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Fairy Tales and Clockwork Hearts

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Steve took the impact of the blow square in the middle of the shield, and even with that protection, his knees nearly buckled. He braced his feet and shoved hard, knocking the monstrous wall of rock and rage back. The thing crashed into the wall and shattered.

“Thor!” he yelled. “They're pushing through!”

“Aye!” Thor came past at a run, Mjolnir singing through the air above his head, the sound like wind and thunder. He threw it, and followed along as it smashed through one after another. “They come fast! Too fast!”

“That's what she said,” Clint said, his voice over the comms, snarky and sharp. He was high above them, out of reach, their spotter and their backup.

“Knock it off,” Coulson said. “We've got teams moving up, corralling what you've missed,” he continued. “Nothing's reached the street yet.”

“Yet, yet is bad, I do not like 'yet,'” Tony snarled. His head came up. “Reed! I need that component!”

“I'm working on it, Tony,” Reed said, and his voice was calm, despite the chaos that had started in his lab and had now spilled out into the rest of the building. Probably because Sue had gotten both of their children down to the ground floor and outside. Steve was pretty sure Reed was going to be hearing about this later on, but for right now, he could concentrate.

“Well, step it up, Stretch,” Ben Grimm rumbled, swinging hard. “Feels like I'm havin' a fight at a family reunion right now.” One massive hand closed on a rocky chest and just yanked, ripping the thing apart. “I'm ahead, big guy,” he roared at Hulk, who scooped up one of the rock monsters and threw it directly at him. The monster hit the Thing and shattered. Ben shook his head. “That counts as mine,” he said.

“Head in the fight, people,” Steve said. “Coulson, is Nat-”

“On her way back with the pieces Stark needs.”

“Thank fuck,” Tony grumbled. Without even raising his head from his work, he lifted a hand and blew an attacker to bits with his repulsor. “Someone around here can be depended upon.”

“Captain?”

Steve jolted as Jarvis' voice reached him through his comm unit. “Go ahead,” he said, swinging the shield, knocking a rock out of the air before it could reach

“DJ has left the tower.”

Steve froze, his heart stilling in his chest. “What?”

“Cap!” Clint's voice, and he turned, recognizing the warning for what it was. The rock clipped the edge of the shield, barely deflected, and he lunged forward, catching the living avalance in the hip, knocking it back and down.

“Captain?” Jarvis asked, and Steve was fighting full out now, charging forward, boots scraping on shattered pebbles.

“Tell me what's happening, Jarvis,” he snapped, turning and throwing the shield with all the force he could manage. It took out two and ended up back in his hand, and he was moving again. “We're underwater here.”

“DJ has left the tower via an emergency exit. His whereabouts are currently unknown,” Jarvis said.

Fear was something he was familiar with. He knew fear. Knew how it tasted, hot and with the tang of copper and bile in the back of his throat. Knew how it made his heart pound, made his stomach churn. Steve knew fear, it had been a constant companion, most of his life. But this was new, this terrible weight on his chest.

This fear was like the worst asthma attack that he'd ever had, where he couldn't breathe, he couldn't make his body obey, and he had no idea how long the hell would last. But on some level, he knew he couldn't live through this.

This would kill him.

Steve never stopped fighting. Never stopped his attacks. “Was he under duress? Did someone take him? Was he injured? Was he-” He had to stop, a moment only, closing his mouth as one of Clint's arrows reduced a rock monster to dust and rubble. “Is his hurt in any way?”

“No. He left of his own free will. There was no other individual involved. He was unharmed.” Jarvis paused for a beat. “He put on shoes before leaving.”

“Small mercies,” Steve gritted out, but the pain was less. The panic was still there, clawing at the edges of his mind. DJ had never left the tower. Ever. His entire human life had been lived within those walls, protected and controlled. And now he was alone on the streets of New York. “Any idea where he was going?”

“His options are limited. I believe we can determine where-”

“Do it.” Steve caught a glimpse of Tony out of the corner of his eye, and Tony was working, so fast that his hands were a blur, his head down, his face set. “You didn't tell Tony,” Steve realized. “Jarvis, you didn't-”

“My instructions for this situation is to notify sir if he is capable of immediate response, and if he is not, then to notify you,” Jarvis said. He was silent for a second. “I determined, based on his current activities, that he is not capable of such a response. Shall I?”

Steve's eyes slid shut. Just a second. Just a blink. And he made the call. “Rogers protocol override forty-seven alpha six four eight,” he said, his voice horrible. “Find him, Jarvis. But don't tell Tony. I'll handle it.”

When he could. When it was safe. When Tony's attention was no longer on keeping them all from getting killed, from keeping this from spilling out of the Baxter Building and into the streets of New York. Where his sheltered son was now out among those masses.

Right now, they had to fix this, because DJ's life was at stake.

Steve gritted his teeth. “Find him, Jarvis. I don't care what you have to do, what rules you have to break, I authorize anything and everything.” He swung his shield with more force than he needed to split a rock limb. “But find him. Now.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Steve lunged forward, letting the fear carry him, letting it fuel him. But under the fear for DJ, the all-encompassing fear that DJ was alone and unprotected in one of the largest, most dangerous cities in the worlds, was another fear, newly birthed.

Tony would never forgive him for this.

*

Marnie stared at the drowned rat of a boy standing in front of their door. He blinked at her, his eyes comically large under the dripping fringe of his bangs. “Hello,” he said. He shifted his weight, setting off a new cascade of water. Judging by the puddle on their welcome mat, he'd been standing there for a while.

Marnie lifted her chopsticks to her mouth, slurping her instant ramen. “Luce,” she said, her mouth full. “It's for you.”

Then she shut the door in the boy's face and wandered back to the couch.

“Who is it?” Lucy called from the bathroom.

Marnie tossed herself back onto the couch, grabbing her controller, her chopsticks clamped between her teeth. As soon as she was settled again, she dropped the chopsticks back into her ramen cup. “Your prince has finally come.”

Lucy poked her head out of the bathroom. “Very funny,” she said, a towel wrapped around her head. “Who is it?” She looked around, tying off the waist of her pajama pants as she stepped out.

“Pretty sure it's that boy from work,” Marnie said, hitting the unpause button on her game.

"No, it's not."

“Seriously. Not making this up. It's your weird little pretty boy. Just like you described him, except wetter.” She folded her legs up on the couch next to her. “What's up with his eyes? Anime eyes. They're way too big for his face.”

Lucy stared at her, her own eyes narrowing into slits. “Where is he?”

“Outside.”

“You didn't let him in?” Lucy asked, her voice rising. She headed for the door. “For God's sake, Marnie!”

“Hey, strange boy! In our building! I'm not letting him in. Besides, he was wet! Wet and miserable looking! You take in cold, wet, miserable looking things. I do not,” Marnie pointed out, unconcerned. “I have sense. And we're not allowed to have pets in the dorm. Or boys in our rooms.”

“You are horrible,” Lucy said, throwing the door open. “What, you don't understand how umbrellas work?” she asked the boy.

Marnie craned her head back to watch him blink. “I do,” he said after a moment of consideration.”I didn't have one.”

“They SELL THEM,” Lucy said. She took hold of his elbow, and tugged him into the room. “Oh my God, you are soaked. How are you this wet? What is-” She stared at him, then spread her hands wide. “DJ. Really?”

He considered that. “Really,” he said, his voice sad.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I ran away from home,” he said.

“Oh my God, DJ. Here, you're going to freeze, oh my God.” Lucy patted ineffectually at him with her already damp towel. “How did you find me?”

“This was the only dorm with people in it,” he said, leaning into her awkward attempts to get him dry. “And I found the mailboxes with your name on it.”

“How did you get in?” Marnie asked, curious.

“Followed someone else,” DJ said. “He held the door for me.” He blinked. “I think he felt bad because I was wet.”

“Probably,” Lucy agreed.

Marnie raised a hand. “No pets,” she said, and Lucy threw her towel in her general direction. “What?” Marnie said, trying not to grin. “You can't keep him.” She looked back over her shoulder just in time to see Lucy strip the wet shirt off of the kid.

He blinked at Marnie, his too bright lips parted, his eyes big and dark beneath his wet hair, his cheeks flushed on the ridges of his high cheeks. Marnie's eyes followed a drip of water that ran from his collarbone down the sleek plane of his chest, and over the perfectly defined muscles of his stomach. His wet pants were barely clinging to the arch of his hipbones, and Marnie just stared for a second.

She turned back to the game. “Actually, you know, we got a big closet. We can hide him. Just don't let him drip on anything important, okay?”

“You are like, such a help, you know that?” Lucy said. “DJ, get your shoes off, yeah, just leave them there by the door, how are you this wet?”

“It is raining a lot,” DJ explained. “And the walk was farther than I thought it would be.”

“You walked? Why- Why didn't you take the bus?”

“No money,” he said with a shrug.

“He can stay,” Marnie said, as Lucy gently shoved DJ further into the room, positioning him next to the couch. “He's not allowed to wear shirts, though. If I'm going to risk getting kicked out of the program, I'm taking the perks I can get,” she said. She thought it was a magnanimous offer, really. Those were same damn fine abs.

“DJ, stay here, I'm going to get you a towel,” Lucy said. “That's Marnie. Don't talk to her.”

She stalked towards her bedroom, and Marnie grinned. “She didn't mean it,” she explained. “She has control issues.” There was silence, and she looked over. “ You can talk to me.”

“Hello,” the boy said to Marnie again.

Marnie considered him. “Hey,” she said. “Wanna play?”

He looked at the screen. “Yes, please.” Marnie scooped up their spare controller and tossed it to him. He caught it easily. “Thank you.”

“Have a seat,” Marnie said, and DJ just sat down on the ground, right where he'd been standing. She grinned. “Don't snipe my kills, or I'll kick you in the head.”

“Okay,” he said, accepting that.

Lucy paused at the door to her bedroom, a t-shirt and towel in her hand. “Marnie, do you have some pants he can wear?”

“What? No! He's not wearing my pants,” Marnie said, staring at the screen with narrowed eyes. “Give him your pants.”

“Marn, have you seen my ass? He doesn't need pants that are built for my hips, thanks. Let him wear a pair of your sweatpants. They go way over your feet, they should be long enough.”

Marnie gritted her teeth as waves of bad guys came sweeping across the room at her in the game. Before she could end up as a puddle of poorly aligned DNA, DJ's character took out three of them. “Those were mine,” Marnie told him.

“Sorry,” he said, cheerful about it. He tucked his lower lip out, trying to blow his we hair out of his face. He wasn't particularly successful.

“Marnie-” Lucy started, and Marnie gave in before the whining or beatings could begin.

“Fine. But he has to wear the pink kitten pajama pants,” Marnie said. She grinned. “Any problem with that, boyo?”

“I like kittens,” DJ said.

She paused the game. “Really.”

He blinked at her, big brown eyes surrounded by wet, spiky black lashes. “Really,” he agreed. He looked back at the screen. “Don't like pants. But I have to wear them. There are rules, I have to wear pants.”

Marnie tossed the controller. “I'm getting 'em.”

“Oh my God,” Lucy said, and Marnie just smirked at her. “Can you be less creepy?”

“Why bother?” She rolled off of the couch and headed for the bedroom. A moment later, she skidded back into the room, pants clutched in her hand, singing “Pretty boy in pink pants,” under her breath in Mandarin.

“Thank you,” DJ responded in kind.

She paused. “You speak Chinese?”

“Little bit,” he said. “Not much.” But his accent was good, rare for a white person. Marnie glanced at Lucy, who was looking back and forth between them.

“He's dripping on things,” Marnie told her.

“I noticed.” Lucy snatched the pants out of her hand. “DJ, there's a small bathroom, want to take a shower?”

He nodded. “Thank you.” He stood, and Lucy pressed the clothes and towel into his hands. He smiled at her. “Sorry.”

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Are you- Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor or anything?”

He shook his head. “Just cold.”

“Yes, well, don't walk in the rain next time,” she said, and he grinned at her. Lucy pointed. “Go take a hot shower.” He made it a single step, and Lucy stopped him again. “Are you hungry?”

He nodded. “I'm okay, though.”

“Okay.” She gave him a smile. “Go shower and we'll make some cocoa and pasta or something, and play Smash Brothers for a while.”

“Fuck, yeah,” Marnie said.

“Okay,” DJ agreed.

Marnie waited until he was gone. “We are not supposed to have boys in this room,” she said. “Lucy, if we get caught with him in here-”

“I think he's in trouble,” Lucy said. “Look, if he is- I can't just send him back out there in the rain. I have to at least-”

Manie leaned back. “You like him.”

Lucy was quiet for a second. “Yeah,” she admitted. “I do.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I like him a lot.” Her chin came up, but her lips were tight. “Marn, look, I know I've got no right to ask, but if there's something happening-”

Marnie glanced at the bathroom door. “You're lucky we've got a suite,” she said at last. “And that we're the only ones in what should be a four person suite.” She threw herself on the couch. “I'm not going to turn him in, Lu. But if he gets caught in here, I'm going to say I didn't know you brought him in.” She glanced at Lucy over the rims of her glasses. “Fair?”

“Fair,” Lucy agreed.

“Also, you're buying pizza,” Marnie said.

“Also fair.”

“I think so,” Marnie told her. She moved over on the couch and let Lucy drop down next to him. “He's cute,” she said to Lucy. Lucy shrugged. Marnie grinned. “You're a fake, Lu.”

“He's cute,” Lucy agreed. She looked at Marnie. “Hands off.”

Marnie grinned. “Understood.”

*

The easy knock at the door had Lucy jerking awake, her heart pounding in her chest. The tv was still on, the game waiting for input. Next to her on the couch, DJ was still, but his eyes were wide open, his still damp hair tousled against the pillow he was hugging. Marnie was blinking, confusion all over her face as she struggled towards wakefulness. Her glasses were askew, her short, straight black hair sticking up in all directions.

“Vacation's over,” a soft voice said from the other side of the door. “Let's go, you brat.”

DJ's eyes got bigger, and his body got smaller, scrunching himself up into a ball behind the protection of the pillow. “Oh, no,” he whispered, the words almost soundless, just vibrating in the air.

“You are in so much trouble, wow, so very much trouble,” the voice continued. “Way I see it? You've got two choices, kiddo. You can come on out and face the music, or you can make a play for that window and take your chances with Auntie Tasha.” There was a beat of a pause. “Just a recommendation, Deej? You do not want to take your chances with Aunt Tash. Aunt Tash is very, very angry with you right now.”

DJ's eyes squeezed shut. “Oh, no,” he repeated.

“What's going on?” Marnie asked, pawing at her glasses. She didn't wake up easily. “What's- Do I need to call 911? I can do that, I can-” She reached for her phone on the coffee table and fell off of the couch.

“You have until the count of ten and then I'm breaking the damn door down.”

“DJ, who-” Lucy said, and he was already rolling off the couch, his legs getting tangled with Marnie's, almost falling over as he stumbled towards the door. He threw himself against it, his shoulders against the panel, his hands spread wide, his eyes squeezed shut. He set his feet against the floor and pressed backwards, muscles obvious through the thin cotton of the pants he was wearing.

“What's happening?” Lucy asked. She shoved her hair out of her face, grabbing for a headband because she did not have time for this shit right now. “DJ?”

“Damn it,” DJ said, and he sounded resigned.

“One, two, ten.” There was a thump, and the door seemed to jolt on its hinges, and DJ jerked away from it, his hands going over his head like he expected the ceiling to fall in on him. Then the door was opening, a man in black military style gear slipping through the narrow gap and pushing it shut behind him.

“Hi,” the man said, tossing a small bit of metal through the air and catching it with a flick of his fingers. He pressed his fingers to his ear. “We've got him. Safe, sound, and wearing someone else's pants. Yeah. Normal for him.” He dropped his hand. “Hey, DJ. So. You know what mistakes you made here?”

DJ stared at him, his face set and miserable.

“Okay, mistake one was running away. Mistake two was running away in my pants, you dumbass. Seriously. I get nabbed more than the rest of the team combined, do you really think that Phil doesn't have a tracker in every piece of clothing I own?” He shook his head. “You're an idiot. Let's go.”

“Holy fuck, you're Hawkeye,” Marnie said, and Lucy's throat closed up. “You're Hawkeye, and you just broke into our room, that's really sketchy.”

He glanced at her, and he was, he was Hawkeye, despite the fact that he wasn't in the costume, wasn't in the outfit, there was no mistaking that face. He gave the two of them a lopsided smile, his head tipping forward. “Nah,” he said, his voice laconic. “I just got one of those faces.” He looked back at DJ. “Get your shoes, let's go.”

“No,” DJ said. He turned back towards the couch and Hawkeye's hand snapped out so fast that it was almost invisible. One minute he was just standing there, arms loose at his side, and then the next, he was lifting DJ off of his feet.

“Get your shoes,” he said, his voice quiet, “and let's go. You can talk to Lucy at work tomorrow.”

“Leave him alone,” Lucy said, suddenly furious. “You can't-”

“Yes, I can,” Barton said, cutting her off. “I really can. Deej. Now.”

DJ's shoulders slumped. “I don't-”

“You don't have to- I mean,” Lucy struggled to find some way to say this that wasn't horrible, and she couldn't. And she wasn't interested in trying. “Is Tony Stark forcing you to have sex with him?” she asked bluntly.

“Ew!” Barton said, an explosion of disgust that caught everyone off guard. Lucy, almost against her will, turned to stare at him. His face was twisted up, the expression almost comical. “That's- Ew! That's not right!”

“Excuse him, please.” The door to the bedroom opened, and a delicate woman stepped through, her red hair sweeping behind her as she moved. “Emotionally and mentally, he's still hovering at around age twelve.” She swept a look at DJ. “You didn't tell her.”

DJ gave her a sullen look, but didn't say a word.

“Tell her,” the woman said. Her voice was quiet, but it was not a voice used to being disobeyed. Still, DJ was silent, his head down, his shoulders hunched. “Tell her, or I will.”

“He doesn’t have to-” Lucy started, and DJ's head come up.

“He's my father,” he said, with a faint smile.

Lucy stared at him, trying to make the words make sense. “What?” she asked after a second.

DJ's lips turned up, just a faint little smile. “Tony Stark. Is my father.”

There was silence after that, so total that Lucy could hear her heart pounding in her ears. “What?” she repeated at last, because apparently, she was an idiot. Apparently, that was all she could manage, just a lost and pathetic, “What?”

“Bullshit.” Marnie's voice came, without anger, without any emotion at all. But she was standing there, her arms folded over her chest, her expression flat. “Bull. Shit. You're telling us, what? That Tony Stark has a secret child, that despite the fact that cameras are on him, what, all day, every day, all the press, all the gossip, all of the eyes on him, you're telling me that he's managed to hide a kid.”

The woman's head turned in Marie's direction. “Look at his face,” she said. “Look at his eyes.” She smiled, just a little. “He has his father's eyes.”

“His hands.” Lucy heard her own voice, as if from a distance. DJ glanced at her, and yes. They were familiar now, that color, that remarkable golden brown. Lucy swallowed, and her mouth was dry. “Your hands.”

He held them up, long, graceful fingers flexing. “Like his,” he agreed. He tapped one finger against his forehead. “This, too.”

“That, too,” Lucy agreed. She was trying not to hyperventilate, because it did make sense on some level. The similarity was there, now, she could see it in the line of his jaw, and the angle of his cheekbones. He had none of Tony Stark's bravado, none of his easy, glib language skills, and that was what was in everyone's face about Tony Stark. DJ's quiet, shy personality was nothing like Tony's. But he had that spark of brilliance, of warmth, of humor.

He smiled, and Lucy could see his father in that, too.

“And his father is going to start razing the city in about five minutes if we do not get him home,” Barton said. “Nat, you got this?” She nodded, and he snagged the back of DJ's shirt, the muscles of his arm bunching as he half lifted DJ off of his feet. “Let's go, kiddo.”

She tried again, because she'd never known when to give up. “DJ, you don't have to-”

“Yes, he does,” Romanov said, because yes, there were Avengers in her apartment. It was terrifying and strange and Lucy's hands were shaking. But she met Romanov's gaze head on, her chin up, her eyes narrowed. Romanov smiled, just a little. “He has to go. Because he left without telling anyone that he was leaving, or where he was going.”

She took a step forward, stopping just in front of Lucy. “And he is very lucky that his father is not a vindictive man. That he will not take this out on you, because you didn't do anything wrong. But a vindictive man would not care.” Her eyes flicked towards DJ. “You could have ruined her life, Deej.”

His shoulders went up. “He won't.”

“No. He won't. You're very lucky.” She shook her head. “Very, very lucky.”

“DJ-” Lucy started, because this was insane, this was completely nuts, she didn't even have the capability to understand this. But he was trying to smile, trying and failing, his eyes sad and full of misery.

“Thank you for letting me stay, Lucy,” he said, his voice quiet. “Thank you, Marnie.” And just like that, he was gone, half-walking, half being carried out the door.

Lucy took a step after him, and Romanov touched her shoulder, just the lightest brush of fingers, and Lucy stilled. Lucy looked at her. “Promise me no one will hurt him,” she said, her heart pounding in her chest.

One of Romanov's eyebrows arched. She was silent for a moment, her gaze considering. But in the end, she gave a slight nod. “His family is very protective,” she said, smiling just a little. “There's going to be a lot of yelling, because he scared everyone. But no one would hurt him. Or let anyone else hurt him.” Her fingers went to her ear. “They're clear.”

“How can no one know about him?” Lucy asked. “How... Is that possible?”

Romanov considered her. “How many times did you meet him before you remembered him?” she asked.

Lucy stared at her. “What-”

“You met him. And forgot him.” Romanov's eyebrows arched. “Didn't you.” Her smile kicked up. “So does everyone else.”

Lucy's stomach twisted, a sharp drop of panic. “Am I going to- To forget him?”

“No. The more you talk to him, the more you interact with him, the more you remember.” Romanov shrugged. “He's just... Forgettable, is the best way to put it.”

“Okay, that's crazy talk,” Marnie said.

“No, that's magic,” a voice said from behind them. Lucy spun, and a pleasant looking man in a black suit was standing there. He gave her a faint smile. “Hello. I'm Agent Coulson, of SHIELD.”

“This isn't going to be fun, is it?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Marnie said, sinking down onto the couch. “No, it's not.”

*

“How bad?” DJ asked.

Clint glanced at him as he put the car in park. “Pretty bad, tinker toy,” he said. He took a breath. “There was a problem at the Baxter Building. A kind of big problem.” His fingers beat a tattoo on the steering wheel. “A 'people could've been killed' kind of problem.'”

DJ's stomach twisted, a sick feeling settling low. “Are they-”

“Everyone's fine,” Clint said, quickly. “But it was bad. And you chose today to run away.” He looked over. “Seriously. Don't do that again. Jesus. Leaving without a wallet, without a phone, without any way to get help if you-” His mouth thinned out. “Anyway, Jarvis told Steve, and Steve had to make the choice to tell your dad or not, and he chose not. So your dad's pretty mad at Steve, and pretty mad at Jarvis, and pretty mad at you and the rest of us are on his shit list, too, for reason I don't get.”

DJ slumped low in the car seat. “IS that why you came?”

“I came,” Clint said, running a hand through his hair, “because the first time a girl you like meets your dad, it should not be when he's screaming bloody murder at you.” He paused. “So Steve sent Nat and I out to get you, and he stayed home and he and your dad had-” Clint winced. “A very, very bad fight, Deej.”

DJ's stomach hurt. “No one tells me anything,” he whispered. “They- Just-” The words were hard, but he forced his way through. “It's so much easier for you,” he said to Clint. “But you don't talk. To me.”

Clint nodded. “Is that why you like Lucy?”

“She talks to me,” DJ said, and it was true. Lucy didn't seem to care that he just listened most of the time. She didn't get frustrated. She didn't get angry. “She talks to me, and she listens to me.”

“That's hard for family, sometimes.” Clint shoved his hand through his hair again. “Look, DJ, I got nothing on this. I know they're crazy-making sometimes, I live with 'em, too, but they love you.” He reached over, ruffling DJ's hair. “You know that, right?”

“Right,” DJ said.

“Look, it's hard, it's-” Clint sighed. “A lot of this shit, I don't know what to say to you. I don't know-” He shrugged. “But next time, when you can't take them any more, I'll take you out, okay? Just you and me, we'll drive somewhere or something. Get out.”

DJ looked at him, exhaustion sweeping over him. “It was loud,” he said. “And everything smelled.”

Clint laughed. “Yeah, that's New York.” He popped the locks on the car. “Go on. Go talk to your father, you know he's watching us on the security system right now. He's going to be in an absolute panic until you go down to the workshop and he could check you out for himself.”

DJ looked out the window. “He never listens.”

“He's pretty fucking lousy at that,” Clint agreed. “But Deej? You're going to have to make him hear you. Or you're going to be fighting this fight again.”

DJ squeezed his eyes shut. “Yeah,” he said, and opened the car door.

“DJ?” He looked back and Clint gave him a thumbs up. “Nice pants.”

“They're Marnie's,” DJ said, morose. “I stole her pants. And Lucy's shirt. My stuff was in the dorm drier.”

“Phil will make sure they get them back.” Clint nodded. “Go. He is freaking out.”

DJ left the still wet shoes on the floor of the car, and headed for the elevator. “Jarvis?” he asked, as he stepped inside. There was no response. DJ crossed his arms over his chest. “Jarvis?” Nothing. DJ sucked in a breath, staving off panic. “If I am a bot, will you ignore me, too?” he whispered.

“I have never ignored you over the network,” Jarvis said, sounding cross. DJ's shoulders relaxed. “The same cannot be said of you. You have ignored me repeatedly.”

DJ took a breath, and another. “I'm sorry.”

“You ought to be.” Jarvis was definitely irate. “You most certainly ought to be. Have you any idea how much you have worried me?”

DJ caught himself smiling, the strain going out of him. “I love you, Jarvis.”

“Do not be foolish.” But he wasn't nearly as strident now. “If you actually cared, in any small way, you should not have done what you did.”

“I know,” DJ said. “I'm sorry. I won't leave without telling you again.”

“Hrmph,” Jarvis said, and that was a noise he made, a noise that made DJ smile. “Sir has been very worried about you.”

“He's mad at both of us, isn't he?”

“On the surface, perhaps. But mostly, he was frightened. He does not like being frightened, DJ. He does not like threats he cannot address directly. And he does not like to be made to feel helpless.”

The elevator stopped, but the doors didn't open. “I'm sorry I got you in trouble, Jarvis,” DJ said.

“As well you should be. It happens so often.” Jarvis paused. “I love you, too.”

DJ's eyes closed. “Thank you, Jarvis.”

 

Tony was sitting in a chair in front of his workbench, one foot propped up on the edge. He had a glass of scotch in one hand, filled to the brim with liquour and melting ice cubes, and he was staring at the TV screen.

On it, Steve was sitting beside the pool, a bundle of towels wobbling around him. He was laughing, even as he caught a fistful of towel and pulled it back from the edge. He dragged the towels into his lap and dug through the fabric until he uncovered DJ's head. He laughed down at DJ, and DJ laughed up at him, small and new and probably just learning to swim.

DJ now looked at DJ then, and wondered if he'd appreciated that, when he'd had it.

“Welcome back,” Tony said, holding up his glass. “Did you have a good evening? Out? In New York? Alone? At night?”

DJ's throat felt tight, and he swallowed. “Dad-”

“Where people to kill each other all the time?” Tony continued. He set the glass down on the workbench with a solid click. “And we had no idea where you were or what had been done to you?” He looked up. “Have a good time?”

DJ was silent. Tony didn't seem to expect an answer, anyway. He picked up something, and it took DJ a minute to recognize the injector for the Mark 42. Tony loaded it with a flick of his wrist. “Give me your left arm.”

DJ immediately hugged his arm to his chest. “Why?”

Tony held out a hand. “Give me your arm.”

DJ shook his head. “No. Why?”

“So that I can put a tracker in you, so that the next time you pull this shit, I will know where you are and if you're, I don't know, dead in a ditch,” Tony said, his voice rising with each word. By the end, he was yelling, and DJ flinched back.

“No,” DJ said, stubborn about it. His heart was pounding, frustration pushing in on him.

Tony slammed the injector down on the workbench. “What were you thinking?” he asked, and DJ covered his ears, flinching from the noise. Tony took a deep breath, his hands flexing on the workbench. “Were you thinking?”

DJ didn't say anything.

“Is this what's going to happen every time some minor inconvenience occurs?” his father asked. “Is this what I have to look forward to, now that you think you're grown up? That you'll just deal with disappointment, with frustration, by running away? By disappearing?”

The words tangled up in his head, in his mouth, and DJ fought to get them in order. “It's more.”

“More than what?” Tony asked, throwing his hands up. “More than- More what, Deej? It was a party! It was a dumb-” He cut himself off. “It was one afternoon's entertainment, and I said no, and you did this, what does it mean, more, what-”

“You don't talk to me!” DJ screamed, and his father stilled. DJ sucked in a breath, and another, trying to control it. His arms were crossed over his chest, his fingers sinking into the cotton of his borrowed shirt. Lucy's shirt. He locked his fingers on the fabric, holding onto it like a talisman. “You don't talk to me,” he said, quiet. “You don't.” He kept his head up with a force of will “You just decide. For me.”

Tony stared at him. “Yeah, well, I was always lousy at communication.” He slumped into his chair, one leg thrown out in front of him, the other tucked back. His heel rattled against the floor, a comforting, familiar rhythm. “I thought I could fix it.”

DJ stared at him confused, and Tony shrugged. “I thought I could- Fix it,” he admitted. His fingers flicked against the arm of his chair. Starting and stopping. Starting and stopping. “Find a way to protect you. I thought I could fix it without having to tell you that it was broken.” One corner of his mouth twitched up. “Thought I wouldn't have to tell you that I'd failed you.”

DJ shifted his weight, the scuff of his feet on the floor matching the rhythm of Tony's heel. “You didn't,” he said, careful. “But you and Steve-”

Tony's head fell back. “Oh, Jesus,” he snapped. “I don't- I don't get that.” He shoved himself out of his chair. “The man raised you. Let's be honest.” He stalked past DJ to his workbench, reaching for something to fix. DJ was pretty sure it didn't matter what. “I love you. I love you more than I've ever loved another person, I love you more than I knew I COULD love another person.”

He shook his head. “But we never would've made it, you and I, unless Steve was there.” He rolled something, some bit of metal between his hands. “I wasn't cut out for this,” he said, his voice tired. He glanced over, meeting DJ's eyes. “I worked at it. Because I love you, and I wanted to be the father you deserved. I didn't manage it.” He shrugged. “Steve, for Steve, it came naturally. And you've never once called him your father.”

Tony looked back at the screen, where Steve was smiling at the camera, DJ propped easily in the crook of one elbow. Steve laughed at something, even without the sound, the flick of his head, the way his lips parted, the way his head went back, was always going to conjure up the sound in DJ's head. Steve's lips were moving, laughing and talking, and between the words, he bent his head and kissed the top of DJ's.

DJ stared at it, desperate to remember this moment, but there were too many like it. Too many times when he'd been half asleep against Steve's chest, his ear tucked against the plane of Steve's shoulder, listening to the rumble of Steve's voice. Absorbing it by touch.

“Do you know what his greatest fear is?” Tony asked, his voice quiet. He was staring at the screen, his expression unreadable. “That we'll disappear.” He straightened in his seat. “He's terrified of that. That one day, he'll wake up and we'll just be gone. Because that happened to him. He closed his eyes, and his world was solid. He knew what was-” His mouth got tight. “And then he woke up, and the world he knew, the people he knew, the people he loved, all of it was gone.”

He stood again. “You know how many times he checked on you in the middle of the night? Do you have any idea he came down to your room? To your charging station? Do you have any idea how often he woke up and had a compulsion to make sure that you were still here, that you were still safe?”

He held up a hand, and the video stilled. Steve had a soft smile on his face, his cheek on DJ's head, his eyes half closed. “If you disappear again,” Tony said, the words very soft and very careful, “I will raze this city to the ground trying to find you. I will break it down to its damn foundations, I can do that, and I will do that. I will find you. Not just because I will go insane if I lose you, but because he cannot survive that. I truly think it would kill him.”

Tony looked at DJ. “You don't ever do that again. Do you understand me?”

DJ stared up at the screen. “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“So amazingly furious.”

“Am I in trouble?”

“You are grounded forever.”

DJ smiled. “I can't leave the workshop?”

“Not ever,” his father said. “Ever. Ever, ever. You have to stay here with me.” He stabbed a finger in DJ's direction. “Forever. Grounded.”

DJ nodded. “Okay.”

“Also, you're out of the will.”

“Okay,” DJ agreed. “Can I keep my tools?”

“Can you- Yes, you can keep your tools, I'm not a monster, DJ. Jesus.”

“Sorry.” He looked at Tony. “I'm sorry.”

His father nodded. “I know. You scared me.”

“I know.”

His father nodded. “I'm sorry, too. I should have told you. I'm just- Not good at communicating.” He stared at the screen, where Steve was still grinning at them, and DJ realized that was what he'd been missing. That Tony had been filming him, Tony was the one holding that camera. That brilliant, luminous smile was partly for the child in his arms, and partly for the man who was holding that camera.

“Go apologize to Steve, and we'll get busy rescheduling your party.”

DJ looked at him. “Promise?”

“I'll have Jarvis make us up a contract.”

*

Steve didn't even look up when he heard the door open. “You do not want to be here right now,” he said, his head bent over his work. It was effort to keep his fingers steady on his pencil, to not exert too much force, to not let the wood snap in his grip. He hunched over the kitchen table. “You do not want to have this discussion right now, bucko. Trust me on this. You don't.”

“Steve-”

Steve rubbed his eyes. “DJ, I have had one argument today. One of the worst I've ever had. I do not want to have another. I'm too tired right now.”

DJ took a step forward, and another one. “Are you mad at me?”

Steve's eyes closed. He took a deep breath. Struggled for calm, for precision in language, something that DJ needed. “I am upset that you left the tower without telling us. I was scared that you might be hurt, or that something might happen to you.”

DJ kicked idly at the leg of a chair. “You try to get me to leave all the time.”

“And I respect your right to stay,” Steve said. He went back to his drawing. “I also respect your right to leave. But it's our right to know that you are safe. So you need to tell us, when you go. You need to tell us where you're going, and you need to tell us before you leave.” He glanced up. “Just like we tell you when we have to leave.” DJ didn't say anything, and Steve selected another pencil, rolling it between his fingers, letting it fall into place. “We tell you. Don't we?”

“Yes,” DJ said.

“Do you like it when you don't know where we are, or how long it'll be before we're back?”

DJ moved closer. “No. But you're different.”

Steve's lips twitched up. “Not as much as you'd think, Deej. I get just as scared and worried as you do.” He pointed his pencil in DJ's direction. “Maybe more. Because I know so much of what can happen. So I need you to tell me when you're leaving.”

DJ nodded, and took a deep breath. “I'm sorry,” he said, his voice soft.

“I know you are.” Steve went back to his drawing. “It's all right, DJ.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“A little.” Steve tossed him the pencil sharpener. DJ caught it, his hand snapping out to pluck it from mid-air. “I'll get over it.”

DJ held the pencil sharpener between his hands, his fingertips tangling around the small piece of metal. “Did you fight with Dad about me/”

“I had a fight with your father,” Steve said. “Because he didn't agree with the choices I made. You are not responsible for our fight, Deej, and sometimes we fight, he and I. Just the same as sometimes you fight with him, or fight with me.” He held out a pencil, and DJ took it, his fingers delicate. Steve could see the echo of Dummy in that, in the delicacy and care that he used with the smallest objects.

“Steve?”

“Mmmm?”

He set the sharpened pencil down next to Steve's elbow, along with the sharpener. “What do you want me to call you?”

Steve sighed. “This is your father again, isn't it?” He shook his head, going back to his drawing. “I've told him repeatedly to just leave it alone. I don't care what you call me, Deej. I never have. I don't know why he's so insistent that we have to give me a title.”

"Would it be different if I were yours?"

He didn't understand at first. The sentence, the question, made no sense to him, like it was in a foreign language that he was only vaguely familiar with. He looked up, still turning the words over in his head, trying to make them fit, trying to find meaning in them.

Then he met DJ's eyes, and his heart stuttered to a stop.

“What did you say?” It was thin, the question was barely there, but he said it, as steady as he could.

DJ's face worked, his mouth twisting. “Would you care what I called you if I were yours?” he asked. His hands tangled in the edge of his shirt, pulling hard on the fabric. Steve could see the way his knuckles went white with the force of his grip, could see the stirrings of panic in the boy's eyes.

“If you were...” His throat closed, and Steve choked on his breath, choked the words. It was like his body was rejecting them, refusing to acknowledge that they were there at all. It took him a moment to get himself back under control, and when he did, his hands were shaking.

“Is that what you think?” he asked, his voice very soft. “That it doesn't matter because, what? You're not my child? That I don't care because-” DJ's head went down, his shoulders drawing up, and Steve had felt his heart break so many times throughout his life. He'd lost so much, and mourned so much, that he'd almost convinced himself that he was used to it.

He'd never felt a pain like this before.

He sucked in a breath. “I need you to come over here and sit down,” he said, each word soft and careful. “I need to talk to you about this.”

DJ shifted backwards, a nervous little half-step, and Steve smiled at him. “I love you,” he said, and he'd never meant the words as much as he did at that moment. “And I hurt you. I need to talk to you, DJ. Please come and sit down.”

For a second, he didn't think it was going to work. DJ just stared at him, his eyes huge and miserable in his pale face. But after a long moment, he took a step forward, then another, creeping forward until he could lower himself into the chair opposite Steve. Steve smiled at him. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” DJ said, his voice very small.

The pressure to find the right words was so intense that for an instant, he was mute. The weight of this mistake, this error, was crushing, and he had no idea how to fix it. How to even begin to fix it.

He took a deep breath, and it hurt, it hurt in a way that he was glad for, because it cleared his head.

"I always knew what I was," he said at last. He rolled the pencil between his fingers, taking some small comfort from the solid, familiar item. "I always knew who I was. I knew I liked men, when I was a young man." He glanced up. "There were people who could live, that way. Back then. I wasn't one of them."

He took a deep breath. "There were a lot of things about me I couldn't change. That I couldn't help. Thought that this was one way I could be... Normal. That if I worked at it, hard enough, I didn't have to be gay. Or if I did, that no one would ever need to know about it.”

"It was just what you did, back then, and that's not an excuse. It's not right, what happened, what people did to each other, what people did to survive." His smile was tight. "But sometimes, it was easier to conform, to pretend. To tell yourself that you were the only one you were hurting, that you would be a good husband, a good father, a good citizen.

“That if you worked hard enough at it, the part of you that was wrong, would be fixed. Would go away.” Steve's lips twitched in a humorless smile. “It doesn't work that way, of course. But it's easy to fall into the trap, when everyone's telling you that you're the problem. That if only you were, well, normal, then you wouldn't be having this problem.

"So I thought, I could find a nice girl. One who was fine with me. And I would be true to her, that was never in doubt." He paused. "I found Peggy, and I thought, maybe she'd understand. But if she did or not, I loved her." His smile felt a little better on his face this time, a little more real. "Don't doubt that. I loved her. It just... Wasn't the way she deserved to be loved. She deserved someone who saw her as the whole world, and that just-"

He stopped. "It wasn't something I was capable of. But I did love her. And I would've been happy with her, but maybe it's better for her that never came to pass. That she never had to..." He struggled, trying words on for size. "That she never had to settle for me."

Steve set his pencil down, laying it carefully in its slot in the case. "But I figured, back then, that I could do it. That I could find a nice girl, and maybe, if I was lucky, there might be a kid. Or a couple of them. I always... Liked that thought. That maybe I could have someone who was mine, at least partially. I had Bucky." His throat closed, and he had to stop, had to struggle to breathe. He wrestled himself back under control. "But other than him, I was alone. Thought it would be nice. To have a child of my own.

"But then life happened, and..." He laced his hands together, his fingers flexing hard. "And the serum happened, and the rest of it. I woke up, and everything had changed. Everything." His knuckles were white where they pressed together, the bones straining as he tried to hold onto something.

Steve looked up. DJ was staring at him, quiet and still. “I'm babbling, aren't I?” he asked, not sure where the words were coming from.

DJ's smile was small, but real. “You sound like dad,” he said, his voice soft.

Steve laughed. “I guess you're used to being babbled at. Your father.” His smile died. "I woke up, and there was a brief moment, when the world was open and real, and I thought I could maybe have everything. That maybe I could have someone who loved me, who wanted me, that I-" He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, feeling his face flush. "That I wanted. That maybe I'd have a love, and a lover, and maybe a child. Maybe I could have the things that I had always thought would be impossible for me, when I was a kid.

“I thought I could have everything,” he said, his lips curling up. “Until I met I met your father.

"I met your father and... I knew that wasn't going to happen." He met DJ's eyes, as hard as that was, he met DJ's eyes. "I had to choose. Someone who could give me everything I wanted, or your father.”

He nodded, a quick dip of his chin. “I chose Tony. And I never regretted that. But I did regret that I'd never have a child of my own. Because I knew, I'd never convince him to adopt. I wasn't even sure he'd acknowledge a child of his own, if there was one out there."

DJ shifted, a faint flicker of movement, his face tight, and Steve soldiered on. “You know that. You know that he was afraid. That he wasn't comfortable with the thought. He wouldn't take the risk of hurting a child the way-” He stopped. “The way that he was hurt. He preferred to just be the last Stark. That was his plan.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Then there was you. And all of our plans changed.”

He leaned forward, his words shaking. "You were a miracle I didn't even know I could pray for," he said, very carefully. "And from the first time you latched onto my shirt, I would've done anything for you, Deej. I love you. I've told you that, every day that I could, and the days when I couldn't? I thought it.

He tried for a smile, and it hurt, it ached in his teeth and his jaw and his lips. "If I'd done this right, you would've known that."

DJ's shoulders hunched, his mouth working silently. His breathing was audible now, little gulps of air, and Steve reached out, the move instinctive. "It's okay," he soothed. "It's all right." His hands cupped DJ's cheeks. "Look at me." He waited until DJ's eyes twitched up towards his. "There is no trick of genetics, there is no word of law, there is no name you can give me," he whispered, the words fierce on his tongue, "that could make me love you more."

Something broke inside of him, and his breath came out in a rush. “I did what I did, I distanced myself from calling myself your father, because I was trying to make sure that you and Tony had each other. That Tony would always be secure in knowing that he came first, that he would always come first. You always loved him, so fiercely, but-” Steve's fingers brushed the soft locks of hair away from DJ's forehead. “He needed that. To know that he was your father.

“I did what I did, because I was afraid of hurting him.” Steve tried to smile, and it felt horrible on his face, but he tried anyway. “And somehow, I hurt you.”

DJ's mouth opened and closed, silently, and his eyes darted away. Steve sighed.

"Deej. Maybe you're not mine. That's not my choice to make. That's not something I can force on you. But you know what? I am yours." He smiled, and he felt the tears on his cheeks. That was fine, somehow, that was just fine. "Whatever name you give me. Whatever you call me. I'm yours. As long as you want me, DJ. But if you walk away from me today, if you never call me anything again?

He smoothed DJ's hair away from his face. "In my head, in my heart, I will always be your parent. There is nothing you can do to change that." He smiled, even as his eyes overflowed. “I am always going to be your parent. I am always going to be the person who loves you, even if you never speak to me again, even if you never think of yourself as my child-” His voice broke, and he had to stop. Had to struggle to breath. “I don't care what you call me, Deej. I just care that you're safe, and happy, and-” He smiled. “That you're YOU, DJ. No matter what choices you make. I just-”

DJ's hand snapped out, his fingers latching onto Steve's shirt, clinging, pulling hard, his fingers clawing at the fabric. His breath was coming in hard, fast gasps, and Steve leaned in. “It's okay,” he whispered. “DJ. It's okay.”

“Names,” DJ managed, and he was halfway to a panic attack already, his breathing rattling in his chest, and Steve folded his hands over DJ's ears, leaning in, even as DJ's hands clung to his shirt. “Names,” he repeated.

“I know, it's okay,” Steve whispered. “It's all right, DJ.”

Slowly, DJ's breathing slowed, leaning heavily against Steve's hands. His head fell forward onto Steve's shoulder. “Don't-”

Steve waited, but DJ didn't say anything else. “You are the best thing in my life,” he whispered. “I am so proud of you, Deej. And I will never be prouder, not of anything in my life. I will never be prouder of anything else, than I am to be your parent.”

DJ's arms went around his waist. “Love you,” he whispered against Steve's shoulder. “Can I be your kid, too?”

Steve chuckled, even as he hugged DJ, hugged him close. “You always were, DJ.” His arms tightened, too tight, and he couldn't seem to let go. “It's okay. It's okay. You're our kid, okay?” He took a deep breath. “You always were.”

*

Tony paused at the door, exhausted and aching.

DJ was curled up on the couch, his body curled up tight, his head pillowed on Steve's leg. One hand was clinging to the fabric of Steve's pants, his fingers white knuckled, even in sleep. And he was asleep, his face relaxed, his body limp. Steve was still awake, his fingers stroking DJ's hair gently, but his head was tipped back, staring at the ceiling.

“Oh, no,” Tony said, spreading his hands. “No. Absolutely not. No. We're not- No.” He padded across the floor, to the couch. “No. He's not getting away with this, we are not forgiving him, he is grounded for the rest of his-”

Steve looked up, and Tony's words died in his throat. Steve's eyes were red, his cheeks wet, and Tony's stomach dropped with sickening suddenness. “I messed up,” Steve said, his voice very soft, weighted with grief.

Tony swallowed. “Well, good,” he managed. “You need to do that every so often. Every once in a while. So that I can feel more secure in this relationship, because I fuck things up so often it's nice to be reminded you're human, too.” His hands smoothed Steve's hair, his fingers sliding through the locks, his palms settling against Steve's temples.

Steve's lips twitched, but the smile died before it could even really be born. For a moment, he held himself still but then he folded forward, into Tony's hands, into the shelter of his body. He buried his face in Tony's chest, and Tony wrapped his arms around his head, around his shoulders. “I messed up,” he whispered, and Tony could hear the tears. “Tony-”

“Doesn't seem to be too bad to me,” Tony whispered, burying his face in Steve's hair. “Kid's still clinging to you like the last lifeboat in a storm. You were always-” He swallowed. “Always the one that kept us afloat.”

Steve's arm wound around Tony's waist, his fingers clutching at his shirt, and at Tony beneath that. Only one arm. The other, Tony knew, even without looking, was still stroking DJ's hair. Tony felt Steve inhale. “I need to adopt him,” he said, his tone apologetic, but resolute. “He needs it.” Against Tony's shoulder, he admitted, “I need it.”

Tony nodded. “Papers have been waiting for your signature for years, you dope,” he said. He took a deep breath. “It was easier. To try to be his father. To be one of his fathers, because you were the safety net.” He pulled back, just a little, just far enough to meet Steve's eyes. “I always knew that if I slipped, if I-” His mouth twisted. “If I started drinking too much, if I ever-” He choked on the words, but he forced them out. “If I ever hit him, or hurt him-”

“Tony-”

“If I did,” Tony said, over him, “you would've taken him away. I knew that. It was so much easier, Steve, to love him, because I knew you'd never let me hurt him.” He smiled, his eyes stinging. “I needed that.”

Steve shook his head. “I wouldn't have had to take him away,” he said, his voice quiet. “If it came down to that, Tony, you would've given him to me.”

“You've got more faith than I do.”

“Probably. I know you better than you do,” Steve said. He leaned into Tony's arms. “You're okay with it?”

“With what? You letting him off scot free for having scared a decade off of my life today? No. Absolute-”

“With me adopting him,” Steve interrupted.

Tony stared down at him. “Do you remember,” he said at last, “about, what, seven years ago? The mess in the lobby that one time? Where everything was chaos, and fuck, everyone was screaming at everyone else?” He pushed Steve's hair away from his face. “You were so set on what you were doing, and I was yelling at you, and Coulson was yelling at you, and the whole team was yelling at you, and you did not notice a single one of us?”

“Tony-” Steve started, and Tony ignored him.

“You just kept right on going, as if you didn't hear a thing, all of us screaming at you, and DJ was there. And he just said, 'Steve.'” Tony paused. “Your head snapped around so fast that I thought you'd give yourself whiplash. He smiled. “Just that one little word. And you heard him, you heard him calling your name, when no one else registered.”

He smiled down at Steve. “I wanted to punch you so bad,” he said, shaking his head. Steve chuckled, and Tony grinned at him. “I could've KILLED you, you'd been ignoring me for, like, ten minutes. But the moment the kid says a word, you were right there, checking on him.”

“I did not-” Steve started.

“You are a fucking liar, you did so, I didn't speak to you for a full day, and I don't think you noticed that, either. You were always his father,” Tony said, his tone wry. He smoothed a thumb over the angle of Steve's cheekbone. The skin was damp there, and his chest ached. “Don't ever keep me in the dark about him again,” he whispered. “I can't...” Tony shook his head. “I know why you did it. But don't. Don't do that.”

Steve considered him. Nodded. “You mad at me?”

“Furious,” Tony said. “So furious, there aren't even words.” He let go and settled down on the couch next to Steve.

“I'll make it up to you,” Steve said, wrapping an arm around Tony's shoulders. Tony leaned into his body. “Somehow.”

“Not everything can be fixed with blowjobs,” Tony said, and stopped. “Oh, God. Did I just say that? Was that, was that me saying that?”

“I think you meant it, too, that's the terrifying part,” Steve said, laughing.

“You have ruined me,” Tony said. “I am ruined.”

“Well, you ruined me years ago, I think it's only fair,” Steve commented.

“Gross,” DJ said, and Steve laughed.

“Oh, you do not get to be talking right now,” Tony said. “You're grounded for the next twenty or so years. I still need to work out the details.” His eyes closed. “I'll figure it out. Tomorrow, or something. Just be aware, you're grounded forever.”

“Forever?” DJ asked.

“For ever, forever,” Tony agreed.

“Steve?” DJ asked.

“We'll talk about it,” Steve said. He looped one arm around Tony. “Deej? You've been a human being a lot recently.”

“Yes,” DJ agreed.

“Is there a reason for that?” Steve asked.

DJ didn't say anything for a moment, and Tony's head tilted in his direction. “Deej?” he asked.

DJ curled up a bit tighter. “Wanted to be around you,” he said, his voice quiet. “Easier, like this.”

“We love you,” Steve said, his voice quiet, “no matter what form you choose to take. As long as you're happy.”

“Lies,” Tony grumbled. “I like you as a bot more. You have to obey me when you're a bot.”

“Nope,” DJ said.

“Yes!” Tony said. He reached over Steve, rapping easy knuckles against DJ's head. DJ laughed. “Brat.”

“Don't be what you think we want you to be,” Steve said, ignoring both of them. He looked down. “DJ, is this who you want to be right now?”

DJ looked up at him. Thought about that. “Yes.” He paused. “Might be a bot tomorrow.” His eyes closed. “I'm tired.”

“Good,” Tony said, settling back against Steve's side. “You need a servo upgrade.” His eyes were closed, so he heard, rather than saw, DJ blow a raspberry. “Oh, don't even try it. Grounded. Need I remind you? Grounded.”

“Okay,” DJ agreed.

“Forever,” Tony mumbled.

“We'll talk about it tomorrow,” Steve said.

“I'll be a bot tomorrow,” DJ said, his words slurred.

“Good,” Tony said, and then he was pretty sure Steve was talking, but he was beyond hearing it.