Nick Fury had no idea what he was doing.
He also, to be honest, really had no idea what was going on – or rather, what had gone on to put him in the position he now found himself in. He just knew that somehow, between one day and the next, the world had been different. Everything had been different.
A little blond boy raced past him, tried to do a cartwheel, and failed spectacularly. The little redheaded girl following close behind him also did the cartwheel, made it, and fell on top of the downed little boy because he was in the way; she promptly hit him and then burst into tears. Another little blond boy came running into the room and tried to find out what was wrong, at which point she hit him too.
Fury stepped in – verbally – at that point. “Natasha, no hitting,” he warned. “Now apologize. ”
Three sets of blue eyes swung up to him in various stages of alarm. Natasha sniffed. The skinny little blond who had come running at the sound of crying shook his head. “She didn’t hurt me. She’s just upset.”
“I know, Steve,” Fury confirmed immediately. “But being upset isn’t a good reason to hit someone, even if you don’t hurt them.”
“If big people did that, everyone would be hitting each other all the time!” the other little blond boy piped up enthusiastically, rubbing his elbow but otherwise seeming unhurt by the tumble he’d just taken. At least until Natasha, apparently not liking the volume of his comment, hit him again. This time he howled.
Steve pulled him away from her and got between the two of them. “No hitting Clint!”
“Natasha, corner,” Fury ordered tiredly. She gave him a look, and he made his expression more stern and added a pointing finger. “Corner. Now. And next time don’t hit.”
She pouted but flounced to the nearest corner and stood facing into it, sniffling. Steve was patting Clint, who was enjoying the attention, and Fury sighed. “Steve, take Clint back to the playroom – and no more cartwheels in the house, Clint. Cartwheels are for outside.”
This time Clint sniffed. “It’s raining outside.”
“Then you’ll have to do cartwheels when it’s not raining,” Fury told him. “Go play in the playroom with your brothers.” The two little boys started moving towards the hall, but they were both moving slowly and looking between him and Natasha in her corner. Fury resisted the urge to sigh again. “Boys,” he said, in a much gentler voice. “Remember what we’ve talked about. Normal adults don’t hurt children, even when they do something bad. Your sister will be out of the corner in four more minutes and then I’ll remind her not to hit people and she can go back to playing.” Steve gave him a skeptical look. “Remind with words, Steve, just words. Normal adults don’t remind by hurting.”
Steve nodded, big blue eyes serious – but then, Steve was serious a lot. This time it was Clint who started tugging on Steve, pulling him towards the hallway. “He’s not lying. Come on, let’s play.”
Another little boy appeared, dark-haired and wary. His brown eyes took in the entire room, lingering for a moment on the little girl in the corner, and then he frowned. “Hitting?” he asked. When Steve and Clint nodded, he yelled, “NO HITTING!” in the general direction of the corner and then started dragging the reluctant Steve out of the room. “He’s not that kind of mean,” he said reassuringly. “He didn’t hit you for getting hit, right?”
Steve shook his head. “Listen to Bruce,” Clint advised sagely. He, too, started tugging on the smaller blond boy. “I want to play now.”
Fury relaxed once they were out of the room, or at least he tried to. It was hard to listen to them sometimes – okay, a lot of the time. Bruce was the only one who’d been abused by a parent, but all six of them had been abused by the people who’d taken charge after their parents had died. Because their parents had all been part of a top-secret government project, and the offspring they’d left behind had been evaluated as ‘assets’ by the people who’d been running that project.
Those people, in Nick Fury’s opinion, were unmitigatedly stupid, quasi-evil fucks. They’d treated six bright little kids who had just lost their parents like laboratory animals, testing and ‘training’ and making conclusions and writing reports. Luckily someone had found out what was going on, the White House had gotten involved, and retired agent Nick Fury had been asked by the President to take charge of the children – regular foster care or adoption had been out of the question, because some of the project’s people were still around and might come after the kids, so whoever they were settled with needed to be someone who could recognize such threats and eliminate them. Fury had hesitated, unsure if the parenting part of the job was something a no-nonsense retired covert agent who’d never had children of his own should be trusted to do, but after one look at the situation – and the kids – he’d agreed, requesting that he be allowed to adopt all six of them to prevent problems down the road. The President’s own legal council had drawn up that paperwork, and two weeks later Fury had been a father to five little boys and one little girl, all of them between five and seven years of age.
Not like he could have done anything else, though, not under the circumstances. It wasn’t just about the President of the United States asking him to take them on, although that would have been a hard request to refuse anyway; it was also about him having dreams. Dreams about six adults who had worked for him in a world where he hadn’t been retired, six very special adults who he had been horrified to recognize as the six children he’d been asked to protect.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dark head peek around the corner of the hallway entrance, and then it pulled back and a little remote-controlled truck rolled out into the room. Fury hid a smile. The truck trundled across the room and right to Natasha’s corner, where it ran into the wall beside her and stopped, spinning its wheels for a second with a little whine before shifting into idle mode. She looked down at it…and then, not to Fury’s surprise, sniffed one more time and relaxed. He knew what she was seeing, it was a lap-timer counting down from five minutes in reassuring, flashing red digital numbers. He also knew that the dark-haired little boy, who this time was Tony and not Bruce, would steer the little truck back out of the room as soon as time was almost up and then carry it back to the playroom – the lap-timer would be separated from it almost immediately and hidden somewhere until it needed to be used again.
Tony, Fury reflected sadly, had in some ways gotten the worst of things in the lab. His father had been the lead scientist on the project, and the boy himself was already showing signs of having inherited his father’s genius. He’d missed out on some of the more abusive ‘training’ because of that, but he’d been tested more and pushed harder even as they’d lavishly rewarded him for doing what they wanted. As a result he could be a spoiled little monster at times, but at other times he was so far from being a child that it was somewhere between frightening and sickening.
Bruce was also a genius, almost as smart as Tony, but he had other issues that had resulted in him not being treated nearly as well – if you could call it that – as Tony had been. Because Bruce’s mother, the researcher, had been married to Bruce’s father, the violent drunk. As far as Fury was concerned, the project heads taking that bastard out had been the only good thing they’d ever done.
Steve’s mother had also been a researcher, but his father had been dead long before the project had started – Steve’s father had been a soldier, and most of Steve’s short life had been filled with stories about his father told by the woman who had never gotten over losing him. Steve was smart too, and he had an eidetic memory so he learned amazingly fast, but he was also smaller and weaker than the other boys due to a combination of badly-managed asthma, allergies, and a heart murmur. His mother had apparently had all of the above under control, but the researchers who took her place had nearly killed the little boy with neglect – and experimentation, too, but Fury tried very hard not to think about that.
Clint was a little different. He was smart but not in Bruce or Tony’s league, and very much more active than any of the other boys. He had problems with his coordination, though, thanks to certain bastards damaging his eardrums and messing up both his balance and his hearing. They went to a specialist once a week about his ears – which did seem to be healing, albeit slowly – and went to a tumbling class every Wednesday and Friday so he would already be learning to compensate if the healing stopped short of perfection.
Natasha went to the same place every Wednesday and Friday, but she was in dance classes because they’d figured out that if she was dancing, she wasn’t fighting. No one was really sure exactly what had been going on with Natasha’s family before they’d died, but their little girl was disturbingly stoic most of the time and tended to hit if something upset her. The plans the researchers had made for Natasha’s ‘training’ – especially considering that she’d been all of four when they’d gotten hold of her – had landed several of them in special sections of their respective prisons. Fury had to watch her carefully around strange men, but Natasha went to a child psychologist on the same day Clint went to his ear doctor and the problem was slowly going away.
And then there was Thor, who was the oldest of the children and already in school. Fury didn’t want to know what had possessed the boy’s Iowa-born parents to name him that, or to raise him to be an arrogant little bully about half of the time, but he did his best to keep the boy under control while at the same time cutting him some slack. Because Thor had had a younger brother just as inexplicably named Loki who they’d been too late to save. Thor still thought Loki was around some of the time, and he tended to blame things on him – which the child psychologist said was actually pretty normal, considering that Loki was basically Thor’s imaginary friend at this point. The psychologist was working with Fury on curbing the bullying tendencies, and they’d both been surprised to find that Steve was unintentionally helping them – the sickly little boy had been raised on stories of how a hero was supposed to act, most of them probably only about half-true, but he could be a stubborn little enforcer of those impossible standards and for some reason that was resonating with belligerent little Thor.
What they hadn’t been able to curb was the way Tony picked on Steve – constantly, meanly, sometimes even viciously. Therapy wasn’t doing Tony much good, and the psychologist didn’t think they were going to be able to get through to him any time soon. So Fury cracked down hard on that bullying when he saw it, doing his best to hammer home that it wasn’t all right for Tony to treat anyone that way, not just Steve. And was at least somewhat glad that, although Tony still wasn’t absorbing that lesson, the other boys definitely were.
Which might be about to cause different problems, since they were all about to start school and there was no doubt in Fury’s mind that Clint and Bruce and possibly even Thor would not hesitate for one second if someone tried to pick on Steve. And Fury couldn’t be sure what, exactly, Tony would do in that situation either.
Luckily, he didn’t have to find out, because the situation came to a head not two weeks later after a somewhat stressful afternoon of back-to-school shopping - which had been done online because Fury wasn’t stupid or a masochist, thank you very much - was wrapping up with Steve trying to decide which backpack he should get, the green one with an eagle or the red one that had a flag on it. He kept going back and forth, arguing mostly with himself over which backpack his father would have liked, and although Fury was willing to be patient…Tony wasn’t. “He wouldn’t have wanted either one of those!” the little boy finally snapped. “He’d have wanted a black one. Plain black.”
Steve gave him an odd look. “My dad was in the Army, he liked Army things so I have to like them too,” he said. “Your dad always carried a black bag, though. I remember.”
Fury was getting ready to tell him that no, he didn’t have to like Army things if he didn’t want to, but Tony had gone red in the face. “You don’t remember ANYTHING! He was your father too, and he loved you better!”
Steve stared at Tony for a second, and then slowly shook his head. “Your dad and my dad weren’t the same person, Tony.” He raised a hand to his blond hair. “Mommy showed me pictures of my dad, I look just like him.”
“He does,” Fury confirmed, and Tony jumped. “Tony, did the men from the lab tell you that? Did they tell you Steve was your father’s little boy too?”
Tony sniffed. “They said Dad sexed with all the pretty girls in the lab.”
“Mommy loved my daddy, even though he was dead,” Steve told him. “She wouldn’t have sexed with someone else. And I was already born when she came to the city to work.”
Tony, Fury could tell, had been about to say something horrible…but he stopped, mouth open. “You…”
Steve nodded seriously. “I’m older than you, Tony. I’m almost seven. I’m just little and not in school because I was sick.”
Tony sat flat down on the floor, like his legs had gone out from under him. “They said you were my little brother.”
Steve shook his head, and got down on the floor too. He patted Tony’s leg. “I wasn’t then, but I’m your big brother now because Mr. Fury adopted us and that made us brothers. Just like Clint and Bruce and Thor. Natasha can’t be a brother, she has to be a sister instead.”
Tony was nodding slowly. “Yeah, that’s okay. So…” He looked hesitant, and embarrassed. “So my dad didn’t love you more?”
“Your dad didn’t love me at all,” Steve reassured him. “Only Mommy loved me, because I was a part of Daddy. She said I had to grow up to be just like him, because he wasn’t supposed to die and I was born to take his place.”
Fury felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Jesus Christ, and he’d thought Steve’s homelife had been the more normal out of all of them. “No, that’s not right,” he said, trying not to choke on the words. “God, no, Steve…that’s just not right. People aren’t born to replace…to replace other people, all right? They aren’t. People are born to be new people, brand new people. You weren’t born to be your daddy.”
But Steve was shaking his head, and his stubborn expression was back. “No, that’s not right, Mr. Fury – you don’t know. Mommy had me made specially, with science, so I would be Daddy when I grew up. She showed me all about it. But she said it had to be a secret, so you can’t tell anyone.”
Fury was shocked into speechlessness. Tony, however, wasn’t. His brown eyes were as round as saucers. “You’re a clone,” he blurted out. “You’re a clone! Your mom must have been a genius, even my dad couldn’t do that!”
Steve looked relieved, but he was still shaking his head. “Mommy didn’t do it, she said Dr. Erskine did it. And she said that even though I’m little and sick now, if I can live to be in puberty then I’ll turn into Daddy.” He sniffed then, one little hand coming up to rub his eyes. “She wanted Daddy back really bad.”
“A little too bad,” Fury muttered, and then he somewhat creakily got down on the floor himself and pulled the little boy into his lap. “Steve, I…all right, I do know what cloning is, and I know who Dr. Erskine was, and if anyone could have done that it was him. But Steve, there’s something you don’t know about cloning, all right? And maybe your mom didn’t know it either. It doesn’t work exactly like people want it to, and the babies it makes are usually sick when they’re born – they have problems just like you do. But your daddy didn’t have those problems, did he?” Wet blue eyes turned up to him, and Steve shook his head. Fury ruffled his hair. “Steve, that proves you’re not him. People aren’t just a body, they aren’t just cells and DNA – they’re memories and experiences, too. Your daddy had a different family and different friends and a different home, and he wasn’t sick. He was a different person.”
“He was a hero.”
It was a whisper. Fury assuaged the edge of fear by nodding. “Yes, he was – he was a soldier, soldiers get lots of opportunities to be heroes. But he didn’t think he was a hero, he just thought he was a soldier doing a soldier’s job. It’s other people who decided he was a hero, and that’s how that’s supposed to work.” He stroked the blond hair again. “You do your best to grow up to be a good man, a man who knows right from wrong, a man who tries to do the right thing when he can because it’s the right thing to do. You can try to be like your dad if you want, but you don’t have to be your dad – because you’re Steven Fury, and Steven Fury can be a really good man even though he’s a different man than his father.”
Steve cried for a long time on Fury’s lap, and while Fury was holding him Tony climbed up onto the chair and picked out a new bookbag for him, a blue one with a star on it. “His favorite color is blue,” he said. “He should have a blue one, not one of those other ones.”
“I think so too,” Fury told him, and then pulled him back down onto the floor so he could have a hug too. “If there are any more things they told you that might not be true, all you have to do is ask me and I’ll check for you, okay?” he requested. “Because those guys lied to all of you about some really weird things. And no, your dad didn’t have sex with all the women in the lab. He went with the other people in the lab after work sometimes to have a drink or eat dinner, and sometimes he would flirt with them for fun, but he wasn’t having sex with any of them.”
Fury knew this because the woman Howard Stark had been having sex with was the person who’d gotten them all killed…but he didn’t think Tony needed to know that yet. Maybe when he was older.
Maybe when Fury was able to find out if Tony had come from the same place Steve had: Dr. Erskine’s lab. Because just like Steve, Tony looked exactly like his father. And Howard had worked very closely with Dr. Erskine for years, he’d funded a good deal of the man’s research…and supposedly Tony’s unknown mother had died when Tony was born and had just put down on her hospital admittance paperwork that Howard was her baby's father, or so the story went.
Fury really, really hoped he was wrong, even though he knew he probably wasn’t. Because that wouldn’t just mean Tony was a clone…it would also mean Steve had been an experiment from the beginning, he’d been the prototype Dr. Erskine had used to work the usual bugs out of his cloning process. And the quasi-evil fuck researchers had probably known it all along. Which meant the real question was…did anyone else know? And did anyone but him know that Steve’s mother had shown her tiny, sickly son – who just happened to have an eidetic memory - ‘all about it’?
Fury was also trying really, really hard not to wonder if this could be part of the reason that one day everything had been different. For him. For the fragile little kids he remembered as strong, stubborn adults. For the whole world, maybe.
Because honestly, screw the world: he had enough to worry about with the rest of his kids starting school in a few more weeks.