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“Tony – we’ve got to get – Tony. Yeah, alright, but we’ve got to leave in –”

Tony tries to cut Steve off again with the simple yet amazingly efficient tactic of pressing their mouths together, cutting off his words with a kiss. Unfortunately, Steve has been sleeping with Tony for long enough to know when he’s playing dirty, and stops his attempts to void the conversation by planting his palm on Tony’s forehead and pushing him back.

“That’s cheating,” Tony says matter-of-factly from his position lying prone on top of Steve, grabbing Steve’s wrist and pulling it aside. 

“You’re cheating,” Steve replies with a roll of his eyes, and unceremoniously pushes Tony off of him and onto the mattress. He sits up and stretches, sheets pooling around his lap, and as Tony rights himself and watches him he reminds himself just how damn lucky he is to be sleeping with Steve Rogers. He reaches out absent-mindedly and runs his fingers down Steve’s spine, relaxing back against the pillows and wishing Steve didn’t care about the SHIELD briefing they’ve been asked to attend.

“Come on,” Tony says lazily, smoothing his palm over Steve’s back. “We don’t have to leave yet, therefore you can stay in bed.”

Steve sends Tony an exasperated look over his shoulder, which is completely undermined by the way he leans back down to kiss Tony slowly and unhurriedly as if he’s suddenly got all the time in the world.

These are Tony’s favourite moments, when it’s just the two of them together in his bed, pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It took them long enough to get here, after months of bickering, fighting and bruised egos. He was lucky that the arguing resulted in angry sex rather than physical violence, really. More so considering the angry sex led to mildly annoyed sex led to sex led to something almost resembling dating. And now here they are; no longer angry, still having sex, not exactly dating but having everyone who knows them act like they’re a couple despite the fact they’ve never told anyone that anything is going on between them.

“That’s the spirit,” Tony murmurs against Steve’s mouth, and Steve hums in the back of his throat-

And then plants a smacking kiss against Tony’s mouth and pulls away. “Nice try,” he says, and climbs out of the bed, walking through to the bathroom completely naked.

Tony manages an indignant noise, propping himself up on an elbow. “Cheater,” he yells across the room, huffing and throwing himself back against the pillows. “You’re no fun.”

“I’ll be fun later,” Steve calls back. “We’re expected at SHIELD in an hour.”

“You go,” Tony yawns, nuzzling down into the pillows. “You can report back. I need to sleep. I only had a couple of hours.”

“And whose fault is that?” Steve replies, appearing in the doorway with his toothbrush in hand, still completely naked. Yep, morning routine with Steve Rogers is definitely Tony’s favourite part of the day.

“Yours,” Tony answers immediately, closing his eyes now he’s had his fill of eyeing up Steve. “I came to bed at a sensible time and you were the one who insisted on hours of hot, sweaty sex. I would have been asleep at two if it wasn’t for your dick.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Steve says, pushing off the doorframe and disappearing back into the bathroom. “Next time I won’t bother.”

“Like you could resist, Mr Super-Soldier-Sex-Drive,” Tony calls, and he hears Steve laugh even as the shower is turned on, the sound of rushing water soothing in its familiarity.

Tony throws an arm over his eyes and grins to himself, and he doesn’t often say it out loud but he’s not going to deny that ending up in a relationship with Captain America has actually turned out pretty well, considering Steve’s attachment issues and Tony’s previous pathological fear of commitment –

A banging at the door makes Tony sit bolt upright, and Steve darts back into the doorway, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth and towel clutched around his waist, brow furrowed and tense.

Tony glances at him, and then back to the door, raising his voice to shout at whoever it is. “What?”

“Get dressed,” Bucky’s voice shouts back, and Steve visibly relaxes, reaching up to take the toothbrush out of his mouth. “There’s been a situation. Tell Steve as well.”

“He’s not here,” Tony yells, because he’s a bastard like that and will never pass up a chance to hear Bucky say he expects Steve to be with Tony. It’s an easy enough urge to understand, and it’s probably not emotionally healthy or whatever, but he can’t really bring himself to care 

“Yeah, and I’m the Crown Prince of Denmark,” Bucky calls back irritably. “Get up before I drag you both out, and I don’t want to see your junk.”

“What’s up?” Steve calls, and Tony pulls a face at Steve. He mouths ‘ruining the fun,’ and Steve very pointedly gives him the finger. Tony rolls over and laughs into the pillow because that’s another thing that he loves, how Steve can be as proper as the damn president when he’s suited up and being the Captain, but here with Tony he reverts to being Steve Rogers, Brooklyn orphan and army grunt.

“Reed Richards,” Bucky shouts back, and Tony groans. “Got a message from another dimension apparently, an S.O.S.”

“Right,” Steve says, and Tony is climbing out of bed and heading to the bathroom because yeah he’s flippant about SHIELD and responsibility but he knows when he needs to be serious, and this sounds deadly.

“On the way,” Steve shouts to Bucky, one hand brushing over Tony’s shoulder as Tony passes by him and slips into the bathroom. Steve follows him in, tossing his toothbrush aside and dropping his towel to the floor.

“If I let you in with me, do you promise to keep your hands to yourself?” he asks, nodding towards the shower.

“Scouts honour,” Tony replies promptly. “You know me, Cap. S.O.S from another dimension always takes priority over sex.”

“Good to know,” Steve says dryly, and pushes Tony into the shower, hands on his hips. “Hurry, this sounds like it might be more than a regular briefing.”

“Sir, yes, Sir,” Tony salutes, and even though it does sound serious he still can’t not spare a moment to laugh at the exasperated face Steve pulls.

 


 

Just how serious the situation is quickly becomes apparent when they arrive at the Baxter building. Not only are the Fantastic Four all there and looking grave (except Johnny, but that says nothing about the situation considering that the moron spends ninety percent of his time acting like a giant twelve year old) but a good chunk of the Avengers as well as SHIELD personnel are also there. Tony’s not too worried though; Nick Fury hasn’t deigned to show up and there’s no delegates from the WSC so he assumes the world isn’t in mortal peril this time around.

Tony stands at the back next to Steve, close enough so their shoulders brush. His eyes flick from where Sue Storm is arguing emphatically with Reed, to where Coulson is engrossed in conversation with Bruce, and finally to where Jonny is listening to Clint and Bucky and is obviously trying not to stare at Natasha’s ass.

“Look at Storm,” Tony mutters to Steve. “Deathwish?”

“Who do you think would do him more damage, Clint or Bucky?” Steve replies in an undertone.

“Natasha,” Tony replies without hesitating, and Steve snorts with laughter. Tony looks up and notices that Coulson is watching him and Steve, expression neutral but obviously interested in what’s going on. He feels a slight urge to shift close to Steve, just to see if Coulson would react at all, but he ignores it.

“Listen up,” Reed calls, sounding tense. Next to Tony, Steve straightens up and goes into Captain mode, expression intent. Tony doesn’t call him on it, because this is a moment where they need Steve to be in Captain mode. 

“We’ve been looking at inter-dimensional portals for some time now,” Reed tells them. “Working out time scales, energy yields and polarity-”

“The non-geek version, please,” Clint calls, and Reed sends him a dirty look.

“The point is, we – I haven’t opened any portals from our dimension as it was deemed too risky. However, someone from another dimension has opened a non-temporal loop portal and managed to communicate with us.”

“Where is the contact point?” Tony asks.

“Here,” Reed admits. “In the chamber.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Coincidence, or down to the fact you were probably trying to open a portal without anyone noticing?”

Reed scowls at Tony. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “The point is we’ve had a message from a Steve Rogers from another dimension, calling for help.”

Steve stiffens next to Tony, and all heads in the room turn to look at him. Tony looks about, and then holds up his hands. “Whoa, he didn’t send the damn message,” he says. “Stop staring, this is our Steve Rogers who doesn’t even know what non-temporal loop means. Come on, he’s still confused by the DVR.”

“A version of me sent an SOS?” Steve asks, choosing to ignore Tony. “In what form?”

“An audio recording,” Reed says.

“Play it,” Steve says, to general agreement from the others.

Reed looks at Steve for a moment. “I think he’s dead,” he says bluntly. “The other Steve Rogers. The message is a request for help, a summary of the situation, and then there’s the sound of close range shots and nothing more.”

Tony sucks in a breath, feeling his stomach twist and clench, because the thought of Steve – any Steve – being hurt makes him want to lash out and kill whoever was involved. He feels Steve shift next to him, folding his arms across his chest, and knows the motion is deliberate in the way Steve’s elbow brushes against his arm.

“Play it,” Steve replies evenly, and everyone goes quiet. Reed nods and stretches an arm out across the room, pressing a button on a console just behind Bucky. There’s the hiss of static and then Steve’s voice rings out, calm but strained, and Tony shifts on the balls of his feet, wanting to hold Steve’s hand in his own, clench it tightly to reassure them both that they’re still here and well.

“…contact has been compromised. I repeat, this is Commander Rogers from Earth Five Nine Four. The US has been under sustained attack from Hydra – the last eighteen months. We have infiltrated a Hydra base …” there’s the sound of explosions and static roars again. “We have – shit – we have infiltrated a Hydra base and have been cut off from our support. We are requesting help from any parallel teams who receive this message-” There’s the sound of another blast and smashing glass, and the feed goes even more crackly. “-civilian casualties high – worldwide – we have discovered – samples – Hydra attempting to replicate – Hawkeye, get down! I repeat, we suspect there are – in the vicinity we need evac- priority on finding and evacuating – must – please - to find him and get him out-”

And then there’s the horrible sound of gunshots and the message cuts out.

 “I’ve managed to locate the source of the message,” Reed says, as if they’ve not just listened to the last moments of a Steve Rogers from another dimension.  “And the chamber is stable. If we want, we can send a team through.”

“Fuck that,” Johnny says vehemently. “Did you not hear that?”

“Do we know anything else?” Steve asks.

“No,” Reed says.

“So we could go through and end up in the middle of a full-out war?” Tony summarises, rubbing his brow with his fingertips. “Right.”

“It’s possible,” Reed agrees.

“I’ll go,” Bucky says, and of course he does.

“Not on your own you won’t,” Steve glowers, and Bucky scowls right back.

“I’m the only armoured division at this party,” Tony offers.

“Great,” Johnny says. “So we’re definitely going?”

“Yes,” Steve and Tony say simultaneously. “You were listening,” Tony continues. “There was someone there he was desperate to evacuate.”

“Desperate enough to leave himself in a vulnerable position whilst he sent out the message,” Steve says slowly, and then looks up. “Who’s coming?”

Tony raises his hand. As does Bucky, Clint, Natasha, Thor and then after a moment’s pause, so does Johnny.

“Alright,” Steve says with a nod. “Reed and Bruce, you are to manage it from this end. Phil, can you notify SHIELD and let them know we’re going? And the X-Men as well, if this many of us are going?”

Phil nods and turns away, phone already at his ear. Bruce moves over to the computer consoles next to Reed, and Steve looks around at everyone else. “If you’re coming, suit up. Get what you need. Back here in thirty minutes or we’re going without you.”

Everyone moves at his word, going to grab equipment and suits, the atmosphere purposeful but tense. Tony doesn’t move, he just stays exactly where he is at Steve’s side.

“You need to suit up,” Steve says to him.

“It’ll take me ten minutes,” Tony shrugs. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Steve says, and turns to face Tony, blue eyes bright. “I should be asking you.”

Tony nods, and then laughs, a depreciating huff of sound. “Not gonna lie. Hearing your voice like that wasn’t exactly pleasant,” he admits, and Steve’s arm moves as if he wants to reach out for Tony, and Tony suddenly wonders why they’re still going along with their unspoken agreement to not show they’re together in front of other people. Everyone already obviously knows, so why are they bothering?

“Wasn’t me,” Steve says simply, and his expression is so understanding that Tony just can’t.

“Three second warning, Cap,” he says simply, and Steve raises an eyebrow but doesn’t move and then Tony leans in and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Steve doesn’t kiss him back, but he turns his face slightly towards Tony’s and into the kiss, accepting.

“Suit up,” he repeats, and his eyes are on Tony’s and Tony knows the rest of the room are probably watching, but he doesn’t care. All he’s done is confirm what they already knew. “I need you with me on this one,” Steve says, and Tony nods, stepping away and moving towards the door.

“See you in fifteen,” he says, and Steve nods and Tony can feel his eyes on him as he leaves the room.

 


 

“Well. This all looks delightful.”

“Cut the chatter,” Steve instructs, and Clint obediently shuts his mouth, bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready to fly. The trip through the portal that Reed managed to stabilise was less than fun – Bucky had puked the moment his feet hit solid ground, but no-one is daft enough to mention it – however the journey is the last thing on their minds as they survey the scene in front of them. 

They’re in an abandoned building that looks somewhere between a research facility and a warehouse, and it’s eerily silent. The only noise they can hear is their own breathing, and it’s disconcerting considering what they heard on the message not an hour ago. Steve hates silence like this; he much prefers jumping into a fight where he can just get on with it and knock some heads together. He’d never cut it as a spy, as Tony is too fond of reminding him whenever he shouts or breaks something.

He scans their surroundings. It’s functional and modern inside, with smooth concrete floors and walls. Above their heads there’s a metal walkway running the length of the building, tucked along the side of the room underneath a row of large glass windows. Four of the windows are smashed, the glass scattered over the floor underneath their feet. There are a few large metal containers stacked against the walls, and a cluster of desks complete with computer terminals at the far end. At either end are a set of heavy metal doors, and a body slumped beside the ones on the right, face down.

It looks worryingly like they got here too late. 

“Iron Man, Widow - computers,” Steve instructs. “Find out what we’re looking at here. Hawkeye, Barnes, go check the perimeter, use the left exit. Thor, outside surveillance, tell us what you can see from the air. Storm, with me.”

Everyone nods and moves off without argument or causing a fuss. Steve doesn’t really want to let Tony out of his sight, but he knows that he cannot for a second let his personal feelings get in the way of a mission again. Hell, he’d almost caused the collapse of the damn government when dealing with Bucky as the Winter Soldier, and he wasn’t even sleeping with Bucky. 

“Iron Man, do you copy?” Steve asks as he heads towards the doors, in the opposite direction to Tony.

“Loud and clear,” Tony replies. “Cap, this is recent. The whole place is hot. Four or five degrees above the temperature outside.”

“Sure it’s not Storm?” Steve asks, watching as Johnny steps forwards and rolls over the body near the doors. The guy is dead, eyes blank and staring at nothing. Johnny blows out a breath, shakes his head and reaches out to gently close the man’s eyes. Steve doesn’t know if the body belongs to a friend or an enemy, but he’s glad the eyes are closed either way.

“No,” Tony replies. “Definitely not, he couldn’t heat up a whole place like this unless he fully lit up.”

“It’s not me,” Johnny confirms to Steve, voice low. “Man, this place is creeping me out.”

“Pussy,” Bucky’s voice says casually.

“Chatter,” Steve says pointedly before Johnny can retort, but he can still hear Clint sniggering over the comm lines. Once again he vows to never send Bucky and Clint off together when on missions; they just seem to egg each other on to act like idiots.

Steve pushes at the metal doors at the end and they swing open with the squeal of tight metal hinges. Cautiously, he steps through, Johnny following just behind.

“Where the hell is everyone?” Johnny asks in an undertone as they step into the dark corridor beyond. “It’s too still.”

Steve nods in agreement with the assessment. “I have no idea. Light?” he asks, and Johnny obliges, his fingers immediately lighting up with bright yellow flame and throwing their surroundings into relief. It glints brightly off the surface of the shield, and Steve flexes his fingers in the straps, securing his grip. The corridor is much like the room they just left, with smooth grey walls and floor, the ceiling covered in strip lighting and white tiles.  The lights are all broken or off, and the flickering quality of the light from Johnny’s fingers isn’t helping soothe Steve’s nerves. They walk on towards the set of double doors at the end of the corridor, pushing through and finding themselves in a stairwell.

“So, going down?” Johnny says casually as he steps up to the railings and looks over, down the stairwell. He whistles through his teeth. “Cap, this goes down – twenty floors at least.”

“Schematics are showing eighteen subterranean levels,” Natasha supplies over the comms. “It’s a research facility, Cap. Definitely looks like Hydra.”

“Just what I always wanted,” Steve grouches. “Barnes, anything?”

“Lots and lots of dead people,” Bucky replies slowly. “Gunshots, blunt trauma. Looks like there was a hell of a fistfight. Barton, anything up there?”

“Giant pile of fuck all. A great view of all the death though.”

“Succinct as always, Hawkeye,” Tony’s voice says dryly. “Thermal scanners are all out of whack because of the temperature fluctuations, Cap. I can’t tell if anything is alive.”

Steve walks up to Johnny, looking down the stairwell. “Alright, keep me posted,” he says, leaning over the railings and looking down the drop. “Storm, let’s go-”

A weak groan cuts through the silence and Steve immediately goes tense, holding out a hand to stop Johnny. They both stay still, listening hard and then there it is again, a weak groan and a cough.

Steve signals Johnny to stay put and slowly walks down the stairs. He gets half way down and beckons Johnny to follow, and as Johnny pads softly down the stairs the light from the flames on his fingers reveals a woman in SHIELD gear slumped against the wall.

“Hey,” Steve says, walking over and dropping to his knees, setting his shield aside on the floor next to him. He reaches for the woman, tipping her chin up and he sees a wound on her stomach, uniform soaked through with blood from hips to chest. Damn.

"Team, I've got a survivor, SHIELD agent, wounded," Steve says, reaching up to touch the comm unit with his free hand. "Patching you through on speakers so you can hear, channel four."

The woman looks up, blinking dazedly, and there’s blood on the corner of her mouth. “Commander?”

Steve shakes his head. “Captain,” he says, and she takes a moment and then in seems to sink in. She looks Steve over, and then lifts weary eyes back to his.

“You got his message then,” she says dully. “I think he’s dead.”

“What happened here?” Steve asks. “Can you tell us?”

She breathes in and out hard through her nose, her body shivering, probably with shock considering how warm the whole place is. Johnny crouches down next to them and Steve feels the searing warmth as he cranks his body heat up, and nods to him in thanks.

“The last stand,” she finally says depreciatingly, eyes fluttering shut. “We were the last ones left. A SHIELD cell, Commander Rogers and Hawkeye.”

“So, who had money on me being the last man standing?” Clint's voice says. “I certainly didn’t.”

“Chatter,” Steve says forcefully, at the same time that Tony tells him to shut the fuck up. Clint doesn’t say anything more so Steve turns his attention back to the agent in front of him.

“What about everyone else?” Johnny asks. “Lady, what happened to everyone else?”

“Working with Hydra, lost or dead,” she says. “God. We lost Iron Man a week ago, thought we’d have one last crack at them. Didn’t go so well.”

“Why? What was here?” Steve asks. Her chin dips again and he nudges it up gently with his fingers.

“They were trying to,” she says, exhausted. She swallows thickly, forcing the words out with obvious and painful effort. “Copy. They were making soldiers.”

Steve swears softly, and hears Bucky do the same. God damn it, will Hydra never get bored of trying to recreate him? Not for the first time he silently curses the serum; it seems that sometimes people desperate to breed super-soldiers of their own cause more destruction than he can ever hope to prevent.

“Where-” Steve begins, but Tony’s voice cuts through, urgent and serious.

“Movement,” he says. “Lower levels. Nine. There’s someone or something down there.”

“Right. Barnes, Hawkeye, is there any way of getting down from your end?” Steve asks.

“Jumping down an elevator shaft as we speak,” Clint replies. “Race you.”

Steve hears the zing of taut wire and the slither as Bucky and Clint presumably rappel down a line to the lower levels. There’s a clang and a muffled thump and the sound of screeching metal, and he assumes it’s Bucky prising open a doorway with his hand.

“Thor, what have you got?”

“Naught but destruction for miles upon miles,” Thor replies. “It is a wasteland. A single road leads to the facility, but I fear the world around us has long been burned.”

“Alright, come back in,” Steve instructs, and looks back to the woman. “Where-” he begins, but stops. Her eyes have closed and her chest is still. She’s gone. He didn’t even ask her for her name.

“Fuck,” Johnny says unhappily, and lets his temperature drift back to somewhere closer to his usual range, leaving Steve’s side feeling oddly cold.

Steve doesn’t say anything. He looks at the agent for a moment longer and then gets to his feet, picking up his shield and slipping it back onto his arm. Johnny stands up too, looking uncomfortable, and Steve opens to his mouth to tell him to move on-

A deafening boom rocks through the facility. Steve and Johnny are thrown off their feet into the wall, and the floor beneath them rocks, dust drifting down from the ceiling. There’s a distant roar that sounds like flames, and a series of rumbling crashes.

Steve grabs Johnny’s elbow, keeping him upright. “Status!” he yells, one hand going up to the unit in his ear. “Everyone, report!”

“We’re fine,” Tony replies immediately. “That came from lower levels.”

“We’re good!” Bucky yells, and Steve can hear Clint swearing in the background, his comm unit not delivering directly.  “Cap, where are you?”

“Stairwell,” Steve replies. “Tony, are you still getting movement?”

“Yeah, a single source,” Tony replies. “Steve, get out of there.”

There’s another distant boom and the whole stairwell shudders again, concrete creaking and groaning ominously. “Barnes, do you have visual on whatever’s moving? What’s down there?”

“Negative,” Bucky pants. “We found you – the other you. He’s dead.”

“Steve, this place runs on nuclear energy, if it blows it will take half the fucking country with it!” Tony yells again, sounding furious. “Leave it!”

“Not a chance,” Steve replies, and runs for the stairwell. “Come on, let’s go-”

“I got this, Cap.” Johnny doesn’t hesitate; he clambers up over the railing of the stairwell and flings himself off into empty air, and Steve hears the yell of ‘flame on!’ and the stairwell lights up briefly and brightly as Johnny streaks away. Steve makes to follow him but another explosion rocks the stairwell, and this time a chunk of the ceiling cracks free and drops, hitting the floor a metre away from his feet and ripping half the stairwell with it. Raising his shield above his head, Steve staggers, tries to go on, but the floor beneath his feet gives way and fuck, it’s too risky, Tony and Bucky will both kill him if he gets himself hurt-

“Storm, I’m cut off,” Steve shouts, but there’s no reply, and great, Johnny must have fried another comm unit and wasn’t Reed meant to be making him one that he couldn’t incinerate? “Barnes, where are you-”

The floor beneath his feet shifts again and Steve curses and legs it back up the stairwell, dodging a falling chunk of metal and feeling a surge of guilt as he runs past the dead SHIELD agent. The roaring is getting louder and he can only hear odd words coming through the comms; Tony’s urgent voice and Natasha swearing at Bucky and Thor shouting-

Something hard and heavy falls from above and clips the edge of the shield and then his shoulder, sending him crashing to the floor in agony. He gasps, curling in on himself as he waits for the blinding pain to subside, and when it does he’s left with a sharp, angry throbbing in his shoulder, the wet warmth of blood soaking through his uniform.

“Fuck,” he breathes out, keeping the shield above his head. “I’m hit,” he says, keeping his voice level and calm. “Falling debris, think I’ve dislocated my shoulder-”

More pieces of ceiling tumble down, scattering over him like hailstones, clinking off the surface of the shield. He pushes himself up onto his knees and swears as he sees the doors are blocked by a huge slab of concrete. He can’t hear anyone else, just crackles and an occasional aborted rush of sound in his ear-

And then Tony’s voice is shouting in his ear, suddenly and wonderfully loud. “Fuck you, Rogers, why is it always you? I’m on the way.”

“Fall back,” Steve insists, relief coursing through him. “I’ll find-”

“Fuck you,” Tony repeats tersely. “I’m on the way.”

“Found a live one!” Clint shouts, comm flaring back to life. “Cap, we got him, shit, Bucky, grab him quick-”

“Civilian,” Bucky says breathlessly. “Holy fuck-”

The feed crackles and cuts out and Steve swears again, forcing himself to his feet. Oh god, definitely dislocated, and he grits his teeth and wonders how the fuck he’s going to get out-

And over the rumbling and creaking he hears the whine of repulsors, and he lifts the shield with his good arm to cover his face just as the slab of concrete blocking the door is blasted into pieces. Red and gold armour appears, smashing through the remaining concrete with a well-placed knee.

“You fucking jerk,” Tony says matter-of-factly, and walks over and hauls Steve up, an arm around his waist. “The amount of shit you give us for getting hurt.”

“Thanks for the sympathy,” Steve grunts, biting the inside of his cheek as he steps forwards with Tony, shoulder jarring painfully. “Son of a bitch.

Tony doesn’t reply; he just hauls Steve along the corridor and back into the main warehouse, and as they shove through the doors Thor and Natasha are there, hands reaching out for them.

“Portal ready to be activated in thirty seconds,” Natasha says. “Where’s Storm?”

“I don’t know,” Steve pants. “Bucky-”

“Here!” a voice yells, and Johnny bursts through the door that Clint and Bucky used earlier, swooping down over their heads, extinguishing his flames and hitting the ground running. Bucky and Clint are moments behind, crashing through the door and sprinting over, covered in dust and ash and both bleeding from various places, and Clint is carrying something, a large wrapped up blanket that he’s clutching to his body with both arms, one low and one high in an oddly protective stance.

“Call Reed, let’s get the fuck out of here!” Bucky shouts as they skid up, and glares at Steve. “What the fuck happened to you?”

“What the fuck is that?” Tony responds, jerking his head at the bundle Clint has in his arms, and Thor steps forwards and gently pulls the blanket back, revealing short blond hair and a small pale face. Steve stares in disbelief; it’s a child. They’re in a fucking Hydra research facility, why the hell would there be a kid anywhere near the place?

“We found him,” Clint pants, looking down at the kid in his arms. The kid’s face is white, smears of dirt across his forehead, eyes closed and mouth lax, clearly asleep or unconscious. Clint shifts, hitching the kid higher against his chest. “He’s what was moving. He tried to leg it and Bucky grabbed him and he just sort of collapsed-”

“So you brought him with you?” Natasha asks, looking at the kid’s face intently.

“What the fuck was I meant to do? It’s a kid! Stark said this whole place could fucking blow!”

“Argue later, let’s go!” Johnny shouts as the floor beneath their feet begins to shudder and shake. “Widow, hit the signal!”

Natasha grabs hold of Bucky’s elbow, Bucky grabs hold of Clint and Steve, and Johnny and Thor both take hold of Tony’s shoulders.  Natasha pulls a device off of her belt and flicks a switch on the top and then they’re wrenched backwards in a horrible twist of energy and light, and Steve can only hold onto Tony, shut his eyes and will down the urge to throw up.

 


 

Steve’s knees give out the moment their feet hit the floor of the portal chamber back on their Earth. He mentally kicks himself, grabbing hold of Tony and pulling himself to his feet, but luckily for his ego, no-one says anything. 

“Everyone okay?” he asks roughly.

“Yep,” Bucky says, and then doubles over and throws up.

Johnny gags, his hand coming up to cover his nose and mouth, and Natasha is out of the chamber quicker than anyone else can blink. Tony and Clint both swear in disgust at exactly the same moment and Thor simply wrinkles his nose and steps back.

“Inter-dimensional travel suits you ill, my friend,” he says to Bucky, who wipes his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Jesus, Barnes, stop puking in enclosed spaces,” Tony snaps, tightening his arm around Steve’s middle and hustling him towards the door.

“Fuck you,” Bucky replies, breathing hard. “How’s the kid?”

“Breathing,” Clint replies, glancing down. “Still KO. He’s freezing cold, too.”

“Where the hell did you find him?” Steve asks, twisting his head to try and look, but Clint has pulled the blanket back up over the kid, his palm resting on the back of his head. Clint is like a damn magpie on missions, always bringing crap back with him, and is this weirder than the time he brought back a velociraptor skull from their trip to the Savage Lands? Steve isn’t sure, but he is sure that he’s possibly going a little bit light-headed from blood loss and pain.

“In the lab,” Clint replies. “There were a bunch of dead technicians-”

“Can we discuss this outside of the puke chamber?” Tony interrupts, pulling Steve forwards and jolting his arm. “Barton, move.”

Clint hitches the kid up again and edges out of the chamber, Johnny following just behind. Tony nods at Thor and Bucky and they leave next, giving Tony space to negotiate the door, which isn’t really wide enough for an armoured suit to pass through whilst carrying a soldier who has the world’s widest shoulders.

“Is this weirder than the time he brought back the velociraptor skull?”

The look Tony gives him is clearly torn between patient and exasperated. “Stop talking,” he advises him. “Did you hit your head?”

“No, I just - son of a whore,” Steve bites out as Tony eases him though the doorway and his elbow clips the edge, jarring his shoulder. He comes face to face with Sue Storm and feels his face colour. He knows it shouldn’t matter, but swearing in front of a woman still makes him feel oddly guilty. It’s like he expects his mother to be behind him, ready to remind him that he should always treat the ladies with respect.

“Sorry?”

“Oh, please,” she says, looking faintly amused. “Sit down before you fall down.”

Natasha comes up with a chair in hand, setting it down next to Steve. He slides gratefully into it, blowing out a breath. He looks up and sees Reed, Bruce, Coulson, Thor and Johnny all crowded around Clint and the kid, voices and expressions ranging from shocked to astounded to worried.  Bucky is stood over by the window with a cigarette in hand and a towel clamped to a cut on the side of his head, eyes fixed on Clint.

“What happened?” Sue asks, looking confused. “What-”

“A Hydra facility. The whole place was destroyed,” Natasha says calmly, and she gives Tony a nod and slowly moves to stand in front of Steve. Great, shoulder setting a la Natasha, must be Steve’s lucky day. She reaches out for his wrist and gently takes hold. “The only survivor was the kid, so Clint obviously felt he couldn’t leave him.”

“The only survivor?” Sue asks, sounding shocked. “In a Hydra facility? Why was he even there?”

“No idea,” Natasha says, but she always has an idea, her saying she doesn’t just means she doesn’t want to share it. “Steve, try not to tense up.”

There’s a dull clunk and the hiss of machinery, then Steve feels Tony’s bare hand slide onto his head, fingers carding through his hair. Sue’s eyes flick from Steve to Tony and a small smile pulls at the corner of her mouth.

“So, you two are over insulting our intelligence by hoping that none of us would notice?”

Tony shrugs, and Steve just lists sideways and rests his temple against the metal of Tony’s hip as Natasha carefully extends his arm in front of him, one hand on his wrist and the other on his elbow. He hisses out a breath, trying to keep relaxed.

“We thought you’d all insist on talking about it and we couldn’t be bothered,” Tony says easily, holding Steve’s head to his hip with his arm curled around his head, palm on his forehead. “Taking it like a champ there, Steve.”

“That’s what he said,” Natasha says, perfectly straight faced, and Tony chokes on laughter and Steve realises the innuendo just as Natasha lifts his arm straight up in one smooth movement, and there’s the horrible lurching jolt of bone and muscle, a blinding stab and swell of pain accompanied by a horrid, dull, squishy popping noise, and then relief, the pain transformed into a soft ache that feels no worse than a bad bruising.

“Wow,” Tony says, patting the top of Steve’s head. “No swearing. Well done. Mama Rogers would be proud.”

“Mama Rogers would be despairing that I got hurt in the first place,” Steve grumbles, and then Bruce is walking over, looking concerned. He stands up, gingerly moving his shoulder. 

“What’s up, Brucie-Bear?” Tony asks.

“We’re taking the kid to medical at the tower,” he says. “He needs checking over, and Clint doesn’t want to leave him with Reed.”

“Understandable,” Tony concedes, and Steve elbows him with his good arm. Tony scowls at him, jabbing him back with armoured fingers. “Take this one with you too, that shoulder needs strapping up.”

“I’ll be-”

“Shut up Rogers, you have no say in this,” Tony says warningly. “Being a super-soldier just means that you get strapped up for three hours, not three days.”

“Listen to the man, Steve,” Bruce says with a hitched smile. “Come on.”

Steve steps up to Bruce with a bad grace. He hates medical. He’d rather just go feel sorry for himself in his room and eat his own bodyweight in junk food. He glances over at Tony, who is apparently done with hassling Steve and is now heading over to Reed, asking something about nontemporal spatial boundaries and sensitive dependency. Clint and Bucky have already gone, and Coulson is nowhere to be seen either.

Steve breathes out and now he’s not in agony he can actually compute what’s happened here today, it hitting him with a bit of a jolt. “We just rescued a kid from certain death in a Hydra facility in an alternative dimension, didn’t we?”

Natasha pats his elbow comfortingly. “At least it wasn’t aliens,” she offers, and Steve sighs, rubbing at his forehead.

“Somehow I get the feeling aliens would be simpler,” he says, and Natasha quite pointedly doesn’t say anything as they leave the Baxter building and head home.

 


 

 

“So what’s gonna happen to the kid, do you reckon?”

Bucky looks up at Steve’s question, tilting his head back and draining the last of his can of soda. He sets the can aside and belches loudly, reaching for another slice of pizza. They’ve been back for a couple of hours and are on their fourth pizza between the two of them, sitting on the floor of the rec room with the boxes spread out haphazardly on the carpet. The television is on in the background and the quiet noise and masses of food are going a long way in helping Steve feel human again.

“I dunno. Put him up for adoption? Foster care?” he shrugs, leaning back against the sofa.

“Even if he’s from another dimension?” Steve asks, trying to separate two slices of pizza single-handedly, already frustrated with having his shoulder strapped up against his chest. He huffs, looks around to check Tony hasn’t snuck in whilst he’s been distracted by pizza, and then drops the slice, reaching up to rip the Velcro straps of the support open, pulling it off and tossing it away. He uses both hands to pull a piece of pizza free, folding it over and taking a large bite.

Bucky doesn’t comment, just tosses over a can of coke, which Steve grabs out of the air without a problem. Yeah, it aches a little, but that’s to be expected seeing as a block of roof fell on him. He snaps the can open and takes a deep swallow, making a satisfied noise in his throat as he does. He drains over half the can and then sets it aside, breathing out deeply and leaning his head back against the sofa behind him.

“You know Jarvis tells on you,” a voice from the doorway says, and Steve twists around to see Tony walking over, freshly showered, wearing sweats and a white t-shirt.

“Apologies, Captain,” Jarvis says. “Sir did request I let him know if you attempted to remove your sling.”

“You can’t eat pizza properly with one hand,” Steve says defensively. “You try it.”

“I’d rather not,” Tony hums, and walks over, crouching down and snagging a slice. “Nice of you two to think of your own stomachs before everyone else’s.”

“Super-soldier metabolisms,” Bucky says. “Eat or be eaten.”

“You’re only half a super-soldier,” Tony retorts, moving to sit cross legged next to Steve.

“Which is why Steve has eaten twice as much as me,” Bucky says, saluting Tony with his slice before biting the end off, grinning cockily.

“How’s the kid?” Steve asks Tony. “Is there a plan? Who’s gonna take him?”

Tony doesn’t answer. He finishes his slice and wipes his fingers absently on his knee, brow furrowed and contemplative.

“Tony?”

Tony blinks, breathes out. “I don’t want to say anything to you until we know for definite,” he says carefully, and Steve is immediately on guard. “We’ve been running bloodwork. Tests.”

“Is the kid alright? He ain’t dying or anything, is he?” Bucky asks, sounding alarmed.

“No, he’s alright. Physically fine, as far as we can tell when he's KO'd. In shock, though, so he’s sedated. Bruce is trying to find out everything he can.”

“Which is what, so far?”

“For definite? That he’s a he, that he’s six years old, give or take a month,” Tony says frankly. “The rest is…unconfirmed.”

“What is the rest?” Steve presses, and the look Tony gives him is foreboding in its hesitance and concern, full of something that looks bizarrely like sympathy-

“Sir, there is a situation in the medical wing,” Jarvis’s voice interrupts before Steve can press Tony for answers. “The child has woken and has managed to gain access to the ventilation system.”

Tony scrambles to his feet. “He’s done what?” he asks, astounded. “He’s in the vents?”

“Yes. Agent Barton has gone in after him,” Jarvis informs him. “Doctor Banner is requesting that you and Captain Rogers come down to the lab immediately.”

“Goddamn it,” Tony curses and heads to the elevator. Steve and Bucky exchange a glance and then both drop their pizza, getting up and dashing after Tony.

“I thought you said he was sedated,” Bucky says as they pile into the elevator and Steve slaps at the button to close the doors, Jarvis automatically taking them down the two floors to the medical wing.

“He was!” Tony insists, and he bites his lip, running his hands through his hair. “Shit.”

“What?” Steve demands. “Why are you looking like that? Come on, you’d normally be finding something like this hilarious.”

“Yeah, Clint Barton trying to extract a six year old from the vents is probably internet gold,” Tony says, and Steve recognises evasion when he hears it. The doors open and Tony steps out, and he makes it four strides before Steve catches his elbow, just outside the door to the medical lab. Bucky hangs back by the elevator, eyes narrowed and fixed on Tony, looking as suspicious as Steve feels.

“Tony,” Steve insists. “Tell me.”

Tony presses his fingertips to his mouth, lowers them. “Early tests seem to be showing his genetic data matches yours,” he finally says, and Steve goes very, very still. “He’s showing indicators of the super-serum. Burning through sedatives, raised core-temperature, higher than average unconscious reflexes.”

Steve feels his mind go blank. He stares at Tony without words, unable to comprehend what he’s hearing.

“This is why I didn’t want to say anything until we knew for definite,” Tony says, meeting Steve’s eyes and that empathetic, compassionate look is back again. “Steve, when we were in their systems, we found all their lab records. They were trying to create a better super-soldier, and they used that other Steve Rogers’ genes to do it. It’s looking pretty much like the kid is biologically his.”

Tony takes a breath. “And by the default of the multiverse,” he says awkwardly, “that means he’s also biologically yours.”

Chapter Text

Tony is pretty sure that Steve has gone into shock.

He’s leaning back against one of the counters in the medlab, hands braced behind him and expression completely blank. His eyes are fixed on the open vent but he hasn’t so much as blinked in the last twenty minutes. Yeah, Tony thinks silently with a grimace. Finding out that the child you’ve just rescued is actually the biological son of a version of you from another universe is probably a lot to take in.

They can hear dull thuds and bangs from the inside of the vent and Clint’s exasperated voice trying to coax, bribe and threaten the kid into coming out. God, it’s lucky that this particular vent isn’t openly connected to the rest of the system, otherwise the kid would be long gone.

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice says cautiously and Tony looks over to see Bucky standing next to Steve, awkwardly scratching the back of his head. “Steve buddy, you’re freaking us out." 

Steve doesn’t answer straight away. He swallows, throat moving, and then looks up at Bruce. “You’re sure?” he asks, demands, and Tony resists the urge to go over and touch him. At moments like this, it’s best to leave Steve alone.

Bruce turns to the holographic screen in front of him. “At this stage in the game, we’re…” he pauses, looking at the numbers. “Ninety-four percent sure,” he finishes apologetically, like he knows that it wasn’t what Steve wanted to hear.

“But,” Steve begins and then shakes his head, lips going thin and tight and knuckles white where he’s gripping the counter.

“Fuck!”

The muffled curse word comes from Clint, and moments later there’s a thud and then Clint’s slides headfirst out of the vent, clutching a hand over his nose which is bleeding freely down his chin.

“Super-strength,” he says shakily as Bucky and Steve both run over and haul him to his feet, Bucky grasping his free hand and Steve grabbing his elbow. “Check.”

“What?”

“Fucker punched me,” Clint says though gritted teeth. “Jesus, fuck. No normal six year old can pack that much of a wallop.”

Steve hustles Clint over to a chair and sits him down. Bruce is immediately there, pulling Clint’s hand away and examining the mess that’s been made of his face.

“You just got punched by a six-year old,” Bucky informs Clint. Clint gives him the finger.

“Bite me, Barnes.”

Bucky blows him a kiss. “Only if you ask nicely.”

There’s a distant noise that sounds like a strangled scream and banging that sounds like fists or feet being hit against the inside of the vent. Tony exchanges a look with Bruce, because that’s the first actual noise they’ve heard the kid make, aside from the banging.

“Come on, someone go get him,” Clint says thickly and impatiently, gesturing back towards the vent.

“Not it,” Tony says, holding his hand up. “I’m not a match for super-serum unless I’m in the armour.”

“Super-serum in a six year old,” Bucky grumbles and pulls a face, looking at the vent. “I’m barely going to fit.”

“Well, our only actual super-soldier certainly isn’t going to fit,” Tony says and Bucky gives in with a bad grace and ducks into the vent. Tony hears the slide of his body against the metal, and then the banging suddenly stops, everything going silent.

There’s a bang, another scream, wild scrabbling noises and then Bucky’s feet appear in the vent opening. He edges out, grunting with exertion, metal arm still reaching into the vent.

“Yeah, biting metal isn’t gonna work,” he says, and slides all the way out, hauling the kid by the ankle. He’s three foot nothing of twisting, biting fury; all blond hair and pale skin, wearing a thin grey t-shirt and bottoms that look like hospital scrubs. Tony immediately moves to stand in front of the vent and the kid twists and kicks at Bucky with his free leg, face contorted in anger. He’s making a wild noise in the back of his throat, and he twists around and manages to kick Bucky low in the stomach, yanking his foot free from Bucky’s grip.

Despite the force of the kick being enough to send him back a step, Bucky recovers quickly and makes to grab the kid again, but he hesitates, metal arm pulling back. “Christ, I don’t wanna hurt him,” Bucky curses and the kid looks around and bolts for the door.

“No!” Bruce shouts. “Bucky, get him, don’t let him-!”

Steve moves quicker than anyone, seemingly on instinct. Just in time he steps into the way and snags the kid around the middle, lifting him from the floor. The kid punches him in the chest and then something like anger and fear steals over his face when he realises that it didn’t hurt Steve in the slightest. He screams again, kicking and flailing and trying to scratch at Steve’s face-

“Get his arms,” Tony says, walking over and reaching out to catch a flailing foot. Despite what happened to Clint and Bucky, the strength of the kid takes him by surprise and he’s yanked forwards, unable to hold the wayward limb still.

Steve drops to his knees and sits the kid on the floor, pulling him back against his side and reaching around with one hand to grab both wrists in one palm. The kid is so skinny that he can easily hold both hands securely with one of his own, and his other arm is wrapped around the kid’s middle. Bucky is there in an instant, holding the kids feet down against the floor.

Tony sees the fear and panic on the kids face and feels a rush of pity and sympathy. They have no idea what’s happened to the kid whilst in the Hydra facility, but they know that’s he’s been hurt and woken up in a strange place with people he doesn’t know. He needs calming down now, before he hurts himself.

“Hey,” Tony says and walks over to crouch down next to the kid. His eyes are darting around the room, from Bucky to Clint to Bruce, and Tony snaps his fingers in front of the kids face to get his attention. It works; bright blue eyes shoot to his and Jesus Christ, now he’s face to face with the kid, the resemblance to Steve is staggering. Aside from the obviously blond hair, a few shades lighter than Steve’s own, the kid has the same eyes, the same stubborn mouth and jaw. He’s not quite a perfect clone; there are a few subtle differences, but still – there’d be no mistaking him for anyone else’s. 

The kid whines in the back of his throat and tries to push forwards, but Steve’s arm is around him like a restraining seatbelt, and he’s not going anywhere fast. Steve’s face is pale and tense and he looks acutely uncomfortable and very much like he’d rather be fighting an army of Chitauri single handed than be here. His gaze is as jittery as the kid’s, periodically looking down at the body in his arms and then darting away.

“We don’t want you in the vents where you can get hurt,” Tony says to the kid. “That’s why we’ve got you like this, sorry about the pin-down but you’ve got crazy hands and you already got Clint pretty good.”

The kids eyes are still fixed on his, and he’s snatching shallow breaths in and out. He surges against Steve’s arm again but he’s stopped trying to wrench his feet free from Bucky’s hands and he’s not growling anymore, so Tony counts it as a win.

“Yeah, that’s Clint over there. Don’t worry about his nose, he’s broken it like a hundred times,” Tony says casually. “And the guy fixing him up is Doctor Bruce. This is Bucky,” he continues, patting Bucky’s shoulder. “And that’s Steve and I’m Tony. We’re superheroes – you have superheroes where you come from? Never mind, all you need to know is that we’ve got you here and you’re safe, alright?”

The kid doesn’t answer, though he does seem to give up on fighting against Steve’s hold. His eyes dart over Bucky,  Clint and then to Bruce, and he seems to shrink back against Steve, shoulders hunching and going tight.

“Bucky, let go of his feet, he’s done kicking,” Tony says and Bucky obliges. The kid pulls his feet up, curling in on himself defensively, and he looks so small and tiny pressed up against Steve’s bulk. He looks around again and then makes a distressed noise, trying to twist away. Steve holds firm though, even though he still looks like about ten seconds from bolting for the door himself.

“Right. Can you talk? You got a name?” Tony asks, but the kid doesn’t answer or even acknowledge that Tony has said anything. “Okay, the strong silent type, I can work with that,” Tony says. “I’ve read a file which says you can speak English, so maybe you just don’t want to.”

He glances up at Steve and Steve looks away, jaw clenching tightly. Tony pauses for a moment, then turns his attention back to the kid.

“I have a master plan,” he says. “It involves taking you out of medical because medical sucks and it smells funny and is way too clean for a six-year old, then we’re going to find you a bedroom to go do small-child things in instead. Sound good? Yeah, that sounds good, if you don’t talk then I’m going to make your decisions for you. Come on Steve and brat, up you get, sitting on the floor is what crazy people do.” 

Tony gets up and so does Bucky but the kid stays curled up against Steve’s side. “Shall I let him go?” Steve asks and the kid jerks violently at the words.

“Nope, keep him held tight, safer for everyone,” Tony says, and he doesn’t miss the frustration that crosses Steve’s face. Tony files the observation away for future reference; he wants so very badly to figure out what’s going on with Steve here, why he isn’t tackling this with his usual optimism and can-do spirit, but he knows the kid’s needs take priority.

Steve slowly stands up, and he swings the kid up easily, setting him on his hip and still holding both hands in one of his. The kid doesn’t protest, just leans forwards and hides his face in Steve’s broad shoulder. Steve’s discomfiture increases tenfold and he looks towards the door, refusing to meet Tony’s eyes.

“Can we go?” he asks tersely, and Tony looks over them both for a moment, knowing it’s an image he’ll never forget. Steve standing tall and holding a miniature version of himself, a kid who in another world would be his son. The thought catches Tony somewhere in his chest, a strange sort of twist because frankly, he thinks it’s pretty damn awesome.

“After you,” he says and Steve walks out of the lab without another word. “Guest room on Barton’s floor,” Tony calls after him, and spins on his heel to look at the others as he walks backwards towards the doorway, shrugging theatrically and pulling his best ‘what the fuck’ face.

“Well, this is going brilliantly so far,” Bucky comments and looks at Clint. “I’m blaming you.”

Clint holds his hands up, keeping very still as Bruce finishes taping up his nose. “Hey, I just picked the kid up. It’s Steve’s genes, blame him.”

Tony winces. “Maybe ixnay on the jokes about him being Steve’s for now?” he suggests. Clint and Bucky both glance at each other in a worryingly meaningful way, and whilst Tony doesn’t think they’ll do anything to deliberately annoy or upset Steve, he trusts the Barnes-Barton bromance about as far as he can throw them. “Right. Come on Barnes. Between me and you we should be able to get Steve and his six-year-old counterpart to behave.”

Bucky grumbles, but does oblige and follow Tony out of the room. “Not fucking likely,” he mutters and Tony can’t help but privately agree.

 


 

Steve has never been the sort of fella who shies away from small kids. He actually quite likes them in all honesty, likes their enthusiasm and happiness and the way they all seem to love the Avengers in ways that adults sometimes don’t. But ending up with an armful of a small child who people are claiming is a genetic result of experiments to clone him is not something he’s really prepared for. 

He follows Tony down the corridor towards the room Tony has singled out, the small guest room tucked in next to Clint’s quarters. The kid is quiet and still in his arms, hands still held between Steve’s and face hidden in his shoulder. As he steps the kid’s feet bump against his thigh and he can’t explain why he doesn’t like it, why it’s making him feel so uncomfortable and awkward.

He deliberately doesn’t look at the kid’s face, because he saw the way Tony’s eyes flicked between the two of them earlier and he’s not stupid, he knows what Tony was probably thinking.

“Here we are, home sweet home, a room with all the modern conveniences and, look at that, no vents.”

The kid doesn’t even move at the sound of Tony’s voice and Steve can’t help but find it horribly frustrating. He’s never seen a kid act like this before, all silent and angry, lashing out physically in such a dramatic way. He’s still a little disconcerted that the kid had actually full-on punched Clint and then bitten Bucky. He doesn’t know much about family dynamics in the 21st Century but he’s pretty sure that such violence isn’t a staple part of any properly functioning family environment. But then again, a lab in a Hydra facility is definitely not a properly functioning environment, certainly not for a child to grow up in. 

Pushing the door open, Tony holds it open for Steve who walks in and over towards the bed, unsure of what to do. Tony seems to have no such compunctions, and comes close, body language open and relaxed.

“You want to stay with Steve or you want to get down?” he asks, and quite predictably the kid doesn’t move. Tony doesn’t seem fazed though, and it’s starting to irritate Steve endlessly. “Alright, no voice means no decisions, so you can-”

Steve moves before Tony can volunteer him to stand there all damn day, swinging the kid down onto the bed. The kid scrambles away as soon as he’s on the mattress, crowding up to the headboard and shoving the pillows away with a ferocious swipe of his small hand.

Tony gives Steve a flat look and Steve turns and walks away towards the door. He hears Tony huff and his voice right behind him.

“Back in a minute, kiddo, stay still and don’t try anything or Steve will come straight back in, and he will restrain you again if you’re about to damage something, including yourself.”

Steve grits his teeth and leaves the room, wishing that Tony will have the sense to let it drop for now. Predictably, Tony doesn’t, and catches hold of Steve’s elbow just outside the door, pulling him around so they’re face to face. Steve allows the move, even though a stubborn part of him feels like holding his ground to remind Tony that he doesn’t have a hope in hell of stopping him if he doesn’t want to be stopped.

“What was that?” Tony asked, sounding put-out.

“What? You wanted me to put him in the room, I did.”

Tony stares at him, looking like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “He’s a six-year-old kid,” Tony says pointedly. “And you just dropped him and then hightailed out of there like you had to go save the planet.”

“I don’t know what to do with a kid like that, Tony,” Steve says. “We’re not qualified for this.”

Tony spreads his hands. “Who is?” he asks emphatically. Steve is about to retort where there’s a crash from inside the room. Tony immediately spins around and darts back in, cursing under his breath just loud enough for Steve to hear. Steve steps cautiously into the doorway and he sees that the kid has pulled or kicked over the heavy oak dresser that stood at the side of the bed and is now sitting against the headboard with his knees pulled up and his arms wrapped around them, face hidden.

Tony sighs. “Super-strength. Right,” he says, rubbing at his forehead. “Reckon we should sit with him or leave him to calm down-”

“How the hell should I know?” Steve bursts out, because he doesn’t understand the kid’s behaviour in the slightest. Hell, back when he was a kid he wouldn’t have dreamed of fighting against adults like this kid seems wont to do. None of them would, not even him. Hell, he'd bent and broken every rule he came across but he’d never have socked an adult in the face, would never have even considered biting someone.

Tony pauses and looks at him with an odd expression on his face. “Right, I have successfully interacted with one small kid in my lifetime, which probably leaves me more underqualified than you,” he punctuates his sentence by jabbing a finger into Steve’s chest.  “But I know that he’s been through some rough shit, and I can only think that he deserves us to at least try. Am I freaking out? Massively. Am I going to leave that kid to fend for himself because we’re all emotionally incompetent? No. So you can stand there and pout or you can come join me and help me figure this out.”

And without waiting for an answer, Tony walks back into the room.

Steve breathes out heavily, and then shakes his head and walks away. Tony’s got this covered, and frankly, he doesn’t know what good he could do anyway.

 


 

“Stop hitting things, you Neanderthal. Here in this century we use words.” 

Steve groans, leaning forwards and wrapping his arms around the punching bag, cheek mashed against the rough material. “Go away,” he grouches. His shoulder aches, a dull throbbing from the earlier injury and the exertion of working over the punching bag. The skin has all but healed, but the muscles are taking longer. “Hitting this is stopping me hitting Tony.”

“I think Tony would quite like to hit you too,” Bucky muses as he walks over. He’s got two mugs of coffee balanced on top of a tablet computer and a giant bag of Cheetos under one arm. “I brought you these, because we all know you’re a hormonal teenager who deals with emotion by comfort eating.”

Steve sends Bucky a dirty look but does deign to push himself off the bag, wiping his sweaty forehead with his hand. Bucky ignores him and goes and perches on the edge of the boxing ring, setting the tablet and coffee down and rolling under the ropes.

Steve unwraps his hands and follows suit, ducking into the ring and sitting cross legged on the canvas, grabbing the bag of Cheetos and tearing it open. Bucky snorts but doesn’t say anything, just leans back on his elbows, crossing his legs at the ankle.

“So,” he says casually. “Hydra scientists are dicks, right?”

Steve shrugs, shoving a handful of Cheetos into his mouth. God, he’s been down here for hours and he’s starving. He swallows, reaches for the coffee. “Hydra scientists are always dicks.”

Bucky narrows his eyes at him. “You seem very alright.”

Steve doesn’t answer. He’s not alright and Bucky probably knows it, but he doesn’t know what good it will do to say it out loud.

“Tony made it sound like you were freaking out,” Bucky says cautiously.

Steve makes an annoyed noise in the back of his throat as he takes another swallow of coffee. “And what is talking about me behind my back going to achieve?”

“Christ, Steve, unbunch your panties, we were talking about the situation, not about you,” Bucky says and Steve feels more guilt roll through him.

“I just don’t get what he wants from me,” he says helplessly. “He’s happy to work with the kid until he gets taken off our hands, so why does he need me?”

Bucky doesn’t answer, just sips his own drink and then picks up the tablet. He hands it over to Steve, and Steve looks at it with some trepidation, seeing a video already loaded.

“What’s happened?”

“Just watch it,” Bucky says, and shoves the tablet into Steve’s hand.

Steve sets the tablet down on the canvas and presses the play symbol. It starts up and he instantly recognises it as a video feed from the room the kid is in. The kid is still sat by the headboard, now with a pillow clutched to his chest, bright blue eyes visible over the top. Tony is there, sprawled out on his side at the foot of the bed, tapping away on a tablet identical to the one Steve currently has in hand.

“-how strong you are,” Tony is saying vaguely. “I mean, I’ve found it in your files, just says elevated strength, but I’ve got no idea what that means.”

Steve is about to ask Bucky what the point of him watching is, when the kid says something. The word is muffled by the pillow. Tony’s fingers falter on the tablet but he doesn’t look up.

“Sorry, I don’t speak mumble,” he says. “Italian, French, English, you got it. But you’ll have to teach me how to speak mumble if that’s what we’re going for.”

The kid slowly pulls the cushion down from his mouth and when he speaks his voice is an odd combination of quiet pushing into loud and tailing off again, words rushed and choppy like he feels he’s got to blurt them out as quickly as possible. “Stronger than the doctors.”

Tony hums contemplatively at that. “I’ll bet you are.”

“Stronger than you.”

Tony snorts with laughter at that. “Wouldn’t bet on it, Mumble. See, you’re super strong but you’re also six and tiny. And I also have a suit of armour.”

The kid frowns, face scrunching up, still eyeing Tony warily.

“You hungry?” Tony asks after a beat. The kid shakes his head quickly. “Alright. You tired?” Again a negative shake of his head. Tony shrugs and goes back to his tablet, fingers skating over files that Steve assumes are the ones that he pulled on the kid. Tony flicks to another page and then his fingers still.

“So. Been in that lab all your life, huh?”

“Yes,” the kid replies, sounding sullen.

“Just you? No friends, no Mom, no Dad?”

The kid shakes his head marginally again, a quick negative jerk. “Just doctors.”

Tony nods. “You know what happened?”

“That man grabbed me,” the kid blurts out. “The robot one.”

“That’s Bucky, he’s not a robot,” Tony says. “He has a robot arm. Yeah, when we found you the place was dangerous, really dangerous, so we brought you here where it’s safe.”

“He’s really strong,” the kid says suddenly.

“Who, Bucky?”

“No. The-” the kid stalls, as if he can’t find the word. “Like me.” His fingers go distractedly to his hair and Steve realises the kid is talking about him. The kids mouth turns down unhappily, face scrunched as he tries to find the words. “Tall,” he eventually settles for.

“Steve,” Tony says casually. “The one who carried you here? Yeah, he’s the strongest guy I know. Don’t tell him I said that though, it’ll go right to his head.”

“Steve,” the kid repeats and Tony nods. The kid’s face scrunches up again and his feet kick restlessly against the mattress. “Said he’d come back,” he says accusatorily, the pillow going back up over his face.

Tony looks nonplussed for a moment. “What? When?” he asks and then comprehension dawns on his face. “Right, yeah. Just before you redecorated,” he says and then his face goes suspicious. “You expected him to come back when you smashed the dresser.”

It’s not a question, and they all know it. The kid wraps his arms back around his knees, refusing to say anything more. The video stops and Steve looks up, feeling wrong-footed and hugely uncomfortable.

“So, he can talk then,” he finally says.

Bucky picks up the tablet, slides his fingers over the video player, looking down at the footage. “Yeah,” he says slowly, then blows out a breath, rubbing at his mouth with his metal fingers. “I don’t think this is going to be as simple as child services coming to pick him up,” he says and Steve frowns. Bucky’s mouth twists. “He’s all hopped up on serum, you really think a normal family could take him in? And he’s from another dimension; he’s got no documents, no paper trail. The only thing he does have is a piece of paper that says he’s genetically linked to you.”

Steve freezes, the words like cold water being dumped over his head. “You’re not really suggesting I keep him?”

“I’m suggesting maybe that you’ll have to,” Bucky says seriously.

Steve gets up, not wanting to hear any more. Bucky looks up at him, expression turning exasperated. “Steve!” he calls out, but Steve clambers out of the ring and walks away, wanting to be away from Bucky and the conversation.

“Denial does not suit you!” Bucky hollers after him and Steve bites down on the urge to tell him to fuck off. He feels – hell, he doesn’t know how to feel. This morning he was happily waking up after a night with Tony, answering a distress call with the rest of the Avengers, going on what was supposed to be a simple mission. And now…Steve doesn’t even know where to begin with the now.

He makes his way up to his rooms, the ones he hasn’t stayed in for weeks, not wanting to face Tony until he’s calmed down significantly. It’s like Tony honestly thinks of the kid as Steve’s, when Steve actually hasn’t has anything to do with it. Hell, by the sounds of things the other Steve Rogers didn’t have much say in it either. Shutting the door behind him, Steve walks over to the bed and flops face-first onto it, breathing in heavily and wondering what the hell has happened to his life in the last twelve hours 

He rolls onto his back, arm thrown up over his eyes, asking himself if he’d be acting the same way if the kid wasn’t genetically attached to him in any way. What if it was just a normal kid they’d rescued, would Steve still be so uncertain and lost? Would Tony and the others be acting the same if the kid weren’t linked to Steve?

A normal kid would have been passed straight to SHIELD and then onto child services, Steve reminds himself somewhat bitterly. They would have done the job and finished it, handing him over and then politely enquiring after his progress to check everything was alright.

But this kid is not a normal kid and Steve hates to think about what that means for him and the rest of the Avengers, because like Bucky said, it looks like this is going to be a lot less simple than they could ever have anticipated.

 


 

 

“So. My bed was missing a super soldier last night. Know where I can find a replacement?” 

Tony grabs a pillow from the edge of Steve’s bed and leans over to hit him on the back of the head with it, the most charitable wake-up call he can currently summon up. Steve jerks awake, head lifting from the pillow, and then grunts at him, rolling over and pulling the covers up over his head.

“Ask Bucky,” he replies from under the blankets, sounding tired and pissed off. “Or get Hydra to make you a new one.”

Tony hums at that and then clambers up onto the bed next to Steve’s form, careful not to spill his coffee as he leans back against the headboard. “I dunno, I think my old one will actually be pretty hard to replace,” he says casually. There’s a long pause and then Steve rolls over, pulling the face he does when he realises he’s being an unreasonable, stubborn jerk. His eyes flicker over Tony, undoubtedly taking in his day-old clothes and tired features.

“Did you go to bed at all?”

Tony shrugs, sips his drink. “Told you, I was missing my super-soldier.”

Steve scowls, rubbing at the corners of his eyes with his fingertips. He looks sleepy and rumpled and Tony wants very much to kiss him, smooth his fingers over the frown lines on his forehead. But he also wants to kick his ass for being a complete and utter moron, and he doesn’t know which impulse will win.

“I didn’t mean for you to not sleep,” Steve says grudgingly. “I honestly didn’t think you’d miss me for a night. It’s not like we officially moved in together or anything.”

“Well I did,” Tony says bluntly. He and Steve will never be attached at the hip – no matter what smartass comments Bucky makes about them being horrendously and unhealthily co-dependent – but knowing that Steve was in the same building and choosing not to be in Tony’s bed, even though it was perfectly possible for him to be, didn’t exactly feel great.

Steve doesn’t reply with words but its okay; he rolls over, burying his face in Tony’s lap and pinning Tony’s thighs under his weight, snaking an arm around Tony’s back in what Tony recognises as a silent apology. He breathes out heavily and Tony slides a hand over the back of his shoulders.

“How’s the shoulder?”

“Fine,” Steve replies and Tony waits for him to broach the current million-dollar subject and ask about the kid, but the seconds tick by and Steve remains silent. His face is turned to the side atop Tony’s thighs, and Tony can see that his eyes are open, his breathing is even. He looks a million miles away.

“So, turns out the kid doesn’t have a name,” Tony breaks the stalemate, running his fingers over the back of Steve’s neck, pressing against the tension he can feel. “We checked his files from top to bottom and they only refer to him as RT dash O four. I’m assuming that’s a batch or serial number or something, which gets me wondering how many attempts they had at cloning their Steve Rogers.”

He purposefully doesn’t say ‘cloning you,’ and Steve notices, his eyes flicking up for a moment before looking back down, gazing across the room. Steve shifts, his chest pressing more heavily against Tony’s thighs, but still doesn’t say anything.

“He’s slept for an hour, not eaten anything. Not broken anything or anyone else though, so I suppose that’s good. There’s a couple of SHIELD doctors coming by to check him over soon. Phil’s calling in a couple of personal favours to keep it quiet.”

“Hasn’t Bruce checked him over?” Steve asks after a moment and Tony counts the question as a win. Steve acknowledging the kid exists is probably the first step in the right direction.

“He doesn’t like Bruce,” Tony says matter-of-factly. “Doesn’t like Bucky either. He seems okay with me, though. And Clint, and you as well.”

Steve just shrugs, one shoulder moving half-heartedly. Tony frowns down at him. Steve is never this disinterested in what happens to the people they rescue, he’s always asking questions and making sure they’ve been taken care of. This time though, he looks like he couldn’t care less and Tony will eat his own armour when a day dawns and Steve Rogers does not care.

“So,” he says, deciding to hit the issue head on. “Bucky seems to think you’re in denial.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. Steve’s head jerks up and he scowls at Tony, back to looking pissed off. “Here we go again. What good does talking behind my back do?” he asks abruptly. “Will you just drop it?”

“The kid is probably here to stay,” Tony replies bluntly. “You’re going to have to deal with it.”

Steve’s expression goes pained for a moment and he opens his mouth to speak, but then the bastard is saved from having to reply by his phone beeping obnoxiously from its place on the dresser. Steve pushes up onto his elbows and grabs it, expression intense.

“SHIELD,” he says. “They need me and Widow to go support a unit upstate.”

“Wonderful timing,” Tony says flatly and Steve’s expression turns irritated.

“I’m still Captain America,” he says, rolling away and sitting up. “I can’t not do my job.”

“Never said you couldn’t,” Tony replies. “I just think-”

He falters, stops himself talking as Steve very pointedly gets off the bed and walks away into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him as he does. Tony lifts his hand and clenches it into a fist, pressing his lips tightly together and knocking his knuckles to his forehead in a frustrated gesture.

“Complete denial,” he says, making an aggravated noise in his throat as he stares at the closed bathroom door, dropping his hand to his lap. Shaking his head, he sets his mug aside and climbs off the bed, heading for the door. He’s got no intention of waiting around for Steve or giving up his precious time trying to coax him out. Frankly, he’s got ten million other things he’d rather be doing and number one is checking in on the kid.

He’s honestly not sure where his whole do-good-by-the-kid streak has come from, but he doesn’t actually care. The kid is just so damn small and hurt and angry, and he’s been through fuck knows what at the hands of Hydra, and he looks so much like Steve that he can’t help but feel it like a punch to the chest. Jesus, he really needs Pepper here to be making Tony-Stark-Has-A-Heart jokes.

It’s terrifying and disconcerting and awesome all rolled into one, sort of like when he flew the armour for the first time, and he really is in trouble if he’s making those sorts of parallels. But he’s Tony Stark and Tony Stark does not balk at a challenge, even if said challenge is finding himself oddly and inexplicably attached to a miniature version of Steve Rogers.

“Breakfast,” he announces as he opens the door to the kid’s room. “It’s what people eat in the morning. You should join us in this noble tradition, what are you looking at?”

The kid is crouched over by the wide floor-length window, blue eyes fixed on the glass and expression wary.  His side is pressed against the wall but it’s clear his attention is on the glass. It’s currently almost completely opaque, the built in shade system turned up high and blocking out most of the light as well as the view.

“People watch these,” he says as he shifts restlessly, rocking back and forwards on the balls on his feet. “When you turn them on. You can see, they stand on the other bit.”

His speech is as halting as ever, words tumbling out with a noticeable lack of precision, like he doesn’t know where to put the natural emphasis when he’s speaking out loud. Tony bets that if he tested the kid’s vocabulary it would be well below average for his age.

“What, like two-way mirrors?” Tony asks and sits on the edge of the bed. “That’s just a window, nothing on the other side but air and the view. Hang on, did you ever leave the lab?”

The kid shakes his head.

“Wow. How to explain this, then,” Tony says. “You were always underground, right? Well, we’re not-”

“I know, I seen pictures,” the kid interrupts, frowning. “Up top. They said I’d go up top when I was bigger. Ten.”

“When you were ten?” Tony muses. “Well, you’re skipping ahead around four years, lucky you. You want to see?”

The kid looks at him for a moment, face mistrustful, then he nods quickly, eyes skirting down to the floor like he doesn’t want to admit to wanting to. It’s bizarre; Tony gets the sense that the kid is warring between what he wants and the urge to be stubborn and refuse to cooperate and wow, flashbacks of himself aged six.

“Right,” Tony says and moves to sit down next to the kid, cross-legged. “This may freak you out a bit. We’re pretty high up. You can see quite a lot.”

The kid again shakes his head. “I seen pictures.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Tony says. “J, hit us.”

And bless Jarvis and his uncanny knack for inference and sensitivity to the human condition, because the window shades slowly fade from dark to clear instead of turning off in the point nine seconds Tony knows it can achieve. Tony‘s seen the view thousands of times and it never gets old, but today he sits and watches the kid’s face as its slowly lit up by the morning sun.

The kid’s blue eyes go wide and huge and amazed and he breathes out and leans so far forwards that his forehead bumps against the glass. Tony can’t help the laugh that falls free from his own mouth because the sheer awestruck joy on the kid’s face is indescribable.

“Look,” the kid says and his palm slaps against the glass, rocking forwards on his heels again. He tilts his head down, looking at the tops of the buildings and roads and busyness below them. His breath fogs up the glass and he tilts his head up, looking at the sky, bright blue and free of clouds. “Look.

“I’m looking, I’m looking,” Tony laughs. “God, the look on your face. I should film you and put you on Youtube. RT dash O Four meets the aboveground world for the first time. Next episode, airplanes and kitchen appliances.”

The kid’s face screws up in momentary confusion and Tony could just die because that’s the exact same face Steve pulls whenever they throw a pop-culture reference around that he hasn’t come across yet and something twists in his chest because Steve isn’t here to share the moment with.

“J, snapshot of this and send it to Steve’s cell,” Tony murmurs, because why the hell not.

He knows he’s got a million things to get done today, but even so, he allows himself a few uninterrupted minutes to sit and watch the kid before he has to get down to business.

 


 

“Sure you’re up for this right now?” 

Steve ignores Natasha’s question, leaning back in his seat and crossing his legs at the ankle. The jet dips and lifts and the shield rocks against his thigh, threatening to roll away. He throws out a hand to stop it, not taking his eyes of the tablet in his hand. He is more than up for a mission right now; his shoulder is a little achy but fine and he honestly thinks some good old-fashioned fighting will help him clear his head.

He feels his phone buzz against his hip and reaches down into the pouch to pull it out, eyes still fixed on the blueprints on the tablet. He opens the message with a flick of his thumb and then belatedly looks over.

He stares down at the image he’s been sent, and resists the urge to throw his phone across the back of the jet.

Natasha saunters over, looking over his shoulder. “Cute,” she remarks.

Steve grits his teeth and shoves the phone forcefully back into the pouch, then pulls it out again, turning it off before stuffing it away. “I’ve always been taught to never swear at a lady, but I might have to break that rule and tell you to fuck off.”   

Natasha smiles at that, one eyebrow lifting wickedly. She slides into the seat next to Steve, elbow on the armrest and chin cupped in her palm, appraising him for long moments. Steve lets her; she’s going to say what she wants regardless of what he does, so it’s probably a time saver if he just goes along with it.

The humming of the jet’s engines seems very loud with only the two of them in the back and Steve can feel her eyes on him like sniper-sights.

“You and Bucky would kill each other in a staring match,” he remarks dryly.

“And you and Tony would do the same in a who-can-be-more-evasive match,” she replied without missing a beat. “Though in this case, I am surprised it’s you that’s doing the evading.”

“Can we just talk about the mission, please?” Steve asks half-heartedly.

Natasha nods and for a moment, Steve thinks he’s gotten away with it. “Sure,” Natasha says. “We land, we get off the jet, we take out anyone wearing AIM gear, we get back on the jet. My turn.”

Slumping down into his seat, Steve brings up a hand to rub at his forehead wearily. “I’m asking to be partnered with Clint next time. He just makes jokes.”

“Clint is allergic to seriousness,” Natasha says, perfectly deadpan. “It gives him a rash.”

Steve snorts with laughter, but the amusement quickly fades. He drops his hand to his lap and then reaches out to run the tips of his bare fingers over the smooth edge of the shield. Not since he woke up from the ice – defrosted, he hears Tony snickering – has he felt so lost. Actually, maybe finding dealing with Bucky as the Winter Soldier is up there, but at least then he knew what to do. He had to get Bucky back and everything else was negotiable. This time, however, he doesn’t even know where to start.

Is he responsible for the kid? Should he feel responsible? If he should then why the hell doesn’t he? Tony seems to have taken a shine to the kid already, but Steve just can’t work out how or why.

“My first thought was that we shouldn’t have brought him back.”

Natasha’s admission catches him off guard. He looks her in the eye, trying to work out if she really means it or if she’s just trying to get him to talk.

Deciding it doesn’t matter, Steve breathes out through his nose. “Does that make you feel guilty?”

She shakes her head, red curls gleaming in the light. “No,” she says easily. “I can’t honestly be glad that we did it, but I know it was either bring him back or leave him to die.”

“God, I would never,” Steve says vehemently. “We saved him and that’s what we should have done, so yes, it was the right thing to do.”

“But,” Natasha says calmly, and Steve falters. He presses the heel of his hand to his forehead, trying to order his thoughts.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admits. “I keep thinking about the different possibilities and options and then what we should do, what’s the right thing to do and I just…”

“Tell me the options as you see them. Not how you or anyone else feels about the options, just what they are,” Natasha says, and she’s always been good like this, helping people to sort out and find order in their thoughts when they’re in disarray. Steve never thought he’d be the one needing such an intervention, but he guesses there’s a first time for everything.

“First option…” he says slowly and as he breathes in and out, the thoughts are already slotting into place as if he’s organising strategy or tactics. “We send the kid back. We go back through the portal, see if there is anyone left and hand him over.”

“Possible. Inhumane, but possible,” Natasha muses.

“Right, well, keeping the inhumane options right at the bottom of the list,” Steve says, because even though sending the kid back is technically an option, Steve would rather cut off his own arm than send a child into a warzone. “So the alternative is that we keep him on earth with us. Which means paperwork and lots of legalities, because technically he doesn’t exist here and he’s a minor. But at least he’ll be safe. Well. Safer than his dimension was, anyway.”

He breathes out, rubbing a hand over his mouth. Natasha keeps quiet and he’s grateful, and now he’s on a roll the words are coming easily. “Which leads us to consider what we do if he stays in our dimension,” he says. “We could hand him over to SHIELD. But then what would they do with him? He can’t exactly go to a foster family or up for adoption, unless it’s someone equipped to deal with someone like him. They’d have to keep him until they sorted the paperwork and the practicalities out and that means basically incarcerating him, just like he was before.”

He pauses, touches the shield again. “And frankly, there’s people within SHIELD I don’t trust. He’s got the serum, or some variation of the serum, and we know how desperate people are to get their hands on it. Who’s to say they’ll see him as a kid, not as a super-solider.

“Which leaves us with two options; we keep him, or we find someone else who is capable of taking him in. Xavier, maybe.”

Natasha shakes her head. “He’s not a mutant,” she reminds him. “And the school has pretty tough guidelines. It’s regulated to hell and back with precautions and protocols to keep the public happy. No X gene, no place at the school.”

Steve swears, because that leaves them with only one option. “We’re Avengers,” he says pointedly.  “We spend ninety percent of our time falling out or beating the hell out of things. That’s not a good environment for a child. We would paint a massive target on his back by keeping him with us. Hell, the rest of us get kidnapped often enough. Can you imagine what the public would say if we suddenly turned up with a kid? But then again, like Bucky said - the only paperwork he has in the world is a DNA test that links him to Steve Rogers. To me.” 

“And here is where you begin to go from Captain America to Steve Rogers,” Natasha says quietly and he knows she’s right. The jet beneath them sways and shifts, a slight tremor of turbulence that Steve barely notices. “Captain America has thought about everything rather pragmatically. Now how does Steve Rogers feel about it? 

“He’s not my kid,” Steve says suddenly and it twists in his gut, heavy and uncomfortable. “He’s not. It takes more than DNA to be a damn father and I’m not a father. I’m a solider, I’m Captain America – I’m not even married, for Chrissakes. I didn’t plan to have a child, I didn’t make the decision to start a family. It’s not something I can even think about right now, with how my life is. But everyone else is already looking at me like, why the hell aren’t you manning up and taking care of this kid? And Tony-”

He breaks off, shaking his head. “If Tony decides he wants to do something, I can’t change his mind.”

“I don’t think Tony decided to feel attached to the kid,” Natasha says. “I think it just happened.”

“We’ve only just-” Steve begins. “What happened yesterday, in front of everyone. That’s the first time we’ve ever openly acknowledged it and now I’ve got to manage that as well as dealing with this? We’re already at each other’s throats about it.”

A soft voice comes over the intercom, low and quiet. “Landing in sixty seconds, Captain.

Pushing herself to her feet, Natasha stretches her hands above her head, breathing in deeply. “Head back in the game, Cap,” she says, and just like that the conversation is over, stowed away until some later point. “I can go alone if you want-”

Steve eyes her flatly and gets up, grabbing the shield and shoving his hands through the strap. “Now you’re trying to get me to tell you to fuck off,” he says and Natasha smiles, quick and easy, before she schools her face back into neutrality and turns to face the back of the jet where the doors will open momentarily. Steve steps up next to her and as they stand side by side, he feels gentle fingers touches his elbow, and Steve is immeasurably grateful for her quiet support. Just having one person who doesn’t seem to expect him to jump right in and deal with the situation makes him feel like the weight on his chest has eased, if only marginally.

“Ten bucks says I can knock out more goons than you,” he shouts as the engines rev up for landing, the hydraulics at the back clunking and whining as the door disengages.

“Keep your money,” she calls back, eyes glinting wickedly. “There’ll be no room for it in my trophy cabinet next to the tattered remains of your ego.”

“Now that’s fighting talk,” Steve grins and the door drops open and hits the ground with a thud, and he shoves all thoughts of the situation back home out of his mind. He jumps from the jet, easily landing on the gravel, eyes already scanning the area to assess the situation. Through the dust whipped up by the engines of the jet he can see a grey concrete bunker around fifty yards away, with a chain link perimeter fence in front of it. SHIELD agents have the place surrounded and there are several black-suited soldiers sitting in the gravel near the fence, hands bound behind their backs and feet also tied at the ankles.

“On me,” he shouts over the whine and roar of the engines, and they jog over to the line of SHIELD agents, watching as more battered-looking soldiers are unceremoniously dragged up from the bunker. One of the SHIELD agents spots them and raises his hand, beckoning them over with a wave.

“What's the situation?” Steve yells over to him, eyes taking in the scene around him. Natasha stands at his side, serenely watching the chaos around them like she's seen more interesting things in her cereal bowl. The wind is whipping her hair around her face, glinting bright in the sun.

“Supposed to be an abandoned nuclear bunker,” shouts back the agent, nodding his head towards the bunker. “Re-purposed by a branch of AIM, it looks like.”

Steve knows all this already; he's read the briefing packet. Instead of pulling a Tony and pointing it out to the man in the most belligerent way possible, he just nods and gets to the point.

“What do you need me to do?”

Natasha turns her face his way, eyebrow raised slightly and Steve doesn’t miss a beat.

“What do you need us to do?”

The SHIELD agent doesn’t comment on the rephrasing, which Steve is thankful for. A tiny smirk graces Natasha's lips, barely enough to notice and Steve knows he's going to have to be on his game today to prevent himself being the butt of Natasha’s jokes on the way home.

“We've cleared three sub-levels, working on the fourth. There's a locked door on the third, leading to what we think is a wing on the south side of the structure. Scans show activity behind it but we're having trouble getting in and we don't know what's behind the door. Barely anyone’s talking and the ones that are don't seem to think there's anything behind it.”

“I could ask,” Natasha says casually, dangerously, lifting her hand and brushing her hair away from her face.

“No, we'll go straight there,” Steve decides and leans towards Natasha slightly. “You can ask whoever we find what they're doing.”

Natasha nods, satisfied. Steve nods at the SHIELD agent and flexes his fingers around the straps of his shield, before setting off at a jog towards the bunker, Natasha on his heels. The agents guarding the perimeter move to let them pass, four of them simultaneously breaking away and following closely, guns drawn and ready. Steve doesn’t object; like the agent said, they don't know what's in the locked down wing so some extra fire-power might be welcome.

“Captain,” the agent on the door calls, dipping his chin. “South wing?”

“On it,” Steve replies. Behind them, there's a mechanical whine and the thudding of the jets engines becomes lower and more pronounced as it begins to power down. Steve leads the way into the bunker and the noise from outside fades quickly, muffled by concrete and earth. It’s cooler inside than out, and now he can hear bootsteps and voices calling out to each other, the bustle of activity below them.

The entrance to the bunker is a concrete channel that slopes sharply downwards, lit by weak fluorescent strip lighting. Adrenaline thrumming through him, Steve jogs down the channel, glad to have a task to focus on, a job to get done. A metal walkway takes the place of the concrete floor after about twenty metres, carrying on horizontally as the concrete floor dips away beneath them, vanishing into the darkness. The sounds here echo around them; the voices and the clanging of their feet on the metal. 

“Left at the end, down the slope to sublevel one,” Natasha's voice says quietly and calmly over the comm unit in his ear. “Can we lose the entourage?”

“No,” Steve murmurs back, unwilling to lose the extra guns of the SHIELD agents, even if Natasha has deemed them unnecessary. “Don't worry, I'm sure they'll leave someone for you to beat up if you ask nicely.”

“You know you sometimes do this thing where your mouth opens and Tony's words come out?”

Steve reaches the end of the walkway, looks left and right and gives the signal to continue. The floor beneath them has all but vanished into the darkness; all they can see is the metal walkway and the inky darkness beneath it, occasional spots of light highlighting other walkways and corridors spreading out in a sprawling underground network.

“Don't know what you're talking about, that's clearly all me,” Steve says and Natasha laughs softly, a breath of sound over the comm link.

“Right, then left and then down the stairwell two floors. Entrance will be in front of you.”

Steve follows her directions without hesitating, along the walkway and down the stairs, ducking into another concrete corridor that appears off to the left the metal stairway. At the end of the corridor are a gaggle of shield agents, standing vigilantly outside a heavy steel door. Two are busy doing something with what appears to be a lock, and the others all look up as Steve and his team approach.

“Captain!” one says, sounding surprised. “You're a sight for sore eyes.”

“Sorry, nice flattery but he's taken,” Natasha says smoothly, edging past Steve and up to the door. The agent's eyebrows shoot up and Steve resists the urge to smack Natasha in the back of her head.

“What's the hold up?” Steve says and the two agents turn away from the lock.

“Just scanning the deadbolt; if we can work out what alloy the lock is made of then we can get the correct-”

Not feeling particularly patient, Steve motions for them to step aside. They both take a wary step back as Steve nods. “Be ready,” he instructs and then lunges forwards and brings the edge of the shield down on the lock in a violent one-armed swing. The lock cracks, the pieces fall to the floor and Natasha and one of the quicker agents are instantly there, shoving the door forwards and bursting inside.

“CODE BLUE! CAPTAIN ON DECK – CODE BL-”

The shield sings through the air and the AIM soldier who was bellowing at his compatriots falls to the floor, knocked out cold. There are two more soldiers in the low-ceilinged room that looks oddly like a cheap office, both in the process of pulling files out of a safe that’s embedded into the wall. The room is in disarray; desks are knocked to the side, papers trampled underfoot. Steve leaps forwards and snatches the shield out of the air, signalling for everyone else to follow.

“Go!”

One of the soldiers flees, files clasped against his chest as he scrambles for a second metal door in the far wall. The other appears marginally braver – or more stupid – and remains at the safe, grabbing the last remaining files. Steve has barely registered the thought that he needs to stop the soldier leaving with whatever the files are and Natasha is over at the safe before he can even open his mouth to give the order. Trusting her to take care of it, Steve leaps over one of the desks towards the second door. He can hear shouting and yelling coming from inside, the sounds of frantic activity. The air inside tastes bitter and acrid, a chemical smoky taste catching in the back of his mouth.

“CODE BLUE!”

“Fuck, it’s the Captain – get rid of it, move, no, just go!”

More shouting comes from beyond the door and Steve sprints towards it. He skids through the door and throws his shield up just in time; there’s the roar of gunfire and bullets pepper the shield with metallic clinks. He ducks down, keeps pressing forwards with the shield protecting him-

 He ploughs straight through the front row of soldiers with a grunt, sending three of them sprawling backwards. More shouting and rapid bursts of fire from behind him; the SHIELD agents have stormed the room. Steve lifts the shield and swings it upwards, catching an unfortunate soldier in a vicious uppercut that sends him flying. He turns on his heel and feels something hot and hard catch him in the back of his shoulder, the same damn one that he dislocated. He grunts in pain but keeps moving, swinging the shield and knocking out another guard.

“Natasha, where are you?” he shouts, lifting the shield to block another burst of gunfire.

“Behind you,” her voice replies in his ear, sounding calm. “Cap, they’re still running with those files, get the files-”

He understands immediately. Slinging his arm to the side to knock a soldier clean off his feet, he looks up just in time to see a figure running through an open doorway, into a third room. The smell of burning is stronger than ever and there’s smoke curling up through the doorway, sucked into the vents before it spreads too far.

The source of the smell quickly becomes apparent. In the centre of the third and last room is an impromptu bonfire and eight AIM soldiers are ransacking the filing cabinets that line the walls, throwing armfuls of files onto it. Two are tearing down what look to be schematics from the walls, throwing them into the flames as well. Their actions are frenetic, as if they’re desperate to get rid of all evidence-

“No you don’t,” he bites out and hurls his shield through the doorway. It hits one guard, ricochets off the wall and hits another in the back of the head. Steve leaps forwards and kicks a soldier straight in the chest, sending him staggering backwards. He snatches the shield from the air and instantly throws it again in an easy underarm motion. It bounces from wall to wall and then neatly back into his hand, knocking out five soldiers on its journey. They all crumple to the floor and he straightens up, surveying the room which is now quiet except for the crackling of the fire, the hissing of the vents and the groans of the soldiers who aren’t quite completely unconscious.

From behind him comes the sound of applause muffled by gloves and he turns around to see the SHIELD agents crowding in the doorway, looking impressed. He fights down a grin and looks at Natasha who simply pushes off the wall she's casually lounging against with a roll of her eyes.

“Your ego is safe,” she concedes, eyes scanning the room. 

Steve laughs, body thrumming with adrenaline. He breathes out, reaching over to slot his shield onto his back with its familiar metallic click. Someone put the fire out,” he calls out, glancing over his shoulder. “See what you can salvage. Someone else check the computer we passed on the way in. Any information on an external drive and to me. These guys need restraining and evacuating – Natasha?”

Natasha marches over to one of the guards who is groaning and struggling to get up, pushing unsteadily up onto his hands and knees.  She crouches down beside him and grabs an arm, twisting his arm behind his back and slamming him face first onto the floor. He lets out a strangled yell, trying to yank out of her grip.

“Code blue,” she says conversationally as the guy whimpers into the tiles. “What’s code blue?”

“I don’t know,” the guy bites out and then screams as she pulls harder on his arm.

Arms folded across his chest, Steve stares down at him and then glances over his shoulder at the two SHIELD agents who are watching, faces somewhere between awe and fear. “There’s still a fire,” he says pointedly and they all nod, hastily moving away, even as the SHIELD agents who did listen first time around jog back in with fire extinguishers.

“Try again,” Natasha says and there’s another strangled scream, the sound of boots scrabbling and scuffing against the floor.

“It’s the Captain, code blue is the Captain!” the guys gasps out. “Let me go, you fucking bitch!”

She ignores the insult, eyebrow lifting like she’s bored. “What other codes are there?”

“Only red. Red is any breach, blue is the Captain.”

“Why do I have a specific alert?” Steve asks, stepping over and crouching down in front of the guy. He snaps his fingers in front of the guys face to get his attention. “Up here. Why me?”

“Answer him,” Natasha says, low and dangerous.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” the guy says, voice cracking. “We were just guarding the place, the techs weren’t here. They just said that if he – if anyone turned up to – augh, to burn everything, to get rid of everything!”

Steve sighs, sits back on his heels, pressing his palm to his mouth. He lifts his eyes and looks around the room and through the smoke, his sharp eyes spot something on one of the walls that had been covered in schematics. A ripped corner, held in place by a single pin.

Slowly, he gets up and walks around the remnants of the fire and to the wall. He reaches out and tugs the paper free, frowning. It’s got a series of numbers on, a single line of neatly stamped digits.

“What is it?” Natasha calls over.

 Steve turns, lifts the paper to the light and his stomach drops.

 “Damnit.”

Just visible in the light is half a faint watermark, maybe only perceptible to him because of his sharpened sight, but it’s still most definitely there. The remnants of a skull with eight curling tentacles beneath, blank eyes almost seeming to stare back at him.

“Steve?”

He breathes out heavily, still staring at the paper. “Hydra.”

“What?”

Steve turns to her as she walks up, reaching out for the paper and holding it up to the light so she can see. “Hydra,” she mutters. “Alongside AIM?”

Steve doesn’t reply. He’s not sure what’s going on here, but it’s nothing he feels remotely good about. Damn Hydra; the moment they seem to be on top of them they pop up somewhere else, alongside someone else. This time in conjunction with AIM, which isn’t a combination Steve would ever want to face.

“And now they question is, what were they hiding,” Natasha says slowly. “And why were they trying to hide it from you?”

“Were they trying to hide it from me, though? Or were they just – you know. Hating me as they usually do?”

Natasha smiles briefly. “Or that,” she concedes. “Want me to do some more asking?”

“I might need you to,” Steve acknowledges, and looks restlessly towards the smouldering remains of the paperwork, feeling disgruntled. “Burning a paper trail, really? And people call me old fashioned.”

“It worked,” Natasha sighs. “The only way to make sure computer files can’t be stolen…”

“Is to not have computer files,” Steve finishes. “I’m going to go check in with base anyway, tell them what we’ve found.”

“And then back to your other mission, right?”

Steve knows exactly what she’s talking about, and feels his stomach knot up unpleasantly as he thinks about the kid and the situation still waiting for him back home. He breathes out deeply and looks around the room, at the wreckage and the unconscious bodies and he can’t help but shake his head. This isn’t the life for a child to be brought into; he’s one of the busiest, most at-risk soldiers on the damn planet and this mess is just proving his point.

 I can’t, he thinks for a moment, but he’s not convinced. He thinks of Tony, of what Bucky has said, of all the unresolved complications surrounding the situation. He looks around again somewhat helplessly, still standing in the wreckage of the fight, suddenly feeling very lost and very alone. 

 

Chapter Text

By the time he returns from the mission the next morning, Steve can’t even take too much joy in the fact that his ego is very much intact and not in Natasha’s trophy cabinet. He’s exhausted from turning everything over in his mind, trying to work out what Hydra’s presence alongside the AIM soldiers means. It’s frustrating that there’s nothing he can do; he’d stayed as long as possible on site, helping sweep the facility and tie up all loose ends. It had been typical, methodical, cleanup work, not enough to keep his mind engaged and away from thinking about what was happening back at home. He’d found himself constantly wondering what would be happening, what the kid would be doing, if he’d gone to sleep, if he’d eaten anything or said anything; it’d gotten to the point where he’d slipped away from the SHIELD agents for a moment, phone in hand and about to call Tony.

He hadn’t been able to bring himself to hit the call button.

But now he’s back, and he’s now so tired and fed up with himself that he doesn’t actually want to talk to anyone. He’s also hungry and aching all over; his shoulder is throbbing dully and he’s half tempted to actually go to SHIELD medical to avoid having to face Tony and the others, but then that would mean having to actually go to SHIELD medical. To hell with it; if he’s cut and bruised it’ll heal. If he’s been shot, well, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s asked Bucky to dig a bullet out of him without telling anyone.

Going to lie low in his quarters seems like his best plan at the moment. He’ll have to get Jarvis to get Bucky to come up, and more than likely then have to bribe Bucky into fixing him up and keeping his mouth shut.

Slotting the shield onto his back, he heads for the elevator, acknowledging that despite being injured and the situation still being completely unresolved, he is feeling much calmer than he’d been when he’d left the previous day. He briefly wonders whether he should personally inform Tony that he’s back or leave Jarvis to do it, and then the elevator doors slide open to reveal Clint about to step out, and just like that all of his plans are scuppered.

“Shit! Steve! You’re back!” Clint exclaims, and immediately steps backwards, hopping back into the elevator and motioning for Steve to join him. He’s got a strip over the bridge of his nose and a pretty nasty looking black eye, painful looking mementos of his run in with the kid yesterday.

“Well spotted,” Steve nods. “Everything okay?”

“They could probably do with you in medical,” Clint says promptly, punching the button to send the elevator up. Steve feels his stomach sink, and in one swift moment he’s back to feeling exactly how he did before he left.

“What’s happened?”

“Small-You is objecting rather forcefully to the SHIELD medics,” Clint informs him. “And the only one strong enough to pin him down is Bucky, and he doesn’t seem to like Bucky much, either.”

“Why does he even need pinning down?” Steve asks, frustrated. “I thought Tony had it under control.”

Shaking his head, Clint taps his foot impatiently against the floor. “He did. Kid’s been quiet since yesterday, sat around with a wounded look on his face for the most part. But then the medic turned up about an hour ago and…”

Clint mimes an explosion with his hands, and Steve tenses, wondering how bad it is, if anyone has been hurt. Something must show on his face, because Clint steps back, holding up a placating hand.

“Hey, if it’s that much of a bother, I’ll go tell them you had to be somewhere,” Clint says neutrally, and Steve is grateful for the lack of judgement in the tone. “We’ll just, I dunno. Knock him out or something.”

A flash of guilt flickers through Steve. The kid doesn’t deserve sedating just because he doesn’t want to deal with it. God, he really, really doesn’t want to deal with it, but-

His thoughts are cut short as the elevator doors slide smoothly open. He hears a crash, a scream, lots of yelling and then the small figure that was in the process of tearing down the corridor towards the elevator hits his legs with considerable force. The kid staggers backwards, looks up and then lets out an angry shout, shoving hard at Steve’s legs with his hands. His small face is covered in angry tears, and he looks hot and sweaty and like he’s been at this for quite some time.

Without a word Steve stoops down grabs the kid around the middle, swinging him up onto his hip. He manages to catch both flailing fists in one hand and yanks them down. The kid kicks out, throwing his weight backwards in an effort to get free, but Steve isn’t giving an inch, holding the kid tight around the middle and keeping him firmly clamped to his side.

“Stop,” Steve says, and the kid makes a distressed noise and meets Steve’s eyes, blue on blue. “I’m not letting you go, just stop,” Steve repeats, and then the kid bursts into tears and flings himself forwards, burying his face in Steve’s shoulder.  One small, sweaty hand slips free from Steve’s grip and he goes to grab it again, but the kid simply brings his arm up over his forehead, all the better to hide his face.

“Nice timing,” a voice says, and Steve looks up to see Tony, Phil Coulson, and a SHIELD medic in the corridor. The SHIELD medic looks breathless and a little rumpled, whereas Phil looks relaxed and as immaculate as he always does. Tony is holding an ice pack to the back of his head, looking at Steve like he’s immeasurably grateful that he’s back. That’s disconcerting in itself; Steve expects Tony to be pissed about how abruptly he left yesterday.

“What happened to you?” Steve asks Tony, trying not to think about the kid who is still crying noisily into his neck. He’s all the back to not knowing what to do – his instincts are shot to hell, all tangled up with everyone else’s expectations and the weight of the convoluted feelings he has towards the situation.

“He knocked me over,” Tony says with a dismissive shrug. “Kid is like a linebacker.”

“Shall we take this back to medical?” Phil suggests calmly, and Steve braces himself for a violent reaction on the kid’s part, but he’s gone oddly and explicably compliant. No kicking, no punching, no attempts to get free. Still not quite trusting this new level of acquiescence, Steve takes a careful step, and then when the kid doesn’t fight back, takes another and another and heads back into the medlab, Tony following right behind him.

Bucky is there, standing in front of the vent that the kid had previously escaped through. He looks pissed off, but when he spots Steve his eyebrows shoot up and he nods contemplatively, looking moderately impressed. Steve knows him well enough to figure that looking ‘moderately impressed’ is actually Bucky for ‘wow, seriously impressed.’

“The cavalry has arrived.”

“Shut up,” Steve replies shortly, and turns to face the others. “Where do you want him?”

The SHIELD medic steps forwards, pushing her long black hair out of her face. “On the bed, please, Captain,” she says. “He can sit on the edge, that’s-”

The sentence doesn’t get finished; the kid shouts out a choked noise that sounds suspiciously like a strangled ‘no,’ and his feet start kicking again, thrashing wildly. The hand that had been covering his face lashes back and Steve moves on reflex, clasping it once again it in his own. The kid tries to wrench free, kicking Steve hard in the thigh.

Steve’s sense of self-preservation tells him that he should put the kid down and step back, because the kid quite clearly does not want to be anywhere near him anymore. However, another instinct has him holding on tightly, because if the kid is pinned to his side then he can’t hurt himself or anyone else.  In a heartbeat, the medic is there at his side. “Don’t let go,” she quietly instructs. “Keep hold of him.”

“Easier said than done,” Bucky’s snorts from behind them, but Steve and the medic both ignore him. The medic gives Steve a meaningful look and Steve capitulates and holds firm, and the kid soon stills once more. He goes limp in Steve’s arms, breathing heavily against Steve’s uniform.

“Okay, there we go,” the medic says, and smiles at Steve. “You sit down with him.”

Resigning himself to be stuck here for the foreseeable future, Steve nods, reaching over his shoulder with one hand and tugging the shield free before he sits down, propping it up against the edge of the bed. Now the kid has stopped screaming and crying it’s gone very quiet, and Steve is suddenly and uncomfortably hyper-aware of everyone’s eyes on him. Bucky is  looking at him with a blatant ‘rather you than me’ expression back to looking impressed, Clint is looking relieved and visibly impressed, and Coulson is standing in the doorway and looking quietly contemplative. It’s the look on Tony’s face that Steve doesn’t want to acknowledge though; it’s the small quirked smile that he wears when he’s pleased by something, the something usually taking the form of getting his own way.

Trying to ignore the way he can still feel everyone looking at him, Steve slowly and carefully shifts the kid around, not wanting to set him off again. It’s like handling explosives, and what does it say about him that he’d honestly rather be dealing with a bomb right now than be here, forced into this situation?

The medic perches on a stool and scoots over to where Steve is sitting. “Thank you, Captain,” the medic says with another smile, and Steve looks away from Tony. “I’m Agent Vasquez.”

“Nice to meet you,” Steve says, and when he hears Bucky snigger he knows it probably didn’t come out as genuinely as he intended.

She either doesn’t notice or ignores him. “Right, far too many people here,” she says. “If you aren’t immediately helpful, go and find busy work. And someone bring us some coffee and some juice.”

“Coffee. On it,” Bucky says, and pushes off from the wall. On his way out, he grabs Clint by the elbow and pulls him backwards through the doorway. “Barton, come and be my glamorous assistant.”

“Jeez, I’m forced to wear a dress one time and suddenly I’m your glamorous assistant?”

“What’s sudden about it? You’ve always been my assistant.”

“Fuck you, Barnes.”

“I told you, only if you ask nicely.”

Phil pauses, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers as Clint and Bucky’s voices fade down the corridor, still bickering. Tony looks like he’s trying his very best not to laugh, and Steve makes another mental note to not let Bucky and Clint be left unattended for any longer than he strictly has to.

“I think I’ll go and check in with Agent Romanov and pretend I didn’t hear that,” Phil says. “I’ll meet you when you’ve finished, Vasquez.”

“Alright,” the medic says easily, and she leans back and picks up a clipboard from the counter, eyes flicking side to side as she reads. It goes quiet again, the only sounds the kid’s ragged breathing and Tony’s soft footsteps as he walks closer.

“Thanks,” he says quietly to Steve, and Steve can’t bear how genuine his tone is.

“What was I meant to do, let him run off?” Steve replies, and he knows how abrupt his tone is but he can’t do much about it. “Didn’t have much of a choice.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Tony leans back against the counter, eyes locked on Steve. His jaw is set and his eyes are bright and full of some determined intent which Steve normally associates with them either having spectacular sex or a fight. Considering the situation, he knows it’s going to be the latter unless one of them back down soon.

“No, I don’t think you do,” Tony says quietly, and the words hit Steve like a physical blow.

It’s only his own determination to do the right goddamn thing that keeps him sat where he is with the kid on his knee, despite the twin urges he feels to punch something and get up and leave.

“So, I’ve got lots and lots of wonderful data all about his genetic make-up and projected abilities, but next to no commentary on anything else,” Vasquez says vaguely, and if she’s aware of the tension in the room she’s doing an admirable job of pretending she doesn’t. “Maybe we should just start from scratch?”

“Knock yourself out,” Tony shrugs as she tosses the clipboard aside and reaches for a Starkpad, flicking it on with long, delicate fingers.

“Okay, so if I create a new file here,” she says, and her voice is calm and clear and soothing. “Damn. First thing is a name. Do you have a name, little one?”

“No, he’s just-” Tony begins, but Vasquez silences him with a look and a stern pointing finger.

“I’m not asking you,” she says, and turns back to Steve and the kid. “Goodness me, does he ever stop talking?”

Tony’s mouth falls open in affront, but Steve’s too angry at him to find it funny. Luckily, Vasquez doesn’t seem to need an answer, just looks back down at the Starkpad and taps something else. “Name can wait,” she says. “Right, little one. I know you don’t like the doctors, and that’s okay. I don’t like doctors either. What I am is a medic, and we’re very different to doctors. Doctors always want to poke and prod and find out how you work, am I right? But that’s not my job. I just help people when they get sick. I don’t care what you’re made of, as long as I can make people better." 

Anger at Tony not forgotten, but momentarily side-lined, Steve holds his breath in his chest as the kid slowly lowers his arm and then turns his face to the side. His cheek rests against Steve’s shoulder, blue eyes on Vasquez.

“Here, can you read?” she asks, and holds up her ID pass. “Look, that’s my name, Anna Vasquez. And this says SHIELD, that’s the people I work for, and that says medic.”

“Don’t look like doctors,” the kid mumbles, frowning. A small hand comes up to rub at one of his red eyes.

“That’s because I’m not,” Vasquez agrees easily. The kid’s eyes narrow and he twists up to look at Tony.

“You said she’s a doctor.”

Tony winces, holding his hands up. “Guilty. Sorry, bad choice of words. I got mixed up.”

“Should have sent you on coffee duty,” Vasquez says, and turns back to the kid. “Is he always this silly?”

The kid’s eyes flick to Tony and then he slowly shakes his head, and for the very first time, Steve sees the ghost of a smile play around his mouth. It makes the kid look much, much younger and more vulnerable, and when Steve glances up Tony is looking at the kid with an unmistakably fond expression. He hates how uncomfortable it makes him feel. Tony should not be getting attached; they haven’t even decided what they’re going to do with the damn kid 

The kid heaves a sigh in and out, and then the hand that was rubbing his eyes drops to Steve’s chest, fingers tracing over the star on his uniform, outlining the edges and prodding at the points.

“Why you got a star?”

Steve is taken aback by the question being directed at him. The kid presses his hand to the star, spreading his fingers out in an effort to cover it. His hand is barely big enough, and Steve can only feel the slightest of pressure through his suit.

“It’s my symbol, I guess,” Steve says slowly. The kid doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the answer, and his fingers move across Steve’s uniform, plucking at one of the buckles. Conversely, now he’s calmed down from his earlier fear and anger, he seems more restless, eyes and hands never quite still. Bizarrely, it reminds Steve of Tony.

“Fidget,” Tony comments dryly. “That can be your new name.”

“No,” the kid mumbles, and ducks his head back down against Steve’s arm. He looks tired, Steve thinks, and catches himself wishing the kid would fall asleep so he can put him down. That thought in turn makes him feel horrendously guilty and he wishes he could escape again, get away from both the confusion and the look on Tony’s face. He can feel himself trying to distance himself from the situation all over again, wanting to push away.

God, this would be easy if only the kid weren’t linked to him. That much has become clear in the last twenty-four hours; that his discomfiture is coming from the fact that it’s down to him. Jesus, why couldn’t it have been Tony that Hydra was trying to clone?

Though maybe if the tables were turned and the kid was actually biologically linked to Tony, then he wouldn’t be handling it as well as he appears to be doing. When all is said and done, the only person who could be in any way obliged – forced – to take the kid is Steve.  Not Tony, not the Avengers, not anyone else.

“Coffee, coffee, coffee and juice,” Clint’s voice calls, and he walks slowly in through the door with three mugs of coffee clamped in his hands and a purple plastic Hawkeye cup balanced on top of his head. Tony stares at him for a moment and then walks over, shaking his head 

“You are an idiot,” he says, and reaches up to take the cup off of Clint’s head. He looks into it and appears satisfied, holding it out to the kid who hesitates and then shakes his head.

“There if you want it,” Tony says, and puts the cup on the counter, eyeing it flatly. “A Hawkeye beaker? Really?”

“Bootlegs are the best,” Clint grins as he sets the mugs down on the counter next to the beaker. “It makes me look heroic and dashing.”

“How are you a superhero?” Tony demands, snatching up his mug of coffee and inhaling deeply. “Seriously, whose idea was that?”

“And this is why you are my favourite,” Clint says to Steve, holding out a mug for him to take. “You appreciate my talents.”

“Thanks,” Steve mutters, keeping hold of the kid with one arm and taking the proffered drink with the other. It’s strange really, how he can go straight from a mission and settle straight back into the domesticity of life with Tony and the rest of the Avengers – because that’s the only word he has for it, and it’s true; they drink coffee together, have meals together, watch television together, including fights over what they’re watching and who has the remote. Though if he’s honest, he never imagined their dysfunctional domesticity to ever involve him having a coffee in one hand and a kid in the other.   

Job done, Clint shuffles back and hops up onto the counter, the back of his sneakers hitting the front of the cupboards with a thud. He looks around and then picks up the clipboard, eyeing it speculatively.

“R, T dash O four,” he reads, pitching his voice deep and low and making it sound like an announcement.  “Dude, we gotta get you a better name than that.”

The kid looks at Clint, and then he shrugs, fingers back to picking at the stitching of the star on Steve’s uniform.

“What were you called in the lab?” Tony asks curiously, and the kid hunches down, shoulders lifting.

“Four,” he mumbles.

Steve refuses to meet Tony’s eyes, even though he knows Tony is trying his best to get Steve’s attention. “You want to stick with four?” Tony’s voice asks. 

The kid just shrugs unhappily.

“How about we help you pick?” Vasquez suggests. “I bet you've not met many people before, so you probably don’t know many names, right? How about Jack? John? David?”

The kid blinks at her and then shakes his head marginally.

“Anthony,” Tony suggests with quirked eyebrow, and again, a minuscule shake of the head, short blond hair ruffling against the star on Steve’s chest.

“Clint,” Clint chips in, catching on. “James. Phillip. Steve. Frederick. William. Christopher. Sebastien.”

The kid shakes his head at every suggestion and Tony pulls a face. He hooks his ankle around the metal leg of another chair and drags it close, sitting down next to Steve’s knees. Steve feels anger spike through him and fights it down; Tony knows he’s pissed at him and he also knows Tony is deliberately getting in his space, reminding Steve that they’re far from done with their argument. And people assume that it’s Steve who is the one who’s too stubborn to back down from a fight. 

“Oh come on, give us something to work with here,” Tony says to the kid. “Short or long?”

“Short,” the kid says, and Tony claps his hands together, looking pleased.

“Progress, there we go, that’s what I like to see. Short names it is. Eli. Joe. Luke. Frank.”

The kid shakes his head again and again, and Tony is biting back a smile that looks oddly affectionate. Steve stares at him for a moment, because he knows that Tony isn’t at all what the press makes him out to be, but that genuine look of fondness and warmth is decidedly unexpected. He looks down, swallowing hard. He guesses it’s not that the look is unwelcome; it’s just that if Tony is finding it so easy to see the kid like that, why the hell can’t he?

“Arto,” Clint suddenly calls out, and all heads turn to face him. He holds up the clipboard, tapping at the box where the kid’s reference is stamped. “R, T, O,” Clint says, simply. “If it’s anything it’s Arto.”

The kid stops shaking his head and looks at Clint, and then for some unknown reason up at Steve. “Arto?” Steve repeats cautiously, and the kid turns his face away again and then nods into Steve’s chest.

“Arto it is,” Tony says, nodding approvingly. “What’s that, Scandanavian? Hmm. Suits you." 

“Arto,” Vasquez agrees. “Right, Arto. What I need to do today is just look you over and check you’re all fit and healthy. I’ll just ask you some questions and you can either show me or tell me. I won’t need to touch you today, so that’s all good. It would really help me out if you could move over and sit here for me.”

The kid – Arto, Steve brain helpfully supplies – looks over. “No-” he tries, and then points to the cart that’s got all the medical supplies on, before looking up at Steve. “No stuff.”

Steve looks at him, taken aback, and then at Vasquez. She lifts her brows, giving him a meaningful look.

“No stuff,” Steve says, and Arto shifts, wriggling back into Steve’s side and looking at Vasquez with his expression almost defiant. It’s as if he’s somehow seeing Steve as in charge, and is almost using Steve as protection against the things he’s still unsure of, trusting that Steve’s word will be enough to keep him safe.

“Right you are, Captain,” Vasquez says easily, and Steve feels small fingers on the skin of his wrist, searching and reaching. Something strange curls in his stomach, not quite discomfort but not far enough away from it either. He doesn't pull his hand away though; for whatever reason the kid is finding something he needs in Steve's presence, and that means Steve is going to stick with it, try to ignore the twisting mess of emotion and just be there for the kid. The fingers move across the back of his hand and then slowly curl around his thumb, tight and warm, and Steve swallows hard.

“Okay, no stuff today,” Vasquez continues. “When I next come back I’ll need to check your eyes and ears and listen to your heart, but not today. Right, if you could sit here on the edge of the bed, that would be a massive help.”

Arto pauses and then once again looks to Steve. Steve immediately nods, and then feels horrendously guilty as Arto slowly, slowly shifts himself off of Steve’s knee and sits on the edge of the bed next to him. “Thank you Captain,” Vasquez says, already holding up her right hand. “Now, copy me. I bet you can’t do this.”

She flexes her fingers, bending them at the knuckle one after the other, and Arto watches carefully and then copies her perfectly. Steve’s brows draw together because dammit, he wanted the kid off his knee and now the kid has moved because he trusts him and his words, because he feels safe with Steve.

“Atta boy,” Tony grins, and Arto looks up and scrunches up his nose, looking pleased. Tony looks up at Steve as if on reflex, still grinning, but the smile fades as he looks Steve over. Steve opens his mouth to try and say something, to try and ask for help, for anything, for reassurance. For one fleeting moment he thinks Tony is going to acknowledge that he's doing his best, that he's trying, but before the words take shape Tony looks at Steve hard and then his lip curls and he shakes his head fractionally as if he’s disappointed, and Steve is a hundred and ten percent done.

He climbs to his feet, grabs the shield, feeling like Tony just stamped right on his goddamn heart. Arto looks up at him, and Steve nods. “I’ll – I won’t be far away,” he says, and Arto blinks and his face scrunches up in an almost smile. Steve walks out of the room without looking back.

 


 

 

Tony can’t remember the last time he felt so unbelievably furious. 

He watches Steve walk out of the room, shield in his hand like he’s going off for a fight, resisting the urge to throw something at the back of his stupid fucking head. He takes a deep breath in through his nose and forces the anger down, instead watching Arto who is now demonstrating what looks like a high level of ambidextrousness by flexing the fingers of his left hand in a pattern copied from Vasquez.

“So. That all seems horribly awkward,” Clint says cheerfully. He’s still perched on the counter, leaning back and in the process of carefully balancing the Hawkeye beaker on his forehead. He carefully lets it go and spreads his hands out, making a triumphant noise as he does. “Check me out!”

“Yes, well done Barton, you now have yet other useless method of drinks transportation to add to your busboy CV,” Tony says, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. “What is his problem?”

“Erm, is that a trick question? I feel like it’s a trick question,” Clint replies vaguely, far too preoccupied with sliding cautiously off the counter to stand up, head still tipped back and cup still on his forehead. “Hey Arto, check me out.”

Arto looks away from Vasquez to Clint, eyes lighting up. It’s just like the expression that had crossed his small face when he’d seen out of the window for the first time.

“No, no,” Tony interjects. “Barton, you are not a role model. Arto, you are a more responsible member of society than Clint and you don’t even have a surname or social security number.”

Clint reaches up and snatches the beaker off his forehead, looking wounded. “Oh, Stark, words hurt,” he says, and then wiggles the beaker at Arto. “Want to try?”

Arto nods eagerly and wow, he’s like a completely different kid to the angry one that had tried to demolish the medlab not twenty minutes ago. Tony exchanges a glance with Vasquez who just smiles quietly and shifts her stool back slightly, watching the interaction with interest. Tony looks back at Arto, at how wide his eyes are, and realises that this might be the first time that Arto has ever seen adults like this, as opposed to lab technicians and scientists. Not that the Avengers are representative of the normal adult population by any stretch of the imagination, but at the moment they’re the only adults that Arto has got. 

Clint steps forwards. “Only if you drink half of it. It’s too full for amateurs to try.”

Arto takes the beaker without a hesitation. “What’s amateur?”

“Er, someone who’s not great at something yet. Giving it a go for the first time,” Clint shrugs, watching as Arto drinks some of the juice without question. Tony watches as well and grudgingly thinks that maybe sometimes he doesn’t give Clint the credit he deserves.

“There we go,” Clint says, and takes the beaker back. “Now. Head back and sit still. Hands.”

Tony watches as Clint gently tilts Arto’s head back, one palm cupped around the back of his head, the other holding the cup in place as Arto’s small hands come up to hold it in place. Arto’s expression is one of abject concentration and once again Tony is struck with the resemblance between him and Steve.

“This might be a good moment for you to go and deal with the taller one,” Clint says carefully, hands still cupped around Arto’s. “I got this.”

“Thanks,” Tony says shortly, and Clint looks up, eyes him for a moment and then nods, before turning back to Arto. He looks at ease with Arto now that he’s calm, and despite the grief that Tony gives Clint on a daily basis he does trust him. Hell, he pretty much trusts all of the Avengers in the tower with his life; he’ll just have to trust them with the kid as well.

He leaves the medbay, heading for the elevator. “J, tell me if anything happens with Arto,” he says, the name already familiar and easy on his tongue. “Any wobbles, any facial expression that isn’t completely okay.”

“Of course,” Jarvis replies easily as Tony gets into the elevator. “Shall I include trips, falls, sneezes and coughs onto the alert list?”

“Sassy bitch,” Tony retorts. “Trips and falls, yes. Sneezes and coughs, not unless he breaks something as a result of the sneezing or coughing. Find me Steve, baby.”

“Captain Rogers is in the communal kitchen,” Jarvis says as the elevator begins to move. “He is currently engaged in an argument with Director Fury.”

“What?” Tony yelps, and doesn’t even bother to hide his indignation. Fucking spies – somedays Tony hates Nick Fury and the way he seems to always pop up at the most inappropriate moments. “How the hell – why am I not told these things?”

“You did request that I stop telling you whenever people entered the tower,” Jarvis drawls. “I recall something about the tower ‘becoming a god damn hostel, might as well install a god damn revolving door in the lobby.’”

“One, stop playing recording of me back at me during arguments, that’s unfair advantage,” Tony says pointedly. “And two, make an exception for Fury, always make exception for Fury-”

Tony abruptly stops talking as he steps out of the elevator. He can hear raised voices already, the argument Jarvis was referring to obviously already somewhat heated. Four quick strides and the communal kitchen is in view, and so are Steve and Fury.

Steve is sitting at the island counter, leaning back in a chair with his arms folded across his chest. Tony can only see his profile but it’s enough; he looks thunderous and like he’s about to start knocking heads. It’s not a look Tony tends to associate with Captain America; no, that face is all Steve Rogers, which doesn’t bode well for this situation. In contrast, Fury is looking remarkably calm. He’s standing at the other end of the island counter, leaning forwards with his hands braced on the countertop. Dammit, Tony didn’t want SHIELD involved with this at all, beyond the furtive poaching of a medic or two. Shit, how did Fury even find out?

“-don’t care what Agent Coulson said, this is a SHIELD matter. You should have informed us the moment you brought home a life form from another dimension.”

“Sorry, must have misread subsection three A in the SHIELD guide to bringing home life forms from other dimensions,” Steve says, eyes fixed on Fury, so intense he hasn’t noticed Tony standing on the edge of the room.

“Don’t start, Captain. You know that protocol says that any person, creature, plant or goddamn speck of fairy dust from another dimension has to be handed over-”

“I am not handing him over to SHIELD to be used as a lab rat!” Steve snaps back, and Tony feels a fleeting swell of fierce pride in his chest. That’s his Steve saying that; doing the right thing even if it’s not what he wants. It’s what Tony has wanted to see from Steve ever since they found out that Arto is biologically his-

“Well what exactly are you going to do with him?” Fury asks, one eye boring into Steve and now well into exasperated. “Adopt him? Raise him as your own?”

“No.”

The word is out of Steve’s mouth without a moment’s hesitation, and Tony feels the smidgen of goodwill he was feeling towards Steve vanish like a fuse blowing.

Tony’s body moves without his mind’s permission. He strides forwards, hot anger driving him. “Might want to get over that,” he says clearly, and Steve whips around to face him. Fury lifts his eye towards Tony, expression giving nothing away.

“Tony, back off,” Steve says, tension radiating from every inch.

“No, not gonna happen,” Tony says, so far beyond angry now that he can barely comprehend it. He’s going to fucking take the shield from Steve and name Clint fucking Barton the new Captain America, because Clint is probably the only one of them currently not being a complete and utter selfish jackass. "You are being a dick."

"I'm trying," Steve bites out. "Tony, I'm trying, you know I am, I'm just-"

 "You're not trying hard enough."

“Stop,” Steve snaps at Tony, and his neck is turning a blotchy pink in the way it used to when they were in full on fight mode, back before they fell into bed together. “Stop pushing to get what you want.”

“Fuck you,” Tony replies tersely. “This is not about what I want, it’s about what’s right-”

“I don’t know what’s right-”

“You should,” Tony snaps, and Steve recoils like Tony has physically hit him. Tony takes a deep breath in, blows it out. “Look. I’m not letting you make decisions whilst having it out with this guy. You’ll make a decision you’ll regret.”

“You need to make a decision,” Fury says. “Captain, you cannot just keep a fugitive from another dimension here with no paperwork or-”

“Yes you can,” Tony butts in stubbornly. “He’s biologically yours.”

Steve’s chair screeches back. “That’s not good enough!”

“You need to get over whatever this is,” Tony snaps back. “You are not going to hand Arto over to SHIELD-”

“I said I wouldn’t,” Steve says angrily. “But I can’t just-”

“You can.

“I can’t.

Steve steps back. He takes a physical step back and one hand goes up, fingers pushing into his hair, and for a split second something flickers across his face and then he turns away so Tony can’t see his expression, only the rise and fall of his shoulders as he takes a steadying breath.

“You need to hand him over,” Fury says slowly and deliberately, apparently unwilling to let it go, even if Tony can tell that Steve is ten seconds away from blowing his gasket. “Captain, you have my word that he will be protected- 

“Your word?” Steve says, and he starts to laugh, the sound strangled before his voice hardens. He turns around, fists clenched. “Your fucking word-?”

The coffee pot on the table in front of them shatters. Shards of glass skitter everywhere and coffee sprays in every direction, flooding across the counter. Tony swears and ducks, automatically lifting a hand with his palm up; Steve and Fury instinctively wheel around, Fury drawing his gun at lightning speed and holding it up with steady hands 

“Goddamn it, Bucky!”

Steve is the first to recover, lifting a hand to press against his forehead and looking like he would happily knock Bucky out if he were standing close enough. Bucky is standing over by the fridge, evidently having come in through the stairwell. He’s got his gun in hand and a scowl on his face, and Tony can’t help but think that there’s a child in the building, and an argument that has been going on for all of fifteen minutes has already escalated into a goddamn shoot out.

“Put the weapon away, Barnes,” Fury says slowly and deliberately.

Bucky lifts the gun, looking at it with a puzzled frown that’s completely put on. “This weapon? No, see, I legally live here. I’m allowed a gun here. You are not.”

“I’m director of SHIELD, I could stick this gun up your ass and it would clear in a court of law,” Fury says, though he does tuck the gun back into his coat. Thankfully, Bucky takes the concession for what it is and puts his own gun away, clicking the safety on and shoving it behind him into his belt.

“Sit the fuck down,” Bucky says forcefully to Steve as he adjusts his pants to compensate for the gun that’s now tucked safely into the small of his back. Tony knows the tone all too well; it becomes a regular one when dealing with Steve being stubborn. Luckily for him, Bucky has more experience of it than he does.

Expression like a thundercloud, Steve drops into the chair without argument, and Tony is simultaneously jealous of and impressed by Bucky and how he can actually get Steve to listen when he’s this far gone into a mood.

“And you,” Bucky snarls, rounding on Fury and pointing a metal finger in his face. “You listen. We are literally the only people who are strong enough to keep a hold of the kid, so he stays. And whilst he stays, you back the fuck off. The only link the kid has to any world is the genes of Steve Rogers, and hey look, we have a Steve Rogers, so he gets dibs.”

“The kid is from another dimension,” Fury begins.

“Prove it,” Bucky shoots back. “Prove that he is from another dimension. Prove that he’s not just some bastard that Steve left lying around – Steve, shut up,” he growls as Steve makes an angry noise of protest. “This is Steve’s decision, but he don’t have to make it now.”

Fury stares at Bucky. Bucky stares back. Tony looks over at Steve who is looking at Bucky, jaw set so tightly that Tony’s honestly worried it might break. He can’t tell if Steve is grateful for Bucky’s intervention or if he’s going to drop him the moment Fury leaves.

Bucky steps closer to Fury, crowding into his space. “You say yes,” he says, voice low and dangerous.

Fury breathes out, shaking his head. “Put a lid on it, Barnes,” he finally says, and steps back. “I can give you seven days,” he says to Steve. “Seven days to come up with a viable plan. I don’t need to tell you how serious this is.”

“You think I don’t get that?” Steve asks angrily, his voice once again rising with his temper. “You think I don’t know how serious this is?”

“Oh, fucking can it, Rogers,” Bucky says irritably, turning to look at him. “Go cool your heels before I shoot you.”

Steve gets up and walks away without another word, vanishing towards the stairwell. Tony gets up to follow but Bucky’s metal hand shoots out, palm down, signalling him to stay put. Tony hesitates and then complies, leaning his hip against the counter and folding his arms across his chest.

Fury turns to Bucky again. “Maybe I should put you in charge.”

Bucky lifts an eyebrow. “Maybe you should.”

“Seven days, gentlemen,” Fury says, and then he leaves, heading towards the stairwell.

“What a dick,” Bucky says indifferently, and Tony snorts with tired laughter.

“Thanks for that,” he says, because he is actually grateful to Bucky for weighing in, though he could have maybe been a bit more subtle about it. “Could have done with a decision from Steve-”

“Hey, you know what he gets like when he’s freaking out. The guy is a tactical genius, but when it comes to relationships he’s a fuck up. He avoids personal decisions like he’s got some sort of pathological fear of them. How you two got your heads out of your asses to make it work is beyond me.”

“Wow, thanks,” Tony says, mildly affronted. Bucky waves a dismissive hand.

“The point is, he’s emotionally stunted. Always has been. And think about it, what is going to be going through his mind right now?”

Tony pulls a face. “How the hell should I know,” he says irritably, because he feels lost with Steve at the moment, and conceding that to Bucky is not a pleasant feeling.

“Because you know Steve as well as I do,” Bucky replies just as impatiently, and Tony pauses in place.  “Better, in some ways.”

Tony’s anger fades away, leaving nothing but an empty despondent ache in his chest. To hear Bucky say that is both humbling and disconcerting all wrapped up in one. “Then why isn’t he talking to me about this?” Tony finally says, and he’s horribly aware that he’s in danger of becoming that guy, the one who talks to his whatever’s best friend about his relationship issues.

“He’s scared,” Bucky says simply. “In the space of a day he’s found out he’s a father. He’s a super-soldier who represents the whole fucking country, he’s a queer who’s only just openly acknowledging he’s in a relationship with another fella and now he’s ended up with a kid.”

Tony doesn’t reply straight away. He knew Steve was thrown for a loop by what’s happened with the kid, but that’s just ridiculous; Steve Rogers isn’t scared of shit. “I just – he always does the right thing,” he says, eyes on the countertop. “He always just – he cares about everyone else so much, but he doesn’t seem to give a damn this time.”

“Come on, of course he gives a damn,” Bucky says. “He’s just scared. At the end of the day that kid is either with him, or outta here. It’s all on him and he’s not stupid, he knows it. This is big, man. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be freaking out if it turned out you had a kid.”

Tony nods, distractedly acknowledging the point. His mind is going a thousand revolutions a minute. Worry and anger and guilt all churn in his stomach, because he should have known that Steve isn’t just being stubborn. He should have known that Steve cares, probably cares too much by the sounds of things. “What are we going to tell everyone? We’ve only got seven days to come up with a cover story for where Arto came from-”

“Whoa, whoa,” Bucky says. “Steve’s choice, not yours.”

Tony huffs out a breath through his nose, agitatedly conceding the point. His stomach has twisted itself up in a knot, because suddenly he’s got to think about potentially handing Arto over, and it feels like he’d be letting him down if he did. 

Tony lifts his eyes to meet Bucky’s. “And what if Steve decides to pack the kid off with SHIELD?”

Bucky doesn’t reassure him, doesn’t try and be comforting. He just shrugs. “Then you have to deal with that,” he says simply, and then frowns. “What’s with this, since when have you had any paternal feelings anyway?”

Tony laughs at that, short and choppy. “I dunno,” he says, tone full of self-depreciation. “Maybe it’s the frown, matches Steve’s perfectly.”

Bucky’s mouth quirks in a sort of smile. “Gee, you really are gone for him, right?”

“Pretty much,” Tony shrugs, and doesn’t say anything more. How he and Steve feel about each other is entirely their business, and no-one else’s. He would literally turn the world inside out for Steve, and he hopes Steve knows it. Even as he thinks it, he mentally falters; their half a conversation that they’d had before Steve left for his mission doesn’t fill him with confidence. Add to that the fact that Steve chose to stay away from him and thought Tony wouldn’t miss him for a night means they probably need to have a conversation of the serious sort, and sharpish.

“Okay, I’m going to check in with Arto,” Tony says, by way of avoiding any more talk about him and Steve. “I left him with Barton, which was probably a dumb idea on my part.”

“If I were going to leave anything important with any of you lot I’d leave it with Barton,” Bucky says indifferently. Tony’s eyebrows shoot up, but Bucky is already turning away, walking towards the fridge and pulling it open. Tony watches him for a moment, gaze speculative, but then he decides to let it go and walks away. He’s got bigger things to think about right now, after all.

When he reaches the medlab again, his worry about leaving Clint in charge completely vanish, and he grudgingly admits that maybe Bucky was right. Clint is sat on the edge of the bed and Vasquez is reclining on the chair a few feet away. Arto is kneeling up on the bed next to Clint, and has a stethoscope in his ears and a headlamp crooked on his forehead. He’s also got what appears to be Vasquez’s SHIELD pass swinging around his neck. There’s a look of abject concentration on his face and he’s pressing the chestpiece to Clint’s forehead.

Fuck, how can Steve not see this, Tony thinks as he barks out a laugh. He walks over, and Arto swivels to look at him, eyes wide and bright.

“You won’t hear anything in there, kiddo,” he says, nodding to where Arto has the chestpiece held. “Completely empty, I guarantee it.”

“I am insulted,” Clint says. “Arto, tell him. Tell him you can hear something.”

“Nothing,” Arto crows, banging the chestpiece against Clint’s forehead and making him wince.

“Again, watch the super-soldier strength,” he says, but Arto isn’t paying much attention. He shifts back and instead presses the chestpiece to Clint’s shoulder. Tony bites back a smile; there’s a red circle on Clint’s forehead from where Arto has been pressing on it.

“He is physically fit and healthy,” Vasquez stands up to talk to Tony as Arto listens hard to Clint’s shoulder. “A little underweight and malnourished, but he’s young so he’ll hopefully bounce back from that as long as he starts on a balanced diet as soon as possible.”

“He let you…” Tony says, and points to the stethoscope and medical supplies.

“He let Barton,” Vasquez says with a faint smile and an acknowledging head tip towards Clint.

Clint holds his hand up for a high-five. “It’s because I’m awesome.”

Tony shakes his head, but does step over and high-five Clint, because he’s refused before and he’s not going to make that mistake again. Being awoken at four AM by Bucky Barnes delivering a ‘revenge high-five to the face’ is one of his least favourite moments in life ever. “It’s because you also have the mental age of a six year old.”

“And you’re a dick,” Clint says cheerfully. “Hey, check this out,” he says to Arto, and takes the chestpiece from him. He holds it towards Arto and Arto flinches away. Tony steps forwards, but Clint doesn’t seem fazed.  “Okay, you do it. Just hold it like this,” he says, and lifts up his shirt to hold the chestpiece against his stomach next to his bellybutton. “Now you.”

Arto carefully takes the end of the stethoscope and lifts up his own scrub top – Jesus, they really need to get him some new clothes – holding the chestpiece against his stomach. His brow furrows and then his mouth falls open in surprise.

“It’s- it’s-!” he tries to say, and turns to Tony with wide excited eyes. “Noise!”

“It’s because you’re hungry,” Clint says, and wow, Clint Barton is now Tony’s favourite person ever, Bucky was right. “You’ve got to eat, that’s your body telling you to eat.”

“Mmm,” Arto hums noncommittally, and then he puts the chestpiece back on Clint’s chest. It’s not an outright no or a temper tantrum though, so Tony’s going to put it in the ‘progress’ column.

“Oh god, oh god, please tell me I’m not dead, am I dead?” Clint gasps, and Arto giggles.

“No,” he says. “Noise.”

“Oh good, Barton is alive,” Tony says. “We better feed him though to make sure he stays alive.”

Arto nods and then takes the stethoscope out of his ears, though keeps it looped around his neck. The chestpiece falls and clatters against Vasquez’s lanyard, and he scoots back and then looks around.

“Where’s-” he says, looking unsure, and Tony already knows that’s a face that could very quickly go south. “I want.”

“Okay, I’m going to go and find Steve,” Tony says to Arto, who still looks a little uncertain. “I will go and get Steve, Clint will take you to eat your own bodyweight in cereal and we will meet you in the kitchen.”

“Just in case you didn’t know, children cannot live off cereal,” Vasquez says as she stands up. “Arto, can I have my pass back please?”

Arto shakes his head and turns his face away, mouth bowing down sullenly. He reaches down and holds the pass in his fingers, apparently unwilling to surrender it.

“How about you keep the lanyard, and give her the card back?” Tony says. “She needs it back to get home.”

Arto doesn’t look convinced, but he doesn’t resist as Tony steps forwards and reaches for the pass.  Tony snaps the card out of it and passes it to Vasquez, who takes it with a grateful nod.

“I’ll see myself out,” she says, phone in hand. “I’ll see you soon, little one.”

“Thanks,” Tony says, and she smiles brightly and then waves at Arto before leaving the room, heels clicking on the floor as she departs.

“Come on then short-round, time to go on a quest for cereal,” Clint says, and Tony steps forwards and swings Arto down off the bed. Arto goes easily, hands grasping Tony’s forearms as Tony sets him down, and then lets go and makes a beeline for Clint, who sends Tony a grin which is just a tad too smug for Tony’s liking.

“No. No turning the small child into your sidekick. You’ve already got Barnes, you don’t need another one.”

“Too late,” Clint says cheerfully, and reaches out for Arto’s hand. Arto shakes his head but Clint just shrugs and heads towards the door, slipping his hands into his pockets. Arto immediately darts after him, sticking so close to Clint’s heels that he’s likely to be trodden on or tripped over, and as the pair leave the room Tony hears Clint humming what sounds like the Indiana Jones theme tune.

Tony debates shouting after him but decides to just let it go this time. Arto is – for whatever reason – finding Clint both amusing and apparently comforting, and Tony doesn’t want to make him feel uncertain about it by being a dick to Clint. Sure, they all give each other hell on a daily basis, but they’re – supposedly – adults, and they know that for the most part it doesn’t hold any genuine intent. But for a small kid who appears to have only a very basic knowledge and understanding of the complexity of human reactions, it could probably seem quite horrid.

“Still watching, J?” Tony asks quietly.

For once, Jarvis doesn’t give him any attitude. “Of course, Sir. The child seems settled and calm, though has expressed doubts about the elevator, so Agent Barton is opting to use the stairs.”

A weak smile hitches the corner of Tony’s mouth. “He’s got a name now, J. Use it.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Tony nods. “Where’s Steve?”

“In his quarters with Agent Barnes,” Jarvis replies smoothly. “I believe they are dealing with an injury that Captain Rogers sustained whist on his latest mission.”

“Great,” Tony says dully, stepping towards the door, annoyance warring with despondency in his chest. “Not telling me he’s been hurt again. Wow, today is really going well.”

“Considering circumstances, I believe it could be going a lot worse,” Jarvis says and Tony snorts with tired laughter as he makes his way out of the medlab and towards Steve’s rooms, unsure as to whether he wants to go and take care of Steve – as much as Steve allows himself to be taken care of – or shake him, hard.

“Worse. Yeah. Keep reminding me of that J. I think I could forget pretty easily.”

Chapter Text

“You got shot again, didn’t you.”

Bucky’s voice is flat and unimpressed, and Steve mentally winces, head still craned around from where he’s looking at the damage done to his shoulder in the bathroom mirror. He slowly turns his head around and sees that yep, Bucky looks distinctly displeased, half scowl on his face and arms folded across his chest, standing in the bathroom doorway and leaning his metal shoulder against the doorjamb.

“No?” he tries, even though he knows Bucky can see the reflection of his bare back in the mirror. The top half of his suit is on the floor next to his feet; he’s got to hand it in to SHIELD to either get the bullet hole fixed, or get a replacement. He doesn’t particularly want to; Coulson seems to take it as a personal insult whenever Steve wrecks a suit beyond repair.

“Imma tell Stark,” Bucky says, taking a step back and turning as if to leave, and Steve feels his stomach his clench.

“No, Bucky, don’t,” he says, and Bucky pauses. “Help me out?” 

Bucky sighs and jerks his head towards the adjoining bedroom. “Get something sharp.”

Feeling ridiculously grateful and also like an awful human being, Steve opens the bathroom cabinet and pulls out the medical kit he keeps stashed away for moments exactly such as this. He carries it through to the bedroom and passes it wordlessly to Bucky, who clambers onto the bed and sits cross legged, placing the metal box in his lap. Steve sits on the edge of the bed with his back to Bucky, settling in the dip between his crossed knees. Bucky scoots closer, his shins pressing against Steve, comforting in his closeness.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky says, and Steve feels cool metal fingers press against the hot, tender spot on his shoulder. “There’s still something in there, and you’ve healed up over it.” 

“I know,” Steve sighs glumly, because he knows he has and he also knows that means that someone will have to cut the bullet out. “Idiot, moron, should tell field medics when I get shot, should stop making you play nurse.”

“Damn right,” Bucky says forcefully, and Steve winces as the metal finger prods at him with slightly too much pressure before retreating. He hears the click of Bucky’s fingers against the metal box of the medical kit as he opens it. “Between you and Barton, I might as well be a goddamn nurse.”

Despite himself, Steve feels a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Who’s winning?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t exactly call it winning,” Bucky snorts, and Steve can hear him delving through the kit. There’s metallic clinks and then a rustle, the rip of paper. “You’re five for four now.” 

Steve cocks his head contemplatively. “Not too bad.”

“Shut up, Rogers,” Bucky says, and his metal hand closes around Steve’s shoulder from behind, and then he swipes an antiseptic wipe over Steve’s shoulder, leaving his skin feeling fresh and cool in the air. He repeats the motion a few times, sweeping the wipe over the wound in methodical horizontal stripes. “Sit still.”

Steve shifts, ducking his head and leaning forwards, bracing his forearms on his thighs. Bucky follows, rising up on his knees, still keeping his hand on Steve’s shoulder to steady himself. Breathing out shallowly, Steve nods and then feels the bright, sharp pain of what he presumes is a scalpel slice across his skin. At least he thinks it’s a scalpel; he wouldn’t put it past Bucky to use scissors if he was feeling really pissy.

“Sit still,” Bucky insists again, and there’s another stab of pain, sharp and ugly.

“I am sti – fucking whore,” Steve bites out as he feels Bucky press deeper.

“Captain America,” Bucky faux gasps, all pretend shock. “Why, if your mama could hear you now,” he continues, and the stabby implement retreats for a moment. Steve breathes out through his nose and then jolts, a noise halfway between a yelp and a gasp catching in his throat as something else prods as his shoulder. 

“What the hell, are you using your fingers?” Steve asks, mouth hanging open and expression pained; brows furrowed, one eye squeezed shut. 

“Tweezers,” Bucky says, and leans around to wave them in front of Steve’s face. “I can use my bare hands if you prefer.” 

“Don’t know – ah – where they’ve been,” Steve grunts, clenching his mouth shut and closing both eyes. “Ow, Bucky, seriously-”

“Oh, shut your hole,” Bucky retorts. “Christ, Barton is so much easier to deal with than you.”

Steve snorts sceptically, and bites down another swear word. “Yeah? And how’s that?”

“He lets me knock him out,” Bucky says vaguely, distractedly, concentration evident in his tone. “And three, two, one – got you, you little bitch. Whoa, what were they shooting you with?”

Steve twists around to look at the gleaming piece of metal clamped between the bloody tweezers in Bucky’s fingers, frowning. Underneath the blood, the bullet has a strange silvery-blue sheen that he doesn’t recognise.

“Don’t recognise what it’s made of,” he says, reaching out for it. Bucky drops it into his palm, and Steve picks it up with two fingers, eyebrows lifting. “Heavy.”

“Yeah, it’d need to be to get through your suit,” Bucky says, and reaches over Steve’s shoulder to take the bullet from him, examining it closely-

The sound of a throat being cleared from the doorway makes them both look up in tandem, and Steve’s chest tightens as he sees Tony standing there, hands in his pockets and one eyebrow raised in question. He looks even more unimpressed than Bucky, and Steve can’t help but feel guilt and relief and exasperation roll through him in a strange aching tangle. It’s like he wants to both avoid Tony and pull him close. If he could, he’d hide himself away in Tony, out of sight of the rest of the world.

“Seriously?” Tony says, sounding bored and fed up and annoyed all at the same time. “So, you didn’t feel like letting me know you were back, or, I don’t know, that you’d been shot?”

Steve looks away, down at the floor beneath his feet. “Didn’t think you’d want to see me,” he says honestly, though he’s not expecting the ringing silence that follows the words. Bucky has gone very still behind him, and Tony is staring at him with a new and strange expression on his face.

“Barnes, give us a moment?” Tony finally breaks the silence, and he sounds resigned, almost disappointed. 

“Can do,” Bucky says with a shrug, and gives Steve's shoulder a squeeze that’s probably meant to be reassuring, before packing up the medical kit and clambering off the bed, leaving the room. He edges past Tony and vanishes, his footsteps fading  quickly and leaving Steve alone with Tony. Steve feels oddly betrayed for a moment, but the feeling doesn’t last as his attention and focus quickly and easily turns to Tony.

“Tony-”

“Just, don’t start,” Tony bites out, and then huffs out a breath, reaching up to drag his hand over his face, pushing his fingers into his hair. “We need to talk.”

Steve lifts his eyes to Tony’s face, staying perfectly still. “Sounds ominous." 

Tony huffs tiredly, drops his hands. “It’s the ‘we need to talk’ line. It’s supposed to sound like that. Means that this is serious.”

Steve shakes his head, stands up. “We were fighting AIM, I got hit. It’s not a big deal,” he says, walking back towards the bathroom and thumbing open the button on the pants of his suit. He hears Tony draw in a sharp, barely controlled breath and knows his back must look a mess.

“I’m not talking about the fact you got shot,” Tony says, and Steve stalls momentarily. He’ll quite happily have the argument about necessary risk and getting hurt again, because that usually ends in jokes and exasperated laughter and sex. Any other arguments that are currently in play are ones he wants no part in.

“Not now,” he says, and he makes his hands move again, pulling his pants open and pushing them down, stepping out of them and leaving them kicked to the side. He reaches towards the shower, pulling the glass door open, and then stops when he hears footsteps behind him and two warm hands slide onto his waist. He shuts his eyes, breathing heavily, reactively, because he’s naked and Tony is right there behind him, palms heavy and reassuring on his skin.

“You do realise that you have like, a level ten in avoidance?” Tony asks lightly, and Steve sighs, sways back into Tony. The fingers on his hips tighten and Tony edges closer, his front brushing Steve’s back.

“I know,” Steve admits, and shudders as one of Tony’s hands slides around to his front, resting just below his navel, thumb idly stroking his skin. He feels Tony rest his forehead against his uninjured shoulder, the warm wash of his breath on his skin.

“You know it’s probably not healthy.”

“I gotta get some space sometimes,” Steve says. He wants so very badly to cover Tony’s hand with his own, to turn around and haul Tony closer.  “Only way I can think properly-”

“You brood,” Tony interrupts. “All you do is shut down and brood, and overthink everything. It never helps.”

“Are we really doing this now?” Steve asks, shivering slightly as Tony’s thumb drags lower.

“Say it all you want, it’s happening at some point.”

A frustrated noise wells up in the back of Steve’s throat, and he steps forwards, pulling himself out of Tony’s grip. He reaches into the shower and turns it on, hoping Tony will get the hint and leave it alone. It’s agonising; Tony’s presence is exactly what he wants, but it comes with the sharp edges of conversation that he’s trying to avoid.

Warm fingers creep onto the back of his neck, an elbow bumping gently against the small of his back. The grip tightens just enough, and Tony is the only person that Steve will allow to touch him like this, in such a vulnerable way, especially when he’s this tightly wound.

“Give it up, Rogers,” Tony breathes, and his hand slides away from Steve’s neck, down across the planes of his back to his hip, gently pushing to turn him around. Steve complies after a moment of resistance, revolving on the spot to face Tony.

“What am I going to do with you,” Tony murmurs over the hiss and spray of the shower behind them, shaking his head and then looking up like he’s going to say more-

Steve kisses him. Tony’s words are cut off and his breath hitches in his chest as Steve presses their mouths together, hands reaching hold to grab hold of Tony’s waist. Tony pulls back slightly, chest rising and sinking as he draws in a deep breath,  one hand coming up to rest on Steve’s chest, over his heart.

“Steve-”

Steve cuts him off again, pulling him back and pressing their mouths together, enough momentum in his actions to send them both back a step, close enough to the shower that Steve can feel the warmth and the slight dampness of the spray on his back. This time Tony doesn’t pull away; he raises his hands to either side of Steve’s neck, kissing him hungrily and crowding close.

There’s a brief moment in which Steve thinks that he shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t be playing dirty and avoiding conversation in this way, but it’s quickly let go of. God, it feels like a lifetime since he’s had Tony in his arms like this, even though it’s only been a few days. Tony’s hands are holding him close as he kisses Steve, and Steve has got one hand locked on Tony’s hip and the other sliding down his back, over the curve of his ass. Steve feels all the tension and discontent of the past few days coalesce, bleeding out with every heated kiss and touch.

A hand leaves his neck, slips over his arm, palm splaying out over his spine and pushing him impossibly closer. They’re kissing like teenagers, open mouthed and needy, and Steve groans as Tony bites down on his lower lip. The sensation stings, settles deep in his gut and then spreads like heat through his body. He doesn’t even stop to think about it, he just wants, taking a stumbling step back again, pulling Tony with him right into the shower.

Tony gasps, fingers clenching on Steve’s skin as the water drenches them. Steve shoves Tony’s arm out the way and grabs hold of him by the back of his thighs, fingers sliding up until they press into the crease between Tony’s thigh and ass. He hauls him close so they’re pressed together, chest to chest, the soaked material of Tony’s shirt rubbing against his bare skin. If he could get away with it he’d lift Tony and press him back against the cold tiles; he’d tried it once and Tony had violently objected to not having his feet on the floor whilst not in both full control and the armour, so Steve has crossed sex up against a wall off his mental to-do list.

Compromising with what he wants and want Tony will allow, Steve simply shoves Tony backwards against the wall, relishing in the shudder that goes through him even as his breath is knocked out of his lungs in a breathless grunt. Their mouths are almost touching, hot breaths panted into the scant space between them. Steve’s shoulder stings where the water hits against the spot where the bullet went in, but he doesn’t care. Tony leans in slowly and lazily licks his way into Steve’s mouth, a perfect counterpoint to the frenetic actions of a few moments ago. Steve lets him, slides his hands under Tony’s sopping shirt and drags the wet material up his chest, relishing in the groan he gets in return.

“You are playing dirty, Rogers,” Tony accuses breathlessly as Steve peels the shirt off him, dropping it to the floor without a second thought. He presses his fingers to Tony’s back, feeling the play of muscle and the strength in his shoulder blades, tugging him forwards a stumbling step away from the wall. “You are a wet, filthy, distracting menace, you and your sex drive need to be stopped-”

“Stop me then,” Steve says, moving his hand to the front of Tony’s pants and sliding his palm over the outline of Tony’s erection. Tony gasps, hitches his hips forwards, and then he’s kissing Steve again, mouths sliding together as they fumble with Tony’s pants.

“Fuck you,” Tony pants and shoves Steve's hands aside, dexterous fingers managing to get his pants open now that Steve isn’t hindering his efforts. Steve bends down to push the pants down Tony’s legs, taking his underwear too and wrestling the clinging fabric down to Tony’s ankles. On his knees, he slides a hand behind one of Tony’s knees, leaning in and mouthing the wet skin of his inner thigh.

Tony returns to leaning his shoulders back against the wall of the shower without shifting his feet, pressing one palm on the wall behind him and the other onto the back of Steve’s head, urging him on. It arches his back beautifully and Steve doesn’t fight the shudder that tremors through him. Tony is obscene some days, so confident in his own skin and the control he exerts over his body. It would easily bring Steve to his knees, if he weren’t already there.

Steve traces his mouth up Tony’s leg, lower lip dragging against his skin. He has to keep blinking water out of his eyes and it’s almost too hot, but he doesn’t care. He’s here with Tony and he can kid himself that nothing is amiss, that nothing has changed.

“Come on,” Tony coaxes, voice a wicked murmur. Steve obliges, mouthing higher and higher, fingers creeping up to take hold of the base of Tony’s dick, shivering at the feel of hot hardness beneath his fingertips. Tony makes a breathless noise in the back of his throat and Steve’s skin prickles with arousal. Breathing heavily, he leans in and takes the head of Tony’s dick into his mouth, sucking hard straight away. The muscles in Tony’s thighs jump under his palms and Tony bites out a curse, the fingers on the back of Steve’s head tightening reflexively.  

Steve doesn’t tease. He sucks Tony harshly, pulling back occasionally to tongue at the head of his dick, relishing the way Tony gasps and curses every time he does. Yes, Tony know how to drop Steve with nothing more than a subtle arch of his back and a certain look in his eyes, but Steve knows exactly how to break Tony apart as well.

“Steve,” Tony gasps, and he shifts, trying unsuccessfully to spread his legs with his sodden pants still tangled around his ankles. Steve takes pity on him and leans back to grab the material, pulling at it so Tony can wrest a foot free. Tony staggers slightly as he does, and Steve catches him with strong hands on his hips. He presses a panting, open-mouthed kiss to Tony’s abdomen and moves one hand to push between Tony’s thighs, sliding up until his thumb presses against Tony’s balls. Tony draws in a shuddering breath that’s audible even over the sound of the running water, and Steve screws his eyes closed, fingers clutching desperately at Tony’s skin.

There’s the clatter of plastic bottles against the tiled floor, and Steve looks up to see Tony reaching out, hand fumbling across the shelf in the corner of the shower and in very real danger of sending another couple of bottles falling. “Fuck, you’re really telling me you don’t have any lube in here? I refuse to believe that, no way do you not-”

Thankfully Tony’s groping fingers find what they’re looking for without Steve having to direct him. He makes a noise of triumph in the back of his throat and then he’s hitting Steve on the shoulder with the lube, impatient as ever. Steve laughs and takes it from him, and Tony is laughing too, leaning back and sliding a hand over Steve’s shoulder, the back of his neck.

“Shut up, Rogers,” he says breathlessly, hand cupping the back of his neck. “Back to it.”

Steve rolls his eyes, reaches up to push his wet hair back with his palm. Tony makes a noise deep in his chest and the fingers of his other hand are pushing through Steve’s wet hair, clenching hard. He jerks Steve forwards roughly and Steve goes willingly, opening his mouth for Tony to thrust inside. God, this is exactly what he wants, what he needs. In here there’s nothing to think about but the sex, just the thrill of having Tony close. In this moment, he doesn’t have to worry about anything or anyone, or the rest of the world that waits for them just outside.

Tony’s hands are unforgiving and he snaps his hips forwards almost carelessly, and he groans as Steve swallows around the head of his dick. Steve retaliates by slicking his fingers and slipping his hand up between Tony’s thighs. Tony shifts his feet apart and cries out as Steve slides a finger into him without warning.

“God, I love your multitasking capabilities,” Tony gasps and then his breath catches and his whole body jerks as Steve pushes another finger into him. His hands tighten in Steve’s hair, on the back of his neck, and Steve feels his whole body arch as Tony rises unconsciously up onto the balls of his feet. “Jesus fuck, Steve-”

Steve twists his fingers and pulls back off of Tony’s dick, chest heaving as he draws breath. He mouths his way over Tony’s hipbone, biting down on the jut of bone and hearing Tony bite out another curse, fingernails scratching roughly against his skin. It’s neither a protest nor a safeword though so he doesn’t stop, pulling his fingers back only to shove them back in again, setting a brutal pace that has Tony clawing at his shoulders and swearing in two different languages. A third finger joins the others and Tony’s back bows violently and beautifully, almost like he’s been electrocuted. His shoulders press into the tile and his hip collides with Steve’s jaw, and if Steve weren’t Captain America he’d have been knocked back onto his ass.

But Steve is Captain America, so he keeps his balance and simply shoves Tony back against the wall with a hand on his hip. “Four?” he pants.

“I’m standing up, are you a fucking maniac-?” Tony replies unevenly, and Steve twists his fingers in retaliation.

“You can take it,” he replies, and carefully pushes his shoulder between Tony’s legs, hitching one of Tony’s legs up. Tony’s thigh presses against the side of his head, his heel bumping Steve in the middle of his back, and Tony’s palm slaps back against the wall and he shifts his weight onto his other leg to compensate.

“I know I can take it,” he says, sliding both hands onto the back of Steve’s head. “I’m choosing not to. Come on, Steve, come on-”

“Come on and what, exactly?” Steve pants, and Tony smacks his shoulder.

“Begging for the dirty talk?” he says, and Steve can just picture the fucking smirk.

“Always,” Steve replies, because Tony knows full well that Steve not-so-secretly loves the filth that comes out of his mouth. He leans in and tongues at the head of Tony’s dick again, easing his fingers into Tony’s body even further. “It’s the one time I actually appreciate you not shutting the hell up.”

“Oh, ha fucking-” Tony begins but his voice cuts out on a strangled gasp as Steve nudges his little finger up against the rim of his hole, beside the three fingers that are already knuckle deep in Tony’s body. “Steve – vetoing four, calling a veto on four-”

Steve immediately tucks his little finger back out of the way, and feels Tony’s body sink back down, weight more pronounced over his shoulder. Fingers stroke down the side of Steve’s face in a brief acknowledgement, and Steve wishes Tony wouldn’t feel he has to thank Steve for backing off when he’s explicitly called a veto.

“Come on then,” Tony breathes, and Steve shivers hot, and if he weren’t under the spray of the shower he’d be covered in a fine sheen of sweat. “Fuck me with your fingers and get back to sucking my cock, get me right to the edge and then get up here and fuck me, so I come with your dick in my ass, come on Steve-”

Steve does as he’s told, because that’s an invitation that sends lust driving spiking through him in hot, heady waves. He own cock aches between his legs and he slides his free hand down to curl his fingers loosely around himself. He’s panting as he leans in again to take Tony’s dick into his mouth, this time pressing deeper and deeper. Tony swears and then his whole body jerks as Steve pushes his fingers roughly up into him and swallows around the head of his dick. His fingers clench painfully in Steve’s hair but he doesn’t let up, doesn’t relent. This is how Tony wants it to go, and this time Steve is only too eager to obey.

“Fuck,” Tony groans, body shifting, and Steve has to give up on touching himself to grab at Tony’s thigh again, helping support his weight and keep him balanced. Even though this is Tony’s plan, he’s in complete control here and he knows it. Well, almost complete control – his own want is bearing down on him like a freight train, and he doesn’t know if he wants to hold off for much longer.

He pulls back off Tony’s dick, pushing back against the press of Tony’s hand. “Killing me here,” he pants, wiping his eyes with his forearm.

“Just a little more,” Tony coaxes, pulling Steve’s mouth back to where he wants it. Steve wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and then nods, leaning back in. The shattered relief in Tony’s responding moan makes it worth it, and he lets Tony push him further and further, until he can feel the head of his dick pressing against the back of his throat and he’s swallowing convulsively around it. Tony’s hips rock in small, aborted thrusts as he pushes forwards into Steve’s mouth and back against his fingers, and his thigh is quivering under Steve’s hand.

He soon loses sense of time; all he’s aware of is the thudding of his pulse in his ears and the sound of the water beating down on them, Tony’s harsh breathing and the curses he can’t quite bite back. The water is spraying down on Steve’s back; his shoulder still aches dully but Steve can barely bring himself to care. He can feel Tony’s skin under his palm, the tight clutch of his body around his thrusting fingers. His own need has taken a momentary back seat and he now would quite happily stay here for hours, letting Tony take what he wanted, what he needed.

Tony’s whole body jerks, hips snapping forwards almost violently, and Steve feels his fingers slide away from his head. “Steve, Steve-” Tony gasps, and Steve is on his feet in seconds, shoving Tony around so he’s pressed chest-first into the tiles. Steve ducks down to grab the lube; he hurriedly slicks himself up and then he’s kicking Tony’s feet apart and pressing in, hands on Tony’s hips and mouthing blindly across his shoulder.

The cry that breaks free of Tony’s throat is hoarse and shattered in the most beautiful way. Steve kisses his wet shoulders, reaching up to push Tony’s face around so he can kiss his mouth, sloppy and awkward. He shoves his hips forwards roughly and Tony’s lips part on a silent cry this time, all the air punched out of him. Steve doesn’t go gentle or slow; they’re both so tightly wound that easing off now seems unbearable. 

Some days he’d choose to change the pace, to slow down and draw it out, spend hours reducing Tony to nothing but a shuddering mess in his arms, delirious from pleasure. This is not one of those days; everything Steve has felt in the past few days has turned tight and brittle in his chest, and he feels desperate and needy, not at all sure that he possess enough self-control to do anything other than fuck Tony fast and hard, bring them both off as soon as he can-

Tony has managed to get a hand wrapped around his own dick, and he’s jerking off furiously. Steve steps back and yanks Tony’s hips back with him; he staggers slightly and shifts his feet back to keep his balance. Placing a broad hand between his shoulder blades, Steve pushes his upper body forwards and Tony keens as he leans his forearm across the tiles. His back is now bowed, stretched out taught, and he seems to appreciate the new angle if his helpless moans are anything to go by.

“You watching?” Tony gasps, sounding wrecked. “You watching your dick shoving into me?”

Steve bites out a curse, tears his eyes away from Tony’s ass. His eyes lock on the back of Tony’s neck, where the hair on his nape is plastered wetly to his skin by the shower. Steve aches to reach out and tug it between his fingers, to drag his fingers across the faint ridge of his spine-

“Shit - Steve, shit-

Tony’s whole body goes rigid and he cries out, and Steve gasps at the feel of his body clenching hotly around him. Feeling his own climax building unstoppably in the pit of his belly, Steve shoves forwards hard enough to send Tony slipping forwards. He hauls Tony fully upright and presses him into the shower wall again, hips turning frantic as he chases his own release-

He comes with a shuddering gasp, front pressed to the full length of Tony’s back. One hand is locked around Tony’s hip the other is pressed against his chest, right above the arc reactor. Tony’s head lolls on his shoulders, his whole body pliant and soft. The world goes hazy for several long moments as he rides it out, hips hitching up as he chases the last of his climax.

Steve leans forwards, gasping. He blindly reaches out and props his fist on the wall so he doesn’t crush Tony, feeling his legs juddering with aftershocks. He shifts his hips and Tony’s breath hitches as Steve’s dick slips free from his body, not yet fully soft. He reaches back with one hand, threads his fingers into Steve’s damp hair and twists his head around to kiss him lazily. Steve sighs into Tony’s mouth and locks his free arm around Tony’s waist, keeping him close.

“Okay?” Tony murmurs against his mouth, but doesn’t seem to require an answer. He nudges Steve’s nose with his own and steals another kiss, tongue dragging against Steve’s lower lip before sucking it between his own. Steve returns the kiss for a moment and then pulls back, burying his face into Tony’s skin at the juncture of shoulder and neck, suddenly and inexplicably feeling like he could burst into tears.

“Go lie down,” Tony murmurs, seemingly unaware of Steve’s roiling emotions. “I’m gonna clean up then come join you.”

Not opening his eyes, Steve shakes his head, face still buried in Tony’s shoulder. “Go,” Tony says, pushing Steve’s head away. “Don’t trust your legs to hold you up, you always get shaky after sex. Go, I’m not picking you up if you fall on your ass, I’ll just laugh and tell everyone-”

“Alright, going,” Steve manages to say, and his voice sounds steadier than expected. He presses a soft kiss to Tony’s shoulder and then backs out of the shower, grabbing a towel and padding through to the bedroom.

Roughly and quickly towelling himself dry, he loops the towel around his shoulders and sits heavily on the edge of the bed, listening to the sounds of Tony finishing up in the shower. The thrill of orgasm is fading and Steve is already starting to feel like an utter cad. The strange surge of emotion that had him on the verge of tears not long ago is still there, churning restlessly in his gut. He can’t pinpoint exactly what it is though; he feels almost like he’s grieving, but that makes no sense whatsoever.   

The shower shuts off, and the silence that follows is far too loud. Steve rests his elbow on his knee and runs his hand over the back of his head, stroking over the damp hair almost unconsciously. He can hear the quiet noises of Tony moving around in the bathroom and feels a lump in his throat, the emotions from earlier surging restlessly in his ribcage.

He doesn’t look up as Tony pads out of the bathroom towards him. He feels the mattress dip as Tony climbs onto the bed, sitting next to him with one foot tucked under him and the other dangling off the edge of the bed, inner thigh pressing against Steve’s hip. It coccurs to Steve that he can't remember the last time they shared this bed; now he thinks about it, they probably haven't since those first months of casually slipping into each other's beds in the middle of the night, before they gave up on acting like nothing was going to happen and just went up to the penthouse together every night instead.

“Sit still,” he says quietly, and then Steve feels a damp cloth wipe over his shoulder, the touch light. He draws in a sharp breath through his nose but it’s nowhere near as painful as it was before, more of a dull bruise than the sharp sting of an open wound. He sits complacently as Tony gently cleans off his shoulder properly, before dropping the washcloth onto the nightstand and then leaning forwards to press his mouth to the back of Steve’s neck.

Nuzzling down against Steve’s shoulder blade, Tony sighs heavily enough for Steve to hear and feel it. “So I’m hoping that got enough frustration out of your system for you to manage a conversation. And not the stop getting shot conversation, that’s getting really old.”

Guilt slices through Steve, bitter and heavy. “I don’t want – I don’t to talk about the kid right now, Tony.”

Tony doesn’t pull away. “That’s good, because I don’t want to talk about the kid right now, either.”

Steve frowns, feeling uncertain. “So what are you talking about?”

Tony breathes in and out, slow and measured like he’s weighing up which words to use. “These things you keep saying,” he finally says. “Doing. Going back to sleeping in your own bed. Saying you don’t think I’d care, that you don’t think I’d miss you.”

Now, that Steve wasn’t expecting. He and Tony never talk about this thing between them – they haven’t since it all began the first time they fell into bed together. He kind of understands that even though he doesn’t really want to, they might have to discuss it at least a little, especially not now they’ve sort of made the decision to be more open about it in front of everyone. The question is why is Tony bringing it up right now, when they’ve already got so much going on-

Steve suddenly realizes he knows exactly why Tony is bringing it up now, and it settles like a lead weight in the pit of his stomach.

“Steve, you know I- you know how I feel about you, right?”

Steve feels his chest tighten, because he knows how he feels about Tony – at least he thought he did. It was always easy and uncomplicated, never required him to analyse or think too hard about it. It was just there, and that was okay with him. But now, now it’s being dragged out to be put under a microscope, demanding commentary and action. He blinks, lifts his chin and stares hard across the room.

“I know how I feel about you bringing this up now,” he says without thinking, and he hears the bitterness in his own voice.

Tony goes very still. His hand is still on Steve’s side.

“Doesn’t take a genius to work out that we’re only having this conversation because this kid is here.”

Tony slowly draws his hand back from Steve, leaving his skin feeling cold. “You really think that?” he asks, voice flat. “You think I’m just saying this because of Arto.”

“Yes,” Steve says honestly, a lump in his throat that he can't shift, no matter how hard he swallows, because it's never about him, is it? It's always about Captain America, or the Winter Soldier, the mission that went bad, or, or the damn kid they rescued - no-one ever says these things to him when it's just him-

“Either you’ve got a lousy sense of self-worth, Steve Rogers, or you think very little of me,” Tony says tightly, and he’s getting up off the bed, stalking across the room towards the dresser and yanking a drawer open. He rummages for a moment and then pulls out a pair of worn sweatpants, shaking them out and shoving his feet into them, barely restrained fury in every jolted motion.

“Tony-”

“Fuck you,” Tony replies sharply, pulling the sweatpants up and tightening the cord around his hips. His hands are shaking, just enough for Steve to notice. “Fuck you, Steve. You don’t want to talk? Fine. I don’t much want to talk to you anymore, either.”

He leaves the room, slamming the door on his way out. Steve is left on the bed feeling like Tony has physically hit him. An explosion of temper like that is much more Steve’s style than Tony’s, and Steve doesn't know how they've pushed it this far, how they've managed to mess it up so badly-

 Sitting there and staring at the closed door, Steve swallows thickly before shutting his eyes.

He's got a horrible feeling that Tony might not be coming back.

 


 

Stalking into the workshop, Tony throws himself into his chair with enough force to send it rolling across the floor. He grabs the edge of his workbench and pulls himself in, shoving aside empty coffee mugs and a stack of flat screens that are awaiting stress testing by way of giving them to Bucky and Thor.

“Right,” he says abruptly. He feels like a tightly coiled spring, a join pushed past it's stress limit, about to snap. “New project file, Jarvis.”

“Name and server, Sir?" 

Tony taps his fingers against the workbench, taking a deep breath. “R T dash 0 four. And personal servers. Personal project.”

“Shall I duplicate files into Captain Rogers’ personal-?”

“No,” Tony says before Jarvis can finish the sentence. “Put all the files we pulled on Arto into that location. And don’t mention Captain Rogers until further notice.”

“Noted,” Jarvis says, with the faintest trace of a sigh in his voice. Tony grits his teeth but doesn’t comment; he knows that the AI has categorised Steve’s presence in Tony’s life as positive interaction, which is probably why he’s pushing his programmed boundaries by sounding disapproving about Tony’s request to not hear about Steve.

Well, Jarvis can go fuck himself too if he’s going to take Steve’s side over this.

“Good,” Tony says brusquely, and shoves Steve forcibly out of his mind, even though it pains him to do so. “Arto update, please.”

“Arto is with Agent Barton in his room,” Jarvis says. “He is occupied with drawing and appears calm and well.”

“Barton the babysitter,” Tony snorts, though he doesn’t deny the relief he feels at hearing Arto is safe and well and not in a temper. “Patch him through.”

There’s a slight pause, and then Clint’s voice comes through the speakers. “What’s up, Papa Stark?”

Tony’s mouth opens, and stays open for a moment as he tries to remember why the hell Barton is allowed to set foot in the building. “You’re not funny.”

“You sound mad. Fallen out with Daddy Rogers?”

“You are not funny,” Tony repeats, and then offhandedly adds, “and yes, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh. Sorry bro,” Clint says, actually sounding genuine for a moment before changing the subject. “So, you’ve reached the Barton and Barnes babysitting service, what can we do for you? We charge eight hundred bucks an hour and accept no liability for any injuries or emotional traumas that may occur.”

“How is he?” Tony asks without engaging with the joking around, propping his elbow on the edge of his desk and resting the side of his face on his knuckles. He wishes he had coffee. Or a drink.

“Fine,” Clint says. “He ate four spoons of lucky charms, worked out the marshmallows are the best bit so picked them all out and ate them, then drank a pitiful amount of juice and sulked for a while.”

“Four spoons? That’s all you could manage?”

“He refused and pulled the face,” Clint replies. “You know, the face that usually means destruction and violence is about to happen?”

“Okay, good call,” Tony admits, feeling glad that Arto has at least eaten a bit. It could have too easily been a flat out refusal to comply, considering what Arto has already demonstrated since he arrived. And hey, the kid’s smart enough to appreciate the sugary goodness of marshmallow over wholegrain, so he’s going to count that as a win as well. “And after cereal?”

“Bruce and Nat wandered through the kitchen and he looked a bit spooked so I brought us up to his room. He sulked some more and then pulled all the blankets off the bed, threw them on the floor and looked at me like he wanted a fight about it.”

“What did the bed do to him?” Tony asks, baffled.

“I dunno,” Clint replies. “I was gonna ignore him but he started kicking stuff about and kinda growled at me, so I distracted him with a Starkpad and he was all over that. He’s drawing on it.”

“He growled at you?”

“Oh yeah. Feral. Bared teeth and everything,” Clint says, sounding supremely unconcerned considering the kid has already shown willingness to actually bite. “Distraction worked well though.”

“What’s he drawing?”

“Erm, I dunno, I’m outside at the moment so he can’t hear us talking about him, let me just go-” Tony hears the sound of a door opening, footsteps, and then Clint’s voice calling out. “Arto, what are you drawing? Yep, that looks like Steve. Is it Steve? We have a nod, yeah, he’s drawing Steve. Want to see? It’s pretty good.”

Tony’s insides clench and twist and he feels his throat go tight. “Show him how to save it on the network,” he says by way of answer, trying not to let the feeling of helplessness overwhelm him. The question of why Steve arises in his mind, because they’ve all noticed Arto’s fixation with Steve even though Steve has only interacted with him minimally. He’s not jealous; he’s genuinely curious as to why. “You alright with him for a while?”

“Yeah. I’ve got Jarvis to route the Xbox through this TV, I’m set.”

“Stop running Microsoft through my systems.”

“Develop a Stark brand games console then. Or find another babysitter.”

Tony huffs out a laugh. “Touché. Right, I’m going to do some small-child based research to see if I can work out why we’re growling and destroying beds. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Coffee, please.”

Tony snorts again. “Yeah. You’ve got a glamorous assistant for that sort of stuff, nice try.”

He cuts the connection and turns back to his workbench, exhaling and stretching. He runs his hands over his bare upper arms, absently thinking that he should have gotten properly dressed before storming down to the workshop. He’s always been comfortable lounging around in Steve’s clothes when the occasion has called for it, but right now he doesn’t want the reminder. He’d get changed, but there’s little to no point seeing as his whole body still aches from fucking in the shower, a constant warm throb that he usually welcomes and revels in.

He wonders if he’ll ever get to enjoy it again, and abruptly shuts down that avenue of thought because he can’t afford to right now. He’s got Arto to deal with, and isn’t going to waste time and emotion on anyone else. Not even if shutting that person out feels like cutting off a limb.

Breathing in and out deeply, he gets back on task. He rubs his mouth thoughtfully, thinks about the information Clint has just relayed. “Jarvis, search the wide recesses of the internet for child behaviour.”

“Two hundred and forty one million results in point four seconds,” Jarvis immediately replies, and Tony swears.

“Okay, nix that.  Try aggression in children.”

“Thirty-two million results.”

“Fuck,” Tony says, throwing his hands up. “What is wrong with the youth of today? Never mind. Right, we can’t do fixing it until we know what’s causing it. Can we narrow the search to causes, please? Go for top results, find common themes and threads, tell me what you’ve got.”

“May I suggest creating a databank of Arto’s known behaviours, to correlate against the any suggested causes the search finds?”

“You are a goddamn genius. Do it. Right, known behaviours. Kicking, punching, biting. Running away. Crying. Refusing to do things. Put the non-talking thing in there as well. The limited vocabulary. The fact that we found him in a Hydra lab.”

“Shall I order the easy guide to controlling children that were cloned in laboratory experiments in parallel dimensions?” Jarvis says smoothly.

“You can stow it,” Tony says, one eyebrow lifted. “Shit, is any of this going to be relevant at all? There’s literally no precedent for angry super-soldier clones that were grown in labs-”

“If I may, Sir, he may be that, but it may be best if we simply consider him a child.”

Tony ponders that for a moment and then nods. “Alright. Scrap the Hydra part. What’s the equivalent? A refugee, I guess? Oh, and add no parents to the database. That’s always part of the story, a big part in this guy’s case I would imagine.”

Jarvis immediately starts searching, throwing up glowing screens of webpages and articles and contacts that he thinks will be of use. Tony’s eyes scan them, pulling ones that could be helpful to one side and discarding the rest. Within minutes he’s got over a hundred pages open and is slowly but surely delving his way through what seems to be an endless stream of information.

Three hours later, and all he’s achieved is to give himself a headache and ascertain that there are hundreds of potential causes for Arto’s behaviour. The simplest is that he’s just upset and unsettled. The more complex are drenched in theories to do with attachment and limbic system development and chemical imbalances. And that’s without the added complexities of the fact he’s a six-year-old, Hydra-grown super-soldier.

Tony is way out of his depth here.

“So, the things that could be potentially wrong, including but not limited to, EBD, ADHD, AD, ADD, RAD, ODD, ASD, IED,” he rattles off, pressing his fingers to his temples in a futile effort to dull the ache. “Any more acronyms to add to the list?”

“I believe you remembered them all, Sir.”

“Comparing to the database, which are we looking at being most likely?”

“Arto is exhibiting behaviours associated with all of them,” Jarvis says, and Tony groans and slumps over his desk with his head buried in his forearms. “Though we currently have very little data to go on.”

“Is that your suggestion tone, are you suggesting we wait for more data?”

“I believe that would be helpful.”

Tony pushes himself up and slumps back in his chair, scratching absently at his chest. “But what the hell are we supposed to do until then? How can we fix it if we don’t know what’s caused it? Are we meant to let him run wild whilst we figure it out?”

“Is that a rhetorical question, Sir? I do believe this is outside of my area of expertise.”

Tony is about to snap back at Jarvis when Clint’s voice interrupts, coming through the speakers without warning or permission from Jarvis, which can only mean it’s something to do with Arto.

“Tony?”

 “Hit me,” Tony replies immediately, alarm rising in his stomach already-

“He’s gone to sleep.”

Tony raises both eyebrows, wondering why Clint is telling him this right now. He exhales, feeling the worry fade away slightly. “Sleeping is good, he needs to sleep. He hardly slept at all last night-”

“He’s gone to sleep in the bottom of the wardrobe,” Clint reiterates.

Tony sighs. “Great. Is he safe?”

“Yeah. He’s made a blanket nest. Kid after my own heart.”

“Leave him to sleep then. I think arguing about beds is way, way down the priority list right now.”

There’s a shuffling sound, some distant rustles and thuds, then a pause. “I’ll stay here with him till he wakes up again.”

Tony shuts his eyes, a faint smile on his lips. “Hey, Barton?”

“Yup?”

“You’re not a totally useless Avenger.”

“You say the sweetest things,” Clint replies wryly, and then a second voice is heard in the background.

“Tell him to go fuck himself.”

Tony is going to throw something at Bucky Barnes the next time he sees him, something heavy with sharp corners. “You!” he hisses. “No swearing around the kid. And no more shooting things in the tower whilst he’s here, I can’t believe I’m actually having to lay down ground rules for you-”

He hears Clint sniggering, the sound muffled like he’s got his palm clamped over his mouth.

“Aw, it’s like you don’t trust me,” Bucky says, all faux-hurt. Tony can just imagine the wounded face he’ll be pulling, all big grey eyes and pouty lower lip. Fuck that; it doesn’t work on Steve and it’s not going to work on Tony.

“I thought Arto didn’t like you, anyway,” Tony says.

“He’s gettin’ there,” Bucky says. “Barton asked him if I could come in, talked me up some. Think it’s best if we get along. Gotta be someone here who can handle it if he goes.”

There’s sense in that, Tony has to admit, though it leaves him feeling hollow at the implication that Bucky is there because Steve isn’t. And the fact that Bucky – who is borderline sociopathic most of the time – is making an effort to interact with Arto when Steve isn’t is definitely not reflecting well on Steve.

But then again, Tony thinks despondently, the kid isn’t Bucky’s. Bucky could choose to walk away right now and no-one could say shit about it. 

“Jarvis, pull up the picture Arto drew,” he murmurs, and in the time it takes him to blink the picture is there in front of him, and Clint was right, it is pretty good. There are several ways to identify the figure in the middle of the screen; the blond hair, the star on the chest of the blue uniform, the red and blue shield that's floating in mid air next to the figure. It’s also all in proportion, which is way better than some of the attempts Tony has seen arrive in with the fan mail. There’s even detail added in the form of buckles on the uniform and the red stripes on his torso. The only incongruence is that the Steve in the picture is smiling.

Without letting himself dwell on it, Tony flicks the image out of existence and gets up out of his chair, hitching the sweatpants up as he pads over to the end of the workshop that houses a small counter and refrigerator. He bypasses the refrigerator without even considering the bottled water or juice inside, and instead pulls a bottle of scotch and a glass out of the cupboard beside it.

He takes both back over to his workbench and slumps back down into his chair. He pauses for a moment, exhausted, and then thinks of Arto, curled up asleep in the bottom of the wardrobe.

He straightens up, lacing his fingers together and pushing his hands up above his head, feeling satisfied clicks in his wrists, shoulders and spine. He holds the position for a moment and then flops back down again, rolling his shoulders and reaching for his drink, taking a mouthful and letting the familiar taste sooth his ragged edges.

“Right, baby. Let’s get rolling,” he says, and turns his attention back to the screens. “Add growling and throwing tantrums when ignored to the database, let’s see if we can find an answer.”

Chapter Text

Steve lies awake, and watches the light of the sun slowly creep up over the wall of his room as it rises. He hasn’t slept at all, hasn’t left his room since Tony stormed out yesterday. He feels peculiar; not upset or angry, just like there’s a lead weight sat in the pit of his stomach. He doesn’t feel a lot at all. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been three days since they went on that mission to answer the distress call. It feels like a lifetime.

Either you’ve got a lousy sense of self-worth, Steve Rogers, or you think very little of me.

The words echo in his head and he can’t shake them, can’t get rid of the tone that snaps through his mind like a whiplash, cold and cutting. He knows exactly which option it is; he thinks the world of Tony, and he doesn’t get how Tony could think otherwise- 

Because I’m a coward, he thinks for the hundredth time. He’s a coward who doesn’t face up to his feelings, who doesn’t talk about how he feels when it really matters. It’s making him doubt his earlier conclusions about why Tony was choosing to talk about them as well – maybe it’s not just because of Arto. Maybe the words have always been there, and now that their relationship is being strained by Arto’s appearance, Tony felt that he should confirm what he’d always thought-

Fuck, he just doesn’t know

He slowly rolls over onto his side, blinking as his eyes become accustomed to being directly in the light. He scratches absently at his sternum, breathing out deeply and deciding that if he’s going to start putting this right, he needs to start sooner rather than later.

“Jarvis, where are Tony and – and Arto?”

He stumbles over the name, unsure of how it feels on his tongue. It’s so hard; all he thinks of when he sees the kid is himself. In a way it’s hard to acknowledge that the kid is more than just a clone of himself, that he’s his own person. 

“Sir is asleep in his workshop, and Arto is sleeping in the wardrobe in his room.”

Steve presses the heel of his palm to his forehead. “Great, that’s two people I’m supposed to be responsible for sleeping in places they shouldn’t be.”

Jarvis, quite tellingly, doesn’t answer.

Steve pushes himself up into a sitting position, shoving his pillows and blankets out of the way and then reaching over his shoulder to carefully prod at the bullet wound. It’s all but gone, just as he expected, and he lets his fingers rub absently over the smooth skin.

“Is,” Steve begins, and shakes himself as he falters again. “Is Arto by himself?” 

“Agent Barton is with him,” Jarvis says without inflection.

“Maybe Clint shout adopt him,” Steve says without any real seriousness behind the words, rubbing his hand up over the back of his head. 

“The criminal and legal records of the rest of the Avengers would render them ineligible as adoption candidates,” Jarvis says matter-of-factly, and Steve’s hand stills. “In fact, were you not technically Arto’s biological father then there is a high probably that child services would not allow him to stay. That is, if you do decide to accept Arto as your child and allow him to stay.”

Somehow, hearing it from Jarvis is a thousand times worse than hearing it from Tony or anyone else. Jarvis is the smartest thing Steve has ever known but he’s still only a machine, numbers and algorithms and learned sensitivity to the human condition. He doesn’t really have emotions, he isn’t invested like they all are. He just states it as it is, and hearing it so simply makes the bottom drop out of Steve’s stomach. If it’s that simple, then why can’t he just fucking do it?

He gets up, unwilling to sit there with his thoughts any longer. He dresses quickly, and then heads out of his quarters and to the elevator. An unavoidable part of him wants to see Tony, so Steve can be reassured he’s okay, because even when Tony is pissed beyond reason at him, Steve still has to know he’s safe. It’s a compulsion he’s long since given up on battling against.

“Workshop, please Jarvis.”

He half expects Jarvis to inform him that his access rights have been revoked, but Jarvis simply replies ‘yes Captain,’ and sends the elevator down.

The workshop is dim when he gets down there, the only light coming from an array of holographic screens that surround Tony’s desk. Tony himself is also at his desk, slumped in the chair and clearly fast asleep. The blue light plays beautifully over his face, and Steve feels his stomach dip. 

He pads slowly closer, unwilling to wake him. When he’s near enough to see the faint shadow of Tony’s eyelashes against his skin he stops, aching to reach out and touch. He won’t though; he’s pretty sure Tony is still going to be furious with him, and he’s still not quite over his own anger at Tony, either. Yeah, he’s made some pretty shitty calls in the past few days, but Tony has been overbearing and demanding and hasn’t even stopped to think what this is like for anyone else- 

Besides, he doesn’t even know if he has the right to touch Tony anymore. 

Steve looks away from Tony’s face up at the screens, unable to watch him any longer.  He blinks and quickly realises what Tony has been doing down here – trying to find answers about Arto and the way he’s behaving. He takes a careful step forwards and reaches out to pull up one of the screens. It’s an article entitled ‘Treatment for Impulsive Aggression in Children and Adolescents: An Open Pilot Study,’ and looks to be the findings from a clinical drugs trail. A pang goes through him but he flicks his fingers to open another. This one has the heading ‘the role of attachment in the early development of disruptive behaviour problems.’ A third is ‘disorganized infant attachment classification as a predictor of hostile‐aggressive behaviour in the preschool classroom.’

For a moment, Steve feels completely overwhelmed. This is something he knows nothing about, and it scares the hell out of him. He swipes his fingers through another screen, reading ‘subtyping aggression in children and adolescents,’ and starts to feel anxiety twisting sharply in his stomach because he’s been through four screens and he’s already drawn the conclusion that there could be countless explanations for Arto’s behaviour, that he could have something seriously wrong with him and he wouldn’t even know where to start to fix it.

He opens up one last screen. His eyes catch on the words trauma and abuse , and he has to step away, his hands clenching unconsciously into fists. God, he hates Hydra, hates them with every fibre of his being. To put a child through god-knows what just to try and achieve their warped visions-

He makes himself stop, breathing out carefully. Now is not the time to be getting angry about Hydra, no matter how strongly he feels about their latest ventures. He can only hold onto the thought that they have to take down the remnants of Hydra in this universe before they get to the stage they were in Arto’s.

Tony’s breath catches in his chest and he twitches in his sleep, forehead creasing in a frown for a moment before he relaxes again. Steve watches him, waiting to see if he’s going to wake up, but Tony simply shifts and sleeps on. Steve leaves him there, stepping away and leaving the workshop in silence.

He steps into the elevator and just has to take a moment, leaning forwards with his hands braced on the wall and his head dipped low, shoulders tense. His hands tremble and he curls them into fists, dampening down on an urge to punch the wall until his knuckles are raw and bloody. Fuck what he thought about this being like dealing with the Winter Soldier; this is worse because he knows what to do but this time he’s not sure he can. Everyone else seems to be perfectly able to tell him what he should be doing, but have they actually paused for one goddamn minute to help?

He supposes they have, he thinks wearily, straightening up and rubbing at his eyes with a grimace. They’ve helped the kid, even if he doesn’t feel like there’s anyone helping him, and at the end of the day it’s the kid who’s most important.

God, it’s all such a mess.

He heads to the roof, wanting to get some fresh air and try and shake the pressure he feels. He’s glad that Tony is down in the workshop, because half the roof is visible from the penthouse, and that half includes all his favourite spots to sit. The entire space has become the tower’s unofficial Avenger brooding spot; all of them frequent the roof whenever things get stressful or they want peace and quiet. Natasha and Bruce tend to head to the upper levels, out of sight of the penthouse windows; Thor prefers to stand on the end of Tony’s landing pad, suspended out over the city below; Clint and Bucky are both lunatics and usually end up perched precariously on the metal bars that hold the A in place on the side of the tower. Steve just goes wherever his feet take him.

He heads out through the penthouse, stamping down on the urge to look into the bedroom as he does, only stopping to scoop up a tablet on the way. Holding it held securely in hand, he leaves through the sliding glass door, out into the fresh air and sunlight. He instinctively bypasses the deck and instead walks to sit on the edge of the landing pad, feet dangling off into space. It’s so high that it still gives him a thrill every time he looks down, but it’s also strangely relaxing, being up above the bustle of the world below.

He rests the tablet on one of his thighs and turns it on with a sweep of his fingers. He hesitates for a moment. “Jarvis, you gonna let me have surveillance?”

“That depends on where you wish to look, Captain,” Jarvis’s voice replies through the speaker on the tablet.

“Arto’s room.”

Immediately, a video feed springs open on the tablet, two different camera angles.  In both, Steve can see Clint who is fast asleep and sprawled out in an armchair, slouched so far down it’s a wonder he hasn’t fallen onto the floor. The bed is empty, but Steve’s sharp eyes spot Arto in the second video feed; he’s curled up in the bottom of the wardrobe atop a tangle of bedding, the top half of his face just visible. 

He looks peaceful and calm and Steve finds he’s glad. The kid hasn’t slept properly since he got here, and Steve knows that tiredness is probably attributing to how unmanageable he’s being.  Though maybe a night spent in a wardrobe doesn’t count as proper rest anyway, Steve thinks with a grimace. He supposes it’s better than nothing.

The wind ruffles his hair and he feels his anger and frustration fading as he watches the video feed. Christ, the kid is just so small and vulnerable and looking after him is going to be the biggest job Steve has ever undertaken, and it’s not one that’s ever going to end. As Steve watches, Arto shifts and rolls over, mouth open and hair mussed over his forehead. Even over the video feed Steve can see a smudge of dirt or god-knows what on his forehead and thinks it’s high time someone shoved the kid into a bath. Steve smiles ruefully as he thinks about the effort it always took to get him in a bath when he was eight or nine; he just remembers hating being damp and cold afterwards, and would do pretty much everything he could to avoid bath-night. God, he hopes Arto isn’t the same.

The thought makes him pause. Will Arto actually be anything like him? How much will genetics dictate, and how much will be down to the way he’s been raised, the environment in which he’s grown up?

Behind him, the soft swoosh of the door opening draws his attention.  He automatically thinks Tony and his heart skips, but he turns around to see Natasha walking towards him with a mug in each hand. She’s wearing a pair of sweatpants and a hooded top that looks like one of Clint’s, and her hair is tied back loosely, strands blowing across her face in the breeze.

“Morning,” she says softly, padding over and sitting down next to him. She sets one of the mugs down next to his hip and crosses her legs, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you not have enough adrenaline in your life already?” she asks, gesturing to where he’s sitting.

Steve laughs and shifts around so he’s facing her, mirroring her cross-legged pose. “It’s strangely relaxing,” he says, and picks up the mug. “Thanks.”

“Coulson’s team think they’ve found another Hydra cell,” she says without preamble, sipping at her own drink. “They’re gathering information and then I think they'll want some of us to go in with them.”

“Where?”

“Eighty kilometres north of Bucharest,” she says, and Steve groans. He was expecting another site to appear on American soil, and it's a blow to hear that the threat is potentially spread across continents.

“Really?”

“You don’t have to go,” Natasha says, and Steve nods understanding. He wrinkles his nose, looks up out over the City again, eyes absently passing over the tip of the Baxter Building. 

“I want to go. I’m the best man to be there, and I want to follow through and finish it, make sure it’s finished,” he says, and looks back down, eyes immediately going to the small sleeping figure he can see on the video feed. “But if I have to stay here, then I gotta stay.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Wow, I was expecting more arguing.”

Steve shakes his head. “I know I’ve got to be here for him,” he says, and then under her patient gaze forces the words out. “I just don’t know how.” 

“Yet,” Natasha says simply, and Steve looks up at her. She smiles quietly at him and he smiles weakly back, wishing he had words for how much her quiet support means. She seems to understand without him having to find the words, and reaches out to gently touch his cheek.

“Don’t let him push you,” she warns, and Steve huffs out a depreciating laugh, knowing exactly who she’s talking about.

“I’ll always let him push me,” Steve says with a one-shouldered shrug. “Just wish he knew that, instead of, I don't know. Pushing in all the wrong ways, I guess.”

“Have you ever told him that?”

Steve swallows, feeling his throat click as he does. “Don’t think we’ve ever told each other the stuff that really matters,” he says, and reaches up to rub at his forehead again. “And now I’m not even sure if we’re reading the same book, let alone on the same damn page.”

Natasha doesn’t reply, but Steve doesn’t really know what he’d do with any advice concerning Tony anyway. He’d much rather be given advice on how to deal with a kid that he never planned on having, though doesn’t know if Natasha is really the person to be asking. Hell, he wouldn't bet on any of the Avengers having solid advice about child-rearing to be quite frank, considering their plethora of issues and their pasts.

“So,” she says several long minutes later, eyes on the tablet that’s still propped on Steve’s knee. "He's a cute kid."

Steve can't disagree with that; he nods, unconsciously rubs his thumb over the image of Arto, inadvertently enlarging the picture under his touch. “Who are you and what have you done with Natasha Romanov?” he replies, and she reaches out and shoves at his shoulder.

“Hey, I might be maternal,” she says with an arched eyebrow.

“You might be a lot of things,” Steve replies. “Guess we’ll never know.”

She smiles at that, a mischievous quirk of her lips. “Guess you won’t,” she says. “Not until Hydra decide I’m worth cloning, anyway.”

“Don’t,” Steve groans, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t be worth cloning if I wasn’t Captain America.”

“I don’t know,” Natasha replies, taking a delicate sip of her coffee. “The world could probably do well from having a few additional Steve Rogers on board.”

Steve is a little taken aback, but smiles all the same. “Thanks,” he says, and then glances at her again, hoping she won't think any less of him for what he's about to ask. “What do you think I should do?”

“Remember that being honest doesn’t always mean not lying,” Natasha says somewhat cryptically. “And maybe consider that if you were to ever have a child of your own…one that could withstand the inevitable kidnappings might actually be your best bet.”

Steve’s jaw drops and he looks up at her. “What do you mean, inevitable?” he asks, oscillating between appalled and dismayed.

She shrugs, looking supremely unconcerned. “You’re Captain America,” she simply says. “They’ll always try and take what’s yours, super-soldier or not.”

“Kidnapping, right,” Steve mutters to himself and drags a hand over his face, though he can’t help but think maybe she’s got a point. It’s not even remotely comforting, to think that any child of his would be an instant target…but would it make Arto any more of a target if people knew he had the serum locked away in his cells?

Yes, is Steve’s immediate response, but he also soberly acknowledges that Arto would be more able to cope with anything happening, purely because of his strength and the healing properties the serum has given him-

“Steve?”

Her voice is soft and questioning, a gentle intrusion into his thoughts. “Just thinking,” he says somewhat absently. “I guess that means I’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t get kidnapped.”

Natasha smiles like he’s finally said the right thing. “Guess we all will,” she says, and salutes him with her coffee mug in a gesture that reminds Steve forcibly of Bucky. She turns her face up towards the sun and closes her eyes, and Steve feels gratitude roll through him like a balm, easing some of his fears.

Still wish it could be Tony, Steve thinks with an aching pang in his chest. He tries to ignore it and picks up the tablet again, eyes staying fixed on the curled up figure in the bottom of the wardrobe.

 


 

Tony wakes up with an aching neck and back, and it takes him a moment to realise he’s fallen asleep at his workbench. Grimacing, he sits up and rubs at his neck, trying to dispel the dull pain. It’s been ages since he fell asleep down here; he’s pulled some all-nighters but these days he usually makes it up into his bed to sleep. But then again, these days he normally has Steve in his bed as well, and that hasn’t occurred since they got back from the rescue mission. 

He rubs at his face with his hands and sits up straight in his chair, and then frowns as he looks up at the screens suspended in the air in front of him. There are a couple open that he recognises as articles that he’s already read, and he’s sure he hadn’t re-opened them. 

“J, has someone been messing with my screens?” he asks, voice thick with the tell-tale roughness of early morning. “Did you re-open these for a reason?”

“Captain Rogers came down to the workshop at thirteen minutes past five,” Jarvis tells him, and Tony stills, anger twisting in the pit of his stomach, ugly and raw. “He opened some of the screens.”

“Did he read them?”

“Not fully,” Jarvis says. “He was here for a few minutes, no more.”

Tony huffs out an irritated noise, slumping back in his chair. “What’s he playing at, skulking around like that? If he wanted to know something he should fucking well ask.”

Jarvis doesn’t answer, but Tony didn’t really expect him to. You avoidant, stubborn dick, he thinks viciously, and almost asks Jarvis to revoke Steve’s codes so he can’t get into the workshop anymore. Somewhere under the anger is fear that Tony recognises and hates; as every minute passes, Tony is more and more convinced that Steve isn’t going to say yes to this after all.

The thought of losing Arto cuts Tony like a knife, a sharp swell of pain that he physically feels in his stomach. God, he’s already so attached to the little brat – and he doesn’t care why or how, because it doesn’t change the fact that he wants him to stay. 

“Where’s Arto?”

“Still asleep. Agent Barton is still in the room and is also asleep.”

“Okay, let me know when he wakes up,” Tony instructs, and makes his way out of the workshop. He debates going up to the penthouse and crawling into bed for a couple of hours of proper sleep, but he isn’t sure he’ll be able to sleep with how tightly wound he now feels. Besides, he wants to be awake when Arto gets up. His brain is still full of all the things he’s learned and read, and he wants to see if any of it fits with Arto. Maybe if he’s in a more plaint mood Tony will be able to talk to him. He needs to know more about how Arto was looked after – if it can be even called that – back in the labs, and the only way he’s ever going to know is from Arto himself. He’s not going to bank on it though, but it might be worth a try.

With that in mind, he mentally scraps the option of going back to bed and instead heads over to the cupboards that are in the corner of the workshop, pulling out a clean change of clothes from the stash he has hidden for when he’s either spent far too long in the same clothes or wrecked an item of clothing beyond repair.

“Where the fuck is Steve, anyway?” Tony asks Jarvis as he gets dressed, pulling on his own clothes and leaving Steve's sweats abandoned on the floor of the workshop. “Hiding in his room?”

“Hiding on the roof,” Jarvis corrects. “He’s-”

“No, I don’t care,” Tony interrupts, feeling glad that he didn’t go up to the penthouse if Steve is on the roof. “Whatever he’s doing I don’t care.”

“Sir-”

“No, Jarvis,” Tony says firmly. “Protocol ‘stop talking about Captain fucking America’ is still in effect.”

Jarvis sighs. “As you wish.”

And Tony grits his teeth because he remembers when Steve had first heard Jarvis say that, how his face had lit up and he’d laughed, saying ‘hey, I get that reference.’  Tony had rolled his eyes so hard it had hurt, and Steve had just laughed and laughed and Tony realised that Steve was winding him up on purpose and kissed him to shut him up.

Knowing that Steve isn’t there means that Tony is happy to head to the communal kitchen in search of coffee. Yawning and scratching his chin, he slouches into the kitchen and finds the only other person who hates mornings as much as he does at the counter, scowling at a mug like it’s offended his mother.

“Morning, sunshine.”

Bucky lifts his scowl to Tony, and then he wordlessly twists around and grabs the coffee pot and a mug. He pours a drink and then shoves the mug across the counter towards Tony. A little wary, Tony narrows his eyes and then walks over to take the offered drink.

“What is this, the breakfast meeting of the totally fed up of this shit club?” Tony asks, and Bucky snorts with tired laughter, the scowl relaxing marginally.

“You could say that,” he says, as Tony slides onto one of the stools and reaches for the mug of coffee with a nod of thanks. It’s a little strange; he and Bucky don’t usually hang out unless Steve is with them. It’s not that Tony doesn’t like the guy; he’s got a wicked sense of humour that Tony genuinely appreciates, and when he’s not being a belligerent dick with a shitty attitude he can be pretty fun.

They sit in silence for a few moments, drinking their coffee. Tony watches Bucky for a while, eyes on the join between arm and shoulder and absently wondering how much time it would take to completely replace the plating in the socket-

“He doesn’t get shot just to piss you off, you know.”

Tony stops mid swallow, managing not to cough on his drink by a very thin margin. He puts his mug down and turns to Bucky, but Bucky is staring down at his own drink, expression contemplative.

“I’m not mad at him for getting shot,” he says slowly, frowning at Bucky.

Bucky matches the frown with one of his own. “You seemed pretty mad.”

“Are we really doing this?” Tony asks flatly. “Are we really having this conversation?”

Bucky doesn’t seem remotely abashed. He just shrugs, takes a swallow of his coffee. “He’s my best friend,” he says unapologetically, and then, “are you two going to be okay?”

“There is no us two,” Tony hears himself say, and he immediately wishes he could take the words back. The way Bucky’s face falls makes him wish even more fiercely.

“Wait, what?”

“Cap ain’t interested,” Tony shrugs, picking up his drink and turning away. “Not in it for the long haul.”

Bucky’s mouth literally drops open, his bottom jaw going slack. “Are you actually fucking kidding me right now?” he says, gearing up for another bout of patented Barnes-indignant-rage. “You’re talking about Steve Rogers.”

“Yes, and Steve Rogers either is not serious about me or doesn’t think that I am serious about him, which sucks either way you look at it,” Tony snaps back. “And if you dare say a word to him about any of this, I will throw Barton out of this tower.”

Bucky looks taken aback for a moment, sufficiently –albeit momentarily – distracted. “Why would you throw Barton out?”

Tony sighs, rubbing at his forehead and suddenly feeling tired. “Because you wouldn’t give a shit if I threw you out, but you’d be all sad if you had no more Barton to play with.”

Bucky just stares at him. “Do you even hear the things that come out of your mouth?”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Tony shrugs, and Bucky scoffs.

“Please, he’d be fine by himself. And at least I could buy a packet of Oreos without that punk eating half. Anyway, he’s the best babysitter you got, you can’t throw him out.”

“I know,” Tony grimaces. “Not entirely sure how that panned out. I wouldn’t have had Barton pegged as someone who is good with kids.”

“It’s because he’s a giant ten year old,” Bucky says with a shrug.

“Quite possibly,” Tony agrees, and then drains his mug and sets it back down on the counter. “Right, I’m going to go-”

“Sir,” Jarvis interrupts, sounding apologetic. “It appears that Arto is waking up.”

Tony nods. “Okay, change of plan, going to make sure the brat doesn’t beat Barton up.”

“Get me a picture,” Bucky calls as Tony leaves the room.

When he gets to Arto’s room he tiptoes in quietly, not wanting to startle anyone. He spots Clint first; he’s slouched down in the armchair that’s by the window, chin nearly touching his chest, elbow on the arm and fist propping up his head. Edging further into the room, Tony smiles weakly as he spots Arto, curled up in the bottom of the built in wardrobe. The mirrored door is slid back, and Arto is easily visible amidst the tangle of blankets and pillows that he’s dragged in with him. Even as Tony watches, he yawns and lifts a small fist to rub sleepily at his eyes.

“Hey, little one,” Tony says, sitting on the edge of the bed so Arto is in sight. Arto twists around immediately but seems to relax when he spots it’s Tony, yawning again and blinking at him sleepily. He slips three of his fingers into his mouth, and Tony isn’t quite sure if that’s disgusting or cute or both.

“He awake?” a rough voice says from behind him, and Tony glances over to see Clint’s eyes are open.

“Yeah, mostly,” Tony replies, and Clint pushes himself up into a sitting position, reaching up and stretching. His back clicks audibly and he groans in relief, before planting his hands on the arms of the chair and heaving himself up and out of it. “Coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. Back in a bit, short round. Coffee.”

Arto lifts his eyes and watches Clint walk out of the room. Tony braces himself but Arto simply sighs and burrows back down into his blankets, though his eyes stay visible, bright blue and fixed on Tony.

“Wanna come out?” Tony asks. “If you stay in the wardrobe people might think you’re crazy.”

Arto lifts his head again, fingers still in his mouth. Tony holds out a hand, and Arto looks around the room and then nods. He slowly clambers out of the wardrobe and makes a beeline for Tony, grasping hold of his hand and allowing himself to be pulled up onto Tony’s knee.

“You like sitting with people, huh?” Tony asks as Arto curls up, sitting sideways on his lap and tucking his head under Tony’s chin.

Arto shakes his head, but reaches out and fists the fabric of Tony’s shirt in one small hand. It’s covered in dirt and Tony mentally notes to get the kid washed up at some point today. Arto shifts restlessly on Tony’s lap, and as he turns his head his chin catches against the edge of the arc-reactor. Frowning, he pulls his fingers out of his mouth and curiously pokes at Tony’s chest, fingers tracing around the rim of the reactor.

“Light,” he says inquisitively, and he twists around so he can use both hands, pressing his hands to Tony’s chest and framing the edge of the arc-reactor with his thumbs and forefingers, pressing Tony’s shirt flush against it. “I like your light.”

“Good,” Tony says. “It’s a marvel of engineering, you should like it.”

Arto scrunches his nose up, evidently not following.

“I made it,” Tony says. “That’s what engineering is, when you think of something amazing and build it all yourself.”

“Why?”

“Because my heart wasn’t working so great. Now it is,” Tony explains simply. Arto cocks his head for a moment and then nods, apparently satisfied with the explanation.

“Right. Let’s go find Clint and breakfast.”

“No,” Arto says, shaking his head, and then says, “Steve.”

Tony feels his insides churn, the anger evidently not quite as gone as he’d assumed. “Steve isn’t about,” he says. “You’ll have to put up with me and Clint for now.”

Arto shakes his head again. “Steve.”

Frustration wells up in Tony’s gut, and he distractedly thinks that it’s almost like he and Steve got divorced and are having to share the damn kid. A part of him wants to take Arto straight to Steve now, to give him what he wants, but another uglier part of him doesn’t want Arto anywhere near Steve when he’s being like this.

“Breakfast and then we’ll find Steve,” he says, and Arto whines and kicks his feet restlessly. Tony curses internally because if Arto decides to have a tantrum about it he might have to fetch Steve and then he’ll think that he can get Steve anytime he wants just by pitching a fit-

“Steve is just doing some jobs,” he lies. “Come on. Breakfast and then we’ll find him, no kicking or I’ll have to get Bucky to come pin your feet down.”

Arto shakes his head violently. “No.”

“Well then no temper tantrum about it, you know you’re stronger than me and I don’t want to be hurt this morning,” Tony says frankly. "You play nice with me or I fetch Bucky."

Arto scowls, his feet still swinging back and forth. The petulant frown is so like the one Steve wears when he’s tired and annoyed, but Tony is past finding it endearing. He’s got a big problem here and he knows it; the kid still obviously has a thing for Steve but if Steve doesn’t want anything to do with him, then he’s going to have to work something else out. Fuck, if Steve had just stepped up from the start then they wouldn’t be having this problem at all.

“Come on,” Tony says, and picks Arto up and sets him on the floor. “Lucky Charms for you, coffee for me.”

Taking a gamble, he stands up and walks towards the door, and to his relief Arto follows him. Tony glances back over his shoulder every now and again, but Arto follows without further objection or complaint.

Remembering what Jarvis had said about Arto objecting to the elevator the previous day, Tony takes the stairs instead. It’s an interesting choice, because Arto decides that walking is apparently for losers and hops up the stairs on one leg. Somewhere between amused and exasperated, Tony watches him with eagle-eyes as Arto hops easily up each step. “So, just out of curiosity. Why do you like Steve?”

Arto doesn’t look up, face a mask of concentration as he bends and hops up another step, arms thrown out for balance. “He’s the strongest.”

Tony pauses, hand on the bannister. “You like him because he’s the strongest,” Tony repeats back at him, and it’s hard to keep the scepticism out of his voice.

“Doctor Enyo says stronger is better,” Arto says and hops up the last three steps in quick succession. Tony immediately reaches to steady him but there’s no need; Arto straightens up and carries on walking. “S’why I have to do exercises every day because it makes me stronger.”

The snippet of information is more telling than Arto intended, and Tony jumps on it immediately. “They made you do exercise every day?”

"Yeah.”

“Like what?”

“Running,” Arto says. “On a thing. It moves and I keep running.”

“A treadmill,” Tony supplies, and Arto nods.

“Running and lifting and exercises,” Arto says, stretching his hands above his head. “Like this.”

“Did you like exercising?” Tony asks neutrally and Arto nods.

“Not Doctor Sampson,” he says. “He did tests and stuff.”

“Medical tests? Like checking your heart and how your body is working, things like that?”

Arto nods again, and Tony notices how he curls his arms up, pressing the insides of his arms to his chest. The move is so defensive that Tony could cry, and he mentally notes that if they ever have to do a blood test on Arto, they’ll have to sedate him first.

“Was it just doctors there?” Tony asks, and he’s hoping that Arto will keep talking because this is the exact kind of thing that he needs to know to make sense of Arto and his behaviour.

"No. Doctors and Eleanor. She brought me food and my clothes and stuff.”

“Eleanor. Nice name. Was she nice?”

Arto doesn’t answer the question. “Isn’t my Mom,” he says, like it’s an important distinction to make. Maybe to him, it is.

“Did you know your Mom?”

“No,” Arto says and then looks around him, eyes lighting up. “I know where we are.”

 "You remember from yesterday?”

Arto nods and quickens his pace a little, but stops when they reach the end of the corridor, where it widens out into the communal space. Tony catches up a step later and spots the reason for Arto’s sudden halt; Bucky is still there, sat at the kitchen counter and now reading a file, frowning down at it. He glances up irritably when he hears them approach, and then his expression softens a little.

“Morning, short round,” he says, looking back down at the files. “What did you do to Barton, did you beat him up? Is he crying in a corner somewhere?”

Arto narrows his eyes like he can’t quite work Bucky out. “No,” he says slowly, and then looks up to Tony as if he can help make sense of the strange man with the metal arm.

“Barton said he was coming to get coffee,” Tony says and wanders into the kitchen, deciding that the best approach is to just act normal and hope that Bucky doesn't do anything to freak Arto out. “Apparently he got lost on the way.”

He reaches out to open the fridge and pauses as he feels a thump at his hip. Arto is there next to him, grabbing hold of the counter and climbing up, using the sleek chrome drawer handles as footholds. He scrambles up easily but with a remarkable lack of finesse, and stands up on the counter, reaching for the cupboard that Tony suspects has cereal in.

“Hey, hey, no standing on the counters,” Tony says. “My common sense is tingling, you are not supposed to be up here.”

“Barton lets him,” Bucky calls from his perch at the island.

“Barton lets me,” Arto crows and pulls the cupboard open, liberating a box of Lucky Charms. Tony takes them from him and turns to set them on the island counter, before turning back to watch with amusement that he probably shouldn’t show as Arto walks the length of the counter, opening another cupboard and holding out a bowl.  Tony takes it from him and sets it on the counter next to the cereal and is about to turn to the refrigerator for milk when he spots Arto look from his feet to the island and then back to his feet again in a horribly telling way.

“Arto, no!”

He’s too late; Arto crouches slightly and jumps the gap, landing on the island counter in a sprawl of limbs and nearly sliding straight into Bucky and his paperwork.

“No, no, no jumping, are you trying to give me a heart attack,” he demands as Arto grins and crawls over the counter towards him. Tony reaches for him, one hand on his shoulder and the other pushing his hair back from his forehead and checking for blood and bumps and concussions. “Seriously, small child. No death defying stunts before I’ve had my coffee. Did Barton teach you that?”

“No,” Arto says, and kneels on the counter, pulling back and reaching for the box of Lucky Charms, which he promptly upends all over the counter. Bucky makes a choked sound as he bites back a laugh and Tony just stares, mouth hanging slightly open.

“Why,” he begins, expression pained. “Why did you get a bowl if you’re going to eat off the counter like some sort of feral creature?”

“Barton says have to have a bowl,” Arto says, and begins picking out the marshmallow pieces from amongst the cereal and dropping them into his bowl.

Tony’s mouth works for a moment. “Well now it all makes perfect sense,” he says, deciding not to take issue with the counter climbing and marshmallow eating, because  if the kid is willing to eat something without being coerced, Tony isn’t going to argue. He pours himself a mug of coffee and leans back against the counter, drinking it slowly whilst watching Arto fish out all the marshmallows, occasionally eating one as he goes.

“You know you will one day have to eat something other than marshmallow,” Tony tells him, and Arto just hums noncommittally and pops another into his mouth before looking up at Tony, uncertain.

“Bathroom,” he says, and Tony nods easily.

“You know where it is? You want to go by yourself or do you need me to come with?”

“Myself,” Arto says, and shimmies to the edge of the counter, dangling his feet off the edge before slipping off. He darts away, and Tony watches him go a tired smile playing around the corner of his mouth. Considering the rocky start, he’s quietly pleased with how Arto’s morning is going so far, and is certainly glad that Arto seems to have forgotten about wanting Steve for now.

“Marshmallows for breakfast, definite A plus parenting there,” Bucky’s sarcastic voice interrupts his thoughts.

“At least I’m here,” he retorts, and Bucky sighs explosively, smacking a hand down on the counter and obviously getting the implication in the words.

“Jesus, can you cut him some slack for like five fucking minutes?” he says, exasperated.

“Can he step up and do the right thing for five minutes?” Tony counters.

“It’s been three days-!”

There’s a noise over by the elevator. Distracted, Tony turns towards it, and the bottom drops out of his stomach as he sees Natasha, Clint and Steve stepping out and walking over. Tony and Bucky both abruptly shut their mouths, though Tony can’t quite smooth out the scowl that he knows is on his face and Bucky is still glaring daggers at him. Steve quite pointedly does not look at Tony, and the atmosphere in the room turns from angry to awkward in three seconds flat.

“Morning,” Natasha says easily, eyes flicking from Bucky to Tony like she knows what’s going on. Of course she does, she always does.

“This report is a piece of shit, Barton,” Bucky says by way of greeting, and Clint replies with a rude gesture before hopping up on the counter next to Bucky and snagging the file. Natasha wanders over to the refrigerator, and Tony watches as Steve walks around the counter to the coffee pot, completely ignoring Tony as he does. Not that Steve would ever usually make a fuss over Tony being there when there were others about, but it’s different now, isn’t it? Shit, if only they knew the fucking rules for it being different, then they might actually get somewhere-

“Steve!”

Steve twists around reflexively at the shout of his name, and Tony watches as Arto re-appears, pelting across the floor towards Steve and skidding to a stop next to him. Arto reaches out and grabs hold of the bottom of Steve’s shirt with both hands, eyes wide and earnest. It cuts Tony to the bone, that Steve has done nothing to earn that look of trust, that he’s going to ship Arto off the first chance he gets and Arto still fucking trusts him just because he’s the strongest.

“Hey,” Steve says uncertainly, and hesitates visibly. Arto pulls at his shirt with one hand, reaching up higher with the other, and Steve looks completely lost.

“He probably wants picking up,” Tony says, and Steve’s head jerks up like the words were a slap. His jaw tightens but he does deign to reach down and lift Arto up, though he sets him on the counter next to him instead of holding him properly. Arto whines wordlessly and pushes at Steve’s shoulder, and Steve again freezes for a moment before he capitulates and takes Arto again, this time holding him on his hip with an arm looped under his legs, easily holding him up. Steve eyes flick up to Tony and the others and there’s a dull pink flush staining his cheekbones, and Tony is trying to work out what the expression is-

A soft beeping noise comes from Natasha’s form and she pulls her phone out of the pocket of her sweats, gently shaking a container full of what looks like a smoothie in her other hand. She looks at the screen, face impassive.

“Briefing at one,” she says. “Steve, me and you. And Coulson says,” she adds, looking over at Bucky and Clint, “that you two need to hand in your reports from Chicago or he’s coming to get them personally.”

“Whoa, whoa, brief for what?” Tony demands, looking at Steve, and he cannot fucking believe it. Anger flares up in him, quick and effortless, and what has Steve done to him to be able to make him so angry so easily? “You are not going anywhere.”

Steve’s expression goes dark like a thundercloud, and Tony spots the brewing temper with vindictive satisfaction. “I will if I’m needed,” he snaps, and then seems to make a physical effort to reign in his anger. “Tony, can we talk-”

“You know what, no,” Tony says, and he’s so angry he’s not even thinking about the words that are tumbling free. “Go. Go on your mission and do whatever you need to do, because you’re doing a lousy job here anyway. Fuck, with everything you’ve been through you’d think you could be a half decent father, but I’m actually starting to think we’ll do better without you anyway.”

Bucky’s chair screeches back and he makes a violent move towards Tony, but Clint grabs him and shoves him back into the chair, an arm around Bucky’s neck in something that’s not quite a headlock but not quite a hug either. “Get off,” he snarls, but Clint yanks him hard and mutters something in his ear; Bucky stops fighting against him but his eyes don’t leave Tony, his stare threatening and downright dangerous.

Steve doesn’t even notice; his mouth falls open and he takes a physical step back away from Tony, his face going blotchy pink and brows drawing tight. His expression literally crumples and Tony feels awful and immediate panic slice through him because fuck, no, no, he expected anger and an argument, retaliatory words, expected that he could push Steve to – to – shit, he doesn’t even know anymore-

“Steve-”

“I gotta go,” Steve says and his voice is shaking violently and he swings Arto back onto the counter. Arto grabs for him and Steve catches both small hands in his.  “I’ll come back in a bit,” he says unsteadily to Arto, meeting his wide gaze and pulling Arto’s hands unconsciously up towards his face. “I’ll come back,” he repeats and then he lets go of Arto’s hands and steps away.

“Steve-” Tony tries, and Steve looks at him with that awful expression on his face. He looks so, so lost and out of his depth and it hits Tony like a ton of bricks. He’s not seen that look on Steve’s face since they realised who the Winter Soldier was, all that time ago, and it hits him in the gut in a painful lurch.

Fuck, Steve isn’t just being stubborn. Steve is scared shitless.

Oh god, he’s fucked this up so badly.

“Steve I’m – Steve! I didn’t mean that,” Tony tries, voice cracking, but Steve is already backing away, running away, shaking his head and looking like he’s four seconds from punching something or bursting into tears. No , Tony wants to tell him. Don’t you dare run, he thinks, but he's too late. Steve is already gone.

 

Chapter Text

“I could fucking kill you, you absolute fucking-!”

Bucky’s explosive tirade is cut off by Clint, who grabs him in another headlock and slaps his palm over his mouth. Bucky immediately attempts to jerks away but Clint holds firm, staggering slightly on one foot as he struggles to keep hold of him.

“Not in front of Short-Round!” Clint insists angrily, and Bucky’s ferocious gaze jerks over towards Arto, as if he’d forgotten he was there. He immediately stops trying to fight free, holding his hands up by his shoulders and looking up at Clint with eyes that are vaguely apologetic. Clint lets him go with a shove, hard enough to rock the stool and Bucky scowls, rubbing his neck.

“Did you hear what he fucking said-?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Someone needs to go after Steve,” Natasha interrupts, raising her voice over the pair of them, and Tony knows he should probably weigh in as well but he can barely grab hold of a single coherent thought out of the multitude that are crashing frenetically around in his brain. “Jarvis, don’t let him leave the tower-”

“I’m afraid Captain Rogers has already requested that I keep the parking garage unlocked and accessible,” Jarvis says. “Only Sir can override his request if he is not in immediate harm-”

“I’m going to get him,” Natasha makes for the door, but Bucky lunges out of his chair and grabs her wrist.

“Don’t,” he says curtly.

“He can’t just leave every time anything gets rough,” Natasha begins, her voice careful and very deliberate, and wow, by the sounds of it Tony isn’t the only one in the firing line.

“I know, I know, I’ll go get him, just let me,” Bucky insists, and she looks at him for a long moment before nodding, though she doesn’t look entirely convinced. Bucky nods back, and then he promptly grabs her and shoves her over away in the opposite direction of the elevator. He puts enough force behind it to send her staggering back several steps, and even though she rights herself within seconds, he’s already at the elevator, sliding in and slapping his hand on the panel.

“James Barnes!” Natasha snarls, but the elevator is already gone. "Zhopa,” she curses, and heads towards the stairs.

“Tasha, don’t!” Clint shouts, and by some miracle she actually listens to him and stops.

“Let them go, Barnes’ll bring him back when he’s ready,” Clint says, and she eyes him tightly for a moment and then nods. Clint nods in return and Tony watches as he then walks over to where Arto is still sitting on the counter, looking from Clint to Tony with wide eyes. He hasn’t so much as moved since Steve walked out, and his eyes are suspiciously bright.

“Alright?” Clint asks, and Arto’s chin trembles, his hands balling into fists. Tony takes a step forwards but Clint is already there, holding out his arms for Arto to scramble into, slipping gracelessly off the edge of the counter and tumbling into Clint’s grip.

“Hey, watch the squeezing,” Clint says as Arto clings to his front with arms around his neck and legs around his middle. “Ow, Jesus. Kid, seriously-”

He tried to shift Arto, his expression pained. Tony and Natasha both step forwards but Clint waves them off. “We’re okay,” he says, breathing in and out more easily now Arto has eased his grip on Clint’s ribs. “Hey, short round. Chin up, and listen to me. Come on, lift up a little-”

He manages to get Arto’s face up enough so he can murmur to him, and Tony can just about make out the words. “This is not your fault,” Clint says to Arto, right into his ear. “Those two morons are fighting with each other, and it’s not because of you, you get that? It’s not your fault, I promise.”

Tony feels a lump in his own throat, tries to find some words. Gives up and listens, instead.

“See, Tony and Steve are two giant idiots who love each other so much they drive each other crazy,” Clint says to Arto, and Tony feels an alarmed wave of something – a thrill of panic, denial and acceptance all rolled into one – spike through him, but Clint doesn’t stop, just hitches Arto up and continues to speak to him. “Sometimes they argue, and they forget to talk properly because they're idiots. But they both want what’s best for you, right?”

Arto moves his head restlessly, feet kicking gently against Clint’s thigh. He makes a noise, but Tony can’t tell whether it’s a word or just noise-

“He’ll come back, he always does,” Clint says, and Tony realises what the sound must have been. “He’s just mad at Tony. Come on, let’s go play computer games until he gets back, yeah?” 

His eyes meet Tony’s for a moment over the top of Arto’s head and Tony feels his gut swoop because Clint doesn’t look angry or even disappointed, he just looks completely neutral, like he’s doing what he’s got to do, like he’s been there countless times before. 

“Fix it, yeah?” he says quietly to Tony, and then takes Arto out of the room without looking back. Part of Tony wants to stop him, to keep Arto with him, but a larger part knows that Clint is doing the right thing.

Good job somebody is.

“He should have let Bucky at you,” Natasha says icily when Arto and Clint are gone, and Tony barely supresses the flinch. “Have you any idea what you’ve just done, how much you’ve just hurt him-?”

“Yes,” Tony cuts over her, voice cracking. “Jesus, yes.

“Do you know what he was doing when I found him on the roof this morning?” Natasha demands and she's possibly even more beautiful when she's furious. “He was sitting there watching the security feed from Arto’s room, just watching him sleeping.”

He didn’t think it was possible, but Tony’s stomach sinks even further. “I didn’t know.” 

“No, you didn’t,” Natasha snaps. “Because you were looking for a grand, Tony-Stark-size gesture, and you missed every little thing he did-”

“I thought he was going to send him away!” Tony shouts back. “Fuck, Nat – he never once said-”

“Neither of you have an excuse,” he says cuttingly. “Neither of you. You have both fucked this up by not listening, by not talking to each other, and you have left that small child in the middle of this mess.”

Tony stares at a spot on the wall, jaw clenched and eyes bright. He doesn’t dare say anything, because he’s afraid that if he opens his mouth he’ll break down completely.

“You two need each other like air,” she says, voice quieter but still like steel, unyielding and not to be ignored. “We’ve always known it, even when you didn’t want to show us. And now that child needs you both. So get it together.”

“I don’t think-”

“You can fix this, and you will,” Natasha interrupts. “You two not working is not an option.”

Tony stares at her, and feels the strained tangle of feelings in his chest abate slowly. He breathes out shakily and then in again, trying to order the torrent of thoughts in his head. He needs to check in with Arto, and he needs to make things right with Steve, and he needs to make sure Bucky Barnes isn’t going to kill anyone-

Steve first.

Going with his instincts, he decides on Steve. Because if he has Steve on side then between them they can work on Arto, and if he has Steve on side then Bucky Barnes is less likely to kill him.

And if he has Steve on side, he thinks with his heart aching, he gets Steve back.

He pulls his phone out his pocket and hits speed dial. Steve's phone goes straight to voicemail and he curses and hangs up, shoving his fingers into his hair and gripping tight. He pauses only for a second and then tries Bucky’s phone. This time it rings and rings and rings and then goes to voicemail.

“Fucking super-soldiers,” he curses, and presses the phone hard against his mouth, contemplative. “Natasha, give me a moment,” he says, words forced out past his phone. “Please.”

She narrows her eyes at him but does deign to step away, heading towards the elevator. Tony breathes out and watches her go, and only when the elevator doors slide shut does he look at his phone again. Part of him still hasn’t forgiven Steve for everything he’s done over the past few days, but he has to wrestle that part down into submission, because Natasha is right; they’ve both fucked up here.

Tony abruptly remembers what he said to Steve yesterday, about Steve either not believing in him or having a low opinion of himself, and he swallows thickly because all evidence now actually points to it being the latter. Eyes feeling far too warm, he hits speed-dial again. 

The phone goes straight to voicemail, and this time Tony doesn’t hang up.

 


 

Steve doesn’t even think. He just takes the stairs, blindly heading down to the garage in the basement of the tower. He’s got to get out, get away. If he doesn’t, he’s going to do or say something he’ll regret for the rest of his life.  

He feels so violently close to tears and he can’t stand it. He hates appearing weak, especially now he’s supposed to lead the Avengers. He knows he’s running away again but he doesn’t care; he needs to get away from the kid, from Tony, from everyone.

In that moment he hates Tony, hates how he can strip him down and ruin him with nothing more than cutting words. He’s never been so vulnerable since he let Tony in, and it hasn’t mattered until now, has never felt like this before. He doesn’t think he even realised it until now.

His keys are in one hand and his boots are in the other; he stops only to shove them onto his feet and then clambers onto his bike, turning the engine on and shoving it forwards, rocking it forwards off the stand. The garage door opens automatically with a soft hum and the clack of metal rollers. Sunlight streams in onto the concrete, glinting off the sleek cars closest to the door.

The bike is on the ramp and the shutter is almost all the way up when Steve hears a thud and running footsteps. He glances over his shoulder and his heart sinks as he sees Bucky racing across the parking garage, a helmet in each hand.  If it were anyone but Bucky, he’d probably gun it and leave them there.

“Don’t even think about it,” Bucky yells as if he knows exactly what Steve was thinking, and he runs up to the bike and vaults easily onto the back behind Steve, just like he used to do. He hits Steve on the shoulder with one of the helmets and Steve pulls a face but obliges and takes it from him, flipping it over and fishing out the straps.

Bucky pulls his own helmet on and Steve braces his legs as Bucky lifts his feet off the floor, his full weight balanced on the bike. One hand grabs the back of Steve’s jacket, and the other settles on his waist, and he squeezes Steve with his knees.

"Natasha’s on the move, go,” he says, before slapping down the visor with a palm, hiding his face from view.

Steve doesn’t need to be told twice. He pulls the helmet on and clips it up, snapping the visor down before gunning the engine and sending the bike screeching up and out into the sunlight. The breeze tugs at his jacket and hands and he inwardly curses the helmet he’s wearing, wishing he could have the fresh air on his face.  Bucky is a warm solid presence behind him, though Steve hasn’t yet decided if it’s a welcome one or not.

He guides the bike quickly and easily through the traffic, heading out of the city. He doesn’t really know where he’s going, he knows he just wants to be away. He loves the city, loves it fiercely and protectively, but right now he just wants to be away from the bustle, away from home.

He drives for well over an hour, moving steadily North-West until the suburbs give way to open space, fields and forests punctuated by small towns. Bucky doesn’t make so much as a sound, just sits back and lets Steve take them away.

It’s nearly two hours before he finally decides to stop, pulling the bike off the main road and onto a more secluded road that’s little more than a track, probably an access road or something similar. A little way along, there’s a space where the trees have been kept back, a small grassy area that’s quiet and still. He rolls the bike off the road and stops, and as he turns the engine off and takes his helmet off all he can hear is Bucky shifting, the wind in the trees and the buzz of insects in the air.

“This is like the start of every horror film I’ve ever watched,” Bucky’s voice says, muffled slightly before he tugs his helmet free. He’s sweating, hair curled damp over his brow and around his ears, and he wipes his wrist over his forehead. He sets the helmet aside and shrugs off his jacket, the sunlight gleaming on his arm. “Two good lookin’ guys alone in the woods, miles from help. Definitely a set-up for murder and gore.”

Steve hasn’t watched any modern horror films, and he knows exactly who is to blame for introducing Bucky to the damn things, but he doesn’t comment. He just kicks the bike’s stand down and climbs off, taking his jacket off and slinging it over the seat of the bike. He turns, not wanting Bucky to see his face right now, walking a few steps away and then sitting down on the grass, dropping his helmet next to him. He can hear running water not too far away as well, maybe a stream or a river.

He hears Bucky moving next to him, the grass swishing against his boots.

“Hey,” Bucky says, voice low. “Steve. You know he didn’t mean it.”

Steve bursts into tears.

He opens his mouth to reply and suddenly he’s crying and he can’t stop it. Humiliation slices him up from the inside and he covers his face with his hand but it’s like he’s shaking apart from his very core, his whole body shuddering with the force of it. Everything he’s tries to ignore comes rushing up, and he has no idea what he’s doing, and he misses Tony so much it hurts , and he’s got to look after this kid, he’s got to be a father and he doesn’t know how. What if he hurts him? What if he fucks it up, and the whole damn world is watching? What if he can’t do it? What if being a father and Captain America doesn’t work, and he lets someone down, someone gets hurt because he’s trying to be both-

Bucky’s metal hand clamps down on his shoulder and squeezes tight.

“I can’t do this,” Steve manages to get out, and Bucky crouches down next to him and pulls Steve around, using the strength in his cybernetic arm to get Steve to move. Steve resists but Bucky is nearly as strong as he is and Steve is in such a mess that he can’t do it for long. He ends up curled over into Bucky, with Bucky holding his head to him, one hand on the back of his head and the other arm over his shoulders, hand fisted in his shirt.

“I got you,” Bucky says calmly and it just makes Steve cry harder. Cool metal fingers stroke the back of his neck and he feels five foot four all over again, bruised and battered and in Bucky’s hands. He coughs, drags his hand down his face and plants it in Bucky’s chest, pushing him back.

 Jesus,” he chokes out. “Sorry.”

“Shut up, jerk,” Bucky rolls his eyes and sits back as Steve takes several deep breaths and pulls himself together. He takes several long minutes of just sitting and focussing on breathing in and out through his mouth, willing his emotions back into some semblance of order.

“Jesus, you do not cry pretty, Rogers,” Bucky says after a long while, and Steve lets out a choked laugh, wiping his fingers under his nose and then rubbing at his eyes with his knuckles.

"I’ve messed it all up, Buck,” he says, voice sounding remarkably steady, though it’s deep and thick with tears. “God, I’ve not done right by any of them. By the kid, by Tony. Not any of you.”

“Don’t be such a sad-sack,” Bucky responds. “This isn’t just on you.”

“But-”

“No,” Bucky says, and jabs a metal finger at him. “This fuck up is on both of you. More on him, actually.”

“Bucky,” Steve tries, tone reigned.

“I will kill him if he ever talks to you like that again,” Bucky says calmly.

“Bucky,” Steve says again, but Bucky just stares belligerently back. Steve sighs, rubs at his aching temples. “Please don’t kill him. You said he didn’t mean it, anyway.”

Bucky pulls a face. “I don’t think he did,” he grudgingly admits. “I think he was mad at you avoiding everything and lashed out.”

Steve feels the anxiety and fear bubbling in his chest again, his eyes feeling far too warm. “Didn’t know how else to deal with it,” he admits. He thinks of the vicious look on Tony’s face when he’d said those cruel words, thinks about Arto crying and punching him in the shoulder, trying to wrest free from his grip. Thinks about Tony sleeping in the workshop with the blue glow of the screens on his face, and Arto curled up in the bottom of the wardrobe.

“I don’t feel anything, Buck,” Steve confesses, and the words feel like they’re being dragged out of him under duress. He drags his fingers through the grass, feeling some of it rip up beneath his fingers as he forces himself to keep talking. “With the kid. I just look at him and think Christ, why has this happened?”

Bucky is silent for a long moment. “You’re freaking out because you didn’t go all paternal the minute you clocked eyes on the kid?”

“Amongst other things, yeah.”

“Okay, you need to stop reading dime-store romance novels and watching rom-coms,” Bucky says matter-of-factly. “Love isn’t always this magical thing that goes smooth, or comes in a rush. You have to work for it. It’s not fun and easy, if it were we’d all be singing and dancing and life would be all rainbows and goddamn sparkles.”

“Yeah, I can totally imagine you singing about rainbows and sparkles.”

“That’s my point, asshole,” Bucky scowls. “Look at me. Look at Barton, look at Stark. Hell, look at all the Avengers. Look at ninety percent of the population. We’ve all landed our asses in trouble because of love, because it’s not easy. It’s hard.”

“Then why bother?”

“Because it’s fucking worth it when you get there, you meatball,” Bucky says, twisting around and leaning back on his elbow, crossing his legs at the ankle.  “God, I can’t believe I’m having to give you this speech. Look – so what that you didn’t feel love for this kid the moment you saw him. Who the fuck cares? But it ain’t gonna happen with you a hundred miles away from him. Give it a few weeks. Hell, give it a few months. Give it a fucking year, but I know you and I know you’ll get there. One day you’ll look at him and feel so much fucking love you’ll forget you ever didn’t.”

Steve stares at Bucky for a moment and then reaches over and grabs him around the neck, pulling him close enough so that he can wrap both arms around his shoulders and squeeze him tight. Bucky lets out an indignant squawk, trying to wriggle free and protesting violently.

“Christ, Rogers, get off! Aw, come on, Steve-”

Bucky’s protesting turns into laughter as Steve simply tips them backwards, so they  end up on the ground in an untidy sprawl of tangled limbs, Steve’s face buried in the back of Bucky’s shoulder.

“You really think?” Steve asks, voice muffled. He can feel both the warmth of Bucky’s skin and the cool edge of metal against his face, but he doesn’t mind. The weight on his heart seems to have eased slightly, everything seeming slightly less daunting than it did before.

“I’m right,” Bucky says, as self-assured as he was back in forty-one, all confidence and swagger. “Look, I love your punk ass even though you’re a self-righteous pain. Stark loves you even though you’ve screwed up big time.”

Steve goes still for a second, before rolling away from Bucky and staring up at the sky above him, stomach tightening again.

“What?”

“Just,” Steve says, blinking. “Tony.”

“I literally have no idea how you two make that train-wreck work, so don’t ask me,” Bucky says. “But I do know he says you are more out than in at the moment, so you must have fucked up somewhere.”

Steve nods, not even bothering to deny it. “He tried to talk to me about – about us.”

“And you did something stupid?”

Steve winces. “May have assumed he was only bringing it up because of the kid?”

Bucky groans, shaking his head. “You’re an idiot. You’re the biggest idiot I know, and I know Barton.”

Steve scowls at Bucky. “Gee, thanks.”

“Telling it like it is,” he says with a shrug.

Steve lifts an arm, covers his eyes. “He’s so mad at me,” he says tonelessly. “I’ve never – he’s never thought so bad  of me.”

“So what? Lovers spat. You can always fix it.”

Steve sighs, sits up and rests his elbows on his knees. “It’s not that easy." 

“Like hell it isn’t,” Bucky insists. “Steve, you basically found out you’re a father, with no warning. Under those circumstances you’re allowed to make bad decisions. Hell, if Tony had found out he was a daddy he’d have been on the first jet outta here. He probably wouldn’t even have waited for a jet, he woulda Iron-Manned his way out.”

Steve laughs again, short and full of self-depreciation. “He seems to have stepped up to looking after this kid just fine.”

“That’s because the kid looks like you and he’s in love with you, dumbass.”

For a moment, Steve wonders if he’s going to start crying all over again. “You reckon?" 

He jerks forwards, startled as Bucky smacks him around the back of the head, just hard enough for it to hurt. He twists around, looking at Bucky indignantly and rubbing the back of his head. “Hey, what the hell?”

“Stop avoiding things,” Bucky says, despairing. “You’re telling me you never acknowledged that Stark is quite clearly balls over ass in love with you?”

“Balls over ass, I can really see that turn of phrase catching on.”

“Stop with the sarcasm too,” Bucky says shortly. “Stop avoiding, man up and accept that Stark loves you, and that you’re going to turn that bike around, go home and do right by that kid." 

Steve nods jerkily and shut his eyes for a long moment. He shifts his weight more evenly onto his back and puts his free hand under his head as a pillow. Bucky shifts so he’s propped up on his elbows again, leaning back and still close enough to Steve that their arms just about touch.

He breathes out heavily, opening his eyes and blinking up at the blue sky above them.  He wonders momentarily if it would work if he accepted Arto as his own legally, but let someone else care for him. It’s only a half-hearted thought though, because one of the issues is that he’s one of the only ones strong enough to deal with Arto’s enhanced strength. Add to that the facts that Arto looks like him, and appears to be inexplicably attached to him, and there’s really only one solution.

 “I’m not ready to be a father, Buck.”

“Tough shit,” is the simple reply. “Give it a chance. You’ll deal. Might even find you like it.” 

Steve doesn’t reply, and Bucky gently nudges him with his knee. “Come on. You can crash a plane in the goddamn arctic to save the world; you can suck it up just for one kid. That’s a minor amount of self-sacrifice when you put it all in perspective.”

Steve considers that, and feels the lead weight in his stomach shift slightly. “Yeah,” he says, and that’s all he can say. He’s always trusted Bucky; even when he wasn’t Bucky he trusted that he’d come back, and he’s thinking that maybe he should just trust him now too.

They don’t say anything more for a while. Bucky just sits there at his side and lets Steve contemplate everything they’ve said, shutting his eyes and breathing in the fresh air and letting the sun warm his skin. He wishes Tony were here, lying next to him, quiet for once. He wouldn’t be still though, that’s not Tony. He’d have his phone in his hand, sitting and working with Steve’s head in his lap, letting Steve enjoy the peace. Maybe he’d just be combing dexterous fingers through Steve’s hair, probably complaining about the fact Steve’s had it cut and isn’t rocking the forties look anymore, just like he’s done every time Steve’s had a haircut for the past three years-

He feels the ghost of a smile pull weakly at the corner of his mouth, and the feeling is enough to galvanise the rest of his body into action. He sits up, reaching over for his helmet and holding it in one hand.

“Ready?” Bucky says, standing up and stretching, reaching for his own helmet and tossing it from one hand to the other, swinging it around easily.

“Yeah,” Steve says, and pulls his phone out of his pocket to check the time. He turns it on and almost immediately it pings with two missed calls and a voicemail.

“Tony tried to call,” he says, aiming for casual and missing by a mile.  “Left a voicemail.”

“Pick it up then,” Bucky says, like Steve’s an idiot. Steve responds with a middle finger and Bucky snorts with laughter.

Stomach clenching, Steve taps the button the pick up the voicemail. Stepping away from Bucky, he lifts the phone to his ear and his insides all flip as he hears Tony’s voice tumble into his ear in a wrecked, rambling rush.

“You know what, I fucking hate leaving you voicemails, because I ramble and you’re not actually there to tell me when to stop. But. Steve, I’m so sorry. I was convinced you were going to send him away, and I’m – I didn’t mean what I said, I swear. I just said it, and it was a shitty, shitty thing to say. I didn’t – I just couldn’t – Steve. I’m sorry I didn’t understand how you were feeling, I kinda don't think I still do but I'm sorry I didn't even try. I just – I’m always  - to me you’re an amazing person, I never doubt that you’re an amazing person and I never stopped to consider that you’d doubt yourself. Steve, I’m sorry. I’ll see you when you get back.”

More tears threaten and Steve screws his eyes shut, clenching his phone in his fist and pressing it hard to his forehead. God, to hear Tony saying those things, to know that he can go home, that it's not all wrecked beyond repair - the sheer relief he feels is nearly enough to knock him on his ass for a second time.

"Aw, don't cry again," Bucky's voice says, sounding plaintive. "Come on."

Steve sucks in a breath, lifts his chin and blinks hard. "Shut up, Bucky," he says and clears his throat, walking over to the bike. Bucky just grins like the complete shit he is, and follows him, banging Steve's hip with his helmet

“Can I drive?”

“No,” Steve says, and Bucky pouts at him. Steve ignores it, because that face has never worked on him and he’s not going to start falling for it now. He slings a leg over the bike, settling back and waiting as Bucky clambers on behind him.

“Reckon I can do it?” he asks casually, and listens to Bucky shift, the click of the helmet’s straps. He twists to look at him when he doesn’t get an answer. 

Bucky meets his eyes, says “yes,” and then slaps the visor down over his face. Steve nods and pulls his own helmet on, clipping it up and sliding the visor shut before turning the bikes ignition on. He takes a deep breath, thinks about what he has to do, and then guns the bike forwards, heading back home.

 


 

Tony is so far out of his depth here that he doesn’t even have units to express it.

“I hate you! I fucking hate you!”

Tony cringes at the scream from inside Arto’s room, the dull crack of something else being broken. Probably one of the dresser drawers that were unceremoniously pulled out and thrown across the room around ten minutes ago. And things had been going so well. Arto had been – somewhat suspiciously – quiet and compliant since Steve’s departure, drawing on the tablet and watching Clint playing on the Xbox, albeit with a slightly suspicious expression on his face. He’d even drunk a full beaker of juice and a half a piece of toast that Tony had brought up for him, and had seemed pretty settled.

And then, without warning or explanation, everything had abruptly gone to hell.

“Hey, no,” Tony hears Clint say, voice calm but strained. “Stop, no. Don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

The response is a strangled scream and the thudding of feet and hands against the floor. He reaches up, presses the heels of his hands to his eyes and slumps back against the wall.

“Jarvis, any luck contacting Thor?”

“I’m afraid not,” Jarvis replies. “His communicator is inactive. I believe he is in another realm. I took the liberty of contacting Dr Foster and she has informed me that he is not with her, though he is scheduled to return this afternoon.”

“Fuck,” Tony mutters. “Note to self, work on multi-realm communicators.”

Soft footsteps right behind him tell him Natasha has arrived. “I can go in,” Natasha says quietly from next to him, gently touching his elbow in a way that’s oddly reassuring, considering how angry she’d been at him earlier.

Tony breathes out, drops his hands. “It’d take all three of us to pin him down and I don’t want him to feel like he’s being mobbed,” he says shortly. “That is if three of us can actually pin him down without hurting him.”

“What’s the lesser of the evils?” Natasha asks seriously. “We need a way to contain this.”

“I know,” Tony snaps, because they had ways of dealing with this, but both ways of dealing with it have fucked off and left, and Tony feels like the scummiest human being on the planet, because it’s pretty much his fault. He can’t shake the look on Steve’s face from his memory; it’s pretty much seared into his brain and he hates it, hates that he didn’t get it until that point. He’s been assuming Steve is just being stubborn and awkward and reacting like a giant jackass. God, Steve looked completely shattered and Tony hadn’t even noticed-

“Jarvis, call Bruce,” Natasha’s voice says calmly, and Tony is yanked back into the moment. “Tell him Arto needs sedating.”

“No,” Tony begins, but Natasha just looks him in the eye and he falters. She’s probably right; as much as he hates it, sedating Arto for a while might be their only option here.

“Yes, Agent Romanov,” Jarvis replies, just as Arto lets rip with another bout of swearing. Tony wants to look into the room but he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to cope; in the thirty minute duration of his tantrum, Arto has somehow managed to both give himself a nose-bleed and cut his fingers on something and Tony so very desperately wants to help. Knowing he can’t is making him feel awful on a thousand levels.

“What set this off?” Natasha asks, moving around so she can see into the room without Arto seeing her, carefully watching.

“Nothing, literally nothing,” Tony says. “He was sat quietly, and then out of nowhere he just throws the tablet across the room and starts swearing blue murder at Clint.”

“It is an impressive vocabulary,” Natasha says, and Tony snorts.

“The kid doesn’t know the word for green but he knows, at the last count, eight different swear words,” he says, and he hears the shake in his own voice. “His vocabulary is shot to hell-”

“Sir, Captain Rogers and Agent Barnes have returned,” Jarvis interrupts, and Tony’s stomach clenches. “Shall I inform Captain Rogers that we require his assistance?”

“He won’t come anyway,” he says bitterly, because he knows he’s probably pushed Steve past the point of return with this. “Tell the one-armed wonder instead.”

“Go away,” Arto howls, and there’s another dull thud, and Clint Barton is possibly the bravest person that Tony knows because he doesn’t back off at all. He’s already been nailed by a well thrown hardback copy of some book that was on the shelf in the guest room; Tony supposes he’s lucky that Arto hasn’t decided to actually use the shelf as a weapon.

“Not gonna happen,” Clint is replying, raising his voice over Arto’s screams. “Come on, calm down. Not worth it, this isn’t going to fix anything-”

At the other end of the corridor, Tony hears the faint sound of the elevator opening, and hurried footsteps moving quickly along the corridor. Two sets of footsteps.

Bucky and Bruce, he thinks, but he looks up and the bottom drops out of his gut because it’s Bucky and Steve walking towards him. 

Steve’s eyes are on him, and he’s got his jaw set in a very familiar and Captain America-esque fashion. He’s radiating determination, though his expression is still tempered with the fear that Tony saw earlier. Tony’s mouth goes dry; he knows that look of intent intimately.

Without pausing or hesitating, Steve walks straight up to Tony and reaches for him. Tony’s hands come up reflexively, but before he can even think about responding with anything more, Steve slides one hand onto the side of his neck before leaning in and kissing him. It’s a chaste kiss but it holds Tony captive, the firm press of Steve’s mouth against his for several long seconds. Tony’s breath catches in the back of his throat and his hands falter in mid air, brushing against Steve’s elbows, and then Steve pulls back with a heavy inhale, knocking his forehead against Tony’s, eyes screwed tightly shut.

“I’m so sorry,” he murmurs, and then he’s gone again, pulling away and leaving Tony feeling like all the air has been knocked out of his lungs. For one wild moment he expects Steve to turn on his heel and leave again, but he doesn’t. He steps past Natasha, gently touching her hand as he does, and then walks into Arto’s room without looking back.

Tony follows him without thinking, standing in the doorway so he can watch, eyes cataloging every movement. Clint is still sitting cross legged some way away from Arto, out of range of feet and fists. He looks around as Steve walks in, and his eyebrows shoot up in surprise. He doesn’t make any smartass comments though, and Tony is glad. He rests one hand against the doorframe, holding his breath as Steve walks over to Arto, dropping down to his knees next to him. Arto is in an utter state and yep, Tony hates it with every fiber of his being. There’s blood from his nosebleed everywhere, smeared on his chin and over his top; there’s even some on his damn forehead and in his hair. He’s still screaming, every other breath a rush of curse words and insults, and as Tony watches he kicks out and throws himself backwards, heels banging against the floor.

“Up,” Steve says clearly, and he reaches over and grabs Arto under his arms as if to lift him up. Arto is quicker, he’s astoundingly quick, and he scrambles around and literally lunges at him, all pummeling fists and screaming curse words.

“Fucking shit,” Arto howls, face screwed up and red, streaked with tears. “You fucking bitch.

A small fist catches Steve in the underside of his jaw with an audible crack and Tony takes an automatic and alarmed step forwards, but Steve simply leans back fractionally, face out of range. He’s completely zoning out the screaming and cursing, his face set with calm concentration.

“Up you get,” he repeats, voice steady. He stands up, lifting Arto with him and setting him on his hip, grabbing the flailing hands in one of his own. Arto obviously has other ideas; he flings himself sideways and nearly pitches himself out of Steve’s arms. Staggering slightly as he shifts to rebalance himself, Steve changes his plan and drops down to sit, pulling Arto backwards into his lap.

“Fucking bitch,” Arto bites out again, and slams his head back into Steve’s chest. Steve takes a deep breath and simply wraps an arm around Arto’s middle, corralling his hands into the grip of one of his own, and uses his other hand to hold Arto’s head to his chest, palm on his forehead. Arto continues to struggle, doing his best to kick Steve’s legs, slamming his heels down onto Steve’s knees and shins.

“That’s enough,” Steve says loudly and firmly, almost shouting, and Arto suddenly takes a shuddering breath in, his body going still in Steve’s grip. He twists his head around and Steve allows the movement; Arto looks up at him, recognition flashes over his face, and then he promptly stops screaming and starts to cry.

Tony watches panic flitter over Steve’s face for a moment, before its schooled back into calm. “I got you,” he says, and strokes his palm up over Arto’s head. Arto jerks away, still crying. 

“Bitch,” he sobs, and one small sweaty hand pulls free of Steve’s grip, and he tries to hit at Steve over his shoulder, leaving another grubby smear of blood on Steve’s white T-shirt. “You went, I don’t different, I don’t want again-”

He barely makes sense but Tony gets the gist of it. From the look on Steve’s face, he gets it too; he looks horrendously guilty and a small part of Tony is thinking yeah, so you should. He doesn’t say it though, he just watches as Steve takes a gamble and lets go of Arto’s hands, instead turning him around and holding him to his front. Arto complies, wrapping arms around Steve’s neck and sobbing into his shoulder.

“Not going anywhere,” Steve says, eyes turned down away from Clint and Tony, and Tony’s heart is doing some strange twisting thing in his chest and he feels like he could cry. “I had to go out, I’m sorry,” Steve continues, voice low and quiet and broken. “I’m back now, and I’ve got you, and you’re not going anywhere.”

Arto doesn’t reply. He just clings onto Steve as if for dear life, and Steve awkwardly places a hand on the back of his head and one between his shoulder blades, holding him close. Despite the fact Tony knows he’s stronger than most grown men, Arto looks so small and fragile in Steve’s hands.

“Come on, up we get,” Steve says quietly, and Arto doesn’t resist as Steve slowly stands up, lifting Arto up with him. Arto wraps his legs around Steve’s waist, clinging to his front like a koala and with a grip so tight it would hurt anyone that wasn’t full of serum.

Steve hitches him up, one arm tucking underneath him to hold him up, other hand still on the back of his head. He still doesn’t look comfortable or happy, but Tony can see the effort in his countenance, and he could kiss that stupid face for the fact he’s actually here and he’s doing exactly what they need him to do. Tony’s anger at how long it’s taken is gone, already flushed out of existence; he’s just so fucking relieved that Steve’s here now, covered in blood and snot and tears but doing the right thing.

“Three cheers for Captain America,” Clint says with a wry grin, and pushes himself easily to his feet, shaking his head and walking out of the room, prodding the spot on his forehead where he’d been hit by the book. Tony doesn’t watch him go; his attention is all on Steve.

“I,” Steve says, and he stops and swallows thickly. He looks up and meets Tony’s eyes. “I’m gonna need a little help,” he says, and Tony hears his voice shaking even as he fights to stay steady. “With this whole thing.”

And Tony stares at him, feeling knocked for six in the very best way because there’s implication in those words, and it’s exactly what he’s been waiting for. He reaches up, rubs at his mouth and then he’s nodding. “Yeah,” he says easily, and fights down the surge of emotion in his chest because he loves this moron, and he’s pretty sure he always will. He smiles weakly, and Steve tries to return it but can’t quite get there. “You got it, Cap.”

Chapter Text

“Hey.” 

Steve cranes his head around to look at Tony from where he’s sat at the kitchen counter with Arto curled up on his knee. He’s asleep, face mashed against Steve’s shirt and mouth open, breath a snuffling nasal whine. The only thing stopping him from sliding onto the floor is Steve’s arm, which is wrapped around his middle, hand resting on his belly.

He’d fallen asleep barely ten minutes after Steve had picked him up, crying himself into a doze with a frown on his still blood-covered face. Steve supposes he should clean him up, but he’s so out of sorts he can’t even find the wherewithal to form full sentences.

“Hey,” he replies quietly, and Tony steps forwards, eyes flicking between Steve and Arto. His expression softens slightly and he steps up behind Steve, resting his forearms on his shoulders and his chin atop Steve’s head.

“So, I think I need to apologize as well,” he says conversationally.

“Yep,” Steve sighs, closing his eyes and breathing in and out deeply. He feels Tony press a kiss to the top of his head and then push up away from him, moving away towards the kitchen. 

Steve looks down at the small figure in his arms, trying not to let the anxious feeling in his gut spread. It’s okay, he tells himself, breathing out through his mouth and shutting his eyes. Step at a time. Bucky had said it was okay that he didn’t feel any connection with the kid straight away, that he’d have to actually spend time with him and get to know him.

Tony returns with a damp cloth in his hand and crouches down next to Arto. He carefully lifts one of his hands from his lap and gently cleans the blood away, inspecting Arto’s fingers where Steve can see the remnants of a cut on the back of his knuckles. The skin is pink and shiny, obviously healing quickly.

“So. I take it that it was you not thinking enough of yourself rather than thinking badly of me,” Tony says as lets go of Arto’s fingers and then carefully wipes under Arto’s nose. There’s hesitance in his voice, a vulnerability he doesn’t usually let anyone hear. He lowers his hand, presses the fingers of his other to his mouth. “God, Steve. I’m so sorry. I just thought you were – that you were being stubborn, and you didn’t say anything and I was terrified you’d send him away-”

Steve shushes him with a shake of his head, not wanting to hear any more. It’s too raw, too open and he doesn’t trust himself to keep it together. Tony seems to get it; he stops talking, heaves out a sigh. His eyes flicker over Arto again, and Steve can sense the relief in that piercing gaze, even if he doesn’t quite understand it.

“Why are you so attached?” he asks softly.

“Because he’s yours, you moron,” Tony whispers, and his eyes meet Steve’s. “How could you not know – he’s part of you and I will love every part of you until I clock out for good-”

Steve feels a lump in his throat again, has to swallow hard.  “I didn’t,” Steve begins, has to stop. He shifts Arto so he can reach out and cup Tony’s jaw with his hand. “You never said, you only said because of him-”

“Tactical error on my part,” Tony admits. “I didn’t anticipate your ego being so fragile in this department. I thought you knew.”

Steve opens his mouth, tries to find the words. Goddamn it, he never thought it would be this hard to get the words out. “People only ever say things to me because of something else, because I’m Captain America, because of circumstance,” he says, tone full of self-depreciation. 

“And you want to hear things as just Steve Rogers,” Tony says, and his smile is crooked. “Well, as if you could ever be just Steve Rogers.”

Steve nods wordlessly. Tony turns his face and presses a kiss to Steve’s palm, rubbing his nose gently against the pad of his thumb. “So, can we have that conversation now?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, because he knows from the experience of the past few days that saying no to difficult conversations is not an option right now. “Go for it.”

“Sticking together?” Tony asks simply.

Steve’s stomach flips at the simple question, knowing the weight behind what Tony is asking. “Yes.”

Tony’s eyes drop to Arto. He studies him for a moment then lifts the cloth again, gently wiping it over Arto’s brow. “With this one, too?”

“Yes,” Steve says, even though the prospect still scares the absolute life out of him.

“Feeling okay about it?”

“Not at all,” Steve admits. “But I’ve gotta try.”

“I think it’ll be pretty awesome,” Tony says casually, shrugging one shoulder. “You get away with murder when you’ve got small kids. Don’t want to go somewhere? Boom - excuse. Having an excuse for acting crazy, you just say the kid is driving you up the wall and everyone is all over it. Tax breaks. Better parking spaces. Having an endless supply of candy in the house. Having someone you can train to go and torment Barton. Actually, nix that, Barton is already teaching him bad habits, you need to hear about the counter-diving. I know, you should totally let him and Barton lose in SHIELD headquarters the next time Fury gives you a shitty assignment-”

Despite himself, Steve starts to smile. “Tony,” he says gently, and Tony stops talking. “You’re babbling.”

“Yeah,” Tony admits. “I just want this to be okay.”

Steve doesn’t reply to that; he’s not sure he can. It’s not going to be okay straight away and he knows it, not with Arto, not between him and Tony. Saying that out loud doesn’t seem like the most tactful idea though, so he keeps it to himself.

“You need to stop trying to manipulate me,” he finally says. “I know that you push me and some days I need that, but this was too far.”

Tony grimaces. “Would you believe I wasn’t actually trying to manipulate you this time?” he says. “I was angry and being a hot-head. Being a bit of a Steve Rogers, actually.”

“You were trying to push me into doing what you wanted,” Steve says. “That’s manipulating.”

Tony rubs at his beard with his hand. “Suppose it was,” he says finally, and only sounding a tiny bit contrite. “I’ll probably do it again.”

For a fleeting moment, Steve is caught off guard by the honesty, but then quickly realizes he wouldn’t expect anything else from Tony. He studies him for a few seconds, taking in his serious expression and the way Tony doesn’t look away from his gaze.

Maybe it will be okay between him and Tony.

“Well,” he says slowly, “then maybe you’ll have to put up with me occasionally being pissed off with you for trying it.”

Tony nods absently, his eyes dropping and fixing on Arto. “He needs a bath,” he says vaguely, almost to himself more than Steve, and then he looks up at Steve again, eyes bright and focused.

“Decided what you’re going to tell Fury? What’s the backstory?”

Steve feels his shoulders stiffen, an instinctive desire to pull away. “Jesus, Tony,” he says, and he wants to get up but he can’t because Arto is on his knee and Tony is knelt down right in front of him. “What else do you want from me today?”

Tony’s jaw clenches, just enough for Steve to notice. “Yeah, well if this is what you’re doing then you need to have all your bases covered,” he says shortly. “There’s going to be legalities, paperwork, lawyers to get involved. You can’t drag your heels-”

“I am not stupid,” Steve interrupts. “Just because I cannot – and will not – process things as quickly as you can and make snap decisions, does not mean I am dragging my heels. Back off.”

Tony’s brows go up in something that could be surprise or affront and he leans back. Steve braces himself for another argument, because at the end of the day they’re always going to argue, but Tony breathes out, the tension easing from his frame. “Okay,” he finally says. “Okay, you got it.”

Relief washes through him, and Steve holds out a hand for Tony to take. Tony does, allowing Steve to pull him up to his feet. Steve lets go of his hand and slips his palm onto Tony’s waist, pulling him in. Smiling faintly, Tony catches his hand on Steve’s shoulder and leans over to brush his mouth against Steve’s.

“Did we just compromise? Is that what happened?”

“Can you ever just let the moment speak for itself?” Steve grumbles, and then looks down as Arto snuffles and shifts in his sleep, face turning into Steve’s chest.  “Can we-” he begins, and feels his neck going hot, stomach twisting uncomfortably with unease and something close to embarrassment. “I have no idea how to look after him.”

“Can’t be that hard,” Tony shrugs. “Feed him, wash him, keep him entertained.”

“I think you’re over-simplifying,” Steve says, and purposefully doesn’t get annoyed at how easy Tony seems to be finding it. If they’re sticking together with this he might as well take advantage of Tony’s willingness rather than getting riled up by it.

“I think you’re – I know,” Tony says, snapping his fingers. “We’ll call Sue. Sue has small children, she’ll know what to do.”

Steve nods, relieved. “Good call,” he says, and then looks up as he hears the elevator. To his surprise it’s Thor who steps out, in full armor and with Mjolnir at his hip. His expression is serious, a calm resoluteness that Steve actually welcomes. After all, it’s not just Tony who has to deal with Steve suddenly becoming a – a father, it’s the entire team.

“Steve, Tony,” he says, striding over. “I came as soon as Jane told me you had tried to contact me. How is the boy?”

“He’s…” Tony begins, and then waves his hand in front of his face in a see-sawing motion. “He’s…had a bit of a moment. Like a mini-Hulk actually. A bit of a temper.”

Thor nods, and looks Steve and Arto over, gaze calm. “Is he injured?”

“Nosebleed,” Steve says. “He…uh, I went out earlier and he…”

“Demolished the guest-room,” Tony fills in. “Lots of screaming and shouting and throwing things.”

Thor nods slowly, contemplative, and then he smiles. “It is strange to see you with a child,” he says to Steve. “Though not completely unnatural. He is truly your likeness.”

Steve’s throat goes tight. “Feels pretty strange too,” he says, as if it’s sufficient enough to describe even a fraction of what’s going on inside him. Now he’s accepted the fact that he’s in this for the long haul, more anxieties are stirring restlessly in the back of his mind, mostly started by Tony’s questions earlier. What is he going to tell everyone? Should he be open about where Arto has come from? Or is that inviting trouble? But to tell everyone Arto is actually his – there will be a thousand more questions that come from that, about where his mother is, why Steve hasn’t said anything until now?

He looks down as Arto shifts again. A small hand comes up to rub at one of his eyes, and he whines sleepily, eyes blinking open. He looks up at Steve and his fingers fist in the material of Steve’s shirt.

“Okay?” Steve asks, and Arto doesn’t move or give any indication he’s heard. He just blinks up at Steve for a moment, and then looks down and around the room. Steve feels the exact moment he spots Thor in the way he shrinks back, whole body going tense.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Steve says in alarm as Arto squirms around and tries to scramble up into his arms, knees pressing painfully into Steve’s thighs and arms locking around his neck. “It’s okay, that’s Thor. He’s a friend." 

Tony is there in an instant. “He’s cool,” Tony says, and Arto lifts his face from Steve’s shoulder and turns to look at Thor mistrustfully. “He’s from somewhere else, just like you.”

Steve doesn’t know if they should be reminding Arto that he’s not actually from Earth – well, not this earth anyway –  but it seems to be a good move for now. Arto blinks and then seems to settle a little, letting go of Steve with one arm and turning around to look at Thor properly. Steve keeps him steady with his arm wrapped around Arto’s middle, and he jolts slightly as he feels small fingers touch his neck, sifting through the short hair at the base of his skull.

Thor just meets Arto’s suspicious gaze evenly, and then Arto seems to get over his reservations, turning to Steve and pressing his free hand to Steve’s cheek. “Charms,” he says, and Steve frowns, doesn’t get it. “Charms,” Arto repeats, and his fingers pull at Steve’s lip with no small amount of force. Steve reaches up to grab his hand, wincing.

“Lucky Charms,” Tony fills in, and Arto points towards the cupboards, swinging his whole bodyweight over. Steve has to hastily grab hold of him so he doesn’t tumble from his grip, and Arto seems to like the swinging motion, letting his arm flop from around Steve’s neck and tilting back dangerously far.

“Jesus, child, stop trying to land on your head,” Tony says, leaning forwards and snagging the front of Arto’s shirt, hauling him back into Steve’s lap. Steve just sits there, more than a little blindsided and feeling like he’s being used as a damn jungle-gym. “You are not eating Lucky Charms for dinner.”

The word startles Steve but he looks up at the clock on the wall and it’s already nearly ten to seven and when did that happen? How long as he been sat at this counter for?

“Kid’s got a point though, we need food,” Tony says vaguely, tapping on his phone. “Steve, you eaten today?”

“No,” Steve admits, and Tony gives him a look.

“What do you want?”

“Anything,” Steve says wearily. “Pizza.”

“Chinese it is,” Tony says, and Steve’s too tired to find him funny or be annoyed. “Art, you ever eaten Chinese?”

Arto shakes his head, looking wary.

“Cantonese? Indian? Italian? Greek? No? How about Mexican? Indonesian?”

Arto makes a high-pitched noise in the back of his throat and shakes his head harder, twisting around and burying his face in Steve’s neck.

“Tony, stop,” Steve says reproachfully, grimacing as Arto snuffles wetly against his neck, still making the distressed whining noise.

“He’s alright, just being a drama queen,” Tony says, and Steve is about to object but Arto turns his head and Steve catches sight of bright eyes darting around before he hides his face again.

“Charms,” Arto says in a pitiful voice, and Tony barks out a laugh.

Now you’re being manipulated,” he says with a raised eyebrow, and then folds his arms over his chest and looks at Arto. “No dice. Lucky Charms are off the menu, kid.”

Arto twists around and pins Steve with a hurt look, like he expects Steve to back him up. “Tony said no,” he says to Arto, and Arto’s face turns affronted.

“You’re in charge,” he says to Steve, and he sounds so certain that it makes Steve want to bury his face in his hands.

“Not right now he’s not,” Tony says easily. “Hey, did you know that Thor’s as strong as Steve is?”

Arto looks up, startled, eyes raking over Thor. “No he’s not,” he says easily, and pats Steve’s cheek like he’s reassuring him. Tony bites back a laugh and Thor chuckles quietly. Steve is saved from replying by the elevator doors opening and Bruce and Natasha stepping out, Natasha with her arm linked through Bruce’s.

“Hey,” she says easily. “Did I hear someone say they were ordering Chinese?”

“Vultures, the lot of you,” Tony grumbles. Next to him, Thor is putting Mjolnir down on the table and unclipping his cloak, draping it over the back of one of the chairs.  “Bruce, you want in?”

“Please,” Bruce says gratefully, and then looks at Steve. “You trust me to be here?

“Yes,” Steve says without a pause, and Bruce smiles and walks over, heading to the fridge. Natasha doesn’t hesitate at all, just walks over to kiss Thor on the cheek, dropping gracefully into the chair next to him. He smiles, turning his attention to her as she speaks to him, voice soft and quiet.

“Suppose we should order for Barton and Barnes,” Tony says. “Where are they? I know they still get Jarvis to alert them whenever someone mentions takeout-”

“Present and accounted for,” a loud voice calls from the stairwell, and the pair slouch in. Bucky’s swearing sweats and no shirt, metal arm gleaming in the light, and Clint is barefoot though has deigned to wear jeans and a T-shirt. Arto spots him instantly and makes a loud noise that’s somewhere between a squeak and a chirp, arms reaching out.

“Hey, Short Round,” Clint grins, and walks over, apparently having forgiven Arto for throwing the book at him. “You’re looking less dangerous than you did earlier.”

Arto grins at him, all teeth. “Clint.”

“Where?” Clint says, looking over his shoulder, and Arto makes another inarticulate sound, bouncing on Steve’s knee.

“Clint!”

“No, that’s Bucky,” Clint says seriously. “No Clint here.”

“You!” Arto says loudly, and smacks a palm to Steve’s shoulder.

“Hey, no beating up Steve,” Tony says distractedly, phone held to one ear. “Barton, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are actually Clint. Arto’s figured you out, give it up. Yeah, hi,” he turns his attention to the phone, walking away. “Avengers Tower, the usual order please-”

“You’re such a moron,” Bucky snorts, and heads to the fridge. Clint just sticks his tongue out at him and leans over the back of the chair next to Steve. Steve half hopes Arto will want to go to Clint but he doesn’t; he just slithers down Steve’s side so he’s sitting on his knee again, head tipped sideways and resting against Steve’s chest. He heaves out a sigh, swinging his feet so his heels bang against Steve’s legs. He watches the others around the table with careful eyes, slipping his fingers into his mouth.

“Right, food will be here in thirty minutes tops,” Tony says, and slides into the seat on the other side of Steve. Steve doesn’t turn to look at him, but he feels Tony’s knee nudge his thigh, and then fingers slowly trace up the back of his arm. He expects Tony to pull away after the discreet touch but he doesn’t; he leans in closer and strokes his fingers up and down Steve’s arm, tapping away on his phone with his other hand.

Breathing out heavily through his nose, Steve relaxes slightly, leaning into the touch. Only a week ago they wouldn’t even be sitting this close around the others, but no-one seems remotely bothered that they’re being open about their relationship. Steve’s glad; now they’re sort of on the same page, Tony’s presence is both comforting and appreciated.

He lets the conversation of the others wash over him, not focusing on any of the words. Even with Arto on his knee and Tony at his side, he feels separate and distant, like this is happening to someone else. The thought has his mind turning to the other Steve Rogers, the one from Arto’s dimension who had died trying to get to him. Would he have taken Arto in if he’d survived? Would he have been as apprehensive as Steve?

“Still with me?” Tony murmurs, voice quiet enough so only Steve can hear it.

“Yeah,” Steve replies quietly, turning his face towards Tony. Tony meets his eyes, his mouth hitching in a small, grateful smile. Steve returns it weakly, and Tony reaches out on impulse, touching Steve’s mouth briefly. Steve kisses the tips of Tony’s fingers, and then they both draw back as Arto shifts again, reaching up to tap Tony’s chin.

“What’s up, Smart Art?”

Arto looks around again, opens his mouth and then closes it. He reaches out for Tony and Tony takes him without a second’s hesitation, sliding him from Steve’s knee and onto his own. Arto wraps an arm around his neck, balancing on his knees and still gripping hold of Steve’s shirt.

“Lots of people, huh?” Tony says, winding an arm around Arto’s middle and resting his palm on his belly. Arto nods, looking unsure.

“Get used to it,” Tony says easily. “See, we all live here.”

Arto’s expression turns startled, and his fingers pull at Steve’s shirt. Steve reaches up and grabs his wrist before his shirt gets ripped, holding on carefully so Arto can’t tug too much.

“Yeah, there’s me and Steve live at the top of the building,” Tony says, and Steve interprets that as Tony saying he’s not going to get away with sleeping in his old quarters anymore. “Then Bruce and Natasha live under the medbay, then Clint on the same floor as you. Then Bucky is where Steve used to live, and Thor below him.”

Arto seems to be listening, though his eyes have fixed on Natasha, where she sits chatting softly with Thor. Arto lets go of Steve’s shirt and reaches up to touch his hair. “Red,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s gorgeous, right?” Tony says. “Wait until you see her out in the sunshine.”

“Outside?” Arto asks, and looks from Tony to Steve and back again before looking back to Natasha. He seems to be trying to find a word, opening his mouth and frowning before opting for, “Gorgeous?”

Steve can tell Natasha is listening because her mouth curves in the tiniest of smiles, though she doesn’t look away from her conversation with Bruce and Thor.

“Gorgeous,” Tony affirms. “Means beautiful. Something lovely to look at.”

Arto cocks his head at that, looking at Natasha contemplatively. “Gorgeous,” he says again, sounding more certain. He lets go of Steve’s shirt, sitting back on his heels on Tony’s knee. A small hand slides over Tony’s shirt and then he gently touches Tony’s jaw, brushing his beard. He’s turning out to be a very tactile being, Steve notices, and tiredly wonders if it’s to do with how he’s been brought up. Maybe he’s just been deprived of sensory experience or something, Steve doesn’t know.

He leans forwards with an elbow on the counter, chin cupped in his palm. As he lets the conversation around him wash over him, he feels a hand slide up his spine and exhales heavily at the touch. He wants to go up to bed, with Tony, and bury his face in the crook of Tony’s neck and sleep. He wants Tony to grumble at him for hogging the space whilst pulling him close with strong arms, complaining as Steve kisses up his neck and nuzzles into sleep-warm skin. He’d roll them over and Tony would be laughing and trying to push his face away, and Steve would fake a sigh and let him go, only to be grabbed by greedy hands-

Steve blinks, turns his head to look at Tony. Arto is brushing both of his palms over Tony’s beard and Tony is just sitting there and letting him, hand resting on Arto’s side to keep him steady. His mouth is quirked in an amused smile and there’s no missing the affection in his eyes.

Steve lets go of the half-formed daydream. His life is no longer centered around him and Tony. It’s now him and Tony and Arto, and he’s going to have to get used to it.

You were supposed to hand it in,” Bucky’s exasperated voice catches Steve’s attention, and he lifts his eyes to where Bucky and Clint are now both leaning by the counter shoulder to shoulder, Bucky with a beer in hand. 

Clint is shaking his head, adamant. “You said you would!”

“Coulson’s going to string you two up,” Natasha says far too happily, and Bucky and Clint both glare at her.  Steve snorts with laughter, and Bucky hears and turns his glare on Steve.

“Should have handed it in,” Steve says with a raised eyebrow.

“Shut up Rogers, just because Coulson never bitches at you for not handing paperwork in-”

“That’s probably because he always hands his paperwork in,” Bruce chips in, amused.

“Are you kidding me,” Tony snorts. “He never hands paperwork in.”

Steve sits up, mouth open in affront. “That’s a lie.”

“I once saw you jump from a helicopter to avoid being asked about paperwork,” Tony says matter-of-factly.

Clint cackles with laughter, but Bucky just turns his unimpressed glare back on Steve, the same look he usually wears whenever he hears about Steve doing something dangerous like jumping from aircraft or out of windows.

“I had a parachute,” Steve quickly adds, but Bucky’s narrow-eyed look doesn’t abate. Steve turns to look at Tony for backup, but his attention has gone back to Arto, who looks like he’s trying to escape by climbing up over Tony’s shoulder.

“Where are you going, I hope you have a plan because I honestly don’t know what it is you’re trying to achieve here-”

With a small amount of undignified flailing, Arto manages to get from Tony’s lap and onto the counter. Tony goes to grab his ankle but Arto simply yanks free and quickly scampers along the counter towards the cupboard.

“Hey,” Tony calls as he stands up, and he looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “You are not having Lucky Charms, food will be here in like fifteen minutes.”

Arto ignores him and stands up on the counter, reaching for the cupboard. Tony goes to stand up, looks at Clint who is standing nearest the cupboard, and then seems to reconsider, looking at Steve.

“Could you back up the no?” he asks evenly, though there’s hesitation in his gaze. “I don’t know if I’ve got enough muscle to enforce it.”

Understanding Tony’s hesitation but glad that he’s asked instead of just expecting Steve to step in automatically, Steve nods and pushes himself out of his chair, quickly walking over and snagging Arto around the middle, lifting him off the counter. “Tony said no,” he says as Arto makes a noise of protest, reaching out towards the cupboard. Clint shrugs and reaches up to shut the cupboard door and Arto seems to deflate, going limp in Steve’s grip.

“Charms,” he says pitifully, arms and legs dangling down in space. Steve ignores it and hefts him up, setting him on his hip again. “Charms,” Arto whines again, rubbing his cheek against Steve’s shoulder.

“Food will be here soon,” Steve says evenly. “Just wait.”

Arto shakes his head but doesn’t offer any more resistance. His mouth is turned down unhappily and he’s blinking a lot, and maybe he’s tired? The uncertainty and worry still lurks on Steve’s periphery, and how is Tony finding this so easy, so natural?

“Here,” Tony says right on cue, and passes over a tablet. “Go nuts.”

Arto immediately grabs for it and Steve takes the opportunity to sit down again, swinging Arto onto the empty seat next to him. Showing a surprising amount of deftness, Arto turns the tablet on quickly and soon has a drawing app open, black lines and swirls appearing under his fingers. He’s got a look of abject concentration on his face, a small frown between his eyebrows as he sets the tablet on the edge of the table and leans forwards, continuing to draw.

Reaching out with one hand to grab the chair by one of its legs and tug it closer to the table, Steve watches Arto absently, still feeling oddly detached from the whole situation. He knows the others are probably all watching every move he makes to see what he’s going to do, but he’s quickly going from embarrassed at the scrutiny into too tired to care territory. One day at a time, he tries to tell himself again. Get through tonight, and then work out what to do next.

Arto’s fingers quickly move, selecting different colors as he fills in more of his picture. Steve has no idea what it is; it appears just to be a pattern of different swirls and colors, most of them in different shades of red. He watches unblinkingly for so long the image starts to blur in front of him, a red haze under Arto’s quickly moving fingers.

“Steve?”

Steve jerks back to the moment, looking up as Tony calls his name. “Food is here,” he says evenly, and Steve looks up to see Clint and Bucky walking in with a massive cardboard box each. Steve hadn’t even seen them leave the room. The boxes are deposited on the counter and wrenched open and Steve’s stomach rumbles as the smell hits him.

“Not hungry,” Arto says suddenly, looking at the box with some apprehension. “Don’t want any food.”

He’s given away by the growl his stomach makes, and Tony sends him a pointed look. “Yeah, nice try,” he says, and reaches over to take the tablet from Arto. “What do you want to drink?”

“Nothing.”

“Juice it is,” Tony says cheerfully, and Arto scowls at him. Natasha and Thor are already handing plates out, Clint is spreading out a seemingly endless array of cartons over the table and Bucky is pulling beers out of the fridge. The chatter between them is perfectly normal, a comforting wash of noise that Steve is infinitely grateful for.

“Right,” Tony says as he puts down a beaker of juice and a small plate in front of Arto. “What’re you having?”

“Not hungry,” Arto says stubbornly. Across the table, Bruce glances at him and then away and Steve feels a horrid sensation of being judged. Rationally, he knows that Bruce wouldn’t and that he didn’t mean anything by the look, but other people might, and for the rest of his life he’s going to be judged on everything this child says and does-

“Okay, chow mein sounds good,” Tony says and grabs a carton. He deftly spoons out a small portion onto Arto’s plate and then slides a fork over. Arto pushes it away and Tony moves as if to push it back again, but thinks better of it.

“No,” Arto says, louder, and shoves the plate away as well.

Steve feels his whole body going tense, stress tightening in his stomach. He meant what he said to Tony earlier, about not knowing what to do, not knowing how to care for Arto. Jesus, the kid is still absolutely filthy and he’s not even washed his hands before eating, not that it matters because he isn’t going to eat anything anyway-

“Bathroom,” Steve mutters to Tony, and before Tony can reply Steve gets up and walks out of the room, heading out into the corridor that leads to the bathroom and stairwell. He gets almost to the bathroom door before he hears footsteps behind him, and stops as Tony jogs up behind him.

“Hey, hey,” Tony says evenly, catching Steve’s elbow and pulling him round.

“Just going to the bathroom,” Steve starts to say, trying to sound relaxed and at ease.

“Steve,” Tony interjects, obviously not having it. “Breathe.”

Steve reaches up, pushes a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, giving up on the pretense. “Tony, this is such a bad idea-”

“The best things always are,” Tony says, and reaches up, places his hands on Steve’s neck, meets his eyes seriously. “You’re doing great, you’re doing everything he needs right now-”

“I wasn’t going to leave,” Steve says suddenly, a little helplessly. He feels like it’s important for Tony to know that. “I just-”

“You were stressed, I know,” Tony says, dropping his hands and dragging his palms along Steve’s chest, the touch familiar and grounding. “It’s okay. You’re allowed to be stressed. I’m giving you permission to be stressed.”

Despite himself, Steve smiles. Here with just the two of them, it all feels so much easier. Safer, in a way. He reaches out and slips his hands onto Tony’s hips. “You’re giving me permission to be stressed?”

Tony nods, completely serious, shifting closer to Steve. His fingers press firmly into the muscle of Steve’s chest, his eyes flickering over him in a way that’s oh-so-telling before returning to his face. It’s easy and playful and how it’s always been, and Steve gratefully finds himself slipping back into it without difficulty. “I am giving you permission to be mildly stressed.”

Steve huffs out a soft laugh. “Mildly?”

Tony nods, eyes still on Steve’s and he’s leaning closer and closer, voice a low murmur. “Yes. Occasions of major stress require twenty-four hour notice and forms to be filled in.”

“Forms,” Steve replies with an arched brow, voice low and quiet and he can feel Tony’s breath on his lips, warm and familiar.

“Yes, long and tedious forms,” Tony murmurs, and their mouths meet in a long, slow kiss. Steve’s breath hitches in his chest and Tony melts against him, opening his mouth under Steve’s and reaching up to cup his jaw. His tongue dips lazily into Steve’s mouth and Steve shudders; he’s missed this more than he’s realised.

Tony makes a pleased noise in the back of his throat, and his thumb strokes against Steve’s jaw. Steve kisses him slowly, thoroughly, arms wrapping around Tony’s shoulders and pulling him tight against him. Tony seems to approve, moving one of his legs forwards to push between Steve’s-

“Aw, really?”

They break apart quickly at the sound of Bucky’s voice, almost a reflex in how they move apart just enough. Steve turns to see him standing at the end of the corridor, pulling a face at them.

“What?” Tony asks flatly, clearly not happy with being interrupted, though he does step back towards Steve, an eyebrow lifting almost in challenge. Steve rolls his eyes; seems Tony is still not quite out of the habit of taking opportunities to get one up on Bucky where he’s concerned. He’s got absolutely no reason to, considering that Bucky spent half the day talking Steve into going back to Tony.

“Small-Steve wants Big-Steve,” Bucky says, not sounding at all apologetic.

Steve sighs, rubbing at his brow. Right. Small child he’s supposed to be responsible for. “Coming,” Steve says, and Bucky salutes and walks away.

Tony leans up and kisses him again. “You’re doing great,” he says, and Steve nods and tries to believe him. “Just – just stick it out. We’ll call Sue in the morning, get some advice on how to do life with small children.”

Steve nods, feeling exhausted. “Okay,” he says, hesitates. “He won’t eat.”

“He’ll eat, he’s hungry,” Tony says, and then shrugs. “If he won’t try the take-out, he can have his damn Lucky Charms.”

Steve just nods, and he lets Tony tug him back towards the others. He slips back into his seat and picks up his own carton of take out, digging in. Across the table, Bruce and Thor are discussion energy yields that are involved with the bifrost, Natasha is listening quietly and Bucky and Clint are still bickering about the report.

Steve looks sideways and notices Arto watching him avidly. He swallows his mouthful and then on a whim holds out his fork. “Want to try mine?”

“No,” Arto says, but then shifts. “What is it?”

“Noodles,” Steve says, and he plucks a stand from his carton and drops it onto the edge of Arto’s plate. Arto looks at it suspiciously and then picks it up with his fingers, poking his tongue out and licking at it. Expression turning startled, he looks at Steve who simply carries on eating. Arto looks to him, then back at the noodle, and then stuffs it into his mouth, leaving a brown smudge of sauce on his chin.

“Good?” Steve says, and holds out both the carton and his fork. Arto hesitates for a moment and then sticks his fingers straight into the carton and pulls out another noodle. Grimacing, Steve belatedly thinks that he really should have got Arto to wash up before eating, but he's not convinced he's got enough energy to care tonight.

This time, Arto shoves the noodle into his mouth without hesitation.  “Good,” Arto says, and grabs for Steve’s carton. Steve is just about quick enough to keep it out of reach, and when Arto makes a hurt noise, he reaches forwards and doles out a portion onto Arto’s plate. Arto looks around at the others and then seems to give up his reservations and dives in.

“Feral creature,” Tony says, but he sounds more amused than anything. Steve looks up at him and Tony quirks an eyebrow, his expression somewhere between ‘see?’ and ‘I told you so.’

A strange sort of unwilling pride flickers in Steve’s chest, the knot of worry in his chest abating slightly.  It doesn’t last long because at the end of the day all he’s achieved is getting a six year old to eat some damn noodles. Still, it’s one battle won, though it doesn’t comfort him too much because there’s still so much to do, to get right.

Arto polishes off the noodles in record time, and then starts looking around the table, eyes narrowed. He doesn’t make a move, so Steve picks up the carton of chow mein and hands it to him. With Steve’s go-ahead, Arto sees happy to dig in, though forgoes cutlery once again in favor of using his fingers. 

Steve can feel Tony’s eyes on him again, but doesn’t look up. He doesn’t want any more congratulations or ‘told you so’ looks, and can feel defensiveness materializing in his chest, jarring with the small sense of relief.

“That one?” Arto says, and points towards another box. Steve has a mouthful of food but before he can even swallow Tony is there, grabbing it and dropping it in front of Arto.

“It’s just rice, pretty boring,” Tony says, and hands Arto a fork. “No fingers in that one.”

This time Arto takes the fork, and he stabs at the rice, pretty quickly working out how to efficiently get as much of it in his mouth in as short a time as possible.

“Hey, Arto,” Clint says, and hands over a small pot of what Steve assumes is sweet and sour sauce. “Try that.”

Arto peers dubiously into the pot, and then promptly sticks his fingers in it. Clint bursts into laughter as Steve grabs for his wrist. He’s far too late; there’s sticky red sauce all over his damn fingers, dripping down his hand. Arto tugs against Steve’s grip and Steve lets him go, watching resignedly as Arto stuffs his fingers into his mouth.

“You’re six, you know that?” Tony says through his own laughter as he whips the pot out of reach. “You’re not a baby, seriously, kid.”

Arto just grins at him around his fingers. He sees to like the sauce well enough though, and is already looking around to see where it went. There’s now tacky sauce all over his face and hands, and he’s really starting to look like he’s been living in a dumpster. 

“Yeah, you are so going in the bath,” Tony says, but Arto doesn’t react, too busy licking his fingers to pay Tony any attention.

“Bath-time with a small Rogers. Rather you than me,” Bucky snorts, saluting Steve with his beer, and if Steve wasn’t now being a role-model he’d throw a spring roll at Bucky’s damn head.

“I’ll take him,” Tony says easily, and Steve looks at him, not wanting to sound like a complete cop-out by saying yes and begging off straight away. “Hey, you won at food, tag me in for bath-time.”

“Okay,” Steve says, ridiculously grateful. A whine at his elbow makes him look down; Arto is looking at him like he’s about to cry all of a sudden, eyes hot and bright.

“Yeah, you’re tired,” Tony says, and Arto reaches out towards Steve with both sticky hands. Steve’s now approaching flat-out-exhausted so quickly that he doesn’t bother to worry or even think about it; he just picks Arto up and lifts him back onto his knee, sticky hands clutching at his shirt.

“Right, you done eating, Smart Art?” Tony says, and Arto nods. “Okay, Steve isn’t because he’s a super-soldier and has to eat frankly ridiculous amounts of food, so me and you are going to go put you in the bath and then he’ll come find us when he’s done eating. Deal?”

Arto looks at Tony, looks at Steve, looks at Tony again. “A bath?” he says, sounding uncertain.

“Yes. Big tub. Full of water and bubbles. Makes you clean,” Tony says.

“Okay,” Arto immediately replies, and slides off of Steve’s knee. “Now?”

Completely nonplussed, Steve raises a questioning eyebrow at Tony, who just shrugs back.

“Hey, I’m not going to complain,” he says, pushing his chair away from the table. “Come along, strangely compliant small one. Hey Steve, when you’re done could you try and find him something to sleep in?”

Steve nods, though he’s pretty sure there isn’t going to be anything in the tower to fit a six-year old. “Sure.”

Tony walks away towards the stairwell and Arto darts after him. Underneath the slight suspicion at how biddable Arto is suddenly being, he’s also relieved that Tony is taking over for a while, and then guilty that he feels relieved.

“Hey, grumpy,” Bucky’s voice says, and Steve looks up as he slides into Tony’s vacated chair. Steve rests his elbow on the table and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Shut up, Bucky,” he says half-heartedly.

“Leave the man alone,” he hears Bruce say mildly, and he looks up in gratitude. “He’s had a long day.”

“One of many long days to come,” Natasha says with a tilt of her head. Her gaze is knowing and serious, though there’s a faint smile curling her lips.

“One day at a time,” Bucky calls out at her, folding his arms across his chest and sitting shoulder to shoulder with Steve in an obvious show of solidarity.

She just looks at him for a beat and then slides her eyes back to Steve, tilting a beer bottle between her fingers. “Very uplifting and all, but you are going to have to think long-term at some point.”

Steve sighs, pokes morosely at his food. “You sound like Tony.”

“So, the child is to stay?” Thor asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says heavily, and gives up on the carton of noodles, dropping it to the table. He reaches up, rubs his face hard. “Yeah, he’s staying.”

There’s a moment of silence, the weight of Steve’s decision impossible to ignore. It’s like now he’s said it and it’s out there, there’s no going back. Steve supposes there isn’t, not really.

“So,” Clint says, breaking the silence a beat later. “Are we going for an alien clone rescued from an alternate dimension, or are we going for bastard child that Steve didn’t know about?”

Bucky chokes on a laugh, Natasha bites her lip and even Thor chuckles. Bruce sends Steve a sympathetic look, and Steve is going to go and sit with Bruce in a moment because he’s the only one not being an utter jerk.

Clint doesn’t even flinch in the face of Steve’s half-hearted glare; he just shrugs. “It’s an important question.”

“That I’m not answering yet,” Steve says mildly. “We’ve not worked out-”

“I vote bastard child,” Bucky interrupts, as usual utterly ignoring Steve.

“Bucky,” Steve tries, but he might as well be talking to himself.

“That’s full of serum?” Bruce asks pointedly.

Steve shakes his head. “Guys-”

Bucky shrugs, spreads his hands wide. “Maybe Steve handed it down.”

Thor is frowning. “I would not suggest denying the child his true heritage,” he offers.

“Yes, but it’s about keeping him safe,” Natasha reminds him. “And the rest of the world. If it gets out that we’re moving bodies between dimensions…”

“Guys-”

“Told you, bastard child is the way to go,” Bucky insists. “The serum could be passed down, right, Banner?”

“It’s possible,” Bruce concedes, and that’s it, Bruce is off the friend list as well. “No-one knows how the serum affects all of his cells after all-”

Clint cackles with laughter. “Are you saying he’s got super-soldier super-sperm?”

“Guys!” Steve shouts over them, finally at the end of his patience. They’re all sniggering and smiling, and he knows they don’t mean anything by it, and he’s grateful that they’re all on board, he really is, but it’s too fresh and raw right now. If he can’t discuss it with Tony then he’s certainly not discussing it with everyone else. “Can we – I know we’ve got to work this out, but right now, can we not?”

“Message received, Captain,” Bucky salutes, and the rest of them exchange looks which are frustratingly significant.

“Good,” Steve says shortly and then sighs, feeling guilty. He breathes out heavily, props his elbow on the table. The silence stretches out, and damnit, he didn’t mean to make things awkward. He needs to fix this, find some way of breaking the tension that he’s created by being so tightly wound.

“I don’t suppose anyone has got any clothes that will temporarily fit a six year old?”

The question works, a perfect peace-offering of sorts, his compromise to talk about Arto whilst avoiding the big issues he’s not yet able to face. They all turn to each other, shaking their heads and shrugging when it becomes clear no-one has anything that Arto could possibly wear.

“Nope,” Clint says, tapping his bottle of beer against his chin. “Sorry, bro. I think we’re all out.”

“Okay, I’m on it,” Natasha says briskly, before Steve can reply or start thinking of a backup plan. “Finish your dinner, Steve. Barnes, you come and help me. Barton, get that man another beer.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky says and obediently gets up.

Steve looks at Natasha, uneasy. “You really don’t-”

“Stop, Steve,” Bruce interrupts him, smiling gently. “Let us, okay?”

“We shall do what we can,” Thor adds. “For you and the boy.”

“What he said,” Natasha says, and walks over to kiss him on the cheek. “Back in half an hour.”

Steve nods wordlessly as she and Bucky leave the room, and looks up as Clint taps his shoulder with a fresh beer bottle. “Would it help if I said I’m fucking stoked that he’s staying?”

Steve sighs, takes the beer gratefully. “Not sure. Tell me again in the morning when I’ve had some sleep.”

“Will do,” Clint says, and claps him on the shoulder. “Hey, Thor, did you ever work out who it was that was fucking with the energy fields in your shiny gold castle in the clouds?”

The conversation turns back to Thor’s business on Asgard and Steve sits back, slowly finishing his food. He doesn’t even try to listen, though he supposes after the day he’s had he can be excused. His thoughts are a million miles away, flitting restlessly through his head but always circling back to the same point.

He’s got a child.

He still doesn’t know if he can do this.

 


 

“No, no, we’ve been over this already, the water goes in the bathtub, not-” 

Tony stops, throwing up a hand as Arto crows with delight and throws himself forwards into the tub again, sending water splashing everywhere. Tony is already soaked, as is the rest of the bathroom. Ah well. It’s only Clint’s bathroom; he’ll get over it.

“Really,” Tony says, wiping his face with his hand. “You are a nightmare, you are a water based terror-”

Arto’s head pokes up over the side of the tub and he laughs at Tony, who is sitting next to the bath on his ass, leaning back against the cool tile of the wall.  His eyes are bright and mischievous, and despite the mess Tony is actually pretty glad Arto didn’t decide to object to bath-time. The moment he saw the tub he’d been in it, without any water and still in his clothes. The clothes in question are on the floor – and drenched – and Tony has no intention of ever letting him put those damn scrubs back on.

“I like the water,” Arto volunteers, gripping the edge of the tub and stretching out, kicking with his feet and sending bubbles everywhere.

“You know, I couldn’t tell,” Tony says seriously, and Arto laughs again. He looks so young and carefree and Tony makes a mental vow to keep that expression on his face as much as he can.

“Look,” Arto says, and scrambles about onto his knees, reaching up and over the edge of the tub with a handful of bubbles with he promptly wipes onto Tony’s hair. He starts to laugh and laugh, and Tony is trying to keep a straight face and can’t quite manage it.

“You are a terror,” he says again, and gives up and starts laughing.

“I like water,” Arto says again. “I can swim.”

“You can swim?” Tony echoes, surprised.

“I can swim further than you.”

“You know, you probably can,” Tony concedes. “But not in the bathtub.”

“Can,” Arto says, and dives under the water, sending another wave over the edge of the tub. In retrospect, Tony shouldn’t have filled it as full as he did. Arto emerges with a sound like a war cry, spreading his arms and jumping up, splashing back down onto his knees.

A knock at the door draws his attention; Tony cranes his head around to see Steve standing there, half in and half out of the door. He looks tired, Tony notices. And not just physically; he’s got that pinched look that says he’s about had it in terms of emotional strain as well.

“Was operation find jammies a success?” Tony asks, trying to keep the tone light. “Operation flood Barton’s bathroom definitely was.”

“I can swim!” Art shouts, and Steve looks startled at the volume.

“He can swim,” Tony repeats with a nod, and winces as more water splashes over the side of the tub.

“Got it, he can swim,” Steve says slowly, and edges into the bathroom. “Courtesy of Bucky and Nat,” he says, and holds out a carrier bag to Tony, rubbing his forehead with his free hand and looking harried. Tony climbs to his feet and takes the bag, looking inside and biting down on a laugh.

“Not a word,” Steve says tiredly. “They think they’re funny.”

“I think they’re hilarious,” Tony says with a wide grin as he fishes out the child-sized set of Captain America pajamas, holding up the top and shaking it out. “Hey, Art, what do you think?”

“What is it?” Arto asks, standing up in the tub and reaching for it. He grasps the bottom of the shirt, next to one of the vertical red stripes.

“Your new pajamas,” Tony tells him. “For sleeping in, and possibly living in until we can order you some new clothes because you are not getting back into those scrubs.”

“Looks like Steve,” Arto says, touching the neat white star that sits on the chest of the shirt.

“Wow, what a coincidence,” Tony says, perfectly straight faced, putting the pajamas down. “Now get out of the tub so I can get you in them. Steve, grab me a towel.”

Steve tosses one over and Tony barely has it held out before he has an armful of wriggling six year old. “Hey,” he laughs, wrapping the towel around Arto’s shoulders, pushing it back off of his head. Arto grins at him, fingers stuck in his mouth and short blonde hair stuck up in damp, wayward spikes. “Holy hell there’s a child in here. Steve, call the Avengers, this towel is actually a child.”

Arto is giggling, trying to wriggle out of Tony’s grip. He’s not serious though; if he truly wanted to get away Tony doesn’t doubt that he’d be well away. He just seems to be playing, and that’s absolutely fine by Tony.

Not so much by Steve though, apparently. He’s still hovering a little way away, watching them with a carefully neutral expression that could easily edge into his new help-I-am-out-of-my-depth look. He’s not bolted though, so Tony’s going to take it as a win.

“Come on, get dressed. There is far too much accidental nudity in this tower without you adding to the mix,” Tony says firmly. Arto shakes his head, rolling off of Tony’s knee and tangling himself up in the towel. He’s still giggling, and Tony pulls the towel back to see bright blue eyes looking at him. 

“You are a pain,” Tony informs him.

“Eleanor shouts,” is Arto’s reply, muffled by the towel. Tony exchanges a startled glance with Steve, who just shrugs helplessly, obviously as clueless as Tony is in regards to the comment.

“Eleanor? The lady that used to look-” Tony breaks off as Arto starts crawling across the bathroom floor towards Steve and the door. “Get back here, brat.”

“No,” Arto replies happily. “I’m the strongest.”

“Er, no you’re not,” Tony says matter-of-factly and snags Arto’s ankle, sliding him back across the floor on the towel. “Steve is, and Steve says get in the damn pajamas.”

Arto laughs and pulls his ankle free from Tony’s grip, rolling away and heading back towards the tub. Tony rocks forwards but he’s not quick enough; Arto vaults back into the bath with a splash.

“Oh for-” Tony says, and starts to laugh. He looks over at Steve who isn’t laughing, but standing pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers, eyes closed.

“Okay, not funny, message received,” Tony says hastily. “Tagging you in, Captain.”

Steve nods and steps over, pushing away from the doorframe. “Out of the tub,” he says to Arto, who ducks under the bubbles and water. He stays submerged for a good ten seconds and then reappears with a splash, eyes wide, spitting water out. “Can you swim?”

“Yes, I can swim,” Steve says with such forced patience that Tony’s surprised he hasn’t broken something. “Get out of the tub.”

Arto rolls onto his back, splashing with his feet. “How far can you swim?”

Closing his eyes, Steve exhales, nostrils flaring, and Tony can literally see him counting to ten inside his head. When his eyes open again, he walks over to the bath and leans over, grabbing Arto under his arms and fishing him out. Arto shouts with laughter, and Tony quickly stands up and snags Arto, wrapping him up in the towel for a second time.

“Behave,” he says, sitting back down with Arto on his knee. “Steve is tired, he cannot be Arto-fishing all night.”

“I am behave,” Arto replies.

“Behaving, the present tense form of that verb is behaving, and currently you are not, you are being a terror and you are making Steve tired,” Tony says. “Now dry off and get in those pajamas, or I’m getting Natasha to take them back to the store.”

Apparently, a combination of threats and guilt-tripping works wonders on Arto. He looks at Steve and nods, then reaches for the edge of the towel and pulls it over his head, attempting to dry his hair. Tony pretty much sits back and lets him get on with it, and a few minutes later Arto is happily tugging on his new pajamas. The blue suits him as much as it does Steve, and when he’s dressed he grins at Steve, running his palms repeatedly over the star on his chest and looking very pleased with himself.

“Like y – y – y,” he starts, cut off by a sudden and massive yawn. He blinks hard, and then looks up across the room. “Steve,” he says quietly, rubbing at his eye with a fist. In that moment he looks sleepy and peaceful and like any other six year old in the world, getting ready for bed.

“Yeah, bedtime,” Tony says as he leans over to drain the tub. “Lead the way, Cap.”

Steve nods and holds out a hand. Arto clambers to his feet, reaching out and holding onto Steve’s fingers with both of his hands. Tony watches them together, and as expected it hits him right in the chest.

There’s my super-soldiers, he thinks, but he’s not stupid enough to say it out loud, not whilst Steve is still looking as tense as he is.

He grabs a towel and quickly dries himself off, though his shirt and the left leg of his pants are a lost cause anyway. Shrugging, he tosses the towel aside and walks over, gently touching Steve’s shoulder.

“Let’s go,” he says quietly, and Steve nods and walks out of the room, Arto’s hands still gripping his. Arto is quiet and calm, padding softly after Steve in his bare feet, looking around to see where Tony is as he follows. He lets go of Steve’s hand with one of his own to slip two fingers into his mouth, and Tony vaguely thinks that it’s a habit they should probably question at some point-

Steve halts outside Arto’s room, turning to look at Tony. “Is it-?” he begins, and Tony guesses the unfinished question.

“Good as new,” he says, reassuring Steve that the room has been tidied and put back together since the tantrum earlier. He leans past, pushes the door open with one hand. “Ready for little ones to be-”

No!

Arto bolts. He takes one look into the room and tries to run, ducking away from Steve. Tony moves instinctively to grab him but Steve is the one that’s quick enough to grab him, pulling him back and quickly picking him up so he can’t try and abscond again. Arto grabs hold of Steve tightly, arms locked around his neck.

“Hey, hey,” Tony says hurriedly. “Smart Art, calm down.”

“No, no, no,” Arto continues, voice steadily rising in volume. “No, no!”

“Hey, calm down,” Steve tries. “Time to go to sleep-”

“No!” Arto shouts, and tries to throw himself out of Steve’s grip. “Don’t want to, don’t want to go in there!”

A look of pure frustration passes over Steve’s face, and Tony wishes he could take Arto from him and give him a breather but he can’t, not when Arto is using his strength to try and get away.

“What should I-” Steve begins, and has to stop as Arto plants his hands on Steve’s collarbones and pushes hard against him. He sets his jaw, tries to move Arto’s hands away. “Do you want me to put you down?” he asks shortly, and Arto stops pushing, looking wrong-footed for a moment.

Steve takes Arto’s hands away from his collarbones. “I will put you down if you keep pushing.”

“No,” Arto wails. “With you.

“With-” Steve starts, and gives up. His jaw is clenched tightly and he looks like he could very easily start shouting. He won’t, though. Tony knows Steve well enough to be able to say that for definite; no matter how much Arto seems determined to piss him off this evening, he won’t shout at him.

“No,” Arto cries again, but he’s not really crying, not like he was earlier. It’s the sort of wailing that’s all show and no substance, and Tony already knows that Arto can turn it on and off at will. His feet start to kick against Steve’s thighs and Tony steps forwards, about to try and appease Arto when Steve simply turns around and walks back towards the stairs.

“Fine,” he says, sounding like he’s just about had enough. “Come on.” 

“Stay with you,” Arto demands, pulling at one of Steve’s ears. Steve reaches up and pushes his hand away.

“Stop,” he says, and Arto flexes his fingers in Steve’s face and bares his teeth, though he doesn’t pull at Steve’s ear again. Steve ignores it and simply heads up the stairs, Arto still held safely in one arm. Tony hurries after him, feeling a little bemused.

“Er, Steve?”

“What?” Steve replies without looking back at Tony, and he sounds honest to god exhausted, like he’d slump to the floor and go to sleep then and there if he could get away with it.

“Plan?”

“Sleep,” Steve says shortly. 

“He coming with us?”

“Yep.”

Tony grins, shaking his head and trying not to laugh, though he’s sure the amusement is obvious in his voice. “You folded like a bad poker hand, Rogers.”

“Shut up, Tony.”

Tony bites his tongue and simply follows Steve all the way up to the penthouse. Arto is looking around with wide eyes, the apparent distress completely gone for the moment.  Steve walks over to the couch that’s in the main living space and deposits Arto on it, who promptly howls and reaches for Steve again, rolling himself over and making grabby hands in the air.

“With you,” he says, and Steve falters, rubbing his brow with his hand and looking like he wants very much to leave Arto where he is and leave the building through the nearest available exit. Maybe even through the window; Tony’s seen him take riskier jumps before.

“We’ll be right next door,” Tony steps in, walking over and crouching down beside the couch. “Look, you sleep here and we’re just through that door,” he tries, but Arto just howls louder, shaking his head. His heels thud back against the frame of the couch and Tony looks up at Steve with a grimace.

Steve stares for a moment and then shakes his head, before stepping over and grabbing Arto again. He lifts him up with his hands tucked under Arto’s arms and Arto twists in his grip, trying to right himself as Steve carries him through to the bedroom and tosses him onto the bed.

Arto hits the mattress with a gasp and flailing limbs, bouncing slightly. He scrambles around, kneeling up and looking around, tantrum once again completely gone. “This is your bed!” he enthuses, immediately pulling at the blankets with his hands. Steve merely walks back out and Tony watches as he easily lifts the couch and carries it through into the bedroom, setting it down next to the bed. Arto watches him do it with wide eyes, something like awe on his small face.

“You still get the couch, kid,” Tony says as Steve disappears into the bathroom, walking over to the closet and heading to the back to find spare blankets and a pillow. When he returns, Arto is looking from the bed to the couch and back again, and then he nods.

“A compromise, hallelujah,” he says, and sets about making some semblance of a bed on the couch.  As he works he feels a small weight slump over his back and smiles.

“Fancy seeing you here,” he says to Arto.

Arto's fingers pull gently at the hair on the back of his head. “Is Steve staying?”

“Yeah,” Tony whispers back. “You know he’s not going to leave you, right?”

Arto just shakes his head, face pressed to the back of Tony’s neck.  He heaves out a sigh and Tony feels a strange warm sensation in his chest, a strange satisfaction that also feels vaguely worrying, in that he doesn’t know how far he’d go to protect that feeling and the small child that’s the cause of it. It’s close to the feeling that settles deep in his chest when he’s with Steve, but not quite the same.

“Come on, get off,” he says, and pushes at Arto who giggles and slides down his back and onto the bed. “Time to sleep.”

“No,” Arto says, and dives for the edge of the blanket, scrambling under it. “No, no, no.”

Tony sighs, staring at the Arto shaped lump that he can see. “The deal was you sleep on the couch, Smart Art.”

“No,” is the muffled reply, and Tony grimaces and decides to leave him there. He hears the bathroom door open again and Steve wanders back into the bedroom, wearing a black pair of pajama pants and no shirt. He’s rubbing a towel over his neck and he doesn’t even pause as he spots the lump under the blankets, just tosses the towel onto the dresser and reaches out to flip the blankets back.

“Move,” he says tiredly, and Arto pouts but does sit up and so, so slowly crawls his way to the edge of the bed, climbing off and onto the sofa.   “Thank you.”

Arto looks genuinely surprised at the praise and Tony feels his heart break a little as Arto smiles up at Steve, all teeth and looking very pleased with himself. He tucks himself into the blankets and lays his head down on the pillow that Tony fetched for him, watching Steve climb into bed.

Steve yawns widely, shutting his eyes and rolling onto his side, facing the couch and Arto. Tony watches Arto watch Steve for a moment and then ducks away to get himself ready for bed. When he comes out of the bathroom, Steve is exactly where he left him but Arto has wriggled off the couch and is curled up next to Steve, head on the corner of Steve’s pillow, eyes closed. Tony smiles, because there’s no way in hell that Steve didn’t feel or hear Arto shifting across, so he’s obviously choosing not to say anything. Probably not a good call in terms of giving into Arto every time he wants something, but still. One night won’t hurt.

“Get in the bed, Tony,” Steve mutters tiredly, without opening his eyes.

“Sir, yes, Sir,” Tony replies and slips into the bed behind Steve. He leans over and presses a kiss to the side of Steve’s face and Steve frowns distractedly, reaching up to push his head away.

“Don’t.”

Tony shakes his head, nuzzling down into Steve’s hair. “Come on. If we’re sharing a bed he’s gonna work out we’re a thing. Besides, Barton already told him.”

“Barton already told me,” Arto echoes sleepily.

“Shush, you,” Tony says. “You are supposed to be sleeping.”

Arto blinks at him, a slow sweep of eyelashes. “I am.”

Tony props himself up on an elbow. “Lies,” he says, reaching over Steve’s shoulder to press his fingertips to Arto’s cheek. “Horrid lies.”

Arto giggles and grabs Tony’s fingers, and his strength is obvious even in the tired grip. “I’m asleep.”

“Both of you, go to sleep,” Steve grumbles, still not opening his eyes.

“Sir, yes, Sir,” Arto says before Tony can open his mouth, and Tony chokes back a laugh. Steve’s eyes open and he just looks at Arto for a long moment, before apparently giving up and shutting his eyes again.

“Sleep,” he murmurs.

“Sleep,” Arto agrees, and wriggles a fraction closer. He shuts his eyes, huffs out a sleepy breath through his nose, opens his eyes and looks at Steve for a moment, and then his eyes slide shut and stay shut.

Tony bends down and kisses the curve of Steve’s jaw again. “Thank you,” he breathes into his ear, and Steve’s forehead creases, fighting back a surge of emotion. He doesn’t reply or even open his eyes, but as Tony settles behind him, he feels a strong hand reach back and pull him close, tugging Tony’s arm around his middle.

More than willing to oblige, Tony curls his body around Steve’s, arm resting over the narrow band of Steve’s waist, fingers brushing the back of Steve’s hand.  He feels Steve’s body relax under his touch, and presses a soft kiss to the back of his neck again.

There’s so much he could say to Steve, about how well he’s doing and how proud Tony is; about how Tony missed him so much over the past few days and is so ridiculously grateful to have him back in his bed and his arms; about how he doesn’t care what happens in this lifetime as long as they stick together, because Natasha was right, them not working is not an option-

He doesn't. Steve doesn’t need all of that right now, he just needs Tony to be there. So Tony stays close to him, breathes out, closes his eyes and sleeps.

Chapter Text

The first thing Tony is aware of when he wakes the next morning is the solid line of warmth along his back. Smiling quietly to himself, he yawns and shifts over onto his back, biting his lip as he sees Steve still flat out asleep, lying on his front with his face turned towards Tony, arms hitched up and tucked under his pillow. There’s a small frown on his face even in slumber. Arto is also still dead to the world, slumped over Steve’s back with his face resting against Steve’s shoulder blade, small hand resting next to his face and curled loosely into a fist. His mouth is hanging open and he’s making odd snuffling noises as he breathes, and Tony has to press his lips together hard to stop himself laughing out loud.

Slowly, he looks to the right and reaches out to pick up his phone from the nightstand, before rolling back and silently snapping a photo. He wonders if Steve was woken by Arto encroaching on his personal space in the night, or if he’s going to wake up and be surprised by it. He kind of hopes it’s the former, because that would mean that Steve has decided not to freak out about it, whereas if it’s the latter he could easily wake up and object.

He presses the edge of his phone to his mouth, watching Steve and Arto for a moment, mind already busy planning. He’s got a hell of a lot to do today; ordering clothes and supplies for Arto, liaising with Sue Storm, finding some sort of professional who will be able to help with Arto’s behaviour, devising a system so Arto can safely move around the tower without risk of absconding or injury, calling Pepper and telling her what’s happened and working out what the plan as far as SI is concerned, consulting the rest of the team and coming up with a Arto-contingency plan if there’s an assemble, and prising some sort of decision about back story out of Steve.

Some of it, he imagines, will be easier than the rest.

His eyes travel over Steve’s face, wishing he could kiss away that damn frown. The light from the open blinds shines in golden and warm over the pair of them, and it hits Tony in that moment just how young Steve looks. That’s something he hadn’t considered either, he realizes. Steve is only twenty-seven, and yeah, he’s done so much and been through so much that maybe Tony considers him older and more mature than he actually is where this is concerned.

Leaving Steve and Arto to sleep, he slides out of bed and pads out of the room, yawning widely. He checks the time; the sun is up and he suspects normal people around the city will already be up and working, but he doesn’t know if it’s still too early to call the Reed-Storm household and casually beg for help.

“Jarvis, patch me through to Barton,” he says instead, because he doesn’t care about waking Clint up, wandering to the window and staring out at the city beyond. He waits for a few moments, and then Clint’s voice comes over the speakers, sounding rough and tired.

“Fuck you, it’s too early.”

“I need you to do me a favour.”

“Okay, let me rephrase. It’s too early, fuck you.”

Tony ignores him and carries right on, because he knows Clint and he knows how much Clint likes Arto, so he’s actually got pretty decent odds on Clint saying yes to his request. “A favour. You know, what friends and teammates do for one another.”

Clint snorts tiredly. “Yeah right. After you trashed my bathroom yesterday?”

“I did no such thing,” Tony denies. “Arto did.”

“I can’t believe you’re already passing the blame onto the small child.”

Tony ignores that as well, and cuts to the chase. “Arto needs clothes. If I give you my credit card, will you go pick him some up?”

There’s a pause. “Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I have got literally ten thousand other things to do,” Tony says. “Including child proofing the tower, meeting with various health professionals about his fits of misplaced rage, and I don’t want to leave Steve to look after him alone when he’s literally only just decided that he can handle him at all. I’m delegating what I can. Come on, help me out.”

“Okay, but only because it’s for Arto and not you,” Clint manages through a jaw cracking yawn. “And I’m buying myself lunch on you as well.”

“Done and done,” Tony says. “No purple.”

“That was not part of the agreement,” Clint says dismissively. “How much stuff are we talking?”

“As much as you can carry. An entire new wardrobe. We’re starting from scratch, all he owns in the world are a pair of Captain America jammies so he needs everything. In fact, wake Barnes up and take him as well.”

“Okay, okay. What size feet does Arto have?”

Tony pauses, flummoxed for a moment. “No idea,” he says blankly, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. He lifts his hands to his forehead, pressing the heels of his palms against his temples, feeling a sudden and frightening wave of panic. “Oh my god, I don’t know his shoe size. That’s something I need to know. I don’t know his blood group. I don’t know his fucking birthday either. I literally know nothing.”

“Whoa, whoa, Tony-” Clint protests. “That’s bullshit. You know a lot of shit.”

It’s not the most articulate sentence ever uttered, but Tony gets the sentiment behind the words. He exhales heavily, wrestling the sharp stab of panic back into submission.  “Eloquent as always, Hawkeye.”

“Sir, if I may,” Jarvis interrupts. “Agent Vasquez took measurements from Arto during her initial assessment, and from that I can infer he is approximately a child’s size one.”

“You are a lifesaving genius,” Tony says, relief coursing through him. “Barton, get shoes in size one and a size either way just incase.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Not funny,” Tony says, running a hand through his hair. Jesus. He cannot afford to lose his shit now, no matter how tempting it is. He knows what he needs to do and he will get it done. The determined thought is enough to help him feel more like himself again, though he does make a mental note to ask Arto when his birthday is the moment the kid is awake.

“It’s a little bit funny,” Clint says through another yawn. “What sort of stuff should I get him?”

“How should I know? He’s six. He’s not going to care what he’s wearing,” Tony says, and then pauses. “Go with blue.”

“Captain America blue?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright,” Clint says. “Bring me the dollar. And a cup of coffee.”

Tony resists the urge to tell him to piss off, because even if he’s been a pain in the ass, Clint is helping him out massively by agreeing to go on the shopping trip. “Okay. Be with you in half an hour,” he says, and ends the call. “Cross that off the to-do list, J,” Tony says, stepping away from the window and heading back towards the bedroom.

“Sir, if I may take a liberty, I will remove the item from the list when Agent Barton has successfully returned without incident or injury.”

Tony laughs. “All these months and you still don’t trust Barton, good man. I love you, J. Never change.”

Smiling, he walks back into the bedroom. Steve and Arto are exactly where he left them, still fast asleep, though he’s now pretty sure that Arto has drooled all over Steve’s shoulder at some point, probably because the brat insists on breathing through his mouth and not his nose when he’s sleeping. The same contented feeling that he felt the day before swells in his chest and he rubs absently at the arc reactor. It’s still a little disconcerting, really, that a week ago he and Steve weren’t even openly acknowledging their relationship and now here he is with an official partner and a kid. A family.

He still thinks it’s pretty awesome.

Even though the kid doesn’t have a surname and Tony still doesn’t know when his birthday is. When he thinks about it rationally though, he is actually pretty certain he’s doing an alright job. He’s read the how-not-to-parent manual – shit, he’s lived it – and he thinks he’s got a decent grasp on how to do right by this kid. Well, mostly – he’s not got the specifics worked out, but he knows that the top item on his list is simply time. He will literally bend this world in two to make sure Arto knows they have time for him, even if that requires sacrifice on his part.

Pushing away from the doorframe, he wonders just how many things he can get crossed off the to-do list before Steve wakes up. Maybe four. Four and a half if he’s really on it. But first, making coffee and handing his Visa over to Barton, and just hoping that he could trust him and Barnes to go shopping without causing an international incident or giving the lawyers heartburn. He doesn't really care if what they do, but he’d rather they not do it whilst in possession of his money.

He smiles ruefully, wondering how this is now his life. “Better get on it, Stark,” he murmurs, and heads for the stairs.

 


 

 

“Steve. Steve. Steve.” 

The whispers of his name slowly bleed into his consciousness, drawing Steve from sleep. For a split second he can’t think who the hell it is, but then it all slots into place. Ah. Yes. That would be the small child who spent the night sleeping on your back, his brain supplies, and even his internal voice sounds weary.

 “Steve.”

 Another, fractionally louder whisper, and then Steve feels small fingers press against his eyelids. He grunts and reaches up to push Arto’s hand away. “I’m asleep,” he grumbles, not opening his eyes.

 There’s a giggle. “Steve,” Arto whispers again, and Steve feels him wriggle closer, hands pushing at his shoulder. “Ste-eve.”

 Still groggy, Steve gives in and opens his eyes. Arto is kneeling on the bed next to him, tousle haired and wide awake, and still wearing those damn Captain America pyjamas. “Tony told me to wake you up.”

 Tony’s a jerk, Steve thinks tiredly. He nods and pushes himself up onto his elbow, rubbing at his eyes and looking around the otherwise empty bed. “Where is Tony?” 

“Don’t know,” Arto says. “He did breakfast and told me to come wake you up. I came by myself.”

Steve isn’t sure how he feels about Arto wandering the tower unsupervised, especially that he’s already shown willingness to hide in the vents and break things when he’s angry. Though Arto doesn’t look remotely angry now; he looks well rested, content and rather pleased with himself.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Did he say why I had to get up?”

Arto nods and reaches forwards, touching Steve’s hair. “Said you had to get your star spangled ass out of bed.”

Steve is going to kill Tony Stark. Or at the very least bash him over the head with the shield a few times. “Right,” he says, deciding to ignore that for the time being. “Didn’t really answer my question, but okay.”

Arto pushes his fingers further into Steve’s hair, threading into the blond strands and tugging gently. Steve lets him do it for a moment, and then reaches up and moves Arto’s hand away. Arto snags hold of his fingers as he does and promptly pulls Steve’s arm around, rolling over into him and bumping against his chest.

“Like it here,” Arto says, lying on his back and blinking up at Steve. He presses a foot against Steve’s hip, pushing against him.

“Yeah?” Steve asks.

“Don't have to stay in lab. People to talk to,” Arto says. He shoves harder with his foot and Steve reflexively grabs it. Arto giggles and kicks out at him with his other foot, and Steve shakes his head.

“Don’t kick,” he says. Arto looks at him and pushes against Steve’s hand again, as if testing how much he can get away with. “I’m serious. No kicking,” Steve says.

“Playing,” Arto says, flexing his toes.

“Yes, but you are stronger than most people,” Steve says. “You won’t hurt me, but if you kick like that at Tony, or at Clint, you’ll hurt them.”

Arto looks confused. “Got to be strongest.”

“You cannot hurt people,” Steve says, unwavering. He meets Arto’s eyes, blue on blue. Arto still looks confused and uncertain, and Steve feels a flicker of doubt creep in, because he doesn’t know if talking to Arto like that will set him off-

Arto pulls his feet free from Steve’s hands and scrambles around, throwing himself on Steve, curling up as small as he can and tucking himself into Steve’s chest. Startled, Steve wraps an arm around him, palm on his back. He opens his mouth but finds he doesn’t know what to say, so just gives up and instead hesitantly strokes his hand over Arto’s shoulders. Arto shudders, trying to wriggle impossibly closer, and Steve finds himself shushing him and rubbing his hand in small circles on his back-

“Why is the small child trying to hide in your cleavage?” Tony asks as he walks in, phone in hand and frown on his face. Steve’s mouth falls open in affront, and then he narrows his eyes at Tony.

“Why did the small child wake me up by telling me to get my star spangled ass out of bed?”

Tony winces. “Wow, he heard that huh? I was on the phone to Sue, I didn’t actually say it to him. Art, why are you trying to hide in Steve’s-”

“If you say cleavage to me, around me or in reference to me ever again,” Steve begins, but doesn’t finish the sentence because he’s just told Arto that he’s not allowed to hurt people, so threatening Tony is probably a little hypocritical of him.

“God, you’re just no fun at all,” Tony says, and walks closer. “Good morning, by the way,” he says, and leans over and kisses Steve on the mouth.

“Yeah, don’t think you’re off the hook that easily,” Steve says, and looks down to Arto who has turned his face around and is watching Tony, eyes bright.

“Don’t listen to him, Arto,” Tony says dismissively, and clambers up onto the bed, kneeling next to them. “He’s not really mad at me. He thinks I’m the best thing in the universe, his world literally revolves around me and my greatness.” Tony reaches out and snags Arto, picking him up with an arm under his knees and one around his back. “I think this belongs to me, I need it back.”

Steve watches as Arto laughs, squirming in Tony’s grip. “No,” he says, pushing against Tony’s chest. “Don’t need me.”

“I do, every minute of every day,” Tony says, shuffling back on his knees. “Steve, I’m taking this. Don’t try and stop me.”

Despite himself, Steve feels a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he watches them. He feels it in his chest, a sense of uncertainty and awe, something that might be pride in Tony and how well he’s doing with this. It’s just like Tony really, to shrug off life-shattering events like it’s nothing. People call Steve brave but honestly, after everything Tony has ever been through and the way he can just keep on going, he thinks Tony’s the bravest man he’s ever met.

“Steeeeve,” Arto says through his laughter as Tony climbs off the bed, hitching Arto up. He throws his arms out towards Steve, fingers grasping at air.

“Sorry, nope, you are mine and I am exercising my rights of ownership,” Tony says. “Stop wriggling, or I am going to drop you on your head.”

Arto makes a loud chirping, beeping noise and twists around; Tony laughs and sets him on the floor. Arto grins, scrambling to his feet and grabbing a fistful of Tony’s shirt.

“Like it here,” he says, and pulls hard on Tony’s shirt. There’s a ripping sound and Tony immediately grabs for his wrist.

“Whoa, super-strength,” he says. “This is my eleventh favourite shirt, be nice to it. You don’t see me ripping your Captain America jammies.”

Arto lets go of the fabric immediately, pressing his hands defensively over the star on his chest. “No.”

“The word you’re looking for is sorry,” Tony tells him. “You now say, sorry shirt, I didn’t mean to rip you.”

“Sorry shirt I didn’t mean to rip you,” Arto repeats immediately.

“There we go,” Tony says easily. “Now scram. Your tablet is through there on the couch. I want to talk to Steve.”

Arto looks at Steve, uncertain. “Just in the next room,” Steve says and he nods and darts away, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“He makes strange noises,” Tony says, and walks back to the bed, sitting on it and tucking a leg up underneath him. He looks bright and awake, fully dressed in dark jeans and a well worn t-shirt. Steve spots his hair is slightly damp, curling over his ears.  He wants to pull him close and press his face into the hollow of his throat, inhale the scent of clean skin and warmth.

“Yeah, I noticed,” Steve says. “You think it’s normal?”

“I have no idea,” Tony replies. “But I’m assembling a team of people who might.”

“Yeah? Who?”

“I called Phil this morning, after I spoke to Sue Storm. She’s coming over for breakfast by the way, it’s why I sent Smart-Art to get you up. Anyway, Phil did some digging on our behalf and has found a guy called Yasin Amir. He’s an expert in child psychology, apparently, and he’s willing to come and work with us.”

“Do we trust him?” Steve asks. He glances towards the door as he hears a thump and Arto making another high pitched beeping noise.

“Coulson seems to think he’s okay,” Tony says. “He’s ready to contact him…”

“But?”

“But we need to have our stories straight before we speak to him,” Tony says apologetically. “If we don’t want to broadcast the fact Art’s from another dimension then we can’t let anyone know outside of who already does. I mean, I have faith in Phil’s patented ‘I will do horrendous things to you with a stun-gun if you break confidentiality’ speech, but why take the risk.”

Steve looks at him, contemplative. “You don’t think we should tell anyone he’s from another dimension.”

“No,” Tony says, honest and unapologetic. “We make up some story about him being cloned here, or being yours here, we can deal with that. But the minute people clock we’ve been moving people between dimensions…we pretty much broke the only law on inter-dimensional travel by bringing him back. We’re just lucky that there aren’t actually any official rules on it yet, because Reed didn’t officially tell anyone that he’d managed it.”

“Sounds like Reed,” Steve murmurs, thinking hard. He rubs his mouth with his hand. “Give me time to think it over?” he asks. “I’ll work out what I’m going to tell everyone and call Phil later this afternoon.”

Tony looks taken aback. “You will?”

“Yes, I will,” Steve says, and Tony smiles, the small soft smile that Steve only ever sees directed at him. Steve smiles back, a weak hitch to the corner of his mouth. He sits up properly, lifting a knee under the covers and propping his elbow on it, rubbing a hand over the back of his head.

“How did Phil even know we needed a psychologist?”

“Barton,” Tony shrugs. “Hard to miss the black eye and the lump on his head. Phil wanted to know who was beating up his precious baby bird.”

“I hardly think Phil sees Clint as precious. He threatens to kill him at least once a week.”

“It’s a threat delivered with love,” Tony says with a huff of laughter. “I think the rationale is that no-one gets to main Barton but him.”

Steve laughs tiredly, and Tony slides a hand to join Steve’s on the back of his neck, tangling their fingers together. “Feeling okay this morning?” Tony asks. “You look better. Less stressed.”

“Better,” Steve says honestly. “Okay.”

Tony’s mouth twitches. “Were you aware of him commandeering you as a mattress last night?”

“Yes,” Steve says wearily. “I put him back on the couch twice, gave up with the couch and moved him off me onto the bed three times and then just gave up.”

“I think he appreciated it,” Tony says with a warm, grateful smile. Steve just swallows, the knot of anxiety still there in his stomach.

“How are you finding this so easy?”

“Look at me,” Tony instructs, and Steve does, lifting his chin to meet Tony’s eyes with a little trepidation. “This morning, I nearly had a panic attack because I realized I didn’t know when his birthday was.”

Steve frowns, not sure what Tony’s getting at. “You did?”

“Yes,” Tony says. “I was talking to Barton and I literally nearly dropped to the floor in a pile of tears and self-loathing because I realized didn’t know the kid's shoe size. I didn’t know that, and I don’t know his goddamn birthday. Look, it’s not easy. But I’m doing it for him, so all my panicking, all my bullshit has to take a back seat.”

Steve feels a combination of guilt and mild-offense roll through him, hearing the unspoken implication in the words. “And I’m not doing that. You’re doing it just fine, and I-”

“Darling, you are doing just fine,” Tony interrupts. “Take it from someone who is both a little older and wiser than you are.”

“A little bit older?” Steve asks, and the corner of Tony’s mouth twitches.

“A minuscule little bit,” Tony says. “It’s a bullshit explanation really, but I am older, ergo more emotionally resilient. You don’t stop growing up when you hit twenty-five, you know. And if you’re Barnes or Barton, you don’t start growing up until you hit twenty-five-”

“Cut them some slack,” Steve says. “They’re being better than me at the moment.”

“Yeah, actually, they’ve surprised me,” Tony says thoughtfully. “Look, Steve, I know I haven’t helped one bit. I expected you to be on the same page as me from the get go, but you weren’t. That wasn’t entirely your fault, and I shouldn’t have made you feel like it was.”

Steve nods, and reaches for Tony’s elbow. He tugs him closer and Tony goes willingly, leaning over him and gently kissing him. He tastes familiar and comforting, and Steve tightens his grip on him marginally. Tony pulls back but Steve shakes his head wordlessly, catching Tony’s mouth again. He holds onto Tony’s words in his mind; hearing them this morning feels infinitely better than it did the day before-

“Are you married?”

They break apart and Steve looks up to see Arto standing in the doorway, tablet in hand and suspicious look on his face.

“Good god, no,” Tony says, startled.

Arto just eyes them for a moment longer. “Okay,” he says, and turns around and walks back out.

Steve watches him go, open mouthed. He mentally shakes himself and then looks at Tony, who just shrugs. “Beats me,” he says. “Now get up.”

Steve nods and climbs out of the bed. He ducks into the bathroom to shower, taking his time under the hot spray. He knows he can’t really afford to dawdle, not with people on the way and the huge amounts of Arto related tasks that they need to get done, but he can’t bring himself to rush. It feels like a moment of respite, twenty minutes in which he can be alone and just breathe, and not have to do anything.

He braces his arm against the wall of the shower, letting the spray pelt between his shoulder blades and realizing that for the first time in days, he feels like himself. The ball of stress and anxiety still sits there in the pit of his stomach, but now it feels like something that he can deal with. Maybe its Tony’s confession that he’s also freaking out, maybe it’s that he’s actually spending time with Arto that doesn’t involve mayhem and bloodshed. Maybe he’s just getting over the shock, he doesn’t know.

Fuck it. He’s Steve Rogers. He’s Captain America. And he can be as scared as he likes, as long as he still does what needs to be done.

He turns and rinses his hair under the water, breathing out through his mouth, mind already turning over a plan of action. He grasps onto the idea gratefully, because he’s always at his best when he’s planning, strategizing, working out what to do. Though there is the slight complication that he doesn’t have a fucking clue about what to do with a six-year-old copy of him from an alternative dimension; the anxious feeling in his gut threatens for a moment, and with it comes an urge to stay hidden in the shower all damn day-

No, he tells himself. No more running, no more hiding.

It’s not as hard as he thought it would be to step out of the shower and back into the world. He gets dressed, looks at himself in the mirror for a long, hard moment and then walks out of the bedroom and back into the living space. Tony is sitting on the one remaining couch with Arto sprawled next to him, looking at the tablet in fascination. Tony is showing him something, and Arto’s eyes are wide and curious.

“Apparently, we like sharks,” Tony says vaguely to Steve without looking up. “Hey, you can get sharks as pets, right?”

“Teeth,” Arto says, reaching out and touching the tablet. He takes over from Tony, flicking through pictures, eyes and fingers both moving rapidly.

“Sharp teeth,” Tony says. “Good for eating small children who don’t sleep in their own beds.”

Tony,” Steve interjects, but Arto just grins and bares his teeth at Tony. Steve shakes his head and walks over, leaning on the back of the couch. “I assume he’s staying in the pajamas?”

“Assumption correct, seeing as I threw those scrubs he had on in the trash. Barnes and Barton have gone shopping for him,” Tony says. “I delegated.”

“You do realize that that means he’s going to end up with a wardrobe consisting entirely of Avengers merchandise or things in various shades of purple?”

“On my list of things to care about, that is a concern that is fairly low down,” Tony says. “Right, Smart-Art, we’ve got a friend coming over and your presence is required. You need to be there.”

Arto draws back, looking suspicious. “Who. Why?”

“My friend Sue is coming to drink coffee with us and admire how cute you are.”

Arto still doesn’t look sure. “Steve is coming for breakfast too,” Tony says, and of course that makes it all okay. Arto nods immediately and climbs up onto the couch cushions, leaning over the back and reaching up for Steve. Steve leans forwards and swings him up without thinking about it, setting him on his hip.

“Sharks have teeth,” Arto tells Steve.

Steve glances at him as he wanders back into the bedroom, leaning down and snagging his phone off the dresser, careful not to tip Arto too far as he does. “Yeah, they do,” he agrees as he flicks it open with his thumb and sees a message from Bucky. He opens it and stares at the picture he’s been sent; an image of Clint wearing his usual sunglasses and shit-eating grin, standing in the aisle of a department store. He’s holding up an Iron Man kid’s costume in one hand, giving the camera a thumbs up with the other. The text underneath reads ‘Can we dress baby Cap as a baby Iron Man?’

Steve shakes his head. ‘You are not funny,’ he texts back, hitching Arto up with his other arm and wandering back out of the bedroom, eyes still on his phone.

The reply comes through almost immediately. ‘I love you.’

‘If you loved me you’d stop.' 

He shoves his phone into the pocket of the sweatpants he’s wearing. Tony is standing there with a questioning expression on his face.

Steve just arches an eyebrow at him. “When Bucky and Clint get back, I am blaming everything stupid they have done entirely on you.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Avengers merchandise and shades of purple?”

“Entirely your fault,” Steve reiterates, catching Arto’s hand as he pulls at the neck of Steve’s shirt, holding gently onto his fingers so he doesn't do it again and rip it. 

“Sir, Sue Storm has arrived,” Jarvis’s voice says calmly over the speakers.

“Gotcha,” Tony says. “Bring her up, tell her we’ll meet her on the communal floor. Where is everyone else?”

“The only other person currently in the tower is Doctor Banner, and he is currently in the kitchen.”

Steve follows Tony down from the penthouse. “Lift?” Tony asks Arto, who shakes his head violently. “Stairs it is,” he says, and together they walk down the four floors to the communal floor. When they arrive they find Sue Storm already there, sitting at the counter with Bruce, cup of coffee in front of her.

“Good morning,” she says warmly, and even though part of him wants no-one to know about the current state of affairs in the tower, most of Steve is glad to see her. Her own children are seven and four respectively, so she’s probably the best person to have around right about now. Not that her children are genetically engineered super-soldiers with violent tempers, but it’s a start.

“Morning beautiful,” Tony says, walking over and leaning in to kiss her cheek. “Thank you for coming over.”

“Any time,” she says, gently touching his elbow and then turning to look at Steve. She looks bright and well, dressed casually and with her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. “So, who is this handsome young gentleman?”

“You know who Steve is,” Tony says dismissively, and Sue shakes her head, looking amused.

“I’m Sue,” she says to Arto, who is leaning against Steve’s shoulder and looking at her with wide eyes. He looks like butter wouldn’t melt, perfectly innocent. “I’m a friend of Steve and Tony’s.”

Arto still doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t seem fazed. Across the counter, Tony is making more coffee and Bruce is sitting watching, expression quiet and contemplative.

“I like your pajamas,” Sue says, reaching out to gently touch the sleeve of Arto’s blue top. “You look very heroic.”

“Like Steve,” Arto suddenly says, and Sue smiles.

“You know, I thought you reminded me of someone,” she says with a mischievous smile, and Arto grins and hides his face back in Steve’s shirt.

Steve is torn between being impressed, grateful, taken aback and mildly annoyed. He shakes his head and pulls out a chair with his free hand. “Gonna get down?” he asks Arto.

“No,” Arto says, and he grabs hold of Steve’s shirt in both fists, and bingo. There’s the Arto that Steve knows. “No, no, no.”

“Jeez, Art, we heard you the first time,” Tony says. “Here. Coffee for Steve and juice for small creature.”

“So, Tony’s filled me in on the basics,” Sue says as Steve sits down next to her, Arto still on his lap. Her expression is calm and understanding, and Steve feels it like a weight on his shoulders. It feels a little like how the shield does some days; a wonderful privilege and a terrible burden all at the same time.

“Yeah,” Steve says, uncertain of what to say. He’s very aware of Arto sitting there listening to every word.

“Hey, Smart-Art, let’s go hook you up with some cartoons,” Tony says suddenly. “Come on. Let Steve drink his coffee in peace and catch up with Sue, and he’ll come play with you when we’re done. How about you watch cartoons and draw him a picture, and after we’re done here with boring adult stuff, he’ll draw you one back.”

Arto doesn’t look sold on the idea. “Can’t draw,” he says suspiciously.

“Oh yes he can,” Tony says. “He might even draw you a shark, if you ask nicely enough.”

“Okay,” Arto immediately says, and slides off Steve’s knee and heads over to the TV, scrambling onto the couch.

“So, you seem to have already got the hang of the first rule of parenting,” Sue observes, looking amused.

“What, bribery and extortion?” Tony replies distractedly as he moves around the kitchen, opening a cupboard and pulling out a packet of bagels, tossing them onto the table in front of Steve. “Yeah, it sometimes works. Jarvis, give the boy the cartoons. Anything but Spongebob Squarepants.”

“Why the aversion to Spongebob?” Bruce asks with a raised eyebrow.

“They water plants,” Tony says, and Bruce stares at him, nonplussed. “They live under the water, and they water the plants. No. That’s an insult to intelligence and I won’t tolerate it.”

“I’m not even going to ask,” Steve says wearily.

“You don’t need to ask, Steve. They water plants underwater.”

“Tony, you try and – and I’m quoting you directly here – you try and ‘break physics’ on a regular basis and you’re objecting to a kid’s cartoon for making a joke out of doing the same?”

“Heathen,” Tony replies. “Bruce, tell him.”

Bruce just frowns slightly, resting his elbow on the edge of the table and observing Tony critically, eyes slightly narrowed and thoughtful expression firmly in place. “You are in charge of raising a child,” he says contemplatively, and Sue laughs into her mug of coffee.

“I’m not in charge, Steve is in charge,” Tony says, and Steve catches the faint edge of a wince, almost as if Tony’s realized what he just said. “You want those toasting?” he asks, nodding at the bagels and trying to casually recover from his slip.

“Yeah,” Steve says, finding that he's actually not all that bothered by Tony saying he's in charge. He knows he is, but after yesterday he also knows that the others have got his back. “What have we got to go in them?”

“Cream cheese, eggs, bacon, ham,” Bruce fills in. “No salmon, Bucky ate that earlier."

“Cream cheese and ham it is,” Steve says, and makes to get up.

“I got it,” Tony says, slipping a hand onto Steve’s shoulder to keep him in his seat.

Steve narrows his eyes. “You normally complain when you end up making me breakfast.”

“Horrid lies,” Tony says, and Sue laughs. “I’m being kind, why do you always look suspicious when I’m being kind.”

“Because your brand of being kind never involves making food for other people,” Steve says matter-of-factly, and grins as Tony shoves at his shoulder before moving away.

“I’m liking this,” Sue says, nodding towards them and still smiling. “You two are adorable now you’re not acting like you hardly know each other.”

“Also horrid lies,” Tony says, pulling open the refrigerator. “We are not adorable.”

“I’d have to agree,” Bruce says dryly. “You’re more like..like a penrose triangle.”

“A what?” Steve asks, looking from Bruce to Tony.

“An impossible triangle,” Tony says, pulling various tubs out of the refrigerator and sliding them onto the counter in front of Steve, before snagging the packet of bagels and walking over to the toaster. “The illusion.”

“Oh, like the impossible stairs?”

“Yes,” Bruce nods. “I mean, you look at you two together, and it shouldn’t make sense, but it does.”  

“That’s a good way of putting it,” Sue muses. “You two do make sense in a very strange, inexplicable way.”

“Don’t say that in front of Reed, he’ll hear the word inexplicable and take it as a challenge,” Tony mutters vaguely, eyes on the toaster. “Hey, Steve, I hope you’re not fussy about how toasted these things come out.”

“Not in the slightest,” Steve says, choosing not to get involved with the conversation about just how much sense he and Tony do or do not make. He’s still firmly of the opinion that even if they are now more open about their relationship, it is their business and no-one elses.

“TONY.”

Tony looks up from the toaster as Arto shouts his name, scrambling up over the back of the sofa, kneeling up on the cushions and gripping the back with both hands.

“What?”

“Don’t have my tablet.”

“Go and get it then,” Tony says, nonplussed. “You left it upstairs, right? You know the way by now. We will be here when you get back, promise.”

Arto nods and clambers off the sofa, running across to the stairwell and vanishing out of sight. Steve can hear him scrambling up the stairs at a fair speed, and hopes he doesn’t fall or hurt himself.

“You sure it’s wise letting him go around by himself?” Bruce asks carefully, and Steve is glad that he’s not been the one to say it.

“Jarvis has got it,” Tony shrugs, reaching over to grab a plate just as the toaster makes a faint beeping sound. He extricates the bagels and hands the plate to Steve.

“What if he gets into the vents again?” Steve says pointedly as he takes the plate with a nod of thanks.

“Then we send Barton in to get him out,” Tony says. “You’re asking me this like I have any idea what I’m doing. I don’t. I just – he’s clearly got issues about being left on his own, away from you,” he emphasizes, nodding at Steve, “so if he’s willing to do something by himself, I’m all for it.”

“Wait, he got into the vents?” Sue asks, frowning.

“Yes, when he first got here. He also punched Clint in the face, bit Bucky, demolished the guest room when I wasn’t here and refused to sleep in his own bed last night,” Steve says bluntly.

“Yeah, don’t let the innocent act fool you,” Tony says. “He’s…got issues. He doesn’t communicate well. He doesn’t always listen. Shouts and screams to get his own way, and you can imagine a temper tantrum from a miniature super-soldier who's been raised in a lab by Hydra scientists-”

“Barely,” Sue says, with a pained expression. “Sounds like a handful.”

“And the rest,” Tony says. “Doesn’t help that we’ve only got two people in the building that are capable of dealing with him when he does flip out. Well, three if you count Thor, but he's in and out so often that it's not sensible to rely on him to be here.”

Sue nods. “It can’t be all bad, though?” she ventures. “What is he like when he’s not - not so angry?”

Steve, with a mouthful of bagel, finds himself unable to answer, but luckily Tony dives straight in for him. “Clingy, handsy, pretty quiet,” Tony shrugs. “Likes to watch people. He doesn’t talk a lot. Well, he’s talking more than he did but his vocabulary is shot to all hell. He knows more swear words than he does colours.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope,” Tony says without pause. “He likes to draw, which is a happy coincidence. He also likes being in the bath, Lucky Charms and watching Clint play computer games. Not actually all that much to go on.”

“Well, he’s not been here long,” Sue reasons. “At least you’ve worked out some things he likes. It must be pretty scary for him being here so suddenly.”

“I don’t think he’s scared,” Steve says without thinking, wiping his fingers absentmindedly on his jeans. “Not of being here, anyway. Confused, maybe. If he’s scared of anything, he’s scared of being taken somewhere else again.”

“Well he’s not going anywhere again, so that’s not an issue,” Tony begins.

“Tony,” Bruce interjects softly, and nods over towards the stairwell. Arto is standing there, just visible around the corner wall. He doesn't move for a long moment, so Steve holds out a hand and Arto darts over, his tablet clutched in his hand.

“There you are,” Tony says as Arto scrambles up onto Steve’s knee, looping an arm around his neck and nearly knocking Steve’s plate off the edge of the table with a wayward foot. “What, you get lost on the way?”

Arto’s chooses to ignore him, curling around and burying his face in Steve’s neck, heaving out a sigh. Steve grimaces and tries to gently prise Arto’s arms from around his neck, feeling the corner of the tablet digging into his spine.

“Remember the deal, Short Round,” Tony says, shoving Steve's breakfast into relative safety at the center of the table. “Come on.”

He stands up and steps up, slotting his hands under Arto’s arms. He goes to pull him back but he just clings tighter to Steve, making a high-pitched squeak. Tony pulls an exasperated face, and doesn’t let go. “I know you heard me, you horrid creature. Let him go or no drawing later.”

Arto makes another chirping noise and loosens his hold on Steve marginally. Steve nods at Tony and Tony heaves Arto up, lifting him with hands under his arms. Arto laughs and lets himself go limp, arms and legs dangling in space.

“You are a terror,” Tony tells him matter-of-factly, and Arto just giggles. “An absolute terror, I am going to feed you to the sharks, just see if I don’t.”

Steve turns back to the others as Tony deposits Arto on the sofa, running a gentle hand over his head. Sue is watching Tony with a thoughtful expression on her face, and then she turns back to Steve. “Is he always so clingy with you?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, immediately reaching out his his breakfast again; he’s got an odd feeling that he’s going to have to grab opportunities to eat whenever he can if Arto keeps being a pain at mealtimes. “I mean, he gets on with Tony and Clint, but he tends to cling to me.”

“Why you?” Sue asks, sounding intrigued. “Does he know-?”

“Because Steve is the strongest,” Tony interjects as he walks back over. “He equates being stronger with being better, probably because of his upbringing a la Hydra scientists. When he got here, he had a meltdown in the lab and Steve was the only one strong enough to pin him. Well, Bucky could have, but Steve was the one who did.”

“Franklin went through a clingy phase,” Sue says, cupping her mug in his hands. “For about a week I was at a complete loss, I couldn’t even put him down without him screaming.”

“How did you get over it?” Tony asks.

Sue grimaces. “Had to learn to put up with the screaming,” she says ruefully. “He got over it pretty quickly when he learned that screaming didn’t mean getting picked back up. Children need the boundaries.”

“Boundaries?” Bruce repeats, sounding dubious.

“Yes, I realize that I’m saying this to two men who spend ninety percent of their time pushing and breaking every boundary they come across,” Sue says with a faint smile. “But he’s going to need them. He’s going to have to learn what is okay and what isn’t, and you have to stick with it.”

“Easier said than done,” Bruce says, looking from Steve to Tony and back to Sue. “You say no to this kid and he could easily break an arm or a leg.”

Sue glances over to where Arto is watching the television, mouth hanging open and tablet clutched forgotten in his hands. He looks perfectly content and like a normal six-year-old, but Steve feels the anxiety returning, unease churning in his stomach because Arto is not normal, and he knows Sue is trying to help but all it’s doing is reminding him of everything he doesn’t know how to deal with-

“True,” Tony says absently, drumming his fingers on the table-top. “Gonna be problematic when we start introducing him to new people. I mean, he’s going to need to meet people his own age, but what happens when they don’t share and he breaks them?”

“And if he’s six, he should legally be in some form of education,” Bruce says thoughtfully.

“We can’t put him in mainstream,” Tony replies instantly. “Not state, not private. Not even if he wasn’t a super-soldier.”

“No-one would expect you to,” Sue says gently. “There are other options though.”

The anxiety wallowing in Steve’s gut floods immediately and painfully into outright panic. Fuck, Tony is nodding and Sue is talking about home tutors, and they haven’t even got the kid to sleep in his own fucking bed or eat a proper meal and they’re already miles ahead of him-

His phone rings.

He stands up, pulling it out of his pocket, sheer dizzy relief coursing through him as he sees Bucky’s name on the screen. He holds it up to Tony who nods, and Steve ducks out of the room, answering the call as he does.

“I love you,” he says without preamble, taking the stairs down three at a time. “Never let me tell you any different.”

“Ohhhh-kay,” Bucky says, sounding wary. “What did I do? What did you do?”

“Sue Storm is here and she and Tony and Bruce are talking about damn schools,” he says, his feet taking him automatically into the gym. He walks over to the boxing ring and rolls neatly under the ropes, lying flat on his back atop the canvas.

“Whoa, that’s a bit much ain’t it?” Bucky says, sounding confused. Steve can hear faint voices and bustle in the background; Bucky and Clint must still be out shopping. “Let me guess, you are now freaking out.”

“LIttle bit,” Steve admits, breathing out as he throws an arm up over his eyes.

“Well you know Tony,” Bucky says. “He’s a thousand light years ahead of everyone else. He can’t help it, it’s just the way his brain works.”

Steve sighs. “I really need to get my act together,” he says glumly. “If you’re still the one talking sense into me.”

“Oh har fucking har,” Bucky says. “I’ve been talking sense into you since nineteen twenty eight, don’t act like it’s something new, Spangles.”

“It’s just so damn hard,” Steve hears himself say. “I think I’ve got my footing and then Tony does or says something to completely knock me sideways and leave me feeling utterly incompetent.”

Bucky pauses. “You ain’t gonna fall out with him again, are you?”

“God, no,” Steve says. “I’m not even mad at him about it. I’m just saying. That’s how I feel.”

“I your fucking personal therapist now or something?”

“You’ve been doing it since nineteen twenty eight, why stop now?” Steve says, and Bucky snorts with laughter. Steve sighs again, rubbing at his forehead. “The kid spent the whole night asleep on my back.”

“What, like a koala?”

Steve sighs. “Yes, Bucky. Like a koala.”

“Why wasn’t he in his room?”

“He wouldn’t,” Steve says, and he sounds defensive even to his own ears. “He wanted to stay with me and started kicking and screaming, so I let him.”

“Pushover,” Bucky says cheerfully.

“I changed my mind, I hate you,” Steve says grumpily. “Why are you calling me, anyway.”

“We finished buying clothes for the koala.”

“And?”

“We ended up in Toys R Us.”

Steve shuts his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose, because he knows Clint and he knows Bucky and he’d almost rather set them on task to defuse a bomb than let them loose in a toy store when they’ve got mischievous intent.

“You know, I’m glad that you’ve lightened up some since the whole Winter Soldier thing, but please leave the toy store.”

“Aw, Stevie, you wound me. I’m so well behaved. Too cool for playing around in toy stores.”

“Yeah nice try. I’d maybe believe that if you weren’t there with Clint.”

“Hey Barton,” Bucky calls, and his voice goes distant, presumably as he leans away from the phone to talk to Clint. “Captain America thinks you’re a bad influence.”

Bucky."

“Right. We’re buying baby-you toys. I thought you might object to giving him a nerf gun.”

“Objection sustained,” Steve says immediately. “Do not buy him anything that looks or acts like a weapon.”

“Told you,” Bucky says, and his voice has gone distant again. “Barton, no mini-bow.”

“No, definitely no mini-bow,” Steve calls vehemently, hoping that his voice carries and is enough to dissuade Clint from what sounds like a monumentally bad idea. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

“You’re no fun,” he hears Clint say in the background, but there are no further objections or arguments, so he can only hope that the pair are listening.

“Alright Daddy Rogers,” Bucky says breezily, “how about action figures?”

“Yes.”

“Avengers action figures?”

“No.”

“Okay. Puzzles?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, how about - wait, Barton has found legos. You can’t go wrong with legos, right?”

“Just make sure it’s nothing that can be easily weaponized, and nothing electronic that Tony is going to take offense to and dismantle,” Steve says, and even as he says it he has a vague feeling that this isn’t a conversation that many new parents across the country have had to partake in.

“Okay, how about - oh my fucking god yes. Barton, yes - get it right now. No I don’t care, get it-”

“What?” Steve asks in alarm. “Bucky, what?”

“Not a weapon, not electric,” Bucky says promptly. “Call you back.”

“Bucky!”

The call cuts out. Steve lifts his phone and stares at the screen. “Bastard,” he mutters, though there’s not much heat behind it. He feels grateful that Bucky and Clint are helping, though he feels oddly guilty that he’s not there helping choose things for Arto. Not that he’s ever going to voluntarily put himself through the hassle of navigating Toys R Us, but he still feels like he should at least want to.

He presses his phone between his brows. He should probably go back upstairs to Tony, Sue and Bruce, but knowing them they’ve probably started a damn college fund for the kid and got his majors all picked out. Steve can’t help but resentfully think that it was only about an hour ago that Tony was saying he was freaking out about not even knowing the kids birthday.

Steve breathes out heavily, absently rubbing his stomach with one hand. He’s worried about Tony, worried that he’ll burn out. He’s seen it before, where Tony has jumped into something with both feet and pushed himself too far. He seems pretty in control of everything this time though, and the fact he’s delegating jobs to Clint and actually looking for advice from people who know better than him is a good sign.

Steve taps his phone against his forehead and then flips it around, lifting both hands so he can open a text, pausing for a moment before selecting Tony’s name.

'Do you need me back up there?'

The reply comes within seconds.

'take a breather if you need. Smart Art is fine.'

Steve exhales in relief, grateful that Tony understood and has given him an out.

'just need half an hour.'

'Yep'

Tony’s reply is a simple acknowledgement, and Steve knows from that that he genuinely doesn't mind Steve ducking out. If he had a problem, he’d tell Steve straight. Or bring the problem straight to Steve, and he wouldn't put it past Tony to drag Arto, Sue and Bruce all down to his location just to prove a point.

He tosses his phone onto the canvas next to his hip, breathing out heavily and pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes for a moment, and then sits up. He’s not going to spend all day lying about and worrying; he’s going to work off some steam for half an hour and then go back and check on Arto like he said he would.

He vaults neatly out of the ring and heads to the lockers that are embedded neatly into the far wall of the gym. He opens the one furthest on the right and pulls out a fresh wrap for his hands, planning on working over one of the heavy bags for a while, seeing as he’s alone. He could do with a good sparring session in all honesty, but Bucky is out and Natasha is - actually, he has no idea where Natasha is. He’ll call her later and make sure she’s not been run out of the tower by the whole small-child-fiasco.

“Hey Jarvis,” he says thoughtfully as he nudges the locker shut with his shoulder, carefully wrapping his left hand. “Can Arto get in here, if he wanted to?”

“Master Arto cannot enter the gym without supervision,” Jarvis says. “The only floors he may enter unsupervised are the communal floor, Agent Barton’s floor and the penthouse.”

Steve frowns, surprised. “Since when?”

“Sir thought it prudent to establish some limits,” Jarvis says. “The rest of the tower space is open to Arto, and he can enter if an adult is in the room somewhere. If he attempts to enter any other space in the tower alone, I secure the doors so he cannot and alert Sir. The laboratories and workshops are also also off limits, and I will not let him into them unless an adult collects him from the door. ”

Huh. That’s actually a pretty good system, Steve acknowledges. “So he can get in here if I’m in here?”

“Yes. Would you prefer me to extend the limits so he cannot?”

“What? No, no,” Steve says. “I just don’t want him to hurt himself. When did Tony do this?”

“This morning, whilst you and Arto were sleeping,” Jarvis informs him.

“Okay,” Steve says, and finishes wrapping his hands. “Jarvis, if I’m in the tower, will you extend that alert to me as well?”

“Of course,” Jarvis says quietly, and even if he's an AI Steve feels like there's approval in the way he says it.

Steve nods, walking over to the punching bag that’s suspended from a heavily reinforced frame. He stretches as he goes, making sure his body is limber enough. His shoulder doesn't even hurt anymore, not from being dislocated or from where he’d been shot, but he’s not really used it properly since it healed; the most strenuous activity he’s had since has been having sex in the shower and restraining Arto. Not exactly the most taxing exercise.

“Half an hour, Rogers,” he murmurs to himself, and shoves at the punching bag with the flat of his palm, making it sway slightly before stepping back with his feet apart and his fists raised. “Then back in the game."

Chapter Text

'Do you need me back up there?'

Part of Tony reads the message and immediately wants to text Steve back and say yes. Yes, you need to be here. Yes, Sue has come over this morning for the sole purpose of helping us deal with your child, so you need to get your ass back up here pronto.

He doesn’t. The fallout they’d had is still too recent, too raw, and he might be an asshole sometimes but he’s not going to push Steve when he’s explicitly told Tony to back off. Besides, Steve has stepped up in a big way even though it’s clearly exhausting for him, and Tony’s not going to ignore that.

'take a breather if you need. Smart Art is fine.'

“Is he okay?”

Tony glances up at Bruce, phone still in hand. “What? Yeah, he’s just talking to Barnes.”

“Isn’t Bucky with Clint?”

“Supposedly,” Tony says. “I sent them shopping for supplies. Clothes and stuff for Arto.”

“You trusted Bucky and Clint?” Sue asks, sounding a little wary. She doesn’t know Bucky all that well, but it’s no secret that she doesn’t have a particularly high opinion regarding Clint’s capacity for responsibility. Tony doesn't really care; she hasn’t seen him actually with Arto, and if Tony hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he’d feel the same.

Bruce’s mouth twitches. “You do realise that they’ll come back with-”

“Yes, Avengers merchandise and things in shades of purple,” Tony finishes. “Steve already pointed that out. I can only hope that Steve is policing Barnes who will exercise some restraint over Barton. Nevermind, I just heard that sentence out loud and realised how ridiculous it is.”

Bruce and Sue both laugh. “They are a pair,” Bruce chuckles, sipping at his coffee. 

“They’re a something,” Tony says vaguely, eyes back on his phone as it beeps again.

'just need half an hour.'

Well, that’s better than he hoped for, actually. Steve acknowledging he needs a break and having thirty minutes to himself rather than getting to the point of total meltdown and running away. As such, Tony doesn't hesitate to text him back.

'Yep'

A second beep draws his attention; this one comes from Arto. Tony looks around to see him kneeling up over the back of the couch again, looking uncertain. He’s got a smudge of what looks like jam on his chin, and a grubby grey mark smack bang in the middle of his forehead. Tony is pretty sure the former is a souvenir from breakfast time, though has no idea what the latter is or where it came from.  

“Steve?” Arto asks, doubtful and uncertain.

“Went to talk to Bucky on the phone,” Tony says, waving his own phone at Arto. “He’s still in the tower.”

Arto nods, and sinks back onto the couch, facing the television. Tony watches him for a moment, waiting to check there’s not going to be a delayed reaction to Steve’s absence in the form of screaming or breaking things. Arto’s actually done a pretty good job of proving the specs on the Starkpads, what with how he seems to like to throw them around when he’s mad.

“He trusts you,” Sue says softly. “What you say.”

“Guess he does,” Tony shrugs. “So, come on Sue, give me all the tricks of the trade, what do I have to do to be a successful adult in this situation?”

Sue shakes her head at him, though her mouth is quirked in a fond smile. “How long have we got?”

“As long as you can give me,” Tony says. “Come on. I need to have all this under control by the time Fury sticks his eyepatch back in.”

“Fury’s involved?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yeah. He kind of found out what we’d done, and insisted that we hand him over,” Tony says, flapping a hand dismissively. “Steve said no, Fury said yes, an argument occurred and Bucky shot the coffee pot and threw Fury out.”

Bucky threw Fury out?”

“He shot the coffee pot?”

Sue and Bruce are both staring at him, Bruce looking resigned and Sue looking dismayed.

“Yeah, it was a little overboard I’ll admit, but what else are you meant to do when Steve and Fury are in full alpha male mode at each other? Short of shooting them, I don’t think a lot else could have got them to stop.”

Sue presses her fingers to her mouth, looking pained. “I think rule number one is going to have to be no weapons in the building.”

“That’s what I said,” Tony says emphatically, and he stands up and walks over to the fridge, realizing that even though he’s fed both Arto and Steve this morning, he’s completely forgot to feed himself. “Look, we’re going to have to tone it down, I know that. That’s not an issue, we can all make adjustments to what we do, we can put a leash on Barnes, I just don’t know the rest of it.”

“Okay,” Sue says, understanding. “It’s not overly complicated. Love, boundaries and routines.”

“Routines?”

“Yes,” Sue says. “Wake up time, breakfast time, lunchtime, bath-time, bedtime-”

Tony leans back out of the fridge and frowns at her. “That’s a lot of times.”

“Yes, and children need them.”

“At the same time every day?”

“Yes,” Sue says, with a laugh. “That’s why it’s called a routine, Tony. He’ll settle so much better once there is some sort of routine.”

“I guess it helps with feeling secure,” Bruce says, and Sue nods.

“Okay, I get that,” Tony says. He grabs a pot of yogurt and digs through until he finds some blueberries. “How are we meant to do that though? We’re not exactly a routine-oriented bunch, what with the full time superheroing gig.”

“We’re not that bad anymore,” Bruce says. “I mean, the last call we had where we all had to go was the call to go and get him in the first place. And then you didn’t take everyone anyway.”

“I’m gonna have to get everyone on board with this,” Tony says, almost to himself more than the others. “We need to have one person here with him at all times to enforce the routine, someone who can hold him-”

“Steve, Bucky or Thor,” Bruce says, and then pauses. “Or you in the suit.”

“Or me in the suit,” Tony acknowledges, because it would be a lie to say it hadn’t crossed his mind that day when Arto had demolished the guest room, but he hadn’t because Arto had never seen the suit and he was terrified that if Arto tried to kick or headbutt the suit it would just hurt him more. “I’m not sold on that as a plan, though.”

“Why not?” Sue asks.

“He’s never seen Iron Man,” Tony says, popping a blueberry into his mouth. “I can’t imagine it would be all that comforting for a child in emotional distress. And the damage it can do-”

“What would be more distressing for him, having Iron Man step in to keep him safe, or calming down only to realize he’s hurt someone?” Bruce says pointedly, and ah yes, there's a good reason that that thought has occurred to Bruce. “It’s still you in the suit, and he knows you. Keep the helmet off, make sure he knows you’re not doing it to hurt him.”

“You said yourself that he respects Steve because he’s strong,” Sue ventures. “Is there any reason he wouldn’t feel the same about you and the suit?”

“Okay, okay,” Tony says. “Iron Man goes on the yes list. But he needs to see the suit first, be okay with the idea before it comes to the point I have to step in.” He pauses, turning his phone over and over in his fingers. “And I need to clear it with Steve.”

Sue nods. “So that’s four of you that are able to - to handle him,” she says. She still seems unsure about the concept of having to handle Arto, but Tony gets that she’s only met him whilst he’s been unconscious or being only mildly difficult.

“If Thor is on board,” Tony says.

“Thor would be here permanently in a heartbeat if you needed him,” Bruce says. “He might even be able to call on some help, too.”

“The warriors,” Tony says contemplatively. “Possible. But it’s got to be people that Arto likes or he’s just going to end up kicking off more. He only barely likes Bucky at the moment.”

“Well, if he likes Clint then he’s going to have to learn to like Bucky as well,” Bruce says. “And I can’t imagine Steve being happy with Arto not liking Bucky, either.”

“He’ll get there,” Tony says. “As long as Bucky tones down the surly attitude and stops scowling quite so much. Hey, Sue, what time should small children actually go to bed?”

“It depends,” Sue says, as usual completely at ease with Tony’s rapid changing of the subject. “Franklin goes at eight thirty.”

“And he’s what, seven?”

“Yes,” Sue says. “But bedtime routine starts at seven thirty. Bathtime, story and then sleep.”

“Stories?” Tony says, and whips out his phone, firing off a text to Clint.

Books for an six year old, please.

“What works for Franklin might not work for Arto, though,” Sue points out, and Tony pauses and looks up from him phone. “I don’t even know if Arto will need the same amount of sleep as an average six year old, because of the serum. Steve doesn’t need that much sleep, does he?”

“Actually, Steve tends to sleep more than average when he can,” Bruce says, and Tony nods in confirmation.

“He can get away with not sleeping, but his metabolism and the way he burns energy means he has to catch up at some point,” Tony says. “He’ll be dead out for twelve hours if you let him. Normally goes for the good old fashioned six to eight hours like us lesser mortals. And he’s hell to wake up if he doesn’t want to get up.”

“Really?” Sue asks, looking surprised.

“Oh yeah. He has what I like to call Captain America wake up mode, where if he has to get up he can go from being very asleep to very awake very quickly and deals with it, and then he has Steve Rogers wake up mode. Where he doesn’t.”

Sue laughs. “Okay then,” she says. “Well, Arto might need eight hours then, he might need ten or twelve. Though he might want to nap in the daytime, too. I don’t know, you’ll just have to keep an eye on him and see how he goes. Be flexible, but once you’ve sort of got it cracked, stick to it.”

“So your advice is pretty much to stab blindly in the dark until something works and then stick with it?”

“Yes,” Sue says apologetically. “That is parenting, Tony. Welcome to the club.”

“How the hell does Reed do this? I mean, you’re you. I can get that.”

“He’s…sporadic,” Sue says. “Some days he’s on it, some days he’s in Reed-world. It’s tricky some days, when he is busy, but Ben and Johnny are always there.”

“You let Johnny Storm look after your children.”

“You let Clint Barton look after yours,” Sue responds pointedly.

“He’s not mine, he’s Steve’s,” Tony replies automatically. “Well. Technically, he’s Steve’s.”

“Well you and Steve do tend to come as a pair,” Bruce reminds him. “Does he know about you two?”

“Well, yeah,” he says. “He slept in our bed last night. Oh, and he did ask if we were married this morning.”

“He did what?

“He asked if you and Steve were married? Tony, you need to straighten that out right away,” Sue says, sounding more serious than she has all morning. “Yes, you’re one big family here-”

“One big dysfunctional family-”

“Yes, I know that, but - It sounds like you’re all on board with helping to look after him which is great, but does he know who to identify as being - well, being his parents?”

“Well, no, because we haven’t worked out what to do in terms of back story,” Tony says. “I don’t know if we’re telling him that Steve- ” He stops, glancing over towards Arto, who is still engrossed in drawing on his tablet.

“He needs to know,” Sue insists. “He needs to have a clear picture of who everyone is to him. He needs to know where he belongs.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony says. “Steve is working it out. He said he’ll come up with a plan of action today, so we can get Phil on any necessary legalities and paperwork.”

Sue nods, appeased. “Don’t leave it too long,” she says.

“For his sake and to keep Fury off of your back,” Bruce points out, and Tony grimaces.

“Fury can go f-” he begins, but promptly cuts himself off at the sound of small footsteps padding across the floor towards them. Arto sidles over, shoving the tablet at Tony’s hands. Tony takes it and laughs as he sees a roughly drawn picture of a shark, complete with vicious looking teeth.

“Nice one,” he says, and leans back as Arto pulls at his shirt, clambering up onto his knee and then further still, until he’s sitting on the edge of the counter, his feet resting on Tony’s thighs. He takes the tablet back and carries on drawing, humming tunelessly.

“Is this a boundary moment?” Tony asks Sue. “Is there where I say normal people do not sit on the counter?”

“I think this is a pick your battles moment,” Sue says.

“So I should let him get away with sitting on the counter?”

“You should make sure you’ve got enough energy to enforce the boundaries that are utterly non-negotiable.”

“What is non-negotiable?”

“I don’t know,” Sue says. “It’s your call.”

Tony thinks for a moment. “Sleeping. Eating. Not throwing temper tantrums.”

“Okay, so by the sounds of it, sitting on the counter is not a worry right about now,” Sue says.

“Barton lets me,” Arto says without looking up, and Tony looks at him flatly, before looking at Sue. She just shrugs at him.

“And he’s evidently smart enough to work out how to get what he wants from different adults,” she says. “That ends pretty much never.”

“So I not only have to spell out the rules to this creature here, but to Barton as well,” Tony says, and Arto grins, digging his toes into Tony’s thighs. “Wonderful.”

“It does help if everyone is on the same page, yes,” Sue says, and her mouth curls in a smile as Arto slides off the counter into Tony’s lap, burying his face in Tony’s collarbones, just above the arc-reactor, curling up in a ball of pointed elbows and sharp knees. Tony doesn’t resist, just loops his arms around Arto and sets his chin gently atop his head.

“You’re doing great,” Sue says, and Tony looks up and meets her eyes. “Look, all this stuff about boundaries and routines is all well and good, but the most important thing is that he’s loved, and that he knows it. I think he already knows that he is.”

“Course he is,” Tony shrugs, because it’s true. He’s past caring how or why; he just knows he loves this bundle of miniature Steve and that is that. He doesn’t even think it’s just because Arto is Steve’s, either. The kid is proving himself to be smart and funny and frustrating and difficult and pretty fucking adorable, and Tony thinks that everyone would love him regardless of who he belongs to or where he came from.

Tony lets himself have a moment whilst Sue and Bruce talk. Arto is a warm comforting weight on his knee, despite the knee that is digging into his hip and the other one which is dangerously close to his crotch. Things are starting to feel more under control than they were, even though Sue has basically said that he’s just got to wing it-

Arto shifts, head knocking against Tony’s chin. Leaning back, Tony slides his hands over Arto’s shoulders, wincing as Arto kneels up, wrapping his arms around Tony’s neck.

“Steve,” he whispers.

“What, am I not good enough for your tastes?”

Arto grins into Tony’s neck. “No.”

“You wound me,” Tony replies. “I think I’m going to cry.”

“Don’t cry,” Arto says, leaning back, eyes darting over Tony’s face. He reaches out and pushes against Tony’s cheekbone with his fingers. “Don’t cry. You’re good.”

Tony smiles faintly. “Oh, I am good? That’s okay then.”

Arto smiles again. “Steve,” he repeats, and maybe they should introduce him to the concept of full sentences at some point.

“Yeah, okay,” Tony says, palm on Arto’s back. “You want to go find him? Jarvis, where is he?”

“In the gym, Sir.”

“Brilliant,” Tony says. “Off you go.”

“No,” Arto replies immediately, but there’s not much force behind it. It seems more of an automatic reaction than anything.

“Down the stairs, one floor,” Tony says. “You can do it, you took yourself up to him earlier.”

“Allowed?” Arto asks.

“Course you are. I am saying you can go and find Steve in the gym, so you can go find him in the gym. You’re allowed in there when Steve’s in there, it’s all good.”

“He let me in when I get there?”

“Yep,” Tony says, and hopes that it isn’t a lie. “Go for it. If you can’t, come back or ask Jarvis to help. Remember Jarvis?”

“Yes,” Arto says, and he’s sliding off Tony’s knee and heading for the stairwell.

“You introduced Jarvis?” Bruce asks.

“Yep,” Tony says,  as he watches Arto go, darting away and vanishing from sight. “He seemed entirely unimpressed, which I guess is better than him being terrified.”

“You’re lucky to have Jarvis,” Sue says, sounding a little wistful. “A second pair of eyes twenty-four seven?”

“If only he had hands, I’d be set for life,” Tony says, sliding his phone out of his pocket and setting it up on the counter. “Jarvis, throw me up a screen with a feed?”

“I do feel compelled to remind you that Captain Rogers firmly objects to you monitoring him,” Jarvis replies and Tony rolls his eyes, waving a dismissive hand over his shoulder.

“Yep, thanks for the memo, do it anyway,” Tony says, and Jarvis obliges. “So that’s smaller super soldier and larger super soldier both reasonably happy and not freaking out. I’m taking today as a win.”

“It’s barely eleven,” Bruce points out.

“Okay. So far it has been a win. If Steve lets Arto into the gym without a fuss and Barton makes it back without an incident, then can I call it?”

“Yes. Then you can call it.”

“Brilliant,” Tony claps his hands, glancing at the feed that’s being projected from his phone and then back up at Sue. “Now, Sue. Back to telling me how to avoid completely fucking up your children, please.”

Sue looks at him flatly for a moment, mouth slightly open and brow furrowed in a faint frown. “I, I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or not.”

“Let’s go with yes,” Tony says cheerfully, and sends her a winning smile before dropping his eyes back to the video feed. “Come on. Hit me with it. I’ve got one shot this being a parent gig, and I’m not going to screw it up.”

 


 

“Steve.”

The voice is small and hesitant, and Steve immediately whips around as it reaches his ears over the sound of knuckles on canvas and the squeaking of chains. Arto is standing a way back, leaning against the padded post of the boxing ring, eyes fixed on Steve. He looks up at the clock and sees it’s been just over twenty minutes since he text Tony.

“Hey,” he says, stilling the punching bag with one hand. He pauses for a moment, unsure, and then calls out across the space between them. “You okay?”

Arto nods, looking around the gym with wide eyes. He’s got two of his fingers in his mouth again, chewing on them absently as he takes in his surroundings.

“How come you’re down here?” Steve asks, tuning fully to face him. “Where’s Tony?”

“In the kitchen. With B - Bruce and. And the lady. Said I could,” Arto begins. “Said I could find you.”

Arto still looks uncertain and his speech is halting and almost stuttering, so Steve steps away from the bag, walking over and crouching down in front of him. “Hey, it’s okay. Jarvis let you in?”

Arto nods, and reaches out with his free hand to wind his fingers into the material of Steve’s shirt, even as he looks up and around the room again.

“This for exercising,” he says, and points around the room.  He turns and looks at the boxing ring next to him, fingers touching the padding again. “In?” he asks, a question in his voice.

“You want to go in the ring?” Steve asks, unsure. He’s not sure it’s really...appropriate for Arto to be playing around in the gym, but he can’t latch onto any specific reasons as to why he shouldn't. It’s more just of a feeling really, but he is here to supervise and Arto has been pretty chilled out all morning and he doesn't want to set him off by refusing him. “I guess. Yeah, why not.”

Arto scrambles away from him and clambers gracelessly into the ring, crawling across the space on his hands and knees, the canvas thudding loudly as he goes. He gets into the center of the ring and laughs, banging his palms down on the mat and apparently enjoying the noise. “For fighting!”

Steve raises an eyebrow, shifts his weight around on his knees. He folds his arms and and leans on the edge of the ring, the top of his head just below the lowest rope. “Not for fighting.”

Arto pushes up onto his hands and feet, looking at Steve upside down through his legs. “Seen it,” he says. “For fighting.”

Steve watches him for a moment, contemplative. He looks down at his hands and starts pulling the wraps off, undoing them quickly and tossing them aside. “You know what I do? What my job is?”

“Superhero,” Arto replies promptly, and drops back onto his hands and knees, flinging himself sideways and rolling onto his back. He stretches his arms out above his head and keeps on rolling and rolling, until his hip bumps Steve’s forearms. Giggling, he looks up at Steve.

“You know what that means?”

Arto shakes his head, kicking his left leg up and hooking his ankle onto the lowest rope of the ring. He flexes his bare toes in the air, watching them intently.

“It means I protect people,” Steve says, and Arto pauses, looks up at him. “If people are in trouble anywhere, if anyone is trying to hurt people, I go and make sure they don’t get hurt.”

Arto’s fingers brush against his chin as he reaches out. “You don’t fight with people?”

“Only if I have to,” Steve says. “I only use my strength against people if they’re trying to use theirs to hurt other people more.”

Arto meets his eyes for a fraction of a second and nods. “You hurt the bad guys.”

“Only when they’re trying to hurt other people,” Steve reiterates. Arto unhooks his heel from the rope and lets his foot fall back to the mat with a bang. He rolls up over onto his knees and shuffles forwards until he’s right in front of Steve.

“Do you have to do exercises to practice?” he asks, reaching out and running both hands over Steve’s hair, before letting go and reaching up to hold onto the rope, rocking forwards on his knees.

Steve leans back marginally so Arto isn’t in danger of swaying right into his face. “Yes I do.”

“You have to be strong to go and hurt the bad guys,” Arto says, sounding oddly confident, like he’s got it all figured out and just wants Steve to confirm what he’s certain of.

Steve shakes his head, reaching out with both hands and catching Arto around his middle so he doesn’t sway forwards again. “I think you’ve got it backwards somewhere,” he says, and Arto lets go of the rope and slides his hands back into Steve’s hair. “Just because you’re strong doesn’t-”

“I can be strong,” Arto interrupts. “I can go hurt bad guys.”

Steve gives up. “Okay. But only if they’re trying to hurt you more,” he says, and Arto nods. He seems to view strength as a tool with which to hurt people, but that’s probably what he’s been told whilst under the supervision of Hydra scientists. Steve can only hope that he’s a good enough role model and does enough for Arto to understand right and wrong a little more clearly.

The thought catches in his chest, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. The idea of teaching Arto what’s okay and what is not...it’s terrifying, knowing that if he stands up as Arto’s father, he’ll be unarguably responsible for the way he turns out. But if Arto turns out great, then that’s something he can say he did. Something to be proud of.

“In,” Arto says, disturbing Steve’s tentative thoughts as he rolls over onto his knees again. He tugs at Steve’s forearm, trying to pull him closer. “Come in.”

Steve shakes his head. “No. Not practicing today.”

“Play instead,” Arto pleads, eyes wide and blue. “Come and play.”

Honestly, Steve wants to say no again, but he knows he shouldn’t. Bucky’s words about getting to know Arto are ringing in his mind, and he knows he’s already got away with bailing once today. He’s got to make an effort, if only to give Tony a breather for an hour, because he knows Tony is incredibly likely to run himself into the ground if allowed.

“Okay, okay,” he says, and Arto chirps excitedly and pulls harder at his wrist. “Let go - No, let go. Thanks, now move up.”

Arto complies and scrambles back, giving Steve space to duck into the ring. He’s barely in before Arto is on him, jumping onto his back and locking his arms around Steve’s neck.

“What are you doing?” he asks, sitting back on his heels and reaching up to hold onto Arto’s arms, careful not to grip too tight.

“Playing,” Arto replies. He leans forwards further and further, wriggling forwards along Steve’s back until his face is almost level with Steve’s. “Further,” he pants, and Steve shakes his head.

“You’ll go over.”

“Over! Tip me over,” Arto says excitedly, cheek brushing against Steve's own. Steve hesitates and then a part of him thinks why the hell not?

He decides to listen to it.

“Alright, alright, you ready?” he says shifting onto his knees and reaching back with a hand to steady Arto. Arto chirps again and Steve leans forwards and carefully rolls Arto over his shoulder, using his hand to control Arto’s decent onto the mat. Arto lands on his back and shouts with laughter, cheeks pink and eyes wide.

A small smile hitches the corner of Steve’s mouth. “Okay?”

“Again,” Arto demands, and he’s scrambling up and running around to stand behind Steve again. He lunges at Steve and this time Steve grabs him and rolls him over his shoulder without hesitation or warning, and Arto shrieks as he lands on his back again.

The sound drives a startling stab of panic through Steve’s chest, and for a moment all he’s thinking is ‘fuck, I’ve hurt him, fuck, shit-

Arto starts to laugh and Steve breathes out, shaking his head.

“Don’t scream like that,” he insists, trying to keep calm. “I thought I’d hurt you,” he says reproachfully, and Arto carries on laughing.

“You wouldn't hurt me,” Arto says, and he scrambles up, this time standing on Steve’s thighs and holding onto his shoulders. “Not even when you grab me.”

“When I grab you?” Steve repeats, holding onto Arto’s legs as he wobbles.

“When I get - when, when-” Arto begins, and then scrunches up his face. “Angry?”

The simple words hit Steve like a blow to the head. Arto had hesitated, and he said the word like it was a question, something strange and unknown. He literally doesn’t know how to describe what he’s feeling, what happens when he loses control. And despite all that, he seems to have complete faith that Steve would never hurt him. “When you’re angry, and I have to hold onto you,” he says, and Arto nods.

“You wouldn't hurt me,” he says, and he leans heavily into Steve, lounging over one of his shoulders. “Bucky did.”

“He did?” Steve asks, and then remembers the vent incident and winces. “He didn’t mean to. You hurt Clint pretty bad too.”

“Didn’t mean to,” Arto echoes.

“And Bucky didn't mean to hurt you either,” Steve says. “Bucky is my best friend in the world, you know that?”

“Clint?”

“Bucky and Clint,” Steve concedes. “But Bucky has been my friend since I was your age. I'd be pretty sad if you didn’t get on with Bucky.”

Arto hums, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck. In that moment, everything feels almost okay, simple and easy. Steve is still somewhat taken aback by Arto’s words, and it’s terrifying and humbling to have this small child in his arms who trusts him so much. He even trusts Steve isn’t going to hurt him even when he’s practically fighting with him, and Steve still doesn't know what he’s done to deserve it.

He hesitates, then wraps his arms around Arto’s middle, hugging him gently and turning his face into short blond hair. Arto hums happily and turns his face so he’s talking right in Steve's ear.

“P - Pick me up.”

“How can I?” Steve asks, easing back. “You’re on my knee.”

“Pick me up,” Arto repeats.

Steve tightens his grip on Arto’s legs just above his knees and lifts Arto up vertically. Arto shouts with laughter, loosening his grip on Steve to put his hands on Steve’s head.

“What, like this?”

“No, no,” Arto laughs. “Doing it wrong!”

“Okay,” Steve concedes, and lowers Arto down again so he’s standing back on his thighs. Arto jumps at him and the move is quick and unexpected; that combined with the knee that hits Steve straight in his solar plexus sends him onto his back on the mat with an ‘ooft.’

“Careful,” Steve warns and tries to shift Arto off of his ribs. “Ouch,” he grunts. “You have sharp knees.”

“Don’t,” Arto laughs. “Lift me up.”

“How can I possibly lift you up when you’re sat on my chest?”

Arto rolls off him and shifts around to sit next to Steve’s feet. Steve bends his knees up and Arto lunges forwards over the slant of his legs.

“I’m not a jungle gym, you know.”

“What’s a jungle gym?”

“A thing for climbing on.”

Arto pauses, looks at him. “You are a jungle gym.”

“I’m really not,” Steve says and he takes hold of Arto’s hands as he reaches out for him. Arto’s fingers lock through his, and Steve is suddenly reminded of a moment when he was younger, play fighting with Bucky when they were both around ten and Bucky had been pulling Steve over him and insisting “this will work, Steve, it will work-” and Steve was threatening Bucky with bodily harm “if you don’t put me down, Bucky, I swear-” and Bucky was just saying “come on, you’ll be like superman-”

“Hey, you still want picking up?”

Arto looks at him, surprised for a moment before replying with a definite and eager “yes.”

“Okay,” Steve says, and he shifts his legs, puts his feet flat on Arto’s stomach. Arto goes to pull back, but Steve keeps hold of his fingers.

“You’re fine,” he says. “Lean forwards a bit. And now, jump.”

Arto jumps and Steve lifts him up with his feet so he’s horizontal in the air, holding tightly onto his hands. Arto shouts with delighted laughter, slumping forwards and nearly sliding head first into Steve.

“I got you,” Steve reassures him, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Straighten your arms, kick your feet out.”

Laughing uncontrollably, Arto does as Steve says, and wow he’s a lot more biddable than Steve had been when Bucky pulled this stunt on him all those years ago. He straightens his body, showing an impressive amount of core strength as he does.

“Flying,” Arto crows, fingers clinging tightly onto Steve’s.

“Tony can fly,” Steve tells him, bending his elbows and knees and lowering Arto back down towards him and the safety of the mat. To Steve he weighs barely anything, feeling horribly light and breakable despite the fact he is anything but.

“No he can’t,” Arto gasps. “Up.”

“He can,” Steve says and obliges, straightening his legs and arms again. Arto laughs and laughs, grinning down at Steve and looking like he’s having the time of his life-

“Captain Rogers,” Jarvis’s voice floods the gym, as calm as ever. “Agents Barton and Barnes have returned to the tower and are requesting your presence on the communal floor.”

“Okay, got it,” Steve says, and he lowers Arto back to the canvas.

“No, no, no,” Arto whines, clinging to Steve’s hands, smile replaced with a disgruntled expression. “Up again, lift me up.”

“Not now,” Steve says, and sits up. “Come on, they’ve got some things for you.”

Arto stops whining and blinks at him. “For me?”

“Yeah, some new clothes and toys.”

Arto sits back, eyes going almost impossibly wide. “Toys?” he asks, sounding uncertain. “But-”

He doesn't finish the sentence. Instead, he scrambles forwards into Steve’s lap, hiding his face in his chest and curling up as small as he can, head nearly touching his knees and elbows clamped tightly into his sides.

“Whoa,” Steve says, confused. “Arto-”

Arto shakes his head, still hiding his face, and Steve has got no idea why he’s suddenly hiding again when he was perfectly fine ten seconds ago. “Come on,” Steve says cautiously, and tries to shift him round. “Lets go see what Clint’s got for you. Out the ring, buddy.”

Instead of getting up, Arto responds by grabbing hold of Steve’s shirt and clenching his fingers into it. Looking skyward for a moment to keep his composure, Steve glances back down and debates prising Arto’s fingers from his shirt.

Arto shudders against him, and Steve suddenly opts against it. This isn’t about him. He breathes out slowly, and even though he’s still confused and uncertain and starting to worry that he’s done something to mess it all up, he just pulls Arto close and gently runs a hand over his head.

“Gotta let go of my shirt so we can go find the others,” he murmurs. “Come on, work with me here. I’m coming with you, I’m not going to send you by yourself.”

Arto turns his head to the side, one blue eye just visible and blinking hard “With you,” he says, sounding as insistent as he had the night before.

“I said I’m coming with you,” Steve reiterates, and that does get a move out of Arto. He nods and leans back, just enough for Steve to extricate himself from his clinging grip. Arto doesn’t move, so Steve opts for sliding out of the ring first. it works; Arto immediately follows, slipping straight out of the ring after Steve.

“Come on,” Steve says, and Arto darts over and stands impossibly close to his side, following as Steve walks out of the gym and heads up to the communal floor. They’re about to leave the stairwell when Arto reaches out for him; Steve only slows momentarily and scoops Arto up without breaking stride, setting him on his hip as they walk into the room.

Sue is nowhere to be seen; presumably she’s left for home and to get back to her own children.  Bruce is still at the counter and has been joined by Bucky who is lazily leaning back in a chair with a mug of coffee in hand, clearly avoiding disturbing any of the papers that Bruce has spread out in front of him. Clint and Tony are over beside the couches, delving through what Steve can only assume are the purchases from Clint and Bucky’s shopping trip. Clint is leaning back against the front of one of the couches, busying himself with a pile of what looks like shoe boxes, and Tony is moving bags from the table to the floor, checking each one as he does.

“How much lego did you feel was necessary?” Tony is saying impatiently. “Jesus, Barton-”

“Hey,” Steve says, nodding over at Bucky and Bruce before walking over to the couches. Wow. That is a lot of stuff. He can barely see the coffee table under the multitude of bags and boxes, and there seems to be a heap of child sizes clothes steadily spreading out across the floor as well. “Did it go okay?”

Clint and Tony both look up, Tony’s mouth hitching in a smile. Arto grins back at him and reaches out; Steve swings him around to sit on the back of the couch, standing just behind him so he can’t fall backwards.

“I dont know, I need this to give the verdict,” Tony says, craning his head up to look at Arto. Arto grins again, jamming his fingers into his mouth and slithering forwards, landing on the couch next to Tony with a soft thwump. “Hey, nice of you to join me. This stuff hereby belongs to you, Smart Art. Wanna look?”

Arto shakes his head and makes a distinct noise around the fingers still in his mouth, leaning into Tony’s side.

“What?” Tony asks, surprised. “Seriously, it’s yours. Go nuts.”

Arto shakes his head again, and Tony looks up at Steve, the  question clear on his face. Steve just shrugs, because he doesn't know either-

“Kids who aren’t used to presents sometimes find getting presents the suckiest thing on earth,” Clint chips in casually. He’s got a pair of tiny purple converse trainers in his hand, pulling out the laces, and he’s pointedly not looking at anyone. Steve glances at Bucky, who is looking at Clint with an expression on his face which tells Steve he’d quite like to go and break something.

“Okay,” Tony says instantly. “Okay, stuff can wait, right? You look when you’re ready. Barton, give me back my visa.”

“Have I ever given you reason not to trust me?” Clint asks flatly, leaning back and shoving his hand into his pocket to retrieve the card, flicking it over to land in Tony’s lap.

“I can’t believe that sentence even made it out of your mouth,” Tony replies, and Bucky snorts with laughter.

Steve shakes his head and pushes away from the back of the couch, heading over towards the kitchen. He claps Bucky on the shoulder as he goes, and Bucky merely gives him a thumbs up, a silent ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome.’

“Coffee, please,” Tony calls as soon as Steve’s fingers touch the coffee pot. Steve rolls his eyes, but does reach for a second mug, even though he’s sure that Tony has probably had way too much caffeine today anyway. Behind him, Bucky asks Bruce something about the papers that are spread out everywhere, and he can hear Arto talking to Clint, voice stumbling and halting as it usually does-

“Hey,” a voice says, and warm hands slide into Steve’s waist. He feels Tony press his mouth to the back of his shoulder and then exhale heavily, warm breath seeping through his shirt to heat his skin.  He pulls back a moment later to say, “I saw you, you know.”

Steve’s hands falter. “Saw me when?”

“In the gym,” Tony replies, completely unapologetic. Steve’s first reaction is annoyance, because he hates Tony using Jarvis to watch him at the best of times, but he’s more unsure as to how he feels about Tony specifically watching him and Arto playing together. He knows he didn't do anything wrong, but he’s still hyper aware of being judged by everyone, even Tony. Unsure how to verbalize his feelings about it, he decides to address the most pressing issue first, the one that he has a very clear opinion on.

“Stop spying on me.”

“Monitoring, Steve. I wasn’t spying on you, I was monitoring the small child.”

“Fury doesn’t buy it when you call it monitoring, and I’m not going to either,” Steve says, and Tony laughs, kissing the back of Steve’s shoulder, hand sliding around and tracing small circles on Steve’s stomach. He seems utterly unrepentant, but Steve wouldn't really expect anything less. He just tells himself that Tony was doing it for Arto, and that makes it easier to let it go.

“Did Clint get everything?”

“As far as I can tell,” Tony says, and he steps back and leans against the counter, folding his arms. “Including a ridiculous amount of legos.”

Steve nods, finishing making the coffee and then turning around to stand hip to hip with Tony, passing a mug over. His eyes automatically go to Arto, who is now leaning forwards and looking at a small box Clint is showing him. Clint murmurs something as he pulls open one of the tabs and Arto reaches out, small fingers tentatively helping pull at the cardboard.

“If he builds a model of the statue of liberty out of all the legos, we’ll know he’s yours,” Tony says, and Bucky chokes with laughter on a mouthful of coffee. Steve scowls at Tony, and reaches out to shove at Bucky who is still sniggering, palm flat against the metal plate on the back of his shoulder.

“You can shut up - wait a minute,” Steve says, suddenly remembering the phone call from earlier. “What was it you found you wouldn’t tell me about?”

“Oh yeah!” Bucky says, straightening up in his seat. “Barton, find the thing.”

“You got the thing, you find the thing,” Clint calls back, preoccupied with pulling pieces of lego out of a box and dropping them into Arto’s cupped hands.

“I think you’ll find I got the thing,” Tony interjects.

“Not this thing,” Bucky says, and slides off his stool. “SHIELD do give me money for occasionally blowing up stuff, you know.”

Stymied and a little wary, Steve watches as Bucky pads over to the couches, stepping easily over Clint and rooting around for a moment before pulling out a single carrier bag. He turns on the spot and crouches down next to Clint, who is still leaning up on the couch next to Arto, sprawled out and propped up on an elbow.

Arto looks at him warily, but doesn't move away or respond at all as Bucky quietly says something to him.

“Someone call SHIELD,” Tony mutters, leaning into Steve’s side. “Barnes has a soul.”

Steve elbows him, hard. “Shut up,” he breathes back, because Bucky is still quietly talking to Arto, and then holds out the carrier bag to him. Arto leans back marginally, then looks up at Clint with wide eyes. Clint takes the bag from Bucky, who straightens up and walks away towards the windows, scratching the back of his head.

“I’m giving him his gun back,” Tony replies in an undertone. “This is - this is against the natural order. Steve, tell him to go out and do something murdery-”

“Will you shut up,” Steve hisses, because Clint is whispering something to Arto and he can’t hear what it is. He doesn’t miss the way Arto looks over at Bucky though, and then turns to look at Steve. Steve nods at him, and Arto reaches out and takes the carrier bag from Clint, holding it protectively to his chest in both hands. He glances around the room again and then shoves his hand into the bag, pulling out a teddy bear wearing a blue coat with red buttons, and a black domino mask around its eyes.

Steve’s stomach flips, and he has to bite his lip to stop himself laughing out loud, because he’s pretty sure Bucky would deck him if he did. “You hated it when they first started making those,” Steve calls over to Bucky, and Bucky just gives him the finger without looking around or turning away from the window.

“I think I need to object,” Tony says, lips twitching as he also fights back a smile, eyes fixed firmly on Arto. “That Bucky Bear has both arms.”

“Winter Soldier Bear doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Clint calls, amused. Arto is still staring down at the bear, fingers tracing around the domino mask.

When he looks up, it’s to find Steve. “Mine?” he asks, uncertain.

Steve nods. “From Bucky.”

“I get - I get to keep him?” Arto asks tentatively, and Steve feels a churning of something uneasy and unpleasant in the pit of his stomach because that look is the look of a child who has never had anything to call his own before now, not even a damn teddy bear.

“Of course you do,” he says, and he feels Tony’s arm slide behind him, fingers brushing the back of his neck.

Arto’s face breaks into a smile, nose scrunching up. He scrambles off the couch, nearly kicking Clint in the face as he does and scattering lego pieces everywhere. Running over to Steve, he shoves past the chair Bruce is on and jumps up at him. Steve is just about quick enough to catch him under his arms, hefting him up and swinging him onto the counter between him and Tony 

“Mine,” he says, and holds up the bear in Steve’s face. “Stays with me.”

Steve nods and gently but firmly pushes the toy away from his face so he can see. “You need to say thank you to Bucky,” he says.

“No,” Arto replies, shaking his head and clutching the bear to him. “Mine.”

“Yeah, we need to work on manners,” Tony begins, shrugging as Bruce turns in his chair to look at Arto. “If someone buys you something awesome-”

His words are cut off by a soft yet insistent chiming sound, three short beeps followed by a longer ring. The sound repeats itself over and over, easily identifiable as SHIELD’s emergency line. Tony and Steve both glance at each other, and Steve feels foreboding creeping into the pit of his stomach, heavy and tight.

“Iron Man acknowledging,” Tony calls warily, and the ringing stops.

“Requesting Captain Rogers,” Nick Fury’s voice comes through the speakers, loud and commanding.

“Captain Rogers acknowledging,” Steve calls back. Arto shifts next to him, reaching out and trying to pull at Steve’s ear. Distracted, Steve grabs his wrist, keeping the grasping fingers away. “What is it?”

“Active Hydra cell no longer contained in Bucharest. I need you, Widow and Barnes.”

The bottom drops completely out of Steve’s stomach, and for one moment he feels utterly frozen, because this is possibly the worst timing for a SHIELD callout ever. Dammit, he’d all but forgotten about what Natasha said about the cell in Bucharest; he’d been so busy with Arto that he’d neglected to even check in with the intel after the last Hydra raid.

Shit,” he says without thinking, and turns to look at Tony, letting go of Arto’s hand. He opens his mouth, fights against both his pride and the panic. He swallows, dropping his voice low so only Tony can hear him. “What do I do?”

Tony looks at him for a long moment, thinking hard. “How serious is it?” he finally says, voice projected so the speakers can pick it up.

“Serious enough that I’ve already dispatched a jet,” Fury says. “Agent Coulson is leading the team. He’ll pick you up from the roof in fifteen minutes.”

Steve bites back another curse. “Just, give me a minute,” he says, and turns to look at Tony. “I can’t not go,” he says in a low voice, and Tony stares at him, eyes flicking back and forth between Steve’s own. He breathes out heavily and then nods, reaching up to rub his brow.

“Fine. Fine, okay. You gotta go,” he concedes, though doesn't exactly sound happy about it. “But you can’t take Barnes with you. I need someone here just incase-”

“I thought you said you would be able to use the suit,” Bruce says quietly.

“What?” Steve says, feeling a little blindsided, turning to look at Bruce so quickly his neck clicks. “The suit-?”

“Not until we’ve talked about it, and not until he’s met Iron Man in a slightly less stressful situation,” Tony says, glaring half heartedly at Bruce who holds his hands up in a gesture that could be surrender or an apology. “And we haven’t talked about it, so no.”

“What seems to be the problem, Captain?” Fury says, sounding completely neutral and not nearly as impatient as Steve would have expected. “I need an answer on this.”

“Just wait,” Steve replies, thinking hard. “Tony, where’s Thor?”

“Off world again,” Tony says. “Damn, I’ve not had a chance to speak to him yet.”

“Great,” Steve breathes out. He belatedly looks at Arto, who is just sitting on the edge of the counter with Bucky Bear in his hand and his other fingers in his mouth, watching Steve with careful eyes. Steve needs to go on this mission, he can’t just let Hydra start gaining ground on his watch, but he’s needed here as well-

Steve bites off a curse, frowning as he thinks. His thoughts are temporarily derailed as he looks up to speak and sees what appears to be a hurried conversation being held between Clint and Bucky, made mostly of overly complicated gestures, pieces of sign language and meaningful looks. Apparently reaching some sort of conclusion, they simultaneously nod and turn to Steve, both of them pointing at Clint.

Steve understands immediately, and the panic slowly fades away as the solution coalesces. “Sir, requesting permission to replace Agent Barnes with Hawkeye,” Steve says slowly and clearly, eyes still on Bucky.

“Explain why I should.”

There’s a silence, and then Steve decides that being honest is his best bet. “We need someone who is strong enough to hold Arto to stay behind,” he says, reaching up and rubbing his forehead. “At the moment that is me or Bucky. We can’t both leave.”

Fury’s voice is somewhere between incredulous and surprised when he responds. “You named him?”

“Are we really discussing this now?” Steve snaps. “Permission to replace Agent Barnes with Hawkeye, Sir.”

There’s a pause. “Granted,” Fury says. “I will call Agent Coulson, and I will give you thirty minutes before extraction, Captain.”

The connection is cut. Steve slumps back against the counter, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He’s about to look up and say something to Bucky and Clint - an apology, a thank you, he doesn't know, but before he can work out what to say he feels a small body lean against his shoulder.

“Are there bad guys?” Arto whispers, sounding uncertain.

“Yeah,” Steve replies, tensing up and praying that Arto doesn’t flip out too badly. “I have to go and make sure no-one gets hurt.”

Arto stares at him for a moment, blue eyes full of something that Steve doesn’t quite get, and then he nods, slowly moving to wrap his arms around Steve.

“Come back?” he whispers, the question obvious.

Steve meets Tony’s eyes over the top of Arto’s head, returning the hug and holding Arto close. “Yeah, I will,” he says, feeling disconcerted and like he’s not entirely sure what’s playing out here. “You stay here with Tony, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

To his utter shock, Arto just nods and lets him go, sliding back onto the counter and looking to Tony. Tony holds out an arm and Arto goes willingly, tumbling into his front and clinging to him.

“Skrull?” Tony mouths at Steve, looking as perplexed as Steve feels. He twists around, checking his hip against the counter so Arto can bury himself against his front more effectively.

“You are not funny,” Steve replies shortly, shoves his fingers through his hair. “Damnit.”

“Steve, it’s okay,” Tony says suddenly, the words as resolute as they are unexpected. “You’ve got to go. He’s okay with it, look.”

“But-”

“Steve. Go suit up, kick Hydra ass and then get back here,” Tony says firmly. “Preferably within twenty four hours.”

“Bucharest, not gonna be quick,” Steve says, eyes flickering over Tony’s face. Tony’s mouth curves in a weak smile and Steve aches to touch for a moment before remembering that he can. He leans in and kisses Tony hard, a hand on the back of his neck. Pulling back, he knocks their foreheads together, shutting his eyes for a long moment.

“Don’t you dare get shot,” Tony says, and Steve huffs out a laugh. “Go suit up.”

Steve nods. He kisses the corner of Tony’s mouth gently, steps back to look down at Arto who is leaning against Tony’s chest and watching them with careful eyes.

“Barton, you bring him back in one goddamn piece,” Tony calls over, eyes still locked on Steve’s.

“Only if Rogers brings back Barton in one goddamn piece,” Bucky retorts, and Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve, who just sighs and shakes his head.

“Stay safe,” he says, and reaches out to gently run his palm over Arto’s head. Arto catches his fingers and holds on for a moment.

“Stay safe,” he echoes, and Steve nods.

“You got it,” he says, and then gently pulls his hands free and leaves the room.

 


 

The sound of the quinjet is audible even through the glass, a dull thudding and whining, a faint rumble of engines. Tony stands inside, Arto standing in front of him and  leaning back against his legs. He’s got one arm wrapped around that damn bear that Barnes bought him, and is gnawing worriedly on the fingers of his free hand, eyes fixed on the jet that’s parked on the roof. 

Bucky is leaning against the doorjamb behind them, arms folded and expression contemplative. He’s ready to step in if Arto decides he’s actually not happy with Steve leaving, but so far Arto has been perfectly biddable, though a little quiet.

Tony folds his arms over his chest, breathing out heavily, eyes fixed on Steve. He’s standing next to the jet, suited up and with his shield in hand. Coulson is talking to him and Clint, gesturing towards the jet. Clint is nodding and climbing into the jet without looking back, sitting down next to Natasha who is just visible, red hair standing out against the dark metal.

Tony feels a lump in his throat as Steve claps Coulson on the shoulder and steps towards the jet. He grabs the edge of the doorway and then turns, eyes meeting Tony’s. He stays perfectly still for a moment and then salutes; Tony shakes his head at him but does shoot him a quick thumbs up in return.

Steve turns and ducks into the jet, and Arto makes a high pitched whining sound, half turning and tugging at Tony’s jeans with spit-covered fingers.

“Coming back for me,” he demands. Behind them, Tony hears Bucky shift a step closer.

“He’s coming back for both of us,” Tony says simply, though as the jet shifts and sways on the landing pad and the noise gets louder, it does feel like he’s being punched right in the arc-reactor. “He always does.”

“Always does,” Arto echoes, and Tony looks down at him, chest still aching as he meets the fiercely determined expression of Steve Rogers, reflected so clearly in that small face.

“Always does,” Tony says again, and Steve has left countless times before to go on missions, but this time feels different and he’s not sure why. “Now wave, he’ll be watching you.”

Arto turns back around. He hesitates for a moment and then lifts his free hand in a rushed wave, the motion choppy and unsure. He leans back against Tony’s legs more heavily, dropping his hand to clutch at the stuffed toy with both.

“Coming back,” he says again, and he and Tony watch the jet lift away from the rooftop, soaring away into the distance and out of sight.

Chapter Text

 “Smart Art?”

Looking up from his tablet, Tony reaches across the wide expanse of the bed to carefully sift his fingers through Arto’s hair. Arto doesn’t even move or even acknowledge that Tony has spoken; he stays exactly as he has been for the past hour, curled up on his side with his head on Steve’s pillow, eyes open and blinking slowly. Bucky Bear is on the pillow next to him, and he’s holding onto one of its legs, fingers curled tightly around the soft fur. He’s still in his Captain America pajamas, and he looks very small curled up on the deep blue sheets.

“You doing okay?” Tony presses, dragging his knuckles gently over Arto’s cheek. This time Arto nods slowly, not looking up. Though he’s relieved that he’s managed to get a response, Tony sighs, because he knows Arto is far from okay and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He hates how distant Arto is being, how far away he seems. He knows it’s just because Arto wants Steve, and the fact that this is something he can’t fix sits heavy and twisting in his chest.

Steve has been gone for barely two hours and it’s not just Arto feeling it; Tony feels his absence like the usual peculiar hollowness in his chest, but this time it’s so much tighter, heavier.

He’s never seen Steve as vulnerable as he is right now, and even though he’s physically as fit and strong as he ever has been, he still feels uneasy about the call to let him go off leading a counter-attack against Hydra. Tony should have been the one to go; he could easily have stepped in and taken Steve’s place. However, he knows that if he’d even suggested it Steve would have instantly had a fit of misplaced indignant-Captain-rage, because even though he trusts the team with his life, he still refuses to let anyone handle what he thinks is his problem.

Tony smooths Arto’s hair back from his forehead, and wonders if it feels worse this time round because he can’t exactly get Steve off of his mind when he’s got a constant reminder of him right there. God, there really is no hope of ever convincing anyone that Arto isn’t Steve’s. It’s only by looking closely that Tony can see the differences which show that Arto isn’t actually a clone; the set of his eyes is slightly different even if the colour is the same, and his face is slightly rounder than Steve’s, though maybe that’s more to do with age.

“Sir, your cellphone,” Jarvis says, his soft voice breaking through into Tony’s thoughts. Tony blinks and looks around for his cell, but it’s nowhere to be seen.

“On the counter in the communal kitchen,” Jarvis informs him.

“I’ll get it later,” Tony says dismissively, and then frowns. “Why are you telling me this anyway? You normally patch it through the speakers if it’s something you think I’m not allowed to ignore."

“It’s Ms Potts, Sir,” Jarvis says apologetically, and the bottom drops out of Tony’s stomach. He looks over at Arto who is now watching him, fingers plucking restlessly at the corner of the pillow. “This is her third attempt to call you."

“Don’t suppose I can put that off?” Tony asks, forcing his voice light.

“She is being quite insistent,” Jarvis says. “And you were planning on calling her today.”

“Good intentions,” Tony mutters, and rubs his brow. He drums his fingers against his knee, restless, and then reaches out to pick up the tablet again.

“Who?” Arto asks, shuffling closer into Tony’s side, bringing Bucky Bear with him. Tony slides an arm around his shoulders, the familiar fierce, protective rush igniting like a spark within him.

“A friend,” he tells him. “One of my best friends in the whole entire world. She’s very beautiful and very clever, and probably very cross at me right now.”

Arto slides his eyes over the tablet, wary. For someone who spends an awful lot of time kicking up hell, he seems very avoidant of potential conflict.  “Cross at you?”

“Yes,” Tony says. “I was meant to get something done and I didn’t, so she’s probably calling to yell at me.”

In the back of his mind, he can hear Steve’s exasperated voice telling him that he doesn’t need to be so brutally honest with a six year old, and he distractedly wonders if Steve would actually say that, or if he’s just making assumptions. He tucks Arto safely into his side and Arto settles easily, clutching Bucky bear under one arm, and Tony angles the tablet so that Arto isn’t visible on the screen.

“Put her through.”

“Good luck,” Jarvis says, and then a video call opens on the tablet and Pepper appears, beautiful and annoyed. Tony doesn’t feel too guilty, though he probably should, because for once he’s not annoyed her just by being him, he’s annoyed her inadvertently because he was taking care of something – someone – who needed it more than Stark Industries needed him.

“You missed the deadline for the new screens,” she says without preamble. “You promised they would be with manufacturing by October, and that’s not going to happen-”

“Pepper,” he begins, ready to interrupt and explain, but she’s so used to him deflecting and not caring that she just carries on. It’s frustrating, but he can’t really blame her.

“- if you don’t stick to the deadline, which you set anyway-”

“Pepper.”

“And I’m the one who will have to explain to the board that the schedule has changed again-”

“Pepper!” Tony shouts over her, because if she doesn’t stop soon then he’ll get sucked into arguing about the stupid board and the damn schedule and that is not a priority right now. “Life changing news alert.”

She freezes in place. “You better not be dying,” she begins, voice catching and panic starting to edge in. “Tony are you dying again?”

“No, I’m not dying!” Tony says hastily, glancing over at Arto whose eyes have just gone impossibly wide. “I’m fine,” he says to Arto. “She’s just being dramatic.”

“Who are you talking to?” Pepper demands. “If you are sick, or injured, or if you’ve-”

“Pepper,” Tony begins, but Arto is trembling, and his lip is wobbling and he’s starting to make a high pitched noise that doesn’t bode well for anyone.

“Tony, what is going on?” Pepper asks, and she looks somewhere between distressed and furious.

 “Oh, Jesus,” Tony says, torn. “Pepper, I’ll call you back-”

“Don’t you dare,” she snaps. “Jarvis, do not let him hang up on me.”

“No, no, no,” Arto says, the word rising in volume. His fists clench, and he looks around as if he’s either going to bolt or find something to throw-

Tony swipes his fingers across the screen of the tablet and cuts the call. He throws it aside and reaches for Arto, scooping his hands under his arms and hauling him right into his lap, half praying that Arto isn’t going to lash out because Bucky is down in the gym and will take at least sixty seconds to get up here if he’s needed. Arto makes a strangled screaming sound, but his hands grab Tony’s shirt and he clings on desperately, still making the distressed noise in the back of his throat.

“I am not dying,” Tony says into his hair, holding him close. “Arto I am fine. She saw me get hurt once, but I am fine, I promise you I’m not going anywhere.”

The words tumble from his mouth without permission, too easy and too clichéd and so stupid, and a violently sharp twist of fear rears its ugly head, piercing Tony where he didn’t even know he was vulnerable. His heartbeat quickens, his stomach tightens and he has to draw a shuddering breath in, feeling like he’s been suckerpunched. Arto is so damn small in his arms, and what if something happens to Tony that means Arto won’t have him to rely on? Tony needs to be here; Arto may like Steve more but Steve can’t do this by himself, and that’s such a weight to have on his shoulders, looking after both Steve and Arto-

Tony pulls himself together. With nothing more than sheer force of will, he sets his jaw and breathes in and out harshly, because it doesn’t fucking matter. His eyes are too warm and bright and he has to tilt his chin, look up at the ceiling for a few steadying moments, because he can’t let Arto see him like this, he’s got to be strong.

The tablet starts chiming again.

Tony ignores it. He screws his eyes shut, wishing violently that he’d never picked it up in the first place. “Hey,” he whispers, pressing his mouth to the top of Arto’s head. “Hey, Smart-Art.”

“No,” Arto replies tearfully. “Okay.”

“I am okay,” Tony assures him, strangely aware of how he’s managing to have a conversation with Arto even though Arto’s only speaking in single words. “Not going anywhere.”

“Promise,” Arto says, and he pulls back to glare up at Tony, tear tracks on his face. “Steve went.”

There’s a lump in Tony’s throat. “Yeah, he did,” he says. “He had to.”

“Coming back for me,” Arto says fiercely.

“Coming back for you,” Tony promises, shutting his eyes and pulling Arto in close again, a selfish impulse, because in that moment Arto is the closest thing to Steve, and Tony aches to have Steve back there with them.

Arto wriggles in his grip, small hands pressing against Tony’s collarbones as he pushes himself back. When he leans back far enough for Tony to see his face, his expression has completely changed. The frown and angry just of his lip has faded, into a look of uncertainty.

“You and Steve,” he says, and the frown deepens. “Not married.”

“No, not married,” Tony says, internally cautious about the fact Arto is bringing this up again and thinking maybe it’s more than just idle musings on Arto’s part. “Who taught you about marriage?”

“Eleanor,” Arto says, and he screws up his face. “You’re not married.”

“No,” Tony says, and he feels like there should be something else he says there, because Arto is obviously missing something that he needs to make sense of the dynamic between Steve and Tony. Part of him wonders what would happen if he were to mention the M word to Steve, but he’s pretty sure that Steve would hightail out of there before he could even finish the sentence-

“Want,” Arto begins, and looks down, shrinking a little. “Steve.”

“I know, buddy,” Tony says with a sigh, and sits back against the headboard, pulling Arto with him. Arto curls up against his side, slipping his fingers into his mouth and resting his cheek against Tony’s chest. Jesus, and Tony thought that they’d actually got a handle on this whole thing, and now Steve was gone and Arto was still hung up on-

The tablet starts up again, the sound soft but grating on Tony’s nerves.

Tony bites off the curse word at the last moment, a ‘fff,’ of sound between his teeth as he reaches over and picks it up. It’s Pepper again, and he knows that he’s going to have to talk to her sooner or later, and the longer he leaves it the more she’s going to worry and get wound up.

He rests the tablet against his knee, holding it up and once again angling it so that Arto won’t be visible when he answers. “Stay put, I’m just gonna talk to Pepper,” he tells Arto, who just nods, watching the tablet, eyes flicking rapidly back and forth. 

Tony swipes his thumb across the screen and Pepper appears, looking like she would throttle him if he could get her hands through the screen.

“What was that?!” she asks, and she looks hurt enough that Tony feels like a dick. “Who were you talking to? You start making sense or I’m calling Phil.”

“Don’t call Coulson,” Tony says, mildly annoyed with the threat. “Thought you were over getting him to play spy for you.”

“I was, but then you answer the phone with the words ‘life changing news’ after missing a really important deadline,” Pepper says, and then exasperated comprehension crosses her face. “Oh hang on, is this the phone call?”

“What phone call?”

“The one where you finally admit that you’ve been sleeping with Steve for the past god knows how long?”

Tony winces, shutting one eye and hoping that Arto doesn’t know about sex yet. “Okay, let’s lead with that.”

“Let’s-” Pepper does an actual to god double take, blinking and rearing back. “Let’s lead with that? So it’s true?

“Very true,” Tony says tiredly. “We’re a thing.”

“A thing?”

“Yeah, a thing,” Tony says. “A ‘he moved into the penthouse and he’s somehow my next of kin on all of Coulson’s paperwork’ thing.”

“You moved him into the penthouse?

“Well, he arrived in it about six months ago and only leaves when we’re fighting, so I guess.”

Pepper stares at him. “You and Steve are in a relationship.”

“Pretty much,” Tony says. “Wow, the rest of this conversation is going to go really badly if that’s how you’re reacting so far.”

“The rest?

Tony looks at her for a long moment, because this is it. This is the moment in which he tells Pepper, lets his friends outside of the Avengers know what’s happened. Even though he’s never entertained any intentions of giving Arto up, this still feels like a moment of no turning back. He trusts Pepper with his life, has done so literally in the past, but a tiny part of him still doesn’t want her to know. He thinks it’s more to do with protecting Arto though; if he could he’d hide him away from anything and everything, just to keep him safe and happy.

“Tony?”

In lieu of answering, Tony simply turns the tablet so she can see Arto, still curled into his side. The first one to react is Arto, who lets out a startled chirp, shrinking back. His eyes flicker over the screen and then he seems to notice the small square in the corner which shows their end of the video feed. He reaches out and waves his fingers in front of the screen, looking intently at himself.

“Us,” he says to Tony, and tugs on Tony’s wrist. “That’s us.”

Tony isn’t listening; he’s watching Pepper who is staring at them, mouth hanging open in shock.

“Please tell me someone has shrunk Steve,” she says faintly.

“Pepper, meet Arto. Arto, meet Pepper.”

Arto ducks his face into Tony’s side, peering back round at Pepper who is still looking utterly poleaxed.

“Pepper?” Tony says, gentle. “Pepper, breathe,” he says. “Look, I know this is a bit of a shock, okay, a lot of a shock-”

“Explain why you have a small child that looks like Steve,” Pepper breaks in quietly, eyes still on Arto and expression carefully still.

“Arto is biologically Steve’s,” Tony says, and then a voice in the back of his head is going ‘ah, shit,’ because they’ve not actually explained this to Arto yet, and he doesn’t know what Steve had in mind as far as that goes. Oh well, Steve isn’t here so Tony is making the calls and he’s just going to have to deal with it.  “We found him in a lab in a Hydra facility and brought him home.”

Pepper lifts a hand, pressing her fingers against her forehead, mouth working as she tries and fails to find the words.

“Don’t freak out,” Tony says. Arto hums, slumping sideways across Tony’s knees and shoving at his arm. Tony lifts the hand holding the tablet and Arto wriggles across his lap, lying across his thighs with his head on Tony’s pillow and his face pressed against the side of his hip, curled around like a cat.

“He’s – he’s Steve’s?” Pepper says.

“Technically,” Tony says. “Stolen DNA.”

“He’s a clone?

“Not quite,” Tony says, resting his palm on Arto’s side, absently stroking his fingers over the soft material. “Pep, please stop looking like that. And please don’t say any of the things that are currently going through your head while he’s here. Or at least censor it.”

“Stop looking like-?” Pepper beings. “Stop – Tony, I haven’t spoken to you for just over a fortnight and I call to talk about deadlines and you’re saying you and Steve are somehow together and you’ve ended up with a child, oh my god. Have – does SHIELD know? What about the others? ”

“It’s all under control-”

“You are insane,” Pepper all but shouts over him. “Tony, have you got any idea how crazy this is?”

“I’m an Avenger, crazy is the default setting.”

“Do not make jokes,” Pepper says heatedly. “This is not something you can joke about-”

“Give me some credit,” Tony says. “And please stop yelling in front of the small child.”

Pepper opens her mouth but visibly reigns herself in. She looks from Tony to Arto and back again. “Where’s Steve?” she asks. “Why have you-”

“Steve is on his way to Bucharest,” Tony says. “SHIELD asked for him to lead a mission.”

Pepper presses her lips together, obviously fighting back something she wants to say in response to that. “I’m coming to you,” she finally says. “I’ll come on the jet tonight.”

Tony shakes his head, because he’s got enough to be dealing with as it is. Arto takes priority right now, and he can’t have anyone around him that’s not going to understand that.

“I’m coming,” she says in a tone that brooks no argument. “This is something we need to talk about face to face.”

Tony tries arguing anyway. “We do not need to talk about it. It’s happened, and that’s that. He’s staying. This takes priority now. Over everything else.”

Pepper looks at him, hard. “And what happened the last time you fixated on something new and forgot about everything else that is in your life?” she bites out. “You do this, you claim you’re some great multi-tasker but when something appears that demands your attention you fixate and you let everything else-”

“I’m not going to apologise for that,” Tony interrupts, offhand. “And I think you’ll find I can. If I’ve been seeing Steve for this long without anyone noticing-”

“We did notice,” Pepper says. “And you fixated on him as well.”

Tony feels his jaw clench unconsciously, tension in his frame that he tries to shake off because Arto still draped across him and he can probably feel it.

“Well, if my fixating means that I end up in a relationship with Captain America, I’m most definitely not going to apologise for it,” Tony says flippantly.

“I’m not talking about this over a video call,” Pepper says, sounding weary all of a sudden. “I’m coming to see you.”

“Do not get on that jet if all you’re going to do is try to convince me to change my mind,” Tony says.

“Tony. You are sitting there with Steve Rogers’s child. I know there is absolutely no way of changing your mind,” Pepper replies quietly. “But I can at least try and help you work out how to do whatever it is you’re doing, without letting everything else fall apart around you.”

Tony looks down at that, because that’s just Pepper all over isn’t it? Out to give him hell, but only because she wants him to be happy and healthy and safe. His anger fades, leaving him feeling both grateful and oddly despondent. He appreciates her help, but he doesn’t want it to come in the form of her interfering and constantly reminding him about Stark Industries, because he knows, he just doesn’t think it’s that important right now-

“If everything has to fall apart for him, I’ll let it,” he says, and it sounds horribly final.

Pepper just stares at him. “Do not let your feelings for Steve wreck everything you have that’s yours.”

The words hit Tony like a slap. “You think that this is what it’s about?” he says, challenging and furious. “You think the only way I could ever care about a kid is because he’s Steve’s? That I’m doing this for Steve?”

“You have been doing everything for Steve since you met the man,” Pepper replies. “You never would have even dreamt about kids unless-"

“Don’t finish that.”

“Tell me it’s not true.”

“You’re right, I think we should talk about this in person,” Tony interrupts. “Goodbye, Pepper.”

He hangs up on her without another word.

Trembling, he runs his spare hand over Arto’s shoulders, the warm body comforting beneath his palm. Her words still feel like knives jabbing at him, leaving him feeling angry and acidic. He hates that Pepper thinks that of him, that all he’s doing here is sacrificing everything for Steve because it’s not. It was him that wanted to keep Arto, him that stood up to Fury and demanded that he stayed, him that looked after Arto whilst Steve was getting his fucking act together. And he didn’t do it for Steve, or even for himself, he did it for this little mess of a child that needs someone to be there for him.

Tony tosses the tablet aside again, pressing his fingertips to his brow. Now Pepper knows about Arto and the whole situation, he feels horribly exposed. He thinks maybe he’s taken Steve for granted over the years, never really acknowledged how much support Steve actually gives him, even when he’s doing nothing more than standing here just behind him.

Fuck, that star-spangled asshole better hurry up and get home, already.

“Well, you’re in trouble.”

Tony jumps a mile at the sound of Bucky’s voice, heart leaping into his throat. Biting back another curse, he looks up to see Bucky standing in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb with a pizza box balanced on his metal hand. On top of the pizza box is a carton of juice and a beaker.

“I know you don’t listen to me pretty much ever, but can you not be an asshole right now?” Tony says, breathing out heavily. “Jesus. What right does she have-”

“The fact she runs your company?” Bucky says, making no effort to pretend he wasn’t listening in. Jesus. If anyone decided to ever steal DNA and make a child out of Steve and Nat, Bucky Barnes would be it.

“Not my personal life,” Tony snaps.

Bucky just shrugs. “I don’t really know her enough to say shit about it,” he says and steps forwards, holding out the pizza. “Thought you might be hungry.”

Tony stares at the box for a moment and then just gives up.  “Yeah,” he says. “Thanks.”

He reaches out and as he does Arto looks up, and his face shutters as he sees Bucky. “No,” he says, rolling away from Tony and burying his face in Steve’s pillows.

Tony grimaces, looking apologetically over at Bucky. “Sorry.”

“He don’t need to like me,” Bucky shrugs, leaning down and sliding the pizza box on top of the comforter. “Just needs to suck it up and deal with me.”

Tony looks tiredly over at Arto, who is still buried face down in the pillow. Should he make him apologise? Should he try and get Arto to understand that Bucky isn’t that bad? Or is this a moment where he picks his battles and lets it go for now?

He decides on option three, sitting cross legged atop the blankets and moving both the juice and beaker onto the dresser. Jesus, Arto’s stuff is already creeping steadily over the tower and he’s only had possessions for half a day. “Is this just what happens when you have kids?” he muses aloud. “Every inch of your personal space is taken over by them and their crap?”

“Well I know that’s what happens when you have a Barton,” Bucky says, folding his arms across his chest. His normal fingers drum against his metal elbow. “And he’s pretty much a giant kid, so yeah."

“You heard from him?”

“A text message saying ‘don’t eat my Oreos’ just after they left, and another text about thirty seconds later saying ‘Phil says he’s confiscating my phone but seriously don’t eat my Oreos.’

“No-one ever said that he doesn’t have priorities,” Tony says, mouth twisting in a smile.

“Yeah, but maybe once in a while the clown could actually take his own well-being seriously instead of focussing on dumb shit,” Bucky scowls. “Between him and Steve, they’re going to give me a damn ulcer.”

“They’ll be fine,” Tony says easily, though he’s not entirely sure why he’s saying it. “They always are.”

Bucky breaths out slowly, mouth twisting. “Feels different this time though, don’t it?”

Tony looks over at Arto again, heart aching. “Well. This time around we didn’t just send our whatevers. We sent a father and an older brother.”

Bucky’s mouth hitches in the ghost of a smile. “Older brother? Don’t give him anything that important. He’s got himself down as the cool uncle.”

“He’s more than that, and you know it,” Tony says. “You saw him step in when me and Steve were fighting.”

“I did,” Bucky says. “And I’m telling you now, don’t you ever again make it so that Barton ends up as the voice of reason.”

“I’ll do my best,” Tony sighs. “Hey, you not sharing with us?” he gestures to the pizza box as Bucky steps away, turning as if to make for the door. He stops half way, looking a little thrown by the sort-of-invitation.

“I already ate one,” Bucky says with a shrug. “Then figured I should probably bring you two something, if I’m on guard duty.”

“Of course you did,” Tony says, pulling the box up to his knee. He leans over to poke Arto. “Come here, brat. Pizza.”

Arto uncurls slowly, still shooting Bucky suspicious glances.  “Pizza?” he asks, sniffing the air.

“Best food in all the universes,” Tony says, flipping the lid open. He pulls out a slice, offer it to Arto who shakes his head violently. “Fine, suit yourself.”

“What do you want to do with all his stuff, by the way?” Bucky says as he steps towards the door. “Move it into his room?”

“Yeah,” Tony says through a mouthful of pizza. “Might as well get-”

“No,” Arto shouts over him, sudden and angry. “Not my room.”

Bucky looks startled, face turning from Tony to Arto and back again. “Well this ain’t your room,” he says pointedly. 

“Is,” Arto snaps back at him. “I stay with Steve.”

“You can’t stay with Steve every night you know,” Tony begins, because letting Arto crash with them for a night was all well and good, but it most definitely cannot become a regular thing. Mostly because Arto needs to be able to stay on his own, and also because he gets the feeling the only time he and Steve are going to have any time alone is after Arto goes to sleep, and he’ll be damned if he can’t spend some of that time in their own bed.

“Can,” Arto replies, and his chin is wobbling and his cheeks are going pink. “I can.”

“Rogers’ stubbornness is definitely genetic, then,” Bucky mutters.

Tony sends him a flat look and then breathes out, thinking hard. “How about we move you into the penthouse,” he says to Arto, putting his half eaten slice back in the box and moving it aside. “You stay up here with-” 

“No,” Arto shouts, and what happens next is so quick that Tony barely registers it; Arto kicks out viciously and catches him in the knee, hard. Pain shoots through his leg and he swears, and Arto starts to scream, and suddenly Bucky is there and the screaming rises in volume. Tony looks up through the pain to see that Bucky is sitting on the bed with Arto held back against his chest, arms locked around his upper body and keeping his arms pinned to his sides. Arto’s fingers are scrabbling uselessly at Bucky’s arms, trying to scratch him, and his heels are thumping bad against the bed-

“Arto, calm down-” Tony manages to say, even as Bucky easily moves his leg around so his calf is pressing down against Arto’s shins, keeping his feet pinned in place. His jaw is clenched and his lips are pressed hard together, and even though Tony knows that this isn’t too much of a physical strain on him, it looks like he’s finding it hard.

“Not my room,” Arto manages to scream, face bright red and furious. “Not my fucking room-”

“Okay, okay,” Tony says, and he tries to move, but the pain in his knee stops him. He grits his teeth, shuffles across the bed and reaches out, putting his hands on Arto’s cheeks. “Arto, look at me. Okay, I’m not going to put you in that room if you hate it. You pick out your own space.”

“Here,” Arto cries, still trying to get free from Bucky’s grip. “I stay here, I sleep here.”

“Not here,” Tony says, and it breaks his heart to say it, and Arto starts screaming again. “Arto, listen to me. Arto!”

He shouts his name, and Arto stops screaming, gasping in great shuddering breaths. His eyes are bright and wild and this isn’t like the tantrum from the night before, the one that was nothing but noise and fighting for the hell of it; this is Arto being genuinely scared and panicked about something.

“Bucky, let him go,” Tony says as Arto strains against Bucky’s grip, twisting side to side to try and get away.

“No,” Bucky replies, and Tony sees the plates of his arm shifting as his arm recalibrates under the pressure. “He lands another kick like that he’s gonna break your leg.”

“Let him go,” Tony snarls.

“No,” Bucky snaps back, adamant. “If I let him hurt you Steve is going to kill me,” he says, and grunts with exertion as Arto twists in his arms again, back bowing as he tries to push free. He wails, screwing up his face in pain as he pushes-

“You’re hurting him,” Tony replies, feeling panic rising in his chest. “Barnes!”

“It’s only hurting because he’s fighting,” Bucky shouts. “I’m not letting him go. You hear that, kid? I’m not letting you go if I think you’re gonna hurt Tony, because I know you’ll feel bad if you do.”

“Fuck off,” Arto screams, and he twists his wrists around, digging his fingernails into Bucky’s real arm, pinching viciously. “Fuck off!”

“Not a chance,” Bucky snaps back. “And stop pinching me or Steve is going to be pissed.”

Arto’s screams rise in both pitch and volume, and Tony wants to clamp his hands over his ears, he wants to pull Arto from Bucky’s grip even if it means he gets hurt-

“You stop,” Bucky says roughly and Tony wants to punch him for the threatening edge he can detect in Bucky’s tone. “I am not letting you go until I know you’re not gonna hurt Tony. How is it gonna feel if you hurt him bad, huh? Is that what you want?”

“No,” Arto gasps, and then the screaming suddenly morphs into gasping sobs and he visibly stops straining against Bucky’s arms. His fingers are still digging into Bucky’s skin but it looks like he’s holding on rather than trying to cause Bucky any damage, and his head falls forwards as he shudders, squirming as he cries and tries half-heartedly to get away.

“Let him go,” Tony says, throat feeling tight.

Bucky shakes his head. “Still not convinced, Short-Round,” he says. “Come on, I know you hate this and you probably hate me right now, but you’re going to feel worse if you end up hurting your Dad.”

“Won’t hurt him,” Arto sobs, and it’s only then that Tony realises what Bucky just said, the word he just used. “I hate you.”

“I know,” Bucky says. “I hate me too right now, because this is hurting you. But I would be a bad friend if I didn’t stop you hurting other people.”

“Steve,” Arto sobs. “Tony.

“Nearly there,” Bucky says, and there’s strain in his voice, though it’s a different kind now. “Nearly there, buddy.”

Arto still hasn’t given up entirely though, and Tony is desperately trying to think of what he can do, and what was it that Clint did before to divert a tantrum? He distracted him, talked at him until Arto forgot what he was even mad about-

“Hey, Bucky,” Tony says, thinking quickly. Bucky looks up at him, obviously confused by the forced casualness of Tony’s tone. “Remember when Steve had to do this to you? When you were angry?”

Shock is the first reaction, followed by something dark and hard that fleetingly crosses Bucky’s face like a shadow. “Yeah,” he says after a moment’s hesitation, breathing out slowly. “When Steve had to keep a hold of me so I didn’t hurt anyone.”

“But you knew he was doing it because he loved you, right?”

Bucky nods, throat working visibly as he swallows. “Yeah,” he says, and then he shuts his eyes and forces more words out. “Kinda hurt when Steve had to stop me. But I’m glad he did it. Or I would have probably hurt more people and that would have felt even worse.”

“Natasha had to do it to Clint once as well,” Tony says, working hard to keep the tremors out of his voice. “You weren’t there for that. He was - he was angry like you, and she had to stop him hurting people.”

Arto has stopped struggling. He’s slumped forwards in Bucky’s grip, head dipped low, breathing noisily through his mouth. Bucky is looking like he very badly wants to go and break something, and Tony’s not sure if it’s talking about what happened to him or Clint that has made him react like that.

“You know what made Clint feel better?” Bucky says abruptly, looking around like he’s searching for something. “A Bucky Bear.”

Tony gets the hint. He picks up the bear from where it ended up shoved behind a pillow and holds it out; Bucky cautiously slips an arm from around Arto’s middle and takes the bear, slipping it under Arto’s slumped form. There’s a moment and then Arto takes it, sitting up with the bear pressed over his face so Tony can’t see him.

“Atta boy,” Bucky says, sounding exhausted. He slowly tugs his other arm free; it’s bleeding from five or six half-crescent marks in his forearm, and he grimaces as he examines the marks.

“You should get-” Tony begins but Bucky shakes his head violently.

“Don’t let him know he did it,” he mouths, and Tony gets it.

“Come here, brat,” he says, and reaches for Arto, a careful hand stroking over his head. “You didn’t hurt me. Come here and-”

Arto scrambles forwards into his lap before he can finish the sentence, flinging his arms around Tony’s neck and holding him tightly. Tony holds him close, an arm around his back and one hand on the back of his head.

“We got you,” he whispers against the side of Arto’s face, a lump in his throat. “Don’t worry, we’ve got you.”

“I’m just gonna,” Bucky says, and he gestures towards the bathroom. His eyes are bright and his jaw is clenched and Tony lets him go without a word, just nodding. He hears the sound of running water, and wishes it were Steve in there, within calling distance.

“You okay?” he whispers to Arto. Arto loosens his grip on Tony’s neck and lets himself be gently guided back, curling up on Tony’s lap with one of his arms held against his chest, Bucky bear held tightly in the crook of his other elbow. His face is red and blotchy and his lip is trembling, obviously still over-emotional.

“Let me look,” Tony says, fear sitting in the pit of his stomach as he gently takes Arto’s wrist and eases his arm away from his chest. It’s got several red marks on, lines that have clearly come from the plates of Bucky’s metal arm.

“Wiggle your fingers,” Tony says, and Arto does easily. “There you go. Just marks from his arm, you’ll be fine."

Arto nods but tears well up in his eyes and spill over, running down his cheeks. “I sorry,” he forces out, and Tony feels his heart twist painfully.

“Hey, hey, don’t say sorry,” Tony says. “You’re fine, I’m fine, Bucky is fine. You let Bucky keep a hold of you, you were great. You didn’t hurt anyone, and that’s important, right? Steve’ll be pleased when he gets back.”

“Steve,” Arto says, and more tears well up. “Did,” he tries to say. “B – B – Bucky. He have to-?”

“Did he have to stop Bucky?” Tony fills in for him, and Arto nods. “Yeah, he did.”

“Want Steve to come back,” Arto says.

“Me too,” Tony says honestly. “He’ll be back as soon as he can.”

Arto nods, reaching up rub his eyes with his knuckles, hand curled into a fist. He opens his mouth and then closes it again, chin wobbling as he tries to stop his tears. He looks down at his own arm and strokes his fingers over the red marks, and great, just what he needed considering that he hated Bucky anyway.

“You look tired,” Tony says quietly as Arto rubs at his eyes again. “Get in, have a nap.”

Arto doesn’t argue. He lets Tony lie him down on Steve’s side of the bed, pulling the covers back and tucking him in, allows Tony to press the bear into his arms. Arto clutches it to him, and his eyelids are fluttering as soon as he lies his head down on Steve’s pillow, looking so impossibly tiny. His arm is outside the covers, the red marks standing out against his pale skin.

“Sleep, brat,” Tony says. “I’m going to check on Bucky and then be right back.”

Arto blinks sleepily. “Come back,” he says, and reaches out.

“Sure thing,” Tony says, and catches Arto’s fingers, leaning over and kissing them before letting him go and standing up.

He glances back at him as he gets up and walks towards the bathroom, but Arto doesn’t make a sound, just watches Tony with tired eyes. Fighting the urge to turn around and go straight back, Tony steps up to the half open bathroom door and raps his knuckles softly against the wood, before pushing it open.

Bucky roughly wipes his face with his hand as Tony edges silently in, turning off the tap that was running.

“Did I hurt him?” he asks, voice casual but with an underlying thickness that easily gives him away.

“No,” Tony says honestly. “He’s got a few marks on his arm from the plates, but nothing bad.”

Bucky’s face hardens, jaw clenching. “Couldn’t let him hurt you,” he says, sounding defensive. He folds his arms across his chest, shoulders tense. “Image he had broken your leg and then when he’d calmed down knew it was his fault.”

“I know,” Tony says, eyes staring at Bucky arm without really seeing it. “You did the right thing. I’m sorry for yelling at you, I just-”

“You didn’t like seeing him hurt,” Bucky interrupts. “I get it.”

They both stand there, quiet. Tony isn’t sure what to say, isn’t sure it’s his place to try and reassure Bucky about whatever has got him looking that way. It could be Tony mentioning Steve having to take Bucky out when they were dealing with the Winter Soldier all that time ago. It could be genuine fear that he’s hurt Arto. It could be mentioning Clint that’s got him all bent out of shape, Tony doesn’t know.

“What do you want me to do with his stuff, then?” Bucky breaks the silence, voicing the question that had set Arto off in the first place. “Move him in here with you?”

“No,” Tony says, shaking his head, because that’s one thing he can’t negotiate on. Sue said to pick the battles, and having space that belongs just to him and Steve is one he knows he’s got to stick with.

“You’re gonna put him back in the room near Barton’s?” Bucky asks, doubtful. “I don’t think he’s gonna go without a fight.”

“I know,” Tony sighs, leaning back against the cool clean tiles on the wall. “Bring it up into the penthouse lounge,” he says. “We’ll get a bed put in there for him. He might take it as a compromise.”

“He might scream the place down and insist he stays in there with you,” Bucky points out.

“He probably will,” Tony says, and pushes away from the wall. “So you might have to step in again.”

“Okay,” Bucky says, breathing out deeply. “You know I never want to hurt the kid, right?”

Tony stares at him. “I think you would do anything to keep him safe, because he’s Steve’s.”

Bucky’s mouth hitches in a small, depreciating smile. “Well, there’s one thing we’ve got in common,” he says, and steps away from the counter, walking past Tony and out of the room. Tony follows him, eyes instantly going to Arto. He’s already fast asleep, curled up small with his fingers clutching the pillow next to his cheek. There’s a little cleft between his eyebrows, a perfect mirror of the troubled frown that Steve sometimes wears when he’s not resting well.

“Hey, Barnes,” Tony says, eyes still on Arto. Bucky’s footsteps pause, almost at the door.

“What?”

“Thank you,” Tony says, and hears Bucky shift slightly.

“Don’t mention it,” he says, and then he’s gone. Tony walks over to the bed and sits down heavily on the edge, his back to Arto. He places his elbows on his knees and holds his head in his hands, feeling torn up and tangled because he wants nothing more than for Steve to be there, but Steve is probably halfway over Europe by now.

He straightens up, shifting around and gingerly bringing his leg up, hissing as he bends his knee. He’s going to have a hell of a bruise; it’s lucky that being Iron Man has basically taught him how to carry on as normal even when he’s been knocked six ways from Sunday.

Despite the pain, he can’t help but feel oddly like they accomplished something here today, managing to bring Arto down from his tantrum before it got too bad. Well, before it carried on for too long, because even though it was certainly shorter than the last one it was still awful to witness, especially knowing that Steve wouldn’t be there to do whatever it was that he did that usually calmed Arto down straight away.

The odd sensation of achievement doesn’t quite sit right with the rest of the emotions churning restlessly in his gut, and it takes him a moment to realise that part of it is an ache for a drink; between Pepper and Arto and Bucky goddamn Barnes, Tony could easily be very happy with a glass or four of scotch right about now.

He doesn’t. He stays where he is, thinking about what Pepper had said, about what he had said about Arto being Steve’s, about Bucky’s slip up earlier. He wonders if Arto even registered Bucky’s use of the word Dad, and if it would mean anything to him even if he had.

In all honestly, he’s not exactly sure what it means to him yet.

“Fuck, I bet you’re confused,” he says quietly to Arto’s sleeping form. “The moment Steve gets back, we will explain everything. I promise. I’ll get Steve to draw you a family tree, get Coulson to find someone to forge you a birth certificate, the works.”

He looks out the window, gazing at the sky. Get your ass home, Rogers, he silently thinks, because it’s starting to become apparent that he and Arto both need Steve like they need air, and he doesn’t think it’s going to feel right until Steve is back there with them.

 


 

 

The jet dips and shudders in the turbulence, but Steve barely notices. He’s sitting at the back near the closed door with a tablet on his knee, casting his eyes over a set of blueprints. He can’t focus properly on them though, the blue and black lines in front of him fading out of focus as he stares down at the tablet, unblinking.

He had to leave. He didn’t have a choice.

He knows that, so why does it feel like his stomach is tied up in a knot somewhere under his sternum?

Blowing out a breath, he rubs his mouth with his fingers, staring down at the metal floor beneath his feet. He feels irritation at his lack of focus swirling in his gut, stress levels rising because he can’t afford to be this distracted, this out of sorts. Not on a mission like this.

He thinks of Tony, at home without him. Christ, what if Arto has kicked off about him leaving already? Yeah, the kid was pretty calm as he left, even going so far as to give him a hug goodbye, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stay calm. The thought of him having a tantrum without Steve there is awful; the state Arto had been in the last time Steve returned to the tower is seared into his memory.

“You didn’t have to come, you know.”

Steve looks up to see Clint standing in front of him, leaning too casually against the wall. He’s fully kitted in his black tactical gear, and the only difference between him and the other agents is the fact he’s sporting an Avengers logo on his shoulder rather than a SHIELD one. “Yes I did,” he says, looking back to the tablet.

“You could have sent Bucky in your place. You could have told Fury to fuck himself.”

Steve pauses, considers that. His initial reaction is to snap back at Clint and say ‘No I couldn’t,’ but there’s a nagging, anxious part of him that thinks maybe Clint is right. “Hydra is my fight,” he opts for saying. “It’s been my fight since the second world war, I’m not just going to stop now.”

Clint pulls a face. “Bucky was right, you are determined to never let anyone help you out.”

Anger spikes in Steve’s chest. “Back off,” he warns, making a private vow to throttle Bucky when he gets back home.

Clint holds up his hands, a gesture of surrender. “Just pointing out-”

“Point anything else out and I’m going to drop you out of the back of the jet,” Steve says, annoyed. “I get it, alright?”

“Unless you’ve ever been that kid who gets left behind again, I don’t think you do,” Clint says shortly, and goes to push away from the wall and turn away. Steve is quicker; he stands up and grabs Clint’s arm, pulling him around so they’re almost nose to nose.

“What is your problem all of a sudden?” he demands. Clint doesn’t try and pull his arm free, just looks at Steve flatly. “You were quick enough to volunteer to leave.”

“I didn’t volunteer to leave,” Clint says, face doing dark. “Bucky volunteered to stay. None of us should be here."

“It’s a bit late to be voicing your opinion now,” Steve says in disbelief. “We’re ten minutes out of drop zone-”

“Gentlemen,” a calm voice says, and Steve looks up to see Coulson standing in front of him in SHIELD tactical gear, a rare enough sight as it is. Sometimes Steve forgets that Coulson is actually an active agent, rather than spending his time simply doing paperwork and scaring junior agents.

“Hi Phil,” Clint says casually. “Steve was just letting me go.”

Scowling, Steve lets go of Clint’s arm. “We are on a mission,” he says to Clint, not caring that Coulson is standing right there. “If you had something to say about the situation at home, you should have said it while we were at home, where I could have done something about it. You understand him better than any of us - I wouldn't have just ignored you.”

Something like surprise mingled with guilt flashes over Clint’s face, maybe at Steve’s admission that he would have listened to him. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I just – I feel bad.”

Steve’s anger ebbs away. “Yeah, me too,” he says shortly.

“You sure you’re good for this?” Coulson asks mildly, looking from Clint to Steve and back again.

“Yes,” Steve says shortly. “I’m fine.”

Coulson doesn’t respond to that, just nods contemplatively. “Fury says you named him.”

Steve looks at Clint, who just shrugs. “Clint named him,” Steve says, and pauses. “Arto.”

“How is he?”

Steve leans back, scrutinizing Coulson for a moment. “Are you asking me because you genuinely want to know, or have you got an agenda?”

“No agenda,” Coulson says. “I’d like to think that by now we’re at the point where we can ask about each other’s personal lives every once in a while.”

“He’s…settling,” Steve says slowly. “I think.”

The jet takes a sudden dip; Coulson steps sideways and reaches up to hold onto the wall. “He’s staying?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “That going to be a problem?”

“Not by me,” Coulson says, and pauses before saying, “Maybe by Fury.”

“Fury can go fuck himself,” Clint says, resting his bow against his boot and spinning it slowly around, palm resting against the upper limb.

“He can’t go back,” Steve says, privately thinking that the whole of SHIELD can go fuck itself at this point. “It’s not safe. And he’s getting attached to us. He’s already attached to us.”

“And you to him?”

Steve doesn’t reply to that. “Tony won’t let him go. Not for anyone.”

“I don’t think many people had Stark pegged at the paternal type,” Coulson muses, and Steve raises an eyebrow, challenging. He’ll happily accept that he’s not been the best at dealing with this situation, and he knows that Tony wasn’t altogether great to him, but if anyone so much as hints that Tony hasn't done right by Arto then he’s going to object with prejudice.

“Didn’t you?”

“I’ve come to conclude that he’s good at both living up to his reputation and surprising people,” Coulson says. “I’m glad this was the latter.”

“Aren’t we all,” Clint remarks.

“I hear you’re enjoying being a big brother,” Coulson says, perfectly straight-faced, and Clint rears back, surprised and suspicious.

“Everything Nat says is a lie,” he says, but then does a double-take and turns to Steve. “Hey, does it make you my adoptive Dad if I am?”

Steve stares at him. “I’m going to pretend you never said that.”

Clint pulls a face. “I know where I’m not wanted.”

“You are Bucky’s problem these days, not mine,” Steve remarks. “I’ve got Tony and Arto to deal with. I’m tapped.”

“Coming over the drop zone, Captain,” a voice says over the comms. “Should be able to take you right in. Three minutes.”

“Got it,” Steve says. “Head in the game, Hawkeye. Three minutes untill we land.”

 “Finished gossiping?” Natasha says, walking up and fiddling with something on her wrist. The bites around her wrist hum with electricity, lighting up blue for a moment. Clint takes a pointed step back and she allows herself a tiny smile. “What’s the plan, Captain?”

“We land, we get off the jet, we take out anyone wearing Hydra gear, we get back on the jet,” Steve says, and she smiles mischievously at him.

“Sounds familiar,” she drawls. “Which master tactician taught you that plan?”

“That’s all me,” Steve says, reaching for his shield and slipping it into his arm. He flexes his fingers around the strap, willing his stomach to settle. It won’t.

“Twenty bucks?” Natasha says, and Clint makes an indignant noise.

“How come me and Barnes are banned from betting on missions?”

“Because you two are overgrown man-children,” Natasha says. Clint opens his mouth to retort but there’s a deafening boom and the jet veers sharply to the left as the darkening sky outside is lit up with a tell-tale orange flash.

“Anti-aircraft!” Steve shouts, slamming his palm onto the button to disengage the back door. It immediately starts to move with a grinding clunk, the hydraulics hissing and groaning. “Everyone get a chute, we’re jumping! Right now, go!”

“You heard the Captain! Everyone, chute up,” Coulson is calling over the rushing sound of the wind as it tears past the door, pulling a chute from the storage compartment on the wall and tossing it to Natasha. “Barton, give me eyes!”

Clint is already at the door, holding onto one of the extended hydraulic poles and leaning out, muscles in his arm visibly tense. “They really do not want us here,” he shouts back. “Jesus, it’s chaos. Two fires in separate locations, three guns firing towards us and the other jet, can see quite a bit of ground fire-”

“Get away from the damn door until you’ve got your chute on!” Steve bellows at him as another boom shakes the floor of the jet.

“You were threatening to drop me from the back of the jet five minutes ago,” Clint yells back, but he steps away, turning towards Steve-

There’s an ear-splitting bang and the left side of the jet is suddenly engulfed in flame. The mayday alarm blares over the speakers, red lights flashing as the whole jet swerves violently to the left, juddering under Steve’s feet-

“Whoa, fuck-!”

There’s a horrifying moment where Clint staggers back a step, arms windmilling wildly. Steve lunges for him but the jet violently jerks again, sending everyone sprawling back against the wall. Steve’s head bangs painfully against the bulkhead and he swears, tasting copper in his mouth-

When he forces his eyes open again, Clint is gone.

The doorway is empty, the sky beyond dark and endless. The wind howls past, and Steve is frozen for a moment, waiting to see Clint re-appear, hauling himself back inside the jet and yelling about how SHIELD pilots are supposed to be better than your average New York cab driver-

The doorway stays empty.

“Clint?” he shouts over the sound of the alarm, hauling himself to his feet and staggering over to the doorway, gripping tightly onto the edge. There’s nothing below them but darkness, orange bursts of gunfire and billowing smoke coming from the complex, rising thick and cloying across the river-

A hand grasps his arm and Natasha is there, leaning forwards dangerously far, face white. She stares out of the doorway, fingers painfully tight on Steve’s elbow.

“Clint,” she says, almost distracted, eyes flicking back and forth. The shock on her face is terrifying, something that she usually never lets anyone see. Steve twists his arm around, gets his fingers around her wrist. There’s more rumbling crashes of artillery, and the sky around them lights up, orange and violent.

The jet rocks violently but Steve can’t do anything but stare out of the doorway into the space where Clint had been, body frozen even as Natasha pulls against his grip, her scream of “Clint!” torn out of her mouth, the words snatched away by the wind and tossed into the darkness beyond.

 

Chapter Text

Steve hits the water hard, the cold hitting him harsh and painful. He pushes towards the surface, breaking free and gasping in air that tastes like gasoline and smoke. He coughs, shaking his head side to side and looking up, sharp eyes trying to spot the shapes of parachutes in the air above him.

There’s too much smoke; he gives up and looks around, eyes taking in his surroundings. The factory on the edge of the river is ablaze, and he can hear the roar of gunfire and the shattering sounds of explosions. He curses under his breath; this is a situation that is clearly out of hand. By the looks of things, he needed to have gotten here days ago.

You needed to be at home, a voice in the back of his head says, one that sounds suspiciously like Tony. Treading water, he ignores it and twists around in the water, scanning for blond hair. He wishes Clint had chosen to wear his purple gear instead of the damn black.

He can’t see anyone, and the knot of fear in his stomach clenches tighter.

“You were not clear to jump without a chute!” Coulson’s voice shouts over his comm unit. He ignores that as well, kicking hard and swimming over to the loading jetty that juts out into the river, the concrete glowing orange in the light of the fire, the water around it black and slick with dirt and oil.

“Captain, come in, what is your status?”

“Fine,” Steve replies curtly.

“Leave Hawkeye, focus on the objective,” Coulson replies, and somehow he knows exactly what Steve is planning. “You are to find any commanding officers, rescue any hostages-”

“Fuck that,” Steve snaps, because he’s been here before, he’s let someone slip from his fingertips and not looked for them, and Hydra will be dead and burned before Steve lets them get their hands on another of his friends. Even if Clint is – even if he didn’t – Hydra are not having him.

He reaches the jetty, grabs the edge and hauls himself out, landing in a crouch and breathing hard. Water drips down his face, the cold starting to seep in through his suit.

“Captain, listen to me. Do not change your objective.”

Steve ignores him. There is something terrifying and angry trying to rip free from his chest, something that is echoing with Bucky’s screams, mingled with Clint’s startled expression and the roaring wind in the space where they should be-

He reaches back, unclips his shield and slips it onto his forearm. His heart is pounding in his ears and nothing matters but finding Clint. Crouching low, he moves quickly to the nearest wall, pressing his shoulder against it and making sure that he’s hidden in shadows. He looks left and right and quickly works out where he is; the building he’s pressed against is a storage warehouse, and if he can get in there then he can move through the complex, back towards where Clint fell from the jet. It was only around thirty seconds between Clint falling and Steve jumping, so he should be somewhere within the boundaries of the complex.

He takes off at a sprint. He vaults over a chain-link fence and into an open courtyard, dodging the sweeping white light that’s jerking erratically over the ground like it’s lost something. Boots crunching on the gravel, he braces himself and shoulders straight through an outside door, smashing his way into the building. He immediately comes face to face with three armed guards; they’re so shocked by his abrupt entrance that they don't even have time to straighten up before the shield swings and they fall in quick succession. Steve doesn’t know if they’ll get back up again, but the combination of fear, anger and adrenaline that’s coursing through him doesn't leave him much room to care.

He already knew from looking at the blueprints that the complex was akin to a maze, rooms and floors joined by sprawling network of corridors, like an ants' nest. He’s memorized the major pathways, so he’s immediately on the move again, heading in the direction he needs to be going in to try and find Clint. He runs the length of the bare concrete corridor he’s found himself in and kicks though the second door he comes across, the lock snapping easily. He bursts into what looks like a garage, filled with shipping containers and vehicles in various states of assembly. This time he skids to a halt, because there are four Hydra agents and they seem to have been expecting a confrontation; they’re standing ready and all have guns pointing at him. They’re shouting in broken English and Romanian, and he hears commands to shoot in Russian as well, one of the men stepping forwards towards him-

“Strelyat' v nego!”

A figure drops from the rafters. Steve only has to glimpse the red hair before he’s slinging the shield, knocking out two agents as Natasha hits the third and fourth; she breaks one’s neck in a vicious twist and then grabs the other by his wrist. She flips over and uses the momentum to sling him around, slamming him onto the floor. The man screams in pain, and as Steve catches the shield he hears the crack of a breaking bone. He jogs over, jaw clenched tight. Natasha’s face is contorted with fury. Steve doesn’t even contemplate telling her to ease up.

“Gde luchnik,” she spits, crouching over the man, her face inches from his. “Skazhi mne!”

“Ya ne znayu!” the man screams. “Ya ne znayu!”

“What a pity,” Natasha breathes in his ear and Steve steps forwards but she’s slammed both her fists into the sides of the man’s neck, Widow’s Bites sparking bright blue. The man lets out a strangled scream and then goes still.

Natasha stands up, perfectly still. “Let's move,” she says to Steve, and if he didn’t know better he’d say she was in perfect control. She looks at the huge bay doors that are on their left, and then to the double doors at the far end of the room, eyes glittering with purpose. “That man better be dead or I’m going to kill him.”

“Are you talking about that guy or Clint?” Steve shouts after her as she walks away, nodding to the motionless body on the floor.

“Both,” she snarls, and she reaches out to grab a long handled wrench off of the hood of one of the partially-built jeeps, swinging it at her side as she makes for the doors. “Come on.”

Steve doesn’t need to be told twice. He takes off after her, joining her just as she pulls open one of the doors and steps out of the garage into a stairwell that’s lit only by one feebly flickering bulb. They go up a floor and she barely hesitates before shouldering through another door, into a corridor with a polished linoleum floor, with thick pipes running along the right hand wall, giving the place the impression of a strange cross between a hospital and a factory. The lights here are all out, a scant amount of light coming in through the dark-tinted windows.

Steve hears voices. He throws out a hand, halts Natasha. She stops dead, fingers curling around the wrench-

There’s the crack of a gunshot, the sound of a shattering window. Steve lifts his shield over the two of them as the darkened glass showers over them, and corridor is lit by the ominous orange glow of flames. The whole place seems to shudder beneath them. “Go!” Steve bellows, and Natasha is moving before the word is even out of his mouth, sprinting down the corridor and away.

Steves makes to follow but there’s the zip of a bullet past his ear, the sharp clang of it hitting something metal. Steve spins on his heel and spots the black uniform retreating through a doorway; he runs forwards and the soldier barely has time to raise her gun before Steve is on her, kicking her hard enough in the chest to shatter several ribs. Behind him he hears gunfire and a pained shout, the sounds of a scuffle moving further away.

Breathing hard, he takes a moment to make sure the woman he kicked isn’t going to get back up again, and then movement out of the corner of his eye has him whipping around again, shield ready to fly-

He keeps hold of it by the barest margin as Coulson emerges from a doorway. His face is smeared with something that looks like soot and he’s got his gun in hand, ready to shoot.

“Stand down, Captain,” Coulson says, and he’s so calm that Steve wishes he had knocked him out with the fucking shield. The place is chaos and Clint is still missing and Coulson is talking like they’re at the damn grocery store. “I thought the plan was for you to move North through the complex.”

“I nearly took your fucking head off,” Steve snaps. There’s a shout from the direction Natasha vanished in and the rattle of gunfire; Steve and Coulson both back up and duck down behind a chunk of the ceiling which is now blocking the corridor, leaving a gaping maw open above their heads. A dull roar sounds in the distance, and outside sirens are wailing. Steve grits his teeth, wondering what the hell is going on out there. Fury hadn't been kidding when he’d said that the SHIELD agents in play didn't have the damn threat contained.

Coulson just leans back against the wall, gun in hand. “You need to calm down,” he instructs, voice raised over the noise. He winces slightly as gunshots ricochet off the wall beside him, showering him with sharp pieces of concrete. “Hawkeye will be fine.”

“You don’t know that,” Steve bites out, trying to keep his voice level.

“Have you met Clint Barton?” Coulson shouts back, and he nods at Steve; Steve vaults the broken piece of concrete and ducks behind his shield. Bullets ping off of its surface and the distraction is time enough for Coulson to edge around the corner and shoot both Hydra agents that are firing at them straight between the eyes in quick succession. “The man’s like a damn cockroach, you won’t get rid of him that easily.”

“It’s not like he’s tripped down a stairwell this time, or did you miss the part where he fell out the back of a jet?” Steve snaps, and he runs to the next corner with Coulson on his heels.

“He’s had worse,” Coulson shouts, checking his gun as he leans back against the wall. “Captain, trust me. He had his bow in his hand when he fell; he’ll be fine.”

Both the rationalization and the belief in Coulson’s tone register in Steve’s mind, and he finds the frenetic churning of his insides receding. The fear that was wrapped around his heart like razor wire eases enough for Steve to take a proper breath. Feeling marginally calmer – though not by a lot – he tips his head back and exhales heavily through his teeth. “I’ll believe it when I’ve got my hands on him,” he replies finally, and though his voice is flat and grim, he sounds more like himself than he did five minutes ago. “And just so we’re all clear; if he is okay, when I get my hands on him, I’m going to kill him.”

“He most likely knows that and is probably hiding from you,” Coulson yells. “You go left, I go right?”

“On my mark,” Steve nods. “One, two - go!”

He takes off, and he’s halfway down the corridor when there’s a deafening blast. Hot air smacks him in the face and he’s thrown backwards by the force, straight through a wall. He hits the floor hard, dazed and winded.

“Coulson?” he coughs, trying to draw in a breath; it feels like there’s a knife jammed between his ribs. “Ah, shit.”

He pushes himself up onto his elbows, shield still miraculously in his hand. There’s a huge hole in the wall he was just blasted through, and he can see flames licking feebly along the floor, scattered pieces of concrete all over the corridor. There’s a light swinging haphazardly from a tangle of wires that have been ripped from the ceiling, spitting sparks intermittently into the air.

Ignoring both the pain and the ringing in his ears, Steve rolls over onto his hands on knees, taking a deep breath before struggling to his feet. Just above his knee, there’s blood seeping through the leg of his suit, turning the blue fabric black. His chest is even more painful; there’s no blood but he’s either cracked ribs or torn some muscles.

He glances back to check his six, intending to move on, but he halts, distracted. The room he’s ended up in looks like a laboratory; before it was half blown to pieces it would have been pristine, all white tiles and stainless steel workbenches and furniture. There’s a computer terminal that is miraculously untouched by the carnage, and Steve should be focusing on that but he’s not. At the far end of the room is a huge metal container that looks horribly familiar, and Steve’s feet are taking him towards it without permission.

When he’s standing beside it, he reaches out, presses his gloved hand to the container. It’s huge; seven feet long and easily a couple of feet deep. The metal is several inches thick, held in places by heavy rivets.

Another explosion echoes through the facility, and Steve feels the floor beneath his feet tremble. He doesn’t look away from the container though, because he’s seen this before, or something very similar. It looks like a cross between the capsule he had stepped into as part of Project Rebirth, and the cryo-chambers that Hydra had used to keep Bucky in.

This can’t be good, Steve thinks distantly. He reaches up to his comm unit, hoping that someone can hear him. “Coulson? Widow? Can anyone copy – I’ve found something.”

There’s no reply. Frowning, he leans over and runs his hands over the sleek metal, up to the circular glass window set into the front. There are no handles he can see, and there’s no line where pieces would separate, just one heavy lid. Like a coffin, he thinks, jaw clenching. He slips his hands under the edge of the lid and shoves, hard. There’s a clunk and the whole top half lifts; he shoves the lid all the way up and over.

“Fuck,” he breathes, because inside there are tubes and wires and the glint of needles, a series of bulbs set into the metal, attached with crude wiring that snakes uncovered all around the edges. In the midst of all the mess, there’s a clear space for someone to lie down, padded and roughly in the shape of a person.

He quickly pulls his phone from the pouch on his belt, thumbs the screen on and snaps a few pictures in quick succession. He doesn't hesitate before sending them straight to Tony’s Avengers contact number, once again pointedly not caring that he’s not supposed to send Tony anything whilst on a mission that’s under SHIELD jurisdiction. By the looks of things, this is going to be something that the Avengers will be getting heavily involved with so he might as well get Tony on it sooner rather than later.

Evidence taken, he turns his attention to the rest of the room. There are several pieces of equipment on one of the benches, though they’re knocked over and look to be broken. He thinks he’s seen something similar in Bruce’s lab in the tower, but he’s doesn’t actually know what any of them are. He needs Tony for stuff like this, though a large, protective part of him will frankly admit that he’s glad that Tony isn’t here.

He takes several photos and sends them to Tony, then turning his attention to the computer terminal. As he crosses the room, he wonders if this is anything like the lab that Clint and Bucky found Arto in. The protective thing in his chest snarls, hot anger spiking violently. He didn’t think he could hate Hydra any more, but he’s thinking about Arto curled up in his lap with angry tears on his face, and the mere thought of him being anywhere near a place like that makes Steve so angry he can barely think.

Focus, he tells himself, but it’s a futile thought because now he’s thinking about Arto, he can’t stop. He feels a strange, irrational urge to call Tony, to check where Arto is, that he’s safe. Of course he’s safe, you left him with Tony and Bucky, he tells himself, but then again he was supposed to be keeping Clint safe and look at what a fuck up he’s made of that.

“Focus,” he says, aloud this time. He breathes out through his mouth and crouches down by the computer terminal, rapidly tapping a few more buttons on his phone. He reaches out with the other hand and tries to turn the terminal on. Nothing happens and he curses, checking for any wires or contact points that might have-

The second explosion is ever louder. It hits him with the force of a truck; a rush of orange light that sends him flying backwards. He can’t breathe. His ears are screaming with white noise. His body hits something hard and then there’s a crack of pain to the back of his head, and everything goes black.

He’s vaguely aware of a shock of cold, a strange sensation surrounding him. Dazed, he reaches up to try and push whatever it is covering his mouth away, but it won’t go, something is trying to suffocate him-

His eyes snap open and he chokes on a mouthful of dirty water. The cold hits him like knives and his chest feels like it’s about to rend in two, and he frantically tries to right himself as he realizes he’s been thrown clear out of the building and into the river. His feet flail for a moment, and then one hits something solid. He bends his knees, tries to push off but something hard hits him across his back, dragging him further into the water. His feet are scraping along the bottom of the riverbed, and he pushes away from the huge metal beam that’s slowly sinking into the depths and taking him with it. His eyes are stinging and his chest is burning, and he knows he can hold his breath for a long time but if he’s got cracked ribs it’s going to make it a hell of a lot harder. Grunting in the back of his throat, he shoves the metal beam away but there’s a snap of pain in his wrist, and he’s caught up in a tangle of metal cables, looped around his forearm.

He tears his glove free, trying to pull his hand from between the cables, but he’s being dragged steadily deeper and the urge to open his mouth and scream is growing and growing, and he fights it-

There’s a sudden, agonizing pain in his shoulder, wrenching him back. He gasps, and his lungs immediately fill with water, and suddenly he’s not thinking about how to get free. His brain has stopped and he’s going to drown and all he can think of is Tony grinning at him across the room, Arto looking at him through sleep tired eyes, holding onto his fingers.

He never got the chance to do right by either of them.

His chest hurts too much.

Inexplicably, he’s yanked back with a considerable amount of force, and his arm comes free from the cables. He blinks and his brain seems to reboot, body surging into motion again. He tries to kick away from the bottom of the river but he’s floating and he doesn’t even know which way is up, and his shoulder is still stabbing with pain, and Tony is going to kill him for getting hurt, but something is still pulling him-

He breaks the surface, and gasps in a choked breath. The world slams back into focus in a terrible barrage of smells and tastes and sounds, and he feels hands grabbing his shoulders and hauling him up out of the water. God, he hurts all over, he reaches out blindly and his bare hand scrapes against concrete. He manages to grab hold, and someone is still pulling at him, and he manages to focus enough to pull himself out of the water, hitting the concrete on the floor on his front and jarring his chest agonizingly. His shoulder burns too, the pain sharp and gritty.

“Fucking Christ, Steve! You are banned from swimming!” a furious voice shouts. “You keep doing it wrong!”

Clint.

Gasping, Steve pushes himself onto his hands and knees, bracing his fist on the floor in front of him.  “You ass,” Steve chokes, and he staggers to his feet. “I thought you were dead and I was going to have to tell Bucky.”

“You’re an ass,” Clint yells back. He’s standing there without a scratch, and Steve could throttle him. “I thought you were going to drown and I would have had to tell Tony and Arto!”

Steve throws up. His stomach roils and he doubles over, vomiting what feels like gallons of river water and everything he’s eaten in the past week onto the concrete in front of him. Choking, he braces his hands on his knees, legs shuddering  violently and stomach heaving with something terrifying –

Clint is there in an instant, holding onto Steve’s unwounded shoulder and pressing his palm between his shoulder blades. He’s talking but Steve can’t hear a thing; everything is muffled and distant like he’s still underwater, a roaring in his ears the only thing he can make out.

Tony and Arto.

If he’d have drowned, someone would have had to tell Tony and Arto.

Arto.

He heaves again, and sound rushes back into the world in a dull roar; the noise of the fire, chopper blades thudding above their heads, Clint’s panicked voice and the wet gasps from his own lungs. He can smell the acrid burning of the factory behind them, the churned up river on the other side, the sharp smell of vomit and blood.

“Don’t you dare tell Arto I got hurt,” he chokes out, wiping his mouth with the back of his glove. The fire raging nearby makes everything glow, the red shining brightly in the light.

“You got it,” Clint says, sounding relieved. “Don’t you tell Bucky I fell out of the jet.”

Steve laughs weakly, clenches his eyes and presses his bare hand to the star on his chest. Damn it hurts; maybe it’s slightly more than a couple of cracked ribs. The pain feels very central as well, throbbing dully under his palm.

“Stand still,” he hears Clint say, and Steve gasps as the dull burning pain in his shoulder intensifies.

“What the fuck,” Steve manages, and tries to stand up, shoving Clint away. “Get off-”

“You’ve got a grappling hook in your back, let me pull it out!”

Well, that would certainly explain the pain. Steve doesn’t even bother trying to turn around and look; his chest hurts too much when he moves. “Why is there a fucking grappling hook in my back?”

“I had to get you out of the water!” Clint says defensively. “Let me get it out. It’s mostly in your suit, but I think it got you pretty good as well.”

Steve just nods wearily. He leans forwards again with his hands braced on his knees, shuts his eyes, breathes out unsteadily through his nose-

“Fucking whore,” he gasps as there’s a sudden twist of ugly pain in his shoulder, but then it’s gone, fading into the usual ache of a wound. God, Tony is going to kill him when he gets home with a broken chest and damn grappling hook marks in his back.

“You okay?” Clint asks. “You’re bleeding.”

“It’ll stop,” Steve says, and straightens up. He reaches behind to gingerly poke at his shoulder; it doesn’t hurt too badly now that the hook is out. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Clint says, and he swings the grappling hook around by the cable it’s still attached to. “No, seriously, don’t mention it. Especially not to Tony. He’ll kill me if he finds out I shot you.”

“I think he’d be angrier if you’d left me to drown,” Steve says, and Clint hums in acknowledgement. “Did it rip my suit?”

“Three teeny tiny holes,” Clint says. “Whatever the hell Tony upgraded it with works a treat.”

“Captain!”

At the shout of his name, Steve turns around, but staggers slightly. Clint is instantly there, shoving his shoulder under Steve’s and wrapping a strong arm around his waist. Steve’s ego protests, but he knows that if Clint lets him go he’ll probably end up on his ass and that would be even worse.

Natasha and Coulson are walking over. Coulson has a nasty scrape on his forehead and miraculously has Steve’s shield in hand, and Steve mentally hopes that he’s going to give it back without Steve having to ask. Natasha looks to be uninjured but is spattered with what looks like blood. She looks even angrier than she did earlier, and Steve feels Clint try and take a shuffling step backwards.

Popal, balvan,” she snarls, and Clint cringes.

“Um, sorry?”

“Ti durak,” she snaps, and then she takes his face in her hands and leans up to kiss his forehead, her brow creasing for a fleeting moment as she presses her mouth to his skin, so quick that Steve barely has time to notice it. “You are not allowed in a jet without a parachute ever again,” she hisses at him as she pulls back, but he’s grinning crookedly at her.

“You were worried,” he grins. “About little old me. What happened to the Nat who said I was attention seeking when I fell out of a fourth story window?”

“Shut up,” she says. “I’m telling Bucky.”

Clint’s face falls. “Aw, Nat.”

“And you-” she says, and she points her finger in Steve’s face. “Stop going near water if you can’t swim, idiot.”

“I can swim,” Steve protests half-heartedly. He holds out his free hand towards Coulson and Coulson’s mouth quirks in a faint smile like he knows what Steve is thinking. He looks down at the shield in his hand and then passes it over without a comment. Steve is about to say thank you when there’s a muffled boom in the distance.

“What’s going on in there?” Clint asks, looking vaguely interested. “I thought the plan was to blow most things up, not everything.”

“All hostile agents eliminated,” Natasha says coolly, turning and looking at the fire that’s raging through half of the complex. “Two officers apprehended. Minimal data retrieved.”

Steve remembers. “I found something,” he says, carefully resting the edge of his shield atop his boot, leaning it back against his knee. “Just before I got blown through the wall. It looked like the chamber they used in Project Rebirth.”

Coulson’s head jerks around, and Nat turns slowly to look at him, hair glowing brightly in the light of the flames. “The same?”

“A copy,” Steve says, and hisses out a breath as Clint moves under his weight.

“You’re heavy,” Clint complains. “What the fuck is Tony feeding you?”

“Cement,” Steve replies, and screws an eye shut as he tries to move and pain ripples through his chest, curse words slipping out without permission. “Ah, bastard.”

“I’m sure he’s not that bad,” Clint says, and Steve sends him an exasperated glance.

“You need to go to medical,” Coulson says, and lifts a walkie-talkie to his mouth. “Backup, contact. Need evac from West pier point-”

“I’m fine,” Steve protests, but Natasha is narrowing her eyes at him.

“What about if I do this?” she asks and points her finger at the star on his chest as if she’s about to poke him.

“No, no, no,” Steve protests, shrinking away as best he can with Clint still holding him up and pain throbbing dully in his chest. Her finger stops half a centimeter away. “Okay,” he admits. “I think I’ve cracked my sternum.”

“You’re going to medical,” Nat says, and Steve doesn’t argue but he doesn’t nod either, because the moment they put him on that jet he’s going to use every ounce of power he’s got to make whoever’s in the pilot seat take him straight back to the tower. He doesn’t give a damn what happens to the rest of this complex; he just needs to get home to Tony and Arto, now.

“Hawkeye, you escort the Captain to medical,” Coulson says, and Steve internally breathes a sigh of relief because he can easily convince Clint to help get him back to the tower. “Agent Romanoff, you stay with me.”

Steve finds himself zoning out from the rest conversation, half listening as his mind wanders elsewhere. He’s filing away what Coulson and Natasha are talking about in the back of his mind, but he’s focused on the thought of Tony and Arto waiting for him at home, having no idea what’s just happened to him. Images of the strange container he’d found also keep coming to the forefront of his mind, because the obvious explanation is that Hydra are trying to recreate Project Rebirth again.

He feels like this mission has been a failure. All they did was barrel through and exterminate the Hydra agents, which is actually okay as far as Steve is concerned. He just wishes they could have done it without so many injuries and without letting the retreating Hydra agents set fire to the damn place. He supposes it’s not his fault that it was utter chaos by the time they arrived, but still. They probably could have retrieved more intel if they hadn’t gone off plan to find Clint, but there’s no way in hell Steve would ever make the call to not look for a teammate. Maybe he should stop expecting the others to continue with mission objectives whenever he gets hurt, he thinks vaguely, though he’s not going to admit it out loud and definitely not to Tony.

He watches the fire raging, the efforts of the SHIELD teams to keep in contained. Privately, he thinks they should leave the whole place to burn, but that’s the angry emotional side of him. Logically, he knows they need to get the fire out so they can go in and retrieve whatever’s left.

The jet lands twenty minutes later and Steve manages to get himself onto it without any assistance. He falls into a chair with a grunt of pain, breathing out heavily. He tugs his cowl off and then sets his shield beside him and watches as Clint falls into a seat a little way away, his bow held safely in both hands. Steve would prefer that he be taped into the damn chair, but he’ll settle for knocking him out with the shield if Clint even thinks about getting up before the jet has landed.

Now the adrenaline from the fight is fading, Steve finds the space filled by relief so strong that it leaves him shaking. Half of it is that Clint is there with him and he’s safe, the rest is that he’s there and safe. The thought of Clint having to go back and tell Tony and Arto that Steve hadn’t made it makes something terrible and devastating churn in his chest, makes his throat go tight, hands trembling.

Without thinking, he shoves his hand into the pocket on his belt, pulls out his phone. He taps it with his thumb and the screen lights up, none the worse for having been blown to hell and dunked in the river. Steve would suggest that Tony make the case it’s in available to the general public, but he knows how much it cost to make the single one that’s wrapped around Steve’s phone.

He hits the speed-dial icon, the one that was preloaded onto the phone when Tony gave it to him all that time ago, the one he never questioned being there even when Bucky frowned and asked what the hell Stark was trying to prove. Hand still shaking, his holds the phone to his ear, leaning on his other elbow and covering his eyes with his hand. The phone beeps, clicks and then rings, the dial tone crisp and clear. Tony should pick up – he’s got to pick up – it’s late here but only about five in New York, and unless he’s wrapped up in the workshop or with Arto-

“Steve?”

Hearing Tony’s voice makes Steve feel like he can breathe again. “Hi,” he manages, voice steady but thick, and he knows there’s no way Tony isn’t going to notice him sounding off.

“What’s up?” Tony asks immediately. “Did you blow up Bucharest yet?”

“I’m on the way home.”

“That was quick,” Tony says, sounding mildly surprised. “I got your pictures. Looks like a knock-off of Project Rebirth, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve says heavily.  “Would explain why they’re so keen on keeping me out of the way.”

“So why the early finish, if you think that’s what they’re doing?” Tony asks. “Thought you would be beating confessions out of goons, or at least sweeping the place-”

“Wanted to come home,” Steve says abruptly. “Where’s Arto?”

There’s a brief pause. “Taking a nap on the couch,” Tony says, sounding careful. “Steve?”

“I,” Steve begins, and then stops himself, swallowing hard. “I’m a mess.”

“Literal?” Tony asks. “I swear, if you’ve got yourself hurt-”

“Think I’ve cracked my sternum,” Steve admits. “And there was an incident with a grappling hook.”

“Going to kill you,” Tony says immediately. “How the hell have you managed to crack your sternum? Did Red Skull appear in person and punch you in the chest?”

“I don’t know, somewhere between being blown up and thrown through a wall, and being blown up and thrown into the river,” Steve says listlessly. He can hear the hum of the coffee maker in the background, and what sounds like cartoons on the television. He guesses they’re in the communal area, and he can easily image Arto curled up on one of the huge couches, looking far too small as he sleeps, wearing his usual small cross frown. “Don’t be pissed.”

“I am going to be pissed, I am pissed. I don’t like you getting hurt, you idiot,” Tony says tersely. “Especially when I’m not there to make sure you’re okay.”

“Well I’m on the way back now,” Steve says, and breathes out, chest aching. He wants to say something, he feels like he needs to say something to Tony but he’s not sure what it is. He feels all over the place, thinking of the damn mission and Clint falling out of the jet and Tony holding him close with his arms around Steve’s neck, thinking of Arto clinging to him and falling asleep against his shoulder, and it’s all such a twisted jumble that he doesn’t even know what it is he’s trying to find the words for.

“Steve?”

“Tell me you’re okay,” he says, quick and sudden, the words leaving him in a rush. “Tony.”

“I’m okay,” Tony says immediately. “I am absolutely fine. Going crazy with no-one but a six-year old and Barnes for company, though. Bruce won’t even let me in his lab, he claims he’s doing science that doesn’t require interference from the engineering department.”

Steve exhales. “I’m coming straight back to the tower,” he says.

There’s a long pause.

“Tony?”

“You know I love you, right?” Tony says, and the words hit Steve right in the stomach, twisting up in a strangely warm way that he wants to cling onto forever. “But I’m guessing, if you’ve somehow cracked your sternum and there’s been an incident with a grappling hook, that you look like seven shades of hell right now?”

Steve realizes that Tony is right. “Yeah,” he says, and his stomach goes hollow. “I can’t come in looking like this.”

“No,” Tony says, quietly and gentle. “I want you to. God, I want you here right now, but if Arto sees you…”

“I know,” Steve says, and he knows how bitter he sounds but he doesn’t care. “Christ. The one time I actually tell you I got hurt and I can’t even come back to you.”

Tony laughs, a quiet huff of sound over the phone. “Turn video call on,” he says. “Or did Hydra do a number on your pretty face?”

Steve lowers the phone, hits the video button in response. A square box appears on his screen and then Tony’s face appears within, looking tired but smiling quietly.

“Oh wow,” he says. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Steve scowls. “Aren’t you meant to be nice to me?”

“Whatever gave you that impression?” Tony asks, leaning back against the kitchen counter and sipping from a mug. The late afternoon light is shining golden over his face and Steve aches to reach out and touch, to be there with him in the light and the warmth. “So, this staying behind business sucks.”

“I know, that’s why I don’t do it,” Steve says, eyes fixed on Tony’s. God, he wants to be there so badly he can taste it. Wants to lie out on Tony’s – on their – bed and have Tony stretch out next to him, hands warm on Steve’s skin.

“Don’t expect me to always do the stay-at-home thing,” Tony says, and he sounds casual but he’s deadly serious, looking away for a moment before back up at Steve, eyes intent.

“I don’t,” Steve says. “How is he?”

Tony doesn’t reply straight away. His eyes shift away, presumably looking over the room to where Arto is asleep. “Up and down,” he admits. “Quiet.”

“How up and down?” Steve asks.

“Let’s just say it’s a good idea that you left Barnes behind,” Tony says, rubbing at his jaw.

“Shit,” Steve curses. “I should never have left.”

He registers the words that have just slipped out of his mouth as Tony’s brows go up in surprise and disbelief. “You were just saying you don’t do staying behind. And I’m not trying to be a dick, but you were pretty quick to say you had to leave for this gig.”

“I don’t know,” Steve says unhappily.

“You’re right, you are a mess,” Tony says. “It’s tragic and somehow also makes me more attracted to you.”

“You’re a jerk,” Steve sighs, rubbing the side of his face with his free hand.

“I’m serious,” Tony says, lifting his mug to his mouth again. “The whole brooding, sad thing makes me want to cuddle the shit out of you.”

“You do realize Clint is sitting about six feet away from me?” Steve replies, and Tony just grins.

“Don’t try and stop me,” he says. “You’re two hundred and forty pounds of precious right now.”

“Hanging up now,” Steve informs him.

“No, no, no,” Tony says, and he’s trying not to laugh, and Steve would kill to be there with him, to be able to touch that smile. “Steve, I’m kidding. I’m expressing my genuine concern for you through poorly-pitched jokes.”

“Okay, I’ll take that,” Steve says, and he wants to tell Tony that he loves him. He opens his mouth, closes it again, exhales through his nose. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Waiting impatiently,” Tony says. “Oh, Pepper called by the way."

Steve’s stomach drops. “Ah."

“Yeah,” Tony says, looks down at something. “She isn’t best pleased. About Arto. Or about you, to be honest."

“You told her?”

“Kind of had to.”

“Damnit,” Steve curses. “That’s a hell of a lot to drop on her in one go.”

“Well, apparently she knew we were sleeping together already,” Tony shrugs. “Did not know I’d moved you in with me.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t know I’d moved in with you.”

“Horrid lies,” Tony replies automatically, and then frowns. “Seriously? You didn’t consider us to be moved in together?”

“We lived together anyway,” Steve points out. “We just started sharing a bed. Not exactly your typical moving-in circumstances. I still had my own rooms.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” Tony says. “Well, either way. She was pissed. Seems to think that I’m ruining my life just to keep you happy.”

Steve scowls. “You wouldn’t,” he says, and then pauses when Tony just shrugs, mouth turning down contemplatively. “Would you?”

“Possibly,” Tony says with such brutal honesty that Steve feels a momentary urge to end the video call. “Don’t pull that face. I assure you that this time round it’s not for you. I am being utterly selfish. Not saying I wouldn’t another time, though.”

“Don’t say things like that,” Steve says, and Tony’s expression goes hard.

“Why not? Yesterday it was a problem that I wasn’t saying these things to you.”

Steve opens his mouth to argue, and then promptly finds that he doesn't have a leg to stand on, because Tony is completely right.

“You’re right.”

Tony’s mouth hitches in a small smile. “Could get used to hearing that.”

“Not a chance,” Steve says. “Your ego is a dangerous thing at the best of times.”

Tony splays a hand over his heart, mouth open in mock outrage. “How dare you. I am hurt.”

“Nice try,” Steve says. “Where did you leave it with Pepper?”

Tony pulls a face. “Says we need to discuss it face to face,” he says. “Jarvis tells me she’s booked a flight for Tuesday afternoon, so I’ve got three days to come up with an airtight plan for Stark Industries.”

“Need to prove you can still do your thing for Stark Industries whilst being...” Steve begins, trails off, unsure as to what words should go next. “Whilst looking after Arto?”

“Yep,” Tony says. “And yes, I can do both.”

“Without giving up on sleeping and without inventing a time machine?”

“You’re hilarious,” Tony says. “I’m cracking a rib over here. Like some other idiot I know, actually-”

“You’ve already yelled at me about that,” Steve interjects.

“Oh, baby, I haven’t even started,” Tony says, tone threatening for a moment. “Right, I gotta go. No more messing with grappling hooks, young man.”

“I’m twenty-seven, jerk.”

“I stand by it,” Tony says with an easy shrug. “Call me when you’re out of medical.”

“Will do,” Steve says. The call ends, and the screen goes dark. Steve stares at it for a moment and then shuts his eyes, swallowing heavily and leaning forwards to put his head in his hands, not entirely sure if the pain in his chest is completely to do with his injuries or not.

 


 

It’s just gone eleven when Tony hears footsteps padding softly across the penthouse. There’s a soft knock on the door and then Bucky edges in, shirtless and barefoot. He stays in the doorway, half in and half out, metal fingers curled around the edge of the frame. The light shining from the penthouse beyond means Tony can barely see more than  his silhouette.

Bucky speaks first. “You want me to move him?” he asks without preamble.

Tony looks tiredly at the small figure that’s curled up by his hip, fingers fisted in the hem of Tony’s shirt. He’s fast asleep and has been for just under an hour, still wearing his Captain America pajamas. His breathing is snuffling and uneven, probably a result of spending most of the afternoon crying.

Tony thinks about it. “No,” he says, turning his face back towards Bucky. “He can stay here.”

Bucky just nods, accepting. He steps forwards a little, so Tony can see his face lit by the soft glow of the lamps on either side of the bed. “Get Jarvis to alert me if you need,” he says abruptly. “And Banner says that he’s about if you need him as well.”

Tony nods. “Will do.”

“You still moving him up here tomorrow?"

Tony nods again. “Yeah,” he says. “He’s never going to settle if he’s too far away from Steve.”

“Don’t think it’s just Steve that he needs,” Bucky says pointedly, looking at where Arto is holding onto.

Tony shrugs. “Guess not. I am pretty awesome, I think he’s picked up on that.”

Pushing away from the doorframe, Bucky snorts. “Oh good. For a moment there I was worried that you weren't actually Stark.”

“Says you,” Tony replies. “Who bought him that teddy bear?”

“Fuck you,” Bucky says with a scowl, and then he’s gone without another word. Tony just huffs out a laugh, leaning back against the headboard. The light in the living area of the penthouse turns off, and Tony breathes out into the quiet around them. Everything is still; it feels like the Tower itself is sleeping.

Tony collects up the tablet he’d been working from and drops it on his nightstand, before leaning over to carefully extricate his shirt from Arto’s grip. Arto’s brow screws up and he lets out a sleepy whimper.

“Shhh, shhh,” Tony soothes, gently stroking his hand over Arto’s head. “Just me, brat. Sleep.”

Arto exhales heavily and then settles again. God, the expression on his face reminds Tony of when Steve used to have nightmares, how he’d wake confused and panicked and then be soothed back to sleep by Tony’s hands and softly murmured words.

Tony presses his lips together, hard. He may have told Bucky that keeping Arto here for the night was for Arto’s sake, but he knows that it wasn't purely an altruistic move on his part. He misses Steve in a way he never has before, and it’s left him feeling raw and vulnerable. Having even a tiny piece of Steve here with him helps soothe the jagged edges, but that in turn comes with a side-order of guilt because he knows full well that he shouldn’t be using Arto just to deal with his conflicted emotions about Steve.

Fuck it, he thinks as he climbs carefully off the bed, going to the wardrobe to find a pair of pajama pants and a tank top to sleep in. Tony doesn't want to be alone, Arto won’t be alone, so this is the best solution for everyone.

He gets ready for bed, determinedly not thinking about how it would feel to have Steve here with him. It’s the stupid simple things that seem to be the hardest to think about, like having Steve knocking his elbow against Tony’s as he brushes his teeth, like how he always screws one eye tightly shut when he yawns.

Turning into a sap, Stark, he tells himself as he shuts off the lights and walks around the bed to gently pull a blanket over Arto. He walks around to climb back into bed his side, slipping under the covers and staring up at the dark ceiling for a moment before turning his head to watch the easy rise and fall of Arto’s chest.

He watches for long minutes, the restlessness inside his chest and the frenetic rush of thoughts in his mind gradually easing. Eventually, even though he still feels Steve’s absence like an actual injury, he finds himself sufficiently calmed by the small presence at his side to let go of some of the burdens he feels and slowly slide into sleep.

 


 

Medical is hell.

Four different SHIELD medics swing by to ‘assess’ Steve’s injuries, and when a fifth turns up he snaps and tells them to get out. The first medic returns in short order, looking exasperated and apologizing for the fact that apparently everyone wants the opportunity to treat Captain America. It’s not because he’s Captain America, the medic assures him as he manhandles Steve into place for an X-ray, it’s just that it’s pretty neat to be able to see such extensive injuries heal so rapidly.

Steve thinks that anyone who uses the word ‘neat’ about his extensive injuries, and in front of him to boot, should not be allowed to be a SHIELD medic.

It’s six X-rays, one CT scan, twenty minutes of poking prodding and one refused blood test later that Steve is told that yes, he has a fractured sternum, and that he shouldn’t try moving for a while. He’s lying on his back with several ice packs lying across his chest which aren’t helping him feel at ease. He’s about at his limit and is seriously considering getting up and leaving when the door opens and Clint walks in, slamming it behind him.

“I have a concussion,” he announces with a disdainful roll of his eyes. “Like there’s ever been a point in my career as an Avenger where I haven’t had a concussion.”

He throws himself onto the empty bed that’s near the window, lying back with his arm across his eyes and the other dangling off the edge of the bed.

“Shouldn’t sleep if you’re concussed,” Steve says, turning his head to look at him.

“Beckett says you broke your sternum. Are your internal organs mush?” Clint replies, ignoring Steve’s comment about his concussion.

“No, my internal organs are fine,” Steve says. “Just a fracture and some bruising.”

“When can you go home?” Clint asks, sitting up and swinging his legs around, leaning back on his fists and swinging his feet.

“When I don’t look like I’ve gone a round with Thanos,” Steve says, blinking up at the ceiling. “Can’t have Arto seeing me beat to hell.”

Clint looks over at him, visibly surprised. “Yeah,” he says, and nods, the surprised expression turning faintly impressed. “Must suck not being able to get back?”

“Yeah,” Steve admits, and it’s true but he didn’t think it would be this hard. He shifts, goes to put his arm up behind his head as a pillow but has to give up, the pull on his chest too uncomfortable. “You still haven’t told me how you managed to survive that fall.”

Clint shrugs. “Shot a line into the bottom of the jet. Nearly ripped my arms out their sockets, but I just swung down and landed in the river. Knocked the breath out of me, but we weren’t really that high." 

“Jesus,” Steve says. “I’m seconding Natasha by the way. Actually, I’m considering making you wear a parachute at all times.”

Clint rolls his eyes. “You never wear a chute.”

“I’m less breakable than you,” Steve points out. “And I jump without a chute. I don’t fall.”

“Course, Captain America never does anything as asinine as falling,” Clint says, and then looks over. “Sorry. About that. The whole, falling out of the doors, thing. I didn’t mean to.”

Steve sighs. “I know you didn’t,” he says, the brittle edges in his chest softening. “We worried. We thought we’d lost you.”

“Oh please,” Clint says. “If I die it’s going to be from ignoring expiration dates on things in the refrigerator. Nothing as cool as falling from a speeding jet whilst battling Agents of Hydra.”

“You’re neither as dumb nor tragic as you make out,” Steve says.

“What’s that?” Clint says. “Sorry, didn’t catch that. Too busy being dumb and tragic.”

Steve shakes his head, exasperated.  “Why are you still here anyway? Avoiding going back to the tower?”

“No,” Clint says, and pauses. “Little bit. He won’t be too mad, right? I’m not exactly hurt.”

Steve just shakes his head. “For whatever reason, Bucky has decided that he is going to mother-hen you. Seeing as a couple of years ago I didn’t think he’d ever act like Bucky again, you can suck it up and let him do it, thanks.”

“You’re not the one who has to put up with it!”

Steve snorts. “No, I have to put up with Tony,” he says. “Who seems to swing violently between blaming me for getting hurt, and blaming himself for either not being there to stop it, or not giving me an upgraded whatever which may have increased my chance of avoiding injury by point two percent.”

“Fair point,” Clint concedes. “You two show your love for each other in weird ways.”

“Not all that weird,” Steve says, and Clint makes a gagging noise. “Shut up, Clint.”

Clint grins, obviously not too concussed to be acting like a nuisance. “Hey, why did you two never say anything?” he asks suddenly. “Like, it was pretty obvious that you were together.”

Steve shrugs, drumming his fingers against his stomach. “Didn’t feel the need.”

“Gonna go public?” Clint asks.

Steve stills at the question, contemplative. “Never thought about it,” he admits, and his mind is already restlessly turning over the possible consequences, debating if they have to go public or if they can keep it hidden, contemplating the impact it will have on Arto if they do or don’t. “It depends on Arto.”

“It does?”

Steve nods. “Depends on what we’re telling him,” he says.

“The whole baby daddy issue?” Clint asks, and Steve’s so tired that he just nods. “Well he knows you’re his dad. Well, he thinks you are, anyway.”

Steve sits up, hissing in pain at the sharp movement. He shoves the ice-packs away; one falls to the floor but he barely notices. “What?”

Clint scratches the back of his head, looking confused. “Bro, it’s kind of obvious. You look the same.”

“He thinks I’m his dad?”

“He knows you’re his dad,” Clint frowns. “You can’t lie to him about that, he’s not going to buy it.”

“Has he said something to you?” Steve demands.

Clint holds his hands up. “He just – he asked who my Dad was, and I told him he was dead, and he just nodded and then he said your name, and then said Dad. He didn’t sound sure though, if that means anything.”

Steve’s mouth is hanging open. “Shit,” he says. “Shit.”

Clint looks alarmed. “Why shit? Don’t look like that! Are you seriously telling me you thought he wouldn’t add it up? You look exactly the same.

“I don’t,” Steve begins, stops. “God, I didn’t actually think there was any more ways in which I could mess this up.”

“You haven’t messed it up-”

“Arto thinks I’m his dad and I’ve done nothing to acknowledge that,” Steve bites out. “He has been dragged from one dimension to another, dropped in the middle of the chaos that is our lives and the one thing he latches onto is me, and all I do is run away from him-”

“You ran away once,” Clint says, pauses. “Well, twice if you count this mission.”

A frustrated noise catches in the back of Steve’s throat and he slumps back onto the bed, reaching up to grip his hair in his hands. He presses his lips together because blurting out everything he’s feeling is really not his style. Well, unless it’s aimed at Bucky, but like they said before, Bucky has been dealing with Steve’s crummy emotions since nineteen twenty-eight so he should be used to it.

“Well, I’m going to go and find some food,” Clint says, breaking the silence in a play almost as awkward as the actual moment of repose. “You want in?”

Steve blinks at the ceiling, decides that he can’t be mad at Clint about this. Hell, Clint is pretty much Arto’s voice in this whole mess, right? Steve can’t blame him for communicating what Arto has said. He could blame Clint for not telling him straight away that the small child he’s considering adopting already thinks that Steve is his dad, but he doesn’t quite trust his voice or his temper.

“So, you definitely not going back to the tower?” Steve finally asks.

“Nah,” Clint says easily, and he walks over and bends down to pick up the ice pack that has fallen to the floor. He holds it out and Steve takes it with a nod, laying it back over his sternum. “If I turn up without you I’ll have Tony and Barnes both giving me the evil eye.”

“I don’t need babysitting,” Steve interrupts, lifting a brow.

“I know,” Clint says, rolling his eyes. “Jesus. Can you just let me be nice without turning it into a big thing by being too Captain-y to accept the niceness?”

Steve lifts an arm up over his face, forearm over his eyes. “Go and find me a pizza,” Steve says, and Clint just snorts with laughter and walks away, his footsteps fading down the corridor and leaving the room quiet as the door swings shut again.

Turning his head to the side, Steve locates his phone on the tray next to the bed and reaches out for it. He turns it on, finds two text messages from Bucky; one says ‘you owe me fifty thousand favors’, and a second that says that says ‘tell the shield guy with the stick up his ass to give Barton his phone back.’ There’s also a message from Tony that says ‘just seen your X-rays and I’m going to kill you.’ He doesn’t know how the hell Tony has managed to see his X-rays, because he’s certainly not stupid enough to send them to Tony himself.

He closes the messages without replying to any of them, presses his phone against his mouth, thinking hard. Long moments later, he slowly lowers it away from his face and open his received media folder.

It doesn’t take him long to find the picture of Arto that Tony sent him, the snapshot of him leaning against the window with his palms pressed against the glass, face scrunched up in a confused frown. The last time Steve had looked at the picture he’d wanted to throw his phone out of the back of the jet because he didn’t even want to know. Now, he looks at it and the fear starts to rise in his chest again, but this time it’s because that small figure that looks so much like him is counting on him as a parent, and Steve is going to accept that that’s what he is now.

He strokes his thumb over the picture, swallows. He shifts restlessly, pressing his fingers lightly against his aching sternum and he wonders if he’s ever going to actually feel like he can do this right.

Chapter Text

Steve leaves medical just before lunch on Tuesday morning, after the longest forty-eight hours of his life. His chest no longer feels like it’s tearing in two every time he moves, the marks from the grappling hook have all but gone and the minor scrapes he had from being blown through the wall are also all healed. The poor medic left in charge of him is adamant that he needs to stay in until the fracture in his chest is completely healed, but Steve just shoots them an unimpressed look, picks up his shield and follows Clint out of the building without looking back and without signing any damn paperwork.

There’s a car waiting for them, a large black SUV being driven by Maria Hill. Steve doesn’t particularly like SHIELD trying to muscle in on what the Avengers do, but today he’s just grateful that he can get straight in and be driven away from medical without having to wait at all. Hill looks tense, her whole frame set rigidly and her face impassive, though she’s like that a lot of the time so Steve doesn’t read too much into it.

“Coulson and Widow are scheduled to leave in three hours,” she says curtly as Steve climbs into the front, setting his shield against his legs. “We’re going to do preliminary debrief before they get back.”

“Okay,” Steve replies, phone in one hand as he buckles up with the other. He fires off a quick text to Tony and Bucky: ‘Me and Clint leaving medical. Hill driving us back.’

“What’s with the chauffer service?” Clint asks as he slams the back door, leaning forwards and swinging on the back of Steve’s seat, wrapping his arms around the headrest so Steve can't sit back properly. “Did you get demoted?”

“We’re having debrief at the Tower, Fury cleared it with Stark,” Hill says, and looks pointedly at him. “And I hear you’re doing exceptionally well at falling from moving vehicles again. Put your seatbelt on.”

“I’m not five,” Clint says, though he does sit back, pushing his sunglasses back up his nose and folding his arms across his chest.

“We know,” Hill says impatiently. “Belt, Hawkeye. Or I will ask Captain Rogers to knock you out.”

“I’ll do it,” Steve says, looking up from his phone. Bucky has just text him back, saying ‘oh good I missed you more than life itself.’

“Traitor,” Clint sighs, but does belt up. “Happy now?”

“Ecstatic,” Hill says dryly, and puts the SUV in gear. The drive back is uneventful and quiet; Steve’s mind is on Arto and Tony, the ache in his chest which he’s now sure isn’t his broken sternum but the need to get back to them. As he watches the suburbs of New York give way to the high-rises of Manhattan, he keeps trying to turn his mind back to the mission. If he’s headed to debrief then that’s where his head needs to be, not worrying about how pissed Tony is going to be at him.

It’s almost impossible to do.

The traffic is hell, and it’s over an hour later that they finally get the SUV into the parking garage of Avengers Tower. Clint is out of the back before it’s even fully stopped, bow in his hand and quiver on his back. Steve privately thinks that’s he’s going to need it, if he’s got any intention of telling Bucky what happened.

“Conference floor,” Hill says as he climbs out of the car and slams the door. “Fury is waiting.”

“Yeah, got somewhere else to be first,” Steve says, shield in his hand as he shoulders the door shut. “Ten minutes.”

Hill narrows her eyes at him but then nods. “Okay,” she says, and heads over to the elevator, calling back over her shoulder as she goes. “I’ll meet you there." 

“Do I have to come to debrief?” Clint asks half-heartedly as the elevator doors close.

“Yes,” Steve replies, slipping his phone into his pocket. Tony hasn’t acknowledged his message, and Steve wants to find him as soon as he possibly can. “If I have to go, you have to go.”

“Maybe I should let Bucky murder me,” Clint says glumly.

“You tell him what happened and he’ll probably force you to attend debrief and then murder you,” Steve says conversationally as they wait for the second elevator to get down to the garage.

“And Tony will definitely murder you,” Clint says, and claps Steve on the shoulder. “Well, it was nice knowing you.”

The elevator arrives and they get in side by side. Clint has his phone in hand and is frowning down at it, and though his expression is obscured somewhat by his sunglasses, his apprehension is clear. Steve thinks back but he can’t ever recall being genuinely concerned that Bucky was going to be seriously mad at him for getting hurt, not even when he was ninety pounds soaking wet and spent most of his free time being beaten up. It was more exasperated fondness and protectiveness with Bucky, nothing like what he gets from Tony these days.

Clint stops the elevator on his floor and waves his hand at Steve in a half-hearted goodbye as he steps halfway out.

“Have you told him yet?” Steve asks, and Clint glances at his phone.

“I just text him,” he says. “He knew I’d got hurt but I may have down-played it a bit. Okay, I may have downplayed it a lot."

Steve winces. “And you just told him now? Probably not your best move,” he says. Clint opens his mouth, but before he can formulate a response there’s a furious bellow from somewhere down the corridor.

“You fucking did what?!” 

Steve promptly reaches out and slaps his palm over the door close button. “Shouldn’t have fallen out of the jet,” he says, and shoves Clint the rest of the way out of the doors, just before they close.

“Captain America is a heartless jerk!” Clint manages to yell before the doors seal shut, and the elevator starts moving again. Steve shakes his head and leans back against the wall, not feeling guilty in the slightest. He doesn’t think for a moment that Bucky will actually hurt Clint; he’ll yell and rant for a while, then he’ll insist on checking him over for injuries, and then probably force a load of advil down his throat before making him lie down for a bit. Besides, if a chewing out from Bucky is enough to stop Clint being quite so reckless with his own personal safety, Steve considers leaving Clint at Bucky’s mercy to be for his own good.

He gets out on the communal floor, finds it empty. It smells of coffee though and there’s a half-eaten sandwich and green smoothie on the counter, so he doesn’t think Tony is too far away. He fully expects Jarvis to tell Tony where he is anyway, so he just walks over to the counter and puts his shield down, running his palm absently over the warm metal.

“Should you be here?” a familiar voice calls out barely ten seconds later, and Steve turns around to see Tony striding across the floor towards him. He’s wearing dark grey jeans and a white t-shirt, and his eyes are bright and alert, looking over Steve suspiciously like he expects to see bandages or blood.

“Nice to see you too,” Steve says flatly, crossing his arms across his chest and leaning back against the counter. He’s not going to lie; he and Tony will never be the most romantic or sentimental of couples but he expected more than that as a welcome back.

“So if you’re all better you won’t mind if I do this,” Tony says flippantly, and he walks right up to him and jabs Steve in the chest with a finger. It hurts a little, like pressing on a bad bruise, but Steve manages to keep his face impassive, raising an eyebrow at Tony. 

“You quite finished?”

“Nope,” Tony says and goes to poke him again. Steve moves quicker; he grabs Tony’s wrist and moves his hand aside, and when Tony glares and goes to jab him with his other hand he grabs that one too.

“Jesus, Tony, stop,” Steve says. “I’m alright.”

“Why is it always you?” Tony asks, voice angry and fierce and low, and Steve realizes that the flippancy is a cover – and not a good one this time – for all the fear and anxiety that Tony’s sitting on.

Steve leans in and kisses him, hard enough to steal his words and make his breath audibly catch in his chest. Tony strains against his grip but Steve doesn’t let go, just brings Tony’s hands in so they’re pressed together between their chests. There’s a moment where he thinks Tony is going to twist his way free, but then he goes lax against Steve, kissing him and kissing him, open mouthed and hot-

He lets go of Tony’s wrists, slides one hand onto his shoulders, the other hand onto the side of his neck. Tony shudders under his touch and his hands slide around Steve’s sides, hooking under his arms, palms splaying out on his back.

“You absolute-” Tony begins, but Steve doesn’t want to hear it. He knows, this time he really knows. Getting hurt is something that he can’t just brush off because it’s not just about him anymore. He’s got responsibilities outside of being Captain America; huge, daunting responsibilities-

“Stop it,” Tony says, though he kisses Steve between each word. “You’re – you’re distracting me from yelling-”

“Yes I am,” Steve breathes against his mouth, and then he twists them both around so he can press Tony backwards, sending him stumbling back until his spine bumps against the counter. Tony grunts in surprise, but his hands are on Steve’s waist, pulling him flush against him. Steve goes willingly, wanting only to be wrapped up in Tony’s arms for the foreseeable future, not wanting to have to go anywhere else at all, ever.  There’s a twisted knot of emotion that feels a lot like guilt sitting in his chest, and he hates it, wishes he could physically yank it free, but every time he thinks of Tony or Arto at home without him, it intensifies. He kisses Tony hard enough to make him sway back a little, hand tightening on his shoulder-

Tony breaks away from him. “Jesus, Steve,” Tony manages to say, and this time he doesn’t let Steve lean back in to kiss him. Instead, he pulls Steve in closer, holding his head against his shoulder. He’s obviously noticed Steve’s turmoil, because he just stands there, chest rising and falling as he catches his breath, the fingers of one hand stroking gently over the back of Steve’s neck.

Steve lets out a shuddering breath, slipping his arms around Tony’s waist. “Sorry,” he makes himself say.

“Shut up,” Tony replies evenly. “But stop with the doing that to avoid talking to me. It’s a dirty trick and I’m both appalled and proud that you keep using it.”

Steve laughs shortly, face still pressed into the warm skin of Tony’s neck. Tony sighs, lifting his other hand to stroke over the back of Steve’s head. “What’s gotten into you? Not having another spectacular bout of denial about Arto?”

“No,” Steve replies, but it’s actually the opposite, really. “I don’t know.”

“Let me knows when you work it out,” Tony says, and then he pauses. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“What, so you can yell at me face to face?” Steve asks tiredly, and Tony laughs.

“Yes,” he says, but then he eases Steve’s head up off his shoulder, a hand cupping his jaw. “But also just glad that you’re home.”

Throat feeling tight, Steve nods. He leans in to kiss Tony but this time it’s softer, gentler. Tony hums appreciatively in the back of his throat, nudges his nose against Steve’s as he draws back. “I’m all up for the kissing, I think there needs to be more of that in the not too distant future, but there is a small child who knows you are back and wants to see you.”

Steve’s stomach swoops. “Yeah,” he says, and he feels faintly nervous under the more prominent sense of relief. “Is he in the penthouse?”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “We set him up in there, moved a bed up. Not in our room,” he adds hastily as Steve’s expression goes pained. “In the lounge. You’ll see.”

Steve nods and he steps back, allowing Tony to move away from the counter. Together, they walk to the elevator, standing side by side as they go up to the penthouse. Steve can’t help but drum his fingers against his elbow, needing to see Arto to reassure himself that he’s okay, that Steve hasn’t fucked up by leaving him-

“So on the subject of morons that can’t keep out of trouble,” Tony says, phone in his hand. “I see Barton managed to top his usual falling from buildings stunt in spectacular style.”

“Don’t joke about it,” Steve replies, not even bothering to ask whose conversation or what files Tony has decided to hack into to get that information. “I thought he was dead.”

“Please, I’m pretty sure that that man has rendered himself indestructible somehow. Maybe he ate something radioactive without noticing.”

Steve laughs shortly. “Probably,” he says. “He was scouting out the back of the jet and we were hit. He wasn’t wearing his chute.”

“If you dare say that’s your fault, you will be sleeping on the couch later,” Tony threatens mildly.

“It was his fault for not wearing a chute,” Steve says, though he silently thinks that as mission lead, he should have told Clint to wear the damn thing before opening the back of the jet. “He turned up just in time to drag me out of the river.”

Tony pauses. “The grappling hook incident?”

“If he hadn’t have done it, I probably would have drowned,” Steve says without thinking, realizing a second later what he’s done. Shit. He turns his head to look at Tony, but Tony is staring down at his phone, mouth set in a tight line.

“Probably would have drowned,” he repeats in a voice forced to be casual and light. “Oh. Wow.”

“Tony,” he begins.

“You should know this by now, but in light of recent events I’m going to say it out loud,” Tony interrupts him.  “It’s not just because of Arto that the thought of anything happening to you makes me want to kill you. Which is counterproductive, I know, but if you could refrain from nearly dying every time you go on a mission my heart would greatly appreciate it.”

Steve opens his mouth to argue, to point out that he doesn’t particularly enjoy getting hurt, but he doesn’t. He knows that that isn’t what Tony needs, what he wants to hear. So he bites back all the defensive words, and leans over to pull Tony around by his shoulder.

“Got it,” he says, and leans in to kiss him. Tony looks surprised but it quickly fades as he reaches up to brush his knuckles against Steve’s cheek.

“Thank you,” he murmurs. “Hey, I think we’re getting the hang of this.”

“Moment. Speaks for itself,” Steve says, exasperated, and Tony smiles crookedly at him.

The elevator doors open and Steve feels the anticipation spike in his gut. Before he’s even moved he notices the space that’s been created for Arto in the corner of the penthouse, tucked in a corner against the floor to ceiling window and the wall to Steve and Tony’s room. There’s a bed with pale blue sheets, a wardrobe and chest of drawers, even a small desk and bookshelf. It’s sectioned off from the rest of the penthouse area by the arrangement of the furniture and the couch that Steve had originally moved into their room. There are toys and books everywhere, shoes strewn haphazardly over the floor.

Without waiting, he steps forwards, and his eyes immediately find Arto. He isn’t in his corner of the room; he’s sat on the larger couch with Bucky Bear tucked under his arm, staring at his feet. He’s out of the Captain America pajamas, and is wearing blue jeans and a purple T-shirt, feet clad in bright orange socks. 

The first thing to hit Steve is a heady sense of relief, because it’s completely different hearing that someone is okay to seeing it with your own eyes. The second thing is a strange anxiousness, because he’s been apart from Arto and Tony had said that he’d had a rough time, and Steve doesn’t know how he’s going to behave right now. The third is a strange sense of something he can't quite pinpoint, because in the back of his mind are Clint’s words about Arto’s perceptions of him, and he can't help but wonder if Arto is going to look up at him and think ‘dad.’

He takes a steadying breath. “Hey,” Steve calls, and Tony brushes his hand over Steve’s back as he walks past, going over to the coffee table and picking up what looks like an errant red sweater, tossing it over his shoulder. Steve steps forwards without even consciously deciding to do so.

Arto’s head snaps up. He looks at Steve and his face crumples, forehead creasing and bottom lip wobbling dangerously. He makes a jerky, aborted movement, and for one moment Steve thinks that Arto is about to run and fling himself into Steve’s arms-

Arto bolts.

He scrambles off the side of the couch and runs away from Steve and into his corner, throwing himself onto his bed, face down. Confused, Steve looks over to Tony who is standing by the couch, looking just as startled.

“Hey, Smart Art,” Tony calls, frowning. “Steve is back.”

“No,” Arto shouts, words muffled into his blankets. “Can fuck off.

The words are like a punch to the gut, angry and full of venom. “What,” Steve begins, not sure if he just heard right, even though he knows he did. He takes another step over towards Arto’s corner. “Arto?”

“No,” Arto shouts, and he sits up and hurls a pillow haphazardly in Steve’s general direction. “Go away.”

“What the actual fuck,” Tony breathes, and then raises his voice. “Art, he’s come back to see you-”

“Fuck off!” Arto shouts again, his voice rising to a scream, and his eyes are full of angry tears. He looks around wildly, and then slips off the bed, stooping down to grab a shoe. It sails across the room, and this time Steve has to step to the side to avoid it hitting him in the face.

“Hey, no throwing stuff,” Tony says in shock, and strides over. “What are you playing at? You’ve done nothing but mope about Steve for the past three days-”

“No,” Arto screams. “Don’t want Steve, don’t need Steve-”

Steve just stands there. He stares at Arto, gut twisting in a new awkward way that’s possibly more painful than anything he’s ever felt, up to and including that time he worked out that Bucky was the soldier that was trying to kill him. Blinking, he holds out a hand. “I’m back now, I said I’d come back-”

“Don’t need you, you fucking shit,” Arto screams, and stoops to grab another shoe. He hurls it towards Steve and then kicks the couch, shoving it back across the carpet a foot and a half. “Go away.”

“Steve, I think you should go,” Tony says, eyes on Arto and full of confusion.

“But,” Steve begins, swallowing and feeling utterly lost. “No-”

“Steve, just go,” Tony says, sounding strained. “Please. He’s been restrained three times whilst you’ve been gone and I really don’t think I can handle seeing a fourth.”

Steve hears just how wrecked Tony is, and immediately takes a step back. He doesn’t want to go, and he knows it’s all backwards because before he would have found any excuse to stay away -

“Steve,” Tony pleads, as Arto shouts again, a rush of chopped up words and curses that are twisted with tears-

Steve steps back again. He takes one slow, faltering step back, then another. Tony is walking over to Arto who throws himself back down on the bed, sobbing hard enough that he’s coughing. Helpless, Steve watches for a moment and then as Tony reaches Arto and sits down on the edge of the bed, he turns around and leaves. Arto’s sobs echo in his ears, the rest of the world white noise around him.

Utterly bewildered, he steps into the elevator and goes down to the communal area. He feels oddly betrayed, and it doesn’t make any sense. He never asked for Arto to become attached to him, he wasn’t the one who grew attached to Arto, but now here he is faced with Arto suddenly not wanting anything to do with him and it feels awful, a hollow numbness in his gut, a new type of fear that he’s never felt before-

“Hey, welcome back! How was - Steve?”

He looks up to see Bucky standing beside the couch, mug in hand and looking concerned. Steve faintly registers a sense of relief that Bucky is there, but it’s barely a pinprick of emotion under the sheer weight of the confusion he feels. He watches, feeling oddly detached, as Bucky steps over, forehead creasing in a frown.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Steve says without thinking, voice catching. He clears his throat, shakes his head and tries again. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit, nothing,” Bucky frowns, and walks over. “What’s just happened? Did Stark say something? If he’s giving you a hard time about going I’m gonna-”

“Arto told me to fuck off,” Steve says, and Bucky abruptly stops talking.

“He told you to fuck off?” he asks, confused. “What?”

“I went up, and he flipped out,” Steve says, voice hollow to his own ears. “Shouted, screamed. Said he didn’t want me. Told me to fuck off.”

“Oh, man,” Bucky says, and reaches out, grasping Steve’s shoulder with his metal hand. “Hey, don’t sweat it. He’s said worse to me in the past coupla days, way worse. He’s probably just pissed that you left, he’s had a pretty shit time since you went,” he says. “I dunno, he probably thinks-” He breaks off, breathes out as he thinks, biting on his bottom lip. “Oh hell, I don’t know. Ask Barton. He probably knows what’s going on in that kid’s head.”

Steve shakes his head slowly. “He didn’t-” he starts to say, but he can’t get the words out. He can’t even properly formulate the thought ‘he didn’t even say hello, he didn’t even want me there, he didn’t even want me to come back,’ so he doesn’t dare try and shape the words out loud. He clears his throat, takes a deep steadying breath and forces himself to follow the threads of the conversation.

“Where is Clint?”

“Barton? Gone to debrief,” Bucky says offhandedly.  “They’re waiting for you on fifty-eight. You want me to go and make an excuse for you?”

“No,” Steve says as if an autopilot, because going back upstairs is not an option, and because of that he feels himself retreating back into Captain Mode, shoving away all of his personal feelings and thoughts in order to get a mission done. It’s a monumental effort and he’s not sure it’s going to hold, but he does it anyway. He blows out a breath and pulls himself together, because Tony is the one sorting Arto out, and right now this is what is important for him to be involved with, the mission and the intel about Hydra.

“Okay,” Bucky concedes easily. “You want me to come with?”

Steve’s mouth is ready to say no again, but Bucky’s hand is still a comforting grip on his shoulder and he still feels rather out of sorts. He’s smart enough to know that Fury and Hill will easily spot that he’s not one hundred percent focused, and having Bucky at his side will help.

“Yes,” he says, and pauses. “Don’t let me lose my shit with Fury.”

“Yes, Captain America, Sir,” Bucky says, snapping his heels together and saluting.

“Jerk,” Steve says, but reaches out to clap Bucky on the cheek, shaking his head gently from side to side. “Come on.”

Together they walk to debrief, Bucky following half a step behind Steve like some sort of menacing, supportive shadow. He’s got his arms folded across his chest even as he walks, face set in his usual sullen scowl, the one that Fury not-so fondly refers to as the ‘most belligerent damn face I’ve ever seen on a grown man, and that’s not a compliment, Barnes.’ Steve wonders if he’s got any weapons on him, but a voice in the back of his mind vehemently hopes that Bucky isn’t armed, because he’s spent the last three days helping to look after a kid.

“Head in the game, Rogers,” Bucky says, nudging Steve with his elbow as he reaches out to push the door open, letting Steve through first before following on his heels.

Just as Steve expected, Fury is already there, sitting in one of the leather chairs and leaning back indolently, face impassive. Hill is standing behind another chair, impatient. Clint is sprawled out on the soft couch that’s over by the windows, and Steve doesn’t know if he’s boycotting the table purposefully or just being lazy. He’s got his head tipped back against the cushions and he’s holding an ice-pack to his mouth.

“Glad you could join us, Captain,” Fury says, and Steve glances over and then back to Clint who looks up and gives him a half-hearted wave, face still half obscured by the ice-pack.

“What happened?” Steve asks warily.

Clint just points at Bucky. Steve turns around to look at Bucky, eyebrows raised.

“Punched him in the mouth,” Bucky shrugs, folding his arms across his chest.

“You what?”

“You’re an asshole,” Clint scowls, words muffled by the ice-pack.

Bucky points a metal finger accusatorily at him, and Steve rapidly reassess his earlier conclusion that Bucky wouldn’t really hurt Clint as Bucky snarls, “You fell out of a jet!”

“Not on purpose!”

“Well, you must be a real dumb shit to accidentally fall out of a jet!”

“As touching as this reunion is,” Fury calls over them, loud and unimpressed. They both stop yelling at each other in favor of glaring at Fury instead, identical looks of distaste and annoyance on their faces. Steve is already privately regretting bringing Bucky to debrief. “Barnes, why are you even here?”

“To make sure Barton doesn’t fall out of the window,” Bucky shoots back. Clint gives him the finger.

“This is a classified meeting,” Hill says.

“I’ve got clearance,” Bucky says, and steps past Steve and pulls out a chair, flopping down into it and sending her a winning smile, the one that used to guarantee him a dance with pretty much anyone he fancied. All it does today is make Hill’s lip curl slightly, obviously not at all impressed.

“You do not have clearance for the current-”

Fury waves a hand. “Seeing as I’m completely sure that one of these two tell him everything anyway, you might as well leave him be,” he says to Hill, who looks like she wants to protest for a moment before giving up and nodding curtly. “Captain, take a seat.”

Steve pulls out the chair next to Bucky, slowly sitting down. He still has the nagging feeling that this isn’t where he should be, but that’s just because of Arto telling him to fuck off, right? If Arto had been fine when Steve had returned, surely Steve wouldn’t be thinking twice about where he should be?

“So, I hear you had an interesting trip,” Fury says, and Steve refocuses on the conversation.

“Not exactly the word I’d use,” Steve says slowly. “We nearly lost a team member.”

“More than one by the sounds of things,” Fury says pointedly, and Bucky turns the dirty look he’d been giving Clint on Steve.

“In our defense, it was fucked when we got there,” Clint calls over, the words thick and still partly muffled by the ice-pack.

“I know, I know,” Fury says, waving a hand and sounding somewhere between apologetic and irritated. “I did have some faith that between them Shipman and Sitwell could keep it all under control.”

“If under control means on fire then they did a great job,” Clint says, and Bucky chokes on a laugh, hastily turning it into a cough as Hill narrows her eyes at him.

“The shortcomings of SHIELD Agents aside,” Fury says, pointedly ignoring the pair of them. “I hear you found something interesting, Cap.”

“Heard how?” Steve asks, because the only person he’s actually showed the images to is Tony, and he knows for a fact that Tony would never share anything that Steve sent him with SHIELD.

“Coulson,” Fury says, and he nods over to Hill who starts tapping atop the table, opening up the holoscreens that are installed there and delving rapidly through folders. “He and Widow found the wreckage of the lab that caught your attention. You think they’re trying to recreate Project Rebirth.”

“They’re doing what?” Bucky asks loudly, sitting up hurriedly.

Steve presses his fingers to his mouth, apologetically glancing at Bucky. “Looks that way,” he admits.

“What, cloning?” Clint asks, twisting around and sitting up as well. He lowers the ice pack, revealing a pretty impressive split lip, already swollen and bruised.

“No, like what they did to me and Buck,” Steve says, grateful that Clint was smart enough not to mention Arto and cloning in the same sentence in front of Fury. He leans back to take his phone from his pocket. “An adult-sized chamber, all hooked up ready to go.”

He opens his phone, flicks to the images he’d taken. Sliding his phone across the table to Fury, he watches carefully for any reaction. Fury just picks up the phone and stares at the picture for several long seconds.

“Well, that’s confirmed what we thought,” he says. “Not good news, Cap.”

“You’re telling me,” Steve says, and takes the phone back. Bucky holds his hand out and Steve passes the phone over without a second-thought. Hill’s expression goes pained.

“Have you shared those images with anyone else?” she asks.

“No,” Steve lies, looking around as Clint walks up, leaning on the back of Bucky’s chair with his forearms braced on the leather. He ducks his head down, resting his chin atop Bucky’s head as he peers down at the photos. “That’s what they steroided you up in?” he asks, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Mine was shinier,” Steve tells him, and Bucky snorts with laughter. “There was equipment as well. Some of it looked familiar, but I couldn’t tell you what it was called. One piece looked like a double ended microscope-”

Clint lifts away from Bucky, though remains leaning on the back of the chair. “A spectrometer,” he says, and everyone stares at him.

“Say that again?” Bucky says, frowning.

Clint shrugs. “The shiny metal thing on a big round base?” he asks, twirling a finger around. “A spectrometer. Bruce has one. I also noticed one in a lab on the south side of the complex.”

“I told you you’re not as stupid as you make out to be,” Bucky says, and Clint pulls a face.

“People keep saying that, it needs to stop or else everyone’ll end up with higher expectations of me than I’m comfortable with.”

“Here,” Hill says, and with a deft flick of her fingers, several images appear on screens in midair, projected from the surface of the table. There are pictures of the complex, the laboratories inside. Most of them are halfway destroyed; Steve spots a snapshot of the same chamber he took a photo of, now blackened and burnt and buried under what looks like half the ceiling.

“That’s it,” he says, reaching out and enlarging the image.

“Fucking bastards,” Bucky curses as Steve twists the image around so he can see it. “That’s halfway to a cryo-chamber.”

“Could they make a machine that does both?” Clint asks. “Makes super-soldiers and then keeps them on ice until they’re needed?”

“We don't know what they can do,” Fury says. “But the amount of work it would take to combine both projects is astronomical.”

“There’s only been one instance of rebirth working,” Hill begins.

“One and a half if you count Barnes,” Clint says, and Bucky nods, looking up at Clint.

“One and three quarters if you count Banner.”

“Seriously? You class that as working?”

“And there’s only been two known cases of people building cryo-chambers to hold people in for extended periods of time,” Hill interrupts, continuing where she left off before Bucky and Clint interrupted. “The one found by the X-men last year, and the one used in the Winter Soldier project.”

Bucky opens his mouth - probably to object to Hill referring to him as the ‘Winter Soldier project’ but he’s distracted by Steve’s phone buzzing in his hand, loud against his metal fingertips. He immediately holds it out; Steve takes it with a grateful nod, and he falters as he sees a message from Tony.

‘stopped swearing, still says he hates you, is asking where you went.’ 

Steve looks up at Fury and then back down to his phone, feeling his stomach tighten and something urgent trying to make itself known. ‘Tell him I’m still here,’ he quickly replies.

“Do you need a moment, Captain?” 

Fury’s voice is carefully neutral. Steve hits send, drops his phone back to the table. “No,” he says, shaking his head and resisting the urge to pick up his phone and call Tony right away.

Fury looks at him for a few seconds, and then away at the holoscreens again. Steve doesn't know if he’s satisfied with his response, or if he’s filing away everything Steve does for later consideration. Knowing Fury, it’s the latter.

“That base you took out yesterday was the fourth, including the one you and Widow found within the repurposed AIM bunker,” Fury fills in. Next to him, Hill opens some more files, throwing up four images of the locations Fury is talking about. “Different countries, different sizes, but what they all had in common was that they were heavy, lead-lined concrete structures.”

“Let me guess, ideal for messing around with gamma radiation?” Steve says.

“You would be right,” Fury nods, and gestures to the photos from the last mission that are still up. “If we can confirm that any of this equipment is the sort of thing that would be used for processing gamma radiation, then we know for definite what they’re up to.”

“Like you’ve not got enough evidence already,” Bucky points out, waving his hand towards the photo of the container.

“We like to be sure,” Fury says, arching an eyebrow before turning to Steve. “You know of any experts in gamma radiation that would be willing to come and see what we’ve got?”

“Depends,” Steve says, not breaking gaze with Fury. “Are you going to ask him nicely?”

“I was going to suggest you ask nicely.”

Steve sighs, rubs at his brow. “Jarvis, can you ask Bruce if he will come and give us an opinion on this?” he asks.

“Of course,” Jarvis answers immediately, and there is a pause. Next to him, Steve catches Clint mouthing something at Bucky, who just shrugs and puts his fingers to his lips in a shush gesture, eyes flicking towards Steve for the briefest of moments.

“He is on his way,” Jarvis says a few moments later.

“Thanks, Jarvis,” Steve says, and then turns back to Fury and Hill. “How come we haven't picked up on any of this so far? I assume you have intelligence teams tracking communications?”

“Yes, we have,” Fury says. “But it seems that their trick with the paper trail wasn't a one time thing,” he says. “Why do you think the complex in Bucharest was on fire when you arrived?”

“They were burning another paper-trail,” Steve fills in wearily, resting his elbow on the table and rubbing at his temple.

“Really?” Clint asks, sounding pained. “They’re writing all of this down? With pens and paper?”

“They probably know that our strength is hacking into electronic communications and records,” Steve says, looking to Fury who nods, a single dip of his chin. “SHIELD are renowned for it, and we’ve got Tony as well.”

“And Natasha,” Clint says. “She’s pretty sharp with stuff like that.”

“Exactly,” Steve says. “They do it all electronically, over the internet, on a network, whatever, it’s an instant weak spot. They use nothing but hard-copies, then we have to actually get there to get hold of it. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

“But then they’ll have to start from scratch,” Clint says.

“If they’re smart enough to pull off shit like this, I’m assuming they’re smart enough to remember the main gist of what they did,” Bucky suggests, looking at Steve. “Yeah, burning the hard copies would set them back, but they’d be able to redo it, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. “It would set them back months, maybe even years, but-”

“No-one ever said that Hydra aren't good at playing the long game,” Fury finishes, and Bucky snorts derisively.

“I can vouch for that.”

They all look up as there’s a soft tap on the door. Steve is the one to get up and open in, and comes face to face with Bruce.

“Cap,” he says mildly, though he looks a little surprised. “Why are you here?”

It’s a simple question, asked with genuine interest, but it still throws Steve completely off-guard. He blinks for half a second and then manages to regroup. “Couldn’t leave a mission half finished,” he says with a one-shouldered shrug, and gestures for Bruce to come inside. Bruce looks at him carefully, and the doubt that Steve had been valiantly ignoring comes back with a vengeance.

You are needed here, he tells himself, feeling angry and annoyed. He shuts the door again and turns back to the others.

“How can I help?” Bruce asks, nodding in greeting at Fury and Hill. Clint holds out his fist towards Bruce and Bruce distractedly obliges and fists-bumps him, before putting his glasses on and looking at the images that are still silently floating in midair above the table.

“These are images from the mission that Captain Rogers just assisted with in Bucharest,” Fury says, and Clint throws his hands in the air, mouthing 'what about me?' at Bucky. “We were hoping you could help us identify some of the equipment.”

Stepping right up the to table, Bruce nods slowly, and reaches out to pull some of the images closer. “Spectrometer,” he says, and Clint does a victory fist-pump next to him. “That looks like the remains of an irradiator,” he says, pointing to another. “Uh, they’re used commercially for sterilizing things with radiation. Non-commercially, they’re used for applying radiation to things. I’m guessing these guys don’t have a licence for theirs.”

“Radiation like gamma radiation?” Steve asks.

“Like gamma radiation,” Bruce says. “These are dosimeters. Used for checking levels of radiation, usually on people working with radiation. All pretty basic stuff for working with radioactive materials. The rest though...I’m not sure. I’d have to take a while to look.”

Fury nods. “Captain, show him the picture you took.”

Steve opens the file on his phone again, shows Bruce. Bruce stares at it carefully for a moment, and then passes the phone back. “Not so basic stuff, then,” he says quietly, reaching up to take his glasses off.

“We also have good reason to believe that Hydra are behind the theft of radioactive materials from two sites across Russia, and one in the Middle-East,” Fury says. “Uranium and Radium.”

“Which means?” Clint asks.

“Uranium and Radium emit gamma radiation,” Bruce tells him. “They’re doing what I tried to do. Using gamma radiation to try and recreate Weapon One,” Bruce says, gesturing to Steve.

“Oh, wow,” Clint says, whistling between his teeth. “I take it that’s not going to end well for them?”

“Didn’t for me,” Bruce says, with a deprecating smile. “Unless they know something I don’t.”

“Doubtful,” Bucky snorts. “You know everything, right?”

“Oh, if only,” Bruce says. “Any more bad news?”

“Yes,” Hill says, and she taps her fingers across the tablet in her hand. She pulls up some pictures and then hands the tablet to Bruce. He stares down at it, and then looks up.

“Why are you showing me these?”

“You know who they are?”

“Yes,” Bruce says. “Doctor Este Greco and Doctor Liliya Yegorov. They’ve been working on projects to do with NASA’s new CGRO project.”

“CGRO?”

“Yes, a Compton Gamma Ray Observatory,” Bruce says. “The previous one went out of use about fifteen years ago-”

“A what?” Clint asks. “Help, I no speak science.”

Bruce pauses, thinks for a moment. “A giant telescope in space,” he says. “Well, four giant telescopes in space. Used for detecting different waves. Mostly gamma waves.”

“Okay, when you say it like that I feel stupid.”

“Well NASA were working with these guys to try and get a CGRO based on earth. Miniaturizing the project. Greco and Yegorov are heavily involved, have written some pretty interesting papers on the subject.”

“Both missing,” Fury says shortly, and Bruce closes his eyes for a moment.

“Damn.”

Steve fights back a groan. “So Hydra are already at the stage of kidnapping scientists who can work with gamma radiation, are stealing radioactive material and building facilities equipped to hold it, and are manufacturing second-rate Vita-Ray chambers. Great.”

“You’re sure they’re definitely building super-soldiers?” Bucky demands. “Yeah, you’ve got the whole gamma angle, but what about the serum? Have we seen anything like that?”

“Not yet,” Fury concedes. “But I’m willing to bet that they’re trying.”

“There’s no guarantee it will work,” Bruce says. “People have been trying to recreate Project Rebirth ever since it worked. It’s never gone right.”

“Last time Hydra tried, they ended up with me,” Bucky says, and Steve isn't quite sure if he’s arguing against or agreeing with the ‘not gone right’ sentiment.

“And how well did that work out for them?” Clint says pointedly.

“You weren’t - you weren’t changed in an attempt that was a complete recreation though, were you?” Bruce points out to Bucky. “Schmidt and Zola worked alongside Erksine to begin with, they were going off almost the same blueprints, for want of a better word. You were a different version of Project Rebirth, a different version of the same project.”

“Zola was the one who managed it,” Steve says. “Without him, can they seriously do it?”

“The point is that they’re trying,” Fury says seriously. “Which means right now we have two problems.”

“Just two?” Clint mutters.

“One is that this means that you,” he says, turning to Bruce, “are at risk.”

“Me?” Bruce asks, looking taken aback. “How did you draw that conclusion?”

“Hydra are kidnapping current experts in gamma radiation,” Hill points out, and her expression is softer now, almost sorry. “With all of this in mind, we have reason to believe that they’ll come for you next.”

Bruce raises one eyebrow, just enough. He looks casually down at the table, swiping a finger over the black surface and leaving a trail of bright blue light in his wake.

“I’d like to see them try.”

It’s not a threat, except it is, and Steve feels a prickle go down his spine. Bruce is right; Hydra would have no hope of taking Bruce if he didn’t want to go anywhere.

Steve’s phone buzzes in his hand again, and he looks down to see another message from Tony. Not now, he wants to say, because he needs to be here, focusing on this mission. Hell, Hydra nearly cost them Clint in this last mission, and now the implication is that they’ll be coming after Bruce?

Steve opens the message.

‘He’s decided he doesn’t hate you anymore and he now wants you back. very mixed signals, I know.’

“We know Hydra well enough to assume they will try,” Fury is saying slowly. Steve curses silently as he looks back up because he thinks Tony is saying that he needs Steve there with Arto, but he can’t just get up and leave now. 

Bruce seems to accept that, nodding. “And I’d rather not cause an incident whilst defending myself.”

“Screw causing an incident, we don’t want you to get hurt,” Clint adds with a frown.

“I wouldn’t get hurt,” Bruce says. “But the other guy might not hesitate to wipe out half of Manhattan if he feels he’s got to protect me or the rest of you. It’s not worth it.”

“I would offer you the usual SHIELD protection package,” Fury says, and the way he says it almost sounds like a joke. “But I am going to assume you would rather stay with the Avengers until this all blows over?”

“And how long is that going to take?” 

“We don’t know,” Hill says. “But we’re seeing more and more activity, and we know what they’re trying to do. If we move quickly, we should be able to shut them down without it dragging on for too long.”

“We’ll protect you Bruce,” Clint says, and he holds his hands together, curling his fingers so they make a heart shape. Steve wants to speak up and agree, but his eyes are back on his phone, thumb hovering over the reply button. Anxiety is welling up once again, because he doesn’t know what to do.

“Thanks, Clint,” Bruce says, smiling tiredly. “Okay, so that’s problem one dealt with, as long as I keep myself out of trouble. Problem two?”

“Problem two is that upstairs in this building you have a small child who is in fact a perfect copy of Project Rebirth.”

Steve goes perfectly still. The world seems to stop, everything around him freezing in place. The room goes deadly silent and he slowly and deliberately looks up from his phone. “Who told you that?”

Fury meets his gaze unapologetically. “SHIELD have been keeping an eye on this situation since you brought him back from another dimension,” he says. “You knew that full well.”

“Who told you he’s a copy?” Steve bites out, and it takes a lot of effort to stop his free hand balling into a fist. “Because you’re wrong. He is not a copy.”

Something white hot and angry is threatening to rip free under his sternum. The feelings of betrayal and helplessness from earlier come back, mixed horribly with a fierce rush of protectiveness. The uncertainty is almost too much to handle, and he feels like he’s being pulled in two, torn straight down the middle. The old thought that he can’t be both Captain America and a father is rearing its ugly head again, and in his bones he knows that’s true right now, but it’s terrifying in that this time he doesn’t know which way to turn.

“What is he, then?” Hill asks.

“None of your damn business,” Steve bites out, and she rears back, affronted.

“He’s the biological son of a Steve Rogers from a different dimension, born via a process somewhere between IVF and cloning,” Fury fills in, and Steve’s stomach swoops in hot, sick anger because fuck Fury, he knew all along and has been playing Steve with his usual barrel of half-truths and lies of omission.

“He’s your son?” Hill asks, looking genuinely startled.

Steve’s phone rings. He snaps his jaw shut, looks away from Hill and down at the screen, and to his despair he sees it’s Tony calling. Fuck, he can’t pick up the damn phone right now - but what if Arto has kicked off and needs restraining? If he ignores it, Tony could get hurt. Close to trembling with anger and adrenaline, Steve decides fuck it, and picks up the call right then and there.

“What?” Steve says shortly, holding his phone to his ear with one hand and pinching the bridge of his nose with the fingers of his free hand. “Do you need me up there?”

“He’s sat outside the door to the conference room,” Tony’s voice says without preamble. “He asked if he could come and find you.”

Steve drops his hand away from his face, stunned. “He’s waiting for me?”

“Yes,” Tony says. “He was determined to go, so I didn’t stop him. Jarvis says it looks like he’s too scared to actually knock though.”

Heart clenching strangely inside his chest, Steve hangs up without a word. He shoves his phone into his pocket and gets up, pushing his chair back, because the fact Arto is waiting for him outside the room, the fact that he’s at risk from Hydra and SHIELD and everyone else in-between, the fact that he’s Steve’s - well, all of that leaves him with only one option.

“Rogers?”

“I quit,” he says shortly. “I’m done. Bucky, you take over this operation for me.”

There’s a moment of palpable confusion in the room. Fury stares at him. “You cannot just quit.”

“I’m taking extended leave,” Steve tells him. “Or I’m quitting.”

“You want me in charge?” Bucky butts in, sounding incredulous.

“Yes,” Steve says. “And I’m not changing my mind, so it’s you or I go and find someone else-”

“I’ll do it,” Bucky says immediately.

“There you go,” Steve says, nodding at Bucky and praying that Bucky knows how grateful he is. “I’m on leave. Bucky is my official replacement.”

“I sincerely hope this is your idea of a joke, Captain,” Fury says. “Hydra are mobilizing across the globe and you want to duck and run and put your sidekick in charge?”

You said you should have put me in charge,” Bucky points out before Steve can rise to the obvious bait. “Like, three days ago.”

“Captain America cannot just go on leave,” Hill chips in, sounding completely stunned.

“Then Bucky can have the damn shield,” Steve snaps, heading for the door.

“Rogers, sit your ass back down and think about it-” Fury calls after him.

“No,” Steve replies, and he pulls the door open and slows to a halt. Once again, it feels like every single thing in the world stops.

Arto is sitting there against the wall, hunched up small with his Bucky Bear clutched in both hands. His eyes are red and he’s glaring at Steve, but he’s there, and that’s what counts. Even as Steve watches, his eyes fill up with tears again, his lip trembling.

Steve steps forwards and stoops down. Arto lifts his hands up immediately and Steve catches him under his arms, hefting him up and holding him close, one arm tucked under his legs and the other around his back. Arto tucks his arms in, turning his face into Steve’s chest and holding Bucky Bear protectively into the curve of his body.

“I sorry,” he chokes out.

“You’re okay,” Steve replies, and he sounds distant to his own ears but this is what he needs to do. Other people can deal with Hydra right now. No-one else can fill this space. “You don’t need to be sorry.”

There’s the sound of raised voices behind him; he hears Bucky and Clint and knows them well enough to figure out that they’re probably just causing a ruckus to give him time to get away. Hill is shouting at one of them, and Bruce is saying something to Fury-

Steve walks away. He hitches Arto up in his arms and holds him closer. “Let’s go find Tony, huh?” he says, and he finds that his voice is remarkably steady.

“Yeah,” Arto says tearfully. “He in the - the floor at the top.”

“Alright,” Steve says quietly, and there’s a moment in which he feels panic threatening again, but Arto is reaching out to place his hand on Steve’s collarbone, and it fades as small fingers curl around the neck of his shirt. Steve takes a deep breath, thinks of Tony.

“Alright,” he repeats, and he heads for the stairs. “The floor at the top it is.”

Chapter Text

The moment Tony hears movement in the corridor that leads from the stairwell to the penthouse door, he twists around, heart thudding high in his throat. He knows its Steve, he recognizes the sound of his footsteps anywhere, but did he manage to find Arto? What’s happened because he hasn’t heard a thing since Steve abruptly hung up on him-

Steve appears, with Arto cradled against his chest. He looks worn but his eyes are clear, and he meets Tony’s gaze evenly. Tony feels his heart swelling in his chest, a rush of emotion that he doesn’t even bother to try and shove away.

“So I found this,” Steve says, nodding down at Arto, and Tony smiles faintly at him. Steve looks...different somehow. He looks tired, but the tension he’s been carrying for the past couple of weeks seems to have faded or changed, Tony’s not sure which it is.

He chooses not to comment on it just yet. “Oh, that,” he says instead, walking over. “I was looking for that.” Arto twists around in Tony’s arms and grins toothily at him. His eyes are red but he looks as happy as Tony as ever seen him, one hand gripping onto Steve’s shirt and the other still clinging onto that damn Bucky Bear.

“Found me,” he crows. “Steve found me.”

“That he did,” Tony says, and leans in to kiss Steve on the corner of his mouth. Steve turns his face into it, nudging his nose against Tony’s. “How did it go?” he asks, because he wants to know about what Fury has said in regards to the mission. Of course he’ll get Jarvis to pull up a transcript later, but he also wants to hear it from Steve.

Steve shifts Arto around as Arto squirms, climbing up over his shoulder. He ends up knelt on Steve’s forearm, leaning up over his shoulder with Bucky Bear dangling down in the small of Steve’s back. His cheeks are steadily going pink from being almost upside down but he doesn't seem to mind.

“Steve?”

Steadying Arto with a palm between his shoulder blades, Steve looks at Tony evenly. “I just quit.”

Tony stares at him, utterly nonplussed and not entirely sure that he’s just heard those three words come out of Steve Rogers’ mouth. “Excuse you, what? You just quit?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, frowning as Arto slides back onto his front and then pushes against his arm, trying to climb all the way up onto his shoulder.

“Quit – okay, give me some context here,” Tony says, the words disjointed and abrupt. “You quit what?”

“The mission,” Steve says. “Liaising with SHIELD on whatever Hydra is doing. Well, I told Fury I was taking leave, then said Bucky was my replacement and then walked out.”

“Holy shit,” Tony says, and Arto cackles with laughter. Tony glances at him, distracted. “Don’t you say that.”

“Won’t say that,” Arto says. “Up. Steve, up.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” Steve says, beginning to sound harried. His forehead is creasing in a worried frown, expression edging slowly towards frustration. “I’m already having a minor panic-attack about it-”

“I’m not looking like anything.”

“Yes you are!”

“I’m just shocked, okay,” Tony insists, because it’s true. “I’ve never seen you take a step back from anything, not even when it was literally killing you.”

“Well, this isn’t about me, is it?” Steve says, and then flinches as Arto catches him the ear with his elbow. “Ow, watch it.”

“Up,” Arto demands, and Steve sighs but capitulates. He lifts Arto up and sits him on his shoulders. Arto gasps and immediately starts to laugh, kicking his heels against Steve’s chest and holding on with his palms on Steve's forehead.

“What did Fury say?” Tony demands, thoughts going a mile a minute. “Did his brain explode? What did Bucky say? Did his brain explode? Okay never mind, I’m going to get Jarvis to show me, this I cannot miss-”

“Tony,” Steve interrupts, looking pained. He catches Arto’s ankles in his hands, holds them still so he’s not being kicked. Christ, considering the man fractured his sternum three days ago, he probably shouldn’t be letting a six-year old super-soldier use him as a jungle gym. “I’m an idiot.”

“You,” Tony says and he leans in and kisses Steve, fingers of one hand holding onto his jaw. “You are the best idiot I have ever met.”

Steve smiles faintly as Tony pulls back. “I haven’t been unemployed since nineteen thirty-eight,” Steve says, and he sounds casual but Tony knows him well enough to sense the uncertainty hidden in the joking around. “I may find it hard.”

Tony laughs, his hand sliding up to the back of Steve’s neck, heavy and warm. “You’re a full time father now, Rogers. That’s going to take up most of your time.”

“Yeah, about that,” Steve says, and Tony realizes what he’s just said.

He winces and starts mentally berating himself for crossing that line again, pushing before Steve is ready for it. “Sorry?”

“No,” Steve says. “S’what I am, right?”

Tony’s thoughts abruptly stop all over again. He pauses, fingers gently kneading at the back of Steve’s neck. “That’s your decision.”

Steve breathes out heavily. “It’s what I am.”

Tony’s throat goes tight for a moment, and he can feel it in his ribcage, a strange warmth as he realizes that this might actually be going right the way he wanted it to. “What you are,” he echoes. “You okay with that?”

“Oh, god no,” Steve says, tone easy but full of self-depreciation. “I have no idea what I am doing.”

“I’m here,” Tony says immediately, wanting nothing more than to be able to get rid of that last lingering insecurity, to convince Steve that he’s doing the right thing and it’s all going to be fine. “You know that.”

Steve nods, mute. He leans in to kiss Tony again, but he’s stopped by a small orange-socked foot pushing against Tony’s face, toes pressing against his mouth.

“Well, moment ruined,” Tony says, words muffled. He pretends to bite at Arto’s foot and Arto giggles, shoving at his cheek with the other foot.

“Easy,” Tony says as Arto prods a little too enthusiastically, and Arto drops his feet immediately.

“Sorry.”

Steve raises his eyebrows at Tony. “That’s new.”

“There was an incident,” Tony says, deciding that it wouldn’t be fair to simply shrug off what happened whilst Steve was away. Steve deserves to know the full picture as far as Arto is concerned. “A teeny tiny incident in which he realized that he is very capable of hurting people.”

Steve’s jaw clenches, and for a moment Tony thinks he’s going to let rip then and there. Thankfully, he doesn’t. He lets out a very controlled, very deliberate breath. “We will be discussing this teeny tiny incident later,” he says, and it doesn’t sound like he’s willing to negotiate.

Still, Tony’s going to try. He’s not going to leave Steve to build it all up in his head, to worry over the fact he got hurt. “It’s fine, I’m okay. It was a learning experience,” Tony says. “He felt bad, didn’t you kid?”

“Didn’t mean to,” Arto mumbles, sounding small. “It was an accident. I said sorry.”

“There you go,” Tony says to Steve. Steve’s expression softens slightly, but Tony knows that he’s not going to let it go that easily. He can only hope that Steve won’t be mad at Arto for what happened, because as far as he’s concerned it’s in the past and none of them will benefit from dragging it up again. Besides, Bucky already did a pretty good job of telling Arto off for it.

“Down?” Arto says, and Steve glances up at him before reaching up to swing Arto off his shoulders. He sets Arto on the floor and Arto immediately leans into him, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist and hiding his face in his hip. Steve settles a hand on his back and Tony leans in, pressing his mouth gently to Steve’s now that he can do it without Arto shoving his feet in the way. He tastes warm and familiar, and Tony could quite happily pull him in and do nothing but lazily kiss him for the next hour-

“Sir, Director Fury and deputy Director Hill have left the building,” Jarvis interrupts carefully from the speakers, and Tony pulls back from Steve.

“Good.”

Steve looks up and around. “Damn. I better go and find Bucky,” he says regretfully. “I don’t know if Fury will actually let him step in on the mission.”

“It’s him or no-one right?” Tony points out. “If he doesn’t want Bucky’s help, then he doesn’t get any help. Besides, he actually works for SHIELD, you don’t.”

“Fair point,” Steve says, stroking his hand down Tony’s side. “Jarvis, where is Bucky?”

“Agent Barnes is currently in Agent Barton’s quarters,” Jarvis replies. “He seems rather agitated about something.”

“Still?” Steve asks in disbelief. “He’s not swinging punches, is he?”

“Okay, what did I miss?” Tony asks, as Jarvis replies with a dry, “Not at the moment, Captain.”

“He’s pissed at Clint,” Steve says, rubbing his head. “He’s already-”

He mimes a punch, and Tony lifts his eyebrows. “He’s that mad?” he asks skeptically. “Right, what’s going on there?”

“Don’t think he’d know what to do without Clint,” Steve says honestly. “As much as they are a pain in my ass when they get together – Clint’s been his best friend since he got back.”

“Thought that was you?”

“It is,” Steve says with a shrug.  “He can have more than one friend. I’m not jealous.”

“Never said you were,” Tony says. “You going to leave him yelling at Barton?”

“Yeah,” Steve says unapologetically. “Maybe a telling off from Bucky will be enough to make him stop pulling stupid stunts like that.”

“Oh, I cannot believe that those words just came out of your mouth,” Tony says, but he’s laughing and Steve is smiling back, a wry twist of his mouth that Tony can’t help but lean over and kiss.

“Want to see Clint,” Arto says as Tony pulls back. He swings around Steve’s side, reaching out to pull at Tony’s shirt. “Is Clint back? Can I see Clint?”

Tony’s initial impulse is to say yes, because seeing Clint will make Arto happy and after the horrendous few days they’ve had he’ll pretty much do anything to make Arto happy right now. But on the flipside, if Clint is with Bucky and there is yelling going on, then Tony wants Arto nowhere near it.

“Jarvis, tell everyone that we’re doing team dinner tonight,” Tony says after a moments deliberation. “There you go, Smart-Art. Clint is busy with Bucky at the moment, but they’ll meet us for dinner if you don’t see him before.”

“Pepper will be here later,” Steve reminds him.

“Even better. Plenty of people to bribe to distract her,” Tony says promptly. Steve snorts with laughter but doesn’t object, and Tony would be willing to bet the Mark Seven that he’s privately thinking the same thing. It’s a tactical move on his part as well; if Pepper sees Arto happy and content in the midst of the Avengers then there’s more of a chance of her accepting his presence in Tony’s life. 

He’s about to voice that thought to Steve but Steve beats him to it. “So, about that thing you said a minute ago, about you being here,” he says conversationally.

Tony draws back, eyes narrowed. “What’s with the casual tone? I don’t trust your casual tone,” he says. “That’s the tone you use with bad guys just before you invite Natasha over to play.”

Steve looks down again, strokes his palm over Arto’s head. “Hey, go and play,” he says. “I just need to talk to Tony.”

“No,” Arto replies immediately. “You’ll go again.”

Something sharp and painful flickers over Steve’s face, so quickly that if Tony didn’t know him as well as he does he would have missed it entirely. He rubs at his temple for a moment. “I’m not even going to leave the room,” he says to Arto, and Tony doesn't think it’s his temper that’s starting to show through the cracks.

Arto looks up, suspicious. “Promise?”

“Promise,” Steve replies. “We’ll be right here.”

Arto nods. He steps away from Steve and edges over to his corner of the room, eyes still fixed on Steve as he takes tiny, shuffling, sideways steps. Tony bites down on an urge to laugh as Steve waits patiently – and with a small amount of exasperation – for Arto to get all the way across the room.

“Still here,” Steve calls pointedly, and a slow smile spreads over Arto’s face before he turns and jumps onto his bed with a loud shriek, rolling over and scrambling over to where there’s a variety of Lego pieces laid out on the small nightstand.

“So, back to that thing, about me being here?” Tony presses before the conversation can be turned anywhere else. “I hope you weren’t implying that I’m not.”

Steve draws in a slow breath, and then moves around to sit on the couch, rubbing his face tiredly. He grabs the remote and flicks the television on, a wash of noise in the background. His eyes flick over to Arto who is still happily sifting through a bucket of lego, and Tony knows he’s done it so they can talk without being so easily overheard. Not that there’s any real need for the television to be on; Tony’s convinced that he’s never heard anything as unnecessarily loud as a six year old digging through a bucket of lego.

“Sit,” Steve says, and Tony obliges, sitting down with one foot pulled up underneath him and an arm stretched along the back of the couch.

“Okay, spit it out, Mon Capitan.”

“Arto thinks I’m his dad,” Steve says without preamble, turning serious eyes on Tony. “Well, he knows,” he amends.

Tony looks at him carefully, letting what Steve is saying sink in for a moment. This is uncharted territory, an area of conversation that so far has been pretty much a mine-field. “How do you know that?”

“Clint told me, that Arto had said it to him,” Steve says. “When we were in medical.”

“Well, it’s not exactly the biggest conundrum of the year,” Tony says cautiously. “You look pretty much identical.”

“I know,” Steve says, “and that’s – that’s okay.”

Wow, Steve must have hit his head really hard. Tony doesn’t make the joke though, because Steve is serious and honest and if he’s saying what Tony thinks he’s saying, then Arto will soon become known to the world as Arto Rogers. There’s something there in Steve’s expression though, a lingering frown that means part of it isn’t quite settled. Though if Steve has said he’s Arto’s father, and he’s said that it’s okay that Arto knows he’s his dad, what else is there?

“But…?” Tony presses, drawing the word out.

Steve meets his eyes, takes a slow, deep breath. “If I’m his – if that’s what I am, then what are you?”

Tony goes very still, looking down at his knee. Shit. He wasn’t expecting this to come up so soon – hell, he definitely wasn’t expecting Steve to be the one to bring it up. The word Bucky had used to describe him echoes in the back of his mind but he finds his courage failing him, because biologically this is Steve’s child, and even if Tony is the one who has stepped up to look after him, he doesn’t technically or legally have a leg to stand on- 

“Tony?”

“Small confession to make, here,” Tony says, still not looking up. “Bucky may have referred to me as something he shouldn’t have done, in front of the small child-”

“Tony. Just say it.”

“He referred to me as his Dad,” Tony admits, and he glances up and wishes he hadn’t because Steve is watching him intently and that blue gaze always sees way too much of him at moments like this. “I don’t know if he heard it though. He was screaming and screaming and Bucky had him pinned down, and he said to Arto that he wasn’t going to let him go, because he wasn’t going to let him hurt his Dad.”

“Oh,” Steve says, and he reaches up to rub at his mouth for a moment, before saying, “Well I guess that settles it then.”

Stomach twisting, Tony stares at him for a moment and then looks away and shakes his head. “Steve, think about it,” he tries to say, because they shouldn’t be making decisions of that magnitude just because Bucky said something in the heat of the moment.

“I am thinking about it,” Steve insists. “Forget what Bucky said for a moment, what is it you want?”

“Doesn’t matter what I want, it’s not about me.”

“It does and it is. Right now I’m asking you what you want.”

“Steve-”

“Answer the damn question.”

“Fine, alright,” Tony says, and it’s like dragging something out from his very depths, painful and raw. He used to hate how moments and confessions like this felt, but when it’s with Steve it’s different. “Biologically he’s yours,” he continues to talk before Steve can butt in or before he can talk himself out of it. “That’s non-negotiable. But if it’s me and you together, then I’d want him to be mine as well.”

The words hang there for a moment. Tony won’t take them back, but he’s painfully aware of how Steve could say one little word that would wreck him, that would mean distancing himself from Arto, from Arto and Steve, having to step back out of their lives-

“Then that’s what we do,” Steve finally says quietly, and Tony loves this man so fiercely that it hurts.

Despite the enormity of the relief he feels at Steve’s words, the dizzying sense of gratitude, Tony isn’t willing to rest on his laurels just yet. “Not that simple,” Tony hears himself arguing, because it doesn’t matter what he wants, and why doesn’t Steve get it? “It’s got to be what’s best for him, and it’s got to be what he wants, too.”

“Didn’t he already ask if we were married?” Steve points out. “That kind of implies that he sees us as a pair, right?”

“Yes, yes he did,” Tony concedes. “Hey, how come you’re now being the calm, rational one? You did hit your head when you were busy being blown up, didn’t you?”

“More than once, but that’s not the point,” Steve says. “It’s different. Now we’ve made the decisions, this is all logistics. This is what I’m good at.”

“I guess,” Tony says, and looks up as Steve reaches over, brushing his hand over Tony’s arm, fingers curling around his bicep. “That would put us together forever you know,” Tony says conversationally. “No backsies, when you’ve got a kid together. If we fall out, it’s not just on us.”

“Was it ever?” Steve points out. “The rest of the team.”

“If we ever get divorced, I get Bruce and Thor,” Tony says. “You can keep Barnes and Barton. Hell, I will pay you to keep Barnes and Barton.”

“Tony.”

“I’m joking, stop looking so stressed,” Tony says. “Look, I know this is a huge thing-”

“We’re doing it,” Steve says shortly.

“If he wants,” Tony repeats adamantly.

“He’s six, he doesn’t get a say.”

“He does,” Tony says. “Look. We’ll sit down with him later, talk it out. See who he sees as who. Draw him a family tree, and if he puts you and me in the goddamn Mom and Dad spaces, then that’s fine. If he doesn’t-”

“Nope,” Steve says, shaking his head. “We put me and you in those positions. We are together, you drew that line. And that means we are parents together, like you want but are being too stubborn to accept. If he says no, what are we going to do, stop acting like we’re together? Or carry on and let him get more confused about how relationships work?”

Tony shuts his mouth, knowing that Steve is right. “Damn. I hate admitting you’re right,” he says grudgingly, and then sighs. “I just don’t want to – I don’t want to force a parent on him that he doesn’t want.”

Steve’s expression flickers at that, going softer, more earnest. “I thought I was the idiot today,” he says, and he tightens his fingers around Tony’s arm and pulls him over into his lap. Tony goes – not altogether willingly – and ends up sprawled over one of Steve’s thighs, leaning against his chest with a hand pressed on his shoulder.

“Ass,” he scowls, but Steve just hauls him closer, hands on Tony’s waist.

“I am terrified,” he says, voice low. “But you were the one insisting we do this together, and I need you to be with me on this. Don’t you flake out on me now, Stark.”

“Using that against me now, you devious tactical-” Tony begins, but Steve is kissing him and cutting off his words, a warm palm sliding onto Tony’s neck.

“It’s what you want as well,” Steve says. “Stop playing the martyr and say yes.”

“Okay, okay,” Tony says, and he knows that he’s said the right thing when he sees the relief in Steve’s eyes. “Hang on – this doesn’t require us actually getting married does it?”

“Oh, god no,” Steve says vehemently. “Are you crazy?”

Tony smiles, a small wry twist to his mouth. “Living in sin, how scandalous."

“We’ve been doing it for god knows how long,” Steve says, exasperated. “I don’t think adding Arto the mix intensifies the level of sin.”

“It might,” Tony says, and starts to laugh. “Sin squared.”

“Stop talking,” Steve advises him, and Tony is still laughing as Steve kisses him again. God, he’s not entirely sure that this has just happened, that every fuck up they've made in the past few weeks has been fixed, that they’ve reached this point where he’s got both Steve and Arto, and Steve wants it to be both of them raising his kid-

“Tony!”

They both look over at Arto, who is standing up on his bed. “Is it lunch now?”

“Actually, yes it is,” Tony says, and sits up. “Well done, human alarm clock.”

Arto grins and leaps off the bed, running over to the sofa. Tony braces himself as Arto scrambles up next to them, one hand on Steve’s chest and the other on Tony’s shoulder. He doesn’t miss the wince Steve gives, and glares flatly at him.

“Healed my ass,” he says pointedly, as Steve moves Arto’s hand onto his shoulder.

“It’s fine,” he says. “Just like a bruise.”

 “Time for lunch,” Arto says. “Time for lunch. I want lucky charms.”

 “Cereal is for breakfast, we’ve been over this…hmm, ten thousand times since you got here,” Tony says, and Arto starts to laugh.

 “Lucky Charms,” he says to Steve, who shakes his head.

 “Tony said no.”

 “Pleeeease,” Arto whines.

 “No,” Steve says firmly, sitting up. He goes to stand up, but Arto is clambering into his lap, winding his arms around Steve’s neck. He makes a high-pitched whining noise in the back of his throat, and Steve looks helplessly over at Tony. Right. Just because Steve is willing to step up now doesn’t mean he’s got a clue how to do it.

“Right. We’re going to go to the kitchen, we’re going to make awesome sandwiches. They will be so awesome you’ll forget all about Lucky Charms. You’ll never touch another Charm again,” Tony says, and Arto is now laughing, still swinging around Steve’s neck with one arm.

“No I won't,” he says. “I like Lucky Charms. Clint says Lucky Charms are awesome, not sandwiches.”

It’s possibly one of the longest sentences that Tony has heard Arto say in a long while, no stammering or stumbling over words, and it sets him at ease. It’s becoming glaringly obvious that the more content Arto feels, the easier it is for him to get the words out.

“Clint is a horrible liar,” he says, and Arto just laughs. “Come on, tall and blond and short and blond, let’s go.”

They take the stairs to the communal kitchen area, Arto walking at Steve’s side with his fingers curled into Steve’s belt. He has to keep breaking into a skipping sort of run to keep up, but he doesn’t look like he minds.

The kitchen is a mess; there’s empty mugs piled up on the side, what looks like a week’s worth of plates on the counter as well as several empty bottles of beer. 

“Jesus, has someone been feeding an army in here? And I hate break it to you but I think Barnes has been drinking beer for breakfast again.”

“You’re not the person to comment on that,” Steve says, and he swings Arto onto the counter. Arto laughs and pulls his feet up, leaning back on his hands and sliding his socks all over the smooth surface.

“Ew,” Tony remarks. “Get your feet off the counter, you horrible creature. We eat there." 

“Sit down,” Steve says, and he steps behind Tony, pressing his hands onto his shoulders. “I got this.”

“No, it’s okay,” Tony starts to protest.

“Tony, take five,” Steve insists, voice low and firm. “I’m willing to bet you haven’t stopped at all since I went away.”

“Steve-”

“Don’t argue with me,” Steve says, and he steps up close behind him and slides a hand across the front of Tony’s chest, hand gripping gently onto Tony’s upper arm. Tony sighs and reaches up to hold onto Steve’s forearm where it’s braced across his collarbones, leaning down to press his mouth to warm skin.

“Don’t want you to burn out,” Steve says softly, and Tony lifts his head again and leans back so Steve’s face is alongside his own. “I need you.”

“I know you do, and I’m fine,” Tony says.

“And I want to keep you that way,” Steve murmurs. Behind them, Arto is humming tunelessly, banging either feet or hands against the countertop in a rhythm undecipherable to anyone sane. “Come on. I know how to look after you. I can do that. And if I look after you, you’re okay to help me look after him.”

“You’re a dirty tactical cheat,” Tony says, and turns his face towards Steve. Steve leans forwards and gently kisses him.

“I am unemployed,” he says. “I need a job to do.”

“And we’re it, got it,” Tony says tiredly. He shuts his eyes for a moment, enjoying having Steve so close, warm and solid at his back. God, but he’s missed him over the past few days. “I think if I stop, I’ll fall down,” he admits.

“Okay, you are definitely taking some time off,” Steve says, and Tony groans because he knows from experience that that’s not a tone of voice he can usually win an argument against.

“I don’t need time off,” he protests. “And besides, you are not unemployed. You’re still Captain America, you’ve just stopped running around doing errands for Nick Fury-”

“Don’t make me pick you up,” Steve says, and then he’s somehow hooked an ankle around a stool and pulled it around, and is pushing Tony down into it. Tony grabs his wrists, but there’s no way of stopping Steve when he’s determined.

“Steve, listen to me. I’m fine,” he says. “It’s just been a long few days.”

Steve pauses at that. He moves to stand in front of Tony, sliding his hands onto his shoulders, thumbs just brushing his neck above the collar of his T-shirt. “Okay,” he finally says. “How about you go to the workshop, we’ll make lunch and bring you something down?”

God, Tony wants that so badly he can taste it. He’s not been in the workshop properly since Arto arrived.

“You sure?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Steve says, and Tony thinks there’s the fleeting edge of uncertainty in his countenance, but the fact he’s offering to take Arto single-handedly for even half an hour is a miracle.

“Okay, no take backsies,” Tony says, and he stands up and kisses Steve. “Meet you down there.”

“Where are you going?” a wary voice asks from behind them. Tony half turns and Arto crawls the counter, reaching for him, a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“The workshop.”

“What's the workshop?”

“Where Tony builds,” Steve says.

“Woefully inadequate,” Tony interrupts. “It’s where magic happens. It’s where my superhero alter-ego emerged from, in all of its red and gold glory.”

“Now that’s a lie, I’m pretty sure your alter-ego emerged from a cave in Afghanistan, and the first red and gold one came out of the workshop in LA,” Steve points out.

“Always a stickler for the details,” Tony sighs, and then looks at Arto. “It’s at the bottom of the tower. You saw it on the plan I showed you.”

Arto nods slowly. “Where the cars are?”

“That’s the parking basement, the workshop is above that.”

Arto nods, apparently appeased. “Can we come with you?”

Tony opens his mouth but Steve is there first. “No. You are going to help me make lunch first, and then we might go down.”

Arto brightens at that. “I can help you?”

“I don't know, can you?” Steve asks evenly and Arto grins at him, all teeth.

“Yes!” he announces, and stands up on the counter, using Tony’s shoulder to help steady himself. He bends his knees and Tony makes an alarmed noise that’s not quite a word; Steve turns just in time to catch Arto as he leaps from the center island.

“Whoa, not okay!” Tony says, heart thudding in his chest. “Jesus, kid-”

“Christ, you have got to stop doing that,” Steve says as he sets Arto on the counter next to him. Arto just grins, standing up and sliding his hands into Steve’s hair.

“It’s easy,” he says. “I can jump that far, easy.”

Steve just shakes his head. “Mind your head, I need to get in that cupboard-”

Arto ducks under Steve’s arm as he opens the cupboard, peering in like an inquisitive housecat the moment it’s open. Tony debates reiterating the ‘it is not okay to jump on the counters’ argument but decides against it; Steve obviously isn’t prioritizing it as a battle he wants to have right now so he’s just going to leave them to it.

He leaves the communal floor, heading down to the workshop, equal parts relief and excitement running through him. He aches to get back to the workshop; it has always been his safe place, his bolt hole when he needed time away from Steve or the Avengers or life in general, and he’s been unable to use it as such whilst he’s been in charge of Arto.

“Honey, I’m home,” he calls as he pushes open the glass door at the bottom of the stairs, a grin already lighting up his face. The lights are on, and as walks across the floor he hears a familiar whirring and excited beeping. “Aw, you miss me?”

Dummy rolls over just as Tony throws himself into his chair, sliding up to his desk and grabbing it with both hands. A few deft flicks of his fingers and he’s got the specs for the repulsor upgrades open, and Dummy is eagerly clicking, camera raised inquisitively towards the holo-screens. 

“Hey, hey,” Tony says, elbowing Dummy away. “Six inch rule, you know that. Jesus, looking after a kid is a piece of cake after dealing with you for all these years, you know that? Don’t do the sad thing, you know I’m not falling for that. Just because Steve does, doesn’t mean it works on me. Go get me a set of screwdrivers if you want to be helpful.”

Dummy obediently scuttles away, and Tony shakes his head before getting up out of his seat. He walks over to the other workbench and grabs the box that currently holds the half-finished gauntlet that he had been working on, carrying it back to his desk. He shoves the still-unfinished starkpad screens out the way and unpacks the box, slipping the gauntlet onto his hand and flexing his fingers. 

“Hey, Jarvis,” he says absentmindedly. “Steve’s bringing Arto down in a bit.”

“What protocols would you like me to establish?”

“No access to the holo-screens,” Tony says. “Definitely no access to the storage units. Is there any way you can stop him getting at the tools in the cabinets?”

“Not at present,” Jarvis says. “Maybe you and Captain Rogers will have to tell him not to yourselves and hope for the best.”

“You are the bitchiest nanny I could have hired,” Tony remarks. “Just keep an eye on him, okay?”

“Of course,” Jarvis replies, sounding moderately insulted. “He is an occupant of the tower and I will look after him as such.”

“He’s a kid, J. They find trouble.”

“If I have managed to keep you out of trouble for this long, one small child should not be a problem.”

Tony laughs out loud at that. Dummy rolls up with the screwdrivers and Tony takes them, setting the case down and flipping it open. “Gonna need those circuit boards we built,” he adds absent-mindedly, “and the capacitors to go with them.”

Dummy wheels off and Tony grins again, unable to hold it back. “Atta bot,” he says, voice low, and then he raises his voice. “J, how is lunch coming along?” 

“Captain Rogers and Arto are both fine. Captain Rogers is attempting to make sandwiches with Arto’s assistance.”

“Why attempting? Is he assisting?”

“He is not.”

“What is he doing?”

“He is eating peanut butter from the jar.”

Tony laughs again, shaking his head. He’s under no illusion that this is going to be easy, but already everything seems so much better. He still can’t quite get over the fact that Steve told Nick Fury that he quit, that he wouldn’t be working for SHIELD anymore. He knows Steve well enough to know how hard that must have been, especially seeing as these days about half of Steve’s missions are run through SHIELD. It’s not lost on him that this is what he’s wanted all along - for Steve to step up and do the right thing by Arto. It does feel a little frustrating that it’s taken this long, but he’s not going to voice that thought. Even saying it might be enough to push Steve back in the wrong direction, and he can’t risk that, not now he’s got him where he wants him, where he needs him. 

He’s busy tightening screws into the gauntlet on his hand when he hears footsteps on the stairs; Steve appears with a tray balanced on one hand; Tony can see several sandwiches, a couple of bags of chips, two mugs and two glasses all piled neatly onto it. Steve taps in his access code and the glass door swings open for him.

“Where’s Rogers the Smaller?” Tony calls, glancing up briefly.

“With Clint,” Steve says. “He was excited to see him, so they’re playing video games.”

“If you say he’s letting him play Grand Theft Auto, I’m going to go test this on him,” Tony says, waving his gauntleted hand.

Steve rolls his eyes. “They’re playing Mario Kart. Calm down.”

“Actually, that’s worse,” Tony decides, putting the screwdriver down and flexing the fingers of the gauntlet, pleased with how smoothly they move. “Do you remember what happened the last time you and Bucky played Mario Kart?”

“Nope,” Steve says, but of course he does. Everyone does.

“Liar,” Tony says. “If my TV ends up broken again-”

“Your TV?” Steve remarks as he sets the tray down on the edge of Tony’s workbench, nudging the screwdriver case out the way as he does.

“The TV.”

“You said your TV.”

“So sue me, I paid for the damn thing, and the replacement,” Tony says, reaching for one of the mugs, metal fingers clicking against the ceramic. “Thanks.”

“Feeling better?”

Tony wants to say that he was feeling fine to begin with so there’s no way he could feel better, but he doesn't think Steve will buy it. “Actually, yeah,” he says. “Good to be back.”

Steve steps closer, hip resting against the side of the workbench. “What Pepper said,” he says carefully. “About you ruining your life just to keep me happy.”

“Jesus, Steve, you think that this is what this is?” Tony asks. He feels mildly irritated by Steve bringing it up again, but not enough so that it shows in his expression or his voice.

“No,” Steve says, and his voice is easy and soft and wow, they are getting good at this whole communication thing. Some days these words would have been shouted, snarled, delivered with force and venom, deliberate in their intent to wound, both of them trying to force their point across without listening to the other. Not today though. Today this is working, and Tony hopes it’s the start of a new trend. “I think you’re doing it for Arto,” Steve says, and folds his arms across his chest. “But you said you possibly would, if it came down to it.”

Tony keeps his mouth closed, lifting an eyebrow in an expression he knows probably looks a little defensive, because yeah he did say that and he can’t just deny it now. Well, it’s more than that he can’t deny it; he won’t.

“Tony,” Steve says quietly. “I - you have somehow become the thing that my entire world revolves around, without me even noticing it,” he says, and the brutal honesty in his words is both amazing and terrifying to hear. “Two weeks ago I didn’t even think about-” he starts, and breaks off. “Don’t lose the parts of you that make you happy for my sake, or for his,” he says, and he gestures around him to the workshop. “This is you. It’s always been, and you can’t give that up." 

“You quit your job for him,” Tony says. “How is that any different?”

“Because that’s what other people were expecting of me, I’m not giving up a part of myself-”

“Fighting the fight is part of you,” Tony says. “So you are.”

“Keeping people safe is what I do,” Steve says firmly. “I only fight because that’s what’s required to make that happen.”

“Bullshit,” Tony says with a quirk to the corner of his mouth. “If there were no more fights to be had, you would go and find one.”

“Okay, maybe,” Steve concedes with a grudging almost-smile of his own. “But right now, the person I am keeping safe is him. I’m still doing my job.”

“All work and no play makes Steve Rogers boring as all hell,” Tony points out.

“I play,” Steve says, and Tony makes a disbelieving noise in the back of his throat.

“You have been on leave from SHIELD for ten minutes and you are already freaking out about it.”

“Lies,” Steve says, and he’s reaching out and taking Tony’s mug from him, setting it aside and then pulling Tony to his feet, fingers circling his bare wrist in a firm grip.

“I cannot believe you’re even trying to justify this to me,” Tony says. “You are terrible at downtime, you literally said that yourself.”

“Well, maybe you can help remind me of other things I can be doing other than working,” Steve says, and there’s a comment about Arto ready to go but then Steve pulls Tony right up against him, one warm palm slipping under his shirt to rest in the small of his back, and the mood takes an abrupt turn.

Tony hums thoughtfully, winding his arms around Steve’s neck, the bright silver of the unfinished gauntlet reflecting the white of Steve’s T-shirt. Part of him is thinking that he should not be getting into this right now because he’s still sort of mad at Steve for getting himself hurt on the mission. The rest of him has missed him so badly that he doesn't have it in him to deny himself. “Remind you how to play? Of things you can play with?”

“You’re terrible,” Steve admonishes, but his fingers are splayed out over Tony’s skin, and the other hand is sliding down to rest on his hip.

“You started this,” Tony says, tipping his head to the side unconsciously as Steve leans in. “I should have expected this, really,” he says, and his eyes drift shut as Steve’s mouth drags over his neck, breath warm and damp. “Your sex-drive has been conspicuous in its absence lately-”

Steve shifts forwards, hand on Tony’s hip pressing them closely together as he bites gently at the underside of Tony’s jaw.

“Oh, there it is,” Tony says. “Welcome back.”

“Thought we weren’t allowed to fool around down here after we broke that MRI prototype?” Steve says.

“We? That was all you,” Tony replies, dropping his bare arm to loop around Steve’s waist, thumb hooking into his belt. “And come on, why would you pick a moment like that to start taking my threats seriously? Steve, not that I’m not loving all of this, but there is a small child in the building who literally comes looking for you when you’ve been gone for ten minutes-”

“Then we’ve got ten minutes,” Steve says. “Clint’s got him.”

“You underhanded, sneaky bastard,” Tony says, pulling at Steve’s belt so he shifts even closer. His other hand rests on Steve’s neck, metal against his skin. He pauses, nods his chin towards the gauntlet. “I need a screwdriver to get this off.”

Steve hums thoughtfully, and then turns his face to press a kiss against the wrist of the gauntlet. “Leave it.” 

Tony feels his stomach swoop and Jesus, he does not know what he’s done to deserve this man. It seems like karma is paying him back for every good deed he’s ever done in one fell swoop today.

“I can keep it on?”

Steve nudges Tony’s cheek with his nose. “You can keep it on. Like you said, we might only get ten minutes.”

“God, I love you,” Tony says fervently. “You are so hot right now, you have no idea-”

Steve kisses him again, probably just to shut him up, smiling against his mouth. “I didn't actually plan this, you know. I wouldn't dump him on Clint just so I could come down here and make out with you." 

“You wouldn’t?”

“No,” Steve says seriously. “If I was going to do that, I’d make sure he had him for at least an hour.”

And Tony is laughing, and Steve is trying to kiss him and laughing as well. The hand on his back slides around to his waist and the other is lifting, thumb brushing against Tony’s jaw, fingers light against his neck. Tony pulls him flush against him, pushing his knee between Steve’s and feeling heat prickle down his spine at the way Steve’s breath catches in his throat, a breathless grunt before he’s kissing Tony harder, coaxing his mouth open-

A loud banging noise makes him jump; he jerks away from Steve and whips around, heart leaping up into his throat.

Clint and Arto are standing at the bottom of the stairs, pressed right up against the glass doors. Arto is on Clint’s shoulders and wearing his sunglasses, and as Steve turns around as well, he smacks his palms onto the glass again before waving. Clint is wearing a shit eating grin, holding onto one of Arto’s ankles with one hand and waving with the other.

“Ten minutes my ass,” Tony grouches, inwardly plotting how he can have Clint Barton murdered. No-one would convict him, he’s sure of it. Steve grimaces and pulls away from Tony, running a hand down his front to straighten his shirt, surreptitiously adjusting his belt as well.

“Do you need five minutes?” Tony asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Don't flatter yourself,” Steve replies. “I’m fine.”

“Good,” Tony says. “Because if he starts with the questions about sex, you’re answering them.”

It’s a lie; he would never leave Steve to the wolves like that but it’s worth it just to see alarm flicker over Steve’s face. Tony snorts with laughter and Steve’s alarm is replaced with exasperation. “Ass.”

The banging starts up again; Tony looks over and see’s Arto is now leaning forwards with his nose squashed against the glass, his breath misting up the windows. Clint is also pulling faces against the window; he’s got his mouth against the glass and is blowing air into his cheeks, though the effect is somewhat ruined by the way he keeps sniggering.

“I thought we were only adopting one,” Tony says wearily.

“Don't, Clint's already started with the dad jokes,” Steve replies, sounding pained. “Jarvis, let them in before Arto breaks the door.”

“Hope we weren’t interrupting anything,” Clint says loudly as the door opens and he steps in.

“There’s a reason your access codes don’t work anymore, you know,” Tony says to him.

 “It wasn’t me in your vent, it was Barnes. I’ve told you that.”

 “Steve! We played a game,” Arto shouts across the room. “I won so I got-” he breaks off and takes the sunglasses off waving them in Steve’s direction.

 “Great. Gambling already,” Tony says flatly, and someone needs to take Arto away from Clint Barton as soon as possible, because he’ll be in no place to make jokes about Sue Storm letting her idiot brother look after her kids if this is what Clint is doing.

 “You got to wear Clint’s sunglasses?” Steve asks, and then seems to decide it doesn’t matter. “Did you eat your sandwich?”

 “Yes and yes,” Clint says, walking over with Arto still perched easily on his shoulders. He must feel pretty well balanced because he’s not even holding onto Clint’s head, but then again the kid seems to have no fear of physical injury anyway, so it might not be much of a marker. “He also ate half of mine, drank a cup of real orange juice and ate like a microgram of banana. Not much but hey, at least there was fruit.”

He lifts his hand and Arto high fives it without hesitation, and once again Tony is grudgingly reminded that Clint is actually pretty awesome at dealing with Arto. Even if he is a terrible influence. 

“So, apart from the obvious and gross stuff, what’s going on down here?” Clint asks.

Arto grins. “Gross,” he echoes, pulling a face.

“Total gross,” Clint agrees, and lifts his eyes to look up at Arto, dropping his voice to a mock whisper. “They were kissing, that’s gross.” 

“Don’t you influence the small child,” Tony says, but Arto is just giggling.

“Gross,” he says, and sticks his tongue out at Tony.

“You wait, brat,” Tony says. “You wait until you are sixteen and then I am going to remind you that you said that." 

Arto’s face crumples in confusion. “Why?”

“You’ll see,” Tony says vaguely. He twists around, reaches for his mug of coffee. “Glad to see you’re in one piece, anyway, Bird-Brain. Where’s your more menacing other half?”

“I don't know,” Clint shrugs. “Not his keeper. Though he was threatening to put me on a leash. Maybe he’s gone to the pet store.”

“Oh, there is so much wrong with you saying that,” Tony says, gulping down his coffee. Steve elbows him and Tony just turns and gives him his best ‘tell me I’m wrong’ face.

“What’s that?”

It’s Arto who shouts, kicking his heels against Clint’s chest and pointing excitedly over the room. They all turn to see what he’s shouting about, and Tony sees Dummy peering around the corner of the cabinet.

“Tony! There’s a robot!”

“That’s Dummy,” Tony says as Clint walks towards him at Arto’s urging. “Dummy, say hello,” he instructs and Dummy opens and closes his claw, whirring cheerfully.

 “Now you say hello back,” Tony says.

 “He’s a real -” Arto breaks off with an excited chirp as Dummy stretches out his arm, whirring inquisitively. His claw opens and closes again and then dips towards Arto’s hand where it’s resting against Clint’s head, sunglasses in his fingers.

Arto cocks his head and then holds them out. Dummy takes them carefully and as Arto’s face splits into a wide grin, Tony feels like his heart has just doubled in size.

There’s a moment of stillness, and then Dummy lets out a triumphant series of beeps and darts away, sunglasses clutched tightly in his grip.

 “Aw, sunglasses, no!” Clint protests. “I’m never getting those back, am I?”

 “I like that you thought you would have luck getting them back from Art,” Tony says matter of factly, and behind him, Steve snorts with laughter. A hand rests on Tony’s hip, gently nudging him out of the way, and Steve sits down in Tony’s vacated seat, reaching back for one of the sandwiches that still sits on the tray.

 “Come back!” Arto shouts, and he pulls at Clint’s hair. “Follow!”

 “He’s not gone far,” Clint says, but steps forwards anyway.

 Arto bounces on his shoulders, and then he looks over and around some more. “A car!” he exclaims, pointing at the partially dismantled Bugatti that’s stacked against the back wall. “Look, Steve!”

 “Yeah, I see it,” Steve calls, and then nudges the back of Tony’s leg with his foot. “Go, this is your chance for the guided tour.”

 Tony nods, grateful for the concession. He reaches for a screwdriver and quickly undoes the gauntlet on his wrist, tossing it to Steve who catches it in one hand and sets it down on the workbench. He walks away from Steve, catching up with Clint and Arto.

 “What’s that?” Arto immediately asks as he steps close, leaning back from Clint’s shoulders and holding out a hand towards Tony. “What is that?”

 “I have no idea what a that is, sorry,” Tony says with a smile, reaching up to catch Arto’s hand.  Arto squeezes his fingers, distracted, and Tony has to reach out with his other hand to grasp his wrist, a gentle reminder. Luckily, Arto lets him go and just points over towards the bright red compressor that’s on the floor next to the stacked wheels for the Bugatti, and then over towards the yellow cabinet that’s against one of the walls.

“Air compressor, tool cabinet,” Tony fills him in, and Arto screws up his face.

“For building,” he says, and his eyes travel across the rest of the tool cabinets, the winches that hang from the ceiling. He twists on Clint’s shoulders and looks over to the desk where Steve sits, eyes tracking over Steve and the holoscreens that are up behind his head, shining blue and bright over his face.

 “Yeah for building,” Tony says.

 “Building robots?”

 “Among other things,” Tony says.

 “Dummy,” Arto calls over the room, and Dummy reappears, sans sunglasses. Arto giggles and waves, and Tony smiles as Dummy waves back. “What’s in there?” Arto asks, and he points to the wall along the back, the compartments embedded into the wall where the inactive Iron Man suits are stored.

“In there?” Tony asks, and without thinking he turns to look at Steve, the question right there. He doesn't even have to say it. Steve is watching him, leaning back against the workbench with his elbows resting on the edge. He’s got a mug balanced on one of his thighs, held in place with the fingers of one hand.

Their eyes meet, and Tony has a fraction of a second to think about what will happen if Steve says no, if he wants to keep Arto away from their superhero lives, if he doesn't think Iron Man is - 

Steve nods.

His eyes are clear, fixed on Tony’s, and he looks calm. Tony isn’t going to insult him by asking again, and besides, he wants to do this. If Steve is serious and wants them both to step up and be parents to Arto, then he can't lie about who he is. Arto knows that Steve is Captain America, and is starting to understand what that means. He needs to know the same about Tony.

“Okay,” Tony says, and turns back to Arto. You remember when you first got here, I told you that we’re all superheroes?” Tony says. 

“Steve is,” Arto replies, and Tony rolls his eyes. 

“Yes, I know Steve is, but Steve is not the only one. Jarvis, open up.”

Arto shifts atop Clint’s shoulders as there’s a barely audibly click and one of the panels opens. It’s the storage container for the Mark Twelve, which is the closest in design to the Mark Nineteen that Tony currently wears and also the first model that’s compatible with the remote system.

For the first time that he can remember, Tony doesn’t watch the compartment opening to reveal the shining red and gold of the armor. Instead, he watches Arto’s face. The bright lights from inside the unit slide across his face, shining on his eyes and his hair. His mouth is slightly open, and he looks like he’s just discovered the damn treasure of the Sierra Madre, all wide eyed wonder and awe.

“It’s a robot man!” he shouts as the panel clicks all the way back, swinging his feet wildly and catching Clint hard enough to drive a pained grunt out of his mouth. Before Tony can say anything, Steve is already there and Arto is toppling off of Clint’s shoulders and into his arms, clinging on around his neck and still staring. Clint nods in thanks, rubbing at his chest where Arto clipped him. He backs off, swapping places with Steve and sitting on the edge of the workbench.

“Steve, look,” Arto whispers, face pressed against Steve’s, cheek to cheek. “It’s a superhero." 

Steve laughs softly, for once not looking uncomfortable with how Arto is invading his personal space. “It’s not the superhero, Tony is,” he says, and Arto frowns, obviously confused.

“Tony, show him,” Steve says, and takes a step back.

“Mark Twelve, J. No helmet. Go.”

Arto makes a loud noise that’s not quite a yell as the pieces all light up. Tony steps forwards and spreads his arms and in moments he’s engulfed in pieces of metal, slotting home with satisfying clicks.

The last piece settles into place and he feels the hum of the suit around him, systems all coming online. God, he’s not been in a suit for so long, it feels like coming home. The feeling intensifies when he turns to look at the others. Steve is smiling quietly and Arto is looking beyond amazed.

“That’s Iron Man,” Steve tells him. “When Tony wears the suit, he’s Iron Man.”

“Tony,” Arto says, insistent. Steve steps closer and Arto reaches out, hesitant. Tony feels a lump in his throat and he feels like his eyes are suspiciously bright as he grins, reaching out to catch Arto’s hand in armored fingers.

“Where - where did it - did you find it?” Arto asks, holding onto Tony’s thumb.

“No, I made it,” Tony says.

“Didn’t,” Arto immediately says, and he tries to push against Tony’s hand but he can’t. “Can’t make this. How did you make this? Did it take - did it take a long time? Did you have to use tools?”

“Yes and yes,” Tony says. Arto leans over towards him, and Steve had to take a hurried step towards Tony to stop Arto from toppling out of his grasp. Arto slumps against Tony’s chest, hands spread out on the red metal. Steve has one arm hooked under Arto’s legs, hand on his back to keep him steady.

“You’re really strong,” Arto says, and Tony nods. He reaches up to take Arto from Steve, and Steve hands him over willingly.

“Strong as Steve when I’m wearing this. Maybe a bit stronger.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Steve says with a small, tired smile. Arto laughs and scrambles around, kneeling on Tony’s arm and holding onto his shoulder.

“Here,” Tony says, and he steps over towards the storage unit, reaching for the helmet. He holds it out to Arto who takes it with both hands, turning it over and peering inside. He looks sideways at Tony and then promptly puts the helmet on; he’s small enough for it to slip straight on without Jarvis having to intervene. Tony laughs, and laughs harder when Jarvis lights the helmet up, the familiar bright blue gleam shining from the eyes. Arto squeaks and flails, twisting around and looking wildly from side to side. He suddenly goes very still, hands clamped onto the sides of the helmet.

“Hello Jarvis,” Arto says, voice muffled. They don’t hear Jarvis’s reply, but Arto starts to laugh.

“What’re they joking about?” Steve asks Tony, but Tony just shrugs.

“No,” Arto laughs, and then there’s a pause and Arto shrieks with laughter.

“J, what are you showing him?”

“Certainly not pictures of you aged six,” Jarvis replies over the speakers, sounding smug and then adding almost as an afterthought, “Sir.”

“Oh no, give it back,” Tony says, reaching for the helmet, but Arto laughs, holding onto the helmet with both hands and tipping himself backwards. Steve lunges forwards to grab him, pushing him back into Tony’s grip and sending Tony a reproachful look.

“Hey, that was entirely his fault,” Tony says, hitching Arto up again. Arto lets go of the helmet with one hand and winds his free arm around Tony’s neck, resting against the edge of the armor. Tony smiles and tips his head against Arto’s, knocking their foreheads together.

“Superhero,” Arto says, and Tony grins.

“You got it.”

He lifts his head away and looks over to Steve. Steve isn’t exactly smiling, but there’s something gentle and careful in his expression that Tony trusts, and the warmth in his chest hold steady, unwavering.

“Thank you,” he mouths to Steve, even as Arto gently butts his armored head against Tony’s temple, giggling madly. God, they are so messed up. He’s got their six year old super-soldier wearing the Iron Man helmet, and any hope of this kid having a normal life here on this earth is pretty much long gone. 

“You’re welcome,” Steve murmurs, and it that moment it doesn’t seem to matter.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“No, that’s me. That there is my useless brother.”

Arto screws his face up, looking at Clint like he might make more sense through half-closed eyes. Steve shakes his head, watching as Arto bends his knees, orange socks waving in the air. He and Clint are both lying on the counter on their stomachs, felt pens in hands, and have both declined Steve’s suggestion that they actually sit at the counter like normal human beings.

“You got a brother?”

“Yeah, he lives somewhere else,” Clint replies vaguely, and then taps the paper in front of them again. “I’m the blond, handsome one. That useless ginger tragedy is Barney.”

Steve rolls his eyes, exasperated. Tony’s earlier flippant remark about drawing a family tree had been nothing more than that at the time it tumbled from his mouth, but after the conversations that they’d had, Steve had begun to think that it wasn’t actually such a bad suggestion. Upon voicing the thought to Tony, Tony had immediately turned away and said ‘you’re the art department,’ before grabbing hold of the nearest piece of half-built tech he could and starting to dismantle it. Recognising Tony’s evasion as avoidance of a situation that he saw as potentially hurtful, Steve had bitten the bullet and stepped up, arming himself with a sketchpad and felt pens. He’d faltered the moment it had actually come to broaching the subject, but Clint had reappeared out of nowhere to save Steve’s ass, instantly hopping up onto the counter and asking what they were doing.

“You’re giving him a real swell picture of family life,” Steve remarks, sitting back in his chair. The sketchpad on the counter between them currently holds Clint’s family tree, complete with name labels and badly-drawn stick men.

“Dollar in the outdated lingo jar,” Tony shouts from where he’s sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, still messing around with the thing that looks like an oversized circuit board. Steve scowls over at him but Tony isn’t even looking. Bruce just shrugs, sending Steve an apologetic smile. Natasha, who is curled up on the couch next to Bruce with a book in hand, just raises an amused eyebrow.

“Hey, you asked me to draw the kid a family tree,” Clint says, and Steve turns his attention back to the table. “There you have it. Mom, Dad and brother.”

Arto narrows his eyes. “Bar-ney,” he says carefully, and then slaps his hand onto the picture. “Steve.”

Steve looks at him, and Arto meets his eyes, bright and curious. “You do one.”

“No, not me,” Steve says, and then because he's probably a terrible human being sometimes, “Ask Natasha.”

“Natasha?” Arto says, and looks over to where she’s sitting. He looks at her, looks at Clint, looks at her again, and then leans into Clint.

“Ask Natasha to draw one,” he whispers.

“Ask her yourself, Short Round,” Clint says, pushing Arto’s face away from his with a palm on Arto’s forehead. “Get away, you’ve got Cheeto breath.”

“No,” Arto whines, dragging the word out into several syllables, and reaches out and pulls at Clint’s ear. “You.”

“Ow, ow, ow,” Clint replies, wincing, and Arto lets him go. “Alright! Natasha, come draw a family tree!”

“No,” Natasha replies simply.

“Please?” Clint tries.

“I got back from Romania thirty minutes ago,” Natasha says, delicately licking the tip of her finger and turning a page in her book. “I am resting.”

“You’d say no if you’d been sat on your ass all day doing nothing,” Tony points out, and she smiles slowly.

“Possibly. You’ll never know.”

“Go on, indulge the kid,” Tony says. Steve sends him an exasperated look, because being here with them instead of at SHIELD or in her own quarters right now is Natasha indulging them, and she can’t be expected to give any more if she doesn’t want to.

“Mind if I join in?” Bruce says unexpectedly, rising a little awkwardly from his seat. Arto looks at him, surprised, then at Steve. Steve nods and Arto wordlessly shifts up onto his knees and holds out a felt pen.

Bruce walks over and Steve smiles gratefully at him, though it’s tempered with slight guilt, because the others are only being asked to join in because he’s avoiding the moment where he will have to.

“Okay,” Bruce says, flipping the page on the sketchpad. “Mine’s a bit bigger,” he says, and writes his name carefully in the centre of the page. “No pictures from me, I’m afraid.”

Arto just nods, watching enraptured as Bruce adds on his parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, explaining the levels and generations as he goes. He does it neatly, clinically, no wavering over any of the names that he adds. Steve thinks that Arto actually follows most of it, listening hard as Bruce explains. 

“There,” he says to Arto. “My family tree.”

“Where are they?” Arto asks.

Bruce looks down, carefully putting the lid back on the felt-tip. He clears his throat. “Some have died,” he says simply. “Some are still around. Just not here with me.”

“These are biological family trees anyway,” Clint says. “Means who you’re blood related to. You don’t have to be biologically related to someone for them to be family though.”

Steve looks over at Tony. He’s still working on the circuit board, head dipped low over it, and Steve would bet his shield that he’s listening in but using the board as an excuse not to come over and get involved right now. Just like him to still put himself within earshot of the emotionally risky situation that he was adamant he didn’t want to be anywhere near.

Steve looks back to Arto, who is listening to Clint, enraptured.

“Family loves you,” Clint says. “And you love them. And that’s what matters.”

He reaches out and takes the felt pen from Bruce. “Look,” he says. “Let’s draw Steve’s.”

Steve’s heart skips in his chest, the back of his neck feeling warm. He doesn’t say anything though, just raises an eyebrow at the crude stick man that Clint draws, complete with shield.

“Steve has a biological Mom and Dad,” Clint says. “Sarah and…?”

“Joseph,” Steve fills in, the word clicking in his throat. “He died when I was little.”

“Okay, so there’s Steve’s biological family,” Clint says, and deftly fills in the lines in green felt pen. “Green pen for biologicky stuff. But that’s not his whole family. Who else do you reckon we should put on?”

A thrill of alarm runs through Steve. “Clint.”

“Steve,” Clint replies, sounding completely unconcerned.

Clint,” Steve insists, and reaches out to take the felt pen from him. Clint resists, tightening his hold as much as he possibly can, not that he could stop Steve if he were properly determined.

“I assume this was the eventual point of this?” Clint says, and Steve lets go of the pen.

“Okay,” he says a little helplessly, hoping that Clint knows what the hell he’s doing.

“Alright, who else goes on here?”

“Tony,” Arto says immediately. Steve's stomach skips, a quick tug of emotion behind his navel, remembering what Tony said earlier about not forcing anything on Arto.

“Okay, Clint agrees, and writes Tony next to Steve’s name, and draws another stick figure above the name, this one with a circle in the middle of its chest and a van-dyke. Arto giggles and Bruce bites back a smile. “Definitely not green for biologics. What colour shall we use for people that are not married but might as well be married?”

“This one,” Arto says with a pink felt pen in hand, and he’s there already, leaning over and drawing a line between the drawings of Tony and Steve.

“This is an official document, right?” Clint quips. Steve ignores him, eyes on the pink line that Arto’s drawn.

“Brother!” Arto chirps, and looks crestfallen when Steve shakes his head.

“Just me,” he says, and he absently picks up a pen and starts sketching in a figure above where Clint has written Sarah Rogers. “Though if anyone would go in the brother spot it would be Bucky.”

“Hmm,” Arto pulls a noncommittal face, a quick shrug of a shoulder, waving his feet as he watches Steve finish the sketch. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Steve asks.

“Bucky,” Arto says. “Blue.”

He scrambles around and grabs the blue felt pen. “Blue for not biologics.”

“Oh, right,” Steve says as Clint sniggers, looking rather too pleased with himself. “Okay then.”

He moves his hand, draws a quick sketch of Bucky on his other side, complete with metal arm. He debates drawing a scowl on Bucky’s face but quickly decides against it, instead filling in the face with a lazy smile.

“Blue,” Arto reiterates, and he leans over to draw a blue line between Steve and Bucky.

“Got it,” Clint says. “Now where are you going?”

Arto doesn’t even hesitate. “Here,” he says, and he points underneath Steve.

“Stick man or a Steve drawing?”

“Steve drawing.”

Steve nods and leans over to draw a picture of Arto. It’s like drawing a picture of himself, and he adds a star to Arto’s chest as well as doodling a teddy-bear with a domino mask in his hand.

“Bucky bear!” Arto laughs, and shuffles on his knees closer to Steve. “Looks like me.”

“Oh good, it was supposed to,” Steve says mildly, and then hesitates. “You gonna draw the line?”

“Yep,” Arto says. Steve can feel Clint’s eyes on him but doesn’t look up, because Arto’s already spoken to Clint about how he sees Steve, and now it’s going to be out there for all of them to see. His heart is thudding a little more strongly in his chest than it was.

Arto shifts next to him and grabs the green pen. He doesn’t even hesitate before he leans over and draws a line from Steve down to the sketch of himself.

Well, he knows for definite then.

Steve tries to swallow around the lump that suddenly appeared in his throat. Arto just hums and reaches around for the blue pen. Wordless, Steve watches as Arto draws a second line, parallel to the first. A blue line, going from Tony down to the picture of himself.

Clint says something to Arto, but Steve doesn’t even register. He’s staring at the two lines, and this is it, this is his life now. He and Tony are not married but might as well be married, and they’ve got a kid-

Out of nowhere, strong hands slide onto his shoulders and squeeze. He blinks and reaches for one of the hands, covering it with his own and pressing down.

“What are we up to over here?” Tony asks, and he leans closer so his front is pressed against the back of Steve’s chair, hands still gripping his shoulders. “Oh for – who drew that? I do not look like that.”

“Clint,” Arto grins, and then shoves the black felt pen towards Steve. “Clint – can you draw Clint?”

Steve blinks at him. “You want me to draw Clint on here?”

“Yes,” Arto says impatiently, and he jabs his finger onto the page in a spot near the doodle Steve had done of Arto. “Here.”

“Give the brat what he wants,” Tony murmurs.

“Not sure that’s a precedent I want to be setting,” Steve replies, blowing out a breath. Tony chuckles behind him, resting an elbow on Steve’s shoulder and curling his arm around so his palm is on top of his head. Next to him, Bruce carefully puts the caps back on top of a felt pen before retreating, going back to sit near Natasha.

“Draw Clint,” Arto insists again, jabbing Steve’s arm with the pen.

“Say please,” Tony remarks, and Arto scowls.

Please.”

It's almost belligerent, the way Arto says it. Steve notices but capitulates anyway, taking the pen and quickly drawing a sketch of Clint where Arto had indicated.

“Aw, I do not look-” Clint begins to protest, but stops talking as Arto promptly grabs the blue pen and draws a horizontal line connecting him to Clint. “Oh, wow,” he says, eyebrows lifting as he stares down at the picture.

“Not biologics,” Arto explains, and reaches out to push his fingers into Clint’s hair. "Like Steve and Bucky, but I'm small."

Clint laughs, looking down, cheeks flushing pink. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, you got it.” His mouth twists in something that might have been a smile or the start of a sentence, and then he presses his lips together hard for a moment, before looking up at Steve.

“Hey, I told you this meant that you’re-”

“No,” Steve says before he can finish. “Absolutely not.”

“Seconded,” Tony adds, and he moves his arm so they’re both dangling over Steve’s shoulders, arms straight and wrists lax, fingers relaxed and curled gently. Steve catches hold of his hands, not even caring that this is a whole new level of hands-on that they’re showing in front of everyone. “And motion carried.”

“I know where I’m not wanted,” Clint sighs, and he pushes back, sliding off the counter. He lands neatly on the balls of his feet and then wanders towards Natasha, still blushing faintly and rubbing at the back of his head. “You can shut up,” he says to her as he goes, but he’s smiling and doing a bad job of hiding it. Steve watches him go, feeling both proud of Clint and strangely pleased for him. Despite Tony’s frequent complaints – and Clint’s terrible sense of self-preservation – Steve finds he’s more than happy to have Arto writing Clint in as a brother-type figure, just as he did for Bucky.

“You draw Natasha and Bruce here,” Arto says to Steve, pointing to two new spots on the page. “They’re here, but they don’t have lines.”

“Why do they not have lines?” Tony asks.

“Okay, they can have yellow lines,” Arto says, grabbing the yellow pen and starting to join everyone on the diagram, bar Steve’s parents. Arto’s yellow lines loop and curve all over the place, around the doodles and sketches.

“Do tell what yellow lines are,” Tony says as Steve starts on two quick sketches of Natasha and Bruce. “The anticipation is killing me.”

“Friend lines,” Arto says promptly. He draws yellow lines connecting nearly everyone. He pauses when he gets to Bucky, and Steve internally curses and wonders what the fuck he should say, but Tony gets there first.

“If you dare miss Bucky’s yellow line after everything he’s done for you these past few days, we will be having words,” he says mildly. Arto blinks up at him, and then a small frown crosses his face.

“You shouted at him,” he says, sounding somewhat accusatory.

“Yes, because I was scared,” Tony says bluntly. “He kept you safe and you know it. And you know what, sometimes friends do things you don’t like. So do family. Doesn’t mean they’re not your friends or family.”

Arto huffs, and for a moment Steve thinks he’s going to refuse, but then he reaches over and draws a line between him and Bucky. He cocks his head contemplative, and then draws a yellow line between Clint and Bucky.

“Should be yellow?” he asks, and Steve feels Tony snort with laughter.

“Damned if I know, kid,” he says. “Ask Clint.”

Clint twists around from his position sprawled on the couch. “Ask Clint what?”

“Nothing,” Steve interjects hastily.

“Oh, come on,” Tony says, but Steve shakes his head.

“Yellow,” he says firmly to Arto, who just shrugs and drops the pen back onto the counter, kneeling up and stretching.

“Can I play with Clint?” he asks.

“Sure, go for it,” Tony says. “Do not touch the thing on the coffee table.”

Arto nods and slides off of the counter, heading towards the others. Instead of walking around and through the gap between the two large couches, he opts for jumping up and scrambling over the back of the couch. There’s a moment in which Steve thinks he’s going to pitch himself off backwards, but he manages to right himself. With one last kick he rolls over the back of the couch and Steve hears an ‘ooft’ from Clint as Arto lands with a thump.

“Well, there we go,” Tony says. “I guess you were right.”

“I guess I was,” Steve says and glances over towards Arto, who has scrambled all the way off of Clint and the couch, and is sneaking furtive glances at the circuit boards. “He’s edging closer to the thing on the coffee table.”

“Barton, distract,” Tony calls, without looking away from Steve.

“Got it,” he shouts back, hand in the air with a thumb up. “Anyone for MarioKart? Ah ah, you can play Mariokart if you step away from the coffee table.”

Steve watches as Arto gives the whatever on the coffee table one last interested look, and then backs away and dives onto the sofa, scrambling up between Clint and Natasha. Clint hands him a controller, which he looks at and then holds it hesitantly out to Natasha. She surveys him carefully for a moment and then closes her book and takes the controller.

“Suck up,” Clint says, and Arto elbows him. Clint elbows him back before handing over another controller, and Steve makes a mental note to remind Clint that Arto is only six.

Fingertips stroke across his cheekbones, down towards his chin. He allows Tony to turn his face around, holding his chin in his fingers.

“Thank you,” Tony says, fingers still on Steve’s jaw. “For that. The family tree thing.”

Steve just shrugs. “Had to do it.”

Tony pulls a face. “Had to? You’re making it sound like the most awful experience of your life. And your bar for bad experiences is pretty high.”

Steve very consciously and deliberately holds his temper in check. It would be so, so easy to snap back at Tony, to stand up and demand Tony explain what the hell he meant by that. Steve has quit his damn job for Arto’s sake today, and Steve will not appreciate it if Tony starts pushing for more so soon.

He reaches up to remove Tony’s fingers from his face, pressing his palm against Tony’s and allowing Tony to push his fingers between Steve’s. He mulls it over for a moment. “What do you want me to say?”

“That you’re enjoying being back here with him,” Tony says bluntly and without a hint of apology, folding his fingers through Steve’s.

Steve draws in a slow breath. He’s not going to lie – the word enjoyment hasn’t even crossed his mind since he got back, and drawing the family tree with Arto was more an exercise in hiding fear than fun.

The thought of enjoying this still seems like such an abstract concept to him, something just out of his reach.

“I liked seeing how happy he was in the workshop earlier,” he finally says. “And making lunch together was – I just.” He stops, looks around to check no-ones listening. “I’m trying, okay? You know I am - I quit my damn job for this. I’m just – I barely know him, I barely know how to deal with him.”

“Whoa, whoa,” Tony says, and he slides his free hand onto the side of Steve’s face again, thumb stroking against his cheekbone. “You think any of us really know how to deal with him?”

“You started looking,” Steve says, remembering the screens he’d found down in Tony’s workshop, the research he’d been doing.

“Didn’t get very far,” Tony grimaces. “There could be ten thousand things wrong with him, and I’m not an expert.”

“Coulson said he could get us some help,” Steve says. “I think we need to take him up on that.”

Tony pulls a face. “Give me a few days, I could probably work it out.”

“Okay, let me rephrase,” Steve says. “We are going to take him up on that.”

Tony narrows his eyes. “That’s your Captain America voice,” he says. “Why are you using your Captain America voice on me?”

“Because you never listen,” Steve says, and he pulls Tony close by their joined hands. “You literally just said you’re not the expert, so let someone who is do the work.”

Pulling a face, Tony appears to concede. “Alright,” he says grudgingly. “As long as we can get them here sooner rather than later. We need a better strategy than Bucky pinning him down when he flips his lid.”

Steve nods, and he lets go of Tony’s hand to pull him in by his hips, resting his forehead on the arc reactor. “We’ll work it out,” he says, and he knows it’s true because quite simply there is no other option. Arto isn’t going back, he can’t go anywhere else, he’s staying with Steve and that is that.

“Work it out before Pepper gets here later?” Tony says, and the casual tone of his voice easily gives away his apprehension. “I think she’s expecting me to have it all figured out. Or she’s expecting me to have nothing sorted out, which will just be proving her point.”

Steve doesn’t ask which point that might be. He knows what’s at stake here.

He lifts his head up, tilting his face up so he can see Tony. Tony’s arms settle around his neck, arms braced on his shoulders. “You really think it’ll be a problem?”

Tony is silent for a long moment. “I don’t know,” he finally says, and Steve doesn’t know what to say. It’s the exact opposite of what he’s been through; his friends have been nothing but supportive of Arto and have been the ones dragging his sorry ass up to speed. To want nothing but the best for Arto but to be unsure if everyone will support you…it can’t be easy.

He strokes his thumbs across Tony’s waist. “It’ll be fine,” he says, and he actually sounds like he means it. “Anyone with half a brain can see that you’re doing right by him.”

“Unfortunately Pepper has more than half a brain, she has an entire brain which is heavily involved with running my company,” Tony says. “She’s not going to see this as a good thing.”

Steve doesn’t try and convince Tony otherwise. His mouth twists contemplatively, and then he breathes out, leaning in and pressing his mouth to the side of the arc reactor. Scowling, Tony pushes his head away.

“Get off.”

Steve leans back, raising an eyebrow. Tony looks away, shaking his head and frowning. He looks harassed and pinched, and Steve wishes he could take the look away. He knows what he normally does when Tony looks like that, but coaxing him up to the penthouse and into bed isn’t really an option right now.

Honestly, he feels at a bit of a loss about exactly what to do this time.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Tony suddenly says abruptly, and Steve thinks that maybe he doesn’t actually have to do anything except just be here.

“Me too,” he says, and he slides his knees apart so he can pull Tony closer, one arm sliding around his waist. Over at the television, Arto lets out a shriek as something happens on the game, and Steve hastily looks over. Arto is now standing on the cushions next to Clint, bouncing slightly as he plays.

“I’m thinking that I possibly need to take him back off Clint before Pepper gets here,” he says. “Try something less likely to end in violence and bloodshed?”

“Please do,” Tony says fervently, and he places his hands on Steve’s forehead and smooths his hair back off his brow. “Maybe a bath. He likes baths.”

Steve sighs, and deliberately does not say how much he does not want to have to put Arto through the bath considering what he saw last time. “Then how come he always looks like he’s never been within ten feet of one?”

Tony smiles faintly at that, and Steve feels oddly proud of himself. The pinched look has vanished from Tony’s face at any rate. And hey, look at that; Steve didn’t even have to take any clothes off.

“Yeah,” Tony says absently, thinking hard. “Calmer the better, really. And if you’ve got him, at least if he does go he’s not going to be able to break anything or anyone.”

“He’s not going to go,” Steve says. “Look at him. He's fine.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Tony says, and he turns his head to watch Arto for a moment.

Steve feels his phone vibrating in his pocket. He pulls it out and when he sees the name on the display, he grimaces and holds it up for Tony to see.

“Coulson?” Tony asks. “Something about the mess in Bucharest?”

“Possibly,” Steve says, standing up. “Maybe that. Maybe something to do with the fact I basically just told Fury to shove his job up his ass.”

“Could well be that,” Tony says, mouth twitching in a smile. “You’re not going to go back on that, right?”

Steve looks at him flatly. “Stop thinking so little of me.”

“Hey, you’re the one who thinks you can’t do this, not me,” Tony says emphatically.

“Fair point,” Steve says. “Be back when I’ve dealt with this.”

Tony nods and Steve ducks out of the room, answering his phone as he does. “Coulson.”

“Hello, Captain,” Coulson replies evenly. “How’s the chest?”

“Fine,” Steve says, not really wanting to waste time with small talk. “Healing. What can I do for you?”

“I hear you’re on extended leave,” Coulson says, and yep, just what Steve suspected he would be calling for. “And Fury has asked me to confirm with you that we are okay to contact Agent Barnes about taking point on the Hydra project, because he, and I quote, doesn’t want to hear your self-righteous voice ever again.”

Steve snorts derisively. “He genuinely pissed or is he trying to guilt trip me into coming back?”

“Probably both,” Phil says.

“He can bluster all he likes, I’m not coming back on this,” Steve says mildly, even though saying it makes him feel like he’s reached the bottom of a staircase and missed a step.

“Okay. Confirmation, and I will call Barnes within the hour.”

Steve doesn’t hesitate. “Confirmed.”

There’s the faint sound of movement on the other end of the phone, the rustling of papers and what sounds like fingertips tapping on a screen. “You sure about this?” Phil asks calmly.

“Yes,” Steve lies. “I can’t be away from home right now-”

“You are dealing with an illegally imported super-soldier from another dimension,” Coulson says. “As far as I’m concerned, that is your mission. It’s not like you’re sitting around with your feet up.”

Steve laughs softly. “Well, when you put it like that,” he says, and pauses. “Any chance you can sort me some paperwork out for the illegally imported super-soldier?”

“Depends what your paperwork wants to say.”

Steve rubs at his mouth. There’s literally no point putting this off any more; between them they’ve settled exactly who everyone is to Arto, and it’s not like having official paperwork can make it any more real than the family tree Arto’s just drawn. “He’s biologically my son,” Steve says, dropping his hand from his mouth. “Born through IVF using stolen DNA. Mother died in childbirth, not named on Hydra’s records.”

“Okay,” Coulson says. "Happy with the public knowing he was raised by Hydra? Could be a possibility for fallout.”

“There’s going to be fallout either way,” Steve points out. “What am I supposed to do, say I knew about him and kept him secret for six years?”

“I imagine people will be more sympathetic to you if they know you rescued him from Hydra, not that you kept him locked away for six years.”

Steve smiles wryly. “Ever considered a new career in PR?”

“Working with the Avengers is fifty percent PR,” Phil replies, and Steve isn’t altogether sure that the figure is a lie. “Okay, you send me the DNA profile that Banner did, and I can sort the rest. You want me to schedule a meeting with Doctor Amir? The psychologist I spoke to Tony about?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. I’d also suggest putting in a visit to Xavier,” Coulson says.

Steve goes still, brow knitting in a frown. “Xavier?” he asks, and he knows the doubt is obvious in his voice.

“Yeah. He’s worked with countless troubled children. And you never know, he might be able to get through to Arto in a way you haven’t yet.”

The implication makes Steve rear back.  “I’m not having a telepath poking around in Arto’s head,” he says abruptly.

“It’s not as dramatic as it sounds,” Phil says calmly. “Just like a conversation that you have without actually speaking.”

“Not a chance.”

“Have you ever actually met with Xavier one to one?” Phil asks simply, and Steve knows that he already knows the answer.

“No, but,” Steve begins. “The whole telepathy thing – that’s not-”

He breaks off, unsure how to put it into words. He’s wary of telepaths, always has been. Hates the lack of control he has over their actions and the way they interact with other people. But he knows a lot of the other Avengers have all met with Xavier or come across other telepaths, and Logan tolerates him and he’s about as willing to surrender control over things as Steve is.

Okay. Maybe this is his issue he needs to work out. “Okay, I’ll think about it,” Steve concedes.

“Do. I think it would be useful,” Coulson says simply, leaving the decision up to Steve. “I assume you want all this kept quiet for now?”

“Yes,” Steve says. “At least until Tony has spoken to Pepper.” 

“Okay,” Coulson says again. “Leave it with me.”

It feels like a weight off of Steve’s shoulders. “Can we leave Fury out of this?”

“You don’t think he needs to know?”

“All he needs to know is that Arto is from this dimension and that he is biologically mine,” Steve says deliberately.

“Understood,” Phil says. “Okay, I got to go. Speak to you later, Steve.”

“Thanks, Phil,” Steve replies, and then hangs up. He taps it thoughtfully against his mouth, and then the sound of a throat clearing behind him makes him turn around.

“Am I going to be getting a call?” Bucky says, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. He’s probably been stood there for the entirely of the conversation, but Steve has neither the energy nor the wherewithal to be pissed at him about it.

“Yeah." 

Bucky nods neutrally. “You sure about this?”

“Oh god no,” Steve says. With a short laugh. “But I’ve got to put him first, Buck.”

“Told you,” Bucky says simply. “Knew it’d take you a while, but you’re getting there.”

Steve looks down. “I don’t want to put this on you if you-”

“You know I’d do anything to help you out,” Bucky says. “By my books, I still owe you.”

“You don’t owe me anything. I’m serious, Buck. I said that to Fury in the heat of the moment-”

“Oh Jesus Steve, you make it sound like jetting around the world whaling on Hydra is something I wouldn’t want to do,” Bucky says, impatient. “Let me at them.”

“It’s not just going at them, Buck,” Steve tries to tell him, but Bucky is still looking somewhere between annoyed and amused and Steve knows he isn’t listening one bit. “You’d be in charge, directing other people, making the calls.”

“I know, I know. I can do in charge,” Bucky says dismissively.

“Bucky,” Steve says, exasperated. “I’m serious. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I can’t believe those words are coming out of your mouth,” Bucky laughs incredulously. “Dude, this is the speech you give to idiots like Barton. Not me. You can’t knock me on my ass on your best day, don’t think I’m gonna let Hydra get the jump on me.”

“Oh come on. I've knocked you on your ass on more than one occasion,” Steve says. “And cut Clint some slack. He saved my ass on that last mission.”

“Don’t you defend him,” Bucky says irritably, and Steve can’t help but wonder if that damn line should be yellow after all.

“You’ve yelled and punched him in the mouth,” Steve says, and steps forwards to clap Bucky on the shoulder. “Let it go.”

Bucky pulls a face, but does appear to momentarily concede. He blows out a breath in a huff of sound. “What’s this I hear about Stark buying dinner?”

“Stark is buying dinner,” Steve confirms. “And Pepper is coming, so you have to behave.”

“No flirting, no ass jokes, no weapons at the table, gottit,” Bucky says, and Steve sighs.

“I remember the days where you were the well behaved one.”

“What can I say, Bucky Barnes two point oh has a twisted sense of humor,” Bucky grins. “Must be the Winter Soldier flavored part.”

“That will never be funny,” Steve grouches.

Bucky’s smile goes lopsided. “It’s always funny.”

“Not funny,” Steve reiterates.

Bucky shakes his head at him, smile turning exasperated around the edges. “You need to lighten up,” he says in a tone of voice that sounds horribly like he’s giving advice. “You’ve got your man, you’ve got a kid, you’re still Captain America. You’ve hit the jackpot, pal. All those things you wanted? Family, check. Ability to save the world, check. Not keeling over every time you lift a feather pillow or breathe in and out the wrong way? Check.”

“Okay, you made your point,” Steve says, ducking his head like he’s still five foot nothing and being yelled at for getting in another back-alley brawl.

Bucky just scowls. “Yeah, I made it but I still don’t think you’re listening to it.”

“I am listening,” Steve insists. “I just – yeah, I’ve got all those things, but they’re things that don’t fit together.”

Bucky stares at him like he’s an idiot. “You stupid?” he asks. “Get out there – they are fitting. They’re fitting right there under your nose.”

“Steve!”

A shout from the end of the corridor has him turning around before he can argue his point with Bucky. Still clutching the games controller in one hand, Arto runs down the corridor towards him, and Steve has to hastily stoop down and grab him before Arto barrels into his knees. He scoops him up and sets him on his hip, grabbing Arto’s wrist so he doesn't get hit in the face with the hunk of plastic.

“Natasha won,” Arto tells him, sounding wounded. “Steve, she won.”

“Yeah, she always wins,” Steve says patiently.

“Don’t even wanna play anymore,” Arto grouches, and Steve feels a weak smile hitch the corner of his mouth.

“Can't win every time.”

“Huh, maybe you should tell you that someday,” Bucky says innocently, and Steve scowls at him.

“Maybe you should-” he begins, but stops himself before he can tell Bucky to shut up. Bucky seems to know exactly what he was planning; his face breaks into a grin.

“What’s that?” he asks innocently. “Gonna finish that sentence, Rogers?”

Steve just gives up, shaking his head. Arto mimics him, shaking his head from side to side, grinning as he leans in and presses his forehead against Steve’s.

“Green,” he whispers. Steve’s stomach twists, but it’s not altogether bad. Behind him, he hears Bucky walking away towards the communal area, and he’s thankful for the privacy.

“Green,” he murmurs back, and Arto hums happily, rolling his forehead against Steve’s.

“Can we play?”

Steve shuts his eyes for a moment, before pulling back. Without thinking, he reaches up and smooths a hand over Arto’s blond hair. “Sure,” he says, and in that moment it's easy. “We can play.”

Chapter Text

Tony turns the wrench over and over in his hands, the repetitive action soothing as he watches the video feed on one of his monitors, projected large above his workbench. The other avengers are all assembled on the communal floor, and Steve and Clint are playing a game of snakes and ladders with Arto. He seems happy enough, laughing and bouncing up and down when he rolls the dice, moving everyone’s counters for them and pouting whenever someone else wins. He seems in a clingy mood, sitting on Steve’s knee and pulling at his hands and shirt whenever he feels Steve’s attention is elsewhere. Steve, the fucking saint, endures it more or less patiently.

Down in the workshop, Tony eyes the clock on his phone for the fifth time in under a minute. He breathes out through his teeth, wishing firstly that he could stop feeling so damn nervous and secondly that Pepper would hurry the fuck up and get there already.

The jet landed over an hour and a half ago, which means she’ll be here any moment. And with her will come the questions, the doubts, the disbelief.

Restless, he taps the wrench against the edge of his workbench, pressing against it so his fingers slide the length, warmed metal under his fingers. A beep from over by the tool cabinets draws his attention and he looks up to see Dummy peering at him, holding Clint’s sunglasses in his claw.

Tony snorts tiredly. “You better be on best behaviour,” he says. “Last thing I need is you trying Pepper’s patience as well.”

Dummy beeps sadly, arm drooping, and Tony sighs. Great. He can’t even keep a damn bot happy, and he’s supposed to be convincing Pepper that he can raise a small child and live up to being Captain America’s other half.

“Sir, Miss Potts has arrived in the tower.”

Jarvis speaks quietly, calmly, but Tony’s stomach still lurches.

“Send her down,” Tony replies, slouching back in his chair. He looks at the video feed again, watching as Steve makes a drink with Arto standing on the counter behind him, leaning over one of his shoulders. He wriggles forwards, toes just brushing the counter and he almost tips all the way over –Tony has a moment in which he imagines Arto flipping all the way, feet catching the coffee pot and sending everything crashing off the edge, burning everyone with coffee and probably smacking his head against the cupboards mid-fall – but Steve catches him easily, one large hand in the small of Arto’s back, keeping him draped over his shoulder. He finishes making his drink one-handed and says something to Arto who nods vigorously, patting his palms against Steve’s stomach. Steve walks them both over to the couches, letting Arto slither down his back onto the cushions before sitting next to him. 

He still doesn’t look like he’s enjoying it, but he’s dealing with it. It’s not exactly what Tony wants, but he supposes that for now it’ll have to do. He just hopes that Steve can keep it together long enough to-

He hears the glass door to the workshop slide open, and his thoughts stop. He holds his breath and then turns towards the door.

“Hey, Pep.”

She stands in the doorway, tall and beautiful in jeans and a white blouse. “Hi, Tony,” she says quietly, and her smile is fleeting but genuine. “Didn’t think you’d be down here.”

“You know me,” Tony says as she steps over the threshold and into the lab, stepping softly in a pair of pumps, her usual heels conspicuously absent. “Where else would I be hiding?”

“Hiding?” Pepper asks, and she drops her bag down by her feet.

“Feeling intense amounts of emotional pressure,” Tony clarifies, tossing the wrench he’d been fiddling with onto the workbench with a clatter.  “Besides, the team floor is swarming and I thought we’d be better off without an audience.”

Pepper nods, looking down at her feet, and then she slowly walks over. God, Tony’s missed her. He always misses her when she’s not about, but after a few days together they usually end up remembering why they don’t spend lots of time together anymore. It usually culminates in Tony doing or saying something that renders Pepper so frustrated she’s beyond shouting, and then she leaves for them to have the space to pointedly ignore each other for a month before getting back around to missing each other again.

It’s a good system. Tony’s quite proud of it.

Pepper walks all the way over and bends down to kiss his cheek before straightening up, tucking her hair behind her ear. She glances at the video feed.

“Is Arto up there?”

“Steve’s got him.”

Pepper nods. “I can’t,” she begins, and then laughs softly, the sound far too depreciating. “I can’t imagine Steve with a kid.”

So, they’re getting straight into it then. Tony doesn’t mind; he hates small talk anyway.

“Oh come on. You’ve seen him. They look exactly the same.”

Pepper stops just beside him and leans back against the workbench, head turned so she’s looking directly at the video screen. Arto is now easily visible, tucked up against Steve’s side with his fingers in his mouth and face turned towards the television. Steve is sipping from his mug, listening to something Bucky is saying. Natasha is also visible, curled up near Steve and Arto and also looking towards where Bucky is sprawled out on the other couch, one leg dangling lazily off the edge.

“It’s not about that,” Pepper says. “It’s – he’s always been so work focused. You told me that.”

“He quit working for SHIELD today,” Tony tells her and Pepper looks surprised.

“He did?”

“He wants to be here with Arto,” Tony says. “He’s still an Avenger, but he’s officially not on the market for Fury to lease out anymore.”

Pepper doesn’t reply to that. She just nods and carries on watching the screen. Clint wanders into view; Bucky kicks at his legs and Clint dodges out of the way before dropping to sit on the floor next to him. Arto says something, his free hand stretching up above his head, and Steve leans back to avoid getting poked in the face.

“He’s settled well,” Tony says, unable to keep quiet. “Well, mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“He’s got some issues,” Tony says honestly, because this is Pepper and he’s learned the hard way that lying to her never works out for him. “So would you if you’d been raised in a lab by Hydra for the first six years of your life.”

A pained expression crosses Pepper’s face, and she folds her arms across her chest, hands curled around her upper arms.  “I don’t think you’ve thought this through,” she says, turning to look at him. “Steve, Arto, any of it.”

Tony looks away, back at the screen. Something in his gut twists, angry and unhappy.

“Okay. What’s your problem here? The kid, or Steve?”

“What do you mean, what’s my problem? I don’t have a problem-”

“Of course you have a problem,” Tony replies tersely. “I’m just trying to work out if it’s Arto or Steve that you’re objecting to.”

“Both,” Pepper snaps back, and then steadies herself. “Both, if they’re not what you want.”

Tony feels some of his anger bleed away. “They are, Pep.”

Pepper doesn’t reply for a long time. Finally, she reaches out and Tony takes her hand.

“I always knew there was something between you and Steve,” she admits. “But it always seemed – it was you wanting him. Even when you hated him, you were so fiercely protective over him. Like the only bad words against him that were allowed were yours. And all I saw was this, this awful pissing match between the two of you that was hurting you more than you let on.”

“Hey, I gave as good as I got,” Tony shrugs, purposefully avoiding how close to home those words hit.

“I’m sure you did,” Pepper says, squeezing his hand, looking down at their joined fingers. “But I only saw that it was hurting you. Thank god that petered out when it did.”

“Well, it may not have exactly petered out, more have been redirected,” Tony says, scratching his head.

Pepper sighs and drops his hand. “Angry sex?”

“Angry sex,” Tony confirms. “Which led to not so angry sex which led to something that was definitely not dating but I’m now pretty sure was?”

“Which led to him moving in and you ending up with a child?” Pepper asks. “That’s an awful lot to happen accidentally, Tony.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony says. “You’ve gotta believe me though, Pep. If I didn’t want to be with him and be doing this, I wouldn’t. If he didn’t want to be with me and do this, he most certainly wouldn’t.”

“And you’re sure of that?”

“I love him, Pep,” Tony says, the words tumbling out, fragile and exposed. “And he loves me more than he knows what to do with.”

Pepper meets his eyes, quietly repeating herself. “You’re sure of that?”

Tony hesitates, and immediately curses himself for doing so. She seems to have gotten right down to his very core again, because it was only a few days ago that he wasn’t certain about him and Steve, that he was left thinking that neither of them were sure.

“Tony?”

Great, now she sounds even more worried.  “I am sure,” he says, thinking of the family tree that’s currently stuck on the refrigerator upstairs. “But we never – we never talked about it. Never even thought about it. It was just me and him and that’s what it was…” He trails off, glancing back to the video screen. “Arto made us talk about it. We couldn’t exactly carry on just winging it with him around.”

“Tony Stark makes a commitment,” Pepper says dryly. “I’ll notify the PR team.”

“I can do this, Pepper,” he says. “You know I can.”

“I do not know you can,” Pepper says. “I have never seen you interact with small children, and you usually avoid commitment like you’re allergic-”

“That’s unfair.”

“Perfectly fair,” Pepper argues. “Tony, you have to see why I’m worried.”

“No, I don’t,” Tony says, and his heart is pounding as he says it, thudding under the arc reactor. “I don’t have to see it. I see me and Steve working things out, and actually agreeing that this kid, this wonderful kid who has already been through hell at the hands of hydra, is going to be ours, and we’re going to do right by him.”

“This is all just talk,” Pepper says bluntly. “How long has he actually been here? This isn’t just another project, Tony. This is a child.”

“I know all that.”

“Do you?” Pepper challenges. “You do this, and you are going to spend the rest of your life putting him first. Not yourself anymore, not Iron Man. Him. And you could sacrifice it all for him, and you are still going to be in Steve’s pocket, because he’s Arto’s biological father, not you.”

For a moment, Tony doesn't even think he can reply to that. “Way to take everything good and right in my life and turn it into something that’s going to end in misery,” he says quietly.

Pepper’s expression turns agonized. “Tony that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

“You’re trying to be practical and pragmatic.”

“Oh, like they’re such bad things to be, especially if you’re going to be a parent.”

“I already said this,” Tony interrupts angrily. “If all you’re going to do is try and make me change my mind-”

“I’m not, I’m just pointing out that you can’t just – do what you do and throw money-”

“And if all you’re going to do is turn what I’ve done for that kid into something cheap, you can go fuck yourself.” 

Pepper throws her hands up. “You are the most frustrating man on the planet.”

“I object to that. You don’t live with Steve.”

“Oh my god,” Pepper says, and she presses her hands to her face. “I don’t even know why I talk to you.”

“I don’t either,” Tony says, and she drops her hands, the look on her face upset and wounded. Tony cares, of course he does, but he’s also still angry about her whole damn attitude, the way she won’t stop doubting him. In the back of his mind is a very real fear as well, because she controls such a huge part of Stark Industries, and if they aren’t on good terms then that means hell for the company. Also, if the board get wind of what he’s done they could take it very well or very badly, and he needs Pepper to vouch for him, to reassure them that Tony will still do what is needed with Arto and Steve in the picture. Hell, they’d kicked up enough of a fuss as it was when he’d re-joined the Avengers- 

“Sir, the dinner order has arrived and is in the lobby.”

“Thanks, Jarvis,” Tony says tiredly, and then glances at Pepper. “You staying for dinner or have I pissed you off enough to leave?”

Pepper sighs. “You underestimate my tolerance levels when it comes to you. I’m staying.”

Deciding to just take the answer for what it is, Tony nods and makes his way out of the workshop. Pepper follows and helps him collect the take-out from the lobby, and they take the elevator up to the communal floor in silence. Tony’s brain is going a thousand revolutions a minute, because Pepper still doesn’t get it and she’s about to come face to face with Arto and Steve and there are just so many ways in which this could all go so horribly wrong.

He needs Steve.

They step out of the elevator to find everyone there, crowded on the sofas together and watching the television. Bucky and Clint immediately perk up at the smell of pizza, simultaneously twisting around and peering up over towards them. Tony shakes his head and slides the stack of pizza boxes onto the counter, taking the second stack from Pepper.

“Pepper!” Natasha calls warmly, and she’s the first up, uncurling gracefully from the couch and walking over to her.

“Hey Pepper!” Clint calls from where he’s still sitting by Bucky’s feet, and Pepper waves at him before turning to greet Natasha with a tired smile, hugging her tight and then drawing back to speak quietly. She’s nodding and still smiling, but there’s a faint tension in her expression that Tony doesn’t feel remotely happy about.

Leaving Pepper with Natasha, Tony heads straight over to Steve, dropping onto the couch next to him and Arto, looking furtively over his shoulder to check that Pepper is still occupied.

“Hey, Smart Art,” Tony says wearily as he turns back, brushing his knuckles against Arto’s cheek. “Hey, can I borrow your ears for a moment?”

Arto nods and Tony slides his palms over Arto’s ears before turning to Steve, speaking in an undertone so only Steve can hear him. “She’s mad at me, she still thinks I’m only doing this for you, she is majorly concerned that I am not cut out for raising a child, I may have told her to go fuck herself.”

Steve blinks at him at the same time Arto squirms out of Tony’s hold, pushing his hands away.

“Still hear you,” he says matter-of-factly. “You said fuck.”

Tony stares at him and then at Steve. “I think I’m proving her point.”

Steve blinks at him and then seems to regroup. “Not to be rude, but if she thinks you are being anything other than amazing, she can go fuck herself,” he says, and then he quickly leans in and kisses Tony on the corner of his mouth. Next to them, Arto is giggling madly, presumably at Steve’s swearing. Steve either hasn’t noticed or isn't bothered at that exact moment in time. “I’m guessing there’s no objection that she can throw at you that you’ve not already considered yourself, right?”

“Right,” Tony replies, reaching out to put his hand on Steve’s shoulder, thumb brushing the fabric.

“There you go, then,” Steve says. “You know that we’re doing this, you know why we’re doing this, and that’s all that matters.” 

“Sometimes, you are exactly what I need to hear,” Tony says, smiling weakly as Arto reaches up and grabs his wrist, pulling his hand down off of Steve’s shoulder so he can hold it. His fingers are wet and sticky with spit and it’s disgusting.

“Good,” Steve says easily. “Now come on. Pizza.”

“Pizza?” Arto asks.

“Pizza,” Steve nods. “You coming to help me eat mine?”

“Yes,” Arto replies immediately, twisting around and winding his arms around Steve’s neck.

“No, I didn’t mean-” Steve begins, exasperated. He meets Tony’s eyes and Tony just shrugs.

“Come on Art, let go-” Hands on Arto’s sides, Steve tries to ease him back but Arto isn’t having any of it.

“No,” he whines. “Pick me up, carry me, I’m too tired.”

“Not too tired to hang around my neck, though,” Steve says flatly.

“No,” Arto says, voice still a belligerent whine. “Steve. Carry me.”

“A battle you want to have?” Tony asks casually.

Steve looks up towards the counter, where everyone is already assembled around the counter, sharing out pizzas and beers. Bruce is opening a bottle of wine for Pepper and she’s smiling politely at him, though Tony can tell she’s still stressed by their not-quite-finished conversation.

Steve’s stomach rumbles. “Not a battle I want to have,” he decides, and he stands up, easily lifting Arto with him and calling over at the others. “Bucky – Bucky, don’t you dare take the entire pepperoni-”

Tony watches him go, smiling faintly. He edges up to the table next to Bucky, speaking quietly to Arto and then reaching out for the plate that Bucky hands to him, piled high with various slices. Arto shakes his head and says something in reply to Steve, and Steve nods towards the plate. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then Arto reaches for something and comes up with a small slice of pizza that Bucky must have cut up for him. Arto nibbles along the edge and then suddenly holds out the slice to Steve; Steve’s expression turns surprised and then he says something and holds the plate up. Arto nods and grabs a regular slice, holding it up for Steve to take a bite. Arto grins happily and drops the slice back down, grabbing his own and stuffing it into his mouth.

God, Tony is ridiculously in love with the pair of them.

He looks over to Pepper and his stomach jolts as he sees her also watching Steve and Arto. She has a glass of wine in hand, curled around into her body with her elbow tight against her side, and she’s biting on her lip pensively.  Tony would literally sell his soul to know what she’s thinking right now.

“Tony, come and eat,” Steve calls, and Tony is jolted out of his reverie. He walks over and laughs shortly as Arto makes a muffled noise around a mouthful of pizza, brandishing a slice in his direction. Steve is now sitting down with Arto on his knee, and is valiantly trying to eat pizza single-handedly, as his second is occupied with keeping Arto still.

“For me? Oh you shouldn’t have,” Tony says and takes the slice from Arto. Arto makes another series of indecipherable noise and Tony pulls a face. “Swallow and then talk,” he advises.

“He says he likes ham,” Clint fills in helpfully, licking grease from his fingers.

Tony stares at him. “Only you would be able to understand pizza-talk.”

“Hidden talents,” Clint replies, and Bucky shakes with laughter around his mouthful of beer.

Tony rolls his eyes at the pair of them and leans into Steve, reaching to take another slice of pizza. Steve puts his own food down to slide his free arm around Tony’s waist, a hand resting casually in the small of his back, and wow, he really must like Tony if he’s favoring him over pizza.

“Nice,” Tony murmurs to him. “Putting on a good show.”

Steve pinches him, hard. Tony makes an indignant noise in the back of his throat and tries to twist away, but Steve’s palm is already back on his hip, pulling him in.

“Not putting on a show at all,” Steve says, frowning as he turns back to talk to Arto. “Yeah, eat that and then drink your juice.”

Tony ponders that for a moment, and then decides that he’s going to believe him. He eases out of Steve’s grip to slide into the chair next to then, taking a proffered beer from Bruce with a grateful nod. It’s almost easy after that; the pizza is demolished in record time and then from somewhere Nat and Bucky procure several huge tubs of ice cream, much to both Steve and Clint’s approval. Arto seems very wary of the ice cream to begin with, but as soon as Steve is wolfing down his third portion of double-chocolate, he seems to get on board and demands a spoon of his own. 

It would be a pretty good night if it wasn't for the lingering sense of unease, the way he feels like he’s being silently judged. Pepper sits across the counter from him and Steve, occupied by Natasha and Bruce, and every so often her eyes lift to them, silently taking everything in.

“Want any more?” Steve asks Arto. Tony honestly despairs at that child; he’s got ice cream all over his hands and face and even in his hair, and that’s to add to the pizza grease and the strange black smudges on his face and hands that seem to have appeared utterly at random.

“No,” Arto says, and he drops his spoon back onto the counter, twisting around and burrowing into Steve’s front, most likely smearing his shirt with ice-cream. “No.”

“How much did he eat?”

“Three of his little slices and two scoops of ice-cream,” Steve says, and a pained expression flitters across his face. “God, that sounds terrible; he’s eaten nothing but junk food-”

“Hey, it’s pizza night. Don’t sweat it. We’ll get fruit down him tomorrow,” Tony says, and smiles weakly at Steve’s relieved nod.

Arto says something, voice muffled against Steve’s chest. Tony just shrugs at Steve’s questioning expression, reaching out and stroking his palm down Arto’s back. Arto turns his face to look at him, blinking tiredly and slipping his fingers into his mouth.

“Bath?” Tony suggests, and Arto nods.

“Steve take me,” he says.

Steve looks at Tony and for a moment Tony thinks he’s going to object and plead off, but then his eyes lift over the table and he just nods. “Alright, you got it,” he says.

“We’re using our bathroom now,” Tony says. “Barton has threatened to set Barnes on me if I wreck his ever again.”

“Threat still enforced,” Clint calls without looking up.

Tony catches Steve’s eye and pulls a face, reaching to brush his hand over Arto’s head before getting up. Arto makes a sleepy whining noise and grabs at Tony’s wrist.

“Both of you take me.”

“Not a chance,” Tony says. “Not having you drown both of us in bubbles, who’ll be left to look after Barton if that happens?”

Arto grins at that, and Tony smiles tiredly back.  “Let go then, Smart Art.”

Arto lets go of his hand and Steve immediately scoops him up. He doesn’t waste any time carrying Arto out of the room, and Tony watches them go, feeling a strange urge to get up and follow. He’s torn; part of him wants to stay here with Pepper, part of him thinks he should go with Steve and Arto to prove to her that this is what he wants. Though she knows him well enough that she’d probably see something like that as a play anyway.

He opts for staying where he is, joining the others on the couches. Clint immediately gets hold of the remote, and is halfway through flicking through recorded programs when Tony points out that Arto will be probably coming back down so he’s not allowed to put on anything with blood, guts, swearing or sex in it. Clint stares at him for a moment and then puts on Spongebob Squarepants. Tony threatens to suit up and drop him out of the window, and Bucky wrestles the remote from Clint and hands it to Natasha.

They’re all half watching reruns of Doctor Who and chattering amongst themselves when Steve reappears, Arto walking at his side. Arto is holding onto Steve’s pant leg with one hand, rubbing at his eyes with the other. He looks as clean as Tony’s ever seen him, dressed in a pair of purple pyjamas which go wonderfully with the lime green socks Steve has managed to get on his feet.

“Someone looks tired,” Tony comments as Steve walks over and flops down onto the couch, leaning back as Arto clambers up onto him, sitting on his lap and curing into his chest.

“Yeah Steve, I think it’s past your bedtime,” Bucky says seriously.

Steve just pulls a face at Bucky, though Tony has to concede that he does look exhausted. Steve meets Tony’s eyes for a moment, but looks away as Arto twists around to look at him, whining.

“Bucky Bear,” he says around his fingers, faintly distressed.

Steve looks around, eyes widening slightly. Tony also turns his head to look and damn, he hasn’t seen the bear in hours-

“I have him,” Natasha says out of nowhere, and Tony, Steve and Arto all turns towards her. She reaches out and pulls the bear out from behind a cushion near her, rising from her spot next to Pepper and carrying the bear over. “Here we are, Solnishka.”

Arto immediately reaches out with one hand. Natasha smiles and hands him the bear.

“Solnishka?” Tony asks in an undertone as Arto turns around with Bucky Bear clutched in his arms, burying his face in Steve’s chest.

“He’s growing on me,” Natasha replies quietly, lifting an eyebrow slightly. “Not just me, I think.”

Tony doesn’t ask who she means; that could mean literally any member of the team, or even Pepper, and he doesn’t quite dare to hope he’s going to get off that easily as far as she’s concerned.

“Art, let me get up so I can get a drink,” Steve says quietly to Arto. Arto whines and shakes his head.

“Hey Steve, I think I need this,” Tony says swiftly, spotting both the brewing restlessness in Arto’s tone and behavior and the frustration that Steve's doing a damn good job of hiding. He leans over and slides his arms around Arto, one under his back and the other under his knees and hauls him into his own lap. “This thing here Steve, I think I need to borrow it for like five and a half minutes-”

Arto shakes his head again but Tony doesn’t relent even though he knows Arto could very well object to being taken from Steve. He leans over forwards and blows a raspberry against Arto’s cheek, and Arto’s whine turns into a yelp of laughter. “No,” he says, though he’s laughing. “No, stay with Steve-”

“Give Steve five and a half minutes,” Tony coaxes, even though faint alarm bells are ringing at Arto’s choice of words. “He will miss you terribly for every second that he’s gone, and look, he’s not going to even leave the room.” And – thank fuck – Arto is nodding and giggling and turning into Tony, fingers grabbing at his shirt. Steve nods gratefully and gets up, heading towards the kitchen and waving his hand half-heartedly as he’s bombarded with requests for coffees and more beer. Tony looks down at Arto, who is blinking at him from behind Bucky Bear.

“How was swimming?”

Arto nods slowly, his fingers tangling in the front of Tony’s shirt. He frowns and then yawns widely, and yep, he needs to go bed pretty soon. It’s not that late really, but if he’s already yawning and starting to get whingey then-

“Hey.”

Tony abruptly stops thinking as Pepper slides into Steve’s vacated seat, glass of wine still in her hand and obviously refilled. Tony owes Natasha, big time. Pepper’s eyes go between him and Arto, and there’s something in her expression that Tony can’t quite work out.

“Introductions in order,” Tony says before Pepper can say anything. “Pepper, this is Arto. Arto, this is my friend Pepper.”

Arto looks curiously at Pepper, though doesn’t say hello. He looks up at Tony and then back to Pepper, before reaching up and touching his own hair.

“Red.”

“Orange,” Tony corrects. “Ginger.” He looks at Pepper, half apologetic. “He has a thing for hair,” he shrugs. “Well, Steve’s hair because it matches his, and we like Natasha’s hair because it’s gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous,” Arto mumbles, and he wriggles around so he’s kneeling on Tony’s lap, arms around his neck and back to Pepper. Tony feels Bucky Bear bump against his shoulder blades.

“Sorry,” he says, resting a hand on Arto’s back. “We’re tired, and anti-social at the best of times.”

Pepper smiles. A hesitant, faint curve to her mouth. “That’s okay,” she says cautiously, and dammit, Tony still can't work out what she’s thinking. “I just wanted to come and say hello.”

Tony blinks at her and his feels his eyes narrow slightly, feeling vulnerable and defensive. “Just saying hello?”

Pepper sighs. “Yes, just saying hello.”

“Then don’t look like that,” Tony says.

Pepper turns to him. “Look like what? I wasn’t looking like anything.”

“You were, you were pulling a face.”

“Pulling a face?” Pepper asks, sounding offended. “I was not pulling a face. Stop assuming the worst. As your CEO, I am telling you to stop assuming the worst.”

That shuts Tony up. His mouth works for a moment, and then he gets where he’s heard that tone of voice before.  “You and Steve should hang out,” he finally says, a little grouchily. “Actually no, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Why, you don’t want two of us ganging up on you when you’re being ridiculous?” Steve’s voice asks from right next to them, sounding amused. He steps over and holds out a mug of coffee towards Tony. “Pepper, I didn’t make you one because you had wine, but there’s enough left if-”

“No, I’m okay thanks,” Pepper says, and Tony thinks that maybe the smile she directs at Steve is actually a real one.

“Oh god yes,” Tony says fervently. “I’ll trade you. Here, small child. Steve is back and I’m selling you for a cup of coffee.”

Arto pulls back, pressing at Tony’s face with his fingers. “Wouldn’t sell me.”

“For coffee I might,” he says seriously, and Arto grins.

“Let me,” Pepper says, and she reaches out to take the coffee from Steve. Immediately, Arto turns around and reaches for Steve, and Steve takes him without argument, swinging him up and walking over towards the free spot on the other couch. Arto snuggles tiredly against his shoulder, fingers playing with the hair on the back of Steve’s head.

“Thanks,” Tony says, watching them go and then taking the drink from her. “So we’ve not actually talked about how you are,” he says. “Let’s do that.”

“I’m fine,” Pepper says. “You know, other than the creative head of R&D trying to give me a stress-induced heart attack. Oh, and there’s this guy who owns like, most of the company and he’s an absolute-”

“Oh, you are sassy today,” Tony says, and she rolls her eyes at him.

“Don’t worry. The company is doing exceptionally well, even with this asshole I have to work with.”

Tony smiles at that, a soft huff of a laugh escaping him. “How’s Happy?”

“He’s okay,” Pepper says with a quiet, private smile. “He’s very okay.”

“Very okay?”

“Yes, very okay,” Pepper says, and then looks at him pointedly. “You don’t tell me about your love-life, I’m not telling you about mine.”

“Mine is a matter of National Security,” Tony replies instantly. “Captain America, Pep.”

Pepper raises an eyebrow, glances over to Steve and Arto. Steve is talking to Bucky, and Arto is half-watching the television, eyes drooping slightly as he does.

“I hope you’re not doing this because of Captain America,” she says lightly, her voice a murmur so Steve doesn’t hear.

“The Captain America part has actually turned out to be the downside,” Tony says. “Well, the bureaucratic, governmental sort of side of it is definitely a downside. Much prefer him off-duty.”

Pepper laughs, looking at him. “Oh, you hating bureaucracy? That’s not exactly new.”

“I have a healthy respect for paperwork these days,” Tony begins, and Pepper looks at him flatly.

“Well, maybe one day you would like to share this new found respect with the rest of us-”

Their conversation is cut short as a sudden and ear splitting scream rends through the air. Tony’s heart about stops, and he’s on his feet before he knows it. Pepper is grabbing his sleeve, fingers clenched tight in the material. Nat’s head whips around so fast that she’s probably given herself whiplash.

“Don’t want to! No, not, staying with you-!”

It happens so quickly that Tony almost misses it. He steps forwards, as do both Bucky and Nat, and Arto is screaming even louder and suddenly Steve is on his feet, hefting Arto with him. Arto’s screams break down into sobs and he’s snatching his fingers way too close to Steve’s face like he wants to hit him but can’t. Steve swiftly corrals Arto’s hands into his grip and even as Arto screams and tries to pull free, Steve is walking away and ducking out of the room.  

Arto’s sobs fade down the corridor, a distant scream drifting back to them.

“Jesus, what was that?” Bucky breaks the silence, looking at Clint for answers.

Clint just shakes his head, looking down at the floor and rubbing at his forehead.

Tony turns to look at Pepper. Her mouth is slightly open and she’s staring at the corridor that Steve just disappeared down, shocked and worried and upset all at once. She blinks and then looks to Tony.

“Go,” she says, and she gestures weakly towards the stairs, a half lift of her hand. “Tony, go.”

Tony doesn’t wait to be told again. He nods, reaching out to touch her elbow as he walks past, striding across the corridor and following Steve, heart hammering madly in his chest. In his mind he’s already conjuring all sorts of terrible scenarios; picturing Arto with another nosebleed, screaming and kicking and crying-

Oh god. He can hear him from here.

The noise gets louder and louder as Tony walks into the penthouse, throat tight and stomach twisting. As he draws closer, he discerns that the sound is more tears than screams, heaving sobs in place of the usual angry shouts.

Steve is sitting on the corner of Arto’s bed with Arto on his knee. Arto is clinging to him so tightly that Tony can see the tension in his knuckles from where he is by the door. If Steve’s shirt isn’t ripped, he’ll be amazed.

“Don’t want to,” Arto chokes out between sobs that sound almost painful. He coughs, descending into a horrid choking as he cries. “Don’t want to, Steve-”

“You have to, you’re tired and you need to go to sleep,” Steve says, and his voice is strained but steady.

“No,” Arto screams, and he twists on Steve’s knee, pushing his face into Steve’s throat and clinging to him even more tightly. 

“Arto-” Steve begins, but he stops. He swallows, looks up as Tony approaches, and he looks utterly lost. “He was almost asleep on me earlier,” he begins, sounding defensive in a way he really doesn’t need to be. “He’s tired, I know he is, but he won’t sleep-”

“I don’t know,” Tony says. “Just sit with him, he’ll tire himself out soon, right?” 

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” Steve snaps back, and then he exhales heavily, nostrils flaring and lips clamping tightly together. “Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Tony says, and Jesus, Arto’s crying is giving him a headache, so he doesn’t know how Arto feels seeing as he’s the cause of the damn noise.

“I don’t want to,” Arto wails, and he sits back, pushing at Steve’s collarbones. Steve simply reaches up and takes Arto’s wrists, moving his hands away. Arto does it again and Steve carries on exactly as he had before, showing a patience that Tony never thought he’d be capable of.

“I hate you,” Arto cries. “Want to stay with you.”

“Well there’s a contradiction in itself,” Tony says unsteadily, and he steps forwards, kneeling down beside Arto and reaching to put his hand on his shoulder-

Without warning, Arto’s elbow comes back and he throws his arm around, lashing back at Tony. Steve moves faster than humanly possible, yanking Arto towards him so he doesn’t elbow Tony in the face. Tony jerks back, throwing out a hand as he overbalances, sprawling out backwards over the carpet. 

“Don’t you dare,” Steve snaps, and it takes a moment for Tony to realize that Steve is talking to Arto and not him. 

“Steve, don’t-” Tony begins as he sits up, but his words are lost as Arto starts to scream even louder. Wrenching backwards, he throws himself from Steve’s grip and Steve tumbles with him, sliding off the bed onto his knees with a thud, grabbing Arto around the middle as he throws himself forwards, feet missing Tony by an inch-

“Tony, go,” Steve says tersely as he pulls Arto up, sitting him between his thighs and wrapping an arm around his middle, trying in vain to grab hold of his hands.

“No,” Arto chokes, drawing the word out. “Fucker, you fucking shit-”

“I’m not going to leave you by yourself-”

“Tony, go,” Steve repeats in a tone that brooks no argument. “I am not having you close enough to get hurt while he’s like this.”

“What about you, you’re gonna get hurt-”

“I can handle it,” Steve bites out, and Tony knows he means that he can handle getting hurt. “He wants you back, he can calm the hell down. Now go.”

Tony doesn’t have a choice. Nodding hollowly, he stands up and walks away, pressing his hands to the back of his head. He can feel himself trembling, and he hates how useless he feels, hates knowing that this must have been exactly how Steve felt when he got back and Arto had screamed at him, and Tony had sent him away-

He leaves the room, leaving the door ajar. He can still hear Arto sobbing, can hear Steve talking in a low voice, the choked responses. It honestly feels like his heart is breaking as he walks away, getting almost to the stairs before he can’t go any further. 

Slumping back against the wall, he slides down until he’s sitting on his ass in the corridor. His head tips forwards, too heavy for his shoulders, one hand still pressed to the back of his skull.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there for, listening to Arto cry. God, he hates it, he hates it so much-

“Tony?”

He jerks his head up as the soft call of his name. Pepper is there, standing at the top of the stairs and looking worried.

“He,” Tony begins, voice cracking. He wipes his face with his hand, tries to find the words. “He doesn’t like sleeping in his own bed.”

Pepper stares at him for a long moment and then she steps over and sits next to him. She reaches for him, pulling him around into a hug, setting his forehead on her shoulder. Tony goes without resistance, back shuddering as she gently folds her fingers around the back of his neck.

She doesn’t leave, or say anything. She just sits with him and holds him as he tries not to listen to the sounds from the other room, the constant ebb and flow of the argument. Steve isn’t backing down an inch, and Arto is going around and around in circles, quieting down only to start screaming again when Steve refuses his request to stay in their bed. 

It goes on for hours. It’s a constant and exhausting up and down cycle that Arto doesn’t seem to want to break out of. Tony doesn’t move an inch, unable to even contemplate walking away. This is just one of those things that’s not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to back down or give up. Arto needs them to stick it out, and that’s what he’ll do.

It’s only when his neck starts to hurt from being bent sideways onto Peppers shoulder that Tony sits up, exhausted. His head thunks against the wall and he rubs at his eyes. Pepper is watching him, worried.

“All that stuff you said,” he says without looking at her. “I get it. I’ve asked myself it all already. And I still want to do this.”

Peppers chin trembles, a fraction of a second before she breathes out steadily. “Okay,” she says, and her voice is more even than Tony’s. “Alright.”

And the relief that Tony feels would be enough to knock him on his ass if he wasn’t already there. His throat has gone tight and he doesn’t want to fuck it up by saying the wrong words, so he just reaches for her hand. It’s as she squeezes his fingers back that he belatedly realized that things have gone quiet, and that it’s stayed quiet.

He looks towards the door and holds his breath as he hears Steve-sized footsteps move across the carpet of the penthouse, barely audible. He appears in the doorway, and if he’s surprised that Pepper is there he doesn’t show it; he blinks at them both and then edges out of the room.

“I think he’s-” Steve begins unsteadily, but then there’s a cry from inside the room and the sound of small footsteps running across the floor. Steve stops, frustration flickering over his face for a moment. Tony’s heart leaps up into his throat and next to him, Pepper draws in a breath. Inhaling deeply, Steve turns, and he steps forwards just as Arto pulls the door open. He's crying again, face red and tear-streaked.

“No,” Steve says and he swiftly scoops Arto up and walks back into the room with him. Tony pushes to his feet and follows, watching as Steve carries Arto back to his bed and tries to lie him down.

“No,” Arto cries, and he’s trying to grab for Steve’s hands as Steve tucks him in. Steve shakes his head and pulls back, unsteady. His eyes are too bright and he looks exhausted, and the look only intensifies as Arto climbs straight back out of the bed, reaching for him and crying.

Steve closes his eyes and his chin trembles, the tiniest fracture in his composure, but then he’s pulling himself together and stepping forwards again. He picks Arto up and puts him back on the bed, and this time he turns straight away, walking towards the door.

“Go,” he says to Tony.

“Steve-” Tony says helplessly, gesturing towards Arto who is already back out of bed, running after Steve.

Halting mid-step, Steve meets his eyes and in that single horrible moment, Tony feels something settle between them. Everything they’ve said about sticking together, about doing this together suddenly seems very real.

Steve looks away, turns to Arto and once again stoops to grab him. This time, he holds Arto close and shushes him, one arm under his legs and the other on the back of his head. “Come on Art, bed,” he says. “Come on.”

Tony turns away as Arto’s crying increases in volume once again, more requests for Steve to stay, for Arto to be allowed to stay with them. God, he remembers that first night when Steve had just given in and taken Arto up with them, and it would be so much easier to just give in and let him sleep in their bed.

But Steve has expended so much energy saying no. To give up now would be a waste, and Tony gets the feeling that if they give in, Arto will assume that the whole crying-screaming routine is going to work the next time as well.

He walks back out to find Pepper still there, and as he sits down next to her he hears more footsteps on the stairwell. Clint appears, looking more upset than Tony thinks he’s ever seen him.

“Can hear him-” Clint begins, cuts himself off. His eyes are too bright and his lips are clamped tightly together, looking like he hardly dares to breathe.

“Doesn’t want to sleep in his own bed,” Tony says dully. “Not a battle we can let him win.”

Clint nods jerkily, and it’s written all over his face just how much he hates this. He’s been so good for Arto ever since he arrived and by now Tony knows that Clint would do anything for that kid, does really see him as the younger brother that he would go to the ends of the earth for.

Silently, Clint sits down opposite him and Pepper, joining their strange vigil. His knees are drawn up to his chest, hand on the back of his head just as Tony had been earlier. It’s stupid really, none of them need to be here listening to this, but Tony is in a way glad that they are. He appreciates the company, and right now he thinks Steve will appreciate the show of support.

Pepper sits quietly, her head leaning against Tony’s shoulder.

“This is my fault,” Tony mutters, rubbing his palm over his chin. “I let him stay with me when Steve was away.”

“No it’s not,” Pepper says, soothing. “You didn’t know.”

“I should have known,” Tony bites out.

“Nah,” Clint says, not bothering to lift his head. His voice is heavy, thick. “You can’t know everything.”

There’s movement in the stairwell, and Tony is somehow both taken aback and completely unsurprised when Bucky appears. Without a word, he drops down to sit next to Clint. Bucky brings his knees up, resting his wrists on them and loosely linking his fingers together, before shoving at Clint with his elbow. Clint lifts his head and tiredly leans sideways to lean against Bucky’s shoulder, closing his eyes and exhaling heavily.

Bucky meets Tony’s eyes, the challenge evident.

Tony has absolutely no intention of going there right now so just shrugs. Bucky relaxes, and after a moment leans sideways so his head is resting against Clint’s.

When Nat and Bruce appear with a tray of coffees half an hour later, Tony feels like laughing, helpless and out of sorts. Rubbing his face, he just sits up and takes a drink, wondering if anyone on the planet could guess what the Avengers are currently up to. Natasha sits on the stairs, leaning up them so her elbows are on the top step. She looks comfortable enough, tucked into a pair of sweats and a hooded top that looks like one of Bucky’s.

“He really does not want to sleep,” she murmurs, folding her hands around her mug.

“He probably does,” Bruce says back softly and he sits on the top stair next to her, though leans back against the wall. “People get over-tired, their body produces a rush of adrenaline to keep them going.”

“Running on empty?” Bucky asks, lifting his head from Clint’s as Pepper passes him a mug.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Bruce says. “He’s now so tired he’s gone past being able to sleep.”

“Wow, just what I wanted. A super-soldier hopped up on adrenaline,” Tony mutters, and then sighs, scraping his hand over his face. “Guys, you don’t have to sit here.”

“We know we don’t,” Natasha says. “But none of us will sleep easily until we know he’s safe.”

“Not just gonna leave Steve to deal with it,” Bucky adds, and when he says that Tony knows there’s no point in even arguing. 

“I can’t believe Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are currently battling an over-tired six-year old,” Pepper says, and Clint snorts, and then Bucky is cackling with laughter, clamping a palm over his mouth. Even Bruce is laughing softly, and Natasha is smiling wanly as she sips her coffee. 

“Yeah, laugh it up,” Tony says tiredly. “We’re officially Earth’s Most Domesticated Heroes now, did you not get the memo?”

“Hey, I have full faith in our ability to both kick ass and sort out baby-Cap,” Bucky drawls. “Get him settled and we can go back to blowing up bad guys.”

“Your eloquence astounds me,” Tony says. “But thanks for the sentiment, Buckaroo.”

“Any time,” Bucky grins and gives him a thumbs up. Next to him Clint snorts tiredly and turns further into Bucky’s shoulder.

“Tony,” Pepper whispers next to him.

“Hmm?” he looks up and registers what she’s drawing his attention to; the distinct lack of noise coming from the bedroom. Without waiting, he sets his mug down and climbs to his feet, walking to the bedroom and stealing in.

 

Steve is sitting on the floor beside the bed, facing away towards the wall with his shoulders leaning back against the edge of the mattress.  Arto is lying on the bed, fast asleep. He’s right on the edge, curled around into Steve’s shoulders, his face pressed against the back of his arm.

“Hey,” Tony whispers, and Steve looks around at him.

“I appear to have found a compromise,” he murmurs as Tony steps over, crouching down in front of him.

“Well he’s in the bed,” Tony says with a shrug, though he's so proud of Steve he could kiss him. “And he’s asleep.”

“That he is,” Steve replies, rubbing his face. “I daren’t get up.”

“Your call,” Tony says. “Though you need to go to sleep. You look about dead."

“I’m okay,” Steve says, and Tony knows it’s a lie.

“Everyone’s outside you know,” Tony tells him, and Steve lifts his eyes to Tony’s face, thin slivers of light from the blinds sliding over his face. God, even exhausted and beat, he’s so fucking glorious to look at that Tony can barely stand it.

“What?”

“Came to sit with me,” Tony says. “We’ve been having a tea party in the corridor.”

Steve’s mouth flickers. “Pepper too?”

“She was the first one there,” Tony says, and Steve reaches out for him. Tony slots his fingers between Steve’s. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t do anything.”

Steve shakes his head. “You were fine,” he says. “Nothing else you could have done. Thanks for sticking around though.”

“Any time,” Tony whispers. He glances up at the bit of Arto he can see over Steve’s shoulder. “He’s well out, Steve. Come to bed.”

Steve sighs. “Go tell the others thank you,” he says quietly. “And tell them to go to bed. I’ve got this.”

He gives Tony a gentle push, pressing against their joined hands, so Tony nods and lets him go. He leans down to press a kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth, feeling him breathe next to him as Steve’s hand comes up to hold onto his face.

“Go,” Steve says, turning his face into Tony’s and kissing him back.

Tony goes, stepping quietly out into the corridor. The others stop their murmured conversation, all looking to him as he comes closer. “He’s out,” Tony says. “Steve says go to bed and thank you.”

“Thank fuck,” Clint says, sounding exhausted. Bucky is already on his feet, holding out a hand and hauling Clint upright. “Hey, tell him I’ll have Short Round in the morning if he wants to sleep in.”

Tony nods and Clint waves his hand in a half-hearted goodbye as Bucky steers him towards the stairs and his bed. Natasha and Bruce say quiet goodbyes and leave, and Pepper lingers for a moment.

“Get some rest,” she says to Tony, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

“Thank you,” Tony says, and there should be more, there needs to be more, but she’s just smiling tiredly at him. “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she says gently, and then she’s gone, collecting up the mugs left on the floor and walking away.

When Tony goes back into the penthouse, he sees that Steve has moved around so his arms are pillowed on the side of the bed next to Arto, head resting on top of them. His eyes are closed. Tony goes over and leans over, kissing him on the side of his face. Steve stirs, turning his face up into Tony’s.

“I’ll come in as soon as I’m sure he’s not going to wake up,” Steve mumbles against his mouth. “Get some rest.”

And Tony wants to object, but he’s so tired that he’s not sure he’s going to be able to. Instead, he simply nods. “I’ll do breakfast,” he offers, and Steve smiles faintly.

“Pancakes, please.”

Tony thinks about that for a second. “I’ll order breakfast.”

Steve shakes his head slightly. “Handmade Stark pancakes. That’s my final offer.”

“And I thought I only had one brat to deal with.”

“Where do you think he gets it from,” Steve says sleepily, and Tony laughs softly, the sound wobbly and catching because he can barely believe Steve is actually still there, there with Arto and making jokes about it-

“Go to sleep, Tony.”

He leans down and brushes his mouth across Steve’s temple once again. “Aye, aye Captain,” he whispers, and squeezes Steve’s shoulder before turning away and padding into the bedroom, leaving the door open behind him.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t think he’s ever felt this tired in his life. It’s not the fact that he’s been up all night, or even the physical strain of having to keep Arto from hurting Tony the previous evening; it’s the emotional exhaustion of spending twelve hours close to breaking point and feeling like he’s done everything wrong.

He tiredly pushes the bedroom door open, glancing back over his shoulder as he does. Arto is still asleep, hasn't so much as moved for the last hour, so Steve is finally risking it and heading to bed.

Using his foot to push the door firmly - but quietly, fucking hell Arto better not wake up again - closed behind him, he pulls his shirt over his head and drops it to the floor, kicking his sweats off and also leaving them abandoned at the foot of the bed. Tony is asleep, lying on his side with his face turned towards Steve, one hand up by his face and holding onto the pillow.

He clambers into bed, feeling clumsy and uncoordinated as his knees knock against Tony’s. Tony stirs, groaning sleepily in the back of his throat.

“Just me,” Steve mutters, lying down.

“I’d be worried if it were anyone else trying to sneak into bed with me,” Tony mumbles back, and his eyes open blurrily. “He still asleep?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and he shifts closer, tucking his head under Tony’s chin and burying his face in his collarbones, exhaling warm breaths over his skin. Tony shivers and brings his arm up to wrap around him, legs brushing Steve’s under the blankets.

“You okay?”

Steve nods, and he kisses the soft hollow between Tony’s collarbones, nuzzling down into sleep-warm skin. Tony makes a contented noise and Steve does it again, mouth open and hot. He feels wound too tightly underneath the smothering weight of fatigue, a restlessness that’s deep in his bones. He slides a palm onto Tony’s waist, pulling him close and kissing his neck again, tilting his face up as he trails a path up to Tony’s jaw, breathing unsteadily as he goes.

“Steve,” Tony groans. “Are you kidding me right now?”

“Shut up,” Steve mutters thickly, relieved when Tony turns his face down to kiss him properly, mouth lax and clumsy with sleep.

“You shut up,” Tony murmurs back. “You need to sleep.”

“Can’t,” Steve says. “Too-” he begins, but he can’t finish because he doesn't know what it is, why he can’t just close his eyes and relax-

“Too tired to sleep,” Tony mutters. “Like father like son. Steve, seriously.”

Steve shakes his head, pushing against Tony and rolling them over, tangling them both in the sheets and pinning Tony to the mattress with his weight. Tony makes a noise of protest, though his hands drag up across Steve’s shoulders, familiar and comforting.

“Need you,” Steve breathes without thinking, mouth brushing Tony’s, and it’s probably the first time he’s ever said that so directly but he doesn’t care. He cares that Tony is kissing him back, slow and lazy, hands dragging across Steve's shoulders to the sides of his neck.

“I’m right here,” Tony says, voice still rough and heavy with sleep. He lets Steve kiss him again, tilts his head back as Steve moves down to his neck again, biting at the underside of his jaw. His hand reaches down, drags across warm skin and pulls Tony’s thigh up around his waist. Tony draws in a sharp breath and god, it’s just like it’s always been between them, easy and good. Steve shudders through a breath, rolls his hips against Tony’s, holding him in place with both his hands and his weight.

“Steve, he’s right next door,” Tony breathes, even as his arms wrap around Steve’s shoulders.

“Room’s soundproof,” Steve replies unsteadily. “Jarvis, lock the door, alert me if he wakes up.”

“Steve,” Tony protests, though his back is arching unconsciously, body responding to Steve’s in the same way it always has. “You really want to have to stop if he does wake up?”

Frustration rolls through Steve and he swears, letting go of Tony’s leg and rolling away, throwing himself onto his back on the bed. He lifts his arm up over his face to cover his eyes, feeling like he’s not far from bursting into tears.

“Hey,” Tony says, sounding wounded. “Hey, Steve.”

A warm hand slides across Steve’s stomach and then Tony is pressing close, draping himself over him with one leg thrown between Steve’s. He rests his palms on Steve’s chest and props his chin up on the back of his hands, and Steve can’t bring himself to properly meet Tony’s eyes.

“Look at me,” Tony says quietly.

“No,” Steve replies, and swallows thickly. Tony sighs and then he’s moving, climbing fully on top of Steve and lying between his legs, turning his head and resting his cheek against Steve’s chest. His hand comes up and fingers trace lightly along Steve’s shoulder.

“Ruined the moment, didn't I?”

And Steve feels a thousand times worse at the quiet apology in Tony’s voice. “No,” he says, though his voice is unsteady. “You’re right. We can’t.”

“Steve-”

“I just,” Steve begins. “I get it, alright. He’s probably going to wake up in half an hour and come looking for me.”

Tony flattens his palm against Steve’s skin, nodding absently. His beard scratches against Steve’s skin and Steve aches to pull him closer again. “I’m sorry,” Tony says. “Not exactly relaxing, having that in the back of my mind.”

“You don’t trust Jarvis?” 

“Course I do,” Tony says. “But if he gets up - we’ve got to be there. Like, right away. A ten second wait outside that locked door could set him off. Especially when the last thing he remembers is you being there with him.”

And at that, Steve does feel tears pricking his eyes. He’s so goddamn tired. “I literally cannot do anything right tonight." 

“You shut up,” Tony says, and his voice is low and fierce. He reaches out and grabs at Steve’s wrist, tries to pull his arm from his face. “Steve, look at me.”

Steve resists, and Tony makes an angry noise in the back of his throat. He lets go of Steve’s wrist but then his mouth is on Steve’s, kissing him hard. He pulls back so his mouth is just in front of Steve’s, breathing heavily for a long moment before he leans in and kisses him again.

Steve moves his arm from over his face, sliding his palm onto the back of Tony’s head, fingers threading into his hair. His other hand slides onto Tony’s hip, holding on tightly as Tony kisses him and kisses him. He can’t hold it together, and Tony is pulling him open and leaving him exposed and raw in a way he hates, but at the same time he loves it so very fiercely and it makes him feel utterly broken.

He wrenches his mouth away from Tony’s, and he tries to cover his face again because he’s fucking crying again, but Tony is rolling sideways and pulling Steve with him, and Steve has no resistance left and allows himself to be pulled, ending up lying on his side with his face buried in Tony’s chest, head tucked under his chin. Tony holds him tightly through the tears that he just can’t force back, a hand on the back of his head and the other on his neck.

“Fuck,” Steve chokes out, raw and grating. “Fuck.”

“I got you,” Tony says, pressing his face into Steve’s hair and sounding like he’s not too far away from tears as well.

“I just - everything is different and I’ve not got a fucking clue what I’m doing,” Steve manages. “I can’t raise a kid, I can’t do this-”

“You can,” Tony says to him. “You are fucking exhausted and over-emotional. Remember Arto about four hours ago? That’s you right now.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing-”

“You are doing just fine,” Tony says, and he strokes his fingers along the back of Steve’s neck. “You don’t even realize you’re doing it.”

And through the haze of emotion, the words sink in. The barbed twist of panic slowly abates from Steve’s stomach, allowing him to breathe more easily. He nods jerkily, accepting Tony’s words, and kisses his collarbone again, a silent thank you. 

He doesn't speak for a long while, and neither does Tony. They lie there in the darkness of the bedroom, breathing easily and quietly. Steve doesn't let him go; he holds on tightly to the comfort that he gets from having Tony so close. Feeling Tony breathing alongside him, he slowly calms down until he feels back to normal - albeit exhausted.

“If you ever leave me, I’m going to have you charged with treason.”

Tony laughs. “Treason?”

“You will officially be considered an enemy of the United States,” Steve says, and then he stops. An unwelcome thought drifts into existence, uncertain and half formed. “Though if I’m not Captain America anymore, I guess you’ll get away with it.”

Tony is silent for a long while, hand stroking along Steve’s nape. “You don’t mean that.”

“I can't do both,” Steve says, and every word hurts him to say. “Not with him like-”

“Shush,” Tony says over him. “You are Captain America, Steve. I’m never going to ask you to give that up.”

“But-”

“Steve,” Tony interrupts, sounding pained. “Don’t. Sleep. You’re not in the right place to even think it.”

And Steve finds he doesn’t have it in him to argue any further. He nods dumbly, leans back away from Tony to scrub a hand over his face. “Jesus,” he says tiredly. “I’m sorry.”

Tony shrugs at him. “You’re okay,” he says. “I don’t mind. Kinda nice to know you’ll open up to me instead of running crying to Barnes.”

Steve opens his mouth, shakes his head. “Really?” he asks in mild disbelief, and Tony’s mouth quirks in a strange smile.

“I’m a selfish guy, what can I say. I want you to myself.”

“I was offered up on a damn silver platter earlier; you can’t want me that badly,” Steve grouches and Tony laughs.

“And it’s also kinda nice to actually manage a conversation with you without you using sex to avoid it,” he says pointedly, and Steve feels an uncomfortable stab of guilt.

“Between Arto not leaving me alone and you wanting to have serious conversations, I’m never going to get to have sex again, am I?” Steve says, aiming for a joke and not quite getting there.

Tony just rolls his eyes. “Drama queen,” he says, and tips Steve’s face up so he can kiss him. “We’ll work something out.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Tony replies, softly kissing the corner of his mouth. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You go to fucking sleep,” Tony says. “Seriously. Stop talking, stop thinking, stop trying to seduce me and go to sleep.”

Steve snorts tiredly. “That was hardly a seduction.”

“I know,” Tony sighs. “You’re very caveman about it some days.”

Steve pushes gently at Tony’s shoulder and Tony rolls away, settling on his side so Steve can lie behind him, sliding an arm around his middle and kissing the back of his shoulder.

“Yeah, much more of this and I will be slinging you over my shoulder and dragging you to bed,” Steve mutters.

“Jesus, anyone would think you’d been without for months.”

“It’s my coping mechanism for stress,” Steve admits. “And it’s been a pretty stressful few weeks.”

“Wow, you actually admitted it.”

“Shut up,” Steve says, and sighs against the back of Tony’s neck. “Thank you,” he murmurs against Tony’s shoulder.

“Any time, Mon Capitan,” Tony murmurs, and turns his face for a kiss. “Now shut the fuck up and go to sleep.”

“Yes Sir,” Steve murmurs, and exhales heavily. He presses close to Tony, relaxing into the pillows, and he sleeps.

 


 

“Steve. Steve. Steve.”

The word echoes distantly in Steve’s mind as he’s dragged from sleep towards wakefulness. He grunts in the back of his throat, and then distantly realizes what it is as small fingers prod at his ear.

“Steve. Wake up. Steve.”

He groans and reaches up to push Arto’s hand away from his ear, burying his face into the pillow. God, it feels like he’s been asleep for all of five minutes-

“Whoa, no you don’t Smart Art. Leave him alone.”

Tony’s voice is rough with sleep, but clear and fully awake. Steve feels the bed shift and dip as Tony moves, and the fingers let go of him. Arto’s weight slumps against his shoulder, but before he can react he feels Tony get up out of the bed, and then Arto yelps and the weight against his back vanishes.

“He’s sleeping, leave him alone.”

“No,” he distantly hears Arto whine. “Stay with Steve.”

“Not a chance,” Tony says, and Steve hears him moving away. “Super-Soldier needs another few hours. We’re going to go get breakfast and play.”

“Lucky Charms!”

“Yes, you are allowed Lucky Charms. This is one of the rare windows of opportunity where you are actually allowed to have Lucky Charms.”

Their voices fade and Steve is left alone. He breathes out heavily and for a moment debates whether he should get up and follow them, considering what had happened the night before. Though Arto had seemed absolutely fine this morning, clambering about and trying to wake Steve with his usual bright enthusiasm.

Steve finds he’s glad. The night before had been awful in ways he can’t even describe. More than once he’d simply wanted to carry Arto to bed with him, just so it could be over. When he thinks back, it wasn’t just the fact that everyone was exhausted that made him want to give in; it was the fact Arto was so distressed. His crying and the way he’d kept reaching out for Steve had hit places in Steve he’s still not sure he can identify.

An unexpected  flicker of guilt thrums through him and he rolls over, pulling the blankets with him. He should get up, and check he’s okay. Besides, he’s not really sure that he’s okay with staying in bed while the other Avengers deal with him.

But he had been the one to deal with Arto last night, and the others are perfectly willing to help - hell, the fact they’d all been there waiting in the corridor the night before is proof enough of that. And besides, Tony and Clint - and possibly some of the others by now - actually like spending time with Arto, more so than Steve does at the moment. Hell, Tony probably feels more like a parent in the space of a minute than Steve has done since Arto arrived.

Steve doesn’t expect the thought to leave him feeling as hollow as it does. It’s almost wistful, like something he feels part of him reaching uncertainly towards, the rest of him unsure if the feeling should be trusted.

He’s still so tired.

The thoughts flitter restlessly around his mind, and for a while he wonders if he’s even going to be able to get back to sleep. It’s only when he jerks awake at the sound of the bedroom door opening that he realizes he’d managed to fall asleep at all.

“Jumpy,” Tony comments, as Steve lets his head fall back against the pillow. The room is fairly light, sunshine bleeding through the translucent windows and bathing the room. He hopes Jarvis doesn’t pipe up to tell him what time it actually is, because he doesn’t think it’s going to be as early as he hopes it is.

“Where’s Arto?” Steve asks, voice thick with sleep.

“Barton and Barnes have got him. Jarvis is keeping an eye out.”

Steve grunts to acknowledge he’s heard, and then he feels Tony slide back into the bed next to him.

“I was promised pancakes,” he mutters.

“When you get your ass out of bed, you get your damn pancakes,” Tony says, shifting about before he lies down next to Steve, pressing close. Steve hums contentedly and slides a palm onto Tony’s waist, the fingers of his other hand coming up to brush Tony’s chin. Tony presses his fingertips to the side of Steve’s neck and Steve smiles as Tony’s mouth gently brushes his. It sends a warm electric thrill rolling lazily up Steve’s spine. Tony is so warm and close, and the need and want from the night before haven't gone far. His next exhale is carefully controlled, a deep breath against Tony’s skin.

“How long have they got him for?”

“I don’t know. Hopefully a couple of hours, providing he doesn’t throw a tantrum about anything,” Tony says against Steve’s mouth. “He knows you’re sleeping, so he might not come and bother you.”

“We could manage a lot in a couple of hours,” Steve says, and Tony smiles and kisses him again, shifting even closer so they’re pressing together.

“Captain, you read my mind.”

Steve groans. “Please don’t call me that in bed.”

“I thought you liked it,” Tony says, all faux-innocence. “Or maybe you like it too much? Don’t want to get all over-excited when I call you Captain in the field-”

Steve shuts him up the easiest way he knows; he swiftly leans in and kisses him. Tony is laughing against his mouth and Steve grabs him and rolls them over so he’s got Tony pinned on his back, just like the night before.

“Wow, that was smooth,” Tony says breathlessly. “I may swoon.”

“Swoon quietly then,” Steve says and kisses him again, and Tony is kissing him back hungrily, hands sliding up Steve’s arms and clenching tightly around his shoulders. Steve reaches down blindly to grab hold of Tony’s thigh, pulling his leg up around his waist. Tony groans into his mouth and the sound hits him like a punch to the gut. It’s so sudden but he feels frantic, all the emotion from the past god knows how long far too close to the surface. His need is all encompassing, but he needs to slow down or he’s going to hurt Tony-

Tony’s hands slide down Steve’s back, pressing hard against muscle, his fingers slipping under the waistband of Steve’s underwear. His hips jolt forwards hard and Tony lets out a cry, muffled against Steve’s mouth.

“Whoa, easy,” Tony pants between kisses, hands coming back up to cup Steve’s face. “I got you.”

And in that moment Steve believes it with all his heart - that Tony has him and won’t ever let him do anything by himself, that he trusts Tony to be there, and he loves this man in his arms so much he’s not sure he can even articulate it-

Breaking away from Tony, Steve takes his hips in hand and rolls them over so Tony’s the one on top, body pressing down into Steve’s.

“You,” Steve tries to say. He’s shaking from head to toe, a fine trembling that he can’t ignore.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not-” Steve begins. “I can barely think straight. I’m going to hurt you.”

And Tony just meets his eyes and nods. “You want to carry on?”

Nodding because that’s not in question, Steve's hands grip tighter onto Tony as if he thinks Tony is going to change his mind and pull away. Tony nods as if to reassure him, bumps Steve’s jaw with his knuckles.

“You want me to take it from here?”

“Fuck yes,” Steve says fervently, and Tony laughs softly, leaning in to kiss him. 

“You got it,” he says, and then leans in close to Steve’s ear to breathe, “Captain.”

And this time Steve is laughing, helplessly throwing up an arm over his eyes as he laughs and laughs. Tony kisses him gently and Steve can feel the smile against his mouth. A hand slides up the underside of Steve’s arm, pushes his arm from his face and presses his wrist into the pillow above his head.

“I got you,” Tony murmurs again, and kisses Steve again, biting gently at his lower lip. “Hands up.”

Steve obliges, lifting his other hand and tucking them both behind his head. As he does, Tony shoves the blankets away and peels his shirt over his head, throwing it aside before leaning back in and catching Steve’s mouth in another kiss.  Easing his knees apart to make room for Tony, Steve feels his breath catch in his chest, ribcage expanding as he breathes in deeply.  Tony kisses him through it, fingers curling around Steve’s waist as if to hold him in place.

“Has Jarvis got the door?”

"Jarvis will tell us the moment his feet hit our stairs,” Tony replies, leaning in and gently rubbing his chin over Steve’s collarbones, leaning in and mouthing his neck. “Stop worrying.”

“Says you,” Steve retorts. “You were the one-”

“Shut up, stop arguing and relax,” Tony insists, words hot against his skin. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time to play with now.”

“Thought you said they had him for a couple of hours?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, lifting his head to meet his eyes. “As long as he doesn’t throw a tantrum or come looking for you.”

There’s a pause, Tony’s eyebrows lift up meaningfully and Steve grimaces and then nods. “Okay, making it quick then?”

“Alright by me if that’s alright by you,” Tony breathes and then they’re kissing again, frantic and needy.

Hands slide over bare skin, desperate to touch and be touched, and fuck Steve has missed the feel of Tony being so close to him like this. Yeah, he’s glad they’re communicating more effectively but he’s not going to lie - using this as a key part of their communication definitely has as many perks as it does drawbacks. Heart thudding in his chest and breath coming rapid and short, Steve slides a hand onto the back of Tony’s head and one onto his shoulder; Tony fumbles for the hand that’s curled over his arm and grasps Steve’s wrist, pushing it back into the pillows beside his head.

Shuddering, Steve lets Tony pin his hand in place. He’s got no real hope of keeping it there if Steve decides he doesn’t want it, but the fact Tony is taking over is enough for him.

He groans as Tony’s hips roll against his, and he reaches down with his free hand to pull at Tony’s sweats, tugging them down over the curve of his ass. Panting heavily, Tony pulls away to assist, hurriedly removing his sweatpants and then turning his attention to Steve’s underwear, pulling them down and off and then slapping Steve’s hip.

“Roll over,” he says breathlessly, reaching for the dresser.

“So you weren’t kidding about being quick?” Steve replies as Tony leans away from him, stretching out as he rummages through the drawer.

“No I was not,” Tony says. “Move your ass, Rogers.”

“So romantic,” Steve says dryly, reaching out and running his fingertips down Tony’s spine.

“You want me to be romantic or you want me to do something to take the edge off of your not inconsiderable sex drive?” Tony asks as he finally finds the lube and rolls back towards Steve.

“Option B, please,” Steve says.

Tony snorts, and leans over to kiss him, open mouthed and hot. “Deal. Now roll over.”

Steve obliges, shoving the pillows off of the edge of the bed and rolling onto his front, pillowing his face in his arms. He shifts his hips restlessly and then his breath hitches as Tony throws a leg over his thighs, straddling his legs and pressing warm palms to Steve’s back. He digs fingers into taut muscle and Steve groans, arching his back and trying to move towards Tony’s kneading fingers.

“Or I could just give you a massage?” Tony grins, leaning forwards to bite at Steve’s shoulder. Steve turns his face and Tony obliges, shifting forwards so he can kiss him, hands sliding along his biceps. Steve exhales shakily as he feels Tony’s hips pressing into his ass, his dick hot and hard against Steve’s skin.

Almost everything vanishes; the thoughts and worries, everything but the feel of Tony against him, the way his heart is thudding inside his chest. Underneath the arousal, there’s still a sense of restlessness inside the pit of his stomach, urgency which is compelling him to hurry, to rush.

Tony slides off to his side, lying with his chest pressing against Steve’s shoulder, one leg still thrown over Steve’s. He leans in, kissing along his shoulder, strong fingers gripping Steve’s chin and turning his face towards him. Steve hears the click of the lube and then there’s slick fingers trailing up the inside of his thigh as Tony bites down on his bottom lip.

“Do it,” Steve pants into his mouth, and the words break apart on a cry as Tony’s hand slides up to roughly cup his balls.

“Do what?” Tony breathes, and he drags his fingers up the crease of Steve’s ass, leaving his skin slick and wet. “Fuck you face down while you’re begging for it?”

Steve grunts deep in his chest. “Yeah, that,” he manages to say. “Tony."

A breathless grunt is knocked from his chest as Tony leans over him, working two slick fingers into him without any further preamble. “Easy,” Tony breathes, chest hot against Steve’s arm. “You got this."

“Been a while,” Steve mutters, eyes fluttering closed. Tony’s fingers twist inside him and he groans, instinctively tensing and then remembering to relax. “Fuck, Tony-"

Tony’s fingers still as he leans up close to Steve’s face, breathing hotly over his ear and making him shiver. “You can take it,” he murmurs, voice low and dark, words saturated with promise. “You can take a lot more than this."

As if to prove a point, a third finger pushes inside and Steve gasps, hips lifting off the mattress involuntarily and back arching.

“Four?” Tony breathes, and he leans down to worry Steve’s earlobe between his teeth, sending electric thrills of arousal down Steve’s spine.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Steve groans, legs shifting restlessly as Tony works his fingers in and out. God he’s missed this, missed the way the sensation goes from foreign and uncomfortable to purely right, settling deep in the pit of his stomach as his body aches for me.

This time however, it doesn't settle all the way. He can't fully lose himself in it, not with the fear of interruption still in the back of his mind.

“Hurry up,” he pants, lifting his head from his arms. He twists his body, forcing Tony to pull back and away as he rolls onto his back. He can feel sweat in the dip of his spine and along his hairline, body reacting to Tony in the same way it always does, willing and ready.

“You come quicker when you’re on your front,” Tony says him with a maddeningly knowing lift of his eyebrow. Steve retaliates by hooking a leg around Tony’s lower back and pulling him in, heel pushing against Tony’s tailbone and sending him sprawling forwards, catching himself with a hand in the pillow at the last minute.

“Is that right?” he asks, breathless smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“You were the one suggesting we hurry up,” Tony says, even as he shifts so he’s properly between Steve’s legs, leaning down to bite at his collarbone, dragging his mouth across Steve’s chest.

“I have full faith in your ability to do it right when I’m on my back,” Steve says, and Tony laughs, catching Steve’s mouth in a clumsy kiss, panting against him.

“Gosh, well I can’t let Captain America down, can I?” he says, and Steve is kissing him again to shut him up, rough and breathless, and Tony is reaching blindly for the lube while trying to return Steve’s hot open mouthed kisses. The anticipation feels like it’s almost too much; Steve’s body already misses Tony’s skilled fingers-

Tony grabs one of his knees and pushes it back towards Steve’s chest, trusting fully in - and taking shameless advantage of - Steve’s flexibility as he pushes him roughly into position.

“Fuck, I will never get tired of you,” Tony mutters, and warmth spreads through Steve’s chest and he goes to reply, but Tony is pushing inside him and his words are lost, throat clicking on a gasp. Tony rolls his hips, groaning appreciatively into Steve’s neck, beard scratching rough against his skin.

“Oh, fuck,” he manages, throwing out a hand and clenching his fingers in the sheets. Fuck, he’ll never get tired of how good this feels, how good Tony can make him feel.

He lets his head tip back, hips falling lose as Tony fucks into him harder and harder. He loses track of time, hands restlessly dragging over Tony’s skin, clenching every time Tony hits the right spot inside him. Tony has his forehead pressed to Steve’s, panting roughly into his mouth as he drags them both towards the edge.

God, it’s lucky that he’s so good at this because Steve is getting there fast. For once it’s a welcome sensation, and Steve lets himself fall into it. God, if they get interrupted now he’s going to lose his fucking mind, shit, Tony better hurry up-

“You hurry the fuck up,” Tony retorts, and Steve realizes he’s been gasping out loud. He’s too far gone to be embarrassed about the begging; that, he can save for later.

Tony readjusts, hooks his arms under Steve’s knees and thrusts forwards with enough force to send Steve up the bed a few inches. He throws out a hand to press against the wall above his head, wraps the other around the back of Tony’s neck so he can pull him in for a kiss.

“Enough for you yet?” Tony mutters against his mouth, dark and wicked. “That hard enough for you, Captain?”

“Fuck off,” Steve gasps. “Shit, Tony-”

His climax hits him like a suckerpunch, knocking all the breath out of him. He feels his whole body go tense, back arching up off the mattress, and Tony is swearing and pounding into him so hard he feels like he’s going to break. He can’t even find sounds, let alone words, drags in air as Tony thrusts one last time and shudders above him, dropping his head to bury his face in Steve’s shoulder as he comes.

“Holy fuck,” Tony manages to say, and then he’s laughing, breath warm and damp against Steve’s skin.

“Yeah,” Steve replies, groaning as he lets his legs fall from Tony’s sides. “Oh god.”

They lie together for a moment, collecting themselves. “You done?” Tony asks after a while, gently rocking his hips against Steve’s ass.

“I can be, if you stop doing that,” Steve says, and Tony laughs again and pulls back and away from him, pressing a smacking kiss against his mouth. He sits up on the edge of the bed and Steve reaches out and strokes his fingers down Tony’s spine, not entirely willing to have him move away so quickly.

Usually this would be where they laugh and talk, the mood going playful and warm. They’d drop back into bed, indulging in the feel of being close, or if they had to be somewhere, quickly going through the shower.

“Go clean up,” Tony says, the words breaking into Steve’s vague daydream. “Before we get any visitors.”

Steve nods, disappointed but understanding. He grabs a clean pair of boxers and goes into the bathroom to wash up. The hot water is soothing on his skin, and his body aches in the best possible way. He knows it won’t last long, but for the time being it’s a welcome feeling.

He doesn’t waste any time washing up, for once wanting to get out as quickly as possible. As he steps back into the bedroom, roughly towelling his hair, he sees Tony has changed the sheets for clean ones already, and is tossing pillows back into their place on the bed.

Murmuring thanks, he drops back onto the freshly made bed with a satisfied groan. Tony follows, lying on his back and pulling Steve close, one arm hooked around his neck so Steve ends up with his head resting against Tony’s shoulder, the light from the arc-reactor close and soothing, illuminating his face from beneath.

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve says absently, shifting against the clean sheets. “Just strange. Not being able to completely switch off from the world.”

“Yeah,” Tony echoes, pulling Steve close so he can press a kiss to his brow. “We’ll work it out.”

Considering the circumstances, Steve doesn't exactly know how that’s going to happen, but he doesn’t call Tony on it. It’s too nice a moment to ruin by voicing doubts, and he doesn’t know when they’ll get another chance to be alone together like this.

Tony seems to be thinking along the same lines. He doesn’t say anything, just strokes his fingertips absently up and down the back of Steve’s arm and shoulder for while, until his palm settles on Steve’s shoulder and his breathing goes deep and even.

Lulled by Tony’s relaxed breaths and the thudding of his heart, Steve is also edging towards sleep again when Jarvis quietly breaks the silence.

“Arto is on the stairwell, Captain Rogers.”

“Thanks Jarvis,” Steve mumbles. He waits, and sure enough a minute later he distantly hears small footsteps pelting across the penthouse. There’s a thud and Tony stirs sleepily, and then the door is pulled open.

“Time to get up,” Arto’s voice says loudly, and Steve lifts his head from Tony’s shoulder and rolls onto his back just as Arto scrambles up onto the bed. He’s already dressed, today in a bright blue t-shirt and jeans. The jeans are slightly too long for him, the denim half-covering his bare feet.

Steve finds he’s actually relieved to see him. Memories of repeatedly walking away from him the night before stir uneasily in the back of his mind, and without thinking about it, he holds out his hand towards Arto. Arto promptly clambers towards him, kneeling on Tony’s legs as he crawls up towards them.

“Ouch,” Tony protests, looking blearily at Arto.

“Make me room,” Arto demands, and he pushes between them and pulls the duvet back, promptly scrambling under the covers between them. “It’s warm,” he says happily, throwing himself back against the pillows, pushing his feet against Steve’s thigh. “I stay here with you.”

Steve props himself up on an elbow, sends an exasperated glance Tony’s way. Lying on his back, Tony just shrugs at him. The corner of his mouth quirks in a smile and he reaches out to rest his palm on Arto’s stomach, thumb stroking gently against the fabric of his t-shirt.

“What did you do to Barton?”

“Having breakfast with Bucky,” Arto says, twisting around and looking up at Steve. “Are you tired?”

“I was,” Steve says honestly. “Not so much now.”

“Can I stay with you today?”

Steve looks down at him, and when he doesn’t reply straight away Arto rolls towards him, reaching up and touching Steve’s jaw. “Steve,” he says urgently. “Stay with you.”

Steve looks down at him, and actually he finds it pretty easy to decide.

“Yeah okay,” Steve says, and the delight on Arto’s face makes him feel like it’s possibly worth it. “On one condition.”

Arto wrinkles his nose up, and turns to look at Tony.

“Means you have to do one thing in return,” Tony explains, and glances at Steve, looking uncertain. “You do the one thing, you can stay with Steve.”

“Okay,” Arto says and turns to look at Steve expectantly.

“Get your cold feet off of my leg,” Steve says, and Arto grins and pulls his feet up. Tony barks out a laugh, and the relief on his face is obvious.

“Yeah, no cold feet allowed in the bed,” he says, and leans over to blow a raspberry against Arto’s neck. Arto shrieks with laughter and thrashes wildly; Tony pulls back with a grin, sniggering as Arto pushes at him.

“Steady,” Steve says, reaching for Arto’s hands. Arto grabs hold of his fingers, rolls into him so his back is pressed against Steve’s chest, head resting on his bicep. Steve bends his arm around so Arto can hold onto his fingers.

“Steve?”

“Arto,” Steve replies, gently bending his fingers around Arto’s. Once again he feels impossibly small tucked up against Steve’s body, and in the back of his mind Steve feels worry spike through him, even though Arto isn’t exactly as breakable as usual six year olds.

Arto’s mouth twists contemplatively, and then he turns his eyes up to Steve’s, bright and blue and so familiar.

“Can we go outside?”

Steve feels himself go very, very still, going from relaxed to on-edge in the blink of an eye. Already thinking about every conceivable way in which that idea could go horribly wrong, he looks away from Arto to Tony, who is looking at him seriously. He raises an eyebrow, just enough to let Steve knows he’s waiting for him to make the call.

“No,” Steve says, and Arto’s face falls.

“Not today,” Steve amends, but Arto’s put-out frown doesn't abate.

“Why?”

Steve is at a loss. He can’t say ‘because you’re too dangerous,’ to a six year old, can’t say ‘because no-one can know about you yet.’ He certainly can’t be honest and admit that he won’t take Arto out because he’s not comfortable enough to do it.

“Because I have work to do, Steve has training with Bucky and Clint isn't allowed to take you by himself,” Tony jumps in, frank and unapologetic. Arto’s affronted expression turns on him.

“Not fair,” he protests, and Steve wonders where his sense of fairness has actually came from. “You made me sleep in my bed.”

Tony just snorts with laughter. “Yeah, doesn’t work like that, kiddo,” he says, and reaches out to ruffle Arto’s hair. Arto pushes his hand away, scowling.

“Okay, talking about fair then,” Tony concedes. “You sleep in your own bed tonight and then we’ll take you out somewhere.”

“Okay,” Arto says immediately, and turns to look at Steve who doesn’t have much choice but to nod, not if he doesn’t want to undermine Tony, anyway.

“You sleep without a fuss,” Tony adds.

Arto nods vigorously. “Okay.”

“Bribery and extortion,” Tony says to Steve, who rolls his eyes.

“Extortion,” Arto repeats seriously and Tony chokes on a laugh.

“That’s a lesson for another day, I think.”

“Had Lucky Charms,” Arto says suddenly to Steve, smoothing his hands across the blanket and then reaching for Steve’s hand. Steve lets him have it, carefully folding his fingers around Arto’s and deciding not to think about the possibility of having to take Arto outside tomorrow.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and a - a- ” he begins and falters. “Green thing?”

“An apple,” Tony fills in with a small, rueful smile. Steve gets it; pity twists in his stomach and he tries not to think about what Arto’s life must have been like beforehand for him to not know the word apple.

“Well, we learned the word green,” Tony says and Steve smiles at Arto.

“You already knew the word green,” he says.

Arto scrunches his nose up and grins back, and the pity vanishes. On impulse, Steve stretches his fingers out and reaches forwards with Arto still holding onto his hand, gently prodding the end of his nose. Arto makes a pleased chirping sound and presses Steve’s hand to the top of his head.

Steve glances up and sees Tony is watching them, lying back with his face turned towards them, mouth curved in a smile. Tony’s eyes flick to his and Steve has to look away, refocusing on Arto who is now pressing Steve’s hand against his mouth and blowing against it, breath hot and damp on his palm.

The sound of footsteps treading across the penthouse draw his attention; he and Arto look up at exactly the same moment, Tony a moment later. He waits and then Clint’s voice calls out, sounding mildly panicked. “Steve? Steve, is Arto with you?”

Just Clint. Steve feels himself relax again, and holds his finger up to his lips.  Arto mimics the motion, suppressing his giggles.

“No,” Steve calls back, and Tony smothers a laugh into the pillows.

“What? Jarvis said he headed up here-”

Clint appears in the doorway, skidding to a halt. The worried expression on his face melts into flat annoyance as he spots Arto lying between Steve and Tony.

“You fucking liar,” he says flatly. “Don’t do that.”

“I’m here!” Arto crows, throwing his arms up.

“You deserve it for losing him in the first place,” Tony snorts, throwing an arm up over his face, covering his eyes with his forearm and yawning widely.

“I didn’t lose him, he said he was going to the bathroom,” Clint says, and then points at Arto. “Which makes you a liar as well.”

“Not,” Arto says earnestly. “Went to the bathroom then came here.”

“Ha. Loopholed,” Tony drawls without looking from under his arm.

“You know what-” Clint begins and then he stops, looking from Tony to Steve. “Actually, I’m out,” he says, crossing his hands in front of his face. “Not talking to you two while you’re like this.”

“I might take offense to that,” Tony says, finally dropping his arm, rolling over and reaching for a tablet that’s on the night-stand.

Clint rolls his eyes. “Whatever. I’ll go so you can snuggle in peace.”

“Hey Barton, you want to take this with you?” Tony calls, lifting his eyes from the tablet and nodding at Arto.

“Nope,” Clint says, already backing out of the door. “I am going back to bed.”

He closes the bedroom door behind him, and Arto chirps again and shifts onto his knees, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders. “It’s daytime,” he says to Steve. “Why is Clint sleeping in the daytime?”

“Because he’s tired,” Steve says, instead of saying ‘because Clint is an idiot who stays up all night playing computer games and shooting things with Bucky.’ “Because someone kept us all up last night.”

Arto shakes his head, humming thoughtfully. “Just you.”

“Oh, just me?” Steve says, raising his eyebrows. Arto appears to get that his answer wasn’t entirely accurate by Steve’s reckoning, and his mouth twists thoughtfully.

“And Tony?”

Steve fights back the exasperated glance he wants to throw Arto’s way; he’s not sure Arto will understand it. “You kept all of us up,” he explains.

“Clint?”

“Yes, Clint.”

“Bucky?”

“Yes.

“Natasha?”

“Yes, and Pepper and Bruce and quite possibly Jarvis as well,” Tony chips in. “Hey Steve, there’s a few reports coming in from the West Coast, putting two and two together and making supervillain over here.”

“Yeah?” Steve asks, momentarily distracted. “Do we need a response team?”

“Steve,” Arto says loudly, and shuffles forwards on his knees. “Steve.”

“Hang on,” Steve says, and looks to Tony. “Anyone we know?”

“No, nothing major. Just a few things and a hunch. It’s disruption of the power grid and-” Tony begins.

“I want to go outside,” Arto interrupts loudly. “Steve!”

“Hey, I’m talking to Tony,” Steve says sharply, and Arto rears back. His face goes confused for a moment before crumpling, and shit, that’s not a look Steve wants to see on his face.

“Hey, hey,” he says, trying to pacify. “I didn’t mean to snap. I’m sorry.”

Arto still looks hurt. “I want to go outside,” he repeats, sounding very small.

“I know. I heard you. Not today,” Steve says gently.

“But I never go outside,” Arto says.

“We know,” Tony says, and he rolls over and holds out a hand. Arto takes it without question, fingers gripping Tony’s tightly. “But we agreed that you have to sleep in your own bed for that to happen.”

Arto doesn’t reply. His expression has gone sullen, staring down at the pillows without acknowledging Tony has spoken.

“Oh come on, not that face,” Tony says. “Come on Smart Art, you’re breaking my heart over here.”

Arto turns his face away marginally, mouth still turned into a sullen pout. Tony spreads his hands in his best approximation of ‘well I tried,’ and Steve decides fuck it.

“No sulking allowed in the bed either,” he says, and he swiftly grabs Arto around the middle and lifts him clean off the mattress, holding him up above his head. Arto shrieks and flails madly, grabbing Steve’s wrist with one hand and reaching out for the wall with the other. He twists madly and then seems to realize that Steve isn’t going to drop him, and he starts to laugh.

“No sulking allowed,” Steve repeats, lying back and looking up at him. “You sulk worse than Bucky.”

“No,” Arto gasps through his laughter, kicking his feet out and still stretching to try and reach the wall in front of him. He’s laughing helplessly as Steve starts to lower him back towards the bed and then pushes him up again, cheeks going pink.

“Jesus you’re loud,” Tony remarks, still scrolling through the news on the tablet.

“Take the sulking or take the noise,” Steve says to Tony before turning his attention back to Arto. “Stop squirming or I’ll drop you.”

“Won’t!” Arto cackles, and then screams as Steve jolts his hands like he’s about to drop him, letting him down a few inches in a sudden movement before easily catching him again.

“Sorry to interrupt, Sir,” Jarvis’s voice smoothly interrupts, though it does nothing to quieten Arto. “You have an incoming call from Agent Coulson.”

“Put him through,” Tony yawns as Arto continues to shriek with laughter. Steve’s mouth quirks in a grin as Tony backhands his shoulder half-heartedly. “Steve, put the small child down.”

“Nope,” Steve says, and Arto kicks his legs out again, squirming as his hands reach down towards Steve. He’s pink cheeked and breathless and grinning back at Steve like he’s the best thing in the world.

“Morning, Stark,” Coulson’s voice says, brisk and wide awake. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever heard Coulson be anything but, even when he’s called at god-awful hours of the morning or after a three day stakeout.

“Stark, Rogers and baby Rogers,” Tony corrects.

Coulson doesn't miss a beat. “Morning Stark, Rogers and baby Rogers.”

“Say hello to Phil,” Tony says to Arto.

“No,” Arto says, and Steve frowns, lowering Arto to the mattress beside him.

“No, pick me up,” Arto whines. “Steve-”

“Hey, taking a call here, you need to be quiet,” Tony says, pointing a finger at Arto.

To Steve’s utter surprise, Arto promptly clacks his mouth shut. He leans forwards and sprawls over Steve’s chest, hands patting at his shoulder as he turns wide blue eyes on Tony. Steve turns his head to raise his eyebrows at Tony, who is looking mildly impressed.

“Nice one, Smart Art,” he says, and Arto beams at him. “Sorry, Phil. What’s up? Passing on passive aggressive messages from Fury again?”

“Not today,” Phil says. “I’ve contacted Amir, he’s available tomorrow if you are.”

“The psychologist?” Steve asks, and he strokes his hand over Arto’s back. Arto hums and closes his eyes, resting his chin against Steve’s sternum.

“Yes, he and Vasquez are both available in the morning. I’ve got some paperwork I’ll bring in as well.”

“Paperwork?”

“Birth certificate, registration documents, social security paperwork.”

“Pretty much all the pieces of paper that a person needs to legally exist, right?”

“That would be it,” Phil agrees.

“Fine by me,” Steve says. “What time shall we expect you?”

“Ten thirty” Phil says. “You want me to send all the credentials to Jarvis to triple check?”

“Of course,” Tony replies, sitting up and stretching, hands on the back of his neck. “I’ll have security give him a temporary pass when you get here.”

“Alright, see you tomorrow Stark, Rogers and baby Rogers,” Coulson says, and the calls cuts out.  Tony goes back to scanning the tablet, seemingly at ease with the news. In contrast, Steve feels a strange nervousness stirring; someone is going to come in and pass judgement on Arto, on how they’re looking after him. And yes, he knows that they need the help and he readily welcomes it, but there’s still a part of him wary of the scrutiny they’ll undoubtedly be put under.  

“Am I baby Rogers?” Arto asks curiously.

Steve exhales slowly through his nose, gently placing his hand on Arto’s back. “I guess you are,” he says.

“You’re Steve Rogers.”

“I am.”

“I’m Arto,” he says. “Not Four.”

“Arto,” Steve agrees.

“Definitely not Four,” Tony says, tossing the tablet aside and climbing out of the bed.

“Not a baby,” Arto says and he scrambles off of Steve and stands on the bed, bending his knees and bobbing up and down on the mattress. “I’m not baby Rogers, I’m not a baby. I’m six.”

“Okay then small-child Rogers,” Tony says and Arto laughs and jumps across the bed towards him. Tony turns around and staggers as Arto jumps clean off the edge of the bed at him, grabbing him around the neck and nearly sending him flying.

“No,” Arto laughs as Tony grimaces and hitches him up.

“Okay, Steve, intervene here. Because Coulson will be turning up with paperwork with his name on and I’m not saying it. That’s on you.”

Steve’s not an idiot; he knows what he’s getting at. He considers Arto for a moment, carefully wondering how it feels to share his name with this small person he hardly knows yet. But then it crosses his mind how it might feel for Arto to have the name, and when it’s that way around it seems easier. There’s a fleeting moment in which he wishes his mother were there, a quick bittersweet rush that eases through him. God, this would be so much easier if she were here, he thinks suddenly. She’d know what to do.

He guesses he’ll just have to try and be the man she’d tell him to be. “Waiting for him to say it,” he says mildly.

“No,” Arto says loudly, and he leans back out of Tony’s arms. Tony lets him go, and he lands on the bed on his back in a sprawl of limbs.

“I’ve got odds on him not wanting to, actually,” Tony says as he pads towards the dresser. “That’s a big leap of faith.”

Steve frowns, sitting up in the bed and leaning back against the headboard. Arto scampers over and pushes at his legs; Steve lifts his knees and Arto sprawls forwards over them, chin resting on Steve’s blanket covered kneecaps.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it took an intervention from Barton for him to openly say you were his Dad,” Tony muses thoughtfully. “And he’s not exactly proving himself to be the most logical of creatures, is he?”

“Ste-eve,” Arto says, and rolls of his knees to the side. “Dad.”

Steve’s response to Tony is startled out of him. Arto seems utterly unfazed and simply starts clambering over Steve’s knees again. He crawls up Steve’s legs, jaw jutted determinedly as he scrambles up. Steve reaches for him and Arto ends up knelt on Steve’s knees, hands gripping Steve’s and body leaning forwards so his face is right in front of Steve’s.

“Christ, the pair of you could start a gymnastics troupe,” Tony says, yawning as he wanders towards the bathroom. “Or an acrobatic act in the circus. Hey, that’s an idea, do that and take Barton with you.”

“Noted,” Steve says as the bathroom door clicks shut, and then turns his focus back to Arto. “You okay?”

“Not a baby,” Arto says earnestly, and Steve nods.

“You’re too much trouble to be a baby,” he says seriously, and Arto grins.

“Not t-trouble,” he says, all missing words and stumbling over sounds. “I’m good. Steve, you’re Steve Rogers.”

His eyes are wide and earnest, and Steve feels a vague suspicion that Arto is actually pushing him to say it. Huh, maybe Tony was right. He considers Arto carefully for a moment. Arto already knows that he’s biologically Steve’s, so maybe the name isn’t actually a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

“Yeah, and you’re Arto Rogers,” Steve says, and the words roll easily off his tongue . “How’s that sound?”

Arto smiles and he leans forwards, bending his elbows, and Steve realizes what’s going to happen a fraction of a second before Arto slips off his knees, landing painfully with knees right in Steve’s abdomen. He yelps in surprise and then starts to laugh, still clutching Steve’s fingers. He kneels up and leans right forwards so his forehead bumps Steve’s, and all Steve can see is blue eyes and pale skin with the faintest of freckles across the bridge of Arto’s nose.

“Green,” he says.

The corner of Steve’s mouth flickers up. “Green,” he agrees, and gently eases Arto back, something warm flaring in his chest, quiet and soft. “Now come on. I am hungry and if I get up, we get pancakes.”

“Pancakes?” Arto asks, wrinkling his nose.

Steve smiles. “You’ll see.”

 


 

“No, Arto, sit-”

Tony breaks off, exasperated as Arto slides under his arm and runs away, giggling as he does. He holds the cloth up and glares at him across the room.

“I will get you,” he says flatly. “One way or another.” 

“Syrup, syrup, syrup, syrup-”

“Kid’s got a point,” Clint says as he reaches for the last pancake. He’s almost there when Bucky steals by and snatches it, lifting it nimbly onto his own plate.

“Aw, Buck-”

“What possible point could he be making about syrup?” Pepper asks from her position by the counter, hands curled around a freshly made latte.  There’s no judgement in her tone, just a mild curiosity, and Tony has already told Jarvis to scout Pepper’s shopping records and then buy her the most expensive pair of shoes he can be sure she’ll like.

“Uh, that it’s awesome?” Clint says as if it’s obvious. He reaches out for Bucky’s plate and Bucky takes a pointed step backwards out of reach.

“Arto, seriously,” Tony groans, and gets up. “I just need to wipe your face-”

“Syrup!” Arto shouts, and runs around to the other side of the couch. “I save it for later!”

Clint chokes with laughter, covering his mouth with his palm to stifle the noise as Bucky points a metal finger at him. “You taught him that! You said that to him earlier!”

“Wonderful,” Tony says. “Banner, grab the brat.”

“No thanks,” Bruce says from where he’s sitting on the couch reading what appears to be a medical journal. He doesn’t so much as lift his chin as Arto jumps onto the couch next to him and runs the length before leaping onto the other one.

“Barnes?”

“Eating,” Bucky calls back promptly. “And he’s sticky.”

“Of course he is. That’s why I need to grab him.”

“Get Steve to do it.”

“Steve has been out the room for fifteen minutes, I’m not calling him back just because we can’t catch a six year old.”

“Can't catch me, can’t catch me,” Arto sings happily, and runs back along the couches, jumping over Bruce as he does.

“Think again.”

Natasha is up off of the second couch quicker than Tony can process; she grabs Arto under his arms and lifts him onto her hip, apparently uncaring of getting syrup all over her workout gear. Tony’s heart stops in his chest as Arto gasps and flails for a moment, but then he goes very still in Natasha’s arms. He stuffs the fingers of one hand into his mouth and tentatively rests the other on her shoulder.

“Good choice, Solnishka,” she says.

“I’m not Solnishka, I’m Arto Rogers,” Arto tells her, and Tony sees her mouth slowly curve up. He presses his lips together and bites back on his grin; he’d bet the company that Steve told Arto that this morning after he’d gone to shower. It feels strange in a way that Arto is being given Steve’s name, and Tony wonders if the small edge of sensation amidst the happiness is strong enough to be called jealousy. No, he decides after a moment. It's not jealousy - it's worry. Worry that he'll be pushed out, that Steve will be able to completely shut him off from Arto if he so chooses. Not that Steve would, but hey - this thing between them is still very new and whilst it's not exactly fragile, Tony doesn't expect all the insecurities to just vanish overnight. 

“Whoever you are, you’re sticky,” Natasha says. “And as fun as Clint thinks it is, you need to be clean.”

“I don’t want to,” Arto whines half-heartedly as Natasha carries him over towards Tony. He doesn’t kick out at her though, doesn’t push or hit. He just pouts and lets Natasha deposit him onto the counter with a bad grace.

“Thanks,” Tony says, relieved that Natasha is in one piece, and that Arto is where he needs him. “Hands please.”

Arto shakes his head. “No.”

“Refusal to comply with basic standards of hygiene in the tower means no computer games,” Tony frowns.

“Barton plays computer games when he hasn’t showered for four days,” Bucky chips in, and Tony reigns in the urge to throw something at him.

“Not helping,” he says and dips his head to gather his thoughts. “Okay, you need to be clean to go outside.”

Arto narrows his eyes. “Steve said not today. So no clean today.”

“I,” Tony begins, and then scrapes a hand down his face, torn between despair and laughter. “You love baths. You love water. So why is this translating into a refusal to be clean?”

“Maybe being clean today will be good practice for going outside another day?” Pepper suggests. Natasha settles against the counter beside her, watching the attempts to convince Arto with what looks like a steadily increasing amount of amusement.

Arto hums. “No.”

“Maybe your tablet won’t work if you have sticky fingers?” Bucky suggests, and grins when Arto immediately sticks his hands out so Tony can wipe them clean.

“Nicely saved, Barnes,” Tony says. “Thanks Art. Now face-”

“No!”

Hands now clean, Arto slides off the counter again and runs back to the couches, diving onto one of them and grabbing Bucky Bear. Tony watches him go and then drops the cloth onto the counter.

“I give up.”

“Give up on what?” Steve asks mildly as he walks in. He’s changed into his sparring gear; bare feet, shorts and a tight fitting t-shirt that Tony really wishes he wouldn’t wander around so casually in. He catches Peppers eye and has to look away before he starts laughing at the impressed and mischievous look in her eye.

“Getting the small child to be clean,” Tony says, making a conscious effort to look at Steve’s face instead of his thighs. “He won’t let me wipe his face and he’s got so much syrup on it that he might as well be wearing a damn mask of the stuff.”

“Arto, get here,” Steve says with a frown. Arto’s head appears over the back of the couch.

“No.”

“No?” Steve echoes, looking unimpressed, and Arto’s grin fades a little. “I don’t want to be clean, Steve.”

“Tough,” Steve says, and he holds out his hand for the cloth. Tony hands it over without a word, biting back a smile as Steve walks over to the couch.

“Stop giving Tony the run-around,” Steve says to Arto, beckoning him to stand up on the couch.

“Wasn’t,” Arto whines, though he does comply. He straightens up, holding onto the back of the couch, and then screws up his face as Steve attempts wipes the syrup from his chin. Tony watches for a few seconds before getting up and heading to the coffee machine. He doesn’t know what’s shifted in Steve’s mind but it’s clear that something has; he half expected him to be a hot mess this morning after the night he’d had, but he isn’t. He actually seems more connected with Arto than Tony has ever seen him, not that he’s going to comment on that out loud and certainly not in front of everyone.

“Okay Avengers,” he calls as he pours himself yet another cup of coffee, hoping that no-one will rat him out to Steve for excessive caffeine consumption. “Now you’re all fed, did anyone else see the news from LA this morning?”

“Yes,” Natasha and Bucky both say.

“What? No,” Clint says, looking startled. “What did I miss?”

“The disruption with the power grid?” Bruce asks, leaning along the back of the couch and pushing his glasses back up his nose. “You think that’s something we need to check out?”

“No need,” Natasha says calmly. “Thor’s handling it.”

“What?” Steve asks, momentarily distracted from Arto; there’s somehow syrup in his ear and he’s letting Steve clean it off, albeit unwillingly and with a lot of whining.  

“Thor’s back?” Tony asks, taken aback. “When did that happen?”

“This morning,” Bruce calls over. “I was speaking to Jane and she told me.”

“Why did no-one tell me?” Steve asks, sounding put out.

“You were asleep,” Natasha says pointedly.  

“And this morning seemed too nice to ruin with shop talk,” Clint adds.

Tony sees the way Steve’s shoulders tighten at that, the crease that forms between his brows as he lifts Arto over the back of the couch and sets him on the floor, apparently done with cleaning. Arto bolts, running around the couches and making a beeline for Clint, evidently his ally in the refusing to be clean business.  

Steve turns, leaning back against the couch. “I’m not going to up and run to LA just because you think there might be a mission there.”

“Never said you would,” Natasha says with an arch of her brows. “Tony, do tell me how Steve would react if we woke him up just to tell him there’d been a power disruption in LA?”

“With extreme prejudice,” Tony offers, and Steve scowls at him but appears to concede the point. Natasha smirks, and beside her, Pepper hides a smile of her own in her latte. Great. Tony is all for Pepper’s hesitant approval of him and Steve, but he’s not sure he’s entirely okay with her team-up with Natasha, mainly because there is literally no way he can vet or control what Natasha chooses to say to Pepper, or how she spins it. Fuck it; it’s not exactly what he wanted, but right now he’ll take it.

“So Thor’s handling it?” Bucky prompts.

“Thor is handling it,” Natasha confirms. “I think it’s his mess anyway, something to do with someone from the nine realms. Steve, he said he’ll call you for backup if he needs it.”

“Thor and his nine realms, Reed and his multiverse,” Clint says, leaning back in his chair as Arto stands on his feet, holding onto Clint’s hands and leaning back dangerously far. “I can barely keep up.”

“He’ll be back tomorrow, all being well,” Bruce calls. “He’s bringing Jane to keep me company seeing as I’m still on lockdown.”

“Yeah about that,” Bucky says. “I’m meeting with SHIELD this afternoon, see where we’re at.”

“Appreciated. Thank you.”

“Okay,” Steve says, nodding. “So no action on LA yet, Thor’s coming back tomorrow, Jane is coming to work with Bruce, and Clint, if you drop him I will have to hurt you.”

Clint grins. “I got this.”

“Can you got this for the rest of the morning?” Tony asks. “I’m going to talk business with Pepper, and Steve and Bucky have training to do.”

“Yes,” Clint says. “Someone still needs to beat Natasha at Mario-Kart, we’ll do that.”

“I’d like to see someone try,” Natasha says, already walking over towards the television.

“You guys sure?” Steve asks, hovering and hesitating.

“Come on Rogers, I only got a coupla hours and then I got to go to SHIELD business,” Bucky says, getting up and stretching his arms up above his head. “And I’m fed up of sparring with Nat. She fights dirty.”

“Oh and you think Steve doesn’t?” Nat calls, and Tony snorts with laughter.  The rest of the team start to move, dispersing from the kitchen area; Steve heads over to Arto to say something to him before doubling back and walking away with Bucky, elbowing him in the side as Bucky mutters something with a grin. Clint joins Natasha and Arto on the couches, and Bruce meanders over towards the coffee machine, eyes still fixed on the journal he’s reading.

Tony turns to Pepper. “Come on then Pep, you alright to go to the workshop?”

“Sure,” Pepper says, and sets her mug aside. “I just need to fetch my tablet and I’m set.”

“Sounds good. Art, I’ll be in the workshop if you want me.”

“Come back later!” Arto shouts without turning around.

“I will,” he calls back. “You know where Steve is?”

“Gym with Bucky,” Arto shouts back. “I’m allowed.”

“Alright. Barton, Romanov, you good?”

“All set,” Natasha calls back.

Pepper steps up quietly behind him, fingers touching his elbow. “They’ve got him,” she says quietly. “Get your caffeine and lets go do some work.

“Easy work?” Tony asks, still staring over at Arto.

“No, the tedious kind that you hate. Paperwork, rescheduling and apologetic phone calls,” Pepper says, squeezing his arm. “Come on, lets get it done."

“You’re cruel."

“Move or I’ll add checking financing and HR reports to the list,” Pepper says mildly.

“Moving,” Tony says, and finally looks to her. “I can give you one hour.”

“You will give me six if I need them,” Pepper says and pushes him towards the elevator. “Go. Or I’m firing you.”

“You can’t fire me,” Tony says as she slips her arm through his and steers him towards the elevator.

“Don’t underestimate me,” Pepper says. “I have invested too much time in Stark Industries to let the Stark part of it mess everything up.”

“And this is why I love you,” Tony says as they step into the elevator.

“I’ll love you back when you do some work.”

Tony grins, and Pepper fights back a smile, still looking ahead at the elevator doors as she tries not to laugh. “Deal.”

 


 

The gym is quiet and peaceful, bright with sunshine that pours in through the wide windows. Lazy specks of dust drift through the air, clearly visible in the light. Steve is almost inclined to lie back on the canvas of the boxing ring and bask in the warmth for a while, but he knows he could do with blowing off some steam.

“In the ring or on the mats?” Bucky asks as he saunters in behind Steve, rubbing a hand over his hair. “Jarvis, cool it down a notch in here, would you?”

The air conditioning turns up, barely noticeable. “The mats,” Steve decides. “Don’t want you sulking about bruises when I knock you on your ass.”

“Now that’s fighting talk,” Bucky grins. He strides over to the mats, throwing his towel and water bottle aside before peeling his shirt off and tossing that atop the pile as well. “If you were looking like you did a week ago I’d be worried about bruises.”

Steve pulls a face. “You can shut up.”

“Jesus, Rogers,” Bucky complains, bending forwards and beginning his stretches. “Take a compliment.”

“How the hell was that a compliment?”

Bucky looks at him from where he’s bent over forwards with his hands wrapped around his ankles, sending Steve a look of utmost exasperation from between his goddamn legs. Steve is half tempted to kick him in the ass and knock him over.

“Because you don’t look like you’re about to kill someone or yourself?” Bucky suggests, and in one smooth move rocks forwards and catches his weight on his arms, going into push up position. “You actually looked pretty happy this morning.”

Steve hums noncommittally, leaning forwards and stretching his legs. “I think I might have been.”

“You think?” Bucky asks. He lazily rolls onto his back, pulling one knee up to his chest.

“You’re not stretching properly if you’re lying on your back,” Steve points out, bending forwards, forehead nearly touching his knees. “Yeah, I think.”

“Why? What happened?”

When Steve straightens up, Bucky is apparently done with stretching; he’s lying on his side, propped up on his elbow with his head on his fist.

“Seriously?”

“What happened?” Bucky repeats. “Don’t look at me like that. Spill.”

“Come on, get up,” Steve says, ignoring Bucky’s impatient prodding. “We’re meant to be sparring.”

“Stevie-baby,” Bucky groans, though he does push himself to his feet, stepping onto the mats. “You’re no fun.”

Steve gives him an unimpressed look and steps onto the mat, rocking back and forth and getting used to the sensation beneath his feet. “Arto thinks I’m fun,” he says offhandedly, and Bucky grins.

“That doesn’t count! He thinks the sun shines out of your ass even when you’re being foul.”

Steve responds very pointedly by lunging forwards and kicking Bucky’s feet out from under him. Bucky staggers but manages to right himself, spinning around and grabbing Steve’s shoulder. Steve lets him do it, wheeling around with him and shifting his weight onto his back foot and yanking Bucky forwards hard. Bucky grunts as goes down heavily onto one knee, but then he’s up again, letting his momentum propel him forwards and past Steve.

He wheels around, facing Steve again. “Not bad, Cap,” he grins crookedly. “I see being up until ass o'clock with the world’s most challenging six year old hasn’t had that much of an effect on you.”

“You kidding? It’s only because you and Clint had him this morning that I got any goddamn sleep.”

Bucky slowly walks around the mat, circling Steve like a panther. The light glints off his arm, and Steve stays perfectly still, not shifting like Bucky is trying to tempt him into doing.  

“I think him and Clint have got some sort of telepathic connection,” Bucky says thoughtfully.  “They spent like half an hour laughing at nothing earlier.”

He lunges at Steve again, so quickly that it almost catches Steve off guard. He strikes with his right hand, a blow that glances off Steve’s shoulder as he blocks with his forearm, and then a punch with his left that Steve has to bend back to avoid. He twists around and grabs Bucky’s arm, he tries to yank him over but Bucky flips with the motion and almost sends Steve staggering forwards onto his face.

“Maybe they were laughing at you,” Steve says, and Bucky barks out a laugh as he comes back again. He grabs Steve’s wrists and brings a knee up to try and get him in the stomach; Steve tips backwards and pulls them both down, kicking out and sending Bucky over his head as he’s yanked forwards by the motion.

“Son of a bitch, where did you learn that?” Bucky asks, sounding impressed. He rolls over and manages to grab Steve before he can get away, grabbing him roughly in a headlock. Steve quickly gets his hands up so Bucky’s arm isn’t pressing against his windpipe, and he strains against Bucky’s grip.

“So, Arto Rogers?” Bucky says as he presses forwards, trying to get Steve to yield.

“Apparently,” Steve grits out, fingers flexing against the metal plates.

“Your call or Tony’s?”

Steve wonders how many people in the world would be able to carry on a conversation with the Winter Soldier while in a headlock. His estimate is an unequivocal none.

“Mine,” he says, and clenches his jaw and shoves hard against Bucky’s arm, managing to get enough space to slip free. The metal plates scrape against his forehead but he barely notices.

“Damn, you’re slippery,” Bucky says, shaking his arm out as they both stand up again.

“You need to stop trying to pin me with a headlock,” Steve retorts. “It’s getting old.”

“It’s my signature move,” Bucky says. “It has a hundred percent success rate on Barton.”

“He needs more hand to hand training then,” Steve muses as he steps towards Bucky again, fists raised. Bucky blocks the first two punches and the third clips his chin. “I guess I could do it if I’m spending more time here.”

“Good call,” Bucky says, and the conversation pauses for a moment as they grapple again, trying to knock the other down. It ends with Bucky slipping out of Steve’s grip, dancing backwards with a parting kick to Steve’s knee which knocks a pained grunt from his mouth.

“When’re you out next?”

“This afternoon,” Bucky says. “Nat seems to think we might have to go back to Bucharest.”

Steve’s stomach swoops, a strange sense of despondency curling through him. “Send me a postcard.”

Bucky gives him a flat look. “Don’t be a bitch about it. You made the call to step back.”

“I know, I know,” Steve groans.

“And you’re doing a pretty good job of being Daddy Rogers, you can’t bail on him now.”

“I know,” Steve insists. “I don’t want to bail on him. It just feels strange.”

“For you and me both, pal,” Bucky snorts. “I’ve got to make sure I’m enough to take over from Captain America.”

It’s only because Steve knows Bucky so well that he spots the unease in the flippant statement. He steps back, holds up a hand for a time out. Bucky immediately nods, stepping off the mat and reaching for his water bottle, tossing Steve’s over as well.

Steve nods gratefully and takes a long drink. “So, tell me where you’re at with Hydra.”

Wiping his hand across his brow, Bucky frowns over at him. “You know where we’re at. You were on the last mission.”

Steve doesn’t relent. “Okay then, tell me what you’re thinking.”

Bucky’s mouth twists, thoughtful. He takes a swallow from his water bottle and then caps it again, tossing it aside. “I think we need to be looking a different direction,” he says slowly, almost cautiously. “There’s no paper trail pertaining to the building of the machines, or of the gamma experimentation. But if they’re copying Project Rebirth, they need the serum as well.”

Steve’s impressed. Bucky’s usually a run in firing kind of guy, so the fact he’s thinking things through before going off trigger-happy is a sign of how seriously he’s taking it. “What’re you going to do then?”

“Start looking for other patterns. I know there’s always scientific articles kicking around talking about the serum. See if there’s any notable names doing any digging.”

“Good call,” Steve says. “What else?”

“Well we’re not going to get at it electronically. But we know some of the materials they want for building these things, right? I mean, if someone hadn’t blown up the last one we could have actually disassembled it and got full specs.”

“I hope you’re not implying I blew it up,” Steve says. “Because I distinctly remember being blown up with it.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

“Oh that’s how you’re going to be today?”

“Pretty much. Now come on, I was promised bruises.”

Steve laughs and nods, getting back up and in position. This time the conversation takes a break as they get into sparring, and Steve loses himself in it. It feels great to get a proper workout; Bucky doesn’t exactly pull his punches with Steve and it’s good to know that he doesn’t have to be as careful with Bucky as he has to with the others. Soon Steve’s shirt is drenched in sweat, and Bucky’s bare torso is gleaming in the light, sweat beading on his collarbones and across his shoulders.

Bucky almost gets him pinned a couple of times, once because Steve lets him in order to counter and get Bucky pinned, and once because he’s not quick enough to evade him. Half an hour in and Bucky is getting frustrated, swinging that bit harder and using his left arm more and more to try and press his advantage.

“Hey,” Bucky restarts the conversation as Steve steps back from an unsuccessful attempt to pin him to the mat, sliding his fingers up his forehead and pushing sweat up into his hair. “Are you and Tony going public with this whole thing you’ve got going on?”

He kicks out at Steve, misses by an inch. “Why, you think I should?”

“Don’t know,” Bucky pants, regaining his balance shockingly quickly. “You going public with the kid?”

“I can’t exactly keep him locked away in the tower,” Steve frowns. “He’s already badgering to go outside.”

“Well, would you rather be single dad Captain America, or wholesome gay relationship Captain America?”

“Wholesome?” Steve asks as he blocks a punch, grabbing Bucky’s wrist. Bucky twists free with ease and swings again, forcing Steve to bend sharply backwards; he retaliates with a kick that Bucky somehow manages to dodge. “You’re putting me, Tony and wholesome in the same sentence?”

“Yep,” Bucky grins, stepping back and shifting his stance as Steve straightens up. “Come on, you’re pretty wholesome at the moment-”

“Probably wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what we did this morning.”

Bucky’s mouth drops open and Steve takes advantage of his temporary shock to land a kick right in the middle of his chest. Bucky staggers backwards and Steve uses his full weight to push him the rest of the way, pinning him to the mat by sitting across his chest, thighs trapping his upper arms to his sides. He leans forwards and braces an arm across Bucky’s neck, and Bucky kicks out a couple of times before giving up and slumping back.

“That’s cheating,” Bucky says matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to hear about your sex life, thanks.”

Steve grins, and then clambers off of Bucky, holding out a hand and hauling him to his feet. “I spared you the gory details.”

“Steve!”

They both turn at the same time as they hear a shout from the doorway. Arto slides across the room towards them – literally slides across the smooth flooring in his socks like he’s skiing or something – and makes a beeline for Steve.

“I’m allowed,” he says confidently, and holds his arms up when he reaches Steve.

“He knows he’s six, right?” Bucky says, reaching for his towel and wiping his face off.

“I think we’re better off thinking of him as three or four,” Steve says vaguely, and Arto makes an indignant noise and pushes at his legs.

“Not a baby.”

“Only babies get carried everywhere,” Bucky points out, and Arto scowls at him before turning back to Steve and holding his arms up again, stretching up onto his toes.

“Please?”

Steve capitulates and scoops Arto up, holding him close. Arto hums happily and slides his fingers into Steve’s sweat-soaked hair.

“We done?” Bucky asks, and Steve glances at him apologetically.

“Sorry. I don’t want to – not in front of him,” he says.

“I know what you were doing,” Arto says suddenly. “I know.”

He kicks his feet out and leans back, and Steve gets the hint and puts him down. “Like this,” he says, and before Steve can stop him, he jumps onto the mat. Steve rolls his eyes and holds out his hand to get Arto to come back off the mats, but then Arto turns, puts one foot in front of the other and raises his hands in what is unmistakably a fighting stance.

Steve’s entire world stops.

He stares at Arto, seeing but not fully comprehending the way he’s standing, the look of concentration on his face. He can’t properly think, can’t properly breathe, and his mind is stuck, stuttering over the same thoughts.

He’s just a child. He’s just a baby, and he knows how to fight. He’s never had his own toys and he knows how to fight. He’s never been loved but they taught him how to fucking fight.

“No,” he hears himself say, and he blindly strides forwards and he picks Arto up, wanting to clutch him close and never let him go. “No. You don’t need to fight. There is no need for you to fight, ever.”

His voice is thick and unsteady and oh god, he has no idea what to do. Arto’s arms wind around his neck, seemingly oblivious to Steve’s turmoil.

“But you said if there are bad guys trying to hurt people.”

“Then I’ll deal with them,” Steve says, and he can hear the strain in his own voice. Standing a few feet away, Bucky stays silent and still, obviously listening.  Steve doesn’t give a damn; he just takes a steadying breath and forces his voice calm. “You let me sort out the bad guys. You are too little.”

“Am not.”

Steve laughs at that, still unsteady. He buries his nose in Arto’s hair, shuts his eyes and inhales deeply.

“Don’t argue with me,” he says, and his heart is thudding strangely against his sternum.  He pulls back and Arto shifts around, pressing his palms to Steve’s forehead. He leans in and presses his forehead to Steve’s, and Steve has to shut his eyes again, swallowing thickly.

God, even the thought of Arto going to fight anyone makes his stomach knot up. He knew that Arto had been created to be a soldier, knew that Arto had started training to be a soldier – but seeing him stand there on the mat like that seems to have snapped something inside him, knocked something completely out of place.

“When I’m bigger?” Arto asks. “I’m good at fighting.”

“No,” Steve says, and even he can recognize the fierce rush of protectiveness he feels. “Not a chance. I’ll say no, Tony will say no, Clint will say no.”

Arto looks at him uncertain. “I beat anyone,” he says.

“Nope,” Steve says. “Too little.”

“You know proper training often helps instills discipline?” Bucky says casually from where he’s standing. “If someone has a talent for fighting, why not teach them how to use it properly, so they-”

“No, Buck,” Steve cuts in.

“Hear me out,” Bucky says. “It could help. I mean, they do karate classes for six year olds so they can learn-”

“Not this one,” Steve says tersely, hitching Arto up. “This six year old is going to learn to play with toys. Come on, Arto. Video games or Lego?”

“Lego,” Arto says immediately. “Can we Lego?”

“Sure,” Steve says, and he walks over towards the door without a second thought. Just as he gets to the doorway, he stops and turns halfway, looking towards Bucky who is collecting up his stuff. “Hey, Buck.”

“Mmm?”

“You know when you find Hydra?” Steve says slowly, and Bucky looks to him, questioning.

“Yeah?”

Steve fights to keep his voice easy and casual, but he meets Bucky’s eyes so he knows just how serious he is.

“You make them pay for the fact he knows how to do that.”

“Gladly,” Bucky says simply. Steve nods jerkily at him and then carries Arto out of the gym, heart still beating strangely inside his chest.

Chapter Text

The penthouse is quiet and still, orange light from the fading sun spilling across the carpets and flooring, casting long, deep shadows. As Tony steps out of the bathroom, he sees Steve standing in the doorway, back to Tony and shoulder against the doorjamb.

“He still out?” he calls, voice low. Steve doesn’t respond, so Tony walks over to look past him, reaching out to brush his hand over Steve’s back, soft cotton under his fingertips.

Arto is fast out asleep, sprawled on his back on the bed, Bucky Bear at his side. His mouth is open and his hair is still slightly damp from bath-time; he’d all but fallen asleep on Tony’s knee as he’d been getting him into his pajamas so they’d hastily bundled him into bed, the memory of him being over-tired the night before still all too fresh in their minds.

“He actually went to sleep,” Steve says quietly, not turning his face away from where he’s watching Arto sleep. “In his own bed. Without screaming.”

“Bribery and extortion,” Tony murmurs. “Told you it would work.”

He eases an arm around Steve’s waist and Steve exhales heavily and shifts to the side, sliding an arm over Tony’s shoulders. Grateful for the reciprocation, Tony leans his weight against him, trusting Steve to keep them upright.

“So,” he quietly says. “Still not over the whole fighting thing?”

Again, Steve doesn’t answer. He’d told Tony about what had happened in the gym, and Tony had honestly been shocked at how out-of sorts Steve had been because of it. Yeah, it sucked that Arto had obviously begun his training whilst under the thumb of Hydra, but that was just how it was. He was bred as a soldier - and whilst Tony isn’t exactly happy about the revelation, he isn’t been as bent out of shape as Steve is.

“He’s just a baby,” Steve says, and Tony sees his throat work as he swallows hard. “He says he’s not - but he is. They just wanted him as a weapon-”

He breaks off, clearly still troubled.

“Well,” Tony says, cautious and unsure how to tread. “You’ve got him now.”

Steve’s mouth twists at that, a wry hint of self depreciation. He heaves out a sigh, nostrils flaring and mouth set in a tight line.

“You know we can’t change what happened to him-” Tony begins.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Steve interrupts and then blinks and tilts his face towards Tony, acknowledging him without looking at him, eyes on the floor. “I’m sorry. I just - not now.”

Tony frowns, not entirely happy with Steve reluctance to talk. “I thought we were getting pretty good at communicating,” he murmurs lightly.

“We are,” Steve says on the edge of another sigh. “My head’s a mess, Tony. I wish I could talk to you right now, but I don’t even know where to start.”

His palm slides down Tony’s shoulder as he says it, and he pulls his around to press his mouth to Tony’s face, right next to his ear. Appeased, Tony leans into him, stroking his fingers down Steve’s stomach.

“I’m gonna hit the gym,” Steve says, voice a low rumble next to Tony’s ear. Tony nods and steps back; Steve has barely left Arto’s side all day and he honestly thinks it’ll do him some good to take a break, especially with how mixed up he’s feeling. He doesn’t exactly want Steve to go, but he’s definitely learning to pick his battles.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll work up here for a bit, make sure he stays settled.”

Steve nods slowly, thoughts still clearly a million miles away. “Where’s Pepper?” he asks and then blinks. “Is she still around?”

Tony nods. “She’s going to stay a few days. She’s doing some face to face meetings in the city tomorrow, so she’ll be out for most of the day.”

Nodding once, Steve kisses him quickly on the mouth and then walks away. Tony watches him go, absently wishing that there was something he could do to ease whatever it is that’s got him all tied up in knots.

“What have you done to him, kiddo?” he murmurs as he watches Arto. Fast asleep, Arto obviously doesn’t answer, but it doesn’t matter. Tony’s beginning to suspect that he knows anyway.


 

“IT’S TIME TO GO OUTSIDE.”

A combination of excited yelling and the bedroom door crashing loudly back against the wall snaps Tony suddenly and painfully out of sleep. He jerks his head up off the pillow; next to him Steve is sitting up, tense and ready-

They both groan as Arto runs in and clambers onto the bed, walking across them and staggering slightly as the mattress dips beneath his feet. Not even wanting to imagine what time it actually is, Tony rolls over and buries his face in the pillow as Steve flops backwards, throwing an arm up over his eyes.

“Wake up,” Arto demands, the determination in his expression clearly visible in the faint early morning light that bleeds through the partly shaded windows. He walks right up the bed, standing on Steve’s chest. Steve makes a noise of protest, pushing at Arto’s feet and lifting his arm, blinking at him.

“Jesus, Arto - get off!”

“Strong enough,” Arto says dismissively, but does deign to jump off of Steve’s chest, landing on the mattress on his knees and narrowly missing Tony’s hip as he does. Fuck, Tony loves this kid just as he is but at this exact moment he wishes that he wasn’t quite so energetic at such a stupid hour of the morning.

“I sleeped,” Arto says, seeming very pleased with himself. “Tony, I sleeped. Steve, tell Tony that I sleeped.”

Steve sits up, apparently conceding that he’s not going to be able to roll over and go back to sleep. Tony grimaces; Steve had been in the gym until late the night before, then chatting with Bucky until around two AM before coming back upstairs to slide into bed with Tony. It had been a welcome relief to feel Steve’s solid warmth pressing against his back despite the lateness of the hour; he can’t deny that there was a small part of him that wondered if Steve was even going to come up to the penthouse.

“Jarvis, what time is it?” Steve asks, leaning back against the pillows as Arto scrambles over to him. Rubbing his eyes with his fingertips, Tony watches as Steve pulls Arto close, running a hand over his head and watching him carefully. He still doesn't look right, there’s something thoughtful and distant in his expression that Tony can't quite pin down.

“Five forty-eight AM,” Jarvis says, sounding apologetic. He can’t feel all that bad though; the tinted windows slowly fade to reveal the bright hues of the sunrise. The light spilling in bright and fresh over the room, the promise of high temperatures evident even in the early hour.

“Oh my god, Smart Art,” Tony groans. “Can't you wake up Barton instead?”

“Okay,” Arto says, but Steve grabs him before he can slide off the bed, catching him with strong hands around his middle.

“Leave Clint alone,” he says. “It’s too early to be waking people up.”

“I can wake you up?” Arto asks, and chirps happily as Steve lifts him back onto his knee, tugging the sheets up around his waist with his other hand.

“You just did,” Steve says, and Arto grins at him.

“We should make a rule,” Tony yawns, loathe to move out of the comfort and warmth of the bed. “No waking up before eight.”

“What’s eight?” Arto asks. He reaches out and Steve lets him go so that he can slump over and stroke his fingers against Tony’s beard.

“What - what do you mean? Eight in the morning,” Tony says, but Arto’s face just scrunches up in a confused frown.

“I’m six,” he says. “Not eight.”

“No, I’m talking about the time.”

“Time to go outside!” Arto enthuses, and Tony looks up at Steve, comprehension slowly dawning.

“He doesn’t understand time.”

Steve frowns, unsure. “He must know what the word means,” he says slowly. “Considering we’ve been reliably informed several times that it’s time to go outside.”

“But-” Tony says. “Hey Arto, do you know what time it is? Like with numbers?”

Arto frowns right back at him. “Time for breakfast?”

“Jesus, he doesn’t know what time is,” Tony repeats, sitting up. “Jarvis, give me a clock. Project it on the wall.”

Jarvis does, and Arto twists around to look at it, cocking his head curiously. Tony gestures to it, looks back at Arto. “You know what that is?”

“No,” Arto says, and then looks to Steve. “Time?”

Steve’s expression has been slowly growing more and more dismayed, but as Arto looks to him he manages to straighten it out. “Yeah, it’s a clock. It’s used for telling the time.”

“How the hell has he - should he have a sense of time?” Tony says, bewildered and starting to feel an edge of panic rearing its head. He should know this, he should be able to say if this is normal for Arto, should be able to put it right somehow-

“I have no idea,” Steve says quietly and slowly, and Tony is pretty sure that Steve is at that exact moment deciding whether he’s going to hold it together or not. He catches Arto’s sides in his hands as Arto stands up and leans into him, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck in a hug. Miraculously and unexpectedly, it seems to calm him down. He exhales and looks at Tony over Arto’s shoulder. “We’ll ask Amir when he gets here.”

“Ask a professional, good call,” Tony says, already planning to get Jarvis to search the wide recesses of the internet for answers despite the fact they have a professional coming to see them in less than five hours.

Steve nods at him, looking relieved. He turns his face towards Arto, and Tony notices the way he nudges Arto’s ear with his nose, gentle and seemingly without thought. “Any way I can convince you to go back to bed for an hour?” he murmurs, just loud enough for Tony to hear.

“Nope,” Arto says, and the way he pops the ‘P’ sounds distressingly like Clint.

“Not even if I let you sleep here for an hour?” Steve asks. Tony sends him an exasperated look, because he understands the temptation, but he has a strong suspicion that down that path lies nothing but disaster.

Arto hums, looking at the bed and then back at Steve. “Nope,” he says again, and he leans in and noisily kisses Steve’s cheek, giggling.

Steve’s eyebrows shoot up, clearly startled. “I kiss you,” Arto cackles.

“Okay, who taught you kissing,” Tony asks, and reaches out to grab Arto’s ankle. Arto shrieks as Tony pulls him across the bed, falling to his back in a tangle of limbs. Steve watches him go, expression still slightly taken aback and edged with the same contemplative look he’d been wearing earlier. It’s less fraught than the night before, but still unmistakably there.

“Clint,” Arto says. “Mouth kisses for pink lines,” he says, sounding like he’s reciting something from memory. “Face kisses for green lines and blue lines and sometimes yellow lines if ask really nicely.”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Tony says and Steve’s careful expression cracks as starts to laugh. It bubbles up from nowhere, and before Tony can say anything Steve is laughing so hard he’s bent over his knees, hands pressed to the back of his head.

“Don’t worry,” Tony says to Arto, though in truth he’s slightly disconcerted by Steve’s sudden amusement. “Steve’s just gone mad. He’ll be fine.”

“I am fine,” Steve says through his laughter as he sits up, and he drags his hand down his face, looking to Arto and shaking his head slightly. He blows out a breath, gets himself back under control.

“Care to share with the class?” Tony asks. Steve looks over at him, and he’s sleep-rumpled and beautiful in the muted morning light, eyes bright and clear and blond hair mussed over his forehead. Their eyes meet, and then he looks away and he shakes his head.

“I’m okay,” he says and he’s looking at Arto like he’s the answer to an equation, perfectly correct but with no idea of how he came to it.

“Hey,” Tony calls over to him, but his words are cut short as Arto promptly leans in and kisses Tony’s face, right next to his nose.

“I kiss you,” he whispers like it’s a secret. “Not all the time. Just sometimes.”

“Okay, thanks for letting me know,” Tony says seriously, but he’s smiling and he can't hold it back. He sifts his fingers through Arto’s hair, glances to Steve. He’s now sitting on the edge of the bed, rubbing the back of his neck, so Tony has no hope of catching his eye. Momentarily thwarted, he makes a mental note to speak to Steve later and turns his attention back to Arto. “Now come on, wretched creature. If you refuse to go back to bed we might as well go for breakfast.”

“Breakfast!” Arto declares happily. “Lucky Charms!”

“Now how did I know you were going to say that?” Tony says, and watches as Steve climbs out of the bed, hitching up his boxers and stretching, arms high above his head. It throws the muscles of his back into stark relief and Tony takes a moment to trail his eyes down from the back of Steve’s neck down to the dip at the bottom of his spine, just above the waistband of his underwear.

It hits him right in the stomach, and it’s not just the attraction to Steve that’s always been there. It’s the new, strange knowledge that this is it now, this is where they’re at and where they’ll stay. In a way it’s strange, a swooping sensation in his stomach as he thinks about that they’re not just sleeping together, that they’re really together, that Steve will always be in his bed and at his side.

Some days, he really doesn’t know how he got so lucky.

Steve quickly tugs on a pair of sweatpants, and Arto is jumping off the bed with a loud shout and barrelling past Steve’s legs, still shouting about Lucky Charms. Steve shakes his head and follows him out without word or complaint, and Tony hastens to get up out of the bed as well, grabbing a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, diving into the bathroom. For a moment he debates skipping the shower; he wants to be there to catalogue every little thing that Steve is doing because he bets that Steve isn’t even noticing it himself. He decides against it, knowing that opportunities to steal away may be few and far between if anything goes awry with Arto later on.

Freshly shaved and showered, he catches up with Steve and Arto on the communal floor half an hour later, and to his surprise they aren't alone. Thor is there in civilian gear, hair pulled back in a messy bun. He looks bright eyed and wide-awake, a sharp contrast to the figure next to him; Jane Foster is wearing a hooded sweatshirt that quite clearly belongs to someone of Thor or Steve’s build and is clutching a mug of coffee in both hands like she’s scared someone will try and take it from her.

Thor is deep in conversation with Steve, who is over by the refrigerator, leaning back against the counter with an arm wrapped around Arto’s middle. Arto is clinging onto him, looking at Thor and Jane warily.

“So did you fix LA?” Tony calls as he walks over, interrupting the conversation about the disruption that Thor just took care of. “Hey, Foster.”

“I did indeed fix LA,” Thor replies, amused. Jane waves at Tony, hastily swallowing her mouthful of coffee so she can say hello.

“Hi Tony,” she says, wiping her fingers across her lip. “Sorry we’re here so early, it was either come this morning or wait-”

“Don’t sweat it, we’re on Arto time now anyway,” Tony says dismissively, and Arto hides his face in Steve’s shoulder. “Speaking of Arto, did he eat breakfast?”

“Yes,” Steve says, opening the refrigerator and pulling a carton of juice out.

“Remarkably quickly,” Thor says. “The boy has a good appetite.”

“The boy has a good appetite as long as it’s Lucky Charms,” Steve mutters, then tilts his face towards Arto. “Get your cup.”

“No,” Arto whines into Steve’s bare shoulder. “No juice.”

“Are you arguing about it?” Steve asks him mildly, and Arto straightens up and narrows his eyes.

“Yes,” he says belligerently, and folds his arms across his chest. “I argue.”

Steve turns fully to him, exasperated. “The answer to that was supposed to be no.”

“Yes,” Arto says loudly.

Apparently giving up on that argument, Steve just shakes his head and puts the carton back in the fridge. Tony bites back a laugh as Arto’s expression goes confused and affronted, like he’s mildly annoyed that Steve’s given up on the dispute.

Jane starts to laugh, quickly pressing her fingertips against her mouth, trying to hold it back. “Oh god, I’m sorry,” she says through her giggles. “Steve - I just. He looks so much like you, I guess I expected him to be super well behaved-”

“Are you implying that Steve is super-well behaved?” Tony interrupts. “You clearly have never been on a mission with Steve or seen him dealing with SHIELD.”

Thor barks out a laugh. “Trust that Jane knows Steve better than that. Though I do think many people less involved with our lives would be surprised if they actually got to know us,” he says with a rueful smile.

“True,” Tony concedes. “I’m much more handsome in person.”

Steve laughs at that, and when Tony meets his eyes his gaze is warm and full of affection. “You’re terrible,” he says.

“Learned from the best,” Tony grins back at him.

“So you two are like...a thing, now?” Jane asks, brows raised and mouth slightly open, curled in an anticipatory smile. If Tony didn’t appreciate the fact she was as smart as he was, he’d call her out on clearly being a terrible gossip.

“You picked the one word in the universe which can literally have any definition,” Tony points out, because Steve is avoiding the question by turning back to the refrigerator and getting the juice out again, despite Arto’s protests. “What is a ‘thing’, Foster? Call yourself a scientist?”

“You know what I mean,” Jane protests, blushing.

“I don't know, I’ll have to consult the family tree,” Tony says. He points to the refrigerator and Jane turns around to look. Steve visibly hesitates, and then reaches out to pull the picture off, handing it to Thor wordlessly.

“Did you draw this?” he asks Arto, voice low and friendly. Arto simply drops to his knees on the counter and crawls behind Steve and out of sight.

“Antisocial creature,” Tony sighs, and Arto better get used to strangers at some point because it’s not exactly like they live a quiet life away from people. “Yeah, he and Clint did it. Does that answer your question?”

“I suppose it does,” Jane says. “Wait, why is Clint- is that Clint?”

“Big-brother Barton,” Tony supplies. “It actually works pretty well.”

“Really?” Jane says.

“He’s really good with him,” Steve says easily. He pours himself a glass of juice and puts the carton back, looking pointedly at Arto as Arto sidles back up to him, eyes on the glass.

“This is my juice, you said no.”

“I share with you,” Arto offers hopefully and Steve just holds out the glass for him to take without argument.

“Now this I don’t get,” Tony says as Arto sips the juice from Steve’s glass. “Why object violently to juice if he actually wants juice?”

“Because juice tastes better when it's stolen from Steve?” Jane suggests.

“I’ve given up trying to work him out,” Steve says, watching carefully. “I’ll put it on the list of things to ask Amir.”

“Who is Amir?” Thor asks.

Tony catches himself just before the word ‘doctor’ slips from his mouth. “A specialist,” he says, and then trusting that Arto won’t know what the word means, adds, “Psychologist.”

“Who we are meeting with this morning,” Steve says levelly, and turns to Arto, taking the glass from him. “Which means you need to be dressed,” Steve says, folding his arms across his chest. Arto mimics the pose, pressing against Steve’s folded arms and leaning right in until his forehead is pressed against Steve’s. He does his best to copy Steve’s expression as well, but starts to giggle after only a few seconds.

Steve doesn't seem remotely phased. “You need to be dressed,” he repeats. “Because today-”

“Outside!” Arto enthuses. “I sleeped, so I get to go outside.

“After the meeting and lunch,” Steve says. “Remember?”

“Outside, outside,” Arto says happily. “I want to go outside and see all the cars. Do you have a car? Are there people outside?”

“Go and get dressed,” Steve says, and he lifts Arto off of the counter and sets him on the floor.  

“Sir, yes sir,” Arto shouts and he runs off. He gets as far as the stairs and then skids to a halt, turning back to look at Steve. “Come with me.”

“No,” Steve says. “You’ll be fine. I’ll wait right here.”

Arto nods and then he’s gone, racing up the stairs as loudly as he possibly can, smacking his feet and palms against the steps as he scrambles up them.

“Wow,” Jane says as the sound fades. “He is certainly a handful.”

“He is certainly a brat,” Tony agrees cheerfully, and Steve snorts with what could almost be laughter.

“I didn’t expect you to be keeping the boy when we rescued him,” Thor says frankly. “Though I suppose we did not know he was yours.”

“It’s kind of obvious,” Jane says pointedly and Tony laughs.

“Next time we’re in a building that is on fire, I shall make sure I slow down and take the time to observe all of the details,” Thor says with a shrug and Jane swats at his arm.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “So he’s definitely staying? Definitely?”

“Yes,” Steve says. “Which actually means I’ve got something to ask you, Thor.”

The tone of his voice sets off alarm bells in Tony’s mind, because that’s Steve’s ‘I mean business’ tone of voice. Tony immediately tries to think of what it could be, and goes very still as he remembers Steve’s quiet words from a few nights before.

‘Though if I’m not Captain America anymore, I guess you’ll get away with it.’

Oh fuck. He wouldn’t, would he? Not without talking to Tony first?

“Hey, do I know about this?”

Steve ignores him, and Tony feels a flicker of irritation even as Steve begins to speak. “Hydra are on the move,” he says frankly. “They’re planning something big, which we think is to do with trying to replicate project rebirth. But I’m not going to be finding out, because I’ve handed over to Bucky. He’s in charge of the mission now.”

Jane and Thor exchange a glance. Tony bites his tongue, staring at Steve so hard that he’ll be surprised if Steve can’t feel it.

“Because of the boy?” Thor asks.

Steve nods. “I need to stay with him,” he says without inflection. “Which means I’m going to be in the field a lot less, until he’s settled.”

“Wait - you’re just handing over the mission to Bucky, right?” Jane asks, brows knitting together in worry. “That’s it?”

“He’s still Captain America,” Tony says without waiting for Steve to speak. “He’s not exactly going to hand over the shield to the one armed wonder.”

Thor regards Steve carefully. “And this is your choice?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and he lifts his chin, easy and determined. “Yeah it is. Which means, the Avengers need you here as much as possible.”

Thor breathes out slowly, leans back. Even though he looks less worried than Jane, he doesn’t exactly look happy, contemplative and thoughtful. “I do not wish to lead the Avengers,” he says after a long moment. “That is your job.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Steve says. “We just need another heavy-hitter available while I take Art,” he explains. “He’s too strong to leave with anyone but me, you or Bucky, and you’ve seen what happens when he has a tantrum. He’s dangerous unless there’s someone with him who can stop him.”

He takes a deep breath. “And honestly, I think that person has gotta be me.”

There’s a moment of silence after Steve has spoken. Tony so very badly wants to go over and touch him, to pull Steve into a tight hold and slide his fingers through his hair. Steve’s looking like the earth has shifted seismically underneath his feet overnight - god, it must have been what happened in the gym that’s done it. And in the face of his calmness this morning, Tony’s beginning to think that maybe it wasn't just anger at Hydra that had him so out of sorts.

And knowing Steve, he’s probably not even worked out what it is. That look, like Arto was the answer to a question that he hadn't even asked yet.

Tony might just dare to believe that Steve’s starting to get it.

God, he wants to forcibly drag it out of him so badly that he can taste it. But he won’t. Those feelings are Steve’s to work out for himself, and he’s not going to push and send him retreating in the wrong direction again.

It’s Jane who breaks the silence, turning to Thor with a mischievous smile. “Unless you want babysitting detail, and then Steve can go off fighting bad guys.”

Thor laughs. “I think I’ll take the bad guys,” he says with a smile at Steve. “I do not think I can hope to have as much success as you will have with the boy.”

Steve simply shrugs, and Thor looks from him to Tony. “I will remain on Earth as long as you need me,” he says. “Asgard is in the care of the Warriors, and they will understand.”

“Thank you,” Steve says and turns away to get his own breakfast now Arto is gone. Tony watches him carefully as he chats with Jane and Thor, because even though Steve is definitely getting there with Arto, there’s something still not right there and Tony wants to keep an eye on him until he figures it out.

Maybe it’s the thought of meeting with a psychologist. Maybe it’s being woken up early again.

Though with the conversation that’s just happened, it could be Steve thinking about his position in the Avengers now that he’s got Arto. He’s already handed over a mission to Bucky, ceded responsibility to Thor, admitted to Tony that he might not be able to be both what Arto needs and Captain America.

Steve slides into the seat next to him, plate of bagels in hand. Tony reaches out to rub the back of Steve’s neck, the same way Steve is wont to do when he’s stressed.

“Okay?”

“What? yeah, I’m fine,” Steve says easily. It doesn't sound like a lie to Tony, so in the spirit of not pushing, he sits back and lets it lie for now.

“Ready for the meeting?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Steve says. “Guess it’ll be nice to get some answers.”

“What if we don't?” Tony says, and Steve pauses, chewing thoughtfully.

He swallows, mouth curving contemplatively. “Then I guess we look somewhere else.”

 


 

“Sir, Agents Coulson and Vasquez and Doctor Amir have arrived in the building.”

Steve looks to Arto where he’s sat playing snap on the floor with Clint and a deck of Avengers playing cards. It’s turning into quite a vicious game - the back of Clint’s hand is bright pink from Arto smacking down on it a moment too late, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Arto  is so engrossed in the game that he doesn’t seem to have noticed Jarvis’s announcement, which Steve is thankful for.

“Okay,” Steve says, and his calm tone doesn't give away the sudden spike of apprehension. He looks over to Tony, who is milling around in the kitchen area, having been unable to settle since ten o'clock rolled around.

“How do you want to play this?” Tony asks from where he’s standing, hands braced on the counter in front of him. The tension across his shoulders is indicative of the sort of stress that normally sends him to find a drink, and Steve is infinitely thankful that he’s opted not to go down that route today.

“I don’t know,” Steve says slowly, twisting around and throwing an arm across the back of the couch.

“We should probably talk to Amir before he meets wonder-child,” Tony says. “Give him a little context.”

“Yeah, probably,” Steve says. “I guess Vasquez will want to do another check up.”

“You think he needs it?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “He’s still not sleeping properly or eating much, I’d feel better knowing he’s healthy.”

“You got it,” Tony says. “I’ll go do the meet and greet, bring him up to the meeting room on fifty-eight. You brief Smart Art.”

“You got it,” Steve echoes. Tony steps away as if to leave, then seems to think twice and walks back to Steve, leaning over the back of the couch to kiss him quickly. “We got this, right?”

And that’s Tony all over, the insecurity starting to come to the surface in the face of meeting someone who is smarter than him about something, someone who is going to point out everything he doesn’t know.

“We got this,” Steve tells him, voicing a confidence he doesn't entirely feel. “Don’t flake out on me now, Stark.”

“Please,” Tony scoffs, but presses his mouth to the side of Steve’s again. He tastes of coffee and Steve aches to pull him close, kiss him properly. “You’re the one who’s spent the last twelve hours brooding about this, not me.”

Steve lifts his eyebrows, at the same time acknowledging that he might have indeed looked a little brooding since the thing in the gym. Though that hasn't been in anticipation of the meeting, that's been…

Well, he still can't quite pin it down.

He doesn’t say that to Tony though, just pushes him back with a hand on his shoulder. “Go,” he says. “Check they’re all signed in properly and that security know they’re here.”

This time, Tony does actually go, dragging his hand through Steve’s hair and leaving it ruffled as he goes. Steve looks after him, exasperated, but Tony is at the elevators and gone.

“What’s going on?” Clint asks as he oh-so slowly draws another card and gingerly lays it down. Arto’s hand jerks in midair, and Clint grins. “Cheater! Get that hand back!”

“Tony and I are going to speak to Amir,” Steve says. “Art needs to go for his check up with Vasquez, do you reckon he’ll let you take him?”

“Yeah,” Clint says easily, and puts the cards down. “Come on, Smart-Art, we gots a medic to go and see. She needs to check you’re not shrinking.”

“What?” Arto asks, distracted. “No, we’re playing snap.”

“We can play snap afterwards,” Clint says, clambering to his feet. “I need to go and get weighed, and you need to come and hold my hand. It’s Anna, you remember Anna? She let us play with her stethoscope.”

“Okay,” Arto says after a brief moment of contemplation. “You get checked?”

“Yeah, might as well get you checked as well while we’re there. I’ll go first though.”

“Thanks Clint,” Steve says, relieved that Arto appears to be going without a fuss.

“Not a problem,” Clint says, and he crouches down and indicates his back. “Hop on, Short Round.”

Arto scrambles up and jumps onto Clint’s back, piggy back style. Clint straightens up and Arto reaches out towards Steve, looking alarmed.

“Steve! Steve!”

Steve steps over obligingly, hastily catching Arto’s elbow as he lets go of Clint and leans over to hug him. Skinny arms wind tight around his neck, and then Arto kisses the side of his face, just under his cheekbone. Once again he’s horribly sticky, and Steve is starting to think that Arto being sticky is just going to be a given, and quite possibly a battle that he and Tony have no hope of winning.

“Come with me,” Arto says, a familiar plea.

“Nu-uh,” he says gently, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand and grimacing. “You go with Clint and I’ll meet you afterwards.”

Arto sighs, put out. “Promise?”

“Promise,” Steve says.

“Alright, lets get this show on the road,” Clint says. “Enough kissing.”

Arto grins and leans in and kisses the back of Clint’s head. “Ew!” Clint exclaims. “Get off, you weirdo.”

Arto simply cackles with laughter, pressing noisy kisses to Clint’s hair, arms wrapped loosely around Clint’s neck.

“You taught him that,” Steve says matter-of-factly as Clint grimaces. “Entirely your own fault.”

“How long before he gets bored of it, do you think?” Clint asks as he hitches Arto up.

“I have no idea,” Steve says, and reaches out to brush his fingers under Arto’s chin. “You be good, okay?”

“Yes,” Arto replies, dragging out the 'S', and Clint carries him towards the stairs and out of sight. Steve’s eyes track them as they go, feeling oddly like he wants to be the one carrying Arto to the medbay for his check up. It’s not the usual sense of relief that someone else has got Arto; as he ponders it he thinks that maybe it feels almost like jealousy, but that makes no sense at all.

Making himself move, he heads towards the elevator. “Jarvis, keep an extra close eye on Arto please. He should be okay with Clint, but I’d rather not push it if we’re supposed to be going outside later.”

“Of course, Captain,” Jarvis says, and with no small amount of trepidation Steve gets into the elevator, heading smoothly and silently down to the fifty-eighth floor, the same place that they had they debrief after getting back from Bucharest.

When he arrives, Tony is already there, standing over by the couches and talking to a man who must be Yasin Amir. He’s a tall man even by Steve’s reckoning, with dark skin and wide dark eyes, wearing slacks and a blue button down with the sleeves rolled up and the collar open. His demeanor instantly sets Steve at ease, though the nerves and worry are still lurking in the pit of his stomach.

“Doctor Amir,” Steve says, stepping around the table and over towards them, glad to be at the less formal end of the room. He holds out his hand and for Amir to shake. “Steve Rogers.”

“Good to meet you, Captain Rogers,” Amir says, voice low and calm and with a beautiful cadence to his words. Steve wonders where he’s from, guessing the musical lilt to his voice is part of his heritage. “Please, call me Yasin.”

“Sure,” Steve agrees, and glances to Tony. Tony breathes out heavily, meeting Steve’s eyes as he does, a silent indication that he’s as stressed out by this as Steve is. Amir either doesn't notice or acknowledge it. “I was just talking to Mister Stark about the work I do, and the help I can offer. Agent Coulson has briefed me on the situation, so I know the basics of the situation with Arto.”

“Where is Phil, anyway?” Steve asks as sits down on the couch, indicating for Amir to take the one opposite him. Tony sits down next to Steve and it triggers a startling moment in which he actually feels like a parent, even though Arto isn’t even there. Tony’s knee knocks against his and he glances over, the feeling intensifying strangely.

“He has gone to check something with Natasha and then to find Barton,” Tony tells him. “Which means right now it probably sucks to be Barton.”

Steve frowns. “He better not be going to hound him about paperwork, he’s got Arto.”

Setting down a leather-bound notebook and pen atop the coffee table that sits between the couches, Amir crosses one long leg over the other, looking interested. “Arto is with…?”

“Oh, Clint. Clint Barton,” Steve says, suddenly feeling very put on the spot. Does it matter that Arto is there and not here? “He doesn’t really do well with strangers, so Clint’s taken him for his medical check up.”

“And Clint lives here as well?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and his leg is bouncing restlessly, an unconscious movement that Steve wants to clamp down on with his palm. “You might know him better as Hawkeye.”

“That I might,” Amir agrees. There’s a moment of silence as Amir looks to them both, calm and unassuming. Steve feels his stress levels soaring; he should be saying something, he should be able to take control of the situation and know what to do.

He’s got no idea where to start.

Luckily, Tony can talk enough for the both of them.

“So, where do we begin?” he asks bluntly, as if he read Steve’s mind. “Do you ask questions? Do you meet him and do the whole, without prior judgment thing? Do you have a checklist of things to tick off?”

“Well, what do you think is best?” Amir asks simply. “Would you rather I meet him first, before you tell me about him?”

Tony looks to Steve, and Steve shakes his head. “No,” he says, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “You’d have to watch for quite some time to see all of the things we’re dealing with here. And if he’s gone for a medical check up without objecting, I’m not going to change the plan.”

“Okay then,” Amir says. “How about you tell me all about Arto, and then I can meet with him and we take it from there?”

“Sounds good to me,” Tony says easily, sitting back into the couch and looking to Steve. “You want me to start?”

“Be my guest,” Steve says, and Tony sits forwards again, elbows on his knees and hands held together in front of him.

“Alright,” he begins, and then laughs shortly. “Jesus, there could be so much wrong with him, I don’t even know-”

“Don't think about what’s wrong with him,” Amir suggests. “Just tell me about him. Start from the beginning.”

Tony nods slowly, staring down at his clasped hands. “Well, we rescued him,” he says. “From a laboratory. And as far as we can work out, that's where he spent all of his life.” His eyes lift up to Amir, voice growing stronger and steadier. “He got here and hated it, to begin with. He woke up in medical and screamed, kicked, fought. Did his damnest to get away from us. And the only person strong enough to stop him was Steve.”

Amir nods, listening intently.

“He’s been pretty...violent since he got here,” Tony admits. “Not all the time. But he’s so strong, that when he goes it’s huge. He wrecked his room when we put him in there to begin with. And during all this he started to latch onto Steve. Like, he’d ask for Steve, make a beeline for Steve if he was there.”

“So you’re a favorite?” Amir asks Steve with a smile.

“I guess,” Steve says, feeling awkward, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck, then realizing what he’s doing and dropping his hands back to his lap. “He likes Tony and Clint as well.”

“Steve is the favorite,” Tony confirms, and he says it so easily that Steve almost feels guilty, because it’s true, and it’s true despite the amount of work Tony has done with Arto.

Amir nods. He sits back, hand resting easily along the arm of the couch. Steve glances at the notebook, wondering if he’s going to write anything down. “What else does he like?”

“Cereal,” Tony says without a pause, and Steve feels a weak smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Playing games. Drawing, especially if he’s drawing on his tablet. Building with Lego. Hands on stuff. He’s pretty fascinated with the whole Iron Man thing as well. Asks about it a lot.”

He looks to Steve as if for confirmation or input, and Steve thinks for a moment, wondering what will actually be useful to say right now. “He likes playing physically,” he says slowly, thinking back to the time they'd spent in the boxing ring, the incident yesterday. “Not play fighting, but he climbs on people, likes being picked up.”

“Yeah, which is a problem in itself because he doesn't know his own strength,” Tony says with a depreciating huff of laughter. “Side effect of being the progeny of Captain America.”

“So he’s much, much stronger than a regular six year old,” Amir says. “And this is problematic.”

“Well, yeah,” Tony says. “I assume you’ve seen temper tantrums for six-year olds before? Now imagine a temper tantrum from a six-year old super soldier who has spent the first six years of his life in a lab.”

Amir doesn’t seem remotely phased. “You described these tantrums as violent?”

Steve doesn’t want to say yes, because to say Arto is violent seems grossly unfair. However, he can’t play down how serious it is when Arto is being unmanageable.

“Yeah,” Tony says quietly. “Sometimes. When he first got here he punched Clint, broke his nose. He’s bitten, broken furniture, thrown things.” He turns his face to Steve. “He landed a pretty solid hit on you as well at one point.”

Amir nods. “And this violent behavior? Does it still happen?”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “When he doesn’t get his own way. When he has to go to bed. It’s not been as bad though, the last real tantrum he had was when Steve was away, and he flipped out because we told him that he had to sleep in his own bed. He kicked me, tried to scratch Bucky. Bucky’s Steve’s best friend; he’s the only other one strong enough to deal with him when he really gets going, so he was there.”

“So you weren't there?” Amir asks Steve.

“No,” Steve says, knowing that he'll gain nothing by holding things back from Amir. “I was working. Though when I got back...” he breaks off, because this is moving onto another issue, though he supposes it’s all part of Arto’s behavior. “After I got back, he didn't want anything to do with me. Told me to fuck off, actually,” he admits, and it’s painful even saying it out loud. “An hour later he was back to refusing to leave my side. He gets clingy as all hell some days, mostly with me and Tony.”

Thoughtful, Amir nods. He looks away from them to the window for a moment, obviously digesting what he’s just heard.

“Okay,” he says as he turns back to them. “The violent behavior is the first thing you’ve brought up, so that’s obviously your biggest concern. Let me ask, does he ever talk to you about what it is that has made him so angry, or caused one of these tantrums?”

“No,” Steve and Tony both say. Steve gestures with a hand and Tony takes over. “He doesn’t actually talk that much. His vocabulary is all shot to hell, he doesn’t know the words for a lot of things, uses them incorrectly. He’s smart, but it’s hard to tell just how smart when he can’t articulate it.”

“So you would say his language skills are below what you would expect?”

“He didn’t know the word for green when he got here,” Tony said flatly. “Though he did know a hell of a lot of swear words.”

“He’s not actually been here all that long, has he?”

“No, but he’s settling well, or seems to be,” Tony says, and his tone is the offhand, close to dismissive one that Steve hates having directed at him. He doesn't call Tony on it though, because he’s willing to bet that pretending not to care being the only way Tony can get through this conversation.  “He’s happier. Talks more. Happier to go places by himself.”

“Within the tower?”

“Yeah, he’s never been outside,” Tony says. “We’re working on that.”

“Okay, so immediately we have a child with limited life experience,” Amir says. “Which would probably partly explain his limited vocabulary and if he has any poor social skills. That's to be expected.”

“Yeah but what do we do about it?” Tony asks. “He can't exactly go through life not knowing basic vocabulary and stammering.”

“Talk to him,” Amir says simply. “Provide a language rich environment. Books, television, conversation. Get him out to see all the things he hasn’t.”

“Won’t that overwhelm him?” Steve interjects, feeling alarmed. “He’s not exactly the easiest kid to handle-”

“You can handle him fine,” Tony says, frowning. “He needs to get outside.”

“He needs to be safe,” Steve retorts, because he can barely handle Arto and Tony knows it. “What if he kicks off and hurts someone? What if he legs it out in the middle of the street and I’m not quick enough to catch him?”

Okay, my first piece of advice,” Amir says, gently breaking into the argument. “You have to acknowledge Arto’s barriers without setting yourself up for failure.”

“What does that mean?”

“That if you immediately think that Arto will behave badly, then he more likely will,” Amir says. “Plan for the worst, but always expect the best.”

“It’s not that easy-”

“It actually is,” Amir explains. “You say a child is going to behave badly, then in your interaction is the expectation that that will happen. The child picks up on this, and is more likely to do so. You’re implicitly giving permission to the behavior. You tell the child that they are going to deal with something calmly, outlining the behavior you expect, then that is what you are more likely to get.”

And Steve falls silent, the argument knocked out of him, because that actually makes sense. He looks at Tony, who leans back into the cushions, smiling tiredly and wryly at Steve. “Guess we’ve got to up our expectations then,” he says, and Steve nods mutely.

“There is nothing wrong with Arto,” Amir says firmly, and Steve and Tony both look to him. “He has barriers to his ability to function normally and safely, and these barriers mean that he exhibits dangerous behavior. The behavior is not the problem, gentlemen, it’s a form of communication that he has learned because other ways are closed to him.”

“The smashing and breaking of things is communicating?” Steve asks, and he's pretty proud that he's managing to keep any skepticism at bay. Amir is the professional here, so Steve has to trust what he says.

“The dresser,” Tony says as if he’s just realized something. “When he first got here. I said if he wasn’t safe you’d come back, and he smashed the dresser because he thought that would get you back.”

Steve is about to ask why the hell Arto didn’t just say that, but the words die before they even get to his mouth.

“He doesn't know how to ask,” he says slowly. “He hasn't got the words, or the - the understanding that he could have asked.”

“Exactly,” says Amir. “We need to get underneath the behavior, to find out what he is communicating to us through his behavior. We support his communication, we help fix the challenging behaviors.”

“So what is it underneath the behavior? Just the communication? Or is it because of where he’s been? Something that-” Tony breaks off, watching Amir intently.

Amir shifts, uncrossing his legs and leaning forwards. He picks up his pen, twisting it between his fingers. “From what I know of him, and what you have described to me, I would say that the issue is the nature of his attachment to people around him.”

“Yeah, actually, that’s it,” Tony says, already there before Steve. “He only bonds with certain people, and then sometimes it’s like they’re not good enough anyway.”

“Okay, if that sounds like it makes sense to you, we’ll follow this path a little further,” Amir says, and he looks to Steve like he knows that he's a fraction of a second behind Tony, waiting for his nod before he carries on talking. “Do we know who he identifies as his primary caregiver?”

Tony looks at Steve and then leans forwards again, tapping the sleek black surface of the coffee table. “J, wake up. Throw up the family tree.”

Jarvis does, and Tony spins the image around so Amir can look. He leans close, laughing softly. “Did Arto draw this?”

“Clint helped him,” Steve says. “I did the drawings. But yeah, he chose who went on it and where everyone went.”

“This is nice,” Amir says. “What do the different colored lines show?”

Tony laughs shortly. “He’s the person to ask about that,” he says. “Green lines are biological family. Blue lines are non-biological family. Pink lines are relationship lines, and yellow lines are friend lines.”

“This is nice,” Amir repeats. “He’s clearly starting to categorize you all in his own mind, work out who is what to him. And you two are obviously in the position of primary caregivers, and he’s aware of his biological link to you, Steve.”

“Yeah, he’s known a while,” Steve admits.

“Does he acknowledge you as his father?”

“Uh, not really,” Steve says, feeling uncomfortable. “Well, he knows, but - Clint says he mentioned it once. And he said - he said Dad the other day, but that’s when we were talking about his name. That his surname is going to be Rogers as well.”

“Okay,” Amir says. “And have you acknowledged yourself as his father?”

Steve opens his mouth, but can't find the words. No, he thinks distantly, because he hasn’t. It hasn't even crossed his mind, and he doesn’t think it’s going to any time soon.

“Okay, that’s fine,” Amir says, appearing to take Steve’s silence as an answer. “However, if that’s how Arto perceives your relationship, then you have to consider whether it’s fair to leave that relationship unbalanced. Though I do realize he’s only just arrived and that it’s all been very sudden.”

Steve feels Tony’s fingers on the back of his arm, a gentle touch. He braces himself, but Tony doesn’t say anything about how Steve didn’t even want Arto to begin with, how he refused to even think about him and ran away.

Horrid, horrid guilt curls in the pit of his stomach.

“I’ve found it hard,” he hears himself saying out of nowhere, words falling from his mouth without permission. “To accept he’s here.”

Amir doesn’t so much as blink. “Of course you have. You went to work one day and came back with a six year old child that you were not mentally or emotionally prepared for. It may take you a while to settle into that.”

“Told you,” Tony says, and Steve elbows him.

“Shut up,” he mutters.

“Though if that’s something that worries you, there are people you can talk to about it,” Amir suggests, and Steve is nodding politely but most definitely checking that on his mental ‘no’ list. He doesn't need therapy thanks; he can deal with this. He just needs time.

Steve clears his throat. “So back to Arto?”

“Yes,” Amir says. “Considering his background and what you have told me, I would be inclined to say that his issues stem from issues with attachment. May I?” he reaches out towards the coffee table and Tony leans forwards and nods.

“What do you need? Web browser?”

“Something to draw on,” Amir says, and Tony nods and brings up the program with a flick of his fingers. “I’ll give you some reading to look at in depth later, but this will be the Cliff’s notes version, to begin with.

“Okay, so attachment is exactly what is sounds like. It’s a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term interpersonal relationships between humans. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s certainly helpful in looking at a situation like Arto’s. Think of it like this. Children are born with the instinct to seek care from adults,” he explains, gesturing to Steve and Tony. “We all do it, it’s how we survive. So children in are highly motivated to form a strategy to get their needs met.

“When a child has an healthy attachment, a secure attachment, the primary caretaker, usually the parents, provide the child with a secure base, from which they get their needs met, and they can explore the world around them, but they always have a safe place to go back to.”

Steve thinks of his mother, and nods.

“This healthy attachment develops through a cycle,” Amir says, drawing a simple diagram with the end of his pen. “A child has a need. They express that. The caregiver meets the need, and trust develops.

“A child might not develop this healthy attachment for several reasons,” Amir explains. “When they show a need, and it’s not met. Abuse, trauma, neglect,” he lists off, and Steve has an abrupt urge to go and check in on Arto.

He next draws a triangle, and adds the words ‘avoidant,’ ambivalent’ and ‘disorganized’, at each corner. Next to Steve, Tony cocks his head curiously, eyes flickering over the diagrams. “So we’ve said that children are highly motivated to get their needs met,” he says. “Children in unsuitable environments don’t have the healthy cycle that works for them, so they they find something that does work for them, however unhealthy.”

“They don’t trust that their needs are going to be met,” Tony clarifies.

“Exactly,” Amir says. “These are common types of non-secure attachment,” he explains. “Children who don’t expect that their needs will be met, and interact minimally with their caregivers” he says, tapping the pen on the word ‘avoidant’, before pointing to the word ‘ambivalent.’ “This describes children who fear separation from their caregiver, react strongly to being left, but aren’t always comforted by their return. Often they can be angry at the caregivers return, and this anger is communicating that they perceive their need hasn't been met, or they don't trust that it has or will be.”

Steve feels heat rising on his neck, uncomfortable as he listens. That’s Arto, he thinks silently. That’s how he was when I left, when I came back.

“What about the last one?” Tony asks. “Disorganised.”

Amir nods. “Children who have found no strategy that gets them what they need. They may have have experienced abuse at the hands of their caregiver. This means that for the child, the caregiver is both their safe base, and the very thing that is frightening to them, or neglecting them. They can react in a multitude of ways to separation and their caregivers, because they don’t know what works. Also, if the caregiver is erratic or troubled, the child can’t make sense of what is going on, can't perceive any patterns, so can't develop any strategies to get their needs met. They may show anger, frustration, may appear depressed, staring into space, rocking back and forth in an attempt to self-comfort. Obviously, it varies.”

“And this is – this is what’s up with Art?” Tony asks insistently.

“No, he knows-” Steve begins, and his voice cracks. “He knows how to get what he wants from us. He screams and shouts.”

“When you left he laid on your bed and didn’t move for hours,” Tony counters.

Steve turns to look at him, stomach lurching. “He did what?”

“It seems to me that Arto has come from a situation where his caregivers have been neglectful, and has very quickly re-identified you as his caregiver,” Amir says. “And he is also very quickly learning how to get his needs met from you. He doesn’t yet have the vocabulary, social skills or experience to do this in what we would deem a normal, healthy way, so he’s doing it his way.”

“So let me get this straight,” Tony says. “All of Arto’s behavior. The fighting. The screaming and shouting. The telling us to fuck off. All of it is because he needs us here and he’s got no idea of how to make that happen?”

“Think about who gets the brunt of the behavior?” Amir asks.

“Steve,” Tony says. “But that’s because he deals with him the most.”

“That may also be because he’s identified Steve as his new primary caregiver,” Amir says. “He’s testing. Testing to see what will work and what won’t. He’s old enough now to be self-sabotaging as well-”

“He’s six,” Steve breaks in, astounded.

“And has been dealing with insecure attachment long enough for him to realize that he’s not getting what he needs. Being let down hurts. He will have learned that, and could well be trying to prevent the hurt by creating distance.”

“That’s – that’s the shit adults pull after being in a bad relationship.”

“That’s what people pull when they’ve been in a bad relationship,” Amir says with a small smile.

Steve can barely process what he’s hearing. He knew that Arto hasn’t had a good start in life, but to hear it like this, to see the impact it’s having on his ability to be happy and healthy is something else. He wants to get up and go and find him straight away, to tell him he’s not going to leave him, promise that he’ll always come back. God, he wants Arto to trust in him, and right now he’d be willing to go to hell and back to earn that trust, but it’s so much to handle. Arto is so much to handle and Steve still doesn't know if he can do it-

“Steve.”

Tony’s quiet voice brings him back to the moment, and he tries to refocus.

“Sorry,” he says, forcing his voice level. “Just thinking.”

“It’s not all on you, Steve,” Amir says, and Steve feels his cheeks heat in embarrassment as Amir somehow manages to hit one of his biggest fears head on. Amir gestures to the family tree, still on display on the coffee table. “He’s identified several people around himself; you, Tony and Clint for starters. This is a big support network he’s already given you permission to use.”

Actually, hearing that helps. Steve blows out a breath and nods.  

“Not that this is going to be easy,” Amir says. “Insecure attachment can be repaired, can be fixed. But it will take time. Patience. Lots of care and consistency. Security.”

Steve hears the underlying message in his words, even if Amir didn't mean it to be there. He grimaces, leaning forwards with an elbow on his knee, rubbing at his forehead.

“Not from someone who might have to drop everything to go out into life-threatening situations without any prior warning?”

“Steve, no,” Tony says sharply from his side.

“You heard him,” Steve says, gesturing to Amir. “Imagine from Arto’s point of view. One minute I’m here and the next I’m dropping everything to go out and fight, and we know how risky it is. You know how much he hates it when I’m not here. You really think he’s going to understand the whole concept of greater good?”

“You cannot just-”

“I know, but this is something we’ve got to accept,” Steve talks over Tony, unyielding. “Why are you arguing with this, you were the one saying I couldn’t just be running off-”

“Maybe this is a discussion you two need to have later,” Amir interjects.  Tony meets Steve’s eyes, jaw set in a way that Steve knows means that he’d quite like to carry on yelling it out, thanks. Steve doesn’t back down. He meets Tony’s hard gaze with one equal in intensity, and several long seconds, Tony backs down and looks away.

Steve looks back to Amir, and he lets the fingers of his hand trail over Tony’s knee in a silent apology. Tony shifts and moves his leg away, and then after a fraction of a second concedes, leaning back against the sofa with his arm tucked behind Steve, palm pressed to his back.

“Okay, argument shelved,” Tony says. “What can we do to help him?”

Amir nods, and Steve wonders if he’s currently analyzing the hell out of them. “The same things I said,” he says. “Patience, consistency, security. Let him build that trust that you will meet his needs. Work on his vocabulary,provide lots of language-based experiences for him.”

“What about his behavior? Yeah, he’s expressing a need or whatever, but that doesn't mean he’s clear to bite and kick and scratch,” Tony points out.

“Make it very clear to him which behaviors are okay and which aren’t,” Amir suggests. “Show him the boundaries, and keep explaining it very explicitly to him. Not, ‘don’t do that,’ but ‘don’t do that because it means you’re going to hurt someone and that will make us both sad.’”

“Just like Bucky did,” Tony says. Steve looks at him questioningly and he expands. “When you were away and Bucky had to pin him down. He talked him through it and said he wouldn't let him go until he stopped kicking, because if he kicked he’d hurt me and he knew he’d feel bad about it.”

Steve nods, understanding and feeling incredibly grateful towards Bucky. He owes him big time. 

“So I understand that there are times when you have to step in and restrain Arto?” Amir asks.

“Yeah. Only when he’s going to hurt someone. He’s - well, he’s stronger than most grown men,” Steve explains, feeling slightly defensive and wondering if they’re about to be told not to restrain Arto. “He lashes out and he could easily break something.”

“Okay. There are plenty of safe ways to restrain a child if it is absolutely necessary,” Amir says, and Steve relaxes marginally. “I will put you in contact without someone who knows more than I do; the only advice I’ll give you now if that if you have to do it, be careful of his ribs and his breathing. Small children breathe by expanding their ribcages, not from their diaphragm.”

“No holding him around the middle then,” Tony says. “We’ll have to clue Buckaroo in.”

“It’s mostly his hands anyway,” Steve says. “Once you get his hands he tends to give up.”

Amir hums thoughtfully.“So you don’t think he’s willfully trying to hurt anyone?”

“No,” Steve says. “It’s like he blows his lid, loses control.”

“He does the thing-” Tony says miming swiping at Steve’s face. “Could easily scratch you or hit you, but he doesn’t. It’s like a threat, almost. And with all this in mind,” he adds, gesturing to the writing atop the coffee table. “It’s like he wants your attention.”

Amir nods. “Another big part of this is Arto dealing with the trauma that he’s been through. Often these attachment issues develop when children can’t construct a decent narrative of what has happened to them, so they don’t know how to feel. They’ll go into flight or fight mode because they never learned to think through the experience and start to get over it. Between us, we’re going to have to help him get through that. To acknowledge the things that have happened that he can’t make sense of, and help him make sense of them.”

“But – but we don’t know what happened to him,” Steve says. “How can we talk him through it if we don’t know?”

“You are admittedly at a disadvantage, not knowing his history or where he’s come from,” Amir admits. “Therapy may be a large part of this. Encourage him to tell you, or tell someone he trusts.”

Or take him to someone he doesn’t even have to speak to, Steve thinks silently, and glances at Tony. Tony is already looking his way, and Steve wonders if he’s thinking the same thing.

Steve exhales heavily. “This is a lot to take in,” he says. Tony's palm slides up his spine to rest between his shoulder blades.

Amir smiles apologetically. “I'll schedule you in for another meeting soon," he offers. "I'll leave you with some reading today to go over what we've talked about, and then we can explore some more strategies to support Arto. Scheduled meetings aside, I will come back any time you need me,” Amir assures him. “I’ll be at the other end of the phone. Anything you need me to go over, any time you want me to come and talk to him or you, I’ll be here.”

Tony snorts. “You haven't met him yet. You may change your mind.”

“I think I’ll like him,” Amir says easily. “And I think now could be a good time to find out, yes?”

Steve nods and looks to Tony. Tony shrugs and then pushes himself up off of the couch, pulling his phone from his pocket and turning it restlessly over in his fingers.

“J, has he finished with his medical check?”

“Yes, Agent Vasquez has concluded her check up. She suggests that you meet her and Arto in the medbay as he seems quite settled.”

“Alright, thanks Jarvis,” Steve says, and checks with Amir. “Is that okay by you?”

“Certainly,” he says. “Lead the way, Captain.”

Steve wishes that for once he wasn’t the Captain, that he could just be Steve. This isn't Captain America’s issue, it’s his. His personal life, not his public one. He doesn’t comment on it though, just rises from his seat and leads the way to the medbay. Tony walks at his side, hands tucked into his pockets and thoughtful frown etching a line between his brows. Steve’s grateful for his presence at his side, knowing that Tony is in the same boat as he is.

He can hear Clint and Arto yelling the moment they step out of the elevator onto the medbay floor. It’s edged with laughter though so he isn’t worried, though he is a little concerned when he walks into medical to see Clint balanced in a perfect handstand, laughing as Arto tries to copy him. Agent Vasquez is watching from her perch on a chair, and Phil is also supervising, standing a way back with his hands in his pockets and the faintest of smiles playing around his mouth.

It’s Arto who his attention is focused on, though. God, he seems so happy. It about breaks Steve’s heart thinking about what must have happened to him in the dimension they snatched him from. Despite how bad he can be, Arto’s a good kid at heart, Steve’s sure of it. He’s only not sometimes because of the faults of other people, and it makes Steve feel so angry and helpless all at once.

“Whoa, whoa. This floor is not suitable for gymnastics,” Tony says as he pushes past Steve. “That’s strike one for today, Barton.”

“How many strikes do I get and what happens when I hit my limit?” Clint asks, swaying slightly as he walks a few steps on his hands towards Arto. Arto plants his hands on the floor and kicks his legs up in vain, obviously missing the technique he needs to be able to pull it off.

“You are a giant child,” Tony informs Clint as he drops his legs and goes into a crouch, grinning.

“So I’ve been told,” he says cheerfully.

“Me! Help me!” Arto shouts, tugging at Clint’s arm, and then he turns to look at Steve. “Steve-”

The word is barely out of his mouth when he sees Amir standing behind Steve. The reaction is instantaneous; for a split second, startled recognition flashes in his eyes, and then something close to terror sweeps over his face, and he bolts.

“Arto, no!”

Steve lunges after him, but he’s too far away. Clint isn’t fast enough or strong enough to catch hold of him properly, fingers snagging in Arto’s T-shirt as he tries to grab him. In a split second, Arto is out of his grip, across the room and straight into the uncovered vent that they still haven't thought to have fixed since last time.

“Shit,” Clint curses, and he’s over at the vent already, crouching down and peering inside. “Arto, what the hell? Come on buddy-”

The only reply he gets is an angrily screamed “no,” and then Arto bursts into tears. His sobs echo inside the vent, loud and harsh. For several seconds, Steve just stands frozen in place and then he’s moving, striding over and dropping down to kneel beside the vent.

“Arto, come out,” Clint says, resting his head against the edge of the vent. He turns to meet Steve’s eyes, troubled.

“Barton, get him out,” Tony says from behind them. “Jesus, what was that?”

“I don’t know, he just looked at your friend over there and freaked,” Clint says angrily, gesturing towards where Amir is still standing in the doorway.

“He looked like he recognized you,” Steve says to Amir, and already his mind is trying to make sense of what’s just happened, wondering how the hell Arto could possibly recognize Amir, or if it’s a case of him looking like someone Arto knew-

Steve’s blood runs cold. Fuck. If Amir looks like someone Arto used to know - all Arto knows are doctors and people from the goddamn Hydra lab.

He shuts his eyes for a moment, breathes out, and then pulls himself together.

“Right,” he says clearly, opening his eyes. “Phil, take Amir and Vasquez out of the way, get them a coffee or something. Tony get over here, and Clint, keep trying, see if you can get him to listen.”

Phil nods without question, moving quickly across the room and efficiently hustling both Amir and Vasquez from the room, leaving Steve, Clint and Tony to deal with Arto. Tony walks over to join them, standing just behind Steve as Clint continues to try and get Arto to listen. Steve can hear his muffled crying echoing against the metal of the vents and it hurts to listen to.

“Arto, he’s gone,” Steve calls. “It’s just us-”

No,” Arto screams back, and there’s the banging of fists or feet on metal. “You lie - you said no!”

The word hits Steve like a slap. “I didn’t lie,” he says. “Arto, listen to me! I didn’t-”

Arto is crying too hard to listen, so Steve stops, words cutting off in his throat. He swallows hard, thinking of a plan B.

“Clint, get in there and get him out,” he says tersely.

“But-”

“Get him out,” Steve repeats, looking around. “Where the hell is Bucky?”

“Out at SHIELD,” Clint says, and edges back. “Alright, I’m going.”

He ducks into the vent, and Steve hears the sounds of his clothes slithering along against the metal. Steve sits back on his heels, clamping his palm over his mouth. He doesn't know what’s just happened, but he’ll be damned if he lets Arto sit there alone, sobbing and feeling like he’s been lied to. If Amir says that he’s going to need Steve to spell it out for him, then that’s what he’s going to do.

His heart is thudding out of sync in his chest, strange and uncomfortable and too big. Anticipation makes all his organs feel swollen and displaced, and he’s not going to be able to settle until Arto is here with him. He can hear Clint softly speaking but can’t make out all of the words, but Arto’s crying is slowly subsiding in volume.

Two hands slide onto his shoulders, and he reaches up blindly to grasp Tony’s wrist. Tony leans right over to kiss the side of his face, and Steve catches him in place with a palm on his the side of his chin.

“I need him out of there,” he says to Tony. “I need him to know I’ve got him.”

“Tell me about it,” Tony says lightly, too lightly. “How do you think I feel? I’ve got a pair of Rogers I’ve got to get that message across to.”

And Steve looks up, at Tony meets his eyes, sad and serious. Another pang goes through Steve’s gut and twists away from the vent, reaches up to hold onto Tony’s face with both hands, still on his knees. “I know,” he says and leans up to kiss Tony, gentle and shaking. “I know.”

“Sorry,” Tony says, eyes closed and leaning down so his nose brushes Steve’s. “Not the moment.”

And Steve is not going to let Tony invalidate himself like that, Arto or no. He needs Tony there with him to help raise Arto, of course he does, but that’s not the only reason he needs Tony-

“Always the moment,” he says to Tony, quiet and sudden. Tony rears back slightly, looking more taken aback than Steve would have liked, and he’s opening his mouth to reply but suddenly it’s gone quiet and he shuts his mouth again. Steve stops as well, and he hears the faint sounds of Clint shifting in the vents. Steve holds his breath as Clint’s feet appear, and then he slides out slowly, one arm still reaching into the vent-

Arto appears, awkwardly sitting and shuffling along feet first, clutching Clint’s hand like he’s never going to let go and still hiccuping out uneven sobs.

“There you go,” Clint coaxes as he gently tugs Arto from the vent, socked feet finally touching the floor. “Brilliant work, Short Round.”

Screwing up his face, Arto shakes his head and makes to turn back towards the vent, fresh tears spilling over. Steve is there in an instant, lifting Arto up and holding him tightly.

“No,” Arto cries, trying to wriggle free. “Don’t want you, don’t want you-”

“Well tough because I want you,” Steve says shakily, reaching to brush Arto’s hair back, not giving in even as Arto pushes as his hand, trying to make him stop.

“You said-” Arto manages, and doubles over crying again, a pained wail that has Steve desperately trying to shush him.

“Sit up, Art,” Steve says trying to pull Arto up by his arm without hurting him. “Sit up and tell me what I said.”

Arto straightens up, swings at Steve viciously; Steve catching his hand just as Tony makes an alarmed sound, also reaching forwards to grab Arto’s elbow.

“No hitting, kid,” Tony says, and Arto wrenches his arm free. He swings again and Steve manages to grab his hand before he gets punched, folding his fingers around Arto's.

“You said no doctors,” Arto cries angrily at Steve, shoving at his collarbones with his free hand, and Steve wonders how the hell Arto knew Amir was a doctor. He’s pretty sure Arto didn’t pay any attention to Jarvis when he said Doctor Amir had arrived, so unless Vasquez or someone said something, it’s got to be because Amir reminds him of a doctor from his dimension.

“He’s not a doctor Art,” Tony says, stepping up and rubbing his palm over Arto’s back. “Promise, swear on it.”

“Is,” Arto insists angrily. “You said, you said, you said-”

“Arto, stop,” Steve says, and Arto stops shouting and descends into tears again instead. At a loss, Steve just puts his hand on the back of Arto’s head and pulls him in so Arto is cradled against his shoulder. Arto doesn’t resist, just curls up small against Steve’s shoulder, arms tucked in closely.

“Is Doctor Sampson,” Arto sobs out, and Steve feels Tony go tense next to him.

“Who? Tony, what-?”

“He mentioned Doctor Sampson in passing once,” Tony says, and there’s barely controlled fury in his voice. “The one who did tests and stuff.”

“Fuck,” Steve bites out, and without thinking he tightens his grip on Arto, holding him closer to him. “Arto, that was not Doctor Sampson,” he says. “That’s Yasin, he’s our friend. Nothing is going to happen to you, I promise.”

And all the fight goes out of Arto. He slumps against Steve, still sobbing his heart out. Steve buries his face in Arto’s hair, and in that moment all he can think of is that he’s the one that can make everything alright from Arto, and it doesn’t seem so terrifying any more, it just seems like what he’s got to do. God, this little boy has been snatched from one world and dropped right in the middle of Steve’s, and with that is an opportunity Steve never even considered-

And now, he understands the strange way his heart has been beating, the strange twist of emotion that’s left him feeling curiously light and knotted up.

It makes him think of the night he spent at Arto’s bedside, making sure he slept. Reminds him of playing with Arto the morning before, laughing as Tony smiled from the pillows next to them.  The way Arto whispers ‘green’, forehead pressed to Steve’s and eyes bright and wide.

And now, he thinks everything makes a lot more sense than it did.

Chapter Text

Eyes closed, Steve lies back on the couch, hand still lightly stroking over Arto’s back. Arto is tucked into his side and is fast asleep, breathing deep and even and heart thudding gently against Steve’s ribs.

Amir and Vasquez are long gone. In the face of Arto’s sudden fit of hysteria, Tony had made the call that he’d had enough, asking Amir if introductions could be left for a few days. Steve is thankful for it; seeing Arto flip his lid yet again today had been agonizing to witness, and he’s not sure he can handle seeing it again.

He can hear Tony, Pepper and Phil talking over on the other side of the room, though he’s not too worried about what they’re saying; he trusts Tony to have it all in hand. Pepper has just returned to the tower after a morning of meetings, and is still in her business suit and heels, ready to go back out after a quick lunch. She’s simultaneously eating and helping look over the paperwork that Phil has brought with him, and Steve is grateful for her quiet support.

Regardless of what everyone else needs to get done, Steve has no plans on being more than two feet away from Arto for the rest of the day. He wants to stay exactly where he is, with Arto tucked under his arm, safe away from the rest of the word.

“Hey,” Tony’s voice says, and Steve opens his eyes to see him standing there with a pen and a sheet of paper. “Sign here please, Mister Rogers.”

“How much paperwork do I have to actually sign?”

“This is one of the last ones, I promise,” Tony says. “I’d do it, but you’re legal guardian, so yeah. Needs to be you.”

Wow. Legal guardian. The word settles into Steve’s mind tentatively but surely, and he exhales slowly, his hand running over Arto’s shoulder feeling almost like reassurance for himself rather than Arto.

“Come on, Rogers,” Tony says, shaking the paper in front of his face. “Haven't got all day.”

“Jarvis, I would like a copy of this please,” Pepper calls, and Tony sends her a withering look.

“Laugh it up, Potts.”

“Oh, I intend to,” she says happily. “Steve, I think you should first tell him the eight thousand things you’d rather be doing, which he can then actually point out takes longer than signing the piece of paper would. Oh! And then complain about the fact it’s a piece of paper, and ask if it can be digitized-”

Steve smiles up at Tony, eyebrow lifting wickedly. “She’s got a point. I am actually pretty busy napping right now-”

Tony holds out the pen and piece of paper. “Do it now, or i’m going to shove both pen and paperwork up your ass.”

“Tony!” Pepper hisses, scandalized.

“He’s asleep, he can’t hear me,” Tony rolls his eyes. “Steve.”

“Alright, alright,” Steve says, and carefully lifts his arms so he can take the pen without disturbing Arto. He motions to Tony who obediently perches on the edge of the couch and leans forwards so Steve can rest the paper on his back and sign it.

“What even is this?” he asks, scanning the paperwork. “Looks like it’s from the bank-”

“It is,” Tony says, twisting around and taking the pen and piece of paper back. “Trust fund.”

“A trust fund?” Steve echoes, turning to Arto and carefully lifting his head so he can slip his arm back under. Arto snuffles sleepily but doesn't wake, just burrows further into Steve’s side, mouth hanging open. He glances back at Tony, feeling a little out of the loop and maybe slightly panicked that Tony is thinking of this and he hasn’t even got past the whole ‘legal guardian’ thing.

“Don’t sweat it,” Tony says. “Pepper’s idea. Just so that whatever happens, he’ll be okay. I fully anticipate him getting to eighteen and blowing it on something ridiculous just to spite us, but hey. At least he’s got options.”

“Okay,” Steve says, and a weird thrill runs through him as he imagines what Arto will be like when he’s eighteen. It’s almost unfathomable to him right now. “Dare I ask how much is going into this thing?”

“No, because you will talk me down and I’m not going to let you,” Tony says matter of factly.

Steve quirks a brow at him. “You know this time I might listen to you. It’s not me you’re trying to spend obscene amounts of money on.”

“I am saving money for him, not spending money on him. That’s a responsible thing to do, stop belittling my being responsible.”

“Thank you,” Steve says gently. “For doing this for him.”

“Thank you,” Tony counters with a crooked smile, nodding down at where Arto is sleeping against Steve’s side. “For doing this for him.”

Steve glances down at Arto, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I figured I could handle this,” he says seriously. “I’ve got a fair bit of experience with sleeping.”

Laughing, Tony takes the paperwork back to Pepper and Coulson; Phil takes the signed sheet and slides it into a folder full of other pieces of paperwork. “That’s all for today,” he says. “I’m going to get these to the places they need to go.”

“Thank you, Phil,” Pepper says. “Wait a moment and I’ll walk down with you.”

“You out again?” Tony asks her.

“Yeah, until late,” she sighs. “New York investors are the ones who take the most reassurance. Maybe it’s because they’re the ones who see you on a regular basis.”

“Slander,” Tony says, though leans in to kiss her cheek. “See you later.”

“Be good,” she says to him. She waves goodbye to Steve and then she and Coulson are gone, talking softly and laughing as they walk towards the elevator.

“So, it’s official then,” Tony says, walking towards Steve. “Baby Rogers is officially a human being with a social security number and a date of birth.”

Smiling faintly, Steve reaches out for Tony’s hand. Tony takes it, sits on the edge of the couch next to Steve’s hip, splaying out his palm over Steve’s stomach.

“Hell of a day,” he says, and Steve laughs softly.

“You could say that,” he says. “Not over yet though.”

Tony hums in agreement, eyes going distant for a moment, biting the inside of his lip thoughtfully. He reaches up to rub absently at the arc-reactor, light shining blue through his fingers.

“You feel different.” Tony speaks abruptly, refocusing on Steve, cleft between his eyebrows. “Don’t you?”

And Steve wasn't expecting Tony to call him on it so directly, but maybe in hindsight he should have. He licks his bottom lip and then nods, feeling far too open under Tony’s gaze.

“Yeah,” he says. “Don’t make me talk about it.”

Tony’s face softens. “I won't,” he says. “I just wanted to check you’d got it. You looked a bit...uncertain this morning. Like you’d figured something out but couldn’t actually say what it was.”