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All Time Low

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Arto stands with his forehead pressed to the cold glass of his bedroom’s floor to ceiling windows, phone in hand. Staring out at the bleak January sky beyond, he lifts the phone to his ear and hits the dial symbol again. It rings and rings and then goes to voicemail again, Peter’s chirpy tones telling him to leave a message. He feels his stomach twist up into a sick knot, his throat going tight. That’s five calls and Peter still isn’t picking up. He’s read Arto’s texts though, the double blue tick on whatsapp mocking Arto whenever he checks the conversation.

He swallows hard. Contemplates calling again. Feels the horrid twist in his gut turning into prickling anger, the sort which makes it hard to stand still, the sort which makes him want to scream.

He pushes away from the window and glances down at his phone. Still no reply. He tries to take in a deep breath but can’t, instead turning and hurling his phone across the room. It hits the brick wall behind his bed, bouncing down onto his black sheets. It doesn’t break - of course it doesn’t, Tony made it - and just sits there, screen still lit up and showing the background of him, Tony and Steve at Coney Island.

Coney Island. They haven't been there in years. They haven't been anywhere in weeks, really. Steve has been off being a superhero and Tony has been working and working and working. No time for family outings, really.

No time for Arto, it feels like.

“Fuck you,” Arto tells the phone, his voice cracking, and then he storms out of the room and heads down to the communal floor.

Unfortunately, the two people he’s looking for aren't present, which just compounds his bad mood into a terrible one. Sam is at the counter doing a jigsaw puzzle, Bucky is on the phone with a very pissed off expression in place, Clint is at the coffee maker and Anna is beelining for the Christmas tree, eyes fixed on the baubles. She’s not got the hang of walking properly yet - she tends to toddle along at an ever-increasing speed until she barrels into something or someone.

Clint chokes into his mug and twists to put it down before lunging towards Anna, but Arto gets there first. He darts in front of her so she crashes into his legs rather than the tree, clinging onto his jeans and treading all over his feet as she tries to keep going despite him being a pretty hefty roadblock.

“The baubles are not for you,” he tells her, bending down to pick her up.

“Tee!” she says, pointing over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he says, holding her close. “Tree.”

“Tow, tow, tow,” she says happily, tiny hands smacking at his collarbones. She leans in for a cuddle, resting her head on his shoulder. The lump in his throat comes back. Maybe he should just invite Anna on the trip Tony’d got him for Christmas. That’d serve Peter right.

Maybe he should tear up the tickets. That’d serve Tony right.

“Good catch, Short-Round,” Clint says from right behind him. “Tree’s coming down tomorrow so she’ll stop trying to eat the baubles.”

“Then she’ll just go back to eating your car keys.”

“Good point,” Clint grins. “You get hold of Parker? He allowed to go with you?”

Arto just shrugs. “Where’s Dad?”

Clint looks at him for a long moment but doesn’t say anything more about Peter and the vacation. “Which dad?”

“Tony Dad.”

“In the workshop,” Clint says with an apologetic grimace as Arto grits his teeth. Tony has been in the workshop non-stop for days . He even nearly worked through Christmas, and Steve had been pissed as all hell about it.

“Steve Dad?”

“Gone to get groceries,” Clint says, leaning in to gently kiss Anna’s head. She sits up at that, grinning at him and waving, shoving the fingers of her other hand into her mouth. “You okay?”

Arto nods, passes Anna over. He wants to keep her close but he knows he needs to talk to someone about the horrible feelings twisting in his gut, and he can't take Anna into the workshop. “Going to find Tony,” he mutters and walks away from Clint before Clint hugs him or something stupid because then he’ll start to cry in front of Bucky and Sam.  

The workshop doors are locked when he gets down there. Unable to see where Tony is, he presses in his code but is met with a red light and an apology from Jarvis. Arto’s about at the end of his admittedly short tether so he resorts for banging on the glass with his fist, despite Jarvis’s alarmed protests.

Tony appears like a jack-in-the-box, standing up so he’s visible over the swathe of holograms and medical screens he’s got set up. He looks seriously angry and that doesn’t abate as he spots Arto. “Cut it out!” he mouths, making a slashing motion across his throat.

Arto kicks the door. Tony’s mouth drops open in affront so Arto kicks it again. It cracks, a single line splintering up from where his foot connected with the glass.

Somewhere, an alarm goes off. Jarvis is talking but Arto doesn’t give a shit what Jarvis has to say. Peter isn’t talking to him and no-one in this dumb house cares, so Arto is going to make them care-

Tony opens the door to the workshop. “Cut the alarms,” he says to the ceiling, then turns concerned eyes on Arto. “So the busting down doors thing is usually your dad’s game. What’s wrong?”

Arto doesn’t know how to say it. He doesn’t even really know what it is, by this point. He feels so stupid and small and lost. He shrugs.

The exasperation comes back. “You came down here to smash open the door and you don’t know why?” Tony asks, edging into incredulous. “I thought we were over this, Art.”

“You nearly missed Christmas,” Arto accuses.

“Whoa,” Tony says, holding up a hand. “Whoa, are you still mad about- okay. Yeah. That’s on me. I was working.”

“You’re always working,” Arto snaps.

Tony just stares at him. “Where’s Steve?”

“He’s out so you’ll have to actually deal with me for once,” Arto says spitefully, and feels a jab of vindication as Tony jerks back.

His jaw works and then he sighs, rubbing at his forehead. “Okay, point made,” he says. “Let me shut this all down and then I’ll come up with you.”

He turns away and Arto immediately feels a horrid clashing mixture of guilt at being mean to his dad and relief-slash-gladness that he’s getting his own way. He follows Tony into the workshop, peering around at the multitude of holoscreens as Tony starts shutting them down with careful flicks of his fingers.

He cocks his head curiously as he reads what he can when he’s standing on the wrong side of the screen. The intrigue momentarily outweighs his annoyance. “What are nanites?”

Tony replies by sweeping away the remainder of the screens in one go. He looks tired, and suddenly old. It makes Arto shiver, unease crawling down his spine. Steve looks how he’s always looked, perpetually in his mid-twenties, but Tony’s face is more lined than ever and he’s got flashes of grey at his temples that the others tease him for. He rebuffs it with easy grins and jokes about being a silver fox, but in that moment it doesn't feel remotely funny to Arto at all.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Tony says. “Come on, clear out.”

Arto frowns. Tony doesn’t usually mind him being in here if he’s supervised. He takes another step, peering over the edge of the medical screen that’s next to the workbench.

“Hey,” Tony says, sharp. “Cut it out. Move.”

He steps forwards so Arto has no choice but to step back, away from the screens and benches. He’s confused at the amount of medical equipment that Tony’s got on his benches; in the place of the usual soldering irons and circuit boards are scalpels and syringes.

Tony sets a hand on his shoulder and guides him towards the door. “Go,” he says. “I’m just going to clear away.”

Arto doesn’t go. He stops and frowns. “You never clear away. Just lock the door?”

“Maybe this is my New Year’s resolution,” Tony says. “Go, I’ll be up in like five minutes.”

Arto folds his arms over his chest. “Promise?”

Tony smiles tiredly. “Have I ever let you down?”

Arto wants to snap back ‘yes’ but he can’t bring himself to do it. Yeah, Tony is working a lot these days and he sometimes forgets about things, but he’s never really let Arto down. He stares at the floor and shakes his head jerkily.

He hears Tony come close. “Come here, Smart-Art,” he murmurs, pulling him round and into a hug. Arto stays stiff and uncooperative, even though he wants to just curl up on Tony’s knee and be hugged for the next three hours.

“Go,” Tony says, gently pressing a kiss to the top of Arto’s head. Arto nods dumbly then does as he’s told, leaving the workshop and heading for the stairs. He deliberately doesn’t look at the big crack in the door as he goes, nor does he look back to where Tony is back behind the screens.

Footsteps in front of him make him look up. It’s Steve , coming towards him with a shopping bag in one hand and his phone in the other. His focus is all on Arto though, eyes concerned and brow furrowed. “Arto? What’s up, pal?”

Arto bursts into tears. He stops dead and lifts his hands up to cover his face. He feels awful, like everything in the world is wrong and he’s got no idea how to fix it.

Strong arms envelop him, and he slumps against Steve’s chest, face still covered. He wants to stop crying but he’s not sure it’s even physically possible at this moment. He’s not sure anything is physically possible at the moment which is why it’s probably a good thing that Steve decides to sit them down right there on the stairs, hauling Arto into his lap like he’s still ten and tiny.

“What’s happened?” Steve asks calmly, but Arto shakes his head, cheek pressing against Steve’s shoulder. “You need to tell me,” Steve presses gently. “It’s obviously something, Art.”

“It’s everything,” Arto chokes out. “Everything.”

“Shhh, okay, okay,” Steve says. “Don’t talk yet, just sit.”

Arto does. A few moments later he hears the swish-hiss of the workshop doors opening, and then there’s another body sitting close, draping itself over him and hugging tight.

“I’m sorry about the door,” Arto manages to say through his tears.

“Don’t sweat it,” Tony says quietly. “We got you.”

Arto nods, feeling exhausted. Everything still feels awful and he thinks he’s pretty awful too but he doesn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to try and figure it out right now. So instead he just slumps further down, closes his eyes and listens to the steady thump of his dad’s heartbeat under his ear.

 


 

Everyone shows for team dinner. Even Natasha, who has been back from DC for all of an hour. She arrives just in time but still in uniform, walking over to kiss Arto’s forehead and tutting at the state of his nail varnish. “You said you wouldn’t chew them,” she says, but she doesn't sound too cross. She looks carefully at him and Arto decides to look at his phone instead of her face because he loves her, but he doesn’t like the way she can read everything about him just by looking. He knows Steve doesn’t like it either.

Luckily for him, she doesn’t press him. She walks over to kiss Sam and then takes a seat beside Clint, leaning over to say hello to Anna. Anna has got cauliflower on her forehead and is tussling with Bucky over a spoon. Bucky is covered in more vegetables and is looking pained as he tries to take the spoon from her. Predictably, he gives up and lets her have it her way. “Fine, feed yourself,” he says with a roll of his eyes.

Next to Arto, Steve snorts with laughter. Bruce makes some comment about the mechanics of Bucky’s arm withstanding mashed potato. Tony chips in with a joke that has Clint laughing. Arto’s attention slides away, back to where his phone is on his knee, hidden by the edge of the counter. He’s not supposed to have it while they’re eating but he needs to see if Peter has text him back yet-

Nothing. Just the same blue ticks indicating a read message.

He swallows hard. Starts to type if you don’t want to talk to me then deletes it.

“Hey,” Steve says, gently reprimanding. “You know the rule.”

Arto continues to stare at his phone. “Just checking one thing.”

“No, Art,” Steve says, firmer. “It can wait.”

Arto shoves the phone back in his pocket before Steve actually takes it off him. He picks up his fork and goes back to poking at his dinner, not remotely interested in vegetables. He wants to eat pizza and donuts and the box of pop-tarts that he knows Clint has hidden in the back of the kitchen cupboard.

He drops his fork, abruptly wanting nothing more than to go lock himself in his room with incognito mode on his phone and Jarvis banned from recording. And then has a moment to despair because a moment ago he was thinking about poptarts and now he’s thinking about sex and he’s got no idea how or why he’s gone from a to b. God, if he could just kill his own body for the way it’s behaving right now he would. Kill it and donate it to medical science - actually, scratch that, scientists suck dick unless they’re Bruce.

Don’t use suck dick as an insult, he tells himself fiercely. People can suck dick if they want to.

And double great, now he’s thinking about being unfair to gay people and naturally that makes him think about his parents and he’s now gone from thinking about poptarts to sex to his dads and now he’s definitely going to go and kill himself, thanks.

In his pocket, his phone buzzes. He scrambles for it, utterly ignoring Steve’s look of exasperation. His heart leaps and then swiftly plummets as he sees it’s only Omari texting him, not Peter.   

History essay. Significant non-human role models of 20th C. Who did you pick

Arto grits his teeth so hard he actually hears the noise of them grinding. When they’d been assigned the essay nearly every kid in the room had twisted around to look at him and he just knew most of them would end up writing about his dad. One shithead had actually come up to him and asked him if he could have an interview with Steve, and Arto had replied rudely enough for Logan to give him a lunchtime detention.

He stares down at the text, wanting to ignore it but knowing how shitty it feels to be ignored. He doesn’t want to take it out on Omari. His life is rough enough anyway.

The mutant who wrote to congress about the bathroom laws he texts back.

Cool Im writing about Bucky

Arto’s insides do a strange little wallop at that. Bucky will shit a brick if he knows Omari is planning on handing in an essay about him, and Arto’s kind of ridiculously proud. On the other hand, Omari’s answer throws him a little off balance because Bucky is his family. No sooner has he thought it than he’s remembering all those times Omari has been spent time with them, Bucky carrying him so his scales didn’t get in the snow, sitting with him and playing X-box, picking him up when he fell and helping brush off the dirt.

Great, now Arto feels super-awful. Bucky and Clint are like Omari’s friends too and Arto’s so petty and stupid about it that he probably doesn’t deserve any of them.

He texts Omari a string of multi-coloured hearts and barely has time to hit send before a hand is closing around his phone and tugging it away from him.

“No,” he yelps, trying to snatch it back. “Steve!”

“You know the rule,” Steve says.

“The rule is fucking stupid,” Arto snaps back before he can help himself. There’s a beat of silence around the table and then Arto pushes away from the counter and walks off, needing to just get out. As he goes he hears Steve saying ‘well thanks for the backup’ and Tony snapping back at him.

Fuck.

He goes to his room and throws himself onto his bed, curling up small and wishing that he knew how to make everything better.

 


 

 

He wakes up the next morning feeling groggy and unsettled after a night of broken sleep, brief catnaps punctuated by strange dreams about a weird white room, the ground trembling beneath his hands and the smell of smoke on the air. He ignores it and drags himself through the shower before heading to find breakfast. Just like Clint said, the tree and decorations are gone, and it reminds him that the holidays are nearly over; four more days and he’s back at school. The very thought makes him feel sick because on Thursday he’s supposed to be back at Midtown and that means facing up to Peter who now hates him.

Stupid mainstream school. He should never have asked Tony if he could go.

Swinging his legs out of the bed, he spots his phone on his bedside table, carefully placed there while he slept. He snatches it up and feels another dull blow to his stomach as he finds a text from Omari, one from La’Taya from his Midtown math class but nothing from Peter.

Whatever. He doesn’t even care.

The communal kitchen is empty when he gets down there, looking spotlessly clean in a way that suggests someone has been doing their stupid stress cleaning thing again. He hopes it isn’t Steve.

He gets his tablet and opens up the old app which shows him where everyone is in the tower: Bruce and Tony are in the workshop (no fucking suprises there), Clint, Bucky and Anna are on their floor, Sam and Steve are out of the building at work, and Natasha is in her quarters. The faded logos for Thor, Jane, Pepper and Rhodey are still there, even though Arto knows they’re not living in the tower right now. Tony needs to update this thing, include a section for ‘on the West Coast’ and ‘Asgard.’

He steals the box of poptarts for his breakfast, goes back to his room to play on his X-box. Connects to X-box live, finds only Arkash and Dwayne online so logs off again and plays campaign mode on his own. It grows boring quickly, almost boring enough that he contemplates finishing his homework.

He decides to go find Natasha instead.

She does her usual thing of not letting him in when she opens the door, standing in the gap of the doorway so he can’t just barge in like he does to Clint. Well, he’s probably strong enough to barge past Nat but he’s not a maniac so he doesn’t.

“I’m bored,” he says by way of greeting.

She lifts an eyebrow. “Sounds like your problem, not mine.”

Normally he would grin and tell her that he’s everyone’s problem, but today he just can’t do it. Between Peter ignoring him and Tony’s ever-increasing isolation in the workshop and the stupid anxious curl in his belly, he can’t. He does try, but he barely gets the first words out before he feels his voice crack.

He tries to clear his throat and shrug his shoulders. Natasha just observes him quietly for a moment and then leans back into her rooms, grabbing her coat.

“Well I’m bored of paperwork too,” she says, pulling her apartment door closed. “Let’s go. Get your coat.”

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“Well, I’m going to get my nails done and get bagels,” she says. “You can tag along, I guess.”

Arto nods. “Can we take the stingray?”

Natasha gives him a withering look. “You expect me to go on the subway when school’s still out?” she asks. “Of course we’re taking the car, unless you want to take the bike.”

Arto shakes his head. “Too cold.”

“The stingray it is then,” she smiles, and Arto is suddenly very grateful for her, even if she is a mind-reader. “You want to say goodbye to Tony before we go?”

Arto thinks back to yesterday, when Tony has been so annoyed at him for interrupting. He shakes his head quickly. “I’ll go get my coat,” he mumbles.

“Meet me in the garage then,” she says, no fussing about him acting weird, no trying to talk or give him hugs. She just tells him what to do and expects that he’ll do it, and today that seems like the easiest thing to do, and so he does.

 


 

 

An hour later and they’re sitting in a place that advertises itself as a ‘high-end beauty lounge.’ It’s manned completely by women and is full of women and Arto feels very out of place, sitting on a stool next to Natasha’s chair with his shoulders hunched over and his hands in his pockets so no-one can see the embarrassing state of his nail varnish. Natasha seems completely at ease, sitting back while a young girl with so-blond-it’s-almost-white hair starts on a hand massage and manicure.

“Scared of being recognised?” Natasha asks.

Arto shakes his head, dipping his chin down into the collar of his coat and biting at the zip. “My nails are a mess,” he mumbles.

Natasha doesn’t look at him but she almost-smiles at the admission. “We’ll get yours done after then,” she says simply.

It’s like someone’s caught a hook just behind his bellybutton and pulled ; Arto feels it right in his very core. He looks around at the salon, at the smiling and relaxed women, feeling the hook pull tighter. Could he? But - he’s never been embarrassed about wearing nail varnish, it’s just a habit he’s had since he was like seven, and no-one at school dares say anything to him about it because a) his dads are Captain America and Iron Man and b) Arto could knock them the fuck out himself if he were so inclined. He wouldn’t, because Steve would hate it if he did and probably never talk to him ever again, but Arto and the bullies know he could, and that’s enough for now.

“They’ve got glitter-polish,” Natasha sing-songs.

“Fine,” Arto huffs, feeling heat crawl up the back of his neck. The snag in his belly turns to excitement. “Me next.”

Knowing that he’s going to be in the chair soon, he finds himself utterly entranced by what the woman is doing. He tries to keep out of her way but before long he’s asking probably way too many questions, learning more about gel-polishes and acrylic overlays than he thought was possible. Natasha endures it with a small smile on her face, even though this is probably her me-time for relaxing or whatever. Arto barely cares; he’s too excited.

He’s practically vibrating with it by the time he and Natasha swap places. He knows a few of the women in the salon are looking at him so he just stares back in challenge until they look away. Natasha swats him gently on the shoulder as he does, taking up his vacated stool.

“God, you’re just like Steve,” she huffs. “There is literally no reason for this to be a fight yet you’re finding one.”

“They’re looking at me,” Arto defends.

“You’re a teenage boy, who is pushing six-foot and probably heading towards one-eighty,” Natasha says, reaching for a magazine and flipping through it. “Not the regular clientele, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah but they don’t need to look at me.”

“People notice what’s different,” Natasha shrugs. “Oh look, Taylor Swift has a new boyfriend.”

“Don’t talk shit about Taylor Swift, I’ll tell Steve,” Arto says.

The woman doing his nails stifles a laugh. “Okay, what do we want today?”

“He wants a full manicure and gel polish in some horrendous glittery shade, probably,” Natasha says before he can even start to think ‘oh fuck, what do I say?’ “Right?”

“Right,” Arto says, and the woman gets to work.

She’s about halfway through when Arto has a moment to swallow hard and think that this is possibly more than just a habit, a leftover from when the adults were trying to stop him biting his nails. He’s enjoying this. He likes the way it looks, the way the light catches on the glitter, the smooth shine of the overcoat.

“Clint says I’m a weirdo,” he blurts out, eyes fixed on his hand, held carefully between the woman’s.

Natasha looks over the top of the magazine at him. “You are definitely a weirdo, but this does not make you a weirdo,” she says. “You hear me?”

He does, but he doesn’t quite get it. He’s a boy, getting his nails done. That’s pretty weird.

Natasha notices his silence and puts the magazine down. “What’s going on, Rogers?”

“Rogers-Stark,” Arto mutters back, and huffs out a breath. “I dunno. Peter hasn't text me back.”

“In how long?”

“Like four days. Since just after New Year.”

“He’s probably busy,” Natasha says. “It’s possibly not anything you’ve done.”

“I wanted to ask him-” Arto starts, but doesn’t finish. Thinking about the vacation and the tickets sitting on his shelf just makes him feel sick and twisted up. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“Sure,” Natasha says. “Shall we talk about how the Young Avengers including the love of your life are back in for training soon?”

Arto groans, feeling embarrassment flush up over his face. “Nat, you said you wouldn’t.”

“But it’s fun watching you get all red,” she teases. “But seriously, the whole team are back in on Wednesday.”

“It was a crush, and it was stupid and I’m over it,” Arto says forcefully, thinking back to the days of liking-Kate, trying to sneak glances of the Young Avengers in training and feeling his belly swoop every time she swung her glossy hair over her shoulder. “I don’t even like her anymore.”

“Sure.”

“I don’t!” he protests. “I’m not into girls - no, I mean I am, I’m straight, I would be into girls if I cared but I don’t care. I don’t want to be in a relationship, I’ve got more important things to think about right now.”

“Like how Peter isn't texting you back? Are you sure you don’t have a crush on him?”

Arto scowls at her. “Shut up,” he says. “Don’t make it weird, he’s my friend. And I don’t know how many times I have to say it, I’m not gay.”

“You could-”

“I’m not bisexual either, Nat, will you please stop,” he says, even as a nasty voice in the back of his head points out that he’s shouting about being straight while getting his nails done in pink glitter polish.

“Okay, straight, gottit,” Nat says. “But not interested in dating.”

“No,” Arto says. “I’m interested in beating the record for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and being able to free dive for forty minutes. I’ve got goals, Nat, not wasting my time with stupid dating.”

“Well you’ve got it all figured out,” Nat says with a strange little smile. “You registered for the swim yet?”

Arto nods. “Well, I’m technically not allowed to register for the actual event because I’m...well, I’m me and I’m also a minor,” he says. “Dad’s pulled some strings. I’m allowed to accompany the event, as long as I’ve got a one to one support unit and stuff. And, uh, something to do with sponsorship being donated to the City Parks Department or something, I’m not allowed to make money off it.”

“Makes sense,” Natasha says. “You think you can do it?”

“I know I can do it, it’s only twenty-eight miles, it’s just how quick I can do it.”

Natasha huffs out a laugh. “Only twenty-eight, miles, sure.”

“I can do it!”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” she says. “I doubt my ability to keep Tony calm while you swim twenty-eight miles.”

Arto grins at that but it fades quickly. Tony’ll probably be too busy to even come and watch he thinks spitefully, and then feels like a jackass for even thinking it.

“Nat?” he says quietly. She’s gone back to her magazine. “Hmm?”

“Thank you.”

She flips a page, wriggles to get comfy in her chair. “You’re welcome.”

 


 

 

By the time they get home, they’ve been rumbled. Arto only knows this because when he and Natasha get off the elevator on the communal floor, Tony turns and holds up his phone, waving a picture of them leaving the nail salon.

“So, you got papped,” Tony says by way of greeting. “TMZ say that hot pink is totally not your colour.”

“TMZ have no say in Arto’s choices,” Natasha says tartly. “Nice to see you out of the workshop.”

Tony gives her a look and walks over to pull Arto into a hug. Arto clings to him, arms slotted under Tony’s and his chin hooked over his shoulder. “I like the pink,” Tony whispers and Arto huffs out a laugh.

“But?”

“But maybe wear at least a Steve-level disguise next time? You have stolen at least eight pairs of my sunglasses, you might as well wear them.”

Arto sighs, pushes himself back away from Tony. He’s the same height as him now, but still feels super tiny when Tony holds onto him, both hands on the side of his neck.

He takes the phone, looks at the article. ‘Arto Stark-Rogers goes for MANICURE in Brooklyn - What will Cap say?’ is the headline and he wants to throw the phone just from reading that. At least he’s being called by his own name now, rather than ‘Cap’s kid,’ which he usually is.  

The article doesn’t say anything about him being strange and weird for having his nails done. In fact, it’s painfully nice about it, applauding him for breaking down gender boundaries and ‘just doing his own thing.’ It does say that he should have gone with a deep blue or gold though.

And it does seem to think that Steve is going to lose his marbles over it, which doesn’t make him feel great.

He shoves the phone back at Tony. “If it’s so okay for me to be having my nails done, why are they bothering to report on it?”

Tony sighs. “They can’t call you out on it without getting in trouble, so they’re throwing facts up in a particular order so people do the judgmental shit on their own.”

“Can you sue them?”

“Don’t think so.”

Arto heads for the fridge, yanking it open and gazing into it without even looking. He remembers being in the nail bar, that sensation catching inside him, that roll of excitement and happiness that had snagged hard. He can’t shake it free, it’s like he’s caught on something and he doesn’t want to have to give it up. At the same time, he kind of wishes it would go away, because it’s making him feel hot and shamed and like he needs to crawl away and hide.

He decides to ignore that complex contradiction and stick with his ‘I do what I want’ attitude, like the whole nail varnish thing is just about being obnoxious. He grabs a fudge-flavoured milkshake that is probably Clint’s, kicking the fridge shut with his heel.

“You always give me the whole, be proud of who you are, thing.”

“Are you a person who likes getting their nails done?”

Arto feels his temper flash and flare. He manages to keep it in check. “Why else would I do it?”

Tony shrugs. “Boredom? Habit? Because you’d started chewing them again?” He looks like he’s got something else to add but then stops and shakes his head like he’s waking himself up. His attention goes back to Arto’s nails. “So these are the real deal, huh? Ran out of your own polish?”

“No,” Arto says. “I went with Nat and got mine done too, why are you making it into a big deal? You’re being like TMZ, stop it.”

Tony just shakes his head again. He looks super tired. Arto reaches out to run his finger over the dark shadows under Tony’s eyes, then scritches his newly pinked nails through Tony’s goatee, tugging at the grey.

“Look, they’re sparkly,” Arto says and Tony huffs out another not-quite laugh and folds his fingers around Arto’s.

“Almost as ostentatious as me,” he says, and only an hour earlier Arto was sitting in Natasha’s car staring at his nails and falling in love but there’s something in Tony’s voice that rubs him up the complete wrong way.

“Whatever,” he snaps, dropping his hands and walking away. Ostentatious, really? Couldn’t Tony have just called then cute or something, not insulted him by saying his nails were ostentatious .

“Arto!” Tony sounds utterly exasperated. “Come back, are you actually kidding me right now?”

“No,” Arto snaps back. “You can’t even be nice to me in the ten minutes you see me every day before you fuck off back to the workshop.”

“Low blow,” Tony says. “Okay, we’re two for two on days in which we’ve yelled at each other. What’s going on?”

Arto doesn’t reply. He stands there with his hands shoved in his pockets, avoiding Tony’s tired gaze. He doesn't know what to say. He knows his dad is super important and invents all sort of shit which helps the planet but right now he just wants Tony to be here. Wants him lying in bed until mid-afternoon so Arto can lounge out next to him with the sketchpad and crayons, grinning when Steve comes in to roll his eyes at them; wants him to invite Arto back into the workshop so they can tinker with his bike; wants him lying around on the couches, sharing popcorn and pulling holes in every sci-fi film they watch.

He misses him.

But he’s angry so of course he decides to keep his mouth shut, too resentful to try and explain it.

It’s Tony who breaks the silence. “Fine,” he sighs. “Work it out, then-”

Something not too distant from fear works down Arto’s spine. “You’re just-” he starts, but he doesn't know how to finish. You’re just going to walk away from me sounds super childish. You’re going to abandon me again sounds even worse.

“I’m going to give you time and space to work whatever it is out, because I can’t read your mind-”

“You don’t care enough to work it out!”

Tony just stares at him. “You think I don’t care about you,” he says flatly. “Arto, I care about you more than any person on this planet, where is this coming from-”

“You nearly missed Christmas! You told me to go away yesterday!” Arto’s knows he’s shouting but he can’t stop himself. It’s like a dam bursting, every stupid nasty thought has been amplified by ten and is pouring out of him. “And now Peter isn’t talking to me and you’re not listening to me and you’re making a big deal about-”

He barely notices the shock on Tony’s face. “What, Parker isn’t talking to you? Since when?”

“Who gives a shit?!” Arto bellows, and he’s turning away and storming off. He’s so angry he’s shaking and it feels terrifying, this nasty wicked snarl of anger that makes him want to hurt and scream. He needs to get away, to hide.

He heads for the bolt hole, the tiny space built into his room that no-one, not even Steve and Tony, are allowed in. For the past six months he’s been adamant that he doesn’t need it anymore, that he’s too old for it. Now, he squeezes through the tiny hatch and presses himself into the corner of the dark space, pulling the hatch door closed behind him. He gropes around and finds the blanket, yanking it up from underneath him and covering his face with it, wishing stupidly that he could just hide here until everything makes sense again.

 


 

 

It’s super late by the time he comes out. Steve is back: he knocked on the wall and then left when Arto didn’t respond. Clint appeared to slide a boxed pizza into the bolthole a few hours later. Arto was determined to not eat it but caved after only about three minutes of resolutely ignoring the smell of pepperoni and ham.

He uses his tablet app to check where everyone is and finds himself skulking into the gym. Well, he would say he walks in like a normal person but the moment he steps past the threshold Bucky calls “why are you skulking around?”, so maybe he missed the mark.

“I’m not skulking,” he glares, leaning on the edge of the boxing ring.

Bucky just snorts derisively. He brings his hands up, scowling at the punching back like it’s said something nasty about Clint or looked at Anna wrong. He jabs at it, the sounds of his knuckles hitting reinforced canvas loud in the quiet of the room.

“Why are you down here?”

“Anna has decided that sleeping is for suckers,” Bucky says, the last word punctuated with a vicious punch. “And her crying makes me want to cry, so here I am.”

“What? She’s been sleeping through for weeks.”

Bucky frowns, stilling the bag. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “Doc reckons is some new separation anxiety or some shit. She’ll get over it.”

“And you’ll get over it by destroying punching bags?”

Bucky snorts with laughter. “Yeah, I guess,” he says, walking over and leaning into the ring to grab a bottle of water. He cracks the plastic cap off, frowning as he looks Arto over. “Well you look like shit.”

“Fuck you.”

Bucky responds by squirting the water right into his face. Arto splutters and tries to shove him away, but Bucky is just grinning like an asshole.

“Bucky!”

“You cuss at me and there’s consequences, kiddo,” Bucky says, recapping the bottle and tossing it to Arto who just about manages to catch it. Bucky wipes across his forehead with his wrist, turns back to the punching bag. “Nice nails.”

Arto pulls a face. “I’m gonna chew them off.”

“Waste of money,” Bucky says. “Why?”

“Tony was being an idiot about them and the news was being an idiot about it. They said Steve would be pissed about it.”

“Steve wouldn’t give a shit if you decided to wear a glittery pink onesie for the rest of your life,” Bucky says, taking a swing at the bag. “And the news talks shit all the time, why is that suddenly bothering you?”

“Because Tony said my nails were dumb and he was all like yeah everyone will judge you and why are you suddenly wearing nails it’s a stupid habit.”

“I bet you fifty bucks he didn’t say it was a stupid habit.”

“Fine, but he basically said it,” Arto says, then, “He’s been working all the time.”

Bucky pauses. “He has, kinda,” he admits. “Wow, deja vu. Me and Steve had this conversation like a week ago. So if it’s any consolation, you’re handling it better than Steve?”

“And Peter isn't talking to me.”

Bucky fixes him with the sort of look that reminds Arto of Natasha. It’s all searching and quiet and makes him feel like his brain is being X-rayed.

Finally, Bucky speaks. “You have a lot of shit going on right now,” he says. Arto just nods mutely, feeling strangely grateful for the fact Bucky isn't trying to analyse it or joke about it. He's just… agreeing.

“You feel better after bolt-holing all day?”

Arto shakes his head. Bucky sighs and then he's walking over to the ring again and picking up his roll of wrap. He turns, unwinding it in a vaguely menacing manner. “I think you'll feel a bit better after hitting the shit out of something.”

Arto jolts back in surprise. “I'm not allowed.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “You think it'll help?”

“I'm not allowed.”

“Well I'm not going to tell,” Bucky says. “You think I'm crazy?”

Arto bites his lip. Lifts his hand to his mouth, not to bite on his nails but just to have it close enough so that he could if he wanted to. He looks between Bucky and the punching bag and then decides to just go for it.

He holds both his hands out, not looking Bucky in the eye. He still catches the edge of Bucky’s grin in his peripheral vision though, and he feels it as Bucky takes hold of his hand in his metal one, rearranging his fingers so he can wrap them.

“Good job you didn't get extensions on your nails,” Bucky says. “This wouldn't work if they were long.”

Arto turns his eyes from the wall to look at his own hands, watching as Bucky works. “Do you think they're stupid?”

“Nope.”

Arto stares at him. While ‘nope’ is what he wanted to hear, he kinda feels like he needs more. 

“And?”

Bucky’s mouth twitches, like he knows exactly what Arto is after. “Okay. I think they're bright, which suits you and the glitter is great. But a lot of people are going to start looking at you because you're blurring traditional gender boundaries and a lot of people are going to say it's gay as shit.”

“Pink glitter polish doesn't make someone gay! You're like the opposite of pink glitter and you're gay as shit.”

“Never said they were right, I just said that’s what they’d say,” Bucky says. “Come on. Gloves.”

“You don't wear gloves.”

“I’m hard as nails,” Bucky says. “You’re like a half-grown super-soldier. And your dad may be gay as shit but he’s also scary as shit, so you’re wearing gloves. I don’t wanna get in trouble.”

“You’re not scared of him,” Arto says dismissively. “You’re not scared of anything.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, like he’s just agreeing because he doesn’t want to get in an argument. Arto would call him out on how annoying it is to be spoken to like he’s a kid, but he wants very badly for Bucky to let him hit things.

So he keeps his mouth shut as Bucky tugs a pair of boxing gloves onto his hands, listens carefully as Bucky tells him how to stand, how to hit. He can feel the anticipation swelling and cresting inside him, alongside all the nasty rotten feelings from the past few weeks.

“Go for it,” Bucky says quietly.

He does. He takes a swing at the punching bag and hears the thud with a dull satisfaction, notes the way he can feel it in his hands and all the way up his arms, even in his elbows and shoulders.

“Call that a hit?” Bucky says, steadying the bag.

Arto scowls at him. Swings again. Harder.

“That’s it,” Bucky says, approving. “Go low, come on.”

He does. Its electrifying: the sensation of taking it all out on the bag, the thrill of knowing he’s not supposed to be doing this, the idea that he’s allowed to just let go for once.

“Feels good,” Arto says between hits.

“Course it does,” Bucky says. “Why do you think I’m letting you do it?”

Arto doesn’t reply. He just focuses his attention on his fists and the punching bag, slowly bleeding out every bit of frustration and anger with each hit, Bucky standing as a quiet supportive presence beside him.