“You’re pulling on it!”
“I am not! Your hair is simply thin!”
What the fuck is my life? Tony sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
Seven children, with bright, enormous eyes, stare up at him, expectantly, as if waiting for his adjudication.
“What happened?” he asks, wearily.
Steve, small and thin, looking like he’s made of bird bones, points at Thor and hollers, “he was pulling my hair!”
“I was not!” Tiny Thor insists, staring up at him. “I was just touching.”
“You were pulling!” Steve shouts back, going red in the face, ready to clamber over Thor and beat him with his small fists.
“You were pulling,” Bruce says, quietly, shoving the middle of his glasses up his nose, scuffing his feet against the floor.
Thor sends him a vicious glare, one that makes Bruce blanch and stare down at his feet.
“Hey!” Tony interjects, sharp, like flinders. “Okay, no hair pulling,” he warns Thor. “No punching, and no glaring at people because you don’t like what they’re saying, understood?”
Thor and Steve taken on a sullen look and nod.
I am not made for this, he thinks, dragging his hand through his hair. I am not made for this with them. They don’t even like me.
“Okay, uh, let’s get back to the Compound, and we’ll decide where to go from there,” he says, half-heartedly. He turns his head and Barnes is slumped against a wall, weary and confused. “You okay over there?”
Barnes nods and pushes himself off. He eyes the children as if they’re about to bite him, and fair enough, at least a couple of them might.
“Do you want to take a couple?” Tony asks, pointedly.
Barnes holds out a hand and Steve, Thor and Clint scamper forward, followed by Sam at a more sedate pace. Tony, on the other hand, is faced with a quiet, curious Bruce, who eyes Tony’s outstretched hand like it might wring his throat (he knows enough stories about Brian Banner that his stomach rolls), an ever-watchful, dangerous Natasha and a gummy, free Wanda. Bruce takes one hand, Natasha, after some consideration, the other, and Wanda climbs up his neck, draping her thin arms around his throat.
As they make their way back to the Compound, Tony thinks, yeah, I am so not made for this.
Bath-time is a horror in itself.
Steve doesn’t want to.
Clint doesn’t want to.
Thor doesn’t want to.
Natasha eyes the water like he might shove her head underneath and choke her.
Sam doesn’t mind and Bruce doesn’t mind and Wanda jumps in with a squeal (he’s never seen her so happy; he wonders if this is what she was before her parents, if this is what she should have been).
But the first four are going to be the death of him.
“I don’t understand why we have ta!” Steve insists, folding his arms over his chest.
“Because you had a shower last night, so it’s been twenty-four hours and you need to have another one.”
“But why?” Steve pushes.
“Because you just do, okay!”
Steve folds his arms over his chest. “I don’t want to,” he threatens.
Barnes steps forward. “Come on, pal. Havin’ a bath is important; it keeps you clean, so you don’t get sick. You don’t want to get sick, do you?” he cajoles.
Steve scuffs his foot against the ground. “No,” he says, sullenly.
“So, why don’t we get in, huh?” Barnes eyes Steve, Thor and Clint, purposefully. “Come on, guys, Tony’s doin’ his best, yeah? Give him a break.”
Steve looks up at Tony, blue eyes luminous and big in his narrow, gaunt face. “Sorry, Tony,” he says, dully.
God, it’s like pulling teeth for him, even at this age, Tony thinks, half amused, half frustrated.
“Sorry, Tony,” Clint and Thor echo, kinder, more respectful.
All three slip into the water, alongside Sam and Bruce and Wanda, immediately, and start playing in the water, with the rubber ducks that FRIDAY had sourced from somewhere (God knows where), splashing each other and giggling.
His heart swells at the sound until he remembers, they don’t know who he is; if they did, they wouldn’t play so easily, laugh so freely.
Tony knows what they think of him.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Stark, he scolds himself.
He exhales, heavily, and he kneels in front of Natasha. “Is the water scary?” he asks in Russian.
It takes a lot to open your soul in front of strangers; now, in this body, everyone is a stranger to Natasha.
Natasha eyes the tub, where they play. “Is this a punishment?” she asks, carefully, in Russian.
“No, not at all,” Tony disagrees.
Natasha gives him a fierce look. “Bathtubs are an adequate drowning method.”
Tony flinches. “Yeah, I know,” he says, dryly. “Okay, no bathtub then. How about a shower?”
Natasha eyes the shower, speculatively. It’s large, the one in his bedroom, with a seat far away from the spray in case one of his trademark panic attacks ensued, and he wouldn’t even need to spray her much with it. She could dance inside, if she’d like.
Finally, she nods, haughtily, and offers her hand. “Take me to the shower,” she orders, this little girl, up to his knee, and he might do everything she wants just for the smile that grows on her face when she steps under the spray.
“Okay, dinner time.” Tony claps his hands together. “What do you want?”
“Mac and cheese,” Sam bravely declares, rocking back on his feet, a firm look on his face.
“Okay, very doable,” Tony agrees. There are a couple of Kraft boxes in the cupboard if he remembers correctly. “Everyone up for mac and cheese say aye.”
Tony blows out a breath between his teeth and sends Barnes a look, something like looks like we dodged a bullet with this one.
Barnes grins, fleetingly.
Of course, once the food is made and put on plates, it devolves into a food fight, with Steve leading the charge (of course, it’s fucking Steve), and Tony has to hide behind a chair before dry pasta and cold, stringy cheese can get in his hair (sue him, Esmeralda does good work for a good price and she’ll pinch him if he comes back too soon to get styled again).
God, even Bruce is making catapults, tongue between his teeth, brow crossed in concentration.
“Okay, that’s enough!” Tony shouts, when a plate of mac and cheese drops onto Wanda’s head, sending her into a fit of tears, while Natasha, with deadly, deadly aim, lobs her own full plate right at Clint’s face, who stares back at her, shocked, through the cheesy, carb-filled mess sticking to his face. “I will not have hooligans in my kitchen!”
Fuck, I’ve become Jarvis, haven’t I?
“Steve,” Tony says, sternly, picking up Wanda, who promptly starts crying into his neck.
Steve lifts his chin, haughtily. “Yeah?” he says, defiantly.
“No more food fights; got it?”
Steve folds his arms over his chest. “Clint started it!”
“Did not, you liar!”
“Oh, my god, shut up!”
And then, he smooths a hand over Wanda’s dark auburn hair, until she quiets (she’d have never let him touch her if she was big).
Both boys fall silent and stare down at their feet.
“Okay, another bath, then.”
Natasha glares up at him.
“Don’t look at me like that, young lady,” he says, crossly. “I saw you throw that plate at Clint.”
Natasha pouts. “He dumped the food on Wanda’s head,” she says, just as cross, in Russian.
“I know,” Tony says, softly. “But that doesn’t justify you throwing it back at him. You’re all messy now too.”
Natasha’s face screws up. “Can I go under the shower?” she asks, carefully, as if the shower is some privilege he will deny her, now that he’s pissed off.
“Yes, you may,” Tony says, gently.
She gives him a shy smile, small and fleeting, but it makes his heart swell nonetheless.
“Come on, guys. Bath time.”
The round of complaining begins, particularly from the mouth of the most belligerent miscreants, but they go off towards the bathroom, nonetheless.
Barnes peers out from underneath the counter. He looks down at his arm. “There’s cheese inside the plating,” he says, flatly. He lifts his eyes. “I’m gonna kill the punk when he’s big again.”
“Yeah?” Tony turns around only to find Steve standing behind her, half behind the doorframe, half in front, scuffing the edge of his shoe against the floor (he’d stared at the shoes that light up like stars with so much awe when Tony had handed him the box).
Steve’s face sets in resolve. “Tony, we want to build a fort,” he says, firmly.
“Okay,” Tony says, slowly. “And?”
“Well, Bucky’s doin’ the heavy liftin’, but he said you were an emig-emigin-emigineer,” Steve shakes his head. “A person who builds things. Can you help us?”
You would never have let me touch anything of yours before this, before you were young. You would’ve been too concerned that I was making another Ultron. I don’t know how that would’ve been possible with a blanket fort, but I’m sure you would’ve found some connection.
But he can’t take that out on baby!Steve.
“Yeah, sure, pal,” he says, gently.
Steve holds up his hand, expectantly, with the palm downturned, as if he’s waiting for Tony to take it.
His heart swells.
God, he’s pathetic.
He quietly takes Steve’s hand and lets the little boy lead him towards where the rest of the children are playing, who abruptly fall silent at his entrance, causing him to shift awkward on his feet.
He knew this was a bad idea.
“Tony’s gonna help us,” Steve declares with all the authority of a tiny asthmatic with one hell of a temper.
Clint eyes him with suspicion. “Why?”
Tony shrugs. “Because I like building things.”
“We cannot…” Natasha hesitates. She lifts her chin. “We cannot get the foundation to remain standing.”
Tony kneels, peeking underneath the bedsheet haphazardly thrown over the fort they had made.
“Ah,” he makes a long, drawn-out sound. “I think I see the problem.”
Thor drapes an arm over his shoulder, so he can heave himself onto his back, brave and trusting. “What is it?” he demands.
“Well, you’ve used regular, old cushions for this thing. It needs something firmer, that’s gonna stand up to the oncoming storm, or it’ll just fall apart.” He jumps to his feet, steadily balancing Thor’s weight around his neck. “We’re gonna need couch cushions.”
Steve’s brow furrows. “Couch cushions?”
Tony nods, solemnly. He reaches for the sofa, behind the fort, and pulls the seat cushions from the base, propping them at the back, and draping the sheet over it.
“See, now, it works.”
“Wow.” Steve’s eyes are bright and enormous. “It’s not fallin’ down!”
“It won’t now,” Tony reassures.
Steve rounds on him and throws his thin arms, like toothpicks, around Tony’s waists, fingers never meeting. He rests his chin on Tony’s stomach and looks up.
“Thanks, Tony,” he gushes.
Tony hesitates, before smoothing a hand over Steve’s thin, blonde hair. “You’re welcome, kid.”
He looks up and finds Barnes staring.
He flushes and ducks his head.
A plate smashes, a child cries, and Tony looks up.
“Shit,” he mutters and runs.
In the kitchen, he finds the debacle. The children are all surrounded around the countertop, staring at the broken plate, a slice of pie streaking across the floor and the bleeding little girl in the middle of it all. Clint, Wanda and Steve are sobbing, Bruce is pale and shaking, Thor is angry, Sam is careful, speaking very quietly to Natasha, who stares at the gash on her leg, a razor line down from her knee, her eyes pale and distant.
“What happened here?” he asks, carefully.
Everyone turns to look at him, various degrees of fear flooding through his face, in particular, Bruce, who grips the counter as if he’d very much like to melt into the stone.
The air shifts behind him, and Bucky (he has to call him Bucky at some point, and they’re sharing custody of munchkins now) is standing beside him.
Steve steps forward, lifting his chin defiantly, and he throws his arms out, as if to shield the other children from Tony’s coming rage.
It twists like a knife in his gut.
Is he that gruesome, that nightmarish, that much of a monster?
“It was m’fault,” Steve declares. “If you’re gonna punish anyone, you gotta punish me.”
“No,” Clint insists. “It was my fault. I dropped the plate.”
“I was the one tryin’ t’get it down from the counter,” Steve argues. “It was my fault.”
“No, it was mine!”
“It was mine!”
“Enough!” Tony snaps and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Stop moving, please.”
The children freeze.
Tony turns around; Bucky is waiting patiently behind him. “Can you, uh, can you clean that up? I’ll dress up Natasha.”
Bucky nods. “Yeah, of course. Okay, guys,” he claps his hands. “Now, I’m gonna lift each of you and put you on the counter, while I clean up the mess, and then, Tony here’s gonna fix Natasha up real good. How does that sound?”
The children nod solemnly.
Wanda still cries, heaving tears that only a four-year-old child can make. Bucky lifts each of them onto the counter. Natasha doesn’t flinch as she’s jolted (Tony hates that she’s so used to pain, even at this tender, tiny age, but he gets it, how many times had he burned himself, cut himself, shocked himself because he couldn’t leave well enough alone, because knowledge and creation demanded sacrifice and bone and blood; sometimes, he forgets that Natasha really is the other half of him, the only one who understands necessity and needs must).
He kneels in front of her now, after Bucky’s cleared up the broken porcelain, the pie that was lost.
“Can I clean it up?” he asks, gently.
Natasha looks down at the gash scored across her knee. “It will heal,” she says, dismissively.
He wonders how many scars she has, left to just heal.
“Still, it might get infected,” he says, smoothly. “I’d rather clean it up just to be sure, just so that healing gets on track. I don’t want you to be in pain.”
Natasha gives him a stiff look. “I can handle it,” she says, haughtily.
“I’m sure you can. You’re definitely braver than I am, that’s for sure,” he says, patiently, taking great care to not be condescending. “But, if I don’t clean it up and bandage it, it might get infected, and you want to be functional, don’t you?”
God, he’s a prick.
Natasha mulls it over, and clearly, the logic works, because she eventually nods and raises her leg, with a high, haughty tilt of her chin, deigning to let him clean up her wounds.
He grins with all his teeth.
“Good, now, this might sting,” he murmurs, pressing an antiseptic wipe to her knee.
Natasha doesn’t move.
He cleans the wound up as best as he can and then, covers the gash with a Band-Aid (a Black Widow bandaid, but no one needs to question that too deeply).
“There we go,” he murmurs. “All done.”
Wanda tugs at his pant. He looks down at her and finds her eyes bright and wet and enormous in her face, like moons, from where she sits on the counter, her legs swaying back and forth.
She whispers something halting and hiccupping in Sokovian, clutching onto his trousers for dear life.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he says, mournfully. “I don’t understand you.”
“Boss, I believe she’s asking whether young Agent Romanoff will be alright,” FRIDAY explains.
“Oh,” Tony’s eyes widen. “Yeah, honey, she’s going to be fine.”
FRIDAY recites Tony’s words in perfect Sokovian, and Wanda rubs at her eyes with her fists, nodding. Finally, she reaches for him, draping her arms, thin like toothpicks, around his neck. He heaves her up into his arms, perching her on one hip, when he sees the flicker of longing in Natasha’s moss-green eyes. He extends an arm to her, offering her the option, and after an agonising moment’s hesitation, she climbs into his arm, resting her head against his collarbone.
He’d never had children, never wanted children, the bots had always been enough, and he knows, he knows what poison is in his blood, why would he pass that on? But he wonders if this is why people have children, to have this weight in their arms, to hold life and feel a small heart beating against you, to get your heart to swell this way.
Thankfully, the kids are all exhausted after the punishing day they’ve all had, so they go willingly to bed. Tony puts them to sleep in his own bed, built for ten grown people easily and more, should he be willing to test it, but his orgies, back in the day, had always stopped at ten, and that was the magic number for all of his beds, in every one of his homes.
Clint curls up into a ball at the base of the bed, and Steve and Thor both sprawl out like starfishes. Wanda likes being in the middle, and Bruce takes his place right at the edge, on his side. Sam drapes himself over Wanda, like a shield, and Tony can’t help but take a picture.
Natasha, on the other hand, raises her hands, expectantly, locked at the wrist.
He just stares down at her, dumbfounded, until she says, “handcuffs” to prompt him.
“No,” he blurts out, horrified.
Natasha’s brow furrows. “But…” she trails off.
“No handcuffs, Natasha. I don’t need them,” Tony says, gently.
“I could run away,” she points out.
“You could,” Tony agrees. “I don’t want you to, I’d rather you tell me if there’s anything wrong, especially if there’s something that makes you want to run away, but I’m not going to tie you down to the bed, okay?”
“Okay,” Natasha says, confused, and lies back down on the bed, stiff as a board, in between Steve and Thor and doesn’t hesitate to push Thor a little over so she can be more comfortable.
Once the children are asleep, and Tony’s joined the pile of bodies, Bucky enters, grinning a little at the sight.
“If you take a picture, I swear to God-” Tony begins to threaten.
Bucky chuckles. “I swear I won’t, hand to God.” He hesitates. “Actually, I was going to ask you to dinner.”
Tony blinks. “Oh,” he says, lamely.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to-” Bucky hurries to explain.
“No, I know that. I want to, I do, I was just, uh, surprised,” Tony mutters. “Yeah, I’d love to go to dinner with you, Bucky, like a date-type thing, right?”
“Yeah, a date-type thing,” Bucky says, his eyes pale and laughing.
“Okay, cool, yeah, I’d love to go to dinner with you as a date-type thing,” Tony says, almost shyly.
Clint snuffles a little in his sleep, verging on a whine, before settling, but it’s enough to shatter the moment.
“Thank God they all got to sleep without any trouble,” Tony sighs.
“I can imagine,” Bucky says, moving over to the side of the bed and crouching in front of it. “You’re very good with them, you know.”
Tony snorts. “Oh, please, if they had any clue who I really was, you think any of this would’ve been happening?”
Bucky frowns. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“Bucky,” Tony says, slowly. “They hate me as adults.”
Bucky gapes at him in disbelief. “No, no, they don’t; why would you say that?”
Tony shrugs. “Because I know. I know what they think of me. I have no illusions. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about them. I’m just saying the only reason this whole deaging thing has worked out is because they don’t really remember who I am, so the whole distrust, disdain stuff doesn’t intervene and screw things up.”
“Tony,” Bucky shakes his head. “Tony, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Tony, d’you have any idea the things they say about you?”
Tony grimaces. “That’s exactly what I don’t want to find out. My ego can only take a certain amount of hits before I’m in desperate need of power crystals.”
Bucky’s brow furrows. “I… only half understood that, but that’s not what I meant. Tony, Tony, they love you, they really do.”
Tony laughs, breathless and fond. “You’re sweet to say that.” He reaches over, cupping Bucky’s jaw, fingers sliding through his unbound hair. “I’m grateful, I really am, but I know what they think of me, Bucky. I know I’m not, uh, the best friend, teammate. I’m the rich guy, the one that makes the equipment. It’s okay, I know my place, I just… I have no illusions.”
“Tony,” Bucky says, agonised.
Tony reaches down, careful not to disturb little Steve who’s huddled now against his hip, and kisses Bucky gently on the mouth.
“Thank you for trying to make me feel better,” he murmurs. “I won’t forget that you tried to do that for me.”
When Tony wakes up, there are a lot of fully-grown, fully-made bodies in the bed with him, and he’s having remarkable déjà vu back to his orgy days, until he realises the head of golden hair pressed up against his shoulder is Steve, who happily nudges his nose against Tony's collarbone, and the head lying on his abdomen is Wanda.
“What the fuck,” he slurs.
That’s never happened before.
Wanda reaches out and pats him absentmindedly on the face with a flat palm. “Hush, hush, Tony, sleep time,” she says, thickly, smiling.
“But…” Tony begins.
Steve’s arms tighten around him. “S’okay, Tony, everything’s gonna be fine, but first we gotta sleep.”
“But you guys were kids,” Tony complains. “And now you’re big again; don’t you think we need a debrief or something.”
Bucky peeks his head up over the edge of the mattress. “Tony, doll, you’re dedicated as fuck, we know that and we appreciate that, but if you don’t shut up, somethin’ terrible’s gonna happen; you don’t want that, d’you?”
“No,” Tony says, uncertainly.
“Then, can we all shut the fuck up and go back to sleep?” Natasha asks, thin and pinched, her dark auburn hair like a rat’s nest on top of her skull, as she raises her head to glower at them, from her place against Tony’s other hip.
Tony exhales. “Shut the fuck up and go back to sleep? Okay, yeah, I can do that. I can do that.” He pauses. “If anyone mentions the cuddle pile, I will kill you all.”
“Seconded,” Sam sighs. “Along with bath time.”
“Thirded,” Natasha mutters. “Along with the Black Widow band-aid.”
“Fine,” Steve agrees, mumbling. “But I’m buying big shoes that light up.”
“Fine,” Bucky echoes. “But I’m throwin’ them at your fat head until you clean the cheese in my fuckin’ arm.”