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~*~

It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons. ~Johann Schiller

~*~

It's four-thirty AM, and Steve is fairly proud of himself for almost having gotten a full night's sleep when there's a desperate pounding on his door. He's in his bathroom with the water running, brushing his teeth, so he turns the taps off and ducks his head out for a second listen. The walls are pretty thin in this building and sometimes knocking two apartments away can sound like it's right outside. But no, there's a second assault on his door and then a voice he hasn't heard except through the comlink in his cowl in weeks.

"Steve, oh my god, open up; I think your neighbors have knives."

Steve blinks, wipes his mouth with a towel, rinses and tosses his toothbrush into the cup that's been designated for it on the back of his sink and heads for the door.

"Or guns, whatever, they are definitely armed. Oh hello, ma'am." Tony Stark's voice is abruptly directed toward the other side of the hall, where Steve can picture Mrs. Perkins staring pointedly through a chain-laced crack of open doorway, holding her cellphone with 9-1-1 on speed dial. "No, please don't call the police, I promise I'm a friend. Steve's friend. Iron Man? I think you may have heard of me. No, ma'am, I'm not a stripper. I promise I'm the real deal. I don't have any ID on me because most people think the really shiny red and gold armor are proof enough of identi--No, you're right, I shouldn't take that tone with you. That was a mistake and," abruptly, Tony is addressing Steve's door again, "for god's sake, Rogers, if you don't let me in I will break this door down, see if I don't."

Steve is a little tempted to let this go on for a while, just to see where it will lead, but though he's sure Tony would pay for whatever damages he inflicted on Steve's apartment, it would still be obnoxious to wait for the repairs. He opens the door.

Tony is standing in full Iron Man armor sans helmet, which Steve knows from experience can simply fold itself away into the structure of the neck. His hair is a wild mess and he hasn't shaved in at least a day, and his eyes are bloodshot--lack of sleep or excess of alcohol or a combination, Steve's not sure. He's got a scrape above his eyebrow that's no longer bleeding, but produced a long trickle that followed the curve of his cheek to disappear into his beard before it stopped. He smells of a recent explosion, and the Iron Man armor shows some scorching, especially along the left side, because Tony tends to turn his non-dominate side toward danger when he can't dodge fast enough.

All in all, it's a little alarming but not exactly abnormal, except for the part where Tony's standing in the hallway of Steve's apartment complex, larger-than-life personality looking a bit cramped in the confines. What's really strange about it is the child Tony's got propped on his hip, wearing a non-descript off-white hospital gown, longish brown hair flopped over a wide, direct brown-eyed gaze.

"Tony, what--?"

"Let me in, Steve, let us in I guess is more accurate. Before we're knifed to death or something and I promise my explanation will make total sense and be not at all alarming."

"No one's going to stab you," Steve huffs, slightly put out but mostly finding his crisis mode slipping over him like a comfortable jacket, and he's already thinking in terms of damage control rather than focusing on Tony's dismal assessment of his living arrangements. He sends Mrs. Perkins a friendly smile and wave as he steps back to let Tony in. "If they tried, I think they'd have a difficult time getting past the armor. Also, you're lying."

Tony looks affronted, but it's a reflex expression, heart not really in it, and underneath that he looks panicked. It's all around his eyes and in his voice, the rest of his face blank, and Steve tries not to worry that he's a little bit of an expert on reading his teammate. "About what?"

"Your explanation making sense and/or not being alarming."

"No," Tony protests as he pauses in the kitchen space, just beyond the door, looking around with a bright, curious look that the child in his arms echoes to an almost eerie degree of similarity. "Well, okay. Probably. Yes."

Steve sighs and closes the door on Mrs. Perkin's expression which is caught between suspicion and amusement.

Getting his unexpected houseguests settled takes a little more time than anticipated, especially when Tony discovers that he doesn't have a modern coffeemaker and spends a good five minutes in horrified silence and another fifteen puttering around the apartment poking into things. Steve goes to find something to entertain his younger guest. He comes back with a handful of blank paper and some pastel crayons, interrupting Tony, who is attempting to construct a coffee machine out of his own cellphone, spare parts from the armor--or what Steve hopes are spare parts, anyway--and whatever he's found in Steve's apartment that looks promising. Steve recognizes a tin sauce pot, his shaving kit and some knitting needles which he is only slightly embarrassed to have out in the open.

The child is helping deconstruct the phone with surprising nimbleness, sitting at Steve's small, square kitchen table where Tony has spread out his project, chin barely topping the edge, kicking feet against the rungs of the chair and humming atonally. The sheer speed at which Tony has managed to claim a relatively large corner of Steve's home should be surprising, but actually isn't.

"No, Tony," Steve says, patiently taking bits and wires out of Tony's hands and then placing himself between Tony and the table when Tony reaches for them again.

"But...but Steve."

"No," Steve says, firm and steady, which is what he's learned from experience is needed to deal with Tony when he's like this. "Here, I brought clothes." He presses a soft, folded pair of sweats and a t-shirt into Tony's arms in lieu of letting him get to the electronics again.

"It's a crime, Steve, it's unnatural. Making coffee by boiling water--who does that?"

"Your coffee maker does that. You just don't see it."

"Right, machines do that. They do that for you now. That's a thing, you know, it's a really really common thing."

"Go get changed, before clomping around in that armor puts a hole in my floor."

"Are you calling me fat?" Tony demands as Steve presses clothes against his chest and puts a hand on Tony's shoulder where he's relatively certain there's nothing in the armor that could break or--more likely--blow his fingers off and attempts to angle him toward the bathroom. "What is this, what are you giving me?"

"Clothes."

"Ew, is this Fruit-of-the-Loom? These shirts come a half-dozen in a bag for less than five dollars. Less than five dollars, Steve."

Actually, Steve had been slightly appalled at even spending that much. He's still having trouble adapting to inflation. Sometimes he goes into stores and buys things without looking too hard at the price tag or the receipt, which is easier now that he has a debit card and can swipe without even seeing the total if he tries hard. Sometimes he sits for hours cutting coupons and meticulously bargain hunting like his mother used to, though he has yet to spend less than twenty dollars on a grocery run, which would have horrified his frugal mother.

"They're practical," Steve says. "And comfortable."

"They're generic."

Steve has seen Tony stumble out of the lab in clothes held together by grime and a prayer, so he doesn't think Tony's really all that scandalized. He's likely just trying to get a rise out of Steve, or maybe he's tired enough that he's gone into what Steve likes to call Asshole Automatic, picking on everything without actually hearing most of the words coming out of his own mouth.

Steve kind of likes Tony in that state. Well, except he worries that Tony isn't sleeping again. But it means that Steve can be bossy and sarcastic right back and Tony doesn't take the negativity like body blows, which he does almost every other time. It's a bit like the banter he got used to with the Howling Commandos, and Steve takes comfort in all the familiar things when he finds them, wherever he finds them.

"Go change and stop ruining my floors or I'm kicking you out."

He manhandles Tony, actually shoving him a bit, which Tony allows and which Steve has only recently come to understand is not a concession granted to most people. Steve tries not to abuse the privilege, but sometimes applied force is needed to get the genius-playboy-philanthropist focused on the task at hand.

"I don't think that's my fault. You've probably got cockroaches."

"Maybe," Steve concedes, because he does see a few, now and then, but it's hardly an infestation and this is New York City. "But what does that have to do with anything?"

Tony pauses, head tilted in a way that Steve maybe kinda thinks is adorable but will never ever say, "They eat wood? And are therefore undermining structural integrity long before I arrived?"

"That's termites."

Tony scowls at him. "You would know that."

As far as comebacks go, it's pretty weak for Tony Stark's legendary razor tongue. Steve thinks he must be very tired or very hung over. This is cause for concern by itself, but also means that he is going to hit a wall soon, one that he won't be able to bounce back from. Steve needs to find out what is going on before Tony crashes and takes all chance of an explanation with him. The other thing about Tony in this state is that Steve can push him--gently--and often get his way.

"Go change, Tony. You'll have coffee when you get back."

Tony finally takes the clothes with a grumble, but the promise of caffeine seems enough to compel him. Steve expects him to choose the bathroom but he goes straight into Steve's bedroom instead, which is--fine, Steve guesses. He makes a mental check of the state of his room, if he has any unmentionables in plain view or any drawings he doesn't want Tony to touch, because undoubtedly Tony will touch everything. Satisfied that there is nothing in his bedroom that Tony can destroy or use to embarrass Steve, he turns to his younger companion, who's still doggedly dismantling a bit of phone, but looks up with an attentive expression at Steve's regard.

"Ah," Steve says, suddenly not entirely sure how to proceed. "Hi."

There's a thump and a clang and a "Holy shit, fucking--what--Goddammit!" from the bedroom.

"Um," says Steve to the kid, "excuse me for a moment, please."

Then he ducks into his bedroom with a reprimand on his lips because even though Steve knows civilian language is more lax these days he can't abide swearing in front of impressionable youth--and jeez he does sound like someone's grandpa--but, dammit, he is old, sort of, in a way, so he might as well own it.

He stops at the sight of Tony, lying sort of upside down and sideways on Steve's narrow bed, head pointed toward the floor, one leg kicked up at an awkward angle. Steve's desk and chair have been knocked over and the papers that had just recently been stacked neatly on a corner of the desk are now scattered all over. As Steve watches, mouth open slightly in disbelief, somewhat annoyed and begrudgingly impressed by the amount of destruction Tony can wrought in so little time, a few scraps of paper flutter down and land on Tony's head.

"I didn't expect that," Tony says, surprised and slightly wondering, like life doesn't shock him often--which it probably doesn't, though Steve bets it's become more unpredictable since joining The Avengers. He probably shouldn't feel smug about that.

"What happened?" Steve asks, moving forward to assist.

"Unexpected failure of the inverse reactive current and coiled cooling circuitry. Made for an interesting feedback loop but probably good I wasn't inflight when that happened."

Not much of that makes sense to Steve, but then it rarely does when it comes to Tony's patented brand of science: one part genius, one part crazy and flavored with a healthy amount of impossible. He grabs bits of Tony's armor and hauls him upright.

"Holyshitwarnaguy," Tony says in a rush, flailing a little until Steve sits him down on the bed.

"Can we keep the swearing to a minimum?" Steve asks, wincing internally at how much it comes out sounding like someone's maiden aunt. "It's just, the walls in here are kinda thin and with the present company..."

Sometimes, when he tries to explain himself it only makes things worse. Tony is looking at him like he's made an almost incomprehensibly weird request, and Steve thinks that if Tony laughs he's going to drop Tony on his head again.

Instead, Tony's expression resolves into one that's actually a little chastened and he says, "Yeah, okay. Sorry."

Steve blinks. "It's fine. Now how do we get you out of this?"

Tony looks at him in a way that makes a flush crawl up the back of Steve's neck, one eyebrow raised, smirk tweaking a corner of his mouth. Tony opens his mouth, nothing but hell and mischief in his eyes, and then he shuts it again without saying anything for a few heartbeats of what looks like a mighty internal struggle. Finally he says, "Back panel. There, can you push that in? I've got a tool kit built into this but the joint's bent and--oh thanks."

In short order, bits of the armor slip off or begin folding back into itself like the technological marvel it is. Steve is never not impressed by an up-close look at its sleek design, but he knows better by now than to say anything. Tony is suspicious of his compliments, no matter how sincere he is. In fact, the more sincere Steve is, the less Tony tends to believe him.

This is not the suitcase armor, which Tony once explained is a bit like "emergency armor," light weight and without all the bells and whistles. It's also infinitely easier to put on and take off. That means that, whatever happened, Tony had time to strap on one of the full designs--eight or nine, Steve's lost where in the count Tony is. This one has a round arc reactor, but that doesn't really narrow it down.

Steve runs his hand over the roughness of battle damage along Tony's rib plating and says, "So."

"I had a completely inappropriate comment involving 'eating wood' but I restrained myself," Tony says.

It actually takes Steve a moment to trace that back to their conversation about termites. "Noted and appreciated."

"Do you think I should get her a pony?"

Now Steve's completely lost the thread, but that's a familiar feeling around Tony and it barely even fazes Steve anymore. "Who?"

"The kid," Tony says with that exaggerated patience he takes on when he's surrounded by idiots, and he's a genius, and why can no one just keep up. It makes Steve want to toss Tony through walls from time to time. "Little girls like ponies, don't they? That's a thing. I read that somewhere."

Steve thinks of the child sitting at his kitchen table, all silence and nimble fingers and bright, direct gaze. "Maybe not a pony. Maybe some clothes, though, and some coloring books." Because what Steve has here are art supplies and not really meant for children.

He helps Tony with a panel of metal that's partially melted, pulling a strip of the cloth underarmor free when it comes loose, revealing a streak of angry red skin beneath. Tony hisses softly.

"Do you need medical attention?" Steve asks, faintly horrified that this wasn't the first thing he'd thought of. Most people would say something if they needed it. That's a dangerous assumption with Tony. "Do either of you?"

"The kid's fine. Although maybe we should take her to a doctor just in case she has some sort of crazy interstellar space disease or something." Tony pokes at the knee joint on his armor with a screwdriver he pulled from somewhere.

"Space disease?"

"Well, I found her on an abandoned space station so...yeah."

Steve takes the screwdriver away and waits until Tony stops trying to grab it back and makes eye contact. "Tell me what happened," Steve says in his Obey Me I Outrank You voice, which sometimes makes Tony fly into fits of contrary meanness but sometimes, if used sparingly and at just the right moment, Tony responds to very well.

Tony flops back with a dramatic sigh, but he starts in on the explanation, so today it's the latter, and Steve breathes out a silent sigh of relief, because using that tone of voice is always a gamble.

"Not much to say. Fury called me in. I went," Tony says to his ceiling. "There was an abandoned space station in orbit about two hundred forty miles from the planet's surface no one had noticed until recently, and only because it's stealth capacitors glitched and pinged a NASA tower."

"Just you? Why not the team?"

"The team's not space-worthy. Except Thor, and they wanted recon, not to bash it with a hammer. I need to get on those Quinjet upgrades, by the way. It's about time we had our own spaceship. We need one; we're a proper team. Fuck Reed and his stupid jet."

Steve pokes Tony in the knee with the screwdriver to keep him focused, and while he's looking, he figures out the joint and starts to unlock bits of leg armor.

"Er, darn Reed, I mean."

Well, it's a nice effort, but that's not what Steve was prompting. "The space station...?"

"Right, well, when I say 'station' that's not really--I mean it was this tiny thing. Space hovel. Space telephone booth. Hopefully, whoever worked in there wasn't claustrophobic, not that it matters, since they were all eaten."

The screwdriver slips and Steve almost stabs himself. "What?"

"Yeah, I think. I didn't really stop to check. There were body parts everywhere. Like a horror movie, torn limb from limb kind of stuff. It was dark and--oxygen but no gravity, so everything was floating. The blood was in these pretty, perfectly round spheres. I didn't even notice at first. Then I found the kid and there was a countdown. I grabbed the kid and got out."

"A countdown?"

"Someone had rigged the place to blow, or maybe it was just a triggered defense."

Steve feels a sharp sort of panic grip his heart and he has the urge to run his hands over Tony just to test that he's okay. Steve always feels better when he can touch things. Sometimes it's the only way he can convince himself any of this is real and not just a very vivid dream. There's another score of scorched underarmor in a diagonal slash across Tony's thigh. If there'd been any kind of depth to it it would've hit the femoral artery.

"But you're okay," Steve can't help asking again.

"Yes, mother hen. I'm fine and the little girl's fine. Just lucky for her that the pod I found her in was airtight and tough enough to withstand reentry." Tony sits up on his elbows and eyes Steve over the length of his body. "Are you going to buy me dinner first?"

It takes Steve a moment to realize that he's covered the wound on Tony's thigh with his hand, measuring the breadth of it with his palm, feeling the heat and pulse beneath. Months back, Steve probably would have blushed and stammered and jerked his hand away.

Now, even though he can feel the back of his neck warm, he just raises an arch eyebrow and says, "Do I need to?"

Tony flirts the way he breathes--continuous and unconsciously, casually. Steve--doesn't; he's not good at easy exchanges, words that don't mean much, that are just meant as fun and to fill silence that would otherwise be awkward. But he thinks he can with Tony, maybe. Who better to practice on than the master? But the intense look Tony pins him with makes him nervous, until Tony's face splits with a wide grin, teeth white against his beard.

"Captain America," Tony says in a faux-shocked tone. "Did you just sass me?"

Steve smiles back and removes his hand as unobtrusively as possible, because the idea that maybe he's
not being casual when he flirts, that maybe it's easier with Tony because Steve sort of maybe means it just a little, sits weighted in the back of his mind.

"Shouldn't you have gone back to SHIELD?"

"They have my report. Besides, what are they going to do with a kid? Throw her in a lab and study her? That's crap--uh, crazy. Is 'crap' okay? I don't know where you draw the line at swear word severity."

"What about mysterious killer space germs?"

"We've both been through decontamination, what do you take me for? I science responsibly and that is so a verb."

Tony lifts his legs free of the last of the armor, scoots away from the pile of red and gold metal, then plants his feet and stretches, arms over his head, the arch of his back a graceful line. Steve stands up and then regrets it when he feels like he's looming. Tony's not small, but he's smaller, compact, sleek lines highlighted by the skintight underarmor. Steve is large in a way he barely comprehends himself, sometimes. On the battlefield he rarely notices, anymore. The war and the Howling Commandos broke him in in that regard, but in civilian life Steve finds himself aware of close spaces, of how many breakable things are around him, and with his enhanced strength just about everything is breakable.

Tony bounces to his feet and then climbs up on Steve's bed and crosses a sagging hazard of sheets and old quilt so he can inspect the long wall it's shoved against. "This is gorgeous."

He's talking to the mural of the New York skyline that Steve's drawn on the white paint. It started in brown--because that was the color Steve could find at the time, and he wanted to capture the image before he forgot it, once he realized there were bits of it he already couldn't remember. The skyline how he remembers it. It's overlayed in black--charcoal pencil--the modern day arrangement, tall buildings with harsh, straight lines. The black is crowded more closely together, but it's a bit of a comfort to see that there are still recognizable shapes.

Steve's never going to get his deposit for the apartment back, but he thinks it was worth it, and he can afford the extra it will cost to get it cleaned up and painted over if he ever moves.

"Hey." Tony pokes an empty patch. "Stark Tower should be here."

"I'll add it," Steve promises, and then has to resist flailing just to draw Tony's attention, because he's staring at Steve's messy sketch with the intensity he usually reserves for tricky math equations or particularly baffling experiments from Dr. Banner--interesting things, things that make Tony's whirlwind mind pause and take note and that makes Steve itch under his skin, nervous and hot all over.

"Are you going to put in any color?"

Steve shrugs, then tries to get them back on track. "Tony, not to be rude but--"

"Oh be rude, please." Tony tosses a wicked smile over his shoulder. "I like it when you're rude."

That's a patented lie. Tony gets defensively angry with Steve faster than with anyone else, but now's not the time to bring that up. "Why are you here? I mean, not that I don't want to help you, but..."

"It's obvious, isn't it?" Tony turns away from the wall, finally, and drops back down to the floor. "Apple pie, white picket fences, mom and dad with the kids and the dog."

"What?"

"Things that America stands for."

Steve tries, he really does, to make the same leap of logic that Tony has, whatever makes Tony believe that string of words to be anything like an answer, but he just can't. "What?"

Tony tilts his head. "I figured you'd be good with kids. God knows I don't have a clue."

"You're here because you think I'm good with children?"

"Well, aren't you?"

"I--no." Steve wishes there was something he could say to soften that truth, but there isn't. "No, I'm not. What have I ever said or done that made you think otherwise?"

Tony has no answer besides a very disbelieving look. "You're not good with kids?"

"No. Sorry." That doesn't seem to be enough, so Steve tries to elaborate. "When I was a kid, other kids were just bullies. After the serum, well, they're just--they look really fragile and I can snap steel rods in half by accident. Mothers would hand me babies anyway."

"Well, see--"

"They'd start crying."

Tony swallows the rest of his sentence and then looks slightly amused under all the distress. "Poor Cap. Punched Hitler in the face, but babies are scary."

"He wasn't actually Hitler," Steve huffs. "His name was Bert. He'd worked in a steel mill but he'd always wanted to try acting."

"That's just sad."

Steve knows Tony means it sarcastically, but suddenly he does feel a little maudlin. Bert had taught him how to whistle and how to laugh at the spectacle they made of themselves every time they were on stage and he'd been sweet on Betty, a pretty blonde who hadn't given him the time of day. He's dead and gone now, like everyone else. Everyone but Steve.

"Well, shit. What am I supposed to do, now?"

Steve rallies, pulling himself back to the present. "There must be someone else. What about Ms. Potts?"

"Pepper doesn't hate kids or anything, but she's not really what you would call kid-oriented." Tony runs his hands a few times through his hair and then clutches it, staring out the window at the still solidly-dark morning.

"Agent Romanov?"

"Steve." The look Tony gives him is full of incredulous dismay. "Natasha? Really? Are you just naming women we know?"

"No! I--" Except he is. "I didn't mean..."

"Don't worry. I won't tell."

There are some things in this century Steve doesn't like, but there are other things he does, like the fact that he's called out on his casually sexist assumptions, even if it makes his cheeks heat with shame. Peggy would have liked that. It barely even feels like a monster slashing at his heart to think about her anymore. Steve tries to take that as a good sign, even though it sort of feels like betrayal. Even though he can never quite tell if he's moving on or just getting more apathetic.

"Okay. So. Kids. It can't be too hard, right? People dumber than us raise kids all the time. Not much to them. Just feed them, water them, distract them with shiny things and make sure they aren't alone for too long. Speaking of which, how long has tiny-spawn been by herself in your kitchen?"

Too long. Steve flings the door open and is greeting by the sight of the kid, naked and covered in swaths of color, standing on top of Steve's refrigerator, eyes gleaming with determination and the complete belief in immortality that a lot of kids seem to have.

"Wow, like a spider, or a monkey. A spider-monkey." Tony says. "Also, not a girl, huh."

"You didn't know before?" Steve demands as he lunges across the room, just in time to intercept the kid--the boy kid--on his way to the ground.

"Seemed rude to check," Tony says in a way that's much too sedate for Steve's liking, as the boy shrieks with delight and clambers over him, all arms and legs or--more accurately--sharp elbows and knobby knees, until he's settled on Steve's shoulders, hands fisted in Steve's hair.

There's a faint click and a flash of light and Steve looks in Tony's direction. Tony has a completely innocent look, hands tucked behind his back.

"Did you take a picture?" Steve asks.

"No."

"Because if you took a picture I'm going to break your camera. Or phone. Or tiny computer-whatever is storing that picture right now."

"I didn't take a picture, Steve, jeez!"

But Steve knows that look. That look says, "yes, I took a picture and just somehow managed to cc it to every single person we know and possibly also post it on some sort of interweb open forum for the world to see."

"Oh hey, that's a lot of black." Tony has approached the table and is looking at the scribbles the boy has made on the paper Steve left for him. "A lot of black."

It is a lot of black. Whole sheets covered in nothing but sweeps of the black crayon. The rest of the colors seem to have ended up smeared all over their young guest. Those are oil-based pigments. It's going to take soap to get them off.

"Maybe because of being lost in space for so long?" Steve hazards, too busy trying to carefully maneuver the boy off his shoulders and down to the safety of the floor to really pay attention.

"That looks like eyes. And teeth."

Eyes in the darkness, and teeth, and the rest of whoever had been aboard that space vessel had looked like they'd been ripped apart by wild animals. Steve has read enough sci-fi to know that's not a good sign. He hopes SHIELD is handling it.

"Well, if there is something, it's up there, and we're down here, and we should probably focus on doing right by the kid and--we don't even know his name!"

The kid shrieks a high-pitched, gleeful war cry and swan dives sideways off Steve's shoulders. Steve twists, catches him and sets him on his feet. The boy immediately tries to climb Steve like he's a tree, both skinny legs wrapped around him and surprisingly strong grip latched on to Steve's shirt.

"Hold on there, spider-monkey," Tony says, stepping forward and peeling the kid away. The kid looks rebellious, and instead tries to climb Tony, who gives Steve an annoyed look like this is somehow his fault. "This is not an improvement. Ouch!"

Both Tony and the boy look surprised that one of his heels has managed to find a tender spot. The boy slips back down to the floor in a nimble slide, turning big, contrite eyes up, his hands petting at Tony's hip like one would sooth a wounded animal.

Steve crouches down to make himself small and then says gently, "Tony's hurt, so we should be nice to him, okay?"

The boy nods solemnly, while Tony grumbles about how he's not a China doll, jeez Steve.

"I'm Steve. What's your name?"

The boy chews his lower lip for a moment, and then holds out his arm, presenting his inner wrist. Curious, Steve takes his wrist carefully, large fingers enfolding the small bones, and then notices a bar code tattooed on the soft skin there, his thumb brushing a rough spot just above a string of numbers over the rectangle of bars.

"There's a microchip under there. I scanned it, but all I got back was gibberish. Encoded. JARVIS is working on it."

Tony has got his hands propped on his knees, head bent to take a closer look at the boy's wrist. He's near enough that Steve can smell him--scorched metal and expensive cologne. He tells himself to stop noticing these things and focus. The ink on the boy's wrist is crisp, new. It must have hurt, putting it on. Abruptly, Steve feels that low-burning anger, the one that makes him pick up his shield and head out into the world when there are some days he'd rather curl up and not move for a while. He wants to protect this boy, even if he has no idea how, or from what.

There are three letters and a number that's set slightly to the side of the rest of the string of only numbers above the barcode, a bit larger than the rest, spelling out PT3R.

"Peter," Steve says and both the boy and Tony look at him curiously. "Is that all right? Can I call you Peter?"

The boy seems to think about that for a moment, and then he grins, wide and bright.

"I think that's a 'yes'," Tony says, and straightens. "Okay, it's settled. Now I think it's time for Uncle Steve to take you for a bath while Tony tries to find you some clothes."

Steve blinks. "What?"

Peter pins Steve with a look of wide-eyed rebellion.

"Chop chop," says Tony and pulls out a phone from--somewhere. Steve thinks he sews spare ones into his clothes.

Getting Peter to take a bath is an...experience. An experience that ends with Peter dripping wet and streaking through the house--clean, at least, this time, Steve following behind, desperately trying to keep the boy from slipping and cracking his head open. Steve is just as wet but, thankfully, still fully clothed. Tony doesn't even bother looking up from where he's sprawled in Steve's comfy chair as Peter runs circles around him, yelling at the top of his lungs. Tony's changed into the clothes that Steve offered him earlier and looks completely at home, tapping away at the touch screen on his phone.

"Tony," Steve says, pulling to a stop after two circuits of the chair, exasperated and dripping. "Some help?"

Tony sticks his arm out and catches Peter on his next go-round. In retaliation, Peter clambers aboard Tony and shakes like a wet dog, long hair flinging water droplets in all directions.

"Ew, God, no!" Tony flails dramatically. "I've been slimed! Oh the humanity! This is cruel beyond imagining!"

This, of course, just makes Peter break down into delighted laughter, and he dives his head into Tony's chest, trying to get him wetter. There's a faint clunk and Tony goes "oof!" and then Peter sits up again, rubbing his forehead and frowning. The pain of hitting his head on the arc reactor only puts him off for a second. Then small, inquisitive fingers are feeling out the round metal edge under Tony's shirt.

"Hey, that tickles!"

Steve scoops Peter up in his biggest, fluffiest towel before he can do Tony any actual harm, and dries him off mainly by just trying to hold him still.

When he sets Peter on his feet, the boy drops abruptly and for a few seconds Steve is afraid that he's been hurt, somehow, but then there's slow, deliberate slithering movement under the towel and a soft hissing sound. Steve, after a few bemused moments, leaves him to it.

"So he's a slug now?" Tony asks, and holds up a shopping bag--one of the plastic-y types with sharp edges and silk rope handles.

"A snake, I think. What's this?" Steve peaks inside and sees several outfits-worth of shirts and pants in Peter's size, or close approximation. "How--?"

"Clothes fairy," Tony says.

"Ms. Potts?"

"Pepper," Tony confirms, looking only a little disgruntled at having been revealed.

Ms. Potts is paid an incredibly large salary, but sometimes Steve still thinks she deserves a raise. It's not even six o'clock in the morning, and it must have been a very odd phone call. Steve can't imagine how Tony managed to explain it.

"Why didn't she bring clothes for you?" Steve asks, sorting through the neatly folded selection. There's underthings and socks, too, and a stack of boxes on the coffee table that are probably shoes.

"She did."

Steve wants to question that, but Tony looks like his hackles are up, so Steve sets about transforming their towel-snake into a real boy, and getting himself changed into something that doesn't look like he took an ill-conceived walk into a swimming pool. When he comes back out, Tony is wearing jeans that must be his because they're not slipping off his hips, but his shirt is Steve's--too-large and sporting the SHIELD logo. He declares that if he doesn't get coffee he's going to die.

Steve completely forgot about the coffee. He offers to start the water boiling, but Tony slips on his sunglasses--the ones with the red lenses--offers a similar pair to Peter, these with pale blue lenses, and declares they're going out.

Chapter Text

New York in the morning almost feels like home. The smell of damp concrete and steel, faint sewage, the car traffic gone quiet. Well, quiet-ish. Steve can stand on the street and take a deep breath and pretend he's not so far away from home that he can barely find his way around the city he spent his whole life in, anymore.

"Hey," Tony says as he steps up, not even looking at the street, eyes on his phone as his thumbs tap away at the screen. "Find us a place to eat, Brooklyn Kid."

Abruptly, Steve feels grounded again, because this--this he can do. "What would you like?"

Peter is staring at the little fences around each of the trees that line the road like they're a personal challenge.

The look Tony gives him is hard with spite and hazy with sleep deprivation, even as he leans into Steve, the lines of their bodies pressing together. "Co-ffee," he says, pulling the word into emphatic, scornful syllables. "Everything else negligible, Rogers." Then he straightens and gives a sharp whistle, like a person might call a dog, and Steve follows his line of sight to see Peter freeze in the act of putting his foot on the rung of the tree-fence, hands gripping the bars. "If you get your foot stuck we're leaving you here, monkey face."

Peter seems to consider that carefully.

"Then no pancakes for you," Tony says, eyes back on his phone.

Steve can't stand the sad look Peter throws in Tony's direction, so he scoops Peter up and swings him around a few times until he seems to forget about climbing anything but Steve.

They reach the diner in working order, Peter on the seat of honor that is Steve's shoulders, the heels of his brand new sneakers kicking lightly at Steve's pec muscles. Steve can smell the new rubber and is almost as fascinated as Peter is at the way the soles light up on impact.

"I could make something better," Tony says.

"No rocket boots."

"They'd be perfectly safe--"

"No, Tony."

The place is small and wasted none of the budget on decorating. The seats for the outdoor area are plastic, as are the tables. On the inside, the floor--while clean--is that gray color that comes from years of wear, and there's tacky chili lights that Steve thought were charming strung around the edge of the small dining area and strung in the rafters. He's holding his breath at the thought of Tony seeing and saying something snide.

But the smells from the kitchen are mouthwatering, and Tony doesn't comment on the décor at all. Instead, his head comes up at the first whiff of coffee--very good coffee in Steve's admittedly limited estimate--and he tries to make a beeline toward the first available pot, which is actually being carried by a passing waitress. Steve has to physically hold him back, and make him sit on one of the benches along the wall for people who are waiting for a table.

Peter is fascinated by the crayon drawings that cover the walls in the waiting area. Most are childish scribbles, but even so, Steve thinks they're lovely. There's one or two scattered through that are obviously done by a more adult hand, and Steve envies the colors. The waiter that takes their names offers Peter a piece of paper and a plastic cup of crayons, and apparently that's tempting enough to lure the boy off Steve's shoulders and on to the floor where he promptly places his paper and begins coloring.

In the transition, Steve's lost track of Tony, and when Steve spots him, he's leaning on the countertop that rings the open griddle and coffee machines, talking to one of the waitresses guarding the caffeine-filled carafes. There's steel gray streaking her hair, which is pulled back into a no-nonsense bun and a stern line creases her face between her eyebrows. She's a study in solid, square lines, as immovable as a wall, but Tony's got his most charming smile on, one that is somehow not dimmed by the scruff of his usually meticulous beard or his oversized, worn t-shirt and old, soft jeans. He's wearing red high tops, the only splash of usual Tony Stark flamboyancy in his outfit.

So Steve's not particularly surprised when Tony returns triumphant with a hot cup of coffee. He is, however, surprised that he's brought back a cup for Steve, too, black, with two spoonfuls of sugar. Steve takes it, holding it in his hands and remembering Sunday mornings with his mother--after early morning mass, when the bitter coffee and precious sugar had been a treat. Tony sprawls beside him, propping himself up against Steve's shoulder, one hand holding his cup and the other manipulating his phone.

It's early and it's a weekday, so there's a minimal wait, made quicker by Steve's agreement to sit at the counter instead of waiting for a booth or a table. He has to scoop Peter up and carry him to their waiting stools, because he won't abandon his picture even to walk.

"You're spoiling him," Tony says absently, eyes still on his phone, the fingertips of one hand tapping away, the others cupped protectively around his coffee.

Steve frowns, not sure if he agrees, but also not willing to argue about it. Instead, he ignores Tony as he settles Peter on his other side, only a little worried that Tony might be right and that Peter won't stop drawing to engage anyone and then what will they do? What do parents normally do?

Steve's worry seems needless, however, because the little redheaded girl beside Peter drops her doll and Peter hops down to get it, scrambling back up to his seat with a nimbleness that Steve is beginning to recognize as innate. She smiles and Peter grins back. Then there is a solemn exchange of a green crayon for a blue one, and Steve is slightly embarrassed to realize that Peter may be better at interacting with his own age group than Steve. Certainly better than Tony.

Speaking of whom, Steve turns back to find that Tony is ordering for them in Spanish, fluently, grin flirtatious. That's Tony's default, so it's not bothersome. What is annoying is their waiter's return smile that says Tony might actually be successful. The boy's willowy-thin, but has relatively broad shoulders for his smallish frame, younger than Tony usually likes them, silver hoop in one eyebrow and more following the outer curve of his ears.

Steve could take him in fight, no problem. He'd probably start by grabbing a handful of that flashy metal an putting the kid in a headlock and--

Oh god, Rogers, stop thinking of beating up innocent--sort of, relatively innocent--civilian kids because they're smiling at the guy you sort of maybe have a thing for, you great big lout.

Steve consciously unclenches his hands from the countertop, and then flushes when he catches the waiter's knowing smirk. It's embarrassing enough finding himself with these kinds of thoughts; it's more than humiliating when other people notice them.

"And what about you, Bambi?" the waiter addresses Peter, accent heavy but English perfectly understandable.

"Er, he doesn't..." Steve starts, trying to explain that they haven't yet seen Peter even attempt actual words.

But Peter's expression says that this is a Very Important Decision, one that gets him to set down his all-important crayons and give his full attention to their server. Then he straightens and makes a very deliberate set of moments with his hands, like he scooped something up from his palm and then flipped it over to lay it flat again against his hand.

"Pancakes, huh?" the waiter says without preamble. "Good choice. You want bacon with that? Or sausage?"

Peter tilts his head, then makes a quick movement with both hands again, this one like he's caught a rabbit by the ears--represented by the pointer and middle finger of one hand--only to have it slip away.

"Both?" Their waiter scoffs, expression teasing. "Where are you going to put all that in that skinny body of yours?"

Steve finds himself gaping a little. He's afraid this is another one of those things, those future things that everyone just knows but him.

Peter's next reply is one Steve actually knows. He sticks his tongue out.

The waiter laughs. "Okay, Bambi, okay. You want hot chocolate, too? You look like a hot chocolate kind of man."

Peter nods, then touches his chin with all four fingertips before presenting his palm in a downward arc.

"You're welcome."

"Huh," Tony says. Steve glances at him and sees that he's stopped looking at his phone to watch the exchange. He's got that look that says there's something unexpected happening, and Steve's relieved to know that he's not the only one out of the loop. "Sign language."

"Yeah, my cousin taught me. So," the waiter looks at his list, "two specials, pancakes with bacon and sausage, hot chocolate and...more coffee?"

"You could probably just leave the pot."

Their waiter smirks. "More coffee."

Then he's gone, and Peter's returned to his drawing, kicking his heels against the rungs of the stool, expression content, humming quietly.

"Sign language?" Steve asks Tony.

"Yeah, I think so. That's what it looked like. I dated a deaf girl, once."

Of course.

Steve manages not to roll his eyes but only just. "So Peter's...deaf?" But even as he says it, it doesn't sound right.

"No, I don't think so. They use sign language in early development these days. And with monkeys."

"Monkeys?"

"He's not mute, clearly."

Steve tries to get his mind off of signing monkeys. "How old do you think he is?"

"We could always ask. Hey, Pete!"

Peter looks at them, eyebrows up, questioning.

"How old are you?"

Peter shrugs, then goes back to drawing with an expression that suggests they shouldn't interrupt him with things that are aren't worth his time. Steve's seen that exact same look on Tony's face when he's in the lab more than once. It makes him smile. Then also makes him worry, a little.

"Well, that was no help."

Breakfast arrives. Whatever Tony ordered for them comes with an egg over a mess of rice and beans with a flatbread-grilled-grain-something on the side. It's spicy and a bit messy and perfect. Peter tucks into his tall stack of pancakes with a gusto that says he also approves of the food selections.

Steve's phone chimes. It's Clint. Cute kid! Give him back to his mother before Stark corrupts him Hes already sans clothes Booze and loose women cant be far behind -CB

Steve is halfway through answering, He doesn't have a mother-- before he stops to think that maybe that's opening the way for a whole barrage of questions he doesn't have answers for.

"Who's that? Clint? Gimme." Tony steals his phone with no regard for personal property. It's StarkTech so maybe there's some gray area of ownership there, and Steve has given up trying to stop Tony's casual theft, anyway. It's the definition of futility.

"I thought you said you didn't take a picture."

"I lied," Tony says, not even bothering to sound abashed. "Clint says he thinks Peter looks about six or seven. Maybe a very small eight."

"Clint knows kids?"

"He was raised in a circus."

Now Steve is almost certain Tony is lying, but even more importantly, "How does that help us?"

"Kids like circuses."

Steve supposes that's close enough to logic to count for something. "Does he know anything about sign language?"

It turns out that he does not. At least, nothing like American Standard, which Tony says he thinks is what Peter is using. Clint and Black Widow have some sort of secret code of hand signals that they use on missions, but Tony reports, "He could teach it to us, but then he'd have to kill us."

"What would be the point?" Steve asks, confused.

"Exactly."

Steve's still missing something--he guesses some kind of pop culture reference--so he lets it go and polishes off his breakfast and half of Tony's too. Peter has abandoned drawing for sculpture, using the last half of an uneaten pancake and a handful of toothpicks to build a little fort on his plate with a syrup moat. His flapjack castle is besieged by the fork and knife, and the napkin is also involved somehow, though Steve's not entirely sure how.

When the check comes, Steve pays for it, glaring Tony's protests into silence. Peter's picture--streaks of red and black and blue--gets taped to the wall with the other amateur artwork, and then they're back out onto the street, Peter and Tony sporting their matching shades and Steve squinting into the sun. Peter, small hand curled contentedly in Steve's larger one, gives him a concerned look before offering his own glasses for Steve's eye protection.

"Oh, no thank you," Steve says, but Peter gets a stubborn look that says he's about to start arguing--loudly, even though he doesn't have words to articulate, so Steve hastily takes the sunglasses from him and puts them on.

Peter looks satisfied, and Steve is relieved at the near-crisis averted. Of course, Peter's next move is to tug on Tony's hand and make grabby gestures toward him.

"Huh?" Tony takes his eyes off his phone and frowns at Peter, whose hands flick through a series of deliberate motions that Steve is beginning to recognize as a language even though he can't interpret it. "Sunglasses? Mine? What happened to yours..." Then he glances at Steve and the look that settles on his features makes Steve feel like he stole something important from a helpless person. "Oh, I see how it is."

"Sorry," Steve says, immediately taking the glasses off again. "I just...he wanted me to..."

"No no, that's fine." Tony pockets his phone and scoops Peter up in one smooth gesture, taking off the red-tinted shades and dropping them on Peter's face. Peter makes a bright, happy sound and seizes them in a firm grip to settle them properly on his ears.

"Really," Steve continues doggedly, still holding the glasses out to Tony. "Take them back. You can wear them. They're yours, anyway."

"Ew, no. Blue is not my color. Besides, those aren't mine. They're Peter's, and are you really going to refuse a gift, Cap? You'll make the kid sad." He looks at Peter. "Cap doesn't want your sunglasses, spider-monkey," Tony tells him mournfully.

Peter looks at Steve, lower lip wobbling slightly. Steve puts the sunglasses on. "No, I--! They're great. Thanks."

Tony and Peter have identical grins, and Steve has the distinct sense that he's been played, but somehow, the world is tinted in pale blue and he doesn't actually care, much.

Which is probably why he gets in the cab that Tony hails without asking where they're going. Peter explores everything with nimble, questioning fingertips, like he's never seen the inside of a cab before. Tony makes faces at--Steve assumes--the idea that other people have touched the same things he is currently also touching, and Steve makes friends with the cabby because he's genuinely interested in the man's four children and wife who makes excellent curry and terrible casseroles.

Almost a half hour later and across the Bridge, they're getting out somewhere in Lower Manhattan, on a street full of shops that don't look entirely awake, yet, before Steve tries to find out what they're doing.

"Equalizing assets," Tony says and doesn't explain.

Steve doesn't ask for clarification because sometimes it's necessary to claw through the tangle of Tony's brilliant mind for mutual understanding, and sometimes it's just fun to go with the flow and not worry. It took a long time for Steve to understand that.

Tony, in worn jeans and a ratty t-shirt too big for him, waltzes through the glitz doors of a store that is obviously not yet open to the public, and doesn't look at all out of place among merchandise that Steve is afraid to even stand close to, everything looks so expensive. It's still fairly early, and although employees are present, the lights are dimmed and some of the displays are empty, items still locked away for safe keeping during the night.

Steve thinks he has a pretty good idea what they're doing here when Tony heads straight for a display of sunglasses.

When they step back outside, Tony's got new yellow-tinted shades in the same style as Peter and Steve, custom fitted on the spot. It's an extravagance that makes Steve wince but doesn't even seem to register for Tony.

"Where to now, Mama Bear?" Tony asks and then, without waiting for an answer, continues, "There's a few arcades we could check out--one on Coney Island that's pretty awesome. Lots of old school games. Peter should get a solid education on things that matter."

Steve looks up at what he can see of the blue sky and feels a vague horror at the thought to being trapped in dimly lit spaces with too many people pressed around him, bells and alarms and flashing lights, gunfire. Even fake gunfire doesn't sound appealing.

"I thought maybe the park."

"The park?" Tony echoes back, like Steve has suggested skinny dipping in raw sewage. "Like, outside? This is the City that Never Sleeps and you want us to take a stroll though nature?"

"What's wrong with the outdoors?"

"It's full of death. Have you watched the Discovery Chanel?"

"No?"

"Well, I have and I'm not letting lions eat my kid."

"Our kid," Steve corrects before thinking, and then flushes hot.

Tony only raises an eyebrow. "The kid," he insists stubbornly, then glances around. "Who is...where, exactly?"

Steve searches the area with growing horror when he realizes that he doesn't see Peter anywhere.

"Oh my god," Tony whimpers, "we are so bad at this."

Then there's gunfire and shattering glass and shouting. Steve takes off before it even registers, something deep and instinctive telling him that it's Peter and Peter's in trouble. He reaches for his shield and is almost startled to realize that he didn't bring it with him. Tony yells something after him, but the pounding of trainers on the sidewalk means that, despite questions or protests, he's close behind.

They round a corner and... Well, Steve is half right.

It is Peter, but he's not in trouble. Instead, he's standing in the midst of broken glass and fallen, thwarted jewelry thieves. The manager and employees of the near-victimized shop ring the little boy in a circle of dazed gratefulness. Peter's smile is huge and triumphant. He's showing off the blinking lights on his shoes and a woman who likely is a mother herself, from aplomb by which she deals with Peter's enthusiasm, is making appropriately impressed sounds.

"Oh," says Tony, taking in the scene, "Oh, he definitely got that from your side of the family."

"What...happened?"

No one is entirely sure, except maybe Peter--who can't or isn't bothering to articulate it--and the bad guys, who are all in various states of unconscious or babbling incoherence. Then there are cops and the media shows up and it's a circus. Tony smiles his "on camera" smile and pushes to the front, blocking Steve and Peter from prying eyes as much as he can. He's more successful at hiding Peter, who stands behind him gripping the back of his shirt, than Steve, who towers and finds himself glaring more than he should.

Steve's not great at dealing with the press, especially the modern press who all seem more viciously rude and invasive than what Steve encountered even during his days selling war bonds, but he's usually better than this. Protective feelings keep making his answers curt and his smiles more like a baring of teeth, until Tony reaches out and settles a hand on the small of his back, thumb rubbing soothing circles against his spine. It's both relaxing and then fills him with tension for an entirely different reason. He wills himself not to blush.

Tony's eyes are toward the front. Steve's not even sure he's consciously doing it, just responding to distress. Then Peter takes Steve's hand and looks up at him with a grin that says, "We're all right; it's okay," and the rest of the fight goes out of his shoulders and he just shuts up and lets Tony do his thing.

Eventually, they find themselves sitting in uncomfortable chairs at 9th Precinct, across from a Sergeant Donovan while Tony flirts shamelessly with her partner and what seems like the entire population of Manhattan cops stops by to dote on Peter. Meanwhile, Steve answers questions to help the good Sergeant get her paperwork in order, because Steve is the responsible one and everyone knows it.

Steve keeps his expression a bit hangdog and his tone apologetically "aw, shucks" in a way that's about 60% an act, feeling only slightly guilty about it. Sergeant Donovan looks like she doesn't entirely believe it, but is willing to indulge him, so that's fine. The bad guys were pretty clearly bad guys and Steve has been recognized as Captain America and there's a little awe and embarrassing hero worship in the eyes of some of the passing officers. Steve pretends not to notice, but he's not entirely above using it to his advantage, even if it makes him slightly uncomfortable. These people likely get shot at with as great a regularity as Steve, and they don't have bulletproof shields to protect them.

When he says as much, Sergeant Donovan grins at him. "Don't feed the puppies, Captain. They'll just follow you home and shit on your carpet."

"I think I have about as much of that as I can handle." Steve spears a meaningful look in Tony's direction.

"Peter, cover your ears," Tony says, and waits for one of the plainsclothes detectives to clap his hands protectively on either side of the boy's head before saying, "Fuck you very much, Rogers."

Eventually, the paperwork's done, interviews are complete, and the three of them spend half an hour chatting with New York's finest, drinking frankly awful coffee and signing Avengers paraphernalia as Tony arranges to have them sneaked out the back and the coppers run interference with the press that's gathered outside like a horde of undead from the movie that Tony chose for Team Building Night a few weeks back.

"I'm buying you guys better coffee makers," Tony says, staring morosely into the dregs of his NYPD mug. "This is barbaric."

"You'll hear no protest from me," their Captain says amicably, tapping his mug to Tony's in a show of commiseration.

"Bribery is illegal," Steve points out, just to see Tony make a face at him.

"I might consider going dirty for an espresso machine," the Captain says, deadpan.

"Done and done," Tony says.

Steve's phone buzzes and it's Natasha: Eagle in the dive. Which is code for SHIELD and/or Nick Fury unhappy and headed their way.

Clint's text to Tony doesn't bother with subtlety: Holy shit stark WHat did you DO??? Furys shitting whole chickens and coulsons gonna

And which point there's a text to both of them from Clint's phone: If either one of you end up in the news again today you will find out just how unpleasant your training exercises can become. Coulson doesn't even bother saying who he is, but Steve knows anyway.

Tasers man. Lots and lots of tasers. That's likely Clint again. Im taking one for the team just standing this close to him. You better be grateful.

Nano-intelligent, major-artery-seeking arrows, Steve sees Tony reply.

If youre shitting me I am pissing in your whiskey and not telling you which bottle.

Moose and Squirrel should find better shelter. That's Natasha. Moose and Squirrel being her code names for him and Tony. It's in reference to some cartoon and Steve doesn't really understand beyond that. Is Eagle aware of Baby Bear's presence?

"Is she talking about Peter?" Steve asks, showing Tony the text.

"More importantly, we should go." Tony's phone chimes again. "Oh good, that's Happy. Thank you, everyone, you were lovely," he announces to the room at large.

Steve sets his stance, holds out his arm and lets Peter climb him while Tony says their goodbyes and makes extravagant promises that he will, likely, actually fulfill. Pepper's going to either be highly amused or deeply annoyed. Steve decides to avoid her for a bit just to be on the safe side, and cultivate a completely innocent expression that he can hold when she inevitably asks, "What exactly happened down at that precinct?"

They're escorted into a back alley where a nondescript midrange car awaits them, Happy at the wheel. Peter clambers into the front seat from the back with a determination that's not to be deterred, shakes hands with Happy in a serious, adult away, and straps in without having to be told.

They get about two blocks when Happy announces they've got a tail. Steve glances behind them but can't see anything. Espionage is not really his forte. He's much better at just punching things in the face. He feels the absence of his shield again and almost asks they go back to his apartment to pick it up.

Tony just says, "Lose them."

"You've got it, boss."

It's a lot more sedate than Steve would've expected from the movies he's seen, or the driving in the army or, more recently, SHIELD. Happy--mostly--obeys the speed limit and the roadway laws in general. He's just incredibly sneaky--ducking down alleys and under bridges, pulling multiple turns with a deft touch of the wheel. Peter provides the chase noises--engines revving and tires screeching--but the actual event is rather calm and professional.

Tony loses himself in his phone. Steve makes himself look at the city and know it for who it is now. It's an exercise he's made himself do since the day he decided he was sticking around--first to run The Avengers, and then just because--well, because the urge to give up on everything had eased enough for him to see light in the shadows of his mind again, not just endless charcoal darkness blotting out all detail.

He's interrupted from maudlin thoughts by a weight along his side, and turns to see Tony asleep, slumped against him, phone balanced precariously on his lap, still glowing. Steve catches glimpse of scrolling gibberish--letters and symbols in no order that he can make any sense of, before it blanks and goes dark.

Tony at rest is a rare thing to see, and despite the fact that Steve's wearing sunglasses in the dim interior of the car, details come easy--the rough of Tony's beard, the sooty arcs of his lashes on his cheeks made darker by the bruises of exhaustion under his eyes, the wild hair still weirdly artful despite who knows how long since Tony's last shower, though he must have at least scrubbed his face in Steve's sink because the dried trickle of blood is gone. He's pale and battle-scuffed and obviously dead tired, but Steve's heart still stutters and his breath catches in his throat at the golden morning light that plays over his throat and touches his lips.

As Tony sighs and curls closer, Steve shifts ever so carefully and lifts an arm so that Tony fits just so against his side in a very slow version of the yawn-and-hug technique that's been around since Steve was first getting enthusiastic instructions from Bucky on how to make a move on a girl. Tony smells of warm male and motor oil and, faintly, the lingering notes of expensive cologne.

Peter's exclamation of delighted surprise startles both of them. Tony sits up. Steve pulls his arm back and tries to look like he wasn't doing anything untoward.

They've turned onto Sixth Avenue, a towering canyon of steel and glass in a straight line as far as the eye can perceive. The city is finally awake, and all its varied population is out and on the move. Peter's babble is an almost continuous noise as he points out every new thing that catches his interest. He signs at the same time and Tony, voice a tired blur, answers with things like,

"No, that's not her hair. That's a hat."

"The mouse is not alive. It's a doll."

"Yes, those are real bananas."

Until Peter climbs over the seat to sit in Tony's lap, obviously unhappy with the lag time between answers as Tony tries to see what Peter's seeing. If they're occupying the same space they'll obviously see the same things at the same time. Steve assumes that's Peter's logic, anyway. Tony squawks and grumbles, but makes room until the boy is settled in comfortably, Tony's arms wrapped around his waist to hold him steady as he twists and turns to look at the city, Tony's chin resting on a small shoulder so they can see things side-by-side.

I want a girl with a mind like a diamond, a man's voice states, making Steve blink. It seems to be coming from somewhere near his feet. I want a girl who knows what's best.

"Shoot, that's Pepper," Tony says in what sounds like a complete non sequitur. "Where's my phone?"

Then Steve understands that the man speaking with a rhythmic instrumental background is actually a ringtone, and shuffles his feet until he sees the gleam of metallic finish. Peter squeaks as Tony bends to reach for it at the same time.

I want a girl with shoes that cut.

"Yeah, hang on, spider-monkey," Tony says, almost knocking heads with Steve.

Peter squirms until he's on the floor of the car, scrambling between their feet until he comes up triumphant with Tony's phone.

And eyes that burn like cigarettes.

"Oh--thanks!" Tony holds out his hand, but Peter's grin turn mischievous and he scrambles into the front seat, holding the phone aloft like they're playing keep-away. "Hey, give that back, thief."

Tony reaches, but Peter leans back, and when Tony pursues, he lurches sideways to avoid capture, he bumps into Happy, who swerves slightly. Peter shrieks with laughter, flinging himself back against the dashboard to get out of Tony's reach.

She's putting up her hair, she's touring the facility...

"Peter, goddammit!" Tony snaps.

Peter goes quiet immediately, eyes wide. Steve sucks in a breath.

"Give me the phone," Tony says with careful control. Peter hands the phone over solemnly and then, as Tony slides back into his seat, slinks carefully into the back so he can sit on Steve's lap.

I want a girl with a short skirt and a lonnnng--

"Hi, Pep, sorry. No, I'm not busy, what's going on?"

Steve tunes Tony out as the conversation continues, partly because it's none of his business, and partly because Peter is comparing their hands, tracing Steve's life line over and over.

"So," says Tony after he hangs up and there's been an uncomfortable stretch of silence. "The park."

"Yes?"

"You wanted to go. That's probably a good idea. I bet Happy can find you a park."

"Sure, Mr. Stark," Happy says amicably from the front.

Steve isn't sure what this is. An apology? A change of subject to hopefully steer them past the sudden tension? There's something in Tony's voice that Steve can't read, and whatever it is makes him nervous. Peter must be aware of something off, too, because he remains still and silent in Steve's lap, watching Tony raptly. Tony doesn't look at either one of them, head turned away, presumably staring out the window at the city beyond.

"Tony..."

But then Happy is dropping them off near a wide swatch of grass oasis at rest amidst a towering of buildings and Tony isn't moving to join them.

"Coming with?" Steve asks, holding a quiet Peter by the hand and resisting the urge to reach into the car and drag Tony out by the collar, or at least make him look Steve in the eye again.

"Nah, duty calls," Tony waggled his phone, which Steve took to mean there's something at SI that needs his personal attention. "Peter's better off with you, anyway."

That's--there's something off about that sentence, something final. The car is pulling away from the curb and getting lost in the stream of traffic before Steve realizes that Tony doesn't have any intention of coming back. A sudden stab of anger takes Steve by surprise, a clean, sharp feeling that almost immediately curdles, muddled by bewilderment and disappointment--and concern. He has no idea what sent Tony into skittish flight.

Peter makes an inquiring sound at his side and all that switches again into panic--because what is he supposed to do with the kid? How is Steve supposed to handle him? Then he feels ashamed at even thinking that thought, because none of this is Peter's fault.

He pushes all of it away and summons a smile as he looks down at the boy. "Let's go look at the fountain, okay?"

Chapter Text

Peter gets distracted by the carousel, even though it's past the fountain, further into the park, and then is bitterly disappointed that it isn't open, yet. Steve finds himself slightly overwhelmed at how early it is, how many hours he has to fill, to keep Peter entertained, though he also thinks it's rather lucky that Peter is decent at occupying himself. After only a brief pout over the carousel, it's back to the fountain, where Steve has to catch him before he flings himself into the watery depths on a quest to touch the shining coins at the bottom. Well, "depths" is a slight exaggeration, but Steve feels a bit like he's just averted a disaster that requires dire wording.

When the water ceases to be fascinating, Peter's off and running toward a couple of men who are playing catch with their dogs. Steve scoops him up before he manages to tackle anything--two or four-legged--and then has an apologetic but ultimately warm conversation with David and his partner-of-seven-years John, while Peter rolls on the grass with Sundance and Butch.

So it goes, Peter exploring everything full-tilt, no-holds-barred and Steve just attempting to keep up and make sure there's a safety net wherever and whenever Peter needs it--which he never quite does, though there are some close calls--especially when Steve glances away for a moment and Peter decides that means he should attempt to climb the monument for Gertrude Stein. It's not unlike working with Tony, actually, something that makes Steve's chest ache a little.

As if summoned by the thought, Steve's phone buzzes and it's Tony.

everything ok?

Texting is still challenging--the small buttons, the hunt for the correct letters, and Steve's sudden anger doesn't make it easier, but he manages, where r u and then feels a little silly about substituting letters for words, because Tony always gives him a disappointed look when he does it.

But he's not particularly happy with Tony at the moment, so.

meeting

It is unlike Tony to forgo capitalization and punctuation, which Steve's always found odd because Tony is not averse to cutting what he considers "unnecessary corners" in all other aspects of his life. It's something from his upbringing, maybe. Not Howard. Steve had to puzzle through enough of the elder Stark's chicken scratch to know Howard had only bare minimum respect for the rules of writing on the best of days. Mrs. Stark, perhaps.

when r u coming back?

There's a much longer pause before Tony answers, during which Peter comes over holding a bright fuchsia Gerbera daisy, and Steve has to locate its origins--it turns out to be a flower kiosk, manned by a soft-hearted woman who refuses Steve's offer to pay for Peter's flower. So, instead, he buys a sunny bunch of yellow carnations, though he feels silly carrying them around afterward.

call you later, is Tony's reply.

By this time the carousel is opened, and Steve pokes at his phone, juggling it in one hand and the flowers in the other, until he figures out how to access the camera. Then he takes a picture of Peter on the bunny-horse-thing--which Steve finds slightly creepy but Peter insisted upon--and sends it to Tony.

we miss u

There's only a slightly long-ish pause this time, before Steve's phone buzzes with Tony's answer.

I'm miss-able. Very miss-able. Also, what is the monkey RIDING? If you've got monster rabbits call Bruce. Giant mutant things united, right? Or Hawkeye. He'd love that. Promise.

liar

Steve doesn't get a reply, but it doesn't matter. He feels lighter, just a little. Tony sounds like himself again. Steve still wants to take him by the shoulders and shake him until he divulges all his secrets, a map of the pitfalls and tiger traps and tripwires of his personality that can open spike-filled cavities of insecurity or blindside a man with hot flashes of rage, but that's pretty much on par for the course. It almost feels homey.

By the time Peter's done with the carousel it's lunchtime. They get hotdogs and sit outside in a little cafe area, both of them eating with a single-minded focus that doesn't allow for much chitchat. Steve's getting better at recognizing Peter's more frequently used signs: "thank you," "you're welcome," "what's that?"--a flick of fingers that usually leads to Peter darting away and flinging himself headlong at something new, which is pretty much everything.

Steve wonders at how sheltered Peter's been, and at how he's managed it. Steve was frozen for seventy years and even he feels well-informed next to the boy's gaping vacuum of knowledge. Even the most common placed things seem to be new to him. He'd cooed curiously over his hotdogs for a good five minutes, taking them apart and putting them back together and then watching raptly as Steve cleaned him off and then demonstrated how to eat one properly.

It also makes him wonder at Peter's bravery. When Steve had first stumbled into this loud, bright, fast land of strangers it had taken him a while to feel comfortable, to venture into new territory, and he considered himself a pretty adaptable guy. But Peter seems completely unafraid of anything, and that makes Steve feel slightly ashamed of the way he still flinches from parts of this new world, occasionally.

Like the people. Steve loves people. He loves them for their failings as much as for their talents. Usually one wasn't nearly as interesting without the other. For instance, Tony's brilliance would not shine as bright if he didn't have the tendency to completely lose himself to the world for days while inventing. Tony's moments of vast compassion wouldn't be nearly as precious if not bracketed by his sarcastic dissension.

Steve tries not to make everything about Tony, but it's hard.

Steve loves people, but he loves them on a one-to-one basis, when he can focus his attention on a single person and learn everything he can about them. The traffic of the park has picked up a great deal since he and Peter arrived, and although the space is open enough that it shouldn't feel crowded, Steve can feel the press of people all around him like a physical force.

And it hadn't always been this way. Steve had been, at one time, just as at home on a busy street, dodging and weaving through foot traffic and cars which--while not as prevalent then--had still had a lot of presence on the city streets. But now everything was so...much. Everyone seemed to be having about six conversations at once with three different people on two different devices while also listening to music and shopping and playing a game. It's difficult to know how to breathe in this century, sometimes, how to move without tripping or bumping into someone.

It's harder, now, to see past that wall of multi-tasking and technology, to the person underneath, where the flaws are made lovely by knowledge of how they form the whole picture.

Or maybe he just misses Tony.

Tony, who brings technology to heel, who walks like he can move the world, rather than the world moving him--and he's often right. Tony, who made this century--not easier per se, but definitely more fun.

Tony, who abandoned a child that was his responsibility to Steve's care with no real promise to come back. But, Steve realizes, he never needed a spoken reassurance from Tony because he's steadily sure, under the vague panic and lingering anger, that Tony will return on his own. That's Tony's big picture, the sketch of lines forming a whole image. Tony might fly, but when it's important, he'll always come back.

Steve just has to wait him out, with the patience he learned in foxholes. Maybe it isn't that dire, but Steve's heart beats harder whenever he's near the other man, and he finds his eyes drawn to Tony every time he enters a room and lingers on him when he leaving, so maybe it is.

In the meantime, he'll try to learn to love this city again. Peter actually makes it easier, with his wide-eyed wonder and seeming endless enjoyment of everything. He certainly keeps Steve on his toes, anyway, with his uncanny ability to hone in on danger. Take, for instance, the alert look he's currently giving the middle distance.

Steve has enough time to notice and straighten before the boy is off like a shot. Steve pauses only to gather up their trash and throw it into the nearest bin, and then he's hot on Peter's trail. The boy is making a break for the street--during lunchtime rush hour and Steve's heart clenches in his chest when he takes that step off the curb that puts him immediately in the path of an oncoming car.

"Peter!"

Steve lunges and misses, and then there's a confusion of honking and screeching wheels and Steve is muttering apologies under his breath, even as he physically knocks an oncoming taxi aside to keep the way clear.

Somehow, they're across the street, and Steve breathes, everything in him prepared to scoop the boy up and yell at him, and then hug him and then possibly yell at him some more. He would do just that if Peter weren't still in motion, darting past trash bin, down a narrow alley.

The bricks scrape Steve's shoulder as he lurches after the flip of brown hair and indignant yell from a small throat, and suddenly Peter is up in the air, both feet off the ground in what is a truly impressive leap which lands him feet first on top of a large man, sending all three of them--the large man, another, older gentleman that the first man had by the arm, and Peter, sprawling onto the street.

Steve...slows for just a moment, trying to make sense of things. Then he's diving into the fray, getting everyone separated, trying to figure out what's happening and to calm everyone down.

The large man slashes at him with an impressive-looking knife, and things become clearer.

Peter bites the fella's knee and he's growling.

The thief or--whatever, bad guy, yells, and then there's a mad scramble, which Steve ends by picking the attacker up by the scruff and tossing him against the wall.

Then Steve sits on him--literally for a time--until the police show up while the man they saved--an older gentleman who owns a barber shop a few blocks away and had just stepped out for lunch--gives his testimony, and to Peter a few sweets that he keeps for the kids that come to his shop and plenty of praise.

Some of the good officers look familiar from his and Tony's earlier trip to the precinct, and some of them send Steve amused little smirks, but for his pride's sake, Steve pretends not to notice.

"Do we need to get you to a hospital, Cap?" one of the coppers asks, making a gesture toward his arm.

Steve looks down and sees a long, thin cut that's bleeding sluggishly. "No, I think I'm okay."

"You come with me," the barbershop owner--Mr. Bobkov--interrupts imperiously. "I have first aide kit in shop. My sons will know what to do."

"Oh, no, that's fine. It's not..."

"You come with me," the shop owner insists and does an about-face, heading back toward, presumably, his business.

Peter takes the wrist of Steve's uninjured arm in a gentle two-handed grip and the looks up at him with sad, pleading eyes.

"Yes, I know that look," Steve says, trying to ward against the soft feeling that wells up inside him. "You're not fooling me this time. You just do this to get your way."

"Come now!" Mr. Bobkov snaps without even turning around.

Steve sighs. Peter grins. The police that are lingering to watch the show try to hide smiles.

"You need a rescue, Cap?" one of them drawls. "Old men and little kids too much for you?"

It's probably no surprise to anyone that Steve finds himself sitting in a barber shop chair while one of Mr. Bobkov's sons--a cheerful man who looks about forty and is getting a little thin on top--tends to his arm. Peter has commandeered the next chair over, and is watching Mr. Bobkov cut hair with an intensity that apparently amuses the shop proprietor to no end.

"Should I cut your hair, little one, eh?" he offers, pointing the scissors at Peter. "On the house, for such a brave little małpka."

Mr. Bobkov has already tried to offer Steve money as a reward, and when that didn't work, a distant cousin's hand in marriage, or partial ownership of the shop. Steve's turned it all down politely, but Peter's eyes light up so brightly at the suggestion, Steve can already feel his resolve fading.

"I only cut boy hair, usually. But for you, I will try. Something pretty, yes?"

Steve blinks. "Peter's a boy."

Mr. Bobkov looks surprised, and his current customer gives a rusty, but warm, laugh. "All the more need for a haircut, then."

Well, that settles it.

"You want my regular?" Mr. Bobkov asks, and when Peter gives a vigorous shake of his head, the old man scoffs. "What, am I not good enough for you?

Another of Mr. Bobkov's sons pokes his head out from the back with a laugh. "He just has good taste, tata."

"Bah!" Mr. Bobkov points to a few low tables in the waiting area that have a scattering of magazines on them. "Go pick something out, then. Bring me picture."

Steve, now bandaged thoroughly, thanks Mr. Bobkov's (elder?) son, goes to help Peter pick something, although the boy seems to know what he's looking for, and before Steve even reaches his side he's holding up a magazine with a triumphant cry.

"Tony!"

It takes a moment for Steve to register what Peter's said, mostly caught up in confirming that, indeed, the magazine shows Tony, slick and charismatic, on the cover.

"That is Tony," Steve agrees. Then, "Wait, what?"

"Tony," Peter says decisively and takes the magazine back to Mr. Bobkov as Steve gapes after him.

"This is what you want? This is too fancy. Mr. Fancy-Pants Money-Man. Are you sure?"

Peter's expression is stern. "Tony."

"All right, małpka, all right. Do not bite me, okay?"

Steve's phone buzzes.

"Peter knows your name!" he says in a rush, by way of greeting.

"You're hurt?" is the sharp answer back, although not so much an answer as an overriding question.

"What?"

"What did you say?" And then, because no one could ever accuse Tony of being the soul of patience, he doesn't wait before plowing on. "Never mind. You're hurt? What happened?"

"It's nothing. How did you find out?"

"I have eyes everywhere."

That's probably the terrifying truth, but Steve's not about to let a little inconvenience like a knife wound and Tony's overthrow of the world's satellite systems derail his own discovery. "Shouldn't you know what happened, then? Listen, that's not important. Here." Steve fiddles until he puts the phone on speaker. "Say something."

"Something," Tony says, apparently reverting to a total age of five.

Peter brightens. "Tony!"

"Spider-monkey?" Tony sounds astonished--and perhaps not in a happy way. Steve is going to find some way to reach through the phone and throttle him if he upsets Peter. But then, his tone gentles. "Are you being good for Steve?"

"Uh-huh," Peter says solemnly, nodding.

"No squirming!" Mr. Bobkov snaps, smacking Peter on the head lightly with his comb.

Peter gulps and sits up straight, eyes big. Steve pats his shoulder with an apologetic look and takes the phone off speaker.

"What are you doing to him?" Tony demands.

"He's getting a haircut."

"First terror-rabbits and then a haircut? Are you trying to traumatize the kid?"

"He wanted to ride the bunny. The hair is his idea, too. He's strong-willed. I don't think I could make him do anything he didn't want to."

"Like you."

"And you. When are you coming back?" In the long silence that follows his question, Steve shifts and moves toward the windows that make up the front of the store. "Tony, if you don't come back, Peter's going to be disappointed, and if you break this kid's heart..."

"Yeah?" and there's a hard bite to Tony's words, even though his tone is quiet. "What'll you do, then?"

"I don't have to do anything," Steve says, his voice deliberately light but his conviction felt down to his bones. "Because you're not the type of person to do that."

"Really."

"Yep."

"How can you know?"

"Are you going to prove me wrong?"

"I might. You have no idea what I--"

They both pause as a wailing ambulance cuts down the street in front of the barber shop. It takes Steve a few moments to realize the sound is echoed through the phone at almost the same moment from Tony's location.

"...where are you?"

Steve steps closer to the windows and, after a moment of searching, even on the busy street, spots Tony across the road, standing still among the window shoppers of a boutique selling hand blow glass. He gives a sheepish little wave, and Steve returns it with more enthusiasm.

"Did you run down here from...where ever your meeting was?"

"You were hurt!" Tony says, and Steve can see his stifled flailing even at a distance.

Steve feels warm to his toes. "Yes yes."

"Don't mock me."

"I'm not! I'm...enjoying your eccentricities."

"Oooo, big words. "

"I know some, it's true."

"Well, I don't. I haven't had coffee in nearly two hours because Pep is a slave-driver and I don't know when I last slept. She made me shave."

"Mm," Steve hums, trying to pack all his sympathy into the sound, because Tony is on a roll and unlikely to let him get much in edgewise.

"And put me in a suit!" It's true. A sleek gray thing that almost looks silver in the sunlight. "That harridan."

"Big words," Steve murmurs.

"Oh shut it, Rogers."

"You should come over." Like they're arranging a play date, rather than Steve just trying to coax Tony across the street. "You can take off your jacket and tie and we'll use small words and get some coffee."

There's another long pause, but Steve's got Tony in his sights now and if the other man tries to run, Steve's not entirely sure he won't give chase. Let Peter have a go. The kid is fast.

But Tony doesn't try to get away. His voice is low but intent, like what he has to say is important, but he can't make himself speak up even so. "I don't want to be him."

Steve almost asks who, but then he knows. Howard. And Steve doesn't know what to say, because this is a subject they've studiously avoided for the sake of team unity and so they don't get into brawls which--with Tony in the armor, anyway--are fairly well matched and tend to do embarrassing amounts of property damage. Fury yells at them and while he thinks Tony might revel in it a little, it never fails to make Steve feel like a chastised ten-year-old.

It's difficult, because Steve liked Howard, even counted him--if not a friend--then a friendly work acquaintance at least, which in the War meant a brother-in-arms, someone you could rely upon to not get you killed, which was damned important during those dark days. But Tony is a friend, Steve thinks--hopes--and maybe something more possibly someday, and he definitely trusts Tony to have his back in battle.

So there's the Howard that Steve remembers and respects, and the Howard that Tony remembers and that Steve wants to punch in the face just from the little he has pieced together. Both responses seem to garner equal hostility from Tony.

"You lost your temper once. I don't think that makes you--anything. It happens. I don't think it traumatized Peter in any lasting way."

"Sure," Tony says, his voice still soft enough that Steve has to strain to hear him. "It's just the once. Then just twice. Only a handful of times. And if I hit him? What if he breaks something important? It'd be understandable, then, right? He's an inquisitive kid, so he needs to learn boundaries. How many times is okay? Three times? Four? What if he ends up in the hospital--it just goes a little too far. But I've had a long day and stock prices dipped and my shareholders won't shut up about profit dividends. Is it forgivable then?"

"Stop it," Steve says, all the warmth draining out of the day. He knows--he understands more than Tony maybe thinks he does, because his father died in an industrial accident but before then--before then it was screaming in the kitchen, precious china plates, passed down from mother to daughter for generations, breaking on the walls.

Steve hears Tony swallow. "I don't trust myself. I..."

"So trust me," Steve finds himself saying, his voice gaining strength as he continues, "I wouldn't let you do that. Become that."

Then he holds his breath, listening to Tony breathe.

"Yeah, okay."

Steve watches Tony cross the street, that same walk that makes people get out of his way and be happy for it, that has always drawn his eye, always made Steve slightly envious. The bell on the door chimes, and then they're facing each other, just slightly too close.

Tony looks good, beard cleanly trimmed again, hair gleaming, eyes bright behind yellow lenses. Only the slight pallor and faint wariness in his eyes hints that he might be anything but in complete control. He glances up and a smirk--not nearly as wide as usual--hooks a corner of his mouth.

"I think you can hang up now, Rogers."

"Um, that's. Right." Steve fumbles the phone, puts it away, and Tony glances around.

"Nice place."

"I didn't really choose..."

"So I may have over-reacted," Tony runs over the end of Steve's sentence in a rush, speaking to Steve's shoulder, head turned away slightly, not making eye contact. "Just a little. So. Sorry."

"It's fine."

"And I can't promise it'll never happen again. I'm not good at this."

"That doesn't get to be your excuse," Steve says, a little harsher than he intended. At Tony's flinch, he takes a breath and says more quietly, "That's the easy way out and we--I don't think either of us knows what we're doing, but we wouldn't be the first or only ones and...easy's never been our way, has it?"

That drags Tony's eyes back to his with a wry look. "No."

"No." Steve held Tony's gaze with determination. "So, no taking any easy outs. Deal?"

Tony straightens his spine and squares his shoulders, chin lifting a little. "Deal."

Steve spits in his palm, offers it, and watches Tony's face transform from collected and slightly distant to horrified in an instant.

"Oh my god, what."

"Shake on it," Steve says sternly, suppressing a grin.

Tony's face screws up in disgusted resolve, but he reaches for Steve's hand.

"Spit first."

"You can't be seri--"

Steve raises an eyebrow, unwavering. It's probably the first time he's been able to interrupt someone with a look. He's been studying Fury.

"I hate you. You suck."

Tony spits in his own palm, and then Steve grabs it before he can chicken out, shaking firmly.

"You. Suck."

Tony tries to snatch his hand away and, finally giving into his laughter, Steve pulls him closer in automatic response, and then Tony is way inside his personal space because of course he isn't going to win an arm wrestle against Steve.

Tony's got his head tilted up, expression suddenly soft, and if Steve just dips his own head, just slightly, he can--

"TONY!"

Peter hits like the tiny tornado he is, shedding little bits of cut hair in his wake. He collides in a small flail of limbs, somehow manages to grab onto them both and buries his face against Tony's hip.

"Well hello, spider-monkey. What happened to you?"

Peter's hair is short-ish and spiked up wildly. Very Tony, Steve thinks privately and smiles to himself.

"Is what he wanted," Mr. Bobkov says with traces of disdain still in his tone.

"Very handsome," Steve says to counteract the negativity, but he needn't have bothered. Peter is talking to Tony in that wordless babble--only now there are some words that Steve recognizes threaded through--signing excitedly all the while.

Tony scoops Peter up and listens with rapt attention. "A fountain--you don't say! Were they very big dogs? Flowers, really? Did you like hot dogs?"

Steve suddenly remembers their flowers--left at their table and probably long gone by now. He hopes someone nice picked them up and they didn't just get thrown away.

He expresses his gratitude to Mr. Bobkov for the haircut and the first aid, offering to pay again and is scoffed at.

"Come back, yeah? Next time you need trim. We call it even."

Steve promises to come back at some point, and then he hastens to follow Peter, who's squirmed out of Tony's arms and is already leading him away, waving and shouting his thanks as he disappears out the door.

The boy insists on going back to the park, where they find their flowers--Peter's one fuchsia daisy in the middle of Steve's bright yellow carnation bundle-- set aside on a bench, slightly wilted but otherwise intact. Steve feels pleased by this evidence of decency and offers them to Tony gallantly, and though the other man snorts and teases him, he still holds the bunch carefully in the crook of one arm as Peter takes him on an impromptu tour.

Tony tosses a coin in the fountain and then gives Peter a handful to fling gleefully into the water, watches as Peter rides the carousel again while chattering about funpark engineering and then declares himself starving. The sun is low enough that the buildings cast long shadows, though that doesn't take much, considering how tall they are, but Steve agrees that they should probably be thinking of food again.

"I know a great Thai place around here. Think Peter would like Thai?"

"We've been eating out all day," Steve protests, slightly horrified now that he thinks about it. "Why don't I cook something at home?"

"You can cook?"

"I can manage pasta."

"I could go for that."

It's as he's scanning back over the park, thinking of subway stations and the quickest way to get home--though he supposes Tony could just call Happy, but Steve thinks Peter might enjoy the subway--that he recognizes where he is.

"Oh--Bryant Park! I know this place!"

There's the public library at one end of the stretch of green with its stately steps and Corinthian columns and two guardian lions. So much has grown up around it that he hadn't even noticed it, not really.

"It was a big deal, when it reopened." Tony looks at him curiously. "Sorry I--it's just, I know this place." It seems weird, now that he's said it out loud. It had seemed like a big deal when he'd realized it.

But Tony quirks a small smile at him, not his usual mocking, but instead bordering on kind or, at least, understanding. "We can stay longer if you want, Cap."

"No, I--that's fine." Steve manages to smile back. It feels a little shaky, but genuine. "It's not going anywhere."

It's been around longer than he has, and it manages to look at home amidst the towering modern buildings. Steve knows it's probably a little silly, but it makes him feel hope that someday he'll find his calm as well.

Tony's hand settles on the small of his back as they leave the park, Peter's hand gripping his, and Steve thinks that maybe he's well on his way already.

Tony tolerates public transportation for maybe half the journey, but then it's back in the car with Happy, who finds them a farmer's market not too far from Steve's apartment and drops them off. Tony touches everything, and tries to buy at least one of everything until Steve reminds him that since Happy has to chauffer Pepper the rest of the day, they're going to have to carry everything home.

"We could just get a cab. I know that's a novel concept for you since you lived in the era of horse-and-buggy, but it's something we future folk can do if we have the inclination and the money and I have both."

"No, Tony," Steve says as he makes a careful selection of tomatoes under a vendor's watchful eye, not even paying the strictest attention.

"What's this?" Tony picks up something Steve's dropped into his basket.

"Snacks for Peter. I don't really have anything and I thought maybe there should be a selection in the house."

Because he isn't entirely sure what Tony is doing, and he's aware that Tony probably doesn't know, either, but it's pretty obvious that Peter is going to be here to stay--forever if Steve had anything to say about it, even if that thought triggers a nervous flutter in his stomach. Steve just squares his shoulders and plans for the future in small, manageable increments. It's a technique he developed since waking.

"No, I mean, what is this?"

He's holding a little plastic cup with a sealed lid.

Steve blinks, not understanding Tony's disdain. "What? It's applesauce. Kids like applesauce."

"This isn't applesauce," Tony counters, turning the label so that he can read it more clearly. "This is 'organic apple puree with no added preservatives or sugar.'"

"That's good. Those are all good things!"

"This is like eating liquefied existential angst," Tony declares, gathering the cups out of Steve's basket. "I'm going to go find some food that's not going to make our kid cry."

Steve is so distracted by 'our kid' that he lets Tony get away, disappearing into the crowd.

"If he gets you all hyped up on sugar I'm switching his coffee for decaf and then letting him handle you," Steve declares in Peter's direction, moving along to the next stall. It takes him a moment to realize that Peter isn't following. He glances down at the boy to find him stalk still, eyes focused on some point across the street. It's the same look that he gets whenever he's about to run off into danger, and Steve tenses.

"Here," Tony says, dropping a load of things into Steve's basket. "These are better."

Steve moves to intercept should Peter decide to make a break for it, and at the same time glances down at what Tony has brought back.

"Apple pie?"

"Tiny apple pies!" Tony clarifies gleefully. "Everybody gets their own! Or several of their own, as the case may be."

"No."

"But they're full of apple goodness. Way better than that death-by-health-food that you picked out."

"No."

Tony sighs dramatically. "Fine. You are so picky. Hey spider-monkey."

Peter jerks, shakes his head like a dog coming out of water, and looks up.

"Want to go help me find something disgusting you can eat?"

That gets a look caught somewhere between curiosity and skepticism, so Steve crouches down and pats Peter's shoulder.

"Just," Steve sends a glare in Tony's direction and is ignored, "pick out some fruit you like. Fruit's good for you and it tastes good." He punctuates that with a Stern Commander look in Tony's direction.

"Yeah yeah," Tony flicks his hand dismissively, then reaches out for Peter and disappears into the crowd.

Ten minutes later, Steve starts looking for them.

Fifteen minutes later, Steve knows something is wrong. He tries to call Tony. The phone rings once and then goes to voice mail.

Thirty minutes later, after increased, frantic searching reveals nothing, a sleek sedan with blackout windows and government plates pulls up neatly in front of him and Agent Coulson rolls down the window.

"There's been a situation," he says.

"Tony?"

"That's the situation, in part. Director Fury will debrief you."

Steve holds his ground. "Phil."

Coulson's mouth works for a moment, and there's a slight softening around his eyes. "It'll really be better if you hear it from the Director, Captain Rogers."

It's Coulson, so Steve goes.

Chapter Text

"Stark's been taken hostage by a rogue team of scientists who are calling themselves AIM," Fury says without preamble.

Steve takes a breath and feels his crisis mode flip on, strangling his horrified exclamation into silence, suppressing the panic he can feel roiling in his gut. He sets his stance, balancing on the balls of his feet.

"Do we know why?"

"Because he took something of theirs." Nick Fury's sharp gaze pins Steve with a look that's even harder than usual. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that would you, Captain?"

Steve thinks he probably should have followed up on his niggling suspicion that Tony wasn't telling him the whole truth about Peter. Out loud he says, "Probably nothing more than you do, Sir."

"Hm," Fury says, but Steve's pretty sure that he actually means, I don't believe you but I'll blame Stark for this because you're the responsible one and that illusion is what allows me to sleep at night. "I'll give you the report Stark gave us on the situation before everything went to hell and you can fill in any blanks you see."

"Sir, with all due respect, we can compare notes after we rescue Tony and Peter."

"Peter?"

"The, uh. Liberated AIM experiment?" Steve stifles a wince at the description.

"Right."

Steve expects a reprimand. Fury's sudden and complete shut-down of all expression is much worse.

"There isn't going to be a 'we' for this operation."

Anger and worry war for dominance as Steve draws a sharp breath. He can feel his shoulders drawing up; his fists clench. "Sir, The Avengers--"

"Are a response team that we send out to handle things beyond human abilities: armies from distant planets, slapfights between gods, science fair exhibits gone batshit crazy. Do you see any armies or gods or sixty-foot goo monsters trying to eat Manhattan?"

"No, but--"

"The last thing Stark needs is for the lot of you to bust in like the agents of chaos you are. AIM needs Patient 3 for whatever they're planning to do. They don't need Stark."

Steve feels himself go cold. "Is he still alive?"

There is the slightest of softening in Fury's expression. "According to our latest intel, yes. But if your team blunders in blindly we'll lose whatever tentative control of the situation we have, and then I can't assure you of Stark's safety."

"Agent Barton--"

"Is on probation."

That's news to Steve. He feels his eyebrow twitch, but plows on. "Agent Romanov--"

"Is on another mission. If she returns in time to take part in the operation, she'll have priority."

He can feel himself losing ground. His hands itch for his shield, although bashing Fury in the face with it and running is probably not a proper response, or a mature one. "Sir, you can't ask me to--"

"I'm not asking, Captain Rogers."

All of Steve's hackles go up. He's never been good at leaving men behind, and even if he had been, Tony is the exception to almost every rule. "If you think you can make me sit this one out, sir," he says, very calmly, enunciating clearly, "this is not going to end well for you."

He's a little surprised at his own vehemence. Fury is, too, by the arch of his eyebrow. Then there's a presence at Steve's shoulder and he almost cold cocks Coulson before recognizing him.

"Agent Coulson," Fury says, gaining back his steady, in-control gameface. "Would you get Captain Rogers a copy of Stark's report and make sure he's comfortable for the duration?"

Steve recognizes a dismissal and is not at all ready to be dismissed, but there's a light touch to his elbow, and Coulson says, "Come on, Captain."

"We'll let you know as soon as we know anything," Fury promises, for whatever that's worth, which at the moment doesn't feel like much to Steve.

"Please," Coulson says in a very soft undertone. "Trust me."

Steve doesn't see any way he can pursue this further without violence, and he does trust Coulson, so he gives Fury one last cold look and then follows the SHIELD agent out.

They're in an elevator, headed down, when Steve asks, "'Make me comfortable' is just code for 'put him in the brig until he calms down' isn't it?"

There's a slight twitch at the corner of Coulson's mouth that might have been a smile on anyone else. "Something like that."

"I can't leave him in peril, Phil," Steve says as the walk down a long, narrow corridor lined with doors with holographic keypad locks.

Coulson stops at a door and opens it with a brisk flick of fingers and an eyescan. "I know." Then he stands back to wave Steve inside when the door slides open with a futuristic swoosh that still thrills Steve a little. "Please trust that this is for the best."

Steve looks in at the plain, metal room--cot fused to the wall, sink and toilet the same, then he looks at Coulson, who looks steadily back at him.

"Please," he says again.

There's something in Coulson's expression, in his voice, that makes Steve move forward against his better judgment until he's inside the cell, looking at the agent via the mirror that's in front of him, over the sink. Coulson's mouth twitches into a more obvious smirk and his eyes flick up toward the ceiling.

Then the door slides shut behind him and he's alone.

For all of fifteen minutes.

Steve's sitting on the cot, having a staring contest with the security camera he knows is behind the flat glass circle just above the door, when a panel opens in the ceiling over his head and a grinning Agent Barton leans over the side, hissing, "Psssst!"

Steve looks at him, trying not to react, and flicks a meaningful glance at the camera.

Barton waves his concern away. "We've got that covered. Come on up!"

He drops a knotted rope. Steve stands up on the cot and jumps, grabbing hold of the rim of the open section of ceiling and pulls himself up in one smooth movement.

"Or do that," Barton says, sounding mildly annoyed. "Sure, fine. Show off."

"Tony's in trouble."

"So I heard." Barton winds his rope and tosses it into a SHIELD-issue duffle bag at his feet beside his bow's carrying case. He's wearing his quiver and Hawkeye costume and a sleek set of sunglasses, which Steve thinks might be slightly detrimental in the dim light, but he doesn't ask. "I also heard the Eagle wanted us to sit this one out. We're not letting that shit fly, are we, Cap?"

"If by that you mean we're going after him ourselves, then yes."

"Damn straight," Barton says, picking up his duffle and bow and leading the way. "Stark may make me want to drop kick him off a tall building from time to time, but he's our people. He doesn't get left behind."

Two flights of utility stairs and a catwalk later, Steve thinks to ask, "Why is there a trapdoor in the ceiling of a holding cell?"

"You know Stark designed this place?"

Steve blinks. "He did?"

"Yeah. And I guess he doesn't trust SHIELD much. Or maybe just Fury. So there's the official blueprints that SHIELD has on file, and then there's the real blueprints, which I've seen. It's just full of surprises like that."

After a moment of consideration, Steve asks, "Agent Coulson knows about the real blueprints, doesn't he?"

Barton flashes him a grin. "Is there anything Phil doesn't know?"

They're making their way across beams that cross over a currently unmanned control hub when Steve asks, "What did you do that got Fury to put you on probation?"

Because it was in Steve's experience that the pragmatic Director simply adjusted the difficulty or tediousness of missions as a disciplinary action, rather than take an agent completely off the roster.

"Oh, a combination of things," Barton said breezily. "But the zombie turkeys are what probably tipped the scale."

Steve is not going to ask. "Where are we going, by the way?"

Because all Steve can tell is that they are moving steadily upward, but he's having trouble orienting in the unfamiliar guts of the carrier.

"We need a distraction to get to the hanger, and I know just the person to provide us with one."

"Oh my goodness!" Dr. Banner exclaims as they tumble out of a wall into his lab by way of yet another sliding panel in an improbable place.

"Hello, gorgeous," Clint says, crowding into Dr. Banner's space.

Steve almost warns him off until he realizes that the invasion is not unwanted. When did that happen? He could have sworn Clint and Coulson...or Clint and Agent Romanov...and Steve's going to stop thinking about it right now because it's none of his business.

Steve clears his throat and says, "We could use your help, Dr. Banner."

"Oh?" Dr. Banner plucks a shiny-something out of Clint's hands with a delicate but sure touch and sets it aside carefully. "What for?"

"Actually..." Clint follows the edge of a lab table with nervous fingertips. "It's the 'other guy' we need."

Bruce blinks and then frowns, hunching into himself slightly. He takes off his glasses, cleans them, puts them back on. "I'm not--it's been almost three months since an incident."

He gestures toward a wall, where a "Congratulations on Not Turning Into a Giant Green Rage Monster and Killing Us All You Really Know How To Make a Guy's Life Boring for [ 86 ] Days" graphic is floating, rendered in lines of light on a surface area that seems to be glass or clear plastic of some sort.

"Did Tony make that?" Steve asks.

Dr. Banner's mouth tips up. "How did you guess?"

"Babe, this is about Stark. We wouldn't ask the 'other guy' to come and play if it weren't important."

"What's happened?"

Steve tells what he knows of the story. Dr. Banner listens without interrupting, focus on Steve even as he patiently takes things out of Barton's inquisitive grip and places them in safer locations.

By the end, Dr. Banner is frowning, arms crossed, posture perfectly still. "Fury's not letting us go after him?"

"No. He seems to think we'd botch the job."

Dr. Banner considers this, dark eyes focusing on the middle distance for a moment, before looking back at Steve. "What do you think?"

Steve hesitates, wondering if he should sow dissension without having cold, hard facts. "I think...I think Tony isn't Fury's top priority."

Dr. Banner breathes out, takes off his glasses, and sets them aside carefully. "You might want to stand back."

Steve is following Barton through the hallways minutes later as alarms blare all around them, warning lights flashing, SHIELD agents running past them in a disciplined scurry.

"That took less persuasion than I thought it would," Steve says.

Barton shrugs. "Bruce likes Stark. Hulk likes Stark, too."

No one looks twice at them in the chaos, even as Barton stabs a keypad with an arrow and pulls Steve to cover before it explodes.

"Are you sure it's going to be okay?" Steve asks over the din.

"Oh yeah," Barton says, hopping into the elevator. "He's got way more control these days. It's perfectly safe."

The elevator shudders. The lights blink off, and then emergency lights flicker on. Several floors below them, the Hulk roars and smashes something. Steve looks at Barton in the orange-red glow.

"It's fine," Barton says after a moment, and hands him an oxygen mask.

When the elevator doors open, the wind is like a cold, full body slap. Steve braces against it, has to grip the edge of the doors and pull to get momentum, stepping out onto the deck.

"Hey!"

There are still some personnel above deck, but only one of them is paying attention to them--a guard with first lieutenant pips on his collar swings his combat rifle in their direction.

"Halt!" he barks, and Steve can't help but think that he sounds very young. "What are you doing up here?"

"Christ," Barton mutters, shifting so that he's hidden behind Steve, hands drifting toward his bag. "Overachiever."

"We're in lockdown. You're not even allowed to access this elevator. What's your clear--"

A dark shape drops silently behind him and there's a snap-sizzle of sound before the first lieutenant drops to the deck.

"Tasha?" Barton says to the newcomer in an astonished voice.

Agent Romanov tilts her head, red hair whipping around her face, Widow's Bite still throwing sparks. "Sorry I'm late."

"Actually, your timing is perfect as usual, ma'am," Steve says, a grin pulling at his mouth.

She nods, rolls the young soldier at her feet into recovery position after she checks his pulse and then straightens as they approach her. When they draw abreast, she turns and leads the way at a brisk pace.

"We're going to need a transport that doesn't have SHIELD registration," Barton says.

"Will they really try tracking us while Hulk is rampaging?"

"Big Green can't hold their attention forever, and it's not the GPS locator we have to worry about. There's an override protocol upgrade they installed recently that works a little like an RPA. Basically, they can access our controls remotely and turn us right back to base if necessary. It's a neat safety measure but for our purposes it's just annoying."

Agent Romanov leads them up the ramp of a sleek carrier helicopter--not any model type that Steve has seen before, smaller than what he's used to and, well, shinier. No one else questions them. Steve thinks he notices a few more unconscious agents tucked into discrete corners along their path, but decides not to mention it.

"Nice." Barton says, sliding into the pilot's seat as Agent Romanov takes co-pilot. "Now all we have to do is disable the SAT NAV system and rewire it to--"

"Not necessary."

Steve spins, chagrined to have been caught off guard. There's a black man in a sharply pressed Air Force flight suit walking up the ramp. He's carrying a bundle in a waterproof tarp, and he doesn't look particularly young--at least, not in that green way that means Steve might be able to bowl him over with a stern tone and the Captain America "Stand Back, Citizen" stance. Steve braces himself for a long argument or, more likely, to push him back out onto the deck. Gently, of course.

The other man seems to read his intent and shifts his bulky package so he can hold up a hand in a universal "don't hurt me" gesture, slowing but not stopping completely.

"Hold on. I'm on your side," he says.

"Colonel Rhodes," Natasha says behind Steve. She sounds like he was expecting him and that, more than the other man's non-hostile approach, gets Steve to stand down. "Welcome aboard."

"Thanks for calling me. I always appreciate a heads up when Tony swan dives into his newest disaster."

Something in his familiarity with Tony triggers a memory in Steve's head, a combination of conversations with Tony and idle reading through files of possible future members of The Avengers.

"You're Tony's 'Rhodey'," Steve says and then flushes a little at being so familiar without permission.

Rhodey grins. "And you're Tony's 'Cap'. Here, I brought you a present." He hands Steve the package and then steps past him toward the pilot's seat. "Move over, Katniss. You're in my seat."

At Natasha's raised eyebrow, Rhodey protests, "What? I've got cousins. Little girl cousins and--Look, don't judge me, okay?"

Steve slides the cloth away to reveal the gleam of his shield and smiles. It feels like coming home to strap it across his back.

"You brought in another pilot?" Barton asks, looking at Agent Romanov with sad, wounded eyes even as he unbuckles the safety harness and gets out of the way. "I thought we had a thing."

"Don't get your feathers in a twist," Rhodey says as he slips into his seat. "I'm sure there'll be plenty else for you to do. This is mostly for expediency, anyway. This is a Stark prototype and it only responds to me."

The Colonel touches a button and the entire interior flickers, dimming as the HUD becomes a graphic of lights--data feed, charts, graphs, a thousand variables monitored, calculated and fed back into the cockpit in a steady stream of information.

"Hello, sweetheart," Rhodey croons.

"Good evening, my turtle dove," a lady voice that Steve recognizes as synthetic, despite the realistic quality, purrs back.

Everyone stares at Colonel Rhodes, who clears his throat and looks embarrassed. "It's a long story. Tony programmed it. Which, I guess, might make it an even longer story. Let's just get going, shall we?"

The takeoff is so smooth Steve almost doesn't feel it. "Where to?" he asks, leaning over the seat to look out at the dark sky.

In a normal helicopter there wouldn't be much to see, but Tony's prototype has a flitting target-circle like a strange bird, catching on and noting the movement of clouds, weather patterns, other planes and even the odd flock of gulls. Beside him, Clint is touching things with sure fingertips, flicking through information, expanding images to see them clearer before dismissing them again with a wave of his hand. Steve can't keep up and doesn't try. He knows they're over open ocean and headed for the shoreline.

"For that, I'm waiting for a phone call."

"Priority call incoming," the pleasant female voice intones.

"And there it is. Patch it through."

"Colonel Rhodes," a crisp, English-accented man says.

"JARVIS, hi. I've got you on speaker. Any luck narrowing down Tony's whereabouts? Did getting you in close proximity to the SHIELD home base help you at all?"

"Oh, yes. I was able to hack their mainframe in a fraction of the time it would've taken otherwise. I do appreciate your efforts, Colonel."

"I'm sorry," Steve cuts in, unable to keep silent any longer. "Who's this?"

"Good evening, Captain. My name is JARVIS. I'm sorry we weren't able to meet under less dire circumstances."

"You're a friend of Tony's?"

"In a manner of speaking. I count myself a friend, in any case. Whether or not Mr. Stark counts me as one is another issue entirely."

"JARVIS is a computer program," Agent Romanov reports, sounding completely blasé about the unbelievable words coming out of her mouth.

"The most advanced AI in the world," Barton adds, looking speculatively at the out the cockpit window as if he might be able to parse the shape of it out of the vague form of clouds moving by in the darkness.

"Indeed," the English...computer? agrees. "Developed and programmed by Anthony Edward Stark.

Of course. Steve shakes himself and tries not to get bogged down in what he doesn't know. "So how illegal is what you just did?"

"Oh, very," JARVIS sounds positively cheerful. Steve can suddenly see Tony's hand in his--its?--creation. "But if it makes any difference to you, I am virtually untraceable, and it was worth it."

"What did you find out?" Rhodes demands.

"A piece of coding heretofore unknown to me which I used to extrapolate and decipher the information Mr. Stark downloaded into my system earlier today from patient 3 sublet R, serial 234400992."

"Peter," Steve says. "Peter's microchip."

"Indeed. Mr. Stark and I have been working on cracking the encryption on the data for the past thirteen point seven two hours. The information SHIELD had already acquired on AIM has helped expedite things immensely. I only wish I'd had it sooner."

"So did it give you any insights into AIM's experiments that might help us narrow down where they've taken Tony and Peter?" Steve asks, unable to help the impatience that creeps into his tone.

"Better yet, Captain," JARVIS says, sounding slightly smug. "It gave me the location of their main lab."

~*~

"He's not coming," Barton murmurs, adamant even without volume to back it up. His voice sounds crystal clear in Steve's ear through his comm.

"He'll be here," Steve insists. Around him, the cold desert night stretches on in all directions, flat lands gleaming white in the moonlight. He's painfully aware of how little cover he has here, even though there are storm clouds gathering overhead.

"Remind me again why we're even waiting? I mean, I love the guy, but he's not exactly a stealth operative."

"Trust me," Steve says.

He can feel the electricity gathering in the air, humming along his skin, making the fine hairs on his arm and the back of his neck stand up. Then the sky rips open, and Steve glimpses a tiny, far-away shape with a red cape blazing against the black sky just before the mother of all lightning bolts tears down from the heavens and shreds into the distant mountains, where Steve knows from Rhodey's recon the generators powering AIM's giant, underground lab reside.

"Thank you, Thor," Steve says into the comms, trusting JARVIS to patch them through.

"Go, my friend. Find our Man of Iron and his little one and bring them home safely," Thor booms, making Steve wince. "I shall create a distraction, though I would much prefer to be at the frontlines of the battle."

"Noted and appreciated," Steve says.

"We'll let you do all the heavy hitting next time, big guy," Barton says.

"I shall hold you to that promise, archer!" Thor says over the roar of thunder. Lightning hits the ground continuously, three or four bolts at a time, making desert almost as bright as daytime. The smell of scorched earth tickles Steve's nose, calls to mind the wet forests of Germany in a long ago war. Not quite the same, but similar enough that Steve makes himself focus on the task at hand.

"On my mark," Steve says, and between one breath of lightning and the next says, "Mark!"

He jumps and slides feet first down an open shaft--JARVIS speculates it's a ventilation shaft from the readout he--it? Steve's still not sure--gathered using the sensors on Stark's helicopter. There are dozens scattered and hidden throughout the almost-mile radius of the underground facility. He knows Barton and Agent Romanov are entering the same way, all roughly equidistant from each other in a triangle pattern. Their plan is to start at the edges and work toward the center, looking for signs of Tony and Peter.

Steve is hoping AIM perceives Thor's attack as a strange natural occurrence, or at the very least is confused long enough that no one thinks to start hurting the hostage--hurting Tony. Or killing him.

He can't let the constriction of his heart slow him down or make him clumsy. He can't let his worry and doubts distract him. Instead, he lets them fuel him, the same way they did when he got Bucky and his regiment out of HYDRA's base.

He will find Tony and Peter, and bring them home.

He falls in pitch black, hits a vent and kicks it out--mostly by landing on it. His fall is broken by a person--he can feel the give and hear the grunt. In darkness, he swats aside a weak punch and kicks someone in a weak spot--probably the face, from the way it snaps back. Then he spins and his shield lights sparks as it ricochets off a wall and pings solidly off two more bodies. There are cries of distress. Someone fires a stray shot of light--laser weapon, from the way the ceiling scorches from the starburst as it hits. Red emergency lights switch on. Steve reaches out and catches his returning shield.

He's in a lab--he's seen enough by now to know what they look like even if they're unfamiliar. Three guards, dressed in ridiculously yellow uniforms, fallen around him and no more in sight; a man and a woman in lab coats are cowering against a wall.

There are cages all around him, with vaguely- animal shapes inside, blackened and still. In one of the larger cages, a monkey leans listlessly against the back wall of its cell. As Steve watches, it turns and looks at him, eyes black and empty.

Steve takes a step toward it and the female scientist says, "Don't!" just as the creature flings itself against the bars toward Steve, screaming, face suddenly contorted with malice. Its teeth are long and sharp.

He looks at the two people who are still standing as far away as possible but have yet to make any hostile moves. "What are you doing here?"

The man says nothing. The woman's reply is tremulous but defiant. "We won't tell you anything."

Steve wishes he had time to get information out of them, but he has other priorities. He looks at the monkey for a long moment. It's settled again, chewing bits out of its own fingers. He looks away. "JARVIS."

"Sir?"

"Can you download their research?"

"Their security systems are complex, but I will make an attempt."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, sir, please allow me to do this. You have other concerns."

Steve wonders if he's just been reprimanded by a computer, and figures he deserves it. He ushers the scientists into a closet a little more forcefully than is strictly necessary and breaks the door handle, then checks in.

"I've secured my landing point. Team status."

"Secure," Agent Romanov reports. "Ready to move out."

"I have a slight problem," Barton says. "This grate is bolted in. I'm going to need a minute."

From somewhere deeper in the facility, an explosion shakes the foundation hard enough that Steve has to catch his balance on a table.

"That wasn't me," Barton says.

"Stark," Agent Romanov says. Whether she's guessing or whether she's got eyes on the situation, Steve isn't sure.

"Can you see him?" he asks, wrenching at the door to the hallway that apparently sealed shut when the power cut out.

"No, but..."

"But to find Stark all you have to do is follow the sound of things blowing up," Barton concludes

Steve starts running, because he's relatively certain that Barton isn't wrong.

He gets into a few skirmishes on the way, but mostly people seem intent on getting away from the situation. Whatever happened continues to send shuddering aftershocks through the facility, and outside, Steve can hear Thor's rage still beating against their defenses. Aside from the very obvious shield he's not wearing the rest of his uniform so he blends, sort of. Enough to move relatively unmolested through the hallways until he pulls open a doorway and finds himself in the central hub.

It's vast, a round room that extends almost five floors up from its ground level, which is three floors below him. There are walkways rimming its peripheral for each floor, hemmed in with guardrails. There's a crack of thunder over Steve's head that sounds a lot closer than it should.

Steve looks up. Tony has, somehow, managed to put a sizeable hole in the ceiling. As he watches, a chunk of it falls. Steve follows its progression down to where it smashes into the floor grates below. More guards in yellow scatter in its wake, retreating to less hazardous positions. There are person-sized tubes ringing one side, some broken, some empty, some hosting more monkeys suspended in a greenish liquid.

Tony is hiding behind a wall of machinery full of blinking lights. Steve's heart leaps when he sees him. He very nearly calls out, but another voice interrupts.

"WHERE IS THE BOY?" says the...thing. Steve isn't entirely sure what he's looking at, although what it seems to be is a giant floating head. A really really ugly one, with a disproportionately large mouth and squinty eyes and deep wrinkles. It also seems to have arms and legs, skinny, atrophied things.

"Oh sure," Tony says. "If you just ask me menacingly I'll definitely tell you. It's not like I blew up your evil base of evil just to let him escape or anything."

"MODOK WILL NOT TOLERATE YOUR INSUBORDINATION!" it shrieks.

"Is it really insubordination if I'm not a subordinate?"

Behind Steve, someone yells that he's not allowed in here, and he throws the shield without looking around. But there are more soldiers closing in on his position, and he has to turn away from the sight below so he can deal with them.

"YOU WILL BOW TO MY WILL," MODOK bellows from the ground floor. "YOU WILL GIVE UP THE BOY."

"YOU WILL NOT BE A HIDEOUS MONSTROSITY BENT ON SOME CONVOLUTED PLAN TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD REVOLVING AROUND REALLY SHADY GENETIC TINKERING! See how just yelling what you want won't actually make it happen?"

One of the guards has gotten close enough that he's within arm's reach. Steve grabs him and they do a slightly awkward dance as Steve uses him to block a few incoming blows from close proximity enemies before tossing him over the side. Steve feels only slightly guilty about that. He's relatively certain it isn't a fatal fall, even for someone without super serum.

Tony sees the guard hit the ground and glances up to make eye contact with Steve. Then he waves and mouths, "Hi, honey!" or possibly, "Hi, mom!" or "Hi, Leonardo!" because Tony had started calling him that for reasons Steve probably doesn't want to know. Also, the light in here is erratic and Steve's never been the best at reading lips.

"IF YOU DO NOT CALL HIM, YOU WILL KNOW PAIN BEYOND IMAGINING," MODOK warns in dire tones, apparently unaware that Tony's no longer paying strict attention to him.

Steve gives Tony his, "I could use a distraction" eyebrow raise, which gets Tony's "that's great because I rock at distractions" head nod.

"Funny thing about that." Tony turns back to MODOK and grins. "You actually have to catch me first, and I don't think that's very likely, seeing as you’re an ugly jerkface with stubby arms and legs and an appallingly disproportionate number of incompetent guards, while I am the attractive protagonist of this story just stalling long enough for the imminent arrival of my super hero friends. Also," Steve sees Tony swing out from his cover with one of AIM's weapons in hand, "I have this laser rifle."

But MODOK only smiles, an awful expression that splits across his entire face. "THAT'S WHERE YOU ARE WRONG. I DON'T HAVE TO TOUCH YOU TO MAKE YOU SCREAM."

Tony staggers as if he's been shot, dropping to his knees and clutching his head. MODOK laughed. "FEEL MY WRATH AND KNOW YOURSELF TO BE THE WEAKLING SLUG BENEATH MY HEEL."

"Hey!" Steve says, stepping up on the rail. "Leave him alone or face my wrath."

Some small part of Steve can acknowledge the posturing for what it is, because he really doesn't have any intension of giving MODOK a chance to give up peaceably. He leaps off the rail as he throws the shield, hitting the ground and rolling to his feet, registering the resounding clang and scream from the floating head and holding up his hand just as the shield slaps home. MODOK spins off, hits a wall and bounces hard on the ground before rolling to a gradual stop small arms flailing once before he goes still.

Steve kneels beside Tony, turning him over carefully, cradling his head. There's a trickle of blood running from his nose and he's pale, but breathing. Steve places his hand over the arc reactor, feeling the edge against his palm through layers of cloth, and wills Tony to open his eyes.

"I found Tony," he reports. "Has anyone seen Peter?"

"We're on it," Natasha says. "We'll find him."

"I have your position." That's Rhodey. "Hold tight for evac. Do you need medical attention?"

"Yes," Steve says, trying to decide if it's okay to move Tony behind better cover without knowing what's wrong with him. "Be alert. Hostiles still active in the area."

"Roger that."

AIM's soldier bees--Steve can't help but think of them as bugs; their bright yellow uniforms have black decorative striping--are hovering on the outskirts of the room, tentative near the central location of chaos and destruction. Steve takes out two of the bolder ones with one shield throw and then drags Tony as gently as he can back to a defensible position.

"No," Tony grumbles, and Steve's focus shifts back to him immediately, even as he blocks a laser blast with his shield and then . "No medics. M'fine."

"You haven't even opened your eyes."

"Yes I have."

"No you haven't," Steve says gently, pushing Tony back as he struggles to sit up.

"Peter?"

"Barton and Agent Romanov are still looking. They'll find him."

Tony blinks up at him. "See, eyes open."

Steve looks him over for injuries now that they're in relative safety, but his pupils look okay and nothing seems to be bleeding. "What happened?"

"Don't know. Some type of...telepathic attack, I think. Hurts like a son of a b--uh. Gun." Tony flicks a slightly nervous look at Steve and Steve gives into the urge to brush Tony's hair back from his eyes. When Tony leans into it, eyes sliding shut again, Steve keeps very still, wondering if this would be considered taking advantage.

Then Tony puts his hand over Steve's, holding it in place with a slight, contented smile. "You rescued me. My hero."

"Um, well," Steve can feel himself blush. "I sort of think you rescued yourself, more or less."

"That's because I'm an amazing super genius," Tony says. "But seriously, you made sure that thing was down for the count, right?"

"I hit him--it--really really hard."

"Go hit it again."

Tony's probably right, even though Steve's reluctant to leave him. A laser blast hits just over their heads, making both of them duck for cover. Tony rolls to his feet, wincing a little, picks up his discarded rifle and returns fire, only somewhat wobbly. Steve eyes the distance he needs to get to MODOK's prone form, then glances at Tony.

"Got my back?"

"Always," Tony grins, leaning close so that his next words are a murmur against Steve's ear. "And not just because your ass is really very fine."

"Would you let your boyfriend know that your comms will pick him up at close proximity?" Barton demands with a slight whine. "Also I don't want to know why he's that close."

"Boyfriend--!" Steve squawks, and then yelps again when Tony slaps his behind and sends him out into the fray while he lays down cover fire.

Steve leaps a chunk of ceiling, backhands an AIM soldier out of the way, and skids behind the rubble where MODOK fell. He has time to wonder if it's possible to take a pulse, and if he's callous enough to hit someone who's already down, then the eyes slit open, and--

Steve's world scrapes sideways into a screaming mess of mortar rounds and bullets, barbed wire and the scratch of an old recording that wasn't old at the time. Gray toned mornings and yellow-candlelight nights, grief and grief and marching onward, leaving everyone behind.

"Steve! Snap out of it!"

There's an impact and a sharp, singing sound. Steve has the vague realization that Tony just shot him--in the shield, but still. There's danger but Steve can't quite--he can't-- He's on his knees and everything's sluggish, and memory is dragging him down again.

Then MODOK is screaming and Steve sags, catching himself on his hands, disoriented, and there's pain everywhere--a blinding flash of lightning. Thunder cracks the air. Steve sees a person-shaped shadow riding MODOK, long claws tearing into anything they can reach. Steve feels it like they're in his brain. Darkness consumes him.

When he opens his eyes--when the next flash of lightning illuminates things, there's a shape bent over him. It looks like animated tar, thick and sliding, never quite solid. It's holding to a vague man-shape but for the mouth which is wide with razor sharp teeth and a tongue that seems far too large, long and pointed, almost prehensile.

That's a lot of black. Steve thinks, fuzzily, part memory, part realization. A lot of black. And eyes. And teeth in the darkness.

It pauses, hovering over him, steady regard a flat, unreadable white, no pupils or irises, glowing faintly. Sparks flash behind it a wire snaps somewhere. In the distance, Steve can hear someone calling out to him frantically.

"Steve," the thing says, a guttural sound, flicking its tongue out like it can taste his name. Then it straightens and disappears out of his sight. He watches it go, lights flashing on its heels, and he doesn't understand.

When he next becomes aware, someone's shaking him and yelling at him crossly. "Steve if you don't wake up I'll do something rash. I'll--I'll use swear words in front of Peter."

"Oh the horrors," someone drawls.

"Shut it, Clint."

Steve cracks his eyes open. He's on his back and The Avengers, sans the Hulk but plus Rhodes, are gathered around him. Tony looks visibly relieved, the pinched, panicked look around his eyes easing as he sits back a little.

"Did we win?" he asks.

"Was it ever a question?" Tony waves that away.

"We're not entirely sure how," Agent Romanov reports. "Peter helped."

Steve blinks and struggles to sit up. Tony helps him. Parts of the room are covered in a fine white film, which Steve gradually realizes is spider webs. There are several cocoons that are probably people, but he just doesn't have the capacity to work out what that means right now.

Peter is perched on Thor's shoulder. He looks unharmed, and when he sees that Steve is awake he grins brightly. "Steve!"

"Oh, yeah," Tony says with a toothy grin that belies his deliberately casual tone. "It turns out our kid has super powers. So that's awesome."

"The little Midgardian has the makings of a fierce warrior!" Thor says.

"Also," Tony says, "did you call me your boyfriend, earlier?"

There's a fuzzy memory where the word definitely played a part, though Steve's having trouble recalling the details just now. "Did I?"

"Well, I don't know. You tell me." There's something in Tony's tone that's not necessarily in his words. Even through a vague haze and a building headache, Steve can hear it. A verbal defensive hunch of shoulders.

"May I?" Steve asks quietly.

Tony considers him narrow-eyed for a moment, and he tries not to twitch or fidget. Then Tony smiles, sweet, surprisingly open, and it makes Steve's heart do a slow flip in his chest, makes him tingle down to his toes.

"Small children and Clint look away," Tony announces as his smile turns slightly wicked. No less tingle-inducing, although it's a sensation of a slightly different sort, as Tony reaches for him and pulls him in for a kiss.

It's gentle, more so than Steve expected. And, while Steve is sitting and Tony kneeling, Tony has the height advantage. He tips Steve's head up with a sure touch, fingers cupping the back of his skull as lips brush softly over his with only the slightest hint of suction, of teeth scraping lightly.

Clint is making gagging noises, but as they pull away, Steve can feel Tony's smile against his lips, can see it in the crinkle of his eyes this close, so he takes a handful of Tony's shirt and tugs him in for another, this one more demanding.

This time it's Peter who breaks them up, colliding with Steve in one of his full-tilt runs. Tony laughs as all three of them go sideways, but eventually they make it back to their feet, Tony swaying into him a little, Peter between them, arm slung around either of their waists.

"The Eagle is descending," Agent Romanov says, eyes up toward the hole in the ceiling where searchlights are starting to track the wreckage, the sound of helicopters closing in.

"You guys probably want to get out of here before Fury catches up with you."

"I can fly you out under the radar if Jolly Blond Giant can give us a lift to the chopper," Rhodey says, glancing at Thor.

"It would be my honor to aid my tiny yet worthy allies," Thor answers solemnly.

Steve frowns. Even though his head is heavy with exhaustion and for the first time in a while he doesn't dread letting sleep find him, he still feels Team Captain responsibility crack its whip, albeit more quietly than usual. "We'll have to give a report. Paperwork..."

"We'll cover for you," Agent Romanov offers.

"Ew, Tasha, no," Clint says. The eyebrow raise he gets in return looks sharp enough to make a lesser man bleed.

"Dissolvable ceramic arrow heads, perfect for airport security and Magneto," Tony says.

"There's dissolvable ceramic?"

"I'll invent some."

"No less than two dozen."

"You'll get ten."

"Twenty."

"Fifteen."

"Done." Clint claps Steve on the shoulder and grins. "Scurry on home, Cap. We'll clean up here."

"Home?" Peter asks, looking up at them and blinking sleepily. It's been a long day for all of them.

"Yes," says Steve.