Peter, it appeared, liked to wriggle in his sleep. The nurse had taken the IV line out of his arm earlier in the day, which gave him much more freedom to roll around wherever he wanted – in particular, all over Steve. He wasn't complaining, of course – the little boy was even more adorable when he was asleep, after all – but, by the time morning came around, Peter had managed to completely flip himself during the night, because Steve woke up to a pair of tiny feet kicking him in the face.
Grumbling softly to himself, he eased himself up and out of bed – softly righting Peter and tucking him in again – and then grabbed his bag and crept into the bathroom. He tidied himself up at the sink and quickly changed his clothes, and was just tugging his jeans on when he heard a quiet, snuffling cry from the other room. Dropping everything – except his pants, which he quickly fastened – he darted back into the room, only to find Peter sat up in bed, bottom lip trembling as he rubbed at his eyes.
“Peter, baby, what's wrong?” he asked, immediately moving across the room to scoop the little boy up when he threw his arms up for a hug. “Don't cry – you're okay.”
“I cun' find you,” he sniffled, burying his head against Steve's neck. “Y'said y'weren't goin', Steeb.”
“I'm sorry, sweetheart,” Steve sighed, hugging him close as a lump of guilt settled itself in the pit of his stomach. He'd thought Peter had been getting better at being away from him, but obviously he was wrong. “I was just in the bathroom, see? I just needed to change my clothes. I'm back now.”
Peter took a deep breath and let it out as a shudder, but his next breath was much steadier, until, eventually, he had calmed down again. Steve held him every step of the way, gently swaying them to and fro. He knew exactly what it felt like to wake up in a strange place with everything you know gone, and he vowed to never let Peter go through that.
“Okay, buddy, let's get you dressed, huh?” he suggested, smiling down at the boy reassuringly. “I brought you a couple of different things, so you can choose which you like best.”
“Uh-huh,” Peter nodded, and finally unlatched his little hands from Steve's shirt so he could put him back down on the bed.
“I'm just going to grab my bag from the bathroom, all right? I'll be right back,” he promised, gently smoothing some of Peter's errant curls away from his face.
Doing just as he had promised, he darted into the bathroom to grab his bag, then brought it back out and put it on the bed beside Peter. He rummaged through it for a second, then pulled out the two outfits that he had picked out for the little boy to choose from. One the one hand, there was a tiny set of jeans and a t-shirt with a cartoon dinosaur on it, and on the other there was a pair of tan chinos and a knitted plum sweater. He'd made sure that each item of clothing matched with everything else, just in case Peter liked something from one outfit and something else from another, and he'd also brought a tiny pair of Converse sneakers and an undershirt to top it off.
“I didn't know which type you wear yet,” he told the little boy, pulling out a pair of underwear and some pull-ups, “so do you think you could point me in the right direction, huh?”
Peter tapped the pull-ups, and Steve had had a feeling he'd still be at that stage, so (and he wasn't going to tell anyone this) he'd spent a few hours the afternoon before practising how to put them on using a teddy bear as his test subject. With this in mind, he quickly stripped the little boy out of his hospital gown and the diaper the staff had put him in, trading it for the pull-ups after a quick clean-up operation. That done, he went back to the issue of clothes.
“Which ones?” he asked. Peter stuck his thumb in his mouth to think – obviously very hard, if the way his little brow was furrowed – and then leaned over to grab the sweater and chinos with one hand.
The kid had taste.
Steve had been expecting a bit of a fight, because a couple of the articles Bruce had given him seemed to think kids weren't always a fan of putting clothes on, but, apart from wanting to do the pants zipper up himself, Peter was perfectly well behaved. Putting the shoes on were a little harder, but that was purely Steve's fault – he hadn't practised, and he didn't want to hurt Peter by just jamming them on. They got there in the end, though, and he thought they'd actually made a pretty good team.
“Look at you, Mister Handsome,” he grinned, steadying Peter as he decided to stand up on the bed. “Now we just have to wait for the social services people and your doctor to give you one last check-up, and we can go! What do you say we call in and get some pancakes on the way home, huh?”
“Yeah!” Peter cried, bouncing up and down excitedly.
It only took an hour for Peter to be declared a clean bill of health and for Steve to finalise the paperwork with Hammond and Patricks, and then – after waving goodbye and receiving kisses from all the nurses, as well as a brand new inhaler to take home – they were away. As promised, they called in and got some pancakes on the way, and Peter whined pathetically until Steve gave in and let him eat his in the car.
By the time they got back to the tower, they were both sticky, and Peter had managed to spill some of the orange juice Steve had ordered for him down his brand new sweater, but they were both happy, and Peter was full, and that was all that mattered.
“You know, I'm going to have to clean the back seat of my car now, you little monster,” he told the boy as he leaned in to get him out of his car seat. Peter looked completely unashamed of himself. If anything, he grinned – rosy cheeks caked in maple syrup and flecks of pancake that hadn't quite made it to his mouth.
Slinging his bag over one shoulder, he pulled Peter out of his seat and put him on the ground beside him so he could lock the car. Then, taking the little boy's hand, he led him slowly over to the elevator and inside. Peter seemed to be a quiet child anyway, but he also clung to Steve's leg as they began to ascend.
“You okay, sweetheart?” he asked, stroking a hand through the boy's hair reassuringly. Peter just stuck his thumb in his mouth instead of answering. “Hey, why don't we say hello to JARVIS, huh? Hi, JARVIS.”
“Good morning, Captain Rogers,” the AI replied, and Peter immediately jumped – little eyes widening as he glanced around them. “Welcome home, Master Peter.”
The little boy made a confused noise around the thumb still in his mouth, and pressed tighter against Steve's leg. Taking pity on him, Steve hefted him up into his arms and cuddled him close.
“There's no need to be afraid, Peter,” he told him. “JARVIS won't hurt you. He's a robot – he lives in the walls.”
“Wobot?” Peter repeated, looking up at the ceiling. “You a wobot, JARBIS?”
“JARVIS,” Steve corrected gently.
Well, he wasn't going to fight with the kid.
“In actuality, Master Peter, I am an AI, but – for all intents and purposes – yes, I am a robot.”
Peter grinned, and even took his thumb out of his mouth for the occasion. “Wobot.”
“JARVIS is here to help, so if you're ever in trouble and you can't find anyone to help, tell JARVIS and he'll get me, okay?” he instructed, and Peter nodded sagely. “Okay, then, buddy, what do you want to see first? Your room? We should probably change you out of this sweater.”
“Uh-huh,” Peter nodded, immediately looking around as the elevator came to a stop on Steve's floor and the doors opened.
“This is where me and you are going to live,” Steve told him as they stepped out, and gently put him down so the little boy could explore on his own.
Immediately, Peter toddled over to the ceiling to floor windows on the far side of the living room slash kitchenette and planted his hands and face squarely on the glass to look out. Secretly, he was relieved that the boy didn't seem to mind heights, because they were pretty damn high up.
“You like it?” he asked, noting that he would have to clean the windows as Peter pulled away again, because he was still pretty sticky.
“Yeah!” the little boy replied, running excitedly around the space in a circle before stopping next to Steve.
They spent the rest of the morning exploring Peter's room. The little boy loved the robot theme – Steve was beginning to see a pattern there – and they spent a good couple of hours arranging all the various types of robot toys into a line on the floor. By the time they were done, Steve had counted at least twelve different Iron Man figures, and was beginning to wonder when Tony had bought them all, because it was quite clear who was responsible for it. Peter loved them, though, and that was all that mattered.
“Are you getting hungry?” Steve asked as midday rolled around, talking into the toy phone that they were currently having a conversation over.
“Playin',” Peter replied distractedly, toy phone of his own pressed to his ear while he concentrated on figuring out all the uses of the toy Widow's Sting strapped to his other wrist.
“We can play some more after you've had some lunch,” he tried, and Peter whined a little, but ultimately dropped what he was doing and looked up, obviously mightily unimpressed.
“Can I take jus' one toy t'lunch?” he pleaded, already edging towards one of the little Iron Man figures still lined up in a row. “Pwees?”
“Okay,” Steve compromised, “but the plastic darts he fires stay here.”
Peter pouted, big, brown puppy-dog eyes glistening with crocodile tears, but Steve wasn't having it. He could just imagine the chaos they were already going to have, now knowing how messy the boy was when he ate, and he didn't need to add plastic darts to that. He was a bit of a pushover when it came to Peter, sure, but he wasn't stupid.
“Come on,” he gestured, getting to his feet. “The sooner we eat, the sooner we can come back and play.”
“Okay,” Peter sighed, scrambling to his feet with his little Iron Man in tow.
As soon as he was up, he grabbed for Steve's hand and let him lead them back across his apartment to the elevator. Honestly, Steve was a little surprised that they hadn't been bombarded with members of the team all wanting to get a look, so he decided they were going to have lunch in the communal kitchen. That fridge had all the best supplies, now the team had eaten most of his, anyway.
Peter was juggling his Iron Man figure and his thumb in his mouth with the same hand as then disembarked a few moments later, whilst simultaneously continuing to grip Steve's hand with the other. He wondered, just for a moment, if the little boy should still be sucking his thumb, but the thought left him just as quickly as it had come when they walked into the kitchen and found... the whole team, once again, sat around the table.
Except for Tony.
“Hey!” Sam called, drawing the word out, as he spotted them in the doorway. “Look who it is.”
Peter immediately shied away behind Steve's leg, but, after some gentle cajoling, he managed to get him to come out and at least wave hello. He wasn't really surprised the little boy felt a little intimidated – he had gone from, as far as Steve knew, just living with two people in his life, and now there was more than triple that.
“Stop staring, guys,” he instructed, leading Peter over to sit on the chair that someone had kindly placed a big cushion on.
“He's damn cute, Cap,” Clint decided, handing over a little piece of his cookie when Peter eyed it carefully.
“Watch your mouth around him,” Steve replied, heading over to the fridge, “and stop feeding him treats before he's had his lunch.”
“You used to be cool, man,” the archer mumbled. “Being a dad's already changed you.”
Steve winced internally, because he hadn't actually had a conversation with Peter about what he wanted to call him yet. If Peter wanted to call him Steve, that was fine – if he wanted to call him dad, that was fine, too. He just wanted Peter to get to decide.
“Do you want a peanut butter jelly sandwich, Peter?” he asked, ready to pull the supplies out and get started. Peter was too busy peering over at the broth in Bruce's bowl next to him, however. When the scientist noticed this, he smiled.
“Would you like to try some, Peter?” he asked, dunking his spoon in and offering it up to the boy. “It's chicken and sweetcorn.”
Peter made an interested noise, and took his thumb out of his mouth so Bruce could get the spoon in. Steve watched, vaguely amused, as – the second the broth hit his tongue – Peter's eyes widened in surprise, and he hummed around the spoon happily.
“There's some leftover in the pot on the stove,” Bruce advised when the little boy opened his mouth for more. “Take as much as you want.”
Steve nodded gratefully, then grabbed one of the little bowls the scientist had bought yesterday that was just the right size for Peter, and spooned some of the broth into it.
“Here you go,” he smiled, placing the bowl and a spoon in front of the little boy. “Say thank you to Bruce.”
“Fank you,” Peter mumbled, already using the spoon to clumsily shove the broth in his mouth. After a moment of discreetly watching how Bruce did it, he seemed to get the hang of using the utensil without spilling everything down his front.
“Your meal would be yet better with the addition of bread,” Thor suggested – voice much softer than Steve was used to hearing. The guy tended to... rumble. “The lad must build his strength, for he is a tiny thing.”
Steve wasn't too well versed in children, but even he had noticed that Peter was small. He didn't know how he fared in relation to other children his age, but he was very aware of just how breakable the boy was.
“He's a little on the short side, but I wouldn't worry about it too much,” Bruce shrugged, almost as though the man had been reading his mind. “His speech is a little basic for his age, too, but I noticed him sucking his thumb, so that might be the reason. Kids who suck a pacifier or their thumb have less opportunity to babble.”
“Is it a problem?” Steve asked, a little worried, because he thought there was something a little off about Peter sucking his thumb. “Should I try to stop him?”
“I wouldn't worry about it,” the scientist went on. “Some kids continue to suck their thumb right up to being in kindergarten. It's just a way of soothing themselves. If it makes him happy – especially with his life being a little upside down right now – let him do it. He'll find another coping mechanism eventually, and, as long as we keep talking to him, he'll be fine.”
“Okay,” he nodded, sighing in relief. “As long as it isn't going to stunt his development, or something.”
“Shouldn't do,” Bruce replied, smiling down at the boy. “Would you like some bread, Peter? It's to dunk in your broth, like this.” Reaching out for the loaf in the centre of the table, Bruce tore a bit off and demonstrated how to dunk it into his broth. “Do you want to try it?”
“Yeah,” Peter nodded, taking a piece of bread of his own and dunking it into his broth just like Bruce had. He hummed happily again as he stuck it into his mouth, and immediately went back to tear some more for himself.
“That kid's going to give me a nosebleed,” Sam muttered from across the table. “I see how he got you under his thumb, Steve.”
“I'm not under his thumb,” Steve replied defensively, even though he knew that was a complete lie, as he turned back to get himself a bowl of the broth, too.
“He's cuter now he isn't crying and covered in dust,” Natasha admitted as he sat down next to her. “Who is your little friend, малютка?”
She gestured to the Iron Man figure on the table beside Peter's bowl, and the little boy glanced down at it, before scooping it up to hold up for her to see. “He's m'favourite.”
“Oh really?” Clint grinned, turning to look at Steve with an expression he couldn't quite figure out. “Just like your Papa, huh?”
“Papa?” Peter mumbled before Steve could open his mouth to defend himself, glancing around at them all. When he spotted that Clint was looking at Steve, little boy pointed, then repeated, “Papa?”
“Only if you want me to be, Peter,” Steve replied quickly, trying to rectify the situation. He didn't want the boy to feel pressured into anything, after all. “You can call me whatever you want.”
“Does that go for the rest of us, too?” Sam grinned, so Steve gave him a look.
Peter seemed to be thinking carefully about his options as he spooned more broth into his mouth (using the bread as his spoon, now), until – after a few moments of contemplation – he raised his head again, face set. “Papa,” he decided, and Steve couldn't help but grin.
“Papa it is, then,” he agreed.
Peter settled into their lives surprisingly quickly. Of course, for the first couple of days he mainly stayed by Steve's side, content to do whatever it was he was doing so long as he had a toy or book with him. As he started warming to the other members of the team (Clint especially, which seemed to surprise everyone but Steve after his conversation with the archer), Peter became more comfortable wandering around with them, too, and even – on the fourth morning since his moving in – got himself up and managed to make it to the communal kitchen with only JARVIS's help.
Steve had felt like his heart was going to drop out of his stomach when he went into the boy's room and found he wasn't there, but soon calmed down once the AI had told him what had happened. He found Peter balanced on Thor's hip as he walked into the communal kitchen, treating the god to a rendition of Three Blind Mice while they went about making breakfast together.
It was also the first time that Tony met Peter, because the genius – looking haggard and pale from his latest stint in the workshop – was hunched in the corner, leaning possessively over the mug of coffee that was on the table in front of him. Steve felt bad for a moment, because he hadn't been taking meals down to Tony as often as he had done before Peter arrived, but he had just been so caught up in the past few days that it had completely slipped his mind. He vowed to do better from now on, because the brunet was beginning to look a little too skinny for his liking.
“Good morning!” he called, taking the seat opposite Tony. The genius gave him an exhausted smile. “How is everyone today?”
“Papa Steeb!” Peter cried excitedly, squirming in Thor's arms until he let him down gently on the floor. They'd had a few hiccups with the whole name thing over the last couple of days – sometimes Peter forgot what he was supposed to call Steve – but he was happy to let the little guy do his thing, and the more time passed, the less slip ups they seemed to have.
“Hey, baby!” he grinned as the little boy came padding over to him. He scooped him up onto his lap and Peter leaned up for a sloppy, good morning kiss. As it turned out, Peter was a very physically affectionate child, and loved to hug and kiss anyone he trusted. “You found your way to breakfast all by yourself this morning, huh?”
“JARBIS helped,” Peter replied, and Tony seemed to discreetly perk up a little from the other side of the table at that admission. “You wuz still sleepin'.”
“I know,” he agreed. “I got worried when I went to get you up and you weren't there, but good job on asking JARVIS to help.”
“Das what y'tol' me t'do,” Peter shrugged, and then glanced over at Tony while the man took a swig from his coffee. “I like JARBIS.”
“Did you know that Tony made JARVIS?” he asked, nodding in the genius' direction. Immediately, he looked like a deer caught in headlights. “He builds lots of neat things.”
“Steve, the kid really won't be interested in -”
“You build wobots?” Peter gasped, eyes wide with delight as he cut Tony off. “You builded JARBIS?”
Before Steve could get a proper hold on him, the boy had slipped off his lap so he could run around the table and all but cling to Tony's leg. The genius in question looked like he was about to have a stress induced aneurysm, and glanced at Steve with pleading eyes.
“Steve, please -”
“It's okay, Tony,” he soothed. “He's just interested, is all.”
And then the brunet looked down at Peter – really looked at his rosy cheeks and puppy dog eyes – and seemed to realise Steve was right. Then, slowly, as though he was afraid Peter might bite him or something, he reached out and drew the little boy onto his lap. He still looked vaguely nauseous with anxiety, but Peter just snuggled into his awkward embrace and stared up at him wonderingly. Not even the great Tony Stark could resist those eyes.
“So, you, uh... you like robots, huh?” he asked, scratching his beard absent-mindedly.
“Uh-huh,” Peter replied immediately. “Silver ones.”
“Silver ones? Well, you should see my friend Rhodey's suit. That's a little bit like a robot.”
And, just like that, Peter and Tony became acquainted.
Steve would be the first to admit that he had decided to adopt Peter a little spontaneously, and that he perhaps hadn't thought the whole idea through properly before it was all happening. He didn't regret taking the little guy in for a second, because Peter was enriching the whole team's lives in a way that he couldn't even have imagined, but... he really should have at least thought about what to tell the press.
Since DC, his identity had pretty much been made public, and, where he had been able to get about relatively easily before so long as he wore a hat to cover his face, now the whole world seemed to be able to spot him just by looking at the back of his head. He only realised this was going to be a problem, however, when it became obvious that he was going to have to take Peter out of the tower at some point before they all went insane with cabin fever.
“I could just rent the park out privately for an afternoon?” Tony suggested at the team meeting Steve had called.
“Yeah, because the Avengers hiring out a public place won't look suspicious,” Sam replied, rolling his eyes.
“I say you just go out and take your chances,” Clint shrugged, leaning over the coffee table to take one of Peter's checker pieces with his own. The little boy didn't really seem to get the game yet, but was enjoying moving the pieces around the board. “We can't keep him locked up forever, and I want to buy him his first hot-dog from a vendor.”
“If we just take him out and get caught, the press would have a field day,” Bruce sighed, leaning over to gently tap where Peter should put his next piece. “Can you imagine? With no context, they could make up any story they want. Infidelity, kidnapping – nothing's off the table with these people.”
“A press conference isn't going to be any better,” Natasha pointed out. “If we tell the world that Steve Rogers – Captain America – is adopting a child, we're announcing it to all the people who might want to hurt him, too. We can't put Peter in danger like that.”
“He's going to be in danger no matter what we do,” Steve sighed, hating himself for not having thought this through before he brought Peter into their lives. “We're dangerous people, involved with other dangerous people, and we're in the public eye. I can't let that stop Peter from having a normal childhood, though. What happens when it comes to finding a school for him? What happens when he goes to college, or for his first job interview? What happens if he falls in love with someone, and all they really want is to get to me through him? I just...”
“Papa?” Peter asked, obviously sensing Steve's unrest. Dropping his checker, the little boy moved around the coffee table and lifted his arms, asking to be picked up. Without even thinking, Steve scooped him up and cradled him to his chest tightly.
He really couldn't bear the thought that he might be putting the boy in danger. Peter was an innocent child who had seen and been through much more than a child his age should ever have to, and he didn't want to make that any worse for him. Peter deserved safety and security; something that, despite his unconditional love, Steve was beginning to realise he couldn't give him – not outside the tower, at any rate.
“You know what?” Tony sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I'll get Pepper on it, okay? She'll know what to do. In the meantime, why don't you just take the squirt to the park and see what happens? For all we know, we could be blowing this out of proportion, and if I have to get a guy in to clean one more window that the pipsqueak has snotted all over looking out longingly, I'm using his college fund to pay for it.”
Clint and Thor cried out happily, the latter knocking the checker board (and coffee table) over in their haste to go get ready. Peter seemed to realise something was going on, too, because he sat up in Steve's lap and planted his little hands on his chest firmly – eyes alert with interest.
“Do you want to go to the park, Pete?” Steve asked, then grinned when the little boy looked so happy that he didn't really know what to do with his face. “I'll take that as a yes?”
“Yeah!” Peter squealed, beating Steve's chest lightly. “Pwees, pwees, pwees!”
“Go ask uncle Clint to help you pick out which outdoor games you want to take, then,” he replied, only pausing for a second when Natasha rose an eyebrow at 'uncle Clint'. “And put some shoes on, please.”
Peter squirmed out of his lap and went running as fast as his little legs would carry him after Thor and Clint, squealing for them to wait for him. With him gone, that left Tony, Natasha, Sam and Bruce with him.
“Shall we take a picnic?” he suggested as they got to their feet. “He's going to need to eat soon anyway, and there's no way we're going to be able to make him wait to go until afterwards now he's all riled up. No reason why we can't all eat together.”
“Sure,” Bruce nodded. “We can make some sandwiches and cut up some fruit and veggies.”
During their conversation – and as Sam, Bruce and Natasha made their way over to the kitchen to get started – Steve had noticed that Tony was slowly, discreetly, trying to slip away in the direction of his workshop, so he caught his arm just before he could get out of reach.
“Please come,” he may have begged a little before Tony could make up some excuse. “Please, Tony. It won't be the same without you.”
“But I have work to do, and -”
“I know, I know,” he sighed, because Tony always seemed to be working on something. “It's just... I haven't really seen you much since Peter arrived. I know I shouldn't expect you to fit your schedule around us, because he's not your responsibility, but... I miss hanging out with you. Please, Tony; just this once? I'll even make you a flask of coffee to take.”
That seemed to pique the genius' interest, if nothing else had. Sighing heavily, he mumbled, “Fine, I'll come,” and Steve almost swung him off the ground with the force of his ensuing hug. When he put the man down again, he looked more than a little surprised, but his smile was real, and that was what mattered.
“Thank you, Tony,” he grinned back sincerely.