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Hold on when you get love (so you can let go when you give it)

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Steve leans on his cane and tries to will himself to go back. It’s not like his reluctance isn’t justified—he has so much to do at SHIELD at the moment, and he can’t push himself like he used to. Nothing good but sore knees and frustration can come from standing outside the warehouse Tony and Sam are using to house their new Avengers, anyway.

Yet, like always, Tony makes the decision for him and the door swings open. Tony’s standing there, looking frazzled, and balancing a crying toddler on his hip. “Hi,” he says, almost as surprised at Steve feels and probably just as tired.

“Oh, thank god,” someone screams behind him. Sam runs up and pulls Steve in, a little harder than his weak bones can handle.

Steve only lets himself be dragged for a few feet, and then tugs away from Sam’s grip. That’s when he notices that the rest of Steve and Tony’s Avengers team are running around and fussing over the large amount of babies and toddlers around the warehouse. All of them have a familiar appearence that Steve can almost place. “What’s going on?” he asks, and turns around to look at Tony, whose attention seems to be divided between soothing the crying child he’s holding and surveying the rest of the warehouse.

“It’s uh, kinda hard to explain,” Tony starts to say, but then he sees something out of the corner of his eye and runs to follow it without actually finishing his sentence.

Sam sighs and begins walking without telling Steve to follow him, but it does it slow enough that he knows Sam intends him to. “It’s actually not that hard to explain. I got here this morning in order to work out, and there were thirty-two babies and toddlers just around. Luckily, some of them came in their cribs.”

Steve looks over and agrees with Sam’s count. He’s not any less confused. “Any idea who they belong to?” Steve asks and begins to formulate a plan to return what must have been the product of a mass kidnapping. It makes him feel sick.

Sam answers, “you.”

The world tilts and Steve grips his cane harder. Sam gets about twenty feet in front of him before he notices and rushes back to grab Steve’s elbow. Steve’s age means that people always overreact. “What?” Steve croaks.

“Well, you and Tony. Apparently they are a product of the multiverse.”

“There is no more multiverse.” Steve’s nauseated and he’s leaning against Sam more than he would normally let himself. He doesn’t believe any of it, but there’s something about all these young children that feel ominous.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out. The best guess is that the Auger finally worked,” Sam says and waves an arm in the direction what looked like a half-completed metal door. In fact, there are many half-completed inventions lying around. It’s almost amusing to watch Tony, holding a new toddler close against one hip, walking around and picking things up and away from all the curious hands. Being able to see every potential danger, Steve has a strong desire to help him.

He gets caught up in watching Tony that he completely misses that Sam is waiting for him to respond. “Tony’s been working on an Auger?” Steve remembers the machine as the same that plucked Hyperion out of the ether.

“Are you surprised?” Sam asks with a raised eyebrow. He isn’t surprised. Tony isn’t the only one who wanted to know what was going on outside the universe. SHIELD has been trying to put one together, as well. But there was no way their billion-dollar-and-counting attempt is anywhere as well made as Tony’s.

“So, all of these are Tony’s children?” Steve asks, moving on and trying to understand what exactly, is happening.

“Well yours and Tony’s. Isn’t the resemblance obvious?” There was a time in which Sam would have said that with more happiness in his voice. But a lot had happened in the time since Steve became old.

Steve takes a long look around the warehouse, and says, “I don’t see the resemblance, at all.”  Tony’s, maybe, he can understand, though even that is hard to get his mind around. But Steve’s?

“Well, we asked the ones who could talk who their parents were, and we got a lot of ‘Steve Rogers’ and a couple of ‘Sophie Rogers’. Then we did a few DNA tests, and that confirmed that hypothesis. It’s possible you’re only a step-dad to some, including Tony’s clones, but hey! You have clones, too, apparently,” Sam waves in the direction of Kamala, who is currently trying to calm a crying blond baby. “And then there are the androids-”

“-Androids?”

“They’re all Tony’s kids in one way or another. Of course, some of them are robots. Are you surprised?” Sam shrugs, like he knows Tony, so of course. Steve feels a pang of jealousy at their friendship he’s not sure he understands anymore.

Steve supposes, somewhere, somehow, some part of what Sam said makes sense, but he still can’t get his mind around it.

“Hey, are you freaking out?” Sam asks and turns to face him. “Maybe we shouldn’t have told you like this. But if you’re freaking out about the whole ‘kids with Tony’ thing, you got to remember they come from infinite universes.”

“I get it, Sam.” And Steve does. If he sounds curt, it’s because he doesn’t think talking about this is doing him any favors. His eyes find Tony, who is a flurry of motion and joy as he trades the toddler he has be carrying to Kamala and ends up fussing over the blond baby that could only be Steve’s clone. Tony’s good at this. He’s good at everything. He seems to be absorbing parenting like he absorbs new languages or the science behind alien tech.

It all makes Steve feel weak and ground down and old. He hurts all over—always does these days—and he’s struggling to stand on knees that shouldn’t possibly still be holding him up.

See, the problem isn’t that he doesn’t believe that there were universes where he loved Tony.

He’d be more surprised to find out there were universes where he didn’t love Tony.

It just aches, watching Tony move around with so much energy and drive and youth. Sometimes, it’s hard for Steve to believe that he’s ninety-seven when he thinks of all the things he used to be able to accomplish. But right now he feels every second of all those years his body has experienced and more.

There was once a time, when he was young in both body and spirit, that Steve used to imagine something like this. Not the dozens of children in front of him, but just one. Tony and him, and maybe a baby they adopted or were left with or somehow, like one of these, just showed up out of the sky.

Of course, in that dream, Tony and Steve wouldn’t only be friends.

In that dream, Tony would love him.

Steve doesn’t carry that torch, anymore. It grew too heavy with all the years that it became clear the looks and the lingering touches were all one-way. It grew too unwieldy every time Tony fell in love with someone else. It grew too hot to hold after the Registration Act and the incursions.

But that doesn’t mean the ghost of it doesn’t sit with him like a paint job that can’t be covered. He let the dream go because he couldn’t have it, not because he didn’t want it. The want will never disappear.

They’ve been quiet for a little while now and all the standing is beginning to tire him out. His eyes are burning with still tears and there’s no reason for him to be here. He has nothing to offer this situation and a pile of work to do back at SHIELD. Steve’s about to make an excuse to leave when Tony seems to finally finish his rounds and remember he’s here.

“Kinda crazy, huh?” Tony says and he looks sheepish and tired, but he’s vibrating with happiness and giving off an aura that burns Steve when he gets too close.

There’s a brief second where Steve thinks he should tell Tony to hand the children over to SHIELD, but as soon as he has the thought, he knows it’s an awful idea. Based on genetics alone, these children would be turned into weapons. So instead, Steve begins to formulate a plan to keep them secret, and is fueled by a fierce protectiveness that scares him even more.

“So, we’re still going to try and see if we can reunite them with their parents.” Tony keeps talking like he knows exactly what is going on in Steve’s mind. Or that he at least knows the half Steve wants him to know about. “I never would have thought we’d be together in so many universes. Can you imagine? That’s got to be weird.” Tony sighs and Steve knows he’s seeing all of this through the lens of their current strained relationship.

It only means Tony’s never thought of this possibility before everything between them got so complicated.

“It might not have been so bad,” Steve says, vocalizing his thoughts and hating that he can’t just deflect.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s wonderful. Girl-you must be drop dead gorgeous in some of these worlds, even at your age. And there’s no way any of my gay counterparts didn’t fall immediately head-over-heels in love when they met you.”

Steve tries not to wince at that.

“We’d be great together, I’m sure,” Tony continues on, because he either doesn’t notice or is pretending not to notice the way Steve’s straining to keep his face empty. “At least before we would kill each other.” Tony’s voice goes quiet and Steve aches with how that makes him feel. When is the last time they’ve really talked to each other? It feels like both forever and yesterday. Tony thinks Steve is still angry at him, and Steve’s not surprised, because it’s true. But it’s that weird phantom anger that lingers when it’s for someone you love. It’s the kind that is begging for one moment to make it disappear; any reminder that there was something special underneath the surface worth saving.

Steve’s been avoiding Tony for that reason. He hasn’t wanted one of those moments.

He does now.

“I want in,” Steve says, with the conviction he wants to feel.

“Huh?” Tony asks. He’s picked up a fussy brown haired child and is bouncing her in his arms. Steve’s close enough to see her blue eyes.

“You’re going to keep all of these kids, right?”

“Yeah, well, I figured I should talk to you first about it, since they’re your kids, too.” But the way Tony says it sounds like he didn’t really want to ask Steve. He thinks Steve’s going to stand in his way. Maybe in the past, Steve would have.  

But Steve’s ninety-seven now, and he’s not going to get what’s in front of him any other way. “That’s what I’m saying. I want to keep them. Unless we can find their real parents.”

Tony’s silent for a moment, and Steve wonders what part of what he just said has made Tony quiet. “I’d… I’d like that.” Steve’s not sure if Tony actually likes that, as he’s no longer looking at Steve and his voice has drifted away with his gaze. “It’s funny. I used to imagine us growing old, raising our kids together.”

Steve doesn’t say, ‘me, too,’ because Tony means it to be funny. He means their kids with other people and it’s clear Tony hasn’t come around to the idea that’d they’d ever be in this situation with each other.

He hasn’t had the time Steve has.

So instead of saying anything at all, he reaches out to the toddler Tony’s holding. Without a second thought, Tony hands her over and Steve lifts her up, hands around her middle, till they are eye to eye. She doesn’t look like Ian; her eyes are too blue and she’s got Tony’s complexion instead of Zola’s. Yet, Steve thinks of Ian anyway and the fear he felt knowing it was on him, and him alone, to keep Ian alive.

Steve doesn’t feel that fear now. Now, he has Tony.

“Pa-pa!” she squeaks and points her finger at Steve. The words and the recognition on her face knocks the air out of him and Steve staggers. Without a second of delay Tony’s arm goes around him and he smoothly extracts her from Steve’s hands; without the heavy weight, his body can sag with full awareness of his age.

“No,” Tony playfully admonishes and points at Steve, mirroring her movements. “Gran-pa-pa.”  Tony laughs when he says it, and laughs harder when he sees the girls confused expression. Over her scowling face, he tells Steve, “You’re Grandpa America, now.”

Steve smiles at the joke while it simultaneously cuts him from the inside out. “Sam’s Captain America now, let’s just make it 'Grandpa Steve’,” he quips, but he’s tired and none of his energy’s in it. “What’s the plan?” Steve asks and hopes Tony doesn’t notice the feelings he’s trying to cover up.

Tony doesn’t. “I’m thinking what we got here is the future Future Foundation. If Reed could do it, why can’t I? And now that I got my Sue,” Tony stops and gives Steve a look that means everything and nothing, “I think we’re going to be unstoppable.” Steve can’t help it, he returns the confident smile. He’s probably over his head, but he’s always been when it’s come to Tony.

He’s saved from having to think of some way to respond to that when Tony is distracted by the sight of Kamala rushing after something and realizes he should, too.

Steve doesn’t run after them, at this point he knows his body's limits and he trusts Tony to handle the situation. Instead, he begins to walk around and crouches in front of the first toddler he sees who looks old enough to talk. His knees pop and his back burns with the movement, but he brings himself close enough to eye level with the child. “What’s your name?” he asks.

“I’m Ian,” the boy, blond and wide-eyed, says. This Ian looks nothing like the one Steve knew. This one is small for his age and probably sick more often than a young boy should be. My genes, my fault, Steve thinks and decides fiercely that he’ll do anything in his power to protect him. Ian is staring back, trying to understand something about him. “Are you papa?”

Steve could say yes, but that’s not how it’s going to be. It’s too much hope for himself, too much hope for the child in front of him. He’s ninety-seven right now; there’s no reason to pretend he’s going to be alive for much longer.

“I’m Grandpa Steve,” he decides to say instead, and it hurts, and it heals, in equal measure.