“I can't believe this has happened,” Tony shook his head. “I literally cannot believe -”
“Can it, Stark,” Fury snapped, prying Clint's tiny arm away from his eye patch. “This is hard enough for us all as it is.”
All around them, on the floor, on the briefing room's chairs, the table, Fury's lap, the Avengers sat in their de-aged state. Everyone – everyone – in the room but Fury, Steve and Tony were now no older than toddlers; Thor was tottering around on the floor in a circle, screaming to himself; Clint was perched on Fury's shoulder while Natasha was sat on his lap; Bruce, who couldn't have been older than a year old now, was babbling happily in Steve's obviously incompetent arms while Bucky pulled at his pants legs, squealing to be let up; across the room, Rhodey had grabbed a pen from the table and was giggling naughtily as he scrawled on the walls, a teeny tiny Sam Wilson propped up against the wall beside him, staring up at him in awe.
“Our second mission as a team,” Tony cackled, rubbing a hand over his eyes, “and Thor's brother pops back up and takes everyone out. It's just so funny -”
“Have we figured out why Stark and I were the only ones not affected?” Steve asked, shooting Tony a disgruntled look.
“No official word yet,” Fury replied, slapping Clint's hand away when he snatched for his eye patch again. “But CCTV footage seems to indicate that Loki wasn't aiming for either of you.”
“And why is that?” Tony asked. “If I were him, the very first person I'd turn into a baby would be Cap. He's already there, mentally -”
“Oh, look who's talking,” Steve snapped, and then growled. “Bucky, stop tugging on my pants!”
Though Tony couldn't actually see the kid, he did hear a little, frightened whimper from under the table, and saw how Steve's expression immediately dropped into a guilty frown.
“Buck, I'm sorry -”
“No!” Bucky yelled, skittering out from under the table to the far side of the room, pouting the whole way. With the stubbornness only a toddler could achieve, he turned himself to face the wall and sat down, crossing his arms across his tiny chest.
“Oop, guess you're in the dog house,” Tony grinned, barely containing a laugh.
“Shut the hell up, Stark,” Steve growled, standing up and kicking his chair back so he could go over to Bucky, little Bruce still wriggling in his arms.
“All right, here's the deal,” Fury snapped, banging his fist against the table and making a lot of the kids jump. “Whatever giant, pink daddy issues are sitting in the corner, you've got to get your shit together and work as a damn team.”
“Swear!” Rhodey called. “Dollar in duh jar.”
Fury sighed deeply. “Stark, Rogers, I don't care that you don't get along. I don't care. What I care about is your incompetent asses getting a member of this team killed.”
“Wait...” Tony held his hand up, realisation hitting him. “We're not keeping them -”
“Where else do you expect them to go?” Fury asked. “Of course you're keeping them.”
“With all due respect, Sir, neither Stark or I are particularly qualified to be -”
“I don't care,” Fury reiterated. “Read a parenting manual, hire a nanny, I don't care. Just get them out of my sight and off my property.”
“This isn't happening,” Tony began, shaking his head. “I refuse to -”
“I already called Miss Potts,” Fury cut in, and Tony swore loudly. “She and that AI of yours are equipping the tower as we speak.”
“No way!” Tony cried. “This is a damn outrage. There's no way they're staying in my -”
Where else are we supposed to keep them?” Steve sighed, apparently giving Bucky up to the wall as he walked back over to the table. “Whether we like it or not, we can't leave our team. Your tower is the safest place for them -”
“There are millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment there!” Tony argued. “I am not having grubby hands plastered all over it. I've only just redecorated from our last outing -”
“Let's not pretend you haven't made some changes, too,” Fury smirked. “I've seen the blueprints, Stark. I know you were planning to offer to house the Avengers.”
Tony spluttered, momentarily caught off guard. Yes, maybe he was willing to house the Avengers in his tower, but it made sense, right? They needed some kind of base where they were all close, just in case something happened. He had actually been planning to offer his invitations after the battle today, but after it had turned so sour he wasn't sure he was ready.
“In my own time!” he retorted, pointedly ignoring Steve, who he could tell was staring at him in surprise. “It makes tactical sense, sure, but I'm not sure I can stand the thought of Captain Tight-Ass -”
“Just after I had changed my opinion of you,” Steve rolled his eyes, “you show me you are exactly as arrogant and big-headed as you've always been.”
“It's not arrogance if I actually am as smart and brilliant as they say,” Tony replied without missing a beat.
“This is going to end in tears,” Fury sighed, finally giving up as Clint tugged at his eye patch and smacked him in the face with it. “And it's not going to be the kids crying.”
Just the act of getting them all back to the tower turned out to be a nightmare. Tony, used to taking the suit home, didn't have any sort of vehicle in the area, and it wasn't like they could transport seven children under the age of five halfway across a busy city on the back of Steve's motorcycle.
“Wow, Boss, you weren't kidding, huh?” Happy laughed as he stepped out of the limo he had just pulled up in a good half hour after Fury had kicked them out. “Jeez.”
“Just get me home, Hap,” Tony replied, tugging the gaggle of small children around him forwards by the rope he had tied around their middles.
“Wait, where's Bruce?” Steve asked, passing Sam to Happy so he could help Natasha and Bucky into the car.
“Chill, Rogers, he's riding bitch,” Tony rolled his eyes, turning around to show him how Bruce's little head was poking out of the opening of his backpack.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve sighed, letting go of Natasha's hand so he could pluck Bruce up into his arms. “Can you take this seriously, please?”
“There are suddenly seven children in my joint care,” Tony replied, “and we don't all have an individual muscle on each arm to fit them all, Steve. He's fine – he was enjoying it.”
As if to prove Tony's point, little Bruce smiled big and wide for Steve, and then blew a snot bubble out of his nose. Nice.
“So where to, Boss?” Happy asked, grinning down at Sam.
“The store -”
“What? No!” Tony cried, refusing to admit he was pouting at Steve. “There is no way in any realm of hell that I'm taking toddlers to a store.”
“But they need clothes and food and books and -”
“I actually think Pepper's already sorted that,” Happy chipped in, because he was a wonderful human being. “I left her and JARVIS picking out baby booties, anyway.”
“I bet she's loving this,” Tony grumbled under his breath, grabbing hold of Rhodey's hand before he could dart out into the road.
He and Pepper had decided to call it quits just a few weeks before. Ironically enough, it was over babies. Well, not exactly, but... Pepper had had a pregnancy scare, and Tony, of course, had freaked out. He could barely take care of himself, never mind a kid, and he didn't want Pepper to resent him, so he had hidden himself away and refused to talk about it. Later, it turned out that Pepper wasn't pregnant, but she said Tony had made it pretty clear where he thought their relationship was going.
“What if I had been pregnant?” she had asked, exasperated, as Tony desperately tried to focus on whatever it was he had just picked up off his workbench. “Tony, could you look at me please.”
“I... I would have stepped up,” Tony had replied, barely able to look her in the eye as he lied through his back teeth. “I would have -”
“No you wouldn't, Tony,” Pepper had shook her head, and then quickly continued, “and that's okay. You've never been the commitment guy, and it was wrong of me to try and change -”
“No, you didn't!” Tony cut in quickly, heart in his throat. “I've been trying, Pep, really I have, because I'm the real me when I'm with you, and I love you -”
“I know you do,” Pepper had nodded, smiling through tears as she stepped up into Tony's space and cupped his face in her hands. “And I love you. That won't ever change. I'm not abandoning you, Tony; I couldn't ever do that. I'm just...”
“Not going to be with me anymore?” Tony had whispered, closing his eyes tightly against the wave of pain in his chest.
“I think we both need to take a step back and figure out what we want,” Pepper sighed, pressing a last, fleeting kiss to Tony's lips. “We've been clinging onto each other so tightly for so long, even before we took this step, and we need to figure out how to stand on our own.”
She had left without another word.
Things had been... cordial since then. He knew that they would eventually find their feet around each other again and put everything behind them, because they always did (and whether they were together or not, Tony still depended on Pepper with his life). He just hated how strained everything was at the minute, and bringing seven babies into the tower was not going to help that.
“Now now, Boss,” Happy tutted, passing kid after kid over to Steve, who was helping them inside the limo. “Why don't you lay off her, huh? Don't be that guy.”
Tony grumbled under his breath again, but still blew a kiss at Happy as the last of the kids were settled inside and he followed Steve into the limo. He was hit by a wall of noise as soon as he shut the door behind him and he closed his eyes for a moment, trying to stave off a stress headache. He barely managed a couple of deep, calming breaths before there was a tiny hand tapping on his knee, though, and he begrudgingly opened his eyes again.
“Can I help you?” he asked, peering down at Natasha. “You need to go find a seat before Happy starts driving.”
“Up?” she asked in a tiny, unsure voice that was so unlike her that Tony actually did a double take.
“What? That's... no, you need to -”
“Up pwees,” she repeated in the same tiny voice, this time raising her arms and shuffling a little bit closer.
“You... are exactly as manipulative as you've always been,” he sighed, shifting to awkwardly grab her around the middle to lift up. “Now what?”
“Sit,” she giggled, pointing to Tony's lap. With a long, loud sigh, Tony situated her on his legs and pointedly ignored the very blatant smirk on Steve's face as he watched him struggle.
“Not a word, Rogers,” he huffed, wincing a little bit when he got a tiny, sharp elbow dangerously close to the family jewels.
“I wasn't going to say anything,” Steve replied, still smirking. “Just... it's interesting, is all.”
“What?” Tony bit, already regretting his decision.
“Natasha wasn't inducted into the Red Room until she was older than this,” Steve hummed, readjusting Sam and Bruce in his big arms. “An argument could be made that this is the first time we're seeing the real her, before the Soviets got their claws into her.”
Tony hadn't even thought about that.
“It's the same with Buck, in a way,” Steve continued. “You never got to see him pre Winter Soldier.”
“But he's not the Winter Soldier anymore,” Tony replied, suddenly annoyed for reasons he couldn't quite explain. What, did Steve think he was better than him for knowing Barnes back then?
Steve didn't seem to notice his unrest as he watched Bucky and Clint giggling together from their seats across the limo. “He's not Bucky, either, though. Not like he used to be, anyway.”
Steve shook his head, face pinched. “Not like he changed. These days I look at him and sometimes he's even less Bucky than when he was the Winter Soldier.”
Tony didn't really know what to say to that. They didn't do this, him and Steve. They barely knew each other, never mind shared their feelings. Hell, Tony didn't share feelings with people he liked.
“Anyway,” Steve sighed, sinking further into his seat. “I'm sorry about you and Miss Potts. I didn't know.”
“I've not exactly been going around shouting about it,” Tony snapped, and then reined himself in. Steve wasn't being confrontational, he had to remind himself.
“I know, sorry,” Steve replied quickly, and Tony suddenly felt like shit for some reason. “I just... I feel like we'll get through this a lot easier if we can at least tolerate each other. I'm not saying we have to be best friends, but... we should at least try to be civil, right?”
Tony thought, for a moment, about being petty. But Steve was offering him a metaphorical hand to take, and despite what people thought, Tony wasn't actually an asshole all the time, so he held his tongue.
“Sure, Spangles,” he nodded, and got a sick thrill out of Steve's clenched jaw as he obviously held his own tongue. He was about to add a snide little remark onto the end just to see if Steve was serious (and partly because the tick in his jaw really was a sight to behold), when Sam suddenly spit up all over Steve's shirt.
That was a better comeback than Tony could ever hope to achieve.
They figured out through educated guesses, clothe sizes and just asking, that Thor and Rhodey were four; Bucky and Clint were three; Natasha was two, and Bruce and Sam were in a vague “under one” grey area. Tony had thought that Loki would shrink them in a correlating fashion to their original age, but apparently not, because Bruce was actually one of the oldest Avengers, and he was currently chewing on Happy's keys whilst trying to hold his own head up.
“This is... surreal,” Pepper murmured, standing beside him as they watched the chaos that had become Tony's penthouse.
There were toys and books everywhere, and half the kids were running around half naked while Steve and Happy tried valiantly to dress them in something other than what they had been shrunk in. Thor was in nothing more than a pair of Pull Ups, and from the way he was running around, it looked like it was going to stay that way.
“This is hell,” Tony corrected, expertly dodging Thor's naked little body as he went barrelling past.
“You're going to die.”
“I am aware,” he hummed, strangely content in the fact that he and Pepper seemed to be able to speak openly about this, even so soon after their break up.
“Tony, a little help, please?” Steve called, face scrunched up and stressed from across the room. Tony paused for a moment, trying to figure out why Steve's words felt wrong to him, and then realised it was the first time he had referred to him as Tony, well... ever.
He didn't know how he felt about that.
“What exactly do you want me to do?” he asked, trying to hide how hopelessly out of his depth he was as he waded into the madness.
“Just... play with them, or something,” Steve replied, trying to simultaneously change Sam's diaper while Bucky hit him repeatedly over the head with a foam sword that had appeared from wherever. “Keep them occupied.”
Glancing across the room, Tony spotted Happy tied to a chair, Natasha and Clint giggling naughtily as they ran around each other with rope. Rhodey was busy drawing on poor Happy's face.
“Yeah, not going to happen,” Tony shook his head, and then rolled his eyes when Steve sent him a half annoyed, half wounded look. “Calm down. I just mean I'm not letting them tie me to a chair.”
“They've – oh, for God's sake,” Steve groaned, finally looking up and noticing Happy. “Where did they even get that rope?”
“They're tiny spies,” Tony replied, sliding onto the couch next to where Bruce was propped up. He grabbed the remote control from Bruce's slobbery grasp and turned the TV on. “Hey, mini-mes, come take a look at this.”
He flicked some cartoons on and then paused as a miracle happened. The ear-splitting noise that had been filling the room suddenly ceased to make way for blissful silence. When he looked up, he was ecstatic to find every single little body was turned towards the TV, and they were all starting to shuffle forwards to get a better look.
“Have I gone deaf?” he heard Steve whisper from across the room, and barely managed to suppress a snort of laughter.
“Nope, I'm just a magician,” he replied, gesturing to the gaggle of toddlers now sat with their noses pressed up against the television.
“Should they really be sitting that close -?”
“Work with me, Cap,” he rolled his eyes, getting back up to go over and untie poor Happy.
Once he was free, Happy went over to the couch to rummage around for wherever Bruce had thrown his keys, and Tony went back over to stand beside Pepper. He tried to act casual about it, but her expression was hard to read and it was making him a little antsy.
“What're you thinking?” he asked eventually, and had to remind himself he deserved the startled look Pepper gave him. He didn't usually ask those sorts of questions, after all, and even rarer did he answer them.
“I was just thinking that we made the right choice to end it,” she replied softly.
Tony huffed, torn between taken aback, heartbroken and fond. “Excuse me, you're the one who chose to end it.”
“Because you never would have,” Pepper sighed. “We would have kept beating that horse until it died if you had your way, and it wouldn't have been fair to either of us.”
“No harm in trying to make something work with someone you... care about,” Tony cleared his throat, feeling horribly vulnerable in the wide, open space of the penthouse.
“No,” Pepper agreed. “But there's nothing wrong with admitting that it's not working, either. Can't fit a square peg into a round hole.”
All at once, Tony realised she was doing this for his benefit. Pepper was worried that he was struggling on his own, especially now. His heart gave a painful twinge at the realisation.
“I'm okay, you know,” he murmured, snaking his hand into hers discreetly.
“I know,” she replied confidently, though she squeezed his hand anyway. “I've never doubted you.”
Tony scoffed. “You are such a bad liar.”
“Okay, okay,” Pepper laughed, eyes a little wet. “There were a couple of board meetings, and those first few flights as Iron Man -”
“Where you questioned my sanity?” Tony asked, grinning. “I'm hurt.”
“You're a lunatic, and you know it,” Pepper replied with a genuine smile. “But I trust you to be able to take care of yourself.”
Tony liked to believe she wouldn't have left him otherwise. He wasn't sure how he felt either way about that, and wasn't willing to dissect any of it.
“Steve's falling asleep,” Pepper whispered.
“Huh?” he replied, having to take a second to digest that.
Turning back to the rest of the room, he realised she was right; Bucky had somehow managed to worm himself onto Steve's lap, and they were both listing against the side of the couch as everyone continued to watch cartoons. Tony turned back to Pepper, and she nodded her head before he could even say anything.
“Go rally the troops,” she smiled. “We're gonna be fine, I promise. Just... I need you to remember that just because you don't want kids doesn't mean that you're not capable, okay? They're going to need you, and you can't back away, okay? You can't do that to Steve.”
Tony grumbled under his breath, but sighed and nodded. He knew she was right. It was terrifying, yes, but he was too far into the whole team thing to leave Steve alone now. It may very well kill him, but he was going to help as best he could.
“All right,” he sighed, and, squeezing Pepper's hand one last time, he stepped forwards into the fray. “Rise and shine, Spangles. No sleep for you until we find a way to chain the mini-mes down.”
“I think Clint might be deaf,” Steve hummed, resting against the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in his hand.
Getting all the kids away from the TV and around the dinner table had been... an experience. Bruce and Sam had started to get fussy first, but it had been a further half hour before they had managed to drag and keep every one of them into the kitchen. That wasn't even the end of it; neither of them could cook, especially kid-friendly food, and neither of them had the first clue how to make formula, either.
“What makes you say that?” Tony replied, dumping a hastily (and shabbily) made mac and cheese into a handful of bowls they'd fished out of a cupboard. Sarcastically, he added, “Thanks for the help on dinner, by the way.”
“I made the formula,” Steve replied distractedly, and the sound of Sam and Bruce banging their bottles clumsily on the table behind them proved his point. “And I know the signs.”
Tony paused, about to grab a couple of bowls to start the feeding frenzy, and peered over his shoulder. Clint was sat in his seat, banging his head against the table while he waited for his dinner.
Nothing unusual, then.
“Hey, Clint?” Tony tried, and his eyebrows rose when the kid showed no sign of having heard him. “Barton, I'll give you a cookie if you look at me right now.”
A couple of the other kids perked right up when they heard the word cookie , but Clint wasn't one of them. Huh.
“He's spoken a little bit since they changed,” Steve told him, “so he can talk, at least. But he doesn't seem to be able to hear us. At least, not well.”
“So what do we do about it?” Tony asked, feeling weirdly bad for the kid.
“I don't know,” Steve shrugged. “Don't they have hearing aids for stuff like that?”
“Yeah, and where are we gonna get a -” Tony paused, realisation hitting him, and then he rose his eyebrows at Steve. “You want me to make him a hearing aid, don't you?”
Instead of answering, Steve waved to catch Clint's attention and then started moving his hands in a slow, obviously out of practice manner. Little Clint's eyes widened and he grinned, holding his hands up to sign back in an even slower, clumsier manner.
“You know sign language?” Tony asked, somehow not really surprised.
“Scarlet Fever,” Steve replied, brow furrowed as he concentrated on his hands. “I was pretty much deaf in my left ear. I'm a little out of practice, though.”
“Huh. What's Clint signing?”
“His name,” Steve hummed. “He doesn't seen to know a whole lot else yet, but hey, he's three.”
“Of course,” Tony nodded, and then sighed, running a hand through his hair. “So he's really deaf, huh?”
Honestly, he couldn't believe he hadn't noticed sooner. Clint had been quiet ever since he'd de-aged, if not any less energetic. A surge of sudden, unexpected self-hatred rose in his gut and he had to grip the counter and take a deep breath to steady himself.
Before he could fall into a full blown panic attack, one of the kids whined loudly and he was reminded that he wasn't actually the most important person in the room. It was enough of a shock to the system to snap him back into reality, and, taking a deep breath, he scooped up a handful of bowls and turned around.
“All right, soup's on,” he called, and the kids cheered as he started to hand out the bowls. “Don't eat it too quickly, blow on the hot bits, you know the drill. You want some, Steve?”
Steve looked up quickly, surprise written into every inch of his face, and only then did Tony realise he had called him by his first name without any hint of sarcasm for the first time in... ever.
“Yes, Tony, please,” he nodded, smiling. “I'd love some.”
First handing the rest of the kids their dinner, he went back and scooped the rest into two bowls for him and Steve. There wasn't a lot, and he knew enough to know that Steve would need the calories after a hard battle and running around after seven kids, so he sacrificed more to Steve and gave himself a smaller portion.
He was growing as a person.
“Here you go,” he called, handing the food over to Steve and then taking a seat between Natasha and Rhodey to eat.
The noise in the room was loud, but was a tolerable level. Between scooping huge, clumsy spoonfuls of pasta and cheese into their mouths, most of the sound was unintelligible anyway, and quite often just a simple grunt or hum of approval. As it turned out, the approval of small children was something that Tony hadn't realised he'd needed, because his chest felt fluttery and light as he watched everyone tucking into the meal he'd made for them.
Taking pity on Natasha after a moment, he helped her adjust the grip on her spoon and guided it to her mouth to avoid any more spilling onto her front. She seemed to get the hang of it quickly after that, and though he could tell he was looking at him, Tony refused to meet Steve's eye as he turned back to his own dinner.
“So I can probably whip up a hearing aid tonight after we've put them all in bed,” he hummed, cramming more cheesy pasta into his mouth. Then, another thought coming to him, he asked, “Hey, do you think Bruce would still need glasses, too?”
Steve paused across the table and looked at Bruce, who was banging his empty bottle on the tray of his high chair happily enough. “I don't know. Do babies need glasses?”
“I guess so?” Tony replied, watching Bruce, too. “There was this kid at a gala once who had bad eyesight. He had this little pair of goggle things on – they kept them on his head better than a normal pair of glasses, I think.”
“We could try it?” Steve shrugged, turning back to his dinner. “Could you -”
“I could probably modify the pair he had on when he changed to fit him,” Tony nodded. Shouldn't take too long.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Steve smiled, open and honest, and for a moment Tony really didn't know what to do with himself.
“I – it's no problem,” he replied with a cocky grin. “Kinda all I'm good for.”
Steve frowned at that, but didn't say anything else as they both went back to the remainder of their dinner. Tony was about to tell him to liven up a little – that there was no reason for him to look like a kicked puppy – when, from across the head of the table, little Thor let out a sneeze and a crackle of thunder boomed from outside, making them all jump.
So that was probably going to be a problem.
Bath time, frankly, was a massacre. They only remembered that they should probably be keeping the kids clean after a prompt from JARVIS, and then had to split up just to keep everything from falling apart.
“How's Steve doing, J?” Tony called, harried, as he tried to duck out of the way of some flying suds. “Rhodey, sit your little ass – butt down this second. If Bruce drowns because -”
“Captain Rogers appears to be coaxing Master Barnes out of a corner,” JARVIS replied. “Apparently the boy doesn't like baths.”
“Nobody likes baths,” Tony grumbled under his breath, trying to prop Bruce up with one hand while he scrubbed at the grime on Natasha's face with the other. “And he only has three of them!”
They had split it so that Tony had Bruce, Rhodey, Natasha and Thor while Steve took Sam, Clint and Bucky to a bathroom down the hall. Tony, personally, had thought this was unfair – Steve was stronger than him, after all, and could handle more tiny, wiggling bodies – but Steve had argued that Bucky could do a lot of damage with his metal arm and that it was probably best to keep him in a smaller group (and there was no way Steve was going to relinquish Barnes to Tony, it seemed).
“Thor, buddy, I know you like kicking and splashing everyone,” Tony growled, turning to the boy after catching a handful of bubbles to the face. “But you need to stop that right now, okay?”
Thor just giggled naughtily and scooped up a handful of bubbles, bringing them down to splat against the top of Natasha's head. Immediately, her bottom lip began to quiver.
“Thor, if you hit your sister one more time -” Tony paused, brain catching up with his mouth. Panic swelled in his gut and he started stuttering over his words. “Not that she's – she's not your sister. We're not – I'm not your -”
His babbling seemed to bring Natasha out of the start of a tantrum, because she sniffed back tears and then giggled and whatever his face must have been doing. Caught off guard by the musical sound, Tony paused long enough to get his head back on his shoulders and calm his breathing.
“Okay, that's – okay,” he panted, reaching up to sweep his hair out of his face. “Let's just get this done, okay? Thor, take this little bucket thing and gently wash the bubbles out of Natasha's hair. I'm trusting you with this, bud. Don't get any in her eyes.
“Rhodey, I swear, sit down before you fall down,” he continued, reaching out to guide the little guy back down into a sitting position. “The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can do story time, okay? Just – be careful of Bruce -”
Rhodey shifted a little and found his spot amongst the other bodies, and then reached out and gently patted Bruce on the head. It was... kind of adorable. Only a little, though.
“Yeah, okay, let's... you can clean yourself, right?” Tony asked, handing the boy a loofah. “Just scrub everywhere, okay?”
Rhodey got to cleaning himself (shoddily, but still), seeming to relish the idea of a task. Tony stored that information away for later and then went about trying to wash Bruce's hair without accidentally letting him go. He wasn't particularly good at sitting up by himself, after all, and he didn't want him to just flop face down into the water.
After that, with the kids having things to do, everything went a lot smoother. Thor seemed to like the idea of protecting Natasha a whole lot more than making her cry, and was taking his responsibility of rinsing her hair very seriously. While he was doing this, Natasha was making herself a kick-ass bubble beard and pointing out spots that Rhodey had forgotten to clean on himself. Bruce, actually, was really happy in the water – something that Tony was ecstatic about, because he didn't think he would have been able to cope with a screaming baby on top of everything else – and sat placidly in the cradle of Tony's hand while he cleaned the little guy.
“Sir, Captain Rogers has finished bathing the other children and is on his way to the penthouse,” JARVIS chirped, and Tony nodded his head.
“Okay, mini-mes, time to get out,” he told them, stretching for a pile of towels he'd put by his feet. “Shit, careful, okay? Let me get Bruce first.”
“You said uh swear,” Rhodey called, and Tony rolled his eyes as he plucked Bruce out of the tub.
Carefully, avoiding the baby's flailing limbs, he set him down on top of the towels and then wrapped him up as best he could into a Brucie burrito.
“Oh no,” he whispered, watching as a little floof of thick, curly hair popped out of the top of the towel. “Oooh noooo, don't do the cute hair floof -”
But Bruce just gave him a placid, gummy smile. Jeez, he was kinda cute. Sort of. Maybe.
Clearing his throat, Tony turned back to the tub and helped the other kids out and into towels. Pepper had bought them what appeared to be bath ponchos in her ordering frenzy earlier, so he pulled them over their heads (rolling his eyes when he realised they had their alter egos on them) and then scooped Bruce up.
“All right, come on, let's go pick out some pyjamas,” he called, herding all the kids out of the bathroom and towards the penthouse living room.
When they arrived, he immediately spotted Steve pottering around in the kitchen with Sam on his hip through the open door while Bucky and Clint watched cartoons quietly on the couch. They already had their jammies on – Clint in a pair of Robin Hood feetie pyjamas and Bucky in a Captain America t-shirt and pants – and were starting to list towards each other tiredly.
“JARVIS said we should feed them before they go to bed,” Steve called through. “So I'm making milk.”
“Great,” Tony nodded back, propping Bruce up next to Clint while he went over to the bags and bags of clothes in the corner of the room to help his team into their pyjamas. “Hey, you should come see how fluffy and curly Bruce's hair got after the bath. It's cute.”
He quickly helped Thor step into a cute pair of stripy sleep shorts, and refused to argue with Rhodey when he decided to mix and match the pyjama shirts and pants, and after that helped Natasha into the night gown she had chosen. It had little ballerinas printed all over it, and she was beaming as he tugged it over her head.
Once they were dressed and settled on or around the couch to watch cartoons, Tony picked out a tiny one piece for Bruce and went about trying to get him into it. They had a couple of incidents, but managed it without too much hassle, and the little guy looked adorable dressed in his Hulk onesie with his floppy, curly hair standing on end.
“You are a disaster,” Tony murmured, trying to smooth down some of the hair. It didn't work.
“Grub's up,” Steve called, walking into the room with a tray of bottles and sippy cups of milk balancing in one hand. “Get it while it's luke warm.”
“Did you... just make a joke?” Tony asked, snatching one of the bottles up as Steve put them on the coffee table before the crowd of kids could get to it. “Is Captain America allowed to make jokes?”
“I'm not Captain America all the time, Tony,” Steve rolled his eyes, grabbing a similar bottle to hand to Sam, who was still resting against his hip. “Sometimes I'm just Steve.”
“Okay, but you were never just Steve,” Tony replied, absent-mindedly feeding Bruce. “I've read my Dad's notes on you, okay, and for you to have been chosen for the serum program you had to have been a ten outta ten good guy.”
“I wish you'd stop doing that,” Steve frowned, scooping Natasha up effortlessly so he could sit in her place with her and Sam on his lap. “You... you throw away nice comments about other people as though you aren't a good person, too.”
“I'm... what?” Tony asked, perplexed. Swallowing hard, he murmured, “Countless people are dead because of my weapons, Steve. Thousands are homeless after the damage I've caused as Iron Man -”
“Well I've read your file, and it seems to me that you're not responsible for someone else being disloyal,” Steve cut over him fiercely, “and the number of lives you've saved as Iron Man outweighs the buildings destroyed.”
“That's...” Tony didn't really know what to say to that. He hadn't realised Steve had been keeping up with his life, or that he even cared. But, then again, he was Captain Do-Gooder, so Tony didn't really know why he was surprised.
Before either of them could say anything else, however, Bucky let out a little snore from between them and they realised that at least half of the kids were falling, if not already, asleep.
“We should put them to bed,” Steve cleared his throat, and then paused. “Wait, where are they going to sleep? We can't have them on separate floors -”
Tony shuddered at the mere thought of the shenanigans they could get up to once left alone.
“- and they're not all going to fit into one bed,” Steve went on, biting his lip and momentarily drawing Tony's attention to how red and luscious they looked. “We could build a blanket fort in here and sleep in here?”
“What's a blanket fort?” Tony asked, forcing himself to look at Steve's eyes instead of his lips.
“What's... you've never made a blanket fort?” Steve asked, looking genuinely distressed. “Oh God, okay, we're doing this. Go get as many blankets and pillows as you can find and I'll push the couches together.”
“Are you going to ruin the feng shui in here -?”
“Tony, go,” Steve rolled his eyes, but for once his tone was fond rather than exasperated, and it was such a nice change that Tony found himself easing a sleepy Bruce onto the couch and darting away to do as he was told.
He dug out as many blankets and pillows as he could find in a linen closet down the hall, and then dragged them back into the living room. In just the short space of time he had been away, Steve had completely rearranged the room. The couches and chairs were now facing away from each other, creating a sort-of circle in the middle of the room. There was a gap so the TV could still be seen, and another gap that pointed towards the kitchen.
“Great,” Steve was grinning, reaching out to take some blankets from Tony. “Throw all the pillows in the middle and I'll get the ceiling sorted.”
The kids, where sleepy and pliant before, were now bristling with tired excitement as they watched the fort take shape. Steve threw blanket after blanket across the backs of the couches, and Tony realised it was beginning to take the shape of a shabbily made tent.
It was perfect.
“All right, everyone in,” Steve called after a few moments, throwing the last blanket into place. “Pick your spot and get settled. Thor, Rhodey, be careful with Bruce and Sam, okay?”
The four year olds nodded as they carried the babies carefully into the fort. Most of them could get in without even having to duck, but Tony, being taller, had to get down on his knees and crawl inside. Though he felt like a fool, he was glad he did when he got in there, because it was magical. The blankets over their heads overlapped to made a beautiful, multi-coloured canopy, and the pillows covered the whole floor so that even Tony with his ageing (bad) back was comfortable.
“It might be a squeeze,” Steve hummed as he climbed in behind Tony and folded himself into a corner next to him. “But it's pretty neat, right?”
“You used to do this as a kid?” Tony asked, settling in.
“Everyone did this when they were kids,” Steve replied confidently. “You... you really never made forts when you were a kid?”
“Too busy building stuff and being yelled at,” Tony replied honestly. “My mere existence seemed to annoy Howard, so I don't really think he would have appreciated me making a mess.”
“This isn't a mess,” Steve frowned, holding his arm out for Bucky to cuddle against him when the boy came staggering over. “This is imaginative.”
“Well, either way, it wouldn't have been allowed in the Stark household,” Tony shrugged, and then gave into the urge to stretch out on Steve's other side. His eyes fluttered momentarily closed as he soaked up the other man's warmth, and let a contented sigh leave his mouth.
When he opened his eyes again, expecting to see the colourful ceiling, he found himself pausing when he realised that Steve was staring down at him, a soft expression on his face. He immediately looked away when he realised Tony was looking back, but a single moment of eye contact passed between them before he managed it and Tony felt a bolt of electricity shoot up his spine.
Tony was still getting over Pepper, for God's sake! How, why, was this happening all of a sudden? He hadn't even liked Steve this morning, and now... well. Now he didn't know what he was feeling. If the way Steve's cheeks reddened was any indication, he was working through a very similar train of thought.
Clearing his throat quietly, and because he didn't really know what else to do, Tony made things all the worse by smirking, “Nice blush, Rogers.”
Instantaneously, Steve's face seemed to shut down before Tony's very eyes, and he immediately regretted his words. He didn't know what the thing that seemed to be forming between them was, or why it was happening, but he wasn't opposed, and he felt strangely bereft at the thought that he might have just pushed Steve away. Apart from Bruce, Steve was literally the first real friend Tony had made in years.
“Sorry, sorry,” he sighed, holding his hands up placatingly. “Turns out my brain to mouth filter is on the fritz.”
“Didn't realise you had one to begin with,” Steve mumbled in reply, and with a jolt Tony realised that he... he was flirting with him.
“Oh, I'm sorry, is Captain Sassy giving me lip?” he replied before he could stop himself, and couldn't help but grin when Steve laughed quietly.
“I could give you lip, if you really wanted,” Steve challenged, and then they both froze.
“That's...” Tony had to clear his throat before speaking. “We didn't even like each other this morning.”
“It's not that I didn't like you, Tony,” Steve sighed, rolling Bucky gently onto a pillow so he could turn onto his side to speak. “You were just...”
“An asshole?” Tony asked quietly, and Steve laughed softly again. They were now so close that his breath ghosted across Tony's face, and he barely managed to suppress a shiver.
“I was going to say kinda mean to me,” Steve replied. “But that seemed childish.”
“Probably a fair judgement, though,” Tony shrugged, and then swallowed thickly. “But... so what changed between then and now?”
Steve hummed and rolled carefully onto his back, lifting his arms up to rest behind his head. For not the first time, Tony's eyes were drawn to his truly magnificent biceps, and had to refrain from leaning over to lick them.
“Your number was up the second we found out about Coulson,” he murmured, eyes trained carefully on the blanketed ceiling as he spoke. “You hid it behind snappiness and bravado, but that cut you up. I saw it – I saw your sadness, your humanity, slipping through.
“I realised who you are behind the suit,” he whispered, and Tony felt his breath hitch. “You're a scared little boy trying to make things right.”
Tony felt winded, full of air and completely empty at the same time. For a single moment he thought his insides had been doused in lead, and in the next there were spots dancing before his eyes. He hadn't spoken to anyone like this since Pepper – had expected nobody else to get this close to him again, save maybe Rhodey.
He tried to speak, tried to tell Steve that he couldn't breathe, but the words just didn't seem to want to come out. Steve's face was a picture of concern as he reached out and gently cupped Tony's face in his hands. Immediately, Tony felt grounded like he hadn't in a very long time, and he had enough presence of mind to kiss back when Steve leaned in and gently pressed their lips together.
Just as Tony was really sinking into the kiss, letting all his anxiety pour out to be replaced by a strange feeling in his chest he wasn't willing to name, Steve gently pulled away, though he kept cupping Tony's face in his hands as though he were precious.
“I like that guy,” Steve whispered, a small, intimate smile on his face as he tilted his head forwards to rest against Tony's. “I like him a whole lot more than Tony Stark: Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthopist.”
“You...” Tony had to clear his throat again, suddenly breathless. “You could have told me that earlier.”
Steve just shook his head regretfully. “Couldn't. We were fighting in New York, and then we almost lost you, and... and then Bucky. There's been no time, but I... I wanted to come see you. I was happy, in a messed up kinda way, when we got the call out from Fury about Loki's escape. I wanted to see you, and I didn't know any other way. We... we weren't even really friends before today.”
“So you... what, you've been pining from afar?” Tony asked, a little dizzy with all the incoming information.
“Well, I mean, I've been busy,” Steve shrugged. “I've not been sat in a dark room, listening to Coldplay and eating ice cream -”
“Oh my God, who told you about Coldplay -?”
“- but it was always there, at the back of my mind,” Steve continued. “The what if.”
It was a lot to take in. Tony swallowed a couple of times, throat suddenly dry as the desert, and he managed to find the strength to hold Steve's wondering gaze.
“I can't do this,” he whispered, and then automatically reached out and caught Steve's hand as he recoiled back as though burned. “No, no, I mean... Steve, okay, I am kind of an asshole, but I try, all right? I try so fucking hard, but I'm not always -”
“You're enough,” Steve replied quickly. “You're enough, Tony.”
“I am now, but what about three months down the line? A year?” Tony asked, throat constricting. “I can't do that to you, Steve. I can't put you through that.”
“So you won't even try?” Steve whispered, shuffling all the closer. “You were knocked back, Tony, I get it, but you can't expect to never try again!”
“Okay, first of all,” Tony sighed, rolling away onto his back. “I wasn't just knocked back. Pepper was the dream girl, do you get that?”
“Yeah,” Steve whispered. “I know a little something about that.”
“I thought if I could make it work with anyone, it would be her,” he continued, rubbing a hand across his eyes. “She's always known me best, even when I didn't know myself, and I... I love her so much, and I always will. The way I love her is starting to change, now, but -”
“You need more time,” Steve nodded, sighing heavily in what Tony thought (hoped) was relief. “I can do that.”
“You... what?” Tony nearly choked.
“I can wait,” Steve shrugged, and he was smiling when Tony dared to glance over at him. “I will wait, if there's even a chance of getting to be with you at the end.”
“You... you're really prepared to do that?” Tony asked, a little flummoxed.
“These past few years?” Steve shrugged. “I've learned, more than most, to take chances if the pay-off will make me happy. I think you could make me happy.”
Tony snorted, and rubbed his eyes with his hand again. “I think that stay on ice might have addled with your brain, Steve-o.”
Steve just laughed, and Tony realised he was beginning to really like the sound. Trying not to think too hard about that, he settled on just smiling up into the darkness of their fort.
They laid in silence for a few moments, and then Steve whispered, “Hey, Tony?”
“Can I... would it be all right if I held you?”
Tony paused for a moment, and then snorted. “I knew it. I knew you'd be a secret snuggle monster.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes, Steve, get over here,” he rolled his eyes, turning onto his side so Steve could shuffle across and fit himself up against his back. After a moment of obvious hesitation, Steve reached over and wrapped his arm around Tony, tangling their legs together in the process.
“All right, Captain Cuddle,” Tony sighed, though he was smiling into a pillow as they got comfy.
“Sleep, Tony,” Steve whispered, his breath ghosting against the back of Tony's neck. He barely suppressed a shiver as he closed his eyes and slept.
As it turned out, waking up wrapped in someone's arms again was wonderful. What wasn't as wonderful was the fact that there were two screaming babies about a foot away, and also the fact that Tony's back seemed to have seized up from sleeping on the floor.
“Steve,” he grumbled, using a still uncoordinated arm to gently elbow Steve in the ribs. “Steve, you gonna get that?”
“Shhh,” Steve mumbled, tugging him a little bit closer. “Jus' a minute.”
Rolling his eyes, Tony sat up and lightly cuffed the back of Steve's smirking head. That just made him grin all the harder, and before Tony could cover his mouth with his hand, Steve caught his wrist and leaned up to kiss his palm.
“I know,” he nodded understandingly, sitting up. “More time. Got it.”
Without another word on the subject, they went about their day. And even though Steve took Bruce and Sam to go get a bottle while Tony wrangled the others into clean up and getting dressed, he still felt close to him, somehow. Closer than he had ever felt to Steve before, at any rate.
“No, Rhodey, I'm not telling you that you can't wear it. I'm telling you that your head is not physically going to fit in your pants legs. Come on, little man, you're four; you know heads don't go in pants -”
He was interrupted by a little hand patting his shoulder, and pulled a tiny pair of underpants off his head as he turned. Natasha was standing next to him, already dressed in a pretty black dress they'd managed to dig out with little red booty socks to match, with an adorable, pink swim suit in her hands.
“Swimming?” she asked quietly, holding the suit up to him. “Pwees?”
“I...” Tony looked around at the others, and realised they were all peering at him hopefully. “You guys wanna go swimming?”
They nodded enthusiastically, and Tony sighed.
“Yep, fine, find a bathing suit. We're having breakfast first though, okay? And find one for Bruce and Sam, too!”
“This was a terrible idea.”
Tony hummed, letting the water of Stark Tower's indoor pool wash over him. “They're enjoying it.”
“I feel like at least one of them is going to drown,” Steve sighed next to him.
They were treading water at the deep end of the pool, watching the kids bounce around and swim at the shallow end. Tony had pulled a floating rope barrier across the centre of the pool so at least the kids couldn't accidentally swim too deep and not be able to get back, and there were enough floaties in there to save them even if they did get in trouble.
That, and Steve had insisted on water wings.
Little Bruce bobbed past in a baby floatie ring thing, completely happy to wiggle around and float. Sam was at the other side of the pool in something similar, but other than them, everyone seemed to know to at least kick their legs and flail their arms and let the water wings do the rest. Hell, Rhodey and Thor had even graduated to no water wings whatsoever.
“They're not going to drown,” Tony rolled his eyes. “The floatie to kid ratio in here is ridiculous.”
“And they are having fun,” Steve admitted, unable to keep a smile off his face as Bucky and Clint jumped into the water with a joint squeal of joy.
“They are,” Tony agreed. “Are you having fun?”
Steve looked at him for a moment with a small smile on his face that made Tony suddenly feel very exposed. “I am having fun.”
And then he leaned in and left a gentle kiss on Tony's forehead. Warmth spread from that point of contact to the whole rest of Tony's body, and he smiled. He was having fun, too.
“Steeb!” Bucky yelled from across the pool, and they both turned quickly to look. “Don' want no water wings!”
“No, put them back on, Buck!” Steve called, body already prepared to kick out and across the pool in only the few, short strokes Tony was now aware he needed to span the whole space. “Put 'em on!”
“Or..” Tony cut in, and Steve turned to him. “We could teach them to swim without?”
“It looks like we're going to have to,” Steve sighed, “because Buck just threw his away.”
“Which means Clint will follow,” Tony sighed, beginning to swim after Steve. “Giving him that hearing aid was the worst mistake of our lives. All he does is listen to Barnes talking shit.”
He'd had JARVIS fabricate a hearing aid that morning over breakfast, and had fitted it shortly after. Clint hadn't stopped tilting his head up, listening to everything around him since.
“His little face when you put it on was priceless, though,” Steve grinned, ducking under the floating rope and into the shallow end. Tony followed. “All right, Buck, Clint, stay on the side of the pool until we get there, okay? We're teaching you to swim without floaties.”
A pair of tiny arms latched onto Tony's neck mid-stroke and he had to pause and swivel to figure out who it was.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked Natasha, because of course it was her latching onto him.
“I wanna swim,” she replied softly. “Pwees?”
“All right, short stack,” Tony nodded, scooping her up into his arms to wade over to the others. “Let's go swim.”
While Thor and Rhodey busied themselves with pushing Sam and Bruce around a little deeper into the pool, Steve and Tony pulled the water wings off Bucky, Clint and Natasha at the very shallow end.
“Hold onto the side,” Steve was telling Bucky, who was bouncing around excitedly. “Buck, hold onto the side, you maniac.”
Once they'd managed to keep all three of them in place, Tony and Steve knocked some floaties out of the way and swam a few feet away before turning back to the kids.
“You naturally float, okay?” Tony told them. “You're not just gonna drown. You've got to just keep moving your arms and legs like you've been doing with your wings.”
“We should probably at least give them a little floatie board or something,” Steve murmured to him, and Tony nodded and grabbed a few. “We can't just throw them in cold turkey.”
“Hold them in front of you and kick,” Tony instructed, handing the boards to the kids. “And keep your head above the water, obviously.”
“We're terrible teachers,” Steve laughed as the kids started kicking around with their floaties.
“Hey, we've had them going on twenty four hours and we've not killed any of them yet,” Tony shrugged. “We could do worse.”
“You were fine carers,” came a deep, amused voice from behind them, and Tony whipped around and came face to face with the very solid, very adult chest of Thor.
“Thor!” Steve cried. “You're back!”
“My brother's magic usually lasts only twenty four hours,” Thor shrugged, and Tony realised then that he had tiny, baby Bruce in his large arms. “When he means it in fun, anyway.”
“So... that's it?” Tony asked, and tried not to sound too relieved. “You're all just going to turn back?”
“It should be just minutes,” Thor nodded, smiling gently down at little Bruce.
“Steve,” Bucky called from behind them, very much his adult self again. “Why the fuck am I in a Speedo?”
“So it didn't change your mind? You're not suddenly baby mad?”
Tony sent Pepper a half exasperated, half fond look. “I'm not even going to dignify that question with an answer.”
Pepper laughed and kicked her feet up onto the coffee table beside him. “I didn't think it would.”
Tony hummed and rubbed his eyes with his hand. “They were cute, okay, and relatively manageable in short bursts and groups, but fuuuck, Pep, I couldn't do it. Not all the time, not for eighteen years. If I hadn't had Steve -” He paused, glanced over into the kitchen where Steve and Barnes were arguing good-naturedly over what appeared to be the last piece of a pie. “If I hadn't had Steve, I wouldn't have even lasted that long.”
“You seem closer,” Pepper murmured, and she was smiling when Tony looked at her. “A lot closer.”
“He's...” Tony shrugged, trying to hold the grin that wanted to burst from him in check. “He's maybe not as much of an asshole as I originally thought.”
“Oh, really?” Pepper asked in a singsong voice. “Captain America himself, Mr. Do-Gooder, the man you've been helplessly in love with since before you even knew what that meant isn't an asshole?”
“Stop it,” Tony snorted, shoving her knee gently. He held his hand there for a moment, but eventually Pepper reached out and tangled their fingers together and brought them to rest between them.
“I'm kind of relieved,” she whispered, and Tony swallowed heavily. “I know you can take care of yourself, Tony; I'm not disputing that at all. I just hate that you have to, sometimes.”
“And now I don't have to?” Tony asked, glancing over at Steve again. He caught his gaze and Steve smiled at him as though Tony was his whole world, and only stopped when Bucky swatted him around the head.
“Now you don't have to,” Pepper nodded.