Tony loved almost everything about his job.
Except this part. This part kind of sucked. He peeked through the narrow window into the brightly-decorated examining room, and yep, he remembered this patient. And the patient’s father. Tony took a deep breath, reminded himself to be calm, and opened the door.
"Kid’s a damn disgrace of a klutz," Bruce’s father growled. "Fell down the stairs."
Bruce twitched and nodded hasty agreement.
"Probably hit a growth spurt," Tony said. "Legs are suddenly longer than he’s used to. Happens a lot. I’m sure he’ll grow out of it." He offered Mr. Banner a bland smile. "And broken bones mend quickly at Brucie’s age."
Banner wouldn’t leave Tony alone with little Bruce, of course — too much of a risk that Bruce might come clean about how he’d really broken his arm — but the instant they’d left, Tony had his cell out, hitting speeddial even as he strode through the halls toward Admin.
"Bucky? It’s Tony over at Stark Gen."
"You don’t have to say ‘at Stark Gen’ every time, you know," Bucky said. "You’re literally the only Tony I know."
"You might’ve met someone since the last time we talked."
"With my social life? Not likely. What’ve you got for me?"
Tony ducked through the door into the Admin office and handed Bruce’s chart to Pepper even as he was telling Bucky the details of the case. Like the superlative administrator that she was, she was making copies of the pertinent files and pulling up the report form before Tony had even finished.
"Okay, I’ll swing by tomorrow for a routine check on the kid," Bucky promised. "You going to be working if I need to come into the hospital for a statement?"
"Well, I was thinking of quitting, if only to piss off my dad and the Board of Directors, but if there’s a chance I might get to see you, I suppose I could endure for one more day," Tony said lightly.
Bucky laughed, a sound that never failed to make Tony feel just a bit warmer. “You know seeing you is the thing I love most about this soul-crushing job,” he teased back.
"I’ll be counting the hours." Tony hung up, grinning helplessly.
Pepper gave him a knowing look. “You should just ask him out.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Right, because that fits into a conversation about child abuse so smoothly. ‘So, I need you to yank this kid away from the only family he’s ever known because I’m pretty sure his life is in danger; and hey, after that, want to go get coffee?’”
Pepper pushed the CPS Notification Form across the desk for Tony to sign. “If you can fit in the flirting, I’m pretty sure you could fit in a date request. Not coffee,” she added sternly. “You two are way past coffee already.”
The following week, Tony was walking a pair of panicking new parents through the care for their two-month-old’s low-grade fever when Pepper came looking for him.
He sent the nervous parents on their way with some infant Motrin samples and turned to Pepper. “What’ve you got?”
"A Jane Doe with a sprained ankle, about seven years old. It’d be routine except she came in without an adult and she won’t talk. She didn’t even make any noise when the triage nurse was looking at her ankle, and it looks pretty bad. We’ve contacted the police, but no one’s reported any missing children. I’ve already called CPS, but you’re so good with kids, maybe you can get something out of her."
"Anything for you," Tony promised with a grin, taking the chart Pepper was offering him.
He strolled into the exam room to find the most adorable little red-haired girl he’d ever seen before, sitting primly on the examining table. One leg, ankle bruised and painfully swollen, was propped up on the table; the other dangled over the edge, hanging perfectly still. “Hi there!” he said. “I’m Doctor Tony!”
The girl looked at him, but didn’t speak. Well, he’d been warned.
"Can you understand me at all? You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, just nod or shake your head."
The girl just stared at him.
"Right, well." Tony hooked a stool with his foot and pulled it closer, then sat down. "I’m going to have a look at your ankle now, is that okay?" He pointed to the girl’s obviously swollen ankle and cocked his head, making a question of it.
She blinked and cocked her head in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t an objection, though, so Tony started gingerly feeling around the edges of the injury, talking all the while. “How about Spanish? Do you speak Spanish? Hablas español? No? How about… Parli italiano? Not that either, huh? Uh… Parlez-vous français? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? …Non loqueris? C’mon, Latin was the last one I knew, kiddo, you’re killing me here.” He glanced up and for a split second, thought he saw the faintest ghost of a smile on the corner of her lips.
”Ona govorit na russkom," said a voice behind Tony.
He turned to see Bucky. “You know this one?”
Bucky leaned against the doorway, propping his hand on his hip and letting the prosthetic dangle down. “Yeah, she seems to cross my desk about every six months. Zdravstvuyte, Natalia.”
”Zdravstvuyte, Yasha,” she said solemnly back.
"Russian? Really?" Tony looked back at the girl — Natalia, apparently. She grinned impishly up at him.
"She understands English perfectly well," Bucky said with a rueful smile. "She’s just stubborn. What happened with the Smithsons, Natalia?"
Natalia’s grin faded and she launched into a babble of Russian so fast that Tony probably wouldn’t have been able to understand even if he had studied the language. He’d had no idea Bucky spoke it, or any other languages, for that matter, though over the year or so they’d known each other, he’d teased out that Bucky had lost his arm in the Army and gone into social work because of the kids he’d gotten to know overseas.
Bucky frowned in concentration as he listened to Natalia’s explanation, nodding occasionally, and when she finally wound down, he let out a long sigh. “Okay, but you can’t just— There are rules. You have to call me if you’re having problems.”
Natalia shrugged and turned her gaze resolutely to where Tony had begun to wrap her ankle.
Tony finished the wrap and looked up into Natalia’s grave green eyes. “You should listen to Mr. Barnes,” he told her. “He’s trying to help you, you know.”
Natalia ignored him and tried to flex her foot in the wrap.
Tony sighed. “Yeah, okay. We’re going to get you some crutches, and you shouldn’t walk or stand on this foot for at least a week. Have you used crutches before, or should I get someone to show you? It’s not as easy as it looks.”
She looked at him like he was an idiot and nodded.
Tony grinned. “Okay, you already know how to use them. Good on you. Sit tight while I go find some your size, and then Mr. Barnes will take you home.”
Natalia shrugged and looked away, but not before Tony saw the glint of panic in her eyes.
Bucky had seen it, too. “Would you rather go to the group home tonight?” he offered.
She gave Bucky a fervent nod.
"I’ll see what I can do. I’m going to step out in the hall and make a couple of phone calls. Don’t you dare run off on me." Natalia gestured to her wrapped ankle as if to say, How could I? but Bucky just snorted. “I mean it,” he said, and went out into the hallway.
Tony waited for the door to swing closed and then turned back to Natalia. “I need to go and get your crutches,” he said. “I want you to wait here, got that? You should absolutely not run off on Mr. Barnes, okay? I know the system sucks, but he’s doing the best he can. Save your spite for someone who deserves it.” Tony glanced at the door and then leaned just fractionally closer to her and lowered his voice. “But if you were to hide behind the table and trick him when he comes back in for you, that would be pretty funny, right?”
Natalia didn’t laugh, but her hands flew up to cover her mouth and she stared at Tony with round eyes, so he called it a win. He winked at her, and left.
Bucky was in the hall, on his cell. “I told you six months ago that I didn’t think they were a good fit, Carol. No, but that’s— Yeah, just a few days until I can get the paperwork sorted. Well, the fact that they haven’t reported her missing yet is pretty telling, don’t you think? Right, right. No. Probably. Okay. Absolutely. You’re a lifesaver, Carol, a real marvel. Thanks, I owe you.” He hung up and turned around, and almost startled to see Tony there. “Oh, hey. Need anything else from me?”
Tony somehow managed not to answer, a kiss. “You didn’t hear it from me, but she’s hiding, probably behind the table. Give it a good show when you pretend to panic.”
Bucky snorted and nodded. “Yeah, okay. No wonder she likes you; you’ve got an eight-year-old’s sense of humor. I’d better get back in there. Say, do you…”
Bucky shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll see you around, hot stuff.”
"You got it, gorgeous."
Two brothers, injured at the same time. That wasn’t so unusual. Siblings squabbled or dared each other to do things, and shit happened.
Tony wasn’t really prepared for this, though. The older boy, who was eleven, had an arrow through his hand. The other, two years younger, had a concussion. Neither of them was crying or whimpering, and they were both covered with fading bruises of assorted vintage.
Their father wasn’t even pretending to make nice. When Tony walked into the exam room, he was winding up to smack the younger boy on the side of the head. Tony caught his arm. “Please don’t rattle his brain any more than it’s already been,” he said tightly.
The man yanked his arm free of Tony’s grip. “Might knock some goddamn sense into him,” he snapped, and rounded on the kid again. The kid cringed, even though the asshole’s hand didn’t raise this time. “The fuck did you think you were doing, messing with my hunting gear? I should sell you to the goddamn circus, you worthless brat. And you,” he continued, turning to the older boy, “the hell were you thinking? I should have drowned you at birth, you—”
"That’s enough!" Tony snapped. He took a deep breath and checked the chart. "We all say things we don’t mean when we’re upset, Mr. Barton, but I need for you to calm down right now, or I will have you escorted from the premises."
Barton glared at Tony, and seemed mildly taken aback when Tony didn’t shrink under his glare. He cast dark looks at the boys again, then stamped out of the room.
"He did mean it," the older boy said. His mouth was set mulishly. "He meant all of it."
Tony had his phone out already. “I know,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can. Which for now means recommending that we keep both of you here in the hospital overnight for observation, and bringing a friend in to meet you who might be able to help.”
The younger boy scooted further into his brother’s shadow. “Y’ain’t separating us,” he said firmly.
"No," Tony agreed. "We’ll find you a room to share."
The phone clicked. “Child Services.”
"Who is that, Maria?" Tony said. "Maria, it’s Tony over at Stark Gen."
"Hi, Tony-at-Stark-Gen," Maria sing-songed. "What’s up?"
"I could use an on-site. Anyone working today who’s free right this minute?"
Maria shuffled papers on her end of the line. “Barnes is already over there for some paperwork, actually,” she said. “I’ll page him.”
"Thanks," Tony said, and stuffed the phone back in his pocket before turning back to the kids. "Okay, let’s see about that arrow in your hand, now. Which one are you: Clint, or Barney? And what were you trying to do?”
Clint looked back over his shoulder as his father literally dragged him through the lobby, eyes wide and wounded. Tony couldn’t even manage a reassuring smile for him. Barney didn’t look around at all, just kept his face angled toward the floor in front of him, his body twisted slightly to protect his bandaged hand.
"Fuck," Tony whispered as the automatic doors slid closed behind them.
Bucky rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “You can’t win them all,” he said, but he sounded as sad as Tony felt. “I’ll put a flag on Barton in the system, and we’ll be prepared.”
"I just…" Tony whispered. "They didn’t even get to stay the night like I promised. They’re going to—"
"Hey," Bucky said softly. "Don’t blame yourself. Don’t. You can’t."
"This is bullshit," Tony said, a little louder, and let himself lean against Bucky’s side.
"It absolutely is," agreed Bucky, draping his arm over Tony’s shoulders in a sympathetic hug.
Tony was waiting when Bucky came into the hospital, bouncing on his toes with frustration. “This kid,” he said, before Bucky could even say hello, “this kid has been in four times in the last two weeks. Nothing broken so far, but he’s had one chipped tooth — a baby tooth, thank goodness — and I swear I’ve gone through more suture for him in those two weeks than I went through all last month.”
"Sounds pretty bad," Bucky agreed, waving for Tony to lead the way. "How’s he act?"
"He’s belligerent as all hell," Tony said. "Even with me, and kids love me! Even Natalia liked me. I am very likable!”
"Yes, you’re adorable," Bucky said. "Tell me about the kid, Tony. You got a bead on the home life?”
"Not much. It’s his mom who always brings him in, and she’s the name on the insurance. They don’t talk about the dad, but that doesn’t mean a lot, and she’s definitely pretty tense and worn-down about something.”
"Yeah, that’s pretty damning. Chart?"
Tony handed the kid’s chart over to Bucky and turned down the hall toward the emergency pediatric exam area. “They get points for cover story, though. The kid claims to be some kind of social justice vigilante or something. Like the first time he came in, he’d been trying to chase some middle-school kids away from teasing the kid next door, and—” Tony had to stop, because Bucky was — laughing?
"Oh my god, it’s the Rogers kid,” Bucky gasped. He leaned against the wall, howling.
"What the hell," Tony said, crossing his arms.
Bucky tucked the chart under his arm and waved his hand for Tony to wait as he panted for breath. “Rogers,” he gasped. “Oh, Jesus. He’s about so tall, skinny, blond, right?”
"Yeah, actually," Tony said. "He’s already in your system, I take it. What the hell is so funny?"
Bucky grinned. “He’s not in my system. He’s in my neighborhood. And the social justice vigilante thing isn’t a story — though I like that phrasing, I’m going to steal that. I’ve seen him do it. I was coming home from work last week and he was getting the shit kicked out of him by some fifth graders because he’d stepped in when they were playing keepaway with some girl’s doll.”
Tony stared. “You’re kidding me.”
"I’m really not. I mean, I’ll go in there to make sure it’s who I think it is, but as far as I know, his mom’s a single widow and sick with something moderately serious, not sure what, since I figured it’d be rude to ask."
Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. “They’re in Room 4.” He waved in the general direction of the room.
Bucky opened the door and Tony heard the kid belt out, “Hey! It’s JB! Hiya, JB! Whatcha doin’ here? Lookit the shiner I got—” before the door swung gently closed again.
Tony leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, counting his breaths until Bucky came back out, this time to an accompaniment of Mrs. Rogers: “—calling Child Services on us? I’m proud of you for doing what’s right, Stevie, but really—”
"It’s them," Tony said, not really asking, keeping his eyes closed.
"It’s them," Bucky confirmed.
Tony puffed out some air. “Sorry for dragging you down here for nothing, I guess.”
"Nah, don’t be sorry," Bucky said. "Rather come out for nothing than miss a kid who really needed me, you know?"
"Yeah." Tony felt a little better for that.
"Besides," Bucky said, from much closer than he’d been before, "it being a happy result with nothing urgent for me to do means it’s finally not a terrible time to ask you if you’d like to get some dinner with me after your shift, maybe."
Tony opened his eyes. Bucky was standing very close, face lit up with hopeful anticipation.
"Remind me to give that kid an extra sticker or pencil or something when he checks out," Tony said.
"Is that a yes?"
"You bet your cute buns that’s a yes."
(One Year Later)
"Hmm?" The bed was warm and there was a pillow on Tony’s face, but he was certain it was entirely too early to be having any sort of conversation. "What are you doing up? It’s too early for you to be up on a day off."
"It’s eight o’clock, babe."
"Too early, that’s what I said. Come back to bed. Do you know how long it’s been since we both had the same day off?"
"I’m coming. I just had a thought and wanted to write it down real quick before I forgot. Is this an application to become a foster parent on your desk, Tony?"
Oops. He hadn’t meant to leave that out. “Uh.” Tony pushed the pillow off his face. “I can explain,” he said. “I wasn’t going to just… I mean, I was going to talk to you before… I mean. You said Bruce was having trouble with his current placement because of his anger issues and I thought—mmmmfff. Mmm…”
When Bucky stopped kissing Tony for lack of oxygen, he said, “I can probably help push you through the red tape a little faster than usual.”
Tony stopped working Bucky’s pajama bottoms down over his hips and pretended to consider it. “How many kids you figure we can handle?”
Bucky laughed. “This place is enormous. Four or five, easy.”
"Yeah?" Tony leaned up to kiss Bucky gently. "Would it help with the red tape if we got married first?"
Bucky stared at him.
Tony grinned. “No, really, there’s a box in my sock drawer; I was going to ask at dinner, but—”
He didn’t get to say anything else coherent for quite a while after that.