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Hulk

Hulk is smashing and even puny Bruce inside is happy because he has been angry ever since Tin Man and Birdie were stolen. They are here, the ear thing says in Red’s voice, and she is angry too. But she cannot smash like Hulk can, and now that he knows he will not smash a room on top of them he can smash all the harder. Walls fall, and the roof caves in, showing sky, and there is Goldhair, flying.

“We need Bruce!” Goldhair calls down, swatting the beam Hulk throws at him to one side. “Clint’s injuries are dire!”

*-*

Thor

Never has he wished to be more magician than warrior, not in a thousand years. Like Hulk, he is better at destruction. But Hulk has Bruce-within, and Bruce has mastered the subtle art of healing. Bruce would say that his dual nature is science, not magic, but it is miraculous all the same. As the mighty green giant concedes his place to the fragile man, Thor knows a moment of envy. But only a moment. He sets aside regret and does what he can do, spinning Mjölnir to lift them both back to the quinjet where Clint and Tony await.

*-*

Widow

Occasionally, she hates the Red Room. Actually, she hates it constantly, but there are times when the reasons she’s hating it are... different. Having panic beaten out of her when she wasn’t much older than the small boy huddling on the floor next to the medical cot is new. He is so lost, and frightened, and he clearly knows as well as she does that Clint’s injuries could still be fatal. It’s like looking into a mirror, and finding someone else’s reflection there.

Her hands are steady as she helps Bruce clean Clint’s wounds.

She hates it.

But they are.

*-*

Cap

When they get back, Cap’s going to ask for an instantaneous antidote to cyanide. Because if anyone can come up with one, it’s Tony and Bruce and Jane, and Steve is so fucking tired of watching the people he needs desperately to interrogate take the easy way out. He drops the dead man and looks around. The file drawers are leaking acid onto the floor. The computer is stuck to a big electromagnet on the wall. He flips the switch to off and grabs it anyway.

They’ve got Tony and Clint and the arc reactor. Anything else is just gravy.

****************************************************************************************************************************

Tony

Tony hasn’t believed in magic since he was three. Or grownups, except for Jarvis. (And even Jarvis has to break his promises sometimes.) And he knows that he probably shouldn’t trust Clint, because people don’t grow backwards; the math doesn’t work like that. Besides, Clint says they have a team and Tony knows that Starks don’t play on teams; they stand (or fall) on their own. They might lead, but they don’t follow. And Clint says a friend of his father’s in charge of the team, but Tony’s pretty sure that his father hasn’t got that kind of friends. Clint even talks like he knows superheroes to talk to and who does that? There’s a whole lot of reasons not to trust Clint, but it’s awfully hard to remember not to when Clint is getting hurt because of Tony.

So Tony does his best not to believe that there’s a team, or that anyone will ever come except the bad guys. He doesn’t tell Clint that, because he can see that Clint is going to die pretty soon and Tony isn’t mean enough to tell a guy who’s dying that he’s stupid for believing in people.

And then they come.

*-*

Natasha comes first, and she’s scary. She kills the bad guys without even blinking, splattering brains and blood all over the room, but that’s not as scary as the way she looks when she sees Tony. She’s furious, and it’s all that Tony can do not to run away really fast. But Clint smiles at her, and she makes herself be less mad and Tony begins to understand that she’s angry at the dead guys and not him. Or Clint, who can barely stand up, much less walk, not even with both Natasha and Tony trying to hold him up.

Thor comes next and he looks like a superhero. He even has a cape! And he’s huge! Tony barely comes up to his waist. He picks up Clint like he doesn’t weigh anything and starts for the door, and Tony scurries to keep up. The floor is rough and his feet are bare, and Tony doesn’t think he makes any noise, but Thor stops all the same and crouches, telling Tony to climb up on to his back and hold on tight. And maybe if there was time to think about it Tony wouldn’t, but there isn’t, so he does.

Bruce is third, and he’s naked. There’s a cot and medical equipment on the jet where Thor leaves them, but even Tony can see that Natasha isn’t a doctor, and Clint keeps making soft little sounds of pain until Thor brings Bruce and Bruce, for all that he isn’t wearing any clothes and his hair is full of brickdust, knows just what to do to make Clint relax against the webbing. Clint hasn’t reassured Natasha or Thor, but he reassures Bruce, saying he’s okay even if it isn’t exactly true, and asking if Bruce is okay until Bruce lies too.

Cap comes last. Which is probably a good thing, because by then Tony’s not sure any of this is real, and he’s wished for Captain America to come rescue them so often that it almost makes sense that he’s there. Besides, Clint said that a friend of Tony’s father’s led the team, and his dad knows, knew, Captain America once upon a time. So that fits, even if Captain America is probably dead after all these years. But it looks like him, and everyone listens when he gives orders, so maybe he isn’t dead after all. Tony sure hopes so.

Chapter Text

Bruce

Bruce waits until Clint has seen Cap -- until the injured man stops straining against the safety straps to look for each of them in turn, bruised fingers tapping out a count that can’t be completed until he has confirmed that they’re all safely aboard -- and then slips the narcotics into the IV. Even then Clint struggles to stay awake, his head turning towards Tony. His mouth moves as his eyelids flutter down, and Bruce strains to hear, but Thor kicks on the engines, and Clint’s words are lost to everyone but the shivering child who has never left his side.

*-*

Steve

“Natasha,” Steve says, and that is enough to send her towards the cockpit. They’ve all learned to fly the quinjet, in case of emergencies, but Thor practices less often than Steve, and Tony’s always complaining that the pair of them think that VTOL capability means “make the plane jump into the air and hope it stays there.” Natasha can get them on their way without rattling anyone’s bones.

Which leaves Steve the job of preparing the passengers. He drops a blanket on Bruce’s shoulders, and then kneels next to the boy he hopes is Tony. “We need to strap in.”

*-*

Thor

He relinquishes the controls gladly, content to let Natasha and JARVIS concern themselves with the intricacies of Midgardian aviation whilst he turns his attention to the communications board. The small screen brightens at his touch, and he smiles when he sees his Jane standing next to Pepper, and each of them with a hand on Philip’s shoulders where he sits nearest the camera. “We have them,” he says, for of all the things which need to be said, that is the most important. “Alive.”

He lets them breathe that in before going on. “Alive,” he says again. “But badly misused.”

*-*

Pepper

Pepper doesn’t flinch. She’s expected bad news for days, after all, and “alive” has been all she dared hope for. “How badly?” she asks, bracing for months ahead of patching her husband back together body and soul. It doesn’t matter how hard it will be. She has promises to keep.

Thor makes a gesture that she suspects means something on Asgard, his hand splitting the air before bending back to reveal a palm. “Clinton has been foully tormented. Bruce is with him now, assuring his survival.” He turns the hand over with an air of ritual. “Anthony has been bespelled.”

*-*

Phil

“Bespelled?” Phil asks, pressing unwillingly against the scars that still mar his chest. “Did Loki...”

“Nay,” Thor shakes his head. “Had my brother escaped Heimdall would have bent the heavens to let me know. And his is not the only magic which can turn back time.”

“Turn back time?” Phil feels like an idiot, repeating Thor’s words, and he can’t blame his failure to comprehend on the sleep he hasn’t been getting. “What? Tony’s talking backwards, then?”

The demigod shakes his head. “He is a child, Philip,” he explains. “And I lack the skills to free him from the enchantment.”

*-*

Jane

Jane is glad she has a good hold of Pepper, because it isn’t clear who is holding up who. “Asgardian magic is just physics we haven’t gotten around to,” she points out, lifting her chin defiantly. “I may be able to help.”

That earns her one of Thor’s brilliant smiles. She’s not sure she deserves it. But wormholes are all about spacetime, and maybe the things she’s learned about the rainbow bridge will somehow transfer over. “How little is he?” she asks, hoping that the answer won’t be that Tony’s a baby. Physics she can understand. Babies, not so much.

*-*

Natasha

Launching the quinjet requires far less attention than Natasha would have required to miss Jane’s question. She flips her comm-unit to Thor’s channel. “Older than five, younger than eight,” she reports. “He hasn’t had a chance to tell us much yet.” And it’s harder to estimate the age of a child who hasn’t been properly fed; all the baby roundness falls away, and their eyes grow older than they are. “He’s going to be at risk for kidnapping if word gets out,” she realizes.

“As if he weren’t already.” Pepper’s voice cracks, just a little. “We’ll need to tell Fury.”

***********

Tony

Every other plane that Tony’s been in has had big cushioned seats, but this one is like a plane from one of his father’s war movies,where everyone sits on a long cloth bench and leans against a net made out of cloth straps. It makes it easy for him to scoot down as close to Clint as possible before Captain America adds another strap for a seat belt. If he wants to, Tony can reach out and touch Clint’s head. He doesn’t. He’s not sure if he’s allowed. So he’s surprised when Captain America sits down right next to him, straps in, and then reaches past Tony to carefully smooth a hand over Clint’s hair. “How’s he doing, Bruce?” the Captain asks, and now Tony knows the naked guy’s name.

Bruce doesn’t look happy. “He’s got an infection. Possibly more than one. I’ve started an antibiotic, and I’ll need you to help me with the betadine wash once we’re at cruising altitude. And I think he may have a broken rib or two.”

“He does,” Tony says, before he can help himself. And having opened his mouth, he might as well keep talking. “They kicked him. Really hard. And burned him too. And drowned him. And... and...” He closes his mouth and bites down on the rest of it, because talking is definitely a mistake if he doesn’t want to start crying.

“They made you watch?” Captain America exclaims, startling Tony into looking the super soldier straight in the eye. He looks exactly like the pictures in Howard’s office, only paler, like he hasn’t aged at all since the war, and Tony wonders if he got turned young too. “Aw, Tony,” Cap says, and puts warm hands on Tony’s shoulders. “I’m sorry. We came as fast as we could.”

Chapter Text

Phil

Years of training and experience, some of it stranger than anything that had ever been in the comics he’d read as a kid, and yet Phil is sure he’s never had this kind of gut ache before. He’d like to put it down to sixteen days worth of bad coffee, though the coffee at the Tower is too good for that. But sixteen days of worrying. Yes.

“Director, this absolutely has to be need to know only,” Phil insists, despite Fury’s frown. “Until we know how Iron Man and Hawkeye were grabbed, we can’t be certain there wasn’t a leak.”

Pepper

She leans over Phil’s shoulder, to make sure Fury listens. “That means Tony can’t be Tony. He has to be a kid who got rescued alongside Clint.”

“My people...” Fury begins, and she cuts him off.

“When the Avengers left this tower sixteen days ago, the only people who knew where they were going were your people. And yet somehow, they walked into an ambush.”

“We can hardly pretend that Iron Man is still out there needing to be rescued.” Fury thinks he’s being reasonable. He isn’t.

“Miss Potts?” JARVIS intervenes. “May I make a suggestion?”

Fury

He’s waiting by the flightline when the quinjet appears out of the cloudbank, paced by Thor and a familiar figure of red and gold. That’s his cue. He moves out so quickly the engines are still whining as he reaches the ramp, loud enough to obscure words even from the guys who are placing the chocks. But the pantomime he holds with the demigod and the hovering Suit is painfully visible. A jerk of his thumb toward New York and an insolent nod from JARVIS will convince anyone watching and Thor’s cheerful farewell will do the rest, with any luck.

 

Thor

He shepherds the empty suit, watching for threats. The weapons it carries are disabled without Anthony inside it, and there is a risk of attack, if not by the men who have bespelled him, then by others. Man or Child, he has enemies, who must not know of his new vulnerability.

It’s been worth the delay to give JARVIS time to fly out and meet the quinjet, to make a showy return pass through the skyscrapers of New York in hopes of silencing the rumors about Anthony’s whereabouts which have been bubbling up. Thor only hopes the trick will work.

Tony

Bruce has this thing that is like a candy bar they forgot to pour chocolate over and he shares some of it with Tony, and it isn’t bad, just kind of like eating dry oatmeal with nuts and stuff, so Tony’s glad when Cap brings out some bottles of water. He’s still hungry, but he can see that Bruce really needs to eat his share because he’s shaking almost as much as Tony is. Once they’re at cruising altitude he unbuckles and goes to get some clothes on, and there’s like, a whole locker full of sweatshirts and sweatpants for him to put on, which is kind of strange. Bruce pulls out a smaller sweatshirt too, and then taps at a thing in his ear and asks “Natasha” if it’s okay for Tony to wear it. The answer must be yes, because then he helps Tony put it on, and it’s too big, but it isn’t so big that any of the guys Tony’s seen could wear it, and it has a little embroidered picture of a black widow spider on the front. So Natasha is the lady, and she’s Black Widow too, the one that Clint said was his favorite superhero. And she called the big blond guy Thor when she was asking for for help carrying Clint. So Bruce is probably a super hero too, and that means Clint is, doesn’t it? And maybe Tony? If they’re all on a team? Except that Clint is just a guy. He has muscles, but they’re like, guy muscles, not super soldier muscles. And he sure doesn’t heal up fast the way Tony’s dad said Cap could. And it’s all too much to think about when Tony’s not sure whether Clint is going to be okay. He unbuckles himself and scoots down so that he can put his hand on top of Clint’s, and even though Clint’s eyes are closed his fingers curl up around Tony’s like he knows Tony’s there. Bruce and Cap don’t object. They even let Tony help a little, painting orange stuff onto the least scary of Clint’s scrapes and cuts and that’s better than thinking.

By the time they land the plane (only it isn’t on land, it’s on an aircraft carrier that’s flying) Tony is sure of only two things. One. That this really is the future. And two. He’s staying with Clint. He can tell that Bruce and Steve want him to let the real doctors take care of Clint without Tony there, but that’s not important. The important thing is that he stays with Clint. Not even the promise of macaroni and cheese is going to get him to let go of Clint’s hand, now that he’s got it, and the big black dude with the eyepatch who comes on board and tells him he can’t use his own name hasn’t got a hope of making him do it either. “You can bring food to me,” Tony points out reasonably. “Plates are portable.”

Chapter Text

Tony

If it weren’t for Natasha, Tony thinks that he might be picked up by one of the men and carried away from Clint ‘for his own good’. Grownups always think they know better than kids what kids need. But before Eyepatch Guy has a chance to tell Cap or Bruce to do it, Natasha appears by Tony’s shoulder and says, “I’ll stay with them,” and the way she says it makes everyone shut up before they start.

She looks down and asks, “Do you want to be Edward?” and he thinks about it, because it’s his middle name and he’d probably remember to answer to it, but if they’re trying to keep him a secret then that’s not a very good way to do it.

“Jonny,” he says, instead, because at least the last sound is right so he might hear it like it’s his own name, and because the plane they just flew on is a VTOL like the ones in the old Jonny Quest cartoons and he’s not brown enough to be Hadji or cool enough to be Race Bannon or grown up enough to be Dr. Quest, but if he pretends this is a cartoon adventure then maybe it won’t be completely awful. “I can be Jonny.”

“And if someone asks who his parents are?” Bruce wonders aloud.

“Then I already told you,” Tony says, sticking out his chin stubbornly. “And you sent Thor to look for them ‘cause I won’t leave Clint.”

Eyepatch Guy makes a noise that isn’t exactly a laugh. He crouches down to Tony’s eye level. “Think of me with hair and two eyes,” he orders. “Ring a bell?”

Tony looks, really looks, “You had a yellow shirt,” he says, slowly. “And a green coat. And you broke that guy’s camera in Milan.”

Fury

Tony had just turned five on that trip through Europe, dragged along in his parents’ wake for the sake of visiting Maria’s Italian relations. Nick had been the head of the protection detail, usually attached to Howard’s party (in every sense of the word party). But in Milan one of his men had ended up in the hospital with appendicitis and Nick had taken a turn escorting Maria and the boy. Much to the regret of one of the local paparazzi. The incident hadn’t made the papers. Or Nick’s report. “You’re a Stark all right,” Nick concedes. “Smart and stubborn.”

Steve

Steve can feel his eyebrows trying to escape over his hairline. “You knew Tony when he was a kid?” he says, and wants to call back the words the moment they’re out of his mouth.

Fury pushes back upright, the leather of his coat creaking. “Only for a short time. Nothing he remembered when we met again.” The Director gestures at the defiant child. “Not so long ago for him now, it seems. As if you needed any confirmation that you’ve really rescued Stark and not a clone or some kind of plant.”

Tony stamps his foot. “I’m right here!”

Bruce

“We know, Tony,” Bruce says, wishing that he had more to offer the boy than a tired smile. “It’s just that we’re still trying to figure out what to do. When you and Clint disappeared, there were very few people who could have betrayed you, and some of them might be here so it isn’t safe to explain. And because Clint is hurt, we haven’t got time to explain either. So we’re depending on you to be patient, and quiet, and pretend you’re an ordinary kid who’s too scared to be discreet, even if we know you can do it.”

Natasha

She nods a thanks to Bruce, because it’s clear when Tony straightens his shoulders that addressing him as an adult is key to gaining his cooperation. (It was for her, too, when she was small, and the trainers knew it.) She taps his shoulder. “Can you cry? Real tears, not just hiding your face if someone is making you uncomfortable.”

He shakes his head fiercely. “Stark men don’t cry.”

“Which is why it would be a good pretense,” she points out, and Tony scrunches up his face thoughtfully, but he doesn’t have time to answer before the medical crew arrives.

Chapter Text

Steve

It’s a good thing that the medical team brought a wheelchair as well as a stretcher, because Steve doesn’t want to know what trying to cross the hot deck would do to Tony’s bare feet. It’s still awkward, though, because the people pushing the stretcher are clearly trying to outpace Nat pushing the wheelchair enough that the boy will have to let go of Clint’s hand. Steve can guess their reasoning, and even sympathizes, but that’s not what matters. He catches the lead medic’s sleeve and makes her slow down.

“We promised him that they would stay together.”

*-*

Natasha

She wonders for a moment, when they get into medical and she discovers that tears are streaming down Tony’s face, if she has over-estimated the child’s strength. But no, his chin is still high, and his expression determined. They’re in the way, though, and she is about to tell him so, ready to promise that they will stay in the room, when Tony anticipates her, and lets go of Clint’s hand, patting it as if the man will be reassured. “I can stand in the corner,” he offers.

Natasha nods. “Yes. But the view is better from the other bed.”

*-*

Bruce

Normally, not that anything to do with the Hulk could be called normal, Bruce would be trying to decide between eating his own weight in food or finding a blanket and a pillow to sleep off the lingering aches of his transformation. But he can’t leave medical while the doctors are still trying to find excuses to hide Clint from Tony’s view. “There will be catheters, and needles,” one of them protests.

Bruce takes a deep breath in through his nose. “Do you honestly think that anything you’re going to need to do is worse than what he’s already seen?”

 

*-*

Tony

The sickbay of the ship is fancier than any emergency room Tony has ever seen on television, with all kinds of machines and monitors and electronics that he is pretty sure he would want to take apart and look at properly if he weren’t so worried about Clint. Because Clint looks awful. All his bruises and cuts and burns show up like Magic Marker on a white sheet under the fluorescent lights, and his face is slack in ways that it never was in the prison, not even when he was asleep. Tony’s pretty sure that’s just the drug Bruce gave him when they were flying, but it didn’t look so much like he was dead when they were still on the plane.

And Tony really ought to be glad that Clint’s unconscious because the doctors and nurses aren’t worried about being gentle. They’re too busy throwing his dirty boxers away and putting tubes in his arms and bringing over an x-ray machine so they can see his broken ribs. (They make Tony hide behind a heavy apron thing while they do the x-ray, because he won’t leave.) And they keep talking about all the things that they are finding that are broken or damaged and it’s so many things that Tony starts to wonder why Clint isn’t dead yet, because he’s bruised on the inside as well as the outside, and that’s bad. But it’s not the worst part, because then they turn Clint over and start to take the infected and dead skin off the the burns on his back, and Tony’s pretty sure that probably hurts as bad as getting the burns did in the first place.

Tony wants to ask why. He wants to ask all sorts of questions, and he wants to understand what’s happening so that he can tell them when they should just stop, and he can’t (...because it’s his fault...)

He can’t because he’s supposed to be a scared kid named Jonny and not Tony Stark. And that means crying, which is easier than he thought it would be for the letting tears fall part of it and harder for making noise by sobbing and stuff because there’s a big knot in his throat. He can’t even ask Natasha if he’s doing it right because of the knot, so he just sits, and watches, and lets the tears drip off his chin.

*-*

Phil

“He won’t sleep?” Phil asks when Bruce calls to report. “It’s after midnight; isn’t he exhausted?”

“He is.” Bruce is too, clearly. “But he says he won’t go to sleep until Clint wakes up.”

“How long will that be?”

“We could remove the sedation and wake him up in about twenty minutes. But we shouldn’t. The longer that he’s not straining some of his injuries, the more likely they are to heal properly.”

“So Clint needs to stay in medical.”

“Not really. At this point there’s nothing that they’re doing here that I couldn’t do at home.”

“So come home.”

Chapter Text

Fury

There are nights when Nick Fury gets to sleep, and nights when he doesn’t even bother to try. He pulls on his shoes as soon as word comes down that Rogers is doing pre-flight checks on the Avengers quinjet and heads down to Medical, arriving just in time to intervene before his very indignant CMO is about to find herself bundled into a storage cabinet.

“Stand down,” he growls, as much for the Black Widow’s sake as his officer’s, and he’s pleased when both women nod acknowledgment.

****

Natasha

“Clint hates medical. He’ll rest better at home.” Natasha’s been on the sidelines while Clint wheedles his way out of sickbay so often she knows the excuses by heart. “We’ve got everything we need there, and you know Bruce can monitor him for any complications.” She waves a hand at Bruce, standing nearby, and Fury nods, although the CMO is scowling. In theory, she can override even the director if she thinks it’s medically necessary for her patient. But Natasha hasn’t got any intention of losing this argument. “He’ll also panic if he wakes up and doesn’t see the kid.”

******

Bruce

Bruce doesn’t wait to find out what excuses Fury gives the doctors. He just pushes the bed with Clint and Tony on it toward the flight deck and hopes Natasha won’t be too far behind. He’s worried about Tony. The boy is shaking harder now than he was when he was rescued, and the sleeves of the sweatshirt he is wearing are soggy with the tears that still roll down his pale cheeks. “It’s okay now,” Bruce says, when they reach the Quinjet. ‘No one can see us in here. You can stop crying.”

“I’m not sure I know how.”

****
Steve

He means to help Bruce get Clint set for the trip, but when he hears Tony’s soft confession, Steve diverts to fetch a wet wipe from the tiny commode. It smells like lemons, and it isn’t cold, like the washcloths his mother used to help him break free of the panic he’d felt whenever he couldn’t breathe, but it’ll do. Steve settles Tony into his lap and begins to wash his face. “Slow, deep breaths,” he tells the boy, demonstrating what he means. “Count four in through your nose, then four out through your mouth. It’s okay. Everyone cries sometime.”

******
Tony

Tony can’t believe that Captain America is saying it’s okay to cry. And showing him how to stop, too, which is even stranger, because how does Cap know if he hasn’t ever had to stop crying? The stories Tony’s Dad tells sometimes make it sound like Cap is too perfect for crying like a little baby, no matter how scary things are. But the breathing thing works, and after a minute or so Tony remembers that before the Serum Cap wasn’t very big and got beat up a lot. And he wants to ask, but he doesn’t dare. Not yet.

*
It’s a relief when Natasha comes aboard. Her face is hard to read, but at least she’s not dressed like a superhero from one of Tony’s comic books, even if Clint is right about her being one. “Are you flying or am I?” she asks Cap.

“Did you sleep?” Cap asks her, and then answers before she can. “I didn’t think so. But I got my head down for an hour, so I’m flying.” He stands up and sets Tony back down onto the webbing seat. “Strap in,” he says. “I don’t want you bouncing around if we hit turbulence.”

*
Tony fumbles with the buckles with hands that don’t want to stop shaking and after a couple of seconds Natasha takes pity on him and helps. Bruce is still checking the latches that lock Clint’s hospital bed against the deck, and Tony’s not sure he wants to know why someone thought it was a good idea to design the bed to fit the plane or the plane to fit the bed. Clint is still unconscious. Tony wishes he’d wake up, because he knows he can ask Clint stuff. The others have been nice, but he doesn’t want to bother them.

*

It isn’t a very long flight, but Tony’s glad of the safety straps, because Cap takes a shortcut through a thunderstorm. Bruce isn’t really happy about that, but they’re going so fast that by the time he’s switched on the intercom to say something about it, they’re already into clear air. His eyes go green, though, which is weird and scary, and even Natasha isn’t happy about it, because she shifts her weight so that’s she more between Bruce and Tony than she was before. But then Clint starts to shout in his sleep and everyone forgets about the storm.

*
Clint’s yelling for Tony, and he sounds scared, the way he only ever sounded when the kidnappers were hitting him with a switch, which was only because he was half dead by that point. He’s fighting the straps that are keeping him on the bed, and he doesn’t seem to even hear Bruce talking to him, so Tony undoes his buckles and goes over to catch hold of his hand. “I’m right here,” Tony says, a bunch of times, until Bruce finally gets some more medicine into the IV and Clint goes all limp again. But Tony doesn’t let go.

*

Natasha doesn’t make Tony sit down as they come in to land. Instead she braces herself alongside him as the plane twists in the air and suddenly comes to a stop. The engines’ roar turns into a whine that hurts Tony’s ears before it fades sharply into a grumble. The click and rattle of the bay door opening makes Tony want to hide, but he doesn’t, even if it’s going to take all the courage he’s got to look up to see what is waiting outside the jet. And who. He’s pretty sure it won’t be his Mom and Dad.

 

****

Chapter Text

Pepper

She doesn’t want to be here and yet she stays, because not wanting to see that Tony is safe isn’t an actual choice in any life she can imagine. Clint too. She’s come to depend on the archer for providing the precise observation which will defuse the tension when Fury’s asking for the impossible, or Steve and Tony are being particularly bullheaded. But it’s as hard as anything she’s ever done to stand here, waiting for the protective doors between the quinjet hangar and the rest of the tower to slide open.

“They’re alive,” she reminds herself. “Isn’t that enough?”

 

*
Thor

Were it not for the safety doors which separate the quinjet hangar from their home, Thor knows his impatience would have had him striding out to meet his comrades before Steven secures the engines and opens the door. He’s only managed to stay at the Tower because the ruse they enacted at the helicarrier requires it. And because Jane is comforted by his presence, which is no small consideration.

Never has he missed his brother so! Magic was never a weapon he had needed when Loki was at his side. But he knows a little. Perhaps it will be enough.

*
Jane

She’s tried to nap since Thor came home, knowing that when she actually sees what’s been done to Tony she’ll be up the rest of the night working on the problem. Bruce will help, but Bruce is a physicist -- all his training resists the idea of a science so outré it can bend back time. She’s an astronomer, accustomed to peering at the past, and even she is uncertain whether this is a problem that can be solved. Thor thinks it can, though, and since they can’t take the problem to Asgard that’s going to have to be enough.

*

Phil

In many ways, Phil knows, he is probably the calmest, the best-rested, and the most objective person in the tower. And that includes Steve, now that the quinjet has landed. He has the training, the experience, and the discipline. Ever since Tony and Clint were taken he has eaten the prescribed amount of food required to sustain a man of his age and condition, exercised sufficiently often to sooth away any urge to pace or fret, and conscientiously sought out his bed on a regular basis.

And yet he knows, when he finally sees them both, it hasn’t been enough.

*

Tony

It’s awkward hanging on to Clint’s hand as Bruce and Natasha push the gurney out of the plane, and Tony can’t stop himself from looking up to make sure he won’t bump into anything. And that’s when he sees the city. It’s all lit up, building after building, and some of them he knows, because he’s been to New York, but some of them are new, which he probably should have expected. It’s another piece of confirmation that Clint’s been telling the truth all along, which shouldn’t be reassuring (because if Tony trusts anyone here it’s Clint) but it is.

The entire landing pad is enclosed in glass, two thirds of it looking out into the rainswept night in a deep curve that is only just sealing itself up against the wind. Most of the rest looks into darkened workshops, tools and workbenches limned only by red emergency lights. But at the end of the ellipse there’s one well-lit room that holds elevators and couches for waiting. Those glass doors open, spilling out Thor and three people Tony doesn’t know. He freezes, losing his grasp on Clint as the adults surge into a reunion he can’t be a part of.

The new people don’t look like superheroes. One is a man, two are ladies, and only the tall lady with red hair is dressed like she’s the sort of person Tony is supposed to be polite to. The man has thinning hair, a rumpled suit, and an ordinary tie; and the shorter lady is wearing jeans and boots and the kind of shirt you can only wear when you aren’t going to go outside in it. He hears their names, Phil, and Pepper, and Jane, but all of a sudden it’s gotten harder to sort things out in his head.

“Tony?” They’re all looking at him and frowning, and he doesn’t know why, because he hasn’t done anything wrong, at least he doesn’t think he has, and he really wants to run away, even though he knows there isn’t anyplace to run to, and besides that would mean he had to leave Clint by himself, well not by himself because there’s all these people, except sort of because he wouldn’t have Tony, and that’s a stupid thing to think because Clint knows these people, he was really happy to see them. But that doesn’t mean Tony knows them. Not yet.

“Tony?” Cap says again, and Tony must have blinked because he didn’t see Cap come to kneel in front of him. He nods, and makes himself look Cap in the eye, even if he can’t make a word come out. Cap smiles anyway, and offers Tony a hand. “We’re going to get Clint down to his own bed, so he can rest, but Bruce is going to keep him asleep for a while longer so he doesn’t move around and hurt himself. I know you’re pretty tired; can you trust us to take care of him for a little while?”

“You promised I could stay with him!” Tony protests, and he can hear his voice wobbling but he swallows back the urge to cry and straightens his shoulders instead. “You promised.”

“And you will,” Cap says, not even glancing at the way Tony’s hands have shaped into fists. “But we want to take care of you too. And you need some food, some sleep, and a bath. We can bring you food, and you can sleep in Clint’s room once you’re clean. But we can’t fit his bed into the bathroom.”

A bath? Tony considers the temptation. “A shower’s enough.”

Chapter Text

Natasha

The Tower smells right, in a way that the Helicarrier used to and doesn’t anymore.  Natasha isn’t sure if it’s because of the orchids which Pepper loves, or the coffee that Tony imports from the far corners of the world, although it may be the faint impression of ozone and lubricants that linger behind the bots which patrol the vents, and clean the floors, and let JARVIS minimize how often the cleaning crews need to invade the Avengers’ private world.  She takes a deep breath, hoping to lose herself in the rightness of it.  But her fists still won’t uncurl.


*-*

Jane

It’s been a long time since Jane got her pocket money by babysitting, so her skills are more than a little rusty, but she’s still pretty sure that she’s got more recent experience coping with overtired kids who don’t want to go to sleep than anyone else in the Tower.  And she’s not above using distractions.  “Do you want me to bring you jello or ice cream?” she asks Tony.  “I don’t think Clint anything but beer in the refrigerator on his floor.”  It’s a terrible calumny; after all Clint is a better cook than she is, but it works.

*-*

Phil

“Ice cream,” Tony tells Jane, and then bursts out with, “Clint has a whole floor?  How important is he?”  He looks from one to the other of them, a line of worry between his eyebrows, but Phil is the one he settles on.  Maybe it’s the suit.

“All of the Avengers have their own floors,” Phil explains.  “We share this one for a lot of things, but it’s nice to have a space that’s your own.”  He smiles his best reassuring smile.  “Come on, we’ll give you the nickel tour on the way down.  You can take your shower there.”


*-*

Pepper

Toiletries are easy.  There are always extras in the cabinets of the tower bathrooms  (his and hers, in the penthouse, because Tony takes forever to shape his beard, and she likes to floss without a running commentary from the peanut gallery).  But until she actually saw the small boy in the oversized SHIELD-issue hospital scrubs Pepper hadn’t given a thought to pajamas.  Luckily, there’s an Avengers themed gift shop down in the lobby, and JARVIS has the door codes.  (And it gives her a chance to run away and have a panic attack in the privacy of the elevator.  Bonus.)


*-*

Thor

Were this Asgard, Thor knows, there would be tomes to be consulted, and healers with skills unimagined on Midgard.  But the rainbow bridge is still in tatters, and neither Clint nor Tony is imperilled to the point where Thor would risk them by any other means of travel.  He cannot even go himself, lest his father ban him from returning, or a crisis arise beyond the strength of the remaining members of the team.   

What he can do is kneel once more and offer his back to the small, weary boy. Which, after a silent moment of hesitation, Tony accepts.


*-*

Steve

Tony’s half-asleep on Thor’s shoulders by the time they reach Clint’s floor, but he revives and insists on being put down once they arrive so that Thor and Steve can help Bruce get Clint settled into bed.  Steve can almost see the gears turning in the boy’s head as he prowls, exploring, and surreptitiously testing the boundaries.  Like he has to make sure he isn’t boxed in. Has to look for himself, and touch, just to make sure he really is in the future and not caught up in a nightmare.  Steve’s felt like that too. Sometimes he still does.

*-*

Bruce

Arranging the medical appurtenances that need to be in place by Clint’s bed is sufficiently absorbing that Bruce feels safe in leaving Tony to be dealt with by others.  Well, justified, at least.  All right, guilty.  But he’s too tired to keep a rein on his temper much longer, and every time the boy flinches it makes him want to go smash something, green or not.  He can hold it together for Clint though, because the archer needs brains not brawn, and Bruce has plenty of practice at concentrating on the medical side of his head when it’s really needed.

*-*

Tony

Tony pokes around Clint’s floor a little when he gets the chance, hoping to find a phone or something, but he doesn’t see one.  Any wires are hidden in the walls, but Tony thinks that the huge blank frame opposite Clint’s bed must be a screen for a computer or television, operated by something as hidden as the wires. There’s a lot of purple, and that’s reassuring, because Tony remembers Clint saying that dark purple was his favorite color.  And most of the doors are unlocked, so that’s good; and the two that are locked are set in the same wall as the coat closet, so they’re probably storage too, and probably for something that the maids shouldn’t mess with.  The bathroom is bigger than his parent’s bathroom at the New York mansion, but not as big as the one in L.A., and it leads to a dressing room that has room for a lot more clothes than are there.  There’s a kitchen that’s open to a room with couches and another big blank frame, along with a framed poster that looks like it came from a circus of a guy with a funny purple cowl and a bow and arrow.

“The Amazing Hawkeye,”  Tony reads.

“That’s Clint,” Natasha says, and Tony startles, because he hadn’t heard her come up behind him.  “Sorry,” she says.  “I came to tell you that the ice cream is here.”

Ice cream sounds good, and Tony really wants to sit down, because his feet hurt, but he has to ask.  “He said we were on a team.  But if he’s in the circus...”

“He used to be.  When he was younger.  Now he’s an Avenger.”  Her smile is tight and tired, and there are shadows under her eyes. “Like you.  And me.”  

Tony bites his lip, but she doesn’t seem to be lying. “What do Avengers do?” he asks.

“Sometimes we save the world,” Natasha answers, and he isn’t sure she knows how exhausted she sounds.  “And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we save each other.”

Chapter Text

Jane

There’s a train-wreck fascination in watching Bruce’s careful handling of the archer’s injuries, and even chocolate ice cream is only a halfway decent distraction, if the way that small Tony puts his back to the wall and curls his arm around the bowl means anything. He keeps his head up, watching warily, and only glances down now and then to aim his spoon. But they never intended to hide what they need to do for Clint from him, no matter how much Jane wishes that they could. Truth to tell, none of them seem to be able to look away.

*-*

Pepper

Pepper is not coping. She can’t even look at the kid without wanting to start wailing about how unfair it is, and that won’t help. She bites her lip and makes herself busy pulling out extra pillows and blankets for little-boy Tony’s side of the bed, glad that grown-up Tony has extravagant notions about what constitutes a reasonably-sized mattress because it means that she doesn’t have to figure out how to get another bed into the room. Because she can’t think past five minutes into the future. And she has to, somehow. She has to plan because that’s her job.

*-*

Bruce

Once he’s got everything in place, Bruce sits back and taps his Stablet to check on the progress of the nanites which are constructing a scaffold around the bone damage in Clint’s chest. He’d ask JARVIS for a verbal update, except that the AI is being exceptionally discreet. Bruce suspects JARVIS is as freaked out as any of them. He’s sending messages to tablets and comms instead of commenting where their small visitor can hear. Not that it matters. Bruce needs the visual anyway. It tells him what he needs to know. Now he just has to tell the others.

*-*

Phil

When Bruce takes off his glasses, Phil takes it as his cue. He clears his throat and steps closer, dropping a hand to Bruce’s shoulder. “I’ll set up a roster to keep an eye on Clint,” he says, “and since we’re all tired, I’ll need a volunteer for the first shift. Not you, Bruce,” he adds, when he feels the physicist’s muscles tense. “Tonight, just give us a briefing on what we need to watch for and do. We’re going to want you in the lab tomorrow, working on our other problem. But first, you need to get some sleep.”

*-*

Thor

“I shall take the first vigil,” Thor says, decisively. “It is an honor which will fall to each of us, in turn, and I mean no slight to any of you, but our search has been long, and weary, and I have less need of sleep than any Midgardian, except, perhaps, our Captain.”

“Pretty sure you need less than me, too,” Steve says, without rancour. “Although I think I’ll stick around till you’ve got Tony settled. That way we won’t have to wake anyone up if it turns out we forgot something.”

“A most excellent consideration,” Thor agrees. “Very well.”

*-*

Natasha

She wants to volunteer to stay as well, but Phil intercepts the impulse with a hand-signal and lowered brows. It takes an effort not to signal him back with a gesture that will be more universally understood. She wants to be doing something. Anything. Now.

And there’s nothing to be done. The medics on the helicarrier got samples from the boy, so any chemicals that might still be in his system can be traced. Clint’s been given as much medical attention as his body can tolerate. The people who took them are dead.

It’s time to rest. If she can.

*-*

Steve

Tony sidles up alongside the bed as Bruce explains how to replace Clint’s IV and catheter bag when the necessity arises, and it’s all Steve can do not to shoo him away. It’s not like the poor kid hasn’t seen a lot worse things done to Clint, and survived it just fine. Steve shoos the team off to get some sleep instead, asking Phil to make sure Bruce gets as far as his own floor, and asking Jane and Tasha to keep Pepper company. He doesn’t expect the goodnight hugs he gets as they go, but he sure doesn’t mind.

*-*

Tony

While the grownups are hugging, Tony takes his chance to touch Clint’s hand, just to make sure it’s warm. It is, and something in Tony’s middle unwinds a little. By the time it’s just him and Clint and Captain America and Thor he’s almost ready to try to sleep. He just has to get clean first.

Luckily, neither Cap nor Thor care if he leaves the door open between the bedroom and the bathroom. In fact, they come along, with Cap pulling out towels and and a toothbrush and comb and stuff and demonstrating the techno shower controls, and Thor propping himself in the doorway where he can see Clint and Tony both. It ought to feel weird having them there, because technically they’re strangers, but it isn’t. And anyway, Tony doesn’t really want to be alone.

But when Tony’s loose tooth decides to let go and fall into the sink, things do get weird. Cap reaches down and grabs it before it can wash into the drain. “Got it. Guess the tooth fairy’ll visit tonight.”

Tony spits out a gob of bloody toothpaste so he can ask, “Tooth fairy?” but his voice gets drowned out by Thor, asking the same thing.

Captain America grins at the giant. “When we lose our baby teeth we put them under our pillows for the tooth fairy,” he explains. “And in the morning, there’s a nickel to take their place.”

“Ah,” Thor says, with a nod. “A fair exchange. On Asgard we throw our teeth onto the rooftops, for the ravens to find. Easy enough for cottagers, but harder if you live in a palace. And in the morning there are klinkekuler on the windowsill, in token of the bargain.”

“Ravens?” Tony asks. Because at least birds aren’t imaginary. “Klinke...whatever it was you said? I don’t get it. Why do you give your teeth to birds?”

“We trade our teeth for the klinkekuler, Anthony,.” Thor explains. “A tooth is blood and bone, after all. But once traded away they are no longer ours, and may not be used in harmful magics against us.”

“Magic’s impossible,” Tony says certainly. And then wrinkles his nose. “Isn’t it?” After all, he’s here, and that shouldn’t be possible either. But he does know some things. “And putting your tooth under your pillow for the tooth fairy is a baby thing to do.”

Cap pulls a face. “I don’t see how,” he says. “Babies don’t lose their teeth.”

The giggle catches Tony by surprise, and he ducks his head to hide his smile, but Thor and Cap laugh too, so he dares to look up again. “I never thought of it like that.”

Cap hunkers down so that he’s the same height as Tony and holds out the tooth. He’s still smiling, even if his eyes are serious. “We might not have the same reasons as they do on Asgard, but every place I’ve ever been on earth, we have traditions about lost teeth. It’s a rite of passage. A way to recognize that you’re growing up.”

“I guess,” Tony says, because he’s tired enough to want these new grownups to be happy with him, and it isn’t like they’re telling him he has to be gullible about it. He wishes Clint were awake so he could ask him whether magic is real. “I guess it can’t hurt to pretend there’s a tooth fairy. Even if I don’t get a silver sixpence.” That’s what Jarvis says a tooth is worth, not that Tony’s Dad has ever let him try putting one under his pillow. He takes the tooth. It’s small, and some of the edges are sharp when he closes his hand around it.

“Pretending’s important,” Captain America agrees. “Exercises the brain.” He stands up again and glances out past Thor into the bedroom, checking on something that Tony’s not at the right angle to see. “But now it’s time for you to get some sleep.”

Chapter Text

Thor

He is not surprised when, long before morning, Natasha comes once more to Clinton’s floor. She is closer to Clinton than the rest of them, even Phillip, and has taken the long days of searching harder, no matter how much she might deny it. Steven attempts to send her off to rest, but in vain, for Natasha when her mind is set upon something, is as implacable as stone. In the end it is Steven who goes, indicating that he will return shortly. Thor draws a chair forward, and offers it to Natasha. After a moment, she sighs, and sits.

*_*

Natasha

When Tony stirs restlessly, Thor goes over to rest a huge hand on the small head and sing something in a language that isn’t quite Icelandic. The tune, too, just misses being familiar, rising where she expects it to fall, and staccato where she expects it to run smooth. Whatever it is, it settles the child again.

“Magic?” Natasha asks, when he is finished, and Thor smiles as he lofts the blanket to fall in clothen hills over Tony and Clint.

“Perhaps. My mother sang it to me and my brother when we were ill, to keep our dreams sweet.”

*-*

Steve

It takes longer than it should for Steve to find what he’s looking for. He’s only glanced at the box of “effects” which were pulled out of the ice with him before. Turns out that the techs at SHIELD spent some time on conserving the papers and photographs that were submerged and frozen with him, and he doesn’t get far before he finds a picture of Howard Stark in amongst the Commandos. The millionaire is smirking, his hat at a jaunty angle, toasting the camera with a glass, and Steve can still hear every voice crying. “Here’s to the future!”

*-*

Pepper

She gives up after the third nightmare. The bed is too empty, and it’s been so long since Tony disappeared that the pillows don’t smell like his shampoo anymore. She misses the light of the arc reactor. She misses the warmth of another body beside her. She even misses the snoring.

She goes down to the common floor, to the kitchen, where sooner or later everyone turns up in search of coffee, and finds Steve, his shirt splattered with flour.

“Doughnuts?” she asks, and at Steve’s nod pulls on an apron so she can help.

Tony has always loved doughnuts.

*-*

Jane

The sky still has bands of pink and orange when Jane wanders up to the main kitchen, where the coffeemaker is burbling reassuringly. There are fresh doughnuts in a bowl on the counter, and a note from Steve, who has gone back down to Clint’s floor. But Pepper is curled over the table with her head pillowed on her arms, clearly exhausted. It makes Jane’s bones ache with sympathy, just to look at her, because she know sleeping like that’s a recipe for waking up with a crick in your neck. But she doesn’t wake her. Pepper needs the sleep.

*-*

Tony

At first, he doesn’t understand. The floor is too soft; the room too warm. The fear is too distant, making him reluctant to wake up and lose the dream. He can smell Clint, but there are other smells too, smells that make him think of bandaids mingled in with a hint of abandoned coffee cups and leftover bread. His mouth starts to water at the thought of bread, but he makes himself hold still and listen. The sounds are muffled, though, and when he has to swallow some spit his tongue pushes up against an empty place amongst his teeth.

He sits bolt upright, gasping for air he might need, his heart like a living thing trapped inside his ribs. He remembers doing this before, but it was dark then, and now there is light, enough to see that Thor and Cap have been joined by three more of the grownups who have rescued him and Clint. It’s kind of creepy, the way they’re staring back at him, except for the dark rings under their eyes. He’s almost got his breath back to say so when one of them... Phil, he thinks... loses the startled expression and smiles. “Good morning.”

“Is it?” Tony manages, but it’s hard not to smile back, just a little.

“Pretty good,” Phil says, pushing up to his feet. “We’ve got you two back.” He goes to a curtain that Tony hadn’t really noticed last night and pulls it open, revealing a view that is mostly sky. “Might rain later, but for now it’s sunny. Want to take a look?”

Tony checks on Clint first, making sure the man’s chest is moving, before he pushes aside the blanket and squirms over to the side of the bed. He’s missed being able to look out of windows.

The Chrysler Building isn’t too far away, and a couple of the other buildings Tony recognizes, too. But there are a lot of new buildings he doesn’t recognize. He puts a hand on the glass before he remembers that he’s not supposed to get fingerprints on the window. But nobody says anything, so he gets his nose right up against it and tries to look down. There’s too much building in the way to look straight down, but he can see cars and people on the streets to either side. “So this really is New York,” he whispers. “But when?”

“2013,” Phil says. And adds, “April third. Just after nine o’clock in the morning,” when Tony turns to study his face. He has a nice smile, and he’s the kind of grownup who always seems calm. Which doesn’t mean Tony’s going to just trust him, but at least it makes it easier to pretend to be polite. And pretending to be polite can put grownups at a disadvantage, Tony knows. He’s done it before.

He holds out a hand. ‘I don’t think we got properly introduced last night,” he says, the way he’s been taught to do. “I’m Tony Stark.”

*_*

Phil

He takes the small hand and tries not to think about how transparent Tony is like this. The kid’s holding himself together with little more than bravado. “Phillip Coulson,” he replies. “Liaison to the Avengers.” He’s not sure what Tony’s been told about SHIELD, so before he can get asked who he’s a liaison for, he steers Tony toward the others, giving the boy a chance to shake each person’s hand in turn. “Dr. Jane Foster, our resident astrophysicist. Thor Odinson, envoy from Asgard, Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, and Dr. Bruce Banner, head of our science team.”

*_*

Bruce

“What kind of science?” Tony asks, scrutinizing Bruce as if he’s trying to figure out the answer whether Bruce responds or not.

“Physics, originally,” Bruce tells him. “But I got interested in the effects of radiation on the human body, so I needed to learn the squishy stuff, too.” It’s an old joke between him and grownup Tony, but by the way the boy wrinkles his nose and tries not to smile Bruce thinks it might be older for Tony than it is for him.

“Are you going to put me back the way I was?”

“I’m going to try.”