Tony was jarred awake by a shriek of pain followed by what sounded suspiciously like someone using a pogo stick in the hallway. Where he’d once been able to sleep through a wild party in the next room, and had on more than one occasion, having children had trained him to investigate any and all strange noises. “Jarvis, lights!” Rolling out of bed, he sprinted into the hallway.
“There is no emergency, sir.” The AI said as the bedroom and hall lights came on at the lowest setting.
The hall was empty except for Pepper clutching one foot in her hands and hopping awkwardly in place. "Fuck! Oh, fuck!"
"Shh! Pep, little ears!" He hissed as he moved to help her. "What's wrong?"
"I stepped on a Lego!" She moaned. "Hurts, oh, my god, it hurts!”
"Is that all? I thought somebody was being murdered."
In an impressive display of flexibility, Pepper lifted her bare foot up nearly to eye level. "Is it bleeding? Do I need stitches?"
He caught her foot and examined it. "No."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." Tony kissed the arch of her foot before she pulled it away. "And can you do that in the bedroom, it's kinda hot."
"Is that all you can think of? I'm hurt."
"Really? Like I was hurt when I stepped on one last week? As I recall…” Tapping his chin with one finger, he feigned thoughtfulness. “You had no sympathy for me."
"You wanted me to call 911, Tony."
"And now do you see why? Oh, stop being a big baby." He stepped back as Pepper took a playful swat at him. "What were you doing out here anyway? When I’m in our bed waiting for you to come ravish me in my sleep. You were going to ravish me in my sleep, right?"
"I wanted to peek in on them. I didn't get to kiss them goodnight."
The plaintive tone in her voice tugged at his heart. "I kissed them extra for you."
She bit her lip. "I still feel guilty." Despite being home every night ninety-five percent of the time, that missing five percent made Pepper feel as if she was failing her children.
"Come on, Pep don't. You were flying back from a very important meeting that’s going to help ensure there's clean air left to breathe when they grow up."
“True.” She let him pull her into a hug. "You told them I love them?"
"More than the moon."
"And you read them a bedtime story?”
"No, they wanted Uncle Clint, they said he makes all the voices and faces better than I do." He pouted.
"Don't be jealous."
"I'm not, I had him read an extra one just for me."
"Let me guess, the Avengers storybook?" As part of the President's child literacy program, the Avengers had approved a series of children's books. The one with Iron Man's – heavily edited – origin story was Tony's favorite. Of course.
"He's awesome with the whooshing and the explosions!" He made flying motions with his hands.
"Let's go to bed, you can read me a story, a dirty one." She took a step and winced.
Tony slipped an arm around her waist. "Want me to carry you?"
"I want to know how – " Pepper leaned down to pick up the large Lego block she’d stepped on. "How can these things hurt so much? It's a little piece of plastic, how can it cause this much pain?"
"Because your feet are delicate and because... because..."
It was one of those moments when she could almost see the lightbulb go off over his head. "Tony..." He snatched the block from her. "No, that's her favorite color." She protested.
"I'll get a different one." Leaving her to lean against the wall, Tony crept quietly to the doorway of their children's room, careful not to wake them or step on any lurking Legos. They'd slept through their mother's shriek – they'd been known to sleep through Thor arriving in a clap of thunder so loud it rattled the windows – but his little angels had the uncanny knack for waking up when people were trying to be quiet around them.
Just inside the doorway was another block. He made the swap and was halfway back to Pepper when she shook her head. "What?"
"So, that's his favorite color."
"So you know you're going to break it, get a different one."
"It's not like I won't buy him a new one. Or fifty. He’ll never know."
Pepper shook her head. “You know they’ve counted them.”
“Damn.” He said softly. Their little angels had been gifted with mad math skills thanks to overachieving parental DNA. Creeping back to the doorway Tony tried to spot another Lego that wasn’t green or purple. It was too dark in their bedroom to make out the colors. "Jarvis?” He whispered. “A little help here?"
"To your left, sir. Six inches. Gray. No one’s favorite color." Jarvis said quietly.
Snatching up the gray block, he turned to sneak out with his prize. There was a shifting and a sigh from the direction of the small beds. He froze, hardly breathing, clutching the Lego to his chest. After a moment of nothing more than soft breathing, Tony eased the rest of the way out of the room.
When he got to where Pepper was still leaning against the wall, he scooped her up in his arms. "Let's go do science."
"With a Lego? I draw the line at using our children's toys."
"No, you beautiful pervert, the Lego is for later. Right now, let’s do the other kind of science. The reproductive kind." He elbowed their bedroom door shut behind them.
Bruce slept light. Even before he'd been hunted across half the world by the Army and everyone else who wanted their hands on the other guy, he'd never slept without a part of himself being alert. As a child, it was to warn him before his father would bust into his room in the middle of the night and drag him out of bed to slap him around while screaming at him for something he'd done or something his father imagined he'd done. It didn’t really matter which.
Those few moments of warning, hearing the stomp of his father's boots in the hallway or the raised voices, would sometimes give him the precious seconds needed to scramble out of bed and hide. If he was lucky, his father would settle for tearing up his room in search of him before turning his attention back to Bruce’s mother.
He’d never felt guilty for his mother taking a beating meant for him. His parents fought constantly, screaming and hitting each other, half the time his mother had started whatever led to his father's latest rage.
Sleeping light was skill that had served him well after he'd not so accidentally turned himself into a giant rage monster. That, along with the fear of how many people might be hurt or killed when he “hulked" out if Ross caught up to him. Even in Tony's state of the art secured tower, Bruce couldn't fall into a deep sleep. Couldn't seem to let himself believe he was safe.
So when his phone beeped to alert him to a new message, it was enough to bring him fully awake. He checked it out of habit. Going back to sleep was never a problem, another lesson of a violent childhood was to sleep when he could. The message was from Tony, not surprisingly, everyone else would assume he was asleep in the middle of the night.
The message was a gif of Thomas Dolby screaming "science!" in an endless loop. Bruce smiled and sent back a response. "Your lab or mine?"
Tony was already at his main work station, multiple screens hovering in front of him displaying information. DUM-E and U chirruped cheerfully at Bruce as he walked in.
"Step on this, would you?" Tony tossed him a small gray block.
Catching it, he raised his eyebrows. "You want me to step on a Lego?"
Tony swiveled around to look at him. "Really."
"Why? And don't say science."
He shrugged. "Science."
"Why didn't you just put it where I'd step on it?"
"I said science, not smash."
"Hmm... yeah. Valid point." He eyed the block again. "And you're sure this is for science and not some twisted joke I'm not in on?"
"Have you ever stepped on one of these? Hurts like a bitch. Pepper stepped on one tonight, she asked me ‘why does it hurt so much’, and as a scientist, I’m honor bound to figure out why."
Tossing the block onto the table, Bruce sat on the stool next to Tony’s. "It's hard plastic and the bottom of your foot is very sensitive. End of study. Be sure and credit me in your paper."
"It's more than that! I'm telling you, I've stepped on one of these things more than once, and it's some serious freaking pain. I've stepped on broken glass that didn't hurt this much!" When Bruce looked skeptical, he continued. "I’m not making this up. Parents curse each other saying they hope you step on a Lego. It's like a plastic WMD just lying in wait."
Bruce blinked sleepily. “Okay, yeah. I'm going back to bed."
"I'm serious! Google it! Ask Jarvis!”
“He’s correct, doctor Banner, I have observed the phenomenon.” There was slightly less snark than usual in the AI’s voice.
"Okay, I believe you, it hurts, and I’d love to turn on investigative scientist mode, but how – this is – how does this have anything to do with science? And even if it does – “ Bruce shook his head. “I'm not stepping on it. Not after that description."
"Did you miss the part where my beloved tasked me to find out why a small piece of plastic causes so much pain?"
“It’s not like MIT is going to come and take your degrees back if you don’t. I’m going back to bed.” He held up a hand. “Stop giving me the puppy eyes. That doesn’t work with me, you’re not my type.”
“Please? Pretty please? You’re my science bro.” Tony beseeched.
DUM-E offered a cup of hot coffee and added a pleading warble of his own. Bruce’s shoulders sagged in defeat. "When did this become my life? All right, all right. I give up. Let's see what makes these things a SHIELD level weapon."
"So you'll step on it?"
"Not a chance."
"Maybe we can get Clint to step on it. Nah, no way he'll do it, not after the Nerf thing." Tony snapped his fingers. "Let’s put a couple on the floor outside his door and not tell him."
"Now you are living dangerously."
Frowning, Tony went back to his simulation. Sim-Pepper stepped on the sim-Lego and began hopping up and down on her uninjured foot.
Bruce chuckled softly. "That's funny. You know... it would give us more accurate data. Still..."
"Dangerous, I get it."
"Unless… if it was someone less likely to kill us. You know who wouldn't kill us?" An evil grin spread over his face.
"Steve." They said together.
Jarvis researched 'plausible deniability' as maniacal laughter filled the lab.