I'm not going to do a long AN, I'd just like to say thank you for all of those who have read this and stuck through this and reviewed with your thoughts. I hope you enjoy the chapter, and I'm going to post the prompt again; if you can spare a moment I'd appreciate knowing if you think I managed to do it justice. Happy reading!

"They're all children - between 8 and 12, maybe. They live out in the country, and while backgrounds would obviously have to be tweaked, they still have incredibly fucked up backstories. This would take place over a summer break.

Think fishing on the lake and climbing trees and sneaking Bruce in through a window because his dad's violent-drunk tonight, and putting ice on Clint's swollen lip, and Pepper always pressing food into hands, and Natasha fierce and cold and lonely, and the way they bend and give for each other, like kids are so often so eager to do.

Angstyness with dollops of sweet and a happy or hopeful ending?"

Tony ignores Loki's order, and spends the rest of the night sitting up, talking and mucking around with Pepper. He can sleep on the eight hour car trip back to the city- for now, he wants to spend as much of his last time as possible with his little cousin.

He counts the days on the calendar between now and the day that he arrived, and makes good on his promise, giving her five dollars for every day, despite her protests that he doesn't have to do that. Coupled with the money slipped into her coat pocket, Pepper has a sizeable fortune to keep her fully stocked with sweets.

She in turn gives him a sheath of pictures that she's drawn over the course of the summer: Loki looking angry, a clump of pondweed on his head. Clint, dangling upside down from a tree. Her and Tasha pinning Tony down as they paint his nails. Bruce, in the shirt she gave him for his birthday. Thor and Steve sitting back to back, drinking pop. They are bright, contrasting colours, a curious blend of crayon and pencil, and they are perfect. Tony slips them in between the pages of his book he read at the start of the summer, the book about the boys who grew up on the street in Russia; it's the book he read to Bruce the night that he came over, and he has read it to Pepper three times since. He loves and hates it in equal measures.

When morning comes, they are barely keeping their eyes open, but a quick raid of the fridge yields three energy drinks that they quickly gulp down. At half eight, there's a knock at the door. Stood there is Clintasha and Star Spangled Banner, smiling a little too brightly. Tony grabs his wallet and Pepper grabs her shoes and they leave a note for Pepper's still-asleep parents and head out the house.

It is Sunday, and everyone in this backwater town is either still asleep or in church. Steve is skipping it for this, says he'll go to evening mass instead, and though Tony rolls his eyes and mutters to himself about religious zealots, he still appreciates the gesture.

It takes them a little over ten minutes to reach the diner, with a neon sign proudly declaring The best breakfast in the state mounted in the window. The waitress is hesitant at first, noticing the distinct lack of adult, but a flash of Tony's credit cards allays any fears and they are soon seated in a booth.

Clint has a burger, which apparently is a 'breakfast burger' simply because it has bacon and eggs on it. Tasha has something called eggs Benedict which looks dodgy as hell, with some weird yellow sauce poured on two... boiled eggs? He doesn't even know. Pepper and Bruce share a waffle, with about five cows' worth of whipped cream on top, as well as sprinkles, smarties, chocolate chips, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and golden syrup- they get it without the strawberry sauce because of Pepper's allergies. Tony doesn't think he's ever seen his cousin look more excited about anything than when she catches sight of the breakfast confection bearing down on them, and don't think that he hasn't noticed them holding hands underneath the table. Steve gets a bowl of porridge with honey and sunflower seeds, because he's a stick in the mud. Tony gets blueberry pancakes. He thinks that, if Thor and Loki were here, Loki would get the English breakfast and Thor would get an omelette with everything and declare it to be magnificent. He doesn't tell the others this- doesn't want to make them sad. They all get chocolate milkshakes to go with it, and Tony doesn't know about Pepper, but with that on top of the energy drinks he thinks he may be buzzing.

Clint, who has been gulping his food, finishes before everyone and now starts to fidget. It starts with tapping his toe, then his entire foot, wriggling his hips and kicking the ground with his heels.

"Will you quit it?!" hisses Natasha, who is sitting next to him, after he elbows her for the fourth time. He pauses for a moment, before sighing and slumping forward.

"But I'm boooorrrrreeeeeddddd. You guys are still eating and I have nothing to do!"

"Well, find a way to entertain yourself!" He scowls at her, before looking around the table, eyes alighting on the sharp knife he was using to cut his meat. Lower jaw jutting out, he sends Tasha a final, perturbed glare before grabbing the knife and spreading his fingers.

"What are you doing?" asks Bruce, who has cream on his nose.

"There is an old tradition/ A game we all can play/ You start by getting liquored up and sharpening your blade," Clint begins to sing. Tasha freezes before turning to glare at him with a look that could curdle milk.

"Don't you dare!"

"You take a shot of whiskey/You grab your knife and pray/ And spread apart your fingers/ And this is what you say." He is holding the knife handle tightly in his fist, like some sort of crude cave man tool. The point is facing down, and he rhythmically begins to stab at the table, singing all the while. "Oh, I have all my fingers," stab, stab, stab, "the knife goes chop chop chop," stab, stab, stab, "If I miss the spaces in between my fingers will come off!"

Three minutes later they're on the pavement, an irate waitress slamming the door behind them.

"Way to go, Clint," snaps Tasha. "Now what?"

"We can come to my house?" suggests Pepper

So they turn around and begin the walk home. However, they don't even make it to the end of the road before they are stopped short.

"Hey, Brucie," smirks Ross, and suddenly they're surrounded by teenagers, teenagers who are all fifteen and sixteen, and it's a fucking mess, thinks Tony, a fucking mess because they don't have a chance. Bruce is slammed up against a wall and Steve is roughly pushed to the floor. Clint and Tony both have their arms twisted behind their backs and Tasha manages to land a mean right hook before she is floored by a cheap shot from behind, kept down by a knee digging into her back.

"Aren't you meant to be in church?" gasps Steve before the teenager who threw him down kicks him the stomach. The bully grins.

"We just were, but mass finished early so we thought we'd come find you. Heard the princes left last night, and, well, I could use a little fun."

"Told ya he would get you," says a voice, and it's Justin Hammer, smug little bastard smirking at the sight of them all incapacitated. "I told you, didn't I; you all thought you were so strong, but I told-"

"Piss off, twerp," snaps Ross, and Justin scurries to hide at the back of the group, smirk still firmly fixed on his slimy little face. "Now, as for you Brucie." He begins to pull the younger boy's arm upwards, eliciting cries and whimpers from the small boy. "Where's your saviour, hey? Where's 'the mighty Thor' all ready to protect you. You've got no one." Bruce's face is white in pain, the arm bent unnaturally, and the grin on Ross' face is manic. "No one can help you, you little shi-"

"Put him down!" cries Pepper, pushing past the older boys that had previously been obstructing her. Ross pauses in surprise before cracking up.

"Oh my god! Oh my god! Is this it? Your heroic rescue party? Bruce, this is low, even for you! Saved by a little girl! What's your name, girly?"

"My name is Pepper," she says, voice quivering in anger "And I said put. Him. Down." Ross raises an eyebrow, his goons sniggering.

"Or what? You gonna throw dolls at me or something?"

And Tony remembers Thor showing Pepper how to make a fist, how to roll when you land to lessen the impact, her look of intense concentration as he explains to her where to aim on the body. He thinks that maybe he knows why she was so determined to learn to fight.

Pepper draws back her arm...

...and punches Ross in the nuts.

With a yelp of pain the older boy tumbles to the ground, hands cupping his crotch. Tasha makes use of her captors distraction to roll him over, keeping him down with a foot pressed to his throat. Clint flips the boy holding him over his head and onto the ground, while Tony takes advantage of his assailant's loosened grip to jab back sharply, catching them in the gut with his elbow. Steve grabs the boy who'd kicked him by the knees and topples him over before mimicking Tasha and putting a foot to his throat.

"You're wrong, Ross," says the blond, dusting himself off. "Bruce has us." Pepper, in possibly the most unladylike action Tony has ever seen, ever, in his life, spits on Ross' face before wheeling round and punching Hammer, who'd been sneaking up behind her.

"If you ever come near my boyfriend again I will burn your house down," she half shrieks, and he backs away, clutching his jaw and glaring. "I will soak it in gasoline, and I will drop the match! You hear me?"

"Cool it, tiger," says Tony, gently leading her away.

"I will burn everything! YOUR COMIC BOOK COLLECTION IS TOAST!" She calls over her shoulder, before sighing and turning to face forward. The others follow them, more than a little overawed. Everyone is silent until they reach Pepper's house, where Clint pauses and looks at all of them.

"Well, one thing is clear to me," he says. "You can mess with gingers and you can mess with girls, but mess with a ginger girl and they will rip your heart out."

"Amen," mutters Tony, and they head in.

They spend the rest of the morning steadily depleting the fridge, giving Pepper's parents the squint eye whenever they try to enter the kitchen and generally messing around. Clint teaches them the song he was singing earlier, except they use spoons instead of knives, something Tony is eternally grateful for- despite his highly developed brain, hand-eye coordination has never been a strength of his. Tasha, unsurprisingly, is also a master; apparently this is what passed for fun at the orphanage.

Time passes in that strange way it has when a highly anticipated event- though not necessarily anticipated in a good way- is approaching. Tony is hyper aware of every second ticking by, and the sluggishness of those ticks is both a blessing and a curse. The minutes drag by in clump of two or three- and then suddenly fifteen of them, poof, gone. Eleven o'clock passes, twelve o'clock passes. He is fidgeting now, palms sweaty and shirt collar too tight. In the blink of an eye it is one o'clock, and there is a sleek black car on the road outside, hooting for him.

Steve offers to carry his stuff out for him, and when he protests that he can do it himself, he's not a girl, Tasha grabs the stuff, hoists it over her shoulder and takes it to the car, 'accidentally' hitting him on the head with it as she does so. Clint snickers while Steve rolls his eyes, and Pepper is squeezing the life out of his hand, huge eyes swimming with tears. He kneels down in front of her.

"You'll not be able to fit into your room with all the letters I'll send you," he whispers, and she flings her arms around his neck and starts to cry. This sets Bruce off, and he ends up hugging the both of them.

"Well, drive safe," says Clint when he manages to pry himself away, punching his arm far harder than is necessary.

"Try not to get into too much trouble," says the resident goody two shoes, and Tony mimics his eye roll from earlier.

"Buy a big-city cappuccino for me, mkay?" says Tasha, and he nods. He doesn't trust himself to speak, so he with a shaky smile he gives Pepper's hand a final squeeze and climbs into the car.

"Goodbye," he chokes out. Then the door is shut and the car is moving. They are standing on the pavement, waving to him, but the windows are tinted and they cannot wave back. He fiddles with the window switch.

"Jarvis, the window is stuck; can you- hey, you're not Jarvis!" The man in the front of the car has skin like week-old sourdough and an ugly sneer twisting his mouth. "Hey! Let me out!"

"Cool it, kid, I'm not kidnapping you. Jarvis is dead." Tony freezes, stomach knotting up.


"You heard me; he had a heart attack last month. I'm gonna be looking after you from now on, and let me tell you, you'd better behave, 'cause I hate kids. Hate 'em."

"Then why on earth would you take the job?" Tony is in shock, numb to the loss of Jarvis.

"Because it pays well and your daddy doesn't care about you. Doesn't care if you like me or not. One thing he does care about- those brats back there; you're not allowed to talk to them. Said so himself, and I quote- 'No son of mine is going to be affiliated with that scum. Tell Tony no letters, no telephone calls, nothing.' Got it?"

Jarvis is dead. I've just been cut off from my only friends in the world, and I'll spend the rest of my developing life being 'cared for' by this asshole! What more is there to get? he thinks to himself.

"Yeah, I got it."

The young prodigy looks over his shoulder one last time. They pass under the overpass he and Pepper stood on the night before, and head away from the town. He fancies that he can see Pepper's chimney over on the left, where the suburbs are. He wonders if they are all still on the pavement, or if they have gone back inside. Perhaps they have gone down to the clearing, Pepper clutching the rods and bait bucket for one last afternoon of fake swimming. Perhaps they're still stood there. He hopes that Pepper has stopped crying.

They reach the interstate and a truck pulls up behind them, blocking his view. He turns around and glumly slides down in his seat, eyes drooping closed. It has been nearly thirty hours since he last slept, and he is exhausted.

"By the way," says the man just before Tony succumbs to sleep. "The terrorists have retracted their threat, so you're safe. It's all in the news about how you're coming home today. Lucky you, hey?"

And Tony wishes the terrorists hadn't retracted their threat, wishes that they had increased the risk, because, despite what the press thinks, he isn't coming home. As far as he's concerned, he just left home behind.