“Just—come on, just take it. Him. Whatever,” Tony pleaded, trying to peel the screaming toddler’s fingers off the joints of his suit. “Steve, quit being a dick and go to your Uncle Clint.”
“Don’t call the baby a dick,” Natasha retorted from the co-pilot’s seat. “Yep. Definitely not a phrase I thought I would need.”
“Hey, if the bootie fits,” Tony shrugged, trying to pry Steve’s hands, which seemed to have somehow achieved tentacle-like gripping abilities, from whatever parts of the suit one grabbed onto as soon as Tony managed to get the other one free. “He. Won’t. Let—oomph--Go.”
“Why should I take him?” Clint asked as he stowed his bow and arrows on the Quin-Jet. He shot Tony a disgruntled look as he made his way to sit in the pilot’s chair, pointedly not taking the squirming baby from Tony’s hands, which served to lull Steve into a false sense of accomplishment long enough that he loosened his grip on one of the armor panels in time for Tony to hold him out at arm’s length. Steve looked bewildered, then managed accusing and sucked in air like he was going diving.
“Eh-eh-eh, please no. Where’s the mute button?” Tony mumbled, pulling Steve back against his chest and cutting off what was sure to be an epic baby bitchfest. “Um, because you can be called Daddy without it being kinky?” Tony called out to Clint, who ignored him.
Tony frowned down at Steve, who seemed happily ensconced against Tony’s side and was currently spending his time trying to reach a small hand up to touch Tony’s beard. A chunky, sticky hand, which was impossible, because he’d been holding the kid—Steve, he amended—since he found him in a pile of rubble and empty uniform trying to gnaw on the edge of the shield with the three teeth he currently had, and there had not been anything sticky around. And yet, stickiness.
“Stop that,” Tony tried, hoping he sounded sufficiently discouraging. “Does anyone have like a wipe or, I don’t know, a hose?”
Steve gurgled happily and promptly spit up on the front of Tony’s suit, otherwise seemingly unfazed by the flurry of activity around him. Well, that’s a giant, fucking metaphor, Tony thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
“Guys, a little help here?” Tony asked, holding the toddler out at arm’s length again the moment Steve bobbled the handhold he had on the suit.
Steve’s face immediately scrunched up and went red, a hitching wail starting until Tony tucked him back against his chest, patting Steve’s small, curved back gently with his gauntleted hand. Okay, now the kid’s back was sticky. God-damn it. Tony tried to tug Clint’s spare shirt, which they’d tied around Steve’s waist as an improvised diaper, up over his shoulders, but it refused to stay, probably because Steve wouldn’t stop wiggling out of Tony’s way every time he attempted it, like they were playing a game only Steve found amusing.
“Would you be still for two seconds? Isn’t he supposed to be in one of those seat things? The kind with all the straps and buckles that keeps him from—hey, no, we do not chew on the armor—moving around?” Tony shouted.
“Steve seems to like you just fine, Tony,” Natasha suggested, peering around from the co-pilot’s seat. Steve’s tiny fist pounded on the arc reactor, leaving a sticky smear of God only knew what. Baby cooties, probably. “You’re all bright and shiny.”
“He’s color-blind,” Tony recited from memory. “He’s color-blind, he has scoliosis—look at his shoulders, you can see the difference. He’s got asthma. Anemia. A heart murmur. Allergies. A shit immune system. God knows what else. Oh, and he’s what? Just over a year old or so? I mean, so, there’s that. I’m just saying, cute baby, but there are some issues here, which you lot seem to be fine ignoring. Like, what the holy fuck are we going to do about this? Thor? This was your asshole brother playing Daddy Day Care. Tell me there’s something labeled ‘eat me’ around here other than my boxers.”
“Language,” Clint called out from the cockpit, then scrunched up his face. “Sorry. Felt it had to be said.”
“My brother finds his little tricks amusing,” Thor observed from the back of the jet where he twirled Mjolnir like he was trying out for the majorettes. The movement distracted Steve long enough for Tony to get the improvised diaper fixed around his waist and chest a bit better though, which seemed to surprise Steve.
“You’re the one who always yells at us to pay attention,” Tony whispered, raising an eyebrow in challenge at Steve, who was tugging at his bindings like he wanted nothing in life more than to go Full Monty right there in the Quinjet.
“He does not understand the harm he risks with his games,” Thor admitted wearily. “I am sure this is naught that will last.”
“Captain America is drooling on me,” Tony remarked, watching a long line of spittle make its way down Steve’s chin and onto the arm of the suit that was wrapped around Steve’s waist. “’Naught that will last’?” Tony demanded. “Captain America is drooling on me, and you’re telling me not to worry because this is going to wear off eventually? Eventually, when, exactly? How many Wiggles videos are we talking about having to watch here?”
Tony could hear his voice rising, which seemed to have the sole effect of upsetting Steve, who started making distressed whimpering noises and ducking his head into the crook of Tony’s shoulder like he could bury himself inside Tony’s armor if he tried hard enough.
“He’s probably teething,” Clint said, shooting a look over his shoulder as he got the jet into the air. “The drool,” Clint explained at Tony’s blank look. “Might be why he’s a little fussy, too.”
“Great. Next time Cap gets all pissed off at me, I’ll just give him something to suck—ah—I’ll just not finish that sentence,” Tony corrected, looking down at Steve. “Ever.”
“Good save. Very smooth,” Clint smirked. “Though, to be fair—“
“Clint, stop. Tony, quit panicking,” Natasha interrupted.
“Who’s panicking? I’m not panicking. This is me, definitely not panicking. Just pointing out that our team leader is making snot bubbles at the moment, but, nope, not panicking,” Tony replied. Stoically, he thought. Definitely, almost stoically. Very close. Four out of five Avengers would go with stoically.
“We’ll be back at the Tower in a few minutes. I’ve already alerted Bruce on what to expect. He says, and I’m quoting, ‘People keep thinking I’m whatever kind of doctor they need at any given moment, but I’m really, really not that kind of doctor,’” Natasha reported.
“Helpful,” Tony ground out. “Someone needs to tell Uncle Brucie to put down his slides and Petri dishes and get his ass to the landing platform and help figure this shi—crap—stuff—out.”
“I am sure this spell of Loki’s is not permanent,” Thor observed. “It would not be his way to leave the Captain thusly for long. He would deem it dishonorable.”
“Well, isn’t he just a bastion of fair play, then? I’ll have Friday engrave his name on the sportsmanship trophy,” Tony spat out in annoyance.
“Though he does crave approval, I do not think that is necessary or advisable,” Thor offered sagely.
“Oh my god, you have got to be—I give up. I give up!” Tony announced, throwing his hand in the air. Steve mimicked the gesture, then looked at Tony and let out a watery giggle that turned into a burp and more spit up. Tony sighed and wiped Steve’s mouth and chin with the edge of the shirt that was wrapped around his tiny waist. Small and thin and wheezy, Tony thought with a frown. Cute enough kid, sure. All eyes and a soft, patchy down of light hair covering his head, but there was an air of delicate wrongness to him, a pinched sort of sallow, sunken look where there should be rolls of fat, happy baby. “Just so I’m clear, our current plan is to wait it out and hope Loki was playing nice, right? I mean, that’s it. That’s our plan.”
“Steve’s the tactician,” Clint responded, then caught Tony’s glare. “Look, we can’t just stroll down to the doc-in-a-box to let someone look at him. Let Bruce take a look. See what Cho says. Thor will do whatever it is he does on Asgard when Loki does his shtick. Right now, that’s all we can do.”
“Barton is right, Stark. I shall consult my mother’s texts for something that might aid our Captain’s recovery, and find my brother, if I can. Do not despair. There is much of magic I do not understand, but this kind, it goes against the natural order of things. Magic such as that, it does not stand the test of time,” Thor told them with a firm nod.
“Great. Wonderful. I feel better already,” Tony responded through clenched teeth. “This is why we let you do the planning,” he told Steve, who beat his fists against the arms of Tony’s suit in apparent approval. “Exactly,” Tony told him.
The jet slowed as they approached the Tower, shimmying a bit as the wind flaps went up. Steve didn’t care for that very much, and started to make a long, nasally wailing sound. “Hey, hey, you’re fine,” Tony murmured, patting a metal hand against Steve’s back. “Just landing. It’s fun, see? Wheeee!” The cry cut off abruptly at that, leaving Steve staring up at him, eyes wide. “You like that, huh? Wheeeee!” Tony repeated, garnering a smile from Steve that lasted until they hit the landing pad with a jolt, which Steve really didn’t like. “Okay, okay, all done. See? Not so bad. Steve thinks your landing skills need improvement,” Tony said to Clint as the other man unbuckled and got out of the pilot’s seat. Steve’s hiccupping cry seemed to affirm that observation.
“Well, I think Steve needs to stop using my shirt for a diaper, so we’re probably even at this point,” Clint pointed out as walked past. “His ears probably hurt from the altitude change. Sorry, buddy,” Clint offered, running a hand over Steve’s head. “Rub at them a bit, and give him something to drink.”
“Me? Why me?” Tony demanded. “If anyone, it should be Natasha.”
“And why, exactly, should it be me? Hmmm? Do tell,” Natasha asked, coming to stand in front of Tony with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Because you’re—“ Tony started. “I was going to go with ‘an assassin,’ but somehow, now that I think on it a bit more, that doesn’t seem quite right.”
“Uh-huh. Well, my being “an assassin,” believe it or not, does not automatically provide me with the skills or personality to care for a baby. A baby, who, by the way, seems to have decided,” she noted, reaching for Steve, who darted his head away so fast that he banged it against the side of the arm and then had the audacity to look up in shocked accusation at Tony. “To prefer his best pal, Iron Man. See? He likes you.”
“He just likes me because I was the one who found him,” Tony suggested, watching Steve try to squirm his way out of Natasha’s reach.
“He’s not a duckling, Tony. He didn’t imprint on you or something,” Clint said with a laugh. “Babies are surprisingly perceptive. They know who they like, who’s gonna take care of them, give ‘em food and all that stuff.”
“Great. So, mini-Cap here thinks it’s best to stick with the guy who stocks the ‘fridge? This is what generosity gets you, folks. Let that be a lesson,” Tony said with a long sigh. “Alright. Let’s go see if Bruce has any ideas that aren’t trying to avoid to the problem.”
“You should feed him something first. Bet the little guy is hungry,” Clint pointed out. “Thor, you headed out?”
“Indeed. I shall return when I have news, my friends. Until then, I believe our Captain is in good hands,” Thor replied as he grabbed Mjolnir and headed down the jet’s lowered ramp. Tony followed him, Steve still cupped in his arm, looking down at the loud, clanking steps of the boots on the jet’s ramp in fascination. Tony held one hand up to shield Steve’s eyes from the brilliant flare of light as the Bifrost opened, taking Thor back to Asgard. Steve’s small hands reached out, fingers splaying, like he could capture the light if he tried, his lack of joy at their landing seemingly forgotten.
“You like the pretty light, huh? How about this?” Tony said, holding the gauntlet out in front of him and powering it up just enough to make it glow blue and spark. “Not a magical, glowing bridge through space, but not bad, right?”
“I’m sure baby Steve likes your bright, pretty lights just as much as Thor’s,” Natasha said, giving him a side-eyed look as she walked towards the elevator. “I’ll go check in with Bruce. See if he’s come up with anything that we should be doing that could help.”
“I’ll run to the store after I change. Grab some baby things,” Clint offered. “See what you can find something soft for him to eat. Nothing bigger than about the tip of your thumb per bite, okay?”
“Great. Thanks. I’ll just…do that,” Tony replied, watching their departing backs. “Wow. One tiny human and suddenly, Earth’s mightiest heroes scatter like rats on a sinking ship.” Steve banged a hand against the reactor, leaving a sticky palm print on the surface. “That’s what I’m saying,” Tony agreed.
Steve enjoyed the elevator ride from the launching platform, mainly because the doors were mirrored and he was completely enchanted by their mutual reflections, pointing excitedly at the baby pointing back at him.
“Yes, I know. I see it,” Tony said when Steve kept pointing and then looking up at him. Tony waved, watching his reflection do the same. Steve chortled with utter delight at that, so Tony did it again, and then tried to stop, but Steve started flapping his arm up and down in an attempt at a wave, so Tony felt obligated to keep doing it. Over and over. And over. Apparently, this didn’t get old when you were one-ish.
By the time they made the kitchen, Steve was back to being happy with life, at least until Tony tried to find a place to put him while he scrounged for food. He finally set Steve down on the floor amid Steve’s insistent protestations and raised hands and stepped out of the suit. Which, well, that certainly got the kid’s attention.
“Impressive, righ? Sentry mode,” Tony ordered. Steve rocked back on his bottom so far that he toppled over to one side, staring up at the suit. He managed to right himself, and half-scooted, half-crawled in some weird sort of crablike maneuver over to the suit’s feet, grabbing onto one boot and trying to pull himself up while he looked back and forth between Tony and the suit.
“You like the shiny thing, eh? Well, just hang on there, and I’ll—oh, don’t start—really?” Tony winced, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation as Steve started a shuddering, hitching crying jog that left him red-faced and coughing. “Okay, fine,” Tony relented with a sigh. “But, I gotta make you some food. Food. You want to eat, right? Clint said food, and Clint, God help us, is our resident baby expert, so we’re going with what Clint says for now, and no, I can’t believe I said that, either.” Tony bent down and scooped Steve up, which didn’t quite make the crying stop, but it abated to something more like sniffling breaths that were just waiting for Tony to try that trick of putting him down again.
He opened the refrigerator and peered at the contents with a frown. Nothing really screamed baby food. Probably not Natahsa’s borscht or those mushrooms Bruce had wrapped up in cheesecloth, he thought with a grimace. Tony rummaged around a bit, finally pulling out a container of leftover lasagna.
Lasagna was soft.
The chef used his Nonna’s recipe to make it, so at least Tony knew what was in there. Nothing Steve was allergic to, if his memory of Project Rebirth’s many forms, which he had read for science—no matter what Bruce said about that having nothing to do with building things for the team—was right, and it always was.
“Uncle Bruce thought that knowledge wasn’t relevant to team activities. He mocked me,” Tony told Steve, who was watching everything he did as it related to the container of lasagna as if Tony was opening the arc of the Covenant. Tony reached into a cupboard and opened a plastic package, then handed Steve a thin, crispy breadstick to chew on while he got the meal ready. “Cast aspersions on my character.” Steve made a series of sounds that Tony took for shocked indignation.
“I know! That’s basically what I said about it. And see? Here we have a situation where that exact kind of knowledge comes in handy. I mean, let’s face it, with us, you really never know. Better to be prepared, I say, instead of just flying by the seat of your pants, hoping for the best, reacting instead of thinking it through—you’re just going to let me go on, aren’t you? You’re far less judgmental like this,” Tony observed flatly. Steve dropped the breadstick on the ground, then let out a distressed whine as he flexed his empty hand, lip trembling and forehead scrunched in confusion. “Or not,” Tony amended.
“Gravity works,” Tony observed mildly while Steve worked himself towards what was probably going to be an epic rant against Newton’s Law. “Well, you’re the one who did it. Don’t look at me like that. Here,” Tony said, handing Steve another one from the package. “I just want you to know, this is pretty much the opposite of the reward system you have in place for the rest of us.” Steve made another series of noises, then shoved the breadstick in the vague direction of Tony’s mouth.
“Oh, you think I should have some, too?” Tony asked, taking a bite from the end. “Thanks. Yum! See, we eat it, we—“ Steve pushed the breadstick back to Tony’s mouth. “Yes, thanks, lovely. Okay, Tony’s full. Your turn,” he said, turning Steve’s hand back towards Steve’s own mouth. Steve pointed it back to Tony’s mouth and started bouncing anxiously in Tony’s hands.
“Fine. Give it here,” Tony said with a sigh, downing the damn thing in a couple of bites. “See? All gone. Oh, that figures,” Tony huffed out a laugh as Steve clapped his hands together in obvious delight. “I do what you say and get applause, huh?”
Tony warmed up the lasagna in the microwave for a few seconds, then spooned some out onto a plate. Small bites, Clint said. He thought, in the end, that at least some of it actually got into Steve’s stomach, though a better portion ended up on the floor, across the tabletop, in Tony’s hair and, rather inexplicably, inside the heel of his shoe. Not to mention all over Steve, who was covered, head to toe, in bits of sauce and pasta like he’d rolled in it. Tony would have sworn there was more pasta in Steve’s lap than there had been on the plate, which should defy physics, but why the hell not? Everything else about the day did.
Steve had a piece of the rippled pasta in his hand, trying to find his mouth with it, but ending up rubbing it against his nose, like it was a game of pin-the-pasta on the baby, when Clint walked in with plastic bags brimming with baby things. Steve, apparently giving up on getting the pasta into his own mouth, tried to shove the piece into Tony’s ear instead.
“No, really, Tony’s full,” Tony insisted again, but he turned his head to take a bit from the piece dangling from Steve’s fisted hand.
“Heeeeeeyyyyy, Daddy Warbucks! How goes the—” Clint stopped, eyes going to where Tony and Steve sat in the mess of what used to be a perfectly normal plate of pasta. “You fed a baby lasagna? You. Fed. A. Baby. Lasagna,” Cling enunciated carefully, biting his lip as a grin spread over his face.
“I may not have thought this through to what, I can now admit, was the inevitable conclusion,” Tony replied, mouth flattening into a line as Steve flailed both hands out in a scissoring motion, sending the pasta and the plate across the table and onto the floor. “Well, at least he has the whole throwing thing going for him.”
“Talked to Nat. She said Bruce wants to take a blood sample and do a cheek swab,” Clint told him.
“Is that—I mean, do we think that’s necessary? The blood thing. Thought Dr. Jekyll said that he wasn’t that kind of doctor,” Tony reminded him, looking down at Steve who was happily spreading the pieces of pasta around on the table in front of him with like it was some kind of modern art piece he was working on, an all-too-familiar determined jut to his jaw. Clint shrugged.
“Don’t know. Maybe it’d tell him something about all this,” Clint suggested. “Probably should get Steve there cleaned up first, though. I got some baby wash in here somewhere. You can use that in the bath.”
“A bath? I—don’t think—I mean, maybe you or Natasha should really be the ones to—you know, with him,” Tony protested weakly.
“Hey, you’re the one who couldn’t just give him a banana or something,” Clint objected, holding his hands up in the air. “Besides, what’s the big deal?”
“It—I—it could be inappropriate. Don’t you think? With the—with the bathing thing?” Tony tried.
“Tony’s just worried maybe its pervy because he’s had naughty thoughts about Steve. Tony, it’s a baby, you’re fine,” Natasha announced as she came into the kitchen and headed for the refrigerator, bumping Clint out of the way with her hip.
“That’s not—that’s a wildly inaccurate description of, well, everything,” Tony objected loudly. “I just thought Steve—when he’s Steve again—would feel more comfortable if, you know, it was one of you. Or Bruce. He’s a doctor. I could call Pepper. She is also an assassin,” Tony said, making a face at Natasha, who raised her eyebrow and narrowed her eyes in answer.
“Oh my God, just go get the lasagna out of Captain America’s nose, would you?” Clint shouted, gesturing at where a glob of sauce was making its way down Steve’s face.
“Fine,” Tony responded, getting up from the table with Steve held out in front of him while various bits of food dropped to the floor in wet plops. “I’m going. Under protest.” He took the bags of supplies and marched to the elevator, leaving a trail of suspiciously marinara-colored footprints in his wake. Steve liked the elevator ride up just as much this time, waving insistently at their reflections until Tony gave up and did the same.
“Friday, get us a lukewarm bath going, would you? Not too deep,” Tony requested. He kicked his shoes off and nudged them to the side of the elevator before it opened to his suite. He dropped the bags in the bathroom next to the tub and unwound the shirt from Steve’s body, tossing it to the side to be burned, probably. It was wet with something beyond pasta sauce, as was the front of Tony’s pants leg. Fan-fucking-tastic, Tony thought, shooting a disgruntled look at Steve.
“I want you to know that I have no intention of being the bigger man here and letting bygones be bygones about this,” Tony told him accusingly. “This is going to come up at a team meeting, let me assure you. There might even be a memo. I know how much you love your memos. I’ll title it, “Re: Avengers Should Not Pee on Each Other,” which, come to think, is probably not a bad thing to memorialize, let’s face it.” Tony grinned at the image of handing that particular memo in to Steve, and Steve smiled back, tongue poking at his teeth and making a watery, slurpy sound, apparently just because he could.
Freed of the binding of Clint’s spare shirt, Steve became flurry of motion that wanted nothing more than to slither down to the floor. Tony put him down long enough to kneel down and dig into the bags.
“Alright, sit tight for a sec,” Tony Told him. He pulled out a golden bottle that promised no more tears. Yeah, promises, promises, he thought, then turned to Steve. Or where he’d put Steve, anyway, which was now an empty space definitely not filled with Steve. Tony swung around in time to see a foot disappearing out the bathroom door.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Tony grunted as he got up to give chase. Steve, caught in the act of trying to escape as Tony came out of the bathroom, turned around and shot Tony what could only be described as a shit-eating grin, then scabbered away at full speed, laughing madly as Tony tried to keep a straight face at the surreal scene of a naked baby supersoldier giggling like a loon while he crawled across Tony’s floor. He took the couple of strides over to where Steve had come to a stop and picked him up, while Steve cackled happily.
“Think that was funny, huh? You know, they can put you on all the posters they want. New motto: Join the Army! Do what you want! It’s all good! Please. Perfect soldier, my ass. You’ve never met an order you weren’t figuring out how to get around the second you heard it, am I right?” Steve put his arm in his mouth and blew on it, making a loud noise. “No kidding,” Tony said with a shake of his head, a smile tugging at his mouth. Baby Steve was a bit of an asshole, but damn if he wasn’t adorable as hell, too. Which, yeah. Fuck. This was so messed up, Tony thought, running hand back and forth through his hair.
Tony dipped his fingers in the water to check the temperature, then sat Steve down on his bottom in the bath. Steve looked momentarily shocked by the water, then started pounding his hands on the surface, sending splashes of water into Tony’s face.
“Okay, so that’s enough of that,” Tony tried, grabbing for Steve’s wrists with one hand while he held the other against Steve’s back. “Here,” Tony offered, taking some of the plastic toys Clint had bought out of the bag and handing a few cups of various sizes and a set of nested blocks to Steve, who hit at them where they bobbed in the water. “Like this,” Tony instructed, taking the blocks apart and stacking them on the edge of the tub in a small tower.
Steve watched in fascination for a moment, then reached for the brightly colored blocks, knocking them down. Which, it turned out, was apparently wonderful and amazing, because as soon as Tony stacked them again, Steve stretched up and repeated the action, sending the blocks tumbling over the side of the tub.
“Typical. I build something. You break it, then want me to fix it for you,” Tony muttered as he stacked the blocks again. Steve clapped his hands together and belted out a string of nonsense words, but they seemed, to Tony’s ears, to generally be encouraging, and he felt his mouth curve into a smile. “It’s okay. I like fixing things. Like being useful, I guess. Thanks,” Tony said as Steve handed him one of the blocks that had fallen into the water. He dipped one of the washcloths Clint had bought into the soapy water and started gently washing the remains of the meal off of Steve while he distracted him with the blocks.
“You could be a bit more appreciative, though, you know? One tiny, little murderbot trying to destroy the world, and all of a sudden, it’s like you don’t trust me,” Tony mumbled absently as he ran the cloth over Steve’s head and down his back. “You didn’t know what to do about it, either, you know? Protecting the Earth. You were just as lost as I was. And now, somehow, we’re back where we started. Granted, one of us is taking that a bit more literally at the moment.” Tony dropped the cloth into the bath and took one of the cups, using it to pour some water over the back of Steve’s head to wash the soap bubbles away.
Steve reached for the stack of blocks again, then stopped, and grabbed for the cloth, holding it up towards Tony and making an insistent uh-uh-unh sound until Tony leaned far enough over the tub for Steve to tap the cloth against Tony’s face. “Am I a mess, too? And whose fault is that?” Tony asked lightly. “Probably shouldn’t try to answer that question, should we? Yep, let’s just leave that one alone.”
Steve pushed the wet rag into Tony’s face, leaving him dripping. “Good point,” Tony grinned, watching as Steve broke into an answering smile punctuated by more pounding at the water’s surface, this time with the rag clutched in one hand. “Well articulated. You should try this in team meetings. I’d love to see how it goes over with Spider Lady. Okay, okay, that’s enough. I know you like it,” Tony said, tugging the cloth from Steve’s fist while Steve made an urgent, brassed-off noise and tried to follow it.
“You get to make a giant mess of things, and I end up on clean-up detail while trying to keep you from drowning. If Barnes was lurking in the clothes hamper, you’d pretty much have a metaphor for our lives,” Tony observed, scrubbing a hand over his face again with a long sigh. Steve was watching him intently, eyes wide with interest. One small hand reached out and grazed across Tony’s cheek and mouth, like he was trying to repeat Tony’s own motion, then did it again in the other direction.
“What the hell am I going to do about you?” Tony asked, getting no answer other than the tips of Steve’s fingers scratching at his beard where water still clung to it. Tony wasn’t sure when it had turned from what was the team going to do to what was he going to do, but he had three bags of baby paraphernalia and pee-strained pants that said it was currently his problem. He wasn’t even sure what he was asking at this point. Thor was going to fix this, and then…and then everything could go back to the way it had been before, when Steve didn’t talk to him unless he had to, and then, everything was so strained with what they weren’t saying that Tony wasn’t even sure which conversation they were having. The one about how Clint needed longer range arrows or the one about how Tony had nearly fucked everything up and left the why of it unsaid. Or the one about what happened on the farm, which they definitely didn’t talk about.
“You know, I think I was less wet when I was actually waterboarded,” Tony noted, peeling the soaked shirt a bit away from his chest. He grabbed a towel from the rack and picked Steve up out of the tub, swaddling the towel around him as he went.
Tony padded out into the bedroom and pulled a pair of pajama pants for himself out of the bureau drawer. He put Steve on the center of the bed long enough to shrug out of his wet pants and shirt, dropping them to the floor with a soppy sploosh. He pulled the pajama bottoms on, then re-wrapped Steve, who had managed to kick his way out of the towel, legs flailing against the bed and into the air, like he was trying to launch himself off the bed, which, knowing Steve, was probably a given.
“No jumping off things,” Tony admonished lightly as he lifted Steve up to his chest. “No falling from things. No leaping off things assuming people—people who are not me, I might add—will just catch you. While we’re at it, no getting shot. No taking a beating because you still have your half of the best friend necklace. No nearly drowning. No deciding you’ll just hang out on falling cities. Have I told you that you might not be the best decision-maker when it comes to your own safety? Because, I’m not judging, but I’m kind of seeing a pattern here.”
Steve gurgled and yawned, chest shuddering, body going taut with the effort, his whole face scrunching up as the yawn worked through him. Tony breathed out the edge of a laugh and sank down on the sofa, suddenly exhausted. Absently, he tapped a hand against the center of his chest where the reactor used to be, fingertips beating a rhythm across the skin. Steve was slow-blinking at him, mouth puckering into a moue as he looked up at Tony and tried to get his arms free of the towel swaddling.
“Even you have to admit I Nanny McPhee-ed the hell out of this,” Tony told him. “You haven’t nearly died, which, for us, is a win, I’d say. You only yelled at me a few times. Some of that might even have been slightly justified. Had some fun with the stacking things and knocking them down, wash, rinse, repeat, right? Not all bad, you and me. See? We can get along just fine if you can’t talk back.”
Steve regarded him with an entirely too serious look. Probably gas. Damn lasagna. Steve let out a soft snort, then blew air against his lips making a loud, rolling wet sound that seemed to please him an unjustifiable amount by the delighted laugh that followed.
“Okay, okay. Fair point. You communicated just fine. Got your way most of the time, right? Who am I kidding, all the time,” Tony muttered. “We did okay, I think. Yeah? Yeah. Me, too, buddy,” Tony agreed as Steve stretched out and shook with another yawn. “Me, too.”
One hand, freed of the confines of the towel, found its way to Tony’s, where it curled around one of Tony’s fingers in a surprisingly tight grip and held on like nothing in the world could make him let go. Tony stared down at the little fingers lined up in a row around one of his own, small and vulnerable and infinitely trusting, the weight of that faith burning through Tony’s chest like there was a line of current connecting them. It said something that it took madness and magic for Steve to look to Tony for this, but there it was. Glorious purpose, Tony thought. Loki had it all wrong. The most powerful force in the universe couldn’t be contained in any stone.
It wasn’t long before Steve’s eyes drifted closed. His tiny body went soft with sleep almost in an instant. One minute a squirming mass of tiny human, and off to dreamland the next. How long had it been since Steve—since any of them—could find sleep that easily, Tony wondered.
The image of Steve, battered and bloody, dying on that hunk of rock, flashed across Tony’s mind, and he felt his arms tighten reflexively around the bundle in his arms. It would be so easy for something to happen to him, Tony thought. For them to lose him. Tony brought a hand to his head and splayed out his fingers, letting them dig into his temples, massaging away the sudden pressure there. They were all vulnerable. All living on some precipice, barely hanging on, and for what? A world that both loved and loathed them, and that line was growing thinner by the day. Steve was the one holding that line most of the time, Tony knew, and when it broke, and it would, Steve was going to break with it.
That was the thing that couldn’t happen. That was the thing that would destroy them all, Tony last, though. Because he’d fix things for as long as he could until they fell apart in his hands.
Tony’s gaze dropped down to where Steve slept in the bow of his arms, as at peace as Tony had ever seen him. For a moment, the need to protect, to stop everything in its tracks, to keep what was coming for them at bay, to keep Steve like this, to give him this, this one thing, to see him happy, whole, not the hollow shell walking around in stars and stripes that he’d been living with lately, it was so overwhelming, Tony was almost dizzy with it. The picture was new, but the feeling, damn if it wasn’t familiar, Tony admitted. It was easy like this. No, not easy, not really, Tony amended. Not at all, really. It was simple like this, though. Simple to just allow himself to care when Steve was like this, to let himself have this moment without thinking of all the reasons he shouldn’t, all the reasons this was never going to be, not the way he wanted it.
He wasn’t sure when he drifted off. He didn’t mean to do anything more than just close his eyes for a moment. But, he must have slept. He knew that, because waking up to two-hundred and forty pounds of supersoldier clutching a towel around his waist and leaping off of your lap, slamming through a coffee table and leaving a large dent in the drywall tends to wake one up, no matter how well you were sleeping.
“I can explain,” Tony said quickly, pushing himself off the sofa.
“Uh—I--I have questions,” Steve responded in a carefully orchestrated, exceedingly non-judgmental manner that was utter crap. He had one hand gripping the towel around his waist for all it was worth, Tony noted, and one hand out in front of him like it was expecting something round and solid to be there. To be fair, waking up naked in your teammate’s lap probably did raise a few queries in your mind.
“Hey, everything okay in here? I came by to get the samples and thought I heard a—you know, what, nevermind. I’ll just come back, you know, never,” Bruce said from the doorway, backing away slowly while Steve and Tony turned to mutually stare at him.
“”Baby! Baby. You were a baby,” Tony explained hurriedly when Bruce disappeared from the doorway. “Because of the magic. God, I hate magic. But, baby. That’s why. With the cradling thing.”
“I—ah. Okay. That…doesn’t actually explain anything,” Steve replied as he looked around the room, like the answer to why he had been in Tony’s lap, bundled in nothing but a towel would suddenly appear from the ether.
“Loki. He did a thing. I somehow got stuck as Ms. Doubtfire. I don’t know. Frankly, I blame you for that. And then there was lasagna, because it was soft—which, that was Clint’s idea, really. Admittedly, that was not something I really thought through as well as I should have. Shocking, I know,” Tony rushed out. “And then there was a bath because Clint said, and Nat said—well, forget what Nat said, and then with the towel thing, and hey, be glad that wasn’t a onesie, so there’s that. You were sleeping, and I didn’t want to move you. Might have shut my eyes for a second. Like, a nanosecond. That’s it. That’s all. That’s everything that happened. Yeah. So. Okay, we’re good. You can, well, probably have a bigger towel, but otherwise, you know, we’re good.”
“You…you bathed me?” Steve asked, voice pitching high, brow scrunching into a frown that Tony had seen not too long ago on much smaller features.
“About that. Clint made me,” Tony replied. Really, this was like ninety percent Daddy MacBarton’s fault.
“Okaaaaaay,” Steve said. “Ah…you said something about a bigger towel?”
“Hmmm? Oh, yeah. Right,” Tony remembered, nearly running to the bathroom to find something. He came back out to the suite’s living area and tossed a towel, blanket, large tarp, whatever, to Steve, who caught it and managed to get it wrapped around himself with some semblance of modesty intact.
“So. Loki,” Steve nodded, hugging the larger towel around himself.
“Yep,” Tony confirmed. He rocked back and forth on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest, then felt stupid, so uncrossed them, letting them dangle at his sides in what, he was sure, was an even worse position.
“Baby,” Steve repeated, a heavy sigh in his voice.
“Exactly,” Tony answered, snapping a pointed finger in Steve’s direction. “You were both adorable and annoying. And you peed on me. So, mostly the same, actually.”
“That’s not—what? I—what?” Steve stuttered.
“Nevermind. No biggie. Just saying, it’s over, done, nothing to get your—um, towel—in a twist about, Cap,” Tony said. “Loki bugged out to parts unknown. Oh, Nat has your shield, by the way. You were drooling all over it, not that any of us believe that’s a first, but still, not judging.”
“Okay. Okay, then. I’m just—I’m—“ Steve stammered. “I’m honestly trying to figure out anything at all to say right now that doesn’t involve asking where the nearest bus is so I can throw myself in front of it.”
“You already played Whack-a-Bus. No do-overs. Look, Cap, we’ll just pretend this never happened,” Tony urged quickly, holding up both hands in a placating gesture.
“Right,” Steve agreed. “This never happened.” Steve started for the open door, stopped halfway there and looked over at Tony, a questioning expression on his face that was gone before it ever really settled there. “Thanks, Tony. For—for whatever this was. You took care of me, and I honestly do appreciate that. So, thank you. Sorry about the, uh, peeing thing.”
“Sure thing, Cap. Like I said, no big deal. Over. Done. Kaput. Forgotten,” Tony responded, faster than he intended. He turned away before Steve could say whatever it was Steve was clearly girding himself to say.
A beat later, Tony heard the snick of the door closing. He walked over and picked up the discarded towel, then picked up his wet clothes from earlier and took the pile to the bathroom, tossing them in the direction of the dirty clothes hamper. The bags of baby supplies were still sitting against the tub, the cups and blocks pooled around the tub drain. He bent over and started pick them up, drying them off against one of the towels and putting them back into one of the bags. He’d have someone come get them tomorrow. They could donate them somewhere, he supposed, though the thought was oddly depressing.
“Friday, check the news, ‘net,” Tony called out as he walked back towards the bed. “Social media. You know the drill.”
“Of course, Boss. Scanning,” Friday responded. “I’m seeing multiple reports of the confrontation with Loki, but only a few images. Would you like a projection?”
“Entertain me,” Tony said, flopping down on the bed. He crossed his ankles and pillowed his hands behind his head as Friday splayed the images she’d culled onto the screen opposite the bed. Mostly blurry, long-range shots from cell phone cameras. Drop a city from the sky and people finally start scattering when you show up instead of trying to take selfies. Silver-lining, blah, blah, blah.
“Wait, stop,” Tony ordered, sitting up abruptly. “Go back.” He stared up at the screen, where someone had captured a picture of Iron Man clutching a screaming, red-faced, brassed-off baby in one hand, holding the shield over him with the other while part of a building disintegrated around them courtesy of whatever power it was Loki conjured to get back to Asgard.
“Shall I save this one, Boss?” Friday asked.
“No,” Tony said after a moment. “Delete it. All of it.” Tony lay back against the pillows and stared up at the ceiling. This wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t. Few hours of babysitting was all it was. Nothing to get worked up about.
Except, Tony thought, four sleepless hours later, now that he opened that door far enough to let a baby in, apparently, his mind wanted to throw open the gates and just go right ahead and make the perfectly, contentedly, mostly-almost-completely latent feelings come out and do a conga line across his brain until he did something stupid, Tony thought in dull annoyance as he stomped out of the elevator and into his workshop.
“Drop the needle, Friday, time for some adult alone tiiiim—time with important inventing of things. Not adult things. Well, I mean, adult things, obviously, but not adult-adult, which would be wrong and has clearly never happened, ever,” Tony said quickly, coming to an abrupt halt when he caught sight of Steve sitting at his work station, reaching for one of the parts Tony had left scattered on the tabletop. “What are you doing here?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Steve replied. “Strange day,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Tony. “I say this as someone who once woke up seventy years in the future surrounded by SHIELD scientists with blow-dryers, so when I say that it was a strange way to wake up, I want you to know that I do have a frame of reference.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can—I can definitely see how that would have been weird,” Tony admitted with a huff of a laugh. He shook his head and made himself walk towards where Steve sat with a pile of parts in front of him for some unknown reason.
“Not bad-strange. Just…I’m not sure what to think, and my head is full of, I don’t know. Thoughts,” Steve said quietly, turning back to the workstation.
“Well, I can see how that must be tough for you,” Tony teased, a smile forming.
Steve harrumphed a chagrined laugh and shot him an oddly warm look. “Yeah, well. Couldn’t sleep, and I know sometimes you don’t sleep, so I thought you might be here,” Steve replied. “Thought…I don’t know what I thought. Just thought you might be here.”
“That’s…okay, well, you’re not wrong. Obviously. So, what now, Cap?” Tony asked. What am I supposed to do with you, he repeated to himself. Tell me what I’m supposed to do, how we’re going to deal with this, or how we’re going to ignore it, but please, God, tell me something because I’m going crazy, and it’s all messed up in my head, because you needed me and you liked me, and it was all right there and then it wasn’t, and I want you to be you, of course I do, but it was simple, so damn simple, and I’m afraid it might be too simple to let it happen now. Maybe it already has.
“I have this idea,” Steve responded, slowly, carefully, like he was still thinking about what he wanted to say. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
“The man with a plan,” Tony managed half-heartedly.
“I have this idea,” Steve repeated as Tony came over to stand next to him. In front of Steve, there was a stack of parts maybe ten inches high, a Jenga-like structure that looked as though it was about to keel over with a stray breath.
“That’s going to fall apart,” Tony observed.
“I know,” Steve admitted, head bent down towards the table. He let out a deep breath, then looked up at Tony. Same eyes, Tony thought. Of course, they were, but it was still startling. “You’ll help me fix it, though.”
“Always,” Tony replied quietly. “So, what’s this idea of yours?”
“That this would’ve been a lot better if you’d been helping me build it from the get-go,” Steve answered. “That maybe we should try that instead.”
“What—Steve, what are we even talking about here?” Tony asked, blinking back in confusion. “Because, I got nothing.”
“The Avengers. SHIELD. Ultron. Bucky. What’s coming. Us. I don’t know,” Steve replied, running a hand through his hair. “Like I said, I couldn’t sleep.”
Tony stared down at where Steve sat, shoulders hunched as he prodded at the small structure he’d cobbled together. “Fine, well,” Tony said with a sigh, and knocked one hand out, sending the parts skittering across the tabletop. “You’re going to need to start with a good foundation for support.”
“We have that,” Steve said, giving Tony a look out of the corner of his eye.
“Good materials are important,” Tony pointed out.
“Definitely have that,” Steve agreed, one corner of his mouth angling up in a half-smile. Tony caught himself before he said anything else, narrowing his eyes at Steve.
“Huh. Right. Well, always think it through and make sure you know what you want to actually achieve before you get started,” Tony continued after a moment. as he started gathering the pieces together into a pile.
“Pretty sure I’ve given it more than enough thought,” Steve replied with a nod.
“Then, you just start building, one piece at a time, until you build what you wanted,” Tony finished, shifting the parts around until he found two that could form structural supports.
“I think we should try,” Steve responded.
“I’ll screw it up,” Tony replied, a tremor running through his words. He let his elbows rest against the table top, shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “You know I will.”
“Done my fair share of that too, Tony,” Steve acknowledged. “It falls apart, we fix it. Always.”
“Okay,” Tony breathed out in a long, wavering huff. “How do we do this?”
“Like the engineer said. One piece at a time,” Steve replied. “Simple as that.”
“Simple, huh?” Tony questioned. He felt the barest touch of Steve’s fingers tracing up his arm, then cupping the side of his face, tilting his head back just enough that he had to look up at Steve, too close now, warm and beautiful and there, right there, right within reach.
“The best things are, Tony,” Steve said, dropping his hand down to wrap around Tony’s. Tony looked down at where their hands met, fingers intertwined, and held on like nothing in the world could make him let go.