AN: As always and forever, for my girl egelantier. Thanks to everyone else who shamelessly encourages me in this verse. Unbeta'ed, because I still refuse to pretend like this is even near to serious.
Peeta was frosting robots onto cupcakes when he was tugged upward by his ear with a terse, “Mr. Stark wants to see you.”
Softly, Peeta said, “All right, mother.”
He grabbed one of the cupcakes. They were for Tony anyway. Tony liked sweets, but he liked robots more. Peeta had thought he might try combining the two once, and the way it had made Tony smile—his real smile, not the one Peeta sometimes saw on the news or when Peeta would spy on the parties Tony threw—had meant the cupcakes became something of a tradition.
His mom released his ear, but not without one last twist. Peeta, the youngest of the Mellarks by ten years, had been a mistake. He’d learned this when he was seven, and figured out what it meant by nine. It had made a lot of things in his life make more sense. His mom had never forgiven him.
Tony was in his workshop, which was the first place Peeta looked. That wasn’t unusual. Pepper was in there with him, which was, a little bit. Peeta’s face fell as he held out the cupcake. “I only brought one.”
Pepper smiled that way she had, that made everything, even the worst things, seem fine. “Perfectly all right. I like to eat dinner first anyway.”
Tony took the cupcake and rolled his eyes, but there was humor in it. Tony never really made fun of Pepper, not in a mean way. Tony said, “I need your help, kid.”
Peeta nodded immediately. He wasn’t really supposed to “associate” with Tony, according to his mom, but Peeta figured it was kind of her fault they’d become friends anyway. She’d been the one to order him to take sticky buns to Tony in his labs. Tony wouldn’t let staff in there, other than Pepper, but he’d let Peeta in. He’d let Peeta in, and he’d stared long and careful at the fading bruise on Peeta’s cheek and asked, “How do you feel about robots?”
Peeta was pretty sure Tony was mostly just humoring him, having him hang around at times, but they were Peeta’s favorite times, away from his mom, and helping Tony with whatever Tony needed.
Tony said, “This isn’t like normal, Peeta. You can say no, if you want.”
Peeta frowned at the weird hesitance in Tony’s voice. “What is it?”
Tony glanced at Pepper, but then turned his attention back to Peeta. “We have some other kids coming to stay here for a bit. They’ve been through a lot; the goal is to find them homes that will…handle that.”
Other than a few of the other staff kids, who were mostly his brothers’ age and had never shown much interest in Peeta, there had never really been other kids in the tower. Tony offered the staff at-home schooling for their kids through Stark Industries, which meant Peeta was in a classroom with the others five days of the week, but that wasn’t the same as being friends. “What are their names?”
Tony’s face went blank for a second. Pepper looked at her tablet and said, “Katniss, Johanna, Finnick, John, Ronon, Duo, Heero and Une.”
Eight kids. That could either be awesome or disastrous. “How old are they?”
Pepper scanned whatever she was looking at for several moments then said, “Ranging from thirteen to seventeen.”
Peeta was fourteen. That meant some of them were probably exactly his age. He tried not to sound too excited as he asked, “What can I do?”
It was Tony who answered this time. “Help Pepper and me make this place feel safe for them.”
Peeta said, “I could make a welcome cake.”
Tony tilted his head. “Part butterscotch, part chocolate?”
Peeta hid his grin but didn’t bother to swallow his, “Duh.”
Pepper swatted at him. “You don’t even know what they like.”
Confident, Tony told her, “Everyone likes Peeta’s cakes.”
Peeta laughed, then, and started making plans for a dozen or so cakes. That way, there was almost certain to be a flavor for everyone who showed up.
Haymitch was the head cook for Tony’s household. Most people made it a point to avoid him, called him a no-good drunk and grumbled about how Tony should have fired him years ago. Peeta liked to hang out in the kitchen, though. Haymitch gave him things to do, and only yelled at him when he was doing it wrong, and never, ever hurt him for messing up. Also, Haymitch let him sample everything and Haymitch’s food was the best.
If Peeta sometimes pretended Haymitch was his dad and Tony was his older brother, that was fine, because nobody knew, and what people didn’t know couldn’t hurt them; mostly, anyway.
Peeta went to hang out with Haymitch the day after the new kids had arrived, because now Haymitch had eight more mouths to feed and would probably need help, and because Peeta kind of felt like he was failing Tony whenever he was around the others. None of them would talk to him, and Ronon had actually bared his teeth at Peeta while the adults weren’t looking. Johanna had hissed.
Peeta was getting some gruyere from walk-in fridge when he found Katniss in there. The door locked from the outside, and usually Jarvis would never let anyone be caught inside, but he had the feeling she’d heard Peeta coming and tried to hide. Her eyes were wide and alert, her expression terrifying when he walked in. He skidded away from the door, allowing her a way out. He didn’t know why, but he got the feeling being trapped was kind of the worst thing for her.
She stayed still, like a mouse Peeta had once seen, aware a cat had its eyes on it. Peeta tried, “Are you hungry? Because we’re making cheese and chive potato pancakes. Or if you want something different, there’s lots here. Are any of the others hungry?”
Katniss’ fists curled up, but Peeta got hit all the time, and he’d promised Tony he’d help these kids. Besides, there was something about Katniss, maybe just the fact that she’d been stuck in the fridge and she wouldn’t even wrap her arms around herself, that made Peeta think he wanted to stick this out.
Finally, though, she asked, “What are potato pancakes?”
Peeta wasn’t really sure how to answer that, other than to list the ingredients, and he didn’t think that was what she wanted to know. “They’re, uh. They’re good. You should try them. And if you don’t like them, we can make something else.”
Katniss’ head tilted ever so slightly. “How many are there?”
“We’re making a batch of a hundred.” Then, “Enough for everybody to have as much as they want.”
She inched toward the door. He bit his lip to stop himself from begging her to come out. It was too damn cold in the unit for her to just be standing there. Eventually, his patience paid off and she scurried out, past him, and, after about half an hour, led the others back, hesitantly ready to try out the promised new snack.
Peeta was experimenting with sour cream and jalapeno biscuits at two in the morning when Tony slipped into the kitchen. Tony pretty much never slept normal hours, so that wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was to see Heero behind him. Tony strode into the kitchen and asked, “Couldn’t sleep?”
Peeta smacked Tony’s hand lightly as he went for the batter. Tony grinned and walked toward the fridge. “How long?”
“I’ve got a batch in the oven, but I don’t know if they’re any good, yet.”
Tony looked back at where Heero was still standing in the doorway, then shared a glance with Peeta who offered the other boy, “Tea? While you’re waiting?”
“Coffee?” Tony tried, but Peeta just snorted. Pepper would kill him if he made Tony coffee at three in the morning.
Tony sighed. Peeta kept his focus on Heero. “We have some Sencha Jade.” Then, “Duo said you were Japanese. I thought, I mean, I don’t know if it matters.”
Heero hesitated for a moment longer, then came to stand across the workspace from where Peeta was. “I’d like to try that.”
“Kid catches on quick with the machines,” Tony said, nodding at Heero.
Heero, surprisingly, responded. “Duo’s good, too.”
He froze a little when both Tony and Peeta looked at him, so Peeta turned away to heat water. After a moment, Heero said, “We don’t like leaving Une by herself.”
Peeta almost burned himself while taking the first batch of biscuits out of the oven when Tony said, “Bring her, then.”
Peeta couldn’t help blinking at Tony. Tony pretty much never invited anyone into his lab, not even Peeta or Pepper. He allowed for the invasion of it sometimes, but that was different. Peeta plucked a biscuit from the tray and held it out to Heero, who took it with a caution that made Peeta’s stomach hurt. Peeta said, “Careful, it’s hot.”
Tony grabbed one for his own, and shrugged at Peeta before leaving the room. Softly, Heero said, “This is good.”
Peeta wondered if he was talking about more than just the biscuit.
All of the eight were good at hiding, and so Peeta was getting used to having to work a bit to find them, make sure they were eating, make sure they had what they needed. Tony could usually cajole Heero, Duo and Une into the labs these days when Peeta started to worry about where they were. Depending on which day it was, Ronon and John were bound to either be on the roof deck—when Ronon got his way—or the car hold, when John did. Kat, Finn and Jo had been the tough ones until Finn had discovered the swimming pool on the first of the residential floors. Peeta wasn’t entirely sure Finn wasn’t sleeping in there, and Kat and Jo were never too far away.
If some of the others came to visit, that could change. Peeta learned within a month that a visit from ‘Karu, Nyota and Jamie would get all of them to come out of the woodwork for as long as the others stayed. If Clint and Tasha came, at least half of them disappeared into the vents or other tiny, almost unreachable spaces. Neal and Eliot were strange, miracle-working creatures, who could get all of them to leave the tower, go on picnics or other small trips, and return. Ezra and Vin generally split up, Ezra teaching Une, Duo, Heero, John and Ronon chess or poker or other games of tactics, Vin cajoling Kat, Finn and Jo outside to one purpose or another.
When Peeta wasn’t too busy, when his mother wasn’t paying too much attention, or when Tony came and got him, he would join the others, particularly when Neal or Vin was around. Slowly, a few of the kids were warming up to him. Duo was actually pretty easy to win over, and Heero seemed all right with Peeta, in his extremely quiet way. Finn was friendly enough and Kat had now sneaked into the kitchen for food often enough that Peeta and she had a system whereby she could feel safe taking food and he could get her to talk to him for a few moments. John and Ronon occasionally tried learning how to make things, if they enjoyed them enough. Jo and Une were still holding out, but their outright hostility had ceased, and Peeta was nothing if not patient.
All things being equal, it felt as though the situation was settling into stability when Jo fell into the pool and subsequently disappeared.
Kat came into the kitchen, and Peeta started to smile, started to say, “Have something new for you,” when he saw the look on her face. It wasn’t that different from her regular expression, Kat didn’t really do emotions, the kids in general didn’t, not if they could help it, but it was different enough. He asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Jo,” she whispered. “We can’t find Jo.”
“JARVIS?” Peeta asked.
“I’m searching, sir. I have checked the vents and regular hideaways Miss Tasha and Mister Clint are most fond of, but she has seemingly slipped off to somewhere else.”
Kat was standing stock still. Peeta knew most of the kids were still uncomfortable with the AI. Peeta couldn’t tell if that was normal or not, having grown up with JARVIS, but he presumed it wasn’t abnormal, at least. He asked Kat, “Where was she last?”
“In the—“ She swallowed. “We were swimming, Finn and me. I… She doesn’t like water. Before, before the fights, she had, her fosters, they tried to drown her. She doesn’t like it. But I thought, I just, I got her to put her feet in. Just her feet. She didn’t mind, and she was where we could see her.”
Kat’s eyes were wet, which was something Peeta had never seen, never wanted to see. Cautiously, he came to her, touched her wrist, guided her into a chair. He knelt before her. “What happened, Kat?”
“Ronon and Une, they came, they were playing a diving game. I don’t-- I think the toy got thrown out of the water, or something. She was giving it back and she slipped. It wasn’t even-- Finn had her out within seconds, and Une already had a towel waiting, but she just, she ran out the side door, and even Ronon couldn’t catch up and now—“ Kat was stark white under skin that was normally a soft olive shade even after all her years in the dark. “What if she’s not here? What if-- She could hurt someone and they’d-- Fuck. Fuck.”
“Kat,” Peeta said it firmly, not moving a muscle, not giving her any reason to spook. She startled, looking at him.
He said, “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Quietly, she asked, “Why not?”
He could tell by her expression she hadn’t meant to ask, hadn’t really even known she was thinking it. Peeta swallowed painfully. “I’ll-- Let’s get to that after we find Jo.” He touched her knee gently. “JARVIS, is Pepper in the Tower?”
“Shall I let her know what is happening?”
“Yes, and that we need her help.”
“Very well. Expect her capable aid momentarily.”
Peeta told Kat, “Let’s go find Finn and the others.”
She looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t we need to wait?”
“JARVIS will get Pepper to us. Honestly, I suspect he will herd all the others to a good location for Pepper to help us. C’mon.”
He stood and held out his hand. After a moment, she grasped it and let him pull her up.
It was early spring, and cold, and Jo was wet, so when JARVIS found the exit she’d taken, Tony packed Pepper, Peeta, Finn and Kat in the car Happy usually chauffeured, and drove them around himself, all of them looking in different directions, opening the windows and calling her name. Tony was muttering about tagging the kids with a whole bunch of technobabble that Peeta didn’t understand, but he did get that Tony’s way of freaking out was to try and find a solution.
“This isn’t going to work,” Kat said.
Tony didn’t even bother arguing. He asked, “What will?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But hiding means survival. Jo doesn’t screw up when it comes to that.”
“Is there something that would make her feel safe?” Peeta asked.
“Us,” Finn said softly.
Peeta had a thought. “Us, the two of you, or would the others do?”
Kat and Finn looked at each other. Cautiously, Finn said, “Others, maybe. At least, she might if she wasn’t really thinking. We-- All of us, we made sure to know how to find the others in case, y’know, they needed help, or something.”
Tony, up front, nodded. “Hospital’s closest. Think she’d start there?”
Most of the time, since they weren’t in school yet, ‘Karu, Nyota and Jamie were at the hospital, if they weren’t at Ezra’s, Vin’s, Coulson’s or the Burke’s.
Kat said, “Maybe, yeah.”
Tony made a turn and drove.
Tony called Dr. McCoy on speaker and informed him of the situation. The doctor barked, “You lost one of the kids, Stark?”
“I have eight, not three, asshole, and I didn’t lose her, she bolted.” Tony’s voice was even, totally normal if you didn’t know what to listen for. Peeta knew. Tony was disgusted with himself.
Peeta said, “Not even Finn and Kat could stop her. And we’re going to find her.”
Dr. McCoy sighed. “I’ll have the kids keep an eye out. See you in a few.”
Kat was glaring at Peeta, but he stared back at her. She was just pissed at the situation, and he wasn’t going to allow Tony, who was doing his best to blame himself, be her scapegoat, not if he could help it.
Finn repeated, “We’re going to find her,” and touched his knee to Kat’s. Kat looked away from Peeta. Peeta made himself not stare at the two of them.
Nyota had found Jo by the time they got to the hospital. She hadn’t managed to get her to come out of the medicine storage closet that Jo had barricaded herself into, but they at least know where she was. Jamie, Nyota and ‘Karu were all sitting outside the room. Jamie said, “She won’t even respond to any of us.”
“Johanna,” Finn said.
“Fuck off,” she said.
“Well, step in the right direction,” ‘Karu said.
“You got Ms. Potts and Mr. Stark out of the house, the least you could do is come out of the damn closet,” Kat told her.
“That’s Tony,” Tony said.
“And Pepper,” Pepper said.
Strangely, that seemed to get Jo’s attention since there was the sound of things being moved around and then, she opened the door. She stood in the small opening she’d created, still damp and clearly freezing. She focused in on Tony, though and asked, “Why bother?”
“To come get you?”
She didn’t move but it was clear Tony was right. Peeta had seen Tony lie and pretend about all sorts of things, but Tony, for the most part knew when things were serious. Tony said, “Because you ran away from home.”
“Bullshit,” Jo told him. “I ran away from some half-way house where they stuck the eight of us because we didn’t have takers.”
“I like to think the facilities I offer are more upscale,” Tony quipped, but before Jo could get in a word edgewise he said, “And you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Like hell I don’t.”
“Dr. Keller and her wife Samantha have been applying for foster parent status to take Ronon and John. Mr. Barton and Mr. Winner from Neal and Eliot’s school have been going through the same process in the hopes of getting Duo, Une and Heero. The only reason why the three of you aren’t going anywhere is because Pepp and I decided early on we weren’t letting you go anywhere. We just didn’t want to say anything until it was clear we were approved and we could offer you the choice to stay.”
Peeta wondered if Jo heard what he did in Tony’s bitten off words, his hesitance to bring this up. Peeta knew he was just a kid, but he had long ago started noticing Tony being scared that others wouldn’t want him. Peeta thought Jo’s similarity to Tony had been one of the first things that had made Tony want her and the others.
Jo’s frown deepened. “We’re staying?”
Pepper put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Only if you want. If not, we’ll find somewhere else for you.”
Jo looked past the two of them, to where Kat and Finn were standing, looking like someone had run them over with a Mack truck. Finn asked shakily, “Why would you do that?”
Tony’s jaw tensed. Peeta said softly, “Because he likes you. Because you need a home and he wants a family. Because he likes helping when he can and generally feels like he can’t help enough.”
Kat looked over at Peeta. She’d seen the way Peeta’s mom treated him up close and in person more than once. He held her gaze, not a challenge, but an invitation. Like Tony and Pepper, he’d accept it if they chose to go elsewhere, but now that he knew it was an option, he badly wanted them to stay.
Kat broke the stare and went back to silently conversing with Jo and Finn. After long minutes, Jo said, “I guess, if you’re willing to try it, we could too.”
Tony’s smile, when it was genuine, could honestly light up a whole city block. Jo’s smile, in return, was sharp and small and not terribly certain, but it was real. Tony said, “C’mon, let’s get you warmed up.”
He didn’t go to her, though, instead letting Finn and Kat draw her out. She came for them, her gaze on Tony and Pepper the entire time.
Dr. McCoy came with a blanket and insisted on looking Jo over, even though she told him he was being a priss and she was fine. The doctor, though, was more than a match for Jo, which was funny to watch. Peeta was smart enough not to so much as crack a smile.
He sat with Kat, Finn, Tony and Pepper while they waited. Jamie had herded ‘Karu and Nyota off to talk with Dr. Keller, evidently. Peeta didn’t envy the woman. She was about to get grilled.
They had been sitting in silence for several minutes when Kat said, “I don’t get it. Heero and Duo are the ones who are useful to you.”
“While I follow that theory, truly, Ms. Kat, I’m pretty sure usefulness is not the primary defining factor of family,” Tony said. He sounded a little empty, lonely in a way Peeta hated hearing. It was too close to how he felt half the time.
Kat looked at Finn, who shrugged. Kat tried, “But we’re not family. Paper doesn’t make you family.”
“Maybe not,” Tony agreed, sounding kind of sad, somewhat defeated. “But just because something wasn’t easy or automatic, it’s never stopped me from trying to make it happen.”
“That’s with machines,” Finn said.
“Not just,” Peeta said, because Tony had allowed himself to look away for a second.
“Not at all,” Pepper said softly. She smiled at Tony, leaned in to kiss his cheek.
“I’m good with machines,” Tony said carefully. “The way Finn is good with water, maybe. It’s natural. But it…it’s not everything. It can’t be.”
“But you’re rich,” Kat insisted. “You could, like, buy newborns from wherever, and just raise them to love you. You don’t have to deal with, with the scars on my arms, and Jo’s fear of water, and—“
“Everything that makes you real and human?” Tony cocked his head. “I like that stuff. Maybe I even like that you don’t like me that much. Pepp didn’t really either for a long time. I can work for it. It could mean more.”
Finn frowned. “We don’t dislike you.”
“You just don’t trust him. Us.” Peeta wasn’t accusing. He didn’t really blame them, at all.
“Finn’s and my last fosters sold us to the fights,” Kat said. “Jo’s tried to drown her, and she was picked up in a mix up at the hospital, because nobody gave enough of a shit to make sure she made it back to the state home. Trust is for the stupid, or maybe just the innocent, but not for us.”
“Sure,” Tony said. “I was sold out to a terrorist overlord by the man who practically raised me since my dad was AWOL most of my life until he died in a car crash. I can sympathize, if not empathize. And I have scars all over and a fear of water, so really, we’re actually kind of a good fit, I think.”
Those three months had been some of the worst of Peeta’s life, as well, which he knew was stupid, comparatively, but at ten years old, Peeta’d lost the person who seemed like the only adult who cared in his life. His parents had been stressed by the possibility of Tony’s estate passing on to someone who would let them go. In all, it had been a miserable three months. He spoke up, “My mom wishes I’d never been born and my dad’s kind of indifferent. My siblings mostly just like me when they need someone to do the jobs they don’t like.”
“And my parents disowned me when I left our church,” Pepper put in, still quiet, but pointed.
“And Pepper’s the closest thing to someone with a normal family upbringing who still puts up with me.” Tony made a self-deprecating face. “I’m going to need people who at least need my roof when she finally figures out she’s been slumming it and moves on.”
“Tony,” Pepper said, because the problem with Tony was that he meant these things that he said like they were nothing, like Tony could breathe if Pepper left him.
Tony ignored her, keeping his attention focused on Kat and Finn. “Take pity on me?”
Jo, whom nobody had seen or heard approach said, “He’s paying the bills. I don’t think we have much choice.”
They each snapped their heads up to her. Behind her, McCoy said, “She’s fine. Annoying, but fine.”
Tony smiled at him. “Thanks, doc.”
McCoy growled a little and turned on his heel, walking away. Tony asked Jo, “You okay?”
She shrugged. “You heard him.”
“But I asked you.”
Jo crossed her arms over her chest and glared. Her tone was belligerent and something else when she said, “I want to go home.”
From behind Peeta, Finn said, “Me too.”
There was a moment and a sigh before Kat said, “Yeah, me too.”
Tony’s expression was pure delight. He said, “Then blankets and hot chocolate for everyone.”
Jo rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
Peeta didn’t miss the fact that she was smiling.
Peeta had Haymitch make the hot chocolate with cinnamon in it and donated his own efforts by way of gingerbread cookies. He kept the dough on hand, because sometimes Tony needed a distraction, and rolling out the dough and cutting it into random shapes worked well occasionally. He made hearts to accompany the hot chocolate.
Jo laughed at him, but she laughed, and Peeta, he liked the sound of it.