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A Thistle Cannot Grow

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Where you tend a rose my lad, a thistle cannot grow. - The Secret Garden

 

Clint Barton woke to his mattress shifting and a weight settling on his chest. Soft hair tickled his nose and a small face came into view hovering over his own. He rubbed his bleary eyes and reached for his hearing aids.

“Everything okay?” he murmured. The warm bed was threatening to pull him back to sleep again. It was definitely late; the loft was dark and quiet, the sounds of the city muted save for the occasional siren in the distance. The little weight on his chest shifted, propping bony elbows onto his sternum.

“Hi Daddy,” the little weight whispered. Clint pulled her close, cradling her against his chest.

“Hey, baby. Are you alright?” He kissed the top of her head. She smelled like strawberry shampoo from her bath earlier in the evening.

The little girl looked up at him sleepily. “There's someone downstairs. He made tea.”

Clint's stomach dropped. He tightened his grip on her and sat up.

“Lila, who is downstairs? Do you know him? Did he see you?” Clint whispered urgently. Lila shrugged.

Clint turned her to face him and looked at her sternly. “Lila, this is important. Stay here. Do not move. Be very quiet.” She nodded, her pale eyes wide and frightened.

Clint swung his legs off of the bed, carefully reaching under the box spring to grab his bow. He stood up smoothly, nocking an arrow and padding silently across the room. Lucky sat up and moved to follow him, but Clint motioned for him to stay.

There was a clatter in his kitchen. Clint crept slowly down the stairs, keeping his back to the wall and his arrow ready. He took a deep breath to try to center himself. His heart was racing, and his hands were tight on his bow. This was supposed to be their retreat, well away from the chaos of Avengers tower, and if they weren't safe here--

“It's just me, Barton,” a rough voice called.

Clint stood at the bottom of the stairs in his boxer shorts and socks with his bow aimed at Bucky Barnes.

Bucky held his hands up in a placating gesture. “I didn't mean to sneak up on you.”

Clint didn't lower the bow. “I didn't know you had a kid,” Bucky added conversationally.

“I should shoot your ass on principle.”

“Probably,” Bucky chuckled.

“Are you bleeding on my kitchen floor?”

“Ah, yeah. I am. Some of it might be ice, though. It's snowing.”

Clint lowered his bow. Bucky smiled sheepishly.

Clint paused for a moment, and then snapped his bow back up and loosed the arrow into a cabinet, just barely grazing Bucky's hair. A lock fluttered to the floor.

Bucky didn't flinch. “Be lyin' if I said I didn't expect that.”

“You woke up my kid.” Clint stalked into the kitchen and pulled the arrow out of the cabinet. He placed it beside the bow on the counter.

Bucky held up a mug in acknowledgement.

Clint considered him for a long moment and then tilted his head, coming to a decision. He rolled his eyes amiably. “You're soaked, Buck. Lose the gear, and we'll see about finding you somethin' to sleep in. You cold?”

Bucky shook his head, removing the gun and knives strapped to his back. An unthinkable number of firearms and projectiles were attached to his person.

Clint scrubbed a hand over his face. The muscles in his back and arms uncoiled, tension bleeding away as the adrenaline faded. “Lila, you can come down now,” he called. She thumped quickly down the stairs, the skitter of Lucky's paws at her heels. She stopped short of the kitchen, suddenly shy. “Lila, this is Bucky. He's a friend.”

Bucky knelt down in front of her and extended his flesh-and-blood hand. “Hi Lila.”

Lila's blue eyes narrowed. “You're bleeding. You're not allowed to bleed in the kitchen.”

Clint chuckled. He collected several of Bucky's discarded weapons and gestured for Bucky to grab the rest. “Lila, can you please go get the first aid kit?” he asked calmly. When she was safely out of earshot, he rounded on Bucky. “The hell is going on, Barnes?” he hissed.

“Bad op. Steve didn't know, and I couldn't go back like this. Thought you might let me crash here for a bit, but...” Bucky gestured around the loft. None of the furniture matched, but it was warm and cozy and unmistakably a child's home, if a bit of an unconventional one.  Clint unlocked one of the wooden cabinets that lined the far walls and began securing Bucky's arsenal. Next to the cabinet was a row of tidy shelves filled with books and bins full of toys. “I didn't know she would be here, honest. I wouldn't have come like this.”

Clint waved him off. “It's done. We adapt.” Bucky shot him a skeptical look. “She knows what superheroes are. She knows what we do. I've come home in worse shape,” Clint examined his hands, hesitant, “It's not what I want for her, but she's tough.” Clint huffed out a laugh as he accepted another armful of weapons. “You carry a ridiculous number of knives.”

Bucky ignored him. “Does anyone else know?”

Clint knew someone would find out eventually, but he never expected it to be like this, their quiet home interrupted with the ugly realities of his other life while she was still so small. A painful knot tugged in his chest. “The team doesn't know. Well, except Nat. Nat and Phil're her godparents. Phil helped with the paperwork when I got her. If anything happens, she goes to one of them. Kate babysits and spoils her rotten. The neighbors know, obviously, but they're not the questioning sort,” Clint paused, clearing his throat. “It's... easier this way.” Bucky nodded, seeming to understanding what Clint couldn't voice. I can't let her be a target.

Bucky cleared his throat. “Is she yours?”

Clint laughed. “In all the ways that count. She's got my temper, and the unfortunate Barton nose, that's for sure.”

Bucky grimaced. “I shouldn't have asked that.”

“Nah, it's fine. Bound to come up. She's my niece. Legally, though, she's mine. I raised her,” Clint blew out a breath. “She's the best thing I've got, Buck.”

“Who is?” Lila asked. She descended the stairs dragging a suitcase sized metal box, clunking it on each step. Clint's face creased with a tired smile and he stood up to help her.

“Definitely not you. You let in stray superheroes and make me get up to fix them.” He swung the kit up onto the counter and started sorting through the contents. A mischievous grin spread across Lila's face.

“So he is a superhero? I knew it!”

“Well, I dunno about all that...,” Bucky started, but Lila wasn't listening. She clambered up onto the stool next to the one Bucky had settled on and put her small hands on his cheeks.

“I knew because you look nice,” she confided, “and superheroes are nice.” Bucky frowned.

“I'm not sure--”

“-- Well!” Clint interrupted loudly, “Now that that's out of the way, let's get you cleaned up, yeah? Can't have you bleeding all over our couch tonight, it's had a hard enough life already.”

Lila's face lit up. “He's staying?”

Clint shrugged, moving to stand in front of Bucky's stool with antiseptic wipes in one hand and butterfly bandages the other. “If he wants.”

Bucky looked torn. He began fiddling with his gloves.

“We can build a fort!” Lila exclaimed.

“I mean it,” Clint added quietly, as he eased a bandage over a gash on Bucky's browbone. “We're happy to have you. Please stay.”

Bucky met his eyes and searched his face for a moment.

“Yeah, okay,” he finally said, a small smile tugging at his mouth. “Can't say no to a fort.”

=

“I'm wishing!” a little voice sang. Bucky jolted awake. Someone was touching his hair.

“Wishing!” the little voice chirped. “For the one I love! To find me! Find me! Today!” the little voice paused. I know this song, Bucky thought dumbly, yawning. “I think he's awake!” the little voice shouted. Bucky winced.

“Lila, baby, please don't yell in his ears, that's not nice.” Clint approached the couch balancing a large wooden tray with one hand and the coffee pot in his other.

“Do you have magic ears too?” she asked. Bucky considered this.

“I don't think so,” he offered hoarsely, sitting up.

Clint set the tray down on the coffee table and pressed a warm mug into his hands. Bucky inhaled. Coffee, his brain supplied slowly. He tipped the cup to his lips and nearly drained the cup in one go.

“Take it slow, hot shot,” Clint laughed. He took a long drink directly from the pot.

“Gross,” Lila wrinkled her nose from her perch on a floor cushion. She took a dainty sip from a delicate china tea cup before offering it to Lucky.

Clint pulled a face.

“Gross,” he mimicked in a pitchy voice. He stuck his pinky out and slurped his coffee.

Bucky snagged the pot from Clint and refilled his mug before settling back into the cushions of the worn out couch. Clint dropped down beside him, tucking his feet under Bucky's thighs and cradling the carafe to his chest. He smiled beatifically before taking another long pull from the pot.

Bucky felt his traitorous heart flutter.

This was a glimpse into a life he could never have. A home, a dog, a kid, someone who cared about him. He gritted his teeth and pushed that thought away. This isn't yours, he thought resolutely. This can't be yours.

Clint wiggled his toes. “So, I reckon we should keep Hawk-tot home from school after her daring superhero rescue adventure this morning,” Lila beamed. “– which she will not be repeating. This is a one-time deal, got it? No more strays.”

Lila giggled.

“I'm very serious, Lila. It could have been someone dangerous.” Bucky coughed. Clint kicked at his shin. “Next time something like that happens, you come get me immediately, understood?” Lila nodded. “No more answering the door for strangers.”

“But Bucky came in on the fire escape!”

Clint sighed. “Of course he did. Point stands, got it?”

“Got it,” Lila echoed.

“We can talk about this more later, yeah? As punishment, you have to do boring grown-up stuff with me and Bucky today.” Lila's face lit up. “Oh no, it won't be any fun at all,” Clint declared theatrically, slinging an arm across his face. “We're going to go to the grocery store, and then we're going to come home and make cookies, and we'll probably watch a princess movie...” he trailed off, peeking at her from under his arm. “Really boring. You won't like it at all.”

Lila's face barely contained her joy. She nodded solemnly. “I understand.”

“You understand, sir.”

Lila bit her cheeks to stop smiling. “I understand, sir.”

Clint beamed. “Right! So Bucky needs a shower, because he is a disgusting biohazard–”

“Hey!” Bucky protested.

Clint continued, “And Lila needs a hairbrush.” He examined Bucky thoughtfully. “Scratch that, both of you need a hairbrush. Bathroom's upstairs, I've probably got some clothes that'll fit you.”

Safely behind the bathroom door, with a bundle of clean clothes and a towel, Bucky finally let himself consider what he'd gotten himself into. He leaned close to the mirror. He was a mess; there was dried blood in his hair and under his fingernails. The cut over his left eyebrow had mostly healed, but the bruising along his cheekbone was prominent against his pallid skin.He didn't belong here, in this bathroom with glitter toothbrushes and heart stickers affixed to the mirror. This whole situation was a mess. He started the shower, running it hotter than he probably should, and shucked his pants and shorts.

He tipped his head back into the spray. There were several bottles in the shower, all adorned with pictures of princesses. He picked up a pink shampoo bottle and lathered the sweet-smelling soap into his hair. He wound his hands through the snarls, trying to work them loose.

His hair was probably a lost cause. Bucky let his chin fall to his chest so that the water beat down on his aching shoulders. He lathered body wash onto his hands and scrubbed at his grimy skin, watching the previous day's fight sluice down the drain. His mind was reeling. Clint Barton has a kid, he thought wildly. How did his team not know this? How did I not know this?

The first time they met, Clint had goaded him into sparring and punched him in the face. Bucky reciprocated by breaking Clint's nose. Before Bucky could panic about losing control, though, Clint had thrown his head back and laughed. He hadn't been afraid of Bucky, he hadn't been afraid of what he'd done, because Clint got it. And if a busted nose and a bloody shirt was all it took to show Bucky that, Clint seemed to think it was worth it.

His heart swelled just thinking about that day. They had run into Steve in the kitchen after they fought, Clint sporting the beginning of two black eyes and Bucky bearing the bruises of a surprisingly strong right hook to his jaw. Steve lost it. He shouted himself hoarse about Bucky fighting and Clint being reckless. Bucky was suitably ashamed, but Clint let Steve have his moment and then made a stack of sandwiches. He bumped Bucky's shoulder with his own and nodded his head towards the television. What can you do? Bucky asked Steve with a shrug, allowing himself to be dragged into the other room. Clint was trouble, but he was the kinda trouble Bucky liked being in.

Clint drew crude drawings on Bucky's notes during meetings, he stole food from Bucky's plate during team dinners. He was reckless. He shot arrows in the gym to see if Bucky could catch them. He took trick shots upside-down, he jumped off of buildings, he wanted to be friends with the Winter Soldier. Where, despite reassurances from Steve, it had taken the rest of the team months to warm up to his presence in the tower, it had taken Clint moments. Clint took him in like he did almost everything, with an easy smile and a bad joke. The problem, Bucky was finding, was that he liked Clint.

And Clint was someone's father. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and groaned.

He asked you to stay.

Bucky turned the water off and dried hastily. The clothes that he borrowed were a bit short in the leg and tight in the chest, but they were soft and worn and smelled like Clint. He let himself savor that, just for a moment.

=

Bucky was quiet when he came down from his shower, but Clint chalked that up to an overwhelming morning. He knew the burden that he put on Bucky when he introduced him to Lila. Thing was, he felt like Bucky would be able to handle it.

Lila insisted on holding Bucky's hand the entire trip to the grocery store. He seemed to take it all in stride and guided her through the busy sidewalks with gentle hands on her shoulders. When it became too icy to rely on Lila's own sense of balance to keep her upright, Bucky easily swept her up onto his hip. Slush from her shoes dripped onto his front, but he didn't seem to mind. Lila was delighted, taking advantage of her new height to chatter in Bucky's ear and swing her legs. Bucky contributed to the conversation by pointing out every dog that they passed and humming in agreement with Lila's appreciation of them.

Clint walked just behind them, steering them in the direction of a small grocery shop a few block's east of the apartment with a nod or tilt of the head at Bucky every time they came upon an intersection. He felt like he should be concerned, knowing that the arm wrapped around his little girl was one of the deadliest weapons that he had ever encountered, but all he felt was warm. They made a nice picture, Lila's pink puffy coat against Bucky's leather jacket. Lila's sweet voice carried as she regaled Bucky with a list of her favorite types of cookies. Bucky's responses were low and soft and harder to discern over the street noise, but both of them were smiling. They paused at an intersection, and while they waited for the light to change, Bucky tucked Lila's messy blonde hair off of her face and settled her hat fully over her ears.

The feeling in Clint's chest shifted from warmth into something tight and... swirly. Like someone twirled a fork through his lungs and tried to push them out through his esophagus.

Once they were in the grocery store, Lila took off like a shot to collect what Clint was certain would be a rainbow colored heap of sugar-based packaged food. He never got tired of being able to do this for her. Growing up poor, and then in the circus, he had never had the freedom to choose food just because it looked good or he wanted it. Usually, he'd just chosen whatever was easiest to stuff under his shirt. He never wanted Lila to worry about food. He never wanted her to want for anything at all.

Bucky scrutinized the contents of the cart with an increasingly concerned scowl as they moved through the aisles. Lila had skipped off and returned several times over with boxes of snacks, and Clint was wedging boxes of frozen pizza and chicken nuggets in amongst her haul.

“Is this what you usually buy?”

Clint shrugged. “We eat out a lot.”

Bucky looked skeptically at the cart. “I'm going to cook,” he said decisively.

“You don't have to.” Clint rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.

“I should help out. And you two should eat something green now and then.”

“I have green covered!” Clint grinned, gesturing at the two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream he had just tossed into the cart.

Bucky leveled Clint with a withering look, dragged the cart to the produce section, and began filling loading it up with vegetables, leaning threateningly towards heaps of brussels sprouts and kale every time Clint started opening his mouth to protest.

When they got home, Clint put the groceries away, and Lila dragged Bucky through the apartment, showing him her favorite books and toys. Bucky seemed especially taken with the archery-target-turned-bulletin board; Clint thought it was pretty clever himself, what with Kate banning live fire in the apartment unless it was an emergency. The live fire rule was usually ignored, but Clint was never aiming for the board anyways. Now there were tiny push-pins shaped like arrows affixed to the purple bulls-eyes, holding up Lila's art, some magazine clippings, and a few photographs.

“– And this is Lucky,” Clint heard Lila announce. Lucky cracked open his eye to decide whether Lila's noise was worth waking up for. When there appeared to be no snacks or danger forthcoming, he resumed his nap on the floor. “Lucky is a pizza dog. Daddy saved him from bad guys.” Bucky looked at Clint with alarm. Clint shrugged in a 'what-can-you-do' sort of gesture. Lucky was a long story, but he was family.

“What the he– heck is a 'pizza dog'?” Lucky perked up at the mention of the 'p' word.

“It's what he eats,” Lila said, exasperated. “What else would a pizza dog be?”

“I dunno, Lila.” Bucky shook his head, letting his question drop. “I think your dad promised us some cookies, didn't he?” Bucky and Lila both looked hopefully at Clint.

Clint rolled his eyes.

“Mooches, all of you,” he muttered, but he began pulling ingredients out of cabinets and stacking them on the counter.

Lila hopped up onto her usual stool. Bucky trailed behind her, rolling up his sleeves.

“Need help?” he asked.

“Not with your hair like that,” Clint snorted.

Bucky's metal hand instinctively went to his hair. “What's wrong with my hair?”

“Long hair in the kitchen is unhygienic. Gets in the food.”

Bucky frowned. Clint was worried that he said something wrong, because of course he would insult Bucky's hair, maybe he was sensitive about his hair, how was Clint supposed to know? But then Bucky strode purposefully into the kitchen. He stopped close, really close, and took hold of Clint's wrist.

For a quick moment, Clint's heart stopped. His chest swelled, his stomach swooped, the whole nine yards.

Shit.

Bucky snapped one of the purple elastics on Clint's wrist. “Can I borrow this?”

Clint nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. Bucky grinned, victorious, and looped the elastic off of Clint's hand. He began securing his dark hair into a low ponytail.

Shit shit shit, Clint thought, watching Bucky's large hands, one metal and one pale and bruised, smooth his hair into place.

Clint stepped back from the counter and let Bucky take over, watching as he began pulling together cookie dough without a recipe or measuring cups, as though entirely from memory. He watched Bucky stir and handed him things. He watched Bucky crack eggs and add chocolate chips. He watched Bucky scrape the sides of the bowl, and spoon raw cookie dough into his mouth, watched way that Bucky's pouty lips wrapped around the spoon before his tongue darted out to lick it clean. He watched Bucky's stubbled throat swallow.

He watched Bucky turn to him, riveted by the movement of his mouth. And then he watched as Bucky's mouth flattened, expression shifting from inquisitive to mildly concerned.

“Barton! You in there?” Bucky waved a hand in front of Clint's face.

“Yeah! Yeah, sorry, what?”

“I said, where do you keep your baking sheets? This kitchen is a nightmare.”

Clint's face felt hot. He crouched low, digging through the messy cabinets for cookie sheets. He found one tucked behind a bag full of plastic bags and waved it like a white flag.

Bucky snatched it from his hands.

“Hey, Lila, wanna help put the cookies on the sheet?” Bucky asked.

Clint pulled a little stool up to the counter for her and pulled her hair back off of her face. Bucky began demonstrating how to spoon out the dough. Her cookie dough lumps were unevenly dispersed and varied greatly in size, but neither of them had the heart to correct her. A cookie is a cookie, after all.

While the cookies baked, Lila showed Bucky her collection of princess movies and they discussed the relative merits of each princess. Clint bit back a smile; concentration was etched on Bucky's face as Lila talked.

Clint went to join Bucky and Lila on the couch, plate of full of warm cookies in tow. Clint set up their movie selectionand settled down beside Lila, who had insisted on sitting in the middle. Lucky curled up on the floor at their feet, deliberately in range of fallen cookie crumbs, and Clint stretched a bare foot out to scratch his ears.

Clint looked over at Bucky and found him watching back, his face creased in a warm smile.

Shit.

=

“Come have some breakfast,” Bucky called out. He plated some toast and scrambled eggs and began slicing an apple. Lila thundered down the stairs, still in her pajamas and her hair in a disarray. Bucky set the knife on the counter. “Everything alright?” he hazarded.

Lila climbed onto her stool and sat with a huff. “I want to wear my tutu, but he said no.”

Bucky sighed and resumed slicing the apple, before sliding the entire plate across the counter to Lila. She picked up an apple slice and considered it.

Clint followed shortly behind. “It's cold outside, Lila!”

“I'm not cold,” she said petulantly, taking a cautious bite. She screwed up her face. Bucky looked at her pointedly. She took another bite.

“There is snow on the ground! We're not having this discussion.” Clint threw himself onto the couch with a huff not unlike Lila's. Bucky bit back a laugh and brought a plate of food and a mug of coffee over to the coffee table. Clint immediately snagged a piece of toast off of his plate. Bucky elbowed him, but didn't make to take the toast back. Clint crunched on it happily and took a long drink from the coffee mug.

“Can she wear it over her pants?” Bucky murmured.

Clint buried his face in his hands. “She already nixed that.”

It had been nearly a week since Bucky climbed up the fire escape, and Lila had dropped all pretenses of being a morning person right around day two. She and Clint were both surly and disagreeable until fed and watered– or in Clint's case, caffeinated. Bucky had learned to mostly stay out of it, resolving to put food in front of them and let them sort their own attitudes. This, though, he thought he could fix.

“Ballerina hair?” Bucky whispered. Clint brightened. He hauled himself off of the couch and settled onto the stool next to Lila's, settling himself forward on his forearms and leaning towards Lila conspiratorially. “How about we do a ballerina bun instead?”

Lila frowned. “You've never done ballerina buns before.”

“Maybe not,"Clint hummed, "But I know someone who knows all about ballerina buns.” He pointed at Bucky, whose hair was secured loosely in a bun at the nape of his neck.

You can fix my hair?” Lila turned a bright smile at Bucky. Bucky rolled his eyes. Clint hadn't had coffee, problem solving was out of the question.

“On one condition,” Bucky said. Lila nodded seriously. “You eat the rest of that apple.”

Lila considered her apple slices. “Deal."

They made it out the door shortly after Bucky put the finishing touches on Lila's hair. The morning sun reflected off of the freshly fallen snow, casting the street in bright glow. Bucky pulled his coat tight around himself and breathed deep the crisp winter air. Lila came tearing outside after him, her scarf streaming behind her, ears covered with wooly purple earmuffs. She took one look at the snow and whooped with delight, throwing herself down the stairs and tumbling into a drift. Bucky watched her warily, and hauled her out of the snow at the first opportunity. He lifted her high above his head, settling her onto his shoulders. Lila leaned backwards to catch snowflakes on her tongue, her weight shifting enough that Bucky had to catch her legs before she swung backwards. Lila seemed unconcerned, leaning wide to grasp at the falling snow.

“You're such a sucker,” Clint chuckled. Bucky noticed that he took the stairs with much more care, though.

The walk to Lila's school was short but lively. Children ran down the sidewalks, tossing snow at one another, parents trailing behind with bemused smiles. Lila waved at classmates and friends that she recognized, but didn't ask to be let down when they called out to her. Bucky felt an unfamiliar tug in his chest.

When they arrived at the brick-front school, Bucky swung Lila down and settled her backpack securely on her shoulders. He paused briefly to check that her bun hadn't been disturbed by her snow adventure, smoothing the wispy hair at her temples. Clint knelt down beside her and took her by the hands.

“Alright, Babyhawk, be good at school today. I mean it,” Clint said when Lila began to giggle, “Please have pity on poor Ms. Wingert. No leading small revolutions in music class, no walk-outs--”

Clint's speech seemed to go on for some time. Bucky kept a wary eye on the other adults, who seemed to be letting their kids go with minimal fuss. That, or cars pulled up to the curb and kids fled the vehicle without a second glance. A group of well manicured mothers huddled together staring at him and Clint. They seemed to be whispering and gesturing in their direction, but he couldn't quite hear what they were saying. They didn't look impressed, though.

“– Stop convincing Dillon Lozano that he wants to trade his Little Debbie cakes for your fruit,” Lila grinned. “He does not, and Bucky insists that you need to eat it.” He looked to Bucky for confirmation. Bucky nodded indulgently and resumed watching the group of mothers. They saw him looking and pretended to be preoccupied with their phones.

Clint seemed to be winding down to the relevant information. “–I signed your permission slip, it's in your homework folder, have your teacher call if there's any issues. I love you!” Lila wrapped her arms around his neck and he kissed her cheeks messily.

“I love you too, Daddy,” Lila said, and then she threw her arms around Bucky's legs. “Bye Bucky!” she said, her voice muffled by his borrowed jeans. He looked at Clint with alarm. Clint shrugged.

“See you this afternoon, Lila,” Bucky said, crouching to her level to hug her properly. She kissed his cheek and then began running off towards the school.

“Don't summon any dark spirits! Save the rituals for when you get home!” Clint shouted after her. Lila tossed a wide smile over her shoulder, slowing down to join a group of chattering classmates. The mom group looked at him disapprovingly and began to talk briskly in hushed tones. Bucky stood up and moved close to Clint's side. Clint elbowed him softly in abdomen.

“She likes you,” Clint said with a crooked smile. “That's big.” Bucky felt his face flame.

“She's a great kid, Clint,” he said, looking at his feet and then back at Clint with a smirk, “Not sure how you pulled that off.”

“Oh, you know, it takes a village and all that,” Clint replied off-handedly. Bucky frowned. The moms were still watching them.

“I mean it, Clint. You've done a great job with her. You should be proud.” It meant a lot to Bucky that Clint knew, in that moment, in the presence of people who didn't seem to see it, that he was getting it right.

“Aw, Buck, c'mon,” Clint smiled sheepishly and ran a hand through his messy hair. He leaned in close to Bucky, “Those soccer moms are watching us. Bet they think we're hot?” He flexed his biceps dramatically.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “You're a disaster.”

“It's my burden,” Clint said solemnly, a small smile tugging at his mouth. He slung an arm around Bucky's shoulders and jostled him playfully. “Forget them. I've been doing this for years, and they're all like that. My kid is happy. 'S all that matters,” Clint confided quietly. He squeezed Bucky's shoulder. “Let's go home.”

They walked home in a quiet bubble, the snow falling around them, their knuckles brushing occasionally as they walked.

Bucky edged just a bit closer. Clint didn't seem to mind.

=

Clint looked up from where he was scrubbing a film of grime that had accumulated on the surface of the bathtub. The lock on the front door had just clicked. It was too early for Bucky to be home from picking Lila up at school, but he heard the jangle of a set of keys. Only two other people had keys, and one of them was avoiding his apartment right now.

“I'm upstairs!” Clint called, his voice echoing in the small bathroom. He had persuaded Bucky to get Lila on his own, struck with the pathetic thought that he couldn't remember the last time that he had cleaned anything. His chest already went tight ever time he thought about Bucky trying to take care of him and Lila. He cooked, he helped Lila with homework, he bullied Clint into bed at a reasonable hour. If he came home to find Bucky cleaning too, he was pretty sure it would be the death of him. The perfect, domestic death of him. Bucky, who insisted on vegetables and bedtimes and shirts without stains on them, couldn't be okay with a bathroom with toothpaste flecks on the mirror, much less the congealed soap scum he was scraping off of the tub. He had to fix this.

Long dark and longer blonde hairs were tangled in shampoo-ey clumps in the drain. It might have been sweet, if he wasn't trying to fish them out with his bare fingers.

“I'm shaving both of their heads,” he muttered threateningly.

“Whose heads?” Kate Bishop stuck her head into the bathroom. She was in stocking feet and leggings, her hair loose around her shoulders and a baggy purple sweater falling nearly to her knees. She folded herself onto the floor in the doorway and watched Clint with a quizzical expression.

“Nobody's,” Clint shook his head with a sigh. He frowned. “Why are you here?”

Kate chewed her lip. “I'm dropping off food for Lucky. Real food. Dog food.” Her eyes widened. “Wait, why are you here? You should be picking up your kid! School got out an hour ago!” she shrieked, standing up and grabbing for Clint's arm.

“How often do you come by here when I'm not home?” Clint shouted, yanking his arm from her grasp.

“Couple times a week,” Kate grumbled. Her expression turned mutinous. “But that's not the point!” Kate said loudly, pointing an accusing finger at Clint, “You're not supposed to be here right now!” She narrowed her eyes and looked around the room, eyes focusing in on the wad of hair that Clint had fished out of the drain. “You're cleaning. You never clean. I clean,” she said slowly, backing up to assess the situation fully.

Clint tossed the hair into the trashbag he had dragged into the bathroom, hooking an ankle around the bag and moving it behind him.

Kate went for it, but Clint was faster, catching her by the arms and frog-marching her out of the bathroom. She wrangled an arm loose and swung for his windpipe.

“Jesus, Kate!” Clint wheezed. She knocked past him, throwing herself bodily across the bathroom floor and pulling the wad of hair from the bag.

“Pretty weird, all this dark hair, huh?” she asked, waving the hair around wildly.

“Kate, that's disgusting, put it back!” Clint shouted, trying to wrestle it from her hands. She held it out of reach, pushing at Clint.

“Are you dating someone?” she singsonged.

“I'm helping a friend, seriously, are you twelve?” Clint gasped, finally snatching the sticky clump of hair from Kate.

“You love her!” Kate sang out. “You're cleaning your bathroom for her!”

“I'm not –” Clint stopped. The front door lock clicked again. Kate and Clint locked eyes. Both of them lunged for the doorway, elbowing each other as the fought to get to the stairs first.

Kate won. Kate always won. She hit the railing and froze.

Bucky opened the door, balancing a paper grocery bag on one hip and holding the door open for Lila, who was wearing her enormous backpack and cradling a steaming coffee cup between her mittened hands. She noticed Kate and grinned.

“Hi Kate! We brought coffee!”

Kate turned to Clint with her mouth hanging open, shock painted across her pale face. Clint shrugged and shoved past her to greet Lila and Bucky. Kate followed silently.

Lila held the coffee out to Clint. “I carried it all the way home!” she declared proudly. Clint took a long sip and leaned down to kiss her head. Bucky set the bag on the counter and began pulling off his gloves.

“We woulda got another if we knew we were having guests,” Bucky said, unwinding his scarf. He held out his hand for Kate to shake. “Bucky Barnes. You must be the real Hawkeye,” he said with a crooked smile.

Kate gaped at him, eyes darting to the arm not extended towards her. “You're the Winter Soldier.”

Bucky chuckled. “Sometimes.”

Kate rounded on Clint. “You're sleeping with the Winter Soldier,” she hissed as she shoved him away from the front door.

“Little ears!” Clint said loudly. Lila looked up from where she was removing her snow gear and rolled her eyes. Clint stuck his tongue out at her. “He's a friend,” he corrected defensively, eyes darting to Bucky, who was unzipping his jacket. Bucky was smiling in that stupid way he did, all across his face with his crinkly grey eyes dancing. So stupid. Just...

Biceps. Clint's brain turned to mush as Bucky's jacket gave way to arms straining at his borrowed v-neck shirt. It had bunched up a bit, exposing the tiniest line of the waistband of his boxer briefs peeking up above fitted dark blue jeans...

“Is that a crock pot?” Kate interrupted that dangerous train of thought, gesturing to the appliance on the counter from which a delicious smell had been emanating all afternoon. She looked at Clint with wide eyes as she moved further into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “And apples?” She peeked into the freezer. “Clint, where are all of the Hot Pockets?” she asked suspiciously.

“Bucky said we are going to get scurvy,” Lila piped up from the barstool at the counter. Bucky slid a plate of clementine wedges in front of her.

“He threw out all of the frozen pizza,” Clint said mournfully. He stole one of Lila's clementine wedges and popped in into his mouth with a grimace.

“I gave all of the frozen pizza to the neighbors, you whiner. And then I made you a real pizza.”

“With vegetables!” Clint cried. Bucky threw a clementine at him.

“I liked it,” Lila said. Clint screwed up his nose.

“He corrupted my baby. He took my pizza and corrupted my baby,” he mumbled. He began peeling the clementine.

Kate looked from Clint to Bucky.

“I'm leaving,” she announced.

“You can stay for dinner, if you'd like?” Bucky offered. Kate shook her head.

“Nope. Nope, this is weird, I'm out.” She wrapped Lila in a hug, “Bye, Lila-bean. Call me if you need to escape this.” She pointed a stern finger at Bucky. “I'm watching you.”

Bucky laughed. “Nice to meet you, Hawkeye.”

“Watching you!” she shouted over her shoulder as she slammed the door behind her.

Clint got a text moments later.

''Not just friends.'

His phone buzzed again.

'Feed your dog.'

Bucky cleared his throat. Clint put his face in his hands.

“So that's Kate,” Clint mumbled.

“She seems nice.”

Clint coughed out a harsh laugh. Bucky smirked.

“What are you making?” Clint asked. He leaned forward onto the counter and reached for the lid of the crock pot. Bucky swatted his hand away.

“It's a surprise. Go entertain yourself somewhere else.” He pulled a cutting board from one of the cabinets and began chopping carrots.

Clint pouted. “Fine. C'mon Lila, we are clearly unwanted here!” Clint scooped Lila up and swung her around before settling her on the couch with loud, smacking kiss. Clint flopped down beside her and flipped on the TV, settling on a cartoon channel. Lila hummed happily and curled in close. Clint closed his eyes and let Lila's warmth and rhythmic breathing relax him.

Apparently, so much so that he fell asleep.

“Daddy!” Clint winced. His neck pinched from the weird angle he had been laying at. Lila clambered onto his lap and shook his shoulders. Her bony knees were digging painfully into his thighs. “It's time for dinner!” Lila announced.

Clint made a noncommittal noise and laid his head back on the cushions. He rubbed at his aching ear; falling asleep in his hearing aids was stupid, always stupid.

Lila tugged on his arm. “Get up, get up, get up!”

Clint sighed and sat up, stretching his arms above his head and groaning in satisfaction. “What are we having?”

“Pot roast,” Bucky called from the kitchen, “Lila, go wash up.” Lila dropped Clint's arm and rushed upstairs.

Clint frowned.

“You made us a pot roast?” he asked. He stood up and went into the kitchen, where Bucky was plating steaming roast and potatoes and carrots. “That's...,” Bucky looked up and brushed his hair behind his ears. Clint swallowed hard.

Bucky chewed his lip.

“That's what you've been making all day? That's real nice, Buck. It's just... nobody's ever made me something like that before.” Clint busied himself washing his hands in the kitchen sink. His face was growing hot. He spun around, suddenly realizing what he had just implied “I mean, you cook all the time, what am I saying? I appreciate that, that– that's great. It's just... man. Pot roast? That's... ” Clint noticed that Bucky had moved so close that he could feel how warm he was. Bucky crowded him against the sink, bracketing him in with his metal arm.

“Clint, stop talking,” Bucky said roughly.

“Talking? Who's talking, I'm not–” Bucky ran his calloused flesh-and-blood thumb across Clint's cheek.

Warm lips tentatively brushed against his own.

Oh.

Clint chased Bucky's mouth, curling his fingers into the soft tangles of hair at the nape of Bucky's neck and pulling him closer. It was better than he could have imagined. Did he ever imagine this? Bucky kissed gently, patiently, and not at all like Clint would have guessed before he became part of his and Lila's lives. He kissed like warmth and safety and quiet and home. Like this was inevitable. Clint's heart was hammering in his chest. He couldn't take a full breath because his lungs felt like they were collapsing.

Bucky paused, letting his lips linger before he rested his forehead against Clint's, his stormy eyes studying Clint closely.

“Lila's coming back,” Bucky whispered against Clint's mouth. Sure enough, her footsteps moved across the floor. Clint was distracted by Bucky's soft breath against his lips.

Clint swallowed hard.

“Yeah, okay.”

=

Getting Lila ready for bed was always a production, but tonight it felt like conducting hostage negotiations with a tiny blonde terrorist.

“Bucky?” Lila asked. After locking the bathroom door to take a nearly two hour bubble bath, complete with ear-splitting renditions of Disney's entire musical catalog, and a pajama showdown during which Bucky's knowledge of princesses was put to the ultimate test (and resulted in him unfolding and refolding her entire pajama drawer in search of exactly which pink ruffle nightie with the blonde princess Lila wanted to wear that evening) it was now nearly an hour past her bedtime. Lila had already asked for four cups of water, and they had conducted a thorough investigation of the bedroom for monsters. Bucky's considerable patience was wearing thin.

And all of that was on top of the low level alarm going off in the back of his brain over his monumental lapse in judgment earlier in the evening.

I kissed Clint Barton, Bucky thought and then, hope blooming bright in his chest, Clint Barton kissed me back.

Bedtime had seemed like a welcome distraction at the time, but he was beginning to think that Clint's hasty retreat to do the dishes wasn't to avoid him at all.

“Yes Lila?” He summoned what remained of his calm. He was still putting her clothes back in the drawers.

“Can you read to me?” Lila held a heavy book out to him. Her light hair was falling in wet snarls down her back. She had finally settled on a soft flannel nightie with long sleeves that was just a bit too big for her, and she smelled like soap and flowers. Her face was all Clint, big blue eyes and pouting chapped lips.

Bucky's epitaph would probably read Death By Bartons. Maybe he really was a sucker, just like Clint kept saying.

He sighed and put the last of the pajamas back into the drawers.

“How about you read to me and I braid your hair so it doesn't get tangled tonight?” he asked. Lila smiled and crawled up onto her canopy bed. Clint had strung fairy lights around the bed frame, giving the room a soft glow. She moved her piles of pillows and stuffed toys to allow Bucky to join her.

Bucky settled Lila between his knees and began to gently work the knots loose from her hair. He spent most evenings up here, he and Clint and Lila taking turns reading. They had started working on The Secret Garden several nights ago, and even though it was more challenging than Lila was used to, Bucky was correcting her less every time. She opened her book and started to read, slowly sounding out the words on the pages as Bucky wound her hair back.

“Want me to read next?” he asked, tying off her braid. Lila nodded sleepily and moved up on the pillows beside Bucky to lean against his shoulder. He took the book, but barely finished the paragraph before she was nodding off. Bucky stood up, set the book on her bedside table, and pulled the duvet up to her chin, taking care to tuck it around her tightly. Lila blinked her tired blue eyes at him and smiled sleepily.

“Night Bucky. I love you,” she said, her eyes fluttering closed. Bucky's heart caught in his throat.

“I love you too, little one,” Bucky said hesitantly. He kissed her forehead and smoothed the wisps of baby hair at her temple. His heart was hammering in his chest.

Clint was leaning against the doorway when he moved to leave.

“You're good with her,” he said softly. Bucky's breath was coming in short pants; he felt like he couldn't get enough air.

“I don't know what I'm doing,” he breathed.

“Nobody does,” Clint frowned. “Are you okay? You're not okay.” Clint took Bucky's arm and led him into the next room.

Bucky sat down on the edge of the bed– Clint's bed, Christ– and put his face in his hands. Clint sat beside him. They were both quiet for several moments, just the sound of Bucky hyperventilating to break the silence.

“I can't do this, Clint,” Bucky gasped.

“Shh. Too late for that now. C'mere,” Clint said, laying back on the covers.

Bucky didn't move.

Clint sighed. "Seriously. Get up here."

Bucky took a deep breath and crawled up the bed to lay next to Clint.

Clint took his hand and began to trace small circles into his palm. "This okay?" Clint asked. 

Bucky nodded, exhaling shallowly through his nose.

Clint flicked his knuckle. "In through your nose, out through your mouth." He turned on his side to face Bucky. "Breathe with me, okay?"

Bucky nodded again, focusing on the rise and fall of Clint's chest and his warm breath on Bucky's cheek. They stayed like that for a long time, their noses barely brushing as they breathed together, Clint's fingers gently sweeping up and down Bucky's arm. When Clint finally spoke, it was so quietly that Bucky had to strain to hear him.

"When I brought her home, I didn't sleep for more than an hour at a time. I kept waking up afraid that somethin' had happened to her. She was so little, y'know? And I had no business raising a kid." Clint's fingers stilled. He looked at their hands and then at Bucky. His blue eyes were bright, even in the dark room. "She's still so little, but her world is so big. It was just the two of us for so long, I never thought..." Clint smiled his easy smile and squeezed Bucky's hand.

"I'm glad we found you. I'm so glad she loves you,” Clint murmured.

In the dark of Clint's bedroom, the glow of snowfall in the windows, Bucky let himself imagine that this was something that he could have. He pictured waking up with Clint every morning, and making breakfast for their little girl, reading her stories every night, watching her grow up. All of the terrible things he had done, all of the horrible things that he was, but... maybe he could still have this.

"Me too," Bucky whispered.

=

Bucky woke up in Clint's bed, legs tangled in pale purple sheets. Bucky rarely slept later than Clint and Lila, but the sun was already up, and the apartment was unusually quiet, especially for a Saturday morning. He climbed out of bed to investigate. 

He shuffled slowly down the stairs to find the living room empty and stood blinking in the late morning light for a moment before continuing into the kitchen.

The kitchen was empty too, but held the signs of a rushed packaged-food breakfast, Pop Tart wrappers on the counter and Clint's coffee cup drying on the edge of the sink. Affixed to the cabinet with an arrow was a note in Clint's hasty scrawl:

B,

Took Babyhawk to Nat's.

Go back to bed.

-C

He pulled out his phone and shot off a quick message to Clint: 

Stop putting arrows into the fixtures.

Barely a minute later, his phone buzzed:

My building, my rules. 

Bucky threw away the wrappers and grabbed coffee filters from the cabinet. He reached for the coffee pot but--

He picked up his phone again:

Where is the coffee pot?

Living room, Clint sent back. 

Bucky craned his neck to look into the living room. Sure enough, the coffee pot was on the side table, full of... sunflowers?

Will you be home soon? 

On my way.

Bucky thought for a moment, then typed:

Bring me coffee. 

Clint replied with a kissy face emoji.

Bucky rolled his eyes and pocketed his phone, then went to inspect the flowers. Where did Clint find flowers this early on a Saturday morning? And in the middle of winter?

Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose and sat down on the couch. He was a little at sea without the usual bustle of the apartment, and even though he was pretty sure that his better-living-through-chemistry body couldn't develop a caffeine addiction, he wasn't sure how to start a morning without a bracing cup of Barton sludge. He sat for a while, staring at the sunflowers, his mind almost pleasantly blank, petting Lucky absently.

A few minutes later, there were keys in the lock.

“Thought I threw out all of the Pop Tarts,” Bucky called.

“You think you know a lot of things," Clint muttered under his breath. He set the bag of groceries that he was carrying on the counter and brought a warm cup over.

“You're a peach,” Bucky sighed, taking a long gulp.

"Yeah, yeah,” Clint said. “What did the flowers do to you?" Bucky arched an eyebrow at him. "You were scowling at the flowers. You mad at them?" 

"Depends. Are they for me?"

Clint rubbed at the back of his neck. "Do you like them?" 

"Well, you put them in the coffee pot." 

"I don't own a vase," Clint said defensively. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and mumbled, "I thought it would be nice."

Bucky smiled around the plastic lid. “It is nice. Just wondering why is all.”

A sly smile spread across Clint's lips. “Should think that's pretty clear.”

Bucky hummed thoughtfully and took another sip of his coffee. “Why'd you need to go get groceries this early in the morning?”

“Figured I'd make you breakfast. Was hoping you'd still be asleep when I got back.”

Bucky snorted. “You're cooking?”

“Wasn't planning on waking you up. Some surprise that'd be.”

“Better than waking up to the building in flames.”

Clint wagged a finger at him, turning to go into the kitchen. “Just you wait. This is going to knock your socks off.”

“Promises, promises!” Bucky called after him. He settled back into the cushions with his warm cup and pulled a soft throw blanket up around himself. Clint was humming tunelessly in the kitchen. “Was Lila good this morning?”

“It's funny, the later you let her stay up, the better she is in the morning.” Bucky scoffed, which only made Clint chuckle. “Might've been the promise of a super spy sleepover with Auntie Nat, though.”

“You didn't need to ask Natasha to take her.”

“It's been a while, Lila missed her. Thought you could use the quiet anyway.” Bucky opened his mouth to protest, but Clint must have known, even from the kitchen. “Stop. It's fine. It's all fine.”

Bucky sunk further into the cushions and pulled the blanket up to his chin.

After several long minutes, Clint returned with two plates stacked high with the fluffiest pancakes Bucky had ever seen.

“You've been holding out,” he said, impressed.

“You never asked,” Clint laughed, holding a plate out. “Budge up.”

Bucky shifted himself upright, leaning his back against the arm of the couch and took the offered pancakes, wedging his cold feet under Clint's warm thigh. Clint put so much butter and syrup on the pancakes that they were oozing sugar every time he cut into them. “These are good,” Bucky mumbled between bites, “Steve puts protein powder in his.”

Clint screwed up his nose, looking incredibly like Lila. “Steve is gross. These are buttermilk. I'd say they were a family recipe, but,” he waved his fork around, “well, you know.”

Bucky took another enthusiastic bite. “They're amazing.”

“Told you so.”

Bucky smirked. “Dunno, though. Socks still firmly on my feet.” He wiggled his toes.

Clint pointed his fork at him. “That was terrible. That was so terrible.”

“Is it working?”

“I thought you were supposed to be smooth.”

Bucky shrugged and peeled off a sock.

Clint rolled his eyes and put their empty plates onto the coffee table. Bucky tossed his sock across the room. “You know you're going to be the one picking that up, right?” Clint asked.

Bucky waggled his eyebrows suggestively and went to pull the other sock off of his foot. Clint caught him by the ankle.

“You're ridiculous,” Clint said, “I just really need you to know that.”

“What're you gonna do about it?” Bucky challenged.

Clint wrapped his hand more firmly around Bucky's ankle and tugged. Bucky went with it, allowing himself to be maneuvered into Clint's lap. “Is this okay?” Clint asked, trailing a his fingers across the nape of Bucky's neck.

Bucky gave in to the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He thought he'd be overwhelmed by the affection that swelled in his chest, but he mostly felt warm.

Clint's fingers tightened a fraction. “Say something, Barnes.”

“Just trying to figure out why you're not kissing me already,” Bucky murmured.

Clint tasted like syrup and coffee. Their first kiss had been a question, but this one was like punctuation. Like a comma, or an ellipses, something that could keep going forever. Bucky could feel Clint smiling against his mouth.

“Was tryin' to be polite,” Clint said between gentle kisses to Bucky's bottom lip. “Tryin' to be a gentleman.” Clint grinned and nipped at the tender spot behind Bucky's jaw.

“You're no gentleman, Clint Barton.”

“Nah, probably not,” Clint said, chasing his teeth with soft kisses, “I want to do some pretty un-gentlemanly things to you.”

 

“Well,” Bucky managed, “Good thing I'm not much of a gentleman either.”

They spent a moment fumbling at the buttons on their jeans, kissing slowly as their knuckles brushed. 

Clint's warm skin against him was a revelation. It had been so long since he'd been this close to another person. He rolled his hips down languidly, drawing a moan from Clint's lips.

Clint settled his hands on Bucky's waist and pushed up to meet his rhythm. Bucky groaned as they moved together, leaning his sweaty forehead against Clint's shoulder, his breath coming in short gasps. He was surprised by the small noises falling from his mouth as they rocked together.

“I like this,” Bucky breathed.

“Me too,” Clint huffed. “Oh, that's good, keep doing that.”

“Uh huh,” Bucky nodded, his eyes squeezed shut, his body trembling. He clutched at Clint's shoulders, mouthing at his jaw as he shifted his hips faster, pushing Clint down into the couch cushions.

“Come on, Buck,” Clint groaned, hot breath against Bucky's ear as he wrapped a hand around them both, “I wanna feel you.”

“Jesus, Clint,” Bucky gasped. His body tensed, pulses of pleasure nearly overwhelming him as he fell bonelessly against Clint's chest. Clint's fingers flexed against Bucky's thighs, rocking erratically until he followed with a soft cry.

For a long moment, they just breathed together.

Clint shifted. “Still wearing your sock?”

Bucky snorted a laugh and pressed the toes of his still-socked foot into Clint's calf. “Just barely. Guess you'll have to try harder next time.” He dropped his forehead to rest against Clint's and waited for his heart rate to drop back to normal as they pressed their smiles together in soft, easy kisses.

Clint shifted eventually, tipping his head back to catch Bucky's eyes. “Think I could pry it off of you in exchange for a hot shower?”

Bucky pushed himself off of Clint's lap, stretching his stiff limbs. “I'm kind of a sure thing, Clint,” he said with a smile. He tugged the sock off of his foot and threw it at Clint before sauntering up the stairs with all of the confidence he could muster.

“I'm keeping this as a sex trophy!” Clint shouted.

“Get up here and you won't need a trophy to remember it by,” Bucky hollered with a laugh before disappearing into the bathroom to start the water.

=

“I think I'm going to tell Steve.”

“Hmm?” Clint was curled against Bucky's bare chest in his bed, sleepy and satisfied. Bucky had been tracing lazy patterns across his back and he was finding it difficult to remain coherent.

“I think I'm going to tell Steve where I am.”

“Huh.”

Bucky shifted to look at him more clearly. “Think I should?”

Clint swallowed. A knot was beginning to form in his stomach as he mulled over exactly what that would mean. He decided to go for broke. “I think if you're gonna tell Steve you're here, I'm gonna tell the team about Lila.”

Bucky stilled. Clint was sure that he didn't mean to, because when he next spoke, it was with a measured calm, “If you're ready to do that, yeah.”

Clint propped his chin on Bucky's sternum. “I don't want to hide this,” he cleared his throat, “Any of this.”

A slow smile spread across Bucky's face. “Okay.”

Clint chewed his lip. “We should invite them over. For dinner, maybe? That way Lila is in her own space, just in case.”

“You asking me to cook?” Bucky smirked.

“I sure as hell ain't cooking.”

“Can't use incompetence as an excuse anymore. I know your secrets,” Bucky said.

Clint tucked his face into the crook of Bucky's neck, inhaling the clean smell of him. “Well, somehow I doubt pancakes and cookies will be enough to feed a team of superheroes,” he yawned.

“Believe that when I see it,” Bucky carded his hand through Clint's hair. “Are you falling asleep on me?”

Clint made a muffled noise of assent against Bucky's neck and tilted his head to provide access to the purple behind-the-ear hearing aids he had taken to wearing when he wasn't on a mission. They weren't exactly stylish, but Lila had liked the purple, and he tried to save the near-invisible Stark tech sets for field work.

“You're so lazy,” Bucky said, but his hands curled around the back of Clint's head to gently slide the devices over the shell of his ears.

“M'not,” Clint mumbled, but he was asleep before Bucky could figure out a way to respond.

=

“Alright, nobody is allowed in the bathroom! If you gotta go, go outside,” Clint bellowed as he rushed around the loft, frantically pulling arrows out of the walls. “Why are none of you freaking out?”

Bucky didn't even look up from the pot he was stirring. “Nothing to freak out about.”

“They're going to be here any minute!” Clint shrilled as he tugged at an arrow that was lodged particularly tightly into the banister.

Nat took a sip of tea and arched a beautifully made-up brow from her seat at the counter.

“Don't you look at me, you're useless. You haven't moved in hours.” Clint griped. He yanked at the arrow with both hands and it came loose, sending him stumbling backwards. He spun it around to align the head with the stack piled on the stairs and it promptly exploded in his face, covering him in a thick layer of what he was pretty sure was marshmallow fluff. He groaned and swiped some of the sticky goop out of his eyes. “I give up,” he shouted, throwing his hands into the air and storming up the stairs.

Someone must have cleaned the mess up from the floor, because when Clint came back from showering and changing, it was back to shining. Lila was doing twirls, slipping across the wood floor in her stockinged feet and tutu. Bucky had styled her hair in a tight bun on top of her head, completing the ballerina look. The blood red manicure Natasha brought her home with had given him pause, but Bucky had just finished his phone call with Steve and he suddenly had more pressing issues.

Like where everyone was supposed to sit. And what the hell he'd been thinking.

A warm hand settled on his arm, drawing him out of his stupor.

“Breathe,” Bucky murmured, squeezing his shoulder. Which was unncessary, because Clint was absolutely not panicking. He was worried, maybe, but not panicking. Mildly anxious, but not panicking. Having a little trouble taking deep breaths, but definitely not panicking.

It was just that Bucky's conversation with Steve had seemed oddly subdued for Bucky having been missing for three weeks. He hadn't mentioned Lila. It was the kind of news that you broke in person, Clint knew, and Lila had always spoken for herself much better than anyone ever could for her, but the prospect of bursting their homely litle bubble was growing large and vaguely Hulk-shaped in the back of his mind. Nobody else seemed concerned, though. Even when he sat Lila down to explain the plan for the afternoon, she had seemed more excited about dessert than anything else.

“Can't believe we're doing this,” Clint said, leaning against Bucky.

Every available surface in the kitchen was covered in food; there was a pot of goulash on the stovetop, there were several chickens roasting in the oven, and Clint knew for certain that the refrigerator was completely packed. Lucky was hovering, his tail thumping excitedly, waiting for something to fall.

“It's going to be fine,” Bucky said lightly, kissing Clint's temple and turning his attention back to the food. Nat looked at both of them with a look of mild amusement; Clint stuck his tongue out at her.

A sharp knock sounded at the door. Lucky stood up quickly, his nails clacking on the floor as he careened between their legs to see who was outside. Lila ran behind him, skidding the last few steps before swinging the door open.

“That's Captain America,” Lila breathed.

“We talked about this, Lila,” Clint said in an undertone. Steve's eyes had gone comically large.

“Yeah, but he's really Captain America.”

“Come on inside, she'll do this all day,” Bucky called from the kitchen.

Steve looked from Bucky in the kitchen, wearing an apron that Clint bought for him, to Lila, who was staring up at him in awe. His broad shoulders seemed to take up most of the entryway. Bruce, Thor, and Tony were waiting behind him, expressions of surprise evident on their faces.

Lila gaped.

“Alright, Babyhawk, let them come in,” Clint said, shooing her in to allow the superhero pile-up to clear up. He didn't want to give the neighbors much more fodder; this many famous people in one place was sure to cause gossip. Clint cleared his throat. “So, um, this is our place.”

“Daddy,” Lila hissed, tugging insistently at Clint's shirt, “That's Captain America.”

“Did she just call Barton 'Daddy'?” Tony asked incredulously.

Lila whipped around to look at him. “I don't know you,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

Bruce snorted and patted Tony's arm sympathetically. Steve made a sound like he was choking, but recovered quickly, kneeling to Lila's level and sticking out his hand.

“My friends call me Steve,” he said kindly.

“My friends call me Lila,” she repeated, taking Steve's big hand in her own and shaking it emphatically.

Steve smiled. “It's nice to meet you, Lila. I like your tutu.”

“Thank you. I want to be a ballerina, but Daddy can't make ballerina buns.”

Steve nodded. “That makes it hard.”

“Bucky can, though! He does it for me.”

Steve looked at Bucky, who was leaning against the counter and watching the exchange intently. “That's real nice of him.”

“Yeah,” Lila trailed off, her attention waning. “Is that Thor?” she whispered.

Steve laughed and conducted introductions. Clint felt the tension he was carrying dwindle slightly as his two worlds collided and nothing exploded.

“She's fine, Clint,” Bucky said quietly, coming to stand beside him. Lila was examining the elaborate braiding in Thor's hair while Bruce and Nat sat at the counter chatting. Tony was hovering at the edge of the living room, his arms folded against his chest and his expression suspicious as his eyes darted between Clint and Bucky standing together, the other Avengers scattered about the room, and the door.

Clint let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. “Time to eat?” he asked hopefully.

Everyone squeezed around the coffee table to eat dinner, balancing plates piled full of roast chicken and bowls of goulash in their laps. Clint and Lila took turns slipping food to Lucky when they thought Bucky wasn't looking.

“You're going to make him sick,” Bucky said as he cut a piece of chicken into smaller bites for Lila.

Clint observed the team as they shoveled down their dinner and caught snatches of conversation between Steve and Tony, comprised mostly of Tony hissing things like “alternate universe” and “Skrull invasion” and, worryingly, “Loki'”, as Steve elbowed him continually. Tony had just turned to Clint and opened his mouth when Steve stuffed a drumstick in it, effectively ending that line of conversation.

After everyone had gone for second and third helpings Bucky started pulling out pies and they all settled in with dessert plates and coffee. “This is really great,” Steve said around a bite of pie. “Did you make all of this, Buck?”

“It's nothin'. Had a lot of practice,” he smiled at Clint, who had stuffed an entire piece into his mouth and was struggling to return the smile. Lila shot Bucky a nearly identical look, bits of chocolate smudged on her pink cheeks, puffed out like a chipmunk. Bucky sighed and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “I blame you,” he muttered to Clint.

Bruce and Natasha shared a knowing glance.

“Still,” Steve continued, “Knew you could cook, but I didn't know you could cook like this.”

“Verily!” Thor bellowed in agreement, slapping a hand on the coffee table and setting everyone's plates rattling.

“I'm going to need your goulash recipe,” Bruce said, “Where did you find the sour cream? I can never consistently find the good sour cream.”

Clint settled back against the base of the couch, leaning into Bucky and letting the conversation wash over him. Steve and Tony were talking quietly with the heads ducked together, and Lila was still shoveling pie into her mouth, sneaking bits from other people's plates while they pretended not to notice.

He hadn't realized how at ease Bucky was with the team. For all that he was often moody and quiet, he was playing host with practiced ease, guiding the conversation and keeping plates and glasses full. He seemed happy, and Clint felt a wave of bittersweetness wash over him. Bucky had talked more tonight than he had in the last month. How could Clint ask him to stay here, with him?

He excused himself with a jerk of his head towards the stairs and hurried away to the sanctuary of the closed bathroom door. He sat on the edge of the tub and put his head in his hands.

His chest was growing pained in a way that couldn't be related to the metric ton of food that Bucky had put onto his plate. This was a stupid idea. This was all such a stupid idea. He thought... he thought that they had built something here, something special and their own. But it wasn't sustainable, was it? The lives that they lived...

Lila. What was he going to tell Lila?

He was so stupid. How could he let this go so far? He was going to break his baby's heart.

There was a soft knock at the door. Clint's heart seized.

“Clint?”

Clint shook his head. No no no no no. Not now.

“Clint, I know you're in there,” Bucky said quietly. “You gonna let me in?”

“No,” Clint said, his voice muffled.

“At least tell me you're okay.”

Clint was silent for a moment, the fears that he wanted to voice threatening to tumble from his mouth.

“Clint, please let me in.”

“It's unlocked,” he rasped, his heart thudding frantically in his chest.

Bucky opened the door. He took in Clint, hunched over the bathroom floor with what had to be the most pathetic expression, and knelt in front of him. “I'm sorry,” he whispered, taking Clint's hands in his own. “I just... this was too much, wasn't it?”

No no no.

“I just wanted to share this with them. I wanted them to be part of this. I didn't think, and I'm sorry.”

“You seem happy,” Clint mumbled.

“I am happy,” Bucky said with a small smile. Clint felt sick.

This was it. Bucky was going to leave him, go back to the support of his best friend and the tower and his life, and he was going to have to tell Lila, and –

“Please don't leave,” Clint blurted out.

“Leave?” Bucky asked, confusion etched on his face. “Why would I leave?”

“To go back to the team? Be a superhero?” Clint was becoming frantic. “You seemed so relaxed down there with all of them, and I can't ask you to give that up to be here with me–”

“Clint, I'm not leaving!” Bucky nearly shouted. Clint paused and looked at him. Bucky was smiling, a little bit exasperatedly, sure, but smiling. “I couldn't leave you. You would starve. I would have to abduct your kid because I wouldn't let her starve, and Kate would probably murder me and then steal your dog.” He shook Clint lightly by the shoulders. “Listen good, Clint Barton. I'm completely stupid about you and that little girl. I'm not leaving until you make me.”

“Please stay,” Clint said, a smile curving on his lips, his heart crashing through his chest.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “As if I wouldn't. I'm all in, you moron.”

Clint surged forward and kissed Bucky gracelessly, all teeth and tongue as he clutched at him desperately. Bucky wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close, punctuating his kisses with a sappy grin. “You're such an idiot,” he whispered.

“I know,” Clint agreed cheerfully, stealing another kiss.

When they finally made it back downstairs, the team was talking and laughing quietly as they drank their wine. Lila had dozed off on the floor next to Steve. He noticed Clint and Bucky coming down the stairs and grinned.

“All good?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

Bucky nudged Clint with his shoulder.

“Yeah, we're good,” Clint said. “We should probably put her in bed.”

Bucky scooped Lila up. Her hair had come a little bit undone, wisps of blonde falling into her face, and her tutu was cascading over his arms. Clint brushed a kiss to the side of her face, and then to Bucky's cheekbone.

“I've got her,” Bucky said, tucking Lila close and carrying her up to her bedroom.

Clint put his hands in his pockets and turned back to his guests.

“So, you and Barnes?” Tony asked, feigning nonchalance.

“We talked about this!” Steve hissed.

Clint chuckled. “Me and Barnes,” he confirmed, scrubbing his hand through his hair sheepishly. His face felt hot.

“And on that note, I think it's time to call it a night,” Natasha said, standing up and stretching elegantly, sparing him any further embarrassment.

Bucky came downstairs to say goodnight to the team, loading their arms with leftovers as they left, insisting to Tony that there was no pie left, although Clint knew he had stashed several pieces in the back of the refrigerator.

Steve hovered for a moment before closing the door.

“Out with it,” Bucky said.

Steve laughed. “I'm happy for you. Both of you,” he added, nodding at Clint.

“Thanks, Cap,” Clint said.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “I'll call you later, Steve.”

The apartment finally empty, Bucky began his evening rounds. He locked the front door and checked the windows, lingering at the fire escape for a moment before flashing Clint a cheeky grin. It was snowing outside. Clint came to stand behind Bucky, wrapping his arms around his waist and settling his chin on his shoulder.

“We should go to bed,” Clint murmured.

Bucky turned in the circle of Clint's arms and kissed him, and continued kissing him as he backed him through the living room and towards the stairs. They made their way up slowly, bumping shoulders, and moved into Clint's room – their room – to begin stripping down for bed.

When they finally crawled into bed, it was warm and together. The moon glowed on the snow falling outside, casting the bedroom in a soft light. For once, it was blissfully and beautifully silent outside, just the sound of their gentle kisses and whispers of affection punctuating the quiet as they drifted off to sleep.