Natalia doesn’t want to come out into the room where the grownups are waiting.
Tony watches Mr. Phil try to tell her he’s safe and no one will hurt anyone, and look how good the boys are sitting and waiting. Tony doesn’t like sitting still, but he also doesn’t like all the strange men that look like business men but maybe also a little bit how kidnappers might look, so maybe sitting still and watching is safer. Besides, Bruce and Clint are sitting next to him, Clint swinging his legs so they go thud thud thud against the wooden legs. Bruce and Tony are sat back too far in their chairs to swing their legs, not even a little bit. And maybe Bruce is scared of the big men in suits, so Tony holds his hand. Steve is with Mr. Phil, because Mr. Phil thinks Natalia likes Steve, and Steve’s telling her she can come out. Clint is all alone next to Tony and Bruce, and he’s frowning, and maybe he is Tony’s friend after all because he’s a little boy and not a scary man. So Tony takes his hand too, so they can all be together and not scared.
Clint’s hand jerks when Tony touches him, and he turns his head away from the scene of Mr. Phil and Steve trying to call Natalia. He doesn’t pull away, though; he takes Tony’s hand and holds it firmly. Then Clint leans over and whispers extra quietly, “Are we going with them?”
“Maybe they will take us home,” Tony says, but his lungs are breathing really fast, because kidnappers don’t take kids home, and his heart his beating against his flashlight so hard it hurts.
“I don’t have a home,” Clint says, and that’s so surprising that Tony stops thinking about kidnappers and just stares at Clint. How can someone not have a home?
“Where do you sleep, and eat, and build robots?” Tony asks.
“In the orphanage. Well…they give us a bed and food…I don’t know about robots. I don’t want to go back there, except to get my brother.” And Tony can’t really imagine that, having to live in an orphanage and not being able to build robots at all! That sounds all wrong, and he doesn’t want Clint to go back either.
“You can come home with me,” Tony decides, so then Clint will have a home too. And then, because Bruce is squeezing his hand really really hard, Tony says, “You can too, Bruce. And Steve and Natalia, if they want. It’s a really big home and it has lots of empty rooms.”
“Your mom and dad won’t let us, Shorty,” Clint tells him, and Tony frowns because he isn’t short, but Clint is still holding his hand so they’re still friends. And maybe his mom and dad won’t like Tony bringing home all his new friends to live. But surely they’ll let him after Tony explains about his friends needing a home!
“They’re really nice!” Tony assures Clint, “They’re bendy factors and give lots of money away, and my dad builds things to save people, so he can save you too! And we can build robots, and…and play war, and…and Captain America!” Clint doesn’t look like he believes Tony, though, so Tony turns to Bruce instead and says, “Do you want to come?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce answers, and that isn’t fair because Tony doesn’t want Bruce to go home and leave him all alone with maybe just Clint. But then Bruce is tugging at Tony’s hand, and he’s whispering, “Does…does your dad hit?”
“No!” Tony answers, but then he bites his lip, and adds very carefully, “Not on purpose.” And Bruce is staring at him, and Clint is too, and they’re going to think Tony’s a liar because he said his dad is really really nice, and he is nice, and a hero, and sometimes he tells stories about Captain America, and he lets Tony watch him build things. Sometimes. When he’s not too busy. So Tony tries to explain better, so that they won’t stare at him and they’ll know his dad is a hero, and they’ll want to live in Tony’s house. He speaks really fast, so they will understand quicker.
“He likes to drink the stinky grown up drink, and it tastes yucky and makes kids be sick, and it makes him wobbly and dizzy so he knocks into things, and he forgets he’s really big and strong. But he builds weapons so we can kill bad guys, and he was a hero in the war, and…and…and he knew Captain America! He was his friend!”
And maybe Tony isn’t whispering anymore because the grownup men are looking at them, but this part isn’t a secret, and it’s important, so Tony doesn’t care. Clint does though, because he’s going, “Shhh,” and Bruce is going, “Nooo.”
And then when Tony is quiet, and Clint is quiet, Bruce stops saying ‘nooo’, and whispers a little bit louder than before, “Does your dad hit your mom?”
“You can’t hit girls!” Tony says in a surprised barely-whisper. And anyway, Mommy is really big, like Jarvis, and his dad can’t stumble over them, and Mommy shouts really loud and angry if he drinks a whole lot and Daddy just hangs his head, and sometimes he says bad, shouty words, and sometimes he says he’s sorry, and sometimes he tells weird stories that Tony doesn’t understand, but he never ever want to hurt Mommy. He never wants to hurt Tony either, but he forgets Tony is really small, and sometimes he squeezes too hard when he’s moving Tony out of the way so Tony cries, but only a tiny bit because he isn’t a baby.
“Can my mom live with you?” Bruce asks, his voice quiet and solemn.
“Yes,” Tony says quickly, because then Bruce will come too, and Clint, and if Tony’s mom and dad say no, then Tony will just have to sneak them in and ask Jarvis to help hide them in some empty rooms, like they did with Tony’s pet worm, except Wiggly lived in a shoebox, not an empty room. Now he just needs to ask Steve and Natalia to come too, and all his friends will be his forever and not go away. Except Steve and Natalia are with Mr. Phil. Mr. Phil seems nice but he’s a grownup and maybe he’s only pretending and really he’s a kidnapper, so maybe it should be a secret.
Natalia still doesn’t want to come out of the other room, and they have been sitting and waiting for a really really really long time, so Tony is yawning really big, and he can hear Clint’s stomach rumble. Tony doesn’t want to sit anymore.
So he doesn’t.
Bruce lets his hand slip away but then grabs at his shoulder and whispers in a high pitched, worried tone that he’s going to be in trouble. Clint stands up with him and skips ahead to stand next to Steve. Mr. Phil is sitting on the floor, and when Clint and then Tony come over, he puts his hand to his head and makes a huffing noise like Jarvis makes whenever Tony really really doesn’t want to stay where he’s supposed to. Bruce waits a moment, but he comes too, so Tony smiles and takes his hand again.
Now Clint is calling Natalia instead of Steve and telling her to hurry up so they can all go home already, and Tony looks at Mr. Phil and says, “Where are we going?”
And suddenly Clint is quiet, and Steve is quiet, and Bruce is always quiet, and everyone is looking at Mr. Phil sitting on the floor, and his expression is twitching and unhappy, but he tries to smile.
“We’re going to see a doctor to make sure you’re healthy.”
“We aren’t sick,” Tony tells him, because maybe Mr. Phil doesn’t know about the nice lady, “Steve doesn’t have as…azema, now, and Bruce isn’t a monster, and this is just a flashlight!” Mr. Phil smiles but he looks tired. Suddenly, a large suited woman is marching towards them and hisses, “Sir, Fury really wants the situation contained now, perhaps we should start to consider alternate…” but Mr. Phil looks angry and says “no, we’re not going to tra…!” before he looks at how Tony and everyone is staring, and he makes his voice softer and tells the lady, “I will bring them in my own time.”
The lady frowns, but she goes away, and Tony feels better because maybe she wanted to grab him and kidnap him and put him back in the dark scary place. Then he looks and sees that Natalia has come closer again, but not too close. Maybe she’s scared that the big lady will come back to kidnap them and doesn’t know that Mr. Phil just wants to take them to a doctor. Doctors aren’t fun, but Tony’s doctor will explain about bones and germs and needles and interesting things, and sometimes his mom AND his dad will come and be with just Tony instead of working, so that’s good, and then Jarvis will let him have cookies and milk in his bed and read him stories. But Natalia doesn’t know about the doctors.
“Hello, Natalia,” Tony says, walking towards her, “It’s ok. Mr. Phil is going to see if we’re sick and he won’t let the kidnappers put us in the bad room because he’s nice, and I have a flashlight if they turn out the lights, see?” He taps his chest, feeling the hard metal beneath his shirt.
Natalia takes a step away when he’s almost right in front of her, and then she says something but her words are funny and don’t make any sense in Tony’s ear.
“Oh,” Tony says, “I don’t know that. Are you a diplomat? Or a cook? Nous avons une cuisinière qui s’appelle Marie. Where are you from?”
Natalia answers with a word that Tony doesn’t know.
“Stop even trying, Shorty!” Clint calls and then Steve says, “Clint,” in a stern way that makes Clint mumble something that might be ‘sorry’. Tony doesn’t listen to them anyway, because Natalia is supposed to be his new friend and come live with him, and maybe if he knows some of her words, she will understand his. So he tries to say the word she said back.
Natalia jumps, her eyes going big, and she says something else, so Tony copies that too. And Natalia giggles, and says something very slowly so that Tony can copy. Tony says it very slowly too, trying to find the way the language rolls off the tongue, and Natalia laughs out loud. “You say you are a girl?” she says in English and Tony laughs too because that’s a silly thing to say.
“Hey,” Clint says, joining them, “Make him say he’s short.”
“No no,” Tony says, “How do you say…um… ‘Clint is stupid,’?”
Natalia tells them more words, and laughs at them, and Tony laughs too, and Clint sounds really silly trying to talk like Natalia. And then while they’re laughing, and Bruce and Steve are smiling, and Mr. Phil is smiling but looks really tired, the scary lady in men’s clothes comes back. She has a tray with her.
“Hello,” she says, smiling, but her smile isn’t warm like the pretty lady’s was, and they all stop laughing to stare at her. Natalia takes several steps back and Bruce hides behind Mr. Phil’s leg after Mr. Phil gets off the floor. “Are you kids hungry?” the woman asks, “I’ve brought you a snack!” And on the tray are cookies and paper cups.
Tony doesn’t like the lady, and maybe she wants to give them poison, but Tony also really really wants a cookie. His stomach is starting to be rumbly, and the cookies look really good, and surely no one is evil enough to put poison inside chocolate? The woman is still smiling, and no one is moving.
“What are you…” Mr. Phil starts to say, but Steve is already reaching for a cookie and saying, “Thank you, ma’am,” and he takes a bite. And when Steve doesn’t fall over or start to die or spit it out, Tony decides they definitely aren’t bad poison cookies and runs over to take one. The cookies don’t taste bad, and maybe the lady in the men’s clothes isn’t mean or scary because mean people don’t give you cookies. Clint and Bruce come to take a cookie too, but Natalia stays away and stares. Maybe she really wants one too, though, because she is hopping from foot to foot, but she doesn’t want to leave her room.
Tony grabs another cookie and runs back to her and says, “Here, Natalia, what’s ‘cookie’?”
She takes it, slowly, and then says a word, so Tony smiles and says it back, but he has crumbs inside his mouth and it makes his throat tickle so he coughs.
“Alright, Tony?” says Mr. Phil, and the not-so-mean lady is holding out a cup and saying, “Don’t you all want some juice?” And the cough in Tony’s throat makes him really really thirsty, so he runs back. Steve already has his juice too, but Bruce is still nibbling his cookie really slowly, and Clint keeps trying to take more cookies even though that isn’t fair.
Tony gulps his juice and it’s cold and really sweet. Steve finishes his too, and he sits on the floor and yawns, because they have been there a really really long time so maybe its time for a nap. Or maybe it’s bedtime because Tony had been in bed before he came here. But Tony doesn’t want to sleep, and all the lights are on so it’s daytime, and tony hates naps. So Tony doesn’t sit down or yawn like Steve, and Bruce picks up a cup of juice but Clint is still stealing cookies. Then Tony remembers that maybe Natalia wants juice too, like she wanted a cookie, so he grabs another cup.
“No!” shouts the not-so-mean lady, and grabs his hand really really hard, and maybe she is mean because it hurts and shouting is scary.
“Hey!” shouts Clint and Steve together, and the lady takes the cup back, and maybe she’s a kidnapper after all and maybe Mr. Phil is safer so he goes behind Mr. Phil’s leg where the lady can’t reach him.
“I’m sorry,” says the lady, and her smile is really weird, like it isn’t a smile. Who smiles when they say they’re sorry, anyway? Saying sorry is a time to look at the floor or look at someone’s eyes and feel sad or angry or have the bad feeling inside your tummy because you were bad and maybe everyone will hate you and not want to see you ever again. But she smiles, and she says, “We have to share, Tony. Everyone gets one cup.”
“It was for Natalia,” Tony says, and it’s a really long sentence because he has to take a gulp of air after each word because his chest is too tight to talk.
“How sweet,” says the weird smiling lady, “Natalia should have some juice. How about if I leave it here on the floor, and then she can come and pick it up? And here’s some juice for Clint! Aren’t you thirsty?”
“No,” Clint says, glaring at her. Bruce is glaring too, and his shirt is wet with spilled juice and he’s breathing really hard, and Mr. Phil is saying, “I said I’d handle this,” in a really angry voice, and he is shaking so hard that Tony has to hold on tight before he falls over.
“Come on, everyone, don’t you want your snacks?” the lady says, but everyone just glares at her, and no one is drinking the juice or eating the cookies. And the lady sighs and looks sad, and says, “I’m sorry I scared Tony. But he’s okay, look, so let’s just sit down and finish snack time, okay?”
And maybe it’s the ground that’s shaking, because Tony can’t hold onto Mr. Phil anymore and falls over. He feels really funny, and it’s scary, like the floor isn’t going to hold him up anymore, and Mr. Phil’s face is really big right over him and he’s saying, “Tony?” but even though his face is right there, his voice is really really far like he’s shouting into a hole, and maybe Tony’s in a hole, and maybe he’s back in the bad place and they’re going to turn out the lights and if his tummy gets sick and makes him throw up again they’re going to be so so angry. And other people are shouting down into his hole and then he hears someone roar, like a lion or a dragon or a monster.
Before he can open his eyes, to see if the lights are gone or if people are angry or if there really is a monster, the entire world shuts down.