Each of them had his or her own rituals and habits when they came back from the field. No matter if it had been a good day – well, at least as good as it could be when your job was basically being shot at – or a bad one when they had lost someone, Steve found a quiet corner and isolated himself with a drawing pad and some pencils, staying alone for a couple of hours until he got back, smile firmly in place and his usual good-natured self. Clint tended to be the complete opposite: he needed to get the rush of adrenaline out of his body, and spent hours joking around, exercising in their small fitness room, and generally being a dick with his fellow soldiers, playing pranks and flirting with everybody he met.
Bucky's habits had changed since a few weeks. He came back hoping for a letter from Peter, and thinking about what he could write back, whereas before he just lay down and tried to get some sleep. It had been this way ever since he had sent back his first answer; that had been about three weeks back, and ever since he cursed the slowness with which mail traveled, and finally understood the regular complaints of other soldiers.
This time, though, after a particularly rough days with way too many close calls, he was lucky: a letter with his name carefully written was waiting for him on his bunk. He sat down heavily and read, smile already on his lips:
Dear Sergeant Bucky,
I was so happy to get your letter too! I waited for days and days, and my daddy said it would come eventually, but that you were very far away so I had to wait a bit more.
I didn't forget to take a picture of Cocoa, and my dad said I should be in the picture too, so you can see me. It was very funny to take the pictures, because Cocoa doesn't like to stay still, so we had to give her biscuits to make her stop moving! We took a lot of pictures, but I sent you my favorite.
Reading that, Bucky looked inside the envelope, seeing a printed picture. He took it out and his smile broadened. Peter, all fluffy brown hair and crinkled sparkling eyes, was grinning at him, exposing some missing teeth. Even in the picture, small freckles were visible on his nose and cheeks, making him easily one of the cutest kids Bucky had ever seen – and the bright green t-shirt with blue robots proclaiming him to be ''Daddy's Little Geek'' absolutely did not help. The beautiful border collie dog looking at him, seemingly perfectly at ease to be hugged by Peter, only strengthened the general impression
He blinked rather forcefully once or twice – God, he missed kids, he loved babysitting when he was younger – and kept reading.
Did you forget to tell me your dog's name? I love hearing dog's names, we met a dog called Cruella de Vill once, my daddy and me laughed and laughed for hours! Is your dog waiting for you at home?
I don't like sleeping when there's no light in the room, and my dad doesn't like spiders. It's funny, because I like spiders, but when he sees one, he yells and runs and asks me or Aunt Natasha to get it out! I'd love to have a big spider as a pet one day, but dad tells me that he won't accept one in his house, so I have to wait until I'm a grown-up with my own house.
My dad is a tattoo artist, yes, and so are my Aunt Natasha and Uncle Rhodey. They all work in the same place, which is really nice, because I get to see them almost every day. There are lots of people who come to see my dad to get a tattoo, and he was in a newspaper once! The people who came to take pictures let me play with their camera, I had a lot of fun. I know that when I'm older, I want to be like daddy and have lots and lots of drawings on me. Maybe I'll get a spider, or maybe Peter Pan (it's my favorite movie, that's funny!), I don't know yet, but I know that I want my dad to do it.
Your joke was very funny! I told it at school and to my dad, and they all laughed. Can you ask your friend Steve if he knows any other jokes? Here is one joke my friend Gwen told me:
Do you know how you count cows? With a cowculator!
She told me it was her dad (he's a scientist) who told her this, did it make you laugh?
I haven't read Peter Pan yet, but my dad bought it for me the other day, and he'll read it to me before I go to sleep (I love when my daddy reads for me, he does all the silly voices!). My favorite book is Winnie the Pooh! I told you my favorite movie was Peter Pan, do you have any favorite movie too?
I like going to the Empire State Building too, even if that is not my favorite place in New York. I have two favorite places. The first one is Central Park, I love running and playing there in the summer, and we even got to skate during the winter! I'm not very good at staking, but my Aunt Nat helped me and it was really funny, even if it hurts falling down. I also really like the Hall of Science, we go there with my dad when he can, and I love it because we can play with a lot of things, and my daddy can always explain how it works! We even went to the Maker Faire last year, and there were lots of funny inventions and cool robots. Do you like robots? I think it's so cool that we can make them do awesome things, but I wish they could do my homework for me.
I have to leave for school now, but I hope my letter was good.
Have a nice day Sergeant Bucky,
Bucky knew his smile was definitely goofy, but he couldn't help himself. God, this kid was so cute. Outside, he could hear the usual noises of dozens of soldiers sharing the same space – cries, laughter, and what definitely sounded like someone insulting Clint – but he couldn't care less, already focusing on what he could write back to Peter.
He was pretty sure that Steve or Clint would come and see him, and tease him mercilessly for his weak spot for the little kid he barely knew… But he was also pretty sure that they would stop their teasing as soon as they saw the freaking cute picture he had received.
Tony Stark knew his usual day seemed weird to whoever didn't work in a tattoo parlor, but every morning he took a couple of seconds just to enjoy the happiness he felt at doing the thing he liked most and being surrounded by the people he loved.
He usually woke up before Peter, enough so that he had time to take a shower – shamelessly singing along to the latest pop tunes and the greatest rock classics – and get breakfast ready, usually pancakes with some fruit if he had enough time, or cereals if not.
Then he got to spend an hour with what, in his very objective mind, was the cutest kid ever born on this planet.
This morning made no exception to the rule. He woke up right before his alarm began to ring and took some clothes out of his closet: skinny and well-worn dark jeans with a V-neck soft shirt. He made a quick detour in the kitchen to fill a mug with coffee, taking a few sips before even entering the shower.
This time, he sang along to some Taylor Swift and ACDC while taking great care to wash a new tattoo that had recently joined the lot of ink he was already sporting – courtesy of one of the guest artists who had stopped at their shop a few days back. The geometric wolf looked to be healing up all nicely, already entering the annoying time when it itched day and night, and peeled like a motherfucker.
When he got out and dressed himself, he could already hear Peter moving around in his room, probably getting his backpack ready for school. He smiled and got out after a cursory look at his beard – he could leave it a day without skimming it – whistling as he made a way to his son's room.
''Hey Peter!'' he called out. ''Already up?''
His son appeared at the door, which was covered in robots stickers, Cocoa on his heels. His hair was adorably sticking up on one side and he was rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand, the other raised in greeting. Tony couldn't resist and swept him up on his hip, where Peter settled comfortably, burrowing his head in his dad's neck; Tony smiled and kissed his head tenderly, humming and rocking his son gently.
''Slept good? No nightmares?''
''No, daddy. I had really good dreams, but I can't remember all of them. Can I watch some cartoons?''
''Okay, but no long, you still have to go to school, right? Here, I'll call you when breakfast's ready. Don't fall asleep!''
Peter nodded and Tony turned the TV on, watching his son all curled up on the sofa, a wave of love threatening to overwhelm him, before he whistled for Coca and got some food and water in her bowl, stroking her quickly between the ears.
He made quick work of the pancakes; six years ago, he couldn't even manage an omelette most of the time, but Peter had made him learn to cook, and he loved it now. He often baked cookies on his time off, bringing them to the parlor for customers and artists to enjoy them; every artist and regular costumer had their favorite, and he tried his best to content everyone, writing in a small journal which recipes were good and which were best left forgotten.
In the end, he didn't even have to call Peter; the little boy entered the room as soon as he smelled pancakes baking, TV dutifully turned off, and eyes looking a little bit more awake. Tony smiled at him and set some pancakes and fruit in front of him, adding a glass of chocolate milk when Peter asked for it.
''So, do you know what you're going to do at school today? Science, drawing?''
''We're talking about planets now. And reading a cool book, with a magician nanny in it. D'you know it, daddy?''
''Yeah,'' Tony answered with a small smile. ''I think I know what you're talking about, buddy. Cool day, then, uh?''
''Yes! And you, daddy, what are you doing today?''
''Well, Bruce's coming back to get a new tattoo, so there's that I need to do. After that, I'll need to stay at the parlor for a while, so Aunt Nat will come pick you up for school and have lunch with you, maybe here, or maybe you'll stop somewhere in the city, she hasn't told me yet. But I'll be free all afternoon, so I'll come pick you up at the end of your day, and maybe we can go to the park, what do you think?''
''Yes! Look, even Cocoa likes it,'' Peter giggled, pointing at the border collie, who was looking at them, wagging her tail. ''Will you bring Bucky's letter if it's there?''
''You know I will. And it should get there soon, too, I think.''
Peter smiled around his mouthful of pancakes, and Tony scowled at him gently, reminding him of his manners.
The little boy had received four of Bucky's letters by now, but his enthusiasm hadn't lessened the smallest bit. He still waited impatiently for each one, spent hours thinking about what he could write, and drawing more and more elaborate things to ''decorate his room''. They had sent a small package last time, too, with two books that Peter had carefully chosen for Bucky, a second-hand edition of Peter Pan, and a fantasy book whose cover he had liked. There was also some chocolate, and a pack of pencils for Steve, Bucky's friend. Now Peter was waiting to know if Bucky had liked it or not, and as they knew that it took about five weeks for the letter to come, he was growing more and more impatient by the day. One day, he had even begged to stay at home and miss school, pretending that he could ''feel the letter would come today'', but Tony had put his foot firmly down, reminding him that the letter would still be there when Peter would come back, and that he promised to check the mailbox regularly and not allow anyone to steal anything.
Half an hour later, Peter was ready to leave, and Tony clipped the leash on Cocoa's collar, taking Peter's hand in his own. They walked to the school, since they had the time and the weather was nice, Tony enjoying to hear Peter babble about the day he'd like to have, the discussions he hadn't had time to close with Gwen and his other friends, and how he couldn't wait for Natasha to come pick him up.
Tony left him at the school's gates with a quick kiss and hug, waving at him as he walked away to meet his friends. His green backpack was bouncing on his back with the rhythm of his run, and Tony thought once again of how lucky he was to have the small boy in his life.
When he got back to the apartment right above the parlor, he set to work on Bruce's last request. The man had been a regular customer for years now; he had tattoos from both Nat and Rhodey, but he claimed that Tony's style was still his favorite, and came back often for a new project.
This time, he wanted some strange, futuristic-looking machine, only giving this and rough infos like the size he wanted to Tony and letting him deal with the drawing. Right now, Tony had three different sketches ready and was working on a fourth, adding some details and polishing it. He was pretty sure Bruce would like at least one of them (if not all of them, he tended to like everything Tony proposed), but he always felt a bit of pressure when working with a customer who had become a friend with time; he didn't want to disappoint, even if he knew that Bruce was smart enough to not be rude and cruel, and rather liked to give him advices and precisions on what he wanted.
At nine o'clock, all drawings finally ready, he packed everything he needed – phone, wallet, snacks, sketchpad and pencils – and left the apartment to open the parlor. Rhodey and Natasha would arrive a few minutes later, and as there were no customers around for walk-ins or appointments at this hour, he began to set up his station carefully, setting up his tattoo gun, – a beautiful custom one he got for his birthday, all mat black and grey – taking the bottle of ink he'd need, and wrapping up everything carefully in plastic wrap. After that, he set some water and chocolate next to the chair, just in case Bruce forgot to take some with him, and put some random playlist on. He took a critical look at his flash tattoos' board, hanging up a new drawing of a small monkey he had done the night before, and made a mental note to ask Nat and Rhodey about some possible dates for a flash day.
Speaking of them, the bell rang at the door and he turned to see both of them strolling in. Natasha was looking as sexily deadly as ever, with her usual leather black pants and ripped red top barely showing her lacy bra; the combat boots, lip and ear piercings, and delicate black widow tattoo sometimes showing behind the fabric on her left hip have a nice finale touch. People on the street tended to either gawk at her, to which she'd return a sly smile, or avoid her simply. Once, a mother had told her daughter, who was looking at Nat with admiration in her eyes, that she had to work at school to ''not look like the lady'', to which Natasha had simply enough but very effectively answered that she had a Master in law, but had changed path a few years back to live the life she really wanted – offering a wink to the little girl who smiled brightly. The woman had sputtered and scoffed before walking away, pulling her little girl along.
Rhodey was seen as the model child of their team. He was covered in tattoos too – rare were the tattoo artists with no ink on their skin – but most of them were hidden by his military-style clothes. There was only one who peaked from under his shirt at all time; a drawing from Tony, that Rhodey had asked for a few years back to honor their friendship. As both of them were huge and unashamed nerds, Rhodey's tattoo was of the Rebel Alliance symbol; Tony had a similar one on his left bicep, done by his friend, of course. Most of the new customers tended to look at Rhodey when they entered the shop, avoiding Tony's ink-covered body and Natasha's… Natasha-ness, at least until they realized that Rhodey was as bad, if not worse, than both of them.
All three of them worked as only best friends could work: always talking with each other when they weren't with a customer – and even then, they kept talking, just took care of including the customer in the discussion too – and knowing what the other ones needed before they even had to ask for it. Tony had on very frequent occasions turned around to ask for a bottle of water only to find that there was already one right next to his hand, with a small smiley on a post-it note right next to it.
At first, it had been hard – opening a tattoo parlor when all of them had virtually zero experience in this particular business – but they had kept going stubbornly, motivated by their love of tattooing and by their mutual trust. And it had worked beautifully. A popular website on tattoos had featured them on one article, and suddenly, their shop was invaded by customers and curious people attracted by the very futurist-looking premises.
Seven years later, they were all known as some of New York's best tattoo artists, and had to refuse some customers regularly; international guests came to tattoo for a few weeks or days, and they often put in place flash days that always had a huge success, even attracting customers from other states.
And their relationship didn't stop at the doors of the shop. Natasha and Rhodey had become Aunt and Uncle to Peter, who absolutely loved to spend time with them – and they did too. Unofficially, Tony saw them as a second family to Peter, and he knew that if some day something should happen to him, they would be there for the little boy, even if that wasn't something he particularly liked to dwell on. They spent evenings together, too, leaving Peter to Rhodey's mom's care and spending awesome time in clubs, bars, and shows all around the city.
In short, Tony was living the dream: doing something he loved everyday with the people he loved the most.
''Hey, Tony!'' Nat greeted him. ''All set already?''
''Yeah. Bruce'll be there in a few minutes, so he won't have to wait too long before we get to work. Still picking Peter up from school at lunch? He couldn't stop talking about where he wanted you to take him this morning.''
''Of course I am, I wouldn't even dream of disappointing him. I only have the one customer this morning, so I'll be free pretty early.''
''Hey Tones,'' Rhodey said, clapping him on the back. ''No customer for me this morning. I'll manage the desk and look at some of the bills, too. Maybe make some drawings for flashs, too.''
''Yeah, about that, I'd like to organize a flash day someday soon. Maybe on a specific theme? I don't know yet. Anyway, just write down somewhere dates you could be there and free of any customers, and I'll see what I can do.''
And so the day began.
As always, Bruce arrived early, looking ruffled and almost lost in his too-big shirt and old pants. Looking at him, you could never have guessed that he was covered in tattoos under his clothes. His job in a scientific research company forced him to look serious and traditional, but as soon as he got the shirt or pants off, it was a whole other story.
Tony had been a little bit in love with him since the first time they had met and Bruce had totally pranked him, affirming that he thought the original Star Wars trilogy was worse than the recent one. Tony had been ready to tattoo ''I've got BAD TASTES'' rather than the landscape Bruce had asked for, when the man had suddenly burst out laughing and hadn't been able to stop for a whole five minutes. He still laughed today when they talked about it, widely exaggerating Tony's affronted face, and the occasional customer always loved that story.
They had been friends since, though, and Tony loved to see him come back for more ink. He was one of the best customers, not afraid to talk and joke around even as he was getting tattooed and staying perfectly still. He often stayed for a while after the session too, enjoying some take-out or pizza with the other artists and, once or twice, with Peter, who seemed to be in awe of the man and his job.
This session was great, too. They debated of the plus and cons of the new Star Wars and Ghostbusters movies, Tony arguing relentlessly that the stupid secretary in the new Ghostbusters was the absolute doppelgänger of Thor, a guest artist from Sweden who came back often, except with short hair, and everybody laughing at him.
He was so focused on his tattoo he almost missed Nat slipping out, but still asked her absentmindedly to kiss Peter for him and have a nice lunch. They took a very quick break with Bruce, only snacking on some chocolate before getting back to the tattoo – trying to avoid the skin getting too sensitive.
A few hours later, Tony could finally stretch, taking one last critical look at the tattoo. It would need some touch-ups – the skin had been too bloody at the end to see very clearly – but Bruce was already proud of the machine drawn in delicate traits of grey and black on his right forearm. He wrapped it up, explaining how to take care of it to Bruce for about the twentieth time – at this point, Bruce could probably recite it by heart – and taking a long sip of cold water. The other man thanked him profusely and paid, promising to come back as soon as it was healed to see what needed to be perfected, before giving a heartfelt hug to Tony, who returned it happily.
After eating a small sandwich, Tony checked the time and saw that he should already have left to pick Peter up. He winced but still took time to empty the mailbox, smiling when he saw that the letter had arrived, before frowning when he noticed another letter with the same handwriting; except that this one was addressed to him.
He would have to run, but he couldn't resist. He opened it and read:
Dear Mr. Stark,
I'm pretty sure you already know who I am, but just in the case: my name's James Buchanan Barnes, or ''Sergeant Bucky'', as Peter calls me. I'm his soldier correspondent.
Before all, I wanted to tell you what an amazing son you have. He always managed to put a smile on my lips with his letter, and I keep them all preciously and re-read them when I feel down. I hope that doesn't sound too creepy.
There's something I wanted to ask you before telling anything to Peter: I will be on leave in three weeks, and will be staying with my friend Steve in Brooklyn.
As I know you live in New York, I thought it could be nice to try and meet Peter in person. We could spend some time together (with you too, of course!) someplace he likes. I'd be very glad to meet him and thank him properly for the time he takes to write letters. In the way he talks to me, I also sincerely think that he would like to meet me.
The decision is up to you, though. I totally understand if you don't feel comfortable letting your son meet a stranger, and I'll still write to him – and won't tell him anything about my leave.
It'll be too short to send the answer here in Afghanistan, but you can write to the address I wrote at the end of the letter, or phone the number from the 9th of August, I'll be there to answer.
Please don't feel pressured in accepting or anything,
I wish you all the best,
P.S.: Thank you very much for the package you sent. Steve loved the pencils (I guess they're some of the ones you use?) and I've already read Peter Pan once. Probably have read it once at the moment you read this.
Well, that was… unexpected. And he had quite a difficult decision to make. If he didn't accept Bucky's proposition, he knew he would feel guilty, but he was still afraid of all the things that could turn out wrong. Bucky could be a mean and weird guy. Or maybe he didn't like kids who weren't just writing to them. Or maybe this whole thing was a setup. Or…
He sighed and left the building, letter for Peter in hand, the other safely tucked in his pocket. After a few steps, he got his phone out of his other pocket and dialed a number.
One thing was for sure: Peter wouldn't be able to sleep for nights when he told him who he would meet.
Leaving for home, even temporarily, was always weird.
First of all, because it didn't even feel like home to Bucky anymore. It was his home country, sure, but nothing in particular linked him to it now. His parents had died before he left for the army, and his sister was somewhere abroad; he still sporadically received postcards from a city he most of the time didn't even know. Steve had been what linked him to the States, but Steve had left with him. At least, this time, he was on leave too.
Second, because he never knew which fellow soldiers he'd see again when he said goodbye to them. They were all aware that it may well be the last time they saw each other, and each of them pointedly avoided talking about it. They joked around, speaking of which women he should meet, and which he was totally forbidden to talk to, and they hugged each other roughly, but they avoided the fact that, while Bucky would be safe at home, others would be on the field, hurt or killed. It was better not to talk about it if you wanted to leave.
The flight home seemed unusually long and painful – and he guessed it was the case for Steve, too, whom he constantly bothered during the endless hours. People stared at them in their uniform, some with respect – one or two even came to thank them for their service – some with obvious contempt, like they were personally responsible for every disaster the country faced.
Bucky was nervous, too, of what kind of answer would be waiting for him in Steve's Mom's small apartment. Would Peter's dad agree to him meeting his son, or not? Strangely enough, he really wanted to. This kid had charmed him from the very first letter, and he wanted to spend some time with him. Even him could see how strange that could seem, though, so he half-expected Tony to not even answer, and totally forbid Peter from writing to him ever again.
When they finally touched down in New York, both Steve and Bucky sighed in relief. They left the plane as quickly as they could, barely patient enough to wait for their bag on the luggage carrousel – these things always seemed to be as slow as they possibly could, anyway.
Finally, though, they were in the big arrival hall, and Bucky felt kind of overwhelmed by all the people and the noise. Steve nudging him incessantly with his elbow didn't help either.
''What?'' he finally snapped, turning to him.
''Right there, see? Isn't that your cute kid?''
Eyebrows raised, Bucky looked to where Steve was pointing. Right there, five meters from them, a kid was bouncing excitedly up and down, holding a big board that said ''Sergeant Bucky''.
Bucky could feel himself grinning goofily, frozen right there in the middle of the airport. At least, until he saw the man who had taken Peter in his arms so he could see better.
He watched to well-toned arms covered in black and color, the nice thighs in the skinny jeans, the exact same ruffled hair as Peter. He tried to take a step but stumbled.
He… hadn't been expecting that.
''Oh god, we're fucked,'' Steve muttered behind him.