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CASE 623

Chapter Text

"We can try again, I suppose."

"No, we cannot. The Asset almost broke the programming several times. Keeping him off ice without the option of wiping him for that many months another time could prove disastrous."

***

"Mr. Stark."

Oh, shit. Tony knew that tone. That tone meant it was at least the fifth time Potts had said his name and that he was in for some serious passive aggressive efficiency. For a moment, he considered staying where he was. But then it would only get worse later, and JARVIS had a disturbing tendency to take Potts's side. Tony rolled his eyes, then pushed his creeper back out from under the car, grabbed a rag to wipe his hands down and put on a grin. "Hey, Potts, what's up?" The incessant tapping of Potts's stilettos made Tony's gaze zoom in on them, follow their sleek lines up long, perfectly formed legs, an impeccable skirt suit and-- What the ever-loving fuck? "Potts, is that a small human? Please tell me you didn't bring a small human into the 'shop. No small humans allowed in the 'shop. Where did you get the small human anyway?"

Potts raised a perfectly formed eyebrow. She was holding the small human away from her a little, as though it was a very small, slightly dirty bag of potatoes. "The 'small human' is a he. I think. And we call them babies these days." She paused a moment, and something about her gaze was disconcerting, the way it always was when she was about to tell him something she knew he wasn't going to like, something game-changing. Exactly like that, just about a hundred times worse. "Tony, he was in a basket outside the front door."

"Wait." Tony frowned, pushing himself to his feet. "What? I didn't order a small human delivery. Sorry. Baby." Even so, he could feel panic begin to well up inside him, icy and disorienting because, no, just no, there was absolutely no way. He was careful. He was always, always careful to make sure not to order any small human deliveries. "JARVIS, who brought short stuff? Did you get a plate, or something? I'd like to call them and ask them to come pick their progeny back up."

"I apologize, Sir," JARVIS said. "Approximately fifty-seven minutes ago, my systems went offline for two minutes and twenty-five seconds. The baby must've arrived on the premises during that window. I have no record of anyone entering or exiting."

Tony frowned, felt another sliver of panic break through before he squashed it down. Okay, someone was trying to, well, get money from him, probably. They'd put the small human here, hoping Tony would get attached, and then they'd come and claim it back and demand money, hoping Tony would like the thing enough to pay up even after the paternity tests came back negative. "You're supposed to tell me when you have a malfunction, JAY," he said. "That's part of your programming. I specifically remember making that part of your programming."

"You did, Sir," JARVIS said. "And I did try to inform you. I can only presume you weren't listening."

"Tony," Potts said, and there was even more passive aggressive exasperation in there now. "Can we deal with the fact that someone literally left a baby on your doorstep now, please?"

Tony ran a hand over his face, and fuck, it was shaking, wasn't it? "I don't." He stopped, cleared his throat. "What do you usually do when... babies are left on your doorstep?"

"Call child protective services," Potts said. "And order a paternity test."

"Jesus fucking Christ." Tony groaned, gave his own hair a good tug. "No, there's. There's no way. There's absolutely no way. I use protection. I always use protection."

"Well, condoms aren't a hundred per cent," Potts said, voice going firm but gentle, in that way she always used when she was 'managing him'. Didn't make Tony feel one bit better. "They're... JARVIS?"

"Ninety-eight per cent effective when new, whole and used correctly, Ms. Potts," JARVIS replied.

Potts cocked an eyebrow at him.

Tony sucked in a sharp breath, raked his fingers the rest of the way through his hair until it was falling into his eyes. It shouldn't be so fucking hard to breathe. He had never tended towards panic attacks, but hey, small human who may or may not contain a portion of his genetic material. He was allowed a bit of a nervous breakdown. "I need a drink," he said, pulling his t-shirt down to cover the sliver of skin where it had ridden up his stomach under the car, and headed up the stairs and straight for the bar. By some exercise of will he hadn't quite realized he was capable of, he kept his hands steady enough to pull out a glass and a bottle of scotch, poured two fingers. Then, with a mental 'fuck it', he poured the glass full, threw half of it back in one go and kept the rest at hand as Potts came up the stairs behind him, still balancing the small human in her arms. "I can't even--" He blinked. "Don't I have somewhere I need to be today? Some award or unveiling or other bullshit?"

"Vegas, Tony," Potts replied. "You are set to leave in five hours."

Tony nodded. "Good," he said. "Good. Call child protective services. They can get rid of this--" he waved his free hand in the vague direction of the small human in Potts's arms and took another deep drag of scotch. "--before then, right?"

"Mr. Stark, I really suggest running a paternity test," Potts said. "It's better to know now so we know what consequences we may have on our hands later."

Tony winced. "Yeah, no, I think I'm perfectly fine without that. Really, really fine. You know what they say. 'Ignorance is bliss' and all that shit, right? So let's just stay blissfully ignorant on this one thing, okay? Ignorance sounds really fucking good."

"Tony, you know that's not going to work," Potts said. "Aside from the potential legal ramifications, not having this resolved means that you'll just keep thinking about it. This way, at least you'll know. Best case scenario, you know you're being played and never have to worry about it again. Worst case scenario--"

"Yeah, no, I really don't want to hear about the worst case scenario here, Potts, thanks very much. In fact I'd much rather--"

"--it's positive, and we figure out an airtight, legal, discrete way of handling things, and then we call child protective services and--"

"--pretend this is a really bad dream, go back to working on the Hot Rod, then get ready for Vegas and go gamble away a couple of million--"

"Tony!" Potts had high spots of red on her cheeks now, eyes narrowed, visibly angry. The small human in her arms let out a small whimper. "This isn't a joking matter. You need to take this seriously. You need to--" With a huff, she crossed the floor until she was right in front of him and plopped the small human into the crook of his free arm.

Tony nearly dropped the thing, fumbled to drain his glass, set it down and get a proper grip on the, well, the baby. "What? No, you can't just do that. I'm going to drop it and crack its head open, and. Fuck, Potts, what if I'm allergic to small humans?"

"You are not allergic to babies," Potts said. "You were one, once." She muttered something under her breath that sounded distinctly like, 'You still are, half the time'. "If you're not going to deal with this, I will. JARVIS, how fast can you process a paternity test?"

"That should take about eight hours, Ms. Potts," JARVIS said. "I just need a cell swab, from the inside of his cheek. I believe Sir has cotton swabs in his workshop. I can lead the way, if you would like."

"Traitor," Tony muttered. Then he realized Potts was headed for the stairs, felt pure panic stab through him. He was breaking out in real, actual cold sweat, God damn it. "Potts," he called. "Potts, fuck, you can't leave me alone with it!"

"'It' is a him, Tony," she called over her shoulder as she vanished down into the workshop, leaving Tony alone with a wriggling bundle of tiny person who was no longer just whimpering but beginning to actually scream. It was loud enough that Tony damn near dropped it in shock, again, and even when he had it balanced, he was convinced his eardrums were about to pop. "Potts!" he called. "Potts! JARVIS, what am I supposed to do here?"

"I suggest smelling his diaper, Sir," JARVIS said. "If that is clean, he might be hungry. Or he could simply be distraught. I believe rocking motions should help soothe him."

Tony grimaced, but the cries were getting worse. He would do pretty much anything to make that stop. Disgusted already, he bent his head slightly towards where he thought the diaper probably was. Thank fuck, nothing smelled funky. "What do you feed this thing?" he asked.

"Formula," Potts said, walking back into view. "Which you don't have. Traditionally served in baby bottles, which you also don't have. And don't get me started on what happens when he gets that diaper dirty."

Tony winced. "See, this is why we should just call child protective services right now and get it out of our hair."

"He," Potts said. "Hold him still so I can get a swab."

"You know," Tony said, swallowing. "Maybe you should hold the small human and I should do the swabbing, being the resident scientist and all, so..." He held out the baby, doing his best not to drop or otherwise break it.

Potts looked extremely unimpressed with that. "You are also the resident possible baby-daddy, so I think it's fair you do the holding here. Just, hold him still. Yes, like that, and I'll just." She held up the cotton swab up triumphantly. Then she frowned. "Okay, maybe you should upload this. I'm not sure how your. That, works." Movements supremely awkward, she managed to swap the small human out for the cotton swab, and Tony was not even embarrassed about how quickly he poured himself another glass of scotch and downed it. Upon half a second's thought, he picked up the rest of the bottle and took it downstairs with him.

He unscrewed the bottle with his teeth, spat out the cork and took a deep swig, relishing the burn as it went down. Drinking so much so fast was starting to take the edge off, make everything a bit more blurry, a bit less overwhelming, allowed him to bite down the panic until it was just a slight, manageable buzz in the corners of his mind. Still, he had to stop and take a deep breath when he came face to face with the scanner that would upload the DNA material into JARVIS's systems. He could contaminate the sample. Could even just throw it out. There was still a hundred ways to make sure he never had to know.

"Sir," JARVIS said. "If you'd insert the sample, please."

Tony took another long drink. Then, in one quick motion, he inserted the cotton swab and stepped back. He took another swallow, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and allowed himself to drop down into one of the workshop chairs. "Fuck."

The cries of the small human heralded Potts's entry into the workshop even before her crisp, precise steps normally did. "Please tell me you're not getting drunk with a baby in the house," she said, voice sharp.

Tony snorted. "I think I've earned the right to get a bit drunk right now," he said.

"No, Tony," Potts said. "You have not. You have, you have earned the right to go cold turkey right now. This is, you created this situation. Even if he isn't yours, you created a situation where he very well might be, and you can't just drink yourself into oblivion and make me pick up the pieces, Tony. This is not in my job description." With that, she plucked the bottle out of his hand, plopped the baby back into his arms and made her way back to the stairs and out of view.

"You are not the boss of me," Tony called, but it sounded weak, even in his own ears. He blinked a few times, and okay, so maybe that was a bit too much alcohol in not enough time on no breakfast. The room was swimming around him, and the baby was wailing and he wasn't sure he would be able to get up without dropping it.

"Sir, if I may," JARVIS said. "I believe it would be prudent to have Mr. Hogan discretely acquire the barest necessities for the next few hours. Diapers, formula and a bottle should about do it."

Tony let out a groan. "Fuck. Yeah, JARVIS. Relay the message, would you?" He glanced down at the baby. "Would you shut up, please? I'm going to start crying too if you don't shut up soon, you know. Not even kidding. You're going to take me from pleasantly buzzed to hung-over within the next few minutes. It's a tragedy."

The baby wailed louder.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I didn't think so."

***

"Give me an exploded view," Tony said, taking in the sight of the engine specs as JARVIS laid it out on the screen.

"The compression in cylinder three appears to be low," JARVIS said.

"Log that," Tony said, and just then the music cut. Tony bit back a groan of annoyance. "Please don't turn down my music."

"I cannot believe you'd let that woman inside the house with the baby here," Potts said, voice tight as she stomped the rest of the way into the workshop. "Do I need to tell you what kind of headlines it would've made if she'd seen him?"

Tony turned back around, grimacing. "Is the small human still here? Where are child protective services? I really don't feel like they're putting my tax dollars to very good use right now." He frowned. "It's been here all along? Wha-- JARVIS can't possibly be a good enough babysitter. He doesn't have arms. Or a body. Or-- Christ, please tell me you didn't leave him with the bots."

"There are those paternal instincts," Potts said.

"Nope," Tony said. "I just don't want child protective services to show up and find out Dum-E has decided to run a daycare."

"I stayed here with him," Potts said. "In the guest room. You should at least know the results and make some decisions before we call in the authorities."

"Yeah, no," Tony said. "I thought it over. Decided I really, really don't need to know. Ever."

"Tony," Potts started.

"JARVIS, put the music back on," Tony said. "Full volume."

JARVIS ignored him, damn it.

"Tony, he's your son," Potts said. "You're his father. JARVIS finished processing yesterday, when you were on the way to Vegas."

"Nope," Tony said. "Nope, no. He's not. I'm not. Forget that. Just. Deal with it."

Potts sighed. "The good news is, you should be halfway around the world by now. My roommate offered to help babysit. We'll call in the child protective services when you get home, if you still want to. Take the time you've got on the trip to think it through. JARVIS has loaded some of your options onto your tablet."

"I don't understand why we can't just take care of this now. Why are you trying to hustle me out of here?" Tony said. And it wasn't that he wanted to leave. He wanted really badly to get the hell away from here, but he'd be even happier about it if he could get the small person shipped out to the authorities first. "Don't tell me you've gone and fallen in love with its supposed cuteness factor."

Potts gave a long-suffering sigh. "Your flight was scheduled to leave an hour and a half ago," she said, conveniently ignoring everything else that had come out of his mouth.

"That's funny," Tony said. "I thought with it being my plane and all, that it would just wait for me to get there."

And then he really was being hustled out while she switched, thank God, to some far more normal, boring, business related stuff, and Tony was pretty sure he had bought a spring period some-artist-or-other, and that maybe it was Potts's birthday, or anniversary (did Potts have a partner?) or something, but his head was too damn much of a blur to make much sense of any of it. He dressed in a rush, made it out the door and deliberately chose to drive himself. He needed to do something that was not sit passively in the back and stare at his tablet like it was going to bite him.

He needed not to think. Thankfully, he'd have Rhodey, the flight attendants and stripper poles and some hot sake to help with that as soon as he could make it to the airport.

Still, as he lay bleeding in the sand a day later, he couldn't help but wonder what would happen to the baby now.