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Fic: The Child's Faith is New Pt. 8/8

Tony w/holograms
The Child’s Faith is New | PG | part 8/8 | ~37,000 words | Avengers (movie) | Tony/Steve

Summary:
In which Loki is lost in the Bifrost and emerges on Earth as a child, with no apparent memory of the events in New York... or anything else.

And the Avengers adopt him. Because what could possibly go wrong?

Notes: See Part 1

Betaed by artemisiabrisol.

***

Part 7



A few days later, Tony is still... not himself, Steve would say. Except Tony has so many different "selves," all of which he embodies so convincingly, that it can be hard to know which one is real.

Steve does know him pretty well after all this time, though, and this Tony is... subdued, which is not a word Steve would ever have expected to ascribe to Tony Stark.

For a while Steve thinks it might just be the concussion, the aching ribs, and the meds that he often has to be reminded to take, and the lethargy and crankiness that come hand-in-hand with a Tony unable to work when he wants to.

That, and the solicitousness of the other Avengers, which Steve fears might be partly his fault. Tony, for all his self-professed self-centredness, reacts unpredictably when other people are obviously taking care of him. The last couple of days have been characterized by wariness and a lot of scowling, the latter surfacing mostly when Tony tries to gain access to his workshop and is denied first by JARVIS, then by whatever team member is nearest ushering him back towards the injured-Tony-approved areas of the tower.

Worst of all, he knows Tony is bored. As they all know, that can be a strange and dangerous thing. Yesterday Tony's frustration took the form of the most complicated domino course Steve has ever seen - one that took up most of the open areas of the common floor, and probably close to a hundred boxes of dominoes. It spanned floors, tables, chairs, and planks laid across other objects. He spent nearly nine hours setting it up, with Loki following behind him, patiently handing him tile after tile after tile, and then let Loki set the whole thing off while they watched from the mezzanine, both of them laughing in a worryingly maniacal fashion.

"I was teaching him physics," was Tony's only defence, before he wandered off to do something else and left the cleanup to the others.

Still, everyone agrees that this is better than letting him tinker with the kitchen appliances again.

Steve finds it's easier to let Tony distract himself by inconveniencing the team, rather than dwelling too long on the reasons everyone is indulging him. The bruises on his face and arms are harder to look at now that they're turning yellow-green and black, worse when he knows the size of the bruises covering his torso. Before now Steve never really thought about the way Tony always moves a little stiffly after a battle - never had occasion to see the aftermath of Tony covered in bruises from being rattled around inside the suit.

Not that that makes it any easier to watch. Especially now that Tony, who is on the injured list and more or less confined to the tower, is spending so much more time with Loki. They usually build things on the living room floor or play Lego Star Wars while Tony yells at the screen and Loki yells excitedly at explosions. Steve usually doesn't interrupt them, but sometimes he watches them together, and sees the way Tony looks sometimes - unsure, or even scared, like he's going to screw it up, any second now. At all times, there is someone else within earshot - in arm's reach or just in the next room.

Steve has no idea what to tell him. Or if he should say anything at all.

Today he responds to Loki's wave around a growing tower of colourful wooden blocks, which is nearly taller than Loki himself. Tony is currently sitting back, studying the structure - which features a number of complicated features Steve didn't actually know could be achieved with blocks - while Loki watches him patiently, waiting for new instructions. Steve comes in and sits down next to Tony, which Tony registers only when the couch dips under Steve's weight.

"Oh, hey," Tony says. "Just trying to figure out where to go from here."

Often, when he comes across Tony and Loki building something, it's obvious that it's Tony doing the building, and Loki acting as his assistant. Steve's pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to work, but it seems to make both of them happy enough.

"Bigger!" Loki volunteers from the other side of the coffee table.

Tony, chin in hand, flashes a brief smile, eyes still on the tower. "Yeah?"

"Bigger," Loki repeats, firmly, and Tony starts adding something that kind of looks like a flying buttress made of bright yellow blocks, while Loki watches, transfixed.

Steve watches for a while, and then asks: "What are you building?"

"Big!" Loki tells him, throwing up his arms.

Tony nods, focused on the blocks. "What he said."

Steve chuckles. "I think you're going to run out of blocks," he points out.

Tony makes a vague noise and ignores him. Loki peers around the corner of the tower at him and smiles.

At length, Tony stops - they haven't run out of blocks, but Steve can see they don't have enough to finish the base before making it taller.

"Sorry kid, this is where we get off," he says.

Loki frowns at him. "No more bigger?"

Tony shakes his head. "Wouldn't end well."

Loki continues frowning, and then picks up another block, reaching up on tiptoe to place it on the top of the stack.

Tony reaches out, saying "Hang on," but it's too late.

The tower wobbles, tilts, and then falls with a magnificent CRASH, sending colourful blocks everywhere. Loki ducks out of the way, and when the dust has settled, he peeks up over the edge of the coffee table again, surveying the damage. He looks so disappointed that Steve almost reaches out to scoop him up, but he looks at Tony instead, who is still frozen mid-reach. He drops his hands, belatedly, looks from Loki to Steve, eyes wide like he's just properly realized they're both there, and then clears his throat.

"Well, this was fun," he says briskly, getting up.

Steve reaches out, but Tony evades him easily. "Tony--"

"Stuff to do," Tonys says apologetically, shoving his hands in his pockets. Steve wonders where he's going to go - he's not allowed in the workshop, or the R&D floors, or Bruce's lab, or the gym, and he's still getting headaches if he reads too long, or spends too long at a computer, so--

Steve doesn't get a chance to ask, because Tony turns and is gone before he can speak.

Steve lets out a long, frustrated sigh and slumps back into the couch. A minute later, Loki comes around and climbs up, one knee at a time, and holds out one red block to Steve.

Steve smiles at him and takes it. "He's pretty weird, huh?" he says, and Loki looks over at the door through which Tony disappeared, and looks back.

"Sad," is all he says, and shoves another brick at Steve.

"Start over?" Steve offers, and Loki nods. They get down on their knees on the carpet and start gathering up the blocks.

***

After The Domino Incident and Steve's discovery that Tony had inadvertently conditioned Loki, with three consecutive days of Lego Star Wars, to gleefully shout "Mofo!" every time an explosion happened on screen, it's decided that Bruce, Steve and Clint will take Loki to the zoo and out of Tony's orbit for a day. Tony spends most of Wednesday morning catching up with Jane and Erik's latest progress on the Bifrost, and ends up colonizing the kitchen because he's still not allowed back into the workshop. Steve exercised his override and had JARVIS lock down the elevator to the sub-basement. Not cool.

But it's okay; mostly he's working with holograms, for which he only really needs a flat surface and a projection pad, which folds out onto the kitchen table as handily as his state-of-the-art workbench. And the pseudo-Bifrost is one seriously sexy piece of engineering, even if he doesn't really have a solid handle on the underlying principles. It's cool, though. They've almost got it to the point where they can maybe even do a second test run in the next few weeks.

Tony secretly still can't believe he gets to work on this, even if right now he's restricted to theory. It's not like SHIELD has no engineers. They just have a shortage of engineers boasting experience with projects running enough voltage to potentially short out half of North America. It's a miracle they only shorted out a couple of city blocks with that last ill-conceived test.

It's a miracle anyone gets anything done without him, really.

He's not sure how long he's been sitting there when Thor comes in - possibly because he doesn't notice Thor until there's a rustling noise and the smell of coffee reaches him. His head snaps up, and he sees Thor at the counter with an open bag of coffee, setting up the French press.

"Hi," Tony says brightly, and Thor turns around slowly, coffee in hands.

"Good morning," Thor says, warily.

Tony drums his fingers on the tabletop. "Making some coffee?" he ventures.

Thor looks down at the bag in his hands, and then slowly puts it down on the counter, shielding it with his body. Tony can see him consider lying, but he doesn't try it - his shoulders slump a little. "I am."

Tony starts to get up, but Thor holds out a hand, palm out. "No, my friend." It's his usual booming, take-no-prisoners tone, but there's an edge of mild desperation there.

"No what?" Tony asks innocently.

Thor raises his eyebrows earnestly. "I am sorry. I cannot share my coffee with you."

"Fuck." Tony sinks back into his seat. Busted. He hasn't had coffee in six days, and all the coffee and even the coffee maker have disappeared from the kitchen. From everyone's kitchens, he checked. It's a conspiracy.

"I am very sorry. But Steve told us it would not be good for you until you were well again." To his credit, Thor does look like he feels bad. Tony sighs and waves a hand dismissively. But then he sits up straight again.

"Wait - if you guys are all trying to keep the coffee away from me, why are you making it down here instead of in your own kitchen?"

Thor grins at him. "My fair Jane sleeps - I pleasured her for many hours this morning - and I wish to surprise her. The smell of coffee would awaken her before I could present it to her in our bed."

Tony blinks at him. At least that explains why Darcy was sleeping on the couch in the living room this morning.

"Um, good for you, big guy. But are you sure you couldn't..."

Thor clutches the bag of coffee tighter, and shakes his head. "I do not wish to do you harm."

Tony slumps and says bitterly: "Fine. Whatever. Thanks for protecting my arteries or whatever."

Thor comes over to the table and stands behind him, dropping both hands onto Tony's shoulders with enough force that it rocks him in the chair.

"You are troubled, my friend," Thor says, and Tony glances up at him. Thor looks worried, which is not something that's part of his usual repertoire. Generally it takes big stuff, like alien invasions or attempted fratricide, and even then he tries to keep a good face on things. Thor is one of the most relentlessly upbeat people Tony's ever met, and that includes Steve, who spent the first four months in the tower almost constantly depressed and still insisted on everyone participating in movie and pizza nights every week.

Then again, Thor's been kind of down ever since Steve pulled Loki out of the wreck. Like he's not sure how he's supposed to feel. It's weird.

"Well, yeah" Tony says, "nobody will give me any coffee."

Thor shakes his head. It looks really weird from this angle. "You are too deep a thinker to be brought so low by a mere beverage." He bends down. "This is a matter of the heart."

It's not a question, not even the roundabout, fuck-this-up-and-I-will-cut-you-but-please-don't-give-me-any-details kind of question just about anybody else on the team would ask, since apparently every single fucking one of them has known what was - or wasn't - going on between him and Steve for a while now.

Yesterday an embarrassed-looking Bruce and a deadly-looking Natasha cornered him in the pantry (he was on another doomed search for coffee) and gave him one of the most frightening lectures on "unit cohesion" (Natasha) and "feelings" (Bruce) and "accidents in the home" (Natasha again) that Tony has ever received. That includes the one he got from Pepper's mom when the tabloids finally figured out they were dating.

This one was scarier, not only because he lives with terrifying people who have constant, immediate access not only to his defenseless, unsuspecting person but to all kinds of exciting and deadly weaponry, but because he came away with no actual clue as to whether they were warning him off or urging him on.

Like then, he now feels the pressing need for a long nap.

Instead, he sighs. "I thought everyone had worked out by now that I don't have one of those," he tells Thor. "Seriously inconvenient. Better off, really."

Thor just shakes his head, and then surprisingly, taps a finger against the edge of the arc reactor. Tony starts, but only a little, because Thor is one of the few people who aren't careful about touching him, and he's more or less used to it by now.

"You wear the proof of that lie for all to see." He frowns. "Why do you not simply come together? Would you not be happier?"

Jesus. Tony looks away, towards his diagram, which is now in sleep mode, still and dim. "I doubt it," he says shortly.

The kettle clicks, and Thor sighs, his hands lifting from Tony's shoulders as he goes to pour water into the French press. A few minutes pass in silence, with Tony staring fixedly at his hands in the hologram and Thor staring at him thoughtfully, arms crossed. Eventually Thor turns around again to put the lid on the press, and presses it slowly down with careful concentration.

"It pains me to see you both so unhappy," he says seriously. "Especially now that my brother is here."

And Thor really does feel bad about it, Tony can see that, so he dredges up a smile. "Don't worry about it, big guy," he says, with a semblance of his usual grin. "It'll work out."

Thor looks unconvinced, but he picks up the coffee and mugs, and heads for the door, only to be blocked by Darcy. She is standing in the doorway in plaid pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt that says "Science: It Works, Bitches" and is too-small in a couple of very specific ways that make Tony think it probably belongs to Jane.

"Give," she says, squinting up at Thor, who smiles fondly down at her. He hands Darcy one of the mugs, fills it, and then disappears towards the elevators.

"Got sexiled, huh?" Tony smirks at her when Thor is gone, and she makes a face at him as she shuffles into the kitchen. Darcy has her own room on Thor's floor, but Thor and Jane can sometimes be kind of... loud.

"There are so many reasons I hated living in residence," she mumbles into her cup. She sets it down on the counter, and takes down a bowl and a box of cereal from the cupboards. "Though at least the view is better here," she adds, with a leer that makes Tony laugh. He likes Darcy. They understand each other.

She brings her breakfast - brightly-coloured and full of marshmallows - to the table, and Tony feels a flare of hope for a second before she positions her coffee mug at her elbow, well out of his reach, before pouring milk into her bowl and digging in.

Tony lets a few minutes pass before he makes a last attempt: "I don't suppose you could spare a couple of sips of that--"

"Not unless you want to talk about why you and Steve aren't fucking yet despite the fact that you're obviously stupid for each other." She looks up with a single raised eyebrow.

Tony lets her finish her breakfast in peace.

***

Steve's phone rings on his way up to street level from the subway, and when he pulls it out of his pocket the display says "Ms. Pepper Potts." Steve is suddenly, inexplicably nervous as he answers. "Hello, Pepper, how are you?" He just barely avoids addressing her as "Ms. Potts," something he hasn't done in ages.

She picks up on it anyway. "I'm fine, Steve," she begins, sounding faintly amused, and then pauses, which makes Steve nervous all over again. "Are you?"

Steve tries to relax. Initially, Pepper did make him nervous, and it wasn't just the easy confidence he's always envied, or that she was virtually impervious to Tony's many, many methods of charming his way out of things. It might have had something to do with the fact that Tony very clearly cares what she thinks of him, which makes her a unique individual indeed, and all the more intimidating for it.

"Well enough," he tells her honestly, thinking of the size of the bowl of ice cream Loki is probably eating right now and how worked up he's going to be in a few hours when Clint and Bruce bring him back.

A brief, uneasy silence follows, but it's long enough that he starts wondering why she called. What's so serious she hasn't just said it? Because Pepper Potts does not prevaricate.

Finally, she sighs. "Look, are you free for lunch? I've got an hour free."

"I'm free," he answers, looking at his watch. For a few hours, anyway. "Where should I meet you?"

"I'm out of the office today, I'll text you the address," she says, and they hang up.

The cafe Pepper chooses is, like most of the places they've had lunch together, both classy and understated. They sit inside despite the fine weather, because that makes it harder for the paparazzi, but the cafe's big sliding windows are open to the warm breeze and Steve's pannini is delicious. Pepper lets him eat most of it, filling him in on her day so far - full of idiots, she almost misses dealing with Tony - before she gets to the point. She sits back in her chair, dabbing at her lips with a napkin, and asks:

"Look, is he okay?"

Steve swallows, and regards her uncertainly. "Why do you ask?"

Pepper looks at him, gaze steady, though not quite as unruffled as usual. There's a tightness around her eyes and mouth. "Because when I last talked to him on the phone he sounded... not like himself."

Steve frowns down at his plate. "I'd noticed that. But..." he shrugs, "he always gets down when he's hurt. Thinks he's not contributing or... I thought maybe it would clear up."

Pepper nods. "So did I. But..." She presses her lips together. "This is different. I couldn't tell you how... I hoped maybe he'd talked to you. If he was going to talk to anyone..." She trails off, significantly, raising one eyebrow. She's prim and perfectly-put-together and still somehow managing to convey I know your every last embarrassing fantasy, and I used to work for Tony Stark, your dirty secrets are nothing to me. Steve covers his blush by taking a sip of coffee from his huge china mug. He scalds his tongue, and coughs, carefully setting the mug down.

"No," he says, voice hoarse, as his throat burns. He swallows, and repeats, "no," in a more normal voice. "He hasn't said... much. He hasn't..." Steve slumps as he realizes the truth of it, thinking of Tony's apparent self-imposed time limits over the past week, at least when Steve is around, though a lot of it is probably just Tony feeling restless. "He hasn't wanted to be around me, much. Lately. He sort of... changes the subject."

Pepper nods, as if that's just what she expected, though she looks a little frustrated. "Par for the course," she says. "Tony talks a lot, but he doesn't say very much."

Steve thinks about that. "True," he agrees, reaching for his coffee again.

"He likes you, Steve," she says simply. "He likes you a lot. More than I think he's comfortable with. He's not good with... well, for reference, with us, his first shot over the bow was to make me CEO and pour me a glass of champagne."

Steve's surprised into laughter. "That does sound like him."

She smiles. "Tony's very... all or nothing. He doesn't really know how to do things at normal human volume."

"Was he always like that?" Steve asks, genuinely curious, and eager to direct the conversation away from himself.

Pepper picks at the salad still on her plate. "At least as long as I've known him," she confirms. "Probably always, if I were to guess. It would make sense, given everything."

She eyes him warily, but apparently decides for rather than against. "I know Howard was your friend."

Confused by the change in topic, Steve leans forward. A lot of people have talked to him about Howard, but most people are smiling when they do it. Tony doesn't. And apparently neither does Pepper.

"I don't know all of it," she continues, "because Tony doesn't like to talk about it. I think he'd prefer us all to think he just sort of blinked into existence at around the age he started building robots."

Steve smiles at this, eyes dropping to the table.

"He always tries so hard. And even Obadiah said--" she cuts herself off, glaring briefly into empty space - the same way Tony reacts whenever Obadiah Stane is mentioned, even in passing on television. Steve doesn't know the whole story there, only that he was Tony's friend, almost his mentor, and that he betrayed them. For now, it's all he really needs to know.

"I don't think... I don't think Tony was very happy, as a kid." It's enough of an obvious understatement, her words chosen carefully, that Steve stares at her, mouth dropping open.

"You don't think--"

"No, no, nothing like that," she says quickly, waving away thoughts of - hell, Howard always did have a temper, and he hated being wrong. But she seems sure enough, and Steve lets himself relax a little. "Once, when he was very drunk, he talked about how..." She huffs out a sigh and meets Steve's eyes directly. "I get the impression that on top of them never really getting along, Tony was more than a little afraid of him."

There's a soft tink and he looks down to see he's cracked his mug, gripping it too hard. "Oh," he says, carefully setting it down again, embarrassed. He hasn't done that in a while. At least he'd already finished his coffee.

"I'll pay for that," he mutters.

"Don't worry about it," Pepper reassures him, smiling a little as a server hurries over to take the mug away, leaving a full, steaming, intact mug in its place.

"I should have realized," Steve says after a while; a few more sips of good, strong coffee to settle his nerves.

"Realized what?" Pepper asks.

"The way he is with Loki." Steve sets his mug down again, more carefully than before. He can only break so many dishes accidentally before regular people start noticing.

"Ah," Pepper says, nodding. "Yes. That was what I'd figured."

"I'm not sure what to do," he admits tiredly. He is tired, which doesn't happen often. The coffee helps, but only goes so far when the caffeine is overcome so quickly by his metabolism.

Pepper studies him for a long moment, and then asks: "About Tony, or about you and Tony?"

"Um," says Steve, glancing at her - he knew this was going to come up sooner or later, he realizes now. It was why he was so nervous earlier.

She grins at him. "Calm down, Steve. I'm not going to warn you off. Just..." Her face grows serious. "Just be careful, okay? He isn't..."

...isn't as fearless, isn't as invulnerable, isn't as anything as he pretends to be. Steve knows that better than most.

"I do care about him, god help me," she says, quietly, and when he looks at her again, she seems almost sad.

"I know," he tells her, and adds, in a lower voice, "So do I."

She nods, decisively, and picks up her cup again. "And Steve?"

"Yes?"

"I hope it goes without saying that if you break him, I will hurt you."

It... isn't a question. It's delivered in the same cool, serene, perfect-posture tone she uses to talk down investors when Tony or the Avengers in general have done something to make the news. Directed at him, it makes Steve straighten reflexively in his seat, and he has to fight the urge to salute.

"Yes ma'am," he says, without thinking.

For the first time in a long while, she doesn't try to correct him.

***

Steve's heart is full of completely unironic enthusiasm for most of the Disney pantheon. He was totally over the fucking moon when he found out about streaming media libraries and the ability to watch just about any movie you could think of right in your living room, and he once spent most of an evening recounting the time he saw Snow White in the theatres before the war. Even Tony cannot find it in his hear to mock him, and so they spend an entire Sunday on the couch watching movie after movie with Loki sitting in his green Oscar the Grouch chair, eyes wide and his stuffed Whatever-the-hell-it-is clutched to his chest.

The other Avengers drift in and out. Clint sits through Robin Hood. Natasha stays for most of Mulan. Thor comes in during the opening scenes of Beauty and the Beast and steals all of Tony's popcorn. During The Lion King Loki gets bored and wanders off. Tony and Steve stay where they are - Steve because he's riveted and Tony because he still gets dizzy if he gets up too fast and hurts when he moves wrong.

And whenever he realizes he hasn't seen him in a while, Steve just comes looking for him anyway.

Steve does his headcount on-schedule at the two-hour mark, less subtly with Tony than he does when anyone else is in the room. Usually he'll get up and do a circuit of the common floor, ask JARVIS about anyone who might be elsewhere, but when he goes to move, Tony reaches out and pulls him back down, flicks his eyes towards the ceiling. No matter what anybody tells him, Steve always addresses JARVIS by looking up, as though JARVIS is some kind of uber-polite, mildly-sarcastic higher power - which, okay, is close enough to the truth.

"JARVIS?"

"Of course, Captain."

Tony's not sure whether the rest of the team is aware of this little ritual. Coulson surely is, as well as Pepper, since she was the one who introduced Steve to JARVIS. Clint and Natasha probably are. Thor and Bruce - it's hard to say. Steve spends so much time looking after everyone that Tony's not a hundred percent sure he knows he's doing it, or rather, why.

Probably he does. With this sort of thing Tony is usually the oblivious one.

When JARVIS has located everyone to Steve's satisfaction, including, Tony notices, the location of Loki on Natasha's floor - and wondering how the hell Natasha entertains a three-year-old has taken up a lot of Tony's convalescent thinking-time - he settles back down into the couch with a sigh, briefly covering Tony's hand on his arm before they both retreat to their own spaces, maybe a little more slowly than they used to.

At some point Tony falls asleep - the painkillers still make him sleepy - and he wakes up to find he's tipped over and is leaning into Steve's side. On the screen, Lilo & Stitch is playing: the scene with the storybook. Tony considers the situation: Steve is relaxed and warm and comfortable, and Tony is still technically on the injured list and can get away with a lot more than usual. So he doesn't pull away immediately. He shifts, slowly, resurfacing, rubs at his eyes. Steve stirs a little, looks down at him, and then back to the screen.

"How are you feeling?" he asks. It's gotten dark outside, and the screen lights Steve's face in blue.

"Like I've been consistently denied an adequate dose of painkillers," Tony grumbles. His head does actually hurt like somebody took a sledgehammer to it - or a wall. Whatever. It's a low, persistent throb behind his eyes, and he's squinting even in the low light from the TV. He wonders what time it is, and where the others are. It's rare for the living room to be held by a single Avenger for more than a few hours before someone else comes in to lay claim, despite the fact that they've all got perfectly good home entertainment systems in their own quarters.

Steve looks down at him again, wearing the half-frown, half-smile he wears whenever Tony says something to draw attention to his past indiscretions - one so familiar Tony thinks Steve might well have inherited directly from Pepper. There was, after all, a reason why he wasn't cut loose with stronger drugs, and now that he's carelessly brought it up he's sorry he did. There are only a few people whose disapproval can have much impact on him, and Steve's recently made the top of a very short list.

"Sorry," Tony mutters, a minute later, going to sit up and pull away.

Steve stops him, pulls him back down and against his side, reaching with the other arm over to the side table where some helpful individual has left prescription bottles and an aluminum water bottle with Stark Industries on the side. Steve carefully shakes out a few pills, seals the bottles, and then hands Tony pills and water and watches while he takes them.

"You know," Tony says, handing the bottle back a minute later, "you're a natural at this. This caretaking thing, I mean. The State of New York had a lot of nerve asking you for references. All they had to do was meet you."

Tony is sure Steve's ears have gone red again, even though it's too dark to really see. "Thanks," he says, after a few seconds have passed.

They watch a few more minutes of the movie in silence. "Jesus," says Tony. "This movie is our life. So which one of us is the blue alien? I think it's the kid."

Steve laughs. "It's a movie, Tony."

"No, no, I'm serious. And you're the hot big sister voiced by Tia Carrere."

"What does that make you?" Steve asks, grinning despite himself.

"Obviously I'm the awesome surfer dude. Swallowing fire and full of brilliant ideas to make everybody loosen up." This is definitely the weirdest flirting Tony's ever done, which is saying something. Weirder is how Steve seems to be flirting back.

"The boyfriend?" Steve asks, teasing. "The one who never wears a shirt?"

"That's the one," Tony agrees. "Hey, they even rebuild the house at the end, I think. To make room for all the weirdos who've crash-landed into their lives." He pauses. "Okay, actually, the degree to which this is mirroring my life is actually a little eerie."

"That might be the concussion speaking," Steve points out.

"No, really." He turns to Steve, eager to get his point across. "I mean, isn't that why you kept the kid? So they wouldn't lock him up?"

Steve's smile dims a little, and he looks thoughtful. "Partly. Though even Director Fury agreed he probably wasn't a hazard anymore. I..." Steve shrugs. "I just... he's all alone."

Tony frowns. "No he's not. I mean I'm sure the technicalities are fucking terrifying diplomatically but Thor must count as next of kin, at least."

Steve shrugs again. "Fine, you're right. But that's not what I mean. He's... he was alone. He reminded me of... of me."

Tony turns to stare at him; can't help it. Stares too openly, he realizes, when Steve looks away, back at the TV. "Of you?"

"I grew up in an orphanage, Tony. I know what it's like not to have anybody looking out for you."

Tony has absolutely no idea where to go with that. He feels like he's been dropped into the middle of a conversational minefield, with no idea which direction is safe. This is why he usually avoids serious conversations. About anything. He's terrible at serious.

"I... didn't know that," he says eventually. To his surprise, Steve gives him a tiny sideways smile.

"No reason for you to have known. Anyway, it wasn't so bad. The matrons were nice, they just didn't have a lot of time for us, you know? And I had Bucky, so..." He trails off, and Tony watches his profile as his eyes go a little distant, a little sad, the way they always do when he talks about the people he left behind; the family he made, and lost.

Steve shakes his head, chuckling a little. "I know you all kind of think I'm crazy for all this. But... he's a kid." Steve's gaze drifts across the living room, where there are toys, books, and a tipped-over child-sized green armchair scattered across the floor. "I thought about it, and I read the reports, and it's been months, Tony. He's a kid. And... well. When they finished the tests, the social worker sat down with Thor--"

Tony is still trying to wrap his brain around the fact that SHIELD has social workers.

"--I went with him because he doesn't even really know what a social worker is, and they talked about... about options. They talked about foster care, and they talked about a lot of other stuff, but I mean, come on. Who's going to take him? Who are they going to find who can? Who has clearance and everything, and can deal with him if he turns out to be a handful?"

"A handful" in this case meaning "discovers his innate ability to fuck shit up with the power of his mind," but Steve will always insist on thinking the best of people.

Steve looks at Tony. "I should have asked you. I'm sorry."

Surprised, Tony frowns and then shakes his head. "What? No. You didn't need my permission."

"But you were unhappy when--"

Steve looks so agonized that Tony chuckles. "I was surprised! And concussed! Steve - this is your home too. And I kinda gave up the rights to policing the borders when I let Clint move in. Guy uses the air ducts more often than the elevator."

It's mostly a lie. Tony only caught Clint coming out of the ducts that one time.

Tony does some mental math, and asks, finally, because he's been wondering for a while: "So, when did you decide this? That we were going to become the Avengers Home for Wayward Supervillains, I mean?" He means it to sound sarcastic; it comes out sounding genuinely curious.

Unlike all the other times the topic's come up, Steve doesn't change the subject. Maybe because Tony's mildly stoned and hasn't complained about it for a few days. "I don't know," Steve admits. "I don't know that I thought about it like that, exactly. It started out as... well, he wouldn't calm down for anyone else. And then when they were sure he was what he seemed to be, it... it was too late, I guess." He smiles again, this one self-deprecating. "I didn't really see it coming."

It takes Tony a minute to regroup.

"So what exactly is the plan, here?" Tony asks him, voice soft. "I don't think SHIELD is going to let you make him team mascot or anything. And I don't even want to think about adoption laws between branches on the World Tree. And eventually Jane and Erik are going to get the bridge up and running..." Tony looks back on that sentence, and tries to find any part of it as insane is it definitely should sound. But no, the crazy part is how crazy it doesn't seem. How is this his life? Life used to make sense.

But Steve shakes his head quickly. "No adoption," he says, definitively. "Besides, I think Thor would... I think that would wreck him."

Tony thinks about the way Thor looked when Steve first pulled Loki out of the debris; the way he still looks, sometimes, when no one else is really paying attention and Loki is playing with the others, smiling, relatively carefree. Translation: like someone reached into his chest and squeezed; twisted.

"Yeah," Tony agrees.

"But Thor is here," Steve goes on, "with us. And damn it, Tony, where else is he going to go?"

His voice drops a little, quiet and small, and it's something Tony's rarely heard before now; something he maybe only heard when he was lying in an infirmary bed after having a building drop on his head. Tony finally looks up, and Steve's looking right at him with one of those distressingly open looks that he gets, and he looks like he's on the verge of everything he ever wanted and staring right at someone trying to yank it right out from under his feet.

Tony understands, then. He gets this, the way Steve has been trying to gather them all close, with the forced team bonding and living under the same roof and using the kid as an emotional blackmail grenade on trips to the park and Disney movie marathons. It's probably the same impulse that drove Tony to nag them all until they agreed to move in, all together in the tower not just because it's the coolest place to live in all of New York, but because it meant they were all nearby, all the time, couldn't get away from him - even though he didn't know, at the time, that that was the reason he was doing it.

Fuck, but they're terrible at this.

Before he can talk himself out of it, he's reaching out, and then his hand is wrapped around the back of Steve's neck and squeezing, gently. Steve just shuts his eyes and lets his head fall forward with a sigh.

Somehow, Tony expected this to be harder.

He doesn't really know what he's doing, but he does it anyway, leaning close and whispering, confidentially: "This is a really terrible idea," and Steve huffs out a laugh, head hanging low, shoulders shaking under Tony's hand.

"You're good with those," he says quietly. "Terrible ideas." He looks up at Tony through his lashes with a teasing little smile that on anyone else, would be flirtatious, but which on Steve, is simply impossible. If Steve were anyone else, Tony would probably try to kiss him now.

He nearly does anyway, but stops himself at the last second, because this is, in fact, impossible.

And because Tony is trying to be a better person, he just grins back and gives Steve a little shake.

"You are spending way too much time with me," he says, and lets Steve go.

But Steve grabs his hand, holds it there, against the side of his face, and Tony, after an endless three seconds of shocked paralysis, shapes his fingers around the curve of Steve's jaw. He stares at his hand as though it's doing this all without his instruction, and it's another five, six seconds before he can get up the courage to look Steve in the face.

He's smiling. Warm and real and shy... and Tony's breath catches in his chest.

"I think I should be the judge of that, don't you?" says Steve, quietly.

Tony swallows, hard, and tries to pull his hand away, but Steve's not letting go.

And then Steve kisses him, and his brain shorts out.

It's the second time this week, which cannot possibly be good for him. He's going to end up having a stroke and--

Steve pulls away, looking stricken. "I..." he says uncertainly, "...I'm sorry, I..."

"No, no, shut up for a second," Tony says quickly, grabbing hold of Steve's shirt before he can flee in humiliated rejection. "Just... give me a second."

Steve stares at him, eyes wide and anxious, brow furrowed, still tensed as if to flee at the first opportunity.

"This is a terrible idea," Tony tells him again, and pulls him back in.

Steve's mouth is - now that he's present enough to enjoy it - Jesus. Hot. Soft. His hands, curled around the sides of Tony's neck, are soft, too; no calluses, even. Tony wonders, idly, if that's a side-effect of the serum. If Steve can feel the hum of the reactor, something of which Tony has suddenly become hyper-aware. If--

"I think I can hear you thinking," Steve says, against his mouth. "I'm not an expert, but I'm pretty sure you're supposed to focus on me."

Fair enough. Steve's hesitant at first, careful in a way that makes Tony's chest hurt a little for reasons he'd prefer not to explore, but after a second or two he gets pushier, and Tony, who's usually the pushy one, finds himself yielding without really even thinking about it. He likes Steve's messy, careful, obviously-not-very-experienced kisses. In kissing, as in so much of life, enthusiasm counts for a lot.

But one of the things Tony loves about Steve is that he's smart, is a scarily fast learner, is learning this with preternatural speed, probably taking cues from Tony; putting his weight into it, sliding curious fingers up into Tony's hair, which was already a mess when they started and is probably a disaster now and oh, tongue.

"Mmf," Tony hums encouragingly, and shivers when Steve's hands get grabby, pulling just a little. Steve's kisses have already gone from messy to intense, hot and overwhelming and wet. When Tony's brain finally reboots, he has to make himself pull back, slowly, hands still fisted in the back of Steve's t-shirt.

Steve's cheeks are flushed, and his eyes are huge and dark, and his mouth is wet.

Tony, staring at him and trying to catch his breath, wants to ruin him.

"Okay," says Tony, "okay, I can't believe I'm the one saying this, but we should really take this elsewhere."

Steve blinks at him, and his eyes start to look slightly less glazed. "Oh," he says, nervously. "Oh." Because there is, in fact, a "no sex in common areas" rule, which Steve enacted, and yeah, that is definitely what Tony meant.

For a second, Tony thinks Steve's going to change his mind, but Steve just darts a look around the darkened living room - seriously, where are the other Avengers? Tony wonders, but really can't be bothered to devote processing power to the question right now - and nods. "Okay," he says, getting to his feet and offering Tony a hand up. Tony takes it, and Steve pulls him to his feet with barely any effort, fast enough that Tony has to grab him for balance and cling for an embarrassing two and a half seconds. Steve grabs him around the waist.

"Are you okay?" he asks worriedly, and Tony looks up at him, points a stern finger into his face.

"Do not," he says. "I am fine. Do not even."

After a beat, Steve grins at him, face still pink and pleased and Jesus, Tony wants him.

"Come on," he says, and lets Steve grab his hand and lead him away into the darkened hall.

***

Tony's bed is ridiculous. It's absurd. It's something out of a magazine, at least in terms of size. The room itself is as messy as anybody who knows Tony would imagine, clothes discarded haphazardly and the sheets on the bed crumpled carelessly at the foot.

Not that any of that matters when Tony pulls him down onto the mattress.

He has another attack of wild uncertainty when Tony kisses him again, pulling him down and just writhing under him and -

"Ow," says Tony, going still, and Steve realizes, belatedly, ribs, pain, and pushes himself up on his hands.

"Are you all right?"

Tony lies there, taking shallow, careful breaths. "I hate everything," he says to the ceiling. "This is a sign, isn't it? The universe officially hates me and wants me to be miserable."

Steve eases back down onto one elbow, keeping his weight off Tony's torso, and lays a light, careful hand on Tony's ribs. "I'm sorry," he says quietly, "I forgot." He shouldn't have forgotten.

"It's okay, it's not your fault, I pulled you - it was reflex," Tony tells him, looking almost embarrassed. He shrugs. "I like - I've been thinking about that," he admits, eyes on the ceiling rather than Steve, "for a while."

Steve settles down, leaving his hand where it is. Tony is warm against his side. "There's no hurry."

Tony's face screws up in disgust. "Oh, don't. That just makes it worse."

"Don't what?"

"Don't - 'there's no hurry.' Nobody ever means that. I don't mean that. I wanted -"

"I know," Steve says seriously, politely not looking at where Tony has drawn up his knee a little to hide the fact that he's still hard. "So did I." Overcome with shyness, but forging ahead because he's going to have to say it sooner or later. "It's probably better to work up to it, anyway."

Tony freezes, and his eyes slowly track down from the ceiling to Steve's face. "What?"

"I just-- I haven't--"

Tony looks confused. "Haven't what?"

Steve glares at him, sure he's being facetious, and gestures between them. "I haven't."

Tony's eyes widen, and he blinks again, looking vaguely dazed. "Well," Tony says, and his voice is a little rougher than before in a way that makes goosebumps rise up along Steve's arms, "I owe Bruce twenty bucks."

"Tony!" Steve says, scandalized.

"Calm down, never mind, come here," Tony says in a rush, and yanks at the front of Steve's shirt. When Steve resists, Tony makes an impatient noise. "I can kiss you without injuring myself, I promise."

With the immediate urgency gone - or at least, off the table for the moment - kissing Tony is just... nice. It's slow and wet and a little dirty, because it's Tony, but it's nice all the same, and so is Tony's hand, sweeping up and down his back, inching up under the hem of his shirt. Tony's hands are rough. Steve didn't expect to like that.

Tony moves again, leans up - and tenses, and Steve pulls away. "Ribs again?"

Tony looks pained. "Everything else, actually. I keep waiting for it."

Steve nods knowingly - remembers from before, stupid fights and asthma and no money for doctors, how his ribs often ached for days; weeks; months. And worse, the anticipation, when just breathing wrong or reaching wrong could set it off, the way his entire body tensed up around the mere memory of pain...

Experimentally, he tucks his fingers under the small of Tony's back, strokes fingertips along the smooth skin, the hard bars of muscle along the spine. Tony twitches a little, lets out a breath.

"Changed your mind? You know, there are a lot of other things we could--"

"Cracked ribs take six to eight weeks to heal completely," Steve insists, considering Tony for a moment before tugging on the hem of Tony's threadbare t-shirt. "Can I take this off?"

Tony gets weird at that, just a little hesitant, then lets go of Steve's wrist where he's grabbed it, clears his throat. "Okay," he says, "just..."

It takes Steve a second to get it, and he licks his lips, meets Tony's eyes, which are wide and flickering, and somehow he never really realized that Tony almost never goes without a shirt.

Tony squints at him for a long moment, then lets his hands fall to the mattress, gives a curt nod, eyes fixing somewhere above them. Steve pulls the shirt carefully up and off, with care for Tony's ribs, sets it aside.

With the lights on, the arc reactor is a gentle glow, but it's not the reactor that catches Steve's attention - it's the ring of rough scar tissue around its edges, and the sudden realization of its sheer size. Steve lays a hand on Tony's chest, thumb and index finger forming a vee around the circle of light, careful not to touch. He's seen the reactor - seen the spares, anyway. He's held one in his hand, when Tony took him downstairs and showed him the safe where he keeps them and showed him how to swap them out if something happens to the one Tony's currently using. He didn't think much of Tony's manner at the time - cool and clipped and matter-of-fact, with none of Tony's usual warmth and bluster - because at the time, they were still new to each other, still feeling around the edges of what wasn't quite a friendship yet.

Steve still remembers, though, the way his breath caught in his chest when Tony reached under his shirt and uncoupled the reactor, pulled it out, then put it back in, the light flickering to life again with a click-click-click; the way Tony tensed, and then relaxed, the breath going out of him with relief. And even then, Tony didn't lift his shirt up any higher than his belly.

Steve knows his anatomy, and now that he's thinking about it, about the size of the reactor, and the amount of space it must take up inside Tony's body, what had to have been done in order to make space--

"Are you okay?"

Steve looks up guiltily into Tony's face, which is - complicated. Tony has one arm folded behind his head, and he's watching Steve with an expression that is either apprehension or concern or both. After a second, his eyes flick away. "Sorry," he mutters. "There's a reason I--"

"Don't apologize," Steve says, more sharply than he meant. He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't... does it hurt?"

Tony looks back at him, his mouth twisting strangely, but he shakes his head. The hand lying on the bed flaps vaguely. "Nerve damage." He reaches for Steve's hand, touches their fingers together to the raised scar tissue surrounding the reactor. "Can't really feel anything except pressure. I don't really notice it, most of the time."

Steve can tell he's only telling part of the truth, and wonders what the rest might be. There are so many possibilities. He doesn't ask, though. Their hands settle, together, over the light, casting strange shadows under Tony's chin.

"You're taking this worse than Pepper," Tony volunteers, trying to lighten things up. "Though in her defense, she knew the details before we ever... and she'd seen it, too. I..." He sighs, heavily. "Sorry. Not helping."

"No, I - let's stop apologizing for tonight," Steve says, and Tony grins at him, obviously imagining the kind of mileage he can get out of a promise like that.

Steve shakes his head, and then kisses him, light and soft, before sliding his hands underneath Tony's torso again.

"Relax," he says, and digs in a little with his fingertips.

"Oh my god," Tony says - groans, really - after a minute or two of massage, "oh my god, why didn't I think of that?"

"Well," Steve says thoughtfully, reaching his hands up to get at the muscles under Tony's shoulder blades, "you've been kind of out of it. Besides, it's not like you can give yourself a back massage, especially when you can't lie on your front."

Tony throws an arm over his eyes. "You're amazing. Keep doing that."

Steve smiles to himself, and does.

"Are you sure we can't have sex?" Tony asks later, voice slow and sleepy in the lowered lights.

"I told you, there's no rush," Steve says again, though it did take a while to get himself under control after half an hour of his hands all over Tony. Now he just feels warm and content, one arm, slung carefully over Tony's chest. He thinks he can feel the faintest vibration of the reactor under his arm, but he might just be imagining it.

Tony lifts his head and gives him a dirty look. "You say that because you haven't actually had sex yet and you don't know what you're missing."

"And because I can wait," Steve says, patiently. He settles a hand on top of Tony's head, strokes it back. "It's okay," he adds. "I'm not going anywhere."

Tony lets his head flop back onto the pillow. "You are too good to be real," he says despairingly.

"And you're better than you think you are." Steve wonders why he said that. Maybe he's been thinking about it for a while. Tony just gives him a funny, unreadable look and then, as if suddenly remembering, says:

"You know, Natasha and Bruce tried to stage an intervention on your behalf last week. Seemed to think I'd break you."

Steve can't help smiling, his face going a little red. "I had a similar conversation with Thor and Clint. And, um, Pepper."

Tony laughs. "They're probably right, you know," he says, confidentially.

Steve shakes his head, tucking his face against Tony's shoulder.

"But no, really, " Tony says, more serious than a moment ago. "I don't..." His hand lands in Steve's hair, petting carefully.

"Why are you so determined to assume the worst?" Steve asks. "You're not usually so..."

You usually leap before you look, is what he's thinking, you're usually so reckless, which are qualities Steve admires but also finds alarming, sometimes.

"Usually I don't care all that much," Tony tells him, dismissively. It's another one of those partly-true things - Tony isn't careful, not in situations where he can control the variables, or thinks he can. Steve's seen the video from when Tony was designing the Mark II. Impatient would be a better word, or even careless, in a pinch. At least when it's only himself at risk.

"I don't believe that," Steve answers, softly. "And neither do you."

Tony doesn't seem to have any answer to that.

A minute or two later, he's asleep, and Steve follows soon after.

***

Steve is still there when Tony wakes up, and Tony wonders what time it is. Usually Steve's the first person awake, off to do his running/jumping-jacks/pushups/other frightening exercise that has no place in the hours before dawn and eleven o'clock. Tony knows this, because he actively anticipates seeing sweaty post-exercise Steve wander into the kitchen while Tony is still half-conscious and slumped over his coffee. It's a nice way to start the day.

That he's still here implies several things. For one, somebody else put the kid to bed last night, which could either mean that Loki will be cranky this morning or that he didn't care at all and is currently on the couch with Bruce watching cartoons. Tony considers asking JARVIS what time it is, but sort of doesn't want to wake Steve if he's not already awake.

That Steve is still here might also mean that he thinks Tony will do something stupid (physically, emotionally or otherwise) if left unsupervised.

Tony decides he's not awake enough for this existential bullshit. He shuts his eyes again.

"It's after ten," Steve's voice says from behind him, and the arm around Tony's waist squeezes a little, and preemptively answers Tony's next question with: "I've been awake for a while. I asked JARVIS."

"Oh Jesus," Tony says, realizing that most of the others are probably awake and wondering where they are. "I am never going to hear the end of this." He opens his eyes again. "And I didn't even get laid! Oh, this is so unfair." He pulls a pillow over his head.

Steve pulls it away, and Tony opens his eyes to Steve hovering over him, hair sleep-messy, expression fond. "I'll protect you," he says, mock-solemnly, and drops a kiss on Tony's forehead, so sweet and sincere that Tony's struck momentarily dumb. Steve rolls off the bed, comes around to sit on Tony's side.

"Ready for breakfast?"

Tony is pretty much starving. He nods and sits up. "There better still be coffee left," he says without thinking, and then groans quietly when he remembers that none of his friends want him to be happy and that there will be, therefore, no coffee.

"I believe there are waffles in progress, Sir," JARVIS volunteers, and Steve grins at him.

"See? Waffles."

"It's not the same," Tony grumbles, letting Steve pull him to his feet.

They're almost to the door when there's a soft, polite knock-knock-knock from the other side. "Hi?" says a voice, and it's Loki. 'Hi' is his primary method of greeting these days, from "Hi!" (excited recognition) to "Hi," (go away, Dora's talking) to "Hi?" (where did you go?). Tony can't decide if it's cool or worrying that he's figured out this vocabulary without any help.

"Coming, Shortstack," Steve says, apparently not thinking that the kid might be confused to find him in Tony's room. Loki's probably not really old enough to understand the significance, anyway. Or maybe Steve doesn't care, which is... a not-entirely-unpleasant thought.

He stops Steve before he can open the door, and pulls him around. "You know this is going to be complicated, right?" Meaning: you know I'll fuck this up, right? Because Steve's Tony-to-English translator is almost as good as Pepper's these days.

"Then we'll deal with it," Steve says calmly, and Steve is a liar, he's nowhere near as calm as he sounds, but he still means it somehow.

Steve shakes his head fondly. "Tony. You don't just stop caring about somebody because you might lose them."

And Steve doesn't just mean the kid.

"Sometimes you just have to believe that something will last."

"I don't." It has to be said, because in Tony's experience, things don't - but Steve just watches him, steady and unflinching.

"Then I'll believe it for the both of us."

And Tony stares at him for a long moment, until there's another little knock-knock-knock, and Steve tilts his head towards the door, face questioning.

Tony lets out a breath, nodding. "Okay."

Steve smiles, and opens the door.




The End! Hope you enjoyed.

I seriously had no idea what I was getting into with this fucking story, since much of it was obviously written in some kind of kidfic fugue state. As such, there are about 10,000 words of stuff that didn’t fit in this particular story (not that I’m pretending to anything so lofty as plot or structure or cohesion), but that I really wanted to write down because it was cracky or angsty or adorable or had naked Steve and/or naked Tony in it, so there will, probably, be more of this ‘verse, including, but not limited to: babysitting fic, Darcy as an Au Pair, guilt-motivated shopping sprees at Toys R’ Us, and a field trip to Asgard.

Bog help me.

Read on AO3

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
resplendissante
Sep. 8th, 2012 06:22 pm (UTC)
YESSSSSS YOU FINALLY FINISHED THIS SO I CAN FINALLY READ ITTTTT
chandri
Sep. 8th, 2012 07:01 pm (UTC)
\o/
_bounce_
Sep. 8th, 2012 09:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, I loved this. The coffee! The babysitting roster!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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