Protecting Tony Stark is like keeping an open fire in the palm of his hand. It's like fighting the rain.
It keeps him alive, in a way.
Tony isn't the kind of man you can protect from the world, he's strong enough to take it all.
No, Tony must be protected. From himself.
So Steve guides him out of the workshop and into a warm shower. Steve takes the Starkpad from numb fingers and put the glasses away. Steve cooks them breakfast.
They fight, of course they do.
But Steve makes sure they laugh, too.
Tony, as a child, is nothing like what they were expecting. He's shy, terribly shy. He keeps his eyes on the floor, his little face so red the bruises are difficult to spot.
The Hulk stays close, obviously puzzled. He huffs, and roars at them suddenly, putting his giant body in front of the kid sitting on the floor, protecting him.
It takes almost an hour for Clint to convince him Tony needs Banner, the doctor probably the only one left to understand the science behind the magic.
Tony cries softly, hiding his face in his hands, safely tucked into Steve's arms.
The little boy doesn't fuss, when Steve finally sits him on the edge of the bathtub and dries him in a huge towel before rubbing ointment on his skin.
If anything, he looks happy.
"I like it," he says softly, his little voice unsure when Steve asks him about his smile. "Jarvis puts it on me, and then I get two stories before bed."
Steve's heart breaks in two when Tony explains.
The ointment smells like home, like safe.
To Tony, love is an old man putting salve on his face when his father is drinking somewhere, with bloody knuckles.
This Tony doesn't speak much, and hides his face when Steve tries to tickle him. He's a sharp contrast to the man he knows, the man he loves so much.
This Tony smiles at JARVIS' voice and giggles in delight at their easy banter, the AI adapting quickly to his new young master.
Tony holds the CapBear Phil hands him in one hand, holds onto Steve's shirt with the other, and he faces the group waiting for them in the lounge.
Steve wonders how such a small child can gather so much courage. He sits through it all, Bruce examining him again with soft hands and a soft smile, and Thor crouching at his level to ask him about his memory of the fight.
He smiles at Clint's faces and suddenly stops and looks away when Natasha comments on how impossible life is going to be from now on with a pint sized Stark.
"Natasha is joking." Phil kneels next to him, trying to ease the little boy. If anything, it makes Tony crush the bear even harder against his tiny chest. "Tony, don't worry, everything will be fine, okay ?"
"Hey buddy ?" Clint joins them, spreading himself on the floor and searching for Tony's eyes. "Think you could smile for me ? I know a lot of jokes, you know ? You like them, usually."
All it takes is Coulson to swear softly for Steve to know Tony is crying again.
Clint helps them with the fort.
If anything, he makes the fort, while Steve tries to console a heartbroken Tony.
"Nat was only joking, Tones." Clint looks heartbroken too, ready to give him the world. "She is sorry, she doesn't want you to be sad."
Tony cries so much he hiccups a few times, and he falls asleep in the fort, wrapped around his bear.
"I am not good with children."
Natasha finds him in the kitchen. Steve is trying to figure out what a child version of Tony would accept, and he grabs a few things. Soup, and cheese crackers. Fruits, and some water. He's exhausted.
"It's okay. He's been through a lot, don't worry."
"Yes, and I should've known better than to say that in front of him." She takes the water bottles, and looks at him with a sullen face. " I am sorry, Steve. I am."
When they open the door of Steve's bedroom, Clint is sleeping in the fort, too, his long legs giving him away.
It's weird not to feel Tony's body with him in his bed. Their bed. It's weird, listening to Clint and Tony, sleeping together, Clint almost snoring, Tony mumbling in his sleep.
He wakes up in the middle of the night, a little groggy, only to feel the small warm body curling up against his, and to hear the soft steps on the carpet, and the door closing.
Tony clings to him, and Steve sleeps without dreams.
In the morning, they draw. Steve discovers it's easy to make Tony eat if he's focused on something else, and crayons on paper seem to work perfectly.
The team come and go, staying away not to disturb the peaceful boy, checking with Steve and keeping him informed of everything.
Steve grabs words, like "time", "wait", "soon". He doesn't really pay attention, mesmerized by Ton'y drawings. It's shapes, and forms, it's nothing like what a child would usually draw.
"Clint is really worried." Phil hands him a cup of coffee. He looks a little tired, and Steve wonders if he waited for Clint to come to bed.
"Tony will be alright. It's going to be okay."
"They had a little talk, apparently." Steve stops admiring Tony's art to look at the other man. "Tony is scared we're going to punish him. He's scared not to be useful, or good enough."
"His father." Phil nods. "I can't discuss this with you, I'm sorry. Tony wouldn't want SHIELD to know about this."
"I am not asking on their behalf, Steve." Up close, Phil's eyes are grey. Almost blue. "Tony is scared, and I need to be sure you're going to take care of him."
"What are you drawing here, Tony ?" The little boy stops, and looks terrified for a second. Steve keeps his smile in place, and he wait expectantly, his face open.
"This is Clint, and Lucky." Steve follows his little fingers on the paper, wondering how this beautiful brain works, how the shapes can be translated to what Tony sees. "This is Jarvis, and Dumm-E, and Butterfingers, and YOU."
"Who's that you're working on ?"
"That's you." Tony grabs another pencil, and leaves Steve with the drawing in hand.
"Thank you buddy. Am I alone ?" Tony puts down hiw blue pencil and grabs a red one.
"No. I am with you." It makes him smile, and he ruffles the little boy's hair. "You're taking me away, so Father can't find us anymore."
CapBear needs to sit at the table when they eat. He needs to sit in the sink when it's bathtime. He even sits in front of the door when Tony needs to use the bathroom.
"It's his fist teddy bear." Clint tells them when Bruce asks about it. "I'm not sure he had toys before."
Steve used to be jealous of Colonel Rhodes, and the way Tony would throw himself at him carelessly, his usual need for personal space forgotten.
Steve gets it. He does, he had Bucky, he knows what it's like, but still, Rhodes had been lucky to know Tony, to see him become a man, to protect him and laugh with him and build all these amazing memories.
So it's an ugly secret, it's private. Rhodes know, of course he does, Natasha too. Phil, probably.
It takes less than five minutes for Tony to be wrapped in his arms, giggling at what the man is whispering to his ear.
Steve is not jealous. He's not.
Except he is.
Tony is a sweet child. He is. Steve wonders when exactly this sweet little boy became the demon he fell in love with, but Steve doesn't mind the change.
But in a way, he isn't that surprised when Tony throws a tantrum.
Because he doesn't want to go to bed.
Because his project isn't finished, scattered on the floor.
Because he can't put it away, it's almost done.
It's so familiar it's almost ridiculous, and it would be funny if he wasn't so tired of it all, and Steve uses his Cap voice, half expecting Tony to start to make fun at him, the usual routine fresh in his mind.
It takes a lot of yelling, and arguing, and almost ready to give up, Steve lets it slip.
"Tony, you're cleaning this mess and going to bed, or I'm taking the bear a
He regrets it as soon as it passes his lips. Tony gets so pale he's instantly worried.
"No, sir. Please." The big brown eyes are full of tears, when they go from the bear to the floor, little hands slowly starting to put things away.
Steve feels like a monster. He doesn't remember why it was so important to be right. Why it was so important for the place to be clean. Tony's project goes to a tote bag he pushes away, and Steve suddenly misses it, the mess, and Tony's delight.
Tony goes to bed without a fuss, his back to Steve.
Steve places the bear on the bed, next to him.
In the morning, Tony goes to breakfast alone. CapBear stays on the bed, untouched.
"You're an asshole."
Clint spirits Tony away, not bothering telling him where. He hears them whispers, he's sure, but he can't figure out exactly where they are. He thinks he hears Tony cry, but again, he isn't sure.
Tony reappears after dinner, seemingly well fed and happier, his little tummy round under the fleece. He's wearing purple pjs, a pacifier clipped to it, and he is smelling like shampoo and warm milk.
"Hey buddy." Steve spots him at the door, fidgeting, and he puts his book away. "I missed you today. CapBear and I, we missed you a lot."
Tony stays at the door, not moving.
"I am very sorry Tony. He's yours, an I shouldn't try to take him away. I'm sorry you destroyed your project because of me."
The small boy looks at him with big eyes, before checking behind him. Something, someone hidden in the dark must've make him feel safe enough, because Steve finds himself with a lap full of fleece pjs, and he just rolls them under the covers.
He pretends not to notice how right, thi feels, how he can finally breathe.
"It's okay." Shy Tony is back, he's beet-red and looking at his hands. "It was a dumb robot anyway."
"I am still sorry, Tony." Steve kisses his forehead. He smells like safe, and warmth, and home. "I can help you putting it back together tomorrow ?"
It takes a while, but Tony nods slowly.
It takes even more time to calm his tears and to coax him into accepting CapBear back in his arms.
"I won't take him away." Steve whispers to him. Tony opens his mouth to a pacifier, and Steve guesses he must've been exhausted by the fight, and the tears, to accept it so easily. "I swear to you, baby. Nothing will take him from you. I swear."
In the morning, Clint pointedly ignores him after one murderous glance, but he seems mollified by CapBear sitting next to Tony, in front of a spoonfull of honey in a teacup.
Bruce seems confident Tony, their Tony, is going to be back soon. Steve is happy, of course he is, but he doesn't mind spending his days watching over the little boy. He doesn't mind playing on the rug until it's time for lunch. He does't mind listening to Tony explaining him just how everything works, holding his hand and guiding him through the many wonders of the future, just like he always did.
Phil hands him a cup of coffee, and they both watch Clint and Tony trying to complete a puzzle on the floor, Tony gently explaining to Clint just how to do it properly.
"Clint is a little mad at you." Phil smiles. "I guess he's feeling very protective of Tony, now."
"It's alright. I messed up, and he's taking care of my boy."
"Your boy, uh ?"
Tony suddenly giggles at something Clint said, and the blond man's eyes sparkles with joy. They both look happy, happier than Steve ever remember them being.
"How are you adjusting, Captain ?"
"Is this you, or SHIELD asking ?" Steve chuckles at the stern look he's getting. "I miss him, but it's okay. He teaches me so much, even now." Tony signs something at Clint, who's signing back quickly. Steve wishes they could all stay warm and happy, like this, with enough food, and shelter, and love. Phil looks at the two boys on the floor, and he seems to be lost in the same thoughts.
"He's everything." he says, and he's sure the man sitting next to him feels the same way, in a way.
He's scooping Tony up the floor when he notices the little crease between his brows is back.
"What's wrong, puppy ?" Tony's skin is smooth, his cheeks plump and warm. "What's going on in your little head ?"
"Phil said I can't go to the workshop."
Any other day, Steve would've laughed. He would've brushed it off and make a joke, trying to put the little boy's focus on something else. Tony is brilliant, his vocabulary and wit not always right for a kid that small, and Phil was certainly right not to let him roam free in this dark place full of blades and hammers.
But Steve notices. The little fingers twisted together, because Tony won't let himself suck on them. His sweater wrinkled at his waist, probably crunched when he was thinking too hard.
"Phil is afraid you'll hurt yourself, baby, that's all." Steve wishes for the pacifier left on their room. "Why do you need to go ?" Tony rests in his arms, his little head bumping against the broad shoulders. "Hey, baby ?" Tony pushes himself up and carefully catches his eyes. "Remember how much I love you ?" A tiny nod. "So you think you can tell me ?"
"Dumm-E is sad, when he's alone. I need to tell him goodnight, and to talk to him." The little pout is adorable, and it breaks Steve's heart. "So he knows I won't leave him forever. Just tonight."
If Steve's eyes are a little damp when he watches Tony blabbering his day to his friend, no one is here to comment.
Tony turns back when he's away, working with Nat, and Phil.
Clint tells them when they walk into the kitchen, his face turned to the coffee pot.
And it's stupid, he knows it is, because it was Tony, all along, that's exactly why he felt so protective, so posessive sometimes, it's silly, really, but he feels a wave of sadness. He wasn't able to say goodbye, he wasn't able to kiss his forehead one last time, and to help him finish the bot that was supposed to help Butterfinger.
When he gets to the common area, Tony's smile doesn't reach his eyes, and his tone is firm and unyielding when he tells them he doesn't want to talk about it anymore.
Clint doesn't joke, at that. And that's when Steve realizes he's not the only one affected by it.
"Please, Steve. I am asking you. Please ?"
Tony's lips are warm, and he tastes like tea, with sugar and milk. This is Tony, the real Tony, home with him for the weekend, having a real breakfast of tea, eggs and toast, and forgetting coffee. Steve holds him close, one hand at the back of his head.
"Why can't you let it go ?" he asks, eyes pleading.
"Because I love you." He kisses him again, slowly. " I love you."
Tony never tells him what exactly he and Clint talked about, when he got back. He makes jokes, and avoids it, but Steve knows something happened. Clint and Tony spend time together, Clint silently reading comic books on the floor of the workshop, his aids turned off. They drink together, and they laugh. They talk in the dark, until Phil or Steve takes them back to bed.
Tony doesn't say a thing, but Steve knows.
He talks about Howard, sometimes. His memories of his time as a kid fresh in his mind, it's easier for him to let it slip.
Steve sometimes wish he could get drunk.
They're almost asleep, Steve resting on his chest, when he says it.
"You were amazing, Steve. Thank you."
It's way too early to talk about kids. Their life too dangerous, too full of monsters and politicians and other perils.
Steve remembers Tony's giggles, and Clint sleeping next to him in the fort. He remembers Natasha sitting with them with a cup of tea, smiling at Clint and Tony's silent conversations. He remembers bathtime, and dinnertime, and oh, playtime too.
Tony still feels embarassed, but warmed up by the happy memories he made. He even drops hints, sometimes.
It's way to early to talk about kids, but Steve promises himself he will. He will.