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Kidding Around

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Kidding Around by musicalluna cover showing Tony in the Iron Man suit sans helmet with the kid Avengers around his feet.

“So this happened,” Tony says when the rear hatch of the Quinjet lowers.

He's in most of the Iron Man suit. The one piece that's missing is the helmet, because it had scared Bruce.

Because he's four years old.

All the Avengers are.

Tony's holding four-year-old Steve on his right hip, his other five teammates hovering like ducklings around his legs. It had taken some coaxing to get them all to come with him, but eventually they'd accepted his half-assed explanations (and possibly the fact that there was no one else to take care of them).

"What," Maria says.

"Oh, Jesus," Rhodey sighs. “I'll help.”

Tony grins. "That's so generous of you, Sugar Plum."

"Loki," Fury growls, and sounds more resigned than annoyed.

"I want my ma," little Steve mumbles, and bursts into tears.

~ * ~

Tony hands him off to an extremely uncomfortable-looking Maria, who holds him like he's got sharp corners and is about to explode, saying, "Shh, shh!" in an increasingly frantic tone.

Rhodey meanwhile introduces himself to the rest of the gang while Tony strips out of the armor in record time. He's sweaty and wearing just a black tank top and gray sweats when he returns, but Steve is eager to get back in his arms, wrapping around him like a tiny octopus. Tony's so startled by it he nearly drops him. Adult-Steve is a touchy guy, but he won't touch Tony with a ten-foot pole.

Definitely doesn't bother Tony that Steve'll grab onto anyone but him. Nope.

Kid-Steve doesn't seem to have any hang-ups though.

It’s just. Weird.

The adult Avengers don’t trust him from Hydra.

Not long after the Battle of New York, Tony had started designing gear for them. He figured that was probably the strongest offering of goodwill he could muster (aside from inviting them all to live in the Tower). He'd designed Clint better body armor, replaced his bow, and drawn up schematics for six new types of arrows. He'd created sleeker versions of the wrist-mounted tasers Natasha loved and a uniform that was a little less showy and a little more practical. He'd come up with a new way to synthesize materials for Steve's suit and a magnetic retrieval system for the shield and stretchy pants for Bruce and— Well, nothing for Thor, but Thor was a demi-god with a magical hammer, what did he need other than room to swing?

So he'd thought he was doing pretty good teamwork-wise.

But the morning he'd presented everything to them had...not gone well.

He'd strode into the kitchen where they were all having breakfast and said, “So we all know I love sticking my nose where it doesn't belong.”

Natasha mumbled, “That's an auspicious start to the day,” and rolled her head to the side to look at him. She was seated at the breakfast bar next to Clint, who rested his leg across her lap—the man used her like a pillow or a piece of furniture.

Bruce sat a good three feet away from them, also at the breakfast bar, and he was reading something on a tablet while sipping from a mug. Thor and Steve were in the kitchen, blond heads bent close to one another. They turned in unison at Tony's entrance, and it struck Tony as it often did these days that he had an American legend and a demi-god making what looked like might be waffles in his kitchen and his life was the weirdest, coolest life.

“I think so,” he said, pointing one finger at Romanova. She watched him through slitted eyes and he wondered if she was even fully awake. This woman had scared the pants off of him six months ago. Now he thought she was kind of adorable. “I made you things.”

“That was nice of you, Tony,” Steve said and sounded a little effusive, the way he had ever since the influence of the scepter wore off. It was like he was trying to make up for what a shitlord he was on the helicarrier, which was ridiculous, he was under the influence of magic and it wasn't like Tony was really contributing kumbaya to the whole situation.

“Not just her,” Tony clarified. “For all of you. And technically they're not made yet. They're just designed. Because I thought you might want to give feedback?”

It was a question because in all honesty Tony didn't have a clue what he was doing here, but he was trying.

Steve looked startled. “For all of us?”

Bruce turned, frowning slightly. And probably surprises weren't the best thing for Ol' Green, but why was he frowning? “What kinds of things?”

Tony whirled a hand. “Oh, you know, new Bites, new arrows, magnetic recall for the shield—stuff you can use in the field.”

A beat of awkward silence followed this, which was—not exactly the reaction Tony had been expecting. He looked around at all of them, but they were exchanging glances and nobody looked at him.

“You know, like, go team! Here are some weapons and things so you don't get killed!” he tried.

Steve dragged his gaze away from Bruce. “Gee, that's really great of you to do, Tony, but we don't need anything like that. S.H.I.E.L.D. provides all the gear we need. We wouldn't want to put you out.”

“Yeah, my bow's not Stark tech, but it does the job. So you don't have to spend your time doing that.”

Natasha blinked languidly. “Our weapons are fine, we can do without yours. You've got enough on your plate.”

“We appreciate the thought though,” Bruce said, earnestly pushing his glasses up his nose.

Tony felt like he'd been doused in ice water. His lips and extremities went numb.

They didn't want his weapons.

He designed gear for them—custom gear—the best he could dream up to keep them safe and make them capable and they...didn't want it. They wanted S.H.I.E.L.D. gear instead.

He was shocked by how completely gutted he felt. Like they took a shovel to his chest and scooped everything out. What did it matter if they wanted second-rate gear from someone else?

“Oh,” he heard himself say. “Okay. Great. Consider them scrapped. Don't worry about it.”

“Tony—”

He left the kitchen.

He made his way to the workshop without remembering a single step and when he stuttered to a halt in the middle of the room, he thought, They refused to take weapons I made for them, and it rocked him again.

It couldn't be that he wasn't smart enough, the idea of that was laughable, he was Tony Stark, he could build anything.

But what if they didn't think he could?

Or maybe they just didn't trust him. He wasn't a team player. Hell, it had been Natasha who had put 'Not Recommended' in his file. Maybe they didn't trust him to have their backs.

Or it was just his weapons they didn't want. Why would they want to be outfitted by the Merchant of Death?

The workshop blurred as he threw the blueprints in the trash.

Okay. So what if his team didn't want his gear? So what if they didn't trust him? They worked together during the Battle of New York and they could do it again.

It had been a childish reaction and Tony's still trying to be the bigger man. It's fine. The team doesn't have to like him.

But, god, he'd tried so hard.

Whatever, it doesn't matter.

"Y—you're not a wobot anymore," Steve chokes and Tony jolts, shaking himself out of the memory.

"Nope," Tony says. "Told you it's just a super cool outfit."

Steve giggles once before his face screws up again. "I m-miss Ma."

"I know you do, buddy," Tony says and rocks him back and forth, stroking his tiny little back. "She'll be back for you soon."

It's a bald-faced lie, but Tony hopes they won't be babies long enough to hate him for it.

~ * ~

Steve falls asleep, tuckered out after all the excitement and then all the crying. He's half the size of the other five—looks more like a two-year-old than a four-year-old, but he'd insisted he was four. His breathing's a little wheezy on top of that, so Tony guesses the serum's not in effect.

He doesn't realize he's staring at Steve's itty bitty snot-crusted nose until Fury clears his throat.

Tony starts, head jerking up. Fury's giving him an uncomfortably shrewd look so he says the first thing that comes to mind. “You come to take a turn holding him?”

“I think he's in good hands,” Fury says, eye narrowing like it's a challenge.

Tony barks out a laugh. “Sure you do. C'mon. Give me your actual plan.”

“You are my plan,” Fury replies, like he's not trying to pull Tony's damn leg. “If you don't think you're up to it though, I'm sure we have agents who have experience with small children.”

“Oh, sure, that'd go well. They may not like me, but I know them better than a couple of random agents would.”

“So you'll be taking them?”

Tony narrows his eyes. “I was taking them no matter what.”

Nick smiles, indulgent. “Of course you were.”

~ * ~

“So, Loki, huh?” Rhodey says while they're standing in the MedBay watching as Helen Cho and her staff give the kids—his teammates, shit—medical exams, so they know exactly what it is they're dealing with.

“Yeah,” Tony sighs, smiling at the way Thor can't seem to sit still. “Aren't you glad you weren't able to make the call this time?”

“Amen to that. So what's the plan?”

Tony snorts. “You think I have a plan?”

“No, but it's polite to ask.”

Tony's humor fades quickly and he drums his fingers against the arc reactor. “They barely tolerate me as adults. I shouldn't have volunteered to take them.” Tony puts a hand over his eyes and presses down before scrubbing it over his face.

“That's not true,” Rhodey protests.

Tony snorts and cuts a wry look at him. “Your loyalty is touching, but please, I don't need you to spare my feelings.”

“Yes, you do,” Rhodey says softly.

Tony's throat tightens uncomfortably; he clears it and looks over to where Bruce's vision is being tested.

Bruce catches him looking and he immediately goes still, his face blanching.

He's scared of Tony, and that stings. Bruce is the only one who more than tolerates him and now he can't even stand to look at Tony. Sure, he's a kid, and Tony's a stranger, but it still smarts.

Tony brushes aside that train of thought.

“Loki was a lot more straight-forward than usual.”

Rhodey's eyebrows go up. “Yeah?”

Tony nods, eyes following as Helen leads Bruce over to the drawer where she has a stash of candy. He looks awed when she lets him pick one. “He didn't prevaricate or anything. He just caused enough mayhem to get our attention, then did this—” He waves at the rest of the team. “—and went poof.”

Rhodey frowns. “That's awfully low-key for him.”

“Ha,” Tony says and Rhodey groans.

“Almost like he was only there to do that?”

That makes Tony frown, too. “Yeah...”

“Okay,” Helen says, joining them. “For the most part they're healthy.”

“For the most part?” Tony says, voice rising.

Helen nods placidly. “Bruce has astigmatism. We'll order out for a pair of glasses, but he should be fine until they arrive. Clint is still partially deaf—”

“I can downsize his aid,” Tony murmurs.

“I figured as much.” She looks back over her shoulder. “Steve is the worst off. It seems the serum has been neutralized. He has astigmatism as well and we'll order glasses for him, too, of course. He also shows signs of having asthma and we confirmed that he is partially deaf as well, although to a lesser degree than Clint.”

Tony blinks. “Him and Clint both? Okay. So. Two aids.”

“I think you'll find that Steve gets along fine without one. Clint likely will as well, although he may appreciate the option to use one. I suspect Steve may also have pernicious anemia, as this is part of his historical records.” She holds out a hand and when Tony's rises to meet it, she deposits an inhaler and a small white spray bottle into his palm. “The inhaler is for his asthma—give him a few doses if it looks like he's struggling to breathe. This is B12 spray. Twice a day, spray it under his tongue. Have him hold it there as long as he can. Let me know immediately if you notice any signs he's having heart trouble.”

Tony nods, his own heart drumming frantically at the base of his throat. So not only is he taking care of kids, he's taking care of a sick kid.

“We can do this,” Rhodey says, lifting his chin.

His determination is reassuring and Tony curls his hand around Steve's prescriptions. “Yeah. We can do this.”

“Good,” Helen says, eyeing them both. “They're counting on you.”

No pressure, Tony thinks, sweat breaking out under his arms.

~ * ~

“You guys hungry?” Tony asks when they make it up to the penthouse.

Steve, who's on his hip again, perks up. “Food?” Clint just stares at him. Bruce looks at him and then away and seems to get even more nervous.

“I am famished!” Thor says. “Can we have venison?”

Tony purses his lips. “Sorry, buddy. Venison is not something I keep in the kitchen. Other suggestions?”

“PB and J?” Sam says.

Tony snaps his fingers and points. “That, I can probably do. You guys wanna help?”

“Help?” Rhodey says, voice in an undertone, “Tony, they're four years old, they can't.”

“Yes!” Steve says, obstinate and determined. “I wanna help. I can do it.”

Tony smiles at him. “'Course you can, slugger. Don't listen to Rhodey. He's a party pooper.”

Steve's nose wrinkles. “What's that?”

“What? Slugger? Or party pooper?” Tony sets him down on the counter and digs around in the cabinets for peanut butter.

“Both,” Steve says and kicks his feet.

“Don't teach him party pooper,” Rhodey says, exasperated. He pulls a stack of dishes out of the cabinets and says, “Who wants to help set the table?”

“I will!” Thor says, and Bruce nods his head so hard his curls flop back and forth.

“Wa's a party pooer?” Steve demands. Tony grins at Rhodey over his head.

“A party pooper is somebody like Rhodey, who doesn't want to have any fun.”

“My brother is a party pooer,” Thor says and Rhodey chokes on a laugh.

“You got that right, Thor,” Tony says and turns back to Steve. “A slugger is somebody who hits a baseball fantastically. You know what baseball is?”

Steve's eyes go huge and round. “Yeah, baseball's the best!”

“I like baseball,” Sam says, hands stretching up to grip at the counter. His eyes are as bright and steady as they are when he's full-grown.

“You do?” Steve demands and Sam's mouth curls into a grin.

“Yeah, I do.”

Rhodey has distributed a couple of plates to each of his enthusiastic helpers, who are now working hard to get the plates onto the table. Natasha is standing where she can see the whole room, just watching. Thor, who's a head taller than all of them, has no problem with his task, but Clint, who's the second smallest after Steve, is struggling a little. One of the plates doesn't quite make it all the way on and Rhodey moves in to help. Clint immediately scrambles back, clutching his last two plates. “I'm sorry. Sorry. I can do it; I'm sorry.”

“Hey,” Rhodey says gently, nudging the plate all the way onto the table and then crouching down. “It's fine. Don't worry about it. You're doing great. Everybody needs help sometimes.”

Clint nods, but he's swallowing convulsively and looks ready to bolt. Across the table, Bruce is frozen, watching. It's not until after Rhodey backs off again that either of them relaxes. Clint attacks the task with new determination.

Tony has Steve working on getting the bread open and he wipes a bit of peanut butter on the end of Steve's nose just because he can. He grins when Steve squawks and catches Rhodey's eye, gestures him over with a tip of his head.

It seems to relax them when Rhodey distances himself and he leans against the counter next to Tony. “Those two are on edge,” he says grimly, voice low.

Tony shrugs. “Makes sense, pretty sure both their dads hit them.”

Rhodey's expression hardens. “I don't know how to do this, Tony,” he admits after a minute. “I've got nieces and nephews, but they're not—jumpy.”

“Well, my advice to you is this: don't hit them.”

“Hit who?” Sam asks, squirming his way in between them. He lifts his arms. “Up.” He doesn't specify who, and doesn't seem to particularly care. Tony looks significantly at the knife he's using to spread peanut butter and Rhodey rolls his eyes and reaches down to pick him up. Sam drapes his arms around Rhodey's neck, rests his head on the side, his eyes watching Tony.

“Nobody,” Tony tells him. “No hitting. That's a rule.” He turns around to aim his voice at the rest of the group. “Did you hear that? No hitting allowed.”

“People or things?” Thor asks and proceeds to demonstrate what Tony thinks are probably supposed to be fighting moves before toppling onto his ass.

“Let's go with neither,” Rhodey says firmly. “No hitting. Period.”

“My mama says violence doe'n't solve anything,” Sam says, reciting the words proudly.

Steve's nose wrinkles and Tony has to smother a laugh because he bets even this age, Steve disagrees with that.

But Rhodey says, “That's exactly right,” and Sam beams.

Clint makes a face and Tony knows he doesn't buy it, but that's okay. They'll show him. “All right, munchkins, fall in. Lunch is served.”

~ * ~

Steve's a chatterbox and spends the meal talking Tony's ear off about anything and everything—his mom, how amazing Tony's house is, how much he likes drawing, how delicious his PB and J is, can he have another? Belatedly, Tony hopes to god he isn't allergic to peanuts. He doesn't seem to be.

Thor keeps Rhodey busy asking questions, but otherwise the kids don't talk to them much. Sam valiantly keeps trying to get Natasha to talk to him, but mostly gets a series of long stares and one word answers, mostly in Russian. Somewhere near the end of the meal, Tony hears her say, “I can hide ten knives in my clothes.”

Bruce shyly answers a few of Steve's questions, but he seems to shrink under the attention.

Overall, it's a success.

When it's time to clear the table, he and Rhodey tell the six of them they can go watch a movie while they clean up because Steve and Bruce's glasses have arrived, but Steve insists on staying to help. Then Clint and Bruce refuse to go and Sam decides he wants to stay, too. Thor wants to be where the party is and Natasha seems to want to keep them all in view, so everyone winds up staying.

Steve immediately, and enthusiastically, helps clear the table. Clint hovers over him like the proverbial hawk—heh, watching Steve get the plates with his hands stretched out nervously. He tries to help at one point and Steve elbows him in the ribs. “I can do it!” he yells and the dish slips right out of his hands.

Horror flits over Clint's face as he tries to grab it and fails.

The plate hits the floor with a crash and an instant later, Bruce is gone.

“That was my fault!” Clint blurts and grabs Steve, pushing until he goes behind him. His lip quivers, eyes wide with terror when Tony and Rhodey rush around the island, but he stands his ground. “It was me, it was my fault!” Steve stares at him, his little forehead twisted with confusion.

“No, it wasn',” he protests. He catches sight of Tony approaching and Clint pushes him back a little more. Tony can see it on his face as he puts together what it is Clint is scared of.

“It's fine—” Tony starts, but Steve tries to strong-arm his way past Clint, howling, “No, it wasn't, it was me, don't you touch him!” Clint wrestles him back, fighting to keep his body between Steve and Tony.

Four-year-old Clint tries to keep Steve behind him as they stand over a broken plate.

Art by lazifyre on tumblr.

“Nobody's mad,” Rhodey tries, voice as calm as he can make it. “Guys. No one's getting punished. Can we please just—”

Stop!” Tony barks, because they're scuffling and there's a broken plate on the floor and, dammit, he raised his voice. Clint flinches like it was a physical blow and Steve's face turns white, Jesus, he's probably never had an adult yell at him before. Clint sticks his chin up, even though the whole thing's trembling.

“He's little, punish me.” He steps forward and Tony curses, grabs for Clint's arm, and all the blood drains out of Clint's face.

Tony misses his arm.

Clint steps on the shattered plate. He howls.

Shit.” Tony snatches him up, ignoring the way Clint goes rigid under his hands and flails at him with tiny fists. “Steve, get back!” he barks and Clint yells, through tears, “Leave him alone!

“I got him,” Rhodey says, then, “Sorry, Little Man,” and he scoops Steve up. “Stay back,” he tells the other kids.

Clint's fists are bony and the battering hurts a little (not nearly as much as it hurts his heart), but Tony's more concerned about Clint's foot, which is dripping blood, a shard of pottery almost as big as his toe poking out of the sole of his right foot.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Tony says and catches Clint's wrists in his hand, brings them down—despite his struggling—very gently to rest in his lap. “Clint. Clint, buddy, I need you to breathe and calm down. I'm not gonna hurt you, I promise. You stepped on the broken plate and I need to look at your foot. Please. Can you do that for me? Can you breathe?”

It doesn't seem to register though. Clint bucks and writhes like a fish on a line, kicks out with his foot and cries out again when it connects with Tony's body and jars the shard.

“Shit,” Tony says again and releases his wrists to catch his ankle instead.

“Noo!” Clint wails, sniveling and Tony feels awful. He doesn't struggle as hard with his arms free, just kicks periodically, trying to dislodge Tony's hand while tears pour down his cheeks.

“Come on, Clint,” Tony says, voice going quiet. “Let me help, please.”

Then he realizes.

Clint probably can't understand him. Not with how worked up he is. Tony wracks his brain. Then, when he realizes Clint can't see him with his eyes screwed shut, he taps the middle of his chest gently. Clint's eyes crack open and he cowers back and god, that's the worst thing Tony's ever felt, having a child so small look so petrified of him. “I want to help,” he says, “Can I?” and Clint's pale little brows fold in, confusion pushing away some of the fear. He doesn't seem to know how to reply.

"What happened?" Thor demands. “My father can—”

"No, buddy," Rhodey says, catching him under the arms as he tries to go into the kitchen and lifting him with a grunt of effort, "that's okay. Clint cut his foot on a broken plate. We don't need your father. I need you to stay out until we get it cleaned up so nobody else gets hurt."

"I want to stay with Clint!" Thor protests, wriggling, and Rhodey grunts again.

"Okay!" he says, giving in. "Jesus." Carefully sidestepping the broken plate, he sets Thor on the counter next to Clint.

"Me too!" Steve demands and Rhodey just manages to snatch him up before he runs through the mess.

"As damn reckless as ever, I see," Rhodey mutters, plopping him down on Clint's other side.

"Ooh," Steve says. "You said a swear."

Tony and Rhodey both crack up. "So that's not new," Tony says.

"What's not new?" Steve asks.

"I'll tell you when you're older," Tony says and grins when Rhodey rolls his eyes.

"Owwie," Sam says, staring at Clint's foot. "Does it hurt?"

"No," Clint lies and sniffles, smearing the snot dripping down his lip with the back of his wrist.

"I'll get the first aid kit," Rhodey says. Tony digs a dustpan out from under the sink while he's gone and listens to his miniaturized teammates talk about their history of owwies. Unsurprisingly, Thor's seen his fair share of blood.

"I broke my arm when I was little," Sam says and all the other kids stare at him. He grins. "I fell off the slide."

Clint and Thor make awed noises and start slamming him with questions. Tony moves to throw out the shards and spots Bruce slipping out of a cabinet. The minute he notices Tony's attention, he freezes, so Tony pretends not to have seen him.

Natasha and Sam have moved toward the others and she's leaning close to Clint's foot, watching the blood drip onto the floor. She backs up when Tony approaches and looks up at him, eyes wide and guileless.

"Do you want to help?" Tony asks her.

She tilts her head.

"He wishes to know if you offer help," Thor says and Natasha's eyes widen a little. She nods.

Huh, he'd forgotten about All-Speak, thanks Thor. He knows he'd heard her speak in English before though. “You know English, right?” he asks.

She hesitates and then, very quietly, says, “Some.”

"Okay," he says agreeably. "Can you hold this for me?"

She doesn't need Thor to translate, accepting the first aid kit easily and holding it open so he can get to the contents.

"This is gonna sting a little," Tony warns Clint, taking his skinny little ankle in one hand. Clint gulps and nods, accepting Steve's hand when it's offered to him.

Steve still does that as an adult and Tony has to look down to hide his smile.

"Okay, one, two, three." He pulls the shard out in one movement and Clint wails, leg jerking in his grip. All the other kids jump in sympathy. "Yeah, that sucks, I know, you're doing great. Hang in there, I gotta make sure there's no more."

"Here," Rhodey says and Tony drops the big shard into his outstretched palm. Blood pours from the cut and Tony grimaces because he has to do some real poking around to be sure there's nothing left inside it.

"Stop, stop!" Clint sobs and Tony grimaces.

He shushes Clint, says, "I know, I'm sorry, I'm almost done."

"Noooo."

Sam pats his knee, face creased with concern.

"There," Tony says, as soon as he's sure it's good. "All done. All right, there you go. I won't poke it anymore, I'm sorry."

Clint sniffles, taking big, hitching breaths and Tony gives him a second to get his breath back before he flushes it out.

"You okay?" he asks. "You gonna live?"

Clint laughs reluctantly and nods.

"Good. You were great. Very tough. Last time I got a paper cut I cried for an hour. You're totally showing me up."

He's pleased when Clint laughs again, Steve scoffing, “You did not.”

"Excuse us, kids, we gotta rinse this out, we'll be right back."

He scoops Clint up and catches sight of Rhodey, who's watching him with a soft look on his face that makes Tony blush. He sticks out his tongue and the expression disappears, erased by rolling eyes. That's better.

Tony takes Clint to the sink and runs the tap over his foot for a minute or so, getting it well flushed out. He dabs it dry with a paper towel and carries him back to the counter. The bleeding's already slowed and the cut's barely visible so it will be fine. Tony smears on some Neosporin and wraps it up, checking the tightness of the gauze with his pinky. When he's done he holds his hands up and says, "There. How's that feel?"

Clint nods bashfully at him, curling a fist against his mouth.

"Good," Tony says and taps his knee. “And I’m sorry for yelling.” He looks at Steve to make sure he gets it too. “I shouldn’t have. I was worried and I yelled, and I’m sorry for that. I’ll try not to do it again.”

Clint stares at him like he’s got two heads, but Steve beams at him and says cheerfully, “I fo'give you.”

Tony huffs and packs up the kit before lifting Clint and setting him back down on the floor. "It's gonna be tender, you probably wanna go easy." Clint takes a few limping steps and then seems to find his stride.

Tony kneels and takes the kit from Natasha. "Thank you. You were an excellent nurse." She grins at him for one incredible second before remembering herself. She schools the smile back into a neutral mouth, but her eyes shine. He can't help it, he reaches out and cups her waist briefly, barely wider than his hand is long. Then he stands and drags Steve and Thor back down. "Okay, that's enough of that, I think we all deserve some ice cream."

The kids all gasp, except Thor, who says with interest, “What is ice cream?”

~ * ~

"Tony. Tony come on, this is a terrible idea," Rhodey says a little later.

Ignoring him, Tony says, "Okay, who can tell me what a robot is? Steve, I think you know a little something about this, huh?"

"A robot is a— big metal man!"

"Metal is common, yes; man, not always, although we do tend to love making them in our image."

"It is a creation to do things for us," Thor says and Tony points at him.

"Hey, that's good Thor, nice," Rhodey says and Thor beams.

"Transformers are robots," Sam says, leaning back out of Tony's grip so he can look back at Rhodey. Tony catches him before he slides over his arm and onto his head with a hand around his waist.

Rhodey grins at Sam. "That's right, too."

"Now see, I make robots," Tony says and keys in his access code to the lab. The kids all gasp, their eyes going wide when the door slides open and the lights come up. "This is my workshop where I make the robots." Sam wriggles and Tony lets him down. Steve ends up crouching down, like it's too much and he can't stand anymore, breathing, "Jeepers."

"I've got some typical robots—kids, come on, out where Daddy can show you off."

DUM-E, U, and Butterfingers come rolling out from various corners of the shop and his tiny teammates lose their minds. Natasha actually shrieks with delight before she clamps her hand over her mouth and Steve ends up sprawled on his ass, goggling at the bots.

"Wow," Bruce says, staring. "Wow."

It strikes Tony dumb briefly, because he realizes he's never once had his teammates down in the lab to introduce them to the bots. Sure, he's never invited them, but they could poke their heads in, couldn't they?

It's also not something he's going to burden their younger selves with. Tony introduces them and lets the kids climb all over the bots' struts, seeking out and testing their cameras and playing with their claws. Rhodey shakes his head, but he's grinning, too.

When they've calmed down some, Tony tells them, "So these three have a big brother and he's a special kind of robot called an AI. He's super smart, but he doesn't have a body. He lives in the whole building and his name is JARVIS."

"Hello," JARVIS says and Tony gets a kick out of the way the kids' heads swivel around trying to find him. When they can't, Sam scurries back and hides behind Rhodey's leg.

"Don't worry," Tony says, kneeling down. "JARVIS is nice. He's my friend and he protects me. He can protect you, too."

"How can he offer protection if he doesn't have a body?" Thor asks.

"That is a fantastic question. Let me show you. JARVIS, lock down the shop."

JARVIS makes a show of it, metal panels coming down in a rapid domino to cover the glass walls and locking in place with a solid thunk.

The kids look awed.

"These are adamantium, so it would take something majorly bad to get through. They're in basically every entry point in the Tower. No one can get in unless they have a battleship or, like, the Hulk, maybe."

"What's a Hulk?" Sam asks and Tony blinks. Oh, right.

"Big green guy. Very cranky. Anyway, like I said, JARVIS can protect you, too."

"He can?" Bruce says and Tony does a mental fist pump; finally he's gotten him to address him directly. He sounds skeptical, but hey, progress is progress.

"Yep. So what we're gonna do is set up special secret codes with JARVIS. Then if you're scared or don't want anybody to be near you, or somebody scary shows up, you just yell 'JARVIS, help', or whatever you want, just let him know, and JARVIS will lock down wherever you are and keep you safe. Does that sound good to you?"

Clint's eyes dart toward Steve. “But he'd let you in, right?”

Tony shakes his head. “Nope. If you ask JARVIS to do a lock down, he won't let in anybody unless you give him your special secret code and say it's okay.”

Bruce's eyes go wide. Clint's face lights up when he understands.

After that he takes the six of them through the process of setting up their secret codes and sends them into the bathroom to tell JARVIS what it is in confidence. Steve comes running out immediately after and pulls at Tony's clothes until he bends down. “My secret code is—”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Tony cuts him off. “It's secret, Steve. For you and JARVIS only. You're not supposed to tell me.”

Steve stares at him. “But...but why not? You won't tell, will you?”

“No, but that's not really the point—”

“But I want to!” Steve says and stomps his foot, tears gathering in his voice.

“Tell me, Steve,” Clint says, and gives Tony a poisonous look as he tries to shepherd Steve away.

Steve just about chokes on his excitement at being allowed to share the secret—he and his mom must have been insanely close for him to be so forthcoming and Tony will not be jealous of a woman who's been dead for 80+ years.

It's not really important that the words be secret—if Tony needed to he could get around the lockdown—the point is that they feel secure. And if they need to have secret codes to feel safe, then that's what they'll have. It's mostly an elaborate system to let him and Rhodey know they feel threatened, so they can back off. So if the kids want to share, then that's great. Maybe that bonding will carry back over to their grown-up selves. Not that they really need it. Tony's the only one who hasn't fit right in.

“Okay,” Rhodey says, sidling up beside him, “I take it back. This was a good idea.”

Tony shakes off the melancholy and grins at him. He tips his head onto Rhodey's shoulder. “I can't believe you ever doubted me.”

“Oh, yes,” Rhodey drawls, “because you are so well-known for your smart decision-making.” They're both quiet for a minute watching the kids playing. "You're good with them you know," Rhodey says eventually and Tony crosses his arms.

"So are you. Don't think I missed you helping Clint wash his hands with out pissing him off."

Rhodey elbows him, makes Tony meet his eyes. "I'm serious. You're always talking about what a terrible example Howard was and how awful you'd be at parenting, but you're not. You're great with them."

"Yeah, well," Tony mutters. "They're my team, just small. I know how to deal with them."

Rhodey huffs. "Yeah, but they're still kids and a lot of people would fall apart. You saw Hill's reaction."

"Oh, cut her a break," Tony says. "He was crying."

Rhodey rolls his eyes so hard it looks like it hurts. "Okay, fine. Don't accept the compliment. Doesn't change the fact."

"Tony, look!" Steve squeals and runs straight into Tony's legs, starts trying to climb him.

Tony hefts him up. "What have you got?"

Steve opens one hand to reveal a tiny microchip, probably swapped out of one of the suits at some point and dropped.

"DUM-E gave it to me!" he squeaks ecstatically.

"Oh, wow, that's so cool!" Tony enthuses. "You know I think that means you're his dad now. You're gonna have to change his oil and lube his parts and upgrade his programming. Are you ready for that?"

"No!" Steve cries. "That's not what it means, I can't do that I'm just a kid!"

Tony catches Rhodey smiling and shaking his head again and pretends he can't feel the warmth swelling in his chest. Okay, maybe he's not terrible at this. "Oh, sure you can," he tells Steve. "You can type right?"

"No!" Steve yells, shaking his head so hard his whole body twists.

"What?!" Tony says feigning disbelief. "I guess you're gonna need help then."

"A lot," Steve agrees and Tony laughs. He's unholy cute at this age, God.

The door to the shop opens and Tony catches Clint and Bruce closing ranks. Thor has apparently figured out that they're pretty skittish, because he moves in front of them, relaxed but ready. It's so great to see them like this, but it also feels a little like a cruel joke. They're becoming a unit without him—again.

"Oh my god," Pepper breathes from the door and Tony believes that's the "my ovaries just imploded" voice. He grins at her.

"Hey, Pep."

She glances at him and says, "Oh, Tony, look at them."

"Yeah, we've been looking all day," Rhodey says, "did you come to tap in?"

"Oh, no," she says, "I only have a few minutes, I heard from Maria and just had to come see them. Hello." She waves at Natasha, who's looking at her like she's a fairy tale come to life.

She murmurs something in Russian and Pepper kneels gingerly, careful of her white suit skirt. "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't know—"

"She says your frock is beautiful," Thor translates, scurrying forward. "I like it, too."

Steve tugs on Tony's hair and he catches his hand, says, "Hey, ow. Not the hair."

"Who is she?" Steve whispers, or at least in what he thinks is a whisper.

"That's Pepper," Tony informs him.

"She's so pretty," Steve breathes reverently.

"I know, right?"

"I like your outfit, too," Pepper is saying to Natasha. "Your tutu is very sparkly."

Natasha giggles and blushes, but doesn't cover it up as quickly as she had the last one. Bruce has crept so close he's practically touching Pepper and it's the closest Tony's seen him get to anyone yet. He's not saying anything, but Pepper, goddess that she is, touches his back lightly and says, "Hello there, I'm Pepper. What's your name?"

"Bruce," he whispers. He's much better at it than Steve.

"Hello, Bruce," Pepper whispers back. "It's very nice to meet you."

Hey. Actually, this could be good.

“Sure you can’t stay a little while, Potts?” Tony asks. She’s listening carefully to Natasha, her expression soft.

“Well,” she says, “I suppose I could stay a little while.”

Bruce and Natasha beam at her.

~ * ~

They take the kids back up to the penthouse and both Bruce and Natasha claim one of Pepper's hands on the trip. Steve wriggles until Tony lets him down and circles around them until he realizes he's not going to get Pepper's attention, at which point he gives up and goes to talk with Thor.

They've got a few hours before dinner, so Tony puts on a movie and Rhodey sits down cross-legged on the floor and tells them to teach him their favorite games.

Bruce curls up against Pepper's hip when she sits on the couch, listening while she and Natasha talk and Pepper curls one arm around him and cuddles him close.

Clint disappears for awhile, and Tony's getting worried when he hears the metal plates in the bedroom closest to the living room slide down. Ah, he should have guessed.

He goes to play his part.

"J, let me in the bedroom."

"I'm sorry, sir," JARVIS replies. "The bedroom is on lockdown. Would you like to request access from Master Barton?"

"Pretty please," Tony says and bites back his smile. He wonders if JARVIS is showing Clint the video feed.

There's a pause and then JARVIS says, "Master Barton has denied access."

"Oh," Tony replies, because he thinks it will help, "well, okay. We'll be in the living room if he needs anything."

Then he leaves. With any luck, that will give Clint what he needs to help him feel secure. He should be comfortable while he's like this, even if it's temporary.

Back in the living room, Tony's greeted with what is possibly the greatest thing he's ever witnessed. Natasha has abandoned her conversation with Pepper to join Thor, Sam, and Steve in the middle of the living room, and each one of them is attached to one of Rhodey's limbs, trying to drag him down while he roars like a monster.

"Oh, shit," Tony says and a grin breaks across his face. "JARVIS, tell me you're recording this."

"Indeed, sir."

Steve gets shaken loose and Rhodey wheels himself around, roaring triumphantly. With a shriek, Steve scrambles to his feet and takes off. “You will not best us beast!” Thor yells.

Rhodey lurches after Steve in an uneven step-shuffle, since Sam is still clinging to his other leg, giggling like a maniac.

Tony sits down on the couch next to Pepper and puts his arm across the back, leaning in to kiss her cheek. "How's it going over here?"

Bruce eyeballs him nervously, but Pepper smiles and squeezes Tony's hand. "Very good. Bruce was just telling me about his mommy. She's a wonderful singer apparently."

"Oh, your mom sings to you, too?"

Bruce curls up, hiding his face in Pepper's side.

She strokes his back. "It's okay, honey. Tony's very nice, I promise. He and Rhodey are both very kind."

Bruce peeks up at her, his tiny glasses askew. "Promise?" he whispers.

She leans down until they're almost nose to nose and taps his gently with her finger. "Promise."

Bruce giggles and covers his face and Tony squeezes Pepper's hand, grateful that she'd decided to come take a look. It's doing a world of good.

Pepper looks up at him and smiles and says, "Bruce will you tell Tony what you told me about the bots?"

Bruce glances at him and his eyes slip to his lap.

“It's okay,” Tony assures him. “You don't have to if it's private.”

“No,” he says, and goes on bashfully. “I really like them. I—”

Tony doesn't hear the rest when he's distracted by Rhodey pausing mid-roar to say, “Hey. Steve? What's going on, buddy, are you okay?”

“I'm—okay!” Steve blurts. “I'm fine! I can keep playing!”

Rhodey, who's on his hands and knees leaning over Steve laid out on his back beneath him, sits back on his heels, patting the arms Thor has wrapped around his neck. “Off for a second, Thor.”

“But—” he starts to whine.

“No!” Steve wails. “No, I can keep playing!”

“Thor,” Rhodey replies, warning thick in his voice and Thor pouts, but lets go. Sam and Natasha are pushing up off of each other and off of Rhodey's ankles, their clothes askew and Natasha's face flushed pink.

“What's going on?” Tony asks.

“I just wanted to make sure the little man is okay,” Rhodey says. “Seemed like he was having trouble catching his breath.”

“I'm—f-f-fine!” Steve yells shrilly, but he doesn't sound fine. He sounds like—

“Oh, oh shit.” A lance of fear zings across Tony's skin. “His inhaler. Jim, what did we do with his inhaler?”

“Oh, shit,” Rhodey spits, rearing back and twisting toward Tony, his eyes going wide with realization. Sam stares at them both and seems to shrink. They're freaking him out.

Tony tries to pull it together. “It's fine, it's fine, we just have to find his inhaler. Did she put it in a bag?”

“What is happening?” Thor asks, still pouting.

“I don't know, I don't remember!” Rhodey says, voice rising. “We came up, we had the kids—”

Steve's goes from labored to wheezing and Tony scrambles over, trying frantically to remember what Helen had said they should do if Steve had an asthma attack. The major thing had been the inhaler. The goddamn inhaler, what did they do with it?

“Don't panic,” Pepper says, getting to her feet, “where did you stop first? Was it in the kitchen?”

“I don't—yes? Probably?” Rhodey replies. “Shit. Shit, why didn't we keep better track?”

“Panicking is not helping,” Tony says, trying to rein in his own and his voice going a little sing-song as he cups the back of Steve's neck and lifts him upright. “Hey, hey, it's okay, Steve. Everything's gonna be fine. We're gonna find your inhaler and then you'll be right as rain, okay?”

“I—wanna—play,” Steve gasps. Tears gather in the corners of his eyes. His thin chest heaves and he gulps. “I wanna—play.

“Shh, shh, you can, you can still play, as soon as you get your breath back, just breathe for me okay?”

Steve tilts his head back and takes a shuddering breath. It whistles in his throat and Tony is pretty sure he's never been this pants-wettingly terrified in his life. “Pepper, Rhodey, guys, come on!”

Steve starts to cry in earnest, panic overtaking his determination to be okay, and that in turn makes his breathing even worse.

“It's okay, it's okay.” Tony fumbles for the tissues on the coffee table and rips one out, pinches Steve's nose with it and tries to get as much snot as he can out. “Just stay calm, stay with me, Steve.” He looks up and can see Rhodey tearing around the kitchen, can hear him yelling at Pepper in another room.

When he looks back down, Steve's lips are blue.

Chapter Text

Tony’s chest aches, as he imagines the terrible tightness Steve must feel there, his heart pounding hard against the casing of the arc reactor.

Steve takes a juddery, whaling breath that makes his tiny frame shudder and Tony calls it. That’s it, they’ll just go down to medical, he’s not going to wait when—

“Here.” Natasha grabs his hand, pulls it away from Steve, and slaps something into his palm.

It’s Steve’s inhaler.

“Oh my god,” Tony says and scrambles to get it pressed between Steve’s lips. “Okay, buddy, this is it, here we go, take a deep breath for me okay?”

Steve whimpers, but he breathes as deeply as he can and Tony depresses the plunger. “Okay, now I know you don’t want to, but hold your breath for a few seconds—that’s it, great job. You’re doing great.”

“One more,” he says when Steve breathes out shakily. He depresses it again and Steve takes another breath, deeper this time. He doesn’t have to be told to hold it this time. “There you go,” Tony says and sets the inhaler aside, rubbing circles on his back. “Good boy. You did such a good job.”

Steve’s lips regain color and that seems to be his breaking point—he starts sobbing. Tony gathers him up, cradling him against his chest and slumps back against the couch, holding him close. “Jesus, don’t scare me like that,” he breathes and kisses Steve’s forehead, feels his pulse fluttering like a bird under his fingers.

Rhodey and Pepper come rushing back in. “Tony, we can’t find it, I called medical let’s take him down now before—” Rhodey stops mid-sentence. “You found it.”

“Not me, her,” Tony says, pointing and Natasha. After a moment of just feeling Steve breathe and being overwhelmingly, sickeningly grateful for it, he reaches over and hooks his hand around the back of Natasha’s head and reels her in, pressing a rough kiss in her hair. “Good girl,” he tells her, voice thick. “You were paying attention earlier, huh? You’re so smart.”

Natasha blushes and pats Steve’s heaving shoulders gingerly.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Sam asks, voice high and worried.

“Yeah, yes, he’s gonna be fine,” Tony says and rubs Steve’s small back, shushing him.

“Oh my god,” Pepper says, sinking wobbly-kneed onto the couch, one hand pressed over her heart. “Oh my god, Tony.”

He laughs shakily. “Oh, yeah, we’re fantastic at this.”

“JARVIS, let medical know we’re all clear, will you?” Rhodey asks.

The small noises Steve is making are killing him. “You’re gonna be fine,” Tony assures Steve and holds him a little bit tighter, reassuring himself of it, too. That was awful. God. That was. God.

“Sam, sweetheart, come here,” Pepper says, and Tony looks up to see him crossing to her, eagerly climbing into her lap as he dissolves into tears, too. “Oh, honey,” Pepper says, aching, and strokes his back. “It’s okay. Everyone’s okay now. I’m sorry, you must have been very scared.”

Bruce, who appears to have never left the couch, is white-faced, but quiet, watching Tony cuddle the daylights out of Steve.

“I am not cut out for this, man,” Rhodey says and drops down on the floor next to Thor. Natasha sits down next to him and lays down across his stomach to give him a hug. Tony huffs a laugh at Rhodey’s expression, which says he’s dying of cute, and Steve stirs a little, red eyes peeking over his skinny shoulder.

“How are you doing, buddy?” Tony asks, running his fingers through his fine, blond hair. “Better?”

Steve sniffles and curls up even smaller. “Yeah,” he says, but his voice wavers.

“What’s wrong?”

Steve’s lower lip trembles, but he just looks away, curling up into a tighter ball.

Tony smooths down the soft hair at the back of his neck. “C'mon,” he murmurs. “What is it?”

Steve lifts his head so Tony leans in a little further. “Now nobody will play with m-m-me,” Steve whispers.

“No,” Tony says, drawn out, and cups Steve’s face in his hands, brushing the wet tracks on his cheeks away with his thumbs. “That’s not true. Everybody still wants to play with you.”

Rhodey pushes up on to his elbows. “Hey, what? Of course we’ll still play with you.”

“Bu-but I get s-s-sick,” Steve wails and his breathing hitches.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Tony says, “Steve, breathe.”

“But I want to pl-pl-pl-h-hey!” he sobs.

Tony is flabbergasted. “Steve, nobody is saying you can’t!”

Clint reappears, his pudgy cheeks set in a scowl. He climbs up into Tony’s lap, totally oblivious of Tony’s ow when he grabs a fistful of leg hair. “I’ll still play with you,” he says fiercely.

Steve manages to get himself under control enough to choke, “Y-you w-will?”

“Nobody wants to play with me either,” Clint tells him. “We can play. If you want.”

Fanart by alstonwiggles.

Glorious fanart by AlstonWiggles.

Steve sniffles and rubs at watery blue eyes. His face is heartbreaking. “O-okay,” he agrees.

“I’ll still play with you, too,” Sam says from where he’s curled up in Pepper’s lap and sticks his thumb back in his mouth.

Thor flops against the couch. “My brother likes sitting games. I will teach you.”

Some of the light comes back into Steve’s face and he nods so hard it looks like his head’s going to fly off.

“See,” Tony says. “Everybody still wants to play with you. You just have to take it easy sometimes and we’ll make sure we keep your medicine nearby from now on. Okay?”

Steve nods shyly, beaming at the other kids.

“Okay,” Tony sighs. “Now we’re all gonna sit here and watch some of Meet the Robinsons because you just took ten years off my life. Honest to god, Steve, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you’re trying to give me a heart attack.”

And it’s totally worth it he decides when Steve twists around and hugs him tight.

~ * ~

Pepper eventually says, "I really do have to go back to work."

"Nooo," Bruce whines softly.

Pepper strokes his face and says regretfully, "I know, honey, I wish I could stay. You remember what I told you about Rhodey and Tony though, right? They'll take very good care of you."

Bruce glances over his shoulder at them, both hands wrapped tight around the fingers of one of Pepper's hands. "They took care of Steve," he agrees reluctantly.

"I'll tell you what," Pepper says, kneeling down. "If you get scared, tell JARVIS to ask for me. Okay?"

"Okay," Bruce says and hugs her quickly.

~ * ~

Dinner is a piece of cake.

This is probably largely due to the fact that Tony orders out. He gets several things and the kids all pick and choose what they'd like.

Clint will eat anything, but he likes chicken the most and eats every kind offered to him. Thor will eat anything the others think is too weird. Natasha only likes beef and broccoli. Weirdest, and probably best of all, is Sam, who will only eat red vegetables. He picks everything else out.

Steve makes faces at a lot of it, but he eats it anyway. He looks a little sick by the time Tony says, "Hey, buddy, you know you don't have to eat it if you don't like it."

Steve goggles at him. "Yes, I do! There might not be any tomorrow!"

Which is when Tony realizes, hello, poor in the depression.

He stops offering more after that.

It's already too late though, Steve's eaten probably double what he should have and he ends up lying on the couch after, moaning and clutching his stomach.

"I'm sorry, buddy," Tony says, rubbing his back. "I shouldn't have let you eat so much."

Steve moans pathetically in response.

He lays there for about an hour, watching lethargically while the rest of them play Twister. Tony feels awful for it, and keeps abandoning the game to go sit with Steve and stroke his hair or his back, wishing there was something he could do to make him feel better.

"You know what we didn't do today?" he says at one point and Steve shakes his head once, mumbles, "Uh uh."

"We didn't do any drawing," Tony says, and that's enough to get Steve to crane his neck to look up at Tony. "Would you like to do some drawing tomorrow?"

Steve nods eagerly. "Yeah," he breathes. "Yeah, can we?"

"Absolutely," Tony promises.

Steve has perked up considerably by the time the others are tired and hot and sticky from Twister, so against his better judgment, he calls, "Who wants ice cream sandwiches!?" but makes sure Steve's is small.

By the time they've eaten those, they're a disaster. Everyone has sticky ice cream fingers and rings of it around their mouths. Clint has some in his hair and Bruce has gotten it down the front of his shirt.

"Okay, it's bath time," Rhodey says when Natasha leaves an ice cream hand print on his arm, his face twisting with disgust.

So they troop the whole lot of them into the master bedroom, which has the biggest bathroom in the place.

JARVIS is already filling up the tub and Steve goes bug-eyed. "This is your bath?" he demands.

"Yep."

"Tis small," Thor says and Tony laughs, remembering the Olympic swimming pool-sized communal baths they'd seen when visiting Asgard.

"Think you can manage the disappointment?" Tony says and bites back another laugh when Thor sighs yes. "All right, guys, strip." As the boys all struggling to get out of their clothes, a thought occurs to him and he elbows Rhodey. "What are we gonna do with Natasha?"

Rhodey stares at him. "What do you mean what are we going to do?"

"We can't see her naked," he says, voice slipping into an undertone on the last word. "She'll know."

"Uh, Tones, she's four. I think Nat would be way more pissed about you treating her different than the boys than seeing her naked four-year-old ass."

Tony thinks about that and decides Rhodey has a point. "You're right. Contributing to the sexualization of— Okay. Sure. She's just a kid. Not Natasha Romanova. I am not gonna lose my balls for this."

"Thattaboy," Rhodey says, clapping him on the shoulder and goes to help Clint get out of his shirt—his head is stuck in one of the arm holes.

Bruce can't seem to get his pants unbuttoned, so Tony kneels down and asks if he needs some help. Bruce tentatively agrees and Tony gets them undone and lets him do the rest. He's looking around at the other kids to see if anyone else needs a hand when he realizes Natasha's nowhere to be seen. He frowns and looks again.

He's sure she'd been there when they got here...

It's not until he turns around and looks back at the door that he finds her.

She's still standing in the doorway, totally frozen, every muscle in her tiny frame tense.

Tony's frown deepens. "Natasha, sweetheart?" He edges closer, staying low to the ground and moving slowly so as not to spook her. "Honey?"

Her eyes flick to his face for an instant before going back to the tub.

"Tones?" Rhodey calls, voice wary, "is everything okay?"

Tony doesn't reply, watching Natasha, trying to pin down what's got her so wound up. The boys climb in and she tenses even further.

It's the water, Tony realizes.

His stomach swoops unpleasantly. He knows that look, that bone-deep terror. He's looked at water the exact same way, but she's fucking four years old.

Tony's gorge rises and he has to choke it back before he can croak, "It's okay, that's not— We won't do that."

He puts his hands gingerly around her waist to lead her out of the room, and her eyes snap to his face, the last of the color draining from her cheeks, her eyes wide with terror.

"I won't," he promises her in a fervent whisper, "I won't. Jesus, Natasha, I won't, we won't do that."

She whimpers as he picks her up and he feels it like a knife between his ribs.

"Shh," he says, voice shaking. "We're gonna go, okay? You don't have to do this. We can wash your hands in the sink."

But as he goes through the door, her small fingers clench on his shoulders and she shakes her head violently. "No, no!"

"You want to stay?"

She nods stiffly, her eyes on the boys in the tub again. If something's going to happen to them she wants to be here, Tony realizes. He doesn't know if that was a requirement of the Red Room or if she's just that incredible, but he's in awe of her either way.

"Okay," he says, and kisses her hair. "You're so brave, you know that? I'm so impressed."

She glances up at him, uncertain. She's obviously been in the Red Room long enough to be wary and afraid, but she's still got plenty of the life of a normal little girl, so she can't have been there long. Tony wants to do right by her while he has the chance.

"What do you want to do?" he asks.

She swallows and says, "Down."

So Tony lets her down and she starts to pull off her clothes, eyes fixed on the tub where Rhodey is mostly submerged and blowing bubbles that are making Steve giggle delightedly. Thor is attempting to mimic him and keeps getting water up his nose and spluttering it back out.

He helps her get her leggings off when she can't quite seem to do it herself and waits at a distance while she huddles there, clearly trying to psych herself up.

"Ya gotov," she finally says. Her voice quivers and there are tears in her eyes, but she takes deep breaths and lifts her arms to be picked up.

Tony hefts her up and sets her on the wide rim of the tub. Tremors ripple under her skin and Tony nearly calls it for her. She's four years old, she doesn't need this. Then Clint squeals, "Natasha, get in the water's great!"

Natasha nods, face set with determination, and Tony's throat closes up, so he just eases her down into the water. She jolts a little when her feet go in. "Is warm!"

Sam laughs. "Of course it is, silly, it's a bath."

"Mine aren't always warm," Steve says and Sam turns to stare.

"You take cold baths?" Sam says, aghast.

"Okay, guys, give Natasha some room, huh?" Rhodey says and helps back them up a little.

And she seems to be doing fine, aside from her quick, shallow breaths—until she's not.

Her hair gets wet and she wails and scrambles to get back out, yelling, "Nyet, nyet!"

"All right, not good, okay, I've got you!" Tony says and grabs her. She shrieks louder, the sound piercing as it echoes off the bathroom walls, clawing at his arms. Tony ignores her sharp nails tearing his skin and pulls her out, hurrying away from the tub. In his haste to get his hands off of her, he drops her a few inches and she crumples to the floor. He grabs a towel and, careful not to touch, manages to get it around her shoulders. Then he backs away and sits, cross legged so he can't get back up easily, hands under his ass. "I'm not gonna hurt you," he says fiercely.

When she realizes he isn't going to make her stay in the water, that he isn't even close anymore, her screams stop and she blinks at her surroundings with wet eyes, confused.

"What happened?" he hears Clint whisper.

"I'm not gonna hurt you," Tony repeats. Despite Rhodey's best efforts, the boys are all peeking over the edge of the tub.

She looks at Tony for a long minute and seems to realize that he doesn't intend to do anything she doesn't want him to. She creeps over, a little at a time until her hand is on his knee.

"Hey," Tony says softly. "May I?" He looks down at his hands and after a minute, she nods. He brings his hands up slowly, so she can follow his every move, and gently draws her into his lap.

Natasha goes limp, crying quietly, her face pressed into his stomach, and Tony cradles her close, wrapping her up in the towel.

"I'm sorry, oh, I'm sorry, sweetheart," Tony breathes. "You don't have to go back in. You don't have to ever again. I won't let it happen, got it? I won't let anybody do that to you."

And it's stupid maybe, but he hopes adult Natasha will hear him. He hopes she knows that he'd go back to Afghanistan if he could keep her from feeling like this ever again.

The boys are quiet and Rhodey offers a sotto voce explanation that makes Clint look stricken.

"Somebody hurt her with water?"

"Yeah, so she's pretty scared. You guys will be nice right?"

He gets a chorus of nodded heads.

That's right they will. The Avengers take care of their own.

It takes a little while, but Natasha calms. When her breaths are only hitching a little, she looks up and catches Tony sniffling.

"You cry," she says, touching his cheek with clumsy fingers.

He catches them in his mouth and she pulls away with a shy giggle. "I don't like that somebody hurt you."

"Oh," she murmurs and glances quickly at the tub. "Try again?"

"No," he says and drops a kiss on the crown of her head. "I have a better idea." He stands, holding her in the crook of his arm, and shows her the shower stall. "JARVIS?" The shower turns on and Natasha's eyes go big and wondering, and she reaches out to let the spray fall on her palm. Tony can hear the boys going nuts in the tub. "You wanna try that?" he asks and she nods, face lit up like a star.

~ * ~

Natasha is totally into the shower. She giggles high and wild when Tony blows the water out of his face after he steps into the spray. He's careful not to get much of her wet to begin with.

Clint and Steve end up clambering out of the bath to come join them. At one point Steve starts jumping, trying to get at the shower head and Tony has to use his hard voice, which brings back some of Clint's unease.

It's necessary, but Tony still feels like shit for it.

Natasha gets comfortable enough to duck her head into the spray though and that's a proud moment. Especially when she blows the water away from her mouth the same way Tony had.

In the tub, Rhodey is giving all the kids new soap-dos and he's got a soap bubble goatee that's plainly modeled after Tony's. He winks and Tony laughs to himself.

But the bath water eventually gets cold and they all get out, drying with towels bigger than they are. Tony and Rhodey leave them swaddled up in the towels for a minute so they can dart out into the bedroom and change out of their soaked underwear.

When they get back, Steve and Sam are both crying. Rhodey takes Steve, so Tony drops to a knee in front of Sam. "Hey, hey, what's going on? What's this about?"

"I w-want my m-m-mamaaa," Sam wails and to his left Tony can hear Rhodey having infinitely less luck—Steve's cries are totally incoherent.

"Oh," Tony says, with as much sympathy as he can muster. "I bet. I'm sorry, buddy. Do you want a hug?"

"Uh-uh huh," Sam chokes and gratefully crawls into Tony's lap. He gives him a tight squeeze and glances around at the other kids who are milling and talking amongst themselves. Rhodey's staring at Steve and nodding along, even though Steve sounds incoherent still. Rhodey keeps attempting to comfort him and getting smacked for his trouble.

"Thor, buddy," Tony says, leaving Rhodey to focus on the little American handful, "c'mere so I can get you into these pjs, okay?" He kisses the top of Sam's bony little head to let him know he's not being forgotten.

Thor comes over and lets Tony dress him, responding slowly to Tony's requests because he's busy staring starry-eyed at Clint who's telling him some story about a lion that Tony can't follow.

Clint insists on dressing himself and does a pretty good job even though he's got his eye on Tony while he helps a shy Bruce into his.

Natasha's wrestling into her own clothes too, so Tony takes a second to rub Sam's back and see how he's doing. "You all done crying? I get sad about my mom being gone too. Do you want to be sad some more or put on your jammies?"

Sam giggles a little wetly and sniffles. "Jammies," he says softly.

"You got it."

He looks to see how Rhodey's doing as he collects the clothes.

"He misses his mom, too," Rhodey says and Steve, who had been allowing him to pat his shoulder, shoves his hand away and curls up into a wretched little ball. Not before catching Tony's eye though. "I want Tony!" he yells.

"Okay," Rhodey says patiently, "that's fine. But he's helping Sam get dressed right now, if you let me—"

"NO!" Steve shouts, and slaps away Rhodey's hand.

"Hey now," Rhodey says, voice going stern. "I know you're upset, but that is not an excuse to be nasty!"

"Apologize," Tony tells him.

Steve keeps blubbering until well after Tony finishes dressing Sam and has him lying quietly on his shoulder, thumb in his mouth. Then, finally, he mumbles, "'m sorry."

"Thank you," Rhodey says. "Now would you like Tony to help you get dressed?"

Steve nods, meek and embarrassed and Tony waves him over. He goes to set Sam down but he lets out a pitiful whining noise, so Tony sucks it up and helps Steve into his pajamas one handed, with, thankfully, an assist from Rhodey. He gathers both boys up and stands. They're heavy little monsters.

"All right, it's bedtime," he announces.

~ * ~

Bedtime isn't complete without storytime, so Tony grabs one of his Tales From Camelot books figuring kids will love knights and dragons and whatnot (he did after all) and they settle the kids on the couch. He gives the book to Rhodey because he knows the stories by heart and while Rhodey reads, he acts out the scenes, trading off on the dialogue with Rhodey. The babyvengers love it, shouting out suggestions and encouragement like it's a sporting event. He and Rhodey keep using increasingly silly voices until Tony can't deliver his lines without laughing.

One by one the kids conk out.

It's Rhodey who stops him. “They're asleep, Tones.”

“But we're just getting to the best part!” Tony complains, accepting the book Rhodey gingerly hands over while trying not to jostle Thor, who's passed out on his lap.

“I can't believe you have it memorized,” Rhodey says, and turns a little to look down at Bruce, who's head is pressed up against his hip.

“I'm disappointed you don't,” Tony says and grins at the way Rhodey looks helplessly around at the heap of kids piled around him. “This is adorable. Photo, JARVIS.”

“Certainly,” JARVIS replies and Rhodey glowers at him.

“Come on, man, help me. What are we gonna do with them? Leave them here?”

“Nah,” Tony says and waves a hand before moving forward to lift Thor out of Rhodey's lap. He's out cold so he's dead weight and Tony almost throws his back picking him up. “I've got more than enough rooms and they're less likely to fall out of a king-sized bed than off the couch.” He smiles at the way Thor snuffles and tucks his face into Tony's throat when he gets him settled.

They take each kid to one of the empty rooms on the floor, depositing them in the beds. Clint fusses when they try to separate him from Sam and Sam's got his hand fisted in the back of Clint's shirt, so they don't bother, sticking the two of them in one bed. Steve wakes enough to blink sleepily at the room and mumble around a huge yawn, “This's all for me?

“Sure is,” Tony murmurs and Steve makes a contented noise. Tony brushes his hair back, fondness washing through him in a soft, warm wave and kisses his forehead. “Sleep tight, Winghead.”

Thor's dead to the world, but Natasha's eyes open as Rhodey lays her down, luminous in the light from the window. She lifts her arm over her head and looks at them expectantly.

“You need something, honey?” Rhodey asks.

Naruchniki?” she says softly.

Rhodey exchanges a look with Tony, who shrugs.

“She is saying 'handcuffs', sir. My research indicates it was practice in the Red Room to handcuff the girls to the bed each night.”

Rhodey stares at Tony in horror. “Jesus.”

Tony moves over to sit on the edge of the bed with him. “I don't think we've got any of those,” he says to Natasha.

Nyet?” she says, uncertain.

Nyet,” Tony says and Rhodey nods.

“Definitely nyet.

Natasha lowers her arm slowly, like she expects them to take it back and forcibly do it. Rhodey takes her hand when it comes down to her side at last and squeezes it. She still seems jittery, so Tony figures he'll do what his mother used to do to get him to sleep: he sings.

Rhodey glances at him in surprise when he begins the Italian lullaby, voice soft and low. “Nana bobò, nana bobò, tutti I bambini dormen e Tasha no.”

Natasha seems mystified by his voice, or maybe by the fact that she doesn't know the language, but it doesn't take long before that and Rhodey's thumb drawing circles on the back of her hand cause her eyelids droop.

“You just have all kinds of tricks up your sleeves,” Rhodey whispers as they slip out.

“And here I bet you thought you knew everything about me,” Tony says loftily.

They go back out to the living room where they both collapse onto the couch. “I'm beat,” Rhodey says, lifting his head to rest on Tony's shoulder. “I thought you guys were high maintenance before.”

“Tell me about it,” Tony agrees. “My brain is tired. Wrangling munchkins is hard work.”

“Ain't that the truth,” Rhodey says fervently. “So much energy.”

“Right?” Tony says, turning his head so he can meet Rhodey's eyes. “They're bottomless. Gimme like, 5% of that output.”

Rhodey laughs.

They sit in companionable silence for awhile and Tony's having a harder and harder time keeping his eyes open. He's drifting off when Rhodey says, “Hey, Tones, something's been bothering me.”

Tony makes an inquiring noise, but can't quite make his eyes open.

“How come you didn't get turned into a kid?”

“Mm,” Tony says thoughtfully, “been wondering that, too. Think I figured it out.”

“Yeah?”

“'Member that fight a couple weeks back with Hydra? Told you they kept pulling everyone's hair.”

The couch shifts behind Tony's head as Rhodey turns to look at him. “You meant that literally?”

Tony grunts an affirmative.

“So you think they took everyone's hair and gave it to Loki so he could do this spell? But they didn't get yours because of the suit.”

Tony taps his nose. He makes a noise of complaint when he's jostled as Rhodey sits up more fully. “So you're telling me you think Hydra is working with Loki?”

Shrugging, Tony forces his eyes open. He yawns hugely and Rhodey gives him a dirty look as he does the same. “Not sure, but the pieces seem to fit.”

“I don't like the idea of that.”

“You 'n me both, Sugar Bear.”

Tony means to get up, but he's obviously exhausted because it never happens.

He dreams he's somewhere that looks like the Tower, but it's dark and foreboding. Corners seem sharper and more deeply shadowed. There's something about it that makes Tony's instincts scream something terrible is coming.

He's with his miniature teammates and they're tooling around in the workshop. Tony feels strange, his head stuffed and fuzzy like he's been drinking, but he can't remember taking the drink. He's been sober now for almost two years. That can't be right.

He hears metal squeal and looks over to see Clint on the ground, DUM-E's broken strut sparking above his head. Rage sweeps through him and he's across the room without knowing how he got there, hand sweeping in an arc.

The blow ripples up his arm, sickening and horrifyingly satisfying in equal measures. Clint skids across the floor, a bright red mark blooming on his cheek. When the shock wears off Clint shrieks, tears thick in his voice, "I knew it!"

Tony feels sick at how he relishes the blood that bubbles up over Clint's lip. No, no, god, he doesn't want to be this way—

"Don't touch him!" Steve screams and comes running to Clint's defense. Tony pushes him, hears his head crack against the cement floor, and his insides shudder. Thor screams at him, horrified and betrayed and he can see Sam and Bruce curled up in a corner together, sobbing.

When he blinks he's in the bathroom, arms in the tub, water lapping at his underarms and in his grip is Natasha, bubbles streaming from her open mouth.

All at once he knows he's dreaming, can feel his stomach roiling and the way sleep hangs over him like a thick cloud, holding him down in it. It's a dream, it's a dream, he thinks frantically, this isn't me, and pushes at the cloud, forcing it back, drags his eyes open so he doesn't have to see Natasha's wide eyes staring up at him, distorted by the water.

It's dark and his chest heaves, breaths not unlike sobs juddering out of him. He pushes up, the images from the dream still clinging like cobwebs, Clint's bloody mouth, Steve silent and pale on the floor. He can still feel the sensation of his fist hitting home and he shakes it, trying to dispel the feeling. A shiver ripples over his clammy skin.

Fuck. Fuck, he wants a drink and he feels so sick at the thought he almost pukes. He bends over, putting his head between his knees.

Rhodey's still passed out on the couch beside him, mouth hanging open.

Tony's glad because he doesn't want to have to explain what he— Sam and Clint's ashen faces flit across his minds eye and he breathes, "I wouldn't, I'd never," his voice thready and weak, even to his own ears. He gets up on shaky legs because he knows the dream won't stop clinging until he's fully awake. Sleep is still trying to tug him back down.

He goes to the kitchen, murmuring a grateful, "Thanks, J," when he finds coffee brewing.

The first sip is bracing and scalding hot. He doesn't feel so fragile after that.

His fingers clench around the handle of the mug. Maybe he's never going to be parent of the year, but he's never going to be like his father. He'll do whatever it takes to protect them.

He wants to see Clint's face though, to confirm that it had only been his imagination—his sick, twisted imagination—so he goes to peek in the bedroom. When he pulls back the heap of comforter, he finds the bed is empty.

Clint and Sam aren't there.

He goes to the next room, where Thor is to see if maybe they decided they wanted another cuddle buddy.

That bed is empty, too.

An ice cube slips down his spine and into the pit of his stomach. "JARVIS, the kids are gone. Where are the kids?" He demands and races to check the next room where he hopes to God he'll find Bruce.

"The Avengers have not used their panic codes, sir, I am scanning now."

"Well, they wouldn't if they were magicked out, would they?!" Tony snaps and the bottom falls out of his stomach when Bruce's bed is empty, too. "JARVIS!"

Chapter Text

"The kitchen, sir," JARVIS answers in a hurry, "I am detecting small body signatures in the kitchen."

Tony sprints.

He flies into the kitchen and nearly barrels headlong into—is that a fort?

There's a lumpy stretch of blankets set up next to the kitchen island, which explains why he hadn't seen it when he got his coffee—it's on the opposite side. Tony is still staring at it when something moves.

"Hi, Tony," Steve says in his terrible whisper.

"Steve," Tony breathes and the terror goes out of him in a rush leaving him weak-kneed. He sinks to the floor, gestures at the fort. "Is everyone...?"

"Uh huh," Steve says and comes over, arms up.

Tony lifts him onto his lap, eyes raking over him, checking for injuries. He runs a hand over his head, irrationally relieved not to feel a lump there and presses a kiss to his hair, closing his eyes.

"Bruce had a nightmare," Steve says matter-of-factly. "Sam said we should make a fort and protect him."

Tony can't stop running his hands over Steve. "Yeah? What are you still doing up?"

"I'm on watch," Steve says proudly.

"Must be nice to have such a fierce defender looking out for them. Is it okay if I take a look inside?"

Steve nods, so Tony lifts him back onto his feet and gets to his knees so he can peek. It's dark inside, the blanket walls lit from the outside by the few kitchen lights that are on and casting everything in a pink hue. The rest of the kids are there, curled up together in a mass with heaps of pillows. Tony leans in and searches until he finds Clint, sprawled on his back with his legs akimbo. His lip is pink and unbroken and Tony runs his thumb over it just to be sure, the last of the nausea fading when Clint responds by tossing his head, mouth opening and closing a few times.

Steve crawls in next to Tony and lays on his belly, chin propped on his hands. He looks over, eyes awfully discerning for a four-year-old and says, "I can protect you, too."

Tony's mouth drags into a smile. "I'd like that," he rasps. One thing’s bothering him still: "Why the kitchen?"

Steve stares at him like he's totally dense. "It's where the FOOD is."

Tony bows his head to laugh into his elbows. Of course.

~ * ~

“Well, good morning, Princess,” Rhodey says cheerfully when Tony crawls out of the fort in the morning. He groans. Oh god, sleeping on the floor was a terrible idea.

Rhodey comes over and helps him up, smirking in amusement.

"Shut up," Tony says. "Don't make me remind you who's older."

Rhodey just keeps smirking and drops a couple of pills into his palm. "I made all the eggs I could find, about a thousand slices of toast and some mixed veggies in an attempt to be responsible. Get your coffee, take the pills and come eat."

"You're the perfect wife," Tony sighs and slouches into Rhodey, smacking a kiss on the line of his jaw.

Rhodey snorts and shoves him off, but he's gentler than he could be. "Shut up and help me with these kids. I don't know how you slept through them climbing all over you."

"I didn't," Tony admits, tossing the pills back dry and heading for the coffee maker. "I couldn't move."

Rhodey laughs.

"Thor kicked me in the head like ten minutes before you showed. I'm surprised I don't have a concussion."

"Tony!" Steve squeaks when he follows Rhodey to the dining room table. He shoots to his feet, the chair rocking under him and Tony has a minor heart attack.

"Steve, buddy, be careful. Let's not stand on the chair, huh?"

Steve sinks to his knees, but keeps waving his hands wildly. "Tony! Tony, come sit next to me, I saved your seat!"

"Okay, okay," Tony says, hurrying around the table before Steve can overturn his chair in his excitement. He spends breakfast warding off Steve's sticky hands. He's not sure how they got sticky in the first place, but they definitely are.

He enjoys Steve's obvious admiration. He feels guilty for it, like he manipulated Steve, because he certainly has no admiration for Tony as an adult. He's not hostile, not like both of them were on the helicarrier, but they get along best in the field when the talk is all business. Tony wants more than that, and feels stupid for it—he's chasing the attention of his father's obsession.

Tony startles when Steve clambers into his lap, not realizing how deeply he'd gone into his own head, one bony foot pinching delicate parts of his anatomy. “Ow, hey, Steve, what are you doing?”

“You lookded sad,” Steve says matter-of-factly and crouches down to sit on Tony's thigh. He licks his fingers, looking up at Tony with round blue eyes. “What maked you sad?”

Tony swallows thickly and glances around the table to discover Rhodey has taken Sam and Thor to the sink and is helping wash their hands. So there's no witnesses, and that might be what makes him say, “I like being friends with you. I'm gonna miss it.”

“When I go home.” Steve's expression falls.

“Yeah, when you go home.” Tony runs his fingers through Steve's fine blond hair, feeling terrible for bumming Steve out, too.

“But you can visit!” Steve chirps, brightening. Tony doesn't have it in him to take the wind out of his sails again.

“Sure I can.”

After the post-breakfast clean up, they sit the kids down with a bunch of crayons and colored pencils plundered from Steve's room. That keeps them busy for almost half an hour, when Thor somehow discovers he's basically invincible and starts climbing everything in the room and flinging himself from the top.

"Sir, Director Fury is on the line."

"Yeah, put him through," Tony calls, slumping back against the nearest wall and watching as Rhodey uses his Serious Business voice and tries to coax Thor not to jump from the top of the stairs.

"Tony," Fury drawls, "how's it going?"

"Oh, just ducky," Tony says.

"But I want to!" Thor protests and stomps his foot. Outside lightning arcs across the sky, followed closely by a crack of thunder.

"What was that?" Fury says, insultingly suspicious.

"Thor, buddy, I know you do and I know you won't hurt yourself, but the other kids aren't like you and if they copy you they will hurt themselves. You don't want them to do that, do you?" Rhodey says.

Thor looks at his foot curiously.

"Uh, nothing, it was nothing," Tony says. "Things are great. Is Hill clamoring to come take her turn?"

Fury snorts. Thor stomps his foot again and another fork of lightning streaks by the window. Thunder booms and Thor's face lights up.

"That does not sound like nothing," Fury says.

"I think you're hearing things in your old age. Things are great, we'll be fine talk to you later bye."

Tony hangs up on him just as Thor jumps and both feet smack down on the tile. The ensuing flash of lightning is blinding. The accompanying thunder shakes the building under their feet, the lights flickering.

In the other room, Bruce starts to cry.

"JARVIS, lock it!" Clint yells and Tony groans as the security panels shut him, Rhodey, and Thor off from the other kids.

Thor's delighted expression fades. "Why do they fear?"

Rhodey sighs and scratches at his forehead. "Thor, the other kids aren't like you. They get hurt easy."

"Like how Steve grewed sick playing," Thor says.

"Yes, right, that's it exactly. Big noises are scary. The way the building shook is very scary. It made me a little scared and I'm grown up."

"But I wouldn't hurt you or anyone!" Thor says, looking horrified. He comes running down the stairs and beelines for the door. "Let me in JARVIS!"

"I'm afraid I cannot, Odin-son."

Thor whirls around to look at Tony and Rhodey again. "But I didn't mean to! I didn't mean to do it!" he yells angrily. The sky outside rapidly darkens, thunder rumbling ominously overhead.

"Sometimes we make things happen that we don't mean," Tony says, keeping a cautious distance. He's not sure how much control over the lightning Thor has and he's not keen on finding out what it feels like to be struck. "Just because we didn't mean it doesn't mean people have to be okay with it. You scared them, whether you meant to or not. They're allowed to do what they need to to feel safe again."

"But it was an accident!" Thor yells furiously. He screams and stomps around in a rage, lightning flashing with every step. It's pouring now, and the Tower's lights flicker alarmingly. That really should not be a thing.

Rhodey moves quickly to flank Tony, his expression apprehensive in the flickering light. "Uh, the Tower's built to, like, handle this, right? Storms and stuff?"

"Storms, sure," Tony says, "Storms created by enraged four-year-old demi-gods?" He twists his face to express his dubiousness. "Hey, JARVIS, gimme a feed that shows us the other kids."

When it appears, he grimaces; Steve's crying now too, the four of them huddled under the kitchen table. "Thor," he says, raising his voice. "Thor, look. If you're trying to not be scary you're doing a terrible job, buddy."

Thor looks, angry tears trekking down his face in big wet streaks. The storm outside quiets a little.

"You're scaring all of us," Tony says, gesturing with a thumb to how close he and Rhodey are. "I thought you didn't want to scare us?"

"I d-do not!" Thor insists.

"Then maybe you want to calm down a little, huh?"

Thor glances at the mess outside and the image of the others huddling under the table and takes a big shaky breath, trying to calm himself. "I d-did not mean to."

"I know, buddy," Tony says and crouches down. "C'mere. I know it's hard being different. You just gotta think about how what you do makes other people feel, okay?"

Thor nods and sniffles and flings himself into Tony's arms. Rhodey's hand on his back is the only thing that keeps him from toppling onto his ass.

"All right," he says, patting Thor's back and giving him a tight squeeze. "That's it, you're okay. Shh."

"I'm sorry," Thor sniffles miserably.

"Thanks, we appreciate that," Rhodey says, ruffling his long blond hair.

"I want to apologize to the others," Thor says, pushing back and wiping snot and tears from his face with one hand.

"Well, they're not ready to come out yet," Tony says. "You're gonna have to wait until they're ready."

"Oh," Thor says and his face falls. "I have ruined this day."

"I wouldn't say ruined," Rhodey tells him. "Put a little bit of a damper on, maybe."

"Come on," Tony says and pushes his hair back, kisses his forehead. He hoists Thor up, in spite of the way it makes his body groan. "We'll play hide and seek while we wait."

Turns out, Thor's an excellent seeker. He wins almost ten times before the other kids end the lock down.

Natasha is the first to emerge. "It's over?"

"The storm's over," Tony confirms.

Rhodey catches Thor by the arm before he can run over and apologize. "Hey, none of them can do what you do, Thor, so they might not understand why you're apologizing."

Thor nods determinedly. "But I did it, so I will apologize."

"That's a good decision. I'm proud of you," Rhodey says.

He does, and as expected the kids have no idea what he's talking about, but they assure him it's okay and go to stare out the windows that are now covered in droplets. The clouds are almost gone again.

"Wow, that was real loud," Steve says, staring down at the street. He yawns.

"You getting tired?" Tony asks and Steve whips around, says obstinately, "No!"

Tony makes a big show of yawning, which turns into a real yawn halfway through—God, he's wiped—and he flops down on the couch. "Well I am. Nap time for Tony."

"Naps are for babies," Clint sneers.

"Then swaddle me up and call me a baby."

"A nap sounds great," Rhodey agrees and sits down at the other end of the couch. It takes some effort not to fall asleep, lying there with his eyes closed, but one by one the kids come to sit down and lie down around them. When Tony peeks and sees Thor sprawled on the floor next to the couch with his mouth wide open, Natasha and Sam curled up on either side of Rhodey, Clint and Bruce cuddled up by his feet, and Steve passed out across his chest, he closes his eyes and sleeps, too.

~ * ~

Pepper drops by again before lunch.

She comes prepared this time, wearing denim shorts and a white tank top. "Look," Tony calls to Rhodey. "Dad took a break from bringing home the bacon to play with the munchkins."

Rhodey huffs, eyes twinkling playfully. "That's just like you to come home and get them all riled up and then leave all the tough stuff for us."

"I work hard all day, I deserve to come home to some damn peace and quiet," Pepper says imperiously and Tony can't quite bite back his laughter.

"What's going on?" Steve demands, his little feet slapping on the tile as he comes running in from the living room where they'd left the kids to play. "You said you were coming back!"

Tony bends down to scoop him up rather than let him barrel into his legs. "Oof, hi, I did do that you're right, I got sidetracked." He waves toward Pepper and Steve grows inexplicably shy, tucking himself into the crook of Tony's neck. "You remember Pepper don't you?"

"Yeah," Steve says softly and opens and closes his hand in a tiny wave.

Pepper smiles and waves back. Then she sidles over to the fridge, where the kids' art has been hung up and says, "Gosh, look at all this beautiful art, did you do one of these?"

Steve's shyness is gone in an instant. He wriggles to be let down and races over pointing at his drawing, which Tony had placed in a position of prominence, right in the middle. Pepper oohs and ahhs appropriately as he explains what it is.

"How's lunch coming, Porkchop?" Tony asks, peering over Rhodey's shoulder.

"All set," Rhodey says, wiping his hands.

Tony turns and yells through a cupped hand, "Munchkins! Oh, munchkins! Grub's up!"

Shockingly, he gets no response. He sighs. "Well, it was worth a shot."

Rhodey snorts. "Go on."

With another sigh, Tony does an about face and goes to track down the kids.

It takes him a few minutes to find them all and wrangle them into the kitchen. Bruce lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees Pepper. Natasha is a close second.

They both claim a seat on either side of her and everyone has to be continually reminded of their food because they're too busy asking Pepper a dizzying amount of questions.

The after-meal clean up goes a lot more smoothly with her there though.

"Natasha," Pepper says when they're all finished, "you said you were learning ballet. I thought you might want to teach me a little?"

Natasha looks shocked and delighted, shoving her big red curls out of her face. "Da. Da, da!"

So they all go out to the living room and Natasha ends up teaching all of them how to put their feet, laughing hysterically when Tony pretends not to understand her instructions, then walking them through a few basic movements. She's not graceful, and Tony realizes all of that lithe, deadly grace she exudes now is from hard, ugly work.

Everyone but Bruce and Sam have wandered off to different games when Pepper takes a break and goes behind the bar to fetch a bottle of wine and two glasses.

"What really?" Tony says from the couch—he's exhausted again and it's only one. "You trust me to be the only sober adult?"

Pepper smiles brightly at him. "It's about time you learned what it feels like."

She's walking and pouring, so when the bottle slips in her grip, she has no way to catch it. Her hand tightens around the glasses and the stem of one snaps, the other popping out of her hand and throwing a beautiful arc of burgundy as it falls.

“Oh, shit,” she says as it splashes across the carpet and then claps her free hand over her mouth, looking horrified.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony sees Bruce go rigid, but he can't stop himself from giggling. "Wow, Potts, did you sneak a little earlier?"

“Shut up,” she says, cheeks flushed rosy pink, “you know I didn't!”

Tony grins at her and goes to help. “I see you broke the glass there, Hulkette. Hurt yourself?”

“No,” she sighs, “unless you count my pride.”

“Aw, Pep, you spilled the wine?” Rhodey complains.

“It was an accident!”

Bruce is still frozen, staring wide-eyed at them. Tony's pretty sure if he attempts to do anything to soothe him it will only have the opposite effect. He bets something like this would have gotten his mom clocked. So he just has to show that that's not what he'll do. It's the only thing Bruce will buy. “Sure, Potts,” he says and calls over his shoulder, “We've gotta cut her off, Pumpkin.”

“I guess so!” Rhodey calls back and Pepper rolls her eyes.

“Ha ha.”

“Such a wine mom these days, Pep,” Tony says, clucking at her.

“Oh my god, please stop talking,” Pepper replies, but she's laughing and Tony grins. As he bends to pick up the glass, Tony sneaks a glance back at Bruce, who looks like he's thawed a little, his expression shifting toward confused.

He stands back up and reaches for the broken glass that Pepper's still clutching in her left hand. She hisses as she releases it to his grip. He sets both aside on the nearby end table, reaching for her hand. “You did cut yourself.”

“Ow,” she says, and allows him to unfold it. There's a small nick in the pad of her palm right under her index finger. “It's not bad.”

“Stem must have got you.” He gingerly runs the pad of his thumb over the cut, checking to be sure there isn't any glass embedded in it. It smears the bead of blood across her palm, but he doesn't feel anything. Pepper hisses again. “Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I don't feel any glass. You should rinse it, to be sure.”

When he looks up, Pepper is giving him a look, her lips pursed in amusement.

“What?”

She pokes him in the chest with the index finger of her other hand, the rest still wrapped around the wine bottle. “You. Are a mother hen. No wonder you're so good at this.”

Tony startles. “Good at—”

Pepper slips away from him to go rinse her hand. “Put that glass away before someone else hurts themselves, Mama Bear,” she calls back at him.

“I'm not...” Tony mumbles, but he doesn't know how to finish. He scoops up the glasses and heads for the kitchen—and almost runs right over Bruce. “Hey,” he says, jerking to a stop, his hands careful around the glass. “Bruce, hey.”

Bruce's arms are wrapped around his body, his eyes huge behind the little pair of glasses on his nose. He blinks at Tony and then unwinds his arms and reaches out with the right, laying his hand gently on Tony's leg. Tony kneels down, slowly, so as not to spook him.

“What's up?”

Bruce turns shy, his eyes slipping away. He swallows. Then he whispers, “Thank you.”

Tony's brow furrows, his head tilting. “For what?”

“You didn't get angry,” he says softly.

Tony stills. There it is. “Your dad,” he says, matching Bruce's voice, “he gets mad a lot?”

Bruce nods.

“He hurt your mom?”

Bruce seems to shrink, curling inward, but he nods again.

Tony reaches forward and almost, almost touches his shoulder before he thinks better of it. “I'm sorry,” he says. “He shouldn't do that.” He leans down to catch Bruce's eye and waits until their gazes meet. “I won't. I won't hurt you or her. I swear it.”

Bruce nods and ducks in for the lightest and briefest of hugs. It's over before Tony realizes what's happened. Bruce slips away, back to the safety of the other kids.

Tony sits there, a little overwhelmed. He blinks and sniffs and gets to his feet to put the glasses somewhere safe.

Okay, maybe he's not so bad at this.

~ * ~

After Pepper goes back to work (informing them that she expects a hot dinner to be waiting on the table when she gets home), the kids start to get to be too much. "Holy hell, they have so much energy," Rhodey says. "We gotta do something to wear them out. I can't keep this up, Tones."

"If I may," JARVIS interjects gently, "there is a children's playground just inside Central Park, sir."

Tony and Rhodey stare at each other.

"If you had a face I'd kiss you, JARVIS," Rhodey breathes.

"That's really not necessary, sir," JARVIS replies.

So they gather up the kids and cram a couple bags full of things they might need. Find Thor a shirt because his has disappeared. Coax Clint into a pair of shoes despite his extremely vocal protests. Smear the whole lot of them in sunscreen because god help him, Tony is not dealing with a bunch of sunburnt little kids.

It takes almost an hour just to get to the point of shepherding them all into the elevator.

"Do you think that's wise?" Fury asks when Tony tells him where they're headed.

"Wise or not they're going stir crazy. I think Iron Man and War Machine can handle anything a couple of four-year-olds can get up to. Unless you want them to come play on the Helicarrier?"

"Have fun," Fury drawls and Tony smirks.

The kids are all but vibrating with excitement by the time they get in the car. It'll do them good to get some fresh(ish) air.

"Wow," Rhodey says when they climb out of the car at Central Park and Tony smiles at the way he closes his eyes and breathes in. "It's beautiful out."

Tony can't disagree. It's a beautiful, perfect spring day, cloudless and clear after Thor's cleansing little tantrum.

"All right," Rhodey admits, "this was a great idea." He holds out a fist, which Tony bumps, grinning.

And then barks, "Hey, hey, hey!" when Thor tries to make a break across the street. Rhodey catches him by the arm and he sags to the ground with a whine.

"Don't be like that," Rhodey tells him. "Don't make me turn around and take you home, cause I will and you will not like me if that happens."

Thor shapes up in a hurry after that.

"All right, hands everybody," Rhodey announces when they're all out of the car. "Everyone grab a hand so we can cross the street. What do we do before we go?"

"Look both ways!" Sam pipes, swinging Bruce and Steve's hands back and forth, unable to contain his excitement. Tony delights in the way the kids' heads swivel one way and then the other before they follow Rhodey's lead and head across the street.

~ * ~

It's Friday afternoon and the park is happening.

There've got to be more than two dozen kids, ranging from an infant that can't be more than a few weeks, to a trio of teens hanging out around the fountain spraying jets of water up and up over the heads of several shrieking five-to-seven year-olds.

A group of moms with strollers are hanging out around the benches in the shade of the trees off to one side of the playground and a couple of dads are on their feet by the fountain, eyeing the kids and dishing out a, "what did I say about running?" every few minutes in turns.

Tony and Rhodey gather the kids around for a few last minute instructions.

"Okay, you will: stay where Rhodey and me can see you, come when you are called, and take turns with the other kids. You will not: jump off of anything taller than you are, go anywhere with anyone who is not Rhodey or myself, or run while playing in the fountain. Does everyone understand the rules?"

He gets a chorus of small yeses in return.

"All right then. Get out there and have some fun."

The kids bolt like they're off to the races.

Tony grabs Steve before he can slip away, hooking an arm around his waist and swinging him up onto his shoulder.

"Tony!" he shrieks, "let me go!"

"Ah ah ah, not so fast. Are you going to remember what we talked about yesterday?"

Steve is conspicuously silent, his wiggling taking on a furtive edge like he might be able to get away unnoticed.

"Bud, I'm not gonna let you go unless you promise me you'll come sit down if you start to feel your asthma act up. I promise you can go back after you have a puff, but you gotta swear to me you'll take a break if you need it."

Steve whines pathetically, going limp. "Okay," he moans, "okay, I'll do it. I promise."

Tony pats his tiny butt. "There's a good man." He swings him around, this time dangling him upside down and Steve shrieks again, but it's with laughter.

"Steve!" Thor yells, "Come!"

Tony's heart does a funny, warm little dance in his chest as he watches Steve go sprinting off to join them. When he turns around, he discovers Rhodey has spread out a blanket in the shade and he's sitting cross legged sipping out of a juice box no bigger than his thumb.

"What?" he says at Tony's look. "I was thirsty."

"Throw me one," Tony days and flops onto the blanket next to him. The cold juice box lands on his belly. "This is very romantic, Snuffalupagus." He tips his head back to grin at Rhodey who shakes his head.

"You just gotta make everything weird, don't you?"

Tony grins shamelessly around his juice box straw.

For awhile, it's great. Perfect even. Tony stretches out on the blanket and lets the breeze wash over him, sunlight dappling his skin. He and Rhodey talk about work and then not-work and swap gossip since all the usual suspects are too tiny to understand anyway.

Steve doesn't end up keeping his promise because he's enjoying himself too much, but Natasha notices before it becomes a problem and the two of them come sprawl at the edges of the blanket for awhile, sipping juice and snacking on crackers. About the time they go back to play in the fountain, Thor and Clint show up hunting for snacks.

It's a leisurely afternoon unlike any Tony's ever experienced and he's loving it.

Then around four, somebody screams.

Chapter Text

Tony lurches upright, adrenaline forcing away the light, gauzy doze he'd been enjoying. “Kids!” he blurts, scrambling to his knees. “Steve, Bruce—”

He can’t quite see in the blinding sunlight and he startles, nearly clocks Rhodey in the face when he grabs his arm.

“It’s me, it’s me!”

“Where are the kids?” Tony demands, letting Rhodey haul him to his feet. “Who screamed?”

“No idea about the screaming, it came from behind the trees,” Rhodey says, pointing. Then he raises his voice. “Sam! Clint, over here, now, please!”

Sam and Clint come scurrying out of the playground and Tony grabs hold of both of them as they close in around his legs. “Good boys,” he murmurs, running his hands over their heads to reassure himself they’re with him. Another smattering of screams comes from the direction Rhodey pointed and he feels their tiny hands on his thighs. “Hey, it’s okay, we’ve got you.”

People run out from the mouth of the path across the playground. Tony’s heart beats a sharp tattoo against the arc reactor. He should have worn the bracelets, brought the suitcase, something. He’s going to kill Fury for jinxing them.

Rhodey is herding the other four kids out of the fountain when the threat emerges from behind the trees.

A dozen red-jumpsuited, jackbooted thugs with atypically-constructed weapons that sort of look like guns, but that Tony’s guessing use some kind of energy blast rather than solid projectiles, march forward on the path, pointing said weapons at anything that moves.

“Shit.” Tony drops into a crouch, waving frantically at Rhodey to do the same. He hunches down, arms curled protectively around the kids’ heads as they scuttle across the playground to join Tony and the others. “Hydra,” Tony hisses when they’re close enough. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”

“You’re kidding,” Rhodey says, but he sighs. He leans back against one of the columns of the playground, urging the kids to huddle down near the ground in front of him.

“What’s going on?” Steve asks plaintively. He’s soaking wet and shivers every time a breeze passes over them.

“Just some bad guys, honey, it’s gonna be fine,” Tony tells him, running a firm hand over his head to squeegee some of the water out of his hair. Steve grimaces and Tony flicks the water onto the ground. “I want all of you to stick close and listen carefully, got it?”

He gets several murmurs of agreement.

“What’s the plan?” Rhodey asks, and Tony stares as he pulls a Beretta out from under his shirt.

“Did you have that in there the whole time?”

“Small-of-back holster,” Rhodey says, like Tony’s brain-dead, which he most certainly is not. “I always wear it, Tony. I like to feel prepared. It paid off, didn’t it?”

“I wasn’t accusing you of being over-prepared, was I? Why are you so defensive?”

“You were giving me that look, I know what that look means, Tony—”

Thor reaches curiously toward the gun and Rhodey moves it sharply out of his reach. “No. This is a gun, Thor, extremely dangerous. You don’t get to touch, ever, do you understand me?”

“But I—”

“This is not a discussion, Thor,” Rhodey says severely. “All right, Tones, since you clearly don’t have a plan in mind, here’s what I’m thinking: you take the kids and head for the trees, get over that hill ASAP. I’ll cover you and keep them busy.”

Tony can hear the jackbooted thugs getting closer and as un-thrilled with that plan as he is—how the hell is Rhodey going to get out? He’s got what? Maybe six shots? Nine?—he nods and brings the kids around. “When I say go, I want you all to run as fast as you can for the trees, got it? Don’t stop running until you get to the street. Do not run into the street.”

“Tony,” Bruce says in a small, frightened voice and Tony reaches over and squeezes his hand. He takes a knee and looks around at all his small, too-vulnerable teammates. He'd rather die than see one of them hurt.

“I know this is scary and we're asking a lot of you, but I need you to be brave. Stick close and do what I say. We won’t let them hurt you, I promise. Okay? Are you ready?”

“You need to go,” Rhodey says, voice full of warning.

The kids nod.

Tony waits a beat. Woodchips rustle as the goons step onto the playground proper. Rhodey breathes, in and out, slow, through pursed lips.

Go!” Tony bellows.

The kids go off like a shot and Tony makes sure every one of them is ahead of him before following on their heels.

A shout goes up from the Hydra agents. It’s answered by the report of Rhodey’s gun, the crack of which startles Clint so badly he trips and falls, starting to cry.

Tony ducks and scoops him up, resisting the urge to look back over his shoulder.

Tony clutches Clint close to his chest, doing the best he can to make sure his body covers every bit. He does a quick mental head count of the others as he scrambles up the small grassy hill that surrounds the playground. All accounted for.

He yells, a sharp punch of air, when pain rips across his side. Clint shrieks.

Steve turns and Tony bites back an expletive and forces himself to keep going, ignoring the hot tendrils of pain crawling out along his ribs from his right side.

It's fine, it's fine, he's just got to get to the street with the kids and he can look at it.

But as he crests the hill, the kids all come running back towards him, faces blanched.

Six more Hydra coming in from the other end of the park.

"Shit," he spits, breaths coming high and short in his chest.

"Tony," Sam says nervously, clutching at his pants.

"Shh, it's gonna be fine," Tony says, turning so he can see the goons approaching from either direction. He blinks sweat out of his eyes.

The touch of one of their small hands startles him and he glances down to find Natasha slipping a small knife into his palm.

"Thank you," he breathes before tucking it into his own palm and looking back toward the goons.

Another crack of Rhodey's Baretta echoes across the now-empty playground and Tony does his best not to freak out about the fact he can't see him anywhere.

"We're taking the Avengers," one of the goons calls, voice brooking no argument.

Tony snorts. "Like hell you are. If you so much as touch a hair on their heads, I'm going to eviscerate every single one of you."

"With what?" the goon sneers.

Tony swallows, fingers tightening around the knife until it bites into his skin.

His heart beats so hard he can feel it against his eardrums. He counts seven of the goons fanning out in a circle around him and the kids.

Steve and Natasha have been training him, but he's never been caught away from his suit like this; what had he been thinking?

He's out of options. "Stay close. Don't let them separate you, got it? Just keep together and don't let them separate you whatever you do—"

The nearest goon lunges.

Tony steps forward to meet him. He has one job: keep Hydra away from the team. He lashes out with Natasha's knife, feels the slight tug as it slices through the front of the vest the goon is wearing. A yelp tells him he hit deeper than that. Good, he thinks viciously.

One of the guys from the other end of the circle moves in. Tony can't do a fancy twirl over the kids' heads the way Steve probably would, but he ducks around a grasping hand and darts to cut him off. He slashes at the guy's hand and hardly feels anything. He only knows it's a hit when blood pours from the arm. Tony's stomach turns.

The goons are looking a little more wary now. Tony holds out the knife and tries to steady his shaking hand. "I told you. Lay a hand on them and I'll eviscerate you."

It feels like his heart is beating inside his throat, like he might choke on it. The Hydra agents are a few feet away from the kids now and they cannot get separated, if they get separated—if they each get grabbed by a different agent—Tony feels cold at the thought. He couldn't go after all of them.

“Thor, do you understand me?” he asks in Italian, mainly because he's pretty sure these agents don't know it, and it'll drive them nuts.

“Aye,” Thor replies.

It's working, because one of them scowls and brandishes his weapon a little more pointedly. “Hey, none of that.”

Tony makes a face at him and says, again, in Italian, “Thor, I want everyone to hold hands. Everybody holding on as tight as they can. Okay?”

“Aye.”

There's rustling and little-kid whispering behind him as Thor shares the instructions and Tony shifts his grip on the knife, cool air hitting the sweat on his palms. “Well?” he says. “Who's first?”

One of them starts straight for Tony and he's squaring up for the fight when one of the kids wails; it's the loudest, most godawful temper tantrum he's ever heard. When he glances over his shoulder, he finds Natasha, howling and kicking her feet even as she clutches tightly at Sam and Clint's hands, big fat tears streaking down her cheeks as she wails like a banshee. Immediately on the heels of that realization, Tony notices she's got the attention of every single one of their attackers.

His heart swells a little with pride, and he takes the opportunity he's been given and lashes out first. The knife sinks into one of the goon's shoulders and he yowls in surprise and pain. Tony tries to grab the gun out of his hand, but he barely gets a grip before the goon twists and they stagger sideways into another. The three of them go down in a heap.

Tony bucks, writhing his way free of their tangled limbs and manages to nail one of them in the balls. That should keep him down for a few minutes anyway. He rolls to his feet and immediately freezes because one of the energy guns is pointed right at him.

He ducks away before the weapon finishes powering up. A goon behind him shrieks as he takes the blast instead. Bruce screams and Tony's heart lurches back into his throat when he looks over and one of the Hydra agents has Bruce by the arm and is trying to shake off Clint and Thor. The sky starts to crackle and Clint lets out a tiny snarling growl and headbutts the agent right in the dick. Tony winces.

The agent immediately drops Bruce and collapses in a whimpering ball.

Someone grabs Tony by the hair and he scrabbles at their hand, but it's protected by body armor. He kicks at their ankles instead and manages to make a hit that makes them release his hair. They're not about to let him get away that easy though and a second later he has a lapful of Hydra agent grappling for his throat. They wrestle for what feels like an eternity before Tony manages to jam the heel of his palm against the guy's solar plexus and he scuttles away gasping like an asthmatic.

Steve is screaming shrilly and Tony's horrified when he glances back and sees one of the agents has pried him away from the others, despite his thrashing. Tony scrambles over and kicks the guy in the knee. There's a whoomph that tells him Steve got dropped, but one of the other agents kicks him in the spleen and Tony doesn't get a chance to see anything after that, distracted by the boot that lands on his throat, steadily crushing his windpipe.

He panics, the sound of one of the kids whimpering stoking the flame. He's struggling to breathe when he remembers Natasha teaching him how to deal with this. He reaches up and wrenches the guy's foot around. The bone snaps and the goon falls back screaming. Tony knocks him out with a kick to the face.

“Kids,” he barks, lurching to his feet. He's a little surprised at the mayhem they've managed to inflict. The kids are scattered around a little, but they're all holding at least one hand. Hydra reinforcements are heading up from the playground though. “Circle up, kids! Come on, let's go.”

Tony!”

Tony's head snaps up at the sound of Rhodey's voice, relief sweeping over him. A gunshot cracks through the trees and he ducks instinctively.

“Get down!” Rhodey yells, “Down, down, get down!”

So he gets his arms around the kids and presses them to the grass, shushing Sam when he whimpers at the sound of more gunshots.

There's a beat of silence. Tony finds Rhodey staring around—one of the goons is lifting his gun behind him. “Rhodey!”

Rhodey whips around and fires again, dropping the guy with a point blank to the head.

“Don't scare me like that, Bumblebee,” Tony breathes, “I thought you were a goner.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Rhodey replies dryly. “I hope that's the last of them, I'm out.”

Around them the park has gone quiet, birds tentatively chirping, and Tony says, “Think so, but let's get out of here before we have to find out.” He digs out his phone while Rhodey kneels and starts looking the kids over.

“Is everyone okay? Did anyone get hurt?”

“I scraped my knee,” Clint says, lower lip wobbling as he points to the red, raw patch on his knee.

“Ouch,” Rhodey says sympathetically.

Bruce holds out his arm, which is darkening with bruises where the Hydra goon grabbed him. Tony's blood boils.

“I'm sorry, Bruce. I'm sorry I let that happen to you.”

Bruce draws back, shrugging.

Tony bends and presses a kiss to the top of his head. “No, no I am. I'm sorry.”

“You hurt the men,” Sam says, voice wavering. Tony's phone trills, alerting him Happy's outside the park and he shepherds the kids that direction. Sam looks like he's about to lose it and Tony's grateful when Rhodey scoops him up.

“Yeah, we hurt the men, buddy. Your mom said violence isn't the answer though, right?”

Sam nods, stricken.

“She's right, bud, but sometimes you don't have a choice. Those men were going to hurt you and the others.”

“They shouldn't,” Sam says and Rhodey nods.

“That's right. That's exactly right. They shouldn't.”

Tony is on edge until they get the kids piled into the car. “Keep an eye out, Hap, we were ambushed.”

“Someone ambushed a bunch of kids?

“Hydra,” Tony spits.

“Bastards.”

“Happy,” Rhodey says repressively.

“Oop, sorry,” he says shifting as he peers at the kids in the rearview. “Sorry kids.”

“Your ma's gonna wash your mouth out with soap,” Steve says gravely, shaking his head.

Meanwhile, Tony calls Nick.

“You jinxed us! You son of a bitch—”

Tony!

“—you jinxed us!”

“Pinch poke you owe me a Coke,” Fury retorts. “What happened?”

“Hydra happened. S.H.I.E.L.D. better get to work in the park, we left behind a few bodies.”

Fury sighs. “Is everyone okay?”

Rhodey has finally noticed the blood on Tony's side and has started poking around. Tony hisses. “Sure, we're all fine.”

“Mhm,” Fury replies.

“The kids are all fine,” Tony rephrases. He bats at Rhodey's hands and gets a dirty look for his trouble. “We're headed back to the Tower now.”

“I'll send back up,” Fury says and hangs up on Tony.

Tony shoots an annoyed look at the phone in his hand.

“You're going to medical when we get back,” Rhodey says.

“The hell I am, I'm not letting them out of my sight.”

“We'll all go together, but you're going.

Tony opts not to respond to that, because knowing Rhodey he'll end up locking himself into something.

The park is minutes from the Tower, so they're pulling into the underground basement garage before Rhodey can harangue him about it anymore.

“We have to assume they're going to try again,” Tony says as he climbs out of the car. “They knew they were kids. This has to be linked to the hair-pulling incident.” He taps out a text to Fury, absently stroking Thor's head as they usher the kids into the elevator. “ETA for back up is twenty minutes.”

“What's ETA?” Thor asks.

“Estimated time of arrival.”

“We just going to keep them holed up in the Tower until we figure out how to fix this?” Rhodey asks.

Tony shrugs. “It's a big Tower.”

“What if they come for us here?”

Tony scowls. “I'd like to see them try. JARVIS, penthouse.”

“Belay that, take us to medical,” Rhodey cuts in.

“Belay that, we're going to the penthouse,” Tony says, glaring at Rhodey.

“You're bleeding,” Rhodey fires back.

“Send someone from medical to the penthouse, but do not take us to medical.” At Rhodey's look he says, “They need to be somewhere familiar after all that, not in the MedBay.”

Rhodey looks none too happy about it, but he relents.

“I'm hungry,” Clint complains as they pile out into the penthouse.

“I'll make dinner,” Rhodey says with a significant look at Tony. “You're going to sit down and get checked out.”

“Yes, all right, Mama Bear.”

Rhodey stiffens, and before Tony can even open his mouth to ask, there's a horrific crash and all of the windows explode inward. The kids scream. Small pebbles of tempered glass hit the back of Tony's neck. Adrenaline surges up his throat alongside a molten wave of anger. This is their home.

Bruce and Sam haven’t moved, Bruce hunkering down in a tiny ball and Sam frozen in place. Steve and Clint are hovering nervously around them, both shaking like leaves and Thor looks ready to throw another thunderstorm tantrum.

Run!” Tony yells, tugging Bruce to his feet and nudging Sam’s back.

That’s all it takes to get them moving. The kids bolt.

Two of the Hydra agents who came through the window rush Tony at once. Loki floats in behind them, wearing a bored expression. Tony’s stomach flips queasily. God, Loki, can this get worse? He still has the knife Natasha gave him and he jerks it out of his pocket, tries not to think as he aims for one of the Hydra agent's jugulars.

Distantly, Tony hears security panels come down. Did they make it? Did they all make it? He slashes a shoulder, not the neck, and gets a snarl of fury for his trouble. The other guy drives his weapon into Tony's right side. The wound from earlier erupts in blinding, white-hot agony.

He screams.

Tony flails, trying to make himself dangerous even though the pain is making him want to puke, but one of the goons grabs the knife and wrenches it out of his hand. Someone else hits him with a left cross that makes his head spin.

“Tony!” Rhodey shouts and Tony looks up in time to see him bowl one of the agents over. They go down hard and Tony winces at the way their head bounces off the floor. They don't move again.

One of them rushes at Tony and he catches them with his feet, catapults them over his head and they land somewhere behind him with a sickening crunch. For a second, Tony's stunned. He hadn't even decided to do that. Natasha hadn't been making him do it over and over just to torment him.

When he scrambles upright, Rhodey has relieved one of the Hydra agents of their weapon. “The team?” Tony gasps. Rhodey grabs Tony's hand and hauls him to his feet.

“In the kitchen. Will it hold?”

Tony swipes at the sweat pouring into his eyes. “Unless they knock the building down. Loki might be able to get through.”

“We'll get in there first,” Rhodey says grimly, dragging Tony that direction and away from the shattered windows where more Hydra agents are starting to crawl inside.

“We'll be risking the others—”

The Mark X touches down between them and the Hydra goons and Tony's heart sings. “JARVIS, my pride and joy.”

“Go, sir. I will, as you say, cover you.”

Tony doesn't need telling twice. As much as he'd like to be in the suit, the kids need him more right now. He and Rhodey haul ass over to the kitchen door, which retracts to admit them as soon as they're close.

A whine and whoomph sounds behind them and Tony curses.

They brought an EMP, which means the suit is a fancy paperweight unless he can get to it to reset it. So much for cover. But if they get through this door—

Something tangles up in his legs and Tony goes sprawling with a yelp.

“Tony!”

He flips, tugging at the weighted cord wrapped around his legs, and his heart skips as the Hydra agents close in again. “Shit! Close it! JARVIS, close it!” he demands. Rhodey skids to his knees next to Tony holding a huge kitchen knife.

“I cannot,” JARVIS replies, “you are in the path!”

Shit!” Tony snarls and kicks free of the ropes as soon as they've been severed. Jesus, what if they've just gotten the kids killed? “RUN!” he screams into the kitchen, “RUN!”

The sound of small feet scattering fills the room and Tony whips back around at the sound of Rhodey crying out.

He doesn't even get to see what's happening before someone lands on him, knocking the air out of his lungs.

Shit, Tony realizes, twenty minutes is too long. He hears a scuffle, knows they're putting their hands on Rhodey and panic seethes at the back of his throat. Not Rhodey, please. Someone kneels on his back and grabs Tony's hair, pulls his head back. It pulls the injury on his side and Tony makes an involuntary noise.

He's dragged back out into the living room by the hair, which it turns out is excruciating. He spits out a string of curses as they jerk to a stop. He's able to get his knees under him, but only just. His scalp throbs.

There's a louder commotion back where he left Rhodey, and someone snaps, “Look!”

The commotion goes quiet. Tony can't see what's happening and his heart is beating like it's going to break out of his chest, his breaths too short and too shallow.

“That's what I thought,” one of the goons growls. He's too far away to be talking to Tony; he must be talking to Rhodey.

Tony grits his teeth.

“JARVIS,” one of the goons says, and the voice is higher pitched, a woman's maybe. “Tell the children if they don't come out, we're going to hurt Stark and his friend.”

Fury burns through Tony at the audacity of a Hydra agent talking to his AI.

“Did you hear me?”

When there's no reply, she turns and yanks Tony's arm up behind his back. He screams, feeling the edges of the wound on his side tear.

“Leave him alone!” a small voice yells shrilly and cold washes through Tony. Oh, god no. Steve.

His eyes dart around the portion of the room he can see and he spots Steve standing with the other miniature Avengers in the doorway to the formal dining room looking terrified and determined.

“No!” Tony chokes. “Hide!”

One of the thugs digs the heel of his boot into Tony's side. A howl of sheer agony stutters out of his throat.

“Come out here, now, or I'll keep hurting him.”

There's a long, quiet pause broken only by the sound of Rhodey cursing and Tony's panting.

“Don't even think about it,” Tony breathes. “Run, goddammit.”

The Hydra agent snarls and stomps on him again, wringing out another splintering cry.

“No!” Sam squeals.

“Come here, Captain.” The hand not on his weapon reaches back and pulls out a zip tie.

“You are not gonna zip tie kids,” Tony pants, appalled even through the haze of pain.

“They're not kids, they're the Avengers,” another growls.

“Come here,” the other repeats, mirth fading from her expression. “Now.” When Steve hesitates, she steps back and pistol-whips Tony, who falls with a cry.

“No!” Steve shrieks and runs out with Thor and the others on his heels. One agent grabs Steve, another catching Thor by the arm. No, no, this isn't how it was supposed to go!

“Son of a bitch!” Rhody spits.

“Remember, you can have the others, but Thor is mine,” Loki says, edging forward.

The woman agent snorts. “I don't think so. You've played your part and you have your money. The Avengers are ours.

His small teammates are dropped carelessly around him and Tony forces his head up to breathe, “It's okay. I'll figure something out. It's okay.” How, he doesn’t know, but he has to.

“You dare cross me?” Loki hisses. “What value is your money to me? I am a god.”

“It's not,” Steve insists and, god, Tony feels really woozy. One too many blows to the head.

“Mhm,” the Hydra agent drawls. “I'm quaking in my boots.”

“S'okay,” he slurs, eyes slipping closed for a beat too long.

He's failed them and they're going to get taken by Hydra and Loki who'll do god knows what with them, god, he swore this wouldn't happen.

“When are you gonna get it through your thick skull that it's not okay for you to be a casualty?” Steve says and his voice is...his voice is... Tony's eyes snap open again and he stares wide-eyed up at Steve, full-grown and furious. He smiles darkly down at Tony. “You just hang in there, okay? We've got you now.” And when Tony looks around he realizes all the Avengers are crouched around him, grown again.

The Hydra goons immediately start to back-pedal. Tony smiles.

“Sic 'em, guys.”

Chapter Text

After Loki turns on them, the fight with Hydra is mercifully short. When it’s over and the medical team is wheeling him into the elevator, Tony is abruptly struck with panic. “Wait, the bag, where's the bag? Steve's inhaler—the extra batteries for Clint's aid—” He twists on the gurney and everything goes gray momentarily. He clings to his consciousness with his fingernails. “Did we leave it at the park?”

Rhodey puts a hand on his shoulder and presses him back. “Dude, chill. Steve doesn't need his inhaler anymore.”

“Clint still might need batteries!” Tony argues, a little hysterically. Thor reaches over one of the medical people and pats his arm.

“Worry not, if Clint requires new batteries, we will find them, here amongst our things.”

“Right,” Tony says, “yeah. I mean, of course. Because you're adults, not children.” Tony lies back down because he's feeling seriously lightheaded. Thor's an adult, they're all adults, he doesn't have to worry anymore if they've eaten or if they're tired or—well, actually, no, that's not true. More like, he doesn't have to worry that Thor is going to jump from the top of the stairs (probably) and he doesn't have to help them get through bathtime without cracking their heads open on the tile (...probably), but the eating and the sleeping—

God, he feels terrible.

He closes his eyes for just a minute, but when he opens them again the ceiling is zipping by at a dizzying pace and the voices he hears all around him sound tense and garbled. He's jostled as several pairs of hands move him and for some reason, Tony can't remember who they are. Hydra? His anxiety spikes, but his heart flutters, like it can't quite muster the energy to race.

“Let's get him into surgery!”

What's going on?

Something uncomfortable is pressed into his nose. He feels a pinch on his arm. He catches a snippet of speech: “Infuse A pos.”

There were kids, he remembers, kids he was looking after. What happened to them? Are they okay?

“Are they okay?” he demands, “Are they okay?” He tries to sit up and falls back, gasping, his vision tunnelling terrifyingly.

“Mr. Stark, please stay calm—”

“They're my responsibility!”

God, his head hurts.

Someone grasps his hand and when Tony follows the length of the arm with his eyes, he finds Steve at the other end. “Steve? What's—what's happening? The kids. Are the kids safe?”

Steve's face is twisted with concern. “They're fine, Tony. Everyone is okay. The doctors are taking care of you.”

“Promised I'd... Promised I'd take care of them.”

Tony looks down when he feels a hand tighten around his. “You did,” a voice says, “you were incredible, Tony. Stay with me, okay?”

Tony tries. He tries to stay.

But he drifts.

~ * ~

Tony pries open crusty, dry eyes.

Sam is conked out next to his bed, which gives Tony a strange, fluttery warm feeling even though he knows it doesn’t mean anything.

Tony has an IV in one hand and a cannula in his nose. His throat's dry from the oxygen and despite the drugs he can feel separating him from the pain, he can tell his side is going to hurt like a bitch when the meds wear off. He gropes for the bed controls and sits himself up. When that goes all right and he doesn't pass out, he gingerly shuffles over and sits at the end of the bed where he can reach his chart.

Blood transfusion, twelve stitches to left lateral anterior abdominal, multiple contusions, two stitches to frontal cephalic region, multiple lacerations. Not the worst he's ever had.

He blinks at the chart and sways a little. Maybe sitting up hadn't been a great idea. He's surprised when the chart slides out of his hands. When he looks up to see where it's gone, Bruce smiles at him and touches his arm. “Do me a favor, Tony?”

Tony blinks. “Sure, whaddyou need?”

“Lie back down?”

“Prolly a good idea,” Tony mutters, although that's not what he expected. Bruce helps him move back up the bed and he groans as he settles back. “Glad y're back,” he mumbles, eyes growing heavy.

“Glad to be back,” Bruce murmurs. His eyes are so soft and his hands are gentle on Tony’s arm.

“Missed you. Y’re the only one who likes me and y’didn’t like me.” Tony’s eyes feel wet and now Bruce looks sad.

“You made me like you though. Made me feel safe.”

“Couldn’t keep you safe though,” Tony says and his chest aches. God, he’s tired.

“You did. And I’m not the only one who likes you, but we can talk about that when you feel better. Rest, Tony.”

He does.

~ * ~

To Tony's mortification, his teammates remember their time as kids.

Loki turned them back when Hydra reneged on whatever deal they made. It’s amazing Hydra was stupid enough to think they could backstab a demi-god and get away with it. Especially Loki.

Who had apparently helped round up the Hydra agents and then vowed to return to defeat Thor and take over the planet or whatever his grand delusions are before going poof. From what Tony understands, he did it purely out of spite.

To escape an exponentially more-awkward-than-usual recovery following having spent two days dropping kisses on his teammates and dressing them and nearly getting them all kidnapped by Hydra, Tony elicits Rhodey's disapproving help to flee back to the penthouse.

“Tones, I know you have this weird hangup—”

“I'm not the one with the hangup,” Tony retorts and screws up his face as his side crackles with lightning bolts of pain. He groans as Rhodey helps lower him onto the couch. When he feels less like he's floating off into white nothingness, he opens his eyes and frowns at Rhodey, who's sitting next to him, watching him with a worried expression. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Rhodey says, firm and a little exasperated. “I'm bruised up and wrenched my arm, but I'm fine. You're the one I'm worried about. We already went over this, Tony, don't you remember?”

“Sure,” Tony lies, waving a hand, “I remember. Just. You know, worried.”

“Mhm.” Rhodey leans back into the couch, slotting himself in against Tony's good side. Tony turns his head, presses his face into Rhodey's shoulder.

“Kinda bummed they're grown up again.”

A distant part of him is horrified by that admission, but Tony can't bring himself to care. His head hurts and his torso hurts, and he already misses how close he got to the team.

Rhodey strokes his hair. “You want six kids?”

“Well, no, but... Liked being liked.”

“Tony,” Rhodey sighs, but Tony falls asleep before he can sigh the rest.

~ * ~

He must not sleep long, because his face is still buried in Rhodey's shoulder when he wakes up. “Nn, Popsicle, how long 's I asleep?”

“Few hours,” Rhodey says from across the room.

Tony's eyes snap open and he jerks away from the shoulder he's resting on, looking up to find it's Thor.

“Take care,” he says, reaching up to steady Tony when he sways a little too hard to one side. “How are you feeling?”

“I'm— I'm fine,” Tony replies, darting a glare in Rhodey's direction. He looks unimpressed.

“How's your head?” Clint asks and Tony startles. That's when he realizes it's not just Thor, but Clint and Natasha sitting on the loveseat and Steve a little further out sitting at the bar in the kitchen where Sam is drinking out of a bottle of water.

“What are you doing here? How'd you get in?”

God, no wonder they hate him.

“We're here to keep an eye on you, dumbass,” Clint says and Tony blinks. Literally no one has ever called him a dumbass before. “Rhodey let us in.”

"I, for one, had no idea just how much you knew about kids," Sam says.

Tony squints at him. "Are you sure you’re remembering what happened? I don't think you are."

"You're kidding, right?" Clint says, fiddling with the zipper on Natasha's hoodie. "You were great."

"I keep telling him that," Rhodey says like he's been vindicated.

“We could have ended up with someone awful, like Rogers,” Natasha says, shooting a sly look at Steve, who flushes red. Last time they’d done a thing with kids, Steve had tried to pick up a seven year old without warning and had nearly ended up dropping the kid on their head when they freaked out.

“There weren’t a lot of kids on the front lines!” Steve protests, like he always does.

"You didn't yell or hit us," Bruce says and Tony wrinkles his nose.

"That is a really low bar."

"I can't believe we're still arguing about this," Natasha says. "You fed and cleaned us, made us feel safe, played with us and gave us attention, spoke calmly and rationally when we did something wrong, paid attention to us and listened when we told you what we wanted, did what we wanted to do, and literally put yourself bodily between us and harm. What exactly is it you think you should have done instead?"

"Rhodey—"

Rhodey cuts him off with an enormous exasperated sigh.

Natasha gives him a look, and then apropos of nothing: “Did you know we like to be there when one of us is injured?”

Tony rubs his forehead where his headache is making itself known. “Yeah, I know,” he says and then mutters, “but since I'm not one of you—”

Bruce—where did Bruce come from—leans over him and Tony shifts back, shying away from his reach until he sees that what he's got in his hands is a folded up washcloth. When it touches his forehead, Tony's eyes flutter shut. It's cool and sucks some of the pain right out of his skull.

“Where the hell did you get that idea, Tony?” Bruce asks softly.

Tony sighs; he's too tired to deflect or pretend like he doesn't give a shit. What does it matter? It doesn't change anything. He pushes Bruce's hands away and stares down at his own. “You don't invite me when you go places, when I invite you you refuse, Steve's Captain Handsy with literally everyone except me, half the time you stop talking when I walk in the room, and I'm one of the smartest men on the planet and you all refused to let me make your gear.” He scrubs his face with his hands. “I'm good at one thing and you won't let me do it for the team. What am I supposed to think?”

He's exhausted and his pain meds are wearing off and he'd rather hand himself over to Hydra than have this conversation right now, so he gets to his feet, pushing away Bruce and Thor's hands when they reach out to steady him, and he leaves.

In the shelter of his bedroom, he crawls onto the bed and curls up in a ball under the covers.

He's kind of going in and out a little, so Tony's not sure how long he's been holed up in his room when someone knocks on the door.

“Who izzit?” he asks JARVIS.

“Captain Rogers, sir.”

Tony covers his head with a pillow.

JARVIS is a shit and apparently takes that as tacit permission to let Steve in because he hears the muffled sound of the bedroom door opening.

“Tony?”

He drags the pillow off his head. “Yeah.”

“I brought a little food and some painkillers. Do you...”

Tony breathes out heavily into the mattress, steeling himself, and then pushes upright, wincing. He's halfway when his arm wobbles and threatens to dump him back on his face, but he hears the tray go down with a clatter and Steve catches him, big hands warm around Tony's biceps.

“Take it easy, Tony,” he says, voice pitched low. “Don’t push.”

Tony lets his head hang because he doesn’t want to look Steve in the eye. “I’m fine. What do you want, Steve?”

An uncomfortable silence stretches between them.

Then, finally, Steve says, quiet, “You don’t really think you aren’t part of the team, do you?”

“That’s a stupid question,” Tony says, not bothering to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “I’m a consultant.”

Tony.” He sounds like Tony just told him he drowns puppies in his spare time.

Steve grasps his wrist, careful not to grip so hard Tony couldn’t break free easily, and Tony looks up sharply.

Steve’s face is twisted, agonized. “Tony, no. You’ve got it all wrong.”

“Like hell I do. Look, I don’t need you to pretend to spare my feelings, all right? I’m not going anywhere. I’m committed. So just leave me alone so I can lick my wounds in peace and don’t patronize me.”

Steve doesn’t say anything to that, the silence stretching on as the icy shards of bitter hurt grow in the pit of Tony’s stomach.

Then, very quietly, he says, “You said you liked being friends with me. That you’d miss it.”

“I didn’t think you’d hear that,” Tony replies stiffly.

Steve reaches out and locks eyes with Tony, very carefully, and very deliberately, setting his hand on Tony’s knee. “What if I still want to be friends with you? What if I always did?” Tony starts to open his mouth, but Steve raises his voice and goes on a little faster, “What if I avoided touching you because I felt you flinch the few times I did and I didn’t want you to suffer because of me?” The words crystallize in Tony’s throat; he tries to swallow and can’t. “What if I stopped talking when you walked in because I was talking about Howard and I knew he was a sore subject for you?” Tony’s mouth shuts with an audible noise. For the first time since starting his speech, Steve breaks eye contact, looking down at where his hand rests on Tony’s knee, and his voice lowers. “What if...what if I told you I didn’t want your gear because you made a choice to stop your company from making weapons and I didn't want you to have to compromise that? Not to mention you have a full time job running a huge corporation and a part time job being Iron Man and looking after the team? And I was afraid you’d burn out on us? So I told the others they shouldn’t take anything either.”

Tony latches on to the only thing he knows how to respond to: “I don’t run SI.”

“Tony,” Steve says, voice thick with exasperation. That’s more along the lines of what Tony expects from him. Not. Whatever’s happening right now. “Do you know we talk about you when you aren’t there?”

Tony flinches, which is mortifying. “Why wouldn’t you?” he croaks, but it’s a flimsy cover at best.

“JARVIS, how good is your memory?”

“Exceptional, Captain.”

“Can you tell us what the team and I talked about last Tuesday morning?”

“Certainly.

MISTER BARTON: Did you hear what Stark’s doing Thursday night?

MISS ROMANOVA: The Stark Foundation gala, isn’t it?

CAPTAIN ROGERS: He invited me.

MISTER BARTON and MISS ROMANOVA and DOCTOR BANNER and MISTER WILSON: Me too.

ODIN-SON: I too was invited.

CAPTAIN ROGERS: Are you going?

MISTER WILSON: I told him I would if I could, but I’ve got a meeting at the VA that night.

MISS ROMANOVA: No. The world knows what I’ve done, it would only hurt his cause. Those children need his help.

MISTER BARTON: Hard same.

DOCTOR BANNER: And risk a visit from The Other Guy?

ODIN-SON: I am not eager to reprise the last feast Son of Stark requested my presence for. I...behaved badly.

MISS ROMANOVA: What about you?

CAPTAIN ROGERS: I’d just embarrass him.

MISTER BARTON: ‘s funny because Stark acts like an asshole, but I’ve heard him making calls about that gala for months, sweet-talking people into going. And you know he visits a kid’s hospital once a month?

MISS ROMANOVA: Rhodes says he thinks he’d be a bad father because Howard was, but he adores children.

MISTER WILSON: You’re kidding. He’s like the kid-whisperer. Unlike some people—

CAPTAIN ROGERS: There weren’t a lot of kids on the front lines! It was an honest mistake!

CAPTAIN ROGERS: The more I hear about Howard, the more I wish I’d socked him when I had the chance. He was no gem when I knew him, but it sounds like he—

SIR: Don’t clam up on my account, I’m just here for coffee.”

Tony’s forehead feels hot, a sharp lump caught in his throat. JARVIS wouldn’t lie to him and that’s— He remembers that moment, how bitter and sharp it hurt when Steve went silent and they all turned to look at him. He’d thought they were making fun of him, but…

“Tony, we think the world of you.” Steve smiles crookedly. “None of us are all that good at saying how we feel, but maybe you can let us show you?” He reaches up and cups Tony’s neck, thumb brushing the line of his jaw the way Tony’s seen him do to Thor and Clint and Bruce a thousand times and Tony's eyes flutter shut.

“Sure,” he breathes. “Okay.”

~ * ~

Nobody fusses or asks questions when he and Steve reemerge, but they help him get settled on the couch, Rhodey lying with his head in Tony’s lap. Outside the sun has dipped below the horizon and the sky is pink and violet, the buildings limned in gold.

Tony can feel the attention of the others on him and for the first time it doesn’t feel like they’re waiting for him to get lost. When he starts to feel thirsty, someone is there with a glass, and when he can’t settle his arm comfortably, someone brings him a pillow to lay it on. They take turns sitting next to him—cuddling really, pressed up against him from knee to shoulder—and it’s foreign and strange and fills him so full of warmth he feels like he might come apart at the seams.

When Natasha sits next to him, she strokes his hair and he goes loose and liquid, his eyelids heavy. He’s only just still awake when she murmurs, “You weren’t the first man to show me men can be more than monsters, but you were the first to show me men can change.” Tony’s breath sticks in his chest. “You were never a monster, but when you were blind and your eyes were opened you saw and you acted and I’m sorry I couldn’t see you were capable of that when I made my recommendation to Fury.”

Sam and Thor and Steve are playing cards at the table and they blur, Tony’s vision swimming.

“You cried for me,” Natasha says softly and Tony swallows, throat so tight it hurts. “You’re a good man, Tony. A good friend. And if children are something you want one day then you shouldn’t let your father’s failings stop you.” Her smile turns mischievous. “Just keep them away from Steve.”

Across the room, Steve groans, head rolling forward on his shoulders and Tony lets out a strangled laugh. “I’m never gonna hear the end of that, am I?”

“Hell no,” Clint says cheerfully.

“I know where you sleep,” Steve replies darkly.

“That was a threat! I’m feeling threatened!” Clint calls, clutching his chest. “JARVIS, lock it!”

Tony laughs until he’s wheezing as the panels seal the room, Rhodey groaning in complaint.

“Doesn’t do much good if you’re locked in with me, asshole,” Steve says dryly.

Rhodey, having given up on his nap, gingerly sits up. “Ooh, you said a swear.”

“Oh god!” Steve groans and Tony positively howls with laughter.

When he can breathe again, Natasha has switched spots and Clint is sitting next to him holding an offering of ice for his stitches. It’s simultaneously awkward and nice letting Clint get the bag and the towel situated against his wound.

“So. If we blew it and it was a one-time offer kind of deal, I totally get it,” Clint says, focusing far harder than necessary on arranging the ice, “but if we didn’t blow it, you could have my first born child if you would make me that bow you mentioned.” His eyes flicker up to Tony’s face and Tony realizes wonderingly that he’s nervous. “If you have time! And it doesn't bother you. You have more important stuff on your plate—”

“Not more important than you.”

Tony freezes, realizing that just came out of his mouth and he darts a look over at Rhodey, who just nods encouragingly. Around them, the room is so quiet Tony’s pretty sure he can hear the traffic fifty stories below. Oh, Christ.

Well, it’s out there already.

“Look,” he says in a rush, “I don’t do attachment, but when I do it’s kind of an all or nothing deal. And I can’t really—turn it off.”

Sam is looking at him with wide eyes. “That’s how you felt even when you thought we didn’t like you.”

Tony hunches down, leaning back into the couch. “Pathetic, I know—”

“Tony, that’s incredible,” Sam says.

“Such loyalty with no expectation of reciprocation—truly, we are honored to be your shieldfellows.”

“We don’t deserve it, Tony, but if you want to make our gear, it’ll be an honor and a privilege to use it.”

Tony’s throat feels tight again, his eyes prickling with heat. “I can’t believe you assholes thought I couldn’t manage my own goddamn time well enough to make sure you had the best gear possible. I could have died in a fight with oversized frogs because you had half-rate gear.”

“We’ll never make that mistake again,” Natasha says and Tony looks around at his team, his friends, sitting around looking after him and marvels.

His life is the coolest, weirdest life.