Actions

Work Header

In Trouble Deep

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

Steve pushed through the door of his apartment, awkwardly balancing three massive plastic bags, whatever it was Clint had hooked over his shoulder, and Tony. Tony was leaning over his shoulder, running his little hands over the edge of the shield, making little babbling noises, so it was easy enough to support him with one arm while Steve unlocked the door and pushed in.

Once inside, with the door kicked shut behind him, Steve dumped everything but Tony on the floor and took a moment to breathe.

“Bah!” Tony yelled, tipping himself backwards and nearly out of Steve’s arms.

“Shit!” Steve stumbled half a step forward, catching Tony and righting him. Tony burst into laughter. “I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy giving me grief just as much as a baby, Stark.”

Tony grinned, half teeth, half gum, and whispered, “bah,” again, right in Steve’s face.

“Right.”

Steve was exhausted, but he just had to focus. All the stuff in the bag was going to help him get a handle on this. He set Tony down carefully on the carpet, his back to the sofa, and started digging through what he had, laying it out on the floor. Where was he going to put all of this? Where was he going to put Tony?

It turned out that the thing Clint had slung over his shoulder was a Pack N Play - a bizarrely tightly packed playpen-crib combination that looked far too flimsy to Steve. Some of the bags had clothes and shoes. There were bottles and plastic cutlery. A few books on child care and a few baby books that were at the bottom of one bag looked worn and used, and Steve wondered if Clint had stopped at a secondhand store or at home for those.

Steve wasn’t sure if some of the clothes were the right size so he held them out to -

Tony was gone.

Steve stumbled to his feet, and a small thud drew his attention to the other side of the couch. Next to the TV, Tony was sitting in front of a bookshelf with every one of Steve’s records spread around him in a wide arc. He had one of the Bing Crosby’s out of its sleeve, with the record on the floor and the corner of the sleeve in his mouth, sucking on it valiantly.

“How did you do that so fast?!” Steve hustled around the couch and scooped the baby up, still not quite sure what the best way to hold him was. Tony pouted at the loss of his new toys, until Steve gave him a stern look. Then he broke into wild laughter. Bing slipped down and dislodged the entire pile, sending a cascade of records across the floor and Steve stared at them dejectedly. He’d have to clean them up later. He tucked them up into the best pile he could with one foot, then brought Tony, a small stuffed elephant, and one of the How-To books over the couch. He set Tony one of the cushions, then brought his legs up alongside him to keep him from tumbling over onto the floor. He handed Tony the elephant and started to read.

To Steve’s surprise, Tony stayed quiet for a long time. The elephant didn’t keep his attention for long, but once he abandoned it, he became entranced by the uniform pants Steve still hadn’t found time to strip. Tony found each zipper, buckle, and snap and inspected it intensely, pulling out the contents of every pocket and undoing and redoing each fastener several times. Confident that nothing in his pockets was a risk to the tiny engineer, Steve left him to it, flipping through the book at supersoldier speeds.

He was three chapters in when a tiny hand smacked down on the back of the book, pressing it to Steve’s chest, then Tony’s face was thrust into his. Nose-to-nose, Tony stared at him, then sat back. His smile turned uncertain then shook. His face screwed up a little into a pout. He snuffled twice and shot Steve’s a worried look.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked, but of course, Tony didn't answer. Instead, he just looked sadder. Steve flipped through the book until he found the index on crying. “Start with basic needs,” the book advised. “When your preverbal baby cries, work your way through: diaper, food, sleep. Check for uncomfortable clothing or temperature. Try a distraction,” Steve paraphrased as he skimmed the page.

Food. Tony hadn’t eaten since they started all this, and according to the book, babies his age were supposed to eat all the time. He must be starving. “Hungry?” Steve asked, even though he knew it was unlikely Tony would know what he was saying. But Tony brightened a little - maybe just at Steve’s voice - and reached his hands out towards Steve’s face. Steve scooped him up, and Tony settled easily against his chest, warm and steady.

One of the bags was full of baby-friendly groceries, and Steve cut up a banana into tiny pieces. He sat Tony on the kitchen counter, for lack of a better place to put him, and handed him the pieces one by one. Tony ate steadily through half of the banana, then started squelching the mushy fruit through the gaps in his teeth instead, giggling. When he crushed the next piece in his fist and howled, Steve decided the banana was done for. Hungry himself, he shoved the last of the banana in his own mouth. It didn’t seem like enough food for Tony, but he wouldn’t eat any more banana, and the jar of carrot baby food Steve opened apparently didn’t appeal either.

Tony was still in a good mood, but he’d started stopping every few minutes to rub his eyes and Steve hastily flipped through the book looking for help. There was a lot about bedtimes, and bedtime routines and how crucial they were. Steve glanced at the clock. It was almost 9pm which was, apparently, very late for a toddler. And Tony hadn’t napped at all, either. Steve was going to need a plan, a system, to tackle tomorrow, but for now, it was probably just best to get Tony comfortable and asleep.

At the very least, a sleeping Tony would give Steve a break.

He skipped the bath part of the suggested routine, since Tony had one at SHIELD and Steve hadn’t seen any bath supplies in the bag. He wiped the banana off his hands then meticulously measured formula into a bottle one-handed while Tony babbled on his hip, tipping back with his arms in the air and singing softly to himself, then shifting forward to bury his face in the side of Steve’s shirt. And then back again.

“You’re going to tip right onto the floor,” Steve warned. He finished the bottle and carried it, Tony, and one of the books from the bag to the couch. His muscles groaned with relief when he settled down onto the cushions. He tipped his head back, letting his eyes float shut, until Tony smacked him in the face with a tiny fist. “Ow,” Steve protested, opening his eyes again.

“Tee,” Tony said.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“Teeeeee.” It was almost a song. Tony put his hands over his eyes and tipped backwards again. “Teeeeeee.”

Steve caught him and propped him back up. “You’re tired, aren’t you?” He sighed. He was tired too. He handed Tony the bottle, apparently a good precursor to bed, but Tony just looked at it. “What? Are you waiting for me to put vodka in it?” Steve asked.

“Tee.”

“You want tea instead? I don’t think babies are allowed tea.” Steve frowned at the tiny child on his lap. He didn’t even own tea. “Drink up.” He pushed the bottle gently towards Tony’s mouth.

Tony shifted around, so his back was to Steve’s chest and flopped down, sinking into the curve of Steve’s arm. He held the bottle with both hands and kicked his feet in the air, smacking the bottom of the bottle with his toes. Steve grabbed the bottle, mostly to stop him, and Tony looked up at him. “Tee.” He settled deeper into Steve’s arm and stuck the bottle into his mouth, sucking loudly.

Steve watched the contents of the bottle drain at a steady rate as Tony sucked it down, then picked up the book he’d brought over. It was about a rabbit who’d lost his parents. He wondered if that was an appropriate topic for a child who had no parents, really, but Tony didn’t seem bothered as Steve started to read. The bunny checked all over the woods while Tony drained his bottle, his legs kicking up in the air as he squirmed.

The bottle and the book finished, Steve realized that he’d better change Tony’s diaper and clothes before bed. One of the items of clothing was a soft sleeper suit with little feet and that was probably better than the onesie he was still wearing from earlier. Before Tony could get too settled - his eyes were drooping already - Steve stood and carried him over to where the contents of the shopping bags were still strewn all over the floor.

“Okay,” Steve said. Then he said it a few more times. He’d fought nazis, jumped out of planes, stopped alien invasions, and taken a tank to the chest. He could handle a diaper. The book he’d been reading didn’t say much about it, but he’d watched the nurse at SHIELD change him before, and as long as he paid attention to how the current one was put on, he was pretty sure he could figure it out.

He lay one of the blankets over the floor figuring it was easier to wash than his carpet, just in case, and plunked Tony down on his back. Tony immediately rolled onto his hands and feet and started scurrying away at an astonishing clip.

“Tony!” Steve surged up to his feet and scuttled after him, scooping him up. He settled him back on the blanket, this time with a hand flat over his chest, and pulled over the sleeper and diaper, but Tony immediately starting making grumpy, frustrated noises, struggling against his hand. Afraid to hurt him, Steve lifted his hand, and bam Tony was off again. Steve bit back a series of words that were distinctly inappropriate to say around a toddler. “Tony, please,” he tried.

“Teeeee,” Tony sung as he rounded the kitchen island.

Steve caught him on the other side and held him at eye height. “It’s bedtime, Tony. You have to be good while I change you.”

“Tee.” Tony set one tiny hand very gently on each of Steve’s cheeks. “Tee.”

And suddenly it clicked. “Are - are you saying... Steve?” Steve asked. He honestly didn’t know if Tony knew any words, but there was something more purposeful about the way Tony said “Tee” versus the rest of his babbling. He pointed to his own chest, supporting Tony with one hand. “Steve?”

“Tee.” Tony giggled.

Steve touched his fingertip to Tony’s nose. “Tony.”

“Ni!” Tony declared with a hysterical laugh.

“Well.” Something warm and not entirely pleasant settled in Steve’s chest. He kept having to remind himself that this was one of his teammates, not an actual child. Well, he was an actual child, but just temporarily. Hopefully. It was… too strange to process. Steve walked back to the blanket and laid Tony out again, this time wiggling his fingers above Tony’s head to catch his attention and keep him from squirreling off. It didn’t bear thinking about, really. Tony was a baby right now, so he had to think about him as a baby - so he could take proper care of him. SHIELD would figure out how to get him adult again. It was Steve’s job to keep him alive until then.

The fingers were working, keeping Tony’s fierce attention trying to grab at them, but Steve needed his hands to undress Tony and sort out the diaper, so he rummaged around in the bag until he came up with a puzzle toy. It was a collection of plastic rods, woven together and connected with elastic strings. It stretched and twisted and came apart into a few big pieces if it was manhandled properly. Steve handed it to Tony, and Tony’s mouth dropped open. He held the toy reverently, instantly still.

Steve smiled down at him. The elephant toy had been of no interest, but the snaps on Steve’s pants and the puzzle toy were winners - this Tony really wasn’t all that different from his adult counterpart. Tony shifted the toy in his hands, utterly absorbed and Steve worked the buttons open and the onesie off. He was reminded about the book’s mentions of temperature, not sure how his apartment rated, comfort wise, for a baby. Temperature didn’t affect him as much as other people. He placed a hand on Tony’s bare belly and he didn’t feel hot or cold. His skin was about the same temperature as Steve’s, maybe a little warmer, but not flushed. Hopefully, the fleece sleeper wasn’t too hot…

Tony kicked out with his legs, and Steve was brought back to the task at hand - the diaper. He picked up a clean one. It was one of the plasticy disposable ones people used these days, folded into a tiny square. He unfolded it tentatively. He distinctly remembered that the key to cloth ones when he was younger had been folding them properly, and if these plastic ones came pre-folded, there was probably a point where he needed to stop unfolding.

He poked at the one already on Tony. It had little, coloured mice all over it. There was a tab sticking out from either side of Tony’s hips and Steve pulled a little curious. The tab released on one side. He stared at the folded square in his hand. It had no tabs. He unfolded a bit more, curious. Eventually, he gave in and unfolded the whole thing - it seemed to crease well, he could probably fold it back up following the creases if he had to.

But once he had it open, he could see how it worked. It did indeed have tabs and it seemed to just strap around Tony’s waist and between his legs. Much simpler than the ones back in the day. Well, simpler in theory.

The one Tony had on was wet, though thankfully that was all, so he had no excuses for not trying the new one. He took off the old one and set it aside then worked the new one in place under Tony’s butt. He strapped it shut and lifted Tony onto his feet. The diaper hit the floor. Hmm.

Tony was still absorbed with his toy, but Steve had no illusions that it would last forever, so he worked as quickly as he could. He lay Tony back down and set the diaper under his butt again. He must have set it too low or too loose, but he didn’t want it so tight it hurt. Then again, the diaper tabs were awfully stretchy. He tried again, trying to match the places on the front that the previous tabs had come to. He stuck a finger between the waistband and Tony’s tummy. It didn’t seem too tight. He stood Tony up, holding his breath. The diaper held.

Steve allowed himself a small moment of celebration, then realized he still needed to get Tony dressed. The sleeper went on without too much trouble, though Steve could see Tony’s attention on the puzzle waning. His mouth opened wide in a miniature yawn, and Steve suppressed the urge to do the same. He tucked Tony in his arms and felt the tiny body going limp in his hold.

It was about then that Steve realized he hadn’t set up the crib.

He seriously considered tucking Tony into bed with him and just falling asleep at his side, fully dressed - he’d gone past exhausted at this point - but the thought of rolling over Tony in the night was terrifying enough that he fought the urge. He set Tony down on the couch, toy in hand, tucked into the seam of the cushions so he couldn’t roll, and started setting up the Pack n Play, one eye on the instructions, one on Tony. He wasn’t sure if Tony was fully asleep yet, but he was still and quiet. Steve tried to take his time putting together the playpen, worried that if he did it wrong it could be dangerous, but he was eager to get him settled before he was out completely. The book had warned that using something like a car, or rocking a child to sleep at his age could wake them up when you tried to shift them into bed.

But the Pack n Play turned out to be designed for ease of use, and Steve had it together easily in a few minutes. He stretched the cover over the mattress in the bottom then scooped Tony up and settled him in it. He looked bare and lonely without any toys or blankets but the book had been very clear on that. Steve watched his tiny hands go lax and the small sucking movements of his mouth fade as he drifted off to sleep.

Steve knew he should really read the rest of the book and clean up while he had the chance. There were records all over the floor on one side of the couch and a massive pile of baby things spread out on the other. The kitchen was a mess of mushed banana, rejected baby food, and spilled formula powder.

Steve picked up the book and tipped onto his back on the couch to read. He’d clean up in a minute. He just needed a short rest.

He was fast asleep in minutes.

Chapter Text

Steve woke suddenly to hooting, screeching laughter, and he sat up on the couch, sending books flying. He blinked into the harsh morning light and tried to figure out what was going on. The laughing sounded again, and he turned on his side to see Tony standing in his playpen, fingers wrapped over the edge. He was staring at Steve and laughing so hard he’d given himself hiccoughs.

“What?” Steve asked him, which only made him laugh harder. It wasn’t entirely out of the question that this baby was completely off his rocker. Steve sat up and brushed a hand through his hair, his lip curling. It was crunchy. “Ugh. I need a shower.” He was supposed to have cleaned up last night but he’d apparently fallen asleep instead - straight through to - he checked his watch - 5:45. Steve rubbed sleep out of his eyes and stood, stretching. The couch was too small for a 6’3” super soldier to sleep on comfortably.

Tony was babbling now instead of laughing, his voice rising and falling as if he was telling a story, but no discernable words popped out.

“Good morning.” Steve hooked his hands under Tony’s arms and pulled him up on to his hip. Tony reached up and pressed both his hands to Steve’s cheek.

“Tee,” he said quietly, almost reverently.

Steve chuckled. “Tony.”

“Ni,” Tony agreed.

“Hungry?”

“No,” Tony said, and Steve startled. That was the first time Tony had responded to a question with anything other than parroting back.

“No?” he asked.

Tony stared at him.

“You’re not hungry?”

“No. Tee.”

Steve wasn’t sure what to do now. The books all said that Tony should have a bottle when he woke up and then something solid shortly after. He tried, “Bottle?” instead.

Tony said, “Teeeeee,” and tipped backwards again, arms flung up above his head. Steve caught him easily this time, prepared. Well, he’d try a bottle anyway and maybe the formula would make Tony hungry for real food. Steve sure as shit was - he was starving.

He put Tony back in his playpen with the toy from last night and breathed a sigh of relief when that didn't immediately devolve into screeching. He made the bottle quickly and scrambled a bunch of eggs, figuring that would work for both of them and they’d be fine cold later if Tony wouldn't eat now. He handed Tony the bottle and sat perched on the edge of the couch, shovelling eggs in his mouth. Tony took the bottle and set it carefully aside, then turned back to his toy.

“You have to drink, Tony.” Steve stood to grab the bottle and hand it to him again. Tony took the bottle, set it down by his hip and picked up his toy. He held up the toy, showing it to Steve, then set to work dismantling it again. “Yes, it’s a very nice toy, but you need to drink your milk, Tony.”

“Tee. Ni!” Tony babbled. “No.”

Steve sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He really needed that shower. He set his plate precariously on the couch cushions and stood again. He pulled Tony out of the playpen, leaving the toy behind and grabbing the bottle instead. Tony sniffled a little, making grabby hands towards the toy, but Steve stuffed him into the crook of his arm, sitting down again, and held the bottle teasingly near his mouth. Tony took it easily this time, holding it up and sticking it in his mouth, eyes fixed on Steve. The level of the formula started descending rapidly.

“Thank you,” Steve breathed. Tony blinked at him.

Settled again, Steve pulled his plate back into his lap, balanced awkwardly on his knee to avoid Tony’s gently kicking feet. Tony’s eyes drifted from Steve’s face down to the plate, and he sat up, pulling the bottle free from his mouth. He stared at the eggs. Steve stared at him. A tiny hand came out, and scraped a messy handful of eggs off the plate, then he shoved his whole hand into his mouth, eggs and all. The hand appeared, mostly clean.

“Hey,” Steve protested. “Those are mine. You said you weren’t hungry.”

“No.” About half the mouthful of eggs came back out again with the word. Tony reached for the plate again.

“Wait, wait. I’ll get you your own. Finish your bottle.” But Tony was on a roll now, and he no longer wanted the bottle. He scooted forward until he sat properly in Steve’s lap and grabbed eggs in both fists. He tried to shove both his hands in his mouth at once and pouted when they wouldn’t fit. “One at a time,” Steve encouraged, using one finger to pull his left hand back. The right made it in, and Tony gave Steve an eggy smile. “Good job.”

Tony worked his way through most of the plate of eggs, then started squeezing them in his fist instead of eating them. When he held his hand out and released a clump of eggs to fall to the floor, leaning over to watch it with visible fascination, Steve stood and brought the plate back into the kitchen. “Okay, that’s enough of that.” He propped Tony on the kitchen counter and ate the rest of the eggs out of the pan as quickly as he could.

If the book was anything to go on, Tony would be tired enough for a nap in only a few hours, but Steve’s shirt was itchy and unpleasant where it clung to his back, and he could smell himself which certainly said something. He couldn’t wait any longer.

Which left him with a logistics issue. He could put Tony in his playpen with some toys and hope that he stayed distracted enough that he wouldn’t scream until Steve was done, but that seemed unlikely. Besides, the idea of leaving him alone while awake made Steve’s stomach clench. None of the bags had a baby monitor in them,  but even if they did, he didn’t relish the idea of running out his shower, wet and naked, to try and soothe an unhappy Tony.

He could bring Tony into the shower with him - then he could entertain him and get clean at the same time. But he didn’t have anything to put Tony in, and the idea of him crawling around on the bottom of the slippery tub while Steve tried not to step on him was ridiculous. Besides, it wouldn’t be very comfortable for Tony to sit at the bottom and get rained on.

Steve would have to bathe him at some point though - apparently most babies had a bath every day which was a horrifying thought. Tony’s last bath hadn’t gone very well. Steve shook his head and filed that thought away for the future. In his lap, Tony had each of Steve’s pointer fingers trapped in a tiny fist and was watching, fascinated, as Steve made them dance one way, then the other.

So, the only other option was to bring Tony into the bathroom, but not into the shower, and hope that was enough to keep the baby from thinking he’d been abandoned. Steve picked Tony up and tucked him against his hip then walked into the bathroom, looking around. It seemed safe enough. If he shut the door, he could leave Tony to play on the bathmat while he took a quick shower, and then they could get back to reading those books.

Steve grabbed clean clothes from the bedroom while Tony tipped and twisted in his arms, singing a song to himself that seemed to be entirely made of the word “Tee”. He shut the bathroom door and set Tony down on the bathmat with what Steve had dubbed his “Engineering Toy” in his head. He turned on the water and adjusted it to the right temperature before pulling the lever to switch it to a shower.

When he turned back around, Tony had all his clothes flung across the room, the cupboard under the sink was open and everything in it was spilled across the floor, and Tony himself was trying to climb into the other end of the tub, one knee up on the edge, ready to tip down onto his head.

“Shit!” Steve shoved the shower curtain out of the way and pulled Tony up in his arms. He looked around at the destruction in horror. Tony laughed.

Okay, plan B. Steve left the shower running and went back out to the living room. Balancing Tony awkwardly on one hip, he dragged the playpen with his other hand up to the door of the bathroom. It wouldn’t fit, but he popped a few releases and managed to fold it enough to get it through the doorway without having to take the mattress out. He set it up again in the middle of the bathroom floor, then placed Tony inside with his toy and the rest of his bottle, in case a miracle happened and he decided to drink it.

Steve tidied up the clothes and the cupboard, and then finally, finally, stepped under the spray. The water had cooled off a little, but he turned it up, and it warmed quickly. He could feel the battle grit slip off him, and he sighed with relief. With the shower curtain cracked, he could keep an eye on Tony, but he couldn’t help letting his eyes fall shut, sinking into the pleasure of being clean for a moment.

Steve was reaching for the shampoo when he heard, “Teee,” from the playpen for the first time. Then again. He lathered up, but the longer he was out of view the more plaintive the, “Tee”s became until there was a slight sniffle mixed in. Steve leaned back, hair still sudsy and pulled the curtain aside.

“What?”

Tony burst into laughter, shaking the edge of the playpen with his hands. The Engineering Toy lay abandoned at the other end of the playpen, alongside his bottle. Steve gave him a stern look, which earned him more giggles, then went back to washing his hair. This time it was barely a few seconds before Tony was calling out, “Teeeeeeee.”

Steve peeked around the curtain again. Tony burst into laughter, so hard that he tipped backwards and landed on his butt, which only made him laugh harder. Steve sighed, resigned to playing peek-a-boo with the shower curtain until he was done.

The plus side was that Tony was so entertained that Steve managed a full shower, albeit interrupted every few moments by a soft, questioning, “Teeee?” followed by raucous laughter. Tony enjoyed the game so much that by the time Steve was shutting off the water, Tony was bursting into laughter halfway through the “Teee” before Steve had even reappeared.

Steve towelled off, got dressed, and shaved, all with Tony babbling in the playpen in the middle of the floor. He was feeling much more awake and himself, clean and dressed, and he scooped Tony out of the playpen with a whoop, bringing their faces close together. Tony howled with pleasure, resting his hands on each of Steve’s cheeks. They were slightly sticky, and Steve didn’t really want to know why.

“Alright, let’s figure out how we’re supposed to do this.” Steve sat on the couch with the book he’d tried to finish in hand, and Tony settled on his lap. When Steve tried to get back into the book, Tony fussed, pushing to his feet and crawling over Steve’s shoulders like a determined monkey. Steve tugged him back into his lap, and Tony whined, high-pitched and needy. “What’s wrong?”

Tony smacked his hand defiantly against Seve’s leg, and when it looked like it was coming down for a second strike, Steve caught it in his hand. “Tony…”

Tony turned his big, sad eyes on Steve and said, “Ugbah,” with great purpose.

“I have no idea what that means.”

But Tony smiled, soft and sweet, and snuggled back into Steve’s arms, reaching up towards his face.

“Just bored? What if I read you the baby book?”

“No.” Tony reached towards Steve again, but his hands bumped against each other and his attention shifted to them, winding his fingers together.

“I’m starting to think you answer no to every question.” Steve pulled the baby book up again. They were at the section on successful nap times. “It has to be at the same time every day,” he explained to Tony. Tony turned his eyes back up to Steve, captivated. “Some babies like to be swaddled. Hmm. there’s a picture.” Steve looked at the picture of the happily wrapped baby then back at Tony. Tony wiggled his fingers. “Hey, we figured out the diaper, we can figure out the swaddling, right?”

“Tee.”

“Exactly.” Steve continued to read, out loud now, and Tony got quieter and quieter in his arms. Steve eyed him. It seemed like he was ready to drop off any minute now, and Steve was determined to do this nap thing right. Maybe they should try the swaddle?

He stood slowly, careful not to jostle Tony too much. There was a blanket in one of the bags he still hadn’t unpacked fully, and he pulled it out and lay it on the floor. He had the blanket smoothed out on the floor when he realized he’d repeated his mistake from last night; the playpen wasn’t closed, but it was in the bathroom still. He looked back at Tony. His eyelids had gone heavy. No kid had ever died from napping in the bathroom, had they? It would certainly be easier to just put him down in there rather than lug the playpen all the way to the bedroom without waking Tony.

Steve tucked the book under one knee to hold it open and worked through the steps for swaddling, following all the folds carefully. It said tight several times, but Steve was pretty sure they hadn’t written it with a supersoldier in mind. Still, by the time he was done, Tony was well-wrapped. Steve sat back on his heels, pleased that for once he’d done something right on the first try.

Then he remembered he hadn’t changed Tony’s diaper first.

Then Tony burst into tears.

It was amazing, really, the way Tony could go from zero to sixty so quickly. There was no buildup, no warning, he just exploded, instantly red-faced. Tony struggled in the blanket and managed to flip himself onto his face which had Steve whipping him up and out of the blanket immediately. That… had not gone well. And now Tony was awake and fussy anyway. Steve sighed and sat back, crossing his legs and rubbing Tony’s back soothingly as he hiccoughed against Steve’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he said.

“Tee,” Tony replied. Steve felt it was a bit indignant.

“Yes, I said I was sorry. I won’t do that again. You sleep fine without it anyway.” Steve tipped him back so he could look him in the eye. “I just want to maximize the likelihood that you’re going to have a good nap, Tony. The book says it’s important.”

“No.”

Steve watched Tony glare at him for a moment then nodded. “Fair enough. Okay, naptime - take two.” This time, Steve changed Tony first, finding that it was a lot easier now that he understood how the plastic diapers worked. Fresh and clean, he tucked Tony against his shoulder and walked around the room in a circle, reading out from the book. Tony’s body went lax and limp in Steve’s arms, and when he slumped fully, Steve went into the bathroom and set him down in the playpen, taking the toy and the old bottle out. He sat on the toilet seat for a long time, watching Tony’s chest rise and fall as he slept.


 

 baby Tony eating eggs in steve's lap

Chapter Text

Eventually, Steve summoned the energy to stand, and with that hard part over, he set to work. He emptied the baby bags and tucked all of the supplies on his bookshelf, or the dresser in his bedroom. He cleaned the kitchen and started the dishwasher, making sure to wash all of Tony’s used bottles since Clint and Jan hadn’t sent many. Then he speed-read the rest of the book.

A few things became clear to him now that he was reading during the day and without Tony distracting him. One was that he’d worked his way through the 0-3 month section of the book, which he obviously didn’t need since the medical staff had decided that Tony was just a few months shy of a year, most likely. That section also included the swaddling, which they recommended you stop when the baby could roll over; that explained why it hadn’t gone well.

Steve skipped ahead to the sections for Tony’s age and plowed through them quickly. It was a lot to take in, but Steve tried to organize the information into categories in his head, approaching it like a mission. He started with supplies - was there anything he needed? It turned out there was. He had nothing for bathtime, and not enough clothes, especially if they were going to go out at all. He could take Tony shopping for a lot of it, but not today, and tonight there was no getting over the fact that Tony would need a bath. He was already kind of sticky all over in a hard to explain way, and he produced a shocking amount of drool.

Steve didn’t want to push Clint into this any more than he already had been, and Jan wouldn’t help without making it as difficult as possible, so Steve really only had one person left he could bother. He stuck his head in the bathroom again, but Tony was still sleeping soundly, so he took the phone into the kitchen and dialled Bucky’s number.

“Bucky, I need your help.”

He could hear a rustle of movement through the phone. “What’s wrong?”

Steve looked at the pile of baby toys in the basket next to the couch that used to hold newspapers. “It’s… complicated. I need some supplies, but I can’t leave my house. If I paid for a cab, do you think you and Gail could pick up a few things for me and come by? I’ll buy you lunch.”

“You don’t have to do that, Stevie-boy. You know we’ll help you with anything you need. Are you okay?”

Well, there really was no point in beating about the bush since he would have to tell Bucky what he needed him to get anyway. “I’ve… come into the care of a child. Just under one year old. It’s temporary, and it’s SHIELD related. That’s all I can say over the phone. But it’s been very unexpected and there hasn’t been time to prepare. I thought, since you and Gail have the grandkids and everything - I’ll be honest I could use some advice as well.”

Bucky was silent for a moment. “A child? Whose?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You’ve only been awake for a year, Steve, how do you have a one-year-old already?!” Bucky laughed to himself.

“He’s not mine, Bucky. I told you, it’s temporary.”

“I’m just teasing ya. What do you need then?”

Steve read off the list he’d made - mostly bath supplies and some food and toys. “And, uh, anything else you think I might need that I wouldn’t think of? I have a book on babies, but you guys have been there.”

“No problem. We’ll be there in forty-five minutes.”

Steve checked his watch; Tony had half an hour left on his nap. “Perfect. He’ll just be getting up. Thank you, Bucky.”

Steve spent the remaining half hour of Tony’s nap hovering uncertainly in his apartment, running through ways he could explain this situation. It sounded completely crazy, even to him, and he had dated a woman who could become three inches tall at will. This was a bit different, though. When his watch went off, he went in the bathroom to wake Tony. He was still flat out and breathing softly, but the book had made it clear that sleeping too much could be just as bad as sleeping too little so Steve reached in and rested his hand on Tony’s stomach. He was so small; he could easily lift him with one hand. He looked fragile for a moment, and Steve’s body tensed. Then his bright eyes fluttered open, and his personality managed to fill the whole room again.

“Hi Tony,” Steve said, and Tony laughed. Steve hauled him up and walked him to the changing pad in the bedroom. “You’re getting some lovely visitors soon. I think you’re really going to like them.”

“No!” Tony said, throwing his hands above his head and laughing like a maniac.

Steve shot him a look. “Why am I not surprised?”

Clean and changed, Tony was scooped back into Steve’s arms just in time for the knock on the door. As soon as he opened it, Gail was all over Tony.

“Oh my! Isn’t he precious!” She pulled him to her and pressed lipstick marks all over his head. Tony cackled with laughter and fisted one hand in her hair and one in her necklace.

“He likes you,” Steve told her, and she beamed.

Steve ushered them in, and Bucky deposited the supplies they’d brought on the floor. While Gail played with Tony, Steve ordered takeout then sat on the couch and ran his hands through his hair until it was rough and standing on end. He decided to just go for it. “That’s Tony Stark.”

Bucky’s eyebrow shot up. “Tony Stark has a kid?”

“No, no. That is Tony Stark. He’s been… affected by something. Basically, he’s been reverted to childhood. SHIELD has its top scientists working on it but... “ Steve shrugged. “It doesn’t really make sense, but luckily fixing him isn’t my job. Taking care of him is.”

Gail propped Tony in her lap and bounced him gently. He babbled in time with the movement. “How did you get saddled with this? No offense, Steve, but it’s not like you have much experience.”

“Few people involved do. He’s in a lot of danger like this, and we still don’t know who did this or why. He needed to stay with someone who could protect him.” Steve shrugged again. “It’s easier for me to learn how to care for a baby, than to risk involving someone else. As far as the world is concerned, Tony Stark is taking a much needed vacation on his private island.”

“Wow.” Bucky sat back on the couch and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, where shall we start?”

Steve spent the next two hours grilling Bucky and Gail on childcare while the two of them passed Tony back and forth and played and cooed and generally doted on him. They accepted the bizarreness of it all with grace, and Steve figured that probably had something to do with their best friend and ex-fiance coming back from the dead and also the fact that they didn’t actually know Tony at all as an adult.  

Gail introduced the two of them to binkies, and produced a yellow one with a duck on the end from the bag they’d brought. Tony loved it, learning quickly to put it back in his mouth on his own if it fell out. “It’ll help him fall asleep faster,” she explained.

They also both reiterated the importance of routine, flat out disagreed with a lot of the food advice in the book, and argued for ten minutes over which of their kids had learned to walk the youngest.

“The short of it is,” Bucky finally said, “that they all do different things at different times, so don’t worry if he’s not the same as other kids his age.”

Steve frowned down at where Tony was stacking his blocks for Gail. “I hadn't even thought about that kind of thing. He won’t be a baby for long enough for that to matter, though.”

Gail patted his calf from the floor. “You’d find a way to worry about it anyway, dear.”

Bucky extracted a promise from Steve that he would bring Tony by on Saturday and leave him at their place for a few hours. “You need grownup time,” he insisted. “You’ll go crazy.”

The food arrived, and Gail went to wash her hands in the bathroom. “Why do you have a playpen in here?” she called out.

Steve sighed. “Don’t ask.”

Bucky fed Tony some cut-up vegetables and baby food, and Tony gurgled and giggled and tried to steal everything off everyone else’s plates. Gail was the one to notice Tony’s eyes drooping, so she tidied up lunch, gave Steve and Tony each a kiss on the cheek, and hustled Bucky out again.

They left just in time for Tony’s second nap of the day, and Steve was deeply relieved to see that all of their attention had completely wiped him out. The visit had the opposite effect on him - he felt distinctly refreshed. Steve set Tony down in the playpen - now in the bedroom for the first time - and, almost instantly, he was out like a light. Steve did a little tidying, then realized that for the first time in two days, he wasn’t running ragged with a thousand things to do. The apartment was clean, Tony was happy and sleeping, and he had everything he needed to make it to tomorrow afternoon.

Steve collapsed onto the couch and stared blankly at the wall opposite. He’d never been so busy between missions before. Sure, when he was dating Jan they used to alternate between going out and arguing, but most of his life was a blank sort of downtime. Tony needed him constantly though, and it wasn’t until he stopped to sit that he realized how different that was from his normal. And how nice it felt. He was tired in a way that wasn’t emotional exhaustion or the gritty, bone-weary numbness that missions brought on. This was… a satisfied sort of tired. Having Tony fast asleep in the next room felt good.

Steve didn’t want to risk any noise waking Tony up, so he put the news on with the sound on mute and pulled out a book - that wasn’t about baby care - and enjoyed a blissful two hours of peace. When he heard babbling coming through the cracked bedroom door, Steve set his book aside and poked his head through. Tony was still lying on his back, a foot in each hand, talking softly to himself. Steve heard a lot of “Tee” a bit of “Ni” and a fair amount of “No” mixed into the nonsense.

Steve leaned against the doorframe and it creaked, drawing Tony’s eyes to him.

“Tee!” Tony rolled onto his hands and knees, then pulled himself up the sides of the playpen until he was standing. He sprung into a furious fit of babbling, bouncing a little on his toes as he talked.

Steve picked him and balanced him on his hip, turning to shoot him an interested look. “Have a good dream or something?”

Tony babbled on.

“That good, huh?” Steve poked the end of Tony’s nose with his fingertip, and Tony giggled. “Probably dreamt you were flying.” Steve had a moment of sharp cognitive dissonance as he almost tacked on your father loves to fly. Because this wasn’t Tony’s kid, even though he looked and sounded like it, this was Tony himself. Steve’s brain just couldn’t wrap around it, so it stuck on the thing that made the next best sense.

Tony pressed a hand to Steve’s cheek, and Steve realized that he was just standing in the middle of the bedroom, so he carried Tony into the living room again and set him on the floor. “What do you want to do, bud?”

Tony rocked forward onto his hands and knees and started crawling around the room. Steve let him this time, able to follow him and keep him from getting into anything. Besides, it must be good for him to get some exercise. Tony did a few laps of the whole apartment, pausing at the bathroom door until Steve closed it and shooed him away.

When they rounded the kitchen island for the second time, Steve realized he had forgotten to give Tony a post-nap bottle. He caged Tony between his feet, managing to keep him laughing instead of pouting, while he mixed the formula, then let him go again, following him around as he shook it. When Tony sat in front of the record shelves and reached for them again, Steve intercepted, popping the bottle into his mouth as he sat behind him. He tugged Tony between his legs and pulled a few records off the shelf. Tony sucked at his bottle, holding onto it by himself, leaning against Steve’s thigh. Steve described the records and told Tony where he had been when he’d listened to each one for the first time.

Tony seemed most interested in the same Bing Crosby album he’d disrobed before - and that was probably because the cover was bright and colourful - but Steve took it as an invitation. He stood, bringing Tony up with him, and opened the cover on the record player. Tony’s bottle hit the floor as he reached out for it with both hands.

“Hey, I don’t think so, little man.” Steve picked the bottle up and handed it back to him. “Grown-up hands only. But wait til you see what it does. I think you’re going to like this.”

Steve managed to wiggle the record out of its sleeve with one hand, keeping it carefully out of Tony’s reached. He flicked it on and set the needle. The room filled with soft music. Tony turned up from staring at the record player to staring at Steve.

“I know. It’s much better than digital, isn’t it?” He winked, and Tony grinned around his bottle.

When Tony was done, they sat on the floor together and listened to the music, complete with crackles and pops, while Tony played with the blocks Bucky and Gail had brought. Steve leaned his back against the couch and helped stabilize the tower while Tony, deep in focus now, stacked one block on top of the other. Always one for flash, he tried to balance the Engineering Toy on the top of the stack and pouted when it all tumbled down. He looked at Steve.

“Sorry, kid. I can’t control gravity.”

Tony picked up the bottom block again and started over, frowning at it with grim determination. He finished the blocks, letting Steve poke a few into safer alignment, then picked up the Engineering Toy and looked back and forth between it and the stack. Finally, he turned his face to Steve, held the toy out and said, “Tee?”

Steve laughed, but he took the toy and did his best. It lacked a proper flat side, but by holding the tower with one hand and balancing carefully, he managed to get it to stay on top, albeit extremely crookedly. Tony watched, wide-eyed and open-mouthed as Steve leaned back and let go, releasing the precarious tower to stand on its own.

It stood for about twenty seconds, and then Tony hooted with glee and slammed both hands into it, sending it flying. They laughed together, and Steve scooped Tony up in his arms, holding him high above his head. Tony gurgled and waved his arms about in delight, so Steve tried twisting him back and forth. His weight was nothing to Steve’s super strength, and he felt more confident holding the little body now. Tony wasn’t nearly as breakable as he’d seemed at first.

Tony laughed and screeched as Steve flew him through the air, finally coming in for a landing on the carpet next to his dismantled tower. Tony tipped onto his side, overcome with mirth and giggled into the carpet for a while.

They played that way until Tony leaned over and grabbed his bottle, pouting when he found it empty. Steve proclaimed it dinner time and started gearing himself up for a proper bedtime. Dinner consisted of pasta and green beans, Tony’s cut into tiny pieces. He still didn’t have a good seat for Tony to eat out of, so he let him perch in his lap, Tony’s small plate near the edge of the table and Steve’s a whole arm’s reach away so his food wouldn’t be poached.

Tony ate a lot, the most he’d eaten in one sitting since he got here, and Steve wasn’t sure if it was all the excellent napping, that he’d worked up an appetite playing with Bucky and Gail and then Steve, or if it was completely random and tomorrow he’d be back to picking at a banana.

Tony’s first proper bath didn’t go quite as well.

“Tony.” Steve stiffened, then dipped his chin to wipe his cheek off. Tony gurgled at him, eyes twinkling with mischief. His hands smacked down again, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a splash of bubbles land across his nose. “Tony,” he tried again, firmer this time. But his “Captain America” voice had never worked on Tony as an adult, and it didn’t seem like it was going to work this time.

Tony grinned, gummy and damp, and brought his hands down into the water again with a screech. Steve flinched this time, catching a full splash of water in his face. Delighted, Tony kept splashing and screeching, breaking into giddy laughter as the bubbles popped and spun around him.

“Okay.” Keeping one hand on Tony’s head so he wouldn’t slip underwater while Steve wasn’t looking, Steve turned away and started rummaging through the massive plastic bag by his feet. There had to be something - “Here!” He pulled a rubber duck toy out of the bag and held it out towards Tony, tempting but just out of reach. Tony’s hands stilled, eyes going wide as he stared at the toy. “Yes. You can have it if you stop splashing.” Steve was pretty sure Tony didn’t understand the deal, but he was deeply enamoured with the duck, so at least he’d stopped splashing to stare at it.

Steve held it out, then snatched it back, suddenly worrying that it might have a tag or a sticker. The Lip Wobble started, but the duck was clear, and he thrust it into Tony’s hands before it broke into a full-on tantrum. Tony stilled, suddenly quiet, and rolled the duck around in his hands, examining all sides. His tiny fingers ran over the plastic surface, dipping into every crevice and testing every edge to see if it could be dismantled.

Steve seized the opportunity and grabbed the baby shampoo, squirting some on his hands then rubbing it through Tony’s wispy, black hair. Tony barely noticed, utterly absorbed by his new toy. Steve used an empty yogurt container to scoop up some water and poured it awkwardly over Tony’s hair, cupping his hand across his forehead like the book had said to keep it from dripping in Tony’s eyes. It took a long time - longer than washing his own hair - but eventually, Steve had Tony soap-free and sparkling.

He ripped the tag off one of the washcloths with his teeth and worked his way over Tony’s body. He was rubbing the cloth up one of Tony’s arms, when Tony held the duck up in the other, shoving it in Steve’s face, and said, “Ah.”

“You like the duck? I’m surprised. It doesn’t come apart.” Steve chuckled at his own joke, and Tony grinned.

“Ah,” he repeated.

“Duck,” Steve said.

“Ah?”

“Duck.”

Steve realized abruptly that he was having a conversation with a one-year-old, but then Tony screwed his face up for a second, deep in contemplation and said, “...dah?” with a curious tilt of his head.

Something fizzled softly in Steve’s stomach, and he smiled encouragingly at the tiny scientist in the bath. “Yes, Tony. Duck. Good job.”

“Dah.” Pleased, Tony turned his full attention back to the duck in his hands, turning it around and around and examining all the surfaces with a surprisingly familiar glow in his bright, blue eyes.

Steve considered making the duck a “baths only” toy so Tony would stay interested in it and he’d have a surefire way of keeping him occupied while he got clean, but Tony was so quietly pleased with his new toy that Steve decided he was too tired to deal with the argument that removing it would cause. So, he wrapped Tony in a towel from the bag and scooped him up, duck and all.

It wasn’t until he was settled on the couch with Tony in his lap, that Steve realized that the towel was duck themed too. The bit hanging off the back was a hood, and when Steve tipped it up over Tony’s head, it had a duck face on it, complete with jutting out orange beak. “Now you’re a duck,” he said.

“Dah?” Tony asked, holding his toy aloft again.

“Yup.” Steve tugged the hood of the towel over Tony’s eyes, and Tony broke into wild giggling. He grabbed the edge of the towel and pushed the hood back himself, grinning up at Steve as his face was revealed. “Hi.’

“Hah!” Tony laughed again, utterly open and carefree, then tipped his chin down and squeezed his eyes shut. When nothing happened, he opened them again and looked at Steve for a moment. Then he reached out and took Steve’s massive hand between his tiny two, and drew it up towards the hood.

“Oh, you want me to do it again.” Steve tugged the hood down, covering his eyes, and Tony howled again, his tiny body shaking with mirth where he sat, dripping a damp spot all over Steve’s pants. They repeated this game over and over until Steve was starting to feel the pull of sleep and his hand was pulling the hood down automatically, every time Tony’s face reappeared. Tony seemed to notice Steve’s lack of attention because he stopped, pouting, and tugged on Steve’s hand.

But before he could apologize, or beg to be free of the game, Steve’s watch went off. Shit, it was time for bottle and bed and he hadn’t even dressed Tony yet. It was, frankly, a miracle that he hadn’t been peed on in the half hour they’d been sitting and playing.

Steve grabbed a romper and a diaper and lay Tony on his back on the floor, too tired and out-of-sorts from running late, to dig out the changing pad. Tony put his duck on his own face, giggling and tossing his feet in the air. Wrangling his feet into the romper was no easy task, but Steve managed to ease Tony’s tiny ankles into the legs, then stood him up and worked it over his tummy, balancing Tony against his chest to wriggling it up over his bulky diaper.

Tony flailed his arms around, babbling wildly, and dodging Steve’s attempt to grasp his wrists and get his arms in without seeming to acknowledge that Steve was there at all. The few times Steve managed to get a hold of an arm, it was inevitably the one holding the duck, and the duck wouldn’t fit through the armhole (he tried). Finally, Steve plucked the duck from Tony’s hands and gripped its plastic beak between his teeth, tipping his chin to hold it out of reach while he manhandled Tony into the romper. Tony whined and fussed, but Steve worked him into his clothes with military efficiency and had him fully dressed, with the duck back in his hands, before Tony managed to get all the way into a meltdown.

The hard part over, Steve scooped Tony up and grabbed a bottle. He measured formula into the water and shook it, all with one hand, holding Tony against his chest with the other. Tony seemed to be telling a story with his duck, bracing his stomach against Steve’s chest so he could lean back and bounce the toy across Steve’s shoulder. Every other “word” in his babble was “dah,” and Steve smiled to himself to see that Tony learned quickly, even as a toddler.

Steve sat on the couch and curled Tony into the crook of his arm, still not sure that the hold was a secure one. Tony ignored the bottle at first, his laser focus on the duck, but when Steve managed to work the bottle into his mouth, instinct took over and Tony started to suck. His eyes stayed on the duck until they started to droop, his hands falling heavily into his lap. Steve rocked him gently, watching the bottle work its way to empty. When it was done, he swapped it out for a binky as smoothly as he could, before Tony had a chance to wake.

Tony’s little fists clenched and unclenched, one on the thigh of his romper, the other still holding the duck. Steve stood, flexing his abs so he could stand straight up without tipping Tony out of his arms and carried him into the bedroom. Steve set him down gently. As soon as he was flat, Tony’s mouth went slack around the binky and the duck slipped free of his hand. Steve plucked the toy out carefully, deciding to save it for the next bath, hoping that Tony wouldn’t remember it when he woke and demand it.

Soft, easy breaths lifted Tony’s chest, and Steve couldn’t help but brush his hand over Tony’s terrycloth-covered tummy. Tony’s eyes fluttered open, and Steve cursed himself for giving in to the need to touch when Tony was asleep, but Tony just whispered, “...Teee…” around the binky, and then he was out again.

Chapter Text

The first thing Tony said when he woke up was, “Dah!” and Steve despaired.

He tried distracting Tony with a bottle and then breakfast but Tony was surly and obstinate, throwing handful after handful of cereal on the floor until Steve gave in and brought him the duck from the bathroom. It was a small price to pay to stop the whimpering.

He was just wrestling Tony back into his clothes after changing a particularly unpleasant diaper when someone knocked on his door. “Yes?” he called, tensing and shifting until he had a clear line to his shield, hands sliding under Tony’s back, ready to lift him.

“It’s me!”

Jan. Steve sighed. He had an intense urge to tell her it wasn’t a good time, but on the other hand, he needed a shower. Maybe Jan could entertain Tony for ten minutes for him, as awkward as it was having her in his space. Another thought had him rushing for the door. Maybe Hank had solved it, and Jan was here to tell him. He pulled the door open, leaving Tony on his back on the changing pad, smacking the duck against his foot. “Yes?”

Jan grinned and held up a shopping bag. “I brought you lunch!” She pushed past him into the apartment and immediately fell to her knees by Tony, scooping him up onto her lap. “God, he’s so cute!” She cooed at him, and he giggled.

Steve shut the door and picked up the bag. He peered inside then set it on the kitchen counter - sushi, completely inappropriate for a baby. “Any news from Hank?” he asked.

Jan shook her head, eyes still on Tony, making faces at him while he laughed. “I don't know, I haven’t talked to him in like a week.” She rolled her eyes.

Steve scrubbed his hand over his face. “Jan…”

She set Tony down and frowned at Steve. “Like you have the right to lecture me on my relationships, Steve.”

“I wasn’t -” Steve paused, gaze snapping to Tony who, no longer entertained by Jan, had started motoring around the couch at maximum speed. “I just want to know how long it’s going to be before Tony gets turned back, that’s all.”

Jan shrugged. “No clue. Don’t you think he’s cuter like this anyway?” She laughed.

A rush of something acidic and adrenaline-laced curled through Steve’s stomach, and he shied away from it, opening Jan’s bag instead and pulling the food out. There was something in a smaller bag underneath the sushi, and he pulled it open. “What’s this?”

“Isn’t it cute? Thought you’d get a thrill out of dressing him up like you. Besides, we can take, like, a thousand pictures and when he’s grown up again we can show him. You know he has a weird thing about Captain America merch. It’s funny.”

Steve held up the Captain America sleeper, shaking it out until the little, footed legs hung down in red, white, and blue. It wasn’t funny. It was… weird. But Jan stood and tugged it out of his hands, going around the couch in the other direction until she cut Tony off. He screeched with surprised laughter and tipped over on his back.

Irritated or not, Steve decided he wasn’t above grabbing his opportunities where he could. “Can you watch him for a minute while I take a shower?”

“Sure.” Jan lifted Tony in the air and wiggled him until he howled, then set him on the couch.

Steve hovered by the door to the bathroom. “Don’t let him fall off of anything.” Jan ignored him. “And don’t let him eat anything - he’s already had breakfast.” Steve turned the door handle and stepped inside, then came back out. “And don’t -”

“I’ve got it Steve. I can keep a baby alive for ten minutes. Besides, he’s not really a baby, is he? He’s Tony, just small.”

Steve opened his mouth to correct her - Tony was a baby - but found he didn't really care. He’d be right here if Tony needed him, and he knew Jan wouldn’t have any qualms about walking in on him naked if he did. He started the water and got in while it was still cold just to get it over with faster.

When he got out again, clean and feeling refreshed, if a little rushed, he wasn’t surprised to find Tony in the cap sleeper. It even had a little hood made to look like his cowl. Jan had her camera out, and Tony sat on the couch, grinning, his rubber duck clutched between his hands in his lap. The hood had slipped down over his eyes, but he didn’t seem to care, breaking into raucous laughter every time Jan said “Boo!” even though he couldn’t see her.

Steve wrapped his towel around his waist and pressed past them into his bedroom. He got dressed, then shooed Jan out of the apartment, thanking her for lunch but insisting that Tony needed to nap.

Alone again, Steve checked his watch. It was a bit early, but Tony was already in the sleeper, and he wanted as much time as possible to go shopping after, so Steve curled Tony up in his lap and read to him from the books Bucky and Gail had brought until his eyes started to droop and his mouth calmed around the binky. Steve extracted the duck with extreme care and tucked Tony into his playpen to sleep.

Steve cleaned up - somehow during his shower Jan had let Tony empty an entire bookshelf of its contents all over the floor - then ate some of the sushi, finding he was actually grateful for some food that wasn’t bland and miniature.

By the time Tony woke, Steve had the supplies laid out and a plan of attack.

He had Tony changed and in his clothes before he was even properly awake. He fed him lunch, relieved when he managed to eat quite a bit, then whisked him out the door before he had a chance to get attached to a game or toy.

Steve didn’t have a stroller, or one of those fancy baby-carrying backpacks, but he didn’t care. WIth his super-strength, Tony was easy to carry, and he didn’t fuss as they travelled down the street. His little head snapped back and forth so fast, trying to take everything in, that Steve worried he was going to hurt himself.

He also just… worried. It was the first time he’d taken Tony outside since they’d come to his apartment, and he knew it was healthy for kids to get fresh air, but most kids weren’t a celebrity superhero stuck in a baby’s body. Whoever had done this to Tony, had done it for a reason, and one of the more obvious reasons was that he was easier to hurt or capture in this state.

Steve kept his eyes and ears open as they made their way to the strip of shops that Steve frequented. There was a kid’s clothing store on the corner, a drug store, and a grocery store, so Steve hoped to get everything they needed without getting on the subway or calling a cab.

The clothing store was a shock of soft white, pink, blue, and pastels. Steve took a deep breath and tried his best not to look too out of place, sliding between gaps in racks that were not designed for people with shoulders like his. Most of the clothing had frightening phrases in large text across the chests, but he found a section at the back with some simpler things that were on sale. He picked out a few t-shirts and some elastic-waisted pants, as well as some more onesies like the one SHIELD had sent Tony home in. They had bibs and socks and other things that Jan and Clint hadn’t thought to get, and it wasn’t long before he had a full basket.

There was a row along the back wall of licensed outfits, and they had the same Captain America sleeper that Jan had brought him. He wondered if she had stopped here to buy it on her way over. Steve shook his head, but then a red sleeve caught his eye and he pulled it out. It was the same sleeper, but made up to look like Iron Man instead. Steve stood there for a long time, holding the sleeve with one hand and stopping Tony from tipping head-first into the basket with the other. In the end, he tugged it free and tucked it under the other clothes he’d bought. It was silly, but Steve was sure that Tony would rather be decked out in his own red and gold than Steve’s stars and stripes.

They were almost at the checkout when Tony went very still in his arms and squeaked. Steve spun around, looking for a threat, but no one was behind him. He looked down at Tony, then followed his line of sight up to a row of soft toys hooked along one wall. At the top, staring down at them with beady, black eyes, was a yellow duck.

Tony’s eyes were huge and wide, his weight tipping forward towards the toy as if it had some power to pull him in. His hands reached out, fingers twitching. Steve sighed. “I blame Bucky,” he told Tony, “for bringing you that duck soother. It started this obsession.”

Tony whispered, “Dah…” very quietly to himself. Steve wasn’t sure if he’d heard Steve say duck, or if he somehow knew that the toy was a duck too, but either way it was too adorable to ignore.

Steve reached up and plucked the duck down. It had a large stuffed head with a round orange beak. Its body was a flat, fleecy blanket with comically-large duck feet. “If I get you this soft duck, will you let the hard duck be just for bathtimes?” Steve asked, holding it just out of reach.

“No…” Tony said reverently. His hands opened and closed, his eyes never shifting from the toy.

Steve looked around the store to see if anyone was watching him, then sighed and gave up, handing the toy to Tony. Tony gripped its round head in one hand and, mouth wide open, gently squeezed the beak between two fingers of the other. Steve paid quickly, popping the tags off the duck and letting Tony keep it while they moved on to the next store. He was utterly absorbed by it, testing each part of the toy with his fingers and then his mouth.

The drug store had more diapers, more binkies, more formula, and more bottles. The cashier looked uncertainly at Steve’s laden hands as she handed over the bags, but Steve easily tucked half of them in the hand under Tony’s bum and carried the rest in the other.

Steve checked his watch when they stepped out and frowned. It was already twenty minutes past Tony’s naptime, but they still had the grocery store left to do. He stood on the corner, caught in indecision, then turned towards the grocery store. He would much rather get what he needed now than have to tog Tony up to go out again after his nap. Besides, Tony’d had a good first nap, and if he was that tired, he could sleep in Steve’s arms.

Steve went through the store as quickly as he could, focusing on essentials and baby-friendly things. A few people smiled at the two of them, and Tony helpfully waved his new duck and yelled, “Dah!” at anyone who shot a look their way.

Tony’s naptime was almost over by the time they got back to the apartment, and Steve dithered for a moment then decided to just skip it. Tony was still wound up from the day out, and by the time he finally got him down, it’d be well past time to get him up again. Steve would just keep him busy until bathtime and then put him to bed a little early.

Less than an hour later, Steve was programming his watch to go off at half an hour until naptime, every day, without fail, fingers pushing the buttons a little too hard while Tony wailed beside him.

First, the blocks hadn’t stacked right. Then he had thrown them out of reach in his frustration and that was another meltdown. Meltdown three was when Steve had tried to suggest a different activity, and four was when he tried to bring Tony the blocks back.

After that, Steve lost count.

Dinner was more tears than calories, bathtime was nothing more than a cursory rinse, and Tony screamed through every book Steve tried to read. In an attempt to distract him, after the duck towel had failed to even elicit a “Dah,” Steve offered Tony both the Captain America sleeper and the Iron Man to see which he would choose. Tony grabbed both sleepers, one in each hand, and wailed.

Steve managed to get the Iron Man one free, and then with a lot of effort get Tony in it, but Tony wouldn’t give up the other one for anything. When he stuck the foot of it in his mouth and started to suck, finally easing his crying, Steve gave in and gave up. Whatever made him happy and - most importantly - quiet. He tucked Tony in his arms and instead of reading again, put on another Bing album and walked him around the apartment, rubbing his back and humming soothing vibration through his chest. Tony’s sniffles calmed, and his breathing slowed.

Half an hour late, Steve set Tony down in his playpen. He wasn’t asleep, but he was getting that dozy look. He also wouldn’t give up the Captain America sleeper.

“Come on Tony, it’s not a bedtime toy.”

“No.” Tony pouted at him.

Steve offered a trade - a binky - with no success. “Why do you like the Cap one so much?” Steve asked, folding his arms over the edge of the playpen and peering down at his tiny charge. “You look so good in red and gold.”

Tony kicked an Iron Man clad foot in the air. “Ap,” he said.

Steve stared. “Did you just say, ‘Cap’?”

Tony held the sleeper high above his head so the arms dangled down over his face. “Ap. No.”

Steve sighed then shrugged. Tony was 80% on his way to sleep anyway, so what if the sleeper was what he needed tonight? It had been a rough evening; Steve would take anything at this point. He turned the lights low and rubbed his fingers across Tony’s belly, singing along softly to the music still playing in the living room. Tony’s eyes dipped lower and lower, each blink getting longer. When his hand finally slacked, Steve tugged the sleeper free, then popped a binky in Tony’s mouth before the change woke him up. All remained calm.

Steve sat by the side of the playpen for a long time, watching Tony sleep, wanting to be completely sure that he was really out before he risked a move. When he finally did move, it was only to collapse on the couch instead, leaving the music on to muffle any noises he might make. In the end, he was in bed only a few hours later.

They managed not to miss another nap for the rest of the week, and on Saturday, Steve brought Tony and a bag of his things over to Bucky’s. They had insisted that Steve let them babysit for a day so he could have a bit of a break. It had taken a few days for him to call back and agree to it, but with Hank apparently still making very little progress, Steve decided he could use a chance to recharge. Besides, if this went on much longer, Tony was going to have to get used to being babysat. It wasn’t like Steve could go on missions with Tony in a stroller.

He was wound tense all morning, and once he arrived, he couldn’t stop fidgeting with Tony’s baby bag. “This is Cap,” he explained, holding up the sleeper. “Tony calls it ‘Ap.’ He won’t sleep without it now, but try not to let him have it before nap time, because then he tries to crawl with Cap and Duck and it’s a recipe for disaster. Well, bumped foreheads anyway. Duck, on the other hand, he needs all the time or you’re verging on meltdown territory.”

“Calm down, man, we got this!” Bucky patted him on the shoulder. Steve watched through the doorway while Gail held Tony on her hip and pointed out the different bottles of spices she had on a rack. Tony was attempting to repeat the names back as she said them. He talked so much around Gail, it was amazing.

“Okay…” Steve dropped the bag on the floor, but he couldn’t seem to get his feet to move. He’d been looking forward to this break since Wednesday, but now that he was here…

Bucky tugged at his arm until his gaze broke away from Tony and he followed Bucky out into the hall. “It’s tough to let go, but you need this, Steve. Go to a movie, get lunch, take your girl on a date.” Bucky squeezed the arm he was holding. “Go to the gym… Have some grown-up time. You’ll regret it if you don’t. The rugrat will be fine, I promise.”

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve pulled him into a hug, resisting the urge to go tell Tony goodbye. All the books had said it was best to distract him and then leave so he wouldn’t notice. But they didn’t say anything about how it might make Steve feel to do that. He had no choice now, though. Bucky would never let him live it down if he grabbed Tony and high-tailed it back to their apartment. And it wouldn’t do Tony any favours to lock him up inside and never let him see anyone else. There was no way of knowing what effect Tony’s time as a baby would have on his psyche once he was adult again, and Steve didn’t want to be responsible for causing him unhappiness.

He double-checked his pockets to make sure he hadn’t stuffed a binky or a toy in any of them then stepped out the door. It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot. He walked back towards the subway then stopped at the corner. He wasn’t actually sure what he wanted to do. He and Tony had spent the morning cleaning together so the apartment didn’t need his attention. He no longer had a girl he wanted to take on a date. He could go to a movie, but he didn’t really enjoy modern movies - he’d mostly gone to them for Jan’s benefit.

He definitely should go to the gym - he knew how stressed he could get if he didn’t - but he didn’t really feel like it. Taking care of Tony was a workout all its own. Besides, the gym he went to was all the way across the city, and by the time he got there it would be time to come back and pick Tony up.

In the end, he walked until he found a coffee shop, then took his coffee and a pastry to a small park and sat on a bench, enjoying the sun. There was a playground across the from the fountain in front of him, and Steve mentally retraced his steps, reminding himself where it was so he and Tony could come back here some time, after visiting Bucky and Gail. It was a bit old for Tony, but he’d enjoy the sand and the one spring duck you could sit on and rock back and forth.

Steve found himself wishing that Tony were here now, so he could show him, so he could see if Tony would call that “Dah!” too without prompting. He shook his head then scrubbed a hand through his hair. That wasn’t right. For one thing, he was supposed to be enjoying some time baby-free, for another, Tony wasn’t his to miss. This was temporary - he couldn’t get used to it. It was all too easy to fall into naptime routines and ducks and easily chewed foods, but he was still Captain America, and he still had a job to do. A job that was waiting for him while he cared for one of his teammates.

It was more like Tony was sick, and Steve was looking out for him until he was better. Soon, he wouldn’t need Steve anymore and everything could go back to normal.

And that was what Steve wanted - for everything to go back to normal.

Steve ended up sitting on the bench for the entire four hours, his half-finished coffee forgotten and the crumbs of his pastry long since scattered for the birds. He walked back to the house slowly, worried that Bucky would mock him for getting there too soon when he was supposed to be out having fun.

He knocked softly, in case Tony was still asleep, then let himself in. He followed the sound of soft voices out to the back door, to find the Tony, Bucky, and Gail all gathered in the small backyard. They were sitting in a circle around a tiny tree, its base mounded high with dirt. Steve crossed the grass to crouch next to them. “Learning to garden?” he asked.

Tony spun around at the sound of his voice, mouth wide open, then broke into a brilliant grin when his eyes alighted on Steve’s face. “Teeee!!” he yelled, throwing his hands up, one of which was wrapped around one of Duck’s feet. Steve scooped him up off the ground, grinning back and flew him through the air once before settling him against his chest.

“Did you have a good time?” he asked. Tony broke into manic, incomprehensible chatter, one tiny, sticky, palm landing possessively on Steve’s cheek as he talked. Steve let him talk, turning back to his friends. “Thank you. He was good?”

“He was an angel,” Gail said, beaming up at them. She pushed herself to her feet, Bucky helping her up, and gathered the gardening tools.

“Can I help you clean anything up?” Steve shifted Tony onto his hip, but Tony’s hand stayed stretched up onto his cheek. He resisted the urge to turn and kiss it while Bucky was there watching him.

“No, no, of course not.” Gail shooed them away. You two better get going or you’ll be late for dinner.”

“Thank you.” Steve pulled each of them into a one-armed hug, and Gail leaned over to press a kiss to Tony’s forehead. He giggled.

“It was our pleasure.”

With Tony’s things collected, Steve pushed back out into the sun. He wanted to go back to the playground to show Tony the duck, but it was getting late and after such a good day, he was eager for a good bedtime. He settled for perching Tony on his lap on the subway ride home, arms wrapped around his back, listening intently while Tony waved Duck around and told him all about his day.

Chapter Text

Three weeks later, Hank had made no progress towards turning Tony adult again, and Steve had taking care of him down to a science. Structure was key. While an adult, Tony’s schedule had seemed to be a wild mishmash of drinking, women, more drinking, spending money, and drinking, whenever and wherever he wanted. But Steve learned pretty early on that for Tony-the-toddler, routine made all the difference.

Steve glanced at his watch again. 9:53. He shot Fury a look, but the man was resolutely ignoring him. Steve regretted, once again, bothering to come into work at all, but Fury had insisted that even if he wasn’t on active duty right now, he needed to be in this meeting. So far, however, he’d paid little enough attention that it would have been just the same if he’d stayed home. Next time he’d make it clear - he wasn’t coming in unless Bucky and Gail were free to babysit. It was just too much hassle, and now they were going to miss naptime.

Tony babbled softly in Steve’s arms, lifting his duck up above his head, then down over his face, giggling. He was happy enough now, but Steve could see the pinching in at the edges of his eyes, the way he shifted, the occasional little huff of a sigh. The schedule was working out perfectly for them, but the downside was that messing it up led to bad things.

Steve glared at Fury again. If he would just hurry up…

9:55. Fury turned to a new slide.

Dammit. Tony twisted in Steve’s arms, pressing his face briefly against Steve’s shirt and humming a bit, his duck forgotten. When he tipped back, he brought one hand up and rubbed his eyes. Steve sighed. Now Tony was going to fall asleep in his arms, and Steve was going to have to sit stock-still for two hours, paperwork be damned.

There was no hope at this point, anyway. He couldn’t get Tony back home before 10, and if Tony fell asleep at all and movement woke him - that was it. Day over. Steve would have a fussy, pouty baby on his hands who wouldn’t sleep again until bedtime, and even then, that was if Steve got lucky. As it was, the best Steve could hope for was getting a full nap out of Tony in his arms - and therefore getting nothing else done - and the stack of reports in front of him was not encouraging.

Tony shifted in Steve’s arms again, a little whimper escaping his tiny lips. What was even more likely, was that no matter how still Steve was, Tony wouldn’t be able to sleep - so Tony would get no sleep, Steve would get no work done, they’d both be up late and -

Steve cut himself off with a shake of his head. He was radiating tension now, and Tony was responding to it, reaching for Steve’s face with a series of grumpy noises. Steve tipped him upright, against his chest, his little chin hooked over Steve’s shoulder. He turned his face until his nose brushed against Tony’s cheek, and Tony said, “Teeee!” then giggled.

It was a sleepy giggle, though.

If only he had somewhere to set Tony down. He should have brought a playpen or some kind of travel crib. If the future had anything, it should have that. But he hadn’t considered that Clint would be late, and the situation Fury was debriefing would have re-escalated, and this meeting would run right through Tony’s naptime.

10:04.

He should just excuse himself, go home, try and salvage this day and -

Steve had dropped his eyes to his pack, thinking about grabbing it and hightailing it out of there and - It wasn’t so crazy was it? It was almost basket shaped, really… Tony was a good sleeper, all he needed was somewhere quiet and nesty to curl up.

Steve shifted in his chair as he hooked one foot under the edge of the shield, trying not to draw the attention of the rest of the team. He didn’t want to interrupt the meeting - and make it stretch out even longer - and he didn’t want to draw everyone's eyes to Tony. Attention usually made him bolt awake again.

Steve tugged Tony’s blanket out from where it was tangled against his legs and dropped it down between his feet, into the bottom of the shield. It looked cozy enough. He bent down, cradling Tony gently and nestled him in the blanket. Tony waggled his little fingers up at Steve with a toothy grin, and Steve handed him his favourite duck binky. Tony shoved it in his mouth, then waggled again. A good sign. Steve tugged “Cap” out of his bag and handed that over too, getting Duck returned to him in exchange. He tucked Duck in his bag and crossed his fingers.

Tony stared up at him for a long time, nestled in the overturned shield between Steve’s feet. Steve rested his forehead on the edge of the table, watching as Tony’s eyes blinked heavier and heavier. Fury’s voice rose a little, and Steve frowned, as Tony’s eyes fluttered open again. He nudged his toe against the edge of the shield and it rocked a little. He nudged again. Tony’s eyes drifted shut.

Okay, this might work.

Tony’s hands opened and closed around the edge of Cap’s sleeve, then went slack. He sucked a few last times on his binky, then his chin tipped to the side and he was out. Steve breathed a sigh of relief. At this point - Tony could sleep through almost anything.

When Steve sat up again, keeping his foot braced against the shield so he could rock it every now and then and keep Tony deeply under, the whole team was staring at him. Fury had stopped talking.

He looked around the room and frowned. “Are we finished?”

“Are you?” Jan asked with a giggle.

Fury sighed and turned back to the presentation. Fifteen minutes later, the rest of the team filed out of the room, most stopping to smile or coo at Tony in the shield. Jan tried to take a picture, “It’s the most adorable blackmail, Steve,” but Steve put his hand over the camera and cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Fine. I thought being a dad would make you more fun, but I guess not.” She started towards the door.

“I’m not a ‘dad,’” Steve growled after her. But the room was empty.

He folded himself over the edge of the table again, watching Tony sleep, his tiny chest rising and falling with rapid baby breaths, the Captain America onesie clutched in one hand. It was a while before Steve hauled himself up and started in on his work, grateful he’d brought it along to the meeting. He was here until Tony awoke - at 12:30 - so he might as well get something done.

As he sifted through the stacks of paperwork, he let his foot shift against the shield, rocking it slowly back and forth. There was, of course, the horrifying thought that something would happen, some threat would surface, and Steve would have to oust Tony from his little nest, but for now, it was working, and Steve was - frankly - just grateful to have gotten Tony to sleep on time.

He was surprisingly productive, once he fell into the rhythm of it, and Tony slept well in the shield. When Steve’s watch went off, he lifted Tony gently from the nest and settled him against his chest. He pressed his lips to the side of Tony’s warm, soft head and waited for him to wake. He shifted slowly into wakefulness - opting for burrowing sleepily into Steve’s neck instead of his usual wake-up giggling.

Steve packed up with Tony tucked quietly against him, then clamped the shield on his back and made his way to the elevator. Since he was here, he opted to check in with Pym and see if any progress had been made on Tony’s re-adulting. Fury had given him an office to work out of, though there had been no promises of re-admittance to the Ultimates, even if he did fix this. Steve knew that’s what he was angling for though.

He walked down the long hall in the medical wing to the private office at the back where Fury had tucked Hank away. Tony huffed in sleepy frustration against his neck, and Steve realized that with every step his tension was ratcheting up and his arms were tightening their hold. He let out a tight breath and forced himself to relax.

The door to Hank’s office was closed, so Steve knocked, and the sound made Tony’s face pop out from Steve’s collar.

“Ah, Cap. Hello.” Hank swung the door wide. He raised an eyebrow at Tony. “Still little, huh?”

Steve frowned. “You’re the one supposed to be fixing it, so obviously he is.”

Hank waved a hand dismissively. “Well, you never know. Maybe you’d come to tell me he’d spontaneously popped back.”

Hank turned back to his desk, and Steve followed him in. “Is that possible?”

“Anything’s possible… I mean as possible as it is for him to be turned into a baby in the first place. Why wouldn’t he just turn back in the middle of the night?”

“I don’t know, Pym. That’s what you’re supposed to be figuring out.”

Hank’s shoulders tensed. “Well, I’m trying to, but we don’t exactly have precedent for something like this, and it’s not like I can peel him open and see what’s making him tick.”

Steve’s arms tensed around Tony’s back. “He’s not an experiment, Hank. He’s your teammate.”

“Not anymore,” Hank grumbled.

“Well, that was hardly his fault.”

Hank leaned back in his chair and shot Steve a twisted smile. “Oh, no. That was much more your fault.”

“You attack your wife and blame it on me?” Steve growled.

“You screw my wife and then expect me to help you?”

“This isn’t for me, it’s for Tony.”

“Oh really? Don’t tell me you're not desperate to get him grown again and out of your life. Why else are you here pestering me? This is as much for you, Captain, since you’re the one stuck changing his dirty diapers.”

Steve jerked half a step forward, hand reaching for Hank’s shirt, but Tony flinched back and burst into wailing sobs as soon as he moved, his hand flailing wildly and catching Steve on the side of the neck. Steve’s heart sunk. He forced himself to still and took two steps back, out of reach of Hank who had frozen, stiff-jawed in his chair. “If I find out you’re holding back results just to screw me and Tony over, Hank, I swear to god -”

“Don’t worry,” Hank snapped back over Tony’s sniffling, unable to hide that he was short of breath and trembling. “I want to solve this thing as much as you do. Partially because this science is fascinating - and potentially useful - and partially because the sooner I do, the sooner you’ll be out of my life again.”

Steve bit back any potential retorts and spun on his heel, marching out of Hanks’s office and closing the door behind him with a bang. Tony flinched again and his sobs got louder. Steve rushed down the next two hallways, finally taking refuge in the empty elevator. He ran a soothing hand over Tony’s back. “I’m sorry,’ he murmured, once he was sure his voice would come out calm and steady.

Tony burrowed his face in Steve’s collar and sniffled. Guilt constricted Steve’s chest. Tony trusted him, and he’d scared him. He’d scared him, and Tony still turned to him for comfort. He didn’t deserve it. He held Tony close, stroking the back of his head and murmuring soft sounds until his crying abated.

“Dah,” Tony whimpered, tear-streaked face still hidden in Steve’s collar. Steve awkwardly wrangled Duck out of their go bag. He handed it over, along with a bottle, and Tony brightened, trading them for Cap, which Steve shoved back in the bag. “Daaaah.” He beamed at the toy.

When they hit the front courtyard, Steve had a sudden thought. “Do you want to go see some real ducks, Tony?”

“No.” But Tony was staring at him curiously, so Steve took it for a yes.

They stopped in a bodega and bought some frozen peas to feed them. Tony giggled when Steve pressed the cold bag against his hand, then pulled his hand back and pressed it to Steve’s cheek. It wasn’t long to walk to the park with the duck pond, and there was an open bench near the edge. Steve set their bag down and opened the peas. Already, a few birds had paddled over, used to nice things happening when people with kids showed up. Steve pointed at them. “Duck!”

Tony stared at the ducks for a long moment, then looked at Steve, brow creased, incredulous. Steve chuckled. “No, I swear! They really are.” He pointed again. “Duck.”

Tony made a soft noise, but he didn’t look convinced. Steve opened the peas and threw in a handful, watching the ducks dip their beaks in to grab them. Suspicious or not, Tony liked that part, and soon he was gleefully flinging handfuls of frozen peas in a vaguely pond-related direction, while Steve followed them up with more targeted strikes to keep the flock from climbing up on the bank. Tony laughed and pointed and babbled but staunchly refused to call the birds ducks.

When the bag of peas was empty, and Tony started trying to eat the ones that had fallen short, Steve scooped him up and crossed the park to the playground. He tucked his shield case and the go bag by a bench. There was no spring-duck toy at this playground, but one of the swings had a baby seat, so Steve plunked Tony down in it and started to rock him gently back and forth.

“You can let go of the chains you know,” said a gentle voice behind him. Steve spun around and a woman was standing on the edge of the playground. She had a toddler a little older than Tony who was currently sitting under the jungle gym stuffing handfuls of sand into her mouth.

“Oh - I -” Steve looked at his hand that was wrapped around the swing chain in a death grip. “I wasn’t sure…”

“He’s old enough.” The woman smiled encouragingly and took a step forward. “He won’t fall out.”

Steve let go of the chain and pushed Tony away gently. Tony smiled and gurgled, waving his duck around, and Steve smiled back, pushing a little harder. The woman appeared at Steve’s elbow. He glanced over her shoulder; her child was still mainlining sand. Steve considered that maybe her advice wasn’t the most trustworthy. But Tony seemed to be enjoying himself. He pushed a little harder, and Tony laughed.

The woman waved at Tony, and he grinned at her, waving back. Steve made a surprised noise. “That’s the - he, uh, doesn’t usually like to wave much.” Steve caught himself, not sure if it would be bizarre that it was the first time Steve had seen him do that.

“Awww.” The woman waved again, cooing, but this time Tony just flapped his duck around and grinned at her. She turned to Steve. “Lydia. And that’s Annie.” She gestured towards her sand-filled daughter.  

“Annie… likes sand.” Steve pushed Tony a little harder, and he broke into full-on howling laughter.

The woman shrugged. “She’s my third,” she said, as if that explained everything. “You looking at schools yet? They fill up so quickly now.”

“Um.” Steve floundered. Tony wasn’t even a year - did people really look at schools so soon?

She laughed and poked him with her elbow. “Don’t look so terrified. It’s fine.” She rolled her eyes. “My husband is the same way - sometimes I swear he doesn’t even remember the middle one’s name! He your only?”

Steve hesitated. Surely he would out himself as clueless if the woman asked any more questions? “Uh - actually he’s not mine.” Steve squirmed. “He’s my nephew. I’m just - uh - he’s staying with me for a little while.”

“Oh, isn’t that lovely! How good of you. They’re a lot of work at that age.”

“It’s not so bad.” Steve’s gaze settled on Tony. He was still cackling, waving his duck up and down with both hands. It wasn’t bad, not really. Steve was tired, and he was pretty sure he had oatmeal streaked on his pants, but Tony was a happy baby, always smiling, always laughing, and taking care of him took Steve’s mind off some of the pressures of the modern world.

He chatted idly with Lydia a little longer, then waved as she picked up Annie and walked off for her mom and tot music class, a rain of damp sand streaming from Annie’s hands as she waved goodbye.

Steve pushed Tony on the swing until they would be too late for lunch if they stayed longer, then pulled Tony free on the upswing and lifted him high in the air until he screamed with delight. Laughing, Steve tucked Tony back against his chest and buried his face into his neck, blowing tickling air against Tony’s skin. Tony screeched again, two breaths from setting off hiccoughs, and Steve bounced him gently, hushing him even as he laughed himself.

Instead of going home, Steve took Tony to a family diner to eat. He was nervous about taking Tony out for the first time, but he was a perfect angel. The restaurant had high chairs, which made Steve realize that he really needed to get one for himself. Tony happily dug into the pasta and beans that Steve ordered, spreading sauce all over himself, the table, the high chair, and Steve with visible delight.

Chapter Text

The following Tuesday, Steve awoke at 3am to the sound of desperate sobbing instead of his usual giggle alarm clock. He staggered to his feet, bleary-eyed, adrenaline pumping through his veins and shocking him awake. Tony wasn’t in danger, though, he was standing in his playpen, hands fisted on the edge, red-faced with tears streaming down his cheeks. Steve stumbled over and lifted Tony into his arms. “What’s wrong, honey? Nightmare? Can babies have nightmares?”

But even being held, Tony didn’t stop his wailing. Steve wiped a tear from Tony’s cheek and jerked his hand back. Tony’s skin was blazing hot. He lay Tony on the bed and unzipped his sleeper. The bedroom was cool, but Tony was hot all over and shiny with sweat. Steve stripped him down and walked him around the apartment, rubbing a soothing hand over his back. Tony’s crying softened but didn’t stop, his breath still coming out in sad, wet gasps.

And now that Steve had Tony pressed against him, he could feel the hitch to his breathing. It wasn’t just his snotty nose and drool, his lungs sounded wet. He was sick.

“Shit.” Steve scrambled for the phone. He didn’t have any supplies for a sick baby - he didn’t even have supplies for a sick adult. He hadn’t been sick since the serum had done its magic. But Tony had caught something, and Steve had no idea what to do. He dialled Fury’s number while flipping through the baby books, looking for anything on sick kids.

“‘Lo?” Fury’s answer sounded less like a greeting and more like a request to hang up.

“Tony’s sick.”

“What?”

“Tony. He’s sick. He’s got the flu or something. I don’t even know what kinds of things people catch in the 21st century. But he’s hot, and his nose is running -”

Fury cut him off. “You can’t take him to a regular doctor.”

“I know. I need to talk to the doctor who saw him when he first came in.”

“Alright, hold on.” There was the sound of footsteps and rusling paper in the background. Steve bounced Tony gently on his hip. He pressed his cheek to the top of Tony’s head - he was boiling. Fury gave him the doctor’s home number. “How sick is he? Do you need me to bring over a chopper? Do you think someone tried to attack him?”

Steve looked down at Tony’s pouty face, a mix of snot and tears covering his cheeks, his gummy eyes blinking at Steve with disdain as if he suspected all of this was Steve’s fault. “No. I think he’s just… sick. That’s normal for kids right?”

Fury sighed. “Keep me posted.”

Steve called the doctor next and he seemed much more used to being roused in the middle of the night. “You need a thermometer,” the doctor told him. “And if his temp goes over 102 call me and bring him right in. Otherwise get him some baby Tylenol and make sure he’s well hydrated. It should get better over the next couple days. You can call me every day and give me an update.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Steve stood there in the kitchen for a long time, books spread across the table and a sad, streaky Tony in his arms. He needed a thermometer. At 3am. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. How was - Then he remembered a box of Jan’s stuff that she never picked up. Some of it had been nail polish and shampoo and other bathroom things - she might have had a thermometer.

He hauled the box out of the storage closet and pawed through it. For the first time since he woke, Tony stopped crying - though he still sniffled with every breath - to watch the new and exciting things come out of the box. But it was worrisome, that he didn’t reach for any of the items, or struggle out of Steve’s hold to dig through the box himself. He just curled up in Steve’s arms with his thumb in his mouth and watched.

There was a thermometer, at the bottom of the box, and to Steve’s relief it turned on when he pushed the button. He wasn't entirely sure how it worked, but the doctor had told him he could check under Tony’s armpit, or get a special baby thermometer. This one clearly wasn’t a baby one, so he lifted Tony’s arm and tucked the end up into his armpit. Tony pouted and sighed, but didn’t struggle, and Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead to thank him for being so good.

It seemed to take hours for the thermometer to beep, and when it finally did, Steve yanked it free and checked the result.100.6. He let out a tense breath. That wasn’t so bad. The doctor had said anything over 102 was worrying and 103.5 was an immediate trip to the hospital, so this seemed to just be a regular flu.

Poor Tony… Steve ran his palm over Tony’s overheated head, smoothing back the sweaty strands of hair. It was still a few hours before the pharmacy would open, so Steve put the news on the TV with the sound low, and tucked Tony in a blanket on his chest, folding it down over Tony’s shoulders. He kept one hand on Tony’s back, under the blanket, to make sure he wouldn’t get too hot.

The news was nothing more than background noise, and Steve found himself dozing before long, the excitement of being woken so suddenly fading in the face of the early hour. Tony shifted around until he could get his thumb in his mouth, even though he usually preferred to suck on Cap which was clutched in his other hand, but he seemed much happier perched here than laid out in his playpen. He stopped crying, sucking gently on his thumb. Steve thought he’d drifted off, but then Tony popped his thumb free and pointed at the TV.

“Dah,” he croaked.

Steve looked over. The weather reporter was wearing a bright yellow polo shirt. Steve couldn’t help it - it was too funny. He tried to hold back, not wanting to startle Tony where he lay, but it was painful stopping the peals of laughter from rocketing loose. “Really?!” he couldn’t help but ask. “We saw real ducks and you think the - really? Oh, Tony.”

Tony coughed once, hard, then whispered, “Dah. No,” more to himself than to Steve. Steve kept chuckling, unable to stop even as he fought to keep still.

Tony’s coughing only got worse as they approached sunrise, and Steve had him bundled up and out the door in time to catch the drug store opening. The pharmacist was very kind and helped him find everything he would need to help Tony feel better, from a eucalyptus rub to a child’s Tylenol to bring his fever down.

Tony started crying again before they got back to the apartment, and Steve tried to soothe him, awkwardly bouncing Tony on one hip while he tried to open the various boxes and bottles. With a dose of medicine in him, Steve turned their favourite Bing album back on and walked in slow circles around the couch, rubbing Tony’s back and hushing him gently while he whimpered. It took almost half an hour, but Steve knew the medicine had kicked in when Tony breathed out a huge sigh and went limp against Steve’s chest.

He moved to put Tony back in his playpen, but found he couldn’t find the strength to put him down after all, so he settled back on the couch with Tony curled on his chest. He could feel Tony’s hitching, wet breathing and snuffles, but also the tiny thump of his heart, and it kept him breathing easy himself. He had no reason to fear catching the same thing so he didn’t hesitate to press his lips against Tony’s warm head whenever he felt the urge.

He left the music on, but switched off the TV and grabbed a book from the basket by the end of the couch instead. Steve’s early waking caught up with him again, Tony safe on his chest, and when he next woke, it was quite late in the morning. Tony was still out, and Steve debated which was worse, waking him up or skipping breakfast entirely. The decision was made for him when he shifted to set his book down and Tony coughed himself awake.

Tony managed a bottle, a little oatmeal, and a second dose of medicine with very little fuss, though he refused to let either Duck or Cap out of reach. Steve was just settling in for some time resting on the couch when his cell phone rang. Only SHIELD had that number, so, assuming it was the doctor calling back, Steve snatched it up.

“Hello?”

“We have a massive fire in the process of taking out a whole city block in Queens and the fire department has asked the Ultimates to step in. I’m calling you in.”

Steve set Tony down and ran his hand through his hair. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Nick. You know Tony’s sick.”

“We need you on this, Cap. Get him a babysitter. It’ll be a quick mission, but one with a lot of lives to save. Suit up, I’m sending a chopper.”

Steve swore sharply then apologized to Tony who was drooping back into sleep, the foot of the Cap sleeper in his mouth. He hung up on Fury, only to call Bucky’s number. Gail picked up.

“I’ve got an emergency with work, can you guys take Tony today?” Steve asked, already throwing things in a bag. “He’s sick - he has the flu - but I can send his stuff. You probably know better how to take care of a sick baby than I do, anyway.” That made something in Steve’s chest tighten, but he ignored it, splitting his stuff between the baby bag and his go bag as he rounded the room.

“Of course, Steve. Whatever you need. We’d be more than happy to.”

“Thank you.”

Steve called Fury back and told him to send the chopper to Bucky’s instead then ordered a cab. He pulled up outside Bucky’s house with a sleepy, fussy Tony half an hour later. The couple met them on the porch. Bucky took Tony out of Steve’s arms and held him close. “Oh no, you poor little bug, you’re a million degrees!”

Tony pouted and whispered, “No,” into Bucky’s jacket. Steve was opening his mouth to say goodbye when the silence was broken by the intense whomp whomp of the helicopter blades as it settled in the middle of the street. Tony’s eyes went wide and terrified, and Steve wondered if he remembered his first helicopter ride, dirty and frightened and wrapped in Steve’s shirt. Steve bent over and pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead. “Be good,” he whispered.

“No…” Tony reached for him. “Tee.”

“I have to go, honey. I’ll be back.” It was everything the book told him not to do, but he couldn’t help it. He felt like he was being ripped away - or ripped apart. Half of him was ready to go, ready to be Captain America, but the other half was desperate to stay here, to hold Tony, to make sure he was going to be okay. Why did this have to happen now - when Tony was sick?

Gail’s hand landed on his arm, and she smiled sympathetically at him. It was enough to break his indecision, he turned and walked away before Tony’s sad eyes and quivering lip could stop him from moving. He spent the whole chopper ride trying to get himself in the right headspace, to shift from Steve into Cap mode and push thoughts of Tony aside. They were no good to him right now; they’d only get him hurt or worse. And he had to come back, and come back whole, so he could care for his tiny charge.

He saw the fire long before they were close enough to land. A great billowing black cloud rose up from the ground, obscuring an entire city block from view. It was enough to push him the last little bit into being a member of the Ultimates again. Jan and Clint met him on the ground. He could see the twins off in the distance, appearing wholly uninterested in anything but each other.

The area was massive, with three entire apartment blocks affected by the blaze. One had been contained and almost all of one had been emptied, but the last was still full of people who hadn’t had time to evacuate. The twins worked on clearing the rest of the west building, while the other three took the east.

Steve circled around to the back and held his shield out in front of him then used it to plow through the back door. Smoke poured out of the doorway as he shouldered through, making for the stairs. He took them three at a time, holding the shield out in front of him and crouching low behind it, keeping a pocket of clear air behind it. He made straight for the fourth floor - his assignment was to clear three apartments on that level. Wasp was coming in high to get the people free on the upper levels.

The smoke was thick enough that it was hard to see, and he had to walk right up to the doors to see what number each apartment was. At number 408 he pressed his ear up to the door and he could hear shouting.

“Stand away from the door!” he yelled, stepping back and raising the shield. He couldn’t tell if they had heard, so he brought the edge of shield down on the doorknob and kicked the door open as gently as he could.

There was a family of four - two women and their teenage children - huddled against the far wall. “Come on!” Steve commanded gruffly. He grabbed the arm of the closest teenager and pulled him towards the door. The rest of the family followed suit, caught in his wake. Steve went ahead, testing every step. He guided them to the stairwell then hustled them out, turning back to clear the other apartments once he saw they were stumbling down towards safety.

The heat was growing; Steve could feel it even through his armoured boots, and he rushed the last group down the stairs, following them out the back door. “Fourth floor clear,” he said into his comm.

The fresh air hit him, and he sucked it in gratefully, not realizing until he was outside how tortured his lungs had been. There was a buzzing near his ear, and he turned to see Jan hovering frantically nearby.

“There’s a boy on the sixth floor! Dennis. He wouldn’t come when the rest of his family did. I got them out but he wouldn’t go. Apartment 602.”

“On it.” Steve took a deep breath and charged back in. He could feel the heat now, more than just the smoke, and the doorknobs he passed on his way up the stairs were glowing red. When he reached the sixth, he stepped back and kicked the door open, holding the shield in front of him. A blast of hot air rushed out when the door opened, singing the hair on his arms. He gritted his teeth against the onslaught and pressed forward. The whole hallway was properly burning now, flames licking up the wallpaper. At least the power had gone out completely and the fire alarms had stopped blazing.

“Dennis?” Steve called, sucking in a mouthful of ash and hot air and coughing it out again. He couldn’t see the apartment numbers anymore, but he remembered the layout of the floors below, and he found his way unerringly to 602. The door was open and burning, half falling off its hinges. There was an almighty groan from the walls, and Steve tensed. The building wouldn’t be standing much longer. “Dennis?” he tried again. There was no answer.

Steve tore through the apartment, ripping open cupboards and pulling doors off their hinges. At the master bedroom he paused - he heard a noise. There it was again: a gasping cry. Steve tugged open the closet, and at the back under a pile of clothes was a pair of feet. There was no time for niceties. Steve grabbed an ankle and pulled. A boy appeared, no more than six or seven. “Dennis?” Steve asked.

The boy nodded. His cheeks were streaked with tears and he was shaking all over, but the sudden appearance of Captain America seemed to have shocked him into some semblance of lucidity.

“Alright. I’m going to get you out of here, bud.” Steve lifted the boy up, letting him wrap his arms around Steve’s neck and cling on so he had one arm clear for the shield. The fire hadn’t reached this room or the en-suite bathroom, so Steve grabbed a handful of clothing at random from the closet and soaked them in the sink with cold water then draped them over Dennis’ head. “Okay, hang on. Here we go.”

Back out in the hall, the fire was raging even stronger, and Steve grimaced as the overheated air licked his skin. He pushed his way through to the stairwell, taking shallow breaths through pursed lips. Dennis shook against his chest, and Steve’s mind shifted and twisted until the body in his arms was Tony - hot and shivering, terrified. Steve shook his head, finding the present again. He was getting dizzy from the lack of oxygen in the air.

Two flights of stairs from ground level, he screeched to a halt. The metal frame of the stairs had twisted and melted, the linoleum nothing more than a burning dripping mess. There was no safe place to step.

“Dammit.” Steve shoved back through into the hallway, shooting a worried glance up at the cracking ceiling. He had to get Dennis out.

He broke into the first apartment he found. He curled behind the shield as best he could and blindly shoved through the twisted, burning rubble towards the far wall. He felt along until he found the window. Turning Dennis away he slammed the edge of the shield against the glass, shattering it.

“Hey!” he shouted, sticking his head out. There was no relief to be found with the black smoke and flame sucking out of the hole he made and poisoning even the outside air.

“Cap!”

“I’ve got the kid but the stairs are out. Someone catch?”

A group of firefighters formed a circle under the window and shouted up to him. Steve wrapped the boy in the wet fabric and lifted him out of the window, holding him high to avoid the edge of the broken glass. He let go, heart in his throat, and breathed a sigh of relief when the people below caught the boy and bundled him off towards the paramedics.

Steve took a step back, lining up and firming his grip on the shield, ready to jump out after him, but his gaze was drawn up by an almighty crack. He flicked the shield up above him, but it was too late, the entire ceiling collapsed down on him, burying him in flaming plaster and half-melted metal.

A heavy wooden beam came crashing down with the rest, pinning Steve to the ground and knocking the air from his lungs. He groaned and gasped, trying to pull enough oxygen from the smoke-filled air to get him going again. The shield was braced over his head, but his other arm had been trapped under the falling beam and when he wiggled his fingers, hot pain radiated up to his shoulder. It was broken.

Steve allowed several words he hadn’t used since Tony had moved in to slip free. His skin blistered where it touched the burning wood and he struggled to shift his broken arm free, despite the pain. It wouldn't do any long term damage but the intensity was clouding his judgement, pushing panic chemicals into his bloodstream and making it hard to focus.

By angling the shield and pushing all his strength into his shoulder, Steve managed to shift the rubble a bit and finally get the leverage to work his arm free. He tucked it close to his chest, hissing with pain as the already re-knitting bones scraped together. With one side free, he twisted back and kicked up hard with his feet breaking through the ceiling tiles and giving him a point of escape. He shoved up to his feet, feeling the flames lick at his skin, singing his hair and blistering his neck, but he pushed through it.

The window was blocked, so he beat his way into the bedroom. He could see glass so he just reared back and charged, curling up so the shield took the brunt of the hit. His landing on the top of a truck out front was hardly graceful, but it got the job done. He was immediately swarmed with emergency personnel, fussing over his broken arm, burns, and bruises. He asked after Dennis, and when he learned he was fine, he sunk into the back of the nearest ambulance and let the EMTs manhandle him.

When he had an arm free he dug his cell phone out and called Bucky.

“Hey, bud.”

“Bucky… is Tony okay?” Steve’s voice came out rough and grating, like he’d smoked fifteen packs at once.

“He’s fine. Are you?”

Steve coughed, trying to clear his throat, but it hardly helped. “Fine. Fire. Just -” He thought about Dennis being trapped in the closet, and something ice cold clamped around his lungs. “I -”

“One sec.” The phone rustled, and Steve could hear footsteps and distant voices. He glared at the EMT wrapping his arm in gauze, and she shrunk back. If he could just be done with this, he could go get Tony and go home. “Teeeeeee,” came a tiny voice over the phone.

“Tony?”

Tony giggled, and Steve could hear Bucky saying, “Yeah, that’s Steve! You’re so smart.”

Steve let out a harsh breath and tipped his face into his palm for a moment before bringing the phone back to his ear. “Hey kid, how are you feeling?”

“No.” But he sounded better already, happier and less feverish. He made a few more random noises then squealed, the sound fading as he moved away from the phone.

Bucky came back on the line. “You going to be much longer? We were about to set him down for a nap but if you’re on your way…?”

“Ten minutes. Keep him up. His schedule is all messed up from the flu anyway. I’ll put him down at home. Bucky? Thank you.” Steve couldn't put into words what hearing Tony’s voice had done for him, but Bucky seemed to understand.

“Of course. See you soon. Don’t brush the paramedics off too soon, Stevie. You always hated getting fussed over, but even Captain America needs bandaids.”

Steve chuckled. “Ten minutes.” He hung up, then shot a look to the EMT, making it clear that it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a deadline.

There wasn’t much to do about the burns - they’d heal on their own - and the arm just had to be braced long enough to heal as well - a few days at the most. The EMTs managed to get him patched up in record time. He checked on his team and the people he’d helped, then climbed into the chopper and gave them Bucky’s address.

Bucky insisted he take a shower at their place before Tony saw him. Steve couldn’t get his bandaged arm wet, so he washed off hastily, holding it out of the shower curtain, then pulled on the spare outfit he always kept in his go bag. He rushed down the stairs and into the back den, bending down and scooping Tony up into his arms as soon as he saw him.

Tony giggled and took Steve’s face between his hands. “Tee.”

“Hey, honey.” He pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead, and his fever seemed lessened. Tony’s clever fingers found the wrap on Steve’s arm almost immediately, turning his curious face towards Steve.

“It’s just a boo boo,” Gail insisted.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“Boo,” Tony said. Then he brought one hand up and pressed his whole palm over his face. He made an exaggerated kissing noise then slammed his hand down on Steve’s arm with all the force his tiny strength could muster. “Boo!”

Steve’s stomach rolled with pain, and he clenched his teeth together to stop from groaning. The world whited out for a second then came back.

“Oh my god, Steve, I’m so sorry. I taught him that last weekend when he fell and bumped his forehead. I didn’t think he’s actually -”

“He fell last weekend?” Steve turned on Gail.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “It was nothing, Steve.”

Steve blushed, sufficiently chastised. “Sorry.”

“I didn’t think he’d actually learned to do that,” Gail finished. “I’m so sorry, are you alright?”

“It’s fine,” Steve insisted. The pain had already faded, and when Tony raised his hand again, Steve moved his arm behind his back. “No, no. I don’t need boo boo kisses Tony. Thank you. I’m fine.”

“No!” Tony agreed. He was giggling again, but his eyes were heavy, and Steve knew he needed to get to sleep soon. “I should get him home. Thank you so much.”

“Anytime.” Gail started packing up Tony’s things. Steve knew he should help, but he couldn't bring himself to put Tony down, and he was worried if he bent over too much he’d get dizzy and trip. The adrenaline was starting to fade, and it was leaving a persistent ache in his chest in its wake.

He looked up to thank Bucky again and saw him lowering his camera from his eye with a soft smile. Steve tilted his head in question, but Bucky just shook him off and lead him towards the door where a taxi was already waiting.

Steve held Tony tight to him all the way home, and he was soft and sleeping by the time Steve pushed into the apartment. He didn’t bother with anything - no food, no bath, no playpen - he just laid Tony on the bed with a pile of pillows along the edge, stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt and climbed in beside him, falling asleep with one hand resting gently against Tony’s ribs so he could feel him breathing in and out. Safe.

Chapter Text

Steve stayed home for the next few days. He was still healing, and Tony was still sick. The apartment acquired a layer of Tony’s clothes and toys, the fridge was a mess of half-eaten baby food, and the bathroom counter was spread with all the detritus of dosing a sick child. With one arm down, Steve had just enough power to give Tony what he needed to feel better and that was it. He figured they both deserved a chance to be lazy.

Additionally. with Tony’s somewhat improved health came a new temper Steve hadn’t seen much of before. The lingering stuffiness and sore throat made Tony snappish and irritable, even when he was well enough to go off the medication and get some fresh air again. Steve took him to the park, the first day they were both feeling up to it, but only twenty minutes after they’d arrived, a dog approached and sniffed Tony - something that he usually delighted in - and that set off a full-on wailing meltdown.

Steve gathered him up, apologizing profusely to the dog’s owner and the friendly dog, who was looking deeply affronted, and hightailed it back to the apartment. In the end, the only thing that soothed Tony’s grouchy mood was being in Steve’s lap with Cap and Duck, watching TV, or on the floor with the remote control in pieces around him. They ended up combining both activities for maximum peace, Tony in Steve’s lap with the rubbery strip of buttons in one hand and half of the plastic casing in the other, watching the financial news because without the remote they couldn’t change the channel.

As evening approached, so did a storm. Steve hardly noticed the gathering darkness until a heavy boom rattled through the apartment and Tony startled up from where he’d been half-dozing in Steve’s lap, Duck’s beak in his mouth. His eyes were wide when he turned to Steve, edged with fear but not without curiosity.

“It’s a storm,” Steve told him.

“No.” Tony frowned at him.

Thunder rumbled again and then the heavy patter of rain broke through, splashing against the balcony doors. Steve grabbed Tony’s binky and shoved it in this mouth then scooped him up, Duck and all, and carried him over to the window on the far wall with the best view of the city below. He propped Tony up until he was at eye level. Tony’s tiny hands came up, and he pressed forward against the window ledge, binky going a mile a minute in his mouth.

Lightning slashed the sky, and Tony jumped then pouted, but when Steve laughed he laughed back, smiling around the binky.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Steve cuddled him closer, watching the raindrops splash against the glass. “I used to hate storms, during the war, but they’re not so bad now.”

“Nuh,” Tony said around his binky, and Steve rubbed his hand absentmindedly over his back.

They stayed that way for a long time, watching the storm grumble its way across the city. When it passed over, it seemed to take Tony’s bad mood with it, to Steve’s great relief, and by the weekend, Tony was back to his happy, baby self. Steve’s arm was already free of the bandage, good as new, and it was a deep breath to have them both whole and healthy again. Saturday was supposed to be Bucky and Gail’s babysitting day, but on Friday night, Steve called to cancel.

“He’s finally feeling better, and I think it’s best if he gets a few good days at home to make sure he’s one hundred percent. Thanks, though.”

“Of course, whatever you want, bud. Gail and I are always happy to have him, but you two had a rough week. I’d say a lazy Saturday is just what the doctor ordered.”

Steve thought back to last week’s excitement. “Yes. Hopefully, we can pull that off.” He leaned against the kitchen island, watching Tony make a line of plastic turtle toys on the carpet. The mail lay open next to Steve’s elbow, and he pushed a bill aside to get another look at the bottom of the stack. “I got your picture, by the way. Thank you.” He picked up the snapshot of him and Tony together in Bucky’s hallway, talking to Gail. He was bruised and broken and Tony was bright-pink from fever and streaming snot, but they were still smiling at each other. It dug down between Steve’s ribs and twisted unpleasantly but he couldn’t seem to stop looking at it, no matter how many times he put it away.

Bucky was quiet for a moment. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want it.”

“No, no. I - I want it…” Steve felt like he was answering a different question. He looked up at Tony. He was stacking his turtles again. He’d eaten quite a lot of dinner, but clearly wasn’t interested in it anymore, so Steve shoved the leftovers in the fridge and popped his head in the bathroom to start the water running.

“He’s a great kid,” Bucky said.

“He is…” Steve tensed.

“You two seem to get along well.”

Tony knocked the turtles over and hooted with laughter. He looked around until he found Steve, caught his eye and laughed again. “Nooooo,” he sang to himself with glee.

“Well it was touch and go in the beginning there, but I think we’re figuring it out.”

“You get along that way normally?” Bucky asked lightly.

Steve thought about the Tony Stark he knew - the adult Tony Stark. That person, who he’d separated completely from the child that lived with him now, was just too different; it was a struggle to contemplate their connection with any seriousness. And more than a little uncomfortable to think about. “Not really. We don’t not get along. He’s kind enough and a good teammate. He’s had us over for dinner a few times. But honestly, I hardly know him. I feel like I’ve gotten to know this Tony - who can’t even talk - better in a month than I ever knew his adult counterpart in the two years we’ve worked together.”

“Well, you’re good with kids, Stevie. I’m not surprised. You have a good heart.”

“Thanks, Buck.” Steve scooped Tony up with one arm and swung him around in a circle before heading to the bathroom. He sat on the tile floor and set Tony down, working the buttons of his romper open as he tucked the phone under his ear. He only got Tony half undressed before he squirmed free to crawl around the bathroom at top speed, trailing the top half of his romper. Steve just shrugged and levered himself up on the edge of the tub to check the water. He turned it off. “I couldn’t have done it without you two.”

“You ever think about having a family of your own?”

Steve watched Tony pull himself up to standing using the edge of the toilet cover. “Well... of course, I used to.” He covered the mouthpiece and whispered, “Time for your bath, kiddo,” to Tony. “But these days it’s hard enough to find a girl who wants to spend more than ten minutes with me - and vice versa - let alone get married.”

Tony grinned and reached a hand out towards Steve. His eyebrows shot up. “You gonna walk, Tony?” He held his hands out encouragingly. But Tony just laughed and plopped back down on his butt. He fell to his hands and knees and scooted across the bathroom until Steve could lift him up. He distracted Tony with a serious of raspberry kisses to his tummy while he wriggled him out of the rest of his clothes then plunked him in the water.

“You know… Steve. You don’t need a girl to have a family, these days. It’s maybe a little harder, but single men can adopt kids. And who’s gonna say no to Captain America, anyway?”

Steve chuckled, dipping a washcloth in the warm water. “It’s not that simple. With my job being so dangerous and everyone knowing who - Tony stop that - I am, it doesn’t seem fair. And I’m getting by here, but with a lot of help. I don’t know if I could do this on my own. No, if Tony - when Tony gets turned back, I’ll have to satisfy myself with visiting you and the grandkids more!” he kept his voice light, but hot guilt was settling deep in his stomach. Because Tony would turn back - he would - and Steve…

A big part of Steve didn’t want him to.

It was horrible and cruel and wrong, but the more Steve tried to stomp it down, ignore it, the more the thoughts welled up, unwelcoming. There was an outpouring of fantasies of him and Tony, getting to do all the things normal people did with their families. Something to come home to, someone to care for. They were matched by the horrible thoughts of what grown Tony would say if he knew Steve was thinking this way. How angry he’d be. How resentful. Tony was his friend - how could Steve wish that on him?

“Buck, I’m sorry. Tony’s splashing - do you mind if I call you back?”

“Don’t worry about it, pal. Gail’s just called me for dinner anyway. Have a good weekend!”

“You too.” Steve hung up and tossed the phone aside. Tony would probably find it and take it apart if he didn’t put it back up on the shelf, but he couldn't bring himself to stand. He watched Tony play with his bath toys, tugging Steve’s hand into the game, but not noticing that Steve himself was miles away.

He was just lonely - that was all it was. Having a kid around was making him realize that he was lonely. So, once Tony no longer needed him, he needed to make people a priority. Make more friends, date more. Just because things hadn’t worked out with Jan didn’t mean he was doomed to be alone forever. He could volunteer - with kids even.

“Tee!” Steve looked down to see Tony pouting at him, holding his rubber duck. “Dah,” he explained with the forced patience of someone who had already repeated himself four times.

“Sorry, Tony.” Steve took the duck and dipped it in the water, squeezing then pulled it out and shot water all over Tony’s tummy. Tony squealed and grabbed the duck back, dipping it underwater then lifting it up. He wasn’t able to properly coordinate the squeeze so it just dripped water back down in the tub but Tony was sufficiently thrilled.

Steve pushed all thoughts of life after Tony out of his mind. Regardless of what the future held, he had a job to do now. He got Tony clean, towelled off - only needing to play peek-a-boo with the duck towel hood for about ten minutes this time - and in his sleeper. Then he settled him down on the bed with a book and a bottle, tucked into the crook of Steve’s arm. He worked his way through Tony’s favourite books until the bottle was done and Tony started to droop, then nestled him in his playpen, one hand gripping Cap like his life depended on it.

**

Over the next two months, Steve managed not to think about it much. Hank reported no progress on reverting what was done to Tony, and Tony showed no signs of changing back on his own. They fell into a rhythm. Steve balanced work with the Ultimates and caring for Tony more easily than he ever would have thought he could. Bucky and Gail looked after Tony every Saturday as well as every time Steve had a mission, or at least, every time they were available.

“I’ve never seen you so focused,” Jan yelled. “Eager to get home?”

Steve scowled and slammed his shield into another one of the robots. If they could just figure out where they were coming from…

“You’ve definitely gotten more ruthless since you became a dad,” Jan went on. “I think, as a team, our efficiency has gone up by at least sixty percent.”

“Less chatting, more working, Wasp.” Steve pointed. “There’s a flow to these robots, find the source.”

“You got it, Cap.” Jan buzzed away, but Steve could hear her chuckling to herself over the comm line. He ignored it. He had to solve this and get back to the Triskelion as soon as possible.

They found the source and shut down the controller, and Steve was hightailing it back to base before the dust had even settled. He skipped the debrief and made straight for a meeting room on the 8th floor. He pushed the doors open and grit his teeth together in frustration when he saw the gathering crowd.

Steve had left Tony with Agents Fritz and Jason, with no time to bring him to Bucky’s, but somehow the room was now stuffed with agents, receptionists, and at least one delivery driver, all cooing over Tony and trying to get him to say various words or wave to them.

“Say ‘SHIELD!’” one woman Steve could swear he’d never seen before said brightly.

Tony frowned at her. The corners of his eyes were pinching in a way that threatened a temper tantrum if things continued the way they were. Steve shouldered his way through the crowd, noticing with grim satisfaction the way the chatter died and the group stepped out of his way when they saw him there. Steve scooped Tony up and settled him against his chest. He shot a glare to Fritz and Jason then turned to Tony with a smile.

“Hey, bud!”

“Teeeeeeeeeeee!” Tony threw his hands up tipped backwards, crowing with laughter when Steve caught him and blew a raspberry on his belly.

“Your friend’s grandson is adorable!” the strange woman said, hearts in her eyes, and Steve shot the agents another look. They had no way of knowing the risk of spreading around Steve’s cover story, but when he’d asked them to watch Tony for an hour, he’d meant them,  not half of New York .  

“Okay, show’s over, folks,” he said lightly, so as not to frighten Tony, but he let his eyes flash with all the growl he kept out of his tone. He’d never seen a room empty so fast.   

Despite Jan’s mocking, Steve found that coming home to Tony was a pretty intense motivator to plow through missions as quickly as he could. The newfound efficiency seemed to radiate through the team, and despite not having Iron Man on hand, they were handling things quickly, quietly, and smoothly.

The day after the robot attack, Clint stopped by, much to Steve’s surprise, and played quite happily with Tony while they drank beer and watched the game. “You’re doing a good job, man,” Clint told him, and Steve couldn’t help but preen at that. Still, he caught Clint’s sad smile a few times, the way his voice broke when Tony handed him a toy, and the way his breath hitched when Tony fell asleep in Steve’s lap. He didn’t say anything, but Steve could tell how bittersweet it was for him.

He stayed through Tony’s nap, talking with Steve the way they used to, and it was a nice reminder that Steve had friends, no matter what. He liked Clint and he had to remember to invite him over more, especially - especially after.

He and Tony had a good night that night and most nights after. Time drifted by unexpectedly quickly, and having Tony living with him gradually became second nature. Steve found it easier and easier to take Tony out, trusting that he’d be able to handle whatever came up. He even idly found himself wondering about schools after all - though really, if it came to that, Tony should be homeschooled.

Most days, it was hard to remember that this goofy little toddler was Tony Stark, that he was only here because of magic. It was all too easy to fall into a parental role, organizing his life around making sure Tony had what he needed. And nothing made Steve happier than seeing the grin Tony would turn up to him when his blocks balanced together just right, or he liked a new food he tried, or Steve bounced him around the apartment, the two of them singing along with Bing.

Chapter Text

Tony rocked back and forth to the movement of the subway train, and Steve held his legs a little tighter. He was standing on Steve’s lap, hands pressed to the back window of the train, watching the tunnel disappear behind them. Steve would have been inclined to walk - the aquarium wasn’t that far - but Tony loved the subway, and Steve didn’t want to waste time walking when there was only a small gap between naps that they could use for outings.

Steve had never actually been to the aquarium before, but Bucky and Gail had insisted that Tony would love it, and Steve was pretty sure they were right. He’d woken Tony up a little early that morning, walking him around the apartment and kissing his forehead softly until he blinked awake. He yawned through breakfast and, all according to plan, was happy to go down for his first nap early.

It was a school day, but the aquarium was still busy, and Tony tucked his face shyly into Steve’s neck as they approached the crowd around the ticket counter. It took a little time to coax him out again, but inside the aquarium, the lights were dim and the glass-covered tanks glowed with bright fish. Steve stepped into a quiet corner and held Tony up to the glass. “Look at the fish,” he prodded.

Tony rubbed his fists over his eyes then blinked at the tank. Slowly, Steve could see the dawning comprehension as he realized that the fish were moving. “Ah,” he said, mouth falling open.

“I know.” Steve shifted him up a little higher so he could tip forward and peer through the glass. Tony pointed to one, then another, his eyes going impossibly wide. “Fish.”

“No,” Tony said.

“Fish.”

“Hmm.” Tony pressed his hands against the glass and then his nose.

Steve tugged him back. “Don’t leave nose prints on the glass, Tony.”

“Biss.”

“Yeah! They’re fish.”

“Mmmm.” Tony laughed, rocking back in Steve’s hold, then he started bouncing up and down. “Biss, biss, biss, bissssss!”

“Let’s look at another tank.”

They made their way through the dark hallways, stopping to look into every tank. Steve didn't know the names of any of the fish, and Tony was too excited to give Steve a chance to lean in and read the labels, but it didn’t matter to Tony. He loved the flashing scales and easy movement. When they reached the jellyfish tank with its gently pulsing background colours and soft music he sat back in Steve’s arms and stared, still and silent, for almost five minutes. Steve actually started to worry they had put him into some sort of toddler trance, but when he tried to move away, Tony tensed in his arms and whined, “Bisss.”

Steve was sure this would be boring, but watching Tony watch the fish was pretty entertaining. Some of the tanks went all the way to the floor, and Steve sat Tony in front of a quiet one. Tony hauled himself to his feet, leaning against the glass for support and pressed his face as close as he could get it, watching the tropical fish waft through the extensive coral display.

Another man with a baby sidled up near them and shot Steve a smile before doing the same with his kid. The two boys looked at each other for a moment, then Tony said, “Biss.”

The boy said, “Oh,” in reply and toddled over to where Tony was standing. They gazed out at the fish together.

“It’s a nice way to catch some peace and quiet, isn’t it?” the man said to Steve, voice hushed in the quiet, dark space.

“Sure is.” The two men leaned against the far wall and let the kids chat to each other. It started as incomprehensible babbling that Tony giggled at every few words and devolved into Tony trying to convince the other kid that every yellow fish was a duck.

“Dah,” Tony said with great conviction. The boy shot him a disbelieving look. Tony pointed very carefully, pressing a single tiny finger to the glass over the large, yellow fish. “Dah.”

“Oh,” the kid said, but he still sounded deeply skeptical.

When it looked like the duck debate might come to blows, the other dad scooped up his kid and walked off with a wave. Steve crouched down next to Tony, who rested a hand on Steve’s cheek, leaned in until their foreheads were touching, and whispered, “Dah.”

“You can’t convince me, Tony,” Steve whispered back. “I know it’s not a duck.”

But all Tony heard was “duck,” and he laughed and clapped his hands. “Dah!” Tony’s laughter cut off with a short gasp, and he sat down hard, Steve barely managing to get a hand under him before he hit the ground. Tony’s eyes had gone huge and startled.

From under the rock closest to the glass, a tiny tentacle had peeked out. Tony pointed “No!”

“I see! I wonder what it is. Maybe if we wait it will come say hi.”

“Hi,” Tony repeated, and Steve beamed at him. He picked words up so randomly, it was always a pleasant surprise when he adopted a new one. Lately, he’d been using no for hi and bye which was confusing at best and rude at worst.

The tentacle stretched out further, feeling up the side of the rock, then half the rock shifted colour and became a small octopus. “Wow,” Steve whispered.

“Oooowww,” Tony parroted back. “Hi.”

“Hi, octopus.” Steve waved, and the octopus snapped back to rock colours. Now that Steve knew what to look for, he could see the edges of its tentacles, but it was astonishing how rock-like the surface of its body looked. “Oops.”

“Ow.” Tony pressed himself against the glass again and went very, very still. Steve waited, watching the octopus out of one eye and Tony out of the other. It took a while, almost a minute, but Tony waited patiently and was rewarded when the octopus appeared again, flowing away from its hiding spot to feel around in the sand with its tentacles. Tony jerked back in surprise, eyes going wide, then broke into manic laughter. His movement sent the octopus into hiding again, but this time it wafted out after only a short wait and set Tony off howling again.

Steve watched, barely only able to hold back his own laughter, while Tony played peek-a-boo with the octopus. He could swear it figured out the game after a while, and even reached out towards the glass in Tony’s direction as it changed back. Tony’s laughter cut off in surprise and he sat back hard against Steve’s arm before breaking into giggles again.

“Hi. Ow.”

The octopus eventually returned to his rock hiding place and didn’t re-emerge, so Steve grabbed Tony under his arms and lifted him up, the two of them still laughing.

There was an otter show in ten minutes, so Steve bought an ice cream and sat in the stands with Tony in his lap, letting him lick a little at the cold treat. Tony was enamoured with the otters, watching with hearts in his eyes, the ice cream forgotten. Steve enjoyed the show for all of three minutes before he realized just how hard the sun was pounding down on them. He wished he had the shield to hold overhead, but in the end, he had to settle for tucking Tony into the shade of his side and holding his arm up to cover his head.

When the show was over, he bundled Tony back inside, watching him carefully for signs of burning. Steve couldn't burn anymore, but he remembered it being very painful and that was as a teenager, not as a tiny baby. Surely Tony’s skin was even more sensitive. But Tony was as happy as ever, reaching for every tank they walked past and pressing himself to the glass with the same level of excitement every time. He loved the seahorses, bursting into laughter from the moment he saw them and not stopping until Steve walked away, occasionally shaking with a little hiccough of laughter even after they were gone.

Steve made the mistake of letting Tony into the toddler playroom before lunch, and it took a herculean effort to extract him from a little baby-height bubble that let him stand inside the water himself, the fish dancing around his head. He fussed and whined all the way to the cafe, where Steve presented him with a plate of applesauce and goldfish crackers, and suddenly all was well.

Steve studied the map while Tony dipped crackers in his applesauce, deciding to skip the “Petting Pool” since he didn’t want to be the one adult having to apologize while his kid ate a starfish. There was a section with sea lions and penguins and then the aquarium tunnel left to do. Steve watched Tony eat - he didn’t look tired yet, they had time.

The sea lions were less of a hit than Steve thought. Tony was actually a little afraid of them, tucking himself against Steve’s chest and peering at them from behind handfuls of the Dah he’d demanded out of their bag at the first sight of the huge, barking creatures. The tunnel was the highlight of the day for Tony, though. He spun his head around so fast, trying to take it all in, that Steve had to catch him twice as he went tumbling backwards from where he perched in Steve’s arms.

Everything was a chorus of, “Ahhhh,” as Tony’s words failed him, and Steve’s stomach filled with comfortable warmth as he watched Tony gaze above him in awe. He wanted to run home and learn everything he could about fish so he could teach it all to Tony. But - he wouldn't understand it until he was older and…

Steve tugged Tony close and kissed him - loud and smacking - on his cheek, making him giggle. “Have a fun day?”

“No.” Tony beamed at him.

“Good.”

They took a cab home for expediency, sliding through the door just as Steve’s watch was going off for naptime. It took a while to settle Tony down, an endless stream of “biss” and “dah” and “no” pouring out of him while Steve changed him and settled him down. But with a binkie in and Cap in hand, he started drifting off.

Steve lay sideways on his bed, watching Tony sleep, a kaleidoscope of flashing scales still dancing in the back of his vision.

**

Steve rocked his foot against the edge of the shield, and Tony mumbled happily in his sleep. He’d been trying to focus on his after action reports for the last hour but hadn’t accomplished much more than staring out the window or staring at the sleeping baby at his feet.

Tony’s little foot kicked against the shield, and Steve dropped his eyes down again. The shield nap had become a regular occurrence. Steve had figured out that if he planned things properly, he could go into the office with Tony twice a week and keep his babysitting days with Bucky and Gail - besides the regular Saturdays - for missions, as they cropped up.

But it also seemed that Nick was taking pity on him. Either that or the villains of the world were. Because things had been relatively quiet over the past few weeks. Which was good, because he had a napping baby.

He was just about to turn back to his work when an echoing thud radiated through the floor. Tony startled awake and immediately started crying. Steve scooped him up and glared at nothing. Were they doing construction in the middle of the day? He swore under his breath and rocked Tony back and forth. It was late enough now that Tony would never go back to sleep, and now Steve would suffer the consequences of an interrupted nap at dinner time. He sighed and pressed a kiss the to the top of Tony’s head.

Then the fire alarm went off.

Steve’s blood ran cold, his mind skipping into the heightened state that kicked in when he felt threatened, only this time it was at twice its usual intensity, with Tony in his arms. He could hear people now, stampeding towards the exits. He stood, and three more heavy thuds vibrated through his feet. Something was happening right here at the Triskelion, and he had Tony.

Steve picked his shield up, then wrapped Tony in the blue blanket he had been sleeping on. But with Tony in one hand and the shield in the other, he couldn’t wield it as a weapon without leaving his whole left side exposed. Steve was caught in indecision for a moment, hovering with Tony clutched to his chest and the shield lose in his hand.

His priority was getting Tony out safely, but he didn’t know what they would face on the way out of the building. The alarm could mean anything, but it might be an actual fire…

Forcing himself to just move, Steve unzipped his jacket halfway and tucked the blanket-wrapped Tony in against his chest. He zipped it back up over Tony’s back and was relieved to find that Tony fit easily there, the fabric stretching around the addition but holding him close. Tony was fussy and still very sleepy, and he squirmed, but couldn’t free himself or slip down, so Steve figured it was the best he could do right now. If they encountered fire, he could cover Tony’s head with the blanket, or shove him down further into the jacket.

Steve held the shield out in front of his chest, hiding Tony from view, and slipped out into the hall. People were flowing anxiously towards the stairs. They were in the south side of the main tower, and the fastest way out was down the stairs, then out through the east wing to the helicopter landing pads.

Steve moved along the wall, the agents and office workers parting easily to let him slip by. It was busy, but Captain America had a certain presence that encouraged people to let him by. Steve took the stairs at a full run. He pulled his comm out of his pocket and clicked it on, slinging it in to his ear, but there was no responding chime from his teammates. The Ultimates either weren’t needed, or the Triskelion was in such a state of panic that no one had thought to call them. Steve scanned his memory. Clint was probably in the office today, but Jan wouldn’t be, and Thor could only come if someone called him - or if he saw something worrying on the news.

Steve tried to calm his raging mind. It was probably just a mistake; fancy SHIELD building or no, fire alarms could still be set off my accident. Even if it wasn’t a mistake, it was likely a small, containable fire. He just had to get Tony out, and out of harm’s way. If they needed him, he could send a cab to get Bucky to watch Tony for him while he helped get people out. He hoped they wouldn’t need him; he didn't want to hand Tony off after a scare like this.

Steve pushed out at the upper level of the east wing and trotted down the hallway. The people had thinned out as they spread through the four door options for flowing towards the doors to outside.

Then he heard a scream. Another thud. A scream. He was torn violently in half. Go towards the scream, his Captain America instincts shrieked at him, but he had Tony in his arms, pulling him the other way - towards safety.

Hesitation robbed him of the chance to make a decision.

A huge weight crashed through the glass ceiling, blocking the hallway in front of him and sending up a cloud of dust and splintered wood. Steve curled his body around Tony who had stopped crying out of shock and had burrowed deeper into Steve’s jacket. When the air cleared, he could see what had crashed through the roof was a large, metallic looking pod, round on the bottom and pointed at the top. It was sleek and shiny and filled the hallway from top to bottom. As Steve watched, the top of the pod started to peel open, and what had appeared to be metal revealed itself to be a flexible organic material with a surface so shiny and smooth that it was easily mistaken for manmade. The top opened delicately, like a flower greeting the sun, and a swarm of alien insects poured out. Steve staggered backwards as they flooded the hallway. There were people gathering in front of the door, pressing against it, trying to shove back the way they’d come, but the rush of people on the other side was making it impossible for anyone to squeeze through. Steve stood between the terrifying creatures and the crowd of people by the door, shield raised.

The insects spread in all directions, most of them ignoring the people to fan out down the hall and up through the hole in the roof. But one came right for them. It was as shiny and metallic looking as the pod it came out of, but its casing flexed with its movement. It had ten legs in a ring around its multi-segmented body and four stayed raised in the air while the other six scuttled it terrifyingly efficiently across the carpet. It was tall enough to reach Steve’s knees, through with its legs raised, it could easily aim for a human’s eyes. Steve covered Tony’s head with his left hand and threw the shield with the other. It ricocheted off the wall and sliced through the bug at the ideal angle. The bug fell to the ground, perfectly bisected, its legs still twitching, but before the shield had hit Steve’s hand again, a second alien scurried out of the pod and made for them.

“Move, you have to move!” Steve pushed at the crowd, catching the shield on the rebound, but they could only slip through the door, one at a time, and he could hear the distant screams that meant more bugs were invading other areas, pushing more people into the overcrowded hallways.

Steve tapped the small button on his comm four times, sending a distress signal to the other Ultimates and hoping against hope that someone would pick it up. He threw the shield again, taking down another bug, but this time the pod dispatched two in his direction. The crowd behind him was thinning, but not fast enough. He didn’t know if the alien insects were smart enough to recognize him as a threat or not, but if he kept taking them down, and the pod kept increasing the intensity of its assault, eventually he would be overrun.

And he had Tony.

“You’re alright, honey,” he murmured into the head poking out of his jacket. He could feel Tony’s breath hitching against his chest, and as awful as it was that Tony was so afraid, he was grateful that the movement meant he was there and he was alive. And Steve was going to protect him until his last moments.

Another shield throw caught the first bug out, but by the time he had it in hand again, the second had nearly reached him. He raised the shield and waited, letting the bug take the first strike. It raised its arms, glinting in the sunlight that poured through the caved in ceiling and struck towards the shield. Steve blocked it easily. Then thrust the shield out, knocking it back. He slammed the sharp edge into the area he imagined to be its head, and it crumpled.

The crowd continued to push through as two more aliens emerged from the pod, and Steve thought maybe they could actually all make it out before it became too much for him to hold back on his own. Then he heard a click on his com and Jan’s voice cut in. He’d never been so grateful to hear from her.

“I’m two minutes out, Cap. Sitrep?”

Steve gave her a run down, letting the bugs get a little closer than he liked before taking them out. The pod didn’t seem to release more bugs until the ones he had in front of him were dead, which meant he could buy more time by letting them get in close before he attacked. The downside, of course, was that it put Tony and the people behind him in more danger. If missed a shot, or miscalculated, someone else could get hurt.

Jan kept him updated and a moment later, Clint joined in on the comm. He’d been on the other side of the building and stopped to help someone who had fallen on the stairs during the evacuation but he was moving now. Jan was the most mobile so Steve sent her up to the communications hub in the north wing to get a message out for people to evacuate away from the east wing instead of towards it.

“I’ve got eyes on it, Cap,” Clint called after a few minutes. “There’s some kind of portal in the sky and the pods are just dropping out of it. The attack is contained to the east wing for now, but they’re definitely spreading.”

“See if you can take out any of the pods before they hit the ground, and for christ sake, someone call Thor!”

Steve slammed his shield into another bug and flinched when it exploded, shooting silvery blue fluid across the floor and his legs. There were only a few people left to push into the crammed hallway. Steve glanced back as the last of them shoved through. He turned back towards the bugs, ready to slip through himself, but the last release of aliens from the pod had moved towards him faster than before, and he found himself suddenly face to face with one of them. He brought his shield up automatically, blocking its first strike, but it stabbed again, hard, knocking the top of the shield against his head and making him stagger backwards. Normally he would duck down and roll out of its path, but with Tony against his chest, he couldn't hit the ground. He crouched under the shield and looked for an opening but the bug gave him no opportunities. It crawled up on top of the shield, jabbing with its raised arms and trying to find a gap. Steve punched over the edge of the shield, catching it in its glittering dome of eyes, and it screeched and raised its arms again. Steve angled the shield under its body, trying to catch the meat of its abdomen and dislodge it, but it shifted its weight and managed to jam its head between the shield and Steve’s chest instead.

Tony howled, and Steve reared up, yelling himself, panic flooding his veins with adrenaline. He had to get the thing away from Tony. His vision tinged with red as he flailed out wildly with the shield. He caught the bug full on and charged again, slamming it into the wall. He hit again and again until it was nothing more than a streak of shiny silver on the wall.

The sky exploded with a crack of thunder and the air fizzled with lightning. Thor, thank god.

“Get the pod in the sector 9B hallway!” Steve called, not sure if Thor could hear Jan or not, but hoping she could pass the message on.” To his immense relief, the next bolt of lightning struck right down the centre of the pod in front of him, and it burst, flooding the hallway with the same slippery, silver fluid that filled the bugs. It sloshed over Steve’s shoes, but he ignored it, trying to get a look at Tony without digging him out of the safety of his jacket.

His arm had wiggled free and had a hot, red welt on it where the bug had bitten him. He was crying, which at least meant that he was conscious. Steve tucked the arm back in, shushing and soothing, and pushed out into the hallway, shouting at the crowd to move towards the far door as quickly as they could.

“Thor has the portal closed,” Jan said with relief. “Hawkeye and I will take out the rest of the aliens while he blows the remaining pods. Cap, you alright?”

“I’m fine. Tony was hurt. I’m taking him to medical. It it still clear?”

“Umm, yes. Busy, but safe. We’ll meet you there when we have things squared away, Cap.”

“Thank you.”

Steve stumbled down the hallway, trying to get clear enough from the people and far enough from the invasion that he could check Tony over. He forced himself to breathe deeply, pushing the raging chemicals out of his bloodstream. All he wanted was to turn back and throw himself at the remaining aliens, ripping their legs off their bodies for daring to hurt his boy. But Tony needed him. So he pressed on.

Chapter Text

The second they were clear, Steve dropped the shield and crouched down so he could pull Tony into his lap. He turned him roughly back and forth, checking for damage. Tony was crying, but silently now, tears streaming down his cheeks, breath hitching softly. There was a wicked bruise spreading from the mark on his arm, and Steve’s gut twisted - what if it was broken? He tugged one glove off with his teeth and cupped the back of Tony’s head in his head, hushing him gently. He pressed a few kisses to Tony’s forehead then wrapped him in his blue blanket and bundled him close.

He hooked the shield on his back and headed for the undamaged medical wing, stopping to grab his go bag from his office. There were droves of people heading that way, but the crowd parted for Steve, most people jumping out of the way as soon as they saw whatever thunderstorm lurked in his expression.

Tony snuffled into his neck and whimpered, but Steve was comforted that he wasn’t wailing. If his arm were broken, surely he’d be more upset. Once he hit the medical wing, Steve wandered through the emergency bays until he found Tony’s doctor amongst the crowd. He caught the doctor’s eye and tipped his head down towards Tony. Dr. Stoddard spoke to his patient for a moment then walked over to Steve.

“Is he okay?”

“One of the aliens hurt his arm. He seems alright, but I’d like you to have a look.’

“Of course. My office upstairs. I’ll meet you in five minutes.”

“Thank you.”

It was actually seven minutes, not that Steve was glaring at the clock on the wall over Tony’s head. Dr. Stoddard let Tony stay curled up in Steve’s lap as he gently pulled his arm free and examined it. “Not broken. Not infected. But I’d like to give him the once-over. Can you set him down?”

Steve put Tony down on the exam table and hovered nearby, ready to catch him if he decided to roll over. But Tony was patient and calm while the doctor tested each of his limbs and his reflexes. He pressed his stethoscope to Tony’s chest, puffing out his cheeks at the same time to make Tony giggle instead of wince at the cold. “He’s fine.” He poked and prodded a few things idly, clearly just doing a cursory inspection now that he was satisfied that Tony hadn’t hurt his arm seriously. Now that the redness had retreated, Steve could see that the bite hadn’t even broken the skin.

The doctor made an ‘ahh’ face, and Tony opened his mouth and laughed, letting the doctor get a gloved finger in. He frowned. “Hmm.”

“What?” Steve tensed, standing up straight. “What is it?”

“How long have you had him?”

“Uh -” Steve cast back - it felt like yesterday and a hundred years ago that Tony had first come home with him. “About four months.”

“Hmm. Has he had much teething pain?”

“What? No. None. Can you -?” Steve bit out then stopped himself, taking a breath. “What’s wrong? Is something wrong with his teeth?”

“Let me just -” The doctor wheeled his stool over to his computer, keeping one hand on Tony’s belly. Tony watched him with idle curiosity while Steve resisted the urge to snatch him up and demand the doctor tell him what was going on. The doctor scrolled through Tony’s files. “Hmm, yes. His teeth are exactly the same as when you first brought him in. One is actually only half erupted and hasn’t moved. That’s - that’s bizarre. I need to call Dr. Pym.”

“What? What does that mean?” This time Steve wasn’t able to resist the urge, and he scooped Tony off the table and held him close.

“I’m not sure. He doesn’t seem to be developing. I can attribute the weight and height to other issues but the teeth - They’ve stalled out completely. Just -” He broke off for a moment, contemplating. “I’ll be right back.”

Not developing? Steve looked down at Tony. It was true - he looked exactly the same as when Steve had brought him home. It hadn’t really occurred to him that babies should change more rapidly than that. And if Tony wasn’t changing, he wasn't aging. That meant he would be a toddler… forever? What if Hank couldn’t turn him back, and he was endlessly a baby? Who would take care of him when Steve was gone? What kind of life was that anyway? Steve’s head spun.

Hank’s voice cut through the silence as he pushed open the door. “- just lucky I was in that part of the building, I guess. Hi, Steve. Still managing to resist leaving Tony in a cardboard box by the side of the road, I see.” He chuckled, and Steve’s grip tightened making Tony protest. He forced himself to relax. “So, not developing, huh?”

Hank looked at Tony’s chart, then at his notebook, open to his pages from four months ago. “Actually…” Hank pried open Tony’s mouth, who was starting to look tense and unhappy, poked his teeth himself then went back to his notebook. Tony turned and buried his face in Steve’s collar, whimpering a little, a request to leave. Steve stroked the back of his head and held him close, wishing as much as Tony clearly was that they could go home.

Hank stared blankly out the window, then turned to Steve. “You know… yeah… Last month I started looking at forced regression through hacked code in his nanites. I’ve been comparing blood samples from the two times you brought him in, looking for changes in the code as the nanites altered themselves to accommodate his changing body, find the parts that are keyed to altered biology. But I couldn’t see anything, and I’ve been over all the programming a hundred times. He’s… stuck. It doesn’t quite make sense. Which left me no clues. So, maybe this is more of a - a -” He caught Steve’s twisted expression. “More of a bubble than a piece of string? I was trying to haul Tony back to the right age by reversing the nanites aging process, but if I pop the bubble instead…”

“Pop…” Steve’s hold tightened and Tony protested. “What are you thinking of doing?”

“Oh no, don’t worry Captain. It should be simple enough. It’ll only take an alteration of a tiny piece of code. Basically, I’ll switch off some of the most basic properties of Tony’s nanites. If I’m wrong, nothing will happen.” Hank’s tone was mocking, as if he thought it was ridiculous that Steve would be nervous, and that made Steve tense further. Hank pulled out a kit for taking blood samples as he spoke and ran a swab over Tony’s arm. “But If I’m right, which I am, he should sort of… snap back to normal.”

Steve forced himself to relax lest he crush Tony in his overly tight grip. “Dah…” Tony whined against Steve’s neck at the pinch of the needle, and Steve bent down and pulled the toy from his bag and handed it over when Hank was done. Tony covered his face with it.

“How long will that take?” Steve asked, dreading the answer.

“The snapping back? Almost instantaneous - oh you mean the coding. Hmm. It’s really Tony’s specialty but not long. Maybe twenty minutes. Just have to run a few numbers, but now - yes, now that I’m thinking about it this way, it’s almost painfully straightforward. Can’t believe I didn’t see it before.” Hank’s attention was drifting back to his work, apparently laying out the code in his mind already, but Steve was agonizingly locked here in the moment.

Twenty minutes - Hank could have Tony an adult again in twenty minutes. And of course it was the right thing to do, it was the only thing that was fair to Tony, but Steve -

He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to lose the little duck-loving boy he’d grown so attached to. If he’d known this morning was going to be the last time he’d wake up to Tony’s laughter, or that their last nap time would really be the last…

“I - I have to - Excuse me. I - just - send someone when you’re ready. I just -” He stumbled out the door, completely ignoring Hank’s reply. He shoved into the nearest closed meeting room, possibly breaking the locked door in the process, he honestly didn’t know.  He shut the door behind him, overly carefully so the noise wouldn’t startle Tony, and clutched the baby to his chest. He wasn’t ready to give him up. He knew, he knew all along that this day would happen, but somehow between learning how to put on a diaper and playing peek-a-boo with an octopus he’d forgotten to prepare himself for actually facing the day when it came.

Without Tony, there would be no fun outings to the playground, no gardening with Bucky and Gail, no teaching him new words or stacking blocks, no more Dah… back to alone. Tony grumbled, whispering, “No” to himself a few times, and Steve took several steadying breaths. If this was their last precious minutes together, he didn’t want to waste it. He pulled his go bag up onto the table and opened it. He handed Tony Cap and wrapped his blue blankey more tightly around his shoulders. He kissed his forehead and held him close, breathing in the indescribable smell of baby mixed with cheerios and talcum powder.

Tony turned into the kisses, making small fussy noises until Steve rubbed his back with one gentle hand. Tony’s breathing slowed and calmed. It was close to his second nap time already. It was probably all for the best if he was sleepy for the process. Steve’s stomach twisted again at the thought. He tried - he tried to be grateful that he would be getting his friend back, that the Ultimates would be getting Iron Man back, but all he could think about was the tiny body in his arms and what it would mean to lose him.

In four months, Tony had changed everything. He’d changed Steve’s schedule, his apartment, his relationship with his friends, and his own - his own sense of self. He’d never had something rely on him so wholly, with such easy faith, such open willingness to jump and know he’d be caught. Tony trusted Steve in a way he’d never been trusted before, and he didn’t know how to lose that.

His arms tightened too hard again, and Tony said, “Tee,” disapprovingly. Steve’s eyes burned, but he swallowed hard and held the tears back. Tony needed this from him, needed him here one more time.

“Shh, honey, it’s okay. Almost time for a nap. You’ve got Cap?”

“Ap! No.” Tony waved it around, then tucked his tiny fist between his chest and Steve’s, the body of the sleeper hanging down between them. Steve took Tony’s bottle out of the bag, then paused. He wasn’t sure if it mattered if Tony ate before the process. Hank hadn’t said anything, but then again, Steve hadn’t really been listening. Also maybe - maybe if he wasn’t -

Steve cut the thought off. As much as he wasn’t ready for this, he’d never forgive himself if he was the reason for delaying or disrupting the change back. No, there was nothing he could do. He sat on the edge of the table, Tony in his arms. He offered him the binky instead of the bottle and Tony sucked gratefully, his tiny eyes falling shut as he snuggled down into the collar of Steve’s jacket. Cap hung from one hand, Duck from the other, its soft head tucked under Steve’s chin.

Steve let his eyes drift shut as he held Tony, humming random bars of their favourite Bing Crosby songs. He could do this - he could do this for Tony. “I love you,” he whispered, so quietly he almost couldn’t hear his own words.

Tony breathed out a sigh, his tiny chest rising and falling against Steve’s. He was the only family Steve had in this century, and he was losing him already.

Shit. He couldn’t do this. He wasn’t ready.

There was a soft knock, then Jan’s face appeared around the door. “Steve? We’re ready.”

Clint, Hank, Nick, Jan and - surprisingly - Thor had all gathered in the same exam room Steve had left. Hank must have told Fury, who called the rest of the team in to be there for Tony’s recovery. Steve took a deep breath and willed his face into its usual closed-off expression. Jan cooed at Tony, giggling, and Steve resisted the urge to snap at her. It hardly mattered now.

Hank had an expensive looking computer set up and was still typing, but gestured Steve towards the exam table.

Tony babbled a little as Steve set him down on the table. As much as he wanted - needed - to hold him, he didn’t think Tony would appreciate coming back to himself in Steve’s lap. So, Steve settled for resting his hand on Tony’s belly, rubbing soothingly like he would when Tony was having trouble sleeping. Tony held up his Cap and Duck, waving them dopily at Steve, tired eyes fixed on his as his binky wobbled in his mouth. Steve took Duck gently from his hands - their normal nap routine, and Tony smiled around the pacifier, taking Cap with both hands and letting it rest on his chest. The sleeper draped over Steve’s hand, and he recorded the feeling of Tony’s warm body under his hand, the way his little face went slack with sleep, in his perfect memory. Something he could return to whenever he had to. Whenever he missed him too much.

Hank snapped his fingers excitedly, startling Tony, and Steve stroked Tony’s hair back with his free hand, tensing. There was an air of excitement in the room, the rest of the Ultimates unsurprisingly looking forward to having their friend and teammate back, and Steve squashed down the pain, the hurt, the loss he was already feeling, tried not to let it show on his face. No one needed to know that he so selfishly wanted to keep Tony like this forever.

Steve stepped back and gave a nod, unable to meet anyone’s eyes, unable to tear his gaze away from where Tony lay.

Hank wasn’t kidding. He pressed a button, and one moment, Tony was kicking his tiny feet out on the exam table, and the next, Tony Stark was crying out in a shock and gripping the edge of the table to keep himself from slipping off. Steve’s ears popped painfully, as if the air pressure in the room had dramatically changed. He supposed one of the occupants suddenly taking up ten times as much space as before had done just that.

Tony blinked at the gathered crowd then said, “Shit,” with feeling and ran his hand through his hair.

Steve shrunk back as the rest of the Ultimates rushed forward to hug Tony, unbothered by his nudity, and welcome him back to adulthood. Their voices melted into one incomprehensible wave of background sound. All Steve could do was stare at Tony’s face. It had only been four months, but Steve felt like he hadn’t seen him in years. And he was so completely different from the tiny boy Steve had been caring for all this time that he couldn’t help feeling like he’d been asked to trade in his child so the rest of the world could have Tony Stark back. He knew it wasn’t fair, but he couldn’t help it.

Tony’s eyes darted from person to person, trying to follow the stream of conversation, presumably trying to figure out what had happened. Steve wondered if he remembered anything, but he couldn’t ask, he couldn't move.

And then Tony’s eyes flicked from Jan’s to Steve’s, meeting his gaze strong and sure over the heads of the others, and he smiled. His smile was soft and warm and affectionate, as if there was some ghost of understanding still there that Steve had been a safe place for him, and his eyes - everything else was different but his blue eyes were exactly the same.

Steve couldn’t take it. He stumbled back until he his shoulder hit the door, then slipped out, shutting it behind him. He started walking. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he needed to get away before Jan or Nick or - dammit - Tony came after him, trying to figure out what was wrong.

He walked, down the stairs, out onto the street, and for four blocks before he realized he was going home. He didn’t even consider taking the subway. He just walked. He made it to his apartment building and reached up to open the door only to realize he was still holding Tony’s Duck. Tony wouldn’t need it anymore. Steve would never hear his happy little voice demanding his “Dah” and then calling every yellow fish, daisy, and man in a yellow shirt a duck as well.

The apartment was no better. The floor was strewn with Tony’s blocks, a half of a banana sat on the counter next to Tony’s little plastic bowl, and their favourite Bing Album was still resting on the record player. The playpen was open on the floor at the foot of Steve’s bed, and a stack of clean diapers was perched precariously on Steve’s dresser. The whole apartment was an ode to baby Tony, a reminder of how much Steve had liked being someone’s parent. Even when it was painfully hard, or utterly terrifying, or completely exhausting, he had loved it.

Steve made it as far as his couch before he sunk down, gripping the soft duck too hard, and let his face drop into his hands. He wished he could be happy that Tony was back, but instead, he cried.

Chapter Text

Steve was sure he wouldn’t be able to handle going in to SHIELD for a few days at least, but when he woke, all he wanted to do was leave the apartment. The east wing of the Triskelion was still in horrible shape, so Steve suited up, barely glancing at the piles of baby things that littered the apartment, and went to work.

He focused on what needed to be done, on what he could do to help, and pushed all other thoughts from his mind. None of the other Ultimates showed up on site so he was able to work alone for several hours, only speaking to discuss plans with the other workers, or to direct a confused agent to the temporary offices.

Shifting rubble and building scaffolds burned enough energy that Steve worked up a much needed sweat and after a few hours, he was starting to feel a little more in control.

He’d never felt so much like the rug had been pulled out from under him before, and he was angry with himself for being so affected by this. It shouldn't have been a surprise, he should have been expecting Tony to turn back every day. But he’d been weak and slipped into denial, obsessing about diaper rash and hard ducks for bathtimes only, and other ridiculous things. He lifted a girder above his head and walked towards the dumpsters. Captain America didn’t get to be distracted by things like that.

It was nearly dark by the time the area was cleared, and Steve was sore and happily flooded with endorphins from the exercise. He made his way back to his office in the east wing to check his mail before he headed home. The pleasant burn had almost completely driven thoughts of Tony from his mind, and for the first time since Hank had walked into that exam room, he was almost comfortable.

Then he turned the corner, and Tony was standing outside his office.

Tony had a notepad in his hand and was scribbling on it, facing Steve’s door, but he stopped when Steve’s boots scuffed the carpet. He looked up and turned those big, blue eyes on Steve. Steve’s gut twisted and stomach acid threatened to boil up his throat. Tony smiled. “Hey, Cap! I was just writing you a note, since I know you never read my emails.” His smile went lopsided.

Steve swallowed his pain down and pushed past Tony to unlock his office door. He tried to keep his eyes away from Tony’s. “Hi, Tony. How are you feeling?”

“Nothing seventeen or eighteen martinis can’t fix.” He followed Steve into his office and slumped into the chair in the corner while Steve tried to look busy, flipping through his mail. “I wanted to talk to you, though. You kind of bolted yesterday. But everyone says you - uh - that I stayed with you.”

“Mhm.” Steve’s treacherous mind supplied him with images of the stuffed duck that was currently wedged under his pillow.

Tony finally seemed to notice that Steve was radiating discomfort. He shifted in his chair, his brow creasing. “Well, I - uh - I wanted to thank you, I guess. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I kind of did, actually. No one else was available or qualified to protect you.”

“Oh.” Tony picked at an invisible spot on his pants. “Well, thank you anyway. If not for that, then for treating me well, at least. I don’t really remember, but there’s this… feeling. I -” Tony trailed away, and Steve could feel his eyes boring into the side of his head, but he didn’t turn, tearing open a piece of junk mail as intently as if it were a letter from the president. “Right. Well. I can tell you took good care of me, so thank you for that. I’ll let you get back to work.”

“You’re welcome.”  Tony hesitated in the doorway, and Steve couldn’t help adding, “You were very easy to take care of.”

Tony half-turned. “Good. Wouldn’t want to cause you grief, darling.” He didn’t move. “It’s not too weird, is it? Shame you can’t just destroy all the relevant brain cells with alcohol like the rest of us. Though, of course, I’m willing to help you give it a solid try. Figure I owe all of you an exorbitantly expensive dinner anyway. You free Thursday?”

“Uh,” Steve paused, trying to think of a decent excuse. “I’m sorry, I already have plans with Bucky and Gail that night.” He winced at chucking the two of them into his lies, but Tony didn’t know them, and it was all he could think of. But he could tell that Tony knew it was a cover. He’d never been very good at lying. Tony’s face closed off a little.

“Right. Another time then. I’ll email you,” he added with a little laugh that didn’t reach his eyes. “Night, Steve.”

“Goodnight, T-” Steve cut himself off and took a steadying breath. As soon as he heard Tony’s footsteps disappear down the hall, he shut the door and collapsed into his chair, face pressed into his hands. He couldn't break down here - he couldn’t - there were too many people who knew him, and reporters were still swarming the site of the attack.

**

Over the next few weeks, Steve barely managed to get by. He left his apartment a mess of baby life for five days, then gathered everything up, shoved it in huge plastic bags and crammed it into the same closet that held Jan’s old things and the few things of his he had from before the war. He took a too-long, too-hot shower, then went to the gym and lifted weights until he couldn’t breathe.

After that, though, things got a little easier. He still couldn’t look Tony in the eye, and the other man seemed to have noticed. He gave Steve his space, didn’t bring up dinner again, and was more professional and detached than Steve thought Tony was even capable of.

Every now and then, without any warning at all, Steve would be hit with another wave of debilitating, overwhelming loss, and he had to steady himself, breathe through it. It felt like maybe the waves were getting farther apart though. Maybe.

Even with the stuff packed away, Steve found it hard to be alone in his apartment. He visited Clint more, and Saturdays stayed Bucky and Gail days, though instead of dropping Tony off for babysitting, Steve dropped himself off for commiserating instead.

“I just miss him, Buck,” Steve sighed.

Bucky patted Steve’s shoulder, then pulled him in for a hug. Steve turned away from the window to accept it, letting the tree Tony had planted with Bucky and Gail slide out of view. He knew it wasn’t healthy to dwell, but no matter how many times he told himself that, he couldn’t seem to stop.

“I know, bud. I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry. I’m being a horrible guest. I keep coming over and letting you guys feed me and then just moping around.” Steve leaned back and took a deep breath. He gripped one of Bucky’s shoulders in each of his hands. “I’ll be better company tonight, I promise.”

“It’s alright, Stevie. You don’t have to pretend for us. I know you can’t talk to your other friends about this stuff.”

Steve gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze then stepped back to lean against the kitchen counter. What other friends? He thought, then chastised himself for it. Clint and Thor were friendly with him. So was Nick. For all of his issues with Jan, he still considered her a friend. Tony… Tony used to be a friend. But now… Now Steve couldn't even look at him. He felt horrible about it, which only made it harder to suffer through his company.

His little boy was as good as dead, and, in a sense, Tony had taken him from him. It wasn’t fair in the slightest, but the ugly thoughts wouldn't stop rearing up every time he saw those clear blue eyes turned towards him.

He shook his head, determined not to let his loss ruin yet another night with his friends. They ate their dinner and after about half an hour of forcing himself to appear cheerful, Steve found it started to feel more natural. By dessert, he was laughing and joking, reminiscing with Bucky and Gail about the war.

He jogged home, even though it was dark and he was wearing the wrong shoes, hoping the exercise would wear him out enough that he could fall asleep right away. But every step back towards his apartment was heavier, until he turned the corner onto his street and slowed to a walk.

He pushed through the door and stood on the threshold for a moment. All the lights were off and his mind provided a memory of the apartment that was out of date, dotting baby powder and backup binkies across every flat surface, warning him to walk carefully to avoid the toys, to curve his path around the island to dodge the clamp-on high chair.

He locked the door and walked straight into the bedroom without turning on any of the lights, stripped down, and crawled into bed.

He woke four times that night in a full panic because he couldn’t hear the soft sounds of sleep from the empty place where the playpen used to rest.

After a few hours, he gave up on sleep and stretched out on the couch with the TV volume on high, pretending he couldn’t feel the ball of ice resting on his chest in the spot where he used to feel Tony’s sleepy warmth.

**

Steve tried to throw himself into work, even though that threw him in Tony’s path more often as well. Luckily, either Nick had noticed Steve’s discomfort and did his level best to keep from putting them on the same team, or the missions they’d had recently didn’t call for Iron Man. That, or Tony had expressly asked to be left alone for a while. Steve hadn’t been able to ask him what it had been like for him to come back. He knew he should, knew he should be the one to tell Tony what had happened, but he couldn’t. And, after an uncomfortable initial period, everyone stopped pushing him to.

He came to work early, did his paperwork, went out on missions, then went back home to his too-quiet, too-clean apartment and completely failed to sleep.

“Those arms dealers from two months ago are back at it,” Fury said, only sticking half his body in Steve’s office to deliver the news.

Steve frowned. “You’d think the first beatdown and subsequent jail time would have made a stronger impact.”

“I think the young padawans have stepped up and taken the place of their masters. You gotta beat them so hard, even their apprentices feel it, this time.”

Steve sighed. He stood and cinched on his tac belt. “Who’ve I got?”

“Jan, Clint, and I called Thor in. You got two units of agents on call. You want the freaky twins?”

Steve shook his head. “Nah, shouldn’t need them. Not worth the overwhelming sense of owing them a debt that they’ll lay on.”

“Alright, Cap. Good luck.” Nick shot him a salute then disappeared into the hall.

They came in hard. There was no point in using stealth. The team swarmed the building where the deal was going down and took down everyone involved. Intel had confirmed no civilians in the area so Steve let himself go, channeling the rage he’d been suppressing for two weeks now onto the unsuspecting criminals.

He slammed the shield into the face of one of the men, smiling with grim satisfaction when he heard his teeth crack. The man went down, and Steve went for the other. There was a crackle outbreak of gunfire, and Jan yelped into the comm.

Steve hopped a railing and landed on a catwalk overlooking the main warehouse. Four men had blocked themselves off in one corner, spraying heavy fire in all directions.

“Status,” Steve called, and each of this team members called in an okay. He reached for his belt for a flashbang, figuring it was the easiest way to bring them down without risking getting someone shot. He popped open a section of his belt and reached inside but what he came back with wasn’t a grenade, it was a tiny orange bootie. One of Tony’s. He’d tucked it in his belt after Tony had pulled it off with a pout halfway through a mission briefing. Steve always worried about his little toes, but Tony liked his feet bare and only tolerated the booties for a short while.

The gunfire and yelling faded into the background as Steve stood, in plain view on the catwalk, and stared at the scrap of orange fabric in his hand. It wasn’t even big enough to cover his palm. He thought about holding Tony’s tiny foot in his hand instead. The way he would wiggle his legs back and forth while Tony lay on his back, howling with laughter at Steve’s funny faces.

He couldn’t move, and then, suddenly, he was nothing but movement. The pain swelled up into a massive wave then crashed down in a raw, rough rush of rage. He flew off the catwalk and charged into the gunfire, holding his shield in front of his face. He felt a bullet rip through his calf, but it was nothing more than a minor annoyance. Steve charged into the crowd, slamming his shield into the first body he reached then spinning to knock the gun out of the hand next to him. The man’s hand shattered in a spray of blood and he fell to his knees, clutching it and screaming. Steve smiled.

Everything was a haze of red as he tore his way through the men, and it was only minutes later that they all lay, sobbing or unconscious, on the floor.

When the rest of the team arrived, he was kicking the guns into a pile in the corner. The SHIELD team hovered off to the side, and Steve could feel the stress radiating off of them. No one seemed to want to come near, and he wondered why - if it was the face he was making, or the fact that he was covered in so much blood, most of it not his own.

He plowed past everyone and heard the agents scramble to restrain the gang. The rest of the group had given up easily enough, in the face of the Ultimates. No one spoke as they climbed into the chopper, and halfway back to the Triskelion, Thor tipped out of the helicopter and disappeared into the night.

Steve took a shower at SHIELD, watching the dark water swirl down the drain, a mix of dirt and blood. He filled out his after action report carefully, only snapping the pen with an overtight grip once. His office computer announced email a few times, but he ignored it, switching it off, then switching off the light and walking out.

At home, he forced himself to eat, not noticing what it was he was putting in his mouth, leaning against the kitchen island and staring blankly out towards the balcony. It should have been cathartic, letting it all out, and maybe it was. He did feel different, but no better. He felt numb, empty. Like the pain and anger was all he had been able to feel, and now it was gone. He wished, passionately, that he’d never known what it was like to have a family.  It was not better to have loved and lost. It was just another reminder that no matter how hard he tried, how good he tried to be, everything he loved was taken away from him. And now he was done. Numb. Maybe this was what broken finally felt like.

When Steve’s SHIELD phone rang, he considered not answering it, for the first time since he’d become a part of the Ultimates. He just didn’t care. He was tired and sore and done. He wanted to get drunk but he couldn’t. He wanted to crawl into bed and sleep the next 50 years away too. He almost didn’t answer.

But on the last ring, he did.

“What?” he snapped out.

“Steve.” It was Jan, and there was something off in her voice. “It’s Tony. He’s missing.”

Chapter Text

Steve made it to the Triskelion in record time. The whole team was gathered except for Clint, who showed up a moment later. They skipped the briefing office and made right for the runway. A jet was already swarming with engineers nearby, being fueled up.

“Tony was out flying on his own time,” Nick yelled over the thrum of machinery and engines. “Forty-five minutes ago he sent out a distress signal from the armour. We ran a trance on his implants, and his last ping was at these coordinates in northern Germany. It’s a location SHIELD has been monitoring but we’ve had no reason to check it out before.”

Steve nodded and pulled his gloves on, flexing his fingers in the soft leather. He was struggling to keep his wild instincts under control. He still hadn’t quite adjusted to the idea that “Tony in trouble” didn’t equal “his tiny child in trouble,” and keeping the panic and anger at bay was taking a fair amount of effort. He was still worried about Tony, of course, but Tony was an adult, and a member of the Ultimates, it should have been an entirely different kind of worry.

The ride over was tense and quiet as each member of the team prepared for what they might face in their own ways. Thor had chosen to ride with them since they didn’t know what they were heading towards and he didn’t want to arrive before the others and alert anyone to their involvement. If Tony had been captured, they couldn’t give his captors any reason to hurt him.

They switched the jet to stealth mode as they approached the coordinates, and Steve stood to peer out of the cockpit over Clint’s shoulder. The building was bizarre, a white dome rising out of the sand. It was shaped like a mushroom but with a wide circular base. There was a curl of smoke rising out of a spot in the base and they angled towards it.

A section of the roof had caved in, and smoke and dust was pouring out of the hole. They landed the jet silently on the roof nearby and made their way over. Thor and Jan were able to fly down while Steve and Clint rappelled from lines that ran to the jet. Inside, things were worryingly quiet. They landed in a laboratory of some kind, broken bottles and test tubes scattered over the floor. A computer bank in the corner was on fire, smoldering softly and sending up the billowing black cloud that had brought them over.

The team stayed close together, slipping through the door and out into the hall. The hall soon opened into a wider space filled with large tanks bolted to the floor and complicated looking machinery. Long metal pipes funneled towards the centre of the construction where the dome thrust up overhead. There was a clang from down towards the centre and they made their way towards it cautiously, checking all sides in the open space. There was another clang and a thud that sounded distressingly like a body hitting the ground, but the noises all became background when Steve heard a familiar whine from the opposite direction.

He spun around, heart pounding, and followed the noise to a pile of crates tucked against a thrumming generator. The crates whined again then whimpered. Steve scrambled forward and shoved the crates aside, then fell to his knees. Wide blue eyes gazed up at him, brimming with tears and a tiny lower lip wobbled with familiar distress.

“Oh my god, Tony.” Steve reached out on instinct and pulled the baby towards him, curling his tiny body against his chest and burying his face against his cheek. The baby sniffled and whined again but his fists found the edge of Steve’s jacket, and he snuggled down, a tired, sad, “Tee,” leaking out between panicked breaths.

Steve heard footsteps behind him, and he spun, bringing the shield up in front of Tony, but it was Jan and Clint. They gaped at him when he lowered the shield to reveal the tiny package in his arms, a wisp of black hair and two tiny hands peeking out of the dirty wreckage of a shirt he was wrapped awkwardly in. Jan’s hand came up to cover her mouth. “Oh god, they got him again?”

Steve nodded. His hand came up of its own accord to cup the back of Tony’s head. He wanted to hug him too tight, breathe him in, snag back everything he had missed so dearly over the past few weeks. He didn’t think about needing to turn Tony back again, he didn’t think about anything except the overwhelming love he felt for the child he had in his arms. How grateful he was to have his family back.

Tony made another unhappy noise, and Steve tipped him back in his arms, checking him over for signs of injury. He was dirty and upset, but there were no visible cuts and bruises. “Shh, honey, you’re alright. I’ve got you.” He stroked his hand over the baby’s hair. “What’d they do to you, Tony?”

“You have no idea, darling, but it’s not a spa I’ll be returning to anytime soon,” came a familiar voice behind them, and Steve spun around again, holding Tony close - but. That was Tony’s voice. Tony’s adult voice. And it was coming out of the armour.

“Tony?” Clint asked, his eyes flicking between the armour and the boy in Steve’s arms.

“The one and only!” The faceplate snapped up, and it was Tony. He frowned. “Well, not anymore, I guess. Sort of.”

“What the hell is going on, Stark?” Steve growled out.

“A decent question, and one that it might take several PhDs to understand the answer to, but I’ll give it my level best. Reed is crazy. That kid is my talking tumour which is actually an infinity gem and also basically a clone of me. And we need to move, like, yesterday.”

Tony gestured away from the noises of conflict, back towards the lab they’d landed in, and the team fell in beside him. Tony’s armour was twisted and damaged, whole pieces missing in a few places. Steve clutched the baby close, holding his shield out in front of him as they walked. “He’s a copy of you as a baby?” Steve couldn’t help but ask as they walked.

“Hmm, sort of. His name’s Anthony, by the way, in case you were wondering.”

Anthony. Steve looked down at the baby again. He looked exactly the same. “He recognized me.”

“I think he has all my memories. Well, all my baby memories. I don’t think my adult memories parse too well into an infant brain. I didn’t remember being an adult when I was a baby, and I don’t really remember being a baby now that I’m an adult, even though it was only a few weeks ago. So yes, he should recognize you. You’re the one who took care of him after all.”

Steve opened his mouth to say something, though he had no idea what to say, when a loud bang from their left broke the silence.

“Fuck.” Tony. “I assume you guys brought the jet?”

“Yeah we landed next to the hole in the roof,” Clint said. “Was that you?”

“Of course it was,” Tony said proudly. “Reed’s Children of the Corn or whatever the fuck he calls them had me cornered.” Tony gestured back to where they had found him and the baby. “Fended them off, but I’m in bad shape and I don’t know where Reed is. He lost his shit when he didn’t get what he wanted from Anthony - I’ll explain later - and he’s been rampaging around. I’ve been trying to hide the kid from him while waiting for you guys to come, but his little cult found me first.”

Another loud bang sounded, closer this time, followed by an enraged yell, and they hustled towards the lab as a group. Just as they turned the corner towards the lab, the wall exploded to the left and Reed appeared, stretched and distorted as he pushed through the hole. He was wearing a bizarre helmet with a long, pointed back, and his eyes were wild and manic. He hissed when he saw them.

“I’ll get my gem, Stark,” he growled, advancing on them. “I’ll rip that child down to his atoms to find it if I have to.”

The group closed around Steve automatically, forming rank in front of him, as he tightened his hold on Anthony. Reed was stretched out and twisted, filling the hallway with his distended limbs and blocking their path back to the jet. Reed reached out towards them, and Thor crackled to life.

Steve backed off as the rest of the team charged ahead, seemingly assuming that he would keep the child safe. Anthony was still sniffling and whimpering, but the shock and fear was keeping him mostly quiet. Steve settled a hand on his back and held the shield between him and Reed with the other. As much as it pained him to watch his team fighting without him, there was no way he was putting Anthony down, leaving him alone.

Thor came in hard with his hammer, but the hallway was tight and it was too risky to let loose his lightning when his teammates were so close. Reed twisted and roared, stretching himself longer, wrapping the Ultimates in the cage of his distorted body. Jan was the most effective, too small to be at risk from his criss-crossing limbs and sharp and pointed with her stings. He flinched and swore as she flew around him, getting in zaps wherever she could. He was too far extended to be able to protect his exposed skin from her.

He tried to catch her, but that left him open to harder hits from Thor, Jan, and Clint, so he turned away from them. He was fueled by rage, and now focused on Tony. Weakened as he was from the damage to his armour, Tony seemed to be mostly dodging while Clint and Thor tried to get an opening to shut Reed down for good. But Reed didn’t seem to care about the pain the others must be inflicting or that he was leaving himself open to attacks from the others.

He targeted Tony with singular focus, reaching out towards him, grasping at his flying form. Tony feinted left when he should have dropped low, and Reed saw his chance. He wrapped his enlarged hand around Tony’s leg and tugged, making Tony cry out.

Reed slammed Tony into the ground, getting his full palm over Tony’s body. Steve could hear the armour crack from where he stood. Thor finally couldn’t hold back and released a crack of lightning that slammed into Reed’s side and made him shrink back temporarily.

Tony shot off, out of Reed’s reach, but Steve could see his repulsors spitting and sputtering until finally, they died completely, and Tony pitched forward into the ground. There was a terrifying breath where Tony didn’t move, and then he hauled himself up and stumbled over to where Steve had backed himself into a defensible corner. A large liquid oxygen storage tank blocked him from Reed’s view.

“This suit’s done for,” Tony hissed as soon as he rounded the corner. Pieces of metal were shucking off him as he moved. “Fuck. I have to tap you in Cap, I’m sorry.”

Steve couldn’t help the way he clutched Anthony closer, but he could see that Reed was gaining on the team without Tony as a distraction. He snuck a brushing kiss across the top of Anthony’s head then handed him to Tony. Tony took him with a grim smile, shedding even more pieces of the suit, but with an electronic whine, he powered up the repulsor in the palm of the hand that wasn’t wrapped around Anthony. “Go.”

Steve bolted around the tank and down the hall. Now that his arms weren’t full of the terrified baby, he let his rage well up and overtake him, push him into the hyper-focused, ruthless, all-edges place that made him so good at what he did. The perfect soldier.

Steve crashed into Reed, even as he was pushing down the hall, seeking out Tony and his miniature double.  Reed tried to shove him out of the way but Steve would not be moved. He slammed his shield into every part of Reed that presented itself, finally getting a shot in to fling it into the air and hit Reed’s face.

Reed cried out in pain, his body curling in on itself as he shrunk, clutching a hand to his face where a stark, red slash sliced across his cheek. Jan stung him again, and Steve dove again, bringing Reed to the ground, straddling his distorted, undulating body. He slammed his shield home over and over until he felt Reed, shrink, still. He slammed it down again, the crack of Reed’s breaking body deeply satisfying. He didn’t stop until Clint hooked an arm around his waist and hauled him off, shoving him towards the now unprotected doorway to the lab.

His mind shifted, refocused: Anthony.

“Tony!” Steve yelled, and Tony burst out from behind the tank and tore down the hall, holding Anthony close. They reached the doorway, Jan and Clint just in front of them. And so smoothly they barely had to slow, Tony shifted Anthony into Steve’s arms. It was easy and simple, and utterly heartstopping for Steve. Anthony settled in against Steve’s chest easily, reaching for him, even as Steve pulled him in, and the tide of rage subsided, settled, made space for the cascade of love he felt for the child he held.

Jan rocketed up through the hole in the roof, and Thor grabbed Tony while Clint and Steve took their belay lines back up to the jet. Once everyone but Thor was safely inside, they took to the sky, and when they’d reached altitude, a safe distance away, the thunder god lifted his hammer to the sky and a bright flash of lightning cut between the clouds and slammed into the roof of the Dome. Thor’s aim was impeccable - the explosion as he hit the tank of liquid oxygen rippled the air around them. Steve watched him rocket away in the opposite direction, not one to join them back at the Triskelion if he could help it.

While the Dome burned, Steve clutched Anthony to him and tried to find his breath again. It was so much like the first time he’d held him, and at the same time, so completely different. He pressed his face to the top of Anthony’s head, squeezed his eyes shut and reflected over everything that had changed. Four months ago, he was terrified to hold this warm bundle and think about what it meant, and now, now he was filled with so much happiness to have his arms full of the tiny child that he wasn’t sure there was room in his chest to house it all.

**

It was just like deja vu, back at the Triskelion. The team poured into an exam room at the end of the medical wing, Steve’s arms full of a now sleeping baby. Tony hovered nearby, his eyes fixed on Anthony, but he made no move to take him back from Steve, for which Steve was deeply grateful. He was pretty sure he’d break the next arm that tried to take him away.

Hank and Dr. Stoddard appeared after half an hour of waiting, both looking sleep-worn and weary. Hank brightened as they explained what had happened, always interested in the science, but Dr. Stoddard continued to look like he just wanted to go home.

“Reed wanted the infinity gem,” Tony began. “The one in my head, you know, my tumour.” He laughed without humour. “He’s been after me for months, apparently, but I’m hard man to get to. He tried nanites first. Infected me while we were distracted by the Chitauri. All he had to do was introduce some new code and it copied into the nanites I already had. They turned on me, attempting to force the gem out of my head and make it more easily accessible to Reed. But the gem panicked. It’s...it was temperamental. And I think it got a bit mixed up being dialled into my subconscious. Anyway, it decided its best bet was to hide in a baby, essentially reverting my biology to that of an infant and confusing the nanites enough that they didn’t know what they were looking for. Hank fixed the code, deactivating the nanites, so the gem felt safe and popped me back, very gratefully, to legal drinking age.”

Tony took a deep breath and leaned back against the far wall, eyes on Anthony. Hank and Dr. Stoddard let Steve keep holding him while they poked and prodded, taking samples and listening to his heart. Steve barely noticed what they were doing, fixed on Tony’s story, and Anthony was so exhausted he slept through most of it.

“I’ve been looking at the code since I changed back, trying to find out who had done it and why, but I hadn’t quite managed to track it back to Reed. But, of course, Reed being Reed, he had to try again. He hit me hard and fast, knocking me out of the sky and flooding my body with more aggressive nanites. And this time it worked. They got the gem out.” He shuddered. “But it's more fickle than Reed expected. I woke up from my little nanite surgery to find Reed screeching with fury at a baby that wasn’t an infinity gem anymore. I guess it panicked again, and decided that since being a baby had worked so well last time, it would try it again. But it didn't have my body to play with anymore, so…” Tony shrugged and gestured towards Anthony. “... It made its own.”

“You said you knew him. That his name is Anthony.”

“Ah yes.” Tony chuckled nervously. “This is the part that gets me locked up. I’ve been talking to him for a while now, without realizing he was the infinity gem. I, uh, I thought he was the tumour in my head... semi-sentient. Thought maybe I could talk him into, you know, not killing me. Really, I assumed it was just a symptom of brain cancer, but he felt real to me… He was older, obviously, old enough to talk. About eight or so. Now he’s so small… Don’t worry about it, darling, it’s all too messed up.” Tony waved a hand dismissively, and Steve fell reluctantly silent.

It wasn’t long before they had the results. “He’s a complete match for Mr. Stark,” Dr. Stoddard said. “Essentially a clone. I can put together a report that confirms paternity, for all of the legal documents, but you should be careful not to let anyone test his blood. Cloning isn’t exactly legal.”

“Documents…?” Steve looked up at Dr. Stoddard. “Does this mean? He’s -” He wasn’t sure how to say ‘permanent’ without it sounding weird, but he couldn’t let himself get his hopes up.

“He’s just a baby, Captain.” Dr. Stoddard shrugged. “There’s nothing unusual about him, besides, of course, that he’s an exact match for his father.”

“When Tony was a baby this was all a mess,” Hank added, gesturing towards his computer screen. Steve had no idea what any of it meant - it still looked like a mess to him - but Tony nodded sagely beside him. “Anthony’s not trapped in a nanite-imposed bubble. It seems like the gem wasn’t just hiding as a baby, it actually became a baby. I wouldn't think there’d be any way to turn it back…” Hank trailed off.

“Good,” Steve snapped, and the whole room turned to look at him. “The gem is better off not existing.”

“But now we have a baby on our hands,” Jan spoke up. “And this time it’s not just a temporary cover for Tony. If he really is just a normal baby he needs parents and a birth certificate and, well, a name.”

“He has a name,” Tony insisted. “I told you, it’s Anthony.”

“You’re really going to name your kid a version of your own name?” Jan raised an eyebrow.

Tony frowned at Anthony. “He’s...not -” His eyes flicked up to Steve’s for some reason, and Steve found himself caught in that gaze. Tony broke away after a tense moment. He shrugged. “Too late now. It’s Anthony. My clone, my rules.”

“So you’re going to take him, then?” Clint asked. “I mean you should, at least for now. Backstory is easy enough - a dalliance from two years ago… she couldn’t keep him… dumped him on your doorstep, etc. With confirmed paternity, SHIELD can get you all the documents you need to make him officially your son. He looks like you, obviously, and by the time he’s old enough that people will say ‘wow he really looks like you,’ it’ll be too late for anyone to care. But adoption’s always an option. Get him out of all this.”

Steve’s arms clenched around Anthony’s back, and he stretched in his sleep and shifted around to bury his face in Steve’s jacket. Steve wouldn't let that happen. He would take him and run before he let Tony give him to some stranger.

Tony was staring at Anthony strangely. “Yeah… I mean yes, I can take him. I mean I know him, I guess? He’s so young… But that’s the safest choice, right? Because of the paternity thing…?” He looked up at Steve as if he was looking for confirmation, and Steve couldn’t imagine why. Steve had cared for a child he had absolutely no connection to for four months, and no one had questioned him. Sure, once the kid started school or needed a passport or something, things would have gotten more difficult, but Anthony could get all the documentation he needed easily, and surely forging adoption papers wouldn’t have been that hard, even if they didn’t have a biological link to go on. So, Tony certainly shouldn’t have any problems.

“If that’s what you want,” Steve said carefully. “Of course you should take him. He’s - he’s your son.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it was the closest to true they had, and if this was the story they were going forward with, Tony needed to get used to the idea. All the blood had drained out of his face, but he couldn’t seem to stop staring at Anthony, and Steve could see the light of parental instinct flickering to life in Tony’s eyes. Anthony looked just like him, thought like him, and apparently he’d been talking to some version of him for a while already. They had a relationship, and one of blood too, it didn’t matter what Steve had or wanted. Anthony was Tony’s son, for all intents and purposes, and if Tony wanted him, Steve had to let him go.

At least, this way, he’d get to see him sometimes. He could rebuild his friendship with Tony, maybe, hopefully, if Tony would let him. Just knowing that Anthony was here, that he existed, that there was a chance Steve could hold him like this again, that was enough. Steve took a deep breath, running his hand up Anthony’s back to cradle the back of his head. He looked down at his closed eyes and slack mouth, then gently handed him to Tony.

Tony tensed, but took the little bundle and held it close. “Are you sure?”

“You’ll be fine,” Steve insisted then couldn’t help adding, “You can call me.” Steve shifted where he stood. “Or, uh, Clint helped a lot. Before. And I can give you Bucky’s number.”

Tony’s eyes flicked up to Steve’s, and his brow creased. “Right. Of course. Thank you.” He looked back to Anthony. “Well. If you’ll excuse me, I need to order an exorbitantly expensive collection of baby things. I guess.”

Tony shot Steve one more unreadable look then walked out, Anthony in his arms.

Chapter Text

The shock of finding himself in charge of an infant four months ago had been entirely new for Steve, and the grief of losing him, one of the most painful days of Steve’s life. But watching Tony walk away with Steve’s baby, unbelievably reincarnated and apparently here to stay, was indescribable. The writhing twist of joy and pain snaked through his stomach and up into his lungs until he was choking on air. The team filed out with Hank and Dr. Stoddard in tow, and no one seemed to notice that Steve didn’t follow. He sat on the edge of the exam table and put his face in his hands.

Should he have fought to keep Anthony? He’d remembered Steve, wanted Steve, but he was comfortable with Tony too, clearly recognizing the biological connection they shared or feeling some echo of joined memories. But Steve had been the one changing diapers and giving baths and walking in circles around his apartment in the middle of the night. Tony didn’t have any of that, didn’t know how to do any of that.

Everyone seemed to have assumed that Anthony’s options were to stay with Tony or to be sent to a new family, and Steve couldn’t help but feel hurt that no one had considered him a viable candidate to be Anthony’s guardian. Sure, he hadn’t wanted the responsibility at first, had tried to foist baby Tony off on anyone but him, but wasn’t it clear that by the end he’d come to love it? Come to need waking up to his giggle alarm clock and organizing his life around nap times and bathtimes and bottles?

Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he should have said something. But it was too late now, and besides, Tony’s claim was the more valid one. He had blood on his side. All Steve could hope for now was to get to be a part of it, in some small way. Maybe, in a day or two, he could ask to come over, bring some of the baby things that Tony had loved most for Anthony. He still had Duck under his pillow and Cap was in the baby box. Tony would need those things. And it would be a good excuse to stop by.

He could make it two days.

He pushed himself off the exam table and made himself go home. The others were gone, and he was grateful not to have to talk to anyone. His apartment felt weird. He still had a ghost of Anthony in his arms but the box of baby supplies in the cupboard felt like it was full of possibility now instead of grief.

And yet, Anthony had gone home with Tony, and Steve was here alone again. What if Tony didn’t want him involved at all? What if Tony got all his papers and made Anthony his son, officially, and he told Steve he never wanted to speak to him again? He could lose him all over again. Tony had the power to rip Anthony out of Steve’s life at any moment - not just the power, the right, because who was Steve to him anyway? Nothing more than a glorified babysitter. The child he’d grown to love so dearly wasn’t even the same child, not really. But he was. He remembered Steve, he would know soft daytime Dah and the rubber bath time Dah, he would want Cap to go to sleep and giggle when Bing Crosby came on. He was the same. And he wasn’t here.

Steve’s phone rang, tugging him up out of his thoughts, and he stared at it for a moment, trying to remember how to make his arm move. He picked it up, sure he was about to be sent on another mission and sure he wouldn’t be able to stand from the couch let alone pick up the shield.

“Yes?”

“Oh god, Steve, I need you.” It was Tony. Steve leaped to his feet.

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong with Anthony?”

“Nothing, nothing, I mean everything, but nothing. He’s fine. I’m - um. -” Tony broke off into a violent rustle of background noise. Steve could hear Anthony crying, and it reached down into his chest and squeezed his heart. His hands itched to reach out and hold him. “Fuck. I have no idea what I’m doing. Steve, I don’t know what to feed him or how to make him sleep, or - or - god. He’s so unhappy. He’s fine, but I’m - shit. I’m screwing this up already. Why -?” Tony cut off again.

“Tony - can I - can I come over?” He didn’t know if that was too forward, especially since Steve had barely said two words to him since he was turned back. But he didn’t know how to explain things to Tony over the phone, and he could tell by the little hitches at the end of Anthony’s desperate sobs that he was exhausted and hungry.

Tony groaned. “For fucks sake, Steve, I thought you were already on your way the second I called! Of course, come over. I need you, jesus.”

Steve hung up without another word and opened the closet. He threw the bare necessities in a bag and hurried out the door. He took a cab to Tony’s place but hesitated in front of the door. He always forgot how imposing Tony’s home was. He’d only been here a few times but it made him feel dirty and uncoordinated - like he was constantly leaving fingerprints everywhere and was one misstep away from knocking over some priceless antique.

But before Steve could knock, Tony wrenched the door open. He had Anthony in his arms and one side of his hair was sticking up like he’d been running his hand through it. Anthony was red-faced and wailing and before Steve was across the threshold, Tony shoved the child in his arms. Steve dropped the bag and took Anthony, holding him against his chest and rubbing a soothing hand over his back.

Anthony calmed a little, but he was still sobbing and sniffling. “Grab the bag?” Steve asked, and Tony picked it up, looking grateful to have something he could do that he was on steady ground with. “Kitchen?”

Tony led the way. His kitchen was huge and ornate, and Steve hesitated, but Tony dumped the entire contents of the bag out on the counter and looked up at Steve so hopelessly that Steve clicked in. Now wasn’t the time to worry about making a mess. It was already six, and they had to get Anthony fed, clean, and in bed before the night was completely ruined.

“Okay measure out the formula. We’ll have a better bet starting him with half a bottle to calm him down, then trying some solids, then letting him finish the bottle before bed. Did you change him?”

Tony nodded. “That I managed, to everyone’s surprise frankly, but that was his last shred of patience with me, and it’s been downhill from there.” He scooped the formula in the bottle then turned on the tap. He looked lost again, so Steve adjusted the temperature then gestured Tony to hold the bottle under the tap. Once it was full and well shaken, Steve tucked Anthony in the crook of his arm and held out the bottle.

Anthony cried and batted it away, kicking his feet out in frustration, but Steve didn't give up. He worked the bottle closer and closer until he touched the tip to Anthony’s lips. Anthony pouted, but the crying tapered off, and then he opened wide and let Steve slide the bottle in. He started sucking immediately.

“Oh my god, that was amazing,” Tony breathed.

“What do you have to feed him?”

Tony looked around. “I have some baby food or there’s leftover pasta. I tried that but he didn’t want it.”

“Get it out and heat it up, but just a little bit. Then cut it up really small.”

Tony obeyed, scurrying around the kitchen and filling a bowl with tiny pieces of pasta. Steve focused on Anthony, making silly faces at him while he drank until he got a tiny smile around the bottle. “Ah, there he is,” Steve whispered, smiling back.

“Tee…” Anthony said, and Steve's heart twisted in his chest.

“Hey, little duckling. I know today was scary, but you’re being really brave.” Steve felt his skin heat, knowing Tony was listening, but he ignored it. Anthony needed him right now. “Good job. T- Anthony.”

Tony came into view with the warmed pasta, and Steve sat down at the corner table, settling Anthony in his lap. Steve pulled the bowl over and started eating it.

Tony laughed. “What?”

“Just wait.”

Anthony watched Steve’s hands move from the bowl to his mouth as he ate one piece at a time, chewing exaggeratedly. Anthony’s brow creased. His bottle finished, and he let it drop from his mouth, still watching Steve’s movement. Then his hands darted out. He grabbed the edge of the bowl with one and stuck the other in, finding a piece of pasta and bringing it back to his mouth.

“Wow.” Tony was holding back laughter, and Steve couldn’t help but smile too.

“He’s a little food kleptomaniac. Nothing like jealousy to get him interested.”

Anthony settled in to eat, picking the pasta pieces up one by one, and heavy silence filled the room. Tony had relaxed bit by bit as Steve took over with the baby, but there was still a tension across his shoulders and it felt like it was aimed more at Steve than Anthony.

Finally, Tony spoke. “Thank you. For coming.”

Steve looked up sharply. “Of course, Tony - of course, I came.”

“Well, I know you don’t want to see me. But I appreciate you doing this, for him.”

I -” Steve cut himself off. There was no point in arguing against it - he had been avoiding Tony and anyone with half the brain Tony had would have noticed. “It’s not quite that simple,” Steve finally managed. Tony looked at him curiously while Steve tried to get his thoughts in order, but once he had, he changed his mind. “I think we should talk about this later. Let’s get this guy to bed first, okay?”

“Sure.” Tony still looked uncomfortable, but he let the topic drop. Anthony paused in his munching to peer over his bowl at Tony, and Tony’s discomfort shifted into a different shape. He waved at Anthony. “Hey, bud.”

Anthony stared back. Steve tickled his fingers against Anthony’s side and leaned in to whisper, “Aren’t you going to say hi back?”

“No.” Anthony ate another paste piece, and Tony smiled. But then Anthony held his hand up, scrunching his fingers open and closed once. “Oooow. Hi.”

Steve laughed. “Your dad is not an octopus, Anthony.”

Anthony’s head tipped back, and he grinned up at Steve. “Oooow.”

“Woooow,” Steve echoed. He bent and kissed Anthony’s forehead. When he looked back up, Tony was staring at him, wide-eyed. “We, uh, we went to the aquarium. There was an octopus. It, um, that’s where h- he learned to say hi.” Steve wasn’t sure if he was supposed to pretend that Anthony was a different child to the one he’d cared for for so long. He wasn’t to him. He didn’t know how Tony felt about it.

“I’d like to hear about that, some time,” Tony said carefully, his voice shaking a little. Steve nodded. “I think he’s done.”

Steve looked over his head, and the bowl was empty. “Good job!” He lifted Anthony up and turned him so he faced Steve, standing in his lap. Anthony tipped forward to lean against his chest and pressed a hand to either side of Steve’s face.

“Tee.”

“You ready for a bath, honey? You smell awful.”

Anthony opened and closed his fists idly against Steve’s jaw, ignoring the question. Tony stood, picking up the bowl, then tossed it in the sink. “Isn’t it late for a bath? You said bedtime was important.”

“It is, but so is routine, and we always have a bath. I think doing something he’s used to will help him adjust to the new house. Plus, he really does smell awful. I don’t think he’ll sleep well this dirty.”

“Alright. What should I do?” Steve hesitated, not wanting to hand Anthony off now that he had him back in his lap. But Tony was his guardian now, and Steve had to do what was best for Anthony, and what would make this easiest for Tony.

“Here.” He lifted Anthony and settled him in Tony’s arms, shifting him around to get him in a position he liked to be held. “I’ll start the water if you show me where.”

Tony led the way up to the bathroom, chattering with Anthony, who babbled back. Steve could hear the exhaustion in both their voices, but they were cheerful enough, considering. Anthony didn’t seem unhappy or scared in Tony’s vast home, and Steve wondered if a feeling of safety there was one of the things Tony had passed on to him.

Steve started the water while Tony got Anthony undressed and distracted him with raspberry kisses and silly stories. Between the two of them, they got Anthony bathed and redressed in a sleeper that Tony had to pull the tags off of in less than fifteen minutes. Steve made a mental note to give Tony the Iron Man sleeper - he’d get a kick out of it.

Anthony whined without his Dah or his Cap, and Steve could finally see the tiredness pulling his mood down. If they kept him up much longer, he would be too unhappy to sleep. “Bedroom?” Steve asked, resting Anthony against his chest and bouncing him a little as he moved.

Tony pointed, and Steve followed. There was already a crib set up in a room of its own with a fancy baby monitor on the dresser. Steve rocked Anthony in his arms and did circles around the room hushing soothing sounds into his ear. Tony hovered in the doorway watching, silent. Steve wanted to hand Anthony off, show Tony how to calm his own son, but that would have to wait. Today had been too much; Anthony needed to sleep as soon as possible.

Tony didn't seem to mind, not moving from the doorway when Steve finally felt the body in his arms soften and go limp. He pressed a soft kiss to Anthony’s forehead and tipped him down into the crib. Tony took the other half of the monitor, clicking it on before they slipped out of the room.

Downstairs, Tony fiddled with the dial on the monitor until they could both hear Anthony’s soft breathing. “It’s alright if you’re too tired to talk tonight, darling. You can go home. We’ll talk another time.”

Steve almost agreed, almost left, but he stopped himself. He was exhausted, but it would be easy to keep putting this conversation off if he let himself shy away from it. So he steeled himself instead and plunked pointedly down on Tony’s couch. Tony nodded with a small smile and poured them each a drink.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see you.” Steve jumped in with both feet.

“Okay,” Tony replied slowly.

“I couldn’t. It was too hard. Your eyes. They’re the same. And you’d smile at me like - like you trusted me. It just reminded me of what I’d lost.”

Tony was quiet for a long time. “Lost…?”

“It wasn’t a burden, Tony. I loved being a parent. That kid wasn’t anything like you, not really, so it felt a little bit like you’d stolen him from me by coming back. I was hurt and I was angry and none of it was fair to you, but I was. So I - I couldn’t. I know it hurt you, but I wasn’t ready to pretend that I wasn’t in pain.”

“God… Steve, I’m so sorry. I never thought about it like that. Everyone said you were so good at it, and I remember feeling this overwhelming feeling of safe every time I looked at you, but I never thought it would be like that for you. I thought, well, I thought you’d be relieved.”

“I thought I would be too… at first.” Steve smiled as he remembered the challenge of those first few days with a toddler in tow.

“Thank you.” It was barely more than a whisper. Steve looked up, and Tony was looking more open and honest than Steve ever had seen him before. He wondered what Tony’s childhood had been like, if he’d had anyone back then who gave him an “overwhelming feeling of safe.”

Steve felt like they’d only had half the conversation, but he was suddenly so tired he wasn’t sure if he’d make it back to his apartment. He stood, and Tony stood with him. “My driver will take you home.”

“Thanks, Tony.” Steve started for the door then stopped. “He wakes up around six-thirty. He’ll have a bottle right away and then something to eat. He naps at nine and one, and then bedtime is at six. He does best if you keep him on a tight schedule.”

Tony nodded, and Steve could see he was taking it seriously.

Steve was halfway out the door when Tony’s fingers caught his sleeve. “You’ll help, right?” he asked breathlessly. “You’ll help me with him?”

Steve turned back. “Of course, Tony. Anything you need.”

Chapter Text

Steve woke to a pounding on his door. He stumbled out of bed and across the living room, ripping the door open just to make the noise stop, then realized it meant there would be someone on the other side.

It was Tony.

He started talking the second the door opened. “He won’t eat.” Tony plowed past Steve into the apartment, Anthony clutched in his arms. “I tried the kleptomania thing but I just ended up eating an entire bowl of baby cereal myself - which is disgusting, by the way - while he mocked me. Yes, you were mocking me. Don’t try and suggest otherwise, you had a mocking face. He also didn’t sleep much, which was great for me. And for him. So now we’re tired and hungry, because baby cereal is a terrible breakfast, and I don’t know what to do, because presumably eating and sleeping are important things for a child to do. But maybe not, what do I know!” Tony threw his free hand in the air and rounded on Steve. He had a slightly wild look to his eyes.

“He hates baby cereal,” Steve said carefully.

“Of course he does! It’s disgusting, who wouldn’t?” Tony sounded about two minutes from a complete breakdown, and Anthony’s eyes were pinching at the corners.

Steve shut the door and shooed Tony into one of the kitchen chairs. He pulled the baby box out of the closet again and rifled through it. “Did he have a bottle?”

“Yeah, that was the only part that went well.”

Steve paused as he walked past Tony with an armful of supplies. “You’re doing a great job, Tony.”

“Ha.”

“No, really.” Steve dumped everything on the counter and rummaged through the fridge then the freezer. He popped an oatmeal baby muffin in the microwave to thaw. “The first week I had him was horrible. I read the wrong section of a baby book, tried to swaddle him, which he hated, didn’t get him to bed until after 9 the first night, and then I was so exhausted, I fell asleep on the couch. I took a shower with the playpen in the bathroom because I couldn’t figure out how else to get one in.” He clamped the high chair to the edge of the table and dropped Anthony in it, then put the muffin, a handful of blueberries, and a handful of cheerios on the tray. Anthony started picking at the food on his own, and Tony sighed with relief. “I didn’t go to the gym at all for something like two weeks because I, a super soldier, was too tired. You’re doing great, Tony.”

Tony ran a stiff hand through his hair and hummed noncommittally, but he looked a little less panicked. Steve popped two bagels in the toaster and spread them with cream cheese then joined Anthony and Tony at the table, sliding one of the bagels over to Tony.

“Thank you.” Tony picked at the food. “I used to be able to talk to him, reason with him. Now he just... cries a lot. I thought I might be able to make it at least twelve hours without running to you.”

“You can run to me as often as you need.”

Tony’s eyes slid up from his plate to meet Steve’s, and their gazes held for a moment. Steve tried to show how desperately he wanted this: to be a part of Anthony’s life, to get to hold him and feed him and feel like, in some tiny way, he was his. He knew Anthony was Tony’s now, it made sense, they were blood, and Steve wanted to give Tony the chance to figure this out. But maybe, just maybe, there was a tiny corner of their life that Steve could borrow once in a while.

“Thank you,” Tony repeated.

When he was done eating, Steve shoved Tony towards the shower, insisting he take either a shower or a nap every time he had someone to watch Anthony, whether he needed it or not. Tony came out, looking distinctly more put together, to find Steve and Anthony on the floor, playing with the blocks.

Tony slumped on the floor across from them, leaning back against the TV stand and running a hand through his wet hair. He looked at Anthony for a moment, then tipped his gaze up to Steve. “I’m terrified.”

Steve smiled. “That’s to be expected.”

“I feel horrible - I - I kind of hoped I’d wake up and it would all be a dream… But then again, I was woken up every hour by his screaming so that felt more and more unlikely as the night went on.” Tony rolled his eyes drolly, but Steve could sense the undercurrent of real feeling pulsing there.

“It’s not wrong to be scared. This wasn’t exactly part of your life plan.”

Tony shrugged. “I mean, not this way. But I always kind of wondered, you know. I mean, of course no one would ever think of expecting me to settle down. Finding a partner to do it with would be almost impossible. And maybe I won’t be any good at it. But I always wondered…”

“You’re going to be wonderful at it, Tony. I promise.”

Tony turned warm eyes back on Steve. “Are you sure it’s okay that we’re here?”

Steve startled. “Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I -” Tony paused, considering. Anthony handed him a block, and he took it and added it to the stack dutifully. “When Clint said I should take him… I kind of expected you to ask to instead. And when you didn’t…” Tony shrugged. “I assumed that meant you didn’t want to.”

Steve was briefly stunned by Tony’s admission, and it took Anthony smacking him with a block and yelling “Tee!” for him to realize he’d zoned out.

He took the block and did his part for the growing tower. “I - I wanted to, Tony. I wanted to ask for him more than anything. But it’s not right. He’s your family, your blood. He’s your son, Tony. I - I couldn’t.”

“I would have given him to you.”

And maybe Steve knew that all along. Maybe it was why he hadn’t asked. “And now?” His fingers itched to reach out and grab Anthony and just run. But it wasn’t about only him anymore. It wasn’t some game of house he was playing with a kid that wouldn’t be a kid for long enough to worry about things like school and passports. They had to make the best decisions for Anthony, not give in to whatever they wanted most.

Tony watched Anthony stack the bricks for a while. “Well I’m running on next to no sleep, so I don’t think my decision making skills are really up to snuff, but, uh, I have to admit, the idea of being a father, especially to this little tyke - I know him, I know what he’s going to become - it’s appealing.” Tony shifted on the carpet. “I feel like I’m stealing him from you, though. After what you said last night.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said softly. “I don’t want you to feel that way.”

“He called for you last night, when he couldn’t sleep.”

Steve winced. “He’ll get used to you. It took a little time with us too.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, you know.” Tony produced a pen out of nowhere and twirled it between his fingers.

“What do you mean?” Anthony tired of the blocks so Steve picked him up and curled him against his chest, letting him suck his thumb and blink at the ceiling. The toll the hard night had taken was already evident - they’d be lucky if they managed to keep him up until his first nap.

“I mean, we can do this together. Lord knows I’m not cut out to do this alone, but I do want it, as much as I surprise even myself. But he already knows and loves you. And you know how to take care of him. So maybe… maybe it can be more of a joint effort?” Tony kept his attention on the pen as he spun it over his fingers.

“I already said I’d be here for whatever you need, Tony. I mean it.”

“That’s not quite what I mean, though. I’m not just going to storm over and use you for free babysitting and then whip him back when he’s clean and fed, Steve. I’m selfish, but I’m not that selfish.”

Steve’s heart started pounding in his chest. “What do you mean then?” Anthony caught sight of the twirling pen, and his eyes went wide, thumb moving faster in his mouth, as he watched Tony fidget.

“Do you want to be a part of his life?”

There was something all too headspinning about going from unable to look Tony in the eye to having this conversation while Anthony dozed in his lap. He looked up, and Tony was watching him questioningly. “Yes. Desperately.”

Tony tipped a palm up as if that finalized something. “Then you’re in. It’s fashionable to have two dads these days, anyway.” Tony laughed at his own joke, and Steve spluttered at the thought of Dad. Tony waved his hand at Steve. “I’m just kidding. Not about the doing this together, though. Once we've got him settled, we can come up with some sort of system that makes sense.”

The only thing Steve could think to say was, “Okay.” He didn’t know how to say I want to be Anthony’s dad more than anything in the world.

Anthony was sleepy, and so was Tony, so Steve kept them both up with simple games and urging Tony read Anthony’s favourite books out to him. As they played, Steve snuck in little facts and tidbits to help Tony figure Anthony out. He told him about the things they’d done together, realizing as he talked just how many there were. He told him about naps in his shield and the aquarium and bathtime and the difference between hard duck and soft duck -

“Oh, shoot, Duck.” He remembered the toy was still under his pillow, and he was stunned that Anthony hadn’t brought it up already. As soon as he said it, Anthony spun to face him and threw his hands up towards Steve.

“Dah!”

“Hold on, honey.” Steve ran off to dig the toy out from under his pillow then handed it back to Anthony who squealed and stuffed his face into its soft belly.

“Oh my god, is that what that means?” Tony asked.

“What?”

“He’s saying ‘duck’ when he says ‘dah’?”

“Oh, uh yeah. It’s his favourite toy. His favourite… everything, really.”

“Ahh.” Tony tugged at the duck’s foot gently, and Anthony shot him a possessive glare. He smiled. “I thought he was calling for you.”

“For me? No. He calls me Tee.”

“Yeah, he yelled that a lot too. I thought it was both.”

“Why would he call me Duck?”

Tony raised an amused eyebrow at Steve. “Dad, darling. I thought he was saying, ‘dad.’”

“That’s - oh. No. I never -” Steve cut himself off and frowned down at Anthony and his Duck, not sure how he felt about Tony so casually assuming that Steve would call himself dad, when he absolutely wasn’t. “No.”

“Okay…” Tony fiddled with his shirt cuffs for a moment. “So what do you normally do during the day?”

Steve breathed a sigh of relief that Tony wasn’t grabbing Anthony had hightailing it out of there now that he was fed and had Duck in hand. “It varied. We’d go to the park sometimes or for a walk. We went to the art museum a few times - he actually really liked that. Or we’d play. If it rained we’d read books or watch TV. He likes the news. On Saturdays I took him to Bucky and Gail’s and they’d babysit while I went to the gym or something.” Or sat on a park bench missing him, Steve added in his head.

They ended up doing none of those things.

They were all tired, and despite having his Duck back in hand, Anthony was a little grumpy. They settled for continuing to distract him with toys up until his first nap, then, while he slept, Steve emptied out the baby box and showed Tony everything. They only got partway through before Anthony woke up, and Steve resorted to a movie to keep him placated. He could tell that Tony was doing his best to stay engaged and positive, but he had dark circles under his eyes and he stared at a cartoon horse on the TV for far too long without moving or blinking.

During Anthony’s second nap, Steve set Tony up on the couch with the baby book while he cleaned, guiding him to the right section for one-year-olds. If, a few minutes later, Tony’s breathing went suspiciously slow and soft, Steve politely ignored it.

Steve walked Tony through dinner time, showing him what order to do everything in so Anthony wouldn’t get fussy. He cooked while Anthony played in his playpen, rattling off the foods he liked and didn’t like. Tony nodded along to a lot of them, and it reminded Steve that they were much more than father and son, they were exact genetic copies.

While the chicken was cooking, Anthony made a noise of displeasure, and Tony moved towards him, but Steve caught his arm.

“I try and leave him alone as much as possible while I cook, and he’s used to having to entertain himself for a while. If he really cries, I’ll check on him, but if you’re right there every time, he’s going to start manipulating you.”

Tony’s brow twisted. “Really? He’s barely one.”

“Oh, really. Promise you, he will find your buttons and push. Hard. This was one of our little boundaries. I needed time to cook, and he needed to learn that he couldn’t spend all day in my arms.” Tony sighed, and Steve paused as he stirred the peas. “It was - uh - it was really hard for me at first.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He spent quite a few entire days in my arms before we sorted out a routine. He can sit on your lap while he eats if you like.” Tony nodded, and Steve shoved a handful of cutlery in his arms. “Why don’t you set the table?”

Tony eyed the cutlery, then smirked at Steve. “I usually have people to do this for me,” he quipped, but he made for the table and started laying everything out. Steve wasn’t fooled, anyway. Tony’d had Jarvis, but the butler had rarely seemed to do much butlering and Steve was fairly certain he’d been kept around out of both kindness and loneliness. With Jarvis gone, the rest of Tony’s home staff had faded, and the last time Tony had invited the team over for dinner, he’d opened the door himself.

Dinner started out a little awkward. Steve and Tony had never eaten a meal alone together, though the team, in various configurations, had shared food several times, even at Tony’s house. They were casual friends and good teammates, but the sudden intimacy of splitting a home-cooked meal at Steve’s tiny kitchen table was a sharp deviation from what they were used to, at least with Tony fully grown. Last night, and throughout the day today, Anthony had been an all-consuming distraction, and even with his naps, it felt like they barely had enough time to talk over everything Tony needed to know.

But now, Anthony was calmly stuffing chicken and broccoli in his mouth, and there were no toys to tidy, or books to flip through, so it was just Steve and Tony. Steve cast about for a topic of conversation. “Is everything alright with work?”

Tony half-shrugged. “As alright as it can be after a four-month, mysterious absence. Half the board thinks I was in rehab, and the other half is sure I wasn’t but wishes I had been. I’ve had to fend off the media, half my own company, and Greg when it comes to my whereabouts. Coming back with a baby in tow is kind of going to throw everyone off. Might be nicer than the drug overdose rumours though. At least Anthony’s cute.”

“Is it really going to be that bad?” Steve picked at his food with disinterest.

Tony waved a hand dismissively and sat back in his chair. “At this point, there’s always something worse I’ve done that they can dig up. It’ll blow over. If anything, this will humanize me. I’ll think of a backstory for the little tyke that makes me seem all self-sacrificial and sympathetic.” He winked at Steve.

Oddly enough, that broke the tension somewhat, and they fell into easy chatter. Steve told Tony some of the things he’d missed over the past four months, from celebrity gossip to sports. They talked about baseball for a while, something Steve was surprised to find Tony could hold his own in, then argued lightly about some of the political news that had broken lately.

The easy conversation carried them through the rest of dinner and cleaning. Tony entertained Anthony easily with his toys, afterwards, and made no move towards leaving. Steve watched, eyes fixed on Anthony, drinking in every moment he had with him.

Steve let Tony take point on bedtime, hoving nearby while he gave Anthony a bath but not offering more than explaining that rubber duck was for bath time only, and showing him how to wrap Anthony in his hooded towel. Tony sat on the couch with a towel-wrapped baby in his lap and eyed him skeptically.

“He’s a duck.”

“Dah!” Anthony shouted.

“He loves ducks, and I’m pretty sure this towel is why.” Steve braced himself over the back of the couch, leaning in close to the pair. He reached out and grabbed the edge of the hood. Anthony started giggling manically already, in anticipation of what he knew was to come. Steve pulled the hood down over his eyes then, once Anthony was sufficiently worked up, flipped it back and said, “Boo!”

Anthony screeched, and Tony had to jerk forward to keep him from tipping over backwards. Tony laughed too, then tried it himself, pulling the hood down then popping it up again quickly. “Boo!” Anthony’s eyes went wide for a second, and then he squeezed them shut, his whole body shaking with the force of his laughter.

Steve folded his arms over the back of the couch, content to watch them play and make a silly face every time Anthony looked his way. When his giggling slowed and he slipped down on Tony’s lap, Steve snuck a book into Tony’s hands and swung around to sit on the other end of the couch. Tony struggled a little with the book, not having yet mastered keeping Anthony in his lap and, at the same time, far enough away from the book that he wouldn’t grab it and try to “helpfully” turn the pages.

After the book, Tony shot Steve a look. “Um. He’s drooping.”

“Yeah,” Steve yawned. “Bedtime…” Then he shot up. “Oh shoot, sorry. You probably wanted to go home.”

“I think, maybe… he needs a good night’s sleep? If you don’t mind him staying here.”

“Of course not. I’ll set the playpen up.”

Steve maneuvered the playpen into the bedroom in its old spot and cleared the toys and blankets out of it while Tony wrestled Anthony into a sleeper. When he walked back into the living room, Tony was rocking the baby in his arms, and Anthony’s eyes were drifting shut. Steve popped a binky into Anthony’s mouth and gestured towards the bedroom. He watched as Tony settled Anthony in the makeshift crib.

Tony slipped the door shut behind him, and they hovered in awkwardness for a moment. “Do you mind if I crash on your couch?” Tony finally asked. “I know I should probably head home and come back for him in the morning, but I’m dead on my feet here. And I’d kind of like to see how a good morning goes?”

“Of course you can.” Steve struggled with the urge to offer Tony the bedroom. If Anthony had another bad night, Tony’s best shot at getting caught up on his sleep was to be in another room, but it didn’t seem fair to make him sleep on the couch.

But Tony was already sinking into the cushions, his eyes closing, so Steve grabbed the blanket from the back and spread it over him. He read quietly at his desk for a few hours, then slipped off to bed, pausing by the edge of the playpen to watch Anthony sleep.

Steve’s eyes fluttered open at 6:24am as they always did now - he thought they always might - but he wasn’t really awake until he realized that his recently too-silent bedroom was filled with happy giggling again. Steve opened his eyes and gazed up at the ceiling, unable to suppress the grin spreading across his face.

Chapter Text

The next afternoon, between naps one and two, Tony packed Anthony back up and left, determined to get him used to his home. Steve found himself hovering by the phone all day, unable to focus on anything. He’d promised Tony he could call any time he needed, but he was torn between wanting the phone to ring and hoping it wouldn’t. As much as he wanted to see Anthony again, wanted him to need him, it was a selfish hope and one that would soon be dashed as Anthony adjusted to living with Tony.

When the phone did ring, Steve felt a rush of pleasure followed by a hot wave of guilt.

“He won’t sleep,” Tony grumbled, when he picked up.

Steve could hear sniffling in the background, punctuated by the occasional hitching, “Te-e-e-e.”

“I could come over? See if that helps. If you don’t mind, I could stay for a night or two. Provide a little continuity or something.”

“Would you?” Tony’s words spilled out so fast he was nearly begging. “That would be great, thank you.”

But Steve’s presence didn’t help much. Anthony was happy to be held by him, or Tony for that matter, but even Steve rocking him to sleep then settling him in the crib wasn’t enough to keep him out for more than an hour.

“That’s it,” Tony said, when Anthony summoned them from their beds for the fourth time. “I’m calling a cab, we’re going to your place.”

Steve felt like he ought to argue, but he couldn't find the energy to. They packed up a cranky Anthony and his things and hightailed it back to Steve’s apartment. With Tony on the couch, Steve in the bed, and Anthony in the playpen, they all slept straight through the rest of the night and well into the morning.

After breakfast, Tony settled Anthony on the rug with his plastic turtles and turned to Steve. “Game plan time.”

“He’ll learn to fall asleep there eventually,” Steve said, but even as he did, he found himself dreading the process.

“Or…” Tony leaned back against the wall, stretching his legs out long in front of him so Anthony could balance a line of turtles along his shin. “He’s happy here.”

“You won’t be, though.” Steve came back with automatically.

“No?”

“I just - it’s nothing like what you’re used to. You two are obviously welcome to stay here, if you think that’s what’s best for him, but it’s not exactly the Ritz.”

Tony’s eyes twinkled. “You think I'll be as uncomfortable as you are at my place, then?”

Steve winced internally. He didn’t know it was that obvious. “Your home is very nice,” he said tactfully, but Tony just laughed.

“I like your apartment, darling. It’s cozy. Besides… I keep having this vision of him tumbling down all those stairs...”

Steve turned to him in surprise then barked out a laugh.

“What?”

“I had the same thought, four months ago. I thought maybe we should stay at your place, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that.”

Tony chuckled. “So no grand, sweeping staircases then. Could we at least start out here? I need to get a few good nights of sleep in me before I can make any major housing decisions.”

“Sure.” Steve fidgeted for a moment, then rested a hand on the back of the couch. “We could get a futon or something…” He eyed the space behind the couch, wondering if it was enough for a pull-out.

But Tony waved a hand dismissively. “You wouldn't believe the ridiculous furniture I fall asleep on at home. The couch is fine.”

“If you’re sure.”

To Steve’s surprise, it worked. Tony was an easy house guest, excusing the shocking amount of stuff he squirreled into various drawers and closets in the small apartment. Taking care of Anthony with both of them was so much easier than doing it alone that Steve found it hard to be anything but grateful that Tony had essentially moved in. Even after they had a good full week of everyone sleeping, Tony made no move towards either taking Anthony back to his place or finding a new place for the two of them. He slept on the couch with no apparent discomfort, and they fell into an easy sort of rhythm.

Anthony was thrilled to now have two men doting on him at all hours. He called Tony, “Da” and had very strong opinions on which of the two of them he wanted at any given moment, generally refusing to accept Tony as a substitute for Steve when he got scared by dark shadows and completely firing Steve from bath time which was apparently more fun with Tony.

When the first Saturday approached, Steve found himself wanting to ask Tony something but not sure how. In the end, he decided to just bite the bullet. “Tony?”

“Mmm?” He didn’t look up from the blueprints he was marking with a red pen.

“So, before - on Saturdays. I would go to Bucky and Gail’s and they would babysit for me. You should get the chance to meet them before they babysit for us - I want you to be comfortable with it, and if you’re not, that’s fine - so, I thought maybe this weekend we could go to their place and you could meet them?”

Tony set his pen down and looked at Steve over his glasses. “You want me to meet your friends?”

“Yeah?”

Tony was silent for a moment. Then he smiled. “Of course.”

“Okay, good,” Steve breathed.

But come Saturday, Steve was still nervous. Bucky and Gail were his two best friends, but dating Jan had made him realize that they weren’t exactly compatible with his new life. He hadn’t realized at first, because Jan was always gentle and kind to the Barnes’, but later it had become clear that she didn’t like them. She thought they were old and boring, and he supposed, in the end, she thought the same of him.

Steve didn’t really care what Tony thought of him, or at least, he didn’t care if Tony thought he was old or boring, only that he was a good role model and caretaker for Anthony, but he did want Tony to like Bucky and Gail. If only, because Tony was part of his life now, and Bucky and Gail had always been a part of his life, and he wanted them to be a part of Anthony’s life. Tony was the key to that.

It was awkward at first. He’d prepared Bucky and Gail for Anthony - giving them a somewhat abridged version of where he had come from - and honestly, if they’d been able to accept the “stuck as a baby Tony Stark” story with ease, this wasn’t that much weirder. But there was an initial uncomfortable shuffling as everyone was introduced, and he saw Bucky and Gail both making the somewhat surreal switch from Tony to Anthony, while still seeing him as the same child he was before.

But before long, Gail had hauled out their baby toys, Anthony babbling and waving them about with happy familiarity, and everything clicked back together. Bucky insisted that Tony see his pictures from the war, mostly to mock Steve, and, watching them, Steve noticed with a wry sort of amusement that the normally cocky, unflappable Tony Stark was nervous too.

But Anthony was a wonderful icebreaker, and by the time the evening was through, the four of them were laughing and joking companionably, arguing over whether some of Anthony’s more trying habits were from Tony’s genetics or Steve’s influence.

Tony insisted that the food stealing had to be Steve since he’d never been that way as a kid, but Steve maintained with confidence that he’d had to deal with that from day one. He did, however, accept blame for the yellow-equals-duck issue, though he wasn’t exactly sure when that connection had solidified. It had definitely been in his care, though.

“And who on earth thought it was a good idea to teach him that if you bang your elbow on something he should smack it violently with his hand and say ‘boo!’?” Tony asked, looking accusingly at Steve.

But Gail raised her hand guiltily then laughed. “That was me, I’m afraid. It was supposed to be a boo-boo kiss but it got a bit out of hand.”

“A bit?” Tony eyed her. “He nearly broke my arm.”

“At least your arm wasn’t broken already, like Steve’s,” Bucky said.

Tony’s gaze slid over to Steve, shifting from amused to concerned. “You broke your arm?”

“Oh yeah, my first mission after I ended up with him. There was a fire. A building sort of fell on me. And of course, that was the day Gail taught him that.” They all laughed except Tony. he was still looking at Steve.

“You still took care of him with a broken arm?”

“Well - yeah. What else was I going to do? It was fine. A day or two of awkward, one-armed buttoning, but he was good for me.”

Anthony chose that moment to throw a plastic polar bear violently across the room, and four adults bent down to scold him. They all caught each other’s eyes and laughed.

In the end, Tony and Bucky got into a heated discussion about fishing of all things, and Steve had to forcibly extract him from the house to get Anthony home on time for bed. Later that night, after Anthony was in bed, Steve turned to Tony. “So, what did you think?”

“Hmm? Of Bucky and Gail? They’re lovely. Though I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with you doing this dad thing on your own before, but now that I see the kind of backup you had, I don’t think it was really that impressive.” Tony shot Steve a wink. “I can see why you and Bucky ended up friends though. You’re equally stubborn and impossible.”

“Yes, that was definitely the basis for our friendship.” But Steve found himself finally relaxing. Tony liked his friends, trusted them with Anthony. It was a profound relief.

Meeting Tony’s family, however, didn’t go quite as well.

Tony had made it clear that he had exactly zero intention of introducing Anthony to his uncle. “Greg can find out in the papers like everyone else,” Tony had snapped when Steve had asked if there was anyone in his family he wanted Anthony to know.

But only a week later, Steve and Tony were filing out of an Ultimates meeting with Fury, Anthony babbling happily in Tony’s arms, when a voice snapped both their heads up.

“Well, well, little brother, how expensive of a lawsuit did you lose to end up with that eighteen-year commitment on your hip?” Greg sauntered out of the elevator and came to a stop in front of them, peering down at Anthony. “Good god, he looks exactly like you.”

Steve felt Tony turn to stone beside him, and Anthony quieted, sensing the tension. “Greg,” Tony started carefully. “This is Anthony. Your nephew.”

“You know, I’d like to say I’m surprised, but honestly the real surprise is that it took you this long to have a little accident, with the way you carry on.” Steve stiffened, shifting closer to Tony, and Greg must have sensed the possessive vibes Steve could feel himself radiating, because he raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Really?” he drawled. “Well, I guess ending up with that burden would make me a little gun shy too. Or is it that you finally ran out of women willing to sleep with you, Tony?”

“Gregory…” Tony warned, but Greg plowed on.

“At least you’ll be a good influence, Captain. Though it would probably be best for him if you just took the kid and ran. Cross your fingers he turns out like his mother, whoever she was. Leave him with my dear brother, and he’ll probably get drunk and drop him down the stairs.”

Tony moved so quickly, it took a second for Steve to register that he wasn’t moving towards Greg the way Steve was. But Steve’s half step and clenched fist was immediately interrupted by Tony stuffing Anthony in his arms. Steve took Anthony on impulse, and it was two more tense breaths before it registered that Tony had swiftly and effectively cut off what was sure to be situationally inappropriate violence on Steve’s part with an armful of drooling toddler. Steve willed his muscles to relax, focusing on the comforting weight of Anthony against his chest.

“You know,” Tony shot back, his initial glare replaced with a cocky smirk, “it’s just like you to be jealous of a one-year-old. One more Stark between you and dad’s company.”

Greg’s eyes flashed, then flickered up to Fury’s door. There was a pointed throat clearing behind them. “Oh yes, because I’m sure you having a bastard lovechild and then shacking up with a man is going to do wonders for the stock price. I won’t have to usurp you, Tony. Give it two months, three at the most, and the board will be begging me to take over.” He shot one last look at Anthony, and Steve’s arms tightened around him, feeling a low rumble welling up his chest. Tony shoved at Steve’s back, and they slipped into the elevator, the others pointedly waiting for the next one.

“Is that true, Tony? Is doing this -” he gestured between the three of them “- going to be bad for Stark Industries?”

Tony shrugged then sighed. “A bit. For a while. But it’s all handleable. My brother always blows these things out of proportion. He was just trying to hurt me, scare me - the board won’t kick me for this as long as I continue to provide them with what they need. A board mutiny is worse for the stock price than a sex scandal. It’ll blow over.” He considered Steve for a moment. “There’s going to be more of that, you know. Assuming we’re together because you’re involved with raising him. The press is going to figure out, fairly easily, that you’re more than a friend who babysits once in a while. Does that bother you?”

Steve thought it over carefully. “Yes. It does. Our personal lives aren’t any of their business. And I’m not good at lying about this sort of thing. It’ll be hard to explain who he is and what he means to me. But I know it’s inevitable, and as much as I hate it, it won’t scare me off if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Tony sighed again, and Steve leaned over and tucked Anthony in his arms. Tony brushed his nose against Anthony’s hair, breathing him in for a moment then rolled his eyes. “Meet your Uncle Greg,” he said lightly.

**

“Dah!” Anthony shouted, and Tony popped his head out of the bedroom.

“Yes?”

“That was for Duck, Tony,” Steve said from where he was cleaning up breakfast in the kitchen.

“Oh.” He stepped out, half dressed and plucked Duck off the back of the couch. He tossed it in the playpen, letting Anthony crawl over to pick it up. They’d finally brought the crib over from Tony’s place, and to their immense relief, Anthony had accepted it as his new bed fairly easily. That left the playpen in the living room for when it wasn’t safe for him to wander.

Tony disappeared back in the bedroom, then reappeared a moment later with a shirt on. He grabbed an apple from the counter and stuck it in his mouth then tried to talk. Steve shot him a look, and he swallowed his bite of apple and tried again. “I have to go back to work next week.”

“Oh.” Steve had been expecting it, even before running into Greg, but now, Tony needed to make sure SI still knew he was in charge, even once the media got a hold of this.

“I was hoping we could work out some kind of schedule. I don’t have to go in every day, and neither do you. So maybe we could split the days with him and then cover for each other's missions. And if there’s a mission we both absolutely have to go on, I hope Bucky and Gail would still be okay to babysit.” He shoved the apple back between his teeth and buttoned his cuffs, looking expectantly at Steve.

“Yeah…  I mean, that sounds, perfect.” he cleared his throat and tossed his sponge in the sink. “I thought you might want to, um, hire someone? Once he settled in.”

“Oh. Well, yeah, I can, of course. It might take a while to find someone we trust, but if you’re offering enough money you can do a pretty vicious background check. So, if you want that for when I’m at work, just say the word.”

“Oh no, I can watch him while you’re at work. If you’re okay with that.”

Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve. “Are you suggesting I might prefer a total stranger to watch our kid than you?”

Steve shrugged. “Just making sure I understood the plan.”

Tony hummed but didn’t say any more. He finished his apple, offering the last little bit to Anthony and threw out the core. He pulled Anthony out of the playpen and smacked a surely sticky-apple kiss to his cheek. Anthony smiled and shoved at his face with his hands. “Da,” Anthony giggled.

Tony looked down and noticed, apparently for the first time, that he was wearing a yellow shirt. “Ha! I am a duck, aren’t I?”

Steve leaned against the counter to watch them. “No, that one was ‘Dad.’”

Tony sighed and shot Anthony a look. “Seriously, kid?” He looked back at Steve. “How can you tell?”

Steve shrugged. “They sound different.”

Tony muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “You’re both crazy.”

And it was crazy - this weird little life they’d built. The number of things that Steve would have said “that’ll never happen” to, six months ago, was piling up and up. He was living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment with Tony Stark and Tony Stark’s one-year-old baby who was actually his clone and was, in a way that terrified him a little, also kind of Steve’s baby too. He was scared to think of him that way, painfully aware that Tony could saunter back out of his life, Anthony in tow, as easily as he’d sauntered in, and Steve would be left with nothing. But he clung to what he had now, trying not to think about what the future might hold, feet firmly planted on a rug that he was sure was going to be pulled out from under him at any moment.

Chapter Text

Anthony released his hold, and a cascade of plastic turtles spilled off the edge of the couch, momentarily obscuring the soft strains of Bing Crosby that wafted out of the record player. He screeched with laughter while Steve sighed and hauled himself up from his seat. Tony was on a work call in the other room, or Steve would declare it his turn to do turtle wrangling. After a month of living together, they’d managed to find a relatively easy balance between both of their jobs and their somewhat unconventional home life.

Steve tossed a handful of turtles on the couch next to Anthony and stood, reaching for the last one, but as he turned, Tony suddenly appeared at his side, his call apparently finished, and caught Steve’s hands, pulling him into a dance hold. Tony’s hand fell to Steve’s waist, leaving Steve no option but to put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. He shot Tony a look, even as he let himself be led into the simple steps - it was hard to do it backwards. “What are you doing, Tony?”

Tony winked. “Look, he loves it.” Tony tipped his head, and Steve looked over to find Anthony laughing himself silly, halfway to hiccups already, but looking at them now instead of his toys. Tony swished Steve across the rug, in time with Bing, and Anthony followed them with his delighted gaze, pressing two turtles together in his hands. His eyes were bright and twinkling, his mouth open with amusement.

Steve rolled his eyes then smirked at Tony’s look of challenge. He shifted and pushed, sending Tony out in a spin, then tugged him back in again, this time caught in Steve’s leading hold instead. Steve pushed their path back across the room. Tony threw his head back and laughed, and Steve stole his opportunity. He dipped Tony low then saw his eyes go wide as he let go instead of pulling him back up. Tony’s whole body jerked in surprise, but he landed on the couch after only a few inches fall, and he broke into laughter instead, Anthony joining him so enthusiastically he tipped over onto his side.

“Well played, Rogers.” Tony reached out and pulled Anthony back up to sitting then rubbed his hand through the kid’s hair.

Steve considered the giggling boy. “I think he’s laughing at us, not with us.”

“Well, what good are parents if not as a source of constant embarrassing amusement?” Tony quipped back.

Steve was grateful that Tony was looking at Anthony again because he felt every one of his muscles tense when Tony said, “parents.”

Anthony was well-behaved for dinner, and Tony took bath time on by himself, giving Steve time to clean up the apartment, so by the time Anthony was in bed, there wasn’t anything on either of their to-do lists. Or at least not on Steve’s, apparently.

“Can we talk?” Tony asked after a few minutes of him watching TV while Steve read.

Steve swallowed, trying to school his expression into casual curiosity instead of blind panic. None of the things he could imagine Tony wanting to talk about seemed like good conversations to have. I’m moving back home with Anthony... I think I’ve got the hang of this, I don’t need you anymore... I think you’re getting too attached… He sat up slowly, setting his book aside. Ice ran through his veins. He didn’t like the nervous way Tony was fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “Yes…?” He didn’t mean to make it come out so unsure, and he sighed at himself.

Tony chuckled, though. “Nothing bad, darling.” Tony got up and stretched, clicking off the TV as he walked by. He rummaged through the fridge and came up with two beers, one of which he handed to Steve. He sat back down on the end of the couch, turned towards Steve and sipped his beer with a considering look.

Steve smiled. “You’ve moved everything you own into my tiny apartment but you didn't bring your booze? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink anything weaker than a martini.”

Tony half shrugged. “I’m far too tired, with you and Anthony running me around all day, to drink properly. Being drunk is an art, Steve.”

It was a joke, but Steve felt the soft undercurrent of confession in his words. They hadn’t talked about Tony’s drinking, and Steve had never intended to - if he was in control enough to be Iron Man it wasn’t Steve’s place to intervene - but he appreciated the sentiment all the same. He shot a soft smile Tony’s way which made him clear his throat and look away.

Tony gazed out the window while he spoke. “I went to see my lawyer today.”

“Oh? Is there something wrong with Anthony’s paperwork?” Steve asked, trying to figure out why this was a we need to talk kind of conversation.

“Not exactly…” Tony took another drink. “There’s a few papers missing, a few lines that could do to be signed. By you.”

Steve froze. “What?”

Tony paused, then seemingly changed topics. “I rewrote my will. It’s something you think about when you’ve been dying for a while.”

“I - Tony… god, I should have asked right away but it only just occurred to me… are you still -? Do you still have cancer? You said the gem was in your head…”

Tony tipped his beer bottle up and took a long pull. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I haven’t been to the doctor to find out.” He coughed once and two spots of pink appeared high on his cheeks. “It’s possible that Reed taking the gem out cured me, it’s possible that it didn’t make a lick of difference. Or it’s possible that I still have cancer, but it’s more treatable or less fast-acting… I don’t know. I know I have to find out, but I haven’t gone.”

Steve stomped down the urge to grab Tony and shake him, or pick him up and carry him to the doctor himself. He took three full breaths to think it over. “I think I understand… Sometimes it’s easier not to know?”

“I didn’t care before. I mean, I obviously did care, but in some ways, it was kind of freeing too? Anyway… it’s not really the point. I mean it kind of is, but it’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Steve nodded, biting his tongue, as much as he wanted to say more. This was Tony’s decision, not his.

“So I was changing my will for Anthony, restructuring, setting things up so that no matter what happens, he’ll be covered. And I got to the part about a legal guardian, and I filled you in, of course.”

Steve’s breath caught, and his eyes flicked up to find Tony still gazing out of the window.

“But then,” Tony went on, “I realized that didn’t make sense at all.”

Steve scraped his nail down the label on his beer bottle. “Oh?” he said carefully.

“Yeah, because if you were Anthony’s adoptive parent, I wouldn't have to set you up as a legal guardian.”

The paper caught the edge of Steve’s finger, and he stilled again, blinking down at the ruined label. “I - what?”

“I wasn’t sure how to bring this up to you, because you still freak out a little bit every time I call you his dad. And I’m not exactly sure why, because you seem to like being his dad -”

“- I love it,” Steve croaked.

Tony smiled. “- and yet I can’t seem to call you that without your whole body doing this marble statue thing. So, I’m telling you this now. I’ve put you down on this draft of my will as Anthony’s legal guardian, but the day you want to adopt him officially, I have the papers ready.”

“Are you serious?” Steve’s voice didn’t sound like his voice. He sounded like a pack-a-day smoker who’d just been punched in the chest.

“If you don’t want it, that’s okay. You’ll have to figure out how you want to present it to Anthony, when he’s old enough to understand. But you’re as much his parent as am I, maybe more so. I know it means a lot to you that he shares my DNA, but that’s nothing to the way he feels. He loves you like his father. He needs you. I’ve thought of you as his father from the start, but you don’t seem to. So if you don’t want to be, say so, so I know. But if it’s the signature that’s stopping you -” he cut off and waved his hand in a go-ahead motion.

But Steve had screeched to a halt. And Tony looked… uncertain. “Do you think I don’t want him?”

Tony finally turned his eyes to Steve. “I don’t know. You certainly seem reluctant to take him.”

“No. No. God, no. I - I don’t know how to explain it.” Steve dropped his face into his hands. He kept remembering the way Duck had felt in his hand under his pillow in a silent, empty room. “I keep waiting for it to end,” he finally said, voice barely more than a whisper. Tony leaned a little closer, elbows on his knees. “I had this - something like this - and it was easy and it was good and then it was over. I wasn’t ready. I was… lost. I don’t know how I could deal with that again. So I keep waiting for it to be over. For you to not need me to help with him anymore. For Anthony to… turn back -” He swallowed. “For me to wake up 50 years in the future again. For something.”

A hand landed on his knee, and Steve lifted his chin and peered up at Tony. “Adopt him,” Tony said. “I want you to have that. I want you to know that no matter what, no matter what I need, he will always need you, and I won’t be the one who takes that away from you. I wish I could promise that nothing will happen, that I’ll never try, but we lead pretty fucked up lives, so what I can say is that I don’t want to be able to try. I want him to belong to you as much as me so it isn’t an option. DNA means shit - he’s your son.”

Heat sprung up behind Steve’s eyes, and he twisted his fingers together too hard, trying to suppress it again. No one had ever said that to him. Tony had joked about two dads, about Steve being one of his parents, but no one had ever said - and Steve had never dared to think - he’s your son. “Thank you,” he choked out.

Tony’s fingers tightened on his knee, then disappeared. “Mind if I take a shower?” Tony stood and stretched again, and it was a blatant excuse for giving Steve some time alone, but he needed it, so he nodded, pretending it wasn’t as obvious as it was, and Tony padded into the bathroom. A moment later, the water clicked on, and Steve rose and slipped into the dark bedroom.

He could just make out the shape of Anthony in the crib, chest rising and falling slowly, one hand twitching as he dreamed.

He’s your son.

**

They made it official the next day. Steve expected to feel different once he’d signed the papers, but he didn’t. Nothing had really changed, except that now if something happened to Tony, he wouldn't have to fight to keep his baby. Tony had his lawyer do Steve’s will too, which was something that Steve had never given much thought to, even though he’d basically died once already. He left everything to Anthony, besides a few things he wanted Bucky and Gail to have. He wanted to leave something to Tony, but money was pointless and the only thing he had that Tony wanted was Anthony, which he already had. In the end, Steve left his apartment to Tony. He still thought it was weird that one of the richest men in the world was basically living in his tiny, one-bedroom, apartment, but Steve owned it outright, and Anthony was clearly happiest there. He wasn’t sure how it worked if an infant inherited property, and if anything happened to Steve, he didn’t want Anthony to have to deal with being moved as well as losing one of his -

One of his parents.

Steve looked down at the copy of the adoption papers he clutched in his hand. Okay, maybe it felt a little different.

The elevator dinged and he and Tony stepped out into the lobby of the lawyer’s office building. Tony slipped Anthony onto his hip and used his free hand to dig his sunglasses out of his pocket.

“So I called Pym,” he said, sliding them on.

Steve shot him a look. “Why?”

“Something you said last night, about Ant, uh, turning back. I want to do a full workup with Pym. Learn everything we can, make sure there’s absolutely nothing left of the gem.”

“You don’t -” Steve started, but Tony cut him off.

“I need to know.”

“Okay.”

Tony shifted Anthony to his other hip, then huffed and handed him to Steve instead. Steve rested him against his chest, letting Anthony lean over his shoulder and watch the world go by backwards, like it did on the subway. “I know you hate him,” Tony went on, “which, fair enough, so you don’t have to come. It’ll mostly be boring science, which is mostly waiting around a lot. Want some grownup time?”

Steve opened his mouth to say No, I’ll come, then closed it again. He didn’t really want to come. He did hate Hank, and he did want some grownup time. And maybe the papers did mean something to him after all, because for the first time, he didn’t feel the need to prove to himself - or Tony, or Anthony - that he was in this. “Uh, sure,” he managed. “If you don’t mind.”

“Course not. It’ll be fun to have him at work.” Tony winked.

“Don’t you dare build our son an Iron Man suit,” Steve warned, unable to keep the grin off his face when he said, our son.

Tony grinned back. “No promises."

Steve went to the gym, then out for lunch on his own. He stopped by the office on the way home and caught Nick heading out. They had a quick elevator meeting which settled a churning uncertainty about where work stood on his new parental status that Steve had noticed was brewing in his gut. By the time he was done, he was startled to see how late it was. He checked in with Medical, but Tony had already left, apparently, so he headed home.

When he opened the door to his apartment, he could hear Tony talking and Anthony laughing, and the sweet spice of Thai food filled his nose. He hovered in the doorway for a moment, breathing it in.

“Steve!” Tony called, and Anthony copied him, even though Steve couldn't see him over the back of the couch. He swung the door shut and leaned over to see where Anthony sat on the floor. He was sitting in the middle of a large piece of paper and had a fat baby crayon clutched in his hand. There were wild scribbles in a semi-circle around him in many different colours, and what looked like a diagram of an internal combustion engine scratched in the corner in Tony’s careful hand. “I didn’t know when you’d be home so I put your dinner in the fridge.”

“Thanks.” Steve went to fill a plate and set it heating while Tony and Anthony continued their art. While the microwave hummed, he crossed the room to stand behind Anthony and gave Tony a significant look.

Tony glanced down at Anthony then shrugged, smiling. “There’s nothing. We ran every test we could think of. He’s just...a kid. The gem wanted to be a baby, I guess, and it’s apparently pretty good at getting what it wants. He’s also - he’s aging. He’s got a tooth growing in already.” Tony looked like he was tamping down some wild emotion, and Steve could feel it too.

“He’s going to be alright?”

“He’s perfect.”

Steve snorted. “You would say that, he’s you.”

Tony laughed outright, and Anthony laughed at him laughing. Steve eyed the table, but ended up eating on the couch, with his legs pulled up next to him - he learned the hard way that Anthony wouldn’t pause the path of his crayon for anything, even a shoe - and ate dinner while he watched his new family safe and happy in front of him.

Tony had dadded all day, so after dinner, and crayon time, Steve took over for the bedtime ritual, letting Tony sit with his laptop for a while. With Anthony settled, they both took to their own evening routines, Steve reading and Tony watching TV and typing on his laptop. The long day hit Steve hard, and he found himself saying goodnight earlier than usually. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Steve shocked awake in the dark, aware instantly that someone was in his room. He bolted up, making for the crib, before he realized that the back of the head he could see peeking over the foot of his bed was familiar. “Tony?”

“Fuck, I’m so sorry,” Tony whispered; his voice was wrecked. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“I’m a light sleeper.” Steve crawled to the end of his bed and shifted down to sit on the floor next to Tony. He looked awful. His eyes were fixed on Anthony’s crib. “Tony?”

“I couldn’t sleep. Every time I dropped off, I saw Reed in here, trying to grab him. His appointment today should have made me feel better, but for some reason it just… brought all that stuff up again.” Tony let out a heavy sigh and rubbed his hand through his hair. “I came in to check on him, and I couldn’t leave. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Steve murmured soothingly.

“He used to be safe in my head, you know?” Tony snorted. “Now he’s out here in the world where something could hurt him and - and he’s so small.”

Steve bumped his shoulder against Tony’s. “I lost a lot of hours of sleep here when it was just me.”

“What did you see?”

Steve shrugged. “Shadows? Empty crib? It didn’t matter.”

They sat in silence for a long time, watching Anthony’s chest rise and fall.

“Does it bother you that he calls you Steve?” Tony asked out of nowhere.

“What?”

“I mean, he calls me Dad, but he calls you Steve. Do you want a title too? Pops? Papa? Hmm.”

“I… hadn’t thought about it.” Silence fell again while Steve thought it over. “Uh, I wouldn’t mind. We could try - maybe Papa?”

“Okay. Good.”

When the clock ticked over to 3am, Steve nudged Tony again. “Hey, do you think if I stayed here and watched him you could get some sleep?” He gestured to the bed behind him to make it clear he wasn’t kicking Tony out.

Tony opened and closed his mouth a few times. “You don’t... have… to.”

“Could you sleep?” Steve repeated.

Tony nodded, so Steve gave him another nudge until he crawled up into the bed behind him and settled on the pillow. Steve stayed where he was, eyes on the tiny form in the crib, watching over him until the sun rose.

When Anthony woke, Steve picked him up out of the crib and brought him around to the side of the bed. He ran a hand over Tony’s shoulder until his eyes blinked open. “I’m getting him breakfast, okay? You can keep sleeping, but I didn’t want you to wake up and have him gone.”

“Thank you,” Tony breathed. He leaned over and kissed Anthony's forehead then closed his eyes again.

They both slept through Anthony’s naps along with him that day, sprawled side by side on the couch, their feet kicked out on the rug in front of them.

When bedtime came, Steve pushed Tony towards the bedroom and pointed at the other side of the bed. “I can’t make you sleep out there when he’s in here. I don’t mind.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want it to be weird for you.”

“I’ve shared a lot of beds in my time, Tony Stark, don’t go thinking you’re something special.”

Tony snorted with amusement. “As long as you don’t snore, darling.”

“Me? That kid is an electric saw, and I blame you entirely for that.”

Tony grinned and crawled into the other side of the bed. Steve fell asleep to the sound of Anthony’s gentle breathing and the steady presence of the man beside him. Between the two of them, they’d never let anything happen to that little boy.

Chapter Text

Steve slipped silently out of the warm bed, picking his way easily around the familiar room in the dark, just as he had every morning for the past few weeks. He checked on Anthony, who was flat on his back, breathing easily, then glanced up and had to suppress a chuckle. Tony was in the same position, arms tucked under the pillow, one leg hanging out of the edge of the blankets.

Steve snuck through the door and closed it quietly behind him. He pulled on his shoes and downed a full glass of water while he checked his email on the stupid computer Tony had insisted on setting up on the desk in the corner of the living room. As if they didn’t both have enough trouble keeping work at work.

He stretched out a little, then left the apartment, key tucked in his shoe. He stepped out into the brisk morning air and started with a light jog, pointing his face towards the rays of early sunrise.

It was both easy and hard to keep up his jogging habit with this new bizarre but wonderful arrangement. It was hard leaving in the morning, and he found the only way he could bring himself to do it was to get out before either Anthony or Tony woke; he wouldn't’ miss a single morning with Anthony that he didn’t have to. It was also easy, in a way it hadn’t been when he was responsible for a child all on his own, because he knew Anthony was safe with Tony. He could leave, and have this time for himself, and everything would be alright when he got back.

At the end of the loop, he turned back towards home and picked up the pace.

When he returned to the apartment, he poked his head in the bedroom again, but the boys were both still out cold. Steve took a shower then started emptying the dishwasher, setting aside the stuff for Anthony’s morning bottle. A small giggle from the other room interrupted his tidying.

“He’s your kid before seven!” Tony called from the bedroom, and Steve laughed.

He walked in and made an exaggerated excited face when he saw Anthony standing in his crib, bouncing on his toes. Anthony giggled again and reached out his arms towards Steve. “Teeeee!”

Try as they might, Papa hadn’t taken off. Anthony still called Steve “Tee,” though now, when Tony said, “Where’s your Papa?” he’d look around until he spotted Steve and break into a toothy grin. Anthony never said it, didn’t even give it a try, but Steve found he actually didn’t mind. Tee was a pretty special title to have.

Tony groaned and rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. “How are you both such relentlessly morning people?”

“If you went to bed at 6 like the duckling does, you would be too,” Steve said, but he hooked Anthony on his hip and slipped out, closing the door behind him, letting Tony catch a little more sleep.

But Tony appeared less than half an hour later. He came around the corner, yawning and buttoning up a crisp, white shirt. His tie was united around his neck, and his hair was sticking up on one side.

Steve shook up Anthony’s bottle and shoved it at him until he took it. He stuck it in his mouth, but his eyes wandered over to Tony. Tony settled against the counter and opened his arms. Steve poured Anthony in, bottle and all, and Tony cradled him against his chest.

“Nice run?” Tony asked, still blinking in the morning light.

“Mhm. Getting cold out there.”

Tony’s brow pinched. “Should order a snowsuit and stuff.”

Steve snorted. “Not that cold. He’ll outgrow it before he needs it.”

Tony yawned and tipped Anthony’s bottle up when it started to slide out of his grip. “So I’ll order all the sizes.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You get up at five in the morning to run, and I’m the ridiculous one?”

“Definitely.” Steve finished stirring the eggs just as the coffee maker hissed to completion.

Tony’s attention drifted down to Anthony. “Hey there, bratty little bug boy. Have a good sleep?”

“No,” Anthony said around his bottle in a way that was definitely a yes, and Tony nodded.

“That’s because you don’t have to pay taxes yet. Just you wait, little bud.” He poked Anthony’s nose, and the baby kicked his sleeper-covered feet and giggled, spilling formula out of his mouth.

Steve sighed and took Anthony back, wiping off the corners of his mouth before he could dribble on Tony’s work clothes. Tony filled two mugs while Anthony finished his bottle and Steve tossed it in the sink. Tony traded the kid back for a mug of coffee and settled at the table with Anthony on his lap, breathing in the steam that curled up from his mug.

“Meeting?” There was no other reason for Tony to be up and dressed this early.

“Yeah. Ugh, why do I let them book these things for 8am?” Tony buried his face in Anthony’s neck and breathed in. Steve felt a pang of envy even though he knew he could easily do the same. It was a nice kind of envy that hit when he saw Tony enjoying parental moments. A little clench of fear that relaxed into pure relief that he really had this, he really got to have all of this for some bizarre reason.

Steve scraped the eggs onto two plates, one divided with Anthony’s portion on the edge. The kid had decided with unwavering finality that eggs were only worth eating if they were pilfered off someone else’s plate. Steve set Tony’s plate in front of him, turning it so the toast and jam were on the far side, away from greedy little hands.

Anthony immediately grabbed a fistful of eggs and stuffed it, hand and all, into his mouth. Tony flipped through the newspaper Steve had brought in after his run, reaching out to stop Anthony’s hand every time it stretched over the plate towards his coffee or the toast.

“Your team’s not doing great in the playoffs,” Tony said with a smirk.

“I don’t remember asking for your opinion,” Steve shot back, shovelling in a forkful of eggs.

Tony looked up with a grin then narrowed his eyes. He’d finished eating and had let Anthony have his whole plate. Anthony was squishing the rest of his eggs flat with his palms, giggling as they squirted up between his fingers in an oily mess. “Shit, are you going in today? The thing last week with the hostages and then this meeting has me all muddled.”

“No, you’re fine,” Steve assured him. “I’m going in tomorrow. I’ve got him today.”

Tony’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Okay, good.” He bent down to press a kiss to Anthony’s cheek. “What are you going to do with Papa today?”

“Tee!” Anthony exclaimed loudly, throwing his hands, and a rather impressive amount of eggs into the air.

Tony winced, trying to dodge the rain of breakfast food. “Sorry buddy, I can go in looking like I got in a fight with a chicken any other day of the week, but I have to look presentable for the board.”

Steve stood and swooped in, tugging Anthony out of Tony’s lap. “Pretty sure he was done anyway.”

“Done eating maybe. But the eggs have to be studied, darling. He was doing science. About viscosity and consistency and flexibility. Strength of bonds. That kind of thing.” Tony picked the plates up and put them in the sink, cocking a hip against the counter and winking at Steve.

“No science at breakfast.”

Tony leaned in to look Anthony in the eyes and made a silly face until he laughed. “Papa comes up with all the unfun rules.”

“You can do all the science you want when you’re not late for a board meeting. You have eggs in your hair.” Steve reached out and picked the yellow clumps out of Tony’s hair while he deftly tied his tie and buttoned his cuffs. Steve washed Anthony’s hands, and Tony disappeared into the bedroom. He came out again with his hair smoothed down and his jacket on.

Anthony always got a bit sleepy after eating breakfast, like his morning finally had time to catch up with him, so Steve leaned back against the counter and rocked him against his chest for a moment while he blinked quietly. Steve watched Tony lean over the table, check his own coffee mug, frown, then grab Steve’s and knock back the half a mug he hadn’t finished.

Anthony gurgled, and Steve looked down at him, wiping at his mouth with the corner of his sleeve. When he looked back up, Tony was staring at him, the nearly empty mug hovering by his mouth, but not moving. Steve stared back, waiting, but Tony didn’t move, he just blinked. Steve could practically hear the gears turning in his head.

“Duck,” Steve said, when he could feel Anthony getting squirmy. Tony didn’t move. “Tony? Duck.”

Tony shook himself as if out of a trance. “What?”

“Duck,” Steve repeated, and Tony grabbed Duck off the back of the couch. He tossed the toy over the island, and Steve caught it and handed it to Anthony who clutched it gratefully, sticking his thumb in his mouth. Steve watched Tony, and he still looked a bit like a deer caught in headlights. “You okay?”

“Hmm?” Tony looked at him again then smiled wide and warm. “Yeah, fine. Just - uh - just realized something. No big deal.”

Anthony hummed around his thumb and kicked his feet idly, watching Tony move around tucking things in his briefcase.

Tony picked the paper up again and frowned at it. “Have you seen the latest polls?”

“Tony.”

“What?”

“You are actually going to be late. Read that in the car.”

Tony rolled his eyes but tucked the paper under his arm. He circled the island to stand in front of Steve, leaning in to blow a raspberry on Anthony’s belly. Anthony squirmed in Steve’s arms, giggling sleepily, and Steve smiled down at him.

“Bye, Duckling. Be good.” Tony pressed a kiss to Anthony’s forehead. “Bye, Steve. Be good.” He pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek, and Steve rolled his eyes.

He shoved at Tony with one hand. “Get out of here. Go work hard so you can keep us in diapers.”

“Yes, sir!” Tony shot Anthony one more look, filled with warmth and softness and longing, and Steve felt something fizzle in his stomach. Some days, he loved getting Anthony all to himself, and some days, it broke his heart watching Tony leave because he knew exactly how he felt. It was the same way he felt on the days when he was the one leaving.

Steve lived for his days with Anthony, and for the first time, he could see a potential future where he retired from fighting entirely. He had always been sure he’d go down fighting - again - but now he was determined to see himself through to whatever old age awaited him. Anthony needed him to.

It was a nice enough day, so Steve took Anthony to the park. They’d found a playground near the apartment which had the same spring duck toy as the park near Bucky and Gail’s, though for some bizarre reason it was painted blue, which meant Anthony refused to acknowledge it as a duck. Still, he liked sitting on it and rocking back and forth, and he liked being pushed on the swings, and he liked being carried through the little copse of trees on the edge, stopping Steve every few steps to demand they collect a particularly well-shaped leaf or an unusual nut casing to be presented to Tony when he got home.

When Anthony’s nap rolled around, Steve found himself reluctant to put him down. They’d had such a lovely day, and he found himself struck with new love for the kid everytime he looked at him. It was overwhelming, like waves crashing into him over and over, making it hard to get a decent footing. He’d never known it was possible to love like this, and so easily too.

He read Anthony his books in bed, unable to pretend he hadn’t done it on purpose once Anthony drifted off to sleep halfway through a second reading of Goodnight Moon. He didn’t even try to talk himself into putting Anthony in the crib, or come up with excuses why he wouldn't. He just stretched out on his side, resting his ear on his arm, and watched Anthony sleep.

Two hours later, Anthony started waking up slowly, and Steve rolled onto his back and settled Anthony on his chest. He blinked and huffed and sucked his thumb, eyes wide and fixed on Steve but not really focused yet.

They eventually moved out to the living room and some of Anthony’s toys brightened him up quickly. Tony had come home from work last week with a sleek, black box and a twinkle in his eye. He’d presented it to Anthony who had taken the cover off and actually gasped. His chorus of, “oooow,” was all they heard for the rest of the evening while he flicked all the switches and pressed all the buttons that covered the surface of the box, watching the lights turn on and off.

“Did you make that?” Steve asked, almost as impressed with the toy as Anthony was.

Tony shrugged. “Yeah. Just threw together some bits and pieces I had laying around. Kid likes the remote so much and that only has one light on it. Thought he’d get a kick out of this one.”

Steve beamed, then slowly frowned as something dawned on him. “We’re going to have to hide this on a very, very high shelf or he’s never going to eat, bathe or sleep ever again.”

Tony had laughed and laughed, but it had turned out to be very true.

But today, Steve was feeling a melancholy kind of false nostalgia, the sort of wistful longing that hits when you realize that someday today is going to be in the past, and he felt like his mood was rubbing off on Anthony, so he took the special toy down and let him play with it to his heart’s content.  

He hid it again during Anthony’s second nap and was surprised when he didn’t get pestered to give it back when he woke again. Instead, Anthony seemed to want nothing more than Steve’s attention, making him flop around on the carpet with him and tickle him until he screeched.

Steve lifted Anthony up over his head, rolling onto his back and grinning when he was rewarded with a giggle. He dropped him low until their foreheads touched, then lifted him back up again with a “Weeee.” Anthony loved it. After several more lifts, Steve started to get the slightest tingle in his arms. Hmm. Anthony wasn’t much of a weight, and he could easily lift him thousands more times, but it gave him an idea.

By the time Tony came swanning in the door and dumped his briefcase by the coat rack, Steve was doing one armed, one-legged push-ups with Anthony slung in the other arm against his chest. Every time they went low he pressed a quick kiss to Anthony’s nose then rose up again. Tony watched them for a moment then laughed.

“I don’t think that’s how most ‘Baby and Me’ workout classes go.”

Steve switched legs. He’d counted up to 200 in his head, and he was just starting to feel it. “Yeah, well, he thinks it’s funny. Just wait until he asks you to do it.” He turned to smirk at Tony.

“Pff, I could do that, darling, easily. I could do that with a baby on each leg and a martini in each hand. Need someone to sit on your back?”

“That doesn’t leave you many limbs left.” Steve rolled back up to his knees and plunked Anthony in Tony’s lap. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’m going to take a shower instead.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Tony mock-whined. “I work hard all day and as soon as I come home it’s ‘here’s the baby Tony,’ while you go out and party with your friends.”  

“I don’t think a shower constitutes a party. And I wasn’t planning on inviting any friends.” Steve leaned against the doorframe to cock an eyebrow at Tony, but the look he got back was an odd one, a smirk twisted through with something else he couldn’t identify.

“Good,” Tony drawled. “Cause you’re all mine.”

It was a joke, but as Steve stared at the man on the couch and the baby in his lap, he realized that it wasn’t entirely untrue. He had everything he wanted, as unusual as the situation was. This unconventional little family belonged to him. And he belonged to it. “Sure am,” he whispered to himself as he turned to slip into the bathroom.

Chapter Text

“Your phone is ringing!” Agent Wright called from the other side of the training simulation room.

Steve frowned and tossed aside his gloves and training shield. The only people who called his SHIELD phone were people from, well, SHIELD. And he was already here.

Except.

He started running. He snapped the phone to his ear. “Tony?”

“Steve!” Tony sounded out of breath and wild. Then his voice went soft. “I know! Wow!”

“Tony, what’s wrong? What happened?” Steve was already out the door and halfway down the hall.

“He’s - Anthony! - Steve, come home!”

“What’s wrong?”

Tony made a strange noise that broke into rustling static.

“Tony!” Steve finally snapped. He screeched to a halt and braced a hand against the wall. He didn’t even know which direction he was heading in - the hangar or his office.

“He’s walking,” Tony said reverently.

“What?”

“Anthony’s walking - yes, good! Come here, kid.” There was a thump, and then Steve could hear Anthony’s wild laughter.

“He’s walking?”

“Yeah!” And now Steve could hear the excitement in Tony’s voice instead of worry. “He’s awful at it.” Tony laughed, and there was another thump.

“Oh my god.” Steve leaned back against the wall. He could picture Anthony’s chubby little legs as he wobbled across the floor.

“Steve.”

“Yes?”

“Come home.”

“Right.” Steve hung up then called a cab. When he opened the door to their apartment, his heart simultaneously fell and soared. Anthony wasn’t walking anymore, that activity had been replaced by one of his favourite tableaus. Tony lay on the couch on his back, with Anthony sprawled over his stomach, also on his back. Anthony had his thumb in his mouth and was gazing up at a work report Tony was holding over them and reading out from. Steve had never managed to convince Anthony that anything other than his own books were quality reading material, but Tony could read out the stock pages of the paper and Anthony would be rapt.

“I missed it,” Steve sighed as he dumped his bag and crossed the room. He leaned over the back of the couch to kiss Anthony hello.

“Nah, we’re just taking a pit stop.” Tony tossed his report aside. He grabbed one of Anthony’s feet in each of his hands and wiggled them. “He burned out his first set of tires and we had to swap for fresh.” Anthony giggled, and Steve couldn’t resist reaching down to pluck him up into his arms.

Tony came around the side of the couch and sat cross-legged on the floor. “Go on.” He gestured at Steve. “Release the kraken.”

“He doesn’t have to perform for me…”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You came home to see him walk. If he doesn’t want to do it, he won’t. But give him a chance. He likes performing for you.” He turned to Anthony. “Wanna show your papa how well you walk?”

“No!” Anthony cackled, throwing his hands in the air. Well, he certainly had enough energy. Steve swung him around until his feet were hanging down then settled him on the floor. He let Anthony cling to each of his fingers but didn’t hold on, letting his tiny feet hold his own weight. Tony reached out his hands and beckoned Anthony closer.

He didn’t make it at first, he just sat down, but then he hauled himself back up with Steve’s fingers, and on his third attempt he managed a few shaky steps towards Tony. His next two steps were more confident and by the time he was two steps away, Steve slipped his fingers free and let Anthony stumble his own way into Tony’s arms.

“Ooow!” Anthony hooted as Tony lifted him up in the air in celebration.

“Wow, indeed.” Steve sat down hard with his back against the couch.

Tony grinned at him. It all felt a bit unbelievable. Anthony was growing and learning and that was wonderful in its own right but every little step, every grumpy teething cry, every sleeper that suddenly wasn’t long enough, was a reminder that this wasn’t a tiny happy bubble waiting to be popped. This was real. Anthony was growing and changing. And he was theirs.

“Our kid’s pretty smart, huh?” Tony’s grin softened to something warmer.

“Yeah, he gets that from me,” Steve deadpanned, unable to keep the smile off his face when Tony laughed.

Tony tried to get Anthony to walk back over to Steve, but he kept sitting down instead then holding his arms out and whining, “Teee.” Eventually, Steve gave in and tugged him into his lap.

“You’ve got him wrapped around your little finger,” Tony stage-whispered to Anthony as he stood up and made for the kitchen.

Steve frowned, about to protest, then shrugged instead. It wasn’t exactly untrue.

**

“Do you want to take Junior swimming today?” Tony asked over his morning coffee.

Steve paused where he was wrestling the kid in question into a fresh diaper. “Swimming?”

“Yeah. You know, water, spandex, inflatable whales. That kind of thing.”

“Do you think he’d like it?”

“He’s one, Steve, of course he’ll like it. Plus I bought him a present.” He winked at Anthony who giggled and tried to struggle up to crawl over to his dad. Steve pinned him with a hand on his stomach and pulled the diaper tab in place. He gave up on clothes and released him, letting him scurry across the floor to be scooped up by Tony.

“Okay. If you think it’s a good idea.”

“It’ll be great. You do have swim trunks, don’t you darling?” Steve could hear Tony’s smirk in his voice.

“Of course I do.” Steve busied himself with the diaper bag so Tony wouldn’t see the uncertainty on his face and latch onto it like a barnacle. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to swim, of course, he did, and he was very good at it, but it wasn’t an activity, as far as he was concerned. It was a stealth tactic or a survival method, or, twice a year, a necessary part of passing SHIELD’s combat fitness testing. It wasn’t fun. But people did swim for fun, obviously, and with their kids even, so he felt he better give it a try.

Tony had a membership at a shockingly expensive looking club in midtown that had an indoor pool, so they packed up their stuff, eighty percent of which was for Anthony, and headed over. The club gave Steve a similar feeling to Tony’s house - that he shouldn’t touch anything - but Tony marched in confidently, his weird little family in tow, and led the way to the change rooms.

Getting Anthony into his baby swimsuit was a challenge. He was deeply enamoured with the new, interesting, surroundings, and the suit had these odd puffy sections that would keep him afloat, but it made it very hard to get his little, kicking legs in. Tony distracted him while Steve worked his feet through the legs holes and struggled the suit into place.

“See you out there,” Tony said, once Anthony was ready. He grabbed a plastic bag he’d brought with them, scooped the kid up, and disappeared out the other door.

Steve took his time getting changed, still deeply apprehensive of the concept of swimming for pleasure. But Tony was excited and Anthony was probably going to love it, and really, he didn’t want to miss any moments of the two of them having fun. So he told himself that, at worst, he could sit on the edge and declare himself lifeguard and watch his family having a good time, and that wouldn’t be unpleasant at all.

Both Tony and Anthony were in the water already when Steve pushed through the ornate wooden door to the pool deck. Or, at least, Tony was in the water. Anthony was in a giant, inflatable duck.

“What is that?” Steve stopped dead on the tile deck.

“What is it, kidlet?” Tony asked Anthony. “What's this?” he tugged at the duck’s plastic beak.

“Dah!” Anthony yelled, almost trembling with excitement. Steve could see the pale flashes of his little legs kicking underwater. The duck was a float with a harness in the middle to hold Anthony in but let the bottom half of his body stick out underwater.

“Did you blow that up while I was changing?” Steve asked, amused. He walked to the edge of the pool and sat down, dangling his legs into the water and smiling with pleasant surprise when it was quite warm.

“What can I say, I’m quite gifted with my mouth.” He winked.

“Tony!”

“Come on, Captain America, hop in. Show us what a super soldier can do.”

Steve reluctantly slipped in the water, then took a few laps back and forth to adjust. He had to admit, it was a lot nicer than the cold pool at SHIELD, filled with agents in full tac gear and lined with administrators and clipboards. It was warm and quiet, and no one else from the club was swimming today so they had the place to themselves.

Anthony was alternating bouts of wild giggling with periods of quiet scientific contemplation. He reached out and touched the surface of the water, kicked his legs experimentally, then toyed with the face on the inflatable duck. Tony floated him around the shallow end while Steve warmed up, and when he spun so Anthony was facing away, Steve snuck up behind and wrapped a hand around each of Anthony's pudgy legs, underwater.

Anthony screeched and whipped his head around only to find Steve grinning at him. He broke into laughter again and kicked wildly, trying to escape the hold. Steve released him then dunked underwater and circled around to come up on Anthony’s other side. After waiting a few moments, he popped up again, and Anthony shrieked with delight.

Steve looked up from making a goofy face at Anthony to see Tony smiling softly at him. “What?”

The smile shifted into something a little more guarded. “Keep being so adorable, Captain Rogers, and you’re going to destroy your reputation for being a hardass.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I don’t have a reputation for being a hardass. People see what they want to see in Captain America.” He sniffed haughtily. “Besides, I’m adorable every day.”

Tony broke into surprised laughter then grabbed the edge of the floatie and tugged Anthony close. He blew a raspberry kiss on his bare belly, making him giggle then dunked underwater as well, rising back up slowly over the edge of the duck until Anthony shrieked with delighted terror and tried to push him back under.

Steve played with them for a while, then paddled over to the edge when Tony insisted on the beginnings of teaching Anthony to swim. Steve squirmed uncomfortably when Tony pulled him out of the duck and held him in the water, but Tony insisted he knew what he was doing, and if Steve sat nearby on the edge, he could jump in if anything went wrong.

Tony held Anthony close to him and dipped his own face half underwater, blowing bubbles. He lowered Anthony a little more each time, encouraging him to blow out too until, after a little practice, they were both sliding under up to their noses and making a churning mess of bubbles between their mouths. It was amazing how quickly Anthony leaned to do it, and how little fear he had of the water.

When Anthony got tired of practicing, Tony popped him back in the duck and tagged Steve in. They were getting close to time to leave, if they wanted to get a good nap of him, but they had a little more time, so Steve hopped back in and hooked a hand around the edge of the duck. He floated on his back and paddled hard with his feet, propelling them quickly across the pool. Anthony was starting to get tired, so instead of giggling, he settled happily back in his floatie and smiled placidly as they swooped back and forth across the pool. Tony lounged languidly on the side of the pool, one arm thrown across his eyes and one leg dangling in the water. All he needed was a little sunlight and a colourful drink with an umbrella and he’d look like a swimwear ad.

The clock finally clicked around to time, but on their last lap Steve slowed and caught Anthony’s eye. He pressed a finger to his lips and winked, then slowly paddled his way up to where Tony was dozing. He reached out and wrapped a hand around Tony’s ankle then tugged, spilling him the rest of the way into the pool. Tony yelped, his eyes going wide, then came up spluttering.

“Ah, you little sneaks!” Steve grabbed his arm to make sure he was steady, not letting him sink under again as he spat water out of his mouth and rubbed his eyes. But when he looked up, he was grinning and shaking his head fondly. He gave Anthony a suspicious look. “This was your idea, wasn’t it?”

“Definitely,” Steve confirmed. “Captain America would never pull someone in a pool.”

Steve expected Tony to laugh, but he didn’t. Instead, he blinked up at Steve with a soft, curious smile on his face. Steve tipped his head in question, but Tony just shook his head. “Alright, I’d better get you two mischief makers home before we get kicked out for horseplay.”

The rest of the evening was the warm, soft kind that only happen once in a while and when you least expect them. They were all tired and hungry, but in the best possible way, and the outside air was crisp, so by the time they got home, they all needed to wrap up in sweatpants and cozy sweaters. They’d washed Anthony off at the club, so they put him right in his sleeper, and they ate pizza for dinner, curled up in a mess of blankets and sleepwear.

Steve shifted down on the couch. He was feeling the pull of sleep already, even though it was only six-thirty. Anthony was a clean, warm, sleeper-clad weight in Steve’s lap. His head rested against Steve’s stomach, rocking up and down while Steve breathed. He still had a bottle in his mouth but it was empty, and he was just mouthing at it absentmindedly. Steve knew he should trade it out for a binkie, but that would involve moving, and he was pretty sure he’d never been so comfortable in his life.

Tony was a long line of solid warmth against his side, pressed close so Anthony could see the pictures in “Little Duck.” Gail had bought them the book, and Anthony had refused to listen to anything else at bedtime, usually six or seven times in a row, and Steve and Tony had taken to tapping each other out and in to stand repeating the simple phrases over and over. Steve let his eyes drift shut. He moved his mouth along with the words as Tony read them.

Tony reached the end of the book, and Anthony shouted, “Gan!” around his bottle. Tony sighed but flipped back to the beginning and started again. Anthony repeated,” Dah,” in a reverent tone every time he flipped the page.

Steve opened his eyes again, blinking into the light to fend off the pull of sleep. Tony was leaning against his side, twisting the book towards Anthony, and Steve’s eyes followed along the edge of his jaw and down the curve of his neck. Somehow in the last couple months, the smell of Tony’s cologne had become unbelievably comforting. Steve leaned into the contact a little, breathing him in with the smell of baby shampoo at the same time. It smelled like family.

It smelled like home.

And love.

Steve sat up a little straighter and looked at Tony. It felt like love too. Even as he acknowledged it, he could feel it bloom like a flower inside his chest. He loved Anthony, he knew that, he’d loved him since back when he was Tony, and he loved their family, what they had built between the three of them. But for the first time, Steve looked at Tony and realized that he loved him too, even with Anthony out of the picture. The connection between them was immense and overpowering and as necessary as oxygen.

Terrifying too. Steve’s first instinct was to push it away, hide from it, shove it in a corner and ignore the feeling. But that had been his reaction when he’d first been handed a baby as well, and now he wouldn’t give that up for the world. He wouldn’t run, he wouldn’t back down. Because if he faced this head-on, threw himself into it, fought for it, maybe he’d end up with something just as incredible, but in a different way.

Tony finished the book again, and Steve was still staring. Anthony said, “Gan…” but it was a token protest; he’d slipped into a sleepy, baby puddle in Steve’s lap. Tony looked up at Steve to signal bedtime, but Steve couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from Tony.

“Steve?” Tony asked.

“I love you,” Steve said. Because it was true. He tamped down the sudden rush of panic the thought brought. With all they had been through, all the terror and peril they faced every day, this needed to be said. “Thank you for giving me a family.”

Tony’s smile spread slowly but didn’t stop until it was wide and warm. “I love you too,” he said softly. “And right back at you.” He winked, and Steve laughed, the tension released.

Anthony tipped his face up to see what Steve was laughing at, and Steve dipped down and kissed him. “I love you too, my little duck.”

“Dah!”

“Nailed it, kid.” Tony stood, and Steve hoisted Anthony in the air, letting Tony pluck him out of his arms and bring him into the bedroom. Alone on the couch, Steve took a deep breath and let it out.

He loved Tony.

Of course he did. He let his eyes close again and stretched out long on the couch. He could hear the sounds of Tony and Anthony debating bedtime, but Tony won, as he always did, and it wasn’t long before he was sliding back into the living room, closing the door with a soft click. Steve didn’t move, he felt too heavy to move, but Tony lifted his feet and settled under them with Steve’s legs stretched over his lap. He dropped a hand to Steve’s ankle and squeezed it idly, flipping through a book. Steve let himself drift off to sleep to the warmth of Tony’s hand on his ankle and the sound of Anthony’s soft breathing through the monitor.

Chapter Text

The next morning was no different than any other. Steve slipped out of bed at 5 and hit the pavement. The morning crisp was even stronger now, and he breathed in the fresh air to kickstart his system. He always thought about his family during his runs, but this time, he very purposefully pushed aside thoughts of Anthony and focused on Tony, instead.

Something had been creeping up on him over the last few months and he hadn’t noticed until the other night. He did love Tony, and he supposed that was inevitable with them living together and raising a child together - or if it wasn’t that, they would have tried to kill each other by now. But the more he rolled the love around in his mind, the more he realized that the shape of it wasn’t quite what he expected.

He blinked his eyes closed, trusting his feet to stick to the familiar path, and remembered the edge of Tony’s jaw, the line along his carefully trimmed beard, the way his collarbone disappeared into his shirt when the top buttons were undone. He knew what the weight of Tony’s hand felt like on his ankle and the rhythm of his breathing beside him at night. He could recall with perfect clarity every time Tony had jokingly kissed his cheek before leaving for work.

He opened his eyes again, into the golden rays of the sunrise breaking over the horizon. He didn’t just love Tony, he wanted him. To his surprise, it was less like an electric shock of realization and more like a slow leak breaking into a waterfall. It had been there simmering low in his gut for a while now, building, heating, but only now was it bubbling up to the surface, rattling the lid and spilling over the sides.

He examined his feelings as carefully as he could. This wasn’t something he could act on without being completely sure it was worth it. They had Anthony, and things were working, things were so good. If Steve was just touch-starved and lonely, this wasn’t the way to fix it. If anyone’s hands would do on his skin, he couldn’t ask Tony to provide them. He wouldn’t do anything to threaten what they had.

But as he turned around the end of his loop and made his way back the apartment where the other two pieces of his heart were still sleeping, he settled in his mind. He didn't want just anyone - he wanted Tony. He wanted to kiss Tony quiet when he wouldn’t stop talking. He wanted to sit twined up on the couch while they read Anthony his bedtime story, Tony’s fingers wound through his. He wanted to wake up with Tony’s heartbeat against his chest instead of on the other side of the bed.

And Tony was a man.

It was something he’d never thought about before, even though he knew it was a way in which the world was changing - slowly but inexorably. But it was one thing to accept it in other people, and another, entirely, to see it in himself. His first painful gut reaction was that wanting Tony like that made him weak, less of a man, damaged. Words he knew weren’t okay anymore prickled on his skin, as if they were inked there, labels dotted all over his face like the neon yellow sticky notes that covered Tony’s notebooks. Beacons, drawing everyone’s attention to how different he was. Captain America, a sissy. It made his stomach churn.

But when he pushed away thoughts of what it meant and thought, instead, about what it would mean, to him, to get to hold Tony in his arms at night, and kiss him goodbye over Anthony’s head when he came home from work, and even - he flushed - join him for his morning shower, those fears didn’t seem to matter so much. If he could have chosen anyone to fall in love with, yeah, it wouldn't have been a man, it wouldn’t have been Tony Stark, but he had, preferences be damned, and this wasn’t something he could stomp down into the dark dusty corners of his mind or run away from. They were raising their son together, and he owed it to Anthony to be brave, to show him that a real man didn’t hide when he was afraid of something. He faced it head-on.

It started raining just before he made it back inside, and Tony, who was miraculously already awake - shooed him into the shower while he got Anthony started for the day. When Steve came out of the bathroom, Tony and Anthony were already hunkered down for a cozy day indoors while the rain pounded outside. They were curled up together under a blanket with Finding Nemo playing. Steve settled next to them, shoving up close so he could feel Anthony’s soft weight against his leg.

Anthony called out, “Ooow!” and “Dah!” continuously throughout the movie, which was his breakaway favourite, but Steve had seen it so many times, he found his attention wandering. Tony had his arm wrapped around Anthony’s back, his hand resting loosely next to Steve’s. It still terrified Steve to push at the boundaries they’d drawn over the past few months, especially when he had no idea how Tony felt, but he held his breath and stretched his pinky finger out a little, letting it brush against Tony’s. When Tony didn’t move his hand, Steve hooked his finger under Tony’s and tugged a little. Tony shifted his hand closer, and Steve took a breath and let his hand slide over and cover Tony’s entirely, threading their fingers together.

Tony hummed happily and leaned his head over onto Steve’s shoulder. It wasn’t that intimate or unusual. They touched sometimes, it was inevitable, but the closeness still sent a rush of anticipation boiling and popping in Steve’s stomach. Two days ago, if Tony had held his hand like this, it wouldn’t have meant much of anything to Steve, but now, now it was a taste of terrifying possibility.

They sat like that for a few minutes until the little octopus was no longer on screen and Anthony’s eyes snapped down to where their hands were joined. “Daaa,” he whined, reaching out to untangle their fingers. He shoved Steve’s hand aside to grab Tony’s and tug it around his middle instead.

Tony laughed, pulling Anthony close and pressing a kiss to his cheek. “You hog.”

“Nooo,” Anthony protested.

“You are, you’re a little piggy.”

“Daaa.” Anthony giggled, turning his face up to Tony’s and laughing harder when Tony made pig noises at him.

Steve shook his head fondly at them, but he couldn’t help but miss Tony’s head on his shoulder and Tony’s hand in his. Anthony’s attention drifted back to the movie, and Tony snuck a look at Steve over his little head. Their eyes met for a moment, and Tony smiled warmly then shifted back close to rest his head on Steve’s shoulder. Steve turned his face towards him, letting his eyes drift shut for a moment, savouring the moment. Tony kept his arm around Anthony, but when Steve moved his up close, he reached out and hooked their pinky fingers together again.

**

Some days, Tony went in to SI in the morning, then they traded out Anthony at lunch so Steve could go in to SHIELD for the afternoon. There was a cafe at a perfect crossing point, with a park nearby if Anthony got fussy, and sometimes they’d meet there to do the baby hand-off.

Tony was already at the cafe when Steve bustled in with Anthony in his arms. Tony was leaning on the table on one elbow, smiling up at the waitress who was biting her lip and twirling a strand of hair around her finger.

Steve barely had time to summon up a feeling that he wasn’t even sure was jealousy before Tony caught sight of them. He turned away from the waitress, fixing his eyes on Steve. His smile softened, away from his glitzy media smile and into the small, intimate one he saved for Anthony, and lately, Steve was realizing, for him too.

The waitress followed his line of sight and stepped back to let Steve slide into the other side of the booth. She smiled politely at him and took his drink order then disappeared. Steve must have been making a face because he could tell Tony was laughing at him, see the twinkle in his eyes.

“Da-aaaa,” Anthony sung, squirming in Steve’s arms, and he broke the shared gaze with Tony to look down at their kid.

“Hold on a second.” He wrestled Anthony out of his sweater then handed him over the table to Tony.

Tony made a face and stood to grab him, barely clearing his feet over his water glass. “Ah! Rogers. Some of us aren’t super soldiers, alright? Plus you keep insisting that we feed him so he keeps getting bigger.” He smacked a kiss to Anthony’s cheek and got shoved at for his trouble.

Anthony found Tony’s fork, which occupied all of his attention until the food came, and then, with the addition of a spoon, got him through until the adults were done. Tony suggested they hit the park before silverware didn’t cut it anymore. He flashed his card at the waitress who had shifted abruptly from flirting with Tony to staring wide-eyed at all three of them, and Steve was distracted from his usual urge to insist they split the bill, to a pressing worry that this was exactly the sort of situation that was going to get them caught in a media frenzy.

Tony shoved the go bag over Steve’s shoulder and carried Anthony out, shooting Steve a look when he lagged behind.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked quietly, a few minutes later. He was bent over awkwardly so Anthony could hold on to his fingers while he toddled around in the grass. Now that he’d figured out this walking thing, he was taking it very seriously.

Steve shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I was just - I can’t help thinking about what Greg said. About what impact this will have on your company.”

Tony’s face twisted at the mention of Greg then twisted further when Steve’s words sunk in. “I’m not going to hide this, Steve. If you want to stay out of the media, then I understand. I can handle that. I get that it’s weird to try and explain why you’re raising a kid with your teammate.”

Steve fought back the urge to say you’re more than a teammate, because he knew it wasn’t the point here. “I don’t care. People have said some awful things about me. It’s not like the Ultimates always get perfect press. But if my presence makes it more complicated for you…”

“It doesn’t. It makes it harder for scumbag tabloid writers to explain. But you here makes things less complicated for me, Steve.”

It wasn’t a confession, not really. And Steve already knew Tony loved him, knew Anthony was more than his and more than Tony’s, he was theirs. But there was something about the way he said it that felt like one. They hung in comfortable silence until a thump and a wail broke the soft haze that had surrounded them.

Anthony had bumped his head on a low-hanging branch and was sobbing, more out of surprise than actual pain, Steve was sure. Tony immediately scooped him up, brushing his hair back to check for a lump.

But Anthony pouted and shoved at Tony’s hands, a broken, “Te-e-e,” coming through between hitching breaths. Tony handed him over with a sigh. Steve nestled Anthony against his chest, rubbing soothing circles on his back until his breathing calmed. A little concerned, Steve glanced back at Tony, but he didn’t seem hurt, he looked… proud, or at least, happy. Steve couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was a good look.

And he suddenly didn’t care if the waitress had called a photographer, and he didn’t care that he was in the middle of a park in the middle of the day on a Wednesday with one of the most recognizable men in America. He leaned over and pressed a kiss to Tony’s cheek.

Anthony pouted and tugged on Steve’s nose, clearly feeling that any sympathy kisses ought to be directed his way since he was the one with the mortal wound. But that only got laughter and a tickling raspberry kiss on his neck in response. His grumps turned to giggles before long and Steve set him back down on the ground to explore again, his trauma all but forgotten.

The second Steve’s arms were free, Tony was in them, pressing up into Steve’s space and wrapping a hand around his waist. He tightened his grip in a firm hug, resting his cheek against Steve’s shoulder for a moment, then stepped away.

Steve wished he hadn’t stepped away so soon.

**

That weekend, the weather broke with a snap. Steve was pink-cheeked and tingly when he came back from his run, and the heavy jacket they’d ordered for Anthony was suddenly necessary. They’d promised Bucky and Gail they’d come over for lunch, so after Anthony’s first nap, they packed up his things and carted him across town to their house.

Bucky had bought a swingset kit and insisted that Tony help him set it up out back after lunch. Gail washed while Steve dried and watched the two men through the window. Anthony sat on the ground, safely out of the way, with a collection of plastic garden tools to keep him entertained. But he was more interested in laughing while his dad tried not to argue with Bucky about the best order to put the thing together. Steve could tell, even through the window that they were disagreeing about whether to put the whole thing together and then tip it up, or build each side of the frame, then meet them in the middle. Steve was pretty sure he was going to be the one lifting it up, either way, so he let them have their fun. He did note with a wry smile that Anthony had the instructions sticking out of his bucket and was whacking them absentmindedly with a shovel every now and then. Neither Tony nor Bucky seemed to miss them.

“You okay, honey?” Gail asked, startling him out of his thoughts. “You’ve been quiet all afternoon.”

Steve looked at her then back out the window at his bizarre little family. He couldn't hold it in any longer. “I - I think I’m in love with him,” he admitted quietly. Gail hummed thoughtfully, and he gave her a considering look. “You don’t seem surprised.”

“Oh, I’m not. I’ve seen that look before, Steve Rogers. It used to be directed at me.” She smiled softly at him. “I’m happy for you.”

“He doesn’t know yet… Is it worth it, though? We have Anthony, and I just…”

“Love is always worth it.” Gail rested her hand on his arm, and even though it was wrinkled and twisted by age, he still knew it. “You’re good parents, Steve, you’ll find a way to make it work. But you can’t give yourself up, trying to be a good parent. It’s all too easy to stop fighting for what you want for yourself, but doing things for you will make you a better father. You deserve to be happy beyond Anthony. After all -” she winked “- someday he’ll be off building his own family and you’ll be left with whatever it is you build here.”

It seemed impossible to think of Anthony growing up into a fully formed person that didn’t need them anymore, but as terrifying as it was, it was satisfying too. They weren’t just caring for a child, they were raising a person.

“I don’t know if Tony wants me like that,” Steve said, trying not to blush and likely failing.

“I don’t know either, but I do know he loves you enough to respect your feelings. He’s not going to get upset or run away if you tell him what you want, Steve. Of course, you have to be prepared for the possibility that he might not feel the same way, but I promise you, he won’t throw it in your face if he doesn’t.”

Steve took Gail’s hand in his and wound their fingers together, eyes still fixed on the two men arguing over socket wrenches in front of the giggling baby. Steve couldn’t see Anthony’s face - he was really just a puddle of puffy jacket - but he could see his little arms waving up in the air, Duck clutched in one hand, and a handful of dirt that Steve sincerely hoped wouldn’t end up in his mouth in the other. He was started to understand why Lydia and been so disinterested in Annie eating sand. There were some battles that weren't worth fighting.

When Bucky, Tony, and Anthony came back inside to find the dishes done, Gail rather pointendly suggested that the two dads leave Anthony with them and enjoy the day, obligation free. Steve shot her a look, but she just widened her eyes innocently and smiled at Tony until he agreed. They left the go bag, trusting Bucky and Gail to take good care of him, and promised to pick him up by bedtime.

Outside in the fresh, fall air, Tony took a deep breath, turning his face to the sun. “What do you want to do?”

Steve shrugged. “There’s a park a little ways to the south, we could go for a walk.”

“Sounds lovely.”

They set off down the street, and when they hit the open green of the park, Tony reached out and wound his fingers through Steve’s. Butterflies fluttered in Steve’s stomach, and he worried for the first time in his life that his palm might be unpleasantly sweaty. All these little touches had been so much simpler, so much easier, before, but after his talk with Gail, he really had no excuse not to tell Tony how he felt. He thought he would feel better, having made the decision - he usually did - but he felt worse instead. His skin prickled, and his stomach churned.  

He just wanted the conversation to be over. He wanted to beam his thoughts into Tony’s head so he didn’t have to say them out loud.

He chickened out for the entirety of their walk, and when Tony suggested they go home and lounge about in their child-free apartment, Steve agreed easily, then fretted the whole cab ride home. He had no excuse - he had to tell Tony while they had the place to themselves.

He steeled himself as they walked up the stairs, trailing behind Tony and letting words roll around in his head, trying to settle on the right way to say, I want more, without it sounding like, what we have isn’t enough.

Tony unlocked the apartment and unbuttoned his coat while Steve fidgeted his way over to the kitchen island. He leaned back against it, watching Tony hang his things. Instead of moving for the couch or his desk, Tony came to stand in front of Steve, and Steve could see the crease in his brow, the question forming. He’d never been able to hide it from Tony when something was on his mind, and it was frankly a miracle that Tony hadn’t noticed and pressed him earlier.

Steve opened his mouth, trying to force words out - any words - but then Tony shifted forward, his eyes never breaking their lock on Steve’s. He moved slowly and easily into Steve’s space, bringing their chests together and tucking his legs between Steve’s, their knees pressed together. Steve could feel the long line of warmth that was Tony, ending in fingers that sought his then wound together.

In the end, there were no words. Tony leaned forward until his forehead touched Steve’s lightly. His eyes flickered closed, and Steve tipped his chin up until their lips met. They kissed soft and slow, gently finding the edges and curves of each other, seeking out the angle that made them fit together best and the slide of tongues that made the other sigh or gasp.

Tony’s hands fell away from Steve’s and stroked up his chest, between his jacket and his shirt, pinning him back against the counter edge. His in turn, found Tony’s waist, hooking one arm around to hold Tony close while the other slid, flat-palmed, up his back. Their hips slotted together and like a lighter clicking, the kisses snapped into heated, heavy and dizzying. Steve couldn’t stop his hands from scrabbling over Tony’s back, tugging his shirt free from his waistband so he could feel warm skin under his fingertips.

Tony broke the kiss, smiling against Steve’s lips as Steve sucked in a sharp gasp, not realizing how badly he needed oxygen until he started breathing again. “Steve,” he hummed, and Steve had never heard anyone say his name like that. The word pooled in his stomach, warming him from the inside out. He clutched Tony closer.

“Steve,” Tony said again, but it was more pointed this time, more lucid. “There’s something I need to say.”

Steve swallowed hard and blinked at Tony, trying to clear his head. He was sure there was something he had to say too, but maybe he just had, somehow, without any words at all. He nodded.

Tony settled a soft hand on his cheek and held his gaze. “I love you.” Steve smiled at that. “And I need you to know, before we tip entirely off this cliff, that no matter what happens between us, you’re Anthony’s father. It’s legal, it’s binding, I can’t take that away from you, and I would never try. But I want you to know, that even if I did try, I couldn't, okay?”

“I know.” Steve ran a soothing hand across Tony’s back, trying to ignore the thrill that the expanse of smooth muscle lit in him and mostly failing.

“Good. And we don’t have to take this step. I’m happy with what we have now. We have Anthony and each other and everything is already perfect. There’s no pressure to move this forward.”

“I know that too. And I agree.” Steve pulled Tony forward again until he fit against Steve’s hips. “But I want this - you. And if you want me too… it’s kind of terrifying, but I want to…” Steve trailed off, not sure how to put into words what he wanted, but yet again, it seemed he wouldn’t have to. Tony leaned in, claiming his mouth in a passionate kiss.

They stayed that way for a while, tasting each other, exploring the edges of each others’ clothes with their hands, and the edges of each other’s mouths with their lips and tongues. Tony hooked his fingers in Steve’s belt loops and tugged a little, moving backwards towards the bedroom and pulling Steve along with him.

“Is this alright?” Tony asked softly when they stumbled through the door and the backs of Tony’s legs hit the bed. The absurdity of him asking if it was alright if they fell into bed together after sleeping side by side for weeks almost made Steve laugh, but he settled for grinning wide against Tony’s mouth and nodding. He drove Tony back onto the bed until he could settle on top of him, legs wound together. Tony’s arms found his neck and wrapped around tight, drawing Steve in to deepen the kiss. He ran his lips along the line of Tony’s jaw that had enticed him so much the other night, then along his collarbone. He found his way back up to Tony’s mouth then pulled back a little to press their foreheads together again, willing his breath to settle down. Tony scraped his nails gently through Steve’s hair, cupping the back of his head, holding him close.

Steve had never felt so safe, so steady, so supported in his life. What they had between them was wonderful and perfect and incredible already, but he could feel the foundation of their family getting stronger with every brush of his lips across Tony’s and every stroke of Tony’s fingers in his hair. He burrowed his face in Tony’s neck and breathed him in, sighing with pleasure when he felt Tony’s breath on his shoulder. He thought finally getting to touch Tony would feel like a dam breaking, but it didn’t feel like anything breaking, it felt like building. Building something new - terrifying - but staggeringly beautiful.

“I love you so much,” he whispered against Tony’s skin. His breathing slowed, and his hands stilled; there was still so much of Tony he wanted to explore, touch, taste, but at the same time he wanted to stretch it out. He could feel Tony’s heartbeat thudding steadily against his chest. They breathed together…

...Steve shifted and blinked. He was wrapped in warmth from head to toe, but one of his arms was numb and his mouth was dry. He smacked his lips open and closed a few times, then jerked up sharply as memory slammed into him. “Shit! We fell asleep.”

Tony groaned and brought his hand to his face. “What? What time is it?”

They were wrapped together in a mess of limbs, still fully dressed, and the bright afternoon light had faded to soft evening. Steve looked at the clock. “Five-thirty.”

“Ugh.” Tony’s hand drifted up to splay across Steve’s stomach. He sighed and fluttered his eyes open to meet Steve’s. “We finally get an evening together, and we waste it sleeping.”

Steve grinned down at him then brought his thumb up to brush across Tony’s lower lip, thrilling that it was something he was allowed to do now. “I don’t think it was a waste.”

Tony smirked. “That’s only because you have no idea what I had planned, darling.” Steve was suddenly very, very awake. They grinned stupidly at each other for a moment, before Tony sat up and pushed Steve towards the edge of the bed. “We’re going to be late.”

They tumbled out of bed, but before they could find their shoes and jackets, Steve pulled Tony back into another kiss, just to prove that it had been real, that this was really his life now. Tony melted into it, letting Steve take his weight. He sighed as he pulled away.

“As much as I love your apartment, I think we’re going to have to move,” Tony said very pointedly.

Steve cocked an eyebrow at him, letting him start a path towards the door, but only if he stayed in range of Steve’s hands. “Why’s that?”

Tony stopped dead, and Steve walked right into him, their bodies pressing tightly together. Tony ground his hips back a little and winked over his shoulder. “Because I think it’s about time Anthony got his own room.”

Chapter Text

Steve drifted slowly into wakefulness to the sound of soft giggling through the speaker of the baby monitor. He cracked an eye to check the clock. He’d slept right through his normal waking time and completely missed his run. Though, considering the workout Tony’d given him last night, maybe he didn’t need the run after all. He grinned into his pillow, about to roll out of bed, when a gentle hand landed on his back, and he felt the other side of the mattress shift. A moment later he heard Tony murmuring to Anthony through the monitor in the other bedroom.

“Good morning, duckling.”

“Dadadadada,” Anthony babbled happily.

Tony groaned as he hoisted Anthony into his arms. “Ugh, I think you grew in the night, little man. Steve has to stop feeding you. It’s not helping.”

“Teeee,” Anthony sung.

“Want your papa?” Tony asked, and Steve’s heart swelled so much it threatened his ribs.

“Ah. Tee.”

Anthony had finally learned to say yes, which was making a world of difference, though now he was using ‘ah’ to refer to most foods as well, even when he didn’t want them. He’d also learned how to take the TV remote apart in the time it took a lone parent to dig Duck out from under the couch, and he knew where Tony kept the cookies and had been caught many a time trying to scale the fridge to get to them. Steve was pretty sure that kid was never going to stop keeping them on their toes.

A moment later, the mattress dipped, and Anthony snuggled up against Steve’s chest, pressing a hand to each of Steve’s cheeks as he rolled onto his side to pull him into his arms. “Morning.” He kissed Anthony on the end of his nose and sent him into a fit of giggles.

Tony slid in on the other side of Anthony, curling around his back. His hand found Steve’s hip and snaked under the hem of his shirt to stroke the bare skin there. Steve tipped his chin up and earned a kiss over Anthony’s head.

“Morning to you too,” Tony hummed. “Love you.”

“Mmm, love you too. Park today?”

“I thought we might take him to NYSCI.”

Steve cracked an eye to shoot Tony a look. “He’s barely one and a half, Tony, do you really think he’s going to get much out of it?”

“Of course he will!” Tony protested. “They have activities for kids. He’ll love it.”

“You mean, you’ll love it. And he’ll fall asleep in his stroller an hour before his nap time.” Steve rolled onto his back and swooped Anthony in the air above him, lifting him and dropping him down, catching him just before their noses touched. Anthony screeched with laughter.

“I’m offended by that accusation.” Tony rolled into the space Anthony had left empty and hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder. His hand rested low on Steve’s belly, sending a thrill through his core. He would never get tired of Tony touching him.

Steve settled Anthony on his chest, stabilizing him with one hand, and dropped the other to Tony’s thigh, squeezing gently. “Be as offended as you want, it’s the truth.”

“You are getting far too sassy in your old age.”

“Watch your tongue.” Steve turned to face Tony and earned himself another kiss.

Anthony howled with mirth and tipped sideways until he landed on Tony’s side making him huff out a sharp breath then groan. “You're getting too big for that nonsense, mister. Time to trade you in for a younger, cuter model.”

“Da…” Anthony giggled.

Tony caught both his hands in one of his. “Might as well trade your Papa in for a younger, cuter model too, while I’m at it.”

Steve scoffed. “Younger you could manage easily, but I dare you to find cuter.”

“Alright, fine, I guess I’ll keep you around,” Tony said. There was something pointed under his words, and Steve tried to find the shape of it.

“Tony…?”

“Yes, dear?”

“What are you not saying?” Steve had learned a while ago that the list of things Tony had trouble saying was an odd one, and it was best not to get too worked up until you knew what it was.

“So. I think I should marry you,” he finally tossed out, casually. “You know, really lock that down.”

Okay, now would be the time to get worked up.

Steve propped himself up on an elbow. “Really? I thought you didn’t want to, I mean I’m completely fine with it if you don’t want to. You said you didn't think you’d ever get married. So. It’s okay. If you don’t want to.”

“Okay, this is going well, cause you’ve now just repeated yourself eighteen times.”

“It was not eighteen.”

“I was exaggerating for effect.”

“Tony.”

“I just think it’s a little silly, you know, that we bought this three bedroom apartment, and the third bedroom is just full of books and records and storage. And he’s grown out of so many things and we just keep them in the closet. And that seems silly too. And when I said I didn’t want to get married, it was because I didn't think we needed that, because you know, I love you and you love me and we know how our weird little family works. And I’ve had some bad experiences with engagements in the past, which actually come to think of it, so have you. So. It seemed like we shouldn't bother. But, uh, I was thinking about… things… and you’re an old-fashioned guy, right? You want to make an honest man out of me and all that, I’m sure.”

Steve rolled his eyes and rewound what Tony was saying, trying to figure out what the point of his ramble was. “I would love to marry you. But if you don’t want to, I understand. I would never pressure you, Tony.” The truth was, Steve was desperate to get married. He knew a lot of people didn’t, and he certainly never expected that he’d end up with a man, but he’d always seen his future as being a married man with a family. And they had their family, and they didn’t need a piece of paper, he knew. But if Tony was up for it? He was all in. He tried to keep the desperate desire out of his voice. “Do you want to?”

Tony turned warm eyes on him. “You know, I kind of find that I do, after all. Being your husband would be pretty incredible. We can’t exactly get married married yet, though I will say I’ve thrown a shocking amount of money at that particular issue. But there are things we could do. Words we could say...” he trailed off, fingers clenching on Steve’s hip.

“Okay…” They hung there for a moment, staring at each other in shock, then seemed to realize at the same moment that they were engaged. They broke into twin grins, and Steve leaned in to kiss Tony, ignoring Anthony when he whined and tugged on Steve’s ear, trying to break apart any embrace he wasn’t a part of. When they parted, Steve pressed a kiss to the side of Anthony’s face too, and he looked sufficiently mollified. Steve made to climb out of bed then stopped. “Wait.” Tony tensed. “What was all that about a third bedroom?”

“Um. Well, you know. There are some things that are easier to do when you’re married.”

Steve went over the entire conversation again, examining Tony’s words carefully. “Tony… are you asking me if I want to have another baby?”

“Well, I know the first one was pretty confusing, but, darling, you and I cannot actually ‘have’ a baby. Though if you really don’t know that, I’m all for trying, enthusiastically and often, to make it happen.”

Steve flicked Tony’s shoulder and shot him a look. “Are you?” he pressed. “It’s easier to adopt as a couple...”

Tony curled onto his side again, settling Anthony on his back between them. Their hands met over his tummy and wound together. “Yes?”

“Yes.” No hesitation.

“Really?”

“Of course. Did you really think I’d be the hold out on this, Stark?” Steve raised an eyebrow at Tony.

Tony’s brow furrowed with suspicion. “You were waiting for me to want another one?”

Steve shifted forward and pressed a soft kiss to Tony’s lips. “I was waiting for you to realize you’ve wanted another one for a while now.” He smirked, and Tony shook his head.

“You’re impossible.” Anthony babbled, tapping the backs of their hands with his. “Both of you.”

“You love us for it."

Tony’s smile softened, he tucked Anthony’s head under his chin so they could all snuggle closer, held in a bubble of Sunday morning warmth and laziness. “I really, really do.”

Anthony laughed then gurgled and dribbled spit all down the front of his sleeper and their hands. He laughed again.

His parents sat up to watch him in quiet contemplation for a moment.

“Maybe we should focus on the getting married part,” Tony suggested.

“Yeah… lots of time for a second. There’s no need to rush.”

“True. After all, you’re only, what 85? 90? Tons of time.”

“At least until he’s out of diapers.”

“Exactly. Or, you know, it’ll be easier when he’s in school.”

“High school, even.”

Anthony grinned proudly at them and started emitting a foul stench.

Tony hummed. “I hear grandchildren are nice.”