“Class, we have some very special guests here today. I think you’ll be able to recognize them, so I want you to pay attention very carefully when they introduce themselves, all right?”
The teacher waited until all the first-graders had said, “Yes, Mrs. Anderson!” before beckoning at the doorway. Natasha was cat-light on her feet, Clint only slightly less so, and Bruce made a habit of being quiet, but Thor and Steve’s boots, and Tony’s loud, mechanical clanking from his suit made their entrance pretty damn obvious, even for kids who couldn’t see.
“The Avengers, the Avengers!” they cried out in ragged chorus before the team had gotten more than a half-dozen steps into the room.
Natasha grinned behind her hand and Steve slapped a ten dollar bill into her open palm with a rueful smile.
“Ok, you got us,” Tony said, putting his hands up in surrender, his digitized voice making some of the kids giggle.
“Iron Man!” they called out.
“Got it in one,” Steve said, smiling.
“Captain America!” someone else yelled.
Steve grinned outright at that, and put it into his voice. “That’s right. Can you guess who everyone else is? Stay very, very still, and listen.” Steve quirked an eyebrow at Clint in a signal. Quickly, Clint threw up his bow, drew the string, and let it go, firing a harmless suction-cup arrow against the back wall.
“Hawkeye!” they chorused.
“These guys are good,” Clint said lightly. One of the boys put his hand up and snapped his fingers. “Uh… yeah?”
“Chad,” Mrs. Anderson supplied.
“Chad,” Clint said.
“Can I touch your bow?” he asked eagerly. Clint broke into a grin and took a few steps forward to lay his bow on Chad’s desk. Five seconds later he was swarmed by most of the class, their hands reaching out to touch the bow, or his hands. One bold little girl managed to work her way up to Clint’s bicep and giggled.
“You’re strong!” she said. “Like my Uncle Gary. He’s a firefighter!”
“Oh yeah? Does he climb up in buildings too?”
“I fly up into buildings,” Clint confessed.
“No you don’t, you don’t have wings!”
“How do you know I don’t have wings?” Clint said. “Better check my back and make sure I don’t.”
The girl carefully worked herself around as Clint crouched down to her level, and her face was a study in surprise when she felt the springy arrow flights protruding from his quiver.
“See? Feathers,” Clint said.
“Those aren’t feathers,” she said, exasperated.
“You sure?” he teased.
Steve nearly had to bite his gauntlet to keep from laughing as Clint worked with the kids. He seemed in his element; for all of his history with S.H.I.E.L.D., his background as a circus performer shone right through. He’d seen Clint do this at press conferences before, but never in full Hawkeye gear. S.H.I.E.L.D. had been attempting to keep Hawkeye’s identity a semi-secret. Some of the same could be said for Natasha. Not the circus background, but trying to keep her face out of the media. At a school for the blind, however, they’d all been given leave to be a little more free.
“Can you guess where the Black Widow is?” Clint asked, as he wound down. “She’s pretty sneaky.”
“There!” one kid said, pointing at the back of the room, right at a flabbergasted Natasha. Clint hadn’t heard her move into place. If he hadn’t been looking right at her, he would have been down for the count.
“That’s… Daredevil territory there,” she said, sulking very slightly. The boy grinned in her direction as Natasha stalked back to the front of the room. Thor stepped forward before someone could ask to get close to her; there were some things that just weren’t safe, and getting young kids too near a master assassin in high-tech Spandex was one of them.
“Greetings, younglings,” Thor said, the floor rattling slightly as he let Mjölnir rest on the ground. His usual megawatt smile was dimmed just a little, and the static crackle that usually accompanied his presence was stronger than normal. Apparently Asgardian medicine usually precluded someone being blind from birth, and Thor was saddened at the thought of children never having seen the light of day.
But that didn’t seem to bother them. Their enthusiasm was infectious as they crowded around him, and Thor lost some of his uneasiness as little hands patted his armor. Steve leaned back against the wall with Natasha as Thor tried to explain about his hammer to the curious boys tugging on the handle to no avail.
“Come, I shall introduce you to another of my brothers-in-arms. Bruce, be known to Lady Anderson’s class.”
Bruce stepped up with a sheepish smile as the kids’ expressions went blank.
“Bruce?” one kid said, sounding confused.
“I think you’d know me better if I were taller than Thor. And really, really big.”
“That’s me. He’s inside me,” Bruce said softly.
“Are you like the Hulk’s costume?”
Bruce grinned suddenly. “A little bit. We share space. Like living in a duplex.”
“Can we meet him?”
“The Hulk only comes out when there’s bad guys to smash. You aren’t bad guys, are you?” Bruce asked, and got a lot of giggling denials. They’d practiced the answer to that inevitable question before they’d ever left the Tower, and Steve was glad to hear the kids responding well.
“I dunno, Bruce, these kids are pretty tricky,” Tony chimed in suddenly.
Tony had been standing quietly, uncharacteristically so, during everyone else’s time. Steve had been starting to wonder if he was taking a nap inside there and having JARVIS keep the suit upright in the interim.
“But I don’t think they’re too bad,” Bruce said in mock-protest. “They’re actually pretty good.”
“Can we meet Iron Man?” Chad piped up.
“’Course you can,” Tony said. “Everyone back up for a second, I don’t want to step on anyone’s foot.” He waited until everyone had shuffled a few steps backwards, and then he took a few steps forward and retracted his faceplate.
“Are you seeing this?” Natasha murmured, low enough that only Steve’s sensitive hearing could have picked it up.
“Yeah,” Steve said quietly, brow furrowed as he watched Tony take center stage and carefully go to one knee. Stark liked being in the limelight, but he didn’t think he’d seen Tony ever interact with kids, not once in two hundred YouTube videos.
“Ok, you can get close now. I’m down on one knee, so nobody trip over my leg, all right?” Tony said gently.
“Your voice is different,” a little girl said putting out a hand to catch herself on Tony’s shoulder.
“My faceplate is up. When it’s down JARVIS has to translate for me.”
There were a few gasps of surprise at the new voice, and Tony smiled. “That’s my computer, JARVIS. He helps me out. Come on, you can touch the suit, it’s ok.”
The kids crowded around again, their hands reaching out to run over the hard metal of the Iron Man suit.
“Does it tickle?”
“Nope, I can’t feel you at all,” Tony said, keeping very still. “I can’t feel it when bad guys punch me either.”
The girl smiled shyly as she tried to figure out where she was, her little hands spanning Tony’s arm.
“You’re on my forearm. Move down,” Tony said, and waited until her hands had gotten to his gauntlet. She grabbed his thumb and tried to bend it, her unseeing eyes going wide when it didn’t move an inch.
“Feel the circle on my palm?” Tony asked, and the girl nodded. “That’s my repulsor ray, or one of them. That helps me fly.”
“Or you can shoot bad guys with it!” one of the boys crowed on Tony’s other side, poking at his left side gauntlet. The girl let go instantly.
“Hey now, if Bruce didn’t think the Hulk needed to come out and smash things, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to repulse anyone either, right?” Tony said easily. “What’s your name?” he asked the girl, who had her precious hands tucked up against her chest.
“It’s ok, it’s just Mr. Motormouth over here-.”
“Randy,” she supplied.
“Randy is being dramatic. It’s ok,” he said coaxingly. She moved back towards him and touched his gauntlet again. “I can pick up an egg with this if I want to.”
“Can you fry an egg?” Randy asked.
“Repulsor-fried eggs. Never tried that before. What’d ya say, guys, should we give that a whirl?” Tony asked.
Clint didn’t bother to stifle a snort of derision and Thor laughed out loud. “I should tell you the cautionary tale of how I once attempted to cook a roc’s eggs with a lightning bolt. That was a most humorous misadventure.”
“Ok, no eggs then,” Tony said, and turned his attention back to the kids. Steve (and, he noticed with a quick look around, everyone else) was a little amazed at the way Tony was handling his little crowd. He even put Clint to shame with joking with them and putting them at ease, answering all of their questions, even the artless ones, with soft and gentle patience.
Who is that and where is Tony? Clint mouthed at Steve at one point. Steve didn't know either; he'd been planning on going last so he could do damage control if necessary; his time in the crowds after USO shows had given him enough experience with dealing with kids that he figured he could handle anything. He shrugged at Clint's question and looked over at Natasha for some help. She was staring at Tony as if she could look inside his helmet through pure willpower. With a sudden indrawn breath, Natasha moved over and knelt down next to him.
“Black Widow?” Sara asked, and reached up her hand to tangle in Natasha’s hair.
The Black Widow had killed people for less. But Natasha metaphorically gritted her teeth and bore the child’s touch as Tony kept talking.
“Thanks for the back-up today, ‘Tasha,” Tony said later that night, reaching into the depths of his freezer for the vodka Natasha had stashed back there. She didn’t move a finger from her spot, laid back on the couch staring at the ceiling, until he broke out the shot glasses and poured her a generous measure. She drank hers, and held out her glass for another. She went through two more before Tony even downed one, then turned her glass upside down decisively.
“Where did that come from, Tony?” Natasha asked, bringing her eyes down to fix on Tony’s face. “You. Kids. All of that. Where the hell did that come from?”
Tony poured himself a second shot and downed it before he answered. “I like ‘em.”
Natasha put a hand over her abdomen, low, and shook her head. “I’ve never seen you like that before. I’ve never heard of you doing that before.”
“I didn’t advertise every charity the Maria Stark Foundation donates to. I wanted to keep those kids out of my spotlight. It’s not a real healthy place to be,” Tony said.
“Yeah,” Natasha said softly. “Ok, I could see that. But these kids, today…”
Tony longingly looked at the bottle, but declined a third shot. He’d learned the lesson of never challenging Natasha on vodka consumption during the second week of them being Avengers.
“Wish I had some of my own,” he said, almost too quietly to hear. “I just… never could risk it. I was a mess”
“I can’t,” Natasha said. Her hand tightened over her skin just under her navel, as if she could feel the nearly invisible scars under her fingers. “They never would let me risk it. But you, you could, even now.”
“No I couldn’t,” Tony said, his voice growing firmer. “You know why.”
She looked over at him, her lips pressed tight together.
“Dad,” Tony said finally, when it was clear Natasha wasn’t going to let him off easy. “He just… couldn’t figure out what to do with me. He left me alone. I never knew him, never knew anything about him I didn’t learn from someone else or the corporate literature. I couldn’t do that to one of my own. No one deserves to be as messed up as me.”
“Do you think Howard Stark ever spent his time and money donating to kids’ charities, hospitals, and schools? Do you think he ever spent any time around kids? You think he ever learned how to talk to them? That doesn’t come out of paternal instinct or thin air, Stark,” Natasha said. “You’re smarter than that. And you’re smarter than him.”
Tony turned away from her and poured and downed that third shot of vodka.
“Think about it.” She got up and leaned over him, pressing a kiss to the top of his head before she left him alone.
Tony turned to look at himself in the reflection of the glass window, illuminated by the arc reactor keeping him alive. His second chance at everything.
Maybe she was right.
Maybe he could.