He had twelve days before Steve would find out, but he didn’t know it. In fact, Tony was so used to not having secrets that he was surprised people didn’t find out sooner. Like most of his secrets, SHIELD knew before anyone else, and SHIELD was keeping it secret. Unlike his other secrets, SHIELD was hush-hush about it because Tony was the one who stole it from the organization.
Well, stole them from SHIELD. Tony had, in his custody, twelve child-clones of Steve. He also had twelve days to keep them to himself.
Was it just him, or was it just a bit fucked up that these kids were literally numbered? On their shirts, but still. 1, the oldest, couldn’t have been more than six. He answered to “1”, too.
“What were they even doing with you guys?” Tony asked. They weren’t in his lab. As much as he thought 1-4 could handle Dummy and the other bots, he wasn’t thoughtless enough to bring toddlers into places he kept sharp metal and welding torches.
“Daycare,” 1 told him.
“Doctors,” 2 said. 2 was shorter than 1 but had the same haircut and clothes. 1 never took his eyes off Tony, but 2 seemed to look at everyone BUT Tony.
“I gotta pee,” 3 said, looking at 1.
“Yeah,” 2 said, “where’s the little girls’ room?”
“Oh man, I am not ready for this.”
Tony balanced 11 and 12 on each hip while everyone else was in line for the toilet. 9-12 were the only ones still in diapers, 9 having just turned two while 10, 11, and 12 being a year and a half, one year, and 6 months respectively. Changing diapers, Tony found out that 11 and 12 were girls. The kids were wearing the same clothes and had the same military haircut. That was the moment Tony decided it was time for names. Nothing could make you feel like an individual like a name.
“Alright, 1, you’re first. Pick a name that starts with A,” Tony told him. “You can read, right?”
“Yeah,” 1 assured him. 1’s smile faltered after a minute. “I can’t think of anything. What’s your name again?”
“Oh. That doesn’t start with A.”
“Do you want to be Anthony? That’s my full name.”
11 took that moment to walk over and sit in Tony’s lap. The back of her head bounced against his chest, and Tony felt very suddenly the actual weight of a person on his legs. It was very scary.
“Anthony,” 1 said. He smiled. “Yeah!”
Tony nodded. “Okay, 2. Your turn.”
“Beth,” she said immediately. “I wanna be Beth.”
Tony clapped her on the back. “3?”
3 sat down next to him and held 11’s hand.
“You’re getting a C name. Do you know your alphabet?”
“The C says ‘k’,” 3 sang, “the C says ‘k’! Ev’ry letter makes a sound; the C says ‘k’!”
“Awesome. Do you know what you wanna be named?”
“No,” 3 said. “But can we watch a movie?”
“Do you got Up?”
“Um. Yeah. Hey, do you wanna be named Carl? After Mr. Fredricksen?”
3’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. YEAH!” 3 laid their head on Tony’s arm. It was sweet. He ruffled her hair.
“I don’t want a boy’s name like Carl,” 4 told him.
“Okay.” Tony thought of his Mom’s old tunes and came up with something. “How about Dierdre? Do you like that?”
4 looked down at her feet. “Maybe.”
“You wanna think about it?”
“I like hippos,” 5 told him. “Hippos’re my fav’rite.”
“Eric,” Tony responds. “Do you want to be Eric?”
5 shrugs. “I wanna be a hippo.”
“Definitely an Eric,” Tony murmured.
When Tony turned to 6, the child was napping. Tony rubs his back – the way his mother used to wake him up – and 6’s little eyes flutter open.
“You wanna be named Frankie?” he asked.
6 nods, then rolls over. Frankie, Tony figured, was a pretty unisex name.
7 was not asleep. 7 was... 7 was trying to climb on top of the counter leading into the kitchen. 7 already had Steve’s agility and speed, so it took a while for Tony to catch the kid and explain that they should pick a name that starts with G.
“Who’s 0?” 7 asked.
“0, 1, 2, 3 –”
“Steve is 0.”
“I wanna be named Steve!”
Tony shook his head. “I can’t name you Steve.”
“1 got to be Anthony! I wanna be Steve!”
“How about Grant, 7?” Tony asked. “Steve’s middle name is Grant.”
Beth stomped her foot. “She can’t be Grant! She should be Steve!”
“I wanna be Grant!” 7 insisted.
Tony got the feeling they were always like this. He could only calm them down when he offered lunch, and that ended up being bologna sandwiches for everyone but 12, who ate a banana. It took an hour to clean them all up, and by that time he was ready to put on a movie. Up it was.
Up turned out to be his best friend. All the kids were entranced with the movie, and a lot of them started to doze off. 11 sat in his lap again.
“Don’t you want a name?”
Tony looked at 8. “Is this kid always like this?” he asked Anthony.
“Yeah, he is.”
“Henry. You can be Henry,” Tony told 8.
“Sh! Watchin’ a movie.”
9 had snuck up on him during this conversation. He grabbed Tony’s face with all the scary enthusiasm of a two-year-old.
“I dinosaur,” 9 said. “Wan’ velo-ra-tor.”
“You can’t be Velociraptor,” Tony explained, “it doesn’t start with I.”
“How about Iannosaurus Rex?” Tony was willing to compromise. He wasn’t the one who would be embarrassed about his driver’s license.
He got up to go get 10, who was lying on Beth. 10 was too young to talk in complete sentences. He probably didn’t know what a name was.
“Beth?” he asked. “Does Joseph sound like a good name for 10 to you?”
She nodded, looking around the room. Tony wasn’t sure she was actually watching the movie; she just kept looking everywhere.
11 wandered back over to him and sat in his lap. At this rate, it was going to become a habit.
“You’re Kate,” Tony decided. “And 12 can be Lottie.”
“Buh, buh, buh,” Kate said.
“Muh muh muh” Tony told her.
“Muh muh muh?” Kate asked.
“Muh muh muh.”
“Muh muh muh.” Kate nodded. She patted his chest and wrinkled his shirt.
“Careful, sweetie,” he said, “that’s my oldest band tee.”
“Tee tee?” she asked.
“Tee tee,” he agreed.
“Tee tee tee tee tee tee tee!” she said, smacking his chest.
“Alright, I think someone needs a diaper change.” He put Kate on the floor and picked Lottie up out of her carrier. “JARVIS? WikiHow how to change a diaper. Disposable.”
The second day was filled with clothes and food. JARVIS had enough foresight to order good quantities of both when Tony was still working on his plans to get the clones. The clones didn’t have to worry about allergies thanks to the serum, but Tony did have to deal with personal taste and age restrictions. For example, the younger ones couldn’t have most nuts, and Anthony insisted on taking a bite of everything Tony ate. Kate would eat anything as long as Tony was talking to her, and Lottie would only eat if Tony tore whatever it was into infant-hand-sized bites. Beth would eat anything but only drank water, and Iannosaurus would talk so much that he forgot he had food. Frank would drink all his milk and not touch his food if you gave them to him at the same time. Grant would eat anything as long as you gave her cheese, and Carl would crack the spoons. Which were metal.
Getting dressed was... an experience.
Joseph would repeat everything you said (sometimes missing words or consonants), but he hadn’t gotten the hang of answering questions. Somehow, Beth knew what he meant.
“He wants to wear that shirt,” she said. “He wants those pants.”
Kate, on the other hand, would say “Yeah!” and “No...” when asked. Lottie was old enough to babble, but couldn’t talk.
“I want a skirt,” Carl said. She picked out a purple one that was lined with sequins. When Tony handed it to her, she hugged it. “I love it,” she said, deadly serious.
Ian also wanted to wear a skirt, so Tony let him. The kid probably hadn’t absorbed enough about gender roles to know he was exploring them, right?
Untrue, sir, JARVIS told him.
Kate actually wouldn’t keep her clothes on. Or off. Tony wasn’t above letting her wander around in nothing but a diaper except every time he tried to take an article of clothing away from her, she cried until he put it on her.
Anthony asked for a tie and insisted on putting it on himself. When he couldn’t do it, it was double-knotted around his waist. Then Grant asked for one. Soon they were all wearing Tony’s silk ties.
Everything was going great until Henry fell flat on his face running after Grant. Tony picked him up immediately, and Henry gripped Tony’s sleeves and buried his face into Tony’s shoulder. He sobbed his little heart out while Tony rubbed his back.
“Henry, you wanna go play?” Tony asked.
“Yeah?” Henry smiled, and he looked so much like Steve, it was almost ridiculous. At Henry’s age, Steve had probably been battling scarlet fever or something. He would have been sickly and underweight. Tony couldn’t imagine Steve smiling like this at Henry’s age.
Nap time couldn’t come soon enough. Anthony, Beth, Carl, and Dierdre were old enough to not take naps, but Carl and Dierdre wanted to nap anyway. Anthony and Beth accompanied him to his gym. He was using the suit to move all of his equipment over to set up a playroom.
“This stuff’s too big,” Beth said.
“Yeah,” Anthony added, “we can’t use this.”
He turned to them. “You use gym equipment?” Tony asked.
“We have exercise time every day,” Anthony told him.
“Can you do burpees?” Tony asked.
Their form was perfect. Their stamina was relentless. Tony rearranged equipment and made a mental note to get size-appropriate gear.
“I wanna stop,” Beth said.
“I’m bored,” Anthony added.
“Alright,” Tony told them. “How many did you do?”
“Fifty!” they chorused.
Fifty. Tony had known what SHIELD wanted to do, cloning Steve like that, but seeing two six-year-olds perform fifty burpees and stop because they were bored really brought the point home. Oh, god, I’m gonna fuck this up, aren’t I?
“Do you want to help me roll out the rug?” he asked. “And bring out the toys?”
“Yeah!” they shrieked.
They weren’t actually as strong as Steve yet (though considering human physiology, they might be more flexible and agile), so their biggest problem with the toys and rug was how bulky the things were.
“JARVIS, can you find good gym equipment sized for children their age?”
I will do my best, sir.
“Thanks, J.” Tony looked at Beth and Anthony, who were moving a five-foot long toy box that was already filled. “Do you guys want help?”
“No,” Anthony insisted. “We’re strong enough.”
“You might need another set of eyes,” Tony said.
“Why would we need four eyes?” Beth asked.
“No, I mean, you might need me to use my eyes to help you out,” Tony explained.
“Oh,” Beth said. “That makes sense.” She shrugged and the whole toy box shrugged with her.
“Don’t shake it, Beth,” Anthony said quietly.
“Sorry, Andy,” she said.
“It’s okay; I’m not hurt,” he told her. “Let’s set it down over there.”
“Can we open the box?” Beth asked Tony.
“Yeah, sure. Just make sure it’s in place first.”
It only took a few minutes for Anthony to practically dive in the toybox, and Beth threw a bunch of stuffed animals on the floor and then laid on them. She rubbed her face on a bunny rabbit.
“You guys are gonna have the best birthday parties,” Tony told them.
It was Monday, and Pepper called.
“You better be up,” she said. It was her easy voice, a brisk reminder rather than the impending warning of her dragging Tony through the house by his collar.
“Believe me,” Tony answered, staring at the twelve children watching The Princess and the Frog, “I’m awake. But I can’t come in for anything.”
“Sure you can’t. I’ll just call Steve –”
“– or Natasha to come and get you.”
“Pep, this is really important.” Pepper was no stranger to superhero shenanigans. She could be reasoned with, even if Tony’s priorities weren’t always in line with hers.
A pause. “How important?”
He thought about lying, but this was Pepper. It was easier to protect the clones by being honest with her. “I have acquired... children.”
“Acquired? How can you have acquired children? Plural?”
“They are technically clones. Of Steve Rogers. Who is in Japan, but I assure that if he were here, I would have his blessing.”
Pepper groaned. Tony knew this groan very well; it was the I-don’t-understand-this-superhero-bullshit groan that she had developed in the past few years.
She sighed. “How many clones?”
Of course she got to the point so quickly. “Twelve.”
“Twelve? You are in charge of the welfare of twelve children?”
“You know, changing diapers is not that hard, and JARVIS tells me if I’m not paying attention enough.”
Sir, Henry is taking Lottie’s banana.
“See? Totally working.”
He could practically hear Pepper’s “unimpressed” stare.
“Tony, you need some actual help.”
“Yeah, but you don’t do kids and someone has to run the company, right? One of us has to be responsible.”
“If you are in charge of these kids, I hope you’re being responsible! Also, call Steve! These are his clones!”
“He is really busy right now, okay?”
She hummed. “Are you sure Steve would be okay with you doing this? Because you sound a little insecure.”
“I might be a bit frazzled, but I am changing four diapers every two hours. And two year olds? Yeah, hard to interpret them sometimes.”
“And yet you’re insisting you don’t need help.” Logic. Tony hated logic when he wanted to be emotional.
“I don’t want Steve to come back only to find that everyone but him knows about these clones. Or to see it all over the news. Horrible breach of trust, really; Pepper you’re the worst at this.”
“Tony, we’re talking about twelve small children.”
“Yes, but –”
“Tony. You get help. Understand?”
Of course, Pepper being Pepper, she didn’t trust Tony to actually listen to what she said without more prodding, and no one was there to provide the prodding. An hour later, Natasha showed up. She looked at the horde of children watching Tangled then faced Tony.
“I am mildly surprised,” she announced.
“I’m guessing she didn’t tell you any specifics?” Tony asked.
“She did say that some situation analysis might be needed.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “We really do need backup.”
“You’re not thinking of telling the other guys, are you?” Tony put Lottie on the floor next to Anthony. “How will Steve feel?”
“Relieved, maybe. To know that his friends are taking care of his responsibilities when he can’t.”
“Relieved to know that we didn’t call?”
“And you haven’t called because you don’t have a plan.”
Tony nodded, looking back at the children.
“I’ll help you out for today, and then we’ll figure out a plan after bedtime.”
“Thanks, Nat.” He didn’t expect to be relieved.
After nap time, Grant smiled at Tony. “Vidyo less’n time, Tonyy!”
“Video lesson?” Tony looked to Beth.
“Yeah. The A says ‘ah’. The A says ‘ah’. Every letter makes a sound, the A says –”
“Ah!” eight children shouted.
“You have the Leap Pad movie, right?” Beth asked.
Scanning video content, sir.
“Thank you, JARVIS.”
It was a video where little frogs went to the talking letter factory to learn the alphabet and make a talking alphabet book. Carl told Tony it was Grant’s favorite movie. Anthony told Tony that they watched it three times a week.
“But you and Beth and Carl and Dierdre can spell and read, can’t you?” Tony confirmed. “Do you do something else?”
“Usually a teacher comes to help us read.,” Beth said, “but we only have you.”
“I can help them,” Natasha said. “You have books?”
“Yeah!” Dierdre said. “I love them! Let me show you!” She grabbed Natasha’s hand, and Tony saw the most graceful person he knew nearly stumble from the strength of this five-year-old.
He accessed the video feeds from his StarkPhone. He knew Nat was a team member before she was a SHIELD agent, but he was worried about how the kids would act towards her. They’d been perfectly fine with him, but he wasn’t sure if that was because he was nice or because they were used to trusting adults. Natasha would be able to give him her opinion. She signalled one of the cameras in the playroom to let him know she was aware of the surveillance. It was a code of trust between them.
“Are you a new teacher?” Carl asked.
“No,” Anthony snorted. “Tony took us away from the teachers. He told us, remember?”
“My name is Natalia Romanova,” Nat told them. “You can call me that, or you can call me Aunt Tasha if you want.”
“Is Tasha short for Natalia?” Beth asked.
“It doesn’t sound like it,” Dierdre said.
“It does in Russian.”
“What’s Russian?” Anthony asked.
“A language, just like English. We’re speaking English right now, but some people speak Russian.”
“What does Russian sound like?” Beth asked.
“Like this: Вы – почемучки, все.”
“What does that mean?” Carl asked.
“That you all ask a lot of questions.”
Lottie squalled, and Tony picked her up. She required a lot of hip-bouncing and goatee-pulling.
“Hair,” Kate said expectantly.
Tony sat on the floor next to her.
“Where’s the brush?” Henry asked.
Tony pulled a comb out of a drawer in the coffee table and handed it to Kate. It was one of the more painful mistakes in his life, but undoubtedly the cutest. He’d have to buy a soft brush for her to use.
Kate petted Tony’s hair, happily repeating “hair” and “pri-cess” as she tugged the comb against his scalp. He briefly considered growing it out a bit more before deciding that dolls would just be easier. Lots and lots of dolls.
“I done,” Kate said, patting Tony’s chest. “Hair,” she added, as if it were the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
“Thank you! Can I have the comb back?”
“No,” she explained. She sat next to him and began combing her own hair, almost recklessly.
“Teacher, can I brush your hair?” Ian asked.
“Sure, just let me get the comb from –”
Ian sat in front of Kate. “Kate can I have the brush?”
“Kate,” Tony said slowly, “we have to take turns. You had your turn.”
Kate looked at him questioningly, avoiding eye contact.
Tony took the comb in his hand. “Take turns,” he repeated.
Kate relinquished the comb and watched Iannosaurus comb Tony’s hair.
“You’re so pretty,” Ian said. “Like Rapunzel’s prince.”
Lottie was clapping happily, and Kate was singing along to the letter song – as much as she could, anyway. JARVIS had estimated that she was nearly a year and a half, which probably meant the kids were a few months older than he’d estimated. Tony wrapped his arms around Lottie’s tummy, and she giggled.
Tony was a little surprised that Natasha had the patience and stamina to help him take care of 12 children all day. Everyone was in bed at 8 o’clock, so the adults broke out their own dinner.
“You’re not going to call Steve until you have a plan, are you?”
Tony shook his head. “He’s on a mission. He’ll probably worry about the kids or think they’re more important than the mission.”
“Well, yeah, but we can’t just give up on the rest of the world because of these kids. We can juggle obligations, and the fact is that Cap was the best option for this mission.” Tony chewed on a knuckle.
“You’re right about juggling obligations, which is why I want to bring the rest of the team in on this.”
Tony folded his hands. “Natasha, I know you haven’t asked questions about the children, but they’re all SHIELD-generated clones of Steve. I have no idea if they’re going to continue the program, since apparently his DNA is guarded more closely than these kids.”
Natasha crossed her arms. “I didn’t want to cut my ties with SHIELD when I became an Ultimate, but this just might do it.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to cut ties with Greg, but all signs point to him having masterminded this with Nick Fury.”
“We need more superheroes if we want protection.”
“I’m assuming you have connections?” Tony asked.
“More than you.”
Conversation lulled, and they finished their sandwiches.
“Nat,” Tony began, “I don’t want to offend you, but people close to me have been betraying me all my life, and I just found out that my brother is one of those people. Are you really on my side?”
“I know the feeling,” Natasha said. She sighed. “I am on your side. SHIELD is in the wrong. But if you’re feeling paranoid, then I need you to remember something.”
“It’s Steve’s side, not yours.”
Tony laughed. “That does make me feel better.”
Tony was usually one of the first ones awake, but that was because he liked to design while his mind was fresh. Or more recently, because he wanted to be the first one at the coffee machine. Not that he didn’t have four or so on his own floor and one in his workshop, but he liked marking his territory with used coffee pots and mugs. Today, he was awake because he needed to get breakfast ready for twelve small children.
Most of these kids had not had cereal before, and about half of them didn’t like it, which was ridiculous. Who didn’t like cereal? But Anthony had complained that the Fruit Loops were too sweet. So he was going to make toast and fruit salad.
There were four kids in each room, separated by age. When Tony got to the first room, Beth, Carl, and Dierdre were all in Anthony’s bed.
“Are you guys okay?” Tony asked.
“We’re taking care of him,” Carl answered.
Not good. Not good. “Anthony, are you hurt?” He looked at the children. “You know that if one of you gets hurt, you’re supposed to find me, right?” JARVIS would tell him if one of them were bleeding or injured or sick, and besides, he’d built an amazing baby monitoring system, but what if they’d missed something?
“I’m okay,” Anthony said. His voice was muffled; he was facing the pillow.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Ye-ah.” He sat up and wiped his eyes.
He’d been crying. Shit. In better news, he wasn’t boneheaded enough to deny help, the way Tony was. Anthony hugged Tony’s arm.
“I’m scared,” he confessed, “and I’m hungry.”
“I made breakfast for everybody,” Tony said. “Do you wanna tell me why you’re scared?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Anthony sniffed.
Alright, this is totally my fault. He knew he would screw up. Shit. “I’m sorry I haven’t explained enough,” Tony told them. “It’s very complicated, and there are still some problems I haven’t taken care of. So let me start with Steve.”
“Steve?” Carl asked.
“Steve is 0. He’s my... friend, and he’s a good man. He’s a superhero.”
Dierdre rested her head on Tony’s lap.
“You kids weren’t born like other children, but that’s okay. The people who wanted you were trying to make a good thing... they were trying to make superheroes. But you can’t raise someone to be a superhero. You can’t make someone be a superhero. If you grow up and want to be superheroes, then I will proudly cheer you on, but we can’t have everyone be superheroes. We need teachers and artists and singers and cooks to make everything work. I took you away from your school because I wanted you to have a choice. I wanted to make sure you could have friends and go to other schools and make choices.” He didn’t want to unload the full severity of the situation on them, that they were created illegally, that they were potentially dangerous. He didn’t want to make them feel unwanted. That was definitely one mistake he would like to avoid.
Beth spoke up. For once, her eyes were in on a person; she was looking at Anthony. “You said we weren’t going back.”
“We’re not sending you back. Right now, Steve is out trying to be a superhero. He won’t be back for a while. But today, you’re going to meet more of his friends. We’re all going to take care of you, and when 0 gets here, he’s going to take care of you, too.”
I should have expected more of this, Tony thought. The children all seemed to be adjusting really well, but that didn’t change the fact that they had been dragged away from everything familiar to them. He was beyond unprepared to handle the emotional complexities of twelve children, most of whom wouldn’t be able to communicate their problems with the precision and comprehension he was used to. At least Natasha would be bringing in some responsible adults after breakfast.
The other adults interacted spectacularly with the kids. They were all brought in at different times so that Natasha could brief them individually. Tony didn’t ask why she wanted to do this, but he suspected it was because of the SHIELD-oriented conversation she would probably have with Clint.
Bruce learned everyone’s name and favorite color, then picked out a movie (Hercules) so he could talk to Tony about child development and the sort of support each child would need during this sort of time. Six months wasn’t a big developmental different for three-year-olds, but it was huge for two-year-olds. But Tony had noticed that. Bruce also had more experience studying Steve’s DNA – and probably more understanding than anyone in SHIELD – so he had some stellar ideas about their daily routine and how it differed from the average child. Tony and JARVIS were going to do their best to find SHIELD’s papers on the clones, but until then, Tony suggested he look at findings on the children of mutants and maybe even Nick Fury’s own child, Julius. Nick was one of the people the government had illegally tested the super soldier serum on before moving forward with the army program, and he was the only prisoner who had lived. Under other circumstances, Tony would have some reservations about looking at a minor’s medical files without permission from their parents. Bruce was still reluctant, but understood the necessity.
Thor showed up for lunch. He was very social with all the children and probably understood their physical abilities from a personal viewpoint. Thor managed to keep all twelve children busy while Tony made lunch (mac ‘n’ cheese with vegetables and pork). At one point they were all wrestling him to the ground, and Tony had to stop to take a video. Tony was sure Thor didn’t mean to be under a pile of children, since it started out as an arm wrestling match, but then some of the children started to gang up on him, then the toddlers followed suit, and it all went downhill from there. He was also very good at cleaning up their faces and hands.
Clint’s visit was possibly the easiest. He got all the kids to sit down, and then he showed them a bunch of tricks he learned from his days in the circus. He also managed not to break the TV, which was great because the kids really liked their LeapPad lessons. Clint got several hugs before he left, and a tip from Tony: “If you see Greg coming over to the Tower, shoot him in the foot. Then send me a picture; I bet it’s hilarious.”
Tony meant to call Steve after he sent the kids to bed, but he was too exhausted. He actually fell asleep in the shower before getting into his pajamas. Well, Steve could probably wait until morning. Besides, by the time he got up, it would be evening in Japan anyway.
A few hours after midnight, Tony’s phone went off.
Steve: Going off-grid for more information. Not in danger. Taking my panic button. Miss you. Don’t drive everyone up the walls worrying about me.
Okay, fuck, this was not what Tony wanted to wake up to. He was hoping to wake up to a message saying “Be home in two days! Packing! Love you!” or something (not that they’d said “love” yet, but they were so getting there and it would be totally Steve to slip it out because he missed Tony or something).
“Do you think it’s fake?” Tony asked Natasha. Everyone else on the team had received a message from Steve.
“No,” she told him. “Whether or not SHIELD sent him on a wild goose chase once they figured out what was up, well, that’s a different story. But Steve can tell when the chain of command is trying to pull one over on him.”
“How worried should I be?”
“I’ll find out.”
An hour. He would only be gone an hour, and all the younger kids would be napping then, and they would totally have Bruce and Thor watching over them (like that wasn’t a sitcom waiting to happen), but Tony still begged Pepper to stay home.
“You have to get to this meeting to make up for the one I let you miss on Monday. You’re the one with the information; this is your plan we’re trying to sell them; your presentation is the only piece that’s missing. I practically had to Cirque de Soleil this meeting together, Tony. I had to call no less than 20 assistants. I had to ask people to snub Spain and Portugal!”
“What if something happens?” Tony whined, slipping on a tie. “What if Kate wakes up crying or Henry falls and breaks his nose?”
“This is going to sound harsh,” Pepper warned, “but Henry has Steve’s healing aspect. His nose will be fine. Besides, it’s nap time anyways; they should be asleep much longer than you’ll be gone.”
“What if my skeezy brother tries to kidnap them back?”
“Greg will be at this meeting, so that’s less than likely.”
“Oh, great. Now I have to actually deal with him.”
“He’s supporting your business plan.”
Tony gagged. “Tell me you don’t think I should reconcile with him.”
“Absolutely not. But you should definitely be aware that he’s trying to publically cozy up to you.”
“This asshole doesn’t get to touch my superkids.”
“Steve-bies? As in Steve-babies?”
“That’s what Clint calls them.”
“Pepper, you should really never talk to Clint. It’s for the good of us all, really.”
“Sometimes he sounds sane, and that’s when I know I need a break. But right now I need you to get over here.”
“On my way.”
Gregory Stark – or Dr. Stark, as he liked to be called, ignoring the fact that he only had one doctorate and Tony had 3 – was waiting for Tony inside the building lobby. His blond hair was starting to have a gray shine to it, and it looked good surrounded by the company’s bright color scheme.
“Nice to see you here,” Tony said. “It’s not often Stark International sits in on Stark America meetings.”
“I’m interested in what you have to say.”
“You’re interested in the clones,” Tony accused.
“Isn’t that what I said?” Greg sighed. “This program is important, Tony. The President pushed for a new Super Soldier program for the mutant problem today, but what about the terror problems of the future? We need to think ahead.”
“You know, everyone says you’re ten times smarter than me, but really you’re only ten times as manipulative. Steve gave his blood sample for a Super Soldier program that worked with consenting adults, not one that fabricated children to induct them into something they might not even want.”
“Why would we have needed Steve’s DNA when we got all the Super Soldier we needed from Nick Fury’s?”
Tony shuddered. “Tell me there aren’t twelve little Nicholases running around.”
Greg laughed. “Oh, Tony. Never change.” He started walking towards the elevator. “It makes it that much easier to exploit you.”
Tony smiled. “Then how come I’ve still got half the company?”
“To fund your superhero habit, of course.”
And that – that was not a comforting thought to be left with.
After nap, Clint started teaching the babies how to blow kisses. Lottie was too young, but Kate walked around going “mwah mwah mwah”, and Joseph looked at the grown-ups and moved his hands back and forth from his mouth.
“Look what you did,” Tony complained. “You made them cuter. Now how am I ever going to discipline them?”
“With a mixture of fear and guilt,” Clint answered.
“Wow, that hits way too close to home.”
The other team members nodded.
“At least Steve’s coming back soon, or none of these guys are going to end up well-adjusted.”
“See,” Clint said, “if Steve were here, he would take offense to that on behalf of the rest of us, because he’s the only one with high enough self-esteem to take issue.”
“Friend Clint, I hold myself in high esteem,” Thor said, “but I find myself daunted by the task of raising and influencing children. For each smile I see, I seem to remember my own faults all too readily.”
“Steve would say we turned out alright,” Bruce offered.
“Steve is clearly so optimistic that denial is one of his superpowers.” Tony frowned. “I don’t want to screw it up. I know I’m not going to mess up like my parents did, but I’m sure I’ll find new ways to fuck up.”
“This is too depressing,” Natasha insisted. “Make them blow kisses again.”
“Yeah, I’ll get a thing of bubbles,” Clint added.
That distraction technique is great; no wonder those two managed to keep cool long enough to get medicated.
Tony was shopping for clothes for the younger kids when Beth asked what he was doing.
“Tony,” she told him, "I wanna pick clothes.”
“You can pick your own clothes, squirt,” he said. “Do you wanna look at shirts?”
“I want a princess dress.”
Beth sad on his lap and pointed at the things she wanted. Tony drew the line at tiaras and wigs, but Beth still got away with choosing 5 different hats.
“You want this many?” Tony asked.
“I love them,” Beth whispered. She turned to him and tugged on Tony's lapels. "I want belts. And dresses with pockets.”
“JARVIS?” Tony asked.
As you wish, Miss Beth.
“Thank you, JARVIS.” Beth smiled at one of the security cameras. It was the first eye contact Tony had seen her make with anyone.
“I wanna dress her,” Carl said.
“Your clone is not a doll,” Tony said. “Lottie is too energetic, and you're too small to dress her.”
“But I wanna,” she insisted.
She did not cry. She looked sadly at the ground; her arms dropped to her side, and she swallowed her tears. Tony could see the tremor in her throat. The clones, no matter their genetics, each had distinct personalities, both different from each other and from Steve. Her reaction was so like Steve: no denial, just acceptance. Steve had never been so present in any of them.
“Alright, you can help me.”
Carl nodded and stepped forward to listen. She was not scared of the spit up all over Lottie's onesie. She patted Lottie's head and folded the yucked-up clothes before putting them in the hamper. She tickled Lottie's feet and coaxed her hands away from the snaps so Tony could fasten them.
“You're a good helper,” Tony told her.
“I like Lottie,” Carl explained.
“Yeah, me too.”Tony smiled and ruffled Carls' hair.
“No,” Carl told him. “Don't do that.”
“Sorry,” Tony said. "I should have asked. Can I pat your shoulder instead?”
“No.” Carl crossed her arms. “Don't pop my bubble.”
“Alright. No bubble-popping here.” He smiled, but Carl wasn't having it.
“Good. Good people don't pop bubbles,” she said seriously. She patted his knee. “Don't be naughty.” She walked out of the room, leaving Lottie on the changing table.
Tony picked Lottie up. "You guys must climb all over each other,” he said. "I've seen how you guys act with me.
“Nananananana,” Lottie said.
Tony nodded. "You're gonna learn to speak soon, don't worry.”
He put out a hand, and she enthusiastically high-fived him.
“See?” he said. “You know how to communicate.
“Are we gonna have our own toys?” Anthony asked at bedtime. "I wanna have a toy. I saw a commercial today.”
“You know that commercials lie, right?” Tony said. “The stuff they sell is never as fun or easily put together as they are in the commercials.”
“Oh. But I want a car set.”
“Do you know how to share? I never learned how to share. No one to share with, really. Except Morgan, my partner in crime. Cousin. Didn't see him too much as a kid, so we got along great as adults.”
“Do I have any cousins?” Anthony asked.
“No,” Tony said. "Steve doesn't have any family left, and you clones have each other, but that's it.”
“What about your cousin?”
“He died. Bad guys. Kidnapped us and a few other people. They got him before I could get my suit working.” Tony smiled. "It was his own dumb mistake that we were even there.”
“It was his fault he died?” Anthony asked. “Was he a bad guy?”
“No,” Tony said. "He just didn't plan well enough. All my brashness but not enough genius.”
“But the bad guys killed him?”
“So it's their fault.”
“Yeah.” Tony twisted his hands together. "Anthony, don't ever let someone make you feel guilty for something you didn't do. Even if we can't stop the bad guys, the things they do are not our fault.”
“It's not easy to remember that,” Tony said, "but it's important.”
“Did you ever forget that?” Anthony asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “It made me very angry and very sad when I thought it was my fault. I had a responsibility, but that didn’t mean I was responsible for what happened. It took me a long time to feel better.”
“What is responsibility?” Anthony asked.
“Responsibility is like cleaning up the toys you play with, or making sure your room is clean even if someone else made the mess.”
“Is that what you do?” Anthony asked. “Clean up messes other people make?”
“That,” Tony said, “is a great way of putting it.” He patted Anthony’s shoulder. “You’re a very thoughtful young man, you know that?”
Anthony laughed. “Everybody has thoughts, silly.”
Natasha uploaded files for JARVIS to give Tony. He woke up early to browse them; they were the particulars of the Clone program. As far as he could tell, the scientists weren't doing more to Steve's DNA than switching sex chromosomes. That should have been way more complicated (building an X chromosome from a Y chromosome) than Tony thought SHIELD could pay for, but Greg was in on this. There were proposed phases of the program to add other abilities: night vision, flight, any number of things. But it looked like Greg couldn't obtain the right mutant DNA and Fury was stalling the scientists on identifying the genes that would need alteration.
“Good for you, Nick,” Tony muttered.
The scientists well – not just scientists, also physicians and psychologists and educators – had a full curriculum planned out for the Clones. Their education included several languages, strategy, physics, fine arts, anatomy, weaponry, chemistry, and every conceivable sport. It was advanced. Sure, Steve was smart, and Tony fully believed that a child's brain was like a sponge and he could teach Anthony the basics of Algebra right now if Anthony would learn, but this went beyond that. They had psychologists analyzing their playtime; ex-military generals organizing their exercise time. When Tony was a child, his parents had “expectations”. This program took that level of pressure and placed it on each child's entire life with no outside interaction for them to learn how things were supposed to be.
Tony pulled out his phone to text Nat, then remembered that SHIELD was probably tracking his texts.
“JARVIS, ask Natasha how old these papers are.”
“Of course, sir.”
Tony got to work on hacking SHIELD to see if there was an e-paper trail to where the rest of Steve's samples were. He only had a few hours until he had to get the kids up, after all.
He picked out a dinosaur documentary for the kids to watch. He still couldn't tell if this was a bad idea or not, but at least four children were stomping around roaring. Kate was covering her ears; Joseph was lying on Beth's lap. Dierdre was screaming "SHUT UP SHUT UP” at Eric, who continued to roar into her ear. Tony picked Eric up and set him up on the couch. Dierdre stopped yelling and sat down very primly.
“I love this movie,” Frank said.
“It's a good movie,” Tony agreed.
“You know,” Clint said, peeling an orange with the ease of unwrapping candy, "I hear that the method used to draw dinosaurs is completely inaccurate.”
“Yeah, well when we unfreeze a super soldier from a time before mammals ruled the Earth, we'll know for sure,” Tony answered.
“We would never have something that cool happen to us,” Clint complained.
“What're mammals?” Beth asked.
“Warm-blooded animals, like humans and dogs and zebras,” Clint explained.
“Are dinosaurs mammals?”
“Are elephants mammals?”
“Are snakes mammals?”
“This going to go on for a while, isn't it?” Tony put Lottie down so he could stretch his legs. Kate ran into his legs to hug him. She didn't take as much care with her strength as Steve did with people, so Tony fell backwards onto the couch.
“Hug,” Kate said.
“Got it.” Tony patted her back. "You can give as many hugs as you need.”
“These guys are too cute,” Clint says.
“Wait till they're teenagers,” Tony muttered.
Nat was waiting in his workshop. She was looking through papers.
“There's a lead,” she said when he walked in, "to where the samples are. Not just Steve's, but also Director Fury's. It indicates that the samples are on their way out of the country.”
“Yeah, somewhere human cloning is totally legal.”
“We should not move on this until we are certain where they are.”
“Do you think you can find them?” Tony asked.
“Coulson could.” Natasha shifted her weight onto one leg. "I know you're worried. The more people that know about the children, the harder it becomes to protect them. But Coulson has the abilities to get the job done.”
“Does he have the inclination?” Tony asked. "Because if we tell him, we are placing these children's futures in his hands. If we tell him, tell him everything, then that makes him the most dangerous person I know if he isn't just as committed to these children as I am. Jesus, does he even like kids?”
“He likes Steve,” Natasha said. "Coulson has always believed in Steve, and when Steve came back, it was a dream Coulson had never had come true.”
“Yeah, and wouldn't it be great if there were 12 more of him?”
Natasha narrowed her eyes. "I know you think he's company. You think Coulson is SHIELD to the bone. But when Clint gave me a chance, Coulson took me in. Coulson could have easily followed orders and killed me, the way Clint was supposed to. He did not. Coulson raised an eyebrow, and Clint said 'Hey, I brought a friend'. That was it. Coulson may have question me and my decision to surrender to SHIELD, but Coulson never once questioned Clint. And once I earned his trust and his respect, Coulson never questioned me, either. Coulson will be an ally.”
“I don't think I've earned that respect from him,” Tony admitted.
Natasha shook her head. "It's not your side, Tony. It's Steve's.”
Tony started pacing. “I’m not sure about it.”
Natasha shrugged. “You’ve been betrayed by a lot of people.”
“Steve would trust him.”
“He would,” Natasha agreed, “but Steve also trusted SHIELD.”
Tony stopped pacing. “SHIELD would not be as bad as the KGB was, Nat.”
Natasha shook her head. “I’m not interested in philosophy.”
He sat down. “You tell him. And you make damn sure that he’s safe for them.”
“Of course.” Natasha nodded. “Tony, I know how important this is. I know exactly what you saved those children from because I came from a similar program. We were clones, but we were children, and the KGB used their own version of the super soldier serum to turn us into assassins. You have no idea what my life was like, and for many years, I couldn’t remember what my life was like. They wouldn’t let me. I would never let anyone get their hands on these children, Tony Stark.”
Tony stared at her for a long time. He nodded. “Okay,” he said slowly, “you can tell Coulson.”
"One day," Thor promised Dierdre, "you might be able to pick Mjolnir up. My father has enchanted it so only those brave of heart and pure of deed might do so."
"Can anyone but you use it?" Beth asked. She was holding Anthony's hand.
"Some have held it," Thor confessed, "but to truly use it takes years of training. For example, your progenitor Steve finds himself much more comfortable with his shield. It is an honorable weapon."
"How is a shield a weapon?" Anthony asked.
Thor laughed. "Indeed, such a thing defies logic, as he throws what would otherwise be his main defense towards his enemies. However, he has found this strategy to be helpful in both defending others and in fighting villains."
"I have some mock-ups downstairs," Tony said, “if you older ones want to check them out while your sibs are taking a nap.”
“How come a lot of people still take one nap?” Beth asked.
“It’s a collective noun,” Natasha told her. “Like water or sheep.”
Carl tugged on Tony’s sleeve, so Tony bent down to listen. “I want a shield,” she said.
“Maybe when you’re older,” he suggested. “They’re pretty big, and you’re pretty small.”
Carl nodded, considering this. “‘m I gonna be taller ‘n you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Tony said.
“Is 0 our dad?” Beth asked.
Natasha and Thor exchanged worried looks.
“2, the doctors said we didn’t have parents,” Anthony said.
“That’s not true,” Tony said. “Your parents are the people who raise you. They’re people who love you. Sometimes people get to choose their parents. Sometimes parents get to choose their children. You guys didn’t get parents the same way most people do, but you have us, and we’re superheroes. So there’s that.”
"Where's 0?" Anthony asked.
"Off being a superhero. He doesn't know about you guys yet. He's in Japan, and we can't reach him." Tony rubbed his hand on his arm. “Sometimes that happens.”
“Is it dangerous?” Carl asked.
“Always,” Tony told her.
“I don’t wanna be a superhero,” Dierdre said. “I wanna be a space detective.”
“I know a few of those, too,” Tony said.
“I wanna hold Lottie,” Eric said.
Natasha stepped forward with Lottie and sat Eric down so he could hold her.
“Are there bad guys out there?” Beth asked.
“‘Course there are, Beth,” Anthony said. “The doctors told us.”
“I mean right now,” Beth said.
They both looked to Tony.
“There are always bad guys out there. I don’t think they’re attacking anyone at the minute, but we have to be ready to fight at any time.”
“What’re you gonna do when you leave us so you can go fight?” Anthony asked.
“I’ll probably stay with you,” Tony assured them. “I have a special room we can all fit in. There’s even a bathroom and a kitchen.”
“Like camping?” Carl asked.
“What? No. I’ve never been camping.”
“It sounds like camping.”
“It’s not camping. Camping is outside.”
“I thought everything was outside.”
Tony shook his head. “Well, it’s not.”
“Is the building outside?”
“Well, yeah, I mean –”
“Building are outside. We are in the building. The room is outside, too. We’re camping.”
“I can’t wait for your dissertation on that, Carl.”
“An in-depth explanation of that opinion.”
Carl nodded. “Okie-dokie.”
“Such a philosopher,” Thor murmured. “My father would like to talk to such a child, for this was a pastime of his and my brothers, though it oft ended with my father chiding him for his insolence.”
“No offense, Thor, but I haven’t even taken these kids outside yet. They’re not going to Asgard.”
“It would be quite safe, Tony, I assure you. The honor of Asgard demands the protection of any guests, especially children. Anything less than the best hospitality would besmirch not only the Allfather but all of Asgard.”
“That sounds awesome, letting all of Asgard know about these kids before we tell Steve. So awesome.”
Thor nodded. “Perhaps this is a trip better planned for after our friend returns.”
“You’re gonna give me a heart attack, Thor. I don’t need another one of those.” Tony ruffled his hair. “Let’s just – let’s just leave Asgard off the table for now.”
“I do have some safehouses,” Clint said, “if we’re talking about hiding out. And Nat has even more. Between the five of us, we could each take two or three –”
“We’re not splitting them up,” Tony said firmly. “And we’re not running away! Here, I have the tools to keep everyone safe, and having my teammates here only adds to that strength. I’m not gambling any of their value by splitting them up and hoping for the best.”
“How about we talk about this later?” Bruce said suddenly.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Tony insisted.
Natasha walked into Phil’s office. It was his private office in the Tower, and while it was definitely being monitored by Tony, she wasn’t sure if SHIELD had access. The floor was carpeted – barely – and the furniture was nothing better than the crap from IKEA, but that chair was the most expensive piece of tech Phil owned. She was pretty sure it had memory foam that molded around his ass.
“You’re not often at the Tower.”
“Today, I am.” Phil smiled without assumingly, the way she had seen him do a hundred times. “You know I don’t like to work from home.”
“I’m glad you’re here today.” Natasha didn’t sit, even though the chair opposite Phil was angled for someone to sit in easily.
Phil set his pen down. “Let’s go for a walk, Natalia.”
Natasha didn’t think it was cold, but her breath clouded the air. Shadows littered the sidewalk. Her hands rested in her coat pockets; Coulson’s were clasped in front of him.
“Do you believe that SHIELD has a moral compass?” she asked.
“I think it tries to value civilians more than superheroes,” Phil said slowly, “and that it tries to instill an almost mathematical sense of altruism in its employees.”
Natasha chewed on her tongue, searching for words. “Do you remember when I found you and Clint?”
“Scariest day of my life.”
She smiled. “I knew that if I wanted to immigrate, I had to cooperate with SHIELD, feed them information and join their protection program. Let myself be monitored for the rest of my life. You were the one who told me I didn’t have to join SHIELD, not even as a teacher or a desk clerk. You told me that working at SHIELD was valuing other people over myself, and it wasn’t something everyone could do – or something everyone should do.”
“Just because you have a set of skills or powers doesn’t mean you have to or are able to use them in public service.” Phil glanced at Natasha. “SHIELD won’t force you to continue being a superhero, Agent Romanoff.”
“SHEILD is violating human rights laws and violating the rights of one of our mutual friends.”
Phil hesitated mid-step, then continued alongside Natasha. “It’s not Spider-man, is it?”
“We might break ties with SHIELD. We’re waiting for Steve to come back before making a team decision.”
“That would severely cut down your funding capabilities, as well as SHIELD’s.”
“Considering Fury is in bed with Greg Stark, I don’t think they’re worried about funding, invention, or anything else Tony provides.”
“What can I do?” Phil asked.
“I need you to find SHIELD’s supersoldier blood samples.”
Phil sighed. “Well, you don’t ask for much, do you?”
“I know.” Natasha knocked her shoulder against Phil’s. “Can you do it?”
“Nothing is impossible, I suppose.”
Paper trails, code decryptions, forging security clearances. Coulson was a company man, and the good thing about company people was that they knew how to juice the company. He was using programs and proxies that he had created at the request of Monica Chang-Fury in case SHIELD fell into bad hands. In case Nick had fallen out of favor.
Phil was not involving Monica in this. His ally was Natasha, who had orchestrated this whole thing. Natasha had her own set of allies. This was never more apparent to him than when Charles Xavier entered his mind.
“Do not be alarmed,” Charles told him calmly. “Agent Romanov has asked me to contact you this way.”
why would she do that – how does she know Charles Xavier
“Natasha has requested our assistance in gaining possession of Steve Roger’s DNA samples that SHIELD is misusing. She and one of my students, Kitty Pryde, are going to retrieve them. Natasha indicated that you knew their location and could update them consistently on SHIELD ongoings. We decided that I would be the best, undetectable form of communication. Her student Miles referred our services.”
of course that happened – is it safe to take a child on a mission
“We are of course sure of Natasha’s ability to keep our student safe, and we know that with your knowledge and Kitty’s power, she and Natasha can avoid detection.” Charles sent Phil images of Kitty at work, how she could slide through objects and bring things and people with her. It was a pretty good plan, as plans went, but Phil also knew how badly plans could go.
don’t know our danger priority – if they’re authorized to kill
“That is definitely a concern, but Kitty should be able to use her power to keep most forms of force from damaging either her or Black Widow.”
Phil had gone in with worse. For all the short notice, he knew Natasha worked well under pressure like this.
let me get chatter up before i make a decision
Another proxy. Tapping into a local satellite radio user to access SHIELD’s earpieces. Piggybacking onto their visual surveillance. Agents on duty: Serrance, Mwanga, Cho. Basic security from Branch B. Visual surveillance as compared to blueprints – not many blind spots, and definitely not enough to reach the room unseen. Small hallways, not much furniture; it wasn’t conducive to Natasha’s fighting style. But Natasha hadn’t brought Charles here because she was asking to fight. Small hallways and rooms meant easy escape, with Kitty involved. And this was going to be the thing that showed their hand. SHIELD had no way of knowing where the clones were or who was on Tony’s side. As far as Nick and Greg knew, the rest of the team was neutral or in the dark. Even if they assumed everyone was helping Tony, their actions would be different than when they knew for sure.
alright, let’s go
The waiting was not very hard. It was just a few hours for the X-men to fly Natasha and Kitty to Illinois, and Phil was very used to waiting. He watched and listened, getting used to the security’s habits and the order in which they were doing things. He noted their shifts and how often they made rounds – how well they made rounds, even. They probably knew that they were guarding something scientifically important, but only the agents seemed to have body tension. They were waiting for superheroes.
With Greg Stark behind the lines, those SHIELD-issue guns could contain anything. Vapor would be the most dangerous, since it would be harder for Kitty to avoid it, even with her abilities. Vapor was probably less deadly and might give them more time to escape if they needed it, but it would also allow the agents to capture Nat and Kitty. They could easily be bargaining chips, even if Dr. Stark decided to maim or torture them in captivity. Things were easier when you didn’t have an emotional investment, and everyone who sided with Steve did.
Kitty and Natasha made one hell of an entrance. Somehow they picked just the wrong spot – the men’s bathroom. None of the three guards or one agent had their weapons at the ready, but that was quickly remedied.
“Everyone to Location A; I repeat, everyone to Location A!” he barked into his comm.
“We are so fucked,” Kitty hissed.
They ran room to room, and ultimately there were only a few options. There were more than a few empty rooms and rooms with guards were just weren’t ready to see a teenager and an ex-Soviet assassin march through the wall, but there were also a few rooms with agents and guards who had their weapons ready. There were even a couple of agents who managed to hit Kitty and Natasha.
Kitty was struck first, and it wasn’t vapor. She didn’t notice the electromagnet until it tased her. They stopped, and it was just the wrong moment. Natasha stumbled into a hallway of guards while Kitty stood with the left half of her body still in the wall. She flicked the not-bullet off her shoulder and checked her nerves to make sure she was ready to go. The floor buzzed, and Nat picked up the not-bullet. It was going off again. A guard close to her tried to kick in her knee and another shot at her. Natasha gave a good uppercut and stuck the electromagnet to another guard’s face just in time for it to go off again.
“The ammo’s set to go off every three minutes,” Natasha said to Kitty. “If I get shot at, I need you to phrase through the ammo before it hits me. Can you do that?”
Kitty nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
“Okay. Let’s see if we can make it to the right room through the front door and ruin the security.”
Phil switched between maps and security cameras, trying to keep track of where they were going and where the key players were.
Phil followed the line of guards making their way towards the room Steve’s DNA was housed in. Screen 1: people. Screen 2: people. Screen 3: nothing.
“We’re going in blind, you guys. The security feed in the room and the hallway around it are looped.”
“Alright, we’ll be ready,” Natasha assured him. “We’re going to try and get in and out with minimal contact.”
“Yeah,” Kitty said, “like, none.”
He watched them run through the hallway, using Kitty’s phasing power to ruin the guards’ comms and weapons. It was a little funny, watching a teenager slap trained agents on the face, even if it was almost integral to their strategy.
“I know this was supposed to be a minimal-personnel mission,” Kitty said, “but I can’t help but feel like it would be easier to mess up their macro communications if we had a few of my buddies to bust up their machines.”
“Your abilities are way more subtle,” Phil explained. “And as far as I know, they’re irreversible. Even if the machines are scrapped for parts, those parts won’t function, either.”
“I get the feeling SHIELD is about to start investing in mutant-proof tech research.”
“Not just SHIELD,” Phil warned her. “Greg Stark is the one backing this whole operation. We can get you some protection from Tony, of course, but you’re going to want to make sure it’s him.”
“Come on, Phil,” Natasha said with some difficulty. She pulled an electro-bullet off of her stomach. “We have better contacts than that. Some moles, even. Our favorite army marvel. Monica, even if she is in Chicago right now. Or our secret weapon, Ms. Parker.”
“Parker?” Kitty whispered. “What, like May? Is she working with you guys? Even after Peter –”
“It’s not May Parker,” Phil said. “But who it is, their public identity is classified. For now.”
“Peter was my friend,” Kitty said hotly. “He was my boyfriend. I watched him die in front of his house because you guys don’t know how to train superheroes or keep teenagers safe. Because your infrastructure sucks. And now we’re fighting your infrastructure and it turns out you guys have plenty of resources for violating Captain America’s basic rights, but not enough to keep a sixteen year old from dying. Don’t act like your organization is so much better than ours when it’s pulling crap like this. And don’t you dare tell me that I don’t deserve to know something about Peter. I was working with him; I was teaching him how to be a hero. You guys were sending Iron Man over to his house like everyone in the neighborhood knew he was Spider-man or something. He died on his front lawn because of you guys.”
“Let’s take that up with Captain America when he gets back,” Natasha said quickly. “I hear he’s running for president.”
“Yeah, well this is about to be the biggest PR disaster he’ll ever have.”
“We should call it BabyGate,” Natasha whispered.
“I think you guys are forgetting that Captain America and Iron Man are dating and are still being private about it. That’s going to be the PR disaster,” Phil said. “I’m pretty sure at least 5 people will call to impeach him on stricken anti-sodomy laws alone.”
“Still not as messy as the Tower, am I right?” Kitty guessed. “You should see the dorms at the school. I’m almost convinced we have 12 toddlers running around.”
“Hey, check that room,” Natasha said.
Kitty stuck her head through the wall. “Okay, no DNA, but definitely a bunch of agents who noticed they’re supposed to be out here chasing us.”
“Yeah, that’s going to be pretty common. We still have to check all these rooms.”
“Couldn’t we just bomb it or something? That would destroy the DNA.”
“It’s less efficient, costs more money, and comes with loss of life. This way, we just spend time and gas.” Natasha opened a door, then closed it again. “Honestly, I’d rather do it this way. Everyone here knows they could die. Not all of them know what they’re dying for. Everyone who does know has their own reasons for keeping it secret, and ours involve protecting minors. So let’s not tell them.”
Natasha came back with a broken arm and electric burns, the most visible one being on her neck. Bruce and Clint bandaged her up. Clint was surprisingly good in medical emergencies; he kept his head and knew enough to know he should do what he was told.
The kids, of course, were curious about the cast and bandage.
Kate came over to sit on Natasha's lap, and she cried when Natasha wouldn't pick her up. Thor did the honors, and Kate did her favorite thing: She tugged his beard. Thor laughed, and Kate giggled.
“What happened to your arm?” Beth asked. Her eyes passed over Natasha’s face, then headed towards the ceiling.
“I broke it.”
“Are you gonna get a new one?”
Natasha cleared her throat. “One of the bones inside my arm cracked. Most people need about two months for the crack to go away.”
“Do you need two months?” Beth asked.
Natasha shook her head. “My body is special. Kind of like yours is special. I only need four weeks.”
“How special is my body?” Beth asked.
“Your body would probably heal in two weeks,” Natasha said, “but I don’t think any of our team was measuring when it happened to Steve.”
“Steve is 0, right?” Beth asked.
“Where is he?”
“Japan, we think,” Natasha said. “Sometimes superheroes have to hide from everyone, even their friends. But he also knows that if he needs help, we’ll give it to him.”
Steve held still for the medic bandaging his arm. Greg Stark, a white man with the audacity to wear an even whiter suit, was pacing the room in front of him. He had a secretary with him, an unassuming young man with a StarkPad (which Tony invented, even if Greg bankrolled the American side of things).
“Why isn’t Fury here to debrief me?” Steve asked. “Is there an emergency state-side?”
“Soon after you left for your mission, Fury left on one of his own. His wife, Monica Chang, and I have been handling his duties and will continue to do so until he returns.” Greg smiled. It was charming, and more subtle than Tony could ever manage. “I don’t mind. After all, I’m funding SHIELD. I need to make sure my money is being handled correctly. That’s mostly what I’m doing, but Monica’s handling an appointment with some supers, so I came instead. Your mission was fairly high priority. I’m also interested in what happened while were you out of communication with SHIELD.”
“Usually you read my report then ask me questions to clarify anything you don’t understand,” Steve explained calmly. “Honestly, I’m surprised you have the clearance for this. I was sure you didn’t know about my mission before I left.”
“Things have changed pretty quickly. I actually have another mission for you. I know you just came out of this one, but you’re going to want to be on it. I know you like to be hands-on with things that are important to you.”
Steve took a moment. He hated when missions piled up like this. “What’s up?”
“Your brother has infiltrated one of SHIELD’s weapons programs. Stealing SHIELD’s information is nothing new, but he usually brags loudly to everyone around exactly what he’s doing and how inferior SHIELD tech is. This time, there was radio silence from the whole Tower. The Ultimates team has completely cut themselves off from SHIELD’s resources, even agents they have previously considered friends.”
“Has Coulson given any information?” Steve asked.
“He was working with Monica,” Greg said, “but Fury pulled him out to work on that mission. It must be pretty important.”
“Probably. So what’s the theory?”
“Skrulls. Shape-shifting alien species that lives on Earth; some trouble’s bound to happen.” He smiled. “I don’t like my brother, but I know he wouldn’t get mixed up with this on purpose. He’s probably planning something to get out or to sabotage their plans, but we can’t rely on that. We need to find your team members before they’re needed. SHIELD has been working with the Fantastic Four to set up a system if they're needed, and we've sent people to the X-men even, but SHIELD works with the Ultimates. We're familiar with their needs and weaknesses. They trust us. Part of that is because of Black Widow and Hawkeye's history with us, but it's also because of practice. When SHIELD started working with the Ultimates, things were bumpy. Things like unnecessary collateral damage, civilian casualties, loss in economic growth. No one wants to see that again. We want to keep people safe.”
“I can work with the Fantastic Four or the X-men if I need to,” Steve said quickly.
“You would be a great liaison and team coordinator,” Greg assured him, “but let’s be honest. The team dynamics would not be ideal. If you don’t want to be on the team to retrieve Tony, I won’t insist on it. I know how hard it must be to think about what sort of health he’ll be in when they find him.”
“I’ll – I’ll go,” Steve said. “But I want to pick my team.”
“Of course.” Greg patted his shoulder. “I’ll get you a list of agents who are cleared for the mission. Bring him back, Steve.”
Thor was kind enough to set up three cribs in the panic room. Of course, the panic room was the size of a large Starbucks, so there was plenty of room. Natasha and Clint were putting together child-sized cots. Tony was checking the security protocols with JARVIS. Bruce was overseeing nap time.
“Nice to see we’re making the panic room a family place,” Clint said.
“I don’t know,” Tony answered, “are you saying they’re my kids?”
“I can’t imagine anyone calling you Papa,” Natasha said.
“Yeah,” Tony agreed.
“At least not without you shuddering and maybe having a minor panic attack,” she finished.
“I’m not afraid of parenting,” Tony said.
“No, you’re afraid of your own mistakes,” Natasha said.
“Hey, let’s not get deep here. Let the clones psychoanalyze me in their therapist sessions when they’re trying to figure out where it all went wrong.”
“Considering the oldest one spent the first six years of his life being raised by people who saw him either as a weapon or a science experiment, I think they have worse things on their file than you,” Clint assured him.
“Thanks, Clint. You’re a good friend.”
“Tony Stark: A Better Parent than Uninvested Scientists,” Natasha announced.
“Tony Stark: A Better Parent than SHIELD,” Clint continued.
Thor clapped Tony’s shoulder. “Pay them no mind, Anthony. If none of them attempt genocide, you shall already have achieved more than mine own parents with either of their children.”
“Hold up, you attempted genocide?”
“Asgard’s pretty colonialist,” Natasha said. “I mean, they think they rule, what, nine other planets? Including Earth. Thor’s protection of the Earth could easily be viewed as a PR stunt over there. A goodwill mission. We’re pretty technologically backwards, comparatively.”
“Technologically backwards?” Tony challenged. “I invented a flying, fighting suit.”
“A significant number of people on Midgard do not have access to clean drinking water,” Thor answered. “It is no small concern.”
“A significant number of people on Midgard were saved thanks to my suit.”
“You have money for these suits, friend, and you have made them cheap enough that you, with your fortunes, can still afford more than forty, yet you have not thought to make the most base needs cheap for those living on this planet, those whose lives you claim to protect?”
“Hey,” Tony said defensively, “there are people working on that. I just happen to be obsessive about fighting imperialistic aliens.”
“See, Cap would be here trying to brainstorm ways to get water to those people,” Clint interrupted. “Really, I have no idea how I actually miss him.”
“Why miss him?” Natasha asked. “We have twelve of him downstairs.”
“Uh, those kidlets are not the same as Steve,” Tony told her. “Could you imagine Steve staring off when he talks to people the way Beth does? Or copying everything I do the way Anthony does? Or smiling the way Carl does? She does this thing, the smile is so square, right? And it takes up her whole face. And Steve would never lay on the floor with his feet up in the air to read the way Dierdre does.That girl has some weird habits. She kept her toothbrush in her pocket all day yesterday.”
“Tony, Pepper had to find you a dry cleaning place that specializes in engine grease and electric burns.”
“I’m literally Iron Man, I’m pretty sure engine grease and electric burns are in my job description.”
“Do your own damn laundry,” Natasha scolded him.
Steve looked over the list. He could name three people on the damned thing, and out of those, he’d only worked with Sitwell before. Sitwell, at least, had the restraint to figure out if one of his teammates was a Skrull before going in for the kill. Steve didn’t believe Greg would pick anyone who would kill Tony, but he didn’t care enough to preserve the lives or bodies of his teammates. He had paperwork from their past ops, but he didn’t think these guys would have so few ops. At least some of their ops had to be classified, even from him, but having this little evidence to go off was unnerving. He looked at his phone. Fury was busy, and even Coulson was compromised. There was still one person he knew he could trust.
She picked up.
“Monica?” he asked. “I know you’re busy running SHIELD and all. But I need a favor.”
“There’s an escape plan, right?” Clint asked.
Tony sighed. He was looking over SHIELD’s communications, trying to figure out Fury’s plan to get the kids back. “Yes. But it needs some editing. I didn’t make it with twelve toddlers in mind.”
“I’m not a toddler,” Anthony whispered.
“You’re supposed to be napping,” Thor whispered back. It sounded like a stage whisper.
Anthony turned his head over.
“Tony,” Thor said, “I could call for us to be transported to Asgard.”
“That’s a nice plan, Thor, thank you. It’s not the best plan, because we might need you to fight and because transport doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it’s still a nice plan.”
“Think me and Nat should work something out?” Clint offered.
“How about everyone works out their own plan and we discuss them all later so everyone has the information they need?” Tony answered quickly. There was a discrepancy with some transport. A ship from Malaysia, a flight from Australia… They picked up Steve. But Steve hadn’t texted. “Shit.”
Natasha glared at him. “Don’t swear around these kids.”
“I think SHIELD has Steve hostage.”
Natasha threw her shoe at Clint. He picked it up and put it in his backpack.
“How soon can we rescue him?” Bruce asked.
“Three days,” Tony said. “Give me three days, and we can bust him out.”
The coffee shop was pretty full, which was what Steve wanted. He also wanted to shave this morning, but Captain America was notoriously bare-faced. He’d rather not get the attention. When he came from the Tower, he didn’t bothered with disguises. He missed the Tower. He missed his pillow and Tony’s scruff. He missed watching Natasha and Thor play pool. He missed Clint making dessert and Bruce constantly watching documentaries on Netflix. He also missed sunlight, just a bit. He’d spent a lot of nights working on his mission and using the day to hide. Not today. He picked a table against the wall, getting a good view of the windows.
“This seat taken?” It was Monica. She had Julius in a sling across her belly. His hair was wiry like Fury’s, and his skin was as dark as Fury’s, but his face looked just like Monica’s.
“Oh, go ahead.”
She sat sideways and leaned an elbow on the table.
“Level with me. What info is Tony supposed to have taken?” he asked.
“I don’t know what, exactly. I just know it’s from a bio-weapons program with some of those quacks from Roxxon.”
“Roxxon?” Steve asked. “The energy company?”
“Yeah,” Monica said. “They’ve been doing weapons programs with SHIELD supervision for years. They got in trouble a while back for doing illegal human experiments, so we’ve tried to keep more of an eye on them. But after you told me Tony got his hands on Greg’s pet project, I started looking more.”
“Wait,” Steve said, “this is Greg’s pet project Tony fucked with?”
“Yeah. SHIELD already had a super-serum program going –” Steve nodded; he’d donated his DNA a few times to help out “– but the thing burns people out. Greg wanted to give it a go, and he had the money and the scientists, so we let him. Someone – I think Maria – was looking at reports monthly. We even included a few of them in a summary of program growths that we gave to Carol. But those Roxxon scientists? The head of the program was involved with an incident that created a small-time villain known as Bombshell. We’ve got tabs on her, and we’re hoping we can recruit her, but they literally gifted her with powers before her birth. And that incident only came to light recently. At least two of his scientists were involved in making Peter Parker into Spider-man, and another one was involved in making Miles Morales Spider-man.”
“Do you think Greg would kill Tony over this?”
“I think Greg would kill Tony for a pack of Lunchables.”
Steve frowned. “That makes no sense. Tony has a whole company Greg wants control of. He doesn’t need a newer, shittier motive. He has the resources. If he wanted to kill Tony, why hasn’t he done it before now?”
“Look, maybe he’s not trying to kill Tony. Maybe he’s planning to ruin him the old-fashioned way, with a business takeover and illegal shell companies. Or something.”
“You don’t know anything about business, do you?”
Monica shrugged. “I know about budgeting and how to strongarm Congressmen. Those are about the extent of my money skills. Anyway, I know Tony and Greg aren’t exactly the best brothers ever. But playing them off of each other has been pretty beneficial to SHIELD. I’m hoping we can continue to do that instead of, say, putting one of them in jail or worse.”
“Do you think there really are Skrull rebels keeping Tony hostage in the Tower?”
“I think that’s a possibility, especially if Tony isn’t talking to people at SHIELD that he trusts. But I also know that he’s been going to business meetings.”
Steve considered this. “Whatever this is, Pepper’s in on it.”
“Pepper? Or a Skrull disguised as Pepper?”
“Also plausible, but not an immediate threat.”
“Steve, Skrull warriors are trained to use all of the abilities of the original Fantastic Four.”
“Do you think there’s a connection between these Skrulls and Reed Richards, then?”
“A possibility, but that guy’s dead. Unless there’s some weird supervillain magazine they all subscribe to, I don’t think it’s really a threat.”
“But you do think Greg is going to use this mission to get one over on Tony.”
“Oh, definitely.” Monica sipped her joe.
“Anything you got that can help?”
Monica nodded. “I have an agent. No one knows her face. We put her in an average agent’s uniform and she can do this op with you.”
“No. You think I’m gonna risk her face by bringing her here? She’ll show up at the mission with everyone else. She’s going to keep them all in line and bring them down if they need it.”
Steve nodded. “Glad I have someone in there who’ll help me with that.”
“And don’t worry about her loyalty. I promised to share the information I gathered in Roxxon if she did this.”
“Does she hate Roxxon?” Steve asked.
“Y’see, they made her.”
“What, gave her her powers?”
“No,” Monica whispered, “her.”
Very suddenly, Steve fully understood what he’d done when he gave his DNA to SHIELD. Even worse, what SHIELD had done when they gave Greg Stark, the amoral genius, his DNA.
“I want the shield.”
“No,” Tony told her.
“How come?” Carl whined.
“It’s a weapon, and honestly I’m not sure you’re tall enough to use it without toppling over.”
She straightened up to her full five-year-old height. “I am! Just let me try.”
Beth walked over. “I wanna touch it.”
“Why are we taking it to the panic room?” Anthony asked.
“Because I don’t want anyone else to take it,” Tony explained. “The shield is a powerful weapon, but it’s an even more powerful symbol. A weapon can hurt people’s bodies, but a symbol can hurt their minds. I don’t want anyone to use Steve’s symbol for that.”
“I wanna play with it!” Carl shouted.
“Carly, you are dangerously close to a time-out,” Tony told her.
“You never let me to anything,” Carl whispered. “The doctors never let us go outside and do things, and you don’t either.”
Tony sighed. “Carl, right now it’s really dangerous for you to go outside. You wanna do something crazy? You wanna dye your hair green, like the Hulk’s? ‘Cause I’ll do it. I’ll dye your hair green if you want.”
“Yes!” shrieked Carl. “I want green hair! I want green hair!”
“JARVIS, call a discreet hair dresser.”
“Anyone else?” Tony asked, looking around. “No one under three.”
Anthony tugged on his jeans. “Can I get brown hair like you?”
“If you want,” Tony said. “Maybe we can get a pencil and give you a goatee?”
“Okay. We’ll ask Natasha if we can borrow some of her makeup pencils.”
“Can I get makeup?” Dierdre asked. “It’s like paint for your skin.”
“Sure, we can buy you some makeup.”
“No, I wanna wear some.”
“You’ll have to ask Natasha to put some on you.”
“Can the hairdresser wash my hair?” Beth asked. “I like it when other people wash my hair.”
“Sure. We’ll tip extra.”
“What’s a tip?” Henry asked.
“When you give someone extra money for doing a good job.”
“What’s money?” Ian asked.
“You need it to buy things. Jesus, what were those doctors teaching you guys? Clint!” Tony yelled. “Do you have any change? These kids have no idea what money is.”
“Sure,” Clint yelled. “But you could just have them look between the couch cushions.”
“Okay, guys, new game. Look under the couch cushions for little metal coins and for green paper. Whoever ends up with the most money wins! You can go on any floor. I’ll call you when the hairdresser’s here.” Most of the kids scrambled off. Kate, of course, toddled over to Tony’s legs and sat on his left shoe.
Joseph said, “Can I brush your hair?”
“Yeah, yeah. Go get my brush.” Tony sat on the floor and moved Kate onto his lap. He was out of breath, from what, having a conversation with these kids? What was he, 50 already? He looked over at Lottie, napping on the couch. She had one of those pacifiers with a hollow nipple for parents to easily push it into their child’s mouth. It was weird, because you could see them squish it. “My life got crazy really quickly. I think it started with the cancer.”
“What’s cancer?” Joseph asked.
“I was sick. I almost died. Then it stopped growing in my brain, and now I’m okay.”
“When someone dies, you don’t get to see them ever again. They can’t play or eat or sleep or breathe anymore.”
“I don’t like that,” Joseph said.
“No one does,” Tony assured him, “but if we’re very lucky, we only do it once.”
"Wake up," Natasha whispered.
Tony was reminded of those few cancerous months at the beginning of the Ultimates team when he and Natasha had dated. It started with an alien invasion and a janitor closet.
He sat up.
"SHIELD is coming." She paused. "Steve is leading them."
"Real Steve or someone who looks like him?"
"I'm not sure. You want me to head them off, pick off a few of 'em?"
"That would be great." Tony looked up. "JARVIS, shut down the elevator. Lock the doors to the stairs. In fact, lock all the doors unless an Ultimate or a clone tells you to open it."
Jessica wasn't used to showing her face on ops. Here she was in a plain agent's fighting clothes and some Kevlar. Monica had shown her some makeup tricks so she didn't look 16, and she'd added a facial scar so she didn't look too much like Peter Parker. Peter might be dead, but he still had the most recognizable face in New York. Dead teenagers who happened to be notorious superheroes had a knack for that kind of thing.
Her spidey-sense was going off like crazy with all the potential danger around. She’d have to pay attention to see when that “potential” turned into “immediate”.
“Alright, guys,” Steve said. “You see someone, you call the team. You do not engage unless engaged first or if you can confirm the person is a Skrull.” The team nodded. “No lethal force; everyone is to be taken into custody. Everyone spread out and start checking rooms.”
Jessica followed a guy named Anton and a woman named Shelley down a hallway. They each took a room. Shelley and Anton couldn’t open their rooms, but Jessica’s was fine. After checking her room, she opened Shelley’s and Anton’s, too.
“Weird,” Shelley said.
This, Jessica thought, is not attention I should be getting. Luckily, in the next hallway, Anton managed to open a door. Jessica’s room was empty. Anton’s room had a spider in it.
Natasha used her Widow’s Bites to incapacitate Anton and Shelley, which gave Jessica enough time to aim a punch. She put in enough strength to knock Natasha out – or so she thought. Natasha stumbled, sure, be she shook the punch off easily.
“I can lift six tons, but that wasn’t enough to take you outta the game? Okay,” she said.
“So Steve’s got capes on the team?” Natasha asked.
“Yeah. But to be fair, we were told you guys are all Skrulls.” She got in a better punch. This time, Natasha went down, and she didn’t get back up. “Sorry, Widow.” She headed off to the rest of the team.
“I don’t like it in here,” Ian whispered.
“Go ahead and go to sleep,” Tony told him. “Here, I have a little Iron Man nightlight.”
“Can I have a hug?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “Yeah, I’ll even lay down next to you.”
“Okay.” Ian sniffled.
“You’re just scared because it’s a new room. You’ll be alright.”
Steve did a headcount. Just nine.
“Do we really have to go through this place floor by floor?” Jamie asked.
“And there’s really a med team following behind us?” she asked.
“Yes.” It was Monica’s team.
“Okay. Let’s get to the next floor.”
Steve knew a few team members were having trouble with doors, but he was fine with his. It was probably a security procedure. The fact that he hadn’t been locked out was a good sign.
“Same thing. Split up, no first strikes, and no deadly force.”
They walked through the door. Three arrows, all straight through his agents’ ankles. He put his shield up.
“Sandra, Dylan, get them downstairs to the med team, then get back up here,” he ordered. “Clint,” he called. “Clint, what are you doing?”
“They shouldn’t be in our home,” Clint said brusquely. “They need to leave.”
“Clint, we’re just trying to get to the bottom of this.”
“You brought a team of SHIELD agents into our home with the express purpose of attacking us. Or at least robbing us. What the hell were you thinking, Steve?”
“Well,” Steve said honestly, “it’s kind of scary to come back home only to find out SHIELD won’t let you go home because your teammates haven’t been talking like they should be and that a world-class intelligence agency believes your house is now dangerous.”
“And here we thought we’d have to rescue you. Congratulations, Steve, you’re officially the most dangerous man in the Tower.”
“Clint, just go downstairs. Monica has a team –”
“Monica? Fury’s wife? Nah. I bet she’s in league with him. Meet you upstairs, Steve!”
“Jesús, Trayvon, follow him. We’ll try to head him off upstairs. If you see Sandra and Dylan, send them our way,” Steve said. He turned around to get back to the stairwell.
“How close are they?”
“It’s pretty bad, Tony. I say take the kids through the vents and get underground. We’re way up here, so they won’t suspect an underground escape.”
“I don’t think I can do that by myself.”
“Don’t worry, I’m heading up there now.”
“Okay. What about Nat?”
“Steve said Monica had a team on her floor. She must be out. I wouldn’t discount her, though.”
“Yeah, it gives her a great healing time, even if it isn’t full-blown like Steve’s.”
“Go get her first. When she wakes, get her up here and we’ll suit her up.”
There was a man sitting on the couch.
“Man, I wish Thor were here,” Steve mumbled. Jess nodded, too nervous to laugh.
“He’s upstairs,” Bruce said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken everyone halfway to Asgard by now.”
“We don’t have Hulkbuster equipment,” Michelle whispered to Steve.
“We don’t need it,” Steve assured her, “because we won’t be fighting the Hulk.”
“What, you think a Skrull can’t shapeshift to look like a Hulk?” she asked.
“Even if they could, I don’t think Bruce would turn into the Hulk just to fight us,” Steve explained.
“Not normally,” Bruce agreed, “but I’m not particularly fond of SHIELD right now. In fact, I don’t think anything could possibly piss me off more than Greg Stark sending one of my own friends to bring me into custody.” He started changing. It was subtle, some green tint to his skin, his eyes turning green, his graying hair starting to brighten up.
“Oh, good, Sandra and Dylan are here. Just in time. Get upstairs. You, too, Michelle. Jessica and I will stay.” At least they’re quick to follow orders.
“So you know it’s me,” Jess said.
“Yeah. You’re the Roxxon agent?”
“You’re just a kid!”
“I’m also Spider-Woman! I’m pretty sure I’ve saved your life before!”
“Think you can carry me and climb up to the next floor on the outside of the building? ‘Cause I don’t think Thor will see that coming.”
“Yeah, of course.” She rifled through her pockets. “I actually do have some Hulkbuster stuff. Some kind of pheromones or something for minor mind control. Should work on a Skrull Hulk. But I’m not entirely comfortable with mind control. You should make the call.” She tossed him a small spray bottle.
“Alright.” Steve sprayed his shield and threw it at the Hulk’s face. Hulk caught it, of course. “Hulk? Go downstairs to the medical team. Wait for me there.”
Hulk roared and ran towards them, swinging his arms. He flung Jessica against a wall getting past her and basically destroyed the stairs going down.
“Are you alright?” Steve helped Jessica up.
“Yeah,” she said, “just winded. I mean, I don’t have your healing abilities, and I’m going to have some wicked bruises, but nothing’s broken. I can get you up there like you said no problem.” She stretched. “Let’s go.”
“If they’re already up to the Hulk level, we need to take them,” Natasha told Tony.
“Yeah, yeah. Go, go. You up front, Clint behind and Coulson carrying Lottie and Kate.”
Natasha looked at the Black Iron armor. “So, you made this for me?”
“A while ago.” Tony nervously straightened out Beth’s shirt. She ruffled his hair, not looking at him.
“Was this supposed to be an engagement present instead of a ring or something?”
“I was in a bad place,” Tony said defensively. “I was dying.”
“Now I’m dying,” Clint said. “This is the worst conversation I’ve ever had to be around for.”
“Clint, you have literally watched me be tortured before,” Natasha told him.
“I was pretty delirious,” he admitted. “I think at one point they were asking you about chinchillas.”
“You guys,” Coulson interrupted. “Let’s not talk about subjects like that around the kids.”
“What’s torture?” Dierdre asked.
“Oh dear god.”
“You’re not heavy, exactly,” Jessica said, “but you’re pretty bulky, especially compared to the 5’10” sixteen year old, so this is actually difficult.”
“But you can do it, right?”
“Of course,” she told Steve, “it’s just taking some time. And when I tell you to, I want you to punch the window in.”
“Sounds like it’ll hurt.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
The thing that Jess liked about Cap was that he was comfortable with silence. It was kind of hard to carry on a conversation when she was maneuvering his bulk around, and he didn’t expect her to carry it. He also didn’t bother her with a lot of babbling.
“Uh-oh,” Steve whispered. “Storm clouds.”
She tried to hurry, but she knew nervousness would make her slip. She scrambled upward.
“Here!” she said. “Punch here!”
To his credit, Captain America managed to put enough force into his punch that the propulsion got them both into the room, landing right on the broken glass.
“On second thought,” Jess said, “you could have used your shield to make a hole above where we were and we could have climbed in normally.”
“That’s a good plan,” Steve said, standing up. “That’s our new Plan A.”
“I don’t think you know how hard it is to get stuff out of my skin,” Jess told him. “I literally stick to walls for a living. It takes me an hour to get rid of splinters.”
“Yeah, well, we’re about to get something worse than some glass in our knees.” Lightning struck a building two blocks over.
“That was a warning, friends,” Thor announced. “If you do not give up your business, then I shall do mine. I have already rendered your compatriots unconscious, though they are otherwise unharmed.”
“Thor, stand down.” Steve pulled himself to his full height, but left his shield at his side.
“I cannot, Steven.” Thor held his hammer to his chest. “I do not want anyone in here surrendered to SHIELD. Not when Dr. Stark and Cmdr. Fury are in charge of it.”
“Thor, right now I’m not even sure you’re you.”
“You doubt me?” Thor tossed his hammer between them. “Lift Mjolnir, then, if you will.”
Maybe it is Thor, Jess thought. I don’t think a Skrull could use the real Mjolnir.
Steve got a good grip on the handle and lifted.
“I,” Thor started, “am not entirely surprised.”
“Yeah, buddy, well I’m about to surprise you with what I can do with this thing.”
Jess jumped up and caught herself on the ceiling. Steve raised Mjolnir and rushed Thor, knocking him over. Jess webbed Thor’s ankles just as he managed to punch Steve hard enough to break his nose. Thor wrestled Mjolnir away from Steve and threw it at Jess. Jess dodged, and the thing actually rested on the ceiling.
“How do you physics?” Jess asked herself. She couldn’t help herself, she tried jostling it. Mjolnir wouldn’t budge. She remembered how the sky had been clear when they started climbing up the building.
Jess looked over at Steve, who was doing a pretty good job at subduing Thor. Or a Skrull that looked like Thor, but Jess didn’t think so.
What’s it gonna be, Jess? Finish the mission or end this now? She thought about how Greg Stark was using Roxxon scientists and had Captain America’s DNA. Finish the mission it is.
She webbed Thor’s hand to Mjolnir and webbed that to the floor. Steve held down Thor’s left arm for her to web.
“Aunty Tasha?” Grant asked.
“Yes?” Her voice sounded weird when she was in the suit. She could hear how robotic it sounded. She was too wary to lift the visor, though. She wanted the visual feed from JARVIS.
“Where is Tony?”
“He’s back at the room.”
“He wants to talk to Steve.”
Clint turned around. “It’s okay, kid. 0’s not gonna hurt you.”
“‘Course not,” Anthony said. “We’ve got the shield.” He knocked on it.
“Hey,” Carl said, “you had your turn with it. It’s my turn.”
They had no trouble getting up to the top floor; the floors after Thor’s were all empty.
“I’m worried about Tony,” Steve said.
“I’m always a little worried about him.” Steve rubbed the edge of the shield. “We’re dating.”
“Oh. That’s going to put a kink in your campaign.”
“I don’t think I’ll really be elected.”
Jessica shrugged. “I’m not allowed to vote yet. But I have a few fake IDs. I might do it anyway.”
“Please don’t break the law just to write my name in on a ballot.”
“Yeah, but just think of how President Captain America sounds. Instead of Mr. President, we would have to call you Captain President. It would be amazing.”
“I don’t want to be president.”
“Most of the Washington politicians are gone, and the ones that are left backed themselves into a special election that’s basically a pissing contest over public popularity.” Jessica shrugged. “The whole President Captain America thing is a totally grassroots thing. I’ll be surprised if you win, but I’m not surprised that it’s happening.”
“In my head, I’m not even old enough to run.”
“You’re, like, 90.”
“I know! It’s so weird. I was 26, and now I’m nearly a century old.”
“Okay except I feel 16 and I’m actually a year old.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, that’s weirder than what I’ve got. Why do you feel 16?”
“Because I have 16 years of memories, most of which aren’t mine.” Jess shook her head. “And the body’s completely different! I didn’t go through puberty with boobs and periods. Now I have them. I had to get used to walking completely differently. And don’t even get me started on masturbating.”
“Believe me, I won’t.”
Jessica decided to change the subject. “So, where do you think Tony is?”
“Panic room, probably. With the rest of the most valuable stuff, I guess.”
“Riiight,” Jess said. She didn’t know how Steve would feel about her not stopping the fight. “What do you think he has in there?”
“Bioweapons. Or at least information.”
“You think they’ll fake you out and put a Skrull in there?” Jessica asked.
“Maybe, but I think I have a pretty good way to check.”
“You’re gonna kiss him, aren’t you?”
Steve scoffed. “In front of you? Nah. Plus, I don’t exactly want to kiss a Skrull by accident.”
“Are you sure you don’t wanna kiss him? It’s been, what, two weeks since you’ve seen him?”
“A little more than that, yeah.”
“You should kiss him. I should take a picture, put it on the internet, and stop this President Captain America thing before it goes anywhere.”
“Do you really think they’ll vote for politicians instead of a bisexual superhero?”
“Yes. Sorry, Cap. America hasn’t changed that much.”
“All the worse for me.”
“Us,” Jessica corrected. “Maybe. Nothing causes a sexuality crisis like cloning.”
“We’re here,” Steve said, voice low.
The door looked unassuming, but Steve knew the security protocols behind it. First a regular door, then into a room disguised as an office that the Ultimates never used. Next, he moved a bookcase over to reveal a metal wall with a doorknob that read DNA.
“Should I open it?” Jess asked him. “I mean, if they’re gonna fire, they should fire at me and give you a good jump over with the shield.”
“No,” Steve said, “that’s a horrible plan. I’ll just open the door and have my shield out.”
He didn’t have a problem getting in. He’d been worried. He was still worried. But Tony was sitting on a large cot, armorless except for repulsors on each arm.
“Are you really Steve?” he asked. “‘Cause after the two weeks I’ve had, I would not be surprised if you were one of my brother’s clones.”
“What can I do to convince you?” Steve asked.
“Well, last time Steve gave blood to SHIELD was a year ago. A lot of things have happened since then. Talk to me about it.”
“We started dating. The team went to Disneyland, and I had to hold your hand on California Screamin’ because I was terrified of a rollercoaster that went upside-down. Then a week later you convinced me to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain. And I got you back by taking pictures of Dummy combing your hair. I threatened to post them to the internet, but I didn’t. Even though I told you I did.”
Tony laughed. “Of course. But here’s mine – I love that thing you do with your tongue when you –”
“Not in front of Spider-woman! She’s still a kid.”
“We have a Spider-woman now?” Tony looked at Jessica. “Nice scar.”
“Thanks, I put it on this morning.”
He looked between them. “Are you guys sufficiently convinced I am Tony Stark? Or should I say something else entirely inappropriate?”
“Yeah, you’re good,” Jessica said. “Now, if you would just vouch for the identities of the other Ultimates.”
“Vouched,” Tony said.
“Wait, so I really can use Mjolnir?” Steve asked.
“Alright, but who, exactly, is surprised by that?”
Steve raised his hand. Jessica didn't.
“That's what I thought.” Tony patted the cot. “Come, sit. Let's talk. Let's tell SHIELD to get the hell out of our Tower, and we'll discuss exactly what my brother and Fury have been up to.”
Steve sat. He pressed the earpiece in his helmet. “Objective achieved. Report to medical.” He looked at Jessica, waiting.
She sighed and sat on the other side of Tony. “Commander Chang, this is Drew reporting. Collect and withdraw team. I'm staying with the captain to obtain information. Report forthcoming. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah. Alright, I'll tell them. Of course I'm telling them. Right.” She turned to them. “Monica's coming up here. I think she wants an explanation. Or a favor.”
“Do you think she's in league with her husband?” Tony asked.
“Monica says she and Fury have nothing to do with the project you hijacked. She says they gave him a long leash and just looked over reports.”
Tony snorted. “Idiots. What did they expect to happen? My brother traded his moral compass for a candy bar when we were five. He doesn't have a sense of loyalty so much as a sense of ownership.”
“I've never met him, I just know he's in league with the scientists who cloned me.”
That got Tony's attention. “I thought you were bitten by a spider or something.”
“No, that was Spider-man. Both of them. I'm a clone of Peter Parker.”
“So they really do have aging technology for cloning.” Tony patted his chest. “Wow, that is... wow. Okay, now I wonder how old those kids really are.” He cleared his throat. “So Greg's little program was actually a very large program with tons of resources that ended up creating twelve clones of Steve, six of which are girls.”
“You don't know that,” Jessica corrected. “I don't know my gender identity yet. I don't think these kids know theirs, either.”
“You,” Tony said, “are going to be our babysitter. Don't worry! I pay well.”
“At least none of them have scorpion tails. They don't, right?” Jessica asked. “Because Peter didn't have some of the powers I have. Like organic webbing.”
“None of them have tails. Their bodies appear to be super-soldier normal. I would know, I've been wiping Lottie's ass for ten days.”
“You named them?” Steve asked.
“Well, yeah, I couldn't just keep calling them numbers. Seriously, Steve, it was so fucked up. Numbers. Numbers! This kid is nearly seven, and people just call him '1'. And they didn't have parents or anything, just doctors and teachers. I couldn't just let SHIELD raise them; you know what happens when SHIELD raises kids.”
“What happens when SHIELD raises kids?” Jessica asked.
“Well, last time it happened, Steve's son that he knew nothing about turned into the Red Skull, an international mercenary who tried to kill us all.”
Steve shifted uncomfortably.
“For the record,” Jessica said, “I am completely against companies and intelligence agencies raising children.”
“What the hell do you think they're doing with you?” Tony asked. “You're not eighteen yet.”
“I'm one year old.” Jessica shrugged. “They mostly give me combat training and an apartment to live in. I don't even go to school; I just work for SHIELD.”
“Child labor, the backbone of America’s intelligence industry,” Tony said drily. “Anyway, we named them all. I tried to pick names you would like, but some of them picked their own names. Ian’s full name is Iannosaurus Rex.”
“I hope he grows up to be a paleontologist,” Jessica whispered fervently.
“They’re amazing, Steve. You have to meet them. You’ll love them.” Tony held Steve’s hand.
“I can’t believe I am now going to be parenting twelve kids.”
“That’s why we’re a team. So we can split up babysitting and saving the world.”
“Alright, alright. Where are these kids?” Steve asked.
“Clint, Nat, and Coulson are taking them to safety. They have a safehouse or something.” Tony pulled out his phone. “Here, I have pictures!”
“Is that a Sharpee goatee?”
“Yeah, that’s Anthony. He thinks I’m the greatest.”
“You are the greatest,” Steve told him. Steve leaned in, and that’s when the door opened.
Monica walked in. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’d like your help.”
“I want an explanation,” Tony said.
Monica shrugged. “Money talks. Greg’s talked pretty loud.”
Jessica scoffed. “And you’re not entirely opposed to the existence of clones.”
“You were an anomaly,” Monica said firmly. “We didn’t expect there to be more. We’ll be keeping an eye out for that in the future.”
“You better,” Steve warned. “I’m not exactly happy with SHIELD right now.”
“That’s part of why I need your help. Right now, Nick is trying to undo some of Greg’s powerholds over parts of the organization. Greg’s going after him. I want your help to get him back and destroy Greg’s network.”
“You can’t run SHIELD yourself?” Tony asked. “You’re already doing better than Fury.”
“I’d like my partner back to help protect our child while we take on a dangerous man with endless resources, yes,” Monica said coolly.
Steve nodded. “I want papers on these kids. They’re mine. And I want that PR lady, Betty Ross, here to help us. We have no idea how to handle this.”
“And no protection detail,” Tony said. “We’ll pick our own friends.”
“Absolutely,” Monica said.
“Alright,” Tony said, “let’s go get our kids.”