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Fic: The Child's Faith is New Pt. 7/8

The Child's Faith is New | PG | part 7/8 | ~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 6



They let Tony go home late the following afternoon. Steve and Pepper arrive together to drive him home, which always makes him nervous.

He knows Steve and Pepper talk sometimes, that they have lunch, that she emails him links to articles and funny/bizarre things for sale on the Internet, but he has a persistent, nagging suspicion that their primary topic of conversation is him. He brought this up a couple of times, but both of them just laughed at him. “Tony,”said Pepper, smiling fondly at him, “you always think that people are talking about you.”

Which is, it should be noted, not an answer.

Pepper is her usual post-Tony-injuring-himself self: mocking and affectionate at the same time, which is something that has not changed since they broke up, and he’s grateful. It’s Steve, however, who hovers, they way he always does when one of them is hurt; like he’s suddenly been reminded that regular people are a lot more fragile than he is. Tony wants to point out that he’s not actually completely useless, but the only time he ever snapped at Overprotective Steve, Steve spent the next three days moping around the tower like the time he found out about the Dodgers moving to LA, and Tony’s not a monster.

Besides, he couldn’t convincingly claim that he doesn’t kind of like the attention.

Steve enforces the doctors’ insistence that Tony ride to the car in a wheelchair, and then keeps a hand under Tony’s elbow as he gets into the car, and on the ride back to the tower he keeps glancing over his shoulder into the back seat.

Later, Tony wonders if at least some of it wasn’t a distraction tactic, because when the elevator doors open on the common floor, Steve looks distinctly nervous.

It shouldn’t be this big of a shock, because he knows that that SHIELD downgraded Loki to “protective custody” a couple of weeks ago; at the time Tony thought this might signal an end to the madness, that they might send him away (and he wasn’t really sure how he felt about that), that Steve was going to take it hard, but he didn’t hear anything else after that and he forgot to worry about it.

The thing is, he should have known better. He knows Steve, better than he ever thought he would, and one of the things he knows, something that most people would not believe, is that when he puts his mind to it Captain America is about 200% more stubborn than Tony Stark.

That said, it’s still kind of a surreal experience to walk into the living room and find Loki watching Dora The Explorer from a child-sized inflatable Oscar The Grouch chair.

Tony stops, turns around, and walks back out again, almost colliding with Steve.

Steve grabs him by the shoulders before he can fall over - hi there, concussion-related vertigo, forgot you were coming! - and then looks back over Tony’s shoulder and starts looking nervous.

“Steve,” Tony says, when he’s found his balance again.

“Uh, yes?”

Tony just jerks a thumb over his shoulder and raises his eyebrows.

“Well, it’s complicated...” says Steve.

“It doesn’t look that complicated,” Tony says, looking back at Loki, who is eating what looks like Cheerios out of a green plastic bowl in his lap, eyes glued to the screen.

Steve’s mouth becomes a firm, straight line. “They were going to release him. Place him somewhere.”

Tony feels his eyes widen. “They placed him here? When did we become a certified foster home?”

He’s joking, but Steve reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a sheaf of papers. “The day before yesterday.”

He holds out the papers. Tony just stares at them, his mouth hanging open.

Steve seems to take this for an opening, because he continues, rather hurriedly: “They were going to put him with a family with Top Secret clearance, one they’ve worked with before, and I just... I asked Agent Hill what would be involved in... in keeping him with us, and then the next thing I knew there was a social worker ringing up from the lobby...”

Tony tries to imagine the spectacle of a social worker conducting a home study of Avengers Tower, and his brain stalls out.

“...And there were a lot of questions about daytime care arrangements, and role models, and safety concerns, and reference letters... and JARVIS was a lot of help with answering most of them. Explaining the security, stuff like that.”

Tony finally takes the stack of papers Steve is holding out, and gingerly leafs through them; sees that apparently Steve obtained signed character references from 1. Philip J. Coulson, 2. Virginia Potts, CEO, Stark Industries, and 3. The President of the United States.

Jesus. Talk about covering your bases.

When he tunes back in, Steve is just saying: “So, now I’m a foster parent.” He shrugs, as though this all makes perfect sense.

Tony shuts his mouth and actually thinks for a minute, and privately thinks he should get some kind of prize, because if any moment is ever going to cause an acceptable lapse in his quest to resist his natural inclination to blurt out whatever crosses his mind, this is it.

But he discards his first response - Did they see the Liquor Room? - and his second - Did they meet Natasha? Because really, if any one resident of the tower was going to represent an insurmountable obstacle, it would be Tony, or maybe the Other Guy - and even his third - Are you out of your fucking mind? - and finally all that’s left is an inexplicable:

“Wait, why didn’t you ask me to be a reference?” He writes awesome references. Ask anybody.

Steve looks immediately guilty, which just shows good judgement, if Tony’s being honest with himself, and says: “Residents of the home can’t be references.” Which is possibly a lie, or maybe a lie of omission, judging by Steve’s face, but Tony’s not going to call him on it.

“Besides,” Steve continues, “the letters were mostly a formality, since Thor’s here.”

Tony bets that was a fun conversation. He just barely stops himself from saying so.

“Most of their concerns were regarding the, uh, home environment.”

Tony glares at Steve, but Steve doesn’t elaborate.

“Why’d you have to go through all this rigmarole anyway?” Tony asks eventually, finally taking in the sheer volume of paperwork. He hates paperwork. “You’re telling me the State of New York was going to declare Captain America an unfit parent?”

Predictably, Steve’s ears go kind of red and his forehead crumples. “I can’t get special treatment like that, Tony. Not when there’s a child involved.”

Tony stares at him, but he’s being absolutely serious.

Tony’s getting a headache, and not just because someone, somehow, got the kid authorized in the security system without Tony’s involvement (probably Pepper, which explains why she dropped them off instead of coming up). This is actually happening, and he’s starting to think it’s better he extricate himself from this situation before he says something mean, insensitive, or otherwise irretrievably awful.

“Okay,” he says finally, shoving the papers back into Steve’s hands and shouldering past him, “I need a nap. Later.”

Tony thinks he hears Steve say his name, uncertainly, as he strides away down the corridor, but when Steve doesn’t follow, he decides he’s imagined it.

***

Steve considers going after Tony - does, in fact, follow a few steps down the hall to make sure he’s walking in a straight line and not likely to veer off-course into a wall - but chickens out at the last second. He knows by now that when Tony’s been blindsided it’s easiest to just give him time to come around. Distantly, Steve hears a door slam. Probably Tony going off to sulk.

Steve realizes he’s still standing in the middle of the corridor, clutching the papers so hard they’re creased and messy. Anxiously, he tries to tap them back into shape, heading for his room to put them away, safely, in his filing cabinet. Everybody keeps offering to show him how to keep this stuff digitally, but digital documents don’t feel permanent to him; lack the significance of real paper with a real signature.

When he’s done that, he heads back to the living room and stands in the doorway for a while, watching Loki watch TV. After a while, the little boy notices his presence - he usually does after not too long - and waves at him, then holds up his green plastic bowl with a hopeful smile. “Can I more?” he asks.

“May I,” Steve corrects automatically, and takes the bowl, absently patting Loki on the head as he passes.

In the kitchen, Clint is slicing tomatoes, a pot of wide, frilly-edged noodles boiling in a pot on the stove. He’s humming along to the radio, a dish towel slung over one shoulder. Steve edges around him to get to the box of plain Cheerios they keep in the cupboard next to the stove.

It’s a new box, and he has to struggle for a minute with the bag inside the box before Clint reaches over his shoulder and does it for him, handing it back apparently without looking up.

“Uh, thanks,” Steve says, a little embarrassed, because he has super-strength but apparently sealed plastic bags of chips and cereal are beyond his powers, at least without splitting the bag down the middle and getting its contents all over the floor.

As he fills the bowl, he wonders again whether he’s made a mistake. Not over the foster care thing. That decision left him with refreshingly few second thoughts. He hasn’t been this sure about anything in a while, and every time he sees Loki smiling as he watches TV or plays with his growing collection of toys, or even laughing, he feels sure all over again that taking him in was the right thing to do.

What he’s still unsure about - as always - is Tony. Steve has wondered, not infrequently, whether anyone is ever sure about Tony. That’s another way Tony reminds Steve of Howard, though he’d never tell Tony that. If truth be told, it was not one of his better traits. Howard could be hurtful sometimes, because he just barrelled right ahead and didn’t really think about how what he said or did might affect other people. Then again, when Steve knew him, Howard was young and brash and brilliant and didn’t have a lot of people relying on him for anything other than those things - brilliance, competence. Steve wonders how that might have changed as Howard got older; married, had a kid. From what he’s heard, and what he’s gleaned from the way Tony reacts to the mere mention of his father, he gathers maybe it didn’t change much at all.

And probably that has something to do with the way Tony has been acting since all this started. At first almost jealous, like he resented the attention Steve and everyone else were suddenly paying to Loki, but first it was an emergency, and then it was an urgent situation, and now...

...And now Steve doesn’t know what it is.

He does know that the - the something between them that was there before is... different, somehow, because of Loki. That the real reason he didn’t ask Tony to be a reference wasn’t because of bias, exactly, but because of the wild, unexpected worry over how it might look if that same something ever came to anything. Which was silly, he knows. It might never come to anything. It probably won’t.

When it came right down to it, what mattered was who needed him more. And that wasn’t Tony.

He probably should have told Tony what he was planning. He knows that.

He’s pretty sure.

He never thought his life would get more complicated than it did after the serum.

“Uh, are you okay?”

It’s Clint asking, and Steve blinks and realizes he’s been leaning against the counter, staring down into the little bowl of Cheerios, for at least a few minutes. He’s still got the box in one hand.

“Oh,” Steve says, straightening up. “I was just...” He sets the box down, picks up the bowl. “I was...”

“I’ll take it,” says Natasha. Steve didn’t even see her come in, but he often doesn’t. She’s holding out one hand for the plastic bowl. He gives it to her.

“Thanks,” he says, and she disappears into the living room. Beside him, Clint hasn’t gone back to his cooking, but is regarding Steve with an expression of vague concern.

“Seriously, man, are you okay? You kind of zoned out there. For kind of a while.”

Steve puts the cereal box back in the cupboard and tries to hide a yawn as he turns back to Clint. “I’m fine. I’m just a little tired.”

“When was the last time you slept?” asks Natasha, coming back into the kitchen. Steve looks past her through the doorway and she waves away his concern.

“It’s fine. He’s fine. Steve. Have you slept?” Natasha doesn’t often repeat herself, and now they’re both looking at him as though he might keel over at any second. Now that they mention it, he can’t actually remember when he last slept. Oh, it was probably the day before yesterday, when he fell asleep in the chair next to Tony’s bed in the SHIELD infirmary. That counts, right? Anyway, he’s gone much longer without sleep.

Natasha seems to be reading his mind, though, because she and Clint share a speaking look over the counter, and then she comes around the island to grab him by the arm and steer him over to the table, pushing him - gently enough - down into a chair.

“I’m fine,” Steve protests. “I don’t--”

“I don’t remember seeing him eat anything yesterday,” Clint volunteers, head and shoulders in the fridge. Natasha makes a noise that in anyone else would be an exasperated sigh. A second later, he hears footsteps cross the kitchen and a glass is set down in front of him. It’s full of chocolate milk.

He’s suddenly so overcome with gratitude that he almost sways in his seat. “You guys are... you’ve all been...” He looks up to see Clint winding the dish towel around one hand, hip cocked against the counter, and Natasha sitting opposite him at the table, one corner of her mouth tucked up in a barely-there smirk. They’ve done so much this week, all of them, without his even having to ask. Clint stocking the cupboard with child-healthy foods, Natasha and Thor making a last-minute Toys R’ Us run to pick up the bare necessities a couple of days ago. Pepper and Thor and Dr. Foster and Darcy and Bruce and... even after all the reservations he knows they still have, they all stepped in when he needed help and didn’t really know what to ask, how to explain why this was so important to him.

“Thank you,” Steve says, quietly.

Clint and Natasha share another one of those speaking looks. Clint rolls his eyes, shaking his head.

“It’s fine,” says Clint.

“Drink your milk,” says Natasha.

***

Tony tries to take a nap, and fails. After an hour of staring at the ceiling and finally remembering why he doesn’t nap, he calls Pepper instead.

“Ms. Potts is busy,” says Pepper’s Hot Assistant. It’s been over six months and Tony still can’t remember his name. In his head the guy’s been labelled Hot Assistant from the beginning, and somehow it just never got changed. Now it’s been too long for Tony to ask and he’s been coming up with ever-more-elaborate ways of talking around it. Some time soon it’s all going to come back and kick him in the ass, Tony just knows it.

“Well, so am I,” Tony lies. “But I’m taking time out of my day to call her, so we’re even.”

“I can take a message,” Hot Assistant says, with a serenity Tony has never heard matched, except by Pepper herself. He’s grudgingly impressed.

“No, seriously, it’s urgent. It’s an emergency.”

Hot Assistant is quiet for a second or two, and then says: “I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, but I don’t believe you.”

“What?” Tony sputters. “You don’t believe me? Are you allowed to talk to callers like that?”

“Only you, Mr. Stark. You’re the whole list. There’s also a criteria checklist for determining whether your emergency meets Ms. Potts’ definition of an emergency.”

Knowing when he’s beat, Tony switches tactics.

“Okay, fine. Maybe you can help me. I need relationship advice.”

Hot Assistant is silent for three or four seconds.

“I’ll put you through,” he says, and then the phone is ringing. Tony silently fistbumps the empty air.

When Pepper picks up, she sounds exasperated.

“Stop bullying my assistants, Tony.”

“If he’d just put me through in the first place--”

“They’re not allowed to put you through when it’s a red light day, Tony. I can only waste so much of my time per week on you when it’s not business-related.”

“Waste?” Tony is actually a little hurt.

Pepper just sounds dry. “Tony, last week you kept me on the phone with a forty-five minute speech on why you should be allowed to buy Nabisco so that you could make Iron Man Oreo cookies.”

“I was going to make a variety pack! One cookie for each Avenger. It’s not like we can’t use the positive marketing.”

Which is true. Even with Stark Industries footing a significant portion of the bill, the ongoing reconstruction of Midtown still has New Yorkers grumbling like only New Yorkers can, and the company’s stock prices going up and down like a superball. Not that they're in any real danger, but unstable stock prices always put Pepper on edge.

"Tony." Pepper sounds impatient with him, which he thinks is unfair since only two hours ago she was all sweet and indulgent with him, smiling at Steve over his head in a way that he couldn't quite define.

"Did you know about this?" he asks finally. "I mean obviously you knew about it, you wrote him a reference letter. I'm just trying to figure out how apparently everybody but me was involved in this... I guess conspiracy would be the right word? It would, right?"

Pepper doesn't say anything for a long moment, and it's the silence Tony recognizes as mildly guilty - specifically him-related.

"Ah," she says. She must really be distracted, because she seems to have genuinely forgotten that she was colluding with Steve on this. He almost asks if everything's okay at the office, because not a lot else would distract her this much, but he's both too selfish and too determined right now.

"Yeah," he agrees. "So. How long was this in the works? And why wasn't I told? And while we're at it, how come he didn't ask me for a fucking reference letter? I thought we were friends, Pep." And he doesn't know if he means Pepper or Steve.

Another few beats of silence, and then Pepper says: "There was concern that you might be seen as biased."

"Of course I'd be biased! He's Captain America! America is biased. That's the whole point." Tony points his finger as though she's in front of him. "You're a better liar than Steve, sure, Pep, but you're still, you know, lying. What the hell is going on?"

And then she does something unexpected. She laughs. A low, soft, surprised chuckle. "Seriously?" she asks. "Are you being serious with me right now?"

Tony pulls the phone away from his ear and stares at the screen, then brings it back. "What?" he asks.

"Tony. Come on."

Tony doesn't answer.

"I really don't know how you can be this obtuse."

"Hey!" Tony protests.

"Well this has been fun," Pepper says, still laughing. "Thanks. Now, I have about eleven meetings before dinner..."

"Hang on a second," Tony says, feeling the situation slipping out of his control. Possibly that happened five minutes ago.

"Bye, Tony. Go play with the kid. You'll be fine."

"Pepper!"

She hangs up.

Tony resists the urge to throw his phone across the room, instead tossing it onto the bedside table. Then he flops back onto the bed - as carefully as he can, with his ribs protesting - and stares at the ceiling.

"Oh," he says, eventually, and then: "Oh."

He's delighted for all of fifteen seconds, and then sense catches up with him. Pepper must be wrong.

Except Pepper's never wrong.

Shit.

He calls Pepper back.

"Are you sure?" he asks when he gets through, before she's even said anything. "I mean, I guess you're probably sure, given the ten-minute lecture about how if I besmirched Captain America's virtue I'd end up hanging by my balls from the Statue of Liberty--"

"I did not say 'besmirched.' The Statue of Liberty thing was Phil."

"He was dead at the time!"

"We had talks. I was quoting."

"When did you have talks? I still don't--"

"Tony, shut up for a second."

Years of conditioning has his mouth snapping shut on pure reflex, and he hate that he doesn't even resent that anymore.

"Okay. Am I correctly inferring that you're freaking out over the fact that Steve Rogers might in fact like-like you?" She affects a high-pitched, middle-school sort of voice that she only pulls out when she's drunk or mocking him.

"...Maybe?"

She sighs at him. "At least you finally noticed. We were starting to wonder whether you'd gotten brain damage from outer space."

"Noticed - wait, who's we?"

"Natasha."

Tony sputters. "Jesus, are you all conspiring against me?"

She sighs again, the one that means he's being melodramatic and she doesn't actually have to be listening to him right now but she is anyway because she's a good person.

"Nobody is conspiring against you. Honestly, I thought you'd be pleased."

"Why would you think that?" He can hear the slightly crazy edge in his voice, which means Pepper probably can, too.

She definitely can, because her voice gentles. "Because you've had a crush on him since you were eight?"

"You can't prove that."

"And because he's Steve."

He has no real response to that, and swallows back anything he might have said. There's only so much he wants to expose to other people, even Pepper. Even if she already knows.

"It's..." he says, finally, quietly, "not a good idea."

Pepper doesn't answer right away. Then she says, "Tony, turn on your video."

He hesitates, then touches the little camera icon, and Pepper's face appears on his phone screen. She looks put-together but slightly harried, the New York skyline sunny and gorgeous through the window behind her. Her eyebrows are drawn together in the vaguely-concerned face she mostly used to wear when Tony was having one type of breakdown or another. He hasn't seen it since she broke up with him.

"Why isn't it a good idea?" she asks.

He laughs. "Is that a serious question? Should I send you the list? I think JARVIS still has the list."

"Tony." She says it sternly, but she still looks unhappy.

"Okay, how about because he's... Steve, and I'm..."

"Don't." She looks angry now, angry enough that he rocks back a little, surprised. On the screen, she takes a steadying breath, mouth flattened into a tight line. "Just... don't. I'm going to come over there and kick your ass. Steve would kick your ass."

He frowns at her, stubborn even in the face of her only semi-perplexing anger. Yeah, this he remembers. And how at the end he even felt like he deserved it. "Yeah," he says, "that's kind of the problem. And then I would officially become the worst person in the history of everything."

She drops her face into her hands. "You are so frustrating."

Reflex again: he grins. "You love me."

She looks up, and now she looks sad, even though she's smiling. "Yeah," she agrees, "unfortunately."

He smiles back, but it drops off his face when she looks serious again. "What did I tell you, when we started? Do you remember?"

He pretends to think about it. "Was I drunk?"

She ignores him. "You said you were probably going to fuck it up, and I told you if it was going to get fucked up, we were going to fuck it up together."

He sighs. "God, how romantic."

"Nobody fucks these things up on their own." She pauses, and then adds: "Not even you."

"I don't know whether to say thank you or be offended."

"I'm sure you can multitask."

At least after that he's tired enough that he takes his pills and goes to sleep.

He wakes again three hours later - the longest nap he's managed in years, though it probably doesn't count post-hospitalization - when Steve knocks softly on the door and lets himself in.

He comes over to the bed and actually lays a hand on Tony's forehead as if testing his temperature; his palm feels warm and dry. "How are you feeling?"

Tony squints at him, yawns. "Better. I think."

Steve lifts his hand away. "Hungry? Clint made dinner."

That wakes Tony up a little more. "Really?" He sniffs the air. Something smells amazing. It was a strangely unsurprising surprise when he learned that apparently Clint loves to cook. The common kitchen is full of his bizarrely-expensive pots and pans and anybody who tries to re-arrange the drawers is taking his life into his hands.

"Really. Ten minutes. You interested?"

Tony looks at him. He's leaning in close, relaxed and smiling, and it would be really easy to...

...but Tony just stretches and yawns again. "Hell yeah," he says, sitting up - experimentally. The room still tilts, but slower than it did earlier. When he stands up, Steve keeps a hand under his elbow - not actually touching, but close enough to grab Tony if he starts to tip over. He stays close as they make their way into the kitchen, where most of the team is sitting around the table already or following Clint's direction to set the table or pull things out of the ovens. It's domestic to a point that’s almost surreal, but what's really weird is how weird it doesn't feel.

Steve shadows him over to his seat and looks him over critically before turning away to help convey dishes from the counter to the table. Tony frowns thoughtfully at his back until somebody tugs on his sleeve. Loki is next to him, sitting on a bright red plastic booster seat and holding out a bundle of napkins. On Loki's other side Bruce is looking at them both with a small smile, and after a moment Tony realizes he's supposed to take one and pass the rest on.

"Thanks," he says, and Loki responds with a shy smile. Then a steaming pan of lasagna is set down in front of them, and Tony reflexively reaches out, jerking back with a curse when he burns his fingers. "Ow, fuck," he says.

"Tony!" Steve says, admonishingly, from across the kitchen. "Language!" Because Loki is staring at him with wide eyes, and yeah, right, kid.

"Sorry," he mutters, sticking his finger in his mouth.

A second later, Loki does the same thing, touching the pan and yanking back his hand with a surprised noise.

Steve's there immediately, crouching down next to the bench seat where they're sitting, and picking up Loki's hand to inspect it closely over Tony's lap. Tony  just sits there, feeling obscurely guilty as Steve murmurs soft reassurances. Indeed, Steve shoots Tony an exasperated look, like he's supposed to be setting an example, and he's letting everyone down - it's a familiar feeling.

But a second later, Steve sighs, and Loki is smiling again, sucking on his burned finger, and Steve is standing up, one hand on Tony's shoulder.

"Eat your dinner, Tony," Steve says, smiling, and sits down as Clint starts dishing out.

So apparently this is his life now.

The differences post-kid are mostly little ones - toys in unexpected places; a plastic stool at the bathroom counter; colourful plastic dishes that are child-sized instead of the adult-sized ones they got for Thor in the first few weeks in the tower.

There’s a stack of childcare books in constant rotation between the living room, the kitchen and Steve’s rooms and a whiteboard in the kitchen with new babysitting shifts outlined in different colours. Natasha’s and Clint’s overlap. Bruce’s are mostly during naptimes.

When he isn’t reeling over the fact that he went to bed one day part of a team of kick-ass superheroes and woke up the next signed on for group parenting, Tony wishes he could have been there for that meeting.




Part 8

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