There is a flash of light.
Tony Stark opens his eyes and abruptly sits down on the ground, his hands clumsily grabbing at tiles with blanket covered hands to steady himself. He doesn't know if this is a kidnapping or a dream or an adventure, but he isn't in bed anymore with his blankets all tight and warm and comfortable. He doesn't think he has fallen asleep but now the warm bed is gone, and his hard flashlight that makes a lump under his pillow because Daddy said ‘Kid doesn’t need a damn nightlight, look at him! What’s a kid got to fear from sleep? No shadows…” and Tony didn’t understand what he meant but after Daddy stumbled away from bedtime, Tony told Jarvis he didn’t need a damn nightlight because he was a brave soldier. So Jarvis took away the light, but maybe he did need it, just a little bit, so he has the flashlight. It is heavy and solid and could bash bad guys and monsters, but it isn't there now. Not that he needs it because the room is so bright that it makes his eyes hurt and water and squeeze shut tight so all he really knows is that he is sitting on a tiled floor.
He doesn't think he is at home anymore at all, though he isn't certain, because home is a big big place and a lot of rooms are locked big people rooms that he isn't allowed in even when he's going on expeditions like his dad. The whole room feels like it's spinning, just the way he feels when he spins really really fast until he falls over.
Slowly, slowly, the world settles and the bright light doesn't hurt and he sits up to decide if this place is fun or scary. It doesn't look scary. It is bright with whiteness and there is a pretty lady wearing a long green dress who's smiling down at him next to a white pillar with a glowing object set upon it. The floor is tiled and smooth and the ceiling distant and domed, and he isn't wrapped in his blanket at all but in a suit like the sort his dad wears.
The room feels wrong, though. It makes him sick looking at it, because the numbers in his brain say it is wrong, as though one and one were being forced to equal pi. That's scary, and the big giant suit is scary, because it looks like his daddy’s suit and it's all rumpled, and rumpling suits is very bad. He still doesn't know if he's dreaming or not but all the white and the pillars and the dome look like a picture Jarvis showed him once. So he stands up, stumbling out of most of the clothes except for the shirt because Jarvis told him a gentleman always wears clothes even when he’s too hot. He wants to be a proper gentlemen now because the lady looks like a proper lady and he wants her to like him. She looks nice. And pretty. He walks up the steps towards her and she beams at him.
“Am I dead?” he asks her, smiling back, “Are you an angel?”
“No,” she answers, her voice gentle and warm, “I have given you a gift.”
Tony likes gifts, but he isn't certain what she means, unless she means the giant too big suit that he has left rumpled on the ground.
“Are you a fairy?” a voice asks from behind him, and Tony turns his head to see a bigger boy with blond hair. He’s dressed like Tony in just a white shirt that’s way too big on him, though it doesn’t completely swamp him like Tony’s shirt does; Tony keeps almost tripping on his but the other boy’s shirt doesn’t go all the way down to his feet. The pretty lady is smiling at the other boy now, and Tony frowns because he found her first. Then he looks past the boy and sees more piles of rumpled clothes, though they are all farther away than his own rumpled suit, and maybe that means that there are four children, and the lady will smile at them and forget to smile at Tony. He doesn’t see other children though, just pillars, but maybe they are all hiding.
“I am of the Beimeni,” the pretty lady says to the other boy, “You and your companions saved us from a great evil, and so we have bestowed upon you this gift.”
“What gift?” Tony asks, and she turns her head to look at him again, so that is good. “Did you give us new clothes? Are we going to live in heaven now?”
“No,” she answers, “I allowed the Orb to look within your hearts for pain and it has found a path towards healing. You will return to your people now that the gift has been received and I will return to mine.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” says the other boy, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t think I did anything to help you. Did…did you take away my asthma? I feel…I’m different.”
“What was broken is being healed,” the nice lady says again, “We of Beimeni thank you all. Goodbye.”
There is a flash of light.
The room doesn't go dizzy this time, but when Tony opens his eyes again, everything is different. It's still a large white room with pillars, but the room feels drabber somehow, and the dimensions don't hurt his brain anymore. Everything looks a little more faded and a little less real, like stage props that lost their illusion when you got close enough to touch. The smiling lady is gone. So is the glowing object. The other boy is still there.
“Oh, there’s a door now!” the other boy says, looking past the pillars to the far wall. Tony doesn't think there was a far wall before, or if there had been, it had been too far away to make out details like the large wooden door. The piles of clothes are also still there, looking more rumpled than ever. Suits aren’t fun to wear because they are Good clothes, and you can’t run in them or eat messy food or go on explorations or anything at all except stand up straight and shake hands with people. They are never ever ever to be left rumpled on the floor.
“Come on,” says the other boy, “Maybe we can leave and find someone and then we can go home.”
The boy is offering his hand, but Tony can’t leave yet, so he ignores the boy and hops down the stairs and begins to lay the suit out flat.
“What are you doing?” the boy asks, following him, “Oh…are…should I help?”
“If you want,” Tony answers, because straightening clothes so that all the wrinkles are smoothed away is hard work. Usually Jarvis does it or the laundry people. So the other boy kneels next to him and gently tugs at the jacket while Tony pulls some shoes free and starts on the pants.
“My name’s Steve,” the other boy says while they work, so Tony reaches out and shakes his hand and tells him he’s Tony. Then maybe they are friends, even if the other boy is really big, which is good. Tony goes back to straightening the suit and, after a moment, so does Steve. They both look up when the other boy appears.
He’s small, maybe as small as Tony, and he has brown hair. The boy isn’t look at them, not precisely; he’s approached one of the piles of clothes and is beginning to straighten it just like them, but Tony can see the way his eyes follow them in quick glances.
Maybe he’s shy, like when Tony’s dad wants him to meet someone and they have a mean voice and he wants to stay with Jarvis and not wear his fancy nice suit. So Tony gives the clothes beneath his hands one final pat and decides that it is good enough, and waves at the other little boy and smiles so he’ll know Tony isn’t mean.
“Hello!” he calls, “I’m Tony! I’m four years old and three fifths.” Tony doesn’t actually know if he is three fifths but he thinks it sounds good, and his birthday was ages and ages ago, at least a whole month, maybe two, so surely that’s practically like being almost five. “This is Steve. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s really big so I think he must be almost ten!”
Steve’s face turns a funny pink color, and he says, “I’m six. I think the fairy lady turned me bigger when she made me strong.”
“She didn’t make me bigger,” Tony says with a frown, and then, walking towards the other boy he says, “Are you bigger? What’s your name?”
The boy mumbles something that sounds a bit like ‘bruise’ and then a bit louder says, “I’m four and…and…and four fifths!” Up close, the boy doesn’t look all gigantic and strong like Steve does, but he is all hunched over and his expression isn’t happy but it isn’t sad. Maybe he’s scared because they are all alone with just giant suit shirts to wear and they’re all strangers. Maybe Tony is a little bit scared too.
“We’re friends,” Tony decides assertively, because then they can be alone together and it won’t be scary anymore.
Bruise’s eyes go really really wide, and then he smiles a very small, tiny bit. Then he says, “What about the other kids?”
“Are there more?” Steve asks. He’s crouching down like Bruise, like he’s trying to make himself really small too.
“Of course there’s more,” Tony tells him, even though he didn’t really know until Bruise asked, “There are five clothes.”
“Oh,” says Steve, and then he stands up and shouts out into the room, “Hello? You can come out; we won’t hurt you!”
For a moment Steve looks silly, like he’s shouting to no one, but then the two kids step out from behind their pillars. There’s another boy and a girl, both wrapped in the remains of big person clothes. The boy walks up to them but the girl hangs back, watching. Neither of them are as big as Steve but they are both bigger than Bruise and Tony.
“Do you know what happened?” the boy asks, directing his question towards Steve.
“The lady said she gave us a gift. I think she made me stronger, but I don’t know. Do any of you remember how we got here?”
“I was in bed,” Tony tells them, “But I wasn’t sleepy, and there was a light and the world went dizzy.”
“I was under my bed,” Bruise says.
“Gee…maybe we all are dreaming this,” Steve says, “I was in bed too.”
“I wasn’t,” says the other boy, “Me and Barney were sneaking to the kitchen. He didn’t come here, though.” Then they looked at the girl, but she only glares at them and doesn’t say anything.
“I’m Clint,” the boy says after a moment, “I’m seven.”
“You can’t be seven!” Tony tells him, frowning, “Steve is bigger than you and he’s only six.” Tony is only trying to be helpful, in case Clint forgot his age, but Clint glares back at him and makes Tony feel a bit afraid.
“Well, you don’t look four,” he says, “I’ll bet you’re three.” Tony gasps indignantly, standing up at his full height, which is unfortunately not very tall.
“I am not! I’m four and, and, and four fifths! I’m almost five!” And maybe he doesn’t want to be friends with Clint, because Clint looks mean, and Bruise is hunching up until he’s really tiny, like he’s scared. Maybe he thinks Clint won’t believe he’s four years old either. So Tony hunches up with him and take’s his hand. Bruise looks really surprised, and then he squeezes Tony’s hand really hard, so Tony squeezes back.
“So what are our gifts, then?” Clint asks Steve, not even looking at them anymore, “I’m not bigger.” Then he finally does look at Tony again and says, “Did the lady make your chest glow?” That’s such a stupid and ridiculous question that it doesn’t even make sense.
“My chest doesn’t glow,” Tony tells him, glaring because Clint is obviously being mean again and making up stupid things. But Steve is frowning at Tony and then Bruise tugs on Tony’s sleeve and whispers, “But it is glowing.” So Tony looks down, and there is a faint light coming out of his chest. Tony pokes it cautiously and hits something hard.
There’s something hard and glowing stuck to his chest. Now that he knows it’s there, he can feel it, and it’s wrong, and his heart feels heavy, and is going thumpthumpthumpthump, and when he pulls his shirt down there’s something metal and his fingers pull at it but it’s inside him and it’s wrongwrongwrongwrong…
“There there,” Bruise coos at him, his arms hugging Tony tightly, and Steve has a hand on his shoulder and is saying, “You’re okay,” and he can’t see what Clint is doing because his vision has gone all blurry. Then Steve says, “Maybe…maybe the fairy lady gave you a magic light! Maybe…maybe your heart was sick and she made it better, like she made my asthma better and made me all strong!”
And connections leap in Tony’s mind and his eyes get big and then he understood.
“I think it’s a flashlight,” he tells them, his voice odd and stuttery still even though he had stopped crying, “I always sleep with my light because I’m big and brave and I don’t need a damn nightlight, because Captain America doesn’t need a nightlight, but my flashlight can stop evil kidnappers and it wasn’t here and I wanted it, so the pretty lady gave me a light of my very own!”
Steve and Clint stare at him like he is crazy, but a lot of people look at him like that when he explains things, so Tony doesn’t care because he knows he is right. Then suddenly Bruise’s arms tighten around him as the boy gasps into Tony’s hair.
“Doyouthinkshemademenotamonster?” he says in one single breath.
“What?” Tony asks, twisting around to look at him, because even though Tony’s brain is super super fast, his ears aren’t fast enough to understand what his new friend just said. Bruise takes several deep gulping breathes, his face strangely white.
“Do…do you think,” he says, this time at normal speed, “Do you think she made me not a monster?” Tony frowns, because Bruise still isn’t making any sense.
“You were a monster?” he asks, “Like…like a vampire? That would be so cool!” But Bruise shakes his head with harsh jerking motions.
“No, not…not a good monster. Like...like I’m made all wrong because I’m mutated.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster,” Steve says.
“I wish I was a monster,” says Clint, “I’d kill Mr. Ashton and me and Barney would run away and live in some abandoned place like a graveyard.” Bruise looks absolutely shocked at this.
“What’s your name?” Steve says, and that’s a funny question because Tony said he was Tony, and he knows that Bruise is Bruise and Clint is Clint. But Steve isn’t looking at any of them, and then he remembers the little girl and he turns his head to look at her. She has come closer now, almost all the way up to them, and she is still staring and silent, like maybe she can’t speak. Tony pulls away from Bruise to stand up again and holds out his hand because that’s the polite thing to do when you meet a girl.
“Hello,” he says, “I’m Tony Stark. Can’t you speak? How old are you? I’m four and five fifths, and this is Bruise, and he’s my age, and Steve and Clint.” For a long moment, it seems like she isn’t going to answer him. She doesn’t take his hand, but she does finally speak.
“Natalia. I’m five. I do not know this word ‘fifths’.” Her voice sounds funny, like a foreign diplomat’s.
“Where did you disappear from, Natalia?” Steve asks, stumbling slightly over her name like it didn’t fit right in his mouth. Natalia stares at him, but dutifully answers, “Bed.” Steve nods, and smiles at her.
“So what do we do now?” Clint demands, “Just sit here all day in these stupid grown up clothes? Where are we, anyway?”
“On an adventure,” Tony decides all at once, because he felt too wide awake to be dreaming, and no scary grownups were trying to drag him away to be kidnapped. “We can be the five…the five…the super…”
“Babies?” Clint suggests.
Tony wants to glare at him, because maybe Clint is being mean again, but Bruise giggles behind his hands so Tony decides it’s funny too. At least until Clint continues talking.
“Well, let’s go, short stuff, and see if there’s anything out that door.”
“I’m not short!” Tony tells him, standing up onto his tiptoes to show how tall he is.
“You’re the shortest one here,” Clint tells him.
“No I’m…” Tony starts to say, but maybe that’s a little bit true because Clint is taller, and Steve is huge, and even Natalia is at least as tall as Clint. But Bruise looks really really tiny, all hunched up, so Tony says, “I’m taller than Bruise.”
“Do you mean ‘Bruce’?” Steve asks, taking a moment to stop giving Clint a stern look for being mean. Tony hesitates, then turns to his new friend.
“Is your name Bruce?” he asks. Then Bruise nods, so he’s Bruce instead, and stands up slowly so he isn’t crouching on the floor anymore. Clint starts laughing. “What?” Tony demands, glaring at him, because maybe he’s making Bruce feel bad and Bruce is Tony’s friend.
“He’s taller,” Clint tells him, and that isn’t true, because Bruce looks so tiny, but they stand back to back and Steve is the one who moves his hand across their heads, and he says Clint’s right. Tony doesn’t think Steve would lie, but it isn’t fair. Natalia watches the whole thing like she thinks they’re all stupid and Steve says that he used to always be small and small isn’t bad. Tony can’t imagine Steve being tiny, but Tony didn’t have a flashlight in his chest before either, so maybe it’s true.
“Come on,” Steve says after they finally stop comparing sizes, and his voice is a stern big kid voice that says they should listen, “Let’s go outside.”
So Tony takes Bruce’s hand, and also Steve’s, because they’re friends. Clint and Natalia don’t hold hands, though, and Clint rushes ahead while Natalia hangs back behind them. Outside the door turns out to be still inside a building, but room is less white and pillared and more carpeted with chairs. There are grownups in suits sitting, but they stand up when Clint opens the door and peeks through with Tony and everyone else trying to look past him. Clint stays in the way though, now that he sees there are grownups there. Tony can just see the way the men’s eyes look all wide and surprised. Maybe they didn’t know about the pretty lady and her gift giving orb, so they didn’t know why a bunch of kids were there.
One man walks towards them and Tony is close enough to Clint’s back to feel him tense, like maybe he’s going to close the door so they can all run and hide before they get there. Before he moves, though, the man drops down onto his knees, and maybe he isn’t so scary so no one runs away. He has a strange twitchy look on his face though, something Tony doesn’t understand because it isn’t happy or sad or angry.
“Clint?” the man says, still staring, and his eyes jerk up to where Steve is looking over Clint’s shoulder, then down to Tony and Bruce trying to see through the gaps in his arms. “Steve? Tony? Bruce?” And Tony gasps because the stranger man knows all of their names.
“Hello, sir,” says Steve, “Do you know how we got here? My mom will be worried if I’m not there in the morning.” Then he frowns and says, “It isn’t morning yet, is it?”
The stranger man stops kneeling and sits down.