The first time his mother makes an unpleasant face when he mentions Dummy, he lets it slide. He thinks nothing of it; he doesn’t really think it has anything to do with Dummy at all. But then she does that again and again and he starts to get worried. He doesn’t want to say anything, because, well... Because he is seven and he’s not supposed to understand her faces. But then father comes to him and tells him to stop talking about his imaginary friends in the company, because he embarrasses the family. To say that Tony is lost would be complete understatement. He doesn’t have an imaginary friend, never had. It takes him a good part of the week and lots of eavesdropping to find out that they are talking about Dummy. Like Dummy isn’t real. Only he is. Tony knows that for sure, because he knows imagining things takes much less time and effort that building them. And he spent a lot of these two on building Dummy. The least they could do is to admit he is real.
Dummy is a machine Tony built recently. He’s not overly complicated. Just some pieces of metal plates nailed together with a rather simple tumbler based mechanism inside. Tony wanted to experiment with steam, but he’s a little unsure of how it would end. He’s still young, he doesn’t fancy loosing fingers or something more important. So he sticks to the basic mechanics for now. The robot isn’t capable of doing much, but it does pass Tony tools when he asks for them and sometimes moves and makes noises as if it understands him. A little like a puppy, but made from metal. He can’t have a real puppy, his mother is allergic. It doesn’t matter much that it usually mixes up the tools it gives to Tony and sometimes pushes his newest projects to the floor in some kind of robotic jealousy pique . He’s useful in putting out fires though. Like this one time when Tony made his first array into steam machinery and the hot gas exploded in his face. His fair took fire and Dummy was the one who doused him with a bucket of water. Really, his parents should be grateful that he has it, who knows what would happen to him otherwise.
So, instead of listening to his father, Tony starts to talk about Dummy more often and more insistently. Often telling stories about how he breaks things and doesn’t want to listen to Tony at all, even though Tony created him. At first, their guests think he’s being cute, then they start to get uncomfortable and then they start to speculate if Tony isn't maybe a little touched in the head. He takes a lot of offence to that. He is a brilliant genius and not a crazy person, thank you all very much. But he doesn’t fancy being visited by one of the creepy doctors, or worse, sent to even creepier Asylum when they would make him stupid, so he stops talking about Dummy. He stops talking at all really, because he doesn’t know what to talk about if he can’t talk about his creations. Literature is stupid, and politics and economics are boring, and he is going to hire someone to do the hard stuff around the estate for him, anyway. It's not like he can’t afford it. He doesn’t really understand why his father is so Hell-bent on doing everything by himself.
He stands awkwardly in the corner at parties, not talking to anyone and trying to melt into the wallpaper. And in his free time, he locks himself in the old garden shed-turned workshop and works on perfecting Dummy. He never does work out how to make him co-operate.
Then, at one of the parties that his mother loves so much, something changes, and for the better, if he could say so himself. Count Xavier brought his son with him for the first time. Tony isn't deaf, nor is he stupid, and it's easy to hear what people say about others when no one pays attention to you, so he knew all the rumours about the boy. Apparently, he was very sickly, and either had a lot of problems with his lungs or with his head. Old Lady Baron said that his mother even wanted to send him to an Asylum, which, Tony would know is awful on lots of levels, but his father intervened and didn't let her. Tony personally thought that it was good for the kid; at least he had one parent on his side. But then, this evening was the first when little Xavier attended anything social since he was a baby and Tony was curious.
He used his powers of invisibility to slink under the tables and crawl to the place where the Count was standing with his son dutifully next to him. And he pulled on the boy's pants. Nothing happened and he was just going to go back to his usual place and sulk for the rest of the evening when the Count moved. And the boy did not. Tony waited impatiently and after few minutes, a boy who couldn't really be much younger than Tony appeared under the table next to him.
“My name's Charles. And I don't think Dummy is imaginary. I think he's ingenious.”
And that's how Tony Stark met his best friend.
Charles is pretty much the best thing, person, person thingy that ever happened to Tony. He’s even better than Dummy ‘cause he doesn’t spray him with random liquids. The least problematic being water, the most chocolate pudding, and Tony still hasn’t worked out where the stupid robot got it from.
There’s this thing where he can apparently read people minds, but Tony not only thinks it’s hilarious, he’s sure it could be used for a lot of fun and useful purposes. If only Charles stopped being so proper and moral, that is. But even if his friend doesn’t want to see if Old Martha really is sleeping with her Spanish gardener, it’s still pretty neat power. They can hide much more effectively from their parents and, if need be, communicate across the few acres separating their estates.
Tony thinks he could get used to having a real friend. Charles is nice and he’s not afraid to show his affection, which usually ends in hugs or holding hands during walks. Tony’s never been big about the whole touching issue, but he has to admit that it’s kind of nice when it’s not forced and formal. Charles makes him think people aren’t as bad as he thought they are.
He knows they are though. There are some weird exceptions like Charles, but people pretty much are mean and greedy and always think only about themselves. He doesn’t understand how his friend can be so optimistic in the face of reality. He saw the bruises on the pale wrists and on his back when they were taking a swim in the lake. Charles says they are nothing. That he just fell down the stairs. As far as Tony can tell stairs don’t have fingers. But he keeps quiet, because that’s what Charles wants of him and besides he knows better than to involve himself in the family troubles of someone else. The threat of the Asylum still hangs heavy over both of their heads. So he keeps his mouth shut for a change and if he sticks to Charles’ side a little too much and visits him a little too often, no one’s the wiser. His parents are just glad to get him out of the way.
His parents decide that it’s time for him to meet more children, and by more children they mean future business associates. Tony not only understands, he mostly approves, there’s nothing better than to have work without doing much more than talk to people, but well, he’s not exactly a people person. He knows that at eight years old he should have gotten over his dislike of people and just accepted that they’re selfish, cruel creatures, but he hasn’t and now it’s come back to bite him in the ass.
At least he’ll have Charles with him, he muses, trying to wrench his pocket watch open. He had the great idea of transforming it into a self-defence device, one that would electrocute anyone who’d get too close. Not the best idea to have while planning to attend a kinder ball, but his inspiration doesn’t listen to any timelines and neither does he. He discovered it’s much easier to stand all these boring social functions if he has someone to spend time with, even if that someone usually makes disapproving faces when Tony tries things like electrocuting people. Despite the life he has, Charles is a big softie inside. It kind of makes Tony want to bundle him up in their warmest blankets and hide him from the world so he can stay so optimistic, always. Not that he needs it, Charles knows well how ugly the world is, he just chooses to stay smiling in the face of it all. Tony kind of admires him for it. Maybe he should try doing that too. The smiling thing, not the optimistic one; someone needs to stay aware of reality here.
Looking at the suit his mother has chosen for him to wear he decides that he might as well start now. At least his smile will be one pretty thing on him this evening.
It’s all very wrong right from the start. Tony was aware that his parents aren’t exactly nobles like Charles’ parents, just very rich merchants, but he’s never given it much thought. Maybe he should, judging by the looks all these kids and their grandparents are giving him. It’s like he’s something less than them and Tony fights to keep his smile fixed on his face. Stupid, prejudiced, arrogant-
“Tony!” – He turns, feeling his smile slipping into something more genuine and glances at Charles who is wearing fondly exasperated air about him. “You can’t think about them like that.”
He raises his eyebrow and leans more comfortably against the wall.
“And why not? They don’t know what I’m thinking.”
Charles scrunches up his nose, like always when he’s not sure whether to be displeased or amused by Tony’s antics and Tony grins wider, nudging him lightly with his shoulder. The shorter boy huffs and crosses his arms, but doesn’t try to hide the answering smile growing on his face.
“It’s still not nice.”
Tony answers him with a laugh and tries to coax Charles into telling him what these people really think, but his friend is his usual tight-lipped, highly moral self so he sighs and gives up, instead pulling them both to the sweets table.
He’s almost done with packing his little plate full of cakes and chocolate when he notices a red-headed girl in a pink lacy dress coming towards him with a stormy expression on her face. He looks around just to confirm that no, there’s no one else in her path. He looks towards Charles whose eyes widen and he opens his mouth, later Tony knows that it’s in warning, when the girl finally reaches him.
And without preamble kicks him in the shin. Hard.
He bends over, clutching at his legs and biting his lips on a series of expletives he learnt from the stable boys. Charles makes this worried sound in the back of his throat he always makes when Tony gets hurt and abandons his plate to rush to his friend’s side.
“What is wrong with you?”
That’s the first. Tony never heard Charles so angry. Maybe it’s because he’s usually hurt because of his own experiments and not because of other people. Little hypocrite, he doesn’t even listen when Tony tries to be worried about his bruises. A little glance up shows that the girl now has her arms crossed and is still glowering down at Tony, as if he killed her beloved puppy. He wishes he had time to finish his electro-watch.
“He made my brother loose the races on Sunday.”
Huh. Tony vaguely remembers Sunday. His parents took him to church like every other week and he spend some time being bored, listening to the old preacher talking about one thing or the other. After the official part there was always a picnic and for once his mother insisted strangely that they attend. So they went and they made nice with all the neighbours while Tony stood and tried to stop himself from doing something inappropriate. Charles often said that Tony’s biggest problem is that he has too many ideas at once that he needs to try out right this instant and it always ends up in disaster. Tony has no basis on which to disagree.
So he stood silently and didn’t try to do anything really. Really, he was being good like never before. And then he heard some lady behind him telling someone something very ugly about his mother and maybe he didn’t have to do what he did, but no matter what kind of a mother she is, Maria Stark is his flesh and blood and no one talks about Starks that way. So he slipped the little electronic mouse he made for Charles from his sleeve and let it go in the direction of the rude lady. She shrieked and backed from it with a high-pitched yell, and then, well, Tony couldn’t really see it all coming. Or maybe he could, these things seem to follow him. The lady bumped into the gentleman with the plate of sandwiches who in turn overturned the aforementioned plate onto another lady’s bodice and when she stood up to yell at him she pushed back her chair which pushed the railing and made one of the boys running races fall down and possibly scrape his knee.
He still didn’t deserve this kick. He opened his mouth to tell the pink girl just that when someone from behind him spoke first.
“’Tasha, give it a rest. It’s not a big deal.”
The pink girl pouted and both he and Charles turned to see the boy from the races. He was blond and tall and visibly older than them. No more than two years, but still. The boy crouched down to their level and grinned.
“My name’s Clint and that’s my sister Natasha. Sorry about her. The mouse you made is superb.”
And then he produced from his pocket the mechanical mouse that Tony lost in the chaos of the picnic and stood up to the table.
The girl joined him, still shooting Tony poisonous glances. Tony for his part looked at the mouse in his hand and thrust it sheepishly at Charles.
He got an exasperated smile and Charles helped him to his feet. Then he got a hug and was pulled to the table where Natasha was poking jellies distrustfully and Clint was stuffing his face with chocolate cake. Maybe this whole meeting people thing wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. Yes, his leg still kind of hurt but he didn’t have to make small talk or anything silly like that.
It quickly became obvious that Clint was not going to leave Tony alone. Despite the fact that the blond was more of an athletic guy and Tony hated anything that made him pant afterwards, they did have a lot to talk about. Tony loves Charles dearly, but he doesn’t like to complain about his parents or about the amount of work he’ll have to do when he’ll take over Xavier estate so Tony doesn’t have anyone to talk about these things with. Well, he didn’t before he met Clint. It doesn’t hurt that the boy looks at everything Tony makes with obvious fascination and a glint in his eyes that says he’s planning on how to use it to pull some pranks. That’s another thing Charles never wanted to do.
They don’t get in trouble often. Well, not more often than Tony did before meeting the Barton siblings.
Natasha is another matter entirely. She looks at Tony as if she wouldn’t want anything better than to shove him in the lake and hold him under the surface until he’s blue in the face. He has nightmares about it. Clint laughs and tells him it’s his sister’s normal expression. He then proceeds to warn Tony against anything that would piss her off which is not reassuring at all. Tony’s pretty sure that if he provoked her even slightly she would find such a way to hide his body that not even Charles with his telepathy would find him.
He actually finds himself enjoying spending time with these new acquaintances.
It’s one of the warmer spring days and they’re all spending it playing and laying in the grass behind Charles’ mansion when Cain finds them. Cain is the only son of Kurt Marko, who is a business associate of Count Xavier and Tony never really liked them both doesn’t really like either of them. They’re arrogant and greedy. He’s not allowed to speak about them like this, but no one can make him not think it. Charles said to him once, that no one can make him not think anything, because Tony’s brain works like a very fast machine that even Charles sometimes has problems navigating it. Tony tries not to be as proud of that as he is, but it’s a losing battle.
Cain is tall and burly and his jacket is stretched over his arms like it’s too small. Tony heard the maid in his house say that men wear tight jackets on purpose to show off their broad shoulders, but Tony doesn’t understand what’s so great about them. They’re just shoulders. And Cain’s shoulders are ugly.
The older boy comes over to them with an unsettling smile on his face and the first thing he does is push Charles out of his way hard enough the petite boy falls. Tony jumps up from his spot on the grass and he can hear Natasha’s quick yell when the Barton siblings join him. He can already see scrapes that will surely appear on his friend’s knees and palms and he can feel his blood boil. So that’s where all these bruises come from. He thinks he should maybe do something about Cain, but his first priority is checking if Charles’ alright. He crouches next to his friend and helps him to his feet, and then almost has an aneurysm when he sees blood seeping from Charles’ nose.
He presses his handkerchief hurriedly to the boy’s face and is vaguely aware of making some comforting noises, gathering the smaller boy in his arms. Clint falls next to them soon after with visibly bruised knuckles and Tony hopes it at least left a mark even if little Xavier would never want them to hurt anyone, even if that someone was hurting him. They sit in silence for a while before he realizes Natasha isn’t with them. Then there’s a howl of pain and they all turn to its direction. Cain is lying on the ground curled in on himself, Natasha standing over him not even breathing heavily with blood on her hands and on her shoe. Tony really hopes Charles isn’t observant enough to notice. Chances of that are slim, but it never hurts to hope.
It takes them a while after Cain is gone, having run back to the mansion with his tail between his legs, to regain some tranquillity back.
“Thank you.” Charles says in a quiet voice and all three of them start. “I don’t really condone violence, but thank you for defending me.” He looks so small and pathetic that Tony doesn’t even try to squash the urge to go to him and hug him again.
“We might not always save you from harm, Charlie, but you can be sure we’re going to avenge you.”
There is a gasp behind him and he turns only to see Natasha grinning like a madwoman she is and bouncing in place.
“That’s exactly what we’re going to be guys! We’re going to be Avengers!” Tony can swear he can hear the capital letter.
Clint smiles enthusiastically and joins in his sister’s excitement, apparently loving the idea very much. Him and Charles just look at each for a minute and then they both shrug simultaneously and join their friends.
Avengers. It doesn’t sound so bad.
This is the day when Tony finds out where Charles’ bruises come from and with the help of his team manages to stop them from appearing again. This is also the day when the team known for many years as Avengers is officially established.
When Tony hits the magical age of ten he has a group of friends, a robot, and he can build a steam engine with gardening tools. He’s especially proud of that last one. He asks his parents for a set of real tools for mechanics for his birthday and gets a horse. Again. He’s sure they don’t even listen to him anymore when he makes a request of any kind. At least his friends try. Every one of them brings him one of these tools, having no money to buy an actual set, but wanting to make him happy anyway. It’s the best day of his life.
The week after he goes through the worst one. Since he’s all grown up now, he apparently needs a private tutor who would give him lessons on everything he needs to do and watch over him when he plays so he won’t be doing anything stupid or dangerous. This means someone living in the mansion with them and Tony hates strange people going around his house. Someone who not only will torture him with economics but also will probably ensure he doesn’t spend any time in his workshop? This is a nightmare.
It doesn’t help that the first person his parents introduce to him is a stuffy old man, who thinks it’s still okay to sniff at his employers. Just for his information, it’s not. For three very long weeks, Tony is confined to the inside of the house, reading more than he ever did in his life and having random quizzes on history, politics and economy of the country. The worst thing is he can’t even talk to his friends anymore, since Mr. Smith thinks they pollute his mind. He’s the one polluting minds, thank you very much, and he’d gladly keep it that way. And there is this thing that every time he answers a question wrong or is found spacing out, he’s hit across his knuckles with a ruler.
Fortunately, the end of tyranny comes one day when Tony is feeling sickly and unhappy, because of the sheer fact that he’s sick. He’s a complete nightmare during classes and his teacher, fed up with his antics, pulls him over his knee, pulls Tony’s trousers down and spanks him hard. The maid catches them somewhere in the middle and runs out with a yell to tell on the man to Tony’s father. Howard would probably approve of such a method of discipline if it wasn’t very badly looked upon on in the high society he tries so hard to fit in to. Smith is fired on the spot and Tony cheerfully waves him from the second story window, ignoring the pain in his backside.
The next morning it appears that Tony wasn’t just being his difficult self and he’d caught something. He lies in bed with fever and coughs often, even if after a while it hurts his throat. He doesn’t go to breakfast and everyone thinks it’s because he’s getting a lay-in now that no one looks over his shoulder to make him do stuff. Around noon, the maid comes looking for him, a little worried that he would skip lunch as well, and upon seeing him, immediately drops the linen she’s carrying and hurries to check his temperature.
He’s not really sure what happens next, because apparently his brain doesn’t like to work in high temperatures. Tony makes a note to never go on holiday to Spain or anywhere else with the huge amount of sun. The doctor comes and coos and tuts over him, talking all the while with the maid wringing her hands worriedly next to his bed. Her name is Lea, he remembers now, she always gives him extra sausage when he asks for it and plays hide-and-seek with him on rainy days. He gave her a watch he made for Christmas and she cried and hugged him. He likes her a lot.
The doctor leaves and Lea sits next to him and hugs him lightly, arranging pillows so he would be more comfortable. He tries to smile at her, but he interrupts into a fit of coughing. She hums a nice, slow melody to him and he falls asleep feeling cared for.
When he wakes up there’s a man talking with Lea by the window and they both turn to him when he announces with a groan that he’s awake.
Apparently, the man’s name is Jarvis and he’s going to be Tony’s new tutor. Jarvis runs his hand through Tony’s hair and smiles softly and Tony has a vague idea that he’s going to be better than the previous one. When the illness passes, but Tony still feels too weak to get out of bed, Jarvis permits Charles and Natasha to visit him and it makes earns him a few points in Tony’s good books. From what Tasha says Clint and a few other people around the town are sick too and doctors are worried about an epidemic. She chatters a lot and gets him caught up on everything that’s happened in the neighbourhood since he was last out. Charles just sits curled into Tony’s side and doesn’t say anything, but Tony knows that it’s because the boy was worried and doesn’t want to tell. As if Tony didn’t know already.
It turns out Jarvis is a much better tutor. He still makes Tony learn all the boring stuff, but he doesn’t expect to get a correct answer every time he asks about something. He also comes with Tony to his workshop and takes interest in everything he’s built. Tony is a little proud and then even more proud when the man compliments all his plans for the future creations also.
They are going to be good friends. Tony can just feel it.
So the thing is, Tony isn’t all that well skilled in this people thing. Despite having friends and learning how to be polite and charming to old ladies that smelled weird, he still doesn’t understand how people work and he sincerely doubts he’s going to discover it any time soon. Charles keeps repeating to him that he can’t think of people like of machines, because they’re more complicated than that, but Charles doesn’t really know how complicated a single machine can be so Tony doesn’t entirely believe him. The point is, people are strange and their relations are even stranger and Tony is too uninterested to learn all this complexity. He’d rather spend some additional time in his workshop; maybe even build Clint a new bow or something. He’ll stick to superficial contact and the polite mask of the heir to the fortune adults seem to prefer anyway.
But he still knows that what is going on here is not normal. More, it’s not completely legal. Tony should know, Jarvis often makes him read law books to make him aware of what he can and can’t do. All it teaches Tony however is what things people can know he’s doing and what things he should keep to himself and his trusted friends. He doubts that telling Jarvis so would make the man happy with him so he stays silent and continues to read boring tomes.
Anyway, the thing is, this is illegal. What his father and Viscount Rogers are doing is absolutely forbidden and shouldn’t even be possible to orchestrate. It seems however, that with Stark’s money and Roger’s influence nothing is impossible. Tony tries not to feel bitter about it, especially since they’re ruining his future. Well, he’s not entirely sure if they’re ruining it, but he does have a feeling that they’re making it extremely difficult.
He looks at the little bundle of white and blue cloth serenely playing with blocks before him and tries not to frown too hard. He’s trying to practice his ‘game face’ as Clint tends to call it, the one that he needs to use on balls and social gatherings and that needs to be polite and smiling and not showing his trues emotions. It’s really hard right now. Steven, because that’s the name of the cloth bundle, is a quiet child. Tony isn’t sure how he acted when he was two, but he sincerely doubts that he was that calm and quiet. Steven is small for his age and really freaking skinny and Tony, no matter how much he wants to leave, can’t bring himself to go out of the room or even move too suddenly in fear that the boy would fall and break everything in his body. He can claim doing many things, but he’s not going to be responsible for a child’s death. He’s only thirteen, he’s too young to go to jail.
Not to mention that the boy is supposed to be his fiancé now. Right. Tony squints and looks closer at the silent child. Sure, his eyes are kind of pretty, blue like Charles’, although a little darker and Tony finds himself liking that shade, and his hair is golden and floppy, but he’s two for God’s sake. Tony knows that two year olds shouldn’t get engaged. There are problems of consent and what not.
Tony’s family is rich, but they’re only merchants and his father thought about the ways to get them higher on a social ladder for some time now. It’s one thing to pretend to be nobility and the other to actually be. Tony just didn’t know he would be a victim of this upgrade. Him and Steven. He looks at the boy and softly pushes the wooden block he couldn’t reach toward him and is momentarily blinded by the bright smile he’s thanked with. He doesn’t think little kids should have smiles like that, it’s unfair for the rest of the populace. He muses that it’s probably why Steven is still even alive, he just flashes this big, sunny smile at people and they fall over themselves to protect him from the smallest gust of wind. Tony tries to pretend he didn’t do that even before. He’s just naturally nice person, it’s not his fault.
He wonders why the Viscount is not only agreeing to this arrangement, but even pushes it forward actively. He heard rumours that Roger’s fortune is almost non-existent by now, but he knows there should never be much faith put into these stories. It seems however that this time they were spot on. He can’t think of any other reason why the tiny Steven would have to be promised to him. His father would finally get the title for his family and the Viscount can be sure that his son’s financial future will be steady. Tony doesn’t have much interest in his father’s trade, but he knows that he will be able to control it if the need comes. He’s a genius for a reason.
Steven topples forward and before Tony even registers moving he has arms around tiny boy, preventing the boy from falling. He moves closer, tucking the bundle into his side. It’s not that he likes the kid, it’s just that it’s safer this way. He sighs and wonders how much the smiling boy will hate the stupid arrangement. He can’t imagine he would be happy to learn his father sold him not long after his birth to some stranger. Tony doesn’t have any illusions about how he would be seen in this arrangement, even if he’s not exactly guilty of anything. He’s not guilty at all to be precise. He sighs and starts playing with the blocks with Steve, silently praying to God that he doesn’t exactly believe in that it would work out somehow.
He still doubts very much it will be the case.
He gets more proof of his inept social skills at the next fair in town. It’s just, he has troubles forgetting about Steven, a little bundle of joy who just got convicted to the lifetime with Tony. He knows it’s not the easiest life one can have. His parents don’t hesitate to repeat that to him often.
But knowing and getting kneed in the balls for that are two different things.
He doesn’t really expect it to be honest. The morning is an ordinary one, with Jarvis putting him in a nice clothes and making sure his hair isn’t too wild. Tony’s pretty sure that it’s always going to be somehow wild and nothing the old man will try is going to change this fact. And Jarvis does try. He tries a lot. It’s just that nothing works. One day, Tony is going to come up with some genius invention that will comb his hair into perfection so his tutor wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Tony really likes Jarvis. If he wasn’t too old to know that love doesn’t really exist, he would even say he loves the man.
Then they took their best coach and driven to town when they met with Count Xavier and his wife. Charles didn’t attend, because apparently he was sick. Tony made a note to employ Clint and Natasha into checking that little fact. It wouldn’t be the first time Charles is left to tend to himself in a mansion, because his mother can’t be bothered to look after him during some sort of social gathering. Or that they let Cain alone with him and Charles really is sick, only not natural sick and then Tony wants to know even more since they did promise the big oaf they would hurt him really hard if he even lay a finger on little Xavier again. Natasha is especially vicious with that little knife she always stashes in her dress somewhere. Tony doesn’t even want to wonder where she does keep it, he’s pretty sure she’d know he thought of it and would kick him in the shin again. Or something worse.
But back to the topic at hand, meaning Tony being socially awkward. He ditched his parents early on to some other stuffy people talking about coffee prices and city fashion or something other stupid topics and dragged Jarvis to the stall with caramel apples. He loved these things and it wasn’t often he had an occasion to have one. Only on fairs like that and they didn’t happen often. He held the red apple covered in a hot sauce almost reverently, unsure if he should bite into it first or maybe lick at the hot caramel and stubbornly ignored Jarvis’ fond chuckles. This was his treat for doing well in his lessons and he has to admit that if he was promised this every time he did good on a test, he would have the best grades in a history of grades.
And then he was jostled and his beautiful, tasty sweet fell down in the mud. He stood motionless looking at his feet when his prize was laying and he felt something stinging his eyes. That was completely unfair. He worked hard to get it and his father will not allow for another even if Tony promises to pay for it himself. It was one in a time treat and now it lays dirtied and inedible in the dirt at his feet and it’s not fair.
He swirls around with an angry expression and comes face to face with a little girl, maybe ten years old, with short brown hair and big blue eyes. She looks horrified and stammers apologies at him, but it doesn’t matter. Who cares if she feels bad about running into him, it doesn’t bring his apple back. He takes a deep breath, points his fingers at the girl’s chest and hisses some few unsavory words about her. He’s lucky Jarvis doesn’t have as good a hearing as he sometimes claims to have or he’d be surely punished. He’s also very happy at the moment that Charles isn’t there or the wasted apple wouldn’t be the only thing laying in the mud right now. His best friend hates it when Tony uses words he learnt from Clint.
The girl pales and then starts crying and Tony thinks that maybe it should make him feel worse than he does. But then some older girl, similar to the first one if it wasn’t for the long blond hair, runs over to them and seeing the younger one’s tears unceremoniously kicks tony in the crotch. And it hurts.
He yells in pain and bends in half and then there’s Jarvis and some other adults who are the girls’ parents, Tony presumes, and a lot of arguments. Jarvis stands up for him even though he made the little one cry and Tony can feel something swelling in his chest. None of the adults have ever stood up for him before. In a show of childishness unheard of him, he hugs Jarvis across his middle and hides his face in the man’s side, trying very hard not to cry. There is sudden silence and then Jarvis is hugging him back and exchanges some silent words with other adults. The blond girl is tugging at Tony’s sleeve and he reluctantly turns his head to her.
“I’m sorry.” She says and Tony sniffles in confusion. That doesn’t happen often either. “My name is Carol and this is my little cousin Jan.” She gestures at the little girl who gives him a small smile despite him being intensely rude to him earlier. “Sorry for kicking you. I’m a little protective over her.” She smiles lightly and Tony can’t help but smile back. He knows how it feels to protect someone dear to him.
He frees one of his hands and shakes hers, only a little smaller one, vigorously.
“I’m Tony. It’s a pleasure to meet you. You have some good characteristics of an Avenger.”
She gives him a puzzled look and Jan giggles behind her.
“I heard about it from Natasha” the little girl says and Tony looks at her in a new light. A friend of Natasha can’t be as innocent as she looks. “I’ll tell you all about it at home.”
They say goodbye soon after, having a small chat in the meantime and being polite to adults.
Jarvis buys him another apple with a promise not to tell father and Carol and Jan show up on the next Avengers meeting. Tony writes off the day as a complete success. Even if he walked funny for the rest of the day.