"Do you really think now is the appropriate time for this?"
Sometimes Steve wonders if he sounds as prissy and condescending as he thinks he does. It's just that, inevitably, Tony seems to know all his buttons and the exact sequence in which to push them in order to work him into a state of internal frenzy. For instance, taking twenty minutes to fiddle with something on his armour right after they've been called in for a briefing by Director Fury, thus guaranteeing they'll be a few minutes late. Stark is always late, of course, though never by more than a few minutes: just enough so that he can be the last one in the room and make a grand entrance. It drives Steve crazy, partly because he hates being late, hates having attention drawn to himself, and partly because he knows Tony does it on purpose because of those first two things.
Tony flashes him a grin from where he's still sitting on a stool at his workbench. "Almost done, Captain OCD. You wouldn't want me to leave a literal chink in my armour before heading out, would you? I'm sure that your Standard Safety Protocols wouldn't stand for that."
"Look, for the last time I don't have any—oh, why do I bother?" Steve throws up his hands and turns away. Instinctively he feels the projectile coming at his head and sidesteps in time for the grease-soaked rag Tony threw at him to miss him entirely and land with a wet splat at his feet. "Oh, very funny," he turns back, rolling his eyes. "Throwing filthy things like a monkey. Very mature, Stark."
Tony grins, eyes twinkling. "Oh, c'mon, Capsicle. Where's your sense of whimsy? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear you sprang from Nick Fury's head fully-formed, like Athena, only she had a better sense of humour."
"You're a child," Steve spits, exasperated. "It's like you never grew up at all."
To his surprise, the amused look fades from Tony's face, his expression closing off, unreadable. "And what would you know about that, exactly?"
Steve's taken aback, but before he can answer, an alarm starts beeping shrilly, and Coulson's voice sounds in his ear. "Captain, we've got a situation."
Tony grins at him, the same awful, fake grin he reserves for cocktail parties and press conferences he doesn't want to attend. "Tell you what, Captain, instead of making judgements about things you know nothing about, how about you lead us into battle against the bad guys?"
There's no time to figure out just what went wrong, here. They'll sort it out after the latest threat has been neutralized, Steve decides, switching on his comm link.
"Why do you do that even when we're all in the same building?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "Just come on, would you Stark? We'll finish this later."
"Whatever you say, Cap," Tony says, the smirk audible in his tone.
Steve is beginning to think that, despite what anyone might say, he's doomed never to finish any of his conversations with Tony at all, a lifetime of unfinished business.
It’s in the nature of battle for things to go to Hell in a handful of seconds, but somehow it takes Steve by surprise almost every time. He's learned to roll with the punches, whether it be to rethink his tactics and send half his men to flank a heretofore unseen artillery nest, to order an orderly retreat, or, when necessary, to redirect a plane right into the Arctic Ocean if it means saving the world. Still, it doesn't mean he's in any way used to the terrible spike of adrenaline that accompanies the unforeseen, the way his heart tries to crawl its way into his mouth, the sudden certainty that this is the moment when the serum's going to fail once and for all and his lungs are going to shut down from the stress.
This time proves to be no exception. Although now he’s surrounded by a team composed of what are arguably the most powerful and capable people on the planet, even they aren’t entirely immune to the energy draining weapons that the giant—whatever the hell these things are—are aiming at them. Well, Thor might be immune, but none of the Avengers are truly willing to put that to the test. If anything, the creatures sort of look like praying mantises, and while Steve isn’t exactly an expert in entomology (and wouldn’t Hank Pym come in handy right about now?), he’s pretty sure that mantises—praying or otherwise—don’t come equipped with death rays.
The team is holding its own. Like all giant bug creatures (and, really, how weird is his life that Steve has experience with more than one kind of giant bug creature), their weakness is mainly in their legs, which break surprisingly easily when attacked at the joints. They make a horrible sound of crackling exoskeleton when they fall, but fall they do, and Thor and the Hulk are cheerfully smashing their way through the thickest part of the—what’s the plural form for that, anyway? Horde? Swarm? Column? Steve takes a second to shake himself, annoyed that he’s getting to be just as bad as Tony for letting his thoughts run away with him in the middle of combat. Somewhere off to his right he catches a glimpse of flashing black and red as Natasha springs effortlessly through the air, aiming bullets at leg joints with deadly precision. Clint, perched on a nearby rooftop, is doing an admirable job of shepherding all the creatures with exploding arrows, forcing them into a bottleneck of narrow streets where they make even easier targets.
"We got a straggler," Tony’s voice comes over the com link as Steve takes the legs out from under one of the mantises. "Shit, it’s heading straight for a school bus. I got this," he says before Steve can so much as open his mouth.
Then again, he would have directed Tony to try and head it off anyway, so there’s not much point in saying anything anyway. He catches his shield on the rebound, brings down two more of the things just as the same kind of weird portal that opened up earlier in the afternoon in order to unleash the monsters on the unsuspecting city opens once more. The mantises, as though obeying a signal only they can hear—and who knows, it’s as good an explanation as any—turn away slowly, heading back for the portal, and Steve seizes the opportunity.
"Head them off! Hawkeye, Black Widow, I want all these things off the streets in two minutes."
"Roger," Natasha replies just as Clint answers, "Two minutes? Hell, I’ll give you one."
Thor and the Hulk are already doing their parts, dodging the flailing limbs and, more importantly, the increasingly frequent rays being aimed at them. Hulk goes as far as to pick up the creatures and bodily toss them back into the void, while Thor avails himself of Mjölnir to achieve the same effect.
"Iron Man, we’re herding them back to where they came from. Can you get yours in here?" There’s no answer, and Steve feels his heart skip a beat in his chest, even though theoretically the serum is supposed to prevent that from ever happening. "Iron Man, do you copy? Tony?"
There’s a terrible crash from behind him, and Steve whips around in time to see the straggler Tony was after smash against the corner of a building and come down amidst a pile of rubble, long limbs twitching, a smoking crater where the back of its head used to be. He breathes a sigh of relief—if it’s dead, then Tony must be okay—and turns his attention back to where the last of the mantises are disappearing through the portal, which then vanishes with a deceptively quiet Pffwt!
For a few seconds there’s silence, punctuated by the occasional patter of still-falling stonemasonry. Steve takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. "Good job, everyone. Check in, please."
The Hulk doesn’t really check in, of course, but the sound of angry roaring kind of takes care of that anyway. Besides, Steve has a visual on him, and he can already see that it won’t be long before he returns to being Bruce.
"I am well, and thank you for your concern!" Thor booms into his mouthpiece, apparently forgetting just how much that hurts other people’s eardrums. Steve makes a mental note to remind him of that later. "I shall remain with our friend the Hulk until he regains his other form."
"Much appreciated. Black Widow? Hawkeye?"
"Present," Natasha says softly. "I’m not hurt."
"Same here," Clint volunteers. "Is it me, or was that weirder than usual?"
"I fail to see how, friend!" Thor opines, and Steve winces and wonders if Tony might be able to do something to regulate his volume control specifically.
He’s waiting for Tony to say something sarcastic at that, but there’s nothing. Steve raises a hand automatically to his ear, even though there’s no need—Starktech works as advertised, always. "Tony? You okay? Check in, please."
"I see him—shit, he’s down!" Steve can hear the sudden tension in Clint’s voice. "I got him, corner of Marine and 3rd, I’m on my way!"
Steve’s already running, but Clint has a head start on him. By the time he gets within range Clint is already in place, a dark silhouette standing above the red and gold armour lying on the ground. Steve is by his side in seconds, his mouth already moving to ask why Clint isn’t helping him, when he sees exactly why Clint hasn’t moved. The armour is empty. It's a scorched, half-melted mess, lying in an ungainly heap on the ground, but there's no sign of its usual occupant. The breastplate is the only part that hasn't been affected by the heat, but it's cracked in a way that's all but guaranteed to make Tony bitch about having to perform repairs later.
"Oh my God," Steve breathes. The empty armour is uncomfortably reminiscent of a corpse—especially without the light of the arc reactor to give it the semblance of life—and he has to resist the impulse to shiver. It’s not Tony, he reminds himself. It’s just a large hunk of metal when Tony’s not in it.
"What the hell?" Clint turns to him, his expression a mixture of worry and confusion.
"I don’t know. He must have had to eject, or whatever," Steve says. He doesn’t really understand all the mechanics of how Tony’s suit comes off and goes on. "Did anyone see him get hit? If one of those rays got him… who knows how the armour would have reacted. Fan out, he can’t be far."
The only person who doesn’t join them in the search is Bruce, still disoriented and being checked over by paramedics after his transformation. Under Steve’s instructions they begin searching in a grid pattern, the coms silent, everyone too worried about what they might find to say anything. Steve keeps expecting Tony to saunter out from behind a building, all swagger and cocky grin and sarcastic quip about how touched he is by their obvious concern. Of course nothing of the sort happens, and Steve’s heart starts beating an increasingly erratic tattoo against his ribcage until, finally, Clint’s voice comes back over the coms.
"Uh, Steve? I think you’d better come see this."
"Did you find him?" he starts jogging toward Clint’s location, puzzled by the hesitation he can hear in his voice.
"Uh… just get here, would you?"
Steve puts on a burst of speed, arriving in time to see Natasha coming toward him, the expression on her face nothing short of a smirk. "What’s happening? Is Tony okay?" he asks, and she lifts one shoulder in the sort of infuriatingly Russian half-shrug he’s come to expect from her in situations like this.
"See for yourself," she points down the narrow alley behind her, where he can just make out Clint, who’s dropped to a crouch next to a large rusting dumpster.
As he approaches, Steve hears Clint talking in low and urgent tones to someone or something behind the dumpster, too quietly for him to decipher what he’s saying. To his surprise, though, a moment later he hears another voice, high-pitched and shrill with fear.
"Don’t touch me!"
"Come on," Clint says a little louder, his tone wheedling. "Just come out of there, okay? No one’s going to hurt you." He glances at Steve. "A little help, here?"
It has to be a child, and Steve immediately feels a pang of pity, right up until he hears the next words. "My daddy doesn’t pay ransoms, you should know. There’s no point trying to kidnap me."
Clint snorts and moves out of the way as Steve approaches. "I got nothing, here."
"Tony?" Steve steps up, trying very hard to keep his jaw from dropping at the sight of a small boy, swimming in Tony Stark’s oversized AC/DC t-shirt. His pants and shoes are long gone, and his face is smeared with dirt, hair askew, but there’s no mistaking the glow of the arc reactor under his t-shirt, nor the familiar spark in his eyes. "Good Lord."
Tony’s eyes widen until they seem to swallow his entire face, and he goes very still, like a rabbit gone to ground. At least he doesn't seem visibly injured, so that's a start.
"Tony, do you know who I am?" Steve asks, keeping his tone gentle. He sinks to a crouch, so as not to alarm the boy, and is relieved when Tony nods wordlessly. Thank goodness for small mercies. "So you know we’re friends, right?" That gets him a slightly incredulous stare.
Natasha clears her throat from right behind his left shoulder, startling him. "Um, Steve, Tony knows that you’re Captain America. Right, Tony?"
Tony’s gaze slides toward her, then back toward Steve, and he nods again, and that’s when Steve gets it. This Tony has no idea that he’s just Steve, that Tony himself is Iron Man, that he and Steve are colleagues, that they're part of the greatest team of superheroes the world has ever known. This Tony is just a confused, frightened kid trapped behind a dumpster by a bunch of grown-ups he doesn’t know, and damn if that doesn’t break Steve’s heart just a little.
"Okay," he says, forcing some cheer into his tone. "In that case, you know I’m one of the good guys, right? Good," he says, when he gets another nod, then holds out his hand. "How about we take you home?"
Tony looks uncertain. He glances down at himself, then scrubs then back of his hand against one cheek, smearing more dirt there than before. "Daddy’s going to be mad if I go home like this."
Damn it. "Tony, how old are you?"
"Six and three-quarters."
Steve has dealt with enough little kids as Captain America, so he dutifully whistles in admiration. "Wow. You’re pretty big, all right. Practically a grown man, am I right? Listen, Tony, I promise we’ll get this all sorted out, okay? I just need you to trust me."
It might be cowardly, but he doesn’t want to have to be the one to explain to a kid who’s barely old enough to be in school that his father has been dead for years, not if he doesn’t have to. If they’re lucky, then whatever this is will wear off before too long, and the point will be moot. He pulls off his mask, not missing the way Tony’s face lights up a little, and holds out his hand again.
"My name is Steve, and I’m a friend of your father’s. I would very much like to be your friend, too. Would that be all right? Would you like that?"
At that, Tony very gingerly uncurls from where he’s pressed up against the dumpster, reaches out and slips one tiny hand into Steve’s. He lets himself be hoisted onto Steve’s hip and clings to his chest, bare feet dangling as Steve strides purposefully out of the alley and back toward where he knows Agent Coulson will have a car waiting for them. Sure enough, a black sedan is already idling, and Coulson raises one questioning eyebrow when he sees them coming.
"We’ll need to arrange to have the suit brought back separately," Steve tells him, shifting Tony a little so he’ll be more comfortably settled on his hip. "We’ve had a bit of a complication."
"So I see. What happened?"
Steve shakes his head ruefully. "I have no idea."
Tony starts to drowse in Steve’s arms within minutes of getting in the car, plainly exhausted, and doesn’t so much as open his mouth during the ride back except to cough quietly a couple of times, presumably the lingering results of breathing in whatever toxic crap tends to hang in the air after a battle.
Steve tries to insist that they return to the Stark mansion, where Tony agreed to host them all in what Steve can only view as a moment of temporary insanity. Or, more accurately, a moment in which Tony was more insane than usual.
"If you want to have him examined, you can at least have it done in familiar surroundings and not in one of those sterile rooms at S.H.I.E.L.D.," he tells Coulson. "He’s already terrified enough as it is without adding that to the trauma."
Coulson shakes his head, though. "Out of the question. Think about it," he says, then glances down at the kid resting against Steve's chest, eyes at half-mast, skinny legs sticking out from under the now-oversized AC/DC t-shirt, and deliberately lowers his voice. "We don't know what caused this. Are you really willing to risk it being something potentially life-threatening? At S.H.I.E.L.D. we can at least get him checked out by a doctor, make sure he's not immediately at risk. After that you can take him home if you want. Sir," he adds belatedly.
It takes a lot for Coulson to contradict him. They usually see eye to eye anyway, and even when they don't Phil tends to defer to his decisions. Steve has never been particularly comfortable with that, always concerned that he's somehow taking advantage of Phil's obvious admiration for the idea of Captain America. He's never sure if Phil agrees with him or if he just wants to agree with his childhood hero, especially after Steve worked diligently with Nick Fury and not only replaced all of the collectible Captain America cards that were damaged during the attack on the helicarrier, but made a point of autographing every single one in indelible marker.
In short, if Coulson is fighting him on this, it's because Steve is probably wrong and is too close to the situation to see it clearly. He just hates the idea of dragging a frightened little kid through the cold corridors of S.H.I.E.L.D. He remembers all too well waking up in that little room, hearing the echoes of a game he could still remember so vividly it felt like he'd only been there a few days before, and finding it was all fake, just a façade propped up by the cold steel and plastic of an organisation whose preferred place is in the shadows. The idea of making anyone else go through that, well, it makes him feel more than a little sick to his stomach. But Phil is right. It makes no sense to risk Tony’s health just in case he doesn’t like being at S.H.I.E.L.D. for a few hours.
"Where are we going? Um, sir?" Tony asks quietly. The honorific appears to be an afterthought, the product of Tony remembering a little too late that he's supposed to be polite to his elders.
"We're going to take you to get looked at by a doctor. Do you remember anything that happened?"
"There was a monster," Tony's voice drops to a whisper, so quiet that Steve has to strain to hear him. "And a big ball of light."
"That's right," he says, and to his surprise Tony relaxes a bit at that. That's when he realizes that Tony wasn't expecting to be believed, that he was expecting to be told not to make up stories. "Did it hurt you?" he asks, and is relieved when Tony shakes his head.
"No. It was like the time I messed with the wires in Daddy's lab and I got a shock and Daddy got really mad at me. My chest feels funny."
"Funny how?" Steve looks him over, but it's not like he's remotely medically qualified, and Tony looks the same as ever, if a lot smaller and younger. "Does it hurt?"
Tony shrugs. "It just feels funny. What is that?" he pokes at the arc reactor under his t-shirt with one hand.
"Uh, it's an arc reactor. I'm not sure how it works, but you should leave that where it is. It's helping to keep your heart working properly."
The boy narrows his eyes at him suspiciously. "What's going on? Everything's different. Nobody ever tells me anything, but I know something's going on. Why aren't we going home? Where's my daddy?"
It figures. Tony didn't become a genius overnight, he was born that way. Steve should have known that he wouldn't be able to keep much from him, not in the long run. "Uh. Okay, yeah, things are different. I'll make you a deal: you let yourself get checked out by the doctor we're going to, and once we're sure you're okay then I'll take you home and I'll explain everything. Deal?"
"Mommy usually lets me get ice cream after the doctor's," Tony says shrewdly, and Steve has to bite the inside of his cheek not to smile.
"I don't see why we need to mess with tradition." He holds out his hand and Tony shakes it solemnly.
Tony gets a clean bill of health from the S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors and a new set of clothes. They're sterile-looking black pants and a white t-shirt through which the blue glow of the arc reactor shows up even more starkly than before, but at least they fit him. Steve doesn't even want to know why S.H.I.E.L.D. has spare sets of children's clothing to hand, but he's not about to question it right now. They don't have shoes his size, but outfit him with a pair of slippers made out of what's probably some sort of high tech material whose name Steve wouldn't even be able to pronounce.
While Tony's getting checked out by a team of doctors and put through a battery of tests and scanned by a bewildering assortment of machines, Steve finds himself sequestered in an office with an overwrought Nick Fury and a quietly worried Phil Coulson. By the end of it they're no closer to figuring out just what happened or what went wrong, and reluctantly they agree with Steve's suggestion that they simply wait and see for now, that perhaps Tony's condition is temporary and will resolve itself with time. The lab techs need to run tests before anything else can be determined, in any event, and everyone otherwise seems to be in agreement that Tony will be better off at home, in familiar surroundings.
Against his better judgment Steve decides it'll be faster to take Tony home on his bike and park at the back of the mansion away from prying eyes. He finds a helmet the right size and drives well below the speed limit, and Tony is delighted, bouncing slightly on the seat in front of him and asking him a million questions about how old the bike is, how it works, whether it's been refurbished, and whether or not he's ever considered upgrading some of the parts.
"I have, actually," he says to that last question as he's lifting Tony off the bike. "It's had a few upgrades already. I'd explain, but I think you understand it better than I do already. You ready for that ice cream?"
Tony nods enthusiastically, then looks at the back door. "The security system is different."
"That's right," Steve is thankful that Tony already programmed it to recognize all of the Avengers' retinas for the scans, rather than just his own and Pepper's, because the door clicks open instantly, allowing them access to the house.
It takes a bit of fussing to set Tony up in the kitchen, mostly because the house hasn't been set up to accommodate a child for a good thirty years or more. JARVIS proves helpful in finding an adjustable stool from the workshop so that Tony can sit at the counter in the kitchen, kicking his heels unselfconsciously against the legs of the stool. He tucks happily into a bowl of vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles (Steve can only assume either Thor or Clint is responsible for the presence of any kind of sprinkles in the pantry), spoon held carefully in his right hand in a way that suggests that Maria Stark spent a lot of time teaching him proper table manners.
"So I guess you must have a lot of questions," Steve says, glancing at the clock and ruefully realising that he's essentially just fed the boy ice cream for dinner.
"Uh-huh." Tony looks like he's got so many questions he doesn't even know where to begin asking them.
"How about you tell me exactly what you remember, and we'll go from there?"
"I already told all the doctors what I remember," Tony says mutinously. "Why doesn't anyone want to tell me anything? Something's wrong, right? Did I time travel?"
Steve starts at that. "What? Why would you think that?"
Tony digs his spoon back into his ice cream, takes a bite, and cocks his head. "For one, you're here," he says, ticking it off on his fingers in a way that's eerily reminiscent of his older self. "You're supposed to be dead, or missing. Daddy's been looking for you for decades, and the last I knew, he hadn't found you. For two, everything's different, and better. The cars are smaller and have better shapes and I can hear the motors running better. We didn't have a security system that used your eyes before, and the house talks, now. The medical equipment the doctors used wasn't like the usual stuff, either. The TVs all have flat screens. Besides, I saw a movie poster when we were out on your bike that said it was 2012."
Steve laughs a little incredulously. "Wow. Nothing at all gets by you, does it?"
"So I time-travelled?"
He debates lying for a moment, then decides against it. "No. I mean, I don't think so. As far as we can tell, you just got... changed. This morning, you were an adult, and then something happened to change you back to how you were as a child."
Tony pokes thoughtfully at his ice cream, and Steve can see his mind struggling to process the idea. It's a lot to take in, even for a genius, and Tony's only a little boy. He drops his spoon into his bowl with a clatter, folds his hands in his lap, looking particularly small.
"Are my parents dead?"
"I'm afraid so," Steve forces the words past his lips, but Tony just shakes his head, features pulling into a scowl.
"I don't believe you. You're lying!"
And with that, he jumps down from his stool, lands lightly on his feet, and is gone, disappearing through the kitchen door and into the house.
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "Damn it."
It takes a while to find Tony. It's a very big house, and Tony's a very small boy, and on top of it all Tony knows the mansion better than Steve does, even if his memories are about thirty years out of date. Eventually Steve remembers that the house is actually equipped with an AI and smacks himself repeatedly in the forehead before looking for the nearest access panel. He knows it's not necessary to talk to the panels, but he feels weird just talking to the empty air all the time, and JARVIS doesn't seem to mind.
"Master Tony is in his father's old study, Captain."
"Thank you. Is he all right?"
"He appears physically unharmed, though distressed. Would you like me to provide a reading of his vital signs?"
"No, thank you, that's not necessary. I'll go in and talk to him."
To his relief, Tony is not only exactly where JARVIS said he would be, he's not even crying. Instead he's climbed up onto a chair and is intently looking at a framed article on the wall behind Howard's old desk. There's a picture of Howard atop the article, front and center, next to a teenaged Tony, alongside a much newer-looking Dummy. Howard is smiling at the camera, showing off the gleaming first-prize trophy his son just earned, while Tony is glancing sidelong at his father, his expression pleased but uncertain, as though he's waiting for Howard to look back at him.
To Steve's surprise, Tony turns back to him. "Daddy says you never lie," he says quietly.
It's the sort of thing that surprises Steve to hear, even to this day, all these things people believe about Captain America. That he never tells lies, is never afraid, that he always does the right thing. As though he's somehow better than everyone else, when all Steve has ever tried to do was get through the day without everything going to hell on him. Right now, for instance, he hates himself just a little bit for the slump in Tony's shoulders.
"C'mere," he says, and is more than a little relieved when Tony lets him pulls him into a hug. Tony holds himself very still, but leans a little bit against him and doesn't protest when Steve rubs circles on his back. "I know it's a lot to take in all at once."
"Who's gonna take care of me now?" Tony asks, and Steve honestly has no idea what to say that's going to make this any better.
"I will," he promises, for whatever's that worth, and hugs Tony a little harder. He can feel the kid shaking a bit with the effort not to cry. "And all your friends here. We're not going to let anything happen to you."
"Steve?" A soft, feminine voice comes from behind them. "JARVIS told me you might be—oh."
He looks up to see Pepper standing in the doorway to the study, hand held to her mouth. Her hair is pinned in a bun, but a few strands have come loose to frame her face. She must have just flown in from her meeting in Atlanta, because she's still dressed in a neatly pressed dark grey suit with a peach-coloured ruffled blouse, complemented with a single cameo on a silver chain around her neck. Steve has never quite figured out how she always manages to look pulled together no matter the circumstances.
"Tony?" she asks, unable to hide her surprise. "Oh my God," she repeats. "I couldn't believe it when they told me. Um, hi," she says when Tony slips out of Steve's arms and makes his way over to her. "I'm Pepper."
Tony has to tilt his head at an almost impossible angle to look at her, but he flashes her a big smile, revealing a set of perfect, pearly little teeth. "You're pretty."
Pepper blushes a little and smiles back, dropping to a crouch in front of him. Somehow she manages not to make it look patronising. "You haven't changed all that much, I guess. Has Steve been explaining things to you?"
"Yeah. So are you the grown-up me's girlfriend?"
Pepper rolls her eyes. "Grown-up you doesn't like to define relationships. You about done looking around in here?" she asks, and Tony nods, accepting the deflection. "You want to see where your room is now?"
"You must be pretty tired, huh? It's been a long day already, and it's not even over. Want a ride?"
Tony doesn't answer, but Pepper seems to take it as acceptance, because she lifts him onto one hip and lets him wrap both arms around her neck to steady himself. Suddenly at a loss as to what to do with himself, Steve trails after them, feeling a little like an abandoned golden retriever and more than a little foolish in the process.
He probably should have realised that Tony wouldn't recognize his bedroom. "It wasn't in here before," he says, staring dubiously at the king-sized bed, which is fitted with very expensive white sheets that only rarely get slept on for more than a couple of hours at a time.
"You moved into a bigger room when you got older," Pepper tells him. "Your old room is still there, but you turned it into a guest room. You want me to ask JARVIS if any of your old things are still in the house? Toys and clothes and stuff?"
Tony rubs at the casing of the arc reactor, staring at his feet. "Am I going to stay like this?"
"We don't know. I don't think so, though. Probably not. We're going to try to fix this."
Tony tugs a little on his t-shirt and nods once. Pepper strokes his hair and, to Steve's surprise, Tony leans into her touch a little. "There's a pair of pajamas ready for you already, and we'll find some new clothes for tomorrow. I know it's early still, but if you're tired you can sleep for a while. We'll deal with everything else in the morning."
"Mommy always tucks me in." Tony's voice doesn't waver this time, but Steve feels a lump form in his own throat anyway.
Pepper gives him a quick squeeze. "I know, but just for now you're going to have to make do with me and Steve, okay?"
She lets Steve help Tony into a pair of pajamas, sensing in that uncanny way she has, that having a woman help with this part of his bedtime routine might not be welcome so soon after the news that Tony is never going to see his mother again. Even if Tony, like most kids his age, doesn't seem to quite grasp the finality of death yet. The arc reactor is glowing brightly against Tony's chest, looking bigger than ever. Or maybe it's just that Tony is so small, like this, that Steve can see all his ribs sticking out just beneath his skin. He looks impossibly tiny in the huge bed, so far off the floor that Steve actually gives him a boost so he can scramble up, the comforter pulled up around his waist like a poor imitation of a thick snowfall.
Steve pulls the comforter up over his shoulders. "You think you can get some sleep?"
"I don't know." But the boy's eyelids are already drooping, and he's asleep in seconds, much to Steve's relief.
He looks up to see Pepper watching them both, bottom lip caught in her teeth. "What now?"
One of the few side effects of the serum that made him—quite literally—the man he is today, is that Steve doesn't need much sleep. In fact, even on days when he'd much rather lose himself in the pleasant oblivion of his dreams, he wakes up within about four hours, rested and brimming with more energy than he knows what to do with. He usually makes a point of getting up sometime around three in the morning and making his way to the gym on the third floor and doing his level best to beat the stuffing out of a punching bag. Tony was kind enough to design one that so far has withstood even the most strenuous attempts to destroy it on his part, which is saying something, even by Starktech standards.
He's in the middle of a fairly complex sequence of punches and kicks when a small voice pipes up and nearly makes him jump out of his skin. "What're you doing?"
He stops, rests his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. "Tony! What are you doing up?"
Tony's barefoot, clad in the same powder blue pajamas he was wearing when he went to bed, one leg of the pants rucked up over his knee, hair tousled, cheeks flushed from sleep. He scuffs one foot against the floor, hugging his arms to his chest, though even that isn't enough to mask the glow of the arc reactor, which flickers a little when he coughs.
"I couldn't sleep. Why do you hit the bag that hard?"
"I'm just working out. It keeps me fit, lets me burn off some energy. I run, too, when I can, but I try to do that when it's light out." He has no idea why he's explaining in so much detail when it's unlikely Tony is even interested in the answer, but the boy nods, as though what he's saying makes perfect sense. "Why couldn't you sleep? Did you have nightmares?"
"No." Tony shakes his head, but Steve isn't sure he's telling the truth. Before he can press the point, though, Tony pipes up again. "How come you're still alive? Daddy said your plane crashed and that he was looking for the wreckage. JARVIS said you were caught in the ice, but you should be dead."
Steve rocks back on his heels a little. "Uh. JARVIS said that?"
"Uh-huh. JARVIS is super smart. He says I'm going to build him when I'm grown up. Or that I built him when I was grown up. Him and Dummy and Butterfingers, and the armour and this," he rubs at the arc reactor with his fingers. "But he won't tell me about you, he just said I should come and ask you. Do you still have your shield? The one Daddy made?"
Steve pauses. "Well, yes. But I generally use the new one you made for me, out of Vibranium."
Tony glances down at the arc reactor in his chest, rubbing at it again with his fingers. It has to be strange, Steve thinks, to wake up one day and find that there's something entirely foreign inserted into your body. He knows a little bit about what that's like, waking up to everything being different.
"JARVIS said that the core of the reactor is made out of that too," Tony pokes at the arc reactor in a way that makes Steve very, very nervous. "Daddy invented the... he did the formula when I was a little kid, but he couldn't make it back then, and then I made it up again when I was grown up, and I made this because some bad men hurt me and I needed it to live."
"So if I take it out, what happens? Would I just die?" Tony asks, expression guileless, and Steve feels his heart lurch unpleasantly at the thought.
"Not right away, but... yes. After a few days." Although, for all Steve knows, the shrapnel in Tony's chest isn't there anymore, or maybe because he's so much smaller now, it's that much closer to his heart. "Don't fiddle with it, okay?"
"Okay. Can I see your shield?"
Steve's beginning to feel like he's getting whiplash from how fast Tony's mind flits from subject to subject. He wonders if this is how Tony is all the time, even as an adult, if he's just learned to keep most of his erratic thoughts to himself because no one would be able to keep up with him.
"Uh, sure. It's not here, though, I keep it in my room. You want to go now?"
Tony trots easily beside him as they go up to Steve's room. "How did you survive under the ice? Was it cold? Did you know what was happening?"
"The serum kept me alive, I think," he answers as truthfully as he can, a little uncomfortable in spite of himself. He's not accustomed to people asking him directly about his time 'away,' as he sometimes thinks of it. "And yeah, it was cold. I don't really remember most of it." He shivers a little, unable to shake the ever-present feeling of the cold trying to seep its way back into his veins.
Tony, it turns out, is entranced with the shield, even though he can't really lift it. He sits on the floor of Steve's room with it pulled halfway into his lap, and asks questions at a rate that leaves Steve reeling. He doesn't think he can even answer half of them, but luckily JARVIS intervenes to help him, and starts answering the more technical questions in a way that's understandable for a boy Tony's age, even if he is spectacularly gifted.
Tony's enthusiasm is so infectious that it actually takes Steve a few minutes to realise that the boy is shivering under the shield. When he looks more closely he can see that Tony's hands and feet are freezing cold, that his lips are starting to turn blue. He gets up from where he was kneeling on the floor and rummages through his cupboard for a blanket that will fit Tony, and much to his embarrassment the only one he can find is a thick polar fleece Captain America throw, complete with shield and winged helmet—a gag gift from Tony, when Steve first moved in. ("To get you through all those chilly nights, Capsicle.") All the others are far too big and heavy, though, so he swallows his pride and pulls it out.
"Next time you're feeling cold, you just tell me, okay?"
It seems as though this kid will never stop surprising Steve, because Tony's face lights up at the sight of the blanket. "Cool!"
"You like it?"
He gets an enthusiastic nod. "It's like the sheets I used to have on my bed. My old bed, not the one I have now."
Huh. That is... not what Steve was expecting to hear. "Would you like to keep it?"
"Sure. As long as I can borrow it every now and then," Steve teases, but Tony nods earnestly, as though it's perfectly natural that Captain America would want to borrow a fleece blanket with his own image on it. He glances at the clock, realises it's almost seven in the morning. "So, you hungry? It's nearly breakfast time."
Natasha's already in the kitchen when they get there. S.H.I.E.L.D. training guarantees that both she and Clint are usually awake first, apart from Steve. Clint generally goes for a run in the morning, but Natasha often prefers to do her running in the evening, in the grey of twilight just before dark. Tony is never up before noon except on the days when he forgets to go to bed, while Bruce and Thor tend to rise just a little later than the two agents, Bruce especially if he's been up late running tests in his lab.
Steve has come to appreciate the quiet mornings spent in Natasha's presence—neither of them has ever felt the need to speak, but they share a cup of coffee and the morning paper, and sometimes she makes eggs and sometimes he makes pancakes, and they just sit in the morning sun without so much as exchanging a word.
Natasha looks up from where she's pulling a carton of eggs from the fridge. "Good morning," she says. "Did you sleep well?"
"Not all that much," Steve answers, though he thinks the question was directed at Tony.
"Captain Rogers showed me his shield," Tony says, bouncing a little on his toes. He's still got the blanket wrapped around his shoulders a bit like a cape, and Natasha smiles at him. All of Natasha's smiles are beautiful, but Steve rarely gets to see this one, open and relaxed, and maybe just a little amused.
"I'll bet he did. I like your blanket, it looks like a cape like that. Are you a superhero?" she asks, and there isn't a trace of irony in her voice.
"I'm going to be one when I grow up, like Captain America."
"Captain America is pretty incredible," she agrees. Tony pulls away from Steve to go stand next to her by the stove, and, okay, no, Steve is definitely not jealous that Natasha appears to be Tony's new favourite person, because that would be ridiculous and immature. "How do you like your eggs, zajchik?"
"Scrambled, please." If Tony doesn't recognize the Russian word, he doesn't ask about its meaning. Steve, on the other hand, is burning with curiosity, but he's enjoying watching the two of them together too much to want to interrupt with questions.
"Aren't you polite." Natasha's lips twitch ever so slightly, and she arches an eyebrow at Steve, who smiles back sheepishly. "Scrambled it is."
Tony keeps up a steady stream of chatter in between mouthfuls of scrambled egg, and positively beams at Natasha when she makes him a bowl of hot chocolate bigger than his head and tops it with whipped cream. He has to pick up the bowl with both hands and blows carefully on the steaming liquid, turning his head aside to cough so as not to spill it over his hands.
"Any word from S.H.I.E.L.D. about what might have caused this?" Natasha hands Steve a cup of coffee once Tony is happily settled with the comics from the newspapers.
"Not yet. It hasn't even been twenty-four hours, though. For all we know, this will just wear off, anyway."
"Clint and Bruce spent all of yesterday at the invasion site collecting samples. If it's any sort of biological or chemical thing, they'll figure it out."
Steve chews on his lower lip speculatively, thinking back to Loki and the Enchantress, whom he's had the misfortune to encounter before. Once was more than enough, but he wouldn't put this past her. He looks over to see that Tony has finished reading the comics and is busily filling in the crossword puzzle with a pen he found God only knows where. Steve doesn't even bother checking the answers to see if he got them right.
"I expect we'll be hearing from Coulson before long, though. They'll probably want to run some more tests. And, speak of the devil…"
"I'll try not to take that personally," Phil Coulson raps perfunctorily on the doorframe before stepping into the kitchen. He's dressed in the same immaculate dark suit that he always seems to wear, tie perfectly straight.
Steve manages a rueful smile. "Sorry, figure of speech."
"I hope you don't truly think of me as the Devil," Coulson smiles blandly and pulls up a chair next to Natasha, who moves slightly to allow him room at the table. "I'll have to chalk it up to Stark's influence. Good morning, Tony," he says, turning to look at him. "Do you remember me?"
Tony looks up from his crossword and gives him a slightly confused look. "You were in the car yesterday?" he offers, and Coulson nods.
"That's right. I work with Captain Rogers. I was hoping you'd be willing to come back with me to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, where we were yesterday, so we can do some more tests. Would you be okay with that?"
Tony hesitates. "Will it hurt?"
"No. I promise, none of the tests will hurt. Well," Coulson stops. "Actually, I don't know about all the tests. But how about I promise that if one of the doctors thinks a test might hurt, we'll ask for your permission first?"
"That sounds fair. Are you going to make me big again?"
"That's the plan. In the meantime, though, we should get you some clothes that'll fit, and are a bit nicer than the ones you were wearing yesterday. What do you think?"
"Can Captain Rogers come?"
"Sure, if he wants to. Captain?"
"Of course I'll come. But only if you both start calling me Steve, okay?"
Coulson colours slightly, and Tony looks dubious. "Mommy says it's not polite to call grown-ups by their first names."
Right, of course. Not polite. "Okay, how about you call me Uncle Steve in the meantime? That's generally acceptable, as titles go, right?"
"I've always liked being an aunt," Natasha takes a sip of her coffee. "It means I get to spoil my nieces and nephews rotten without any consequences. I think that, once you have new clothes, you and I should test just how much sugar you can handle in a single sitting. What do you think Antoshka?"
Tony beams at her, and Steve's heart plummets into his stomach. If nothing else, this was all going to be a hell of an adventure.
The sound of shattering glass and a startled yell gets Steve's attention like nothing else these days. He takes the stairs two by two until he reaches the lab where Bruce has been working—on his own now ever since Tony's transformation—and breathes a sigh of relief when he catches sight of the scientist picking his way across the wreckage of what might once have been beakers but is now simply a sea of shattered glass. Bruce stops underneath an air vent, mouth pressed into a thin line of annoyance.
"Damn it, Barton!" he yells. "Don't encourage Tony to mess with my experiments! If you must engage in target practice, do it somewhere less volatile!"
Steve steps forward carefully, trying not to let worry creep into his tone. "Uh, Bruce?"
It's been nearly three days since Tony's transformation, and while they're all still adjusting to life with a six-year-old in their midst, Tony himself seems to be taking it in stride. He's taken to Natasha like a fish to water, and tends to follow Steve around as much as possible, asking a million questions a minute, most of which Steve doesn't even know how to begin to answer. He seems to like Clint well enough, or at least enough to let Clint get them both into mischief, but he's uncharacteristically shy around Bruce, and so far he's hidden behind Steve's legs every time Thor has been close by. Privately Steve thinks it's because Thor has yet to figure out how to modulate his voice indoors, not that he'll ever say anything to Thor. He probably wouldn't get it, anyway.
Bruce heaves a long-suffering sigh and turns back to Steve, surveying the debris balefully. "Who let Barton give Tony access to firecrackers? No, really, who thought it would be a good idea? You know he and Barton rigged a high-tech slingshot, right? Do you know what happens when you combine minor explosives with slingshots, Steve?"
Steve looks down at the shattered glass scattered across the floor. "Um, this, I'm guessing?"
Bruce sighs again. "Yeah. The, uh, other guy isn't nearly as fussed about my experiments as I am. It's fine. It's like he expects Tony to screw with me every two minutes. I think he gets a kick out of it, actually," he adds with a slightly sheepish shrug.
"Uh huh," Steve says faintly, distracted by the distinct sound of childish giggling coming from somewhere above their heads. He goes to stand under the vent, feeling slightly foolish. "Tony! Could you come out of there now, please?"
A moment later a different ceiling panel swings open, and Clint lowers Tony carefully onto a counter before jumping down lightly beside him. "Oh, uh, hey Steve."
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "I suppose it would be entirely useless to tell you how dangerous that stunt you just pulled is?"
"Don't be a wet blanket, Cap," Clint winks at him. He's dressed in his usual S.H.I.E.L.D. get-up, and somehow managed to find a set of smaller clothes for Tony that almost matches his own. Steve doesn't even want to know where he got them. "Tony here's been working on his... I don't know if you can call it aim, since it mostly involves jury-rigged explosives. Tony's a real firecracker, aren't you, sport?"
Tony grins up at Clint, then immediately looks abashed when Steve lifts him bodily off the counter and gives him a disapproving stare.
"Tony, I'm very disappointed. You broke Bruce's equipment and ruined his experiment with your little trick. That was very reckless of you. You've caused a lot of damage, and you might have hurt someone."
Tony's eyes widen at that, and Steve struggles to keep his tone stern instead of immediately gathering him into a hug to reassure him.
"I think an apology is in order, don't you?
Tony turns a stricken look in Bruce's direction. "I didn't mean to! I'm sorry. I'm sorry, please don't be mad. Maybe I can fix it?"
Bruce shakes his head. "No, the compound I was working on spilled, and you broke a lot of the beakers I need, so I'll have to start over. I accept your apology, though."
"I'm really sorry. Daddy told me not to mess with the stuff in the lab and I forgot but I'm sorry, I promise, please don't be mad!"
"It's fine, don't worry about it," Bruce looks a little surprised at the sudden break in Tony's voice. When Steve looks down, he sees Tony's lip is trembling slightly, his eyes filling with tears. "Hey," Bruce drops to a crouch and puts both hands on Tony's shoulders. "It's fine. Nothing happened here that can't be fixed, okay buddy? You apologised, and I know you won't do it again, will you?" Tony shakes his head vigorously. "Good."
"No one's mad, Tony," Steve adds. "Except maybe at Clint, because he's meant to be looking out for you and not helping to break Bruce's stuff. Right, Clint?"
Clint has the decency to look a little ashamed, probably more because Tony's visibly upset than because he feels bad about messing with Bruce's stuff. Clint's a good guy underneath all the troublemaking, and definitely not the kind of man who'd take pleasure in making a kid cry. "Um. Sorry."
Tony sniffles and cuffs at his eyes with his sleeve. "You're not mad?" he asks Bruce.
"No, I'm not mad, promise. You'd know if I was, right? I get all big and green, you remember? And then I smash stuff. A lot more than what got smashed just now," Bruce winks, and that gets him a watery smile. "I just need you to promise not to do it again. Okay?"
"Okay. I'm really sorry."
Steve clears his throat. "All right, let's get out of Bruce's way. Clint will help him clean up, won't you, Clint?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure. No problem," Clint's gaze slides uneasily toward first the mess on the floor, then to Bruce, who's staring at him with his arms folded severely over his chest. "Piece of cake."
Steve ruffles Tony's hair. "You want to go see what Aunt Natasha is up to?"
Tony lets Steve take him by the hand and lead him away, still scrubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. Natasha is nowhere to be found, but Tony seems content to settle quietly in his room with a data tablet and Steve and JARVIS for company. Even at not quite seven, Tony seems to have the same intuitive grasp of design that's going to make his company several fortunes when he's older, and with JARVIS answering questions and occasionally guiding him, he's been making progress faster than Steve would have thought possible. Right now, though, it's obvious that his attention isn't at all on the tablet, so Steve lowers himself to sit cross-legged on the floor next to him.
"You want to tell me what's on your mind?" he says, looking over Tony's shoulder at the shapeless doodle on the tablet's drawing app. Tony just shrugs and keeps doodling. "You seemed pretty upset back there. I'd like to help, if I could."
Tony shrugs again. "Daddy doesn't like it when I mess up his stuff. I just... if he was here, he'd yell at me."
"Did Howard yell a lot?"
Tony shakes his head. "Almost never. I broke something once that he was working on for the Expo, and he got really mad and he didn't let me back in the lab ever."
Not for the first time, Steve wishes he could go back in time and shake Howard Stark until his teeth rattled in his head, friend or not. In fact, he wonders that Howard's other friends never bothered to perform this basic duty, of pointing out just what he was doing to his kid. He gets the feeling that, like Tony, maybe Howard didn't have as many friends as people thought he did. It's a sad thought.
"Well, that's not going to happen this time, promise."
He chucks Tony lightly on the shoulder, hating the way the boy keeps hunching in on himself, like he expects a hand to come out of nowhere and hit him. As far as Steve knows, Tony was never struck as a child, but he doesn't appear to understand what physical affection is, either, and shies away from even the most casual attempts at it. Whatever else comes out of this whole mess, Steve is determined that that is one thing they are going to fix for him.
The biggest surprise in all of this comes from Phil Coulson. Steve finds him on all fours on the floor of Tony's room on the fourth morning since Tony's transformation, helping him to build what looks like an incredibly complicated railway set on top of a large piece of what looks like pressed wood, complete with tiny soldering equipment to make sure the trains will run without interruption. Steve doesn't ever remember seeing a toy like this, not even when he was out doing charity work at Christmas at the various toy outlets. This looks more like a collector's set than a children's toy.
"Uh, hi. What are you two up to?"
"Agent Phil is helping me build a railroad," Tony says, his tone suggesting that Steve must be blind not to figure out what's going on. "He's the conductor and I'm the engineer."
"Uh-huh," Tony doesn't look up from where he's carefully connecting two tiny pieces of railway. "The engineer is the most important person on the railways, but the conductor's pretty important too, 'cause without him the trains won't run."
"They still won't run if Barton won't stop knocking over the trees and buildings with Nerf arrows," Coulson grumbles good-naturedly.
"It's bandits attacking the train lines," Tony explains with the air of patience usually reserved for adults talking to unruly children, then turns his head to cough into the crook of his elbow. For all that as an adult Tony makes a point of flouting some of the more ridiculous social conventions, it seems that Maria Stark did raise an exceptionally polite kid. "Some collateral damage is to be expected."
Steve smothers a laugh by pretending to cough himself, and Coulson meets his gaze and winks before going back to gluing the last of a tiny tree to a platform.
"That's what railway security is for. You might be the engineer now, but since you're also CEO you're going to want to hire some, make sure your passengers and cargo stay safe. I can recommend a few people for head of security, which will take some of the pressure off you for all the decision-making, in terms of hiring reliable employees."
"Yeah, okay. People need to be safe, right?"
There's something a little terse about Coulson's tone, and when Steve looks more closely, he can see that his face is pinched and a little pale, lines of pain forming around his eyes and mouth. He's still not entirely recovered from getting stabbed by Loki, even though he's been cleared for light duties, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that crouching and crawling on the floor after an active six year old is probably harder on him than he'd like to admit. Steve moves over and holds out a hand.
"I'm guessing this isn't an entirely social visit, Agent Coulson?"
"Not entirely, and if I have to call you Steve, I'd appreciate it if you'd call me Phil," Coulson accepts his hand gratefully, wincing a little as he lets Steve pull him to his feet. Of a common accord, neither of them says a word more about it. "Okay, you keep working on that," he tells Tony. "I need to talk to Captain Rogers for a minute." He motions to Steve to join him in the doorway. Tony doesn't look up, engrossed in what he's doing, which gives Steve the opening he was looking for.
"Any word?" Steve asks quietly, and Coulson shakes his head.
"Afraid not. S.H.I.E.L.D. is bringing in Hank Pym and Reed Richards on this, to see if they can pinpoint what we've missed. They're flying in this morning, I just came to check on Tony before I go pick them up at the airport."
They can certainly do worse than two of the foremost scientific minds in the world to work on this, and it speaks volumes that Coulson is going in person to get them.
"You're better at this than I thought," Steve says instead of asking the ten thousand worried questions he has, none of which Coulson will be able to answer to his satisfaction anyway. It's not like the man can predict the future. "I wouldn't have pegged you as the type for toy railroads..." he stops when Coulson's expression turns a little sad, eyes trained on the small boy bent over his toys. "Sorry, I didn't mean to overstep."
"It's fine. My girls live with their mother in Portland. I get them for half of the regular holidays and one month in the summer, whenever the world isn't about to end." There's old pain in the man's voice, and Steve is sorry he ever brought it up.
"Portland? Isn't that where—"
"It's unrelated," Coulson says curtly, and Steve just nods and lets it go.
"I just meant that you're good with him. God knows Tony could use someone in his corner."
To his surprise, Coulson turns and looks up at him with a small smile. "Just because he doesn't know that people are in his corner, doesn't mean there's no one there."
Steve opens his mouth to answer—though he's not sure what he'd even say—but he's interrupted by the sound of Tony coughing while he carefully sets a locomotive down on the tracks and tests whether or not it'll run. He looks at Coulson, and sees his own worry reflected in the agent's expression.
"How long has that been going on?" Coulson asks.
"I don't know. I never noticed it being this bad before."
"He's been coughing on and off all morning. Little kids are always coming down with bugs, it's probably nothing." But Coulson's tone lacks conviction, and he's already making his way back over to Tony. "You feeling okay, kiddo?" he wraps a hand deftly around Tony's forehead, the gesture oddly paternal. It's more than a little weird, thinking of Coulson as anything other than a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but Steve also knows it's ridiculous to assume that these people don't have lives outside of the agency.
Tony twists and squirms a little under the attention. "I'm okay."
"You're a little warm. Listen, I have to go pick up some people at the airport, but I want you to tell someone if you're not feeling well, okay? Can you do that for me?"
Tony shrugs, more uncomfortable than anything else under Coulson's sudden scrutiny. "Yeah, okay."
"Good job. Okay, I'll leave you to it, then. Hang in there." He brushes past Steve, pauses to speak quietly in his ear. "Keep an eye out, would you?"
It was Tony's idea to institute Saturdays as Movie Night when they all first moved in, and it seems easy enough to just keep going with the tradition. Pepper joins them this time around, dressed in yoga pants and a pink t-shirt that she still manages to make look pulled together, hair tied back in a loose ponytail, her face free of make-up. She settles on the sofa and tucks her bare feet beneath her in a gesture that would look childish or coy on any other woman but that she makes look nothing but comfortable, and sips on a glass of white whine while Thor argues amiably and loudly with Bruce over the choice of movies.
"Star Wars has the mightiest battles, my friend," Thor is proclaiming. "Ones worthy of being made into song in Valhalla!"
"We've watched those three times already," Bruce protests. "There's only so much Han Solo I can take, even if Tony worships the guy."
Steve glances over to where Tony has wedged himself on the sofa between Pepper and Natasha, dressed in a pair of Captain America pajamas, bare feet pulled up in front of him in a position reminiscent of Pepper's. If the situation were any different, Steve would be tempted to think that someone, somewhere—probably Tony himself—was making fun of him, but the boy seems to be genuinely a fan of all things Captain America. To hear the others speak, he chatters on about nothing else whenever Steve's not in the room, and when he is present, Tony turns awkward and surprisingly bashful and yet still manages to dog his footsteps everywhere he goes. In his more unguarded moments, Steve wonders just what happened to make Tony let go of his childhood admiration for what Captain America represents and instead began harbouring the deep-seated resentment that Steve encountered when they first met. Somehow, he suspects the blame might lie squarely on the shoulders of Howard Stark. Yet another reason to knock the man down off his pedestal, Steve thinks bitterly.
"Anything other than Star Wars you'd like to watch, Tony?"
No one seems to mind Tony being in charge of movie choice this evening, maybe because they all realise that they're not exactly experts on what is and isn't appropriate viewing for a six-year-old. Tony hesitates, gaze flicking from Steve to Thor to the television.
Natasha nudges Tony in the ribs, and he beams up at her as though she's the Second Coming incarnate. "Have you ever watched The Wizard of Oz, zajchik?"
Steve knows for a fact that Tony has, but when Tony shakes his head he re-evaluates, realising that Tony might have watched it when he was a little older. Natasha breaks out one of her open, sweet smiles that she seems to reserve only for children and sometimes Clint and Phil Coulson and, on one notable occasion, for Steve.
"You like the flying monkeys, don't you Steve?"
He grins and finds himself blushing a bit, rubs the back of his neck. "I'm partial to the Tin Man, actually."
"Of course you are."
"An excellent choice!" Thor booms, clapping Bruce on the shoulder seemingly out of reflex. Bruce flinches and smiles, though it's more of a pained grimace at this stage. "I look forward to seeing the great lion discover his true nature!"
"That settles it, then," Pepper takes another sip of wine. "It's a classic, after all. JARVIS?"
"Very good, Miss Potts. If you could perhaps persuade Thor Odinson to cease standing in front of the screen, I will bring up the film."
Thor roars with laughter, as though JARVIS has just made the best joke of all time, and all but drags Bruce to sit with him on the other side of the sectional sofa. Steve takes his place next to Pepper and accepts a glass of wine, while Clint perches on the back of the sofa directly behind Natasha's shoulder. How he finds balancing on a surface less than three inches wide more comfortable than actually sitting is beyond Steve, but he figures to each his own.
"Agent Coulson not joining us?"
Natasha shakes her head. "He's still at S.H.I.E.L.D., he thinks Pym and Reed might be onto something that will help Tosha here go back to his old self. Would you like that, zajchik?"
Tony looks uncertain, but doesn't say anything. Steve leans over a bit. "What's that word you keep using?"
To his surprise, Clint is the one who answers. "What, zajchik?" he grins down at Natasha, who blushes faintly. "It's a term of endearment. Essentially translates to 'bunny.'"
Bruce sniggers, then immediately stops and tries not to look terrified when Natasha glares at him. "Uh, sorry."
"Just start the movie," Clint snorts, visibly amused.
The Wizard of Oz is a hit. Tony isn't a big fan of the Wicked Witches, regardless of cardinal directions, but he laughs at the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, and watches the bright colours of the Emerald City with something akin to fascination. Once, he leans over and asks Pepper, very quietly, how they made the horse change colour on the screen like that, and she smiles and whispers in his ear that they used multiple horses for the same scene, using many different takes.
"Nowadays they do it all with computers, but back then they had to change the colour of the horses' coats. Actually, the ASPCA wouldn't let them dye the horses, so they used flavoured gelatin, and between takes they had to keep the horses from licking themselves."
Tony giggles at the thought, but Steve is impressed. He remembers seeing the movie and wondering himself how they managed that. "That's pretty neat," he says, and Pepper grins at him.
"I looked it up, once, when it was bugging me at three o'clock in the morning. One of the perks of having Tony around, is that there's always a computer handy to answer all your questions."
Tony's asleep long before the triumphant cry of "Hail to Dorothy—the Wicked Witch is dead!" goes up on the screen. He's tucked in along Natasha's side, head pillowed on her stomach, arms pulled in protectively over his chest, breathing softly and regularly. He doesn't so much as stir when Steve, by unspoken accord with everyone else, carefully scoops him into his arms and carries him, cradled against his chest, all the way back to his bed and tucks his new favourite Captain America blanket snugly around his shoulders.
"Sleep tight, Tony," he says, softly enough so as not to wake him, and without quite knowing why, he presses a kiss to the boy's forehead.
He leaves the door open a crack, makes his way down the hall, strips and slides under the bed covers, where he spends the next few hours staring fruitlessly at the ceiling.
Steve must doze off eventually, because the next thing he knows he's jerking awake with a gasp, the feeling of being encased in ice already fading away into darkness. He sits up, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes, noting the luminous dial on the clock says that it's not quite three o'clock in the morning.
That's what woke him, he realizes. Steve scrambles over on his bed to switch on the light, revealing Tony poised halfway between the door and his bed, hair even more mussed than usual, his cheeks flushed bright red.
"Hey, buddy. Everything okay?"
Tony shakes his head, and to Steve's alarm he sees that the boy is trying very hard not to cry. "I don't feel well."
He's up and crouching next to Tony in a flash. "Tell me what's wrong."
"I don't know. I had a bad dream. There was a monster and there was all this light and my chest feels funny."
"I don't know," there's a definite whine to his tone. "I'm hot and it's hard to breathe, and I promised Agent Phil I'd tell you if I was sick."
"That's right, you did exactly right," Steve presses the back of his fingers to Tony's forehead, isn't surprised to find it burning to the touch. "Yeah, looks like you're running a fever. Come on," he lifts Tony up onto the bed. "What do you mean when you say your chest feels funny? Can you describe it for me?"
Tony coughs and doesn't answer right away. "I dunno. It's tight? It hurts when I breathe."
Steve doesn't know the first thing about childhood sickness. He was a sickly kid himself, and he remembers that all too well, but there wasn't all that much by way of medication when he was Tony's age—no one ever expected him to make it into his twenties, not with asthma as bad as he had, but he'd surprised them all—and he's remarkably ill-equipped to deal with this. It sounds like Tony's just caught a bad bug, but there's no way to be sure.
"JARVIS, do we have any kind of children's medication here? Or a thermometer, at least?"
"There is a thermometer in your en-suite bathroom, Captain Rogers," JARVIS answers promptly, "and an order can be placed with the nearest pharmacy for delivery if you tell me what you need."
Steve runs a hand through his hair. "Yeah, okay. Um, hang tight, Tony, I'm going to get the thermometer and some water, okay?"
Tony nods and draws up his knees to his chest to rest his head on them, hugging his shins. He's in the exact same position when Steve comes back, and doesn't say a word in protest when Steve holds out the thermometer and asks him to hold it under his tongue for at least ten seconds. The fever's higher than Steve was hoping it would be when he checks the digital readout, and he coaxes Tony under the covers and encourages him to finish off the whole glass of water.
"Does anything else hurt aside from your chest? Your throat?"
"My head hurts."
That's probably the fever, not that Steve knows enough about these things to be sure. "I'm going to call a doctor, get someone to take a look at you, okay Tony? I want to make sure this isn't anything serious."
"Okay." Tony sounds subdued, moreso than usual. It's still disconcerting—Steve can't reconcile this quiet, unobtrusive child with his brash, often obnoxious adult counterpart. He wonders just when Tony adopted his present persona, if it wasn't, after all, a necessary wall that he'd had to build to protect the shy boy who worshipped his father and Captain America and yet had neither.
"JARVIS, could you connect me to Dr. Pym, please?"
"Of course, sir. Please hold."
Steve supposes he shouldn't be surprised at the speed with which someone ends up at Tony's bedside. Mysterious age regression combined with illness isn't something any of them really wants to mess with at this stage, given how easily it might turn out to be a lot more serious than any of them suspect. Pym and Richards both come, and Reed surprises Steve even more by turning out to have a gentle demeanour with Tony while he examines him, keeping him distracted with a quiet stream of chatter, both explaining what he's doing and keeping Tony's attention on the less scary aspects of what's happening. It takes a few minutes for Steve to remember that Reed has young boys of his own, that this is probably not his first time sitting up with a sick child.
"It looks like an ordinary lung infection," Reed tells Steve later, when Tony's curled up and sleeping fitfully in his bed. "In a normal child I wouldn't be worried—this sort of thing usually clears up with a course of antibiotics—but given that we don't know exactly what's going on with Tony, not to mention the presence of the arc reactor, I want to keep a close eye on this."
Steve chews on his lip, runs a hand through his hair again. "What aren't you telling me?" He can always tell when someone's holding back, seems to have had an uncanny knack for ferreting out the truth even before he was injected with the serum, and Reed is definitely playing his cards close to the vest on this.
Reed sighs. He looks tired, more careworn than Steve has ever seen him. "I think the problem may be the arc reactor itself."
"It was designed for an adult—a fully grown man with a fully grown heart and lungs, and even then, it caused some interference with lung function. At Tony's age and size now, it's taking up a lot more room in his chest."
"Is that why he's sick now?"
"I think so. It's an opportunistic infection, taking advantage of his diminished lung capacity. Has he been short of breath at all before the fever set in?"
Steve racks his brain, trying to remember the last time he saw Tony even try to run and coming up blank. He remembers all too vividly just what a nightmare running was when he was a kid, when it felt like a vise was tightening around his chest, when the coppery tang of blood filled his mouth after a particularly bad attack—the doctors had tried to explain that it wasn't really blood, but that didn't change the taste, nor how scary it was when you were just a kid and felt like your lungs were on fire, like there was a metal band tightening inexorably around your chest, cutting off your air. The notion that Tony's been living with this for days without saying anything just doesn't bear thinking about.
"He's been coughing on and off from the start, but it started getting worse yesterday."
Reed nods. "Right. Well, there's the infection I want to keep an eye on, but I think it's the arc reactor itself that's going to be our biggest problem. It's too powerful for his heart right now, and I honestly can't tell if it's not doing more harm than good. We can't remove it, of course—the shrapnel in his chest would likely kill him in less than a day, now that he's so small—but the fact is, it's probably overworking his heart and it's definitely limiting his lung expansion."
Steve swallows the lump that's trying to form in his throat. "What are you saying, exactly?"
Reed sighs. "I'm saying that we're on borrowed time, here, unless we can get him back to normal."
After a restless night, Tony seems to rally during the day. He's still flushed with fever, coughing on and off, but he agrees to stay in his own room so long as Steve stays with him in order to play with the trains again, and it seems a small price to pay to get Tony to keep still. Steve has met more than his share of kids since becoming Captain America, of course, but he's never had to interact with any of them for more than a few minutes, just long enough to sign an autograph or take a photo and shake their hands. He likes kids well enough, but his experience with them is limited at best, and it's more than a little humbling to see to what extent this little boy looks up to him, expects him to set an example for the whole world to emulate.
Steve wishes Pepper were here, if for no other reason than he could use the back-up. She seems to have more practice saying 'no' to Tony than he does, after all. Right now, though, she's hopped aboard a flight to God-knows-where in order to put out a bunch of corporate fires started by rumours that something terrible happened to Tony. The rumours do have an element of truth, of course, but it's not like Pepper can let the shareholders in on that. So she's gone, and Steve is left to muddle through as best he can, not that taking care of Tony is a hardship. On the contrary, Steve is a little surprised at how much he's been enjoying this quiet interlude. The only thing he'd wish different is just how sick it's made the boy.
It doesn't take very long before Tony starts to flag again, coughing more than he's playing. He resists a bit when Steve tries to put him back to bed, but he's so small that it's easy enough to just scoop him up and tuck him back under the covers.
"Tell you what. Will you stay put if I read you a story? There's a whole bunch of stories that I can have JARVIS pull up on your tablet-thing," he reaches over to grab the aforementioned tablet from Tony's nightstand. Apparently Captain America is not above bribery when it comes down to it.
"You won't go?" Tony's already listing against him, eyelids drooping.
"No, I'll stay right here. What sort of story do you want?"
"One with trains."
"Trains it is."
Tony's constant ribbing aside, Steve does know how to use most of the modern gadgets that are always lying around the house. It's usually as simple as asking JARVIS to explain their use to him, and the AI is always happy to comply, making the instructions as simple as they need to be for him to understand. He pulls up a story on the tablet called 'The Little Train,' and begins to read.
"Engineer Small has a little train. The engine is black and shiny. He keeps it oiled and polished."
It's a little young for Tony, he thinks as he reads, but Tony doesn't seem to mind, and curls up with his head resting just under Steve's arm, eyes riveted to the images on the screen. They go through three other books on trains before Tony's eyes drift shut, his breathing evening out into sleep. Steve holds his breath for a moment, not wanting to wake him, then carefully pulls up a different book for himself and settles down to wait until it's time to wake Tony for his meds. He must fall asleep without realising it, because the next thing he knows he's got a crick in his neck, and there's a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently.
"You need a break," Natasha tells him. "And a shower," she adds with a small smirk. "Go on, I will sit with him for a little while. He'll be perfectly safe, and I promise I'll call you if there's anything at all."
Steve nods dumbly, and is more than a little surprised to find that his muscles and joints have stiffened from sitting in the same position for so long. It doesn't happen often, which means he must have been here longer than he thought. He gets up and stretches, feeling his muscles begin to loosen almost immediately, and hurries back to his own room for a towel and a change of clothes. He doesn't like the idea of being gone any longer than he has to be, even though reason tells him that Natasha is more than capable of taking care of Tony for a little while. He washes, shaves and dries off in less time than it would take some men just to strip down, and is already pulling fresh clothes on before the last of the water has dried from his hair.
He half-jogs back along the empty hallway, only to stop just outside the door to Tony's room, halted in his tracks by the sound of Natasha's voice, low and softened for Tony's benefit.
"So you don't want to be an inventor when you grow up?" she's asking.
"I'm going to be a superhero," Tony informs her, his voice so hoarse that it makes Steve wince in sympathy. "Like Captain America."
Natasha hums something that could be agreement. "You don't want to be like your father?"
"Daddy wants me to be like Captain America," Tony confides. "He was his friend, you know. He was his friend and that's why he's looking for him. Was looking for him," he amends.
"Why do you think your father wants you to be like Captain America? Don't you think he would want you to be you?"
Tony starts coughing, and Steve purposefully doesn't step forward because he doesn't want to see the expression on the boy's face. Natasha says something he can't make out, her voice low and soothing, and eventually the coughing fit stops.
"I thought, maybe if I was more like Captain America," Tony says quietly, barely managing to speak above a whisper now, "he wouldn't be as disappointed."
Damn Howard Stark, Steve thinks, just as Natasha speaks again. "I think your father just didn't know how to show how proud he really was. You look tired, zajchik. You should try to sleep some more."
"I'm waiting for Uncle Steve," Tony mumbles.
"He'll be here soon, but you should sleep anyway. I promise he'll be back and sit with you, even if you're asleep." She laughs quietly when Tony mumbles something else Steve can't make out. "I know it's hard. Here, I'll show you what my babushka used to do for me when I was your age and sick in bed. You close your eyes—yes, like that—and you imagine that you are looking up at all the stars in the sky, stretching out as far as the eye can see, like millions of diamonds in the moonlight. Good," Natasha says, her voice dropping even further.
For a few moments, there's nothing but silence, punctuated by the beeping of the monitors, and Steve is about to put a stop to his own self-imposed exile from the room, when suddenly he hears Natasha's voice again, raised in song.
"Spi mladyenets, moi prekrasný, bayushki bayu; tikho smotrit myesyats yasný f kolýbyel tvayu..."
The melody is a haunting one, Natasha's voice perfectly suited to it. Steve can't understand a word of it, but he's certain it must be a lullaby, filled with sadness and longing and passed from mother to daughter for God only knows how long. Steve takes a deep breath, steps back into the room. Natasha turns her head just long enough to smile at him—a quick quirk of the lips, nothing more—and keeps singing.
"Stanu skazývat' ya skazki, pyesenki spayu; tý-zh dremli, zakrývshi glazki, bayushki bayu."
Tony's asleep, one hand draped over his chest, the other loosely gripping one of Natasha's hands, breathing laboured. Gently Natasha pulls her hand away without waking him, and tucks his Captain America blanket more snugly over his shoulders. She gets to her feet, pats Steve's arm.
"He was waiting for you."
"I know," Steve takes her place by the bed and delicately clasps Tony's hand again. "That was a beautiful song."
"Every child in Russia knows it. My grandmother used to sing me to sleep with it. I had almost forgotten about it," she says.
There's an entire history behind the simple words which Steve isn't sure he even has the right to ask about. It's hard to imagine Natasha as anything other than she is now, let alone a little girl being sung to sleep by her grandmother, wide-eyed and still innocent of the ways of the world, so he stays silent.
"I'll stop by again later," she says, but Steve stops her.
"Would you teach me the song?"
"When I come back," she promises, her gaze suddenly far away, trained on something only she can see. "Later."
There isn't much to do while Hank and Reed work on trying to find a cure for Tony, except watch and worry while the boy gets sicker. After a few attempts to convince him to go stay in bed on his own, Steve gives up and sits with him in the bed, with Tony curled up against his side, one small hand pressed up constantly against the arc reactor in his chest, as though he's physically trying to hold it in place.
It's more than a little frightening to see just how quickly Tony is deteriorating. He rallies at first, but it doesn't last very long before he starts succumbing to the infection again. Steve stays close, not wanting to leave him even to go work off some of his stress in the gym, and lets Tony lean against him, too tired to do much except drowse in his lap or watch the children's programs JARVIS brings up on the television with only minimal interest. Steve rests his hand on Tony's head, absently stroking his temple with his thumb. The medication is helping to keep the fever under control, but both Hank and Reed warned him that it was a temporary solution, that eventually even stronger drugs wouldn't help, that Tony's lungs are going to deteriorate until he'll need mechanical assistance—a ventilator, in other words. Right now, though, he's holding his own, and Steve resolves to be grateful for that.
He's a little surprised when Thor makes his way into the room, as much by the fact that he's here at all as by the fact he's making a point of being quiet so as not to disturb Tony, who's fallen asleep again in the interim.
"How is he?" he asks softly.
"Getting worse. He's hanging in there, though. Same brave son of a gun as ever," Steve spares the sleeping kid a fond glance. "Something I can do for you, Thor?"
Thor comes over to sit on the edge of the bed next to Steve. "I have been thinking," he says, "that perhaps the reason the scientists have not been able to find a cure for our friend, here, is that the cure is not to be found in your human science."
"You think it's something else?"
"I don't know," Thor admits. "But I would like to consult with the Allfather, and see if he has some insight into this. None of us were struck by those energy beams except for Tony, and his suit might have offered a measure of protection the rest of us lack. This might be the work of Loki's allies, or the Enchantress. If you think you will not need me in the next while, I will return to Asgard, and seek out a cure there."
Tony stirs under Steve's hand and starts coughing before he's completely awake. He leans into Steve's touch, blinks a little blearily until his eyes start to focus again. "'s happening?"
Thor beams at him. "I am going to Asgard to find you a cure!" he exclaims, all thoughts of volume control gone from his mind, and Steve winces a little.
Tony just nods, though. "You think it's there?"
"Perhaps. It is worth the trip to find out."
"Isn't it hard to go there?"
"It requires a great deal of energy, yes."
Tony worries at his lower lip with his teeth, but he doesn't say anything else. Not for the first time, Steve wonders just what's going on in his head that he's not telling anyone. Keeping things to himself appears to be a habit Tony picked up early in life, in spite of his outward appearance of spewing everything that pops into his mind. It's all white noise, Steve has figure out, though it took him long enough—white noise that serves as a smoke screen for what's really going on. Tony once told him that the best form of magic trick isn't the one that makes you ask, "How did he do that?" but the one no one knows took place at all.
When Thor is gone, Steve gives Tony's shoulder a quick squeeze. "You want to tell me what that was about?" But all he gets is a quick headshake. He sighs. "Okay, then."
"Was it lonely?"
Steve starts a little, realizes his attention wandered without his intending it to. He's sweating a little under the bedclothes, the room kept hotter than he usually likes it, in an attempt to keep the sick kid with him warm enough. Tony hasn't moved, still curled up against his side, one end of the comforter pulled up over his shoulders. The antibiotics that were supposed to be helping to clear up the infection in his appear to have been only a temporary fix, and he's already starting to sicken again, after less than two days of relief.
"Was what lonely?"
"When you were under the ice. Were you lonely?"
He shakes his head. "No, I was—unconscious, I guess. Or in a coma. Something. I didn't know what was happening."
"Were you dead?"
The question makes sense, even if it's not the first time Tony has asked. Any normal human would have died, and Steve still doesn't have a good answer. "I don't know. I guess not. Just frozen. The serum kept me alive, I think, if barely."
"Did you dream?"
"Maybe. I don't remember any of it."
"Are you sure you weren't dead?"
"Tony, why are you asking?"
Tony shrugs and coughs, and Steve can tell by the way the comforter is moving that he's rubbing at the arc reactor again. He reaches under the covers, is startled when he realises how cold Tony's hand is, in spite of the fever. The fingernails are tinged with blue, and Steve forces himself to keep his voice calm.
"How does your chest feel, Tony?"
Another shrug. Now that he's listening for it, he can hear the wheeze and crackle of every breath in Tony's lungs. "I dunno. Like there's something pressing on it."
"I think maybe it's time I took you to see Dr. Richards and Dr. Pym, let them give you some better medication to help you breathe."
"You mean they're going to put me on a ventilator," Tony says quietly, and Steve sighs.
"Not right away, but yeah. It's getting much harder to keep you healthy here, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has a hospital wing that's state of the art. I bet they'll even let you poke around all the equipment if you're feeling up to it. Would you like that?"
"I guess. When do we have to go?"
"Probably today. I don't like the sound of your breathing. I'd like to make sure you're closer to a medical facility than you are right now."
Tony's voice is almost inaudible when he speaks again. "Am I gonna die, Uncle Steve?"
Steve wraps both arms around the narrow shoulders and pulls him closer. "No. No, you're not."
"What if they can't figure out how to put me right?"
The news isn't encouraging. Tony doesn't have enough strength to do much other than lie in the hospital bed at S.H.I.E.L.D. and look very small and very fragile and very scared. Reed gently kicks Steve out the door while he and Hank Pym examine Tony again, at and that's when Steve finds himself all but ambushed by Nick Fury, flanked by Phil Coulson and Clint Barton.
"A word please, Captain?"
It turns out not to be a word, so much as the delivery of depressingly grim news. Steve doesn't bother sitting down as Fury tells him that there’s no evidence that what happened to Tony is in any way based in science—regular science or even the kind of science that made Steve who he is today. Steve is a little startled when Clint chooses to stand next to him, a few inches behind his left shoulder, rather than next to Coulson, who's his handler and mentor, not to mention his friend, but he appreciates it nonetheless. For once, Barton's presence is solid and reassuring, grounding even.
Coulson clears his throat. "We have reason to believe that the squid creatures were magical in origin, and that whatever weapon they were using is therefore at least partly magical. Dr. Richards and Dr. Pym both agree that, whatever form of magic it was, it was somehow altered when it encountered the Iron Man armour, which is why Tony survived rather than being outright drained. Unfortunately, it also means that what we have at our disposal isn't going to be enough to reverse the effects."
Fury picks up where Coulson leaves off. "At this juncture, Thor is our best hope. If he can find the origin of the creatures, or at least identify the magic being used, then we might be able to replicate and then reverse the effects."
"And if he doesn't?" Steve doesn't want to ask, but sometimes there is no choice other than to ask the hard questions.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," is the only answer Fury gives, but it's enough. Steve nods, not trusting himself to speak around the sudden tightness in his throat.
"I should go back, check on Tony," he manages after a moment, and Fury dismisses him with a nod.
"I'll come with you," Clint falls into step next to him, shutting the door to Fury's office behind them. He puts a hand on Steve's bicep, gives his arm a quick squeeze. "How you holding up, Cap?"
"Me? I'm fine. Serum-enhanced super soldier, remember?" Steve forces himself to keep his tone light, but apparently Clint isn't fooled at all.
"That's not what I meant, and you know it. We all know how you feel about Tony."
Steve's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. "What?"
Clint makes a noncommittal gesture. "I'm just saying, you'd probably make a terrible poker player. You don't have to talk to me, but you should talk to someone. Bruce is pretty good at listening, or you could go old school and talk to one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. shrinks."
Clint nods. "Sure you are. But, you know, if you're not, there's nothing wrong with that, either. We all like Tony, you know, even if we make a point of not letting him know. We'd never hear the end of it."
He grins at Steve, and Steve can't help but return the smile, though it's tinged with sadness. "I'm beginning to think that maybe we've been wrong about that, the whole time."
Clint's smile fades. "You might have a point."
Pepper is back by the wee hours of the morning, the jet bringing her back from her meetings as soon as humanly possible, and the whole team spends an uncomfortable few hours at S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to figure out just what to do with themselves while they wait. Of a common accord, everyone takes a turn sitting with Tony to keep him company, but it's Steve who ends up spending the majority of the time in the sparsely furnished room, listening to the beeping of monitors by the bed, watching the increasingly erratic rise and fall of the small chest. Tony spends most of the time asleep or half-asleep, a cannula feeding oxygen into his nose, but even then he reaches seemingly instinctively for Steve's hand. It seems to help, somehow, so Steve keeps his chair right next to the bed and wraps the tiny hand in his own large one until Tony settles with a quiet sigh. Whenever Steve hasn't been around, the others tell him that Tony won't sleep at all, plagued by nightmares and pain, so he stays as much as he possibly can, holding onto the small fingers as though he might be able to bodily anchor Tony in this world.
"The dreams aren't as bad when you're here," Tony tells him, and Steve is pretty sure that at the rate his heart keeps breaking over this boy, Tony will long outlive him.
"Is it still the same dream? The one with the monsters and the light?" he asks, and Tony nods.
"They always come after me with the light rays, and you're far away except I can hear your voice. And then the light gets really bright and everything sort of hurts, and then I fall…"
Steve has to strain to catch the quiet explanation, but suddenly things start to click into place. "Tony, the monsters, did they look like praying mantises? Like really big bugs, maybe?" When Tony nods again, he leans back in his chair, blowing out both cheeks in a sigh that's at once relief and worry. He can't believe it took him this long to figure out that Tony's been having nightmares about the very creatures who did this to him.
Tony clutches at his wrist. "You're not leaving?"
"No, buddy," Steve smooths his hair off his forehead. "I'm not leaving until you fall asleep, I promise. Even then, I won't be far. I just had an idea I need to talk to Dr. Richards about."
"'kay. Don't go yet."
"Promise. You should sleep, buddy. The more you rest, the easier it'll be to get better."
"I'm not tired," comes the petulant reply. It's a blatant lie—Steve can see the deep circles under his eyes—but Tony is clearly fighting going to sleep with every fibre of his being. Then again, if all he has to look forward to are nightmares…
"How about if I read you a story?" Steve offers, only to be met with a headshake. Then inspiration strikes, and he clears his throat. He's never fancied himself much of a singer, but he figures that Tony won't mind if he's a little off-key, and the melody Natasha taught him is simple enough that he won't wreck it completely.
"Sim uznayesh, budit vremya, branoye zhityo; smyelo vdyenish nogy f stremya I vazmyosh ruzhyo…"
After that, it doesn't take much time before Tony succumbs to the pull of sleep again, fingers clasped loosely around Steve's thumb.
At three o'clock in the morning, Tony stops breathing. Steve jolts out of a doze as the monitors begin blaring in alarm to find Tony lying entirely too still on the bed, eyes rolled back in his head, hands limp by his sides. A moment later Steve finds himself being gently pushed aside by Reed Richards, barely recognizable under a surgical mask.
"Let us through, Steve. We have to work."
He finds himself relegated back to the waiting room along with the whole team and Phil Coulson, too, of all people. Steve is a little surprised to see him—he didn't think Coulson particularly liked any of them, apart from Clint and Natasha and, of course, Pepper. Everyone loves Pepper. Even his earlier hero-worship of Captain America had luckily has faded considerably over the past few days. Spending this much time in each other's direct company seems to have put a lot of things into perspective, for which Steve is grateful.
They're all here together for the first time in days. Clint and Natasha are seated next to each other, his arm around her shoulders, and she favours Steve with another of those small, controlled smiles. Bruce is sitting upright in his chair, eyes closed, apparently focused on his breathing, but Pepper is holding on tightly to one of his hands, their fingers laces together. Out of all of them, Bruce is probably the closest to the adult Tony, the one who understands him best, or at least who understands the scientific aspect of his mind. With a pang of guilt Steve realises that, in all this, he was so focused on Tony that he forgot his duty to the rest of his team, to make sure that they were all holding up under the strain. When this is over, he tells himself, he'll make it up to them.
The only member of their team missing is Thor, Steve thinks with a small twinge of sadness that's gone almost as quickly as it came as a familiar silhouette appears in the doorway to the waiting room. Steve springs to his feet.
"You're back!" he can't help the grin of relief that spreads over his features at the sight of his friend. "Did you… were you able to find something?"
Thor claps him on the shoulder. "Do not worry yourself," he says, his tone unusually subdued. "I must confer with your doctors about Tony, but I believe I may have found something that could be of assistance in healing him."
It's only then that he remembers his earlier revelation. "Damn it, I forgot… I need to come with you, to talk to Hank and Reed, when they're done."
Thor nods toward the door to Tony's room. "Your wish is about to be granted. They appear to be approaching now."
Hank Pym is talking in low, urgent tones to Reed as they come out of the room, but he stops short when he sees both Steve and Thor waiting for them. Reed appears to figure it out first, though.
"You have something?" he asks, and Steve and Thor nod simultaneously.
Immediately Bruce is out of his chair, coming to stand by Steve's side. "What can I do to help?"
"Come with me."
He leads the way down the long corridors to the lab that he and Hank have been using to run their tests, gestures them toward chairs, only to have the offer ignored. He shrugs, turns to Thor.
"We'd better start with you. You were able to find something?"
"Aye, though it was not much," Thor admits. "I was able to identify the source of the creatures' magic, and bring back a similar kind of energy, thanks to the Allfather. I took the precaution of having it delivered directly here, for study, should you need it."
Reed rubs a hand over his face. "Well, it's a start. We've already figured out that the rays acted like a power drain of some kind. They didn't just kill by brute force, but rather by draining life force. If it's magical, though…"
"I've been thinking about that, actually," Steve breaks in. "I… Tony's been having nightmares. About the creatures that came through the porthole. I think they're not just nightmares, I think he might be reliving what happened to him without really knowing what it means. He said there was a light, and that it felt like he was being electrocuted."
Both Pym and Richards are staring at him as though he's the second coming. "That's… very interesting," Hank says finally.
"The suit is biotech, right?" Steve presses on. "So maybe the combined biotech of the suit and those—bug things—maybe it all interacted in a way it wasn't supposed to? I'm out of my depth, here, but…"
"No, no, I think you're onto something," Hank is already scribbling notes on a pad of paper. "If we assume the energy drain was only meant for contact with living flesh, having it interact with the Iron Man suit… Maybe we can reverse the process. Reed?"
Richards nods. "Give us some time. Bruce, we could use an assist on this, if you're up to it."
"Of course." Bruce steps up, then looks back at Steve. "You should go be with Tony. Both of you," he adds. "I'll make sure you're kept in the loop."
"Okay, thank you."
Steve backs out of the room, and practically sprints the short distance back to Tony's bedside.
The plan, when it's laid out, sounds deceptively simple. The theory, as Reed explains, is that since the magic was disrupted by having to go through the Iron Man armour, then in order to reverse the effects all they have to do is route the new energy brought back by Thor through the armour as well.
Super-soldier serum or not, Steve is pretty sure his knees are about to give out. It doesn't help that all he can see is Tony, looking tiny and vulnerable under what looks like a half-ton of medical equipment, a plastic tube in his throat the only thing keeping him breathing. Pepper, Clint, Natasha and Thor have been banished from the room, along with Coulson and all other 'non-essential' personnel, including Bruce (perhaps especially Bruce, under the circumstances), but no one has so much as suggested that Steve shouldn't be here. He exhales shakily, takes a few careful steps backward in order to sink into a chair, scrubbing at his face with both hands. Bruce squeezes his shoulder reassuringly.
"They know what they're doing. They would have had to intubate Tony anyway, for what they need to do. His body's too weak to handle it otherwise. It'll be okay, Steve."
Steve clasps his hands between his knees in a futile attempt to keep them from shaking. "I hope to God you're right."
"Really, we only need the breastplate," Reed is saying, apparently oblivious to Steve's little anxiety attack. "It's powered by the arc reactor, and that's the center of it all. The reactor itself is fine, which under the circumstances is something of a minor miracle, but it works to our advantage."
Steve nods. He's actually kind of grateful that they're not trying to explain it to him in detail. It would go over his head, and he already thinks he might be losing his mind with worry. "Is he awake? Does he know what's happening?"
"No," Reed shakes his head. "We're keeping him sedated, now that the vent's in place. It's hard even for adults to be on a ventilator, and I don't want to risk him fighting the vent or getting panicky. This is giving his body a chance to rest, to not have to struggle for every breath. He'll need every chance we can give him, if we want this to work."
"Can—can I be there? If I won't be in the way, I mean. I just—having a familiar face there, I think it could help, in case he wakes up." What he really means is that he can't bear the thought of leaving Tony's side, let alone the room, but luckily Reed is too preoccupied with his work to pay any attention whatsoever to Steve's dubious motivations.
"Oh, sure. You won't be in the way, we're just rigging up the armour's breastplate and letting the technology do its thing. You won't be able to touch him, though, not during the treatment. We don't know how it might affect you, after all."
They spend an inordinate amount of time scrubbing down in preparation for the treatment. It won't be anything like surgery, but Reed doesn't want to take any chances, and Steve trusts him with this. They've fitted the breastplate of the armour right over Tony's bed to connect it to the arc reactor, and it looks ridiculous and ungainly and huge, settled as it is over Tony's thin frame, dwarfing him. Tony looks exactly the way he did when Steve left him, skin so pale it seems translucent, a blue plastic tube taped in place and snaking into his mouth, small chest rising and falling in time with the click-whoosh of the ventilator.
"What's going to happen?" he asks, taking up his old spot by the bed and taking Tony's cold hand in his.
"Honestly, I don't know," Reed admits. "We're going to feed the energy back through the breastplate, and that should reverse the effects. But I don't know if it's going to be instantaneous or gradual, or if it'll even work at. Frankly, we're going at this mostly blind, which is not a way I enjoy working, but in this case we have very little choice. Tony's just not strong enough to last long enough for us to run all the possible simulations, so I'll have to go with an educated guess."
"An educated guess from you is better than years' worth of research from just about every other doctor and scientist."
"That's what I'm banking on," Reed says grimly, then turns away briskly to where Hank Pym is setting up some sort of equipment that Steve can't even begin to identify.
There's a quiet moan from the bed, and when Steve turns back he's astonished to see that Tony's eyes are open, his fingers tightening ever so slightly around Steve's thumb. Steve forces himself to smile.
"Hey, you're awake," he manages, and feels his smile falter when a tear slides down Tony's face and into his hair. "Hey, hey, it's okay. It's okay, Tony," he reaches up with his free hand to stroke his hair. "I know it's scary, but we're going to fix this, okay? The tube is just there to help you breathe. You hang onto my hand, okay? Just like that," he says encouragingly, hoping his own terror isn't as apparent. "You hang on, and this'll be over before you know it," he promises rashly. "Close your eyes, okay Tony?"
Tony does as he's told, tightening his grip on Steve's thumb, but he's shivering slightly, obviously terrified out of his mind. Steve strokes the back of his hand, wishes there was something, anything he could do to make this less terrible. He can only think of one thing that's worked so far, so he swallows, wills his throat to stay open, and starts singing again, loud enough to be heard over the ventilator. The effect is almost instantaneous. The shivering stops, and Tony relaxes under his touch.
"There you go," he says, keeping his tone reassuring. "You're doing so well. Just hang in there, Tony."
He doesn't look up as a loud electrical hum starts up in the corner of the room where Reed and Hank are working feverishly, just keeps singing quietly, willing Tony to stay calm, even as he feels the air in the room begin to crackle with power. The arc reactor is glowing even more brightly than usual, pulsing in time with the equipment, and only at the last minute does he remember to let go of the boy's hand. Steve stops singing when the noise gets too loud, and abruptly has to slam his eyes shut as a blinding light fills the whole room with a sound like a clap of thunder. There's another crash, and Steve is thrown backward, head snapping back to crack painfully against the far wall, and everything goes dark.
He's not sure how long he's out, but he figures it can't be more than a few minutes. The room is a shambles, broken equipment scattered over the floor along with overturned tables, shattered glass gleaming on the linoleum. Gingerly Steve picks himself up, sees Reed and Hank slumped in the opposite corner of the room. When he's satisfied that they're both beginning to stir on their own, he turns his attention to the bed.
Tony is sitting up, fully-grown again and looking more than a little bemused. . The ventilator tube is long gone, as is the pajama top he was wearing, leaving only the familiar blue glow of the arc reactor in the middle of his chest. He coughs once, looks around at the debris surrounding him, his mind obviously working overtime to take in and parse what he's seeing. When he opens his mouth to speak, his voice cracks painfully.
"What the hell?"
It takes all of Steve's self-control not to throw himself at him and fling both arms around his neck.
Disappointingly, the fix doesn't turn out to have a miracle cure thrown into the mix. By the time the worst of the mess is cleared away and everyone has been brought up to speed, Tony is looking exhausted, lying back with his eyes at half-mast, coughing painfully. Grown again or not, the lung infection that brought them all here is still firmly entrenched, and he's hooked up to a new oxygen tank more appropriate for a man his size. Still, he manages a weak smile in Steve's direction, once they're alone.
"So how much blackmail material does Barton have on me? I should call Pepper, see if she's still talking to me, and start her on the non-disclosure paperwork…"
Steve smiles. "Clint has a fair bit, but not nearly as much as I've got. You really don't remember any of it?"
Tony makes a pained face. "Et tu, Cap? I thought you were a pillar of moral rectitude. And I remember some of it. It keeps coming back in bits and snatches, and it's all mixed up."
"I am a pillar of rectitude," he confirms. "But even a man with the most moral fortitude would be hard-put to resist the lure of taking a photo of mini-you in Captain America footie pajamas."
"Oh, God. I'm never going to live this down, am I?" Tony breaks off, coughing painfully until Steve holds up a cup of water with a straw for him. "At least I know you won't release the pictures to the public," he says. He doesn't acknowledge the gesture, but the look he casts Steve is grateful. "I'll just threaten to rig the toaster to explode if Barton tries anything."
"Please don't. I think Coulson might just have an aneurysm if you rig anything else to explode. And no, Tony, that's not meant as encouragement," he adds quickly, then stops when he sees Tony's expression flicker. "What?"
To his surprise, Tony's lips quirk up into a small smile. "That's the first time you've ever called me by my first name."
"Is it?" Steve is honestly a little shocked by that. He's been calling Tony by his first name for days without thinking about it, after all. He hadn't realised how formal he'd kept their relationship, up until recently. "Oh. I…"
"Don't worry about it. I figured you wanted to keep it professional. Genius here, after all, I can read between the lines. Just because we work together doesn't mean we have to be friends."
It's hard not to remember that, a few hours ago, this was the little boy who wanted nothing more to be exactly like Captain America. "Of course we're friends. I'm sorry if I haven't been acting like one," Steve manages.
"Oh, you mean like by sticking around the entire time I was whammied, keeping me out of trouble, and helping to cure me? No, not acting like a friend at all," Tony rolls his eyes. "And yes, that was my convoluted way of saying, you know," he makes a vague circular motion with one hand, "thank you. For all of it."
"You don't have to thank me for that. Not ever. I would do it over again every single time."
Tony looks away at that, and Steve figures he shouldn't be surprised about that. It's not like either of them are any good at this sort of thing, anyway. Tony's fading fast, what little energy he had left draining from him, so Steve decides to let him off the hook, for now at least.
"Get some sleep, Tony."
Tony snorts derisively. "Sleeping sucks. I just want to know when I can get out of here, already."
"Not for a while yet, and the more you resist sleeping and eating properly, the longer it'll take," Steve keeps his voice stern, fighting back the smile that keeps trying to creep over his face. "Seriously, if you can't sleep, I can ask the doctors to give you something to help…" he offers, only to have Tony shake his head.
"Got enough drugs being pumped into me as it is. Maybe…" he starts, then gives another shake of his head. "No, never mind."
"It's stupid, forget it."
Steve isn't one to get flashes of intuition—he tends to leave those to Tony and Natasha and sometimes Bruce—but this time he thinks he understands. Tony as a child didn't like sleeping much either, and there was really only one thing that worked.
"I won't tell anyone if you don't," he half-jokes, but the look Tony turns on him is deadly earnest and, Steve thinks, a little sad. He doesn't say anything, though, so Steve just clears his throat, hoping he's read him correctly.
"Spi mladyenets, moi prekrasný, bayushki bayu; tikho smotrit myesyats yasný f kolýbyel tvayu. Stanu skazývat' ya skazki, pyesenki spayu; tý-zh dremli, zakrývshi glazki, bayushki bayu."
He closes his eyes, trying to remember the words of the unfamiliar language, until the words trip along his tongue as though they've always been there.
"Dam tibye ya na darogu obrazok svyatoi; tý yevo, molyasya bogu, stav pyered saboi. Da, gotovyas v boi apasný, pomni mat' svayu; spi mladyenets, moi prekrasný, bayushki bayu."
When he opens his eyes again, Tony is asleep, one hand stretched out just far enough to rest on top of Steve's own. And if Steve doesn't move at all from where he's sitting, he tells himself it's just because he doesn't want to risk waking him, nothing more. He settles slightly more comfortably in his chair, and decides simply to enjoy the warm feeling it gives him, deep in his chest. Whatever this is, it can at least wait until morning.