Me, You, and Peter, Too

Chapter 6

Overall, he thought the first month of Peter living with them flew by. Sure, it had been difficult in the beginning, but they had fallen into a routine that, by the time the first social services inspection rolled around, was a well-practised, well-oiled machine.

“They're just going to come and observe for a few hours,” he told the team at large on the morning of the inspection. “Maybe ask a couple of questions. Just do what you usually do – except maybe not throw him quite so high if he asks, Thor, okay? - and everything will be fine.”

They all, even Tony and Clint, agreed to be on their best behaviour, and had even bothered to actually dress themselves by the time midday came around, which was thoughtful. Steve had spent his morning giving the place a general clean-up (which was pointless, because Peter trailed after him, getting all the toys he had put away out again to play with) and picking out an outfit for Peter.

In the end, he had to change him out of the shirt that he'd decided on anyway, because the little boy managed to spill some of his mid-morning snack of raspberries and blueberries down it. Sam went off to change him while Steve tried to get the raspberry juice out of the couch, and the man came back five minutes later with Peter toddling along behind him, now wearing a Captain America t-shirt.

“Why did you put him in that?” Steve despaired when he saw them (even though he secretly felt a little warm and fuzzy inside at the sight). “They're going to think he's some kind of mascot.”

“No they're not,” Sam replied, scooping the little boy up to blow a raspberry on his cheek, sending him into peals of laughter. “They're going to think he worships the ground you walk on, which, hello.”

Steve hummed, unconvinced, and then shooed them away to pick up Peter's toys again in his room while he finished up with the couch.

“Is the kid spilling things on my furniture again?” came Tony's voice out of nowhere a few moments later, and Steve couldn't help the grin that spread across his face as he spotted the man swanning into the room.

“It's only a little fruit juice,” he replied as the brunet peered over the back of the couch to look. “It's coming right out.”

Tony seemed to accept this, because he nodded. Then, straightening up again, he asked, “So, ready for today?”

“I think so,” he nodded. “There's no reason why it should go wrong, after all.”

“Of course not,” Tony agreed. “Everything's going to be great, Steve. There's no reason why it wouldn't be – you're a great father.”

There he was again, looking like he hadn't meant to say that out loud. Steve was beginning to really love that look of embarrassed surprise on the man's face whenever he said an inadvertently nice thing to someone. It really shouldn't have been as adorable as it was.

“Thanks, Tony,” he replied softly, reaching out to put a hand on the man's shoulder before he could chicken out.

“I mean it, though,” he continued stubbornly. “I know a bad father when I see one, and... you're definitely not one of them.”

Before he could second guess himself, Steve reached out over the sofa and drew Tony into a hug. He could get away with a hug, right? Friends hugged all the time, and that's what he and Tony were – friends. After a moment of surprise, Tony wrapped his arms around him and gingerly hugged back, so he thought he was in the clear.

“Okay, I've got, uh... things,” Tony started, rubbing the back of his neck a little awkwardly when he finally pulled away. God, Steve loved him. “Important things, I've... work. I'm working. I'm going to go do some work.”

“All right,” he nodded, unable to stop a stupid grin from spreading across his face. “We'll try not to disturb you.”

“Well, no, that's... it's fine. That's fine.” Seeming to realise that words were simply beyond him (and Steve had never quite been able to understand people who thought there was no more to Tony than the suave, eccentric billionaire. Tony was a dork), he just sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and left.

Steve only had a few minutes to contemplate the genius' words, however, before JARVIS was announcing the arrival of the social workers. Giving up the raspberry stain as a lost cause, Steve strategically covered it with a cushion and went to meet them at the elevator, passing Sam and Peter as they made their way into the kitchen for some lunch.

Patricks stepped out of the elevator first, smiling, and was followed by an ever stoic Hammond. Steve refused to let the man's constant sour mood dampen his own spirits, however, and greeted them with a smile of his own.

“Peter's just having his lunch right now,” he explained as he led them through the communal lounge, noticing how they both looked around analytically, and over to the kitchen.

“- gotta work with me, little man. We agreed you could have Nutella sandwiches if you ate some apple slices, too,” Sam was saying as they walked in. The man looked up a little desperately from where he had been leaning over the table, when he spotted Steve. “Look, your Papa's here now. Steve, speak to your kid. He's being unreasonable.”

Peter's bottom lip was jutted out and his arms were folded tightly across his chest as he sat on his chair at the table. Usually, the little boy would eat whatever they put in front of him, and Steve couldn't quite believe that today, of all days, he had decided to be awkward. Glancing down at his Dora the Explorer plate, however, he realised what the problem was immediately.

“He doesn't like the skin on his apples,” he explained, glancing quickly at the social workers before moving over to sit opposite Peter. He picked up a slice of apple, continuing, “Look, Peter, see? You don't have to eat the skin – you can just eat the middle bits.”

He demonstrated, making sure to show the little boy the skin after he'd finished with the flesh, and, after a moment, Peter stopped pouting and grabbed a slice of apple to try the trick for himself. He held the skin up triumphantly when he was done, smile brighter than the sun.

“I'll make us a couple of sandwiches,” Sam muttered under his breath, obviously put out that he hadn't even thought about taking the skin off.

“Good boy, Peter,” Steve praised, followed by, “Thanks, Sam.”

He watched the little boy begin to eat the rest of his lunch for a while, but then the sound of a pen scratching against paper drew him out of his thoughts. Looking up, he remembered that the social workers were still there, Patricks writing something on a clipboard and Hammond accepting a cup of coffee from a wary looking Sam.

“Oh, uh, sorry,” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head. “Usually he's pretty good with food, but he doesn't like fruit with skin, and -”

“That's fine, Mr Rogers,” Patricks cut him off jovially. “We're here to observe, after all. Just go about your day and pretend we're not here.”

“Um, okay,” he replied, turning back to Peter. He had forgotten they were there after less than five minutes, so he was pretty sure he could do as she'd asked.

It was a little awkward when Patricks and Hammond sat down at the other end of the table, but, by that point, Sam had finished fixing a couple of sandwiches for himself and Steve, so he focused on his lunch and did his best to ignore their intrusive presence. He thought it was going well so far, even after Peter requested to try one of Sam's pickles and promptly sprayed it across the table in his haste to get it out of his mouth.

Steve just noted that, alongside fruit peel and ketchup, pickles were a no.

Sam helpfully cleaned up the dishes while Steve cleaned Peter's hands and face (and he was beginning to think that spreadable foods should only be kept for a special occasion), and then – after receiving a lovely, slightly damp kiss on the cheek for his trouble – he carried Peter back into the lounge, very aware of Hammond and Patricks following.

“Okay, baby,” he started, putting Peter down on the ground near the couch and crouching down to his level, “you have a couple of hours before it's nap time, so what do you want to do?”

“I wan' duh...” Peter mumbled, playing with the edge of his t-shirt as he struggled for words. “Wobots.”

“You want to play with your robots?” Steve asked, prepared to take a trip back down to their floor. “Okay, we can -”

“No,” Peter shook his head fervently, bottom lip jutting out again. “I wan'...”

“I need you to use your words for me, sweetie,” Steve told him. “Help me understand.”

The longer he struggled to describe what he meant, the more visibly upset Peter seemed to get. “I wan' duh... duh wobot game.”

Steve didn't understand what he meant. It wasn't the first time they'd miscommunicated – after all, Peter's speech really wasn't great yet – but the little boy seemed to be genuinely upset about it for the first time.

“Duh Tony wobot game,” he added, frowning as he gestured wildly. “Duh touchy one.”

Then, suddenly, something clicked in Steve's mind, and he knew exactly what the little boy was talking about. “You want to go on Tony's tablet?” he asked, just to clarify.

“Uh-huh,” Peter nodded, looking relieved that he had finally been understood. “On duh wobot game.”

“Oh, no, sweetie,” Steve sighed, rubbing a hand up and down the little boy's arm. “That was Tony's work, not a game. We're not allowed to touch that without him here to say it's okay.”

“Den... den ged 'um?” Peter replied hopefully. “We c'n do d'wobots t'gether.”

Steve's heart melted at the little boy's words – having not realised how much of an impact Tony had had on Peter, too – and hated that he had to let him down. “I'm sorry, baby, but Tony's working right now. Why don't we put some Transformers on, instead, and -”

“Nooooooooo,” Peter wailed loudly, taking Steve by surprise a little as his little face scrunched up and turned red with displeasure. “I wanna do duh wobots, Papa!”

“Hey,” Steve soothed a little desperately, shooting a glance at the social workers situated somewhere behind him, “none of this, Peter. We can ask to look at Tony's work later, okay?”

He had hoped to calm the little boy before he threw himself into a full blown tantrum – something he hadn't actually witnessed before – but it looked like that wasn't going to happen. He honestly didn't know why Peter had picked today, of all days, to act up, especially when he was usually such a good boy, but he was just going to have to roll with it and hope the social workers understood.

“C'mere,” he sighed, scooping Peter into his arms to try and calm him down, but the little boy just struggled and kicked, sobbing all the time, until he had to admit defeat and put him back down again.

“Hey, what's going on?” Sam asked, striding into the room. “What's up, little man -?”

But Peter just screamed at him as he, too, went as if to pick him up, and Sam immediately backed off. “He's, uh... in a bad mood, then?”

“I'm sorry about this,” Steve apologised to the room as a whole, and then tugged Peter in front of him, making the little boy stand still. “Peter, listen to me right now. You're acting very silly, and you're going to make yourself sick if you don't calm down. You can't get what you want all the time, okay, so you need to stop this right now -”

“Steve? What's wrong? JARVIS said you needed my help?”

As soon as he heard Tony's voice, Peter snatched his arm out of Steve's grip and went running. Honestly, he was so stressed that he just let the little boy go, watching as Tony's eyes widened comically as he spotted the sobbing, snotty three year old running towards him. Before the poor man could get out of the way, Peter banged into his legs and wrapped his chubby little arms around his knees, sobbing into the crook between his legs.

“Oh my God, Steve, ew, what's happening?” he whined, swaying a little on the spot with Peter's added weight attached to his legs. “Steve, there's snot on my five hundred dollar jeans -”

“I'm so sorry, Tony,” he replied as he got to his feet, and meant every word. “He wanted to help you with your suit designs again, but I told him you were working, and he got a little upset.”

“I think that's an understatement,” Sam muttered under his breath from across the room.

“He, uh... he wanted to help me?” Tony asked, ignoring Sam completely, and he had a strange look on his face as he gingerly reached down to place a hand on the top of Peter's head. “Peter, kiddo, you gotta calm down, okay? It's, uh... it's all right.”

And then a miracle happened. Obviously deciding there wasn't another option, Tony bent down and picked Peter up. It was evident that he still didn't have the faintest clue of how to hold the toddler, but instinct seemed to prevail, because he drew the little boy towards his body and held him close. After a moment, he even went so far as to pat the boy's back as he hiccuped and wrapped his pudgy arms around his neck.

“So, you, uh, you wanted to help me, huh?” the genius asked, glancing warily over at the social workers, and then at Steve, before finally deciding to move them both across the room.

“Uh-huh,” Peter sniffled.

“Well you should have just asked nicely, don't you think?” Tony continued, easing himself down onto the couch with Peter propped up on his lap. “I get it, okay? It sucks that you can't always get what you want, but life would be pretty boring if you could, right? You have to work hard for the things you want, and be nice to the people who can help you get them. Do you understand?”

Peter nodded, obviously exhausted after his little episode, and tucked his head under Tony's chin to rest.

“So, what do we say when we want something?”

“Pwees,” the little boy whispered, rubbing his sore eyes.

“That's right,” Tony nodded, reaching around Peter and into his inside pocket, where he pulled out one of his tablets. “Trust me, kid – you get a lot further in life when you say please than when you throw a tantrum, and, sadly, I know that from first-hand experience.”

And, just like that, they lapsed into a companionable silence, Peter subconsciously beginning to suck his thumb as he watched Tony tapping away. Honestly, Steve was a little speechless, too. He didn't think Tony knew what a genuinely good, loving parental figure he could be when he forgot about his daddy issues. Peter was certainly taken with him – more than any of the other Avengers, he was beginning to realise – and Steve... well. Steve thought his heart might burst out of his chest at the sight before him.

It was only a series of light coughs that had him looking away, remembering that the social workers were still there. Sam seemed to have disappeared somewhere in the interim, and he was probably going to have to apologise to the guy a little later, but, for now, he was more interested in getting their visit back on track.

“I'm sorry about that,” he apologised again quietly, stepping away from the couch and over to where Hammond and Patricks stood across the room. “He's never actually had a tantrum like that before. I can, uh, show you to my floor so you can -”

“Actually, Mr Rogers, I think we've seen enough for today,” Hammond sneered, and Steve felt his stomach plummet.

“Oh, I – are you sure?” he asked, desperately clutching at straws as the social workers moved out of the lounge and towards the elevator in the corridor beyond. “It's really no trouble -”

“You really need to stop worrying, Mr Rogers,” Patricks cut him off with a brief smile. “We understand that this is a learning process for both you and Peter, and we all know how young children can be when they don't get their way. You seem to have a strong support system around you, and that's vital at this stage. I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised by Mr Stark's involvement today.”

Throughout Patricks' speech, Steve noticed Hammond staring at him out of the corner of his eye – staring at him like he knew how he felt about Tony – and he couldn't shake the feeling that the man didn't like it. He tried to reassure himself that he was just being paranoid – that there was no way the man could know, and, even if he did, so what? - but his gut still churned a little at the prospect.

“Yeah, Tony's the best,” he heard himself saying. “He just gets a bad wrap in the papers, is all.”

“Yes, well, keep up the good work between you all, and I can't see a reason not to release Peter into your permanent care,” Patricks concluded, still smiling. “Now, you have a good day, Mr Rogers.”

“Yeah, you, too,” he replied faintly, watching as they stepped into the elevator and were lost from sight.

He slowly made his way back into the lounge, not really knowing how to feel. On the one hand, they had passed their first visit, and he was well on his way to becoming Peter's adopted father. On the other hand... he couldn't help but let Hammond's look get to him a little bit. Logically, he knew he was being silly – that, maybe, he, himself, was just starting to properly understand the true depth of his feelings, and that was scary – but he really couldn't help himself.

All of his anxiety seemed to just melt away when he caught sight of Tony and Peter on the couch, though. Tony had kicked his feet up to rest on the coffee table in front of him, and Peter was tucked into the crack formed by the brunet's arm holding him steady and the arm of the couch. The little boy was fast asleep with his thumb planted firmly in his mouth.

“It's a little early for his nap,” he fretted quietly, watching Tony jump a little as he leaned over the back of the couch. He barely suppressed the urge to run his hand through the man's hair. “I guess screaming until your face is blue will do that to you.”

“Did they penalise you for that?” Tony asked, grimacing.

“Thankfully, no,” he replied, moving around the side of the couch to sit down next to Tony. Surprisingly, the genius didn't hand Peter over as soon as he was settled next to him. “Kids throw tantrums sometimes – they understood.”

“Good,” Tony nodded, peering down at the little boy tucked into his side. “Tyke's usually a good kid."

“I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't stepped in,” Steve sighed honestly. “He's never acted like that before – I wasn't prepared -”

“It was nothing, Steve, really -”

“No, but it was, Tony,” he insisted, shifting a little closer to him. “He completely overreacted when I told him no, and I was so shocked that I didn't even know how to handle the situation. You were just so... so calm about the whole thing, you explained the issue so well to him, and I... well. Maybe I'm not what Peter needs, after all.”

“Steve, no,” Tony hissed, dropping his tablet onto his lap. “You are exactly what this kid needs, okay? You read him bedtime stories, and make sure he eats his vegetables; you give him foam beards in the tub and pretend not to spot him right away when he decides to hide behind a lampshade during hide and seek.

“You want to know how I knew what to do when he threw a fit?” the genius asked softly, not looking at him. “That's what I wish my Dad had done when I was a kid, instead of letting me scream myself to distraction, or just throwing money at me to get me out of his hair. I know Peter's not my kid, but... I guess the sentiment applies, right?”

“Tony,” Steve whispered, a little speechless. “How... how do you know all that stuff? You're always in your workshop – how could you know about the games, and the stories, and -”

Even though he still refused to look at him, Steve could see the genius' eyes go wide with a sudden terror that he didn't understand in the slightest.

“You, uh, you've reminded me that I should be working -”

“No, Tony, please -”

But the genius was already shifting Peter into Steve's arms and backing away quickly. “It's fine, Steve, I – there's some new Quinjet blueprints I have to look over, is all, and -”

He didn't even finish his sentence as he bolted for the elevator and was lost from sight.



He didn't see Tony for three days after that. When Peter had awoken from his nap, Steve explained to him in a more coherent manner why he couldn't behave like that, and the little boy seemed suitably chastised enough for them to move on from the whole ordeal with no hard feelings, but... yeah.

Tony disappeared into his workshop for three days.

Steve didn't even know what he had done wrong. He didn't understand the situation at all, actually – one moment the genius didn't even want to be in the same room as him and Peter, and the next he was pulling out all the stops to make Steve feel like he was doing a good job. He understood the genius' unease, really, he did, but there were only so many mixed messages he could take.

In the end, he didn't even manage to bring the problem up with the genius himself. At around noon on the third day of Tony's self-imposed isolation, Miss Potts came barging into the kitchen – expression deadly and heels even more so – as Steve, Peter and Natasha were having some lunch.

“He's locked himself in the workshop,” Steve informed her before she could ask, and some of her anger seemed to melt away into resignation. “He refuses to come out.”

“He's been missing meetings,” she sighed, sweeping her bangs out of her face. “Something must be wrong.”

Steve wanted to tell her about their conversation the other day, but he really didn't see how it would help. He had asked a simple question – the answer of which he was still waiting on, because JARVIS refused to help him – and Tony had bolted. Maybe the genius was upset about something else? Maybe Steve had read the situation wrong, and the man really wasn't comfortable being around Peter like he thought he was beginning to be.

“I'll go down and make sure he's not brained himself on something in a little while,” Miss Potts continued, shooting Steve a sympathetic look when he baulked at the mere thought as she took the seat opposite him. “Firstly, I've been meaning to talk to you, Captain.”

“Steve is fine, ma'am,” he replied, ignoring the look Natasha shot him.

“Only if you call me Pepper,” she countered with a smile. “But anyway – Tony said something about you needing help with Peter and the media?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, nodding. Honestly, they hadn't taken Peter out much since that first trip to the park, and had taken to donning disguises when they did, so he had forgotten that Tony had mentioned it to Pepper. “I'd hate to put him in danger, but we can't really keep him a secret forever, can we? Especially not when it's official. Besides, he needs to play outside more; the patio garden on the fifty third floor is great, but he needs to be with children his own age, don't you think?”

“I agree,” she nodded, “and I see your problem. The thing is that anyone in the public eye who has a child – not just superheroes – is at some level of risk, simply because of the exposure. You can't let your fear of something happening to him stop you from giving him a fulfilling childhood. That being said, I can understand that you wouldn't really want reporters tailing your every move when you want to take him out for ice cream, or something -”

“Ice cream?” Peter whispered, big, brown, puppy-dog eyes turning to Steve. “Pwees, Papa?”

“Finish your cucumber sticks first, and then we'll talk,” he replied, running a hand through the little boy's hair. When he turned back to Pepper, she was smiling softly at them both. “What would you suggest? Tony seemed to think you're a bit of an expert at this.”

“Not this specific situation, thank God,” she replied, and Steve couldn't blame her, “but I've had to deal with my fair share of invasive reporters, yes. I think the best thing to do in this situation is to be honest about it, but in a way that's not going to invoke more questions. A chat show might be a good idea, or a magazine article, explaining that you're in the process of adopting Peter. We can look into getting a restraining order on the press, too, if you want.”

“That would be great,” he nodded gratefully. “Thank you so much, Pepper.”

“It's no trouble,” she replied, smiling again. “I have to say, with an adorable face like that, I'd want to keep him all to myself, too. He's a cutie pie.”

Seeming to realise they were talking about him, Peter let out a little mewl and planted his face firmly against Steve's arm, his already rosy cheeks flushing darker in embarrassment. Steve couldn't help but smile as he reached out with his other hand to stroke the back of the boy's head.

“He can be a little shy,” he explained.

“Just one of many things we all adore about him,” Natasha added, not-so-discreetly sweeping her own cucumber sticks onto Peter's plate. “We wouldn't want to see him hurt.”

“This is the best way of making sure you don't,” Pepper replied decisively. “Besides, I hardly think Tony would stand for -”

“Tony... isn't really a fan of being around Peter,” Steve cut her off, trying valiantly not to pout. “He spends most of his time in the workshop now.”

Pepper gave him a sad smile. “He's insecure, sure. It's a shame, really, because he's actually very good with children.”

“I know,” Steve nodded, sighing. “He's great when he forgets that he's supposed to be afraid, but otherwise he looks like a deer caught in headlights.”

“He'll come around,” Pepper told him firmly, flashing a strange look at Natasha, who also nodded, “and trust me, Steve, he won't let anything happen to Peter – not when it's in his power to prevent it. I'm sure he feels the same about all of the Avengers, actually; he takes things incredibly personal like that.”

“Um... okay,” he acquiesced, not really sure what to do with that information. He knew that Tony cared more than he let on, sure, but... would he really go to such extreme measures to make sure the team – and Peter, apparently – were safe?

“Anyway,” Pepper sighed, and Steve was suddenly very glad of the change in subject, “I better go and attempt to coax him out of his hole. I'll get you some more information on potential talk shows or magazines, okay, and I'll get someone to draft up a restraining order to send over to city hall.”

“Thanks again, Pepper,” he nodded as she got to her feet. “You're a life saver.”

“I do what I can,” she replied modestly, smoothing down her skirt. “I'll be in touch. Bye bye, Peter!”

“Buh-bye,” the little boy mumbled, still refusing to take his face away from Steve's arm.

“Good boy,” Steve murmured, running another hand through his hair to sooth him. “Bye, Pepper.”

Without another word, she was gone. Steve shifted Peter back into his seat and tapped his plate, and the little boy dutifully set about eating the cucumber still resting there, while he turned to Natasha.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “I think you and Stark need to get your heads out of your butts.”

Not what he had been talking about, but... okay.


Whatever Pepper had said to Tony seemed to have worked at least a little, because – where the genius didn't venture out of his workshop – he did retract all the lockdowns so they could at least get to him. Steve allowed the man one more day to mope (and, honestly, he was psyching himself up a little, too), before – taking Peter's hand and some lunch on a tray for them all – he led the little boy down the secret set of stairs tucked away in a corner of the communal floor.

If nothing else, Peter deserved to meet Dum-E.

“Papa?” the little boy asked as Steve guided him down the stairs.

“Yes, baby?”

“Where we goin'?”

“We're going to see Tony,” he replied, catching Peter by the arm before he managed to trip down the stairs on his little toddler legs – barely managing to keep a hold of the tray in his other hand as he did so.

He had been slow to realise that Tony was the only Avenger that Peter refused to give a familial name. Everyone else was either uncle or auntie – hell, even Pepper was an auntie now – but Tony was just Tony. He had no idea why the 'uncle' part hadn't stuck with the genius in particular, but neither Peter or Tony seemed to mind, so he wasn't going to question it. A little part of him thought he might actually go a little insane if he did, honestly.

“In duh shop?” Peter asked after Steve had righted him and they'd continued on their way.

“In the workshop, yes,” he nodded, subtly correcting the boy, because he was vaguely under the impression that Peter thought Tony worked in an actual grocery store. “We're going to see if he wants to have some lunch with us.”

“S'he makin' duh... duh wobots?”

“I guess we'll have to see, won't we?” he smiled as they came to the bottom of the stairs.

His smile only widened when Peter let out an excited squeal at his first glimpse through the ceiling-to-floor windows either side of the workshop door. Immediately, he let go of Steve's hand to go running up to the glass and press his face against it. His eyes were almost bugging out of his head.

“JARVIS, could you turn his music off before we get in there, please?” Steve requested, walking up to the door to key in his pin-code. “I don't want it to hurt Peter's ears.”

“Certainly, Captain.”

“Wobots, Papa!” Peter exclaimed ecstatically, pointing at Dum-E as the bot rolled across the workshop to place something in Tony's outstretched hand.

“I know, sweetie,” he nodded, the little boy's excitement quickly becoming infectious. “Let's go say hi, huh?”

He held the door open for Peter to duck under his arm, and watched as the little boy barrelled over to Tony and Dum-E at the other end of the room. The genius must have heard him coming – Peter could be like a stampeding herd of elephants when he wanted to be – because he slowly swivelled in his chair with a reluctant smile on his face to watch him.

“So, you're the one who turned my music off, huh?” he asked the boy as he came skidding to a stop about a foot from Dum-E.

Steve edged in after him, watching a play of emotions flicker across the little boy's face. He didn't seem to know what to say or do now he was stood in front of a real-life robot – making aborted little motions with his hands as though afraid to touch – until, finally, Dum-E gave a curious little chirp, turned to Tony for confirmation, and then rolled forwards just a little to extend his claw to Peter.

“P-pwees?” he asked Tony directly, arm coming to a stop just shy of holding the bot's claw as he waited for his reply.

Tony seemed to assess him for a moment – after shooting a glance at Steve – before he came to a decision. “Dum-E, this is Peter. Unlike me, he's at an age where heaps of scrap like you are still considered exciting, so don't spoil that for him, okay? Peter,” he turned to the little boy, voice softer now, “would you and Dum-E like to do some drawing? He's not very good at colouring in the lines, but I'm sure you could help, right?”

Peter nodded enthusiastically, little legs shaking with the effort not to move in his haste to go play with his new friend. “Uh-huh, uh-huh, m'good at colourin' in duh lines.”

“Okay then,” Tony nodded, swivelling in his chair again to grab some plain paper out of his printer and a handful of different coloured pencils from a pot by his numerous coffee mugs. Hell, Steve was sure the pencil mug used to have coffee in it, too. “Here you go. Have at it.”

Peter took the supplies from him like they were made of gold, grinning from ear to ear, and finally reached up to take Dum-E's claw so he could lead him over to the couch at the other side of the workshop. He was already babbling away to the little bot like they had known each other for years, and Dum-E was as dutifully gentle with the little boy as he possibly could be.

Steve was pretty sure it wasn't normal for his chest to feel like it did.

It also cemented in him an even further sense of confusion. Tony hadn't even blinked when Peter had come running up to him – it looked like he had actually been expecting it – and he hadn't even warned the little boy to not touch any of his precious, breakable technology. Why, then, had he run off the other day?

“Don't think I don't know what you're trying to pull,” the genius muttered as Steve brought the tray of food over to him. “Buttering me up with pastrami sandwiches and adorable kids is a low blow.”

“I just don't know what I'm supposed to be apologising for, so I covered all my bases,” Steve replied evenly, looking determinedly at the juice box in his hand. Next to him, Tony sighed.

“You didn't do anything wrong,” the genius told him quietly, and when Steve looked up, he was watching Dum-E and Peter colouring happily together. “I overreacted, and... well. Sorry, I guess.”

“Why were you so upset in the first place?” Steve asked. “One minute we were having a nice conversation, and the next you just bolted. I only asked a question -”

“I've been watching you and Peter doing things together,” Tony blurted, covering his eyes with a hand as he began to flush. Steve, honestly, didn't really know what to say to that.

“You, uh...”

“He just reminds me of myself when I was a kid, okay?” the genius sighed, defeated. “He's smart and adorable, and – for the most part – well behaved, and all he asks for is love, and, well... that's what you give him.”

He didn't need to finish the rest of his little speech for Steve to understand what he was getting at. He felt sick. For not the first time since he had moved into the tower, he felt the need to go back in time and roundhouse Howard Stark in the face.

“So, yeah. Sometimes I have JARVIS pull up a live feed so I can watch how my childhood could have played out if I had someone around who loved me as much as you love Peter,” Tony whispered, staring down at the now clasped hands in his lap. The genius' eyes looked suspiciously wet.

“Tony,” Steve breathed, not sure whether touching the man would be a good idea, because he desperately wanted to hold him tightly. “I -”

“And if all I can do to make him happy is letting him watch me work, or play with Dum-E, then... I can do that.”

“That's not why he likes spending time with you, Tony,” he replied adamantly, throwing caution to the wind as he grabbed the brunet's arm. “He likes spending time with you because you treat him like your equal. He wants your love, Tony, not your things.”

“But I... I can't do that,” Tony whispered, still refusing to look at him. “Steve, I -”

“You're already doing it,” Steve told him. “Whenever you speak to him, or pick him up, or let him sit on your lap to watch you work, he knows, Tony. Why do you think he keeps coming back for more? Because he loves you, too.”

Finally, Tony looked up at him. His eyes were definitely wet around the edges – his eyelashes curling with the dampness – and he looked a little like some of the men Steve had seen being carried back from the front line back in the day.

“You don't have to do or be anything but yourself,” he whispered, moving his hand up from Tony's arm to his shoulder. “Believe it or not, we actually like you just the way you are.”

Maybe he was saying too much – it certainly wasn't lost on him that there were parallels between Peter's expectations and his own – but he really couldn't find it in himself to care when Tony flung himself forwards and let Steve hug him close to his chest. He allowed himself a moment – just enjoying Tony's warmth and weight in his arms, and his wonderful, distinct smell in his nose – before he finally, begrudgingly, let the brunet go again.

“Now,” he stated, taking a deep breath to get them both past their little moment, “eat your lunch – all of it – and Peter and I will stay over on the couch so you can work. Okay?”

“Okay,” Tony nodded, discreetly wiping his eyes on his sleeve as he reached out to tug his sandwich and juice towards him. “Thanks, Steve.”

“You're welcome,” he replied, smiling softly as he got to his feet.

Without another word, he grabbed his and Peter's lunch and headed over to the couch. The little boy was still colouring happily with Dum-E's help, so he placed a plate in front of them and tapped it to get Peter's attention.

“Eat your lunch, please,” he requested, tucking into his own. “Then we can go back to colouring, okay?”

“Can duh wobot hab some?” Peter asked, taking a quarter of his sandwich to stuff into his mouth.

“No, honey, Dum-E doesn't eat people food,” he replied patiently. “Besides, I think he wants you to have it.”

As they spoke, Dum-E began fiddling with the little straw on the side of the juice box that Steve had put on the table. It took a few tries, but the little bot managed to get the straw out of the packaging and into the top of the carton. It wasn't through the tinfoil hole, of course, but it did the trick.

“Fank you,” Peter said as Dum-E held the juice out to him, stuffing the rest of his quarter into his mouth before he took a drink.

When Steve glanced across the room to make sure Tony was eating his lunch, too, he found the genius discreetly watching Peter's interactions with both himself and Dum-E. When he noticed Steve watching him, he ducked his head and went back to his own sandwich, as though he was a little boy being caught doing something particularly naughty.

Steve thought about asking the man to join them on the couch to finish his lunch, because he looked a little left out over there by himself, but Tony had crammed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth and had turned the other way to get back to work before he could catch his attention. It broke his heart a little that the brunet didn't think he was welcome to sit with them, and he vowed to work harder to make sure Tony knew he was welcome – wanted, even, even if it was just as a friend.

“M'finished,” Peter mumbled around the last of his sandwich, taking his juice box back from Dum-E to help wash it down.

“Good job,” Steve praised, leaning over to kiss the crown of the boy's head as he moved their empty plates out of the way. “Now you can draw as much as you want.”

“You doin' it too, Papa?” the little boy asked, holding up a clean piece of paper for him.

Never one to turn down the opportunity to draw, Steve took the sheet of paper with a smile and smoothed it out in front of him. It had been a while since he'd properly sat down to sketch – especially since Peter had come along – and he found himself a little at a loss. Watching Peter quietly colouring away, shifting his arm around Dum-E, who was also attempting to help, he began to doodle; shiny eyes, curly hair, a round, pudgy face – Peter was a perfect study.

He really didn't have enough pictures and photographs of the little boy, he decided as he began shading the face he had drawn. Peter wasn't going to be a baby forever, after all, and nobody knew better than Steve how important it was to capture memories in a solid, tangible form.

“Hey, Peter, look! What do you think?” he asked around a half hour later, lifting the finished drawing up to... Peter was gone.

Springing to his feet before his brain had fully caught up to speed, he was prepared to scream his head off, before spotting Peter across the room. As quickly as the panic had come, it disappeared again, leaving his skin feeling a little too tight around his bones. But the sight of Peter – now perched on Tony's lap, thumb in his mouth – as they both looked up at a holographic screen in front of them was the most soothing balm in the world, he was beginning to find.

“- just watching has to be a little boring, right?” Tony was saying to the little boy in a quiet, intimate voice. “How about... would you like to start a new project – something we can do together?”

Peter nodded enthusiastically, even going so far as to take his precious thumb out of his mouth so he could squeal, “Yeah, uh-huh!”

Tony obviously tried to hide his relieved smile, but didn't quite manage it. He did look a little surprised when Peter suddenly shuffled on his lap so he was kneeling – a hand on each of the brunet's shoulders as they came to face. Steve physically gasped aloud in joy when the little boy leaned forwards and planted a sloppy kiss on the genius' slack lips. Without a word – but with a grin brighter than the sun – Peter then turned back to snuggle into his original position on Tony's lap.

“Um...” Tony seemed a little speechless. “Okay, that's... yeah, let's just, uh... let's get started. JARVIS? Start up a new project for us.”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Now – and, if the way Pepper goes on about it is anything to go by, this is important – when we're working on potentially dangerous projects, we have to be safe, so -” Tony reached out, free hand automatically going to support Peter around the tummy, and rummaged around for a moment. Finally, he tugged out a pair of safety glasses with the label still attached. “Here we are. Put these on, okay? When we're working on our project, you have to have your safety glasses on, deal?”

He helped the little boy slide them on, and they were hilariously big, but possibly the most adorable thing Steve had ever seen. “Uh-huh.”

“Okay, then we can get started. What do you wanna make?”

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