Genetic testing had proven Jake Jensen's story pretty much beyond a shadow of a doubt. Tony and Steve had a time traveling, HYDRA genetic experiment for a son. In Tony's estimation that was cool, but also more than a little bit disturbing. Tony had taken the revelation about as well as he could have, and he had made every effort to try to not suck as a time traveling biological father. Jake had completely ignored his attempts at father-son bonding, however, and had made himself available as a training partner, twenty-first century stuff counselor, and all around awesome son... to Steve.
Tony had many secrets, even from Pepper, and one of them was that he really, seriously, actively - in between rounds of super-heroing - thought about having kids. He didn't have any delusions that he would be a very attentive father - he had too many responsibilities for that - but he had thought that maybe he wouldn't suck at it. It wasn't surprising that Steve was the better dad, but that didn't make the confirmation pleasant.
"How old do you think he is, JARVIS?" Tony asked, glancing over at the monitor as he watched Steve and Jake play a very even round of basketball against each other.
"Based on x-ray analysis, Captain Jensen is approximately twenty-two years old; however, similar analysis on Captain Rogers estimates him only at twenty-five - even though he is chronologically nearing thirty - even after dismissing all of his time in the Arctic as a hard freeze rather than a cryogenic slowing of biological function," JARVIS answered, of course going for the purely logical response. "Non-invasive observation of Captain Rogers over the past year suggests that his rate of aging is slowed considerably by the serum; Captain Jensen may be similarly slowed, if not at quite the same rate."
"So... he could be thirty or older." Tony pulled up Jake's file from the army, which also claimed him at around twenty-three years old - graduated MIT at 19 and commissioned into the Army just afterwards; like fathers like son. Everything up to the commissioning was obviously fabricated by Jake when he'd come to the past, but joining the Army and working up the ranks that the file said accounted for the last four years was clearly true. There was too much documentation for that to also be a lie. "So, I've been his father, in the future, for probably close to twenty-five years and he still runs to Cap straight off. Apparently I’m not so hot with this fatherhood thing."
"Sir, every child has a favorite parent. It does not necessarily indicate a failing on the part of the unfavored parent. You have always admitted to favoring your father in spite of his emotional unavailability compared to your mother."
"JARVIS, stop being reasonable. I'm sulking here."
"Of course, Sir. I should have noticed before." JARVIS sounded completely amused, which wasn't fair, because Tony was trying to have a sulk. "Shall I put on a soundtrack more in keeping with your current mood?"
Tony shot a death glare at one of the dozen cameras that made up JARVIS's eyes. "I don't get it. Maybe I suck in the future, but I even offered to take apart an engine with him. He's a geek, he went to MIT, how could he not think that was awesome?"
JARVIS had thankfully taken his question as rhetorical and chosen not to answer; he wasn't really in the mood to hear how his overtures might have been considered failure.
At least Jake had picked up some style from Tony rather than taking it all from Steve. His hair was cut short and spiky - gelled up in a way that Tony probably could have pulled off when he was that age - and of course he had the goatee that was pure Tony Stark, but that didn't make up for the sinking feeling that Jake just liked Steve more. It also didn't help that Steve was fairly conspicuously avoiding Tony. Not even the assurance from Jake that his conception had been strictly non-sexual seemed to take the hunted look out of Steve's eyes. Tony should have expected that, he supposed; the guy did come from the forties. That didn't mean being treated like he had the plague by his son and his baby daddy didn't hurt.
Watching them do wind sprints back and forth across Steve's gym was probably just rubbing salt in the wound.
Objectively he could see that Jake was just... a really fucking amazing son. Just like Steve, he obviously cultivated peak physical perfection, he was brilliant and could hack his way into or out of anything, he was snappy and witty. Really, the only negatives that Tony could determine were that he couldn't sing on-key to save his life and he'd managed to pick up both of his fathers’ latent dork tendencies without picking up enough of Tony's suave. Tony was clearly never getting grandkids, at any rate.
Jake didn't voluntarily seek him out until four days after his arrival. Of course, since he was intimately familiar with all of his security particulars he actually hacked his way into Tony's lab floor rather than actually knock, which suddenly made Tony very aware of how annoying that probably was when he did it... not that he was going to stop...
"Changed your mind about playing around with the Corvette?" Tony asked. "Or did Captain America finally run you past the edges of endurance?"
Jake shrugged and collapsed on one of the couches before he pulled out a laptop and started to poke. "Just defragging," he answered. "Although that sure reminded me of why I enjoyed the Army."
Tony arched an eyebrow, which Jake didn't seem to see, but he answered the unasked question anyway.
"Unlike Pops, I had a good time in Basic, kicked ass, took names, shot like a dream..." Jake held up two fingers and mimed shooting with them. "But you've got to know I was trained to be an Avenger from birth."
Steve's reflexes and training and facility with command and Tony's smarts and sass had all combined into a fairly perfect package. "Here's what I don't get: you come back to the past from about thirty years in the future, but you're not on some sort of surgical strike - it's a fucking butterfly effect nightmare. You join the A-Team, you get burned, you fuck around for years, and then you finally come say hi to your parents but it's not 'Dad, Pops, I've got a warning from the future!' you mostly just play basketball and eat cheese doodles."
Jake grinned, a wide, amused, shit-eating grin. "Hey, sometimes time travel just happens. I mean obviously there was a specific accident, but I didn't pick when I came back."
"Do you even know what metaphysics of time travel we're dealing with here?" Just off the top of his head, Tony could think of a few hypothesized manners of time travel and what they would mean. Jake might be in some sort of closed time loop, attempting to always assure his own existence, or some other thing that had 'always happened' in his own past; Tony had no idea.
"Many worlds," Jaken answered. "I traveled into what was my own past - actually before my own past. I can do whatever I want, though; the past that created me is already set, so I am only playing with... a different past. I'm not going to Marty McFly out of here if I don't get conceived or my past strays too far off course. It's a bit freeing." Jake poked a few more keys on his computer. "Pretty sure I exist, though. Nothing I've done should have changed that, reality is surprisingly sticky in some ways."
Well that, at least, let Tony believe they weren't set to explode the space-time continuum by meeting, but that wasn't really a comfort. "So if you're right... you're being raised by HYDRA as we speak?"
Jake had, thus far, been cagey about exactly how old he was and exactly when he was born, but he answered that. "Yup. But I'm like... two months old, mostly I just burp and stare at things is my understanding. You don't find me until I'm about six months old. By then there's probably a bit of crawling, proto-walking, and syllabic vocalizing. Believe me, HYDRA was pretty sad the Serum didn't mean they got to skip all the boring developmental milestones."
Tony frowned at the answer, and at the developmental textbook he had definitely not been reading. "Wouldn't a six month old begin to have developed an attachment to their caregiver?"
"You read a childhood development book?" Jake made an expression that was difficult to call anything other than a smirk.
He shoved away the text. "You can't tell me Cap's thrilled about leaving you with Nazis. He sort of used to fight those guys back in the day."
A soft, warm sort of smile came to Jake's face. "I might have heard stories to that effect once or twice growing up. Agent Carter, Bucky, Dum Dum, Gabe, Dernier, Morita, and Falsworth... must have been a hell of a time."
Tony knew those stories, probably most of them, he'd heard them growing up from his father, from Aunt Peg, and sometimes from the other boys. The idea that his son knew them too, had obviously heard them from Cap, from the horse's mouth, was... well it was complicated. Even though he'd just been assured that Jake couldn't change anything that would endanger his own existence, Tony still found himself loathe to ask if Jake had ever managed to change what was between him and Steve. Tony had... well the world's most inappropriate crush on Steve, and it was hard not to wonder if having a kid together might have made them at all closer.
"Anyway," Jake said. "Attachment doesn't really get into full swing until around six months anyway. Most of the HYDRA goons who raised me wore masks. I imagine it didn't help endear them to me as caregivers."
"If we make it to six months out, and we haven't found you yet... I am going to kick your ass until you tell us where to find you." He didn't really believe in fate or trying to stick to some pre-ordained timeline, but he wasn't going to let his son stay in the hands of HYDRA any more than Steve would want to.
"July second," Jake answered, and Tony took it as a promise.
He thought, maybe, now that he had Jake here, in his lab, in his space, that maybe he should try to talk to him, but somehow Tony couldn't find the words. It was no wonder he was a crappy father.
It had taken Jake's prodding and asking him what he was working on to get them anywhere. After that it almost worked. Jake was in his space, but never seemed to be in his way, as the two of them tugged and tapped at the holographic displays, passing ideas back and forth; the music was cranked up too loud, but they didn't really need to talk to get the ideas across. Jake's mind worked like Tony's. It was like they could reach in there without words and understand each other, and it was like... it was like what Tony felt when he and Bruce were truly in the zone, but Jake just stepped in there effortlessly in a way he and Bruce only managed in rare moments.
It made it hurt even more when Jake left barely two hours later to 'play some hoops with Pops'. His son was a fucking mega-genius and he wanted to play basketball instead of fix the future. He completed the design work he was doing, shut down the project, and pretended to actually help run his company. Just because he and Pepper were on the outs - again - didn't mean he couldn't still be responsible. He was a father now.
Steve found him a little before what would have been dinner time, eyes closed in something that might have been meditation if he hadn't been listening to The Clash. Jake had obviously given him a code, because Tony hadn’t even noticed he came in until a hand touched his shoulder and Tony responded as he always did in that circumstance... by lashing out and punching Steve square in the chest before he realized he was in his lab and Steve wasn't trying to grab him.
"Hey..." Tony struggled to sit up. "Sorry... you... just ask JARVIS to kill the music when I'm like that."
Steve rubbed his chest, frowning, but he did finally nod and then hold out a hand, which Tony took as an invitation to get up, so he did. "Jake..." Steve stopped, let go of Tony's hand and stepped a few paces back before he continued. "Jake mentioned you were probably 'weirded out', and that maybe we should talk about..."
"The fact that I'm apparently your baby mama?" Tony was pretending to not even vaguely be bitter about that, even though he knew it was silly. Jake was still half his, even if Steve had contributed the Y chromosome. Maybe that was why Jake favored Steve... if there was some sort of random genetic reason maybe Tony could pretend he wasn't a failure of a father. "Yeah, we might as well. Need to figure out how to share custody when we actually find him."
"Dinner?" Steve asked. "We could go out?"
That was exactly what Tony's sanity needed: going out to dinner with the guy he was probably falling a bit in love with, talking about having children, and their future together. Steve even seemed be in the midst of a hetero-freakout so profound that he couldn't even look Tony in the eyes. "Sure," he agreed, for some reason he didn't quite understand. "Let me go change."
He could handle this. He could. At least Steve was reaching out now, rather than pulling away.
Tony, however, had seemed to take it entirely in stride. If anything, he seemed happy about it.
Steve was not finding it as easy. Jake was completely oblivious to that, or was simply powering through it, but it was clear his older self had had little to no problem with Jake, or having a son with Tony. He had no idea how a couple of men, who weren't... fairies together, would have a son; it wasn't like sharing a house or being on the same team, there was so much else involved. There was also the issue of a female influence, although he supposed Natasha and Pepper might stand in as good maternal figures in the absence of a woman. Well, he would just have to discuss that with Tony.
Eventually Tony came out of his room, dressed down in neat slacks and a nicely fitted shirt in his customary red. "Did you get a babysitter for the kid, honey?"
Steve flinched. He tried not to but... Tony just had this way about him, and the hard reminder that they had a child between them, no matter how he had come about, wasn't something he was having an easy time dealing with. "This is a strategy meeting, Tony. And Jake is an adult." As much as he acted like a miniature Tony.
Tony's face closed off instantly, and he tilted his head towards the elevator before heading down to the garage, just the two of them. They'd done this a fair amount in the wake of the Invasion - sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with more of the team in a reenactment of the post-mission Shwarma - and Steve had grown to enjoy it, but now there was an awkwardness, a realization that two men having dinner together resembled a date.
Tony didn't ramble, didn't fill the silence between them with his usual chattiness and updates. Steve knew more about Tony's life just from his casual babbling about Pepper or Rhodey or the company than from any other source, but today Tony was stone-faced and silent. Even without Steve's input, they ended up at some sort of Japanese place with a private back room that they were led to without even asking.
"Well, let's strategize, Captain." Tony sat across from him, eyes hard.
He immediately missed Tony's warmth, the way he usually called him 'Steve' now. "Have you had any luck finding where Jake might be now?"
"Been snooping on all the channels, but Jake said we didn't find him until July 2nd in his reality. For whatever reason he's attached to having his early childhood with glowy blue soldiers." Tony shrugged and didn't even glance at the menu. "Surprise us, and some hot sake."
The waiter disappeared a moment later.
Steve was at a loss. He'd only asked Tony out because Jake had reminded him that Tony might be struggling to adjust; if anything, Steve was the one who was floundering. "What do you think of him," he asked, finally.
"He's a great kid," Tony answered without hesitation. "Clearly got the best of both of us or we'd have a scrawny, five and a half foot tall, alcoholic asthmatic." There was something else there, something Tony was talking around. It had taken Steve a while, but Tony's eyes were so expressive it was easy to catch when he was hiding something. He didn't press, though; there was no surer way to get Tony to shut down. "He's my kid, I sort of have to like him, don't I?"
"That's better than not..." Steve agreed. "He's amazing on the field. He can completely keep up with me. A little mouthy--" Like Tony-- "but any commander would be lucky to have him."
The problem wasn't Jake, the problem was what he represented: a violation and being tied to Tony in a way that made him uncomfortable. Tony was his friend, his best friend in this new world he'd found himself in, but Steve wasn't... like that; Tony might be a bit fast and loose, but he was also not like that.
"I think he'd do better with a stronger maternal influence."
Tony frowned around his water glass. "You're having issues with the 'Jacob has Two Daddies' thing, aren't you?"
"It's not natural, Tony."
"Neither is a pacemaker and a power generator plugged into your chest, neither is getting shot full of a biochemical serum and vitarays to gain a half foot and a hundred pounds of solid muscle." Tony put his glass down, staring across the table at Steve. "Both of those things made our lives much better. Yeah, we get a bioengineered kid, but he's a good kid. We're not exactly bastions of normalcy. That kid's going to be the heir to a company worth billions and the legacy of Captain America. He's lucky he's exceptional."
When he put it like that... it made Steve's hang ups concerning... that gay stuff and sharing a child with Tony seem trivial, but that couldn't shake the feeling in his chest. "He is exceptional..."
"That kid's going to be our pride and joy, Steve."
"I think I figured, of the two of us, you'd be the one with more problems with this." Tony could handle a lot - he was exceptional in all his own ways - but he did sometimes lash out when there was no need.
"Yeah, when they were giving out daddy issues I got a dump truck, but that just means I am not going to fuck up a kid. I hope." Tony frowned. "I mean clearly you are going to eventually check your issues and be an awesome dad if the way Jake is with you is any indication, but there's nothing wrong with getting a jump start. The kid worships the ground you walk on. You're his hero."
He was. That much was clear. "He keeps asking for War stories... about the Commandos and things..."
"Ha, I bet he got them with a shovel growing up," Tony said. "Probably started pestering you for them when he was old enough to talk."
Finally the sake arrived and Steve sort of wished he could get drunk, but he joined Tony in a first drink anyway. Steve finally grasped the corner of what was bothering Tony as they sipped. "I'm sorry you want him so much more but he spends so little time with you."
That had to burn, and the way Tony's eyes fell told him he'd struck the point accurately. "He's his own person, but his father's Captain America. Who wouldn't think that was too cool for words?"
Tony was obviously having a problem with that, but Steve was in no position to help. He was too caught up in his own worries. "Well he's great with JARVIS and computers. You taught him a lot. I know for me, after the serum, I had so much energy to burn... he probably has to work out that much."
"Yeah." Tony ran his hand down his face, fingers smoothing his goatee. "So what's the real issue here, Cap? One of us is supposed to be the emotionally mature one, and it's not me."
"I guess I just... never thought about having kids." He had been too sick to attract someone, and he would have been worried that one could round of flu would finish off him and a kid; after that there was just the Army, giving his life over to that, and after... he wasn't sure if he would have really been able to make a go at it with Peggy. "And you, you get to teach him about computers and running a company and... I'd only get to teach him to join the Army, nothing special."
Even if he could find a gal now, he somehow doubted they'd want to raise someone else’s kid with him, and that wouldn't have been fair to Tony anyway. Tony clearly wanted Jake.
"You're pretty damn special, Cap."
They talked even less than usual after that, and Steve couldn't help but feel it was a loss. Something had broken between him and Tony, but he knew the fault was with him.
He finally worked up the nerve to ask Jake that night, when they were boxing together. "How did it work when you were growing up?"
"Me and Tony... what was our... relationship?"
Jake let his guard down for a moment, and Steve struck out; Jake barely responded in time to block. "It's complicated?" Jake answered. "You and dad... you fought a lot, but... usually not about me." Jake punched, hitting Steve hard in the side. "What do you want your relationship to be?"
Steve didn't know. "I... I'd like us to be friends." Again. Jake's mouth set in a hard line, and Steve tried to ignore it. "And there’s your safety. You're... Even when we get you, it's not as though HYDRA is going to stop, or any of the other enemies Tony and I and the Avengers are making will stop. You'd get kidnapped once a month!"
"Dad installed lojack on me," Jake answered, grinning. "It's a thing to keep your car from getting stolen."
"You take after him," Steve said, deciding that pretty much on the spot. Every time he looked at Jake, even though it was physically like looking in a mirror, there was always this shroud of 'Tony' over him. Seeing this perfect blend of him and Tony made flesh made him feel... strange. Jake was like some weird thing that his eyes just slid over because seeing him and Tony all mashed together into one person was...
"People always say that." Jake interrupted his thoughts, startling him. "I mean I look like you, but... yeah, I take after Dad on most things." He didn't sound pleased with that, as though being like Tony was something to be ashamed of, and it just wasn't.
"Hey, your Dad's a hell of a guy. He's smart, he thinks on his feet, and he knows how to get the job done." He shouldn't have had to tell Jake that; Jake had had far longer to get to know Tony than Steve did, and Steve knew that Tony was the person he'd most want at his back. "He knows how to make the hard decisions, make the tough calls... make the sacrifice play if that's what's needed."
"I got it, Captain," Jake shot back, voice hard. "No one said being like Dad was a bad thing. He's a good guy. I love him. He was always there for me."
Which didn't answer why Jake was spending so much time with him. The way he'd said 'Captain', not the usual 'Pops' that he'd almost gotten used to hearing, reminded him more of his time in the Army than what he imagined a father should hear. Tony was... the emotionally available one, somehow, and Steve was imagining that he'd found himself as the distant and cold one. He had no idea how that could have happened. "Sorry."
"Nah, s'cool." He brought his hands up again, and the boxing recommenced. They continued to work at each other, dodging, feinting, blocking hard and punching harder. It calmed his body, at least some, but it couldn't calm his mind, and he wondered if Jake was the same way, or if it was worse with Tony Stark's genius banging around in his head, too.
Maybe he didn't get over this hurdle when Jake was growing up, and this round of almost forced intimacy was how Jake had chosen to deal with it. He'd never been a competitive man, the idea that Tony was likely the better father of the two of them didn't upset him, but it hurt to think that a child, a genuinely incredible human being, was going to be shortchanged by him for years because of it.
They didn't talk about it again until the two of them were out late at a diner. The serum did have its drawbacks, and the two of them ended up with stacks of pancakes, two omelets and loads of bacon between them. The thing, the real thing, that had been gnawing at his chest since Jake had come into his and Tony's lives finally worked its way to the surface. "I'm not gay."
Jake didn't answer right away, just chewed on a strip of bacon, crunching thoughtfully. "Doesn't mean you can't love Dad."
He opened his mouth to protest, to say that he didn't love Tony, but the truth was he did, just not the way the word might have been taken. He'd loved Bucky, loved the Commandos, loved Tony's father; in a lot of ways he'd known them better than Peggy, but there was a line, and you didn't cross it. "I stay hung up on that, don't I?"
"You're from the forties," Jake said, like that explained everything.
It did, in a way, but it was an answer without answering. He was from the forties, he couldn't imagine their gay little superhero family. The idea set something off in the back of his mind that just screamed wrong, even though he loved Tony and could see how it would be easy to love Jake, too, especially given how much he resembled a man that Steve loved. Jake was just giving him a reason to confront this before he arrived. "I respect your father a lot."
Jake's answering sigh said that was not the answer he wanted or hoped for, but it was all Steve had. He respected Tony, he cared about him, anything more than that was something he couldn't allow himself.
Even if he could love Tony that way, he had already allowed Tony and the other Avengers too far into his heart. Only a few days into his time on the team he had lost Coulson, a man who had only ever admired him, and barely a day later he had nearly lost Tony once. He could only imagine how much worse it would be to lose the man he shared a child with, or someone he loved the way such a person would deserve to be loved. Theirs was a dangerous line of work, and Steve had barely allowed himself the luxury of a few playful, hopeful thoughts of Peggy during the War; doing so again would be too much.
Perhaps Jake's unsubtle nudges meant it might be safe to allow Tony closer - as much as he seemed to rush headlong into danger - but Steve doubted Tony Stark was the type of man to live to a ripe old age. "When we find you, I will try," Steve promised.
"That's all I ask for, Pops."
Steve felt as though he was signing up for more than he was ready for.
Jake himself had U and Dum-E both monopolized while he soldered and fabricated pieces for a small robot, no bigger than his torso.
"Whatcha building, kid?" Tony asked, finally giving in to the curiosity as the well-contained blob began to take form.
Jake stopped, head shooting up and looking, for all the world like a startled animal, and when he glanced towards Tony a dozen emotions flickered over his face; the only one Tony could really disentangle was the pleasure of even being asked. He wondered if he was just like that in that regard, never giving Jake the encouragement and interest he should have...
"When I was younger... I really wanted a dog."
That didn't answer Tony's question at all, but he'd bite. "That seems like something a genius billionaire would be able to accomplish in relatively short order. Pretty sure Steve could figure out 'go to pet store, acquire dog' even if he got lost helping little old ladies across the street on the way there."
"I'm allergic," Jake answered. "Pretty badly, actually. All pet dander. I mean technically I'm pretty sure you thought about a hypoallergenic dog, but you're an Avenger, and puppies need attention. So... no dog." He leaned in and adjusted the magnifying glass he was looking through, soldering another joint before he leaned back and relaxed. "Hence: Robo-Pooch! Well, technically Robo-Pooch would be some sort of android of one of the guys from my squad, but the point remains."
"You're building your past self a robot dog?" Tony wasn't certain if he should be disturbed or impressed, but he settled on impressed. "Why didn't I build you a robot dog?"
Jake's answering shrug calmed none of his curiosity. "You were a bit caught up with other things, I guess."
The answer pained Tony, somewhere right in the arc reactor. In spite of all his best intentions, in spite of making the promise to himself almost as soon as he'd known Jake existed, he still couldn't be a good father when it counted. A question of why Tony hadn't done something answered with a casual shrug and a 'you were busy'. "Was I a shitty father?"
"What?" Jake looked up. "No. No. You're just... busy. You were running Stark Industries, saving the world, fighting corporate battles, and designing the future, all while trying to parent a... staggeringly intelligent and rambunctious kid. You prioritized story time over hours in the lab making me a dog, what a dick."
Oh. Well when he put it that way... "I guess that doesn't sound so bad."
"Shit." Jake stood, came over to Tony, and basically collapsed on him, arms wrapped tight around his mid-chest, chin and mouth buried in the crook of Tony's neck. He hugged back, almost on instinct, arms around Jake, hands pressed against him, running up and down his back in a way that Tony thought might have been comforting. "Don't ever think that. Shit. You're going to be a fucking amazing dad."
Something painful unclenched in Tony's chest and he eased into the hug. Jake was huge compared to Tony, tall and broad and way more muscled. He wondered how long that had taken, if some adolescent growth spurt had kicked in and left Tony dwarfed by his son, but it didn't matter because Jake was tiny now; somehow, even with a half-dozen inches on Tony he was a small child then. When Jake finally pulled away, he tugged off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, wiping away half-shed tears.
"You know... when I was a kid..." Jake reached out with his free hand and pressed a finger to Tony's chest, right in the center of the arc reactor. "I couldn't stay asleep without you beside me. You always used to wonder if it was because I was raised by HYDRA early along, but I think it was just that hum. It's cheesy, and you'd never say it sober, but we were always in each other's hearts."
Wow, yeah, that was corny, but Tony had fed - and been fed - a lot of lines in his life and there was something about hearing that from his son that made it... alright, maybe even awesome. He took Jake's hand, brushing it away lightly. "Dad and I never had the best relationship. Did I tell you that?"
"Grandpa Howard?" Jake asked. "No, he... he was always larger than life. I never knew him, obviously, but he was a major player in stories about why Starks changed the world for the better, about... intentions, the cost of progress and change, and how you never stop pushing to make the world a place you'd want to pass on to your kids. We spent enough time in the lab together when I was a kid, and I made enough comments you didn't return, for me to figure you two didn't have what we did."
He knew the assurance was no true assurance, Tony still had to let a whole lifetime play out, but he could do it. In Jake's world he already had been a good father. "Do I ever get grandkids?" He asked, almost joking but not quite.
Jake laughed, though. "Not my time around. Something to work on for next time. There's this girl... I used to tell the guys in the unit she was my sister, we're actually second cousins on Pops' side. She's got a daughter."
"I didn't know Steve had any surviving family," Tony admitted.
Jake put some distance between them, headed over to where his jacket was discarded on the couch and pulled out a worn photograph from one of the inside pockets. "I don't think he knew right now. His dad had a baby brother who went to Boston after grandma remarried. He didn't have kids until after grandma had died of TB and it's not like they had the internet and genealogy dot com back then. His kid had a daughter and that's my 'sister'. I gave her some yarn about long-lost cousins and I looked more than enough like her dad that she bought it."
"Is that where you got the last name?" Tony asked. He'd been wondering about that, not that it had kept him up at night, but he'd wondered if Jake had taken over the life of some dead soldier, or if he'd made up Jake Jensen from whole cloth.
"Jensen? Nah, her married name is Tate, maiden name was still Rogers."
That didn't answer Tony's question at all.
"She's a cute kid though," Jake continued, turning the picture towards Tony; it was of Jake and a young blonde girl, maybe seven or eight, growling at the camera, both... wearing pink. Tony arched an eyebrow. "Petunias, girls' soccer team. They've been in the playoffs three years running."
Tony saw himself there, and how he could be if he allowed himself that excitement. He could see him as that terrifying father who had seven million photographs of everything from his kid's first words to his first spit up to his first catalytic converter. Tony was going to be the most annoying father ever. He reached out, took the photograph, and he smiled. "You'd think blond was a dominant allele."
"Well, grandma was blonde," Jake answered. Tony's brow knit, tried to remember if he had ever known what Steve's family looked like. "Grandma Maria."
His mom, 'grandma Maria'. "Well there's some blonde in the tree, yes." He raked his fingers through his hair, trying to settle something in his stomach. Jake was his son; it had been something he'd known intellectually, but now it was sinking in even further. Jake called his mother and father 'grandma Maria' and 'grandpa Howard' as easy as breathing. "You know, it's too bad, with all the time-travel in the family, that we don't have a nice family portrait."
Apparently another thing he shared with Jake was an ability to jump from idea to action plan to execution in a matter of a split second, which was how he found himself dragged out of the lab and shoved into his room with a yell from the hallway to 'dress nice!' So he showered, cleaned up the edges of his goatee and even moisturized, because he knew how to go from bedraggled to good looking. He had long ago accepted that sometimes, especially for a promotional shot, you wear your damn makeup or else all of a sudden someone thinks you're dying of cancer or something because of a grease smudge under your eye. Not that that had ever happened to Tony or anything.
He picked out a light grey suit, changed into it, checked his hair... and walked out towards the common room to find Steve, dressed in perfectly crisp dress greens, and Jake, his goatee similarly cleaned up and his hair less spiked, in the new dress blues. Tony smiled. "I think this speaks to a generational divide between a father's Army and a son's Army. Seriously, I'm going to have to stand on a box. My neck hurts just looking at you."
"Is this your idea?" Steve asked, his face blank and unreadable.
"Your son's nostalgic. I think he gets it from your side of the family." But Tony glanced towards Jake and saw exactly what he was thinking: Tony had always been the nostalgic one, even if he denied it kicking and screaming. "I'm pretty sure my office downstairs is suitably old school for the occasion, unless you want JARVIS to photoshop us at Four Corners or something."
In the end, Tony did stand on a box, although in his defense it was only about three inches worth, enough that he was still conspicuously shorter than both Steve and Jake, but not quite so much as to be embarrassing. But it was... well it was pretty awesome; he grabbed Pepper's current assistant - Rus, or Richard or something with an R - and made him take a half-dozen photographs, all of which looked awesome, with him and Steve, arms across Jake's back, a hand on each shoulder, looking every inch the proud fathers that they were. Well, Steve mostly just stood up straight and smiled a bit while Tony did his best to not mug for the camera.
"We look... awesome," Tony said, transferring the pic to his server a moment later and then bringing it up on a screen. "You're like... a half-inch shorter than Steve. Sorry about that. Proof that you aren't a Steve-clone. Come on 'O Captains my Captains,' family burgers time."
Tony stayed in his suit while Steve and Jake changed out of their uniforms and into street clothes, leaving Tony overdressed again, but he never apologized for looking stylish. He slid the three of them in to some ridiculously exclusive restaurant that he made JARVIS find them - that served high-end burgers - and the three of them had their first meal together, ever, as a weird, time traveling family. Steve looked troubled.
"Mourning the future loss of your greens, Cap?" Tony asked.
"I like the greens," Steve said. "It's a classic, you can't put World War II medals on a blue uniform."
"He's right," Jake said. "You can't ask Steve Rogers to wear a blue uniform."
Steve sat up straighter and nodded. Tony pouted.
"I mean... blue, not his color," Jake continued. "Can you imagine this guy in a blue uniform? Next they'd put red and white on it. Disaster."
Tony smirked. Steve scowled. "You're not in the Army anymore, Steve. It's not like they can make you get the blues. It would be anachronistic for you to wear them anyway."
Tony's words seemed to finally placate him, and Steve took a deep breath before he smiled, very soft. "It's a good look for you."
Jake beamed. "You don't get much time to wear the thing down in South America, and the Colonel was never much for for the formality, especially after Bolivia. I haven't really worn it since training."
The table quieted, and Tony flipped through the menu for a few seconds, made a split second decision, closed it, and then looked at Steve. "I know you're from a time of extreme emotional constipation, but could you at least work up some enthusiasm for the fact that our son, your son, followed in his daddy's footsteps to become pretty damn awesome Army guy. That's a lot of commendations in just a few years."
Steve looked down at his hands, something going through his head, before he looked up. "Tony's right. My father was in the Great War, and it made me want to join up more than anything. Having a son who was ready to make the same choice... it's good to know."
Tony kicked Steve hard in the shin. He'd learned that move from Pepper.
"I'm proud of you," Steve finished, a few seconds later, and as much as Tony knew it was like pulling teeth, Steve obviously meant it.
Jake's bowed head, the minute way he was nodding his head, told Tony that Jake hadn't heard that enough growing up, and Tony knew how much that burned, even years later, and maybe he'd missed it the first time around, but he was absolutely not letting his kid have the same issues he did, again. "Thanks, Pops... and Dad."
The three of them relaxed a bit after that, finally, and even though it wasn't quite the same as the Tony-and-Steve man-dates of old, it was fun, and he could feel Steve opening up just a little bit, and it was more than worth it. He wished it were easier, that he and Steve weren't drifting further apart rather than closer, but they were working on it.
He even brought a peace offering later in the day, a perfectly matted and framed copy of the picture from earlier in the day, Tony, Steve, and Jake, dressed to the nines. "Family portrait."
Steve took it in hand, fingers brushing over it, and he nodded, face tired.
"This is all pretty weird for you, isn't it?" Tony asked.
"I read science fiction as a kid. I read The Time Machine, even, but this is all so strange." Steve took a seat at his desk, put the picture down on it, face up, and looked down at it. "I don't understand what it means for me or for us. He's a good boy, he's not..." Steve bit something back. "He obviously loves us both and expects us to be this family and... I'm not sure I want a family, Tony."
Tony took a step back, his fingers spread apart atop the table, physically reeling just a touch from what Steve had said. "You already have a family."
"I know Jake says he's already born, but..."
"No, not Jake. I mean, yeah, he's your son, but I'm talking about everyone else, me, Bruce, Natasha, Clint, and Thor. We're already your family. I mean did you miss the part where Clint is 'no shirt' casual around us and actually leaves a bow more than twenty paces from him when he's in the Tower? Natasha lets her hair down... figuratively since it's sort of short now. Is that not how you feel about..." me-- "us?"
Steve didn't answer, not right away. Instead he stood, paced a few steps back and forth across the floor, even paused to look out of one of the windows to the room, before he pressed his head gently against the glass. "I don't want to lose anyone else I care about."
"So the trick is to not care?" Tony asked. And really, he knew how rich this was coming from him, but he'd already been down this road, and just like fatherhood, it was a path he was committed to not fucking up again. "When I thought..." His voice caught, and he swallowed. "When I thought I was going to die, I made a point of making sure that everyone in my life wouldn't miss me. I was an asshole to Pepper, I was a dick to Rhodey, and I set absolutely everything I could in order. I took out every terror cell I could, I cleaned up minefields, I revived the Stark Expo for science and technological innovation because I didn't have shit to leave as a legacy."
He took another deep breath, trying to steel himself, and Steve didn't answer at all, still looking out of the window. "I was nothing but a barely-reformed arms merchant, and I had six months, tops, to save the world, make a legacy I wasn't ashamed of, and to make sure anyone who might have given a shit about me wouldn't miss my sorry hide."
God Tony remembered that. He'd been such an ass.
"And the real kicker?" Tony continued. "After all of that, they still would have missed me. You can't turn off caring, not without way more tech than even I have at my disposal, not without giving up on being who you are. You're not Captain America because of your smile or because you can deliver cheesy lines that make people believe; you're Captain America because you care and you believe. I've lost a lot of people, Steve, some of whom even got down on the wire so I could walk across, but I cared about every one of them.
"Some of us are going to die, but if there's anything I've learned, especially after getting to know my father twenty years after the fact, it's that you might regret being too close for a while, but you'll regret not being close enough for the rest of your life."
"It's not that easy," Steve whispered.
Tony laughed. "Shit, Steve, I'm almost three years in to extensive psychological counseling for PTSD and nearly dying like... seven times. Of course it's not that easy. Give it time." He came over to Steve and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, looking out over the city with him.
"He's a great kid."
"He likes you better."
"I'm emotionally more available. Make sure you tell Pepper, she's going to laugh her ass off." That wasn't quite fair. He'd been a great boyfriend when he wasn't busy with the aforementioned near deaths. "I know he's a lot more 'me' than is probably your taste, but look at it as practice for when we're dealing with baby Jacob in a few months - same amount of random outbursts, less diapers."
"I do like you, Tony." Steve finally slung an arm around him, hand squeezing Tony's shoulder. "I'll try. Even though it's been almost a year, everything in the future still has this fog over it."
"Mental confusion," Tony said, nodding. "Not uncommon with people your age." He knew that unreal fog, though, although he hadn't been trapped in it so much lately.
Steve let out a little huff, but then he chuckled. "Alright, Tony."
"I'll leave you in peace, Old Man."
Steve laughed again, and Tony considered that a win, backing away slowly before smoothing down the creases in Steve's shirt.
"And, Tony... thanks for the picture. It was really nice."
Yeah, this would be alright.
Family, Tony had called them. The fear of losing them seemed entirely rational to Steve, but the day to day planning around his friends' eventual demises hadn't exactly left him happy.
The worst of the fog had lifted months ago, when he finally felt as though he had something to hold onto in the future: the Avengers. It wasn't just the Avengers, it was Tony and Bruce and Clint and Natasha and Thor, but it was hard not to deny that the constant at the center of the Avengers was Tony. They might have looked to Steve to call out battle formations, but Tony was the one who had given them a home, had naturally pulled them together and held on for all he was worth - and Tony Stark was worth quite a lot, both in terms of money and raw heart; the money he would have laughed about, the heart he would have outright denied. Tony Stark, family man; it only made sense that he was the one who easily accepted Jake into his heart. For Steve it was a slower process, but Jake seemed more than willing to give him that.
They ran in the park, they played one-on-one basketball, they went to art museums, they had burgers together, and generally did most things a father and son might do together. It was more like a father and son with joint custody, though, because Steve would often find Jake in the lab with Tony, the two of them inches from each other, moving in perfect unison, pushing and pulling each other - at least mentally - over each other's shoulders, in each other's space, building... the future, the two of them together. It almost made him jealous, because while Jake could push him, could go round for round in the ring and on the court, they didn't look like that. The image sparked the same flare of jealousy he felt when Tony and Bruce connected so easily and he and people around him never quite managed it.
He did notice that Jake tended to avoid the other Avengers, not conspicuously, and Steve wasn't even certain if he was doing it intentionally or if it was just a consequence of spending so much time between Tony and Steve, but he obviously knew them all and knew enough about their past to prove it. The others seemed to find it far more eerie, but Tony's easy acceptance had created something closer to a family atmosphere again.
Family maybe shouldn't have involved him and Jake, sprawled out on the couches in Steve's suite, a dozen guns in the process of being field stripped, cleaned, inspected and reassembled.
"Did I teach you this?" Steve asked, finally bold or brave enough to start to just ask, to connect to this son from the future.
"Family tradition," Jake answered, grinning. "Most baby officers who came from MIT don't know how to point a gun in the right direction."
Steve nodded. "I guess the Army's a family tradition, too. Your... my father died in the war, mustard gas. I never really knew him." His father had been the driving force behind Steve's own desire to prove himself growing up. He'd needed that, to stand up for his country, to fight, and he'd done so with every fiber of his being.
"That must have been hard," Jake said, voice rougher than Steve was used to. They sounded so much alike, when Jake was calm and not running his mouth a mile a minute, but in that moment his voice was pure Tony, the way he could put too much feeling into just a few words. "You joined up for him?"
"That was part of it. I was all for protecting the little guy, doing what was right, and I grew up hating bullies." Steve felt his hands clench, and he forced himself to relax. "Did your... was Tony upset that you wanted to join the military?" The Tony he knew had quite a bit of disdain for the military as a whole, even if he never took that out against the men and women serving.
"No. It was all I could talk about growing up. Dad and I would talk about it, though. What were the right reasons, why was I doing it, was I joining up because I had something to prove?" Jake took a deep breath. "You bet your ass I had something to prove, but Dad understood why I felt I had to, and he supported me. But, let's be honest, the military's in my blood, both sides, for generations. I was always going to end up here, one way or the other."
He remembered what he'd said to Jake, weeks ago now, a confession that Tony had all but kicked out of him; he'd said he was proud of Jake, and he really was. So he reached out and put a hand just on the back of Jake's neck, squeezing lightly. In that moment, he realized he'd never really touched Jake. They'd sparred, they'd jostled each other for position on the court, but he hadn't really hugged Jake or offered a comforting hug. "I'm proud of you."
"Thanks. It means a lot to hear that."
How rare must his kind words have been that Jake felt he had to thank him for that simple decency? "I'll be a better father to you the next time around."
"Yeah," Jake said, leaning in and wrapping his arms around Steve's waist. "I hope so."
"I just..." Everything he wanted to say seemed like an excuse. He'd never had a father growing up. It had been one of the dozens of ways he'd been branded a sissy in his youth, even when he stood up for himself, even when he got beaten down. Tony had managed, somehow, to rise above an absent father and be there, though. "I'm still getting used to the future. I fought guys who could peel back the skin from their faces to a red skull underneath, but I'm still figuring out... having a child with another fella. I can't figure out how to... attach, not the way you deserve from a father. You've been in the Army longer than I was. Do you ever just... feel like nothing's real anymore?"
Jake looked down at the table, at the disassembled pieces of the gun he'd been cleaning before he'd hugged Steve. "I'm from the thirties. It's the twenty-thirties not the nineteen-thirties, but yeah. The first few weeks I was in the past, back in the late twenty-aughts, I didn't know up from down. I kept singing songs from the seventies and eighties because I knew they were already out. They were songs that predated my birth even if I'd been born in the past. The guys used to tease me that I had the music taste of a forty year old man."
"Your dad," Steve realized, a moment later.
"I wanted to see him so badly. I mean there he was, my dad. If I'd pushed and pulled the right threads at the right time he never would have been captured by Afghani terrorists, he never would have become Iron Man. I could have shot Obie through the skull at two miles and Dad... wouldn't even be him." Jake took a deep breath, and Steve reached out and touched his shoulder. "I could have saved him a lifetime of remembering the guy who got down on the wire for him so he'd stop wasting his life."
Steve didn't know any of this. Well, he'd known Tony had been captured in Afghanistan and left as Iron Man, but the name 'Obie' certainly hadn't been attached to anyone who should have been preemptively killed to save Tony strife, and Steve had no idea there was anyone who'd sacrificed their life for Tony's future. "Why didn't you?"
"It would have killed Iron Man. And yeah, my dad's Tony Stark, but my dad's also Iron Man, and he wouldn't have been my father otherwise." He chuckled and shook his head. "Let me just tell you, seeing my dad on Page Six as a manwhoring asshole was... strange."
"He's not like that in the future?" Steve wouldn't have even called Tony that now, as much as he flirted inappropriately and made Steve wildly uncomfortable no matter who his target was.
"Definitely not. Long story short: I know what it means to feel out of time. The people I love most don't remember me, I've had a lifetime and they haven't even met me. Dad's never changed my diaper. Uncle Clint's never taught me how to shoot a bow..." Jake snorted, as though he'd said something very funny, but then got back on point, turning back to Steve. "I get it. I've had five or six years to get it."
"How do you fix it?"
"I wish I could say 'in the arms of the person you love' but as I've already told Dad, I am shit at picking up people." Jake shut up, then, quiet. "Same way I've dealt with anything my whole life: family. The Avengers got replaced with my team, my parents got replaced with a big sister."
"Big sister?" Steve asked, frantic, because... he was still getting used to one child, he wasn't certain how to handle two.
"We're really second cousins. Your dad's baby brother's son's daughter." Jake pulled open his vest and brought out a photograph of him and a young girl, maybe six or seven years old. "That's her daughter. I always told the guys she was my niece."
The girl was pretty, blonde, and had light eyes. She reminded Steve a bit of his mother, although there wasn't any blood relation there if what Jake was saying was true. A cousin, he didn't... he didn't really know how to wrap his mind around that. He had a son, he had - as crass as the word had sounded after he'd discovered the origins - a 'baby daddy' in Tony, he had the Avengers, and now Jake was handing over a cousin that Steve had never known about.
"Growing up she was a bit of a big sister. She taught me how to play soccer." Jake smiled and actually handed the photo over to Steve. "I helped coach her little league team between missions."
"How did you find out about her?" SHIELD hadn't told him anything about surviving relatives; honestly, Steve hadn't known much about his father's family anyway. He thought they were mostly from Boston.
"Dad went on this crazy genealogy kick after I was found, found like every single person I was related to by blood. I think he called it 'Operation: this kid's having a huge damn family'." Jake grinned down at the photo, and when Steve tried to give it back, Jake waved off the gesture. "Keep it."
"So she's my...?" He had never been good at the names of different relations; his family had been tiny, his extended family nonexistent.
"First cousin twice removed," Jake answered, effortlessly. "And her mom's your first cousin once removed, since her dad was your cousin. Believe me, I memorized like every single way you can be related to someone else growing up. That's just blood, too, there's all the Avengers, their families, their kids... by the time I was about twelve you pretty much just called everyone 'aunt', 'uncle', or 'cousin' depending on which generation of Avenger they were."
"So you were an Avenger?"
"I got to wear the suit sometimes, yeah." Jake kicked his feet up. "Pretty sure I could fly the Mark IX with my eyes closed. You should look her up sometime, your cousin."
Steve looked down at the picture and considered. A large part of him struggled with the idea, his cousins had grandchildren now, but Jake wasn't wrong that Steve had found himself a family in the Avengers, and he did have at least a small family related to him by blood, and yet for some reason he couldn't connect.
"I get it," Jake said, almost like he was reading his thoughts. "You went through a big chunk of your life with a lot of people who never really knew you. Dad's the same way with running a company, being Iron Man, and having his persona. Believe me, people look at you different when you're the son of Captain America and Iron Man. No one's going to know Steve if you keep fronting Cap."
A son, a cousin, Tony, the other Avengers... Jake kept throwing these people at him who could have known Steve, and he'd been holding them all back. "I care about your father."
Even with the concentrated two or so months of fatherhood, he couldn't quite make that leap with Jake, not yet. Tony had been there for him for almost a year, had been this constant in the Tower, and it was only right that Steve could start to make that place in his heart for Tony. He'd have a lot more work to do if he was going to be ready to take in Jake when he actually met the child.
"I'm working on it with you."
Jake grinned. "Save it for mini me."
Maybe that would be easier. Maybe he could fall in love with a child if he'd known him from near birth. "Alright, I will. Do you want to get something to eat?"
"I do... but I've got to do a thing." He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Maybe you, me, and Dad can do dinner? Try our hand at that crazy family thing again?"
"I'll ask Tony."
It was... better this time, barely. Tony and Jake laughed, the two of them with their own little language, but he tried, and he felt like he understood his son a bit better. He'd spent years in the jungles of South America instead of Germany, fought warlords instead of HYDRA, but their life experiences were so much more in line than he really would have thought. That he had a son who took after him, in the end, shouldn't have been that surprising, but what he found confused and delighted him the most was discovering this completely unseen side of Tony. He had never seen Tony and Pepper much together, so their relationship had mostly been left to the imagination, but Steve saw Tony and Jake together, saw how they worked, saw how easily Tony loved Jake and how completely Jake returned those affections. They talked too fast, they laughed too loud, they finished each other's sentences, and it made Steve ache to be a part of it. It was that, more than anything, that made him promise that even if he couldn't be there as much for this Jake, he wouldn't make the same mistakes a second time.
He'd never much thought about what it meant to have seen that slice of a future that might be again. He was a soldier, and his own philosophical thoughts on it had been minimal. Tony had probably thought about it. Steve decided there was absolutely no point at all in seeing his son from the future if he wasn't going to learn from it, wasn't going to try to avoid the mistakes some other version of himself had made.
So he woke up the next morning, bright and early, stretched, worked the heavy bag for a bit, he dressed for his morning run, he knocked on Jake's door, and when Jake answered he found Jake not dressed in his usual tracksuit, but instead in the tight-fitting black bodysuit he was used to seeing Tony in just out of the Iron Man suit. At the center of his chest, an arc reactor was wired and strapped tight against the suit.
"Is that Tony's," Steve barely managed to choke out.
"What? No! It's a spare."
A split second later he felt a pinch in his neck, barely aware of it as he collapsed, bonelessly, onto his son.
His head whirled, groggy and dazed, as he tried to scramble off the floor only to find it impossible. Steve's legs wouldn't cooperate, his body wouldn't move, but he tried to push through it; he'd never been put down by anything, not booze or drugs or anything else anyone had ever given him, and he'd be damned if he was going to...
"That's enough sedative to put down four horses." Jake interrupted, moving somewhere above his head. His words weren't cold, but... Steve couldn't even crane his neck to see him. "Should do you for about two hours."
Steve clawed against the floor, couldn't grab onto anything. Panic started to work its way up his chest. Imposter, maybe; something was wrong.
"Sorry, Pops. I love you."
The world went black.
"Sir, Captain Jensen has overridden my control of the Mark IX suit and is currently flying it towards Rockefeller Center."
It took him a few moments to even begin to process what JARVIS had said, but after that he sprung into action; it didn't matter why Jake had done what he'd done, he'd stolen a suit and that was item two on the list of things that put Tony on high alert, right behind yanking the arc reactor out of his chest. "Son of a bitch. Prep the Mark VIII. Status report, JARVIS. Try to get me communications to Jake. Wake up everyone."
"Communications failure with Mark IX suit," JARVIS reported.
Tony scrambled to pull on his bodysuit, all but falling into it as he ran towards the launch pad. "Where is everyone?"
"Agents Romanov and Barton are suiting up as we speak, Dr. Banner is waking now, Thor is unavailable, Captain Rogers is not responding to my hails."
"Steve!" Tony ran the rest of the way to the platform and tried not to wince as slightly out-of-shape parts closed around him. In a split second he was down three floors and crashing through Steve's window. He wasn't there. Tony doubled back, made his way to the guest wing and Jake's room where he found Steve, face down on the ground and not moving. "Steve!"
Tony rolled him.
"Captain Rogers' vital signs indicate he is alive, but passed out or drugged," JARVIS said, now online in the suit. "My scan of the Tower indicates that Captain Rogers' shield has been taken, in addition to the Mark Nine."
"What the...?" Tony frowned down at Steve. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty." Tony shook him. "Come on! Wake the hell up!"
Steve groaned. "... Jake?"
"What did he do?" Tony asked. Steve didn't respond. "Focus, soldier. What the hell just happened?"
"Drugged me... or something. Said... put me down a few hours." Steve reached out and grabbed at Tony's shoulder, and Tony scooped Steve up, carrying him out the window again and back to his room.
"Well, wake the hell up, we need to suit up." Tony helped Steve down onto his feet, watched as he staggered against Tony, clinging to the armor to even stay upright.
"Sir, Agents Barton and Romanov are awaiting your orders."
"Nat, Clint, Jake grabbed the Mark IX and Steve's shield and headed out towards Rockefeller Center. I can't hail him and it was not authorized. Get on one of the quinjets, ASAP." The answering 'okays' came back without comment or question. "JARVIS, any luck patching me into the suit?"
"No. I apologize, Sir. It appears that several efforts on the part of Captain Jensen over the past two months have subverted many of my critical monitoring systems without my knowledge." To do that... he'd have to be a genius. Of course, he was, Tony had probably trained him, Jake might very well know every line of JARVIS better than Tony himself at this point.
Steve finally managed to get upright, standing on his feet, under his own power, shaky, but together. He started to strip down and get into the skin tight undersuit he wore with his armor. Tony turned to give him some privacy.
What the fuck had he been supposed to think when his time traveling son with half his genetics showed up from the future, with an Army history behind him? Of course Tony trusted him... even if he'd admitted he'd been designed as a HYDRA weapon, but he knew Tony... so intimately. Tony tried to figure out what went wrong, if he'd just been played for a sucker for months. Jake had seemed so calm, so together, and so completely at home - in the Tower, in Tony's life, spending time with Steve and the team. It only made sense to trust him, at least... at least it had seemed that way. Maybe Tony was just a sentimental sucker, but there was no way that Jake hadn't spent a lifetime with Tony, they were too easy with each other.
A soft burst of static came through the communicator, and Tony glanced towards it, subconsciously. "Dad?"
"Jacob Anthony Jensen, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I'll explain in a second. Could you maybe tell Clint and Natasha that they might want to start evacuating the... south-ish half of Central Park?" Jake sounded not chagrined at all; clearly Tony had a long way to go on authoritative fatherly voice.
"Central Park? That big fucking park in the middle of Manhattan?" A moment of indecision warred in his mind. Jake could have maintained radio silence, certainly; he could have kept quiet until after whatever he'd done was executed. He'd completely locked JARVIS and Tony out of the suit systems. Sending Clint and Natasha to the Park might give him another minute, and Tony could catch up with his punk ass if he had to. He clicked over the comm to the Avengers' frequency. "Change of plans, Central Park, south end, clear it out."
"Stark?" Natasha asked.
"Making this up on the fly," he answered. He clicked back over to Jake. "You have some explaining to do, kiddo."
"For the past five years, my team and I have been tracking this guy named Max. He's the one who forced us to go all A-Team for a while. We've caught up to him a few times, but the guy runs three-quarters of the US intelligence system and he's set on making another War on Terror in a big way. That's the Cliffs Notes primer." Jake paused for a moment, and Tony heard some heavy breathing, as something happened on Jake's end.
Steve grabbed Tony’s shoulder, and they ran towards Steve's armory where he pulled on the pieces of the suit.
"Waiting for primer part two, kid," he shot back, impatient.
"I've been monitoring for signs of the attack in Manhattan. Historically it happened today at Rockefeller Center, and even with all the ripples I've been making, time's resilient. Years ago, Max purchased four Snukes. We've tracked down three."
Without being asked, JARVIS flashed all of the information about Snukes available up on the heads up display. 'Snukes', sonic nuclear device - all the devastation of a nuke, none of the nuclear fallout. They made what Tony had done back in the Stark Industry heyday look like party favors at a five year old's birthday party. "Let me guess: Snuke four, Rockefeller Center, today."
"Max learned the hard way the last few times we played this game. Unless the thing's hard wired to blow, we will stop him. He set the thing himself, is framing some extremist, and it's going to blow in about... one and a half minutes. I had JARVIS's sensors setup to detect a detonation warmup."
"Take it out to sea," Tony said. There should be enough time, minimum safe distance was... he winced.
"Insufficient time," Jake answered, confirming what Tony had just realized after he'd made the suggestion. "I'm not even on the Snuke yet. Everywhere I can get it to in that time will still take out a huge chunk of Manhattan. I'm taking it to Central Park. Pops' shield has enough vibranium in it to absorb most of the blast. Sonic nuke meet perfect sonic dampener. Dad, just trust me on this. We've been running these numbers for two decades."
Tony didn't have any time to respond to that because Steve was finally suited up, so Tony grabbed him around the waist, pulling them both out of the already broken window and towards Rockefeller Center. 'We'. That meant... "Are you seriously trying to sell me some bullshit that you're my time traveling sleeper agent from the future designed to stop some metaphorical Skynet moment?"
"The Singularity of Suck," Jake answered back, a moment later, laughing. "You didn't call it that; that was my name for it."
"Can you defuse it?" Tony asked.
"No, best I've ever done is three minutes, two seconds. Not enough time." Jake did something, switched channels. "This is Jensen, I have the package, heading to Central Park."
Tony was halfway to the park already. "What the hell sort of plan is this? Why didn't you tell me? There's got to be another answer."
"Because you would have done something stupid, like sacrificing yourself for me," Jake answered. Tony could finally see him, armor huddled around the Snuke, maybe the size of a grown man curled in on himself, half buried in the dirt. "And here you are... The explosion is going to create a localized EMP, it'll kill the suit and arc reactor and fry your cardiac implant." Jake put a hand up, launching a rocket at Tony and Steve where they had started to walk towards Jake.
Tony reacted without thinking, turning his back towards Jake, taking the rocket in the back and curling around Steve. It hit, barely staggering him, and Steve took off running at an angle, yelling at the stragglers to evacuate the park.
"You have a stupid plan, kid."
"This was always the plan, Stark."
The words hit, somewhere square in the chest, hard and unexpected. Tony had been Iron Man for almost three years, and that was the first time he had ever froze. He stared, watched as Jake slammed Steve's shield down into the ground, but all he saw was a doctor, the man who'd saved his life in a cave in Afghanistan and then had secured him his chance at escape. All he could see was the man who'd lain down on the wire for Tony to crawl across. Yensin.
That name... "Jensen!"
Jake raised his hand again and fired another missile; this one hit Tony square in the chest and sent him tumbling back.
JARVIS pulled up another reading. "Based on the readings Captain Jensen has given me, I suggest you duck, sir."
Tony pulled his hands over his head and the Snuke fired, high pitched sound screaming towards him as the ground shook. The displays in the suit flickered, fell offline for a moment, and then booted back up, a glance said his heart and reactor were still kicking. "Jake."
He was on his feet in a moment, blasting towards the epicenter. The explosion had cracked open a crater in the center of the park, the Mark IX, Jake, slumped at the bottom like a limp doll. Tony was at his side in a moment.
"The shield absorbed well over half of the blast, the additional concussive force was largely deflected by impact with solid ground... and also dampened by the shield," JARVIS reported as Tony surveyed the damage in a matter of moments. "The remaining force remained localized." JARVIS unhelpfully displayed the math.
Tony grabbed Jake around the scruff and tugged, pulling him out of the dirt, only to realize the legs he'd thought must have been buried under loosened dirt just weren't there any longer. The sheared off stubs sparked where the suit hadn't held up. He ripped off Jake's helmet a moment later.
"Mark IX... not designed for snukes..." Jake said, panting hard. "Do I still have legs?"
The faceplate on his own helmet pulled up, and his face must have answered for him because Jake just closed his eyes and nodded.
"Sorry for... fighting dirty..."
"You need medical attention. Someone, get me a hospital on standby."
"Dad." Jake grabbed his helmet, jerked him so he was looking back down at Jake. "Dad... I was never supposed to be here. Just let me go."
Tony could feel the prickle of wetness at the corners of his eyes and he shook his head. "No. I didn't raise you to quit."
"You raised me to make the best play," Jake answered. "The one with the best odds of success with the least cost. I made it."
"This is not the least cost!" Tony yelled. "We could have... we could have made a plan, we could have..." Tony lowered his eyes and looked down at the burnt-out arc reactor in the Mark IX, the dead suit, the blood. The sinking realization that Jake wasn't going to make it and had never intended to make it started to settle into his stomach like a lead ball; a reason for his decision followed a breath later. "Steve jogs in Central Park, he comes home through Rockefeller Center..."
The Singularity of Suck, the day Jake's father had died before he got a chance to know him.
"Sorry..." Jake had started to cry, maybe pain, maybe shock, maybe...
"I've got to get you to the hospital."
But instead of agreeing, Jake just reached up and flung his arms tight around Tony's neck and held on. "Just hold on, please, Dad. For once in your life stop thinking."
Tony leaned in and pulled Jake to him, armors held together in a tangle of limbs. His son was dying, here, today, right now... Somehow he'd managed to become a father that had created this amazing person who was willing to go to any length for what was right... He didn't have any practice at this sort of thing - he didn't give comfort - but he was damn well going to try.
"I can't wait to meet you," Tony said, rambling. "I'm going to be the best damn Dad you ever had. We'll do everything right - I'll raise you right. I'll raise you to make the right choices even when I'm yelling at you not to. You're worse than me. That's a compliment. You're worse than both of your fathers put together. I love you. I'm proud of you."
He didn't stop rambling, he didn't stop clinging, and he was fairly certain he continued to talk long past the point when it might have been useful. When he finally glanced up, he found Steve beside him, a hand resting against Jake's neck, holding him up against Tony. Jake wasn't breathing and wasn't moving, his eyes were closed; Tony didn't need to glance at a readout to know what it would say.
"You stupid son of a bitch." Tony leaned in and kissed Jake's forehead. "I won't waste it."
The rage came a moment later, focused and pointed and locked directly on one person: Max. Tony had taken on warlords before. That son of a bitch wouldn't know what hit him. "How many injured?"
Steve answered him. "A few dozen, mostly from the concussive blast. No one else... as bad as..." Tony didn't even realize that Cap's other hand was against his shoulder, holding the three of them together, until he glanced over at him. "Take a few minutes, Tony. It's alright if you need it."
"And you don't!?" Tony asked, voice hard.
"I..." Steve looked down at Jake and then ruffled his helmet-matted hair. "It'll keep."
The Helicarrier arrived less than an hour later. Steve and Tony helped with personnel evacuation. Tony had to lift a large rock to get someone out from where they were pinned. Bruce actually did some medical doctoring. When S.H.I.E.L.D. came to take care of the body, Tony headed up with them, Steve following only a few steps behind. The inactivity gave him time to think; time to think made him bury his head in his hands and weep.
If he'd thought he'd gotten over the soul-wrenching pain of knowing that someone else had sacrificed themselves for Tony, he found that he hadn't. But... he knew there was no way in hell that anyone else had given Jake that perfect punch to the gut that would stop Tony in his tracks. The words gave him no comfort, but he knew that whenever his older self had sent Jake back in time it had been with the full knowledge that Jake would die there. "This was always the plan, Stark," he echoed, barely a whisper.
"Why did he call you 'Stark'?" Steve asked, just as quiet.
"It was a quote," Tony answered. "It was something I'd heard before. My older self probably told Jake to say it."
Steve didn't say anything, but he was frowning, obviously trying to think of a tactful way to say 'you froze out there, Tony. I can't have you on the field if you're going to freeze.’ Though, Steve wouldn't say it like that. He probably just wanted answers.
"The man who said it to me had just sacrificed his life to get me out of a cave in Afghanistan where we'd been prisoners for three months." Tony glanced towards Steve, and then glanced up to the front of the quinjet where Natasha was conspicuously not listening. "We'd gotten to know each other, we played backgammon, we talked about circuits and physics and medicine. The man was a genius in his own right and a far better person than me, and when it came to it he decided that he would die so that I could live. I've lived with it for over three years now."
"He... must have thought it was worth it," Steve offered, words stilted.
"His name was Yensin."
Steve made the connection a moment later. "Wow."
Tony stood, took the few steps it took to get to where Jake lay motionless on the S.H.I.E.L.D. stretcher. He got down on his knees and brushed the hair from his son's eyes. "He's so young. It should have been me."
"He's my son. If you could pick one person to save in the whole world, wouldn't it be your son?" This wasn't the way these things were supposed to work. You paid it forward to the next generation. Jake was his legacy. He was the man who would carry one the Stark name into the late twenty-first century. "He didn't have kids."
Steve was next to him, arm around his shoulder, pulling him to Steve's side. "We don't have a son yet."
The words didn't go in. Steve was right but the words didn't go in.
Tony repossessed the armor when S.H.I.E.L.D. took possession of the body. Back at the Tower he peeled off his suit and tried to decide if he was going to feel something ever again. Feeling was overrated. There were a half-dozen messages from Pepper. He shot her a two word text: 'Jake's dead', and ignored the rest.
"Sir..." JARVIS interrupted, tentative, as Tony reached for his scotch and a tumbler. "There is... a time delayed message from Captain Jensen that has just arrived for you. It is marked 'private'."
He topped off the glass. "Yeah. Go ahead and play it."
"Dad..." There was a pause in the recording as Jake cleared his throat. "To borrow a cliche from every letter and video ever: 'if you're hearing this...' and so on. I'm sorry."
Jake's voice continued as Tony forced himself to walk the few steps over to one of his chairs and actually sit down, the sound of Jake's voice, so much like Steve and yet every time he opened his mouth, all Tony could hear was himself, the way someone would talk if they'd had the misfortune of only ever being exposed to him.
"Growing up, it was only you and me. You were everything to me. No matter what, you were there for me, every time. I don't know if you worked it out, but in my time, we lost Captain America today when he was jogging home from his morning run." Tony nodded. Jake had called it 'the Singularity of Suck' and Tony had put enough together to guess. "I never got to know him, and he never even met me."
Jake paused again, Tony could almost hear the way he was collecting his thoughts, putting down words for when the worst happened. "You know, I didn't realize that you and Pops had never been together until I was fifteen years old." Tony closed his eyes against the words. "I had two dads, two dads was pretty alright when I was growing up, and you were just really obviously in love with him. It never even crossed my mind that you two weren't... together. He was just the lost love of your life. Nat set me straight on that, and even then I still didn't quite believe it until I saw it."
Tony wondered how obvious it must have been, over the years, and he wondered if he'd been worse than his own father in that respect - spending all his time looking for Steve, running his company, spending time on his pet projects instead of spending it with his son. He wondered if his other self had ever been better than his old man at all, just fucked up in a different way. Three generations of Stark men, and counting, who had sacrificed themselves for Captain America.
"Growing up you were amazing, but I think we just both missed Steve more than words could say. Losing him was a blow to the whole world, but it ripped you apart, and everyone said you were never really the same after that, not even after me." Yeah... crap for a dad. "This was me being selfish, I want my dads, I want both of you to be there for me growing up. I think this is the one best shot at a good future."
"You're not selfish," Tony answered back, even though Jake couldn't hear it now. Jake was too fucking selfless for his own good. Tony would have liked to blame Steve for that, but he knew it was something of an acquired trait, and Jake had no doubt learned from the best.
"And about the name, I'm sorry for that, too. It was the one way I could think of to prove to you I knew this was coming and I was ok with it. I've always known this was where my mission would lead, and after my team lost their last shot at Max, I knew this wasn't going to end any other way. I know that Yensin accepting his death didn't make it easy on you, but I hope it makes this a little easier on you."
It didn't. Tony took a long gulp of alcohol.
"Getting to know the younger, simpler, lighter you was great, Dad. Don't let this get you down. It was the right call. Both of us had been doing these calculations for almost thirty-five years between the two of us. I know you're going to over-think this, but... please, don't. I did this for you, I did it for Steve, and most of all I did it for myself. I'm the guy who didn't belong now. Please... just be the dad I remember."
The message ended, and Tony downed the rest of his scotch before curling against the couch and finally allowing himself to cry. He had one more body he whose debt he was never going to pay off, one more death that was on his hands, and one more face to see swimming behind his eyes at night. Jake probably knew that, too. Tony spent far too many nights waking up in cold sweats, sometimes screaming, for that to go unnoticed for long, certainly not by his son.
Who was he kidding? His future self had given his son the perfect combination to fuck Tony in the head, hard, and it had worked.
"I'll try, kiddo."
The funeral was in Arlington; the awarding of the Medal of Honor was at the White House.
Tony accepted the flag given on behalf of a grateful nation; Steve accepted the Medal of Honor given on the behalf of Congress.
Tony cried; Steve didn't.
Tony placed the flag in the Avengers Tower library next to the one he had received at his father's funeral; Steve kept Jake's Medal of Honor in the top drawer of his dresser next to his own.
For his own part, Steve seemed incapable of helping Tony, or even really feeling anything. He trained, he battered heavy bags within an inch of their lives; he ran through Central Park, circling around the crater that consumed a large chunk of the park and was slowly being filled back in. He listened, stone-faced, to Clint's briefings about the information S.H.I.E.L.D. had on the elusive 'Max,' and he waited for news from Natasha when it came down to tracking Lt. Colonel Clay and the remainder of Jake's old team.
Tony had barely left his lab in almost two weeks when Steve realized that maybe he should... do something. He had no idea what, though. Tony had taken the loss of Jake far more personally than Steve had. It had been the same way when Coulson had died, and even though Steve had felt bad about the Agent's death, had felt ashamed that he hadn't made the time to sign Coulson's trading cards, it hadn't hit him the way it obviously had Tony. Jake's death was somehow a thousand times worse for Tony, but Steve had no idea how to make it any better.
He settled for approaching Bruce. Bruce and Tony had their own little world that Steve had never been a part of. Steve found him, as always, in his personal lab that spanned almost his entire floor of the Tower. "Dr. Banner?"
Bruce glanced up, and Steve couldn't miss the look of surprise that flitted across Bruce's face before he gestured, inviting Steve into the lab. "Steve, um... how are you?"
"I'm alright." He headed into the center of the room, glancing around for something to focus on, eventually finding a diagram that looked like the structure that Steve had learned represented DNA. It spun, almost decoratively, in the center of the room. "I'm worried about Tony."
Steve didn't know how to answer for several moments, and Bruce came up to stand right beside him, looking down at the DNA with him as well. "He'd come to accept Jake as a son. He's obviously taking it hard."
"Yeah..." Bruce paused, and Steve caught him tentatively glancing over towards Steve before his eyes settled back on the DNA. "Well, Tony's seeing a therapist a few times a week. He seems to be... working to come to terms with what happened and how he feels about it." Bruce looked as though he wanted to say more. Perhaps Tony had confided more with Bruce and the Doctor was unwilling to break the confidence.
"That's good. Tony seems to need to talk about things, endlessly."
"That he does," Bruce agreed. "How are you taking all of this? Jake was your son, too."
"Jake was a soldier, he made a call. I have to respect that." He remembered the way he'd tried to get drunk after Bucky's death, and how Peggy had talked about choice, and Steve respecting Bucky's right to make the choice he did. That didn't make it any easier, even as he did respect the choice.
Bruce poked a few buttons. "Respecting it doesn't mean it's easy, or that you're really alright with it. If there's anything I've learned over the last few months, it's that understanding that something happened and having yourself under control... doesn't mean you've accepted it. Tony's really good at that. I wouldn't worry about him, he's going to be fine."
And yet Steve couldn't help but think Tony needed to work on it more if all he'd done so far was hide in his lab, work on projects, and avoid everyone else.
"Actually..." Bruce turned to him, and looked very serious. "I think you should talk to Tony. I think it would help him if you talked about Jake and what he meant to you."
"I don't see how that would help," Steve said. "Tony's locked himself up in his lab, he's not talking to the team, he's not himself, and you want me to just rub salt in the wound of losing his son?" Just trying to put into words how Tony might feel left Steve uncomfortable. Steve had more experience than Tony with losing soldiers. He was handling the icy cold. "I just... don't see how that could help," he repeated.
"Sometimes people just need to say things out loud, or hear them. The two of you are in the same boat. You both lost a son, Steve." Bruce reached out and his fingers closed very gently around Steve's wrist, soft enough that Steve didn't have to fight down the urge to jerk away from the touch.
"Jake asked me..." Steve frowned, pulled away from Bruce even though he didn't feel trapped by him, and Bruce let him go. "He said that when we find him, that I should focus on trying to be a good father to him." That was what Steve needed to focus on: preparing for whenever they found a younger Jake. There was nothing he could do for the elder Jake now; he was dead and gone, and really shouldn't have existed at all in the first place. "I'd teach him not to be wasteful for a start!"
Steve glanced at Bruce; the scientist was continuing to do some sort of calculations, but he wasn't actually doing anything, just looking at Steve with this earnest, open face that invited further comment.
"Just because you're prepared to give your life for your country doesn't mean you... you don't just throw it away!" Steve realized he was almost shouting at Bruce, who had absolutely nothing to do with the problem, so he backed away. He turned towards one of the screens that had some sort of experiment or another on it and he just poked it, but the screen didn't give. It was slightly satisfying, though, so he prodded it again, harder this time. "He was just like Tony, always ready with a plan to..." Steve swept his hand in front of him, sort of pantomiming the casual disregard Tony showed for his own safety. "He does what he wants and makes people watch him throw his life away."
"He has his moments," Bruce agreed.
"He can't do that," Steve said. "If he is going to be a father he can't just..." Steve didn't even know what he wanted to say, but Tony couldn't risk his life like that and be a good father to Jake and at the same time. Maybe that was hypocritical of him to not put the same restrictions on himself, but that was different.
"I don't think anyone's ever had much success telling Tony what to do." Bruce came over to him and put a hand on his back again. "But I think you should... let Tony know what you're thinking about, alright? He may not seem like he's listening, but he always takes our opinions into account and sometimes..." Bruce gave him a soft push. "Sometimes it's nice to know when someone else has the same train of thought."
Steve frowned, but he allowed himself to be gently herded out of the lab; when he stood outside the door, Bruce gave him a gentle pat towards the elevator. He didn't walk with particular purpose, almost dreading an actual conversation with Tony, but he did eventually find himself in the elevator heading towards Tony's lab floor. By the time he actually arrived in front of the door, most of his resolve had fled. Steve wasn't a coward by any means, but the benefit of actually talking to Tony about his thoughts didn't seem particularly high.
The door opened anyway, and Tony looked as though he'd been expecting him. "Steve, welcome to my humble abode."
He glanced around. Tony, for his own part, looked mostly together: he had shaven recently, his hair was neat, and as much as Steve had imagined Tony whiling away the hours drunk and moping, he instead found him fiddling with one of those tablet-things that was plugged into the ear of a robot that looked like a dog. The room itself was covered in other robot things, and other computers, and other wires; honestly Steve had never much understood Tony's world, but he seemed... content enough in the moment. His eyes had darker bags than usual under them, but he didn't have the same haunted look that Steve remembered from the funeral. "What are you working on?"
"Robo-Pooch," Tony answered, running a hand over it. "Jake did the body design and most of the core programming. It's actually pretty sophisticated. Much better designed than the AIBO, which is not surprising."
It did look like a dog. Steve walked over and put a hand on its head and it tilted towards him. He jerked his hand away. "Is that what you've been working on?" He didn't add 'since Jake died' to the end of his question, but he could hear it hanging there, and he wondered if Tony could, too.
"Nah, that's like a cooldown. I've got the Mark X up and running, slightly better EMP dampening, although still not enough to take something so high-powered as a nuclear explosion. Also got Natasha's little wrist stingers bulked up, because they weren't really cutting it in hand-to-hand lately with all the crazy robots we've been fighting. I've developed an algorithm for JARVIS to process satellite imagery more effectively, I invented a better wireless communication protocol, and I beat my old fastest time on minesweeper." Tony spread his hands out in a 'tada' gesture, that reminded Steve both painfully of Jake and Tony's father. "So mostly I'm awesome, but we clearly didn't come here to talk about me. What's going on in that head of yours, Capsaicin?"
"I don't...?" He never understood Tony's nicknames for him, although he'd decided they were more affectionate than needling.
"It makes chili peppers hot? Never mind."
Steve ignored Tony, which was usually a safe bet, but now that he was here, in this room, with Tony, everything he could think to say had fled, and he was left standing there with no thoughts in his head, looking at Tony and feeling like an idiot.
"... Jake?" Tony asked, softly.
He felt his hands clench. "Are you sure he was your son? Because he was a damn idiot."
Tony laughed, more a chuckle than a proper laugh. "Yeah, pretty sure he was mine." And then Tony tugged over a chair, and shoved Steve very gently in it before he sat down right across from Steve. "Snap diagnostic thinking is one of the downsides of being a genius."
"You. Can't. Do. That."
He was on his feet now, again, a hand hard on Tony's shoulder, and the other man didn't even flinch.
"There are just choices you shouldn't make, Tony." Steve could almost, grudgingly, accept Tony's one-way trip through a portal into space to save humanity, he could accept his own ice bath to save the entire Atlantic seaboard. Those sorts of epic, sweeping, life-changing moments, Steve could accept, and Jake had said he was coming back to save the future, to keep it from becoming terrible, but Steve knew, and he could never un-know, the fact that Jake had first and foremost come back in time to keep Steve from dying three weeks ago. "It's not alright!"
"You leave someone behind and they just have to respect that, but it's..."
"It's not alright," Tony echoed, and he reached up and took Steve's wrist in his hand, squeezing. "Just say it again."
"It's selfish and it hurts and all you have are a bunch of people who miss you."
It was. Jake had gotten Steve to open up to him, got him to think that maybe there was something here for him in the future, someone who might even understand what it was to be a man out of time, and he had taken that all away because he had to save Steve. "Why did he do that?"
"He thought you were worth it," Tony answered.
And damn if that didn't remind him of Peggy too much, of trying to get drunk in that bombed out bar and finding it impossible, but this time there was no mission to steel his resolve around. "I'm not worth it!" Steve answered, yelling now. "Why does everyone keep...?" He bowed his head, tears finally falling. "Why does everyone keep dying for me?"
Tony pulled Steve towards him, and Steve found his brow buried in Tony's neck, crying more. He grabbed Tony's back, the two of them tangled together and he felt himself sob - a gross, wet, ragged sound tugged out of his chest - and Tony didn't shush him, or tell him to respect it, or tell him that he had a mission; Tony just hugged him and rubbed his hands over Steve's shoulders, fingers brushing gently down his spine as Steve sobbed. Something broke in his chest, something that he had been holding back for months now, and now he was finally crying, finally letting himself do that, and Tony was just holding onto him and letting him sob.
He let himself cry about Jake, about being in the future and knowing everyone he had ever loved was dead. He cried for the loss of the one person who might have understood what it was to be stuck out of time, with everyone you had ever loved gone. No matter how hard he tried, it didn't fill the gaps in his heart the same way it had before and he knew it was different and was never going to be the same again. He cried for the Commandos, every single one of them dead, he cried for Peggy, who had been pale and thin and so terrifyingly old when he had seen her, and he cried... he cried for the one person he really had outlived, not just left behind.
After he had cried himself out, he brought a hand up and pushed Tony away, and Tony just let him. The two of them stood with an arms length between them, Steve's hand still resting on the arc reactor in the center of Tony's chest, and Tony just stood there, waiting.
"My best friend died saving my life," he said.
Tony didn't say anything, which was unusual for him so Steve glanced up at his face. "Bucky."
He swallowed down the lump in his throat. "It was my last mission I ever ran with the Commandos as a unit." He supposed the final push on Schmidt's lair might have truly had that honor, but as much as the entire weight of the Commandos and SSR had been at his back, Steve had felt alone there at the end, flying Schmidt's plane into the ocean.
Steve couldn't continue, didn't continue, but then Tony reached up and put a hand around his wrist, and jiggled it lightly. "Go ahead."
"It was close quarters fighting, and... by then, Bucky and I were almost in each other's heads. He knew when to move and how, we barely had to glance and we knew the other's plan. We're like that," Steve said. "Sometimes I don't know what's going on in your head, but sometimes I just know and it goes just right, but Bucky and I were like that every day. We'd been fighting at each other's sides for almost two and a half years, and we'd been friends longer." Steve realized he was rambling, saying things that just didn't matter. He hadn't put that in his report from the fight any more than he thought about it after. "Bucky took a hit meant for me, he ended up clinging to a rail with no support and... he fell. He died for me. He died because of me."
"Yeah. It hurts," Tony said.
"He made a choice. Peggy said I needed to allow him the dignity of his choice." There was nothing more to say, and he found his eyes wet and his throat tight, and he had nothing else he could do but respect that...
"Hey, choice is great, dignity's great, but if you think Aunt Peg's 'stiff upper lip' stuff actually makes you feel better, that's bullshit." Tony finally pulled away, then, far enough to put a little distance between them and Steve flexed his fingers, immediately missing the warmth of the arc reactor under his palm. "I mean did you not read about... feelings? We're way more in touch with them. Sure, you didn't have time to think about it; you had I think about thirty-eight hours before your splashdown in the Arctic. Thinking about it wasn't on the table. Shit, Steve, he was your best friend, of course you feel like shit missing him. Throw your time traveling kid from the future pulling a Bucky 2.0 and it's not going to just roll off your back. It's alright to be hurting. No one expects you to pretend you're not."
Steve blinked at him.
"Yell, punch something, cry, mope, eat ice cream, build an entire workshop of crap - only half of which you'll use. Have a reaction."
"I miss Bucky."
Tony nodded, eyes wide and expectant, and he recognized the look, it was the look that Bruce had had on his face when Steve had come in concerned about Tony. It was like there was some conspiracy in the Tower specifically to do with him and talking, and Steve didn't like it at all.
"I miss Bucky more than Jake."
"You two were BFFs," Tony said, and patted him on his back, as though that actually meant something. "Come on, you, me, burgers and reminiscing. Just remember, even Super Soldiers have emotions."
They ended up at the same burger place that the two of them and Jake had gone to once or twice before; Tony had no doubt picked it for exactly that reason. Steve didn't talk about Bucky's ultimate fate again, and he actually realized that Tony had probably known already. It wasn't easy to talk about those good times, about sitting in art class and Bucky heckling him, about the boxing and the running and the weeks and months of training Steve had gone through in an effort to not be judged 4F when it came time to enlist. Steve talked about the ridiculous way Bucky tried to pawn off a gals friend on Steve when she clearly wasn't interested.
"He was a really good boxer," Steve added, later, almost offhanded, as he picked at the last of his fries.
"Jake." Steve swallowed around the name for a moment. "I figured I must have taught him, but... that was all you." It was the first time that Steve really let everything that Jake had told him and everything he had told Jake sink in. Steve had told him about his own father dying before Steve had had a chance to know him, and Jake had simply nodded and expressed his sympathy. 'That must have been hard'.
"I really must insist you don't teach our son how to box until he's at least a teenager. I don't want to scramble his brains."
Their son. "Alright, Tony."
Most of all, he tried not to think of his other self, of the man who had been Jake's father. Tony could only imagine what these few months would have been like for him, Steve gone, Jake not even a - metaphorical - glimmer in that Tony's eye. There was no way that Tony would have been anywhere but buried deep in a bottle, even if the other Avengers had needed him and even if they'd also been mourning Steve. He was surprised his other self had been there for Jake at all.
Clint was running the S.H.I.E.L.D. info briefing today, Tony half paying attention, Steve paying very close attention to every word. "Natasha's managed to track Colonel Clay's team to Argentina. Whatever information they're working off of, we don't have access to it."
"See," Tony interrupted. "That just offends me. Are you seriously telling me there are intelligence data streams that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have access to? Fury's secrets have secrets, his eyepatch covers his secrets, and he doesn't have access to some run of the mill intelligence that a burned US Army Colonel has?"
"As near as Fury can tell, Max has been running a certain amount of intelligence under the radar, under the under the radar." Clint brought up a picture, at least, of a smug looking guy who was apparently 'Max'. "He has minimal, but effective hooks into every US intelligence agency and some foreign ones. Natasha used to work for him, apparently, but she didn't know it."
"Then we start breaking his intelligence channels." Tony brought up dozens of profiles of hard hitting intelligence runners who had the most likelihood of working for Max. "I bet half of these bozos are playing both sides against the middle. Taking them out would be a public service, no matter how much it might piss off Fury. I hate to think of Fury monopolizing the world's intelligence community, but at this point I like him better than Max."
Max was, after all, responsible for the death of his son, and Tony wasn't particularly forgiving of people who hit him hard and personal.
He spent the post-brief in the collective gym, laying into a heavy bag and trying to pound away the irritation in the back of his mind. They had three weeks until they were supposedly going to find Jake, and Tony couldn't wait, but he also wasn't sure how they were even going to find the kid. There wasn't any news about HYDRA - Tony had been looking - and he hated to think he was already going to let his kid down, as much as he'd never even known the kid existed the first time around.
About twenty minutes into his slugfest, Steve came in, holding the heavy bag while Tony continued to punch.
"We'll find him, Tony."
"I keep thinking: what if this world is too different from the one Jake came from? What if HYDRA's not working on some super-secret Super Soldier breeding program? What if...?" There were things that he maybe hated even more than Jake not existing, as unkind as that was to Steve, and even to Jake.
"What if what?" Steve asked, leaning into the bag even harder, absorbing a tiny bit of each hit that Tony landed against the bag.
"What if they decided to use someone else? Natasha or... Bruce? Anyone else?" Tony wasn't exactly the obvious fatherhood choice. He might have sown a lot of wild oats in his pre-Pepper days, and he'd bled a lot since becoming Iron Man, but he wasn't exactly who he'd pick to breed with Captain America. Tony had impulse issues, his entire family was borderline - or not so borderline - alcoholic, he was selfish, he was a braggart, and honestly Jake had been lucky to get away with what he got from Tony the first time around. He'd gotten the genius, some of the charm, and a lot of the bravado, but there were lots of pieces of him that weren't nearly as appealing.
"Then you'll be an amazing uncle," Steve answered. He reached out and took Tony's wrist, held him so his fists stayed against the heavy bag. "If I have a son, Tony, you'll be in his life. You always... you always just saw 'Steve', when a lot of people, even Coulson, even Natasha, even Fury, they just see 'Cap'. I never had many people in my life who saw... the kid from Brooklyn, even if he's not much to see."
The kid from Brooklyn was the most amazing part of Cap, and Tony couldn't believe Steve still didn't know that. He smiled, though, and rested his forehead against the heavy bag. "Uncle Tony, huh?"
"You really want him, don't you?"
"I know this might come as a surprise, but... yeah. I'm not a young guy. The only woman I would have ever considered having kids with dumped my ass months ago." He'd never really put 'have kids' on his to-do list. He'd been too busy having the life he thought he'd wanted before Iron Man, and then after Iron Man he was too busy atoning for what he'd done and being a part of something greater than himself. "Did you know dad was actually older than I am now when he married my mom?"
Tony glanced towards Steve; Steve shook his head.
"Well, he was. She was this pretty, young, and a genius scientist in her own right, although not quite on dad's level." Tony wasn't sure why he was telling all of this to Steve, but maybe part of him needed Steve to know that. "I'm not even sure I could have bio-kids the traditional way, anymore. Heavy metal poisoning, not great for the sperm count, I'm told."
"So if Jake's not yours, you might never have kids."
"Yeah." Tony leaned in more, hugged the heavy bag, before shoving it away. "Back when I was in Afghanistan, Yensin told me that I was a man who had everything and nothing..." He took a deep breath. This bordered on too personal, even when it came to telling someone like Steve. "He didn't even know me, and he nailed it in one. For Yensin, family was everything. He helped me escape, he died helping me out, because for him if he wasn't with his family his life had lost meaning. I told myself he was a sap, you know, to make the fact that he'd died for me sting less, but I... more and more I find I understand where he was coming from."
"Tony..." Steve came around to the other side of the heavy bag. "You have a family here, regardless of if Jake exists and who his parents are, you have a family."
The team, Steve, even Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., were all his family now, and he knew that. "Thanks, Cap."
Things between them weren't fully healed; while Steve seemed more than willing to avoid the possibility of Jake's existence until he was found, Tony found himself counting down the days, hoping that the world was close enough even though Jake had changed so much. He woke early in the morning on July second, he had a coffee - or five - and some eggs and toast. Tony babysat the satellite feed, waiting for it to report anything useful, and made it most of the way to noon without even a peep.
"How did I find you before, if you weren't...?"
"I have a communication from Agent Romanov," JARVIS interrupted.
"Stark, I've tracked down Colonel Clay and his team. They're in Argentina making a move against some sort of covert base in the jungle. I'm sending you coordinates now."
Tony waited for the satellite uplink to connect so that he could actually tell where Natasha was, but before she was able to connect, another feed came up. It took Tony only a moment to recognize it as coming from Robo-Pooch, where Jake had kept a number of files for Tony's later use. It flashed up coordinates in northwest Argentina. A few seconds later, Natasha's coordinates came up, perfect match. "I'm getting them loaded into a quinjet now. Be careful with friendly fire, there... there might be a kid in there."
"Jake?" Natasha asked.
"Should be." If not... Tony wasn't sure what he would do.
It didn't take long for the team to assemble, and Clint flew the quinjet at top speed while Tony paced the back of the jet. Steve watched him, Bruce watched him, but it was eventually Steve that reached out and took his shoulder in hand.
"We don't know much about the floor plan," Tony said. "Based on Jake and Natasha's estimation it's a pretty huge complex. Every door could house a bunch of rampaging scientists or a nursery. I'll have JARVIS start working on their defenses as soon as I can plug into their network, but until then we're going to be flying pretty blind. We also have Jake's team in there, three men, one woman; they'll probably look Army, but don't assume just because they aren't wearing HYDRA packs that they’re friendly." He usually loved flying into something blind. There was the natural thrill of discovery, of peeling back a door and waiting to see what some idiot thought they could throw at Iron Man, but not this time. This time there was the potential of a baby boy hidden somewhere in the walls.
"We'll be careful, Tony."
'Careful', in Avengers speak, apparently meant that they only blew up a section of the facility after they'd explored it thoroughly. There were HYDRA men everywhere; Steve led the tip of the spear through every corridor, every back room, and every laboratory section, leaving the agents in their wake either dead, critically injured, or tied down. Tony felt a certain amount of vicious glee as they tore through the hallways.
It had taken JARVIS less than a half hour to locate what might have been the nursery, and as they made their way there, Tony couldn't quite tamp down on his nerves and excitement even though he knew they had a long way to go.
The sight that greeted them when Steve and the rest of the team finally broke through into the nursery made Tony's blood run cold, however. A man, impeccably dressed in white with a gloved arm wrapped around a squirming child, a gun pressed squarely to the child's temple. A handful of men behind him, guns trained on the other Avengers and Colonel Clay's team in a complex Mexican standoff.
"Ah, ah, ah, Avengers," the man said, pressing the gun even tighter to the boy's temple, enough that one wrong wriggle might actually set off the gun. "I don't suppose you want the death of an innocent child on your head any more than Colonel Clay here wants to add to his own tally, so let's just sit tight, shall we, while I wait for my exit."
Tony could have made that shot. JARVIS had already brought up the firing solution to make sure the gun couldn't fire and to take down Max, but Tony found himself unable to actually take the shot. In another life, the first time around, Tony could have imagined himself not giving a shit about one little boy who was standing in the way of the man who had killed Steve, but now...
Steve raised his gun and took the shot. Max staggered, Tony was on Jake in a second, arms wrapped around the kid, tugging him close and wrapping his body around him while a hail of bullets exploded around him in the room, Jake wailed.
"Shhhh," Tony said, as the volley continued, several striking against his back as he stayed huddled. "It's all good, kid. It's like... a field trip, really. Avengers field trip. We'll go home soon."
Less than a minute later, the gunfire stopped and Tony stood, carefully, looking over his shoulder to where Max's men were down. Steve, Clay, and a girl stood over Max, guns pointed right at Max's head.
"Is anyone shot?" Tony asked. "Banner, make anyone who's been shot less shot."
Bruce was still in Hulk form, but it didn't take him too long to calm down enough to revert to Dr. Banner, and he checked up on a black man from Clay's team who was currently nursing an injured side. The standoff between Steve, Clay, the woman, and a down-for-the-count Max almost made Tony want to grin - almost. If anything, the hard set of Steve's mouth wasn't one that Tony had ever seen before, not in the worst of their arguments and fights. There was a killer there, laying in wait.
"Uh..." Tony glanced around one last time. "No murder in front of the baby, please."
"Then you should take the kid out of here, Tony," Steve answered.
Tony left, holding the kid in his arms and he left the room, closed the door behind him, and slid down to the floor, back against one of the walls. The kid sat down on Tony's lap, gurgling contentedly, and then he reached out to Tony's chest, grabbing at the arc reactor housing. The kid didn't even flinch for the single gunshot that came through the door. After a few seconds passed, Tony pulled the kid into a tight hug.
"Sorry in advance, kid." Tony punched a button at his hip, producing a small package, alcohol swab, butterfly needle, and datastick. "But I want to get JARVIS running some data on you ASAP, chemistry profiles, nutrition... whether or not I'm your biological father..." He took the kid's arm and swabbed the crook of his elbow before - as gently as possible - sliding the needle into his arm and waiting for the port to draw in enough blood for analysis. When he withdrew the needle, the draw site was already clotted when Tony wiped it clean.
"Super Soldier Serum positive," JARVIS reported a moment later. "Blood type matches Jake Jensen, male. Estimated time until further analysis: three hours."
"Thanks, JARVIS." Tony stood, tucking the stick back away in his suit and heading back into the room.
Max was laying dead on the floor, brains splattered everywhere. Tony just clung to the baby tighter.
"Alright, has everyone sniffed each other and is happy with the state of affairs?" Tony glanced towards the Colonel, found his mouth hard but otherwise he nodded. "Good, now Colonel Clay, if you wouldn't mind, I'd be happy to have your team accompany us back to New York where we can get to work de-burning you."
The black man on the ground looked up at him. "No, seriously, is anyone having a hard time taking Iron Man seriously because he's carrying a baby, or is that just me?"
Tony glowered down at him, although the effect was probably somewhat lost by the mask. "Baby is the go-to accessory for the busy CEO-slash-superhero for 2013," Tony answered. "Alright, this is great. JARVIS, start downloading me my files, figure out what we have going on here. Bruce, I'm going to need your help with any bio-chem stuff. Steve, take Clint and Natasha and your new buddies and clear out the rest of the bunkers."
Everyone took his commands effortlessly, and Tony went to work on the files, all the while holding the kid... Jake, holding his son Jake.
The sight of Tony with a slightly squirmy blond infant in his arms, mouth gnawing uselessly against Tony's chest and arc reactor while Tony attempted to work on a computer, was too adorable, even for him. "Little help here, Cap? The kid wants noms but like hell I'm feeding him anything they have lined up for him here."
"What do you expect me to do about it, Tony?"
Tony glanced over at him, faceplate up. "I don't know. Does Argentina grow bananas? Small baby requires bananas."
Steve Rogers, war hero, defender of liberty, left the bunker and took the quinjet a few clicks north to acquire five bananas for his 'baby daddy' - even if he still didn't want to think about what that word actually meant. When he returned, Jake was now chewing on one of Tony's repulsor gauntlets while Tony prodded at more of the consoles.
"Isn't that dangerous?" He asked.
Tony glanced over at Jake. "No, I turned them off - it's basically a high tech nightlight. I think he likes it because it reminds him of HYDRA tech, an idea I'd prefer not to think about too deeply. Ooo, bananas. Alright, small baby-person, you are going to eat a banana, and you are going to like it, and you are going to stop whining at daddy for food while he investigates evil Nazi scientists, alright?"
"Daddy?" Steve asked, handing over a banana even as he glanced around the room. No one else was really in hearing distance, except for Bruce, who was working a few consoles over.
Natasha was in the corner with the Army man named 'Cougar', apparently they were engaging in some sort of bonding that didn't even require words. Clint was trying to talk up the woman - Aisha - and Colonel Clay was mostly hanging back, watching. He had a look that Steve recognized of a man with no mission, floating aimless through the world.
"Analysis is still working, but JARVIS says it's a match to Jake's DNA, 100%... so even though we haven't re-run the paternity tests, yes, 'daddy'." Tony took the banana from Steve and peeled it open, breaking off a tiny piece before putting it in the vicinity of Jake's mouth. He ate it, immediately, gumming the bite happily before swallowing. "We're trying to get a read on all the rest of the information here, but it looks like they were mostly unable to do anything, even with a strong understanding of the concept. The success rate on the method was less than 0.2%, mostly completely non-viable."
The news made the rest of the glowing tubes in the room take on a more sinister feel almost instantly. "So... were they all... ours?"
"All yours, they tried a few other donors first, apparently. Something about my genetics must have provided a... stabilizing element. Feel free to laugh." Steve didn't crack a smile, but he could see how Tony might have found it amusing. "They did try several female donors first, pure IVF, basically, and it wasn't successful. Seems like whatever's super about you isn't particularly sexually transmissible."
Steve glanced down at the console at Tony's hands as he almost mechanically took the banana, broke off a small piece, and handed it over for Jake to... mash up his nose.
"Don't do that," Steve said, carefully fishing the piece out. "Food does not go there."
Tony snorted. “Still, Jake was the only viable embryo. No siblings.”
Steve felt no small amount of relief from that. He would only have to learn how to love Jake. He warded off Jake's hands as he reached for the banana to try to grab the whole thing. "None of that, buddy. Your dad has important work to do, and you are not going to shove fruit in your face."
Jake grabbed at the banana again anyway, squishing it between his hands.
Tony chuckled. "Is it bad that I'm sort of pleased that Captain America Voice doesn't work on six month olds?" Tony asked Bruce.
"I'm not getting in the middle of this one."
By the time Tony and Bruce had finished their analysis, apparently Colonel Clay and his team had decided they could trust the Avengers at least far enough to accompany them back to New York, which Steve was pleased about. When they loaded back up on the quinjet, Tony took control of Jake again. Tony actually left huge chunks of the armor off so that he could settle back with Jake, and the two of them curled up towards the back.
"Sorry, there's no child seats on the quinjet, so you're stuck with me as your seatbelt."
Jake responded by leaning forward and mouthing the arc reactor set in Tony's chest through the cover in his under suit. Tony spent most of the time trying to wipe banana off of Jake's face. Steve rolled his eyes and looked across the back of the jet at Clay and his team. "We've been tracking you team for some time, Colonel," Steve said, finally tugging off the cowl as he did so. "You’ve been giving Agent Romanov quite a challenge, but we should be able to get S.H.I.E.L.D. to sponsor your..."
The looks on the assembled team's faces were stunned, and it took a moment to even realize what they were staring at: him, obviously, but it took him a moment to realize why.
"Oh, yeah. I guess I look a lot like Jensen."
"Um..." Steve glanced towards Jake again, the baby was currently licking the arc reactor plate again. Frankly it was a bit disturbing at this point. "He needs to learn not to try to eat you," Steve said, because it was getting distracting.
"It tastes like coconut." Tony picked up Jake, though, and pulled him far enough away so he was no longer mouthing the casing. He even wiped away the saliva. "Very long story short, with several aspects cut for the sake of brevity: Captain America is Jacob Jensen's father, biologically speaking, which accounts for most of the family resemblance. Jake knew, Cap didn't."
They hadn't exactly talked about how they were going to handle this before. Steve had been half hoping that the issue wouldn't arise at all, and Tony, for all he wasn't particularly superstitious, had seemed disinclined to talk along the lines of 'when we find Jake', but Steve really didn't see much option but to cop to it to the men and women who had met a Jake Jensen who looked almost exactly like Steve.
"Damn," Clay answered. "You weren't kidding when you said Max killed your son."
"That kid was not normal," Pooch - the black man who had been injured - added a moment later. "Uh, sir."
"You're not wrong, Sergeant," Steve answered, letting Pooch know that Steve wasn't going to hold a grudge. Jake hadn't exactly rubbed Steve the wrong way, but he certainly had been a unique person, one far more like Tony than Steve had been entirely comfortable with. "With his parentage, it would be hard for him to be normal." Steve glanced over at Tony again, watched as he handled Jake, cradling him slightly and actually coming to sit in one of the chairs - this time near Steve. He couldn't help himself, and wiggled his fingers near Jake's face.
"He was the only soldier I've ever met who could actually handle a damn crossbow," Clay added after that.
Clint glanced back from the pilot's seat. "Wait, what, crossbow?"
"Yup," Pooch added. "Crazy son of a bitch. Who uses a crossbow anyway?"
"Best uncles ever," Tony whispered to Jake, conspiratorially.
"And an aunt," Steve added.
"Never forget your aunt."
Steve watched Tony, trying to find a moment of peace and focus. He'd let a man be killed; Max had been a monster, a terrorist, and he had been hell bent both on the death of his son, the death of his son's team, and a huge portion of the city of New York. Steve also knew, objectively, that there had been no way that Colonel Clay or the rest of his team would have allowed themselves to leave if Max hadn't been dead. That didn't mean the act of vengeance sat well with him, Avenger or no. Tony tilted Jake towards him, obviously offering him over to be held. Steve just shook his head. He tried not to be irritated by the fact that Tony then offered Jake to Bruce and Bruce accepted.
Tony grabbed one of his tablet pads and started poking at it, and Steve craned his neck to try to get an idea what he was doing. As usual, he had no idea what the frantic tapping and touching might have been producing, the images flashing by too fast for Steve to make much sense of them. Tony at work was one of the most awe-inspiring and disconcerting things that Steve could think of. He knew Tony was a genius, and knew he processed things more quickly than even Steve's mind seemed to be able to manage, but that didn't make it easy to watch him blast past him.
"What are you...?"
"Having JARVIS set up a baby zone and fabricate additional baby-things," Tony answered. "Also emailing Fury, getting some paperwork in order for Colonel Clay and his team, as well as Junior there. I asked Pepper what we would need." After a few more taps, Tony tilted the panel towards Steve. It was... a picture of a birth certificate from the State of New York, and it listed 'Jacob Anthony', no last name yet. More ominous were the blanks that allowed for the listing of a mother and a father; one even allowed for... two fathers. On that one, it had helpfully been filled out with Tony as one of the fathers. It didn't take Steve too long to realize what Tony was basically asking by presenting the image to Steve, but Steve didn't have much of an answer for Tony. "Should probably decide that soon."
Tony took the tablet back away, though, and continued to poke; when Steve looked over his shoulder again, he was clearly handling emails.
"If you don't mind my saying," Colonel Clay said, with a tone of a man who really didn't care if someone did mind, "it seems like you're not particularly surprised by a random Argentinian genetic experiment baby."
"Do you think we just ran on over because of your glowing personalities, Colonel?" Tony shot back, not even looking up. "HYDRA and their doings are a pretty hot ticket when it comes to the Avengers, and there's this one guy who takes all that HYDRA stuff pretty personally. You might have heard of him? He's a Captain? Wears form-fitting tights?"
Steve did not wear tights. At least he didn't anymore.
Clay seemed to accept that, though. It did make sense that the Avengers might have heard of some genetic experimentation and could have expected that there would be a child involved. The idea left Steve sick. He didn't really... understand it, not the intuitive way the rest of the Avengers seemed to, but even though he had known HYDRA and Hitler were responsible for atrocities, even Steve hadn't known the full extent until after he'd woken up. "I still don't think that eugenics stuff is..."
"It's not Gattaca, Cap," Tony shot back.
"Hey, at least it's not Splice," Clint answered from the front seat.
"What's a splice?"
"It is a very, very awful movie that we do not show impressionable Captains who haven't been exposed to 70 years of science fiction upon which to build. It is also the same reason we don't watch Terminator, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Too many evil AIs and weird genetics." Tony nodded, continuing to press a few keys on his tablet. "Although, I must admit, Clint, that the Back to the Future marathon was inspired."
Clint gave a thumbs up from the cockpit, but otherwise didn't say anything.
"I still don't understand why it doesn't work like that..." Steve said, looking over at the child that would have been the Jake he met. There was just something about closed circuit time loops that intuitively made sense to Steve, while 'many worlds' - as Tony and Jake had called it - didn't make any sense at all.
"Physics, apparently," Tony answered.
Steve accepted that he was just going to have to live with that answer. That didn't mean he had to like it, though.
"You know, I wouldn't have thought post-mission Avengers chatter would remind me of Jensen," Pooch said, a moment later.
The declaration caused Tony to glance over at Jake, Bruce to do the same, and Steve to look down at his hands. They all knew exactly why their Jensen would have sounded like the Avengers, and it brought them back down to Earth, again. Steve found he didn't want to think about Jensen; it was a reminder of his sacrifice, and what Jake would never be, and a thousand other tiny things. Steve made a tactical retreat to the front of the quinjet and even stole Natasha's seat so he wouldn't have to be exposed to the friends that Jake had made in his time in the past. Their friend and teammate had died for him.
If Tony had been inconsolable after Jake's death, he was indefatigable after his discovery. Steve found this out mostly because by the time the quinjet had arrived from Argentina, there was some sort of biomonitor bracelet slapped on Jake's wrist - 'it measures pulse, oxygenation, blood sugar, and of course tracks location', some sort of hovering baby walker thing - 'JARVIS can keep him from going anywhere out of bounds', and apparently loads of 'all natural, organic, pesticide free' produce for... making homemade baby food. He would have thought that Tony was taking this fatherhood thing a bit too seriously were it not for the fact that Steve was still finding it too surreal.
Maybe they would sort of balance each other out.
He wasn't certain in what reality making your son a hovering baby walker was 'balanced'.
"Seriously, JARVIS, find me like... a Youtube vid or something. I require instruction." He tried setting Jake down on a lab table, which was apparently far too cold judging by the screams and the whole 'metal' thing; he considered the bed and then thought better of that, because eww; finally, he took Jake over to one of the medical exam tables and commenced the operation. "I've been building circuit boards since before I could walk. I can change a baby's diaper."
"I have every faith in you, Sir."
JARVIS's faith was apparently misplaced; it took Tony three tries before he decided he had a relatively water absorbent and covering wrap over his son's ass region. He then made a shopping list - by which he meant he made JARVIS make a shopping list - and then sent whatever floating S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had the indignity of being Tony Stark's replacement PA to the store for diapers, because he could. And after that... apparently the Avengers were on their way back from the debriefing, but he set Jake up in his awesome hoverwalking chair and generally stared at the kitchen as though it was magically going to make baby food, which it did not.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to keep an eye..." Steve walked into the kitchen where Tony had gotten most of the way through 'peel and wash apples, de-core, chop' when he stopped entirely in his tracks. "Is that safe?"
"I do know how to use a knife."
"No, I meant that..." Tony looked over his shoulder to where Steve was inspecting his awesome baby walker. "That thing."
"That 'thing' is a high tech child entertainment device completely with all sorts of exciting things that are not my arc reactor for him to fumble around with safely." Tony went back to his cutting. "I even, in deference to a variety of research that may or may not be accurate, minimized the amount of flashy lights and LED or LCD like displays. It's supposedly better for the eyes."
Steve didn't respond, so Tony left him to it while he continued to chuck large quantities of apples into a pot. When he finally glanced back, he found Steve running his hands over the edges of the walker.
"You do know that Stark Industries is famous for some of the most intuitive user interface designs on the planet, right?" Tony asked, feeling only slightly annoyed that Steve seemed to be doubting his design skills. "I have it on good authority that some nonagenarian who has been on ice for seventy years can still use most StarkTech without much training. He even likes the adorable bouncing icon tutorial crap that we don't really expect people to use. I understand user interfaces, Steve."
Thankfully Steve stopped looking doubtful, but he did continue to run his hands over the frame. "It is a very intuitive interface, but I'm not a baby."
"Point. Jake is just going to have to accept being an alpha tester for the Stark Baby line." Not an alpha tester - Tony was well known for testing things that ended up with him plastered to the side of a concrete wall, after all - but after all safety tests were through, he didn't see any problem with seeing if his kid enjoyed the tech.
"Are you really making an entire technological line of... baby things?" Steve asked.
Jake reached out towards Steve, since he was now in conceivable grabbing range, and Steve responded by putting out a finger and then inspecting the bracelet on Jake's wrist.
"And did you really design a baby monitor and a baby walker thing before we even found him?" Steve asked. "What if he hadn't existed or..." Steve didn't finish his sentence, but Tony could imagine what he was asking: what if Jake hadn't lived, what if he'd been killed before Tony and Steve found him.
Tony had woken up at night to those nightmares, mashed together with dark caves and electric shocks, but he had coped the only way he knew how: by building and solving problems that he could actually touch. "Technically the baby monitor is just an adaptation of a design I'm working on for Bruce to help with Hulk-out detection and tracking, since Bruce seems to get a bit woozy and lost when he's coming out of a battle. If we have another Manhattan smashing battle, it would be good to make sure Bruce isn't looking at a misdemeanor of nakedness in Central Park or something. I haven't been able to solve the issue of the shrinking and expanding Hulk-wrist, but Jake isn't going to quadruple in size overnight. I also didn't want it to be that... removable, as the entire point would be to make sure someone couldn't take him." Honestly if it were at all appropriate he'd be seriously considering a subcutaneous tracker, but Tony had boundaries. "Long story short: if I'm going to be spending time making awesome baby accessories, I'm going to have my company make them."
"You designed a baby walker, though?"
"You would focus on that." Tony prodded the apples in the pot. "Yes, I designed it before we found him; no, I'm not ashamed of that. I also bought a food mill, for all my food liquefying needs." In truth it was more of a ‘puree’, but Tony wasn’t one to quibble. "I am going to be the best stay at home dad ever."
Steve ran a hand, far too tentative, over the top of Jake's head. "Don't you technically just live and work the same place?"
"Don't ruin my moment." When Steve stopped petting his son like a cat, Tony scooped him up and attempted to rest him on a hip, he then discovered that he was not built for hip use; he had no lady hips. Jake took advantage of the position to grab at his chest, because arc reactors were apparently his favorite thing ever. He was going to need to figure out a way to get over that freaking him out. "Anyway, what did Fury have to say?"
"Colonel Clay and their team are getting comfortable on the Helicarrier, Director Fury wanted to debrief them further. Apparently 'Max' has been running covert intelligence in collaboration with HYDRA and other anti-American terror organizations for years." Steve frowned at the two of them, but did reach out and put a hand on Jake's shoulder. When Tony tried to offer Jake to him, Steve backed away. "He was... not a good person."
"I hate to think that the Avengers are going to become some sort of hardline anti-terror watch group, but this is going to be a destabilizing influence on a lot of organizations." Tony glowered down at the apples as they refused to soften. Instead of stressing too much, he sprinkled in some cinnamon. He was like Julia Fucking Childs, Iron Julia! He might be getting a little too into this. "Cutting off some funding sources might make some folks pretty desperate. I wonder if Super Soldiers need vaccinations."
One mushy apple puree mishap with the blender later - really, he was starting to think that U might have been better at making baby food than him - Tony declared the apple mush a success. Well, it wouldn't truly be a success until he'd actually gotten Jake to try it, but instead of food time, he headed down to the gym where Steve had apparently gone into hiding rather than continue to discuss either babies or the socio-political consequences of killing a terrorist financier.
"Steve?" Steve was beating the crap out of a heavy bag. People shouldn't be allowed to be that attractive. "Wanna come for baby's first checkup with Dr. Bruce? I am told there are Captain America and Iron Man band aids on offer for small children after they get blood draws."
Steve, damn him, looked like he was seriously considering saying no, but he unwrapped his hands and then nodded. "Yeah, let me catch a quick shower, I'll meet you there."
Tony fled the scene before he considered the image too closely.
Bruce was waiting for him in one of Tony's secondary labs that had long since been transitioned into a 'well clinic' of sorts for the Avengers. There were always hospitalizations for Avengers, but actual non-invasive medical checkups, x-rays, labs, and so on could all take place in Avengers Tower under the watchful eyes of Dr. Bruce. The best part of that was that Tony actually had an excuse for dodging the worst of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pestering now. "Are you taking that much blood? You are going to exsanguinate him!"
"Tony, it's an entirely reasonable amount of blood for a six month old blood draw." Bruce didn't look sorry at all. He was lovingly caressing the evil butterfly needle setup. Maybe Tony should have considered getting a real pediatrician... "There's a lot of tests to be run, more than we ran on Jensen because he came to us relatively healthy and even if we didn't know where he'd been you generally accept the fact that a twenty-something can take care of himself. We don't know what they were feeding him, if they were exercising him properly, and I think it’s safe to say Jake didn’t have anyone to latch onto; we need to avoid attachment issues going forward. As best we can tell, he was raised by people who wore full-face masks for the first six months, and that's just starting to get into the time period where attachment is most critical."
"Hopefully Steve'll get with that program," Tony said with a sigh.
"I'm sure he's just finding this all a bit surreal. He wasn't raised on science fiction the way we were." Tony hadn't made a point of confiding in Bruce about these things - he had a therapist for that - but he and Bruce had more than bonded on their mutual love of science, of the terrible privilege of their abilities even next to the others on the team, and just the fact that sometimes you needed someone else to be brilliant with. Bruce was just the sort of mellow Tony needed at the end of a day. He was a very chill person to have exactly three beers with. All that meant he knew the score when it came to Steve-and-Jake.
"Jake wanted both of us to be a part of this kid's life." Tony glanced out the infirmary window to see Steve coming around the corner.
"All in good time, Tony," Bruce answered just before Steve came in. "Steve, thanks for joining us. We're going to start with a physical exam before moving onto the blood work." Bruce than neatly slipped on some nitrile gloves and went to work examining Jake from head to toe.
Tony stayed plastered to Jake's side and Steve stayed... as far away from the proceedings as possible. Tony fought down the urge to sigh.
Bruce was capable and competent, and Tony did his best to not look crushed and give in to the fact that Jake was getting fussy after fifteen minutes of poking and prodding, and outright whiney at thirty minutes. Steve, at least, took the time to finally stand on the other side of the exam table from Tony, and helped when it came time to pin Jake down for a longer blood draw, which he started to scream through by the end. Tony gave up on objectivity and ended up clinging to Jake as he cried into Tony's shirt.
"Which one of you would like to do the honors?" Bruce asked, holding up... a Captain America band-aid; Tony loved branding and merchandising.
"That would be Cap," Tony said. Yeah, he could put his co-dad on the spot, he was a dick like that.
Steve, thankfully, didn't seem so opposed that he would actually leave, and instead reached out and neatly placed the band aid at the crook of Jake's arm, and then even went so far as to rub his fingers over the band-aid and the little circular shield that sat over the pad of the bandage. "You'll... you'll patch up fine, soldier." And then he left.
The room fell into a slightly awkward silence before Tony hefted Jake up onto his shoulder. "Did Steve just totally give his son a soldier pep talk? That's ok," he told Jake, holding him up over his head. "Your other daddy is making an effort to not be emotionally constipated. It's a work in progress." He was then subjected to grabby hands. "Yes, yes, arc reactor. I can't wait until you're old enough to not put bolts in your mouth and we can play with engines. I am seriously considering an arc reactor night light. This is what you do to me, kiddo."
Bruce chuckled at that, and then ran a hand over Jake's back. "He should probably get a nap soon, Tony."
"Oh thank God. Does that mean it's nap time for Tony, too?" Tony had never been much of a napper but good god he was already tired and it was only day one. "Thank you, Bruce. Just so you know, if you ever want to babysit, I have an adorable blond six month old who is in need of all sorts of attention."
"Anytime." The soft look on Bruce's face told Tony he had struck gold on that front. For all Tony had been trying to not fuck up his stint at fatherhood, Bruce very obviously wished he could have his own chance at it.
While Jake napped, tiny fist curled into Tony's shirt as he slept next to Tony on his bed, Tony ordered a modest army of child toys and got to work on a repulsor upgrade. He also told Fury he needed S.H.I.E.L.D. to do some serious background investigations for a nanny. He wasn't sure it had hit him yet, not the way he imagined it might. He'd had so long to get used to the idea of Jake, that Jake's actual presence wasn't quite hitting him yet. He had read everything, he had done his best to prepare, he had even expected the possibility that Steve might not be ready for fatherhood; Tony had engineered an escape from international terrorists with a box of scraps, he could figure out semi-single fatherhood, even while he had a bit of a crush on his baby daddy so profound that Jake would notice when he was older.
"Well it's not like your father isn't hot as hell," Tony told Jake, because obviously telling his sleeping son about his parents' unrequited love was an awesome parenting choice.
But as much as he envied the fairly easy way Tony slipped into the role of father, Steve also found it made him profoundly uncomfortable to see a man, any man, with a child hugged to his side, puttering in the kitchen making baby food, playing games and singing nursery rhymes that were still around even after eighty years. Steve didn't know how to relate to the young boy.
Tony did. There was a weird and brightly colored 'workbench' in the penned off area of Tony's work room, and when Steve sometimes dropped by and made himself at home on one of the lab couches, Jake would happily be banging away with a plastic hammer, or attempting to fling things across the room. Tony's robots, U and Dum-E, had apparently been trained - or programmed, Steve still didn't understand that - to accept toys when they were offered by Jake and then drop them. Jake usually tried to catch them, without luck. Tony's coffee breaks also served as, 'hang out on the floor with Jake' breaks, and even though Jake had only partially started to master the art of crawling, he delighted in standing up, using Tony's stomach or face as leverage.
For the first two weeks Jake was in the house, Steve kept his distance, sometimes holding Jake when prompted or carrying him around the Tower to look out of windows, but not really playing with him. Jake seemed to learn very quickly that he'd have better luck courting the attention of Tony and the robots. Steve hadn't meant it to be cold, but he was at a loss as to where he was supposed to fit with Tony providing so much of the nurturing.
"Is he..." Steve asked, startling Tony from where he'd been working on a design. "Is he too young to... do art?"
"It depends on your definition of art," Tony answered, smirking just a bit. "I mean good luck getting actual paint on actual paper, but there are several edible and non-toxic finger paints. If you're lucky it'll look like something you'd find in the MMoA."
Which Steve knew meant sloppy and abstract, at least he assumed that was what Tony was getting at. Considering Jake couldn't really hit the broad side of a barn with his hammer swings, Steve figured that hand-eye coordination wasn't going to be high on the list of things Jake was going to bring to his art. "Do you... do you think I could...?"
Tony looked over at him, completely wide-eyed and innocent and acting like he had no idea what Steve was trying to ask. Damn him.
"Could I paint with Jake?"
"There's a roll of paper over in the corner, along with some... non-toxic finger paints and a ratty set of clothes to put Jake into." Tony pointed to the corner. "Here, I'll change him if you want to now."
Steve was trying to decide if he felt suckered or grateful that apparently Tony had been plotting to have Steve introduce art to their son. A large part of him had no idea how Tony had even known that that might have been something Steve would have wanted. He found the corner Tony was talking about, and the huge roll of thick white paper that came off of a roll, clearly designed to be some sort of painter's drop cloth. The paints were unopened, and when Steve inspected them he found the sides pronouncing the paints 'non-toxic - perfect for young children'. There wasn't much by way of variety: red, blue, green, yellow, and a wildly hot pink that he wasn't sure why Tony would have bought.
Tony seemed to have a handle on Jake, and he'd changed him out of his slightly neat play clothes and into sweatpants and a thin t-shirt that Tony had set aside for the task. While Tony worked, Steve ripped off a several foot long piece of paper, and set it over a corner of the 'playpen' as Tony had called it. Mostly it was a plastic mesh about three feet high with supports to stand upright and could be collapsed and put away.
Steve stared down at his handiwork: paints, opened and stirred, paper covering a chunk of Tony's floor, him feeling his nerves rise even as he tried to steel himself for something that really should have been effortless: spending time with his son.
"Alright, Jake, don't give your dad too hard a time." Tony pecked Jake on the forehead before setting him down on the paper. "I'm right over there. Give me a yell when one or both of you get bored." Tony left, he'd barely gone ten feet away to where his workstation left him at an angle to observe the proceedings. He was right there, no farther away than he always was, and yet Steve being in the pen somehow made it worse.
He shot a look towards Tony, eyes wide and probably a bit freaked out.
"I almost want to take a picture and put you on the internet, sub-captioned 'what do?!', but we'll ignore that for now." Tony leaned forward and made a vague hand gesture. "Explain yourself, with words. He won't understand a thing you say but it's good practice for him. Then you finger paint with him, show him what to do, put paint on his hands, don't freak out if he puts it in his mouth or on his clothes or off the paper."
"Um..." Jake was using Steve to stand up, grabbing at his shirt and his pants to try to lever up. "We're... going to finger paint?" Jake didn't seem particularly impressed with Steve's declaration, and instead was feeling up Steve's face, sticking fingers in his mouth, against his cheeks, and along the neck hole of his t-shirt. "You put your fingers in... and they get paint on them, and then you..."
Steve gingerly stuck his own finger in the red paint, and left a short slash across the paper near his knee. Jake didn't even notice, so Steve continued to wiggle his finger against the paper until Jake was suddenly very interested in Steve's finger. He dabbed a different finger in the yellow and continued to drag. Jake then took his cue to... grab one of the pots and stick it in his mouth, chewing along the side of the canister and almost upending it.
The designers had obviously anticipated this, though, because the paint was very thick and viscous and didn't actually leak in spite of Jake's efforts. Once the hurdle of actually getting paint onto Jake's hands was crossed - by Jake jabbing a hand into Steve's drawing - the kid was off to the races. Steve had to stifle a wince as Jake slid through the paint, got his hands all over the paper but also over his shirt, over his pants, in his mouth, on his hair, and generally made a mess with a radius of almost three feet surrounding the paint canisters. After running his hands over the paper started to bore him, Jake took to slapping his hands against the puddles of paint, causing them to splatter out even farther. The painting exercise turned into a crawling exercise after that, with Jake crawling through the paint with great enthusiasm, he even tried to use Steve for a hand up, and Steve helped Jake take several tottering steps, hold him up by his hands, until he sat back down right on top of more paint.
Time must have passed, there was really no other explanation for it, but eventually Jake just lifted himself up on Steve's t-shirt and started to whine at him, a soft, whimpery sort of noise that Steve had no idea what to do for.
"Annnnd nap time." Tony swooped in and scooped Jake up by the armpits. "U, over here."
The arm-robot whirled to life and came over to the changing table that featured against one of the side walls of the lab. Tony handed U Jake's pants, stripped off him one handed while somehow Tony remained paint free. Steve watched as Tony and U engaged in some sort of elaborate dance that had all of Jake's clothes tucked in a miniature shop washer/dryer, and then Tony wiped down Jake's hands, face, and hair, before finally changing his diaper - which also headed towards the shop washer, courtesy of U. The whole production couldn't have taken much longer than fifteen minutes, and Steve had to admit he was impressed.
"Feel free to throw your clothes in the wash, Dum-E or U will make sure you get them back." And Tony left him to stand in the middle of the playpen, feeling oddly hollow and bereft next to the slight touch of warmth.
Steve stripped down. "Is it um...?" He wasn't particularly attached to the S.H.I.E.L.D. t-shirt and cotton pants he'd been wearing, but he was still a bit concerned about throwing them into a shop washer.
"Sir utilizes a washer/dryer unit that is capable of handling the sterilization of natural fiber fabrics using standards found in the cleaning of medical linens, Captain," JARVIS answered. "The unit can handle oil, grease, toxic engine fluids, and all bodily fluids. If you are concerned about the safe return of your clothing, I assure you one of the shop bots will return the clothing to you as soon as available."
"Um, thanks?" Steve pitched his pants, shirt, and socks into the laundry before he fled the shop into the elevator. "Could you... um get me up to my floor please, JARVIS."
JARVIS, true to his role of household manager, managed to get Steve back to his floor without Tony - or anyone else - seeing, and then fled to his shower. There was no easy way to tell what he felt. Jake was, as always, adorable and fun. Tony made sure Jake napped, and ate, and although there wasn't much that would keep Jake from screaming under some circumstances, he had - in the last week or so - started to make babbling noises to get something from a nearby adult rather than resort immediately to screams. Jake wasn't easy, by any means, and Steve knew that some days Tony relied heavily on his S.H.I.E.L.D. babysitter and PA, but Jake seemed to be... a good kid.
Steve was most of the way through a shampoo, leaving brightly colored streaks as he washed, when JARVIS interrupted. "I apologize for the intrusion, Captain, but Sir has asked me to ask if you intend to return to the lab after your shower."
"Why did he ask?"
"I believe he wished to share the commemorative milestone of Jake's first finger painting expedition with you."
Steve scrubbed his hair, hard, trying not to think too much. He wasn't certain if Tony was doing it intentionally or not, but the conspicuous formation of a family, he and Tony as two fathers, left him with an uncomfortable knot in his stomach. Jake had always evaded Steve's questions about how Steve and Tony had formed a family the last time around, and those hedged conversations made far more sense knowing that Jake and Steve had never met in that original life.
"I'll come down after my shower." As he continued to scrub his hair, a different question came to mind instead. "Hey, JARVIS? Does Tony find this whole... co-parenting thing weird?"
"I'm afraid that any communications Sir and I have had on the topic fall under the category of 'a confidence'. One of my primary functions is to keep his secrets."
But that did mean Tony might have talked to JARVIS about it, he must be having some thoughts about it. "When Jake was an adult, we only spent a few hours together, the three of us." And Steve had avoided Tony as well during that time. "Now I have to spend time with Tony. He's my friend, but... having a child together is..." Gay. "Complicated."
"Perhaps a paradigm such as a remarried woman with a child would create some coherence," JARVIS suggested. "You and Sir both have an emotional involvement with another human being, both of you are bound to Jacob by that bond while you also remain emotionally unengaged with Sir."
Steve tried to imagine JARVIS's suggestion in the real world: Jake being Tony and Pepper's while Steve dated Pepper - the idea felt wrong; Steve and Peggy with a child while Tony dated Peggy - bizarrely incestuous based on Tony calling Peggy 'Aunt Peg' most times; both Tony and Steve dating the same woman with a child from another relationship - Clint had explained that 'bro code' made that unacceptable. The analogy was right, but also incomplete, because it didn't take into account the fact that Steve and Tony were friends and that Steve cared about him. "But we're not 'emotionally unengaged', are we?"
"Tony and I play basketball, we train together, we're friends. We are sharing custody of a child that's both of our own flesh and blood. Normally that would mean we..." Steve waved his hands in frustration before shutting off the shower and starting to towel off while he struggled for his words. "Tony and I aren't like that."
JARVIS made a noncommittal humming noise.
"So, you see, it's more complicated than that."
"Life appears to be, frequently."
Steve couldn't argue with that, so he tugged on a pair of pants and a shirt and headed down to the lab to deal with... complications. He found Tony there, tucking away the remains of the play pen into the corner and wiping down the play set where Jake had gotten more than a bit of paint. Jake's art still was laying where Steve had left it, the paints had obviously been picked up and put away. The floor still had paint on it, as well, but only a little bit. "I'm about to declare victory on the lab mess. But we should start with some admiration. Which way do you like it?"
"Huh?" Steve looked over at Tony, confused.
"The painting!" Tony grabbed him by the elbow and tugged him around to one of the sides. "I think it looks best from this angle."
It looked like a splattering of paint and baby hands and baby feet and streaks of color all mixed together. "Sure?"
"All angles. Take a look."
Tony gave him a shove and Steve dutifully went around to the next edge, and looked down at the painting. It still looked like paint and hands. He went to the next edge, and the next, before finally coming back to stand next to Tony. "I... think you're right?"
"I usually am, but I sense an undercurrent of humoring me." Tony tugged him back a few steps. "JARVIS, get a nice overhead angle on it and snap a high resolution picture." The tell-tale sound of a camera snapping came a moment later. Steve had been told that JARVIS was always taking pictures of everything, film even, but there was probably something to be said for being able to hear the sound. "If you're going to make a habit of painting with Jake, I was thinking of installing a screen in the lounge that cycles through all of his work. Avengers period Jake Stark-Rogers. They could be collectors pieces one day."
"Man, Debbie Downer." Tony stooped down and poked some of the paint with his fingers before rolling the paper back up. "I set aside some space in the vault where we keep blueprints for keeping Jake's art attempts. Dum-E, tube me." Dum-E rolled over with a tube that Steve recognized for keeping blueprints or shipping a rolled up poster or such. "It's good, Steve. I think Jake enjoyed it, except at the end where he whined and then wouldn't go down for his nap because he was too tired to realize he was tired."
"I think he enjoyed it, too," Steve answered. "We could maybe paint again in a few days." It had been... fun.
"Sounds like a plan." Tony patted Steve on the shoulder. "Well, enough of that!" Tony said, wiping his hands on his pants. "Hooray, our son's artistic. U, scrub down the floor, Dum-E, fabricate that part I sent you the specs for; Daddy's going to go see about mashing that curried sweet potato from last night."
"Isn't that spicy?" Steve asked, following after Tony as he left the workshop. "I thought babies ate... blander food."
Tony shrugged and walked into the elevator, waiting for Steve to follow. "Sure, but when Bruce and I were cooking last night, Jake was getting very grabby, and so we tried sweet potatoes plain, and cinnamon sweet potatoes, and real curried potatoes, and the kid liked it, so who am I to complain. Besides, back when I was born dad was back and forth to Vietnam and Thailand on a regular basis and I got into who knows what spicy food on a regular basis. I am never opposed to spicy."
Steve followed Tony back up to the kitchen and the two of them fell into a mostly stable orbit, with Tony working on steaming more sweet potatoes to cut the curried ones, and some broccoli and spinach for 'wild green vegfest' as Tony called it. Steve worked his way slowly through a beer and his Avengers emails.
"I can't decide if I'm hoping for or dreading the day we get to move over to canned spaghetti o's." Tony leaned against the counter, drinking his own beer, and presenting a strange picture for Steve. He had on an 'Iron Chef' apron, which apparently had nothing to do with Iron Man, drinking a beer and stewing sweet potatoes. It was very... domestic.
The thing that seemed to constantly nag on Steve, especially in these moments when he saw Tony working in the kitchen, cooking, sometimes even cleaning, and on rare occasions baking, it struck him as almost womanly. Steve knew that there were plenty of men now who would cook or clean around the house, and Bruce liked to cook dinner for whatever Avengers were home, but the idea of cooking for a child, swaddling a child, occasionally dancing around the kitchen with Jake strapped to his back or his chest, made it impossible for Steve to not cast Tony as a woman in his own mind.
"Any childhood favorites Jake's missing out on?"
"I grew up during the Depression, Tony, and in the Army the options were: meat and beans, meat and potatoes, or meat and vegetable stew." To be honest, that was the one thing that really had seemed to make the future worth it, the variety of foods that he could try, even as a 'soldier', although he supposed the fact that he was living in a Tower run by Tony Stark might have broadened his options considerably.
"Right... food, not much of a thing back then." Tony turned back to the stove. "No Joy of Cooking favorites? I draw the line at roast squirrel. Although, I'm sure we could rock the beef stew. I think that's pureeable."
Steve shouldn't have been thinking about how much Tony was making a good impression of a housewife, but he was. It lead to the obvious comparison without Steve even realizing the train of his thoughts, Peggy against Tony, the woman he'd hoped to marry and the man he had set up house with. Steve could even imagine them tackling parenthood the same way, fighting their way to victory against household chores, every meal or naptime a strategic mission against a force of unknown power and crankiness. It was a strange thing to realize that many of the things that he admired in Peggy could have been said about Tony, and that line of thought left him nowhere comfortable. It probably didn't help to see that same dark hair and brown eyes. He shouldn't have been thinking of the traits Tony had shared with the woman Steve had loved, but he was.
"Hey, pay attention, soldier, we're planning a strategic dinner attack."
It wasn't even funny how much Tony's words accidentally mirrored Steve's thoughts. "Stew's fine."
He fled; three hours later he was still pounding a heavy bag in his gym and he couldn't quite clear that image: pretty brown eyes, dark hair, a take no guff attitude, and no desire to let anyone tell them what to do. It had been years since the War, it had been months since Peggy had died, Steve was over her. That old affection didn't explain why he couldn't get Tony out of his head no matter how hard he pushed himself.
The first four days were not pleasant.
All that meant that Jake got exceptionally clingy overnight and Tony's grand plans of getting his son to sleep in a crib rather than snuggled up against him were an epic failure. The persistence also meant Tony needed to engineer a new cover that would allow him to sleep shirtless and lower the danger of Jake pulling out the arc reactor.
Sleeping in the same bed as Jake also meant accepting the fact that he was sometimes going to wake up very early, as in five-thirty am early, and not leave Tony to sleep in. Tony's attempts to ignore Jake only lasted about the seven minutes it took him to climb on top of Tony and start poking at the reactor housing while also needing a diaper change.
"JARVIS, what does my day look like?"
"It would appear you are to start the day by sleeping poorly and being woken up early by your son. Ms. Potts expects you for a Board meeting today at ten, as well as a R&D meeting in the afternoon."
"Oh, good." Tony got up and set his son on the changing table, taking care of that while he brought up the anticipated schedule for both meetings. "I'd hate to be prepared and well rested, someone might think I've been taken over by a shape-changing alien."
"Of course, Sir. You have a reputation to uphold." Tony was really trying to decide if he loved or hated JARVIS's sarcasm programming. Most days he loved it.
"Alright, buddy, you get to sit in your chair while daddy showers." He popped Jake into his play chair and left him in the doorway while he showered.
He actually seriously considered taking a nap against the cool tile of the shower as he let the water flow down his back. "Sir?" JARVIS interrupted. "If I might mention... you seem... very tired. I know you have already made great use of Captain Rogers, but Agent Wesley is also quite competent in his own way."
"JARVIS, I spent my whole childhood being raised by nannies." In truth he'd spent most of his young life being raised by, among other people, Jarvis, the family butler. He knew that JARVIS and Dum-E and U had taken over some of the care, but he was hardly allowing Jake's rearing to take place at the hand of total strangers, his robots and JARVIS were family. "Steve's been stepping up, even if he's been running hot-and-cold the last few days."
JARVIS, wisely, kept his mouth shut after that, and Tony finished up with his hair and then actually started to shave. He knew he had more than a bit of vanity in him, but he was honestly surprised how annoying it was to go through several days with a permanent five-o’clock shadow, to say nothing of the grooming of an actual goatee.
Tony was done trimming away a few days of growth and was halfway through trimming his actual beard when JARVIS interrupted him. "Sir, Captain Rogers is at the door to collect Jacob for breakfast and morning play."
Normally Tony would still be napping, with Jake only starting to tug on his ears or his goatee in an effort to get his daddy's attention and Tony would roll out of bed and gratefully hand his son over. Today, however, he was in the middle of his morning ritual. "It's rude to answer the door naked, right?"
"Indeed it is."
He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist before he scooped Jake up in both arms and answered the door. Steve stood there, confused for a moment no doubt because he was used to Tony's continued morning sleeping rather than him being up and awake. "One son, lightly used, well rested, and changed."
Steve took Jake in his arms and hugged him close. "Alright..."
"I'll be downstairs at SI all day. JARVIS can reach me if there are any problems. Make sure you give him some oats in his breakfast and maybe cheerios." Tony ruffled the fine blond hairs on Jake's head before leaning in. "Give daddy a kiss." And then pecked him on the forehead. "Thanks, Steve."
His morning progressed relatively well from there, with him getting in a few hours of actual lab time before he was forced to head down for his meeting. Tony danced the dance in front of his Board and even Pepper gave him high marks for playing well with others. After the meeting, the two of them ended back in Pepper's office, where Pepper collapsed behind her desk and Tony across from here. He was far more interested in getting back upstairs, maybe in time to give Jake his lunch. Instead he pulled up the gym feed, where Steve would probably have taken Jake for the day.
Steve was taking a break from his workout; Tony could tell from the impressive line of sweat down Steve's spine that never ceased to make Tony's brain short circuit just a bit, no matter how hard he tried to fight it. Jake's workbench was in one of the corners of the playpen, unused, and Steve was in the midst of playing catch with Jake; it would more impolitely be termed 'fetch', really, with Steve rolling the ball around the playpen and Jake running after it before bringing it back.
It was hard to believe only a few weeks ago when Steve had finally taken over for Dum-E and U on catch-playing duties.
"What are you smiling about?" Pepper asked.
"My son is utilizing his genius-level intellect to plot trajectories and return paths with maximum efficiency," Tony answered, face completely serious. At Pepper's face scrunching up in a frown he turned the screen towards her. "Or he's playing fetch with Steve. I think the first one sounds more impressive, though."
Pepper smiled at him in return. "Look at you, proud dad."
"No one's more surprised than me... except perhaps you, Rhodey, all the Avengers, Steve especially, Fury for sure... the entire late-night talk show circuit... nope, pretty much everyone except me is surprised. I think I should be offended." Tony spun the tablet back around and went back to watching the gym feed. "I'm beginning to think that people just don't see me as fatherhood material."
"It might have something to do with the fact that you spent most of your teen years womanizing, and your twenties... oh, yeah, and your thirties."
"There's no need to be rude," Tony shot back, but he was smiling. "Nope, apparently fatherhood was all I needed to become a one guy man." Tony turned the gym feed back towards Pepper, just to punctuate his point with how adorable his son is.
Pepper, far, far too perceptive, leaned forward on her elbows and smirked. "So are we talking about Jake... or Steve here, Tony?"
He snatched the tablet back and set it on his lap, and even kicked his feet up on her desk to kick over that stupid little spinny thing that he hated so much. "Jake, obviously." Try as he might, almost three years of dating Pepper had made him practically transparent to her, which was unfortunate in that it now meant his bending of the truth was no doubt blatantly obvious to her. "Hey, I'm a dad now, I have responsibilities or something. They're these things that people tell me I have."
"You know, I really wasn't certain until just then." Pepper leaned forward and squeezed his shoe, wiggling it back and forth for a few moments, and her face was nothing but sympathetic. "Do you need to talk about it? I can't imagine you telling the other Avengers, JARVIS maybe."
"I've had a good one-sided conversation or two with junior about his dad's hotness," Tony admitted. "You know Jake, old Jake, left me a message just before he... did his thing. I didn't tell anyone because it wasn't important, he left all of his future data on his robot, the message was strictly personal, son to father. He said that he was a teenager before he realized Steve and I hadn't been an item. He'd just thought his dad had died tragically, leaving me alone to raise our son and I spent the rest of his life a wreck over it."
He didn't really expect a response from Pepper; she knew him well enough to let him ramble when he was on a tear and just leave the commentary for later if there wasn't anything riding on his train of thought.
"So it's not like that's going to happen, but how the hell am I supposed to date? I've ended up on some sort of unofficial DILF list even though my hair is turning grey at an alarming rate and I haven't had a proper workout that didn't involve crawling over the floor in weeks. And eventually Mr. 'Aww Shucks Gee Golly' is going to get over Aunt Peg and start dating again and then it'll be... Captain and Mrs. America plus baby. I wouldn't even pass a paternity test on Jake." Hell, Bruce was still trying to figure out how HYDRA had managed to isolate mitochondrial DNA from a man. "So apparently I can live with Steve never knowing and never getting to see his son grow up - been there, done that - but how the hell am I supposed to hook up with someone, much less date when I'm thinking about the - no, seriously - father of my child?"
Tony made the unfortunate error of glancing down at the tablet in his lap. "Especially not when he looks that good after a workout!"
Pepper snorted, but recovered a few moments later. "I think give it some more time, Tony. Steve's going through a lot of the same issues you are."
"If he's experiencing an unfortunate spate of lust for me he's doing a hell of a job hiding it."
"I meant Jake, being a father, getting used to all of that and trying to figure out how to relate to you. I know you don't seem to mind the idea of Captain America being your... baby daddy, but you jumped at the chance to raise Jake. Steve's had to warm up to it." Pepper came around to his side of the desk and gave him a hug around the shoulders. "Take lunch, I'm sure you have a munchkin you'd rather see than complain to your ex-girlfriend about your lack of love life."
He had to agree with her, so he got up, gave her a hug around her shoulders and a peck on the cheek. "If it wouldn't be placing you like... eight of Tony Stark's list of priorities I'd think about trying to get you to give me another chance."
"Sorry, Tony. I could take being a downgrade below your kid, but your company, Captain America, the Avengers, Iron Man... a girl's gotta have some priorities, and being that far down on your list isn't one of mine." Pepper gave him a kiss on the cheek as well, and then for good measure a swat on the ass. "Tell Steve and Jake I said hello."
He headed upstairs to the Avengers suites and the kitchen to make himself a smoothie. "JARVIS, where are Jake and Steve?"
"Behind you," Steve answered for him, and Tony whipped around to see Steve, Jake on one arm, standing at the kitchen entrance. "I thought you were going to be downstairs all day."
"The best thing about your only boss being your ex-girlfriend who still likes you, and you rocking out the Board meeting, is that you get lunch to come see your son rather than sit at some stuffy old desk in R&D." Jake made a happy squealing noise in response, arms out for Tony. "Sorry, I... I missed him." He knew, intellectually, that Steve and JARVIS together were unlikely to find themselves faced with a child care emergency they couldn't handle, but that didn't keep him from missing his kid after a few hours.
"He missed you, too." Steve smiled, with that ridiculously bashful look he sometimes had for no good reason.
"Pretty sure he mostly just forgets I exist until I come back. Object permanence is still in the formative stages." He jostled Jake slightly to get him set in one arm. "What do you say, Jake? Lunch time with your daddies? What do we even have to eat?"
Tony set to work reheating leftover stew, because he was a sap and he knew Steve had really liked it, while Steve reclaimed Jake and set to work feeding him his lunch. Steve had really gotten the hang of... well, everything. He made a really good dad. He had even started to master the 'eat with one hand, feed kid with other hand', but it probably helped that the Serum had mostly made him ambidextrous even if he still favored the right. Steve had finally warmed up to Jake in a way he hadn't when their son had been older, or even when they first found him, and it was exactly what Tony wanted, getting to see the two of them get along so well, but it was also a little bit heartbreaking to see Steve find it in his heart to love Jake while Tony was left wondering when he and Steve would finally drift apart.
Tony somehow managed to be a dad and... be himself. Steve was envious of that, envious of the way Tony always seemed to sure in his skin, the way he put on 'Tony Stark' or 'Iron Man' or 'Dad' so easily and Steve seemed to have trouble allowing himself to just embrace the simplicity of being a father. It was too tangled up in Tony for Steve, too complicated. Steve preferred his problems simple and Jake was wonderful, but complicated.
JARVIS interrupted his afternoon workout to call him for dinner, and Steve showered before heading up to find Bruce had some sort of asian noodle and Tony had set up Jake in a high chair next to him, his son clinging to a plastic spoon. "Is he going to eat dinner with us?" Steve asked before sitting down on Jake's opposite side.
"Only if we want to wear it. We are introducing Jake to 'big kids sit at the table'. No food for a few months until he learns not to put the spoon to his cheek when he tries to eat."
Clint and Bruce were the only other Avengers in residence for the night, and Clint took care of setting out chopsticks - and a fork for Steve - while Tony got drinks. Steve set to work on filling up Jake's sippy-cup.
The five of them were finally all settled at the table, with Steve devouring his way through the cooking, Jake taking turns between attempting to court Tony and his attention, mostly by poking his spoon in their general directions and not hitting either of them.
"You know, if he needs to practice hand-eye coordination--" Clint started.
"A Nerf bow and arrow set is ages six and up," Tony answered.
"Haha, but you totally looked it up!" Clint amusement seemed short-lived though. "Tony, someone made a Hawkeye Nerf bow, it's purple and it has a trigger. You don't even pull it! It is a pump action bow with a trigger. Can I sue?"
"My son uses Captain America band aids and is drinking out an Iron Man sippy-cup." Steve hadn't really noticed the red and gold pattern, actually, but now that he looked at it, it was pretty obvious. "You don't sue, not unless they're messing with your brand. Mostly you tell Fury you want your franchise money. Franchise money is putting my son through college."
"Stark, your Stark money is putting your son through college."
The conversation drifted along the topic of 'franchising' which apparently just meant selling things with the picture of one of the Avengers on it, and Steve had no idea what that really had to do with anything, but he had noticed that Tony had picked up those Avengers bandages for Jake, which was always sweet to see his son crawling around with one on his arm or leg.
"You know," Clint said, startling Steve out of his thoughts. "I heard today on the internet that Pepper is Jake's mom. I barely resisted the urge to post that you were his mom."
"Don't poke the internet too hard, Barton," Tony answered. "Although you could probably make a killing on a betting pool with that, because you're technically correct but also so, so wrong. Maybe we could say he's my son from another dimension where I was born a woman? I'd be a sexy woman."
Bruce answered by snorting before taking another bite of noodles. "There are so many things wrong with that, Tony."
"What would my name be though? Antonia?" Tony scrubbed the dish and set it aside. "What do you think, Steve?"
Steve had been too focused on carefully twirling up his noodles to really make a good answer. He still hadn't decided what relationship he wanted, publicly, beyond 'Uncle Steve', although he knew that might hurt Jake in the long run for Steve to not acknowledge him the way Tony was. It just wasn't natural. "You'd make a pretty dame."
If Tony had been a woman, all of this would have been much easier. Steve knew what you were supposed to step up if you had a baby with a gal. Tony - the girl version - probably would have been just as dedicated to doing everything alone if she'd had to, but Steve would have... well he could imagine learning to love Tony if he'd been a girl.
When Steve glanced over at him, Tony stared at him for a moment before he shrugged. "Damn right. Alright, I'm sure Jake will be only slightly confused."
"I can't wait to see that conversation." Clint stood up and started to clear the table. "When a Super Soldier and a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist don't love each other at all, and yet are genetically compatible, evil nazi scientists combine their genes for maximal badass."
"At least you understand that our son will, in fact, be a badass." Tony reached out and ruffled Jake's hair and kissed his temple. Tony's voice then dropped so low that Steve doubted anyone but him could hear it. "And loved..."
Clint was right, though, he and Tony had never loved each other, not as anything more than what Thor would occasionally declare 'shield brothers', but... Steve knew if Tony had been a woman he would have tried. That was what ripped Steve's chest open when he thought about it; he'd never had a father, Jake had also never had a father the first time around. Creating a world where Jake had two parents who loved him was something Steve could give his all to, but... they weren't a family, not the real, whole, proper way. But Steve couldn't imagine having a complete family without Tony now.
Steve was never one who was plagued with self-doubt, he jumped into things he wanted headlong, he'd decided to enlist right after Pearl Harbor and had worked to enlist five times before finally being accepted and after he'd become Captain America he'd never had the time to really reflect. S.H.I.E.L.D. always had work for him, usually work that he could accomplish near home, but he found himself longing for an away mission, something that would take him deep into Europe, or wherever he was needed now just so he could stop having to think about what Jake meant for him and Tony.
So he could stop wishing Tony was a woman and take away his confusion.
After dinner, Tony took Jake, the two of the snuggled together on the couch, and Tony flipped through whatever work the R&D section downstairs had done that day, showing Jake schematics and pointing out all the ways they would and wouldn't work. Whenever Jake made a noise or pointed Tony would begin a long, rambling explanation of the 'good point' that Jake had made and why his 'suggestion' would or wouldn't work.
Clint caught him staring instead of putting away the dishes he was supposed to be drying. "I'm trying to decide if Tony is just fluent in baby or just has a deep commitment to explaining everything there is to know about electrical engineering."
"A little bit of both, I think." Steve turned back to the dishes, drying one with a rag and setting it back in a cabinet. "I read somewhere that stay at home parents need to connect with actual adults to not feel overwhelmed by babytalk. I think maybe it's the opposite of that. His father..." Steve glanced back towards Tony, but he and Clint seemed to have not attracted Tony's attention, instead he continued to ramble and point at things on his tablet for Jake. "I don't think he ever took the time the way Tony is. There was a war on with Indochine and then South America." And sometimes Steve worried that Tony was giving up more of Iron Man than he was really comfortable with. "How are we supposed to be there for our son when any day we could...?"
"Hey, both my parents were killed in a car accident when I was still a kid. They weren't superheroes."
That was a fairly depressing thought for the evening.
"So... live in the moment, I guess. Every mission might be your last."
When the two of them finished the dishes, Steve headed over to the couch and with Tony's permission scooped up their son and the two of them rearranged themselves so Tony could still show Jake the plans on the tablet but Steve was the one holding him. They sat like that, pressed together from shoulder to hip to knee, while Jake's focus drifted from Steve's fingers to Tony's to the tablet and then just to his own hands which he played with in front of his face.
"I think he likes mechanical engineering better."
Steve couldn't help but chuckle. "Does that mean he likes hammering on that workbench more than paying attention to your design schematics?" Tony laughed in response. "He likes that... 'Lights Out' game you made." Jake mostly could just jam his hand against the lights to turn them off and on, but he did enjoy it.
"That's phase one of logical reasoning skills. Eventually I'm going to reprogram it so that each button actually turns out different lights depending on which button you press. It's a puzzle." Tony gave up the quest to have Jake pay attention to the keyboard and turned towards Steve and Jake. "You getting sleepy, buddy?" Tony asked, and he ran his fingers over Jake's head, rubbing slightly while Steve still held him.
"When will he start to...?" Steve shrugged. "Actually talk back."
"Depends. Maybe in a month or two we might get a first word, and after that we won't be able to get him to shut up." Tony grinned. "I think it will come as no surprise that I was an early talker, anything and everything."
That didn't surprise Steve in the least, although he could have equally seen Tony as someone who hadn't talked at all to start and then wouldn't shut up.
"I'm hoping for first words of 'arc reactor'. Can you say that, Jake? Arc Reactor?" Jake didn't answer, just gave a big, bright, toothless smile. "Oh you are going to break so many hearts, just like your daddy."
Steve chuckled. "You never know, he might wait for the right partner."
"Then while he's waiting he'll break a lot of hearts, genius, billionaire, body of a sex god, philanthropist." Tony ran his thumb over Jake's cheek and then pinched it lightly.
The gesture brought the two of them very close, Tony's fingers curled behind Jake's head and against Steve's chest like that. He knew, they both knew, exactly how much Jake would end up looking like Steve, and it was impossible to shake the niggling reminder that Tony had, in essence, said that Steve... He swallowed down the thought. Tony just said things like that, it was some modern thing. Clint had called it something, subway or metro or something. He didn't mean anything by it. "Well he'd better not learn how to talk to girls from me. I never had any luck with dames."
"That's because it's not luck, it's skill." Tony looked down at Jake, very earnest. "Hey, baby, I'm Iron Man."
Jake gave Tony a stupid, goofy grin, and Steve couldn't help but laugh at that. "You can't be serious."
"Oh come on, like you never had a woman throw herself at you because you were Captain America."
Once... maybe twice... alright, a lot. Steve blushed and tugged Jake away, perhaps trying to shield him from Tony's ridiculous and stupidly charming face. "That's not the point."
"Ha!" Tony held out his arms and Steve acquiesced, letting Tony pick up Jake and carry him around the room. "But here's the secret, kiddo - and if you tell anyone I said this I will deny it to my dying breath: the person who actually loves you is the one who doesn't give a shit that you're Iron Man, or a billionaire, or a genius, or hot as hell. Even without all that, somehow they still love you anyway."
Steve watched as Tony cut around the room, almost dancing with how gracefully he stepped, holding Jake close, almost clinging to him, and Steve felt his chest clench. Steve didn't know exactly why Pepper and Tony broke up, but he knew it had been a long time, and it pre-dated Jake, but Tony didn't have that anymore and he deserved it. Tony deserved some pretty dame on his arm who loved him and loved Jake and still saw all the ways that Tony was... goofy and sweet and not at all like the man Steve had taken him for when they first met. Everything Tony had he would give for the person he loved.
"Are you going to prep him for bed tonight or should I take care of him?" Tony asked.
"I've got it. I'll bring him over when he's ready."
He changed Jake's diaper, got him ready for an overnight, and sat with him in his room reading a bedtime story about a fluffy rabbit before Jake finally started to yawn and snuggle into Steve's chest, his hand pressed against Steve's sternum and fussing when it neither clanked or glowed. "Alright, I'll take you to your father."
Tony met him in the doorway, still in his fitted t-shirt, but wearing just boxers. As he handed over Jake, a traitorous, tiny little part of his mind decided it was too bad that Tony hadn't needed to shower, and a vicious part of the back of his mind shoved that thought down as quickly as it had appeared.
He ended up back in the kitchen, taking out a beer that wasn't going to taste like much and wouldn't get him drunk. "JARVIS?"
"Has Tony ever...?" He thought better of the question before he finished. He thought much, much better of it. He didn't want to know. "Never mind."
He had been in the twenty-first century for months, and he had heard enough from the rest of the Avengers to become more acquainted with modern morals to know the rest of the team were more accepting of things that Steve had never considered. Jake had always neatly dodged the question of how Steve and Tony had related to each other when they were older, but that was out of ignorance, not hiding it from Steve.
"JARVIS, do you know if Tony ever married?"
"He has never been married," JARVIS answered, immediately.
"No I mean... in the other future, Jensen's future."
JARVIS didn't respond right away. "Contextual clues would suggest that Sir never married, although Captain Jensen never made that answer explicit."
Steve only let himself wonder about what JARVIS might have meant by 'contextual clues' for a few moments, and then gave it up. He'd thought maybe that could have simplified their strange relationship, with one of them in some other relationship. That was how that Two Dads show had ended, at least according to JARVIS. The very fact that he was even considering taking advice from a television show told him that his situation had become too surreal and too complicated. Perhaps if Tony were in a relationship with someone else it would stop Steve from trying to find some sort of answer that left him confused and flustered, even if the idea of giving up so many of their simple family moments to someone else hurt, it was better than the tangled up feeling that was slowly starting to form from them.
JARVIS had assured him he was below fatal - or even particularly damaging - levels of gas exposure, but his lungs had never been the best on account of the gaping hole he'd gotten cut in his sternum a few years ago and his blood oxygenation had never been what it once was. Just because he had programmed the finest artificial intelligence of the age and fed him Gray's Anatomy (book, not show) didn't make JARVIS a doctor.
Tony didn't even complain about the oxygen mask and the mostly naked, boxers only, medical exam in a sterile and enclosed clean room slash biohazard containment unit. His suit was currently in a decontamination chamber, millions of dollars worth of circuitry probably getting fried as he watched. He was totally making Fury pay for that one.
After about twenty minutes of oxygen therapy he was even his mostly snarky self again, flirting with anyone who came in range. His fun was very quickly brought to an end by the presence of the three people in the world who could make him feel guilty for his general irresponsibility: Pepper, Steve, and Jake. So Tony gave them a jaunty wave and a bit of a smirk that hopefully said 'I meant to do that', and really Jake shouldn't be here, Daddy was supposed to be invincible.
"Tony, you are an imbecile." Pepper's voice came through the speakers of the clean room loud and clear.
"Hey," Tony answered, finding himself horribly winded after just that, and thought better of a truly impressive comeback. "I'll have you know my suit is designed against toxic gas, just not after being crushed by large quantities of falling New York."
"Tony." Of course Steve could somehow turn his name, his whole tone, into a one word invective.
"I'm fine," Tony argued. Never mind that the dozens of readouts that were running off information about his heart, his lungs, and his blood chemistry said otherwise. Tony had every confidence that he would, eventually, be fine. "I assume you two are here for some other reason than to berate me for doing my job."
Pepper sighed, obviously exasperated, and Steve just looked at him stone-faced while Jake made a valiant effort to make it through the glass and to his daddy. Yeah, worried about him. Tony hated that. He especially hated the way the three of them waited through almost forty-five minutes of medical exams and Tony finally just being hooked up to standard wall oxygen and a drip of something that was supposed to detox him further, before he was finally allowed out of the clean room and into a Helicarrier medbay room. Steve even seemed reluctant to hand over Jake, but he and Tony were both emphatic and he had to say he enjoyed the chance to hold Jake again, revelling in the fact that he wasn't dead, again.
"Yeah, your daddy was badass," Tony said, wiggling his fingers lazily in front of Jake for him to play with.
Pepper answered with a frustrated sputter, waving her hands angrily. "Tony! This isn't about you being badass, this is..." She took a long, deep breath. "I'm sorry, you're right, you were doing your job and yes you were well-suited to the problem."
"Which doesn't stop you from being pissed at me, and cranky. I know." He knew that only too well. If things had been simpler between them right now, Tony likely would have been on tap for 'you could have died' sex followed by a 'I can't do this anymore' breakup. For better or worse, Pepper didn't have those sorts of designs anymore, having broken out of the cycle months ago. "As soon as I look better than death warmed over I'll come in for the Board. I promise."
"Thank you. It is your company, I just run it for you." Pepper leaned in and hugged him, and then kissed him lightly on the lips in the perfect reminder of what he'd lost, what he'd given up, and what he never had.
"I know the timing's horrible but... did you get legal to...?"
Pepper drew out her omnipresent black portfolio and handed over a thick manila envelope that Tony took and set on the end table. "Get better, Tony." With that she left; Tony recognized it for what it was, a constant reminder of how much Tony hurt Pepper, both before and after becoming Iron Man, and how even though they weren't in love any longer, she still cared.
Steve took his place at Tony's side, drawing over a chair and not saying anything, just silent and Tony couldn't help but feel the judgement rolling off him in waves.
"Can I defer this with a 'not in front of the baby'?" Tony asked, hopefully.
"Nothing to defer," Steve said. "Pepper was right. You were the right person for the job and you can't control everything. I think you said something about how that doesn't mean I can't be pissed that Jake's father is in a hospital on the Helicarrier, though." Tony had said that, on multiple occasions, really, about Steve's loss of Bucky, about his loss of their grown son, about his loss of all the people he had fought with during the war. "I don't like being reminded that just because this isn't a war, that any of us could still..."
Tony reached out and squeezed Steve's wrist, wishing he had more comfort to offer. They had dangerous jobs. They saved the world on a regular basis, sometimes there were broken bones and toxic gas. "Here, I need to show you something." Tony gestured towards the envelope Pepper had handed him.
Steve picked it up, turned it over in his hands a few times and then opened it, drawing out the documents. "'Last Will and Testament of Anthony Edward Stark'. Tony..."
"Don't 'Tony' me, Cap. It's important. That sort of thing is the difference between a comfortable post-parental existence and exotic dancing off the interstate to pay for college."
At least Steve smiled slightly at that. "I'm pretty sure your son isn't going to be forced into... whatever to pay for college, Will or no."
"Hey, military pensions and survivors benefits aren't what they used to be," Tony answered, only half joking. "That's just a review copy, I haven't gotten it all signed and notarized yet, but you should take a look at it. It's pretty... self-explanatory."
Steve didn't even open up the papers, instead just resting his hand on them while Tony continued to hold into Jake, hugging him tight.
"There was a lot for legal to go through. Stark Industries, Maria Stark Foundation, Stark Tower, my personal assets..." Tony sighed and Steve's face grew more and more grim. "Don't look like that. I'm being responsible, it's a relatively new look for me. It's like... teamwork, Steve. Gone are my days of considering only myself, I have a small person to consider, and you." It wasn't quite that simple, of course. Tony was still selfish, still arrogant, and still more than capable of putting his own self interest above anyone else, but he did have Jake to consider. He didn't want his son to have to grow up in the shadow of someone like Obadiah. "Sorry to say, you're going to have to stick around, Steve, provide some moral focus."
He expected something snippy, perhaps even annoyed, but instead Steve reached out and put a hand on Tony's shoulder, his thumb hard against Tony's collar bone, holding him there. "Jake needs both of us, Tony. He won't even go to sleep without you most nights. I know you're Iron Man. I know you need to be Iron Man. I know you did your job today, but..." Tony closed his eyes, waiting for whatever Steve would say.
Steve didn't say anything, though, didn't threaten to bench him, didn't tell him he was being irresponsible, didn't even say it hurt to see Tony like this, instead he seemed to realize he had his thumb against Tony's throat and let go, almost burned. It seemed even that small display of intimacy had tumbled over into 'too gay' for his Super Soldier's brain.
Tony sighed and pulled Jake to his chest. "Buddy, Daddy needs a nap. He was so busy being all heroic that he sort of forgot that middle aged superheroes need rest too. I know it's usually me telling you that you need a nap but... how about we call it family nap time, alright? Steve'll just... turn the lights down and do whatever it is that he needs to do."
Hint telegraphed and received, Steve went to the wall and dimmed the lights, leaving Tony's arc reactor glowing brightly in the dimness, and Tony settled back, Jake snuggling against his chest, hand resting lightly on the arc reactor. Rather than leave, though, Steve pulled his chair closer, pulled out one of the tablets he'd finally really gotten the hang of and perhaps started to go through some emails or Avengers business. He left one hand free, gently stroking the back of Jake's neck, hand next to Tony's where he had his own hands holding Jake to his chest. Apparently Steve had taken the request of family nap time quite seriously.
He wasn't quite aware of drifting off, or how long he must have spent dozing with Jake against his chest, but he roused slowly, feeling the loss of the warm weight of his son against his chest, but it had been replaced by the light teasing of fingers through his hair. It wasn't a bad way to wake up. When he yawned, though, the fingers fell away and Tony groaned. "How long?" He asked, voice barely a whisper.
"You were out for about three hours," Steve answered. "I sent Jake back to the Tower with Agent Wesley after he woke up. I figured you could use the sleep."
If Jake was back at the Tower, who had been playing with his hair? Tony opened his eyes and glanced around; Steve was the only one in the room. He tried not to think about that too hard. "Yeah, I could. Are they threatening to keep me overnight?"
"Tony, you took several lungfuls of toxic gas. They want to keep you for longer than a few hours."
Tony whined, doing a fair imitation of his infant son if he did say so himself. "I'll check out AMA," he threatened, not even really meaning it. "If they let me go... I'll authorize JARVIS to send them vital statistics for three whole days. They can send me a naughty nurse. You can spend the night and hover, all night, even, Edward Cullen style."
Steve snorted, and then rapped his knuckles on Tony's forehead for just a moment. "I will go ask your doctor if, given your responsibilities as a nightlight for your son, you might be allowed to go home under JARVIS's and my supervision."
"Don't forget the naughty nurse!"
Steve ignored him, but that didn't surprise Tony in the least so after Steve left, he punched a few buttons to get sitting up and then decided he really had to pee. He was getting so old. The trip to actually make it to the restroom was slow going, and eventually Tony just sat, eyes closed for a second before he actually opened his phone. "JARVIS, how's Jake?"
"Agent Wesley and he are playing Light's Out at the moment, and practicing his assisted standing." JARVIS helpfully displayed several pictures of Jake in the middle of playing. "If I may say, Sir, your vital signs are not particularly promising at the moment, although of course I would never countermand your doctors without your permission."
Tony snorted. "Asked Steve to let me get home. I know I look like death warmed over, but at least I can get you and the bots up and running on a replacement suit. Fury sterilized the damn suit, pretty sure it's never going to run again after that."
Thankfully he managed to putter around the small bathroom unit, even managed to relieve himself with no mishaps - because he really wasn't looking forward to that ever being an issue - and was in the middle of chatting away with JARVIS, washing his hands as he tried to decide if there were any further upgrades that he needed to put into the next suit round.
"Sir, Captain Rogers is calling for you on the phone."
"Does he really think I would make a break for it while he was trying to negotiate my conditional release? Tell him I am peeing." Tony snorted. "He seriously overestimates me if he thinks I could have made a suitless escape in the last ten minutes." Tony continued to scrub, neatly avoiding the IV in his hand and examining himself for unhealthy pallor. His hair didn't look the best either, so he gave that a good scrub as best he could with the sink.
When he opened the door, Steve was standing impatiently just a few steps back from the bathroom door.
"I didn't fall in." Steve's frown softened. "And am I allowed to escape?"
"You have to go home by quinjet, you will have a S.H.I.E.L.D. health tech, you have to eat, no alcohol, and they want JARVIS's armband data uploading constantly." Steve watched as Tony walked the rest of the way to his bed, dragging his IV pole with him and mostly doing a fair job of standing on his own feet without leaning against the thing. "And... you... um..."
Tony looked over his shoulder to see Steve glancing away, but gesturing helplessly at Tony's back. He knew his back was slightly bruised, but... oh, Steve was probably talking about the fact that Tony wasn't exactly policing the back of his gown particularly rigorously and that left Steve with a bit of a show. "Hey, I will have you know that ass has never received anything but rave reviews."
Saying that was totally worth it just to watch the way Steve turned entirely pink, and even turned away in response.
"Any other conditions for my release, Captain?"
"It's my job to make sure you stay in bed and stay fed, so will you promise me to behave?"
Oh, Tony could think of so many ways he would appreciate the good Captain keeping him in bed, but alas. "As long as I can have JARVIS and a tablet, I will stay in bed as long as the doctors demand."
Steve eyed him, suspicious, perhaps trying to decide if Tony was just telling him what he wanted to hear.
"Steve, I feel like crap, but I really want to spend the night in my own bed, with my son. I'll be a good boy." Tony closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths before finally looking back to Steve. He was standing there, looking more awkward than Tony was used to, his hands pressed together. "So are you going to spring me, Cap?"
He ended up getting mostly unhooked and even though he had to hang onto Steve's arm as they made their way towards the quinjet - Clint was flying - and back to Stark Tower. Tony had finally managed to force his copy of his Will off on Steve. "I almost feel like, since it's yours, it should be one of those e-documents."
"Well, one of the few things that we can't get away from paper on." Tony used his injury as a - pathetic - excuse to lean his head against Steve's shoulder and closed his eyes, listening to the sound of rustling paper as Steve read through the first few pages of the Will. It was, on the whole, not overly complicated. Tony had done his best to make sure Jake was taken care of, and that Steve would be the one calling the shots for Jake if Tony didn't make it for as long as he had last time.
When they got back to the Tower, Tony let Steve help him into his room, and he slowly made his way through cleaning up, scrubbing off, and changing into boxers and a t-shirt. "Vitals, JARVIS?"
"You have over-exerted yourself slightly and are experiencing poor blood oxygenation. I suggest you do not try Captain Rogers' patience much at the moment."
Tony leaned against his vanity and looked into the mirror. "I'm getting old." He already was old. "And maybe sloppy."
"You do frequently make lists that enumerate the most fashionable and well dressed males of the year, Sir."
"That's not what I meant and you know it." Tony staggered the rest of the way back to bed and set himself up there, tablet on his lap. "We need to reevaluate the internal systems. I focus so much on the exosystems but I keep having atmosphere breeches, eventually I'm going to drown, suffocate, or both. I don't want to go from poison gas or hypoxia. I don't want to go at all, but they sound like particularly sucky ways to go." And like it or not, the flexibility the armor had necessitated seams, and an ability to be removed, which meant that a perfectly sealed suit was always going to be a pipe dream.
He was partway into an attempt at prototyping when Steve knocked, and then came in, carrying Jake over his shoulder, before depositing their son next to Tony on the bed. Jake, of course, crawled over and started to use Tony as a jungle gym.
"Is this your nefarious plan to keep me from actually doing any work?"
"That and I need to do some cooking." Tony arched an eyebrow at Steve, one arm wrapped around Jake. "Chicken noodle soup."
"Jacob, did you hear that?" Tony dragged Jake onto his lap, brushing aside his tablet. "Your father is making us soup. If you ask very nicely, maybe he'll even send some through the food processor because you cannot have chunks of chicken. That warms me to the very bottom of my arc reactor." It... actually meant a lot to Tony. He knew Steve could cook, he just seemed to be the Avenger who did the least heavy lifting in the kitchen.
Tony blinked, and looked down to where his son had his hand pressed hard against his chest and the arc reactor. "Did you seriously just try to say 'reactor'?"
Steve and Jake - no doubt unintentionally - made it impossible for Tony to get any work done as he did his damnedest to get Jake to say 'Daddy', or really absolutely anything else, but the little brat was just as ornery as his father and did nothing but gurgle and make nonsense syllables for the hours it took Steve to finish his soup.
"Captain, Ms. Potts is coming up." Steve nodded at JARVIS's information. It wasn't as though Pepper was coming up to see him, it was more likely she was here to see Tony, either in her capacity of CEO or as... ex-girlfriend.
"Steve, hi. Are you making soup?" Pepper asked, surprised.
"Tony is supposed to be resting, and Jake can eat the carrots and the noodles as long as I chop them up and cook them right." Jake had just graduated more and more into solid foods, although they had to be fairly soft, or melt in the mouth. He'd taken to them with gusto. "He's in his room, if you're looking for him."
Pepper just looked at him, again. "But soup?"
He got the impression that Pepper was very confused either by the idea of Steve cooking at all, or soup in particular, but he didn't know why, so he just gave a soft and confused little frown. "Jake's probably hungry if you wouldn't mind taking in some blueberries and cheerios?" When Pepper didn't protest, he went to work getting some in two bowls. "There's enough for Tony, too." Tony hadn't eaten since breakfast.
"I have to admit, mother hen's a good look on you, Steve," Pepper said as she took the two bowls that Steve had offered, tucking them neatly on her arm.
"Tony needs that sometimes... and it's um..." He blushed, looking down at his hands and then the half chopped carrots. "Tony says it's 'papa bear' not 'mother hen'... since we're both fellas."
Pepper laughed, soft and amused and honest. "Well it's a good look, and you're right Tony needs it sometimes. Make sure you come in whenever you get to some stewing point, Tony could probably use the company. If he doesn't get distracted by people, he'll hide in his own little world for days. He's a bit like a dog in that sense, too content to lick his wounds in private."
"I'll come in when the soup is done," he assured her.
Of course he then spent the next one and a half hours cooking chicken, stewing bones, and chopping vegetables, and while they all simmered slowly, Steve also ask JARVIS what Tony's favorite cookies were - oatmeal - and if he had a favorite recipe - he did - and he set to work on that. So he didn't come into Tony's bedroom until almost two hours later. When he entered, Tony and Pepper were sitting, legs tangled together, Jake dozing next to Tony's thigh, while Tony and Pepper sat with a tablet between them, laughing and playing some sort of game on it that Steve didn't recognize. It was the perfect little picture of a perfect family, broken only when Tony glanced his way and grinned brightly.
"Steve! Is... are there cookies?" Steve tilted the tray he was carrying just far enough to show that there were, in fact, cookies. "Jacob, your dad made us oatmeal raisin cookies... by which I mean me, since you can't have raisins, but some oatmeal cookie might not be bad for you."
Jake didn't stir, not right away, which left Steve to sit down on the bed and hand over the soup to Tony.
"I should get going." Pepper stood, and then leaned in to give Tony a soft peck on the forehead. "I'd tell you to be good, but I know you won't listen, so I'll tell you to let Steve look after you."
"You don't have to leave," Steve told her. If anything, Steve felt like he should leave; Tony and Pepper had obviously been... happy.
But Pepper shook her head and gave Tony a pat on the cheek. "No, I've got to go wrangle with the Board some more. Tony do you...?"
"Yeah, got a Board pleasing tech announcement for you to spring in a few days, just need to make sure it's in a releasable state. I'd been doing so good, I have a three innovation backlog now! Clearly I should be less cautious." Tony gave her one of those stupid, winning smiles, but it seemed lost on Pepper, she just gave him a smile and left. "See ya, Pep."
The departure seemed to let Tony unwind, and he leaned back into the pillows on his bed, eyes closing for a moment as he exhaled. He looked exhausted, even after the nap earlier, and his shower, he looked... older than Steve was comfortable with.
"Soup?" Tony asked. "Gimmie."
Steve rolled his eyes, but he did hand over the soup and Tony set it carefully on his thigh before he started to eat. "She didn't have to leave. The two of you were..." He made an offhand gesture, somehow trying to encompass everything in his head. She and Tony had always looked good together, beautiful and well matched, a perfect complement to each other.
"She had work to do. Has to cover for my fuckup." Tony stopped eating in mid bite and set the spoon back down, looking over at Steve. "Don't worry about it. She's been my go-to gal for over a decade, Steve. She knows what's what."
"Are you two...?" The question died on his lips. It wasn't any of his concern.
"Matchmaking the exes, Cap? I'd advise against it. Pepper and I break up for a good reason every time, and we get back together for lousy ones. I'm a genius, even I can figure that out after a few years." Tony seemed... completely fine with that. Steve couldn't hide his frown, though. He wasn't naive, he knew there was more to a relationship than good intentions, but they always seemed so good together when they were together. "I can hear the steam engine roaring in there, Cap."
Tony reached out and tapped Steve's temple, and then chuckled down into his soup.
"Pepper loves Tony Stark," Tony said, like that explained everything when it didn't explain anything at all. "She doesn't love Iron Man."
"And I have been for a long time. But Pepper... and Rhodey, they stood by my side when I was Tony Stark. Every horrible, selfish, thoughtless thing you ever thought of me? All true. That was me." Steve opened his mouth to protest and Tony waved it away. "And the two of them stood by me anyway for some reason, and even though they know every reason I should be fighting, some part of them would always be just a tiny bit comfortable with seeing me fall back into... the sort of man I was. They expect me to."
"Tony..." Steve had no idea how true that was, or if it was just something Tony thought of himself, but it didn't matter. He reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "I know I've said you only fight for yourself, but that's obviously untrue. I know that now."
"You're Catholic, right?"
Steve didn't have any idea what that had to do with anything, but he nodded.
"It's all about the Hail Marys and the acts of contrition, Steve."
Steve... well he understood. He understood punishing himself for not being able to rescue Bucky, for letting Jensen die, for every mistake he'd ever made he allowed himself to be separate and apart from things. There was a small part of him that still didn't believe he deserved Jake or the Avengers or anything else that made him happy in the future. "I think eventually, after the acts of contrition, you get forgiven, Tony."
Tony snorted. "You're obviously not a very good Catholic."
The answer made Steve snort, and then the two of them chuckled. No, he supposed he wasn't a particularly good Catholic. The laughing woke up Jake, though, and he gave a broad yawn, which got both of them to put their attention back on Jake as their son, slowly woke and took it upon himself to climb all over Steve.
"Someone didn't get the memo about daddy being sick," Tony said. "I think he probably needs to run around, play. On the other hand..." Tony watched as Jake reached out to try to grab one of the cookies. "Clearly has good taste." Tony broke off a small chunk of cookie and fed that to Jake.
Steve took the hint to grab Jake and take him out into the living room to let Jake run around, playing catch with him, and trying not to think too hard about what Tony had just said. He'd always known that Iron Man had to be some sort of penance for Tony; it was obvious after you put all of the pieces together. Pepper had always seemed nothing but supportive of Tony, but at the same time it was easy to see how she might have been less than pleased with her boyfriend spending so much time nearly getting himself killed.
Eventually, Tony joined him, collapsing onto the couch with his tablet so he could watch the two of them, and Steve didn't even have it in his heart to give Tony a sour look. He hadn't tried to escape to his lab, and even though he was obviously working, he wasn't putting an obvious strain on himself. It wasn't as though Steve could begrudge him wanting to spend time with his family.
The two of them fell into their pattern silently, Jake playing catch with Steve - although occasionally he would bring the ball over to Tony and Tony was only too happy to oblige. Tony tapped carefully on his tablet, probably working on one project or another, a redesign of the armor if Steve knew him at all. It was... nice, and surprisingly easy.
During one of the many visits Jake made to Tony, he stopped and brushed Jake's hair out of his eyes before he turned to Steve. "So what's behind the sudden urge for me to find myself a Mrs. Stark, Cap?"
Steve didn't know. It just struck him that... Tony deserved that, he deserved someone to be with, not whatever loneliness he'd allowed himself to fall into in that other world. Tony might seem to want to chose that for himself, but Tony Stark didn't deserve to be alone with no one who loved him the way he deserved. "You deserve to be happy."
"What part of 'Mrs. Stark' makes you think that would make me happy?" Tony shot back, not angry, just that perpetual amused state as though Steve had said something very funny. "It sounds like a recipe for disappointment and alimony."
"Tony..." He didn't have a good answer to that.
"I'm happy, Steve. I've got a great kid, I have the Avengers, I have Stark Industries, I have Iron Man. I could live without the hospital visits and the health techs who aren't going to play naughty nurse with me, but I'm happy." Rather than throw the ball that Jake had brought over for him, Tony scooped up his son and gave him a warm kiss on the forehead. "This isn't Taming of the Shrew, you know, you don't actually have to get me married off before you're allowed to date."
"It... This..." Steve frowned, confused by Tony's declaration, even if he was surprised he actually understood the reference. "This isn't about me, Tony." Steve didn't need someone, he'd always gone without in his youth, and as much as he'd cared about Peggy, they'd never shared anything more than a kiss, but Tony was... Tony, of course he wanted someone on his arm, in his bed. "I'm just saying... if you wanted, I think you... I think you should."
"Maybe I don't want, Steve. Is that not allowed?"
Steve wanted to say 'no', that that wasn't allowed, that that wasn't Tony Stark at all. Tony needed someone to drag him outside of his own head, to not let himself get lost, he needed someone to love him, to fight with him and challenge him, and just like Pepper had said, Tony without all that just hid away from the world. "I guess..."
Tony sighed, setting down Jake and tossing the ball for him to chase after before he levered himself up into a sitting position. "Look, I get it. Tony Stark: womanizer. But I've got this little family, now, you, me, Jake, and it's just starting to work. I don't need to throw anything on top of that to mess it up. It's too many variables. If Pepper wanted to be Mrs. Stark - which she doesn't - and wanted to be Jake's stepmom - which she doesn't - then maybe, but I'm not going to put Jake through years of me trying to bottle lightning when he's got two dads and I am happy."
Tony didn't sound happy.
"Why did you never get married when Jake didn't have both of us, then?" It made sense, sure, Steve knew that weird thrice divorced blended families had become more normal since he'd gone under, but he knew a single dad was still considered out of the norm, even if the single dad was a business owner, a superhero, and could afford a fleet of nannies.
Steve waited for the flippant answer, for 'you can't hold me against myself, unless it's sexy' - because he'd heard Tony say something similar before - but Tony didn't answer, not directly. "Don't hang your happiness on me, Cap. You want to get out there, you want to date, you want to find your right partner? Go ahead. I'm not going to stop you. I will be right here."
Tony left after that, even with Jake whimpering after him, his hands up in the air begging to be carried, but Tony ignored both Jake and Steve, hopefully heading back to bed, although Steve wouldn't have put it past him to go down to the lab if he thought he could get away with it.
"JARVIS, is he--?"
"Sir has returned to his room. I suggest you allow him time and space. In spite of what Ms. Potts believes, he does some of his best thinking unencumbered by the presence of others." JARVIS had a bit of a tone with him, which suggested that he definitely thought Steve was out of line.
Steve just looked up at the ceiling and frowned at JARVIS. "Don't you want him to be happy?"
"Indeed I do, Captain. That is precisely why I do not pester him on the topic of his love life. It is quite a bit more complicated for him than you seem inclined to credit." He must have seen Steve's frown - he always seemed to. "I have come under the impression that the addition of Jake has also weighed heavily on you when it comes to matters of your own heart."
He hadn't talked to JARVIS about that, about his conflicting desire to 'do right by' Tony even though he wasn't a woman and Steve hadn't done anything to bring Jake into existence but he still felt that way. He hadn't mentioned the way it had made him look at Tony differently and see a man who deserved to be loved. There had also been no mention of the... gnawing guilt that Steve felt with the knowledge that even when Steve hadn't been there, he'd still somehow kept Tony from finding happiness. "He loves Jake."
"Very much so."
"I'm making him unhappy."
"Apparently enhanced mental faculties do not make you immune from fallacious conclusions."
Steve laughed. It shouldn't have been funny, but he'd just gotten... sassed by a computer, a very smart one, one that blurred the lines between machine and man for Steve, but a computer nonetheless. Jake came over to him after that, offering him the ball to throw since Tony had fled, but Steve just pulled Jake onto his lap and hugged him. "I just got sassed by..." Steve looked over to the wall, one of the many cameras that made up JARVIS's 'eyes' in the Tower. "By your big brother."
Jake had no answer for that. JARVIS made an over-elaborate noise like the clearing of his throat. "Blended families can be particularly challenging."
Tony had been saying it, or a variation of it, for months, and it was only in that moment that it finally clicked. Tony wouldn't date - couldn't date - for the same reasons Steve found himself reluctant to. He and Tony were raising a child together, they were... in a relationship. There wasn't any sex, or kissing, or a lot of other things Steve imagined a relationship might have, but they had 'it's your turn to feed him' or 'can you puree that when you're done so Jake can have it'. They traded childcare responsibilities. Tony asked Steve and Steve asked Tony before they headed out on missions as Iron Man and Captain America. They talked about Jake going to college, what they'd say if he wanted to join the military, they talked hopes and dreams and fears...
They had a child together and Tony... Tony was being faithful to him.
It was a shock how long it had taken him to realize it.
Steve remembered when he'd thought of Jake as a violation, as a tie to Tony that he didn't want and that almost turned his stomach to think of, but it was impossible to keep that up, not in the wake of an actual living, breathing child who put so much enthusiasm into every move, not in the wake of... seeing Tony as someone he could want... did want.
After Jake started to get fussy, he changed him for bed and brought him into Tony's room. Tony was sitting on the bed, getting some sort of infusion now, probably more of whatever he needed because of the gas exposure. "Hey, Cap. Is it time for all little Super Soldiers to be in bed? Yeah... alright, JARVIS, bring the lights down a bit." Tony snuggled down into the bed and Jake curled up next to him the second Steve put him down.
He usually took that as his cue to leave, but today he slid down onto the side of the bed and put a hand on Jake's back. His son stayed curled up at Tony's side, hand reaching out and grabbing into the fabric at his chest, clinging to the arc reactor. Steve watched as Jake went from huddling close, to his fingers easing from where he was holding onto Tony, before his breathing finally seemed to even out and not even the soft kiss Tony planted on Jake's forehead roused him. When the tech finished with the infusion, Tony pulled the tablet back off the end table, ignoring Steve.
"I'm sorry." Tony didn't look towards him in response, so Steve continued: "It's not my business. I'd... I'd feel pretty weird too if I was out for a date and my son's other dad was at home babysitting him."
Tony's chest fell as he exhaled long and slow, but he glanced over to Steve and gave him a curt nod after that. Tony didn't say it was alright, or really accept his apology, but given that he wasn't much of an apologizer, Steve figured that was close enough, so he eased down into the pillows on the opposite side of the bed and pulled out his sketchpad.
Tony didn't comment, which was probably for the best, since Steve couldn't quite imagine selling an answer of 'well, it's in case you or Jake need me' when JARVIS could have Steve in Tony's room in under thirty seconds if needed.
Eventually the doctors cleared him to get back into fighting shape, which he did, with gusto, and he actually went to the gym with Steve in the mornings, and felt better rested than he'd been in ages.
There was probably some good reasons why he shouldn't have gotten so comfortable with the changing status quo. The changes weren't good for his heart. Evenings were spent dutifully with Steve and Jake, Jake perched on Tony's lap and hands bapping uselessly against his tablet while Tony explained what he was doing in fits and starts, bouncing from idea to idea, while Steve had an arm draped behind him on the couch, doodling with one hand. Sometimes Jake - who was either the biggest enabler or the biggest cockblock ever - would get bored and pay attention to Steve's hand, so he would drape his arm over Tony's shoulders and wiggle his fingers, causing Jake to stand on Tony and grab at Steve making his - now incessant - chatter of 'dah dah dah' in Tony's ear.
Some nights when he told Jake to 'give your daddy a kiss goodnight' he wasn't certain he was talking to Jake or for himself. Some mornings he woke up and Steve was already in his room and he wondered what would happen if he grabbed Steve by the collar of that stupid, too-tight, S.H.I.E.L.D. t-shirt and kissed him. Somedays he locked himself in his lab while Steve was playing with Jake and listened to the other version of his son, the older one, say 'you just really obviously loved him'.
Steve interrupted his brooding with a knock on the door.
"Shut down that recording JARVIS. You can let him in."
Steve came in a moment later, carrying a bright and smiling Jake and depositing him in Tony's lap where he began to nonsense chatter. "Someone missed you," Steve explained.
Tony snorted, but he tugged Jake closer and kissed his forehead, and then his cheek, eliciting a happy coo. "Well I know it wasn't you," Tony said to Steve. "Must have been you, buddy. Today we get to learn about the wonderful world of particle physics... if I can find my little baby carrier..." Tony glanced around his workshop, only to have Steve bring it over from the corner and set it neatly on the table. It took a moment for him to realize, but Steve's back was tense and his jaw set at a stubborn angle. "Something's wrong."
"Fury's asked me, Natasha, and Clint to check out a lead with Colonel Clay's team, stealth, a few days at least, maybe a few weeks." Steve sounded guilty, and he should, he obviously knew what the news meant to Tony. It would be the first time, ever, that Steve or Tony had been away from home for more than a two or three day sortie since Jake. Steve had been out, Tony had been out, they had Cap and Iron Man'd together in New York, but...
"HYDRA?" Tony asked, because if he was going to get left at home like a fretting goddamn military boyfriend he was going to know all the facts.
"Looks like, probably a weapons factory."
"If it's weapons---" But Steve put a hand on Tony's shoulder and kept him from standing. They had agreed to this, months ago, no doubles missions unless it was absolutely necessary. Tony Stark would have been a great addition to any team raiding a weapons factory, but his father - and any number of other munitions experts - had been more than capable of running an op over a radio, and Tony had the benefit of a satellite feed. Tony sighed. "I'm going to tracking you on every Stark Satellite known to man, including some not known to man."
"It's just recon, Tony. We'll call if it looks like things are even going to get slightly hot."
Steve didn't have a dishonest bone in his body, so when Tony grabbed Steve by the chin and twisted his face so they could see eye to eye he could tell that... Steve thought it was just recon and he'd call if things looked like they would get hot. "Alright, be careful. Jake, give your daddy a kiss."
Jake didn't really... take commands, but he did reach out to fist Steve's hair when he leaned in and kissed Jake on the forehead. His grip was pretty spectacular, considering his age, but Steve pulled away a few moments later and Tony got him to sit on his thigh. Some variation of 'kiss for luck?' floated around in the back of his mind, because... well... the father of his kid was going off on a mission, even if it wasn't expected to be that dangerous there was still the fact that it was a military mission, there were no freebies...
And then he really had to wonder if he'd actually voiced his thought, because Steve's fingers were fisted in the neck of his t-shirt and a hard, yet chaste, kiss slammed against his lips. It really wasn't even fair because normally under these circumstances he would be all for grabbing Steve and making him get back and kiss Tony more because yes, please, but Jake was in his lap and dropping your kid so you could make out with Captain America was probably poor form. It was almost over before it had started, and Tony sat there, hands on Jake, watching Steve's strategically retreating - and very fine - form. He didn't even really... think for several minutes, just stared at the door where Steve had exited.
"Yes, Sir. Captain America did just kiss you in your work room before leaving for his mission."
"Good to know." He looked down at Jake's mess of blond hair. "Alright, so apparently I'm not getting any work done. I think we'll just play catch while daddy's brain comes back online. Is that alright?" Jake didn't answer, which Tony had expected, but they adjourned to the playpen. Steve had just kissed him; Steve had kissed him in the way that Tony had occasionally flirted with, easy, familiar... lazy almost. Tony wasn't opposed to hot and wet and raunchy, he'd practically trademarked it, but his fantasy life had taken a sickening turn for the domestic a few months ago, and he couldn't deny that seeing Steve and Jake conked out together on the couch was just as perfect to him.
He'd never been that far gone on someone before. It probably should have freaked him out more.
Tony worked out his anxiety by training, by working in his workshop, and by stalking Steve and the others constantly. He also probably got just a bit more tipsy than was purely wise with Bruce. "I'm like a... a... war bride!"
"More like a military spouse," Bruce offered, which didn't help his point at all. "Since he's... not marrying you to bring you home after a war."
He hated it when Bruce was reasonable. "I'm totally post-war marriage material." He needed to stop that, right this instant, so he ran a hand over his face and glowered at Bruce because this was clearly all his fault. "I've decided I'm not alright with Steve going on these longer missions without me."
"So you're alright with leaving your son here, at Avengers Tower, without you or Steve?"
A man Tony's age did not pout. He pouted just a tiny bit. "As soon as he's walking he's getting armor."
"You want to put a one or two year old child in a multi-million dollar mobilized weapon platform?"
"That seems entirely reasonable to me."
It was Bruce's turn to sigh, and he put a hand out on Tony's shoulder, giving it a very firm squeeze. "Tony, you and Steve are the first Avengers to have a kid. There's going to be a learning curve, your enemies, our enemies are going to be targeting him. Maybe you wouldn't necessarily have wanted to bring a kid into that right now, but there he is. Right now, you're lucky most of them only think he's your kid, destined to become a mega-brain genius when he's older. After they realize he's yours and Steve's? Well there's a reason you were high on the list of people HYDRA would want Steve to have a kid with, but he's got the Serum in his blood, he's the only second generation Super Soldier."
Tony remembered, distantly, how many times he'd nearly gotten kidnapped as a child, how many times he'd been held for ransom and how many times a military special forces team had come to extract him. Up until Afghanistan, Tony had always been kidnapped as leverage, leverage against Howard to force him to part with money or tech. Tony had always wondered why the kidnappings died down after his father died; it couldn't have just been because they thought he was a colossal fuckup. It seemed that might have been the one good side effect of Obie selling Stark Tech to the highest blackmarket bidder during Tony's reign as CEO. "Wanna help me design a panic room that could withstand World War Three?"
For the first time that night, Bruce didn't tell Tony he was being ridiculous, and that was probably the most terrifying part of it.
The away team sent daily updates to the Tower. No locations were mentioned - not that Tony didn't have a satellite aimed right at them most of the time - but it was... really good to hear Steve's voice. They were always team appropriate, sometimes Tony let them run while he and Bruce worked together in the lab. Jake playing catch or mimicking Tony with his game of Lights Out or the 'workbench'.
"Things are going well," Steve's voice reported, wholly unprofessional, 'going well' was not a mission update. "Hopefully Jake isn't giving you too hard a time."
"Grossly unprofessional," Tony said to Bruce.
Bruce just smiled and Jake then pointed at the ceiling and started his incessant 'dah dah dah', who he apparently could at least mostly recognize by voice now. "It looks like we may be wrapping up soon... and... Jake, make sure you give your dad a kiss for me."
That earned him an arched eyebrow from Bruce, so Tony flicked a pen at him before taking a break to give Jake a hug. "Your daddy is ridiculous, you know that, right? He's silly, and sentimental, and a great dad." He caught Bruce smirking at him after that. "Your uncle Bruce is an asshole though. He's laughing at me, right now, inside his head."
"When's the wedding?"
"We already decided I wasn’t a war bride. Clearly we're already married. Captain America marries Iron Man, take that Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Wedding of the millenium." Because after you had the 'wedding of the century', clearly that was going to be tough to top. "Your dad's going to have to wear white, though. No one would believe me in white."
"Tony..." Bruce was laughing out loud now. "How very modern of you, kids first, followed by marriage?"
Tony rolled his eyes and juggled Jake lightly before giving him a kiss and redepositing him on the floor. "Poor guy, Cap's probably been beside himself on how to make an honest woman out of me." He could joke about it now, it was funny now. Tony wasn't an idiot, he knew relationships were only about two steps above supervillain attacks on the order how how difficult they were to manage, but Steve seemed to want to try something, and Tony was not going to fuck it up.
It was torture to wait the several weeks Fury had the team out, but every day, like clockwork, he got his message from Steve and everything seemed to be going well. Jake was a growing kid, and as much as Tony might joke about babies not having a great handle on who was caring for them, Jake obviously missed Steve. And even though he couldn't really ask the question, the incessant 'dad's in the morning weren't for Tony to wake up, they were for Steve to fetch him to go to the gym. But wait Tony could. No matter what anyone said, he occasionally was capable of patience, and long term planning, and he was going to seduce the hell out of Steve the second he had the chance.
Tony had constructed so many plans by the time that Steve actually returned that he realized only belatedly that he hadn't even given Steve any sign that his feelings were reciprocated. He hadn't even given sort of blatant Han Solo rip off 'I know' or a 'me too' or even a 'get the hell back here and do that again, Soldier' so... the fact that Steve didn't come up to him right away, demanding an update on Jake and Tony and everything actually surprised him. Instead Steve hung back, chatted amicably with Bruce and Thor, until Tony had to blatantly corner him, give him a friendly with just a touch of lewd hug and say. "You and I have to talk, Captain Smooch and Dash."
"I... um... have debriefings," Steve hedged, backing away just slowly enough to not leave Tony offended.
Steve shouldn't be allowed to say that, because he obviously meant it entirely earnestly and as a horrible lie to get out of talking with Tony. "Do not think for a second that I won't call you Captain Honeybear in front of the other Avengers if you aren't in my lab in the next few hours, Steven G. Rogers, because I will."
Steve was in his lab in exactly two hours and forty-four minutes, and when Tony glanced up to see him enter he didn't look at all like a man returning from a successful mission. He looked like a man headed to his execution. It wasn't a good look on Steve, Steve didn't do defeated well. "I'm sorry."
Tony was both simultaneously upset with himself for putting that look on Steve's face, but proud that apparently his lust was too subtle for Steve's radar.
"You should be," Tony answered, barely able to keep his voice sharp. "Who on Earth taught you that kissing and then fleeing was the way to go? Poor form. Get over here and kiss me properly, and if you dip me, expect a repulsor blast to the face."
Steve glanced up, eyes hopeful, and tentative, and then he bit his lip to stop from grinning.
"You are hopeless," Tony said, but he didn't wait for Steve to come to him, he stood up and went over to him, arms going around Steve's neck while Steve's found a natural home around his waist.
"I didn't think you'd..." Steve didn't finish the sentence.
"Oh I'd so." In Tony's opinion his answer made complete sense. He brushed a thumb over Steve's jaw, watched the play of happy and bittersweet over Steve's face, and then he seemed to screw up his courage and leaned back in for another kiss, this one just as chaste, but softer this time.
Yeah... he could do this, possibly forever.
Or maybe a minute or two, before Steve slowly broke away and looked down at Tony, eyes questioning. "Whatever you're thinking, stop." Tony tapped his fingers down Steve's spine.
"This isn't just for Jake, right?" Steve asked.
"I knew it was a stupid question," Tony answered. "I... the other me, the one who lost you? Do you really think he spent a lifetime single because he sort of liked you a little bit as a friend? Do you think his son had to get it explained to him, when he was a teenager, that his daddies hadn't actually been together because I'd take one for the team if you wanted me? Are you doing this for Jake? Because I'm not, I'm a selfish bastard, I'll happily take what I want."
"You're not selfish, or a bastard." Steve chuckled, and then he leaned in enough so that he could bury his face in Tony's neck, and then laughed some more. "At first I just wanted you to be happy... us being together would be... it'd be gay. I didn't want to be..." Steve took a deep, shaking breath. "Jake asked me to try to be a family with you. I thought it was because when he grew up the first time I couldn't get over... that. I told him I wasn't gay. I hope I didn't make him sad, thinking that I couldn't feel that way for you. So it's a little bit for Jake, but a lot of this is for me. When I see you in the morning in your boxers with your hair all mussed, I think 'I want that'. I'm allowed to want that, right?"
Tony coughed, trying to clear the lump that had formed in his throat. He'd never even really thought that... well honestly he'd assumed Steve was straight. "Want away. I've always been a big proponent of getting what you want. Come on, Agent Buttercup has Jake for a few hours. I think it's time for all good Super Soldiers to be in bed."
"I've never..." And then Steve bit his lip, obviously trying to stop himself from talking, and wasn't that a bit of a thrill, the idea of... maybe, eventually, breaking in Steve and...
He shouldn't be thinking about that. "We'll cuddle. Your son outranks you anyway." Steve frowned, eyebrow crinkling in adorable confusion. "Major cockblock." That earned him a laugh. "If you tell anyone this, I will deny it to my dying day, but I'm not going to fuck up our family for just sex."
And now that it looked like he might get every piece of the family he hadn't known he'd wanted, he wasn't going to let them go, not for anything. In his darker moments, he'd often wondered what would be worse: losing Steve, or having him there never getting the chance to have him the way he wanted, but he was more than happy to find out he wouldn't have to consider the problem at all.
His moment of courage and bravery on the eve of battle hadn't ruined anything.
Tony dragged him upstairs from the workshop, into Tony's rooms. Tony tasted like coffee. Tony's chest, just an inch or two from the edge of the arc reactor, was oversensitive from bundled nerves. The way Tony said 'time for all good little Super Soldiers to be in bed' made Steve's pulse pound. Tony's kisses left him hard and breathless. Just when he thought it would be too much, though, Tony backed off, content to touch, shoulder to shoulder, as they lay in bed together, staring at the ceiling.
"When I first met Jake..." Maybe this was a horrible time to say that, but Tony just rolled over and planted a soft kiss on the curve of his shoulder and waited. "I thought it was so... terrible to have this... violation between us. It was awful to think, but I thought you would be just as upset, two men... like that, but you just didn't care."
"To be fair, I have a lifetime of not giving a shit what other people think." Tony brushed his fingers through Steve's hair and settled his head on Steve's shoulder.
"I used to think I didn't care." Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulder and tugged him tighter. "But I would pick a fight with a guy twice as big as me because he trashed those little war reel promos in front of a film. I put myself through a one in a billion chance experiment to prove I wasn't..." There were so many words he could have said; he'd never gotten called a fairy, but he'd gotten called plenty of things that were pretty close, whimp, a girl, a sissy. "Useless. So I really did care what they said, a lot. They just said it less when I was..."
"Kicking Axis ass," Tony supplied, although Steve thought it was pretty obvious that wasn't what Steve had meant to say. "So... I'll be honest, Steve. If we do this, people are going to be... not pleased. Pretty sure the Avengers won't mind, Fury will say I corrupted you, but the rest of them have never minded that Jake had two daddies before."
He knew that, he knew all of that. He'd seen the way Natasha and Clint and Clay had all looked at him when he was sending his reports, so obviously... well he knew what he would have called it years ago, during the war, it was the look of a fella writing a letter to his sweetheart at home. They had looked at him like they knew exactly what he was feeling. "I know what I feel, Tony. I've never backed down from a bully, but I guess I just haven't thought it all the way through, yet. Wasn't worth worrying about being this way or that if you didn't want to be with me."
"Well I do. So you'd better worry, Rogers."
"I do, Stark. Constantly." He made it a joke, light and teasing, because sometimes it was worth worrying about Tony. But Tony caught the edge behind it, and he leaned in and kissed Steve softly on the mouth.
Tony groaned, though, raking his fingers down Steve's chest and then pulling back with a defeated huff. "We should go spend time with our son. He's been listening to those stupid mission reports so much I think he's in danger of thinking that JARVIS is his dad instead of his big brother."
"Oh Jake's been listening to them?" Steve asked, because Tony, of course, could never say that he actually missed Steve and had been thinking of Steve, he had to put that on Jake.
"Yup. You're lucky he didn't forget all about you. He's at that age where object permanence is still occasionally sketchy." Tony scooted all the way out of bed, scrounging around for his t-shirt before he tugged it over his head. "But no, instead he just has been pointing at the ceiling and calling for his dad when he doesn't want me."
Jake was still in the living room with the others, Clay and his team chatting with Clint and Natasha, Thor and Bruce making inroads even though they hadn't been on the mission. Agent Wesley was doing his best to provide a handhold to Jake who was making a valiant attempt at assisted walking, but having little luck. "Dad!"
"You adorable little suckup," Tony said, just under his breath.
Jake was completely oblivious, instead crawling over to Steve at breakneck pace before he tugged at Steve's pant leg.
The knowledge that he'd been gone for weeks, that things were actually changing so fast for a child that he'd missed those first few correctly formed words, was something of a blow, but the enthusiasm that Jake demanded his attention with was infectious. "Hey, buddy." Steve hoisted him up, and Jake snuggled into his side immediately. "Did you miss me?"
"I almost feel like that's cheating," Clint interrupted the happy reunion. "No matter which one of you he says it at, he's a genius."
"Hey, early developing vocabulary is necessarily spartan, he's just being economical with the words he learns." Tony came over and put a hand on Jake's back. "Don't listen to your uncle, he's just grouchy and going to have to live without the upgrades that we made for his arrows, isn't he?"
"Upgrade!" To be fair, it didn't really sound like 'upgrade', it sounded more like 'up-ade' but Steve knew what he meant and he wasn't going to be picky.
Steve laughed, Clint and Natasha just looked at Tony like he was insane. "What? That's a perfectly reasonable word. I upgrade things all the time. Upgrades are the best. No upgrades for uncle Clint." Tony then collapsed on the couch between Natasha and Clint, slinging an arm around both of them. "So, did you miss me?"
"Less and less by the second," Clint responded.
Steve decided that was a good time to ignore Tony and the rest of them, instead choosing to take Jake out to one of the windows and the two of them looked out over the city for several seconds. "On top of the world, buddy?" He looked down, or as much as he could considering the high balcony that made up most of the outside. "Down there, there's a little diner with a very nice waitress. Don't forget people like her while you're up here." Not that Tony did.
He was surprised - although maybe he shouldn't have been - when Colonel Clay came up to stand next to him as he looked out over the city. "Captain."
"Colonel." Clay wasn't a talker. He could talk, certainly, but he made a point of not being chatty and from what he'd heard from the rest of his team, he wasn't shy and retiring by any stretch, just economical in his words. The two of them hadn't said much of anything to each other out in the field, even there for weeks. Steve knew the rest of the team far too well by then.
"That's actually Jensen, isn't it?" He asked, tilting his head towards Jake.
Part of him wanted to deny it. Jake would be his own person, separate and apart from the Jensen had and Tony had come to know. They were both Steve and Tony's son, but in a lot of ways they were so wholly different, or they would be. "Sort of. I don't really understand all the science of it. This Jake will never be your Jensen; Jensen came from a future where I died months ago, a world where Max succeeded with the fourth snuke. His... atoms and his genes are all Jensen, though, one hundred percent the same."
"He always was the baby of the unit, motormouth MIT genius." Clay reached out and wiggled his fingers in Jake's direction. Jake took one of the fingers and held on tight.
"Just like his dad."
"So he is actually Stark's, too?" Steve nodded. "You've got some strong genes, Captain, looks anyway. You can see a lot of Stark on the inside. I actually always wondered why a kid like him wasn't working somewhere like Stark Industries. He loved a righteous fight, he knew war inside and out before he ever came to me, and really the only thing I felt like he didn't have in common with Stark was being a family man."
That gave Steve a little chuckle. He didn't think anyone would have pegged Tony Stark for the guy who fell effortlessly into fatherhood, but he made it work. "He's that too, sometimes. You miss him."
"He was on my team, of course I miss him." Clay tugged his finger away and joined Steve, looking out over the city as well. "He knew his stuff. Usually you get your geek for the sort of work my team used to do, and you're lucky if he can run with a pack on. Jensen came in trained. Never quite figured out where until we ran our op." Clay tilted his head back towards Clint and Natasha. "I mean what the hell sort of geek from New England, who graduates MIT at nineteen, learns how to use a crossbow?"
Steve smiled at that. A kid whose uncle Clint wanted to buy him some sort of toy bow and arrow as soon as possible, and would no doubt make Tony make a better one as soon as Tony would approve it. "I guess you didn't see much of me in him."
"He fucking loved his country."
He wasn't sure if he was disappointed or proud that that was it. "You know I'm... pretty sure he could use some uncles who..."
Clay held up a hand. "We're happy to collab with the Avengers, but to be honest I think it would just get weird. Jake's not Jensen, like you said. I think all of us would want that guy back, but whatever made him Jensen's gone now, and is only going to get further away as he gets older."
Steve thought about it through an afternoon of painting with Jake, and an evening of playing catch with him, and then sending Jake to bed and staring, helplessly, down at a DVD case, thinking thoughts that were well beyond a soldier. He thought about putting the disk in, but instead he just turned the case over and over in his hand, not looking up until Tony collapsed into the couch right besides him and looked down at what he was holding.
"Are you thinking deep thoughts about the nature of many worlds time travel or do you just want to laugh over how much the Kirks look like Thor?"
He put the disk back, face down, on the table. "What if...?"
Tony just waved his hands, dismissive. "Doesn't matter. We're so far out from where Jensen came from. Did you know almost a quarter of Jensen's data for the last six months has been garbage? Six months after a major, frankly catastrophic event in that timeline and we've already gone far enough off course that these threads are unlikely to ever come. I know you've never actually seen the original, which is a shame, and we will correct that, but the whole point is that this one little thing changed a lot."
Steve tried to take that in, tried to figure out what that really meant for them. Jake grew up in a world where he and Tony had never been together. He had grown up in a world where Steve had never had a chance to start to let some of the self-doubt in his chest uncoil. He reached out and grabbed Tony's hand in his, squeezing, trying to put something into that touch that he wasn't completely sure of.
"If we're having date night with time travel, though, I'm going to insist on something a bit less morose. Terminator?" Steve rolled his eyes. He'd already seen that and it wasn't romantic, and he wasn't certain what universe it wasn't 'morose' in, either. "Alright, alright, but if Clint comes in I'm claiming that you have a thing for Meg Ryan."
Tony then proceeded to set up the movie, tuck an arm around Steve's waist, and... fell asleep on Steve's shoulder about twenty minutes in. Steve watched the whole movie, and it was... sweet, and perhaps made him a bit nostalgic for something that he didn't really want anymore. Going back in time didn't have the same allure anymore, not when Tony was right here and Jake right beside him. He spent the whole movie, one arm around Tony, playing with strands of his hair and the shell of his ear, smiling when Tony sleepily nuzzled into Steve's shoulder and sighed.
When the movie finally ended, Steve had JARVIS turn off the movie and then scooped Tony up and carried him back to his room, set him gently on the bed, and started to tug off his shoes before Tony actually groaned and started to shift on the bed. He looked down, catching Steve as he pulled off a sock. "Somnophilia, Cap? Man, this is like a married people date. Put on a movie, fall asleep part way through, go to bed without sex."
"You're the one who fell asleep halfway through." But the offhand comment did warm him. A 'married people date'. "Well if you play your cards right, you could at least get a snuggle."
Tony snorted in response, lazily shucking his jeans and t-shirt before wriggling under the covers, but leaving the arc reactor visible. Jake waking up in the middle of the night and finding no arc reactor light was a sure-fire way to a screaming fit. "Snuggle away, mon Capitaine."
"Only you would think that stripping most of the way naked and assuming you were going to get what you want was the way to go."
"Is it going to work?"
Steve pulled off his pants, but left his t-shirt on before he joined Tony there. "Part of me feels like I shouldn't reward your behavior."
"Way too late for that, your only recourse is to correct it with the next generation of Starks so he's not ridiculously spoiled."
The first step, crawling into bed with Tony, was relatively easy, he'd done so before once or twice on fairly flimsy excuses, but actually being confronted with the broad expanse of Tony's naked back wasn't something he'd really expected when he'd woken up that morning. The reactor threw enough light that it illuminated the dozens of little scars there, and Steve started with those, fingers tracing them gently the way he'd touched the scars around the arc reactor earlier that day. Tony didn't drift of, though; he was tense, and he didn't relax until Steve leaned in and kissed Tony's shoulder blade.
It wasn't really a hug, or anything so intimate, just Steve's hand resting on Tony's back and his forehead pressed to Tony's back, but it was as far as he could let himself go in the moment, and Tony didn't seem to mind at all. Steve could hear him drift off to sleep soon after that. Steve stayed awake, hand brushing up and down Tony's shoulder and arm, but it accompanied thoughts that couldn't help but make him feel... hopeful. Tony cared about him, cared about his family, Tony just... seemed only too happy to have what he did.
"I'm going to do alright by you," he whispered into Tony's neck. Jensen, too, but he was going to do right by them all. He was going to love his son, no matter how he grew up; he was going to let himself care for Tony and he knew that he would eventually find himself in love; and he was going to let himself care, let himself connect, and let himself finally embrace the future.
Tony didn't answer, he probably hadn't even heard, but he did hear Jake wake up a few hours later, curl closer to Tony, hand against the arc reactor until he drifted off again, and Steve followed him back under a few minutes later. Tony might have always known this was what he wanted, but Steve was going to enjoy the unexpected surprise.
Clint didn't know if Steve and Tony realized they were married, but they were. But they weren't sexy newlywed married, they were old married, the sort where no one had any pretentions anymore and no one was getting laid. It was shame, really, because Clint wasn't blind; as he was fond of saying, he saw better from a distance. Clint caught the occasional longing looks, mostly Tony to Steve, checking out his ass or his arms, or just leaning against a counter and having a face that Clint could only describe as 'love'. Steve was both more obvious and less obvious, and he would pause for a moment, tentative before standing next to Tony or bumping their shoulders together.
It had been most obvious on their mission with Colonel Clay's team. Steve had carefully reported his general well-being, he would talk to Jake, mostly, but everyone in the damn unit could see that Steve was talking to Tony, thinking about him. It was enough that he and Natasha had seriously considered trying to get them together, but Natasha wasn't exactly... the most romantic. Weeks had passed and nothing had changed, the oblivious pining continued.
Actually being together or not, they were still so married, in fact, that Clint could predict their morning movements just based on simple, long time observation.
It was early morning, which allowed him to accidentally catch Steve in the gym, working a bag as Jake chased a ball and ate cheerios. Clint didn't usually practice in the communal gym, instead liking to work in his firing range, but today he had felt the urge for a run and the gym had any number of things that were available to run and jump over.
He caught Steve, almost two hours later, when Clint was chewing his way through a heaping bowl of Fruit Loops - breakfast of champions - when he came into the kitchen and began to scramble one million eggs - actually a dozen for him and Jake, make Tony's oatmeal - blueberry banana, and setting aside fruit and other crap for Jake to eat. Just like Clint thought, sickeningly domestic.
Steve lightly bounced Jake up and down as he rambled about his day, being back in the gym, going out to the park possibly... Clint could feel his brain turning to mush. It was sort of sad.
Tony arrived, right on schedule (7:30), and scooped up Jake from Steve with one arm while the other grabbed the offered bowl of oatmeal and leaned casually against a counter. He was dressed in neat slacks and a undershirt, which Clint knew from experience meant he was going to actually have to work downstairs at Stark Industries in some capacity. Stark then began his own ramble about his day: Board meeting, working in the lab, working out, and a mention of Tony and Steve maybe going out to dinner. Married date.
It wouldn't be the end of the world if the two of them got their heads out of their asses. There had already been a team meeting - minus Tony and Steve for obvious reasons, minus Thor because the guy couldn't keep his mouth shut - and it had been decided that although there would be no specific Avengers mission of matchmaking, there would be no problem if the two of them did figure out how to not fail at being married.
Clint had to admit that Tony was pretty surprisingly good with kids, maybe just because he got to channel his inner two year old at the time, but he was carefully observing as Jake fed himself with his spoon, eating his own oatmeal, leaning against a counter. Steve came up behind him... and then wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and kissed him on the neck.
Tony didn't even look surprised, just tilted his head slightly to provide better access.
"Be good at work today."
"You've known me for how long?" Tony answered.
Steve smirked and kissed his neck again. "Long enough to know you can behave for a few hours."
"Boy Scout spoilsport." And Tony set down his oatmeal, turned, and... Oh God the kitchen just earned a PG-13 rating, surely that was inappropriate for children under one. It was inappropriate for Clint; his eyes were never going to be appropriate again.
"When the fuck did this happen?!" Clint asked. Because that was the only thing to ask; Steve and Tony were making out in the kitchen. They were raunchy married! That countertop might have had sex on it!
Tony and Steve sprang apart, Tony taking a casual lean against the counter, hand covering his mouth, and Steve a few feet from him, blushing bright red. "Clint, hi..." Tony coughed again, face now fixed in a look that had obviously been long-practiced. "Didn't see you there."
To be fair, Clint was pretty much hiding out in a corner with a barely there view of the kitchen and he wasn't even surprised that Steve hadn't seen him there, but in all honestly he was not skulking, he wasn't. He was just... hiding in an unobtrusive location. "Obviously." At which point, Clint realized he probably had some damage control to do and he waved his hands. "Not that anyone's surprised. There will be no surprise. It's all good."
If anything that caused Steve to blush even more furiously. Clint thought if he was that embarrassed by public displays of affection then they probably shouldn't have been having kitchen makeouts.
"And here I thought we were fooling exactly no one," Tony said, giving Steve a friendly whap to the stomach with the back of his hand. "See? We're stealthy."
"You both have a distinct air of sexual frustration, though!" Clint argued, as though he could argue his way out of Tony and Steve making out in the kitchen. "Natasha and Bruce agreed."
"You are too young to hear this," Steve said, this time to Jake, before scooping him up, wiping off his face, and clinging to him. He seemed to have mostly recovered from the blush, but it was a close thing. "Do not listen to your uncle Clint."
"Yes, never getting upgrades, ever."
Clint stared between the two of them, all of a sudden the two of them were far more married than Clint was comfortable with in that moment. All those surreptitious half-snuggles took on a decidedly different appearance in retrospect. "The whole team thought you two were..." Clint waved his hands. "Pining."
"Clint," Tony said, face very serious. "Steve and I have a son together. Don't you know where babies come from?"
Steve snorted, using the aforementioned son as a shield as he hugged him near his face to muffle what Clint thought he heard as 'don't listen to your father either'.
"Sir, you are..." JARVIS interrupted, only for Tony to talk over him.
"Crap, Pepper is going to kill me if I'm late. I have to get dressed." Tony shoveled several mouthfuls of oatmeal a swallowed, looking pained until Steve handed over a cup of coffee and he took a long gulp of that as well. "I'll try to be home for afternoon nap. Give daddy a kiss." Tony leaned in and kissed Jake on the cheek. "Kiss?"
And Steve then leaned in and kissed Tony, just a peck on the lips but... "You're forties married!"
Tony responded by flicking him off and then heading back down the hallway to his room and Clint just sort of stared off in the direction of Steve and Jake, Steve carefully shuffling Jake around before settling him back into his highchair. Whatever bashful embarrassment Steve had been simmering with over the last conversation, he now straightened and looked across the room towards Clint. "Tony said he didn't think it would be a problem with the team."
The undercurrent of 'is there a problem?' and the simultaneous threat was palpable. "No, no problem... well I can't speak for Thor, but he once told me about a time he crossdressed and almost married a troll, so I think we're good. Natasha and Bruce and I have been trying to decide if it's worth it to throw you two in a room with lube and condoms and lock you in."
The blush returned, coloring Steve's cheeks a bright pink, and he looked down at Jake before he helped him with more breakfast. Steve was... well Clint wasn't going to push, he knew the value of backing off and Steve seemed... pink.
"Well, I'm gonna go... shoot... things." Clint then wisely chose to flee, taking his knowledge with him. He was four rooms away, hopefully out of Super Soldier hearing, when he turned on the comms and called Natasha and Bruce. "Meeting in five minutes, Banner's lab."
"Status?" Natasha shot back. "Stark's working today, do we need to call him in?"
"No!" Clint almost shouted, before he stifled himself. "Top Secret meeting."
He could almost hear her rolling her eyes, but she did meet down in Banner's lab in five minutes, leaning up against one of the benches while Bruce glanced between the two of them, obviously thinking he should possibly be somewhere else.
"We need to call off... the mission," Clint said, no preamble. "Well... not 'call off'. Mission successful! Good job everyone."
Natasha frowned, and her face had a distinct look of 'what the hell, Barton', which Clint knew all too well.
"Tony and Steve," Clint clarified, and then for further clarification knit his fingers together in an approximation of 'oh god making out against the kitchen island' but probably translated to something less graphic and specific like 'hook up'.
"Wait." Bruce frowned, and then glanced at Natasha and back to Clint. "You're sure?"
"There are things I can never un-see, Bruce. Never. The kitchen island? I cannot eat there now!" He held up his clenched hands and wiggled his fingers, as if to demonstrate his trauma. "The Captain knows how to throw his weight around."
Confusion melted into a sort of considering, impressed look from Nat, and Bruce just looked happy. "Well, mission accomplished. I swear, though, Stark is radiating sexual tension like a... wow, they haven't had sex yet."
Once again, Clint held up his hands, no, really, all over the kitchen island.
"He's taking it slow," Nat clarified.
The team fell silent, and Clint let the implications sink in. Tony Stark was taking it slow. He always figured that maybe Tony had it in him, and he didn't really know the pace that Tony and Pepper had set in their heyday, but he couldn't deny that the idea of Tony Stark and holding off on sex didn't really go together in Clint's head. By mutual agreement of the team, they decided to leave it be, to let Tony and Steve come to them at their own pace. Mostly that was Bruce and some sort of new aged bullshit, but Clint decided you listened to a guy who was backed by the Other Guy.
Steve didn't bring up the topic again that day, but he didn't avoid Clint entirely, just didn't bring it up. Steve and Bruce helped make dinner together and Clint babysat Jake while attempting to teach him throwing, accurate throwing. In spite of Tony's promise to try to make it up for the evening nap, he was gone all day and didn't even make it up in time for an actual dinner, leaving Steve to set him a plate aside in the softly heating oven while adjourned to the couch.
Tony ended upstairs around eight, the team was scattered around one of the many living rooms, some episode of Law and Order: Special Criminal Trial by Who Cares on, volume low, Jake playing some game or another - badly - on a StarkPad on Steve's lap. Tony was out of the suit jacket and tie in a matter of seconds, and he collapsed next to Steve, head tilting to rest on his shoulder.
"Dad!" Jake scrambled on top of him, and Tony let out a soft oof.
"Hey, buddy. Sorry I wasn't around today. We'll play in the lab tomorrow, alright?"
It was all completely, and totally normal, standard Tony, standard Steve, but then Steve reached out and pulled Tony in, kissed his temple. "Dinner for you in the oven if you haven't eaten."
Tony didn't move to get it. Instead, Clint watched him curl closer to Steve, pressing his whole side under Steve's arm, eyes closed, relaxed in a way that Clint rarely saw. Steve remained just slightly hesitant, but his fingers eventually threaded through Tony's hair and Clint looked away. It wasn't that he wasn't happy as hell for them, he just wasn't a person who was much built for appreciating that sort of physical intimacy; it also felt like prying.
"Alright," Steve said, and Clint couldn't help but overhear. "How about you put Jake to bed, I'll get you dinner, and then you can nap?"
That seemed to spur Tony into movement, and Clint was witness to reason seven hundred why Tony and Steve were married as Tony dipped Jake towards Steve with the nightly order to 'give your dad a kiss goodnight', Steve would kiss Jake on the forehead or the cheek, and then Tony wandered back towards his room, yammering about... something mechanical. Steve watched him go, grin plastered on his face, and then he startled, glancing around and realizing all of the Avengers - minus Thor - were actually in the room with him, and he gave the entire room a sheepish grin.
"So." Clint glanced over to Natasha, who was looking shocked, and Bruce who was looking less shocked but definitely more pleased. "That's sort of adorable."
Natasha pelted him in the stomach with a remote. "Don't listen to him. We're happy for you and Tony."
"It's all... new to me," Steve admitted, with the same happy grin that seemed to be his trademark. Clint had no idea how long ago their relationship had changed, but to be honest the whole thing seemed completely natural. "I promise it won't affect the team."
"It will," Natasha said, matter of fact. "But that's fine. You two already had a son together."
"Stark had a comment about if I knew where babies came from."
"HYDRA labs?" Steve asked, with apparent wide-eyed innocence.
The room collectively groaned, and Clint tossed the remote at Steve just for good measure, but of course the guy caught it, while juggling food out of the stove. "I do not envy you two the sex talk: 'when a super soldier and an iron man are ambivalent but genetically compatable...'."
Steve returned, leaving the plate on the table to cool while he sat, eyes glancing between all of them. Clint watched the way his eyes moved, assessing, moving on, until he finally seemed to be able to relax. "We need you alright with this. Everyone has dangerous jobs and Tony and I want Jake to have the best aunts and uncles to help him through if..."
"Hey," Clint interrupted, because that went morbid really fast. "Of course we're alright with it. Who's going to teach the kid how to shoot a crossbow if not his uncle Clint?"
"We've got it, Cap," Bruce said.
"Did I miss the group hug?" Tony asked. "That's good. I hate hugs." He then, of course, walked around the couch and collapsed onto the couch, curled up right next to Steve, head balanced on Steve's thigh. "Were there hugs?"
Steve didn't bother to answer, just setting the dinner plate on Tony's stomach and cutting up some of that chicken whatever from dinner. After several pieces, Tony finally took over actually feeding himself, while Steve played lazily with Tony's hair. "Bad day at the office?"
"Board hates me, R&D was a mess. Is it really so hard to just...?" Tony took a long sigh, though, and then waved his hand. "I got it sorted out. You'd think no longer being the CEO would mean less work."
"I don't think it works that way."
Clint had never been one to really much understand family, not in the way most people probably did, but there was something weirdly comfortable about watching Tony, hands gesticulating wildly between taking bites of food and flailing his way through an explanation of why his research team were all completely wrong; Steve interjected the occasional 'uh huh' and 'sure', all the while stroking his hair while Bruce read one of his science journals and he and Natasha had their own low conversation concerning work and S.H.I.E.L.D. It was... easy.
He'd always known that Steve and Tony were married, but the minute Steve actually answered with 'whatever you say, Tony', Clint actually didn't care who knew it, and he turned towards both of them. "You two are just really damn married."
Clint had maybe expected a token protest, what he didn't expect was Tony to just wave his hands dismissively. "Next year. Too much business this year." It took him several seconds, and Steve actually stopping his petting of Tony's hair. "Um... that is... if Steve's alright with that, because really it would probably be hard to get married without him. But I seem to recall a comment about making an honest man of me so if you go back on it now then you're the one who's going to look a bit..."
And Steve did what really anyone would do in that situation, stuck his thumb against Tony's lips and shushed him. "I'm pretty sure we can manage that, Tony."
Suddenly the atmosphere was far too sappy, and Clint started to open his mouth to interject something, possibly make fun of Tony's ability to fail at proposing - Clint expected skywriting! - but instead Natasha gave him a very firm elbow in his side. It meant he had a few moments to rub his side, and reflect on the fact that maybe he could live with them accidentally having a son, and failing at dating, and Tony sucking at marriage proposals, because they really were sort of sweet - Clint's scandalized eyes notwithstanding - and Jake was going to have to have someone to balance out Tony, and someone to balance out Steve.
Clint was fairly sure Jake was going to have the best damn family ever.