Skye suggested. "We see it a lot in preschool."

"Clint's five, not three," James said. "I've never seen him like this around strangers."

"Maybe his dad can stay longer tomorrow?" Skye said. "It may take Clint a few days to get comfortable; this is different from school."

"But he's been over here lots," James said.

"Without his dad?"

"Well, no."

Skye nodded. "Give us a few more hours, we'll figure it out."

Things did not improve. James hung back and watched the children with Skye, but Clint kept up his silent staring routine. He went where Natasha went, did what Natasha did, but he was so busy watching Skye that he kept getting mixed up. Even Natasha noticed that something was wrong, but her attempts to engage Clint were met with a silent rebuff.

Finally, after the better part of an hour, James could take it no more. He motioned to Skye to join him, leaving the children to play with the cards. "Something's gotta give," he said. "I'm going to leave for a few minutes, go for a walk, then come back, maybe Clint will loosen up with me away. You okay with that?"

Skye pursed her lips, looking over at the children. "I guess it's worth a try."

"Good." James didn't bother with his prosthesis, just went to grab his jacket from the closet. "Hey, kids, I need to run over to the hardware store. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Natasha put down her playing cards. "What are you going to buy?" she demanded.

"I don't know, something for the garden." James slipped his wallet into his jeans, then his phone into his jacket pocket. "You guys stay here with Skye, I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Okay." Natasha picked up her cards again. "But next time, I'm going to come with you."

"Deal." James looked at Clint, who appeared not to have noticed the conversation at all. A new idea occurred to James, that maybe something was wrong with Clint's hearing aid. He'd look into that when he got back. "Okay, be good for Skye."

And with that, James escaped outside.

It was a lovely day, warming up after all. It would be a good day for running around in the sprinkler in the afternoon. Maybe, after James returned, they could go to the playground, then come back for lunch and hang around until it was time to leave for the children's swimming lessons. That was a good plan.

It only took James five minutes to walk to the hardware store. As he stepped inside, breathed in the air of the dusty supplies, the faint hint of metal on the air, James felt the tension of his morning bleed away. He'd spent a good part of his childhood in hardware stores and on construction sites, and the familiarity of the place sank deep in James' bones.

Someone brushed past James on the way to the door. Shaking off his nostalgia, James headed for the gardening department.

He didn't want to be gone long, but with two children on his hands for the summer, he figured he should get equipment for the both of them to play in the backyard's garden boxes. There was a little hand-held trowel on sale, and a stout little watering can that Clint could carry easily. James dropped the trowel into the opening of the watering can, tossed on top of it two pairs of children's work gloves, and headed for the front.

There was a short line-up, and all told it took James another ten minutes before he was turning the corner onto his street. Shopping bag dangling from his hand, he hoped that things were working okay with the kids, that Clint had loosened up somewhat with Skye. He really wanted this summer to be a special one for the kids. Remembering back to his own childhood, James' best summers had been the ones where he'd been able to spend every waking moment with his best friend.

Lost in thought as his house came into view, James ran his eye over the house's exterior. He should see if he could hire someone to wash the third-story windows; they were getting a little dusty.

Still halfway down the block, James' attention was caught as a second-story window was shoved open. It was the bathroom window. Natasha never opened the window, and James himself only opened it to let out steam from the shower, so why was it opening now?

All these thoughts were swept out of James' head as Clint appeared in the window, head and shoulders poking out. James stopped, because what was Clint doing? He got his answer soon enough, as Clint vanished for a brief instant, before the boy reappeared as he climbed out of the window to stand on the shallow brick ledge outside the window.

A wave of fear and adrenaline pushed James to a sprint. There was no way Clint could stay on the ledge; he was going to fall off and land on the brick stairs and hurt himself, and Steve had left his son with James because James had promised he'd be safe.

In the space of time it took James to run half a block, Clint had shuffled along the ledge to the drainpipe and started climbing down the building, using the spaces between the worn bricks as toeholds for his bare feet. He had made it down to the level with the first floor windows when James jumped the gate, losing the shopping bag in the process. It was only a few more steps to the edge of the building to help Clint jump down. Once the boy was firmly back on solid ground, James grabbed Clint by the shoulder and had to stop himself from giving the boy a shake. "What are you doing?" James gasped. "Clint, you could have hurt yourself!"

Clint wrenched away from James, tears filling his eyes. "I'm going home!" he said loudly.

Wanting to scream, James knelt down and put his hand on Clint's shoulder again. "You can't go home, you're going to spend the summer with Natasha, remember we talked about this?"

"I know!" Clint wailed. "But I don't want a teacher!"

James slumped back on his heels. His heartbeat was slowing down in his chest, but even the memory of the little boy perched precariously on the brickwork was enough to make James feel sick. "You don't like Skye?"

"I don't want her to know I'm dumb!" Clint exclaimed, as two large tears rolled down his cheeks.

James, who had only seen Clint cry over missing his mother, gathered Clint up in a hug. The boy wrapped his arms around James' neck and held on, sniffling.

"Oh boy," James said, mainly to keep from swearing. "Come on, hold tight." He put his arm under Clint's bum and stood, lifting the boy with him. Clint was hanging on tight enough to choke James, but if it meant the boy wasn't running away, James would take what he could get.

James walked around to the steps and sat down, Clint on his lap. He waited until Clint had calmed down enough to loosen his grip on James' neck, then he reached into his jacket pocket for his phone.

"I'm going to let Skye know you're all right, then you and me are going to have a talk, okay?" James asked. Clint nodded. Quickly, James typed out a message to Skye. clint climd out a windw i have hm out on steps thngs ok.

Moments after James hit send, he heard a thunk as something came in contact with glass. He glanced around to see Skye pressed against the living room window, staring down at them in confusion. James gave her a thumbs-up as a sign everything was all right.

Natasha joined Skye, pressing her nose against the glass. "Hi Daddy!" she yelled, loud enough to be heard through the window.

James waved. After a minute, Skye drew Natasha away from the window and James could concentrate on Clint. The boy was playing with a button of James' jacket, his lower lip stuck out in a pout.

With a sigh, James said, "Okay, you want to tell me what made you think Skye's going to think you're dumb? Because you're not dumb. You are a very intelligent little boy."

"No I'm not," came the whispered response.

"Why do you say that?"

Clint sniffled again. "Miss Spitz said I'm too dumb to go to first grade. She's a teacher, she knows."

James pulled on Clint's shoulder until the boy was sitting back. "What exactly did she say?" James demanded.

Clint wiped his nose on his shirt-sleeve. "She said, if it was up to her I'd stay another year in kindergarten because I didn't learn anything this year."

James was appalled. "She said this to you?"

"No, she was talking to Mrs. Anders on Friday at school," Clint said crossly. "But they never think I can hear anything, and so I pretend I can't hear them but I do!"

James took a steadying breath. God, was he happy that Clint wasn't ever going back to that school. "Clint, can I talk to you like a grown-up? Man to man?"

Clint sat up straight, his eyes bright. "Uh huh."

"Okay." James took a moment to gather his thoughts. "So, for starters, you're a very smart kid, I've always known that from the day I met you. Natasha knows it, your dad knows it, and I know it."

"Daddy has to say that," Clint said, gloom spreading over his face.

"Maybe, but I don't. And I guarantee you, Natasha never says stuff about people she doesn't think is true."

Clint rubbed his head. "But you don't know me all that long," he said. "Miss Spitz and Mrs. Anders taught me all year long. They think I'm a dummy."

"Stop calling yourself that," James ordered, his voice a little sharp. "Rule one of summertime in the Barnes' household. No talking down about yourself."

"Why?"

"Because we are a positive household." James heartily wished he'd read those posts about childhood self-esteem on the parenting blogs; it was never a problem he'd experienced with Natasha. "We don't say things that aren't true, and we don't say mean things about ourselves, or about anyone else. You wouldn't call Natasha a dummy, would you?"

"No," Clint said, astonished. "Natasha is smart. She's the smartest girl I ever meet."

"And she thinks you are the smartest boy she's ever met." James patted Clint on the back. "You're smart and intelligent, and most of all you are kind. Now I'm going to tell you something. I've been a lot of places. I've been to Afghanistan, and Iraq, and all over Europe, and I promise you that I'm telling the truth when I say that being kind is about the best thing a man can be."

Clint stared at James. "What about girls?"

"Being kind is the best thing a woman can be, too," James quickly added. "Being kind is very important for everyone. Because it means you are understanding, and have empathy."

"What's that?"

"Hmm." James contemplated checking the definition on the internet, but the last time he tried that with Clint around disruptive, and he still remembered how that emotional disaster ended. He was just going to have to wing it. "Empathy means you can understand what someone's feeling. Like when Natasha is sad, you understand that she's sad."

James knew he was bungling the answer, but Clint was nodding slowly.

Going on, James said, "And you know that when someone gets called a dummy, that makes them feel sad. So you don't do that."

"No," Clint said quickly.

"And," James said, "Sometimes you can imagine what someone is going through. With me, you can understand that I can't pick some things up, even with my prosthesis."

"That's 'cause I have a metal ear!" Clint added, bounce coming back to his body. "And sometimes I can't hear, and when people think I can, or they think I can't hear anything, then I get mad."

"Because they might need a little empathy with what you're going through," James said. Clint nodded. "Good talk. Now, can we talk about why you tried to parkour out a second-story window?"

Clint sagged on James' knee. "Skye is pretty," he said after a moment. "And she talks real nice."

"You think so?"

Clint nodded. "I don't want her to find out I can't read. I don't want her to think I'm a dummy."

"Ah." Suddenly, everything from that morning was slotting into place. "Is that why you were watching Skye this morning?"

Clint squinted up at the sky. "I thought if I looked at her, I'd know what she wanted me to do," he said. "But I just felt sad."

"Let me tell you something about Skye," James said. "She was Natasha's preschool teacher, and she's been a teacher for a whole lot of kids. She's known kids who could read when they were really little and some who couldn't, and some who had trouble with colors and other stuff."

"I'm good at colors," Clint interjected.

"Yes you are. What else are you good at?"

Clint put his finger in his mouth and chewed on the knuckle for a few moments. "I'm good at archering," he said. "And at swimming."

"Yes. And you are also a very good friend. That's really important." He nudged at Clint until the boy stood up. "Now, we have to go inside and explain to Skye why you tried to run away. And later you and me are going to have a talk about how you can't run away."

"Okay." Clint waited while James retrieved the bag from the hardware store, then took hold of James' wrist as they walked together up the stairs.

Inside, Skye and Natasha were building a house of cards with the abandoned deck. At Clint's entrance, Natasha jumped up, knocking over the card house, and ran over to give him a hug. "How'd you get outside?" she demanded.

"We're going to talk about that," James said, urging the children along. "Everyone, sit down, we need to have a conversation."

Skye swept the cards off to the side and slipped onto the sofa. Natasha jumped up beside her. James sat on the edge of the coffee table and Clint leaned against his knee.

"Clint, do you have something to say to Skye?" James asked.

Clint scrubbed at his face with his hands. He took a deep breath, and burst out, "I climbed out a window because I like you!"

Skye put her hand over her mouth. James wasn't sure if she was exasperated or amused. He just hoped she didn't laugh. After a moment, Skye said, "No one's ever jumped out a window because they like me before."

"But I did it," Clint said, turning against James' shoulder.

James said, "Clint was worried this morning that you might not think he was very smart, because he doesn't know how to read quite yet."

"Oh." Skye held out her hands, and Clint ran over to her. "I would never think that. There are a lot of intelligent people who had a hard time learning to read. Everyone learns at their own pace. Even grown-ups."

Clint did not appear convinced. Skye helped him to sit on the sofa at her side, settling back so both children could look at her.

"Do you want to know a secret about learning stuff?" she asked. Both children nodded solemnly. "Most people can learn nearly anything, but the first thing they need is to be exposed to it."

"What's exposed?" Clint asked.

"It sounds bad," Natasha put in.

"It's not bad. It means you're around something. You can't learn to read if there's nothing to read, or you can't see the letters," Skye said. "Or, you can't learn to drive a car if you don't have a car to drive."

"I can't drive until I'm tall enough to reach the pedals," Natasha said.

"When you're sixteen," James said. His daughter ignored him.

"And then, you have to want to learn," Skye said. "That's the same thing for adults. Your dads use computers, but I bet neither off them can hack into the Bank of America, because they have different interests."

James' eyebrows went up at this, because what? But Skye was moving on.

"And the best thing that we can do this summer is to find out what things you want to learn about," she said. "Then I can help you do that."

Clint went up on his knees. "Do you think I can learn to read?" he asked breathlessly.

Skye smiled at Clint. "If you want to try, I will help you."

"I want to try!" Clint exclaimed, punching the air. "I'm gonna learn to read!"

"Me too!" Natasha said, bouncing up and down with excitement. "Daddy, I'm going to learn to read!"

"Excellent," James said. "Both of you, that's awesome. High fives."

Clint and Natasha jumped off the couch and ran over to James for their congratulatory high fives. Then Clint ran back over to Skye. "I can read my name already!" he said in excitement.

"That's a great start," Skye said, ruffling Clint's hair. "Do I get a high five too?"

Clint nearly toppled over with the force of his high five, and he started laughing. Natasha laughed too.

"All right," James said, standing up. "This is all very hungry work. What do you say we go in the kitchen and make a snack?"

"Cupcakes!" Natasha exclaimed. "Daddy, can we make cupcakes?"

"With chocolate chips!" Clint put in.

"Sure, why not," James said. "All right, everyone to the kitchen." The children ran off, screaming in excitement. James held out his hand to help Skye to her feet. "Thanks for being so understanding," he said. "I'll fix the window so he can't get out again."

"It's fine," Skye said, waving it off. "I'm glad you were there to catch him. Trust me, I know what it's like to want to escape."

"Same." A clatter of metal came from the kitchen. "Can you go help them? I'm going to get Clint's change of clothing."

Skye was already heading for the kitchen. When he was alone in the room, James sat back down and let out a groan. Less than two hours since Steve had left, and already Clint had tried to run away by jumping out a window. James just hoped that this did not bode ill for the rest of the summer.

After a minute, James heaved himself to his feet. He shuffled over to the hall table to dig out Clint's change of clothing. Maybe now that he was feeling more settled, the boy would want to switch into something he could play in.

Before heading into the kitchen, James hung his jacket on the rack. He fished out his phone, checked the screen, but there were no messages from Steve. Of course, Steve wouldn't expect his son to jump out of a window on the first day.

James' thumb hovered over the keypad. He could send Steve a message with the story, but what good would that do? Just worry Steve in a place he couldn't do anything about it. James slipped the phone into his pocket. He'd tell Steve what happened later, when the man came to collect them for swimming lessons. That would be better than a phone call or a text.

You keep telling yourself that, James thought as he headed into the kitchen, where the children and Skye were measuring chocolate chips into a bowl. Clint was just as excited as Natasha now, chattering with her and Skye, laughing and smiling. What a change half an hour could make.

James stood watching for a few minutes, then took a deep breath and said, "Who wants to change into play clothes?"

"I do!" Clint exclaimed, jumping down from the chair by the counter and running over. "This shirt is itchy!"

"I'm already in play clothes," Natasha reminded James. "These are my happy clothes. When I wear rainbow colors on the outside, I feel like rainbow colors on the inside."

"I have a bird on my shirt!" Clint said as he stripped down to his skivvies in the middle of the kitchen. "My bird shirt makes me happy!"

With the shirt on, Clint tried to run back over to the counter without bothering to put on his pants, but James caught him and made him pull on his shorts before he could rejoin the girls.

Then James went to get a cup of coffee and observe the organized chaos at the counter. Skye didn't seem to need his help with the children, deftly directing their attention to the right place as the baking lesson proceeded. So James sat, and watched the children, and finally allowed himself to think that maybe, just maybe, this summer would work out after all.


The rest of the day passed in relative calm. They got the cupcakes into the oven without making too much of a mess, then James sent the kids into the backyard with the new gardening tools. Both Clint and Natasha were thrilled to have their very own pair of work gloves, and they pottered around importantly until it was time to go back inside to have their snack.

Then it was time to go to the park, and Natasha pouted a little as Clint got to take his water bottle while she did not have one. Only after James promised to ask Steve where he'd bought it, so Natasha could have one of her very own, did the girl allow herself to be hustled out of the house and down the street.

After an hour on the playground, during which Skye was the one to keep up with the kids, pushing them on the swings while James had a protracted phone conversation with Maria about work, they all headed home and James broke out a treat he'd been saving: chicken nuggets for lunch.

Natasha was so excited she nearly fell off her chair.

After lunch, the children changed into their bathing suits and spent a few hours running through the sprinkler in the back yard. James and Skye sat supervising on the patio. Well, James supervised; Skye was doing research on age-appropriate learning materials to help Clint in his newly discovered quest to read.

All too soon, it seemed, the day was ending and Steve Rogers was knocking on the front door. James asked Skye to keep an eye on the kids while he talked to Steve, and went to face the lion in his den. All in all, Steve took the news of Clint's escape attempt better than James expected.

"A second-story window?" Steve shouted, his arms flailing wildly. "How did he not hurt himself?"

"Toeholds in the bricks," James said, slumped on the sofa, clutching a pillow to his chest. "Has he ever been on a climbing wall?"

"No, goddamnit!" Steve said, pacing in a circle. "What am I going to do with him?"

"You're sure as hell not going to yell at him like this," James said, and that penetrated through Steve's frustration. The man's shoulders slumped, and he came over to collapse on the sofa beside James. "Talk to him, Steve. He responded to that after I caught him trying to make a break."

Steve dropped his head into his hands. "Jesus, Bucky, what the hell."

James took pity on Steve, patting the man on the back. "He's got a year's worth of crap to get over, give him time."

"Fuck."

A chorus of noise preceded the children into the living room, dripping on every available surface. Skye was in their wake, holding her phone out to display the time. "I have to go, I've got a class," she said apologetically.

"No problem." James staggered to his feet. "Nat, go upstairs and change into dry clothes, we have to go to swim class."

"Bye Skye!" Natasha screeched, running up the stairs.

Clint made a beeline for his father and tried to hug the man, but Steve held him off until he could slip out of his suit jacket. "Oh, Clint, we need to talk," Steve said.

Tactfully, James saw Skye out. They stood on the step talking about the week's schedule, including James' physio appointment the following morning, then Skye's early departure on Wednesday, and the fact that Friday was the Fourth of July and did James need Skye to come in on the holiday?

"Nah, we'll be good," James said. Something about the day pinged in his head. What was it? Oh right, that was Steve's birthday. "But can you guys make birthday presents for Steve this week?"

"Anything you say, boss." Skye headed off down the steps and turned in the direction of the subway station.

Squaring his shoulders, James went back inside.

Steve was cross-legged on the ground, talking quietly to a sad-faced Clint. On James' entrance, Steve patted Clint on the head and sent him over to get the sports bag. "You in trouble?" James asked Clint.

"Yeah," Clint said. " 'Cause I tried to run away, I can't have any juice for two whole days."

"Huh."

"And I gotta 'pologize to Skye and I can't never run away from anyone again."

"Clint, go change back into your clothes so we can go to swim lessons, please," Steve said from the floor. With a huff, Clint grabbed his towel and stalked off toward the kitchen. "Kids."

"Yeah. Hey, Friday's your birthday."

"So?" Steve asked as he climbed to his feet.

"So got any plans?"

"Nah. Clint's archery class is cancelled because of the holiday. I have to work, though."

"Wow, that's shitty."

Steve shrugged. "There's a big donor we're preparing a dossier for. It was either my staff works through the day, or I take one for the team."

"Such an altruist," James said.

"No, a realist. Tony gives his employees holidays off with pay. If I ask my people to work that day, it's double-time pay and a day off in lieu. It's not in the budget."

"So you let them have the day off and keep the holiday pay for yourself."

Steve punched James lightly in the right bicep. "Shut up, that's not it at all."

"Whatever. What are you doing for your birthday?"

"I figured me and Clint could get dinner after I pick him up." Steve paused for a moment. "Oh, shit. Is Skye coming over on Friday?"

"Nope. Guess I got the kids all to myself."

"Bucky, I—"

"—Are going to shut your yap and let me take care of the kids. Consider it a birthday present."

The expression of relief on Steve's face made James almost feel bad. "You're the best friend a guy could have."

A simultaneous rush of gratitude and guilt coursed through James' body. "You'd do the same for me," he said.

"I would."

Steve's smile was almost too much, like staring into the sun. James shook his head. "How about we have a party here when you're done?" he suggested. "Some burgers, some hot dogs. I'm pretty sure I have a grill somewhere, I can go pick up some charcoal."

"Bucky, you always have the best ideas," Steve said. "You think we can see the fireworks from the backyard?"

"No, but maybe from the roof."

"What's on the roof?" Clint asked, wandering back into the room.

"Fireworks on your daddy's birthday," James said.

"I like fireworks, they go boom!"

"Same here, peanut." James went over to the stairs. "Natasha, get moving! We're going to be late!"

He turned around and nearly tripped over Clint. The boy was staring up at him. "Did you give me a nickname?" he asked excitedly.

James reviewed what he'd said. "It looks like I did."

Clint beamed. "I have a nickname!" he exclaimed, and ran over to Steve, who picked him up and swung him around. "Daddy, I have a nickname!"

"That's pretty neat."

"Daddy, does James have a nickname for you?"

"I've got a few," James said under his breath as Natasha flounced down the stairs. For some reason, she was wearing her pink princess dress.

"I'm ready to go," she said, arms crossed defiantly.

James sighed. He was too tired for this argument. "Do you have your bathing suit?" was all he asked, and then they were all heading out the door for the jeep to go to swimming lessons.

All in all, it had been a day where everything turned out okay in the end.


Compared to the first day of the week, everything else was a wild success. James' physio appointment went well, the children (and Skye) none the worse for wear at his absence. Skye's early exit on Wednesday was smoothed over by James taking the children to the hardware store for an afternoon of browsing. Clint's favorite part was the paint samples, while Natasha poked at the sharp tools and kept asking, "What's that for?"

On Thursday, Skye had the kids working on crafts to give Steve for his birthday, which let James go do a bit of grocery shopping to prepare for the cook-out on Friday. He welcomed the break, as he had been trying for days to think about what to give Steve for his birthday.

They weren't children anymore, so comic books were out. They were just so different now; James didn't know what Steve was into, besides being a dad. James supposed he could get something for Clint, but no that would be weird, and besides Clint's birthday was in a month's time.

As he neared the produce section, James was getting a little desperate. Maybe he could just give Steve a coffee gift card and be done with it, James was thinking in disgust as he selected potatoes, when all of a sudden inspiration struck.

Baseball. Steve had liked baseball as a kid. Maybe that was what James could get him, a day out at a ball game. For the giddiest of moments, James thought that maybe he could take Steve out to the game, not a date but just them, hanging out. Then reality rushed back in with a bump. If James and Steve went to a ball game, that left no one to watch the children, and taking two five-year-olds to a baseball game would turn into a babysitting experience.

So that was what James would do, he thought, feeling as though he'd lost something. He would get Steve tickets to a baseball game, two tickets so Steve could take someone he liked, and James would stay home with the children. It wasn't a hardship; James enjoyed having the two kids around. But for a brief instant, James had fantasized what it would be like to enjoy a baseball game with Steve, four uninterrupted hours of close physical proximity to Steve Rogers.

But it wasn't to be. James might be in love with his best friend, but Steve would never know. Steve was straight, and totally out of James' league.


Friday started off well. Steve dropped Clint off early, so James got the kids their breakfast and then everyone got dressed and headed off to the park. After that, the trio headed over to a small street fair by Natasha's dance studio. James had taken the precaution of pinning slips of paper with the children's emergency contacts inside their pockets in case they had any run-away incidents, but both Clint and Natasha were very well behaved as they walked the streets, holding on to James' hands. Natasha clung to James' right hand, while Clint was happy to hold James' metal hand, even if he tugged too hard occasionally.

James had promised the children that they could each buy one special treat. Clint early on picked a shiny pinwheel that spun as he walked. Natasha took more time in her perusal of the stalls, but ended up picking a long fluttery ribbon on a stick, similar to a gymnast's ribbon. James cautioned them both to make sure they didn't hit anyone with their toys, and off they went.

It was a lovely day, and the only thing wrong was that Steve wasn't with them to enjoy it. James took lots of pictures for Steve, and when they all finally made it home, everyone was tired and cranky.

James made the unpopular decision for an hour of naptime. The children argued every step of the way, but soon after James had them down (Natasha in her room, Clint in the spare room across the hall) the children were fast asleep. James could have used a nap of his own, but instead he went to the kitchen to get ready for the evening meal.

The children were up and helping James make the salad when Steve arrived. He got a round of happy birthday! and open my present! from the children, and it was a precarious few minutes before he could actually make it into the kitchen.

"We'll open presents after dinner," James told the children. "Can you set the table, please?"

As the children ran around underfoot, Steve removed his suit jacket and tie before moving over to the sink to wash his hands. "Can I help?" Steve asked, sneaking a slice of carrot out of the salad bowl.

"Sure, you're on condiments," James said, his attention divided between the pots on the stove. "The charcoal's already lit. I wasn't sure if you wanted to eat outside, it might be a bit chilly."

"In here's good," Steve said with a smile. "Thanks for doing this, Bucky, it's been a long time since anyone threw me a birthday party."

"What about your adoptive family?" James asked.

"Sally and Kimberly both live on the west coast now," Steve said as he went to gather bottles from the fridge. "Ever since he retired, Abraham spends June and part of July with them. Of course," Steve said with a smile, "These days he's sure to be back by early August."

"Clint's birthday?"

"Of course. Nothing could keep Grandpa Abraham away from one of his grandchildren on their birthdays."

Clint, who was holding two forks like drumsticks as he walked to the table, said, "Grandpa Abraham is my favorite grandpa."

"Then he's mine too," Natasha put in, carrying a stack of paper napkins as she followed Clint.

James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "What about Sharon's parents?"

Steve made a face as if he'd smelled sour milk. "When Sharon told them that she was going overseas to work and that she was signing over full custody to me, they flipped out," he said in an undertone. "Said how could a young punk like me raise their grandson, all that kind of crap."

"That sucks," James said.

Steve smiled then, sharp and not entirely pleasant. "You know what, though? They know where I live, have my phone number, and they haven't even tried to see Clint once in the last four years." He slammed the fridge door shut. "That's fine. We don't need them. Everyone who cares about us, they make time for us."

James stood watching as Steve carried an armful of bottles to the table. Clint and Natasha both 'helped' Steve set the bottles in the right order. "Daddy, are we gonna see Grandpa Abraham for Hanukkah this year?" Clint asked.

"You bet we are," Steve said. "Same as every year, we're going to his house for the first night and we're going to see your aunts and uncles and cousins."

"Yes!" Clint put his hands in the air. "I like grandpa's house, it's big and there are huge trees and when I'm big enough I can climb them! Am I big enough?"

"Not yet," Steve said, ruffling Clint's hair. "Maybe when you're ten."

"That's too long," Clint complained, smoothing his hair back in place. "I do it when I'm seven."

"We don't have Hanukkah, we have Christmas," Natasha informed Steve and Clint. "We get a little tree, and we make decorations, and I can't light a fire in the chimney on Christmas morning because maybe Santa's stuck and he gets all burnt up."

Wondering where the hell Natasha had gotten that last tidbit, James said, "You can't light the fire because the chimney's bricked up to keep the drafts out."

"Then how can Santa get down?" Natasha demanded hotly.

"He's magic," James said. "He can get through the cracks in the bricks. Who's going to help me with the potato salad?"

Eventually, the table was set and everyone crowded around the charcoal grill outside for the ceremonial laying-on of the hamburgers. After a few minutes of watching things sizzle, the kids went to check on their garden boxes while Steve and James were left standing by the grill.

"So," Steve said, hands in his pocket. "Clint's been having a great time this week."

"He's a good kid," James said, testing the edge of a burger with the metal spatula. "Those two, they keep each other occupied. I'll tell you, I've never seen Natasha so happy. Even last summer with Skye, she wasn't this into things. Having a friend is really helping."

"Yeah." Steve rocked back and forth on his heels. "I mean, other than Monday—"

"Monday doesn't count."

"—Clint has never gotten up in the morning so easily," Steve went on. "He's always so excited to come over here." Now Steve was watching the children; Clint was talking to the carrot tops while Natasha carefully turned over trowels of dirt between the beets. "It's just…"

James waited.

"This is going to sound stupid, but he's blossoming," Steve said, the faintest tremble in his voice. "With Natasha, and with you and with Skye… I didn't realize how much that school was no good for him until this week."

"You know that I'd do anything for Clint," James said as he rolled the hot dogs.

"Yeah, I know."

James kept his eyes on the burgers, giving Steve a semblance of privacy. James was aware that a lot of his coping mechanisms around emotion came from being in hyper-masculine environments, sports in high school and then the Army, but even knowing that and having a little girl who talked about her emotions at the drop of a hat, he couldn't look at Steve.

A voice in his head kept saying that real men didn't cry because their kids were doing well, real men didn't have feelings, and it took him a few moments to realize that it was his father's voice he was imagining.

Breathing over the sharp flutter of his heart in his throat, James took a step back from the grill. "Here," he said roughly, handing the spatula to Steve. "You do this, I gotta check on the cake."

The cake was perfectly fine and waiting in the refrigerator, but it gave James a momentary respite to go inside, close the door, and lean against the counter waiting for his heart to stop racing.

He wasn't his father. There was nothing wrong with Steve being emotional about his kid making progress, about good things happening, and no one was going to come in and hurt Steve because of it, James didn't have to worry about that. He didn't have anything to worry about, only the echoes of long-ingrained lessons.

James pressed his hand against the counter, the straps of his prosthetic arm digging into his ribs. He'd worn it while they were out to keep better hold of the children's hands, but now they were home, and James' wasn't the only adult hand around. Steve was there. Steve could handle things if James needed help.

Pushing off the counter, James pulled his shirt over his head and quickly undid the straps holding his metal arm to his body. The strap on his ribs had rubbed raw with all the activity of the day, first trying to hold onto Clint at the street fair and then later in the kitchen. James carefully put the arm on top of the fridge, out of the way of curious little hands, when the back door opened and Steve came in. He pulled up short at the sight of James with his shirt off. "Oh."

James made a face. Steve must have seen the raw spot on his side. "It'll be fine," James said, pulling his shirt over his head. "Give it a few days and I'll be fine. All that heavy lifting."

Steve ran his tongue over his lower lip. "I think the burgers might be done. How pink do you want yours?"

James restrained himself. "Whatever. Wait, did you leave the kids out there with the grill?"

"I told them not to touch it," Steve said as James brushed past him out the door. On the patio, Clint and Natasha were both holding the handle of the spatula and watching the sputtering grill from a safe distance.

"Daddy, we're supervising," Natasha informed him.

"Good." He ran his hand over Natasha's hair. "How about you two pumpkins go and wash your hands and we can eat?"

He grabbed the spatula from the children as they rushed into the house, nearly trampling Steve. Twirling the spatula in his fingers, James raised his eyebrow at Steve. "Hey, want to make yourself useful and lend me a hand?"

The exasperated expression on Steve's face was worth the pun.


Dinner was good, if a bit loud. The children were almost too excited to eat, but the four of them managed to pack away most of the salads, burgers, hotdogs and corn. As they ate, the kids told Steve all about their day at the street fair and showed him their new toys. The man was suitably impressed.

Then James made the kids help him clear the table before he would bring out the cake. "And you go get your presents for Steve," James said as Clint tried to grab at the birthday candles. "Remember all that hard work you did?"

Once the children stampeded out of the room, James gave Steve a rueful smile. "I didn't think this whole one-armed cake carrying thing through."

"I'll do anything for cake, including carry it myself," Steve said. He picked up the sheet cake James had bought from a bakery down the street and carried it to the table. "This looks patriotic."

The cake was decorated in icing bursts of fireworks and a large American flag. "What can I say, they had a special."

The children rushed back into the room. "Open mine first!" Clint shouted, shoving a box at Steve.

"No, open mine first!"

"Gifts on the table!" James ordered. "We'll cut the cake first. Now sit!" The children sat, giggling the whole time. James fished a lighter out of the junk drawer and headed over to the table. After lighting the candles, he sat down in the chair next to Natasha and said, "Can we sing Steve the happy birthday song like we practiced?"

The children launched into an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday, James singing along to keep them on the melody. In the light from the candles, Steve's smile was warm and happy, and James' heart melted at the sight.

"Now blow!" Clint commanded as the song ended.

"Okay." Steve leaned forward and blew out the candles in one breath. The children clapped at this feat. "Now what?"

"Present time," James said as he reached for the cake with a knife.

The children surged forward, pushing their hand-wrapped gifts at Steve. "Come here," Steve instructed, pulling Natasha and Clint onto his knees and putting his arms around them. "Now, what do we have?"

Skye's idea of a birthday craft had consisted of a paperweight (a hand-painted rock with large goggly eyes glued on; Clint's was a peacock, Natasha's a tiger) and a hand-drawn birthday card. Clint ripped open the envelope for Steve and handed his father the card. "Look, Daddy, I wrote it all myself!" the boy said excitedly. "Skye showed me but I wrote the words, 'Happy Birthday Daddy, from Clint'!"

Steve looked at the card, with its rickety large letters spelled out in purple glitter marker, and gathered Clint into a hug. "That's the best birthday gift ever," he said against Clint's hair. "Thanks, Clint."

On Steve's other knee, Natasha looked at Steve and Clint with the beginnings of a pout on her lips. "I made you a card too," she said.

"You did?" Steve said, sitting up. "Show it to me."

Natasha ripped open the envelope and pulled her card free. "This is for you," she said. "I drawed you and Daddy and me and Clint and we are all at Disneyland."

From his side of the table, James could see the artwork clear as day. Steve smiled at Natasha as he opened the card. " 'Happy Birthday Steve Rogers'," he read. " 'From Natasha Barnes'. Thanks, Nat, this is a lovely card."

"You're sure lucky to have two birthday cards," James said. He reached into his back pocket and handed a folded piece of paper to Steve. "Sorry it's so crappy."

"It's fine," Steve said before he opened the paper. "Baseball tickets?" he blurted out.

"Yeah," James said, feeling his ears going red. "I thought, you know, you liked baseball. I thought you could take someone special. I'll watch the kids."

Steve looked at the paper in wonder. "Bucky, this is just a great idea, I haven't gone to a game in years." He looked up at James, smiling. "But hey, we should go, together. It'd be great."

James' heart dropped into his stomach. He knew that Steve didn't mean it like that, but all the same some part of him wanted it to be real, wanted Steve to take him to the game because he wanted to spend time with James. But that wasn't what Steve meant. Forcing himself to smile, James said, "Yeah, sure, that would be great."

On Steve's knee, Clint reached for the paper. "What's baseball?" he asked, squinting at the page.

"You know baseball," Steve reminded him. "The kids down the street play it all the time."

"Can I come too?" Clint asked.

That wasn't what James had planned, not at all, but at least that way James wouldn't have to worry about a babysitter. "We can take the kids, make a day of it," he said, pushing down the disappointment in his chest at not getting to spend the day alone with Steve.

Maybe it was James' imagination, but Steve's smile slipped a little. "Yeah, good idea," the man said. "Family outing."

Natasha slipped off Steve's knee and went back to her chair. "I'm not going," she said. "Baseball is boring."

James opened his mouth to argue, but decided against it. He'd deal with Natasha's problems with organized sports at a later time. "Who wants cake?" he said instead, and was rewarded with cheers from the children and a happy grin from Steve.

Sometimes, James reminded himself, he had to quit while he was ahead.


After cake, after dishes, James and Steve talked the children into changing into their pajamas to watch a movie. That carried them through until dark, when James led the way up to the roof, through the dusty third floor to the bolted door. The keys turned the two double-sided deadbolt locks, and the door hinges creaked as the door opened.

Natasha clutched at Clint's arm. "Are there ghosts on the roof?" she asked breathlessly.

"Nope, just some lawn chairs." When Natasha didn't move, James went over and picked her up. "Come on, let's go."

Clint took Steve's hand to climb the stairs, and the four of them emerged onto the flat brownstone roof in one piece, even if Natasha tried to strangle James with the strength of her grip.

In the distance, the warning flares were going up. Steve and James made their way over to the lawn chairs James had put up the previous afternoon and set up the children in their own little lawn chairs. James then pulled out the bag of sparklers he'd picked up at the hardware store, and lit them for Clint and Natasha to wave around as the night darkened.

Once the fireworks started on the river, the children climbed into their respective fathers' laps. New York put on quite a show of fireworks, with each volley over the river reaching higher and higher. The children cheered on the first few shots, and then Clint promptly fell asleep against Steve's chest.

"You okay with all this?" Steve asked quietly, as Natasha's interest waned with Clint unconscious. "The explosions and all."

"I'm fine," James said. "Things blowing up miles away is fine. Just no firecrackers in the backyard, okay?"

"Deal."

They watched the fireworks go on. Natasha gave a huge yawn as she curled up against James' chest. "Daddy, I'm sleepy," she mumbled, trying to keep her eyes open.

"That's okay," James told her quietly. "I'll carry you to bed."

"Happy birthday, Daddy," Natasha slurred.

James kissed her hair. "Not my birthday, sweet pea," he whispered as he shifted Natasha up his chest, to rest her head on his shoulder. The girl wiggled sleepily, whispered something, and gradually went limp.

"What did she say?" Steve asked during a lull in the fireworks.

"I'm pretty sure she said 'farts'."

Steve let out an involuntary snort.

"Shut up."

"I didn't say anything."

"Whatever, jerk." James put his hand on Natasha's back so she wouldn't slide. "They're five."

"Like we were any better at twelve."

Steve went back to watching the fireworks, the colors from the blasts reflecting off his face. In profile like this, Steve was perfect, a piece of art in the dark of the evening.

After a minute, Steve looked over at James, and James realized that he had been staring. "Thanks, Bucky," Steve said quietly. "This… well, it's one of the best birthdays I've had in a very long time."

"Good," James said, all of the hard work from the day suddenly fading from his mind. "I mean… yeah, because it's the first time in a while with you and me, you know?"

His heart pounding in his chest, James waited for Steve to deflect, something, but the man just nodded. "Yeah, Bucky. I know."

And with that, they lapsed into a comfortable silence, their children fast asleep as the fireworks flew high over the city, celebrating the Fourth of July.