Disclaimer: The Avengers characters are not mine, just borrowed for this story.
Reviews are always welcome and appreciated
The Blind Leading the Blind
The wind raged against the night, smashing raindrops relentlessly against the side of Stark Tower. Lightening tore across the sky in a show that would make Thor envious of its spectacle. It was none of these things that killed the peaceful slumber that Pepper had been embraced in.
Her hand fumbled along the edge of the nightstand searching for her phone, which was sounding off with its own particular urgency. The soft blue glow from the screen was reminiscent of the arc reactor. She absently ran her other hand along the other side of the bed, frowning slightly to discover it empty and cold in the absence of a hero's return.
The unfamiliar number flashing across the screen was blurred by sleep, but even rubbing away her exhaustion didn't reveal who the impending caller might be. She swallowed before licking her dry lips and pressing the accept button. "Hello?" Pepper's voice cracked on the simple word. It was quickly covered by the sound of her heart breaking at the call she had prayed would never come.
The sharp click of Potts' heels on the hard tile floor pounded almost as loudly as her heart. Her breath was coming in rapid gasps as sheer determination drove her forward. "Expect the worst and pray for the best," passed over her lips.
It was a scenario that was always in the back of their minds, a morbid consideration, that while a mathematical certainty always seemed to be the metaphorical bullet dodged. It was one of the few topics that saw Tony Stark seriously consider while the practical Pepper pushed it aside.
The strawberry blonde paused at the last corner to take a deep breath and collect herself. Someone was going to have to be the strong one and she couldn't accomplish that if she was on the verge of a breakdown. With a slight tremble, she took her first bold step towards the ICU ward and the hospital room the nurse had directed her to.
Her hand tightened around the door handle until her fingers turned white at the sight of the familiar and loved faced surrounded with cold imposing tubes and machines doing their best to reinforce life. "Tony," she whispered, suddenly unable to keep her feet underneath her.
Stark swooped over in an instant, wrapping the center of his universe in his tight embrace, guiding her towards the chair he had been previously occupying. "It's going to be alright, Pep," he whispered reassuringly in her ear.
Tony didn't do helpless, he was Iron Man after all. He could fix almost anything. But not this. It tore at his chest, ripping a bigger hole with every tear Pepper shed. Monsters, aliens, deranged scientists, bad guys, he could deal with all these things and find a way to win but all his tricks and swagger couldn't stop a drunk driver from running a red light.
He would have been the most likely candidate to find himself in this position. In some odd twist of fate, though, it was Pepper's brother they now had to hold vigil for. All of his death-defying stunts and something as pedestrian as a drunk driver had punched a hole in their lives. There was a cosmic unfairness to the whole thing that tickled the back of their throats; the most innocent person in the room was the one fate had decided to dump on.
"Everything's going to be alright. I got here as soon as I could," whispered Stark into the sweet strawberry hair of his lover as he held her tighter than ever before, suddenly more aware of how fragile life was, having the evidence so close to them. "He's stable. Oliver's stable, but he's in a comma."
Pepper's fingers dug painfully into Tony's shoulders as she held him tight. Sorrow for her brother was being tempered with relief that Tony was safe, that it hadn't been Iron Man who was injured in the line of duty or any other activity that painted a target on his back for danger to zero in on. The absolute worst case scenario slowly retreating to the darkness in the light of better, more hopeful news pushed another thought to Pepper's mind. "What about Erica and Toby?"
Stark pulled back from their embrace, his hands framing her face. Words failed as he took unfair solace in the fact that he wasn't going to have to bury his girlfriend, that the cruel arrow of fate had struck close but far enough that it missed the mark and, no matter how horrible he felt for that small relief, it still allowed him to keep breathing. He shook his head. "The baby's fine, he wasn't with them." Pepper closed her eyes for the heartache of losing a sister-in-law and the pain her brother would have to wake up to.
Gently, Tony sat Pepper down on the vacant seat. This wasn't his area of expertise; he could fix things, but not people, at least not like this. But he had the money to find people that could fix this. "I'm going to make a few phone calls. I'll find someone that can do something, I'll get the very best help and I'll make this right," he promised between tender kisses on her shaking hands. "I'll take care of everything. You just wait here."
She grabbed his hand as Stark started to pull away. "Someone needs to look after Toby." Despite the tremor in her voice and the level of distress tearing through her, the current CEO of Stark Industries always managed to keep all the important things in order.
"I'll take care of that, too," assured Stark. There had to be people in his employ that could perform nanny duties until the one-year-old's father was well enough to go home. "I'll personally interview candidates, find someone who will be the model of dedicated caregiver."
"No, Tony. We can't leave him with strangers at a time like this. He just lost his mother, his father... He needs to be with family. I need you to take care of him."
He shifted his weight from foot to foot as he tried to swallow the lump in his throat. Pepper had had faith in him when everyone else just passed him off as a degenerate playboy suckling at the teat of excess and indulgence, but this had to be a mistake; Tony Stark did not do children. He could barely take care of himself. Even that, he couldn't take credit for. His survival past the age to of twenty-five really had to be attributed to Pepper and Happy.
"You've had a major shock, honey. You just said you want me, Tony Stark, to look after a child," corrected Tony, running a hand through his hair nervously. "I can't look after a child. I am a child."
Pepper turned her gaze away from the prone form in the bed. "I need you Tony," she choked out around a sob.
"Okay," mumbled Stark, moving to wrap his arms around the strawberry blond again before the thought even worked its way through his head. "You won't have to worry about a thing; I'll take care of everything."
High-pitched cries echoed off the sleek and styled walls of Stark Tower. If it wasn't for some sense of maturity, Tony would have launched into a hysterical crying fit right alongside Toby after the complicated day they had had.
His instructions had been simple: pick up the young child from the babysitter and take him home with the billionaire. Step one was driving there; that was easy. Tony could drive with the best of them. Step two should have been put the kid in the car and drive the six hours home, but that notion was quickly squashed in spectacular fashion. Who knew kids had so much stuff?
Bless Pepper. The woman was in the throes of grief but still must have managed to call ahead to inform the sitter of Stark's impending arrival (and expected cluelessness) because the delightful Mary Poppins incarnation that greeted him at the door had an arsenal of suitcases and baby paraphernalia ready to go.
JARVIS would have the basic schematics for a user friendly car seat by the end of the week because, really, who invented those things like that anyway? He had built complex suits that could dismantle themselves and reassemble, but the harness system of an infant car seat had proved to be beyond him.
With that setback behind them, the pair hit the road. To the little guy's credit, he passed out a few minutes into the trip and slept the whole way until Tony had attempted to extract him from what was now referred to as Public Enemy Number One. The second the car seat buckle clicked open, Toby's eyes had snapped open and the wailing began. The sharp unrelenting screams followed Stark all the way through the tower to his present campout spot: the common living room.
It was awkward juggling a fussing baby in one arm while tearing through the never-ending stack of suitcases that had accompanied Toby, but Tony managed to make short work of them. Nothing retrieved from the bags seemed to appease the young boy, who had managed to soak the billionaire's shirt in tears and snot.
Bruce and Steve wandered in after the elevator dinged. Banner's hands immediately covered his ears as he surveyed the mess of clothes, toys, and other baby paraphernalia strewn about the room. "What's going on?" shouted the doctor.
"I... have... a little ... situation... here," managed Tony over Toby's cries as he ineloquently bounced the boy in his arms.
"We can see that," Steve said, looking more uncomfortable with each wail.
"Pepper's brother's in the hospital," started Stark.
"We heard, we're so sorry," informed Bruce.
"Let her know if there's anything thing we can do for her," added Rogers with genuine sincerity.
Shifting the baby to his other arm and continuing the ineffective bouncing, Tony jumped at the offer of help. "Now that you mention in, if someone wants to deal with this," he pleaded, lifting the child up slightly in gesture.
"Um, yeah... no," apologized Bruce, shifting uncomfortably under his friend's gaze before taking a step back.
"Come on, Bruce, you can deal with kids," pleaded Stark holding the screaming infant in his out stretched arms. The infant clearly needed something Tony was unable to give, and there had to be someone better qualified to handle the situation, even if they did technically turn into a giant green rage monster.
"Ones that can talk, not ones that communicate through ear-piercing screams, that never seem to end and I have to tell you, the big guy's not liking this. For all parties concerned, I'm going to-" Banner made a vague hand gesture towards the door as he began to slowly back towards it.
Tony turned to Steve, who had been silently lurking in the corner waiting for his opportunity to flee the scene. The billionaire's eyes were frantic, not unlike his constant bouncing of the child in his grip. "What about you, Rogers?"
"Babies aren't really my thing." Rogers truly looked apologetic, but the fact remained, he was abandoning Tony in his hour of need.
"I've seen pictures of you kissing them!" he protested, his voice barely carrying over the continuous wails. Stark could play dirty if he had to; his sanity was depending on it now.
Steve sheepishly tapped the tip of his boot against the floor, keeping his line of sight from meeting Tony's. "Yeah, and then I handed them back to their mothers," he added hastily as he scurried towards the elevator just outside the living room.
"That's right, you cowards, run and hide," shouted Stark to Captain America's retreating back. Turning to look down at Toby, he continued in a more subdued voice, "They can face down crazy gods, alien armies, and giant flying whales but flee in the presence of Mini Me.
The billionaire scrunched up his nose as a putrid smell assaulted his nostrils. Fighting his gag reflex, he lifted the fussing child a little higher to confirm what he had already been dreading. The smell was emanating from Toby. "It just keeps getting better, doesn't it?" mumbled Tony. "Dummy, diaper duty," he called over his shoulder.
Obediently, the robot whirled in response to his creator, wheeling out from the corner, diaper bag in hand. The various blankets and toys Stark had hung off of the machine barely obscured its vision, but forcing the egger robot to bump into the coffee table causing the contents everything to fall to the floor. The toys seemed to burst to life as they plopped on the ground in a symphony of noise and color.
The clumsiness that was a common irritant to Stark was fresh, new and apparently exciting to the small boy, who actually stopped his very vocal protests to gurgle happily at the clumsy robot. Tony froze at the sudden and pleasant change in sound; the slightest movement could disrupt the delicate balance of the Toby's tentative happiness.
"You like that? Well that's good cause, despite my best efforts, that seems to be Dummy's level."
Toby looked up at the man holding him, the unfamiliar face not what he was hoping for. His lip started to wobble and the tears began to well before the damn of silence broke in spectacular fashion.
"JARVIS!" shouted Stark over the onslaught of noise, "you gotta give me something here, buddy. There has to be an off switch on this thing." The rhythmic bouncing began again, which was all well and good because it was the only kind of workout the billionaire was probably going to get in the near future.
"I have consulted several databases, sir, along with my own personal scans of the young Master Toby and cannot find a reason for his state that would not have been remedied by the many maladies you have attempted to check for," informed the AI with what sounded suspiciously like sympathy.
"You're not helping me here, JARVIS."
"I apologize, sir. Perhaps it's time to call Ms Potts?"
"No," replied Stark, vehemently shaking his head. "She's got enough to worry about. This shouldn't be added to it. Besides, he's a baby. I should be able to do this."
Reluctantly JARVIS answered, "As you wish sir."
The elevator dinged pleasantly as it arrived at the common floor in Stark Tower. All three agents let out a sigh of relief to finally be home. The relief was short lived as a continuous high-pitched wail broke the peaceful barrier. Coulson exited the elevator with Romanoff and Barton in tow, all tense and looking for the threat that had violated the sanctity of their home.
Tony looked over at his teammates, a look of relief washing away the frantic panic that had dominated for so long. "Oh, thank god, the cavalry!"
"What is that god awful noise?" demanded Natasha, her brow creasing as her hands moved to cover her ears.
Tony promptly held out Toby as though the baby that was so out of place in that setting had somehow been camouflaged upon their entry.
"Jilted one night stand decide to dump your love child on you?" asked Natasha, trying to solve the mystery of their newest arrival.
Stark scowled at the insinuation, even if it wasn't such a farfetched idea. "It's Toby," he explained while trying to hand him over to the red head.
"Don't hand that thing to me," she snapped in reply before implementing a series of ninja moves to slip out of Tony's reach. "It's not a bomb; it's a baby," he tried with little success.
Phil calmly asked, "Who is Toby and why would anyone trust you with a child?"
"He's Pepper's nephew," started Stark, switching the baby to his other arm. "There was a drunk driver and his mom didn't make it and his dad's in a comma. Pepper wanted family to look after the kid until something changes." A glimmer of hope appeared in Tony's eye as he looked at Coulson, the epitome of calm, cool, and collected in any crisis. "Agent, you look after us, you must be able to help?" Toby hadn't really stopped crying in the last five hours and Tony wasn't too proud to beg at this point or admit he probably wasn't the best person for the job, no matter how much he wanted to prove to Pepper that he could be the mature grown up that she was looking for.
It was something to mark on the calendar, because, for a moment, just one tiny second, Tony could have sworn he saw fear in Phil's eyes.
"While the whining, puking, temper tantrums, and a complete disregard for societal nuances would be very familiar to dealing with you," explained Coulson in his ever calm manner, "I don't do babies."
Clint let out a small snort of amusement from where he was leaning against the wall.
Tony gapped for a few moments as both Coulson and Natasha proceeded to flee the living room, leaving Stark floundering on his own. It wasn't that they wouldn't help the billionaire if he was in trouble, but infants were completely out of their skill set.
"You're doing it wrong," said Barton, who had remained steadfast in his position while the rest of his team headed for the hills. There was no judgement in his voice, if that was at all possible, while he called out Tony on his complete lack of skill.
"What would you know about it?" snapped the inventor.
"More than you apparently. They can smell fear. You're stressing him out," Clint commented nonchalantly.
Tony cocked his head to the side. "I'm stressing him out?!" The scepticism dripped off his tongue like drool from the infant in his arms.
A half smirk worked its way across Barton's face as he pushed off from the wall. In a display of ninja-like effectiveness, the archer had the child cuddled in his arms and, more amazingly, the kid was quiet as a church mouse.
Stark stood there for a moment, utterly dumbfounded. "What the hell?" He couldn't help but looked at his hands as though they personally betrayed him in his quest to quiet the baby. He could fix anything, but apparently small, miniature versions of people were out of his realm of understanding and finesse.
Clint ignored his friend, gently swaying the precious package until Toby's puffy red eyes drifted closed. He moved to hand the child back to Tony who steadfastly backed away, raising his arms to block the hand off.
"It finally stopped. You hand him back, we're going to have to deal with that noise all over again," muttered the inventor as he made his way to the bar to pour himself a drink. "Nobody here wants that."
Continuing his mastery of all things baby, the archer shifted the bundle to one arm while simultaneously snatching the drink out of Tony's. "Pretty sure you're on kid-minding duty," reminded Barton.
"I think my tolerance for alcohol has surpassed that of one drink by now, don't you agree?" he replied before attempting to swipe the glass back. Without so much as coaxing a peep out of the child, Clint danced out of Tony's reach with a gracefulness reminiscent of Natasha. "Besides," continued the billionaire with a little more frustration creeping into his voice, "the kid made his choice and he'd clearly rather be with you. So congratulations, Feathers, you just got babysitting duty."
"Pretty sure Pepper wanted you to do it. Besides, the kid's passed out from exhaustion. You'd pretty much have to work at waking him up at this point." With a firm hand, Clint started moving Tony's arms into position to cradle the baby.
It felt weird and all wrong, but Stark focused on what Clint had said. It wasn't the best lie he'd ever heard the assassin tell which made him wonder if that meant it was partly the truth. The familiar weight was successfully passed off into his arms and Stark held his breath as he waited for the all too familiar shriek to accompany it. The silence stretched, as did the archer's I-told-you-so smile.
"Now," started Barton, "you put him to bed. He's had a rough day, in unfamiliar surroundings. A goodnight's sleep will make him more amicable tomorrow. Where did you put the crib?"
The question gave Tony more pause than it should have. Apparently, Toby wasn't the only one who was exhausted. Who knew listening to a kid scream for hours was that taxing? "Do I have one of those?" he muttered to himself, making his way over to the pile of stuff Dummy had piled upon their return. "Which one of these bags is it going to pop out of?"
Clint rubbed his fingers across his forehead. "It's a bed, Stark."
"I know that. Everything else had been folded nine ways from Sunday and crammed in these bags, maybe it is too!"
"If I may, sir," interpreted JARVIS, "I took the liberty of ordering one on behalf of young Master Toby and had the delivery men set it up in your suite."
"Good work, JARVIS," congratulated Barton.
"Now there are workmen in my suite," huffed the billionaire. "First they're in my private elevator, now my room, I mean, is there nothing sacred in my building?"
Sure enough, upon entering Stark's room, a beautiful yet understated mahogany crib was tucked in the corner of the room ready to go. With bated breath and the archer's watchful eye, Tony managed to ninja the infant into the crib without so much as earning a twitch from the child. He took a moment to bask in the silence before Clint clapped him on the shoulder.
"Bed, Stark," ordered Barton, pointing towards the enormous and inviting bed.
It wasn't the worst idea. He was pretty tired, but it was the principle of the thing. It was probably against his religion to crawl into bed before midnight just to sleep. Really, it could be the apocalyptic event that knocks the world out of its orbit. "I'm not the child here, Barton. I don't have a bedtime," complained the inventor.
Clint just smiled. It was a smirk that was all too familiar. Hell, Tony was pretty sure he patented that grin; it was the one he graced people with when he had to dumb things down to prove he was right and the other party still didn't see his brilliance in the situation.
"Toby's going to wake up when you usually drag your ass to bed, Tony. If you don't get sleep now, you might not see it until tomorrow. This isn't like one of your inventions. You don't want to have to manage him on no sleep," Clint cautioned.
Fighting back a yawn, Tony voiced the question that had been tickling the back of his brain since Robin Hood swooped in and turned all Baby Whisperer. "How'd you get so good with kids?"
It was a simple question, but Barton looked as though Tony had just slapped him. He turned away fighting the burning tears that threatened to fall along with the tightening knot in his throat. "Doesn't matter," he managed.
Stark leaned against the bed post, folding his arms across his chest. His watch clinked against the outer edge of the arc reactor offering a gentle ping to remind Tony of his vulnerability, a feeling that Clint was apparently feeling now. "I could just hack your file again, but I'd prefer to leave the invasions of privacy for emergencies and get the more personal story."
"Not everything is in my SHIELD file." The archer cleared his throat before turning to head towards the door.
"So you're not going to tell me?" he called out to Clint's retreating back.
"Nope. Get some sleep, Tony. Looking after a kid is a full-time job."
Stark waved him off reaching for his tablet sitting on the nightstand and bringing up the schematics for his latest project.
Tony let out a groan as he was painfully torn away from unconsciousness. His eyelids were heavy and, even though the unrelenting sound proclaiming morning would not quit, he rolled over embracing the comfort of his pillow. "JARVIS," he mumbled, refusing to let wakefulness destroy his refuge, "turn off the alarm."
The monotonous and unwavering noise continued.
"JARVIS!" croaked the billionaire, voice ruff to his own ears. "The alarm JARVIS, kill it."
"Regretfully, sir, I cannot."
"What? Why?" he snapped, prying his face off the pillow. It wasn't the harsh rays of the morning sun that greeted Stark, rather the emptiness of darkness that still flooded the room. Squinting, he tried to make the blurry numbers on his alarm display dance and reconfigure into a number that made more sense.
"Young Master Toby is expressing his distress. My initial scan suggests a diaper change may be in order."
The situation began to slot itself correctly in the inventor's brain as the sleep fog started to dissipate. "Call Barton. He's good with the rug rat." The mere two hours of rest wasn't enough to shake the exhaustion that was weighing him down. There was no way he could muster the energy to attempt something so far out of his wheel house.
A moment later, JARVIS's calm voice registered. "Agent Barton wishes to convey that you are on your own, sir."
Tony quirked an eyebrow. "Is that what he said?"
"I am paraphrasing, sir. His exact words were: I warned him, so you can tell Stark to man up and leave me the hell alone because if he wakes my ass up again and there's no world-ending disaster, there's going to be some arrows in some very uncomfortable places come morning."
"Fine," huffed Tony, before throwing the blankets back in dramatic fashion. He ambled barefoot over to the crib, the soft glow of the arc reactor unbidden by a shirt, lighting the way. Toby was clinging to the bars, tears streaming down his red, little face.
"Whoa," gasped Stark as the smell of a thoroughly used diaper assaulted his nose. "Something that small shouldn't make something that awful." The infant continued to shed tears despite Tony's presence, only calming down slightly as he was scooped up and tucked tightly against the gentle blue glow that now held his attention.
He laid there mesmerized, gently pawing at the light through all of Stark's four attempts to secure a new diaper properly. He even gurgled happily as Tony carried him back to the crib, little hands running over the different surfaces of the blue light in Tony's chest. The happy content moment erupted into the all too familiar crying the second the inventor began to lower him back into the crib.
Stark aborted his movement hugging Toby close and, as if by magic, the little boy quieted. Testing his hypothesis, he attempted to return the child to his bed, once more with similar results. All five attempts yielded the same reaction. "Well, kiddo, I can take a hint; the big bed it is."
Slipping back under the still warm blanket, Tony cleared a spot for his precious cargo to curl against him. He hadn't meant to fall asleep; the goal had been to outlast Toby and perform Barton's ninja move of return the baby while he was asleep but, at some point, bodily function trumped determination and he drifted off.
The next four days hadn't been the nightmarish disaster Tony would have predicted. Both he and the child were still alive and he only had to have Barton intervene six times with much desired help. The pair had fallen into a comfortable rhythm. They would rise at an hour Tony still had no desire to witness. A quick diaper change preceded breakfast, or what had come to be known as the daily smearing of green mush around the kitchen.
The afternoon found them in the lab because brilliance waited for no one and the billionaire desperately needed the familiar calm of his usual haunt when the rest of his life had been completely turned upside down. The rest of the team had been keeping their distance when at the tower except for the archer. Being responsible for such a delicate little life was oddly frightening in comparison to death-defying missions and bloody battles. He was so engrossed in his work, that he didn't notice Clint enter the lab.
Barton paused at the door before letting out a sigh. He'd seen some crazy things in his life but words could not describe what he found in the lab except for Tony Stark. The fact that the billionaire had a bottle of his own hanging out of his mouth as he methodically shuffled around points on the holographic display was something Clint would analyze later. The state of Toby was peaking his curiosity more.
Toby, cheerfully blowing spit bubbles, was strapped in his car seat, which had undergone some major Stark innovation. He couldn't be certain, but Clint supposed that at this point, it could probably protect the kid from a bomb with all the new safety features adorning it. The child himself was clothed in some new fabric which could only be compared to bubble wrap, complete with a tiny helmet, elbow pads and knee pads. Clint made a mental note to give Natasha the twenty dollars they had bet in regards to how far Tony would take things.
"Seriously, Stark?" Barton asked as he began to unbuckle Toby and remove some of the layers of protective gear. "Talk about taking overcompensating to the next level. Is this Kevlar?"
"What?" Tony looked over. "Oh, that. I'm thinking of launching a kids clothing slash safety line. It could be a whole new direction for Stark Industries."
"Stick to computers, though, I'm honestly surprised you haven't made him an Iron Man suit of his own yet," Clint returned, balancing the kid on his hip.
"What do you think this is?" said Tony, pointing over his shoulder towards the projected blue lines.
"Tony, it was an accident, it happens. He's fine, there's barely a bump."
Stark snorted and turned back to his diagram. It had all been going smoothly until yesterday. He had zoned out into the world of Stark brilliance and failed to notice Toby rolling over and off the edge of the corner couch that he had been laying still on all morning. Amidst the panic on Tony's part and the tears on Toby's, it was a revelatory moment that reinforced the idea that Stark wasn't safe to leave with a potted plant.
Clint had responded to Tony's summons in record time, quickly calming both and assuring Stark that Toby was, in fact, going to be alright and that it wasn't the first time a child had rolled off of something. If there wasn't so much pressure to perform, to prove to Pepper that he could be counted on and, more significantly, to be a better father than the one he remembered, he might have believed Clint. This was important to Pepper and in the wake of spectacularly failing in the relationship department, (the giant bunny seemed like a good idea at the time), this was his chance to prove he could step up when she needed him. If he couldn't protect the people around him, then what good was Iron Man?
"Should I ask about the bottle?" asked Clint before handing Toby off to Tony, his little hands reaching for the inventor eagerly. The baby had grown rather fond of his unofficial uncle and Barton was rather impressed with Tony's attempts to incorporate the little one into his life. He could almost say he was proud.
Stark shook his head, unsure when his life had become solely focused on accommodating someone else, particularly someone he wasn't going to sleep with. "It's just easier. Trust me. Did you have a reason for dropping by?"
"No. Just figured I'd remind you you're doing fine before you lock the tower down under Defcon One over the rolling over incident. And, what do you know, you were half way there."
"Am I that predictable?"
The archer rolled his eyes as he raised his hand to show the smallest measure of Tony's predictability. The inventor gave a non-committal hum to Barton's praise, leaning over his work bench looking dejected.
"What are you afraid of, Tony?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, spinning the stool around to look back at Clint. He fiddled with the screwdriver in his hand in preparation for what was probably going to be an uncomfortable introspection. In all fairness, he had forced his fair share on the archer.
"You face down warlords, aliens, demented gods," listed Barton, rolling his hand in a continuance motion. "An eight month old shouldn't be that terrifying. He's not yours, so you don't have to worry about corrupting him, and he's not going to be around permanently, so you don't have to worry about how a baby's going to complicate your life." They were the shallow concerns of a self-obsessed playboy and, while Clint didn't feel they were at the heart of the issue, mentioning them might force him to analyze what was.
"You think I'm afraid of a little inconvenience?" There was a tiny hint of resentment at the suggestion, but it quickly disappeared under the weight of the image of the world that he had carefully crafted.
"Babies make Natasha nervous because she's afraid she'll find she doesn't have a nurturing instinct, that the Red Room destroyed that in her. Coulson doesn't like not being in control of a situation and babies are somewhat unpredictable. Bruce's afraid he'll slip and the Hulk will hurt them, though I kind of think even if he did lose control, the big guy would pull it together to protect something that small. Steve, apart from not liking attachments because they can be lost again, doesn't want to fail something so dependent on him. So what about Toby terrifies you?
"You forgot Thor," Tony added, trying to stall.
"No. I think kids would be right up Thor's alley actually. If he was in town, he'd be your shadow in all things kid related if you asked him."
There was a long period of silence. Finally, the words crawled from the depths of Stark's soul into the daylight for all to witness. "I'm afraid I'll be my father, or, worse yet, that Pepper will see that and that will be the end of whatever we have."
"So you see Pepper and yourself long term?" asked Clint with encouragement.
A radiant smile over took Tony's face. "I think I do.
"For what it's worth, you're not your father. You may not have had a stellar example of what to be, but you know what not to be and that can make all the difference. Besides, Pepper's pretty smart. I think she's already figured out all your flaws and short comings and, against sound advice, has decided to love you for them." The archer clapped Tony on the shoulder before ruffling Toby's hair on his way towards the door to leave Tony with his revelation.
Tony got the rest of the team's reaction to having Toby around; it just wasn't in their skill set. Barton managed to be helpful without judgement of all Stark's missteps. It was the kind of wisdom that came from experience and not theoretical study. And Clint had been right. There was nothing in his file about a kid or even any sort of a relationship before joining SHIELD. It all added to the question that wouldn't leave Tony alone: when did Barton care for a child?
Stark called out, "So who was the kid, Barton?"
Clint stopped mid stride and folded his arms across his chest, remaining silent as he stared at the billionaire.
"You have a brother, right? Was it a niece? Nephew?" Cold silence was the only answer. "Younger sibling? Orphaned cousin your family had to take in?"
Clint shifted his weight slightly. Only someone who knew him really well would have picked up the subtle display of discomfort. The answer was one of the many things he had buried in his past, left behind in order to try and survive the future. That didn't make it any less painful to think about it now. "No one expects you to be the poster child for Parent of the Year, Tony. You just have to do the best you can and not put the kid in a high security bubble."
"Changing the subject and walking away doesn't answer the question," Tony shouted after Barton as the archer left the lab.
Pepper rolled her shoulders trying to work out some of the kinks in her back. Running back and forth between her hotel room and the hospital, getting a couple hours of shuteye here and there, had made an exhausting situation even worse. The only silver lining was that Toby had only lost one parent and not both. Her younger brother had managed to pull out a miracle of his own and woke up five days ago. Since Tony's generosity knew no bounds when it came to Potts, she had managed to hire an arsenal of homecare staff to see to Oliver's recovery from home where he could be with his son.
The soft glow of JARVIS's evening light setting greeted her as she stepped off the elevator to the main floor. It was quiet, not surprising given the late hour, but, as always, there was someone up and about. Pepper detoured towards the open balcony door to find Clint leaning against the railing staring out over the calm of the city.
"Welcome back, Pepper," he greeted without turning around to see who had joined him on the terrace.
"Thank you. It's a relief to know that Oliver is going to be alright." They stood in companionable silence breathing in the cool night air. Finally, Potts needed to address the concern she had forced to the back of her mind during her vigil at the hospital. "How'd he do?"
"Tony?" he chuckled with a small smile. "You'd be proud. The tower's still standing, nothing blew up, Toby didn't get lost and I dare say Stark is somewhat proficient in diaper changing. He really stepped up."
"I knew there was an adult buried somewhere in Tony just dying to get out." It was nice to know that in desperate situations Tony could clean up after her. Sure, she knew he would always catch her when she fell, but this was something else entirely. The billionaire had made a career out of avoiding children, more specifically exposing his fear that he would be as incompetent as he had believed his father had been. "I'll have that information you were looking for by the end of the week. Happy's almost done collecting it."
Pepper smiled sweetly before heading back inside to find her personal hero. She kicked off her heels and dropped her keys in the bowl by the door to her personal floor, happy to be home once more. It was well past one in the morning, but the space was oddly silent. She turned the corner to find Tony slumped in a new rocking chair, Toby nestled in his arms. Both were dead to the world with similar adorable expressions on their faces. It was a sight that warmed Pepper's heart and she hated to have to wake Stark, but he would pay for sleeping in the chair all night if she didn't.
With a gentle nudge, Tony flinched awake, looking quickly around the room for any potential threats. A smile bloomed on his face as he took in the sight of Pepper. "You're home," he croaked, voice laden with sleep.
"Yeah, they let Oliver go home this morning and I had the nursing staff and home care set up by this afternoon. I know it's late, but I just really needed to get home." She ran her fingers through the delicate strands of Toby's hair. The two of them sleeping on the chair had been a sight that gave her hope, that gave her possibilities for the future she hadn't even been sure she wanted. "I'll take Toby home in the morning. I know his dad is anxious to see him."
With practiced movement, Tony got to his feet, gently shifting the sleeping baby so as not to wake him. "I'm going to miss the little rug rat," he mused in a hushed voice. "Kind of got use to having someone under foot all the time." Stark pulled the red and gold blanket over the boy after placing him in his crib.
Pepper ran her hands down his shoulders, wrapping them around Tony's chest as she nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck. "I'm sure Oliver would let us take him for a night here and there. I'm sure they'd both like it if Toby got to spend some time with his aunt and uncle."
The pair moved to the other side of the room and got ready to crawl into their own bed. Stark let out a soft hum as he pulled the covers back. "What if we had one of our own?"
Potts paused in fluffing her pillow. Of all of the things that could come out of Tony's mouth, she never thought she'd hear those words. "You mean a baby? If we had our own kid?"
"I think we're missing a couple of steps in between," added Pepper, trying to picture what life would be like if they decided to take a stab at the American dream.
A small grin curled the side of the billionaire's mouth. "We've never been conventional before."
"That's a lot of responsibility and you're not..."
"Capable of keeping a potted plant alive," Tony interrupted, "but I do save the world from time to time and I did keep him safe."
Moving closer to Stark, she snuggled against him and the pillow, allowing her hand to rest on his chest just below the heart he tried so hard to convince the world he didn't have. "Well, you did get a glowing review," she purred.
"There's that...wait, you were spying on me?" asked Tony, feigning hurt.
Tony sat up a little straighter. "Who? ... Barton, you had a professional spy watching me." Her resourcefulness never ceased to amaze him, not to mention her ability to predict and navigate Stark's own brand of train wreck. "Why don't we make it official then... this thing."
The confusion cleared from Pepper's eyes as Tony gestured between the two of them. "Are you asking me to marry you?"
"Yeah," chuckled the inventor as the magnitude of the proposition occurred to him. Surprisingly, it wasn't as scary a thought as he would have initially believed it to be.
"Are you serious? You don't even have a ring." She stared into Stark's eyes looking for any hint that this was just another wild whim, something that seemed a good idea at the time but Potts could clear up in the morning when the harsh light of day exposed it as the foolhardy impulsiveness of a professional playboy.
Disentwining himself from Pepper's arms, he rolled over to reach the nightstand. With deft fingers he poked around the pile of nuts, bolts, and other items from his workshop that he had emptied from his pockets the night before, searching for something he could use. He smiled to himself as pushed a black washer over to find a small platinum ring, far too narrow to pass for actual jewellery and diamond-less, of course, but it sparkled. Turning back over, Tony slipped it onto Pepper's finger. "I'll get you a real one, I promise, but I get points for spontaneity, right? Seriously, will you marry me?"
All the words in her expansive vocabulary disappeared in a whoosh of breath, but somehow the only word that really mattered made its way past her lips. "Yes."