Tony rubbed his chin as he looked at the display screen. The structure was huge, much larger than their ship, even with only half of it intact. "What does that look like to you?"
"Abandoned grade C space station," Pepper said. She hunched over her terminal. "Looks like it's from the 23rd century. Earth built."
Rhodey swiveled in his chair to look at Tony. "I'm not getting any organic life signs from the planet. It's an odd choice for a grade C. They usually plan on settling a place."
"I don't know, but I think we hit the jackpot," Tony said. They hadn't been this lucky in months. "What've you got for me, JARVIS?"
"There appears to be no human life signs coming from the ship, sir," JARVIS replied. "However, I would advise you remain out of the engine room and lower decks, as it appears a group of Centaurian grophs have taken up residence there."
Tony grinned. "What's a couple of space rats, huh? Rhodey, get us closer to that thing, I'm going out." As he left the bridge, he called up Happy. "Hey, Hap, make sure my suit's ready by the time I get to the airlock."
"You got it, boss."
The space station was a mess. Tony had seen worse, but not many. "Talk to me, Rhodey. How're things looking?"
"Can't seem to get an ID on it," Rhodey said over the comms. The signal was clear, which indicated there wasn't any nearby radiation to worry about. "Nothing on any official list."
"Then why the fuck am I looking at a huge SHIELD symbol?"
The spread-winged eagle was painted across the hull of the station, near where something had blasted through the thing.
Neither Rhodey nor Pepper had a satisfactory answer for him. "Maybe they don't know about it?" Pepper suggested.
"SHIELD wouldn't have been operating out here, not during the 23rd century," Rhodey said. "The Outer Centaurus sector only got its official SHIELD station about a hundred years ago."
"Perfect." Either way, if the station wasn't listed on any government list, it was finders keepers for them, and they'd earn more money for it. If SHIELD wanted to keep secrets, it would be their loss.
The thing was a dump. Half the station was obliterated, small debris cluttering the space. He pushed onward, navigating through the larger chunks of debris. Something really had done a number on the place, most likely with some big energy weapon. It was lucky they’d found the station now; it was in a rapidly decaying orbit, and in several years, it would burn up in the planet’s atmosphere.
"Where were those rats?"
"Sector 9-B through 9-H, sir," JARVIS replied. That was the bottom of the station. Nothing to worry about. Territorial though they were, they were unlikely to venture out of the few decks they occupied.
Tony made his way to the closest deck. Pepper fed him information on the particulars of a 23rd century grade C space station, where the good stuff was likely stored, and if there was anything to watch out for.
It might have been 200 years old, but the good stuff, the really good tech, was still semi-functional and didn't take kindly to intruders. The guns swung toward him. Tony flipped open the panel on his arm and put in a command. His suit released an electro-magnetic pulse, and the guns froze.
"If it's standard SHIELD build," Pepper said in Tony's ear, "then I can pull up some better schematics. They won't be perfect, but cross referencing the official maps of standard SHIELD stations with the archived maps of these kinds of stations would render us something close to accurate."
"And where's the fun in that?" Tony said. He made it into the first corridor. He turned off his boot thrusters and used the smooth walls to push himself forward.
"Tony, you should take-"
"Bzzt, interference, can't hear you," Tony said as he restricted the transmission. This way, they could hear him, but he couldn't hear them. Much more peaceful. Easier to concentrate.
This level turned out to be living quarters. He did little more than glance into the rooms. Whatever happened here, the people had left in a rush. Some rooms were cluttered with things, others clean and organized, and more than one bed needed to be made.
As the living compartments grew in size, he figured the commanding officer's had to be close. He found it at last, indicated by the small SHIELD symbol on the door and the large computer console within. With the right codes, the commanding officer could put the whole station in lockdown, and he could access the majority of the station's databases from there. The thing wasn't even password protected. He copied the data onto a chip and tucked it away into a special compartment in his suit.
The station wasn't turning up much, but it was early in the game. On the third deck down, he found the jackpot. The room, most likely storage, was stacked with crates that were each stamped with the SHIELD insignia. They were sealed, but a quick blast from the gun in his arm fixed the issue. With only a little effort, he shoved the cover off and looked inside. Bingo. He opened up communications while he checked another crate.
"Tony, don't turn us off-" Pepper said.
"Pepper, Rhodey, you will not believe what I found." Tony pushed open a fourth crate. It was just as good as the others. "A whole cache of vibranium weapons."
"Vibranium weapons? What was this, some secret munitions warehouse?" Rhodey said. Tony caught the note of caution in his voice.
Tony left them speculating. It didn't matter so much to him anyway; if SHIELD left this little present, he wasn't going to say no to it. Oh, the look on Fury's face if he only knew. He marked them for the Dummy drone to pick up.
The weapons cache was likely the best physical thing they'd find, outside of the data, but only a fool wouldn't check the entire station. Tony rolled his shoulders. After the next deck, Rhodey could take over.
He went down by way of the destroyed ends. He wasn't stupid enough to try using the lifts, even if they did have any power left in them. He moved far enough so his suit wouldn't risk any damage from the sharp edges. He changed his orientation a hundred and eighty degrees, flying to the next level, and did a somersault to right himself again.
The utility light in his suit had, up to that point, lit the corridors. However, on this deck, he noticed a very faint light farther down.
"Hey, gonna check out some light, okay? If you don't hear from me in ten, send out the brigade."
They couldn't respond; he'd turned off the communicator again. He pulled his way into the corridor, using loose cables, and he stopped when the light swept over the walls.
"Oh my god..." he said.
There were life pods stretching down the corridor. They were all down, and they were all occupied. Tony moved along, staring in horror at the pods. Skulls grinned back at him as they slumped in their pods.
"There has to be dozens... Hundreds, even..."
Tony continued on towards the glow. It came from one life pod, the only one still online. He approached the glass and saw with amazement a man inside.
All indications said he was alive. He was a large, young, attractive looking man. Wires attached from the pod to his half-naked body. And, most astonishingly, he was alive. God damn.
Tony touched the pod gently, as if he could reach through the door. How could this be? What had happened here?
"Pep, Rhodey, you are not going to believe this. Send down the drone, this takes priority." As he studied the man, very much human, he shook his head in wonder. "Boy, are you in for a surprise..." he murmured.
JARVIS's scans confirmed the man to be in perfect physical health with no apparent brain or other major organ deterioration. In theory, he could be awoken with ease.
The pod technology wasn't compatible with what Tony had, although he could modify some scavenged parts easily enough. He had hung onto some 23rd century med units he'd run into a few years ago. He could read up on stasis theory, calculate the risks involved and the exact process of waking the man. But he was easier to ship in suspended animation, and oh, was Tony going to get Fury to give him a damn award for this one.
Tony didn't have quite the haul he usually required to convince him visiting the SHIELD station was worth the headache, but Mystery Man made it a priority. It took a few days to reach the station from the wreck, and during that time, Tony stripped the vibranium from the weapons. Half, he kept for his own uses, and he measured and boxed the rest for SHIELD.
At the station, Tony suffered through the red tape and the snark doled out by bored SHIELD officers.
"Don't need us to save you from another scam, Stark?" Agent Coulson said. Coulson was Tony's absolute favorite, if favorite meant he wanted to stick a needle in his eye whenever he saw Coulson coming.
One time, one scam, and the man would never let him live it down. He was almost as bad as Pepper. "Ha, ha," Tony said with a roll of his eyes. "Pure business. I've got a landing card, let me in already. Or has Fury finally gotten the UEA to pass that bylaw banning me from its properties?"
As much as SHIELD was a thorn in Tony's side, they were easier to get access to merely because they liked keeping tabs on all humans in their sectors. As SHIELD was the only United Earth Alliance agency operating in the Outer Centaurus Sector, the backwater of the Greater Centaurus Region, Tony had picked it for his business. He hadn't been counting on the charming commander it had that went by the name of Colonel Nick Fury.
Fury, unsurprisingly predictable as always, refused to see him.
This was why Tony had once casually acquired the layout of the station. He knew where cameras were hidden, what paths needed codes, and even that Fury had an extra large private bathroom in his quarters. If only his lackeys knew about that.
Tony slipped by the security with ease and ambushed him when he left his office.
"Nick, old boy, old pal, you wouldn't believe-"
"Not interested," Fury said, sparing him only a glance with his one eye. "I don't need anything you’re selling."
"You don't even know what I'm selling. What, have you replaced Pepper and Rhodey with LMDs, is that it? It's Happy, isn't it?" Tony shook his head. "I knew he was acting funny."
Fury was walking quickly down the white halls. Tony had to pick up his pace to keep up with him.
"Whatever it is, I don't need it. Hammer's already providing the necessary materials-"
"Hammer? Hammer's a pirate! He goes out and attacks ships. I run a legitimate salvaging business, and if-"
"There's no evidence suggesting he runs on active ships-"
Tony dodged in front of Fury, forcing him to stop. "Come on, you've got to be kidding me. I thought your one eye was supposed to make you super smart or something."
"So," Fury continued, crossing his arms, "unless you've got something very important, we won't be buying any of your goods this time round."
Fury stepped to the side to get around Tony, but Tony wasn't done. He stepped with Fury. "Fine then, be like that. I guess I'll go find another buyer."
"There are no other buyers in this system, Stark," Fury said. He side-stepped again, and Tony copied him.
"That's what you think."
There were other buyers. There were always other buyers. Sure, they were all associated with the black market and didn't pay half as good as SHIELD. One didn't need to when they could bargain with a knife to your back. But there were other buyers.
"You're going to regret buying from Hammer, though. Second rate stuff at best, even if it wasn't out right stolen. Which it was."
"I don't have time to entertain you, Stark." Fury cut their dance short by pushing Tony out of the way. "I have Asgardian envoys headed here in a week, and unless you want to be conscripted for the next five years, I suggest you get out of here. Now."
Fury wouldn't actually conscript him, Tony was pretty sure. He hoped so, at least. But he abandoned Fury for another time. Just as well. Tony had a lot of things to deal with, like one Mr. Sleepyhead.
Oh, yes, there was no way Fury was getting Sleeping Beauty back. If he could be blinded by the idiot Hammer, he'd probably fry stasis guy's brains. This was really the best for the poor guy.
Pepper didn't appreciate that he didn't tell Fury about the man in stasis.
"What were you thinking, Tony?" she said. "You can't keep something like this from Fury. We're talking about a human being, not some guns or scrap metal."
For Tony, it wasn't worth a discussion. He slumped in the captain's chair, one leg slung over the gray padded arm, and ordered them to head off. "JARVIS, any word on Bruce?"
"There is a minor security report of a man fitting Mr. Banner's description on Centaurus Station 8-Zed."
"Tony, I'm talking to you." And Pepper was starting to have that tone, the kind that meant she would not give up until Tony listened to her. She used it a lot with him, but never with Rhodey or Happy. It was a little unfair.
"Look, Pep, what would Fury do?" Tony shrugged his shoulders as if the answer was obvious. "He'd put the poor guy in a lab, no one's been in stasis for that long, and it's pure dumb luck his pod has even lasted. Bruce and I can get the guy up and running and living his own life in no time."
"You could destroy the one chance this man has at living."
"Pepper." Tony straightened in his chair. "Why do you think I'm going to get Bruce? Between the two of us, nothing will go wrong."
Pepper rolled her eyes, but Tony ignored her. She could bring up the time Tony thought that Rigellian ship was abandoned and not just floating if she wanted. She could even bring up the time Tony blew a commission before they could do the salvage job on booze and whores. But Tony had a good feeling about this guy and a bad feeling about Fury. He was doing what was needed.
Their course set, Tony retreated to his lab. He turned the light on with a clap. He enjoyed that little feature. “So, JARVIS, what do you have for me?”
“SHIELD has been receiving increased reports of ships being targeted by an unknown assailant,” JARVIS said.
Tony picked up a soldering tool and started fixing some kind of scanner he’d found in a wreck the month before. He wasn‘t entirely sure how it worked, but he could solve it through fiddling. “Hammer. Yet he still doesn’t listen to me.”
“Different dignitaries have been passing through the area, most recently a Shi’ar ambassador. The two princes of Asgard are set to arrive soon. SHIELD is concerned this could set up a bid for power between the various empires, as the Outer Centaurus sector has been considered neutral territory for hundreds of years, barely worth the notice of any major political machinations.”
“Frontier conquering, even if that frontier is in your own backyard.”
“There have been several instability reports concerning the outer hull of the SHIELD station.”
“Not interested.” He picked up tiny pincers and moved a wire. The scanner sparked and started smoking.
“An ambassadorial suite for the Abelons has been installed, a species that lives exclusively in chlorinated water-”
Tony waved a rag to clear the smoke. “If I wanted housekeeping notes, I’d ask for them.” He coughed once and dropped the rag on the table. “Look, is there anything that’s of any actual value or not?”
“No, sir. I believe you would say that this is ‘all bullshit.’”
“Alright, then. We’ve got a day or so to Station 8-Zed. Crank up playlist 15, will you?” He picked up a screwdriver and pliers and began tearing the scanner apart.
The market on Centauri Station 8-Zed was one of the busiest, seediest places in the sector. As a stress reliever, it ranked low on Tony's list of places to relax, and it probably wasn't the greatest place for a genetic experiment gone wrong to settle. But Bruce had his reasons, whatever they were.
Tony pushed through the little maze the stalls created in the market district. Aliens from at least ten different regions of space hawked their wares and digestibly questionable foods. But none of the humans around were Bruce.
"Hey, you. The hairy one."
Tony rose an eyebrow and looked around him. He was surrounded by scaly aliens. "I assume you mean me, in the most respectful sense?" he said, turning to a sneering Skrull.
The Skrull shopkeeper snorted. "I've got something that could make you rich." He tapped his long fingers on the counter of his stall, which was covered by a variety of trinkets.
"Mm, see," Tony made a show of considering his wares, "I'm not really interested in any of this junk. I'm looking for something much more valuable, a spaced out looking human, occasionally wears glasses, looks like he doesn't have a care in the world? Swear it's because of the Drazi hash."
The Skrull scowled. "Anyone like that'd be dead here."
Tony casually picked up what looked suspiciously like a comb. "Not really the answer I was looking for. Oh, well, I was intending to pay. I have a few spare hundred credits or so." He dropped the comb back on the counter and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Tony sighed dramatically and waited. "See Noh Varr's place. Bottom feeders, the lot of the Kree scum, but they know everyone on the station."
"Thanks, green head," Tony said and didn't give the man a credit.
The bar wasn't Tony's first choice. If they had a strong drink, good on them, but there were too few dancing girls and too many grizzled aliens giving each other the stink eye. Lucky for him, he didn’t have to bother chatting up the sour looking barkeep nor its patrons. Hidden in a dark corner, Tony spied the man he wanted.
"Does anyone know how to say please and thank you around here?" Tony said as he pulled out a chair and sat down.
Bruce Banner, part-time scientist, part-time green monster, stared at Tony a long moment before breaking into a grin. "Tony," he said. "What brings you here?"
"You," Tony said. "And another man, but he's in dream land. And I need you to wake him up." He picked up a bit of whatever Bruce had been eating. It was green and crunchy, likely some kind of giant bug part. Tony made a face at the taste. "Not like chicken.”
"So this is business?" Bruce chuckled and leaned back. "I'm not joining your crew, Tony."
"Why not?" Tony leaned forward. "Bruce, with you there, we could make an empire. We'd have the best business around."
Bruce shook his head. "I'm not looking for fame or riches, Tony."
"Look, don't join my crew, fine. I'll get you one day. But I could use your help. I've got a science experiment." Tony took another green crispy bite. Nope, still foul.
"The sleeping guy? Try an alarm clock."
"Bruce. This guy is in stasis. And as far as I can tell, he's been like that for, oh, I don't know, two hundred years."
That caught Bruce's attention. Tony grinned, nodding slowly.
"See? Knew you‘d be interested."
"No one's ever been in stasis that long before."
Tony nodded. "Come on, Bruce, work on me with this, and I'll leave you alone for, oh, let's say... six months?"
"No, you won't."
"I'm a man of my word."
Bruce looked at Tony for a long time. Playing the good little boy, Tony let him think while adopting as pleading an expression as he could. At last, Bruce said, "Alright, Tony. You've gotten my attention. But I'm not traveling alone these days."
Tony leaned back in his chair, smug. Bruce always came around. "Oh? Bruce, you sly dog, who is she?"
"She" was not a she, but a giant of a man, an Asgardian drifter by the name of Thor. He loomed over Tony, hair cropped uncharacteristically short for an Asgardian, and his very handsome face broke into a grin. Bruce introduced them, and Tony found himself enveloped in a great, big, Asgardian hug. "It is wonderful to meet a companion of Bruce! He has been most kind to me," Thor boomed. He picked Tony off the ground and swung him slightly from side to side.
"Uh, you too, big guy," Tony said in a tight voice. Breathing was becoming difficult. "If you'd let go so I can stay being a companion of anyone, I'd like that."
Thor set him down with a great laugh. "Ah, Tony Stark, I believe we will be great friends!"
"Sure, sure, whatever you say." He coughed once to make sure his lungs hadn't been punctured by a broken rib or something. He asked Bruce, "Where did you pick up this guy?"
Bruce, picking through the little he had in his cramped rented room, shrugged. "We ran into each other. Thor needed a friend." He smiled at Tony. "Kind of reminded me of you."
There was nothing about the giant man that resembled Tony. He was a boisterous, walking mountain.
Thor, very enthused and with his canvas bag already stuffed full, clapped Tony on the shoulder. "Bruce truly has been a dear asset to me in my travels. None have been quite as open with me as he."
Bruce? Open? Thor either meant in a sexual sense, or Bruce had changed his mind about the touchy feel soul exploring not being for him. Tony snickered, but Bruce cast him a glance that shut him up. "Don't," Bruce warned. "Whatever you're thinking, it's not that."
"I'm not thinking anything." He patted Thor's arm, which was thicker than both of Tony's put together. "Good to have you."
Thor's grin grew, a feat Tony had thought impossible. He was enveloped in another bone-crushing hug.
Tony had to admit, Thor did pique his interest a little. He'd only met an Asgardian once, and that had been when he had barely been tall enough to reach a control console. Of course, it had been trailing after his father on yet another of his failed business schemes, and the Asgardian had paid neither Tony nor his father much mind.
"Bruce, you think we could hurry it up a little?" Tony said. "We've got a little work to do."
Bruce sling his pack over his back, casting his eyes around the room once more. "I've got some contacts here. I just need to tidy up some things, and we'll be off. You could show Thor around your ship."
Tony was not letting Bruce out of his sight. As much as he adored the man, he did sometimes get distracted or change his mind last minute. "Nah, we'll follow you."
Bruce's tidying up took him to visit a few people, some happier to see him and others less happy. Tony and Thor hung back. As time ticked away, Tony decided this was taking too long.
"Alright, you've said your goodbyes, let's get going."
"You could be a little more patient," Bruce said after he'd parted with an alien who wore a black bioenvironmental suit.
"I came here to get you, not to wait for you."
"You'll have to, or I won't go."
But then Tony saw their argument was going to end up being ultimately fruitless.
It took him a moment to recognize that particular multi-cleft chin, but when the Skrull saw him, shouted in rage, and pointed to his half a dozen Skrull fiends, things clicked in place for Tony.
"Look, Bruce, I think we need to head out now."
"I'm serious, Bruce." He indicated with his eyes the approaching mob behind Bruce.
Bruce looked behind him, turned back to Tony, and said, "I cannot believe you've already made enemies." But he complied with Tony, and the three tried to leave as quickly as they could. But the Skrull mob gave chase.
They ran down the corridors, dodging between a variety of people, but the Skrull gang kept up with them.
As they ran, Tony gave Bruce the short story of what had happened. The bay was close, and the crowds had thinned to nothing. They ran as fast as they could to keep one or two turns between them and the Skrulls.
"What, you think I'd really pay the guy?"
"You sure know how to piss people off, Tony."
"You missed me, though."
The Skrulls caught up with them. They started shooting. Bruce, Tony, and Thor, who let out a loud cheer, and weren't Asgardians a cheery bunch, dove behind some crates. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Bruce said, pressing himself down.
"I haven't had such fun in ages!" said Thor. He clapped Tony's shoulder. "I am pleased to meet you, Tony Stark!"
"Yeah, hey, Thor, you think you could get us out of here?"
With a cheerful nod, Thor vaulted over the crate.
"Don't kill your-"
A Skrull went sailing over the crates and their heads. He crashed into the floor several feet in front of them and didn’t move.
They heard grunts, shots, and Thor's laugh. He sounded downright gleeful. Tony risked peeking above the crate.
Thor's arm smashed into a Skrull's jaw.
Bruce peeked over, too. Tony said, "You could learn to do that, you know."
"And risk punching a hole in the station's hull? No thanks. I'll let Thor handle it."
"Is that why you're traveling with him? Bodyguard of sorts?" A stray blast forced them to duck behind the crates again. Thor's far too happy shouts continued.
"Tony. He needed a friend. Any friend. So I supposed I was good enough."
"Bruce, ever the kind heart."
"Masochist, for putting up with you."
"Don't you talk to my crew too much," Tony said, pointing a warning finger at Bruce. "They might start getting dangerous ideas, and I won't stand for mutiny."
"That's why you only hired your friends."
"Yup, and a position's open for you if you want it." Tony peaked up above the crate again. Thor slammed the last Skrull into the floor. He panted, surrounded by groaning bodies. "Something for that guy, too, if he wants it."
Pepper was angry with Tony for almost getting himself killed for a petty snub.
"I didn't know he was so sensitive," Tony said. "Really, he should consider getting some therapy."
Pepper just should have been glad they hadn't gotten blaster stains on the Iron Bird's hull, thanks to Thor. When he introduced Thor to Pepper, the big guy proved for the second time he was worth having around. Pepper became very distracted.
"Thor? Isn't that the name of Asgard's crown prince?" she said, and Tony saw that her cheeks were tinged just a little pink.
"Does that look like a prince to you?" Tony said, indicating Thor who was shoveling food into his mouth like he'd never eaten before. Rhodey was quite taken with him, too, as he kept offering more and more food to Thor. "Besides, there were 27 Kalels at my school of various genders, and trust me, they weren't the same person." He shook his head, remembering Kalel number 14. He'd been particularly fond of that one. Very good hand jobs. "Fury's got him coming in with some fancy diplomatic armada. You know," he dropped his voice, "really, what the Asgardians think they are doing is ridiculous, everyone would prefer they just keep their high brow, moralistic, ideological asses in their quadrant of space."
"That's not very nice, Tony," Pepper said.
"Who said I was a nice guy?"
Pepper shook her head and went off to do whatever she did when Tony wasn't engaging her in pleasant conversation. Probably going to complain to Happy. Really, they should just hook up already. He glanced back at Rhodey and Thor, but they seemed content. Any second, Rhodey was going to try to lure out any secret Asgardian judo Thor might know. They could play together for hours.
First things first, Tony had to deal with a frozen man and the eager scientist ready to wake him.
Bruce hadn't dallied after greeting Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, and JARVIS. Tony had provided him full access to all of JARVIS's scans for the almost dead guy, and Bruce had hidden himself away in storage to look at the thing. Tony really needed a bigger ship.. No, not a bigger ship, he loved his baby. But there just wasn't any room in his lab at the moment for an extra stasis pod.
"How you doing, Brucey?" Tony said as he shoved open the heavy door.
Bruce sat on a crate that might have had extra modules or some doohickey that Tony hadn't figured out what they were for exactly. He had the data pad balanced on his knee, his glasses were slipping down his nose, and he was chewing his thumb nail. Tony didn't know how often he ended up just watching Bruce as he worked.
Sometimes, Tony regretted that that ship had sailed.
Bruce spared him a glance over the rims of his glasses. "This is fascinating." He gestured to the stasis pod, propped up against crates across from Bruce. "SHIELD really would be more equipped to handle this. I mean, we don't know what could happen."
"In theory, he should be fine."
"In reality, there are a number of variables no one's ever accounted for. Long term stasis, that hasn't been done in..."
"200 years." Tony tapped the pod. "Just about when this guy went under. Little after, maybe."
"If we don't melt his brain, I'll be amazed."
Tony grinned, shaking his head. "You always look at the worst possible outcome."
"No, the worst possible outcome is that there's some bacterium in there that'll kill us all," Bruce said. He shrugged a shoulder, gesturing with the data pad again. "There's no way to tell what kind of good or bad stuff is in there. Maybe once, but that technology's been lost to us."
That didn't worry Tony. "Come on, let's pop this baby open."
They got to work. Stasis technology hadn't been this advanced in a long time. Tony modified equipment, and Bruce optimized it for possible biochemical changes that any deterioration might have caused.
"You have this hooked up to an old greenhouse battery?" Bruce said at one point.
"It's got enough juice left."
Bruce shook his head and continued working. "If he does make it, I do have one question for him."
"And that would be?"
"Why doesn't he have a shirt?"
Several hours later, they'd done all they could. The stasis pod had so many connections and wires crossing it, it looked worse than a space wreck. Half the machines monitored three dozen life support variables, and another half dozen were back-up life support systems in case something went horribly wrong, the pod cracking without him waking, and another three were intended to kill anything harmful that might come out of that pod.
"Here's to melted brains," Tony said, and they activated the stasis pod's wake-up protocol.
The pod flooded with a gas that cleared away in seconds. With a soft hiss, the windowed door swung open and up. The man's eyes fluttered open.
"Morning, sunshine," Tony said with a wave.
The man looked from Tony to Bruce, his face vague and confused. He clutched the sides of the pod, began to push himself out, and then he fell face forward.
Tony and Bruce both tried to catch him. They both were too slow. He crashed into the floor, and they gently turned him over.
"I've never seen that before," Tony said. "Is he alive? Is his brain jelly?"
"I think he's just sleeping," Bruce said.
Tony sighed, relieved. "And I thought he'd done enough of that."
Steve's head felt like it was about to explode. He groaned, miserable. If he didn't open his eyes for awhile, maybe it would go away. Except he had duties to perform that he couldn't put off. Steve was no slouch.
Had he left the lights on? He couldn't remember. He felt drunk, a sensation he hadn't felt in years. He tried opening his eyes. That was a big mistake. The light was too bright.
And then Steve's skin prickled when he heard others in the room.
"Sleeping Beauty's twitching. Wonder if it's a good dream."
"I don't think you should surprise him, Tony."
"Who said anything about a surprise? I didn't. JARVIS, did you hear anything about a surprise?"
"Only Mr. Banner, sir."
Steve felt wrong about all this. The bed was too hard. The voices and names were strange and unfamiliar. The last thing he remembered was agreeing to dinner with Peggy. None of this was right.
One by one, he subtly tested his joints. He wasn't restrained, that was good.
He decided the best thing to do was rush them. He could find his way out. The worst thing was to wait around for them to incapacitate him.
Steve counted to three. Then he jumped off the bed. His head was spinning, and he couldn't concentrate on any one thing. He took a step and almost fell. He knocked against a table, scattering the junk on it to the floor with a loud clatter.
He saw two men approaching him, and they weren't anyone he recognized.
"Whoa, there," said the one with a beard. "Your body's been under a lot of stress, it's better that-"
Steve pushed himself up and at the bearded man in one movement. He bowled into him, and Steve stumbled forward while the man landed on the ground. The other backed away quickly, and Steve lurched to the door. He groaned when he hit the edge of the doorway and grabbed it to hold himself up. He ignored the anxious shouts behind him. As he moved down the first corridor, he regained proper control of his motor skills. He broke into a run.
The ship was unlike any he'd seen before. But if he could find a computer terminal, he could hack into the communications system and send out an SOS. Ideally, if there were smaller ships or fighters, he could escape in one of those, but that was a best case scenario. Enemies didn't tend to make things easy.
Luck was with him. He found a terminal in an open room, but when he touched it, it lit up with unfamiliar controls. The interface wasn't anything like he'd ever seen before. He experimented by pushing a button that looked promising, a picture of an old Earth comms satellite, but nothing happened.
"May I help you, sir?"
Steve spun around, arms up, but no one was there. Wary, he went back to the terminal.
"I do apologize, but I have locked down outgoing communications per Mr. Stark's instructions. I can offer you directions to the dining room, or perhaps you would prefer the recreation deck."
Steve spun around again, but no one was there. "Who are you? Show yourself."
"That is impossible, sir. I am the ship's Artificial Intelligence. You may call me JARVIS."
"AIs aren't possible."
"I do apologize for my existence, sir."
"See, that's where you're wrong," someone else said. The bearded man entered the room. Steve had left the door open. He took a defensive stance, but the man held up his hands. "Look, we're not going to hurt you. If not for us, you'd probably be dead. Eventually."
"Where am I? What happened?" Steve couldn't recall, and the pounding in his head was growing.
"This is my ship, the Iron Bird. I'm its captain, Tony Stark. And we found you in a two hundred year old space station. That was quite a stasis pod you had."
The AI spoke again. "Correction, sir, my analysis shows the pod was functioning for 197.6 years."
What the hell?
"JARVIS, bring up whatever we have on the last 200 years." The bearded man, his hands still up, backed against the wall. He nodded to the terminal. "Take a look, I'll wait here."
Steve kept his body half-turned to the man while he glanced back down at the terminal. The screen started to display vids, articles, and images in rapid succession. Steve couldn't concentrate on any one thing long enough to process it, and he caught glimpses of various dates, strange battles, and machines he'd never seen before.
"What... Slow it down, I..."
And the pounding in his head suddenly grew. Steve was only aware of a shout behind him as he blacked out.
"So you believe us then?" the bearded man - Tony, his name was Tony - said. They were sitting in the mess hall with a woman who introduced herself as Pepper and the other man Steve had first seen when he woke up, Bruce. He'd been introduced to the three remaining members of the crew in passing.
“You’ve given me the evidence,” Steve said. It had been terabytes of data, completely overwhelming, and yes, it could have all been faked, but Steve had neither the time nor the energy to comb through it. If this was an elaborate hoax set up by an enemy, they were going to a whole lot of trouble for nothing. Steve wasn’t military anymore, and as far as Earth was concerned, he was gone forever.
“Your turn,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair. “You can’t just be called Steve.” Despite his words, he looked completely uninterested in Steve.
With a sigh, Steve said, “Steve Rogers, former captain of the UEAS American Shield.” That was public record.
Tony looked unimpressed, but Pepper’s eyes widened. “Tony,” she said, shaking his arm. “Tony, you need to call Fury now.”
“Captain Steve Rogers! The American Shield! The hero of the Third Chitauri War! Does none of that mean anything to you?”
Steve saw Tony’s eyes light up at the mention of the war. He sat up and trained his gaze on Steve, much more interested in him now.
“I had other people do my history homework, Pep,” Tony said, but he was still looking at Steve. “Listen, why don’t you show Steve to his quarters. As you say, we should call Fury.”
Pepper apologized profusely for Tony’s behavior, but Steve politely thanked her for showing him his room.
The room was small, decoration sparse, and clearly put together in a hurry. The bed was installed in an alcove in the wall, and a computer terminal sat across from it. He did have his own shower, which was promising, and made it, on the whole, much better than his days as an ensign.
Steve sat down at the computer terminal and attempted to sort through more of the history of the past two hundred years. He had a lot of catching up to do.
Tony came in. He leaned against the door, a smug expression on his face. "How you doing?"
"Been better," Steve said.
"Yeah, well, we're all like that, huh?" He strolled into the room, a bit of an invasion in Steve's mind, but he needed to learn everything he could, so what could he do?
“Just got a transmission from Fury,” Tony said. “You’re officially not their problem. As a civilian, you can come and go as you please.”
"So... I'm stranded, then, huh?" Steve concentrated on the wall opposite him, the smooth metal, the way the light dully reflected off of it. Anything was better than letting his mind drift to his current predicament.
"Not exactly," Tony said. He scratched his head. "Look, you want some work? Until you get on your feet? I can give it to you. My crew could use an extra hand."
"I'd have to think about it."
"Well, we're a couple days from any station, so you have some time."
Steve wondered about all this. Why didn't SHIELD want him back? He could be useful, he could do something. If it really had been 200 years, wouldn’t they be interested in what he knew? In his existence?
Tony produced a signed statement, sent over the communications system, signed by Colonel Nick Fury, that stated Steve was officially discharged of any prior duty and hereby a regular citizen of the UEA. SHIELD held no responsibility for him.
“Let me know what you want to do,” Tony said. “There might be a transport back to Earth at the next station if you really wanted to go.” With that, Tony left.
Steve paced around the room, frustrated. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
He had never felt so alone. Even standing at the frontlines during a war, he had been supported by the best men and women he knew.
He laid on the bed. Although it was softer than his military lodgings, he couldn't get comfortable.
He moved to the floor, sitting with his back against the wall, and he stayed there for hours, trying to not think of anything, but ending up recalling Peggy's smile, Bucky's laugh, Sam's jibes, and everything that he wouldn't see again.
Tony knocked on the console by Rhodey. "Let's set a course for the Centi Gamma station. I need to do some business there."
Rhodey rose an eyebrow. "You know what you're doing is wrong. You can't keep a guy against his will. And lying to him like that?"
"I'm not lying," Tony said. "Well, a little, but it's for his own good. What do you think SHIELD would do with the poor guy? He'd end up in a lab, and they'd grill him for all he's worth."
"He's a survivor of the Third Chitauri War," Rhodey said.
"Yeah, I know," Tony replied. He wasn't quite sure what he was going to do with this one. "I might have screwed up a little, Rhodey."
"Well... Maybe. I didn't say definitely."
Tony didn't stay on the bridge. Rhodey could handle it himself. In his lab, he picked up the alien scanner and started completely dismantling it.
The message from Fury had been easy to forge. He didn't feel as bad about it as Rhodey (or Pepper, yikes) thought he should. He was doing Steve a favor. Plus, the Third Chitauri War... It had been the beginning of the end, in Tony's opinion. The time the humans gave up on progress.
Steve needed something useful to do, or he would become his own jailer. He peaked outside of the room, glancing down the corridor. It wasn't the shiny metal of his old ship or the station. The walls were much darker, and Steve couldn't tell if it was aesthetic choice or practicality. Instead of a shiny white, they were much more dull gray. Some corridors had chained floors like the storage areas in the station, and others were smooth metal.
The place was a maze. He couldn't figure out if he was just lost or if the place was huge. It reached the point where maybe asking JARVIS would be a good idea. But the AI still made Steve uncomfortable. There was no reason to trust a true artificial intelligence. Natural intelligence was dangerous enough and likely more empathetic.
Fortunately, he ran into Tony.
"What are you doing here?" Tony said, bewildered.
Steve shrugged. "I just... Looking around."
Realization crossed Tony's face, and he smirked. "Lost, huh?"
Steve hoped he wasn't turning too red. "I haven't seen a ship like this before."
Tony grinned and patted the wall like one would a child. "You want a tour? I refitted this baby myself, so I know all the ins and outs. Took me a decade and the remains of my father's fortune, but worth it. She's a beauty."
Steve did not say he disagreed. That would be rude, and Tony was his only friend at the moment.
The ship proved to be even more maze-like than he'd thought. He followed Tony through the ship, from top to bottom. There were only a few decks, but it still seemed far too big for a crew of six to be running it. When Tony told him Thor and Bruce had only recently signed on, Steve was floored.
"Four people? For this?" Steve said. "A skeleton crew for this would be at least... seven. And a full crew would be somewhere around-"
"Twenty-five," said Tony. "We manage. JARVIS is a big help, trust me. Still could use some more space though."
“I haven’t seen a ship like this before. Are they all made like this now?”
“No, I refitted this baby. She used to be a Techarchy cruiser.”
"So what made you refit one of these? Where did you get one?"
"It was cheap on the Martian market and small enough to fit in most docking bays while still having a large cargo hold. Perfect for the salvage business. Plus," and Tony looked conspiratorially at Steve, “they didn’t know what was in it. JARVIS is my baby, born from technology I found on the ship. It provided the basis for him.”
He went on and on about rebuilding it, fixing the crumbling walls, knocking out others, installing bedrooms, and making his lab absolutely perfect. They visited the engine room, and Happy greeted them with a grin and a bad joke. As Tony talked about completely replacing the engines, with his own improvements, of course, his face lit up with child-like glee. Steve watched him move enthusiastically around the ship, paying as close attention as he could to what he was saying.
"And for the coup de grace," Tony said outside the large set of doors, "I offer you this."
The doors slid open to reveal a huge hanger. The hanger was covered in sleek shuttles and fighter jets. They were painted in gaudy colors, white and black stripes on one, purple and black on another, and a third a brilliant red with golden accents.
"Ten fighters?" Steve said as they walked between the ships. "Why does a crew of six need ten fighters?"
"It's a hobby," Tony replied. He walked up to one, the red and gold, and gave it a pat as he would a dog. “Trust me, no one’s seen babies like these before. They can outstrip the best the UEA has to offer and most anything in alien tech. Of course, some of it is adapted from alien tech, but why let that stop me?”
“Tony Stark, I wouldn’t have pegged you for the fatherly type.” This made Tony laugh. He stopped in front of one, painted red, white, and blue. “Do they have names?”
Tony came up behind him and clasped his shoulder. “Of course they do, what do you take me for?” He strolled up to the fighter. “This baby’s the American Patriot.” He pointed behind Steve. “We’ve got War Machine over there, and my current favorite is the Mark VII. I tried coming up with a different name, but she liked the designation too much.”
Steve circled the American Patriot. To his discerning eye, it looked good. Solid hull, weapons ports well positioned, and several thrusters, all on swivel axes, positioned so that the fighter could turn easily. Although the paint job was gaudy, he couldn’t see any unnecessary structural element.
“Very nice,” he murmured. Oh, if they had some of these in his day...
Tony slung an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, so, should I leave you two alone? Let you get to know each other. I‘m starting to feel like a third wheel.”
Steve smirked, shaking his head. “Very funny.” He shrugged out from under Tony’s arm.
“You know,” Tony said, shoving his hands in his pockets, “if you want to take one of these babies out sometime, I’m sure it’ll be fun.”
The offer was tempting. He hadn’t been in a jet in four years. Well, two hundred and four years. But he shook his head. "Thank you for the tour, Tony."
"Anytime," Tony said with a wink.
When they reached the Centi Gamma station, Tony came knocking. "There you are," he said. "You're coming station side with me."
Steve had been down in the engine room looking things over with Happy's help. He had wanted a more intelligible explanation of the ship’s engine capabilities, and Happy was eager to translate Tony. With a shrug and a wave, Happy encouraged Steve to go.
They met Thor in the hanger. Steve looked around him, but didn't see a transit portal. Instead, Tony made his way to a moderately sized shuttle.
"You don't use transporters anymore?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah, cultural backlash against them not too long after you went under," Tony said. He hopped into the pilot's seat, while Thor strapped himself in a passenger chair. "Activists claimed they destroyed what made us human. Utter nonsense, just a bunch of overly-complacent youngsters thinking they'd move back to 'good honest values.'" Tony snorted. "An exact replica is just as good as the original thing, if you ask me."
The shuttle, Tony explained, was a lot easier to dock and lowered the risk of attempted theft from the Iron Bird. Steve watched as they approached. The station was huge, but fat and ugly, the paneling on the outside dull grey with obvious injuries to it. Whether they came from war, gang skirmishes, or pirates, Steve neither cared to ask nor guess.
They disembarked. In all his time in space, Steve had never seen quite so many different aliens in one place. Most of his time was spent aboard the American Shield, even when docked at alien stations in other sectors.
It was a very different experience.
"What are we doing here?" he said as they left the docking bay.
"Business," Tony said. "SHIELD isn't buying from me, I have to go elsewhere."
This elsewhere was obviously black market material.
"Look, when I picked up Banner, things got a little out of control. Couldn't sell. And this ship can't run on ideals alone. A lot's changed, Steve. You would do well to remember that."
"Sure," he said, but he still didn't like it.
They moved through the corridors of the station until they arrived at a bar. Thor and Steve were instructed to take a seat while Tony did his business.
The drink Steve was offered was foul. Thor didn't share his distaste, heartily downing the pitcher and demanding another. At one point, Tony gestured towards him and Thor, and that's when he realized he was being used as muscle. Great.
He downed the rest of the pitcher, fighting against the urge to spit it back out. What the hell were they drinking these days?
"Ah, a fine Skrull liquor," Thor said. "Another!"
Steve made a face, but he clunked his new pitcher with Thor and downed the drink.
Several refills later, Tony sauntered back over to them. He was grinning. "We're in the money, boys," he said. He picked up Steve's half-empty pitcher and was about to take a drink. But he sniffed it and stopped. "Steve, what have you been drinking!"
"Some kind of Skrull Liquor," Steve said. Thor nodded, laughing with exuberance.
Tony stared at Steve in disbelief. "Steve," he said, putting the pitcher down gently. "A few gulps of this, and a human liver is toast. I should know." He rubbed his body. "Emergency transplant, almost died."
Steve didn't even feel drunk. "Maybe it's fake?"
"It is certainly not!" Thor said with a mighty laugh. "Ah, I've grown fond of this in my travels." He drank some more.
Tony jerked his thumb at Thor. "The Asgardian can guzzle this like it's water. You," he pointed to Steve, "should be dead."
Steve shrugged. He felt fine.
Tony sighed. "Well, let's go. Maybe you have a steel stomach or something."
They returned to the ship, and the other three were waiting for them.
"All set," Tony said, rubbing his hands gleefully. “Just need to make the drop off.“
The rest started moving under Pepper’s instruction, but Tony pulled Bruce to the side and started talking to him in private.
"Look,” he said, and he jerked his thumb over at Steve, "that guy just drank four pints of Skrull liquor, and he's still standing. What the fuck is up with that?"
Bruce looked over at Steve and raised an eyebrow. “That is crazy," he said. "You sure it was Skrull liquor?"
"I'd bet my liver on it."
In a way, it was too good to be true. The one stasis pod in hundreds that was still functioning had happened to be one of the foremost heroes of the Third Chitauri War. JARVIS’s scans had said he was human, but Tony had heard the rumors about Skrulls.
“If there’s something we need to be worried about, if there’s a potential danger to this ship and its crew, I need to know about it, Bruce.”
Bruce blew out a breath. “Alright, Tony, I’ll check him out.”
The shipment loaded up and successfully transferred, Steve found himself with some free time. He headed to the observation deck to watch the station disappear as they set out. But Bruce intercepted him and asked if he could run some tests.
"The stasis might have harmed you in some way,” Bruce explained, “and it is highly unusual that you were able to consume so much of that foul Skrull stuff. We'd just like to check things out."
Steve reluctantly complied.
Bruce poked and prodded and had him stand under several different scanners. Steve was stripped to the waist as Bruce checked bone density, muscle strength, lung capacity, blood pressure, and radiation levels.
"Couldn't you have gotten all this when you first woke me up?" Steve asked as Bruce ran a scanner along his back, checking his spine.
Bruce said without pause, "Only to a small degree. And there was no way to tell what long term effect the stasis might have had."
Steve patiently endured the rest of the tests. He was familiar with being under a scientist's inquisitive gaze, but the process and tools were different than they were two centuries before.
"Captain Steve Rogers, huh?" Bruce said as he looked over his data pad. He kept glancing over his glasses at Steve, making him feel uncomfortable. "Just who are you? You have an elevated metabolism, your strength, it's close to an Asgardian. Who are you? I mean, I suppose something could have happened while you were in the pod." Steve realized Bruce was talking to himself at this point. "In order to preserve the cells, if you pumped them full of the right nutrients while under, it's possible this could manifest itself as some kind of superhuman ability... Although I would think the effect would be temporary."
Steve chewed his lip. This was classified information, but it had been classified 200 years ago. No one alive would remember giving him such an order. "I'm hesitant to say,” Steve said. Maybe he could say some without giving away any compromising details. “When the Chitauri were attacking... It was the third time. The third war. We'd almost lost to them the last time, a mere 30 years prior. A department in the government dedicated to scientific advancement in warfare began researching a way to make humans stronger, a super soldier serum if you like-"
"Wait a minute," Bruce said. He held up his hand. "You're talking about Operation Rebirth, aren't you?"
Steve was surprised. He supposed the information could have become public, but since it had been wrapped in so much secrecy before, he had expected it to remain classified. "Yes," he said.
Bruce shook his head, staring at Steve in clear amazement. "We thought everyone that had been part of that had been killed. And to think that the Captain Rogers was a superhuman..."
"I'm not a superhuman," Steve said. He crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly feeling overexposed. "I'm human, like everyone else."
Bruce removed his glasses. "Look, Steve. A lot of things changed while you were under. About 20 years after the war, a group supporting eugenics arose.” Bruce placed his data pad down and pulled up a chair. “Operation Rebirth was brought to the limelight, and many people on the list became targets for an anti-eugenics group. They feared that the government had started the eugenics group in the first place, that Operation Rebirth had been the first wave. Everyone on the released Rebirth list was assassinated within a year."
"What?" Steve understood what Bruce was saying, but he couldn’t understand how any of what he said was true.
"The government wasn't overthrown, but there was a nasty civil war, which resulted in a change of power."
"Tony mentioned something about cultural unrest, but-”
"That fueled the civil war. Ultimately, the eugenics group, HYDRA, was shut down."
"I've heard of HYDRA," Steve said, a sick feeling in his stomach. "They were unhappy with the war with the Chitauri during my time. Thought we were going about it the wrong way." They had done minor acts of terrorism, too, but nothing large scale.
Bruce rubbed his eyes before continuing. "It was a pretty systematic wipeout," Bruce said. He tapped a hand against the other as he spoke and didn’t meet Steve‘s eye. "HYDRA was getting a distressing degree of support. Some people thought that if a project like Operation Rebirth had been started sooner, the Third Chitauri War wouldn't have happened. And then when HYDRA began applauding the government for creating it, using it and its subjects as an example - who knows where they got that information from - the government rejected the claim it had anything to do with it. But the damage had already been done. That's when the rebels rose up and attacked the government, and I don't know who did it, no one does, but all the people who had been publicly declared subjects of Operation Rebirth were found brutally murdered."
Steve felt his stomach roll. "I think..." He pushed himself from the cot and grabbed a bowl. He retched, emptying his stomach. Bruce was by his side in a moment with a towel and a glass of water. "Thank you," he said, accepting them. "I'll clean this up."
"You better," Bruce said with a sigh. "I'm certainly not doing it."
Steve looked out at the stars. They were the same as when he'd last seen them from his own ship, so many years ago and during the war. But now... Now there was something different. Steve hadn't changed, but the world around him had. The universe was the same, but the people in it... Steve didn't know any of them. It was a universe born from violence that Steve had once hoped to end.
Half the people he had known had been with him on the station. The other half had remained on Earth. And they had been killed for some stupid procedure.
For a moment, Steve wished he hadn't survived the serum. If he had died, maybe they would have scrapped it instead of expanding it. He felt the guilt grow. As the first subject, he should have died. Maybe then the rest would have been spared.
He closed his eyes. Less than a week before, he had been planning a date with Peggy. The station had been conducting long range scans of R-Delta-239; the atmosphere had seemed promising, and they found what might have been a giant underground lake. They had been planning manned missions to the surface in just a few months.
If only he could remember what had happened before he went into stasis. Maybe that would give him some sort of grounding instead of the loss he felt now.
He heard the door open and turned to see Tony enter the room. With a half salute, Tony said, "What's shaking, Steve?"
"Nothing," Steve said. His crossed his arms. "Just thinking."
"Been doing a lot of that. You know, I do run a pretty tight crew. We can't just be drifting off into space, otherwise we'll end up doing that literally, which trust me, isn't a good thing. Of course, you'd know that, being a captain and all."
"Don't worry, I'd get on duty, if you gave me a job. And something other than being your unwilling bodyguard.”
Tony coughed, but that was all the response Steve received. "But if I," Tony continued, as if Steve hadn't spoken, "as the captain, decide some downtime is needed, well, that's a different case altogether. And I happen to have a bottle of some very fine scotch that I've been meaning to share." He held up a bottle that Steve hadn’t noticed him carrying.
Steve chuckled, shaking his head. "Thanks, Tony. Captain."
He popped open the bottle and poured out some in two glasses. Steve accepted the drink and downed it in one. "Whoa, slow down there, cowboy," Tony said. He took the glass away from Steve "This is meant to be savored. You know how hard it is to get booze from Earth?"
Tony shrugged, then knocked back his own. "Yeah, well, it's not that great anyway."
Steve thought, eventually, that he could get used to this time. The whole crew of the Iron Bird was welcoming, and Tony always seemed to be keeping an eye out for Steve. He'd have to adapt. He had no choice.
Tony poured out another glass for each of them, and they savored the alcohol as they watched the stars move by.
Steve was finally being put to work, besides being brute strength. He followed Tony, getting used to the way the small thrusters on the space suit allowed him to maneuver. With the main thrusters positioned in the boots of the suit, he went reeling a few times, tumbling head over heels, and Tony caught him.
Tony laughed the whole time.
“You’re quicker at it than Thor, though,” Tony said when Steve caught on. “A couple days after you woke up, I took him out for a spin. Bit of a mistake. I don’t think this is his line of work.”
The wreckage was an old Kree ship from the appearance, and the mild registration signal the ship was emitting verified it had been abandoned, the crew rescued by another Kree ship.
“I don’t know why they bother,” Tony said, his voice higher pitched over the communicator. “They don’t turn those signals on until they abandon the ship.”
“Some kind of record to show that they made if off okay?” Steve suggested. “So that search parties aren’t created after the fact?” He could see the sense in that.
“Well, from the looks of this, it’s almost as old as you, Steve. I don’t think search parties would be necessary at this point.”
They entered the ship, and Steve followed Tony’s lead. They searched through the rooms and corridors, moving from deck to deck. Steve had never seen the inside of a Kree ship before. They were much roomier than Earth ships, yet seemed to prefer individual terminals, partitioned off by flimsy walls, rather than work openly together.
As interesting an archeological venture as it was, Steve found himself feeling nostalgic for the abandoned ship.
“Sentimental, Steve?”Tony said. He floated in front of Steve, his mini-thrusters stabilizing his position in space.
Steve shrugged. “This is how you found me, isn’t it? I can’t help but think what if. You know?”
Tony smiled kindly at him, his face highlighted in blue. “Ah, but if you think like that all the time, you won’t be able to move forward. Come on, I’ll show you the neat thing about Kree ships.”
Tony led him through the curving ship into the very core of it. The chamber was vast. Their small lights couldn’t penetrate the darkness around them.
“What is this?”
“Kree entertainment or something like that. If I hook up a small power source, it’ll be a show.”
Tony tinkered with a small battery he extracted from his bag. He opened a panel in the wall and began fiddling with things.
As Tony worked, Steve asked, “You’re an engineer, right? You said you rebuilt the Iron Bird yourself?”
“Mostly upgraded it, with a little help,” Tony corrected. He glanced over his shoulder, a smirk on his face. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Gotta love a good ship like her.”
Steve, as he had learned to do, held his tongue on that opinion. “It takes great skill to do that.”
“Well, once JARVIS was online, it wasn’t so difficult.”
“I’ve never seen anything like JARVIS before. I didn’t know the Techarchy were that advanced.” He drifted forward a little, looking up into the black room.
“You’d be amazed what kind of tech you can find in old ships. The upside of our technological deterioration, I guess. He was easy to build once you have the basic material and theory behind it. But JARVIS is one of a kind. No one likes AIs. Not sure why. Very useful.” When Steve turned back, Tony was leaning against the wall. “Any other questions?”
“Why do you employ Happy, then?”
“Family friend, and he’s got a pretty good eye for engines. If I’m in the captain’s chair, I can’t be running around monitoring engine systems, too.” Tony tapped the wall by the open panel. “This thing’s ready to go if you are.”
Feeling he’d overstepped his bounds, Steve nodded. Tony gave him a grin and then waved his hand over the panel.
The room exploded into color. It swooped and swirled, high above their heads. Steve was transfixed. He’d never seen anything like it. He reached out, wanting to capture the bright colors that sparkled.
“Like it?” Tony said beside him. He hadn’t noticed him approach.
“What is it?”
“A representation of the aurora on the original Kree home world. It’s been centuries since the planet was engulfed by its star, but the Kree never build a ship without this.”
“How many humans do you think have seen this?” Tony asked. Steve shook his head, still watching the aurora. “A handful at most. It’s one of their most guarded secrets.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“I might have had a thing with a Kree woman once.”
Steve laughed. “Of course. The great player, Tony Stark.”
“I was serious about her.” Tony’s tone was soft, and it pulled Steve away from the aurora. Tony shrugged at him, his smile tight. “Some things just don’t work out.”
They watched the aurora for a long time.
“So do you think salvaging is fun yet?’
“Maybe,” Steve said, and he gave Tony a smile.
“Happy you decided to stay on for now,” Tony said, patting Steve’s shoulder. Steve didn’t comment when Tony left it there, and they continued to watch the light dance.
Steve looked up at the sky, brilliant stars twinkling in the night. He breathed in deeply, smelling the night air, the scent of the pine trees making him think of Christmas. It was a warm night, and Steve felt calm.
Peggy came up beside him, slipping her hand in his. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she said.
He nodded. There were three moons in the sky. He squeezed her hand. “Just think,” he said, “what if we could share this feeling right now with the world? With the universe? Wouldn’t that be something? Just one perfect moment of peace.”
Peggy laughed. How he loved to hear her laugh. “I think you’re getting ahead of yourself,” she said. She brought a hand up to his face, stroking his cheek. “It takes time for peace.” She stood on her toes and kissed him slowly.
Steve wrapped his arms around her. His heart sped up, a feeling of panic overcoming him. He opened his eyes, feeling something was wrong, and over Peggy’s head, he saw Tony. He was just standing there, hands in his pockets, neither moving nor looking at Steve.
Steve closed his eyes, and the sense of panic disappeared. He ran his hands down Peggy’s back, holding her close.
“Steve,” Tony said in his ear.
He looked at Tony, standing in front of him, arms wrapped around him. Tony smiled, and light danced behind him. Steve returned the smile and leaned forward to kiss Tony again.
Steve jerked awake. His heart was racing, and he felt pressure between his legs. It was disconcerting; he took quick gasps as the panic in him slowly subsided, leaving him feeling alone and aching for touch.
He laid back down trying to calm himself. What had he been dreaming about to make him both panic and aroused? He covered his eyes with an arm, breathing slowly through his nose. Any chance for more sleep was lost, though, and he laid in bed, awake, until JARVIS signaled it was morning with a bell.
It would always come to the point where Tony would have to eventually go back to SHIELD and Fury. He hated it. It had only been a few weeks since he’d seen the man last. But circumstances changed.
As they were scanning an area of space for artificial debris, a Skrull military ship dropped from hyper-space. It was worryingly close, and Rhodey had to sharply turn the ship to avoid crashing into them.
“The hell was that for?” Tony said. He’d been knocked out of his chair with Rhodey’s maneuvering. He glanced to the side and saw both Pepper and Steve had also landed on the floor.
Rhodey threw up the image of the Skrull warship on the screen. “Just appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “No warning, and we are receiving no transmission from them.”
“Send them one,” Tony said, settling back into his chair. “I want an apology.”
Rhodey shook his head. "We’re getting no response.“
“Tony,“ Pepper said, her voice raising, “they're preparing to fire on us."
“Weapons locked on,” Rhodey said. “Wait... We’re getting a signal. They demand we let them board our ship.”
Tony snorted. "Like hell I am letting some Skrulls onto my ship. Rhodey, get us out of here.”
Rhodey brought them about face, and they sped off. The Skrull ship, unfortunately, gave chase. "What the hell is wrong with that thing?" Tony said. The ship remained on their monitor. They weren’t getting far enough away from it fast enough.
From behind him, Steve said, "Tony, they're going to chase us right into another ship."
"No, they aren't."
"Yes, they are."
Steve threw up the front sensors, which none of them had been watching, too concerned with the ship on their tail. And there it was, waiting for them, another blip up ahead. "Shit," Tony said. "Rhodey!"
"I'm working on it!" They changed course, but the ship ahead moved with them. "I don't know if I can shake them off."
"Ship at the fore, ready to fire,” Pepper said.
Tony cursed. What was all this about? "Well, you better move faster, Rhodey."
"What do you think I'm doing?" Rhodey said.
Finally, after barking at Happy and JARVIS to redirect energy allocation, Rhodey put on enough speed that they were able to zoom away far enough that they couldn't be trapped. They moved to hyperspace and got out of there as fast as they could.
"What the hell was that about?" Rhodey said.
“Don’t tell me they’re your friends from before,” said Pepper, which left Tony feeling more insulted than normal.
"No, they were definitely military," Steve said. "These transmission codes are the same as back when I was active."
Shit. This meant taking a trip to SHIELD. If military ships were attacking in neutral territory, this was an intergalactic incident.
“Stay here," Tony ordered Steve. He couldn't risk letting him go around and do stuff like figure out, oh, that maybe Tony had lied to him just a little itty bit. Even though it had been for his own good, Tony strongly suspected Steve wouldn't appreciate it.
As usual, Hill refused to allow him to see Fury. "I got attacked by two Skrull military ships on the way here!” Tony shouted, and he was not keeping his voice down. Fury would hear him one way or another. “I was minding my own business, and then bam, they try to force their way onboard! It was neutral space, Hill! They were going to fire on me!"
Hill snorted, and she raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure it was your own fault, Stark."
"I seriously did not do anything! I'm being victimized here!"
Despite her derision, Hill called it in anyway. To Hill's surprise and Tony's satisfaction, Fury said he would see him.
"What were you doing, Stark?" Fury said. "How in Hell's name did you get Skrull military chasing your tail?"
"I didn't do anything. Who do you think I am, Hammer?" Fury looked angry. "Don't answer that."
"Stark, my team's doing a sweep of your ship now."
That wasn‘t good. "What?! You can't do that! That's illegal!"
"According to you, you've been chased by Skrull military ships. Either you're carrying something that they want, or things in the sector are worse than I thought."
Fury wasn't telling Tony something, and that was important. But if they found out about Steve, they were screwed, and there would be no point in trying to find out what Fury was hiding.
"There's no need to go over my ship. I wasn't carrying anything, I'm a legitimate businessman. But I was attacked, unprovoked, in neutral territory, and I want some kind of compensation!"
Fury rounded on him. "Look, Stark, you're not going to get anything. You think we're going to risk a war over some slight against you? You're the first and only human ship to be attacked at this point. Let's leave it at that."
"You're just out to get me, I know it." Tony crossed his arms. "You probably hired them."
"Trust me, Stark," Fury said with a grim smile, "if I wanted to have you dead, you would be."
"I'm feeling threatened, now. Maybe I should bring charges up against you."
But Fury wouldn't budge. The guy was annoying as hell because of it.
Steve found Thor in the observation deck. The windows were shaded since they were docked. Steve sat down next to Thor. He hadn’t had much of a chance to talk alone with him.
“You stuck aboard, too?” he asked.
Thor looked contrite. "I do not think I would be welcome. SHIELD rarely accepts visitors. Tony, as a business partner, may travel freely, but I, as an alien to you, do not think it wise I wander the base."
"Well, I'm glad for the company."
"Should you need consolation, the other four of our compatriots do not usually leave the ship. Or so Miss Pepper informs me." Thor shook his head. “Bruce confided in me that this SHIELD makes him uncomfortable.”
Steve understood. Like the others, he didn't want to explore a place that didn't want him.
“Asgardians almost never left Asgard when I was awake. What brought you traveling?”
Thor perked up at the change of subject. “And it is true today. Nothing more than diplomats from time to time. But there is a universe out there that my people knows almost nothing about. With the expectation of a few diplomatic endeavors, we receive all our information from Heimdall, the only true adventurer among us. We claim to be knowledgeable and wise, but how much do we truly know?”
“A noble pursuit.”
Thor shook his head. “A pursuit born out of foolishness. I almost lost my head for my conceit that I, being Aesir, knew more than another. I was proven very wrong, humiliated in front of my kin and friends.” Thor looked at the blocked windows as if there was something to see. “But out here, I find I am learning. Yet the more I discover, the less I know. Do you understand, Steven?”
Steve did. With every new piece of information he received about the present, he discovered he had so more to learn, subtleties, causes, reasons, and nuances. It was a never ending game of catch up. In his time, Outer Centaurus had been genuinely new territory, unexplored by humans. But now, it was little more than a backwater outpost, where men went to trade their ill-gotten goods.
“We’ll get through together, then,” Steve said. Thor smiled, a simple and honest expression, lacking his usual exaggeration.
“Thank you, Steven. I am proud to call you friend.” Thor held out his hand, and Steve shook it. His heart warmed at the term.
“Looks like I have at least two.”
“Ah, all the people aboard this ship admire you, Captain. Even the Pepper woman. She has a spark that is softened when you are near.” Thor paused a moment, losing focus, before snapping out of it, his grin back. “Ah, but tell me about yourself. I know little of your exploits from your time. Tony mentioned you are a captain of your own ship?”
“Was,” Steve corrected. “I resigned my commission, along with nearly all my crew, to become explorers in our own right. The war was over, there was nothing left for us to do.”
The American Shield had been created for war, and when they had won, she had been, rightfully, decommissioned He missed it, though. The American Shield had been a fine ship. He’d known every vibration of that thing, grand and strong as she was.
The door opened, and Thor and Steve both turned, expecting one of their shipmates.
A man wearing a black SHIELD uniform, the shoulder epaulettes marking him as a higher administrator, if dress protocol hadn’t changed much in two hundred years, entered with a trio of agents.
“Gentlemen,” the man said, nodding to them. “I am Agent Phil Coulson. May I enquire as to who you are and why you are aboard Stark‘s ship?”
“I am Thor, a wanderer,” Thor said. “I travel with him at his behest.”
Steve didn’t return the nod. “Former Captain Steve Rogers,” he said.
Agent Coulson’s eyes grew wide, and his firm stance relaxed slightly. “Taking that name is a grave disrespect, sir.”
“It’s my name,” Steve said. He shared a confused glance with Thor. “You should know that. You were the ones who said I should stay on with Tony Stark after he woke me up.”
Confusion passed over Coulson’s face.
Steve glanced at Thor, who was no help. “My two hundred year stasis?” he prompted.
Coulson’s face grew hard. “Captain, if you could please follow me. I promise you that there has been a miscommunication between Mr. Stark and SHIELD, and we will get it straightened out shortly.”
They were outnumbered and outgunned, even if Steve was sure they wouldn’t use violence against him. But there was a hostility in the air that drove Steve to comply.
They first set him in a bare room. Although Coulson said it was just a chat, Steve knew an interrogation when he saw one.
He answered the questions as honestly as he could, within anything that wasn’t classified, and as the questioning continued, Coulson’s demeanor changed. At last, he looked at Steve in wonder, shaking his head and saying, “Either you are the most knowledgeable imposter ever, or you’re Captain Steve Rogers.”
Apologies were given. He met with the director of SHIELD, Col. Nick Fury, who sat Steve down and told him flat out Tony had lied.
“Had we known about you before, we would have greeted you with a full team of psychologists and doctors to help you with your transition,” Fury said. “We would also be able to more easily grant you legal recognition by the UEA. As it stands, you’ve been all over this sector, and there’s no reason anyone should believe you are the Captain Steve Rogers.” Fury considered him carefully with his eye. “Given what you know, however, and in verifying your story with the discovered pod as evidence and testimony by Bruce Banner, we do believe you are who you say you are and apologize for the mistreatment and disrespect you have received under Stark‘s care.”
As Fury laid out Tony’s deception, Steve felt his anger rise. But underneath that, he mostly felt hurt.
Nick Fury steepled his fingers and leaned forward a little. “As much as Stark held you against your will - and oh, how I would love to see you press criminal charges - he did get some things right. As far as the UEA is concerned, you’re long dead. Since you resigned as captain, you no longer have a place in the military. We could offer you something, of course, some temporary work at this station, or you can be sent home, and SHIELD’s main headquarters will get you settled into civilian life. It’s your choice. A ship to Earth will be departing in few weeks time.”
Steve clenched his fists in his lap. He heard what Fury was saying, and he understood what he was saying, but he couldn’t concentrate on the offer. He excused himself, saying he would need to think it over.
Tony wandered the corridors of his ship, calculating the earliest he could leave SHIELD. He had spent the last hour fending off blood thirsty agents from his lab. As he passed Bruce in the hall, he barely registered a warning glance before Steve stormed up to him and pushed Tony against a wall.
"Tony, how could you?" Steve said. He got in Tony's face, looming above him. "SHIELD doesn't want me, huh? I've been abandoned to your good graces, huh? I know this might not be my time, but I'm pretty sure kidnapping still exists."
"Steve," Tony said, and fuck Fury for letting the cat out of the bag and the Skrulls for forcing him back here, "it wasn't kidnapping! I was saving you! You think that Fury would have done anything other than put you immediately in a lab?"
"I have nothing, Tony. Nothing. And SHIELD can actually give me some sense of purpose in life." Steve pushed him harder, and it was starting to hurt.
"So salvaging isn't fulfilling enough for you? I think you're hurting my crew's feelings with that."
"But you don't care of course. You just want to one up Fury."
"Yeah, Fury's a dick. Got a problem with that?” Tony challenged him with a glare. “You stay here, and you'll find that out for yourself."
"You're unbelievable, trying to pin this on others."
"Uh, I'm not the one who just survived an impossible to believe two hundred year sleep." Steve smashed his hand into the wall, next to Tony‘s head. "God, Steve, believe me, I..."
"How can I believe anything that comes out of your mouth?"
"Maybe because I have a better understanding of what goes on in this day and age-”
“For once in your life, think of someone other than yourself for a change,” Steve said with a growl.
That did it. Tony shoved Steve off him. “And you can judge my life after a handful of weeks? So sorry, I didn’t know you were a telepath.“ He bowed mockingly.
“You stop taking my choices away from me,“ Steve said. He left before Tony could come back at him with another insult.
Tony smacked his own hand into the wall. To hell with Steve Rogers.
"Tony? What's going on?" Rhodey asked when Tony strode onto the bridge..
"We're leaving," Tony said. He let himself fall heavily into the chair, slouching. "Set a course for the other end of the sector. Better yet, get us to a different quadrant."
Pepper placed her hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged her off. "Is Steve coming back?" she said.
"No, he's Fury's problem now."
He saw the glance between Rhodey and Pepper, but they didn’t say anything more.
As they prepared to leave, they received a call.
"You're not authorized to leave yet, Stark," Hill's voice said over the speakers.
"See if I care," Tony replied. He paced the length of the bridge. "Come on, Rhodey, let's go."
Already in the pilot‘s seat, Rhodey said, "But if we're not cleared-"
Tony came up next to him. "I'm the captain of this ship, Rhodey."
"Yeah, and I'm your friend, not your lackey."
Tony put a hand to his head to calm himself down. He took a few deep breaths. "You are. But we have to get out of here. Now."
"If you leave that docking bay, I will shoot you down, Stark." That was Fury's voice.
"You wouldn't dare."
"Tony, I think-"
"Rhodey, we are leaving now."
Tony shut off the comm system. He watched through the main screen as the ship eased out of the bay. The huge doors began to shut, but Tony told Rhodey to put more speed into the old girl.
They just managed to clear it. But a minute out from the station, Rhodey said, "They've locked onto us, Tony. Their weapons are prepped."
Then a shot came and grazed the starboard side.
Tony turned on the communications channel. "Are you crazy, Fury? We're citizens of the UEA! You can't do this to us!"
"The next shot won't miss, Stark. Turn around."
Tony looked from Rhodey and Pepper, at their stations and awaiting orders, to Bruce and Thor, who stood to the side, matching expressions of worry on their face. As much as he wanted to call Fury on his bluff, he couldn't do it at the risk of these guys. He ordered Rhodey to cut acceleration, and they allowed small fighter jets to escort them back into the base.
The esteemed Agent Coulson met them in the bay himself. Tony came out with his hands raised behind his okay. “Okay,” Tony said, “you got me. Throw the book at me or whatever serves as justice around here.”
Coulson, as expected, didn’t quirk even an eyebrow. “We do apologize for the inconvenience, Mr. Stark, but we couldn’t allow you to leave just yet. You were missing part of your crew.”
Tony sucked in a breath, wary. Steve changing his mind would be welcome, but it was unlikely that SHIELD would threaten to attack a civilian ship for him, no matter how much Fury hated Tony.
Agent Coulson led him out of the bay. He nodded to the two people who were waiting there, both dressed in standard SHIELD uniforms. "These are Agents Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff. They will be joining you on the Iron Bird-"
"I am not taking on SHIELD spies."
"For your protection," Coulson finished. "Should you receive any more hostility from the Skrull empire or others, Agents Barton and Romanoff will be able to handle the situation much more effectively."
Tony would have to let JARVIS know to seal off the Iron Bird's weapons data.
He gave the two agents a once-over. The man looked like he could more or less handle himself in a fight, and the woman, from the look she was giving him, seemed like an angry Pepper who had also been trained in a thousand ways to kill a person - and she was doing so every single way in her mind to Tony. She was hot, though. They both were.
But hotness alone wouldn't make Tony trust them to make him cereal. They'd probably drug it, a special assassination just for Fury.
"Look, I can't have dead weight hanging around my ship," Tony said. "I'm already stretching resources as it is to feed just one guy. They come on board, they're working."
Barton looked at his companion. "Well, salvaging always did seem like a glamorous lifestyle," he said.
Tony shook his head. "It's fascinating, trust me. And I'm sure you'll get a glance at it from your position cleaning toilets."
"And I thought you were a captain, not head janitor," Romanoff said.
Oh, that did it. They were not setting a foot near his baby.
Coulson, completely ignoring how out of line his agents were, said, "We already have a team going over your ship to make sure it is travel ready. You'll be cleared to leave in a few hours, and the damage to your ship will be repaired, free of charge."
Tony's face turned white, and he ran back into the bay. Sure enough, he could see agents all over the Iron Bird. Tony would not stand for this. As he boarded his ship, he could hear Pepper protesting loudly just ahead. That was his girl.
Tony watched miserably from the observation hall in the SHIELD station. Agents were coming in and out of the Iron Bird. Fury had not cracked under threats of legal action; some of Tony's shady business deals had been brought up, and he was forced to watch as they got their filthy bureaucratic hands all over his ship.
That was the problem with SHIELD being the only UEA agency around. Tony missed the more gullible divisions of the UEA sometimes.
Since he was preoccupied with these thoughts, Steve managed to catch Tony off guard. When a hand touched his shoulder, he leapt away, his heart beating fast.
"Christ, Rogers," Tony said, hand on his chest, "you should wear a bell or something."
Steve managed to look a little sheepish. "I didn't mean to-"
Tony waved his hand in the air. "So? You come here to make my life even worse? Actually, a few days in court would almost be a breath of fresh air, a vacation, from all of this." He looked down at his ship, still being molested by agents. "Much better than this."
"Look, I-" Steve bit his lip, and Tony was not in the mood to deal with his wishy-washiness.
"Spit it out. I'm leaving the second I can."
"I'm sorry. I mean. Fury was out of line." Steve said, "He shouldn't have fired on you. That's all I'm saying. Not that either of you are better than the other."
"Well, thanks, Steve, glad to know I'm not the only one to receive your ire."
Steve shook his head. "No, look, I want to go to with you. I need to figure things out, what I want to do, and I..." He broke off, looking out the window. "I'd rather do that with you- with the whole crew of the Iron Bird, I mean."
For a moment, Tony though about turning Steve down. "Won't me saying yes just be trying to one up Fury?"
Steve sighed. "I'd appreciate it at the moment, to be honest."
He should have refused Steve just to spite him. But Tony was a genuinely good guy, and he wasn't going to leave Steve to the claws of SHIELD.
He held a little mock ceremony on the ship, welcoming back Steve and lamenting the fact that they had two vipers in the nest now. He warned his crew not to go off chatting with them, but Bruce was already deep in conversation with Clint, and Natasha and Rhodey were comparing scars, to Tony's complete bafflement. The universe had at last turned against him. He went to hide away in his lab and tinker miserably.
Despite Tony’s best efforts to keep the SHIELD agents away from everything (he locked them in their rooms once, computer terminals shut down, but they still managed to break out, and yes, that was especially childish of him), Clint and Natasha wormed their way into part of the regular routine of the Iron Bird. Pepper and Natasha practically gossiped together, and Clint would appear out of nowhere to intrude on one of Tony’s very private conversations. And when it came to SHIELD, every one of Tony’s conversations was extremely private. Even JARVIS, damn him, betrayed Tony’s trust by revealing himself on the second day. Tony walked onto the bridge to see Natasha calmly giving JARVIS an order, and he complied. He didn’t even sass her about it.
Tony might as well have hung up his coat and gone back to Mars.
The recent changes weren’t all bad, Tony was forced to admit. Bruce hadn’t run off to the depths of space yet, and since he and Thor seemed to be a package deal, the big guy was still around.
But then there was Steve, who talked to everyone, even Happy, who rarely left the engine room, more than he talked to Tony. He was probably still bitter about Tony’s lie, but the guy really needed to get over that. Grudges weren’t becoming.
Tony hid in his lab more and more. In one way, it was good. He managed to completely disassemble the scanner he’d been studying and put it back together again. There was a little green light that flashed when he turned it on, but he still didn’t know what it scanned for.
“Sir, you might want to head to the bridge,” JARVIS said.
Tony ignored him and began to take apart the scanner again.
“Sir, I do apologize, but I think you’ll be needed on the bridge in a moment.”
“JARVIS, if you weren’t normally useful, I’d turn you offline and have you dismantled. Talking to those SHIELD idiots... I thought I could trust you of all people.” And Tony had initially programmed JARVIS, too! He thought artificial intelligences were supposed to be intelligent.
“Ah, but I am not a person, sir.”
Tony snorted and tossed the scanner on the table.
“Shall I assume you will head to the bridge?”
“Yes, fine, whatever, just get out of my hair.”
“Very good, sir.”
When Tony arrived on the bridge, no one paid him any mind. Natasha and Pepper were at consoles next to each other, and Rhodey was in the pilot’s seat as usual. The ship was running smoothly without him, which meant less work, but that was a problem, too. It didn’t need him, even when Tony was the ship and the business. He took his position in the captain’s chair and swiveled around to glare at any one who might glance his way. No one did.
He pulled his console toward him - wheels and tracks, simple yet effective - and began paging through the various readings and stat reports. He paused, looking at the short range scanner. There was something on there.
"What's that on the scanners?" Tony said.
Rhodey glanced at Tony. “Which?”
“Here.” With a few taps on his console, Tony put up the reading on the main screen.
Rhodey whistled. "Whatever it is, it's huge. And it's coming right for us."
Tony did not like the sound of that. But the ship was moving far too fast, and while the Iron Bird was quick, it wasn't that quick. "How did they get on us without us noticing?"
"Enhanced stealth technique?" Pepper suggested.
"Or a more precise hyper drive,” Natasha said.
Tony bit his lip. It paid to be paranoid out here, and it looked like his two options would be to fight or run. "JARVIS, I want all non-essential personnel on deck.”
"That leaves only Happy in the engine room, sir.“
“Let him know to keep those babies warm. Might have to run for it.“
“Right away, sir."
They didn’t have to wait long before the ship was almost on top of them. Thor, Bruce, Steve, and Clint arrived on the bridge. Tony pointed at Clint and Natasha. “Who’s the better shot?”
Natasha pointed to Clint.
“Get on weapons.”
Steve said with surprise, “You have ship weapons?”
“Everyone does, Steve, get with the times.”
Clint didn’t move.
“Hey,” Tony said. He snapped his fingers. “We don’t have much time.”
Clint looked to Steve, who nodded. Clint slipped in behind the main weapons console.
Jesus Fucking Chitauri, it really wasn’t his ship anymore, was it? Damn SHIELD. Damn Steve Rogers.
"Tony, they're in visual range," Rhodey said.
"Bring it up." At least someone still answered to him.
On the screen, the ship appeared. It was huge, larger than anything Tony had seen in the Outer Centaurus. It was sleek, though, long instead of fat, and it shimmered, multi colored. "Definitely cloaking," Tony muttered under his breath. “Okay, any clues on what-”
Thor stepped forward, until he was a few feet from the viewing screen. Tony saw him clench his fists. He turned to Tony, and his face was solemn. “That is the Bifrost,” he said. “The most glorious envoy transport ship of Asgard.” He turned back to the screen and reached out a hand reverently.
The Bifrost hailed them. "If this gets us shot at, I'm retiring from this sector," Tony said. “Pepper, open a channel-” Thor quickly backed away from the screen, his back to it, “-audio only.” The comms system had a hiss of static as it came on and then fell silent. "This is the Iron Bird, what do you of all people want? I don't do autographs for free."
"Greetings, Iron Bird. The Bifrost extends its salutations and asks if you would deign a visit aboard the Bifrost. Our prince would be most honored to have you as his guests."
The others looked at Tony in shock. He had forgotten they hadn’t known the princes of Asgard were traveling. It was a concern, however, that they were even in the area still. Their visit to the Outer Centaurus SHIELD station had been a couple weeks before. And that didn’t answer why they were so interested in the Iron Bird.
“No can do, Bifrost, not unless I know what His Highness wants. Is this business or...?” He trailed off to allow the Bifrost to show its hand first.
“Our prince finds it of the utmost importance that he speak with directly.”
Natasha approached Tony. “You will agree, Stark,” she murmured in his ear. Her hand came to rest lightly against his side, which should not have been as threatening as it was.
Tony coughed once. “If I may have a moment to discuss with my crew?”
The channel fell silent.
"Thor, are we going to die if we board?"
Thor, looking uncomfortable, said, "It would be a high insult to decline such an offer, but I would prefer to remain... unknown to them."
Perfect. They had an Asgardian convict with them.
The pressure from Natasha’s hand increased very slightly.
Tony turned the comms back on and said, “I, as this ship’s captain, do accept the prince’s request, and I will board with a few of my compatriots.”
“When your party has prepared, we shall beam you aboard.”
The channel closed. Natasha stepped back, to Tony’s relief. He crossed his arms. “Okay, you got what you wanted,” he said to her. “That means you’re coming with me.”
She smiled, but it wasn’t kind. “You can’t stop me,” she said.
With Tony and Natasha going, that made two. Per Thor’s advice, a group of more than four might be seen as a threat, but just the two would make them look weak. Tony shook his head, glad that, as messed up as the UEA might have been, it had nothing on Asgardian protocol.
Immediately, Steve stepped forward. “If I may?” he said, eyes on Tony. “I have a little experience with Asgardians. I served on a ship that hosted Heimdall.”
Thor was awed. “You’ve met Heimdall? I would like to hear that story one day.”
At Thor’s words, Steve looked a little sheepish, but he didn’t take his eyes off Tony. The funny thing was, those few sentences were more than Steve had spoken to him since they'd left SHIELD.
The Asgardians were old, longer-lived than any other alien race. Maybe Steve would offer Tony’s crew some kind of esteem, being a couple centuries himself. So Tony shrugged and said, "Suit yourself."
That left one spot open, and Tony immediately elected Pepper. But Thor appeared uneasy with the choice. He shifted and hummed. "Perhaps-" he began, but Tony held up his hand.
"This is my ship, I was invited on board, I get to bring who I want to. I'm bringing Pepper."
Thor, thankfully, accepted that as the end of the discussion, even if he didn't look happy about it.
Set to go, the four stood in the middle of the bridge, while the others pressed against the edge, as far away as possible. The hum of the teleporter and the warmth Steve felt surrounding him were familiar. The world around him shifted, as if a vid was damaged, splitting the world in two. But it was only for a second, and the world stabilized into the Bifrost's transit portal.
A man met them, and his dress was much the same as Steve recalled the time he had seen Heimdall's small entourage. The uniform was more like an embroidered robe over a pant suit, appearing more ceremonial than practical. The man carried a large staff in one hand, and he bade the four of them to follow him.
The hallways of the Bifrost were wide, and everything was glistening gold. Neither decadent nor opulent seemed sufficient to describe it. As they swept down the halls, men dressed like their guide stepped to the side, postures stiff and at attention. Steve had never seen a military force as disciplined as this.
They were led into a small chamber and told to wait. The room was even gaudier than the halls, with embroidered cushions on couches and a long table filled with food. It all looked fresh, too, with steam rising from the meat and buns. A second pair of doors stood at the other end.
"Well, this is all very nice," Pepper said, testing the firmness of a cushion with her hand. She didn't sound sincere.
"So, Steve, everything you remembered?" Tony asked. "Are we allowed to make ourselves at home?"
"Er..." Steve tried to find the right words. "When I say I met Heimdall, I was in the same room as him. He met with the captain of the ship I was serving on as an ensign."
Tony rose an eyebrow, but didn't comment. Natasha, however, smirked approvingly.
They stood around, neither touching the seating nor the food, until the second set of doors opened, and another guard beckoned them forward.
This chamber was much like the other one, except bigger, with guards lining the perimeter.
Two men sat at the long table. One, the larger of the two, his back to them, stayed where he was, but the other rose at their entrance.
He was a tall, slender man, with sharp features. It was strange he was dressed much more simply than the guards, in a plain suit of black, but as he approached, Steve noticed the patterns embroidered in green.
"Welcome," the man said, holding his arms out in greeting. "I am most glad you accepted my offer."
"And we thank you must humbly for asking us," Pepper said with a small bow. Steve and Natasha followed her lead, although Natasha's movement was more a jerk than a bow. Steve heard a little "ow" from Tony when Pepper elbowed him.
"My apologies for my brother," the Asgardian said with a gesture behind him. The other one was engrossed in eating. "Thor is not one for speech, but rather battle. Come, let us move to a more comfortable setting."
If the other one was Thor, then this man had to be Loki. Steve had heard few rumors about the two princes of Asgard. People said they were opposites of one another, but he knew little more than that.
Loki led them to an atrium, where a giant tree stood in the center, its branches covering almost the entire length of the room. Steve felt much less confined here than the rest of the radiant ship.
"On-ship garden," Tony said with a low whistle. "Nice."
Loki heard him. He smiled at Tony and said, "Oh, this is more than a garden." He gestured up to the tree. "This represents the Great Tree Yggdrasil, from which all worlds stem."
"Yes," Pepper said, "your people believe that there are nine major realms that are all connected by the branches, am I correct?"
Loki considered her like she was some sort of curiosity. "There is no need for belief," he said, "when one has truth."
He urged them to take a seat; benches were scattered around the place. Pepper took the opportunity to introduce them all. Loki nodded at Natasha at the mention of SHIELD, but gave no sign of recognition to either Pepper or Tony. However, when she introduced Steve, mentioning the war, of course, Loki fixed him with an appraising stare.
"I am sorry if my question offends, but I did not think Midgardians-" he glanced at the other three, "excuse me, humans you call yourselves? I did not think you capable of living so long."
"It's a long story," Steve said.
"Ah, but to have fought the Chitauri at your world's most dire hour... What a story indeed."
Steve grew uncomfortable under Loki's gaze. He glanced at Tony, who had, up to this point, not said a word. But now, he coughed, loud and obnoxious, and said, "It's actually a lot less interesting than it sounds. A bit like watching a plant grow."
"Have you..." Loki paused, as if searching for Tony's name, but Steve felt that Loki was making a show of it rather than honestly forgetting, "Stark, is it, have you ever taken the opportunity to watch something grow? Truly remarkable."
"Uh, no, because I actually have this thing called a life. Some people work for a living."
The silence was tense, and while Loki's smile didn't falter, it grew cold. Steve suppressed a shiver.
"Let us not tarry too long on formalities," Loki said, voice all smooth. "I am aware that your Fury of SHIELD has been receiving very important guests, and he has been making certain inquiries."
Natasha, sitting on Steve's other side, tensed. The action was subtle, but enough for Steve to notice.
"Not all of us are SHIELD, so you might have to explain," Tony cut in. Pepper rested a hand on his arm, but he didn't say anymore.
"I am aware human ships have so far been spared," Loki said, "but have you not heard of other ships being attacked? They are destroyed with no survivors, and none have been able to discern the culprit."
"Yet Fury knows?" Pepper asked. "Or at least suspects?"
"I imagine he is as in the dark as you are. The other races are blaming each other, but I do believe they will lay blame on those who have not yet been attacked." He looked at them meaningfully. "Humans are rather... rambunctious, in the eye of many."
But humans were being attacked. The Skrull military ships had likely thought they were part of some human conspiracy. Steve did not volunteer this information.
Loki withdrew a data chip from his pocket. "I have some of the intelligence Fury requested. The rest, I hold until I have judged its validity and worth."
Natasha held out her hand. "SHIELD thanks you for Asgard's cooperation in this matter."
Loki handed over the chip, but as he did, he said, "Yet how I am to know you humans are not behind the attacks? I may have just sold you the fate of my people." He looked down at the data chip until Natasha swiftly tucked it away.
"Hold up," Tony said, and he ignored an admonishment from Pepper. "Is that it? Why are you contacting us? We're not SHIELD affiliated, how did you know we had agents on board?"
Loki looked at him in surprise. "You are broadcasting the signal Fury gave me."
Steve could see Tony work this through his mind and the exact moment he became angry.
Natasha stood. "We best be off. Again, SHIELD thanks you for your cooperation."
A guard appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to lead them back to the transit portal.
Loki stood with them. "Before you depart," he said, "a few last words. First, I would warn your SHIELD that not all are as supportive of your cause as am I. The other races speak among themselves, and suspicion against your motives grow everyday."
"Thank you for the warning," Natasha said with a curt nod.
"And Steve Rogers." Loki turned to him. "If we should ever meet again, I would most like to hear of your encounters with the Chitauri." He smiled, but it wasn't an honest smile. Still, Steve nodded.
The second they were back on the Iron Bird (and hell, Tony did not like transporters), he had JARVIS do a sweep for the offending signal. It was coming from the engine room, and Tony ordered Happy to retrieve it and bring it to the bridge.
The signal was coming from a small black box that appeared to have nothing more than a blinking light at the top.
The screen was choppy at best, with too much radiation in the space between them. Fury's face split and disappeared erratically. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Tony said. He lifted up the little black box, making sure Fury could see it through the distortion. "What are you up to?"
"You want to do something for me?” Fury replied. “Do this. Keep the signal broadcasting, and contact me immediately if anyone brings it up."
"Like the Asgardians?"
"I'm not sorry to inform you, I'm not your dog. You can throw your spies on my ship, plant completely invasive and illegal devices, but this is my ship and my crew, and I make the decisions about them. Not you. We're not SHIELD." Tony stood as tall as could in front of the captain’s chair. He thought he cut a rather striking figure.
But Fury smirked. "I'm drafting you. As of right now, every member of your crew is a member of SHIELD and under my jurisdiction. You will take orders from Agents Barton and Romanoff. Am I understood?"
Tony looked down to Rhodey and Pepper. "Can he do this? I don't think he can do this."
"He can do this," Rhodey said.
"Well, I don't want it."
"Any refusal to follow orders will result in a court marshal, Agent Stark," Fury said.
"Not if you can't catch us first."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Natasha said behind him.
Rhodey and Pepper's eyes were wide. They glanced at each other, and Tony sighed. "She's holding a gun to my head isn't she."
"Uh, yes, she is," Happy said.
And that was just peachy.
He agreed to Fury's terms and ended the transmission. At least they couldn't hold him to it legally.
He hauled Clint and Natasha into his lab. "We were bait," Tony said. Clint and Natasha did not flinch underneath his glare. "I am a civilian, I have civilians in my crew, what was Fury thinking?"
Clint and Natasha exchanged a glance. Somehow, they were able to communicate between each other like that. Tony had been watching them. What were they, telepaths? Clint said, "You're not bait, Tony. It's gathering information."
"You don't want to deal with this, put on one of your suits, and get out of here," Natasha said.
"We are, too," Tony said. "If any one of Fury's supposed allies decides SHIELD is double crossing them, it'll be us they fry first. None of this has anything to do with my ship or my crew. We are not involved."
"You became involved the second those Skrull ships attacked you.” Natasha took a step toward Tony, her eyes narrowed. “You don't think SHIELD doesn't talk to other governments? You think that black box is just for show?"
Tony glared at the two of them. "The second I can, I'm getting rid of you two."
Neither one was impressed with his threat.
It was only when JARVIS politely reminded him that it had been two days since his last proper meal that Tony finally left his lab. It was the middle of the night, and he stumbled through partially lit halls. When he reached the dining room, it took him a minute to register that the lights were already on.
Steve was at a table, a small bowl of porridge in front of him. But instead of eating, he stared off into the distance.
Tony chose to ignore Steve and prepare whatever he could with jerky and powdered vegetables. They'd have to stop at a station soon to get some fresh food. He noted to himself to get Pepper on that.
When he came back into the hall, a plate of food in hand, he found Steve watching him. Tony decided why the hell not and sat down across from Steve. He licked the jerky and stuck it into the vegetable powder before taking a bite. Steve made a disgusted face across from him, and Tony grinned, showing off his half-chewed food.
"Thor thought you might have died in your lab," Steve said. He still wasn't touching his porridge. "He was close to breaking the door in, until Bruce and Rhodey explained you always do that."
Tony shrugged. "Busy," he said. He ate some more of his jerky, while Steve continued to just stare.
After a while, Tony said, "I've managed to decode some of the data I got from your station." That perked Steve up. "It was HYDRA. They were attacking. Somehow, they'd gotten a virus onto the space station. Meant to shut down the whole thing, life support, the works."
He concentrated on his food as he spoke. Then he wouldn't have to see Steve's reaction. "Emergency stasis call went out, station went under. That's it." He took another bite of jerky. "Last thing the station logged was the manual override of one of the airlocks. Sensors only detected some organic material and debris going out, nothing coming in. Physical damage of the station probably came from target practice for ships throughout the years. Lucky for me, that took out the majority of the station's defenses." He glanced up, but Steve's face was turned down. "Last access was when the station went under, as far as I can tell, so HYDRA probably didn't get what they wanted."
Steve looked up at last, but his face was guarded. "Did you find the code for the manual override of the airlock?"
Tony thought about it for a moment, chewing slowly. "P something. P-274-"
"-09," Steve finished. "The commanding officer of the station."
It was Tony's turn to stare at Steve. "Wait. You don't think he was in that airlock, do you?"
Steve's silence was answer enough.
"The hell would he do that for?"
Steve shook his head. "Philips had a thing for honor. He must have had a good reason, but... I don't know what it could be."
Tony whistled low. Flushing oneself into space was not a pleasant way to go. This Philips guy would have suffered.
He continued eating. There wasn't anything more to say. At last, Steve said, "Thanks, Tony. I mean it."
Tony shrugged a shoulder and continued eating. When he had finished, he saw Steve still hadn't touched his porridge. He pointed to it and said, "You going to eat that? I mean, cause you of all people can't afford to waste food, you eat almost as much as Thor."
Steve stared at him without responding. He was doing way too much of that tonight, and it was making Tony uncomfortable.
"You going to say anything, or am I talking to myself? That's what I have JARVIS for, after all."
"Why did you do it?” Steve said. “Lie to me?”
That wasn't what Tony was expecting. He looked down at his empty plate, only some scattered crumbs left. "Didn’t have one.”
"I don‘t believe that."
Tony ran his finger along the plate, picking up the crumbs, and popped the finger in his mouth. He did it again to buy time to sort out his answer. “What do you want to hear? You were right. It was petty revenge against Fury. You’re also interesting in that you come from a time when technological advancement was still encouraged, and maybe...” Tony struggled with his words. It was true; he didn’t have a good reason other than rage.
Steve was still staring. So Tony lifted his head and met Steve's gaze.
They held it for a long time, neither looking away. Tony felt a little flutter in his stomach, and it could have been the jerky acting up. He rather hoped it was. Tony was the first one to speak. "So are you just going to keep looking at me all night, or...?"
Steve's cheeks reddened, although he didn't seem flustered. He looked down at his porridge and mumbled, "Sorry. Should probably get to bed." He stood, taking both his bowl and Tony's plate, and began washing them in the kitchen.
Tony waited for Steve to finish. But as the minutes passed, he realized it was an avoidance technique. Tony could wait for Steve all night and day, and he still wouldn't have finished the dishes.
And here he thought they were becoming friends again.
He slipped out without a word.
Partially to reassert his power, Tony took on a salvage commission. They spent three days digging through an asteroid belt. A collision had torn a ship apart, and it had spread everywhere. But the client wanted as much of the ship as they could get, so Tony sucked it up. They used the shuttles and fighters to maneuver through the belt, the Iron Bird being a little too big. With the help of Steve, Clint, and Natasha, however, the process went much quicker than it would have on his own.
The important element was the job paid extremely well. This called for celebration.
As usual, Tony chose a seedy location of ill repute, partly in hopes of scoping any other salvaging jobs.
In the bar, Tony ordered a round for them. The bartender, a tall Kree man, came over with their drinks, and when he saw Thor, he asked, "You an Asgardian?"
"Proudly!" Thor thumped his chest. Natasha whispered something in his ear, and he laughed.
"Drinks are free then," the bartender said.
Tony whistled. “What did you do to get so popular around here?"
"That is most kind," Thor said to the Kree.
"Don't thank me. You haven't heard have you?"
That caught their attention. "What's happened?" Steve asked.
"Bifrost got hit. Both princes dead, they say."
Thor's face grew white. He stood abruptly. "Tell me what you know. How did you hear of this?"
The bartender shrugged. "It's all over the vid news. Some trade ships found the debris, someone was able to tag it as Asgardian. I hear the news is being shown outside of the sector, even, and Asgard hasn't denied it yet."
Thor sat slowly. He stared at the table in front of him. Steve placed his hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry for your people’s loss,” the bartender said. “It is not a fate I would wish upon any people.”
"Yeah, and you have nerve to say that!" a Skrull yelled from across the room. "Since you were the ones that did it!"
The Kree bartender turned sharply. "How dare you! It was a Skrull armada! We do not attack unprovoked!"
"Lies! You're just covering up your dirty Kree ass!"
The insults grew, and other patrons joined in. Soon, chairs and tables were being flung back and forth. Steve managed to usher them all out through the chaos. Thor moved with none of his vigor or enthusiasm, and it took three of them, Steve, Tony, and Bruce, to get Thor out of there.
Thor locked himself in his room when they boarded the ship. Bruce said he'd check on him, and the others took up their stations. After Tony told JARVIS to give the signal to take off, he and Steve were left standing in the middle of a corridor alone.
"That's the problem when you run such a tip-top ship like this," Tony said. "Captains get all the free time in the world."
Captains were almost among the busiest. They never got time off or different shifts. How many times had Steve been dragged from food or bed to the bridge? But it was true that Tony's crew worked so hard that Tony could relax.
"Maybe I should go find something to help out with," Steve said. But he didn't attempt to leave.
He watched Tony lean against the wall of the corridor. He looked tired, which was unusual for Tony. To Steve, he always seemed to be trying too hard to appear unattached from the universe, as if it wasn't even worth his notice. But now, he looked worn out. Steve leaned on the wall opposite.
"I hear Asgardians can live millennia," Tony said. "I doubt there's much call for funeral parlors."
"I think they respect death in battle the most."
Tony snorted. "Not with the way they've isolated themselves." He closed his eyes. "I didn't even really like the guy, there was something weird about him. And don't even get me started on his brother - he was probably even worse. But," and Tony sighed, "I feel for Thor. I do. It's a pretty big blow to his society."
Steve let his mind wander to the friends he hadn't been able to say goodbye to.
"Tony, I don't think I ever thanked you properly. For saving me."
"Got me in more trouble than it was worth," Tony said without opening his eyes.
That hurt, more so because it was true. Had Tony not saved him, he wouldn't have clashed so badly with Fury, and he might not have SHIELD agents at his back.
"Guess you should have left me to die, then," Steve said. "Would have been better for us all."
"What?" Tony's head snapped up. "I didn't... What are you talking about?"
Steve shook his head, looking away. It wasn't worth another fight. Steve was as tired as Tony looked, and there wasn't any point in making it worse.
But Tony wouldn't let it drop. "That's unfair, saying what I should or shouldn't have done," he said. "What, you didn't want to be Sleeping Beauty until death, did you?"
Steve was becoming irritated with Tony. He tried to calm himself down. "If it was more trouble than it was worth-"
"Excuse me, friends," and there was Thor, with Bruce trailing behind him. "I have..." He broke off and ran a hand over his hair. It was growing out, and the action made parts of it stick up. "I have a request to make of you. I wish to contact Col. Fury."
Fury was Tony's weak point. He frowned and said, "Fury's been trying to use us this whole time. And you want to go back there?" He shook his head. "No. We are done with him."
"I would not ask this of you were it not of utmost importance." Thor looked between the two before settling on Tony. "Please. I beg of you, Tony Stark. As my friend, call Col. Fury."
Bruce peaked around Thor. "Tony," he said, "you should do as he asks. Thor's a friend, you owe him that much."
Steve almost expected Tony to say no. But finally, he agreed, and Thor granted him a tight smile.
Fury's face appeared on the screen. "What is it now, Stark? You're supposed to be in another quadrant by now. Running away, wasn't it?"
"Would have been, but one of my crew insisted we come back," Tony said.
"That is not-"
Thor stepped forward and interrupted Fury. "I apologize, but news of the Bifrost's demise has forced me to come forth. The destruction of the Bifrost took only one prince of Asgard." Thor's voice cracked. He closed his eyes for a brief second, unlikely noticeable to Fury's distorted reception of them. "I am Thor, prince of Asgard."
Fury's response was slow. "I met Thor, and he was not you."
"A Skrull in my place, a lark on the part of myself and my brother."
Tony stared at Thor. How in all hell had there been an Asgardian Prince on his ship? Thor acted like an oversized child more than royalty. He thought back to the Thor on the Bifrost. True, he had only caught his back, but he supposed, if Tony squinted just right, he could see a similarity.
Fury demanded a private conference with Thor. Tony allowed them to use his lab, the most private area on the ship. He did order JARVIS to dim the lights, first, so that Fury could see little of his work.
While they waited on Thor and Fury, the others shared their shock. Bruce was the only one not surprised by the revelation, but he, too, had only heard it an hour before.
Thor returned to the bridge after another solid hour of talking with Fury. Everyone wanted to ask Thor questions, but they refrained. They let Thor look at them with weary eyes and say, "My friends, I apologize for my deception. We are to travel back to SHIELD so that I may meet with Fury in person. I shall use this time to reflect on what path I must now take, even if it takes me from you." He looked down at his feet, and there was no way Thor was royalty, or even a thousand years old. He was like a little kid who just found out what death meant.
Tony found himself wandering by Thor's room that evening. He had been running speeches through his mind all afternoon, until clichéd phrases of consolation were dripping from his ears.
He was about to knock when he heard people talking inside. Quietly, he pressed his ear to the door. The words were unintelligible, but the voices and tone were unmistakable. Steve and Bruce were already in there, doing a much better job than Tony could have. He stood outside the door a moment longer before returning to his lab.
Coulson greeted them in the docking bay. He bowed to Thor. Tony was impressed. Thor didn't look any different, but since that last moment on the bridge, since he had proclaimed himself heir to the throne of Asgard, he began to carry himself taller, his speech was more measured, and his whole demeanor made him a little less approachable. He still looked like their Thor, who Tony knew to be boisterous and excitable, and, along with a certain former captain, was rapidly depleting their food supplies every chance he got. But now he was a prince. That was a big deal.
As they followed the SHIELD agents, Coulson fell in step with Tony. "Not only a national icon, but a prince in your crew, Mr. Stark. It makes me wonder just what you're up to."
"I'm not up to anything," Tony snapped. "How was I supposed to know, the man looks like a bear." He gestured to Thor's back. Thor stood easily above everyone, and his worn traveling clothes gave him a shaggy appearance that supported Tony's comparison.
Coulson just hummed. Tony didn't like how he hummed. It was malicious humming. Agents of SHIELD were probably trained in malicious noncommittal noises.
They gathered in a conference room. When Fury entered, he greeted them all cordially and then began updating them on the situation.
SHIELD had been monitoring transmissions passing to and from the Bifrost when the attack happened. Because of the surveillance, they managed to catch another set of incoming and outgoing transmissions from another ship in the area. When the transmission signal disappeared after the destruction of the Bifrost - there had been nothing they could do to prevent that - they had assumed that this was the strike ship. They traced the source of the incoming transmissions to an area of space well outside the normal traffic zones.
Fury nodded to Coulson. He stepped forward to address them. "We intercepted a coded message coming from that region in space," he said. “While we’ve been unable to decipher it as of yet, it still remains very telling.”
Fury ordered him to play it. Static filled the room, and it meant little to Steve. But then he noticed the subtle beeps and clicks. And underneath that all, he could just make out a familiar sound.
It was Chitauri chatter.
"Col. Fury," Steve said, but Fury held up his hand, and Steve continued to listen.
He had never gotten the hang of the Chitauri language. Bucky had been their language man. He'd have been able to tell what was going on in minutes.
Steve glanced at the others. They were all focused on the noise, but few seemed to understand the gravity of this. Tony looked almost bored, if it weren't for the way he cocked his head even while examining his nails.
Thor's and Fury's faces were solemn. Thor clenched his fists repeatedly.
And then, just when the chatter began to die down, they heard a cry. To Steve, it sounded human. He held his breath. He had heard cries like that before. High and full of pain, it was the cry of the tortured. It was abruptly cut off with more Chitauri chatter.
No one in the room said a word. Steve glanced between them until his eyes landed on Thor. Thor stared into the distance, his face slack.
"Loki's alive," Thor said in wonder. He turned to Steve. "My brother is alive." He threw himself on Steve, lifting him up from his chair and spinning him around.
"Calm down, bug guy," Tony said, and Thor, thankfully, put Steve down. He caught himself on the back of Tony’s chair to steady himself.
“All is not lost, my friends,” Thor said. “My brother still lives. We must free him from his bondage at once!”
“I agree,” Steve said. “But we don’t know what we’re up against. None of you have fought the Chitauri - I have. They always seem to be two steps ahead.” Steve had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. The Chitauri weren’t dumb brutes. They were strategists, which had made them so dangerous.
Tony scoffed. “We’ve beaten them three times now in different periods of history. I’d say those odds are pretty good.”
“The last war lasted ten years, Tony,” Steve said. “I know. I was there.” Tony rolled his eyes at him. “This isn’t-”
“This isn’t the time for infighting,” Fury interrupted. He fixed them all with his eye. “Whatever the Chitauri may be up to, whatever they’ve been doing the past two centuries, who knows. But this,” he gestured between Steve and Tony, “isn’t going to solve anything.”
“We cannot abandon my brother,” Thor said.
At this point, Bruce spoke up. This was the first time he had been on the SHIELD station since Steve had joined with them. Bruce was wary of SHIELD, although Steve had not asked why. It wasn’t his place.
Bruce placed his folded hands on the table. “Is there any way we can figure out what we’re up against? Or do they even know what they’re up against?”
Natasha said, “As if a small salvage crew is any concern to the Chitauri.”
“But you have to admit we’re a pretty unique one,” Bruce said. He gestured to each of them around the table. “For SHIELD, this is what they do best. Steve was once known as the Scourge of the Chitauri. Thor’s an Asgardian and has a personal stake. And Tony’s got the best tech around.”
“Plus there’s you,” Natasha said. “No one quite knows how to classify you.”
Bruce laughed without mirth. “I think SHIELD has a pretty good idea.” Natasha raised an eyebrow, but said nothing more.
“Please,” Thor said. He held Steve’s gaze for a moment before moving on. “I will go save my brother alone if I have to. But I would prefer the help of friends.”
“Oh, we will,” Tony said. “Even if it’s just me and you, pal.”
“It’s imperative that we extract Loki,” Fury said. He nodded to Thor. “SHIELD will provide any support we can offer.”
“It’s okay, don’t go to the trouble,” Tony said. “We just need the origin of the signal, and we’re set. So who’s all in?”
Clint, Natasha, and Bruce raised their hands right away. Steve still had an uneasy feeling in his gut, but that didn’t change the fact that they couldn’t leave a captive - prince or no - in the hands of the enemy. He put his hand up, too.
Thor nodded gravely to them. “I cannot thank you enough for this.”
Tony let the others file out before him. Fury’s pet agents cast him a glance, but he just gave them the biggest grin he could. When they had all left, he shut the door, leaving him alone with Fury.
Tony approached Fury until they were inches apart. Fury did not move back. "Let me make one thing clear. I'm doing this for Thor, not you."
"Whatever will get you to do it, Stark."
How he would have loved to punch Fury in his face.
"After this, I'm done. You can lock me up all you want, but I'm not going to become your errand boy."
Fury was not impressed by his declaration. He crossed his arms and raised his good eyebrow. “Really now.”
“Look,” Tony said, walking into Fury’s personal space. He jabbed a finger into Fury’s chest. “You tell me you actually give a shit about Loki, I will call bullshit. Now I don’t know what you want from him, ultimately, but you make the wrong move, you’ll regret it.”
Fury held his gaze for a long while before he smirked. “And since when does any of that matter to you?”
“Never said it was going to be me you’d be afraid of,” Tony said, and he took his cue to leave. Damn, that had felt good.
When Steve entered the observation deck, he found Tony already there. He walked up next to him and took a seat. Tony spared him a quick glance before looking at the blank windows. Although they were well away from SHIELD, quickly approaching the location of the Chitauri ship, Tony had left the shutters down.
"We really have to stop meeting like this," Tony aid. "People will talk."
"Depends on what kind of talk it is," Steve replied. That earned him a chuckle from Tony. "You're not the only person I seem to run into on this deck."
Tony placed a hand over his heart. "Cheating on me? With who? Oh, I don't know how I shall ever go on."
Steve didn't reply, not even with a smile, and Tony's hand dropped into his lap.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. It wasn't the same, though, without the explosion of stars and stretches of space before them.
"So what're you going to do after this?" Tony said at last. "Go back and work for SHIELD?"
Steve shook his head. "Not with SHIELD, that's for sure." He sighed. "I don't know. Go back to Earth, maybe? I hadn't intended to, but it might be a good place to start."
"I wouldn't know."
"Haven't you ever been?"
"Martian, born and raised."
"What brought you out here?"
Tony leaned back, his hands behind his head. "Well, when dear Dad squanders away most of the family fortune on alcohol and failed schemes, it's time for a change of scenery. Earth doesn't have a lot in the way of opportunities for entrepreneurs. Space, on the other hand... And a backwater place like this? It's centuries ago in the great wild west of America again."
Steve could understand. That was what he had intended, what their colonization efforts had been for. To grow, expand, discover, to find what was out there, adventure, and opportunity. And that had worked out well in the end.
Steve touched Tony's hand lightly, unsure of what to say. "Tony-"
The door opened behind them. Steve pulled his hand away. Tony didn't give any indication he'd noticed.
Thor shuffled in, his normal jovial demeanor closed off. Steve and Tony both stood to greet him.
"My friends," he said, looking between the two, "I must thank you for aid in this matter. Although Loki is not your kin, and despite my intentional deception, you would risk your lives, approaching the unknown. This venture should be just mine to bear, yet I find myself among such good people as you, and I am humbled. I thank you with my deepest sincerity, although I know mere words will never repay this kindness."
Steve smiled at Thor. It was hard to imagine him dressed in fine clothes, walking fine halls, when he looked like nothing more than a humble deckhand. But what was a prince, anyway? The lofty haughtiness his brother had?
He took the few steps he needed to reach Thor and clasped his shoulder. "Thor, words between friends are all that are needed," he said.
Thor returned his smile, and although he was still solemn, he seemed more at ease.
"Although a nice hefty reward could go a long way... Charitable donation to a poor salvage ship, that's all," Tony said, but it was with a cheeky grin.
Thor nodded to each. "Thank you. Both of you."
He left after a few more minutes to find the rest of the crew, likely making a similar speech to everyone. Steve turned back to Tony, whose grin had disappeared. Steve reached out to him.
But Tony ducked away from the touch. "We'll be dropping into regular space soon. Gotta see how Rhodey and JARVIS are doing with navigation."
Only Pepper and Happy stayed behind to man the Iron Bird. The rest, dressed in Tony’s space suits, filed into one of the shuttles, still a good distance from the Chitauri ship, and set out. The atmosphere in the shuttle was uncomfortable at best. Tony tried to make a quip, but he only received blank stares.
"We're approaching the enemy ship," Rhodey said. "We've got a visual."
Steve left his seat to look through the shuttle's main viewing screen. The Chitauri ship was a gray monster, speckled with blue lights. It could have been taken right from his memory of the war.
The command to fire was on the tip of his tongue. But this wasn't the war, he wasn't the captain, and a fight, especially in a tiny shuttle like this, wasn't their mission.
As they approached, Clint said, "That is one big ship."
Steve pointed out where they could get in; the Chitauri had open bays, and they never left them guarded. UEA ships had never gotten a chance to exploit the area, although they had known about it.
Rhodey brought them in, a rudimentary cloaking device their only protection. So long as the Chitauri didn't try searching for them, they could get in unnoticed.
The Chitauri ship gave Tony a creepy feeling. The walls curved upwards, meeting each other at a point, and everything was bathed in a pale blue that didn‘t seem to have a source.
From Steve's limited knowledge of Chitauri ships, they were to head down several levels, but he had no idea how far or where exactly their cells might be located.
Traveling among a group of seven was making Tony feel claustrophobic. It seemed a ridiculous number of people for a covert mission. Tony ducked down a different corridor. There was no point in all of them storming the brig.
When he glanced behind him, he saw Steve following, and he didn’t look happy. He paused for a moment to let Steve catch up.
“Where the hell are you going?” Steve said. There was a bit of a hiss in his voice, although Tony chalked it up to a malfunction in the suit’s comms system. He would have to fine tune that later.
Tony didn’t waste his breath replying. He kept moving, Steve keeping pace. Twice, they had to back track, running into groups of loitering Chitauri. Tony finally found a door that seemed enough out of the way to be safe. He pried it open with Steve’s help, and, sure enough, it was empty, with a Chitauri computer terminal nestled in the wall.
Tony hunched over the console, examining the controls. He had been expecting something vastly different from anything else he‘d seen; however, the console, at first glance, looked like a mash-up of different alien tech. Tony swiped his hand over a circular panel. The console lit up, much as a Kree console would.
Oh this was perfect. The Chitauri were thieves. And Tony knew thieves.
"What are you doing?" Steve said. He sounded like he was still by the door.
"Weapons are useless unless you know where to point them, Steve. I'm just figuring out where that would be." Tony spun a knob, and yes, that was old Rigellian tech. Getting Loki out was one thing, but Tony wasn’t dumb; they were standing on the brink of war.
"Well, you could hurry it up. We need to rejoin Thor."
"Ah, the big guy's got it covered. He's got Brucey with him." Tony found the port he was looking for, Skrull design, and really the best designed ports Tony had ever come across. He smirked with satisfaction as the computer data began to transfer to his data pad. No one could beat Tony when it came to repurposing tech.
"I really think we need to get out of here, Tony."
"Cool your jets. I'm just getting the good stuff."
Tony mined whatever he could. It was unfortunately a bit at random. He couldn't read Chitauri, but coordinates were coordinates, even if they did use a completely different numbering system with its unique representative symbols. He was able to recognize common sequences of symbols which looked promising. He disconnected from the Chitauri console and turned to go. “All set-”
"Look out!" Steve threw himself onto Tony, knocking the air out of him. He heard the blasters fire overhead, within inches of his previous position. Steve rolled off him as Tony grabbed his pistol and fired at random. He took down one of the two Chitauri by mere chance, and Steve tackled the other. Tony stood, aiming his gun at them, but their wrestling didn't give him a clear shot.
Steve rolled onto his back, braced his feet against the Chitauri, and pushed it off. "Now, Tony!"
Tony fired several blasts into the creature's face. It screamed, high and screeching, which made Tony wince.
"And we'll have the whole ship on us now," Tony muttered to himself. Hopefully Thor had found his brother, and they could get out of this place.
"Thor's squad should be only a few floors beneath us. We've got to-"
"No time, Steve. We've got to trust they can handle it. Rhodey's entire life revolves around getting everyone out alive. They'll be fine."
They slipped out. The corridors were eerily silent. They managed to get up two floors without another Chitauri in sight.
"I don't get it," Tony said, his voice a low whisper. "Aren't Chitauri psychically linked?"
"No one knows for sure," Steve replied. He glanced around a corner and motioned for Tony to follow. "We never were able to capture a Chitauri alive, and the corpses had some kind of self destruct mechanism in them."
"Paranoid much? Maybe that's their problem. Just give them some therapy or a hug or something-"
Steve held up his hand, silencing Tony.
A group of Chitauri marched by.
Tony’s nerves were on edge. As they moved through the ship, it seemed like Chitauri were around every corner all of a sudden. But the Chitauri weren’t actively searching for them. They just seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Maybe it was time he seriously considered getting some super secret spy ninja training of his own.
Steve beckoned to Tony, and just as they rounded the corner, they ran straight into a squadron of armed Chitauri while the screeching and flashing alarms blazed into life.
"Go, go!" Steve said. Tony didn't need the encouragement. He ran down the corridor, the way they’d come, hoping pure instinct drove him in the right direction. Tony never held much stock in instinct, but now, more than ever, he wished to be proven wrong.
The Chitauri didn't slow down, no matter how often Steve and Tony fired blindly behind them. Tony's suit was starting to feel heavy. He gasped and panted for breath, adrenaline giving him the energy he needed to continue.
Turning on the thrusters would do more harm than good in these twisting corridors.
"Right!" Steve said, shoving Tony in the opposite direction he'd been about to go. Tony stumbled, but Steve grabbed his arm, hauling him up.
They pelted forward, and then Tony saw the ship, and oh thank Jesus Fucking Chitauri, there was Bruce, suit hanging in tatters on him, waving at them to hurry up.
Steve grabbed Tony and half dragged him the rest of the way. They dove for the hatch, under a barrage of blaster fire, and the second they were in, Bruce shouted, "We got them!"
The door closed, the shuttle jerked to life, and they pulled out of the open bay area. Thank god for shitty Chitauri ship design.
Tony caught his breath. "You alright?" Steve said, panting beside him.
"More or less." But when Tony glanced over, he saw Steve touch his side with a wince. The suit was torn, and the skin was red and blistered, small patches of blood appearing.
Bruce was on him in an instant. "I've got you, Steve."
Leaving Steve in Bruce's capable hands, Tony looked at the state of them all. Natasha, her helmet off, was in the pilot's seat, looking ruffled, but unharmed. Rhodey sat next to her in the copilot’s seat.
Natasha noticed him looking, and she said, "They're not pursuing."
Clint, in one of the passenger chairs, clutched a towel to his arm. His breathing was slow and regular, if a bit ragged, and sounded almost fake through his suit. He gave Tony a nod.
Thor, sitting on the floor, his back against the wall of the shuttle, cradled a thin figure in his arms, a dark haired man, that Tony realized with detachment was Loki. He looked nothing like Tony remembered, instead looking pale, bruised, and strangely dwarfed by his brother. As he watched, he noticed Thor's face was wet from tears. He felt a pang of discomfort at Thor's open grief and looked away.
He heard Steve hiss beside him. Bruce was placing a medicated burn pad on his side, his suit cut away from the wound. Steve grimaced, but he accepted Bruce's help without further complaint.
"Are we okay?" Tony asked.
Bruce’s gaze flicked to Thor. "I think so," he said, and he returned to treating Steve's wound.
They waited, tired and exhausted, for news of Loki’s condition. Thor paced back and forth and refused any comfort they offered. SHIELD doctors had gone over each of them, and there were a few wounds among them, but nothing serious. They were waiting in a conference room, the same one where they had first heard the Chitauri message.
At last, after what might have been hours or minutes for all Tony could tell, Fury came in. Thor approached him. Fury said, “Signs of torture, but he’s alert, and he wants to talk to you, Thor. Alone.”
Thor’s relief was evident. He rushed from the room, an unstoppable boulder.
“Of course, you’re eavesdropping on the whole thing,” Tony said. He was sitting at the table, feet propped up. He had come out of the ordeal unscathed, but he kept glancing over toward Steve, who sat gingerly in his chair across from Tony.
Fury just looked at him, his eyebrow raised. "You sound certain."
"Drop the act. As if you don't listen to every little thing that goes on in here."
Fury didn't give an answer.
"What I think we need to do," Steve said, and his voice sounded rough, "is chalk this up as a success. We saved Thor's brother. That's something."
"They know we're onto them, though," Natasha said. She rested her head in a hand.
Tony swung his feet off the table. "We knew that going in," he said. "But we also have this." He placed the data pad on the table. "It needs to be translated, of course, but whatever's on this pad could go a long way."
Fury crooked a finger, and Tony slid the pad his way. Fury picked it up and pocketed it. "Thank you, Stark. Team." He nodded to everyone. "Without your help, we may have been blindsided in the future. Depending on what they got out of Loki, it may already be too late. But." He drew out the pause that followed. "It could have been worse."
"That's nice," Tony said. "Well, if that will be all, I think I'm going to get some rest." He left the others to do as they pleased.
Instead of heading to his room, Tony retreated to his lab. He told JARVIS to keep an eye out. He ran a double encryption on his processes, and he started up a malware scan. With all the in and out of SHIELD he'd been doing, there was no telling what kind of infiltration Fury had tried. Tony pulled up the data he had retrieved from the Chitauri ship. Sure, he had given the original to SHIELD, but there was no harm in having a back up made. And JARVIS was better than the entire SHIELD systems combined, so he could get through it faster.
JARVIS was already deriving the Chitauri language. Tony had managed to snag a copy of the transmission they had received while Fury wasn't looking. That, combined with the few records that still remained from the last war (again pilfered from the ever helpful SHIELD), they had nearly cracked it.
"How's it going?" Tony asked.
"Almost there, sir," JARVIS replied.
Tony waited, and before long, JARVIS informed him the data was ready. Finally. He opened up the data and began scanning it.
Well, he had been right about the Chitauri stealing tech that wasn't theirs. There were manifests of scavenged tech taken from ships they'd hit. And there were many. It was impossible that they had all been recent attacks. A small group of Chitauri must have survived the war, and since then, they'd been slowly building themselves up again.
Then he reached the sale receipts. Scavenging wasn't the only way they were getting materials. Someone was selling them stuff.
Tony shook his head as he glanced through the data. This was not good.
Just when he was ready to call it quits and contact Fury, his eye caught a name. But it couldn't be. He pulled up the file and began reading. Damn. At some point, HYRDA had aided the Chitauri in creating super-Chitauri.
What the data didn't say was when this happened. Whatever type of calendar Chitauri used, it didn't matter, because they didn't like dating any of their logs. He knew there was something he didn't like about them. If they couldn't keep organized, even a messy type of organization like Tony's, then they weren't any use to him.
Sometime after the war was the only timeline Tony could come up with. But that was a range of two hundred years. Big help that was.
"Sir," JARVIS said, "Fury is asking for your presence."
"Tell him to wait." Maybe there was some kind of automatic date logging, a "created on" underneath the data. It was a long shot that the Chitauri would bother with something as simple as that, but Tony would try anything.
"I do apologize, sir, but he is quite insistent. They have retrieved information from Prince Loki on the Chitauri."
Tony blew out a breath in frustration. He wanted to look into this more, but whatever Loki had to say would be important. After a minute, he set JARVIS to keep decoding the remaining data, and he jogged all the way to the conference room.
Steve and Fury's little band of agents were there. Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve, his hand raising above his head to indicate Thor, and Steve said, "He's still with his brother."
Tony nodded to himself. "So are we doing this now, or are we waiting for the rest of my crew?"
Fury nodded to a chair. "Take a seat, Stark," he said.
Tony settled himself down, leg thrown casually over the other. "So what did you want?" He crossed his hands behind his head.
“Loki’s been spilling the rest of the information he’s gathered about the Chitauri,” Fury said. “Ultimately, we believe that’s why the Bifrost was targeted; somehow, Loki found out about them.”
“But that was part of the information he withheld,” Steve said, “otherwise you would have told us that before?”
Fury nodded once. “What’s most disconcerting, however, is that it appears the Chitauri have been arming themselves. And this includes getting large orders of vibranium - vibranium laced with steel.”
Tony straightened up in his chair, feeling uneasy. “But only humans use vibranium-steel alloys.”
“That’s correct,” Fury said. “Someone’s been moving large quantities of the stuff, and I want to know who.” He glared at Tony.
Tony glanced at Steve, whose brow was furrowed. He could see him working it out. Steve looked up at Tony then, surprise and disgust crossing his face.
“It was yours, wasn’t it?” Steve said.
Tony raised his hand. “There’s no reason to assume this is my fault.”
“Care to enlighten me, gentlemen?” Fury looked between the two, but he had to know what they were going on about. Fury always blamed Tony.
“The first deal Tony made when I was first with him was sell vibranium. I thought-” Steve shook his head. “I didn’t question it. I thought vibranium might have become common since I went under.”
“And where did you get this vibranium?”
Tony threw up his hands. “Hey, it was in Steve’s station. Ask why a supposedly peaceful colonization attempt was carrying that much firepower. I didn’t sell the weapons whole, either. It was just the vibranium, a very legitimate salvage deal.”
Steve abruptly stood. “Tony, you sold vibranium to the enemy!"
"Technically, if anything, I sold them a very reliable buyer, who then sold them to someone else who sold them to someone else who sold them to the enemy. If you ask me, I'm pretty removed from it." While he knew they couldn’t blame it on him, he knew there should have been some way they could make him take the fall for it. He couldn’t even run a business right.
"Those weapons should have gone to SHIELD,” Fury said.
"And then SHIELD would have turned right around and held up the entire free market in this sector at gun point before moving on to the rest of the galaxy." Tony, the only one left sitting, stood.
“Sit back down, Stark. You, too, Rogers.” Fury sighed. “Salvage laws in neutral territory prevent prosecution, so you‘re in the clear. And it doesn‘t do us any good to worry about what‘s already happened. One would hope, though, that in the future, you‘d gain a bit of common sense.”
“I resent the implication-”
“Your orders are to stand down,” Fury said, ignoring Tony. “That’s final. No one is authorized to leave this station under any circumstances."
"Fine, then," Tony said. "I guess you don't care about the fact that the Chitauri have created their own Operation Rebirth. Which, you know, you might have eventually figured out on your own, if SHIELD isn't completely useless."
Steve looked at him bewildered.
Fury pointed a finger at Tony. "You and I are going to talk."
In some ways, the confinement on the SHIELD station was worse than some of the long days on the Iron Bird. The SHIELD agents cast him a variety of looks, some hostile, some curious, and some with complete disinterest. He tried to find the others, but Thor wouldn't leave Loki's side, and everyone else was holed up or preoccupied with other things.
Steve was surprised to see Tony come into the workout room one afternoon. Steve had taken refuge there. Although the machines were different, they still relied on a good old punching bag, although it was now filled with local sand rather than the SiO2 substitute of Steve’s days.
Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded to Steve. "So, uh, how's the wound doing?"
Steve's hand drifted to his waist. There was some minor scarring, but the wound was almost completely healed. He smiled at Tony and said, "Much better, thanks."
For a few days now, Steve had stopped being angry at Tony. It seemed that all he ever was these days was lost or angry, so he had decided to just let it go. And it felt good. There had been no way for Tony to know where the vibranium eventually ended up, and Steve had helped move the shipment with everyone else.
With the Chitauri creating super soldiers of their own, there was enough to worry about.
Tony was still standing a few feet away, looking somewhat uncomfortable. Steve swung the bag toward him. "Go a few rounds with me?" he said. Tony dodged the incoming bag.
“No, uh, I think anyone who can pretty evenly spar Thor is more than a match for me.”
Steve chuckled. Then he shook his head. “Look, Tony, I...” How could he say this? “I’m sorry about earlier. With the vibranium. To be honest, I don’t know why we might have had them on the station.” He gave the bag a good punch and caught it when it swung back. It made no sense to him. “I seem to not know a lot of things going on around me.”
Tony shrugged a shoulder. “You can make it up to me by indulging me for the next hour.”
“Just follow me.”
Tony led him through the station, until they arrived outside one of the ambassadorial rooms. Tony let them in after messing with the lock panel, and the smell of chlorine overwhelmed Steve. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the room with not much other than that. Underneath the water, Steve could see colorful domed objects that reminded him of the tanks of goldfish he used to keep as a kid.
Tony walked to the edge of the pool and beckoned Steve closer. “Steve, come swimming with me.”
“Why is there a huge pool here?” It had to have been expensive for SHIELD to build and was likely costly for them to keep it going
“Did you know, we are allied with a set of aliens that prefer chlorinated water? They live in the stuff; it’s fantastic for any government base that might host them as visitors. Which SHIELD did a few months back. Of course, since they go to the expense of building it, why not keep it around forever? Even stuffy agents need time off. Natasha promised me. It also happens to be one of the few locations not monitored by SHIELD.”
“Why wouldn’t they monitor a pool?”
Tony shrugged before pulling off his shirt. “Ambassadorial quarters are not allowed to be monitored. And guess who hasn’t gotten around to rigging up cameras and mics in the area?”
“How do you know this?”
“Steve. Trust me on this one.” Tony winked. “And the best part is,” Tony said as he undid his pants, “no one’ll know if it’s of the skinny variety.” And in one movement, he pulled down both his pants and his underwear.
Steve turned his head quickly. He was not looking. He wasn’t. Tony caught his shoulder. “Come on, Steve, live a little.”
He did not need to live a little. He was living just fine. But he shucked his own clothing, everything, without turning back to Tony, and jumped right in.
The water was surprisingly warm, but a welcome relief. Steve came up sputtering, shaking the water from his eyes and nose.
“How’s forced vacation treating you?” Tony said, slipping in beside Steve.
“A week with nothing to do? It’s... surprisingly boring.” The water felt so good. How long had it been since he went swimming? Whenever he had last been on Earth.
“So it has. Which is why I suggest we do something about that.”
“I haven’t seen you at all,” Steve said. "What have you been doing?”
Tony rolled his eyes as he pushed himself backward. “I had to stop Fury from dismantling JARVIS. I haven’t figured out who told him yet, but I’m leaning toward Natasha.”
“He didn’t already know?”
“Of course he didn’t-” Tony stopped and stared hard at Steve, brow furrowed. “You didn’t tell him did you?”
“I thought he already knew.” Steve felt his face heat, which made the water that lapped at his neck feel cool. "Sorry."
Tony sighed. "Ah, well, damage done. He'd find out eventually." He swam closer to Steve. "Alright, let me cut to the chase. I have a proposition."
“And what would that be?” He moved closer in, too. They began moving in circles around one another.
“Want to bust out of here? Actually do something?”
“Run away you mean.” Steve never ran, but he could admit to being bored.
“I mean take matters into our own hands. None of this silly red tape or taking orders from Fury. We do well enough on our own. I'm done with being Fury's puppet."
"You know, that might be what Fury wants," Steve said. He struck Steve as the kind of man who ran three steps ahead of everyone else.
Tony shrugged. “I‘m done with him, I don‘t care what he wants.”
The water was terribly clear. As Tony moved, Steve could see his body through the water, the choppy surface distorting, but not hiding, the features. He tried not to stare.
Steve snapped his face up. "What?"
Tony pressed in closer, and Steve could feel the water move around his legs from Tony keeping himself afloat. Their knees knocked together, and Steve took a stroke back. Tony followed.
"The others are all for it. Even your pet agents." Tony kept even with Steve's strokes, until Steve found himself pushed against the wall. "We just need to pack up and leave. Everyone's sick of this place, and if you tell me you aren't, I'll know you are a liar."
Tony moved in a little closer, reaching beside Steve's head to grasp the edge of the pool. Steve shook his head. "No, I'm ready to get out."
Tony nodded. "That's good. That's good." He felt Tony's body brush against him, an arm or a leg, he wasn't sure. Drops of water were clinging to Tony's beard, and Steve reached up wipe them away. His fingers lingered on Tony's chin, and he glanced up to meet Tony's eyes. He was watching Steve through half closed eyes, and he ran his teeth over his bottom lip. Tony's hand brushed lightly against Steve's scarred belly.
"I'm sorry for that," he said, inches from Steve's face.
Steve felt himself start to harden.
He breathed slowly, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand. ”When did you talk to everyone?” He let his hand slip down to Tony's neck.
Tony pressed closer, and Steve could feel Tony's own arousal. “I’ve become quite fond of swimming the past two days. I imagine this is the last time I’ll be able to get away with it.”
Steve felt his stomach drop. So Tony had gone skinny dipping with other people before him. Well, fine then. He slipped out of Tony's reach, his erection flagging. Tony followed him at first, but at Steve's glare, he backed off. Steve really was as stupid as he'd been feeling since he woke up. Maybe that had been the side effect of his time in stasis.
Steve pulled himself out of the water. There was nothing to dry himself with, so he settled for just quickly dressing. He didn’t face the pool again until he was fully clothed, not minding the large wet stains that appeared.
Tony was still bobbing at the edge, his eyes on Steve. He had been watching.
"Look," Steve said with a sigh, "I'm all for doing something. I'm on board. But don't..." He broke off, looking away. "Don't mess with me, okay?"
"There was something else I wanted to tell you," Tony said. He also pulled himself out and picked up his clothes. Steve stared determinedly at the wall.
"And that would be?"
He heard Tony dressing as he spoke. "There's this device I found some time ago," he said, "and I've finally figured out what it does." Dressed, he walked into Steve's line of sight. "It's a memory scanner. I'm not sure, but it could help. If you still haven't remembered on your own about the station shut down, it might help."
Steve held his breath for a moment, trying to push away the hope. "Have you tried it yourself?"
"Unfortunately," Tony said, but he didn't elaborate.
Steve told him he was willing to give it a try.
Tony met him outside his room, scanner in hand. It looked innocuous to Steve, a flat, circular device with a small flashing green light.
Tony instructed him to lie down on the bed. He watched as Tony pulled up a chair beside the little alcove and held the device half a foot above Steve's head.
"Is this going to hurt?" Steve asked.
"It's just like dreaming," Tony assured him. "You'll be fine."
Steve closed his eyes.
Steve counted his punches out of habit. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. Two hundred. One. Two. Three. Four.
Steve caught the bag and turned to Peggy, grinning. "Hello to you, too."
Peggy leaned against the bench press, which Steve had programmed for 400 pounds. He wasn't slacking, but there was no need to push himself either. She had folded her hands behind her back and was just watching him.
He picked up his towel and wiped the sweat away. He tried to focus on anything but Peggy, but he kept glancing her way. During the war, it had been easy. As a fellow officer on another ship in their squadron, he hadn't had much time to speak with her, and when he did, it had been about strategy or resources. Without those topics as viable conversation starters, he found himself distracted and uneasy around her.
She shifted her stance, and he caught himself staring at her legs. He blushed and looked away. Where had he put his shirt?
"It's over there," Peggy said, pointing somewhere behind Steve. He turned and saw it several feet away. "Although I can't say I don't mind the view."
That made Steve flush more. He was sure he whole body was red. "So, uh, what brings you here?" Peggy was dressed in a nice tunic and pants, not the sort of thing one normally wore to a gym.
"I thought you might be hungry," she replied.
"Lunch was less than an hour ago," Steve said. He continued to dry himself off with the towel. It gave him something to do instead of staring dumbly at Peggy.
"I didn't mean at this moment," she continued. She glanced down, and Steve wondered if, for a moment, Peggy was as nervous around him as he was around her. "I meant dinner. The kind where you dress up, and I dress up, and we eat in the garden, not the cafeteria."
"Like a... a date," Steve said. He needed to be absolutely clear on that.
"Yes, at 20 hundred hours, on the dot." She met his eye and held it as she said, "Unless you aren't interested."
"I am!" Steve said quickly, and though he blushed some more, Peggy smiled at him. "I mean, that sounds... that sounds great. I'd love to."
Things were going well for Steve. His life was finally coming together.
"Good," Peggy said. "If you hadn't said yes, I might have had to ask Barnes, just so that the food didn't go to waste. It's not easy getting-"
The station emergency alarm sounded. Steve and Peggy stared at each other for an instance before they both ran out the door. The station was panicking. They joined the rest of the people running through the halls. Most were heading in the direction of the stasis pod, as protocol demanded. Steve and Peggy, however, managed to grab a free lift and took it up to the command hub.
Philips was there, standing at a control console. He was looking out through the observation window as the rest of the station's officers ran through their lock down procedures.
"What's happening, sir?" Steve said. He and Peggy panted a little. "Are we under attack?"
Philips turned to them. He looked between them before settling his gaze on Steve. "Where is your shirt?" Philips glanced at Peggy again, then shook his head. "I don't want to know. No time, just get down to the pods. That's an order."
"Sir, what's happening?"
Philips growled. "The station's shutting down, that's what. Life support's going and fast. Either you get into those stasis pods, or I'll have your dead bodies court marshaled."
Neither Steve nor Peggy were in active service, but they snapped to attention, hands up in salute. The rest of the command crew had already disappeared.
"You'll be joining us, sir?" Peggy said.
"In a minute. Get going." Philips waved them away before turning back to the window.
The stasis deck was already teeming with people. The metal grating clanked underneath the feet of the hundreds of station inhabitants. Steve and Peggy found their assigned pods, numbers 107 and 109. He glanced down the corridor, and people were climbing in, doors closing, a soft hiss rising indicating that the stasis field had been engaged.
The stasis deck had been built for an occurrence such as this, any sort of time sensitive emergency that the station might run into. The station would issue an automatic distress signal, sent on a special frequency back to SHIELD. With luck, they would only be under for a few weeks at most.
"I guess the food will go to waste anyway," Steve said. Bucky gave him a pat on the back as he passed. Steve ignored his obvious wink and thumbs up.
"Unfortunately," Peggy agreed, and then she caught Steve off guard by pulling him down for a kiss. Her hands on his shoulders, he realized he still hadn't put his shirt back on. He wrapped his arms around her, enjoying the press of her lips against his. He would look forward to waking up.
"Stasis deck sealed off!" someone yelled from down the corridor. "Everyone, enter your stasis pods now! I repeat, enter your stasis pods now!"
They broke apart. Peggy gave him one last smile before stepping into her own pod.
Steve entered the pod. It was small and almost claustrophobic, the walls smooth and blue. He attached the sensor modules to his chest and straightened up. He could see through the clear door to the pods on the other side. In 110, Bucky was already under. Next to him, though, 112 was empty. That was Philips's pod.
He heard the telltale hiss of the stasis gas, and he closed his eyes.
When Steve opened his eyes, it took him a few seconds to reestablish where he was. What time it was.
Tony stood over him, memory scanner in hand. The green light had turned off.
"Welcome back," Tony said. He helped Steve sit up.
"How long was I out?" Steve asked. He rubbed at his eyes. It was strange. The memory had seemed real while it was occurring, but now it seemed distant, although he had no trouble recalling it. He had expected it to feel like a dream, but it wasn't like that. Now, it seemed like he had watched a vid of a memory. He consciously knew it had happened; he remembered it now, properly. But the experience had seemed strangely removed.
"Only a few moments," Tony said. He placed the scanner down and switched to sit on the edge of the bed. "So? Did it work?"
Steve thought about how much he should say while he stared at Tony. Steve's gaze made Tony shift, and Steve softened his expression. "Yeah."
He looked at his hands. He flexed them. If he concentrated, he could still feel the texture of Peggy's clothes.
"You want to talk about it?" Tony asked. "Of course, if you don't, I understand, but these things, they can, uh," he spun a finger in circles near his temple, "they can build up. Explode sometimes." He demonstrated with his hands.
Steve chuckled. "Thanks, but... I think I'm good." There was a small pain in his heart when he thought of Peggy and Bucky. "It didn't tell me anything I didn't know, nothing you didn't tell me, but... I'm glad I remember now."
In the couple of months since his reanimation, Steve had come to accept he wouldn't see his friends again. The memory had almost been like seeing them just one last time. It hurt still. It hurt so much. But there wasn't anything Steve could do to change it.
"Thank you, Tony," he said.
Tony made a noise in the back of his throat, some kind of grunt. He was looking at Steve again. One of his hands took one of Steve's. He rubbed his thumb over Steve's knuckles.
Steve felt himself flush. But he allowed his lids to droop somewhat, and his breathing grew shallow. He wasn't sure who leaned in first. He met Tony's lips tentatively. Tony's eyes fell shut, and Steve followed his lead. When Tony opened his mouth, Steve responded likewise. The kiss deepened, tongues and lips and teeth running into each other. Tony's free hand traveled around Steve's side. He stroked his spine, making Steve shiver. Steve gripped the back of Tony's head, holding him close.
He felt heat pool within him, and he broke away, embarrassed. He pants were too tight, and he tried to shift as subtly as he could.
But Tony glanced down, and when he saw Steve's reaction, he smirked. He traced his fingers along Steve's back again, and he leaned in for another kiss. Steve kissed him another long moment, but as his desire grew, his cock beginning to strain against his pants, he pulled back again.
"I can't," he said, head resting against Tony's shoulder. "Not right now. Please, Tony."
Tony's fingers stilled, and they rested against Steve for a few more seconds before disappearing.
"I understand," Tony replied. "We've got a ship to prep for escape." He gave Steve a pat, and then he stood. Steve glanced away when Tony's crotch became eye level.
After Tony had left, Steve laid back, trying to will his erection away. The smell of chlorine still lingered, and it made Steve think of Tony pressing up against him, of kissing him, feeling Tony’s own erection.
He couldn't stand it. One hand shoving his pants down, he grabbed himself and began stroking. His breathing became more rapid, and he imagined Tony's hands on him, Tony's hands on his. He moaned, whispering Tony’s name, and he came, too quickly.
Steve groaned in frustration. What was he doing?
Having SHIELD agents around could actually be useful, Tony admitted. Clint and Natasha, given their ranks, were able to clear the docking bay. This gave them a small, but sufficient, window of opportunity.
“Let me come with you,” Thor said, meeting them outside the ship.
Tony looked to Bruce, who shrugged. "He asked."
“Your brother-” Tony said.
“There’s little I can do for him here. Transport is already being arranged for his return to Asgard, where my mother will be better suited to care for him than I.”
“Asgardian justice demands retribution,” Natasha said.
Thor met Natasha’s gaze. “Every day, I find you know even more about my people than the day before.”
“I read the gossip feeds.”
They'd gone this long with Thor the wanderer. Thor the prince wouldn't be much different. “Alright, big guy,” Tony said, “you’re back on board.”
Pepper looked displeased, not at Thor, but at Tony. “Fury’s not going to like this, Tony.”
“One of these days, you will leave SHIELD with proper authorization," Clint said as he hung onto his seat.
They were racing the bay doors again. Steve was mildly worried they wouldn’t make it.
“Report me to your boss,” Tony said with a scoff. “If rules and regulations are so important to you, tattle away, no one’s stopping you. Comms are over there.”
“Nah, you’re not half bad to hang out with,” Clint said. “’Sides, Natasha likes you.”
Steve choked back a laugh. There was no way Natasha liked Tony. But Tony preened a little and said, “Of course. Thank you, darling.” He blew a kiss to Natasha before turning back to the screen.
Steve caught Natasha flip Clint off, and Clint smirked with a shrug. Natasha saw Steve staring, and she smiled at him with a roll of her eyes. Steve returned the smile, feeling like he was part of something.
“So where to, folks?” Tony said as he spun in the captain’s chair. “We’ve got no standing orders.”
"We could start at a station - any station," Pepper said. "Being docked without permission to leave, we didn't get a chance to restock on food."
Tony sighed. "Practicalities before ideals, as always. Well, then, Rhodey, you know the way. Let me know when we get there."
The trouble with boldly going out to seek justice in the middle of empty space was that all they found was empty space. It was one thing to set out to save the sector and possibly the galaxy while they were at; it was another to actually find any trouble.
Outer Centaurus was neutral territory with little through traffic. There was no one around to have any news worth telling. They ended up traveling for days with nothing to do or turning up nothing in the seedy bars and markets of various space stations and ports.
Maybe they should just pack up and call it quits. There were good wrecks to salvage, and that paid money.
Tony found himself too bored to even want to engage his mind. He took to lounging in the captain's chair, challenging every little thing someone said. He chased off Thor and Steve easily, to one of the storage bays that they had converted into a gym of all things, and he was sure Clint and Natasha were taking turns hanging around the bridge. They were particularly easy targets in terms of material for Tony to come up with, but whatever super secret spy training they endured left them unresponsive to the jibes.
Pepper was hiding out with Happy, and Bruce had locked himself in his lab, but Rhodey was stuck with him.
"So what do you think, Rhodey?" Tony said. He was spread out in the chair, taking up as much inelegant space as he could. "Natasha has to sleep hanging from the ceiling. There's no other explanation for how strong her legs are."
Natasha, frustratingly, ignored him, leaning against a console with a data pad in hand. She looked as bored as Tony felt.
"I mean, have you seen her spar?" Tony swiveled in the chair, looking at the ceiling of the ship. Huh. There was a little stain in the corner there by a light. That wouldn't do. "She gets a guy between those things, and wham." Tony brought his arm down to demonstrate. "I feel bad for-"
"Incoming transmission from SHIELD," Rhodey interrupted.
Although SHIELD was thoroughly unwelcome, it was the first interesting thing that had happened in over a week. "Why do you never have any good news for me anymore, Rhodey?" he said as he straightened up. "I'm starting to think you like seeing me suffer."
Rhodey rolled his eyes. "It's what you took me on for. You want to fire me, fire me. Then I might not kill you." The last part he muttered, but Tony still heard him.
"Never hiring friends again." He heard the doors open behind him and swung around once to catch sight of Steve and Clint enter. They were both sweating and in work out clothes. JARVIS must have told them. Tony swung back to face the front of the bridge. "Alright, bring him up."
Tony grinned at the broken face of Fury. There must have been an electrical storm cloud between them. He swept his arms out in a grand gesture. "So checking up on your spider and hawk? They haven't killed us yet, you know. I won't let them."
"There's a stand-off between Kree and Skrull ships a few parsecs from you. You're the closest ship I have, and I need you to monitor the situation. And when I say monitor, I mean monitor. I won't have you starting a war, Stark."
"I told you I wasn't working for you anymore."
"Agents Romanoff, Barton." And they snapped to attention, the SHIELD lackeys. "You are authorized to commandeer Stark's ship and lock him up for a court marshal."
"You're forgetting they ran away themselves."
But Natasha and Clint stood at attention and said in unison, "Understood."
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Tony said.
“You going to cooperate, Stark?”
“If that means am I going to say maybe instead of an immediate no, then yes. But remember, maybe still isn’t consent.”
When the transmission ended, Tony rounded on Clint and Natasha. "I thought we were running away together. You're betraying my trust."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Natasha said.
"You're letting us do stuff,“ Clint added with a shrug. “We still work for Fury."
Natasha gave him a cold stare. "By the way, Stark, I will take over this ship if we don't head for the Skrull and Kree ships."
Tony reluctantly ordered a change of course.
What they encountered was not a stand off. The Kree and Skrull ships were firing at one another.
"Hell," Tony muttered. He strode to the captain's chair. “Open up a channel to both of them, Rhodey."
"Shut it, Natasha."
The comms channel open, Steve cut in. "This is Ca- this is Steve Rogers of the Iron Bird, representing SHIELD. You are asked to stand down. You are in neutral territory."
The Kree responded. "We have every right. SHIELD should not interfere."
The Skrulls replied. "It is the Kree who have been attacking our ships!"
"Party channel," Tony said to himself. “Brings me back.”
"How dare you accuse the Kree? Do not excuse your actions, Skrull!"
"Captain Mar-Vell, isn't it?" the Skrull commander said. “I am Commander K’and’rr, and if you do not surrender, we will destroy you.”
That escalated the verbal fighting. Still, that was better than the two almost destroying each other as they had been moments ago.
Tony refrained from joining the party. He was the start of many problems, and he’d made many enemies. He knew to keep out of this one. The Kree and Skrull Empires were gunning for another war.
“Yelling at one another solves nothing,” Steve said. “Come aboard our ship, and I’ll mediate your talks until you two can come to a peaceful agreement.”
"And have you capture us?" K’and’rr said. Mar-Vell, for once, agreed with him, voicing his own complaint.
"You still use transporter technology,” Steve said. “We don't. You have better weapons than us. We try something funny, you destroy us. I would say it is we who are putting our trust in you.”
Neither captain looked pleased, but they agreed. The Skrull and Kree captains came aboard unarmed. Steve and Pepper greeted them, and they took over Tony's lab to talk.
Tony didn't kick up a fuss when they referred to Steve as "Captain." This was Steve's forte. He let them talk, keeping an ear open through JARVIS.
At one point, the discussion looked like it would fall apart, but Steve called in Thor, and with a little muscle flexing from the Asgardian prince, the two became more agreeable to relatively calm discussion. Steve, with Pepper's help, convinced them that starting a war here and now would be more trouble than it was worth, and they agreed to leave each other alone.
Steve was glad to see the Kree and Skrull ships go in opposite directions. He was exhausted. Although lasting only an hour, the temperament in that room had threatened to explode.
Tony, however, cornered him in the hallway, and he wasn't smiling. "It's my ship, Steve, I give the orders."
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"But I guess you did a fine job. Really showed those skills of yours. Ever consider going into diplomacy?"
Steve shook his head. "I used threats, Tony. What kind of diplomacy is that? Pepper was better it than I was." He felt ashamed. Once upon a time, he had vowed to never let others change what he held dear. Now he was using whatever was necessary to get his point of view accepted. It made him sick with himself.
"Welcome to the 25th century, Steve." Tony clapped him on the back. He made to move one way, and Steve went to move another, but they ended up blocking the other's path.
"Sorry," Steve muttered.
Tony didn't say anything. He reached out and took Steve's hand in his, running his thumb over Steve's knuckles.
Tony smiled and shrugged, dropping Steve's hand. "You prevented a war from breaking out, at least for the moment. Be proud of that, Steve. You saved lives. More than I can say I've ever done."
"Tony, you could try to change, that can't be too hard for even you." Tony's smile faltered a little. Steve sighed. He hadn't meant to be harsh, but Tony had been insufferable lately. "Sorry, I-... Thank you, Tony."
"Catch you later, Steve." Tony sidestepped around Steve and strolled down the corridor.
Steve brought his hand up, tracing his knuckles with his own thumb. He shivered, shook his head, and told himself to just stop. He didn't need this kind of thing right now. But Tony’s touch reminded him of the last time he’d done that. He felt his face heat as he thought of it. Tony had been just as excited as he had been.
If Steve did pursue something with Tony, what would come of it?
Frustrated, Steve turned around and headed towards Tony’s lab. They were going to talk about this now.
Tony wanted to punch something. But his lab, now his again, was full of irreplaceable tech, much of it designed by Tony himself, and that was just mean to take it out on the poor things.
"Sir, I've managed to break the code for the remaining data from Captain Rogers's station.”
Tony rubbed his eyes. He was exhausted. What he needed to do was sleep, but with everything that had been going on, Tony expected he'd end up tossing and turning the whole night.
"Bring it up," he told JARVIS.
Documents started appearing on the screen. Tony scanned through them. And then he stopped and reread them, thoroughly this time.
They were confidential SHIELD documents. The information was watermarked with SHIELD's codes, but they weren't on colonization.
A locked virus was embedded into the missive. Tony strengthened his firewall, just to be safe. But SHIELD provided the key to unlock the virus and orders to use it on the station's systems.
SHIELD had killed Steve's comrades. It had murdered its own station, its own people. It had tried to murder its own heroes.
Steve paused outside the lab door. What was he doing? Tony wouldn't accept just an apology, no matter how honest it was. But that wasn't really what Steve was here for. He took a breath to steady himself, and he opened the door.
"Tony, I-" he said as it opened.
At the same time, he heard Tony say, "Fucking hell, Steve can't know."
"I can't know what?"
Tony, situated at his computer console, spun around in his chair. He was shocked and struggled for a minute to say anything. Suspicious, Steve entered the lab. "I can't know what?" he said again.
"Nothing," Tony said, forcing a smile. "Absolutely nothing. Well, some things, like the fact that I'm horribly attracted to you, or that Pepper somehow heard from Natasha that that Agent Coulson might be your biggest fan ever, but really, you don't want to know those things. Unless you do. I mean, hopefully not the Coulson thing, really, unless you go for that kind of guy, the by-the-book sort who wouldn't know fun if it hit him-"
"What is it?" Steve said. He was only a few feet from Tony now, who was trying very hard to avoid Steve’s gaze. “Tony. If we’re going to trust each other, you stop hiding things from me now.”
Tony looked at him reluctantly. He took a step back, and Steve let him. “Your station... You know why it went under emergency stasis?”
"We were compromised,” Steve said slowly. Why was Tony bringing this up now? “But you already told me HYDRA was responsible."
"That's because they made it look like HYDRA was responsible. HYDRA had nothing to do with the attack. It was a virus, true, but from SHIELD. It tricked your systems into thinking that there was a problem. It was because of this virus that the call went out for stasis lockdown, not because a HYDRA virus had actually tampered with life support."
"But... That's not possible. SHIELD wouldn't-"
"You want to read it for yourself, I'll give you everything. But you know why no one came to rescue you? Why the station was left alone to deteriorate? The virus prevented the system from sending out the distress signal. There was nothing to get. And if it had, SHIELD would have ignored it."
"You told me the station was destroyed."
"Skrulls have been in this sector longer than humans. My guess, they used it for target practice during the Earth-Skrull war. Oh yeah, you got to miss that one, huh?" Tony shrugged.
"Did they have anything to do with the stasis failure?"
"SHIELD? It's a possibility. I'd have to study the specifics of the virus. Which would take time, setting up a dummy system to test it on and all. But it's possible."
"How do you know they're real?” Steve couldn’t believe it. Tony was just lying to him again, he had to be.
"I hack into SHIELD sometimes. It's a hobby. The codes aren't very different from what they use today."
"Did someone have to activate the virus?"
So Philips had known. He had set it off, obeying orders to the last. That was why he had flushed himself, dying painfully for murdering his crew.
Steve rested his face in his hands. Philips became the perfect scape-goat, because of his actions, should any connection to SHIELD have gotten out. But SHIELD was good; it had kept its hands seemingly clean.
“Steve?” Tony said, a hand coming to rest on Steve’s shoulder.
Steve straightened and met Tony’s eyes. “We’re going to SHIELD. Now.”
He ignored anything else Tony tried to say. He was angry, and Fury was going to answer to him.
They couldn’t get to the SHIELD station fast enough. The moment they docked, Steve headed straight for Fury’s office.
“Did you know about this?” he said, throwing a data pad on the desk. He stood over Fury as he read the information on the pad. Fury’s face remained impassive as he read.
“What’s SHIELD doing these days? Murdering civilians? Was the civil war your fault?” Steve slammed his hands on the desk. Fury didn’t flinch. “What’s your game? You know, I thought it was just Tony blowing a lot of hot air, but you’re up to something, aren’t you?”
"I could argue with you all day,” Fury said at last, laying the data pad down. “I've read reports you haven't, Captain. Your station was full of HYDRA agents. Heinrich Zemo, James Barnes, Johann Schmidt, Ophelia Sarkissian, Sam Wilson..."
"Neither Bucky nor Sam was an agent for-"
"SHIELD had received intelligence to the contrary, Rogers. Very reliable intelligence."
"These are men and women I fought with against the Chitauri."
Fury looked tired all of a sudden. “It was two hundred years ago, Steve. I'm not saying what SHIELD did was right. I'm saying it did what it felt it had to do. There's a war going on right now, and if you can't concentrate on that, I'm going to have to force you to stand down. You will be on the next transport to Earth."
It wasn't right, and there had to have been another way. Steve clenched his fists. He couldn't argue with Fury now. "No, sir, I understand."
Out in the hall, Steve slammed his fist into the wall. It hurt like hell, but that's what Steve wanted right now.
"The only person I don't want to see more than you is Fury," he said to Tony. They were in Steve's room. It should have been private. But Tony just wandered in, doing what he liked.
"Hey, it's my ship. My rules."
Steve wasn't in the mood for this. He placed his hands behind his head and laid back on the bed. "Please, Tony. I really don't want to talk to anyone right now." Tony, least of all. Steve feelings were up and down with Tony, and he could not deal with those on top of all this.
"I get that. You should really see Pepper when she doesn't want to talk to anyone. She gets this mean look in her eye, like she'll bite your balls off if you even think it." Tony sat on the bed by Steve's feet. "But that's usually when she needs someone the most. From my experience."
"What about you?" Steve tried to keep his voice even.
"Well, you know me, I'm always up to talking an ear and an arm off. Maybe not of the touchy-feely type, but..." Tony made an exaggerated what-can-you-do face.
"Except when you're working."
"Different circumstances with that. So, Steve. Talk to me."
He hadn't meant to. He didn't want to. But words just started pouring from Steve‘s mouth. He didn’t know right from left anymore. Displaced, useless, and lied to on all sides, what was he supposed to do?
Tony looked away when Steve mentioned the lies. He felt some satisfaction from that. Tony had never shown much remorse over his deceptions. But that feeling also perpetuated the resentment for the unfair hand he’d received in life.
And, of course, it didn’t help matters that there was... Steve shook his head. “Look, I think... Can you go now, Tony?”
Tony obliged without protest.
Steve stared at the ceiling. It didn’t help that he wasn’t sure what he felt about Tony. The man drove him mad. But even then, he was drawn to him.
If Tony hadn’t found him, none of this would be a problem.
"I'm starting to feel like this place is home," Tony said. They were gathered in a conference room, again, under Fury's request. He exaggerated a shiver. "Soon, I'll be asking for SHIELD to adopt me. This has got to stop."
"Couldn't agree with you more," Fury said as he entered.
Tony cast a glance at Steve, whose brow was furrowed. He had been holed up in the Iron Bird since his confrontation with Fury. Tony sought out Steve's hand under the table and gave it a squeeze. Steve's sour expression didn't change, but he kept hold of Tony's hand.
Fury pulled up a map of Outer Centaurus on the screen installed in the wall. "While you have been wasting your time, SHIELD has been making its own investigations. We’ve discovered in this area,” he pointed out a small region, a tiny binary star system with few planets, “that this is where the Chitauri ship relocated and has quite probably been their main base of operations.”
“Why haven’t they been found before this?” Steve asked. He looked around the table. “They’ve been at this for years.”
“No one cared to look.” Fury said. “The Rigellians mined the system of its resources long ago. There’s nothing left there of value, and it’s out of the way, even for this sector.”
“Is there more than one ship?” Tony asked. “There has to be at least two - the strike ship and the one we found Loki on.”
Steve shook his head. “Not necessarily,” he said. “The ship we infiltrated was a full-sized warship. They have a variety of battleships much smaller that the warship can house, and some of those have a lot of power. Enough to take down ships many times their size.”
“As far as we are aware,” Fury said, “it is as Steve suggests. We’ve only found evidence for one warship; over the years, it’s likely become their mothership.”
That was good news, at least. But Tony had seen that ship, and it had been huge. “There’s no way SHIELD can take that thing out alone,” he said.
"My people will stand with you," Thor said. He rose and stood next to Fury. "I have already contacted my father. My warship, Mjolnir, will be here in a matter of days."
Fury nodded. "Can they get here any faster?"
"They come as quickly as they can."
"It'll have to do."
"What about the Kree and Skrull?" Steve said. "This affects them as much as anyone else."
"They're already at war with each other," Hill replied. “We received the reports yesterday. While any confrontation in this sector will be swiftly put to an end, they’re preoccupied blowing each other up in their own territories.”
Steve’s frown deepened. Tony squeezed his hand again.
Fury shook his head. "The Kree and Skrull have been looking for an excuse to have a war for years. There was nothing you could have changed long term. We can deal with them later.” He swept the room with a glance. “What we need to do right now is defeat the Chitauri. If we can't do that much, they'll destroy us all before we have a chance to destroy ourselves."
Steve couldn‘t believe there was no support whatsoever. During the war, many of the different races had offered their aid. "What about the Shi'ar?” Steve said. “Or the Rigellians? Do we have any other support?"
Fury said, "Things have changed while you've been in stasis. The Shi'ar have become more reclusive than the Asgardians, and the Rigellian military has almost disappeared. Plus, no one cares about this section of space. They don't realize this'll affect everyone if the Chitauri aren't taken care of."
Thor crossed his arms, shaking his head. "I fear," Thor said, "that many applaud whosoever attempted to kill my brother and I. My people are not well liked throughout the galaxy."
"Maybe because you stick your nose into other people's business when it's not needed?" Clint said.
Thor frowned, but for once, he did not rise to defend his people's honor. "I realize we attempt to overstep our bounds. But we mean the best."
"Self governing. It's a thing on Earth. Too many wars to count because of it," Fury said. "Asgard's never had a civil or revolutionary war, has it?"
Tony propped his feet up on the table. "Well, I'll play your little game, Fury. I'm in."
Fury rolled his eye. "Because the great Tony Stark will win us this war."
"I won't. But my state of the art fighter jets? You might want to borrow those. Only with my permission, of course."
"We need all the help we can get," Steve said. He met Fury's eye evenly, aware at how he was challenging authority. It went against what he'd been trained, but when that authority was wrong, someone had to step up.
They were a ragtag team at best. An aging spy-turned-official, his agents, a salvager and his civilian crew, an alien prince, an unstable scientist, and Steve, a man who should by all rights be dead.
They didn't have a chance. At the academy, Steve would have failed his exam for putting together such a crew. But the desperate energy that thrummed through that room made him feel like they could do anything, even take on an entire alien army.
"Outfitting the Mark VII would be easy," Tony said as he walked with Steve through the halls. He pulled a hand from his pocket and waved it vaguely in the air. "Give me a day, it's really just an attachment, nothing too complex."
"Maybe it would be good to prime the American Patriot for it, too," Steve suggested.
Tony shook his head. They didn't pay any attention to the SHIELD agents they passed, who ignored them in turn. "I am not putting that junk on more than one of my birds."
Steve stopped at Fury's voice. At Tony's questioning glance, he waved him ahead. "Colonel," Steve said with a nod.
Fury sighed, his arms behind his back. "I wasn't completely honest with you before."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "About?"
"SHIELD, the SHIELD of your time, was afraid. It wasn't so much HYDRA it was scared of. It was all of you. The super soldier serum was seen as a eugenics program, before HYDRA exploited the idea on Earth, and SHIELD had caught wind of a group that was resisting the direction the UEA was going in. They didn't want to add fuel to the fire, thinking you'd be the stake they struck into the heart of the government, proof they meant to wipe out the common people. So they encouraged the colonist idea. They set up the station. And they sent the virus."
"We didn't all go, though. Others stayed behind."
"And SHIELD took care of them."
Steve clenched his jaw. "I knew some of those people."
"I know, son.” Fury placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder for a moment. “And I'm sorry. It was a useless maneuver. The civil war happened anyway, half our technology was set back hundreds of years, and here we are today, with a government that doesn't give a rat's ass about anything beyond the UEA."
"Those weapons on the station. SHIELD wouldn't have thrown those away."
"That was to keep them out of the wrong hands."
"Until Tony sold them to the enemy."
Fury sighed with a shake of his head. "He didn't. They got the vibranium from somewhere else, guy by the name of Hammer. Sold to them directly. But don't tell Stark that, he could use some humbling in his life."
Steve bit his lip, looking away. Nothing was simple. People told him one thing, but another turned out to be true. The things he should have been trusting, Fury and SHIELD, were the wrong party, and he kept accusing Tony of things he hadn't done. Everything was back to front, and Steve felt more disoriented than free-floating in space.
"I need to go," he said. Fury let him leave without further comment.
Tony was waiting for him inside the hanger of the Iron Bird. He was leaning against the wall just inside, leg up and arms crossed. He quirked at smile at Steve. "You okay?"
Steve shook his head. "No."
Tony dropped his arms and walked over to Steve. He placed his hands on Steve's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Steve. It's okay. Fury pisses people off, he's got one setting. Kind of like me, but less charming and handsome.” Tony rolled his eyes, a self-deprecating grin on his face. "You'll get used to dealing with him."
When Steve didn't smile, laugh, or otherwise respond, Tony's grin faltered. "Hey, Steve. You okay?" He dropped his hands, moving away, and shoved them in his pockets.
“Nothing’s simple anymore,” Steve said. “And it probably never was.”
Tony shrugged. “Welcome to the 25th century.”
Steve nodded, and as he passed Tony, he caught his hand for a moment. “Thanks,” he said.
Tony’s smile returned.
The plan was simple enough. Get in. Drop a warhead on their ship. Get out. Nothing to it, except for ship defenses, fighter jets, and a whole lot of empty space they had to get through both there and back. If Tony had been smart, he would have never built the dumb fighters.
They were almost ready to depart. Tony hadn’t seen Steve for awhile, so he went to look for him.
He found Steve in his room. Steve sat on his bed, bent over with his head resting on his hands. He only had half his flight suit on, the sleeves off and bunched up underneath him. He looked up abruptly when Tony knocked on the open door.
Steve smiled, but it was weak and faded in seconds. "Hey, Tony."
“You ready to go?”
Steve gestured to his half-dressed state. “Not quite.”
“It’s only one ship," Tony said. "It could be the last of their species, and this’ll be a total extermination.” He leaned against the wall, watching Steve closely. “Is that what you want?”
Steve looked at Tony for a long time. At last, he turned his eyes down to the floor. "No. I’ve fought them for too long, and while I can’t risk thinking of them as anything less than the enemy, it’s not right to cause extinction. But in this case, it's that or seeing the people I care about die all over again.” He met Tony’s eye again. “Even though that happened at the hands of enemies I didn’t know I had.”
Tony crouched in front of Steve, taking his face between his hands. He pressed his lips lightly against Steve's and pulled away before Steve could respond. Steve smiled lightly at him.
"It was Hammer, you know,” Steve said, “who sold the weapon material to the Chitauri."
"Way ahead of you on that."
"And you didn't tell Fury."
Tony shrugged. "Not enough reason to. Plus, didn't really find the right moment, you know. It's best when Hammer's there to deny it with about as much voracity as the idea of an honest thief."
"Fury wasn't going to tell you either. He didn't want to see you smug."
“And if he did, I would be.” Tony grinned.
Steve reached out and took Tony‘s hand. He ran his fingers along Tony‘s. "Fury sent word back to Earth. They'll freeze his assets, confiscate his property.. He has no where to run."
"Except the whole wide universe. It's easy to live out here, Steve. To get lost among the stars." He flipped his hand over to capture Steve’s in a tight grip.
"Is that what you came out here to do?"
"Nuh-uh, you go first this time. Why'd you come out here?"
Steve pulled Tony up next to him. "I fell in love with space. And I wanted to see it for once without coming to destroy part of it."
“That’s noble,” Tony said. It was more noble than his reasons. “I just ran away from my problems. That’s all I ever seem to be doing.” He brought up Steve’s hand to his lips and kissed it once. “When you’re ready, meet me on the bridge.”
Steve arrived to find the rest of the Iron Bird’s crew was there, too. Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy were there, of course, as was Bruce, but, to Steve's surprise, Clint and Natasha stood with them, too. Tony grinned when he saw Steve.
Tony clapped his hands once. He spent a moment looking at each of them before speaking. “I’m not one to say we should all cry and hug one another, but I guess there’s always an exception.” He glanced down at his feet, and when he looked up, Steve could see his determination. "I can't ask you to come with me. SHIELD has agreed to provide transport to anyone who wants it to the nearest jump gate out of the sector."
Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy took no time in stepping forward.
"I've been working for you for more than a decade. Who says I'm going to stop now?" Pepper said.
Happy nodded. "And someone has to keep your engine in top shape. Without me, you couldn‘t get a light year away from the station.”
Rhodey clasped a hand on Tony's shoulder. "When I resigned my military position, you wouldn't believe the flack my mother gave me. And to follow you all the way out here of all things. I'm not giving up on this just yet."
Tony picked up Rhodey’s hand from his shoulder and gave it a shake. “Good to have you back, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes.”
“Unofficially, of course.”
Bruce smiled and said to Steve, “Tony might be an ass, but he has a way of attracting people to him. Who knows how he does it.” He clapped Steve’s shoulder and joined the other three around Tony.
What Tony had was devotion. A salvage captain he might have been, but he had people who weren't soldiers following him into battle. Steve felt a pang of regret that his crew could not be here with him, that he couldn't make a similar speech.
Clint and Natasha approached him. They glanced between each other before speaking.
"Steve," Natasha said, "we'll follow you into battle. You've fought the Chitauri before. We'll be part of your strike force."
Steve felt his heart swell. "I can't guarantee you'll get out alive."
"We know the risks,” Clint said, Natasha nodding her agreement. “You think we just accompany pompous entrepreneurs during our normal jobs?"
Steve didn't want to ask. The more he knew about SHIELD, the less he liked. But Clint and Natasha weren't SHIELD itself.
He shook each of their hands. “Glad to have you with me.”
Tony called out from his mob, “So it’s a full house?”
Steve gave Tony a salute. “Full house.”
Tony had put on this very suit many times before. Each time, it had been to salvage. Even on the Chitauri ship, that had been another kind of salvage job. This was about creating a salvage job for someone else in the future.
The others had left for the Mjolnir, captained by Thor, shortly before. Rhodey and Steve were heading up two of the four squadrons, and Natasha and Clint were part of Steve's. They were all piloting one of Tony's babies; the remaining five had been loaned to other SHIELD pilots, including both Coulson and Hill. Bruce, having little experience with flying, had stayed behind to help rig the bomb to the Mark VII. Either way, as he put it, small containers in high stress situations didn't mix well with him.
Steve was likely giving a rousing speech of encouragement to the squadrons right now. Due to his experience with the Chitauri, he'd been elected Alpha Leader of the Sierra Squadron. The position suited him.
Tony, gloves in one hand, checked the time with JARVIS. It was one hour until go time. Everyone was in position; it was best he went to his, too.
However, it was then that a knock came at the locker room door, and Steve walked in.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" Tony asked, surprised he was still here.
Steve's face was grim. "Tony," he said. "Do you have a minute?"
"Don't really have much of anything at the moment," Tony said. He pulled on his gloves and flexed his hands, testing his mobility. Wouldn't do if his movements became restricted. "Dying really isn't a good business idea. Guess I wasn't better than Dad after all."
"We're not going to die."
"Ah, yeah, sorry, betting against you on this one." Steve could waffle all he wanted on how they were all going to make it out alive with the others. But Tony didn't get to where he was today without dreaming big, but keeping a firm grip on reality. Chances were a million to one they would all get out of this alive. "So, you wanted to talk? And not about how we're all going to survive this, I hope."
Steve stepped forward until he was right in front of Tony. "I-" Steve looked down, fists clenched.
Tony sighed. "Maybe we should leave it-"
Steve cut Tony off by grabbing his shoulders. He pressed Tony against the wall. His breathing was heavy, and Tony held himself back, letting Steve tell him what he wanted for once. Steve licked his lips once before kissing him, hard and desperate. His hands were still on Tony's shoulders, and their suits stopped them from getting very close to one another. But Tony slipped his hands up Steve's arms all the same, kissing back just as hard, just as desperately.
When they broke away, their breathing ragged, Steve said, "You can't get yourself killed. You come back. Because we haven't... I haven't figured out what this quite is yet, and you can't leave me hanging."
Tony placed his hand around Steve's neck and pulled him down for another kiss. His heart was doing funny little flips, and he wondered how Steve thought he was so confident, thought how he knew what this was. Relationships had never been Tony's forte. He had left a trail of failed attempts behind him up to this point. And having a relationship with Steve, Tony liked that idea. He just didn't know how to fucking do it.
"I could do it, you know," Steve said as he lightly kissed Tony's lips over and over again. "You don't need to-"
Tony put a finger up to Steve's mouth, stopping both his chatter and actions. "Who's the one who has the military training?" Tony said with a cocked eyebrow. "Who's the one who almost single-handedly won the Chitauri war - no, don't you dare refute that, we could both be dead by tomorrow. I'm not going to spend my last minutes with you fighting."
Steve buried his face in Tony's shoulder. "Just come back, okay? Or I'll drag you out myself."
Tony took a shaky breath. "Yeah, anything." He held Steve close. Part of him wanted to ask why they didn’t just run away together when they’d had the chance. But if they had, guilt and shame would have destroyed Steve. They would have destroyed Tony, if he were honest.
So he held Steve close to him and hoped that this wouldn’t be their goodbye.
At 11 hundred hours UEA Standard Time, the Mjolnir made the jump to hyperspace.
Three light seconds from the Chitauri ship, it dropped out of hyperspace, and the four fighter squadrons sped from the ship. Steve glanced at his sensor readings to see the Mjolnir disappear back into hyperspace.
"This is Alpha Leader of Team Sierra," Steve said as they flew on. "All teams, keep a sharp eye out. The instant they notice us, we're fighting for our lives."
From the drop off point, they had twenty minutes before they hit the Chitauri ship. That time was quickly dwindling. At 2 minutes from their destination, Steve began to worry. They were getting too close for Steve's comfort without notice. The trouble with the Chitauri War had been the Chitauri always knew when they were approaching minutes out. Sneak attacks were nearly impossible. Yes, they were utilizing a blind spot in the Chitauri's monitoring systems, discovered near the end of the war, but it was too easy.
"Keep watch, everyone," he said into his communications. The Chitauri ship came into visual range.
Thor's ship was in position, traveling through hyperspace to avoid early detection. Ten minutes from the squadrons' first contact, the Mjolnir would drop in, almost right on top of the Chitauri ship. This way, they could direct the Chitauri' weapons towards them, causing enough distraction for the Iron Bird. It would approach under the cover of fire, allowing Tony's jet to disembark and make a run for the Chitauri ship. The bomb would be deposited in one of the open bays; Tony had insisted he could make the tight turn in there and get out of the blast range before the bomb detonated. The second the Mark VII disappeared into the Chitauri ship, they would retreat.
45 seconds from their destination, Steve knew something was wrong. They should have met retaliation at least two minutes before.
"Maybe we'll do this without needing Tony," Rhodey said over the communicator.
"Eyes ahead, Rhodey," Steve replied. "If we don't see something soon-"
It was almost with relief that Steve saw on his sensor the fast moving dots that indicated the Chitauri were onto them.
As the enemy fighter jets approached, Steve hoped Tony was in position and ready to go. They could only hold off the Chitauri for so long. Their numbers were far too great.
"Hold on," Steve said over the comms. Their trajectory put them directly in the path of the oncoming Chitauri fighters. "The goal is to stay alive. Take out what you can, but don't take any risks."
The Chitauri fighters came down on them.
Tony waited in the cockpit of his Mark VII. He could only imagine what his other babies were going through.
His communications blinked at him. He accepted the transmission. "Tony here."
Instead of Steve, it was Bruce who spoke. "Look out for a second."
The top of the fighter jet opened with a hiss. Tony peeked over the side, and Bruce stood at the bottom, giving Tony a little wave.
"I'm on stand by," Tony said. "Not really the time to chat."
"I know," Bruce replied. He shoved his hands into his pockets with an awkward shrug. "I just wanted to say thanks, Tony. For everything."
"Are you hoping I'll die?"
"No, I'm not." Bruce began to pace. "Just be careful out there. You don't owe anyone anything. Going down a martyr's just going to hurt the people who care for you."
"Come on, I'm sure Fury would give me a big shiny medal posthumously."
"And since when did you care what Fury did?"
“Tony, listen to me,” Bruce said. He looked up at Tony, and he had never seemed more earnest. “You’re not a team player. This plays right into your hero complex. And I’m worried about you for it.”
“Comments noted. Maybe not appreciated, but noted.” Tony slid back into his seat and shut himself in. He turned on the communicator to say, “It’s a drop off, Bruce. They’re firing at everyone else, I’m in about the safest position you can be.”
“Until they realize what you’re carrying. One good hit, and you’re gone, mission failed.”
Tony turned off the communicator, but he kept the cameras on to watch Bruce leave.
"They're preparing weapons!" Steve shouted as he took a dive to avoid another jet. His monitor screamed warnings at him. The mothership was trying to target him.
"Damn it," he heard Clint mutter. "Got one on my tail! Nat?"
Steve couldn't keep an eye on them, dealing with his own pair of fighters attempting to strike him. He looped over them, getting between them, one in front and one in back, and with a pair of well aimed blasts, the front fighter exploded. He jerked his controls, flying away from blast. His shields protected him. The other fighter flew straight in, taking heavy damage.
"Clint," he said. "You okay?"
"Already took care of it, Rogers," Natasha replied. "You should watch your own back."
But the mothership's weapons were ready and firing.
Steve dropped down, rushing forward and under. The energy beams grazed the hull, but the damage was superficial.
“Teams, report,” Steve said.
Rhodey’s voice crackled over the transmission, obscured by minor radiation left from the beams. “Team Romeo’s fine. Shaken, but moving back into formation. Man, it's good to be in this seat again.”
“Team Charlie, one fighter has retreated, Chitauri are not in pursuit,” Coulson said, voice crisp.
"No casualties for Team Hotel," Hill replied.
“Team Sierra’s in the clear," Steve said. "Let’s keep our hit list down to the one, folks."
But the mothership was preparing to fire again, and more Chitauri fighters flew from its bays.
Steve quickly found his team's formation shattered, and he was too busy dodging enemy fire to get a lock on an enemy ship.
"Clint's down," Natasha said. "Damage to engines. He's a sitting duck."
"Get him out of there, now!" He saw Clint's fighter floating dead on his scanners. He'd managed to get some distance away before the engines gave out, but the Chitauri were closing in fast on him, and Natasha wouldn't be enough. Steve spun his ship sideways between two Chitauri and sped back to help.
And like a Valkyrie on a chariot, Thor's words, not Steve's, just as they had planned, the Mjolnir dropped from hyperspace. Its weapons already prepped, it took down the Chitauri heading for Clint.
The Mjolnir, a bulky, featureless ship, smashed through the tiny fighters with precise targeting.
But it wasn’t enough, and it wasn't the last surprise of the fight.
The Mjolnir began to turn the battle in their favor. Natasha reported Clint was safely stowed in the Mjolnir, and the other down ship had made it to safety, too.
But before Steve had a chance to celebrate, he watched in horror as another Chitauri warship dropped from hyperspace behind the Mjolnir.
Damn it. Why had they assumed there was only one? The Chitauri must have deliberately hidden it in their records. Just like in the early days of the war, they were two steps ahead of Steve and his people.
The second warship was smaller than the first, but Mjolnir alone was no match for two warships.
The Chitauri would overwhelm them in minutes.
Steve debated with himself for a precious moment. He came to one devastating conclusion: this wouldn’t work.
“Teams, fall back to the Mjolnir. This is Alpha Leader Rogers speaking, Teams, I say fall back. We need to regroup and change our plan of attack. I repeat, fall back.”
A string of affirmatives came streaming back to him, and Steve began weaving his way to the Mjolnir.
The Iron Bird arrived to find the fighter teams retreating, boxed in by two Chitauri warships. The Chitauri’s own fighters were hot on their heels.
“Damn it, the one time we didn’t need to be late,” Tony muttered to himself.
Tony flicked on the engine, and the Mark VII grumbled quietly to life, smooth and sleek. “Alright, baby, it’s show time.” Of course, with two ships instead of one, his job suddenly got a lot harder.
He opened his comms, and he received an earful of Steve shouting, “Fall back! I repeat, fall back!”
“Hey, Steve, I need the Mjolnir and Iron Bird to get as far away as possible,” Tony said. If he could hit the right spot on one of the Chitauri ships, he might at least be able to incapacitate the other. But that would put Mjolnir and the Iron Bird at risk. He sent a message to JARVIS to get the Iron Bird out as soon as he left the bay.
“Tony?” Steve sounded surprised, like he’d forgotten about him. “Mission’s scrubbed. We’ll all end up dead before we can make the hit. Get out of here, Tony!”
That was stupid. Didn’t Steve see? Tony’s monitors clearly showed the Chitauri were too preoccupied with the fleeing squadrons to even notice the Iron Bird’s presence.
“No can do. I’ve got a shot.” He dropped from the hanger and set his thrusters to high. The mothership, the larger of the two, was farther than he’d ideally like, but anything long of right underneath him wasn’t ideal.
"Tony, you are not going in there alone!"
"Too late. Just get the Mjolnir out if you don‘t want to die," Tony muttered, and he shut off communications. If Steve wasn’t going to complete this mission, Tony was.
The Chitauri mothership, huge, a mess of gray plated armor and bright lights, loomed ahead of him. Tony increased his speed. They were likely to notice him any second. One fighter jet heading toward the ship while the rest fled? Even Chitauri weren’t that dumb.
And notice him they finally did. The Chitauri fighters began turning from their pursuit. They approached, first remaining only blips on his sensors, and then the sleek pods came into view. Tony grit his teeth and flexed his fingers on the controls. One lucky shot, and they were all toast.
The first energy beams missed him by a wide margin, but with the second ship also preparing weapons, he wouldn't be so lucky for long.
He picked a spot on the broadside of the Chitauri mothership. It was turning slowly, and the other warship had begun to close in on him to get a better shot. Before acting, he checked to see if the Mjolnir and Iron Bird were still in range. No, they had already started retreating. It was showtime then.
Tony dove closer to the ships hull, and pressed the release. But the release clamps malfunctioned, and the warhead stayed resolutely attached to Tony's ship.
That left him with only one choice.
"Sorry, baby," he said, patting the dash of the Mark VII. They pulled out of the dive to come around for another one. "Didn't mean to take you with me."
He flipped on his communicator again.
“Tony! Tony!” Had Steve been shouting his name over the public comms system this entire time? “Tony, come in!"
“Tony! Turn back! Abort! I said, abort!”
“Already here. Just wanted to say, you’ve got a really nice ass. I never told you. But you have a really nice ass.”
“Tony, we can pick you up, just get out of there.”
“Nope. Going through with this. Hey, Steve, do you think I have a nice ass? Normally I wouldn’t ask, but you know, dead men still have egos.”
And Tony smiled as Steve didn’t shout back him, as Steve must have realized Tony was serious, as he realized that Tony had decided to make it a suicide mission.
“You have a great ass, Tony. You have a great everything.”
“Thanks, Steve. Good to know I can still impress. Hear that, everyone? With the Steve Rogers Seal of Approval, I think this makes me the most attractive man in the galaxy.”
He shut off communications. That last cry hadn’t been just Steve. Damn it, even Coulson’s voice had been in there. Of course, they would argue with him on his beauty, the jealous dicks, even at death's door.
Tony sniffed once, took a deep breath, and dove for the mothership.
Tony had predicted how he would die once. Well, he said predicted, but it was more how he wanted to go. He'd be drunk, naturally, in an upscale bar, surrounding by beautiful men and women. The music would be hot and heavy, something classic, from the days when people injected the Kree equivalent of LSD into their veins. And a gorgeous blonde would climb on top of him and gyrate her hips, and Tony, a grand old hundred and thirteen years old, would close his eyes and die in bliss, a single malt whiskey in hand.
He supposed the he could pretend the stars were all gorgeous babes, but as his oxygen meter blinked furiously at him, it was a little hard to imagine. Tony had spent his life among the stars, at least in mind if not in body. It was wholly appropriate to die among them, even if he hadn't intended it like this.
He closed his eyes and adjusted his fantasy. It wouldn't be a blonde bombshell babe. It would just be Steve. And they wouldn't be at a bar. They would be curled up on a couch, maybe even the Iron Bird's own observation deck. Tony still liked the idea of being one hundred and thirteen. This meant his hand, nestled in Steve's, would be wrinkled and peppered with liver spots, but Steve's would be almost as bad, and he had a good couple hundred of years on Tony.
But the stars before them wouldn't have changed.
Tony opened his eyes to look at them. That was more believable. If he held his hand, the one he could still feel, just so, he could imagine Steve's enveloping it.
"You're an idiot," Tony said, but his voice rasped. He coughed.
He was still strapped into his ship. His body ached too much for him to try to assess the damage. To be honest, he didn't really care. It was like dying with a friend beside him, even if that friend had cancer.
Wouldn't it be funny if he started hallucinating? That would be funny. An interesting way to die, no doubt, despite the lack of barely covered breasts wiggling in his face.
It was okay to die. As Tony took in deep, desperate gasps, he felt pretty okay with his death. His head was pounding, and his chest was ripping apart, so he wished it really would just hurry up.
And then, blissfully, his body shut down.
"Good work, Steve," Pepper said over the comms. "We'll get a good price for the adamantium."
Steve smiled, although she couldn't see him, and said, "Thanks."
The Dummy drone was taking care of moving the boxed metal into storage. Steve's work for the day was done.
When he got out of the shower, using one of the locker room's private stalls, he found Tony sitting on a bench, looking over something on a data pad. Steve marched over and plucked the pad from his hands.
"I wasn't done with that," Tony said, reaching for it.
Steve held it out of his reach. "I thought you were in bed."
Tony shrugged. "I got bored."
Steve began to dress as he admonished Tony. "Near-suffocation, radiation poisoning, and major surgery require some boredom and bed rest. You need to take it easy." He was aware Tony was watching him and probably ignoring what he was saying.
"I am taking it easy, who said I'm not? Bruce has had me locked away for weeks, and I'm feeling stifled."
"That might be a good thing," Steve said. He turned off the data pad before giving it back to Tony. "Come on, you're going back to bed."
Tony protested the entire way.
"I don't even have my own ship anymore," Tony said as they walked. "I've become irrelevant on my own ship. For the sake of my baby, Steve, I need to do something."
"Pepper will hand control back to you when you're healthy again."
Tony snorted. "That's what you think."
It had been two months since the attack on the Chitauri ships. The mothership had been completely destroyed, and the second warship badly damaged. SHIELD had taken both ships, and Steve didn't know what had happened to them after that.
For being a galactic hero, Tony was an awful whiny one.
"Are you going to help me undress?" Tony said when they reached his room.
Steve rose an eyebrow. "You got dressed on your own. What do you need me for?"
"For many things." Tony lifted his arms for Steve to pull off his shirt.
Tony's body still had healing scars from the radiation. But despite the blistering that spread over his body, it was the round piece of metal in his chest that was most noticeable.
Tony's heart had been replaced. The radiation poisoning had damaged it beyond repair before they could pull him out from the debris. But through a combination of Bruce's ingenuity, supported heavily by theories of a 22nd century genius named Dr. Yensin, Tony had received an artificial heart. It wasn't elegant, the hunk of metal sticking out of his chest, but it did the trick.
But it had changed. Steve stared at Tony's chest. "You're glowing blue," he said at last.
Tony tapped the metal piece in his chest. It was emitting a faint blue light, and it looked sleeker, less bulky. "I made some adjustments."
Tony shrugged. "I got bored." He wrapped his arms around Steve's neck. "Now, are you going to finish helping me or continue to admire my handiwork?" He placed a chaste kiss on Steve's cheek. "Or I could think of another thing we could do."
Steve turned his head to capture Tony's lips in a proper kiss. He savored the way their mouths fit together, the scratch of Tony's beard against his skin. With one hand, he traced Tony's features as they kissed, running his fingers along his jaw line and up along his brow. He wanted to capture the feel of Tony's face.
His other hand ran lightly down Tony's chest, avoiding both his healing wounds and his artificial heart, and slipped his hand behind Tony's back.
"Good choice," Tony murmured, and he pulled him back towards the bed.
He spent a long time just kissing Tony. It was the most they'd ever done during Tony's recovery. Steve was worried going any further would put too much pressure on Tony's heart or infect his wounds. He'd almost lost him once.
But today was different. Tony's hand slipped between Steve's legs, and Steve's groan was swallowed by Tony. He pulled away, meeting Tony's eye. "I'm not sure," he said. "I mean... is it safe? Can you?"
Tony grinned at him, running his tongue along his top lip. "It'll be great, Steve."
Oh, how he wanted this. He nuzzled Tony’s ear.
Tony's hands slipped underneath his shirt, urging him to remove it. Steve complied, tossing it away.
They ran their hands over each other's torsos, Steve taking care where he touched. But Tony grabbed Steve, pulling him forward, so their bodies were flush together. He pushed Steve down onto the bed and began to rut against Steve. Tony groaned above him as he moved, and Steve watched the small changes in Tony's expression as pleasure flicked through him.
Steve's breathing increased, and if Tony didn't stop soon, he was going to come in his pants. He reached up to still Tony and then rose onto one elbow to kiss him again.
After a few more minutes of kissing, Tony pushed him down on his back and began making his way along Steve's body. Steve shivered as Tony's lips and tongue teased his skin. He captured one of Steve's nipples lightly between his teeth, rolling it around for a moment before switching to the other. Steve moaned, and Tony's left hand came up to his mouth. Steve pulled in Tony's fingers and began to suck on them.
Tony took his hand away to undo Steve's pants. He urged him to lift his hips, so he could slide the rest of Steve's clothes off.
It was a relief for Steve to have his cock freed, although the air felt too cool on it. Tony hummed as he looked at it with a lick of his lips. "Oh, Steve, you're gorgeous."
Steve felt his body heat.
Tony returned his fingers to Steve's mouth as he kissed each of Steve's thighs. Steve resisted bucking his hips to entice Tony. He held back and let Tony lead. He felt Tony's breath run along his cock as Tony blew on it. Then he felt Tony's wet, warm mouth take in the head.
Steve clenched his fists at his sides. He wanted to grab Tony's head, to thrust into him, it felt so good. Tony’s free hand gripped the base of his cock, running along it.
Steve shivered as Tony teased him, taking him in with shallow, slow movements. Tony took his hand from Steve’s mouth, running it along Steve’s sac.
Able to speak, Steve said, "Please, Tony, please." And Tony obliged.
Tony took him in deeper, humming and sucking, and Steve felt his release build.
"So close," he said, hands reaching for Tony's shoulders.
At his words, Tony backed off some, making Steve both relieved and frustrated. He let go completely of Steve's cock and nodded to the small set of drawers set in the wall. "Bottom shelf," Tony said, and his voice was thick with arousal. Steve reached blindly, not sure what he was looking for at first, but when his fingers ran into the tube, he realized he had found it. He tossed the lube down to Tony, who caught it with one hand.
Tony squeezed a generous dollop onto in his fingers. He smiled, a lazy, lustful smile, and his fingers pressed against Steve. Tony rubbed the lube into the skin, and he applied more to his fingers before dipping one slowly into Steve.
It was completely different than the time Steve had tried it on his own, long ago as a curious teenager. He breathed through his nose, trying to relax and get used to the foreign sensation. Tony moved the finger in and out in short thrusts, and then he crooked it, stroking up and down. Steve gasped as pleasure ran through him.
Tony's mouth returned to Steve's cock.
Tony moved slowly, adding another finger and slowly stretching Steve. Tony's other hand began running along his chest, and Steve tried to capture it. He eventually did and brought it up to his lips to kiss the inside of the wrist. He breathed softly on it, making Tony shiver for once, and he began paying slow, careful attention to the sensitive skin.
Tony added a third finger, and Steve held Tony's wrist to his lips to keep himself from crying out.
It seemed like they had been at it for ages, Tony teasing his cock, Steve teasing his wrist, and Steve's body just thrummed with the need for release.
Tony extracted his fingers from Steve. "You ready?" he asked. Tony stood, his hands moving to his own pants, and he removed them, hissing softly between his teeth.
His eyes half-lidded, Steve beckoned Tony forward. Tony leaned down to him, kissing him slowly. He caught Steve's bottom lip between his teeth and tugged on it, releasing slowly.
Tony lifted Steve's legs up. Steve felt Tony press his cock against him, so that it was flush against his body, but he did not enter. It seemed like ages they stayed in that spot, watching each other's expressions for any change, any doubt. Then Tony pushed slowly in.
It was a slow process, one that made Steve reach up and pull Tony down for kisses while his body gradually adjusted to Tony's girth. When he felt Tony's balls against his ass, he started to chuckle, but it turned into a groan.
"Move, Tony," he murmured.
Tony began to thrust in and out. They set up a steady, but gentle pace at first. Steve reached between his legs to grab his cock and match the pace.
But it wasn't enough. "Faster," he said, and Tony picked up speed. He lifted Steve's hips to get a better angle, and Steve felt that wave of pleasure pass through him.
He was so close to coming. He picked up the pace on his cock, trying to get Tony to do the same with a thrust of his hips. So close, he watched Tony's face, looked down his strong body, the artificial heart glowing in his chest, down to where he thrust into Steve.
Steve felt the heat build, and with a few more strokes and another thrust, he came with a guttural moan. Tony thrust a few more times before coming himself inside Steve.
They took their time cleaning up. Tony seemed more than fine, he was practically beaming in the afterglow. Freshly washed, with a sponge bath for Tony, they curled up in clean sheets in Tony's bed. Tony rested his head against Steve's chest, his finger tracing invisible swirls on Steve's clavicle.
"That tickles," Steve said, reaching up to catch Tony's hand.
Tony just hummed in response.
"I could get used to this," Steve said. He could so very easily. He glanced down the top of Tony's head, the short black hair sticking up. He ran his fingers through it, which made Tony groan and swat his hand away.
He thought Tony had fallen asleep from the sound of his breathing, but out of nowhere, Tony said, “Heard from Natasha or Clint?”
Steve shook his head. "Not yet. But I'm sure they're doing fine."
Somehow, the two had found out what SHIELD had done to Steve's station. They'd taken a moral offense to it and had returned to Earth to deal with SHIELD's shortcomings at the source. It was only possible with the cooperation of Colonel Nick Fury and the other ranking officers of the Outer Centaurus station.
“Think this’ll start a civil war within the UEA?” Tony asked. "Mars wouldn't mind it. We've never felt our interests matched with Earth's."
Steve couldn't guess, but he said, “SHIELD’s meant to keep the status quo. I trust them all to do just that while wiping out the corruption within their own organization.”
"Perhaps you're right."
Steve's thoughts drifted. So much had changed in just a few short months. Thor had, naturally, returned to Asgard, and they hadn't heard a word since, not surprising considering its isolation. What had been surprising was Bruce going along. It was just for a visit, he had said, and he would call the Iron Bird when he was ready to be picked up.
Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy were still here, though, running the ship and business smoothly while Tony recovered.
Steve didn't plan on ever telling Tony about his own offer for a job with SHIELD. It had been unexpected, but Fury had encouraged him to take it so that Steve could work to change SHIELD from within as Clint and Natasha were. But Steve was done with politics and wars. It was time to experience a life of his own.
He wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders. "I love you, Tony Stark," he said softly.
Tony's reply was a gentle snore.
But Tony wasn’t asleep. He waited for Steve to drift off before carefully extracting himself. The skin around his wounds was a little sore; that had taken more out of him than he’d expected. He brushed back a stray lock of hair from Steve’s forehead.
Steve was an idiot. When Tony had regained consciousness in the ICU of SHIELD’s, Pepper had told him what happened.
The Mjolnir and Iron Bird had made it out safely, but Steve made a scene, demanding they go back to save Tony. But the area was flooded with radiation, and they couldn’t take that risk.
So Steve had done the stupidest thing by beaming from the Mjolnir to the Iron Bird, taking one of the shuttles, and speeding back while in hyperspace. It was only because the shuttle had a vibranium hull that it didn’t tear itself apart when falling out of hyperspace a light minute from the Chitauri ships.
It was that same vibranium hull that allowed Tony to last the several hours it took for Steve to find him. It had shielded him from much of the blast, although Tony had smashed into his console, damaging his suit so that his oxygen leaked.
The Iron Bird had met them just outside the fallout zone, and they’d rushed to SHIELD. Thor had provided more advanced medical equipment from the Mjolnir, which had sped up Tony’s recovery.
It was incredibly dumb of Steve, but Tony felt his heart, even metal as it was, swell every time he thought of it.
It wasn’t Steve who was lucky to have been found. It was Tony who was lucky to have found Steve.
Tomorrow, he would tell him, and he would botch it up, and they would probably fight until Steve understood what Tony was trying to say. And even then, Steve, blushing, would still make him stay in bed and rest. Which, alright, maybe Tony should have been doing more of.
He twined their hands together, watching Steve sleep. He would tell him he loved him as soon as Steve woke up.