The knock on her door startles Clara out of the blank stupor she'd fallen into, staring at the French press and waiting for the coffee to steep. She blinks, shakes herself and for a minute tries to decide if she actually heard it until whoever it is knocks again.
It's a very polite knock. How people knock on a door, Clara has noticed, actually tells you things about them although she's never shared the observation with anyone else. This one is sharp enough to be heard through something like low music, but not so loud or slow that it's basically demanding you get up and go to the door. And it says the second knock is all that's going to happen, because the second one really is only on the off-chance you didn't hear the first, and if you did and just didn't want to answer, the person won't intrude.
She's tried to make sure her children both understand that everything they do tells people something about them, so they need to pay attention to make sure that it's telling the truth and the truth they want people to be told, but she's never entirely sure how well it gets across. If they really get it.
And she's standing here thinking about that when really she should be answering the door, so she shakes herself again and calls out, "Just one moment," double-checks to make sure she's presentable - or at least the version of presentable that matters when you're a thirty-mumble mother who just came off shift. There was a time she definitely wouldn't consider this presentable, but she'd had a lot more energy then.
She knows it has to be someone from the building, but she expects Anita deciding to be friendly at just the wrong time, or maybe Chloe from downstairs, returning a book. She doesn't expect to open the front door to the upstairs neighbour neither she nor almost anyone else has actually spoken to at all in all of the more-than-a-year he's been here.
Nobody except for Mercedes.
Clara has spent the time since her daughter announced that their upstairs neighbour was Captain America non-committally quiet on the matter. She knows her girl is good at recognizing people, but it's far-fetched to begin with - why would the Steve Rogers decide to live in a small condominium in an older building in nowhere-Brooklyn, just for starters? - and Mercedes can get wound up about things and stubborn about changing her mind or admitting she's wrong. When, after Clara found her peering intently at pictures for over an hour, Mercedes admitted that she also thought his roommate was - is - a man who's been dead for almost seventy years, Clara didn't say anything, but she'd wondered if she should try to scrape up the money for a therapist again.
Opening her door, here and now, she realizes she owes her daughter an apology.
It's hard to say what makes it click. Her husband had a head full of trivia about Captain America and the Howling Commandos, just like every second American soldier ever in service, where it seemed like either you tried desperately to pretend you had no hero worship, or you didn't even bother.
She'd watched enough programs, had him insisting on showing her enough photos (and she always looked, because he was so adorable when he was excited) to have a sort of a picture, somewhere in her head of all of them and yet after almost two years Steve has never indisputably rung that bell.
Right now, somehow, the man standing outside her door, who she's seen maybe three times - somehow, he does. She is looking at Sergeant James Barnes, except that he wouldn't be a sergeant anymore. And it's a good thing good manners are enough of a habit she says, "Yes? Can I help you?" instead of just staring.
Also, she's clearly been a mama too long because the first thing she thinks as her mind shakes loose from its surprise is he's too thin. Not that he isn't. She long ago learned to tell the difference between the truly "naturally slender" and those who aren't eating enough, knows to look for the little tells in skin and how it moves and the other little signs. But it's still just typical that that's the first thing she thinks.
And then the second is that he's not getting enough sleep, just to make it official. The third, though, is nice in that it makes her feel a bit more like herself and not every woman who spawned a child in her extended family: her third thought is that even though the friendly almost-smile looks easy, and there's not much to see that would say he's anything but comfortable, he's working for that, and very hard.
She doesn't know why she thinks that. But her instincts on this kind of thing are usually very good.
"Mrs Sandoval," he says, not a question, but clearly meant just to confirm; Clara tries to summon up a smile out of the tired and nods. And he's very good: he manages just the right tone and expression, the one that says I know I'm intruding but I promise it's important and you'll forgive me, when he goes on, "I'm James, your upstairs neighbour. I was wondering if I could steal a few minutes of your time to talk about your daughter."
Clara manages to keep her teeth closed on the immediate and somewhat overwhelmed oh God what has she done now? because that's not fair and not right for a mother to say about her daughter, especially since even when Mercedes is in trouble it's never because she's being . . . bad. Sometimes it felt like that was the trouble, like last month when Clara had to have it out with the school over how no, it's not the same thing when you're defending a child smaller than you as when you just get into a fight.
Mercedes had been in the right and Clara would bite her own finger off before she got mad at any child of hers for standing up for someone else. That just unfortunately didn't make dealing with it less exhausting.
"Sure," she says, stepping back, "please, come in - excuse the mess," she adds, remembering that there are breakfast and supper dishes on the table and piled in the sink, "I had graveyard last night." Then, after she's closed the door she says, "Can I pour you some coffee?"
"Only if it's not going to mean work for you making it," he says, smiling, and Clara thinks that in spite of hair raked back in a messy short pony-tail - which she's normally not that impressed by - he is still as ludicrously handsome as she always made sure to mention to her husband, just to tease him. And also knows she's right, about working very hard to show the aspect he is.
She wonders if he wears the same mask to talk to her daughter. Doubts it, actually. Mercedes doesn't respond well to people hiding anything, and she can usually tell.
"I just made some, and I shouldn't drink the whole thing if I want to sleep today," she says, stepping into the kitchen and pulling down another mug. "Cream?"
"Just sugar," her unexpected guest replies. She pours cream into her own, is pretty grateful she remembered to fill the sugar bowl last week so she can pull it down and pass it across the counter for him to spoon in his own (quite a bit, she notes) and then takes a first sip to hopefully clear her head.
"I hope Mercedes hasn't been - " she starts, but the young man - and he is young, looks young, seventy years dead besides the point - shakes his head a little right away.
"Mercedes is fine," he says, the side of his mouth curving up in something a little more true than the smile before. "Actually you have a pretty great kid, Mrs Sandoval, and I'm sure you know that." He's leaning a little against the corner of the kitchen wall and holds his coffee in his flesh-and-blood hand, rather than the prosthetic, even though as far as Clara can see the articulation on the artificial arm is amazing, and clearly has full neural integration. She wonders if it's Stark technology, thinks it probably is - some of them are starting to show up at the hospital, through the partner program with the VA, even if those ones are usually in neutral skin tones.
He goes on, "That's actually the reason I wanted to talk to you."
Clara makes a please go on gesture with her coffee mug, while part of her thinks it's interesting how well he seems to be able to make you feel comfortable. She wonders if it's something he learned to do, or just a knack: normally the flat truth is she'd feel self-conscious in her sweats and shapeless t-shirt, her hair needing a wash and back in a pony-tail, but she doesn't. Worried about what he's about to say, yes, but not self-conscious.
Now he puts his artificial hand under the coffee-cup, turns it with the fingers of his other hand, and Clara notes that there's no surfacing on the prosthetic's fingers, just a fingerless leather glove covering the palm. He hesitates, then gives her a half-apologetic, half-wry smile.
"I'm about to poke my nose right into none of my business," he says, open and casual, "and all I can say in my defense is if it were my kid I'd want to know, and it's definitely not my business what you do with it, and I apologize in advance if you feel I'm outta line."
As Clara starts really thinking oh God what has she done, he says, "Mrs Sandoval, you can't . . . hide things from your daughter," which is the last thing she's expecting.
"And I don't mean you shouldn't," he goes on, as Clara blinks at him, and he glances down at his coffee and then back at her, "I don't mean it's wrong, or it's a bad idea, I mean you can't. I mean Mercedes is too smart and too observant and it won't work." His mouth quirks. "I even mean it's not working. She knows something's wrong with her brother, and she knows you're trying to keep it from her so she won't worry - so she's worried."
He's watching her, earnest and polite and, she thinks, wary. "In fact I think she's very worried," he finishes.
Clara tries to take that in and works hard to resist the desire to bury her face in her hands and shout at the world that she's much too tired for this. "I see," she says, and then frowns and asks, "she told you this?"
"In the course of asking me about something different," he says, lifting his biological hand and waggling it in a sort of gesture, "she might have gone off on a tangent. Just a bit of one. That's mostly why I think it's on her mind."
It kind of feels like someone dumped cold water over her head. And the thing is, she is much too tired for this; and the other thing is, the world doesn't care.
Clara takes another drink of coffee, trying to think, trying not to think about Jaime and the tests and being terrified and everything that comes from that if she starts, everything she knows about remission and relapse and survivals -
Tries not to think about that and think about her first child, instead, looking back carefully as she can and thinking her visitor - James, Clara, she thinks at herself, he does have a name and he's introduced himself by it - might be right.
"I see," she says again. She takes a deep breath and says, "Thank you - " and she dredges up a smile. "I'm not . . . upset. A little embarrassed I missed it, maybe - "
"Don't be," he says quietly, but with a lot of conviction behind it. "You've got a lot on your plate."
Clara chews on her lip, considering whether to say something and settling on, "My daughter doesn't confide much in people. She . . . works very hard, to try and make sure she's not upsetting anything." She rubs her forehead, puts her cup down on the counter so she can lean on that hand. Wonders if he gets how surprising it is Mercedes said anything to anyone. "So she wouldn't have told me. So - thank you."
She wonders if she should worry that Mercedes did.
"She's a good kid," James says, putting his mug down because it's empty. "She's smart, she's quick and she's pretty fearless."
"I could live with her being less fearless, honestly," Clara sighs and James gives her a small smile that does go to his eyes, surprising her.
"I . . . actually know the feeling," he says. Then he goes on, "I won't keep you up, though, you've had a long night."
Clara takes a deep breath, vetoes how habit wants to say it's no big deal and instead says, "Yes, actually. I'm sorry, I'm usually more friendly - "
James shakes his head a little. "Don't worry about it at all."
" - but I should get some sleep, before Jaime comes home." She summons up a smile and says, "Thank you. Really. I hope she's not a bother."
"Not at all," James says, hand on the door, smiling. "Sleep well."
When the door's closed behind him Clara locks it automatically and then goes to the couch in the living room, puts her face in her hands, and tries to think around the desire to go to bed and cry until she gives up and, at the very least, goes to bed.