Hours after Natasha was in bed, James was in his office trying to catch up on work when he heard a knock at the front door.
James jerked upright, his hand going automatically to the knife tucked into the pen holder at the back of the desk. It was a half past midnight and people didn't just drop by at this time of night.
Adrenaline pumping, James rose to his feet, knife held loose in his fingers. Natasha was asleep upstairs and it was after midnight, and someone had knocked on his front door.
Quickly, James ducked out of his office and moved across the floor. Girding himself for a fight, he leaned around the wall jamb to look through the glass.
Steve Rogers stood on his doorstep, Clint sleeping on his shoulder.
"What the fuck?" James hurried across the floor. Tossing the knife onto the hall table, James quickly deactivated the front door alarm and opened the inner, then outer door. Cold night air blasted into the vestibule. "Are you okay?" James demanded in a whisper.
"Yeah," Steve said, but he didn't sound convincing. Behind Steve, the red lights of a taxi faded down the street.
"Get in here," James said, holding the door for Steve. One of Clint's socks had fallen off, and his little bare foot poked out of the blanket Steve had used to cover him. Just the sight made James feel the cold deep in his bones. "Is Clint okay? Is he sick?"
Steve was inside now, and James gratefully closed the doors and rearmed the alarm. "Clint's fine," Steve said. He smoothed down the blanket over Clint's back. The boy sighed in his sleep, long eyelashes fluttering on his cheek.
"Come on," James said. "You're nuts, running around the city with a kid at this hour." Putting his hand on Steve's back, he corralled Steve up the stairs, to the guest room across the hall from Natasha's bedroom. He switched on the light to reveal the small, tidy room, with a twin bed against the wall.
Leaving Steve to settle Clint, James went to the linen closet to retrieve a blanket suitable for the chill of the early summer night, all the while wondering what the hell was going on, why Steve had brought his sleeping son all the way across Brooklyn at this time of night.
Speculation was useless; and he'd get it out of Steve soon enough. James pulled a cotton blanket off the shelf and hurried back to the guest room. Steve had put Clint to bed and pulled the sheet up to the boy's chin. Clint himself was still dead to the world.
"Here," James whispered. Steve took the offered blanket and covered Clint, tucking the ends of the blanket around him.
Once Clint was secured, Steve just stood staring at his son, distress clear on the man's face.
"Come on," James said in Steve's ear. "We can talk downstairs."
"Yeah." After a moment, Steve reached into his pocket for Clint's hearing aid. He carefully placed the hearing aid on the bedside table, then followed James to the door where he switched off the overhead light.
"Is he going to wake up anytime soon?" James asked quietly.
"Probably not," Steve said, just as softly. "He fell asleep late, but who knows."
James went across the hall and noiselessly opened Natasha's door. The girl was fast asleep, sprawled on her stomach, one hand clutching the ear of her favorite teddy bear. James went over to the toy box and picked up Natasha's second-favorite bear. He carried that out of the room, careful to not disturb Natasha's slumber. Leaving her door open a crack, James went back across the hall and handed the bear to Steve.
"In case Clint wakes up."
Without comment, Steve took the bear and recrossed the room. He sat on the edge of the bed and set the bear next to Clint's outstretched hand. He stayed there for a little while, watching Clint sleep, while James leaned against the door and waited.
Finally, Steve bent over and pressed a kiss to the top of Clint's head, then stood and made his way out of the room.
James and Steve headed downstairs in silence. At the foot of the stairs, James paused and looked at Steve. "You on the run from the cops or something?"
"No," Steve said, annoyance breaking through the weight of emotions he'd been carrying around. "Look, Bucky, I didn't mean to crash in here like this but…" he swallowed. "It's just…"
James put his hand on Steve's shoulder. "Aw, shut up," he said, giving Steve's shoulder a shake. "Your boy's safe, and you need something to drink. You want some coffee?"
"You got anything to go in that?"
"I got some whisky that'll strip paint off the walls." James let his hand drop and led Steve into the kitchen. "But it'll knock you out same as the expensive stuff."
"I never got into whisky," Steve said. He slumped into a chair at the kitchen table where he could watch James. "Peggy, she was into that stuff but I could never tell what the big deal was."
"Who's Peggy?" James asked as he set about making a fresh pot of coffee. With the day he'd had, he hadn't gotten around to donning his prosthetic arm after Steve and Clint left, but he was used to moving around the kitchen in his one-armed state.
Steve picked up the little ceramic saltshaker and rolled it between his fingertips. "You remember when I told you I met Sharon when I was dating her cousin? That was Peggy."
There was a lot of weight in the way Steve talked about the woman, something more than James would expect from a casual girlfriend in college. "What did she think when you hooked up with Sharon?"
Steve set the saltshaker on the table. "We were pretty much finished by then," he said. "You know, in another lifetime, Peggy could have been the one."
James' stomach contracted unpleasantly at the thought of anyone being Steve's soul mate. "What happened?" he asked, keeping his face averted from Steve's gaze.
"We met at the wrong time, I think." Steve stood up to join James at the counter. "I was in England on exchange from college and Peggy was taking political science. We tried to make it work but we had our eyes on different prizes."
James tried to picture Steve as some young punk college kid, and couldn't reconcile it with the large man at his side. "When was this?"
"Uh, my junior year, so 2002."
In fall of 2002, James had been in Ranger training, one of the cohort's youngest trainees. The physical work had been grueling, but summers and weekends spent working for the family's construction firm had kept James strong; his high school sports training in track and lacrosse had made him fast. It had been far harder to navigate the personal tensions with the other men, all of whom had been older than James.
But he'd spent his high school years in the closet of a Brooklyn public high school, and James knew how to keep his head down, his mouth shut, and his eyes on the end goal.
All in all, James couldn't imagine a more different way to spend 2002 than being in art school in London with some poli sci girlfriend.
"Sorry it didn't work out," James said, pushing off the counter. He pulled two mugs out of the cupboard and then went into the back of the freezer for the bottle of cheap whisky.
"I'm where I'm supposed to be," Steve said as James came back. "I've got Clint now, and a good place, a good job."
James handed Steve the bottle. "Is that why you come knocking on my front door at the ass-end of the day?"
Steve picked up the coffee pot and left James to bring the mugs to the table. "Like you've never had a shit parenting day."
"Yeah, I had some." James went back to the fridge to get the cream. "Not a lot recently, but when Nat was young."
"Tell me about them."
Steve's tone was more surprising than the request itself. James came back to the table and set the cream bottle down beside the sugar bowl, then he sat across the table from Steve while he thought about it. If the request had come from anyone else, James might have thought they were looking to feel better about their parenting skills by hearing how James screwed up with Natasha, but that wasn't Steve's way.
"Okay, if you want," James said. "You know Nat was in the hospital when I first met her."
"Yeah." Steve poured the coffee with a steady hand.
"It took a while for her to get better, long enough for the social workers to do all their checks on me and approve me as a foster parent. I ended up bringing her home when she was about six months old." James added a dollop of cream to his coffee. "It was okay, she was sleeping in long stretches then, and she was okay with me feeding her while she was in one of those little baby seat things, but she wasn't gaining weight like she should have."
Steve looked up sharply. "What happened?" he asked. "Was it the formula?"
"God knows," James said. He took a swallow from his cup, the coffee thick and rich in his mouth. "I think it was just a whole bunch of things. We tried donated breast milk, then a bunch of formulas in case it was a milk allergy, but Natasha just had such a rocky start to life the doc finally said that maybe she was having a hard time settling."
"She's okay now, though, right?"
"Yeah, she's fine. She seemed to do good on one formula in the morning and another in the afternoon, and the docs had me giving her vitamins and cod liver oil and shit like that. She did okay, but the first few months were rough."
"Clint was just the opposite. He gained weight like it was nothing."
"Nat's doing okay now. Her pediatrician tells me I shouldn't weigh Natasha at home any more, though, because of eating disorders."
"She's five," Steve said, appalled.
"Like kids don't just take in everything that grown-ups say?"
"Clint doesn't." Steve was about to go on, then he visibly checked himself and sat back. "And some days I don't know if that's because he's an oblivious kid, or if the hearing aid isn't working and he can't hear a thing anyone's saying, damn it."
There they were at last, what James had been expecting ever since he'd seen Steve on his doorstep. "None of what's happening with Clint is your fault, Steve."
"I should have known something was wrong!" Steve burst out. He pushed his cup away, sloshing hot coffee all over the table.
James went for a tea towel and threw it across the kitchen at Steve. "Why, because of your deep and expansive knowledge of pediatric medicine?"
"Because he's my son and I should have known!" Steve wiped up the mess, then carried the sopping cloth to the sink to rinse out. "I took Clint to an optometrist this afternoon, and you know how long it took him to figure out something was wrong?"
Steve wrung the cloth out over and over again, and James couldn't stand to watch him. James pulled the tea towel out of Steve's hands and dropped it in the sink. "This isn't your fault."
He turned off the tap, and silence fell over the kitchen. Steve leaned on the counter, his hands pressed against the edge of the sink. "I've just been trying so hard to be a good dad for Clint," Steve said, so quietly his voice was nearly inaudible in spite of the post-midnight stillness. "I thought he was a bit scattered and wasn't interested in reading, that maybe he'd grow into it in first grade. He's not stupid, you know that."
There was a pleading in Steve's voice. James wanted to hug Steve, to tell him that Clint was going to be all right, but he worried that Steve might misinterpret his intentions. Instead, James put his hand on Steve's back and urged Steve over to the table. "I know Clint isn't stupid," James said as he pushed Steve into a chair. "He's a damned bright kid, knowing all those birds and dinosaur names."
"I can't believe he remembered what I told him about getting across town to Natasha's school," Steve said, rubbing his face in his hands. "I was thinking, tonight, after he fell asleep, about all those things about kids taken off the street and killed. Remember Etan Patz?"
"Steve, Clint's okay," James said quietly.
"He could have gotten grabbed or hit by a car or knocked off the sidewalk or—"
James reached out to wrap his hand around Steve's wrist. "Steve."
Steve stared down at James' hand, breathing hard.
"You listen to me, and listen to me good, all right?" James eased his grip, but didn't remove his hand. "Crime rates have never been so low in this city, understand? Fuck what the papers say and all that crap on Fox News. When Nat and Clint go outside, they're safer than we ever were."
"You can't know that," but Steve's voice had lost its feverish edge.
"I work with one of the FBI's best profilers," James said. "Well, former best. My point is, what Maria and I do, we know crime, we know where the real dangers are, we know the statistics. Clint was probably safer on the subway today than he is in school."
"This isn't making me feel any better," Steve said.
"Too bad." James let go of Steve's arm. "Clint's fine, and when he ran away from school today, that wasn't your fault. You can keep beating yourself up if you want to, but it's not going to make any difference."
After a moment, Steve lifted his head. "Clint's my entire life," he said, his voice gravelly. He cleared his throat and went on. "He's the best thing that ever happened to me."
"So you make sure he can take care of himself." James reached for the whisky bottle and tilted it toward Steve. "Open."
Steve obligingly removed the bottle's twist cap.
"You think I don't worry about Natasha?" James asked, pouring a healthy dose of alcohol into his half-empty mug. "You think I come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and I don't wake up with my heart in my throat about something happening to my little girl?"
It was the first time he had mentioned his military background to Steve and the starkness of it all made James' heart hammer in his chest, his mouth dry.
Steve was staring at him and it was too late for James to pull the words back now.
He took a swallow of the mixture in his cup, wincing at the taste. "I had a hard time driving Natasha anywhere," James said. "What happened to me, it was an IED while I was doing a ride-along; half the time after I got back I couldn't get into a car, let alone put Natasha into one. Most nights I slept on the floor outside her room, in case someone came for her, if someone got into the house and tried to take her."
"Jesus, Bucky, I didn't know it was that bad," Steve said.
James took another drink. "I dealt with it. I talked to this guy I know at the VA when I was getting checked up on my arm, he suggested I talk to someone. So I did."
"Did it help?"
"I guess. I can put Nat in the car and go for a drive without having a panic attack." Making a face at his mug, James pushed it away. "I can sleep in my own room. Of course, I've got a security system that locks this place down tighter than the White House, so that helps."
"She's going to be okay," Steve said. "You should take your own advice."
James ran his hand through his hair, pushing the strands out of his eyes. "Yeah, fuck that," James said darkly. "I tell you, if Nat had been the one to run away from school today, I don't know what I'd have done."
Steve reached for the whiskey bottle and poured a few ounces into his cup. "I keep trying to think of what I'd tell Sharon if something happened to Clint. Hell, I don't even know how to tell her about Clint's vision problems."
"The eye thing, that's easy." James stood, took his cup to the sink, and dumped the foul mixture down the drain. "You go, 'hey Sharon, turns out Clint's having a bit of trouble seeing so I'm going to take him to get glasses'. See? Easy."
"There's more to it than that," Steve insisted.
James rested his hip against the counter, stretching to ease out a kink in his spine. "You can always tack on, 'because you weren't here'."
"No," Steve said immediately. "Me and Sharon – it's not like that, her not being here."
James took in the defensive set to Steve's shoulders, the obstinate expression on his face. "Sorry," he said, and the tension drained away from Steve in an instant.
"Me and Sharon, deciding I was going to take care of Clint… we both made that choice," Steve said. "When I told Abraham, you know, Dr. Erskine, he was happy for me and all that. There wasn't anyone else on my side to give a damn, but Sharon's parents were pissed off. They tried to convince her that if she couldn't raise Clint, then they should. They were pretty insistent."
"I know." Steve rubbed his hands over his face. "It wasn't that Sharon didn't want to raise Clint, it's just that her job is important to her, and she's young, she's trying to build her career, you know?"
"What if she changes her mind?" James asked, returning to the table. "You know, comes back and wants back in Clint's life?"
"We talked about that." Steve leaned back in his chair. "When she came back to visit when Clint was three. I told her if she ever wanted to move back to New York, fine, we'd figure out how we could parent Clint together, but I sure as hell wasn't going anywhere."
"Yeah." Steve sighed, looking completely exhausted. "Now I just need to figure out how to get through tomorrow."
"What happens tomorrow?"
"Well, my son's still suspended from school, but that's okay because he has an appointment with the most expensive pediatric ophthalmologist in the tri-state area."
"Your insurance going to cover that?"
A brief flash of amusement crossed Steve's face. "One of the bonuses for working for an off-shoot of Stark Industries is that the health insurance is platinum. Money-wise we're fine."
"But is this doctor guy any good?"
"Yeah. Bruce, he's a friend, he recommends this guy highly. Which is good because Tony pulled some major strings to get Clint in tomorrow."
"And Stark money shouts." The smile slid off Steve's lips. "I don't know what I'll do if Clint needs surgery or something like that."
"Hey, don't go borrowing trouble against tomorrow," James said, kicking Steve under the table. "They can do amazing things with glasses these days. You'll see."
"Do you actually know that, or are you trying to make me feel better?"
"Would I do that?" James protested. "This guy I knew, got caught in the face with some shrapnel in '07. Lost one eye, the other had bad stuff happen to the cornea. Anyway, a few years ago he got some surgery to one eye and you know what?"
"It was a modern-day miracle?"
"Well, no, but at least he can see now, well enough to walk on his own and read again. If they can do that for a busted-up Marine from Pirtleville, they can do it for your little boy. Especially when he's got Tony Stark's millions behind him."
"Oh, fuck off."
"Nah, we don't need Tony's money," Steve said. "I've been saving everything I have for Clint, and Sharon sends money every month. But for something like this, I've got a rainy day fund."
James raised his eyebrows. He didn't know how much pediatric eye surgery might cost, but he doubted that dimes in a coffee can could pay for it.
"You pay any attention to financial news?"
"I do, hazard of the job. Did you hear a few years ago when Tony stepped down as head of Stark Industries and moved Pepper Potts into the role?"
"I don't live under a rock, Steve. Even I heard about that one."
Steve smiled again, and it was no longer an innocent expression. "Stark Industries stock plummeted, lost nearly thirty percent worth overnight."
"Didn't someone say that might plunge the world back into a Thirties-style depression?" James asked.
"Yeah, they did. So I pulled together every penny I had, even asked Abraham for a loan, and bought all the stock I could."
James sat up. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he demanded. "Isn't Stark stock up double now from where it was before the crash?"
"One hundred and ten percent," Steve said smugly. "With Tony in R&D and Pepper in charge, the only way the company could have gone was up."
"Damn." James stared at Steve, trying to figure out if the man was joking. It didn't look like it. "And I fucking paid for you and Clint at the zoo last month."
"Hey, I'm going to get it next time!" Steve protested.
"Sure you were." James picked up the coffee pot. "Warm you up?"
It was a slip of the tongue, brought on by the lateness of the hour and the fading burn of the alcohol in his stomach, and the sudden realization of what he had just said brought James painfully alert. But Steve just shook his head with that easy smile of his. "I'm good."
Heart pounding in his throat, James put the coffee pot back on the table and let himself slump into the chair. Damn it, he needed to be more careful.
Meanwhile, Steve was rubbing his eyes, a gesture James had seen in Clint earlier that morning. "I should get going," he said. "I don't know how the hell I'm going to find a cab at this hour, though."
"Don't be a dumbass. You can't go moving Clint around at this time of night," James countered. "I can make you up a bed, we've got enough blankets."
For a long moment, Steve didn't say anything. Then, finally, he rested his hand on the tabletop and tapped his fingertips on the wood. "You know," he said, his voice shaking just the tiniest bit. "When I got in the cab tonight with Clint, I needed to get the hell away from all the noise in my head, all those things that might have happened to him, all those things that still might."
"Why'd you end up here?"
Steve looked down at his fingers. "You understand Clint," he said. "You don't treat him like he's stupid because of his hearing aid, you listen to his stories and you let him do whatever he's interested in without making a big deal out of it." Taking a deep breath, Steve sat up straight. "I just needed to talk to someone who gives a damn about my boy, you know?"
"Of course I give a damn about Clint," James said, a stirring of anger in his chest at anyone who had ever treated Clint less than the amazing little boy he was. "He's a fine kid."
"When we left this afternoon and you said you were there to talk if I ever needed it…" Steve shook his head. "I tell you, Bucky, tonight I needed it."
"I meant it," James said, standing. He walked around the table and waited until Steve stood also. "But next time, you need to call me before you come knocking at my door in the middle of the fucking night. Nearly gave me a heart attack, you jerk."
Steve smiled and put his hand on James' right shoulder. "I will. And thank you."
By the time James got Steve settled in the guest room, it was nearly two in the morning. Clint was still deeply asleep, so Steve made up a bed on the floor with the spare blankets from James' closet. The men didn't say much, and soon James was closing the door behind him and leaving Steve to get some sleep.
On quiet feet, James went to Natasha's room. She had rolled onto her side, her long red hair a tangle around her head. Her breathing was harsher than James liked, this early in the summer. James bent over to kiss Natasha's forehead, then turned on the humidifier before leaving her to sleep.
From there, James walked down the hallway to the bathroom, closed the door, turned on the light, and stared at himself in the mirror.
Sometimes, when he saw his reflection, James didn't recognize himself. Other times he wasn't so lucky. Now, at two in the morning in his white tiled bathroom, James looked at the reflection of an old man hiding behind a young man's skin. Dark circles under his eyes offset his pallor, a few-days' beard growth adding to his disheveled appearance.
When he was young, his mother would have tanned his hide for looking so disreputable. In the Army, there were standards and it was easier to stay shaved and shorn than to think about it.
But James was a long way from the Rangers, and even further from his childhood days. Life was different now, and it wasn't just his arm, wasn't just being a single father.
James was a different person.
He sighed, and the sound was loud and harsh in the cold room. James splashed cold water on his face to pull him out of the unwelcome memories. He wiped his face on a towel, turned off the light, and slipped out of the bathroom to pad down the hall to his bedroom.
He didn't bother turning on the light, just shucked off his jeans and pulled on the pajama bottoms and t-shirt he'd left on the floor that morning. He sat on the edge of his bed and tried to compose himself to sleep, but there were too many strands pulling at him to settle.
Natasha was safe in her bed, but Steve and Clint were in the house and that was not usual and James couldn't just forget that. What if either of them needed something? What if Natasha needed something? He couldn't just sleep when there were other people in his house.
He was overthinking things, he told himself as he got under the bedcovers. Natasha was sleeping and Clint was sleeping and Steve would be soon enough. The house was locked up tight, the alarm was on, and no danger could come upon them in the house that night.
James got up, walked across his room, and opened his bedroom door wide. He didn't sleep with his door open, not ever, but if Natasha needed him, if Steve or Clint needed him, he could hear them better this way.
James went back to bed, ears straining for noise in the big house. Over the usual nighttime sounds of the house gently settling, there were faint sounds of movement coming from the guest room. Steve, settling down, James told himself, as the children were asleep.
Unable to close his eyes, James pulled the blankets up to his chest. Not since he'd brought Natasha home had anyone else spent the night in the house. But this wasn't just anyone, this was Steve and his little boy.
Steve, who had come to James' door that night when he didn't have anywhere else to turn. Steve, who had trusted James to watch his son after Clint had run away from school that morning. Steve, who had once been James' best friend in the whole world.
James rolled over onto his side and looked at the red numbers on the clock. He had to be up in four hours to get Natasha ready for school before heading into the city for his physiotherapy appointment. Four hours, and he couldn't even close his eyes.
James stared at the numbers ticking over for a long time before he finally fell asleep.
James was ripped awake by Natasha screaming.
James jumped to his feet and grabbed the baseball bat by the side of his bed, distantly registering the morning light filtering in through the bedroom curtains. Brandishing the bat, James ran down the hall towards Natasha's room, but the sounds weren't coming from her room, they were coming from the guest room, and now another screaming voice joined in and James was in the doorway and turning on the light to reveal Natasha and Clint jumping up and down on the bed, screaming at the top of their little lungs, while Steve struggled in the blankets on the floor, looking as terrified as James felt.
"What the hell?" James gasped, putting down the bat. "It's five fucking thirty!"
"Clint's here!" Natasha said joyously, still jumping up and down. "Daddy, Clint's here!"
"Why are you screaming?" James asked. He moved into the room, stepping over Steve's legs to get to the bed. "Stop jumping!"
Natasha sat abruptly, Clint following suit. Natasha leaned over to wrap her friend in a big morning hug. "Daddy, can Clint stay here forever?"
"Not if you two keep giving me a heart attack!"
"What are you doing here?" Natasha asked Clint, already ignoring her father.
"I don't know!" Clint exclaimed. "I woke up and I was here!" He crawled to the edge of the bed and looked down at Steve. "Daddy, do we live here now?"
"No," Steve said, finally freeing himself from the tangled blanket. "We still have a home, Clint."
Natasha slid off the bed, tugging on Clint's pajama leg. "Daddy, can we watch cartoons?" she asked hopefully.
James slumped against the doorframe, his heart thundering with unused adrenaline. "Do whatever you want," he said.
"Come on," Natasha said to Clint. "We can go watch ponies."
"Okay." Clint jumped off the bed and landed with a thud. He picked his hearing aid up off the dresser and fit it into his ear with the ease of long-practice. "Let's go!"
The children thundered out of the room, the pitter-patter of tiny feet loud in the large house. In the whirlwind of their departure, James was left staring at Steve. "I think I lost ten years off my life," Steve said, hauling himself to his feet.
"Fuck that, I'm still having a heart attack," James told him. Turning around James stumbled back down the hallway to his bedroom and fell onto the mattress, already reaching for the covers before he registered that Steve was on his heels. "What?"
"I'm sorry the kids woke you," Steve said, lingering in the doorway.
Later, James would say it was because he was functioning on adrenaline and three hours' sleep. "Fuck that," James muttered, punching his pillow. "Unless you woke them up and told them to start screaming, drop it. Now lie down or something, I don't have to be up for another thirty-seven minutes."
He rolled onto his side, putting his left arm stump under his pillow. After a moment, the mattress dipped as Steve laid down beside James. On top of the blankets. "You remember us doing this when we were kids?" Steve asked, so close.
James put his right arm over his head. "Yeah, and I remember you used to talk as much back then too, punk."
Distantly, the sounds of the television drifted up the stairs, so quiet that the sound of Steve's breathing almost masked it. Even outside the blankets, Steve's body was warm against James' back.
As the adrenaline faded, as James felt himself being dragged back to sleep in the soft morning light, all James could think was that the children were safe, and that Steve was there, and that was enough for now.
He would have to get up soon, but for now, he could sleep for just a few minutes more.
Just a few more minutes.