Bucky’s rubbing a towel over his sweaty hair, considering whether he actually wants to cook something healthy, or if he’s too beat after his workout to bother, when something crashes into his legs. Bucky curses, startled, and the something—or someone, rather—gasps, and says, “Those were lots of bad words.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Bucky says, throwing his towel over his shoulder, and winks at the little boy sitting at his feet. He doesn’t look like he’s hurt, but Bucky still asks, “You okay, buddy?”
The boy nods, using Bucky’s gym shorts to pull himself upright. Then he hugs Bucky’s leg, chin digging into Bucky’s thigh, and stares up at Bucky, yawning loudly. Bucky glances around, somewhat helpless, but the dressing room is empty apart from the two of them.
Putting a gentle hand on the boy’s head, Bucky asks, “What’re you doin’ here all by yourself?”
“I live here,” the boy says, slowly, as if he thinks that was the dumbest question imaginable. “This is my house.”
Bucky’d figured as much—a lot of Stark Industries employees live on site, and it’s near impossible to gain access to the residents’ recreational areas without proper ID—but the boy doesn’t seem inclined to explain further, busying himself with trying to stand on Bucky’s left shoe with both of his bare feet.
“Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS pipes up, making the boy scowl at the closest speaker, “I apologise for the inconvenience. Sir is on his way to retrieve young Master Theodore.”
“No!” the boy, Theodore, wails, “No fair! No snitching!”
He goes limp, lower lip pushed out into a pout, and slowly slides down Bucky’s leg. Bucky watches, amused, as Theodore sprawls out on the floor, and has to bite back an actual laugh when eyes wet with the beginnings of what will undoubtedly turn into big, fat crocodile tears are turned on him. He does crouch down and pick Theodore up, though, when Theodore makes grabby hands at him.
“No fair,” Theodore repeats, mumbled, as he tucks his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck, “I’m not tired.”
“‘Course not,” Bucky agrees mildly, carrying Theodore out through the gym towards the elevators. “JARVIS, can you let Mr Stark know that I’ve found his lil’ runaway? I’ll bring him upstairs, if that’s okay?”
Theodore huffs, but is obviously too tired to make too much of a fuss. He grumbles under his breath, but doesn’t try to escape, absently playing with a few strands of hair that must’ve escaped Bucky’s bun as they wait to be taken up to the penthouse floor.
Bucky hasn’t been up there yet in the month he’s been living at the tower, either visiting Stark in his workshop for prosthesis maintenance and weapon upgrades, or seeing him around the communal Avengers floor during meetings and the occasional meal. He hasn’t seen any of the Stark kids around until today, but that’s probably mostly due to the weird hours Bucky keeps. And the fact that he’s still not entirely comfortable around most people, grumpy, overtired escape artists notwithstanding, apparently.
It’s obvious, though, now that he’s looking properly, who Theodore’s parent is; his hair and skin are a shade or two darker than Stark’s, but other than that, he looks almost eerily like a tiny version of his father, from the curious brown eyes right to his currently scrunched up button nose.
Bucky may have spent a moment or two watching Stark, when no one was looking. Stark’s gorgeous, and Bucky’s only human, so sue him.
Stark is waiting for them when the elevator doors slide open, arms crossed, and brows raised. Theodore whines, and throws his arms around Bucky’s neck, clinging tightly.
“Yeah, no,” Stark says, mouthing a silent, “Sorry,” at Bucky as he walks over. “You know that’s not going to work, kiddo. C’mon; teeth, PJs, and then bed.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky notices a second kid pulling himself up to peer over the back of the couch. He opens his mouth, but snaps it shut again without saying anything at the warning look Stark shoots him, flopping back down out of sight with a roll of his eyes.
Theodore starts crying when Stark goes to peel him off Bucky. It tugs at Bucky’s heartstrings, even though he knows Theodore is a total faker, and Stark can clearly tell, going by the way his mouth twitches. Once he has Theodore settled on his hip, mostly resigned to his fate, Stark claps Bucky on the shoulder, and says, “Thanks. There’s juice and water in the fridge, if you want to hang around for a while. I’ve got some blueprints for you, and I could use your input on the joint issue.”
“If you’re sure?” Bucky asks, feeling a little like he’s intruding.
But Stark just nods, and nudges him in the direction of the kitchen, so Bucky goes. He grabs a juice box out of the fridge, and then, not sure what else to do until Stark’s done convincing Theodore that it’s time to go to sleep, wanders back out into the living area. The second kid is still on the couch, a book open on his lap, but he looks up when Bucky sits down in one of the armchairs.
“Where did you find Theo?” he asks, and grins excitedly when Bucky tells him. “Awesome. He’s never made it this far before.”
It takes Bucky a moment before he realises, “You were in on this?”
“I disabled JARVIS’ sensors in the employee stairway,” the kid explains, chest puffed out proudly. “For seventeen whole seconds. It’s a new record.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” Bucky says, and hides a laugh under a cough when JARVIS says, “No, he is not,” and the kid sticks out his tongue.
He frowns when JARVIS reminds him that his bedtime is in forty minutes, but doesn’t otherwise make a fuss. He closes his book, carefully putting it on the coffee table, and picks up a tablet instead before knee-walking across the couch to sit cross-legged at the end closest to Bucky. “Do you know any Spanish?”
Bucky does, although he can’t remember why. Unlike some other unexpected remnants of his HYDRA programming, he doesn’t mind the language skills. The kid—”Maximilian, but only Papa ever calls me that, and only when he’s mad. You can call me Max.”—starts up some word learning game, angling the tablet so Bucky can see, too, and clicks on the first assignment.
“Papa and Tío Léon both speak Spanish,” Max explains, glancing up at Bucky for confirmation before saving his answer, and moving on to the next question. “But Papa’s mom was from Spain, and Tío Léon lives in Guatemala, in the city, and sometimes words are different?” He gets an answer wrong, and huffs at the tablet. “Gabriel’s way better at this already.”
By the time Stark joins them, about ten minutes later, Bucky has learned that Gabriel is the oldest Stark child, currently still at football practice—”Soccer football, not football football.”—and doesn’t like it when people call him Gabe, but Elio is fine, even though, “It doesn’t even make sense, he’s so stupid.”
Stark kisses the top of Max’s head, and in return, Max squeezes Stark’s cheeks, snickering at the grimace it makes Stark pull. “Papa, can I have a snack?” he asks, and, when it looks like Stark is about to refuse, he wheedles, “Mr James is probably hungry, too, you know.”
“Veggies or some of the chia crackers,” Stark says, giving in, and pats Max’s butt when Max scrambles off the couch with a victorious whoop. Once Max is out of earshot he adds, “Manipulative little shit,” but sounds fond more than anything.
Max returns a minute later with a plate full of carrots, celery sticks, crackers, and hummus, and plants himself in Bucky’s lap, giving Stark a challenging look. Bucky does not laugh, but it’s a near thing. Stark just rolls his eyes, and snags the tablet, bringing up the blueprints.
They go over Stark’s suggestions for the problem joint in Bucky’s elbow, being fed carrots and celery by Max, who sneaks most of the crackers and hummus himself when he thinks the adults aren’t looking. Max manages to push his bedtime back a few minutes by insisting he wants to say goodnight to Gabriel, even though Bucky suspects waiting up for his brother is just a convenient excuse.
Which is confirmed when Gabriel eventually walks into the penthouse, and Max doesn’t even glance up from the book he’s back to reading. Bucky does look up, though, and for one terrifying moment, before Stark acknowledges the kid, too, he thinks his programming is acting up again, and making him hallucinate.
Because right there, gym bag slung over his shoulder, and a bicycle helmet tucked under his arm, stands a boy who looks so much like Bucky remembers himself looking almost a century ago, that Bucky has the sudden, hysterical urge to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming.