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Back in Black

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“Why are we here?”

Tony thanked the administrative attendant for his help, and he resisted acknowledging Steve’s question until they were directed to the nursery. Volunteers and staff were busy rounding up the pre-teens for lunch, which meant that the children were interested in little more than getting in line as fast as possible so that they could choose where to sit at the table first. It all seemed a little too convenient to be a coincidence, but the thought of Tony knowing the lunch schedule of a children’s shelter made Steve uncomfortable in a whole new way.

After learning that aliens were real and intergalactic space wars happened every few months, Steve really thought he was done with surprises for his lifetime. Every day since he ‘put on the last suit he would ever wear’ had proved him wrong one way or another, but this? An obscure children’s shelter in the middle Harlem?

“We talked about this, S,” Tony muttered under his breath as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. “We’re here to consult the Formaxian elder.”

“Right, elder. In a children's shelter,” Steve started dubiously, but Tony ignored his commentary and instead leaned past him to push the door open. Without a word, he watched his partner until Steve realized he was meant to go in first.

The lights in the nursery had been turned down for the children taking their afternoon nap. The outdated stereo by the door played honest to god CDs full of comforting nature-scapes; for this hour, the otherwise quiet room swam peacefully with the soothing ebbs and flows of ocean waves.

Before they moved too far into the nursery, Tony stepped over to the little row of coat hangers and started to take off his suit jacket. Steve frowned in confusion, but followed suit; it wasn’t until Tony started to undo his tie and unbutton his shirt that he paused.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked, glancing Steve’s way with a questioning look while he folded up his tie to then stuff into his suit jacket.

There was no reason for Steve to react, and there sure wasn’t a reason for him to blush. There was nothing lewd or necessarily suggestive about Tony in in his slacks and undershirt, but maybe after spending two weeks seeing his partner in nothing but a fine, black suit, his system had recalibrated.

Or, perhaps, it wasn’t so much what Tony was doing so much as it was Tony himself.

“You alright, champ?” Tony asked again, stepping forward this time to gently clap Steve on the shoulder. Steve jerked in surprise and blinked owlishly at Tony in return, startled out of his low-key revelation.

“Yeah—sure, just,” he stuttered in reply, “uh, why are you taking off your clothes?”

Tony gave him a weird look and glanced in the direction of the cribs before looking back at Steve.

“They’re babies,” he said in a tone that suggested Steve should know better. “Do you want to expose them to the intergalactic shit we’ve got smeared all over our suits?”

Steve stared back dumbly, because, man, that should have been obvious. He nodded immediately once he understood, hurrying to follow Tony’s lead and shrug out of his suit jacket and dress shirt. By the time he had hung it all up, he found Tony had already moved to visit the kids.

He wandered from one crib to the next, lingering at each one to smile down at the kids, though Steve couldn’t see or guess whether the kids were awake or asleep. Everything was just unusually quiet for a room full of toddlers and infants, but then again, those ocean waves were incredibly soothing.

The soothing ebbs and flows of the waves weren’t quite enough to calm Steve’s nerves, however. Something about children just made him uncomfortable—mostly it was how fragile they were, or how easily they were upset with things Steve couldn’t guess at. If it wasn’t hunger and it wasn’t a diaper change, he really never understood what children might need. But as hesitant and uncomfortable as Steve felt in the nursery, Tony seemed to be in his element. He would reach in sometimes, either to return a pacifier or brush a child’s hair out of their face, and once in a while, he’d even pick up a little one to coddle in his arms.

“ this still part of the mission?” Steve wondered after a while, and he took a few steps to look into the nearest crib himself. The little child sleeping in the crib couldn’t have been more than two years old, and other than the strange flat shape of the back of his head, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him.

Tony nodded once in the affirmative, but was otherwise too busy swaying and softly singing to the baby in his arms to answer Steve’s question better. Whatever he was doing worked like magic: right before his eyes, Steve could see the little toddler’s kicking feet relax and curl up against Tony’s chest, and as his little fists fell limp against Tony’s shoulder, Tony shifted the babe’s position around so it could snooze, safe and curled up in the crook of his arm.

“So… you come here often?” Steve couldn’t resist asking, waggling his eyebrows at Tony as if they were standing anywhere but in a nursery. Tony’s face split in a grin, and he managed to stifle his snickering down to a quiet huff of a laugh to avoid startling the child awake.

“You’d be surprised,” he whispered in reply as he gently laid the baby back down in his crib to continue sleeping. “They get lonely, you know?”

Steve glanced down at the little kiddo he was standing next to again, and uncomfortable though he was, the thought did tug on his heart strings just a little. “I’d imagine so,” he eventually said. “But you said we’re here for the Formaxian elder?”

Tony hummed in reply, but rather than elaborating on his answer, he moved along to a crib further away, one tucked against the bookcase in the back of the room. The baby must have been awake, because he smiled and waved down at someone Steve couldn’t see.

Realizing his questions weren’t being answered, Steve finally braced himself and walked further into the nursery to see what Tony was up to.

A little girl with curly black hair and big, brown eyes was smiling up at them, kicking with delight.

“Hi there,” Tony cooed down at the girl, reaching down to gently fix the red bow tied into her hair. “Did you have a good nap?”

She blew a messy raspberry up at them that had spit dripping down her chin. She, of course, didn’t notice, but when Tony reached down to wipe her face clean with his handkerchief, she immediately reached for his hand with both of her chubby ones in an unspoken demand to be picked up.

“I don’t think that’s fair, Beatrice,” Tony warned her, but he didn’t seem to hesitate to do exactly what she wanted. “Just a quick one, okay?”

Steve frowned to himself as he watched Tony pick up the little girl and cradle her lovingly in his arms. “You know her by name?”

“I know much more than her name,” Tony murmured, never looking away from the toddler’s eyes. There was a strange distant look in his eyes, not unlike the way untimely witnesses stare back at them after a shot of the neuralyzer. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve agreed uncomfortably, glancing at the baby in what he hoped was a subtle scan. Could the Formaxians have hidden a device on her to throw them off their trail? Maybe their elder didn’t want anything to do with them; maybe Tony had been wrong.

“You want to hold her?”

Steve blinked at him once, twice, then shook his head no. “I’m good, thanks.”

“Go on,” Tony said with a grin, easing her up so he could hold her out to Steve. “Afraid of a baby, soldier?”

Steve gave him a flat look, and tried not to be too apprehensive when he looked back at the little girl. Her white little cotton dress onesie was decorated with a red ribbon to match the one in her hair, and the way she gurgled around her little chubby fist—which must have been delicious, if Steve was to judge by the way she was happily stuffing it in her mouth—all made her the most beautiful little picture of innocent love.

Except when she looked at Steve, she wasn’t looking at him so much as she was looking into him. Steve struggled to resist stepping away from the small child his partner was now holding out to him, and with a quiet prayer that all his instincts of self-preservation were wrong, he reached out to take her, cautiously (and literally) keeping her at arm’s length.

The last thing Steve remembered was her disgruntled little huff.

The air in his lungs was punched out of his body the moment her skin made contact with his, and like a discarded receipt in a whirlwind, his consciousness was torn from his body and pulled through space and time with such force that Steve was sure his teeth would fall out of his head at any second. He caught glimpses of worlds forgotten and unknown to him: he stood in the hospital room and watched his own father hold him in his arms for the first time; he was there when a little Pomeranian attacked his mother in a convenience store and forever nixed the possibility of any pets in the Rogers household. He watched his dad get shot by that punk who didn’t want his speeding ticket, and he watched himself, four years old and unaware of what death meant, try to comfort his mother when the patrol officer came to deliver the news.

“Hey, big guy?”

With a sudden desperate gasp, Steve broke through the veil of whatever world this child had transported him to. Tony scooped the baby out his hands immediately before Steve really lost his head and started to stumble back and fell into an armchair. Whether from genuine shock or sudden loss of oxygen, Steve was too shaken to do anything but sit, gulp down air, and glare up at his partner and that dangerous child.

“The traditional Formaxian greeting,” Tony explained with a far too self-satisfied grin. Beatrice squealed in delight and kicked in Tony’s arms, reaching for Steve again. “We’re lucky: I think she likes you.”

“Lucky me,” Steve muttered in monotone, scrubbing a hand over his face. It had been nearly sixteen years since he last saw his mother; the thought alone left him reeling and disoriented.

Tony arched a brow, a show of his patience running low. “We don’t have all day, champ, you ready to go?” he asked dryly. “Get up, call C. Tell him we found the Formaxian elder, and she’s willing to talk to us.”