“It’s not permanent.”
“No, it’s not,” Bruce sighed, setting the clipboard down and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “However, for the time being, he is eleven years old and a worse pain in the ass as a child than as an adult.”
Steve let out a sigh of relief and looked over at the glass window. It was a one-way mirror, looking into a SHIELD infirmary room where a tiny child draped in clothes for an adult sat cross-legged on a hospital bed, a nurse working beside him as he stared down into his lap. “As long as it’s not permanent—”
“It might as well be, for all that we can do,” Bruce countered. “The magic worked on him is Asgardian, not from this world, and Thor’s away. Until he’s back, and can bring a solution to the curse or enchantment or what have you, he’ll have to wait for this to wear off. He won’t let anyone near him except the ‘pretty ones’—”
“The what?” Steve asked, feeling an irrational spike of jealousy in his chest.
Bruce ignored him to continue, “—and won’t speak at all to me, or to Clint. We’re waiting for Natasha to come back from the field, but until then, the only one he’s spoken to is that nurse, two doctors, and one of the janitorial staff.”
Steve brought his eyebrows into a frown. “That doesn’t make much sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Bruce sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “But there’s not much more I can tell you. He’s stuck like this, in this form, without memory of us at all. We’ve tried to isolate him from electronics, because at this moment in his mind, as far as we can tell, his parents are alive. I’d rather not have him try to contact them, but it’s difficult because this is an infirmary and the machines around would be sufficiently advanced enough to let him know something’s off.”
Steve looked at Bruce incredulously. “He’s eleven years old. How would he know what advanced medical machines look like?”
Bruce met Steve’s gaze steadily. “He wouldn’t. But you knew immediately when you woke up that you weren’t in the correct century, and that’s when SHIELD was actively trying to make the room, agent, sheets, and clothing look like it was from your time. We thought Amora transported Tony somewhere and left a child in his place – it wasn’t until after cursory examination that the doctor thankfully noticed a healed break in this Tony’s arm in the exact space and position as our Tony has. Even then, it wasn’t confirmed until he woke up.”
Rubbing the back of his neck, Steve watched Tony sit motionlessly – something he wasn’t used to seeing from Tony, actually. “And he doesn’t remember – any of us. Any of it.”
“None,” Bruce said, and his voice had gained a small measure of sympathy. “I’m sorry.”
Steve swallowed. “Well. Time to face the music.”
It turned out that Tony was in fact a pain in the ass. In fact, Steve thought tiredly as he stared at the carnage that was in the kitchen, that may have been a gross understatement. Tony fought them at every turn, tried to override JARVIS, built explosives out of the little bits of electronics he was allowed to be around, tore out the wiring in the walls, causing JARVIS to act intermittently, and wouldn’t listen to any of the Avengers. Natasha had more success than the rest of them, though Steve privately thought it was because she was a woman. Tony, around males – Avengers, doctors, staff, hell, Happy – was belligerent and loud, shouting and fighting and physically resisting every step of the way. Around females, Tony was a whole different story – he was passive, resisting by simply not interacting, but when doctors or nurses or Pepper or Natasha grabbed his arm and dragged him, at least they didn’t have to worry about a heel in their balls or teeth sunk into their hand.
No matter how many times they tried to explain to Tony, it made no difference to how he behaved – and they had, they had tried, to say that his parents were unavailable, that the world was a lot different than he thought, while simultaneously not letting him know he was in the future and that his parents and everyone he knew was dead. It was a thin line to walk, and Steve worried Tony had already put it together, and that was why he was acting out.
Either that, or he really was a terror like this at that age regardless. Steve wasn’t sure whether to be surprised at just how bad Tony was as a kid, or relieved it was more manageable when he became an adult. In either case, it hadn’t even been a full week since the doctors released Tony to the Avengers and already he desperately wished for his Tony back, his Tony who teased and shared his bed and made things easier for him, and get rid of this Tony that shouted and screamed and threw things.
And, apparently, blew up the kitchen with pieces from the microwave or whatever he’d managed to get his hands on this time.
Natasha walked into the kitchen, took one look, and walked back out.
“Natasha—” Steve said warningly, following her down the hall towards the living room.
“Enough, Steve. This is enough. I’m tired of cleaning up the little shit’s messes,” she growled. “He’s coming here and fixing it and that’s the end of it.”
“He’s around a lot of strange adults who won’t tell him where his parents are,” Steve tried to say convincingly enough.
Natasha arched an eyebrow at him. “Then maybe it’s time to tell him where his parents are.”
“They’re dead, and they’ve been dead, and Jarvis is dead, and this is the future, and you guys suck at keeping me from information.”
Steve had to say, he was superbly glad that Tony-as-a-child loved to taunt and show off; it meant that it was easier to both find him, figure out what the hell he did, and gave them a small handle on him.
Natasha darted forward into the living room before Tony could run – though he had boxed himself in a corner, considering he was hiding on top of a bookcase and couldn’t exactly dash away. Tony was pretty fucking fast, for a little kid.
“If I was half the trouble as a kid as you are,” Natasha growled, “I wouldn’t be alive.”
“So kill me then,” Tony said, voice carefully casual even as he hung limp in her grip and kept his eyes down.
Natasha was considering it, or violence of some kind, Steve could tell, and he sighed and walked forward. “Give him to me. Let’s let him down to the workshop.”
“That’s worse,” Natasha snapped.
“It’ll give him something to do other than make explosions,” Steve said with as much patience as he could muster.
Natasha’s brows narrowed and she growled, “Or give him a lot more tools to make a lot bigger explosions.”
“I’m not going!” Tony yelled, dragging their attention back to him.
Natasha turned to glare at him. “I don’t think what you want matters very much when you keep blowing shit up.”
“I’m not doing it!”
Steve rubbed his temples. “At the very least, Tony, you could rebuild the microwave.”
“I’m not stupid,” Tony said scornfully, hands clenched against his sides. “I’m not building you anything.”
“If you broke it—” Steve began with a sigh, before what Tony said registered in his mind and his eyes went wide.
Natasha was also frozen, staring at Tony, and then she set him down gently.
“Tony,” Steve said, an awful suspicion growing in his chest. “Tony, why are you here in this building?”
Tony, released from Natasha but with the exits of the room blocked off, took a step back and folded skinny arms across his chest, trying to look belligerent and instead looking terrified. “Because you want me to build you Stark stuff. And I’m not going to do it. You might as well send me back to my time, because I won’t do it. I won’t.”
Licking his lips, Steve glanced between Tony and Natasha. He wasn’t sure what to do, and Natasha was just staring at Tony, absolutely silent. After a few awkward moments, Steve ventured, “Tony – how did you find out your parents are dead?”
“I tried to call them,” Tony said plainly, taking half a step back again. “But their numbers are disconnected. And so’s Obie’s. And Stark Industries’ phones tell me that they’ve all been dead a while. So you took me from the past and brought me here, and I don’t know what you did to my other self, but I’m not going to build you shit.”
“Watch your language,” Natasha said reflexively, even as she let out a long sigh and moved to the door.
“You’re not my mother!” Tony yelled, but when she turned around to look at him his head dropped and he stared at the ground.
After a few seconds, Natasha caught Steve’s eye and jerked her head to the doorway. Uncertainly, Steve followed Natasha out of the room.
“He thinks we’re – holding him. Kidnappers?” Steve asked incredulously.
Natasha shook her head. “Look, it doesn’t matter – I think we need to show him the internet. Let him learn about us. Because right now he’s obviously managed to get a call out to try and find his parents, and he found out they’re dead, but he doesn’t know us, so let him learn. Let him come to his own conclusions about it. Keeping him from the internet right now isn’t helpful, it’s harming our ability to watch him. And, frankly, it’s harming the structural integrity of the kitchen more times than I can count.”
Steve swallowed and looked back into the living room, where Tony was standing with folded arms and an empty, terrified look haunting his eyes. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I guess you’re right. But this might mess him up even more. To know about his parents, Stane, even just his kidnapping and the Mandarin and the Chitauri and Ultron—”
“Steve,” Natasha whispered. “He needs to know he can trust us. Which means letting him figure it out on his own.”
Steve dropped his head. “When’s Thor coming back?” he sighed.
“Soon enough, Steve. Soon enough.”
Steve led Tony downstairs – and by led, he meant he walked down, talking casually about how older-Tony loved this place, that he was willing to show Tony the way down but he wouldn’t stay, and would give young-Tony free reign to everything within the shop, minus the car collection, of course.
Tony hadn’t started out following Steve, but after a few moments of Steve talking to air and remarking about the technology available within the workshop – and repeating that no one else went down to the workshop without Tony’s permission – Tony had slowly started to trail behind Steve, down the hall and towards the stairs.
(The elevator would have been faster, but Steve was beginning to see the pattern where Tony didn’t get into enclosed areas with any of the males of the team, and desperately tried to avoid the same with the females, though Natasha cornered him often enough that either he didn’t care as much or he dealt with it the best he could.)
Once they got down to the workshop, and JARVIS opened the doors, Steve pointed at the cars. “I’m told some of these are from your father’s collection, but you aren’t too bad at collecting amazing cars. You also take good care of all of them – you fixed my bike, too, and I think your collection of motorcycles is downstairs.”
Since that was the first thing Tony had willingly said to Steve since he started talking, he didn’t really turn to Tony but he tilted his head. “My bike? Like a dream. You’ve managed to put so much push into that engine it’s barely street legal.”
As he spoke, he turned his head to get Tony in his sights, and saw the younger male was blushing lightly. After a few moments, Tony mumbled, “I wanted to make it fast. For you.”
“Well, you did an excellent job. I’m very happy with it. Of course, you keep upgrading it, so I never get to repay you before you make it even better, but I try.”
There was a long moment, and Steve was inching away and out of the workshop, when Tony said quietly, “You like – me? The Tony Stark of your time?”
“Very much so,” Steve murmured.
It looked like Tony was going to say more, but then he turned away from Steve and stared at the workshop. Dummy whirred and rolled over, making Tony jump in shock. Steve stood at the doorway, watching the young boy slowly open up, losing the constant tenseness Steve had noticed in those tiny shoulders.
“I guess I ended up building you,” Tony whispered. Steve was pretty sure that he wasn’t supposed to have heard that, but the super serum was helpful like that.
He turned away to see Clint leaning against the wall in the hallway. Casting a quick glance back – Tony seemed fine, and JARVIS would let them know if Tony started doing something really dangerous, for the most part – he moved over to Clint. “Something up?”
“Nah. Just checking on our resident mini-genius. He doing better with people now?”
“I think he might be,” Steve muttered. “Natasha thinks that the problem is that he thought we were kidnappers.”
Clint blinked and then glanced at the workshop doors. “Well,” he said after a few moments. “That explains a lot.”
“He’s still an asshole,” Natasha grumbled into her mug of coffee. “He’s just… less, now.”
“Giving him access to the internet improved his mood. Marginally,” Bruce agreed. “Though in part that’s because he never comes out of the workshop unless you drag him out.”
“Thor’s supposed to be back tomorrow,” Steve sighed. “Hopefully, this will get straightened out then.”
Clint and Tony walked into the room, talking with each other. Tony still hung back, obviously not comfortable with getting close to Clint, but they were both talking, which was more than Tony did with any of the other ones. It made Bruce jealous, Steve knew, that Tony would talk easily to Clint but not him, since Tony and Bruce had been such good friends before he became tiny-Tony. Truthfully, Steve wasn’t all that better; yeah, Tony was eleven, but that didn’t change the fact that he and Steve had been closest when Tony was an adult. Natasha at least wasn’t super close to Tony, and so wasn’t as keenly missing his absence as Bruce and Steve.
At least, that’s what Steve assumed. He knew Natasha and Tony had a mutual respect for one another and loved to snark back and forth, but their relationship might be closer than that and he just didn’t realize.
“Hey guys, do we have any of that chocolate cereal?” Clint asked, moving over to the pantry and digging through the boxes as Tony tentatively sat down at the far end of the table.
Natasha glanced over at Tony and then back at Clint. “If you haven’t eaten it up, it should still be there. You’re the only one who eats that monstrosity.”
“Do you want some, Tones?” Clint asked casually.
Tony visibly brightened at the nickname. “I’d like some, please,” he said, voice civil.
Bruce’s eyebrows went up.
“Sure thing, buddy,” Clint said, dragging down two bowls. “I was thinking maybe you could play video games with us? Or at least, hang upstairs a bit. You’ve been down in that workshop a while.”
Tony glanced nervously at Steve and mumbled, “I’m good downstairs.”
“We’d like it if you played with us,” Natasha said, standing up to put her cup in the sink. “If you want, of course, but I think it’d be a fun time.”
Tony stared at her as Clint put down a bowl of chocolate cereal and a spoon, and Bruce abruptly stood up and mumbled something about needing to check on something in his lab. After he disappeared from the room, Steve moved to the sink and began washing the dishes.
Tony watched him, wide-eyed.
“C’mon, Tones, aren’t you gonna eat?” Clint asked, nudging the bowl with his finger as he sat down a little bit away from the young child and began eating his own cereal.
Absently, Tony picked up the spoon and began eating. After a few moments – Steve was watching out of the corner of his eye, though his back was generally to Tony and Clint – Tony leaned over the table and whispered into Clint’s ear, “That’s Captain America, right?”
Clint nodded solemnly.
“The real one?”
Clint nodded again.
Tony leaned back, eyes round and shocked. Steve wasn’t sure how to take that, so he turned his focus back to the dishes in his hands.
Once they were done eating, Tony brought his bowl over to the sink and reverently handed Steve his bowl. “I’m sorry I wasn’t very nice to you, Captain America, sir,” he said quietly, cheeks flushed red with shame.
Steve bit his lip for a moment until he had his initial reaction under control, and then he said calmly, “It’s perfectly fine, Tony. I’m glad you were wary of us. It’s a good thing to be able to stand up for yourself.”
Tony shyly glanced at the floor and dashed away. Steve heard them leave the kitchen for the living room and he took in a deep breath.
Thor couldn’t come soon enough.
That night – or, rather, early morning – Steve came out of the gym and padded upstairs for something to drink after his workout. In the kitchen, he found Tony standing in front of the freezer, trying to pull out the carton of ice cream.
Kids probably shouldn’t eat ice cream so late at night, but honestly Steve didn’t care anymore. He reached for the carton and handed it to Tony.
Cautiously, as if worried Steve would do something, Tony took the carton and slipped away to the far side of the kitchen table. Steve did his best not to be offended and instead picked out an energy drink and moved to the other end of the table.
“Do you like me?”
The question was out of the blue, surprising, and Steve startled a moment before frowning at Tony. “Of course I like you,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“You don’t want me here,” Tony said, and his voice wasn’t accusing, just logical and quiet. “You don’t like how I act. And I make messes.”
Steve licked his lips and stared at his can instead of Tony. “I miss who you used to be. You were – are – one of my best friends. You supported me and cared for me and I just – I miss that person. But Tony, I want you, no matter what your age is or what happens. You’ll always be my friend. I may get frustrated with you, yeah, but let’s be fair – you blew up the kitchen. Three times.”
Tony dragged a spoon over the top of his ice cream before saying quietly, “But it’d be better if I left.”
“Not better, not really. Just a return to what I’m used to. We’re all getting to know you now – I thought you liked Clint, right?”
Gnawing on his lip, Tony nodded reluctantly. “He’s pretty cool. He’s been in the circus, you know?”
Steve had known, but he nodded as if it was new information. “Clint’s a pretty easy guy to get along with. Not Bruce though, huh?”
Tony let out a sigh. “Bruce seems really cool,” he said quietly. “But it’s not good to bother people who are busy.”
Steve squinted at Tony and tried to put that word in context with what had happened over the last week. “I’m sure Bruce would like to be bothered. You and he, you’re good friends. You work together a lot in the labs.”
“Yeah?” Tony looked surprised and pleased, and then his face fell. “But he likes the other me, not me-me. Like you.”
Steve got up and got a second spoon and then sat down again. Carefully, he reached over and scooped out some ice cream for himself without crowding Tony. “I dunno. I think he misses his friend just as much as I do.”
Tony seemed to consider that a long moment before shaking his head. “Doesn’t matter,” he said quietly. “He’s busy.”
“He’s doing experiments and stuff, but I’m sure he has time for you,” Steve corrected quietly.
With a firm shake of his head, Tony took another spoon of ice cream and mumbled through his mouthful, “No, you don’t bother people while they’re doing experiments. It’s fine. Clint likes to play games with me.”
Steve made a mental note to tell Bruce to initiate conversations and interactions with Tony and took another spoonful of ice cream. “If you’re sure,” he said easily.
Tony clambered off the chair and pushed his spoon into the sink – he was a tiny young man, Steve was realizing, who could only just see over the edge of the sink – before yawning. “I think I’ll go to bed now,” he mumbled, and disappeared out of the kitchen.
Steve watched Bruce and Tony cautiously interact with one another, Thor standing beside him. After a few more moments, Thor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Well, I can say to thee that this enchantment will wear off within the week, but if so desired, I can reverse it when he next sleeps.”
“I think we all want him back as quickly as possible,” Steve replied with a sigh. “But it’s his decision, and he already thinks we don’t like him.”
Thor nodded gravely, and quietly moved into the room where Bruce and Tony were getting more and more animated over their topic. When Tony noticed Thor, he shrank back a moment before consciously uncurling his body and changing his body language into something consciously relaxed and confident.
Thor murmured something quietly, and Tony looked down. Steve watched as Bruce leaned forward, putting his hand on Tony’s shoulder, and then shake his head emphatically to something Tony must have said. Steve wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear the conversation or not – the group of them were too far away and the television that was on muted and muffled their voices so that Steve couldn’t pick out their words no matter how good the super serum.
Tony’s head lifted and he saw Steve standing in the doorway. For a moment, they locked gazes, and then Tony dropped his eyes and stood up. Steve watched him leave the room and raised an eyebrow at Thor.
“He wishes to do one last thing before I reverse the spell,” Thor replied, voice raised so Steve could hear. “Then we shall bring back our shieldbrother.”
Steve wasn’t sure to be relieved or not, and Bruce looked the same. Finally, Bruce hitched a shoulder and sighed. “Well, at least now he’ll know who we are. I wonder if his memories will include this, or if he’ll forget it?”
Thor shrugged. “The answer to that is more complicated than I can explain. Suffice to say that it depends on the memories themselves, as well as the person who would be losing them.” He walked out of the room, following Tony’s path.
Steve allowed himself to breathe easy again.
Steve found Tony, his Tony, adult Tony, standing in their rooms staring at a small notebook. Steve wasn’t sure whether to approach Tony or not, but he began stripping out of his gym-sweaty clothes and picked up a towel to shower without making any special effort to hide his noise.
“You guys really had the patience of saints,” Tony sighed, running a finger over the notebook before idly tapping the red, battered cover that had the name ANTHONY E STARK scrawled in faded print at the top of the cover. “I know how I was like when I was eleven. My own mother couldn’t stand me at that age.”
Steve bit his tongue to reply to that and instead looked for a more diplomatic answer. Finally, he ventured, “You were a bright kid who thought he’d been kidnapped. Of course you reacted in that way.” Then, because curiosity really was eating at him, he asked, “So you remember what happened?”
“No,” Tony grumbled. “If I did, I wouldn’t have to worry about the embarrassing and rude shit I did to everyone.”
“Ah, you weren’t that bad,” Steve said, towel around his hips as he came over and pressed a kiss to the top of Tony’s head. “At the very least, you seemed to enjoy making explosives every chance you got until we allowed you access to the internet so you could see we weren’t planning on using you for nefarious purposes.”
Tony winced. “I’m sorry. Mini-me must have been a shithead.”
“Well,” Steve chuckled, kissing Tony’s temple and moving away. “It wasn’t that different from how you are naturally today, you know, except you don’t hide on top of bookcases anymore. But why the apologies? You were eleven years old.”
Tony opened the notebook and Steve paused, glancing at the faded papers. There were old designs for what looked like a robot similar to Dummy—
“Are those Dummy’s original plans?” Steve asked in surprised.
Tony barked out a laugh. “Trust you to focus on that. Yeah, they are, but this—” he pulled out a folded piece of paper from the notebook that had blocky, child-like writing on it, “—this is what I was trying to show you. My little self told me I—”
Tony abruptly stopped, and cleared his throat roughly. Interested now, Steve came back over and gently unfolded the piece of paper.
You have really good friends you know don’t screw it up like you always do I’m sorry if I screwed it up for you with how I behaved
It’s okay if I go back to mom or dad if I know this is in my future
~Anthony E Stark
Steve licked his lips. “Your – your younger self was scared of men. Of bothering Bruce. Of women, even, I would think more than the men. It made him lash out, but soon we realized that once he had no reason to fear, he didn’t act out anymore. He really liked playing with Clint. You really liked playing with Clint.”
“Clint’s good with kids,” Tony said, and his voice was rough with some emotion Steve didn’t understand.
“It wasn’t hard to guess that you were kidnapped before, as a youth, and they treated you badly. They expected you to build weapons. And the women were either harsher or so foreign you didn’t know how to deal with them. And you were dead certain that anyone doing science couldn’t be bothered by you, though why you had these quirks – what events led to these habits – I don’t know. You didn’t tell me.”
“Good,” Tony said harshly. “I’m tired of people’s pity. I’m tired of handling all that.”
Gently, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s torso and gave him a warm hug. “I thought your younger self was adorable. And though I’d missed you, and was still missing you and would miss you for some time, I think if Thor couldn’t have reversed it, we would have been proud to raise you as a kid. You’re our Tony, no matter how tall you are.”
Something suspiciously like wetness welled in the corners of Tony’s eyes even as he shooed Steve towards the bathroom. “I’m keeping you from your shower, go,” he grunted.
“Tony,” Steve said firmly, grabbing Tony’s wrist and waiting for Tony’s eyes to meet his. “We would have liked you in whatever form you appeared. Old, young, smart, shy, it doesn’t matter. You’re part of this team, and you’re part of my life. Okay?”
After a few moments, Tony’s lips curled into a small but true smile. “Okay,” he said back.
“Good,” Steve said with finality. “Now I’ll go shower.”
At the doorway of the bathroom, he turned around and watched Tony flip through the old notebook.
“You gonna join me?” Steve asked impishly.
“Do you even have to ask?” Tony joked, shedding the emotions and a genuine smile spreading across his face. “Of course I will.” Smirking, Tony peeled off his clothes, leaving them dumped on the floor as he followed Steve into the bathroom.