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Fic: Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies Part 3

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

~

Tony fell asleep curled up next to Bruce on the Quinjet after two hours of excitedly talking about both the plane's engine and the robot he wanted to make. Bruce, it turned out, was just as awesome as Hulk.

He woke up in a big bed, covered by blankets and wrapped around a teddy bear wearing red, white and blue that held Cap's shield. He hid his face in its fur, not wanting to wake up again because it still hurt.

"Looks like someone's finally awake," a female voice that wasn't Natasha said. Tony looked up to see a woman with strawberry-blond hair and a harried smile. He recognized her from the short video conference on the Quinjet updating her on Tony's condition. She seemed nice enough, and she held a green teddy bear with torn pants and one with a cape and hammer. Tony looked around and saw one with a bow and arrow, and one that had red hair and Natasha's belt. "These are neat!" he said, ignoring how much his shoulder hurt to take the offered Hulk-teddy and hug it carefully against him.

"Do you like them?" the woman asked, smiling as she handed him a glass of water and a pill. Ms. Potts. That's what the others had called her. Tony made a face at the pill, not wanting to swallow it. He didn't like medicine. "You take the medicine, and you can keep all of them."

"Pepper, you would make the worst parent ever," another voice said. Tony looked over to see a dark-skinned man in casual clothes. He stiffened at the presence of someone he didn't know, unsure of how to act. "Bargaining? Really? He'll be using that against you before you can blink."

"You sound like you're talking from experience," Ms. Potts said wryly.

The man winced. "The less said about MIT, the better."

Tony looked over the teddy bears, wishing he could keep them. Dad would say they were too childish though, and he didn't want the teddy bears to be torn apart if Dad was drinking. He set the Hulk-Teddy aside and gave Cap-Teddy one more hug before putting it down with the others. He missed the soft fur and comforting warmth already. "No, thank you," he said, looking down. "Teddy bears are for kids. I'll take the medicine."

The adults exchanged glances as Ms. Potts handed over the pill. Tony swallowed it dry like he did when he couldn't chance turning on the water facet that squeaked in the middle of the night. He knew well enough where Jarvis stored the pills to make the hurt go away, and there were a lot of times Tony couldn't tell anyone he was hurt. He drank the water next, his throat loosening as the water soothed it. "Where are Cap and Hulk? And the others?" Tony asked anxiously, not liking being away from the only people he knew. It seemed like the others trusted Ms. Potts, but he really wanted the others.

"They're not allowed to come visit you until they've managed at least five hours of sleep," Ms. Potts said apologetically. "They all needed the sleep, and we promised to look after you in the mean time. You won't remember me, but I'm Virginia Potts, your CEO at Stark Industries. And this is Colonel James Rhodes, who is a very old friend of yours when you're older. You can call me Pepper if you want."

"You call me Rhodey," the man said with a kind smile. "You don't get a choice in that. Hearing you call me James is just awkward, and there's enough strangeness about this situation as it is."

Pepper was the CEO of Stark Industries? Tony felt his throat constrict again. "Tony? Tony, baby, what's wrong?" Pepper asked, moving closer to hug him. "Rhodey, he's trembling! Did the doctor say anything else was wrong?"

"I was there that night on the roof," Rhodey said without answering her question. "That was not weird. How quickly you've gone from ex-girlfriend to mothering? That's not just weird, that's freaky." It earned him a glare from Pepper, and Rhodey held his hands up in surrender. "Hey, you're the one still wearing the necklace he gave you on New Years despite the fact you've broken up."

"Rhodey, this isn't the time to-"

Tony had to grow up and stop trembling. It was bad enough Dad had given the company to someone else. Dad was going to be so angry if he came in and saw Tony like this. Disappointed wouldn't even begin to cover it. "Did I do something wrong?" Tony asked, wondering what his older self had done. It was his one, hated constant in life, that he had to stop being childish so he could take over the company one day. Tony had to be good enough for Dad. To keep trying, even though he didn't want the company, not really. But maybe if he did a good job, Dad would finally be proud of him.

"Of course not, sweetheart," Pepper said.

"Seriously creepy, Pep." This time, Rhodey sighed at Pepper's glare, rubbing his temples. "Sorry, I'm not helping, I know. This is just not something I'd ever been prepared to deal with."

"I know," she said, her expression softening. Then she looked back to Tony. "You haven't done anything wrong, Tony. What makes you think that?"

"Dad made you CEO, didn't he? Instead of me?" Tony asked, trying to suppress the tears and panic. "Did I do something wrong?"

It wasn't Pepper who answered, but Rhodey. "You did nothing wrong, Tony." His voice was surprisingly serious now, getting that same sort of pinched look the others got when Tony mentioned Dad. "In fact, you did better than your dad with the company. You made Pepper CEO, not him, because you knew she'd be good for the company while freeing you up to do other things. It was a good decision."

"Dad isn't mad at me then?" Tony asked.

They shared another glance. "Do you think we should wait for-" Rhodey started, looking uncomfortable.

"Do you think at seven he's any different when he wants to know something? He won't stop until he's dragged it out of us," Pepper said.

"Some things never change," he said. Rhodey looked down at Tony with a sad smile, full of a melancholy sort of fondness, then nodded at Pepper.

She took a deep breath before continuing. "Tony, sweetheart, you know you're supposed to be older in this time, right?"

"Yeah," Tony said, feeling a little calmer as Pepper stroked his hair.

"Rhodey, I can't..." Pepper said, her voice sounding choked.

"Your dad's not around anymore, Tone," Rhodey said. "I'm sorry, but he's been gone a long time. Him and your mom."

Tony blinked. Then he blinked again, suddenly finding it hard to see. "They're dead," he said, not bothering with the dance the adults were trying to play. He was smart enough to read between the lines, and he knew the best way to take a band-aid off was to rip it. Other kids might not know about death, but Dad made weapons. Tony heard all about what death was like when Dad started drinking to try to forget it.

"Yeah," Rhodey said, wiping away some of the wetness in Tony's eyes with gentle hands. Tony didn't feel like he was crying though, despite the evidence on Rhodey's fingers. "They are."

Tony sat there feeling much calmer than he felt like he should on hearing about the deaths of his parents. He should ask what happened to them, but his normal curiosity was dulled. He didn't want to know. But there was one thing he did need to know, and panic started to replace the calm. "What about Jarvis?"

"Do you have need of me, young sir?"

Tony jumped at the sound of the voice, his eyes widening. "Who's there?" he asked, hands curling around the Captain America-Teddy. He didn't remember picking it up again, but the soft fur was comforting.

"That's JARVIS," Rhodey replied. "The real Jarvis died a while back, but you made an Artificial Intelligence in his honor. You can talk to him, if you like."

"Jarvis?" Tony asked, his voice wobbling as this time he felt the tears. He didn't wait for the AI to answer. "I want the real Jarvis. I want Mom."

"I know, baby," Pepper said, rocking him against her. He held on to Cap-Teddy and cried quietly. Dad would... Dad would get angry. Except he couldn't get angry now, because he was dead. Tony would never see him again. So it really didn't matter if Tony cried now, did it? Unless Rhodey got mad too like Dad did, but Rhodey wasn't saying anything and it hurt too much for Tony to care. Not hurting like the aches in his body, but this was worse. He'd rather be beat up by Devin and Brad from boarding school a thousand times over than feel like this. Did Mom and Dad have those same wide eyes as that man? Did Jarvis? He didn't want Jarvis to look like that, not ever.

It was too much. Tony didn't want it. He wanted Jarvis.

Pepper continued to rock him back and forth as he clutched at the Cap-Teddy. She made soothing noises as he cried, sometimes speaking to Rhodey in a low voice. Pepper was soft and warm, hugging him like Jarvis would sometimes when no one else was looking. But she wasn't Jarvis, because Jarvis smelled like the wood stove and peppermints that he always kept on hand to cheer Tony up. He wanted to push her away and find Jarvis. The real Jarvis, not the scary voice in the room.

Tony didn't know how long he cried, but it felt like a long time. He was tired, even though he'd just woken up. He wanted Jarvis to tuck him in, but Pepper was still holding him tightly.

"He sleeping?" Rhodey asked quietly.

"I think so," Pepper responded in a low whisper. Tony didn't try to correct them. He wanted it all to go away.

"When I get my hands on Loki-"

"Shh, don't wake him."

They were quiet for a moment, almost long enough for Tony to actually doze off, but Pepper spoke again. "If he wants to stay this way, are we really doing this?" she asked. "Neither of us know the first thing about parenting and this is not part of my job description."

Rhodey sighed, and Tony felt the bed dip as he moved closer to them. "You're the one who vetoed adoption. To be honest, I wouldn't want to trust him with anyone else either. It won't exactly be a normal life, but when has Tony ever been normal? And no matter how we screw up, it'll still be a hell of a lot better than he had back then. Tony might have a choice, but was there really ever one for us?"

"No," Pepper said, and Tony felt a soft kiss on his forehead. "I couldn't... I can't give him to a stranger, Rhodey. It's got to be us. But God, I miss him..."

That was the last thing Tony heard before he drifted back to sleep.

He woke up a few hours later, still wrapped up in Pepper's arms. He was clutching the Cap-Teddy against his chest, so he set it back down when he pushed away from her.

"You can keep it, you know," Pepper said with a tired smile.

"I'm not a baby. I don't need it," Tony said blankly. He wanted it. He wanted Dad's approval too.

"You're not a baby, no," Pepper said. "But these teddy bears are for everyone, not just babies. I've even got one."

She held the Cap-Teddy out for him to take, but Tony just looked at it. He didn't want a teddy bear or Pepper. He wanted Jarvis or Mom.

Pepper sighed, setting it down. "I'm going to tell you about what happens next, alright?"

Tony nodded slowly, running his fingers along the stitches in the comforter. His body still hurt a lot, but not as much as before. The other pain was worse, but he couldn't cry again, not with Pepper here.

Tony rubbed his eyes and tried not to fidget as Pepper started to explain. "You have a choice, Tony. You can either stay the way you are now, or you can be a grown-up again. If you decide to stay like this..." Pepper paused, closing her eyes as she took a deep breath. "If you stay like this, you'll spend half the year with Rhodey, who promised to show you the jet engines where he works. The other half when Rhodey is deployed, you'll live with me and the company. When you're old enough and if you want the company back, you can be CEO again."

"What about Cap and the others?" Tony asked, his eyes downcast. The promise of looking at a jet engine wasn't enough to cheer him up, though it should have. Tony wondered if there was something wrong with him.

"They all live here in Stark Tower," Pepper said with a small smile. "I assume they'll be the worst set of Aunt and Uncles imaginable and spoil you rotten while you're here with me. They'll probably make excuses to see you in Malibu with Rhodey too."

Tony looked down at the teddy bears, half reaching out to Cap-Teddy before letting his arm drop. That didn't sound too bad. Except it still felt awful, since Jarvis wouldn't be there too. He'd never see Mom again, and he'd never be good enough for Dad. All he'd ever wanted was to be good enough.

Pepper reached out and took the Natasha-Teddy, hugging both it and Tony tightly. "We'd make sure you were taken care of, Tony. And it'll be hard at first, sweetheart, but everyone will agree if that's what you want."

Tony watched her hug the bear, biting his still healing lip. He looked back at Hulk-Teddy and Cap-Teddy, wishing he could hug them too. But then he'd never be good enough for Dad.

Pepper took no notice of Tony's struggles and continued on. "If you decide to go back to normal, it may still be a while before we find a way to do that. Thor's mother might be able to change you back, or maybe one of the human magic users could help. We'd have a full medical team on site and Coulson and Natasha have been grilling the remaining Hydra soldiers to find out the full extent of your injuries. Then... hopefully, things would go back to normal."

"You want things to go back to normal?" Tony asked, already seeing the answer in her eyes.

"Oh, Tony," Pepper hugged both him and the teddy bear tighter. "Sweetheart, I can't say I don't miss the old you. I..." She paused to wipe away some of the tears in her eyes.

Tony didn't like seeing Pepper cry. Pretty girls shouldn't have to cry, and this was Tony's fault. He looked again at how she clutched at the Natasha-Teddy, and he gingerly picked up the Cap-Teddy and Hulk-Teddy, cradling both of them against him. If Pepper didn't mind, maybe it wasn't so bad? And maybe she'd stop crying if she saw him take it, since she seemed to want him to like the teddy bears.

"It's not your fault, sweetheart," Pepper said softly. She tilted his head up so that he looked at her. "It really isn't, I promise you. And Rhodey and I will love you no matter what you choose, Tony. You'll always be our Tony. Nothing will change that."

Tony didn't meet her eyes, looking down again when she let him and curling around the teddy bears in his arms. He heard her sigh, and she pressed a kiss to his forehead.

There was a soft knock on the door, but Tony didn't look up. "You're still supposed to be in bed," Pepper said to the newcomer disapprovingly.

"It was either here or the punching bags."

Tony did look up at the voice this time, his eyes going wide. "Cap!"

"Hey, buddy. How are you doing?" Steve said as he walked in the door. He was wearing a plaid button up shirt and pants, and Tony almost didn't recognize him without the uniform. Steve's eyes widened at the teddy bears. "Are those...?"

"Happy's idea," Pepper said with an amused smile. "There's even one for..." she paused, swallowing. "I didn't think it would be a good idea to include the Iron Man one right now. I can't..."

Tony, for his part, was mortified that Steve had seen him with the teddy bears. He tried setting it down while Steve was placating Pepper so that no one would notice. Unfortunately, his stealth wasn't sufficient enough, because Steve caught him in the act. He glanced at Pepper, an unspoken question in his eyes.

"Tony says teddy bears are for babies," Pepper said, despite hugging Natasha-Teddy against her chest.

"Well, don't tell that to old Teddy Roosevelt," Steve said as he picked up the Thor-Teddy. He smiled at it fondly.

"He's dead. I can't tell him anything," Tony replied. He felt a pang at that, because he wouldn't be able to show Jarvis his robot dog either, immediately shoving those thoughts aside to go back to the current topic. What did a dead president have to do with anything?

If Steve was surprised Tony recognized the name (Tony had memorized the elements of the period table by the time he was three and a half. The names of the presidents had been a breeze), Steve didn't show it. "My mother really liked him when he was president," Steve said, chuckling softly at a memory. "He's not a man you'd want to cross. Did you know that teddy bears were named after him? So I wouldn't go around saying they are for babies, if I were you."

"Really?" Tony asked, looking at the teddy bears in a new light.

"Really," Steve said with a smile. He held out Hulk-Teddy for Tony to take. Tony accepted it hesitantly, picking up Cap-Teddy too after another moment.

Steve had a strange look in his eyes when Tony held both of the teddies against him. Then he shook his head and smiled. "Has Ms. Potts explained things to you?" Steve asked.

Tony nodded, looking down. Pepper hugged him tightly in encouragement. "Then you should know that it's your choice," Steve said. "I won't let anyone try to pressure you one way or the other, okay? I promise."

Steve said that, but Tony could see Steve's hands fisting at his sides. "You want me to stay like this," Tony said blankly.

Steve winced, but nodded. "I... It's complicated. And I know it'll be hard. I'm sorry about... I know what it's like to wake up when everyone you know is gone, and I'd never want..."

Tony waited silently as Steve breathed, trying to control himself. He looked down at the Cap-Teddy and Hulk-Teddy. He didn't think the Cap-Teddy would really help Steve (and he didn't want to give that one up), but...

He hugged Hulk-Teddy once more before crawling over the covers. It hurt, but Tony ignored the pain as he held out Hulk-Teddy for Steve.

"Tony?"

"Hulk makes me feel better, so I thought it might..." Tony cut himself off. Maybe it was a baby thing after all. He'd just offered Captain America a toy and-

Steve took the bear and hugged it tightly, a weak smile on his lips. "You're right. The Hulk does make me feel better."

Pepper just looked between the two of them, an amused expression on her face. "JARVIS, tell me you have this on the security feed, because this is something Bruce needs to see."

Steve turned red but didn't deny it or put Hulk-Teddy down. Instead, he ruffled Tony's hair with his free hand. "I'd like to get to know you, Tony. I've never been very good talking to..." Steve shook his head sadly. "Anyway, I wasn't there when you needed me when you were this age originally. I'm also scared."

Tony felt his eyes go wide as he hugged Cap-Teddy against him. "You're scared?" Steve had said that earlier while Tony had been in the closet, before he'd known Steve was Captain America. "But what would you be afraid of? Dad says..."

Tony looked down. Dad says? Dad said. Past tense. His throat started to constrict, but he couldn't cry again, not in front of Steve. Not even when the eyes stared back at him.

"I get scared of lots of things," Steve said. "Right now, though... Right now I'm scared that if you get turned back, the doctors won't be able to make you better. I'm also scared of losing my second... Well, third chance now. I think we blew the second chance when the team came back together, and I'm sorry for that. And I'm terrified that by telling you this I'll... Well, that doesn't matter, I guess."

Tony stared at the Cap-Teddy, trying to imagine Cap feeling scared. Steve didn't look like he was lying, and Tony had plenty of experience with adults lying. "You want to know a secret?" Steve asked.

"What's that?"

"Sometimes I'm afraid of the dark too."

"You are?" He looked at Pepper for confirmation, because Steve couldn't be afraid of the dark! Dad said that was for babies.

"Captain..." Pepper said, her voice soft. "You..."

"It was awfully dark when the plane went under," Steve said with a shrug. "I usually sleep with the bathroom light on."

"You can keep Hulk-Teddy, if you want," Tony said, biting his lip.

"But you-"

"That way, when it's dark, he can make you feel better."

Steve was silent a moment, and Pepper looked between the two of them, debating whether to intercede. "But what about you?" Steve asked finally. "If I take the Hulk-Teddy, who will make you feel better?"

"I have Cap-Teddy and all the others," Tony said with a shrug. In truth, he really wanted Hulk-Teddy back, but Steve needed the comfort too. Besides, he did have the others. They could keep him company while Hulk-Teddy guarded Steve. "It's okay. I want you to have him."

"Thank you, Tony," Steve said. He closed his eyes for a moment, his hand tightening around Hulk-Teddy. "You really are very brave, Tony. Very brave and kind. I don't know why I keep forgetting about that when you're older."

Tony smiled shyly, hugging Cap-Teddy against his chest. He must have done something right, if Steve praised him.

"You're encouraging him," Pepper said, slight amusement in her voice. "Next thing you know, he'll get you a giant stuffed rabbit that won't even fit through the door."

"Do those help?" Tony asked.

"No, Tony," Pepper said quickly, pulling him back into a hug. "Giant rabbits don't help."

"What about giant-"

"No, Tony." It sounded like Pepper had a lot of practice telling him no.

"You didn't even hear my idea," Tony said in a sulky tone.

"I know enough," Pepper said with a laugh.

"Come on, scamp," Steve said. "Let's go get something to eat."

* * *

Everyone came to visit over the next few days. Bruce apologized for Hulk killing that man, but that was the mind control, not Hulk's fault, and Tony wouldn't let him feel guilty. He did turn an interesting shade of red when Pepper told him about the fate of Hulk-Teddy though.

He missed his parents and Jarvis a lot, and the nightmares were bad. But no one yelled at him when he woke up crying, and he'd gotten more hugs than he'd ever gotten before, even from Jarvis. It wasn't so bad here, but Tony was quieter than normal, staying in the room they had given him and drawing out his robot unless one of the others came and got him.

Natasha left him with a device she called a 'tablet', kissing his forehead and telling him it was his choice. It was then Tony discovered that the future was really groovy as far as technology went. Dad wouldn't have approved of that word, but it applied.

After playing around with it for a few hours (Rhodey refused to let him take it apart for another hour. Tony had only been swayed by the promise of ice cream and JARVIS bringing up the specs), Tony started to look through the information Natasha had put on there about his older self. About Iron Man.

Tony wasn't too sure if he liked his older self and all those suits and ties, but he was definitely making an armor that could fly. Not even the promise of ice cream would stop him from that.

Eventually, his hurts recovered enough that he was allowed access to more of the Tower - something he built, which was hard for Tony to imagine - but there was only one place Tony wanted to go.

In the end, he was glad Rhodey had made him keep the tablet. It was easier to convince JARVIS with texts to give him the entrance code to see Loki without anyone overhearing it, since the Avengers rarely left Tony on his own. JARVIS, like his name sake, was a bit of a push-over when it came to Tony's pleading, and no one had thought to scale back JARVIS's coding to follow Tony's orders.

Once he was sure Rhodey was sleeping, Tony crept out of his room, making his way down to the floor where Loki was kept according to JARVIS. The AI opened the door for him without prompting, and Tony was left staring at the man in green armor on the other side of the glass. "JARVIS says they took the collar off you," Tony said, scanning the room. "He also says that there's no sound in that room, so you can't hear me and I made it when I was grown-up just to hold you."

He found what he was looking for, pulling a chair up to the door. He stepped on top of it, pushing the yellow button on the panel by the door. "But now you can hear me, right?"

Loki smiled. "The prodigal son returns." Loki's tone was light, but there was an underlying acidity to his voice that scared Tony. "And without your guardians. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"I want you to change me back," Tony said simply.

"So you have decided they don't need you after all and expect me to obey your whim." Loki leaned against the wall. "It will kill you to turn you back. Doesn't that scare you?"

"Mr. Coulson says the injuries reported were probably life-threatening but fixable in a proper hospital," Tony said, sitting down in the chair and swinging his legs. "JARVIS has already called an ambulance. So you just have to turn me back before the others find out I'm down here."

"And what do I get out of this? Surely you don't expect me to do this for free."

"What do you want?" Tony asked dully.

"Set me free from this prison, and I'll turn you back to just before the injuries happened," Loki said.

Tony watched Loki carefully as he spoke, then shook his head. "You're lying," Tony said. "You can't do that."

"And you are an expert on magic, I suppose," Loki sneered.

"Not magic," Tony said, looking down at his swinging feet. "Just on adults who lie."

"Ah, yes. The negligent father," Loki said, a cruel smile crossing his lips. "And how does it feel, to know he's dead without ever having his approval?"

"I don't want this," Tony said, his small hands curling into fists as he tried not to cry. He did like it here in the future, but he didn't want to stay. Not when the eyes followed him when the rest of the body was unmoving, and Jarvis or Mom wasn't around to make it stop. Not when sometimes they had those eyes too. "I don't want it to hurt this much because they're gone. So change me back."

"And what if I like you in this form? I'll admit, I could do without your older self's form of threatening, even if it does come with an offer of a drink," Loki said. Tony didn't quite understand what he was talking about, but he could guess it had to do with the armor he made when he was older.

"JARVIS?" Tony asked, looking up at the ceiling since he couldn't see any of JARVIS's special access panels in this room.

"How can I be of service?"

"Can you play the sound clip, please?" Tony asked, looking back down. He really missed his Jarvis.

"Certainly, sir," the A.I. replied. A loud roar filled the room, and Tony watched as Loki flinched away from the anger.

"Turn me back, or I tell Bruce where I am," Tony said.

"I'm not afraid of your guardians or-"

JARVIS played the sound file again, and Loki jumped, glaring at Tony. "They'll just come up with more creative ways to ask you to do it," Tony said with a shrug. He stood on top of the chair, ready to push the yellow button again.

"I take back what I said. I could do without your threatening in any form. But if that's true, why aren't they here already?" Loki said before he could press it. "No last good-byes? Or perhaps you don't want them to stop you."

"Just change me back," Tony said as he started to tremble. "I want-"

"Tony!" Tony snapped around at the sound of Steve's voice. It was followed by a sharp pounding on the door. "Tony, open the door! It's dangerous in there!"

"JARVIS will unlock it if I can't anymore," Tony said, jumping down from the chair. He looked up at Loki, sticking out his chin to hide his fear. "Change me back. I want to be good enough again."

"Tony, you're always good enough," Steve said, pounding harder at the door. "JARVIS, get Bruce down here. Tony, open the door! JARVIS! There's other ways we can do this if this is what you want!"

"Natasha is right. You don't need me like this," Tony said, blinking back tears that the facts brought up. At least it was a feeling familiar enough that Tony could push it back down easily. He was never needed, especially not with Dad gone. "Too many variables and things that could go wrong. You need the other me more, and this is the fastest way."

"It's not about what we need!" Steve shouted, ramming his shoulder into the door. It was reinforced to hold a Norse god though, so the door held. "Tony, this is about what you want. We need you in any form. Please, open the door!"

Loki, who was watching with a bored disinterest, stood up. "As amusing as this is, I grow weary of it. You wish to be returned to your normal form?"

"No! Tony, wait! Damn it, JARVIS, open the door!"

"Yes. Do it."

"As you wish," Loki said, starting to speak in a strange language that Tony didn't recognize. He felt himself growing taller as memories started flooding back in an almost overwhelming rate, but he held on.

"Tony, open the door! JARVIS won't... You were always good enough, so please..."

"Funny, that's not what I remember you saying before," Tony said, his voice deeper as he fell to his knees. That was the last thing he was aware of before the pain started.

* * *

Pain was a universal constant in Tony Stark's life. Even before Iron Man, he'd been no stranger to the sensation. So when he woke up feeling like his body was on fire, he didn't fight the drugs that pulled him back under again. Drugs were nice. Good. Especially since he still woke up with the nightmares from the operation in Afghanistan.

Oblivion was a welcome relief to the pain. This time though, he had nightmares of a pair of unfamiliar open eyes that accused him, along with water and the night sky. He woke a few times, hearing voices that were too fuzzy to make out. He let the drugs take him again, content that the pain was just a dull roar.

He woke up completely to a headache that pounded, and it was hard to move. The lack of movement had more to do with the cast that encased his right arm and leg, and the brace around his neck. There was also restraints around his ribs, which were pretty painful as well. Tony figured medical was going to be his new home for a while, no matter how he tried to sneak out.

He debated the merit of opening his eyes. The lights didn't seem very bright, but that didn't mean opening them wouldn't be painful. He had a very long list of cons that the pros didn't even begin to outweigh when the memories of what got him here started to filter through. Hydra. The team.

Tony's eyes flew open. He struggled to sit up as a hand pushed him back down. As Steve pushed him back down. Steve, who would rather Tony be an impressionable child than have to deal with him normally.

Tony was pretty sure he could have given the Hulk a run for his money with the fury he felt.

"It's okay, Tony," Steve said, brushing the hair out of Tony's eyes. "You're okay now. You need to take it easy for-"

"Get out," Tony croaked, his throat dry from the lack of use. It was low and hoarse, but it got Steve's attention and surprise.

"Tony, I-"

"Get out!" Tony said, forcing his voice to be louder. It was enough to wake Pepper, who was curled up in a chair on the other side. Steve's expression closed off after a few seconds of hurt.

"Tony?" Pepper said sleepily, rubbing her eyes. Relief flashed over her face. "You're awake!"

"Not leaving fast enough, Spangles," Tony said, anger lashing through him.

"What's going on?" Pepper asked, looking between the two of them.

"It's alright, Ms. Potts," Steve said, smiling that goofy PR smile he gave people when he was uncomfortable. "I thought this might happen."

"Then what the hell were you doing here in the first place?" Tony snarled.

"Tony! You-"

"I'll leave," Steve promised, his shoulders slouching. As he left, he looked over one last time at Tony. "I'm glad you're awake now."

"What was that about?" Pepper hissed, tapping furiously at her phone. "Tony, do you have any idea what you put him through?"

"Hey, I'm glad to see you're awake as well," Tony said bitterly, considering if this was why they didn't work out. Too quick to jump on each other's faults, not quick enough to defend each other. "What's the matter? Sad that you're no longer a mother and have to go back to being an ex-girlfriend to your needy ex-boss?"

"Oh, Tony. It's not..." Pepper cut off, and Tony closed his eyes, regretting his words. Pepper didn't deserve him lashing out.

She helped him sit up, loosening some of the restraints. "They were just to keep you from thrashing," She explained as she put a glass of water into his good hand and helped him hold it to his lips. Nightmares. Those eyes. He'd seen death plenty of times before, but something about that man's eyes still haunted him.

She hugged him when he put the glass down, and he rested his head against her shoulder, taking in Pepper's perfume. Freesia. His favorite, because Pepper was the only woman he'd known who favored that particular flower, and he'd gotten it for her in a perfumery in Bermuda when he'd taken her there to relax on the pink sand. It'd been one of their last real attempts to make the relationship work.

"I'm sorry," Tony said quietly into her collarbone. She hugged him tighter in her own silent apology. "You didn't deserve that."

They stayed like that for a short while, Pepper's breaths coming in too short and fast, and Tony pretending he didn't feel her trembling. He'd missed this closeness, the smell of her perfume and the comfort of her body against his. He missed Pepper - his Pepper - far more than he wanted to admit.

"I stand by my earlier comment about the 180 turn from mother to ex-girlfriend being weird, not the kiss. So are you two back together or what?" Rhodey asked, leaning in the doorway.

"Rhodey!" Tony said, starting to get up, before he realized that was a bad idea. Pepper was exasperated, but Tony was just happy to see his friend. "And no, we're not back together. Are we back together?"

Tony felt his hopes dashed with Pepper's sigh. "No, Tony. We aren't," she said, hugging him a bit tighter to take away the sting of her words.

"Oh. See?" Tony said. And really this was why Pepper was the adult in their relationship, making the important decisions. He always trusted her with those.

The look of sympathy Rhodey gave him promised a night of sake-filled drunken escapades as soon as Tony was out of the Big House, and Tony couldn't muster the will to be annoyed at the pity. He really wanted that drink, and Rhodey was one of the few people he'd accept it from. "You gave us a scare with that stunt, idiot," Rhodey said, fondness and worry slipping into his voice. "You're not allowed to do that again. It's officially on The List of Ways Not to Kill Yourself."

"I'll just find more creative ways to circumvent The List, honey bear," Tony said, gently pushing away from Pepper. Sitting on his own was difficult, but he couldn't torment himself with what he couldn't have any longer.

"This time was plenty creative, Tone," Rhodey said.

"Yeah, well, being turned into a seven year-old is one I'd rather have skipped," Tony said dryly. He looked down at his arm in the cast, forcing down the wave of terror that washed through him. He'd keep his voice level if it killed him. "So is being tortured by Hydra. Bastards broke my fingers."

"The doctors said you'd heal," Pepper reassured him, and that loosened the tension Tony hadn't been aware of. It wouldn't help the nightmares, but torture hadn't managed to break him yet. It'd take more than some crappy Hydra goons to do that, and the fact that he hadn't been permanently damaged this time was a plus. He'd just gotten rid of the arc reactor and didn't need another body modification.

Pepper's hands trailed down to his chest, as if she were thinking the same thing and needing to reassure herself. Rhodey looked murderous, but he sat down on the bed by Tony and was a comforting presence. If Happy had been here, Tony would have felt complete, but he recognized the sense of having at least one of the normal faces around SI, and he figured he and Pepper had taken turns watching Tony. He was gleefully looking forward to how Pep would deal with the HR problems that leaving Happy in charge would cause.

"I need to have a talk with Widow and Hawkeye about leaving me out on these things, but you won't have to worry about this cell of Hydra again," Rhodey said, picking up the earlier conversation. He slung a friendly arm over Tony's shoulders, despite the dark tone of his voice. Tony used it as an excuse to lean against Rhodey and rest his aching ribs.

"I bet Cap loved that," Tony said, only just managing not to spit out Cap's name like a curse. "Revenge isn't patriotic."

"Actually, I think he was just as pissed about being left out of the loop as I was. Hydra is his old enemy, after all, and with you it was personal," Rhodey said, letting some approval slip into his voice. "If you have to have someone other than me watching your back, at least they're doing it right. Even if it does take all of them to do my job."

"Don't sound so smug about it," Tony said, to cover his confusion. He hadn't expected Steve to make things personal on his account. Tony was one of the team, sure, but he and Steve didn't get along on the best days. The level of revenge Rhodey was approving of was reserved for someone like Bucky, or people Steve actually liked.

"Steve didn't leave your side while you've been here, you know," Pepper said, testing the waters.

Tony snorted, the motion reminding him painfully that his ribs weren't healed yet. Of course Steve would stay for one of his team. The fact that the good Captain would rather deal with an impressionable seven year-old than Tony's normal self doesn't factor into duty."

"How long have I been out?" Tony asked, steering the conversation away.

Pepper and Rhodey shared a glance over his head, but they let the matter slide, proving once again that they were his favorite people in the universe. "Only a week," Pepper said, shaking her head. "You were a lot worse off, but you had some help with... a volunteered blood transfusion that had an added bonus of helping you heal faster."

Aka, he'd gotten some of Steve's healing factor, probably from Hydra's stockpiles, as a guilty peace offering. He was grateful Pepper had danced around it though, because he didn't like being indebted to Steve right now.

But with Hydra gone, there was... "Loki?" Tony asked, knowing the fact that he'd been seven wasn't a good enough excuse for letting Loki get away.

Rhodey sighed, shaking his head. "Next time you decide to have conversations with psychopaths, make sure they can't get away. Hulk only just managed to squash him, and Romanov is pissed about the security breach. You're lucky she thought you might find a way around us and pull this stunt, because she put some security features in place to keep him from escaping."

So treading softly around Natasha might be a good idea. At least Loki was confined again, which was better for everyone involved. "You're not going to let me check myself out, are you?" Tony asked, moving on to the next matter of business.

"No," came the emphatic response from both of them.

Tony sighed, remembering too late that temporary healing factors hadn't been enough to heal his ribs completely. "Alright. Then how many complaints have we gotten from Human Resources about our head of security?"

At Rhodey's laugh and Pepper's dark glare, Tony was able to forget about the eyes and torture for a little while, and that was a start.

* * *

Happy was officially his favorite person in the universe. Because even though his ex-bodyguard couldn't stay around for long, he'd brought Tony two hamburgers and french fries, plus some dried mangos and a bag of Hershey Kisses for later. The crappy hospital food pushed aside, Tony made his way through the delectable second hamburger with a look of pure bliss on his face. He moaned, knowing no one was around to hear him.

"Maybe I should come back later when I'm not interrupting," Natasha said.

Almost no one. He glared over his hamburger, but didn't stop eating. Natasha didn't seem angry, but she didn't leave either. Instead, she sat down on his bed quietly, far better at hiding things than Tony could ever dream of being, but being temporarily seven reminded him of all the tells he'd searched for in adults to try to please them before he'd given up on caring about what other people thought. She was good, but he could tell something was bothering her. Her back was just a little too straight, and her gaze a little too forced, and he didn't think it was because she was walking around without the crutches he knew she should be on. "Before you start, I think I should get a free pass. Going to Loki was pretty stupid, I know, but I was seven. You can't blame this on me."

"I think we should anyway," Natasha said, but there wasn't much heat to it.

"No one asked you," Tony replied, wondering what she was doing here. Okay, so maybe he wasn't enough of an idiot that he didn't see the worry in her eyes and yeah, she'd want to visit him in the hospital. Because he was that awesome, obviously. But he was getting the picture that there was more to it than that. Well, easy enough to sort out. "So did you come to taunt me for being an idiot when I was seven? Cause if so, can we leave out the crying bits? I'd rather we just blocked out the crying bits all together."

"Kotyonok," she said warningly.

Tony blinked. "You called me that as a kid. I'm going to assume that's some kind of Russian endearment, so does that make this a thing now? Whatever happened to Stark?"

"It's a thing now," Natasha said with a hint of a smile. "So get used to it."

"I'd be much more inclined to agree to this if we were sleeping together. Which we're not, by the way."

"Face it, angel moy, you wouldn't last a night in my bed," Natasha said, plainly humoring him.

"Probably not, but at least I'd go out with a bang," he agreed. Tony stuffed the last of the hamburger in his mouth, then offered her a fry. She stole a few more of them, but Tony didn't mind that much. "What is going on here?" he asked finally, since pet names were apparently a thing, and she was content with stealing his food, so this couldn't be to bitch him out.

"How many people tell you no?" Natasha asked.

That was... Tony was pretty sure she wasn't talking about their previous banter flirting, but he had no idea where this conversation was going. Which means falling back on that innuendo, because hey, that was familiar ground. "Plenty more than you'd think. They don't know what they're missing, but I don't push if they don't want to be in my bed. It's not like I'd have a problem finding someone else."

He received a gentle thwap to the head, which made Tony wince, because gentle to Natasha was sparring 'love-tap' for anyone else. "And when it matters?"

Tony shrugged. "If they tell me no when it matters, I prove them wrong. If I can. That last bit is a work in progress on some things, but it usually gets there eventually."

Natasha sat quietly for a few moments as Tony finished off the french fries and debated opening the bag of dried mangoes. He'd meant to keep them as a snack for later, but he did better with unnerving conversations when he was snacking on something. He pulled out the chocolate instead, not bothering to offer any to Natasha who just unwrapped a kiss and popped it in her mouth. He wasn't stupid enough to get between the Black Widow and chocolate.

"I told the truth," Natasha said finally, licking her fingers. "In the debriefing. We needed Iron Man back more than we needed a child."

Ah. So that's what this was about. Tony toyed with one of the little paper things that came with the kisses, rolling it between the fingers of his good hand. "You did. And you were right when you told Cap I wouldn't appreciate his way. Why's this a problem now?"

"Because you don't have to keep proving me wrong on my initial assessment, Tony," Natasha said. "Steve was right. You were always good enough."

Tony froze as she leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I was a seven-year-old," Tony said eventually. "Trust me, sweetheart, I'm over it. Well, not the whole being a seven-year-old again thing, because that was traumatizing. But I'm sure you noticed I'm over this whole self-worth thing. Wasn't the word 'narcissist' in your report too?"

"Believe it or not, you can even fool spies when you try hard enough," Natasha said wryly. "And you tried pretty hard."

"It was a bad week," Tony said sullenly.

"You went to Loki because of what I said." Natasha stole another Kiss, her voice quiet as she spoke. "I should have known better than to say that in front of you."

"That was a reason. Not my top reason, but a reason," Tony said. Was this an apology? She didn't look particularly guilty, but then Natasha was better at hiding things than he was. "Let's face it. I've never been that altruistic. I wanted the nightmares gone and I couldn't handle losing everyone like that. Which hey, it's one more reason Cap's better than me, so- Ow!"

In retrospect, Natasha hitting him probably wasn't unexpected. He had hoped she'd go easy on him since he was still wounded though. Next time, he'll know better. "What was that for?"

"You think he wouldn't take a way back if there was one?" Natasha asked. "You were seven. You shouldn't hold yourself up to what a grown man does."

"Never stopped Dad," Tony said bitterly. Natasha plucked the Kiss he'd been trying to unwrap one-handed out of his hand. She unwrapped it and stuffed it in his mouth when he'd started to say something else in hopes of deflecting.

"You're not Howard Stark," Natasha said. "Which is good, because I don't think I'd have liked him very much."

"You don't like me very much either," Tony said once he'd swallowed the gooey chocolate.

"You're an idiot, Kotyonok," she said. And yeah, maybe he was. He couldn't be a genius at everything.

Pushing his luck, he inched closer to her. Natasha sighed, resting her head against his shoulder again before unwrapping another kiss for him. "You're better than Howard."

"Of course I am," Tony said easily. "If there's one thing I've learned over the years, I don't hit people when I drink."

Natasha snorted. "No, you just shoot watermelons and destroy relationships."

"I deserved that," Tony said with a wince. Because yeah, maybe he was better than Howard when he's drunk, but not by much.

"But you can let things go. You're not him. You don't have to keep clinging to the things dragging you down like he did," she said, resuming their conversation.

"Maybe," Tony said, letting Natasha feed him another Kiss. "Why bother going through all of this now?"

"You're not the only one trying to make up for your mistakes, Kotyonok," Natasha said. And yeah, Tony usually counted as a mistake in most people's books. It was nice to be worth the bother of a not-apology pep talk on occasion, though.

They stayed like that for awhile, letting a silence fall between them that was only interrupted by Natasha stealing Hershey Kisses and occasionally unwrapping one for Tony. He honestly had no idea what they were doing, but Tony was willing to give up on figuring it out for now. It was rather nice, even if Natasha was eating his chocolate. "How's Clint holding up?" Tony asked eventually.

Natasha sighed. "He only left guarding Loki to someone else when we went after the rest of the Hydra cell. You shouldn't scare him like that."

Okay, that was designed to make him feel guilty, and it hit the mark. Tony winced. "We are doing the whole 'holding me accountable for things I did when I was seven', aren't we?"

"No, but he'd thank you for a few extra features on Loki's cell," Natasha said, and he nodded. He might add a ping to Clint's phone whenever Loki got near the door. It wouldn't help if Loki blasted through a wall, but he could set up a few other alerts for Clint.

"I should make sure he's behaving," Natasha said, giving Tony one last chocolate before standing up. "But Tony..."

"Yeah?" he looked up at his given name, a little surprised to hear it from her. He liked it.

"We know better now," Natasha said, running a hand through his hair. "You've proved it to us, even if no one else sees it. You're good enough."

Tony felt his chest tighten in ways that should make him worry after the surgery, but he nodded. Maybe he still didn't quite believe her, but it was enough for now. He smiled at her, and it was just as broken as his fingers, but she didn't seem to mind. "Never doubted it."

"If you say so, angel moy," Natasha said. She limped out of the room, and Tony looked down at the foil wrappers still lying on his bed. "I'm good enough, huh?" he said to himself, quietly rearranging the wrappers into something more lewd. He could totally blame it on Natasha for not cleaning up after herself when Pepper yelled at him for it. Being on a team had it's perks occasionally.

~TBC~