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It was a beautiful autumn day in New York City, and Steve was appreciating it from the Avengers' Tower roof. He still felt a little strange about living here but it had obviously been what Tony Stark had wanted and he didn't have the heart to deny what amounted to the man's last request. He had intended to take a tour of the US, get to know the new world he had to live in, but common decency meant he'd stayed for the funeral, which had been quieter and classier than he'd expected from his brief experience of the man.
Turned out Stark had left instructions for three people to arrange whatever sort of memorial they thought fitting and handle his estate any way they chose once a few specific bequests, mostly to organizations that helped victims of war, both soldiers and civilians, had been fulfilled. He'd been surprised that Stark's closest friends were his chauffeur, an Air Force colonel, and Pepper Potts, the woman who ran his company. After the service, Miss Potts had walked up to Steve, dry-eyed and poised, in a brittle way, to inform him that she'd found plans for the top floors of the Stark Tower to be remade to suit the needs of the Avengers. Apparently on his last night on Earth, Stark hadn't just become an expert in nuclear whatever it was, but he'd started to make a home for the team.
So Steve stayed and accepted the responsibility for the Avengers. Thor wasn't often on Earth, but he had a friend named Heimdall who kept an eye on the Tower. So far, in the three months since, they had only needed Thor once because they had Hulk to handle the heavy hitting. Miss Potts had convinced Dr. Banner to move in, through what Steve suspected was a combination of practicality, bribery, and guilt. At least, that was what had worked on him.
Nick Fury had been less than subtle in his approval of the Avengers having autonomy, with Barton and Romanov showing up with all their gear the day after Potts had the remaining 'A' on the Tower turned into 'Avengers'. He never told Steve who had ordered the bombing of New York, but Steve knew enough about spies and secret organizations to guess. The Avengers were a subtle threat as well as a blatant promise. If Steve had to fight SHIELD to protect people, he'd do it, and he had become enough of a symbol that he couldn't be easily brushed aside.
It would have been nice to make a life as Steve Rogers, but realistically, from the day he'd volunteered for the Super Soldier experiment, he'd given that up. Even when he went out in civilian clothes and wasn't recognized, he still had the body and mind of the ultimate soldier. He couldn't turn time back. He couldn't put himself back in that old shell. He couldn't even have a brawl in a bar. It wouldn't be fair. Like a boxer's fists, his whole body was registered as a lethal weapon. A weapon couldn't have a life of its own, couldn't have a family. He counted himself fortunate that he had his team for family. They understood what it was like.
As he stood musing over the city he was learning to love again, he heard a noise that his hindbrain recognized before the thinking part, making him fling himself down and to one side before looking up. "Oh, no." He slapped the comm unit clipped to his shirt. "Avengers assemble! Portal on the roof of Avengers' Tower!" The portal was far smaller than the one Loki had made, and it was a lot closer to the Tower, hovering barely twenty feet above Steve's head. He backed up to give himself maneuvering room.
There was a flash of color, a red and gold comet streak, but it tumbled, not like an icy ball, but like something... God, something like a person. Like something he still occasionally dreamed. He lunged forward at the last second, and broke Iron Man's fall with his arms, not quite catching, but slowing the impact. The portal blazed with light so bright it lit up the sky. Steve flung himself over Iron Man, with his eyes squeezed tight against the glare. When he looked up, blinking against residual floating red blotches, the portal was gone. He stood up and looked around. The night was normal again, nothing else had come through the portal. Iron Man lay at his feet. Now that he had a chance to take a better look, the armor wasn't exactly the same, more gold, and the torso was thicker, than the one they'd buried with Tony Stark.
Well, sure, it couldn't be Tony Stark. The man was dead. Steve knelt to pull off the faceplate. He heard the roof access door slam open, and looked up at Natasha, with Clint right behind. "It's Tony Stark." Right down to the absurd beard.
Natasha swept in and glanced down at the unconscious man in the Iron Man suit. "Is he alive?"
"Can't get a pulse, but he's warm." Steve was feeling frustrated. While this couldn't be the same man, he didn't want to feel the same sense of failure again.
"The light's on," Clint pointed out. Stark had died with the chest light off. Steve had never been told exactly what had happened when that failed, but this seemed like a positive difference.
"If I could just get the suit off..." Steve felt around the neck, and shoulders, trying to find a button, a latch, something. There was a faint vibration under his fingers.
A voice, stuttering and weak, but very like the computer that handled everything in Avengers' Tower said, "Steven Rogers. Identity verified. Assistance is required." The suit opened up along the front, down the center and along the limbs. It moved in ragged jerks and stopped with a grating whine before it fully retracted.
"That's enough," Steve said. He reached in and felt the man's carotid pulse, noting at the same time the livid bruising to his jaw. "Alive," he breathed in relief.
Bruce appeared then. Steve heard him slide to a halt, and then take the last few steps to kneel next to Steve. "What? This is impossible."
"I don't know. He just... fell out of a portal."
Bruce's eyes went slightly green. Hulk had caught Stark, and been loud in his grief when all efforts to revive him failed. Steve suspected Bruce had blamed himself, thinking he'd been too rough, but the fact was that the man had no business being in a battle. His health wasn't up to it. He wasn't young. He wasn't fit. And he wasn't trained.
"Look," Clint said, "I'm calling Fury. This might be a trap."
At that moment, Stark opened his eyes. He smiled, shifting his legs and shoulders before he looked straight up and said, "Steve." Then he frowned and flapped a hand down, feeling along his body. "Steve, is the baby all right? Steve?" His head turned to the side and his eyelids slid shut again.
"Baby?" Steve said, dumbfounded.
Bruce pulled up Stark's shirt. The belly beneath had a definite roundness. "Um," Bruce said. "Ok, let's go down to the medical level. I want to examine...him?" Bruce said dubiously.
Steve took a deep breath. "Let's hold off on informing Fury about this." Whoever, whatever, this person was, Steve wasn't going to judge him before he had all the facts. And he sure wasn't going to hand him over to the people who'd killed Tony Stark, to use for whatever Machiavellian schemes they might devise.
Natasha said, "They will have noticed the portal."
"Yeah, but you know. Let's see what we've got here, first." Since Stark had moved all his limbs Steve wasn't worried about spinal damage, so he picked him up out of the suit. "Get that suit down to the lab- lock it up safe." He went one flight down the stairs with Bruce following him to the penthouse. None of the Avengers normally used that floor. It had been repaired, and a cleaning staff regularly visited, but otherwise it had been left the way it was on the day Stark died. Its dedicated elevator was the fastest, though, and he wanted to get to the medical level as quickly as possible.
"Sir!" the Tower's computer voice said the moment Steve emerged from the stairwell with his burden. It sounded upset- the first emotional tones Steve had heard from it. "Sir!"
Steve headed for the elevator. Behind him, Bruce said, "Jarvis, ready the medical unit for a full examination. We don't know who this is, or if he's a danger. Set up isolation protocol 3, possible alien pathogens, radiation, suicide bombs, anything like that." Steve and Bruce were immune to nearly anything, but that was no reason to be careless.
The elevator opened before they reached it. Steve said, "Decontaminate the roof and the Iron Man suit Widow and Hawkeye are bringing in. Check them at the same time." Steve should have thought of that before Bruce mentioned it.
"Yes, Captain Rogers." The elevator doors snapped shut the instant Bruce cleared them and the trip was the fastest he'd ever taken. Miss Potts had told him that Jarvis had responded better to Tony than anyone else, but he'd thought that was just because Stark knew all its quirks. Apparently not.
The doors opened and a pair of mobile robotic arms, wheeping and chirping like oversized metal birds, presented a gurney. All the lights were on, and there was a humming drone of machinery all around. Steve gently laid his burden down on the gurney which the robots whisked away to a central station bristling with more mechanical things on slender arms emerging from the floor. "Um," Bruce said as readings began to appear on floating monitors and other arms delicately cut away Stark's (Steve couldn't not think of him as Tony Stark) clothing. "Yes, Jarvis, I can see you're trying to be helpful, but could you wait for me..."
Jarvis interrupted, "Isolation protocol 3 has been completed. No hazardous conditions exist. Initiating preliminary patient assessment and stabilization. Primary purpose, assess damage, begin essential treatment to assure continued survival. Please state any specific requests, Dr. Banner." More arms applied sensors, things like tentacles appeared, there were lights and tubes-- within seconds Stark was surrounded and more monitors with more readings appeared.
"Ok, fine," Bruce said. "Is the patient human? Is this his natural appearance?"
"Are you asking if this is Tony Stark? Yes, DNA, PET, MRI, retina, and fingerprints all are identical to records for Anthony Edward Stark. Cell resonance indicates an extra-dimensional origin, however."
Steve looked at Bruce. Jarvis had never volunteered information before, it had always been directly factual answers. "So it's not Tony Stark," Steve said.
The two mobile arms stretched up and the sensors on the ends rotated, giving the appearance they were studying the man lying on the gurney. After a few seconds they bent into lower angles and positioned themselves to either side of the gurney.
"It is a Tony Stark," Jarvis said.
"Is he really pregnant?" Steve asked.
"That would appear to be the case. Treatment protocols have taken that into consideration."
"Oookay," Bruce said. He put on his glasses and began moving from monitor to monitor, muttering about stress levels and possible hormonal imbalances and more esoteric things that Steve didn't pretend to understand.
He pulled up a chair and sat down to wait. Sooner or later Bruce would fall back into English and give him a report. Asking questions would only slow the process. After a while one of the mobile arms, the one with DUM-E labeled on its main strut (the other robot was marked 'U'. Steve took the names as a joke. Stark had seemed the type to shout 'You Dummy' to disconcert visitors. Anyway, he found it easier to think of them as Dummy and You), rolled over to Steve with an unopened bottle of water and offered it to him. He took it, puzzled. The robots never interacted with them of their own initiative. Perhaps having a Tony Stark changed their programming modes. He wasn't sure he liked that. The robots, and Jarvis, had been familiar and safe; now that they were behaving differently he wasn't sure that was the case.
"Bruce? One of the robots just gave me a bottle of water."
Bruce glanced up at him. "I guess that's because it couldn't find any cigars."
"The baby's father is Steve Rogers." Bruce turned back to the monitor he was studying. "The biological adaptations are fascinating. Externally, there are no signs this is anything but a normal human male, but the internal anatomy-- not only is he a true hermaphrodite with a fully functional set of both male and female organs, but there's a remarkably sophisticated system combining elements of what we'd consider avian, canine and possibly lagomorph..."
Steve had stopped listening. "What?" he said weakly.
Bruce took off his glasses and looked at Steve. "Well, not you, of course. But the other genetic donor must have been identical to you in all respects. Right down to the effects caused by Erskine's formula."
Steve stood up. He didn't like the implications. "Why is he here?"
"I have no idea. He should be waking up any minute now. If he's anything like the Tony Stark I met, you won't be able to stop him from talking."
It wasn't really funny, but Steve smiled a little anyway. If he could catch the man when he was just waking, Steve thought he'd be more likely to respond with uncensored truth. Especially if, like for the moment on the roof, he thought Steve was his... husband? Probably. Probably there never was anything against it in the world this man came from. He'd probably be surprised to learn that had only become possible in New York a few years ago.
"Tony." Steve leaned in as close as he could get so his face would be the first thing the man saw. "Tony, wake up. It's Steve."
The man's eyes flew open, bright and wild. He reached up out of the web of wires and tubes. Steve caught his hand and held it firmly. He said softly, "Why did you do it, Tony? Why did you go through the portal?"
Tony's brows pulled down in confusion. "I didn't... I...was going to stay with you." His other hand came up and touched the purpling bruise on his jaw. "You hit me, Steve." He said it in wonder, as if it was the most astonishing thing in the world. "I wouldn't go, and you hit me."
Steve swallowed hard. "Why do you think I hit you, Tony?"
Tony blinked. "Because I wouldn't go." He shook his head and turned slightly. His eyes widened when he saw Bruce. "You're dead." He swung back to stare at Steve. "You're not... this isn't..." He blinked faster and tugged his hand free from Steve's grip to cover his face and he began crying, harsh, ragged sounds that made Steve's gut clench. "I wanted to stay, Steve!"
The robot arms whirred. Dummy fetched a box of tissues and gently prodded Tony with it. Tony batted it away at first, and then he lowered his hands and patted at Dummy's frame. "Good boy," he said. He pulled out a handful of tissues and blew his nose. "God, I hate that." He lay back on the table and turned to look at Steve. He grimaced. "Hormones. Sorry. I... I can't promise it won't happen again, but you know. It's nothing against you."
"So your Steve Rogers sent you through the portal against your wishes?" Steve asked. Bruce was keeping well back, which was a good idea, since Tony thought he, or his dimension... universe... whatever... Bruce was dead.
"We'd agreed, but I changed my mind." Tony sighed. "It's complicated. Do I have to explain it now?"
"If you can, it would be best," Steve said. "I can only justify so long not turning you over to SHIELD as an... intruder."
"Um, no. You can't do that." Tony brought both hands protectively over his belly. "I need to stay near you, for the baby's sake. That's why Steve sent me." Tony took a deep breath. "I can't explain the biology of it, at least not without a lot of explanation, but Steve and I... we're perfect bondmates. So perfect that we can't live without each other. And..." He took another deep breath. "Steve's dying. The serum... we don't know what happened... but he's not... he's not going to live long enough to see our baby. I didn't want to live without Steve, but I didn't want our baby to die, too.
"So. Reed Richards built a dimensional viewer and tried to find another Steve Rogers. In every universe he saw where people are like us, their Steve and Tony were either bonded, or both dead. In most universes without bonding, we were together in whatever analog of bonding existed, except when one of us had died before they got together. In most of those universes, we'd never even met. It was going to be hard enough explaining things if you had met me, one of me, so this was the best match we could find. You don't have to do anything! I know I don't belong here, that whatever you had with your Tony Stark, I can't step in and claim it. I just... need to stay near enough to you to fool my body so it doesn't shut down, and kill Steve's baby."
"And what happens after the baby's born?"
Tony shrugged. "That's... that's way, way off. I'll figure something out by then. I promise, you won't be stuck with me for the rest of your life." He looked down at all the medical stuff attached to him. "I'm fine. I don't need any of this. Jarvis, get this stuff off of me."
Steve frowned as all the equipment retracted. "Jarvis obeyed you."
"Well, sure. I made him." Tony sat up and swung his legs over the side of the table. In that pose the bulge of his abdomen was more noticeable. It could pass for fat, but it was incongruous given his muscular chest and well defined arms. "Oh. Yeah. Different Jarvis. But that doesn't matter to him. So... you don't like that. You don't trust me, and you don't trust Jarvis." Tony ran his hand through his hair. "Great. Look, all I want is to give Steve's baby a chance. This isn't my world, I know. It's not my Jarvis, or my Tower, or my anything. I don't own anything, and none of you owe me anything. For the first time in my life, I'm... asking for charity. "
Bruce said, "I don't think it's really up to us. The Avengers..."
"Are an autonomous body," Steve said. "It is up to us."
Bruce nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. For as long as you can keep Natasha and Clint from reporting to Fury." He turned back to Tony. "Do you know them in your universe?"
"Widow and Hawkeye, yeah, sure. They were an item. Item-ish. Never quite sure whether they were siblings or courting, but close. One hand washes the blood off the other, close." Tony glanced at Bruce and then away. "And I knew a Fury, too. Marcus Fury. Scary guy, likes to wear black. Has an eyepatch."
"That sounds like Nick Fury."
Tony nodded. "The universes are close. Reed did his best to find one where I could fit in." He glanced at Bruce again and then away.
Bruce said, "I'm dead in your universe. Would you mind telling me how that happened?"
Steve didn't like the way Bruce said that. Was he still hoping to find a way to kill himself?
"Actually, I don't know that you're dead." Tony rubbed at his chest where a bit of sensor gel had stuck. He seemed more uncomfortable by the questioning than by his nudity. "The World Security Council tried to nuke New York. Fury got one of the birds before it could lay its egg, but the other launched. I went after it, but... Hulk... crazy bastard, he jumped from the Chrysler building and landed on it and knocked me off. Somehow he redirected it up into the portal with him clinging to it and smashing Chitauri... and God, he laughed, with this great big grin on his face. He was so damn happy. He knew what he was doing. We had to close the portal. He didn't come back. They put a statue of him in Central Park. The kids love to climb all over it, and put flowers on it."
Bruce was silent for a moment and then he nodded. "Thanks."
"World Security Council?" Steve asked.
"Shadow puppetmasters. We weren't supposed to know about them, but eh... I hooked Jarvis up with the helicarrier."
"My... Tony Stark did that here," Steve said.
"Yeah, well, it was the obvious thing to do. I never trusted Fury. He broke into my home to tell me about the Avengers." Tony frowned. "He disabled Jarvis, and turned out the lights. Not really a friendly introduction."
"Friendly or not, we have to tell Fury about you. And we have to decide what to do after that." Steve turned his head slightly. "You can come in now. I'm sure you heard everything."
Natasha entered the room first, with Clint behind her.
"Could someone toss me a robe?" Tony said. "I hate when Widow is assessing the best targets on my body."
Natasha blinked. "Your entire body is a target, Stark."
"That's enough," Steve said, harsher than he meant, because he saw the way Tony wrapped his arms around his belly.
Natasha glanced at Steve and shrugged. "Fine. I'm going to call Fury and see if he can come to the Tower. I don't think it would be a good idea bringing Stark to the helicarrier. Fury may want this kept quiet. The fewer eyes that see him, the better." She headed out of the room, but Clint remained behind. He stared at Tony.
Bruce handed Tony a thin robe and helped him put it on. Tony stood up long enough to wrap it around himself and then sat down again. "Thanks," he told Bruce. Then he lifted his chin and said to Clint, "What?"
"Mirror version bad guys have face fuzz, but when both versions have a goatee, does that mean you're both evil?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "It means we both liked the look. And possibly that we both had an illustrated copy of the Three Musketeers when we were young and impressionable." Tony shook his head. "Yeah, TMI. Guess I'm more nervous than I thought. Do you think I could get something to wear before the Dread Pirate Fury arrives?"
"There should be clothes in the penthouse." Steve wouldn't want to face Nick Fury in nothing but a robe, either.
"Great." Tony got up again. He didn't look too steady on his feet. The mobile arms moved to either side of him, cheeping. "I'm fine, guys." He patted them on their struts. "Go... go do whatever you were doing before. And try not to break anything."
"Take it easy," Bruce said. "Your blood pressure's a little low." He held out his hand, and Steve could almost see the moment where he realized this wasn't the man who'd treated Bruce's tendency to turn into a huge, rage-filled monster as an admirable talent. Whether Tony noticed the hesitation or not, he accepted Bruce's assistance.
"Thanks. I had a rough day. Rough couple of weeks, actually." Tony gave Bruce a smile.
Steve checked Tony Stark's bedroom for weapons before letting ... this was confusing... Tony Stark go in. Bruce and Clint had come with them, but they waited in the doorway. "Does this look familiar?"
"Pretty much," Tony said. He opened a few drawers at random and shuffled through the clothes. "This is weird. I had an AC/DC shirt just like this." He shook it out and laid it on the bed. "Guess we had the same taste in music." He rummaged until he found a pair of shapeless gray sweatpants. "Well, at least I won't be flashing my ass at Fury. Maternity menswear is probably not a big thing here. Pepper could..." He stopped talking and pulled on the sweatpants before removing the robe and then tugging on the shirt. It rode up slightly over his belly, and the arc reactor lit up the letters and the stylized lightning bolt. He finished with a pair of bright red athletic shoes. "Ok, great. Fantastic. I'm good to go."
Steve let Tony lead the way to the living room where Tony sat down on the couch, and stared blankly at the wall. Clint moved to a position where he could cover Tony, but he held his bow loosely. Bruce gave Clint a mildly disapproving look and sat next to Tony, picking up his left hand to take his pulse. "Huh, your pulse is a little fast. History of tachycardia?"
Tony blinked. "Just this." He tapped with his free hand at the arc reactor. "I can show you a neat trick. Steve, c'mere a minute."
Steve hesitated, and then sat down next to Tony. Tony laid his fingers on Steve's arm.
"Oh. That is a neat trick," Bruce said. "Pulse immediately dropped to normal." He released Tony's wrist.
"Pressure too, if you check. Normally, direct contact wouldn't make a noticeable difference, but... this isn't a real bond. You're not...meeting me half way. Not your fault, Steve." Tony smiled again. Steve felt uncomfortably reminded that Tony Stark had a reputation for putting on the charm when he wanted something. This agreeableness and cooperation was unnatural. It certainly wasn't like the Tony Stark he'd met on the helicarrier, all arrogance and self-assurance.
"I don't mind. I mean, if touching me makes you feel better, that's ok. Um, you're not like... a touch telepath?"
Tony stared at Steve. Clint coughed. "Like Spock," Steve said. "Did you have Star Trek?"
Tony raised his left hand in paired finger Vulcan salute. "I'm glad to see you're getting a classical education, Steve. I don't have any freaky mental powers beyond my basic genius. I don't have any conscious control over the bond functions either. I get... cravings... I guess that's the closest word for it... when I need to be close to Steve." Tony abruptly took his hand away. "It works the other way, too. Worked." Tony resumed looking at the wall. "The bond was the only thing keeping Steve alive. He probably died the moment I went through the portal."
"I'm sorry." Steve hesitated, and then he put his hand on Tony's arm.
Tony took a deep breath. "Yes. Well, as I said, not your fault. His decision. No one ever really made Steve do anything he didn't want to do."
After that an uneasy silence continued, until Steve wished someone had put the television on and tuned into one of those obnoxious reality shows. He was almost relieved when Fury stalked into the room, in the way Steve always thought of (silently) as Big Dog. Natasha entered half a step behind and to one side, with her professional poker face on.
"Hey, Marcus," Tony said, leaning back in the couch in a good imitation of confident arrogance, but Steve could feel the faint tremble of his arm giving the lie to it. "You're looking well. Eaten any small nations lately?"
Fury's eye narrowed. "No one calls me Marcus."
"Right. It's Nicky."
"You can call me Director Fury. Or sir. Your choice." Fury moved closer and stared at Tony.
Tony grinned. "Uh huh, sure. What? Do I have something caught between my teeth?"
"You are a problem. I already have enough problems. Even if I believed for one moment the story Agent Romanov says you told her, you are a huge pain in my ass. Tony Stark is dead and here you are, messing up my world view and disrupting my ace-in-the-hole team."
Tony shrugged. "Sorry?"
"I'd like to drop you into a deep, dark hole and forget this ever happened. Maybe, if I was in a generous mood, make it a comfortable hole, with laboratory and workshop privileges."
"You can't do that, sir," Steve protested. "He's going to have a baby, and they'll both die if you keep him away from me."
"Good point," Tony said, "I'm glad I wasn't the one to bring it up."
"I said I'd like to, not that I was going to," Fury said. He inclined his head in Bruce's direction. "Doctor, in your opinion, is what Captain Rogers said actually the case? Not an exaggeration, or a far-fetched 'maybe'?"
"I can't give a definitive answer, based on a few minutes' examination, but all indications are that, yes, Mr. Stark is indeed pregnant, and without Captain Rogers' presence his system deteriorates."
"Wonderful." Fury rubbed at his face below the eyepatch.
Tony leaned forward. "Look, if it'll help, I'll stay in the Tower 24-7 and pinkie swear not to use Jarvis or the suit for evil or contact the outside world in any way, including smoke signals, carrier pigeons, and Twitter. I just want my baby, that's all. That's it. I don't have anything to bargain with. I'm just... asking you, Nick. Please."
"Fuck." Fury whirled and made a sweeping gesture taking in the rest of the Avengers. "I let you do this, and anything goes wrong, the shitstorm's gonna be on all of you, too. Are you prepared for that?"
Clint and Natasha shared a glance. Natasha shrugged. Clint said, "I love shitstorms. My favorite weather."
Bruce said, "I don't mind. The Other Guy might be a little confused, but... he liked Tony." Bruce tilted his head. "The other Tony. I don't think it'll be a problem."
They all looked at Steve. He said, "I don't go out much anyway." He paused. "We'll have to figure out something with the cleaning and maintenance crews. We can't suddenly stop them from doing their jobs, and sooner or later they're going to see Tony."
Tony scratched at his beard. "I could be a relative, down on his luck. Maybe Pepp... whoever inherited everything... found me, and..."
"Set you up as a mascot for the Avengers?" Natasha asked. "Please. I could have invented a better cover story when I was five."
"LMD," Clint suggested. "You could be a defective unit. I mean..."
Tony huffed. "You should look so good three months pregnant by a super soldier."
"A ghost?" Steve suggested. He flushed when Tony gave him a quizzical look. "We could start a few rumors and if anyone did see him, they'd be scared and run away."
Tony looked at Clint. "You haven't shown him Ghostbusters, have you?"
"It's on the list!"
"If I may suggest, sir," Jarvis spoke, and the only one who wasn't surprised was Tony.
"Sure, go ahead," Tony said. "You've got an idea?"
"As you are aware I control pedestrian access to the Tower. It would be a simple matter to impede the staff elevator's progress until you have sequestered yourself."
Steve said, "There are emergency stairs."
"There are 92 floors below the penthouse, Steve," Tony said. "I don't think a maintenance crew is going to be so desperate they'd use them."
"I agree that wouldn't be feasible from the ground level, but the floors below the Avengers' quarters have access to the original stairs from the old Met Life building. Anyone could sneak in."
"Hardly anyone. They're all my people." Tony paused. "Well, they were, where I knew them, all Stark Industries, R&D for the ten directly below, then our office space, convention space, dedicated hotel space for employees, gym, nursery, restaurant... "
"It's not like that here," Bruce said. "The Tower was given to the Avengers but most of it is rented out to various businesses. The money supports the Tower, and the team. We don't rely on funding from SHIELD or S.I."
"Huh." Tony went quiet for a moment. "Well, Jarvis will just have to beef up security. The stairs have to allow access for emergencies, but obvious biometric scanners should discourage casual nosiness, plus the usual 'security door, alarms will sound' notices."
"And I," Jarvis said, "will inform you of any attempted intrusion."
"Oh," Fury said, "I can see this is all going to work out, just fine. Stark Two and his robo-butler have everything well in hand." Fury shook his head and turned to leave. "I'll leave you to it. If you have to contact me, do it through Coulson."
"Coulson?" Tony asked. "Phil's alive? He survived Loki spearing him?"
Fury paused. "Agent Coulson wasn't the one who confronted Loki." A flicker of emotion passed across his face. "Maria Hill did. And she didn't make it."
Tony looked down for a moment. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Look, don't make any assumptions, Stark. This isn't your world."
"You think I don't know that!" Tony shouted. He was shaking. Steve hesitated and then he put an arm around Tony's shoulders. He didn't say anything when Tony turned to hide his face against Steve. He was pretty sure Tony was silently crying.
"Maybe you'd better go now, Director," Bruce said softly. He was looking a little green around the edges. Not surprisingly, Fury didn't stand on any further ceremony before leaving.
"Is this gonna be a thing?" Clint asked. "I mean, do we need to stock up on Kleenex in every room?"
"Shut up," Tony muttered without lifting his head.
Natasha leaned over and smacked Clint in the back of the head. "You heard the man." Steve wondered if there was a story behind Natasha's sudden sympathy for Tony, and decided if there was, it was her business.
"Ow," Clint yelped. "Ok, fine. Um... I'm gonna go get pizza." He left the room quickly, with Natasha following him.
Bruce looked as if he was going, too, but Steve shook his head. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with Tony while he was crying. He felt really sorry for the poor guy, and uncomfortable at the same time. Another version of him had not only been intimate with this man, but they'd been planning a life together. He felt like he was breaking up a marriage, without ever having thought about kissing Tony, let alone... well... Steve wasn't an innocent, and sometimes the only friendly faces belonged to men, but that wasn't romantic, or even a steady relationship. It just... happened, and you said 'thanks' and went back to war. And none of what he'd done could result in babies even if he'd done it with women. Which... thinking about it... he still had no idea how that worked with Tony. Bruce hadn't exactly been detailed in his explanation.
After a few minutes, Tony pulled away from Steve and wiped at his face. "This sucks. Sorry." Tony got to his feet and took a couple deep breaths. "But hey, there's pizza in this world, that's good. Please tell me, you have donuts, right?"
"Well, yes, but should you have them?" Bruce said. "Shouldn't you be careful of your diet now?"
"I was hoping you weren't thinking about that. I like donuts."
"Pregnant people can't eat donuts?" When Steve was a kid, he didn't remember expectant moms being told what they could eat. Of course, in those days people weren't so public with their lives, and maybe doctors were telling them not to eat fried food. Maybe because it causes gas. He did remember while working as lookout in a speakeasy during prohibition, that sometimes a heavyset woman would give him a few coins to fetch her a pitcher of beer, so she didn't have to go into the joint. "You should drink beer or ale. My mother was a nurse. She said that was good for making healthy babies."
Tony smiled. "Oh, yeah. I could go for a beer." He raised his hand when he saw Bruce open his mouth. "But I can't. One beer might be good, but I'm not a one beer drinker. It's all or nothing with me. I don't want to risk fetal alcohol syndrome."
Steve nodded. They had a fancy name for everything so he wasn't sure exactly what Tony meant, but he'd seen the babies of rumdum mothers. They never did well. He glanced back at the well-stocked bar. "Is that going to be a problem?"
Tony followed his gaze and swallowed hard. "Normally, I'd say 'no'. But right now... yeah, a bit."
"I've got some empty boxes down in my lab," Bruce offered. "We could pack it up and put it in storage."
"Thanks." Tony walked over to the bar and ran his hand lightly over the cut crystal decanters. "They're dusty."
"No one's... we didn't need this floor," Steve said.
Tony nodded. "Dead man's shoes. I don't feel really comfortable here, myself." He glanced at Steve and then away, drumming his fingers against the arc reactor. "What's your floor like?"
Steve smiled. "I haven't got around to replacing all the flag-themed linens, but it's comfortable. And far more than I need. I think the bathroom is bigger than the apartment I shared with my best friend."
Natasha and Clint returned with pizza and soda and yogurt with three kinds of fruit. They sat down at the table. Natasha pushed a yogurt in front of Tony and lifted her chin defiantly, almost as if daring anyone to comment. She worked hard to keep up her ice-water in the veins appearance, and Steve wasn't going to call her on being secretly soft-hearted. Instead he just opened several pizza boxes and passed around paper napkins.
Tony began to droop after the second slice, going quieter and quieter, until he was just poking idly at yogurt, swirling but not eating. "Tony? Tony, are you asleep?" Steve finally asked.
"No," Tony said. And then he yawned. "Possibly." Steve got up and urged him to his feet. He looked over his shoulder at the others who all pretended to be deeply involved in eating.
"Bruce?" Steve caught his attention and nodded in the direction of the bar. It would be better if that was taken care of when Tony wasn't watching.
"Yeah, right, that thing. I've got it, Steve."
Tony didn't cuddle against Steve in the elevator, but he did stay closer than most people would. When they reached Steve's floor, Tony looked around and smiled slightly at the decor. Despite Steve's comment about patriotic linens, it was a comfortable, inviting place, with the furniture mostly blond wood and neutral tweed fabrics on the overstuffed, and generously sized, recliners and couches. "If you can sleep alone, that might be better," Steve said as he led the way to a guest room. He'd never used it. "That way if we get a call out I won't have to disturb you."
"Sure. That'll be fine." Tony went over to the bed and sat. He bent down to take off his shoes. "This is great, Steve. Thanks."
"Yeah." Steve left before Tony lay down.
"So," Clint said, when Steve returned to find everyone packing up liquor in boxes. "Is this the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you?"
"It's near the top of the list." Steve picked up a full box.
Bruce looked at Steve. "You're going to be a father. That's... you know, even when that happens in the normal way, that's amazing."
"I'm not the father, you know that."
Natasha stopped examining a bottle of vodka. "To Stark you are."
"Yes." Natasha shrugged. "We're all confused. I wonder what Thor will think of the situation?"
"I... have no idea." Steve carried the box to the elevator. "Where are we storing these?"
"For now, I thought we'd put them in the Hulkout room," Bruce replied. "Later... I don't know, maybe ask Miss Potts what she wants done with them."
Steve paused. "Yeah, good idea, it really belongs to her." Tony had started to mention Pepper. She must have been important to him, maybe as important as she'd obviously been to the Tony Stark who had belonged in this world.
Since things were quiet at the moment, Steve returned to his quarters and sat down at the table he used for artwork, paperwork, and the occasional temporary repository of 'useless stuff fans send me' to check over his gear. The shield's paint was a little scuffed, but he could put off touching that up for a while. The uniform, on the other hand, was showing signs of wear which couldn't be ignored. SHIELD's armorer could repair it, but he was considering whether he ought to simply scrap it and have a new one made. 'Once mended, twice new' had been one of his mother's sayings, but he didn't think it applied to body armor. He bunched the shirt between his fists and gave it a good, firm tug. One of the scales snapped free of the underlying mesh and fell to the table with a loud, chiming rattle.
"That shouldn't happen."
Steve looked up to see Tony standing in the doorway, dressed as before, but with his hair in gravity defying spikes, and a bed linen crease across his cheek. "Yeah, that's what I thought. I'll have it mended for a backup until SHIELD can make a new one."
Tony came over to the table and picked up the scale. "No, I mean, that type of failure shouldn't happen." Tony turned the scale over. "See, it didn't break, the attachment failed. Looks like the mesh flexed more than the scale."
"Well, sure. I've got to be able to move, so that's the compromise. The mesh flexes, and the scales don't."
"The scales rub against each other until the edges are sharp, and they cut the attachment. That's a basic design flaw. I'll make you a better one." Tony put the scale down on the table.
"That's... thanks, I'd appreciate that."
Tony smiled. "Come down to the workshop and let Jarvis get your measurements, range of motion, that sort of thing. And you can tell me what the team's been up against. I bet SHIELD hasn't given you guys all the best toys, since you're not directly under their thumb."
Within a few days, it was as if Tony had always been there. He talked a lot, and usually too fast for Steve to get a word in edgewise, but Steve found he didn't mind. It was like leaving the radio on. He could go on with whatever he was doing and just nod or 'hmm' from time to time. Sometimes he'd correct an assumption for something that wasn't the same between their universes, like Michelle Obama being the First Lady instead of the President, but mostly he just let Tony's voice wash over him.
A lot of the time Tony was in his workshop, making things for the Avengers. Steve's suit was first, but then Tony began wheedling 'wishlists' from the others. At first Steve thought he was trying to earn his way, but then he realized that Tony had a drive for creation, like Steve's art, that needed to be expressed. When he was caught up in designing, throwing himself heart and soul into his work, Tony was amazing to watch.
"Do you mind if I sketch you?" Steve asked one day, several weeks after Tony had arrived. Tony had been uncomfortably hot (he'd told Steve that 'running hot' was a fairly common thing in pregnant men. Bruce had agreed after an examination that it was harmless, although inconvenient), and since he was only working with hologram designs he didn't need protective gear, so he'd taken off first his shoes, then his shirt, and finally after a glance at Steve, his trousers, leaving him in a tiny scarlet thong. The arc reactor's light did interesting things to his face and the muscle of his arms. Steve had seen a lot of Tony by now, and no longer took the thong as a come-on, it was just what was comfortable for Tony to wear. The color choice was just plain Tony.
"Um. Really?" Tony sounded confused. "Like this?" He waved in a generalized way at his torso. His nipples were dark and pebbly and the chest around them had begun to form small breasts of creamy, nearly translucent skin, with faint traceries of fine blue veins, like an exquisite marble statue. Not at all like blue cheese, no matter what Clint had said when Tony was sun-bathing bare-chested near the parapet. The baby bump was bisected by a thin brown vertical line that started somewhere below the thong and ended beneath Tony's ribcage. Bruce said it was called the linea nigra, and was something to do with hormones or vitamins and nothing to make a fuss over. Steve thought it was fascinating, but he tried not to stare because Tony was self-conscious about it, calling it his 'pull tab line'.
Jarvis clothes shopped for Tony, but Steve removed the boxes, bags, and labels when the clothes arrived saying things like 'Stout Shop', 'Big Guys', and put X's in front of sizes. Tony wasn't fat and Steve thought it was unfair that his clothes should make him think he was unattractive. Tony was unique, and beautiful and Steve felt he should say so, but it wasn't really what you said to a guy who was just your friend, was it?
"You're beautiful," Steve said, and then he wanted to swallow his tongue for a moment because Tony looked so startled. Then Tony smiled, a natural, relaxed, real smile.
"Thanks," Tony said, for once not making a deflective joke. "So... do you want me to pose?"
"No, just keep doing whatever you were doing. I like you being natural."
"Sure thing. You go get your stuff, I'll be here, with my stuff."
Steve returned with a large pad, several different hardness of pencil, his trusty Artgum eraser, and a minimal selection of water-soluble colored wax pastels. He liked the immediacy and detail of pencil, but that scarlet thong ... in a purely artistic sense, it attracted the eye and he wanted to capture it. That and the blue glow of the reactor, and the way it lit up Tony's eyes. At first Tony was obviously flexing and posing, but after a few minutes he lost himself in the intricacy of the innards of a new type of shock weapon he was creating for Natasha.
Steve stopped doodling idle sketches of Tony's hands, his eyes, his mouth; flipped to a clean sheet and began blocking in the major masses, Tony shining in the center, with You and Dummy hovering over his shoulders, offering tools. They were like his children, and for all the rude things he said to them, Steve thought he was a pretty good parent. He gave them what they needed.
It wasn't bad having a roommate. Sometimes Tony would pat him on the back or run his hand over Steve's arm, and once, when Tony fell asleep on the couch while they were watching a movie, he had kissed Steve. Steve was sure he didn't realize what he was doing; it was just a soft brush of lips and fuzzy bristle of beard against Steve's face for a moment, before he opened his eyes and blearily wished Steve good night. It was... nice. Just affectionate. Kinda like with Bucky. Only different. Bucky had been like Steve's brother, and Tony, well, Tony was, um... Steve could see how the other Steve had fallen for him. He was a live wire and sometimes Steve felt the shocks a little stronger than he liked to admit.
But really, it wasn't a problem. All Steve had to do was keep his distance. Let Tony take what he needed, a little touch here or there. And if Steve liked it, that didn't hurt anyone.
Steve shivered and curled up under the covers. He was cold right down to the bones. The wind blew along the train, driving stinging pellets of icy hail into his face. It was so cold, so icy. He slipped and fell, clinging to the floor of the train, but his hands were covered in ice, and the strength was going. He fought, trying not to scream, but it was bubbling up in his throat. He was alone, so alone and there was nothing but ice, dragging him down.
And then there was a blue light, but not an ice-blue, this was hot like a summer sky. He reached his hands out to warm them, trembling. Warmth enveloped him, against his chest, and wrapped around like strong arms rubbing against his back. He sighed in relief and pulled the warmth closer. "Good," he muttered. "Stay." His hand slipped down between him and the lovely warm strength. It moved against his hand, like a cat demanding petting, so he stroked it, glad to let the warmth know he liked it, appreciated it, wanted it to stay. He felt good, warm. Not alone. He let himself slip back to sleep. The ice wouldn't come back. It couldn't fight the warmth.
Steve woke up with Tony cuddled against him. "What?"
Tony stretched and looked at Steve sleepily. "You were having one of those dreams." He wrinkled up his nose. "The kind we don't talk about." He flopped onto his back and rubbed his belly. "You were shivering. And I was hot anyway. Worked out."
"I could have hurt you." Steve had done it, he knew what could happen. He'd punched and shoved and hit the Commandoes when he had those bad dreams.
"Mmm, nah. I knew what I was doing. I let you come to me. That always works." Tony closed his eyes. "You won't hurt me," he mumbled. Then he edged back onto his side, close to Steve, so his beard tickled Steve's chest, and his breath was warm, so warm.
Steve decided it wouldn't hurt to have a little lie-in. Just a little.
"Armor and a hooded cape? I gotta say, that's tacky." Tony commented over the Avengers' comms. He was in his workshop, as usual during a battle. Steve could hear Dummy and You whirring and cheeping in the background as they fussed over Tony, keeping him company. "What's he going for, Steampunk Death?"
"It's all... about the armor... with you, isn't it, Tony?" Clint replied. Steve knew the hesitations in his speech coincided with the arrows he fired into the rampaging brigade of Doombots, which may have even included Dr. Doom himself. Steve couldn't tell. It was really annoying that if Doom did identify himself, diplomatic immunity would make him off-limits. Only last week Captain America had found himself leveraged into escorting Doom around the city, even though he knew the man was looking for weak spots. He apparently had a grudge against Reed Richards because of something that happened when they were at school together and he liked to take it out on New York. Maybe if Reed had been the man in Tony's universe Doom would have gone for him directly, but this Reed puttered around with esoteric concepts in one of Stark Industries labs in a true absent-minded scientist way, rarely emerging from the basement to even notice the real world.
"Chatter, guys," Steve said, half-heartedly. He didn't really want them to stop talking. Tony swore that he had made their communications totally secure, and while Tony's rambling was a little distracting, it was less of a distraction than worrying about Tony in silence. The first time the Avengers had gone out to fight, they'd returned to find Tony sprawled on the floor, barely conscious. He'd revived in Steve's arms, and reluctantly admitted that he'd fretted himself into a collapse because he kept imagining that Steve was dead.
"Heads up," Natasha said sharply. "We have a new element on the field."
Steve ricocheted his shield off three Doombots. "Hostile?" Steve asked Natasha even as he reached up to snag the shield and pivoted to ward off a blast of... whatever. He really didn't like the Doombots. They all looked alike, but some of them had extra abilities, like the purple blast which splattered off his shield and melted the corner of a nearby brick building.
"Well, she's wearing green armor," Natasha said. "Like Loki."
Clint added, "Oh, crap. She just kissed Hulk and he's following her like a puppy. She's... I can't blame him. She's beautiful."
"That sounds like Amora," Tony said. "Crap is right. If she's like my version, she's Asgardian tough and has some kind of magical seduction power that works on most men and apparently Hulks, too."
Steve smashed a few more Doombots. He wasn't close enough to see the woman they were talking about, but Hulk's green back was in his sight. "Widow, can you take her out?"
Natasha sounded irritated when she replied, "I would, but Hulk keeps getting in the way. Clint! Get away from her. Damn. Cap, she's got Hawkeye."
"That, I noticed," Steve said, ducking under an arrow, which continued on to skewer a Doombot that fizzled and collapsed. He hoped that Clint was faking being under Amora's influence and had counted on Steve dodging.
A loud thunder crack drew Steve's attention. Thor appeared, legs braced, armor polished, Mjolnir whirling, and face grim. "Thor!" Steve shouted. He really hoped Tony would take the cue, and stay silent. They hadn't seen Thor since Tony's arrival, and explanations were a luxury they couldn't afford at the moment. "Do you know the lady?"
"Indeed, Captain, I do." Thor strode forward, casually backhanding Doombots with his hammer. "We have a long history."
Steve followed in Thor's wake, breaking Doombots with each stride.
"AMORA!" Thor shouted. "Cease this madness! Return to Asgard! There is nothing on Midgard for you."
"Is there not?" The woman's voice was rich and smooth, throaty, like Greta Garbo's. It should have been pleasant, but it made a shiver of disgust run down Steve's spine as if he'd touched something slimy. Thor stopped. He stood there, trembling, and Mjolnir hung from his hand, swaying slightly. "You are here, Thor," she said.
"Thor?" Steve backed away to give himself more maneuvering room. The Doombots were centering in on him. He couldn't see Natasha. If Thor fell under Amora's influence, Steve could be the last Avenger fighting. He concentrated on keeping the Doombots at bay. If they surrounded him... that would be bad.
"Do. Do not do this, Amora," Thor said, haltingly. "You cannot force my affections."
Amora laughed. "Of course I can, dearest."
Thor took a slow step towards her. "It is a lie. How can you wish an enslaved companion?"
"In time, you'll grow to truly love me, Thor."
"Never." But Thor took another step. Now Steve could see past him. Amora was smiling, a smug, self-satisfied smirk. Hulk and Clint stood to either side of her, faces blank and emotionless.
"No, Thor," Steve called. "Fight it! It's not real!"
There was a soft thump behind him and Steve whirled, fist cocked and ready. "Widow," he said in relief. "Are you all right?" She had blood streaked down the right side of her face and a huge reddish patch over half her face. It was going to be a beaut of a shiner.
"Fine," she said, taking up position next to him. She tossed her head to clear her hair from her eyes. "This is just how I planned to spend my day." She used her Widow's Bite on the closest Doombot.
Tony's voice came over the comm. "It's not how I planned to spend mine! You need backup." At this point, Steve didn't care what Thor heard, if he could hear anything over Amora's seductive croonings.
Steve bashed a Doombot, jumped over the falling body, and kicked the head off of another while he heard the Widow's Bite zapping almost continuously. It was ridiculous how many of the things Doom had. They kept Steve and Natasha fully occupied. Thor was still stuck in a tableau with Amora, so no help there, beyond keeping her busy. Maybe she was unable to do more than hold Clint and Hulk immobile while she fought to control Thor. "I'm open to suggestions!"
"Iron Man." Tony sounded out of breath, like he'd been running.
"No!" Steve shouted.
"It's all right. I won't be in it. Jarvis will be operating the suit. He's not as good as me, but then, who is?"
"I don't like it!" Steve was angry. He should be protecting Tony and the baby, not the other way around.
"Sorry. Gotta go. Jarvis needs coaching." There was a pause. "Love you. Wait. Pretend I didn't say that. Force of habit."
"TONY!" Steve shouted. A moment later Iron Man announced his presence by repulsor blasting a Doombot that was attempting to crowd Steve back against a building.
"He does know how to make an entrance," Natasha said.
Iron Man continued flying in a smooth arc, alternating left and right repulsor blasts with an occasional shoulder missile launch where ever several Doombots were clustered. Tony said, "Not getting any life-signs from the tin cans, Captain. Looks like Daddy let the kids cross the street by themselves."
"Too bad." Steve wasn't normally a vengeful man, but it was his city Victor Von Doom was ripping up out of petty spite and his friends who were being hurt. Steve would like to punch him, at least once. Give him a black eye to match Natasha's.
Iron Man wasn't doing any fancy flying; the suit had come from another dimension and Jarvis hadn't flown it before. The clumsiness was reassuring in a way; it proved that Tony hadn't squeezed himself into it. He was getting pretty chunky around the middle, but that suit had been made to expand. Trust Tony Stark to build a maternity Iron Man. It still packed plenty of firepower, and Doombots weren't gazelles, so Jarvis was taking out a lot of them.
Steve decided he could try to attack Amora, now that there wasn't a troop of 'Doom Doom Doom' chanting robots between him and her. "Widow!" Once he caught her attention he indicated Amora, who now had Thor kneeling at her feet, looking up at her in adoration. "Cover me."
She frowned. "Maybe I should go for her. You're not affected?"
"No." Steve took out another robot. "I want to get my hands on her, but not to kiss her."
Natasha shrugged. "I've got your back."
Amora looked up casually as Steve ran towards her. He could hear Natasha zapping Doombots in the distance. There weren't any near Amora, which he supposed was professional villain courtesy on Dr. Doom's part. Amora was petting Thor's hair, as if he were a dog. His helmet was on the ground, with Mjolnir lying next to it. "Let Thor go!" Steve shouted. He drew the shield in position to throw. If she was built of the same dense Asgardian stuff as Thor he'd have to go full force to have a chance of knocking her out. Of course, if she wasn't, that would kill her. He hesitated.
Amora lifted one hand from Thor to point at Steve. "Kill that insolent mortal for me, Green One."
Hulk leaped past Amora to snatch up Steve in one of his huge hands, pinning Steve's arms to his sides. Hulk's eyes were blank. He didn't even seem angry. He lifted his other hand and made a fist. Steve squirmed. He couldn't get breath enough to tell Bruce that it wouldn't be his fault.
"Hulk! No!" Tony shouted as Iron Man flew clumsily into Hulk's arm, knocking Steve loose. Steve lay on the broken pavement, dizzy and gasping for breath. Looking up he had a perfect view of Hulk backhanding the armor so hard the arc reactor shattered. It fell like a broken toy at Hulk's feet.
Hulk lifted his hand to smash the armor again, and then froze. His arm shook. His lips drew back from his teeth, and he roared. "NO. HULK SMASH YOU." He whirled and punched Amora in the face. She fell and lay still, but was breathing, so, yeah, Asgardian durability.
Steve pushed himself to sit, and then to stand. Natasha was at his side in that swift, silent way she had. Clint and Thor looked dazed, blinking as if waking. Hulk turned back to the armor. "TONY?" He poked at the armor and then picked it up and shook it. There were no lights and the limbs rattled like a wind chime. "NOOOOO!" Hulk roared again, and then pried the face plate off the helmet, throwing it so hard it embedded in the marble-faced facade of a bank. "NO TONY?" Hulk poked the tip of a finger into the empty suit, and then turned it upside down and shook it again. He looked around and fastened his gaze on Steve. "WHERE TONY?"
"He's not here." Steve braced his ribs; probably not broken, but definitely hurting. "That was Jarvis. You know, Jarvis? Back in the Tower?" He hoped he wouldn't have to mention that Tony was alive. There were always people watching them battle; police, newsmen, civilians either too frightened or too stupid to run.
"HUH." Hulk laid the suit down. "HULK HEAD HURT. WANT TO GO HOME."
"Yes. We will, right after we take Amora into custody." Steve glanced at the woman's body, just in time to see it enveloped in a green glow and disappear. "What?"
Thor had picked up Mjolnir and his helmet, and was half-supporting Clint, half leaning on his hammer braced against the pavement. "Amora has gone. She must have set a spell to take her to safety in the event of her defeat." He sounded exhausted.
"HULK GO HOME," Hulk said. He picked up Iron Man and tucked it under his arm.
Natasha said, "Let someone else handle the clean up."
"Yeah. It's been a day." Steve let Hulk lead the way. Hulk considerately pushed piles of Doombots and rubble to either side, making a path for his teammates.
Thor dropped Clint the moment Tony walked into the Avengers' communal room to greet them on their return. "DRAUGAR!" Thor shouted, raising Mjolnir with a still shaky hand. "I will drive you back to your grave, foul creature!"
Steve stepped hastily in between. "No, Thor. Tony's from another world, he's not a... dragger." Steve had no idea what that was, but Thor acted like he'd just seen Dracula.
Clint grabbed at Thor's ankle and Natasha put her arms around his hand. "Thor, old buddy," Clint said, "put down the hammer."
Natasha nodded. "We will explain."
"He has the blue-death glow, and has increased his size," Thor protested. "These are infallible signs!"
The elevator returned. Hulk stepped out, still carrying the suit. He dropped it with a loud clatter. "HULK HOME, TONY." He reached out and punched Thor, knocking him flying. Since Hulk liked to do this at least once during every battle they shared, Steve didn't know whether he'd even noticed Thor's hostility towards Tony. Bruce had been right, Hulk liked Tony. "HULK WANT COFFEE."
"Sure thing, big guy," Tony said. He waved at Thor, who was climbing back to his feet. "Arc reactor." He pointed at his chest. "Baby." He pointed at his belly, which at roughly six months along didn't need pointing out, particularly not while Tony was wearing the custom printed maternity T-shirt Clint had got him which bore a downwards aimed arrow and the words 'I BUILD NEAT STUFF'. "Coffee." He pointed behind himself at the kitchen alcove. "I'm Tony Stark from another reality."
"Ah, you come from a world not bound by Yggdrasil, " Thor said, the little frown of confusion lifting from his brow. "I should have realized you were not a draugur. They smell of rot. You smell of fruit and flowers."
"Aromatherapy. Lemon and lavender. Bruce's idea." Tony shrugged. "Couldn't hurt. Speaking of hurt..."
"Yeah," Steve said, "we're all right. We'll go down and let Bruce look us over once he comes back."
"COFFEE," Hulk rumbled. "HULK WANT DANISH, TOO."
Natasha gave Clint a hand up. "I want a handful of aspirin with my coffee," Clint muttered. "Worst breakup I ever had." Natasha gave him a fairly mild cuff. "Ow," he said and grinned at her. "Blondes, who needs 'em?"
Steve followed Tony into the kitchen while Clint and Natasha, with occasional interjections from Hulk, filled Thor in on Tony's story. Tony glanced at Steve, and then turned his attention to the coffee machine. "I like blonds," he said quietly.
"Huh." Steve reached around Tony to open a box of Danish. "Funny. I was always partial to brunets."
Tony ducked his head, but Steve caught the corner of a smile.
"So." Fury walked into the main room an hour later, with the Avengers all gathered companionably to watch the battle footage and argue over who got the most Doombots, and how stylishly they did it. He waved his hand at the montage of TV, newspaper article, and internet sites. Iron Man and Hulk were featured prominently. "Pinkie swear, eh, Stark?"
Tony was sitting on one couch a bit squeezed between Steve and Bruce, while Thor, Clint and Natasha shared another. There was some carryover from Hulk and Bruce was trying to reassure him that Tony was all right. Tony waved his hands in a 'what can you do' gesture. "Rescuing the team hardly counts as using Jarvis or the suit for evil."
Steve said, "I've already issued a statement that the suit was a remote controlled unit, a legacy of Mr. Stark's that we only use in emergencies."
Fury grunted. "True, Hulk pouting like a kid finding an empty piñata helped, but it still raises questions. Questions I would rather not be raised!"
"Please," Bruce said, "Don't shout. I've got a love spell hangover." He rubbed his temples and leaned back.
"Director Fury," Steve said, "While I understand your concern, I don't really know why you're here. It's done, and we're handling the situation." Tony was cuddled up against him, and Steve's arm had slipped naturally around Tony's shoulders. It was nice. It was really nice to have someone to hold.
"Yeah. I see the handling."
Bruce opened his eyes and looked at Fury. "You don't really care what the public thinks, do you? What are you afraid of?"
Fury was silent for a moment, and then he turned to leave.
Steve said, "Who's behind SHIELD?"
Fury stood still, with his back to Steve. "People who make me look like a fluffy kitten, Captain." He turned slightly to look back at Steve. "If they find out about Mr. Stark, and get acquisitive... I might not be able to stop them. He doesn't officially exist."
Tony straightened. "Acquisitive?"
"To all appearances, you've returned from the dead. Your father had worked on the super soldier serum. These people tend to add two and two to get five. If they think your body holds the secret of immortality, they'll try to rip it from you." Fury nodded. "Think on that." He strode out of the room and into the elevator, turning to glare at them as the door shut.
Clint and Natasha exchanged glances. "I hate to say it, but I think he has a point," Clint said after their silent conversation ended with Natasha tilting her head to give him the lead.
"Immortality is not a gift," Thor said. "There are prices to be paid. Sacrifices to be made."
Bruce's eyes were very green. "Some people would make others pay the price."
Steve pulled Tony tighter against himself. "That's not gonna happen."
"Ow." Tony rubbed his foot. "Why did that chip hurt worse than the other?" He was sitting on a table in the laboratory part of the workshop, with one sleeve rolled up to the shoulder, and one foot bare. The foot was rather puffy looking, and bleeding slightly.
Steve had come along for moral support, but experiments on people always unsettled him, so he hadn't said anything. Bruce was Tony's friend, and wouldn't deliberately hurt him... but... experiments.
"The foot is very rich in nerve endings," Bruce told Tony. He pressed a pad of gauze under the arch of Tony's foot. "I placed it where you're unlikely to apply pressure, but if it still hurts after a day or so, let me know, and I'll remove it and try again."
Tony nodded. "Check them out."
Bruce picked up a StarkPad and ran through the tracker menu. He turned it so Tony could see a human outline, with a one glowing green dot on an arm. "Left arm responding to signal. Foot inactive." He touched the green dot. It went blank. They waited and watched the pad. After five minutes a green dot lit up the right foot. "And that's it." Bruce turned off the foot signal and turned the arm back on. "Even if someone finds and destroys the first tracker, they're unlikely to wait five minutes and scan you again."
"Great! Thanks, Bruce." Tony levered himself off the examination table, with Bruce's help.
"I'm not happy about it. Implanted devices could cause cancer."
"They can?" Steve didn't like that at all.
"It increases the odds, maybe. I've taken that into account." Tony tapped his fingers against the arc reactor. "It's not a new thing."
"Oh," Bruce said. "That. Right."
"Yeah. My Dummy was fitted with olfactory sensors patterned after cancer-sniffing dogs. This guy has it, too." Tony patted Dummy who had come up and observed the procedure with apparent keen interest. "He'd tell me if there was anything bad going on, wouldn't you, Buddy?"
Dummy chirped and nodded. Steve had now another reason for liking Dummy, besides his puppy loyalty to Tony.
"So, if Fury's mysterious Big Bad impounds me, you guys can swoop in and claim ownership," Tony said.
"I wouldn't want to have to fight Steve on that."
"Team mascot." Steve put his arm around Tony's shoulders. "We all take turns feeding and watering him anyway."
Tony grinned. "Hey, Bruce, wanna cop a feel? Mark's kicking again." He lifted up his shirt. Steve was a little jealous, but only a little. He got to feel whenever the baby kicked when they were in bed, after all.
"Mark?" Bruce laid his hand against Tony's belly and smiled as he felt movement against his palm. "I thought you didn't want to determine the gender."
"Mark II," Tony said. "The new and improved model."
The Avengers got invitations all the time, and some of them, they kept, not the political ones, or the commercial endorsements, but they each had a soft spot or two for a particular charity. Generally they arranged it so most of them were on call at the Tower, but when Pepper Potts sent them invitations to a ball held for the Maria Stark Foundation, they really didn't feel they could refuse. After all, she'd given them the Tower simply because she thought Tony would have wanted them to have it. The least they could do was support his mother's charity.
"I feel like a penguin," Steve said, tugging irritably at his black silk bow tie and smoothing the satin lapels of his tuxedo. "How long do one of these balls last?"
"Until Cinderella loses a glass slipper on the staircase," Tony said, reaching up to settle Steve's tie. He was wearing drawstring sweats and an oversized rock band t-shirt. He looked comfortable.
Natasha entered the room, head tilted as she put in an earring. She was wearing a black dress elegant in its simplicity. "Or until the liquor runs out."
Thor followed her. He was wearing a tuxedo, but with the addition of a gold ribbon fillet holding his hair back and Mjolnir thrust through a loop in his cummerbund. Thor had prevailed upon Heimdall to allow him to remain on Midgard for a while and he was enjoying the change of pace from Asgard, where, as he said, nothing ever changed. "That would indeed be time to depart," he said cheerfully.
"Between you and Steve, we should be able to drink the place dry and get back in half an hour," Clint said. His tux had a purple cummerbund and matching bow tie.
"That would be nice." Bruce came from the direction of the lab, shrugging into his jacket as he went. "I don't really know why I'm going anyway. No one will recognize me."
"Solidarity, Bruce," Clint said. "Plus you're too big a coward to turn down Pepper Potts' invitation."
Bruce shrugged. "True."
As balls go, Steve supposed this one was pretty good. He hadn't seen Ms. Potts yet. There were a lot of people here, and most of them wanted a dance with Captain America, so he really hadn't had a chance to look. He hoped that she hadn't regretted inviting the Avengers and decided not to come. He could understand it if she had. Seeing them must remind her of Tony. Her Tony.
The music had a rhythm you could dance to, and he hadn't stepped on anyone's feet, which was a wonder because half his mind was on Tony. Not that anything would happen. As Tony kept saying, he was pregnant, not sick. Jarvis and the bots were there, so it wasn't as if he was really alone by Tony standards. Steve had slipped a comm earpiece in before he left. It was so tiny no one would see it and Tony would be able to hear what Steve heard.
It was all small talk, which he forgot the moment he turned to another dance partner. Tall, short, blonde, brunette, redhead, curvy, slender, dark, light, man, woman... wait... oh, yeah, men could dance with men. Especially at a gala with celebrities apparently. Steve would rather have been dancing with a not too tall brunet man. Tony could make it fun. He could make anything fun.
"Oh, crap," came Tony's voice in his ear.
Steve wordlessly handed off his dance partner to Natasha and ducked into one of the alcoves where the charity had set up stands to accept donations. He nodded at the woman seated behind the table, and she must have seen something in his expression, because she grabbed up the receipt box and left. Steve backed against the wall to muffle the sounds of the party. "What's wrong, Tony?"
Tony sounded out of breath, as if he was running. "Workshop elevator's been called. Jarvis didn't warn me. Must be... compromised."
Steve felt his stomach clench around an icy ball. "Get to your safe room!" He pushed past startled dancers, heading outside. He caught glimpses of his team. They were following him.
"Can't reach it. Elevator's overridden. I'm taking the stairs to the...Hulk.... out... room. Shh, Junior..."
"Good. Good." Steve slammed open the door and looked for the limo they'd come in. Damn valet parking. "We're coming. Just lie low."
Natasha ran up to Steve. She had keys in her hand, and pointed to a flame-red Maserati convertible. "Get in."
Steve didn't bother to question the source, but leaped into the passenger side moments before Natasha took the driver's seat and Clint piled into the back, dragging Bruce in next to him. Thor said, "Where are we going?" He was already spinning Mjolnir.
"The Tower. Someone's after Tony. He's going to the Hulk room."
Thor nodded. "I will see you there!" Mjolnir spun into a silvery blur and took off with Thor flying behind it.
Natasha floored the accelerator, leaving a patch of burning rubber and a gaping valet standing in the lot.
"Tony," Steve cupped his hand near the ear-piece, trying to minimize the growl of the engine and the squeals as Natasha took corners with a blithe disregard for traffic conventions. "We're on our way."
Tony was really panting now. "Great. Wow... Maserati?"
Steve shouldn't be surprised that Tony could recognize a car by its engine. "Natasha stole it." Steve put his free hand on the dashboard to anchor himself as the car lifted two wheels briefly off the ground. "We may have to pay for it. I don't think it'll ever be the same again."
Tony gave a short laugh, and then the sound of his voice changed, becoming echoic. "I'm in the... hey, so this is where all my booze went?"
"Now is not the time, Tony."
"Aw, but you shook the wine. It'll be months before it's fit to drink."
"It'll be months before you're fit to drink," Steve said.
"Point," Tony acknowledged. "Should put a couch in here. I'm sitting on a case of very old wine and getting splinters in my ass."
Steve let Tony ramble. It was good for their nerves. "We're almost there," Steve said. "Thor's flying in ahead."
"Great. There goes another window. Not that I care about the windows, but get the glaziers in, and I have to hide... I don't... it's a little like a cave in here." Tony's voice wavered.
"Just a few more minutes, Tony." Steve knew he sounded tense. Natasha flicked a glance toward him and then somehow forced more speed out of the car. He was pretty sure they were flying part of the time. Thank heaven the street was relatively empty this time of night.
"It's fine. I'm fine, Steve." There was a loud series of beeps. "Oh. Not so fine."
"What was that?"
"Override access... code." Tony was panting now. "Door. Damn. I'm dizzy." There was a crash, a sound like splintering wood and breaking glass, and then silence.
"TONY?!" Steve shouted, just once. Then he said, "The comm's gone. Someone broke into the Hulk room."
"Stop the car," Bruce said. "Stop it. NOW."
Natasha slammed on the brakes. Bruce jumped out before the car stopped, Hulked out, and leaped towards the Tower. Natasha revved up again and followed him.
"It'll be all right," Clint said, leaning forward against the wind of their speed to shout in his ear. "Thor must be there by now."
"Yeah." Steve was going to make wearing earpieces mandatory from now on. He gripped the dash so hard it crumpled.
The elevators were working, but Jarvis was silent. Steve found the never used manual controls and fumed while the elevator worked at merely Tony Stark efficient speed. Natasha and Clint flanked him, silent and grim, tensed to attack. An elevator was always a potential trap, but running up ninety some flights of stairs would take far too long.
The moment the doors opened, they burst out, with Steve in the lead. There was glass on the floor, and not much of it left in the wall. Presumably Thor and Hulk had arrived. There wasn't any sound of battle, but neither did he hear Tony's voice. Just Thor talking, with Hulk rumbling and a woman answering.
Had Amora returned? Steve skidded around the corner and bunched his fists. The back of his tuxedo split with a loud ripping noise. Three of the four people in the room looked up. Hulk was sitting with Tony draped over one knee, head down to almost touch the floor. Thor was standing with Mjolnir in one hand, and his other arm supporting a trembling, pale, Pepper Potts.
"Tony?" Steve knelt to check Tony. His pulse was racing, but Steve didn't see any obvious injuries. He looked up at Pepper. "What happened?"
"I..." Pepper visibly swallowed. "I saw the suit in the battle. It... it couldn't be one of Tony's, I'd destroyed them. All. Tony didn't want anyone except Rhodey to have one. I made sure you were all out and I came to see to it that no one had got the blueprints for one of the old suits. I overrode Jarvis. I saw the suit and..." Pepper gulped again. She was staring at Tony, ignoring Thor and Hulk. "It wasn't any of the ones I knew. I decided Tony had made a drone without telling me, and he'd probably trust the Avengers with it, so I left it. But... so long as I was here... I thought I'd... have a drink in Tony's memory. Bruce told me where you'd put the liquor. That you didn't want it. So... I... and then...he... and I... " Pepper waved her hands. "He knocked over a crate and fainted. And then Thor and Hulk came."
Steve stood up. "I guess we should have told you, but we thought it would be... unkind. Tony came from another dimension. He's... different from the Tony Stark you knew."
"He's fat." Pepper put her hands in front of her mouth. "I'm sorry. That was rude."
"He's not fat. He's pregnant." Steve leaned down to pat Tony's face.
"Oh. My." Pepper leaned against Thor. "I think I really do need a drink now."
Hulk made another grumbling noise and picked up Tony. "FLOOR HARD. NOT GOOD FOR BABY." He led the way back to the common room and deposited Tony on the largest couch, before folding himself back into Bruce.
Thor opened a bottle and began pouring drinks. Steve took off his ruined jacket and sat next to Tony. Natasha and Clint had disappeared. Probably going to report to Fury. Great.
"I'm going to tell Rhodey and Happy," Pepper said firmly. She wiped at her eyes with a tissue. "They deserve to know, and they can keep secrets."
"I'm not the man you knew," Tony said. He was still a little pale and leaning against Steve. "I don't know what your relationship to him was, but my Pepper was like a sister to me. Which really was just as well. In all the 'verses Reed saw where you and I bonded before I met Steve either we had a vicious breakup or something horrible happened to at least one of us. It was always a mess. My Pepper married Happy."
"Happy?" Pepper asked.
"Yeah. They really... they had their ups and downs, but they stuck it out and their marriage was the stronger for it. Last I heard, Happy was expecting their second. If it was a boy, they were going to name him Tony."
"Happy." Pepper looked dazed.
Tony leaned forward and patted her on the knee. "Happy."
"You're all right?" Steve asked Tony that night, when they were getting ready for bed.
"Sure." Tony finished brushing his teeth and came to Steve for his goodnight kiss. Steve couldn't put his finger on when that had become a habit, but he didn't mind. Not at all. Tony was so cuddly and warm. "Just. Seeing Pepper. A Pepper. Seeing anyone who isn't an Avenger, really. I've become a hermit."
"Tony." That made Steve think. It wasn't a sudden realization, but something he'd been putting off thinking about. "What are you going to do after the baby's born?"
Tony rested his forehead against Steve's chest. "I... have no idea. I could change my looks, get a job as a mechanic. Pepper has connections-- knows doctors we could trust. Wouldn't mind that, really. It'd be nice not to be a paparazzi target. I'd miss you guys, though."
"But the bond. You said you'd die." This is why Steve hadn't thought about it. Either Tony stayed here, pent up like a house pet forever, or he would die. Steve couldn't leave the Avengers to go away with him. He owed that much to the other Tony.
"Eh. There are ways to break it. It wouldn't work for a perfect bond, like... I used to have. But right now, what we have... well, we haven't even had sex, so... it would be bad, but give me a few weeks to recover after the birth and I'm pretty sure I'd survive."
"Seventy-- eighty percent. Better than I usually have for some of the things I've done."
"What about the baby if you don't make it?"
"I talked to Pepper when you left the room to get me a drink of water. She promised she'd take the baby, whether or not she and Happy get together. Pepper always wanted kids. She wouldn't mind getting an early start on a family." Tony pulled back slightly to look at Steve. "She promised you could see the kid whenever you want. I'd like that. A kid should have a father at least once in a while."
"Yeah." Steve hugged Tony. It was sensible. Tony would be better off, safer, away from the Avengers. And Steve couldn't raise a child by himself. Could he?
Iron Man's appearance seemed to have put up a big 'I dare you to take New York' sign in flashing neon lights to all the villains in the world. At least once a week someone started raising a ruckus that the police couldn't handle. For the most part, the Avengers managed to bring them down without causing major property damage or any civilian casualties.
It helped that Thor was now semi-permanently in New York, except when he was visiting Jane Foster at her observatory in Tromsø. They had worked out an arrangement that suited them, where they saw enough of each other to keep the romance alive, but not so much as to grow annoyed with each other's habits. Steve was a bit surprised that he no longer found most of Tony's annoying habits really bothered him. Sure Tony was loud, and self-centered, and had a very poor brain to mouth filter, but he was also brave, and honest, and had the prettiest eyes... and Steve was not fooling himself. He let Tony get away with murder because he was so cute. Maybe after the baby was born, Tony wouldn't make Steve's insides turn to mush every time he smiled.
Yeah. Because Tony would be gone then, one way or the other. Steve's life could get back to normal. New normal, that is. It would be fine.
Oh, and Steve had been thinking about the rise in villainy, not about Tony's big, brown eyes. He would be busy leading the team. Tony had said he'd leave the Iron Man behind, and Jarvis was getting better at controlling it, so that would be fine. The Avengers could get along without Tony. It wasn't as if they needed him. It wasn't as if Steve needed him. Everything would be perfectly fine.
The latest villain had giant octopus overturning boats and slithering onto the docks, grabbing at people and destroying machinery. One of them flailed around and caught Iron Man, breaking both hand repulsors, so Steve had ordered Jarvis back out of the action. Tony was keeping up with minor repairs on the armor, but he didn't have the energy for a total re-build. The baby was really sapping Tony's strength lately.
"You land-dwellers think you can foul my domain with impunity! See how Namor, the Mighty Sub-Mariner, repays your filth," the villain, dressed in only a pair of fish-scale Speedos, sneered from his precarious perch atop a pair of giant crabs. Steve sure hoped those things didn't normally live in the Hudson. As it was, he'd be looking over the side every time he took the Staten Island ferry for weeks after this.
Tony had been upset that Jarvis was 'hurt' so Steve wasn't surprised to hear him mutter, "What a hypocrite. Where does a Sub-Mariner shit?" over Steve's private comms link. He was surprised to see Namor's pointy Spock-type ears swivel toward Steve. Namor then turned his head in the direction of Manhattan. Steve couldn't be sure, of course, but he had an eerie feeling that Namor was looking towards the Tower.
"Only a coward speaks from concealment," Namor proclaimed in a ringing, 'I am hot-stuff', voice. And then the smug bastard rose up into the sky, apparently supported by a pair of fluttering tiny wings at each ankle, which made absolutely no sense at all. He gave Steve another smirk from above. "I would see this coward." Namor made a gesture and the octopuses and giant crabs and other things that had no business being in New York City's harbor converged on the Avengers, keeping them too busy to follow Namor.
"Tony!" Steve shouted over the private comm while chopping tentacles with the edge of his shield. "Go to the safe room, NOW! Namor's after you. He's following the comm signal."
"That's impossible, Steve," Tony said soothingly. "He'd have to be able to... I don't know, sense electrical fields directionally, and somehow single out one signal from the millions in the city."
There was a crash of shattering glass, and Steve heard Namor over the comms. "Yes, I would. I have gifts from my subjects, among them the electric eels, and the dolphins. I can use their sonar to see in the depths, their field-sensing to track live things as well as the signals you land-dwellers rely on."
"Oh. Well, that's very interesting," Tony said. "I'm sure it makes you the life of the party."
"Tony!" Steve ordered, "Don't antagonize him."
"No, Tony," Namor mocked. "Don't antagonize me." There was a scuffling noise, and Steve could hear Tony gasping, as if he was being choked.
"NAMOR! You're the coward! Come and fight ME, like a man." The damn octopuses wouldn't get out of Steve's way, no matter how many he killed. The dock was now slippery with their blood, blue and weird smelling.
"A glutton deserves no mercy," Namor said. "In my realm one eats only what one needs."
"Tony's not FAT, for cripes' sake!" Steve jumped onto a crab's back and used it as a stepping stone to somersault over an octopus. He was almost clear of the dock. The other Avengers were occupied, and weren't on the private comm line, so they didn't know what was happening with Tony. Even Hulk was slowing, buried under a pile of creatures. "He's PREGNANT!" He switched over to the main team line. "Namor's got Tony. I'm going after him."
Then he switched back to the private line, and kept running. Namor chuckled. "So he is. How intriguing. This little seahorse is valuable to you, him and his child, is he not?"
"Fuck you!" Tony yelled. There was a brief squabble and then Tony gasped, and went silent.
"TONY!" Steve dodged people and vehicles on instinct, cursing the serum for not giving him the ability to fly, or better still, to teleport. It took so little time to kill.
"Yes," Namor said with satisfaction. "And you are the Captain of America. You have influence. I will hold your little seahorse until your country pledges not to traverse my waters with your tankers, nor to purge your cities' refuse into the oceans." Steve heard the whirring of Namor's idiotic ankle-wings.
"No one tells Namor, Prince of Atlantis, what to do."
"Tony's a prince, too!" Steve shouted. It was something he'd heard, a prince of industry. If it would make Namor less likely to kill Tony, he'd say he was a walrus.
"Let us test the truth of that. A people should know their prince."
Steve could hear the crowd gasp. He imagined the scene as Namor fluttered down with Tony to street level. Amid the confusion, there were cries of 'Tony Stark' mingled with other shouts of disbelief and outrage. Oh, yeah, people remembered Tony Stark. Steve arrived just in time to see Namor take to the skies again, disappearing amid the skyscrapers. "NO!" Steve screamed. He turned in a frustrated circle, before the sight of Avengers' Tower reminded him that he could track Tony.
The elevator took him up to the workshop so fast he Steve felt like he was being launched into space. The doors snapped open and Dummy was right there, chirping frantically and holding out the tracker. "Good boy," Steve said, snatching it and turning it on. The little green light glowed reassuringly. "Jarvis, how are the Avengers doing?"
Jarvis said, "The sea creatures have made a strategic withdrawal, Captain. The Avengers are returning to the Tower. They wish to speak with you."
Steve flicked back to the main comm. channel. "We need a plan."
Fury was glaring so hard, Steve thought he'd pop a vein. "Tony Stark was in Times Square." They'd got a lift from one of the SHIELD helicopters present at the battle, and gone to the helicarrier to beg, borrow, or steal a quinjet, but they only got as far as the deck before Fury stopped them.
"It was not by choice," Thor said. "This Namor..."
"Oh, yeah, that makes it all better. A giant naked elf with winged feet was dangling Stark above the crowd."
"Namor wore swimming trunks, sir, " Natasha remarked.
"I don't think you get the point. The conspiracy rumors are everywhere. Stark is a robot, Stark is an long-lost evil twin, Stark is an alien shapeshifter, his death was a ruse to manipulate the stock market, Stark was dead for a year for tax purposes, Stark disappeared to cover up his weight gain due to some horrible tropical disease, probably sexually transmitted..."
Clint said, "Hey, the last one has possibilities!" Steve gave Clint a stern look. Clint shrugged. "I mean, that way he could 'recover' in a couple of months, and..."
"And what?" Fury said. "He isn't Tony Stark. He doesn't exist. I've warned you what will happen if you try to pass him off as Stark..."
Steve interrupted, "Are you going to give us a quinjet, or not?"
"Not. I'm sorry, Captain, but..."
Steve surged to his feet and checked that he had the tracker clipped to his belt. "Thor, if you can, follow us." He started walking, then broke into a run.
"Where do you think you're..."
Bruce Hulked out and roared in Fury's face. Thor whirled his hammer and took off. Clint and Natasha tripped up the agents trying to get to the fighter jets.
Steve leaped off the side of the helicarrier. He held up his arms and looked up into the cloudless sky. "NOW would be a good time!" Metal hands wrapped around his wrists and his fall was abruptly halted, jerking painfully at his shoulders.
"I have you, Captain Rogers," Jarvis said, flying Iron Man away from the helicarrier. He didn't have Tony's style, and the suit was battered, but it was beautiful to Steve at that moment. "I will adjust our relative positions once we are sufficiently distant."
"Yeah. That would be nice." Steve's arms were going numb.
A few minutes later, Jarvis angled upward and wrapped his arms around Steve's waist, with Steve looking outward. "Will this suffice?"
"Perfect." Steve checked the tracker and gave Jarvis the coordinates. "You're faster than Namor, but we don't want to catch him until he's put Tony down." And pray God he doesn't actually take Tony under the ocean.
Thor came up on Steve's right, hammer whirling and wind whipping his hair. "That is wise, Captain. I will follow your lead."
After a while Jarvis said, "Captain, the tracker coordinates now coincide with those of an unnamed islet. They have not moved for the last five minutes."
Steve nodded. "Bring me in as close as you can, as quick as you can. If Namor has left Tony we'll snatch him and run for it." He looked at Thor.
"Yes. I can do that, Captain. Retrieving Tony is more important than engaging in combat." Thor looked sad for a moment. "This Namor calls himself a Prince. I should have liked to challenge him."
"Next time." Steve had noticed that they seldom actually eliminated a villain. Minions, yes, but the guy at the top always managed to get away, or to escape after being captured, only to return after he'd recruited more cannon fodder.
"And if Namor is there?" Jarvis asked.
"Drop me next to him. And Thor, you take Tony and go back to the Tower. We don't know what other tricks Namor has up his... well, he doesn't wear sleeves. But I won't risk Tony."
"Very well," Thor said. "Jarvis will serve as your second. Watch closely, Jarvis! I would hear the saga in full!"
Namor was there on the strip of sand encircling the small island. Tony was standing, facing him. From a distance Steve couldn't see their expressions, but Tony's body language spoke of weary defiance. Steve had ordered comm silence, but Namor's pointy ears were probably pretty sharp even for ordinary sounds and neither Mjolnir nor Iron Man were quiet. So Steve calculated the windage, nodded to Thor, and leaped from Iron Man thirty feet up. He landed astride Namor's shoulders, driving him to the sand and then rolling over to start punching. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Tony staring at him, wide-eyed, for an instant before Thor landed more cautiously than Steve and tried to pick up Tony, only Tony wasn't having any of it. Iron Man landed a second later and held out his arms to Tony.
"Ow! No, no, no." Tony back-pedaled through the sand until he tripped and fell on his ass. "No more!" He wrapped his arms around his torso. "Really. Not a good idea."
Steve glanced at Tony. Tony was shaking, and there were livid bruises on his throat. He turned back to Namor. "He's mine. And that's my baby. Touch him again, and I'll kill you."
Namor drew himself up and faced Steve. "Will you?" He sneered and gestured at Iron Man and Thor. "I challenge you. Just you. Prove that land-dwellers have honor."
"Sure thing. Stay back, guys, I've got this," Steve got his shield from his back and began circling Namor, testing his response. "I'll happily beat the honorable heck out of you, Mister."
Namor was strong, Steve had already noticed that, but as they grappled and punched and kicked, he noticed that Namor kept shifting, trying to guide them back into the water. And when the surf washed around his feet, he got stronger. Steve remembered a Greek legend, about a wrestler who drew his strength by touching the earth. Namor needed the sea. Steve grinned. Namor had got in a couple good shots and Steve had one eye swollen shut and a split lip.
It didn't hurt a bit. Tony was watching. Tony knew that Steve would take care of him. He wasn't going to lose. Step by step, he drove Namor away from the ocean, back into the dry sand, into the scrubby bushes and straggling trees. Give Namor this much sense of fair play, he never tried to fly. Finally he fell to his knees, but he lifted his head proudly to glare at Steve. "I concede," he bit the words out sharply.
Steve leaned over, panting. "You're not going to bother Tony or our kids, ever again."
"Granted." Namor's eyes narrowed. "Will you not demand I spare your city as well?"
Steve shook his head. "This was personal." He didn't think that Namor would go for it, anyway.
Namor stared at Steve for another moment, and then he nodded.
Steve held out his hand. "Come on. You need to get back into the sea, don't you?"
"Honorable, indeed." Namor took Steve's hand and rose to his feet. He thumped Steve on the shoulder. "Never let it be said that Prince Namor is ungracious in defeat, although he has little experience of it."
Steve managed not to smile at that. He helped Namor down to the water. Namor waded in, moving stronger with each step. When the water was up to his neck, he turned to face Steve. "A gift for a noble warrior." Behind Namor a plume of water shot into the air, and a great gray whale's back rose above the surface. "He will carry your little seahorse in comfort back to your city. Farewell." Namor vanished, but the whale remained.
Steve turned back to look at Tony. Thor was helping him maneuver through the sand. "I never had anyone give me a whale before," he tried to joke.
For once, Tony's expression was totally serious. He reached Steve. "Yours?"
Steve nodded. "Yes. I'm not your first Steve, but I'm your Steve now, and I don't want to lose you."
"You're sure?" Tony wavered. Steve could see how much he wanted this. "There's no going back. Not for me."
"Not for me, either, Tony."
Tony and Steve were still snuggling on the back of the whale when they entered New York Harbor. Thor and Iron Man flew escort on either side. Clint and Natasha met them in a speedboat. "Where's Bruce?" Tony shouted over the roar of the engine.
"Back at the Tower," Clint shouted. Natasha was at the wheel. She drove the boat the same way she had the Maserati. Steve kept his arms wrapped about Tony. Just in case. Safety first.
"He's turning away visitors," Natasha added. "And giving out 'no comment' to all comers."
"Mmm," Tony leaned back against Steve. "We really are going to have to come up with a story for me now, aren't we?" Tony closed his eyes. "I have a brilliant idea."
"You do? Better than you faking your death to cover up getting fat because you caught a weird tropical STD?" Clint asked.
"Huh." Tony shifted to a more comfortable position in Steve's lap. "That's not bad. But no. I mean, we should ask Pepper."
Natasha muttered something in Russian. From the sound of it, she was annoyed that she hadn't thought of that herself.
Pepper flew in from California for the press conference. She walked up to the podium, poised and cooly collected. She held up her hand when the New York press, always an unruly bunch, leaped to their feet and began questioning her. She waved her hand and waited until the noise died down. "I will be reading a prepared statement on behalf of Mr. Stark. After that, there will be a question and answer period. Due to Mr. Stark's condition, I will terminate this conference if I feel it's becoming too stressful. Please bear that in mind." Pepper looked down at the papers in front of her.
Steve smiled at Tony. The Avengers were sitting in a row behind a curtain a few feet behind the podium. They had a little monitor high up, where they could see the auditorium. It switched from one angle to another continuously. Steve squeezed Tony's hand. He couldn't say anything, or they'd be heard. Tony smiled at him, a little nervously.
One of the reporters stood. "Ms. Potts, what precisely is Mr. Stark's condition?"
The monitor caught Pepper's genial smile. "I will get to that, in due course." The reporter sat down, looking dissatisfied. Pepper shuffled the papers and then laid them down on the podium, looking out at the reporters instead. "Eight months ago, all of New York saw Tony Stark die while saving us from an alien invasion." She didn't mention the nuclear bomb. It wasn't politic. But everyone in the room knew what had happened. "What New York did not see was that the portal only killed one Tony Stark." There was a murmur from the reporters, questions and shifting. She ignored them until they settled again.
"We don't have an explanation for how it was done, but while Hulk..." Pepper paused for a moment, and took a sip of water from the glass on the podium. "While Hulk was attempting to save one Tony Stark in the street of downtown Manhattan, another had materialized on the roof of Stark Tower, below the portal generator. The second one was alive, but changed." She waited, but while the reporters squirmed, they held their peace. "He was alive, and healthy, and Tony Stark. But his memory had been confused and his body changed as well. He is a true hermaphrodite." There was another wave of muttering. "His doctor tells me that his case is unique. It would be impossible to reverse the effects, even if Mr. Stark wished to do so. He does not. He agreed that Tony Stark was dead and he made no claim on the estate. All he requested was privacy and a chance to come to terms with his new life, and all the changes that accompanied it. He has been living in Avengers' Tower. He provided the Iron Man drone you've seen accompanying the Avengers into battle."
She took another sip of water. "Tony..." Pepper smiled. "Tony fell in love. And he is now expecting his first child." There was a stunned silence. "Medical records are confidential, of course, but Mr. Stark has agreed that a panel of qualified physicians may examine him to verify all that I've said." She made a gesture to the wings, and the curtain behind her drew open and a man came out to take away the podium. "I now open the floor for discussion." She went back to the Avengers and sat down next to Tony on the other side from Steve. Tony had opted to wear one of his more subdued maternity tops, a light gray silk wraparound with thin blue pinstripes that went well with his dark gray pinstriped trousers. Steve interlaced his fingers with Tony's.
"Mr. Stark!" A reporter bolted to his feet. "Are you claiming Steve Rogers as the father of your child?"
"Yep," Tony said with a gleeful grin. "Sorry, he's off the market."
Steve leaned forward. "What Tony means is that we've begun the paperwork for our wedding. It'll be a private ceremony, with just our closest friends."
"Gotta hurry." Tony patted his belly. "For the kid, you know?"
Tony looked really pale. Steve met him in front of the priest and took his hand to give it a reassuring squeeze. "Nervous?" he whispered. Asbury Hall was perfect. It had been a beautiful Gothic Revival church, restored by Righteous Babe Records after decades of disuse once the Methodist congregation disbanded. And now it was a gorgeous venue for music and art, supported by rentals of the hall. The windows were stained glass, there was carved rosewood everywhere, there were snowy white linens on the tables for their guests and the caterers and bartenders had already memorized everyone's preferences for the reception after the simple ceremony.
"Not nervous," Tony whispered, while the priest continued his speech about the sanctity of marriage, etc. etc. Tony looked at Steve and smiled, but then he trembled all over.
"Um. When I was adjusting my tux in the bathroom..."
"Yeah?" Steve had been jittery, Tony had taken so long to emerge, he'd been afraid Tony had changed his mind.
"I had a little... my water broke."
Steve's head jerked up, but before he could interrupt the ceremony, Tony pulled hard on his hand. "Finish this first. There's time. It's my first. We don't want the kid to be a little bastard, like his mom."
"If you're sure."
Tony nodded, but Steve still made a 'hurry up' gesture to the priest, hidden from the rest of the wedding party by his body. The priest, who looked disconcertingly like an older Nick Fury, except for his halo of snowy white curls, widened his eyes, glanced down at Tony's front, and neatly excised most of the frills of the ceremony, getting to the 'I dos' in record time.
Steve and Tony turned to let their guests see them kiss. Steve didn't close his eyes, so he saw Rhodey grinning like crazy, Pepper sniffling with Happy's arm around her, and Coulson unobtrusively handing Fury a hanky. They were holding hands. Steve noted that, but he was distracted when Tony pulled away from the kiss, and said, "Mercy."
"What?" Steve had thought he was being gentle.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Mercy Hospital."
"Right." Now Steve remembered the contingency plans. He swept Tony up in his arms and marched down in between the tables. "Have fun! Tony and I are going now." Tony tossed the bouquet into the air. There was a flash of red and gold, before Iron Man landed with the bouquet held in one hand. Dummy and You moved to flank him, peering curiously at the flowers. An arrow shot over Steve's head, sprinkling rice on them. There was a congratulatory clap of thunder when they left the building before the sky immediately cleared.
"I'm surprised Natasha didn't..." Tony shut up when he saw Natasha barring the way to his beautiful white limo with her hands on her hips and a pair of knives in full display. "Um, what?"
"Natasha, we don't have time for games," Steve said sternly. "We've got to get Tony to the hospital."
"All right," Natasha sighed and made the knives disappear. "We will do the vykup nevesty later. For luck." She opened the back door of the limo and got into the front. "Mercy Hospital?"
"Yes," Steve agreed as he settled Tony into the back seat and climbed in next to him. "What's viccup nevasty?"
"Russian tradition. The groom must pay ransom before the family allows him to see his true bride." She sighed and opened the other door in the front. "Get in, Clint."
A figure dressed in a flowing white wedding dress, face obscured by a veil, clutching a bow in one hand, entered. Clint pushed back the veil and adjusted his quiver so he wasn't leaning on it. "I gotta do this again? Lace itches."
Bruce met them at the hospital. "How far along? How close are your contractions?" Bruce asked Tony as he ran alongside the gurney, one hand holding up the split waistband of his tuxedo trousers. Hulk hadn't wanted to miss the baby.
Clint had called ahead to confirm that yes, Mr. Stark was having his baby, right now, right here, don't fuck up, Captain America's watching you. Steve felt that was a little mean... but then Tony had groaned and squeezed his hand, and Steve didn't care if he terrorized a hospital to make sure Tony was their top priority. They'd been met at the entrance with a gurney, several male nurses, and a sheaf of paperwork, which Natasha snatched. Steve wasn't sure whether she was going to fill it out or burn it. He really, really, didn't care.
The gurney rolled into something labeled 'Birthing Center' and the nurses tried to get Steve to let go of Tony's hand, pointing to a comfortable chair nearby where he could wait. "NO!" Tony snapped. "Work around him. Cut off the tux. DO I LOOK LIKE I GIVE A DAMN!"
Steve glared at the nurse. "He needs me. Do as he says."
Steve didn't know how the bond worked, but he did his best to lend Tony his strength through the hours that followed.
"Well, hello, you." Steve said softly to the wrinkled, red-faced, mite of humanity he held in his arms wrapped in a loose bundle of blue cloth. The baby wriggled a little and opened his tiny mouth in a yawn. Tony watched him through sleepy eyes, ignoring the bustling going on around him as nurses attended to the clean up details.
"His name is James Xander. It's what we chose for a boy. Back then." Tony blinked quickly for a moment. "James Xander Rogers."
"It's a great name," Steve said. He brought the baby closer to Tony, so Tony could stroke the newborn's cheek and feel that velvet softness.
Tony smiled and closed his eyes. "Love you, Steve," he said before drifting off to sleep.
Steve suspected Tony didn't know which Steve he meant. He didn't mind. "Thank you," Steve whispered, thinking of his other self. "I'll take care of them, and love them. Just like you would."