A/N: Thanks to the people at TBB for the beta. Also thanks to VLeRoux for making me lol with the best reactions while I tortured her with Tony feels. This was originally based off a prompt for someone to see the aftermath of a Tony de-aging fic, and I've been hankering to write one forever. Please enjoy.
Thor had assured them the spell would only last a few days. Maybe a week. It wasn't designed to be long term.
Still though, when they had finally knocked out Enchantress and were able to attend to Tony, they had found a terrified eight year old boy inside the Iron Man suit.
Fury had not been happy.
"We'll just have to babysit for a couple of days, right?" Clint asked.
Thor had a sheepish look on his face, like Enchantress' attack and Tony's subsequent dilemma had been his fault.
Steve looked past the archer into the room on the helicarrier where a doctor was examining Tony. An oversized t-shirt had him looking smaller then he actually was. Young Tony had hardly said a word the whole time, obediently doing whatever the doctor told him. He kicked his heels against the examination table, clearly bored.
Steve sighed. "I suppose it could be worse. Who wants to call Ms. Potts?"
The rest of the team didn't meet his eyes.
"Perhaps," said Thor somewhat meekly. "We may wait to inform her of The Man of Iron's current predicament?"
Steve huffed. "Traitors." But honestly, it wasn't something he was looking forward to either.
They brought Tony back to the tower after he had been cleared by the SHIELD doctors. It seemed the arc reactor had disappeared with Amora's spell, and for that Steve was grateful. He was positive an invasive device suddenly appearing in the middle of a kid's chest would freak him out even more. Natasha and Clint had traveled separately, so they could pick up some kids' clothing for Tony. The whole way back in the quinjet, Tony sat buckled up, staring at Steve with wide eyes. It made Steve slightly uncomfortable. He tried making small talk.
"Do you like New York?" he tried.
The small boy shrugged. He still didn't say anything, continuing to alternate between staring at Steve and silently studying things he could see in the Quinjet. Steve tried to cover the awkward silence while Bruce and Thor gave him appreciative looks.
They arrived at the tower, Steve beckoning Tony to unbuckle and follow him inside.
Tony followed slowly, cautiously. It was so different from the Tony they were familiar with. The boy's eyes traveled over the sides of the landing pad, but he didn't seem afraid of the heights. That was the same, at least.
When they made it inside, Bruce spoke. "Tony, can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"Juice?" Tony asked hopefully. "Please," he quickly added.
Bruce smiled. "Of course," he said, going towards the fridge.
Thor kneeled down so he was looking Tony in the eyes. "Young Anthony, would you honor me by sitting at the table? Perhaps Steve Rogers may join us as well." He gave a huge smile.
Tony giggled. "You talk funny."
"Indeed," Thor agreed, pulling out a chair. Tony hopped up onto it, his oversized t-shirt folding over his thighs like a nightgown. He thanked Bruce for bringing a glass of juice over to him. Bruce, not wanting to crowd the young boy, started preparing his own tea away from the table.
"Sir?" Tony asked quietly. He was looking at Steve who had sat in another seat at the table. He had pulled his cowl off long ago, but was still wearing his full uniform.
Steve smiled. "You can just call me Steve," he assured the small boy.
Tony shook his head vehemently. "I'm not supposed to call adults by their first names," he said.
"I only have one name. You can call me Thor. Thus, I think it is acceptable if you call Steve by his given name." Thor assured him. Tony still hesitated.
"Can I ask you a question?" Tony said instead, dodging the name issue. Steve blinked. He definitely was not used to Tony being polite. He started to wonder when all this had gone out the window. Teenage years, probably.
Instead, he smiled down at the small boy. "Sure. You can ask me anything."
"Are you really Captain America?" Tony said in disbelief.
"I am," Steve said.
He had sort of been expecting what he saw on other kids' faces both during the war and now. He was expecting a little shock and amazement, or some enthusiasm. Instead, Tony's brow crinkled up in confusion and he tilted his head slightly. Steve's smile quickly melted at the boy's next words.
"But if you're here…where's my dad? He looks for you all the time. So now that you're found…why isn't he here?" The boy's eyes were wide, his mop of black hair disheveled. He just looked so…young.
Steve's eyes met Thor's over the top of Tony's head. Thor looked equally lost as Steve felt.
"He'll be back in a few days," Steve lied. It made his insides twist uncomfortably. "He…he had to go to a conference. For work."
"Oh." Tony's eyes fell to the table. He looked disappointed, but not surprised. "My mom too?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "She's with him."
Tony flicked the straw in his juice for a moment, not looking up. Steve was about to say something else when Tony spoke up. "Do they even know I'm here?" he asked bitterly. His voice was filled with such venom, Steve nearly flinched. He'd never heard such resentment in a child's voice before.
"Of course they do!" Thor boomed. "They have left you in our care. We will have many adventures together!"
"May I…may I please be excused?" Tony mumbled quietly. Steve glanced to Bruce. The scientist was leaning on the kitchen countertop, not looking in their direction. He was motionless.
"Um, sure. But do you know-" Tony was hopping off the chair, running quickly down the hall. "-where to go…Jarvis, can you please keep an eye on him? Maybe guide him to a bedroom?"
"Certainly, Captain Rogers."
Clint and Natasha returned a short time later. Clint offered to find the kid, so at least he could give him some new clothes. Jarvis directed him to an empty bedroom. Tony was sitting on the bed, and his eyes flicked up as Clint knocked on the doorway then entered with the bag in hand.
"Hey, kiddo. Brought you some clothes," Clint said holding the bag between them as a peace offering.
Tony put down the pieces of the alarm clock he had disassembled, peeking into the bag suspiciously.
"Clint," the archer supplied.
Tony shook his head slightly. "What's your last name?" he stressed.
"Why does it matter? We're friends now." He handed the bag to Tony. "We call each other by our first names." Tony eyed him warily, but took the bag into the bathroom to change.
Clint sat down on the bed to wait, and heard the crunching of a bag as it was shuffled through. "I don't understand…" Tony's voice called out muffled by the door. "…why you all want to be my friend. The man in the ceiling said you're all superheroes."
Right, Jarvis. "Superheroes can't be your friends?" Clint asked.
The door opened, and Tony emerged in a normal-fitting t-shirt with a dinosaur on it, sweat pants and socks. "No, I mean…" he hesitated.
"Kid, you can tell me, I'm not gonna tattle on ya."
"Well, if you're superheroes, then you don't need money from my dad, right?" Clint felt his heart start to sink. "So I don't understand why you'd want…" he trailed off, genuinely confused.
Clint suddenly became very, very aware of just how much of Tony Stark's money they used on a daily basis. He kept his wince internal. "Tony, we want to be your friend because you're super smart, and a good kid. We like you. That's okay, right?"
Tony shrugged again, keeping his thoughts to himself.
Clint was struggling with what to say. He'd never been fantastic with kids, especially when they weren't happy.
Jarvis must have noticed his silence, because the A.I. shortly spoke up.
"Agent Barton, if I may suggest, perhaps Master Stark would like to watch a movie in the den?"
"Yeah," Clint said, grateful for the lifeline. "That sound good?"
Tony nodded slowly.
"Great," Clint smiled hopping off the bed. "You haven't seen Star Wars, right?"
Tony had been somewhat surprised when the adults actually wanted to stay to watch the movie with him. He had staked out his claim in a lone lounge chair, eyeing the group on the couch somewhat suspiciously, but was soon so engrossed in the movie he ignored them completely.
Mostly the group's eyes kept flicking uncertainly towards the boy. Bruce didn't fail to notice that when he thought someone was watching him he made himself small and silent. It was so at odds with the Tony Stark he knew. The adult purposely put himself into others' spaces, prodding them verbally, testing their boundaries. He was loud and he was obnoxious. Bruce had only realized after spending more time with the man that was how Tony tested people. Whoever was willing to put up with the exterior to be allowed closer to the interior. That was how Tony picked his friends.
Now that the movie was in full swing, Tony's attention was glued to the screen. He was almost popping out of his seat with excitement. Bruce smiled.
He saw Clint take his glass into the kitchen and got up to follow him.
"How was he?" Bruce asked without preamble.
Clint sighed, reaching for a beer. "He didn't seem to think he could have any friends that didn't want his dad's money."
Bruce grimaced. "Wonderful."
"Yeah, well," Clint said popping the top of his beer bottle on a countertop. "Now we know when it started."
"It shouldn't have started that early," Bruce mumbled. True, Tony was often suspicious of people's motives for friendship as an adult billionaire. He had every reason to be. But when he was eight? Maybe earlier? "Did he have any friends his own age?"
"Did you?" Clint queried. He took a swig of beer.
Bruce hesitated. As an agent of Shield, he wasn't sure how much of his history Clint was aware of. "Well, I wouldn't call anyone a best friend, but there were some other geeky kids I spent time with at school."
Clint shrugged. "I dicked around with other kids at the circus, but yeah, I see your point. Kids need kids their own age."
They were interrupted by footsteps, and they both looked up to see Tony wandering into the kitchen. Bruce glanced at the screen and sure enough, the blue text of the credits was apparent. The others were shifting up from the couch. Bruce smiled down at Tony who had a smile on his face. "Did you like the movie, Tony?"
"Yeah. Even though there's no sound in space."
Clint laughed out loud. "That's more like the guy I know." The archer returned to the living room.
"What did he mean by that?" Tony asked puzzled.
"You just remind him of someone he knows," Bruce said.
"Oh. Is it my dad?" Tony asked.
"No, it's someone else," Bruce assured him.
"People say I'm like my dad a lot. But I don't think so. He likes building weapons and stuff." Bruce was glad to see Tony had become a little more talkative than in the previous hours.
"What do you like to build?" he asked.
Tony moved over to the kitchen counter, hanging off of it and lifting his feet off the ground. "Well…robots, I guess." He kicked his feet back and forth. "But they never really work right. I can't really show them to anyone unless they work right." He scuffed one foot on the floor.
"Tony," Bruce started, leaning down. "You're eight. They don't have to work right. You should be proud you can make something as amazing as that."
Tony didn't meet his eyes. He just kept staring at the ground scuffing one foot against it.
"No matter what anyone says. You can be proud of yourself," Bruce insisted. "Okay?"
"Okay," Tony mumbled, but it was definitely forced.
Bruce gave a weak smile, before standing up. "Hey, how would you like to see a real robot we have right here in the tower?'
Tony almost fell on his butt, he let go of the countertop so fast. "Really?"
"Honest. A friend of mine built him. I'll show you."
They went down to Tony's lab, Tony very nearly bouncing the entire way. When they got there, Tony's eyes lit up as he studied the monitors, tools, equipment, and Iron Man parts. He stood awestruck for a moment before he spun to look at Bruce.
"Whose lab is this?" he asked quickly.
"A friend's, it's okay that we're here." Bruce assured him.
"Are you sure? Because…because you're not really supposed to be in other people's labs without permission. It's…it's not…" Tony's lips thinned out and he didn't say anymore.
"It's okay, Tony. My friend wouldn't have given me a passcode if it wasn't okay. He's very nice, I'm sure if he were here he'd love to show you his stuff." He put his hand on Tony's shoulder, who flinched minutely. Bruce's heart clenched, and he withdrew his hand quickly. As far as he knew, Howard had never hit Tony, but the kid had obviously been avoiding physical contact with any of them. He made a mental note to only go into Tony's personal space if invited. "Jarvis, would you please send Dummy over?" he asked the A.I.
There was a whirring, and a moment later, Dummy rolled over curiously to the pair of them.
"Wow!" Tony breathed. Dummy clicked his claw in response, making a noise Bruce interpreted as inquisitive.
"You can touch him," Bruce told Tony. Tony held out a finger and Dummy took it gently, moving his claw up and down. Tony laughed, and began examining his support struts and camera.
"You friend made him?" he asked, examining Dummy's outer shell. Dummy swirled his "head" contentedly in place. Tony got to the label on the robot's piston. "Dum-e…haha, Dummy. Hi, Dummy! I'm Tony!" The bot whirred happily.
Tony spent a few hours measuring the robot's cognitive skills, before he nearly passed out from exhaustion. Bruce finally took him to bed around 11, so Steve was somewhat surprised to see him wandering into the kitchen and rubbing his eyes at 6:30 AM.
"Hi, Tony," Steve said. He put down his paper, eyeing Tony's Hulk pajamas with amusement. "You're up early. Do you want something to eat?"
Tony yawned, nodding. "Yes, please."
"How about pancakes? Do you like pancakes?" Steve asked, getting up. He started pulling bowls and a whisk out from under the counter.
Tony glanced around. "Where's the chef?"
Steve paused, puzzled, before grinning at Tony. "No, I'm going to make them. We don't have a chef here." Steve was just about to write off the wayward comment as a product of the Starks' wealthy life style when Tony asked another question.
"Aren't you busy, though?" Tony was peering at the supplies anxiously, like Steve would remember he had some place better to be at any moment and put everything away.
Steve bit his lip slightly before offering a reassuring smile at Tony. "The only place I have to be is here. Say, do you want to learn? You don't have to, I don't mind-"
"Okay!" Tony shot off his chair, nearly bouncing over to Steve, eager for the learning session.
Steve pointed to the pantry. "In that case, grab all the Bisquik you can find. I think Thor's going to be up soon."
The Asgardian beamed with pleasure and gratitude when he came into the kitchen half an hour later to find a heaping plate of hot pancakes, and Tony up to his elbows in batter.
By the time breakfast was over, Bruce had found his way to the kitchen. He managed to wrestle a few pancakes away from Thor to have with his tea. When they all finished eating, Bruce took Tony down to the lab. The boy was eager to visit Dummy again, and Bruce figured there was enough to occupy him down there. After all, Tony was smart enough. That was already evidenced by the way he spoke, how he was interested in the learning functions of Dummy, and how it hadn't taken him long to take apart an alarm clock.
Bruce also wanted to keep an eye on him. Adult Tony rarely talked about his childhood, and Bruce was already seeing some troubling signs that pointed to why. He wanted to better understand his friend. It was hard, though, because young Tony's walls were much easier to see through and on some level Bruce felt awfully invasive about it. He wondered if Tony would remember this later. He only hoped he changed back soon.
Tony greeted Dummy happily while Bruce and Jarvis pulled up some holodisplays of Dummy's insides so the boy wouldn't have to take him apart. Tony was instantly taken with the displays, manipulating them naturally and expertly despite not having anything like them when he was growing up.
Bruce sat down at a monitor nearby, looking over various data readings from other experiments they had running. He wasn't really paying much attention. His eyes kept flicking to Tony, recognizing that same desire to bury himself in his work.
It didn't take long before Tony moved on from the displays. Soon, he and Dummy were rustling through piles of scraps and parts, taking them back over to a desk that had various tools on it. There was various clanging as Tony took things apart, alternating between building a structure and wiring a circuit board. The mastery at such a young age was thrilling to watch for Bruce as a scientist, and soon his own work was forgotten as he only watched Tony.
Tony was wrestling with a particular stubborn piece of sheet metal. He was trying to pry it apart with a screwdriver. Bruce was about to say something when the tool slipped, causing Tony to cry out in pain. There was a clatter as he dropped the metal onto the table in front of him, clutching his hand to his chest.
"Tony?" Bruce rushed over.
Tony was biting his lip fiercely, taking shuddering breaths. He was blinking rapidly but Tony could see the wetness forming in his eyes.
"Here, let me see," Bruce said softly, indicating the injured hand. Tony shook his head rapidly, turning away from Bruce. Over his shoulder, Dummy cooed anxiously. "It's okay," Bruce tried to assure him.
"'m fine," Tony tried to say, but it came out as a pained hiccup.
Bruce shook his head. "You're not fine, you may have really hurt yourself," Bruce insisted. Tony took another shuddering breath before exhaling in a pained sob. When the sob escaped his lips, he gave one horrified look at Bruce before tears started running down his face. He leapt off the chair, sprinting across the lab and out the door.
"Tony, stop!" Bruce cried, but the boy was already gone.
It was Thor who found him. After Tony had sprinted off, Bruce quickly relayed what happened to the others via Jarvis. Bruce was reluctant to go after Tony himself, so Thor volunteered.
Tony was curled up in a closet in an unused room. Thor heard the sounds of muffled crying as soon as he got into the doorway. He knocked loudly. "Young Anthony?"
The crying abruptly ceased. Thor came into the room, gently pushing the closet door aside. Tony turned his head away, curling protectively over his hand.
"Anthony, will you please come out? I just want to help you," Thor said softly.
Tony didn't move.
"I have seen many wounds in my time as a warrior. Perhaps you will show me yours? While it is true fair maidens are often impressed by the scars of war, it would not do to let yours get infected."
There was a small snort, and Thor sat down on carpet, waiting. He smiled as Tony slid out, holding one hand to his chest. Thor could actually see a trail of blood running from just below his first knuckle and down his wrist. He was wiping red eyes furiously with the other hand. Tony gingerly held out the injured limb for Thor to inspect. The Asgardian took it gently, seeing the puncture wound.
"Well, it certainly looks like it is painful, but it is not dire," Thor said smiling. "We should clean it." Thor stood, gently leading Tony to a nearby bathroom. Thor turned on the water, instructing Tony to run his hand under it. Tony's hand hovered in front of the stream of water before he plunged it in. He gasped, but kept his hand under the running water, shaking slightly and turning his head away from Thor.
Thor placed his hand gently on Tony's shoulder. The boy stiffened slightly but made no move to push him away. "There is nothing wrong with crying. I have suffered many wounds which have brought me to tears."
"R…really?" Thor shut off the water, wrapping a towel around Tony's hand. "But you look so strong."
"Aye," Thor said, kneeling in front of the boy. "But the body does as it pleases. Pain is the body's way of telling you something is wrong. True warriors do not fight their own body. They listen to it."
"My dad doesn't want to see me cry," Tony said softly. "He says Stark men are made of iron. They're not allowed to cry."
Thor sighed, placing both his hands on Tony's shoulders. "Listen to me, young Anthony. I believe your father only says what he does because he doesn't know any better."
"But he was in a war! He knows stuff like that." Tony sniffed loudly.
"That may be his own way of coping with the pain of war. But you have not been in a war, Anthony. You are very young. It is acceptable for a grown man or woman to cry. It is acceptable for you too. No one here will think any less of you." Thor paused, taking in the young form in front of him. The sag in his shoulders and head screamed defeat, and Thor's heart broke for his friend. It was clear Anthony had been fighting battles since he was too young to have any weapons. "Do you understand me?"
Tony nodded slowly.
Thor smiled. "Come, then. I am far better at causing wounds then treating them."
Tony sniffed, giving a small smile. "I could tell," he said holding up his hand wadded in a towel.
"Dr. Banner would be happy to help you. You had him very worried." Thor began walking towards the door.
Tony didn't follow immediately. "Do you…do you think he's mad at me?"
Thor's brow wrinkled. "Of course not, why would you say that?"
Tony scuffed his feet against the floor, staring down again. "I…I hurt myself…because I wasn't being careful. He…probably won't let me in the lab again."
"Nonsense," Thor huffed a little louder than he meant to. "Accidents are a natural part of the chaos of the world. They are expected. You cannot fault yourself for that. Now, tell me about what you were building."
Even though Thor didn't really understand what the boy proceeded to talk about on their way back to the main living area, he was willing to listen.
"Dr. Banner! I fear my medical administrations are found wanting. Would you help young Anthony?" Thor was holding up Tony's hands which were wrapped in a wad of towels. Steve snorted, then smiled. Bruce was getting the first aid kid out of a cabinet. Thor brought Tony over to the table, still smiling. Tony seemed to be somewhat at ease with the Asgardian now. Thor stood right behind Tony as Bruce unwrapped the towel. Bruce hissed in sympathy and reached for a roll of gauze.
Tony whispered something to Bruce then, but thanks to Steve's enhanced hearing he heard what he said. "I'm sorry."
"What are you sorry for?" Bruce asked quietly, wrapping up Tony's hand.'
"For…for messing up."
"Tony, it's okay. I understand. You were hurt. You had a fight or flight response. That's normal."
"No," Tony shook his head. "With the screwdriver." Steve frowned.
"Oh…no, Tony," Bruce shook his head. "It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone. I'm plenty prone to…accidents, in the lab."
"I told young Anthony that when he is feeling better, he may return there if he likes," Thor spoke up.
"Of course, yeah. You're not in trouble, Tony. We can go back whenever you want," Bruce agreed rapidly.
Steve bit his lip, watching Tony hang his head and not saying anything. Oh, Howard, he thought. What did you do?
For the rest of the day, Tony contented himself with reading schematics of various things on a tab. Jarvis was careful to censor internet connection and sensitive information. Tony obviously knew something was up, with the sheer amount of technology in the tower. But he had taken to it all so quickly, he hadn't bothered asking any of them. It was pretty fortunate. Steve felt a little selfish, but he didn't really want to explain to an eight year that he had time traveled. Steve had a hard enough time dealing with it himself. It was obvious Tony had enough on his plate.
Since the first day, Tony hadn't asked about his parents again. He'd mention them from time to time, but he didn't ask if they were coming back. Not for the first time, Steve wished he hadn't been trapped under the ice. But this time, it was so he could have talked to Howard. Asked him what the hell he had been thinking, raising a child in a house with no love. Steve just couldn't believe it and his heart ached for them both. It was clear the war had changed Howard, left him a shell of the man he used to be. But it was Tony that had suffered for it.
Steve glanced across the room at the young Tony again. Tony never talked about the past. Steve himself was hesitant to bring it up, just because Tony got snappish or changed the subject. But when Tony was an adult again, Steve was going to talk to him. It couldn't hang between them anymore.
Tony finally drifted off. Steve let him sleep there for about an hour before he came over and tapped his arm lightly.
"Hey, Tony, let's get you to bed." Tony nodded once, and got out of the chair, allowing Steve to accompany to him to his room.
Maybe tomorrow this would be over.
But it wasn't over.
It was now day 3 of the spell, and everyone was beginning to grow a little impatient. Not that they minded taking care of a kid, but they were anxious to get their friend back. Especially now that they understood his childhood a little better. It explained some of the things he said and he did.
Natasha didn't miss the way that despite Bruce's gentle prodding, Tony didn't want to go to the lab again. Not even to see Dummy. She saw the pattern of him denying himself things he wanted. Some of it was fear-based, fear of punishment from his father. But some of it was so self-ingrained, like he didn't deserve to be happy. It was an odd juxtaposition for a child born with a silver spoon.
When she thought about it, the adult Tony she knew bought things on whims, had his own tower, jets, multiple houses, anything he could ever need. But he bought most things for practical purposes. Or to do what people expected. People expected eccentric billionaires to buy hotels or bars or clubs on the spot. Tony did that stuff, but it was when someone in the bar was threatening a colleague. Or when a hotel was threatening to fire a woman for letting Clint dick around in the elevator shaft.
Even in the tower, Natasha hardly saw Tony use any of the stuff he had. Pepper as well. They used things that were necessary in their everyday lives, but Tony didn't generally remodel rooms into ball pits, or museums to show off his gold collection. Tony Stark had wealth, but more or less used it practically.
Natasha wasn't spending a lot of time around young Tony. She just wasn't that good with children. She hadn't really had a childhood of her own, and didn't feel that comfortable around kids. She was in the gym now, doing her normal workout routine, when the lights flicked off and then the emergency lights flicked on.
"Agent Romanoff, there has been a breach in the tower's defenses."
She tore off her hand wraps and ran to the bench, grabbing the gun holster she left there. "Situation."
"Thor, Agent Barton and Captain Rogers are detaining the group in the living area. Dr. Banner is with them in his current form. But there is a second group headed towards Master Stark's bedroom."
"Tell Steve I'm on my way." She was running now, through unused hallways and shortcuts she had scoped out long before.
"The invaders are wearing gasmasks and breaking into every room. They are heavily armed. I have been unable to determine what they are searching for."
Mercenaries, Natasha thought. They were probably searching for some kind of Stark Tech, or Banner blood. But they were goddamn idiots for breaking in here. The gas masks would stop Jarvis from being able to do much, but it was clear they had no idea where the labs were.
Natasha was getting closer now. She could see the signs of broken door frames and hear footsteps. She suddenly heard a high-pitched shout, and realized they had found Tony. Natasha slowed as she approached his room.
"-not gonna get anything from my Father!" Tony was screaming. "Believe me, others have tried! They've gotten nothing! My father doesn't pay ransoms!"
"-didn't know the Avengers had a kid," one guy mumbled. Natasha leaned down on the ground, peering around the doorway. She counted six men, one holding Tony up cruelly by the wrist. He had a look of defiance on his face and kicked out towards the man now and again.
"Nah, they knock chicks up just like everyone else," another guy mumbled. "Better take him."
"I ain't babysittin' a kid."
"I told you, my father won't pay you anything! It doesn't matter what you do to me. He doesn't negotiate!" Tony was screaming in anger, but Natasha could hear the undercurrent of raw fear in his voice.
"Shut up," the man holding Tony growled, giving him a quick shake. Tony let out a small noise of distress. "Let's get moving. The others won't fend off the Avengers for long, just keep looking for the lab. If we don't find it, we have this little prick." He dropped Tony to the floor, reaching for some zipties on his belt.
They were stupid, with all eyes on the child. Natasha had fired three shots from the floor before the other three even realized what was happening. They fired their guns at the door, but Natasha had already ducked behind them again. She pulled a knife from a holster on her belt, counting the shots. When they stopped, she leaned forward, her eyes instantly taking in the sceneraio. She threw the knife into the chest of one man, who grunted, falling to the ground. She put two bullets through the mask of another. The other had reloaded, and she ducked around the frame again.
Suddenly she heard a shout, and she quickly looked around the doorframe again. Tony had crawled over and bit the ankle of the man, who was now proceeding to kick off the boy. Before he did much, Natasha had downed him with her last bullet.
She reached Tony, who was pulling himself off the floor. "Don't look," she told him.
"I've seen dead men before," he said. He was trying to sound brave, but his voice still came out shaky. She eyed him sideways.
"Let's go," she told him. When they were out in the hallway, she kneeled down. "Are you hurt?"
He shook his head.
"Jarvis, please tell Rogers the threat has been neutralized on this end."
"Yes, Agent Romanoff. They are nearly done as well," the A.I. answered.
"Tony, come with me," Natasha told him. He followed her down the hall. "That was very brave of you," she said.
Tony didn't say anything, still shaking slightly as they moved.
"This…has happened to you before," Natasha said. It wasn't a question.
He nodded slightly. She frowned. "A few times," he whispered.
"It won't get easier," she told him. "But you can get smarter. You were smart about it today. You didn't panic. It was very admirable."
"Thank you for helping me," he said softly again.
"You helped yourself," she told him.
"It's what I was taught to do," he said.
She breathed in deeply. She knew all too well the experience of a child having no one to rely on but themselves. She stopped suddenly, leaning down in front of him and staring him deadly serious in his eyes. She wasn't just talking to the boy any longer, but her teammate. She had no idea if he would know she said this or not, but she had to try. For her own sanity, she had to try. "Tony," she said, squeezing his shoulders. "I will always, alwayshelp you. Never forget that."
Before Tony could reply, they were interrupted by Jarvis' voice.
"Agent Romanoff, there are now SHIELD agents cleaning up the offenders. May I suggest you take your charge to a place a little more convenient so you are not in their way?"
A smile tickled at the corner of Natasha's mouth. Jarvis was always on the same page as them, looking out to protect Tony. "Where do you suggest, Jarvis?"
"There is a small, un-used den one floor down. I think you will both be quite comfortable there."
Natasha nodded, having Jarvis direct them there.
It was indeed small, for something in Tony Stark's household. There was one moderately sized tv, and a single couch. Natasha sat on the couch as the television turned on. Tony also sat on the couch as far away from her as he could possibly get, making himself as small as possible.
"You can…sit next to me if you want," she offered. Tony just curled tighter around himself. "Offer's open, then," she told him, settling down to watch whatever nature program was on tv. Her nerves were still tingling with the adrenaline of battle, but the dulcet, unchanging tones of the narrator started lulling her into a sense of comfort. It was only a few minutes before she felt the couch shift slightly under her. She could see out of the corner of her eye, Tony had lay down on his side, his head facing towards her. She smiled slightly and waited.
Tony began crawling closer and closer, very slowly. It was like he was afraid of how she would react. So she didn't. Almost 15 minutes had passed until he lay his head slowly on her thigh. She moved her hand so she could run her fingers through his hair, not unlike she sometimes did when Clint had a traumatic mission. Soon, Tony was relaxing fully into her touch, allowing himself to fall asleep.
That was how Clint found them, an hour later.
They had put Tony to bed in Steve's room, and had a debrief about the attack. Fury had wanted to debrief them all, but Steve had thrown him off, saying they would do it tomorrow. There was a lot of cleaning to do. Which wasn't exactly a lie, even though it was SHIELD technicians cleaning up the blood in Tony's room.
Natasha was tapping her fingers against the table, looking at no one.
"Well, it's not really surprising Tony's had kidnapping training. Most kids with that kind of status get it," Clint said. He was trying to get a read on Natasha.
"He said it had happened 'a few times'," Natasha said quietly.
"How much is 'a few'?" Steve asked. "Twice? More?"
"Seven times, Captain Rogers," Jarvis' voice intoned. "Not including today."
No one said anything for a long moment, before finally Clint sputtered. "Seven? Where were his body guards? Where was his goddamn father? The man invented the nuclear bomb, and he couldn't keep his own kid safe from abductions? Jesus, no wonder he didn't have any friends, he was too busy being held hostage!" Clint threw his arms in the air.
"Clint," Natasha said calmly. Her tone reined him in, his own knowledge of her awful childhood coming to the forefront of his mind.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "But his Dad was around, and this stuff kept happening? I know he was your friend, Steve, but what a goddamn idiot!" Clint had escaped his father purposely, and then he and his brother had known well enough not to go back. Tony, it seemed, felt he didn't have that choice.
Steve didn't argue, just stared at the table silently.
"When Master Stark started attending boarding school, it became harder to abduct him, and the kidnapping rate dropped significantly."
"Wait," Bruce said eyes widened. "He was kidnapped seven times before he was eight?"
"That is correct. The police records after this age indicate-"
"Stop," Steve hissed so vehemently that it silenced even the A.I. "Just stop. I don't want to hear any more. That…there's a reason Tony hasn't told us any of this, isn't there? There has to be. Why wouldn't he say anything?" Steve looked at each of them in turn.
"The past is the past, Steve. Maybe he didn't think it mattered," Bruce said quietly.
"That's not it," Natasha said bitterly, shaking her head. "He just never stopped believing what he learned in preschool-you can't trust anyone."
Steve went to check on Tony after that. His mind was a whirlwind of emotions. Anger, concern, disappointment…
Steve sighed. He understood how hard it could be to open up and trust someone completely. But there was just so much could have said that would eased tensions between them. About Howard. About his life growing up.
Steve reached his bedroom door and was about to knock when it opened of its own accord. Tony stood there staring up at him with a surprised look on his face. Steve could see tear tracts down his cheeks, and Tony looked down, hastily wiping them away.
"Tony, are you alright? Did you have a bad dream?" Not surprising, giving the trauma he had just experienced. The boy didn't say anything, just started to go back into the room. Steve reached out, halting the movement of the door. "You could have come and gotten one of us," Steve said almost pleadingly.
"I didn't want to bother you," Tony whispered.
"Tony, we're going to talk about what happened. This is not okay. It's not okay for you to keep all this bottled inside you." Steve ushered Tony back into the room. "Please sit down, Tony," Steve urged as the boy just stood there. Obediently, Tony took a spot on the bed. Steve sat on the floor, looking up at him. "What happened today was really scary."
Tony shook his head. "Miss Natasha helped me, so it wasn't that bad." He took part of the comforter between his fingers, fiddling with it aimlessly. "Sometimes…it takes a while…for…for me to get home."
"Who helped you before?" Steve asked.
"Sometimes my dad sends people. Big men with big guns. They shot some people a few times. But one time…" Tony's voice was becoming increasingly upset. Now he let out a sob, and Steve put one hand on his knee, waiting patiently. Tony sucked in a deep breath before continuing. "One time, they didn't come for days. And I couldn't eat anything, and they shot things near me because they thought it was f-f-funny!" Tony was crying openly now, and he looked at Steve, pain and fear and anger written all over his face.
It was the most expressive Steve had ever seen him.
"One man k-k-kicked me when my Dad wouldn't pay. He broke my arm!" The boy's voice was a full blown wail now, and as he shook his head angrily, tears flew onto the comforter. He looked at Steve helplessly. "Why didn't my Dad just pay? He has enough money! Why doesn't my Dad want me?"
Steve moved without thinking. He lunged forward, ignoring the way Tony stiffened, and swallowed him up in the fiercest hug imaginable. Tony exhaled sharply, before he buried his face in Steve's shoulder and continued to cry.
Steve sat there for a long time, feeling his shirt get wet as he continued to rub soothing circles on Tony's back. He let Tony cry his heart out. Small hands gripped his shirt tightly, making fists that didn't let go.
Steve wasn't sure how long it was, but finally the crying slowed.
"I'm so sorry I wasn't there," Steve told him. I'm so sorry you faced this by yourself when I could have been there. I could have been there for Howard. And for you.
"Can I stay here? With the Avengers? Maybe you all can adopt me," Tony sniffed.
Steve ruffled his hair. "We'll see. You're definitely not going anywhere soon though, okay?"
Tony smiled slightly. "Okay."
Steve noticed a few flecks of blood on the back of Tony's shirt. He grimaced when he realized it must have been the spray from one of the men Natasha shot. He looked closer, seeing a bit on Tony's skin as well. "Tell you what," Steve said. "How about you take a warm shower, and then we'll have hot chocolate and cake."
"During the day?" Tony asked.
"Sure. It's been a rough day. I'm Captain America. Sometimes I enjoy cake after I sock some bad guys in the jaw." He smiled.
Tony giggled lightly. "Alright."
Steve turned on the water in the bathroom, making sure there were plenty of towels within reach. "I'll be right out here if you need anything, okay?"
Tony nodded. He started closing the door, before he opened it again. "Steve?"
Steve smiled at him. "Yeah?"
"Um…you're the nicest person I've ever met!" he said quickly, before closing the door again.
True to his word, Steve didn't leave his room. He was reading a book, waiting for Tony, when he heard a loud clunk noise followed by a very adult "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!"
Steve leapt off the bed, running to the door. He hesitated with his hand over the knob, but then heard the water shut off. "Uh, Tony?"
The door swung open, and a fully adult Tony was standing there, dripping wet, reactor glowing, and clutching a towel around his waist. His eyes widened for a moment with something Steve couldn't quite read before it disappeared quickly and Tony moaned loudly sinking into the doorway.
"Tony?" Steve tried again.
"That was real?" the billionaire moaned.
"Are you…how much do you remember?" Steve asked, stepping out of the way as Tony angrily pushed by him.
"Enough to know I'm never cooking pancakes again!" Tony snapped. "And Jarvis, find out who those goons were that broke in, who hired them, everything!"
"I already have a report ready, Sir."
"Well…good." Tony shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. He then seemed to remember that one, he wasn't in his own room, and two, Steve was still there. "Well, see you later!" he said with a false cheeriness, before bolting from the room.
Steve sighed loudly. He couldn't help feeling like all the progress he'd made in the last hour had suddenly just been erased. "Jarvis, will you please tell the others Tony is back?"
No one really knew what to do then. They had been so ready for things to go back to normal after Tony's transformation, that it was somewhat shocking when they didn't. Steve had shared what he had learned before Tony's transformation back, making everyone except Natasha wince. Natasha for her part, kept a very steady mask that Steve now understood to be her way of sort of screaming internally.
Tony disappeared into the lab for two days, telling anyone who asked that he was very behind in armor repairs and S.I. R&D projects. Bruce finally asked Jarvis how many days since Tony had last eaten something other than coffee or alcohol. The resulting answer of "two" days made Bruce cringe. The group ordered Chinese, so he took down a few boxes of lo mein and general tso's chicken to the lab.
Tony eyed him through the door warily when Jarvis announced him, but waved him in.
"Hey," Bruce said, making sure the square, white boxes were in plain view. Dummy was hovering particularly close to his creator, Bruce noticed. "Thought you might be hungry." Tony took one of the boxes and a pair of chopsticks from him. He opened the box, raised an eyebrow at the contents, but then proceeded to get some chopsticks full of noodles and put them in his mouth.
"Fanks," he mumbled around a mouthful of food.
"No problem," Bruce smiled. "What are you working on?"
"Anti-magic forcefields," Tony said bitterly, spinning his chair back around.
"Do you want Thor to-"
"Nope, I got it, thanks."
They both sat silently for a few minutes, Tony chewing loudly to cover it up.
"Look, I don't need a hug session or anything, alright?" Tony growled not turning in his direction. "All that stuff I said as a kid…I'm over it now. I'm an adult. So yeah," he glanced at Bruce then. "My life wasn't perfect. But none of ours were. So you don't have to come down here and check on me, okay?" He turned back towards the screen running equations in front of him.
"I just…I know how it is for people to see you-without walls, I mean," Bruce said.
Tony snorted. "Well, my eight year old self didn't have anger management issues."
"No, just crippling low self-esteem," Bruce snapped back, frustrated.
Tony stilled and Bruce saw the muscles around his eyes tighten.
"Tony," Bruce sighed. "I'm sorry-"
"No, it's okay. I mean," Tony let out a bitter laugh, pointing at Bruce. "YOU! Are the guy who knows all about low self-esteem, right?"
Bruce bristled, but calmed himself a moment later. He knew Tony was just trying to shift his attention, albeit in a pretty nasty way. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before speaking. "Tony, you were eight-"
"Yeah! I was! It was 30 years ago, it's a moot point, and I'm not gonna talk about it! So you can get off the high horse you rode down here on, and never bring it up again!" Tony quivered with rage. Dummy, sensing the change in his creator's demeanor, rotated his arm anxiously.
"Sorry," Bruce said, getting up to leave. "Enjoy the food. Just…come upstairs now and again, yeah?"
Tony didn't say anything, just sort of glared. "None of you are therapists. So don't try with me," Tony said just as Bruce reached the door. Bruce turned back, but Tony's head was in his hands and he wasn't even looking towards Bruce anymore. Dummy was making small noises of distress over Tony's shoulder. Bruce hesitated, but then turned to leave.
Tony rarely ventured out for the next day and a half, except to sleep. They made sure there was always someone around, until finally the next morning when Tony wandered down for coffee. He tried to ignore their looks as he poured himself a mug. As everyone struggled for some small talk to make, Tony slammed his mug down fiercely on the countertop. "Dammit, I am not going to break!" he shouted at them. He fled to his lab, coffee in hand.
"He's really the same," Clint mumbled. "Just…angrier."
Clint found himself on the range a few hours later, not expecting to be joined by anyone. He didn't let his attention waver as he heard the door open, assuming it was Nat. But as the footsteps got closer, he realized they were heavier than hers, the gait less sure. He turned slightly to see Stark there, some arrow shafts in his hands.
He didn't let his surprise show, but finished drawing and losing the arrow he had already nocked. "Hey, Stark." He said casually.
"I, uh, brought you some things," he said by way of greeting. Tony hefted the shafts. "How do you feel about putty arrows?"
Clint laughed, lowering his bow. "Haha, what?"
Tony grinned. "No, seriously. Check this out." Tony put the arrows on the ground before hurrying onto the other side of the range. He went to the wall where there were some spare ballistics dummies, pulling one over in front of the target Clint was shooting at. "Ok, so just like," Tony waved as he walked back to the safety behind the line. "Aim for its chest."
Clint picked up one of the arrows, noting the knob in place of an arrow head. It was slightly off-balance, but nothing he hadn't compensated for before with other types of arrow heads. He loaded the bow and fired, the arrow striking the dummy square in the chest. A black fluid substance exploded out of the point of impact, tipping the mannequin over. But before it fell completely to the ground, the stuff solidified, holding it in place at an awkward angle against gravity.
"Awesome," Clint said. "How do you get it off?"
"Open flame will do. Oh yeah, so don't use it around fires cause it will be worthless." Stark was leaning against the wall now, looking somewhat pleased with himself and somewhat cautious.
"Thanks, man, that's really cool," Clint said. He picked up another putty arrow, noting how the odd fletching was in the wrong spot. That wasn't a big deal, he'd been doing it long enough he hardly looked at the fletching colors anymore. Tony hadn't left while he was inspecting the arrows. Clint waited.
True to form, it didn't take Tony long to fill the silence. "You're…okay…Barton."
Clint huffed. "Only okay?"
"No, not like that, I mean, when before. And people were in the kitchen, and that was after I told them stuff when I wasn't in control…of myself, and yeah, I didn't have a lot of friends, but (heh), which one of us did? Besides Thor, I mean he only talks about the wild Asgardian parties he had over the years but that's the thing, I had wild parties too, so it's kind of the same, but thanks for not being weird and treating me…different." Tony's hands which had been gesturing wildly now fell limply to his sides.
Clint blinked. "I'm not treating you like anything," he said.
"I know! And that's great!" Tony's hands were up again, his eyes wide and appreciative with things he couldn't exactly vocalize.
Clint raised his eyebrows, pointing one of the arrow shafts at him. "You did have a shitty childhood, though. The only difference is now everyone knows how shitty."
Tony pursed his lips, remaining silent as Clint knocked another arrow. "Hey, no judgment. I think everyone knows my childhood wasn't exactly a cake walk." He drew back to his cheek.
"Yeah, but no one tip toes around you like you're made of glass," Tony mumbled.
Clint loosed. "Probably because I've been generally up front with the fact my dad hit us," he said. He turned back to Tony, who had his arms crossed protectively over his chest and was staring down again. "My brother and I always knew our dad was a bad guy, Tony. I don't think your dad was a bad guy, just a terrible father. Barney and I had a choice. I don't think you did. So, like any kid would be, you just ended up confused. And didn't talk about it. Am I right?"
Tony rolled his eyes, but didn't make eye contact. "Gee, thanks for the pyscho-analysis, Dr. Phil," he mumbled.
"Look, man," Clint shrugged. "If my eight year old self had been running around, spilling my deepest secrets-"
"They're not my deepest secrets," Tony interrupted.
"-I'd feel pretty exposed too. They'll get over it. If anything, we probably understand you better." Clint nocked another arrow.
"Great," Tony mumbled. He turned to leave.
"Steve might stop giving you shit every time you insult your dad," Clint said.
Tony froze, and Clint realized he may have taken one step too far.
"Tony, look, I'm-"
"No, you're right," Tony deadpanned. He turned slightly giving a Clint a tight smile. "See you around, Barton." He made a hasty exit up the stairs.
Clint lowered his bow arm. "Well, shit."
Natasha sighed, shaking her head a little as Clint retold the tail. She was sitting on the couch with Clint on his back on the floor. The archer's legs were in her lap. It was a position Clint thought sort of annoyed her, but she didn't really care.
"You tried," she said. "I don't think it's easy for any of us to talk about…" she waved her hand vaguely. "Emotions," she finished, deadpan.
Clint snorted. "I was just trying to be honest. I guess I sort of said the wrong thing at the end."
"Yeah, that was a little stupid," she teased. Clint rolled his eyes and frowned at her. "But Stark doesn't really know how to feel his emotions. So when people guess what he's feeling-"
"-and correctly," Clint mumbled.
"It sort of throws him," she finished. "Still though. You tried." She patted his leg affectionately. "I think that's more than Rogers has the courage to do right now."
Clint sighed. "I don't think he appreciated it," Clint said, looking away.
Natasha flicked her hair over her shoulder, moving her eyes from her partner to the wall. They both actually did like Stark. This whole ordeal had been very eye-opening. But Natasha could see the stress fractures forming as her teammates tried to decide if they should confront Tony or pretend everything was okay. And this had all happened just when Tony was becoming comfortable with the team as well. If anything, his isolation had become worse than before.
"At least he came to see you. That means he still likes you, right?" she asked Clint.
"Mmm," he intoned. "Know what we really need is a supervillain attack so we can forget about this whole mess."
Turns out they didn't have to wait long. The call to assemble came the next day, when a man spouting electricity out of every orifice started throwing it down during a Rangers game.
Clint had been forced to use an EMP arrow to allow Thor enough of an opening to smash the guy's chest in and knock him out. He had been taken away pretty quickly by SHIELD. The EMP had also rendered Tony's suit useless. He had elected to sit on the home team's bench, his armor piled up next to him.
The others had left to ensure the electric guy didn't escape, but Natasha remained behind. She stepped through the pile of glass, wood and plastic that used to be part of the rink wall, approaching Tony. He was wearing a pair of plastic Rangers sunglasses and sipping a slurpee.
"You know," he told her. "I tried to get into hockey when I went to M.I.T, but it just didn't click."
"I doubt you had much time for spectator sports at college." She sat down in a chair nearby, watching SHIELD agents take samples, and cleanup crews throw away broken chairs.
"Yeah. What about you? Russians like hockey, right?" He took a loud sip from the straw.
Something shifted inside of her uncomfortably. "I never had much time for spectator sports either," she intoned. Guessing what he was going to say before he said it, she shrugged. "Super spies don't have much time for sports."
He turned his head, peering at her over the top of his sunglasses. "Clint likes football," Tony pointed out.
She huffed. "They play once a week for four months and a game lasts three hours. It's not hard to keep up with."
Tony laughed in agreement. They sat for a while, continuing to watch the cleanup crews. "I'm always sort of vaguely amused my parents didn't have me play polo or some uppity shit like that," he said, almost to himself. Natasha waited, but Tony didn't say anything, seemingly lost in thought.
She took a deep breath.
"I began learning martial arts when I was eight," she offered. She left the not by choice part out.
Tony turned towards her then, a rare, thoughtful expression on his face. The tiniest smile began to tug at the corner of his mouth. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Me too."
And just like that, the tension between them all but evaporated.
Tony took another huge slurp from his drink. "Of course, I wasn't very good. Took a long time to perfect it. But, it helped. Just…knowing it."
"It does," Natasha agreed.
"I pretty much just stuck with some MMA stuff and then whatever boxing moves Happy wants to work on."
Natasha winced. "I've been meaning to tell you. You need a new boxing coach."
Tony laughed loudly. "I know. But don't ever tell him that. He really is pretty good, you know. Not his fault he can't do that swingy…leg…around the…neck thing you do," Tony wiggled all his fingers of his free hand and grimaced. "Can you imagine? If he can get his leg up past his waist I'd be amazed.
She laughed light-heartedly.
"Hey, um…" Tony hesitated. "Before. When you know, I was…short." He cleared his throat and pushed his sunglasses back up onto his face, obscuring his eyes. "What you said to me? It, uh…it means a lot."
He took another gulp of his slurpee, and didn't look at her.
I will always, always help you. Never forget that.
"You'd do the same," she said. She knew him now.
He smirked. "Yeah, I guess I would."
Tony's phone beeped, and he pulled it out looking at the screen. "God knows you all wouldn't survive five minutes without me!" he said loudly. His voice echoed around the empty ring. "Ride's here. Let's go, Swingy Legs!"
"I will shoot you in the kneecap."
Thor sat on the balcony of the tower that night, just a few feet from where he had fought his own brother how many months earlier. The thought still pained him, but at least his brother was safe in Asgard. If not happy. He missed Jane fiercely as well. She couldn't come to New York this week because of her work, and she was in a place where Thor was not able to communicate with her on Tony Stark's machines.
The events of this week had been enough to take his mind off her for a while, but now that things were calming down, he missed her. He would have asked her what she thought about his friend's predicament, what she might have done in his stead. Thor could only be honest, and he knew now sometimes that didn't always work with Tony Stark. The Iron Man was a man who hid himself physically and metaphorically behind iron walls. Thor had gotten to see a little of what was behind those walls now.
Thor heard the sound of a door slide open and turned to see Tony Stark himself coming outside, a glass of something in his hand. He shut the door behind him and took a step forward, only then seeming to notice that Thor was sitting there.
"Oh, uh," Tony said, looking around. "I'll just-"
"No, please," Thor said. "I could use the company."
For a moment it appeared Tony wasn't going to take him up on his offer, but then he walked over to the Asgardian, almost lazily. "I'd have brought you a drink if I'd known you were out here," he said by way of apology.
Thor waved him off as he sat down on the concrete. "The battle went well today," Thor said casually.
"Well, if you don't count screwing up the Rangers' chance at a playoff shot," Tony said, sipping his drink. "Some New Yorkers are gonna be pissed."
"Is this a reference to the sporting event the man attacked?" Thor asked.
Tony nodded. "You're catching on, big guy."
Thor scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I am not stupid, like many may believe. There is just a lot to learn about your world." It came out a little more frustrated than he had intended.
"Hey, no one thinks you're stupid," Tony said quickly. "Well, except me, but don't take it personally, I think everyone who's not me is stupid. "
Thor chuckled quietly. They sat comfortably for a while, the only sounds the tinkling of ice against glass and the traffic 90 stories below.
"Stark, I must confess…" Thor started, eyes roaming to where he had fought Loki. "Your younger self somewhat reminded me of my brother."
The other man stiffened slightly. "I hope you don't mean you think I'm a homicidal maniac. No offense."
Thor shook his head. "No, that is not what I meant. But when we were young, my brother often was reclusive, and yearned for attention. It shaped who he is today. He has a desire to be needed, but he thinks the only way he can do that is acting out. In Midgard's case…rather harshly."
Tony snorted. "Understatement of the century, buddy."
"What I am trying to say…" Thor paused, looking skyward. He wished he could see the stars. He sighed. "Given the similar nature of your circumstances…I believe you turned out to be the stronger man. If my brother had been more like you perhaps we could have escaped some of the tragedy caused by his hands."
Stark let out a long breath. "Wow," he mumbled. "I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or a slap in the face."
"Take it for what it is; an observation."
Tony looked sideways at him. Thor clapped a hand on his shoulder, giving him a smug look. "But you really should take it as a compliment. You have a good heart, Tony Stark. Despite having every reason not to. I am proud to call you my friend."
Tony leaned into him, and Tony bumped his glass against Thor's fist. "Cheers."
Steve had gotten one of his boxes out of storage the morning after the attack on the hockey game. He decided today was the day he wasn't going to wait for an invitation.
He used his code to get into Tony's lab. The engineer eyed him warily as he did this, but didn't tell him to leave. Steve took this as a positive sign. He came over to the table Tony was working on, lifting the box onto it easily.
Tony's eyes traveled from the box to his. "You know, this isn't Goodwill," he drawled.
"I wanted to show you the man I knew," Steve said, not missing the way Tony's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned out.
"Um, no thanks. I think I knew him a little better than you." He leaned forward to push the box back at Steve. The supersoldier halted the movement easily.
"No. I want you to understand the man who was your father…" Steve leaned forward, gripping the table tightly. "Was not the man I knew. Your…regression this week-"
"Can we not call it that?"
"Shut up for one damn minute, Tony. Your regression last week…well, it hurt me too. Because…" Steve let out a shuddering sigh, not looking at the other man. "It's just another part of my past shattered."
Tony didn't say a word.
"I'm sorry I wasn't there. If I had been there, maybe I could have…could have made him treat you right."
"Steve," Tony said softly. The conviction in his voice made Steve look up. But Tony wasn't looking at him. He had opened the box, and was holding a picture of Howard and Peggy hovering over a map in a base somewhere. Tony shook his head. "You can't…blame yourself for this. The guy you knew died in the war. By the time I came around, he was just a shell of a man. Just a drunk, lost, non-caring shell."
Tony sighed again, putting the picture down. "It just took me a really, really long time to realize it," he whispered.
Steve reached over, giving Tony's shoulder a squeeze. For once, Tony didn't flinch. "Thank you," Steve said sincerely. "For letting us into your life. It couldn't have been easy. You didn't deserve any of that. You don't deserve any of that. Pepper, Rhodes, the Avengers…you're valued, Tony. Don't ever think otherwise."
Tony sniffed loudly, and then looked at Steve. Steve could see the wetness and pinched look around the other man's eyes, but he was smiling. Genuinely.
"This is getting alarmingly touchy-feely, Cap," he grinned.
Steve laughed, pulling him into a hug.
Things got better after that. The team more or less stopped looking at Tony sideways. Tony's childhood could compare at least somewhat with each of their own experiences. Steve didn't compare Tony to his father anymore.
Tony still kept up his emotional walls. But sometimes the team saw him let them down by choice. In the safety of his lab. During a movie night. At an 11 PM "lunch" after a 14 hour mission.
And Tony was becoming somewhat okay with that. It felt good to have people besides Pepper and Rhodey want to be there for him. It felt good to have his emotional exposé only strengthen his bonds with his teammates. But mostly it felt good to be valued by individuals who understood some of the stuff he went through every day.
Because on the Avengers, your history didn't define you. Whether it was experimentation with gamma radiation, being raised since childhood as a weapon, being a secret super assassin, royal arrogance or a five foot tall asthmatic. It didn't matter you had personal issues so deep, you couldn't ever really talk about them.
Because your teammates understood. And you never had to explain yourself.