"Evening, Officer Rogers."
Steve looked up, the voice catching him off guard in the gloom of the hallway. "Evening, Mrs. O'Malley," he said with a smile. He tucked his cap under his arm, fumbling in his pile of packages. "Here. I've got something for you."
Her rough face softened as Steve handed over the paper wrapped packet. "Ah, but a good boy you are, too good to an old lady like me." She turned it over in her hands. "Soup bones?"
"Mostly, but Mr. Fletcher down at the shop left a bit of meat on there for you." Steve smiled at her as he headed up the narrow, rickety stairs of the tenement. "Think he's sweet on you."
That earned him a flap of her apron. "The good lord'll get you for lying, see that he don't." She smiled at him, her eyes squinting against the gloom. "You have enough t' eat? I can send Sean up with some bread, if you've not got any."
He hefted one of the brown paper wrapped packages. "Thanks, but I have plenty."
She nodded. "Came out to tell you, that window of yours is creaking again." Her eyes slanted up towards the ceiling that separated their apartments. "Best you check it's closed tight tonight, else you'll hear of it, wasting the heat and all."
Steve froze on the step, one hand grabbing the banister. "Is it now." He looked up, then back down. "Thank you for letting me know, before anyone else, Mrs. O'Malley. I'll see it's taken care of."
She nodded. "You're a good boy, like your Da before you." She made the sign of the cross. "May he rest in peace." She gave him a respectful nod. "Let me know if you need some extra bread."
"Thank you, ma'am." Suddenly exhausted, Steve headed up the stairs, ignoring the way the wood creaked and shifted under his feet. He was used to that by now, used to having to twist to the side to slip through the narrow gaps between floors, used to skipping the steps that he knew wouldn't take his weight.
Used to setting his foot and hip checking the door to loosen the sticky hinge before he tried unlocking it. Inside, his small apartment was dark and still, but the curtains were pushed back from the single window in the kitchen. Steve gave it a look. "You better not have broken my window," he said, pushing the door shut behind him, turning to hang his cap on the hook as he flicked on the single bare bulb in the middle of the room. "Again."
There was a long moment of silence, and then, a small, high pitched giggle.
Against his will, Steve smiled. "Yeah, it's funny, until I need to sleep in here in the winter." He tossed the food packages onto the kitchen table and shrugged out of his uniform jacket. Tossing it over the back of the a chair, he crouched down beside the coal range. "Then I'll be noticing that you unassembled something that you couldn't manage to assemble again."
He gave the door to the stove a hard tug, only to have it open effortlessly. He rocked back on his heels, nearly ending up on his ass. Steve blinked down at it. "Did you-"
A small scuffing sound brought his head around, and he smiled at the little boy who crouched down next to him, his arms wrapped around his knees. He grinned at Steve, his eyes glinting under the dark fringe of his hair. "Fixed it," he said, in his usual, halting cadence.
Steve smiled back at him. "Yes. You did." He reached for the coal shuttle. "Have you eaten?"
DJ nodded, his eyes locked on the hinges of the range door. "Yes."
"Uh-huh." Steve lit the stove and shut the door. "Well, I got some sweetbuns, bet you can find some room in your stomach for that, right?" DJ grinned up at him, and Steve reached out, ruffling his hair. "You need to stop coming in through the window, DJ."
DJ leaned in, staying close to the stove, his arms folded and his hands tucked against his chest. Steve moved around him, filling the kettle and setting it on top of the range. "C'mon, I'll get you some bread and cheese." DJ's eyes flicked in his direction, but he turned his attention back to the stove, never moving from his chosen spot.
Steve grabbed a couple of plates from the shelf, setting them down on the kitchen table. He filled them with thick slices of bread and chunks of cheese, half a roasted potato, still warm from the peddler on the corner, and the sweet rolls that he'd intended for his breakfast in the morning. While he waited for the tea to boil, he grabbed a salami from the shelf, unwrapping it just far enough to cut a few thick rounds.
"Can you get me two cups?" he asked DJ, wrapping the salami back up. "And the tin of tea?"
DJ scrambled to his feet, sliding in shoes that were too big for him. Steve wasn't sure how he'd ended up with shoes that were too big and pants that were too small, but Hammer had a knack of doing everything wrong. DJ hopped onto a chair, using the extra height to snag the tea tin from the top shelf, and the cups with his other hand.
Steve pushed a plate in front of him. "Thank you." He took the tea, and reached for the kettle. "Sit down like a person, please, my Ma's rolling in her grave right now."
DJ settled onto the chair, his heels braced on the edge of the seat, his knees up against his chest. "Good enough," Steve said, handing him a cup of tea. "Thank you."
With a pleased sound, DJ wrapped his hands around the cup, his fingers sliding back and forth over the chipped surface. He sniffed cautiously at the tea, then took a careful sip.
Steve reached out with his knife, nudging the edge of DJ's plate. "Eat something," he said. DJ studied him over the rim of the cup, his dark eyes steady, and Steve smiled down at him. "Please."
DJ reached out, his fingers peeling away a chunk of the bread crust. Shaking his head, Steve went back to his meal. He ate, not enough to fill the gnawing emptiness in his belly, but he was used to that, too. He was used to managing just enough to keep himself going, just enough to take the edge off.
Because there had to be enough for the next day, as well. And the one after that. All the ones after that.
He drained the last of his tea, too dark and too sweet, and set the leaves aside to reuse in the morning. “Done?” he asked DJ, who'd finished almost everything. DJ nodded, trading his plate with Steve's, and scooping up the cups. “Thank you,” Steve said, finishing the scraps that DJ had left behind before handing over the plate. “I'm going to go wash up, will you-”
But DJ had already emptied rest of the hot water from the kettle into the sink, splashing the plates into it with a great deal of enthusiasm. Steve smiled at him. “Try not to break anything,” he said, as DJ shoved a chair over to the battered basin and scrambled up to kneel on it.
Leaving him to scrub the plates clean, Steve headed to the small shared bathroom at the far end of the hall. He could hear his neighbors moving behind each door he passed, could hear them talking, their voices rising and falling in familiar waves. Some were quieter than others, but the walls were so thin in places that he could almost always make out the words, no matter how quiet they tried to be.
He paused by a few doors, his footsteps slowing but never stopping. Checking on the new wife who flinched when her husband's voice raised, when he came home swaying on his feet and smelling of cheap whiskey. On the old man who worked all hours, his back bent as he strained to finish one last button hole in the depths of the night. On the teenage girl who had four younger siblings, and everyone was politely ignoring the fact that no one had seen their parents in a week or more.
But things were quiet tonight, and Steve plodded forward, exhaustion tugging his shoulders down with each step.
When he returned to his apartment, the chairs were back at the table, the stove throwing a low, warm glow over the darkened interior. Steve pulled the door shut behind him. "I'm assuming I'll be able to 'find' you again in the morning, right?"
From the depths of his armchair, DJ peeked out from within his blanket cocoon, his dark eyes sleepy. "Yes," he said, the word dissolving into a yawn. He wiggled a bit, finding a comfortable spot in the creaky old chair.
Steve couldn't quite hold back an affectionate smile. "You're going to get us both in trouble," he said, reaching out to ruffle DJ's hair. DJ smiled up at him, and Steve headed to his own bed on the other side of the room. "You know that, right?"
DJ rolled over, putting his back to Steve, his final word on the matter. Shaking his head, Steve sat down on the edge of his bed, bending down to pull his shoes off. The stove'd keep things warm until the coal burned itself out, and he was too tired to deal with anything else.
The word was small and soft, barely audible in the echoes of noise from the other apartments. Steve glanced over at the chair, where DJ still hadn't moved. He took a deep breath. "You know you can't," he said, setting his shoes aside. "No one's going to let a single Irish cop take a kid."
Somewhere above them, something dropped to the floor with a solid thunk, and Steve looked up. Footsteps creaked across the ceiling, and Steve turned his attention back to DJ. "I'm never home, in any case, and you deserve better." He stood, unbuttoning his pants. Once he was down to his under shirt, shorts and socks, he pushed the blankets back on the bed and crawled in. "We're going to find you some real parents. Right?"
There was no response. With a sigh, Steve stacked his hands behind his head, staring up at the patchy, cracked ceiling. "I just want what's best for you," he said. "You know that, right?"
He expected the silence. It hurt anyway.
Steve's shoulders tightened, his back snapping straight in an instant. Across the hallway, the Captain leaned out of the door of his office. He pointed a finger in Steve's direction. “Rogers. In here. Now.”
Steve nodded. “I know I'm late, sir, but-”
“Don't care,” Captain O'Brien stepped back, waving him in. “Get in here.”
Steve slipped past him. “Sir, I-”
That was as far as he got before O'Brien cut him off. "Mackey's filed another complaint about you, Rogers," he said, his florid face tired. He shut the door after Steve and headed back to his desk. "You wanna not hassle the man?"
Steve gave a slight shrug. "He's violating the law, and everyone knows it," he said. He could hear the tension in his own voice, and he made a deliberate attempt to relax. He'd wasted too much time looking for DJ, who'd disappeared before he'd woken up. He was tired, frustrated and hungry, and that wasn't a good combination. "I've got a duty-"
"And he's got a few of the city leaders in his pocket. So your duty gets assigned by me, and mine gets assigned by the commissioner, and I bet you know where he gets his assignments." Captain O'Brian smacked a hand against his desk. Steve's teeth locked, and O'Brien gave him a sympathetic look. "Just skip that street on your patrols, if it bothers you so much. But I'm getting tired of smoothing his feathers."
"No," O'Brien stabbed a finger in his direction. "I like you. You know I do. But by all the saints, you make me more trouble than the rest of the shift combined." He shook his head. "There's a dozen men lined up for your job, and none of them would make near the trouble you do. Just-" He exhaled, long and slow. "I don't want to hear your name again, the rest of this month, you understand?"
Steve opened his mouth, and O'Brien held up a hand. "Think real hard before the next word leaves your mouth, Rogers."
Steve gritted his teeth. "Yes, sir."
O'Brien huffed out a breath. "Good choice, Rogers." He sank into his chair, picked up a folder from the desk in front of him. "And as a reward for your obedience today, you get to run a personal errand for the mayor." He held the folder out to Steve, his fingers gripping it a little too hard.
Steve took it. "What is it?”
"C'mon." O'Brien gestured towards the single chair in front of his desk. "This is a hell of a mess, Rogers, and you're the lucky man who gets to deal with it."
Steve knew a trap when he saw one, but he also couldn't see any way out of it. He sank down into the chair, the folder clutched between his hands. He was somehow very reluctant to open it. “Sir?”
O'Brien rocked back in his chair, sending it tipping back on the back legs. The wood squeaked, pushed to its limits, before the chair fell back into place. "You heard of Anthony Stark?"
Steve frowned down at the folder. "The business tycoon? The millionaire?"
"The billionaire," O'Brien said, his arms crossed over his chest. "His secretary's comin' down here this afternoon, and she needs an escort."
"An escort?" Steve's head jerked up. "An escort where?"
O'Brien's mouth kicked up on one side. "She's making a trip down to Hammer House. And you're an expert in that particular rat's nest, so..." His heavy fingers rattled against the arm of his chair. "Your job is to go with her, make sure no one hassles her or her driver, and get her the hell out of our jurisdiction without any incidents."
"To Hammer House?" Steve opened the folder, flipping through the neat, typewritten pages. "Why?"
"Ours is not to question why, Rogers." O'Brien reached for his pen. "Ours is to do as we're told. Your life'd be a lot easier if you'd just learn that." His eyes canted up, glaring at Steve from under the hard line of his eyebrows. "Be here at two pm, sharp, and remember, you're representing the police force. So I expect you to be on your best behavior."
Steve's mouth opened, and O'Brien gave him a look. Steve subsided, nodding instead. "Yes, sir."
"Go polish your shoes and make sure you look presentable, and, remember, keep. Your mouth. Shut." O'Brien went back to his paperwork. "As much as you're capable of, at least."
Knowing a dismissal when he heard one, Steve pushed himself to his feet. "Yes, sir."
Pepper Potts was even prettier in person than she was in her photos.
She was slim and compact, clad in a well tailored blue jacket with a slim, crisp blue and white plaid skirt and matching blue hat perched on her smooth copper curls. Everything, from the perfectly matched string of pearls around her slim neck, to the spotless white shoes on her feet, was in order, not a wrinkle to the fabric, not a hair out of place. In the filthy, crowded lobby of the precinct, she stood somehow apart, as exhausted officers and civilians alike gave her a wide berth.
"Miss Potts, this is Officer Rogers," Lt. Murray said. "He'll be assisting you today.” He gave her a smile that verged on condescending. “Officer Rogers, the lovely Miss Potts.”
If Miss Potts heard the unctuous note in Murray's voice, she didn't acknowledge it. Instead, she smiled up at Steve, her big blue eyes surrounded by long dark lashes. "Hello, Officer Rogers," she said, extending one white gloved hand. "So pleased to meet you." She sounded almost sincere.
Steve took her hand with care, all too aware of the fact that his hand was probably filthy. But her grip was firm and strong, her small fingers squeezing his without a flinch. "Ma'am," he said, some of the tension going out of his shoulders.
"My car is at the curb," she said, tucking her bag under her arm. "Shall we?" Without waiting for a response, she turned on her heel, stepping briskly across the lobby towards the door. Steve, caught off guard, had to scramble to catch up, falling into step behind her.
"This should be an easy enough assignment," she said, as he pushed the door open for her. Her head dipped in a slight nod of thanks, and then she was moving down the broad stone stairs in front of the station.
Down on the street, a massive, gleaming black car was waiting, the chrome glinting in the sunlight. A tall, lanky black man in a neat, crisp suit was waiting next to it, his arms crossed over his broad chest. As they approached, he straightened up, reaching for the handle of the back door. He eyed Steve, his dark eyes sharp beneath heavy brows. "This our escort?" he asked Miss Potts.
"To his dismay, yes." Miss Potts glanced at Steve, a slight smile curving her lips. "Officer Rogers, this is James Rhodes."
"One of Mr. Stark's drivers," the man said, with a nod in Steve's direction.
"Mostly, he gets stuck carting me from one end of the city to the other," Miss Potts said, giving the man a quick, warm smile. She slid into the car, leaving Steve hovering awkwardly on the sidewalk, unsure what to do. Miss Potts leaned back out, her eyes canting up in his direction. "Officer? We are on a strict schedule here, so shall we?"
Steve's eyes darted towards her driver, who hid a smile behind one broad palm. "Back seat," he said, shutting Miss Pott's door. "I'll get the door for you."
"Thanks, but think I can handle opening a door on my own," Steve said. He headed around the back of the car, his shoulders squared and his jaw tight. He did manage to open the car door, but any sense of pride he might've gotten from that small act was immediately wiped away when he smacked his head trying to maneuver his way into the back seat.
Miss Potts blinked at him. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Ignoring the way his face burned, Steve settled into the plush seat next to her. "Yes, ma'am."
"Because that sounded like it hurt," she said, reaching out with one gloved hand. Her fingertips brushed against his forehead, and he winced. She pulled back immediately. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"No, it's fine." Steve settled his cap in his lap, his hands resting on the brim. "I've got a hard head, and a uniform hat that'll cover the lump."
She burst out laughing, the sound high and bright and lovely. "I think I like you," she said, as Rhodes slid into the driver's seat. She leaned back in the plush seat of the car, her bag in her lap, her legs crossed neatly at the ankles. The car pulled away from the curb, and Steve glanced back at the precinct. Miss Potts studied him, her eyes sharp. "Who did you annoy to get assigned to this?"
"Everyone," Steve said, and it slipped out before he realized the word was there. But she laughed, her pretty mouth drawing up into a bright smile.
"You might be a bit too honest to be a New York City Police Officer," she said, her head tipped in his direction.
"You're not the first one to think so, ma'am," Steve said. He shifted his weight, trying to find a way to sit without touching anything. It was a lost cause, but he was used to lost causes. "All due respect-"
"Nothing good comes out of those three words." She shot him a look from under the brim of her clever little hat, but there was a smile playing around the corners of her mouth.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said, but he soldiered on anyway. "With all due respect, what are you doing down here?"
Her lashes dipped. "Mr. Stark has decided, in a goodwill gesture, to take in an orphaned child for a week."
Steve blinked at her. "Excuse me?"
One of Miss Potts eyebrows arched. "I'm going down to Mr. Hammer's home for wayward boys to select an orphan who will come to live with Mr. Stark for the next week," she said. There was an odd note to her voice, one Steve couldn't quite interpret, and her face had become a mask, smooth and serene.
Steve realized his mouth was hanging open. He closed it. "I see," he said, and he didn't. But anything else he could say would only get him in trouble, and he'd had his fill of trouble.
She studied him. "You don't approve."
His shoulders twitched into something like a shrug. "It's not my place to approve or disapprove, ma'am."
"But you want to," she said.
Rhodes' eyes flicked up to meet Steve's in the rear view mirror. "The man needs to keep his job," he said, his voice laconic. "Times are tough, Miss Potts."
"Why, yes, they are, Mr. Rhodes." She leaned forward, meeting his eyes in the mirror. "Are you going to get him in trouble? It's not well done of you."
His shoulders jerked, and Steve wondered if he was laughing. "Now, Miss Potts. Would I do that?"
"Possibly, you're untrustworthy," she pointed out, and now he was laughing out loud. Smiling, Miss Potts looked back at Steve. "What, exactly, are your objections, Officer Rogers?"
His fingers flexed on the brim of his cap. "It's cruel. Crueler than it needs to be," he said, his voice flat. "It's playing with someone's life. A child." He cut a look in her direction, his jaw set. "For what? A pretty little picture to humanize Mr. Stark? So he forgets about the whole thing in a week, and dumps the boy back into a place that barely bothers to feed him? Where's the fairness in that? Where's the humanity?"
Steve shook his head. "The world's hard enough, right now. It's like the politicians who open soup kitchens when they want the press, when they want the votes, then shutter them when they're not useful to 'em anymore." The more frustrated he got, the worst his accent got, the street kid still there, fists clenched, just under the surface. He shook off the thought. "And who cares about the men who'd depended on that meal?"
He took a deep breath. "So yes. I apologize, Miss Potts, but I don't approve."
Miss Potts studied him, her eyes steady. "Good."
He blinked at her. "Excuse me?"
"Good." Her head turned back towards the front, and he could see her jaw, sharp and hard. "The mayor's office insisted that we take someone along as an escort. I agreed, as long as it was someone familiar with the neighborhood." Her eyes canted in his direction. "And this particular
Steve stared out the front windshield of the car, turning that over in his head. “Why?”
“Because this is going to happen,” she said, her voice flat. “So I'd like to...” Her lips pursed. “Minimize the damage.” She shifted in her seat, just a little, her fingers flexing on her bag. “My intent is to try to do right by the child, to see if we can't find him a permanent home with one Mr. Stark's employees.”
He doubted that would happen. But strangely enough, he also believed she was going to try. There was a sort of sincerity to her, maybe it was the stubborn line of her jaw, or the way she looked at him, without disdain or pity or judgment. She was a strange one, but he'd known a lot of tough women in his life. His neighborhood was full of them, and she didn't seem so different, despite her fancy clothes and fancier manners.
Steve nodded. “There's a boy there.” At least he hoped there was. But this, he could work with this. His head was already spinning, possibilities unfolding so fast that he knew it was going to lead him nowhere but into trouble, but he was used to that. He looked at Miss Potts. It might be worth it. “DJ.”
She nodded, her eyes sharp. “Last name?”
“I don't know,” he admitted. “Don't even know if he has one. Some of those kids, they don't.” He smiled. “But there's only one there by that name, you'll find him, if you look.”
She nodded again. "Why him?”
Steve considered that. “My ma was from the old country,” he said at last. He shifted in his seat, a bit wary. “Ireland. She talked a lot about the old ways of doing things, the old-” He shrugged. “She was a good Catholic girl, Miss Potts, but some things die hard, in the spaces religion doesn't reach.
“She used to talk about the old things that lived in the wood, the fair folk. The old ones. And they'd take those who were caught alone, or unaware. They'd take children from their cradles, or travelers from the road. Some'd be back in a few days, some in a few minutes. Some never came back at all, but those who did...”
He looked at her. “She said, some could come back from their time below the hills, and they'd be full of stories and laughter and music like none had ever heard. They'd seen something amazing, and it lit them from the inside out, but they kept their feet on safe roads from then on, they kept to the bright places, and away from old oaks. They held cold iron close, and sang soft laments of the way the old ones danced under the moon.”
Miss Potts studied him, her face serious. “And the others?”
“It broke them,” he said his voice flat. “They were the ones who searched forever for a way back, and never found it. They wandered, their minds trapped by something they'd seen that no one around them could understand. The ones that went mad, who drank themselves to death, who became bitter and hard with what they knew they'd never have again.”
Steve realized he was gripping the brim of his hat too hard, bending his cap almost in half. He relaxed his fingers, one by one, trying to smooth it flat again. “Some people can survive being taken,” he said. “And others can't. I think DJ can. I think he can see Mr. Stark's world, your world, and come back down to-” His hand snapped out, gesturing at the dark, ragged buildings that crowded in on the street, too many of them, too close together. “To this.”
Her eyes followed the gesture, her mouth going thin and tight. “I'm going to do my best to-”
"He's not going to get adopted," he said at last, the words hard. "No one's going to take him, Miss Potts. He's-" He shook his head. "He's smart, he likes to work, he doesn't need much. But he's-" He stopped. "He's odd, I suppose. He's too quiet, and too still, and when he moves, it's not the way people expect him to move. He can fixate on things, and sometimes he has trouble following orders and he's stubborn sometimes.”
Miss Potts nodded. “But you want me to choose him anyway.”
Steve nodded. “Yes.”
“Despite all of that.”
“Yes,” Steve repeated. He shook his head. “He's different. Not better, not worse, just different.” He huffed out a breath. “Let me put it this way, Miss Potts. Say you had a domestic who was a hard worker and a loyal one, who did most things well, but never washed the windows the way you wanted them washed. And then one day, you realized that she was simply too short to reach them.” He arched his eyebrows. “Would you fire her and find someone taller? Or would you just give her a stool?”
Miss Potts studied him, one fingertip tapping at her cheek. “I take it you're a proponent of finding a stool,” she said, and there was no mockery to the words, no disdain. Just something like warm curiosity.
“I'm a proponent of making allowances for who people are,” Steve said, his voice flat. “This city only works if we accept that we're not the same, we're never going to be fully the same. Things that are fair aren't always equal, and things that are equal aren't always fair.” He gave a slight shrug. “And things work better if we just give people a stool rather than arguing that they could reach if they really wanted to.”
Miss Potts studied him. “You,” she said at last, her lips curling in a smile, “are going to be trouble.”
“You're not the first to think so,” Steve said, and she burst out laughing. He smiled. “And I doubt you'll be the last, ma'am.”
She nodded. “I think you just might be right.” She extended a hand to him. “No promises. But I'll look for your boy.”
He studied her hand, then glanced up. “And what do you want in exchange?”
Her grin was bright, and for the first time, he noticed the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her pert nose, barely visible beneath her artful application of powder. “Your help, if we should need it.” Her head tipped to the side, and for an instant, she looked like half the girls he'd grown up with, clever, quick girls who survived and thrived the best they could.
Miss Potts' hand didn't waver. “Do we have a deal, Officer?”
Steve took it. “We have a deal, Miss Potts.”
"What do you think?"
"Of what?" Rhodey's eyes slid in Pepper's direction. "Hammer, or this situation?"
"Oh, Hammer's an idiot and the situation is an utter farce," Pepper said. She brushed the curtains back from one of the cracked window panes, looking down at the street. "I meant, what do you think of our escort?"
"Ah." Rhodey came up behind her, peering over her shoulder. Down on the sidewalk below them, Officer Rogers was fending off a half dozen boys with a faint smile, ignoring as they circled him, stealing pieces of penny candy from his pockets. He shook his trunchon at them, making them scatter, but they were all laughing, skittering just out of reach before darting back under his guard. Rhodey braced a hand on the windowframe, his eyes narrowing. "Not what I expected."
"Miss Hill's never steered us wrong," Pepper pointed out.
"True. But she has her own agenda." He looked at her. "You going to take his advice?"
Pepper's chin dipped in the slightest hint of a nod. "Do you have a better idea?"
He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "You know the kid he's pushing is going to be difficult, don't you?"
Pepper grinned at him as she strode back around Hammer's desk to sink into his creaky, off-balance visitor's chair. "Then he'll fit right in with the rest of the household, won't he?" she said, making Rhodey laugh. She settled in, crossing her legs at the ankles. "Honestly, Rhodey, we're walking a very fine line here, so-"
There was a thump at the door, and she twisted around, just in time to see a boy with a gap-toothed smile poke his head in. "Hello, Miss!" he said, his voice cheerful. "Mr. Hammer's gettin' the files for you." He slipped inside, a battered tray balanced between his hands. "He told me t' offer you some tea."
He set the tray down on the desk with a surprising amount of grace. The teapot, cup and saucer, sugar bowl and milk pot barely moved across the surface, and he gave her a bright grin. "Would you like tea, Miss?"
She found herself smiling back. "That's very kind of you, thank you."
Rhodey pushed away from the wall. "I'm going to go make sure that the car isn't stripped for parts, Miss Potts," he said. "Our escort, while pleasant, doesn't seem to have things under control down there."
"Of course, Mr. Rhodes," Pepper said, accepting the tea from the boy. "Do keep Officer Rogers out of trouble."
"Oh, Rogers's a good egg," the boy said, offering Pepper the milk. "They'll joke with him, make no mistake, Miss, but no one's gonna cross him if he tells 'em no.” He gave her a bright grin, his freckled nose wrinkling. “They know better than that.”
Pepper considered the cream with a critical eye. She wasn't sure it was worth the risk. She handed it back with a smile. “Thank you,” she said, as he handed her the sugar bowl. "So you know Officer Rogers?"
He nodded, his pale hair flopping over his forehead. "Everyone down these parts knows Officer Rogers," he said. He leaned up against Hammer's battered desk, rocking his weight back on his heels, clearly happy to stay and gossip. "He's a good one. Most of the police round here, they'd as soon give you a sound thrashing as talk to you, but Rogers is a decent one. He knows everyone, by name even, an' he's fair.”
“I take it you're a good judge of character?” she said, blowing across the surface of her tea. The smell was... Questionable. She lowered the cup back to the saucer without tasting it.
"When you're out on the streets, Miss, you learn right quick when people have bad intentions towards you," he said. He blinked, an expression of consideration crossing his young face. "Or maybe only the ones who make it do. An' the ones who don't, no one ever hears from them again, do they?"
Pepper stared at him, her chest aching, but no reply seemed necessary, or even expected.
"A fella came by here, an' we all knew he weren't right, we could tell. If you saw him on the street, you'd cross t' get away from him, quick as you could, but ol' Hammer, he didn't listen t' us. An' this fella, he was going to take little Mick, an' he's only six. He's just a baby, Miss, an' none of us liked it.
"A couple of the boys, they slipped out at night an' went all the way cross town to find Rogers, an' they told him what was happening, best they could, I suppose. But when the fella came by the next morning to sign the paperwork an' pick up Mick, Rogers was waiting for him." The boy's teeth flashed in a smile that was sharp and hard and vicious. "Ain't none of us knows what was said, Miss, but Rogers put the fear of the good Lord into that one. None of us ever saw him round these parts again."
He collected the tray. “Roger's good enough, and they know it, Miss. If you need to trust a copper, well, you can't do better." He peered at her cup. "Can I get you more tea?"
She glanced down at her still full cup. "No, thank you,” she said with a slight smile.
He grinned. "Yeah, it's pretty lousy, ain't it?" He headed for the door, the tray balanced on his hip. "Hope you find what you're looking for, Miss."
"Thank you," she repeated, and then, at the last second, she twisted around in the chair. "Officer Rogers said to keep an eye out for one of the boys here, maybe you know him?
He paused, his hand on the doorknob. "Well, I know everyone, Miss. But-" He grinned again, this one wide and bright. "Bet you mean DJ."
She nodded. "Yes, can you point him out to me if you-"
He tugged on his ear, making a face. "He's... Not here right now," he said, his head tipping to the side. "But if he pops up during your visit, you'll know."
"Really." Pepper braced her elbow on the arm of the chair and propped her chin on her hand. "And how will I know?"
The boy paused. "He'll be in trouble," he said, and opened the office door. Outside in the hallway, a gaggle of boys were gathered around the door, doing their best to peer into the office. He took a swing at them with one hand, making the crockery rattle on his tray. "Shove off, the lot of you, if Hammer catches you, we'll all catch hell."
"Ain't our fault you can't outrun ol' Hammer hands," one of the boys shot back, but they scattered in front of him, feet clattering along the worn wood of the hall.
Pepper's new friend looked back at her with a grin. “Be careful, Miss. Ol' man Hammer'd steal the last coin from his mother's purse, an' not miss a bit of sleep over it.” He tugged on his ear, his gaze sharp. “But you didn't hear it from me.”
Pepper struggled not to smile. “I appreciate the information.” She reached for her purse. “And-” She pulled out a half dollar, the silver gleaming between her gloved fingertips. She held it out to him, one eyebrow arched. “And if you have any other helpful tips?”
His hand snapped out, the coin disappearing in an instant. “You'll be the first to know, Miss,” he said. And with a grin and a wink, he ducked out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
Smiling to herself, Pepper turned in her chair, reaching for the cup she'd left sitting on the edge of Hammer's desk. Halfway there, her hand hovering in mid-air, she froze.
There was a boy standing on the windowsill, clinging to the building three stories above the street below.
The boy stared at her, big dark eyes curious under the tumbled mop of dark curls. He was barefoot, his shoes tied together by the laces and thrown over his shoulder. The ragged cuffs of his too-short pants ending well above his bony ankles, his shirt was torn at the hem. His fingers, dark with dirt, clung to the ragged wood of windowframe, and as she watched, he swayed back and forth, finding his balance against the side of the building. But his gaze never broke from hers, his dark eyes unblinking as he studied her, as if confused by her presence.
Pepper raised one hand, wiggling her fingers in a half wave, and his head tipped to the side, the gesture quick and almost birdlike. But he raised one of his hands, waving back with a quick, gamine smile.
"You must be DJ," she said, her lips twitching.
He considered that. "Yes," he said at last, with such conviction that Pepper had to choke back a laugh.
"Hello, DJ," she said. She leaned forward in her chair, her hands braced on her handbag. "I'm Miss Potts."
Another beat of silence as he considered that. "Hello," he said at last, and then the heavy tread of footsteps in the hall brought his head up. He glanced down, at the street below him, and Pepper came half out of her chair.
"Don't-" she started, but he was already scrambling in through the window, landing on Hammer's chair with enough force to send it spinning, and from there, launching himself across the desk and towards the closet. Pepper watched, stunned, as he hopped up, one foot landing on the doorknob and using it to propel himself upwards. His fingers closed on the transom window above the closet door and before the office door could even start to open, he wiggled through the gap and out of sight.
The whole thing took less than a minute, and Pepper found herself on her feet, her handbag clutched to her chest. The hinges on the office door creaked, and she collapsed back into her seat with more speed than grace. Hammer plodded past, a stack of folders balanced in his arms. "Now, now," he crowed, his broad face flushed with exertion. He dropped the folders onto the desk with a thump, and grinned at her, his spectacles crooked on his nose. "Let's find you a proper little urchin!”
Pepper's mouth opened. She smiled. “I think I've already found one,” she said.
Hammer paused, caught in the act of digging through the files. “You... Have?”
Pepper stood. “I have,” she said, opening the closet door with a flick of her wrist. The boy, caught off guard, stared up at her, an expression of betrayal on his face.
Hammer came to his feet so fast that his chair rolled back to hit the wall with a thump. “You-” he started, and Pepper turned a wide-eyed, innocent look in his direction. He pulled himself up short. “Ah. Miss Potts.” He straightened his tie with fingers that weren't quite steady. “This...” His teeth dug in on the words. “Young man missed morning roll call. So. He's been-”
“He's been here, talking to me,” Pepper said cheerfully. “And I find him to be just delightful, so I think we'll make everything easy on you, and-”
“I'm sorry, but he's not available to go with you,” Hammer started. His eyes were locked on DJ, something unstable bubbling there just beneath the surface. “He can't be rewarded with a jaunt off to the country, not when he's been such a-” He swallowed, a forced smile slipping across his face. “Problem.”
Pepper looked down at DJ. “I cannot imagine this sweet child being a problem.” She crouched down, her arms looped around her knees. "Would you like to come with me?" she asked, giving the boy her most winning smile.
Big dark eyes considered her, then blinked with slow deliberation. His head tipped to the side, his eyes flicking towards Hammer, and Pepper could almost see the gears turning in his mind mind as he weighed his options. Pepper waited, struggling to keep a straight face, as he came to his conclusion.
He nodded. “Yes,” he said.
Pepper straightened up. “Wonderful,” she said, offering him a hand. “Why don't you go back to your room and get your things?” Her eyes slid up, meeting Hammer's. “While the adults work things out.”
“Now, Miss Potts-”
Pepper put a gentle hand between DJ's shoulders, guiding him towards the door. “You don't need help, do you?” she asked him, but he was already shaking his head. “Wonderful, I could tell you were a very self-sufficient young man.” She opened the door to the hall and ushered him through. “There you go, you can meet me downstairs, all right?”
He looked up at her, and there was something she couldn't quite read in his face. As if he was trying to determine if she was to be trusted. If she could be trusted.
Pepper smiled at him. “I think you'll find someone waiting for you outside,” she whispered, and he nodded. And with that, he was scrambling out the door and down the hallway, his feet flying over the floor.
Pepper shut the door behind him, turning to face Hammer without releasing the doorknob. She smiled, slow and deliberate. “Now, Mr. Hammer,” she said, pitching her voice for that soothing, coaxing tone that made stupid men relax, sure that they had the upper hand. “I'm sure that we can reach some sort of accord.”
He smiled back, his pupils dilating a bit behind the lenses of his spectacles, but he shook his head. “That boy is headed only for a stern punishment,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “So, we can just-”
Pepper set a hand down on top of the stack of files, preventing him from opening them. He looked up, startled, and Pepper smiled. “Name your price.”
Hammer blinked. And then subsided back into his chair. “Now,” he said, his mouth stretching into a broad, unsavory smile, “we understand each other.”
“I do not know why I'm awake right now.”
“Because you are a man of many responsibilities,” Edwin Jarvis said, his voice crisp. He emerged from the closet, a hanger in one hand and a matching tie in the other.
Tony Stark gave the tie a look, regretting every moment of this already. “And I am a man well known for doing almost everything to keep from actually having to live up to those responsibilities,” he said, buttoning his shirt up and tucking it into his pants. “Also, a man who's had next to no sleep, so-”
“Hmmmm.” Jarvis gave him a sharp look, his eyes narrowed over the knife-blade of his nose. “I do believe I mentioned yesterday that you had quite a schedule today, and that perhaps abandoning your work and taking to your bed would be best.” He tapped a knuckle against the underside of Tony's jaw, nudging his head up. “If I remember correctly, sir, you were less than swayed by my argument.”
Tony struggled not to smile as Jarvis knotted the tie, settling the strip of silk in place and adjusting Tony's collar. “Do you pay extra for the 'I told you so's, Jarvis?”
“I should say not, sir.” Jarvis took a step back, considering Tony for a moment before he reached for the hanger. “It is included, most amicably, with my general service to you and this household. Arms up, please.”
Tony did as he was told, mostly because it took a lot less effort than fighting it. “I do notice that it is part of our daily discussions, yes,” he said, as Jarvis settled the vest in place. Tony rolled his shoulders, checking the fit.
“Indeed it is, sir, and one might do well to wonder if perhaps there were a way to avoid it,” Jarvis mused. He buttoned Tony's vest, his fingers quick and steady. “Perhaps you have some ideas on that front?”
“You could just stop reminding me of my poor choices,” Tony suggested, amused despite himself.
“And if I were to do so, I would be failing in my duty to you,” Jarvis said. He turned on his heel, the movement brisk and efficient, to collect Tony's jacket from the hanger. “Which is, of course, utterly unthinkable.”
“You should think about it,” Tony said, smoothing his tie down. “It would make both of our days much easier.”
“Yet much less fulfilling.” Jarvis held out Tony's jacket, and Tony slipped into it.
Tony buttoned the jacket, and glanced at himself in the mirror as Jarvis collected the hanger. "Well?" Tony asked.
Jarvis looked up. "Sir?"
Tony held his hands out to his sides. "Do I pass muster?"
Jarvis's head tipped back, his eyes narrowed in consideration. He reached out and straightened the silk square in Tony's pocket, his fingers flicking the fabric into place. "Always, sir," he said, a faint smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. He took a step back, slipping his watch from his pocket. "And right on time."
"Far less common," Tony said, striding towards the door.
"It is occasionally a problem," Jarvis agreed. He fell into step right behind Tony.
"Is Happy waiting for me, or is Rhodey doing the driving today?"
Tony pinched the bridged of his nose. “Jarvis...”
Tony paused at the top of the staircase. "Don't I have a meeting?"
"A very important one," Jarvis said, his hands tucked together at the small of his back.
"And where are-"
Tony turned, looking down as Obie came striding across the main hall, his hands held out in front of him. He beamed up at Tony, his eyes crinkling at the edges. "Look at you!" he boomed, and Tony caught himself smiling.
"Shouldn't you be at a factory or office somewhere?" he asked, tucking his hands in his pockets before he strolled down the stairs. "I'm fairly certain that you should be-"
Obie was laughing. "Took a day for our new project," he said. He paused at the foot of the stairs, his hands propped on his hips. "Think that things can toddle along without me for one day."
"Probably not." But Tony paused at the base of the stairs, letting Obie pull him in for a back-thumping hug. "Seriously. What are you doing-"
"C'mon." Obie wrapped his arm around Tony's shoulders, his fingers almost painfully into Tony's arm. "Let's go meet our new guest."
"Our-" Tony glanced back at Jarvis, his mouth opening for the next word, but he didn't have a chance to manage it. Jarvis's face was unreadable, his usual calm and expressionless mask, and Tony had a moment's sense of loss, and then Obie was dragging him forward.
In the front vestible, just inside the front door, Pepper was crouched down, face to face and eye to eye with a little dark haired boy. Tony watched, confused, as she pulled the child's cap off, smoothing his hair down with careful fingers. "There we go," she said, smiling at him. She turned the hat over in her hands, trying to flatten the fabric. “This is too small for you, isn't it? Maybe we'll talk to May, she'll get us some better clothes for you.”
She looked up, her eyes catching Tony's. She stood, holding a hand out to the boy. “Mr. Stark, may I introduce DJ. He'll be staying with us for the next week."
Tony stared down at the child, who stared back, big dark eyes unblinking and unreadable. There was a strange stillness to the boy, a solumn consideration in his face. There was a bruise on his jaw and his hair, despite Pepper's efforts, was a tangled mop of dark curls, but his chin was up, his gaze sharp.
Tony looked back at Pepper. "Why?" he asked, and Obie stepped in front of him.
"Hey, sport," he said, his voice booming in the small space. The boy flinched, his feet skittering backwards on the polished marble floor. Obie didn't seem to notice, or maybe he just didn't care. He reached out, ruffling the boy's hair with a rough hand. "You're gonna have such a great time!"
The boy ducked away from him, moving back and behind Pepper, his hand reaching up to grab hers. She took it. "This is Mr. Stane," she said, a polished smile on her face. The boy looked up at her, and she gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry. He doesn't live here."
Obie burst out laughing. "It's true, I don't," he said. He looked back at Tony. "Remember, we decided that you were going to take in an orphan for a week?"
Tony stared at him blankly. "We did?" he asked at last.
"We did," Pepper said, and there was a note in her voice that he had learned to be wary of.
"Right," Tony said. He looked down at the child, who looked back at him, looking distinctly unimpressed. "Right." He managed a smile. "Welcome."
Pepper gave him a look, so it was clear that he wasn't meeting expectations, but she should be used to that. She gestured behind Tony. "This is Jarvis," she said. "He is in charge here."
"Now, Miss Potts, we both know nothing could be further from the truth,” Jarvis said. He smiled down at the boy. “I am here to serve, and I'm quite pleased to be serving you.” He sketched a slight bow, his back ramrod straight. “If you'd like to come with me, I'll introduce you to the rest of the staff, young sir." His voice was warm, soft and kind and coaxing, the sort of voice a child could trust, and when he held out his hand, the boy took it.
The boy glanced back at Pepper, who gave him a bright smile. "Let's all go," she said.
Tony glanced at the door to the workshop stairs. "Actually, I have to-"
Pepper slipped her arm through his, her fingers locking on his elbow. "Let's all go," she said, her teeth flashing in a bright smile.
Tony gave in with something resembling dignity. "Let's all go," he agreed.
Obie fished his pocket watch out of his vest, squinting down at the face. “Actually, I have a meeting,” he said, his voice jovial. “So I'll leave you to it.” He gave the boy a considering look. “Talk to May,” he said to Pepper. “I've got the press coming by to get some pictures, but I'd like him to be a bit more...” He wobbled a hand through the air. “Let's aim for presentable. Nothing too fancy, all right?”
“Oh, yes, if there's anything this household is known for, it's restraint,” Pepper said.
Obie gave her a look, and Tony held up a hand. “We'll- We'll just let Jarvis handle it.”
“That's my boy.” Obie reached out, clapping a hand on Tony's shoulder. “Remember, this is important. We need to shake this 'Iron Man' thing. With the problems we've been having-”
“Are you hungry?” Jarvis asked the boy, his voice cutting through Obie's with ruthless intent. “Because I believe that Mrs. Parker just finished a fresh batch of tarts.”
Obie paused, his eyes darting back to the boy. “Sounds good,” he said, back to his jovial self. He gave Tony's shoulder a squeeze, the grip just bordering on painful before he finally let go. “Now. I'm counting on you, Tony.”
“That's your first mistake,” Tony said, letting Pepper pull him towards the stairs that lead down to the kitchen. He waited until Obie was out of earshot, then leaned towards her, pitching his voice low. “When, exactly, did I agree to this?”
She stared straight ahead, her jaw a sharp, hard line. “Last month.”
“Ah.” Tony considered that. “Was I drunk?” She gave him a look. “I'll take that as a yes.”
“You were not,” she said. “You were, however, not paying attention.”
“Which, after the drinking, is probably my biggest problem,” Tony mused.
“The two are pretty much tied for the traits that cause you the most problems,” she said. She took a breath. “I think you need to be more careful about letting Obie handle things like this.”
“We've been over this,” Tony said.
“Yes, we have.”
“Obie's handling a lot of things that-”
She slanted a look in his direction. “That you don't want to handle,” she said, her voice silken. “And now here were are. With a house guest for a week.”
Tony nodded. “I don't think I agreed to this.”
Her fingers tightened on his elbow. “Would we be here if you hadn't?”
“I'm going to say yes,” Tony said.
“And that's because you aren't paying attention,” she said, patting his arm. “Let's go get a tart.”