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A Gentle Lullaby

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Steve would be lying if he said that he had spent much of his life in hospital rooms like this one. The hospitals of his youth had been very different from this medical examination room on board of their flying SHIELD headquarter, stuffed full of intricate technology and machinery, and after that these hospital rooms had given way to field hospitals that had always been for the poor chaps who needed them more than Captain America. But it wasn't the first time he was standing at Tony's bedside after a battle and this time the man wasn't just lucky to be alive.

He'd been dead.

Now he was alive.

“He's going to be alright,” the SHIELD doctor murmured. “Really, sir. To be honest his scans are all clear. They shouldn't be after going through so much trauma, but he's alright.”

“Never been better, in fact,” Tony interjected from where he was practically lounging on his uncomfortable standard issue hospital bed.

“Can you do another scan?”

Thor had positioned himself inside the doorway and he looked serious, but not overly worried. He was just watching the proceedings and Steve as he stepped back and forth between Tony's bed and the windows, doing a bad job of hiding his nervousness.

“Would all of you stop looking at me like I'm going to burst into flame any minute now?”

“You were dead,” Monica Chang informed Tony as if that was the end of a very long discussion they had never even started. “There was a...”

“Come on, you can say it, Director Chang,” Tony said and he was using the same deceptively light tone that he always used right up until he unexpectedly turned serious. “I had a fucking Infinity Gem in my head. In my goddamn brain.”

“The thing we are kind of hung up about here is, that you were dead, Tony,” Steve said and he was trying for calm. He was rarely calm outside of the battle field these days, but he was calm enough now. It was easy to stand with the back to Tony and look out of one of the windows to the corridor, where SHIELD agents were running back and forth, passing on information, doing their work, keeping the half-crippled Helicarrier in the air. It was easier than to look at his friend, who not an hour ago had been a dead body in a lab and a consciousness in a computer. So many crazy things had happened to them over the years, but this was a miracle that seemed too good to be true. Steve wasn’t yet sure he could trust it.

“Why are you hung up about it, darling?” Tony asked and it didn't sound mocking. The fact that Tony could ask the most mocking questions and not sound as if he was actually mocking you was one of the things that had made it easy for Steve to connect with him. Here they were: The core Ultimates. The ones that had survived so far – or to phrase it better – those who had come back from the dead at least once. Thor and Steve and now Tony. From the beginning, since waking up in an age he barely understood, it had all come back again and again to Thor, him and Tony, three men who couldn't be more different, who at times had no frame of reference to even begin to understand each other, and somehow, most of the time, they just worked. Perhaps because they were just so different.

No, Tony had been the strangest guide to this new century anyone could have asked for, but he had never actually been mocking or condescending about all of Steve's old-fashioned and outdated ways. He'd been a friend.

Steve forced himself to repeat, “Because you were dead, Stark.”

“My body was,” Tony said clinically, and none of this seemed to have to do with him. “And the moment that Richards actually filled me in on what was going on, I knew exactly what to do. The Gems saved me. I'm not dead.” He waved his hand at Steve and grinned. “And it's a bit disconcerting to sit here and have everyone talk about that as if it was a disappointment, thank you very much.”

“It's not a disappointment, friend,” Thor said and grinned, nearly as wide as Tony was grinning now.

“You like the new hammer, Thor?”

Impossibly both men grinned even wider. Steve wanted to go over and push Tony back into a lying position, instead he audibly huffed and refrained from making one more step towards the bed.

“Don't be upset, dear,” Tony supplied. “I'll get you a gift worthy of a former U.S. president.”

The only thing he could come up with was to fold his arms in front of his chest and give Tony a long, stern look.

The man grinned again.

Steve's moodiness was passing him by on the best of days, and today of all days Steve really wanted to just grin with him, but he hadn't been able to shake that overwhelmed feeling of dread yet that had caught a hold of him, when he'd realized what exactly had been done to Tony. He'd been dissected. Killed like a dispensable little lab rat. And he'd still found a way to save them, his existence reduced to a consciousness in a network.

It should have been impossible.

And here he was now.

Alive and whole. It was unnerving and brilliant, but the only thing Steve was feeling was dread and anger.

They should have crunched Richards into the ground a long time ago. They should have seen something like this coming. They should have made sure the little shit was dead and had no way of coming back at them.

“He really is alright, sir.”

“Okay,” Steve finally agreed, not changing his stance and not changing his expression as he watched Thor walk over, pat Tony on the back, watched them laugh and joke together. “I'll take your word for it.”

The doctor retreated hastily and Tony looked at him from the corner of his eyes as Steve just kept watching calmly. He wasn't feeling calm though. He was feeling anything but.

In short order the country had been pulled apart and people had been hurt left and right and his team had been threatened. And now this. Steve wasn't new to the feeling of losing people. No, sometimes it seemed that was all his life was about. He knew he expected to die every single mission he went on. He was ready to. He had been the wartime president who had not hidden away behind the safe lines, despite the risks. Not because he was smart or because risking the head of government was a good strategy, but because this was his life. He was who he was, because he stood in the front lines and fought for what he believed in, fought to keep other people safe. And what did his life matter when other people across the world suffered for the bad decisions governments had been making left and right for years? What right had he to hide behind others when so much destruction had been wrought by people like him: powered and feeling superior?

Dying was just one risk of the job.

They all knew it.

They all had done it now in one way or the other.

And Tony... Well, for all his often grating arrogance and belief in his own genius, his sometime callous way of molding the world around himself to fit his own needs and wants, he was more familiar with his own mortality than some. When they had met, Tony had been dying of a brain tumor. For all intents and purposes Tony had been dying of another one just a while back, before the last one had... started talking to him. Once after Steve had sat with him after chemotherapy he had said: “Don't look at me like that, Steve. Not all of us are terribly good-looking super soldiers. If I had the choice I'd rather die in annoyingly shining armor fighting whatever meta-human or genetically enhanced nut job is trying to blow up the world, the city or the economy this week. And to get there I have to accept this minor inconvenience and fight this stupid thing that wants to kill me in a much less flashy and dignified way.”

Back then Steve had helped him over to the sofa and patted his shoulder. “Believe me, I get it, Tony.” And Tony had fallen asleep, exhausted and completely burned out not two minutes later.

Steve had understood then and he still understood now.

Life was precious and going out like a fighter was better than waiting for death creep up on you.

“So,” Tony said and was already sitting up, pulling away nodes from his head and chest and looking over at where his armor was standing. “I've had a moderately trying day and my favorite person in the world died. Is anyone up for a night of drinking and debauchery?”

“We should honor this victory and all the dead by feasting,” Thor said, which sounded like definite agreement.

“Feasting?” Hawkeye had appeared in the doorway. He too looked dead on his feet and Steve realized that he too had nowhere to return to but SHIELD. “Can we just get takeout and spend the evening in instead of the debauchery part?” he asked finally, only relaxing his stance a bit. “I'm sure you must have a house or apartment somewhere that wasn't hit?”

“Of course, of course,” Tony replied, amiably. He had been looking at his armor with a half-sad expression, but now he was smiling again. “Let's get out of here then.” With an energetic hop, Tony came to his own to feet, the muscles of his exposed upper torso moving enticingly. He was the picture of good health and high spirits.

The dying man had been resurrected, but outside a world was in shambles and only safe for so long. Steve tried to smile. At least whatever Tony would get them to eat, it would be better than rattlesnake or SHIELD rations.

He’d had quite enough of those to last him a lifetime.

* * *

It seemed like a miracle that Tony's New York penthouse looked untouched. The city had been hit so often and repeatedly and it hadn't been so long ago that Thor and Tony had been intercepted here by SHIELD, before they had spent a while on the run. Steve remembered seeing on TV how special ops had blowing out the windows before Thor had taken their hovercar and Tony had taken out the rest of them, engaging them with tactics,smarts and superior firepower. Richards had ordered his drones to tear through Tony’s labs and his company, but his private quarters hadn’t been of interest to him. It had been an eventful long few years for all of them, but the last few months... Well, they had been something.

It had been months for him since he'd last been up here, standing outside of Tony's glass windows on the vast terrace in front of Tony's penthouse apartment and looking down at New York.

He barely recognized the city.

And it wasn't because of the same kind of baffled displacement he had felt that very first time after SHIELD had woken him up to a brave new world and century. The world wasn't the same anymore even compared to the world he’d found back then.


Tony had his back turned towards him, a glass of dark liquid in his hand, and Steve was sure he hadn't made a sound that could be heard over the strong wind that was tearing at his hair and shirt. But the man must have been aware of his presence.

“Hey,” he repeated.

Tony took a sip.

“Drinking alone?”

Tony stared at his hand. “Thinking.”

Steve nodded. Seeing him with the drink in his hand was what made him realize that it had been a while since he had seen Tony with one. They had mostly seen each other during battle and, of course, the Iron Man armor wasn't exactly a party suit, but when he'd met Tony, he had been nursing a glass wherever they had been. Sometimes he had been unrepentantly buzzed even in front of Fury.

With a pang, Steve realized that Tony was grieving.

“You favorite person,” he repeated something, Tony had said hours before. “The last thing your favorite person made for you. Anthony made that armor?”

It was such a lonely bleak thought.

Voice rough and face suddenly gaunt, Tony admitted: “Yeah.” And then he nearly emptied the glass in one go.

It was okay. That way both of them could pretend that the wetness at the corner of his eyes, the slight redness to them was from the sting of the alcohol.

He couldn't say that he had yet really managed to wrap his head around grieving for a terminal tumor you'd had a sort of no-kill-pact with - or around forming a familial relationship with a kid that only existed in your own mind for that matter. But he understood loneliness quite well.

Not saying anything, he put his arms on the balustrade and looked out at the city and waited for Tony to get a hold of himself and do the same.

At the very least he could be here, like he'd tried to be there when Tony had gone through chemo.

“It would have been satisfying to get my hands around Richard's smug little neck and strangle him for all the grief he caused, but then what good would that have done?”

Tony chuckled and there was a noticeable edge to his voice. It was easy to forget sometimes that Tony, for all his well practiced and easygoing exterior could be cruel and vicious too. Otherwise he would not have survived in the shark pool that must have been his life as a Stark. “Crazy little shit. I think he was actually jealous. Can you imagine? Being jealous that I thought I had a another terminal illness that was actually an Infinity Gem.” He grimaced, reminded of his grief or of his own mortality. “He...” Tony stumbled over the words and Steve, angry at how much destruction had been wrought, about how powerless they had all been to stop it before it got too far, tightened his hold on the metal under his hands. “Well, for a cancerous mass he was a decent kid. But look out at all these messes we've made. This is no place for a kid. Not even one that only lived in my head and who was no kid at all. Not even a tumor.” Forlornly he studied the empty glass. “I need another drink, Steve.” He stepped away.

And it was true. The world was broken. America was still in shambles. Parts of Europe had been made uninhabitable and nations across the world had been attacked and destroyed. They'd fought another Civil War right here on their own soil, and he'd barely managed to hold the nation together as both Ultimate and president, but now where was this world headed? The next threat was waiting around the corner. It always did. “I think I might take you up on that, Stark.”

Finally Tony looked at him, he looked a bit paler than before, his eyes still brimming with the red sting of alcohol or tears. “It can only get worse from here, right?”

Steve wished he could deny it. “We'll keep fighting. Not much else we can do.”

Tony pursed his lips and shrugged. “Of course, we will.” He was probably already making plans or thinking about new patents, new ways of taking what he had learned and turn it into something new. Perhaps he was planning to get drunk and date some more red heads. It was hard to tell when he was in a mood like this.

Steve was not a futurist. When it came down to it he was a soldier who knew how to rally the troupes. But when he looked at Tony now, he wasn't sure what kind of future Tony was seeing, what kind of future Steve was seeing for himself. It had all become so complicated.

“Let's get that drink,” the man finally said and tugged Steve along by the sleeve. “I've been sober for far too long.”

* * *

The call had come in while he had been working on an enhancement for the energy cells Stark Industries wanted to sell to the government.

After the recent trouble with profiteering Tony had offered them a positively reasonable deal that they couldn't refuse. Perhaps the media was right and part of his reasons for giving away some old patents for free had to do with his guilty conscious more than his love of humanity. The part that the media and the board of directors had no clue about was that he had worked on this project with Anthony, a little smart boy that was much like Tony imagined he had once been – at least in his mind. The gem had only been able to project himself in Tony's thoughts at first, before their combined abilities had grown and he had been able to take control of information systems and technology around them.

Tony, now without the help of his invisible “little brother” let Thor know they were needed and prepped his newest armor. Launching it into the air was always his favorite part. Flying had always been a thrill, but nothing beat the freedom the Iron Man suit gave him.

“Tony?” the gruff and focused voice of Captain America asked him over the SHIELD comm system. “This is Hydra. I'm going in with Hawkeye. Hurry up and meet us there.”

“I'd meet you anywhere, Cap. You ask so nicely,” he mockingly acknowledged. “Leave something for us. We're coming all this way to aid you.”

“Not making promises,” the man replied, sounding slightly out of breath. He and Hawkeye were already in the middle of it, if the sound of loud voices and shots fired in the background were anything to go by.

It took Tony exactly two minutes to have the armor up and running and have an exact location for the Hydra base they were looking for, and Thor was standing behind him suddenly, face grim. “Another day for us to go into battle together, Stark.”

Which was all the warning he got before Thor grabbed on to his shoulder and teleported him right next to the SHIELD Command Helicarrier. “Thanks, Thor. You do come in handy in peace and war... and well probably all the time.”

“There you are, gentlemen. Glad you could join us.” Monica huffed into his ear as if they were two school boys who had arrived late for a dressing down. “Cap is already in the thick of it.”

“Of course, he is.” Tony did not follow Thor who rushed towards the action, but took a moment to make sense of all the readouts, before setting his own flight path. From what he could make out the Hydra base was mostly an old army camp that must have been hit hard and abandoned when the region had been hit hard during the recent Civil War. Shots rang out close to him.

“You can eat this,” Steve shouted and his shield flew right into Tony's field of vision. A man, burly and armed to the teeth, took the shield right in the chest and toppled over the edge of the building they were fighting on, just as an explosion rippled through it, and made Steve roll forward and out of the way, jumping after the body and catching his shield as it bounced back towards him.

Tony caught him with an armored arm around his waist. “You could absolutely not have waited for us, huh?”

“Set me down,” Steve ordered in a calm voice, gesturing. “They have stockpiled enough bombs to blow up the west coast and leave no stone unturned.” His blue eyes were cold and angry.

“Let me take care of that,” he said, when he sat Cap down and hovered back up, arming his repulsors and firing before a soldier could spring out and open fire on them. “Where is it?”

“Bunker,” Steve said tightly, as he sprung back into motion. “There is a new Viper here. The third Viper in four weeks. This one has been calling the shots on this whole operation. I'm going to take the fight to her.” By the sound of it whoever she was, she had already managed to piss Steve off good.

It took him less than 20 seconds to pull up the schematics of the old camp, less than a minute to break through some of the encryption that was meant to keep people like him out of the secrets of the boring military leaders that had built the hidden facilities beneath it. He took out armed Hydra officers and henchmen as he went, moving with his new sleek armor as if it was a second skin. Tony considered this Anthony's final gift to him, because when he'd rebuilt himself with the power of the gems, he'd gone back and done it right. His mind was working fast and efficient as ever and for now it seemed his body could keep up with it.

Thor crashed to the ground with a hollow roar of thunder and he grinned when he saw Tony in front of the bunker entrance with a crazed look like a berserker. He was swinging the hammer at his side in a perfect circle, building up energy, and Tony's readings told him immediately that there was a swarm of flying robots above them. “Do me a favor and stomp them to powder, big guy,” Tony muttered, recognizing bits and pieces of his own designs.

He shot one out of the sky himself, before he broke open the metal door protecting the bunker. Guards had been waiting for him, all firing at him at the same time. The smart ones among them probably knew it was an exercise in futility and Tony didn't even bother to stop, until a shield flew past him and hit one guard in the stomach, taking two others down, before flying back into Caps hand .

“Viper?” Tony asked.

“Gone,” Steve said tightly. “So, I'm with you.”

Tony smiled. Behind them thunder was roaring, before them the remaining Hydra guerrillas were shivering in fear. It was just another day for the Ultimates.

Cap wasn't grinning, but his eyes were shining that special hue of bright blue behind the mask, and Tony knew that was determination. These terrorists wouldn't know what had hit them when Steve got through with them.

Using the advantage of the armor, Tony swung up and held out a hand to Steve. “Let's do this fast,” he said and Steve, without hesitation, latched onto his outstretched arm and let himself be pulled along, as Tony swooped them down the corridor, blasting through the unremarkable line of defense and deeper into the bowel of the beast.

Triangulating his own position and calling up all the available data, while with his free hand he shot repulsor rays at the opposition that was running up the stairs. Cap let himself slip down, and caught the first guy with his boot in the face. “Any readings?”

“I have readings, Cap,” Tony said, and he was grinning. “I have too many of them. They're protecting this room. Seems like an invitation to me.”

“Could be a trap.”

Steve smiled at him over his shoulder. It wasn't exactly a happy occasion, but Tony still had time to appreciate the grin. “Does that bother us?”

Steve grinned over his shoulder at him, as he picked up his shield and faced down the gun-bearing idiots in front of him. “Not as much as it bothers us that we haven't stomped this pest out yet. The world has more important problems than dealing with even more scum trying to make it worse.”

Half of it had been said for the benefit of the people pointing guns at them.

“You government dogs are always so full of yourself. We're here to to make the world what it always should have been.” The guy who was talking was burly, looked like one of those with para-military training.

“And good work you did of it so far,” Steve said tightly.

“Look at the world outside, Captain America. It's dying. And part of that is your doing, Ultimates. Some people may still think you're heroes, but the truth is you're the terrorists.”

It was the kind of showdown that suited Steve. But Tony wasn't here to stand in the corridor and listen to a bad guy put down the only family he had left. The reinforced door did not give in to his initial blast, but one of the soldiers had to jump out of the way. Things were certainly heating up.

“Robots coming your way, gentlemen,” Monica informed them.

“How many of those do they have?” Tony aimed another blast at the door. He wanted to get this over with and quickly. Hydra had been stomped out already, and here they were, true to their name, building up again from nothing with stolen tech and stolen knowledge, unkillable and more dangerous than they had any right to be.

“You tell me, Stark,” Monica said. His HUD was already providing the answer and he didn't like it one bit.

“Where the hell did they get the parts or the money?” he muttered into his mask, only remembering last second, that nobody was there to hear him, as long as the comms weren't open. He had a bad feeling about this, because he knew better than anyone that there was always someone willing to pay for this kind of insane extremism. The question was where to find them and how to cut them off.

The door finally gave after he gave it a final, decisive shove, ignoring the gunfire raining down on him, while Steve was keeping himself busy with a more hands on approach to their terrorist problem. Stepping into the dark lab wasn't a shock – he'd seen places like this a hundred times over – but it made him wonder. This was AIM scale of business, not at all like the shattered underground terrorist cell Hydra should be these days, if the Ultimates and SHIELD had done their jobs right.

How had Fury missed this?

Or had he?

He didn't bother to step up to the laboratory tables, but around the bend, to where a guy in a lab coat was trying to dive behind a desk and hide from him. There were only three people in the lab, if he didn't count the armed people that were following him in now.

Tony ignored them to take a thorough look around. The computers were running some analysis of data streams and he only needed seconds to imitate a hacking of the system. Then he had time to bring his attention back to the scientists. A woman was standing in the corner, the only one of them who didn't look scared or cowed by his presence.

“It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Stark, you gave us so many useful tools,” she said and appraised his new armor.

“You could have just made an appointment. I like dating smart people. Less evil, usually. You could have brought your smart friend,” he nodded at where the young scientist was hiding behind the desk, “and we could have made it an all night party.”

He had locked onto the computer system the minute he knew the transfer had gone through and SHIELD was receiving the data. Different feeds sprung up as his AI processed what they had just downloaded. Tony was looking for everything that had to do with Iron Man tech, with Stark patents, with SHIELD secrets, but it was something else that caught his attention, just at the same moment as he fired at the main computer hatch and the fretful scientist from before jumped back to his feet, no longer cowering behind his desk.

“Tony!” Steve cried out. An explosion shook the whole facility. Somewhere, further down, some of the explosives must have been set off. Time was running out.

Children of Tomorrow read the file, highlighting recovered body parts and recovered tech from the City. Rebirth read another. He processed it as far as Invincibilis Agenda when the women threw something his way. Out of reflex he raised his arm and shot his repulsor at it and that was the split second the man needed for him to be distracted to push forward, suddenly brave and agile, and hit him with a metal device that latched onto the armor like a magnet.

A ripple went through the armor and then him, as the nanites in his blood reacted to the sudden shock. “Clever,” he said, as the HUD went blind and he set to reboot. Shots were fired and he could barely move.

He went down on one knee.

“Look out!” Just as he had opened the eye slits in the mask, Steve came into his field of vision.

“They're building meta-humans. They're experimenting on people, Steve,” he said. But he wasn't sure his voice had been heard over the roaring noise of another explosion.

Everything went black, as the reboot of the armor failed. He felt a ripple go through his own synapses. With his last thought he pushed Steve out of the way as the wall behind them exploded and the ground gave out.

The room came crashing down.

He woke up, slowly, his consciousness and senses returning one by one. It was not a new experience, but usually there was the sweet, stale taste of too much drink in his too dry mouth and a headache pounding deep inside his skull, and if he was lucky, there was a warm body, making it all half as bad. The headache was there now, but everything else was just plain wrong, although at least he wasn't alone.

His body felt heavy like lead and his head was resting against a strong thigh, but it was too dark to see much. The air smelled of concrete and fire, dusty and thick.

The sticky wetness on his temple could only be blood. He tried to move and failed. From the depth of his subconscious some of his recent, most uncomfortable memories shot through the surface and he gasped, trying to sit up, desperately trying to breathe.

Blood on his face, Anthony going silent, Reed Richards playing around in his brain, the air going out of his lungs as his muscles contracted and he couldn't breathe.

“Tony?” a gruff voice asked above him, before a strong, callused hand settled on his brow. “You alright there, soldier?”


“Yeah,” Steve returned. He sounded tired. “The Hydra base came down on us. Thor is on it. They'll have us out of here soon.”

“Ah.” The details came back to him in a rush.

Suddenly he could see. Steve's profile appeared above him in the blueish shine of what must be the Stark phone he'd given to him after the recent firmware upgrade that he'd still been working on with Anthony. He swallowed and closed his eyes.

“You need to stop doing that,” Steve said above him.

“Doing what, Mr. President?”

“I'm not president anymore, Tony.” Steve shifted a little and Tony realized he had leaned down to get a better look at his face and when he opened his eyes again, Steve's own pale blue eyes were much too close and looking eerie in the scarce light of the phone. “You know that,” he added tentatively and it was all it took for Tony to realize he was worried.

“Of course, I know that, darling,” he said, flippantly, to kill the worry before it could manifest and break through Steve's gruff and stoic exterior. “But it's a right shame. You were born to fill the role. Who but you can pull off wearing a flag?”

Steve's mouth did a half-comical twist, before settling into his serious leader expression. Tony was trying to think of all the things that had actually happened right before the blast and fill in all the missing blanks to this conversation, because Steve was playing the worried teammate and he only did that when something had rattled him. “You need to stop dying every mission we go on,” he finally said as way of an explanation, and there was his usual barely contained streak of anger right there under the surface.

“Aww,” Tony cooed. “I knew you cared.”

Still holding up the phone and frowning, Steve said: “Of course, I do.”

It was said with enough affront to make Tony smile. He never really doubted it. Steve was difficult and right out pigheadedly stubborn and sometimes horribly and quite frankly annoyingly old fashioned, but he was also loyal to a fault. And despite all of the world marveling at how the Ultimates had come together, the core group of Cap, Thor and him had grown into friends, and then into something that was closer than brothers. They were all from different worlds in a way, all had trouble understanding some parts of the others' lives, but that didn't matter anymore. They did understand each other.

“What happened to my armor?”

“New sort of EMP weapon. Knocked you out good. I was glad I knew how to get the helmet off, or I wouldn't even have been able to check you were still breathing.”

“Come on, darling, don't be a mother hen. We've moved beyond that.” He tried to sit up in the cramped and dark space that they had in the rubble. Somewhere far away he could hear a rumbling sound and he just hoped that this was either Thor smashing his way towards them or SHIELD idiots who were hopefully not going to kill them with their rescue attempts. “Did they put Cassandra on this, you think, or are these just generic giants rummaging through the rubble?”

“Are you sure you're feeling alright?”

“I'm stuck in my unresponsive armor that for some reason is not rebooting as it should be, Steve, and I can't calculate how much concrete there is between the two of us and freedom, while there is a bottle of obscenely expensive scotch waiting for me at home and I feel banged up. You know that this isn't even remotely the worst thing that has happened to me in this life and it's still making me feel like this day wasn't exactly a great success.”

“Scotch?” It was very much like Steve to latch onto the one part of the sentence that he personally disapproved of the most, but then he only sounded wondering, not angry. He hadn't argued with Tony when he'd gotten drunk a few days ago, but perhaps the thought that Tony was drinking again on a daily basis was giving him pause. Tony couldn't blame him. His performance today had been less than spectacular. “You shouldn't have come on this mission,” Steve finally said and put the cellphone away, shrouding them in darkness again. “Not a week ago you were dead. You should have sat this one out and rested some more.”

It was not the sort of statement that invited comment. The thought of dying still scared him, after everything, after living with the thought that brain tumors would kill him, after chemo, after actually dying and becoming a bodyless consciousness for a short time. It had been freedom. A scary sort of invulnerable, cold freedom.

His overpaid shrink would have had a field day, but Tony had never talked to her, nor to any of the assigned SHIELD personnel. He had certainly not seen himself talking it out here and now. “You called me in.”

Steve sighed loudly. “Yeah, and here we are, Tony. You're hurt and I'm of no use.”

It stung and yet it was obviously so far from the truth. Steve was just in one of his bad moods. The rumbling got louder suddenly, cutting all conversation short. “It's Thor coming to get us.”

“I sure hope they did not let Banner out, or we're both doomed.”

Tony chuckled, although it hurt.

There was still blood on his forehead and the smell of dusty concrete and explosives in the enclosed space and a void of silence in his mind where a short while ago Anthony had been, but for the first time in days he laughed and actually meant it.

It was good, to feel a rush of air, smell the ozone that came with the use of the hammer he'd developed for Thor.

Suddenly his head was swimming, the headache spiking.

“Hey, Thor! That's my favorite thunder god,” he said and was glad that both Thor and Steve were there to help him to his feet.

* * *

This time he did not give anyone time to fuss. He got rid of the armor, stored it for later inspection and jumped right into analyzing the parts of data that had been transferred to his servers before he'd been so rudely interrupted. Steve threw one stern looks his way that bordered on smoldering, but he didn't object, when Tony set to work, sharing what he found with SHIELD as it came up.

“Human experiments?” Monica was watching over his shoulder. “Did Nick know about this?”

“Hard to tell. Hard to tell when Hydra became involved with this. There seems to be a pooling of resources here.”

“AIM people searching for alternatives to the super soldier serum, have gathered what's left of the Hydra cells, Tony. Pooling of resources is the least of my worries. These people shouldn't have any resources.”

“Oh, Monica, this should be at the top of the list of things to worry about. It’s so much worse. These people are prepared. They are willing and clever. And when I say that? It means something, believe me. They don't have the leadership we faced before, but they haven't stopped believing that it's up to them to mold this world into a better, cleaner future based on their own wicked ideas of whatever sinister thing clean means to them. They are building superhumans. Or they are trying to.”

Steve, arms folded in front of his chest, frowned. “They're not the only ones and they're not the first. What are they up to?”

Tony pulled up a file for him to read. It was all about Project Rebirth. “They probably think they’ll save the world by leaving their mark. They have no idea whatsoever what’s coming or that they are just another nail in the coffin of everything. They are trying to replicate what was done to you, and they are doing it by analyzing your blood.”

The expression on Steve's face turned dark. He didn't ask how they’d managed to get their hands on his blood, he didn't ask for more details. He just stared at the file, stared at the messages Tony was pulling up one after the other, stared at bits and pieces of Banner's research from long ago, and then his jaw set. “Degenerate material,” he read out loud, from one of the enemy scientists conclusions about what had made the difference in one Steve Rogers.

“Don't take it personally, Steve. You should see the file on me and the nanites and their attempts to replicate the recent armor enhancements.” He pulled it up. “There is a whole page about my unworthy Italian heritage and another two on my inherited European decadence.” He drew out the last word as if decadence were an expensive French dish he was ready to savor.

Steve's jaw was set as he gave the data a once over and then glanced back at Tony. “So the facility we raided this time was what? Their lab? One of their labs?”

“Not for this part of the problem. As far as I can tell it was their R&D. They were poking at parts they recovered from the City there,” Monica explained. “And they used it as an armory.”

He leaned back in his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and looked up at Rogers who was still looking stern. “Anything on their new leader?” the man finally asked him.

Tony shrugged. “Not in the data. But the name Erlking comes up a lot. Mean anything to you?”

Both Monica and Steve frowned. Then she said: “No, but we will find out. Because that's what we goddamn do.”

It was as much a promise as it could be. But something else was coming. Another project creating people with superpowers was a threat, but Tony feared it was hardly the worst thing in their future. For all his delusions Reed Richards was not wrong about the trouble they would be facing soon, the trouble he had hoped to stop by building a superior race of humans. Tony had checked the data and had run one analysis after the other. All his projections said the same thing: That Richards wasn't wrong. There were breaches in the fabric of the universe. Very soon this planet would face danger and destruction again. Society was already on the verge of collapse, but if another catastrophe struck that might become a minor inconvenience.

And still here there way, looking at the next group of power-hungry thugs who were trying to make it worse.

He stayed in his chair and stared at the data screen, lounging comfortably in his actually perfectly uncomfortable chair, even after Monica had left. Captain America remained standing behind him, staring at Tony instead of the screen. It was like he was waiting for something, but Tony couldn't tell what it was this time. Not that he was complaining. It gave him something much nicer to look at than the data. He smiled up through his lashes. “Anything else you need from me, darling?”

Steve's eyes met his head on like this was a challenge. It was typical for Steve to be brooding after combat, especially when things hadn't gone his way, and Tony always felt that the understated anger suited him well. But the intensity in his gaze now was just sexy. It was positively unfair how the man could pull it of time and time again without trying. “You haven't called me that in a while. Just after Anthony... You started again.”

He cocked his head to the side as if he had no idea what Steve was talking about and grinned: “Called you what, darling?”

Suddenly Steve looked taken aback. Uncomfortable perhaps. But then he shook himself and said: “So you only date smart people? Didn't look to me like that was the case over the years.” He sounded gruff and disapproving again.

Tony grinned wider. “That's what you remember from that conversation? I have you know that I only date clever people. I sleep with everyone who is moderately beautiful, when I feel like it.”

Cap, his arms still folded in front of his chest, mask still on, looked down on him from where he was standing as if he was contemplating that. “That makes more sense,” he said tensely.

“We're not all good catholic boys, Rogers.”

But he was surprised when Steve looked away, not changing his stance and said: “Yeah, we're not.”

* * *

Tony went back to work on some of the projects his favorite non-existing person had left him. After facing one global disaster after another, Tony had settled on developing a new plan for a space station. It had only ever been a thought, but Anthony had started some blueprints under the heading Future Foundation. The idea was to have something that was bigger than a satellite and far enough out of reach, in case he needed to evacuate with most of his armory and databases.

In his mind it had become clear, that it would be only a matter of time until SHIELD got hit again, until another power hungry moron made a grab for presidency or until another crazy genius like Richards destroyed the planet.

Anthony had latched unto that problem for a while and reviewing all the changes and design alterations he'd made, sent Tony down a spiral of grief and activity. He got drunk at least once, but worked his way back into the right state to actually build something.

The satellite seemed like a desperate last resort to save himself, a distant dream of safety. The world would need him to dream bigger.

When he walked back up to his living quarters from the workshop on the 40th floor that night, his current Jarvis was waiting for him with a glass of red wine and a sandwich and without a word motioned him to the living room, where Steve was sitting, reading a report on a Stark pad. “I hoped the invitation was open ended,” he said with a voice that did not invite argument. “And this way I can make sure you don’t kill yourself with that.” He motioned at the glass of wine and Tony looked at his hand confused.

“Am I becoming a personal mission?”

When he looked up at him from his report he was very much looking like an army drill sergeant. “Just taking care of my team.”

Tony shrugged. “We all need hobbies. I'm not against being someone's hobby... or pet project.”

It wasn’t like he couldn’t use the company, and having Cap around was always nice. The closest armchair looked like an invitation to just fall in a boneless heap and stay there, watching as Cap went back to his work. “I never slept with a president,” he supplied helpfully.

“You missed your window of opportunity then,” Steve said without looking up. There had been a while when this kind of obvious flirting had made him squirm, but apparently that was long past. Tony wondered a bit if that was because Steve didn’t mind the flirting, or because he had simply accepted it as unavoidable part of Tony’s company.

So he pushed: “Not with anyone who at any time was president either.”

Steve grinned tightly, but said nothing. He also did not get up to leave. It seemed like he had no intention to leave any time soon.

* * *

The raiding of different more similar facilities had happened without anything that Steve would categorize as major incident. The press was following the scarce information that SHIELD was releasing closely, but so far there hadn't been much information on who they were fighting and why they were making superhumans. But someone was drawing the remnants of terrorist organizations together to strike.

Today they were in what accounted as the American No Man's Land these days. Dead cities, dead landscapes, scorched earth. The Civil War hadn't only killed people. It had depopulated whole areas and some had been left behind close to uninhabitable.

Stark had fought hard with SHIELD and different government organizations to get some of his tech to the ground that had been meant for terraforming the moon. To Steve some of that still sounded like science-fiction, even after years of living the crazy life, but he had seen enough of the swarm, and meta-humans and mutant powers, and alien threats, had seen enough of Tony's technology used outside of the comfort of his own home to realize that it was more than that. His best friends these days were a former alien god and the crazy inventor who grieved for his terminal brain cancer child. His life was weird. The world grew more and more broken every minute and now they'd been told that the physics of their world was under attack from outside forces. Sue Storm had explained it to him in the most un-sciency terms possible, while Thor and Tony and Clint had watched on.

And here they were, fighting a new and rising terrorist threat instead. “On your left, Cap,” Stark's voice came through the earpiece. “Thor had a head start on you, when it come to taking down their robot drones.”

“Thanks, Iron Man,” he said loudly, as he jumped towards his next target. These were not the kind of well-trained guerrilla fighters they'd met at the Hydra base. These were brutes, hired to do as much damage as possible when threatened.

This little group had found a home in an abandoned facilities that had been bombed out and nearly destroyed during the last Civil War, taking up floors and floors of what had once been a pharmaceutical complex.

Stark was doing reconnaissance from above, while Thor kept their helicopters busy. It was him, Hawkeye and Spider-Woman on the ground.

“There is a lab on the second floor,” Jessica reported. “Abandoned.”

“Check for threats,” Steve advised, using his shield to take out the closest attacker. Really, none of them seemed like trained fighters. They all looked like people, desperate and normal. They weren't working like the oiled machine of the terrorist groups they’d faced eösewhere. None of this had the same feel of fighting Hydra or AIM, but some of the uniforms were AIM. Someone hadn’t only recruited what was left of both groups, they had found new people discontent enough to lend their strength to a cause.

“Cap,” Tony said in his voice and he sounded distracted. “This used to be a big pharma company’s place. You’re moving towards their chem labs.”

“Okay.” A small part of Steve was glad that today Iron Man was only on reserve. He and Susan Storm had continuously worked together for the last week to find some more answers for the their reality being on the verge of something big and destructive. More anomalies in the fabric of reality had popped up and on tear that had only been a small gap, a  capillary crack and they had managed to close it easily. But both scientists were sure that this wasn’t the end of it. But because he’d been up all night, Tony had agreed to coordinate their attack from the Helicarrier and only join the fight if he was absolutely needed.

He had called him a “mother hen” and grinned, but stayed behind without any more protests.

Of course, he knew that Tony wasn’t going to follow these kinds of orders for long and Steve knew he was being unreasonable, keeping Iron Man grounded, when it was quite clear that Tony was fine. Damn, the man had probably been worse off and more of a liability when they’d first met and fought side by side all the time.

It made sense to keep the smart one on the science though. For a while he could hide behind that claim without examining his own emotions too closely. He'd always been mostly pragmatic, when a battle was at hand. It was the parts when there was no battle to fight and no war to win when he ran into problems. He knew that, while he had adapted since waking up, he was still at the very heart of it the same overprotective, stubborn man, who had driven Jan away and then lost her in a way that still gave him nightmares.

The labs were right in front him and suddenly the opposition changed. A bullet flew past his ear, missing him by an inch, and he moved out of the way of another shot, before he used the shield to just run forward and topple the next guy with an AIM uniform.

“Don't think you can stop me,” he shouted.

There were three of them. All of them had been trained.

They must have waited here, because this was what they were protecting.

He was trading blows still, a gun firing close to his arm, but missing by inches, because he angled himself out of the way and against the assailant, when he spoke to Tony again: “I think I found what they are hiding. Opposition is getting nasty.”

“Good, good,” Tony’s voice said cheerfully into his ear. There was something eerie about the way he could always be this cheerful, even when he had so many reasons not to be.

Steve's shield connected with the face of the biggest of the guards and when he turned in one powerful swoop, pushing a second one right into a wall, he realized that the fight was over. For a moment he stood heaving, over the three unconscious bodies, waiting for another attack.

But there was no movement and there was no sound of more footsteps.

“Going in now,” he announced, making sure he had everyone's attention.

“Things are under control out here, friend,” Thor answered.

With a single push the two winged doors opened to him. The light was dimmed to a dull red. It reminded him of the oppressive darkness of some of the SHIELD facilities he'd been to. To one side, computers were lined up, the other side of the lab was in disarray, mostly like the terrorist had found it, when the building had been hit by heavy artillery during the short, but violent battles during the uprisings. Steve, carefully stepped over some rubble and moved toward the next door. This part of the lab had remained intact, and it was full of technology that seemed a little beyond a normal pharmaceutical lab. It looked more like stepping into the Baxter Building before it had been destroyed, like stepping into one of Banner's workplaces.

Jessica checked in: “Floor secured. Anyone in need of assistance?”

“Send down SHIELD personnel,” Steve muttered. “There is some tech here that needs to be secured.”

Finally as he stepped around an apparatus that was higher than he was himself, he saw something that made him stop in his tracks. “Right now,” he added.

There was a baby, lying there in a glass box, looking sleepy. For a shocking moment he thought, the little shape wasn't breathing. Her dark skin was glistening with sweat, as if it was too hot in there, and suddenly Steve was seized with panic. He'd heard of baby's dying in cars, overheating.

The contraption looked like some sort of incubator, just... the child looked too big to belong in one. There were holes with yellow gloves in it. Hands had only touched the child through the yellow gum layer.

“Hey,” he said and the big brown eyes opened wider and settled on him and the kid made a pitiful whimpering sound.

The lab door behind him was shoved open as Jessica and some SHIELD operatives entered. Steve could only stare at the little human in the box. “Specimen D, female,” a little yellow plate on the side read.

Hearing the noise of stomping feat the child had finally enough. She started wailing, her desperate discomfort breaking way. Her screams were only dulled by the glass contraption surrounding her.

“Get everything you can,” Steve ordered with tight lips. “I want to know exactly what went on here.

And while he could only speculate what had been done to the little girl or why she was here in a lab that terrorists had used for their experiments, none of the explanations for her being here were nice. He would get to kick the person's ass to hell and back to make them pay.

Steve waited in the very same lab, not 30min later, as two Giant-Men sat down the huge incubator-like construction in another corner, where SHIELD scientists had sat up some more equipment. Thor was standing by his side, face grave and arms folded in front of his chest. The little girl had for the moment stopped crying, but was staring up at them with wide eyes. They were trying not to scare her more than necessarily, but so far nobody had been able to figure out why she had been kept in isolation.

“She doesn't look healthy,” Thor said and stepped closer to the the glass. A little brown hand shot up as if the baby wanted to reach for him, then she started to munch on her other little fist, all the while, gurgling and slobbering, her little arm outstretched.

It was better than the desperate crying.

“We need to find her parents.” Steve had been thinking of nothing else: This little girl must belong to someone and he was sure it wasn't anyone involved in a racist terrorist group. “They must be beside themselves with worry.”

A doctor looked her over through the glass and then said decisively: “We need to find out if she's contagious or why she has been kept that way and then we need to get the poor thing out of there.”

“I can answer that,” Tony said, as he stepped into the room. He gave a cursory, narrow eyed glance at the little baby girl in the contraption, before turning his full attention to the Doctor. “Specimen D,” he muttered. “We found the whole file on Specimen D. She's not contagious. She was injected with the closest approximation of the super soldier serum they could develop out of...” and he threw another cursory glance towards Steve here, “Captain America's blood.”

Everyone let that sink in. Steve contemplated the little gurgling human being. She looked tired and unhappy in there, not like a metahuman ready to strike.

Meanwhile Tony pulled up the files for the doctors to see. Lab technicians sprang into action and took readings.

The little girl started crying sometime down the line, quietly whimpering and not growing louder. Steve couldn't even say how old she was. She was so tiny.

Finally, and he hadn't listened to the conversations going on around him, lost in his own uncomfortable thoughts, someone stepped up to free the baby from its glass prison. The high pitched crying grew angry suddenly. Perhaps she was scared. It was hard to say what her experiences had been like with lab technicians and people coming to prod at her.

The cries were terrible. How could such a young innocent baby already know so much distress? Tony stepped past him and one of the lab technicians and was suddenly beside the girl. “Hello, there,” he cooed. “Let's just see if you're okay.”

And surprisingly, despite everything, that suddenly got the baby's attention. Thick tears still hanging in the corner of her eyes, she stared up at Tony suddenly like she'd never seen anything like him.

“See? Nothing bad is going to happen.” Tony said as he helped to undo the last of the attached equipment, finally leaving the baby in a sort of open makeshift crib.

Someone ran a scan and the computers started buzzing. The baby still sat there staring up at Iron Man.

“Stark,” the doctor barked and Tony turned away to help with whatever data analysis they were running.

As soon as Tony had gone the crying started up again. Softer, but building gradually in strength.

“She's probably hungry,” one of the SHIELD agents muttered, but he was already out of the door, hurrying towards his next mission or very pointedly away from this one. Steve stepped closer to look at the baby in the crib and could feel Thor hovering close-by.

One of the technicians finally lifted her out, also softly talking to her. Her small brown eyes went wide and she stopped crying for a surprised moment. “Someone will come for you. Your family is probably missing you badly. Such a cute baby. I’m sure they’ll be here soon.” A loud alarm rang through the halls, announcing that all SHIELD personnel of section 7 was supposed to come to lab 14. The baby, surprised and scared by the loud noise of it all, started wailing. “I'm sorry,” the man said. “I fear you'll have to take care of her for now.” And without any ceremony he dropped the bundle into Steve's arms. The female technician to his left smiled and then walked away, letting him stand there all alone with the baby, blinking in surprise. When he looked around, all the SHIELD agents had left and he had no idea what to do. The doctor looked at the child as she passed him. “We will need to check her over later,” she said, “for now we will wait until child services comes to pick her up. I'll inform the director.” She too was out the door before Steve could even come up with something to say.

He had no idea what he was doing. Quite likely he was doing this wrong.

And the baby knew too. Her crying grew much more frantic and when she squirmed in his arms Steve was suddenly convinced he was going to drop her. Very awkwardly he put her back on the cot and watched her unhappily squirm around.

“It’s worse than I thought,” Tony said softly. “They experimented on orphans of different ages. Specimen A to C. Apparently there was also an F through J.”

“Orphans?” Steve asked and finally moved away from the cot. This was something he could handle. A problem that needed a soldier.

“I’m running the data. There are no name references. Only some information about medical files and where the children were picked up.”

“Where are the other children?” Steve asked and his voice was only rising slightly.

Tony sank back in the chair and while his expression didn’t change considerably he suddenly looked the way he sometimes did when he had drunk too much and was in pain, which was a combination that occurred often enough. In Steve’s experience his team mate drank to forget about his terminal illness, about injuries and about the things that hurt the most, to forget about the pain and headaches, to forget about the indignity chemotherapy had put him through. There were a hundred more reasons for him to drink, but Steve was mostly around for the more subdued ones, as he wasn’t one to enjoy parties. So in Steve’s mind Tony’s holding a drink in one hand came pretty immediately with the association of pain and sickness.

Finally Stark had an answer for him: “They are most likely dead.”

“And the little girl isn’t? Only her?”

Tony shrugged. “Doesn’t look like much of a survivor if you look at her file. They all didn’t. Seems to have been part of the criteria they were looking for.”

He opened all of the files for Steve to see and leaned back. Distantly, Steve wondered why Tony was working on an inane data recovery issue like this, but then he remembered that he’d been the one who had asked Tony to remain behind and deal with the coordination of the mission. And for some reason Tony had humored him, was perhaps still trying to humor him.

But all thoughts about that flew from his mind when he saw the damning label again: “defective” was stamped in virtual ink all over the files of the “specimen”.

For a fleeting moment he felt nothing, no anger, no shock, just nothing.

“Cap?” Tony asked.

“They call them defective.”

And Tony Stark, usually unfazed by pretty much anything thrown his way, even double-crossing, assassin lovers stabbing him in the back, even talking brain tumors, even his own temporary death and transformation into the virtual mind in all machines, flinched.

“It’s not about her color, is it?” Steve asked directly. She was African-American and the thought had somewhere deep inside him already crossed his mind that this meant that to these people she was discardable, but it was something else. “She’s defective like I was.”

Tony nodded. “Asthma. Some were frail. They preyed on the weak.”

“On the ones nobody would be missing?”

With a tight expression Tony shrugged. “How about you get her out and Thor and I see to it that the equipment gets moved fast?”

He shrugged uncomfortably.

The doctors and SHIELD people were buzzing around the room. “She’s running a fever. Nothing dramatic,” it was Monica speaking. She had come down herself to look at the situation, to take it upon herself to give an all clear and make it possible for the little girl to be taken out of the lab swiftly. She too was a mother and while her face didn’t give anything away, Steve knew her much too well by now. The mother in her wanted this kid safe.

“We brought a baby carrier,” she announced as an afterthought.

“She’ll be glad to be out of here,” Tony said and smiled at both Steve and Monica.

And to Steve’s utter mortification that was how he ended up carrying a little Afro-American baby, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted, out of a mostly destroyed building like she was made from glass. Most of the town was a ghost town. But there were still at least two television teams on the scene. It wasn’t unusual these days, because SHIELD was treating the Ultimates very much as their public face and Steve’s own popularity was still off the charts.

As a smug agent informed him not an hour later, it had gone up by another 2,5% after the news hit that “he” had saved a baby from terrorist clutches and inhuman experiments.

* * *

The Triskelion was floating peacefully over New York. Steve found himself staring out of the vast viewing windows for the hundredth time and it was a strange sort of half suppressed realization that his eyes were straying to the Stark Tower building as often as he looked, as if he wanted to reassure himself that the building was still standing. Thor had adopted it as a second home, spending much time there when he wasn’t off doing god knew what. But for Steve returning and really living there, had been a very recent thing. He’d come to meet with Tony, had come to visit Tony’s crowded parties and he’d taken up a bedroom for a long time while Tony had been feeling poorly. It was just what friends and teammates did for each other.

But he knew things were more complicated now.

He was worried about Stark, still.

And not just like a teammate.

Something had unsettled him so much that he wasn’t able to hide from the fact anymore. He wasn’t that kind of coward.

He just had no use for either the implication or the distraction. And sure as hell not everything else that came with it.

As he was contemplating New York he could see Tony’s reflection in the glass of the viewing window and watched him, while Tony was lounging in a chair at the back of the room, occasionally swiveling around. Recently, it had been rare to see him sit still for any length of time. Even while Steve had stayed with him at the tower building, Tony had run up and down to different workshops and worked and worked and worked.

When Anthony had been around Tony also had been busy all the time, researching, building, enhancing, not only the armor, but everything. With the help of that little guy in his brain, all of his genius and his tireless workaholic streak had been released in full force. There had still been women, as Steve remembered with a dejected, clinical interest to collect all the facts, and there had still been parties, but he had mostly been Iron Man and he had been building something or other at all times, when he wasn’t watching movies with his invisible companion. He’d found ways to solve hunger, he’d found ways to solve energy problems. He’d tackled all of the big problems their world was facing.

Steve couldn’t even fathom how someone could be so… disorganized and chaotic and at the same time that clear sighted and brilliant.

“These protectors of children are taking their time,” Thor grumbled.

It wasn’t that he needed to be somewhere. It wasn’t even that he resented that the Ultimates had essentially been told to stay put and watch the sleeping baby until child services arrived. Thor hated standing still, if there wasn’t a reason for him to do so. “We should crush our enemies and fast.”

“Yeah, we should,” Tony agreed easily from where he was still leaning back and forth in his chair, looking comfortable even in his never ending nervosity.

“We will.” Steve tried to smile, but he was in no mood to do so. His anger at the whole impossible and inhuman situation was simmering. This girl had been used as a lab rat and now the people who should be responsible for protecting and saving her, couldn’t even be bothered to hurry over and get her. “How long does it usually take for someone from child services to turn up?”

Tony gave him a crooked smile. “My family life may have been less than ideal, Rogers, but these were not the kind of problems we had to deal with. Ever.”

He shrugged.

“And you do realize that there’s something fishy about this whole thing?” Tony had the fingers of both hands touching in front of his body and it made his sitting pose seem like the one of a movie villain who was gearing up for a monologue. Steve smiled tiredly at the mental image. “Monica confirmed that there is no search warrant out for this kid. For any of these kids.”

“So they lost them and didn’t even notice?”

“That is a very favorable assumption, don't you think?”

He didn’t need to let that sink in. But that Stark had spoken out what he’d been thinking or assuming all along, made him uneasy. They were giving the girl back into the system, because they had nowhere else to give her to and because they were supposed to be the people to find her family or find someone who would take care of her. But with the implication it seemed dangerous to just let her go. After all they had no real idea what had been done to her and how it would influence her biology. It might not show its effects now. It might not show before she hit puberty, before she grew up. “Well, SHIELD is no place for a baby,” he concluded.

“It's no place for anyone, including me,” Tony agreed with a flippant roll of the eyes and finally got up. “I'll go see if I can find out what the problem is. I'm sure the two of you have this and I'll only be a minute.”

He threw a strangely lingering look at the sleeping baby before he walked out, leaving Steve with Thor and the little girl behind. With a pang, he realized that they didn't even know her name, because her file had nothing but the designation given to her by the cruel powers who had used her as lab rat. The very least they could do was to give her back the little of her own history there was. Someone needed to find out where she had come from, who she was.

As he stood there, feeling his own anger at the whole cruelty that had been committed grow, he missed the moment when tiny eyes blinked open and with some soft tired sounds, their little charge woke up. He only realized she was awake when she made a soft, long-drawn mewl, that sounded exhausted and very displeased.

He looked around, but the only eyes to meet were the weary ones of Thor.

Hoping that she'd just fall back to sleep if he hushed her a bit he stepped towards the little carrier that held her and uneasily whispered, “hey, little girl. You'll be okay now. At least I hope so. We’ll make sure everything is done to get you a home.”

For a moment she looked up at him, as if she couldn't quite decide what to make of him. He knew she wasn't going back to sleep, when her lips started quivering and tears formed in her eyes and then she started wailing, pitiful and loud.

“Hey, hey,” he said and he wasn't sure anything on the battlefield had every made him panic as quickly as the pitiful sound coming from her. For a moment he floundered, unsure of what to do. His voice didn't seem to help and she started moving in her little carrier as if she was trying to get free, struggling.

He didn't want her to hurt herself, but he really had no idea what to do. It wasn't like his life had prepared him for something like this.

His voice was rising, as he started to chant “hey there” over and over again, finally, when it accomplished nothing, reaching out a nervous hand to touch her soft, chubby cheek. Her hand shot out and with a surprisingly strong grip she grasped one of his fingers and squealed even louder.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he tried to whisper. “Loud voices are not good, huh?”

He wasn't going to admit to anyone that his hands were a bit shaky when he unstrapped her. Mothers rocked their babies to sleep, didn't they? They also rocked them when they were crying, gently. He had seen it. God, once upon a time he had looked forward to look at Gail and their babies as she held them and soothed them and he had wanted so desperately to build a family. With all his heart he had wanted to be a father – and a good one at that.

Picking up the little girl with both hands, as carefully and as tightly as he dared, caused her to kick her little feet and shriek. He had no idea what to do about that. Whatever he did seemed to only make it worse. “Thor?” he said helplessly, as he saw his Asgardian friend watching them with something that looked like morbid fascination. He wasn't sure what he was going to say even, because Modi was a sad memory for Thor now and Steve's own son... he had never even held him at all even once, before meeting the crazy, evil man he'd grown into.

Awkwardly he held out the baby, and the little girl cried even louder, her little face wet with tears and her little hands balling into fists.

Thor jumped back like a whip had been struck at him and flinched. “Apologies, Captain, I must take my leave,” he said and it would have been comical to see the man flee from the cries of one little baby girl when Steve knew he met monstrosities in battle without blinking an eye. Only it wasn't, but Steve had no idea what to do with the little mass of human being either and it scared him to the core.

She was still kicking her little legs and the crying wasn't stopping. What if he was hurting her? She started squirming and again he was afraid he would either crush her or let her drop.

Thor slunk backwards towards the door and out.

“Wait, Thor! Really, I don't know anything about babies...” he called, voice much too loud for the child. The wailing took on a new tone of desperation and distress and he pulled the little girl closer against him, against his chest, like he thought he had seen mothers do. “Shh, please, please, stop crying. Oh god, I don't know what I'm doing...”

Seemingly in agreement with his statement her cries changed again and he, god, he really had never been so out of his depth. What kind of irresponsible person had decided that he was best suited to take care of their little guest?

“Over here, darling,” a voice said and with a surprised sort of relief he realized he hadn't been completely abandoned. Tony had returned.

“What?” he asked, when Tony motioned his arms wide.

“You are obviously not comfortable with her.”

It was awkward enough to admit to himself that he only wanted to get rid of the little squirming bundle of human being as fast as possible, before he could do anything to harm her, but admitting it to someone else was embarrassing. Tony didn’t seem to mind, not judging him for being the soldier and not the nurturer. He wasn't sure he was more disappointed in himself for that thought, or for his own readiness to pass her on to someone like Tony Stark, who despite being a better man than he gave himself credit for would not have been his first pick for a babysitter at the best of times. But then, Tony really wasn't a bad person, and he was very conveniently volunteering. He sighed, relieved and angry at himself for this show of cowardice. The constant crying was getting to him and suddenly, the baby, still half crying, was making more confused gurgle noises again and shooting out a hand to point at Tony. “Gah?”

That seemed like progress. “Fine, whatever, Stark,” he said gruffly and quickly held out the baby, “she seems to like you anyway.”

And suddenly the tiny chirpy noises that came from the little girl were less distressed, as Tony reached for her and cooed: “Well hello, mimma. Aren't you just a little princess?”

She sobbed, but didn't kick or scream as he handed her over to Tony and with a childish burst of something that was the fear to show weakness mixed with a little embarrassment, Steve only wanted one thing: to get out of here, follow Thor and get to something he was actually good at. Let Stark take care of the baby.

Let whoever wanted to take care of the baby.

“Child services are really taking their time,” he said in his best commanding officer voice and walked with decisive strides towards the door, ready to leave this matter in Tony’s hands for now, “but hopefully they'll be here soon. Just hold on to her until then.”

Stark, who rarely had no comeback ready for any given situation, didn't shout “coward” at him, too engrossed in making soft noises at the girl, and she was still sobbing, but slowly quieting down. Just now she had been inconsolable and suddenly it seemed only half as bad. And Stark wasn’t murmuring, Steve realized, with softly rising tones and in a low voice he was singing: “Ninna nanna, ninna oh, questo bimbo a chi lo do?”

Turning, Steve stared, suddenly transfixed.

It seemed Tony wasn't even aware of his presence anymore, as the small child was clasped to his chest in a careful and very sure hold and the baby, sensing that she was safe, sensing that she was finally with someone who at least seemed to have a sort of idea what he was doing with her, had relaxed in his hold, had stopped her struggling and moving about and was only softly sniffling against Tony's throat and fisting his shirt.

This was exactly like all those family moments he had imagined and had never had. And this was Tony... and… “I didn't know you...” he started, staring transfixed at the unlikely scene.

“Spoke Italian?” Tony asked without raising his voice from the song. He hadn't even looked up or changed the way he had been swaying in time to the soft tune, back and forth and up and down all at once. “Antonio Stark, sweetheart. Kind of a dead give away.”

Steve nearly blushed. “I knew that.” It was just... he had grown up in Brooklyn in the middle of an Irish neighborhood, but Italians had been part of certain working class neighborhoods he came through often. He'd met some nice Italian fellows when he'd made trips to the Bowery; had seen a lot of some of them, actually. And he'd always liked the language. “I just didn't know you...” And it wasn’t just about Tony suddenly revealing the knowledge of  a language that Steve had always loved hearing, had liked whispered in his ear at a point, but the whole unlikely scene of Tony Stark, billionaire playboy genius and Iron Man singing a lullaby to a baby as if he had even the second idea of what he was doing there.

“Mom,” he said softly, “saw it as a matter of pride that we grew up knowing our heritage. And nonna would have fought dad tooth and nails, Stark or not, if he'd dared to stand in the way of her daughter. She always got her way. Even dad was scared of her. Tough old lady, my nonna.”

“I...” Steve started softly, suddenly very aware of the fact that the baby had stopped crying and he'd been about to run away to find something to fight or at least something to punch into, while Tony had just walked in like handling little children came natural to him and the fear that had driven Steve just now - god, I will drop her, I will hurt her, something will go wrong - had just dissolved and given way to an intense curiosity. How much did he even know about one of his closest friends? “...I'm sorry. I never thought to ask. I...”

God, for the longest time he hadn't even known that Tony wasn't - hadn’t been - an only child. And then his brother had appeared on the scene, sophisticated and superior and so cold and crazy; and Steve had been taken aback about the fact that Tony hadn't even been speaking of him until then, that he hadn't called in his brother when he was fighting with cancer; so taken aback that he had never right out asked about it, sensing complicated family dynamics at work. Even then Tony, who had been amiable and laid back even around Gregory and his jibes at him, had seemed to feel no animosity towards his brother, nothing beyond a bit of sibling rivalry and a bit of competition. And they all knew how that story had ended.

He had never thought to ask Tony anything more about his family, because there had been more answers than Steve had wanted to have already and none of them were the kind of stories you liked to tell.

It had never occurred to him that perhaps Tony was good with kids, because clearly the Tony he knew was a loving person - but not in the settling down with a family kind of way; not loving in the way that involved children and family at all.

“You're really good with her,” he whispered in awe.

“And good thing too,” Tony said. “Because child services hasn't even reacted to SHIELD's call yet.”

Steve stood there thunderstruck. “Why?”

“Apparently they think they're not equipped to stand up to terrorists. They want the baby to go into protective custody or something. Can you imagine a little baby? In protective custody? In a very tiny SHIELD cell? Who is going to keep her? Sam? Because not even Monica would be so cruel to shove the little princess at Hawkeye and open all those old wounds.” He was cooing it all as if he was talking to the girl, who was answering with soft cooing noises of her own, and then gave a happy squeal as if she had understood Tony was talking about her. Tony happily bounced her up above his head and down again, holding her securely, while she waved her arms and kicked her little legs in excitement. Her face was glowing with the brightest, happiest smile possible. “La bella principessa,” he said and chuckled. “You like that, huh? Who doesn’t like flying?”

Steve blinked. Tony had been preoccupied and sad for so long, although he'd pretty successfully been playing at being his normal unshakable self. And for his part, Steve had been watching intently, especially when Tony hadn't been aware someone was watching him. Now he was relaxed. Happy even.

“You really have a way with girls, huh?” Although right now it looked like this girl had wrapped Tony around her little finger in record time and not the other way around.

Tony grinned wider, and just for a moment his eyes met Steve's beyond the baby's head and they were a shining blue. “This one is a keeper,” he said and the baby started laughing as if on cue.

“Perhaps that is the answer,” Steve heard himself suggest. “We're the Ultimates. We can give her protective custody. Doesn't get much more protective than us, don't you think?”

Surprise gave way to a very shark-like grin. “So you put a spell on him too, huh?” he asked the girl.

The baby giggled happily and squealed loudly, aware of the attention shifting back to her. Her choked giggles were the happiest sound Steve had ever heard.

And Steve still had no idea what he was doing. But apparently he had made up his mind and Tony wasn't protesting.

The fact that all off a sudden the little baby in Tony's arms seemed to be the happiest child in the world, made it seem like less of a bad idea. But he was still feeling enough out of his depth that he knew this wasn't going to be easy and he had no idea if either of them would be up for it.

At least Tony, who was holding the baby as if he knew what he was doing, made it seem easy.

For a few days they would be okay.

* * *

Tony expected some sort of push back, but Monica, face her typical mask of calm, just threw one short look at him and the baby, arms folded in front of her chest, and turned her attention to Steve. “Why not?” she said.

“Are you sure,” Steve asked, as if he too had expected some kind of protest at least. Captain America had come prepared for a fight and now he looked at Tony for backup as if not having to fight was not a good thing.

Monica just shrugged and looked at Tony who had finally found someone who had prepared a baby bottle with some formula for their young charge and was feeding her. One of the doctors had given him some advice on how to hold her and Monica had walked in to add her own two cents about how to keep tiny humans happy. It all made him feel nervous enough about it all to call it off. Until people had started scrutinizing them both he and the girl had been fine, but now he was beginning to think this was all some twisted dream and his own fear was beginning to make her nervous. “Look at them,” Monica told Cap and gestured at Tony and the girl , as if she thought that was all the explanation that needed to be given to justify an official executive decision. Then she finally turned to Tony himself. “I meant it when I said back then, that you were a better dad to that brain tumor of yours than my fuck-up of a ex-husband ever even pretended to be to our only son. This is going to be a little different. Just be as patient as you were with Anthony and ask for help. But I feel like this isn't the first time you held a baby and you do seem to get along.” Her raised eyebrow asked the obvious question.

“I don't have a litter of little Stark's running around the planet somewhere, no. I play willfully with my own life, but that doesn't mean I can't practice safe sex.”

“Well,” Monica said and put her hands on her hips and smiled like she was going to enjoy the next part, but Steve who hadn't sat down for even a second since the fight, suddenly looked at him with that set jaw expression that usually meant he wasn’t sure himself if he was angry at the world or just a fish out of water, “I sure didn't think I'd ever have to teach you how to change diapers, but I'm not going to pass up the chance to teach something of that magnitude to Tony Stark.”

Tony shrugged. The truth of this matter was slowly beginning to sink in. The little girl pushed away the bottle and looked up at him with a stern expression that could have matched Steve's. Perhaps the super soldier serum was responsible for that expression? It would make a lot of sense. “If it has to be done. We're not leaving her here.”

“Good,” Monica suddenly beamed. “I was this close to taking her in myself, when those idiots refused to take her off our hands. But my family has their hands full with my own little bundle of joy, so you're the next best thing. Perhaps this is better. We haven't even checked yet if any of the experiments had an effect. They were trying to recreate you,” and she looked at Steve as she said it, “after all.”

Under different circumstances Tony would have pointed out that, really, someone had to have second thoughts about this. But he wasn't going to be the one who protested this now – not after it had been their idea in the first place.

The little warm weight in his arms was beginning to feel familiar, and he wanted her to stay there, keep her happy and make her forget what had been done to her.

And that was how he ended up inside the tower penthouse, shooing his current Jarvis around with a playful PR smile on his face and barking orders, while they unpacked all the things he'd just had delivered to their home to make their little “guest” comfortable. After all the whole penthouse was more suited to guests of the adult kind. The baby carrier complete with obliviously slumbering baby was sitting on the kitchen table and Captain America, an Iron Man coffee mug in his hands, still unchangeably clad in his uniform and his shield leaning against his shin, was watching her with the forlorn look he'd been wearing since they'd found her in her sterile glass crib.

“Are you alright?” Tony asked when he came past the kitchen for the seventh time, peaking in to make sure the baby was still okay. It had been a constant urge to look for her, to make sure nothing had befallen her. The nervous fear and anxiousness surprised him the most. Anthony had been easy to deal with. He'd been a too smart kid, without a corporeal form that could get hurt. At worst Anthony would have been able to grow and kill Tony. There had been no need to worry about him eating or sleeping or being unsupervised. His kid tumor had had the run of the lab. The baby on the other hand... she was real in a wholly different way and she was vulnerable and needed an actual adult to take care of her. Nobody in their right mind would have accused him of being the responsible adult here in this room.

He hadn't let the situation catch up with him yet and instead channeled all the nervous energy into redecorating part of his living space and running mental checklists to make sure they had everything for the next few days. There was a baby in his home and he was quite sure that the little pangs of fear at the thought were normal.

Surely, this was just so unfamiliar and so important that he couldn’t help feeling anxious. There was a tiny life depending on them and not in the sense the world usually depended on the Ultimates.

Still he didn't like the feeling.

He would grow attached.

He shouldn't grow attached.

He would make mistakes.

He hadn’t even been able to save Anthony. Anthony had had to save him.

And a little human being who had been hurt enough could be hurt even more and there would be nobody to save Tony from the guilt if something happened to her.

God, he knew, none of this was a good idea. They had so much that still needed solving. There were so many projects that needed finishing. All indications were that world was going to face its greatest threat yet – and he really should be focusing on that, should be focusing on finishing the things he and Anthony had set in motion together and keep in close contact with Susan Storm who was the only other scientist on the planet he could trust to stay focused on the things that mattered. What good was babysitting when the planet was at stake?

“Me?” Steve asked as if he had only now noticed Tony was standing there watching him and waiting for an answer for his yet unanswered question.

“Yeah, you, Cap. Are you okay? You look a bit out of it.” Which was not what Tony allowed himself to feel at the moment. Too much to do. Too much to keep track of.

“Me?” Steve repeated and shook himself when he realized that he hadn't really joined this conversation yet. “Have you looked at yourself?”

“I'm trying not to.” He grinned to make it seem like one of his usual jokes. Steve only looked even more frowny.

“Let the blond bodyguard type, you insists is called Jarvis, coordinate this and sit down.” Clearly, it was an order to be followed, and clearly he was as exhausted and overwhelmed as Steve looked, because he found himself sitting in a chair beside Steve contemplating the baby not a minute later.

“We have a baby,” he whispered as he studied the relaxed features and the soft rise and fall of the little chest.

“It appears so,” Rogers agreed in level tone.

There wasn't much more to be said about the situation for now. At least Tony couldn't come up with anything else to say and that was even scarier than his jokes falling short. He felt Steve's piercing gaze resting on him as if he was trying to unravel a particularly annoying mystery and resisted the urge to look up.

“She needs a name,” he finally said.

Rogers made an acknowledging noise and nodded, but made no suggestions.

They sat like that in silence, until the girl woke up and Tony felt he needed to spring back into action. No wonder new parents were not the heart of any party. There wasn't much room for anything but taking care of a baby.

* * *

Her crib had been placed to one side of the open space that made his bedroom. She woke him at three in the morning, with a blood curdling scream that changed into desperate loud crying. He had staff on hand to take over, but her crib was right here because he had wanted it that way. He preferred to get up himself, proving to himself that he could be responsible. After all she was in a strange new environment again and after the things Monica had said and what the doctors had implied what she needed now was some stability. Tony wasn't exactly the expert on stability, but he remembered that when he'd been little his mother had been his world, the one person who he could trust to always be there for him. And now the little girl had nobody.

Sometimes she flinched at unexpected sounds, not even just the loud ones, but just certain sounds. She started crying the moment she realized she was going to be put down, but it wasn’t possible to carry her around all day. Tony had yet to figure out if any of this had to do with what she had gone through in the lab or if it was just normal behavior for a baby.

Being woken at night wasn’t really a problem. He functioned on a bare minimum of sleep and a maximum of coffee most days, but he had a feeling that this would have to change, if he wanted this to work out. If in fact the arrangement was meant to go on. “Vedi, ci conosciamo da meno di un giorno, ma già mi hai completamente abbindolata,” he murmured when he got out of bed. “Usually it's the other way around.”

She was coughing and crying loudly, but when she saw him she squealed angry and high pitched, only calming a little when she noticed he was walking towards her. The doctors at SHIELD had warned him about that. She had been a sick little baby, when she'd been taken and the cocktails she'd been injected with had thrown her immune system on a loop.

He had read up on the little her file had given him about her and knew she was close to 8 months old, although she was a bit on the small side. There were quite a few reasons why she could be waking up at night. There was no telling if she had any concept of night or day yet, because who knew what kind of rhythm had been established in the lab. Had she cried herself to exhaustion? Had the she been woken whenever they needed her? Or had she been ignored most of the time?

Monica had told him not to light up the room to starkly as not to turn night into day, so he walked towards her by only the dim light of her night lamp. “You really need a name, principessa. Specimen doesn't look so nice on the passport. People will think you're some kind of rapper. Specimen D. If you ever want to go down that route we can talk about it again, but until then...”

She squirmed in his arms and started to grab at his beard, her eyes going big and round when she felt the texture. He was still mostly a stranger to her, but apparently that didn't bother her much. After only a few hours he had become her favorite plaything, and she was pulling his hairs and grabbing for him every chance she got. “You seem chipper, now what? I hope you realize I’m new to this. I’m not some sort of expert baby whisperer.”

He checked her diapers and wondered at how after having done it twice, changing diapers just became like any other inane task you had to perform. It was easiest when you didn't think to hard about what it was you were doing and just focused on the steps you had to go through. His brain had started to treat it just like any engineering task that didn’t need him to solve an as of yet unsolved problem. This was maintenance. It didn’t need much brain capacity. The baby gurgled to herself and smiled at him when he made a face in the dim light.

Because she seemed to be too awake to be put back in her crib, he tried to feed her, but she didn't seem overly interested in that either.

“Look, we already have one insomniac in this household. That is more than enough. Don’t try and follow in my footsteps. You’ll just have a harder time getting used to normal life out there.”

She cooed at him and pointed a finger at the table and he let his gaze sweep the area to figure out what she had seen.

With a pang he realized that he had already grown attached, that this was going to get harder with every hour now that he was beginning to feel responsible for her.

Losing Anthony had been a terrible blow, and he really needed to remind himself that this baby needed a real family, not an alcoholic genius who had never managed to hold onto any real relationship in his life. She was not here to fill a spot left by someone else. And he was in no position to be a father to anyone who lived outside his own head.

He walked up and down with her for a while, but she only seemed to grow more awake, giggling and making cooing sounds at him as if she was trying to tell him something or make him settle down. So he finally gave up and sat down on the sofa with her, calling up the data he wanted to review to his Stark pad. It took him less than two minutes to look through the files he'd taken from SHIELD.

To his disappointment there was no name for their little specimen anywhere to be found. The baby had been taken from a hospital right after her mother had died in a hospital after she had managed to save her little girl from a collapsing building. It must have been a bomb or attack. They had been in the middle of a war zone, so it wasn’t even surprising. Their country had been ripped apart literally and Tony was sure there were too many stories exactly like this one to count them all. No relatives could be identified at the time of the little girl arriving in the hospital. From there she had never made it into a new home. The paper trail was messy. After all there had been a war going on and her part of the country had drowned in chaos.

“They didn't even note down any sort of name for you,” he said, appalled and a little angry. War or no war, someone should have cared. But the only person who had cared, had probably been the one who had spirited her away to a lab for experimentation and certain death.

She poked at the screen from where she was sitting on his lap and then coughed, a dry and pitiful sound, that scared him. But then the baby tried to pull herself up to look over his shoulder as steps could be heard in the hallway, holding herself closely to Tony’s chest. He was beginning to get used to the soft smell of her, the feel of her small hands against his face and her heavy warmth against his shoulder. Tony leaned back to watch the peculiar behavior, not worried that there was anything dangerous lurking out there in the hallway. His security system was still one of the best on the planet and there were at least two other Ultimates staying here.

Finally Steve awkwardly appeared in the doorway, wearing a white tee and plain boxers. Tony looked at him, with his head leaning on the backrest. “Everything alright?” he asked from his spot in the door.

Tony shrugged. “We're trying to figure that out.”

“Okay.” He remained standing in the doorway as if he wasn't sure what to do with himself.

The baby squealed, focusing all her attention back on Tony, who she had noticed wasn’t looking at her anymore, and managed to grab one of Tony's longer bangs and pulled hard. He chuckled and tried to disengage the little fingers, while she gurgled at him. “Quite the grip, Miss America,” he joked.

“Tough girl,” Steve said and finally walked over to sit beside them on the vast sofa.

She flopped down again, slouching against Tony, but peering at Steve through her eyelashes.

“We can't go on calling her baby,” Tony said.

Steve nodded. He tentatively held out his hand and watched as the little girl grabbed for his finger, her eyes still wide. The giggling and gurgling had stopped.

“I can't find her birth certificate or any sort of information on what she was named after birth. The data must be somewhere, because there's information on the file, but it looks like whoever took her tried to erase all traces of her existence.”

“That part of the country wasn't in a good place around that time. It must have been chaotic, when the state tried to split away and civil war spread to the streets.”

“No kidding.”

They contemplated the circumstances of it all, while the little girl, finally sure that Steve was no threat made another little questioning noise and tried to chew on his fingers. Steve swallowed hard but didn't pull away, just let her slobber all over his hand.

Tony thankful for the distraction went through the rest of the file, hoping to find something. “Her mother was Kendra Lewis, daughter of Tanya and Carl Lewis. No indication of who the father was or is.”

Steve nodded. “So what does that mean for us?”

Tony shrugged slowly. “Not much. They’re all dead.”


It seemed their little charge really was all alone in this world. No loving family would appear to pick her up and take her from their hands. “So we need a name. Any favorites?”

Steve watched her in the half-darkness of the room with an unreadable expression and after a long pause asked: “Maria? Sarah?”

“Like either of our mothers?” His nose had scrunched up even before he’d finished the thought. It was an obvious and easy way to pick a name, but Tony felt he had no right at all to name a girl that wasn't his own after his mother. It was like the little girl had chosen him and not the other way around. He could at least give her more than an easy name that was conveniently unimaginative. “She looks like a little Rose to me,” he proposed, choosing the first half-decent name that popped into his mind. He had always liked the name, but it too seemed wrong somehow.

“Rose?” Steve asked with a frown. “She looks tougher than any flower.”

They knew that was actually not true. They had seen her medical history and before the experiments her life expectancy hadn't looked too good. Now nobody could tell what kind of health trouble to expect. But then perhaps naming her after a delicate flower was doing her a disservice.

“What's a tough name? Alex? Steve? We can’t call her Steve, can we?”

Steve actually chuckled. “Steve? No, that's really not a tough name and sure as hell not for a little dame. Anthony is a tough name. How about Antonia?”

He hated the name immediately with a searing hot and irrational passion. The girl, now squirming around a bit in his lap and busy again with slobbering up her own hand, was watching them with her wide brown eyes, just like she was waiting for a final decision.

“Look, naming a talking brain tumor after myself was one thing. Only I could see him and he probably had modeled himself on the memories of myself he found in my mind or something. He was like a small version of me. A better version of me. It was crazy, but it all made sense at the time. And nobody actually calls me Antonio anymore, which I'm very thankful for, so it never got confusing in my own head. That worked, because he was like an extension of myself. She’s her own little human being and she should have a chance at life and she absolutely has the right to have her own name.”

Talking about Anthony still hurt. That place he'd occupied was empty, like a thick dark impenetrable void of loneliness that lived somewhere inside of Tony. He was grieving and Tony knew some of it wasn't so easily hidden. There would always be cracks in his armor. It made him nervous that Steve, carefully stroking his fingers through the baby's dark hair, was focusing all his attention on him instead of her. If he focused too hard, he would see the cracks and Tony had no right to fall apart on someone who had lost so much over the course of his life. Usually the Ultimates got along, because they all – when it came down to it – were not quite out of this world. They respected each other, of course, but they had positively bonded about their differences. Tony was just trying very hard to ignore the fact that he'd been close to – or well half-way through – death's door recently and Steve, who had never been weird about it when Tony had been slowly dying of a terminal illness before, was suddenly being very... Tony didn't even know what the word was for what Steve was exactly, but the fact that something in that friendship had changed made him nervous. Something had changed. It was in the way Steve suddenly looked up every time Tony called him darling. His flirting still made the man nervous, but then Steve seemed to also take much more note of it.

And suddenly Tony did too.

He needed a drink. But he had a baby on his lap and there was no way that now was the time to pour himself a Scotch even if he wanted to with every fiber of his being.

But he'd sworn to himself before that he would not let Anthony's sacrifice go to waste. He was going to make the world a better place in the ways they would have tried to do together. His little brain tumor boy and him.

No Scotch for him tonight.

“How about Kendra?”

“Tanya,” Steve suggested.

And that was even better. If they had to choose the name of a relative than it should be one of her own. “How do you like that?” he asked. “Tanya and Tony,” he cooed. “Can we make that work?”

She held out her wet fingers and cooed back, managing to make it sound both happy and questioning. She smeared her slobbered up finger along his chin and babbled something.

Tony shrugged and focused back on Steve, carefully catching her little hand in his own.

It seemed like that settled that discussion. But all of them nearly jumped out of their skin when Thor's normally booming voice said quietly from the doorway. “Freya. She needs a good strong name.”

The baby in question squealed, scared or nervous, and suddenly a squirming mass in Tony's hold. He got to his feet and held her close to his chest. “Sh, sh, sh,” he started to whisper in her ear, moving up and down and swaying to an unheard tune in his head, before her squeals could give way to crying. She settled, whimpering a bit, but let herself be calmed by his voice.

“A Nordic name?” Steve asked, not like he objected, but curious.

“A strong name. The two of you wanted a strong name. That's a strong name.” Thor was leaning casually in the doorway and Tony, who was still walking up and down the length of the room and whispering nonsense, couldn't tell in the dim light what might be going through his head.

Thor too had lost a son. A whole world. Before that the love of his life. And he was still here.

“Freya,” Tony repeated and the name rolled of his tongue easily. “Freya,” he muttered, and there was a scary thought: Freya Stark. It was so absurd that he discarded the thought before it could even completely form. “I can work with both. Tanya, Freya. I just want her to have a name.” In his mind Tanya had already begun to fester, but he was half convinced that this would only be a temporary naming anyway. Tanya F. Stark, he thought would look perfect on a business card, she'd never have.

Because he was being ridiculous.

“Tanya,” he muttered. “Freya.”

Just as he said it the quiet whining turned into bone shaking cries again and he had no idea what he had done differently than a minute before. He started to gently rock her, but suddenly it seemed there was no consoling her. Then, her tiny head resting against his shoulder, thick tears in her eyes, she sniffled and settled down, staring up at him.

Really, however it looked to Steve and Thor, he had no idea what he was doing. He'd never had a child before. It couldn’t be hard to find someone with more experience to take care of her. And still he was reluctant to put her down or giver her to someone else. When he looked up to see his team mates watching him intently he realized that both of them had smiles on their faces. Thor was watching them with the usual amiable expression of a friend who saw the good in Tony's crazy behavior and Steve with the calm expression he got sometimes when he suddenly realized he was at home, that he had a place in this world.

Tony had no idea what to make of it. Because just at this moment he was feeling freaked out and tired and like all of this was the worst idea possible.

Who in their right mind had given a child to him of all people?

“She cries like a goddess,” Thor said and looked satisfied. Tony shrugged, unsure if he was even meant to give input or if he had just become designated the only one who was willing to hold the baby for any length of time, because like all babies she was at least a bit unpredictable.

“So Freya? I think I like the name,” Steve said softly. “For now it sounds like something to call her. I mean, it's not up to us to name her really, but she needs a name. Everybody needs a name.”

Tony finally relented: “Better than calling her baby forever. But believe me Thor, if you think you're going to teach her your fake Asgardian speech patterns, you can go looking for an apartment to rent. Because no little girl is going to talk like that in my house.” Only belatedly he realized that this sounded like this was going to be a long-term arrangement. And who was he kidding? There was a crib over by his bedroom, there was a baby pen, still packed and ready to be set up standing right here in his living room and he'd had Jarvis bring toys and equipment and... things all day.

“I have no idea whatsoever what you could be implying,” Thor said with a mocking grin and a very decidedly non-Asgardian way of speaking. Troll. Tony rolled his eyes, before Thor's grin widened a bit more and he added: “Good night, friend Tony. Good night, little Freya.”

Tony shook his head and looked down at the little baby in his arms. “Look, Tanya, that was your crazy uncle Thor and if we want to get you to be a big, healthy girl then the first thing you need to learn is that you do nothing he tells you to do, because he's a crazy troll from Asgard and he has the worst ideas ever.” He thought of his mother who had called him Tony. Tessoro, she had called him sometimes when he’d been good. To his father he hadn't even been an asset, always second in his eyes behind Greg, but to his mother her boys had been her true treasure.

“I always wanted to have my own family,” Steve admitted. “But we know how that one turned out.”

“Any kid would be so lucky to have you as father.”

Steve shook his head sadly. “I don’t think we’ll ever find out. We don’t want to have another crazed super soldier running around.”

He tried to come up with something comforting to say, but came up blank. There wasn't much comfort in the story of the Red Skull. Little Tanya suddenly managed to grab his nose and pull hard. And he just went with it, leaned down towards her and tried to carefully dislodge himself. “She’s unhappy,” he whispered in a sing-song voice to get her attention. “I think she’s as tired and overwhelmed as I feel, I just have no idea how to help her. I know exactly what would help me, but I don’t think tonight’s the night for Dirty Martinis. Is it now, darling?”

“You could try and sing to her again. It worked before.” The soft smile that came with the words made him more self-conscious than it had any right to. It had come natural back on the Helicarrier, but now he was feeling self-conscious and ridiculous, because Cap was standing there in the middle of his own penthouse, watching him like he was the one who expected being sung to.

Damn, did he ever want that drink.

“Okay, okay,” he said, when the baby started pedaling her little feet again, impatiently kicking at air. It was easy to dig the words of the old lullaby from his memory. And for some minutes, walking up and down the room, focusing on nothing but the humming rhythm, the slight swaying movements, and the nonsensical words of the song, made it all right and easy. The little girl was deeply asleep in minutes.

“Told you,” Steve said and nodded, satisfied.

Tony wanted to feel exasperated, but when he finally managed to dislodge Tanya from his shoulder and gently lift her into her new bed, he felt nothing but wonder.

* * *

The magnitude of having a young child to care for only sunk in the next day, as he realized there was no way to hold a coffee cup and sip the bitter liquid while holding a restless little girl. Steve was sitting at his dining table reading books about babies and parenting and the little angel gurgled happily in his ear, getting slobber all over the red silk.

He’d woken up with ideas for solving the energy output problem that Anthony hadn’t gotten to yet, before… Well, before, and only now did he begin to realize how much his schedule would have to change. There was no running up to the lab or down to the workshop just because an idea had sprung up in his mind. Tanya would need his full attention while she was here, because so far he had been the only one even daring enough to pick her up.

There was no room for a baby in any of his workplaces.

Steve seemed to sense his predicament and chose the moment to look up and smile at him. “Good morning.”

“Yeah,” Tony answered and he was sure the ridiculous picture of Captain America in nothing but boxers and a shirt, reading parenting advice out of colorful books, would be edged on the surface of his mind forever. “Good morning, darling,” he added, trying for sarcastic more than flirtatious, but Steve's smile didn't dim. Tony had never imagined to have the family breakfast of an all American family, but for this one morning he was going to pretend that was what was happening.

“I set up her high chair,” Steve said and jumped up, helpfully pulling out the chair.

It took some maneuvering to get her inside and make her sit. She scrunched up her nose as she realized Tony wasn't right there anymore, but in front of her. “Guuuuh,” she said with an unhappy expression.

He could emphasize. As much as his back appreciated the rest, his arms suddenly felt empty.

As an apology he held out his index finger for her to grasp and let her hold it while he attempted to eat something.

“Shouldn't she eat first?” Steve asked, watching them over the rim of his book.

“The lady Tanya had her absolutely delicious baby formula, before I even attempted to get at my coffee. If people still think I'm not a hero, there’s probably nothing that will convince them.”

“You settled on Tanya?”

“Tanya first, Freya second. I don't want to disappoint Thor. He has a hammer that an awesome genius made for him and he knows how to use it.”

Steve grinned. For someone who usually couldn't wait to jump back into his work life of beating up bad guys he seemed to be quite content here at the breakfast table. Tony had no trouble thinking of him as the old-fashioned head of his own little family, but Tony would really not fit into that picture. He would be a terrible housewife.

* * *

Being a parent had never been a part of his plan.

The whole wide world knew that he slept around, that he partied hard and that more people went in and out of his bed than had ever visited him in his hospital rooms. But he had always been extremely careful. He was sure that there were no unplanned little Stark heirs running around somewhere waiting their turn. Not because he was afraid of the bad press, the lawsuits and the leverage an actual heir could give to someone with evil plans, but because Tony had not exactly had a model family. His mother had given Greg and him all the love she had to give, but Tony had never lived up to his father's expectations and he had known that from a young age. His brother, his twin, had died trying to get rid of him once and for all.

His own greatest fear had always been to become too much like his father.

Better not to have children than to have to one day realize that you had become the Howard to a little Tony you’d made. That hadn't ever changed the fact that he actually liked children. And apparently children liked him.

Which was a blessing, as Tanya lay on her stomach on her baby blanket on the floor of the living room, blowing air through her lips like she was a miniature whale, and he was lying on his side watching her in fascination as she moved back and forth without moving anywhere. Thor had walked in and out of the apartment a few times, looking in on them, but never actually striking up a conversation, and Steve had been called back in to take care of something or other for SHIELD. The handsome soldier had been very tight lipped about where he was going, but Tony could put two and two together. Their little terrorist problem wasn't solved, just because they'd managed to raid another nest of vipers.

He hadn't yet questioned the fact that he was the one holding on to the baby instead of joining the op, but he had noticed that he was the only one who actually picked her up when she cried, the only one who touched her, fed her, cleaned her. Steve had been reluctant to even hold her for one moment since that very beginning. “I will drop her,” he had insisted.

“You held her just fine before.”

“And she hated it.”

“She's a little ball of upset kid, Cap. God knows what she's been through in her little life. Don't hold it against her that she's falling for the Stark charm and not the apple pie smile. She’s a mess right now. She’ll fall for you as soon as she’s better”

Steve hadn't grinned, but hadn't gotten that closed up, unreadable expression he got when he was insulted either. “You're good with her. You're really good with kids. You hold her.”

“I'm also good with exploding things and weapons of mass destruction,” he pointed out. “You're not afraid of a baby, are you? Are you, Cap? Because that would be hilarious.”

And there had been a flash of fear there, just a blip of it in the clear blue eyes, chased out by will and resolution as soon as it appeared. “She needs to be safe and you obviously are her first choice of companion.”

“She’s very obviously not old enough to make her own decisions. Even you would have to admit that.”

“Alright, I’m making the choice for all of us. You keep her safe, Tony.” That had ended that discussion.

“If I had known that all it would take to make Steve get wobbly knees was a cute little thing like you, principessa, then I would have adopted years ago.”

He spoke the word adopted without thinking, but it echoed in his own ears like thunder. The mere thought was ridiculous. The baby had been with him here in his home for less than 24 hours and he still had no idea how he was going to handle being at the beg and call of the little ball of needs and continue his work.

There was also no way that child services would agree to her remaining with them for any length of time when they finally got here to look at her. She wouldn't have an easy life, if her medical file was anything to go by, but she deserved to live that life with a loving family and not a bunch of messed up superheros.

And Tony's real job was making sure that the world would exists long enough for that life to play out.

No child services person appeared all day and Tony was ready to forget all about it until Monica checked up on them. But then the little girl started coughing again.

It wasn’t just a cough. It was the puffing up of cheeks and the sudden change from happy baby to little crying ball of misery that said loud and clear that something wasn’t right. And Tony was holding her, singing to her, walking up and down the room with her and it only seemed to get worse. Nothing worked.

He made the decision to go in a split second. He knew enough about hospitals and doctors to know that for a baby with his little girl's medical history a cough could be much more than a cough, and he didn't know enough about medicine to actually help her himself. With speed and efficiency that usually went into his work he packed what they needed, doing most of the packing with one arm, as he held the crying baby with the other. When he finally put her into her baby carrier she was inconsolable and he nearly took her out again to sooth her.

But instead he swallowed his own fear, strapped her into the seat of the hovercar and went, putting through two calls as he went at top speed towards the Triskelion.

* * *

“I don't quite believe it,” was about the first, second and perhaps also the third thing Susan Storm said about the whole situation when she arrived at the Triskelion medical station and found Tony there, walking up and down whispering nonsense once again to calm down the crying Tanya, who had not at all appreciated the sensation of being poked and prodded.

Tony knew exactly what she was thinking, but he also knew there was nothing to be done about it now. Susan was one of the few people that Tony thought might truly make a difference one day. Richards may have been on to something when he'd fallen for this girl, who had grown up to be a brilliant woman; much more brilliant and powerful than Richards himself in Tony's estimation.

“You realize I'm not a proper doctor,” Susan finally asked, when he transferred the baby to her arms.

“She has proper doctors here. You are a scientist. I want a scientist on this case.”

Susan blinked down at Tanya who had finally cried herself out and was just making unhappy, and sometimes right out scared noises. “A scientists? You want me...? I'm a bio-chemist.”

“You are not just a bio-chemist. You're the only other person I know who has multiple doctorates. I want you to help me help her.”

“I... Yeah,” Susan said and looked from her to him and then back again at the unhappy, sniveling infant. “She's the girl Cap got out of the labs, yes?” For the first time since she'd stepped into the room she wasn't the surprised young woman, but Susan Storm, the Indivisible Woman, one of the smartest women on earth, and she was looking at more than just a child, but at a problem that needed solving.

“Director Chang already gave you clearance, ma'm,” the SHIELD medical doctor in charge – she had introduced herself as Marie Unah - who had been taking care of Tanya told her.

“I'd really appreciate it,” Tony added.

“Her DNA has been tampered with. She's received some treatments that were meant to recreate the super soldier treatments that were used on Rogers. She was very sick before and we think that is why she was chosen in the first place,” the doctor went on listing the bare facts.

Susan looked at Tony and pursed her lips as if she was thinking about where to get started. “Alright. She's been exposed to radiation and she's received some kind of serum?”

“A close approximation of the super soldier formula was reverse-engineered from some vials of Rogers' blood.”

“I brought her here because she had a coughing fit.” Tony felt like he needed to remind everyone that he wasn't simply interested in the science. He wanted Tanya to get help.

“Must have been painful,” Doctor Unah added. “The poor thing was crying terribly.”

“As far as we can tell she suffered asthma attacks before, but this is different.” Tony pulled up the data for Susan to look at, while he kept a close eye on how Tanya was reacting to the new person holding her. “Her immune system is running haywire.”

“She likes being held,” Susan said at the same time, suddenly grinning up at him. “Cute little baby.”

“Be careful,” Tony said and was aware of how his voice was suddenly much softer, “she has this way of wrapping people around her finger.”

Susan giggled, because Tanya had just grasped her finger with her little hand and looked up at her with round, brown eyes. “I can see why.” But when she raised her head and grinned at Tony, her look got a bit teasing. “I left you about 25 voice messages, Stark, because there's something I want you to look at and I thought... I thought this was about you finally calling me in about that. But, okay. This problem is cute, so you're forgiven. Come on then, show me why I'm the person you need here.”

A snippy reply was on the tip of his tongue, but Tanya suddenly whined and her little arms were reaching for him and for some reason he was right there before he had even made a decision to do so, picking her up out of Susan's arms and whispering: “I'm here, baby. I'm right here.”

He just knew that Susan was grinning at him with mirth, because she too was still hung up on the whole “who would have thought Tony Stark would actually hold a baby, because he wants to” thing. Her grinning held that quality for another few seconds – because by then Steve rounded the corner in a sprint. “I heard you were here? Is she alright?”

“See?” he cooed at Tanya. “All your bodyguards are here. There's absolutely no reason to be upset. We're not letting anything happen to you.”

“Bodyguards, huh?” Susan asked and looked at the doctor who returned the look with an equal amount of “uh-huh” in her gaze. “When did they become super dads?”

But the baby was finally quiet, resting her cheek against Tony's chest, and Steve, pulling his blue gloves from his fingers, stepped closer and touched her cheek. “Monica told me you brought her and I thought...”

“She's running a fever,” Susan supplied after she went over the readings. “And she has received some antibiotics. Her immune system is really fragile.”

“Oh,” Steve said. As always it was strange to see him undergo the transformation from stern leader to overwhelmed man without a real mission, when he realized that he was probably not going to be of help here. Anger was a much better look on him than this sudden deflating.

Tony held up Tanya. “Perhaps you should hold her for a bit,” he suggested.

“Oh, no,” Steve said immediately. “You're much better with her.”

We'll never know that if you don't ever pick her up, Tony thought, slightly annoyed, but didn't push it, because when he caught Steve's eye he recognized something of himself there: a man who knew too much about sickness and hospital rooms. It was easy to forget that Steve had been that man too, before he'd been turned into America's first super soldier. Tony had only learned to appreciate that side of him, when he'd become the friend who had willingly sat at his bedside and helped him to get to the bathroom when he could barely stand without turning up his nose or making him feel even worse about his weakness.

“Look at you,” Susan said and grinned as she finally stepped between them to take little Tanya out of Tony's arms. “Tony's right. You're the boss in here already, with Iron Man and Captain America fawning over you. Now let's look at you, sweetheart. And then I have to talk to him.” Her smile dimmed somewhat as she met Tony's eyes.

He knew what she wanted to talk about.

He knew.

And there was no use in putting it up any longer. A new threat was coming and they needed to meet it head on if they wanted to survive.

Tanya started babbling, when Susan carefully put her down on the table. Tony moved to their side and was aware of Steve moving with him, standing at his shoulder as if in support. He wanted to point out that he was just the person who was taking care of the little orphan for now, not the worried father.

But he was aware that both of them were more invested than casual care takers.

He was still telling himself that he was missing Anthony – the son he would never have and the better part of himself that he had been trying to forget about.

He watched Susan start her scans, made sure Tanya wasn't staring up at the light above them, but at him and she stayed calm through the whole procedure. Susan ran her own set of tests, while Tony again picked the baby up and Steve, still at his side, holding his hand out and watching the way she played with his fingers.

“She's been through so much,” he said and then smiled at Tony.

“Yeah, it's remarkable that she's still here. Survivor.”

“Tough as nails.”

“Tough like you,” Susan remarked. “I'm not sure how to tell you this, Steve. But there's so much of you in her now, she might as well be yours.”

Steve's mouth set into a thin line, and for once Tony couldn't tell if he was angry or upset or just even more out of his depth here. “Of me or of the serum?”

“If I looked at your makeup now, Steve, would there be a difference? You've been irrevocably altered by the serum.” Susan wore an expression of sympathy. “I know what it is to be changed, remember? Her body is now trying to cope with all the changes. The procedure was experimental. Perhaps they didn't even know they had succeeded.”

“Succeeded? In what? Turning her into me?”

Susan shrugged. “I don't know. She's just a baby. It's impossible to tell if she'll develop powers. It's impossible to tell how the tempering will long term affect her immune system.”

“The cough?” Tony asked.

“Just a little infection, just like the doctor suspected. She's going to be alright. But she'll need monitoring.”

In Tony's head the details were coming together to form the bigger picture: The girl he'd named had been changed forever. She was carrying a little bit of Steve's super soldier in her, perhaps not enough to truly set her apart, but perhaps enough to make it necessary to hide her away from the men and women who had used her for these experiments in the first place.

Tanya yawned and he put her into her baby carrier, gave her the blue pacifier he'd bought her and the plush ball that had the face of a cat on it and that she liked to hold and grasp at. The moment he moved away she started to move around nervously to see where he was going.

“So, she's okay?”

“We hope she's going to be.”

He silently thanked god for small blessings.

“Taking care of a sick little baby won't be a walk in the park, though,” Doctor Unah warned.

Tony discovered very soon that she hadn't been joking. Tanya remained unhappy and cranky for the rest of the day. When the cough returned, she cried. And still sometimes, when she fell asleep against his chest, or smiled at him despite not feeling all that well, or when she shoved the cat ball at him with wide open eyes, as if she wanted him to have it, all of it didn't seem so bad.

There was snot and slobber on his favorite shirt and there were toys and baby things strewn all over the place and the strangest thing was that he was feeling okay with that. In fact right up until now, he had been able to forget about the talk he and Susan needed to have or about the space station he was trying to build. None of that seemed important, when you were exhausted, because a sick baby had occupied nearly every second of your day.

“Is she asleep?” Rogers asked, when he finally arrived home and found Tony sitting on the sofa between the cushion and the blankets he'd neatly folded before leaving this morning. He sat down heavily beside Tony, stared for a moment at the bottle of Scotch and the empty, unused tumbler beside it, that Tony had put down on the living room table.

“Did you drink?” Steve asked, slowly.

“No,” he answered truthfully, contemplating the bottle. “Not because I don't want to.”

Steve nodded and then, as always dressed in his Captain America uniform, leaned back. “Monica says that child services haven't sent anyone and SHIELD is taking responsibility for this.”

“Is this your way of reminding me that I should behave like a responsible adult?”

Steve shrugged. “No, it's my way of telling you that the people who should take an interest in missing little orphans haven't even bothered to call back SHIELD.”

“Oh, yeah, big surprise, huh?”

“Someone needs to take responsibility.” And usually when Steve said something like this, he was speaking of himself, but the way he was looking at Tony now it was clear he wasn't talking of himself this time. “You can do this,” he said and reached for the tumbler and Scotch, getting up to carry both away.

“For however long it takes.” It wasn't exactly agreement or a promise.

He had no idea what it was. It was probably a very bad idea.

Tony had always excelled at those. That was how he had ended up an Ultimate in first place.

* * *

“Is this developing into a pattern?” Tony asked, when he found Steve, sitting on his sofa in his boxers and t-shirt when he carried Tanya to the kitchen. She'd loudly requested breakfast and Tony, feeling cranky and like he was catching the cold that was afflicting his baby, had dragged himself out of bed to feed her and had instead found his super soldier friend sitting here again. As always he wasn't complaining about the view of Steve's well trained abs or his shapely legs or the shape of what the thin fabric of his boxers was barely hiding.

He only regretted a little that he had sworn to himself not to make a move on someone he respected more than anyone else.

“Is Thor taking his guard duty as seriously?” he asked, as Steve followed them to the kitchen.

“I told him I would stay close,” Steve said and his eyes narrowed a bit as if he was ready to argue about this. In fact, Tony remembered they'd had a similar argument once, when Tony had suffered from the aftereffects of chemotherapy and Steve had for a week insisted to stay close at all times.

“I appreciate both of you staying close,” Tony admitted.

With little Tanya sick and clamoring for his attention, it wasn't like he could look over his shoulder as diligently as he usually would. And a nagging voice at the back of his mind still wondered if perhaps Steve was worried about Tony slipping up while he had the kid here. Because if he were that would make so much sense.

Tony wouldn't necessarily trust himself not to be himself either if the roles were reversed.

* * *

Susan came by the next day with the doctor to look at the baby, and Steve, who Tony hadn’t seen for hours suddenly materialized in the room like he’d been called. The suspicion that Steve was monitoring what was going on up here was slowly settling inside of Tony’s mind and he couldn’t keep himself from throwing a sly grin at the super soldier. “How has she been? Rough night?” Unah asked as she bent over the little girl on the sofa, listening to her chest with a stethoscope, while Tanya quietly sucked on her pacifier and looked up at her with wide eyes. Tony loved that quietly amazed look.

In the few days the baby girl had been with him he’d taken an insane amount of snapshots of that particular look - of basically everything she did. Part of him still hoped that some relative would step forward, that child services would surprise them and turn up with some perfectly researched happy news and then he could hand over all the pictures. He hoped, but he did not believe. “For her or me?” he asked and pretended to be completely oblivious to his own disheveled state.

“We should probably give you a check-up when I’m finished here,” Doctor Unah added in Tony’s direction.

“I don’t look that bad, doctor,” Tony countered reflexively, but didn’t take his eyes away from Steve, who so far hadn’t said a word about the proceedings and before that had played the role of old-fashioned working class dad and left most of the comforting and consoling of Tanya to him. The marriage metaphors were piling up and it was all quietly amusing him. When Steve caught Tony staring - well, leering at him - he held his gaze for a second and frowned, but then he nodded back with a half-grin, like he had caught on to the joke.

Which Tony was sure he hadn’t, but that only made Steve’s comfortable playing along more endearing. It was the kind of amiable acceptance he only got from Steve and Thor, that he’d worked towards with Monica and Sam recently. Whatever else it was, Tony knew it was special.

“He’s only half joking,” Steve explained and stepped closer to the sofa, smiling as Tanya stuck out her little hand as if she was reaching for him as she often did when someone she knew and trusted came into her line of sight. He leaned over and held out his hand to let her grasp at his finger. Touching was something he was always comfortable with even though he still hadn’t picked her up. “He hates doctors,” he said with a significant look at Tony.

The crooked smile Susan threw his way had a note of sadness in it, that Tony really wanted to ignore. “I don’t hate doctors. I probably slept with more doctors than you can count on one hand, that’s for sure. With how many I met over the years, they made up quite significant percentage of my dating pool for a while. That’s not making a good case for hating a whole profession. Let’s be real. I love doctors. Without doctors my existence on this earth would have fizzled out a long time ago.”

Too long ago for Richards to ever get his grubby hands in his brain.

Steve didn’t say anything, but his body language told Tony exactly what he thought about comments like that. And they were also both intensely aware that Tony disliked medical procedures for very obvious reasons and that recent experiences had only intensified that dislike.

“Can we talk now?” Susan asked, her voice level and she came to stand beside Tony.

“Dr. Storm,” Tony said formally. “You only have to ask. It looks like the baby is in good hands and my involvement won’t be need for the next five minutes.”

She snorted and then shook her head. “When are you going to announce that you’ve changed your name to Iron Dad?” she quipped.

“Oh, please, that won’t take.” Tanya wouldn’t be here that long after all. It was only a matter of time now until the system remembered that they had a baby to pick up from the clutches of a rich, eccentric superhero billionaire.

“Says the man who changed his armor to be more patriotic, when I became president. I'm sure you'll find a way to commemorate the occasion.” Steve looked at him with a smug smile. He enjoyed getting one over on Tony occasionally. Discovering the Captain’s dry humor had been a charming revelation of the early days.

“I wanted to share my happiness with the world,” Tony said. “It’s not every day that the handsome war hero is handed the presidency.”

Steve made a small derisive sound and turned back to the still very well behaved little girl on the sofa. “Hey,” he cooed and Tony had the urge to put up his phone and take another photo - so he did, eliciting a chuckle from Susan.

“Former president wooed by superbaby,” she said under her breath and took Tony by the arm to lead him towards elevator.

“Take the baby phone,” Steve called after them in his best authoritative voice and Tony - having anticipated the reluctance of the handsome war hero and former president to take care of a little girl on his own when he’d never shown fear in the face of his enemies or adversaries - waved the little purple colored thing over his shoulder.

“First thing on the agenda,” he said to Susan, who tried to suppress a grin, “is to get rid of this atrocity and build something that doesn’t disgrace this household with its low tech capabilities and atrocious plastic exterior.”

“The Stark baby phone in red and gold?”

“The All American Baby phone in red, white and blue,” he said and kept his face straight until she finally gave in and laughed.

“You can be so annoying. If I hadn’t seen you with the baby, I wouldn’t believe it.” Which was a common sentiment outside the close knit group who had known about Anthony. Or actually, only Monica had seemed to immediately take to the idea of Tony being the perfect babysitter.

“That’s not what you wanted to talk to me about, is it, Doctor Storm?”

“No, Mr. Stark,” she said with a slight roll of her eyes. “But if you put one out on the market, I want my share.”

“So, has it started then?” He changed the subject abruptly.

“No.” She shook her head. “But I’ve picked up on some radiation levels suddenly changing across the city. I think I know what to look for. It’s not like I’ve dealt with stuff like this for long enough now.” She raised up one of her hands and Tony watched as it blinked out, going invisible with Susan’s conscious effort. The strange display never lost its eeriness, but it was also one of the most interesting things Tony had ever seen. “Still, I’m a bio-chemist. Help me. I need another pair of eyes. I need someone who has a better grasp on physics.”

“I’m an engineer. Dimensional travel is more Richards’ area of expertise.”

“Was,” she said.

“Is.” He shrugged apologetically. “Believe me, whatever SHIELD thinks, I checked and double checked, and then checked again. For some reason I’ve become paranoid where he is concerned.”

Susan’s hand winked back into existence, and her face turned white. “I can’t say I’m surprised. Can’t blame you for being paranoid. I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep from now on.”

The elevator stopped and they stepped out into one of his workshops. “What about that other punk? Doom?”

“Last resort. Well, second to last resort now that you revealed to me that my ex-boyfriend is still around.”

“Don’t tell Grimm,” Tony advised. “I won’t tell Steve or Thor before I think it’s necessary either. Captain America is already turning the Stark Tower penthouse into a safety ward for superbaby. I don’t want his protective senses to go into overdrive.”

She chuckled. “It’s kind of cute. He can come off as a big angry jerk sometimes, but the way he’s behaving around you and the kid is really cute.”

He allowed himself to let a hand fall in front of his eyes and process that. “I have no idea what you mean. We’re all jerks here.”

“That is positively self-reflective, Mr. Stark,” she told him and fell into position in front of his main terminal. She threw the data disk at him and waited as he let his systems take care of it. “We’re going to be in so much trouble.”

He looked at the data streams as they rushed past him and nodded. His own research had already told him as much. When the crystals shattered, it had caused ripples in space and time, and with Susan’s older-self and the activity from the N-Zone they’d detected he had suspected something to happen very soon. Now there were measurable signs of it. Richards had in his crazy bout of megalomania thought he’d devised a way to save the world from destruction, had escalated evolution in an attempt to force the Infinity Gems to appear long before they would be needed to keep their universe from collapse. What he had done was accelerating the rush towards the end too, though.

In some places around the globe time and space would wrinkle and rub up against the wrong parts. Dimensions would touch, bleed into each other and straighten out or get stuck.

“Oh boy,” he muttered and thought of that bottle of Scotch Steve had commandeered yesterday. “No rest for the wicked.”

They didn’t get more than half an hour with the data before Tanya kicked up a fuzz upstairs, crying at the top of her lungs, and Steve, adorably un-Captain America like finally spoke into the baby phone: “Tony? Please come. She’s crying.”

“Did you pick her up?” he asked over the house comms system and he wasn’t surprised when the question was followed by a bit of silence until Cap answered quietly: “No.”

“Then that’s probably part of the problem.”

“Just come upstairs,” Steve said, falling back from slightly timid into full on Commander in Chief.

Susan’s amusement at the whole exchange was anything but invisible. Tony sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Invisible Woman. My team leader has decreed that only I can hold this baby. Do you want a job as babysitter? She seemed to like you very much.”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind. But perhaps someone should concentrate on this?”

He looked over the data and the workshop, watched her store what she needed on another data disk and impatiently called down the elevator. He realized that this had been the longest period that he’d spent away from Tanya since he’d been entrusted with her and her desperate cries were really getting to him.

“I’ll stay in touch,” Susan said as a parting shot, when he let himself out. He nodded, trying not to think about all the things he and Anthony could have dreamed up to save the world in no time if they had still been a team. Technopathic abilities had come in more than a little handy.

He didn’t need to follow the cries of Tanya. He could see Steve from the elevator and he was sitting on the sofa, trying to console the girl by talking.

Tony was with them with what felt only like a few steps and then Tanya was in his arms, leaning against his shoulder, crying her little heart out.

It hurt.

The sound of it, the desperation, the anger.

“Non piangere, ci sono io qua. Non c`è motivo ad aver paura o essere triste. Basta già la mia paura e la mia tristezza.”

She didn’t calm down right away, but settled and her crying grew less desperate. When he looked down at Steve, he kept his voice soothing mostly for Tanya’s benefit, but Steve had that slightly disappointed, rattled look to him that he had worn that first day with her too. “She just wanted to be held for a bit.”

“I know,” Steve admitted and hid his face in one hand, looking up at Tony from between his fingers finally. “I know.”

“See?” he asked and bounced a now mostly silent Tanya up and down. “Easy? She’s just a little sunshine. She’s very easy to please.”

“When you’re around.” It sounded like a complaint.

So Tony did the only thing that seemed appropriate in this situation: He laughed at Captain America and meant it. “God, Steve. You really are something.”

His little girl grasped his collar and pulled hard, grasping his face to better press against his cheek and gurgled something that sounded like an imitation of the sounds he had just made.

Not one to usually accept being made fun of, Steve let himself fall against the sofa and smiled.

* * *

He braced for the explosion, before the ceiling came down, hiding his head and exposed body parts behind his shield. Monica had called him in and he had taken Sam Wilson and Clint to the AIM base. They were still on the hunt for Erlking and trying to put down these terrorists once and for all.

He touched the little device in his ear to make sure it was still working. “Is Thor on the way?” he asked.

“Will be on location any minute now,” Monica informed him. “We had to call him in from babysitter duty.”

Sam snorted. “I still can’t believe that.”

“Don’t believe it,” Steve said with a satisfied grin and finally let the shield sink, allowing the dust and rubble to glide off it. The room had survived the onslaught for now, but it was only a matter of time until the ceiling would just come down. It wouldn’t matter to Steve as soon as he was out of here. “Tony has grown so attached that he doesn’t accept much of help with Tanya.”

“Are you sure?” Hawkeye quipped and Steve was satisfied that he even joined in when they were talking about the baby. The loss of his family had left a big hole in his life. “He probably has no other choice when you just leave him behind with her all the time.”

“Yeah, man,” Sam added - he was outside whizzing about and taking out the guards on the rooftop. “I don’t believe even for a minute that someone like Stark doesn’t go stir crazy if he has to sit around at home all day minding a kid.”

He knew that Falcon had a point, but he’d left Tony in New York completely engrossed in caring for the little girl. He could still hear the soft chuckles and Tony’s loving murmurs. Tanya had been feeling much better this morning and it had reflected on Tony’s mood. “Any signs of labs or technology?”

“Not from up here, Cap.”

“Good.” He still wanted to get his hands on Erlking, who from what little they had to go on, was the person behind the child abductions and inhuman experiments. But for now he just wanted to be glad that they hadn’t found another lab with more of those.

He pushed onwards. A woman was pointing her gun at him, her eyes shining with hatred and Steve pounced. He’d been a soldier long enough to understand fear and to understand hating your enemy, but he was way beyond the point where he wanted to understand what was driving these people.

“You think you’re above all us,” she spat as he tackled her to the ground.

“I’m sure above a terrorist who threatens other people’s lives, and for what?”

Two people wearing bulletproof vests opened fire on him and he pulled his shield up and jumped away. The woman gasped in pain, blood ran to the floor. Another bullet fired by her friends killed her. “No honor among terrorists, is there?”

“Curtis died for the cause.”

Steve’s anger was searing. It was worse now that he remembered little Tanya grinning at him happily, grasping for his finger, before he left. These people had used her, like a piece in a game, like she wasn’t human. “Where is Erlking?” Steve asked under his breath. “I’m ready to tear him apart.”

“What’s it to you? Traitor? Look what the likes of you have done to this world.”

It wasn’t a new accusation. “Is that why your Erlking is trying to breed more super soldiers?” he asked, advancing slowly on his two assailants, shield up. “Because we’re what’s wrong with the world?”

“You could have been the advancement of the human race, Captain Rogers,” a voice said into the comms. “Instead look at you: Holding on to your old-fashioned ideas while the world is dying step by step. The likes of you have failed. Time someone else took power.”

“Who the hell are you?” Steve had time to ask, but then laughter was ringing in his ears and a final bomb went off, blowing out the whole floor of the building, he jumped aside, tried to hide behind his shield. The explosion was so loud that his ears were ringing and he pulled his shield above his head to protect himself from the worst of the rubble, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. The shockwave pushed him over and suddenly there was a wall, a dark wall of metal above him blocking the worst of it. “Missed me?” Iron Man asked.

He blinked up, two metal hands settled at his hips and they were out of there.


“Not here, sorry,” Iron Man replied. “I have an extremely hungry baby to feed here and I tell you not having my undivided attention is pissing her off.”

Relief flooded through Steve. All the worst case scenarios that had flooded his mind in the split second when he’d realized Iron Man was standing above him fell away. “You scared me.”

“I scared you? I’m sitting in a posh arm chair and the only thing threatening the peace here is a little girl weighing less than your shield, darling. Are you sure you’re alright?”

Steve laughed. He’d feared something had happened to Tanya, that something had happened to the tower, that… that Tony had had enough of sitting around with a baby and had left her to his staff, to someone Steve didn’t trust. “No I’m fine.”

His ears were still ringing when Iron Man finally set him down on the ground. And Steve was still laughing.

“I’m better than fine, darling,” he said and laughed.

Iron Man cocked his head to the side as if Tony himself was watching him curiously. “You should probably see a doc, Cap.”

“You hate it when I make you see one.”

“Just returning the favor.”

There was blood on his uniform, an enemy agent had just hacked their communication tech and blown up a building with his own people in it, but Steve couldn’t stop grinning. “Don’t worry, I’ll be home by nine.”

Falcon landed behind Iron Man and Thor landed to Steve’s left, patting him on the shoulder in what had become his preferred battlefield greeting. “Young Freya was well when I left,” he informed Steve like he was the lucky father.

“She was crying at the top of her lungs,” Tony’s voice corrected out of the armor’s speakers.

“Like a true warrior.” Thor grinned at the armor and then at Steve. He and Tony had been engaging in a sort of amiable disagreement about the right parenting practices, but Tony had a way of winning those through the simple fact that he was the one staying behind doing all the necessary care-taking. The rest of them had turned into something like beloved uncles for the girl, but Tony… Tony had become the person she immediately looked for when her eyes opened or who she cried for when he wandered out of her line of sight.

“Stark? When the hungry goddess is appeased would you look into what just happened to our comms? I want to know what that was, how it happened and where to find the person behind it.”

Iron Man nodded and Tony said: “You always ask so nicely, Cap.” The next second the armor shot away, moving just like it did when it had the pilot within. “Detecting some energy readings. Let me check it out. Falcon?”

Sam swung himself up and after Iron Man in an instant.

“Let’s take the rest of this sorry excuse of a hideout apart,” Steve told Thor. “Barton?” he asked, pressing the button in his ear.

“I’m on the other side of the rubble, Cap.”

“Clear out. We’ll meet you up on the Helicarrier.”

With Thor at his side he made short work of it. The resistance had been broken. Most terrorist footsoldiers had cleared out. They found insignia that spoke of both AIM and Hydra in the dust, but nothing that gave them the information they were looking for.

He came home that evening, dusty and sweaty and blood on his face, Sam and Thor at his side. Tony greeted them at the glass door of the terrace when they landed and Thor set him down. “I promised we wouldn’t be too late.”

“Did you?” Tony was wearing a burgundy red morning coat and apart from that looked quietly relaxed as he leaned inside the door.


“She’s asleep. If one of you dares to wake her, my wrath will be upon them,” Tony threatened and he narrowed his eyes at Thor and then grinned as he stepped back in to let them pass.

Food was waiting for them in the dining room, but Tony, mostly watched them eat, drumming his fingers against the table, his thoughts miles away.

“It was Erlking, wasn’t it?” Steve asked him later when they were contemplating the sleeping child in her bed, standing shoulder to shoulder.

“I’m not an oracle, Rogers, but my guess would be it was either Erlking or at the very least someone who has power in their ranks. The bomb took out their own people.”

“More of theirs than ours even.” He wanted to ask what exactly it was Tony had found, if he had any leads on where to look next, but little Tanya made a sleepy sound and moved around a bit under her blanket drawing his eyes back to her. “She shouldn’t be cooped up inside all day.”

“She?” Tony asked and Steve had to grin at the playful whine in his voice.

“Both of you. We should take her outside. Most of Central Park is open to the public again.”

“Yeah, I know. Apart from that one crater near the Pond.”

“We’ll take Thor and Sam or Clint. She’ll be safe.”

Tony shook his head and muttered: “I can’t believe it. If this goes on for any longer we’ll be making playdates.”

Steve grinned to himself. He was sure that Monica would be open to the concept.

The next morning he contacted SHIELD himself to make sure they got clearance to take their little girl out. “Sure,” Monica said and frowned, swiveling around in her chair to get a better look at his image on the screen. “She alright?”

“No signs of fever.”

“That’s good. Did she have another check-up?”

Tony shrugged. “Yesterday. Susan has been in touch.” He was dressed properly, because he’d had a business conference not two hours ago. The suit was snug in all the right places and made Tony look like the attractive playboy business magnate he was, but Steve already missed the more disheveled home look. It wasn’t that he liked sleek and polished Tony any less, just that Steve was slowly realizing that Tony had willingly put off a lot of work related things to be there for the girl and none of them had even asked questions or thought about it. “Any word from child services?” Tony’s eyebrow was raised.

Steve too was interested in the answer. Someone should at least have had follow up questions by now.

“Yes,” Monica said. “We’ve had some dealings with them.”

“So they’re coming by to make sure she’s…”

“No,” Monica interrupted him shortly. “In fact this is solely a SHIELD matter now.”

It was easy to tell based on Monica’s tight expression that she had not enjoyed whatever “dealings” she’d had. “They couldn’t and didn’t want to make any assurances. We insisted that considering the special situation involved in this case we needed to be sure they wouldn’t be leaving a paper trail. And suddenly finding her a new home is our job. This country is a mess, Cap. You should have fired all bureaucrats before you’d left office.”

“So she’s staying?” Steve asked. That was good. Perfectly fine, in fact. He chanced a glance over at Tony, who was nodding too. The little girl had brought a lightness to their lives that Steve didn’t want to lose. “Alright. Then that’s that. We’re going on a short outing today.”

“Take Jessica Drew and Thor. Make sure she is safe. We want to know at the very least that we can do what nobody else could do for her.”

“You are not using us as bait are you, Monica? You’re a mother. You wouldn’t do that.”

Steve couldn't blame Tony for being suspicious.

“I don’t think anyone knows at this point where the girl ended up. But if you take her out in public, someone will know. You run this show, you keep her safe. Have fun and check in for duty this afternoon.” She nodded at Steve. “Cap.” Then at Tony. “Stark.”

Tony shrugged, his hands in his pockets and already backing out the door again. Tanya had been restless all morning, probably because between business and this she didn’t have Tony’s undivided attention at the moment. And just now she had started to cry.  Mockingly Tony gestured towards where Tanya sat in her baby pen, looking through the wooden bars of it with tears on her face like she was an unfortunate sentenced to lifelong prison. “Lead the way then, fearless leader. The little princess is ready for some entertainment.”

“She likes the toy that makes the animal noises when she pushes all the buttons.” He surveyed the floor for it.

“Yeah, she does,” Tony was cooing as he bent down over the playpen. “Yeah, she does.” Tanya immediately held up her little arms like she always did when she wanted to be picked up. The tears were forgotten as soon as she was up and Tony was talking to her. “At some point you’ll have to be content to be watched by someone beside me,” Tony whispered and kissed the top of her head. Something sad passed through his eyes, but it was gone before Steve could be sure.

Perhaps he’d remembered something he’d said to Anthony.

Because Steve could think of no reason to be sad now and so far Tanya had brought out a relaxed and happy side in Tony that was a far cry from the cynic Steve had gotten to know so well.

He watched Tony gather all of Tanya’s things and sat with her on the sofa for a bit while she happily threw wooden play blocks of different sizes on the floor and waited for him to pick them back up.

“Ah,” Tony remarked when he noticed. “She’s trying to train you too. She’s become a bit impatient with my progress.”

Steve chuckled and Tanya giggled along with him. To Steve it was like magic. It was like in her smile he could forget that out there the world was slowly going to hell.

“Are we ready to go out? The royal guard awaits the princess Freya,” Thor said and startled both adults in the room who had been sharing a soppy smile over the child’s antics.

“Very funny,” Steve muttered.

“Yeah, sure.” Tony picked Tanya up, made sure she was dressed warmly enough and strode out. Thor grinned at Steve like even watching Tony care for the kid greatly amused him.

Their outing was a great success. Tanya was delighted by Jessica Drew and even was okay to be held by her for more than a few minutes, before she wanted Tony again. They let her squabble on their picnic blanket and watched her pat at the grass on the edges.

This was what Steve had once dreamed of, when he’d wanted a family. Peaceful outing and a giggling child at their feet.

Of course, things had looked different in his mind. For one the child had resembled him and Gail. But now that he watched a goofily smiling Tony scoot up the baby before she could squabble away like it was the most natural thing in the world, he thought that the differences only highlighted the ways in which this was exactly like the dreams he’d given up on.

Thor caught him staring and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

He shrugged.

There was nothing to say.

Words had a way of only ruining a good thing and this thing was too good for him to even dare to examine it too closely, because good things had a way of falling apart.

“Hmmmmmmm,” Tanya said, imitating a sound Tony had just made at her.

He looked around at all the smiling faces.

He couldn’t even remember the last time when they’d all been this happy and relaxed. It felt like finding Tanya in the lab had not only saved her life. It had done so much more.

* * *

Reality destroyed the idyll the next morning when all news outlets were buzzing with pictures of Tony holding a grinning Tanya up with both arms.

Stark’s secret love child, was the friendliest headline.

There were insinuations that Tony was using an orphan to bump up his popularity before a planned possibly unpopular business deal; one article implied that he needed the boost to make people forget about all the scandals surrounding him; another speculated about Stark having “bought” an orphan.

There was no word about Steve or Thor who had also been present.

“It’s because none of you guys ever hold her,” Tony said to him over breakfast, but didn’t sound bothered at all.

“How can you be so calm about this?”

“It’s better than terrorists storming our home in search of a super soldier baby. Let them speculate.”

He should be used to it by now, to the way the media handled things. “Don’t you own one of these papers?” Steve asked appalled.

“Who owns papers these days?” Tony waved him away. "Dying business model." He shrugged it off and moved on. To Steve that kind of thing was impossible. When he came under attack, he wanted to fight back. His hands balled into fists at his sides as he read an article about Tony’s life as a party animal, his poor health and his trouble with alcohol.

Things got nastier in the days after, when the media ran out of pictures to use.

A lifestyle magazine asked people if it was okay for someone “like Tony Stark” to adopt an African American child. Another speculated again on the “origins” of the little girl.

It was on day three that the media finally made the connection.

“You think the Ultimates rescued her and then just decided to keep a child?” a morning show host asked, making a face.

“Looks like it, Andrew! Can you imagine?”

“To imagine that Cap would leave her with Tony Stark! We all love Iron Man, but he’s hardly the best person to look after a child.”

“The girl needs a real family!”

Steve gritted his teeth.

Because if there was one thing he knew, then that this family was more real to him than lots of things in his messed up existence.

“Look at that,” Tony said in a quietly amazed tone and Steve looked up from the tablet he’d been reading on. Tanya had pulled herself up and was standing on her two shaky legs, supporting herself on the edge of the sofa.

It wasn’t quite clear whose smile was brighter: hers or Tony’s.

* * *

Monica called personally that evening to ask how they were doing. “Not my first rodeo, Director Chang,” he reminded her. “We’ve all been there. We’re not surprised the media has a field day with me holding an innocent little kid, are we?”

“That’s not why I’m calling, Tony.”

“Check-up?” He shifted the screen and camera a bit so she could see Tanya sit in her diapers and a t-shirt in front of Thor who was lying on a blanket on the floor and engrossed in building a tower out of toy bricks, that she happily knocked over in intervals, earning her “uncle’s” cheers. “She’s doing fine. I think Thor is teaching her what she needs to know if she ever wants to become the Asgardian goddess of destruction and superior warfare. Perhaps SHIELD should intervene, because I’m too tired to put up much of a fight this morning.”

Monica, always the professional, allowed herself a crooked smile: “Rough night?”

“Nothing a life of partying and gallivanting didn’t prepare me for.”

She snorted. “And that’s what people are concerned about?”

Of course, he had realized that this was coming. It had all been a temporary arrangement after all and that was in everybody’s best interest. It was time to find a loving home for Tanya and make sure she would be safe for a long time. “You don’t really plan to use her as bait, do you? When we went on our outing this hadn’t been the plan all along?”

For a split second she frowned then shook her head. “No, Tony, you’re getting me confused with my ex. But there is a development you should know about. Because what do you know, child services has finally taken an interest in her case. They let us know we’re making them look bad. Which I think means we are doing our job right.”

Tony let the information sink in. “They want her? Now they want her? What happened to not being equipped to keep her safe?”

“They want to be involved in the process of finding foster parents or adoptive parents. Someone realized that the fact that they just left her to us makes them look overworked and at best disinterested. I can’t blame them. This country took so many hits, it’s a wonder administration is even up and running. When the country nearly fell apart there were so many displaced children, I’m sure someone is trying to hold it all together, but like everything else the system is at its limits. The official line now is that they should be in charge of finding her a new home, while we offer the needed protection. But… there is something about that I don’t like. They wanted her medical files first. Someone in the system wanted her whole medical history, before they even asked for anything else.”

“Medical?” Suspicions were natural under the circumstances. He looked over at Tanya, who in the last few days had had a few more coughs and had even been running a slight fever for half a day yesterday, but who always recovered at what Susan had remarked was a suspiciously fast rate for a child that had previously been thought to be frail. They hadn’t yet pointed it out to anyone, but Tony was sure Monica knew well enough anyway after SHIELD had conducted their own preliminary tests of her blood and gathered all kinds of data during the follow up examinations. Tanya did not only have Steve’s blood. As Susan had pointed out that first time, the little girl had more of Captain America in her than that now and while there was no telling how that was going to affect her over the years, or how successful the experiments had been. From what they had seen of it, Tanya and the other orphans had been test cases only. Apparently the scientists hadn’t yet been trying to build a super soldier, but had hoped to use the results of their study to later reproduce the effects the serum once had on Steve Rogers and possibly enhance it.

The kids had been picked because they were discardable, because something in their medical history resembled Steve’s own and because what Erlking wanted were super soldiers that came from better stock than Captain America - whatever that meant in their messed up vocabulary - and that meant he needed to know what a frail kid had turned out to be as good a super soldier as he'd turned out to be.

“Yes,” she stressed. “First they insisted the girl couldn’t stay with a team of superheros on call, because it was too dangerous and instead of asking for a visit to make sure she’s safe, and then they asked for her medical file.”

“Do we know this was really her social worker?”

“We don’t know much at all and you can see why that would make me weary. We’re looking into her though. Gave her name as Lucy White. We’re checking everything we got on her.”

The obvious threat should not have given him this sense of relief. But that Tanya needed protection meant he did not have to say goodbye just yet. But he was already bracing himself, because it was going to happen soon. And if it happened sooner, than that was probably better for everyone. For him. “Okay,” he nodded to himself, while behind him he could hear both Thor and the baby make excited noises as another toy brick tower toppled over, while Thor shouted: "Have at it!" “Can you do me another favor? I’d like to look at potential families. You said you’d prefer agents…”

“Did I?” Monica leaned back to study him for a long moment and Tony felt like he was being judged. Hard. Which, well, wasn’t exactly new. “I said we’d keep this inside SHIELD,” Monica clarified and Tony cocked his head to let her know that he wasn’t sure where the difference was exactly. After a moment of pondering she added: “Let’s not pretend that you couldn’t get into the files of anyone here any time you fucking want, Stark. So look at whatever you think you need to look at. We will have a talk about it eventually. With Rogers. Take care of our secret super baby and perhaps let Cap know exactly what we know about her changed biology. She’s practically his now. I’m sure he has thoughts on that.”

Tony had already realized that and Steve had too. In a characteristically Captain America kind of way he was feeling responsible for the little girl who had been infused with whatever the scientists had pulled from his blood and despite his reluctance to step up and show more than passing affection, Steve was trying to remain involved with her. He had fucking moved into Tony’s penthouse to make sure he was available at all times even. But Tony couldn’t blame him for also having some misgivings about bringing up a child. His own son hadn’t turned out so well and nobody could say if this would have been avoided if Steve had been around or if the genetics had been what set him on his destructive path.

Not everyone could deal with the power metahuman bodies gave them. They’d seen too many examples of people turning crazy psycho with growing power. From Magneto, to Banner to, of course, his favorite psycho Reed Richards - they’d all had power to influence the world in a good way and had instead brought it closer and closer to destruction.

But without Steve having said anything, Tony knew he was wondering if his son had been one of those or if his upbringing had set him off. The files on him certainly made it look like the former. So who wouldn’t have second thoughts about a possible super soldier child?

And Tony? Well, long term he wouldn’t be a good role model for any super soldier kid and - wow, what did he have to give to a normal child? However Tanya turned out in the end, things wouldn’t be easy and surely Tony of all people wasn’t the one to guide her through life. The media wasn’t wrong when they doubted his ability to be a responsible father. With his family history, how was he even supposed to know how to be one? And with recent years spent on the brink of death so frequently, he had always had his mind on a future beyond his own, never on anything as pragmatic as building a family in the here and now. Their little girl deserved so much better. True parents who cared for her.

But with the genetic alterations that had been pushed on her, they couldn’t just pass her on. It was likely that they would have to keep an eye on her indefinitely. They would be around when she needed them. Tony would. Because that much he could do. He’d set up a trust fund, make sure she had what she needed and SHIELD and the Ultimates would be there to help her if she really developed powers later on.

And it seemed there would be an later on for her. Despite her immune switching off and back to full gear, Susan was confident, that things were leveling out. Little Tanya was in better health now than she had been before all this had been done to her. Which Tony was sure was not what the evil experiments had been all about.

Little Tanya Lewis was taunting her very first bad guy just by breathing.

“Anything else we need to know?”

“Tony,” Monica said with a roll of her eyes, “don’t ask me these things as if I you actually need my input. I was an Ultimate before I took over SHIELD. We worked together, remember? We tell you what we want you to be aware of, you guys poke into all the hornet’s nests on your own. And if you think I don’t know that you and Storm are working away on a project of your own, think again. I know. Let that sink in and when you’re ready to tell me what the energy readings you picked up on at the last base were all about find me and I’ll listen and not kick your ass. Until then have fun and call again when you think you and super soldier girl are ready for a playdate. I know a little cute baby boy who will be thrilled to meet her.”

The idea of more than one baby in this place put his brain out of commission for at least the two seconds it took Monica to cut the line. He stared at the black screen blankly for far too long, before he threw a look back over his shoulder at Tanya who was no longer focusing on Thor, but was forlornly staring at Tony. When he looked, her little face brightened and she held up a little red wooden brick. “Da?” she asked.

He stood up and walked over so fast that he was feeling dizzy, but when he had her up in his arms against his chest, her happy, choked giggling in his ear and her heart beating against his, he felt lighter immediately.

If this went on for much longer than he would be in so much trouble. Better to end it right now, before it would leave scars.

* * *

Steve didn’t return that evening like he had done every evening from the beginning of their little arrangement and as soon as Tony had put the baby to bed, made sure she had fallen asleep, the penthouse seemed empty and cold. The quiet gave him time to work, but after a few minutes of sitting in front of projections Susan had sent back and looking through the data he had gathered during their last fight against the new faction that had risen out of the ashes of Hydra and AIM, he sat back and closed his eyes.

Tanya and her moods were enough to keep him in a constant state of exhaustion, but he wasn’t feeling that yet. Not today.

Staring at the readings and realizing that he had seen them before, was what made him feel downtrodden. The trace of Infinity Gem energy was unmistakable, even if it wasn’t more than the slightest trace. The gems had been destroyed after he had used them to resurrect his body. There should be nothing left of them. And yet here was an energy that could be nothing else.

He needed to tell Susan, but he wasn’t sure yet if there was anything to fight against. Telling someone they were going to lose was not something he liked doing. He’d look into it first and then go to her.

Steve still hadn’t returned, so Tony took a perfunctory glance at SHIELD alerts and news streams, but there was nothing that needed a call to arms. Wherever Steve was it was probably some minor SHIELD business. Or the man had finally had enough of him and constant talk of diapers and baby food and taken a break by staying at his own apartment. Tony couldn’t really blame him. Steve was a good friend, but he was used to the life of a soldier.

His baby woke not an hour later, starting to cry softly at first and then louder and louder until Tony came over to look at her. She wasn’t easily pacified this time. So Tony took the time to sit down in front of a scanner with her, making sure that all her vital signs were okay. To his relief there was nothing out of the ordinary. She was just one unhappy toddler.

Seeing no other quick option Tony started to tell her a story of the brave knight Rogers of great valor who had fought bravely in countless battles and in the end saved little princess Tanya. The rendition kept him occupied and his voice was usually what calmed the baby. In the end they were sitting in one of his posh chairs in front of the screens and the little girl was looking up with still wet eyes and Tony smiled down at her, tiredly.

He wanted her to have a world where the good knight always managed to push back the evil forces threatening the world. But his thoughts recently had turned to the possibility of a dark future for all of them and without Anthony he wasn’t sure he would be able to ever stop what was coming. But he knew for sure that the solving of it would need all of his attention very soon.

“Hmm, baby?” he asked. “It’s going to be good-bye very soon. We’ll make sure you’ll have the best family possible.”

The thought was instantly painful. It was one thing to deal with the silence in his own head when people were around and another when he was all alone - and it was much easier to deal with the loss and loneliness when he was holding the small body close, when he could feel the flutter of her heartbeat against himself. He didn’t care if taking care of her was messy, or if sometimes he had time for nothing else.

His mother’s part of the family had been right about children. There was probably no treasure greater on this planet.

“And that’s why we are going to look for a wonderful family for you, tessoro. We’ll find someone who is going to take good care of you. You’re going to have a good life. And I’m going to make sure, the world doesn’t end, before you had a few good years. Does that sound like a deal.”

She babbled, softly mimicking his tone and then held up her little hand with a questioning sound, watching him closely. When he smiled, her whole face lit up.

“Looks like agreement,” Tony said and nodded.

He kept her on his lap, despite the late hour. She was wide awake and usually that meant he’d be up comforting her again minutes after putting her to bed. Of course, he knew that getting her used to set bedtimes was best, but he was feeling too tired to fight this fight right now. He bounced her a bit on his knee and she giggled, tried to get her hands on the keyboard while Tony worked and babbled questioningly when he caught her hands before she could get there every time. “You’ll learn all that I promise. Soon enough. And then you’ll be in and out of school and a beautiful woman breaking everyone’s hearts.”

She was off to a good start in that respect.

He pulled up a list of SHIELD agents who had already indicated an interest in adopting, then cross referenced it with the files of SHIELD inner security, to make sure these people were actually people that could be trusted.

Then he pulled up one file after another, looking through pictures and facts, trying to be clinical about it. He pulled up couples that consisted of at least one African-American partner first to look at them. He sorted them in different piles then, looking at where they lived, what kind of education they had, at scraps of family history. Anything that would tell him something about what a home they might be able to provide her with.

“Da?” Tanya asked and pointed at a picture of a beautiful woman, who Tony had been staring at for a while. Agent Claire Brooks looked a bit like Kendra Lewis and Tony had returned to her file a couple of times. She was married with a science teacher and they had a house in Jersey, where they had been looking after his grandmother until she had passed away a few months before.

“Like her?” he asked absentmindedly and bounced Tanya up and down again until she giggled.

He sorted the file away as a potential and called up another. They would have to meet all these people before making final decisions. Monica would want to have a say in this too.

“Hey,” someone said and Tony startled, but Tanya squealed in delight and pointed at the doorway, smiling. Steve was leaning there just inside the door. What are the two of you up to?”

“She couldn’t sleep.”

“And you couldn’t stop working? What is that you’re looking at?” He moved over with a frown, looking from one open window to another. “Suitable?” He read the name of the folder like a startled question. Tanya moved in Tony’s lap suddenly, trying to pull herself up to get closer to Steve, or to make sure she still had Tony’s full attention and Tony grasped her middle with a sure and now practiced grasp to keep her from falling. Steve was close enough suddenly to bend over and kiss the top of her head like Tony would so often do, but he only bent low, frown still prominent on his face and asked: “Suitable for what?”

Tony swallowed. “These are SHIELD agents who are looking to adopt.”

Perhaps the frown got even deeper, it was hard to tell at that angle. He had seen enough storms in his life - quite a few of them called up by Thor - from close up to know when one was coming. He’d also seen Captain America go to battle so often that he knew when the man was ready to go to war.

“What do you mean?” Steve asked so slowly that Tony was immediately aware of how strongly Steve had to wrestle with his need to control his anger.

He blinked. More than once. “You are angry,” he said slowly. “Why are you so angry?”

And blue eyes, stormy gray with the power of the smoldering emotions held in check beneath, turned on him. “Why are you looking at families who want to adopt, Tony? Are you telling me you don’t want her anymore?” Steve swallowed and looked away, the hand on the backrest of the chair had formed into a fist. And with Steve that was never a good sign.

“Look, Cap darling, what I want is neither here nor there. She deserves the best family I can find for her, because we knew from the start this would be temporary.”

“Stark,” Steve said and there was a warning in his tone, “I never knew you to be a coward.”

“What the hell are you even talking about?” There was a snippy remark about giving up the presidency on the tip of his tongue, but he wisely held back. He liked Steve too much, respected the man and what he stood for. He was not going to start an argument and get his temper to flare even more, just to get in a comeback. Instead he leaned back, smiled down at Tanya, whose eyes were round and worried now, because she’d picked up on the tension between them, and then held her up. “Want to hold her, darling? No? Why not? Afraid?”

Steve looked at Tanya who was holding still and made soft babbling noises. He did not raise his arms or reach for her, but instead looked over at Tony. “Why is it that you only call me darling when you want to wind me up?”

The grin on his face was forming practically against his own volition. “Is that what I’m doing, darling?”

“Don’t sidestep the matter,” Steve said and watched as Tony pulled Tanya back against his chest. “You’re so good with her. Don’t tell me you want to get rid of her. You’re good with kids, Tony. It’s all this talk about you in the press, isn’t it? Since when do you even care about that?”

“God, Cap, I don’t care what anyone is saying about me. This isn’t about me or you. This is about a little girl who needs a real family.”

“But we are her family! She has everything she needs!”

Tony blinked. His throat was suddenly dry. “I’m glad we’re all feeling so protective. But the Ultimates are not the kind of family that should be allowed to adopt little orphans. We’re a team taking on the wackos of the world. What she needs is parents...”

“You and me,” Steve interrupted.


“I’m talking about you and me. We’re going to be her family. She’s already here and happy. We can keep her safe. You and me. We can be her parents.”

Tony stared. God, he knew he was staring like an idiot. “You and me?” At this point he felt sure that he had missed part of this conversation. “You want to…?”

“You don’t want to.” It was just like Steve to make this personal. He turned around and got ready to storm away.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said and he was feeling slightly desperate suddenly. “But you don’t understand.”

“I think I understand just fine. She’s a burden. I thought she…”

“She’s not a burden!”

“I knew we would argue tonight. I just thought it would be about what I did.” Steve shook his head.

“You are just full of surprises today,” Tony said and wanted to sigh, but Tanya was grasping at his lip, so talking became a bit of a challenge. “Do I need to suit up? This is usually where we need to suit up,” he mumbled.

“Entirely up to you,” Steve said, with a straight face, his hands still forming fists at his side. “I called Carol Danvers.”

“You called… Carol?”

“She did a perfect job as my head of staff and as your media advisers and SHIELD seem to be doing a bad job of handling the media situation right now, I thought…”

He knew he was staring again. “You really think we should keep her?” Perhaps the world had just gotten crazier than he could handle. After all it was Steve who seemed to have trouble dealing with a small child in their lives.

Steve’s eyes were flashing with anger and some other emotion. “Don’t you? Tell me, Tony Stark, who can’t set the baby down for longer than a few minutes, that you feel comfortable with the thought of giving her back to the system that lost her in the first place. Tell me you feel comfortable giving a baby who might grow up to be the next Captain America to someone working for SHIELD! Tell me, you haven’t been happier in the last few weeks than you have been…” He stopped abruptly. “Telly me you don’t want her here. Tell me and I’ll accept it.”

“I can’t,” Tony admitted and it was like someone had reached into his chest to pull out his heart at the thought. “But that’s selfish. I’ll not make a good father and you… Well, you would make the perfect father actually, but you can’t even stand to hold her.”

“I don’t want to hurt her.”

Tony sighed. “I’m not blaming you. It’s why I think she would be better off with a family we can trust. A mostly normal family, not someone like me who pretends to know what they are doing. Not the Ultimates who are at the heart of every dangerous crisis this world faces.”

Steve squared his shoulders. “You already make a far better father than mine ever pretended to be.”

He sat there in his chair, while Tanya was fingering the fabric of his t-shirt with the intense interest of a toddler and Steve didn’t move away, and remained speechless for much longer than was usual for him. But the conviction in Steve’s words, the trust, was just flooring him. “You know if you wanted me to be your stay at home wife, you could have told me years ago. I would not have rejected your proposal. I would have warned you off due to terminal illness, but I would not have said no even that first day. I could have been married to a president. That would have been so good on my resume.”

Steve’s eyebrows quirked, but then his lips set into one of his tight but honestly amused smiles. “Noted.”

Tanya yawned widely.

Steve grinned. “You’d go stir crazy staying at home with the kids all the time. I’ll have you know that my mother wasn’t a stay at home wife and I’m pretty sure you are not the type at all either.”

It was all good fun apparently. “Kids?” he shrieked. “Don’t tell me you’re planning ahead? Can we settle on this one first.” Then he whispered to the baby: “Lasciaci portarti nel lettino. Il tuo sedicente padre ed io abbiamo un paio di cose da chiarire.” He stood up, kissed the little girl on the brow and realized that despite all the rationalizing, he had no problem taking this in stride.

He was going to adopt her. Or Steve was going to adopt her. The later would probably go over better with the public.

In the end it was all the same. Either way she was going to remain part of their lives. She would stay here. And it was time to figure out how he planned on making that work long term. So many scary thoughts sprang up. It sounded like the best of ideas and at the same time it sounded like a horrible idea - the worst of ideas possible. She wouldn’t be safe here forever. Steve and Tony led lives that were simply too dangerous. But at the same time, when he stood over her little bed and made sure she was asleep and warm, he could not really cope with the idea of giving her up.

“You know if you want this to work, you will have to pick her up eventually?”

“I know.” If he wasn’t at all mistaken, Steve was biting his lip. “I will, I promise I will.”

It really was the worst possible idea to let a little baby girl grow up with two men who had as many issues as the two of them. The serum, her possible health issues arising from the medical procedures she had gone through, would make her life hard enough. She would always be different.

“This is never going to be easy,” Steve admitted.

“I hope you are aware of the fact, that we have no idea what we’re doing. I need to go back and be Iron Man. I can’t spend the next five years just watching a kid grow up, Steve.”

“I’m not asking you to do it alone…”

Tony shook his head and motioned for Steve to move the conversation away from the bed, away from sleeping Tanya, and they walked slowly over to the sofa. “If I make the decision to keep her tonight and she gets taken away, then I’m going to blame you, Cap. I will. Because I know you have your own issues relating to serum-enhanced super soldier kids, but the only kid I ever had around before was a talking brain tumor and losing him hurt like hell. Can you imagine what it will be like, when something happens to a real child?”

Steve’s eyes widened just a tiny bit and Tony was sure someone who had spent less time with him, wouldn’t even have noticed. “About the same, I’d expect,” he said sternly and held Tony’s gaze. “It doesn’t really matter that Anthony wasn’t a real child. He was real. To you. Even to us. About the same, Tony.”

So, you’re setting me up for this again, yes, darling? he wanted to ask, but held back.

“Carol Danvers, huh?” Tony asked and raised an eyebrow. “I wonder how that will work out.”

* * *

“I still can’t believe it,” she said as she moved around the penthouse. Steve had seated himself on what Tony had slowly come to realize he regarded as his sofa now and was watching both of them wearily, his arms folded in front of his chest, like he was bracing himself for something. Carol walked in a semi-circle around Tony and Tanya, meeting his eyes only once as she did so. He wasn’t her ex; had never thought of himself in those terms. He wasn’t sure he would call anything they’d had a proper relationship. They’d had sex and they’d had a lot of it and they had disagreed and fought side by side and pushed each other’s buttons on the job.

“You’re sure you’re not dying this time?” she asked and this time she gave him a searching look. He couldn’t even blame her for asking.

“How can anyone ever be sure of that?” he countered. Tanya had been startled by a new person in her home and was crying, hiding her face against Tony’s chest.

“Alright.” Carol finally turned to Steve. “It’s time the two of you fought back. Go out again. Take the baby. Make sure this,” she gestured at Tony who was humming a song to calm the baby down, “is seen.”

“She’s still in danger,” Cap said softly.

“She has bodyguards of the highest standard. Get that out there. Make sure people see the two of you care for her and that this isn’t just a rich man taking a kid because he could. I’ll talk to Monica and we’ll spin it any which way we can. Although I have both of you know I still can’t believe it.”

She right out stared at him, her frown deepening, but Tony was only aware of the strange glowering look Steve was throwing both their ways for some reason.

“This was your idea,” he reminded him when he had accompanied Carol to the elevator.

The moment Carol was gone Steve’s shoulders visibly relaxed. “I know,” he simply acknowledged and nodded.

This was how Tony ended up attending his first board meeting in weeks with a sleeping baby in her baby carrier at his feet. This was how Steve ended up pushing her around Manhattan in a sturdy stroller, while Tony walked beside them in an incredibly expensive suit, wearing sunglasses and trying not to show how amused he was by it all. “We could have dated before practically announcing to the world that we’re living together,” he suggested to Steve.

He expected a half-amused smile. “When have we ever done anything like other people?” the former president said dryly. “And what does it matter? If we’re right, the world is going to be in so much trouble. I don’t think people will have much time to ponder our living arrangements.”

The picture of them grinning at each other over the stroller made it to three national papers and practically set the Internet on fire for a day or so. “Ultimate fathers?” one title read.

Tony still had his doubts about the whole idea of actually stepping up and keeping Tanya, but Steve was adamant that this was what he wanted - and what Tony knew he wanted too.

A few precious days of peace followed and when Thor had to leave on a mission for Monica, she sent Hawkeye over to watch with him and Steve over their tiny SHIELD asset. To his surprise Hawkeye didn’t keep his distance. He was on his knees to play with Tanya practically the moment he had arrived. “She’s a sweetheart,” he declared after a while. “It’s obvious which of her fathers she’s coming after.” He stuck his tongue out at Tony.

“Very funny,” he mumbled. Steve was once again watching from the sidelines, always cautious and protective. “If you have this well enough in hand, I’d like to move to the lab for a while.”

Hawkeye motioned for him to go, but Steve gave him a worried look as he passed.

For the first few minutes he had the constant nervous urge to got back upstairs and look after Tanya, make sure everything was alright. But then he called up Susan, to exchange a few words about the latest data. Then Tony worked for two hours without interruption. He still had the plans for the space station to finish and his armor was in desperate need of an upgrade. It had been so long that he had been hands deep in work that he lost himself in the process. Looking at the time a while later came as a shock.

Nobody had made contact with him over the comms and nobody had called for help and he hoped that meant something. He rushed back upstairs, his hands still stained with grease. When he finally rounded the corner he froze. “What’s this? I didn't hear my daughter crying.” He watched in wonder as Steve balanced Tanya on his knees as she stood upright and grinned at Tony past her red pacifier.

“You called her your daughter,” Steve said and grinned just as brightly.

“You finally picked her up.”

It was like the most profound revelation.

“Clint did a good job with her, but Monica called him back in for a debrief. And I wanted you to have some time to work. So when she started crying we finally came to a sort of agreement.”

He felt the smile go through his whole body. Tanya reached for him and giggled when he came closer and Steve, much surer of what he was doing held her up so he could easily take her from him.

“Did you sing?” Tony asked. He would be so mad at himself if he had missed this.

“No,” Steve said and laughed warmly. “We have our little secrets now too.”

Tanya started babbling like she wanted to tell Tony the whole story.

They were going to be a family. Messed up and weird, but a better family than Tony had ever had before.

* * *

It was a good thing that things had worked out so well. Steve became much more confident in handling the girl - and Tony, while he had not even once repeated the word “daughter” was calling Tanya exactly that in his mind. He had spent an afternoon gathering everything he had on her birth family, because one day he really wanted her to know all about them, and realized that he was thinking ahead, that he was imagining his future to be that of a father watching her grow up.

Watching Steve carrying her around now like he’d never done anything else, always brought up a smile for him. He was beginning to understand why Cap had spent so much of his time watching the two of them before. The unlikely picture just always attracted his gaze like a magnet.

“You’re still her favorite,” Steve said soothingly, when Tanya made it clear she wanted to be handed over to Tony now.

“Well, you're standing very high in my regard, Cap.”

The smile Steve threw his way was a lot more guarded this time. “I hope so,” he muttered and looked away.

Tony forgot sometimes that all the idle flirting would only be allowed to go so far. Perhaps he needed to find someone to spend the night with, because it felt like he could use the distraction. But Carol would hound him, if anyone got wind of that now. And it was very hard to set up a tête-à-tête while Captain America occupied part of your penthouse. Even Tony wouldn’t be as inappropriate to have sex in a home without walls while Rogers was sitting on his sofa minding the child like a loyal watchdog. Although thinking about it brought up some inappropriate fantasies.

He better never let his friend find out exactly what he was thinking.

But then Tanya, who had tried to pull herself up into a standing position and then toppled down, shrieked with the surprise of falling onto her blanket and Tony forgot all about lewd fantasies and indeed about Captain America. It had only been the surprise and no real injury, so it was easy enough to calm down his daughter, but he ended up sitting cross legged leaning against the sofa with her in his lap, while she sniffled and sucked on her pacifier.

Steve finally rounded the corner and he looked serious. The most disconcerting thing was that he was already wearing half his uniform and holding his shield at his side. “Going somewhere, Cap?”

“Everything alright?” Steve surveyed the scene and even now took the time to throw a quick smile towards Tanya. “Monica called us in just now. Child services has decided to kick up a fuzz.”

“Indeed? Now?”

“Yes.” Steve looked as displeased about that fact as Tony.

“What do they want now?”

“In light of recent media coverage they want us to meet with them and discuss how we want to proceed. Monica said the exact wording used was that they would prefer the child to be returned into their care until she can be set up with a safe foster home.”

Tony snorted. “They didn’t ask for her medical files again?”

“No, but Monica is suspicious. There is nothing to find on the Miss White that called earlier asking for them. This time it’s the real social worker. It was checked and double checked.”

Tanya sniffled and then pulled the pacifier from her mouth to offer it to Tony. She had learned to pick up on his moods recently and Tony had not yet learned how to deal with it. He smiled and took it, kissing her brow. “Well, real social worker or not. They can’t protect her and you’re the one who made me see that we are not going to give her up.”

“We are not,” Steve acknowledged. “But we will go and listen to what they have to say. I’m going in now.”

Tony spent the rest of the evening in a restless state. He knew that if this was coming down to a political power play, then they would win. He knew he could hire the best lawyer and the best media people to turn this any way he wanted. But when he looked at his smiling little girl, the only thing he wanted was to be able to tell her one day that everything had gone smoothly and without public mud-slinging in all directions.

Really, this world had much bigger problems lying ahead.

But the press would not give them a break.

Steve sat once again at Tony's kitchen table much too early in the morning, when Tony – woken by Tanya's insistent crying – slunk in, wearing his expensive red silk dressing gown and was holding a now happily babbling baby in his arms. There was an open paper in front of Steve, parts of it were spread out nearly across the whole of the table. Tanya squealed a little when she saw Steve, trying to move in Tony's arms to get a better look.

For his part, Rogers, still dressed mostly in his Captain America uniform that was scorched and dirty in places, let the paper sink down, and leaned back in his chair and smiled at their little baby. “She's chipper,” he said, and looked over at Tony with an amused frown.

He was being scrutinized and it was easy to tell why. Tony knew exactly what article that particular yellow press rag had run yesterday. So he shrugged and bobbed the little girl carefully up and down a few times until she gave a high pitched scream of delight. “It's the same with all the beautiful women in my life. They simply insist on keeping me up all night.” He walked to where he had prepared Tanya’s glass of favorite baby food the evening before and let her contently slobber on his shoulder, while she watched Steve.

She really was a little sweetheart.

The thought scared him much more than the insinuation that Captain America had seen pictures of his naked tryst with his college roommate Tiberius Stone and the passionate way he'd let Japanese magnate and fellow genius of electric engineering, Fujikawa Ryūji, bend him over a table and fuck him at the Hellfire club. Rogers was a man out of time. He was also loyal to a fault. He'd freak out and make some stupidly old-fashioned remarks at some point, perhaps he'd get a little assholish about Tony looking at him the way he was admittedly looking at him.

Some of the easy flirting would be off the table for a while. But Steve wouldn't leave.

“And not only those ladies, it seems,” Steve said and went back to reading.

Here it comes, Tony thought, but that was as far as it went. Rogers went on reading in utter silence for a while, as Tony settled into a chair, with the squirming baby in his arms and after some maneuvering, everyone was focused back on the important things in life: The little human in his arms, the food finally quenching Tanya's hunger and the pictures of once had amazing sex in the paper.

When Rogers finally put the paper to the side and watched them, calm and relatively relaxed after what must have been a night of combat, and a morning of shocking revelations about Tony's sex life, he asked: “Want me to watch her while you spend some time in the workshop?”

Tony blinked, looking up for the first time, because really most of his world had a way of narrowing down to the little human being in his arms, when Tanya was contentedly trying to feed herself with a small plastic spoon, twisting it this way and that and getting more of the puréed stuff on her bib than into her mouth and Tony occasionally interfered to keep the mess from spreading. “I'm awake now. Why don't you take some rest. I might have to take you up on that for pretty much most of the afternoon.”

With the curt nod of the soldier, Steve got up as if he'd received an order. Then he lingered in the door. “Don't worry, Tony, they won't discredit you and take the little girl away. You're an Ultimate. She's one of our own now and we won't give her up that easily.”

There was a fierce look on his face suddenly, exactly the one that Tony always appreciated very much. It was nice to know that there was always room in Steve's heart to extend the protectiveness to him.

“Hear that, princess?” he asked the little girl. “We're not giving you back to the morons who lost you in the first place.”

“Not without one hell of a fight,” Captain America, not any less impressive without the blue cowl, agreed with a half-grin, before leaving.

“Right-o,” Tony muttered. “Not without a fight.”

* * *

The darkness was so bleak, just like when he had felt his body falling away and at the last second his consciousness had held on to the final tendrils of power reaching out to him and he’d leaped into the machines around him, feeling the electric buzz, the rush of data running through his mind. It had been cold and so bereft of all feeling, but he’d clung on.

Anthony had bestowed a last gift on him and he wasn’t going to throw it away.

And Cap and Thor and Hawkeye they were all in trouble. And the world. He’d told Richards that everything he had ever done had been to save the world, to keep it safe. Richards had mocked him, but jealousy and madness had dripped from every word. Tony knew he was a mess, but he had been trying to make the world a better place.

“You birthed me,” a familiar voice whispered and Tony spun around.


The boyish projection smiled. “Thank you. I lived. Gems don’t live like this.”


“She has a part of me, as did you.” The boy smiled, but his image grew weaker, less corporeal.

“Anthony!!” he cried and his voice resounded in his ears, but it wouldn’t stop the fading of the small form before him.

“Always here. Gems are not once, but always.”

* * *

Over the last weeks Steve had gotten used to waking to the sound of Tanya’s voice in the darkness. Especially in the very beginning she had rarely slept through the night. And even now she sometimes woke desolate and searching for them. Steve could only imagine what went on in her little head then, when she couldn’t immediately find them. They still had only vague ideas how long she’d been kept inside that glass case, how long she’d been deprived of touch and how much of her fast learning now was up to whatever enhancement the serum approximation was causing in her now. She seemed so much like a normal child that he forgot sometimes that her early childhood had been anything but normal.

This time when he woke, he immediately knew it hadn’t been Tanya’s voice waking him. There was no high pitched crying, no lonely sad shouts for Tony.

“Anthony!” he heard, muffled, but loud enough to wake him. He sat up immediately to look around.

The sofa had become as much of a bed to him as the bed in his own room and so far Tony hadn’t indicated that he wanted him gone again. Slowly, step by step, Steve was realizing that they were living together and this time not in the way soldiers and team mates lived together or the friendly and casual way they had lived together before at the tower, back when Tony had been sick and very close to dying.

From his place on the sofa he had a good view of the penthouse and he could even see Tony, lying in his bed, tossing around as if in the grips of a nightmare. He’d seen Tony sleep before. He’d lain here with his arms behind his head, listening for every sound and had thought about Tony lying in his bed falling asleep, but he had been careful not to overstep any boundaries - despite the penthouse missing quite a few too many walls to allow for real privacy. The only places you could go beside the bathroom that had some walls were the kitchen, dining room and office one level beneath them.

When Tony made another distressed sound, Steve finally made up his mind and got up. He passed Tanya on his way, but she was fast asleep in her baby bed. Hesitation wasn’t really part of who he was, but he still took a moment to think things through before he closed in on Tony’s bed.

“Tony?” he called and waited for a reaction, before he stepped right up beside him. “Tony?”

The man was mumbling things in his sleep and his eyes were moving under the eyelids. It was easy to tell what was going on. He carefully reached out a hand to squeeze his shoulder and wake him. “Tony?”

Nothing happened.

“Hey, wake up, Tony.” He shook his shoulder a little harder and Tony’s eyes flew open, a hand coming up to push Steve away.

But somewhere in mid motion he realized that it was Steve and he stopped. “God,” he mumbled. “Did I wake you?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Everything okay?”

“No,” Tony said softly, “no, not really.”

He scooted over a bit and Steve took that as an invitation to sit down. “Want to talk?”

“Do you?” Tony said with a lopsided grin.

“Nah,” Steve said and grinned. “Not one for talking much.”

“Thanks for offering anyway.” Tony chuckled, like the whole nightmare hadn’t happened at all. It was very much like Stark to just brush something like this off. But Steve understood that part. He didn’t downplay bad situations, but he really wasn’t someone who talked about feelings.

“Are you gonna be okay then?”

He was surprised when Tony shook his head. “Nobody is ever really going to be alright for long in this world.” When he chuckled again it turned into a desperate laugh. “I had the weirdest dream, Cap. I think all the things that are going on are putting me on edge.”

“You dreamed of Anthony?”


“You shouted out the name.”

“Ah.” Stark lay there with an arm thrown over his eyes and kept still. “Yeah, Anthony. He said something about reality dissolving and something about Infinity Gems being always.”

“Weird shit happens in dreams.”

Tony peeked out from beneath his arm. “I’m appalled, Mr. President. What kind of talk is that?”

Steve had to grin. Tony always made him smile with jokes and outrageous comments and even more outrageous behavior. “So? Does it mean anything to you or was it just a dream?”

“Just a dream I think. I…” He hesitated and looked away. “I’m perhaps more nervous about child services taking an interest than I like to admit… and…”

“I’m nervous too. It’s probably just routine, now that they are under pressure to take an interest. But it feels like a trap.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “And I was a bit too occupied with what Susan and I were working on. I could have looked into Erlking some more, but… God, the dream Anthony said reality was dissolving and I think he’s right. It’s what I’ve been thinking the whole time, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet. I was a little busy.” He looked towards where the baby bed had been put against the wall and then slowly sat up.

Steve got that feeling. “We knew something like that was coming.”

“But Richards said we had another 1000 years or so.”

“But Kang… Susan… Whoever she was. She chose Richards in the here and now for a reason. We knew there wouldn’t be an indefinite amount of time. So? We fight this. Come on you’re smart. You already have plan.”

“And if there’s no plan?”

“We go down fighting. It’s what we do.”

Tony shook his head. “I like your pep talks, darling.”

“Good,” Steve said. “There are probably a few more of those in your future.”

“Perfect.” Tony scooted over under the blankets and then looked up at him.

For a moment Steve’s breath caught in his throat and he was about to jump up and get out of her as fast as he could, when Tony actually patted the mattress beside him again. “You must be getting tired of the sofa, Mr. President. There’s room enough for two. And I’m too tired not to behave.”

“Hmm.” Steve studied Tony, who really looked tired. There was no lascivious grin, no joking and no irony this time.

“Come on. This way you can just throw me out of bed if I have another nightmare.”

He looked back at the sofa that was not at all uncomfortable and safely across of the room. “Just because it’s late and the the sofa is far away,” he said tightly and slipped under the blanket, staying as far away from Tony as possible and then turned his back to him. They both stayed where they were in silence.

“Is that what’s it going to be like? Parenting and saving the world?”

Steve grinned into the darkness. “Until she’s old enough to save us.”

Tony’s laughter was warm and there wasn’t a trace of the uneasiness the nightmare had bought in his voice this time, as he said: “If she’s lucky, she’s never going to be a superhero.”

“Thor says, she has a strong grip for a human toddler.”

“Thor also teaches her to topple over anything that is set before her. Let’s hope he’s wrong.”

He listened to Tony settling back down and burying himself in the blanket and when a while later his breathing evened out, Steve still had a smile on his face. He knew things weren’t looking good. If Tony and Susan were on to something, then it was a certainty that they were in big trouble. Reality dissolving did not sound like a problem he would be able to solve with his fists and a sheer will to do it.

But he trusted Tony.

They’d come out on top so often and he was sure they could find a way to stop whatever was coming.

Now more than ever they had something to fight for.

* * *

The emergency call reached him at SHIELD. Monica Chang had just called him and Carol over for a briefing and he’d pretty much clamped up the moment Carol had asked about Tony and how he and the kid were doing. He worked well with Carol. Although even as president he had ignored her advice when it went against what he thought was right. But this was different. He had called her in because he needed someone with a clear head to help them channel the media interest in Tanya in the right direction. He had not called her in to remind her and Tony of their mutual attraction.

Tony’s love affairs had never really bothered him before. He had watched most of them unfold with a detached interest.

Tony was his friend and he knew how he got with attractive women, how he got occasionally with attractive men. Although the only man Tony had ever flirted with when Steve was around, was Steve.

Somewhere while he’d been worried about his friend he had made the connection that for the longest time he hadn’t allowed himself to make. Waking up in a new world had been hard enough, what he’d been looking for in the very beginning was a bit of a normal life outside the craziness. He’d never tried again after things had ended so disastrously with Jan. Even thinking of her still hurt. Vibrant beautiful Jan.

It had taken him a while to realize that things had changed, that  he was living in a time when he could want what he wanted, that he didn’t want that kind of normalcy necessarily. He wanted something, something he could trust and rely on. It was no wonder he was starting to look at one of the people who had his back.

Monica looked rattled. “God, Cap, this looks like the worst kind of kaiju movie and it’s happening right there in Northern Europe. We can’t lose Northern Europe too.”

Director Chang was right, of course, whole European countries had been wiped off the map. The world was getting smaller and smaller and not better. Lives had been lost.

“Tony?” he asked over the comms.

“Already there, Cap,” he said. “I left Hawkeye and Ben Grimm on babysitting duty. I hope you know this means I’d rather get this over with soon.”

“Roger that.” He nodded once at Monica and Carol and then strode down the familiar corridors of the Helicarrier to get to Thor. “Status?” he asked, because he wanted to be sure Tony wasn’t getting in over his head.

“There is a dimensional tear open over Oslo and another one is threatening to open over Helsingborg. We have a…”

“Giant crab?” Steve suggested as he caught a glimpse of the monstrosity on one of the screens as he passed.

“We have a giant crab destroying everything in it’s wake. It obviously came through. We haven’t a clue from where though. Could be from the future. Could be from another universe or space.”

“What matters is taking it down and closing the tears. Tell me you can do that.”

“I hope so.”

Thor held out an arm to him and Steve took it, letting himself be pulled through. They arroved over the area of fighting. Giant Men and Women were already battling the monster or at least trying to shoo it away from the city center. Iron Man was hovering close to the dimensional tear and Susan Storm, holding herself above ground on one of her force shields, closed in on them.

“Something is coming through and we don’t know what it is.”

“What are you doing to close this?”

“It’s already closing.” Susan pointed at the tear.


Susan shrugged her arms helplessly. “We had just taken the readings we needed to try something and then it slowly started closing on its own.”

“Someone did this from the other side,” Tony said over their communications channel. “I wish they could have waited until this thing was on the other side again, too.”

“They might not want it back,” Thor suggested and narrowed his eyes. Steve nodded and hopped over to Susan’s force shield, so Thor could join the fray of the fight below.

The tear in the fabric of reality shimmered like a bright rainbow and still when he tried to look at it he saw nothing more than darkness. He held on to Susan as she carefully let them glide down. The darkness rippled and golden and something came through. Tony was after it immediately and Steve couldn’t fight the worry, when he realized that this time it was the man in the armor and not just a remote controlled suit. He fought the worry and nodded at Susan to follow. The dark-green and gray monstrosity pushed a Giant Men who stumbled and Susan had to swivel out of the way to avoid impact. With his shield Steve managed to protect them from falling rubble, but for a moment they lost sight of Iron Man.

Thunder rained down on the creature and Steve could make our Thor, a human shaped body inside the blinding brightness of lightning.

“We need to contain it,” he told Susan and she nodded. They joined the effort to drive the creature away from the areas that hadn’t been evacuated yet. Steve was helping the local police to get people out of harm’s way when minutes later a SHIELD Helicarrier appeared over them finally.

“Drive it towards the tear,” Tony instructed and Steve was relieved to hear his voice in his ear. He sounded out of breath, but alright.

The Helicarrier fired well aimed shots and just a moment, the blink of an eye later, whatever the thing had been, vanished in front of his eyes, before it had even visibly touched the gold-shimmering darkness. “What happened?” he asked, hoping for Tony to explain it.

“It was pulled in,” a chillingly familiar voice told him instead.

Reed Richards.

Steve shouldered his shield and set of at a run. He wanted that man nowhere near Tony, nowhere anybody. He only had to follow Susan, who was swishing through the air above him, also alerted by the voice on their comms system.

He fully expected another fight, fully expected to find Tony broken on the floor in need of rescue or worse. But what he found was much stranger than that.

The man looked familiar enough and with his limbs stretched, elongated and unnaturally bent out of shape, there was no doubt that this was indeed Mr. Fantastic. But it wasn’t the Reed he’d seen last and it was even more chilling to see the upper torso of the man supported by Iron Man, whose visor was up.

“Susan,” the man whispered when he saw Invisible Woman hop to earth, dissolving the shield that had held her up. “You’re alive.”

He came to halt, could see Tony shaking his head, could see Susan swallow hard as she realized the way the man was looking at her. “Reed,” she said cautiously.

The man who was and wasn’t Richards coughed up blood and then he smiled. “It’s good to see you, Susan. I’m glad I could at least safe one of you.”

Then his long arm grew even longer to take something from the ship-like capsule he must have arrived in and pulled. Steve raised his shield reflexively.

“Steve,” the man whispered. “It’s not…” He faltered, breathing hard and Susan turned to him with wide eyes. Steve shrugged. From all he knew about his own Reed Richards he knew that he was nearly impossible to kill. He wasn’t even sure the man he knew could bleed like this.

He held up a round metal ball and held it over his own head so Tony could see it. “Take it, Tony. It’s good that you’re here. I had hoped to find you or me or someone who would be able to use it. It’s what I used to close the tear on our side. I was too late, of course… Everything was… gone, already.” He coughed again, “You were all dead.” He looked at Susan again with some longing and smiled.

Tony’s face had grown cautious. “You wanted to give this to me?”

“I’m sorry I can’t be of more help, my friend,” Reed mumbled and they all exchanged a surprised look over his head. “Your world is at the epicenter of this. The convergence. Every universe, all space and time is falling in on itself. It’s going to pick up speed fast. Worlds are dying… Reality dissolving.”

Susan fell to her knees and took the man’s hand and he looked at her gratefully. Steve could see she was overwhelmed and shocked and trying to make sense of it.

“You can figure this out, Tony,” the strange Reed said, "before your world is dying. You, and Sue and perhaps Hank… You and the Avengers,” he whispered and his head lolled to the side.

“Avengers?” Tony tonelessly mouthed in Steve’s direction and Steve carefully shrugged his shoulders.

From between nearly closed eyes the dying man regarded Susan, squeezed her fingers. None of them, certainly not Steve would ever have imagined to see such emotion, such gratefulness on the face of Reed Richards. “Save yourselves,” he whispered and took his last breath, trying to utter Susan’s name one last time.

They stayed there, frozen, staring at each other and unsure what to even think about this, until Thor landed beside them with a loud crash. Susan pulled herself to her feet, laying the now motionless hand carefully down to rest on the dead man’s chest. She only gave herself a moment to look at all of them in turn as if she was looking for help or an explanation. Then she jumped into action. “We can’t leave him here.”

Tony nodded and he too stood up, staring at the little metal ball in his hand.

“What is it?” Steve finally asked Tony and indicated the thing.

“Data,” he said and sounded shaken. “I hope it’s everything they know about what is happening.”

“We were dead,” Susan whispered. “Where he came from all of us were dead.”

It always looked strange when Tony shrugged his shoulder in the armor. But Steve could imagine what he was feeling. Some of their worst fears had been confirmed here. And still Steve couldn’t decide what was more disconcerting: That the world and possibly all universes were in grave danger or that a Reed Richards had trusted a Tony Stark to find the solution to their problem.

They rushed home, happy to find Tanya quietly playing with Clint. “What did I miss?” the man asked, when Tony pulled the baby up from the floor and into his arms, hugging her like he needed to make sure she was real.

“Director Chang will tell you everything,” Steve said tiredly.

“That much trouble?” Clint asked and looked grim.

Steve had nothing really reassuring to say to him, so he moved over to press a kiss to Tanya’s cheek, not caring for once that he was stepping much too close into Tony’s space while some was around.

* * *

Tony took Tanya with him to the Helicarrier when he and Susan worked until late. Steve kept out of their way. They had all been rattled. It was one thing to know the world might be ending at some point in time and quite another to be faced with the certainty of danger. Somewhere out there worlds, whole universes, were falling into each other and they were only feeling ripples of it here for now. But both Tony and Susan were sure that in his attempt to be smart and stop everything, to master something that should have occurred in its own time, their Reed Richards, the Maker, had made their world the center of a greater catastrophe than even the N-zone had faced.

“Hey,” he said softly from the door. “I’ll take the little one home.”

Tony looked up tiredly. “I’ll come.”

“No progress.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Some progress.”

“We would just need all of the Infinity Gems to make it work.” Susan smiled at Steve tiredly. She hadn’t said anything about the Reed she’d seen die since it had happened, but she had taken a whole day off to spend with Ben. And Steve couldn’t blame her. He and Tony even now planned all their time around Tanya.

Which only made his heart grow heavy with worry. Tomorrow they had to meet with the children services people finally.

Tony muttered: “What is it with the Reeds of the multiverse and Infinity Gems?” But he had already pulled himself to his feet.

“What are we going to do? The Gems are gone.” He looked from one smart person in the room to the other, hoping to see the hints of a new plan.

“We think there might be something of them left.”

“Traces,” Tony whispered. “Dust.”

He had no idea what to make of that and just motioned for Tony to come with him. He picked up Tanya’s baby carrier, before he nodded at Susan.

Tony fell asleep in the Hovercar on the way home, not even waking when Tanya yanked his hair hard.

* * *

They both wore their serious faces when they took Tanya to the Triskelion the next day. Feeling the tension the little one spent a nervous morning, crying inconsolably when she was placed into her seat in the car.

“I don’t really want to go either,” Tony said softly.

She sulked for the rest of the way, spitting out her pacifier after Tony had coaxed her into accepting it. To his credit that finally amused Tony enough to chuckle.

Steve grinned, keeping his attention on steering their craft. “Well, someone has spirit.”

“Wonder who she’s getting that from.”

“Must be her mother. From what you told me of her, she must have been something.”

Tanya kept babbling nervously for the rest of the way and didn’t stop even when Tony picked her up and carried her against his shoulder after their arrival.

“Aren’t they growing fast,” Monica said when they arrived at the meeting room. Tanya grinned at her shyly and hid her face against Tony’s chest.

There were two people here to talk to them.

The man smiled friendly enough when they entered. “She looks healthy,” he said. He was middle aged and had friendly brown eyes. His female colleague, much younger, followed the proceedings silently and only nodded in greeting. “It’s an honor to meet you,” the man shook his hand after introducing himself as Jeremy Drover. “And you, of course, Mr. Stark. My son loves Iron Man. Let’s get started then,” the man suggested. “For now we do have some questions and some… concerns. We understand that there are extraordinary circumstances at play, but you have to understand that we only have the child’s best interest at heart.”

The muscles in Steve’s jaw were aching and he took a deep breath before sitting down. His hands balled into fists as he set them to rest on his thighs. Tony who was still holding Tanya looked like he wanted to walk out of the room again, but after they exchanged a brief look, he sat down in the chair beside him. With the three SHIELD agents positioned at the door to keep them safe the whole meeting ironically felt more like a tribunal.

It was going to be a trying day.

They were half-way through what they were assured was a standard questionnaire for possible foster families, when the building shook with an explosion. Tony’s eyes went to Tanya, who shrieked, terrified, her hands coming up over the tiny ears. Steve shot up. He wasn’t in uniform, but in a formal suit complete with tie and so was Tony. He had even left his shield with Carol, when they’d arrived, in an attempt to look unthreatening. Like a normal man applying for custody. Now he feared he was grinding his teeth so hard that everyone in the room could hear it even over the sound of the explosion.

“Go,” Tony said and he too was standing and ready to run from the room, holding Tanya protectively close.

He nodded and got ready to run all the way to Carol to get his shield.

The timing of this incident was all too convenient and they both knew it.

“Not so fast, Mr. Stark,” the younger social worker said softly. “Just hand over the child.”

The SHIELD agents at the door raised their weapons, but another explosion, this one closer to them, knocked all of them clear off their feet. Tony crouched down to shield the child and Steve jumped over to them to offer added protection.

Shots fired behind him and Tanya’s shrieking cries were loud in his ears.

When he looked behind him, two of the agents were down, dead on the floor, shot by their own comrades who were now training their guns on them.

“Give us the child,” one of them said and Steve recognized the voice. He had heard it once before whispering in his ear.

“Erlking,” he said.

“An honor to meet you, Mr. Rogers. So nice of you to deliver our Patient Zero back to us. With her blood we can build a true master race. With her we can understand…”

Something crashed through the wall and Tony pushed Tanya between them and Steve followed his direction to get her closer to the wall, as rubble flew inside the room. When Steve looked up he could see a flash of red and gold in the dust.

“Less monologuing,” Tony advised, but there was no note of humor to it. He had gone deadly serious.

“Clever,” Erlking said and aimed. “I don’t need any of you alive, you know?”

Steve pushed them down in time, his shoulder grazed by the bullet. It burned, but it wasn’t serious.

“You have spunk to attack us here. But it’s not the smartest move you could have made.”

The rifle was still trained on Steve and Tanya was crying so loudly, so full of fear that Steve felt angry enough to snap the next person’s neck, if someone fired at them. “I fear, the rest of the base is busy, Captain, and you are without weapons.”

Part of the ceiling crashed in and a ladder appeared from above. This was the escape route and now all Erlking needed was Tanya.

Steve grit his teeth until his jaw hurt. “You think I need weapons to defeat someone like you? That's cute.” The Iron Man armor had not started fighting back, but had followed Tony’s direction and was shielding them from the possible line of fire. They nodded at each other.

“Slip away,” he mouthed and signed at Tanya.

“Give us the child!”

The armor raised its arms and fired the repulsors. Steve sprang to his feet and Tony jumped towards the hole in the wall, the armor shielding him and Tanya on their way out.

Jeremy, was cowering in a corner, holding his arm. He was bleeding badly. Steve tackled the traitors closest to him to draw their fire away from him, diving behind the toppled meeting desk and pressing himself to the ground. “Follow, Stark,” Erlking shouted. “Don’t let him get away with her.”

“What’s so important about her?” Steve ground out. "You made her from what you found in my blood.”

“Not only your blood, Captain,” the man ground out and then vanished into the corridor. Steve could only hear repulsor shots and the distant crying of his baby, but had to dive back down, before the remaining henchman opened fire on him again. He reached for a chair and threw it over the desk, jumping right after it, to use the element of surprise. He only got one of them down, before the other one pulled the trigger and fired a round of shots, getting him in the thigh. He was too angry to stop thought, still hearing the faint cries and noises of fighting outside.

Nobody was tearing apart what he had just admitted to himself he wanted. This family was all that he had.

He knocked the soldier out with one well aimed hit to the face, breaking his nose and sending him down, and then kicked the gun right out of the hand of the final person in the room, who happened to be the obviously fake female social worker.

Behind him agents were entering and he dove out of the way, as more shots were fired. More turncoats took aim, taking their SHIELD colleagues by surprise.

“Cap!” someone called and his shield flew his way. He recognized Jessica Drew a second later as she took out two more assailants, right as he caught the shield out of the air and bounced it back hard to take out the treacherous social worker.

“Tony!” he shouted, hoping for an answer, but the babies crying could no longer be heard.

Together with Jessica he gave chase, realizing that Tony must have set up the armor to fight while he got away, making his way towards the laboratories where he would have more technology at his disposal.

Armor parts were littering the floor and Steve tried not to jump to conclusions and fear the worst. Panic was never the way to victory.

“Tony!” he called again down the corridor, but there was no answer.

He rounded the corner to the labs, finding one security door destroyed. “Damn it,” he muttered.

“You can’t have her!” Susan Storm shouted and when he reached the lab, Steve finally saw his daughter in her carrier, crying but unharmed, safe under the projected shield Susan had put around the two of them. Tony had one arm in a gauntlet and apparently that had been enough so far to hold back his assailants.

“Over my dead body,” he muttered and took a shot right at the man they now knew to be Erlking.

“We can arrange that,” the man said and Steve realized in that moment, that he was going to throw an explosive device.

“Tony,” he cried and the high pitched shriek Tanya made at the noise was even louder and then everything slowed down. Rubble was hanging in mid air, bullets weren’t moving and his shield hung in front of him and he was unable to reach for it.

“It’s happening!” Erlking screamed in delight. His laughter was just as crazed as his voice. “Finally!” He turned towards the baby and Susan, advancing on them as if he had no fear of her psionic shields. “The City was right! We can force the recreation of the Infinity Gems!” His eyes settled on Tanya. “You were very useful, child. But now we know how to recreate you.”

Susan braced herself, but she was looking at Tony.

“What did you do?” Tony asked, but he sounded like he had an idea already.

“Just the slightest bit of dust,” the mad man cackled, “added to the mix. Just a tiny bit of dust.”

“Infinity Gems? You used traces of…?” Susan looked horrified and it slowly dawned on Steve what had been done.

“Evolution,” the man said. “Just like the City promised us.”

“We destroyed the city,” Tony ground out. He too was caught inside the field of frozen dust and rubble.

But he was staring up towards the ceiling. And when Steve looked up he could see it too. A tiny gap of shimmering darkness. And beneath it, right above Tony, a yellow light, forming into a round shape, solidifying with every cry of the baby. Erlking hadn’t even noticed that what he was seeking, took shape behind him; he was too focused on Tanya and Susan.

The gap widened and suddenly dust was spreading, rubble was falling again and the building shook beneath his feet and Tony’s hand reached out to grasp the Infinity Gem. There was no sound, no shout for help, as Erlking half turned, noticed Tony and the Gem. His mouth stood open in an unuttered cry and and Tony had jumped forward to hit him hard, the gem in his closed fist. But before Erlking hit the floor, he was whisked away before his eyes. Panic gripped him and he too jumped forward, to get to Tony, before he could be pulled away too. But they landed in a heap on the floor as the tear closed itself and vanished.

“Ouch,” Tony muttered. “You’re heavy, Cap.”

He wanted to say he was sorry for having landed on top of his friend, but his leg hurt, Tanya way still crying and outside things had yet to calm down. He couldn’t move. He was staring down transfixed.

Susan dropped her shield. “Are both of you alright?”

“There’s an Infinity Gem in your hand,” Steve said, slowly enunciating every word.

“I know.” Tony was trying to get back on his feet, pushing him off. He examined the yellow gem.

“Why did it come to you and not anyone else in the room?” Susan stepped closer to look at it too.

“Because it came from me,” Tony said gravely and swallowed. He met Steve’s eyes and all words got stuck in Steve’s throat. He knew what Tony was talking about. He covered Tony’s fingers with his own hand and closed them around the gem. He wanted to say something, do something more, but he was acutely aware of Susan standing right there.

“One down,” he said and stood up, helping Tony come to his feet.

“One down,” he repeated. He shook his head, like he was just coming out of a daze. Tanya had not stopped crying yet. The noises, the excitement, the fear and tension had all been too much for the toddler. Without saying another word, Tony slipped the gem in his pocket and gathered up their little girl. “Hey, mimma,” he said. “We’re all still here. Everyone is still here. Everyone who matters.”

He picked up his shield and got ready to join the fight outside the lab. “Let’s make sure it stays that way.”

* * *

He sat on the sofa, his shoulders hunched over. Monica had finally sent them home, promising to get every last one of the traitors. Tanya had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep and Tony wanted nothing more than follow her example. Instead he took the gem from his pocket and looked at it.

“I’m sorry, Anthony,” he said softly. “I don’t think you’re still there, but thank you.”

“Saying goodbye?” Steve asked, standing at the floor to ceiling window, looking beat.

“Something like that. Do you think Tanya liked me so much because there was a bit of...”  He let the sentence trail off, feeling ridiculous even thinking as much.

“No,” Steve said decisively. “I’m not even convinced that Tanya had anything to do with what happened there. Whatever that madman said. It might have been you. As you said, the Infinity Gem came from you.”

And neither was Tony. He had absolutely no idea what had happened yet. But he would find out.

“Anyway,” Steve said, “you’re still her favorite.” He grinned.

“Don’t be jealous, darling. I have a head-start, with all the carrying around I did.”

“Hmm,” Steve said and studied him. “Who says I’m jealous of you?”

Tony was startled enough to blink up at Steve, but his grin hadn’t changed. It was probably time to sleep off his headache. They had their little girl now. Jeremy had promised their chances of keeping her weren’t that bad. Tony wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He had already hired lawyers to take their case and make sure nobody would take Tanya away any time soon.

That left only the little problem of collapsing universes.

He contemplated the gem in his hand and then put it away. They would find a solution. They always did.

Because they had to.

* * *

The next tear appeared over a wasteland, so the sudden radiation it brought with it harmed no humans at least. Tony couldn’t make the gem work and they finally closed the gap, the point where their universe was touching another, with a device he and Susan called the Bridge.

“It’s going to get worse,” she said.

“I know. We need to stop this once and for all.”

“If we want to survive.”

“This planet… It’s not going to survive at this rate, is it?”

He didn’t want to lie to her, but the truth sounded devastating. The building of his space station had started exactly 7 hours ago and there was no telling if it was ever going to be a successful project. He just liked the thought of having another option if this planet became uninhabitable.

As unimaginable as it was, he had a family to think of now.

* * *

He ended up standing in front of the floor to ceiling windows when Steve walked out of the elevator. “Something wrong?” he asked and came closer.

“We're going to lose this fight,” Tony said and exhaled. Steve was standing much too close for comfort suddenly, not quite close enough to kiss but very close. “Planet earth is done for. In the long run, we're going to lose the world.”

He had his back to Steve, who once again wore his uniform inside their home as if he was making a statement. He'd seen Thor off just minutes ago and reported via baby phone that Tanya was delighted with her new babysitter Jessica Drew who was downstairs with her in the dining room area, where Steve had set up another play pen. “We are,” he agreed. And somehow out of the mouth of Captain America that should have come as more of a shock.

“I'm not good at this losing thing, Cap. But it's not like I'm scared of...”

“Dying?” Steve shrugged so nonchalantly that Tony wanted to smack him. But when he tried to wheel around, there was that angry fire in Steve's eyes; the one that spoke of battles and war and evil guys being crunched into the dirt beneath his shield and was only directed at Tony when Cap thought he’d taken one risk too many. And he was standing damn close.

He caught Tony's chin with a hand, and this was all the warning Tony got, before there were dry, chapped lips on his own and he - he - was on the receiving end of a bruising, hot kiss.

Only part of his brain wanted to protest at this rough handling, because the other half was busy screaming: “Hell, yeah!” and wondering why the hell this was happening now and hadn't happened after any of the times of outrageous comments and not at all disguised instances of carelessly honest flirting. He answered the kiss, by letting it happen, melting into it and taking what Steve wanted to dish out. Usually he preferred taking charge of this part, but he wanted to know exactly what Steve wanted out of this first.

When the man finally pulled away, his lips now wet and red, and his eyes narrowed but still shining with the same fire from before, his grip on Tony's chin just as bruising as it had been in the beginning, he said: “I was never quite sure you were a fairy. Not until that one article.”

His eyes must have gone wide, but suddenly he wanted to laugh. This was just too hilarious - and so, god, so Cap. “Thanks, darling, right back at you. But your... flirting, if that’s what you call it, needs some work. That’s for sure.”

“I don't think we have time to make it work. It’s now or never. The world is ending.”

This time he laughed and it wasn't hysterical laughter, he was just so amused by the whole sudden development. Cap was coming on to him like an impatient trucker in a bar - and that just didn’t fit at all with the picture he’d had of Steve, who shied back from the modern notion of homosexuality. “I know things have been said about my virtue, and most of them are true, but are you trying to move a little fast here, Captain America?”

Steve had watched him with a closed off expression as soon as he had started laughing. Tony knew he hated to be made fun of, he hated being played. There was nothing to be said against some friendly jokes. There was an easy line to cross with Steve. But now the tightest sort of grin was forming on his handsome face, apparently realizing that Tony wasn’t actually rejecting him here. “Do you want to waste time?”

“Me? What have you heard about me that would give you that idea? I’m sure that wasn’t in any of those articles.”

Grin growing a little wider, Steve reached for his hand and pulled him towards the sofa, but Tony shook his head. “If we're going to do this, we're doing it right.” He nodded in the direction of his bed and Steve, always the strategist, threw one long look at the sofa and then pulled Tony along as if they were going to hisbed.

The stripping happened slowly. Much slower than their initial kiss and the building want would have suggested. He hadn’t yet convinced himself that getting Steve into bed after all these years was going to be this easy. Tony let the black suit jacket fall to the floor, right when Steve sat down to take of his red combat boots. But Steve was back on him the moment his shirt came off, his own uniform already partly discarded, but the impressive bulk in his trousers visible, and hard against Tony thigh. He hadn't really ever expected to end up with Steve like this. If he had ever expected there to be a chance, then he would have gone for it before.

A hundred times over.

Steve's blue eyes were gray as steel in the half-light of the room. “I'm not the woman,” he said gruffly and pressed Tony back against the mattress. “And... You seemed...” For a moment his voice faltered, some redness spread in his cheeks. “Comfortable with... and I'm more of a trade.”

Tony blinked, only momentarily surprised by the old-fashioned notion and jargon - and not entirely sure he got all that Cap was implying. But he was here, mostly naked, on a bed, Captain America's leg between his own, slowly forcing them apart to make room for himself and it was all quite obvious where this was going – and he was not going to fight Captain America on this now. He was hard and ready and the fact that Steve, good, loyal, slightly quaint Steve with the super soldier body and strength was here too, just as ready to press him into the mattress and fuck him until he screamed, was more than he could ever have asked for.

“That's sweet, darling,” he said and kissed Steve right beneath his earlobe, where the skin was sensitive and soft, before whispering: “If you think I need to be on top to undo you, you have a lot to learn. I'll take you apart and you'll be the one beginning for more.”

Steve's steely blue-gray eyes bored into him, showing only a hint of surprise and lust, then he actually pushed him down with all his strength and was on him, hard and powerful and fast, kissing him, until it hurt.

And this time, Tony did not hold back, he challenged, and moaned and shamelessly bucked up against the hard body above him. The tension, the stress of the last days, the frustration of being alone every night - it all came crashing down and he spread his legs wide, so Steve could push between them, losing his tight pants with some difficulty.

“Show me then,” Steve commanded. “I want it. Take me apart.”

“You did this before?”

“Couple of times,” Steve admitted and didn’t stop moving, deliciously rubbing his hardening cock against Tony’s in the process, making both of them groan in anticipation.

“Army?” Tony wasn’t even sure he wanted to know the answer. Right now all he cared about was this, the heat, the building tension in his groin and Steve holding him down, like he was a toy to be played with.

“Yeah,” Steve nearly moaned into his ear as he stroked his sides, hard and sure how to make things move along fast and hard like both of them needed right now. “Before too. But I mostly had my cock licked. Licked a few. Before.”

“God,” Tony said and and could feel the words forever edged into his brain. “God, Steve, this is like dirty talk. Weird, confused dirty talk. Who would have thought?”

“Want me to stop?” Steve asked, while Tony was blindly trying to fish lube and condoms out of the nightstand.

“No! Don’t. Don’t stop.” Because it was so unexpected and sexy.

And the heat in his gaze still somewhere between sulky anger and smoldering heat - perhaps it was just the same with this one. He helped Steve unroll the condom, helped him lube himself up and Steve, his eyes now half lidded and desperately rubbing his erection against Tony’s thigh, groaned, let himself sink down on top of Tony with his his whole body weight, making it hard to breath.

The burn of his cock sliding in, the bruising weight on to of him, it all suited Tony fine though. Even the punishing rhythm Steve set was perfect. He wanted it, wanted it so fast and with abandon that he was close the moment Steve hit his prostate. “Jesus,” Steve sighed, when his muscles clenched down on him and Tony clung to his shoulders, trying to give himself a moment to draw it out. Then he remembered his promise and reached down, he brushed a finger along Steve’s cleft and felt him tense up, but let his finger wander further down. “Next time,” he whispered like a promise. “Now just have a taste.” He found the spot between Steve anus and balls and massaged it, and was rewarded by a gasp.

“Tony,” he moaned, his movements becoming more jerky, less controlled by the minute.

But Tony had trouble holding on himself, keeping this position instead of throwing himself back into the cushions and moan for more. “Give me this,” he ordered, “hard and fast and angry. Give me what you got, darling. Come on,” he whispered.

And Steve jerked up, groaned, moaned, surprised, his movements fast. He pushed himself up with his arms to get a better angle and then looked down. “Say something in Italian,” he demanded.

“You’re kidding,” Tony breathed, delighted.

“Always loved the language,” Steve breathed.

And Tony pulled him down again, licked his earlobe and started talking, babbling, nonsense, begging, praise and Steve came with a dry, choked shout and let himself fall on top of Tony, who was still milking him, his hand massaging his balls, riding out the waves of his own pleasure.

“I’ll bottom for you any time, darling,” he whispered. “But we’ll have to update your vocabulary.” And then he was going to find out how good Steve was with his tongue, already picturing him on his knees.

Steve kissed him, probably to shut him up.

Tony didn’t mind. He had a lot to teach in that area too.

He had been living on the edge for so long, that the possible end of all of existence seemed the best time to enjoy the perfect body above him, to give and receive and lose himself.

“I hope it’s okay when I move from the sofa now, for good,” Steve mumbled against his throat, pressing soft kisses there.

“You could have asked before,” Tony suggested. He had never exactly been subtle about his interest. “How long do you think we’ll have to ourselves?”

“Long enough,” Steve whispered suggestively.

Tony was going to take that as an invitation. It would be stupid to waste their already naked state.

* * *

Steve listened as Tony whispered the words of a lullaby and Tanya yawned and started drooping against his shoulder.

The world was not a better place than it had been yesterday. Things would get dangerous and complicated soon.

But he wasn’t afraid.

He had this now.

And he was going to protect it any way he could.