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Steve woke to the sounds of crickets chirping, and something shifting, like soft footfalls in the grass.

He cracked one eye open, his determination finally winning out over the terrible ache splitting his skull in two, and almost instantly snapped completely awake when he realized that the source of the noise was a very unfriendly looking Centaurian leaning over him with a spear.

Steve rolled his weight back onto his shoulders and kicked the man in the jaw hard, and then used the momentum to roll to his feet.

The nausea that hit him nearly put him back on the ground, but Steve managed to keep his footing, even as his attacker staggered and fell at his feet. He yanked the spear out of the Centaurian’s hands as he went down, and then whirled around. There was a second Centaurian a few feet away, kneeling in the grass next to the unconscious form of a man lying face down in the dirt, and Steve didn’t hesitate to bring the spear around, wielding it like a baseball bat to club the Centaurian with the blunted handle before he had time to react.

The shaft of the spear broke, having been designed for thrusting stabs more than for use as a club, but the second alien went down all the same, slumping halfway overtop the unconscious man. Another wave of dizziness hit him and Steve was unable to keep his balance that time, catching himself on one knee. He pinched his eyes shut until the spell passed, and then edged forward to check on the other man.

Steve gave his shoulder a little shake, and then moved to roll him over onto his back just as he began to stir. The man let out a quiet, pained groan, and Steve pulled his hand back as though burned when he recognized his voice.

Christ, it was Tony.

Steve leaned back and stared. What the hell was Tony doing here? The last Steve had heard, he was back in California, and now, what, they’d miraculously ended up together in god knows where?

Steve had no idea what to say to him.

Tony was coming around, though, so Steve grit his teeth and bit the bullet. Tony’s eyelids fluttered, and he moaned softly as he came closer to consciousness.

Steve waited impatiently for him to come around. Tony finally opened his eyes fully, then groaned and closed them again almost immediately.

Steve wasn’t impressed.

“Wake up,” he said, giving him another shake. Tony opened his eyes again, scowling, and then pushed himself up onto his elbows, hardly suppressing a wince at what was no doubt a killer headache. Tony hardly glanced at Steve, pinching the bridge of his nose and breathing roughly.

“Stark,” Steve said. He pushed himself to his feet, and then winced and pressed a hand to over one eye as a wave of dizziness swept through him. “What the hell is this?” Steve growled.

Tony looked like he was a good two seconds from curling over and heaving into the grass.

“Nausea. It’ll pass,” he said.

“This is serious,” Steve growled. “Where are we?”

“How should I know?” Tony asked. There was a challenge in his voice, and Steve had to bite back his temper, all too ready to let Tony suck him into another worn argument. He’d been over his anger again and again, and he’d thought the sting of seeing him would have faded by now, but it had been weeks since Steve and Tony had last been face to face, and Steve felt all of the old emotions surging back as though they hadn’t been apart at all.

“I don’t remember how I got here,” Steve said. “Want to explain that?”

Tony stared at him for a moment, then snorted, an infuriating little smile curling his lips. “You think I had something to do with this?” he asked a little incredulously, and Steve crossed his arms.

Tony looked distinctly ill, just like Steve felt—though that was subsiding somewhat, now that he’d gotten his feet under him. He didn’t look like he knew what was going on any more than Steve did, but... Well, Steve didn’t actually want to believe this was Tony’s doing, but some bitter part of him wanted to accuse him, anyway.

“The thought had occurred,” Steve grumbled.

Thinking of the last time that Steve’s memories had failed him made his stomach roil for an entirely different reason than the nausea he’d woken with. Suddenly he needed some space, just needed to get away from Tony and cool his head, and he cast his gaze around quickly, looking to go anywhere but where he was.

He stepped over Tony’s legs, and then just kept walking, boots stomping heavily in the silence. Tony didn’t call after him.

The treeline was thick and dense with foliage, and Steve made quick work of pushing through it, fueled by his frustration and his need to put some space between them, to think things through.

He hadn’t seen Tony in a long time. It had been weeks since he’d last spoken to him on anything more than a strictly professional basis with the Avengers. They’d managed to put the Incursions, and everything that came with it, behind them, and while it had been long enough to dull the ache of that wound, they’d never really taken the time to talk, really talk, about what had happened.

It left a bad taste in his mouth, and to see Tony quipping at him so nonchalant only sharpened the ache in his chest for what they’d lost.

Steve walked for several meters, clenching and unclenching his fists in frustration. Once Tony was firmly out of sight he slowed down, just a bit, though he kept his eyes firmly fixed forward. He felt slightly foolish to let himself get so riled. They couldn’t afford to fight with each other, not when there were unanswered questions and enemies out there who wished to do them harm. He didn’t know how much Tony really knew, but he was willing to guess that he was just as much in the dark as Steve was, and like it or not they needed to have each other's backs while they searched for some answers.

Steve just hoped that he wouldn’t come to regret placing his trust in him again.

He huffed out an angry breath and forced himself to turn around.

 

 

It occurred to Steve that Tony might not have stuck around when he’d left, and the thought of having to track him down caused the residual irritation to flare up. He shouldn’t have worried, when he returned to the clearing he found Tony sitting in the grass in the exact place he left him.

That made him pause, and his irritation ebbed away as he looked Tony over warily. He… hadn’t looked hurt earlier, but then, Steve hadn’t been looking. He’d been so angry he’d torn off into the trees before even bothering to ask Tony what he knew, or even if he was okay.

Tony was looking down, clearly deep in thought as he twisted his wristwatch in his hands. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Steve cleared his throat.

“Oh,” Tony said, curling his fingers protectively over the watch in his palm. “You’re back.”

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Uh.” He looked surprised by the question, and some part of Steve had to feel guilty at that. “No.”

“Good. Get up,” Steve said. It wasn’t safe here—where ever here was—and Steve wasn’t comfortable staying out in the open like this until he knew more.

Tony tossed the watch up into the air and caught it, then pushed himself to his feet. He took a moment to breathe deeply through his nose, letting his stomach settle, before shrugging.

“Any idea where we’re going?” Tony asked a little suspiciously. Steve toed one of the Centaurians with his boot, but he was still down for the count.

“Away from here,” Steve said. “I’d rather not be around when they wake up.”

He didn’t wait for Tony to follow, just started off in one direction. Those men were Centaurian, but this sure as hell didn’t look like Centauri IV to Steve. It looked a lot more like Earth, which only left Steve wondering what the hell those two were doing here.

He didn’t know what was going on, but he intended to find out.

 

 

 

Tony was surprised when Steve came back for him.

More likely he’d just realized that their chances were better if they didn’t split up. Steve was a practical man, and an excellent tactician, and he knew just as well as Tony that a familiar face was a valuable asset, particularly when you didn’t know who exactly your enemies were.

Still, he found himself struggling embarrassingly for an appropriate response when Steve asked if he was hurt, just barely biting back the urge to remind Steve that he was supposed to hate Tony, not worry about his health.

Instead he just followed when Steve ordered him to move, just like old times.

Now he was at a loss for what to say, and the silence between them was growing increasingly awkward.

“Teleportation always makes me queasy,” Tony blurted. Steve glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, brow furrowed in confusion, and Tony explained. “I think it was a teleporter that landed me here. I remember...lights.”

“Lights,” Steve repeated, looking like he was testing the word with his own memory of the night before. He shrugged.

Tony glanced down again, feeling a little less awkward with something to do with his hands, and twisted the screw on his watch loose with his thumbnail to get at the inside.

“Is your watch broken?” Steve asked after a moment of silence. Tony shook his head.

“It’s a miniature repulsor,” Tony explained.

Steve nodded and looked away again, not at all surprised that Tony had built a weapon into his watch. Which...wow, okay, it was at least a little impressive. He suddenly felt the need to justify himself.

“It’s just a precaution, nothing near the ones in the suit,” Tony continued, “and it’s got a limited amount of juice in it before the whole thing fries, but it works fine in a pinch—”

“Tony, stop,” Steve said.

“What? You’re the one who asked!” Tony said, glancing up from the watch to frown at Steve.

“No, I mean—” He cut off as Tony walked headlong into… something, and fell flat on his ass. “Stop walking,” Steve finished lamely. Tony scowled at him, and Steve just raised an eyebrow. Tony came up next to him and reached out, and his hand stopped on the forcefield, creating a little shimmer of purple light that traveled in a wave along the invisible wall, radiating out from his palm and up to where it curved and faded into nothing. He pressed a little harder, and though the color brightened and the light traveled just a little bit further, the force field didn’t so much as budge.

“What the hell?” Tony wondered aloud. He brought one boot up to kick it, hard, and the light flashed and traveled upwards and away without so much as quivering. He slid his watch off his wrist and held the clock face in his palm.

“Something tells me we’re not getting out this way,” Steve said.

“Not with that attitude, we’re not,” Tony said. The mechanism clicked into place, lighting up brilliantly in his palm. “You weren’t always so quick to give up,” he added, just to rile Steve.

Steve scowled and crossed his arms, and Tony shot one quick repulsor blast before he could retort. The field crackled as the energy licked up the sides. It lit up like a beacon, and the energy of it splashed out like a wave from the center of the blast, curling up and away until it reached what looked like the top of a dome before curling down again and disappearing, almost like the field curled back down at the center of the enclosure, shaped like an angel food cake tin.

As soon as the light winked out something began to glow at the center of the dome, high up at the top. The edge of the field peeled back at the top, glowing bright purple at the borders of the gap forming.

“Ha!” Tony crowed as the two of them watched the hole grow wider. Once it reached several meters across, though, it stopped, the edges smoothing out into a precise, round gap.

“I don’t think that was you, Tony,” Steve said, and the two of them watched as little flecks appeared in the gap, single file at first but growing rapidly in number, until a whole volley of them, hundreds flew through the rift. They dropped straight down several meters, collecting into a mass at the center of the dome, and then as though guided by some invisible force they exploded outward, scattering in all directions. Some disappeared below the tree line almost immediately, but others scattered further still.

“It’s coming this way,” Steve warned, watching the projectile approach at increasing speeds.

It came to a halt just a few meters away, somehow slowing from an impressive velocity to a full stop on a dime, and Tony finally got a good look at what it was.

A little silver orb roughly the size of a fist floated in front of them. It’s surface was completely smooth, with no visible markings other than a thin seam running straight down the middle.

“What is it?” Steve asked, watching it warily.

Tony took a step forward, reaching out a hand to touch, and at the same time the seam on the orb snapped open, revealing a little glass lense. Tony quickly withdrew his hand, startled.

Was that a camera?

“Welcome to Mojoverse!” the little orb chirped. The speakers on the camera left the words sounding high and tinny, like something you would expect from a children’s toy. When it spoke, Tony could hear the distant echo of other orbs giving the same announcement, and the eerie cadence of it’s voice gave him chills.

...Wait, Mojoverse?

Steve and Tony exchanged a look at the orb’s greeting, and the grim line of Steve’s mouth told Tony that he was beginning to put together what had happened.

“Contestants will have three days to eliminate other combatants,” it continued on cheerily, whirling a little in the air to get a panorama shot of both of their faces. “This week’s special guest stars,” the orb said, flying in close enough for Steve to take a swipe at it, no doubt looking for a close-up, “Earth’s own Captain America and Iron Man!” At that announcement, a cacophony of cheers seemed to erupt from all around them, and the canned sound quickly died out. “But don’t count our other contestants out just yet folks, you’ll see they have their work cut out for them!”

The orb began to float upward, no doubt attempting to catch a dramatic shot of their faces. “Let’s see who can survive—Mojoverse!”

And at that, it darted up into the air, spun, and then darted off into the trees. Tony watched it go, and then turned to Steve when it didn’t immediately return.

“The Centaurians,” Steve said after a moment. “They were probably trying to thin the competition before the game started.”

“Well I don’t know about you,” Tony said, “but suddenly I’d much prefer to not have a complete dead end at our backs. Come on.”

Steve nodded and the two of them headed back into the trees, moving away from the forcefield. He made sure to keep their path at an angle, to lessen the likelihood of running into their Centaurian friends again.

They needed a plan. Earth had had a surprising number of encounters with Mojo in the past, considering that he could pull his contestants from literally any dimension he chose, but as far as Earth’s heroes went, the X-Men had a lot more experience in dealing with him than he or Steve ever had.

Tony had no intention of running around in some kind of Battle Royale fight to the death for Mojo’s entertainment. They needed to find an escape route, and right now the best place to start was likely at the center of the island, where the forcefield seemed to originate. When they were back in the clearing, there had been enough of a gap in the trees to see some kind of mountainous terrain at the center of the arena. He said as much to Steve.

“It’s the most likely location for the force field’s generator,” Tony said. “If I can get my hands on that, maybe we can get out of here.”

Steve nodded. Right now it was the best chance they had, and he knew it. Still, Tony found himself a little surprised by how quick to trust his judgement Steve was. He’d expected… well, a lot more resistance, at least, or perhaps some token protests to show that he wasn’t happy with having to put up with Tony’s presence. Instead they seemed to fall easily into old habits, walking along side each other not in amicable silence, necessarily, but as least without the crushing awkwardness and loathing that had come between them.

Tony glanced away, not sure what to do with himself after preparing for a fight and not getting one, and then squinted through the trees.

“Look, it’s another one of those orbs,” Tony pointed out. Steve turned his gaze to follow where Tony was pointing with his eyes. It was positioned high up in one of the trees in front of them, perched on the branch like a sparrow and watching them silently. “That’s not creepy or anything,” Tony said.

“Why is it watching us?” Steve asked after a moment.

“Because we’re… the special guest stars?” Tony tried. Steve looked tense, even though he was doing his best to keep it hidden, and Tony felt his own heart rate pick up in anticipation.

“Or because it knows that there’s something worth watching,” Steve said, his voice low enough to barely carry between them. Tony turned to look at him, confused, and Steve made a little silencing noise, barely audible. “Don’t look. Someone’s following us. Get ready.”

Tony glanced at the camera out of the corner of his eye, and it perked up as though it knew that they’d just caught on to its little game. Tony stared at the camera, trying to catch some glimpse of what was behind them in the reflection on the lense.

A flash of movement flit across the glass, and Tony tensed.

“Run!” Steve shouted, and at the same time Tony heard someone break through the trees behind them, trashing leaves about and snapping branches as they tore through them. Tony broke into a run immediately, following Steve into the trees.

Whoever it was cursed at them, but they clearly weren’t expecting Steve and Tony to have known they were following, and so they were quick to give up their pursuit. The camera had given them away, and without it they would have been in a lot more trouble.

“Keep your eye out for more cameras,” Steve said. “Something tells me that the closer we get to the center of the arena, the more people we’re going to find.”

Tony nodded, brushing the torn leaves that had gotten into his hair during the chase loose, and the two of them marched on.

 

 

They’d seen one of the cameras hovering in a clearing a few minutes back, but they’d given it a wide berth in case it was following someone else. Their path took them through a more densely covered part of the forest, but the little orb hadn’t floated after them, so they’d assumed they were safe.

That was over a half an hour ago, and Tony was becoming increasingly nervous as they continued to spot the cameras floating through the brush. Every now and again one would pause to follow them for a short ways, but usually when it seemed to realize that they weren’t going to do anything interesting it would break off in search of a more exciting subject.

Another orb floated into Tony’s view, and he pointed it out to Steve silently. They both paused, watching and listening just as they had for every other camera.

“I don’t think—” Tony began, and Steve cut him off with a quick gesture. He planted a hand on Tony’s shoulder and pushed him down, so that they were both crouching in the overgrown brush.

Another camera had appeared in front of their path. It was facing away from them, filming something further off into the trees. Tony watched it silently, though he couldn’t hear anyone approaching. He wondered whether Steve, with his enhanced senses, was able to hear something that Tony wasn’t. After a moment Steve tensed, and Tony spotted the object of his attention.

Three Kree warriors emerged into the clearing, their path taking them in exactly the opposite direction that Steve and Tony were headed. He could see them speaking quietly amongst themselves, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.

When the warriors entered the clearing, they surveyed the area carefully, and Tony leaned down further into the brush as though it might help to keep him out of sight. The first of the Kree perked up when he spotted the other camera, and likely they’d deduced the same method of locating the other contestants. He placed a hand on the weapon slung over his shoulder on a strap, it looked like some sort of pulse rifle with a power pack bolted to the side.

He gestured for the other two Kree’s attention, and they both reached for their weapons as well. There was a casual air about the way they moved that told Tony that he and Steve hadn’t been spotted yet, so he stayed very still, watching them move through the brush to where the camera was floating. The one who’d spotted the orb first moved forward, and the other two stayed behind to cover them.

The camera was floating far enough to the side of where they were crouched that he wouldn’t see them without making his way around the brush. Steve reached out slowly and laid a hand on Tony’s knee, a silent signal to keep steady unless they were spotted, and Tony glanced at him but didn’t nod, not wanting the movement to draw the Kree’s eye.

The soldier stopped several feet away and scanned the trees, but his eyes swept right over them. After a long pause he turned back around, and Tony breathed out a sigh of relief.

Then something snapped in the woods off to their right, and all three heads turned towards it. Tony saw the little orb first, darting out through the trees to circle the Kree soldiers, and then followed its path back toward where a single woman was standing, frozen in place with a look of abject horror plastered on her face.

Tony recognized her as one of the many pushed from their homes during the Builder’s War; he’d seen her species amongst the Torfan refugees in Carol’s reports as the Avenger’s liaison in the conflict on her planet. Her golden yellow skin made her easy to pick out against the green forest backdrop. She had coiled, prehensile tentacles in the place of hair, and when she realized her mistake her hair coiled up from where it had laid flat on her shoulders, the unconscious action revealing her intentions to flee before she made a move.

The three Kree soldiers began shouting almost in unison, and the first raised his rifle immediately. The woman was faster, making a noise somewhere between a yelp and a squeak and bolting behind a tree just in time for the blaster rifle to leave a scorched streak across the bark. The three warriors sprinted after her, with the little orbs flitting around them excitedly; they were definitely playing this game to win.

Tony didn’t pause to think, shrugging Steve’s hand off and tearing through the brush.

It wasn’t hard to follow their path—they weren’t watching where they were going, and everywhere they’d stepped left broken branches and trampled vegetation in their wake.

Steve quickly overtook him. He could run much faster than Tony, and he used the extra speed to his advantage. Steve didn’t try to stop him, for which Tony was grateful, instead angling off to the right to try to get around them. Tony could see the three Kree soldiers breaking off and moving to spread out and surround the woman, two of them peeling off in the direction that Steve was headed in.

He hurdled a fallen tree and landed softly with a rustle of leaves, but the Kree soldier didn’t seem to notice him, too focused on tracking the woman through the brush, so Tony ran faster, heedless of the noise he made tearing through the brush. He might have heard a muffled cry from somewhere off in Steve’s direction, but he didn’t have time to check. The Kree warrior disappeared through a sweep of low-hanging leafy branches, and Tony brought up a hand to block his face as he barreled after him.

The Kree soldier had driven the woman into a corner, backed up against a mess of fallen trees and brambles too thick to cut through. He had his rifle raised, with the woman squarely in his sights.

“Hey!” Tony shouted, and the noise of him breaking through the trees caused the soldier to jump. Tony leaned low and tackled him in the side before he could turn fully, shoving up with his shoulder to knock the rifle from his grip as they both fell to the ground. It hit the ground with the sound of breaking glass, the sight breaking cleanly off and bouncing into the tall grass.

The Kree were much stronger than humans were, and the element of surprise only was enough for Tony to take him down momentarily. They rolled, and Tony kicked off the ground to shove them both further away from the gun. The warrior’s foot caught it in the struggle and kicked it away, sending it sliding through a gap in the brambles and out of sight.

The tentacles on the woman’s head quivered nervously, and she gaped at the two of them wrestling on the ground. Tony saw the indecision on her face before her gaze flicked back in the direction that Tony had come from, and then she turned on her heel and ran.

Tony slammed his elbow into the alien’s cheek and rolled, shoving him off to the side. He cursed and tried to push himself upright as Tony slid back out of his reach, but one more well-placed kick put him down for the count.

At the same time, Steve reemerged from the trees, hardly giving Tony a moment to breathe before he was pulling him to his feet.

“The other two?” Tony asked.

“Not far behind,” he said, glancing over his shoulder warily as though he expected them to begin firing. He dragged Tony forward. “Come on!”

“Wait, the gun!” Tony shouted. He’d seen it slide into the mess of brambles, but if they could fish it out—

Steve shook his head, still tugging him back, forcing him to run. “Leave it,” Steve said.

Tony frowned, but followed, with both the Kree warriors and the mysterious woman left in their wake.

 

 

 

“I’m just saying,” Tony said, grabbing the man beneath the arms and dragging him backwards into the brush, “that the longer we go on just knocking them out, the more of them are going to be coming after us when they wake up.”

They’d been ambushed by two heavily-built aliens with dark grey skin. Luckily the two of them had underestimated Steve’s strength, and he’d managed to put them off their guard long enough for Tony to knock them both out with a low-powered repulsor blast. It had finally burned out the power cell in his watch, and with no way to recharge it, he couldn’t even count on it to tell him the time. Steve had quickly searched the two of them for weapons, finding only a combat knife that he slid into his belt for himself.

“Well, we can’t just kill them,” Steve snapped fiercely, dragging the other alien along beside him. He kicked the brush over them and then stepped back, satisfied that it would keep them out of sight long enough for them to wake up. Steve turned, heading back in the direction of the mountain, and Tony gave the aliens one last glance before jogging to catch up.

“I never said we should,” Tony replied testily, a little irritated that Steve would even assume that he was. “All I’m saying is that it’s dangerous—” he started, then broke off when three little silver orbs flashed across his periphery.

“Shit!” Tony whirled back around, because whenever those things showing up en masse it meant bad news. “Steve—!”

Something whistled past Tony’s ear and struck Steve hard on the side of the head. Tony cursed and shot forward, hooking one hand around Steve’s waist and the other under his arm when his knees folded under him. He dropped like a stone, and Tony wasn’t quite fast enough to catch him completely, just enough to keep Steve from braining himself on the ground.

Tony spun around, one hand situated protectively on Steve’s back, to see what he was dealing with.

At first Tony didn’t see anything, but then their attacker burst through the trees, boots landing heavily on the rocky earth. The alien looked humanoid, with a high ridge splitting the face down to middle like an uneven scar. The skin was blotchy where it gave away to smoother juts of metal, twisted wires coiling down the thing’s neck and into the junction on the shoulder of one mechanical arm.

It looked like some kind of mechanical exoskeleton, not nearly as sophisticated as Tony’s suit, but a similar idea, bulking up the alien’s already sizable form with the extra metal frame. There was a power source crudely fastened to the side of the arm, Tony was certain it was the battery pack he’d seen on the Kree soldiers they had run into earlier. There was really only one way to explain how he had it now, and there had been three of them, and they were a hell of a lot stronger than Tony.

But Tony had year’s worth of experience dealing with Iron Man knockoffs and rejects who’d crawled straight from the scrap heap. He’d dealt with bad businesses and leaked technology, hell, he’d dealt with Ultron, and he could deal with an alien with a little crude tech.

Behind him, Steve groaned and stirred, but didn’t get up. The sling that the alien had used to attack them with had been dropped in favor of a hefty metal club.

Tony crouched and reached behind him carefully, groping for Steve’s belt. When his hand found it he paused, putting on his best cowed expression, and waited until the alien was close. It raised the club, a snarl on its lips, and Tony ripped the knife from Steve’s belt in an instant, springing forward and sinking the blade of the knife into the elbow joint of the alien’s mechanical arm.

It spat sparks, and Tony grit his teeth as the thing smoked and burned circuits, burning his hands. He tightened his hold on the knife, through his own stubbornness or because the muscles of his hand were contracting on their own, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Something in the arm popped, and the knife leapt out of his hand into the grass.

The power pack exploded, and though Tony was able to bring one arm up to shield his eyes, the alien was not so lucky, and the flash had him hissing in pain, dropping the club in the same moment. Tony brought one foot up and kicked him square in the stomach, setting him fully off balance, and then stooped to Steve’s side before he even hit the ground.

Steve groaned when Tony slid one arm around him, slinging Steve’s arm over his shoulder and dragging him to his feet.

“Can you walk?” he asked, already dragging him forward. Steve shook his head but managed to get his feet under him all the same, and Tony muttered encouragements as he half-carried Steve forward into the trees.

Tony could only run with Steve for so long before he had to stop, chest heaving and lungs burning. He lowered Steve down to lean against a tree, and then paced back a few steps. After he’d retraced their steps a short ways, listening and watching for several long minutes, he was finally willing to believe that they hadn’t been followed. He’d hoped that destroying his equipment would be enough to deter the alien from following, and it looked like it had been.

When he made his way back over, Steve had managed to struggle to his feet, still leaning against the tree for support but standing under his own power. Relief swelled in his chest after seeing that Steve wasn’t hurt too badly for that, at least, and then he clucked his tongue and placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, forcing him to sit back down.

“I’m fine,” Steve said, scowling and pressing his hand to the wound on his temple like he actually expected to hide it from Tony’s view.

“You look it,” Tony said, pulling Steve's hand back. “Nauseous?”

Steve shook his head, and then made a face that looked like he might have been reconsidering his answer. "It was a lucky shot," Steve griped. He batted Tony’s hands away when Tony reached for him, and then pushed himself to his feet again. “Don’t worry about me,” he said.

Tony hovered a half step behind, but Steve’s first few steps looked steady enough, so he backed off.

Steve turned and gave him an appraising look. “What about you?” he asked.

Tony went to tuck his hand into his pocket on instinct, then thought better of trying to hide his injuries from Steve. He held his hand out for inspection. His hand was burned, reddened and slightly blistered along the edge of his thumb from the heat of the power pack exploding. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn’t too serious.

Steve took Tony’s hand in both of his, incredibly gently, and the concern in his expression made him pause. He knew that look, he knew it incredibly well, but…

It had been a long time since Steve had looked at him that way.

Tony quickly mumbled reassurances, trying to smooth the frown from his face. It really wasn’t that bad. And there hadn’t been much of a choice, he’d needed to think fast and sabotaging the power pack seemed the quickest way to do it.

He’d lost the knife back in the grass when it had leapt out of his hand. He should have stopped to pick it up. It was one of the only weapons they had—the only tools in general, really—and he knew they would regret losing it later.

“Come on,” Tony said, Steve’s careful scrutiny making him uncomfortable. “We’d better go before he catches up with us.”

Steve nodded, and Tony offered him a shoulder to lean on while he got his footing. It didn’t take long for Steve to pick up the pace once again, recovering from the blow to the head quickly thanks to his body’s extra resilience.

Tony was grateful for it, because they weren’t walking for more than twenty minutes before the landscape began to change rapidly, the treeline thinning out and then dropping off entirely to be replaced by smooth stone, dirt, and steadily steeper inclines. The extra exposure made them both pause. Now that the cover from the trees had dropped off, their odds of being spotted from a distance by someone unfriendly were a lot higher.

Steve stumbled, biting back a curse, and his foot disappeared up to the calf into a crevice in the rock. Tony dropped down to his side immediately, putting out a steadying hand to keep him from slipping backwards after losing his foothold.

“All right?” Tony asked, reaching out to gently probe around Steve’s leg. Steve nodded, and wriggled his foot to pull it partially free. It looked like his foot had caught a loose patch of earth and slid back into a gap in the rock that Steve hadn’t seen.

“It’s fine,” Steve said, leaning back to give himself more room and then hoisting his leg the rest of the way out of the hole. He peered down into it, and then sat up again, blinking in surprise. “I see light,” he said.

Tony frowned and leaned down to look, and Steve pushed himself to his feet, walking down the other side of the slope. When Tony looked, he could see that the small hole opened into a quite large space, and sure enough there was a faint glimmer of daylight shining off from the right. After a long moment, a shadow passed across the cave floor.

“There’s a larger entrance around the side,” Steve called up to him, and then walked further into the cave and out of sight.

Tony made his way around, momentarily at a loss for where Steve had gone before he located the entrance—something more like a sliver of a crack in the rock face than the gaping maw of an entrance Hollywood had him expecting—and Tony made his way inside as well.

Outside, the daylight was slowly waning, making it harder and harder to watch their footsteps as they began the climb upwards. No doubt the generator would be found on the top of the mountain, or at least close to it. That’s where Tony would put it, anyway, to give it the greatest range. That meant there was a long climb ahead of them, and he had no intention of tackling it in the darkness.

“We should stay here for the night,” Tony said. The cave entrance was discreet, and easily guarded if it came down to it—anyone attacking them would have to come at them one at a time, if they found the opening at all. Given the circumstances, they weren’t likely to find anything better before they lost their daylight completely.

Tony walked past Steve, a little deeper into the cave, and sat down. A fire would be out of the question—the light would be far too easy to see. It would be dark, but it was just warm enough inside that they wouldn’t be uncomfortable without one. Steve said nothing. He simply nodded and settled down heavily with his back against the cave wall, near the entrance.

“About earlier,” Tony said after a moment. “I wasn’t trying to suggest that we should—kill anyone.”

“It’s hard to tell with you, sometimes,” Steve said.

Tony sighed.

“Steve,” Tony said. “What we—what I did. I know that you probably can’t forgive me, I don’t expect you to, just. I’m sorry. We should have tried to talk to you instead of—”

“You should have,” Steve said roughly. Tony cut off, mouth working noiselessly for a moment before he just nodded, looking down again.

“I should have been more willing to listen,” Steve said. Tony’s head snapped back up, unadulterated shock on his face. “Don’t look so surprised. I’m capable of admitting that it wasn’t as clear cut as we all hoped it would be.”

Tony shook himself, but he couldn’t quite shake the surprised expression. “You have no idea what that means to me,” he hesitated, mouth working. “Because…” he tried, then trailed off again.

“Because?” Steve prompted.

“Because…” Tony moved forward tentatively, placing his hands on Steve’s knees and leaning towards him. He hesitated for just a moment and looked Steve in the eyes, but Steve didn’t push him away. Tony closed the last of the gap between them, pressing a tentative kiss to his lips. His mouth was soft and undemanding, but Tony pulled back before it could become anything more than a chaste peck on the lips.

He pulled back only a few inches, and Steve curled a hand around his wrist, brushing his thumb over the pulse point in slow circles. “Because I was sure I’d ruined my chances for this forever,” Tony said.

Steve pulled him forward gently by the wrist, so that Tony was leaning over him, and brought his other hand up to cup the back of Tony’s head. He tilted his head up to kiss him, at first just as chaste, but he quickly deepened the kiss, flicking his tongue along Tony’s bottom lip and inviting him to open. Tony leaned into the kiss wholeheartedly, dragging Steve forward by his shirt and half-crawling into his lap to feel the warm press of Steve’s chest against his own. Steve hummed and released Tony’s wrist, sliding his hand up underneath Tony’s shirt where the fabric had bunched up around his stomach. His hand felt blazingly hot, and the muscles in Tony’s stomach jumped under the touch, turning hot and liquid when his fingers began to wander lower. Tony gasped and broke the kiss, reaching down to still Steve’s wandering hand with his uninjured one.

“Wait, wait,” Tony said, breathless, and Steve pulled away immediately. “The last thing I need is for this to be broadcast in technicolor all over the damn dimension.”

Steve glanced over his shoulder at the cave entrance. “Better keep a lookout for cameras, then,” he said, leaning down to mouth at Tony’s collar bone. “Unless you want me to stop?”

“Oh, god, if you do—” Tony warned, but the threat lost some of its effect with the noise Tony made as Steve palmed him through his jeans. “Fuck, stop,” Tony groaned, and pushed Steve away, forgetting about the burn on his hand for a moment and then hissing through his teeth. Steve leaned back just in time for the camera orb to flit past the cave entrance, stop, and duck inside.

Steve watched it hover in the entrance with a truly hilarious expression, looking more frustrated and betrayed than a person had any right to be at an inanimate object. It bobbled in the cave opening for a moment, probably scanning the two of them and attempting to decide if their proximity to each other meant a fight—or something equally entertaining to film—was imminent. Tony sighed and backed up to sit, not wanting to give the orb any ideas.

Instead of leaving, the orb floated deeper into the cave, taking a quick survey of the area before turning around the face them again, shutter clicking innocently as it switched lenses to adjust to the darkness.

“No, please, make yourself at home,” Tony muttered, and Steve snorted. “It’s not like we were—busy, or anything.”

Eventually, after it was too dark to see or do anything else, Tony finally found a place to curl up and sleep, just out of view of the entrance in case they had any night time visitors. Tony didn’t think there was a particularly large chance of that, but he still agreed when Steve volunteered to keep watch.

Tony fell asleep to the relative silence, somewhat restless. He woke once, early in the night, and rolled over to see Steve peering outside of the cave. He didn’t look anxious, only contemplative, and so Tony didn’t bother to get up. The second time, he woke to the tiny whirr-click of one of the cameras, dropping in for some late-night footage. It grew quickly bored, and left only a couple minutes later.

The third time he woke, it was to Steve shuffling around. He heard him whisper that he would be back, but Tony was too tired from his restless sleep to do more than hum in acknowledgement, figuring that Steve probably just needed to pee.

Tony hadn’t even begun to fall asleep again before he heard the click of a loose rock rattling against the entrance. He sat up, ready to jump to his feet, only to see Steve staring at him from just inside the entrance, his face shadowed. He saw the camera a moment later, hovering between them this time, and that was enough to get Tony to his feet.

“What is it?” he whispered, quiet as he dared, and for a long moment Steve didn’t answer—he only stared at Tony, and then nodded toward the entrance. Tony stepped quietly over to peer outside.

Even with the natural light illuminating the outside, Tony couldn’t pick anything out of the ordinary. He turned back to Steve, confused.

“I don’t see—”

Tony gasped, the words lost, when a searing, sharp pain, to intense it made his vision white cut through his abdomen. He groped for Steve, trying to find support, and Steve—

Steve stepped aside, pulling the knife out cleanly, and let Tony fall. Tony pressed a shaky hand over the wound, trying to stop the bleeding, trying to stop the pain. Steve had… no.

Steve may have hated him once, maybe enough to be willing or capable of killing him but he wasn’t still. He wasn’t. He—

“You-?” Tony gasped, barely audible. Steve rolled his eyes, wiped the blade against his pant leg as the camera swooped around for a new angle. Tony’s vision blurred, his limbs heavy. He and Steve were...working it out, we’re they? Had Steve been playing along, had he decided somewhere out in those forests that Tony was too much of a threat, that he needed to be stopped? Tony couldn’t believe that Steve would, but—

Steve stepped over to Tony with an air of detached interest, the blast rifle at his hip swaying freely, and Tony only had a moment to wonder where he’d gotten it before he raised a boot to press against the wound on Tony’s side, and Tony must have blacked out. He might have screamed. All he knew was agony, the betrayal and confusion he’d felt swept aside, and for what seemed like an eternity he knew nothing else.

And then, just as it had begun, the pressure disappeared. Tony rolled to his side, only just resisted the nausea, and the pain to peer into the cave, wondering why he’d stopped.

Something slammed into the cave wall a few feet to his right, sending loose shale scattering across the floor and over Tony’s clothes. Steve slumped against the wall, unconscious, and after a moment his features shifted, ears pointing—

A skrull. Steve—the real Steve—dropped beside him, a hand covering his own to press down, and Tony groaned at the pressure, nauseous again.

“—ook at me, Tony,” Steve was saying, and only then did Tony realize that he’d been staring at the skrull, staring at—

“I thought it was you,” Tony said.

“I know,” Steve said. “It’s not your fault, Tony. I should have-” He pulled his hand away, making sure that Tony’s stayed, and then started pulling off his jacket, tearing through the fabric like it was tissue paper to make a bandage. “I shouldn’t have been gone so long. I’m sorry.”

“No,” Tony said. “I mean I thought... even after he, I thought…”

Steve looked stricken. Tony hadn’t wanted him to be, he’d only… Steve grabbed Tony’s hand when he tried to reach for his, nudging it gently aside so that he could press the bandage to Tony’s side.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. The camera was bobbing just over Steve's shoulder, watching intently, and Tony's gaze went fuzzy when he turned to look. Steve shook him gently.

“Stay here, Tony, look at me. If it’s anyone’s fault—”

“Don’t say it’s yours,” Tony said. Steve sighed and nodded. He was fussing with the bandage, looking anxious.

“This needs medical attention,” Steve said.

“Somehow… I don’t think… they’ve got any doctors lined up,” Tony said, even though Steve had clearly already come to that conclusion himself.

“We either need to find a doctor, or get out of here,” Steve said. “I don’t want to move you, but—”

“I can… probably walk.” Not right now, but Tony knew that there wasn’t any other option, and he wasn’t going to hold Steve back. If he just rested, just for a bit—

No, you can’t,” Steve said, voicing what they both knew. “But—if I can get you to that generator, do you think you can disable it?”

“In my sleep,” Tony said, though what he really wanted to say was, I don’t have any other choice. “I’ll need…” Tony blinked, losing the words to a wave of dizziness, and looked around, grasping for the conversation thread. His gaze stopped on a second camera hovering by the cave entrance, watching, and its shutter clicked.

“You’ll need what, Tony? Stay with me,” Steve said, and Tony painstakingly opened his eyes. He hadn’t realized he’d closed them.

“The rifle,” he said after a long moment. He pointed to where it had fallen, and Steve reached over to grab first it, and then the knife. He swung the strap of the gun over his shoulder, and then returned to Tony’s side.

“Do you think you’re up for moving?” Steve asked, and Tony couldn’t help a breathy laugh, but he winced when the effort jarred his wound.

“...I doubt I could even stand,” he admitted. “Just—give me a minute.”

Steve gave him a look, his well-practiced you’re out of your damn mind look, and sighed. He slid one hand behind Tony’s back, and the other under his knees, and lifted him as gently as he could. “Let’s get you bandaged up,” he said. “And then we’ll see about that generator.”

“Steve,” Tony said, grabbing a handful of Steve’s collar and tugging like he was afraid Steve wasn’t paying attention. “You can’t carry me up the whole damn mountain.”

“Watch me,” Steve said.

 

 

Tony was panting hard, his expression pinched from pain. He bit back a curse when Steve momentarily lost his footing on some loose shale, and Steve murmured a quick apology. Steve was doing his best to keep from jostling him too much, but the rough terrain was hard on him. They were almost there, but... Steve broke off from the path they were climbing, taking a knee to look Tony over.

“We need to keep going,” Tony said.

“You need rest—”

“I need more than rest,” Tony interrupted him, “and the longer we wait, the worse shape I’m going to be in when we get there. I’m fine. Keep going.”

They were out in the open now, with the last of the treeline left behind some time ago, so that the only cover they had was in moving between the rock faces. They came out on the other side of a large boulder to find an almost...smoothly sloping path, leading upwards. They were close, and Tony didn’t want to think about why the path was so smoothly downtrodden.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. We’re almost there.”

 

 

The generator wasn’t large, only about the size of a washing machine, and standing innocently in the exact center of the clearing. The air around the generator was crystal clear, but he didn’t have to reach out to know that there was a force field between them.

“There’s a hatch!” Steve said, pointing to the small handle on the plating to the right of the generator.

“Probably for maintenance,” Tony said.

“Is it a way out?”

“Maybe, if we can get through to it,” he said. Steve set Tony down a few feet from the generator. Tony was looking a little better, and though he hissed when he pressed one hand over his bandages, he was able to sit up on his own.

“Okay?” Steve asked.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Tony said. Steve nodded and pulled the rifle strap off his shoulder, handing the weapon to Tony. Without it, all he had was a knife. Tony hoped it would be enough.

Tony pried the back of the watch repulsor off, exposing the wiring inside. He hooked a finger underneath two wires and ripped them out with little finesse—he wasn’t in the mood for delicacy—and then set about pulling the rifle’s power pack out of its casing. It only took a moment to pull the backing off the power cell and replace the watch’s battery.

The connection was crude, but the repulsor was able to handle a much larger charge than the power cell was capable of, able to handle the amount energy the RT put out without frying if it needed to, so he wasn’t overly concerned.

It was going to run pretty hot, and it probably wasn’t going to be very comfortable to hold with his burned hand, but it should run.

He’d tried shooting a repulsor blast at the field before, but that had been at a much lower output. The barrier likely had some kind of cloaking capabilities, making it invisible under normal circumstances. It had lit up when Tony touched it, and glowed ever brighter with a blast from his repulsor.

Somehow, the power from the cloaking was diverted when the force field was actively trying to repel something, probably in order to increase the integrity of the field at the point of contact. If he poured enough energy into it, he might be able to overwhelm the force field altogether, whether they diverted power from the cloaking device or not.

Which meant that if this was going to work, it was going to be very, very bright.

Tony tapped the edge of the field gently, and a little purple ripple spread out from his fingers.

“Once we start messing with the force field, it’s going to light up like a beacon,” Tony said. “They’ll be able to see us for miles.”

“How fast can you do this?” Steve asked.

“Hopefully fast enough,” Tony said. “And then once we’re through, we’ll find some way to contact the Avengers.”

Steve approached the edge of the slope, where the vantage point was better, and waited.

“Here goes,” Tony called, making sure he was loud enough for Steve to hear.

He started out with a steady burst from the repulsor, focusing on the point where the field met with the ground at the base of the generator. Brilliant purple light spread out from the center of the contact point, radiating upward and outward. Instead of allowing the light to dim and fade, Tony poured more energy into the blast. He squinted and turned his face slightly aside, as the field continued to brighten.

“Someone’s coming,” Steve said.

Tony ignored him, shielding his eyes so he could see what he was doing. Could he increase the output? There was only so much he could do without tools, but his wiring obviously left something to be desired.

Fuck, his side hurt. He flipped the repulsor off and reached inside the backing, ignoring the way the metal burned his fingertips. The core casing was loose, if he could re-fasten it somehow, then maybe—

He heard Steve grunt behind him, and he turned to see him kick a feathery-skinned alien squarely in the chest. Another, this one with bright pink skin, swung a fist at him.

There was no time to fuss with the repulsor. Tony held the piece down with his thumb and turned it back on, hissing through his teeth. The beam came back brighter, and the field wobbled, briefly, but returned back to one solid wall just as quickly.

It wasn’t working. He cranked the beam as high as it would go, but—

“It’s not going to be enough,” Tony muttered. He turned, and then, more loudly this time, “Steve, it’s—”

Steve wasn’t paying him any mind, focusing on the alien in front of him. He was taking two of them on at once, and while he slammed his shoulder into one, putting him off balance and sending him sliding down the rock face, the other pulled up behind him to draw his sword. Steve heard him and turned, but his stance was wide open, too off balance to parry the blow, and he had only a moment to raise his arm in front of him as the alien brought the sword down—

A single shot rang out behind them both, and the alien dropped in a heap.

Steve and Tony both turned to look as the woman dropped the rifle down at her side, sure enough in her marksmanship despite the broken sight on her gun. The tentacles on her head had coiled up into a knot while she took the shot, but they dropped loosely to frame her face once the alien with the sword went down, quivering nervously as she glanced between the two of them.

Steve let out a breath and smiled. “Thank you,” he said, and she grinned back, though Tony was sure she had no idea what he was saying.

The woman hefted the gun up over her shoulder, and suddenly an idea hit him.

“Oh my god,” Tony shouted. “Give that to me!”

Both out them jumped at Tony’s outburst, though while Steve just looked confused, the woman glanced around quickly, her hair curling up into a knot once more, looking for whatever Tony was yelling at. When she didn’t see anything, she raised an eyebrow at him. Clearly she didn’t speak English, so Tony repeated himself, pointing to her rifle. The woman nodded a little hesitantly, glancing over her shoulder first at Steve and then the surrounding area. After she’d determined that they were safe, for now, she handed the gun over.

Tony pried the casing off the power cell with his good hand, and the woman squawked when he yanked it out entirely. He waved a hand at her to ward her off from trying to take the gun back, and then attached the power cell to the repulsor just has he had with the other one.

Tony re-activated the repulsor, and the forcefield glowed blindingly bright. The repulsor was letting out a high-pitched whine, but it was working—the generator began to hum, trying to keep up with the force from the beam, but it was too much for the machine to take.

The repulsor punched a hole in the force field, and the shielding flickered, trying to stabilize. Tony whooped and moved to push himself up off the ground, and Steve hooked an arm under his shoulder, pulling him smoothly to his feet.

“Now or never,” Steve said. He waved for the woman to follow, but she didn’t need to be told, gaping, amazed, as she realized what he’d done. The force field flashed as they passed through it, and though the energy of it licked at their heels, pressing heavily over them, they were able to pass through.

The force field had already re-sealed behind them, the purple light fizzling into nothing once more. He felt briefly for the other contestants, but—no, there was no way they could save them all, especially not when most of them were actively trying to hunt them down. Steve leaned Tony against the generator and yanked the hatch open. The hinges squealed in protest, catching on the first few centimeters before finally giving away.

The hatch opened into a portal with a single ladder leading downwards. Steve swung his legs over the side immediately, heading downward. Tony followed slowly after, much less sure in his footing, and the woman pulled the hatch shut behind them.

After about a fifteen foot climb, they came out on the other side, boots ringing loudly on the deck plating. The lights were dimmed, flashing red on three-second intervals, and though there was no alarm blaring, he was fairly certain that Mojo’s personnel had been alerted to the breach. They’d just have to move fast.

Tony was breathing hard already, even from such a short climb, and their companion was looking increasingly like she feared he was going to...drop dead, or something, which wasn’t humiliating at all. Tony gave her a reassuring smile as Steve offered his support again easily.

“Not exactly what I’d expect to find beneath a mountain,” Steve said. They were in a long hallway, and with two directions to choose from, a random guess had them going left. They made it another twenty feet before Tony froze, forcing Steve to stop.

There was a window in the hallway, and what was beyond wasn’t sky or rolling landscapes or even water, but stars.

“We’re on some kind of space station,” Tony said. Steve swore. “Okay, new plan. We need to find the docking bay.” He leaned close to the window, trying to take in as much of the ship as he could and—ah! “I can see it from here,” he said, pointing. Both of them followed Tony’s gaze, and sure enough, they could see just the very edge of the docking clamps holding a much smaller craft in place.

Their companion slapped Steve on the shoulder and gestured for them to follow, and they did without protesting. She turned down a corridor and forced another door open, and she looked sure enough in her movements that Tony was willing to trust her.

Several turns later, and they found themselves outside a large metal door. The woman turned around and grinned triumphantly. “Good work,” Steve said.

Tony squinted at the access panel along the side, but it looked like it needed an access code.

A rifle blast glanced off the wall, coming from down the hall, and the three of them ducked around the corner to take cover. Another beam missed them just barely, hitting the outer edge of the wall, and scorching a hole through the paneling.

“Time to go,” Steve said.

“The door’s locked,” Tony said. Steve nodded and gestured for the alien woman to come closer. She gave him a dubious look and compiled as he offered her Tony’s arm, until she was supporting most of his weight. Tony watch Steve warily as he edged a little closer to the corner. “Steve, what are you doing?”

“Opening the door,” Steve said simply, and stepped out into the line of fire.

The men at the end of the hall shouted in surprise, clearly not expecting him to be so bold, and fired. Steve ducked out of the way smoothly, his reflexes far too fast for them, and their weapons’ fire punched a hole clear through the wall—and the locking mechanism attached to it.

“You idiot,” Tony said as the three of them ducked inside the launch bay, and he liked to think that the woman muttered the same thing, slamming her shoulder against the emergency release to seal the door once more in one smooth motion. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“Said the man with the hole in his stomach,” Steve said, hooking Tony’s other arm over his shoulder. “Which one?”

There were three ships in the launch bay, and Tony gestured to the smallest one. It would be much more maneuverable, which was vital for escaping the wrath of a ship this large, and anyway, the larger ones would require too many people to man.

The woman popped the hatch and slid into the pilot’s chair without a word, moving easily into the pre-launch sequences. Steve and Tony exchanged a look, and Tony shrugged. She looked like she knew what she was doing. Steve laid Tony down on the bench in the hold and then turned around to pull the hatch closed behind him. It sealed shut just as the engines began to hum.

Tony pulled his shirt up, showing that the bandages had soaked through. He watched Steve rummage through the supplies lockers, pulling a medkit out of the third one he opened. Tony huffed when Steve kneeled down next to him, curling his fingers lightly around Tony’s wrist.

“Let me,” Steve said.

“Don’t you have better things to do?” Tony asked. “Like making sure our pilot isn’t flying us in the complete opposite direction of Earth?”

“I wouldn’t mind taking the scenic route,” Steve joked. “I think she’s got it handled.”

“Well,” Tony said. “Hopefully wherever we end up, it’s somewhere with a translator.”

In front of them, the hangar bays groaned as they opened, venting the atmosphere in the shuttle bay out into open space. “I’m sure wherever we end up, it will be better than here,” Steve said. He leaned forward until they were only inches apart, trying to use the lighting from the panels to see what he was doing.

Tony licked his lips and looked away. “Actually, I’m liking it better already,” he said.

Steve smiled, and then, probably because Tony was injured and pathetic and giving him his best attempt at doe-eyes, he indulged him with a kiss. It was short and sweet and warm, and Tony hummed a little at the soft touches on his skin, feeling the pain and the stress melt away for a moment, if only in his mind.

They pulled apart, but the feeling stayed, and as the ship lifted free of the docking clamps and headed out into open space, the two of them settled into comfortable silence, grateful, finally, for the chance to patch things up.