It was all over the news. Every radio station she flipped through had reports going about the catastrophe over the Pacific: a hijacked helicarrier, Iron Man, Thor, Falcon, Captain America and the Hulk. The explosions as Iron Man and Thor brought the air ship down, the reporter gasping in surprise as Hulk leaped from the falling helicarrier, Falcon winging away. No signs of Captain America, though. "Shit." She slammed on the breaks, honking her horn. She hated New York traffic; bad enough the news reports were hours old, didn't matter that what the reporters were talking were not just some masked heroes but her friends and husband. None of that mattered to the faceless, nameless people around her. The guy in front of her didn't realize he cut of Black Widow, who was trying to get to the hospital because her husband was half-dead and going into surgery and she wanted — no needed to be there to make sure he would make it, that he wouldn't die on her. Her thumb pressed the green call button. "Call Barnes," she said in a clear voice.
"Calling Bucky Barnes," the computerized voice chimed, light and cheery. She frowned, slamming her hand on the car horn as she bit her lip. As soon as traffic let up, she slammed her foot on the gas pedal, weaving in and out of the cars not caring for traffic safety laws. She could hear Steve chide her about it and James in the back laughing and saying how cool she was. Only both of her boys weren't here. She was alone in the car.
"Nat?" Bucky's voice came through the speakers.
"Hey, Bucky. I—"
"Have you seen the news?"
No, I haven't fucking seen the news! I'm just barely driving legally in my attempt to get to the hospital. "Yeah, I need you to pick up James from school. Take him home, order a pizza. Let him play with his PlayStation and make sure he does his homework."
"Surprise you're calling me, why not Clint?"
"Clint's outta town at the moment—"
"Was he on—"
"No, he wasn't thank God," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. At least one man in her life wasn't there, but Clint could still be in danger. She just had to trust him — she slammed her foot on the breaks, shocking the jay-walking couple.
"Eyes open lady!" the man called, his girlfriend flipping her off.
She rolled eyes, rolling down her window. "Hey, assholes! Use the damn crosswalk next time!" she yelled. The girlfriend yelled something at her. "Yebanyye zhopy." She drove off once the road ahead of her was clear.
"What was that about?" Bucky asked, amusement in his town. "Nat?"
"Damn jay-walkers, nearly ran them over." She rubbed her forehead as she drove. "Please, just—"
"Don't worry, go be with Steve. I'll take care of James."
"Thanks Bucky," she said, "I owe you one."
"Nah. What's family for, right?" he laughed. "Keep me posted, 'kay?"
"Will do," she said and hit the end call button on her steering wheel. She swallowed as the hospital came into view, fighting the tears. She pressed on the gas pedal again, making the yellow light, sliding into the parking spot as soon as the previous car left. She turned the car off and ran inside, flashing her badge at the people working there. Shield may be gone, but her status as an Avenger still opened doors for her.
She ran towards the observation room for the surgery, the doctors and nurses on this level knew her, knew where she was heading. She burst in, the surgery already underway. Tony was there, along with Fury. "Status?"
"Well, I'm fine. Y'know, a few scraps, Pepper will snap at me for getting hurt, but I can make up awesome stories to tell Howie and—" Tony stopped talking when she shot him a withering glare. He audibly gulped. "You know, you can be scarier than my wife."
"Banner is fine, Wilson has a few broken ribs and a sprained ankle. Thor and Tony are fine." Fury sighed, jerking his chin at the operating room.
"Sam's suit was down. I caught him, hence the broken ribs, don't know how he sprained his ankle," Tony elaborated. She didn't look at either of the two men, eyes fixed on the doctors and nurses, on the man on the steel surgical table, the beeping monitors. She glanced as Tony's reflection joined her, he put a hand on her shoulder. "He'll pull through."
"Status?" she asked, trying to focus, trying to remember her training from the Red Room. Hell, who was she fooling, the Red Room never prepared her for any of this. The Red Room prepared her to shrug and move onto the next mission when something like this happened; to not care about anyone. It never expected her to marry anyone — let alone Captain America — and have a family, make friends, become the woman she is today. "Tony, what's his status?"
"It's bad," he said, squeezing her shoulder. "Guess it brought back memories when Shield fell or something. Three rounds to the gut, his entire left leg broken — they had to get Thor to rebreak his leg cause the bones were already healing on the way over — punctured lung, broken ribs, dislocated shoulder" — he pointed to the reinforced hand and ankle cuffs and the band across his forehead that strapped Steve down to the table — "concussion, he's out cold for the moment, but they don't know if he'll wake up and—"
"Hang in there, Cap, we got you," a doctor said and moments later a flat line appeared on the heart rate monitor. Her heart fell into her stomach, her hands covering her mouth.
"We're losing him!" a nurse shouted as the heartrate monitor began to beep in one single steady tone. She felt the blood leave her cheeks, her knees giving out, Tony's strong hands grabbing her elbows. She watched helpless as the doctors grabbed the defibrillator. "Clear!" they shouted, and Steve's body lurched upward. Tears fell from her eyes as she stood there, shaking. She tuned out their shouting.
"Don't… don't do this to me… please don't do this to me, Steve."
James new something was wrong at lunch. Howie was nice to him for a change, oppose to his usual snarky self. He figured that Aunt Pepper finally had enough for their little rivalry and put her foot down. He also assumed that Aunt Pepper had involved his mother in some form, so he knew he was going to get a good lecture on the drive home. So, for survival he went along with Howie's sudden kindness and didn't think much of it for the rest of the school day. He said goodbye to the Lang twins and gave Howie a nod and met up with Riley as they made their way to his locker. Riley already had his backpack. "Mom said anything about Friday?"
"Nah, not yet," he said, thumbing the dial on the locker. "Said I have to ask Dad."
"Y'know your dad is just gonna tell you to ask your mom, right?" Riley leaned against the locker, watching him as he struggled to get his locker opened. He grunted, biting his lip as he did so. Damn thing always got stuck. He reset the lock and tried again.
"I hate this thing," he grumbled, trying to lift the hatch. Riley put his hand on his.
"Whoa, Jim, let me," Riley said, "don't need the school asking your folks for money cause you broke the locker."
"Right." He stepped back, running a hand through his hair. Riley thumbed the lock. "And don't call me Jim." He hated when people gave him a nickname. His name was James and people will call him that. Riley hummed and popped the locker open with a soft grunt. "Thanks," he said, looking sheepish.
"What would you do without me, eh?" Riley bowed. He laughed, grabbing his books and shoving them into his backpack and then his lunchbox. "Still carrying that around?"
"What? It has my dad on it," he said, shaking the metal lunchbox he had since first grade. "Still works."
"Just think you're a little old to carry it around, is all." Riley shrugged and closed the locker again, thumbing the dial. He smiled, running a thumb along the image of his father painted on the box. The rest of the picture was fading but he had slathered clear nail polish over his dad when he first got it. Of course, he had a regular lunch box, but he always used this one when his dad was on a long mission. It was a good luck charm of sorts, at least he liked to think so. Whenever he used it, his dad always came back safe and sound (maybe with a few more cuts and a couple more bruises and a bit tired, but alive and that's what mattered). "James?" Riley said.
"Right." He gave a nod and they headed down to the front of their middle school. Most of the busses had left, Riley's mom was waiting for him, a worried look on her face. James glanced at his friend. "What did you do?"
"Nothing, I swear." He seemed tense as they walked towards Mrs. Wilson. She rushed over and hugged her son. "Everything okay, Mom?" he heard Riley asked.
"Just fine baby, just fine," she said and ushered him out the door, he waved bye and James returned it. He frowned, his mother was supposed to pick him up today. They were going to go shopping and cook his father a welcome home dinner. Steaks with steamed mini potatoes and corn on the cob, one of his dad's favorite meals. Only her car wasn't here. He glanced at his watch, it was only two-forty-five, her usual time for picking him up.
"Where is she?" he grumbled as he pulled his phone out. No alerts or texts about change of plans. He unlocked his phone and was about to text her when he saw a familiar car. He let out a sigh of relief though a frown creased his lips. It was his Uncle Bucky's truck. He went out to it anyway. "Uncle Bucky?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"
"Get in kiddo." His uncle jerked his head to the empty passenger seat. James frowned, but walked around and got in. He was about to toss his bag into the back, but so his uncle's gear and gently set the book-laden backpack down between his legs instead, he set his lunchbox on his lap. He buckled up and his uncle drove off.
"Why're you picking me up? Where's Mom?" he asked. He was thirteen and understood his parents risked their lives for a living. It was their jobs as Avengers. Still, his parents tried to keep him oblivious to it. He hated it. He hated sitting around and doing nothing. "Uncle Bucky?"
"She's hold up at the office," his uncle said, turning onto the road and driving away. "Called me to pick you up. Any plans?" he asked.
"Mom and I were going to pick up steaks and some corn cause Dad's coming home. She wanted to make him his favorite." He watched his uncle grimace at that. He realized then that something was wrong, terribly wrong. He knew enough that Fury only called his mother to do field work when only Black Widow could get the job done. Most of the time — and he knew she hated this arrangement — his mother was working intelligence at Avengers Tower or monitoring the operations and giving his father and the other Avengers intelligence to help them in the field. It had been like that since he was born. "Mom got the day off even," he said.
"Well, something came up, she has to stay late. Called me."
"What about Uncle Clint?"
"He's outta town, remember?"
No. Mom and Dad never tell me anything. "Oh." He nodded, watching the cars go by, the late September sun shining, the weather felt autumn-ish yet the sun clung to summer. He liked this time of year the best. Baseball was wrapping up and football was starting. Most of the time he could convince his dad to play ball with him in the backyard, which devolved into a wrestling match. "I've been able to pin Dad a few times lately. Like, really pin him, not him letting me do it."
"That's good," Bucky said. "Looks like you got all the good stuff." He ruffled his hair. James couldn't help but smile. Bruce had told him at his last physical that his strength will start increasing as he went through puberty. The prediction was he'll equal his father in strength and stamina and surpass his mother in agility and flexibility. Nobody was sure how Erskine's super soldier serum would interact with the Red Room's super spy serum. Every visit to the doctor's involved a battery of tests and blood work. So far, the serums had coexisted harmoniously, everyone was holding their breath now because puberty could send everything into disarray.
"Yeah." He gave a small smile. "We heading home?"
"Nah, going to my place," Bucky said, sliding into the left turn lane and flicking on his blinker. "We'll have pizza and soda. I'll help you with your homework and afterwards we'll play video games."
"On your Xbox?" James rolled his eyes. He was surprised how his dad and uncle took to video games. "I hate the controllers."
"I have a PlayStation, don't gripe," Bucky grumbled as they turned down the street and then made a right. "How's school?"
"Fine, getting As. Try to make a few mistakes here and there on the tests, don't want to show up everyone cause I remember things so easily." He picked at his fingers, before he started to bite his nails.
"Don't do that." His uncle pulled his hand from his mouth. "Your mom does it and it drivees your dad crazy."
I know, I picked it up from her. "She only does it when she's nervous." Just like how I learned to lie from her and a bunch of other little spy things she does without realizing it.
"Doesn't matter." Bucky turned onto his street and into the apartment complex's parking lot. His phone rang then, the caller ID coming up onto the truck's display dash. It said Nat. He reached to press the answer button when his uncle hit the ignore button.
"Whatcha do that for Uncle Bucky? That was Mom!" he looked at his uncle. Something was going on and his mom and uncle were in on it and trying to keep him out of the loop. "Uncle Bucky!"
"Here." His uncle handed him the keyring. "Go let yourself in and get started on your homework. I'll be up in a minute."
"Why can't I talk to Mom?" he asked. He wanted to know what was going on. "Is Dad gonna be late coming home? Is he hurt? Is he hurt bad?" His eyes widened. "Is he… is he dead?" he whispered.
"Course not. Your dad's Captain America, he won't die." His uncle threw an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into a hug. "Your folks are fine, bucko. Now do as I say, 'kay?"
James wasn't convinced, he swallowed his questions and nodded. "Okay," he whispered and exited the car, grabbing his stuff and heading to his uncle's apartment. The apartment was sparse and lightly furnished. It was a bachelor pad but with a frequently absent bachelor it wasn't a slovenly pigsty. He set his bag down, lunch box clanking onto the counter and sat at the small table his uncle had. He glanced at the closed door and fished his phone from his pocket. He turned it on. A picture of his parents stared back at him, the iconic Disneyland Castle in the background, Mickey and Minnie Mouse ears on their heads. That trip had been this summer; his dad didn't have any missions for Avengers' Day and the entire team with their families and one friend went for the week. He never had so much fun in his life.
He unlocked his phone and pulled up his contacts. He almost called his mom, but he had a feeling she wouldn't give him answers. He almost called Riley's dad but Riley's mom was acting harried when she picked him up he thought better of it. Uncle Bucky was not telling anything, and Uncle Clint was outta town. That narrowed his options down to one. He hit the contact and put the phone to his ear. It rang a few times before someone answered. "Hi, Uncle Tony."
She didn't know how to process it. Part of her was refusing to process it. This sort of thing happened to other unenhanced people. This didn't happen to the world's greatest soldier. This didn't happen to her husband, the man that had once cheekily said: if ya get killed… walk it off.
This didn't happen to Steve Rogers. Yet, she couldn't deny facts. "… yeah…" she nodded, licking her lips and wiping her tears. "Yeah, Bucky… I know. Just… just don't tell James. He doesn't need to—" she stopped when she caught Tony's wild gesticulation from the corner of her eye. "Listen, Bucky, I gotta go. Tony's making weird gestures at me, need to turn him down gently." She quirked a weak smile when Bucky gave a weak laugh. "Bye." She hung up and turned to face the man behind Iron Man. "What?"
"Your kid's on the phone," Tony said. She closed her eyes, she didn't know what to tell James. Sometimes her son was too much like his father: impulsive, keen on doing the right thing, blaming himself for things that weren't his fault, that annoying inability to wait. "Natasha?"
"Gimme your phone." She held out her hand and Tony put the device in her hand. "Hey, Jamie, what's up sweetie?" she asked, her voice syrupy sweet. He was getting to the age where her fake calm wasn't fooling him. "Uh-huh. Yeah, you'll be staying with Uncle Bucky for the afternoon, I'll pick you up once I'm done… no, no, nothing's wrong. Everything's fi—" she frowned. "Because I have some things to take care of here and I couldn't pick you up… Dad won't be home tonight." Don't ask why, don't ask why, don't ask why. She clicked her tongue in annoyance. "Dad's mission is taking a bit longer."
"Natasha, he called me and I answered. He's not gonna buy that," Tony hissed, she shot him a glare. He swallowed and rubbed the back of his head. Tony was right, James didn't buy it and pressed her for information. She didn't have time or energy to deal with this. She refused to let her son see his father like this. He wasn't old enough to see his father half-dead, hooked up to tubes that fed him and breathed for him, monitors beeping the only tell that he was still fucking alive.
Even for a thirteen-year-old, she would not let him see his father like this. She will protect him. "James, listen to me," she said, her tone turning icy sharp. "You'll stay with Uncle Bucky for the night if need be and tomorrow you'll go to school. Nothing is wrong. Dad's mission is just a little bumpy at the moment. That's why I'm still at work. I'll call when I can." She sighed when he protested. "James Aleksander…" she smirked when he shut up. "I love you, baby," she said and smiled when he returned the sentiment. "Bye." She hung up the phone and handed it back to Tony.
"You can't protect him forever. What if it happens again and he sees it on the news? Sees his father getting blown thirty feet into the air over the damn Pacific?" Tony said, pointing at Steve in the bed. The room was empty save for the doctors and the machines. She couldn't go in, couldn't stand the sterile smell and the mechanical sounds that kept her husband alive.
"I'll throw the TV out if I have to," she said.
"What about this?" he shook the phone at her and she ground her teeth. "Gonna through this out too?"
"I'll get a flip phone for him if I have to." She ignored Tony's eye roll. "I'm not going to subject my son—"
"You know that shield's going to him when he's twenty-one," Tony said, his voice soft though a bit biting. She paled and for once he didn't gloat.
"Stark?" She took a few steps closer to him. She came up to his shoulders, but she carried herself as if she was twice as tall. "What are you not telling me?"
"Steve decided this, it was his idea," he whispered, glancing at the man in question, who lied on a bed closer to death than he had been in the ice. "Howie is already building his own Iron Man suit and well… I asked and—"
"Steve just told you that he's going to give the mantel of Captain America to our son?" she felt her brow twitch. Steve had never once mentioned giving the shield to James. She had thought they both agreed they'd let James choose what he wanted to do with his life, not thrust something upon him that he didn't choose for himself.
"Natasha," Tony sighed, "face the facts. James is built for this. He has both the super soldier and super spy serums in his blood and—"
"He could die," she said, "the serums, nobody is sure—"
"They're both working in harmony, have been since he was born. I mean… I'm no geneticist but it makes sense that your four previous pregnancies failed because the serums weren't working together correctly. You carried James to term. Yeah, okay, things got a bit ugly for the birth, but all your checkups had him meeting all the markers, right?"
She glared at Tony. "I'm not having this conversation with you, not now." He had a point though, and she hated admitting that. Her first four pregnancies all had ended in miscarriages and James had been a success. The actual pregnancy had been a medical success with James meeting all the markers he was supposed to. The birth had just been difficult but that wasn't a fault on James' part. Helen had said the birth would be the most difficult part for her. She closed her eyes and heard the door open and close. The doctors left, the lead doctor gave her a wane smile and said she could so see him. She waited for a few moments before going in.
Steve laid on the bed, a tube up his nose and another taped to his mouth. A breathing monitor on his finger and wires on his chest, an IV in his hand. That didn't bother her, she was used to seeing such sights. What caught her off guard was the straps that bound him to the bed. "He's unconscious," she said.
"It's for his protection. In case he wakes up," Tony said, joining her. "Don't want him to hurt himself more. You know how he is."
"He's…" she sniffed and walked closer to Steve, taking his fingers. His skin felt clammy. She just wanted him to wake up. Her knees gave out then and Tony was quick with a chair, catching her and scooting her closer to Steve. "Damn you," she whispered, wiping at her eyes and taking his hand. "You aren't invulnerable, idiot." She smiled up at Tony when he gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "You should go home. Pepper and Howie need you."
"I know, but so do you."
"I'll be fine, Tony. I've dealt with this before." It was a lie. Sure, she'd seen friends die, Fury was in a similar position and Steve too, once. But back then Steve had been a tentative friend, not her husband and the father of her son, not the man she loved.
"It's different this time," he replied. She gave a snort. "James needs you right now."
"He has Bucky."
"Yeah, but you're his mom and he'll get his answers one way or another. Everyone knows he's Captain America's son, but everyone — even you — forget he's also Black Widow's son."
She smirked. Tony was right; James may not look like her a lot, taking more after his father in physical strength and appearance but there were aspects about him that were undeniably her. "You're right," she whispered, "James is built to succeed Steve" — she glared at Tony — "but it'll be his choice."
"Hey, you need to take that up with him once he gets better." Tony raised his hands in surrender. "But seriously, Natasha, go home. Hug your kid." He quirked a smile. "Like I'm going to do." He gave her shoulder another squeeze. "Promise me?"
"I'll go home later." She felt Tony pat her shoulder as he sighed. She grabbed his fingers and squeezed, watching the ventilator mechanically breath for Steve. "I promise," she said. He gave her fingers a squeeze and walked off. It felt cold in the room all of the sudden; she wrapped her arms around herself, felt her body tremble as she held back her sobs. Steve had splotchy bruises on his face along with cuts. More minor injuries on his arms. It was then she realized that his shield was missing. "Where's his shield?" she asked, getting up to look for it. "Where's his damn shield?" she went over to the little pile that were his things and began tearing them apart looking for the damn shield.
"It's alright," a voice said, she turned to see Bruce, meek and shrinking in the shadows, a cut taped on his forehead. "It's there." He pointed to the shield and she relaxed. "Nat—"
"Don't call me that Bruce, please," she whispered. He nodded and took a tentative step towards her. "Promise me he'll be okay."
"Thor saved him. He was unconscious when he fell, Thor caught him. If he had hit the water—"
"I don't want details, I want my husband," she hissed. "Look at him Bruce… he's…" she took a deep shaky breath, trying to find her center. A few years ago, this wouldn't have been that difficult, hiding her emotions. Things changed, she changed, Steve changed her. She jerked when she felt Bruce's light touch on her shoulder. The tears fell then, one, then two and three until she accepted Bruce's comforting hug and sobbed in his chest, letting him rub her back.
"You need to go home," he said, echoing Tony. "You'll drive yourself mad staying here, waiting for him."
"I don't wanna leave him, he needs me," she said, though she knew there was nothing she could for Steve. She just didn't want to go home and tell her son that his father was fighting for his life in a hospital bed. If she went home, it would make everything too real and she didn't think she could handle that right now. "He needs me."
"What about James?"
"James has Bucky and—"
"He needs his mother too," Bruce said, his voice soft. The lump in her throat was difficult to swallow, she glanced over at Steve, the machines keeping him alive while his body healed. There was nothing she could do, but she feared if she left him he would leave her. "You need some rest and you won't find it here worrying away in the hospital. I'll stay with him, I'll call if anything happens."
"Go home," he said, pushing her away. She swallowed, feeling small and helpless, like the small girl she was when the KGB came and took her away from her parents that snowy day in December. She glanced at Steve again, the heart monitor beeping in time with his pulse. She sighed and nodded.
"Okay," she said and went over to Steve's shield. She picked it up, the leather straps flexible and smooth from years of use; she could almost feel the indents of his fingers. He had protected her with that shield so many times. "I'm going home," she announced and walked out of the room.
He knew he'd get in trouble if anyone caught him watching the video, but he had to know, and nobody was telling him anything. The image of his father — Captain America — falling through the sky while the hijacked helicarrier bursting into flames over the Pacific had seared itself into his brain. James almost didn't believe it was real. His father would have never… he shut the video off when his uncle came into the room, looking tired, more so than usual. "Hey, your mom just called, she's on her way to pick you up."
"Oh, okay," James said, putting his phone back into his pocket. He schooled his face into an impassive mask. "When'll she be here?"
"In about twenty minutes, so get your things together." Bucky rubbed his left arm; the metal's gleam muted in the dim light. "You be nice to her, she had a rough day."
No kidding, knowing Dad got blown up over the Pacific. "Okay, I will," he chirped, putting on the façade of the naïve boy that didn't realize his father was dead. He got up from the couch and gathered his things and then helped his uncle clean up. He needed something to do and his uncle didn't stop him from doing it. The work kept his mind from dwelling on the fact his father was dead, that Captain America was no more. It helped pass the twenty minutes and allowed him to think of how to hide the fact he knew his father was gone from his mother.
A knock sounded at the door, Bucky answered it and James saw his mother. Her face was pale, eyes red rimmed from crying but dry. She still oozed strength and stability despite the tragedy. She glanced at his uncle and then at him. "James," she said, her voice soft. He smiled, gathering his things and gave her a hug.
"Hey, Mom," he said, mimicking her soothing tone. He smiled when she kissed his hair. "Work was good?"
"Stressful," she said. "Thanks Bucky."
"No problem," he said, "and kiddo" — James looked at his uncle — "You remember what I said."
"I will, Uncle Bucky," he said and followed his mother out of his uncle's apartment and down to her car.
The drive back was silent. The radio remained off and all he could hear was the sounds of the car and the rain that started. They drove to their house, a secluded neighbourhood outside the city. Their house was tucked away in the back with a big backyard. James thought it was eerie as they pulled up to it, the eyes of their cats glowing as the headlights of his mom's car caught them just right. "Clean their boxes, then shower and get ready for bed." She said as she parked the car and turned the engine off. "You have school tomorrow."
He rolled his eyes. He didn't feel like going to school tomorrow, not with his dad dead. Though he supposed normalcy was a good cure for such a situation. "I don't want to go to school tomorrow," he mumbled. That earned him a sharp glare from his mother.
"You're going to school tomorrow, James," she said. He opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it, smiling for her benefit.
"It's going to be okay, Mom, I promise," he said, though his smile fell when tears welled in his mother's eyes. "M-Mom, it's okay! Don't… don't cry!"
"Oh baby," she whispered, cupping his face. She kissed his nose. "What am I going to do with you?" she asked, brushing some of his strawberry blond hair out of his face. He forced a smile, hating seeing his mother like this. She was always so strong, so brave; sometimes he thought she was stronger than Dad with the way she ran their home and the intelligence for the Avengers. She always knew how to fix something, where something was; her dinners were amazing, and the house was always clean and the intelligence reports shipshape and squared away. He loved her so much and seeing her so broken because his father was dead… hurt.
"It's going to be okay," he said again and felt a bit better when she nodded and let go of him.
"Do as I asked," she said, he nodded, taking the keys from her and going into the house. The cats mewed, greeting him and he went about checking their food and water bowls before cleaning the litter boxes. He took a shower and headed back downstairs. He was a bit surprised his mother was in the kitchen, too stressed to worry that Izzy and Dino were on the counter. The two black cats blinked lazily at him as his mom put on a pot of water for tea. "Didja brush your teeth?"
"Not yet" — he scooped the cats up and set them down — "I will before bed." He hopped onto the stool and Izzy hopped onto his lap. He smiled when the cat started to purr. His mother pulled two cups from the shelf. "Can I have hot chocolate?"
"Of course baby," she said and grabbed a packet of hot chocolate. He knew she was tense, guarded and in a way, he was too. He didn't want her to find out that he knew what happened and she didn't want to tell him. He sucked on his lip as he petted the cat.
"I've been thinking, James, if you don't… if you really are that worried about me, you don't have to go to school tomorrow." She smiled at him, but it didn't reach her eyes. "But only if you don't want to."
"N-No," he said, "I'll go… if… if you want me to." He accepted the mug of hot chocolate, stirring his spoon around. "Too bad we don't have whipped cream. Dad always put whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles on top…" he stopped, staring down at his drink. Dad's gone now, he won't be able to do that with me ever again. He blinked, rubbing his nose as he looked around the house. Family pictures hung on the archway that lead between the kitchen and the dining room: his parents' wedding, when he was born, his first couple of birthdays, some school pictures, his first baseball game his dad took him to, a trip to the beach, and finally the trip to Disneyland over the summer. His eyes settled on his father's smiling face and James realized that he'll never see his father again: never hear his laugh, never hear him call his name, never hear him say 'I love you', ever again. Ghosts of his memories of his father flitted across his vision as he looked at the living room: him and his dad playing cars and super heroes, the three of them playing a board game for family game night or snuggled up on the couch because it was family movie night, watching the World Series together and cheering on their favorite team (or the next best one, because let's face it: the Dodgers weren't going to the World Series any time soon), wrestling in the living room or sitting on the floor on a snowy Christmas morning with his parents and opening presents before going to Avengers Tower to celebrate with his uncles.
Tears stung his eyes and he rubbed at them. He wasn't going to cry. He wasn't going to make his mom worry. He had to be strong for her; he was the man of the house now and he had some large shoes to fill. "It'll be okay, Mom." He pushed the cat off his lap and hopped down, taking his cup. "Let's watch some tv and then I'll go brush my teeth and head off to bed."
He went to the couch, turning on the tv. It flicked onto the last channel watched, which happened to be the news. He watched the same footage of his father falling as the helicarrier blew up; the tears fell then, and he took a big swallow of his hot chocolate, ignoring his burning tongue. He would stand strong; his father would've wanted him to do that at least.
Natasha stared, watching that horrible footage again and her wasn't quick enough in turning off the tv; James stood rigid with trembling shoulders as he drank his hot chocolate. There was no avoiding it now, she'll have to tell him. On soft feet, she padded across the room and wrapped her son in a hug. "Shh, shh, it's okay baby, it's okay," she cooed, smoothing his hair. She pulled his cup from between them, so he could wrap his arms around her. She pressed a kiss to the crown of his head, smelling his hair, swaying to and fro. "It's okay." If she said it enough times it was going to be true, it had to be.
"Why did he have to die?" James asked, his voice muffled. "I miss him." He held her tighter. "I… I never got to say sorry."
Natasha closed her eyes, forgetting that James and Steve had gotten into an argument about something — something stupid now that she thought about it — before Steve left a week ago; both of her boys had bruised egos and Steve felt as the parent, he shouldn't apologize first. She had tried convincing Steve to call James before leaving but clearly that never happened. "James," she said, pulling away from her son and leading him onto the couch. The broken teary face of her son broke her heart more than seeing her husband lying in the ICU. She wiped his tears and pulled him close, snuggling him as the plush cushions enveloped them. "James, he's not dead."
"What?" James looked up at her, cheeks stained with tears and eyes big and watery. "But… I saw it! On the tv… on my phone! Dad was falling from the helicarrier and—"
"Thor caught him. He's alive… but… but hurt very badly. He's in the hospital right now." She smoothed his hair, wiping away his tears. "He's going to get better James, I promise."
"C-Can I see him?" James asked, sniffing and rubbing at his eyes. It was the one question she didn't want to deal with; she could barely look at Steve herself, and yet her son was asking to go see his father, broken and lying unconscious in a hospital bed. "Tomorrow?"
"Of course sweetie," she said, knowing that was the only answer she could give. "We'll go see him tomorrow. You don't have to go to school. I'll call the school, explain you'll be gone for the rest of the week due to a family emergency." She hugged her son, feeling better that she had someone to share her pain with. She turned the tv back on, changing the channel to some movie she didn't know but it looked lighthearted and didn't have explosions. It was mind-numbing and allowed her to forget about her troubles. James settled down too, going quiet as the tolls of the day appeared on his face. She looked at him, surprised how much he looked like his father: his jaw was starting to appear more defined, the baby fat from his cheeks disappearing and she could easily see Steve in his face. His shoulders were going to be broad and strong; chest and arms wrapped with thick muscle. The spitting image of his father, and already she could see it coming true.
She stroked his hair, coaxing her boy to sleep and smiling when he finally did so. She'll let brushing his teeth slide just this once. She murmured softly to him in Russian, pressing kisses to his brow. He was on the cusp of manhood, yet he was still so innocent, she felt an overwhelming urge to protect her son from everything; yet knowing she couldn't and shouldn't. He was the son of two Avengers, in a way he didn't get the luxury of remaining sheltered and naïve like some children did. James murmured in his sleep, snuggling closer to her. The movie had ended and another one started. Her phone buzzed, she picked it up, pressing the speaker phone option. "Hello?"
"Hey, Nat." It was Clint. "I just got back, heard what happened. You okay?"
She looked at James, glanced at the cats curled up at her feet. The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed the midnight hour. "Yeah, I'm fine. I got James. How are you?"
"Okay, bit banged up. Nothing I'll die from," he said. She chuckled, smiling a little as she remembered how Clint told her than in this bitter business you either had to laugh at the horrors or cry about them, no in between. "If you need anything, just let Laura or I know, we'll bring it or—"
"I know. Thanks Clint for checking in."
"Hey, you're basically family. Just doing my brotherly duty and checking up on my sis," he said, and she laughed; it felt good to laugh even though it felt like her world was falling apart. "He'll pull through, I mean… he survived seventy years trapped in ice. If that didn't stop him then this won't."
She nodded. "I know. I know he will Clint."
"Get some rest, feel better, don't stress," he said, they both knew that was easier said than done. She squeezed James closer to her.
"I will, thanks again," she said and hung up after Clint said goodbye. She looked at James, hating to wake him up, but she shook his shoulder and his eyes fluttered open.
"Mamulya," he asked, his voice thick and sleepy. She smiled at that, kissing his brow. Knowing her son spoke her native tongue warmed her heart and sometimes they'd speak in Russian and Steve would look on confused, it was even funnier (and a bit mean spirited in a way) when Bucky joined in and they'd have conversations that excluded Steve.
"Moya malen'kaya Yasha," she whispered, nuzzling his forehead. "Time for bed," she said, switching to English. He nodded, and got up from the couch, trudging up to his room upstairs. She watched him go, sighing when he was gone. She drained the cup of cold tea and set both mugs in the sink. She armed the security system and enabled the cloaking system, turned off the lights and headed to upstairs; Izzy and Dino leading the way, two inky shadows in the darkness.
The shower was relaxing, allowing her to unwind from the day she had. It also hid her tears as she thought about how the day should have gone. The evening should have been with the three of them eating dinner together, Steve helping James with his homework. It should have ended with her and Steve in bed together, his fingers tangled in her hair as he pressed searing kisses to her throat while settling himself between her thighs. The fact that it didn't, pained her and frustrated her. She turned the water off, toweling herself and pulling on her pajamas. She brushed her teeth, trying not to look at Steve's toothbrush. He still used a manual instead of an electric. She spat and rinsed and was about to leave when she noticed a cucumber facial mask sitting next to her face cream.
"Hold still," she chided, putting the gooey facial mask on Steve's face. His hands slipped up her sleep-tank causing her to giggle. "If you keep doing that, this stuff'll get into your eye and then we'll have problems."
He chuckled. "I think we already have problems, Nat," he said. She shook her head at that, smoothing the goo on the right side of his face. How did they end up in this situation, she had no idea. If she was honest it was probably because Tony said something, and Steve came to her defense, so now Steve's ego wasn't letting him quit and that made her smear gooey cucumber facial mask on his face. Still, it wasn't every girl that got to say he husband subjected himself to beauty treatments. "Am I beautiful yet?" once she got half his face covered. "This is supposed to make me beautiful right?"
"Oh my God," she laughed at how serious he sounded. "Steve, you—" She shifted on his lap, and he gave a soft groan.
"Well, am I?" he asked, he had closed his eyes to make sure none of the goo got into them. "Tell me Natasha, am I fergalicious?" That suave boyish smirk appeared on his lips.
She bit her cheek to keep from laughing too hard and set the tube of facial mask down otherwise she would have squeezed it all out in her mirth. "Where did you… how the hell did… did Tony tell you that term?" she asked between laughs. His grin widened and she yipped when he lightly pinched her skin.
"Why don't you find out," he purred. She pushed him back a little bit and continued apply the mask to his apollonian face.
"Mouth shut," she said, apply the goo to his upper lip. He hummed and in a few minutes, she got the other of half of his face gooped up. She snapped the bottle close, rubbing her hands together to get the stuff off her fingers. "Now, you have to let it sit for a few minutes until it's all dry."
"And then I'll be radiant and beautiful?" he asked, blinking his eyes open. He tried to smile but the right half of his face was starting to dry. "Ugh, I feel it drying. It's tight and itchy."
"Don't touch it," she said, grabbing his hand. He pouted, she giggled, playing with his fingers. She should tell him, but at the same time she didn't want to. What if I lose this baby? It'll be my fifth miscarriage and we've already had so much heartache trying to have a child. Steve wrapped his fingers around hers, causing her to look at him. There was a tenderness in his gaze.
"Whatcha thinkin' about, darling?" he asked, voice soft, one half of his face shiny and the other gooey looking. She smiled a little bit, bringing his hand to her cheek and she leaned into his touch. "Nat?"
"I'm pregnant," she said, and waited, watching the emotions dance across his face. He may be reserved around others but in this tender quiet moments he wore his heart on his sleeve.
"You mean… I'm… That's amazing, Nat! I can't believe" — then his face fell as he put a hand on her stomach — "will we lose this baby too?" he whispered. Her heart broke at the desperate pleading tone in his voice. It had been a long three-year struggle with four miscarriages and so many false positives. So many times, they had gone to bed hurt and frustrated and angry because they couldn't conceive a child. It was getting to the point that she even worried about her marriage and was looking into marriage counseling.
Still, she smiled because — despite the fact that she could miscarry — it was good news. "I'm twelve weeks, Helen and Bruce think there's a good chance this one can make it. It's a week longer than the last one."
He hummed and scooted her off his lap as he repositioned himself onto his belly and rolled up her sleep-tank. "Hey baby," he said, gently poking her stomach, "this is your daddy speaking. I wanna tell you something, you're a Rogers and that makes you a fighter. So, hang in there, don't give up. Your mommy and I wanna see you and hold you and give you all the love we have." He smiled, looking up at her; the facial mask was starting to peel. "That means you have to keep fighting, don't give up because we're waiting to meet you at the end of it." He gave her a belly a kiss and smiled at her. "Do you think she heard me?"
"What makes you think it's a girl?" she asked. "Hold still, it's dry." She began to peel the mask off. "And I think he heard you loud and clear." She shifted and there was a soft thump as the tube of facial mask fell to the floor.
She traced the tube of facial mask, a smile on her face. James held on and nine months later, she had her baby boy in her arms. She never seen Steve so happy. It almost seemed unreal that it was thirteen years ago, it felt like yesterday when James was born. She heard her phone ring from her bedroom. "Shit," she grumbled, running to it and almost tripping over the cats and she lunged for it. "Hello?" she asked, putting it up to her ear. "Bruce? Is Steve —" Please don't be dead, please don't be dead, please don't be dead! "— he's awake? O-Okay, I'll be over soon. Just lemme call Bucky. Thanks." She hung up and called Bucky.
James woke to the smell of pancakes and sunlight streaming into his room. Izzy and Dino had made a little bed for themselves at the foot of his bed, their bright eyes the only points of color in their inky faces. He glanced at his bedside clock, the time read nine-thirty. "Damn," he grumbled, throwing the covers off him and made a grimace as he realized he said a bad word. He threw on his clothes and raced downstairs only to see his uncle flipping pancakes. "Uncle Bucky?" he asked, confused as he took the offered plate of syrup drenched pancakes. "Why are you here?" he asked.
"Your dad woke up in the middle of the night. Your mom left to go be with him," Bucky said as he sat down. "We're going to go visit after breakfast."
"Dad's awake?" James asked, a hope welling up in his chest. Bucky nodded. "He's going to get better right? Now that he's awake?"
"Eat your breakfast," Bucky said, and James huffed, but dug into the fluffy sweet pancakes. He chewed thinking of all the times his dad made pancakes. While his mom made amazing meals, it was his dad that was truly the hidden chef of the family. His dad cooked whenever he could, and James loved it. "Now, James—"
"He's gonna be happy see me! I'll tell him I'm sorry for arguing with him and—"
"James, kiddo, slow down," Bucky said and put his metal hand on his hand. He looked up, saw the worry looked in his uncle's eyes. "Your dad took… well, he did die — briefly, the doctors brought him back — it's a… well, it's not going to be pretty."
He forced himself to swallow the lump of food in his mouth. It was too much, to know that for a moment he had lost his father. He gripped his fork tighter. "But he's okay now right?" he asked, staring at his pancakes.
"Yeah, yeah, he is," Bucky said. "But he's still pretty banged up, probably won't be able to go home for a few more weeks."
He nodded, trying to eat more of his breakfast, having two super serums in him made him hungry more often than normal kids, plus he was a growing boy. He ate, though it was laborious, and the pancakes tasted like ash in his mouth. He kept thinking about his father and hoping if he was going to get better. Once he finished, he went to the sink and put his plate in sink. He pulled out his phone and stared at the picture on his lock screen. "He's going to be okay, right?" he asked.
"Go brush your teeth," his uncle said, "then we'll go and of course he will. You're dad's Captain America."
But he's my dad first. James didn't say that, he instead nodded and did as he was told. They left a few minutes later, James watching the bright streets as they drove pass, wondering about the people in the cars and on the sidewalks and city buses. Did they know his father was in the hospital? Did they care? Probably not. He sighed, closing his eyes, trying to not cry. "What did the news say?"
"About Dad?" James looked at his uncle. His uncle wore short sleeves and one of those spandex tattoo sleeves and a glove on his left arm to hide the fact it was metal. "Or did they say nothing at all?"
"They said everyone made it out alive, home safe with their families," he said. "Y'know the usual dog and pony bullsh— crap."
"You can swear around me, Uncle Buck," James said, his tone glum, "I won't tell Dad." His uncle's truck slowed as they came upon the intersection and then to a stop; the light was red.
"Your dad swears, just not in mixed company."
"You mean around girls?" James asked. His uncle nodded. "Why?"
"Because back when we were kids, people didn't do that sorta thing," Bucky explained, "and you still shouldn't do it. Even if things have changed." The light turned green and they began to move again. James huffed, watching the sky slowly disappear as the buildings grew taller until only strips of sunlight illuminated the concrete jungle that was New York. The rest of the drive was silent, James looked through his phone, found nothing interesting and turned his attention to the window. His uncle pulled into the visitor's parking lot of the hospital. "It never hurts to be a gentleman, James," his uncle added. James nodded as he unbuckled and hopped out of the truck. "You coming in?"
"James!" his mother called, he turned and gave her a wane smile as she hugged him. "Thanks Bucky."
"No problem Nat," Bucky said. "Do you think… maybe later I—"
"Steve'll understand, right now the doctors don't want too many people crowding him, afraid it'll overwhelm him." A car screeched along the road, and he looked towards the street, trying to see if he could spot it. He always hated those people that raced down the street. "You can come back when he's a bit more himself."
"Thanks," Bucky said, "it's just that… bad memories is all." James frowned, wondering about what his uncle was talking about. "Remember what I said, James."
"Okay." He watched his mother and uncle hug, and then he gave his uncle a hug too. "I'll tell Dad you made pancakes and he missed out." It was easy pretending to be a kid, sometimes. Especially when pretending allowed him a chance to escape his own fears and eased the consciences of the adults in his life. "I'll tell him you'll make pancakes for him when he's all better."
"You do that, James," Bucky said and ruffled his hair and got back into his truck. They watched him drive away and James looked at his mother.
"Come," she said and lead him into the hospital. He followed, silent and eyes fixed on his mother's back. He tried to not look around, gawking at the rooms as they passed; nurses and doctors in scrubs with gleaming name tags walking pass, the intercom calling for various personal to report to different sections of the hospital, the sick people in the rooms. He wondered about those without any family or friends, if they had anyone that cared about them. "Keep up James," his mother said and he trotted to catch up, her pace was brisk.
They took another elevator and reached a private wing of the ICU. Guards stood at the door and James swallowed as the glared down at him. He felt his mother put her hands on his shoulders. "Natasha Rogers," she said, eyeing the guards.
"Is Dad in trouble?" he whispered.
"Tikho, a on net. Oni zdes', chtoby zashchitit' yego." She squeezed his shoulders and smiled sweetly at the men.
"Khorosho," he said, as his mother handed over a badge and the bigger burlier of the two guards scanned it. He nodded and followed his mother into the room. He heard the monitors beeping, a doctor talking and a grunt in response. "Uncle Tony," he said, going up to his uncle.
"Hey, James," Tony said, hugging him. "Be quiet, your dad's talking to the doc."
"Why are there guards outside?" James asked. He glanced back at the two men standing guard. "Mom said Dad isn't in trouble."
"Really, Tony? You needed to call Happy and get the security detail?" Natasha said, as she hugged his uncle. James looked around the room. He couldn't see much of it and his father's bed was hidden by the privacy curtain.
"Hey, I don't want some crazy to come and finish the job," Tony said. "Especially when we still don't know who ordered the helicarrier hijacking in—" his uncle stopped talking when the privacy curtain shinked to the side, revealing the source of the beeps. James' eyes grew wide, and he grabbed his mother's hand; he shook.
His father lied there, at a slight incline, his eyes closed and his face swallow. He could see the small cuts on his face and arms, still red but smaller. An IV attached to his hand, his wedding ring missing. He had blankets up to his waist and wore a checkered blue hospital gown. James glanced at his mother and together they walked up to the bedside. His father's face looked relaxed, a small grimace tweaked his lips down. James grabbed the railing, looking at his mother for reassurance. She nodded, and he put his hand on his father's. "Dad?" he asked, his voice soft and timid. "Dad… Dad it's me, James." He swallowed thickly. "I'm s-sorry, about what I said before you left. I… I didn't mean any of it, okay. I love you. Please—" he swallowed down his sob, and squeezed his father's hand. Please Dad, don't go…. Don't leave ma and Mom.
The silence encroached as the seconds ticked by. Even the sounds of the monitors didn't make a lot of noise. Steve's eyes fluttered and opened, but it was a great effort as he turned his head with the same glacial slowness. "James," he croaked, a smile tugging at his lips.
"Daddy," he said, face scrunched up as he tried to hold back his tears. The dams broke when he felt his father's calloused fingertips on his cheeks. "Daddy."
"What… did I tell ya… about… crying?" Steve asked, though it was difficult for him to speak. James sniffed, wiping at his eyes and holding his father's hand.
"Th-That it's o-okay," he said, hiccupping. Steve smiled, humming in acknowledgement. James cried, shoulders shaking as he held onto his father's hand.
"How's the pain?" his mother asked, James looked up at his, she could feel her fingers run through his hair. His father grimaced.
"Hurts," he said, putting his other hand on his stomach. He shook, sweat beading at his brow. "Morphine don't work… won't give me h-higher dose… so…" he gave her a weak smile. James frowned, sad anew that his father had to suffer in pain.
"Maybe Uncle Bruce will come up with medicine to help you," he said. His father grinned at that, a laugh tried to bubble out of him, but he hurt too much, and it came out as a groan, his grin turning into a grimace.
"James," his mother chided. He sighed, squeezing his father's hand.
"Nat," his father said. His eyes fluttered open again. His mother huffed, muttering something and she pulled up a stool and a chair. He sat down, watching his parents. His mother fussed with his father's collar and his father closed his eyes, a look close to peace on his face. James let his father's hand go and he watched as his father grabbed his mother's smaller slender hand. "I came… back… to you…" he whispered.
"You did," she said, her voice weak. James scooted closer, putting his hand on top of his parents. His mother's other hand snaked around his waist. "You came back Steve. Came back to us."
His father smiled at that, and James knew then that everything was going to be alright.