“This is all my fault,” Steve sighed.
“Don't be so hard on yourself,” Bruce replied, smiling down at Bucky and Tony.
Bucky and Tony, who were now three year olds.
“Jeez, I only just got Bucky back,” he mumbled, running a hand over his eyes. “I should have listened to his intel.”
They had been on a call-out in one of the many Argentine rainforests, following up on some reports of strange, other-worldly occurrences. Steve had had Tony fly Bucky ahead to scout out the area, even though Bucky had mentioned strange tracks in the mud and a bad feeling. By the time Steve and the others had caught up, the damage had already been done.
“Captain America?” Tony asked softly, staring at Steve's costume with wide eyes. “Does my Daddy know you're here?”
“What?” Steve asked, taken aback. “Uh, no, he doesn't -”
“You should tell my Daddy you're here,” Tony told him firmly. “He's been looking for you.”
“Oh...” Steve didn't really know what to say to that. “Uh -”
“The good news,” Bruce cut over him, handing a lollipop to both boys to keep them occupied while he led Steve over to another table in the lab, “is that they tracked this back on their shoes.”
Steve ran a hand over his face, trying to get his head around the situation, and then leaned over the table, trying to make sense of tiny, glowing specks amongst a pile of dirt in the Petri dish Bruce held up. “Some kind of magic?”
“Or a compound we're not familiar with, yes,” Bruce agreed. “Either way, it's the best lead we have right now for finding a way to reverse this.”
“And in the meantime?”
Bruce shrugged. “Stock up on Alphabetti Spaghetti and colouring books... and maybe stop Bucky hitting Tony with his metal arm.”
“Oh, jeez,” Steve groaned, turning around to find just that. “Boys, behave!”
Steve, of course, had experience with Bucky being a little kid. Maybe not quite so little (he didn't remember that far back), and the metal arm was still there for some reason, but he at least knew what to expect. Tony was a bit more of a commodity. Steve had always assumed, maybe a little naively, that Tony must have been somewhat of a problem child.
Turned out he had been wrong.
“Tony, what flavour pudding cups do you want?” he asked, tugging the shopping cart a little closer to the shelves so the boys, sat in the little seats at the front, could see.
Tony looked a little overwhelmed when he replied, with perfect intonation, “My Daddy says sugar is bad.”
“I... really?” he replied, taken aback. “Well, who says these have sugar in them?”
“Says so on the label.”
Ah, so Tony could already read. Fantastic.
“Tony,” he sighed. “Your Daddy's not here right now, buddy. I don't think he'd mind if -”
“He'll mind,” Tony replied immediately, picking at a loose thread in his tiny jeans. “He always minds.”
That was a little heartbreaking, honestly. They had been dating a few weeks before this had happened, so Steve knew Tony's childhood hadn't been the best, but he hadn't realised Howard had rationed pudding, for God's sake.
“Well, why don't you pick out the ones you want now, and then I'll... I can call him later to ask if it's okay,” he compromised with a sigh. “Bucky, which kind do you want?”
“Deez!” Bucky replied, less eloquently than Tony, as he lunged over the other boy to grab at the nearest chocolate ones. “Deez, Steeb!”
“Okay, buddy, watch Tony's head,” he replied, moving Bucky's waving metal arm out of Tony's disgruntled face. “Your arm's made of metal. It could hurt him.”
“Why s'it metal?”
“Because you're a robot,” Tony replied, peering not so discreetly over at it.
“M'not a wobot!” Bucky pouted, bottom lip trembling. God, this was turning into a nightmare. “M'not a wobot, Steeb!”
“No, you're not,” he sighed, reaching out to ruffle Bucky's hair. “It's a prosthetic.”
“What's a pros-prosthetic?” Tony asked, eyes sparkling with interest.
“Well,” Steve started, feeling a fleeting sense of panic, because what could he tell them about Bucky's past that wasn't going to scare the hell out of them? “When someone loses a body part, you put a prosthetic in its place so you can keep doing all the things you want to do.”
“So it's like an upgrade?”
“No, Tony, it's...” Almost as though she could sense his distress, Natasha chose that moment to round the corner with an armful of stuff. Breathing a sigh of relief, he took the food from her and whispered, “Help me.”
“What seems to be the trouble?” she asked, and Bucky immediately gasped and raised his arms to be picked up. Rolling her eyes, she scooped him up out of the cart and held him against her hip. “Are you two behaving yourselves?”
“Tony called me uh wobot,” Bucky mumbled, pressing his face against Natasha's neck.
“Because his arm's made of metal!” Tony defended. “But Steve said it's a prosthetic.”
“That's true,” Natasha nodded.
“What's a prosthetic?”
“It's...” even Natasha seemed a little stumped at what to say. “Huh. You know what? I think Bruce would be better at explaining this. Why don't we call him?”
She shifted Bucky on her hip a little so she could pull her phone out, and then navigated it until Steve could hear it ringing distantly. Then she handed it to Tony, shifted Bucky back, and looked up at Steve with a smirk.
“You're good at this,” he grumbled, pushing the cart forwards again. “I just panic.”
“You suddenly have two three year olds in your care,” she shrugged, trailing along behind him. “I think you're allowed to freak out a little.”
“Hello,” Tony cut them off, phone pressed to his ear. “Yes, this is Tony speaking... Bruce, what's a prosthetic?”
How was this Steve's life?
Despite everything, they all adapted. Getting Tony to act like the three year old he was instead of a forty year old man was still a bit of a nightmare, but even he was getting better.
“Bedtimes are silly,” he mumbled, allowing Steve to scoop him up. “Gotta keep working.”
“Nuh-uh,” Steve replied, waving over at Bruce so he knew Tony hadn't wandered off. “It's already 10pm, buddy. Bucky fell asleep three whole hours ago.”
“That's because he's not as smart as me,” Tony replied. “He needs sleep to catch up.”
“Now you know that's not a nice thing to say,” Steve told him. “You could learn a thing or two from Bucky.”
“Well,” he replied, shifting Tony a little closer against his chest. “You're awfully serious a lot of the time -”
“Daddy says I have to focus,” Tony replied, a little frown spreading across his face. “I won't get anywhere if I don't focus.”
“Believe it or not,” Steve sighed, running his hand soothingly up and down Tony's back, “your Dad doesn't know everything.”
“My Daddy's the smartest guy around!” Tony gasped, looking genuinely shocked. “And I've gotta buck my ideas up if I want to be as smart as him.”
“Tony, you're already smart!” Steve replied, a little exasperated. He was starting to hate Howard Stark more and more with each passing day. “You're already smarter than me. You've got enough smarts to last you for a very long time. When was the last time you played?”
“Played?” Tony whispered, back to looking confused. “I was just playing with the blueprints -”
“No, Tony, I mean when was the last time you played with a toy?”
That made Tony stiffen in his arms. “Toys are for babies.”
“Did your Dad tell you that?” Steve sighed, stepping out of the elevator when it came to a stop.
He had thought so. With yet another sigh, he carried Tony across the room to the spare bedroom they had set up for the boys to sleep in on Steve's floor. Bucky was sprawled out across the center of the double bed when they entered the room, fast asleep, and Steve couldn't help but smile.
Placing Tony gently down on the floor, he went about rummaging through the bags and bags of kids stuff he and Natasha had bought for them. He found a little pair of Iron Man pyjamas and pulled them out with a small hum of triumph. When he turned around to help Tony into them, however, he saw the little boy staring down at his feet where a teddy bear had rolled out of a bag to land.
“He's a nice bear, huh?” Steve murmured, and Tony jumped a little at the sound of his voice. “I bet he'd be great to snuggle with in bed.”
For just a moment, Tony looked like he desperately wanted to scoop the bear up and hug it, but then he shook his head and took a step back. “Toys are for babies.”
“Well, Bucky's not a baby, is he?” Steve shrugged. “He's just as old as you are, and he's got his cat plushie in there somewhere with him.”
“It's... it's not the same,” Tony mumbled, though Steve could tell he was starting to sway.
“Then can I tell you a secret?” he replied, shuffling forwards on his knees a little so he could whisper in Tony's ear. “I still sleep with a teddy bear, too.”
A teddy that Tony had won him on their first date, as it happened, but that wasn't really the point.
Tony's eyes widened and he pulled away, visibly shocked. “But you're... you're a grown up.”
“Sure am,” Steve nodded. “That doesn't mean it doesn't feel good to have my teddy there to protect me, though, right?”
“I...” Tony's frown deepened, but he still bent down to scoop the teddy bear up and hold him close to his chest. The effect was almost comical. As soon as the bear was resting in his arms, Tony's eyes fluttered shut and he let out a small, content sigh.
“Feels good, huh?” Steve murmured, and Tony bobbed his little head without a word. “Okay, let's get you into your jammies, brush your teeth, and get you in bed, mister.”
“I can do it,” Tony mumbled, but didn't resist when Steve started undressing him; he was too busy making sure he didn't drop his new friend.
“I know you can do it,” Steve replied reassuringly. “But sometimes it's good to let other people help, right? This way, you get to keep holding your bear.”
“I suppose it is more efficient this way,” Tony sighed, and Steve just shook his head disbelievingly. What three year old said efficient?
“Okay, buddy,” he smiled, helping Tony step into his pyjama pants. “Why don't I hold your bear while you go to the potty and brush your teeth?”
“Um...” Tony didn't seem to want to let the bear go now he had it, but he begrudgingly handed it over. “I can have him back, right?”
“Of course you can,” Steve promised. “The faster you get ready, the faster you can get him back.”
Tony nodded, then raced off to the en-suite and closed the door behind him. Steve heard the tap go on and the water start running. Taking a deep breath, he got to his feet and crept over to the bed. Bucky was snoring gently, just like he always used to when he sprawled out on his stomach, so he gently righted him on his side of the bed and rummaged around until he found his cat plushie under the covers to tuck in beside him.
He turned back around and spotted Tony in the doorway, rubbing at his eyes. For the first time in the last week, he was holding himself like the three year old he actually was.
“Come on, buddy,” he murmured with a smile, holding his arms out as he got to his feet. “Let's get you tucked in.”
“You got the bear, right?” Tony asked quietly, lifting his arms so Steve could pick him up and carry him to bed. “You didn't lose him?”
“He's waiting for you on the bed,” Steve replied, and backed it up by placing Tony down and grabbing the teddy to show him. “See? He's fine.”
“Okay,” Tony nodded, shuffling under the covers. Once he was settled, Steve tucked the covers closer around him and then handed the bear over. Tony immediately hugged it close to his chest.
“There,” Steve smiled, reaching up to sweep Tony's bangs off his face. “Perfect.”
Tony nodded, and then yawned. “What're we doing tomorrow?”
“What do you want to do tomorrow?” Steve asked. “I was thinking we could maybe go to the park. What do you think?”
“Will... will I get dirty?” Tony asked quietly. “My Daddy doesn't like it when I get dirty.”
“Well, like I said, your Dad's not here right now,” Steve shrugged. “Plus, clothes can be washed, buddy. Your Dad never has to know. It's up to you, though. Why don't you sleep on it and tell me tomorrow?”
“Okay,” Tony nodded, eyelashes fluttering as he tried to keep his eyes open.
“Get some sleep,” Steve whispered, giving Tony's tummy a gentle pat before getting to his feet. “I'll be just next door if you need anything, okay?”
“Steve?” Tony called softly, and he turned back. “I like it when you pick me up. My Daddy says I'm too big to be carried, but... I like it.”
Steve's heart simultaneously swelled three sizes and shattered, and he let out a breath in a rush. “I'll make sure to do it more often, then.”
Tony's hopeful smile was still on his mind when he fell asleep later that night.
When he woke up, he took a moment to grumble confusedly, because it was still dark outside. Then he noticed a small hand shaking his arm and he snapped to attention.
“Whassit?” he asked, rubbing at his eyes. Little Tony was stood next to the bed, bear clutched to his chest.
“Bucky wet the bed,” he whispered, grimacing. “He had bad dreams, Steve, and he's really upset.”
Steve stopped himself from cursing out loud and immediately swung the covers back to get up. He scooped Tony up, realising immediately that the boy's clothes were a little damp down one side. Great.
“Good job for telling me, Tony,” he praised anyway, carrying the boy into his and Bucky's bedroom.
The sight that met him damn near broke his heart. Bucky was sat in the center of their big bed, clutching his cat plushie in one arm and the comforter with the other. He was sobbing quietly, face pale, and his little body trembled.
“Buck?” Steve called gently, placing Tony down on the ground as he stepped closer. “It's okay, buddy. They were just bad dreams.”
“Steeb,” Bucky cried, voice horribly shaky and congested. “They gonna hurt me.”
“No-one's gonna hurt you, buddy,” Steve replied, throwing caution to the wind and dropping down to sit on the edge of the bed. He tugged Bucky into his arms and held him close, ignoring how damp everything was. “It's okay, Bucky. You're safe.” He turned to Tony. “Can you go get Natasha or Bruce for me? Tell them Bucky had bad dreams and we need help; JARVIS will help you get there. JARVIS, can you also start running a bath, please?”
“Certainly, Captain Rogers,” the AI replied as Tony disappeared through the door, seemingly eager to help.
Now alone with Bucky, who was still hiccuping in his arms, he bent his head down to press a kiss amongst the boy's long, fluffy hair.
“You're safe, Buck,” he reiterated, hating how little he could do to help.
“I wet duh bed,” Bucky sniffled, burying further into Steve's embrace. “M'sorry. Din' mean to.”
“Sometimes it happens,” Steve replied. “It's okay. I know you couldn't help it. Do you... do you want to talk about your bad dream?”
Bucky shook his head immediately, and a little sob left his mouth. Steve's heart clenched again, and he hugged him tighter. They hadn't really figured out how much of adult Tony and Bucky were still in their heads, but from his short description, he could put together that Bucky's nightmares must have been about his time as the Winter Soldier. He felt a little sick at the thought of an innocent three year old seeing what Bucky had been through.
Not really knowing what else to do or say, they sat in silence for a few moments while Steve alternated between shushing Bucky soothingly and rocking them back and forth.
“Steve?” Tony called, racing back into the room. “I could only find Clint.”
“I resent that, squirt,” Clint replied, stepping into the room behind him. “Heard Bucky was having a tough time. What do you need, and why does Tony smell like pee?”
“Thank you, Clint,” Steve sighed, shifting Bucky so he could continue holding him as he stood up. “We had a little accident in here and I need someone to change the sheets while I put the boys in the bath.”
“Ah,” Clint nodded. “So I'm on pee mopping duty. This is why I should start sleeping at more appropriate hours.”
“That, and your general health,” Steve replied, sweeping past. He held out his spare hand for Tony to take so he could lead both boys into the bathroom, where the bath was already run. “All right, boys, the faster we do this, the faster everyone can go back to sleep.”
“Are we sharing the bath?” Tony asked, frowning. “But -”
“Let's not do this right now, honey, please,” Steve sighed, and Tony looked momentarily taken aback by the pet name, before nodding silently. “Sharing the tub is fun!”
Bucky hummed in agreement, and allowed Steve to put him down on the ground. He stripped the boys out of their sticky clothes quickly, and then took his own off, too. Tony got into the tub first, and then Steve scooped Bucky up and clambered in after him to sit at the other side. Bucky sagged against Steve's chest and went limp on his lap.
“JARVIS,” Steve started, a thought coming to him. “Bucky's arm isn't going to rust, is it?”
“No,” Tony replied before JARVIS could. “It's made of Vibranium. Only iron rusts.”
“I... okay,” Steve nodded, not willing to get into a debate over how Tony knew all that. Instead, he snatched up a loofah and a bottle of gel soap. Holding out the loofah to Tony, he asked, “Can you wash yourself while I help Bucky? Anywhere you feel sticky, okay?”
Tony nodded, taking the loofah after Steve squirted some soap onto it. Once he was sure Tony knew what he was doing, he squirted some more soap on his own hand and then rubbed them together to create a bunch of suds.
“Arms up, Buck,” he murmured, and Bucky did as he was told, giggling tiredly when Steve started to scrub.
Overall, the whole experience was painless. Bucky whined a little when it came to washing his long hair, but ultimately sat back and trusted Steve not to hurt him. Tony was almost completely self-sufficient, only needing help when he accidentally got a bit of shampoo in his eyes.
By the time he was pulling them both out of the tub again, the boys were falling asleep on their feet. He managed to wrap them all up in towels before, scooping Bucky back up again, he led Tony back into their bedroom.
“Nice bod, Cap,” Clint smirked, buttoning the last sheet around the comforter and then throwing it across the bed.
“Eat, sleep, and work out like a normal human being, and you could have one, too,” Steve replied, dropping Bucky down onto the bed and hitching his towel further up his hips. He grinned when Clint gasped in faux-hurt.
“I'll have you know my body is stunning,” he replied, sweeping a giggling Tony up into his arms to carry over to the bags at the end of the bed. “You agree, right, mini-Stark?”
“Your belly is flabby,” Tony giggled from between the flaps of the huge towel he was buried in, and Clint gasped again.
While they were babbling and giggling as Clint helped Tony get into fresh pyjamas, Steve turned back to Bucky on the bed and began to gently towel his hair dry.
“Feeling better?” he asked, crouching down to Bucky's level. The little boy nodded tiredly. “Do you want to try some pull-ups, in case this happens again?”
Immediately, Bucky's bottom lip began to tremble. “But... but Tony -”
“Tony just wants you to feel better,” Steve murmured, reaching out to cup Bucky's rosy cheek. “That's what we all want, okay? He won't make fun of you.”
“But m'not... uh baby,” Bucky whispered, almost as though the very thought was unthinkable.
“No, you're not,” Steve agreed tiredly. “Nobody thinks that, Buck. But it'd be easier to just change your undies than have to change the whole bed again, right?”
Reluctantly, Bucky nodded. “'Kay.”
“We don't even have to tell the others, okay?” Steve suggested, and Bucky nodded gratefully. “They never have to know.”
He slipped a pair of pull-ups out of one of the drawers next to the bed where they were discreetly stored and quickly helped Bucky into them. When he asked for a fresh pair of pyjamas, Clint threw a cute pair of Black Widow ones over that Bucky really seemed to like, and within no time both boys were ready for bed again.
“This would be where I take my leave,” Clint announced, throwing Tony back onto the bed as the boy squealed with delight. “Take it easy, short stacks.”
“Thank you, Clint,” Steve called after him, and the archer saluted as he closed the door behind him. Turning back to the boys, he continued, “Okay, everyone under the covers.”
“Steeb?” Bucky murmured as Steve dug out his cat plushie from where it had fallen off the bed sometime in the night before it could get wet.
“Y'gettin' in f'snuggles?”
When Steve looked up, Bucky had the corner of the comforter held up in his grasp as though he wanted Steve to get in with them. At the other side of the bed, Tony watched on silently, though Steve could see the fragile hope badly concealed on his face, too.
Taking a deep breath, Steve nodded.
“Why don't I slide in the middle, huh?” he suggested, gently scooping Bucky up so he could slip onto the centre of the bed. “Then I can cuddle you both.”
For once in his life, not even Tony argued when Steve slipped Bucky back under the covers and tucked everyone in, which proved just how much the experience had tired the little guy out. Instead, he let Steve pull him gently towards him and even snuggled into his side. Bucky was all too happy to do the same on his other side, and was asleep within seconds.
“Steve?” Tony whispered after a few seconds, and Steve hummed to prove he was listening. “I wanna go to the park tomorrow.”
“You do?” Steve smiled, hugging him a little closer as he dropped a kiss into the boy's hair. “That's great.”
Tony was still for quite a while after that, but eventually relaxed completely into Steve's arms. He couldn't help but feel, as he drifted off to sleep, that that was a great accomplishment.
“Tony, buddy, don't you want to go play with Buck?” Steve asked, peering down at the boy clutching his hand.
Across the grass, Bucky was running around like the little monster Steve remembered him being, chasing Clint and Sam around the swings and screaming happily when Thor threw him up in the air.
“I'm... not sure,” Tony replied quietly, clutching his teddy bear tightly to his chest. “Looks kinda dirty.”
“Well,” Steve sighed, crouching down to get on the little guy's level. “That's why we dressed you in sweats and a t-shirt, remember? So it doesn't matter if they get dirty. It's fine, buddy, I promise.”
Tony still didn't look completely convinced, and looked up at Steve with wide, fearful eyes. Steve's heart ached and felt heavy in his chest, and he just had to pull the little guy into a hug.
“Daddy will be mad,” Tony whispered, stiff and rigid in Steve's arms. “He doesn't like it when I'm dirty, he -”
“He'll never know, Tony, I promise,” Steve told him sincerely. “I'm... I'm not going to make you if you really don't want to, but... maybe you'd like it if I went down the slide with you, huh?”
“You... but you're a grown up,” Tony whispered, obviously confused.
“That doesn't matter,” Steve reassured him. “Being a grown up doesn't mean you can't do fun stuff, Tony.”
Tony frowned, obviously confused by that concept, too, but didn't say anything. Steve waited patiently for him to make up his mind, resisting the urge to scoop him up and go put him somewhere safe where he could be loved and taken care of for the rest of his life.
“Okay,” Tony sighed eventually, as though the decision physically hurt him. “If you insist.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve got back to his feet and took Tony's hand again. “Okay, Mr. Sassy Pants. Let's go give your bear to Bruce for safekeeping, then we can go on the slides.”
Bruce took the bear from them accommodatingly and placed it between him and Natasha on the blanket they had spread out on the grass. Offering them a quick thank you, Steve steered Tony over to the slides before he could snatch the bear back and change his mind, and scooped him up into one arm so he could climb to the top.
“Careful!” Tony called, gripping onto Steve's shirt tightly as he settled at the top with Tony on his lap. “It's... it's really high, Steve.”
The slide, of course, was barely taller than Steve, though he supposed it must seem a lot higher to a little guy like Tony.
“I promise you won't fall, okay?” he smiled, wrapping his arms loosely around Tony's middle. “Ready?”
“Y-yeah,” Tony replied, though he didn't seem ready at all as he snuggled into Steve's arms and gripped his shirt with a white-knuckle grip. “Just go.”
Shuffling forwards a little, Steve let his balance change so they could go down the slide. They didn't go particularly fast, of course, because slides really weren't made for someone of Steve's size, age, or weight, but Tony still let out a surprised little squeak and gripped Steve tighter. From across the grass, he could hear Natasha and Bruce cheering them on, and as they got to the bottom, Steve was grinning proudly into the back of Tony's hair.
“How was that, buddy?” he asked, jostling the little guy softly in his own excitement. Slides were great.
When Tony turned around, hair ruffled, eyes wide, and slack jawed, it seemed like he agreed.
“Again,” he whispered, breathless and so, so happy. “Again, Steve!”
“Yeah?” Steve grinned, scooping him up so he could stand. “Sure, buddy -”
“Tony, Tony!” came Bucky's little voice from behind them, and Steve turned just in time to watch the little boy come running over, flushed from exertion and with the biggest smile on his face. Clint, Sam and Thor were jogging along behind him, looking exhausted but happy. “We gonna do duh swings! Y'comin'?”
Tony immediately turned to Steve, unsure again. Unable to stand it, Steve leaned in and kissed the little guy's cheek, and decidedly ignored the way Tony stiffened up again at the loving contact.
“There's time, buddy,” he told him. “If you want to go on the swings with the others now, we can do the slide again later, okay?”
Tony nodded and wiggled a little until Steve let him down. “Okay, swings!”
Thor, Clint and Sam cheered happily, and even Bucky threw his arms up in excitement, before grabbing Tony's hand with his real one so he could tug him along with him. Steve watched with a smile on his face as Tony ran after them all, a big smile of his own on his face. That was how a three year old should be acting, he thought to himself as he wandered back over to sit with Natasha and Bruce.
“It's nice to see him finally coming out of his shell a little,” Bruce commented as he handed Steve a can of soda from the cooler they'd brought. “He's been awfully withdrawn.”
Natasha hummed in agreement, but said nothing as she dropped a grape into her mouth from the punnet by her side. Steve decided to not ask what was on her mind, because he had a feeling he wouldn't like whatever it was she'd say. Instead, they sat in silence for a few moments as they ate their snacks and drank their sodas, all the while watching as Thor, Sam and Clint took it in turns to push the boys (and each other) on the swings.
“Are you any closer to finding a cure?” Steve asked eventually, voicing the question that had been a constant in his mind since this had happened.
“Maybe,” Bruce replied, putting his soda down on the ground beside him. “I've been doing tests on the material they tracked in on their shoes, and it looks like it's some kind of magical compound. I had to call a couple of people to verify it, of course, but now we know that, I'm trying to find a way to maybe reverse engineer its effects.”
“Like poison?” Natasha asked, and Bruce nodded.
“Exactly. If we can figure out how it works, we can take the components apart, reverse them, and use that for a cure,” he explained. “With an element of magic being thrown in, though, I don't know how long it will take.”
Steve nodded, content with that for the moment. As hard as it was to take care of two three year olds, he was already sure he'd miss them when they turned back, so was happy to just let it all run its course in its own time.
They sat there in a companionable silence, occasionally throwing in an odd, inconsequential comment, for almost half an hour while the others goofed around on the playground and just generally had a good time. The kids had to get hungry some time, though, and it actually ended up being Tony who toddled over first, tugging at the bottom of his t-shirt nervously.
“I'm... I'm hungry,” he told them quietly, graciously accepting his bear back from Bruce to clutch against his chest.
“You are?” Bruce asked kindly, and reached for the picnic basket covered by all their coats. “Well, we have sandwiches, chips, fruit... what would you like?”
Tony looked overwhelmed for a moment, obviously not used to being asked his opinion, and turned to Steve as though he had all the answers.
“Why don't we start with a sandwich, huh?” he suggested, and Tony nodded gratefully. “You like cheese, right?”
When Tony nodded again, Bruce dipped into the basket and pulled out a cheese sandwich for him, neatly cut into quarters. Tony took it and thanked him, and then looked at Steve again expectantly.
“You want to sit with me?” Steve asked, and Tony nodded. He shuffled over and dropped down onto Steve's lap, juggling his bear and his sandwich together. Steve was beginning to think introducing him to that bear had been a mistake, because he barely let go of it now. Hell, he was pretty sure he'd take it in the bath with him if he could.
Once he'd seen Bruce handing out food, Bucky wasn't too far behind Tony, which meant Clint, Sam and Thor followed along behind. Buck opted for a bag of chips, but they managed to force half a ham sandwich into him, too, and even a couple of grapes (but Steve was pretty sure that was only because Natasha offered them to him). Everyone was happy and well fed, though, so that's all that really mattered.
Things got a little more complicated when it came to dessert. Bruce pulled out the chocolate pudding cups Bucky had picked out the other day and handed one to each boy with a spoon. Bucky, of course, had no qualms about digging right in, managing to smear chocolate all over his face and hands in the process. Tony, however, held the dessert in his hand and just looked at it.
“Do you need some help opening it?” Steve asked quietly, but Tony shook his head. “What's wrong?”
“Did you... did my Dad say it was okay?” Tony asked softly, looking up at Steve with big, frightened eyes.
“I called him last night when you were asleep,” Steve lied easily, not even feeling bad about it. “Your Dad said that while you're staying with us, you can live by our rules, okay?”
“He... really?” Tony asked dubiously. “That doesn't sound like my Daddy.”
“I promise, buddy,” Steve replied, hugging him a little closer. “You can eat your pudding.”
“Okay,” Tony whispered, finally tugging the foil from the top. His eyes fluttered momentarily closed as the smell hit his nostrils, and he was smiling despite himself as he spooned in his first mouthful.
“Good, right?” Steve asked, smiling at the overwhelmed look of joy on Tony's little face. “Buck? How're you doing?”
Bucky just hummed, mouth full of pudding, and held his empty cup up to Natasha, who rolled her eyes.
“You don't need any more sugar,” she told him. “You've got enough energy to last for days.”
Bucky pouted, but ultimately accepted his fate when Bruce pulled out a pack of wipes and began to scrub at his face. Sure, Buck had always been a bit unruly, but he knew how to behave when it mattered.
“How're you doing, buddy?” Steve turned back to Tony, who seemed to have given up his self-consciousness in order to spoon huge mouthfuls of pudding into his mouth. He wasn't exactly covered in the stuff like Bucky, but he was certainly looking more disheveled than normal with flecks of the stuff across his mouth.
“Yummy,” Tony replied, and Steve smiled against the back of his head.
“Good,” he nodded, and then pressed a kiss amongst Tony's hair. The little guy froze for a moment, and then leaned back to look up at Steve.
“A – again?” he whispered, and Steve was only too happy to comply, leaning down to kiss his cheek. Tony smiled happily. “Again.”
This time, with his heart swelling hopelessly in his chest, Steve leaned forwards and blew a raspberry onto Tony's cheek. The little boy giggled and squirmed, but Steve didn't stop, chuckling as he licked a stripe of pudding from his cheek. Tony cackled.
“My turn!” Bucky called, getting to his feet to come running over. “My kissie, Steeb!”
Steve felt himself blushing a little bit as the other adults shot him fond looks, but that didn't stop him from throwing an arm out to scoop Bucky up and pull him into what had quickly become a cuddle pile. Both boys were laughing hysterically and wriggling around on Steve's lap like worms as he tickled them and blew raspberries on their cheeks, and the sound was like music to his ears.
“Stop, stop!” Tony guffawed eventually, completely breathless, and Steve eased up lest he make one of them sick. Bucky immediately got up and went running into Thor's arms for more tickles while Tony sagged back against Steve and caught his breath.
“Are you glad you decided to come to the park with us?” he asked, watching as Thor threw Bucky up above his head.
“Uh-huh,” Tony nodded, and then turned around to face Steve. Without another word, he wrapped his spindly little arms around Steve's neck and hugged him tightly, desperately. Not knowing what else to do, Steve wrapped him up in his arms and hugged back, trying not to sob when Tony sagged, relieved, against him.
“It's okay, sweetie,” he sighed, rubbing Tony's back gently.
“Can we go on the slides again, please?” Tony whispered, hugging tighter as though he was afraid Steve would reject him.
“Sure, Tony,” Steve nodded, and then pulled away gently. “Let's go.”
He really should have seen it coming. Bucky had always been incredibly cranky when he was tired, after all, and Tony was not good at sharing (probably because he had never had anything truly his to share, or anyone to share it with). Steve was actually surprised they hadn't fought before now.
They had barely been back at the tower for half an hour before he heard the tell-tale sounds of small children in distress. By the time he had moved from the communal kitchen to the lounge, things had escalated to the point where Tony and Bucky were screaming at each other and tugging Tony's bear between them.
“I jus' wanna borrow 'um!” Bucky yelled, bottom lip trembling. “'M not gonna hurt 'um!”
“No, no, please,” Tony replied desperately, eyes wild as he spotted Steve in the doorway. “He's mine!”
“Y'gotta share!” Bucky screamed, and in his anger lashed out with his metal arm.
“Buck, no!”Steve snapped, but it was already too late; Bucky's arm connected with Tony's face hard.
In the following few seconds of shocked silence, Steve geared himself up for the tantrum that was surely to come. That was why he was so surprised, therefore, when Tony just silently dropped his bear in favour of covering his already reddening eye.
“Tony?” Steve asked cautiously, but the little boy just ignored him completely and turned on his heel, walking calmly from the room without a word. “Tony, buddy, are you okay?”
Before he could follow him, Bucky let out a horrified cry and then started to sob. Sighing loudly, Steve ran a hand through his hair.
“JARVIS, is Tony okay?” he asked as he went to Bucky, scooping the boy up to pat his back.
“The young sir has locked himself in the bathroom, Captain.”
Sighing again, Steve patted Bucky's back some more and swayed them back and forth to try and calm him down.
“I din' mean to!” Bucky cried, burying his little face against Steve's shoulder. “M'sorry!”
“I know you didn't mean to, buddy,” Steve told him. “But you've got to be careful, okay? It's never okay to hit like that.”
“Din' mean to, din' mean to!” Bucky hiccuped, clutching Steve's shirt tightly.
“I know,” Steve soothed. “You're gonna have to apologise to Tony, though, okay? That bear is special to him; if he doesn't want to share, you can't make him.”
“'Kay,” Bucky sniffed, finally leaning back a little so he could rub his eyes.
“Good,” Steve nodded. “I'm gonna go make sure Tony's all right, okay? JARVIS, can you have one of the Avengers come down to watch Bucky?”
“Agent Romanoff is on her way.”
“There you go, see? Natasha is gonna come and play with you for a while,” Steve said as he put Bucky back down on the ground. “Can you be good for a few moments before she gets here while I go get Tony?”
“Okay,” Steve nodded, running a gentle hand through Bucky's hair to prove he wasn't mad at him. “I'll be back in a minute.”
Without another word, he darted out of the room and down the corridor. Just as JARVIS had said, Tony seemed to have locked himself in the bathroom, though Steve couldn't hear any crying as he got nearer. He couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not.
“Tony?” he called softly, knocking on the door. “Tony, buddy, are you okay?”
“Go away!” came the muffled reply from within.
“Tony,” Steve sighed. “Please let me in.”
Running a weary hand over his face, Steve groaned. “Okay, well, I'm gonna sit out here until you feel like coming out, okay?”
Taking a step back, he sank down the wall opposite the door and made himself comfortable on the floor. Thank God, it was only a few moments before the lock on the door clicked and Tony appeared.
“Oh, baby,” Steve sighed again, holding his arms out. Tony's eye was purpling and very puffy, but it didn't look like he had been crying as he shuffled forwards and dropped down onto Steve's lap.
“He's my bear,” Tony whispered, leaning back against Steve's chest.
“I know, buddy,” Steve nodded. “And he's sorry, okay? He knows not to take your things without permission now. I'm proud of you for not pushing him back, by the way.”
Tony nodded, obviously not too sure what to do with that compliment. Instead, he reached up and gingerly rubbed at his bruised eye.
“Don't touch it, honey,” Steve murmured, gently pulling his hand away. “Can I take a look?”
Tony turned and let Steve gently examine his eye. It was bruising, certainly, but Bucky hadn't broken the skin, so there was that. What stunned Steve the most was that Tony hadn't cried even a little bit; it had to have hurt.
“You're a brave little guy, is what you are,” he hummed. “You didn't even cry!”
“Daddy says Stark men don't cry,” Tony whispered, and all at once Steve felt like he had been hit by a truck.
“Jesus,” he whispered, and then wrapped his arms around Tony to hug him. Tony tensed, still not used to the attention, but then slumped against him.
“It hurts,” he admitted quietly.
“I bet it does,” Steve agreed, pulling back a little. “Why don't we go get a cold compress to make it feel better, and you can choose a popsicle because you've been so brave. How does that sound?”
“Okay,” Tony whispered, wrapping his tiny arms around Steve's neck so he could pick him up.
Getting to his feet, Steve very gently kissed Tony's bruised eye in the hope that it would make the little boy feel better. Tony let out a small huff of breath and then went boneless in Steve's arms, so he was pretty certain it helped at least a little bit.
When they got back into the lounge, Natasha had arrived. She was sat on the couch with a very sleepy Bucky on her lap, braiding the little guy's hair away from his face while he was too tired to argue about it. Steve couldn't help but smile softly as he deposited Tony on the couch beside them.
“James has something he'd like to say to you, Tony,” Natasha smiled as Steve went over to collect Tony's bear from the floor across the room. “James?”
“'M sorry f'takin' y'bear,” Bucky sighed, rubbing at his tired eyes as he turned on Natasha's lap to Tony. “'N m'sorry f'hittin' yuh.”
“Good job, Buck,” Steve praised, turning back with the bear in his hand. He stopped in his tracks as Bucky leaned forwards and gently took Tony's face in his tiny hands. For a second Tony looked terrified, but all Bucky did was lean forwards and softly kiss his bruise.
“All better,” he whispered, and Steve felt his heart swell in his chest when the boys smiled at each other.
“Lovely,” Natasha smiled, patting Bucky's back. “Now bring that bear over here for nap time, Steve.”
Steve did as he was told, handing the bear over to Tony when he reached out for it. Then, while Natasha was settling them both on the couch for a nap, he went into the kitchen and snagged a cold compress from the fridge.
“We'll have those popsicles after dinner, huh?” he suggested as he slipped back through into the lounge.
Natasha had settled Tony on one side of the couch and Bucky on the other, and as she threw a blanket over them both Steve crouched down next to Tony and gently pressed the compress to his eye.
“Just hold it there for a little while,” he instructed softly, sweeping Tony's hair off his face as the little boy's eyes fluttered. “Just to take the heat out.”
“Okay,” Tony whispered, holding the compress himself when Steve let go.
Kissing Tony's forehead one last time, and then dipping down to do the same to Bucky at the other end of the couch, Steve straightened up and followed Natasha into the kitchen so the boys could nap in peace.
“So, you seem to be dealing with them both better,” Natasha hummed as she set about making them both some tea. “And they both clearly adore you.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Steve sighed, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “Tony doesn't really seem capable of showing emotion in any form.”
“But when has Stark ever been good with feelings?” Natasha shrugged, handing him a mug of tea as she took a seat opposite him.
“No, but I think... well, I know it's because of Howard,” he replied quietly, running a hand through his hair. “I had only been dating Tony for a few weeks before this happened; of course he didn't want to say anything, but – the poor kid, he -”
“He's getting a break,” Natasha cut over him softly, and then reached out to take his hand. “All we can do is make sure they know they're loved right now.”
Steve nodded, knowing she was right. It didn't make it any easier, though. They had no idea if Tony and Bucky would remember their time as children when they were back to normal; they had no idea if either of them would remember the love and kindness the Avengers had showered upon them. Honestly, he didn't know what would be better; Tony would certainly be embarrassed to be seen like this, and Bucky probably would be, too.
“Bucky seems happy, at least,” Natasha said, almost as though she had been reading his mind. She took a sip of her tea and smiled.
“He was always happy,” Steve agreed. “Didn't matter what he was doing. As long as he had people around him, he was the happiest kid around.”
“They are sweet together when they're not fighting,” Natasha admitted with another smile.
“Even cuter when they're sleeping,” Steve huffed out a laugh. “At least then they can't shout and talk back.”
“You love it when they give you the business,” Natasha rolled her eyes. “You can't lie to me, Steve.”
Yeah, Steve thought with a smile, maybe he did love it.
In the end, it was almost another two weeks before Bruce (or rather, Thor) found a cure.
“It is one of my brother's signature tricks,” Thor sighed, leaning over the Petri dish with their specimen in. “I admit I have been foolish for not putting the two together sooner.”
“You're not to blame, Thor,” Steve shook his head, shifting Bucky a little in his arms. “How were you supposed to know it was something so specific? The world's a pretty big place; it could have been anything.”
“But now we know, do you know how we can fix it?” Bruce asked, running a gentle hand through Tony's hair as the little boy peered up at the work on his desk. “Because this is beyond my level of expertise, I'm not going to lie.”
“It seems simple enough,” Thor nodded. “I have no knowledge of magic myself, of course, but there are many on Asgard who do. A quick trip there should be fruitful.”
“That's great,” Steve sighed. “Thank you, Thor.”
“It is of no mind,” Thor replied with a smile, gingerly picking up the Petri dish in his bucket sized hands. “I shall be but a moment. Heimdall?”
With a flash of light, Thor was gone. Bucky gasped excitedly, patting Steve's chest, and Steve couldn't help but grin. He was going to miss them being kids.
“All right!” he called, refusing to spend the boys' final moments as children moping. “Why don't we go make some popcorn and watch The Little Mermaid while we wait for Thor?”
The resounding screams of joy pretty much answered his question.