When it first happened, when Dummy suddenly became DJ, Clint kept Izzy out of it. There was heavy magic involved, and Dummy-the-boy's existence could be terminated too easily; Izzy'd had enough death in her six years. Plus, Clint saw the change in Tony -- perhaps better than anyone else did.
Suddenly, Tony was a father, and he was a father who'd had a shitty one himself; Clint could relate. He thought maybe they should have a secret club, the fraternity of men terrified that they were going to ruin the life of the fragile child entrusted to their care. (He'd come up with a catchier name for it later.) He could see the fear in Tony's face, knew it intimately, and waited with a certain amount of glee for the moment Tony realised that getting to be a better dad meant a certain level of revenge on his old man. Hadn't happened yet, but Clint had high hopes.
On top of that, though, at least at the outset, Tony was in literal fear for his child's life. Dummy could be taken from him at any time, because clearly someone had it out for Tony, and they wanted to harm him through Dummy. Clint would give whoever it was some points for locating one of Tony Stark's few weak spots that couldn't fight back.
Except that Dummy could, of course; they had all underestimated the kid.
When it became obvious that Dummy-DJ was here to stay in whatever form he chose to take on a given morning, Clint still kept Izzy separate, at least for a little while. Life was just starting to stabilize -- they were living in the Tower, he was home a lot more than usual, and Phil was back. And, while Phil had always been like a second father to Izzy, now he wanted to actually be one, which was taking a little bit of sorting out. It was probably good that Phil was really handy at scheduling.
Plus, Izzy was in real school for the first time. She had less time to spend in the workshop anyway, so it was easy to explain to her that she couldn't visit Tony there for a while. She got to follow him around whenever he wasn't in the workshop, so it was no great loss.
"Are Steve and Tony married?" she asked Clint one night as he was putting her to bed -- Bedtime Question Hour, as he'd come to think of it. "I was drawing in the kitchen 'cause I was playing spy and I saw them kissing."
"No, they're dating. Like me and Phil," he replied, because hiding that from Izzy had been reasonably pointless, and why should they? "Well, not exactly like me and Phil, because they're headcases, but more or less."
"Bobby at school has two moms," she said. "But Kayla-my-best-friend has a mom and a dad. And Hunter has just a mom. And I have a poppa and Phil."
"Uh huh," Clint said, letting most of that information fly on by.
"So, what's normal?"
He kissed her forehead. "Best girl, there is no such thing as normal. Anyone who tells you otherwise is tryin' to sell you something. You remember that, okay?"
She nodded soberly and, thank God, didn't ask if she had a mom. She probably would, and probably soon, but Clint wasn't sure he'd ever be ready for the moment he'd have to explain to the best child in the universe why her mom had given her to Clint Barton, of all people, to raise her.
The next morning at breakfast, Tony was there, smudged with oil and tired looking, fixing his own plate as well as a second, smaller plate that had once been Izzy's but which Tony had ruthlessly absconded with for DJ. Clint wasn't sure where it had come from originally, but it was bright pink and said I AM A PRINCESS on it in a suspiciously Disneyesque font.
"DJ?" he asked, nodding at the plate.
"Sorry, did Iz want the princess plate?" Tony asked.
"Nah, she likes the Dora plate right now -- "
"Ah, crap, I've got that one in the shop too -- "
"It's fine, where's the -- hey Izzy, you get the compartments plate this morning," Clint called, waving a little plate full of tiny compartments for food.
"Yay!" Izzy called back.
"See? Piece of cake."
"I'll bring it up next time I come to the kitchen," Tony promised. "That's the last of the potatoes, does Iz -- hey, Pistachio, do you want potatoes?" he asked. Izzy shook her head, and Tony stole them from under Clint's spatula, flinging them onto the Princess Plate. "Okay, and -- breakfast achieved."
"DJ being picky?" Clint asked, surprised. DJ was not known for refusing to put things in his mouth, whether they were edible or not.
"No, but he likes Steve's home fries," Tony replied, and then stopped, half-turned to Clint, a hilarious look on his face.
"What?" Clint asked, popping a bite of toast into his mouth. Tony squinted harder, and Clint grinned. "Yes. What we just had was, in fact, an incredibly dad conversation. Get used to it, Poppa."
"Poppa!" Izzy yelled from the dining table. "Tony's not your poppa!"
"No, I am definitely not," Tony answered, patting Izzy's head as he passed.
"Where're you going?" she demanded.
"Big party in the workshop, you're not invited," Tony retorted. She giggled. "See you later, Dandelion."
"Hey, Tony, we could come down for lunch if you want," Clint offered, and Tony paused in front of the stairwell to the workshop. He gave Clint a curious eyebrow. "You know. Aydate-play."
"Pig latin? Really? That's going to work for like two minutes," Tony said. "Also, a playdate, are we soccer moms?"
"Hey, no dissing soccer moms," Clint said. "Yes, a playdate, they're going to have to meet sooner or later."
Izzy, who otherwise might have been watching them both closely, was busy dissecting her scrambled eggs. Tony glanced at her, then back at Clint.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Things are still, you know. Precarious."
"Yeah, so's life," Clint answered. "We'll deal."
"Ah, okay, sure."
"So we'll bring lunch down at twelve thirty."
"Are you gonna just spring it on her, or...?"
"No, we'll have a talk," Clint said, settling in at the table. "Go, say hi to the brat."
"I'm the brat," Izzy said, around a mouthful of eggs.
"You're one brat," Clint informed her. "Don't talk with your mouth full, you'll make people jealous."
Izzy nodded and scooped up another bite of egg. Clint considered the question of DJ.
"So, you remember when we watched Pinocchio?" he started, because why not jump in headfirst. "He was, he was a muppet -- "
"A marionette," Izzy corrected.
"Right, and he got turned into a real boy."
"Only at the end."
"Okay, Iz, we're dealing in general ideas here."
She looked at him blankly. He sighed and started over.
"You know Dummy."
She nodded. "He's Tony's robot. And Butterfingers and You. But it's not nice to call people Dummy, JARVIS told me so."
"Well, sometimes, you know..." Clint had no idea where he was going.
"If you know the person and really like them and they like you it's okay," Izzy continued. "It's a...term of endearment," she pronounced carefully.
"Tony tell you that?"
"Uh huh. But if they say to stop you have to stop. JARVIS told me that."
"Yes, okay, but -- so you know Dummy," Clint began, re-railing the conversation. "Well, something happened to Dummy, kind of like Pinocchio."
"JARVIS says the blue fairy doesn't exist," Izzy told him bluntly.
"Thanks, JARVIS," Clint muttered.
"She inquired," JARVIS put in.
"Yeah, yeah," Clint waved a hand. "So, no, the blue fairy does not exist, at least as far as we know, but there are some people who can do magic. Real magic, not like the magician at Kayla's birthday," he added. "And one of them did something to Dummy."
Izzy's head jerked up. "Did they turn Dummy into a PERSON?" she demanded, the penny finally dropping.
"Sort of. Someone turned him into a little boy," Clint said. Izzy squeaked, looking shocked. "Which is why you haven't been able to go to the workshop for a while. Tony's been looking after Dummy while he's a boy."
"Can I see him? Can I go play with him? Tony's messy, who helps him pick up if Dummy's a boy?" she asked. "What's he look like? How old is he?"
"Eat your breakfast," Clint said sternly. Izzy poked at her eggs. "We're going to have a playdate with Dummy for lunch."
Izzy threw her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss that contained as much scrambled egg as it did affection.
"You have to know some rules though, okay?" Clint said, wiping off his cheek. Izzy nodded, eyes huge and round. "First, this is super-duper top secret. You can't tell anyone, not even Kayla."
"Cross my heart," she said. She made the little crossing motion too, and Clint smiled.
"When he's a boy we call him DJ," Clint continued. "And he doesn't like to talk, so if he doesn't talk to you, it's not rude. It's just how he is."
"How will we play if he doesn't talk?" she asked.
"You'll work it out, you're a smart girl and DJ's smart too," he said. "He's not used to other kids so he doesn't know the rules like you do. So if he's rude you can't just get mad, you have to tell him that was rude. And he's smaller than you, so be gentle, okay?"
"But it's Dummy," Izzy said. "Dummy knows manners."
"Maybe, but not necessarily person manners."
"Can I bring my train?"
"Yes, you can bring your train."
Clint snorted. "Steve is not a toy you get to show off to other kids, Izzy. Anyway, DJ's met Steve."
"Next time maybe?"
He ruffled her hair. "You can ask Steve if he wants to come play with you and DJ some other time. Now eat up, big day ahead of us."
When Clint and Izzy arrived at the workshop, toting a plate of sandwiches and a bag of pita chips, Tony was soldering something. DJ, short legs kicking, was seated next to him, working on a StarkPad with a stylus, tongue sticking out between his teeth.
DJ saw them first, and his eyes got huge; he dropped the StarkPad on the table and ran to the door as Clint managed to nudge it open. He rushed right up to Izzy, then skidded to a stop a few inches from her. Both children looked startled. Clint fought a laugh.
Izzy, recovering, stuck out her hand. "Hi, DJ."
Clint glanced at Tony, but Tony was watching DJ with a mixture of anthropological interest and sheer terror that Clint faintly recognized. Oh no, child attempting to make friends. This may go poorly for all.
DJ took Izzy's hand cautiously, then beamed at her.
"I thought you'd look more like a robot," Izzy said. "You look like a real real boy."
She hadn't let go of DJ's hand, and now she tugged him along as she passed him, towing him after her towards the workbench. DJ shot Clint a questioning look over his shoulder as he followed.
"Don't ask me, kid, getting bossed by Izzy is just what happens," Clint replied, as Izzy clambered up onto the bench and sang out Sandwiches, please!
Izzy was exceptionally good at talking, a trait Clint attributed to some inheritance from her mother, because she sure didn't get it from him. As DJ carefully nibbled his sandwich to death and Tony demolished his, Clint ate chips and watched his daughter talk nonstop to DJ, who nodded or shook his head at appropriate points and seemed happy to lean his shoulder up against hers and be silent as they ate.
"You want to go draw with markers?" she asked, digging in her backpack after she'd finished her sandwich. "Or play trains?"
DJ was chewing his lip thoughtfully. When she offered him the open backpack so he could examine its contents, he pointed to the markers; after a second he took her hand very carefully and pulled her off the bench, leading her into the depths of the workshop, towards his charging station.
Tony exhaled. Clint grinned at him.
"It's not like they've never met before," he pointed out. "Dummy loves Iz. She likes him too."
"Yeah, just -- you never know," Tony said. "He gets a little -- I'm not sure, I think maybe it's a kind of code glitch, he gets shy sometimes. Powderpuff over there can be a little overwhelming, Clint."
"I may have noticed, being her father," Clint said drily. "Congratulations, DJ made a friend."
"POPPA!" Izzy yelled. "DJ HAS A BLANKET FORT!"
"THAT'S GREAT, SWEETIE," Clint yelled back. "DON'T GET MARKER ON IT!"
"You're gonna be building her one before the day is out," Tony said.
"I'm sorry, who built DJ's again? Oh yes that would be me," Clint said.
"That was Thor."
"Under my supervision! The point is that I am a blanket fort adept, a master of the linen castle," Clint said. "Many's the blanket fort I have built. If she wants one, no problem. Nothing too good for baby girl."
Tony shot a rueful glance in the direction the children had gone. "Beginning to understand that feeling."
"Well, good," Clint said. Tony looked suspicious. "Doing right by your kid is satisfying. Or should be."
"Sure," Tony echoed, and visibly changed gears. "So what do we do until they try to kill each other?"
Clint, being a giving kind of guy, didn't make Tony watch the kids alone. Not that they needed much; Tony fixed him up with a holographic target range and gave him a corner of the shop to practice in, while he built whatever it was he was building at the table. It was nice; the companionable silence of people listening for the pained or panicked screams of small children.
After about an hour, Clint went to check on them and found Izzy curled up in the blanket fort surrounding Dummy's charging station. She was reading aloud from Rebecca And The Movies. DJ was lying on his stomach nearby, covering a piece of paper in dots with a thick-tipped red marker.
"Nothing on fire?" Clint asked. Izzy shook her head. "Deej, are you uh, enjoying yourself?"
DJ looked up and beamed, then offered Clint another sheet of paper covered in red dots.
"For me? Aw, thanks, kid," Clint said, accepting the paper.
"DJ's making connect-the-dots," Izzy told him.
"Well, I'm gonna go try connecting these, you call me if you need anything."
"Can we have a snack?" Izzy asked.
Clint, who knew this part of her personality did come from him, gave her a wary look. "What do you want?"
"Popcorn," Izzy said. DJ sat up, nodding agreement.
"And a movie," Izzy added. There it was. Neither of them were probably very hungry, but a movie in the workshop was a treat. Watching Tony watch movies was the best entertainment going for kids in Stark Tower, and sometimes educational, too. Why Izzy felt the need to be roundabout was a mystery, but maybe she felt it was more polite than Can we watch the Tony Stark show.
"Tell you what," Clint said. "We'll watch a movie and halfway through we'll get popcorn." Halfway through the movie they might actually be hungry.
"Okay," Izzy said, closing her book and stuffing it back into her pack.
"Clean up in here and think about what movie you want," Clint said, ducking out of the fort. He took the sheet Dummy had given him, showing it to Tony. "Connect the dots."
"Not sure where he picked that concept up," Tony said. "Might be easier if it had numbers."
"No fun in that," Clint replied. "You think I should try to make something out of it?"
"If I may, Agent Barton," JARVIS said. Clint looked up at the ceiling, involuntarily. "Please lay the page flat for scanning."
"Uh, well, a digital copy is nice, but if we try to copy every piece of 'artwork' Deej does -- " Tony began, then fell silent. Clint joined him, staring at a holographic display. On the screen, JARVIS had replicated the sheet and was laying lines over it, almost too fast to be seen. There was a brief instant of recognition, like a passing image Clint knew, and then the screen winked out.
"Printout in tray one," JARVIS said. Clint reached for the page that was printing. It was a precise copy of the connect-the-dots, but now it had numbers attached to each dot.
"Am I gonna actually draw something with this?" Clint asked. "Tony, does he do dot-to-dots without numbers...?"
"I believe DJ thinks the challenge is in the numbering, rather than the connecting," JARVIS said. He sounded smug, like he was particularly proud of this. Clint looked down at the sheet, shrugged, and picked up a tablet to rest it on, tossing himself onto the ratty couch. It wasn't long before Izzy's blonde head peeped over the edge on one side, while DJ hauled himself up on the other.
"Izzy," Clint said, trying to find #73, lost somewhere in a tangle of 80s. "Would you have any objection to an arranged marriage?"
Izzy giggled and ducked under his arm.
"It's just, I think DJ is a real up-and-comer, and you could do worse than a rich neurotic," Clint continued, finally locating 73 and connecting through it to 74.
"I've seen your dowry, it's unimpressive," Tony said, still working at the table.
"What movie are we watching?" Clint asked, pulling DJ gently under his other arm. DJ looked up at him expectantly.
"DJ wants to see Fantasia," Izzy said.
Clint glanced at her. "Oh DJ does, does he?"
There was a very complicated moment; Tony looked up and over at them, Izzy looked at DJ, and DJ seemed anxious. Finally Izzy said, in a voice that told him she knew full well he thought she was lying, "Yes. DJ does."
DJ patted Clint's bicep reassuringly, sinking into the sofa.
"Okay," Clint said, uncertain what had just happened, but not unused to children having secret languages he couldn't decipher. Sometimes Iz and Kayla seemed to be speaking in code. "JARVIS?"
"Queueing," JARVIS said, and then the big TV screen lit up.
"Hey, it's movie time," Clint called to Tony. "Butts in seats."
"Yes, my billion dollar brain wants to watch dancing mushrooms," Tony said, but he stood up and cracked his back, coming over to the couch. "I remember seeing this when I was six and having issues with the amount of talking that goes on, which is to say none. Classical music, really?"
"There are flying horses," Izzy informed him. Tony rolled his eyes, but he hefted DJ out from under Clint's arm, swung him in the air, and pivoted to fall into the couch with DJ tucked firmly in his lap. DJ clung to Tony's arm around his chest with both hands, looking pleased. Clint bent up the leg DJ had been leaning against, propping the connect-the-dots on it so he could keep working while Deems Taylor introduced the orchestra.
He had just finished the connect-the-dots, and was about to show off his own face in dot-and-line format to Tony, when he noticed DJ had squirmed around and was burying his head in Tony's chest. Tony had one large, slightly grimy hand covering his hair, incidentally blocking his ear.
He glanced up and saw The Sorcerer's Apprentice on the screen. Possibly hitting a little close to home for DJ.
"Hey, Iz, can we skip this one?" he asked. "I want to see the flying horses."
Izzy nodded without looking away. Clint didn't even have to ask before JARVIS flipped past Sorcerer's Apprentice and the slightly creepy dinosaur one, straight to the soft pastels of Izzy's favorite, the flying horses. After a second, DJ squirmed around again, struggling against Tony's hand until Tony let him go.
"Do you know how big a horse's wing would have to be to support the rest of them in flight?" Tony began in mild outrage, and Clint let Tony's running commentary wash over him, enjoying the serenity of the moment.
That night, during Bedtime Question Hour, Clint tucked Izzy in with her Rebecca doll and sat on the edge of her bed. "So, did you have fun with DJ today?"
"Yep," Izzy said, arranging Rebecca's hair away from her face. "Can I go play with him again tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow you have school," he said, chucking her under the chin.
"I meant AFTER school."
"Oh of course. Aren't you playing with Kayla after school tomorrow?"
"Ohh," Izzy said, looking perplexed and determined. "What about after playing with Kayla?"
"Tell you what, little one," Clint replied, "After school you and Kayla have a playdate, and then it's dinner time, but if Tony says it's okay and if DJ wants to, we'll have dinner with them in the workshop, all right?"
"Yay," Izzy replied solemnly. "Is DJ not allowed to leave the workshop?"
"I don't think he wants to," Clint said.
"But if I don't want to go to school, you make me go."
Clint nodded. "It's a little complicated for bedtime explanations. We'll talk about it tomorrow, all right?"
"You better not forget."
"Sass! Nothing but sass from you." He kissed her one last time. "Sleep tight, baby."
The weeks passed, weeks of trying to explain why DJ had needs a little different from other kids, answering endless questions ("If DJ turned into a robot in the middle of jumping up and down, would he break himself?" "I don't know, sweetie, but don't suggest it to him, okay?") and having playdates in the workshop. DJ did, after all, have the finest playroom in Manhattan. Bruce had joked that Tony wouldn't qualify for a spread on celebrity cribs, but DJ would.
Clint came down to the workshop late one morning, after a magnificent sleep-in, to find Steve sprawled out on the floor with Izzy and DJ, a huge roll of butcher's paper spread out and covered with drawings. Empty bowls nearby said Izzy had either found Steve in the communal kitchen or pestered him awake, and probably suggested they make breakfast and go find DJ. Steve looked up from his drawing, gave Clint a wave, and then caught DJ before he tasted yet another marker.
"Maybe he's trying to gain exposure immunity," Clint suggested, sitting crosslegged on the other side of the paper from the three artists.
"Maybe," Steve said, sounding like he had a superior pet theory he didn't want to discuss in front of DJ.
"Thanks for fixing breakfast," Clint added. "Where's Tony?"
DJ threw down a marker with perhaps more force than necessary and picked up another one, determinedly drawing something on the paper.
"Board of Directors meeting," Steve said, voice calm, focused on the paper.
"All Stark boys hate the Board," Clint said. "Well, Steve's here, and now you have me for all your entertainment needs," he said to DJ. "I can take a shift if you like," he added to Steve, who shook his head.
"I like it," he said. "I mean, I like it better when Tony's here, but..."
He glanced at the kids, placed one large hand on Izzy's head to ruffle her hair, and fell silent.
"Hey, Iz, DJ, why don't you guys go wear yourselves out climbing around and falling over in DJ's playroom?" Clint said. Izzy capped her markers and put them in a pile on the paper; DJ did likewise.
"Don't move it," she told Steve. "It has to stay right here so we know where we left off."
"Promise," Steve said solemnly. He sat up, crossing his legs, and cracked his neck. "Did you want to talk about something?" he asked Clint.
"Seemed like maybe you did," Clint replied. Steve looked pensive.
"You know how it was when Izzy arrived," he said. "I mean, you remember, she used to, uh, startle me."
Clint nodded, smiling.
"I just -- I always wanted kids," Steve said. "I wanted that life, you know, marry a nice girl, buy a house, the American dream. I grew up in a rough part of town, I didn't want that for my kids. Then the war happened and I -- I wasn't sure I wanted...that I would be a good father. Some of the things I did...and I saw men who came home from the Great War. It wounded them. I wasn't sure if I might not end up the same way."
Clint listened; he was pretty good at that.
"And anyway then Tony and I...and I thought okay, so, maybe no on the kids," Steve said.
"You could have adopted."
"Nobody was ever gonna convince Tony to adopt," Steve said. "What happened with Deej was literally the only way Tony Stark would ever become a father, once he was with me. Besides, I wouldn't ask him to do that just to satisfy some want I wasn't even sure I had anymore. But Iz got me used to the idea again, and then what happened did happen, and I just..." Steve ducked his head. "I know they're not my kids, Clint, but I'm awful grateful they're around. I like getting to stand in once in a while. So, thanks for sharing, I guess."
Clint glanced at the doorway to the playroom. Izzy was narrating an adventure of some kind to DJ, probably while they were pretending to have it.
"Well, Iz and I were never a normal family, and I don't think normal is even in the Stark family dictionary," Clint said. "We're practically raising the pair of them in some kind of superhero commune slash frat house slash corporate science lab. So I don't know that regular ideas about parents and kids are ever gonna apply. You might not be their bio-dad, and Izzy's got two dads already, but someday DJ's probably going to yell at you that you're not his real dad, and that's how you'll know you actually are."
"That makes almost no sense," Steve said.
"It's a work in progress."
Steve sighed. "I'll be happy if he ever yells at all. It's fine he doesn't, but...I'd like to hear his side of the conversations he and Izzy have."
"Poppa! Steve!" Izzy called. "Stay there, don't come in!"
Clint's kid-alarm went off. "Izzy, why shouldn't we come in?"
"You'll see our costumes!"
"Oh, this should be good," Clint said, as Steve shuffled around to face the doorway. "She's on a princess kick, five bucks says she comes out in a tutu."
"DJ has at least two in the costume box," Steve said. Clint raised an eyebrow. "Tony cited the cool-no-gender-stereotyping clause."
"In that case he's got at least four, because Izzy keeps leaving hers down here," Clint replied.
"Are you ready?" Izzy called.
"Yes, Iz," Clint yelled back.
"Cover your eyes?"
Clint grinned as Captain America covered his eyes, then did likewise. "Okay!"
"No peeking!" she said, and then there was a shuffling noise as she and DJ presumably got into place.
"Okay, OPEN!" she said, and Clint let his hands fall.
He had more experience than Steve with not laughing at children; they were surprisingly easy to wound. Still, he was proud that he only heard a slightly startled "Hrrt!" from Steve.
Izzy was in a black tutu, with a green cape tied around her shoulders and giant foam spikes taped with scotch tape to her sleeves; her shirt was covered in silver sticky stars. She had what appeared to be a pair of Tony's workboots on her feet, and a large crown on her head.
DJ was presumably naked, though it was hard to tell; he was covered neck to knees in a box that had childish renditions of dials, knobs, and screens drawn on it in a variety of colors. Across the front Izzy had written ROBOT. He had a child's crash helmet on his head with pipe-cleaner antennae sticking up out of it.
"Bow before Isobel, Princess of Space!" Izzy said, pointing a scepter at them. "And her sidekick Robot DJ!"
"Princess," Clint said, lips twitching. Steve was suspiciously silent. "I'm very proud of you, you spelled robot right."
DJ, eyes obscured by the helmet, beamed.
"The princess demands snacks!" Izzy said, and then, when DJ poked her, "And her robot demands juice!"
Steve shot a sidelong grin at Clint. "I don't know, I feel like staging a space peasant uprising."
"Pleaaaase," Izzy begged, and from DJ there came a nearly silent breath that might have been peez.
"All right, your majesty," Clint agreed, pushing himself to his feet. "We have apple juice and crackers with peanut butter, if her highness pleases."
"Acceptable," Izzy pronounced, and Clint went to the cupboard where Steve and Tony had taken to keeping snacks for DJ. Steve got two juice boxes from what had once been an electric wine cellar (now repurposed, which Clint thought pleased Steve more than he showed) and popped the straws in for them.
"You want crackers?" he asked DJ, who shook his head and made grab-hands for the juice. "All right, here you go. Robot fuel."
"Jarvis?" Clint said, as Izzy settled in with her snack.
"Still images have already been emailed to Sir," Jarvis replied. Right on cue, Steve's phone rang.
"Yeah -- hi! No, I know how to -- Tony, I know how," Steve said, and then held up the phone, stuck his tongue between his teeth in concentration, and punched a series of buttons on the touchscreen. Clint craned his neck; Tony's face appeared. He was wearing his "I'm a grownup having a meeting" tie. Steve turned the phone so DJ could see; DJ pushed his helmet up and waved at Tony.
"Hey, buddy, looking sharp," Tony said, grinning. "Did you thank the princess for making you a costume?"
"All right. Someday when you work out what irony is you're gonna look back on this moment and laugh. In the meantime, be good, okay? I'll be home by dinner."
DJ waved again and went unconcernedly back to his juice, while Steve flicked Tony off videophone.
"Yep...yeah, okay. Yeah, sure, saves me having to cook. Okay," Steve said, and then in a voice pitched low enough that Clint knew he wasn't supposed to hear, "Miss you. Uh-huh. Bye."
One of Steve's hands drifted down to rest on DJ's helmet, and DJ gave Clint a look that said, whatever Steve thought, the boy was at least in some part his.
Then he squeezed his juice box, firing a spurt of juice right into Izzy's ear, and they spent the afternoon soothing wounded feelings and making Bruce give them a stern lesson in fluid physics.
When Tony arrived home that evening with a sack full of take-out, Butterfingers was quietly mopping the workshop floor, U rolling ahead of him and picking up stray tools, clothes, and toys in the way of the mop. He deposited the food on the workbench and skipped past them, already shedding his Board of Directors costume -- at least the tie and the jacket, and unbuttoning the collar of his shirt. Light was coming from the blanket fort in the playroom, so he toed off his shoes and crouched down to peer inside.
DJ's newest production, a three-dimensional holographic connect-the-dots, was rotating slowly overhead; underneath it, Steve was stretched out on the cushions, asleep, one arm curved around DJ, who was wrapped in a blanket and faceplanted in a pillow. Izzy had an arm flung over Steve's legs, and was snoring lightly into the backs of his knees.
Clint was sitting behind Steve, leaning back comfortably on a cushion, occasionally linking dots overhead when he found two in sequence. He waved for Tony to come in.
"Got any idea what it is yet?" Tony asked, watching as Clint held up a finger and drew it from 2200 to 2201, linking them.
"Not a clue. For all I know it's the molecular structure of sugar," Clint replied.
"He must think we're so simple, sometimes," Tony whispered, pulling DJ's head out of the pillow and sitting down, tucking DJ into his body, Steve at his hip. Steve made a quiet noise and curled closer without moving his legs. "Humans have to map wireframe virtual forms by hand. You have to give them dots to help or they'll mess it all up. And you have to number the dots."
"Looks kinda like a platypus, maybe," Clint said, squinting.
DJ snuffled against Tony's chest, yawned, and fell deeper into sleep.
"Was he good today?" Tony asked.
"No. He squirted juice in Izzy's ear and used the robot costume as an excuse not to wear pants."
"Punk kid," Tony sighed.
"He's fine. He's four. Kids need a lot of slack, you know."
"I'm working that out," Tony said. DJ drooled on his shirt. There was a time he might have cared that a larval human was drooling on a five hundred dollar tailored shirt, but -- well, no, he'd puked on more expensive shirts than this. There was never a time he would have cared. His father would have. He didn't.
"Fatherhood's fucking weird," Clint continued, lazily linking a few more dots as they swung past. "Weirder for you, you missed the part where you just spend every waking minute freaking out about how to keep the screaming, leaking thing alive."
"Well, small mercies."
Clint smiled, glancing at Izzy. "My old man was a massive asshole, you know. I know from kids with asshole dads."
"I turned out okay. I mean, you know, I run around combat zones with no sleeves on, shooting arrows at aliens, but they are, at least, explosive arrows built by the world's foremost expert in arms manufacture."
"Am I supposed to be taking something from this?" Tony asked, vaguely confused.
"DJ's a good kid. I don't let Izzy play with bad kids. You are a good dad. I don't hang out with bad dads," Clint said. "But even if you did suck as a dad, Steve would tell you, and DJ's gonna be okay."
"What is this, the Father Stamp of Approval?"
"Yes," Clint said. "That should be a thing. You should be able to take a college degree in being a dad. There should be official government issued dad stamps of approval, but there aren't. So I am giving you a Dad Approval Stamp." He held out his fist. Tony bumped it with his free hand.
Clint found a cluster of dots in sequence, and linked them up; Tony spent a while squinting at the model, trying to work out what it was, while DJ breathed deep and even against his chest. Eventually he fell asleep, and when he woke up Clint and Izzy had gone, Steve had curled closer around him, and a life-sized Iron Man was floating overhead, made up of thousands of tiny glowing dots and lines.