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Fic: Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies Part 2

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

~

Tony woke up in a warm embrace that made Tony think of home. It was like he'd always imagined Dad's hugs would feel like, safe and inviting, with pride in his eyes for once, instead of being disappointed. It couldn't have been Jarvis, because the arms were much stronger and younger. He hurt all over, but the hug felt nice.

Tony opened his eyes to see the man from earlier, looking down at Tony with the gold gone from his eyes. "Our young warrior is stirring," the man said, his frown deepening when Tony whimpered from the pain. "I am sorry, little one. You were hurt because I..."

"Goldilocks still stupid," Hulk growled, and the man bowed his head.

"Aye, that may be true. Certainly too proud to see the trap before us, and I should have learned that lesson twice over," the man said. He looked at Tony again, who just curled up against the warm arms. "I am Thor Odinson, little warrior. I would that I could take your injuries from you, but I can only lay my life at your feet and ask for your forgiveness."

"It hurts," Tony said, not entirely following Thor's odd speech.

"We must take you to the human healers. They will-"

"No!" Tony said, pushing away from the man and biting his lip against the pain. "You have to save Clint and Natasha! And Cap! They're gonna kill Clint and Natasha because I wouldn't come out, and they're hurting Captain America. You have to help them!"

One of Thor's massive hands wiped away the tears on Tony's cheek as he hiccuped, not caring anymore what Dad would say if he saw. He couldn't let anyone else get hurt because of him. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the man from earlier that Hulk had thrown against the wall. That man's eyes still followed him. "You are indeed a brave and honorable warrior for one so small," Thor told him, pride in his eyes that warmed Tony to the core. It wasn't Dad, but it was like Jarvis or Mom sometimes, and Tony soaked in as much of the emotion as he could. "I wish I had half the bravery you show when I was your age. I will grant you this request if it is within my power, gladly."

"Runt stay this time," Hulk grunted.

Before Tony could protest being left alone again, Thor shook his head. "Nay, shield brother. The child is safer with us than on his own."

Hulk snorted, but didn't argue, starting to prod down the hallway. "I can walk," Tony said, because if Thor was going to save the others, he would need to use his hands.

Thor set him down gingerly, and it hurt, but not as badly as when he'd been pushed against the desk, so Tony hid it. He was good at hiding. Though he did miss Thor's hug.

They walked through the hallways as Tony wondered how much of the fifteen minutes they had left. What if it had passed while he'd been knocked out? Were they-

Natasha dropped down from the ceiling in front of them, swaying on her feet before she regained her balance. "Natasha!" Tony cried, running up and hugging her tightly. "They said they were going to kill you and they were hurting Clint, and there was a man who didn't move and won't close his eyes."

"Shh," Natasha said. "You were supposed to run away."

"I found Hulk instead," Tony said, his panic giving way to a little smugness.

It earned him a low chuckle and a pat on the head. "Good work, kotyonok."

"You do not look well, Lady Natasha," Thor said, moving to support her. She leaned on him, taking the weight off her bad leg.

"Been better," Natasha said, shaking her head. "Took out their com systems and stopped the needles from digging into the Captain. He'll be out once he gets his strength back. Hawkeye is still captured. Iron Man's status is unknown."

"Then let us end this," Thor said as Hulk growled in agreement.

Natasha was about to say something when a group of angry German voices were heard down the hallway. Before Tony could look, Natasha curled around him, pushing him down as gun shots rang out. Tony cried out, but he didn't struggle as an arm wrapped around him and picked him up.

Natasha ran, carrying him as he clung to her, the deafening shots sounding out around them. His ears were ringing, but Natasha kept going even as she kicked a gun out of the hand of someone who got too close.

Suddenly, Natasha stopped running. Tony looked up when the silence rang through his ears even worse than the noise, and it took him a moment before a familiar German voice started to make sense. "-surrounded, Black Widow. I think this time, you shall not evade recapture so easily. Surrender."

"Fat chance," Natasha said, putting Tony down and shoving him behind her.

"Do not worry, we won't harm the child," the man said smugly. Tony peered at him from behind Natasha. He looked older, bald and wearing a monocle with some sort of weird armor on his arm. He also had a sword, which seemed pretty random to Tony when everyone else had guns. "At first, we punished the Asgardian for his trickery, but I've since seen this for the gift it is. We will raise the little genius as a scientist for Hydra."

"I wouldn't ever join you! You're the bad guys!" Tony yelled. He started to step forward to yell at him properly, but Natasha pushed him back, sparing him a small glare to tell him to stay put.

"If you're not going to hurt him, how are you going to persuade him?" Natasha asked suspiciously, leaning off her bad leg as if she couldn't put her full weight on it any more. Her posture was screaming that she was hurt, which was weird, because Natasha was even better at hiding hurt than Tony was.

The man chuckled, though Tony didn't see anything funny about it. "We can be quite persuasive, I assure you. Before Schmidt went off on his fool's errand to find the Tesseract, he was looking into other formulas for the super serum. He funded research on the ZEMO chemical I developed. The chemical didn't work as well as planned, but it can be very useful for brainwashing. Unlike the collars, it leaves the intelligence intact."

"I don't want to," Tony said, fear running through his voice.

"We won't let them, angel moy," Natasha said calmly.

"And what can you do to stop us? You are wounded and surrounded. Even the legendary Black Widow cannot get the child out of this," the man said.

"I don't have to," Natasha said as a large green Hulk burst through the ranks, followed by a bolt of lightning. She stood up straight again, shaking her head. "Just have to stall long enough for the rest of the team to get here. Thank you for cooperating while giving me information."

"Wow," Tony said, watching Hulk toss the soldiers aside as Thor threw his hammer at them.

"Come on, little one," Natasha said, grabbing his hand. She was limping more now as they ran, and Tony tightened his grip on her hand in worry.

Even with Thor and Hulk fighting, they were surrounded again quickly enough. Natasha punched the first one down, but the monocle man grabbed Tony while she was fighting. "Help!" Tony screamed as he kicked at the man desperately, trying to bite him. But he was being held up by the armored arm and it started to glow with a scary, intense light. "You will stop fighting!" the man demanded.

The silence that fell was only interrupted by Hulk's growl. "Let him go, Strucker," Natasha said as she took a step forward. "We'll come quietly if-"

Tony screamed as his arm was twisted back, pain flooding through him. Natasha stopped moving and she held out a hand in front of Hulk as he roared.

Tony didn't want the zemo-whatever. He didn't want to be a bad guy. He was scared, and the others couldn't help without hurting him. His lip trembled, but Tony didn't cry. Bullies liked it when you cried, and Dad hated it.

The man shouted in German to the soldiers, and they started to surround his friends again. "No!" Tony shouted, kicking and punching as hard as he could. He wasn't let go, but he heard the man swear as Tony's foot came in contact with his leg. "Let me go! Let me-"

The man cried out and dropped Tony, a loud metallic clang ringing through the air. Tony was grabbed again before he could scramble away, but as he started to struggle, a voice in his ear said, "Easy kid. We're getting you out of here."

"Clint!" Tony said, hugging the man who carried him with one arm. "You're alive!"

"I'm not the only one," Clint said, and Tony looked up to see Cap catch his shield.

"Stand down, Baron Strucker," Cap commanded. Tony's mouth formed a small 'o'. "You're the one surrounded now, and you've just lost your advantage."

The monocle man shouted again and fighting resumed, but this time Cint held Tony tightly, and Hulk stood in front of them, tossing aside anyone who got too close with a loud crack that made Tony flinch. Suddenly, all Tony could see was that man's wide eyes staring back at him - unmoving because he couldn't anymore. Because he was- "You don't have to watch, kiddo," Clint said over the clamor. He kneeled down, setting Tony in his lap to free his good hand up to turn Tony's head away.

"The others-" Tony started, then cried out as another shot went off too close. He buried his head against Clint's shoulder.

"They'll be okay now," Clint said, hugging him tightly as he shielded Tony from the fight. "Just be brave a bit longer, okay? Then we'll get you home, I promise."

The sounds of fighting finally died down, and Tony peeked over Clint's shoulder to see Cap's knock-out blow to monocle man. All the other soldiers had been taken care of by his new friends. "Is it over?" Tony asked, just as more footsteps came running down the hallway. He ducked against Clint's shoulder again as Hulk roared.

Clint relaxed, however, as the footsteps came to a halt. "'Bout time you got your ass here," Clint said.

Tony looked up to see lots of people in black suits surrounding them. Natasha swayed on her feet, letting one of them support her weight before she collapsed. The man helping her stand frowned. "Language, Hawkeye. What's a kid doing on a Hydra base?"

"Who's he?" Tony asked suspiciously.

"That's who I told you to find," Cap said, kneeling down beside them.

"I found Hulk first," Tony said, moving away from Clint. He didn't want anyone to think he was scared now that everything was over, especially not if they were going to talk to his dad. Cap looked really tired, like he was only just a little more steady on his feet than Natasha was, but he looked Tony over for injuries. Clint leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes tiredly. Only Thor and Hulk were in good shape. Tony swallowed hard.

But Cap smiled weakly, ruffling Tony's hair. "You did. You were very brave, Tony. Without you, we'd still be captured. Thank you."

Tony felt his eyes go wide as Cap spoke. He looked down. "I didn't... and I was scared and..." And someone died, just like the Hydra soldiers still in the room, because of Tony, but he couldn't tell Cap that.

"You did save us, and you were very brave, especially if you were that scared," Cap said, pulling off the cowl so Tony could see his face. Steve's face. "You did a good job. I'm sorry we couldn't help you sooner."

Tony bit his lip, trying to keep back the tears. Like Thor, Cap looked proud, but from Cap it meant more than it would from even Jarvis. "Would you... Would you tell Dad that? You're Captain America, so he'll believe you. He likes you. So if you tell him that, maybe he'll like me more? Then he won't yell and-" Tony snapped his mouth shut. He wasn't allowed to talk about that.

Hulk growled and Cap's eyes hardened. Tony didn't dare look around to see the other's expressions. He'd said too much, and now they didn't like him anymore and-

He was pulled into a tight hug, Steve's arms wrapping around him comfortingly. "I'll tell him," Cap promised as Tony's small fingers fisted in the big white star on his chest. "And I'll make sure he doesn't yell, or anything else, alright?"

Tony nodded against Steve's shoulders. Suddenly, it was all just too much. Everything hurt, and people were dead, and he was scared because Dad would yell anyway, after everyone was gone. He didn't want Steve to leave. The first sob that shook Tony was hard, and it hurt even more than the shock had. He couldn't stop the second or the third, and soon Tony lost track completely as he cried himself out against Captain America's shoulder.

* * *

He heard the sickening crack and saw the man's eyes wide in fear. Tony reached out to shake him, but the man just stared blankly up at him. Tony tried to close his eyes, to not see, but the man's face reflected back at him, fracturing into millions of blank stares like a broken mirror. Tony screamed, but the eyes wouldn't go away.

"He's having a nightmare!"

"Hold him still."

Cap? Tony looked around wildly, but Cap was strapped to the chair again, blood dripping away as he stared with the same wide eyes. No. No, Cap couldn't die. Was that Tony's fault too? Cap couldn't-

"Sleep without bad dreams, angel moy."

There was a pinch on his neck, and the dream faded. Tony slipped into darkness, this time the fear of it being overwhelmed by the relief that he'd no longer have to see those eyes.

Tony woke up again some time later, his head foggy as he tried to make out the soft voices speaking around him.

"-very good at hiding. He's also good at hiding pain. There could be a lot of reasons for that, but given what he's said-"

"He's not going back to his father."

"Captain, there may not be much we can do. Social Services-"

"You're an organization of spies! If you can't-"

"Steve, Phil is right. We may not be able to do much."

That was Natasha. And Steve was here too? Then meeting Captain America wasn't a dream! And Steve sounded really angry. "You're acting like this is an option. It's not."

"Steve-"

There was a very loud growl that Tony recognized as Hulk. "Are you really going to argue with the Hulk?" Steve asked conversationally. "He's been awfully protective of the little guy. He won't even change back into Dr. Banner."

A man whose voice Tony didn't recognized sighed. "Fine, get me a name and I'll see what I can do. But we can't save every abused child, Captain. As much as I'd like to, that's not what SHIELD is for."

Tony felt a large hand running through his hair. He wanted to curl around it, since it was nice and warm, but his body still felt heavy. "I know, Phil. I know. Just... I want to save this one. We wouldn't have gotten out of here without him. It's the least we can do," Steve said, weariness in his voice.

"We'll do what we can, Steve," the man promised.

"Any luck finding out who the kid is?" Clint asked.

"He doesn't fit the description of any missing persons," the unknown man said. "Or any kid geniuses, and I've had the team scouring the country's small town newspapers for any matches on that."

"A first I thought he might be a clone. Maybe even a illegitimate child, no matter how careful he is," Natasha said thoughtfully. "The resemblance is uncanny, and this little one is too much like..."

"Any news on Iron Man yet?" Steve asked quietly.

"The security is encoded, and since Hydra was just moving into this base, the cameras are a hit and miss anyway. Without Iron Man's help, it's taking longer than normal to crack the code. But we'll find him. Thor and my agents are still searching."

"Check the perimeter too, in case they needed to dump the body."

"Captain, that's-"

"A possibility," Steve said darkly, a hint of grief in his voice. "We haven't been able to find Tony anywhere else, and Hydra might have gotten too rough."

A silence fell as Tony thought that over. They were looking for Tony? But Tony was right here! Maybe they were talking about the other Tony? Steve said he'd had a friend named that.

Hulk snorted as Tony managed to open his eyes. "Iron Runt awake."

"'m not a runt," Tony said, attempting to rub his eyes. Steve helped him sit up and drink some water. Tony looked around to find Clint and Natasha in makeshift beds like him, and Clint's arm in some kind of sling. Natasha looked pale, but she smiled at him. Hulk sat on the floor with his arms crossed over his chest next to Tony's 'bed' made out of pillows and blankets on a few boxes. He glared at anyone who got too close to Tony.

Steve, still in his Captain America uniform, had his cowl off and was sitting off to the side. A man in a suit stood not far from him, and Tony tensed.

"That's just Coulson, remember?" Clint said. "He's a good guy."

Tony nodded, but he didn't relax. Suits meant he was someone important, usually one of Dad's friends from work. And if Tony didn't behave, then Dad would get angry.

Natasha and Clint shared a glance, but Coulson kept a pleasant smile on his face, stepping away from the bed without looking like he was moving away from Tony on purpose. There didn't seem to be anything special about the bland man, but the others said he was a good guy. Maybe he had secret super powers? "How are you feeling?" Coulson asked.

"Head feels fuzzy," Tony said, not mentioning that he hurt all over, because that might sound like he was a baby, and Dad would hear about it.

"That would be the sedative we gave you. It was a small dose, so don't worry. It should go away soon," Coulson said.

"Tony," Steve said, smiling down at him. "I'm glad you're feeling better."

Tony looked down, not able to meet Cap's eyes. They had to have found out about that man who died by now, and even if not, Tony had acted like a baby, crying in front of everyone like that.

"Tony?" Steve asked, but Tony still didn't look up.

"Hey, kiddo," Clint said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "When you were going through the vents, did you see anyone else captured like us?"

It was a change of subject that Tony latched onto. He hadn't seen anyone else while going through the vents, but he still remembered the voice in his head when he woke up and the other man with the collar. "There was someone. He had a collar like Thor and Hulk. He was there when I woke up."

Tony hadn't noticed it before then, but the tension in the room lifted, and Steve let out a breath of sharp relief. "Then he's still here. If they had a collar on him, that's why he wouldn't have gotten back to us yet."

"Why would they use a collar?" Natasha asked, shaking her head. "He'd be useless to them like that, unless they meant to prep him with that chemical Strucker spoke of."

"We can ask the prisoners once they start talking," Coulson said. "Right now we need to-"

"Sir! The crews have found a wall that-"

Tony went tense again as another man in a suit walked in. Coulson's eyes slid over him, then everyone else, before he started to take off his suit jacket. "Take off your suit if you're coming in here," he told the other man calmly.

The new guy blinked. "Sir?"

"Your tie too, please," Coulson said, tugging his own off in a single, efficient motion. He unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt before putting his hands in his pockets. He looked more casual like that, and despite the fact that Tony knew he was still a suit, he didn't feel as scared when Coulson took a step towards him.

The other man just stood there, bewildered. "Sir, are you-"

"I gave you an order, Agent. Follow it," Coulson said, waiting patiently.

Immediately, the man started to strip, almost sweating under Coulson's steady gaze.

"What's going on?" Steve asked, looking just as baffled.

Clint just grinned, giving Steve a thumbs-up with his good hand. "Just trust him, Cap. It's easier that way."

When the suit jackets were off, Tony felt better, though he couldn't have said why. And though Coulson never once looked his way after that sweeping glance around the room, Tony thought he knew anyway.

"You were saying, Agent Moore?" Coulson asked, looking completely calm. Tony wondered if that was his super-power. It seemed pretty awesome.

Nonplussed, the man continued, "There's a wall down on the south side that the crews think lead to a secret passage. We're looking for a way to open it now, but Thor wants to just knock it down."

"Do it. We may not have time to find the switch. Contact me if there's any news," Coulson said. The man nodded, then picked up his jacket and tie and left.

"Do you think he's on the other side?" Steve asked.

"We can hope."

Tony looked around at his new friends but didn't meet their eyes. It was good that they'd find this other Tony. Maybe then they'd forget about all the crying he'd done and then wouldn't tell Dad.

"You're awfully quiet, little one," Natasha said. "What are you thinking about?"

Tony looked up briefly, then back down. "Dad's gonna be mad," he said.

Steve's expression turned stony as the Hulk roared, but Clint just grinned. "Nah, we won't let him, okay kid? We got your back. And if all else fails, Cap'll tell him, right? Your Dad will listen to Cap."

That made Tony feel a little better, but when he closed his eyes, the dead face of that man stared back at him.

"Tony?" Steve asked, moving closer. "You're trembling."

"He's dead," Tony said, panicked.

"Your dad?"

"The man with Hulk's remote." Tony felt the words tumble out of him no matter how he tried to keep them back. "I was trying to hide, but Hulk hit him instead of me. But it wasn't Hulk's fault, because he was being controlled, so it had to be my fault for trying to hide. I ran past him and he got killed and I keep seeing his eyes and he won't move-"

"Oh, Tony." Steve pulled him off the bed and into a tight hug. "Slow down, Tony. Breathe. It's okay."

"But he's dead!" Tony yelled, feeling tears welling up again.

"And that's not your fault." It was Coulson who spoke this time, sitting on the edge of the bed and rubbing Tony's back as Steve held him.

"But-"

"You were right to try to hide. It wasn't your fault this man didn't do the same," Coulson said soothingly. Everything he said sounded reasonable, like it was the natural conclusion to come to. "It wasn't your fault."

"Then why won't his eyes go away?" Tony asked.

"They won't, not for a while," Coulson said, and Tony could hear the regret for that in his voice. "But it will get better. We'll have someone help you through that."

"Hulk sorry," Hulk said glumly.

Tony sniffled and shook his head. "It's not your fault."

"Or yours, Kotyonok," Natasha said. She was leaning against Clint, who had moved over to her bed. "But you're strong. You'll make it."

They didn't blame him and they weren't yelling. Tony clutched at Steve's uniform, feeling Steve's arms tighten around him. He heard words like 'psychologist' and 'trauma' being said around him, but Tony cried silently in relief that they weren't blaming him instead of paying attention. Steve wouldn't let them do anything bad, and Tony felt safe even if he wasn't at home.

There was a soft beeping noise, and Coulson got up and left for a while after looking down at a small device. The others stayed though, and Steve never let go of Tony.

When the tears finally stopped, Tony leaned against Cap's chest and tried not to think about those eyes. His new friends didn't blame him even if the eyes did, and they were adults. Was it really not his fault?

Coulson came in again, sans suit, his mouth set in a firm line. "There's a complication."

"Has Iron Man been found?" Steve said, tensing.

"Iron Man is still MIA," Coulson said, shaking his head. "We found someone else with a collar though."

"Yeah, who's that?" Clint asked. He moved towards Hulk after a small nod from Coulson.

"Loki," Coulson said simply.

Hulk roared furiously as Clint put a hand on the big, green shoulder. There was nothing calm about Clint either though, and Tony was surprised by the anger in Clint's eyes. It scared him a little. "That son of a bitch is-"

"Language, Clint," Steve said warningly, with a glance down at Tony. Tony could have told him not to bother. Dad said worse things all the time that Jarvis said he wasn't allowed to repeat.

"He's contained by the collar right now," Coulson said. He looked up sharply at Clint's bark of laughter.

"Serves the bastard right, being the one under mind control this time," Clint grit out. Hulk rumbled in agreement.

"How did Hydra get a hold of Loki?" Natasha asked. She ran a hand down Clint's back, to ground him like Coulson had done for Tony earlier. He wondered who Loki was. He'd heard of someone named that in a book he'd found in Obie's library once, but it was the same one that talked about Thor and he hadn't paid that much attention to it after reading about the God of Thunder.

"No idea," Coulson said. "But the security codes have been cracked, and they show Iron Man being brought in to the secret passage. He didn't come out."

"So there's a chance Loki knows something," Steve said. "And we have to take the collar off if we want to find out."

"Exactly, Captain. Like I said, a complication. Loki seems to have a higher functioning power even with the collar on, but he won't speak to us even with the command," Coulson said.

There was silence for a few moments as the group took that in, and Tony decided that Loki must be a bad guy. Everyone looked pretty angry at him, at any rate. He wondered why Loki would have a collar if he was evil too? Maybe he was bad, but didn't work with these bad guys.

"Romanov, Barton, you stay here," Coulson said.

"You're not benching me this time, Sir, I've-"

"You need information. I'm the best interrogator that you-"

"Agent Coulson is right. You're both wounded," Steve said. He made to stand, but Tony clutched at his uniform. Steve looked down at him with a soft expression, but didn't try to move again.

"If we need you, we'll call," Coulson said with a sigh. "And we might, so don't think you're benched just yet. Captain, if you and Dr. Banner would mind accompanying me?"

Steve hugged Tony tightly for a moment, looking torn, and Hulk growled. "Iron Runt safer with us," Hulk said.

"That might not be a bad idea," Coulson said thoughtfully. There was a loud round of protests at that, which Coulson silenced with a single look. (Totally a super-power. An awesome super-power.) He sat down on the bed again, looking directly at Tony, who rubbed at his eyes to erase his tears. "This will be dangerous. Loki could have any number of tricks to get free once we take the collar off. But if he was there when you woke up, he might be able to explain a few things about you as well."

"He doesn't need to be there for us to ask the questions," Steve said, watching Coulson for a hint, but the man gave him none.

Tony looked back and forth between them, watching the battle of wills. "I have a suspicion that's far-fetched, even for Loki," Coulson said finally. "It's easiest to confirm with Tony there and might solve a few things as well. It may also be our best bet to find Iron Man. If I'm right, this Tony will need to be there."

Steve nodded grudgingly, misgivings clear in his eyes. "And if Loki breaks free? What then?"

Coulson turned to Tony then, his voice serious, but not condescending. He was treating Tony like an adult, and Tony liked that. "If that happens, I want you to promise that you'll run back here immediately, Tony. Romanov and Barton will get you out. Do you understand?"

Tony started to tremble, though he nodded. He didn't want to meet Loki, not if he was as bad as everyone else thought. "You've very brave, Tony, but you don't have to go if you don't want to," Steve said immediately. "No one will force you."

"But it would help find your friend, right?" Tony asked, his voice weaker than he wanted to admit.

"It would," Coulson said. "But the Captain's right. You don't have to go if you don't want to. If we need you later on, we'll cross that bridge when we get there."

If he was scared to go, was what Coulson meant. And Tony was scared, and he hurt a lot. Would Dad yell at him for staying? But Coulson was saying it was alright if he stayed, and the others didn't want him to go.

It would help find Captain America's friend and the person with Tony's name if he went. He wanted to help Steve. In the end, Tony swallowed and nodded.

"If the kid's going, so am I," Clint said, his eyes hard.

"Barton, you-"

"You need someone to get Tony out, and all of your heavy hitters to keep Loki occupied. I'm going."

"I'll keep an escape route open," Natasha said in agreement.

"I do have other agents to do this," Coulson said with a sigh as he rubbed his temples. "Clint, Natasha... You're both wounded."

"And we'd still be better than any other agent you assign," Natasha said.

"There is such a thing as taking a commendable work ethic too far," Coulson said, a hint of a grudging smile on his lips. "I expect to see this enthusiasm on your paperwork as well."

Clint groaned, but Natasha just nodded. Tony was watching the scene unfold, so he didn't even notice the pair of strong arms wrapping around him until he was neatly balanced on Steve's hip. "I can walk," Tony said indignantly, flushing when he realized he shouldn't talk to Captain America like that.

"Sure you can, son," Steve said in his Captain America voice. "But I need you to humor me this time, alright?"

Only because Cap was asking. That and it would probably hurt more to walk. Tony nodded, and hugged Steve's neck as they started moving. Not that he thought Steve would let him fall, but it felt safe. Steve wouldn't let anyone hurt him, especially not with Hulk trailing behind them, growling moodily. He snorted when Tony waved at him. Hulk kept growling at the people in suits that they passed, and Tony felt a little better when the suits took a small step back. Hulk was awesome.

They came to an open area with several machines and suits surrounding the man with the collar Tony had seen when he'd first woken up. Tony saw Clint tense at the sight, standing in front of Steve and Tony protectively. Steve put a brief hand on Clint's shoulder before setting Tony down, which seemed to help relax him.

Thor was watching the collared man with an expression Tony couldn't read in his thunderous eyes. He came to greet them, a smile breaking out on his face as he caught sight of Tony. "The little warrior is well," he said warmly. Tony felt like he should be bristling at this statement, but Thor didn't sound patronizing. In fact, he sounded like he meant it.

"I'm not little," Tony still said, only a little sulky.

"Three feet, four inches and a half, right?" Steve said.

"Right," Tony said, crossing his arms as Steve pat him on the head.

"We really doing this?" Clint asked warily. "We don't have the equipment to handle a Norse god here."

"Puny god," Hulk growled menacingly.

"I think we've got enough equipment to make sure he behaves," Coulson said with a small smile as he looked over at the Hulk. "Sitwell, unlock the collar."

All the people in suits tensed at this order, and Clint's good hand curled into a fist as Thor gripped his hammer. Even Steve tensed, moving Tony behind him as he slid his shield on his arm.

Tony watched as the collar powered down, the button in the center of the man's neck glowing fainter. The man's hand reached up to crush the collar, letting it fall to pieces on the floor. Hulk roared before he could do much else though, and the man flinched. "I see you've brought the monster to keep me at bay. How flattering."

"Brother, you would do well to hold your tongue," Thor said angrily.

"And no gag to make sure of it this time?" Loki said with a twisted smile as Thor winced. "At least these Hydra cretins have been disposed of. They were particularly tiresome."

"Those 'cretins' still managed to trap you, so they must not have been half bad," Steve said.

Loki looked their way, and Tony hid behind Steve, clinging to his leg. Loki wasn't looking at Steve though, but lower. At Tony. "Touché, Captain. Tell me, how has this time period been treating you? Do you still look at ice and wonder if it might have been better if they'd just left you there?"

Steve nearly took a step back, bumping into Tony. "Tell us where Iron Man is!" Clint shouted, stepping between Steve and Loki again.

"Still so angry, Hawkeye? I could remove that anger from you. Remember the peace you felt while under my control?" Loki asked. Tony risked a glance up to see that Clint was trembling. "Would you like me to give you that peace again? To never have to make another decision by yourself? To make you kill your precious little team and not feel-"

"That's enough!," Steve said over Hulk's roar. Loki flinched again as Hulk stepped forward, hiding Clint from view with a menacing growl. "Tell us where Iron Man is, Loki, or we'll find something else to gag you with," Steve said.

"We've found more collars and remotes," Coulson said helpfully. He was smiling pleasantly, but it looked strained. The next part came out more as a threat. "Along with a few other things that I don't know what they do. I'm sure we can figure that out together. You know how I like to test things."

"Always so resourceful," Loki said, his eyes narrowing at Coulson. "I should have finished the job when I killed you the first time."

Thor tensed, pointing his hammer at Loki. "Loki, you will not threaten these-"

"I'm surprised you even have to ask about Iron Man," Loki said, cutting over Thor with a bored tone. "The world's prodigal son is in this very room."

"What?" Steve asked, looking around in confusion. Tony looked around too, but he only saw his friends and the men in suits. Even the Hydra soldiers had been taken away.

"Brother, what trickery is this?" Thor asked.

"Ask the boy his full name," Loki said with a wicked smile.

All eyes moved to Tony where he was still hiding behind Steve's legs. He bit his lip, remembering too late it was still healing from the last time. "Tony?" Steve asked, and Tony took a step away.

"He is a clone then," Coulson said thoughtfully. "But where is-"

"Not a clone, mortal. Ask him who his father is," Loki said with a malicious tone, looking at Steve. "Or don't you want to find out what your friend did to his only son?"

"I'm sorry," Tony said, looking at his shoes as Steve recoiled from Loki's words. "Dad's been looking for you, and I should have told you, and Dad will be angry, and-"

"Tony, what's your last name?" Steve asked, almost pleading for Tony to deny it.

"I'm Anthony Stark," Tony said, not looking up. He hadn't wanted to tell Steve, because then Steve would want to see Dad. And what if Steve ignored him too after that? What if now that Steve knew who he was, he'd know to be disappointed too?

"Wait, what? How is that possible?" Clint asked, sounding shaken. "That's not Tony Stark!" Tony flinched at Clint's denial, blinking away the tears as his new friends took in the truth.

"It is," Loki confirmed as Hulk said "Iron Runt. Smells the same."

"What's the matter, Captain?" Loki asked viciously. "Are the signs of neglect and abuse not obvious enough for you, or are you still in denial?"

Tony looked up at the loud clang, seeing the shield flying back as Steve caught it. There was a dent in the metal just beside Loki's head. The dark man didn't look intimidated. "Change Tony back!" Clint growled.

"Now you ask me to commit murder," Loki said, shaking his head. "I believe that's what you mortals call mixed signals. I saved him. You could show a little gratitude."

"What do you mean?" Coulson asked.

"He was on the verge of death when I changed him to this form. Hydra had gotten a little too rough with their toys, and they commanded me to save their golden goose. That child is the result. I thought the form fitting," Loki explained, glancing down at Tony with a pitying glance. "Changing him back would put him back at that moment of death. He was of far more use to me alive, but now it'd be a mercy to put him out of his misery, don't you think?"

Tony didn't understand. They were talking about him and his name was important, and Steve was ignoring him now, just like Dad. Clint didn't want him any more either. Tony jumped at the sound of thunder, and he nearly ran into Coulson who was suddenly behind him.

"Easy there," Coulson said, kneeling down beside Tony. "Yu, fit Loki with another collar. There's things I'd like to discuss with the team so we can't spare the guards."

"On it, Sir," one of the men in suits said.

Loki didn't fight as the collar was slipped on. Instead, he stared right at Tony. "They don't want you, little brat," he said with a smirk. "But I suppose that's par course for you. You're always the root of people's problems. You know who to come to if you want to be needed again. I know far too..."

The collar turned gold, and Tony turned and ran. Or he tried to, but Coulson grabbed him before he could get away. "Let me go!" Tony cried, kicking at Coulson's legs. "He's right, you don't want me. You want this other Tony, so let me go!"

Coulson sighed, quickly immobilizing Tony's feet and arms. "I shouldn't be surprised that you're a handful in any form," the man said.

Tony bit down on Coulson's hand, and the agent was surprised enough to loosen his grip. One more good kick and Tony was free. He didn't get very far, as Hulk grabbed him by the back of his shirt and held him up with a snort.

"I've seen you take down ten men without getting a scratch, Sir," Clint said with a weak smirk to Coulson, only just managing to take his eyes off Loki. "And you just got surprised by a five-year-old."

"I'm seven!" Tony said, dangling from Hulk's grip as he sniffled.

"Seven-year-old," Clint corrected as Coulson glared. "Still not letting you live that one down, Sir."

"A seven-year-old Tony Stark," Coulson added in his defense, rubbing his hand. "Because he never did like making life easy on me."

"Are we sure it's really him?" Steve asked, looking between Coulson and where Tony hung from the Hulk's hand with a lost expression. Tony looked down, unwilling to see the disappointment he knew would come.

Hulk, for his part, just growled at anyone who tried to get near Tony. "Iron Runt the same," he said gruffly.

"The DNA matches. We ran a few tests on Romanov's suggestion," Coulson said, shaking his head. "She assumed it was a Hydra clone, but if Loki's magic was involved, this was a possibility. I thought with Tony here, we could resolve this quickly, but I didn't think..."

There was silence for a moment, and Tony could hold back the tears anymore. "You don't want me, so let me go!" he repeated.

"Hulk likes Iron Runt," Hulk said simply.

"We want you here too, Tony," Steve said after a moment. Tony could hear that he wasn't happy though.

Hulk growled as Steve got closer. "You make Iron Runt cry." At least Tony still had one friend here. And having a big green monster as a friend was pretty awesome.

"I know," Steve said, stopping beside them. He put a hand on Hulk's arm. "And I'm sorry. We never meant to hurt you, Tony."

"I'm not hurt," Tony snapped. "I'm fine."

"Yup, that's Stark," Clint said, earning a glare from Coulson.

"Loki was wrong," Thor said as he came up to join them. "We want our shield brother here no matter what guise he takes."

"What Thor is trying to say is that you're our friend no matter who else we're looking for," Steve said.

Tony felt now familiar arms wrapping around him as the Hulk let him go, and he was suddenly being hugged by Captain America. "So you're not disappointed I'm Tony Stark?" Tony asked tearfully as he finally looked up.

Steve's face got a pinched look, and he took a deep breath before answering. "I... I'm not disappointed in you, Tony. Not after..."

Steve wasn't disappointed. Tony wasn't sure why Steve looked so wounded, but Captain America didn't lie, right? "Are you okay?" Tony asked, rubbing his nose with his sleeve.

Steve hugged him tighter. "I just need some time to think about things," Steve replied, not answering Tony's question. "But I'm glad you're okay, Tony."

Tony wrapped his arms around Steve's neck, feeling small and useless. Loki's words about being the cause of the problem ran through his head. "I'm sorry," Tony said, sniffling again.

"This was never your fault, kiddo," Clint said.

"And we would still be held captive if not for your bravery," Thor added. Hulk just grunted, making his opinion known without words.

"So you've nothing to be sorry about, angel moy," Natasha said.

The others all looked over at that. "You're still supposed to be securing the escape route," Coulson said without surprise.

"It was boring. Besides, I tapped the comms and knew when you put Loki under," Natasha said with a shrug.

Coulson didn't bother responding. He herded them into a nearby room with a makeshift table formed out of a few desks. Both Natasha and Clint sank down into the folding chairs while the others took up spaces around the room. Steve didn't put Tony down, and Tony didn't mind so much this time. Steve was warm and solid. Comforting. He wasn't disappointed in Tony. Maybe he'd tell Dad that Tony wasn't a baby, so Tony could cling to him a little while longer.

Hulk, on the other hand, couldn't fit through the door. He growled, pulling his hand back to punch the whole wall out, when Coulson put a hand on his arm. "Do you mind changing back to Dr. Banner? There are a few things we have to discuss."

"Iron Runt crying," Hulk said.

"Am not," Tony said, sniffling and rubbing his eyes. Hulk was not impressed.

"Bruce can make sure Tony doesn't have a reason to cry again," Clint said with a cocky grin. "We'll all try, alright, big guy? Just let Bruce out for a little while. You can come back out if Tony needs protecting, but we need Bruce to make sure Tony's alright."

Hulk closed his eyes and started to... shrink? Tony crawled up on Steve's shoulder to get a better look, ignoring Steve's warning to be careful. Hulk was shrinking and his skin was turning pink. Within seconds, there was no longer an angry green monster, but a mid-sized, scruffy-looking man that nearly collapsed against Coulson as he tried to hold his pants up. "Awesome," Tony said, remembering not to bounce with excitement while he was still in Steve's lap just in time. "Can you turn into Hulk whenever you want? How come you're green? Where did all the mass come from? Is your name Hulk too?"

The man groaned, gratefully accepting the belt Coulson pressed into his hands. "Why is there a pint-sized Tony Stark? And I wish you wouldn't come so close to the Other Guy." The latter was aimed towards Coulson, who raised an eyebrow as he handed the man a new shirt. Coulson helped the man sit in one of the chairs after he was decently clothed. He looked just as tired as Natasha and Clint.

"Loki turned Stark into a child to keep him from dying," Coulson explained, passing a protein bar once the man was seated. Where Coulson was getting all of these things was a mystery to Tony, and he wondered if it was another super-power.

The man blinked, taking a bite of the bar as he looked Tony over. "Can you turn into Hulk whenever you want?" Tony asked again, feeling braver now that he was curious. Steve's hand rubbing his back helped.

"Only when I'm angry," the man said. After a beat, he added, "Which is always. But I don't like... Anyway, I'm Bruce. We're good friends when you're older."

"So I'm really this other Tony?" Tony asked, toying with his bloody lip. It hurt, but it kept him from thinking about how the others wanted their friend back instead of having him around. He thought back to what Steve and the others had said. He was friends with Captain America? And they kept calling him brave... "If I'm friends with all of you and I'm brave, does that mean Dad's proud of me now?" Tony asked. He rushed on when Steve got that pinched look again. "Am I in the future? What year is it? How old am I? Do I make you things like Dad does? My designs aren't very good, but I can make a robot if you want one! I'm trying to make a dog, because Jarvis is allergic and he likes animals, but Dad says I should make things people need and he-"

Tony stopped short. Bad subject. Before he could come up with something else to ramble about though, Natasha spoke up, "You do make us things. You made these bracelets on my wrist that stun people. I think they're a pretty good design."

"Seriously, you make us all really cool stuff," Clint said with a wink. "Though I think a dog would be cool too. Wouldn't you like a dog, Phil?"

"As long as it's well behaved," Coulson replied.

He made lots of things for his friends! That was good, wasn't it? Dad would like that, that he was being useful. And maybe he could make a robot dog too when Dad wasn't looking, so that Clint and Coulson could see it.

"You do a lot more than just make things for us," Steve said, his voice soft. He smiled at Tony, looking a little better than he had earlier. "You're also Iron Man, one of our teammates. You pilot a big suit of armor and help us fight."

Tony felt his eyes widen. He helped them fight? "So I'm a hero like you? Does that mean Dad will like me? He always talks about you and how proud he was to be your friend, so if I'm just like you, he'll like me too, right?"

"Oh, Tony," Steve said, hugging him tightly. "Why didn't you ever... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Tony looked around as Steve's shoulders shook, wondering what he'd done wrong. He had to have done something if he'd made Steve upset. The others were looking away though, except for Bruce who looked really angry. Tony thought that maybe his eyes looked a little green.

Thor finally looked up, coming over and kneeling so that he looked Tony in the eyes. "I know not of your father, Tony Stark, but I know that it is a great honor for me to fight alongside all of you. I am proud to call you shield brother. I think the others would agree."

There were murmurs of assent from everyone in the room, and it took Tony a few seconds to parse through Thor's words, but he felt really happy when he got the gist. If all these heroes were proud of him, Dad would have to be.

"Now that we've sorted Tony's emotional needs, we have to decide what to do with him," Coulson said, shifting the focus of the meeting.

"We need Iron Man," Natasha said. Tony could feel Steve tense. "I know I've voted against him in the past, but he's too valuable an asset to lose. He's one of our heavy hitters and aerial support. Not to mention he's good at thinking on his feet. The Avengers need Tony Stark the way he was."

"That could kill him," Steve said, and Tony could feel his anger. "You heard what Loki said. He changed him to keep Tony from dying."

"We don't know that's true," Clint said. "Loki lies. Also, Hydra's got crappy facilities here. This wasn't ever intended to be a base of operations for them, but we ended up messing with their plans. In a proper hospital, we could do something to save him. Besides, we could try other ways to get him back other than to ask Loki."

"Or we could let him grow up normally and not let him die," Steve said, pulling Tony closer. Tony, for his part, pieced together what the others said. They wanted the other Tony back, but that might kill him? Tony bit down on his fear. Captain America wouldn't let that happen.

Natasha's eyes narrowed. "And what about the team?"

"We could bring in War Machine-"

"Not the same as Stark. Colonel Rhodes is good at what he does, but we'd still be missing Stark's technical expertise and War Machine will only be top of the line for so long," Natasha argued.

"We'd make do," Steve said stubbornly.

"Captain, who would take care of him?" Phil said, trying to be reasonable. Wouldn't Mom or Dad be doing that? Or, well, Jarvis.

When Tony opened his mouth to ask, Steve was already speaking. "We could." Steve realized that was a mistake though, and hastily backed down. "Or Ms. Potts? We could figure something out if she doesn't want to. Look, I'm not saying it would be easy, but-"

"And what happens when Tony becomes a target because he's seen with the Avengers?" Clint asked, though he was a lot gentler than Natasha when he spoke. "What if people find out who he is? Hydra's not the only people with brainwashing, Steve, and children are easier targets."

"We'll protect him!" Steve said.

"Now you're just being selfish, Captain," Natasha said, her eyes hard. "You want to make up for not being there while you were still in the ice. Tony won't thank you for that."

"It's better than letting him die just because-"

"Enough!" Coulson said, bringing them to order. Tony ducked his head against Steve's shoulder, wondering if what Thor had said was really true. The others didn't seem to want him here.

Steve glared resentfully at Coulson, but he didn't argue further and Tony felt the fear sink in. "Thor, your thoughts?" Coulson asked.

Thor stroked his hammer thoughtfully. "My brother knows far more about magic than I, but I could make inquiries. My mother is also well-versed in magic. I, however, have no preference to which form my shield brother takes. What we do not know, however, is how permanent the spell is. It may not be wise to leave him thus and have him change back unexpectedly."

"We could figure something-"

"Dr. Banner?" Coulson said, leveling Steve with stern look. It softened when Steve looked down, and Coulson closed his eyes a moment.

"I think we're the wrong people to make this decision," Bruce said softly. He looked at Tony as he spoke, offering a small smile. "I'll admit, I'd miss big Tony. But I wouldn't mind getting to know you either. What do you want, Tony? It's not like you to be so quiet, especially when it's about you."

Tony looked down. Dad had taken him to a few board meetings, and he'd learned the hard way to stay quiet while the adults talked. It was unnerving to have everyone's attention focused on him. It was like the press conferences Mom made him do after he'd done something really smart and wanted to show him off, but Tony hated them. He didn't understand half of what they were talking about either, though he knew it was about him and the other Tony. And he should know, because the words weren't that hard and Tony could talk about things college level professors had a hard time keeping up with.

"I'm scared," Tony said, which wasn't what he'd meant to say at all, and he couldn't tell by the softening of everyone's expressions if it was the right response or not. "I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"

"It's okay to say you're scared," Bruce said. "And no one here will tell your parents anything but the truth, which is how brave you are in spite of that."

Tony didn't feel very brave. He felt scared and hurt. He was confused too, even though he knew Steve wouldn't let anyone hurt him.

Coulson looked over the group before smiling at Tony. It wasn't the bland smile from earlier, but a small thing that Tony liked better. "You don't have to make any decisions now. And we'll explain what will happen both ways if you want. But why don't we head home for now, since we know the location of our missing Avenger? We'll let SHIELD take care of things here."

There was a tense moment before everyone nodded, and Steve stood up, carrying Tony out with him. Tony could walk, but... Steve looked really unhappy, so Tony didn't mention it. "Are you alright?" Tony asked instead, hugging him tightly.

For a moment, Steve looked lost. "I wish I knew how to talk to your older self like this," he muttered, before shaking his head. Then he smiled weakly at Tony. "I'll be okay. Don't worry about me though. I promise I won't let anyone force you into a decision. Do you trust me?"

Tony nodded. There was never any question of trust. "Of course! You're Captain America!"

Steve looked away, tightening his grip around Tony. "I wonder when you lost that. I wish I could have stopped..." Steve said sadly, before changing the subject. "Come on. I know it's not his specialty, but maybe Dr. Banner can help with that robot you wanted to build. We can also talk to Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes, since I'm sure they're worried about you."

~TBC~