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In Trouble Deep

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“But then I have to -” Tony cut off sharply with a crackle of feedback.

Steve slammed the shield into the face of another one of the Chitauri attackers, and it fell back. They had the infestation mostly under control; for all the initial panic, it hadn’t been that much of a challenge after all. Iron Man was circling the perimeter, making sure none of the aliens had broken free of the contained zone.

“Tony?” Steve asked. Steve paused between attacks, ready to send the twins out towards Tony’s location if he needed backup. But there was no reply. Three more strikes with the shield, and Steve cleared a path to climb up on a disabled car and see if he could get eyes on Tony. The twins were engaged in battle to the north, and he could make out the flurry that meant Jan was taking them down in wasp-mode to the east.

Steve turned to the south, and - there - that was the Iron Man suit. Tony was -

Falling. Tony was falling. That was not a controlled descent. “Wasp! Your end under control? Tony’s down.” Steve called into his comm and got an affirmative back. Pietro could lock the perimeter down, and they could hold their own without him. This fight was almost over.

Steve kicked up to max speed as he tore down the street towards the spot where he’d seen Tony fall. It was very unlike Iron Man to go down that hard in battle, and Steve had always suspected that the suit was high-tech enough that it could do a fair amount of autopiloting even if Tony was hurt.

...or drunk.

Tony’s comm crackled to life again, as Steve cut down an alley. He could finally see Iron Man, prone on the ground. “Tony?” But the comm was just playing static and Tony’s breathing. Was he unconscious? The breathing shifted and twisted into a gulping, struggling sound, and Steve pushed himself faster. The strange noise didn’t stop as Steve approached, the hitching, gasping breath only getting louder, and Steve stumbled to his knees next to the prone armour. “Stark?” There was no answer. The suit had all kinds of safeties and mechanisms for monitoring Tony’s well-being; it was hard to believe that they would all malfunction, but it sounded like he was having trouble breathing. Steve decided to take the risk that Stark would be pissed and damage the suit on the off-chance Tony was in trouble and needed help.

Steve got his fingers under the edge of the faceplate and pulled. The suit resisted, built to withstand a huge amount of force, but once Steve got his feet braced and found the angle that would put the most pressure on one hinge, he felt it give. With an almighty heave, the faceplate snapped off and flew across the asphalt.

Tony wasn’t in it. The inside of the suit was empty, lined with the green goop that appeared to be a necessary part of flying it, but no pilot. The noise filled Steve’s ears again, but this time it wasn’t coming from the comm, it was coming from the suit itself. Steve rested one hand on the chest plate, blinking at the empty helmet.

Unless - was Tony so hurt that he’d somehow curled up inside the armour? Steve’s stomach rolled at how horrific an injury that would have to be; as far as he knew, the armour hugged Tony fairly tightly. But he held his breath and leaned forward, having to almost shove his entire head inside the helmet to get a look down the neck.

There was something in there, but he couldn’t tell what - some ratty fabric? It was too dark. Resigned now to destroying the suit, Steve started ripping off piece after piece. He found a few manual releases, but there was clearly a trick to getting the whole thing to open that he didn't know, so it took a while, and by the time he had peeled back the main chest plate, his fingers were bruised and bloody from catching on the bent edges of metal.

Inside... was Tony’s clothes.

They were nothing more than a bundle of dirty, goop covered rags, but Steve recognized them as what Tony had been wearing when he’d jumped in the suit. They were shredded, nothing more than a pile of scraps of fabric now, and Steve’s stomach turned over again - what had happened to the man inside them? There was no blood, no -

The clothes shifted, whined. Good god… There was something in there? Steve pulled his shield up against his calf so he could grab it quickly if he needed it, then carefully peeled back the pile of ruined clothing.

“What -?”

It was a baby.

A human baby. Black hair. Blue eyes. Covered from head to toe in green goo and sticky, shredded fabric, but otherwise naked.

“To-” No. That wasn’t possible. Someone - somehow - had exchanged Tony inside the suit for a child. But whose child was this? And where was Tony?

Exposed to the air, the baby’s small noises of distress ramped up, no doubt the quieting shock of finding itself inside the wet dark overcome by a cold chill of air and Steve’s face looming over it. Well, regardless of what had happened, the battlefield was no place for an infant; Steve had to get him back to SHIELD.

Tony’s clothes were too soiled and torn to be any good, so Steve pulled off his outer layer of chainmail, stripped off his undershirt, then pulled the armour back on. The shirt was sweaty, but it was whole and warm. He lifted the child as carefully as he could and wrapped him awkwardly in the shirt. The baby must have still been in shock, because he made no more noise as Steve carted him away to the waiting helicopter.

The chitauri threat had been mostly contained before he’d seen Tony go down, and the team seemed to have handled what remained in his absence. They piled into the chopper, dirty and bruised, leaving the clean up for the SHIELD crew, when Jan noticed the bundle in Steve’s arms.

“What do you have there, Steve?”

“Where’s Tony? Was everything okay?” Clint asked.

Steve tipped the little bundle open and revealed the baby’s scared face.

There was a full beat of silence. Then the chopper blades started whirring, and the baby flinched and whined. Steve tucked his face back into the shirt and held him close to his chest, trying to cover his tiny ears with his hand. The others were shouting, but he could barely hear them over the whir of the helicopter.

“He was in Tony’s suit!” Steve yelled, and several mouths dropped open.

“What?”

“Stark is missing. And this child was in his suit instead.” Clint shook his head, disbelieving. “I peeled it open and he was inside. Someone must have traded their places...somehow.”

Steve tried to shove the baby in someone else’s hands, suddenly terrified that he was going to mess up and crush him, but Clint pushed him back. “No! We don’t have any way to tie him down and you’re the most able to protect him. We’ll bring him back to the Triskelion.”

Steve just had to hold on until SHIELD medical, and then he could hand the baby off to someone who knew that they were doing. That was it. One helicopter ride. Then they could find out who had taken Tony and get him back. The baby squirmed in the shirt, and Steve turned to look down at him. All he could see was a tiny wisp of black hair peeking out of the folds of fabric. It was too disturbing to think about much. He just had to get back to SHIELD.

When the chopper hit the landing pad, they all climbed out as a group. Steve, Jan, and Clint made a beeline for Fury’s office, while Wanda and Pietro fell behind, then disappeared entirely. Fury was on the phone, but hung up immediately when the dirty, bruised team stumbled in as one.

“What -?”

Steve deposited the tiny package on Fury’s desk and took an unsteady step backwards. The baby waved a tiny fist in the air, face screwed up and turning red, and Clint stumbled forward, seemingly on instinct, and hooked his hands under his armpits, tipping him into a sitting position. He used a dry corner of Steve’s shirt to wipe the green goo out of the baby’s eyes and nose.

The baby sneezed, shooting a glob of green goop onto Steve’s shirt then stared, wide-eyed, at the team assembled around him. His eyes, huge in his tiny head, drifted back and forth across the group. His bottom lip wobbled, eyebrows rising until a tiny crease formed in his forehead.

“What is that?” Fury asked.

“It - he was in Tony’s suit,” Steve stuttered out. “Tony went down, off the comm, so I went to check on him. But the suit was empty - except it wasn’t.” Steve gestured stupidly at the baby.

“He looks just like Tony,” Jan said, leaning in to peer at the baby’s face.

“So what happened to Stark?” Fury asked.

“No one knows,” Clint said, shaking his head in Steve’s periphery.

But Steve couldn’t take his eyes off the baby, stunned into silence, and the baby, it seemed, couldn’t take his eyes off of Steve. He was still all pinched and wide-eyed in a way that seemed like the brink of something, but now his intense blue gaze was pointed very solidly at Steve.

Steve pointed at the baby. “Someone must have swapped Tony for the baby. But how?”

The baby made a small noise, like a wet breath in, and reached out, slowly but surely, until his tiny fingers settled around the tip of Steve’s pointer. The two hung there for a moment in stunned silence, the baby’s whole hand barely making it around Steve’s single finger. The conversation in the room had lessened to a dull roar in the background. Then the baby leaned in, mouth open. He tugged on Steve’s finger, but, unable to move it, moved his whole body instead, folding forwards until his mouth was around the end of Steve’s finger. He gummed Steve’s finger gently for a moment then started sucking, cheeks hollowing and eyes going soft.

“Um.” Steve tried to reclaim his finger, but the child was startlingly strong, and Steve didn’t want to hurt him by pulling too hard. Steve glanced at Clint for support, but he was saying something to Fury about air support. He tugged a little harder and managed to get his fingertip free from the baby’s mouth. The baby’s lips puckered at the loss, sucking on air, then his face screwed up and he instantly turned bright red.

It started with a few damp, hitching sobs, then broke into full-on wild wailing. Steve tried to give his finger back, to appease the child, but he wasn’t interested in it anymore, his hand falling from Steve’s to clench into a desperate fist in the dirty shirt he was still half wrapped in. The horrible noise caught the other’s attention. Clint reached for the baby, a pained look on his face, but the kid screamed louder and reached both hands out towards Steve, one caught on the fabric of Steve’s shirt. He opened and closed them in rhythm with his panicky breathing, his sobbing so intense now that he was struggling to breathe through it, tears streaking down his dirty face.

Steve felt a sharp pain in his ankle and looked over to see Jan eyeing him pointedly. “I don’t -” he started, but Clint picked up the wailing baby and shoved him in Steve’s arms.

“He wants you.”

Steve clutched the child to his chest awkwardly, trying to figure out how to get all his limbs in some semblance of order without dropping him. Clint sighed and manhandled Steve’s arms into place, cupping one under the baby’s bottom and pressing the other to his back. Clint pushed up until the baby’s face rested against Steve’s shoulder, then tucked the edges of Steve’s shirt around him until he was well swaddled.

Steve froze, holding the baby in rock-solid, unmoving arms. He hadn’t felt this off-kilter since he’d woken into a new millennium. The baby was a warm, solid weight against Steve’s chest, but also so small, and Steve was instantly hyper-aware of his super-strength. He could so easily crush this tiny living thing if he forgot himself.

The baby’s crying softened, then abated, breaking into little whimpering whines, then wet breathing, and finally quiet. The tension in the room ratcheted down as he calmed, until, as one, the whole team took a deep breath and let it out. Steve hadn’t moved, terrified that the slightest shift would set the crying off again, squeeze the tiny body too tightly against his chest, or dislodge what felt like a very precarious position and send him crashing to the ground.

“Well, there’s one way to be sure if it’s Stark or not,” Fury said, sounding about ten years older. Fury pushed out of the room, beckoning the team along behind him. Steve hovered uncertainly, waiting for someone to take the baby out of his arms, but no one did. Jan was the last to reach the door, and she looked back at Steve with her eyebrows raised.

Steve stumbled after them, clutching the baby close to his chest awkwardly, afraid that one wrong movement would slip the tiny body out of his hands. If there was one thing he knew about babies, it was that they were horribly breakable. Fury led the way down to the medical suite and pulled a few doctors and nurses aside.

The baby wasn’t asleep but was very still and quiet in Steve’s arms, and Steve worried for the first time that there might be something wrong with him. He twisted his head to the side, tipping the baby back a little to get a look at him. He was still dirty, and his head had more green goo than hair on it, but he blinked at Steve and sucked resolutely on his own thumb. He was actually pretty good at supporting his own weight in Steve’s arms, and he braced his free hand against Steve’s shoulder and leaned back to get a look at the hallway around them. A few SHIELD agents shot Steve a look, but he glared back until they flicked their gazes away.

Finally, Fury gestured Steve into one of the exam rooms. Steve’s arms weren’t tired, the baby weighed next to nothing with his super strength, but he was tired, and he waited expectantly for one of the medical staff to take the baby from him. When no one did, Steve set the baby down on the paper-covered exam table and stepped back.

The baby sucked in one damp, shuddering breath and burst into tears.

The conversation in the room immediately screeched to a halt, and, wincing, Steve scooped the child back into his arms. He quieted.

Steve cursed everything he could conceivably blame this on. He cursed the chitauri, Tony for disappearing, Clint for making him hold the baby, and himself for letting it happen. Now, apparently, the child wouldn’t calm unless Steve was holding him. He resigned himself to a long night.

Steve sat on the table, since the baby wouldn’t, and the medical team fluttered around them, poking and prodding. The baby was calm and easy, as long as Steve was holding him, politely opening his mouth for swabs and only wincing a little when they took blood. He reached for every implement with quiet curiosity, and eventually the doctor handed him his own tongue depressor to keep him distracted while they waited for the test results.

The tongue depressor was not, however, enough of a distraction to keep the baby from noticing when Steve had to put him down next.

“We’re just going to clean him up,” one of the nurses said, holding out her arms for the child. Steve handed him over gratefully, figuring that any fallout was on her. Of course, the second the baby left Steve’s arms, even in the confident, comfortable grasp of a trained professional, he started wailing. His face turned bright red as tears streaked over his green-stained cheeks and he reached into the air in Steve’s direction, hands grasping at nothing. He was making noises, as if he was talking, but it was all half-sobbed syllable parts, nothing that could be understood.

The nurse made soothing humming noises and petted his hair and tummy, but the baby would not be calmed. There was nothing for it, though. He was covered in green goop and dust, and Steve’s dirty shirt was sticking to his skin. The nurse unwrapped him and shoved Steve’s shirt immediately in the trash. She didn’t seem bothered by the baby’s crying, but Steve felt every muscle in his body ratchet tight. His hands itched to reach out and snatch him back, just to stop the horrible noise, but he tucked his fingers under this thighs and waited instead.

The other nurse had filled the sink with warm water, and he too cooed and praised the baby to no avail. They sat the child in the sink and his screaming reached a new pitch. Steve grit his teeth - surely he’d run out of breath eventually and have to take a break?

To Steve’s immense relief, the door opened and Fury stuck his head in, winced, then crooked a finger at Steve. Steve bolted out of the room like it was on fire.

There was a lab technician clutching a piece of paper and looking distinctly like this was so far above her pay grade that she was already making plans to retire to a tiny island and open a bookshop.

“It’s Stark,” Fury said with no preamble. Jan and Clint were leaning against the wall nearby and Steve glanced towards them. They were scowling but didn’t look surprised.

“What?” Steve asked, rounding on Fury again. “The baby is Stark’s?”

“No, Captain. The baby is Stark. It’s a perfect match. He’s not related to Stark - someone turned Iron Man into a baby.”

Steve stared blankly at Fury. Of course he’d… suspected. But it was impossible. Then again, he looked so much like Tony, with his wide blue eyes and dark hair. The way he’d stared at the tongue depressor like he was trying to figure out how to take it into its component pieces. The way he had the entire Triskelion running around trying to figure out what in god’s name was going on.

“Someone turned Tony into a baby,” Steve echoed, and it didn’t sound any more sane coming from his mouth.

“Yes.” Fury said. The lab technician hovered, clearly wondering if she was no longer needed, and Fury took pity on her. He plucked the paper out of her hands and waved her off. She took off towards the stairs at a speed that was only one tiny notch below flat out running. “I called Pym in, but without knowing who did it or how, apparently there’s not much hope of getting him turned back quickly.”

Steve leaned back against the door he’d just come out of, and he could hear Tony’s howling through it. The knowledge that it was his teammate inside that room - sitting in a sink and screaming because he was getting a bath, and Steve wouldn’t hold him, and his tongue depressor couldn’t be taken apart - was far too bizarre to comprehend. Steve seemed able to get as far as thinking of the baby as “Tony” and no farther.

Fury shoved Steve back towards the room, despite his protests. “He needs you right now, Captain. Apparently, he’s imprinted on you.”

“Like a duck!” Jan added helpfully. Fury rounded on her then gestured at the two of them and she walked away with Clint, shooting Steve one more look over her shoulder. Steve watched their backs as they disappeared down the hallway, wondering what they’d been sent off to do.

“Get in there and help. Hank will be here soon. Hopefully, he can get this sorted out, and then we’ll all be back to being driven mad by Stark for other reasons.”

Steve stumbled back into the room, mostly because he couldn’t think of an argument beyond “I don’t want to” and he knew that wouldn’t be enough for Fury. Tony was still screeching, and when Steve opened the door to slip inside, the sound hit him like a brick wall and made him flinch back. The two nurses looked mostly unaffected, but they were probably used to this kind of thing. They had Tony out of the water already, looking much more the appropriate colour for a baby, and while one rummaged through a cupboard under the counter, the other dried him off, still attempting pointlessly to be soothing.

Tony waved his tiny fists, nearly catching the nurse in the face, but he leaned back out of harm’s way with practiced grace. Steve hovered for a moment then sat awkwardly on the exam table again. There was a dirty stain on the white paper where he’d been sitting before. The other nurse came up from the cupboard with her hand full of fabric and between the two of them they performed some brisk, impressive baby origami, and a moment later, Steve was being presented with a clean, diapered Tony, dressed in a soft, mint green onesie.

They shoved him into Steve’s arms and sighed with relief when his hiccoughing, desperate cries softened and died. He reached up a tiny hand and rested it on Steve’s cheek, then sighed, tipping his face into Steve’s shirt. Steve winced - he was still so dirty - but the quiet in the room was so intense it was ringing in his ears.

The nurses left, one pausing to pat Steve on his shoulder as she left, and suddenly Steve found himself alone with Tony. He tipped the baby back in his arms, feeling a little more comfortable maneuvering him, now that they were sitting down. “Tony?” Steve tried. The baby looked at him consideringly then reached out with one hand and grabbed his nose. Hard. “Ow.” Steve reached up and gently tugged Tony’s hand away, feeling a bit like he’d pulled part of his nose away with him. For a toddler, Tony had an astonishingly tight grip.

He really did look like Tony. Steve balanced him on his knees. Tony didn’t seem to want to stand, but he hung in Steve’s hold easily, bending his knees then kicking his legs out straight and reaching idly towards Steve’s face again. When Steve didn’t allow him close enough to get a hold of his nose again, or worse, Tony stuck his own thumb in his mouth and started sucking on it loudly.

Steve couldn’t help wondering how much of Tony was in there. Was this Tony reverted to the child he was years ago? Or their Tony now, reduced to a child? Steve didn’t know much about Tony’s childhood - he didn’t talk about it. It seemed the most sense to assume the latter, since Tony clearly trusted Steve. But then again, he hadn’t looked to any of the other Ultimates for comfort. Steve sighed. Maybe Fury and Jan were right. Steve had been the one to find him and now he’d… imprinted.

Steve found himself bouncing Tony up and down a little, in time with his idle kicks, and Tony seemed to enjoy it, not falling asleep, but dipping in energy and letting his head tip to the side, slack. His eyes had gone soft, still red-rimmed from his tantrum, but his eyelids blinked heavily. His gaze was still fixed solidly on Steve, though, and it was a bit unnerving.

The door opened again, making both Steve and Tony start up. Tony fussed a little, his brow creasing, and Steve tucked him in close to his chest again. Hank came through behind Fury, looking like he was smirking and trying to pretend he wasn’t. Steve’s hands tightened around Tony’s back.

“Can you do what you need to without holding him?” Steve asked. Fury shot him a look so Steve hastened to add, “No one needs that headache.”

Hank nodded, so Steve turned Tony until he was cradled in the crook of his arm, staring up at the new person, wide-eyed. Steve wasn’t confident in the hold, bracing his free hand against Tony’s outside arm, sure he was going to either go tumbling off to the side, or sink down the gap between Steve’s arm and his chest and fall. Hank took more blood, which made Tony’s little face screw up, a little whimper leaking out. But Steve rocked him a little, and Tony quieted again. Hank poked and prodded, but Tony was being so good that Steve rocked him back and forth idly, sinking into his own mind.

He registered Hank messing with a briefcase full of various chemicals and supplies then talking to Fury in a low voice, but he couldn’t listen. He dropped his gaze back down to the tiny body in his hold. Tony looked overtired even as a baby. He had dark bruises under his eyes and little creases at the corners. He still looked more shocked than anything, but his breathing had become uneven, hitching a little like it had been when he was trapped in the suit. Steve shifted further back on the exam table, then maneuvered Tony back against his chest the way Clint had shown him. He felt two small fists land on his shoulder, and Tony quieted.

“Looks like you’ve got a house guest, Captain,” Fury said, interrupting Steve’s haze, his tone no nonsense but clearly braced for a fight.

Steve halted, half-risen, then sat down again. “What?”

“You need to take him home with you.”

“What - why -? I am the least qualified person to care for a baby. Surely there’s someone in SHIELD who knows what they’re doing?”

Fury shook his head. “I already don’t like the number of people we’ve involved. The doctors and nurses who know work hours too long to care for a baby, and only three people outside of the team know who he really is. This has to stay within the Ultimates, Cap. Pym says he’s never seen anything like this and it will take him a while to figure out how to turn him back. Whoever did this has a reason, and Stark needs to be with someone who can protect him. He won’t exactly be able to protect himself like this.” Fury looked at the baby consideringly. “Though I wouldn’t put it past him to find a way to suit up, even as a toddler. The fucking Iron Baby is the last thing we need. No, it’s you, Steve. Besides, he likes you.”

Steve held Tony out, away from his body, as if someone was going to come along and pluck him away, leaving Steve free. “But - what about Clint? He actually knows what he’s doing. Or Jan? She’s -”

Fury cut him off with an eyebrow raise. “If you finish that with ‘a woman’ I’m going to smack you. And you really want me to ask Clint to take a child that’s not his and care for it alone in that mausoleum he calls a home? Besides, Tony apparently chose you. Suck it up, soldier, you’re stuck with him.”

Steve spluttered pointlessly for a moment as Fury pushed out of the room with a casual half-salute. He looked down at the baby in his arms. Tony was still awake and had taken a handful of Steve’s armoured shirt and was tugging at it curiously. Well, there was nothing for it, and Steve was too tired to argue anymore. He’d take Tony home tonight, and tomorrow he’d talk to Fury refreshed. They’d figure this out. Steve took the opportunity to wash his face and hands, using his hip to brace Tony’s seat on the counter while he did so to prevent another meltdown. He watched the brown water spiral down the sink and scrubbed further up his arms.

Clint and Jan were waiting outside the room when he left, Tony in tow. They had several large plastic bags with them. “Baby stuff,” Jan explained, handing him the bags and cooing at Tony.

“I can’t possibly need all of this,” Steve protested but Clint just laughed.

“This is just to get you through one night, man. Barely scratching the surface,” he said, slinging the strap for something long and rectangular over Steve’s shoulder. They loaded him up and helped him down to the front doors. Jan offered to drive him home. They didn’t have a carseat so Steve sat frozen in the back, his arms wrapped around Tony in a death grip, praying that they made it home in one piece.

They did. Steve stood outside the doors to his building, feeling suddenly awkward. Jan drove off with a wave. Steve couldn’t help wondering if he should have gone back to Tony’s place instead. He couldn’t leave Tony there alone, of course, but Tony had staff that might be there to help. And Tony’s home was big and opulent. Maybe he’d be more comfortable there…

Steve certainly wouldn’t though. He’d be terrified to touch anything, and deeply uncomfortable about being in Tony’s private rooms. Besides, it wasn’t like Tony had any baby supplies either. Maybe it was best that Steve screwed this up in the privacy and relative comfort of his own apartment. Besides, his one-bedroom was small and contained and probably pretty easy to baby-proof. He had a flashing vision of this tiny infant tumbling down the sprawling, three-story staircase in Tony’s lobby and that clinched it. They’d be fine here.