“What about that guy Joe who works at the atrium reception at the tower?” Natasha asked out of nowhere as their little group were on their way to the park.
Steve frowned, tearing his eyes away from where he had been watching Clint and Sam swinging Peter by the arms between them up ahead. “What about him?”
“Come on, work with me, Steve. I know you're not obtuse,” she replied, raising a single eyebrow, and oh.
“But I'm not... I'm not gay,” he replied, lowering his voice to a whisper even though they were beginning to fall behind the others anyway.
“Never said you were,” she shrugged, and was being remarkably calm, considering. “You can like both, you know.”
“But... but I don't,” Steve told her firmly, a little confused as to where this was coming from. “I like girls – women – and -”
“Steve,” she cut him off gently, laying a hand on his bicep. “I'm not trying to pressure you into anything that you're not ready for, or not comfortable with, okay? All I want you to do is take a long, hard think about yourself, and then get back to me.”
He didn't understand what she was trying to tell him, but it was obviously important. With one last squeeze of his arm, she let him go again, and, flashing him an encouraging smile, jogged ahead to catch up with the others.
What did Steve want? For the longest time, it had been Peggy, even after he had been thawed. Over time, that pain seemed to be dulling, though, especially now he had seen what a great life she had led, and he was finally beginning to move on with his own life. He wanted Peter – not in the same way, of course – to love and care for, but he couldn't help but feel as though there was a small something that was still missing, and he couldn't for the life of him figure out what it might be.
“Papa!” Peter squealed from up ahead, snapping Steve out of his thoughts as he spotted the boy swinging from the park gate. “C'mon, Papa!”
Smiling to himself, he put those thoughts to the back of his mind and jogged to catch up with the others. They were here to make sure Peter had a good time, after all, and he was determined to make that happen above all else. His own turmoil could wait until later.
After they set up the picnic blanket in a shady spot that easily overlooked the playground, Steve set about getting Peter's lunch ready while everyone else went to play – Thor, Peter, Clint and Sam straight over to the swings, and Bruce and Natasha over to a clear stretch of grass to play with a Frisbee. Only Tony stayed with him – deciding not to help with lunch, of course – but Steve appreciated it nonetheless.
“So, how's the whole... parent thing coming along, anyway?” the genius asked awkwardly, intermittently sipping from the juice box Steve had handed him. “Regretting it yet?”
“What?” he gasped, taken completely aback. “Of course not! How could you even think that, Tony? Peter is... look at how much everyone loves him. Isure as hell love him.”
It was true. Across the grass, all of the other Avengers were engaged in a game of soccer – each of them pretending to trip over themselves and the ball so that Peter could toddle along with it without interruption. The little boy was giggling so hard into his hands that he tripped over the ball for real, but it was no problem because Sam was right there to catch him before he hit the ground, smiling intimately down at the toddler as he made sure he was okay.
No, no, he absolutely did not regret Peter, and was about to reiterate that fact to Tony, only, when he turned back around, he realised the genius looked subtly approving of his response.
“Tony,” he murmured, realising what the man's question had really been about. “There's no need to be afraid of him, you know. He expects nothing from you but love.”
“That's the problem, Cap,” Tony sighed quietly, fiddling with his juice box.
Not for the first time since he had been defrosted, Steve looked at the man next to him and hated that he hadn't been around when he was a child to help and guide Howard. He understood, now, that the man he had known wasn't the same man that had raised Tony. That man had been cold, and distant, and even verbally abusive on occasion, and no matter how well Tony tried to hide it, he could see how much his childhood had affected him. He saw it when the genius staggered out of his workshop at four in the morning, only having stopped working because JARVIS had kicked him out; he saw it in his reckless behaviour in the field, because he didn't think his life meant as much as everyone else's; he saw it in the bottom of each glass of scotch that the man put back.
But he also saw uncompromising bravery in Tony, too. Most recently, in how he had been trying to bond with Peter. Even a blind man would have been able to see the obvious connection they had through their love of technology, particularly robots, and, slowly but surely, Tony seemed to be warming up to the boy. Steve was hoping, before too long, that they would be the best of friends, because he found himself caring very much about what Tony thought – about Tony in general, now he was thinking about it, and... oh.
Before he had a chance to completely freak out, Natasha swooped in out of nowhere – almost as if she had been expecting it, which... she probably had – and plonked herself down on the blanket between him and Tony with a little grunt.
“Your turn, Stark,” she told the surprised, huffy genius in a tone that meant no arguments. “Kid wants you to go down the slides with him.”
“But how am I supposed to fit -”
“We all know you wear lifts in your shoes, so get your petite behind over there and make a fellow toddler happy,” she shooed him, and, reluctantly, he went without any more complaining. Once he was out of earshot, she turned back to Steve and smiled. “So, you're a little gay for Tony.”
She didn't even phrase it as a question. Jeez, Steve was screwed.
“I just don't... how did this happen?” he groaned, throwing his hands over his face as he fell backwards to lie down on the blanket. “How could you possibly have figured it out before even I did?”
“Steve, everyone figured it out before you did,” she replied patiently, and tugged his hands away from his face after he was done whining into them some more. “Everyone but Tony, of course, but he's just as much of an idiot as you are.”
That was... good. At least there was that. Tony didn't know, and that was fine. Nothing had to change. Just because he'd realised he had... well,feelings for the guy didn't mean he had to act on them. God, no, he wasn't going to act on them; he didn't want to ruin their friendship or, worse, make Tony hate him, and -
“Steve, breathe,” Natasha reminded him, and he did as he was told, taking a deep, shuddering breath before letting it out slowly. “I know this is a lot to take in, but it's completely okay to be feeling these things, and -”
“I know, I know,” he grumbled, because, of everything, realising he was at least a little attracted to men was the least of his worries. Currently, he was stuck on the fact that it was Tony in particular – his team-mate and best friend – who he was attracted to. “What am I supposed to do, Tasha? I can't – I have Peter to take care of!”
Natasha just shrugged unhelpfully. “I'm probably not the right person to go to for relationship advice,” she told him honestly. “You have to do what's best for Peter, of course, but you have to think about yourself, as well. Peter will notice if you aren't happy; kids have a habit of figuring stuff like that out.”
“I was happy before I realised!” he whined, putting his hands back over his face. “Now I don't know how to feel.”
“Well, it's not like you have a set time limit to figure it out,” she replied, glancing over to the others playing across the grass. “Take your time, get used to Peter first, if you want. This doesn't have to change anything but your perspective of yourself. We certainly think no less of you.”
“Good, because I really don't want to talk about how the others figured it out, either,” he mumbled, before, sighing, he sat up again and let his hands drop to his knees.
Natasha was right, of course. He wasn't about to tell her so, but he had a feeling she was nearly always right. As he looked over to the jungle gym and watched Tony gently shift Peter onto his lap at the top of the slide (with Bruce eyeing them warily from the bottom as their spotter), he couldn't help but wonder how he hadn't realised his feelings sooner, because the warmth that spread through his chest as they slid down together – Peter squealing with delight – really couldn't have been anything else.
The rest of their trip continued with surprising success. Steve had a feeling that was mostly down to the fact that it was midday in the middle of the week, so most people were at school or work, and those who weren't, as it turned out, were too busy trying to keep up with their own children to really stop and notice them. For those who did... well. They just sent Thor over to be all menacing and disappointed until they put their camera or phone away again.
Lunch was a bit of a harried affair, but, to be perfectly honest, it always was. Peter decided he was only going to eat his sandwich if he could keep playing at the same time, and ended up dropping half of it when he tripped over the soccer ball again. After that little incident (and numerous tears) Steve made him sit down to finish the rest, under the condition that he'd get an ice cream if he behaved himself.
After everyone had eaten their fill, they'd gone back to playing for a little while longer – Steve joining in this time, too – until Peter started to fall asleep into his ice cream. After the little boy's head lilted forwards into the dessert for the third time, they decided it was time to go home for an afternoon nap. Steve put Peter on his shoulders for the walk home, and, as he had expected, he almost immediately fell asleep, chest draped over the back of Steve's head and head hanging down as he drooled openly into his hair.
“That's a good look on you,” Tony grinned from beside him, and Steve shoved him lightly with his elbow. “No, I'm serious. You should wear your hair flattened to your head with drool more often.”
“You're a jerk,” he mumbled, finding himself a little at a loss of what to say under the weight of his earlier revelation. “You're just jealous of my new do.”
“Yeah, jealous is definitely not the word I'm looking for right now, big guy,” the genius replied, grinning cheekily. “I'll just stand back and let you handle the bodily fluids, huh, and I'll do the neat bonding stuff.”
“Hey, I get first dibs on bonding,” Clint butted in, slipping in between them to ruin what had been fast becoming a moment. “The squirt obviously likes me best. After Steve, of course.”
Tony looked as though he was going to snap back with a witty retort – something that made Steve feel a little warm and gooey inside – but was cut off when Peter whined loudly in his sleep. They all paused, quietly moving along, but the little boy didn't seem to be waking up, thank God.
“Oh, actually, I've been meaning to give this to you for a while,” Bruce murmured, reaching into his jacket to rummage around in the pockets. After a moment, he pulled out a pacifier. “It might be better for his thumb if he has this, and then it'll be easier to wean him off it, because he'll see something being physically taken away.”
“You couldn't have given it to him before he started drooling in my hair?” Steve asked, shifting a little bit so the scientist could reach out and run the binky against Peter's lips. He must have taken it without even waking up, because Bruce came away without it.
After that, the remaining walk home was mostly uneventful. They were almost papped outside the tower, but a suspiciously well timed crackle of thunder, paired with a stony faced Thor, had the reporter running before he'd had a chance to take his photo. Peter was still asleep when they got back to the communal floor, but Steve didn't feel like taking him all the way back down to his floor, especially when the rest of the team were gathering to put a movie on, so, instead, he eased himself down into the corner of the couch and shifted Peter from his shoulders to his chest so the boy could spread out and sleep peacefully.
Plus, he really liked cuddling him.
Clint dumped a towel on his head so he could scrub the drool from it with one hand while the others shuffled about around him, squabbling quietly over which movie to watch and what snacks to make, until, finally, they settled down and asked JARVIS to start playing Big.
Honestly, Steve hadn't felt so at peace in a very long time.
It had become apparent very early on that Peter had nightmares. Not every night, of course, but most of the time, and where Bruce seemed to think it was normal, especially after the trauma he had gone through, Steve couldn't help but worry. He hated waking up to the little boy's sobbing, especially when he got himself so turned around that he found him wandering around the living room looking lost, afraid, and calling out for him.
“Peter, honey, it's okay,” he murmured soothingly, slipping out of his bedroom that night after having awoken to the little boy's distressed, repeated calls.
Peter was staggering around in the living room, crying loudly and clutching that little Iron Man figure he seemed to love so much to his chest. As soon as he spotted Steve, he hiccuped, then threw his arms out, silently requesting to be picked up. Without a seconds thought, he swept across the room and scooped the little boy up, cuddling him close. He was still crying, but not nearly as loudly now he was in Steve's arms.
“Ssshhh, sshhh,” he hummed, swaying them on the spot a little to try and calm the boy. “It's okay, baby. You're okay – it was just a bad dream.”
But despite his soothing words, Peter wasn't calming down. He was getting quieter, certainly, but his breathing was ragged and his face bright red from the strain of crying. If they weren't careful, he could end up having an asthma attack – or, worse, a panic attack.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he tried, bouncing Peter gently in his arms. “I think you need to take some deep breaths, buddy, or you're going to make yourself sick. Can you do that for me?”
A little sob left Peter's mouth, but the boy nodded, hiccuping for air in the melodramatic, truly upset way that only children could achieve. After a few moments of trying, though, and with Steve helping him along by making his own breathing exaggerated, the little boy seemed to get the hang of it, and his heartbeat stopped thrumming quite so hard against Steve's chest.
“That's better, see?” he smiled, hating how useless he felt, how he couldn't even save Peter from his own mind. “Good job, buddy. You're doing so well.”
Peter's bottom lip trembled, his eyes glassy with unshed tears, but he didn't start bawling again, thank God. Steve shifted the little boy in his arms a bit so he could gently wipe the snot and tears away from his face with his free hand, and – when he was done – Peter took a deep breath, then planted his head firmly in the crook of Steve's neck, obviously exhausted.
“Do you want your binky?” he asked softly, running a reassuring hand up and down the little boy's back. He nodded. “Okay, baby, let's go get it.”
He carried Peter across the room to the kitchenette and, after a moment's though, offered him a puff of the inhaler they'd brought home, before grabbing the pacifier from the breakfast bar. The little boy reached out and met him halfway so he could put the thing in his mouth himself, and the effect was almost comical. As soon as he closed his lips around it, his eyes fluttered shut and a little sigh of relief escaped him, almost like a smoker taking their first puff of the day.
Steve knew he wouldn't sleep yet, though. Tonight had been particularly bad – he'd worked himself up too much – so, even though the exhaustion was quite evident on his smooth, babyish face, Peter wouldn't actually crash for at least another hour. Honestly, Steve was still trying to work through the logic of children, because it made absolutely no sense to him.
“Let's go get some special hot chocolate, huh?” he suggested, and Peter just nodded, nestling his head against his neck again.
Bruce had suggested early on that they find a food and drink that Peter loved to act as treat foods, so whenever he was extra good, or whenever he needed the comfort, Steve would give him a little cup of hot chocolate and a handful of jelly beans. He didn't think the beans were such a good idea so late, what with all the E-numbers and sugar, but the hot chocolate might sooth him to sleep with its warmth and creaminess.
Sweeping sweat-damp hair out of the little boy's face, he kissed his forehead and held him close as he carried him over to the elevator. Unfortunately, snacks were kept in the communal kitchen, which encouraged team bonding, so they were going to have to go there for their drink. It wasn't like Steve minded, though; he only had to have a few hours of sleep a night, anyway, so he could afford the loss. Peter, however, could not, and the sooner they got there, the sooner he would hopefully fall asleep again.
Peter was fiddling lethargically with his Iron Man figure as they stepped out of the elevator again, but the first thing that struck Steve, as they wandered through the dark communal lounge, was that the kitchen lights were on. Of course, it wasn't unusual for some of the team to be up at this time – they all had things they were dealing with, after all – but everyone usually kept to their own quarters.
Somebody else needed a snack, it seemed.
“Oh, hey, Steve,” Tony mumbled around a cookie, waving from where he sat at the table as they entered the room. Really, Steve should have known the genius would be up at 2am; he seemed to always be up, after all. “You know, you really shouldn't let your kid smoke a bowl before bed, or he won't sleep because of the munchies.”
Peter's eyes were looking a little red and puffy, but that was down to all the crying he had done. Steve made a little consoling sound and kissed the boy's cheek again, unable to bear the fact that he still looked so miserable and exhausted.
“Peter had a bad dream,” he explained, rubbing the little boy's back as he moved around the table towards Tony. “We're going to have some hot chocolate as a special treat. Hold him for a minute?”
“What? Steve, no -” Tony stuttered, but, by that point, Steve had already pressed the boy into his arms. Peter was always a little clingy after a nightmare, and he was worried that he might start crying again when he pulled away, but, instead, the little boy just sighed and snuggled further into Tony's awkward embrace.
“Would you like to share some hot chocolate with us?” he asked, grinning innocently when the genius glared at him.
“You've got to stop just dropping him into my lap,” the brunet replied, even as he was adjusting Peter to sit more comfortably on his lap. “But yes, I would like some.”
Steve had thought so. Still grinning, because he'd begun to realise that he really couldn't do anything less around Tony, he turned back to the fridge to get some milk, and then, grabbing the chocolate and a pot from the cupboards (because home-made hot chocolate was best, no matter what anyone told him), he set to work.
“So, what have you been working on?” he asked once the chocolate was happily melting, nodding towards the tablet next to Tony's plate of cookies.
“Oh, I was just combing the internet, making sure nobody got wind of this little guy,” the genius replied nonchalantly. “No biggie.”
“No, that's...” Not for the first time since his revelation (and even before, now that he was starting to understand his feelings), Steve wanted to lean across the table and kiss him for his never-ending kindness. “Thank you, Tony.”
“I get that you're not ready to share, too, but I was talking with Pepper earlier, and she seemed to think that introducing the world to Peter might sway the public in our direction.” Before Steve could reply, Tony held his hand up. “I get why you might not want to do that, okay, because Peter isn't a bargaining tool, and I would never ask that of you. We just... we're not going to be able to keep him a secret forever; you understand that, right? What about when he starts school?”
“Don't you... aren't you thinking a little far in advance?” Steve asked weakly, because the truth was, he did want to keep Peter a secret. Not because he was ashamed, and not, even, because he would be in danger (though that was part of it), but because he had fallen in love with their little family, and he didn't want the world involved in it. “I might not even get final custody of him. If the social workers decide I'm not -”
“Steve, Steve,” Tony cut him off, waving a hand. “Of course you're going to get custody of him. You're the greatest man I've ever known.”
Apparently the genius hadn't meant to say that, because he actually blushed a little and had to look away. But hearing him say those words caused a warm throb in Steve's chest, and he had to take a deep breath, suddenly feeling a little light-headed.
“I... thank you, Tony,” he smiled. “That really means a lot to me.”
“You're, uh... welcome,” the genius replied, idly tapping at his tablet with the hand that wasn't wrapped around Peter's middle.
Allowing the man time to get over his embarrassment, Steve turned back to the stove and turned it off, adding the last of the milk to make the concoction creamy and the right temperature. After that he grabbed a couple of mugs and Peter's sippy cup from another cupboard, then poured the mixture into them and brought them over.
“Here you go, baby,” he murmured, sweeping Peter's hair back as he placed his sippy cup on the table in front of him. The little boy seemed entranced by whatever was on Tony's tablet – sucking on his pacifier and playing with his own hair tiredly as he watched – and, if Steve wasn't mistaken, it looked like the little guy was about to fall asleep.
He continued to watch the two as he drank his own hot chocolate, and smiled when Peter only reached out to get his drink after Tony had taken a sip of his own and hummed in surprised delight. The little boy took out his binky and put it next to Tony's cookies, and then mimicked the genius' noise as he slurped his own hot chocolate down. As engaged in his work as he was, though, Tony didn't seem to notice.
Something warm and light unfurled in Steve's chest as the two continued on quietly. Tony seemed to have forgotten his fear, and was juggling Peter, his tablet, the hot chocolate and his cookies like a pro. Peter, in turn, seemed completely at ease on the brunet's lap, slumped back against his chest as he watched the older man's hands flitting across the tablet screen tiredly. Tony would make a wonderful father, Steve suddenly thought to himself, and he didn't even seem to realise. His heart ached at the mere thought.
“Dat one,” Peter murmured suddenly, snapping both Steve and Tony out of their thoughts. Lethargically, the little boy reached out and pointed to something on Tony's tablet, repeating, insistently, “Dat one.”
Tony shot Steve a quick glance, and then looked down at Peter. “Yeah? You like that colour?”
“Well, what colour would go with it?” he asked, shifting Peter in his grasp a little so he could hold the tablet in a position where they could both see. “Or just silver?”
“No...” Peter rubbed at his eyes, and then tapped something else on the tablet. “Dat one.”
“Purple?” Tony asked, grimacing a little. “Yeah, we're going to have to teach you about colour palettes, kid, because... oh. That actually looks pretty cool.”
Steve grinned when the genius held up the tablet to show him the pre-fabricated suit that Peter had just helped him with. It was a little more stream-line than the suits that Steve had seen before, but it seemed that Peter knew what he was doing, because the colours looked great.
“I wouldn't let Clint see it,” he warned, finishing the last of his hot chocolate. “He might have a field day.”
“Aw, see, just like that, your Papa ruined it,” Tony sighed down at Peter, and the little boy yawned, then giggled tiredly.
“All right, buddy, I think it's time for bed,” Steve told him, but the little boy immediately scrunched up his face in dismay and whined loudly. “No, none of that. You've already had enough fun for one night -”
“Nooooo,” Peter whined, squirming on Tony's lap until he could wrap his little arms around the surprised man's neck and cling to him. “Don' wanna.”
Tony must have seen the exhaustion on Steve's face, because he patted Peter's back awkwardly and then said, “It's okay. I guess I can put him to bed?”
“Thank you, Tony. That'd be great,” he replied, because, at this point, he wasn't willing to argue with a three year old. “Okay, let's go. Have you got your binky? And... where's Iron Man?”
“What?” Tony asked, confused.
“I dwopped 'um,” Peter replied, turning again to point under the table. Ducking down, Steve saw that, yes, the little figure was trapped between the leg of the table and one of the legs of Tony's chair, so, avoiding getting too close to Tony's crotch, because nothing good could come of that, he grabbed the toy and brought it back up to the surface.
“You have to be more careful with him, baby, or he's going to get broken,” he told him, picking specks of dust and old hair off the toy before handing it over.
When he looked up at Tony to tell the genius they were good to go, however, he found the man staring down at the toy clutched to Peter's chest like he had never seen anything like it before. Peter carried that thing around everywhere with him – surely the genius had seen it before? Hell, Steve had been under the impression that Tony had bought the damn thing.
“You okay?” he asked softly, knocking the man's leg with his foot to gain his attention.
“Yeah, I just... he likes this one, huh?” the brunet replied, tentatively reaching out to take a look at the toy in more detail. “Iron Man?”
“That seems to be his favourite, yeah,” Steve replied, frowning a little in confusion. “Why shouldn't it be?”
“No, no, no reason,” Tony shook his head, taking a deep breath as he seemed to come out of some kind of trance. Smiling, he looked up at Steve. “Of course it's his favourite. Iron Man is obviously the coolest Avenger. Let's, uh... let's go, huh?”
Not even waiting for Steve to answer, the genius rose to his feet – and he could practically see the cogs turning in the man's head as he tried to reposition Peter so he wouldn't fall – but, deciding not to ask what any of that had been about, Steve just stood up and followed.
Peter was almost completely asleep again by the time they stepped out of the elevator on Steve's floor, and seemed to have no qualms about being tucked back into bed by Tony while Steve waited at the door, watching. He had never seen the genius act like this before. Sure, he was good with kids in that I'm secretly one of you kind of way, but the way that he carefully positioned Peter on his bed – tucking him in just the right amount with Iron Man next to him – before gently sweeping his hair out of his face... Steve couldn't deny it anymore. He had thought he just had a crush on Tony, but that did nothing to justify the way his heart swelled at the sight of the man being so gentle with, well, his son.
He was in love with Tony Stark.
The recognition made him want to leap forwards and sweep the man up into a loving, passionate kiss, but he knew he couldn't do that. He and Tony were friends; as far as he knew, the man was still getting over Pepper, and even if he was over her, who was to say that he saw Steve in that way? Who was to say he saw any man in that way? And Steve had baggage now. Not that he saw Peter as baggage, of course, but to a man like Tony Stark, that could very well be a deal breaker.
But the way he was with Peter, when he'd forgotten to be afraid... could Steve still stand a chance? Maybe if he talked to Natasha some more, got her advice on what to do next, he could... well, what? Start a family with Tony? Grow old with him? As fast as those thoughts had come, they disappeared again, because of course he was just being stupid. Of course Tony wouldn't want to be with him like that. Of course Tony wouldn't want to play happy family with him. He was an idiot even to have thought it.
“Okay, I think we're set,” the brunet whispered, drawing Steve out of his reverie as he rose to his feet and padded over. Peering over the man's shoulder, he noted that Peter was sound asleep again.
“Thank you, Tony,” he replied quietly, and really, really meant it. The last thing he wanted to do was make the man even more uncomfortable than he obviously already was around Peter. “You didn't have to -”
“Don't worry about it,” the brunet waved away his thanks as Steve led him back into the living room. “The kid's not so bad, I guess.”
Coming from Tony, that was really the best Steve could have hoped for.