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Hands of Clay

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To James' utter lack of surprise, Clint hit the wall after his Friday archery lesson.

The boy had been cheerful and upbeat all through the day, helped in no small part by Skye's deliberately busy schedule of events. After Skye went home, Clint had still been excited, focused on his archery lesson, and had demonstrated a seriousness at the lesson itself that had impressed James (who waited on the sidelines with a bored Natasha).

But after the lesson, as James packed both children back into the jeep for the ride home, Clint folded in on himself. Natasha kept up the chattering from the backseat, filling the air with stories about what she wanted to do on this special Camp Out night, but Clint sat quiet in his seat, finger in his mouth and eyes downcast. James could only grit his teeth and drive as fast as possible.

At home, James divested Clint of his bow case and quiver, shutting the weapons neatly into the hall closet. Clint wandered over to the front window and sat on the window seat, staring gloomily out into the street below.

"Daddy?" Natasha said, tugging on James' right hand. "Clint is sad."

James led Natasha over to Clint's side, where she scrambled onto the seat beside her best friend. "It's understandable if Clint is a little glum," James said.

Clint turned to eye James suspiciously. "What's glum?" he demanded.

"It's when you're a little sad, and a little bummed out." James pushed aside the stack of books on the coffee table, and sat down to face the kids. "It's when you feel a little like this."

He then proceeded to sigh theatrically, making sad faces until even Clint was giggling at him.

"See?" James said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Everyone feels glum sometimes."

Clint pulled his glasses off, letting them dangle from the cord around his neck. "I miss my dad," he said, lower lip going out in a pout. "Every time after I shoot arrows, he and me go have spaghetti."

"I know," James said. "He told me."

"But we're going to have hot dogs for dinner," Natasha interjected immediately. She glared at her father. "You said, when you do Camp Out, you have to have hot dogs."

"I did say that. Tonight is a special night, and we're going to have hot dogs. How does that sound?"

Clint let out a big sigh. "Okay, I guess."

"Just okay?"

"Yeah." Clint slumped back against the window. "When's my dad gonna come back?"

"He'll be here tomorrow morning." Seeing how depressed Clint looked at this, James cast about for ideas to distract the kids. "Certainly before eight."

"That's a long time," Natasha chimed in before Clint could respond. "How many times is that?"

"Too many," Clint said.

James wasn't sure how much more sadness he could stand on a Friday afternoon. If Steve had been there, or even Skye, they'd have been able to distract the kids into having a good time, but unfortunately for Natasha and Clint, they only had James.

Well, fine. He still had some tricks up his sleeve. Straightening his back, James clapped his hands together. "All right, attention!" he called in his best drill sergeant voice. The kids sat bolt upright, Clint's moping forgotten. "We need to set up camp, so everyone, on their feet!"

The kids bounced to their feet. Natasha giggled up at James while Clint stared at James with wide excited eyes.

"Do you know how to march?" James asked the kids. He received two nods. "All right, follow me, forward march!" James stood and strode in the direction of the stairs, tiny footsteps scampering after him. At the top of the stairs, Natasha dashed in front of James, through his open bedroom door to pounce on the neatly-made bed. Clint hesitated for just a moment before joining Natasha. "At ease," James said, relaxing his shoulders. "In preparation of a long night, we need to have adequate supplies, agreed?"

"Yes!" Natasha shouted.

"What supplies?" Clint asked.

James went into his closet. Up on top of the shelf, behind the folded blankets, he reached for a rusty metal toolbox. One of the blankets snagged on the toolbox and fell on James' face. This was the cause for much amusement by the children, and by the time James disentangled himself Natasha had collapsed from laughter.

"All right, all right," James said. He kicked the blanket out of the way as he carried the toolbox over to the bed. "Shove over."

He steadied the box with his prosthetic hand while opening the rusty latch with his right hand.

"This is dirty," Clint observed, peering into the box as James lifted the lid.

"That's not dirt, it's rust," James said. "This was my grandfather's toolbox."

"What's the difference?" Natasha asked, having recovered from her laughing fit.

"Dirty means you don't care," James told her. "Rust means it's just old."

Accepting this, Natasha joined Clint in looking into the box. "What's all that?" she asked, pointing at the jumble of objects.

"This is all stuff I don't use any more." James paused for a moment, looking into the box. Dim memories pushed at him, dull in their pain, no longer able to draw blood. "Most of this is stuff I had when I was in the army." Reaching into the toolbox, James pulled out the object he'd been looking for in the first place.

"That's a watch," Clint told James. "Grandpa Abraham has a watch. It tells you when you're late."

"It does indeed." James ran his thumb over the watch face. He'd been wearing the watch on his left wrist when the IED hit his squad's transport; weeks after the accident, when he was in a stateside military hospital, still too weak to take a piss by himself, he'd gotten a package from his company's field medic. The package, from Jim Morita, whom James had worked with for over six months on that deployment, contained the cleaned watch. Morita's accompanying note said that he'd found James' watch (leaving out the rather obvious fact that it still must have been on James' dismembered left wrist at the time) and sent it along as a keepsake, as he knew how much the watch meant to James.

Still doped up on opiates, James had written a reply letter in sloppy handwriting, thanking Morita for the watch and to tell him to keep an eye out for himself. He'd had one of the nurses post the letter for him, then he'd promptly thrown up and gone back to bed. When he was well enough to get out of the hospital, James had shoved the watch and everything else into his grandfather's toolbox, wishing he had the guts to throw it all out.

That had been over five years ago now, before he met Natasha.

With an effort, James pushed the memories back into their place in his head. "I've had this watch since I was seventeen," he said as he handed it to Clint. The boy took it carefully.

"Did you buy it?" Natasha asked.

"No, it was a gift. My father's friend gave it to me when I made the all-state track team in my senior year." The man had been James' father's business partner, engaged in a campaign to convince James' mother to sell off her half of the construction company after James' father's death. James hadn't minded the bribe; he sure as hell didn't want to go into the family business after high school, and it was a nice watch, not too showy, with a timer for James to use to time his laps on the track. "I thought you can use it to see what time it is, so you'll know when your dad is coming home."

Clint put his glasses on to examine the watch more closely. "What are those?" he asked, pointing at the watch's hands. "Why don't the numbers move?"

Of course. Clint had never learned to tell time off a clock-face. "This is how old people tell time," James said, moving around to show Clint the big and little hands, and to explain how they worked.

In the meantime, Natasha was rummaging through the toolbox. She pulled out a few of James' boxed medals, opening the cases before closing them again. Then she got hold of something and pulled, the silver glint of the dented dogtags catching the afternoon sun through the bedroom window. "Daddy, you have a necklace!" she squealed.

"Yes, I do." James had also been wearing these when the IED hit his transport; they'd been under his body armour and had escaped the worst of the attack. "Every soldier wears these when they're on patrol."

Natasha slung the chain around her neck, admiring the dogtags hanging against her belly. "J-A-M-E-S," she spelled out loud. "That's your name, Daddy. James."

"It sure is." James put the medal cases back in the toolbox and latched it shut again. He pushed the toolbox under his bed, giving it a firm shove to keep it out of sight, and stood. "How about we go down to the workshop and fix these things up?"

"What are we going to fix?" Natasha asked, immediately sliding off the bed.

"We can fix the watch band so it fits Clint's wrist," James said. "And that chain's too long for you to wear."

Clint took hold of James' metal hand, the watch firmly gripped in his other palm. Natasha eschewed James' hand, galloping off ahead on her own. "Where's your workshop?" Clint asked. "Uncle Tony has a workshop. With a robot!"

"No robots here," James said, guiding Clint down the stairs to the basement. Natasha was already waiting for them in the laundry room. "Just a little place where I can get some stuff done."

He went over to the far wall and opened the door to the small inner room he'd transformed into a workshop. Pulling on the cord descending from the room's single light bulb, the room's contents came into focus. Natasha just barged in like always, but Clint stood in the doorway, gazing with his mouth hanging open. "Wow," he said.

James sat on the stool by the workbench. "Who wants to go first?"

"I do," Natasha said. She took the chain off and handed it to James. "What are you going to do?"

"Well," James said, considering the assortment of hand tools arranged on hooks along the wall. "We need to make the chain shorter so you don't get tangled up."

He reached for the wire cutters, set them on the bench, then quickly popped the end of the chain out of its hook. Holding the chain in his left hand, he made a quick snip with the wire cutters, removing a third of the chain's length, then popped the end of the chain back in its holding. The entire operation had taken less than thirty seconds, but Natasha looked deeply impressed as she put the chain back over her head.

James set the wire cutters back on their hook. "Come on, Clint, your turn."

Clint advanced into the small room. "Are you going to cut it?" the boy asked, handing over the watch.

"Nope." James laid the watch flat on the workbench. "This watch wasn't designed for a little boy to wear. I need to punch a new hole in the strap."

"For me?" Clint asked, astonished.

"Of course for you," James said as he retrieved two spring clamps from a cubby. "No other little boys around here that I know about."

"Only old little boys wear a watch," Natasha said, looking at Clint with envy. "Only old little boys with jobs."

James, who was fresh out of timepieces at this point, bit his tongue on asking Natasha if she'd wanted the watch. He had committed himself, and his daughter didn't appear upset that he was giving Clint the watch. He'd ask her another day if she wanted a watch for her birthday.

"My dad doesn't wear a watch," Clint said, hardly breathing as he watched James clamp the watch straps to the workbench. "He has the time on his phone."

"Same here," James said. He plucked the awl from its high spot on the wall, then made sure the children were standing back before he pressed the sharp implement through the leather watch strap. He put the tool away before he unclamped the watch, and helped Clint try it on his wrist.

The watch face, which had been of average size on a grown man's wrist, was huge against the slender bones of Clint's arm. But the adoring glow on Clint's face told James that the boy didn't mind. Putting the clamps back in their place, James shooed the children back into the laundry room and closed the door behind him.

"Now what do we do?" Natasha asked, still admiring the dogtags around her neck.

James knelt, and they all looked at the watch on Clint's wrist. "Now, it's almost six o'clock," James said, indicating the watch's little hand pointing at the six. "We should get dinner started before we set up camp for the night. What do you say?"

"I say, hot dogs!" Natasha shouted, punching the air. Clint nodded in agreement, and then both children were running out of the room and up the stairs. James held back long enough to fasten the bolt at the top of the workshop door, in case Clint or Natasha wanted to look at the sharp tools without telling an adult, then up he went to the kitchen.

James convinced the children to go clean up the living room while he started the charcoal in the backyard barbeque. Then it was back inside, where James found the kids sprawled on the living room couch, each staring at their new treasures.

He went to his office, retrieved the box he'd carefully hidden after his shopping trip that morning, and went back to the living room. "All right, now," James said, sinking into the arm chair. "Do you guys know the most important rule for Camp Out?"

"No," Natasha said. Clint shook his head.

"You need to be properly equipped." James reached into the box and handed over two gift bags, one for each child. "Look in there."

Clint dove into his bag, while Natasha upended hers on the carpet. There were a few moments of excited shrieking as the children looked at their presents.

"Look, Daddy!" Natasha screeched, holding up her new red flashlight. "It's red!"

"It sure is," James said, ruefully remembering the search through three stores to find flashlights in just the right colors for the kids.

"Mine is purple!" Clint crowed, holding his flashlight aloft.

Cradling her flashlight, Natasha next picked up the little metal cup by its handle. "What's this for?"

"These are special camping hot chocolate cups," James said. "They won't break if you drop them, and you can make hot chocolate in them."

"Mmm," said Clint, patting his belly. "I like hot chocolate."

"Me too," Natasha said, and promptly stuck her flashlight in the cup. "Can we have hot chocolate now?"

"Nope, after dinner," James said. "What else do you have there?"

The children examined the rest of the items (Clint's favourite was the tiny first-aid kit, while Natasha liked the little reflective stickers) until it was time to cook the hot dogs. The sun was still high in the sky over Brooklyn as James drew the kids near to watch the hot dogs sizzling on the grill, and the only thing that could have made the day perfect would have been if Steve was there to share it with them.

They ate sitting on the deck. Natasha finished a whole hot dog, and Clint tried valiantly to eat a second hot dog but failed after two bites (James ate the rest for him). Then Natasha asked, "What did you eat when you were in the Army?"

This led to a long discussion about the food in basic training and then while James was deployed. It was, oddly, easier to talk about his time in the Army with the children than it would have been with Steve, as the children didn't look for hidden meaning in what James was saying (or rather not saying). Clint in particular was fascinated with James' descriptions of life as a Ranger.

"Can I be an army guy?" Clint asked as they carried their plates into the kitchen.

"Well," James said, wondering what Steve might make of this conversation. "You could try, when you're eighteen. But there's all sorts of things you can do when you're grown-up, and you don't have to decide right now."

One thing James knew for certain, he wasn't going to tell Clint that his vision and hearing problems might prevent him from a career in the military. The boy didn't need to hear that tonight.

"Can I shoot arrows in the army?" Clint asked as he climbed the footstool to rinse his plate.

"The US Army doesn't have an archer division," James hedged, turning on the sink taps.

Clint frowned. "Then I don't wanna do it. I wanna grow up and shoot arrows and have a dog and ride a roller coaster every weekend."

"That's a good plan." James opened the dishwasher so the children could load their own dishes. "You could be in the Olympics. Or you could go into the movie business and be a stunt man."

"What's that?" Natasha asked, shoving her plate off-kilter into the dishwasher rack.

James started to reach for the plate to straighten it, then made himself stop. It would get clean just fine. "A stunt man is when the movie people have to hire someone who has a really special skill, to make the movie better."

Clint considered this. "Okay, I do that," he declared after a moment. "Then I can shoot arrows all day."

"Not bad," James said. When he was five, he was pretty sure he wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up. "What about you, Nat?"

"When I grow up," Natasha said, "I am going to fix things, like you, Daddy." With a brilliant grin in his direction, Natasha took off toward the living room, Clint hard on her heels.

Smiling to himself, James closed the dishwasher door before heading back outside to make sure that the charcoal was no danger as it burned itself out.


The evening progressed. With James' help, the children set up a 'tent' in the living room (a sheet thrown over a rope tied from the bookcase on one side and the curtain rail on the other) then proceeded to make their very own child-sized bedrolls. Clint had a blast folding his sheet and blanket and rolling it up, but Natasha got frustrated when her blanket didn't fold straight. James had to jump in to prevent a melt-down, and soon enough, Natasha stood up, dusted off her hands, and declared their camp site in order.

"You need your stuffed animals," James pointed out. "Go get them and then we can start on a craft."

Natasha bolted for the stairs, while Clint retrieved Floppy from his place of honour on top of the television. "James," Clint said as he hugged the stuffed toy. "When is my dad coming home?"

"Tomorrow morning," James said again.

"When's that?" Clint demanded, holding out his wrist.

James made a show of checking the watch. "When the little hand goes all the way around again, and it's on the seven."

Clint pouted at the watch. "Can he come home now?"

"No, because he's working." James took Floppy from the boy and placed the toy on Clint's bedroll. "That's the hard part about being a dad. Sometimes you have to go to work and can't spend time with your kids."

Clint flopped down on the ground, his arms crossed over his chest. "It's not fair," he groused. "My mommy is always away because she works."

Of all the things James was not going to discuss with Clint, Sharon Carter's absence in his life was at the top of the list. "You know your dad will be here in the morning," James said instead. "And you can tell him all the fun things you did tonight."

"I guess."

Natasha came tearing back down the stairs, her arms overloaded with stuffed animals. "Nat, why do you have all these?" James asked. "You're only going to be down here for one night."

"They'll get lonely," Natasha informed him as she set Bear and Dr. Snapples alongside her two identical stuffed penguins, Tick and Tock. "This way, no one gets lonely!"

Clint crawled over to pat Tock on the head. "You have nice toys," he said. "These are birds."

"All right," James said. "I'm going to get the craft started outside before it gets too dark. Who's with me?"

Both children jumped up to accompany James. Outside, in the slant of the evening sun, James set the children up with their painting smocks before bringing out the lengths of wooden doweling he'd gotten earlier that day at the hardware store.

"What are these?" Natasha asked, picking up two of the wood pieces.

"We're going to make wind chimes," James told them. "We're going to paint these, then they can dry overnight and tomorrow we'll finish them up, okay?"

After a chorus of, "Okay!" James set out the paints, handed over the brushes, and let the children loose.

One of the things he would never cease to marvel at, James reflected, was how Clint and Natasha could entertain themselves for such long stretches of time. As he hovered in the background to make sure that there were no paint spillages or hurt feelings, James listened to the children go back and forth with things they wanted to do when they were older. After a few minutes, this morphed into Clint telling Natasha a story about climbing a tree at his grandfather's house. Then Natasha chimed in with a story about how she had pretended to be a cat one day, all the while painting stripes on her wooden sticks.

Knowing enough to keep out of things, James eventually sat on the step to watch the children. Again, he wished Steve was there to be a part of this. Maybe that's what things would be like when they went to the Hamptons in a few weeks; the grown-ups sitting back, while the kids played and laughed and had a great time with each other.

But of course, because James was James, he couldn't get rid of the feeling in the pit of his stomach that something would go wrong, that he would somehow mess things up. He ran his hand through his hair as he tried to reason with himself. All he could do, at the end of the day, was to keep the kids safe and to keep his own emotions in check. So what if he had a crush on Steve? It didn't matter, because Steve was straight.

And the fact that Steve was still James' best friend, even after so many years… well that was more than a man could hope for. That was going to have to be enough for James.

Being in love with his best friend wasn't the end of the world.


After the sun set and the paints were packed away, James got the children inside and into their pyjamas before it was time for hot chocolate and stories. He'd contemplated making s'mores for the kids, but the idea of putting that much sugar into the children before bed had scared even a seasoned Ranger like himself.

As the children drank their hot chocolate in their new cups, James read to the children from one of Skye's books. This one featured a family of children growing up in nineteenth-century Canada, which James thought was both dull and random, but Natasha and Clint drank it up. They managed four chapters before the kids started to fade, so James ended things there and herded the two sleepyheads up to wash their faces and brush their teeth.

Then it was back downstairs and into their bedrolls while James read bedtime stories. Natasha, tucked in amongst her stuffed animals, fell asleep in the middle of the fourth story, but Clint was still wide awake, clutching at Floppy.

James finished the story for the boy, then put the book aside. "Can you try to get some sleep?" James asked.

"I guess so," Clint said as he took off his glasses, then held out his wrist to James. James unbuckled the watch and handed it back. Clint set the watch next to his glasses and his flashlight. "I miss my dad."

"I know." James waited until Clint snuggled down in his bedroll before pulling the sheet up over the boy's shoulders. "He misses you too."

"How'd you know?" Clint asked, squinting at James in the dim light.

"Because that's what dads do. Now, sleep tight."

"Okay, I try." And Clint hugged Floppy tight and closed his eyes, leaving James to stand as quietly as possible and sneak away.

It was just past ten, but James was exhausted. He quietly finished cleaning up the kitchen, then poured himself a glass of water and carried it outside to sit on the back step. Night had fallen over Brooklyn, and the city's lights blocked all but the brightest stars in the sky.

Back when he was in training, and then while he was deployed, James had often marvelled at the night sky. But Natasha, who had lived in New York her whole life, had never seen the sky overhead. Maybe, when they were in the Hamptons, James could wake her up one night to go look at the sky.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Pulling it out, James saw a text from Steve, hows everything going???

James typed back, kids asleep. long day only few tears

You or them?

ur funny, James responded. Clint miss u lots

I miss him. This party blows but it's a living.

now i cry for u looser

:P, then I may be done here around 4. Can I come by that early?

ya txt me first tho

Thanks again Bucky this means a lot to me

James stared at his phone. There was so much he wanted to say, but knew he never could – that he'd do anything for Steve. He settled for, hey anyting fr clint :)

That ended the conversation, leaving James to go back to sipping his water and contemplating the sky, until his own exhaustion drove him back inside.


In the dead of night, a flash of light woke James from a deep sleep. He opened his eyes, remembering distantly that he was on the downstairs couch in case the kids needed him.

The light that had caught his attention was from Clint's flashlight. As James watched, the little boy sat up in his blankets, shining the flashlight around until the beam landed on the watch.

James thought about asking the boy if he needed help, but something in Clint's manner made him keep still.

Clint donned his glasses, then reached for the watch. He looked at the watch face intently for a few moments, then James heard him counting quietly.

A tiny sniffle, then another. The sound pulled at James' heartstrings, but he gritted his teeth and told himself not to get up until Clint did first.

Clint carefully put down the watch, then took off his glasses and returned them to the place by his pillow. Then the boy lay back down and turned off his flashlight.

In the ensuing darkness, James heard Clint say, "Daddy's not home yet, Floppy. But he will be." A few more sniffles ensued before Clint went silent.

James strained to hear in the darkness, if Clint would start to cry, but there were only a few snuffling noises before the house fell silent once again.

After ten long minutes of stillness, James closed his eyes. Clint was not the only one who hoped that Steve would come home soon.


A text message woke James while it was still dark out. Blinking, James sat up. The children were still and silent under their tent on the living room floor

I'm going to be there in 5 minutes.

With a yawn, James stood and shuffled over to the front door. He deactivated the house alarm and pulled open the inner door, the outer door, then, leaving the doors open behind him, sat on the stoop.

The dark sky was lightening in the distance, faint pinks and reds heralding a New York sunrise. James sat and waited, yawning occasionally as the odd early morning vehicle zipped past. At a few minutes past five, the streets were relatively empty of pedestrians. As James waited, a jogger ran lightly past, then a woman in nursing scrubs trudged in the other direction, her head down.

James remembered when Natasha was a baby, and he was still trying to follow all the advice about putting her to bed at seven. This, of course, got her up at five, and it took James a few months to realize that if Natasha went to bed later, she'd get up later, and he could get some sleep of his own.

He really didn't miss being up this early.

A taxi pulled up in front of the house, and Steve got out of the backseat. With a wave at the driver, he trudged up the walk, his head and shoulders drooping with exhaustion. Even so, an exhausted Steve Rogers in a tailored tuxedo was a sight to behold, and James' stomach gave a little jump as Steve lifted his head.

"Hey," was all Steve said, but the word made James' heart beat just a little faster.

"Hey," James said back. "The kids are still sleeping."

At the top of the steps, Steve dropped his sports bag, so incongruous with the tuxedo, before sitting down beside James, so close that his arm brushed James' side. "That was one hell of a night," he said, resting his elbows on his knees.

In the soft light from the street lamps, Steve looked even more handsome than usual. James swallowed with an effort. "Any more of these long nights anytime soon?"

"Nah, I told Tony that the next time he had a party like this, he could count me out." Steve rubbed his hand over his face. "You know, this is the first time I've ever been away from Clint all night."

"He handled it okay," James said. "I've never been away from Natasha overnight. Don't know how I'd handle that."

"It's probably worse for us than it is for them," Steve said. He turned to blink at James. "Were you serious about keeping an eye on Clint this morning?"

James punched Steve lightly on the arm. "Of course I was. Go upstairs, use the guest room, get some sleep. I'll hold down the fort until you're up."

Steve's tired smile was the best thing James had ever seen. "You're a lifesaver, Bucky," Steve said as he stood. "Come on, let's go in."

James took Steve's offered hand, and they went back into the house. James reactivated the house alarm while Steve tiptoed across the living room. He stood staring down at the sleeping children for a minute, then turned to James at his side.

"You're the best friend a guy could have," Steve said, and the next thing James knew, Steve was hugging him.

James' higher brain functions shorted out, but his body knew what to do; arm up and around Steve's back, chest pressed against Steve, and his hips tilted ever-so-slightly to the side, in case his body's reaction to Steve's closeness betrayed his true feelings.

That did not come to pass; Steve just gave James a squeeze (nearly choking James with the strength of the embrace) then let go. "I should go get some sleep," Steve said, and it must have been a trick of the light because James thought he saw Steve blushing. "See you in a few hours, okay?"

"We'll keep the noise down," James promised, his heart still pounding.

Steve clapped James on the back, then carried his sports bag up the stairs, leaving James standing in the living room, wide awake.

Steve Rogers had hugged him.

Giving up entirely on the idea of sleep, James headed into his office to get some work done. So what if he knew Steve only saw him as a friend? James was human enough to take what he could get.


The shuffling of bare feet drew James' attention away from his notepad. Clint stood in the doorway to his office, Floppy tucked under one arm. "Morning, Clint."

Clint held out the watch to James. "The little hand's on the seven," Clint said accusingly. "But my dad's not here."

James hurried over to shush the boy. "Clint, your dad's upstairs sleeping," James said as he knelt down. "Okay? He got here while you were still sleeping and he went up to have a nap."

Clint blinked at James. "Really?"

"Really." James got Clint to hold the watch on his wrist, then quickly buckled the strap one-handed. "Do you want to go see him?"

Clint nodded vigorously. He tucked Floppy under his arm and held the other hand out to James. Together, they went up the stairs and down the hall to the guest bedroom's open door. Gesturing for Clint to be quiet, James peeked into the room. Steve was sleeping on the bed, sheet kicked down to his waist. The tuxedo hung from a clothes hanger off the closet door, and Steve had changed into another one of his skin-tight t-shirts and sweatpants.

"That's my dad," Clint whispered to James. "He's sleeping."

"Yup," James whispered back. "Let's let him sleep."

Clint pulled Floppy out from under his arm, laid a big kiss on the dog's nose, then tiptoed into the room to put the toy beside Steve's hand. He tiptoed out of the room again without waking Steve, and James pulled the door closed behind him.

"That was a nice thing to do," James said, taking Clint by the hand to head back downstairs.

"Sometimes, when I go to sleep, I forget Floppy," Clint said, hopping a little as he walked beside James. "When I do, Daddy gives him a big kiss and then brings him to me so I won't be sad when I wake up."

"That's a very nice thing to do." James stopped Clint at the bottom of the stairs and knelt down so the boy could hear his whisper. "How about you go get your glasses and your hearing aid, and then come into the kitchen. We don't want to wake Natasha either."

Clint nodded, and tore across the living room to his bedroll. Sure enough, he was silent as a mouse, and Natasha did not wake.

Then James and Clint headed into the kitchen, where James made a pot of coffee and Clint sipped on a small milk carton, and Clint talked about his dream (there had been dinosaurs that flew) and what he wanted to do that day (the park, and playing in the sprinkler, and maybe watch a movie and eat popcorn), while James made encouraging noises and kept an ear out for Natasha.

After about half an hour, there was a thud from the living room, and the plaintive call, "Where did everybody go?"

"We're in the kitchen," James called as loud as he dared.

In rushed Natasha, her hair every which way. "You're having fun!" she said accusingly, running over to James. "Without me!"

James knelt down. "You were sleeping," he pointed out. "Can you say good morning to me and Clint?"

"Good morning," Natasha said, letting herself be drawn into a hug from her father. "Next time, you wake me up so I can have fun too."

Natasha walked over to Clint and gave him a hug. James had his phone out and took a picture of the cuteness without either child realizing what he was doing. "Good morning," Clint said, releasing Natasha to pat her on the head. "My daddy came home."

"My daddy's right here," Natasha said. "I want a milk."

"Nat, what do we say?"

"Please?"

James took the children out onto the back deck, and they sat and talked about the day until Natasha remembered the offer of post-Camp-Out pancakes. Wanting to keep the children occupied until Steve woke up, James suggested that the kids make pancake by themselves, with James supervising.

This suggestion went over extremely well, if a bit messily.

After breakfast, James helped the kids tidy up their camp site, with both Natasha and Clint demanding that they keep the 'tent' up until Monday so they could show Skye. After everyone was dressed and brushed, he herded them back outside so they could finish their wind chimes.

This part of the project took a while, not the least of which involved James needing to drill holes through the wooden doweling, which meant he had to transport half his workshop outside. Clint and Natasha were both very good about staying away from the drill, after James demonstrated how fast the drill bit could make a hole.

The drilling was completed and Clint and Natasha were tying their 'chimes' to the flat wooden slats James had grabbed from the hobby corner of the store, when the back door opened and a freshly showered Steve Rogers came out.

"Hi Daddy!" Clint yelled.

"Hi Steve!" Natasha added.

"Hey everyone," Steve said warmly. He put his hand on James' shoulder as he passed, sending James' heart rate spiralling. Damn it, James needed to get control of himself. "What are you doing?"

"Making wind chimes!" Clint exclaimed. "I painted these myself!"

"And I painted this!" Natasha put in, holding up one of her doweling pieces. "Did you ever make wind chimes?"

"I don't think so," Steve said as he settled down on the deck between the children. He ran his hand over Clint's hair. "That's a nice-looking watch you got there, buddy."

Clint held up his wrist. "James gave it to me!" he said, beaming.

A tiny frown creased Steve's forehead. Before the man could open his mouth, James interjected with, "It's a gift. For Clint. A kid can always use a watch."

Steve looked at James for a long moment, then reached for Clint's wrist to take a closer look at the watch. "This is a really nice gift," he said. "Clint, did you thank Bucky?"

"Nope." Clint jumped to his feet and ran the three steps to James, falling over his shoulder to give his neck a squeeze. "Thank you!"

James returned the hug. "You're very welcome."

Then Natasha climbed to her feet and hurried over. "Why is everyone getting hugs?" she wondered as she leaned against James' other shoulder. "I want a hugs."

James put his other arm around Natasha and squeezed both children tight, sending them into giggle fits. "All right," he said as he released them. "Are the wind chimes ready to go up?"

"Yes!" Natasha yelled as Clint dashed over to his craft.

"Where are you going to put them?" Steve asked.

Natasha pointed at the tree by the garden boxes. "So we can see them when we play in the garden," she said.

Steve looked at James then, a wide smile creasing his face. "Sounds like you two had a lot of fun while I was away."

"Yes," Clint said. "But you don't get to do it again."

Steve nodded at this. "So, what are we going to do after you finish hanging your chimes?"

"I get to clean up wood shavings," James said. "You get to pack the kiddos up for a trip to the park."

"Is that so?" Steve said, but he was smiling.

"Uh huh," Natasha said. "We have plans. We go to the park, then we have lunch, then we play in the sprinkler, then we have dinner, then we watch a movie, then we have hot chocolate."

"That sounds like an excellent day," Steve said before James could ask Natasha what she was talking about.

"It is," Natasha agreed, looking up to give Steve the stink-eye. "And you have to come and do it all with us because you left Clint alone last night and he was sad."

Upon hearing this, Clint arranged his features into an appropriately devastated expression. James rolled his eyes at the blatant emotional manipulation from two kindergarteners, but Steve just said, "You know, spending all day with the three of you would be the best day I can think of."

"And hot chocolate," Natasha pressed.

"We will have hot chocolate tonight," James said. "Now come on, we're almost done."

After hanging the completed wind chimes from the tree, James got the kids ready for the park while Steve grabbed something to eat. At the front door, Steve took the children by the hand and off they went, James bringing up the rear with the supplies, which gave James a few minutes to catch his own thoughts.

Also, this position let him watch Steve's butt without being observed.

The park was a hit. Clint and Natasha ran all over, burning off the energy from a long night and morning, while Steve and James walked around as Steve described his night and the party and the politics involved in high-stakes philanthropy. James was content to listen, feeling himself relax after a long night of solo parenting.

On the way back to the house, Steve asked if it was okay if he and Clint hung out for the planned afternoon of adventure, and of course James said it was, and then somehow James found himself inviting Steve and Clint to stay over another night for a second night of Camp Out and Steve said yes.

Actually, he said, "Yes, of course, we'd love to," and smiled so brightly that James nearly tripped on a crack in the pavement, which set the children off into gales of laughter.

Be careful, James warned himself as they headed home. Steve was his best friend, and he would not do anything to ruin that.

Nothing in the world.


The weekend was so enjoyable, with Steve and Clint around the house, that James should have known that Monday would bring disaster.

Skye, Clint, Natasha and James were just finishing lunch when James' phone rang. Seeing Steve's face on the call display, James picked up his phone with, "Hey."

"Are you at the house?" Steve said, with such agitation in his voice that James went still, adrenaline kicking in.

"Yes," James said, making himself stand up with his normal speed. The children didn't notice anything amiss, but Skye must have caught something for she was looking at him carefully. "All of us, yeah. Why?"

"It's Sharon," Steve said, and James' heart dropped. If something had happened to Sharon… what was he going to tell Clint? But then Steve continued, "She called and said she has to see Clint, today, like now, and I didn't even know she was in the country. What the hell am I going to do?"

James locked eyes with Skye. "That's a good question," he said vaguely, indicating with his head that he was going to take the call in the other room. Skye nodded and pulled her chair closer to the children, saying something to distract them as James made his escape. "What did you tell her?"

"Your address," Steve said helplessly, and James swore under his breath. "What? What the hell else was I supposed to do?"

James bit down on the number of comments that sprang to his mind, none of them particularly helpful at this point. "Is she coming here?" he asked, striding into the living room to look out the front window. "Now?"

"She said she was," Steve said. "I'm up in Yonkers for a meeting, I'll get there as fast as I can, but—"

"Do you think she's going to try to take Clint?" James asked, scanning the street.

"What?" Steve exploded. "No, of course not, I've got custody, she can't just—"

"Can't doesn't mean won't try," James said. The street was clear of blondes, so he went over to check the alarm. "I'm not letting her leave here with Clint. Do you want me to stop her from seeing him?"

"Damn it," Steve said. "I just… I don't know."

"Yes, you do," James snapped. "Or else the first thing you'd've said was, 'don't let Sharon see Clint'."

On the other end of the line, Steve heaved a huge breath. "I don't want to stop her from seeing her son," he said after a moment. "But… this is out of nowhere, Bucky, I don't know what's going on."

"Then here's what we do," James said firmly. "She comes here, she asks to see Clint, she sees him. But she ain't leaving this house with him."

"Thank you," Steve said with feeling. "I'll get there as fast as I can."

"Drive careful," was all James could say before the line went dead. Growling, James shoved his phone into his pocket went back to the kitchen.

He filled Skye in on the latest developments. She looked confused, then determined. "I'll keep them busy coloring until she gets here," Skye said. "Do you know why now?"

"I know shi—squat," James amended, conscious that Natasha was staring at him from across the room. "I don't know. And I don't like it."

"How long has it been since Clint's seen her?" Skye asked quietly, putting her back to the children.

"Over a year." James shook his head. "Some early birthday present, huh?"

Skye winced.

Leaving the lunch dishes on the table, James told the children to go clean up and brush their hair. In the five minutes that gave them, he and Skye cleaned up the living room as much as they could. It still bore the obvious signs of childhood occupation, but at least the make-shift tent was down, the crayons were no longer scattered over the rug, the playing cards shoved under the couch.

The children stormed back in, full of energy, and were obviously disappointed when James told them that they had to stay inside instead of going out to the park as they had been promised. "But Daddy," Natasha scolded. "You said."

"And you will go to the park later," James said, a little short with his daughter. "Now, go blow your nose. Clint, tuck your shirt in. Wait, why is there jam on your elbow?"

By the time the children were presentable, everyone was grumpy. It took Skye almost five minutes to coax the children to color, and even so, Natasha kept casting dark glares in James' direction. James was too busy watching for impending disaster to pay her much mind.

After another ten minutes, James spotted a dark blue sedan approaching down the street. It pulled into a space across the road, and out stepped a blonde woman with a familiar face. Sharon Carter, Clint's mother, Steve's ex, crossed the road with a quick stride on her way to the house.

James headed for the front door, slipping outside before the children could notice him. He met Sharon on the top step. He had always known she was a very beautiful woman, from looking at the pictures Clint so prized, but now, seeing her in the full light of day in her smart pantsuit and her sensible shoes, James was suddenly struck that the woman was upset and trying not to show it.

"Uh, hi," he said, standing in front of the door. "I'm James Barnes."

Sharon took a deep breath as she pushed back her hair. "Sharon Carter," she said, making herself smile. It was not convincing. "I know this is really short notice, and I'm not sure what Steve told you—"

"That you need to see Clint right away," James supplied.

"Right." Sharon looked up at James. "I need to be at the airport soon, I just… I couldn't leave New York without seeing Clint. I just need a few minutes."

All James' preconceived animosity towards this woman bled away as he looked at her. "Yeah, okay," he said as he stood aside. "I didn't tell him you were coming, I didn't know…"

"Yeah," she said. "Okay, let's do this." She let James show her into the house, closing the door behind herself. The children's voices were clear in the entryway, loud and happy, and for the first time, James saw Sharon falter. Pressing her hand over her mouth, she held still for a moment, then stepped forward into the living room.

The children didn't notice her at first, but Skye lifted her head, then Natasha looked, and finally, Clint turned around and froze, eyes huge behind his glasses.

Sharon smiled again, and said, "Hi, Clint," and then the boy was moving, running to his mother as fast as his little legs could carry him. Sharon bent down to scoop him up into a hug, collapsing to her knees as Clint crashed into her.

"Mommy!" Clint yelled, wrapping his arms around her neck as if he would never let her go. "You're here, Mommy!"

Sharon cupped the back of Clint's head with her hand. "Oh, Clint," she said in a soft voice. "Oh, my big boy."

Clint pulled back to stare at his mother in open-mouthed amazement. "Mommy, you're here!" he said again.

"I sure am," Sharon said, and now that James could see her face, he felt even more confused than before.

Sharon looked as though her heart were breaking.

"I missed you!" Clint said loudly, then hugged her again. As Sharon rocked him back and forth, Natasha edged around them to hurry to James' side and clutch his hand. Skye stood and casually moved to stand between Sharon and the exit. "I missed you every day!"

Sharon pressed a kiss to Clint's cheek. "I missed you every day too," she said, and the tears caught in her throat. "Each and every day."

"Me too," Clint breathed, and then he smiled at Sharon as if she held the sun and stars. "I got glasses. I can read now."

"They are very nice glasses," Sharon said. "You look very grown up."

"I'm going to be six soon," Clint told her.

"I know," Sharon replied. "And you've grown so big." She got to her feet, lifting Clint without effort, and James distantly wondered if she worked out as much as Steve did. "You know," she said as she sat on the couch, and Clint wiggled around in her lap, never taking his eyes off her face, "Clint, I can only stay for a little while."

The excitement vanished from Clint's face. "No," he whispered. "You have to stay forever."

Sharon brushed the hair back from Clint's forehead. "I have to be at the airport soon," she said, and Clint began to tear up. "Shh, don't cry, we have a few good minutes and you can tell me all that you've been doing since I last saw you, and then I'll see you again soon."

As Clint tried to take in this devastating news, James move forward, dragging Natasha with him. "Clint has been doing super great at reading this summer," James said. "And he's really great at telling stories."

Natasha, seeing that she could not get rid of Sharon by merely glaring at her, stepped in front of James and crossed her arms over her chest. "Clint's my best friend!" she declared hotly. "We're gonna go to Disneyland together!"

"This is Natasha," Skye interrupted, before Natasha could express further her wrath. "I'm Skye, I'm the children's tutor this summer."

"Skye's teaching me to read," Clint said, sniffling as he gripped Sharon's shirt. "And she doesn't think I'm dumb."

"That's because you're not dumb," Sharon said firmly, rubbing Clint's back. "You are very smart and very brave and very wonderful, and I love you very, very much."

"I love you, Mommy," Clint whispered, pressing his forehead against her neck.

Mostly to ward off Clint's complete breakdown, James suggested that Clint show Sharon all the fun things he had made that summer, and so everyone trouped into the kitchen to see the art wall, then out to the backyard to see the wind chimes in the tree and the garden boxes. Clint held Sharon's hand with both of his, hardly taking his eyes off her.

Meanwhile, Natasha glared daggers at the woman, and James could feel a migraine developing behind his eyes. Skye stayed between Sharon and the easiest accessible exit at all times.

Once they were back in the living room, Sharon lifted Clint up onto the couch and knelt in front of him. "Clint, I have to go now," she said. She was trying very hard to keep her voice steady, but James had heard that exact tone too many times in his life. It was the voice of someone who thought they might be saying goodbye for the very last time. "You'll be a good boy for your dad, won't you?"

"I want to go with you," Clint whispered, gripping Sharon's fingers tight.

Sharon blinked back tears as she ran her hand over Clint's head. "Your daddy needs you here," she said.

"I don't want you to go away," Clint said. "You just came back."

"And I will come back again." Sharon leaned in for another hug, and Clint clung to her, his little fingers pulling up her suit jacket. Natasha was with Skye on the other side of the room, so only James saw the handgun holstered at the small of Sharon's back.

He went still, all his remaining assumptions about Sharon disintegrating at the sight of that pistol. But he kept his thoughts off his face; Clint would gain nothing by James turning on Sharon now.

Sharon disentangled herself from Clint's grip and was trying to move toward the door, but Clint kept following her. James moved bodily between Clint and his mother. "Hey, peanut, how about we go to the window so you can wave goodbye?"

"I don't want to!" Clint said, voice nearing a wail.

"One last hug, and your mom has to leave," James said. "She has a plane to catch, and the airport's a long way away."

It wasn't, really, but the words did succeed in getting Clint to loosen his hold on Sharon's pant leg. The woman bent down for one more hug, and with a final kiss on Clint's cheek, she said "I love you lots."

"I love you lots-er," Clint echoed.

Sharon stood up. Her eyes were dry, but James wasn't fooled. He had seen that expression on far too many soldiers saying goodbye to their families and friends. She cleared her throat as she took an envelope from her inner pocket, handing it to James. "Can you give this to Steve?" she asked. At his nod, she turned her attention back to Clint. "Goodbye, Clint."

"Bye-bye," Clint whispered, trying to go for Sharon again but James held him back. Skye was the one to show Sharon out the door. When the woman was out of sight, Clint tore away from James and ran to the front window, where he plastered himself to the glass and waved with all his might.

Skye closed the door and let out a sigh. "Do you think…" she started, but James waved her silent. She instead picked up Natasha, who had been uncharacteristically silent, and together she and James moved toward the window.

Sharon was now getting into her car. She blew a kiss at the window, waving at Clint one last time, and then she drove off and around the corner.

Silence fell in the house. Clint stayed by the window for a minute, breathing hard.

The stillness was interrupted by Natasha, who chirruped from Skye's arms, "Now what do we do?"

This got Clint moving. He turned slowly away from the window and, head down, shuffled over to the coffee table where he had been coloring before Sharon arrived. Slowly, he picked up a crayon and moved it vaguely over the paper, as two huge tears rolled down his cheeks and hit the paper.

James swore to himself as he sat down on the couch. "Skye, you think you and Nat can go make some tea?" he suggested. "Maybe something with honey in it?"

"Yeah, good idea," Skye said, and hurried Natasha into the kitchen with the speed of someone escaping a storm.

"Clint," James said firmly. "Clint, can you come over here?"

Clint abandoned his crayon, walking over to James. His breathing was hitching in his throat now, tears still streaming down his face. He barely seemed to notice as James lifted him up to his knee.

There was nothing James could do to fix this, he knew. So he just took Clint's glasses off and set them aside. There was a pause, as Clint drew a deep breath, deeper and deeper down to his toes, then he let out a heartbroken wail.

James gathered Clint up, letting the boy cry. When James had been a child, his father had always told him that boys didn't cry, to suck it up, act like a man, but there had not been a single time in James' life where that had solved anything. To five-year-old Clint, having his mother come back into his life for less than half an hour to only vanish once more must feel as if his world was ending.

So James just sat there, holding Clint as the boy sobbed onto James' shoulder. In the kitchen, James could hear Natasha in conversation with Skye, and he hoped that the woman was somehow explaining this whole mess to his daughter. The last thing Clint needed was Natasha going off on a well-meaning but misdirected tangent.

After a few minutes, Clint sat back. He gave a mighty sniffle, saying, "My mommy's gone away!"

"I know," James said, and that set Clint off again. James patted Clint's back and stared up at the ceiling, wondering where the hell Steve was.


When Steve finally arrived, the house had settled down.

"Where is she?" Steve demanded as James let him in the front door.

"Gone." James closed the door and went back to the couch. "Keep your voice down, Clint's still sleeping."

"Why's he sleeping?" Steve asked, looking both angry and concerned. "Is he okay?"

"No, he's not okay," James snapped. "You try crying your eyes out for twenty minutes, see how you feel. He's down for a nap in my office."

Steve dropped to the couch beside James. "How could she do this?" he asked, pushing his hair back with his hands. "How could she just waltz back into our lives for ten minutes and then leave again?"

"She didn't say where she was going?" James asked. Steve shook his head. "Maybe she had a reason."

"What possible reason?" Steve demanded. Angrily, he unbuttoned his suit jacket to throw over the couch arm. "Why didn't she just leave, instead of coming over here to mess with Clint's head?"

"Wouldn't you?" James asked sharply, and that threw Steve for enough of a loop that the man closed his mouth. "If you hadn't seen your kid for months, and you had the chance before leaving again, wouldn't you do anything to see him for just a few minutes?"

Steve buried his face in his hands and didn't reply.

"I sure as hell would." James took a deep breath. "Look, I don't know what Sharon does—"

"She's in real estate," Steve interrupted.

"Like hell she's in real estate," James shot back. "What kind of real estate agent vanishes for months at a time and carries a concealed pistol?"

Steve sat up. "What?"

James tossed Sharon's envelope at Steve. "She left this."

Steve tore the envelope open and read it. "She says she has to do something overseas and she doesn't know when she'll be back," Steve said, incredulous. "And to tell Clint that she loves him? What the hell is this?"

"What you say when you can't say anything else." James slumped down. "I knew guys, special ops, they'd leave a letter like that before missions."

"Sharon isn't special ops!" Steve protested.

"Maybe she's into drugs?" James suggested. "Running for the cartels? Real estate would be a good cover for smuggling."

Steve opened his mouth, closed it again, then stood. "This is stupid," he said. "Sharon's just a real estate agent. Peggy got her into it, that's why she's in Europe all the time."

James looked at Steve. He wasn't sure if the man actually believed that, or if he was trying to hold on to old stories to make sense of the world. It didn't really matter to James, as long as Sharon's job didn't come back on them to hurt Clint.

"Clint's still sleeping," James said again. "Don't wake him up, okay?"

With a low growl, Steve headed in the direction of the kitchen, where Skye and Natasha were engaged in a tea party. James sighed, and made himself sit up. He did have work to do, and domestic dramas didn't mean he could avoid his responsibilities.

Keeping an ear out, James was distantly aware that Steve's voice had joined those in the kitchen. Natasha seemed to be asking a lot of questions, which James was ashamed to admit he didn't want to answer. Not right now. He'd seen too many soldiers have to say goodbye for the last time to blame Sharon for dropping into their lives as she had. If James had been in her shoes, knowing he might have one last opportunity to see Natasha… he'd have travelled through hell to get to her.

The thing was, James didn't really believe his suggestion of drug running. Not after he'd seen Sharon Carter – she was the kind of woman he'd met often in his years as a Ranger, from one of the countless agencies that dropped agents into the sandbox for undisclosed missions. It was that inner steel, along with the pantsuit and shoes flat enough to run in… those James still saw every day he worked with Maria Hill.

But, he decided, he was going to keep these thoughts to himself. Unless it came back to hurt Clint or Steve.

So he sat, and he worked, and after a while he heard a shuffling coming from his office. Looking up, he saw Clint standing in the doorway, looking hot and angry.

"You want to put your glasses back on?" James asked, putting his work down. Clint stormed over to James' side, climbing up on the couch and crossing his arms over his chest.

"No!"

"Okay." James put the spectacles on the table for Clint to pick up when he wanted them. "How do you feel?"

Clint glared at James.

"Do you feel mad?" James asked. "Naps make me feel mad sometimes."

Clint glared harder. "My mommy came and then she went away!"

"You're right, she did. How do you feel about that?"

Clint's glare turned into a frown as he wiggled around on the couch. "I don't know!"

James took hold of Clint's bare foot and gave it a tiny shake. "Can I tell you something that I learned a long time ago? A special grown-up thing?"

Lying on his back now with his finger in his mouth, Clint nodded.

"It's about the people we love," James said. "Like your dad, and your mom."

Clint sat up.

"We can love them, and sometimes we can be angry at them, but we still love them," James said. Clint shimmied closer. "Like, we love them lots, but if they do something that makes us angry, then we can love them and be angry too. At the same time."

Clint put his hand on James' arm, pinching a fold of the man's shirt sleeve. "My mommy went away," he said again.

"I know how much you love your mom," James said quietly. "And you can love her, and be happy she came to see you, and also be mad that she had to go away. You can feel all those things at once."

Clint leaned against James' side. "My tummy hurts," he whispered. "And my throat hurts."

"That's not good," James said, knowing when to quit. "How about we put on your glasses and then get you some water?"

Clint nodded, and soon they were walking into the kitchen. When Clint spotted his father, he pulled away from James and headed towards Steve. "Hi Daddy," he said sadly, climbing onto Steve's lap.

"Hey buddy." Steve gave Clint a hug. "How do you feel?"

Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "I feel everything," he said. "James said that's okay."

"Sometimes," James said as he went to get a drink for Clint, "You feel all sorts of emotions in your head and it's hard to deal with."

"Daddy," Natasha pitched in from behind her teacup. "Clint is my best friend."

Wondering where this might be leading, James just said, "Okay."

"And what do we do for our best friends?" Skye asked, her hand on Natasha's shoulder.

Natasha set down her teacup, her eyes glittering green with intensity. "We hold their hand if they are sad," Natasha said clearly. "And we make them cookies if they are sad. And we play with them at the park if they are sad."

"Those sound like good things to do with our best friends," James said. He owed Skye, big time, for whatever she had said to Natasha to turn the girl away from her vendetta against Sharon. "Clint, would you like Natasha to hold your hand?"

"When we go to the park," Clint said, taking the water glass from James. "We can play at the park too, because we're best friends."

"That is a good idea," Steve said. "Do we all want to go to the park together?"

"Don't you have to go back to work?" James asked.

"No, I took the day off… in case." Steve looked down at Clint. "What do you say? Do you want to go to the park now?"

"Okay." Clint set down his water glass and slid to the ground with a bump. "Come on, Natasha, we will go put on our shoes."

"Okay, let's put on our shoes," Natasha agreed. Skye followed the children out of the kitchen, leaving Steve and James to stare at each other over the table.

Steve broke first. "I'm still pissed off," he said, low enough that they could not be overheard by the children.

"So be pissed. She's your ex."

"You're not mad?"

"She ain't my business. You and Clint, you're my business."

There was something in Steve's eyes that James didn't quite understand. "Most guys don't stick up for their friend's ex."

James stood. "You're a big boy, you take care of your own feelings," he said curtly. "Me being angry at Clint's mother is not going to do Clint a damned bit of good."

He turned to the sink, mostly to get away from Steve's searching gaze. It wasn't like he was lying; Sharon Carter wasn't his concern. Right now, Clint was where James had to focus his energy. Steve was a grown man, he could deal with his own feelings.

Something touched his back, making James jump. "Sorry," Steve said, not sounding sorry at all. "I didn't say thank you."

"For what?"

"For Clint." Steve was standing in James' personal space, so close that James could smell the scent of Steve's soap. "Everything you do for him."

"He's a good kid," James said, hardly able to breathe over the butterflies in his stomach at Steve's closeness. "He needs one of us to have our head in the game, you know?"

"Yeah." And still Steve just stood there, looking at James, until the familiar two-toned calls of "Daddy!" pulled the men back to themselves.

"Come on," James said, taking a step away from Steve. "Park time."

Right now, Clint and Natasha and Steve were all that mattered to James. The mystery of Sharon Carter could wait for another time.