Tony loved almost everything about his job.
Except this part. This part kind of sucked. He peeked through the narrow window into the brightly-decorated examining room, and yep, he remembered this patient. And the patient’s father. Tony took a deep breath, reminded himself to be calm, and opened the door.
"Kid’s a damn disgrace of a klutz," Bruce’s father growled. "Fell down the stairs."
Bruce twitched and nodded hasty agreement.
"Probably hit a growth spurt," Tony said. "Legs are suddenly longer than he’s used to. Happens a lot. I’m sure he’ll grow out of it." He offered Mr. Banner a bland smile. "And broken bones mend quickly at Brucie’s age."
Banner wouldn’t leave Tony alone with little Bruce, of course — too much of a risk that Bruce might come clean about how he’d really broken his arm — but the instant they’d left, Tony had his cell out, hitting speeddial even as he strode through the halls toward Admin.
"Bucky? It’s Tony over at Stark Gen."
"You don’t have to say ‘at Stark Gen’ every time, you know," Bucky said. "You’re literally the only Tony I know."
"You might’ve met someone since the last time we talked."
"With my social life? Not likely. What’ve you got for me?"
Tony ducked through the door into the Admin office and handed Bruce’s chart to Pepper even as he was telling Bucky the details of the case. Like the superlative administrator that she was, she was making copies of the pertinent files and pulling up the report form before Tony had even finished.
"Okay, I’ll swing by tomorrow for a routine check on the kid," Bucky promised. "You going to be working if I need to come into the hospital for a statement?"
"Well, I was thinking of quitting, if only to piss off my dad and the Board of Directors, but if there’s a chance I might get to see you, I suppose I could endure for one more day," Tony said lightly.
Bucky laughed, a sound that never failed to make Tony feel just a bit warmer. “You know seeing you is the thing I love most about this soul-crushing job,” he teased back.
"I’ll be counting the hours." Tony hung up, grinning helplessly.
Pepper gave him a knowing look. “You should just ask him out.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Right, because that fits into a conversation about child abuse so smoothly. ‘So, I need you to yank this kid away from the only family he’s ever known because I’m pretty sure his life is in danger; and hey, after that, want to go get coffee?’”
Pepper pushed the CPS Notification Form across the desk for Tony to sign. “If you can fit in the flirting, I’m pretty sure you could fit in a date request. Not coffee,” she added sternly. “You two are way past coffee already.”
The following week, Tony was walking a pair of panicking new parents through the care for their two-month-old’s low-grade fever when Pepper came looking for him.
He sent the nervous parents on their way with some infant Motrin samples and turned to Pepper. “What’ve you got?”
"A Jane Doe with a sprained ankle, about seven years old. It’d be routine except she came in without an adult and she won’t talk. She didn’t even make any noise when the triage nurse was looking at her ankle, and it looks pretty bad. We’ve contacted the police, but no one’s reported any missing children. I’ve already called CPS, but you’re so good with kids, maybe you can get something out of her."
"Anything for you," Tony promised with a grin, taking the chart Pepper was offering him.
He strolled into the exam room to find the most adorable little red-haired girl he’d ever seen before, sitting primly on the examining table. One leg, ankle bruised and painfully swollen, was propped up on the table; the other dangled over the edge, hanging perfectly still. “Hi there!” he said. “I’m Doctor Tony!”
The girl looked at him, but didn’t speak. Well, he’d been warned.
"Can you understand me at all? You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, just nod or shake your head."
The girl just stared at him.
"Right, well." Tony hooked a stool with his foot and pulled it closer, then sat down. "I’m going to have a look at your ankle now, is that okay?" He pointed to the girl’s obviously swollen ankle and cocked his head, making a question of it.
She blinked and cocked her head in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t an objection, though, so Tony started gingerly feeling around the edges of the injury, talking all the while. “How about Spanish? Do you speak Spanish? Hablas español? No? How about… Parli italiano? Not that either, huh? Uh… Parlez-vous français? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? …Non loqueris? C’mon, Latin was the last one I knew, kiddo, you’re killing me here.” He glanced up and for a split second, thought he saw the faintest ghost of a smile on the corner of her lips.
”Ona govorit na russkom," said a voice behind Tony.
He turned to see Bucky. “You know this one?”
Bucky leaned against the doorway, propping his hand on his hip and letting the prosthetic dangle down. “Yeah, she seems to cross my desk about every six months. Zdravstvuyte, Natalia.”
”Zdravstvuyte, Yasha,” she said solemnly back.
"Russian? Really?" Tony looked back at the girl — Natalia, apparently. She grinned impishly up at him.
"She understands English perfectly well," Bucky said with a rueful smile. "She’s just stubborn. What happened with the Smithsons, Natalia?"
Natalia’s grin faded and she launched into a babble of Russian so fast that Tony probably wouldn’t have been able to understand even if he had studied the language. He’d had no idea Bucky spoke it, or any other languages, for that matter, though over the year or so they’d known each other, he’d teased out that Bucky had lost his arm in the Army and gone into social work because of the kids he’d gotten to know overseas.
Bucky frowned in concentration as he listened to Natalia’s explanation, nodding occasionally, and when she finally wound down, he let out a long sigh. “Okay, but you can’t just— There are rules. You have to call me if you’re having problems.”
Natalia shrugged and turned her gaze resolutely to where Tony had begun to wrap her ankle.
Tony finished the wrap and looked up into Natalia’s grave green eyes. “You should listen to Mr. Barnes,” he told her. “He’s trying to help you, you know.”
Natalia ignored him and tried to flex her foot in the wrap.
Tony sighed. “Yeah, okay. We’re going to get you some crutches, and you shouldn’t walk or stand on this foot for at least a week. Have you used crutches before, or should I get someone to show you? It’s not as easy as it looks.”
She looked at him like he was an idiot and nodded.
Tony grinned. “Okay, you already know how to use them. Good on you. Sit tight while I go find some your size, and then Mr. Barnes will take you home.”
Natalia shrugged and looked away, but not before Tony saw the glint of panic in her eyes.
Bucky had seen it, too. “Would you rather go to the group home tonight?” he offered.
She gave Bucky a fervent nod.
"I’ll see what I can do. I’m going to step out in the hall and make a couple of phone calls. Don’t you dare run off on me." Natalia gestured to her wrapped ankle as if to say, How could I? but Bucky just snorted. “I mean it,” he said, and went out into the hallway.
Tony waited for the door to swing closed and then turned back to Natalia. “I need to go and get your crutches,” he said. “I want you to wait here, got that? You should absolutely not run off on Mr. Barnes, okay? I know the system sucks, but he’s doing the best he can. Save your spite for someone who deserves it.” Tony glanced at the door and then leaned just fractionally closer to her and lowered his voice. “But if you were to hide behind the table and trick him when he comes back in for you, that would be pretty funny, right?”
Natalia didn’t laugh, but her hands flew up to cover her mouth and she stared at Tony with round eyes, so he called it a win. He winked at her, and left.
Bucky was in the hall, on his cell. “I told you six months ago that I didn’t think they were a good fit, Carol. No, but that’s— Yeah, just a few days until I can get the paperwork sorted. Well, the fact that they haven’t reported her missing yet is pretty telling, don’t you think? Right, right. No. Probably. Okay. Absolutely. You’re a lifesaver, Carol, a real marvel. Thanks, I owe you.” He hung up and turned around, and almost startled to see Tony there. “Oh, hey. Need anything else from me?”
Tony somehow managed not to answer, a kiss. “You didn’t hear it from me, but she’s hiding, probably behind the table. Give it a good show when you pretend to panic.”
Bucky snorted and nodded. “Yeah, okay. No wonder she likes you; you’ve got an eight-year-old’s sense of humor. I’d better get back in there. Say, do you…”
Bucky shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll see you around, hot stuff.”
"You got it, gorgeous."
Two brothers, injured at the same time. That wasn’t so unusual. Siblings squabbled or dared each other to do things, and shit happened.
Tony wasn’t really prepared for this, though. The older boy, who was eleven, had an arrow through his hand. The other, two years younger, had a concussion. Neither of them was crying or whimpering, and they were both covered with fading bruises of assorted vintage.
Their father wasn’t even pretending to make nice. When Tony walked into the exam room, he was winding up to smack the younger boy on the side of the head. Tony caught his arm. “Please don’t rattle his brain any more than it’s already been,” he said tightly.
The man yanked his arm free of Tony’s grip. “Might knock some goddamn sense into him,” he snapped, and rounded on the kid again. The kid cringed, even though the asshole’s hand didn’t raise this time. “The fuck did you think you were doing, messing with my hunting gear? I should sell you to the goddamn circus, you worthless brat. And you,” he continued, turning to the older boy, “the hell were you thinking? I should have drowned you at birth, you—”
"That’s enough!" Tony snapped. He took a deep breath and checked the chart. "We all say things we don’t mean when we’re upset, Mr. Barton, but I need for you to calm down right now, or I will have you escorted from the premises."
Barton glared at Tony, and seemed mildly taken aback when Tony didn’t shrink under his glare. He cast dark looks at the boys again, then stamped out of the room.
"He did mean it," the older boy said. His mouth was set mulishly. "He meant all of it."
Tony had his phone out already. “I know,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can. Which for now means recommending that we keep both of you here in the hospital overnight for observation, and bringing a friend in to meet you who might be able to help.”
The younger boy scooted further into his brother’s shadow. “Y’ain’t separating us,” he said firmly.
"No," Tony agreed. "We’ll find you a room to share."
The phone clicked. “Child Services.”
"Who is that, Maria?" Tony said. "Maria, it’s Tony over at Stark Gen."
"Hi, Tony-at-Stark-Gen," Maria sing-songed. "What’s up?"
"I could use an on-site. Anyone working today who’s free right this minute?"
Maria shuffled papers on her end of the line. “Barnes is already over there for some paperwork, actually,” she said. “I’ll page him.”
"Thanks," Tony said, and stuffed the phone back in his pocket before turning back to the kids. "Okay, let’s see about that arrow in your hand, now. Which one are you: Clint, or Barney? And what were you trying to do?”
Clint looked back over his shoulder as his father literally dragged him through the lobby, eyes wide and wounded. Tony couldn’t even manage a reassuring smile for him. Barney didn’t look around at all, just kept his face angled toward the floor in front of him, his body twisted slightly to protect his bandaged hand.
"Fuck," Tony whispered as the automatic doors slid closed behind them.
Bucky rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “You can’t win them all,” he said, but he sounded as sad as Tony felt. “I’ll put a flag on Barton in the system, and we’ll be prepared.”
"I just…" Tony whispered. "They didn’t even get to stay the night like I promised. They’re going to—"
"Hey," Bucky said softly. "Don’t blame yourself. Don’t. You can’t."
"This is bullshit," Tony said, a little louder, and let himself lean against Bucky’s side.
"It absolutely is," agreed Bucky, draping his arm over Tony’s shoulders in a sympathetic hug.
Tony was waiting when Bucky came into the hospital, bouncing on his toes with frustration. “This kid,” he said, before Bucky could even say hello, “this kid has been in four times in the last two weeks. Nothing broken so far, but he’s had one chipped tooth — a baby tooth, thank goodness — and I swear I’ve gone through more suture for him in those two weeks than I went through all last month.”
"Sounds pretty bad," Bucky agreed, waving for Tony to lead the way. "How’s he act?"
"He’s belligerent as all hell," Tony said. "Even with me, and kids love me! Even Natalia liked me. I am very likable!”
"Yes, you’re adorable," Bucky said. "Tell me about the kid, Tony. You got a bead on the home life?”
"Not much. It’s his mom who always brings him in, and she’s the name on the insurance. They don’t talk about the dad, but that doesn’t mean a lot, and she’s definitely pretty tense and worn-down about something.”
"Yeah, that’s pretty damning. Chart?"
Tony handed the kid’s chart over to Bucky and turned down the hall toward the emergency pediatric exam area. “They get points for cover story, though. The kid claims to be some kind of social justice vigilante or something. Like the first time he came in, he’d been trying to chase some middle-school kids away from teasing the kid next door, and—” Tony had to stop, because Bucky was — laughing?
"Oh my god, it’s the Rogers kid,” Bucky gasped. He leaned against the wall, howling.
"What the hell," Tony said, crossing his arms.
Bucky tucked the chart under his arm and waved his hand for Tony to wait as he panted for breath. “Rogers,” he gasped. “Oh, Jesus. He’s about so tall, skinny, blond, right?”
"Yeah, actually," Tony said. "He’s already in your system, I take it. What the hell is so funny?"
Bucky grinned. “He’s not in my system. He’s in my neighborhood. And the social justice vigilante thing isn’t a story — though I like that phrasing, I’m going to steal that. I’ve seen him do it. I was coming home from work last week and he was getting the shit kicked out of him by some fifth graders because he’d stepped in when they were playing keepaway with some girl’s doll.”
Tony stared. “You’re kidding me.”
"I’m really not. I mean, I’ll go in there to make sure it’s who I think it is, but as far as I know, his mom’s a single widow and sick with something moderately serious, not sure what, since I figured it’d be rude to ask."
Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. “They’re in Room 4.” He waved in the general direction of the room.
Bucky opened the door and Tony heard the kid belt out, “Hey! It’s JB! Hiya, JB! Whatcha doin’ here? Lookit the shiner I got—” before the door swung gently closed again.
Tony leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, counting his breaths until Bucky came back out, this time to an accompaniment of Mrs. Rogers: “—calling Child Services on us? I’m proud of you for doing what’s right, Stevie, but really—”
"It’s them," Tony said, not really asking, keeping his eyes closed.
"It’s them," Bucky confirmed.
Tony puffed out some air. “Sorry for dragging you down here for nothing, I guess.”
"Nah, don’t be sorry," Bucky said. "Rather come out for nothing than miss a kid who really needed me, you know?"
"Yeah." Tony felt a little better for that.
"Besides," Bucky said, from much closer than he’d been before, "it being a happy result with nothing urgent for me to do means it’s finally not a terrible time to ask you if you’d like to get some dinner with me after your shift, maybe."
Tony opened his eyes. Bucky was standing very close, face lit up with hopeful anticipation.
"Remind me to give that kid an extra sticker or pencil or something when he checks out," Tony said.
"Is that a yes?"
"You bet your cute buns that’s a yes."
(One Year Later)
"Hmm?" The bed was warm and there was a pillow on Tony’s face, but he was certain it was entirely too early to be having any sort of conversation. "What are you doing up? It’s too early for you to be up on a day off."
"It’s eight o’clock, babe."
"Too early, that’s what I said. Come back to bed. Do you know how long it’s been since we both had the same day off?"
"I’m coming. I just had a thought and wanted to write it down real quick before I forgot. Is this an application to become a foster parent on your desk, Tony?"
Oops. He hadn’t meant to leave that out. “Uh.” Tony pushed the pillow off his face. “I can explain,” he said. “I wasn’t going to just… I mean, I was going to talk to you before… I mean. You said Bruce was having trouble with his current placement because of his anger issues and I thought—mmmmfff. Mmm…”
When Bucky stopped kissing Tony for lack of oxygen, he said, “I can probably help push you through the red tape a little faster than usual.”
Tony stopped working Bucky’s pajama bottoms down over his hips and pretended to consider it. “How many kids you figure we can handle?”
Bucky laughed. “This place is enormous. Four or five, easy.”
"Yeah?" Tony leaned up to kiss Bucky gently. "Would it help with the red tape if we got married first?"
Bucky stared at him.
Tony grinned. “No, really, there’s a box in my sock drawer; I was going to ask at dinner, but—”
He didn’t get to say anything else coherent for quite a while after that.
I was informed in no uncertain terms that there would be a sequel/follow-up to the first chapter which would show all the kids in Tony and Bucky's loving care. I was happy to comply.
Minor warnings for discussion of terminal illness and imminent orphaning of a child, as well as consumption of alcohol by minors (and consequences thereof).
Tony rather emphatically did not want to get up. The sun was shining in the window and warming the blanket, and under the blanket, Bucky was all warm skin, curled around Tony, Tony’s back pressed to Bucky’s chest. They didn’t get to sleep in together very often, and Tony wanted to stay in bed, his fingers twined with Bucky’s and playing with the ring on Bucky’s finger while Bucky nuzzled sleepily at the back of Tony’s neck.
But the sounds he was hearing from downstairs sounded suspiciously like Bruce launching into one of his rare but rather horrific tantrums, and if that didn’t get nipped in the bud fairly quickly, something – or possibly someone – would get broken. Tony whined, but sat up and grabbed his sweatpants and t-shirt from where he’d thrown them on the floor the previous night.
Bucky opened one eye. “Where y’– ‘Zat Bruce?”
“Yeah, I think so. Sorry, babe, looks like sleeping in is officially done.”
Bucky sighed and rolled over to check the clock. “Nnng. Seven thirty-four. Well, they made it ten minutes longer than last time.” He sat up and reached for his own pants.
“I’ll head off Bruce,” Tony said, “if you’ll round up everyone else for breakfast?”
“Done and done,” Bucky agreed. “Pancakes or eggs?”
“I think it’s Clint’s turn to pick,” Tony said, “so probably pancakes.” He interrupted Bucky putting on the prosthetic arm long enough for a fast kiss, then brushed out the door and headed for the stairs, calling, “What am I listening to? Is it a chorus of trumpeting elephants? A convention of train whistles? Oh, no, it’s just Bruce!”
Tony followed the shrieking and shouting into the playroom, where Bruce was throwing toys with abandon. Natasha was sitting on the toy chest, arms wrapped around her knees, watching with apparent interest. Luckily, Bruce either hadn’t noticed her or hadn’t taken offense, as he wasn’t aiming at her.
Tony ducked a hurled action figure and grabbed Bruce around the middle, falling into one of the overstuffed beanbags and wrestling until he had Bruce completely pinned the way Bucky had taught him. “Hey, Bruce, Brucie-bear, remember your five breaths? Can you do the five breaths for me?”
“No!” screamed Bruce, flailing and twisting in Tony’s grasp with far more strength than anyone would guess his tiny frame could possess. “I won’t! It’s not fair, it’s not fair!”
Tony had no idea what Bruce was talking about, but previous experience had taught him that it probably wouldn’t make much sense even when he did get the full story. “I know, things just aren’t fair sometimes, but breaking your things is not going to help. I’m pretty sure” –he snuck a glance at the toy Natasha was cautiously picking up– “Spider-man isn’t the one who made you so mad, is he? Come on, honey, five breaths for me now.”
“Nooooooo!” He dragged it out, apparently planning to hold it until he’d run out of breath entirely.
“Bruce,” Tony said warningly. “You know I’m not letting go until you calm down.”
Bruce’s yell cut off and he went limp.
Tony wasn’t fooled (this time). “That’s great,” he said encouragingly, not relaxing his grip. “How about those five breaths now?”
Bruce rolled his head to glare at Tony furiously. Tony just looked back, serious and expectant. Finally Bruce huffed the fastest, shallowest sigh he could manage.
“I suppose that counts,” Tony allowed. “Do a bigger one next.”
Bruce’s mouth set rebelliously, but he drew in a defiantly huge breath and then blew it out through his lips, aiming it right at Tony’s face.
Tony tried on his unimpressed look. “I can tell you haven’t brushed your teeth yet,” he observed. “That’s two; keep going.”
The third breath was a little less oppositional, and the fourth almost normal. The fifth ended on a choke, though, and the instant Tony loosened his hold, Bruce twisted around and flung himself into Tony’s arms, sobbing hysterically.
Well, it was better than throwing things. Tony held him and patted his back and murmured soothing nonsense.
Tony jumped, startled. How Natasha could sneak up on him like that was still beyond him. He hadn’t even been facing away from her this time!
Bruce looked up, too, though his fists were still bunched in Tony’s shirt.
Natasha held out Bruce’s Spider-man toy in mute offering.
Bruce hesitated, suspicious, then slowly reached out to take the toy. As soon as his fingers closed on it, he yanked it back against his chest, clutching it desperately. “Hey, that was nice of Natasha to bring Spider-man back, wasn’t it?” Tony prompted mildly. “Pretty sure you have something to say to Natasha about that.”
Bruce’s “thank you” was mumbled and not terribly understandable, but Natasha smiled and leaned in to pat Bruce’s head, so Tony let it slide. Bruce didn’t even flinch at the contact, which was a nice change of pace for him.
“So, do you feel like telling me why you needed to unleash the monster?” Tony asked.
Bruce shook his head.
“You sure? Because the mess in here is pretty epic, and you know the rules about–” Natasha patted Tony’s arm. “Yes?”
She leaned up on tiptoe, balancing effortlessly, to whisper into Tony’s ear, “Barney said he couldn’ play with him an’ Clint ‘cause Bruce is a baby.”
Tony sighed and pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Of course he did.”
Bruce was two years younger than Clint and barely more than half Barney’s age, and it was totally valid not to want a younger kid tagging along all the time. However, Barney’s method of coping with the trauma of being separated from his parents seemed to be pushing every boundary and button he could locate. Usually as belligerently as possible. He certainly wasn’t going out of his way to turn the younger kids away gently or diplomatically.
Maybe Bucky would know what to say to the kids about this one; Tony was fresh out of ideas.
Luckily, the door opened before Tony’s lack of a response became too awkward. Bucky grinned at them. “Hey, breakfast is almost ready and I wasn’t hearing any more yelling, so I thought – Oh, Natasha, you’re in here! I guess I can tell Clint to stop looking now.” He grinned at Natasha and she grinned back. “Anyway: breakfast. Everyone get washed up.”
Tony clapped and stood up, giving Bruce one last hug before gently disengaging him and setting him on his feet. “You guys heard the boss: go wash your hands! With soap this time!” he called after the stampeding seven-year-olds, though he wasn’t holding his breath that they would listen.
Tony was at the kitchen table that afternoon trying to catch up on some paperwork for the hospital when the doorbell rang.
Before he could even look up, there was a thunder of feet on the stairs. “They’re here they’re here they’re here!” That was Clint. The slower thump of feet coming behind was probably Barney.
By the time Tony had put the cap back on his pen and stood up, the door was being wrenched open. “Steve! Hi!”
“Hi, Clint! Hey, Barney.”
“You wanna come up to our room?”
Bucky’s voice interrupted, amused. “You want to maybe invite our guests all the way into the house first?”
“Um, sorry. Come in, Miz Rogers.”
“Thank you, Clint.” Sarah’s voice barely carried enough for Tony to hear it, even though he was nearly there.
“Now can Steve come up to our room?”
“Yes, fine, you bunch of savages.” Tony made it to the front room just in time to see three pairs of legs disappearing up the stairs. He grinned fondly after them, then inwardly steeled himself not to react before he turned to look at Sarah.
“It’s okay,” Sarah sighed, “don’t pretend on my account. I have a mirror.”
“That new treatment plan isn’t working that well, is it?” Tony said. “Do you need me to slip you something for the pain?”
Bucky elbowed him. “Stop talking like she doesn’t have her own doctor to give her meds, for petesake, Tony. Come on in and have a seat, Sarah.”
Sarah slipped an arm through each of theirs as they led her to the living room. “The pain’s not so bad, actually,” she said. “It’s almost a relief after the nausea from the treatments. And I’ve got plenty of pills, Tony. There’s just a limit to how much I can take if I’m going to be out and about.”
“Well, tell us what we can do,” Tony urged, and on Sarah’s other side, Bucky hummed his agreement.
“You really mean that?” Sarah asked as she let Bucky lower her carefully to the couch.
“Of course we do,” Bucky said. “Just say the word.”
Sarah patted the cushion next to her, and Bucky obediently sat. “You’re going to regret it,” she promised, “because I need someone to take care of Stevie.”
Tony spread his hands. “Another inpatient treatment round? You know you don’t even have to ask, we’re delighted to babysit. Just tell us–”
“No,” Sarah said, fixing him with a sad smile. “When I’m gone.”
Tony sat down with a thump, frowning. He looked over at Bucky to see the same shock on his face that Tony was feeling. “The treatment plan really isn’t working well.”
“It really isn’t,” Sarah sighed. “They want to give it another few months to see, but my doctor hinted that I might want to start making sure all my affairs are in order. He won’t give me an estimate, but I was a nurse; I can read my own charts and do my own research. I might have a year.”
Bucky covered Sarah’s hand with his own. “We’re so sorry,” he said softly, tears already filling his eyes.
She patted his hand. “Thank you, dear. But it’s really Steve I’m worried about. So – would you?”
Tony exchanged looks with Bucky. They had space for one more, easily, but… “You know we love Steve,” Tony said, “but he should be with family, shouldn’t he?”
“There isn’t any, really,” Sarah said with a shrug. “I have some cousins or something, back a ways, but we don’t even know each other. And Joe’s family hasn’t spoken to me almost since Stevie was born. I wouldn’t know how to contact any of them even if I wanted to.” Left unspoken, but implicit in her cold tone, was the fact that she didn’t want to. Tony didn’t know that tale, and rather suspected he was happier for it. “If I name the two of you as Steve’s guardians in my will,” she continued, “there’s no one who’ll contest it. And I’d rest easier, knowing he’s with someone who cares about him.”
Tony chuckled, albeit weakly. “That’s a low blow, Sarah Rogers. I always knew it was you who taught that boy to fight dirty.”
Sarah smiled proudly. “Scrawny little chicken like my Stevie, you’re damn right I did. He needs every advantage he can get in this world.”
Bucky snorted in mingled amusement and agreement, then looked at Tony as he said, “We’d be honored to take him in, of course. But I hope your estimate turns out to be on the pessimistic side.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind that,” Sarah agreed, but tension bled out of her and she leaned back a little into the couch’s cushions. “Thank you, boys. Now that’s settled, tell me all about the rest of your little brood here. I want all the best stories!”
They talked for a while, trading stories about the kids and other sundries, interrupted occasionally by one of the kids coming to say hello to Sarah (Bruce) or ask for help with a project (also Bruce) or just stand quietly in the doorway until acknowledged and then run away giggling (Natasha). The three older boys stayed upstairs, in Barney and Clint’s room, if the occasional thumping and raised voice was any indication, but that was all right; Tony expected they would be down eventually – probably as soon as the word “dinner” was breathed anywhere within a 50-yard radius.
Tony was just about to suggest that Bucky go fire up the grill when the thumping and shouting took on a frantic tone. He had an instant to wonder if they’d somehow acquired mind-reading powers when he heard the bathroom door slam open and the unmistakeable sound of someone retching into the toilet.
He was on his feet immediately. “Who is that?”
“It’s nothing!” Steve called back down. “We’re okay, just, uh, just Clint–” He was cut off by a susurration of furious whispering, and then, “We’re fine!”
Given that it was followed by another choked retch, Tony was pretty sure that was a lie. “I’ll just go check it out,” he told Bucky and a suddenly pale-faced Sarah. “They probably snuck some candy or something.”
He hadn’t even made it to the stair landing when he heard the door to the boys’ room slam shut, which he expected was one of them trying to hide the evidence. He got to the top of the stairs and found Steve standing defiant guard outside the now-closed bathroom door.
“It’s okay, Dr. Stark, we don’t need any help,” Steve said. It was almost convincing.
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure you’re too young to have finished med school yet, so why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
Steve stepped into Tony’s path. “He really doesn’t want anyone in there with him.” Behind the door, there was a groan and a whimper that sounded like Clint, and then the toilet flushed. Steve looked over his shoulder, worried.
Tony crouched down to get closer and put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Not wanting to rat out your friends is admirable, but I really think I should–” He stopped suddenly as he identified the scent on Steve’s breath, and inhaled sharply, himself. The time for gentle persuasion was past. He stood up. “Bucky!” he called. “Get up here now.”
Tony carefully but firmly pushed Steve aside and walked into the bathroom. The air smelled like the alley behind a cheap bar. Clint was kneeling over the toilet, his skin waxy and pale. He looked up at Tony, bloodshot eyes round with panic. “Don’t be mad at Steve, it wasn’t his fault!”
Bucky ran in behind him. “Tony? What’s the matter? Oh my god, it smells like–”
“Get Barney,” Tony said tightly. “And have a look around their room.”
Bucky’s lips thinned into a hard line. “Right. Clint gonna be okay?”
Tony sat on the side of the tub and put a hand on Clint’s back, pretending not to notice the way the boy flinched. “I’ll take care of him. Go get the other one, see what his story is.”
“Please, please don’t be mad,” Clint whimpered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Hey, calm down a little,” Tony said, rubbing Clint’s back between his shoulderblades. “You’ll make yourself sick again. Let me do the doctor stuff first, then I’ll move on to the dad stuff, okay? Deal?”
Clint nodded miserably. He let Tony get him a cup of water, and sat up so Tony could feel his face and check his eyes.
“How do you feel?”
“Dizzy. An’ my tummy hurts.”
“Not surprising. How much did you drink?”
Clint gave Tony a wide-eyed glance and then looked down. “I don’t–”
“Doctor question, not dad question,” Tony reminded him. “Don’t lie to me about this. If I think you’re lying, I will have to take you to the hospital. You think throwing up is unpleasant, wait ‘til they decide you need to have your stomach pumped.” It was mostly an idle threat; that Clint was coherent enough to sit up and think about lying – and that he’d already emptied most of the contents of his stomach – meant the danger was low.
Clint chewed on his lip, considering, and finally whispered, “Three.”
“Three… swallows? Three bottles? Give me a little more to work with, here.”
Tony held up the little bathroom cup. “More or less than this?”
Clint lifted his eyes just enough to eye the cup, then dropped them back to the floor. “'Bout the same.”
“Okay. You’re not going to die.” Tony refilled the cup with water. “Take this and drink it in small sips.” He waited until Clint took the cup, then raised his head to finally acknowledge Steve still hovering in the doorway looking worried. “Okay, short stack: how much did you have?”
Steve looked down the hall toward Bucky’s and Barney’s voices, not quite shouting but definitely angry, and then turned a guilty face back to Tony. “Just a sip.”
“’S true,” Clint chimed in. “He said it was gross an’ he didn’ want no more, even when Barney said–” Clint’s teeth clacked together as he realized he’d been about to tattle on his brother. “Are… we still on doctor stuff?”
Tony took a breath and considered. Clint was still tipsy but ultimately fine, and if Steve had only taken a sip of the liquor, he was in no danger, either. And Bucky was dealing with Barney for now. “Now that you mention it, I think it’s time to move on to the dad stuff. And the mom stuff,” he added to Steve.
Clint seemed to shrink, but, “Don’t tell Miz Rogers,” he said loyally. “It wasn’t Steve’s fault.”
“Please don’t tell my Ma,” Steve put in.
Tony was at least ninety-eight percent certain that Sarah was already hovering at the base of the stairs listening and knew exactly what was going on, but he didn’t say so. He raised his eyebrows at Steve. “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you try to worm out of responsibility after you’ve been caught fair and square,” he observed.
Steve stiffened his spine and stuck out his jaw stubbornly. “I’m not tryin’ to get out of it,” he said. “It’s just not fair 'cause Ma’s so sick and all, and she’d be really upset. You… You could do it,” he added. “Whatever Clint gets, I’ll do the same.”
“Shut up, dummy!” Clint gasped, lurching past Tony to grab at Steve. “That’s not fair, you only had a sip!”
“It’s fair 'cause I promised to keep quiet with you,” Steve argued, even as he struggled to support the staggering Clint’s weight. He looked back up at Tony. “Please?”
Tony had to fight to keep from smiling. Steve’s sense of justice was a little off-center, but his heart was in the right place. He’d be good for Clint. “Okay.”
“No!” Clint said, pushing himself further in front of Steve, eyes showing white all around. “Please don’t hit Steve, Tony!”
In the six months that the Bartons had been fostered with them, neither Tony nor Bucky had ever raised a hand to the kids, but some lessons were hard to unlearn, and this was, admittedly, a lot more trouble than they’d been in before. “No one is going to get hit,” Tony promised calmly.
Clint stayed firmly in front of Steve, looking up at Tony skeptically. “You ain’t mad?”
“Oh, I’m plenty mad,” Tony said. “But hitting you isn’t going to teach you anything useful. What I’ve got planned is far, far worse than a beating, trust me.”
Clint looked suddenly frightened. “What?”
Tony folded his arms. “You’re going to research and write a report for me, just like at school, on the effects of alcohol poisoning.”
From downstairs, Tony heard what sounded suspiciously like a snort of laughter, which confirmed his guess about Sarah’s eavesdropping. Clint and Steve missed it, too busy giving each other dismayed looks.
“And you, Clint, are grounded. Indefinitely, until I can talk to Bucky about it. No, don’t give me that look. We’ve talked before about needing to think about what Barney’s telling you to do before you do it. Now let’s all go downstairs and you can both help me get dinner ready while Bucky’s talking to Barney.”
Tony checked his alarm and then collapsed into bed beside Bucky. “For a day off,” he grumbled half-heartedly, “that was not very relaxing.”
Bucky chuckled and pulled Tony closer to nuzzle at his neck. “They do keep us on our toes.”
Tony sighed. “Did you figure out how they got into the liquor cabinet?”
“Yep. Busted pin in the hinge on one side. Just lifts right out. You think seein’ Clint all pale and sick like that put the fear of god into Barney?”
“God, I hope so. Clint’s about the only thing in this world I’m truly convinced he cares about. Even if he does treat the kid like a trained monkey half the time.”
“Well, Clint lets him,” Bucky said philosophically. “One of these days, Clint’ll learn how to tell Barney no. Until then, not much we can do but try and keep 'em both safe.”
“Yeah.” Tony rolled over and burrowed further into Bucky’s warmth. “And we’ll have to make a room ready for Steve, now.”
Bucky grunted unhappily. “It’s not fair. Sarah’s good people, and that Barton asshole will probably live to be a hundred and twelve.”
“And every time he–” Tony broke off and lifted his head. “Did you hear that?”
It came again, the tiniest of mouse-knocks at their door. Tony forcibly swallowed a groan and rolled back out of bed.
Natasha was hovering in the hallway, her little face solemn in the dim light. When she saw Tony, she lifted up her arms, and because Tony was a sucker for her big-eyes routine and they both knew it, he picked her up. “Hey, matryoshka-baby, what’re you doing out of bed? You were supposed to be asleep like three hours ago.”
“Someone’s crying in the bafroom,” she whispered in his ear.
Well, pretty much everyone in the house was susceptible to that from time to time, including the adults. “Okay,” Tony said. “Thanks for coming to get me, babushka.”
She didn’t giggle for him that time, but she did smile and let him tuck her back into bed without any extra stalling. Then he went out to the kids’ bathroom and knocked on the door.
It was Clint. Of course it was. He’d wedged himself into the crack between the toilet and the sink, and was desperately trying, with only minimal success, to swallow his sobs.
“Mind if I sit down?” Tony didn’t wait for an answer. He lowered himself to the floor and arranged his legs so his ankle was bumping against Clint’s foot. “Want to tell me about it?”
“Barney’s mad at me.”
“Yeah? What for?”
“'Cause I’m the stupidhead who threw up and gave everything away.”
“Mm. Well, Barney’s the stupidhead who gave you so much to drink that you threw up. Anyway, it would’ve been up the minute you all came down for dinner anyway. You were both pretty well lit, and we’re not quite as dumb as we look.”
“He says we might get kicked out.”
“Not gonna happen,” Tony said firmly. “You cannot make us mad enough that we’ll stop caring about you.”
Clint looked at Tony disbelievingly.
“I promise,” Tony said. He held out an arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, Clint crawled out of his crevice and into Tony’s lap.
“But Barney,” Clint said breathlessly, “Barney says he hates you.”
“Well, if that’s actually true, he can call his caseworker to complain, not that the caseworker is going to side with him on the issue of alcohol. But I think really Barney is mad at himself and looking for someone else to blame,” Tony said.
“He says… he says he can’t wait for Dad to get out of jail and take us home.” Clint tipped his face up to Tony, desperate. “Dad can’t really take us back, can he?”
Tony sighed and held Clint a little tighter. “That’s trickier. The government puts a lot of emphasis on biological family, sometimes unfortunately. But Bucky has some friends who know the law better than we do, and who will help us. We’re going to do absolutely everything we can to keep you, I promise.”
Clint curled up like a bug against Tony’s chest, and was quiet for so long that Tony began to think he’d gone to sleep. But just as Tony was about to try to wake him up, Clint stirred. “Can I… I know I’m in trouble, but am I allowed to ask for something?”
“You can ask for anything, anytime,” Tony said. “I’m not promising you’ll get it, but I’m listening.”
“Can I have a bow and arrow set? A real one, not a baby toy?”
“You want to learn archery?”
Clint nodded. “I was getting pretty good at it, before. With Dad’s set. But he wouldn’t let me touch it after, um.”
“After you shot Barney in the hand?” Tony finished drily.
“I can think of worse hobbies,” Tony admitted. “Be good while you’re grounded, and probably you’ll have to take a safety class.” He gave Clint a smirk, and Clint smiled tentatively back. “Okay, my back is killing me from sitting on the floor, and I have to be at the hospital at seven. Come on, get up. Back to bed with you.”
Clint climbed obediently to his feet, then hesitated at the door. “But Barney’s still mad.”
Tony sighed. “You can get an extra blanket and pillow out of the closet and go sleep on Bruce’s floor, if you’d rather. Just for tonight.”
Clint’s face lit up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. If you wake Bruce up, though, I swear we are having Clint steaks for breakfast.”
Clint clapped both hands over his mouth to cover his giggle. “I’ll be quiet as a spy!” he promised.
“How about quiet as Natasha?” Tony countered.
“Pff. No one’s that quiet.”
Tony leaned on the wall and watched Clint rifle through the closet. He was going to be exhausted for tomorrow’s shift.
It was worth it.
Several people asked for another installment, specifically possibly a glimpse several years down the road when the kids were grown up, and someone (sorry, I forgot who!) suggested a holiday dinner.
Tony gave up pretending to update his charts – he hadn’t gotten anything done in the last half hour anyway. He was too excited to concentrate; for the first time in three years, all the kids were going to be home at the same time, for the whole holiday weekend.
Well. All of them that he could expect, anyway. He glanced at the photo on the wall, nearly ten years old, now, and the last one he had of the entire family. Tony let himself sigh, and gave in to the impulse to examine the tightness around the 16-year-old Barney’s eyes and mouth, and imagine that if he’d just tried a little harder…
The door to the study opened, and Tony jerked his eyes from the picture almost guiltily. He was supposed to be focusing on his happiness that the rest of their little brood was coming home for Thanksgiving. He was happy that the rest of them were coming home. He would just be happier if it could really be all of them.
“It’s okay if you still miss him,” Natalia said from the doorway, her eyes wiser than her nineteen years should have allowed.
“Good, because I always will,” Tony said. “I know to you, he was just a rude boy who pulled at your pigtails, but–”
“He was my brother,” she said simply. She held out a hand, and Tony let her pull him from his chair. “Yasha called from the airport. He’s got Steve, and they’re on their way home now.”
“And Bruce said he’d leave directly after his last class of the day,” Tony mused, “so he should be here within the hour.” Clint had arrived the previous night and blushingly introduced the family to his boyfriend, Pietro, who would be staying with them for the weekend. It had been fun to tease Clint by pretending they were expected to sleep in separate rooms. Tony smirked at the memory, and tugged Natalia into a one-armed hug. “We’ll all be together again soon.”
Natalia allowed the hug, then pulled away, eyes twinkling with mischief. “Just in time for dinner!”
“Oh, god, I’m going to have to feed all of you again,” Tony groaned in mock-distress. “What was I thinking?”
“Jesus,” Tony breathed, staring up – up! – at Steve. He poked Steve’s chest experimentally; it seemed to be all muscle. “What the hell are they feeding you over there, kiddo? Did you sign up for some kind of super-secret mad science experiment or something?”
“I said the same thing,” Bucky put in, dragging Steve’s duffel through the door. “I was afraid I’d picked the wrong guy up at the airport.”
Steve laughed and pulled Tony into a warm hug. “Missed you, too,” he teased. “The Army’s been good to me.”
“I can see that,” Tony said. “Christ. I could see on Skype that you were putting on muscle, but I apparently missed a memo about the height.”
Steve shrugged, even as he was reaching to hug Natalia. “Had a late growth spurt about three months into the tour. Drove my QM a little crazy, I think.”
Bucky gave up trying to heft the duffel and left it to lean against the wall. He dropped his arm around Tony’s shoulders instead. “We’re gonna have to buy a second turkey to feed all these people,” he said.
Tony snorted. “Too late to get another turkey now,” he said. “We might have to settle for a ham.”
“I like ham,” Bucky said agreeably. “Or maybe just lots of potatoes.” He kissed the side of Tony’s head and pulled Tony into his side as Clint came pounding down the stairs like he was ten again, Pietro following in his wake. They watched the greetings and exclamations and introductions for a moment. “Carol said she’d take my on-call tomorrow,” Bucky said, “if I’d take hers for Friday.”
Tony snorted. “I can’t believe she still does the whole Black Friday shopping thing,” he said. “That’s what the internet is for!”
“I’m not complaining if it means I’m guaranteed Thanksgiving dinner with my family,” Bucky said with a chuckle.
“You have a point,” Tony said. “Remind me to make her some cookies or something.”
“You think if you make cookies with these people here, there will be any left the next day to take to Carol?”
Clint looked around sharply. “We’re making cookies?” he said eagerly. “I call gingersnaps!”
“Thumbprints for me!” Natalia put in, at the same time Steve sing-songed, “Kitchen sink cookies!”
Tony laughed and fished in Bucky’s pocket for the keys. “Guess I’m going to the store.”
Bucky batted Tony’s hand away. “Might as well wait and find out what Bruce wants. And get Pietro’s order.”
Pietro’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, I’m– I’ll just share with–”
“Nope, my cookies are mine,” Clint said gleefully, wrapping his arms around Pietro’s waist and winking at Tony over Pietro’s shoulder. “Get your own.”
“I don’t know,” Pietro confessed, and Steve and Natalia began cheerfully suggesting different types of cookies. It immediately turned into a contest of some sort, though Tony wasn’t sure of the rules – who could keep going the longest, or who could suggest the most outlandish variety, or… It didn’t really matter. It was like coming home to see that light of challenge in Natalia’s eyes and the smug smirk curving Steve’s lips.
Tony caught Pietro’s eye before the poor man could get entirely overwhelmed. “Chocolate chip?” he suggested, and Pietro nodded gratefully.
The kitchen was a disaster. A fine dust of flour coated every single surface from where someone had turned the mixer on high too early. Walnut pieces, chocolate chips, and coconut flakes crunched underfoot by the counter where Steve had gotten over-enthusiastic stirring his batter. Bruce and Natalia had gotten into some sort of wrestling match in the middle of making her thumbprint cookies and were now liberally smeared with jam. Clint had butter in his hair and melted chocolate on his ear. Bucky had wandered casually through the room so many times to check “quality control” that he’d had to go lie down for a while with a hot water bottle for his stomach ache. And Tony was fairly certain that the kids were about to start a food fight with the remaining batter the instant he turned his back for more than a minute.
He hadn’t been so happy and content in years.
He had a stupid grin on his face as he peeled the potatoes for dinner, and he knew it, and he didn’t care. Bucky came in and leaned down to kiss Tony before retrieving the turkey from the refrigerator and setting it on the roasting rack to dress it. It would need to go into the oven soon.
“Normal people eat dinner at like noon and then laze around watching football all afternoon,” Clint was telling Pietro, “but, y'know, football isn’t high on the priorities with two gay dads–”
“Bisexual,” Tony and Bucky both corrected automatically, then grinned at each other.
“Clint always says that on purpose just to make them do that,” Steve explained, rolling his eyes.
“Anyway, could you possiby buy into a few more stereotypes?” Natalia groused, smacking Clint on the arm.
“Ow! I’m just kidding, jeez. I am actually gay, you know, I’m allowed!”
“We have Thanksgiving dinner at seven-thirty,” Bucky said calmly, tying the turkey’s legs together, “because your dad used to have to work Thanksgiving every year, and he didn’t get home until seven.”
“Didn’t have to, I volunteered,” Tony put in, carving a bad spot out of one potato before moving on to the next. “Starting back before I even met Bucky. And then when it finally occurred to me that I had a family and should stick some other poor schlub with the holiday shift, it was nice to keep the later dinnertime so we could do things together beforehand.” He leveled the vegetable peeler at Clint. “Like make cookies.”
“I’m not complaining,” Clint protested. “Tried to make my own cookies once, at the academy, but they tasted weird.”
“Probably forgot the salt,” Bruce said.
“Really? Because I was thinking it was that I’d finally been able to make them without Nat stealing half the candied ginger along the way.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Natalia said primly.
Even Pietro snorted in disbelief at that.
Tony checked the clock. “Bruce, your batch is probably going to have to wait until after dinner, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Bruce said. “They’ll wait until tomorrow. None of us are going to want to move after dinner.”
“What kind did you pick?” Steve asked.
“I, uh.” Bruce glanced at Clint and then looked very studiously at the spoon in his hand. “Rum raisin.”
Clint stilled, and then looked up at Tony with an expression of disbelief. “You let him–”
“He thought it would be nice,” Tony said. His heart was hammering, but he forced his voice to be calm. “I agreed. If you’re going to be angry, be mad at me, not Bruce.”
“I’m not mad,” Clint said. “I’m just…”
“I don’t understand,” Pietro said. He took Clint’s hand, lacing their fingers together tightly. “What’s wrong, baby?” he asked, so softly Tony almost missed it.
“Those’re Barney’s cookies,” Clint mumbled. “That’s what he always wanted.” He twisted, tucking his face into the curve of Pietro’s neck.
Pietro was still looking baffled, even as he stroked the hair at the back of Clint’s neck and whispered soothingly.
“Barney was Clint’s brother,” Bucky said into the heavy silence. Pietro looked up at him. “And our foster son, for almost five years.”
Tony didn’t miss the way Pietro’s long fingers tightened on Clint’s neck. “He ran away when he was seventeen,” Tony said, picking up the thread. “It was…” He looked over at Bucky ruefully. “It was a rough time for us all.”
“Mostly for Clint,” Steve put in. “He was only fourteen.”
“Almost fifteen,” Clint protested, kicking ineffectually at Steve under the table. “And you’re the same age as me, so don’t even.”
Steve shrugged. “He’d only been my brother for three years, though. You had him your whole life.”
Clint shrugged and pushed upright again, running his sleeve across his face. “They’re not telling you the worst of it,” he said, not looking at Pietro.
Pietro’s eyebrows pulled together. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said.
“You should know,” Clint said, still not looking up. “When he left, he went and shacked up with some old cronies of our dad’s. Our birth dad’s, I mean. May he rot in hell. And they–”
“Clint,” Natalia said, warning. She leaned against Clint’s arm.
Clint put a hand over hers. “They told him that he owed them for taking him in. So they planned this robbery, a B&E.” He swallowed, and looked up at Bucky, and then Tony, his face miserable. “One of Tony’s doctor friends. They picked the place because we’d been to their house and Barney knew the layout.”
“What happened?” Pietro asked, carefully neutral.
Clint shrugged. “Got caught. Red-handed, even, before they’d even cleared the premises. Doctor Blake’s a pretty tough guy. All of ‘em went to prison.” He fell silent.
“We tried to visit,” Natalia said. “Me and Tony and Yasha and Clint. He… said he didn’t want to see us again.”
Tony suppressed a grunt; Barney had not been that polite about it. Tony had still written, once a month, for more than a year after that, but after a while, his letters had started coming back unopened. The worst fight he’d ever had with Bucky had been when Bucky had made him promise to respect Barney’s wishes and stop trying to reach out.
“So that’s it,” Clint said to the table. He made a face. “I wasn’t planning to tell you about it like this. Or, y'know, in front of my whole family. Sorry. Um. If you’re going to dump me, please do it fast.”
Pietro pulled Clint into a hug. “Idiot. I’m not going to dump you because someone you’re related to is problematic. That’s not your fault. And people can change. I’ll tell you about my dad, sometime.” He kissed the top of Clint’s head. “Though I suppose I might dump you for thinking I would dump you for that.”
Clint hiccuped out a small laugh and clung more tightly. Tony blinked back tears.
Bruce slumped in his seat with a gusty sigh. “Sorry I dragged the mood down,” he muttered. “I’ll pick something else.”
“No,” Clint said, watery and muffled from the shoulder of Pietro’s shirt. “No, it’s perfect. He should be here, even if it’s just, you know. Symbolically.”
By seven-thirty, when they all sat down for dinner, everyone had regained their equilibrium. Bruce and Natalia had showered and changed into clothes that weren’t smeared with jam, Steve had helped Bucky clean up the worst of the cookie mess, and Clint and Pietro had spent a couple of hours locked in Clint’s old room.
Tony sat at his end of the table and watched his family. It was a little awe-inspiring in ways he hadn’t really thought about while they were all still living at home. When every day was a rush of homework and activities and negotiating arguments and struggling for an appropriate balance of love and discipline, of responsibility and freedom, it had never occurred to Tony to marvel at the way Clint waved his hands excitedly as he told an anecdote from his academy training classes; or Natalia’s small, private smile as she teased Bruce about his latest crush; or the way Steve laughed as he listened to Pietro explaining how he and Clint had gotten together.
Or the way Bucky’s eyes shone at the opposite end of the table as he, too, watched their family, together again.
Bucky caught him watching, and Tony blew a kiss down the table. Bucky, he thought, was the very best thing that had ever happened to him.
Bucky stood and lifted his glass. “To family,” he said into the expectant hush. “To those gone, and fondly remembered.” He nodded to Steve, who pressed his lips together, but nodded. “To those yet to come, and happily anticipated.” He winked at Tony. Tony winked back, suppressing a smirk at the way Clint’s ears were reddening. (And Bruce’s neck, too – the new crush must be more serious than Tony had realized.) “And to each of you here with us tonight,” Bucky concluded, looking at each of their children in turn. “Tony and I – we’re so very, very proud to call you our own. You’re the best family we could ever have chosen.”
“Hear, hear,” Tony said, and lifted his own glass.
Before anyone else could speak up, someone knocked on the door.
Bucky set his glass down. “On Thanksgiving?”
“I’ll get it,” Tony said, pushing his chair back. “Jim said he was going to drop by, but I thought he meant later this weekend.”
He opened the door, and nearly stumbled backwards, clutching at the door frame for support as the blood drained from his face.
Barney grimaced and hitched up the pack on his shoulder. “I, uh. I was just. Passing through. And I thought I’d say hi to Clint.” The forced-casual tone stabbed straight into Tony’s heart.
Barney looked lean, thinner than Tony had ever seen him before, and utterly exhausted. He barely met Tony’s eyes, gaze darting nervously all around, picking out the little details that had changed in the last eight years, and then staring past Tony’s shoulder into the warm light of the house with desperate hunger.
“We’re just sitting down to dinner,” Tony said carefully, like he was approaching a skittish animal. “You could join us.”
“What? I–” Another long look past Tony’s shoulder, and then he shook his head. “Bad idea, you don’t– I’ll just–”
“Everyone’s here,” Tony said, “and we’ve missed you.”
Barney huffed at that, disbelief condensed into pale fog in the cold evening air. “Clint, maybe.”
“All of us do,” Tony said firmly. “You’re welcome here. You’re wanted. Every letter I wrote, I told you that we hoped you’d come home, after.”
“I know,” Barney whispered, barely audible, eyes dropping. “That’s why I– But it’s not…”
Tony almost reached out. Instead, he coaxed, “We’re going to make rum raisin cookies later.”
Barney looked up at that, finally meeting Tony’s eyes.
Behind him, Tony heard, “Tony? What’s the– oh my god.” Barney’s eyes flicked away again, past Tony, to lock on Bucky, probably. Further into the house, a chorus of what?s and Dad?s and scraping chairs and footsteps.
“Barney?” Clint’s voice was jagged and sharp.
Tony couldn’t move, but Barney’s gaze slide to the side, just a bit, to look at Clint. Barney swallowed hard, and took a deep breath.
“Hey, stupidhead. Uh, and the rest of you guys. Um. Happy Thanksgiving.”
Tony gave into the impulse to reach out. He caught Barney’s arm and tugged gently until slow but unresisting feet carried Barney through the doorway. “It is now,” Tony said.