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But the Heart

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It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons. ~Johann Schiller


It's four-thirty AM, and Steve is fairly proud of himself for almost having gotten a full night's sleep when there's a desperate pounding on his door. He's in his bathroom with the water running, brushing his teeth, so he turns the taps off and ducks his head out for a second listen. The walls are pretty thin in this building and sometimes knocking two apartments away can sound like it's right outside. But no, there's a second assault on his door and then a voice he hasn't heard except through the comlink in his cowl in weeks.

"Steve, oh my god, open up; I think your neighbors have knives."

Steve blinks, wipes his mouth with a towel, rinses and tosses his toothbrush into the cup that's been designated for it on the back of his sink and heads for the door.

"Or guns, whatever, they are definitely armed. Oh hello, ma'am." Tony Stark's voice is abruptly directed toward the other side of the hall, where Steve can picture Mrs. Perkins staring pointedly through a chain-laced crack of open doorway, holding her cellphone with 9-1-1 on speed dial. "No, please don't call the police, I promise I'm a friend. Steve's friend. Iron Man? I think you may have heard of me. No, ma'am, I'm not a stripper. I promise I'm the real deal. I don't have any ID on me because most people think the really shiny red and gold armor are proof enough of identi--No, you're right, I shouldn't take that tone with you. That was a mistake and," abruptly, Tony is addressing Steve's door again, "for god's sake, Rogers, if you don't let me in I will break this door down, see if I don't."

Steve is a little tempted to let this go on for a while, just to see where it will lead, but though he's sure Tony would pay for whatever damages he inflicted on Steve's apartment, it would still be obnoxious to wait for the repairs. He opens the door.

Tony is standing in full Iron Man armor sans helmet, which Steve knows from experience can simply fold itself away into the structure of the neck. His hair is a wild mess and he hasn't shaved in at least a day, and his eyes are bloodshot--lack of sleep or excess of alcohol or a combination, Steve's not sure. He's got a scrape above his eyebrow that's no longer bleeding, but produced a long trickle that followed the curve of his cheek to disappear into his beard before it stopped. He smells of a recent explosion, and the Iron Man armor shows some scorching, especially along the left side, because Tony tends to turn his non-dominate side toward danger when he can't dodge fast enough.

All in all, it's a little alarming but not exactly abnormal, except for the part where Tony's standing in the hallway of Steve's apartment complex, larger-than-life personality looking a bit cramped in the confines. What's really strange about it is the child Tony's got propped on his hip, wearing a non-descript off-white hospital gown, longish brown hair flopped over a wide, direct brown-eyed gaze.

"Tony, what--?"

"Let me in, Steve, let us in I guess is more accurate. Before we're knifed to death or something and I promise my explanation will make total sense and be not at all alarming."

"No one's going to stab you," Steve huffs, slightly put out but mostly finding his crisis mode slipping over him like a comfortable jacket, and he's already thinking in terms of damage control rather than focusing on Tony's dismal assessment of his living arrangements. He sends Mrs. Perkins a friendly smile and wave as he steps back to let Tony in. "If they tried, I think they'd have a difficult time getting past the armor. Also, you're lying."

Tony looks affronted, but it's a reflex expression, heart not really in it, and underneath that he looks panicked. It's all around his eyes and in his voice, the rest of his face blank, and Steve tries not to worry that he's a little bit of an expert on reading his teammate. "About what?"

"Your explanation making sense and/or not being alarming."

"No," Tony protests as he pauses in the kitchen space, just beyond the door, looking around with a bright, curious look that the child in his arms echoes to an almost eerie degree of similarity. "Well, okay. Probably. Yes."

Steve sighs and closes the door on Mrs. Perkin's expression which is caught between suspicion and amusement.

Getting his unexpected houseguests settled takes a little more time than anticipated, especially when Tony discovers that he doesn't have a modern coffeemaker and spends a good five minutes in horrified silence and another fifteen puttering around the apartment poking into things. Steve goes to find something to entertain his younger guest. He comes back with a handful of blank paper and some pastel crayons, interrupting Tony, who is attempting to construct a coffee machine out of his own cellphone, spare parts from the armor--or what Steve hopes are spare parts, anyway--and whatever he's found in Steve's apartment that looks promising. Steve recognizes a tin sauce pot, his shaving kit and some knitting needles which he is only slightly embarrassed to have out in the open.

The child is helping deconstruct the phone with surprising nimbleness, sitting at Steve's small, square kitchen table where Tony has spread out his project, chin barely topping the edge, kicking feet against the rungs of the chair and humming atonally. The sheer speed at which Tony has managed to claim a relatively large corner of Steve's home should be surprising, but actually isn't.

"No, Tony," Steve says, patiently taking bits and wires out of Tony's hands and then placing himself between Tony and the table when Tony reaches for them again.

"But...but Steve."

"No," Steve says, firm and steady, which is what he's learned from experience is needed to deal with Tony when he's like this. "Here, I brought clothes." He presses a soft, folded pair of sweats and a t-shirt into Tony's arms in lieu of letting him get to the electronics again.

"It's a crime, Steve, it's unnatural. Making coffee by boiling water--who does that?"

"Your coffee maker does that. You just don't see it."

"Right, machines do that. They do that for you now. That's a thing, you know, it's a really really common thing."

"Go get changed, before clomping around in that armor puts a hole in my floor."

"Are you calling me fat?" Tony demands as Steve presses clothes against his chest and puts a hand on Tony's shoulder where he's relatively certain there's nothing in the armor that could break or--more likely--blow his fingers off and attempts to angle him toward the bathroom. "What is this, what are you giving me?"


"Ew, is this Fruit-of-the-Loom? These shirts come a half-dozen in a bag for less than five dollars. Less than five dollars, Steve."

Actually, Steve had been slightly appalled at even spending that much. He's still having trouble adapting to inflation. Sometimes he goes into stores and buys things without looking too hard at the price tag or the receipt, which is easier now that he has a debit card and can swipe without even seeing the total if he tries hard. Sometimes he sits for hours cutting coupons and meticulously bargain hunting like his mother used to, though he has yet to spend less than twenty dollars on a grocery run, which would have horrified his frugal mother.

"They're practical," Steve says. "And comfortable."

"They're generic."

Steve has seen Tony stumble out of the lab in clothes held together by grime and a prayer, so he doesn't think Tony's really all that scandalized. He's likely just trying to get a rise out of Steve, or maybe he's tired enough that he's gone into what Steve likes to call Asshole Automatic, picking on everything without actually hearing most of the words coming out of his own mouth.

Steve kind of likes Tony in that state. Well, except he worries that Tony isn't sleeping again. But it means that Steve can be bossy and sarcastic right back and Tony doesn't take the negativity like body blows, which he does almost every other time. It's a bit like the banter he got used to with the Howling Commandos, and Steve takes comfort in all the familiar things when he finds them, wherever he finds them.

"Go change and stop ruining my floors or I'm kicking you out."

He manhandles Tony, actually shoving him a bit, which Tony allows and which Steve has only recently come to understand is not a concession granted to most people. Steve tries not to abuse the privilege, but sometimes applied force is needed to get the genius-playboy-philanthropist focused on the task at hand.

"I don't think that's my fault. You've probably got cockroaches."

"Maybe," Steve concedes, because he does see a few, now and then, but it's hardly an infestation and this is New York City. "But what does that have to do with anything?"

Tony pauses, head tilted in a way that Steve maybe kinda thinks is adorable but will never ever say, "They eat wood? And are therefore undermining structural integrity long before I arrived?"

"That's termites."

Tony scowls at him. "You would know that."

As far as comebacks go, it's pretty weak for Tony Stark's legendary razor tongue. Steve thinks he must be very tired or very hung over. This is cause for concern by itself, but also means that he is going to hit a wall soon, one that he won't be able to bounce back from. Steve needs to find out what is going on before Tony crashes and takes all chance of an explanation with him. The other thing about Tony in this state is that Steve can push him--gently--and often get his way.

"Go change, Tony. You'll have coffee when you get back."

Tony finally takes the clothes with a grumble, but the promise of caffeine seems enough to compel him. Steve expects him to choose the bathroom but he goes straight into Steve's bedroom instead, which is--fine, Steve guesses. He makes a mental check of the state of his room, if he has any unmentionables in plain view or any drawings he doesn't want Tony to touch, because undoubtedly Tony will touch everything. Satisfied that there is nothing in his bedroom that Tony can destroy or use to embarrass Steve, he turns to his younger companion, who's still doggedly dismantling a bit of phone, but looks up with an attentive expression at Steve's regard.

"Ah," Steve says, suddenly not entirely sure how to proceed. "Hi."

There's a thump and a clang and a "Holy shit, fucking--what--Goddammit!" from the bedroom.

"Um," says Steve to the kid, "excuse me for a moment, please."

Then he ducks into his bedroom with a reprimand on his lips because even though Steve knows civilian language is more lax these days he can't abide swearing in front of impressionable youth--and jeez he does sound like someone's grandpa--but, dammit, he is old, sort of, in a way, so he might as well own it.

He stops at the sight of Tony, lying sort of upside down and sideways on Steve's narrow bed, head pointed toward the floor, one leg kicked up at an awkward angle. Steve's desk and chair have been knocked over and the papers that had just recently been stacked neatly on a corner of the desk are now scattered all over. As Steve watches, mouth open slightly in disbelief, somewhat annoyed and begrudgingly impressed by the amount of destruction Tony can wrought in so little time, a few scraps of paper flutter down and land on Tony's head.

"I didn't expect that," Tony says, surprised and slightly wondering, like life doesn't shock him often--which it probably doesn't, though Steve bets it's become more unpredictable since joining The Avengers. He probably shouldn't feel smug about that.

"What happened?" Steve asks, moving forward to assist.

"Unexpected failure of the inverse reactive current and coiled cooling circuitry. Made for an interesting feedback loop but probably good I wasn't inflight when that happened."

Not much of that makes sense to Steve, but then it rarely does when it comes to Tony's patented brand of science: one part genius, one part crazy and flavored with a healthy amount of impossible. He grabs bits of Tony's armor and hauls him upright.

"Holyshitwarnaguy," Tony says in a rush, flailing a little until Steve sits him down on the bed.

"Can we keep the swearing to a minimum?" Steve asks, wincing internally at how much it comes out sounding like someone's maiden aunt. "It's just, the walls in here are kinda thin and with the present company..."

Sometimes, when he tries to explain himself it only makes things worse. Tony is looking at him like he's made an almost incomprehensibly weird request, and Steve thinks that if Tony laughs he's going to drop Tony on his head again.

Instead, Tony's expression resolves into one that's actually a little chastened and he says, "Yeah, okay. Sorry."

Steve blinks. "It's fine. Now how do we get you out of this?"

Tony looks at him in a way that makes a flush crawl up the back of Steve's neck, one eyebrow raised, smirk tweaking a corner of his mouth. Tony opens his mouth, nothing but hell and mischief in his eyes, and then he shuts it again without saying anything for a few heartbeats of what looks like a mighty internal struggle. Finally he says, "Back panel. There, can you push that in? I've got a tool kit built into this but the joint's bent and--oh thanks."

In short order, bits of the armor slip off or begin folding back into itself like the technological marvel it is. Steve is never not impressed by an up-close look at its sleek design, but he knows better by now than to say anything. Tony is suspicious of his compliments, no matter how sincere he is. In fact, the more sincere Steve is, the less Tony tends to believe him.

This is not the suitcase armor, which Tony once explained is a bit like "emergency armor," light weight and without all the bells and whistles. It's also infinitely easier to put on and take off. That means that, whatever happened, Tony had time to strap on one of the full designs--eight or nine, Steve's lost where in the count Tony is. This one has a round arc reactor, but that doesn't really narrow it down.

Steve runs his hand over the roughness of battle damage along Tony's rib plating and says, "So."

"I had a completely inappropriate comment involving 'eating wood' but I restrained myself," Tony says.

It actually takes Steve a moment to trace that back to their conversation about termites. "Noted and appreciated."

"Do you think I should get her a pony?"

Now Steve's completely lost the thread, but that's a familiar feeling around Tony and it barely even fazes Steve anymore. "Who?"

"The kid," Tony says with that exaggerated patience he takes on when he's surrounded by idiots, and he's a genius, and why can no one just keep up. It makes Steve want to toss Tony through walls from time to time. "Little girls like ponies, don't they? That's a thing. I read that somewhere."

Steve thinks of the child sitting at his kitchen table, all silence and nimble fingers and bright, direct gaze. "Maybe not a pony. Maybe some clothes, though, and some coloring books." Because what Steve has here are art supplies and not really meant for children.

He helps Tony with a panel of metal that's partially melted, pulling a strip of the cloth underarmor free when it comes loose, revealing a streak of angry red skin beneath. Tony hisses softly.

"Do you need medical attention?" Steve asks, faintly horrified that this wasn't the first thing he'd thought of. Most people would say something if they needed it. That's a dangerous assumption with Tony. "Do either of you?"

"The kid's fine. Although maybe we should take her to a doctor just in case she has some sort of crazy interstellar space disease or something." Tony pokes at the knee joint on his armor with a screwdriver he pulled from somewhere.

"Space disease?"

"Well, I found her on an abandoned space station so...yeah."

Steve takes the screwdriver away and waits until Tony stops trying to grab it back and makes eye contact. "Tell me what happened," Steve says in his Obey Me I Outrank You voice, which sometimes makes Tony fly into fits of contrary meanness but sometimes, if used sparingly and at just the right moment, Tony responds to very well.

Tony flops back with a dramatic sigh, but he starts in on the explanation, so today it's the latter, and Steve breathes out a silent sigh of relief, because using that tone of voice is always a gamble.

"Not much to say. Fury called me in. I went," Tony says to his ceiling. "There was an abandoned space station in orbit about two hundred forty miles from the planet's surface no one had noticed until recently, and only because it's stealth capacitors glitched and pinged a NASA tower."

"Just you? Why not the team?"

"The team's not space-worthy. Except Thor, and they wanted recon, not to bash it with a hammer. I need to get on those Quinjet upgrades, by the way. It's about time we had our own spaceship. We need one; we're a proper team. Fuck Reed and his stupid jet."

Steve pokes Tony in the knee with the screwdriver to keep him focused, and while he's looking, he figures out the joint and starts to unlock bits of leg armor.

"Er, darn Reed, I mean."

Well, it's a nice effort, but that's not what Steve was prompting. "The space station...?"

"Right, well, when I say 'station' that's not really--I mean it was this tiny thing. Space hovel. Space telephone booth. Hopefully, whoever worked in there wasn't claustrophobic, not that it matters, since they were all eaten."

The screwdriver slips and Steve almost stabs himself. "What?"

"Yeah, I think. I didn't really stop to check. There were body parts everywhere. Like a horror movie, torn limb from limb kind of stuff. It was dark and--oxygen but no gravity, so everything was floating. The blood was in these pretty, perfectly round spheres. I didn't even notice at first. Then I found the kid and there was a countdown. I grabbed the kid and got out."

"A countdown?"

"Someone had rigged the place to blow, or maybe it was just a triggered defense."

Steve feels a sharp sort of panic grip his heart and he has the urge to run his hands over Tony just to test that he's okay. Steve always feels better when he can touch things. Sometimes it's the only way he can convince himself any of this is real and not just a very vivid dream. There's another score of scorched underarmor in a diagonal slash across Tony's thigh. If there'd been any kind of depth to it it would've hit the femoral artery.

"But you're okay," Steve can't help asking again.

"Yes, mother hen. I'm fine and the little girl's fine. Just lucky for her that the pod I found her in was airtight and tough enough to withstand reentry." Tony sits up on his elbows and eyes Steve over the length of his body. "Are you going to buy me dinner first?"

It takes Steve a moment to realize that he's covered the wound on Tony's thigh with his hand, measuring the breadth of it with his palm, feeling the heat and pulse beneath. Months back, Steve probably would have blushed and stammered and jerked his hand away.

Now, even though he can feel the back of his neck warm, he just raises an arch eyebrow and says, "Do I need to?"

Tony flirts the way he breathes--continuous and unconsciously, casually. Steve--doesn't; he's not good at easy exchanges, words that don't mean much, that are just meant as fun and to fill silence that would otherwise be awkward. But he thinks he can with Tony, maybe. Who better to practice on than the master? But the intense look Tony pins him with makes him nervous, until Tony's face splits with a wide grin, teeth white against his beard.

"Captain America," Tony says in a faux-shocked tone. "Did you just sass me?"

Steve smiles back and removes his hand as unobtrusively as possible, because the idea that maybe he's
not being casual when he flirts, that maybe it's easier with Tony because Steve sort of maybe means it just a little, sits weighted in the back of his mind.

"Shouldn't you have gone back to SHIELD?"

"They have my report. Besides, what are they going to do with a kid? Throw her in a lab and study her? That's crap--uh, crazy. Is 'crap' okay? I don't know where you draw the line at swear word severity."

"What about mysterious killer space germs?"

"We've both been through decontamination, what do you take me for? I science responsibly and that is so a verb."

Tony lifts his legs free of the last of the armor, scoots away from the pile of red and gold metal, then plants his feet and stretches, arms over his head, the arch of his back a graceful line. Steve stands up and then regrets it when he feels like he's looming. Tony's not small, but he's smaller, compact, sleek lines highlighted by the skintight underarmor. Steve is large in a way he barely comprehends himself, sometimes. On the battlefield he rarely notices, anymore. The war and the Howling Commandos broke him in in that regard, but in civilian life Steve finds himself aware of close spaces, of how many breakable things are around him, and with his enhanced strength just about everything is breakable.

Tony bounces to his feet and then climbs up on Steve's bed and crosses a sagging hazard of sheets and old quilt so he can inspect the long wall it's shoved against. "This is gorgeous."

He's talking to the mural of the New York skyline that Steve's drawn on the white paint. It started in brown--because that was the color Steve could find at the time, and he wanted to capture the image before he forgot it, once he realized there were bits of it he already couldn't remember. The skyline how he remembers it. It's overlayed in black--charcoal pencil--the modern day arrangement, tall buildings with harsh, straight lines. The black is crowded more closely together, but it's a bit of a comfort to see that there are still recognizable shapes.

Steve's never going to get his deposit for the apartment back, but he thinks it was worth it, and he can afford the extra it will cost to get it cleaned up and painted over if he ever moves.

"Hey." Tony pokes an empty patch. "Stark Tower should be here."

"I'll add it," Steve promises, and then has to resist flailing just to draw Tony's attention, because he's staring at Steve's messy sketch with the intensity he usually reserves for tricky math equations or particularly baffling experiments from Dr. Banner--interesting things, things that make Tony's whirlwind mind pause and take note and that makes Steve itch under his skin, nervous and hot all over.

"Are you going to put in any color?"

Steve shrugs, then tries to get them back on track. "Tony, not to be rude but--"

"Oh be rude, please." Tony tosses a wicked smile over his shoulder. "I like it when you're rude."

That's a patented lie. Tony gets defensively angry with Steve faster than with anyone else, but now's not the time to bring that up. "Why are you here? I mean, not that I don't want to help you, but..."

"It's obvious, isn't it?" Tony turns away from the wall, finally, and drops back down to the floor. "Apple pie, white picket fences, mom and dad with the kids and the dog."


"Things that America stands for."

Steve tries, he really does, to make the same leap of logic that Tony has, whatever makes Tony believe that string of words to be anything like an answer, but he just can't. "What?"

Tony tilts his head. "I figured you'd be good with kids. God knows I don't have a clue."

"You're here because you think I'm good with children?"

"Well, aren't you?"

"I--no." Steve wishes there was something he could say to soften that truth, but there isn't. "No, I'm not. What have I ever said or done that made you think otherwise?"

Tony has no answer besides a very disbelieving look. "You're not good with kids?"

"No. Sorry." That doesn't seem to be enough, so Steve tries to elaborate. "When I was a kid, other kids were just bullies. After the serum, well, they're just--they look really fragile and I can snap steel rods in half by accident. Mothers would hand me babies anyway."

"Well, see--"

"They'd start crying."

Tony swallows the rest of his sentence and then looks slightly amused under all the distress. "Poor Cap. Punched Hitler in the face, but babies are scary."

"He wasn't actually Hitler," Steve huffs. "His name was Bert. He'd worked in a steel mill but he'd always wanted to try acting."

"That's just sad."

Steve knows Tony means it sarcastically, but suddenly he does feel a little maudlin. Bert had taught him how to whistle and how to laugh at the spectacle they made of themselves every time they were on stage and he'd been sweet on Betty, a pretty blonde who hadn't given him the time of day. He's dead and gone now, like everyone else. Everyone but Steve.

"Well, shit. What am I supposed to do, now?"

Steve rallies, pulling himself back to the present. "There must be someone else. What about Ms. Potts?"

"Pepper doesn't hate kids or anything, but she's not really what you would call kid-oriented." Tony runs his hands a few times through his hair and then clutches it, staring out the window at the still solidly-dark morning.

"Agent Romanov?"

"Steve." The look Tony gives him is full of incredulous dismay. "Natasha? Really? Are you just naming women we know?"

"No! I--" Except he is. "I didn't mean..."

"Don't worry. I won't tell."

There are some things in this century Steve doesn't like, but there are other things he does, like the fact that he's called out on his casually sexist assumptions, even if it makes his cheeks heat with shame. Peggy would have liked that. It barely even feels like a monster slashing at his heart to think about her anymore. Steve tries to take that as a good sign, even though it sort of feels like betrayal. Even though he can never quite tell if he's moving on or just getting more apathetic.

"Okay. So. Kids. It can't be too hard, right? People dumber than us raise kids all the time. Not much to them. Just feed them, water them, distract them with shiny things and make sure they aren't alone for too long. Speaking of which, how long has tiny-spawn been by herself in your kitchen?"

Too long. Steve flings the door open and is greeting by the sight of the kid, naked and covered in swaths of color, standing on top of Steve's refrigerator, eyes gleaming with determination and the complete belief in immortality that a lot of kids seem to have.

"Wow, like a spider, or a monkey. A spider-monkey." Tony says. "Also, not a girl, huh."

"You didn't know before?" Steve demands as he lunges across the room, just in time to intercept the kid--the boy kid--on his way to the ground.

"Seemed rude to check," Tony says in a way that's much too sedate for Steve's liking, as the boy shrieks with delight and clambers over him, all arms and legs or--more accurately--sharp elbows and knobby knees, until he's settled on Steve's shoulders, hands fisted in Steve's hair.

There's a faint click and a flash of light and Steve looks in Tony's direction. Tony has a completely innocent look, hands tucked behind his back.

"Did you take a picture?" Steve asks.


"Because if you took a picture I'm going to break your camera. Or phone. Or tiny computer-whatever is storing that picture right now."

"I didn't take a picture, Steve, jeez!"

But Steve knows that look. That look says, "yes, I took a picture and just somehow managed to cc it to every single person we know and possibly also post it on some sort of interweb open forum for the world to see."

"Oh hey, that's a lot of black." Tony has approached the table and is looking at the scribbles the boy has made on the paper Steve left for him. "A lot of black."

It is a lot of black. Whole sheets covered in nothing but sweeps of the black crayon. The rest of the colors seem to have ended up smeared all over their young guest. Those are oil-based pigments. It's going to take soap to get them off.

"Maybe because of being lost in space for so long?" Steve hazards, too busy trying to carefully maneuver the boy off his shoulders and down to the safety of the floor to really pay attention.

"That looks like eyes. And teeth."

Eyes in the darkness, and teeth, and the rest of whoever had been aboard that space vessel had looked like they'd been ripped apart by wild animals. Steve has read enough sci-fi to know that's not a good sign. He hopes SHIELD is handling it.

"Well, if there is something, it's up there, and we're down here, and we should probably focus on doing right by the kid and--we don't even know his name!"

The kid shrieks a high-pitched, gleeful war cry and swan dives sideways off Steve's shoulders. Steve twists, catches him and sets him on his feet. The boy immediately tries to climb Steve like he's a tree, both skinny legs wrapped around him and surprisingly strong grip latched on to Steve's shirt.

"Hold on there, spider-monkey," Tony says, stepping forward and peeling the kid away. The kid looks rebellious, and instead tries to climb Tony, who gives Steve an annoyed look like this is somehow his fault. "This is not an improvement. Ouch!"

Both Tony and the boy look surprised that one of his heels has managed to find a tender spot. The boy slips back down to the floor in a nimble slide, turning big, contrite eyes up, his hands petting at Tony's hip like one would sooth a wounded animal.

Steve crouches down to make himself small and then says gently, "Tony's hurt, so we should be nice to him, okay?"

The boy nods solemnly, while Tony grumbles about how he's not a China doll, jeez Steve.

"I'm Steve. What's your name?"

The boy chews his lower lip for a moment, and then holds out his arm, presenting his inner wrist. Curious, Steve takes his wrist carefully, large fingers enfolding the small bones, and then notices a bar code tattooed on the soft skin there, his thumb brushing a rough spot just above a string of numbers over the rectangle of bars.

"There's a microchip under there. I scanned it, but all I got back was gibberish. Encoded. JARVIS is working on it."

Tony has got his hands propped on his knees, head bent to take a closer look at the boy's wrist. He's near enough that Steve can smell him--scorched metal and expensive cologne. He tells himself to stop noticing these things and focus. The ink on the boy's wrist is crisp, new. It must have hurt, putting it on. Abruptly, Steve feels that low-burning anger, the one that makes him pick up his shield and head out into the world when there are some days he'd rather curl up and not move for a while. He wants to protect this boy, even if he has no idea how, or from what.

There are three letters and a number that's set slightly to the side of the rest of the string of only numbers above the barcode, a bit larger than the rest, spelling out PT3R.

"Peter," Steve says and both the boy and Tony look at him curiously. "Is that all right? Can I call you Peter?"

The boy seems to think about that for a moment, and then he grins, wide and bright.

"I think that's a 'yes'," Tony says, and straightens. "Okay, it's settled. Now I think it's time for Uncle Steve to take you for a bath while Tony tries to find you some clothes."

Steve blinks. "What?"

Peter pins Steve with a look of wide-eyed rebellion.

"Chop chop," says Tony and pulls out a phone from--somewhere. Steve thinks he sews spare ones into his clothes.

Getting Peter to take a bath is an...experience. An experience that ends with Peter dripping wet and streaking through the house--clean, at least, this time, Steve following behind, desperately trying to keep the boy from slipping and cracking his head open. Steve is just as wet but, thankfully, still fully clothed. Tony doesn't even bother looking up from where he's sprawled in Steve's comfy chair as Peter runs circles around him, yelling at the top of his lungs. Tony's changed into the clothes that Steve offered him earlier and looks completely at home, tapping away at the touch screen on his phone.

"Tony," Steve says, pulling to a stop after two circuits of the chair, exasperated and dripping. "Some help?"

Tony sticks his arm out and catches Peter on his next go-round. In retaliation, Peter clambers aboard Tony and shakes like a wet dog, long hair flinging water droplets in all directions.

"Ew, God, no!" Tony flails dramatically. "I've been slimed! Oh the humanity! This is cruel beyond imagining!"

This, of course, just makes Peter break down into delighted laughter, and he dives his head into Tony's chest, trying to get him wetter. There's a faint clunk and Tony goes "oof!" and then Peter sits up again, rubbing his forehead and frowning. The pain of hitting his head on the arc reactor only puts him off for a second. Then small, inquisitive fingers are feeling out the round metal edge under Tony's shirt.

"Hey, that tickles!"

Steve scoops Peter up in his biggest, fluffiest towel before he can do Tony any actual harm, and dries him off mainly by just trying to hold him still.

When he sets Peter on his feet, the boy drops abruptly and for a few seconds Steve is afraid that he's been hurt, somehow, but then there's slow, deliberate slithering movement under the towel and a soft hissing sound. Steve, after a few bemused moments, leaves him to it.

"So he's a slug now?" Tony asks, and holds up a shopping bag--one of the plastic-y types with sharp edges and silk rope handles.

"A snake, I think. What's this?" Steve peaks inside and sees several outfits-worth of shirts and pants in Peter's size, or close approximation. "How--?"

"Clothes fairy," Tony says.

"Ms. Potts?"

"Pepper," Tony confirms, looking only a little disgruntled at having been revealed.

Ms. Potts is paid an incredibly large salary, but sometimes Steve still thinks she deserves a raise. It's not even six o'clock in the morning, and it must have been a very odd phone call. Steve can't imagine how Tony managed to explain it.

"Why didn't she bring clothes for you?" Steve asks, sorting through the neatly folded selection. There's underthings and socks, too, and a stack of boxes on the coffee table that are probably shoes.

"She did."

Steve wants to question that, but Tony looks like his hackles are up, so Steve sets about transforming their towel-snake into a real boy, and getting himself changed into something that doesn't look like he took an ill-conceived walk into a swimming pool. When he comes back out, Tony is wearing jeans that must be his because they're not slipping off his hips, but his shirt is Steve's--too-large and sporting the SHIELD logo. He declares that if he doesn't get coffee he's going to die.

Steve completely forgot about the coffee. He offers to start the water boiling, but Tony slips on his sunglasses--the ones with the red lenses--offers a similar pair to Peter, these with pale blue lenses, and declares they're going out.