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Saving Bucky Bear

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Steve stumbled to a stop, just inches away from smacking head-first into the side of the crib. He took a moment to adjust his cowl before grasping the wooden bars tightly and craning his neck up.

“That’s Baron Zemo’s!” he cried out, making sure to point very clearly at the airplane making its escape above them. “We can't let it go! We have to find a way to stop it!”

“Hmph.” The grunt came from the other end of the crib, instead of next to Steve like it should have. “So that’s how it is, huh?”

Steve spun around as fast as he could, but Bucky Bear had already broken into his speediest run. “Dontcha worry, Cap, this is what Bucky Bear, Bear Wonder, is here for. I’ve got this!”

With those words, Bucky Bear launched himself from the crib with a flying leap.

Steve gasped. Even with the running start, there was no-way-Jose Bucky Bear had built up enough speed to clear the jump. A vision of Bucky Bear tumbling down on the floor outside of the crib flashed through his mind. The ground was carpeted, so nothing would be hurt besides his buddy's pride, but it wouldn’t be possible to rescue him without the help of Mommy or Daddy, and the mission would be good and done.

It was a miracle, then, when Bucky Bear managed to land with a grunt atop the mobile. It swung hard with the unexpected weight and looked just ready to topple down, bear and little dangling planes and all. Bucky Bear didn't panic though, clambering up and up until he was on top of the plane. Steve heaved a big sigh of relief. His fears weren’t vanquished, though, since he then had to watch Bucky Bear cling on for dear life.

“Hang on, Bucky Bear!” Steve scrambled for the closest pillow to cushion the imminent fall.

“Urgh - no, just wait a sec!” Bucky Bear wheezed.

Steve clutched the pillow to his chest and held his breath, super quiet just like Natasha had taught him. The wild, wide swings of the mobile were starting to lose their speed as Bucky Bear tried to stay perfectly still. Finally, a long moment later, the mobile dangled harmlessly. Relief rushed through Steve as Bucky Bear let out an excited whoop.

“Hah, did you see that!? I told you I’ve got it!” Bucky Bear yelled down at Steve. His arms were squeezed tightly around the plane.

“Yeah! I saw! It was really awesome!” Steve shouted back, waving his arms and unable to keep the grin off his face.

“Hey, I found that red crayon you were missing. See, it’s right next to the trash ca – oops!” Bucky Bear had tried to point at the crayon, but now was hugging back onto the plane again for dear life.

Steve frowned. Bucky Bear was so far away. That wasn't good. It would be better if Bucky Bear was with him – a leader had to keep all his men accounted for, after all. Right, and Bucky Bear was in a risky situation, too.

“Wait, Bucky Bear!”

“What’s it now, Cap? Let me just enjoy the view for a bit, won’t ya? You look so small from here!”

“No, Bucky Bear! It’s just - you have to get off now! B-because, there’s….uh, a bomb! Yeah! The nefarious Baron Zemo booby-trapped the plane with a ticking time bomb!”

A high-pitched yelp, although he would surely deny the sound under threat of timeout later, told Steve that Bucky Bear had been alerted to the impending danger as well.

“Cap! What am I supposed t’do now!?” For all of his daring a minute ago, Bucky Bear's voice was small and shaky now.

“There’s no other choice! You’re gonna have to jump!”

Bucky Bear whimpered. “Is - that’s really the only way?”

“There’s nothing else to do,” Steve replied, sure of himself. “It’ll be okay, though! Remember what Mommy said? You can’t ever give up, even if you’re scared! if you just face the scary things head-on, then they won’t be so scary anymore!” In stark contrast to the fear in Bucky Bear’s voice, Steve was calm. In control. As long as Bucky Bear was with him, neither of them would ever really get hurt.

“I…yeah, Mommy’s always right. And if you think it’s okay, too, Cap.” There was a gulp, and Bucky Bear readied himself. “Just…can’t be scared. Face your fears. All right, here goes nothing!”

Bucky Bear slid off the plane, right into the blue portal underneath.


“Bucky Bear? Where’d you go?”

The mobile was still swinging from the push Bucky Bear had given it when he jumped down. Steve flattened himself on his stomach, pushing the top of his head into the bars so he could peek over the edge of the mattress. No sign of him there. Steve brought himself to his knees and looked behind him. His platoon was lined up orderly at the corner of the crib, and a quick headcount followed. Private Bear. Sergeant Bear. General Bear. All troops accounted for, except one.

“Bucky Bear? Can you hear me?” Steve reached over and grabbed his shield from his back. He hoisted it onto his arm and wondered if he should call the other Avengers. He could also start crying and get Mommy or Daddy’s attention, but that was always a last resort.

If Bucky Bear had missed the landing spot and ended up somewhere on the floor, he should still have been able to respond to Steve’s calls. If Bucky Bear wasn’t answering, that meant he couldn’t.

Steve’s gaze landed on the blue portal below the mobile. Every instinct he had was telling him that he should stay as far away as possible from the pulsing source of light and the soft buzzing noise it emitted. Steve frowned, his mind flipping through all of the books Mommy and Daddy read to him. Usually things like this were doors to new, exciting, exotic places to explore. But if there was anyone on the other side, Bucky Bear couldn’t come back. He knew never to move on his own unless he was with Steve.

Steve steadied his stance. No matter what was through that portal, he couldn’t leave a man behind. Steve poked at his baby monitor, sending out an Avengers call to assemble, before readying himself. His team would know what to do if Steve wasn't back by the time they arrived.

Rather than a door, the portal was a horizontal rift above him. Steve would be able to jump up into it, but he had to make sure his theory was sound. He gripped the edge of his shield in his palms and lifted it up. If he reached, he could get it partly through the portal. Steve waved it around, but sure enough, it there was no shield coming out of the other side of the portal, like it had disappeared to whatever was on the other side.

Steve braced himself and jumped.

By their nature, important decisions had to be difficult. No matter the choice, it was hard not to feel a modicum of doubt, a wavering of will.

When said important decision involved joining and funding a team of costumed idealists assembled to protect the people of Earth on an alarmingly regular basis?

Welcome to Tony Stark’s world, where life wasn’t lived or measured on a normal, reasonable, average human-being scale, and to be frank, never had been, even before the fate of the world had hung on the balance. And as much as he loved the team and everything it stood for, and how much he stood behind his decision, because his life was one where inaction was as much a conscious choice as any other, there were days Tony questioned how sane he had really been in that moment when he agreed to back this whole Avengers shtick.

Today was one of those days.

The day's particular source of angst came courtesy of the Mole Man, who had discovered a way for his Moloids to bypass the Baxter Building's security systems. Unfortunately, in the process, they had ended up tunneling and activating one of Reed Richards’s in-progress projects in a basement level, scattering dozens of wormholes across Manhattan.

The Mole Man had been apprehended, but that still left a bigger problem to solve. Thankfully, the process to close the portals was simple enough, for Reed had had the foresight to build the device to close the portals before working on the one that actually produced them. Working through the problem backwards had saved their asses there.

Reed was holed up in the Baxter Building still, monitoring and alerting the Avengers to the locations of the portals. It was their job to plant the transmitters within range of the portals, so that Reed could close them all off in one fell swoop. It had something to do with how all the rifts opening simultaneously meant they could only be properly shut in the same instant, once one tuned out the long-winded quantum physics babble about hyperspace, negative energy, and pulsed waves.

That last bit was easily accomplished, because the Avengers had more pressing concerns to deal with than mentally untangling Reed’s explanations, which even Tony needed extra time to parse at times. For while Reed repeatedly assured them he had specially designed the machine so that the portals it generated wouldn't emit harmful radiation, dimensional doors that could be passed through without consequence were practically required to lead to their own set of problems and headaches. (Peter had made an off-hand comment on that needing to be added to the handbook, if they had one. Steve had replied it was as common sense as don't say bad things about Hulk's kittens, therefore making it a rather superfluous addition.)

The Wrecking Crew had believed they would face no repercussions if they put their destructive talents to use in another universe. MODOC had set off to combine his intellect with his alternate selves. (Apparently world domination wasn’t a lofty enough super villain pipedream anymore. Nowadays, it was all about the multiverse.) Suspiciously Avenger-shaped zombies had poured out of, not one, but two portals. But the same universe, Reed had stressed, as if that somehow made chasing down their undead selves through Battery Park less of a nightmare straight from a C-list Halloween horror flick.

At least Logan had been eerily delighted while beheading a Not So Friendly and Definitely Not From This Neighborhood Spider-Man.

“My head was in a jar.” The suit’s voice synthesizer didn’t affect the direct comm line and thus did nothing to mask the spike in pitch in Tony’s voice.

“Wish I could have seen that! Most of the portals I ended up at were pretty run-of-the-mill. Thinking of dying my hair now though. That black on other-me was really flattering.” Jan giggled, the sound booming and making Tony's ears ring a bit. Soft, girlish laughter didn’t work so well when you were six stories tall.

Please tell me you talked to it,” Peter implored. “Even in the superhero business, talking to yourself in jar form is one of the items on the ‘just doesn’t happen’ list. It's an unfairly short list.” Despite the snark, his words were cause for some relief. Peter had been running his mouth a mile a minute since the zombie incident, so much so he had been almost incoherent at times. Now that he was making snarky remarks at only every other comment by another Avenger, he was as close to fine as his usual self got.

“First, no, not jar form. My head was in a jar. On a wheelchair. Can't get anywhere without the finer details. ” Tony maneuvered around the corner of a skyscraper and spotted his target: a glowing blue portal atop a parking garage. “Second, I was too busy avoiding eye contact to make small talk. Lastly, I propose a rule addition to the Avengers handbook to never speak of this again. Yes, it does exist, not that any of you have read it.” Tony landed with a small bounce to steady himself. “Cap helped write it, so he doesn’t count.” He released the catch for a compartment that ran in a seam on the underside of the armor's forearm, and pulled out one of the devices Reed had given each of the Avengers.

A chuckle echoed through the line. “Noted. We’ll never mention Iron-Man’s-head-in-a-jar-on-a-wheelchair,” Steve answered. “Or cannibalistic Spider-Men,” he added as an afterthought. “No matter how badly any team members would want to investigate further.” Luckily, that certain Avenger was too preoccupied mowing down Doombots over on Fifth Street while being green, topless, and ten times his regular mass.

Steve continued, but his tone had turned authoritative. Tony thought of it as the Cap voice. “Do you have a status update for us, Iron Man?”

“Got her, Cap,” Tony said as he finished inputting coordinates into the small device. He knelt and planted the transmitter as close as he could get to the portal. This one was rather mundane - nothing on the other side but a wide, flat, open desert. Most of the portals they encountered today had been similarly banal; oceans and bodies of water were at the top of the list, which also included forests, plains, and once, somewhere smack-dab in the middle of Arizona. Though, with the track record of the few portals that had popped up in the alternate universes' populated areas, the appeal of tumbleweed had increased exponentially over the course of the day.

“Good to hear. That just leaves two more. How about things on your end, Storm?”

“Transmitter’s been set for a while - just cleaning up the leftovers now. If there’s one constant throughout the multiverse, it’s that, no matter how inflated their egos are, no doubt on where that personality quirk came from, Doombots are about as likely to achieve world domination as those strays Hulk keeps sneaking into the tower. Speaking of which, I think he’s enjoying himself.” Ororo’s words were answered by a sickening crunch of metal and a triumphant Hulk smash puny Dooms!

“Keep them at bay for now. At your discretion, when you’ve determined the situation to be under control, head towards South Street – one of the remaining two portals is between Piers 13 and 14. Tigra, evacuation details?”

“Hey Cap, civilians should be all cleared out, now! FDNY said the collateral damage isn’t as bad as their initial assessment.”

“Good – if they need an extra hand tell them to let us or one of the FF know. Continue giving them support. Wolverine, Luke, I want you two to maintain position.”

“Got it loud and clear, Cap,” Luke replied. There was a low grunt over the comm line - Logan’s preferred method of acknowledgment. It was true they were the best team to watch over Portal-2149, or, to be more aptly-named, the zombie portal, what with Luke’s invulnerability and Logan’s regeneration. That didn’t seem to improve either of their moods about having guard duty for almost the entire afternoon, though. On the other hand, Tony didn’t think any of the Avengers wanted to contend with another wave of doppelganger zombies right now, or right about ever. The short-lived boredom of two teammates was a small sacrifice to make.

“Giant-Girl, Spider-Man, Iron Man, we’ll be meeting up at the location of the remaining portal. Bit of a ways away, though – the Village. Giant-Girl, I’m at your 5 o’clock – think you could spare a lift?”

“I'm here!” After a brief moment of radio silence, “hm, this whole lugging around the embodiment of the American Dream in the palm of my hand – does this make me the Statue of Liberty?”

“Lady Liberty would be honored to be likened to the socialite who proves that being New York’s most charming and most beautiful isn't a mutually exclusive deal,” Tony teased.

Jan huffed in amusement. “Cap, you’re too polite to say it, but I apologize for your boyfriend’s bad behavior.”

Steve grunted, Peter mumbled something inaudible, and Tony chuckled. For him, flirting came as naturally as breathing, and Steve had known that perfectly well when he had convinced Tony to give this – them - a shot.

Tony directed his attention to the screen with the coordinates of the portals. He squinted at the address, and scoffed. “Empire State Engineering? If it's anything like Harvard, bet you those Ivy has-beens can’t even tell the difference between a transistor and a capacitor.”

“Oh, spare us your teenage male posturing,” Jan muttered, at the same time Peter spoke up.

“Yes, let’s make a bet with our resident multi-billionaire genius sugar daddy. I see nothing wrong with this picture.”

“No, what's wrong,” Luke cut in, “is sugar and daddy coming outta your mouth in the same sentence. One at a time. That's how it works.”

“But you just used them both in th-”

“Back to ESU.” Steve's blind eye (deaf ear?) to the banter was an oft-used tactic. “We do have…some history with a few faculty members in their engineering department,” he continued.

Tony furrowed his eyebrows. “We have history with any slightly influential company-slash-organization-slash-cult in New York. Maybe even a fifty-mile radius. Give us some detail.”

“Do you remember a Dr. Stahl? She’s the head of one of the research labs there,” Steve replied stiffly.

Jan hissed in sympathy. “Ooh, that one who nearly made off with your shield a few months ago? She’s still there? Tenure sure does wonders.”

“She wasn’t a villain or anything. Good intentions, if somewhat…misguided. She’s done good work, regardless.” Steve’s words were clipped and short. No matter how endless his patience and capacity for forgiveness, he still had some sore spots. The shield evidently was one of those, and approximately no one who heard the palpable sullenness in his voice was surprised.

“Even if she was convinced that the current analyses of the shield weren’t…thorough enough,” Tony said, voice dripping in disdain because he himself had collected that data and maybe he didn’t specialize in metallurgy but it had been more than sufficiently thorough, thank you very much, “trying to snatch it out under Captain America’s nose is getting a little too far ahead of herself.”

No reply came, which he construed as a reluctant agreement.

A voice interrupted the comm silence.

“Device has been set, Cap. I’m heading back over to give Hulk a hand,” Ororo reported.

“Thanks, Storm. Just one left, then. Let’s finish this up, Avengers.” It was too early to offer congratulations, but the approval and pride in Cap’s voice shone through, regardless.

Tony couldn’t help a wide grin emerging on his face. He adjusted his thruster speeds higher, and his suit propelled itself forward in response. It had been a long day, and the sooner they could finish this up, the better. He could see Peter from the corner of his viewing field, more reckless with his web shooter aim, which paid off with more forceful swings. Jan had picked up her pace as well, which was easy enough to tell at her height. Tony’s bated anticipation seemed to be a mutual team affair.

The lock down and evacuation of the school had been ordered hours ago, but seeing the emptiness of what should have been a bustling campus still unnerved Tony. When they arrived at the building pinpointed as the location of the portal, they found a few campus police, clustered around the entrance. Some nudged and elbowed their colleagues as the Avengers approached, while the others stood, frozen and star-struck.

One of them took a step forward, pausing a moment to gape at each of them in turn before speaking. “Avengers! Are we glad to see you! We stood watch over this here building until you arrived, case you needed to be alerted. Reporting: there have been no signs of suspicious activity!”

“Is there anyone inside?” Steve asked.

“No, sir! The building has been evacuated, and we didn’t do anything regarding what's inside, so not to interfere with your work! I’ll get someone to unlock the building for you. Zhang! The door!” The man barked at one of the younger men standing behind him, who jumped and scrambled for a set of keys on his belt while rushing to the building entrance.

“Frankly, sir, if any Avenger-level threats were inside, we wouldn’t have able to handle the situation!“ the man continued.

“That’s a good decision. The last thing the Avengers want is for any civilians to be injured. Thank you for doing your job so diligently.” Steve clapped the man on the shoulder and nodded to the others. Charisma radiated off of him in waves. Pitch-perfect-public-persona – just one of the things about Steve that impressed Tony, who at least had the excuse of growing up in an atmosphere that demanded that sort of thing from him.

The man looked at a loss for words for a moment. “Right. Sir! Captain! Thank you, Avengers, for working to protect this city! An inspiration to us all!” He snapped to attention and saluted stiffly, and after a sharp glance, his fellow officers followed suit. A loud snort came from Tony’s side, and thanks to the armor’s widened field of vision, he didn’t need to turn his head to see Jan turn her ill-timed outburst into a hacking cough.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Peter waved as the Avengers walked into the building. “And ladies,” he added, nodding at a petite woman who nodded back furiously. “We’ll get things taken care of, be out in a jiffy. Watch our backs, will you?”

“You can count on us, Spider-Man!”

“The only paper I got on me is parking tickets. Do you think they’d take it badly if I asked them to sign one?”

“Just tell Spider-Man you don't believe a word the Bugle spouts about him, get on his good side –“

The door shut behind them, but the police remained on the other side of the glass, waving to them. Tony took out the tracking device Reed had lent him, flipping it on.

“Do you have the location, Iron Man?” Steve asked.

“Not quite. From the Baxter Building, Reed can only ascertain the portal locations to within a few hundred yards, since it’s based on where Cherenkov radiation can be detected. I mean, we worked out that most of the portals ended up outside, and outside in Manhattan causes enough of a commotion that we wouldn’t have to resort to this.” Tony held up the device. “Now, this is the only portal that’s emerged inside a building, and what with the evacuation, the few people who know what room it ended up in are probably at home glued to their TV.” Or maybe a bar – the Avengers were apparently the biggest draw just behind intercity sport rivalries in bringing business to those. They were probably watching Ororo and Hulk, or Tigra, even; Logan didn’t take kindly to the media.

“So this is a very elaborate game of Hot and Cold, then?” Peter asked aimlessly as Tony led the team around a corner and out of sight of the group outside.

“Did you see that guard, though? I was sure he was about to faint,” Jan teased as they were brought down another hallway. “You either have to learn how to dial that down or turn it up, Cap. It's dangerous.

“Iron Man, you don’t need to be the one in charge of that equipment, do you? Bring up the rear; Giant Girl won’t be able to grow in here, let her handle it. Spider-Man, take point; your spider sense will be the first to detect any hostiles. I’ll back you up.” Tony was sure that if the cowl was pulled off, the blush would be high on Steve’s cheeks. It was a sight Tony never tired of, and in the last few months, one he had been privileged to bear witness to on a regular basis.

The device tracked the location of the portal to a room with what was obviously a standard lab layout. The large area had rows of desks taking up most of the space, and various scientific instruments – Tony could make out autocollimators, mounting presses, and at least three different brands of microscopes – lined the countertops around perimeter of the room, save for one wall with a row of lockers.

A thermal scan didn't reveal any disparities in the room, and the air composition showed nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it was all perfectly normal, other than the blue portal almost smack dab in the center of room.

Tony made a beeline for the portal, situated between two rows of desks, while the other Avengers spread out, zigzagging around desks and scouting the area.

This portal was the smallest he’d encountered throughout the day, about a foot and a half in diameter. The view he could make out of the dimly lit room – it was nighttime, then - on the other side was of a cream-colored ceiling. It was probably inside someone’s home, which could prove troublesome, but there was no commotion as far as he could tell. An empty room, then, or sleeping or oblivious inhabitants. It looked like Lady Luck had finally taken pity on the Avengers.

“Looks clear,” he said, with reports from the rest of the team sweeping the room affirming his statement as he finished inputting coordinates into the device. He zeroed in on his link to Reed’s comm. “Reed, I’m about to set the last one down. How much the hell out of here should we be getting?”

“I hear you, Tony,” Reed’s voice filtered through. “For your inquiry, spontaneous violation of CP symmetry has not been achieved, or, to be more precise, ever attempted, on this scale before. However, my calculations have proved the procedure should go smoothly, and any precautions besides the obvious are unnecessary.”

Tony set the device down as Steve ordered the other Avengers over the comm to try to stay out of range of any portals. Considering what they had to deal with all day, extra precaution seemed the most prudent course of action.

“Avengers, might want to get behind me.” Tony edged towards the corner of the room. “If things go south, I can shield us.”

After making sure that the team was huddled behind him, Steve’s shield raised in front of him, Peter, and Jan, Tony raised an arm, ready to activate his shield in a moment’s notice.

“Cap here. We’re ready. Work your magic, Reed.” Tony very badly wanted to roll his eyes at his team leader’s choice of words.

The device below the portal lit up a bright blue - the same color as the portal. A soundless zap shot through it, then a slow ripple coursed through the portal. Tony could no longer make out the image on the other side. The outline of the circle pulsed in and out, and the lines began to swirl towards the center. It was like a dimensional whirlpool, and the sight was simultaneously perverse and breathtaking.

There was no pull of a powerful vacuum, nor the rumbling caused by the instability of the closure of a hole in the universe. The ease of the procedure was so simple and unassuming that Tony was struck once again by the beauty of it; he obviously needed to discuss Reed’s projects with him more often.

Finally, the room was left still and empty, with nary a rift in space-time to be seen. Tony turned around, and, well, he couldn’t speak for Peter, but Steve and Jan’s faces shone relief at him. Tony himself was grinning so hard his cheeks hurt.

There were days when he regretted this, questioned his sanity at that moment when he had agreed to this Avengers business, but in the end, those were just fleeting thoughts. He wouldn’t give this up for anything. Sure, there were overzealous, over the top, over-everything-except-competency-thank-god crazies, but Tony hadn’t been able to escape those beforehand, anyway. They just happened to look more like frothing shareholders and board members, then, and Tony didn’t even have the therapeutic repulsor blast to help him out with those.

Such an idea as the Avengers would have seemed ludicrous once upon a time, when Tony Stark’s life had been lived for him, and him alone. Thankfully, that era was long gone, and Tony couldn’t say he was proud of himself, the person, but he was damn proud of that decision. At that back of his mind, he hoped that man would also approve, because Tony still had to prove his worth to him, didn’t he? To the man who had believed in Tony’s goodness when he himself had never even considered it, and who had thought that Tony could become a better man and share that goodness even when he landed them both at death's door. Maybe Tony couldn’t do it by himself, but with the Avengers with him, it could work out. Now he had a team – no, a family – one he helped create with his own two hands.

And that family included Steve, and if there was a ranking for the luckiest, most unwarranted thing that has ever happened to Tony Stark, Steve Rogers being alive, for one, but also him being even better a person than the propaganda proclaimed, and him being friends with, and then pursuing Tony, because what the hell, Tony Stark had had a reputation before Iron Man and it had not been a flattering one, and him still being with Tony, months after the fact, which was practically boyfriend-level and, when Tony had pointed that out, had answered a goofy, lopsided grin and the most unconvincing ploy at innocence of “do I get a reward for that?” – that had to be hovering somewhere near the top.

Tony was definitely not thinking about his relationship with Steve and blushing. Steve and his insistent optimism, open heart, and tremendous courage. Steve with his big blue eyes, Adonis body, and wicked leer whenever he did that thing with his….

…Well, sometimes sanity was overrated, anyway.

A blare of an alarm jerked Tony out of his rhapsody.

“Iron Man!”

Tony didn’t need a warning to act, already having activated his shield. A half-dome formed around him and the Avengers. Tony scanned through all of the armor’s readings, and he knew the team behind him was focused on scanning the room and obtaining visual on their situation.

Finding no readings out of the ordinary, Tony took a look for himself. The sound had stopped, and the absolute silence was eerie.

Tony replayed the sound recording and frowned. Maybe it was because they had been so focused on watching the portal close, but the sound didn't seem to be a warning from Reed’s device. Calling it an alarm was a hasty assumption, really. It was a loud, long beep - like the one of his own machines would make to alert him that it was finished processing a task, or if something unexpected had occurred. For the matter, the sound hadn’t come from Reed’s device at all.

“It came from that machine in the far left corner.” One that Tony did not recognize on sight, for that matter. He continued on. “I'm wagering that it’s harmless; it might have been set off by the portal closing and altering the machine’s conditions outside of its expected range. The equivalent of things beeping at you if you let them run too hot.”

The other Avengers accepted his explanation without protest. Their own instincts had probably told them, though probably in not quite so exact terms as Tony’s readings and recordings, that the sound, although unexpected, had not signaled a threat.

Until a crash sounded from the doorway.


The rest of the team didn't need Steve's warning to act, either - they automatically fell into position to contain the situation. They fanned out in a half-circle around the entrance and watched their intruder pick herself up off the floor.

The said intruder gripped a small metal disc, but other than that had nothing to signal her as a threat. The Avengers knew better, though. She hissed as she removed her shoes with her free hand, the heel of one of them almost snapped in half, then stood, dusting off her lab coat and adjusting her glasses. She didn’t meet their eyes and looked past Steve, standing in the center of the semi-circle in front of her. Tony assumed she was trying to save face in light of her fall; civilians usually didn’t handle embarrassing themselves in front of the Avengers very well. Until the face clicked with his memories, and he had two realizations: one, the opinions of the Avengers didn't matter a smidge to this person, and two, the reason she wasn't paying attention to them was because her gaze was fixated on the spot the portal had been a few moments prior.

“I’m assuming I didn’t make it in time, then,” Dr. Stahl said, her tone almost accusing with its coolness. She glanced between all of them before settling on Jan, which was probably due to her lack of a mask, cowl, or metal faceplate.

“Make it in time? The premises were evacuated hours ago, for good reason. No one should have even been able to make it in the first place.” Jan matched her gaze with a stern one of her own and crossed her arms. “And anyway, what were you in such a hurry about in the first place?”

That question ended up being the thing to put a crack in Dr. Stahl’s steely composure. She fidgeted, tightening the grip on the disc in her hands.

“That portal led to another universe,” she began, “and my area of expertise isn’t anywhere within the realm of quantum physics, but even the most poorly-researched, B-list sci-fi films know that contact with alternate dimensions is more than likely to have negative consequences, particularly as an ill-prepared for contingency” – Tony felt indignant on Reed's behalf, even if she spoke the truth – ”and I’ll admit to my bias in our universe’s favor in such a scenario.”

“Um, okay. And?” Jan shifted her weight from one leg to another.

“I’m assuming it’s in the Avengers’, from any universe, best interests that accidental crossovers not be a regular occurrence. Just because a face is familiar doesn't prove anything about their intentions.”

Tony had to agree with that. While he would like to believe that most other versions of themselves in alternate universes were only slightly off-kilter, it had only taken one event, no matter how important or momentous it had been, to set himself on a path as a superhero. Was it really out of the question that something could have happened to another Tony to do the opposite? Or, nothing could have happened at all, no sacrifices made, and Tony could have remained the man he always was.

In a way, that thought was even worse.

“Nor would the Avengers want to have to establish contact with parallel universes without having explicit intent for a mutually beneficial and stress-free correspondence.” Dr. Stahl was right there, too, not that it really mattered what the Avengers wanted when the world was calling their name. It had even happened literally at times.

Dr. Stahl nodded and rubbed her chin with her hand. “Unfortunately, the premature closure of the portal has necessitated this action to be taken.”

The thought that crossed Tony's mind then was that this lady would get on well with Reed. From what Tony could glean of Dr. Stahl's personality from their shared minute, she and Reed would most likely connect in the way that only peculiarly driven and seemingly willfully-gauche scientists could. They even had the same habit of beating around the bush, not through circumvention, but by over-explanation. Oddly enough, though, of all things, Tony had an inkling that she was attempting to stall. He understood why Steve had tiptoed around the subject of her technical felony earlier; the thought of her actions being done out of actual malice, rather than ignorance of social niceties, rang false.

Peter raised his hand at the same time Steve started to speak.

“Uh, let's try for a repeat of what you just said, but in English this time?”

“What was left behind?”

Tony could practically see Peter running through the lines of the conversation again, and pinpointed the moment that it dawned on him; if his mouth were visible, it would certainly be in the shape of a pointed O. Peter shook his head and muttered something inaudible.

For the second time, Dr. Stahl shifted uncomfortably, and it pinged Tony just how unusual that was. That could only mean one thing.

“It’s a person, isn’t it?” Tony asked, and Dr. Stahl actually showed a iota of shame at that. Damn. It couldn’t have been a frisbee, or anything?

Although knowing Reed, he would still insist on sending that back, too – can’t risk having the planet threatened by possible non-local contamination, on top of the regularly-scheduled doomsday scenarios.

Pity that the frisbee effect didn’t have nearly as nice a ring to it as butterfly effect.

“Where is this person?” Jan sounded dismayed. Tony didn’t blame her – so much for having a clean wrap on this mess. “Oh let me guess, they ran off, didn’t they? Were they dangerous – oh, hey, you’re not hurt, right?” Jan reached out and Dr. Stahl stepped back. She waved her hand placatingly.

“On the contrary, Giant Girl,” Dr. Stahl said, “they're in the building, harmless, and perfectly willing to cooperate. Of a sort.”

“Wait, they’re here?” Peter’s incredulity mirrored Tony’s own. “No, all right, if you told me they were a supervillain I'd be one hundred percent clear on this, cause for them, common sense is an oxymoron. But cooperative? Harmless? Why bother staying if they could have just waltzed right back through the portal anytime?”

Dr. Stahl hesitated. “I requested that they stay for a little while. They’re currently residing in a room near this area of the building. I was planning on sending them back as soon as tests were done, but that time was cut short, as we have established.” Everything about her said guilt, and Tony’s sense of foreboding loomed. Her focus was supposed to be in metallurgical engineering, wasn’t it? She had said harmless, but she hadn't mentioned unharmed.

“Tests?” Jan asked, echoing Tony’s thoughts. “Tests on what, exactly?”

“Can you lead us to them, doctor?” Steve asked. “They might have missed the ride back, but we can set them up with Doctor Reed Richards – Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. It may be a bit of a wait as we tie up a few loose ends around the city, but we’ll definitely make their return home a priority.”

“Of course, Captain,” Dr. Stahl answered curtly. “Before that, though, I am obligated to answer Giant Girl's question.” She faltered, then flipped over the small disc in her hands, and painted on it was a familiar design.

Tony turned his head discreetly, and of course, Steve’s shield was still hoisted on his right forearm.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you’re showing us.” Steve turned his arm so that he could examine his own shield, whose design matched the one on the disc. “There are plenty of replica shields around. They’re a very popular toy.”

Peter nodded in agreement. “Not that the Avengers need money, but I’ve always told Cap he could make bank on royalties.” Steve made a motion suspiciously close to rolling his eyes.

“The Maria Stark Foundation is not a bottomless pit,” Tony said. “But no, Cap’s right; you could find one of these in any place that’s a dollar-store or up around town.”

Dr. Stahl had nodded along to their words, but now pursed her lips. “I’m afraid your assertion is incorrect, Iron Man. While not the precise same makeup as the Captain’s, this shield is assuredly made out of vibranium. The alarm that sounded proves it. It’s a…project I worked on.” She nodded at the machine that had sounded the alarm just a few minutes prior. “To put it bluntly, that is a vibranium detector. Before this, it had only been set off once before.” Her eyes flicked to Steve’s shield, and Steve edged the shield higher on his arm. “However, I altered it so that it could not sound upon detection of the Captain’s particular shield and its makeup, after our previous run-in. This shield is one-of-a-kind, Avengers. There is only one of them in the world. Or, shall I put it as….there is only one of them in the universe.”

Oh. Oh.

“No way!” Jan exclaimed at the exact moment Steve let out a high, strained noise. “No, really, though, that’s not possible.” She shook her head for emphasis. “That shield can’t be more than half, no, three-quarters of a foot long! It’s positively tiny, and those words come from the mouth of Janet van Dyne, not Giant Girl.”

“Yeah, that dinky thing could cover maybe,” Peter made a show of looking Steve up and down, who was professional enough not to squirm, but still looked decidedly uncomfortable, “uh. There’s really no reason to make a shield that could maybe cover your face if you were smart about it. It’s really nothing more than a glorified frisbee, not that I’m saying you couldn’t make that work, Cap.”

Tony internally winced at Peter’s metaphor. He spent way too much time with this team. Being on the same wavelength was good, but he wondered if anyone else thought the way the Avengers read each other’s minds had veered past convenient and slightly running straight into some kind of invasion of privacy.

Steve cleared his throat at Peter’s comment, then looked at the shield doubtfully. “I agree - it really is on the small side. It’s a questionable usage of resources to make something that won’t hold up in battle.”

Dr. Stahl was chewing on her lip. “Point noted. However, your doubtful assertions, while valid when presented with only a sample size of one, yourself, are extraneous in this case. This is just as effective as your own shield, Captain, once proportionality is taken into account.”

It took a moment for the last part of her sentence to register.

“The other Cap’s a midget,” Peter breathed in awe. “Uh, I mean. God, sorry. He’s vertically challenged.”

Jan’s response was to start giggling in disbelief. “Oh, this is going to be so good. We have to go see him.”

Dr. Stahl gathered herself and held the smaller shield to her chest protectively, and Tony suddenly understood what she had meant by tests. He pondered the likelihood of any Steve Rogers allowing an alternate universe stranger to run tests on his shield, and he didn’t need Reed’s complex probability methodologies to conclude that the chance was highly unlikely. Even as optimistic and willing to see the best side of people as Cap was, that didn’t translate to short-sightedness and naivety, which is what trusting a stranger with your weapon suggested. Tony frowned. Dr. Stahl was definitely not telling them everything, and the way she glanced furtively between each of them to gauge their reactions confirmed his thoughts.

“Let’s get to it, then.” Tony would clap his hands together but that would look silly in the suit. “I’m sure Cap-II would be happy to cooperate with us – he probably understands the sort of thing we’re dealing with.”

“Of course, Iron Man. Having the surprise sooner rather than later shouldn't make a difference.” Dr. Stahl ignored their questioning looks at her comment, turning on her heel and marching off swiftly.

“Hey, don’t just leave us here in the dust!” Peter called out as the rest of their team made their move to follow her.

“Cap –“ Tony said, trying to catch up with Steve, who was walking in long strides.

Steve didn't acknowledge him, which, all right, that stung a bit. Steve’s movements were stiff and mechanical – completely lacking the finesse Tony was used to seeing in their team leader. Tony’s first instinct was to chuckle at his nervousness, but the suit, sadly, couldn’t tell the difference between what came out of his mouth, whether it was a cry for help or a highly inappropriate remark, and thus had no filter. No filter meant that any sound he made would be picked up by Steve. The suit also wouldn’t be able to protect him from any withering gazes aimed his way, so Tony settled for a fond smile, mostly because no one would be able to see it. Even Captain America could get a case of the jitters.

It was better to try to distract Steve rather than let him listen in on Jan and Peter’s attempt at a hushed conversation behind them. Tony placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, and he felt him tense at the motion.

“Hey, after this gets all sorted out, how do you feel about going out for dinner tonight? We could go to that one diner joint you like.”

He couldn’t actually see Steve’s eyebrow raise behind the cowl, but he was confident that was the response Tony just elicited.

“Tonight? Is that all right? You’ve been out of the office all day – there aren't any SI things to take care of?”

Tony shrugged. “I always have stuff to do there. It’ll be fine – you’re always the one telling me I should stop taking work home with me.”

“So you do listen sometimes.” Steve's eyes twinkled as he smiled. “Sure, Tony. Dinner sounds great.”

“Did you hear that? I think the parents are abandoning us tonight,” Peter cut in. Steve looked down, a little embarrassed at having been eavesdropped on. Tony settled for rolling his eyes. Having revealed their relationship status to their team a month or so back had been harmless, other than the incessant teasing.

“How cruel! How will they ever make it up to us poor neglected children?” Jan joined in. Steve’s eyes skirted back to Tony’s in an attempt to share in the exasperation, but sadly, the shared eye contact thing only worked with Steve-and-Tony, not Cap-and-Iron-Man. The blank faceplate probably wasn't too reassuring, because Steve tilted his head slightly, as if the extra angling would provide more insight.

“Pizza, courtesy of Dad, is the least they could possibly do to make it up to us. Don’t you agree, sis?”

“Of course, little bro.” Jan leaned closer to Peter but Tony could still make out her whisper, “which one's Dad?”

“We’re here,” Dr. Stahl interrupted, her voice unusually shrill. She turned to face the Avengers bringing up the rear of the group.

Tony geared himself for the show – none of them had actually been able to hold a conversation with one of their alternate selves today (and Tony was glad for that for his own sake, to be honest), but since Steve had to be saddled with the dubious honor, Tony might as well get the most entertainment as possible out the situation, even if it came at the price of Steve’s discomfort.

“I – “ Dr. Stahl started, then she shook her head. “No, it’s doubtful you will take my word unless you see the situation and understand the circumstances first-hand.”

She turned around and opened the door before any of them had a chance to respond. After that moment, there was no reason to. They were too busy gaping at the sight at the end of the room, which appeared to be some sort of playroom, at the foot-and-a-half, blond, blue-eyed baby dressed in a Captain America uniform standing in a crib who was staring back at them looking as shocked as they felt.

There were some days when Tony really regretted becoming an Avenger.

“I need a beer.”

Logan took a look at Steve and the extra dimensional visitor propped against his shoulder.

“Take it back.” He dropped into a chair, legs splayed, with a pointed sigh and a hand over his face. “Need a six-pack.”

“Get in line, pal,” Peter remarked from his crouched perch on one of the briefing room's side tables. A few meetings after joining the team, he had declared it too uncomfortable to position himself in the same way in any of the chairs around the large, rounded table in the middle of the room – apparently, the elevation was way too low.

Ororo had followed Logan in, and settled herself with much more poise in the seat next to him. However, her exhaustion was as easily seen as her dour companion's. A slight slump in her posture and hair that was slightly mussed might be par the course for your average joe, but Ororo was held to different standards than the rest of them. If Tony bought a small country and appointed himself its rightful king in a fit of megalomania (about as likely as changing the armor's color scheme to green and gray along with adding a cape), he could maybe achieve the same amount of regal grace as what was contained in the tip of Ororo's pinky finger.

“So, this is our visitor you informed us of,” Ororo said, her attention on the child in Steve’s arms. She was seemingly going for an impassive gaze, but with the way the corner of her mouth twitched and how she was pinching her arm, the suppressed laughter wasn’t hard to miss.

“Yes, this is Steven.” Steve shifted Steven up on his hip, who was currently preoccupied with a painting of the Avengers on the wall. “The portal designation was to Earth-5980. As far as we know, he’s – “

A loud squeal interrupted his words.

“Is that baby-Cap? Oh, he’s so cute!” Tigra entered into the room with Bruce right behind. She bounded up besides Steve, and leaned over to coo at Steven. He seemed to enjoy it enough if the bubbles of curious laughter and calls of ‘Tii!’ were anything to go by.

“I thought we made a pact. Cloning Cap is off-limits,” Bruce said, smiling at the sight of Tigra and Steven, before settling down in a chair.

Ororo chose that moment to burst into laughter.

“The Captain America of that world,” Steve finished, defeated.

“Oh, he’s adorable. Let’s keep him!” Tigra rocked back and forth, and her tail swished from side to side.

“That’s not an option,” Steve said. “Reed has to repair and make added adjustments to his portal device so that we can’t have a repeat of today. Apparently it was a stalled project so he needs to locate the initial blueprints first,” and if Reed was anything like Tony with projects on paper, that might take a while, “and complete it properly, but after that, Steven here’s free to go home.”

Tigra clapped her hands together. “Then, I call playtime! Logan gets diaper duty.”

Logan made a neck-slicing motion across his neck, and while that didn’t mean much, considering that nothing could decapitate Logan, not even Logan, his point came across well enough.

“Let’s get this thing over with already,” Logan growled. “I don’t want to spend much longer cooped up here.”

He seemed to be dealing with the Steven revelation well, if he had bypassed the disbelief and settled right back into his crotchety self. A little more so than usual, but that was to be expected after a long and grueling day. Tony would like to be able to cope as well as Logan did – he was still stubbornly fixated on the denial stage. He did not sign up for this to see his boyfriend holding an 18-month-old version of himself, even if that last part was stretching the truth. Tony had seen the photographs of a gangly, sickly man who looked like he could have been blown over by a particularly strong breeze. There was no way this bright-eyed, healthy Steven was really related (in any other way than the DNA) to his Steve or his past. That made it even stranger, because what sort of upside-down universe had a baby Captain America (and with the way that Steven had bonked his helmet and cooed ‘Iwon Man’ earlier, a baby sporting a mechanical suit of armor supposedly came with the package deal).

Tony sorely hoped the baby Avengers didn’t have to deal with the sort of stuff the adult Avengers did. He wondered what babies would consider the end of the world. Maybe losing a favorite stuffed animal.

And well, he supposed that was better than their regularly scheduled brand of earthly threats, even if it involved more crying.

“We can’t have the debriefing until Luke returns,” Steve said. “He went to help Jarvis make an emergency trip to the store.”

“On that note. How long, exactly,” Ororo paused, “is Steven going to be a guest in the Tower?” She tilted her head slightly at the end of the question, and Tony shrunk down at her expression. Avengers may complain about the impossibility of surviving a Cap staredown with your dignity intact, but Tony found that it was a trait that both of their team leaders shared.

“The earliest would be tomorrow, but more likely the day after,” Steve admitted. “We helped out in the effort today, but it’s the Fantastic Four being hit with all the attention, press or...otherwise.” Steve trailed off at the end with a guilty look, and, well, it was unfortunate for Reed, but Tony didn’t want the Avengers to be the ones hounded incessantly by SHIELD for this particular incident. “Plus, we have to account for the time needed for the machine to get fixed so we can ensure Steven’s safety during his return.”

“Will that be alright?” Tigra asked, stroking Steven’s hand between her own fingers. “Won’t his parents be worried for him?”

“That won’t be an issue,” Tony said. “Traveling between universes has's easiest to say an element of time dilation. The details aren't exactly the same, but basically, in the hours he's been stranded here, not even five minutes has passed in his universe, and the calculations show it was maybe 1 AM on the other side of the portal. We'll...probably be okay.” He glanced over at Steve, who looked like he was playing some sort of strange instrument as he kept placing his hands back around Steven's waist, only for them to be pushed aside by the baby delighted by their new game. Steve had his issues, they all did, but his hadn't seemed to arise from helicopter parents.

Bruce yawned loudly and rubbed at his eyes under his glasses. “If you guys say so. Now, I would be more worried about how the little guy is taking this all in, but he seems alright to me. All Caps must be good at adapting outside of their element.”

Tony winced, and a moment later, Bruce followed. “Sorry.”

Steve shook his head, eyes on the top of Steven's head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Jan hmm-ed from the chair next to Bruce. “Steven’s no ordinary kid, but I’'d say he trusts us because he already knows our alternate selves. I heard his attempts at saying Iron Man and Spider-Man when we first found him.” Jan scratched her cheek. “And he called me, uh, what was it? Waap? Makes me wonder what I’m like in his universe! Do you think if I just show up like this, they’ll just assume I’m in Giant Girl form?”

A contemplative lull in the conversation came as the Avengers pondered the thought of their baby selves. Ororo looked vaguely disturbed; Bruce had veered far past that to almost horrified. Logan was tense and gave off a vibe of pointed irritation. There was no way to tell outright how Peter’s expression looked, but his body language suggested it was bewildered confusion. The only ones who seemed amused were Tigra, with an enigmatic smile that highlighted her feline attributes, and Steve, who took the moment to rub at Steven's head. Steven turned his head into Steve’s shoulder at the gesture, and let out a low whining sound that made Tony go still.

“Uh, baby. Upset baby,” Peter said, panicked. Steven whimpered.

“Here, here.” Steve bounced Steven a little forcefully, alarm written all over his face. Tony would think it was almost funny, if he didn’t feel exactly the same way.

Steven started wailing.

“Stevie’s probably just hungry,” Tigra offered, looking torn between offering comfort to Steven or not. “At least, I can’t smell anything off about him. So Logan gets a pass this time around.”

“Thanks for the reassurance,” Logan remarked drily. “Now someone do their job and get it out of here.”

“He’s not an it,” Steve said sharply, lowering his eyes and shooting a stern look at Logan. Steven seemed to sense Steve’s foul mood and in response, his cries increased in volume.

Logan scoffed and crossed his arms, but he turned his head away and stared at a spot on the wall behind Tony’s head, because not even Wolverine was immune to Steve’s look of disapproval. Tony was the safer target to aim a glare at.

Steven’s face was red at this point, and damn the super soldier serum for enhanced lung capacity. (Did Steven even have the serum, or anything like that? How would that even work out?)

“And the Avengers are getting floored by their toughest opponent yet. Lucky for them, their mighty savior swoops in to save their sorry arses from getting kicked even more by the two foot terror,” Luke announced as he walked into the room and spread his arms triumphantly.

Steve blinked, then held out Steven, who screeched and kicked his feet. Luke backed up and held his hands in front of him.

“Whoa, I didn't mean save you like that.”

“Really? We thought you'd be the one to know,” Jan piped up.

“You were a dad in some of the other universes,” Tony added helpfully.

Luke threw up his hands. “That doesn’t mean anything! I don’t know anything about kids!”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t trust the guy who still has to run things through Ma for my baby advice,” Peter chimed in.

Steve jiggled Steven on his knee. “Well, if you’re here, then that means that-”

“What, you’re not happy to see me?” Luke modeled mock-hurt, but quickly dispelled that with a bark of laughter. “I know, I know, ya don't need to remind me no one's actually relieved that I’m here. Other than being the bearer of good news. Jarvis needed to heat up the formula and’ll be up in a minute.”

“Oh thank god,” Tony muttered as Luke walked over to Steven and attempted to get his attention. Luke only twitched slightly when Steven’s crying became worse at the encouragement, which was an accomplishment in and of itself.

“I hang out with the neighborhood kids sometimes.” Luke scratched his head. “But they’re bigger than he is.”

“Goes to show you had a point, Luke,” Jan said. “Unless it’s kissing them on the cheek, the Avengers have no clue how to deal with babies.”

“Speak for yourself, I can’t even do the cheek kiss thing,” Peter said, waving a hand over a criss-cross of spider webs where his mouth supposedly was. His gesture didn't hold Tony's attention for long, since Jarvis walked into the room at the moment.

“Luckily, I am here to do what the Avengers cannot,” Jarvis said.

“Have to correct you there, Jarvis - you’re an honorary Avenger, remember?” Steve accepted the sippy cup Jarvis handed him and offered it to Steven, who reached with his mouth before his hands, sucking on the straw greedily. Steve eased the cup into his grip, and patted his back encouragingly. It was a strange sight, but the day's threshold for ridiculousness had long been shot over within the first half-hour of the alert that morning.

“With Jarvis included, the Avengers really do have the most varied skill-set in the world.” Tony cocked his head. “To be safe, let’s expand that to the whole solar system.”

“Drink up, little guy,” Tigra purred, and her tail swung idly in contentment. “While you’re here with us, you’ll get anything you want. The Avengers will be the best hosts ever.”

“Well, he will end up needing more than that,” Jarvis nodded at Steven and his milk. “I sent Mr. Hogan out to get some less pressing purchases, such as a high chair and a change of clothes. He should eat too, but I’m assuming I wasn't being presumptuous in thinking that having food thrown on the ground of the meeting room wouldn't be approved of. Not after last time.”

“A good assumption.” Steve nodded along to murmured agreement from the rest of the room. He scanned the room, presumably tallying everyone present. “Since we're all here for the debriefing, Jarvis, could you...?”

“It’d be my pleasure, Mister Steven,” Jarvis said. He picked up Steven, who settled in against his shoulder, still intent on downing the contents of the cup. “I’ll be downstairs with Mister St-“ he said, and paused with his brows slightly furrowed as butler propriety forced him to decide on his own method of distinguishing between the two Caps. “Mister Stevie. Now, if you’ll excuse us. ”

“Alright,” Steve said as Jarvis exited the room, and Tony swore he heard some affectionate tutting from their butler. Steve grabbed and rolled his shoulder where Steven had been just a moment before. “Let’s get this started. Take a seat, everyone.”

After re-explaining the Steven situation to Luke, Steve went over the aftermath of the day from reports the Avengers had corroborated on with the Fantastic Four and SHIELD, Tigra cutting in occasionally with details from the rescue efforts.

“There’s not much else to tell everyone. You all were there, you saw it for yourselves.” Steve shrugged and smiled. “We'll do some strategy and teamwork review at the next weekly meeting, but you don’t need to hear that now. Good work, everyone. Take some time to rest up; you all deserve it. Adjourned.”

Logan pushed his chair out and exited as a collective sigh echoed throughout the rest of the room. Ororo left soon afterward with an apologetic nod at Steve, presumably following in Logan’s footsteps. The other Avengers lingered. It was hard to find the will to move again so soon after being driven to exhaustion. If Tony were still in the armor, even he would be tempted to take advantage of the auto-pilot, even if it was an unforgivable slight against the armor's capabilities.

“We better have built up enough karma that nothing will come bother us until at least Monday.” Peter stretched and yawned. “If I don’t show my face around this weekend, don’t you work up a fuss about little ol' me. I’ll just have lapsed into a coma.”

“A catnap does sound really good right about now,” Tigra sighed dreamily. Her form made a long, sinuous curve as she stretched, her hands flat on the table. Tony bit his lip, wondering whether to make a comment, until he saw her claws were safely retracted. Which wasn't surprising, really - everyone on the Avengers liked and respected Jarvis.

Bruce wiped his glasses on his shirt. “Hulk might be done for the day, but Bruce Banner isn’t. Cap, are any of the subjects from 2149 available? Any chance of happening to know where they took the - hey, hey, I was kidding! It was a joke!” Bruce proclaimed his innocence, raising his hands palms out in response to the swearing and complaining his comment sparked.

“Zombies,” Luke groaned. “Thank god for unbreakable skin.”

Jan made a face. “Geez, Bruce. We’re banning all zombie flicks from the Tower for the next month. Six months. A year. So anytime Hawkeye shows his face around movie night I’ll take responsibility and kick him out myself.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms and shuddered. “Nap time can wait. First thing I’m going for is a nice, long bath.”

“Ohh, a bath sounds super wonderful!”

“I must concede. Your idea sounds much more appealing than mine, Jan.”

“Well, whatever you guys say, I’m going first, and I want the rubber duckie. Hope Hulk doesn’t mind if I borrow it for a spin in the tub, Bruce.”

“I gotta head home to check up on everyone, but I wonder if Ma’ll be up to making her special cornbread tonight. Hard day’s work and all, huh?”

The other Avengers shuffled out of the room, bubbling with regained enthusiasm.

That left just Tony and Steve in the room. Steve's face was buried in his hands. Tony took care when making his way next to Steve, pushing his chair in with a bump of his hips and shuffling his feet, even if carpet muffled the sound. He scratched the back of his head, cleared his throat, and even consciously breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth – all just to alert Steve to his presence. The enhanced hearing meant it was unnecessary, but he hoped Steve appreciated the gesture.

Tony stole a glance from the corner of his eye. Steve still hadn't moved, and a flutter of worry worked its way into Tony at the sight of his still body.

An arm shot out, wrapped around Tony's waist, and pulled him in tight, eliciting an undignified squeak from him in the process. Steve turned his head into Tony's side and began to tremble. Tony froze, unsure how to react.

Until he let out a huff that is, because yes, that was Captain America next to him, having the start of a hysterical fit with his face buried into the very expensive and tailored suit that Tony had been wearing at the board meeting prior to receiving his Avengers alert.

Oh well. The suit had already been ruined from its time spent stuffed inside the (far more stunning, and frankly, drop-dead gorgeous) Iron Man suit. Tony absentmindedly drew his hand through Steve's hair and then tugged on a handful of strands, because that was a wet spot forming on his shirt. Steve better be crying, because the last thing Tony needed was to be covered in snot or drool, especially inappropriate coming from this version of Steve.

“We've saved the Earth, not metaphorically, from unwanted advances from sentient amorous planets. We've played baseball in space to determine the fate of the world. Should I mention that time we basically lost our bodies in favor of becoming giant floating heads bent on world domination?” Tony flicked a finger at Steve's head. “All that, and this, these ordinary, practically run-of-the-mill multiversal hijinks, is the straw that broke Captain America's back. I'm disappointed in you, Steve Rogers.” Tony finished with a deep, pointed sigh.

If anything, his attempts at petulance set Steve further into hysterics if the tightened grip on Tony's waist and the breathless giggles were anything to go by. Tony sighed again. It was a losing battle to stay mad at Steve, especially when those were his giggles filling up the large, empty room. Steve had been waiting for this moment too, hadn't he, had intentionally postponed his nervous breakdown until the other Avengers had cleared the room and left him and Tony alone. The thought of that certainly didn't cause Tony's heart to swell or his face to grow hot or for warmth to creep into his body, branching into his limbs from the glow in his chest (not the literal one). Because he was not some teenager with their first crush.

Steve's cheek rested on Tony's waist. “You’re right,” he gasped. “I should be used to this. It is our life, after all.” He rubbed at his eye with his free hand.

“It's Thursday,” Tony deadpanned. He met Steve's gaze, and that was his mistake.

The waves of laughter came slowly at first, just small chuckles that proved that Tony shared in Steve's displaced amusement. Steve grinned wider and seemed almost childishly proud of himself, as if making Tony laugh at the ongoing universal joke that was their lives was some sort of accomplishment. The image was pathetic and unintentionally hilarious.

Tony laughed even harder, and the fits of giggles started stripping away his control over his body. Steve joined him this time, head pressed into Tony’s waist and arms draped around his hips, the puffs of breath from his mouth warming Tony’s skin through the layers of cloth. His laughter fed into Tony’s own, and it became an uncontrollably cruel loop. {int i = 1 while (i > 1) #i = Steve's laugh {printf('idiotic laughter'), x++;} –

Steve nuzzled into Tony's side, and Tony curled his arms across his stomach, gasping for breath, unable to stop himself from giving himself an ulcer.

The next moment, Steve had dragged him down onto the ground underneath the table, and then proceeded to wrap his weight around Tony’s lower half. With the last of his strength he could muster, Tony forced him to roll off, because it was Steve’s fault his stomach hurt so much in the first place and damn him if he thought he was allowed to make the pains even worse. Even if it didn't hurt quite enough to stop him from sharing his little episode with Steve though, as their peals of laughter rang through the room.

Long moments later, the delirious haze lifted and the fits of laughter died down, leaving Tony gasping and staring up at the ceiling, chest heaving and throat sore.

“Stomach…hurts,” Tony gasped. He yelped in an undignified manner as he was poked in the same spot.

“Someone needs to work on their muscles. As team leader, I refuse to condone slacking. I should make you do sit-ups with me.” Steve said, a teasing lilt in his voice. He grinned at Tony from under the table with his chin resting on his arms.

“I’m the brains of the operation,” Tony retorted. “And as the brains, I come up with very good plans on the fly to save the world from the terrors of the day. Here’s one: every time you invite me to do sit-ups, let’s just call Reed up, tell him to drop a baby Captain America onto our doorstep. We go through what we just did again, say, once a week, and I won’t ever need another workout again.” Tony lifted himself on his elbows and met Steve’s gaze with a smirk. “How’s that for slacking?”

“I thought you liked working out with me,” Steve said. He looked like he was trying to pull off a pout, but the glint of amusement in his eyes betrayed him.

“I like sparring. Basketball. Things where even I can outmaneuver your peak physique, with the power of strategy and quick thinking.” Tony tapped the side of his head. “Straight up conditioning would be a waste of this beauty.”

Steve snorted. “Does strategy and quick thinking involve playing dirty? Not that you’ve ever beaten me in anything, even with that.”

A bark of laughter escaped Tony. “Captain America, master tactical strategist, should be the first to value resourcefulness. And my tricks do work.” He tried for his best leer. “You realize, I count cutting our sessions short as a win.”

Steve blinked, and then, there it was, the abrupt transformation from Captain America, upstanding role model of all the little Boy Scouts of America, to Captain America, national sex icon of the 20th century. (Tony was totally willing to hand over his own 21st century title for the sake of a full Cap sweep. Man deserved it). That never got old. “I think Jan had something good there, with the shower,” Steve replied, matching Tony's leer with one of his own.

Tony hadn’t realized just how badly he needed a release from the day until the moment. Despite his griping, babysitting a baby Captain America really was one of the stranger things that had happened to him as an Avenger. Babysitting a baby Captain America alongside the Captain America he happened to be dating put the metaphorical icing on the cake.

Regardless, they would send him back soon enough, and all would be just peachy. Fumbling for the table edge, Tony pulled himself out from under the table.

“I think she did, too,” Tony said, keeping his face carefully blank. He loosened his tie, avoiding Steve’s gaze, and slowly sauntered outside of the room.

He didn’t need to look back to know that Steve would follow.

Tony's yawn as he entered the kitchen turned into a hum of approval at the piping hot mug of coffee already on the counter. He braced his hands against the rounded marble corner and took a deep whiff. “Oh god. I'm in love.”

Jarvis chuckled from next to the stove. “Good morning, Master Stark.”

Tony took a long sip of coffee as he headed to the breakfast table. While he himself played along with the joke that he was dead to the world until there was caffeine in his system, it wasn't too much of a stretch to take it literally, especially not when he stopped in his tracks with the dawning realization that the table wasn't unoccupied.

“Pepper!” And because pleasantries were unnecessary when there was barely any caffeine in one's system, “How'd you get here?”

“Good morning, Tony.” Pepper's attention had turned to spreading the butter on her toast, but Tony could swear the glance she had leveled at him had been full of exasperation. “I took the elevator.”

“Right.” Tony blinked at his coffee before taking another gulp. The caffeine needed to kick in faster, and oh, that was a project for another day – would probably need Hank Pym's input, and. Tony shook his head, and went back to the situation at hand. He weighed the pros and cons of living above your company's main office. Con: no refuge from a astoundingly and frighteningly competent PA, which required that he had to fall promptly in line for her to be on top of the game. He already had the all work no play problem, although he was pretty confident no one out there would be calling him a dull boy. Pro: no commute time. Even if Iron Man's identity was public now, and he could program the armor's auto-pilot to fly him to his office if the Avengers lived elsewhere (the mansion had been suggested as a possibility at the very beginning), nothing could beat the half a minute ride in a private elevator. “And why are you here?”

“I wanted a head-start on heading off the latest headlines.” Pepper reached for the newspaper folded next to her plate, and held it out. “So I needed answers straight from the source.” A smile flitted across her features. “And the honor of being the first visitor. Should I say congratulations?”

After settling in the seat and setting down the mug, Tony took the paper and unfolded it. He groaned. “I was hoping that it was a really weird dream.”

“Surely your subconscious doesn't hate you that much.” A light and cheerful Pepper voice was music to the ears, but it was hard to appreciate the sound as Tony reread the headline.

A New Addition to the Team?

Have the Avengers adopted one of their own?

The photograph underneath (probably snapped with a phone, and with that level of pixelation, it couldn't have been a StarkPhone) was of Steve cradling Steven as he climbed on Giant-Girl's outstretched palm on the outskirts of Empire State University's campus. Tony flipped to the inside article.

Yesterday's multidimensional crisis might have frightened tourists, but was old-hat for New Yorkers. No casualties have been reported, and collateral damage was minimal (more details on A1). Just another notch to add to the team's long lists of accomplishments. (At least they were on the media's good side today, Tony noted.) However, here's something to make even the most seasoned native raise an eyebrow. There's nothing in this photograph to make one believe that the child shown here is related to the Avengers. However, Reed Richards, better known as Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, had this to offer - “Yes, that's Captain America's, indeed. I only have done a cursory analysis, but the DNA from the sample I've collected is beautiful. Takes after his counterpart in every way.” Which leads to the question – how is this child related to the Avengers, and Captain America? Does this have anything to do with America's highest-profile “super couple”, Captain America and Iron Man”? The Avengers were not available for comment.

“At least they're not ragging on Spider-Man today.” Tony tried his most winning smile on Pepper, who only arched an eyebrow at him and shook her head no.

He shrugged, then let his shoulders slump. If Pepper wanted answers, then, even if it wasn't one of his favorite conversational approaches, direct was probably the best. “Steven's not a clone. He came out of one of the portals yesterday, so he's from another universe. But we didn't know he made the trek, so we closed it before we could send him back. Until Reed fixes up the machine, he's ours.” Tony finished by taking a large bite out of a dry piece of toast.


Tony stared at her. “Okay? Really? That's it?”

“I've made the conscious decision not to become fazed by anything you involve yourself in outside of your position as CEO. It helps keeps me sane. So, no congratulations are in order, then? There are already,” Pepper picked up her phone and swiped her finger across the screen, “six requests for visits and four for interviews. I also found boxes of diapers, baby clothes, blankets, toys, and some bottles of champagne in your office.”

“You know what to do with those requests. And donate all of the gifts.” Tony took a deep gulp of his drink. “Pepper, you didn't really need to come up here to tell me this, did you? A memo would have sufficed.”

“It's better you know now than later,” Pepper responded curtly. Her eyes darted to the doorway.

Tony nodded slowly, then raised his voice. “Jarvis, is Steven awake?”

“The sounds from the baby monitor suggest he's been awake for a few minutes.” Jarvis tapped the small white speaker next to him. “I was planning to check on him myself, but if Miss Potts and yourself are so inclined...”

“Nothing except my position as CEO, eh?” Tony glanced at Pepper, who was already standing and looking at him with bright eyes and an attempt at straight face – a failed one, from the way the corner of her mouth kept twitching. “I think you'll like him.”

Pepper's entire face twitched this time, and she seemed to be fighting an internal battle. It was apparent which side had won, when her composure slipped away and she grinned widely at him, eyes sparkling.

With a groan, Tony sank into the upholstery on the living room couch, rotating the 3D model of the Quinjet on his tablet. Pepper had granted him leave after he had spent his morning downstairs in his office. In her words, “The board knows you’re not dead or gravely injured, and that’s the most damage control we can do for now.” She had rolled her eyes at Tony’s answering drawl of “sorry to disappoint.”

The board had never taken kindly to Iron Man, but that was nothing compared to their feelings on him after Tony had revealed his dual identity. Even if he had helped save New York City (again) from man-eating zombies (…again) yesterday, since it was thanks to Iron Man, he may as well have been the one responsible for the endangerment of Manhattan yesterday. Damn Reed. Damn Moloids.

At least there had been no board meeting this morning, so he hadn't had to face them after the news of Steven broke. His phone buzzed on the coffee table, and he ignored it. The screening system was enough to filter the calls and e-mails to a manageable amount, but last time Tony had checked, his lip had curled at one of the voice messages and two of the e-mails being left by Morgan Stark.

Tony zoomed in and out on the afterburning turbofan engine from various angles. He spun his finger around in circles on the screen and watched absentmindedly as the schematics warped under his inputs. Sighing and giving this side project up as a lost cause for the moment, he glanced over at the corner of the room, where the crib was. He had insisted on it – it would make Steven feel at home during his stay and they could just donate it to charity later. He had dumped the assembly on whoever had been in the room at that point – namely, Logan and Peter – a service, really, because the two were about ready to rip throats out over Smash Bros.

Despite his best efforts, Steven didn't act like he was at home. Not that it was his fault, though. For all his DNA told them about his Captain America-ness, he was still a baby. He had alternated between sulking, whining, and crying ever since Tony had checked in on him with Pepper this morning. And this was Pepper, whose presence soothed even alien babies (pups? Cubs?). Jarvis had informed him it was much the same throughout the morning after they had left. Poor guy must be homesick.

“Tomorrow, little big guy,” Tony said. He furrowed his eyebrows pointedly at his phone, and when it failed to respond (pity that true technopathy wasn't so much as a twinkle in some supervillain's eye), picked it up.

Saw the news. GJ, easier way to tell everyone than a press conf. BTW, need to tell you something. Be up in a bit. - R

Tony snorted. Ulterior motives had invalidated the memo once again today. There was still half of lunch hour left, he should hurry up -

“I thought cloning Cap was off limits.”

Tony whirled around. “Rhodey!” He spread his arms in invitation. “Glad to hear you’ve got your head screwed on tight enough to believe the most probable crack-pot theory. Did you know there’s a rumor going around that the gay thing was all a big cover-up and that the real scoop is that all this time, Cap was sporting two X’s rather than the ol’ XY?”

Rhodey held up a hand. “No, we’re not riding that train of thought. I did not come to hear you disprove that theory by describing Captain America’s masculinity in gory detail.”

“I prefer the term explicit myself, but hey,” Tony smirked, but the expression gave way to a wide smile. “You're not exactly subtle, by the way. Steven’s taking a nap, right now.” He jutted a thumb at the crib in the corner. “Thank God for that, too. Don't wake him up.”

“Wow,” Rhodey said as they leaned over the crib. “Well, if you dialed all the edges and muscles down to baby fat, he really does look just like Steve. Y’sure about cloning being a crackpot theory?”

Tony laughed and clapped his friend on his shoulder. “To be honest, part of me still thinks that’s the real explanation for this. He's from one of the alternate verses from yesterday. And as far we can figure, and by 'we', I mean some of the smartest men on the planet - there's a team of Avengers toddling around somewhere who can't even go to the potty by themselves, yet.”

Rhodey kneaded at his temple with his fingers and groaned. “Tone, to be straight, I’d be more likely to believe you if you just told me you knocked up Captain America, instead.”

Tony let out a bark of laughter. “Oh Rhodey, I’ve never introduced you to good ol’ Dr. Reed Richards, have I? I’m sure he’ll scrounge up a universe to suit those specific needs of yours.” He quirked an eyebrow suggestively and got a punch on the shoulder in response. “Such a spoilsport, no wonder you didn’t want to join the Avengers. I could have built you a suit.”

Rhodey put up three fingers. “Let’s work backwards here. The times I had to cover your ass in the Iron Man armor was enough of armored suits for a lifetime.” One finger down. “I put in my mandatory team shenanigans time back in the service.” Second finger down. “Also, my sanity was sometimes the only thing between you and more painful deaths than I want to think about, back when this Iron Man thing was just between the two of us.”

“Simpler times, the good ol' days,” Tony sighed. “Back then, the worst we ever had to deal with were sentient plant men bent on world domination. I'd say Canadians, too, but Wolverine exists.”

“I'd say getting out of being your sole accomplice makes up for it.” Rhodey turned back to Steven, who was sprawled on his back. Rhodey wedged one of his fingers into Steven's clenched fist, and smiled as Steven's hand closed around it. It looked a little dopey, but Tony had caught every Avenger with the same look on their face, and was guilty of it himself.

“Even if it means not being able to lord it over me? Tone, Tony, you have to let me take the new test jet for a run, I covered for you last week, do you even know where you'd be without me? At the bottom of the ocean, that's where.” Tony thought his imitation was on the mark, but Rhodey ignored him and pulled out his phone.

“Lunchtime almost over? There's nothing stopping you from staying until he wakes up at least. You're hanging with the boss here.”

Rhodey shook his head. “Nah, I have to get back down. But you were right. I could have told you this through text, but I figured you should know in person.” He rubbed the back of his head, and Tony raised an eyebrow. Rhodey rarely got nervous, and if he did, he didn't show it through such visible gestures. He was a constant source of solidarity in Tony's life, and if there was something that caused him to be this uncomfortable...

“Your dad's coming to town. Tonight.”

That's impossible. “That's impossible,” Tony said aloud this time. “He's in Africa.”

Was in Africa. Is now over the Pacific on a transcontinental flight to New York.” Rhodey glanced at the phone in his hand. “ETA at approximately...1900 hours.”

Tony had the childish urge to swipe the device out of Rhodey's grip. “That's, what, six hours from now? I didn't even find out about this being leaked to the public not even five hours ago!”

“The DB was the first to print the story, and those hit the newstands at what, 5? And hit the internet a few minutes later, and that's being generous. It must have been afternoon over there by then.”

“Seven hours,” Tony cut in. “They're seven hours ahead, so just barely afternoon.”

And, you're the one who insisted in keeping one of your old military designed jets at an out-of-the-way facility.”

“The weapons were stripped out.” Tony pouted. “Ghudaza's on the border of Wakanda. Black Panther could have needed it.”

“I'm sure the king of the most technologically-advanced kingdom on Earth would have done fine on his own. Isn't this sort of situation why you transferred it there in the first place? Insurance, in case of emergency?”

A decision Tony very much regretted at this moment. “Right. An emergency.”

“When the former CEO of the company, who also happens to be the current CEO'S father, calls for a flight ASAP, then it's an emergency. That's how I found out about it – there's no way a flight like that would be approved that quickly unless there were extenuating circumstances. Like meeting the new member of the family.”

“One more day, Rhodey.” Steven was babbling in his sleep, and Tony's glare softened. “Then this could have all blown over. What's his deal, anyways? He couldn't have said anything, first, before hopping on a twelve hour flight?”

Rhodey raised an eyebrow. “You're asking why the guy who hightailed it halfway across the world without even telling his wife and ki-”

“Okay, okay, you've made your point. Don't sass me, that's my thing.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “I'm taking this out on you. You should go before it gets worse.”

Rhodey must have heard the silent apology, because he placed a hand on Tony's shoulder. “You okay?”

“I'm fine.” Tony took out his phone. “I should ask permission. Alternate-universe adult genetic clone should be a good enough case for being a legal guardian, don't you think?”

Hopefully Steve hadn't already made dinner plans.

Steve knew that adults had jobs to go to, almost every day, and they were really important. Mommy was a nurse, and she helped sick people get better. Daddy worked for the military to protect people who needed his help.

One day, Mommy would tell him, Steve would grow up too, and then he’d pick a job he liked and was good for him and the people he loved.

He had considered his options very carefully. He liked art, and he wondered if being an artist would help people like being a nurse or a soldier did. He also liked being an Avenger, and being with his friends. But he still didn’t know what that meant for him when he was big.

But now he knew he didn’t have to worry about it. In the future, he was still an Avenger, and still with all of his Avenger friends. He had even made friends with some of the X-Men (and none of them were Scott Summers).

So yes, Steve liked the future he saw.

It hadn’t occurred to Steve at first, after seeing his big self so happy and comfortable. It took a while for it to dawn on him that there was something off, missing from the bright future.

His first thought was maybe he couldn’t go out on missions anymore, since he would be very old in bear-years. But even those hopes were dashed, because in the tour big-Steve took him on around the tower, Steve had not seen a single trace of Bucky Bear.

It didn’t seem to bother big-Steve at all, and that was worrying, cause everything else about him was completely rad otherwise. How could his big self act so normal? Steve wanted to throw his worst tantrum at the idea. He knew that he would never abandon a teammate, but he didn’t know what else explained Bucky Bear’s absence. It wasn’t the sort of thing that his big self could shrug off. Unless...Wanda had told the Avengers once, that their parents and all other adults didn't do things like tuck Bucky Bear into bed or give him his own high chair at the table because they didn't believe. Steve didn't really get it, and Wanda hadn't seemed like she did either, but she had said with her most serious face that believing was really, really important to be Bucky Bear's friend.

Maybe big-Steve didn't believe in Bucky Bear. Steve wanted to cry. No way. That definitely couldn't happen for sure. Steve couldn't think of a life without Bucky Bear.

It had to be something else. Maybe his big self had lost Bucky Bear a long time ago. Maybe, and Steve’s heart pounded painfully, this, the mysterious blue portal swallowing up a falling Bucky Bear, was where his big self had lost Bucky Bear. Maybe he had never found him. From what he could tell, he was probably over twenty years into the future.

Twenty years was a long time, and Steve wasn’t sure how he had managed to grow up in that time without his best friend.

It didn’t matter, because there was no way this Steve would let his most trusted pal go through that, left alone in a strange place. Bucky Bear really was brave, but Steve knew that for all of the real courage, he still felt the need to feign and exaggerate, put on airs – Steve hoped it was for fun, but a part of him knew it was also to not worry him. Bucky Bear was definitely scared, and lonely, and Steve didn’t know what this big-Steve did, or didn’t do, but Steve wasn’t about to leave one of his men behind.

The first night was uneventful, but there could be good reasons for not going out to search for Bucky Bear right away. There was a certain time-frame in which to execute a mission – early enough to prove effective, but with enough time for proper planning and assembling of suitable parties. The Avengers needed to formulate a strategy first, and big-Steve mentioned Reed being unavailable. Truthfully, Steve didn’t know why they needed Mister Fantastic for their rescue mission when Iron Man and even Hulk were around, but having more minds on the job couldn’t hurt. Besides, this future didn’t seem particularly dangerous or even any more advanced than his time (he thought he could hold off on relaying that news to Tony, who would only be let down that his big self still needed to lug around a suitcase with armor intact. “I should have done something to have, like, armor stored inside my body at that point,” Tony would pout.) Bucky Bear knew the rule as well as Steve did: in any circumstance that a soldier found themselves lost and unable to call for help, stay put. Even as nervous as leaving Bucky Bear by himself made Steve, there was a way to approach this, and if he knew that Bucky Bear would follow it, then he would do his own part.

When Steve woke up for the second time in the future, Tony's dad was staring at him. Steve blinked at him with wide eyes. Did Tony have a sleepover yesterday?

Tony's dad looked wary, and that was a weird expression for someone who was usually so confident.

“You're already looking grumpy. Sorry, Stevie. Tomorrow, okay?” he mumbled. Steve frowned even harder before he remembered.

“Iron Man!”

Big-Tony perked up and grinned. “That's right! But still creepy. I can't believe your version of me actually has a suit.” He folded his arms on the edge of the crib and leaned his chin on them. “Unless...what if everyone else is normal, and you're the only baby? No, but then they'd never give you a shield.”

Steve pulled himself up to a sitting position and reached for his shield.

“There's something seriously wrong with some higher being,” Big-Tony said.

“Did you find Bucky Bear?”

Big-Tony smiled at him, and Steve smiled back. Then Big-Tony reached and rubbed his head.

“A natural. Just keep it up like that. He'll love you, then.”

Steve reached out to be picked up. Big-Tony blinked at him, then scratched his head.

“There's toys in there, see? And you have your shield. Isn't that enough? That can last you,” Big-Tony took a look at his wristwatch, “half an hour until dinner, can't it?”

Getting to his feet, Steve picked up his shield.

“Guess not. Uh, here.” Big-Tony reached and lifted him from under his armpits. He hesitated, then set Steve on the floor.

“I wonder if they make tuxes for toddlers,” Big-Tony muttered, stroking his beard. Steve looked expectantly up to him. He was going to lead Steve to Bucky Bear now, wasn't he? But Big-Tony just shook his head and grinned at him, again.

Steve had to use the best weapons in his arsenal. So he walked up to Big-Tony, clung to his leg, and began to cry.

“What is it?” Big-Tony asked loudly. He sounded kind of scared.

“Bucky Bear!” Steve cried, refusing to budge even as Big-Tony tugged at him.

“I'm sorry, sorry, just until tomorrow, okay? You can go back home, then.” Big-Tony finally managed to pick him up and set him on his shoulder, bouncing him up and down. Steve wrapped his arms around his neck and screamed again.

“Tonight's going to be a long night,” Big-Tony sighed.

Not even five minutes into dinner, and Tony's prediction of a long night hadn't been disproved.

Howard had insisted, of course, that Steven sit with them that evening, so Jarvis had procured a high-chair and a bowl of mashed potatoes, which was currently upended on the dining room carpet.

Jarvis had picked that dinner item for Steven wisely; Tony doubted the pasta sauce would wash out of the carpet as easily.

Steven struggled in Steve's arms as he tried to maneuver him back into his high chair. He kicked his sippy cup off the tray, and Tony had a spare thought for the genius who came up with that invention. Steve gave up and put him back on the floor, which didn't help ease matters.

Even as his eardrums were being blown out, Tony felt a pang of pity for the poor kid. Separation anxiety, he had been told, was very common and to be expected, and it could only be exacerbated by the unfamiliar surroundings. Plus, as far as Steve had told him, his mother had been a paragon that even Captain America couldn't be measured against. Steven must miss her.

Part of him wondered if babies being babies was really the whole story, though; Steven wasn't your typical toddler. Jarvis had nicely summed it up when he wondered whether “Mister Steven coming out of the ice after sixty years or Mister Stevie being this advanced at such a young age” was more unbelievable. Plus, Steven had been perfectly fine this time yesterday.

“I apologize, sirs. I'll take Steven into the other room so you can enjoy your dinner,” Jarvis said, scooping Steven up and having a marginally better result than Steve did, because the infant locked his arms around Jarvis's neck, although his cries didn't grow any quieter.

“Nonsense. There's nothing to apologize for,” Howard said, waving his hand dismissively – his most magnanimous gesture of the evening thus far. Maybe it would have improved his mood to rest or take a nap, like Tony had suggested when he had met him at Stark Industries's landing strip, especially after the long flight, but part of Tony knew that was just wishful thinking.

After Jarvis left, Howard huffed. “What a handful.” He forked a mouthful of pasta into his mouth, and when he was finished chewing, he followed up with a “glad we're not actually related.”

Steve's eyebrow rose, and Tony coughed.

“No offense intended,” Howard continued. “All kids that age are a handful. Anthony himself was a nightmare. I know for a fact that most people from my social circle wanted to ban him from their holiday parties, especially after that incident with the Christmas light robot elves, but they didn't have the guts to bring it to me.” He sniffed. “Most of those parties wouldn't have been worth going to, anyway. Everything you thought was so important when you were younger seems silly in hindsight. Well! I'm doing good work now, so no use crying over spilled milk.”

“I'm glad you finally have your priorities straightened out then, what with you joining us tonight,” Steve noted a bit coolly, which Tony noted much to his chagrin. Steve's disapproving tone must not have even registered with Howard, who usually tended to be keenly aware of how he was perceived. Steve could use his squeaky clean reputation to make judgmental statements that would never have flown if Tony were the one to make them. It was like some people didn't even realize Captain America's words could even have meanings in-between the lines. But for Tony, Steve might as well have shouted the it just warms the heart to see you actually caring about your family tacked on at the end, there.

It wasn't as though they hadn't been in contact, period, though, Tony wanted to retort, especially after Tony had rediscovered him a few years back. Finding out that he had been working for humanitarian causes the three decades he had been out of Tony's life had dulled the smart of abandonment somewhat. Especially after Tony's secret identity as Iron Man had been revealed to the public.

Then again, he and Howard hadn't discussed the whole Iron Man thing very much, either. It must have been awkward for Howard to find out that the bodyguard he had so admired and lauded had actually been his disappointment of a son all along. In fact, there had only been a few terse communications in the form of email between the two:

Iron Man, huh? I heard you're on a team with Captain America. Don't screw it up.

I heard you're shacking up with Captain America. Don't screw it up.

The latter had presumably been accompanied with a matching message for Steve, but probably more verbose in its purport, from the antsy way Steve had said that he, too, had received an email from Tony's father when Tony had mentioned it offhandedly.

An awkward silence, interrupted only by small clinks of silverware, followed. Tony had tried to discuss the company before Steven's temper tantrum reached unavoidable levels. Maybe the distraction hadn't been so bad; it was apparent that his former company was no longer a topic of particular note to Howard.

Steve cleared his throat at the same time Howard did.

“How is the project in Ghudaza coming along?”

“I'm sorry.”

Howard raised his hands quickly while Tony and Steve both gaped at him.

“Hey, maybe I'm a bit disappointed that the kid's not really a part of this family,” Howard sputtered, and had Tony ever heard his father sputter before? “Sure sounded like it. But I didn't mean to imply there's anything wrong with not being related. Some of my coworkers' kids feel like my own – ” okay, that stung – “and there's nothing in the world wrong with adoption. Adoption is great, I imagine lots of great kids out there desperate for a good, loving family, and anyway you want to give it to them, even if it's not traditional? Well, I say screw tradition. Bless any child who would be so lucky and the parents that would take them in.”

Tony exchanged a glance with Steve. “That's...great,” Tony said. “Adoption is good, glad we agree, but I don't think anything anyone's said has implied otherwise here...?”

“Are you apologizing for what you said about Steven not being related to you?” Steve inquired quietly, but his eyes were drooped and the beginnings of a blush had started to creep across the tops of his cheeks.

“Right.” Howard coughed loudly. “There's no objection on my part if that is what you two decide to do.”

Tony opened his mouth to respond, and his mind came up blank. Well, that wasn't completely true.

A kid!? Or we've only been together for a few months, we haven't even worked out the kinks with us, let alone a kid, or a kid!? counted as thoughts.

“Uh,” Tony muttered. “Thank you.” His cheeks burned, and Steve was flushing to the tips of his ears.

“I'll play my part as the proud grandfather no matter what or where or when it happens. It's something that I owe to Haven't been too great with that part my whole life,” Howard mumbled, and as if to contrast the tomato-red of Steve's complexion, Howard looked oddly pale.

“Tony said it once, but thank you. Really.” There was a soft smile on Steve's lips, and Tony saw Howard blink, stunned. It was really hard to deny what Steve's heartfelt approval could do to anyone, even tough as nail cases like Howard Stark.

“Nothing to it, Cap,” Howard said, his back suddenly ramrod straight. Tony couldn't think of a situation off the top of his head where he had zero clue how to react, but a pointed clearing of a throat solved that dilemma for him.

Jarvis stood in the doorway. “Master Sta-Anthony,” Jarvis corrected, “and Mister Steven. There's been an communication from Mister Fantastic.”

Steve's eyebrows raised. “Can it wait, Jarvis?” he asked with the air of someone who already knew the answer.

“He asked that you two reply immediately,” Jarvis said apologetically. “It relates to Mister Stevie.”

“Of course.” Tony turned his eyes to Howard. “Dad, I'm sorry about this, but –“

“I can wait,” Howard replied promptly. “Least I could do, after making you wait so long for me.” Tony knew, then, that he wasn't talking about any thirteen-hour plane trips. He nodded curtly back at Howard before he followed Jarvis and Steve out of the sitting room.

“What is it, Reed?” Tony peered at the image of Reed on the screen in the Avengers debriefing room. Reed had signaled them through the Avengers channel rather than to Tony's lab, and was it just Tony, or was Reed...fidgeting? Tony felt a shiver run down his spine.

“Tony, Cap,” Reed said. “I was checking over the data again, from the portal closing devices, to pinpoint the coordinates of Steven's universe again. The work for that is done, the calculations have been made, he should be able to go back by tomorrow.”

“That's great,” Steve said, and put his hands on his hips. “He doesn't seem to be handling our Earth very well. Can't blame the poor fella.”

“But –“ Reed typed out something on his keyboard, and he glanced at the data supposedly streaming across his screen. “I noticed something in the data, and I've triple-checked it by this point – I'm forwarding it to you, just to get a second pair of eyes on it, you'll surely see what I'm talking about.” He said it as if there was no possible way he could have misinterpreted the data, which, to be fair, Tony thought, was a valid assumption for him.

Tony examined the file that popped up on the screen, and saw it within a few seconds. He tensed, gripping the edge of the desk.

“That can't be right.”

“But there's no other possible explanation,” Reed continued. “That energy signature only corresponds to a specific event.”

“What is it?” Steve leaned over, glancing at the code. “What happened?”

“There are two,” Tony said, jabbing his finger at the offending streams of code. “Before we closed that portal, there were two spatial anomalies. Steven wasn't the only one who passed through that portal.”

“Here are the video feeds from the hallway from Thursday. I checked the cameras at the other entrances, and recognized every face that came out of the doors.” Dr. Stahl leaned over and pressed play on the DVR. “I've gone ahead and picked out the relevant time stamps In this feed. I have to warn you, though. I didn't observe anything startlingly out of the ordinary, and I rewatched the clip multiple times.”

“What would be really helpful,” Tony sighed, “was if you all also had cameras in the lab.”

Dr. Stahl pursed her lips. “May I remind you, Mr. Stark, that this is a secondary educational institution. There are more important matters to prioritize in the university budget.”

“Like getting paid enough to scrape by,” Peter nodded sagely. “I remember grad school, and I completely understand, doctor.”

“What are we looking at here?” Steve crossed his arms. On the feed, there was a stocky man pacing in front of the vending machine, though the image was too low-quality to pick out any distinctive facial features. He would pause periodically to check the time and to peer inside the window at the door, then at the entrance to the building, then resume his previous routine. Tony didn't think the fedora that he pulled over his eyes nor the trenchcoat did much in warding off suspicion. A few students paused and gave him long glances as they walked by him.

“He's waiting for someone?” Tigra's tail swished, and Tony saw Dr. Stahl's eyebrow raise at the motion. To be fair, he didn't like getting anything other than strictly human residue in his lab space, either.

“Looks more like he's casing the joint to me,” Peter shrugged.

“This would be around the time the portal appeared and the alarm rang,” Dr. Stahl pointed out. As if on cue, on the screen, the man looked up and then slid to the side of the vending machine. Tony noted that people pouring out of the double doors from the labs wouldn't have been able to see him.

Of the crowd of mostly graduate students and professors making their way out, the man seemed to be scanning them. He finally started forward as what appeared to be the last of them left the building.

“Found his man,” Steve muttered.

Or not, because the man retreated back to his previous position, just as a woman stopped in her tracks, patted the shoulder of someone walking out with her, then turned heel and ran back into the lab.

When the woman emerged a few minutes later, this time with a backpack in tow, the man followed her out of the building.

“Ew.” Tigra ran her hands up and down her arms, and Tony could see how the hairs visibly stood on end. “Did we just find ourselves a stalker?”

Dr. Stahl paused the recording. “That's it,” she said. “There's nothing between this and when the Avengers arrived.” She pressed a button on the DVR, and it fast-forwarded to their own group's arrival.

“So...we have nothing.” Tony frowned.

“Well,” Peter said, “shady stalker-slash-robbers are usually within my jurisdiction, but you're right, we have zip on the big-time Avenger front.”

“Is it possible they just want back through the portal?” Tigra turned to Tony. “And that's why we can't find them?”

“It shouldn't be, no.” Tony desperately wanted to rub his forehead or take a seat and tap out a rhythm against a desk, but in the armor he could only settle for crossing his arms and curling and uncurling his fingers. It shouldn't be possible, but then where had the second person gone? Even if they had ran off and they had missed them initially, it had been two days. Surely they would have encountered someone in that time. New York was a hardy city – something on the scale of Thursday's events wouldn't have been any reason to cancel classes for the next day.

“Then...maybe they don't want to be found.” Tigra was sitting on her haunches and trailing a finger on the floor. Hopefully she would be careful with her nails, judging from the tense set of the doctor's shoulders.

“Uh...why would anyone want to do that?”

“Could we speak to the woman he was following?” Steve prompted.

“Of course.” Dr. Stahl pushed her glasses up her nose. “She's a student of mine, so she should be in today.” In on a Saturday – Tony remembered grad school too, and he found he didn't miss it very much.

When Dr. Stahl left them in the room, Tony could see how badly Steve wanted to heave a sigh. He laid a hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve let it lay there for a moment before shrugging it off, but by the small smile he aimed at Tony, it wasn't out of irritation.

Peter rubbed the ball of his left foot up and down his right leg. “Hey, did the second person come out of the portal before or after Steven did?”

Tony pulled up the data gave him. “Before is what matches up with Reed's data and Dr. Stahl's statement. Why?”

“That's it, then!” Peter brought a fist down on a palm. “Remember how I asked why anyone in their right mind would go through that portal? And why would anyone in their right mind not come to us, the Avengers, if they were lost in an alternate dimension?” He began pacing back and forth. “Everything makes sense now, why baby Cap came through as well, why he's been so whiny, why we can't find our guy.”

“Oh! Oh!” Tigra clapped her hands together. “Because they don't want to be found! And the people who wouldn't want to be found by Avengers are...”

“Their enemies,” Steve finished. He nodded. “Spider-Man's right – everything adds up then if Steven was following a villain to our universe.”

The other Avengers began talking eagerly, and Tony stared at them, caught up in their conversation, in disbelief. “Everyone here does realize,” Tony took a sweeping glance across the three Avengers around him, “that Steven's not even two years old. Two,” he added again, for emphasis.

“It's alright, Shellhead.” Steve patted him on the back. “Some of us just have trouble with our old-fashioned ways of thinking. Adapting's hard.” He winked, and Tony scowled. It wasn't old fashioned for him to think that two year olds were more likely to chase down butterflies than supervillains.

Then again, two year olds also didn't arm themselves with cutting-edge weaponry. He supposed adjusting his mindset was all in due order.

“Say our person of interest stalker guy is collaborating with whoever came out of the portal, then,” Peter said.

“We can't just definitively conclude that whoever came out of the portal is a villain,” Tony cut in.

“But we can say that they had to leave somehow, and the best bet is by getting some inside help,” Steve pointed out.

“That means that the girl that we asked Dr. Stahl to retrieve could be one of them then, huh.” Tigra ran her hand through her hair, parting the curls with her claws. As far as they knew, that girl had been the only person to be in the lab after anyone had possibly emerged. “If she is conspiring with anyone, we can't make it too obvious when questioning her.”

“What we should do,” Steve said, “is speak to her as an innocent. That's the most likely scenario.”

Steve was right. Tony couldn't see how an engineering graduate student could have anything to do with a potential villain from an alternate universe.

The door opened, and a short girl followed Dr. Stahl in. Judging from a quick glance-over of her, with her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, the practical but attractive clothing, and the star-struck look on her face, Tony knew their suspicions were unfounded. He had known her type at MIT – smart, hard-working, stellar at what they did, but unwilling to break the mold with their lives so on-track. Her parents were probably very proud of her.

He highly doubted she could be a willing accomplice.

“This is Cynthia,” Dr. Stahl introduced. “If you'll need me, I'll be in my office.” She nodded to each of them in turn. Cynthia watched her go out the door, shoulders tense, then turned to them.

“Avengers, it's, uh, a great pleasure to meet you.” Cynthia tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, before reaching out. After shaking each of their hands in turn (it was awkward with the gauntlets, but she insisted anyway), she stood like she was at attention. “Dr. Stahl said you wanted to see me? About the incident on Thursday?”

“Right.” Steve smiled at her, that bright, reassuring one, and Tony could hear her slight gasp. “We haven't quite finished our investigation of that day. Don't worry, you didn't do anything wrong.” He flashed another grin, and Cynthia nodded fiercely. “We were just watching the clips, and noticed you seemed to go back into the lab again. Can we ask why?”

“Oh! I know we weren't supposed to go back, since they told us to vacate the premises ASAP, but...I forgot my backpack. It has my wallet and keys and stuff in it, so I couldn't just leave it behind.”

“Did you see anything strange when you went back into the lab?” Steve prompted.

“Oh no, I just grabbed my backpack out of my locker and dashed out. The portal thing kind of freaked me out, to be honest. I thought something might jump out at me any moment.”

“Were you aware you were being followed out of the building?” Tony asked.

Cynthia jumped and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh my gosh. What? Are you serious?” She eyed Steve rather than Tony. “I..actually, I should tell you, that my apartment was broken into, later that day. ”

“Are you all right?” Steve asked abruptly, and Cynthia nodded and waved her hands in front of her in a placating manner.

“Yeah, they didn't even take anything valuable. I only noticed because my door was wide open and my backpack unzipped. I dropped my stuff off, it's pretty close to campus, then went out to get food with a friend. I think the only thing they looked at was my backpack – they didn't even take my laptop. Or my Xbox. To be honest, I don't know what they took, if they even took anything, and I looked all over.”

“That's strange. Do you want to try watching the video, to see if you recognize this guy?” Tigra said, and Cynthia fidgeted.

“Sure. Sure, it's just...I've never had anything like this happen to me before, and now you guys are all here, and...” Cynthia bit her lip and blinked rapidly.

“You didn't do anything wrong at all,” Steve assured her. “Don't worry about that.” He smiled at her, and she returned with a hesitant one of her own.

After the Avengers showed her the clip, Cynthia shook her head. “Never seen this guy before.” She sighed a little and put her hand on her chest. “That's a bit of a relief – I didn't want to think I had a stalker, or anything.”

“That's good to hear. If you suspect anything, you can always let us know,” Steve told her, and Cynthia nodded and shifted her eyes in a way that distinctly said 'I would rather dive into the Hudson in the middle of winter than do that.'  She shifted from one foot to another, and Tony decided to put her out of out of the spotlight.

“Calling the police is always a good idea too. You can go, now, if you want.”

“You...don't need me anymore?” Cynthia looked relieved. “Um, thank you.”

“Nah, thank you for the help.” Peter raised his hand and she gave a cursory nod before hurrying out of the room.

Peter groaned and fell face-first flat against the wall. He stared up, his chin stuck to the wall. “We got nothing.”

Tony sighed and crossed his arms. They were the Avengers. They didn't get held up by an absence of clues or a trail to follow. Then again, they usually didn't have to deal with anything that tried to stay remotely inconspicuous. Most of their bad guys thought rampaging through the middle of Manhattan was a good idea.

“We still have the creepy guy,” Tigra said, but she didn't sound very confident.

“It's the best lead we've got,” Steve said. “He was after Cynthia for a specific reason. And considering what she said about her backpack, he could be our perp.”

“That's great, but thanks to his impeccable fashion sense, we don't have much to go on, either,” Peter said.

“Actually, about that,” Tony said, “I think I might have an idea.”

To be more accurate, Tony thought that Reed Richards might have an idea.

“Is there anyone who I've taken note of as pioneers in the field of interdimensional physics?” Reed hummed as he leaned in closely to the monitor with the fuzzy video footage the Avengers had brought along with them to the Baxter Building. “Who appears to be male with a slightly above average body mass index and of European descent?”

Peter's shoulders slumped. “So you're saying we should pull out the guest lists at every single conference you've ever been to and start at last name A?”

“No need,” Reed said, tapping at the screen so that the image zoomed in. “You informed me that this man knew that someone would pass through this portal.”

“That's what we're banking on,” Steve agreed. “He's been hanging around this room even before the public should have been aware of what occurred.”

“Well then,” Reed nodded, “he can't possibly be someone I am familiar with. Acting with this level of premeditation means that he was able to communicate with Steven's universe, and there is no other person who is currently capable of achieving those means besides myself.” From anyone else, the declaration would have been lofty arrogance in desperate need of Tony to knock them off their high horse, but from Reed it was a simple matter of fact.

“Meaning we're at a dead end again.” Tigra's tail wilted. “We can't just leave some baby Nazi running free in New York! Nazis can never be a good thing, even when they're two feet tall.” She swept back her bangs, nails running through her hair, and let out an exasperated sigh. “I'm sorry to say I speak from experience on that last part.”

Tony was also very sorry that the wisdom acquired from that event could be applied once again here. On the other hand, he didn't know whether he wanted to laugh or cry that the rest of Tigra's words also made one hundred percent sense.

“Actually, I wouldn't call it a dead end,” Sue said, striding across the room, gently pulling Reed's arm, which had stretched a good fifteen feet across the room, along with her. When she came up besides Reed, having successfully reeled his arm back in, she patted the knuckles on the back of his hand. “We did discover something else that could mean something for you and for Steven.”

“We do?” Reed asked, glancing between Sue and Steve, eyebrows knitted.

Sue braved a small, fond sigh before turning to the Avengers and crossing her arms. “The Mole Man didn't come to the Baxter Building completely of his own accord. Nor was yesterday an accident. That specific lab that housed the Bridge was targeted.” She pushed a strand of her behind her ear as she spoke.”

“How do we know this?”

“The Baxter Building isn't such an easy place to break into. Considering how often we're harassed by underground civilizations, that also includes any below-surface approaches. The security measures are state of the art. Or, not even that – ” Sue tilted her head. “That would give off the idea that they're able to be purchased, wouldn't it? Priceless just sounds so tacky though.”

“The armor's priceless,” Tony said without a second thought, and Steve elbowed him.

“So what you're saying is that the Moloids should have never gotten into Reed's lab in the first place,” Steve said.

“Precisely,” Reed replied. “Now, we were able to examine the point of entry. Not only did they manage to get past the shielding – they happened to burrow in precisely point-five meters from their targeted device.”

“Not to mention that they intentionally sabotaged the machine after activating it,” Sue added. “There were some key parts integral to the operation of the device gone.”

“Ooookay. So the crisis yesterday was premeditated. Surely there are easier ways to unleash zombies on Manhattan,” Peter waved his arm around.

“You could open our portal to the Negative Zone,” Johnny agreed, crossing his arms. “Huge bugs that want to eat you, normal-sized humans that want to eat you. What's the difference?” He snapped his fingers. “All brown, gross, and light on fire just the same.”

“Watch it with yer qualifiers there, bud,” Ben grumbled, and Johnny slapped him heartily on the back.

“Oh, you're nothing like them, Ben!” Johnny reassured, a giant plastic grin lighting up his face. “You can't light on fire.”

As Ben tried for a swipe at Johnny, who laughed and bounced away, Tony considered his words.“Torch has a point. We've dealt with zombies and supervillains before. But there is one lasting effect from yesterday we haven't dealt with before,” he muttered darkly.

“Steven,” Tigra piped up, and Tony wanted to slam his forehead into the nearest wall. “Someone wanted Steven or whoever he was chasing. Enough to rope in the Mole Man and find a loophole in the Baxter Building's defenses. Ugh,” Tigra facepalmed, “what type of whack-job cares that much!?”

“Tigra's right. If anyone can muster up this kind of cooperation, even amongst the Moloids, that's Masters of Evil-status. We don't have anyone on our radar who's been operating as such recently, ” Steve said.

“Well, yes. But this is a bit...uh,” Sue pursed her lips, “I'm not quite getting that this is on the same level as any Master of Evil. Minions of Evil, maybe? They used something of Doctor Doom's to enter, but according to Victor, it was not voluntary on his part.”

“Ah, so that's why he was shouting even more than usual the last we spoke,” Reed mused, and he had begun to stretch his arm behind Sue again. It bounced off a force field as Sue shot him a pointed look. It was really odd to see a human literally wilt in response.

“Doctor Doom can break into the Baxter Building if he wants?” Peter asked, sounding slightly alarmed. He clasped his hand to the side of his head. “Ultron or Loki can probably get into Avengers Tower if they want, too. Oh god,” his voice rose in a panic, “this is why everyone always conveniently forgets about supervillains who can level the entire Earth in their pinky finger.”

“Teams or leagues or brotherhoods are difficult to keep under wraps,” Tony said, ignoring Peter handily.

Sue nodded at him. “Exactly! So that's our lead. At least, that's as far as the Fantastic Four got until you came in here. Since this is directly relevant to your case, you should go ahead and take the next step.”

“We're going to go to a private investigator?” Tony asked, staring at the card that Sue held out that read BB Investigations.

“No, the Avengers are going to go to a private eye,” Johnny said, clicking his tongue while making a shooting motion at Tony. “Found them on the internet. Great, aren't they?”

“Specializing in matters especially related to superhuman, meta-human, sub-human, demi-human, Inhuman, and any and all other sorts of non-human affairs,“ Ben rattled off.

“And missing pets,” added Reed offhandedly.

Tony took the card and sighed. Missing animals. He wished it were that simple.

Steve shook the baby monitor a little before banging his fists against the speaker. He made a keening whining noise for extra effect, but there came no answer.

Tony had come up with the protocol to trick the baby monitors. The entire block could be getting upended mere feet away and all their mommies and daddies could hear was soft snoring (or really loud snoring for Bruce, Tony had to make a special version just for him).

Steve took off his socks before reaching for the edge of the crib. That was Natasha's discovery, that the socks were the way to keep them from leaving their cribs, always making them slip and fall on their backs. He hoisted himself over with the shield before landing on the carpet.

It wasn't as easy to move around without the built-in tunnels to Avengers HQ, (honestly, Steve didn't get why their big selves didn't just slide everywhere like he and his friends did – they'd all learned to walk months ago but it wasn't nearly as cool). But his big self and friends were still Captain America and the Avengers, so in a few seconds Steve had the door open and ready. Even his big self fell into the same trap that all the other adults did, which meant leaving the little Avengers alone and behind while they went to do their adult stuff. But Steve wouldn't leave them be to do their adult things now, cause now the adult thing was an Avenger thing too. A solo Avenger mission, when there were no friends or Mommy or Daddy or anyone else to help him get Bucky Bear back but himself.

Where was the best place to start? Tony's lab, the quinjet hanger, the launchpad...

“Charlotte’s Web.”

“Tin Woodsman.”

Steve looked between his two teammates. “What?”

Peter rubbed his chin and gestured a hand towards Steve. “Sleeping Beauty?”

“Only if Hulk is the BFG.”

“And that’s only if no one steals his cookies.”

Captain America was above scowling, but his mouth twitched. “Focus, Avengers. With a potential interdimensional threat, this counts as a mission, too.”

“Relax, Cap,” Luke assured him, arms crossed and leaning back in the two seats pushed together to hold his weight. Peter had given up his own and was crouching, huddled next to the potted plant. “We're not going to get ambushed in a waiting room with the only other things in here besides us are Nemo, Dory, and five year old issues of Cosmo.”

“In the movie, Dory wasn't with Nemo in the fishtank,” Ororo mentioned off-hand.

“I'm actually surprised there's enough of a demand for this type of business,” Tony remarked. “Not when superheroes are those people who live in skyscraper towers, mansions, or in every other alleyway in New York. We're easy enough to stalk.”

“You never know how many jobs exist out there,” Peter piped up. “The things you see on Craigslist when you go on, realizing there's ways to nearly get yourself killed on a daily basis while actually getting paid.

“PI's, though, really?” Jan made a face. “I agree with Tony. Does anyone think we should have done a bit of research before coming on in to some person none of us have never heard of and doesn't even have any Yelp reviews?”

There was a pointed silence as everyone carefully considered Jan's question. After all, they were all so used to world-ending emergencies that the idea of waiting before action was no longer the first thing that registered.

“Right,” Tony said, turning up the armor's volume just a tad. “We should really reconsider what exactly we're doing here. The Avengers, looking for private investigators who investigate superheroes.”

Ororo tried the bell at the receptionist's desk again. The dinging rang throughout the room to no reply. Again.

“So, no cigar?” Peter yawned and stretched.

“Oh, that's it,” Tony grumbled, flipping down his faceplate. “I'm sorry Cap, but I think they want us to come to them rather than them coming to us.” He walked over to the receptionist's desk and inspected it more closely than his cursory armor scans could picked up.

“So, Reed was right when he said this place happened to be built right over the blueprints of an old HYDRA base.”

“Why are there even dormant HYDRA bases in New York?” Jan asked. Tony wasn't looking, but he was sure Steve was making a vaguely appalled expression right around now.

“Gotcha!” Tony crowed as a switch clicked, the ground rumbled, and the floor moved smoothly beneath them, revealing a passage that led underground. “And got you,” he purred as he crouched down and flashed a light into the darkness.

“A secret passageway?” Jan asked, leaning back and stretching as well. “Probably a really cramped secret passageway, too. That's decidedly less fun,” she yawned, before scratching her head and frowning. “Making us go to these lengths to hunt him down.” Jan's favorite missions, she had once secretly confessed to Tony, were the ones that took them to the Savage Land. Or well, any place I can really stretch my feet, she had added. The dinosaurs are a nice touch, though. But really, I like the extra size and it's when I can really pack a punch. I'm not one of Hank's ants who can lift five thousand times their own weight. Can you imagine a fifty foot person doing that though? Holy cow.

Bruce, you there?” Steve asked, holding two fingers up to his ear.

Copy, Cap.”

We're going to go ahead, infiltrate, and hopefully extract our man and our visitor. You, Logan, and Tigra, hold your positions. If our signal gets cut off, send Hulk in. For back-up, we can call in the FF. Or Thor might arrive faster, actually.”

“Agreed with Wasp. I don't think we're going to need to bring in the big guns for this chump,” Luke said, cracking his knuckles. “Hidden base underneath a business front? This is supervillainy, not fraud or laundering. What type of pushover villain wants to pretend at a working job that won't get him anywhere in power?”

“Some of us wouldn't mind resorting to bringing in the big guy though, isn't that right?” Jan elbowed Ororo, who quirked her lips in response, a small blush coloring her cheeks.

“I'm sure the Rhino has delivered my pizza before,” Peter said to no one in particular.

“I'll take the lead,” Steve said, as if there was any question about it. “Power Man, I want you to take point.”

“Roger, Rogers,” Luke said, and Tony couldn't resist a grin. It was one of the Avengers' favorite, if sillier, puns, and it never failed to make Steve's eye twitch a bit. Which it did now, and Steve turned, dutifully ignoring them and not making a mention of code names. (Of course, the Avengers were adherent enough that would only say things like this in private, anyway.)

The passageway wasn't so much a passageway as it was a drop, and no ladder, to boot, although Tony didn't think any of the Avengers would have resorted to using that. The ground shook a little when Luke had jumped down behind them.

By that point, Tony had found the remains of a ladder, tipped over to its side.

“So, I'm guessing someone didn't want anyone to get down here. They must have known that isn't much of an attempt when you're dealing with the Avengers, though,” Tony said. His head itched, badly, but it was something he had learned to deal with while inside the armor. He blinked hard instead, and when he opened his eyes again, the itch had turned into a dull buzzing at the back of his head. Okay, maybe he was more affected by this whole situation than he cared to admit.

Peter shifted. “The Spidey sense was tripped the moment we got into this place,” he confessed, tapping the side of his head with a finger. “I mean, we knew what we were getting into when we walked in, but I'm just saying. For reference.”

“There's nothing wrong with heading into something when we know someone's waiting for us,” Steve said. “I can't tell you it's the recommended thing to do, but there will always be circumstances out of your control. What's not out of our control is that we can keep a clear, calm mind and stay on our toes. Our instincts, and especially your spider sense, can make or break any mission.” He smiled. “But you wouldn't be here if we didn't trust you to listen to it correctly.”

Peter rocked back and forth. “'Kay, Cap,” he mumbled under his breath, but Steve's sure-fire determination and confidence always did its part in relieving the pre-battle jitters.

“Flank me, Iron Man and Spider-Man,” Steve said, waving them to his side.. “Power Man, Storm, take the rear. Giant Girl, I want you to be surrounded on all sides. There's not much room for you to grow in here, so you're currently the most vulnerable of us all.”

“Let's cross our fingers that this guy's a fan of those super mad scientist labs that are ginormous and filled with too many machines that could decapitate you or burn you alive,” Jan said, winking at Tony. Tony wasn't sure if he should feel offended or not.

The team fell into position, and their feet made echoing noises off the walls as they advanced down the hallway. Tony was on edge, ready to alert the rest of the team the moment anything suspicious popped up. They must all have felt similarly though, but Tony did have the benefit of environmental scanners, but the information that fed into him didn't tell him much, unless you counted room temperature at 18 C and a humidity at 32% as pertinent information.

The Avengers walked onward in the tense silence, Tony sweeping away the darkness in front of them with his flashlight. The passageway tapered, and soon walking three-abreast was the widest that the hallway could support. They walked, and walked, and walked some more. There was no sign of an end to their walk, hell, not even a sign of any turns or extra corridors.

After a good – Tony squinted at the clock on his HUD quizzically – anyway, Peter broke the silence. His voice bounced off the walls, echoing off the walls in the narrow hallway. The layout of which actually didn't make much sense for a base, much less one that was underground – what if there was a bottleneck somehow?

“Uh, if there's someone out there, I'd prefer we just get this over with now,” he called out, his voice loud and hollow. “We know it's going to happen, you know it's going to happen, let's go drop you off with the NYPD and finish up business now.”

As if on cue, the lights switched off with his words, and Tony took a step back, holding one hand out to his side and the other in front of him, ready to fire at a moment's notice. Jan edged closer to him.

“Everyone here?” Steve said. There were murmurs of agreement, with one distinctly lacking.

“Storm?” Luke asked. Tony whirled around, and Luke was staring to his side, eyes wide. “I swear, she was right next to me a moment ago.”

The air took on a sharp edge. If Ororo was out, they would be soon to follow – none of the people here could match up to her sheer levels of power – and even in a case like this, where it was unlikely she would have been overpowered, her mental prowess was nothing to scoff at, either. At least that meant Thor would likely storm (haha) in any second now, and that would be the end of their merry trip into the underworld.

“Tigra, Hulk, Logan,” Steve said into the comm, voice low and urgent. “We've lost Storm. We're requesting back-up!” He waited a beat, then repeated himself.

Still no answer.

“I would have known if there was something that could have cut off our communications,” Tony said, scanning his readings. Other than slightly decreased temperature, which wasn't out of place in underground structures, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Until....

“How did we manage to get surrounded by thirty – ” Tony muttered, and the Moloids surrounding them, who certainly had not shown up on his scans five seconds prior, hissed.

“Avengers! We're on our own here.” Steve looked to both sides of him, and plastered a quick grin over his face. “Not that I expect any of you to need the backup.”

The next instant, the Moloids had swarmed upon them and the battle had begun. Tony shot two down at the same time, and they made angry screeches as they fell over, one of them clutching at their shoulder, a nasty burn mark already emerging.

“We were led right into their home!” Luke shouted, downing a Moloid with a wind-up punch.

“Really, I didn't notice! Not much of the way of dirt around these parts!” Jan had grown to bigger than Luke's size, but she didn't have the super-strength to compensate. Regardless, any ten-foot person trained in hand-to-hand by Captain America and roaring to fight never made for an easy foe. “Maybe they upgraded into some underground version of high-rises.”

“Where's Storm?” Peter webbed two of the Moloids together until their skulls banged into each other, their eyes rolling back into their heads. “How'd you swipe her from right under our noses?”

“If Storm was taken down by a Moloid, then Hammer Tech will buy out Stark Industries by tomorrow morning!” Tony shouted, blasting away a Moloid straddling Jan's back, arms squeezing her neck.

Tony shot the Moloid again, in the throat this time, with a repulsor before taking another step back and aiming for an explosive, close-quarters shot. One of them had a faded burn on their shoulder, and Tony frowned as recognition dawned.

“What's up with these things?” Luke said, echoing Tony's exact thoughts. “I've punched my fair share of these guys but they used to go down way easier than this!”

“We don't want to get complacent now, do we?” In a beautiful arc, Steve's shield smacked against four of the Moloids in one throw, and he ran up the wall and into a backflip to catch it at the end of its trajectory.

“Tenacious little things, aren't you?” Jan said, sending a Moloid to a wall with a roundhouse kick. “Have anything to say for yourselves?”

The Moloid gurgled and made an incomprehensible noise.

“Wait, that's not right – you can totally talk, I've heard you yap on before – oh.” Jan's eyes grew wide. “Oh.”

The next second, she was gone.

“Giant Girl?” Tony whirled around, blasting a few guys back when they tried to jump onto him. “Giant Girl? Jan, you there?”

There was no reply.

“What's up with this place?” Tony demanded. “No underground base is designed like this, and no Avenger meets their end at the hands of some Moloids.”

“Iron Man! Iron Man!”

Tony shot his head around – Ororo's voice had sounded especially panicked, and wait, what –

When Tony snapped his eyes open, it was like the light washed away the blurriness behind his eyes. They were – he was in the armor, but when he tried to stand up, he couldn't. The joints were locked in place, and Tony realized with a start that the armor was off-line.

It took some real effort to turn the armor's head – difficult, but not impossible. Tony had considered making an armor advanced enough that the entire process of controlling it would be automated, maybe even purely through brainwaves...but that would be silly. He could be compromised breathlessly fast, and Tony didn't want to choke out in some cave in the Savage Land or anywhere, no thank you.

The room they were in was worryingly close to Jan's assessment of a mad scientist's lab, complete with too many projects in progress, white sheets thrown over them and parts strewn over the floor. The Avengers were all in translucent green pods set partway into the ground, cuffs locked around their hands. There was no flat surface to stand on in their holding cages, so Steve and Luke had taken to awkward squatting positions that couldn't be easy on the thighs, Jan and Peter were curled up on their sides in their own, and Ororo was standing on one foot, pressing a knee to the side of the container to keep her balance. Wait, Ororo and Peter were –

He saw Peter slap a hand against a side of his container and pull it away with a great groan.

“You awake, Tony?” Steve asked.

“Yeah.” His head was starting to clear. “What's up with the circus here?”

“I've had the most experience with Professor Xavier, Emma Frost, the rest of the telepaths,” Ororo told them. “I was able to figure it out first, but I should have noticed it all the way in the beginning, at the waiting room. I apologize.”

“Telepathy?” Tony asked, cursing internally. The lack of a telepath was something that usually wasn't a problem for anyone who wasn't an X-Men, but those types of regrets couldn't be dwelled on for long, not when the armor wasn't working. “What? For how long?”

“From the moment we went underground,” Ororo supplied. “I believe we entered a telepath's zone of influence the moment we did so.”

“I knew it was too easy,” Peter mumbled, as he tried once again unsuccessfully to stick himself to the side of the wall. “Now I can't even use my powers.”

That was what Tony had been afraid of. “Storm? Power Man? Cap? Giant Girl?”

No one replied to him, although Jan heaved a deep sigh, which told Tony all he needed to know.

“What about you, Iron Man?” Steve asked. “You're not chained up like the rest of us. The armor – ”

“Can't move an inch. Believe me, I'm trying. Our perp probably couldn't figure out how to remove the armor, but that's not helping us out much here.” He couldn't even set himself free by manually remove the armor thanks to the locked joints. Damn it, he had the best chance of getting somewhere too, and if something happened to the rest of his team –

A laugh sounded through the room to fill the silence. The Avengers straightened as best as they could, cramped quarters provided, at the sound.

It was trench-coat man (creepy guy, Tony could hear in Tigra's voice). They hadn't been able to see his face very well in the video, but they could now. That was new, actually; villains and heroes alike tended to stick to masks, unless you were already worshiped as a god à laOroro and Thor, or there was no reason to bother hiding your face when the rest of your body, whether it be the half-ton bulging green body or the cat tail, showed off your unique features well enough. Otherwise, there wasn't really much to say – black hair with a receding hairline and an admittedly average and a bit pudgy face. Well, not much to say other than “male with a slightly above average body mass index who wouldn't be out of place at a scientific conference” not actually being such a bad description.

When he removed the trench coat, he wore a long cape that Tony thought he last saw in a 30's vampire flick. Now, that definitely wasn't in the realm of ordinary, not even for one-off villains. The man ran his hand back through his hair, and it stayed slicked back, the clumps of gel and grease combining to create some abomination of garish vaudeville. Tony could imagine Jan clamping down on an inconsolable cry of the horrors of too much hair gel.

“I've got you in the palm of my hand now, Avengers!”

“Actually, you did,” Tony said loudly, eyes searching the room. The villainous monologue was the safest time for heroes to find clues to plot their demise. “We were able to break free of your telepathy when we realized what was going on. First step to getting a repulsor to the face, you know.”

“You say that as if that wasn't fully intentional!” For all of his Joe Schmoe appearance, he definitely had the self-affected supervillain flair down to a tee. “Prepare to meet your doom at the hands of The Augur!” The man threw his arms wide and the name echoed around the room, amplifying the panache. The effect either fell just short or went too far, for all the Avengers could do was exchange glances with each other.

“Like for bacteria?” Peter finally piped up.

“This is just embarrassing,” Jan whispered loudly. “Even worse than Molecule Man or the Melter.”

“Silence, spider and woman!” Augur proclaimed. “Molecule men and melters are no match for someone who has successfully subdued the Avengers!”

“Actually, they've done that,” Peter said loudly. “I think just about every supervillain has webbed me up at some point. Ironic because y'know, me being Spider-Man and all.”

Successfully subdued,” the man cried out again, “the Avengers with power dampeners!”

“Nice try,” Luke huffed. “Y'think we haven't dealt with these types before.” After a brief scuffle with his cuffs, Luke growled, before he took a sharp intake of breath. “Okay, my usual stubborn determination isn't actually cutting it here.”

“Us either,” Steve muttered through gritted teeth, and Tony could see how his muscles bulged underneath the scale mail. Combined with the intense look in his eyes, it was – really not the right time to be thinking about these kind of things. “He actually might have his money where his mouth is.”

“I forgot to mention, they were obtained from Mister Fantastic's lab. Unless one of you is on par with the Thing, methinks you're not getting anywhere soon!”

“Okay, spill,” Jan said, waving her hands around as best she could, cuffed together as they were. “I can tell you can't wait to do your supervillain monologue, and I've never heard of some Augur in our database which means you've never delivered one before, so just let it all out now.” While we stall and wait for the rest of the team to come rescue us, it was left unsaid.

But, fair enough, Tony actually did want to know what kind of telepath was interested in collaborating with some villain being chased around by a two-year old.

“Do you know what Augur means, Avengers?” the man declared.

“I already said it! It's that yellow stuff you grow colonies of bacteria in bio lab.” Peter looked horrified for a second, and it said something that Tony could tell that kind of emotion even through the mask now. “Okay, don't tell me you're going to unleash a bio-virus in downtown New York. Especially not air-borne. It had...unexpected side effects, the last time.” He coughed loudly. Everyone blushed right on cue, and Tony chanced a glance at Steve, who was beet-red and determinedly looking down at his feet – at least, as best he could with his cramped position.

Right, it was after that incident that Steve had first asked him on a date, in some type of reverse-courting.

“If you don't stop making your little punny quips, you little bugger, I'll stomp the life out of you!” Augur cried out, pointedly ignoring any hypocrisy on his behalf. “Augurs were the prophets of Ancient Rome, able to divine the will of the gods themselves! But I have ascended past them, to the level of a god themselves! I saw it all! I saw the toddling Captain America! I saw the stuffed raccoon bear in that girl's bag! And I saw you Avengers, trapped like animals!”

The weight of his words settled on them, until Luke let out a loud groan.

“Precognition? That's a whole different ballpark than mind-control-psychic-telepathy-et-cetera,” Peter rattled off.

“Precogs are rarer, that's for sure,” Ororo replied tersely. “And telepathy and precognition at the same time is just...” Power dampeners or no, it looked like she was on edge, hair bristling as she chewed on her lip.

Unfair, that's what it was. Really unfair. Tony looked up and aimed an ill thought at whoever up there unleashed this on them. But – “Even having psychic visions don't take away the fact we have a Hulk.” Tony wondered how long it would take for the others to send him in. Yeah, he'd had his fair share of villains shut down the armor, but he'd never seen someone restrain the Hulk. Bruce Banner was doable, but the chances of doing that with the big green guy was laughable. “Who should be barreling in through the ceiling any second now.” Tony raised his voice. “So I don't think you'll be tooting your own horn once a few tons of angry green man break into this place.”

“Oh, he would, if he wasn't currently embroiled in battle with half the supervillains in New York!” Augur pronounced. “I have the Wrecking Crew, M.O.D.O.C., the Kingpin” – Peter swore at that – “every resident with supervillanous tendencies on my side! It's surprisingly easy once you lay out in excruciating detail how to bring the Avengers to their knees to those who've suffered at their hands!”

“Those guys're out already?” Luke groaned. “We just got them put back in yesterday!”

“What do you want, Augur?” Steve shouted. “Getting all these supervillains together?”

“And this is where you'll applaud me for my cleverness!” Augur pronounced. “What's the title of the company you came to track down?”

The Avengers took a moment to look at each other. Jan shrugged, and Ororo arched an elegant brow.

Augur looked put out. “BB Investigations? It's right in the name – the appropriate netspeak for baby!” He pouted a bit. “It was very clever. I came up with it all by myself.”

“He's definitely an amateur,” Steve muttered a bit sadly. One that had managed to get the better of them, and yeah, that was a bit humiliating.

“Does this creep think we're all teenagers on Twitter, or something?” Jan muttered.

“Baby like, baby Captain America baby?” Luke asked this time, and Augur snorted.

“What do you want with Steven?” Steve accused, all righteous fury again.

Augur laughed heartily. “It's not the baby I want, it's what he represents. The Avengers. An entire team of superpowered children to groom. To complete my plan of – ”

“World domination,” the Avengers and the Augur chorused in unison.

Augur blinked at them. “How did you know?”

“It's either that or destroy the Earth, but usually it's aliens or robots who tell us the other one,” Tony said.

It was still cause for alarm. If all the babies in Steven's world were anything like him (baby with a suit of armor, Tony's mind helpfully offered), child abduction was – well, despicable even if they could do little more than cry and wet their diapers – it was something that had to be stopped.

“Uh, I seem to be missing something here,” Peter raised a finger. “It's great you have us all safely out of the way. But there are no babies in sight here, other than metaphorical ones.”

Augur reached behind him and whipped the cloth off the machine behind him, brandishing it to his side. “Behold! I was able to build the skeleton of it, but with a few key bits – ”

“The missing parts that Reed took note of,” Tony said, dread creeping over him.

“Exactly the ones I needed to complete my own machine!” Augur declared as the machine whirred on. “Genius, wasn't it? If you can't do it yourself, steal it from the person who can! And you Avengers will be here, a captive audience as my plot comes to fruition!”

“That's great to hear that every petty thief is apparently Einstein now,” Peter noted, but his voice was strained. Tony could feel the start of a headache settling in, his jaw aching from gritting his teeth. Things couldn't get much worse for them at the moment.

“And to key into the exact universe specifications I need, I just need something tying me to the universe itself– ”

A loud, high-pitched cry, and a new green pod plopped shut behind Augur, a wide-eyed Steven in it.

Jan gasped loudly while Luke tried to punch the wall of his pod.

“Steven!” Steve shouted.

“He's just a baby, man!” Luke shoved his shoulder against the wall of his pod.

Steven, to his credit, hadn't started crying, although he looked back and forth between Augur and Steve, a wild, distressed expression on his face. If there was something to be said about him, it was that he was like no other two year old Tony knew.

That thing about things not being able to get worse? Tony took it back.

Uh oh. Steve tapped at the pod around him. When he looked at the Avengers, they were shouting and hitting their own pods. Steve had to hold back a sniffle. He had managed to slip in and out of the Quinjet unaware and dodge past the street leveling destruction going on outdoors to boot, but now he'd gone and fallen straight into a booby trap. His lip wobbled a bit as his eyes welled up with tears.

No, no, big boys didn't cry, right. Crying wasn't good. Steve had to help them out. A low growl rumbled from Tigra's throat, and Big-Steve always had that steely glint in his eyes that said he hadn't given up yet but nothing that said he knew what he had to do. Big-Steve's eyes flicked to Steve's, and Steve nodded. Big-Steve's eyes widened before his face set in a grim, determined expression and nodded back.

A pebble smacked against the top of the pod, and Steve scrabbled to find the culprit. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of movement around the corner of one of the scary-looking machines in the room. He strained his neck, and from behind the machine, Bucky Bear's head popped back out.


Bucky Bear put his paw up to his lips. When he edged around the machine, his back was plastered to its side. He knelt down and patted the floor next to him, putting his paw next to his mouth again.

Steve nodded, getting the message. Stay quiet. He still couldn't keep the grin off his face, though. He settled for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Bucky Bear began to wave his right arm around erratically, and Steve tilted his head. Huh? he mouthed, and tapped the palms of his hands against his ears to unstick his hearing. Bucky Bear tapped his right arm with his left paw. Oh. Steve lifted his hand up, and Bucky Bear nodded sharply. He held his hands in front of him like they were handcuffs before holding his hands out in front of him.

Okay, Steve had to stay put and wait. He didn't like waiting very much, but he could trust in Bucky Bear, who had disappeared by now. He was good at that – he was almost as sneaky as Natasha, and he could fit into even smaller spaces than she could.

A few minutes later, when Trenchcoat Vampire guy (and Steve thought that Asbestos Baby was one weird villain) was still in the middle of his speech, a small jolt was all that alerted Steve before a distinct hissing sound came from above him. When he looked up, the top of his pod had been popped off.

An explosion sounded from the other side of the room. Right, that was one of Bucky Bear's favorite tricks. Vampire Guy shouted in indignation and the Avengers' attention was taken up too by the smoke emanating from a machine in the opposite corner from Steve.

When Steven had fallen into the trap, his shield had been too big to fit into the pod. It was easy enough to find it now when he scrambled up, his trust weapon toppled over but safe and sound. Steve whirled around, waiting – he wasn't making the calls in this mission, and found who he was looking for. Bucky Bear jumped up and down, waving his hands at him, next to a large console with lots of buttons and knobs, which looked like the adult type that didn't do cool things like make music or turn on pretty lights. Well, anyway, Bucky Bear would know what they were for. He also must have thought it was safe enough to make noise, what with the commotion going on in the rest of the room, for he called out.

“Get 'im, Cap!”

Steve shifted the shield to his left hand, and rolled his right shoulder. When he felt well and stretched out, he switched the shield back into place, then threw it with perfect aim.

The shield slammed Vampire Guy squarely in the side of the head, and he dropped like a fly.

With a click, Bucky Bear disabled the Avengers' bindings, and within seconds big-Steve was bounding towards him, the cuffs flung behind him with one throw. Wow, Steve wished he could run that fast when he was big.

“Steven!” Big-Steve kneeled in front of him and lightly patted his head, then his sides. He picked him up, then, and hugged him. “Oh thank God you're okay, what in the world, how were you even here, thank God – ”

“He's unconscious,” big-Jan said, checking Augur's pulse.

Steve could see Bucky Bear over big-Steve's shoulder, and with a nod, Bucky Bear fell to the floor, sprawled on his side.

“Bucky Bear!” Steve pointed, and big-Steve spun around, alert. He stopped in his steps, and when Steve leaned over, arms outstretched to Bucky Bear, finally began to move, hoisting Steve higher up in his grip.

When they reached Bucky Bear, he knelt next to him, and Steve could hear big-Steve huff. It took only a few seconds for the huff to turn into little giggles.

“What's wrong, Captain?” Big-Ororo looked slightly alarmed as she reached out to Big-Steve's shoulder to steady him.

“Iron Man, those readings you found – do they have to be life readings?”

“What else would they be?” Big-Tony said, the armor clanking against the floor. “I mean, I guess technically no, but – Cap?”

“This is our second guy,” Big-Steve said, no more doubt in his expression. He ran the forearm not holding Steve across his eyes, before grinning widely. When he picked up Bucky Bear and handed him to Steve, his eyes were a bit glassy. So, big him did still believe in Bucky Bear. “This is what Steven was looking for in our world.”

Steve hugged Bucky Bear tight, sure that his friend would complain about being coddled later, but he didn't think it was important right now. “Bucky Bear!”

When Steve looked up, Future-Tony groaned – not even the metallic filters of the armor could hide his exasperation. Future-Steve just tilted his head back and laughed again. Steven just nuzzled Bucky Bear, and the future was bright all over again.


Tony walked into the kitchen and unceremoniously dropped what he was holding in front of Steve, who was seated at the table.

“Got something for you.”

Steve tilted his head at him, before setting down his newspaper and the pear he had been holding in his other hand. He smiled, and the effect of the innocent head-tilt along with that sunny beam was far too adorable to be coming from 220 pounds of solid muscle and nobility. Tony nodded quickly. Right, Steve had learned to live with the more impulsive of Tony's tendencies way back when they were just teammates, so this kind of thing was old hat for him.

“Thanks, Tony,” he said, and Tony shuffled his feet.

“Well, I mentioned it to Pepper when I couldn't get out of the office this morning. Which means that some poor newbie or intern probably had to make the trek,” he shrugged.

“Regardless, I appreciate the sentiment,” Steve said simply. He must have noticed the way Tony grinned back and rocked back and forth on his feet, because he eyed the bag with some wariness, before peeling away the tissue paper and letting out a snort. He reached in and pulled out what was inside: a stuffed bear with a black mask, blue and red suit, and a blank expression, which Tony still thought was strange for a kid's toy. (When he had pointed that out to Steve earlier, Steve had just pursed his lips and shook his head, saying it'd just look weirder with an open smile.)

“I can't believe they didn't bother sending us a prototype, or a courtesy model. Didn't you know? Bucky Bears are all the rage. You can't find them anywhere in this city. A hot commodity this holiday season,” Tony winked. “Merry Early Christmas.”

Steve chuckled and rubbed his hand on the bear's head. “Thanks, Tony. This is...this is great. I love it.”

“Yeah, usually us and civilians with cell-phone cameras don't mix, but I'm glad that girl had her phone out to snap that photo of us with Steven after the whole incident.” Tony gestured to Bucky Bear. “Or else this little guy wouldn't exist in mass-produced polyester fluff and stealing the hearts of every eight-year old in the nation. Hasbro would be weeping at the loss.”

“Yup. Bucky would have loved this too, I'm sure. Looks just like him.” Steve lifted one of the bear's arms and waved it around. Tony couldn't hold back a fond grin when Steve made the bear do a backflip. “That move probably fits him better. I could put it next to our photograph with Steven.”

The photograph in question was far more professional than a hastily-taken phone camera picture; it was of them sitting on the couch the morning after the whole incident, having taken way too many hours the day before to wrangle villains back into their cells and handing over jurisdiction of the HYDRA-base-turned-supervillain-lair to SHIELD. It showed the Avengers, and Jarvis, and Howard Stark after he grumbled, a bit hesitatingly, about needing a photograph to show the rest of the workers back at his plant. In the middle, Steven sat on Steve's lap, squeezing the original Bucky Bear tight to his chest, and Steve himself had laid a hand on Bucky Bear's head.

“You sure about that?” Tony asked. “I thought you'd want to cuddle with it. I wouldn't make fun of you, you know.” He paused. “Well, not too much, anyway.”

Steve smiled and shook his head. “Maybe if it was just any old stuffed animal, but with this? There's something very wrong with that mental image. Bucky – the real one - would be mortified.” He fell silent for a moment, before speaking again. “You know, I've been wondering about that Bucky Bear.”

“Steven's? What about it? If it's about why some of us end up as babies and others end up as stuffed animals, then all I can say is that the multiverse works in very strange ways,” Tony said.

“No, it's not that. It's...this is kind of silly.”

“Well, then, you have to spill.”

“You already said you didn't have to be living to show up on the the beginning, how did he get from the portal to the girl's backpack in the lockers?” Steve asked abruptly.

Tony blinked at Steve, and he felt himself gaping.

“I...uh. That's a rhetorical question, right?”

Steve was staring intently at Bucky Bear, his brow furrowed. “But that's it. It's rhetorical only because we don't know the answer, right?”

Tony gulped, and ran his finger the edge of the wooden tabletop. “Um.”

“The lab should have been empty by then. Not to mention there was definitely no Bucky Bear in Augur's lab when we were initially trapped in there.”

The Avengers alarm started to blare. Tony and Steve were up and going through the motions within the instant. Steve slung the shield by his feet over his shoulder, and Tony reached for his communicator, hiding a sigh of relief. He met Steve's eye and they shared a smile.

Tony had to remind himself sometimes that, for the sake of his sanity, there were some things it was better off not knowing.

When Steven emerged from the portal, his arm was wrapped tightly around Bucky Bear, who had seemed a bit scared at the big blue circle in the future. It was fine, Steve had told him, but he had hugged him extra hard when he jumped through.


The Avengers looked at him, very concerned-like, except for Thor, who grinned and bonked Mjolnir on the crib bed.

“What's cooking, Cap?” Clint asked, his bowstring already strung. “You two alright? Was Johann trying to burn ants again? Oh no, I mean, Red Skull!” The Avengers had to be very careful with using their hero and villain names all the time, but everyone forgot sometimes. It was definitely easiest to remember for Thor.

“You sent out an assemble call, ” Tony said, hovering above Steve's pillow. “Either we have a mission to do or you've got candy to share.”

“Hulk loves candy,” Bruce said, his two front teeth glinting when he opened his mouth.

“Hulk can't eat candy,” Natasha said, tugging on his arm. “You don't have your gum chewing teeth yet.”

“A treat would be verily fitting for the worthiest heir in the whole wide world,” Thor proclaimed. “Mother told Thor so!”

“No candy tonight, Avengers,” Steve said, relaxing and smiling at his team, who he now knew he'd be with forever and ever. “But me and Bucky Bear have the best bedtime story to tell you.”

He couldn't wait to tell them about the future.