Alexander is asleep against James’ chest by the time Michael pulls up outside their unit. James makes no effort to get out of the car when Michael switches off the engine.
“I don’t know what to do,” James says quietly, without looking at Michael. “Everything I do is a disaster.”
Michael sighs and turns to face him. “No it’s not, J. You’re doing your best. I know that and Alexander knows that. You are doing your best.”
“Yeah?” James whispers. The tears in his eyes threaten to spill over. “Well it seems that my best is not fucking good enough. Why did I think I could do this? Why did I think I would be good for him? Why did I think –”
“Stop it,” Michael says, cutting him off. “He needs you. You can’t be thinking like this.”
James wipes his eyes. “I’m not…I’m not saying that…” He takes an unsteady breath in. “I’m not saying he’d be better off without me. But Michael…I’m a broken man. I am barely equipped to take care of myself. I try to be better for him, try to be a better man, but…” He shakes his head. “What happened tonight…How could I do that right in front of him? Hasn’t he been through enough? Hasn’t knowing me caused him enough pain?”
Michael takes off his seat belt and twists around to face them.
“James,” he says. “Look at me.”
James slowly raises his eyes.
“You are not a bad father. Anyone can see that you love Alex more than anything in the world. But loving someone doesn’t make you immune to making mistakes. We all make mistakes. The difference between you and an actual bad father is that you recognise your mistakes and you try to fix them. You aren’t perfect, but nobody is. Hell, look at me. I’ve been in and out of rehab more times than I care to count. I’ve even been to juvie!” He sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “But the thing you have to understand is that the reason I was able to pull myself together -- the reason I’ve always been able to come back from the breaking point -- Is you. It’s you, James. You’re the reason I’m still here. Without you, I’d be locked up or dead.”
James stares at him. He doesn’t know what to say.
“You may be the younger brother, but you’ve always felt like the older brother to me. You’ve always been the voice in my head telling me to pull myself together. You’ve always been the reason I’ve tried to be a better man.”
Michael gives him a small smile. “Our father left us before he even knew us. Our stepfather…” He breathes out heavily. “I honestly hope that bastard’s dead in a gutter somewhere. We’ve never had a decent father, you didn’t have a decent older brother, and yet somehow, you’ve turned into the most amazing father I’ve ever met. Don’t doubt yourself, J. Don’t feel like you can’t do this because you can. And you are. Alexander needs you. And you need him.”
“You were a great older brother,” James whispers. “You still are.”
Michael smiles. “Yeah. Maybe. When I wasn’t teaching you to boost cars and sell weed.”
James smiles. Just a little. “I want him to have better than we had,” he says, looking down at Alexander and stroking his hair. “I don’t want to be this person for him. I don’t want to be the kind of man who…” He swallows. “I don’t want to be like our stepfather,” he finishes quietly. “I don’t want Alexander to be afraid of me.”
“He’s not afraid of you,” Michael says gently. “He loves you. You’re the safest place on earth for him.”
James scoffs. “Yeah. Right now. But that won’t last if I carry on this way. I won’t be safe for him if I end up in prison for killing a man, which to be honest, is not unlikely at this point. I would have killed that kid tonight if you hadn’t stopped me. I would have.”
Michael looks down at his hands. “What he said…” He steels himself for the answer. “That wasn’t…That didn’t…”
“No,” James says quickly. “It’s not true.”
“Thank God,” Michael breathes. “I…Thank God.”
A brief image enters James’ mind. It makes him want to throw up. He grits his teeth and pushes it away.
“Come on,” Michael says, looking like James feels. “It’s getting cold in here. We’d better go inside.”
James nods and unbuckles his seat belt. The movement wakes Alexander.
“Where’s James?” he asks sleepily, looking at Michael.
“Right here, buddy,” James says, rubbing his arm. “You’re sleeping on me.”
Alexander twists around to see him. “Oh.” He yawns. “Are we home?”
“We’re back at the unit. That’s where you wanted to go, right? Or did you want to go to our real home?”
Alexander yawns again. “I want to stay at the snow,” he says, reaching for his seat belt. “We have to go ice skating.”
James smiles and helps him out of the car.
“We’ll go ice skating tomorrow, okay? First thing in the morning.”
Alexander slides his hand into James’. “Okay,” he says, yawning for a third time. “Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”
James picks him up. “Of course,” he says, carrying him inside. “You can sleep in my bed for as long as you’d like.”