Steve sat heavily on the couch and sighed, closing his eyes and attempting to will the headache building behind his eyes away.
It had been a long day. He’d barely had time to breathe around all the work he’d had to do, paperwork to sign, and files to review. For all the busywork he’d been given, he felt like he’d accomplished nothing at all, but at least it had kept his mind off things.
He’d spent the past year working to build the Avengers up, only to have it come crashing down around them. There was a huge mess to clean up.
He should sleep.
Sometimes, Steve wished he could go back to the way things used to be, when he trusted his team and they had trusted him.
Steve had too few people to talk to these days. The absence of some were more obvious, stung more, than others.
The threat of incursions had ended, and the Illuminati had disbanded when they were convinced that the danger had truly passed. Without their imminent destruction looming over them all, SHIELD was finding that most of the world’s governments were dragging their heels in holding any of them responsible. Apparently they were less than eager to start a witch hunt now that half of them attributed their continued existence to the same action their morals might have condemned.
He used to think he would be angry, willing to fight for what he still thought was the right thing. The Illuminati may have had the best intentions, but they had still planned to commit murder, genocide, the destruction of entire worlds in order to save themselves. He used to care. Now, he was just tired. He wondered whether it had been worth it.
And, despite everything, despite the lack of repercussions, the actual celebration of what the Illuminati had done, Tony was still in the wind. He tried not to think about what the Illuminati had told him, about finding an empty cell in the Cabal’s headquarters covered in blood. As far as his concern for Tony went, he had no more energy left to give.
He was sure Tony was just hiding, too much of a coward to take responsibility for what he’d done, or maybe too busy wallowing in his own guilt to step forward. Steve wasn’t sure what Tony would be more afraid of: the men who would expect him to face the consequences of his actions, or the men would would call him a hero for them.
His laptop chimed, indicating an incoming video call. It was probably Hill, and Steve considered for a moment just letting it go unanswered. Eventually his conscience won out–it could be important. He pressed the “accept call” button, and then waited as the screen brightened with color.
Instead of the Helicarrier, Steve got a brief view of a hallway before the camera went fuzzy, and Steve watched the image go oblong and pixelated. It cleared up after a moment, and Reed’s lab resolved into the background. Sue gave a small smile as his feed came online, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She looked like she was using her cell phone camera, pacing the hall as she spoke.
“Steve,” Sue said without preamble. “I hope you’re not busy. We really need to talk.”
She didn’t sound upset necessarily, but the note of gravity in her voice made him pause.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“Not…wrong,” she said, mouth twisting as she considered her next words. “It just… It’s about the last incursion,” she said. “Something came through.”
That got Steve’s attention. “What kind of something?” Steve asked. When the number of worlds left had run low, the incursions had come so quickly that it was hard to keep them straight. He could only imagine what had managed to slip through when the two worlds had connected. He thought back to those other worlds; few had been friendly, in the end.
He wondered if he should assemble the Avengers.
“I think it would be better if I showed you in person. Now, if you’re not busy,” Sue said.
Steve began to nod, and she disconnected before he could even manage a real reply.
Steve let himself brood for a few minutes, mostly because–and he could admit it–he was being difficult, and then he went to grab his keys. There was no need to rush; Sue hadn’t seemed worried about whatever had come through during the last incursion. Even so, he was curious. Inside Baxter Building, he stood by the elevator and waited for HERBIE to scan him. It was hardly a moment before the elevator dinged, and the floor was already selected for him when he stepped inside. He rode it up to Reed’s lab in silence. Sue was waiting for him when he reached his floor.
“All right, let’s hear it,” Steve said, striding out of the elevator before the doors could even fully open.
“Not in the mood for small talk?” Sue teased. “Fine, this way.” She gestured behind her, toward the back of the lab. Steve followed her, and then stopped cold when he saw what she was leading him towards.
“Sue,” Steve said in warning. There was a crib pushed up against the back wall, the same one that had once belonged to Franklin, a little worn, but still in good shape. The baby sleeping inside could have been Sue’s, but the golden blond hair didn’t quite match her hair’s tone, and the face shape wasn’t quite right. He looked like–
Well. Steve knew who he looked like.
“Explain,” he said.
“He’s yours,” she said simply. “Or, well…” Sue leaned over the crib, crooning softly as she untucked the blankets and gently lifted the baby to her shoulder. The baby scrunched up his face and sniffled, but didn’t wake. She shushed him and cradled him to her shoulder. “It’s better than that,” she said with a smile, clearly finding some humor in this that Steve wasn’t sharing in. “He’s not just yours–he’s, well, you.” She ran one palm down the baby’s back soothingly.
“Why am I just now learning about this?” Steve asked through gritted teeth.
“Shush, you’ll wake him,” Sue chided. The baby didn’t seem in any danger of waking, expression placid and undisturbed against Sue’s shoulder, but Steve lowered his voice slightly anyway, his tone still icy.
“I deserved to know,” Steve said. “Immediately, not just when it was convenient.” It had been days since the last incursion, and Steve had seen Sue many times between then and now. But then, Sue had proven recently that she was more than capable of keeping secrets.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Sue said coolly, “but if you’re going to blame anyone, blame AIM. Apparently, one of their agents intercepted the… package as it was being sent through. It was them who decided to keep him a secret. They wanted to run some tests.”
Steve ground his teeth, “And?”
“The first thing they did was run a DNA test,” she said, “but I think you already know the results. A perfect clone, if AIM is to be believed.”
“I’m surprised that they gave him up at all,” Steve said.
“I don’t think they were planning to. Roberto learned about it two days ago, and he made them bring him here,” Sue said. “And since he’s currently bankrolling their research…”
Well, that explained it. He found himself examining the baby’s features, curious. Steve had seen photographs of himself as a baby, rare as they were. They’d all been lost, destroyed, or more likely locked away in some private collector’s vault, but Steve still remembered the pictures clearly.
Steve had always looked small, unhealthy, and underfed, even though his mother fed him more than she fed herself. This baby looked every bit a healthy, happy child. It brought up another question he suspected he knew the answer to.
“He has the serum?” Steve asked.
Sue nodded. “Which is why AIM didn’t want to give him up,” she said. “Roberto told them that if they didn’t turn Jamie over, he would tell you what they were hiding, and let them deal with you instead. They were pretty open to compromise after that.”
“Jamie?” Steve asked.
“Not my choice,” Sue said. She walked over to Reed’s desk, where a baby carrier sat on the edge, and grabbed the flash drive that was sitting in the carrier’s seat. She handed it to him.
“This was one of the only things that he came through with,” she said. “It’s mostly basic information. Name, birthday–which is apparently a little under seven years from now, by the way–but I’m guessing he’s about one year old. Supposedly there’s more information that’s been encrypted, but whatever it says, they couldn’t access it. Roberto thought it might be medical records.”
That would make sense, since anyone with forethought would realize that a clone of Steve would be extremely valuable. It wouldn’t be safe to make that information easily accessible. Steve took the thumb drive and turned it over in his hands.
“Couldn’t Reed get through it?” Steve asked carefully, and Sue raised an eyebrow at him. SHIELD hadn’t seen nor heard from Reed since it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a trial, and although Steve was certain that Sue knew exactly where to find him, she wasn’t telling.
“Reed isn’t here,” she said, “and you’re not dragging him into this. I’m sure you can get it open without his help.”
“I was just asking,” Steve said. He found himself staring again, watching the little rise and fall of Jamie’s chest, and this time Sue noticed.
“Do you want to hold him?” she asked.
“Not really,” Steve said. Sue looked skeptical, but laid him down gently in the crib again.
“Any information on where he came from?” Steve asked.
“Whatever universe he was from is gone now,” Sue said. She pointed to the flash drive. “The only thing we know for sure is that he was sent here because their universe was dying. The last resort of a desperate parent. And whoever they were, they had Tony’s help.”
“Tony’s–How do you know that?” Steve demanded, a little louder than intended. A fussy whine came from the crib.
“He’s the one who encrypted these files. If you want to find out more, I’d be willing to bet that our Tony would be able to get to them.”
“That’s not an option right now,” Steve said, as the quiet fussing grew more insistent. Sue rolled her eyes, turning away from him, but Steve could still hear the irritation in her voice.
“Of course it isn’t,” she said under her breath, but no doubt intending for Steve to hear, “Why am I not surprised–”
Jamie had crawled to his feet, holding the edge of the crib to help him keep his balance. She picked him up, and the sniffling cries grew into outright, indignant shrieks as he twisted in her arms, reaching for Steve.
“No!” he shrieked. “Dada!” Sue turned to look at Steve, and Steve took a step back.
“Absolutely not,” he said, even as Sue held him out to him. Jamie was already red in the face from screaming, and Steve took him reluctantly, not sure what to expect. The wailing quieted almost immediately. Jamie laid his head on Steve’s shoulder, hands curling loosely in the fabric of his shirt, and pressed his face against Steve’s neck, muffling the already quieting sobs into the occasional hiccup.
Steve grimaced at the unpleasant wetness against his neck.
“Sue, he wants his dad,” Steve said stubbornly.
“I think he’s found him,” Sue said. “Or at least, this universe’s version of him.”
Oh, god. “I’m not his father.”
“Well, I think Jamie disagrees,” Sue said, brushing a hand over the peach fuzz on Jamie’s head and then cutting Steve off before he could protest, “and I’m not sure it would be smart to take that away from him. Being ejected from a dying universe, losing everything you know… that could be traumatizing.”
“How could he… He’s just a baby,” Steve said. How much could he possibly understand?
“He’s old enough to ask for you,” Sue said firmly.
“I don’t think I’m the best person for this,” Steve said.
“Steve, a couple weeks ago you were facing down the end of all universes. Forgive me, but I think you can handle taking care of a baby.”
Steve hesitated for a moment, giving Sue a sour look. She didn’t seem phased. “Only until we can find someone to take him,” Steve sighed.
Sue nodded, approving. “You can take some of Franklin and Valeria’s old things. I’m not planning on needing them any time soon,” she said.
“Fine,” Steve said. “I’ll send an agent–”
Sue held up a hand, cutting him off. “Steve, you’re not taking that baby to SHIELD.”
“They have childcare,” Steve said.
“And he needs a home, not a military organization,” Sue said. “Besides, can you honestly tell me that you trust them? With the only successful recreation of the Super Soldier Serum that most of them have ever seen? They’ll want him in a lab, not a daycare.”
He...had to admit that she had a point.
“Fine,” he sighed, and Jamie sighed quietly in response. It was possible that he was falling asleep again, but Steve couldn’t see without putting him down, and he would rather not drive to the tower with a sobbing child in the back seat. He straightened his back a little, taking on the same posture as though prepping for a debrief. “Give me his carrier.”
“I’ll show you how to hook up a car seat,” Sue said.
Steve took Jamie back to the Tower.
It was strange to be back. Though he had a room in Avengers Tower, lately he'd been staying on the Helicarrier more often than not. Over the past few weeks it had been necessary. With both SHIELD and the Avengers’ attentions split between locating the source of the incursions and hunting down the Illuminati, it had seemed prudent to stay where he would be most useful.
The Helicarrier probably wasn't the best place to take a child. His room was practically a closet; he hadn’t needed much more than a bed on the off chance that he found the time to properly use it. But even discounting the space issue, he could recognize that the Helicarrier's track record for getting shot out of the sky wouldn't exactly put a responsible parent at ease.
God, how had he ended up in this situation, when a parent was the last thing he saw himself as? It wasn’t that he didn’t want kids, but being Captain America and being a father at the same time wouldn’t be easy. He’d always felt it just wasn’t the right time. As much as he would have loved having kids someday, Captain America didn’t get that. And the country needed Captain America–so he’d been willing to accept that he would never have children.
Now, he had a one-year-old that he absolutely, without a doubt, wasn’t ready for.
Maybe it would be better to just rip the bandaid off quickly. As far as Jamie was concerned, Steve was his father. He would miss him if he were taken in by another family but… at least he would have a family and a normal life. Steve couldn’t imagine the life Jamie would have with Steve would be preferable.
But even if Steve could find a new–a better home for him, there was still the matter of his safety. If it got out that he was a successful clone of Captain America, that the serum had worked, he wouldn’t be safe with a normal family. At least with the Avengers, he could guarantee the people watching out for him were capable, even in the midst of a supervillain attack.
In the meantime, the job fell to Steve.
He was dragging his feet. He hadn't slept at the Tower since his memories had returned, and the sleep he'd had there before had been fitful and plagued by nightmares. (His sleep at the Helicarrier hadn't been much better, though nightmares of a different kind followed him there, replaying the betrayal, and laughing, all of them laughing at what a fool he'd been.)
Steve took the flying car and parked on the roof of Avengers Tower, and then rode the elevator down to his floor, baby carrier in one hand and bags of baby supplies in the other. Jamie was entirely content with sitting quietly in the carrier and gumming the edge of the toy Sue had presented him, now that he was satisfied that Steve wasn't going to leave again. The toy was a worn and well-loved Captain America doll, stitches ripped and somewhat sloppily mended in places. According to Sue, it was one of the few things that came through the incursion point.
Steve couldn't imagine any version of himself giving Jamie a Captain America doll, but he was willing to guess who it had come from–he could very clearly imagine this other universe's Tony thinking it was a great idea. Maybe it was a hand-me-down, something that he’d owned as a child. Hell, he wouldn't have put it past his Tony to have had a toy just like it at some point in his life. He exited the elevator and turned down the hall.
Steve’s floor was empty, but not unused. Since expanding the Avengers, they'd needed more space, and while Steve had been away it hadn't seemed necessary for him to have a whole floor to himself, so he'd offered to let some of the rooms out as extra guest bedrooms if they were needed.
Right now there was no one around, and he was grateful for it, navigating the dim rooms by only the natural light from the windows. His bedroom was at the end of the hall, untouched since he'd left. He let himself inside, dropped his bags on the floor, and set the baby carrier onto the bed. Steve sat down heavily next to him, letting one hand rest on the end to steady the seat. He looked at Jamie.
"Now what?" Steve asked. He sighed, and Jamie blinked at him for a moment, then sighed too, heaving his little chest very dramatically. He giggled, thinking it was a very funny joke. Steve leaned over and unclipped the carrier’s buckle, and Jamie squirmed impatiently when he realized Steve was turning him loose until Steve helped him out and onto the bed. Jamie crawled into the middle of the bed and then turned back around to sit facing Steve.
Steve watched the carefree little grin spread across Jamie’s face when he noticed Steve’s attention was on him, all pink gums and no teeth, and he found himself smiling back.
At the door, someone knocked.
“Steve?” Jan asked. “Carol said she saw you parking on the roof.” Her eyes settled on Jamie’s baby carrier, then Jamie, and she stalled in the doorway, momentarily at a loss for words.
Steve waited patiently, gently rocking the carrier with one hand. Jamie giggled and crawled over to grab the other edge, rocking it along with him.
“Well, this is new,” she managed after a moment. Jan pulled the door closed behind her, waiting for the click of the latch before pressing. “All right. Explain. And please start by telling me that whoever this baby belongs to knows that you have it.”
“He belongs...well,” Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh. He definitely knows.”
Jan stared at him.
“Oh my god,” Jan said. “You’re not serious?”
“With who?” she asked. “It can’t be Sharon. I think I would have noticed if it was Sharon–”
“No! He’s not Sharon’s,” Steve said, viciously pushing away the ache in his chest. “He’s, ah. Just mine,” he said. “He’s… a clone, I guess, of me.”
“Oh, Steve,” Jan said. It wasn’t the strangest thing that had ever happened to them, and the explanation clearly didn’t phase her. Jan had been at this long enough to roll with it, and Steve was grateful for it. “But how did you get him?”
“I got him from Sue,” Steve said. “Who got him from AIM.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Who got him from another universe.”
Jan frowned a little at that, knowing full well what that meant for the universe Jamie had come from. She crossed over to sit on the edge of the bed next to Steve. Jamie reached for her to pick him up when she came close enough, not shy in the slightest, and she obliged him. His hands went straight for her earrings, but she seemed to anticipate the attempt because she very smoothly nudged his hand away, allowing him to catch her finger instead.
“It’s a bit of a mess right now,” Steve admitted.
“What are you going to do?” Jan asked, sympathetic.
Steve shrugged. He honestly didn’t know–he hadn’t really been given the chance to really think about what came next since he’d gone to see Sue. This was… a lot to take in. “I’ll figure it out,” he told her.
Steve was sure Jan knew what he was thinking; she had always been far too intuitive to fool with false reassurances.
“Well, if you need help, I’m here,” Jan said. She paused. “Is this a secret? Or–”
“Not really. But I’d like to keep it quiet,” Steve said. “Just don’t go talking to any tabloid reporters until I can figure out how this is going to work.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” Jan said. “Does he… well, does he have any papers? What are the rules for adopting across universes?”
“He had a birth certificate,” Steve said, “but I doubt anyone will think it’s genuine. It’s dated six years from now.”
“Well, I’m sure this can’t be much more difficult than Thor and Hyperion adopting a handful of undocumented alien babies,” she said wryly.
“Were you going to tell Thor no?” Steve asked, finding himself smiling.
“Honey,” Jan said, pausing to set Jamie on the bed where he was trying to squirm to freedom, “no one can say no to you either.”
Steve could think of quite a few people who could say no to him, but she’d meant it as a joke and Steve wasn’t going to drag the conversation in that direction.
“Well, we can’t just hide him in the Savage Land,” Steve said instead. “He deserves a normal life, at least.”
Jan snorted. “I’m not sure how normal your life can be living with the Avengers,” she said. “But I’ll give you points for optimism.” She reached over to pat his knee. “If you ever need a babysitter,” she began seriously, “I hear Clint’s available.”
Steve made a valiant effort to keep a straight face and mostly succeeded. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. “In the mean time, I think I’m going to settle in. I’ll head downstairs later.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” she said, waving goodbye to Jamie and smiling brightly when we waved back. She pulled the door partly closed behind her as she headed back to the main floor.
He unpacked and settled into his rooms, and then set to pulling all of the pieces of the disassembled crib out and putting them (hopefully correctly) back together. Once he’d finished, he surveyed his work. The room was a little sparse, but it looked lived in, at least. Jamie had managed to half-climb, half-jump to the floor from where he’d been sitting on the bed, and had set to exploring the rest of the room. He lost interest quickly, though, and came to join Steve by the crib, gripping the bars with one hand and Steve’s pant leg with the other to help him stand. Steve wondered if he’d seen it all before, in his universe.
It would take a few days, he decided, to feel truly settled.
“Not bad,” Steve said to Jamie, nodding a little in approval, and he bobbled his head in agreement.
He didn’t actually head downstairs until the next morning, and by then word had gotten around to the rest of the team.
After an hour of Avengers dropping by to see what all of the fuss was about, Steve found himself in the kitchen. He put Jamie in his car seat again, wondering whether he would squirm less if he put him in the high chair he’d borrowed from Sue as he stirred a pot of oatmeal simmering on the stove with only half of his attention lent towards it.
As it turned out, getting documentation for Jamie was more complicated than Steve had originally thought, especially without revealing his origins. He’d ended up calling Sam, and after enduring a lecture about how he wasn’t that type of social worker, he’d put Steve in touch with someone more qualified to help him.
Steve was growing frustrated playing phone tag, trying to get in touch with someone, trying to explain the situation as best as he could. There had to be similar cases, he’d thought–children from war-torn countries, countries that broke apart, consolidated, or ceased to exist.
Apparently, they weren’t as common as he’d hoped; most of the people he talked to had no idea what the proper procedure was for a case like this, and more than a couple of them were quite obviously suspicious of how Jamie had come into his care at all.
He was reaching a point where he would rather go over their heads entirely. Surely someone at SHIELD could sort this out in a matter of days, with full papers and little fuss.
It didn’t help that Jamie wasn’t even remotely sleeping through the night–Steve had been woken up at least three times last night alone, though admittedly the memory was fuzzy. Steve didn’t know if this was normal for Jamie, or if something was keeping him from getting a full night’s sleep.
Either way, the lack of sleep didn’t seem to bother Jamie as much as it was beginning to grate on Steve. He was just as active as ever, constantly wanting Steve’s attention and only tolerating the other Avengers for a short time.
Jamie was old enough that sitting in the car seat bored him quickly, and that led to squirming, which led to screaming quickly after, so Steve moved him to the high chair and distracted him with very small chunks of banana that Jamie gummed at with gusto.
It didn’t actually occur to him that there might be an age limit on banana consumption until the fruit was already a quarter gone, smeared very nicely across Jamie’s cheeks and hands in the process, and he was a little embarrassed to admit that the thought was enough to panic him.
A few minutes of Googling reassured him that a one-year-old could manage with a handful of solid foods if they were supervised, bananas included, but it did little to make him feel better. He set the banana aside and then scrubbed a hand over his face. God. What was he doing?
“You are exhausting,” Steve said, eyeing Jamie’s banana-covered clothes. When Sue had given him Franklin’s old clothes, Steve had marveled at how many different changes of clothes she’d thought he would need. Now, he was beginning to understand.
Steve sighed and unsnapped the tray to the high chair. When Jamie didn’t immediately start shrieking for it back, he set it on the table and grabbed the damp cloth on the table to wipe him down. The shirt was a goner, and Steve balled it up on the table, but he’d miraculously kept the mess out of his lap.
Steve put a clean shirt on Jamie and picked him up from the chair just as the front door opened, and he instantly started running who it could be through his mind. Maybe he’d be able to recruit them, just for a few minutes, just long enough for him to catch a break, take a shower–
Steve paused, listening, until he heard the front door shut again.
“Hello?” he called.
“Cap!” Jess called back, “I heard you were back.” He heard the sound of keys jingling, a bag hitting the floor, and her footsteps coming closer. “I also heard you had a–Oh. Yeah, one of those.”
She paused in the doorway, eyes dropping to Jamie, then back to Steve. He could see her trying to think of something polite to say.
She settled on, “He looks like you. Cute.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Steve said, and Jess’s eyes narrowed immediately. Steve shifted Jamie off his hip, holding him out to her.
“Can you take him? Just for a minute,” Steve asked. Jamie was making a face that Steve had learned meant tears were imminent, but he didn’t think telling Jessica that would make her any more amicable to the idea of holding him.
Jess made a face. “No?” she said, but she still accepted the baby when Steve handed him over to her. “I feel tricked,” she said as an afterthought.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said apologetically. “I just need a shower.”
The second he stepped out of the room, Jamie’s quiet sniffling turned into outright sobs.
“Oh, shi–shoot,” Jessica swore. “Steve, it’s crying!” she said, and Steve just gave her a thumbs up over his shoulder, feeling only a little bad about that. There wasn’t going to be any peace until Steve came back anyway, so there was nothing he could do. He really did need a shower and a minute to himself. He started shucking clothes as soon as he stepped into his bedroom, figuring that the least he could do for Jessica was to make this quick, and turned on the shower without bothering to wait for it to heat up. It was warm in a few moments, anyway–Tony only paid for the best.
Sue had said that separation anxiety was normal for a child Jamie’s age, and that she’d gone through the same thing with Franklin. Still, Steve wondered if Jamie was this clingy with the other universe’s version of himself, or if this was somehow a consequence of the upset he’d gone through in order to get here. Steve wanted to believe that he hadn’t seen anything too terrible, or that he’d been too young to understand if he had, but he honestly couldn’t know that for sure.
Steve soaped and rinsed as quickly as he could. He had no way to know if Jamie had lived with the other universe’s Steve in Avengers Tower or not, but he didn’t seem to mind the change of location if he hadn’t. He actually seemed to recognize some of the Avengers, even though it didn’t make him much more willing to be left with them if Steve wasn’t going to be nearby. He handled it a little better if Steve left while he was napping, but once Jamie had laid eyes on him he was hard pressed to get a moment to himself without a tantrum.
He couldn’t hear it over the sound of the shower, but Steve doubted that Jamie had stopped crying–more likely, Jessica had just taken him into a different room to try to calm him down or pass him off to someone else. He turned off the tap and reached out to grab his towel off the rack.
Steve dried off, kicking his old clothes into the corner on his way to the closet. Right now, there were few things that Steve wanted to do more than to just lie down for a couple of hours. He was exhausted, and normally, the serum was a blessing allowing him to get by without much sleep. A baby with the serum, however, was a nightmare. If only he could get Jamie to lie down for a couple hours with him, but whenever Steve tried to bring him near his crib, he would scream bloody murder until Steve picked him up again.
Steve had no idea how anyone managed to do this alone, and right now, Steve couldn’t imagine trying to take care of Jamie and be an active member of the Avengers. He could barely find time to sign off on what little work he had for SHIELD that hadn’t been taken over by Maria, let alone find time–and a sitter–for field work. Steve wasn’t quite willing to give up being an Avenger, but he hadn’t yet found a way to compromise.
There had to be a way to compromise. Luke Cage had done it and so had Sue, but they were both married, and they had help. Maybe he could convince Doreen Green? She’d helped the Cages for a while, but the last he’d heard she was planning to go back to school, so maybe she wouldn’t have the time anymore...
He could hear Jamie crying in another room, switching between disconsolate wailing and long strings of “Dada-dada-dada-dada” that were surely driving Jessica crazy.
Steve followed the noise to the kitchen. He found Carol unloading a brown paper sack onto the counter, and Jessica, who seemed to be trying very hard to trade the baby for Carol’s cantaloupe. She saw Steve walk in and sighed with relief.
“He won’t stop crying,” Jessica said, completely deadpan in a way that meant she was internally panicking.
“Maybe it’s because you’re holding him like a melon,” Steve said gruffly.
The moment he spoke Jamie’s head whipped around, and his crying redoubled into indignant shrieks, like the two seconds Steve was in the room without holding him had been a terrible offense. Steve reached out to scoop him up while Jamie made grabby hands at him, and once the two of them were settled, the wailing promptly quieted down to little sniffles and hiccups. Jamie tugged on his ear and looked up at Steve with the most pathetic face he could muster, and Steve shushed him and rubbed his back.
Steve bounced him idly. “Carol,” he said in greeting, because she was giving him a sly grin.
“You’re handling this well,” she commented. Steve certainly didn’t feel like he was, but it was nice to hear she thought so.
“It’s a process,” he said. “I’m beginning to think that I’ll need help.”
“You’d better find someone who’s deaf,” Jessica grumbled. She paused, probably considering Steve’s options, and made a face. "Deaf and not a walking disaster."
Carol smiled and pulled a jar of baby food out of the paper sack.
“Ta-da!” she said. She glanced down into the bag. “Sue called me. She said you probably wouldn’t have thought to go shopping yet. You would not believe how many kinds they have.”
Carol’s phone buzzed quietly. She hadn’t even fully drawn it from her pocket before there was a second, rattling buzz from the countertop, where Steve had left his phone. Steve glanced at the screen as he picked it up and saw that it was SHIELD. He shared a look with Carol, somewhat uncertain, because something must have happened, for them to both receive a call at the same time.
“Rogers,” Steve said, and he passed Jamie off to Jess for a second time, with only a minimal amount of protest on her part, because at least this time, Jamie didn’t break into wails.
“We’ve got Stark,” Maria said without preamble, and Steve straightened immediately.
“Give me the coordinates and I’ll meet you–”
“No, we have him,” Maria interrupted. “This was just a courtesy call.”
“I’m coming in,” Steve said.
“I’m sure you are,” Maria said. Carol hung up on her caller, turning to give Steve a significant look, and waved for him to wrap up.
“I’ll drive,” Carol said, as soon as Steve made his goodbyes. Steve started to nod, turning toward Jess, but before he could even open his mouth to speak, she shook her head.
“Don’t even think about it, Rogers, I’m not babysitting this noisemaker,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” Steve lied. “I’ll take him with me.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Carol said.
“It’ll be fine,” Steve said. He buckled Jamie into his car seat, which earned him a fussy whine. He was fairly confident Jamie would settle down once he put him into the car. “Let’s go.”
Carol drove, and Jamie sat happily and watched the tops of the buildings through the window. The bay doors opened with little prompting; Maria was obviously expecting them. For their part, the agents working the hanger deck paid them little mind beyond a few curious looks as they passed through.
The bridge was fully staffed, but it was easy to pick Maria out of the crowd. She turned when Steve and Carol let themselves inside, giving them both a once-over.
"Babysitting, Rogers?" Maria asked.
"Not quite," Steve said. Carol offered to take Jamie, and he handed him over without much fuss. "He's mine."
The pinched expression on Maria's face was a little satisfying. It was nice to be the one to keep her guessing every once in a while, and he could tell she resented being out of the loop.
"Where’s Stark?" Steve asked, stepping down to join her next to the main computer.
"Containment Three," Maria said. She pulled the security feed up onto one of the monitors, and Steve leaned against the desk to look.
Tony looked tired. He was wearing plain jeans and a grey T-shirt; the SHIELD logo on the shoulder told Steve that these weren't the clothes he'd arrived in. His armor was nowhere to be seen, but whether that was because he hadn't been wearing it when SHIELD found him or because they'd taken it, Steve didn't know.
“How long?” Steve asked.
“One of our agents located him two days ago,” Hill said. “We picked him up this morning.”
Two days? “Hill–”
“Don’t be a pill, Rogers,” Hill cut him off.
"Dadee," Jamie called from behind him.
"Not right now, Jamie," Steve said.
"Up, dadee!" Jamie said. He didn't sound upset, just excited, with a gleeful little squeal to his voice. He repeated it again, and Steve sighed when Carol stepped up to hand him to Steve.
"Nooo," Jamie said, mashing one palm against Steve's cheek and pushing him away, "No dada." He made grabby hands at the screen. "Dadeee. Up!"
Steve turned, confused, and Jamie giggled gleefully, smearing the image of Tony with his chubby fingers.
"Rogers,” Maria said plainly, “is there something you forgot to mention?” Steve looked at her, then back at Jamie, and it dawned on him what Hill meant.
"Oh my god," Steve said, taking Jamie back from Carol and stepping away from the screen. Jamie whined unhappily, repeating "No, no, no" over and over and trying to squirm out of his grip.
“No, Jamie,” Steve said sternly, and his voice was sharp enough to put an end to the tears. Jamie sniffled and pointed back towards the other room, and let out a pitiful–and obviously fake–little sob when he shook his head. “Time to go home,” Steve said instead.
“Home?” Jamie asked.
“Back to the Tower,” Steve said. “Just–Dada needs to think.”
“Dada, that’s cute,” Maria said flatly. “What about Stark?” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the security feed, as though Steve had somehow forgotten.
“Just–keep him here,” Steve said.
Maria scoffed. “On what charge? There’s not going to be an indictment, and everyone knows it. Stark included.”
“Just hold him until I get back,” Steve repeated, already stalking out of the room. Jamie was leaning backwards, and Steve knew he was craning his neck to see Tony on the screen.
“You seem to think you’re still in charge,” Maria said just as he reached the door, quiet but meant for Steve to hear. He ignored her, not in the mood to argue, but couldn’t ignore Carol’s footsteps behind him, quick to catch up. She kept pace with him for a moment, saying nothing. Steve could tell she was dying to ask.
“Go ahead,” he told her.
“What do you make of that?” Carol asked, looking not at all abashed. “Think he’s really the kid’s dad?”
“Yes.” Steve didn’t want to admit it, but it made sense. Tony had been the one to put together the files they’d been given. Steve was willing to bet his last dollar he was the one who’d given Jamie his favorite toy. He’d probably even been the one to send Jamie through during the last incursion.
It wasn’t that much of a stretch but… imagining himself, even an alternate version of himself, co-parenting with Tony was... hard, to say the least. He could barely stand to look at the man without all the feelings of anger and betrayal he’d felt over the past months rearing their heads, but this...
Well. His alternate self had obviously had a very different relationship with Tony.
“And that makes the two of you… what?” she asked. Steve didn’t answer, and she changed tactics. “Are you planning on telling him?” Carol asked. “Because the kid’s not going to stay a secret for long.”
It was true. There were already rumors circulating, but thankfully no photographs had surfaced yet, and the general public didn’t seem to have put much stock in it. Steve intended to keep it that way for as long as he could–at least until they were settled and an adoption was finalized–since it would be safer for everyone involved.
“I don’t know,” Steve hedged. It was true, Steve had felt more or less unbalanced, unprepared for everything that the universe had thrown at him since Sue had first called. “It’s just–” Steve stopped in the hallway, just inside a doorway. “There was a time for talking, months ago. I have nothing left to say to him.”
Carol rolled her eyes. “Other than, ‘by the way, this is Jamie, our cloned son from a dead universe,’ right?” she said. “I mean, I get it. But I’ve also got a pretty good memory when I’ve got a memory at all, and historically, bad things happen when you two don’t talk. You may not be willing to forgive him, but pretending he doesn’t exist isn’t going to help.”
Steve was inclined to disagree. “I’ll talk to you later, Carol,” Steve said instead. Carol sighed and then threw up her hands.
“I’ll send you the field reports later tonight,” she said, apparently not willing to fight him over it. “Let me know if you change your mind about talking to Tony. I’ll back you up.”
“Thanks,” Steve said, pulling the door open. “I’ll let you know.”
“Bye!” Jamie called over Steve’s shoulder, opening and closing his fingers in a tiny wave. “Bye!” he called again when Carol didn’t respond, and this time Carol must have waved back because he twisted around in Steve’s arms again to watch where they were going.
Steve made his way to the exit on autopilot and found himself standing on the sidewalk without anywhere further to go, and then, because he didn’t have anything else, he hailed a cab back to the tower. Carol would probably prefer to fly home, but he trusted that someone would take care of returning the car to the tower.
It probably wasn’t smart, bringing Jamie out in public like this, without any planning, and even excluding the chance of random supervillain attacks–which were more likely than he wanted to think about–there was an equally good chance of someone seeing them together, or worse, snapping a picture, and then things would become much more complicated.
There was a reason that Peter Parker kept a secret identity, and as soon as the press started to wonder why Steve had a baby, old enemies would start to wonder too. Worst case scenario, someone would realize that Jamie had the same serum that Steve did and decide that a baby would make a better test subject than someone who could fight back.
Steve paid in cash, with a tip to get him to the Tower quickly, and hoped that the driver wouldn’t recognize him.
When they got there, Steve took the back elevator directly to the residential floors, overriding it with his Avengers access to keep them from stopping. What Steve really needed right now was some time to think, but it seemed like Jess had made herself scarce as soon as he and Carol had left.
It was certainly too early to put Jamie down for a nap, especially if he wanted even a chance of Jamie sleeping tonight, and Steve could already tell that Jamie was too worked up to tolerate a nap even if he tried, so he took him into the living room to play instead, settling heavily on the couch.
As soon as Steve put him down, Jamie crawled a beeline for the coffee table, where Steve had set the Captain America doll last night. Steve really ought to go shopping–Jamie deserved more than one well-loved toy to play with.
Jamie grabbed it by the arm and then sat down at the foot of the table with a sigh, as though that had taken a great effort, and shook the doll for all he was worth. Steve was a little surprised that the arm held up, considering how worn it was, and after a moment Jamie noticed him staring and held the toy out for Steve to take.
“No thank you,” Steve said. Jamie pressed it into his hands anyway, so Steve took it. When he’d first seen the doll, he remembered thinking that it was the kind of toy that Tony might have given Jamie to annoy the other Steve.
Now he was thinking it was more likely a sentimental gift, more for Tony than Steve. They’d obviously had a different kind of relationship in Jamie’s universe, but Steve hadn’t considered that it might be possible that they were anything other than friends.
“Dada,” Jamie said, pulling himself to his feet. He reached past the doll, one hand on Steve’s knee to hold himself up while he made a grab for the remote control. Steve handed it to him, and Jamie immediately stuck it into his mouth.
He was more or less standing on his own now and would probably be walking around before Steve knew it. The tower was already mostly baby-proofed for the Cages’ benefit, but Steve still wasn’t looking forward to the added level of supervision that would entail.
As much as Steve didn’t want to admit it, if Jamie was old enough to walk and old enough to know a few words, he was probably old enough to recognize his parents. And if the other universe’s Tony had been involved with his Steve, then that meant…
Well, Steve didn’t really know what it meant, other than that this had suddenly become much more complicated.
Steve worried his lip between his teeth, watching Jamie pressing buttons at random on the remote, and then pulled out his phone. It only took a quick Google search to find an old paparazzi picture of the Avengers. He zoomed in on Tony, who had one arm thrown over Steve’s shoulder with the kind of warm, open happiness that Steve only ever saw in the unofficial photos, when Tony wasn’t aware there was a camera nearby. Something twisted uncomfortably in his chest, and Steve scrolled over to Carol’s face instead.
“Hey, Jamie,” Steve said, and Jamie turned around to blink at him.
“Come here,” Steve said, lifting him into his lap. Once he had settled, Steve held out the phone for Jamie to see. “Who’s this?” he asked, trying to keep his voice light, like they were playing a game.
“Caro,” Jamie said. He pointed, smudging the screen.
Steve smiled. “That’s right!” He scrolled over to his own face. “Who’s that?”
“Mmm,” Jamie said, “Dada.”
“Good job,” Steve said. He scrolled over to Tony’s face and then hesitated, long enough that Jamie reached for his wrist, trying to turn the screen so he could see. Steve had a pretty strong idea of what his reaction was going to be, but it didn’t make it any easier when Steve lowered the phone for Jamie to see.
“Dadee!” he shouted. When Steve didn’t respond, he pointed at the screen. “Da-dee,” he said, more slowly, like Steve hadn’t understood him the first time.
Steve swallowed. “That’s right,” he said, setting him on the floor again and waiting until he was standing on his own before he let go. “Good job.”
“Again?” he asked, pointing at the phone. Steve shook his head.
“Not right now,” he said. Jamie stuck out his bottom lip, frowning, until Steve reassured him. “We can try again later.”
This wasn’t something they could avoid. He just needed time to think.
“Play?” Jamie asked.
“Of course,” Steve said.
It was nearing one in the morning when Steve finally made his way back to SHIELD, and Jamie fast asleep in his carrier despite the trip. He was down for the count–Steve had made sure of it, doing his best to wear him out earlier that night. He’d thought this would be easier to do while Jamie was asleep, just in case it didn’t go well. Now that he was actually here, he realized he hadn’t even considered what he was going to say.
He could only imagine what Tony would make of this. Stopped in front of Containment Three, steeled himself, and opened the door.
Steve hadn’t expected Tony to be awake, but when the elevator slid open and Steve reached reflexively for the light switch on the wall, there was already a light on in the back of the room.
Tony was staring at the wall, so deep in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the motion of the elevator, the noise failing to transfer through the ALON window that formed most of the outward facing wall. Steve wondered what he was thinking about. He didn’t look guilty… but then, he hadn’t looked guilty before Steve had remembered either. Steve had thought he was fairly good at reading Tony after being friends for so long, but he’d been wrong about that too.
Steve walked up to the edge of the cell, set Jamie down beside him, and depressed the button that turned on the speaker.
“Stark,” he said, and tried not to think about how satisfying it was to see Tony jump.
“Steve,” Tony said warily, turning to drop his legs over the side of the bed. He stood, taking a step forward. “What are you–”
His eyes fell on the sleeping baby beside Steve and he froze, the words dying on his lips. Steve wasn’t surprised to see the confusion in Tony’s expression, but he hadn’t expected Tony to look amused.
“Okay,” Tony said, “I’ll bite. What’s with the baby? You couldn’t have left him with his mother?”
“His mother’s dead,” Steve said spitefully, which was technically true. Her–whoever she had been–and the rest of her universe, gone in a moment. Tony’s smirk cracked, slightly. “And I brought him here because you needed to see him.”
Tony crossed his arms uncomfortably in front of himself, looking away. “And–What? Is he yours?” he asked.
“He came through during the last incursion event,” Steve said.
Tony’s gaze flicked down to the baby, and his expression faltered, realizing what that meant for him. Orphaned. His whole world gone. He thought it would have been more satisfying to see Tony faced with the reality of what the Illuminati had done.
It wasn’t. Steve looked away. “But yes, he’s mine,” he said. He paused, not sure whether he should continue, “and yours.”
Now Tony only looked confused, like he was trying to figure out what Steve’s angle was, whether or not he was trying to make a joke.
“He saw you on the security feed,” Steve said. “We still hardly know anything about him–most of the information that came through with him was encrypted by you, the other you–but he thinks we’re his parents, and I think he’s old enough to know...” Tony didn’t look confused anymore, just uncomfortable, as he considered what Steve was telling him.
Steve couldn’t blame him. There was a lot of baggage between them, and it was hard to imagine a universe without it. There had certainly been times that Steve could have one day seen their friendship developing into something more: when they were young, still living in the mansion together, or right after the Raft breakout, before the Registration Act… and now, Steve couldn’t even imagine them being friends again. It seemed like every time they might have had a chance, something happened to drive a wedge between them.
They might have been something in another life. Maybe they already had been.
Tony crossed his arms, jaw set stubbornly. “So you brought him here to, what? To make me feel guilty?” Tony asked, his voice rising. “His universe would have died whether or not we did something about it. And ours with it, if things had gone differently, so if you’ve come here to–”
“Keep your voice down,” Steve said firmly, and Tony cut off abruptly, only then seeming to notice Jamie’s disturbed sleep. Steve dropped his voice. “I brought him here because you deserved to know,” Steve grit his teeth, “and because he deserves to know you. I’m not here to fight. And I’m definitely not here to hear your excuses.”
Steve saw Tony’s jaw tighten, the defiant look that always came right before the start of an argument, but then Tony’s eyes flicked to the bundle in the carrier, and he looked away instead.
“Fine,” Tony said, and Steve couldn’t help but be relieved. Another argument–waking Jamie up–was the last thing Steve wanted tonight. That was part of why he’d brought Jamie along. The other part was that Steve knew that, had he been in Tony’s position, a photograph and Tony’s word for it wouldn’t have been nearly enough. “Now I know.”
Steve stared at Tony, his gaze deliberately averted, and tried to decide if he wanted to leave it there.
This was probably the best he could have hoped for. He let himself out.
The next couple of days were worse than before. Jamie barely slept, and Steve with him. Steve spent his time worrying about Jamie and worrying about what to do with Tony in equal parts, and in both cases, answers weren’t forthcoming. And as much as a decision needed to made about Tony, quickly, Jamie deserved his attention first.
For one thing, Jamie wouldn’t stop crying.
At first Steve had thought that he was just colicky, or tired.
Steve had never cried this much when he was an infant. He’d had weak lungs, for one thing, and had never been a fussy child. His mom had worried, sometimes, at how quiet he’d been, and had spent the night next to him on more than one occasion, worried that he wouldn’t cry when he needed her. In comparison, Jamie was a loud child, and attention seeking, but when he continued to cry after Steve had put him down for the third time that night, trying to get him to take even an hour-long nap, he realized something had to be wrong.
Jamie whined fussily when Steve picked him up. He pressed his cheek against Steve’s neck and sniffled. His skin felt warm, and Steve lifted him up to get a better look at him, drawing another discontented whine. Jamie’s skin looked flushed, and he tugged on his ear unhappily, squirming in Steve’s grip.
Was he sick? How could he be, when he shared Steve’s DNA and the serum?
He sniffled, rubbing his cheek against Steve’s shirt, and began wailing again. He didn’t sound good. He didn’t look good.
Steve rocked him gently, trying to ease his crying, and made his way out into the common area. It was early afternoon, and there were always people mulling around the tower, now that the Avengers had expanded their roster. He knew that the Mighty Avengers were planning to drop by, and he sighed in relief when he realized that they hadn’t left yet.
Danielle Cage was only a little older than Jamie was, and Luke and Jessica knew what they were doing. The crying was enough to grab their attention, and Jessica made a sympathetic face at him as he made his way over.
“I think he’s sick,” Steve said in greeting. Jessica frowned and reached out to test his temperature with the back of her hand.
“Is that possible?” she asked. By now they’d all heard the circumstances of how Steve had come to taking care of Jamie–the Avengers gossiped like a bunch of teenagers–but he was at as much of a loss as she was. She offered to take him, and Steve let her, reluctantly.
“I honestly don’t know,” Steve said. “I’m worried maybe I’m missing something.” He looked at Spider-Man. “I know you’re busy,” he said, “and normally I would ask Hank, but he’s not really an option right now. Do you think you can… run some tests? See if you can find out if something is wrong with him?”
“Who could say no to that face?” Peter asked, at the same time that Jamie’s crying rose to a shrieking pitch. “Does he have a medical file?”
Steve sighed. “He does. It’s encrypted. By another universe’s Tony Stark.”
“Right. I can do without,” Peter said.
“He looks like he might have an ear infection,” Luke said. “He’s tugging on his earlobe.”
“He was doing that earlier,” Steve said.
“You should take him to a doctor,” Jessica said.
“I think I will,” Steve said. “Peter?”
“Field trip?” he suggested, following behind him. He waved to the rest of the Mighty Avengers. “I’ll see you guys later.”
He took Jamie to SHIELD. The doctors didn’t bat an eye when Steve explained that Jamie was a clone from another dimension, though they did seem interested to learn that he had the serum as well. Steve kept an eye on them when they drew blood, and Jamie pitched a screaming fit until it was over. He handed the sample off to Peter, who promised he would get the results back to him as fast as he could.
The SHIELD doctor confirmed that Jamie did have an ear infection and prescribed some medicine for him. It was viscous and purple, came with an eyedropper, and was clearly made for children. He wasn’t sure why they would have it on-hand, other than that SHIELD had certainly seen stranger and had learned to be prepared.
He was thankful for it anyway because Jamie was looking a little red in the face by the time he was done, and Steve didn’t think his patience was going to last much longer.
With nothing more to do for him, and Peter off to his lab, Steve took Jamie home. Either the medicine was working or Steve had finally managed to work up enough good karma because Jamie fell asleep in his carseat on the drive back to the tower and even Steve–so, so carefully–shutting the car door behind him didn’t rouse Jamie from his sleep.
Steve carefully picked him up from his carrier, and he scrunched up his nose and whined fussily. Steve grabbed his tablet from the bedside table and then went to settle into the armchair next to his crib. Jamie settled down again after a moment, cheek pressed up against the crook of Steve’s arm, and then it was blissfully silent. Steve propped the tablet up on his knee and turned the brightness down, not wanting to risk disturbing Jamie’s nap.
He had been asleep for twenty minutes when Peter called him back. Steve pulled the video call up on the screen, pressing one finger to his lips to tell him to keep his voice down.
“I think I have something,” Peter began in a hushed tone. He was dressed in a lab coat and plain clothes, and Steve could see his lab at Parker Industries in the background. “Do you want me to send it over?”
“Can you meet me at the tower?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, Anna Maria can cover for me,” Peter said. “She loves that.” Steve didn’t know who Anna Maria was, but he was willing to bet that wasn’t true. Peter shed his lab coat and tossed it on the desk. “Give me a few minutes,” he added.
Steve hung up and then sat contemplating for a moment whether he wanted to risk trying to put Jamie down. His arm was starting to fall asleep from the odd angle he’d held it at to calm Jamie down, but it had seemed worth it at the time. Steve risked very slowly shifting Jamie up to rest against his shoulder so he could stand.
He laid Jamie down in his crib very carefully and then stood frozen and holding his breath for several long seconds while Jamie squirmed, scrubbed his face, but blessedly didn’t wake. He grabbed the baby monitor from its charging station and quietly made his way out of the room. Steve made his way down to one of the labs, and after a few minutes Spider-Man appeared at the window.
“Hey Cap,” he said, letting himself inside. He made himself comfortable at one of the benches and booted up the computer. “Where’s Jamie?”
“Sleeping. Probably not for long,” Steve said.
“Okie-dokie, let’s get to it then,” Peter said, pulling up his results on the computer. He pointed to a segment of identical sequences, dragging his finger across the screen in emphasis. “So first I double-checked the sequences, just in case, and double-checked that he does have the serum. Perfect match–doesn’t really explain why the kid’s sick. So I thought, okay, what could possibly go wrong with cloning?” he said. Peter spun around in his chair, a matter of fact look on his face. “Trust me–a lot. I would know. But let’s not get into that.”
Steve was only vaguely familiar with Peter’s long history of dealing with clones–both of himself and of people he knew–but he knew that was what Peter was referring to now. Still, thinking about what could go wrong made his stomach turn. Cloning humans was hard. Clearly it hadn’t gone perfectly with Jamie, but could it be seriously harmful? He was just a baby.
“And?” he prompted, because letting his thoughts run in circles wasn’t helping.
Peter pulled up another sequence, and Steve could see that while this one was similar, it wasn’t identical. “This is your mitochondrial DNA,” Peter said. “And this is Jamie’s. Whoever cloned him combined your DNA with a donor’s egg cell. This part comes from her, whoever she is.”
He shrugged. “It was the only difference I could find, but… if I had to guess, I’d say that somehow it’s interacting differently with the serum. There are a lot of people who theorize that the serum was flawed, and that the fact that it worked on you was pure luck. I’d say this is pretty good evidence to support that.” He scrolled through the sequences once more, as though running the thought over in his head again. He turned back to Steve. “Without his medical records, I don’t know if we can tell what the long-lasting effects will be. There’s a chance they didn’t know either, but...I think it’s worth looking into.”
Steve had been worried about that. He pulled the flash drive out of his pocket and handed it over. Peter turned it over in his hands and then plugged it into the computer. Steve waited a few minutes, giving him a chance to dig through the parts that he could access. Steve had already been over the information that he’d been able to access several times, and reading it had been bittersweet. There wasn’t much there. Jamie’s name. His favorite foods, a few simple instructions on when to put him down for his nap. A short message, asking the Avengers of this world to take care of him. They clearly hadn’t had much time to put this together, but that didn’t make the rest of the files any easier to access.
“These are pretty heavily encrypted,” Peter said. “And this isn’t exactly my thing. I’m not sure I can get into them. Reed Richards, maybe, if you can find him, and…”
“Tony,” Steve filled in for him.
Peter shrugged. “He’s the one who encrypted the files in the first place, right?”
Yes, and apparently he’d had a larger stake in all this than Steve had originally thought. What had happened between them either hadn’t happened at all in this alternate universe, or they’d found a way to work through it. It burned him, a little, to think about it.
Peter shrugged. “It’s up to you, but… if anyone can open this, I’d put my money on him.”
Steve considered going to SHIELD, but that would mean leaving Jamie with Peter, and he was very clear that he needed to return to the lab once he was done here, since Anna Maria had covered for him enough as it was.
Steve called Jan instead, because no matter how he looked at it, Peter was right. He needed Tony’s help. He didn’t like it, but there was no way to get around it. They needed to get into that flash drive, for Jamie’s sake.
Steve dug up an old laptop to bring with him and then slid the thumb drive into his pocket. Giving Tony a computer to work with was asking for trouble, but there was no way around it. Tony would need to be supervised. He’d make sure that the laptop stayed with him when Tony wasn’t using it; maybe he could have someone check it over in between uses, just in case Tony tried something funny...
He gave Jamie to Jan to look after and then made his way to SHIELD.
Steve thumbed the flash drive in his pocket. He took the first half of the stairs two at a time, full of nervous energy, and then slowed in the middle of the steps, not really sure what he would say. He stopped at the bottom, stared ahead at the panel next to the heavy cell door, and froze.
The biometric scanner was offline.
The cell was dark.
Steve darted forward and moved to scan himself inside, then just yanked the door open, the locks already disengaged. The cell was empty, stark white and completely cleared, bedding stripped, and Tony–
Steve grit his teeth and stormed up the stairs.
The hallways were conveniently clear when Steve headed to the upper decks. SHIELD agents knew when to make themselves scarce, and “Captain America on a warpath” certainly fell into that category.
"Stark is gone," Steve growled, throwing the door to Maria’s office open without knocking. She raised an eyebrow at him, but her composed expression told him that she’d been expecting to see him eventually.
"We released him this morning," Hill said, casually, like she was relaying her coffee order. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye while she swiped right on her tablet, sizing him up.
"And you didn't tell me?" Steve asked.
"Last I checked, I didn't answer to you," Maria said hotly.
"A little warning would have been nice," Steve said.
"I warned you we couldn’t hold him forever–"
"You can't just let him walk out of here–"
"And this is exactly what I was trying to avoid," she said. "We have no reason to hold him, Rogers! It's over." Maria held up a hand, attempting to silence him, and then continued undeterred. "No one wants to confront the fact that they're secretly grateful that the Illuminati did all the dirty work for them, and the government's officially decided to sweep it all under the rug. I'm not going to sit here and deal with your personal grudges for you. If you have a problem with Stark, you take it up with him. I've got work to do."
“We’re going to have a discussion,” Steve said, “about you keeping information that I have a right to know from me whenever you think is convenient.”
“I can’t wait,” Hill said, monotone, scrolling on her tablet. Her gaze flicked up to him, challenging. “Is that all?”
He didn’t have time for this.
“Yeah,” Steve said, leaving the door open behind him. “That’s all.”
Steve went straight from the Helicarrier to the tower. He found Jan in the kitchen with Jamie, trying to coax him into eating one of the jars of baby food that Carol had brought home with her on her last shopping trip. She was clearly fighting a losing battle, which didn’t surprise Steve. He’d had a hell of a time getting Jamie to eat his vegetables, and of all of the baby food he’d bought, the peas had looked the most dubious. Jamie definitely agreed, because he made an awful face when Jan fed him a spoonful. Jamie was eyeing the jar with distrust, and Jan was keeping it well out of his reach.
Steve had learned the same lesson when he’d turned his attention away from Jamie’s high chair for one moment, only to turn back to a very innocent expression on Jamie’s face–and the entire container of peas in his lap.
(He didn’t have to eat it if he wore it instead, Jamie had figured out, and Steve had paid closer attention to where he left the jar when feeding him his vegetables from then on.)
Steve felt a little bit of the tension bleed out of him while he watched Jan trying to feed Jamie another off-green spoonful. Jamie shook his head, smearing a streak of strained peas across his cheek, and Steve smiled despite himself.
Steve chuckled, and Jan glanced up over her shoulder at him, smiling. She offered Jamie another spoonful, and he turned his head away. Seeing that Steve was now observing the feeding process, Jamie made a pitiful little pouty face and blinked up at Steve.
“None of that now,” Steve chided, and Jamie only pouted harder, sticking his lip out so far that it was beyond believable and into comical. Jan snorted.
“You’re back early,” she noted.
Jamie looked a little better, the flush not so bright in his cheeks. He’d slept in much longer than he normally would have, probably longer than the serum should have let him. Jamie seemed to feel better right after he woke up, and it was the best time to try to get him to eat. He was still tugging on his ear, though, and Steve didn’t think that the medicine they’d given him had helped. Steve had hoped that that effect of the serum wouldn’t have carried over, but they had no such luck. Jamie’s metabolism was burning through any medicine they tried, but he was still a baby–it wasn’t like they could just treat him the same way they treated Steve.
“Can you watch him for a little while longer?” Steve asked, apologetic. He was only going to get fussier the longer Steve was gone.
“Of course,” she said. “Is everything okay?”
That remained to be seen. He reassured her that it was regardless, smoothing a hand over the peach fuzz on top of Jamie’s head, and promised her that he would be back soon.
It didn’t take Steve long to learn where Tony had gone.
He wasn’t hiding, but it was still still surreal, after spending so long tracking Tony and the rest of the Illuminati across the globe, to find him so easily. Steve was almost surprised to actually find him, some small part of him still expecting Tony to be gone by the time he arrived.
Instead he found him sitting at the island in a kitchen that seemed very cozy by Tony’s standards–though maybe, Steve thought, it was because he wasn’t expecting to have to share it with any guests. He had a stack of papers set out in front of him, though he wasn’t actually working on it. Instead he was poking at a tablet laid out on the bar. He raised his coffee to his lips, not really noticing Steve at first. After a moment he looked up over the rim of the mug at Steve, like he’d know Steve was there all along, and for a moment it could have just as easily been ten years ago, sitting in the kitchen of the mansion over breakfast. Something twisted inside of Steve at the thought, but he ignored it, not willing to examine it any closer as he stared resolutely at Tony.
Tony watched him carefully for a moment and then turned his attention back to his tablet, but the guarded look in his eye shattered the moment.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you today,” Tony said. It was a lie; Tony would have been expecting him from the moment SHIELD released him. “Miss me already?”
“I’m not in the mood for games, Tony,” Steve said. “This morning I go to SHIELD, and I learn you’ve been released. It’s enough to put anyone in a bad mood.”
“It was getting to be too much like illegal detainment, even for Hill,” Tony said. “I don’t know if you heard, but they decided not to indict after all.”
“You got off on a technicality,” Steve said. “Don’t act like you’re in the right.”
“Oh, here we go. I got off because I never actually did anything wrong, Steve,” Tony countered.
“You built weapons of mass destruction–”
“Then lock me up,” Tony said, “and half the world’s governments too. At least we never used ours–”
“You never should have built them in the first place,” Steve shouted. He caught himself clenching his fists, only just refraining from smashing the thumb drive in his hand. He hadn’t come here to start a fight, but something about the flippant way that Tony greeted him, like he was feeding him snappy lines he’d rehearsed in advance, rubbed Steve the wrong way.
“And then what?” Tony asked. “Pray for the incursions to magically go away, and we all live happily ever after?”
“People who do what you’ve done don’t get happy endings,” Steve said.
“At least I did something!” he shouted. “While you sat around with your armchair morality, at least I tried!. In case you’ve forgotten–”
“I remember perfectly well. I know exactly what you were willing to do–”
“And you think I don’t? What other options were there, Steve? What did you want me to do?”
“You were a hero, you were an Avenger, you were supposed to be better–”
“How?” Tony shouted. “You keep saying that, Tony no, Tony do better, but better than what? You didn’t even have a solution. You want to remind me how I’ve failed, well I’m perfectly aware. I don’t need the reminders, I don’t need the midnight guilt-trips, and–”
“That wasn’t meant to be a guilt trip, and you know it,” Steve said.
“Really? Than what was it, Steve? A friendly visit? Because here I thought you didn’t consider us friends anymore, yet here you are. So what do you want, Steve? And why am I the only person you’re still hounding?”
“You’re not special,” Steve said. “And I didn’t come here to fight. I–”
“Then why are you here, Steve!” Tony said, voice rising to a shout. “What more do you want from me–”
“Jamie is sick,” Steve said. The sudden outburst let the wind out of Tony’s sails. Watching him falter wasn’t as satisfying as it ought to have been. Steve roughly shoved his hand into his pocket and tossed the thumb drive over to Tony. He caught it against his chest, thankfully with nothing snarky to say now. It made him feel a little less like he was swallowing his tongue when he continued, “That has his medical files. Peter couldn’t open them. He thought maybe you could.”
Tony stared at him, momentarily at a loss. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I can take a look.”
“Great,” Steve said.
Three hours later, Iron Man touched down on the roof, returned the flash drive, and left.
Tony was good, but he wasn’t that good. However the other universe’s Tony had locked down the drive, it must have been familiar to him. Steve was thankful for the speed at which he’d decrypted the files. Tony was long gone by the time he made it to the roof. He’d passed the drive to the first Avenger he’d seen–Carol–and left without a word.
Now Steve stared at the file. He could account for the rest of the contents of the drive. Medical records, some background on where they’d found Jamie, and a journal that looked to be backdated to before the medical records were opened, detailing a little of what Jamie’s life had been like before they’d found him.
The last folder wasn’t labeled, and Steve hesitated for a moment before clicking.
The first thing he saw was… himself. Or at least, someone that looked very much like him. This Steve Rogers was a few years older, certainly, and Steve remembered the birthday that had been recorded in Jamie’s file, claiming he wouldn’t be born for another six years. But there was no mistaking the similarity, and honestly, if he didn’t look too closely, Steve could have believed the photo had been taken sometime in the last few days.
In the photo, this Steve Rogers was attempting to feed a very unhappy Jamie a container of strained peas and failing miserably. Steve laughed at that–he could sympathize.
Steve clicked through the next few photos. Most of them were everyday pictures: him and Jamie, napping, playing, Jamie and other Avengers.
Very few of the photos featured Tony. He must have been the one holding the camera, Steve thought.
He paused on one photo, a picture of Jamie smashing a piece of cake, clearly having far more fun mashing it into little pieces than he was with eating it. He was wearing a party hat that looked ridiculously oversized on his tiny head. Steve and Tony were both together in the background of this one, and they looked happy, laughing along with someone off camera. Steve wondered how long ago this photo had been taken, if they’d even known about the incursions then.
Steve closed out of the picture, and then the folder, pulling up the medical files again. Along side a full, and very detailed, medical history, there was a folder full of details on the serum, where it differed from Steve, and where it stayed the same.
There were notes on past illnesses too, with what drugs and what dosages had worked before. There were even notes on how they’d arrived at those dosages, and how to estimate what would be necessary in the future, when Jamie was older.
It was exactly what he’d been hoping to find, and Steve ejected the thumb drive before he could waste any more time dwelling on an alternate universe that no longer existed.
He took Jamie and the flash drive to SHIELD. It said something for how frequent these trips were becoming, that the agents he passed by hardly seemed surprised to see him with a baby on his hip. At least this time, the trip was relatively simple. With a full medical record and instructions, all Steve had to do was wait for the doctors to get the medicine itself and give him a cursory run through of the instructions on how to use them.
It gave him time to think, at least.
Steve didn’t know if he was capable of forgiving Tony for what he’d done because even if the Illuminati hadn’t be able to go through with destroying another world, even if the Cabal had had to do it for them, Tony had still allowed them to wipe Steve’s memories, and Steve had no doubt that if he hadn’t remembered, Tony would have gone the rest of his life without ever admitting to it.
Steve wasn’t sure he could move past that, but… he hadn’t ever thought they’d be able to move past the Registration Act either. Maybe… maybe he owed it to himself, to Tony, to that other universe to try.
Steve thanked the doctor when he came back with a prescription wrapped in a white paper bag and denied their offer to “run additional tests,” the whole process being old-hat to him where SHIELD doctors were concerned. He put Jamie in his carrier and took him back to the car, but he didn’t return to the Tower. He needed to talk to Tony if they were ever going to move past this thing between them.
Tony was almost exactly where Steve had left him last time he saw him, but there was no chance for a quiet entrance this time. As soon as Jamie caught sight of Tony, he started to call for him, squirming to be let go, and Steve didn’t doubt for a second that Jamie had missed him.
Tony looked surprised to see him, and although he certainly looked uncomfortable, the discomfort was with Steve, not Jamie. Tony took him out of Steve’s hands easily and settled him in his lap.
“Hi, Jamie,” he said, when Jamie started in on a string of hellos, trying to get a response. “What are you doing here?” Tony asked, clearly directed at Steve. Steve waited until Jamie had finished babbling an answer of his own before shrugging.
“He missed you,” Steve said.
“I doubt he missed me that much,” Tony said. Steve snorted. He couldn’t honestly believe that; with the iron grip Jamie now had on Tony’s shirt, he wasn’t sure he was ever planning to let him go.
“You’d be surprised,” Steve said amiably. “And, anyway… I wanted to thank you for unlocking those files.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said stiffly. “It was the least I could do, and…” he hesitated, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue. Steve wasn’t certain he wanted him to either, “for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” He waited a moment, like he wasn’t sure how Steve was going to take that. When Steve didn’t say anything, he ventured, “It’s easy to justify things, when the world is coming to an end.”
Maybe too easy, is what Steve wanted to say, but that would only start a fight. Maybe it was a long time coming, necessary even, but Steve wasn’t going to start a fight in front of Jamie, no matter how much he wanted to.
“Dadeeee,” Jamie was whining, banging a hand against the countertop for added noise, and Steve poked a finger in Tony’s direction, glad for the opportunity to change the subject.
“He’s talking to you,” Steve said. Tony probably knew that he was avoiding having to respond, but sure enough, when Tony turned to look at him, the whining stopped. Jamie handed Tony his tablet, waiting until he said “thank you,” and then took it back again to repeat the process, mostly just happy to have Tony’s attention focused on him.
“How can you tell?” Tony asked, and when Jamie handed him the tablet again he seemed to get the memo, unlocking it for him and pulling up a puzzle game. “Who he’s talking to,” Tony clarified.
The game was too complicated for him, but Jamie seemed to recognize it, and at least know that if he poked the screen enough, things would move, because he started in on the screen, thoroughly distracted.
“You’re dadee. I’m dada,” Steve said simply.
“Ah,” Tony said. “It’s so obvious.”
“It’s not what I would have picked. But you’ll get used to it,” Steve said. “Or at least, if you want that,” he added quickly. He hadn’t really thought about whether Tony wanted this. He’d thought this was the right thing to do, for Jamie’s sake, but maybe he had misjudged things, and Tony wanted nothing to do with Jamie, or Steve–
“Of course I do,” Tony said immediately. “I just,” Tony sighed. “I would like to try. To get things back to normal, or… if that’s not possible, then close to normal.”
“I think… it’s worth a try. You can start by stopping by the tower. Or I can bring him here. Whatever you think is best,” Steve said.
“Yeah, either. Both.” Tony said, “Uh. Are you okay with this?”
Steve had thought long and hard about it. He was still angry with Tony. That probably wouldn’t go away for a long time, and he wasn’t really sure what it would take to repair the casual trust the two of them had once shared. But they owed it to themselves to try.
“We’ll make it work,” Steve said.
“I–okay,” Tony said. He eyed him for a moment longer, probably looking for some sign that Steve wasn’t okay with this plan after all. Steve waited him out patiently. He was willing to extend the olive branch, willing to at least try, if Tony was willing to accept it.
After a long pause, Tony sighed and turned back to watch Jamie’s attempts to solve the puzzle–or maybe just to make the game make the most noise–sliding the shapes across the tablet screen intently. The screen blinked Game Over, and Tony reached out to reset it almost before Jamie began to whine, a small smile pulling his lips. Steve watched the way Tony looked at Jamie, the tenderness and affection in his eyes, and knew he’d made the right decision.
It wasn’t perfect, wasn’t quite forgiveness, but it was a start.