“He’s a big baby,” Tony growled into his phone. The rain started pouring harder, so he ducked under an overhanging sign as he continued on his way down the sidewalk. He had managed to escape the last debriefing of the day, and he was just about ready to start punching people in the face for no good reason; that was what Steve Rogers seemed to bring out of him these days – rage and uncontrollable swearing. “No – correction. He’s a big, stupid baby.”
“Tony, you’re yelling.” Pepper sounded irritated, as usual.
Tony rounded the corner, stomping into a coffee shop called Laurel’s to get out of the rain. He held the phone up to his ear as he paid for the largest hot chocolate they had on menu and then found himself a window seat while he waited for them to make it. He wrung out his shirt on the floor, trying to ignore the way his pants had grown skin tight. “He screamed at me in front of Nick Fury – about a fucking sesame seed bagel. Can you believe that?” Tony said into the phone, leaning back against his chair. “All I did was steal a bite and he almost ripped my arms off for it. A bagel, Pepper – he would have murdered me for a bagel. Tell me I’m not being crazy.”
“You know how he is with food,” Pepper chided through the phone. “Natasha told you all about the steak incident for a reason you know. It wasn’t just a joke.”
“I know, I know,” Tony groaned, shifting the phone to his other ear. The barista was kind enough to drop off his hot chocolate and a hunk of biscotti the size of his hand before slipping away; the fifty dollar tip probably had something to do with that. Tony bit into his biscotti, licking whipped cream off of the lip of the cup. “I think he hates me.”
“Well can you blame him? You’ve told me that you hate him at least five times a week since you met him. He’s probably picking up on the negative energy,” Pepper snorted. “Look, I’ve got seven different meetings to get to since you don’t have the time – and we both know that’s a lie, before you start in with your oh Pepper’s. You’ve got a flight to catch tonight – remember? I don’t want to find out you’ve missed it – we’ve rescheduled the Tokyo meeting seven times already. They’re going to get mad.”
“Is there anything else you need to tell me about before I have to go? Because I can’t do anything about the bagel, Tony. You’re going to have to go out and buy him another one or something,” Pepper said dryly. “Maybe send him a basket of mini-muffins? He likes food. Buy him more food.”
“Fine, I’ll buy the rude guy food,” Tony muttered, swirling his biscotti in his hot chocolate. The chocolate shavings on the whipped cream melted into a pathetic puddle of sludge; he drank the entire thing down in one gulp, ignoring the way his teeth cried out in protest. “You coming back for dinner?”
“No,” Pepper sighed. “I’m not going to make it this week. Rain check?”
“Sure,” Tony said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “How’s Happy?”
“He’s good. We’re both doing fine. Have you spoken to Rhodey?”
“He’s heading back from his tour of duty soon, isn’t he?” She went quiet and then something rustled in the background; her voice came back strong. “His letter says he’s coming back on the fifteenth of May.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony nibbled at his biscotti, debating on how best to demolish it without any more hot chocolate to soak it in. He wondered if he could get away with ordering a few more cups. “I’m sure I got the memo.”
“What? It’s not my fault he’s angry,” Tony muttered, biting the biscotti hard enough to make his jaw ache. “He’s the one who wanted to take War Machine out for a test spin without consulting me.”
“You told him it was fine,”
“Well it wasn’t,” Tony said, dropping the remainder of his biscotti onto his plate. “He should have talked with me.”
“Oh honey, he did talk with you. He didn’t go behind your back to talk to Fury because he was being a jerk – he talked with him because he was worried they were going to screw you over and get you hurt again. He was looking out for you.”
“I know!” Tony put his head in his hands. “I know he didn’t mean it.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Pepper sounded tired. “Are you sleeping?”
“Yes,” Tony lied, shoving his cup and plate out of his way. He sprawled over the table, closing his eyes. “I’m sleeping just fine.”
“You’re lying again,” Pepper grumbled. “I wish you wouldn’t lie to me like that. You know I’ve got the nightmares too.”
“Alright – listen, I’d love to continue this, but I’ve got to go. You need to send Steve a bagel basket or something, and you need to phone Rhodey and talk with him,” Pepper said. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes Mother,” Tony grunted, his eyes still squeezed shut.
“I’ll give Steve his stupid bagels and phone Rhodey. Fine. Do I need to go down to the office to sign papers or anything?”
“No, I’ve taken care of it all. Just try and get some sleep on the flight, Mr. Stark,” Pepper said, softly. “Can you try and do that? I know it’s hard…”
“I don’t want to…”
“I know you don’t, but can you try? For me? Just for a few hours. You can have Jarvis time you or something. I worry when you’re out there running on fumes and coffee.”
“I’m buzzed on hot chocolate already. I don’t think I’m going to get any sleep anyway,” Tony said with a sigh. “But I get your point. Fine. I’ll go lay down when I get home, alright?”
“Alright. Take care, ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. You too. Tell Happy I said hi,”
“I’ll tell him. Talk to you later Tony,”
Tony hung up, setting his phone on the table beside him. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. The place was small. The decorations on the walls were just short of becoming the wet dream of an entire commune; it was nice though, in a strangely hippie-dippie kind of way. There was probably enough white wash and rainbow tie-die in here to make a few thousand business suits cry in despair. He rubbed his forehead with the flat of his hand. Why did things always have to end up like this? Every time he tried to do something nice – every time he tried to be himself – it came back to bite him in the ass. He had known better, yeah – he had known better than to steal a bite of Steve’s stupid bagel, but he hadn’t been able to help himself. He had wanted Steve to smile at him, maybe roll his eyes unhappily – what he hadn’t counted on was Steve screaming at him like he had just put his hand down the guy’s pants. For fuck’s sake, it wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to be nice to Steve. He was! He had even invited the guy to live with him; sure, everyone had gotten an invite to live in the tower, but he had been extra special with Steve’s – he had gone to Steve’s crumby little apartment and groveled and everything. He wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t been trying!
The phone rang in front of him. He sighed, recognizing the ringtone, and picked it up. “What’s up?” He gritted out, not bothering with small talk, knowing Natasha wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.
“You’d better get down here,” Natasha said. She sounded flustered, maybe a little upset; it was hard to tell with her sometimes. Usually she just sounded bored. There was someone crying in the background – it sounded like a little kid. What the hell was a little kid doing around Natasha?
“Get down where?” Tony said, standing up. He picked up his plate and cup and took them to the bussing station, setting them down before heading out the door. The barista gave him a wave, and he smiled back at her.
“Get your ass to the Tower – now, Stark. Steve got hit by some kind of magical beam. We have a serious problem on our hands.”
Tony stalked through the lobby of Avengers Tower and headed up to the hospital wing. He felt shaky all over. He wondered idly if it was from all the sugar or the knowledge that Steve had been hurt; he was pretty sure it was just the sugar. “What’s going on Jarvis?” He stepped out of the elevator, striding towards the recovery ward as fast as possible, knowing the team would all be waiting for him.
“I believe you are going to want to see it first hand, sir,” Jarvis said.
“Right,” Tony sighed. He pushed open the door and walked inside. The team was gathered around a hospital bed; it was one of the plush ones that they only used when someone was suffering from a whole whack of broken bones and or stab wounds. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with Steve?”
Bruce stepped out of the way, turning to smile at Tony, nervously wringing his hands. “We just got him down for his nap. Maybe we should talk outside?”
“His… nap?” Tony peered around Bruce’s shoulder. There, lying prone amidst a pile of colourful blankets was a small blonde boy; he was stick thin and sickly looking, his skin milk white like he hadn’t been out in the sun for more than a few minutes at a time. Tony approached cautiously, peering at the monitors and then back to the boy. “Oh, my, god – is that – that can’t be – is that… is that Steve?”
Clint patted Tony on the shoulder, sitting down on the bed across from Steve’s. “That’s our fearless leader alright,” he sighed. “Bruce thinks he’s around seven years old – give or take a few months.”
“You’re kidding,” Tony rasped, looking from Clint to Steve, hoping to see the joke somehow; there were cameras all over the tower, but he didn’t think Jarvis would use them for evil. When nothing changed, he turned to Natasha, gnawing on his thumb. “You’re not kidding, are you?”
“No,” Natasha drawled, looking from Steve to Tony. “He’s around seven or so, like Clint said. Bruce measured him before you got here. He did scans – Bone density, length – blood panel, allergies. Steve’s small for his age, somewhat malnourished, but healthy despite that. He’s going to need clothing – some toys. You know – kid stuff. Do you think you could handle that?”
Tony scowled at Natasha, mildly offended by her words. “How much do you think he’ll need?”
“The SHIELD doctors and consultants say that he’ll change back,” Bruce said, adjusting Steve’s blankets until they were wrapped around Steve’s shoulders again. Bruce scratched his head. “I don’t know Tony. I really don’t know.”
“That isn’t really an answer, is it?” Tony sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“No,” Bruce said. “It’s not, but it’s the best I have to offer at this point. All I can say is that it’s definitely magic, and it’ll wear off. I called in a favor with the SHIELD lab. They estimated the power of the spell – give or take – and they think it will stick around for six months or more, but beyond that they can’t tell.”
“Was it Loki?” Tony leaned over the side of the bed, brushing Steve’s bangs out of his face. The boy coughed weakly, burying his nose in his pillows, but didn’t wake. His cheeks went a soft pink from the exertion, as if coughing had been too much for him.
“Nay,” Thor murmured from his chair. “It is not Loki. My brother is still imprisoned, as are his fellow enchantresses and enchanters. There is no trace of Asgardian magic on Steve, and though I have asked Heimdall to see if he can find the culprit, there has been no answer. What is here is Midgardian by design – weak, but long lasting. I do not know what more we can do for Steve aside from waiting for the spell to end.”
“You think he’ll turn back?” Tony pursed his lips, eyeing Steve again. “I mean, he can’t stay like this. You’ve seen his medical files, right? The guy had everything in the book before the serum. It was a miracle he made it to seven, let alone into his twenties.”
“That’s where we’re lucky,” Bruce said, gesturing to the monitors. “I had Jarvis run a full panel on him – blood work, biochemistry – EKG – the works. His blood’s still infused with the super serum – he’s healthy, although he doesn’t look it.”
“Well what kid from the great depression looked healthy?” Tony snorted. The 1930’s weren’t the best time to be a kid for anyone – let alone for someone living a single parent household. Steve’s mother had probably scraped and scrounged to keep him as healthy as he was; the medical reports had been staggering, the bills even more so. Tony pulled out his phone, turning away from Steve, afraid to look at him in case he woke up and looked back. “Alright. Well, I guess I’ve got some shopping to do. What size is he? Boys small?”
“Maybe – if he puts on weight,” Clint muttered. “Man, his file didn’t do him justice. Look at how scrawny he is. I could fit two of him in a regular five year old. He looks like he’s going to break in half if he sneezes.”
“I don’t think he would appreciate hearing you say that,” Natasha said, squeezing Clint’s shoulder. “What do you think we should do?” She looked at Tony, her hand resting lightly on Clint’s arm, her lips drawn into a tight line.
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Why are you asking me? I’m not the leader here.”
“Yeah, well Steve’s the leader, and right now he’s down for his nap,” Clint chuckled darkly. “I think that puts you in charge, Mr. Moneybags.”
“Really? Little old me?” Tony grinned. “You’re putting the guy they didn’t want in the Avengers in charge?”
“You’re second in command. Steve wrote it into his safety plan, remember?” Bruce said, crossing his arms over his middle.
“He did?” Tony shook his head, putting his phone up to his ear. “Yeah, well, he didn’t tell me any of that. Hold on – I’ve got to make a call.” He walked out the door, stepping outside into the hallway, knowing that his voice would carry; it always did in the hospital wing. That was one of the reasons he hated being down here; there was no privacy. Besides, he thought, trying to shrug off his unease, kids needed their naps after all, and he was damned if he was going to have to put up with a cranky little kid for the rest of the day. “Hello? Hi, Angie? I need to get some clothing ordered in special – boys small – yeah. I know. No. I do not have a secret love child. I would have told you if I did – you know me,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “What do you know about kid stuff? You know – toys? Colouring books? The whole shebang – yes.”
Tony sat down on the floor in his penthouse living room and started sorting through boxes. Angie had worked fast; she usually did considering the amount of money Tony threw her way for rush deliveries. There was enough clothing here to last three weeks or more if Steve didn’t grow a few inches. He had ordered in five whole boxes of stuffed animals, books and art supplies too. Mini-Steve was going to be so happy; adult-Steve, probably not so much. Tony sighed, running his fingers through his hair.
What the hell was he supposed to do now?
He looked at the boxes, wishing they would go deliver themselves so that he wouldn’t have to go down to Steve’s floor. Natasha had moved Steve back into his room as soon as he had woken up again; she had Clint pulling guard duty on Steve’s couch, waiting to see when and if Steve decided to show his face. According to her, Steve had been terrified. He had screamed for his mother until his voice had given out, and after that he had hidden himself away in his bedroom, wrapping himself up with his blankets. Thor had tried to calm him down, but even he hadn’t been able to do much more than get Steve to nod his head a few times.
“Sir?” Jarvis asked.
“Yes?” Tony stuffed the last of the clothing back into the box it had come out of, aware that his hands were shaking. He pressed them against the cardboard, taking in a deep breath.
“Captain Rogers is asking for you,”
Tony laughed weakly. “I’m assuming you’re still talking about Mini-Steve, right?”
“Yes, sir. Thor has finished showing him pictures of the team, and he is anxious to meet everyone now that he knows he isn’t in any danger.”
“Great,” Tony grumbled. “This is going to be a disaster.”
“Perhaps bringing a gift with you would increase the likelihood of this meeting going well?” Jarvis said.
“Right,” Tony said, snapping his fingers. He grinned. He could do this – hell, he was rich Uncle Tony, now, wasn’t he? Kids liked gifts, right? Why was he nervous? This would be fine.
Tony hovered in the doorway, ready to pull out every last piece of his hair one strand at a time. Steve was looking through the boxes Tony had brought down with him, staring at everything with a critical eye, like he suspected something bad was going to happen if he didn’t check them over. It was a little disconcerting to see a seven year old giving a box of stuffed animals the hairy eyeball. Tony was tempted to take a picture, just to show Steve when he turned back into an adult again, but he thought better of it. Jarvis was recording it all through the security cameras after all. Who needed pictures when he could have stunning HD video instead?
Thor leaned against the wall beside Tony, seeming to sense his discomfort. “Fear not, Tony,” he said, nodding towards Steve, who was now staring wide-eyed at the box of art supplies, “the boy is suspicious, but he will relax when he is comfortable with the tower. He was quite startled when he woke to find us there – that may be the source of his unease. I’m sure with time he will come to like this place as much as his boyhood home.”
“Well, as long as he doesn’t act like a little asshole,” Tony said with a shrug, “I’m sure we’ll all be fine.”
Steve looked up sharply. “Ma says we’re not supposed to say words like that. She’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”
“I see,” Tony chuckled, examining his fingernails instead of looking Steve in the eye. “So you think that stuff’s alright for now?”
Steve frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Do you want anything else?” Tony asked, trying not to be sarcastic. Were all children annoying like this? “Do you need anything else? Did I miss a toy or whatever?”
Steve shook his head rapidly. “No – no this is fine. Thank you, sir. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Tony shrugged. “It’s fine, you know – if you want something else just say the word. I’m loaded.”
“Loaded?” Steve cocked his head to the side, still looking a little nervous despite his newfound curiosity. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m rich,” Tony said. “Sorry. I forgot you don’t know all the slang - again.”
“I know slang,” Steve insisted, clutching a colouring book to his chest.
“Its fine, Steve,”
“You don’t have to be so angry about it,” Steve muttered, scowling at the floor.
“Who said I’m angry?” Tony grumbled. “Whatever. Look, I’ve got stuff to do. See you later, kid.” He slipped past a now scowling Thor, and ambled out into the living room. Well that had gone well. Here he was supposedly making a better first impression and he had fucked it up again. “Good introduction my ass,” he muttered, heading to the elevator. “Great job Tony. Even the kid version hates you.”
“Sir?” Steve shuffled into the living room, the colouring book still held tightly in his hands.
Tony paused, about to enter the elevator. “Yeah?”
“Can I come with you?”
Tony caught the door before it could close on him. “What?”
“Can I come with you?” Steve looked down at his feet and then turned his attention to the room, not letting his eye rest on any one object for too long. “I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, sir.”
Tony stepped into the elevator, and held the doors open. “You can come with me on one condition – you are never allowed to call me sir again. Call me Tony.”
“Ok,” Steve said, darting forwards. He slipped inside the elevator, his eyes filled with wonder as he got a good look at the elevator buttons; he looked like he was itching to press one, but he was too short to manage it. Tony sighed to himself and then bent down, scooping Steve up. It was ridiculously easy to do too. Steve didn’t seem very happy about it at first, but after a few minor adjustments, he relaxed and seemed to accept the fact that Tony wasn’t going to drop him on his head.
“Here,” Tony said, holding Steve against his hip; the colouring book was jabbing him in his left nipple – and that hurt like a bitch – but it was a small price to pay for the smile on Steve’s face. “Press floor 92 for me, will you?”
Steve reached out, pressing the button so carefully it looked like he thought the damned thing would break. He pulled his hand back after, cuddling close, his cheek resting on Tony’s shoulder. “The elevator in our building doesn’t look like this.”
“Not many places have the cool kind of buttons we do,” Tony agreed as the elevator ascended. Steve felt lighter than a sack of potatoes; that thought alone was almost enough to break Tony’s brain. Steve Rogers – light? Portable? Impossible.
The elevator opened at his penthouse and he walked Steve inside, avoiding the living room in favor of hitting the kitchen. He set Steve down on one of his favourite cushy barstools, making sure the kid was balanced properly before he went around the island and started going through his cupboards, looking for sustenance.
“What are you doing?” Steve asked, setting his colouring book down on the counter.
“I’m going to make us a snack,” Tony said, pulling a loaf of fluffy white bread out from his breadbox. He made a mental note to have Jarvis restock his kitchen again – this time with more kid-friendly foods. “You want a sandwich?” he asked over his shoulder, pulling out a bread knife.
Steve eyed the bread like he was thirsty and it was the last glass of water on the entire planet. “You’re going to use that?”
Tony chuckled. “Sure – why not? It’s in my kitchen and all.”
“But aren’t you supposed to ration things? Ma says we have to be careful with our food because it’s expensive,” Steve said, pulling a box of crayons out of his pocket. He opened the box slowly, running his fingers along each crayon. Tony smiled. Even tiny, he was the same old Steve.
“We’re not at war anymore kiddo,” Tony said, reaching for a tub of margarine. He paused, frowning at it. Would Steve even like this kind of margarine? Had they had it back in his day? He could remember reading about it being white like lard and something about it being coloured by powdered dye, but not much else. “Hey, what do you want on yours?” he asked instead of having Jarvis look it up; there was always time for research later, when Steve wasn’t watching him like a hawk.
He wasn’t sure how much the others had told the kid to be honest. Natasha had talked about limiting Steve’s exposure to the new world as much as possible; Bruce had been against that, claiming that it might cause psychological damage if they didn’t show him the world as it was now. Tony was pretty sure it was up to him now – and that thought alone was frightening enough to make him want to run screaming from the building. Tony Stark – in charge of Steve Rogers’ reintroduction to the modern world. How could that possibly go wrong?
Steve almost broke one of his crayons. He looked up sharply. “Huh?”
“What did you want on your sandwich, Steve?” Tony repeated, propping open the fridge door. He wondered what he had left sandwich-wise. The last time he had been up here for a meal was a few days ago, but the cleaning staff had probably restocked by now. He heard Steve’s stool squeak and turned, about to ask him for a third time what he wanted on his sandwich.
Steve teetered on his stool, his arms shaking; Tony had to dive around the island to make sure Steve didn’t crack his head on the countertop as the kid caught a glimpse of all the food inside the fridge. Well that certainly hadn’t been the reaction he had been expecting. “Whoa there little guy,” Tony said, scooping Steve up. He carried him around the island and set him down on the floor in front of the fridge. “There. Pick out what you want, alright?”
Steve’s jaw dropped. He looked from Tony to the fridge and back, as if not sure what he was being asked to do.
Tony smiled and turned back to the bread. It was a good thing he had always kept a supply of peanut butter, nutella and jam in his kitchen at all times; quick food was the best kind of food. Pepper always gave him shit for never eating a sit down meal at home if he could help it; keeping a supply of breakfast food around at all times had been the best compromise he had ever made with her. He had a bunch of eggs in the fridge too, if he remembered right. He wondered if Steve would want a hard boiled one; the little guy looked like he could use all the protein he could get.
“Is this ok?” Steve tugged on Tony’s pant leg.
Tony turned and spotted the jar of peanut butter in Steve’s hand. “Yep, that looks fine to me. You want some jam to go with that?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, looking back at the fridge with trepidation. “Ma only lets us have one at a time. And I don’t recognize anything else in there.”
Tony stooped down and took the peanut butter from Steve, setting it on the counter. “Do you have any preferences? Is there any kind of fruit you really like?”
Steve shook his head.
“How about strawberry?” Tony plucked a strawberry confiture jar from the door-shelf, holding it out to Steve; he had the stuff shipped in weekly from a small town in France. Sure, it cost him a small fortune, but he liked it. Hell, he had even sat there eating it clean out of the jar sometimes when the mood struck him; that strawberry confiture had gotten him through quite a few bad break ups over the years.
Steve read the label, his little face scrunched up as he tried to figure out what Tony had just handed him. He looked up at Tony, confused. “It says confiture on it. That’s not jam,” he said, pursing his lips.
Tony smiled. “Confiture is a type of jam. They make it differently – it’s made out of whole fruit, not just the juice and fruit bits.”
“Oh,” Steve murmured. “That sounds expensive.”
Tony shrugged. “It’s worth it, believe me, buddy.”
Steve offered the jar up with shaking arms.
Tony took it from him, setting it down beside the peanut butter. “You want help getting back onto your stool?”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head, “I can do it.” He shuffled over to the stool and started climbing it, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he wedged his foot against the foot bars on the island; Tony watched him, amused by the determined look on Steve’s face. The kid looked like he was trying to scale Everest for christ’s sake.
“You ok over there?” Tony asked, turning back to the sandwiches. They weren’t going to make themselves after all. He unscrewed the lid on the peanut butter and started slathering it across the bread, giving everything a healthy coat of sugary, peanuty, goodness. “Hey, you want a boiled egg to go with this?”
Steve didn’t answer.
Tony turned in time to watch Steve slip backwards off his stool; he dropped the peanut butter and butter knife and bolted, sliding across the floor in time to cushion Steve’s fall with his lap. Steve’s face went bright red; he cringed when Tony stood up, sullenly glaring down at the stool from his perch in Tony’s arms.
“I almost did it,” Steve muttered.
“Yeah, well,” Tony grunted, “There’s nothing shameful in asking for help.”
“I’m not a baby,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Tony carried Steve around the island, setting him down on the counter beside the sandwiches. He let out a sigh, unscrewing the lid on the jar of Strawberry confiture. “I know you’re not a baby,” he said, spooning jam onto their sandwiches, “but you need to be careful.”
“I am careful,” Steve said. He looked down at his lap, hunched over, and started crying. It wasn’t a little sob fest either – it was a full on snot-dripping-down-your-face-tears-streaming event, one Tony hadn’t seen in years – not since it had been him doing the crying.
It was strange. Tony didn’t have much experience dealing with children, but he knew what to do; he set his spoon of jam down and wrapped his arms around Steve, hugging him close. “I know, honey. You tried really hard. Maybe stools just aren’t your thing?” He rubbed circles on Steve’s back, forcing himself not to wince when he felt Steve’s ribs and spine through the thick shirt the kid was wearing. He was definitely going to fatten Steve up somehow. There was no way Steve should be this tiny – at least not in this day and age.
Steve hiccoughed and buried his face in Tony’s shirt, his fingers digging into the fabric. “I want my Ma,” he cried, trembling in Tony’s grasp.
“I know, honey,” Tony said, hugging Steve tighter. “But she’s not here. She left you with us, remember? She has important work to do.”
“When’s she coming back?” Steve sniffled.
Tony felt awful lying to Steve, but what else was he supposed to do? Was he going to break the kid’s heart and tell him that his mom was dead? That he had grown up in a goddamned orphanage after she had died? He knew Steve’s file well enough to know the orphanage hadn’t been the best place for a kid like Steve; Steve had never talked about it with him, but he always got a funny look on his face when someone brought it up, which was never a good sign. Tony knew better than to ask what that was about. So he lied. He gritted his teeth and he lied, knowing full well that Steve probably wouldn’t believe a word of it. “I don’t know, Steve. I think she’s going to be gone for at least a few months. It was the best job she could get, and she didn’t want to say no to the guy who offered it to her.”
“Is she ok?” Steve tugged at Tony’s shirt, looking up at him. His eyes were red-rimmed and watery, his pale cheeks pink from sobbing.
“She’s ok,” Tony said, ruffling Steve’s hair. “She made sure we would take care of you, remember? We’re the Avengers – if she was in trouble, we would be out there helping her.”
“Ok,” Steve said, nodding slowly. He wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve, lowering his gaze.
“Let’s eat something, ok?” Tony lifted Steve up, holding him against his hip again; he cleaned up the jam and peanut butter, sticking the jars back in the fridge before retrieving their sandwiches. Steve hung against him, his head resting on Tony’s shoulder, still sniffling a little. Tony walked them over to the coffee table, figuring it would be the best place for a kid with short legs to eat. After all, it was the perfect height. Unfortunately, his choice of venue didn’t work out the way he expected. Steve gaped at the windows as he got his first view of the city. He started trembling in Tony’s grasp. His sobs came out short and quick; he buried his face in Tony’s shoulder, tears streaming down his face all over again.
“It’s ok,” Tony said quickly, setting their food down on the coffee table. He wished he had thought about blacking the windows out earlier; the kid was probably traumatized now. Fantastic. “Jarvis, can you dim the glass a bit?” The glass gleamed for a moment and then went grey, blurring the view until Tony could only make out the rough outline of the city below. He sat down, feeling just as lost as Steve. He hadn’t thought it would be this bad. Steve had never really said anything about the city being, well, scary. It had changed a lot over the years, but Tony hadn’t thought it had changed so dramatically – at least not this dramatically. Well, ok, he knew it was fairly dramatic considering all the skyscrapers and glass everywhere, but it wasn’t like they were in Tokyo or someplace with neon lights and advertising everywhere. He held Steve until he was ready to pull away, wishing he could tone the city down for the little guy.
Steve sniffled loudly, looking around the room. He glowered at the tinted glass and turned to Tony, gnawing on his lower lip. “Was that real?”
“It’s real,” Tony said, patting Steve on the back again when he started hiccoughing. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have let you see it that way.”
Steve shrugged, his attention drawn to the sandwich sitting in front of him. “It’s alright.”
Tony was tempted to call Steve on the lie; he turned to his own sandwich instead, picking up one of the quarters, glad that he had at least had the forethought to cut the damn thing up into smaller pieces. He was about to take a bite when Steve clasped his hands in front of him and started muttering something, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
Oh, Tony realized with a start, Steve was praying. He watched, wondering if he should put his own sandwich back; his parents had never bothered with this kind of thing when he had been growing up. Howard had complained that it was a waste of time – that as men of science they should raise their children to know better than to believe in an invisible being ruling the world. That was probably one of the few things that had come out of Howard’s mouth that Tony had agreed with.
Steve, however, had not had Howard Stark raising him. He continued to mumble away, his words lost amidst sniffles. He paused when he was done, looking up with one eye cracked open. “Aren’t you going to pray too?”
Tony pursed his lips. Was this something he wanted to do? Did he want to keep lying to the kid?
“You don’t have to say the words out loud,” Steve said, looking back down at his plate. “He can hear you anywhere.”
“That’s… uh…,” Tony looked down at his own plate, contemplating making a break for the elevator. “That’s great, kid.”
“Do you not… believe?” Steve asked. There wasn’t any judgement in his voice. That was probably a first.
Tony shook his head. “No. I don’t believe in god.”
“Because I believe in proof – in people, and the future. I guess I just don’t like the idea of people not being responsible for their actions.” Tony grabbed a piece of sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth, hoping the peanut butter would keep him from running his mouth.
Steve picked up his own sandwich, slowly nibbling at the first quarter. “Ma says people are allowed to believe in lots of things and that we’re not supposed to judge them. That’s what God is supposed to do.”
“Seems fair,” Tony said through a mouthful of peanut butter.
Steve chewed carefully around the outside of the sandwich before going in for the middle bit; he looked up at Tony, his mouth hanging slightly open. “Wow, this is really good.”
“Do you eat this all the time?”
“Sometimes,” Tony shrugged, demolishing another quarter of his sandwich. “What do you normally eat for lunch?”
Steve finished his first quarter, and reached tentatively for his second. “Sometimes we have potatoes or cabbage. Sometimes we have bread and lard. Ma doesn’t have a lot of time to cook most of the time. She works a lot because I get sick.” He hung his head, leaving the sandwich quarter in his hand untouched. “I wish I didn’t get sick all the time. I hate the hospital – and I hate that Ma has to pay so much for it.”
Tony wished he could tell Steve that things were different now, that thing were easier for working class families, but that would be yet another lie; most of the people under the poverty line were still unable to afford proper health care – hell, some of those over the line couldn’t afford it either. He gave money to the Maria Stark Foundation every year for that very reason. “Yeah, hospitals are expensive,” Tony said, licking strawberry confiture off of his fingers, “But I’m sure she doesn’t mind it. She loves you a lot, right?”
Steve nodded, nibbling at his sandwich quarter.
“Then she’s probably more worried about you than the money,” Tony said. He polished off the last of his sandwich and leaned back, making himself comfortable as Steve continued to eat his at a snail’s pace. He was fairly certain the sandwich was going to start molding over by the time Steve got to his third quarter.
Steve seemed to notice Tony’s gaze. He went very still, staring back at Tony with a weird look on his face; it was a little scary, actually, how quickly the change happened. He was a sweet little boy one minute and then it was like a switch had been flipped. It almost looked a little bit like Steve was going to bite him if he reached for his food. “What?” Steve said, his voice so quiet it was almost a whisper.
“I didn’t say anything, kiddo,” Tony said. He yawned, rubbing his eyes; he always had been bad at staying awake after he had lunch usually he dropped off right after, dozing on whatever he was near, which was why Pepper never scheduled after-lunch meetings.
“Did… are you hungry still?” Steve asked.
Tony opened one eye. “No, that’s alright, Steve,” he murmured. “You go ahead and eat. If I get hungry I’ll just make something else. There’s plenty to eat here.”
The change in Steve was dramatic; he slumped as he started eating his sandwich again, moving from the crusts to the soft part of the bread quicker this time. He stared down at his hand when he had reached the largest layer of peanut butter. “They take my food sometimes when they’re still hungry,” he said, taking a tiny bite.
Tony turned slowly, afraid to move too fast. His first impulse was to speak, to ask the names of the little bastards that had been swiping Steve’s food, but he remained silent, wanting to hear what Steve had to say; the bastards were dead after all – and there was nothing he could do to punish them for what they had done.
“I don’t like it when they take my food. I hit Joey last time and hurt my hand – was that wrong?” Steve asked, looking up from his food.
“No. I don’t think that was wrong. I would have slugged him too.”
Steve smiled brightly. “That’s what Ma said!”
Tony smiled back.
“Sounds like your mom is a smart cookie.”
Steve nodded, biting into his sandwich. “I don’t like bullies.”
“Bucky gives me his food sometimes,” Steve said, licking a chunk of strawberry off of his thumb. “He’s my best friend. He and I go to the library together, although he doesn’t really like reading that much. I like books though – I read a lot because when I’m sick Ma doesn’t let me go outside. Do you think I could visit him?”
Tony sighed. He had been dreading this question all morning. “Bucky’s not in the country right now kiddo,” he said, picking his words carefully. After all, how were you supposed to explain to a little kid that their best friend was dead? “His parents got a job overseas.”
Steve looked crushed. He looked down at his plate. “Oh.”
Tony swallowed hard. God, why was he the one having to answer all the tough questions? It was bad enough adult-Steve hated him, but this was going to make mini-Steve hate him too. Here he was, systematically stripping the kid of hope one person at a time; Steve didn’t deserve it, but what was he supposed to do? Was he supposed to tell the kid flat out that his friends and family were dead? Was he supposed to sit the kid down, look him in the eye and tell him that he was years out of time?
“Do you think his parents would mind if I wrote to him?” Steve sounded so heartbreakingly honest, Tony wanted to hug him again.
“Sure,” Tony said with a soft smile. “I’m sure he’d like to get letters. I don’t know if he’ll be able to write back quickly though.”
“That’s ok,” Steve said, wiggling his sticky fingers. “I’m used to waiting. It won’t be that bad.” He stood up, crossing his legs a little.
Tony recognized the move. “Bathroom?” he asked, chuckling.
Steve nodded rapidly. “Can you come with me?”
“Uh… sure.” Tony made his way to the bathroom with Steve trailing behind him, trying not to laugh at the way Steve was moving at triple speed. “You know, you could have said you had to go earlier.”
“I don’t like the bathroom Thor showed me,” Steve said, his brow furrowed in concentration. “It was too big.”
“Well, I’m going to have to warn you then,” Tony said, pushing the bathroom door open, “this one’s pretty big too, kid.”
Steve skidded to a halt, bumping into the back of Tony’s thigh. He peered around him into the bathroom, sucking in a sharp breath. Tony’s bathroom wasn’t that big – at least for him. Sure, there was a separate bathtub slash hot tub and a shower, but they were only big enough for two people or so – it wasn’t like he had installed them thinking about having a wet and wacky orgy in here. Everything was a mixture of silver and white marble tile; it was all custom made, designed to his exact specifications. He didn’t have anything weird in here – it was all pretty standard, really, although judging by the look on Steve’s face it was the most terrifying place on earth.
Steve’s knees knocked together, his hands dropping to the crotch of his pants. “I changed my mind.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I highly doubt that,” he chuckled. He walked into the bathroom and mimed for Steve to follow him, waiting patiently while Steve hovered in the doorway. “Come on. It won’t bite.”
Steve shuffled into the bathroom; Tony moved backwards, leading Steve to the toilet.
“Here,” Tony said, lifting up the toilet lid. “I’m sure you recognize this.”
Steve nodded. He darted forwards, slipping around Tony and tugged his pants down, fear forgotten, throwing himself onto the toilet. Tony politely remained facing the other direction, drumming his fingers on his arm while Steve did his business.
The toilet flushed.
Tony walked up to the sink and turned the tap on, checking the water temperature while Steve wiggled his way back into his pants. “Alright, so the first thing you need to know about the bathrooms here in the tower is that nothing’s going to hurt you, alright?”
Steve hovered at Tony’s side, looking up at the sink; he was a few inches too short to reach the counter, and he knew it. He pursed his lips, going up on the tips of his toes to try to get at the water. Tony let him struggle for a bit, waiting until he got the idea that he wasn’t going to get at it without help; he bent down and scooped Steve up, setting him down on the counter so that he could squirt some soap onto his hands. Steve played with the foamy soap, wiping it around his fingers.
“This stuff’s great,” Steve said. He brought his soapy hands up to his nose and gave them a sniff. He sneezed, spraying Tony with bubbles.
“It’s much better than a bar of soap, right?” Tony said, leaning his hip against the counter. He wiped a blob of bubbles off of his neck, chuckling. He watched as Steve rinsed his hands off, glad that the kid was taking to it so easily. He had been a little worried there for a second. Bathrooms had been around for ages, but ones like this hadn’t exactly been all that common. Giant showers were kind of a big deal, all things considered; most people had just had a tub and a shower head up above – if that. They had used shower curtains on a metal rod, not glass doors to keep the water in; a lot had changed since Steve’s time.
Tony plucked a fuzzy blue hand towel from the bar behind him and handed it over to Steve. “Here you go.”
Steve patted his hands dry. “Does everyone use this bathroom?”
“Nope,” Tony said, lifting Steve up from the counter and setting him down. “This floor’s all mine.”
“Wow! That’s really cool!”
“It’s alright,” Tony said with a shrug.
“You live up here alone?”
“Most of the time. Sometimes people come to stay with me.”
“Do you have a lot of friends?”
“I have a few,” Tony said, leading Steve out of the bathroom. “You’ve met Jarvis, right?”
Steve nodded, following Tony back to the living room. “The scary lady told me about him. He lives in the ceiling, right?” He hopped up onto the couch and curled up in the corner, nestled against the pillows and the armrest.
“Well, I guess you could say that. He’s an AI – do you know what that means?” Tony sat down beside Steve, sitting cross legged on the couch so that he could face him without getting a crick in his neck.
“What’s an AI?”
“It stands for Artificial Intelligence. It’s something people make to mimic humans – designed by numbers and equations. Did someone explain computers to you?”
“No,” Steve said, shaking his head. “It’s like math, right? Ma bought me an abacus once, but the beads fell off when Daniel was playing with it. Are computers like an abacus?”
Tony smiled. “It’s like math, yeah, although it’s a lot more complicated than an abacus. Computers are things that people use for lots of different things. They started out as a way of making calculations easier, so that people could keep track of things – like, say when you go to work. You put in variables – any kind of numbers, like a wage, and then you can use it to count to see how much a person made every hour. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. I’ve read Buck Rogers before. He has machines that do stuff like that all the time. What else do computers do? You said they do different things. Can they read your mind?” Steve asked excitedly. “Can they walk around? Do they help people?”
“Well, they’re not exactly mind readers, although Jarvis is sentient for the most part. And yes, they can help, but most of them don’t go walking around – at least not ones as smart as Jarvis. I could build him a body if he wanted one, but I don’t think he likes that idea very much,” Tony said.
“I think he likes being omnipotent,” Tony said with a chuckle.
“Omnipo..” Steve pursed his lips.
“Omnipotent. It means all seeing – all powerful.”
“Oh. Do all AI’s do that?”
“Nope. Jarvis is the only one that smart. I built him myself.”
Steve looked star struck. “Really?”
“What else can computers do?”
“You can read book on them if you want to – you can get entire libraries in one computer. You can listen to music, watch movies – play games.” He grinned when Steve’s eyes went as wide as saucers. “They’re really easy to use – don’t worry,” he said, patting Steve on the head, “I’ll teach you how to use one. I’ll even get you a tablet of your own.”
“Sir?” Jarvis’s voice made Steve jump a foot and a half into the air. The kid whirled around wild-eyed, looking for the source of the sound and then scooted across the couch towards Tony, throwing himself into Tony’s lap.
“It’s ok, Steve,” Tony said, smoothing down Steve’s hair as the boy trembled in his lap. “That’s just Jarvis, remember? We were just talking about him.”
Steve looked up sheepishly. “I forgot. Sorry.”
“That’s ok. Jarvis doesn’t mind – do you Jarvis?”
“No sir. It’s nice to meet you Master Rogers. I’m sorry to interrupt, but Ms. Potts is on the line and she is demanding to speak with you. Apparently you have missed your flight,” Jarvis said.
“My flight?” Tony frowned. “What flight? Did I have a flight?”
“Ms. Potts has informed me that she reminded you of your flight during your earlier conversation,” Jarvis said. “I believe she told you to sleep on the plane. I’m paraphrasing, of course. Her words were much more explicit than that.”
Tony groaned. “Oh shit.” He struggled upright, scooping Steve up. “Shit, shit, shit – don’t repeat that word.”
“I already know the word shit,” Steve grumbled, dangling in Tony’s arms. “What are you doing?”
Tony skidded across the floor towards the elevator, jamming his finger into the call button. “I’m taking you downstairs so that I can rush back up here, pack and get to my private plane before Pepper finds me and skins me alive.”
“Would she do that?” Steve asked, hanging upside down in Tony’s grasp.
“No, she wouldn’t really skin me alive – but she’ll throw paperwork at me until I die from sore fingers,” Tony sighed. He got off at Steve’s floor and handed the now giggling boy to Thor. “Take this.”
Thor chuckled and hoisted Steve up onto his shoulder. “I see my predictions were correct,” he said, ruffling Steve’s hair.
“Yep,” Tony said, stepping back into the elevator.
“Tony?” Steve called out, sounding confused.
Tony stepped out of the elevator again. He flattened Steve’s hair down and gave his cheek a pinch. “I’ve got to run. I won’t be back for a week – but if you need to talk to me, all you need to do is ask Jarvis, alright? He’ll connect you to me whenever you want.”
“Are you sure?” Steve asked, tugging at Tony’s sleeve. “Ma says I shouldn’t bother people when they’re working.”
“Yeah, buddy,” Tony said, giving Steve’s nose a gentle prod. “I’m sure. Call me whenever you want. Behave yourself.”
“I will,” Steve said. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Japan,” Tony said, stepping inside the elevator. “I’m supposed to be checking out the plant I own there.” He jabbed the button for the penthouse, calling out as the doors closed, “Wish me luck!”