Ian Rogers was familiar with pain. As much as his father had tried to protect him, Z was a dangerous place to live, and even after the Phrox took them in, supplies could be scarce. He knew hunger-pain, and blister-pain; he'd once been gored (only a little!) by a hornbeast during a hunt, and his father's face had taken on that pinched, miserable look it always got when Ian was hurt. He'd been grazed by stray spears during hunts too, and there were the usual bumps and bruises of childhood play with the children of the Phrox.
So it wasn't the pain of the gunshot that made him slow to react, that tamped down his instincts; it was the sheer surprise of it. All his senses had been focused on his father, his whole being caught up in the struggle for identity -- Ian or Leopold? -- and he hadn't noticed the woman on the catwalk, or the gun in her hand. The bullet had hit him across the join of neck and shoulder, searing pain from nowhere, and when he tried to get up he lost his balance, tumbling, tumbling --
He heard his father scream as he fell, and what little part of him wasn't still taken up with I am Ian, I am Ian, I am Ian was taken up with regret that his father would be hurt, sadness that Ian was the one to hurt him. The pain was lancing up his jaw and down his arm, but soon it would be over. He would not survive the plunge, he knew that.
Then the vertigo ended, and the roiling liquid below him turned hard and cold. He slammed down onto a sheet of metal from out of nowhere, and the pain ceased abruptly, replaced by the throb of impact injuries on his hands and knees.
He rolled over, instinctively ready to spring, and saw a figure standing above him, hands upraised.
"Easy!" the figure said, backing away. "Easy, I won't hurt you, promise."
"Who are you?" Ian demanded, one hand going to his throat. The skin was undamaged, smooth and warm, no wound to be felt. "Where did you take me?"
It wasn't even a man, he thought, as the figure stepped into the light. It was a little boy, a human boy. Younger than Ian, too.
The boy offered his hand carefully, and Ian took it just as carefully and pulled himself to his feet. The boy wasn't even wearing armor, just short pants and a loose red jerkin. He had floppy dark hair and blue eyes. "You're Ian, huh?"
"How'd you know?" Ian demanded, looming over him. The boy put up his hands again.
"It's okay! I saved you!" he said.
Ian looked around. They were in a cave of some kind, filled with the sort of stuff that he'd seen in Zolandia, metal boxes with levers and lights. The mouth of the cave was glassed over, but Ian could see stars through it.
"Where am I?" he asked, blinking.
"It's kinda complicated," the other boy said.
"Uncomplicate it," Ian ordered.
The boy laughed. "Man, you sure are like your dad."
"You know my dad?"
"A version of him," the boy said, which made no sense. He gestured for Ian to sit in one of the chairs near the mouth of the cave. "Go ahead. Sit down."
The boy threw himself into one of the chairs, and Ian settled carefully on the edge of another.
"My name's Anthony," the boy said. "I'm nine. You're Ian and you're twelve. Your dad is Steve Rogers."
"How do you know so much?" Ian asked, leaning over to look through the glass. Space stretched out endlessly below him and he jerked back. Not a cave, then.
"It's kind of what I do," Anthony said. "Look, it's okay, you're safe here. My dad is Tony Stark. Our dads are friends."
"Dad didn't say Tony Stark had a son," Ian said suspiciously. Anthony sighed and rubbed his face.
"He didn't. I told you it's complicated," he said. "You know how you grew up in Dimension Z?"
"Yeah..." Ian said, giving him a suspicious look.
"And...like, your dad, he grew up on Earth, and he wanted to go back."
"He talked about it sometimes," Ian agreed. He looked wistfully out at the stars. "Am I dead?"
"Jeez, no. Look. There are a lot of dimensions, okay? And some of 'em are sort of alike. Well, I come from a dimension like Earth but not the same Earth, right? You get it?"
Ian stared at him.
"Okay, the point is, there was this really bad guy coming to get me, so I had to get out of there fast," Anthony continued. "Really fast. He killed Tony," he added sadly. "So I said, get me OUT of here, okay? But it took so much energy that I had some left over -- like, you can't just say, energy go away. I was gonna blow up if I didn't do something with it! And I looked around and there you were, about to die."
Ian touched his throat.
"Right! So I used up all that extra energy on you, and I saved you!" Anthony said, spreading his arms and smiling. "And now we're both safe. For now, anyway."
"Well, we can't just float around out here forever. I mean technically we could, but it'd get boring. Do you know how to play chess?" Anthony asked.
"I played checkers with my dad."
"Tony was going to teach me to play," Anthony mused. "Anyway. I put us in a spaceship. See that down there?" he added, pointing through the glass. Ian realized they were in a flying ship like Zola's, only wayyyyy higher up. He followed Anthony's gesture and saw a tiny blue dot far away.
"That's Earth," Anthony said.
"Really?" Ian asked. "It's kinda small."
"We're kinda far away," Anthony replied, sounding amused. "But the problem is it's not the right Earth. See, we have to find the right one, and there are like, trillions of them. So many I'd have to use a formula to express it all."
Ian gave him a mystified look. "You're a funny kid, you know that?"
"Yeah," Anthony said, unruffled. "We have to find the right one, where your dad is now. I'm pretty sure the one with your dad has a Tony Stark too."
"It does! Dad talked about him. They were best friends."
"He won't know who I am," Anthony said sadly. "But I figure, if I get you back to your dad, and you say we're friends..."
"Ohhh," Ian said, nodding. "Yeah. One time, I got lost in the forest near our cave and one of the Phrox came and found me, and when he brought me home Dad gave him three hornbeast hides in gratitude."
"I'd rather have cash, but point taken," Anthony said.
"But if there are so many Earths, how do we find the right one?" Ian asked.
"It'll take a while. But as long as we're up here I got plenty of food and stuff to do," Anthony replied. "You ever play video games?"
Time didn't pass the same way on the spaceship as it did in Dimension Z. No suns or moons ever rose or set, and it never rained. Anthony taught him to tell time based on a big grid of numbers and a smaller panel that showed constantly moving ones. Each day, Ian carefully marked off a space on the grid, and then he and Anthony would eat and spend the day looking for his dad.
It was tiresome work. Anthony made the little blue Earth jump around beneath them, a different Earth every time, and then he'd open a little window in his computer and they'd look in on Ian's dad. Sometimes Ian would say no; there were some he could just tell weren't his dad. Sometimes Anthony would check something and then he'd say no, without an explanation, but Ian trusted him.
They could look at plenty in an hour, but they got bored often and then Anthony would show him video games, or cartoons, or they'd play tag or hide and seek in the space ship.
"Where'd you get this space ship thing, anyway?" Ian asked one night, as they lay in their bunk beds in the little room off the main control room. The blankets were soft, and the bouncy thing he slept on took some getting used to, but he liked it, more or less. Anthony popped his head down from the top bunk.
"I made it, from designs Tony had in his head," he said. "I used to live in Tony's head."
"My dad had a person living in his chest," Ian said.
"Not quite like that. Also I wasn't super-evil like Zola."
"Oh." Ian thought about it. "How'd you get out?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
"Okay. How much longer do you think it'll be before we find my dad? It's been twelve days already."
"Shouldn't be much longer. I used your biosignature to find a small subset of Earths that are probably right."
"English, please," Ian singsonged.
"I uh. Looked at you and looked for Earths that would have people like your dad."
"But you know he's not my real dad."
"Of course he is."
"Not like blood dad though."
Anthony blew air through his lips. "Who cares about that stuff? He took care of you, didn't he?"
"Then he's your real dad and Zola can go blow himself."
Ian giggled. "Where'd you learn language like that?"
"Is he nice?"
"Course he is," Anthony said, and then added, "Was," softly.
"You think this other Tony will be?"
"I hope so. I think he must be nice in pretty much every dimension. Well, most of them." Anthony settled on the top bunk again. "The ones worth visiting. We'll find the right one soon, I'm sure of it."
"Good. I like you and all, Anthony, but I'm gettin' bored with video games."
They found it on day fourteen, though they almost cruised right past it.
"Nope, not that one," Ian said confidently, looking at an Earth where his father was a teeny tiny man with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. "Not that one neither," he said, looking at another where Dad was wearing spiky armor.
"Can't be this one," Anthony said, and was about to flick onward when Ian grabbed his arm.
"Stop!" he said. Anthony looked up at him. "Why can't it be that one?"
"The numbers don't match your biosignature," he said.
"But look!" Ian pointed at his father. So clearly his father! His beard was gone and his hair was washed and smoothed down more than usual, but he could tell -- he just knew. His heart clenched. "That's my dad!"
"Can't be," Anthony argued. "The numbers aren't right."
"Look again," Ian commanded. "What's wrong with the numbers?"
"The signature's close, but it's not..." Anthony trailed off. "Wait, lemme check something."
He did something complicated with the screen they were looking at, then sat back and blinked.
"Well, hell," he said, in his high nine-year-old voice. "That's the one."
"That's my dad! I knew it!" Ian yelled, wrapping his arms around Anthony's neck. He watched, entranced, as his father sipped from a fancy white cup of some kind. He was sitting at a table, jaw resting on his fist, watching other people talk -- there was Beast, Ian recognized him from the paintings, and a blond man he thought might be Hawkeye, and a man in a red suit that was undoubtedly Falcon. Dad had always said Falcon was his brother the same way the Phrox children were Ian's brothers and sisters -- not by birth but because there wasn't any other word for how close people could be.
Dad looked sad. Ian didn't think anyone else noticed, or maybe they were just being nice.
"How do we get there?" Ian asked.
Anthony closed the window and Ian almost yelped in disappointment.
"We're gonna fly down in the spaceship," he said cheerfully. There was a vibration under Ian's feet, and then a roar, and the whole ship tilted on its end but he didn't fall over, even though the stars were wheeling through the glass. They were pointing straight at the little blue Earth now, and even as Ian watched it got bigger and bigger until the blue and white swirls filled their vision.
"Don't distract me," Anthony said, even as Ian was opening his mouth to point out that this was getting kind of scary. With a thump, the little control room burst free of the rest of the ship, leaving it behind, and Ian just held on and watched as blue turned to green turned to grey turned red briefly and then --
Then they were under a blue sky, just like Dad had said it would be, and they were soaring over a city that would put even the best of Zolandia to shame.
"What IS this?" Ian asked.
Anthony glanced at him and laughed. "Manhattan, stupid."
"Look at all the -- how are we going to find Dad in all this?"
Anthony pointed straight ahead. "He's in there."
Ian stared hard at the little building amid the much taller ones, trying not to even blink as Anthony brought them down low. There was a thud as the ship touched ground. Anthony grabbed his hand and pulled him along, down a hallway Ian hadn't been through before and --
White sunlight scattered over green grass through a hole in the ship, and Ian caught his breath. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Behind them, the ship shimmered and vanished.
"Come on, they don't know we're here yet, I blocked their sensors," Anthony said, dragging him through the warmth of an Earth day cycle. Ian stared at everything, from the neatly built house before them to the white clouds in the blue sky. A little grey animal ran past them as they headed for the house. There was game here too, then; good.
Anthony led him confidently up a flight of stairs and pushed open a big door. Ian figured Anthony somehow knew where he was going -- he usually seemed to, even in video games -- and followed until Anthony drew up short, and voices could be heard from nearby.
" -- know what she's going to do with him when he gets older, but I guess he does live at a school," a female voice said.
"Is he a mutant?" someone else asked. Ian padded up silently behind Anthony and they both stood in the doorway, peering in.
"I don't think so, but that hardly matters, a school's a school."
"It's a school for mutants, I think it might matter a little."
"She should make sure he's legally protected," another voice said, and that was Dad, standing at a high counter, pouring liquid out of the fancy cup. "Get the adoption sorted out."
"Might be a problem, people get snakey about mutants adopting kids," someone said, joining Dad at the counter. Ian's breath caught, and he could feel Anthony tense. That was clearly Tony Stark, down to the neat little goatee. They watched as he bumped his shoulder against Dad's, giving him a look.
"All the more reason to talk to Jubilee now and make sure Shogo -- " his Dad said, but he was turning, and his eye caught both of them in the doorway.
Before Ian could speak, the cup had slipped out of Dad's hand and crashed to the floor. Tony Stark looked up, and Ian could see other people around the table looking too.
"What in the f -- " Tony Stark started to say, but Dad interrupted him with a soft, "Ian?"
"Dad," Ian said, but he couldn't move, he was suddenly terrified of all these people and Dad looked so pale --
"Oh my god," Dad said, and Ian leapt for him just as Dad slid forward onto his knees, arms going around Ian's shoulders so tight he might smother. Ian just buried his face in Dad's neck and trembled.
"My boy, oh my god," Dad was saying into his hair, and Dad was shaking too, Ian could feel it. "Ian, I'm so sorry -- "
"It's okay," Ian said, because he thought Dad might be crying and Dad never cried. He heard someone clear their throat, and Dad released him, only to grab him again by the arms, eyes scanning his face, searching for something.
"It's you," Dad said.
"Yeah," Ian answered, and grinned.
"Uh, someone want to clue me in?" a voice said in the background. Ian looked up; it was the blond man, Hawkeye. "Strange children in the mansion, Steve having nervous breakdown, I'm not comfortable with this."
"Steve," Tony Stark said. "Who's the kid?"
Dad rubbed a thumb over Ian's face, smiling. "This is Ian," he said. "He's my son."
There was a second crash; Ian saw that Falcon had knocked his cup over. Everyone was staring.
"I brought a friend!" Ian said, remembering his manners and that this was going to be something of a delicate negotiation. He squirmed out of Dad's grip and went to the doorway. Anthony was peering around the edge, watching everything with curious eyes but still mostly hidden. "Come on," Ian said, pulling on his arm. Anthony was suddenly shy.
"Who's this?" Dad asked.
"This is Anthony, he saved me," Ian said, dragging Anthony into the room. "He's from another Earth, there are a lot of them it turns out."
"You don't say," said Beast, who was a lot bigger and furrier and scarier in person. Ian casually edged between Anthony and him as he stood up from the table.
"It's all right," Dad said, holding out a hand. "C'mere, Anthony, I'm Steve."
"Steve Rogers, Captain America," Anthony said with a jerky nod. "And you're Hawkeye and Falcon and I don't know you, sir," he added to Beast. "And you're Tony Stark," he finished, gazing at Tony, who was looking dismayed.
"How did you come to be here, young man?" Beast asked. "If you're from another Earth."
"It's -- "
"Complicated," Ian finished for Anthony, grinning at him.
"I can...it might be easier if I just..." Anthony looked back at Tony, eyes narrowing in concentration.
Ian was about to ask if maybe they could sit down, but suddenly Tony bellowed in pain and dropped like a sack of bones. Ian stared in horror as the man curled up, clutching his head, but he only had a second before Dad was on his feet and had whipped Ian behind him.
"I got the kid!" someone yelled, and Ian saw Hawkeye diving for Anthony, while Falcon knelt over Tony.
"Don't you touch him!" Ian shouted, squirming away from Dad to leap for Hawkeye, but before he could sink his teeth into any vulnerable flesh, Hawkeye had grabbed Anthony. Anthony screamed and yellow light burst everywhere for a minute.
Ian rubbed his eyes and found Anthony curled up in the corner of the room, Hawkeye lying under a pile of dust in another, and Beast and Falcon both blocking Tony with their bodies.
"What'd you do that for?" he yelled, running to Anthony, heedless of his father's grab for his jerkin. He dropped down next to his friend and pulled him into his arms, glaring at everyone else in the room. "He's littler than you, leave him alone!"
"Ian, come here," Dad ordered, and Ian snarled. In the background, people were yelling at each other, and Anthony was hiding against his arm, and Beast was getting up, teeth bared --
"EVERYONE SETTLE THE GOD DAMN HELL DOWN," a new voice yelled, and silence descended on the room. Ian saw a short man built like a broad stone well step into the kitchen, sharp blades emerging from his knuckles.
Wolverine, he thought, awed. That was Wolverine, from the painting, much smaller than most of the others, but -- but you could feel the danger in him, the coiled violence waiting to spring out, like Dad on a hunt. Wolverine, Dad's soldier-friend, the fiercest of all of them.
"Hank," Dad snapped, not looking away from Ian.
"He's fine," Beast said, helping Tony up to sitting. "Tony?"
"He tried to activate Extremis," Tony said, eyes slowly focusing on Ian and Anthony. "Took me by surprise, that's all."
"Aw, wall," Hawkeye groaned, rolling to his knees.
"What kind of circus are we running today?" Wolverine asked. "Who're the kids?"
"I'll cut you if you come near him," Ian warned. Wolverine gave him a toothy grin.
"I like this one," he said. "What's your name, gutsy?"
"Ian Rogers," Ian snapped.
Wolverine turned to Dad. "Didn't know you had it in you, Cap."
"Long story," Dad said. "Ian, come here right now."
"No," Ian said.
"It's okay, I'm fine," Tony said in the background, getting to his feet. "Cap, stand down."
"You, get him out of here," Wolverine said, pointing to Beast and then to Hawkeye. "Falcon, go with them. Give the kids some breathing room."
"Cap?" Falcon asked. Dad looked really angry.
"Go," he said. "We'll sort this out."
Ian watched the others hold some kind of conference without talking. Tony had his hand on Dad's arm, looked like half to restrain him and half to hold himself up. After a minute, Wolverine looked away from them and back at Ian.
"Nobody's gonna hurt you or your pal," Wolverine said. "My name's -- "
"Wolverine, I know," Ian replied. The man glanced at Dad, eyebrow raising, and then turned back to them.
"Well, I was gonna say Logan, but whatever," he said. "I'm a teacher at a school for mutants. Your friend there, he a mutant?"
"No," Ian said, though maybe he was, it wasn't like Ian knew.
"Can I come over there? Look, claws in," Logan said, and sheathed the claws back into his arms. It was pretty cool, Ian had to admit. "Just to talk a little, all right?"
Ian looked to Dad, who nodded.
"Okay," he said, letting go of Anthony's shoulders. Anthony maintained a death grip on his arm. "This is Anthony."
Logan crouched in front of them, which Ian appreciated, since it got them nearly on eye level.
"Sometimes when kids get scared they throw a punch or two they don't mean to," he said, keeping his eyes on Anthony, who was staring up at him silently. Ian could see now, under the surface -- under the violence -- a certain kindness. Like a man who knew how to talk to wild animals because he knew about being one. "You get grabbed by some stranger, it's natural to kick a little, right?"
"Why'd Hawkeye grab you, kid?"
"I didn't mean to," Anthony whispered. "I thought -- I thought we could talk that way."
"He tried to access Extremis," Tony said. "I might have had a moment."
"I'm sorry," Anthony mumbled.
"It's okay, kid, nobody blames you," Logan said. "How'd you know how to get into Stark's head?"
"We used to," Anthony said.
"My Tony and me. We used to talk like that."
"He's from an alternate Earth," Tony said.
"So you're Ian Rogers," Logan said. Ian nodded. "And you're...Anthony Stark Junior?"
Anthony shook his head. "Just Anthony," he said.
"You're not his kid? Because I gotta tell you, you have a look," Logan said, and Anthony smiled.
"I came from Antonio Stark," he said. "Iron Man, from my world. But he's not my dad. More like..." his mouth twisted. "S'hard to explain without sounding like a creep."
Logan nodded. "Well, we got a few creeps around here, I wouldn't worry. You two hungry?"
Anthony nodded. Ian glanced at him and then nodded too. Logan stood up.
"C'mon over to the table. We gotta have some sandwiches or something around here."
Steve knew that basically everyone who had ever met Logan had been either skeptical or deeply amused when they found out he was the headmaster of a school, in charge of molding young mutant minds. Steve had been one of the very few non-mutants to approve of it, but then Steve had known Logan a lot longer than most people, and he'd seen him in war. He'd seen Logan carrying kids out of death camps during the war, and he knew the man would be a good teacher. He'd been smug about how right he was when the Jean Grey School was a success.
Now, watching Logan coax his son and this strange boy Anthony to the table, he was reminded of the war. Not that he didn't want to surge forward, snatch Ian up, and carry him somewhere safe, but where was safer than here?
When Ian sat down at the table, Steve pulled his chair around and sat next to him, close enough to sling one arm around Ian's shoulders. Ian pulled Anthony to sit on his other side, and Steve smiled a little at how warily Tony circled the table to sit across from them. Logan went to the doorway, had a quick conference with Hank, and then stood aside so Jarvis could enter.
"Ah," Jarvis said, taking in the scene calmly. "I'll make cocoa."
"And sandwiches," Anthony said, so imperiously that Jarvis smiled.
"Of course, young sir. Peanut butter, ham, or cheese?"
"Yes," Anthony agreed. Steve noticed Ian was holding his hand under the table.
"Now," Logan said, settling in at the head of the table, "I got here late. What's the story with the two'a you?"
"I think it probably starts with me," Steve said. "Ian's my son."
"Yeah, I guessed that," Logan drawled.
"Remember when I went off-grid a few weeks ago?" Steve asked. Logan nodded. "I ended up in an alternate dimension."
Tony's hands thunked to the table. "Excuse me?"
"It was only two weeks, here," Steve continued, determined to get through this, because he had frankly been dreading telling Tony about it. "About thirteen years, over there. It's some pocket place Zola set up. The whole thing was a trap. Look, long story short, I ended up in one of his godforsaken labs. There was a baby there."
Tony sighed. "You took the kid."
"You make it sound like you wouldn't have," Steve retorted. Tony held up his hands defensively. "Yes, I took Ian and I got the heck out of there. I raised Ian -- "
"Tell 'em about the Phrox," Ian whispered.
"I'm trying to be brief," Steve whispered back. "I will, later, okay?"
"Okay," Ian said, looking stubborn. Steve reflected that perhaps if he had wanted a more obedient son, he shouldn't have raised Ian to be just like himself.
"There was a battle," Steve said, eliding the details -- the struggle with Zola, Jet, Ian's terrible brainwashing. "Ian and I were on a catwalk. Sharon finally made it through and she didn't understand what was going on -- "
His throat closed up. The last few weeks had been the hardest of his life, even harder than waking up from the ice. Ian was gone, and the dark, howling hole where his son had been was slowly crushing him; Sharon was gone too, and he wasn't even sure if he could have...she had shot his son...
"She shot me," Ian said calmly. Steve looked down at him. "I fell off the catwalk."
"I thought you'd died," Steve said softly.
"It's okay though, I didn't," Ian replied, like it wasn't the moment when Steve's heart had been ripped from his chest.
He caught Logan's expression in the second before the man schooled it. Logan had a son, he remembered. Akihiro, who had died at Logan's hands. He wondered how the man lived with the pain.
"So how is it, not that I'm not happy to meetcha, kid, but how is it you're sitting here now?" Logan asked, as Jarvis put sandwiches down in front of the two boys. Anthony picked up a ham sandwich and tore into it gleefully. Ian inspected his, glanced at Anthony, and then carefully nibbled the corner of a cheese sandwich. They'd had cheese, in the caves, or something like it, but they hadn't had the right kind of grains to make good bread, despite Steve's attempts.
"Anthony saved me," Ian said. "It had to do with energy and stuff."
Logan looked at Anthony. "Guess it's your turn."
Anthony swallowed his food and took a big sip of the cocoa Jarvis had just set down (Steve saw Ian eyeball his, do likewise, and then gulp it like it might run away).
"I'm not really a little kid," he said quietly. Tony leaned forward, tilting his head, and Steve glanced at him with a quick shake -- whatever you're about to say, don't. Anthony continued, apparently oblivious. "I mean. When Tony met me, he made me look this way. It was how he could visualize me, so we could talk. But really I'm a...a thing, I'm not a person."
"Are so," Ian said. Anthony looked discontented.
"There's a really bad man," he continued. "He attacked my...my Tony and killed him to try and get to me. But I ran..."
He sat up straighter and looked dead on at Tony and said, "I utilized an extreme percentage of dark cosmic energy to temporarily breach meta-space and manifest matter long enough to escape."
Tony nodded. "Not that creepy, I've seen it happen."
Steve gave Tony a confused look. Logan was looking pretty baffled as well. Tony waved it off.
"I'm following him, you don't have to," he said. "Those are some extremely fine calculations, Anthony. How'd you get them precise enough?"
"I didn't. There was a surplus when I reached null-plateau."
"Jesus, kid, you could have swiss-cheesed the multiverse."
"I know that," Anthony said, sounding offended. "I didn't have much time!"
"So how'd you level off the formula?"
Anthony jerked a thumb at Ian. "I looked for the first loose string."
Steve tugged Ian closer, hand tight on his thin shoulder.
"He had just about the right amount of meta-space reach and...I mean, you know. He's a kid too," Anthony said. "So I grabbed him and brought him to me. Besides, I knew if I saved him someone would be grateful and it's not easy being an anthropomorphic nine year old on the other end of null-plateau."
"I am grateful," Steve said, over Ian's head. "I'm sorry about earlier."
"It's okay," Anthony replied, and took another huge bite of a sandwich. "Ian's cool anyhow."
"The coolest," Steve said, and Ian rolled his eyes. So did Tony. "We'll make sure you're looked after, Anthony."
"Told you," Anthony said to Ian, who grinned. "I can do lots of stuff, too, I'm useful. I'm good with computers and really great with math."
"I'm getting that," Tony said. "For now I think the grownups need to talk."
Anthony looked supremely unimpressed.
"Come on, kid, you're both worn out," Steve said, pushing his chair back. "We'll find you rooms in the mansion, you can get some shuteye."
"I'm not tired," Ian answered, but he had that Yes I am tired tone to his voice. Steve wanted to hug him and never, ever let him out of his sight.
"Well, then you'll get a few minutes of quiet," he said firmly. "Come on. Anthony, you too."
"Can Anthony stay with me?" Ian asked, looking up at Steve.
"Sure," Steve said, though he was one hundred percent worried about just what Anthony was capable of. "Let's go now, we'll get you two set up."
As they left, he heard Tony mutter "This is super-weird," to Logan.
The mansion had plenty of guest rooms for Avengers who had their own places but sometimes needed a bed for the night; he'd done it often enough himself, and was staying there now while he...while he pulled himself together, while he recovered from his losses. The room next to his was empty, and it had a bed big enough for an underfed twelve-year-old and a nine-year-old of uncertain origin. There wasn't much he could do about pyjamas at this stage, but Anthony crawled under the blankets without even taking his shirt off, and Ian's clothes were...not what he'd been wearing the last time they'd seen each other.
"Anthony gave me this jerkin," Ian said, noticing Steve's look. "He really is okay, you know."
"I saw you die three weeks ago, Ian," Steve replied. "I'm just a little edgy."
"It's fine, Dad. We're on Earth, like you said we would be," Ian said. "Tomorrow can you show me everything? I want to meet everyone."
"Tomorrow," Steve said firmly. Ian climbed into bed; Anthony looked like he was already asleep, bunched in a ball and hogging the blankets. Typical Stark, Steve thought, amused. Ian curled up with his back against Anthony, and Steve sat down by the side of the bed, leaning on it with his arms.
"When you fell, I was so sad," he said quietly, stroking Ian's hair. "I thought I'd never get to see you again. Since then I've been lost. I've never been so lost. And now you're here, and it makes me so happy it hurts. You are absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me, son."
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you too. More than you will ever know," Steve said, and kissed him on the forehead. "Sleep. I'll be nearby."
He only left once he was sure Ian was asleep, and then he lingered in the doorway a long time, watching. It wasn't until Jarvis appeared in the hallway that he closed the door and turned away.
"Headmaster Logan explained the situation. Anticipating the young masters may be here some time, I took the liberty of ordering clothing," Jarvis said. "It should arrive tomorrow morning."
"Thank you," Steve said. "Can we see about getting 'em some beds?"
"Of course. May I say, Captain," Jarvis added, looking awkward -- he always did when things were personal. "We have all been aware, that is to say it was difficult not to notice, that you have been troubled recently."
"Yeah," Steve agreed. "Guess it wasn't hard to tell."
"I am sure once all the details are known, we will all be terribly glad to welcome Master Ian to his new home," Jarvis continued. "Master Anthony too, of course. If they have any needs, please don't hesitate to tell me."
"I'll make sure they know," Steve said. "Ian's not used to surplus. If he's hungry, make sure he eats as much as he can. He needs to understand he's not taking resources from someone else if he eats his fill."
"I thought it might be," Steve said with a grin. "Can you point me to Tony? I'm guessing he's having fits."
"Mr. Stark is in the solarium. He has reassured the others that there will be no repeat of the incident with Agent Barton."
"Okay. Thank you, Jarvis."
"A pleasure to serve, Captain," Jarvis said, and continued on his way. Steve went to the solarium, to find the others and explain what had happened.
When Ian woke, the room was dark. There were cloth shades drawn over the window nearby, but when he climbed out of bed (careful not to wake Anthony) and pushed them aside the world outside was dark too. Nighttime. Tomorrow hadn't come yet.
He was thirsty, and he wanted to relieve himself. Anthony had instructed him in the mysteries of the Bathroom, which was much nicer than the latrine pits they'd had in Z, but he wasn't sure where they'd be in a fancy place like this. Still, even in the caverns the water springs were usually easy to find, and the outdoors was never far away.
He slipped through the door of the room and into the dim hallway. The first door he passed was half-open, and when he peered inside he could see his father sleeping.
He wound his way back to the first room they'd been in, the one with the food in it, and worked out how to make the water come from the tap without much effort. He filled one of the fancy cups with water, drained it, and then set it carefully next to the basin.
There was a tall door made completely of glass nearby, and it opened to the outside. Ian took a chance, slipped through, and emptied his bladder on a tree.
He was usually pretty good with directions, but there were so many hallways and they all looked alike. He got a little lost, but he was nearly sure he'd found the right hall again when he stumbled into a big room full of fancy chairs and the artificial lights that were everywhere around here.
There was a man sitting in one of the chairs, reading. Logan, the Wolverine, the soldier. Ian studied him. Small to be a soldier, but he did have those blades in his hands.
"Might as well come in, kid," the man called, and Ian startled. "No use gawping in doorways."
"Sorry, sir," Ian said, coming forward. "I got lost."
"Not hard to do. This place is huge. Lookin' for your dad?"
"No, I saw him, he's sleeping." Ian stood next to the wide chair. Logan took up only part of it.
"Take a load off," the man said, pointing to the cushion next to him. Ian sat, drawing his legs up and crossing them, facing Logan. "Tired?"
Logan gave him a toothy grin. "You can drop the sir."
Ian nodded, wide-eyed. "Is it true you were a soldier with my dad?" he blurted.
"Yep. Finest man I ever fought with. Long time ago now. He tell you about all of us, huh?"
"Yeah. He did pictures of you too, on the cave walls. Thor and Spider-man and Beast and Rogue and Director Nicholas Fury and Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, and Dane the Black Knight and Professor Xavier, Reed Richards and Sue and Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm and Jarvis too. But you were in the best painting," he added.
"The best one?"
"Yep. You and Sam Wilson, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Janet van Dyne, T'Challa, and my dad."
That earned him another smile. "Exalted company."
"That's what Dad said!"
"Yeah, I know him pretty well." Logan seemed to be considering Ian. "Heck of a change for you, kid, ain't it?"
"Guess so. I don't care though. Dad always said we'd get to Earth. And I got Anthony to look after."
"He seems pretty good at looking after himself."
"Maybe. But he's little and nobody trusts him."
"I know the feeling."
Ian laughed. Logan set his book aside, leaning forward.
"This world's pretty nice," he said. "But it ain't perfect, Ian. 'Specially for someone ain't used to it. Your pa's great, but he ain't the easiest man in the world to talk to either."
Ian nodded. It was fair enough.
"You get confused, you feel like you can't talk to your pa, you come see me, okay? There's nothin' I haven't heard a hundred times, believe me."
"Dad said you were a teacher for children."
"Do my best to be."
"Are there lots of other human children on this world?"
Logan let out a chuckle. "More than you'd believe, probably."
"Can I meet them?"
"Maybe in a bit, if your dad says yes. Meantime, if you want to talk to me, ask Jarvis to call me up, right?"
"Yes, s -- Logan," Ian said.
"Let's get you back to bed before your dad wakes up and rouses the whole house looking for you," Logan said.
"I'm not sleepy."
"Can you read?" Logan asked. Ian blew air through his lips derisively.
"Dad taught me."
"Here you go, then. Put on a light and tackle this," Logan said, taking a book down from the shelf. So many books! Back in Z, Dad had made a few -- hand bound with rough paper, written in with charcoal -- but these had smooth paper and amazingly even handwriting.
"What's it about?" he asked. The cover had an drawing of a map on it and two words: The Hobbit.
"It's about a little hairy guy who's a hero," Logan said.
Steve had put out the call for a general Avengers assembly the next morning, but it was hardly necessary. The superhero gossip network was efficient, and word of Ian Rogers and Anthony, the boy who looked like Tony, had already spread coast-to-coast. Heroes who weren't even on the Avengers were calling to say they'd be there, and Natasha had told him she'd been asked to represent SHIELD at the meeting.
It wasn't what Steve would have wanted, but he had to make sure the story got out properly and anyway, Ian and Anthony were solid kids. They'd weather the assembly fine, he was sure.
He'd walked into their bedroom early that morning to find Anthony still curled up in the same spot. Ian was asleep sitting up, back against the headboard, a light on next to the bed and a book discarded nearby. Apparently he'd gone exploring at some point in the night, which made Steve's chest clench uncomfortably. He'd need to tell him soon about safety in the mansion and outside of it. The second the bad guys got wind of Steve's new Achilles heel, Ian would be a target.
The boys inhaled breakfast, watched over by himself, Jarvis, and Hank McCoy. It took Ian a while to warm up to Hank, but Anthony had chattered fearlessly with him about math well above Steve's head. Hank was good with kids -- the precocious ones at least. Ian, meanwhile, had sat silently at Steve's elbow and eaten his body weight in bacon once he was assured they weren't going to run out of it.
Tony had made himself scarce. Steve wasn't surprised. His sole contribution to the question of Anthony had been "What the hell do we do with him?" which had been...well, typical Tony, but less confrontational than fearful. It was one thing to grab a kid from a supervillain and get years to practice getting fatherhood right. It was another to be suddenly confronted with a nine-year-old son. Steve assumed he was surrogate dad until Tony got his head together. It wasn't as though he minded; two kids weren't that much more trouble than one.
The assembly room of the mansion hardly held everyone who was coming, and Steve felt the usual swell of pride (chased with a hint of anxiety) when he looked them all over. Hard to be a leader of so many; never a job he'd particularly put himself up for, but one people always assumed was his. Even the ones who'd been bitterly against him during the recent Phoenix unpleasantness looked to him in times like these. Some of the newer heroes he'd barely known when he went into Dimension Z. He was still struggling to remember their names, which made him feel like a heel.
Still, chin up, face forward. It was what he'd always done.
Anthony and Ian followed him into the assembly room, and the noise of casual conversation died down quickly. Steve glanced down to check on the boys and saw Anthony putting on a brave face. Ian was eagerly looking around, obviously pairing up the real people in the room with the bedtime stories he'd heard about them. Anthony's gaze drifted to the ceiling, where Jessica and Peter were casually sitting upside-down.
"Folks," Steve said, as the silence stretched out. "Guess you all know why you're here. We have some guests at the mansion, and it's time I introduced you to them. Boys," he added, quieter, and Ian stepped in front of him, leading Anthony along by the hand. "This is Ian Rogers," he said, resting a hand on his son's shoulder. "It's a long story, and it'll be filed with SHIELD in a few days, so those of you with access can read it there, and those of you without, well, find a buddy," he said, and there was quiet laughter around the room. "Ian is my son. He was raised in a separate dimension -- I know," he said, as murmurs rose up. "Now you all should be used to this kind of thing by now, there's nobody in this room who doesn't know someone from another dimension. He's new to Earth and a lot of Earth customs, so we'd both appreciate it if you went easy on us during this transition. And this is Anthony," he continued, resting his other hand on Anthony's messy dark hair. "As near as we can work out, Anthony is a genetic copy of our Tony Stark, from an alternate universe rather than a separate dimension."
Heads turned, seeking Tony out; Tony was leaning against one of the windows, arms crossed, but he lifted his head and gave them all a sardonic little wave. Steve saw Anthony gazing at him, face blank.
"Hank and Tony know more about the physics of all this, so if you're curious about the distinction between dimension and universe, have a word with them. Anthony may know some of you, and he may know different versions of some of you, so think carefully before you ask about that."
Some of the more scientifically-minded heroes were already leaning towards Hank, who made shushing gestures at them, clearly annoyed by their rudeness.
"Natasha," Steve said, and Natasha nodded. "They'll need paperwork. Can you arrange it?"
"Of course," she said, even as Anthony tugged on Steve's sleeve. He leaned down.
"Can you trust her?" Anthony whispered.
"I promise, we can," Steve replied. He straightened. "I'd like to keep this news from getting out, but I know that's not going to last forever. Try to be as discreet as possible."
He saw nods around the room. Hopefully nobody was about to run off to Hydra or AIM or god knew who and report on them.
"Boys, go ahead and sit down," Steve said to them quietly. Ian dragged Anthony over to where Logan was sitting, and Logan stood up, freeing his chair for them. Steve nodded his appreciation.
"Ian and Anthony both have some adjusting to do. This is going to mean a leave of absence for me, one I'm pleased to take in this case. It'll be at least six months, possibly up to a year, though of course I'll be on call if we have an all-hands summons. I'll be speaking to the current Avengers roster about handing off duties, and possibly to one or two of you about filling the uniform in my absence."
Heads turned towards Bucky. Bucky was openly staring at the kids; it took him a second to notice the change in focus.
"Aw, hell no," he said. "I'm not getting suckered into that gig again."
Steve grinned. "Don't worry, Buck, you didn't make the shortlist this time," he said. Bucky looked relieved. "All right, I think that covers everything. Current Avengers, we'll discuss my leave at the usual weekly meeting. Thank you all for your understanding."
As people began to file out, heading for the kitchen where Jarvis had doughnuts and coffee waiting, Scott Lang sidled up to Steve.
"Hey," he said. "You got some smart-looking kids there."
Steve grinned. "Recruiting already?"
"Just offering. There's always room at the Foundation for the kids of Avengers."
"I saw 'em first," Logan said from behind them.
"And I'm sure the Jean Grey School would be a fine place for them, but -- "
"They aren't mutants, Logan." Scott turned to Steve. "Are they?"
"Maybe I'm branching out," Logan said.
"As flattering as it is to have Ant Man and Wolverine in a slapfight over my boy, he won't be registering anywhere for a while," Steve said. "Anthony's going to be a special case anyway. When they're ready to start formal schooling, I'm sure we'll sit down with some pamphlets or whatever you two do these days and decide what's best for them."
He saw Tony lingering near the door, and did his best to convey if you leave this room I will find you and shout at you. Tony rolled his eyes and nodded.
"Why don't you two go get some doughnuts and argue about who spends more time traumatizing the youth of tomorrow?" he suggested. "I got two kids to settle."
"I'll send you some material," Scott said, but at least he and Logan left, bickering as they went. Steve started to turn towards Tony, then stopped when he saw Clint approaching.
"Hey," Clint said, leaning against the table next to Anthony. Anthony's eyes narrowed. "No hard feelings, kid, right?"
Ian nudged Anthony.
"No hard feelings," Anthony said grudgingly. Clint put out his hand, and Steve smiled as they shook on it. "Sorry I pushed you into a wall."
"Wasn't the first time. Won't be the last. Seeya round," Clint said, and gave Steve a salute as he left. Tony brushed past him, heading for Steve, and leaned in.
"What the hell do we do now?" he asked in a whisper, in Steve's ear. His back was to the boys, who were thumb-wrestling.
"I have a plan," Steve answered.
"I usually hate your plans," Tony said.
"That's because you refuse to acknowledge my superiority as a tactician," Steve said.
"I don't know why we're even friends," Tony replied, but when Steve gave him a gentle shove he turned and put on a smile.
"So," Steve said, joining the boys at the table. "That went pretty well."
"You know a lot of people in funny costumes," Ian said, still trying to out-thumb Anthony. "Even more than I thought."
He pinned Anthony's thumb and made a triumphant noise, but Anthony had gone still, looking up at Tony.
"Hiya," Tony said awkwardly.
"Hi," Anthony replied.
"Tony's going to give us a tour of the mansion," Steve said. "Both of you need to learn you way around, and I think Anthony might like to see the labs. We'll pick you out some bedrooms and this afternoon we'll go out and see the city a little, if you like."
"We want to share a room," Ian said. Anthony nodded sharply. "We had bunk beds before."
"We have plenty of rooms," Tony said.
"Before?" Steve asked.
"But we want to share," Ian insisted, ignoring him. "We want the room we had, only with bunk beds."
"That's fine," Steve said. "I'm sure Jarvis can set that up."
"Yeah, easy," Tony said. "I'll go let him know."
Steve grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. "After the tour."
"Right. The tour," Tony repeated. "Uh. You want to start at the top and work our way down?"
The roof of Avengers Mansion had once been the launching pad for the quinjets, but those were at Stark Tower now; the mansion wasn't really HQ as much as it was a barracks, which Steve felt at least made it safer for the kids. The jet bay had been refitted as a swimming pool, complete with a spread of grass nearby and a couple of trees, part of Tony's green initiative. Anthony immediately went to the edge of the roof and stared out at the city. Ian regarded the pool with wonder.
"Just for swimming in?" he asked Tony.
"Yeah, don't drink the water," Tony said.
"You don't even keep fish in it?"
"There's a fish pond on the grounds."
"Not for fishing in," Steve added. "If you want to eat fish, all you have to do is ask Jarvis."
"In my universe we lost the Empire State Building," Anthony said, rejoining them at the pool's edge. "It's nice it's back."
"Lost it?" Tony asked.
"There was a flood," Anthony said, shrugging.
"Let's go look at the gym downstairs," Steve said.
The practice rooms with the real, dangerous equipment were all below ground, but there was a pretty standard gym on the fourth floor -- basketball court, weights, workout equipment, and a pervasive smell of honest sweat from the locker rooms. Anthony and Ian immediately got into a one-on-one soccer match with a random ball that had been lying around.
"Look, no insult to your kid, but these two are messed up," Tony said, watching them play.
"They'll rebound. Kids are flexible," Steve replied. "All the more reason they need to be here under our eye for a while."
"Under your eye."
"Tony, you can't just walk away from him. Can't you see how he's watching you?"
"Kids aren't my thing, you know that."
"You're fine with kids. It's just this kid who's scaring you."
"I'm not scared of a nine year old."
"Really? I'd be terrified of nine-year-old Tony Stark."
Tony snorted. "Yeah you would. I was an asshole."
"Low blow, Captain Dad." Tony crossed his arms. "My point is, he's better off with you. You got a handle on this."
"I don't know exactly what Anthony's story is," Steve said. "But he clearly had a very close relationship with his Tony. You're equipped to talk with him on his level, which is way above Ian's, and probably above mine. You can't run out on this just because you didn't expect it."
"You mean you're not going to let me."
"More or less. Come on, Tony, you risk your life to save the planet, you can't put aside a few hours a day for one kid?"
"Resilient -- "
"You sold Resilient."
"Which means I need to start -- "
"Tony," Steve said. "What you need to do is prevent Anthony from thinking he came across a universe, rescued my son, and brought him home to me and his reward is his father avoiding and ignoring him."
"You really want to be his gene donor, would that be better?"
"It's more accurate," Tony pointed out.
"Genius or not, he's nine," Steve said, and played his ace while Anthony dodged around Ian and kicked the soccer ball against the wall for a goal. "Ducking out of this, that's the kind of thing your father would do."
Tony stiffened. "You fucker."
"Tell me I'm lying."
"You motherfucker, you don't get to call Howard on me."
"Then don't act like him," Steve said, turning to face him. "I knew your father. He was a good man but I know he screwed it up with you. It's a testament to your character that you overcame that. You're a good man too, and you can make a different call." He turned back to the boys. "I did."
"Steve, nobody in this universe is going to realistically hold me up to you as a measure."
"I do." Steve stepped forward. "Come on, guys. Second floor is the labs and the library. If you're lucky, Hank'll be there and he'll let you blow something up."
"Awesome!" Anthony yelled.
The library, which Steve had high hopes for, was something of a bust. Ian looked around, clearly impressed, but pointed out that he already had a book Logan had given him. Steve made a mental note to find out when and how that had happened. Anthony scoffed and said he could find whatever he needed on wikipedia. Tony did look somewhat delighted by that, which was progress.
The labs on the rest of the floor were shut down and locked -- most of the Avengers, if they were so inclined, had better labs elsewhere, and these were just for emergency work.
The little kitchenette at the end of the hall had some people in it. Hank Pym, Hank McCoy, and Bruce Banner were clustered around a table -- Tony'd had whiteboards put on the countertops a long time ago, the third or fourth time he'd come in to find the tables covered in magic marker or lipstick. They were scribbling equations on the surface now, rubbing them out and occasionally writing over each other. They were so engrossed in their discussion they didn't notice Anthony until he popped his head over the edge of the table and announced, "Your math is wrong."
"Just the lad we wanted," McCoy said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "We were working out your energy expenditure. Which one of us is incorrect?"
"All of you," Anthony replied confidently. Banner and Pym exchanged looks. "The basic premise of your formula is flawed."
Steve watched as Tony leaned over the boy, studying the calculation in the center of the table. "There's room for error," he agreed.
"Why don't you give us a start," Pym said encouragingly. Anthony gave him a mistrustful look. "What's with the eyebrows?"
"Sorry. You're not a very nice guy on my world," Anthony replied.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Pym answered. "Tony'll vouch for me in this one, right?"
"He's weird, but he's not evil," Tony agreed, as McCoy pressed a whiteboard marker into Anthony's hand.
Steve steered Ian around the table and towards the little fridge, rummaging inside for a bottle of juice. He handed it to him and led him to another table under the windows. Ian opened the juice, took a long sip, and then turned to press his nose to the glass, staring out at the grounds and, beyond them, at Manhattan.
"How many people are on this world?" he asked, over the distant chatter of the scientists, dominated by Anthony's high, young voice.
"Six billion, give or take," Steve said.
"How many thousand is that?"
There had been three thousand Phrox, counting all the tribes; only two hundred-odd in their tribe, the one Steve had led. The biggest had over five hundred, but there'd never been a need to count above a thousand, and Ian had never learned higher numbers. Steve had always felt reading and writing was more important than 'rithmetic.
"It's six million thousands," Steve said. "Um. Six thousand thousand thousands."
"That's so many," Ian said softly. "How do they all stay fed?"
"Some don't," Steve said. "We're lucky. America is a wealthy tribe."
"How many people in our tribe?"
"In all of the country? About three hundred million. Three thousand thousands. In Manhattan, where we are now, there are a thousand thousands."
"Who leads the tribe?"
"We have a lot of leaders. We have leaders, and leaders of our leaders."
"Are you a leader?"
"Not like I was in Dimension Z," Steve said. "It's very complicated."
"I guess so, with that many people," Ian agreed. "Who is the leader of all the leaders?"
"In our country, the president. Barack Obama."
"Do you know him?"
"I've met him."
"Is he a good leader?"
"Lots of people argue about that," Steve said. "I think he is. Better than some. You know how hard it was for me just leading the Phrox."
He was aware that silence had fallen at the other table, and looked over to see Anthony capping his pen. Both Hanks and Bruce were staring down at the table in shock.
"Everything all right over there?" Steve called.
"I think I broke them," Anthony replied.
"Were you this smart when you were his age?" Pym asked Tony.
"I wasn't really into physics, back then, it was mostly robotics," Tony answered. "Uh. Anthony, if you're finished, I think we'd better leave these brains to wrestle with what you've just written."
"If you need me to explain it, I can," Anthony offered.
"No, no, I think they understand it," Tony replied. "I'm not sure they're comfortable with it."
"Oh. Well, if it's any consolation, given the randomness of the universe and the fact that molecules are unevenly dispersed, it's a mercy we got this far," Anthony said. Bruce put his face in his hands, and McCoy smiled lightly.
"A small philosopher. We'll speak more later, young Anthony," he said. Anthony waved and looked at Steve, a silent question. What next?
Steve led them towards the back stairway, down to the first floor -- the "show and tell" floor, Tony had called it, the first time he'd shown Steve around. Steve, overawed by the grandeur of the mansion, thought Tony was house-proud, and with good reason. The first floor had the assembly room, the kitchen and living room and most of the quarters, but it also had the grand reception hall and the giant ballroom for rare Avengers formal functions.
He was just starting down the stairs towards the landing when he heard Anthony whimper, and saw him grab sharply for Tony's hand. It was an instinctive movement, and the fear flickering over Anthony's face said he hadn't meant to do it.
"All right, Anthony?" he asked. Ian, on the landing, turned to look up at them.
"I don't want to take the stairs," Anthony said. "Can we take the elevator? I saw one."
"To go down?" Steve asked, brow furrowing.
"Or the other stairs," Anthony said, tugging Tony away from the stairwell. He was backing away, as if something on the stairs had scared him, but when Steve followed his line of sight all he saw was the portrait that had hung back there forever.
It was a joke, really. Tony had commissioned a bunch of portraits of superheroes over the years, singly and in groups; Steve knew a dreadful one of himself, full-length, unspeakably bold and heroic, hung in the grand ballroom, facing one of Tony, flanked by Hank McCoy and Carol Danvers. Tony had ordered one of the Fantastic Four, for political reasons, but he'd hung it in the dark back-stairway as a fond snub. Anthony was staring at the portrait as if he was afraid it would come to life and bite him.
"Ian, come up," Steve said.
"Sure," Ian replied, looking as confused as Steve felt. "It's fine, Anthony, just a little dim."
"I don't want to go that way," Anthony insisted.
Tony hitched his pants to crouch, following Anthony's look. "What's wrong with the painting? That's just the Fantastic Four. That's Sue Storm, Reed Richards -- "
"I know who they are," Anthony said sharply.
"Whoa," Steve said, as Ian joined them at the top of the stairs. "Anthony. What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I just want to take the other stairs!" Anthony said, his voice rising a little. Tony looked to Steve, haplessness written all over his face.
"Okay, that's fine," Steve said. "We'll backtrack a little, nothing to worry about."
Tony straightened. Anthony grabbed his hand again, already turning, moving away from the stairwell.
"I'll find out what happened," Ian whispered to Steve.
"How about you let us take care of Anthony," Steve said. "You just be his friend, okay?"
"But -- "
"Tony and I won't let any harm come to either of you. Don't worry about it."
Up ahead, Steve heard Anthony say, "Where are they, anyhow?"
"Who, the Fantastic Four? We're not sure," Tony replied. "They took a trip with the Richards kids. They were supposed to be back by now, but they've gone missing. Best minds in the country are trying to figure out how."
"So they aren't here?" Anthony asked, sounding relieved.
"Not right now, no."
"This is actually good," Tony continued. "We can bypass the first floor this way, hit the basement straight-up."
"What's in the basement?" Ian asked.
"The workshops and the Avengers supercomputer mainframe. All the cool stuff," Tony replied.
They almost had to bodily pry Anthony out of the workshop, once he got over whatever his problem was with the painting in the stairwell. Even once they'd lured him upstairs for lunch, he talked endlessly about the workshop and the mainframe, all the interesting things he could do or wanted to do. Ian, who'd been almost immediately bored by all the gadgets, looked perpetually amused by his suddenly talkative friend.
"Man," Tony said in the kitchen, as Steve fixed Ian a second bowl of soup and Anthony kept trying to talk around huge bites of buttered bread. "I'm beginning to see why my dad drank."
Steve shot him a look. "Do you need to call Matt?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "It was rhetorical exaggeration."
"I know this isn't easy -- "
"Steve. It's fine. I'm on top of things. Going to meetings, doing the day at a time," Tony said, reaching into his pocket and flicking something at Steve. He caught it out of the air; a little gold-colored plastic disc, cheaply stamped with a 1 on the front. "Just got my year chip."
Steve grinned and tossed it back. "Congratulations, Tony."
"Thanks. No, my point was, that kid is exactly the noisy, nonstop little shit I was at his age. Makes me all nostalgic. And kind of twitchy."
"You want me to take them solo this afternoon?"
Tony leaned against the counter, crossing his arms. "I'd like nothing better, but he's also a needy, terrified little shit, you weren't wrong. What was up with the painting?"
"I don't know. I'll talk to him."
"You think maybe he knows something we don't?"
"I think he knows a lot we don't," Steve said. He carried the bowl back to the table and set it in front of Ian. "Anthony, you want some more?"
"No, I'm okay," Anthony said. "Are we going out?"
"Soon as Ian finishes," Steve said. "Unless you guys are tired."
"I'll eat fast," Ian said.
"You'll chew your food," Steve replied.
"Can we go to the Stark Store?" Anthony asked.
Tony blinked at him. "Why?"
"I want a Starkpad."
"Pretty sure I can hook you up with a pre-retail model," Tony said.
"Cool! Can I reprogram it?"
"You probably can, yeah," Tony sighed.
Tony, as with most of the crucial moments in his life, was mainly hoping Steve knew what he was doing when they left the gates of the mansion and ventured out into the city.
The problem was, he really didn't think Steve did.
It had been hard, watching Steve withdraw the last few weeks. Everyone had noticed. Tony had privately wondered if Steve was having some kind of actual depressive episode. Now he was lit up like every day was Christmas, and when he looked at Ian -- at his son, and how bizarre was that? -- his smile was brighter than Tony had seen in weeks, if not months.
Stranger still was the quiet, dark-haired little boy who clung equally to Tony and Ian. A little Stark, a little Tony Stark, all Tony's DNA (he'd swabbed Anthony's mug from the night before). Terrifying and gratifying in equal parts. The kid was a tiny arrogant genius, and Tony had experienced a horrible moment where he actually thought, What a chip off the old block.
He was going to fuck this up. It was pretty much his MO. But until he did, he was...kind of enjoying it. Beneath the fear, beneath the how-is-this-now-my-life sensation, he liked that Anthony trusted him unconditionally, that he was the one the boy reached for when he was unsettled.
Tony was entirely uncertain it was wise for Iron Man and Captain America to take two pre-teen boys out into Manhattan. He had his usual incognito look -- sunglasses, ball cap, shapeless sweater -- and Steve was in his glass-lens coke bottle glasses and jeans, which somehow nobody ever expected Captain America to wear. Still, tempting fate.
Both boys stared out the window unceasingly as the chauffeur drove them into downtown. Jarvis, sitting next to him, looked pleased.
"Pleasant to see children in the house again," he said to Tony, as Ian asked Steve his millionth question about what they were seeing. "I remember how lovely it was to have young Miss Luna, and -- and Miss Cassie."
"Funny, I remember you mostly bickering with Luna's nanny," Tony replied. He didn't like to talk about Cassie. She might not have been his kid, but he'd been Uncle Tony, and that wound was still a little fresh.
"Differences of opinion are to be expected," Jarvis answered properly. "They seem like fine young boys, at any rate."
"Yeah," Tony answered uncertainly. Jarvis gave him a reassuring look.
"I remember when you were growing up in the mansion," he said. "Never was a more charming little gentleman than yourself, sir."
"Your memory is very selective."
"A light hand is best, I've always felt. And you turned out well, so I have no concerns about Master Anthony."
"That makes one of us."
"I'm sure Captain Rogers will take up any slack," Jarvis said. "Driver, here please. All right, young masters, here we are. Master Ian, don't wander too far from the Captain, if you please. Master Anthony, remember your manners."
"What manners?" Anthony asked cheerily, as they all piled out.
"Jarvis, where did you..." Steve asked, and Tony watched, amused, as he looked around. "I thought we'd go to Central Park or something. Where are we..."
He finally made the full turn and looked up at the sign. FAO SCHWARTZ.
"Really?" he asked, glancing at Tony.
"Hey, you got years to learn all this nurturing stuff. What I know how to do is spend," Tony replied sunnily. Anthony was already leading Ian into the store.
Steve had to admit he was pleased with his secret but probably kind of obvious plan to ease Tony into parenting. True, buying the boys armloads of toys wasn't perhaps the most paternal move in the world, but clearly Tony had put some thought into what he should do, and what he could do, and come up with a typically Tony Stark solution.
Inside, Tony caught up with Anthony and followed him off through lego sets and lunchboxes and dollhouses; Ian had stopped in front of a huge wall of stuffed animals, and Steve hovered quietly nearby. Ian studied them for a long time, not touching anything.
"They're not for eating, are they?" Ian said. "There's no meat in them? And they're not trophies."
"No. They're stuffed. They're for kids to...play with, I guess," Steve said. "Remember your Raggedy Andy?"
It hadn't really resembled the Raggedy Andy of Steve's youth; it hadn't resembled a doll at all, much, just a tied-together bundle of rags with vague arms and legs, and a face drawn on with crude pigment. Ian had loved the little doll, though, and even after he got too old for dolls he'd kept it in their room in the caves, high on a ledge in a place of honor. God knew where it was now; back in whatever remained of Dimension Z, Steve supposed.
"I remember," Ian said.
"Well, they're like that. They're all Earth animals. Bears, tigers, zebras, lions. That's a porpoise," Steve said. "That's a cow."
"Which is fiercest?"
"Probably the lion. Do you want one?"
"No," Ian said. "Dollies are for babies."
"If you want one, you can have one."
"I don't -- " Ian said, and cut off on a sharp inhale. Steve looked over his head and saw he'd found the stuffed superhero dolls.
He knew Tony had licensed their likenesses years ago -- sales of Steve's, at least, went to childrens' charities -- and he'd long ago gotten used to kids asking him to sign their Captain America dolls. They were hot sellers; only Thor sold more, and Steve privately thought that was only because Thor came with a soft hammer kids could whap each other with.
Ian reached out and touched one of the Captain Americas reverently.
"They make dolls of you?" he asked.
"Yeah," Steve said, not sure quite how to explain that. Ian took it down and studied it, from the red felt boots to the removable cowl with yellow yarn hair underneath.
"IAAAAAN!" Anthony yelled across the store, and Ian's head whipped around.
"YEAH, COMING!" he yelled back, and took off, Captain America still clutched in one hand, Steve trailing behind.
Anthony had discovered the action figures, and was playing with a store display model, making Iron Man's palms light up. Tony was looking unbearably smug.
"Nice doll," he told Steve, nodding at the toy, forgotten in Ian's hand. "Nothing as cool as my action figure, though."
"Are you going to make the twelve-inch Iron Man joke?" Steve asked.
"I am never not going to make the twelve-inch Iron Man joke," Tony replied solemnly.
"Captain America!" Anthony said, and it took Steve a second to realize he wasn't actually being addressed. "The evil Hydra soldiers are attacking!"
"Avengers Assemble!" Ian answered, shaking a Captain America action figure. "Where's Wolverine?"
"I dunno if they have one," Anthony said, looking around. "Wait, grab that one, that's Thor."
"No, I found him," Ian said triumphantly. "You go fly and attack them! We'll hit 'em low!"
"Is this what kids do with us?" Tony asked, as the two of them slammed all the action figures together. "My God."
"Welcome to parenthood," Steve said drily. "Back in Z, Ian and the Phrox kids would run around hitting each other with sticks. I figured whatever kept them out of trouble."
"GIANT LIZARD!" Anthony said, bringing a Godzilla doll into play. Tony covered his eyes.
"Can I help you gentlemen with anything?" a store attendant asked, approaching them from the side.
"Are you okay with the kids destroying your merch?" Tony asked.
"It happens," he answered with a smile. "I see they're into superheroes. The twelve-inch Iron Man is one of our best sellers."
Steve shot Tony a warning look. "What do you recommend for twelve-year-olds? Very energetic twelve-year-olds."
"Does he enjoy skateboarding?" the sales assistant asked. Steve had visions of Ian on a skateboard.
"Maybe something less...perilous," he said.
"Roller skates," Tony suggested. Steve glared. "What? Kids love roller skates."
"You love roller skates."
"Because I had them when I was a kid!"
The man smiled. "We do sell a full range of protective gear, as well as roller skates."
Ten minutes later, Ian was test-driving a pair of rollerblades and Steve was watching his life flash before his eyes. Anthony, behind him, was gliding along with enviable ease on a pair of traditional skates.
"You must be very proud of them," the attendant said. Steve sensed he was anticipating a very large commission. "Can I interest you in some educational toys for the boys?"
"Ah, I think we've got that covered," Steve said. "Anthony's above his grade level and Ian's not really an educational-toy kind of kid."
"Your partner's great with the little one," the attendant observed, as Tony grabbed Anthony right before he could body-slam Ian.
"He's got good reflexes," Steve said, before the term sunk in. "Oh, uh, we're...IAN!" he yelped, as Ian jumped a train set spread out on the floor and skidded to a stop against a display. "Mary mother of God, you are going to kill me," he said, steadying Ian with one hand.
"These are the best!" Ian said, beaming at him. "Now all I need is a spear!"
"All right, no more skating indoors," Steve said. He turned to the sales attendant. "Protective gear. Please."
Tony seemed to think they'd gotten off lightly, by the time they hauled it all up to the register: the pads and helmets and skates, the action figures and Captain America doll and a cheap plastic sword Anthony took a shine to. Tony paid, waving Steve off when he reached for his wallet.
"It's on me," he said. "My idea."
"Fine, when Ian breaks an arm I'll charge that to you, too," Steve said, just as Jarvis appeared like magic to take the bags, leading them out of the store. "Can you think of anything else we need?" he asked Tony, putting a little emphasis on need.
"I've taken the liberty of ordering the requested bunk-beds for delivery," Jarvis said. "As well as sheets and blankets. We have sufficient toiletries at the mansion already. Young Masters, is there anything else you require?" he asked, stuffing the toys into the trunk.
Ian and Anthony held a brief whispered conference.
"Thank you, we like what we have," Ian said finally. "Anthony wants to watch Looney Tunes."
"With ice cream," Anthony added.
By bedtime that night, Jarvis had badgered Jen into moving the bed out of the boys' room, and managed to convince the Hanks that between them they ought to be able to assemble a simple bunk bed set. When Steve took the boys into the bathroom, the beds were set up with Avengers logo blankets.
"I worry we are branding the children," Steve said to Jarvis, passing him in the hallway on a mission to get a glass of water for Anthony.
"Nonsense. Providing a sense of identity," Jarvis replied, shaking out a pair of Incredible Hulk towels for the bathroom.
"I get the feeling you're on Tony's side."
"As ever, Captain, I'm on the side of those who need it most," Jarvis said with a smile. "The children."
Steve sighed and continued on his way, grabbing a bottle of water -- spills less likely -- from the nearest fridge. He was just coming back from the kitchen when he heard the boys talking, and he paused outside the room.
" -- want the top bunk?" Anthony asked.
"Nah. I like the bottom," Ian said. "This way if someone attacks us, I'll have feet on the ground."
Steve felt his heart break a little.
"But nobody will, right?" Anthony asked.
"Well, I don't know," Ian said reasonably. "I mean I assume they won't. Dad would tell me if it were dangerous. Who would attack us here?"
It was a casual question, easily put, and Steve sighed inwardly. I told you to let me handle it, kid.
"Tony says the Fantastic Four are gone," Anthony said after a moment.
"But they're good guys."
"So they say," Anthony said darkly.
"What've you got against them, anyway?"
"Nothing. Forget I said anything."
Ian was silent, and Steve was about to come in when he heard Ian say, "I can't protect you if I don't know what's wrong." Another pause, and then, "You want my Captain America? I was going to just put him on the shelf but you can have him up there if you want."
"No, it's fine," Anthony answered. He drew a breath. "It's a secret. You can't tell your dad."
"I don't tell him everything."
News to Steve. Still, it made sense. He'd never told his mother everything either. Kids had their secrets. Most of them were harmless.
"Promise," Anthony insisted.
"Okay, I promise, jeez."
There was a soft, unsteady breath. "Reed Richards killed Tony. In my world. I had to watch."
Steve rested a hand against the wall, bowing his head. So that was Anthony's secret; the bad guy who'd killed his -- for all intents and purposes, his father -- was Reed Richards.
It wasn't hard to imagine. Reed was a decent guy, but he'd danced along the edge before.
"Dad says he's okay though," Ian said. "In this world. He'd say if he weren't."
"The others might be. I don't trust Richards."
"Okay. Well if he comes back and tries to get you, I'll clobber him for you," Ian said, finality in his tone. Problem solved. "I'll hit him with my rollerskates."
There was a giggle. "With your rollerskates?"
"Uh huh. Dad says a weapon is anything you can bonk someone on the head with."
"He stretches. I don't think that'd hurt him."
"Bet it'd stun him long enough for us to yell for Dad, though."
"You'd do that?" Anthony asked.
"You saved me, didn't you? Besides," Ian continued, "Dad says anyone who's bigger has to look out for anyone who's smaller."
There was a rustle, and then a curious noise.
"What are you doing?" Anthony asked.
"Sayin' prayers," Ian said. Steve smiled and waited a beat, then knocked on the half-open door. "Hey Dad!"
"Hi, kid," Steve answered, as Ian climbed into bed. He offered the bottle of water to Anthony, who took a sip and then handed it back. "You two all settled?"
"Yep," Ian said. Anthony nodded, blankets pulled up around his chin, almost lost in the sea of bedding.
"Is Tony coming?" he asked.
"I think Tony's passed out in the living room. He's not used to the two of you. I can get him, if you -- "
"No, s'okay," Anthony said hurriedly. Steve was about to say it wouldn't be a problem, but there was a shadow in the doorway, yawning. Steve nodded at Tony, then bent to kiss Ian's forehead.
"Sleep safe," he murmured. "Nobody can hurt you here."
Tony elbowed him aside, propping his chin on the rail of Anthony's bed. "You gonna fall out, rambler?" he asked.
"No," Anthony replied.
"He's fine," Ian interrupted.
"I'll be next door if you need anything," Steve said. "Don't stay up late talking."
Tony had stretched one arm out on the upper bunk, hand resting uneasily on the blankets like he wasn't sure what to do. Anthony untangled an arm and reached out, touching Tony's fingers.
"G'night," Anthony said sleepily.
"Goodnight," Tony replied. He pulled back almost reluctantly, and Steve followed him out, shutting the door gently behind him. "Do they need a nightlight or...?"
"Jarvis installed one. Come on, debrief," Steve said, leading him towards the living room. Tony dropped into one of the more comfortable chairs like he'd suddenly forgotten how to stand.
"Christ, what time is it, nearly nine o'clock? Somewhere, the twenty-two-year-old me is looking at me and shaking his head," Tony said, rubbing his face. "I'm exhausted."
"They take it out of you."
"How the hell did you deal? I mean, you had the kid since he was an infant, right? How did you do the whole feeding and diapers thing?"
"Probably ineptly. Neither of us remembers it terribly well, which is probably a mercy. I don't think I slept for about a year."
"What made you do it?" Tony asked quietly.
"He was a baby. I couldn't leave him with Zola." Steve sat forward. "We have something more important to talk about."
"Anthony's reaction to the portrait. It was Reed."
"Well, he's kind of creepy, but -- "
"In his world, Reed's a bad guy. In his world, Reed killed you and he had to watch."
Tony went still. After a moment, he scrubbed a hand through his hair.
"Shit," he groaned.
"I don't think you can enroll him at the Future Foundation."
Tony looked at Steve through his fingers. "That's where you went with that?"
Steve cocked his head.
"The kid watched his -- for all intents and purposes -- dad get murdered by a guy I sometimes share lab space with. And it's not like I don't know Reed has some deep fucking dark in him. We all do. But mostly...I mean, my parents weren't the greatest and they died a relatively terrible death, but I didn't have to watch them die in front of me." He ran his hand back up through his hair. "What the hell do we do? He probably needs therapy or something, right?"
"Both of them are going to need time and help," Steve said. "But Anthony seems thrilled just to be here, Tony. What I meant about the Future Foundation was a subtle hint."
"That I can't give him to someone else and expect him to be okay."
"More or less."
"Even if I could, the Jean Grey School's too far away," Tony groaned. "And...I mean, shit. Shit."
"I got my GED when I was fourteen, went off to MIT the next year. You've seen how he is with math. He has a jump start on me, even, because they didn't have Wikipedia when I was nine. So either I send him to college before his voice breaks, or I hire a shitload of tutors and undersocialize him, or I teach him myself. Which doesn't solve the social problem."
"He has Ian."
"Who isn't exactly going to just sit still for eight hours a day in a classroom either, is he?"
"No, but I knew that. For now I just want him to have a few weeks to get adjusted. Tony..." Steve spread his hands. "I've had his whole life to work this out. You've had a day and a half. Don't judge your options based on mine."
"What if I took him back to Seattle with me? I've still got a place out there. I could, I don't know, take a leave of absence like you are."
"Would you let us come too, if you did?" Steve asked. "I don't think we should separate him from Ian. And Ian..."
"In Z, I was the leader of our Phrox clan. Ian takes the idea of protecting people very seriously."
"Can't imagine why a kid raised by you would feel that way," Tony drawled.
"You see how he is with Anthony. He needs someone to take care of. He defined himself -- both of us -- by our duties to the clan. Ian wasn't the leader of the children but he made sure the bigger kids didn't bully the little ones. Looking after Anthony is good for him, and learning how to play from Anthony is good for him too." Steve sighed. "I'm sorry, Tony, I don't mean to pour all this in your lap, but we can't change the fact that Anthony needs you, and Ian needs Anthony right now."
"We need a plan," Tony said.
"Spoken like an engineer."
"I'll make a plan," Tony continued, more or less ignoring him. "If we have a plan, everything will be fine."
"I think you may find kids don't tend to adhere to plans," Steve said.
"That's okay, I'll factor for variables."
"Tony," Steve said, as Tony stood up. He reached out and caught his arm. "Plan tomorrow. Get some rest tonight. They're here and they're safe; that's more than I thought I'd have, two days ago."
Tony nodded. "I'll be in the lab sleep suite. Wake me for breakfast."
Waking came a little sooner than either of them anticipated.
Steve, with a practiced ear, heard the shriek through his dreams and came groggily awake, aware something was wrong but not sure what. He rolled out of bed, confident things would make sense by the time he made it to his feet, and then hurried into the hallway and through the door to the boys' room. The nightlight threw yellow light over Ian's empty bed, blankets rumpled, and two huddled figures in Anthony's.
"Ian?" Steve asked, flicking the lights on. Ian, nearest the edge of the top bunk, flinched at the sudden light; he had Anthony pulled under one arm, the smaller boy's face pressed to his chest. "Anthony, are you all right?"
There was a soft sob. Steve leaned carefully against the railing of the bunk and touched Anthony's shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
"He screamed," Ian said grimly.
"I heard. Was it a nightmare?" Steve asked. Ian rarely had nightmares; their lives had never been easy, but it had been all Ian had known, and aside from infancy and the first year they'd spent with the Phrox, he'd been a deep sleeper.
"He killed him," Anthony whispered. "It was awful, he put his fingers in his brain and -- "
"Okay, it's okay," Steve said. "It's fine, you're safe here."
"But he killed Tony," Anthony sobbed, breathing hard and fast.
"Ian, look after him," Steve said, and Ian nodded. "I'll be back soon."
He ran down the hall and up the back stairwell to the lab level, where Tony was sleeping in the room normally reserved for scientists waiting on lab results to clear. Steve supposed it was comforting. Tony came awake quickly when Steve called his name.
"Nrrrr Assembly call?" Tony managed, sitting up in the bed and rubbing one eye with the heel of his hand. "Motherfucking supervillains, middle of the fucking night -- "
"It's Anthony," Steve said. Tony's head jerked up. "He needs you."
"Why?" Tony asked, bewildered but already climbing out of bed.
"He dreamed about you dying," Steve told him, as they hurried towards the stairs.
"Oh, fuck's sake, I'm not equipped for this," Tony mumbled.
"You don't have to do anything, just be there and don't be dead," Steve snapped.
"Fine, I'm coming, Jesus," Tony replied. He went through the door ahead of Steve, stepping up on the bottom rung of the bunk-ladder. "Hey, rugrats," he said, and Anthony lifted a blotchy, teary face.
Tony was opening his mouth to say something else, probably something inappropriate if his I can't deal expression was anything to go by, but Anthony pre-empted him, throwing himself across Ian to wrap his arms around Tony's neck. Tony's arms came up on autopilot and he pulled Anthony off the bed, taking the blanket with him and settling on the edge of Ian's bunk.
"I know you're not him," Anthony was saying, voice muffled against Tony's t-shirt. "I know you're not him, I'm sorry -- "
"It's fine, kiddo," Tony said, as Ian descended the ladder.
"I was scared and I didn't know what to do."
"Well, you did okay," Tony told him.
"You got here," Steve added from the doorway. "You brought Ian here too. You're safe here, Anthony."
"He killed you and I didn't know what to do," Anthony repeated.
"And yet, here you are," Tony said, which sounded cruel until Steve remembered that Anthony was Tony, smaller but no less smart. Logic held a pivotal place in their world. "You didn't know what to do but you got yourself out of there and found somewhere safe. That proves you can handle anything anyone throws at you." He paused, and an odd expression crossed his face. "But you don't have to anymore."
"I don't have to," Anthony echoed.
"But if you die -- "
"Then Steve's here," Tony said. "And if neither of us are here, there's about fifty other people who'd step in. Avengers look after their own."
"Scott and Logan are already fighting over who gets to teach you guys," Steve added.
"Logan," Ian whispered. "He's cool."
"Time enough for that later," Steve said firmly. "Anthony, you think you can sleep?"
Anthony nodded, scrubbing his face with his hands. Tony tucked up the edge of his shirt and wiped Anthony's nose with it, then looked faintly appalled at himself. He tossed the blanket back up on the top bunk, and boosted Anthony up the ladder.
"Should I stay?" Tony whispered, as Ian settled himself back into the lower bunk.
"You might want to find somewhere closer than the lab," Steve answered, flicking out the lights. "All right, guys, good-night take two."
"Night," Ian said. Anthony sniffled a response.
"I think the room on the other side is empty," Steve said, gesturing down the hall once they were outside. "Or you can bunk with me. Wouldn't be the first time."
"This is messed up," Tony said, not going one way or the other. "This is really messed up, Steve."
"You did great," Steve said.
"I am becoming my father, this is -- "
"Tony," Steve said, dragging him away from the door, towards his own room. "You were fantastic. What's the problem?"
"Literally word for word what my dad said when I was a freaked out little kid," Tony replied. "You can handle anything, don't be a coward, if you can't handle it you didn't try hard enough -- "
"Hey, whoa," Steve said, blinking at him. "That is not what you just told him."
"I almost did."
"You told him he did well and that he was safe. You said someone was always going to look out for him. You didn't say anything about being a coward or a failure or any of that bull, and you know it's bull," Steve said intently.
"Sorry, sorry, I..." Tony rubbed his forehead. "Haha, both Starks freaking out within ten minutes of each other, this really is just like my childhood. Maybe I need therapy."
"Tony," Steve said, shaking him a little. "It's the middle of the night, you just worked Anthony through a nightmare, you did fine. Take a deep breath. Figure out what you need right now and let's get back to sleep, okay?"
Tony nodded, visibly pulling himself together. "I think I need to bunk with you, if that's fine."
"Sure." Steve tilted his head at the bed, large enough to fit them both. They'd shared quarters in the field before, and one memorable time in a prison; Tony generally slept on his left side, something about the way the first RT had been positioned in his chest, and Steve put his back to Tony's, the way he'd shared a tent with Bucky during the war.
He could feel tension radiating off Tony in waves, but after a while his shoulders settled, and his breathing slowed. Steve lay awake for much of the night, listening for another cry from Anthony, but he eventually dozed off around dawn.
Logan was used to screaming children. It wasn't as bad as it sounded; running the school, he'd learned to differentiate screams of glee from screams that indicated a fistfight amongst the students from genuine screams of terror. He judged that the screams slowly nearing his position in the mansion kitchen were the screams of a child who was afraid for his life and loving every minute.
A few seconds later, Ian careened past the kitchen on a pair of rollerblades. Anthony was right behind him yelling "Slide and brake! Slide and brake!"
Logan sipped his coffee. In the distance, there was a crash. He didn't fret; anything valuable had long since been removed from the mansion after the third or fourth time it was attacked, and kids' bones knit faster than adults.