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Staring at the Sun

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Utopia had given itself a lofty name, paradise for all, brought to mind images of lush gardens and sparkling falls, beauty and joy for everyone.

Utopia was a ball of mud and dirt. Too hot by half for life to exist beyond a narrow strip along the northern pole, as the south was wracked by vicious electrical storms that shorted out any tech that went too close, so there weren’t any colonization efforts. What it did have were large amounts of resources just under the surface, huge deposits of Eezo (Element Zero used in the production of fuel for ships that entered into the Hyperstream; they needed it to maintain stable drive cores. What Steve knew about drive cores could fit into a thimble, but he knew Eezo was a hot ticket) laced with Vibranium that made it expensive and extremely dangerous to mine; completely impossible for normal space-mining operations, meaning they had to do it the good old fashioned way.

The people who lived on Utopia were mostly outcasts from other systems, generally people without a place and often more ambition than actual sense.

Or people like Steve Rogers who didn’t want to be found.

Utopia was far on the outer edges of the Kraken-Eto Nebula, so far out of the way that the Federation didn’t have the time or the man power to show their presence aside from the occasional fly-by when the colonists showed some degree of unrest. The very edges of the slave belt, poor planets ruled only by pleasure houses and pirates, smugglers and the other assorted filth of humanity.

“Well, this seems like as good a place as any,” Steve said out loud as he stepped off the train. It was baking hot in the direct sunlight, hitting his cheeks and making the skin feel like it was burning instantly. The train had kicked up a fine layer of red dust, it was a mostly-windless day, so it hung in the air spinning in lazy motes of rising hot air, getting into the folds of his clothes and sticking to the inside of his nose.

“Indeed,” Don rumbled. He cast a large, bulking shadow over the train platform, huge shoulders and taller even than Steve; he cut quite the imposing figure, even if he did curl himself trying to appear smaller.

They had fallen in together, be it chance or fate, one evening when Steve had first rolled into Shangri-La (the biggest city on Utopia and a bit of joke, honestly) with the last of his credits making a rattling sound on the card he had.

Don Blake had been looking for someone to share a room with, a horrible little hole; something in the walls moved at night but never showed itself. Whatever it was, it sounded large and had more than four legs and Steve wasn’t a coward, but some things were better left unknown. It and three people died when the whole thing went up in a blaze not even a week ago now. Between the two of them they had managed to get the old woman from across the hall out, she was so frail that Steve was sure her bones would break under his touch.

Smoke filled the hallway, old walls dried out from the long summer going up like so much tinder. Everyone had known it was only a matter of time. At this rate, the rest of the slum block was going to go up too. Steve was covered in soot from head to toe and watching his home burn while the crowd milled around, entranced by the blazed despite what the authorities said over loud speakers. There wasn’t anything anyone could do.

Don rolled his shoulders back, forgetting for a moment to hunch and to hide, backlit by the fire, he looked like something out of old spacer legend, gods that walked among men. They decided to use the last of the money to get away from there. There was nothing in Shangri-La for them.

There wasn’t anything in Landfall either, but it was as good a place as any to start.

Landfall was the official furthest south settlement, right on the edge of the liveable zone. A dusty place by the looks of it, and hotter than the devil’s asshole.

Steve didn’t have much--everything he arrived with (two photos he couldn’t leave behind and some clothes that he found at a local thrift store just after the fire) fit into a small sack that he hefted over his shoulder. Don didn’t have much more than he did, a battered sack that looked like it had been through a really rough ride. There was a sort of standing unspoken rule where they didn’t ask each other about what happened before, heck, they rarely talked about the future. Don was a very in the present kind of guy and that suited Steve just fine.

Well, they were broke and homeless again.

“No point in hanging around here,” Steve said. The sun was going to bake the back of his neck, he could feel it already; he’d lost his hat at some point. He couldn’t hide the years spent in space, pale skin that marked him obviously different the moment anyone even set eyes on him and also left him vulnerable to the heat of the sun. “Let’s go find somewhere to spend the night.”

--

What they found was a bar named ‘The Ant and the Wasp’, dusty wooden floors and stools around scarred tables. The bar was at the back, presided over by a tiny woman. Mrs. Janet owned the place and was willing to trade work for the small cramped room above the bar (‘So are you the wasp then?’ Don said with one of his disarming smiles). She’d taken one look at them and whistled long and low, a coy flutter of lashes and a tinkling laugh. ‘My my, they grow them big where you come from’.

Steve helped Jessica (the bar tender, a fall of long dark hair and dark eyes and a wicked smile that almost distracted from how low her dress was cut; it was hard to figure out where to stare that would be polite) lift things behind the bar while Don wiped down tables and they kept their eye on the crowd of people.

Most of the men were dark with the red dust that seemed to coat everything. They were pretty tame, most of them looked too tired to do much but hunch over their pints, murmuring softly to each other. Steve couldn’t imagine there would be any trouble but it was no hardship to keep an eye out.

The loudest was a table in the corner, almost hidden from Steve’s sight, but he could hear them just fine. ‘Hell no, how many times do I need to say I’m never playing cards with you Tony, you’re a shark.’

‘Don’t be that way, I’ll go easy on you,’ a voice answered.

“Night tomorrow will be busier, I’ll be glad for your help.” Jessica put her arms on the table, pulling a rag from behind the bar and tossing it to Steve. He was stacking the thick chipped cups.

“Oh?”

“These guys are just back from the mine to the south. They work there a week and come back for a few days.”

“I thought it was too hot to the south?” Steve asked. Don was sweeping by the door, oddly nimble for a man his size. Steve knew a fighter when he saw one.

“The mines are underground.” Jessica shrugged. “I don’t really know how it works; that’s boring.” She gave him a sly smile and Steve shook his head. “I’m more interested in you, what brings you to Landfall?”

“The scenery.” Steve said deadpan. Jessica laughed, the sound sudden in the hushed murmur of the bar.

“Fair enough, honey. It certainly isn’t for the local fauna,” she replied with another easy smile.

Silence lulled between them again. Don ambled over, dropping off a few empties before moving back towards the tables. She pitched her voice low, pushing into Steve’s space brazenly. “Your boy there is a nice one,” she baited him.

“We’re not like that.”

“Oh?” She leered at him faintly but moved back towards the other side of the bar, leaving him with enough space to wash out the glasses in peace.

He’d had a girl before. Sharon Carter was a firebrand and a fast shot. He didn’t know if she survived the massacre at Echo Cry or not, but everyone was listed KIA. Probably not. Dum Dum, Bucky, and Peggy, everything he ever loved ripped away.

Steve stacked the glasses in neat rows, feeling the tips of his ears and the back of his neck heat up. Jessica was an amazingly attractive woman and she seemed interested in him, even if she was a little more aggressive about it than Steve was entirely comfortable with, charmer.

Steve helped close down the bar, Don stacking the stools so he could sweep under the tables. Jessica sat by the music box, flicking through the songs and singing along in a low throaty voice to her favourites and sipping from a low cup of scotch, watching them.

The next morning Steve woke up to hammering on the front door. It sounded like Morse code, careful exact knocks that didn’t stutter or pause, but they followed no system he could think of. No pattern or hidden meaning. Just some irritating bastard knocking on his door when he was awake far too late into last night.

“Answer it,” Don snarled from the bed, they’d tossed for it the night before; when Don was tired he had a slight limp and Steve wanted him to have the bed, although Don would never thank him for it if he thought it was out of pity. Don won the bed fair and square and Steve was fine with that, but that meant he was wrapped in a blanket on the hard floor and closest to the door. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and his back wasn’t going to thank him if this went on for very long.

A little bleary, he unwrapped himself from the blanket; they had trudged up the stairs late last night, Steve politely turning down some of Jessica’s more pointed comments, (apparently her bed was quite large and so very empty) because he was flattered but unwilling.

Don pulled the thin pillow over his head, blanket low around his legs exposing the silvery lines of a long thin scar across his belly as if someone had tried to gut him and failed. The edges weren’t jagged; whatever made the cut had to have been impressively sharp.

Inside was beginning to heat up fast, his internal clock told him it had to be around mid-morning planet side (in military space time was standardized based on the old earth time and he’d always been good at judging time). By the afternoon it was going to be another sizzler, he was beginning to think that no other kind of day existed in Landfall.

“Yes?” Steve asked, as snidely as he could because it was really bright outside and he was just really tired; he squinted at the too-bright light as it burned against the back of his retinas.

“Top of the morning to you too.”

The stranger was hidden mostly in the shadow cast by the brim of his hat. It cut a sharp line of shadow across his chin. Tall, not quite as tall as Steve but slim, neat tidy shoulders and a trim waist. He was armed, revolver tucked into a holster that he didn’t even try to the hide, straps cutting across his chest in a tilted T. Steve could just see the shadow of facial hair and the hollow of his throat under the neckerchief.

“Need a hand, word on the street is you’re looking for some quick cash.”

Steve squinted against the light. “I’m not doing anything illegal,” he said, voice raspy and hard with sleep.

That at least got him a startled laugh, the stranger tipping his hat back. Steve had been right about the facial hair, shaved into smooth shapes that outlined his generous mouth in dark lines as if trying to draw attention to how pink his lips where. There was too much shadow to tell what colour his eyes were but Steve got the impression of long dark lashes.

He had a quick and shallow smile. “Nothing like that, I just need some back-up and someone to help me carry things. You or your male-friend interested? Cash, quarter up front and the rest when we get back, two days out.”

The voice was familiar, something he had heard before and for a long, drawn out, paranoid second Steve was completely sure that the jig was up, he’d been found and caught, a moment away from tried and executed. Only this was ‘Tony’, the one from last night-- the card shark. Sat at a table just out of his line of sight for most of the night, just another harmless local.

“Yeah.” Steve cleared his throat, doing his best to be alert and awake. “I’m interested.” Don was going to talk to the local clinic, a Dr. Hank, to see if he could help out there. Besides, Steve could hold his own if something wasn’t on the level.

“Perfect.” Tony clapped his hands together before holding one out for a firm handshake. “Tony, Tony Stark. Meet me by the train station in two hours, come armed. We’re heading out immediately.”

It wasn’t until the door was closed behind him, trying to keep in what little chill remained from the long night, that Steve realized that in all of Landfall Tony had been the first to offer a last name.

“Got a job,” he said to Don as he moved around the room rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Don grunted, pushing his face under the pillow so that nothing but the tangled ends of his long blond hair and his toes sticking out the other side of the blanket were visible. Steve smiled to himself a little. “I’ll be gone a few days.”

That was enough to get him to move the pillow off his face and give Steve a squinting sort of look. “Is it level?”

“Hard to say.” Steve kicked off his sleep pants and rooted around for a ratty pair of jeans--no point in wearing anything nice if he was going to be working out in the sun. “Someone named Stark wants help lifting things, sounds like we’re going out in the desert.”

“Watch yourself.” Don rolled onto his side, tugging down his thin sleep shirt so it covered the scar again. Steve wouldn’t ask about it.

“I always do,” Steve replied. He pulled on an undershirt and pulled out a button-down to go over it. It was tight around the shoulders, not meant to contain a man quite his size, but it fit well enough. Stark might be a fast draw, but most people assumed the one with the gun was the one with the upper hand. Those people didn’t last too long when they had to tangle with Steve Rodgers.

Two hours was just enough time to wash up, get kitted out and he just needed to find something to eat. There was movement in the bar when he stomped down the stairs, so he paused to stick his head in. They seemed to be good people; it didn’t hurt to keep an eye on things for them.

“Morning ma’am,” Steve said smartly when he saw who it was. Janet was sitting on top of the bar, the fringe of her dress brushing delicately across the top of the stool she had one booted foot on. She was talking to another woman with long blond hair perched on one of the bar stools; instead of the style favoured by the women, she wore tight jeans and a tight faded-black shirt that didn’t hide that her shoulders were large for a woman. She had a pale yellow cowboy hat on her lap, toying with the braided leather strap.

“It’s the first time it’s been like this, I just can’t seem to focus lately,” she was saying, mouth curled into an annoyed frown. “I was doing fine when suddenly all my inspiration just dried up.”

“Oh, good morning Steve.” Janet smiled at him. The blond woman gave him a glance from behind her long blond hair, but didn’t seem overly interested. “This is Carol.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” he said politely. Her big blue eyes seemed docile enough, but the way she held herself was anything but.

“Likewise,” she replied smartly. Her accent spoke of the inner-most star systems, but she didn’t offer any more information.

“Steve is staying in the room upstairs,” Janet explained with a careless wave of her hand. “Carol and I were just about to have breakfast, would you like to join us? It’s always nice to have something pretty to look at.” Janet laughed and Carol’s mouth curled a little at the edges, moving from stoic to amused subtlety.

“What does Hank think of you ogling the help?” Carol asked, kicking out a stool so Steve could sit with them. Janet only sniffed delicately before sliding off the end of a bar in a controlled hop that had the heels of her boots clattering against the floorboards. She moved away to return with some food.

Steve mostly listened to their conversation. Carol was apparently an author of some sort; what she was doing in Landfall of all places never entered the conversation. What she was was irritated with the fact that her work seemed to be slowing down. Janet was worried about some live-stock mutilations; usually meant wargs were near-by, or any of the other desert predators; apparently the land around Landfall was rife with them. He waited for a lull in the conversation, Janet sipping something from a scarred mug that looked hand painted and Carol wiping the thick syrupy mixed-berry sauce off her plate with more bread.

“Do you know Tony Stark?”

“Tinkerer, scavenger, a bit of a jack of all trades.” Janet hummed. “Touch of the devil in that one.” The way Janet said it sounded a lot like she didn’t mean it entirely as a bad thing.

That was the first real smile he’d seen from Carol. It lit up her face and made the corners of her eyes crinkle. “Tony is a shark, give him a chance and he will devour you.”

“Come on, Carol.” Janet laughed. “He’s mostly harmless.” Janet grinned at him, not completely unkind. “Unless you work in the mine and have a lonely girl, if you catch my flow.”

Belly full and entirely charmed by Janet’s easy acceptance of him, Steve excused himself to go find his shark.

He could easily see how dames would fall for a guy like Tony. He gave Steve a quick smile, leaning against one of the walls on the train station, waiting for him. Then he paused, gave Steve a longer look that would have been attractive if he didn’t go and open his mouth, ruining the moment. “What are you wearing?”

Steve pulled at the end of his poncho, settling it better on his shoulders and frowning at Tony. “I don’t see a problem.”

“You look like you tore down a flag to wear,” Tony continued, squinting at him.

Steve frowned harder. It wasn’t so bad. The colours were a bit faded--the vertical stripes must have once been vibrant blue. It was soft with age and fit nicely around his shoulders, and that was rare in clothes. “I don’t see what’s wrong with it,” he said slowly.

“Of course you don’t.” Tony shook his head and pushed himself off the wall and out of the shade it offered in a long, smooth movement. “Well, we’d best get a move on while there is still sunlight.” As if there was ever any end to the sunlight.

“Listen here, I’m not going anywhere unless you tell me a little more about what we’re doing.”

Tony paused, sized him up again, like he was really seeing Steve for the first time and shrugged. “Fair trade. We’re going to an old space-mine, it’s a common place to junk things. I’m going to look for parts and you’re going to lift them onto the skid for me. There are a lot of wargs in that area, it’s best to have two pairs of eyes. I don’t really fancy being eaten. Normally Rhodes does this for me, but he got himself laid up with a broken leg and I need those parts. That good enough for you Captain Flag?”

He decided to let that one roll because it looked like Tony was going to be the one paying his rent this week. Despite what Bucky may have said, from time to time Steve could be gracious when he wanted something. “Fine by me hot-shot.”

Tony made a face at him. “Do me a favour, and never call me that again.”

“Money up front?” Steve asked. He had to make sure Tony was good for it, even if the girls didn’t seem to think he was the type to lie about it (many other things if you asked Carol, and women if you asked Janet, but he was honest with money).

“Hundred credits now, three hundred when we make it safely back. I don’t want you to murder me and steal my stuff. The usual.” Tony shrugged. Steve figured even if he wanted to it wouldn’t be that easy.

“You got yourself a deal.”

“Good to hear it,” Tony said, rocking forward on his toes. “Can we get a move on now? Daylight is burning. As are you by the looks of it.”

Steve grimaced; the sun was a bit more than he was used to, bigger and hotter than any sun had the right to be in his books. “It’s bright,” he conceded. Brighter than he anticipated just a little after noon, and in the height of the heat when all the sane people were safe inside, meaning they were two men standing in a ghost town.

“Here, wear this, and put these on, we’re going to be going pretty fast. Everything is almost ready.”

The hat was a little dusty, an undefined pale colour under the smudges from use, the goggles matching the slim round ones that hung around Tony’s neck. The hat did help with the steady beat of the sun on the already-raw skin on the back of his neck and cheeks. It was going to be tender and pink later. Any longer and the skin on his scalp was going to burn too--his hair was just too fine and too pale to offer much protection.

He adjusted the tie on the hat while Tony fussed with the hitch that connected the skid to the bike. Wide and flat, it hooked up to the back of the bike via a small bit of pneumonic tubing. It sat on the ground on four squat wheels that would blow as soon as they hit a sharp enough rock. Still, Tony seemed pretty confident as he circled it one more time.

The goggles made Tony’s thick, dark hair stick up funny, hat sitting on the seat of the bike while he adjusted everything to his liking. The goggles gave him a distinct bug-like look. He tied the hat to one of the handle-bars.

“She’s old and her venting isn’t the best, so you might want to get on first or you’re likely to lose a foot.” Tony looked at him, or Steve assumed he did; the goggles hid his eyes completely, probably mirrored to cut down on the worst of the glare.

It didn’t look like a hover bike in any sense of the word, more like the body and engine had been cobbled together from the cast off bits of other vehicles. Still, Steve slid himself across the back straddling the wide seat, sitting back and fiddling with his hat once more to make sure it was sitting on his head right. Stark stood up, balanced against the handle bars, pushing down on the ignition with his whole weight. For a moment nothing happened, then the whole thing shuddered hard, rattling Steve’s teeth together.

It started with a high pitched whine, listing to the left, Steve clutching at Tony’s chest, arms wrapped around him, to keep from sliding off with how sudden the motion was. Venting a little he said--plasma flared out from the sides, hot enough for him to feel it through his boots even with his feet tucked safely behind the shielding. They hung like that for one impossible moment before it straightened itself out, the other thrusters kicking in along with the plasma filters so it stopped spewing near their feet. The whole damn thing was a public safety hazard

“Jesus,” Tony wheezed. “You got a helluva grip on you.”

Steve let go, sitting back again. His fingers had been digging into Tony’s ribs with enough force to bruise. “You could have warned me.” He finally settled on feeling a little guilty.

“I did,” Tony muttered back, just loud enough to carry over the soft roar of the bike’s engine. “You’re going to want to hold on again. It’s not the smoothest ride.”

The acceleration was jerky, shooting them forward suddenly only to be brought up by the inertia of the skip, which hovered on boosters he couldn’t see and had to assume were hidden behind the wheels. Steve gripped one of his shoulders this time, keeping care to gentle his grip.

Landfall looked small in the distance, hazy through the cloud of dust they kicked up, a squat little blip on the map; none of the building were very tall, everything covered in that same red dust. Once they got far enough away it just blended completely with the red desert around it.

They were zipping away from it quickly. They were going fast now and the ride had smoothed out to a glide. There were paths worn into the land around Landfall, wide swaths cut by the exhaust of hover vehicles or actual wheels, winding around the rocks, pulling in large arcs to avoid the many canyons that tore up the land in these parts.

Tony ignored those completely, whizzing around the rocks way too fast for something that looked like it was held together by elbow grease and desperation. He was intent on staying off any sort of established path that Steve could see, blazing his own trails. The corners were just tight enough that the skip didn’t smash into anything or tip them over. Steve was honestly a little shocked. It took a level of skill he wouldn’t have pegged Tony for.

The wind played with the brim of his hat, threatening to tug it off his head and push it down over his face in equal measure. They drove for long enough that his butt was beginning to fall asleep, and his grip on Tony’s shoulders went from awkward to feeling almost casual.

This far out it was almost like being in space, looking out at something that seemed to stretch on endlessly forever, like it was possible you were the last people left alive anywhere. He could just make out the curve of the horizon in the distance, pale blue sky meeting the land and blurring together with the heat rising so it almost looked like water colour. The bike continued to rattle and hum, hurtling them through the air, chasing after the sun.

Tony leaned with the bike, bringing them hard around to the side, putting the sun to their left. To their right, they were at the edge of a much larger canyon. Just on the other side of it he could see something rising out of the ground. The jagged edges became clear as they got closer, the whole thing beginning to loom, really the only thing of interest on the whole horizon and quickly getting closer.

The biggest hunk of debris looked like a hunk of an ARK class ship, used mostly to colonize planets able to move large amounts of people and live-stock, but they were so difficult to get into the Hyperstream that it was often better to just use smaller ships. Only the bones of the hull remained, jutting up into the sky like skeletal fingers.

Tony slowed them down, pulling to a jittery stop just on the inside edge of the shadow it cast. Out here nothing moved, just the sand shifting in the faint breeze.

“That was some driving,” Steve said, his knees feeling stiff and his hips refusing to cooperate as he stretched himself out. “I didn’t think it could go that fast.”

“She’ll go plenty fast.” Tony brushed the worst of the road-dirt off of his shoulders, and pulled his goggles off his face. There were two clean circles around his eyes and Steve smiled a little at how goofy he looked. “I built most of the engine myself.”

Well that seemed to explain the lack of any sort of safety regulation, at the very least.

“Rhodes tried to tell me it was dead,” Tony said with a reckless sort of grin. “There is no such thing as impossible when you have magic fingers.”

Steve snorted. “So Hotshot, where do we start?”

Tony pulled a face at him, looking highly unimpressed. It took more of his military training than Steve would like to admit to not smile.

The sun was hitting late afternoon, slanting down and away and taking a little bit of the heat with it. Just when Steve was beginning to think he was adjusting to life on Utopia, it just kept on getting hotter.

“Come on, let’s get started, the faster we wrap this up, the faster we can get out of here.” Tony hefted a bag from the skip, struggling for a moment under its weight. Steve took it from him, slinging it across his shoulders easily. “See, this is what you’re for.” Tony wandered towards the nearest jut of rusted metal. “I bet you’re real good at reaching the top shelf too.”

Turned away like that, he didn’t see Steve roll his eyes as he followed after him.

The work was pretty normal, mostly standing around in silence while Tony tinkered, poking his head in cracked open cabins and scaling up piles of debris with an agility that Steve wouldn’t have expected. It wasn’t all that different from the long hauls between planets, or some of the more dull escort missions he had been on.

Mostly, he stood at the base of whatever Tony was messing around with and watched as the shadows around them grew longer. He would have expected animals to live in the relative shade offered by the artificial structures, but most of what he saw was plant-life, weeds that seemed to curl out from under everything, an oddly muted shade of dark red, trying to blend in with the mineral laden-dirt.

Sometimes, something would move out of the corner of his eye, curious about them probably, but it was gone before he could get a good look. It seemed small anyway, hopefully not too much to worry about. Mentally, Steve tagged its location; he would worry about it once it began to press into the little secured circle around him.

“Shit,” Tony swore, sudden and quickly. He had been talking this whole time, not to Steve really, so Steve had been ignoring his mumbling. Steve had answered the first time Tony asked something, only to realize that Tony hadn’t been talking to him at all, instead talking the mess of crystalline circuits he’d pried open a metal hatch to reveal. Steve looked up sharply as Tony teetered wildly on the edge of the wing exhaust vent he was perched on, arms out for balance. The idiot should have been tying himself in place. Steve tensed, ready to throw himself between Tony and the ground should he actually tip over, but he caught his balance, crouched on the very edge.

“What is it?” Steve called out, looking up at the end of Tony’s coat hanging just past his perch.

“Biter.” Tony hummed, sounding mostly distracted. Biters were larger-end lizard-like creatures, with wide flat heads that sat on long muscular necks; all the better to snap at ankles with. Officially they were called ‘chất độc’, but most people called them biters. They liked to hide in shady spots and wait for unsuspecting prey to come along before they shot out like a gun practically dripping with venom; enough to drop a large man in an hour. The slums in Shangri La saw a lot of death, blamed a whole lot of biters. “Nesting in the targeting matrix. Nasty fucker is huge.”

The angle was awkward, but Tony seemed to be rocking on his feet, balance precarious. The gunshot was loud in the otherwise complete silence. Tony teetered dangerously, fitting the small revolver into the holster strapped to his ribs while holding on with just the tips of his fingers.

“Was that really necessary?” Steve asked, the sound set his nerves on fire, making his skin feel tight and the space behind his eyes throb.

Guns blazing, the steady fire of a Gatling gun roaring over the sound of screams mowing down people as they fled. Innocent people.

He blinked and it was Tony back to ignoring him mostly.

“It was—“ He trailed off for a moment before he continued. “Jackpot.”

The body of the biter landed on the dirt to Steve’s left, its head completely obliterated by the small calibre arms, squat body limp and leaking the clear, bitter smelling fluid it used for oxygen transport. Steve toed it out of his way and re-settled into something that was far enough from parade rest so as to not arouse suspicion, but still kept him alert and on his toes and comfortable for the long haul.

Tony lapsed into silence again, trailing off as he reached further and further into the guts spilling out of the open hatch as if he hadn’t been interrupted at all.

There was a certain zen to listening to the muffled, bangs, the low hum of a small hand-torch flaring to life. Slowly the light began to take on a reddish quality--everything on Utopia was slightly red, just got worse as the evening wore on.

Also, something was beginning to move and it was bigger; he could hear animals coming awake all around them, moving around the lengthening shadows. Tony didn’t seem to notice. He had amassed a small pile of crystalline chips, each about as large as his palm. Steve knew that they were integrated into a lot of machinery to make a rudimentary Virtual Intelligence, allowed for better human-machine interfaces. Guidance systems, targeting systems, there were probably other uses for chips with that kind of capacity, but Steve wasn’t sure what they might be.

“I think we should set up camp,” Steve called. Tony ignored him for long enough that Steve had to wonder if he even heard him. “Stark?” he said a little louder. Basic potential threat posed by native fauna on a hostile planet. Set up a defensible position. Steve rocked forward on his toes.

“Oh?” Tony looked down at him, frowning at him, at his pile of junked parts and finally at the sky. “Camp? Yeah, probably good plan.”

Watching Tony get down with all of them in his arms was amusing. Steve let him juggle them for a bit, until it looked like Tony might actually fall and slice himself to ribbons on the sharp edges of the crystals. “And you mocked it.” Steve pulled off the poncho, clothes a lot cleaner underneath, and tossed it up to Tony so he could wrap them up and pass them back down.

Finally Tony was on solid ground again. There is a bit of lizard blood on his face, mixed in with the layer of dust, leaving a streak of cleared skin down the side of his face that was lost in his facial hair. His smile was a sharp sliver of white teeth against the filth.

“What’s not to love about a man with a plan?” Tony asked and Steve didn’t stop himself from rolling his eyes this time.

Tony had a decent kit in the bag--it was so organized that Steve was mostly convinced that it was someone else’s work. Tony didn’t mind him setting one of the sleeping rolls for himself. In fact, Tony mostly ignored him while Steve did all the work, sitting in the middle of the clearing where they had dragged the bike over to where they were working (hover-craft didn’t make tight corners well at any speed really), propped against the side of the skip, messing with a cloudy crystal and a small wand that sparked when he touched it to seemingly random places.

Steve mostly ignored him in return. There was something calming about keeping one eye on him while Steve set up a messy camp. It wasn’t up to normal standards, but he couldn’t take the risk that Tony was more than he seemed to be, that he would see straight through to a life of military service that was harder to drop than a drug habit.

“Need help with that?” Tony asked, voice effectively shattering the calm. Steve had dug out a small place to make a fire; there wasn’t much wood around here and he was a little concerned about lighting anything he didn’t know about. Alien plants didn’t always end well for servicemen on exploration missions.

Steve went still. Tony still wasn’t looking up at him, seemingly completely absorbed with his task. Tony looked up finally giving him an odd look. “Those dark red plants burn hot, so you only need a little bit.” Tony’s legs stretched across where Steve needed to go, legs long enough that his toes almost brushed the small pile of dirt from the pit. He stepped over them carefully while Tony grinned up at him.

“Didn’t think you were going to help,” Steve finally called back, re-tracing his steps to where he last remembered seeing a clump of those plants sticking out from under what looked like the hollowed out shell of a drop ship.

Tony made a soft snorting sound. “You seemed to have it well under control.”

Steve wasn’t sure what Tony meant by that, so he just crouched down, flashing his light against the darker corners, doing a quick sweep for anything that might want to bite his fingers before risking sticking his hand in. The roots were long and curly, thicker than Steve would have anticipated and he had to put more shoulder into pulling it out.

When he got back Tony was watching him.

“What?” Steve asked, rubbing at his face. He knew he was dusty and sweaty. Tony just shook his head, shrugging.

“Nothing.” He paused for a moment, eyes flicking left then back to Steve quickly. “Just marvelling, that’s a really ugly poncho.”

Steve gave him a faked smile that would have done Bucky proud, all twisting sarcasm and syrupy sincerity. Tony stared at him for a long, shocked moment before he burst out laughing.

Even though he had been ready for it, the plants went up like a flare, sudden and hot, blazing up higher than Steve expected and he jerked backwards, keeping his arms up in a basic defensive stance. He dropped it quickly, tried to make it look a little less fluid, watching out of the corner of his eye to see if Tony noticed anything usual.

Tony was smirking at his work, head bent down but obviously amused. Steve relaxed a bit, breathing slow and controlled. “Very funny,” he said and Tony just hummed, squinting at his work in the fading light. “Is there food?”

“Yeah, I think Rhodes made something.”

They split a thermos of food, packed with an almost-military neatness. The soup was basic but hot, and Steve ate his portion quickly; standing in the sun all day had left him hungry. Tony picked at his food until the light was completely gone. The fire burned hot but not bright, and the shadows closed in quickly. The moon of Utopia was small and didn’t reflect much light, not like some planets where the moon was made of minerals that reflected well so that the night was lit up as brilliantly as day. There was one larger moon, but it had a slower rotation, so the new moon phase lasted upwards of a week.

It made him nervous that there was no tactical advantage to cowering in the pitiful circle of light. The darkness pressing steadily from every side, Steve slid a little closer, trying not to feel like a child being told a scary story. This close it was almost too hot, the skin on his face and hands feeling tight, already burnt and reacting to the additional warmth badly.

“Going to blow your wages on women and drink? You don’t strike me as the junkie-type. Still, there’s enough junk in Landfall to put down a space whale.”

Junk was a wonder-drug, lit up the brain like a million twinkling stars, nothing but pleasure as it destroyed the connections in your brain, leaving nothing but catatonic zombies after a brief euphoric addiction. “Now, don’t judge,” Tony said flippantly. “How people chose to escape is their choice.”

“It’s a waste,” Steve said, teeth gritted. He’d seen a lot of these people, pissing themselves, drool thick down their chins, tucked into corners and forgotten by their friends and family as a lost cause. Given up on their lives and thrown away everything that was important for a brief shot of happiness. “If you’re alive--then live.”

“Big words.” Tony hummed. He didn’t seem angry, simply curious. “Okay, I didn’t think you were going to spend it on drugs anyways. So what is it, whisky? Every man has a vice.”

Murder and a blood-soaked past. “We just arrived, need to find a place to live. Money can’t hurt.”

“Need to support your boy-thing?” There was a definite leering edge to the playful curiosity of the question. “I can see why you’d want to keep that one around.”

Steve sighed. “We’re friends. That’s all.”

“What are you waiting for? Do only women do it for you? No brave new worlds?” Steve couldn’t help the little smile.

“It’s not that.” Steve shrugged. “We just don’t work that way.” The back of his neck felt a little hot and it had nothing to do with sunburn or heat rash. Steve wasn’t used to quite so much speculation about his relationship, not since he and Sharon stopped dancing around each other. Tony made a soft sound without enough inflection to figure out what he meant by it.

Tony curled up next to the fire, close enough to soak up the heat, but just far enough that he wasn’t in danger of lighting himself on fire if he moved in his sleep. Steve couldn’t drop off as quickly, not with the shadows at his back and Tony obviously dead to the world. It was either incredible stupidity or the ability to trust someone more easily than Steve had encountered in all of Utopia, which seemed to have Tony at ease.

It was a paradox, because Tony wasn’t stupid; he had proved as much so far, but Steve watched him sleep in the flickering fire light and was honestly baffled. Himself, he dozed lightly, catching snatches of sleep in the molasses-slow passing of the night.

The moon was almost gone and the fire was burning low when someone moved--at least Steve was sure that it was someone that woke him from his light sleep. He snapped to attention immediately. Staying completely still, he willed his eyes to see through the dark, but he had been looking at the fire too long and his night vision was shot.

Nothing moved for so long that the sudden hike in his heart rate began to slow again. Maybe he had imagined it. There, a step, something moving lightly just to his left. Steve stood up, hoping moving would distract it. Instead, he heard what sounded like two more. They were being surrounded.

“Tony,” Steve said. There wasn’t a response. He nudged Tony with the toe of his boot. “Get up. Trouble.” Tony curled away from him, Steve nudged him harder. “Come on, get up.” This time he spoke with a little more urgency, willing Tony to snap to attention.

Tony glared at him, eyes slit tight against the light, and visible only because they reflected the fire. In the distance something shrieked, its call echoing shallowly, giving it a hollow sound that rang in his chest and sent a chill down his spine. That managed to get Tony up; he sat up quickly, squinting up at Steve.

“Carrion birds,” he breathed. Steve had never seen one or heard one. They were not a problem in the more urban setting of Shangri-La, but they didn’t sound good.

“I think we have a bigger problem, there is something moving out there.” Steve nodded his head at the shadows, pointing his gun at anything he perceived as moving.

Closer this time, a soft scraping sound. Whatever it was was getting bolder. “This is probably not good,” Tony breathed, eyes jumping between Steve and the dark just behind him.

“Will the fire keep them away?” Steve couldn’t say if it would even burn till morning or not--it was burning slower than most woody carbohydrates, but dawn was a long way off yet.

“I wish I could tell you,” Tony replied tightly.

The answer was effectively no. It happened so suddenly, something lunging out at him from the dark. It was a fast-draw but Steve was faster. Shoving Tony aside, Steve tucked himself into a roll, coming up into a crouch on the other side of Tony. He didn’t catch a good look at it, just an impression of huge eyes and scales in an indistinguishable dark shade.

Tony was swearing low under his breath. Steve ignored it mostly, straining his ears to listen for any other sounds that would indicate that he was about to be attacked again. He just barely dodged the second creature, jaws snapping right by where his elbow had been only a moment before. They were too quick to get a bead on, sticking to where it was too dark for him to aim, the barrel of his gun jumping from shadow to shadow. “We need to move now.”

Steve could see the exact moment Tony hesitated, thought of his crystals--Steve was not dying for them, of all things not them. “Now.

The position wasn’t defensible; they needed to move, but he couldn’t say which way would be the best shot. Probably wouldn’t be able to outrun something that fast for long. Clearly night predators, once they got too far from the fire and into unknown territory they would be blind, and only a matter of time until those jaws found their mark. He also didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it.

“How well do you remember the layout? We climbed, from before,” Tony said. Steve cut a look to Tony, quickly, impressed.

“Go.”

Steve shot twice, straight ahead. Something large stumbled, moving away from the sudden sound with a lot less grace than it had used to sneak up on them. Steve had been worried about losing Tony in the dark, but he seemed to remember the layout of the place well enough for not being able to see well, so Steve trusted him too it and just ran.

Whatever was following them was almost supernaturally quiet. Running, Steve could just hear the sound of feet over the wild beating of his heart and the rasp of cold air through his open mouth. He hit his destination a little more suddenly than he thought. He’d misjudged the distance just a little, so his shin clanged off something hard enough that Steve had to bite back a curse. This would be the hardest part; he hadn’t been paying all that much attention to Tony while he was up here. Hadn't needed to get up himself even once, and so he was unsure of where to put his hands. With that weird amount of grace, Tony was already crawling up the side.

“It’s sturdy,” Tony called back and Steve climbed without thinking about it too much, relying on feeling and the imagined sensation of things snapping at his heels to give him motivation to reach his hand up into the semi-darkness. It was enough motivation to have him moving quickly. “Here.”

He found Tony by chance, pushing himself up past a narrow ledge, hands on his shoulders, his shirt, pulling him up onto a wide, flat edge that was wide enough for the two of them to sit.

“What are those?” Steve asked, panting lightly, it hadn’t been a far run, but adrenaline was spiking through his blood, making his heart pound and his breathing speed up to match.

“Mengyan,” Tony replied, sounding breathless from the run. Their perch was narrow, so Tony was a bit closer than Steve was used too. He smelled like sweat and the minerals that made up the dust. “I’ve never actually seen one before.”

“I think that counts as a lot more than one.”

Tony chuckled low and amused and wildly out of place because they could still hear the thwarted growls and the soft scrape of claws on metal. Steve hadn’t meant it as a joke, but it was kind of funny when he thought about it, almost like one of Bucky’s sarcastic quips that always seemed to make danger seem a lot less horrifying. Steve’s feet dangled a little, the thick heels of his boots hitting the strut they were sitting on. Tony’s knee dug into his thigh, sitting cross-legged and leaning against the back. Steve’s eyes adjusted to the darkness slowly and he could just make out large, dark shapes, blacker than the night around them and with the slight catch of moonlight on huge eyes. They had long, whip-thin tails that stuck out straight behind them.

Four of them, hulking things that paced in tight circles around the base, snapping at each other in thwarted aggression.

“I take it this isn’t normal?” Steve asked, Tony’s knee was jiggling against his thigh as if he wasn’t able to keep still, only falling still when Steve spoke.

“No, most people don’t ever see them, kill live-stock and miners from time to time.”Tony trailed off then, quiet until the jiggling started up again. “I guess it’s lucky I took you with me,” Tony said. Steve could imagine the flash of teeth, Tony giving him one of those sharp, fleeting smiles.

Steve felt him start, about to say something else, but he seemed to think better of it, going quiet while Steve huffed. “I didn’t quite sign up for this.”

Tony breathed out in an amused rush and they were so close that Steve could feel the way his body shifted when it did. “Fair enough, I can probably throw in a little extra, for such a stand-up job.” The carrion bird over head screamed again, a shadow passing over the moon for a moment that caused them both to fall silent.

Slowly, Steve’s heartbeat began to tick over from a panicked rush to something near-normal. He hated himself a little for the giddy rush, the sense of being alive, of being completely in one moment. It hurt to admit that he missed danger, that just getting by day to day left him feeling empty.

It was a long while on an uncomfortable perch before he began to really feel how cold it was, the echoing calls of the carrion bird still ringing hollow from where they couldn’t see. They had thermal blankets and a fire and that had been fine over there, but up here it was only the cold faded light of the moon and the chill. They just needed to make it to dawn, then the sun would bake the earth and the air would heat up again quickly to just barely tolerable to human life levels. That, at least, was a warming thought and he clung to it desperately as his hands began to numb.

It worked up till a point; Tony kept shifting, trying to pull himself in tighter and it only reminded Steve about just how cold he was when Tony wasn’t actually running into him in the small space. Neither of them was going to get any rest this way.

It took a bit of wiggling, his hips unhappy with moving after sitting so long and locked in place by the cold, but he reached out and tugged on Tony’s shirt. He hadn’t thought a man with limbs that long could curl himself into such a small ball.

“Come here, it’s cold,” Steve said softly.

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Tony replied in a small voice and Steve smiled, sure Tony couldn’t see him.

“Only the pretty ones,” Steve agreed sarcastically.

Mock it as he may, Steve’s poncho was enough to keep him from getting too cold as he sat back, hauling Tony mostly into his lap so they were pressed together as much as they could be while still sitting. If not for the fact that he barely knew Stark and didn’t trust him, this would have been nice. The warmth that flooded from him was delicious and Steve had to carefully keep himself from pressing up like a lazy cat for more. Tony had no such restraints, twining around Steve’s body with a soft pleasured sound sticking frozen hands just under Steve’s poncho.

“I can see how this would win the ladies,” Tony said, his voice pitched low for how close it was to Steve’s ear.

Steve snorted and Tony shifted lightly. They weren’t going to be able to stay like this for long; Tony was heavy, not overly butch like Steve himself, but heavier than his lean frame would have let on. Soon Steve’s legs were going to fall asleep or his hips were going to ache, but for one glorious moment his hands were warm, curled at the base of Tony’s spine.

“It’s usually a sure thing,” Steve agreed after a long pause and Tony jerked against him with a silent laugh.

It must have been a little more comfy than Steve thought because he woke while the sky was lightening, beginning to go pale purple at the horizon. He still had a lap full of Tony Stark, heavy against his thighs and face pressed against his shoulder.

This was probably the closest he had been with another person since the whole thing fell apart (he meant that about him and Don not being like that, no matter how many people insinuated). The feeling was heady, and he was still sort of clinging to the edges of sleep, mellow and blurry, almost dreamlike, and allowed himself to rock Tony slightly closer to his chest so he was holding him properly. Like he would have held a lover. This would be an awkward conversation later, but right now it felt a lot like a hug.

It took Tony a little longer to wake up. He didn’t snap to it, instead coming awake in pieces. “Still going to respect me in the morning?” Tony mumbled around a yawn and Steve was tempted to dump him on his ass, but they were too high up for rough-housing. It would be really irritating to have kept him alive this far only to kill him now.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Steve chided and Tony laughed.

“Is it safe?” Tony asked, scanning the pale morning light for anything threatening. Nothing had moved for a long time, just small creatures shifting around in cool light, some small rat-like things and a few larger lizards, but nothing overly threatening.

“Stay here, I’ll check.” Tony protested wordlessly as Steve shoved him over to the side, stretching the leaden feeling out of his hips and knees easily. He crawled down the side, jumping when he was low enough to make a decent landing. Nothing jumped out at him. Some smaller animals made soft sounds of alarm, hiding from him in a flurry of movement. He made it about three steps before Tony grunted behind him, feet landing with a solid sound.

Steve glared at him over his shoulder, but Tony wasn’t paying attention, looking around himself. It wasn’t worth starting a fight over; there had been no danger.

Their camp had been completely torn apart. Scraps of their provisions left in shreds mixed with the raggedy edges of the bed rolls. Tony whistled low in the back of his throat. Claws had slashed through everything, the edges torn like they hadn’t been quite sharp enough for the job and just tore. “Rhodes is going to be pissed he missed this.” Tony rocked back on his heels.

Steve sorted through what was destroyed and what was usable quickly, making two piles. Tony continued, standing above him, one hand on the edge of his gun and looking towards the dawn. “See, he’s ex-military just like you. Hates being sidelined when there is action.”

Steve was too well trained to flinch, to pause, to react in any way but the tightening of his jaw as he quickly finished his sorting. He wasn’t too surprised, but there was nothing he could say that didn’t sound like he was hiding something, so he remained silent. Tony didn’t elaborate further, instead launching into a one-sided discussion over the term ‘military corners’ and beds that moved away from the personal entirely. Steve continued on autopilot, mind racing, going over the last day or so looking for clues and tells. He was never, ever going to play cards with Tony.

“There is enough left for breakfast at least.” Steve cut in smoothly before Tony could find another topic to start on. Unsurprisingly, Tony was going through the crystals he had picked up yesterday again. Steve couldn’t be sure what he was doing with them, but he was sorting them into three piles.

“Great.” Tony looked up at him briefly and then the scraps of food with a twist of his mouth. “Just like mama used to make.”

By the time they were done eating a light breakfast, Tony pecking at his food with one hand and working with the other, the sun was up and the air was heating up rapidly. The cold night felt like an absurd memory.

“I’d rather not stay another night if I can help it,” Tony said and bundled everything messily onto the skid.

“Probably for the best,” Steve agreed easily. He wouldn’t bet on them if it came down to a fight with those things; they had the home turf advantage and all Steve had was a gun.

Instead of spending the day in one spot, this time Tony wandered in an ordered grid. He was clearly looking for something and mostly back to rambling to himself, occasionally including Steve. The heat was nice at first. Steve hated the cold with the passion of someone who’d been teetering on the edge of freezing to death. It quickly edged past nice and right into too hot. He was sweating, his lower back feeling wet with perspiration and sticking to his skin uncomfortably.

Tony acted like it didn’t bother him, he’d found his hat again in the ruins of their camp and it sat on his head looking none the worse for the abuse. Maybe if you lived here long enough you really did begin to get used to it. Steve couldn’t figure it out. Tony would be warm now if Steve touched him. It would be unbearable to curl himself around Tony, too hot and sticky. Which was the reason he didn’t want to.

It was almost high noon by the time Tony finally found what he was looking for. This time they did a sweep of the corners first, checking the dark places for little things that hid. Steve crushed a small poisonous lizard under the heel of his boot as it darted out. Their mucus left a horrible blistering rash if they came in contact with any skin.

“I’m going to cut the connections, walk the bike over, we will load it up,” Tony said, standing on top of something again so his shadow cut across Steve, cool for a moment before Tony shifted on his feet and his shadow danced and swayed across the ground.

“Stay sharp,” Steve suggested, shrugged and left him to it.

The thing about vehicles that used a hover system was that they were terrible in tight corners, too much inertia and not nearly enough friction; there was no such thing as a good air-break. He ended up putting his shoulders into it, dragging the bike along and watching his step around the unstable venting.

He was sweating like a pig by the time he made it back to Tony, drenched in it, face wet with exertion and the quiet certainty that his brain was boiling inside his skull. “Excellent,” Tony commented jumping down from his perch. Steve was too-hot, leaning in the shade and breathing through the burn in his shoulders, the thick steady thrum of his heart and the salty taste of sweat on his lips. He smiled at Tony.

“Try not to look so happy about this.” Tony laughed and it sounded a little more real, lacking in the sarcasm that coloured everything else he said.

“It’s a beautiful day, the lizards are chirping,” Steve replied easily, feeling at ease with the looseness in his muscles and the shortness of his breath.

“It is way too early for this.” Tony laughed, tipping his head back so his hat cast a shadow that cut dashingly across his mouth.

They moved the part. While it looked big at first, Tony only wanted a bit of it, and it fit easily into the skip and was just heavy enough that Steve couldn’t quite lift it alone. Between the two of them they got it down to the ground without crushing anyone or dropping it. Steve got it up and onto the skip, the whole thing sagging a little under the weight. “You’re a beauty,” Tony murmured and Steve wasn’t sure if he was talking to the tech or him; balance of probability was on the side of the tech.

“Are you going to help me push this out of here?” Steve asked.

“I’m paying you for that.” Tony rolled his eyes.

After five minutes of work Tony was obviously feeling the heat too, sweaty and huffing as they dragged the bike and the skip out of the debris-maze. It went slightly faster now because Tony could steer it and he seemed to know just how much plasma he could give her without endangering himself overly much, or at least seemed to know it well enough that he could skirt around it without seriously injury. While it seemed to take forever, it probably hadn’t been that long and they were out of the thick of it, right at the edges where stuff was still new, stripped of everything of obvious use already by the less capable of scavengers.

They cleared the edge of it, Steve breathing hard. Each dry scrape against his throat should have been horrible, but nothing could bring him down. Tony collapsed over the seat, falling with the bike, panting as he shut it down completely. “I’ll check everything is tied down in a moment, just, need a sec.” Despite saying that, Tony was already pushing himself to his feet and moving towards the skip. Steve pushed off of it and walked towards the nearest puddle of shade for a well-earned break.

He’d lived most of his life on a ship or stationed on an orbital platform, born on a long-haul ship The Brooklyn. This much sun wasn’t good for him at all.

He was idly watching something small and black circling low towards the edge of the huge valley when a soft noise interrupted him. High pitched and soft, clicks and squeaks interspersed with the occasional hiss.
It could have fit into the cup of his palms. Hidden back away from sight by a rock, he had to assume it was mimicking one of those poisonous lizard’s sounds. Steve crouched down, closer to it, the hissing-click increased in frequency and desperation. Its flat head was tucked into the shadows, tail whipping back and forth.

“I didn’t know they even came that small,” Tony said, standing at his shoulder.

“What is it?” Steve asked. It didn’t look like any of the other lizards at all, more like a small lizard-chicken thing.

“That’s a warg,” Tony said with a laugh.

“You hired me to protect you from this?” Steve teased and Tony made an irritated huffing sound in his throat.

“Normally a lot bigger. Never seen a baby before, it’s tiny. Family must have been eaten by the others from last night. I was wondering where they all got off to, normally it isn’t as easy as it was.”

“You call that easy?” Steve asked with an arched eyebrow.

“On a scale of one to fighting those dinosaurs naked, about a three-- if I’m generous.” Steve scoffed lightly. Although he was sure that Tony probably had a point, with nothing shooting back it couldn’t even really be a five. “Wait, what are you doing?” Tony squawked as Steve reached in and grabbed the wargling around the body. It had tiny little bones, like toothpicks under fabric, cool to the touch where he had expected it to feel warm and alive. It bit his finger, rows of tiny razor sharp teeth ripping through the skin on the back of his hand easily. He caught its head with his other hand, keeping it from biting him again while trying not to crush it. “And what are you going to do with that?” Tony took an amusing step back, eyeing it warily, as if something so tiny could do any damage to him.

“It’s going to die out here,” Steve said simply. While he really should just leave it, it was going to die with him too, after all.

“Sure,” Tony agreed with a shrug, moving back towards the bike. Steve probably would have given in if Tony pressed, could see the logic in letting it become dinner for something else. Instead, he wrapped his poncho around it and tucked it safe (struggling and hissing at him) under the engine piece Tony had scavenged, near where Tony stashed the crystals. Tony wouldn’t put them anywhere where they would fall out or get crushed, so it seemed a reasonable place to stow the baby.

He was ready for the way the bike started this time, which didn’t make it any less horrible. That side-ways lurching moment when things went from normal to teetering madly between one breath and the next, then everything was straight again and they were jerking across the plains, and picking up speed as they went. Tony smelled a little more this time, a lot of sweat and work in between, since only yesterday. He held on loosely, but was overly aware of the scant distance that separated them.

The ride back was much the same as the ride out, hot and dusty. Even the wind whipping across his face was hot.

They stopped near the edge of town instead of going into it. Two buildings, both short and squat, each with a roof made of high-efficiency solar panelling, an expensive treat around these parts. They stopped just short of the bigger one, gliding to a gentle stop, huge loading doors opening slowly, creaking their way open and letting light inside. It was completely hollow inside and unfurnished, filled with mechanicals bits and bobs. Although it looked similar to the other building, this one was clearly more of a barn or a garage than a house.

They got everything unloaded and stowed away. Steve tucked the baby warg under a desk where it pulled itself into a ball and resumed hissing at him after a brief struggle to free itself.

He watched casually as Tony puttered around the workshop, squatting down near a safe and opening it with a basic thumb print key-code. The place was somewhere on the line between disaster zone and work-shop, floor splattered with dark indefinable stains and things lying in large gutted heaps. If there was some kind of internal logic at play here, Steve couldn’t pin it down.

“This is where the magic happens,” Tony said with that same smile that reminded Steve that Tony was apparently also in the bed-warming business. “Here, you earned it.”

The credits hit his chest with a slap and he snatched them before they could fall to the ground. He thumbed them easily, seventy five more than they had agreed on. “I don’t think it was worth this much,” Steve replied, unable to just take it with a nod and a wink.

“Save it, worth every cent.” Tony shrugged, the safe shutting with a clang. He stood, leaning back on the desk. In the stark fluorescent lighting he was grimy, covered in filth that had cleared around his hair-line where he had been sweating, and faintly around his eyes were the goggles dug into his skin. “You do good work. I may need your help again.”

Steve considered for a moment. He watched the gentle lean of Tony’s body against the counter and the smooth invitation in his smile. Tony knew the dance, no complications and no attachments; the offer was there if he wanted to take it. There were metaphors for this, forbidden fruit and a sly serpent, wanting more than was good for him.

Tony tasted like minerals and dust and the bitterness of adrenaline. Steve tugged him closer by his shirt and licked into his mouth brazenly. Tony tensed for a moment but relaxed against him, going liquid soft and letting Steve kiss him. “Didn’t see that coming,” Tony mumbled against his mouth, framing Steve’s face with his hands, pushing dust through his sweaty hair.

“Problem?” Steve asked simply.

“None at all.” Tony pulled him in for a another kiss and Steve delighted in the simple touch of it, lips and tongues and Tony’s hips, his ribs, everything solid under Steve’s hands.

They stood like that for what seemed like endless minutes just kissing; sometimes Tony would simply go all soft, letting Steve lead, and other times he would push into Steve’s mouth, turning the kiss playful and shameless in turns. Helplessly, Steve reacted, pushing and pulling with the mood, following Tony.

Tony’s hands slid down from his chin to his shoulders, groping across his neck and the curve of his shoulders hungrily. Steve pressed up into it, pulling Tony tighter against his chest and tasting the low sound of pleasure with just the edge of his tongue.

Tony pulled back a little, re-adjusting his arms around Steve so he could get a better grip around his waist and do away with the last little bit of space between them. Steve’s cock was pressing up against the hard curve of Tony’s hip, their belts clinking together softly. He had to tear away to breathe just for a moment. It was like standing out starkers in the sun, skin hot all over. His mouth was bruised, felt hot and tender, amazing when Tony’s tongue chased it, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth and worrying it lightly.

“Moving a bit fast there,” Steve panted, breathing against Tony’s hair, but doing nothing to stop the way the other man was rubbing against him, doing a little shimmy like a whore.

“You got all day?” Tony asked him, looking wicked, rolling their hips together in a long, slow drag that made Steve’s stomach jolt and pull like doing an unprotected nose-dive.

“Nah,” Steve replied, tipping Tony’s chin back for another kiss. “This is fine.”

“Could be better,” Tony promised, kissing the edge of his chin lightly. He tugged on the edge of Steve’s belt suggestively. Steve just tilted his hips up, pressing himself against Tony’s wandering hands in silent invitation. Taking the hint, Tony groped him through the rough material. “Oh, hey, so much better.” He was smiling so Steve had to kiss him, cup the back of his head and hold him in place.

He groaned against Tony’s mouth, pushing them together a little rougher, with a little more intent. Steve wanted to lick that startled sound right from the source and find out what it tasted like. His belt clicked loudly as it finally gave up, the sides hanging open, the button on his jeans no defence against agile fingers. Steve made an aborted sound in his throat as Tony got a hand on his dick.

The angle had to be awkward; they were still too pressed up against each other and Steve’s pants were too tight, shoved just barely out of the way. He probably could have fixed both of those things but Tony’s fingers were rubbing at the head of his cock, enough pressure to toe the line between teasing and intent.

Tony didn’t toe that line so much as he danced on it, drew it out playfully until it was brittle and likely to break, bringing Steve from half hard to full with a sharp, sweet intensity. Steve wanted to shove, to pull, to take, to sit back and let Tony tease, everything falling into a blur of teeth and tongue and fingers at once. Just when Steve thought he was going to have to do something to move things along, Tony moved, shifting around a little so he was rubbing off against Steve’s thigh, but also had a better grip.

Steve breathed unsteadily against Tony’s mouth, his cheek, the slightly cooler air when he tipped his head back. He leaned a little more weight against the table, the sharp edge digging into the side of his thigh, but giving him more space to wrap his fingers around Tony’s shoulders, his thumbs brushing the filthy skin around his neck. He savoured the sweet, almost-not-quite-too-much drag down and a sharp, half-jerk back with a sharp suck of air between his teeth.

The pace was brutal, racing for the finish before Steve was even sure they’d started, but he didn’t want to slow down now.

“S’been awhile hasn’t it?” Tony asked, voice low and gravel-rough. “You’re so tense.” Tony continued to murmur against Steve’s shoulder in a low, wrung-out tone. Words that wouldn’t be out of place in the worst of the brothels and snatches of nonsense all strung together and pressed against his skin. “Come on big boy.”

Steve kissed him, just to shut him up mostly, and for something to do with his mouth so that when he came not even a moment later, it was with a muffled sound. Tony drew that out too, sweet, languid and molasses thick, slowing right down and forcing Steve there with him.

Breathing hard, Steve smiled against the curve of Tony’s jaw.

“Please,” Tony groaned at him, his hands were a mess, all sloppy with Steve’s come, humping Steve’s hip. Slowly, Steve worked Tony’s belt free. When he finally got him out, dick hot against Steve’s dry hand, Tony batted his hands away to jerk himself off, Steve held his hips steady and watched. The slick sound was obscene, Tony fucking the wetness of Steve’s come, slick head poking out of the circle of his fingers while Steve’s hands dug bruises into his hips, unable to do much but stare.

Too much too soon to get hard again, but it was an appealing image; Tony was utterly shameless and it shouldn’t have been surprising, but Steve couldn’t help himself when he wanted more.

“Like that?” Tony moaned at him, chin tipped forward against his chest, the tips of his wild hair just brushing against Steve’s lips.

“You-“ Steve started, not really sure what he was going to finish it with. Tony hummed--whatever Steve meant had made sense to him.

Tony came with his head tipped back, all his weight counter balanced against Steve, giving Steve the perfect view of him coming all over his own stomach, mouth moving slowly like he wanted to say something and just couldn’t get the air he needed.

While they were leaning together breathing the same damp air and just enjoying the moment, Steve couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision. Tony gave him a liquid-loose, satisfied smile and Steve couldn’t help but smile back a little.

“Giddy-up cowboy.” Tony laughed when Steve shoved him with his shoulder, more a light bump than an actual shove. He messed with his pants, most of the mess was all over Tony, hands and stomach all sticky. He cleaned up the mess with a greasy cloth.

“You’re terrible,” Steve replied and Tony just shrugged, tossing the cloth in a bin before pulling his pants back up.

“I’ve been told.”

Steve shook his head, still feeling loose and happy from his orgasm, and probably better than he had been in months. “I’ve had worse.”

“Then I must not be trying hard enough.”

“Don’t, I don’t think the town could take your worst.”

Tony chuckled, darkly amused. “Wouldn’t know what hit them.”

“Just give me some warning.” Steve replied, watching the way Tony laughed. He was beautiful in a wild kind of way, untamed and too-dangerous. Likely to get bitten or burned. “If you please.”

“That would be way too easy.” Tony replied smartly, untangling them with a final, fond pat to Steve’s shoulder.

He used the space to tidy up his clothes. Most of the mess had ended up on Tony, and if Steve did get a bit dirty it was lost in the general filth of his clothes.

“I should go.” Steve shifted his weight on his feet and rolled his head back on his neck. Sleeping sitting up wasn’t the most comfortable way to pass the time. Endorphins had him feeling a lot better about it over all, but he wasn’t going to say no to his own bed. Outside, it would be cooling down finally as evening set in. It would be nice to find somewhere to scrub the worst of the grime off and get a hot meal. He had a pocket full of credits; neither would be too difficult.

“Don’t forget your vermin.” Tony nodded at the shadowy corner where Steve had stowed the little thing.

“I like it, it’s cute,” Steve said as he crouched down. It was going for his wrist again, so he wrapped it up tighter where baby teeth couldn’t tear at the thin skin there. Bucky probably would have called it a scrapper. Sharon wouldn’t have approved at all--she didn’t do little animals and anything smaller than a horse always gave her this sort of strained smile. They used to tease her about it endlessly. Steve liked to think it was a little scrapper.

“If you say so.” Tony stuck his fingers near its face curiously and it snapped but missed, still all tangled with Steve’s poncho. “What are you going to call it?” He was leaning close against Steve to get a better look at it in the light.

Steve paused, he hadn’t really thought about it. It was going to get bigger and he was going to have to let it go anyway, so he shouldn’t get attached, but it couldn’t go without a name either. His ship had been called the Liberty, and while it would have been nice to call it that in honour of all the people who died aboard her, he couldn’t risk it. “America,” he finally said. It was the name of one of the Grizzly-class landing vehicles, one he had ridden through a dust storm on, all systems shrieking and navigation completely fried, Bucky looking sort of green-on-pale in the seat next to him. The landing had been more of a crash than a gracefully executed manoeuvre, but she had saved their lives that day, scrappy little thing.

“I suppose that’s as good a name as any. Catch you around, Steve.” Tony gave him that quicksilver grin.

Steve left, clutching America close his chest until she stopped squalling like a child and went silent, all of the fight finally gone out of her. She shifted in his arms occasionally, but didn’t make a sound. The walk back wasn’t bad, giving him time to clear his head and wonder about his own motivations. Too much death, so much that he was soaked with it, drowning under a weight of penance he could never repay and his own cowardice.

America squirmed in his hands and he held her tightly until she stopped again, calming down. Tony was another matter, a cold drink on a hot day, a little bit of pure human comfort. Decisions he should have logically come to regret, but couldn’t find it in himself to do so.

He held the hatchling against his chest as he opened the door to their tiny room. Don was sitting in the bed, legs drawn up to make a surprisingly compact shape, a book in his hands.

“How did the job go?” he asked, dog-earring the book and setting it aside. It looked like an old journal of some sort that Steve had seen him thumb through several times, but hadn’t wanted to pry.

“More excitement than I planned.” Steve shrugged. “But Stark is pretty even, gave me extra for it.”

“What kind of excitement?” Don uncurled himself across the bed, long legs quickly running over the edges.

“There are lots of things in the desert, I find most of them want to eat you,” Steve said dryly.

Don gave him a rare, salacious smile. “According to Jan, Stark is one of them.”

“He’s all bark. How did you do?”

“Dr. Pym is a most interesting man,” Don said with a frown, which could mean just about anything. “He’s agreed to let me help out at the clinic, and Jessica knows a place on the outskirts of town, rent is cheap. I can’t imagine it’s all that nice, but it would be pleasant to have a little more space.”

“What do you make of this?” America clawed her way out of his poncho when he set it on the ground, one leg all tangled in fabric, and flopped her way into a corner, rattling and hissing at them. “Found it orphaned while I was out.”

If Don found this at all odd he didn’t comment on it, just held one massive hand out. America didn’t snap at him, didn’t try and take a chunk out of his finger the way she did when Steve put his hands near her. “Would you look at that,” he said, awed. Don rumbled a low, pleased sound. “Wouldn’t stop biting me.”

“It’s just scared, and probably hungry.” Don nodded slowly, staring down the tiny creature.

“America, I named it America.” America, Liberty, one and the same.

“A fine name.”

Steve ate most of a thin watery stew that Jan apparently made and decided she had enough of. If Steve didn’t know better, he would say she was trying to fatten them up. Some went into a little bowl and set on the floor. America picked the chunks of meat out, long flat nose all wet with broth and eating loudly.

--

They moved into a ramshackle house on the edge of town. While barely being more glamorous than a shed, it was built strong, solid foundation and walls to last the windstorms that occasionally blew in. It was full of little dusky red reptilian creatures that scuttled around underfoot. America chased them around, stalking them through the corners of the room until pouncing when she felt the moment was right. Sometimes this worked for her, most of the time it didn’t.

Don smiled a lot more. America would touch the end of her nose to his fingers and he rumbled in a low, soothing tone in return as if speaking to her. It didn’t sound much like words to Steve. Don hadn’t been one much for words anyway, so Steve didn’t mind. America didn’t mind him, dogging on his footsteps when he was moving around the kitchen, but otherwise ignoring him when he didn’t have food. None of the easy acceptance she gave Don.

He kept his work up at the bar, doing odd jobs when needed. He didn’t know much about fixing a roof, but he could swing a hammer and it wasn’t like little old Miss Williams could do it herself. A brief trip hammered home how little he liked doing work out in the sunlight, and just how lucky he had been to accidentally have stolen the hat Tony gave him. There was a reason almost every citizen of Landfall wore one.

He didn’t see Tony again for almost three whole weeks in anything more than passing at the bar, barring one evening where Tony knocked on his door asking after ‘Captain America’, all casual smiles and ‘I was just in the neighbourhood’.

They stood out on the back porch of Steve’s tiny little shed, staying just on the good side of the line of light and shadow cast by the short awning that jutted off the roof outside the back door. It creaked alarmingly when the wind got strong and Steve kept reminding himself to look at when he had the time; he didn’t want the whole thing flying off. Tony was sipping lemonade from a battered metal mug that Steve had scared up for just this purpose. He was cleaned up and slick as they come again, sharp suit jacket hiding the gentle swell of his gun strapped to his side, show-piece hanging from his hip like an unfilled promise. There was nothing left of the work-dirty Tony Steve had left in his garage. Steve wanted to kiss him all over again just to see if it would be as good a second time around, but Don was moving around the house and they weren’t like that.

“How did you know I was a soldier?” Steve asked, he had meant to ask the next time he saw Tony, but couldn’t decide if the confirmation would be more damning than not-knowing.

“You’re not exactly subtle.” Tony smiled, teeth a wide slash of white against the darkness of his facial hair.

“Explain it to me,” Steve prodded.

“I’ve worked with military before, it’s the way you carry yourself, you’re aware of your body. Soldiers from the front lines, they all look like that. Also you pack things with a level of obsessive focus that they only teach in one place. It was that or prison, and you lack the tats for that one.”

Steve laughed. Maybe the problem wasn’t him, it was Tony.

“It’s hard to miss,” Tony said finally.

“No one else noticed,” Steve defended himself without any actual irritation.

“No one else is me,” Tony replied simply, as if this were a fact written in stone, and Steve was inclined to believe him.

“I’d rather no one noticed at all,” Steve said, keeping his tone light.

“Secret? Got’cha, I get secrets.” Tony nodded, fingering the edge of the gun hanging off his hip absently. “Around here we all have them. You’ll learn.”

America came out from where she was hiding away from the worst of the sun in a crack in the foundation of the house, drawn by their voices. She danced around the edges of them, little feet prancing as she looked for hand-outs. Steve didn’t have any scraps to lure her over with, but Tony seemed content to watch her from that far. “Gotten big fast.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. She wouldn’t fit in his hands like that.

“Won’t be able to keep her back here for too long.”

“We’ll work it out when she gets bigger,” Steve promised.

Tony couldn’t stay too long, finishing off his lemonade with one long draw, tipping his head back and exposing the pale line of his throat to Steve as he did so.

Steve walked him to the front door. Tony looked too sleek against the battered door frame, like he didn’t quite belong in Steve’s space. Which was a ridiculous notion, but one he couldn’t shake.

“I may have some work for you again.” There was a faint leer to his voice when he said that and Steve crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the door frame with a small smile.

“That so?” He licked quickly at his bottom lip.

“Things always need lifting,” Tony replied breezily.

Tony left him there with an absent wave over his shoulder and a swagger to his step that brought to mind old films, with the lonely hero riding off into the sunset. Maybe it was just the hat perched on his head and the too-hot sun trying to scramble Steve’s brains.

The trip into the scavenge site was a well-worn memory to be pulled out when the night was chilly and nothing moved save for the call of wind streaming through the cracks around the windows. Something for him to focus on when things began to stagnate.

Pepper Potts, when she finally appeared, had bright red hair, and a long proper-looking dress. Her smile was bland and professional, she was obviously not from Landfall originally, most likely not even from Utopia, her skin so pale as to almost be translucent; the sun must have been hell on her. She had a wide brimmed hat that kept her face almost entirely hidden in the shadows. “Steve?”

“Yes ma’am.” He nodded.

“Pepper Potts, I’m an associate of Mr. Stark.” Steve’s stomach twisted, anticipation curling through his gut. “We’re a bit swamped at the moment and he’s asked me to see if you wanted to swing by the shop and help. Day’s work, decent pay.”

“Mostly lifting things?” Steve asked, amused, and Pepper shrugged.

“It’s work if you want it.”

“Yeah, I want it.” Steve nodded. Pepper gave him a crooked smile and Steve bit back his words with a faint flush and she just laughed, a light, not-quite-mean sound. “When?”

“Immediately if you can.”

“I’ll swing by in about an hour,” Steve agreed. He could remember the way to their place well enough.

The very edges of her dress were smudged with dust, faded a little from too much wear, but she was a vision walking away, the longer bits of hair peeking out from under the hat, so vivid that they stood out from the rest of the scenery arrestingly.

Don came home while he was sitting behind their little house, eating a sandwich and watching America darting at shadows. She had grown a lot in the last week, up to his knees now, sharp little baby teeth making away from larger ones for tearing into meat. “Going out?” Don would be back for lunch right now, before returning to the clinic to finish off his shift afterwards. They had a routine now and it wasn’t all bad, if a bit stifling at times.

“Stark.” Steve nodded, swallowing thickly.

“That’s good.” Don sat down heavily next to him, squinting up into the sunlight. Unlike Steve who couldn’t leave without his hat, the sun only loved Don, slowly darkening his skin into a healthy glowing bronze. America stood up from sniffing at the ground to run over, touching the tip of her snout to his fingertips in what seemed like a greeting before darting off again. The one time he had asked why America seemed to listen to Don’s words, he just laughed sadly and told him ‘there is more in this universe than man can explain.’ Steve hadn’t wanted to press then, but it was uncanny. “He’s good for you.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Steve replied, feeling the tips of his ears heat up.

“Only that you enjoyed the last time you worked with him.” Don gave him a wicked little knowing smirk. “I’ve rarely seen you looking quite so pleased.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “It was nice to have a job that required me to move again is all.”

“I think I understand.” Don agreed, nodding slowly. “I too sometimes miss,” he paused, as if struggling with the words and Steve kept his posture casual; they just didn’t talk about these kinds of things. Of the weather, food, the women who worked in the bar, but never the elephant in the room. He found himself straining, listening for the next words what whatever insight into his friend they would offer. “The way things used to be,” he finally concluded. “Things change so fast.”

“They do.” Steve nodded in agreement, neither disappointed nor satisfied with Don’s answer.

Something squeaked softly as America stuck her face under a rock. She growled in glee as her legs flailed, trying to shove herself further under the rock to chase whatever it was. Don chuckled fondly.

“I’m sure that Stark will not fail to provide you with adventure,” Don said as Steve went to stand, nothing left of his snack but crumbs.

“I’m just going to be helping him out around his shop, it can’t be that exciting.” Steve shook his head slowly.

“Take care,” Don called after him, deep voice booming through their shabby little place and Steve smiled a little to himself.

They were comrades by circumstance, two wandering souls bound only by the fact that they were bound by nothing at all. Don was a good guy, and Steve wouldn’t hesitate to call him a friend, even if he would probably never know where he came from or what he had been doing before he met Steve.

Tony was struggling with something on the floor when Steve poked his head into the garage, the door clanged open noisily like something was off with the tracks that slid it open sideways, but Tony didn’t seem to notice. He wore ripped up pants and a thin undershirt with chunky gloves as he balanced a huge blocky engine on its corner so he could reach under it.

The whole thing looked precarious and Tony didn’t hesitate at all when Steve grabbed it to duck his entire body under its weight. Steve huffed, straining a little to keep it balanced while Tony tugged on things he couldn’t see.

“What would you have done if I was busy?” Steve grunted.

“Eventually, built a crane,” Tony replied glibly and Steve laughed. “What are you doing here anyways?” Tony popped up from under it, with a confused smile. “Not that I’m complaining—you can put it down now.”

Steve let it come to rest on its flat side and straightened up looking at him. “Ms. Potts came by earlier asking for me?”

“Oh?” Tony frowned. “I guess I did tell her things were getting kind of hectic.”

“She seems nice.” Nice enough if a little cold; she lacked the sort of rough-and-tumble charm that everyone else embraced.

“Don’t be fooled, she’s one hard lady. I’ve seen her make men twice your size cry.” Tony looked like it was a fond memory of his, smile curling around the corners of his mouth. “Don’t get any ideas, Stud.”

“Married?” Steve teased. That didn’t seem to mean anything to Tony, whatsoever.

“Widowed,” Tony replied simply, giving too much away with the lack of inflection, his demeanour changing slightly.

“I’m sorry,” Steve tipped his head.

“Old news,” he replied, moving towards an array of tools on a small rolling cart. “Still, she’d eat a boy scout like you alive.”

“They told me the same thing about you,” Steve said.

“Did they? Better watch out then, I’ve got teeth. Can you lift that again, I need to reconnect the coolant system; it’s been worn right through.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Steve figured he could hold his own against a quirky engineer from a small town--teeth or none. He pulled and the engine shifted, moving towards him to rest on an angle again. Steve shifted until the hold he had on it was more comfortable.

“Nice.” Tony hummed, flicking his eyes rapidly across the width of Steve’s hands and shoulders, openly appreciative. Steve rolled his eyes. “Rhodes is going to be jealous when I pay you to open all Pepper’s jam jars instead.”

Steve snorted out through his nose. Still, the view wasn’t bad from his angle either. It was warm in here, not quite as hot as outside, but the doors were too big to bother with overly cooling, so Tony was stripped down and covered in a light sweat from struggling with the equipment on his own. He had a mini-welder, kneeling just on the other side of the engine so he could get close to it.

Steve couldn’t say how long they spent like that. Long enough that his shoulders began to get tired. Tony was surprisingly well versed in literature and old cinema, seemed to know a little bit about everything that made him fun and easy to talk to in a way no one had really been since Bucky (instant friends when they both met, Bucky running from Nancy with a stolen roll of bread and Steve in the wrong place and the wrong time; Bucky’s charming smile getting them up to their ears in no end of trouble for the rest of his life).

Half the time he couldn’t tell if they were talking or flirting, or even if Tony differentiated between the two at all.

Arousal pooled low in his belly, couldn’t help but think about the feeling of Tony’s mouth on his own, tongue pressing in like he was curious and hands everywhere. He wasn’t hard, but it wouldn’t take much.

That was going to be Steve’s excuse for not catching on to what was going on sooner. Not quite distracted, but a little more focused on the soft pink of his mouth and the soft scruff of his facial hair than he was on their surroundings. Tony was talking, a mix of techno-babble and idle thoughts on how this engine had ended up in the shape it was in. (They had fixed two already, motors removed from whatever they powered, Steve handling the lifting and Tony the genius).

“Shh.” Steve cut him off sharply. “Move.”

Tony rolled out of the way, sitting up and looking around. “What is it?”

Steve let the engine drop easily, the whole thing clanging as it hit the floor. “Do you smell that?” Burning. The distinctive smell of caesium-based accelerants, something you never forgot the smell of. Only the military used caesium-based firebombs; they were well out of the price range of your average thug.

“Flarefire?” Tony looked confused for a moment. Flarefire was a small bomb with a caesium core that would burn superhot, almost impossible to put out once it got started. They were banned in many systems as inhumane. “There’s none of that in here.” He frowned.

“We need to get out.” Steve’s senses kicked into over-drive. Something was not right and it was making his skin scream, every instinct honed in combat going off.

“Not leaving yet.” Tony glared at him, crouching down in front of the safe again. Steve was about to yell at him, disappointed-- credits were not worth your life, when Tony threw a gun at him. It sailed in a graceful arc and Steve snatched it out of the air by sheer habit. He checked it, clean and almost obsessively well maintained; it could have been any of Steve’s guns. Tony’s smile was part challenge and part abandon, buckling the holster across his chest over the flimsy top he wore. “Now we can go. Just in case-- could just be Pepper’s cooking you know,” Tony joked weakly.

Steve managed a smile for him, mostly just baring his teeth as his heart hammered.

The door he came in through was locked, someone on the outside stopping it from opening. Steve threw himself into it but it wouldn’t budge at all.

“Does it normally do that?” Steve asked and Tony just stared at him blankly. “I guess not.”

Steve was checking the door on the opposite side, also locked down tight, barely even rattling when Steve threw himself against it.

“I don’t mean to alarm you, but I think the building is on fire,” Tony said from the middle of the room where he was prowling a small circuit. His smile hadn’t changed much, turning a little sharper around the edges, more focused.

“Why would that alarm me?” Steve asked. He could appreciate sarcasm under fire.

“Just a heads up, cowboy.” Tony moved behind some large crates, his voice echoing back “Windows are covered too.” He didn’t sound nearly as worried about this as he should probably have been. Steve was just thankful he didn’t have to deal with a panicked civilian on top of getting them out of there.

Up there, God had to hate him. He knew that Steve was a coward. Punishment the first time he thought that maybe he had found something to make him feel alive again, a bite of something good. He was just sorry that Tony got all tangled up in this; he seemed like a decent-enough sort. There would be time to think about it later--right now they were locked in the workshop while someone burned it to the ground. They needed a plan, he needed to get Tony out of here first.

After that, well after that there was penance, and a cold gun against Lukin’s temple and pulling the trigger. It wasn’t a happy thought, didn’t fill him with vindictive glee, but it was also something that needed to be done.

“I think we’re caged in.” Steve ran into the back door one more time, but there was still no give, nothing to show for it but a forming bruise on his shoulder.

“Looks about it,” Tony agreed. He was standing in the middle of the room still, spinning in a slow, thoughtful circle. “I could cut us out, but it would take time, and I don’t think we have a whole lot of it.”

“Trigger a blast?” Tony had welding kits, could be enough if you lit the fuel tanks.

“Whole structure could come down, probably worth a shot.” Tony frowned in concentration.

It was getting notably hotter inside, the smell shifting from chemical to charcoal, getting closer. The air was beginning to get hazy, good news being they would be dead from smoke inhalation long before the fire burned up their bodies.

“Wait, wait. I have a better idea. Over here.”

Steve left his spot by the door and followed to where Tony was pulling back a rough cloth to reveal the bike he’d used to get them out to the dump site.

“I’ll get us out of here.” He leaned across the bike and pressed a kiss to Steve’ cheek. “Just remember what I said, hold on tight.”

Steve got on the back, holding himself upright using only the back brace with one hand and holding Tony to his chest with the other while Tony tipped the bike on its side again. Steve strained to hold them mostly upright while Tony flicked switches on the control panel, shoving down hard on the ignition pedal.

Just like the last time, for a moment nothing happened, the engine whining lightly as the power began to channel through the engines. It started with a flare of plasma, bigger than last time, jolting them both sideways the other way, throwing Tony back against Steve’s chest. Tony grunted with the impact.

The plasma hit the wall; it didn’t burn through immediately, but they were not straightening out either. The plasma sparked and shot out around them. Hotter now than it was before, burning heat right at his skin even where the shielding was supposed to be protecting them. Tony must have allowed the engine to overload. Just when he thought that they were going to burn to a crisp all by themselves, the bike straightened out, throwing them the other way. Tony would have flown into the red-hot metal of the wall if not for the arm Steve had slung around his chest.

“Thanks for that,” Tony breathed.

“Any time,” Steve replied. “Now let’s get out of here.”

The bike hovered on the spot for a moment, spinning in an almost lazy circle. Steve was only just ready for it when it kicked back, the front jumping off the ground so the plasma vents hit the weakened part of the wall and it blasted out, leaving a burnt-out hole. People were shouting even as the bike evened out, shooting off forward like a horse of out the gates. Steve tucked his head down low as they cleared the still smoking hole made in the wall, passing from one kind of heat into another.

His heart was beating wildly. The bike pulled a wide-angle turn, off to the left and zipping around. They were going slightly slower now; if he inched forward, plastered to Tony’s back like a second shirt, he could grab his gun out of the holster strapped to Tony’s ribs.

There were a crowd of men just outside the front door drawing weapons slowly. Steve took aim and shot the first one, two right in the chest. He dropped. Tony flew past them on the bike, heading for the house while people yelled behind them.

“You’re getting paid extra for this,” he called over his shoulder, words almost lost to the wind.

“Better be.” Steve couldn’t turn enough to aim properly. It was a six-shooter--he didn’t want to waste a single shot, so he had to trust they could outrun whoever was left.

They rounded the broad side of the house to find three more waiting for them. A fourth was dragging Pepper Potts out of the house by the hair. Tony slammed on the air-breaks and they slid into the group of them with the bulk of the bike as it slowed. It was a tricky shot, the woman of the group showing a little initiative by shoving Pepper in front of her like a human shield as the rest of her companions fell. Steve breathed out short and even, pulled the trigger, accounting for the fact that they were still moving. The woman’s head exploded all over the front porch of the house and the side of Pepper’s face.

Tony grabbed at Steve’s arm bringing his aim down to the men he had bowled over, three men, three bullets. One wasn’t moving, so Steve shot the other two. One bullet left. They smelled like burning flesh, the plasma venting cooking them while they hovered on the spot.

“Tony!” Pepper yelled, clattering down the stairs on her tall shoes. Her pale skin was splattered with blood and the ends of her skirt were dragging over their corpses.

“Relax Pep, we knew this was going to happen,” Tony said, trying to sound soothing.

“No Tony, you knew this was going to happen. When did you tell me this was going to happen?” she snapped back.

“Rhodey?” Tony asked, talking over her.

“At the clinic getting his cast off. Is that Steve?”

“Yeah, Cowboy here is a good shot, now get on, we fall back and storm the hill later.”

“Tony, this is our house,” Pepper hissed. On the other side people were yelling, pounding footsteps coming for them. One bullet left. Steve had another gun tucked into his belt, but it would be difficult to draw. Not a very good tactical decision and Steve cursed himself for it.

Pepper made her decision, clambering up into the bike carefully, in a way that spoke of familiarity as she somehow managed not to ignite any of her skirts.

With the three of them, it was a tight fit. Pepper sat sideways in front of Tony, pressed up against his chest, and Steve hung onto the back as they drove away. He could see a low sweeping ship just off to their left. If it spotted them, it would be a miracle if they escaped alive. He said as much, leaning forward to speak against Tony’s ear.

“Don’t worry, I left them a little parting gift.”

Behind them something exploded with a low rumbling boom. “That was my house you know.” Pepper snarled and they wobbled as she hit Stark in the shoulder.

“Let’s go get Rhodey,” Tony replied, ignoring that remark.

They pulled up in front of the clinic, covered in ash, blood and oil. Steve’s skin felt hot and burnt tight around the edges, the evening sun beating down and making him hotter. He’d lost his hat and it was showing. They must have looked a right mess.

Rhodes hopped out on one crutch, waving over his shoulder, spotted them and stopped. “What did you do now Tony?” he asked with a smile that was sharp.

“Steve?” Rhodes looked small next to Don, despite behind broad across the shoulders and tall himself. “What is this?”

“Dinner party, at my place,” Tony said with a wide, fake smile.

“More like a barbeque,” Steve replied and Pepper muffled a snort against her hand.

“So it’s started then?” Rhodes looked past Steve towards where their place used to be with a long stare that Steve couldn’t put a name to.

“Yep,” Tony replied, all the playfulness gone from his tone. “Steve, you should probably join your friend there, I take it you can get back on your own. We’ve got some stuff to sort out.” His voice was hard, and there was a finality in it that reminded Steve too much of a lot of good men who’d gotten themselves killed in a lot of stupid ways.

Steve tightened his fingers on Tony’s shoulders. There had been that moment of clarity while they had been trapped in the building, that his penance would come. Maybe it was now, even if it wasn’t at the hands of Lukin, but it was something all the same.

“You can come to my place, there is lots of room.” He looked up at Don. The other man didn’t seem to have anything to say on the subject, giving him an impassive stare, eyes that seemed as long as the spaces between stars.

“We couldn’t,” Pepper said firmly. She had one arm wrapped around Tony’s shoulders, the edges of her dress brushing where Steve was gripping Tony’s hips. “It’s going to be dangerous.”

Steve continued to watch Don, the way his hands tightened a little bit, jaw clenching with something that was probably much the same yearning that twisted like bad milk in Steve’s gut. Whatever he was thinking about he nodded slowly, and Steve was glad, he wouldn’t want to get anyone else involved if he didn’t need to. “Ma’am, I don’t think that will be much of a problem.”

“Just for a little bit,” Tony said slowly, like he wasn’t entirely sure about it either. Steve dug his fingers into his hip lightly, reassuring.

“No one will think to look for you there, Stane would know to look in the nearest watering hole.” Rhodes laughed tightly.

“I wasn’t—“ Tony stuttered, looking sharply up at him.

“You would,” Pepper said simply. Case closed, jury was out, her word was god.

“I’ll walk,” Rhodes said, eyeing the slightly over capacity bike.

“I shall escort you, once I speak with Dr. Pym,” Don rumbled. Rhodes looked at him and nodded slowly.

“Thank you--?” he began.

“Don, Don Blake.”

“Thank you Don.” Rhodes waved over his shoulder as he manoeuvred his crutch back into the small clinic.

Pepper excused herself to the bathroom almost immediately once they reached Steve and Don’s place. He wouldn’t have expected her to handle this as well as she had to this point. Civilians, as a rule, could be expected to panic in combat situations and had to be watched for sudden movements and illogical dodging patterns. Steve probably should have caught on a little earlier that Tony Stark was no simple small town mechanic.

“I apologize for getting you mixed up in this,” Tony said over the sound of water running in the bathroom. America was hiding under the table. Too many feet clattering around and not enough raw meat to draw her out with. “I knew he was gunning for me, but I suppose I couldn’t have guessed what day it was.”

“Who is that?” Steve finally asked.

“Old business partner.” Tony’s face lost the cocky little smile he seemed to be riding on. “It really doesn’t concern you- I’ll deal with it one way or another.”

“I’ve killed four of his men already,” Steve said simply. Under fire, he hadn’t thought about laws and justice, years and years of training kicking in like he had been waiting all his life to pull the trigger.

“You’re more than you seem soldier-boy,” Tony finally replied after a small pause.

“I could same the same thing about you.” Steve wondered how much Tony would share, if he himself was thinking straight.

“I’m everything I seem, brilliant engineer and playboy.” He shrugged. “And I’m going to kill Obadiah Stane.” He said this with complete conviction that shuddered down Steve’s spine and settled like a ball of lead in his belly. Death was nothing you should ever revel in.

“Does he deserve to die?” Steve asked, thought of blood. People exploded when exposed to the vacuum of space.

“He tried to have me and mine killed, framed me, and took my life’s work from me and my Dad’s company. If anyone deserves a good killing he does.”

“Stane?” Pepper asked, walking into the room with a purposeful click of her boots. She’d washed the blood from her face and tied her long hair up into a bun on the back of her head. There was nothing she could do about the rusty stains on the hem of her dress, but she didn’t seem to give it any bother.

“The one and only,” Tony agreed. Pepper worked her way through the room with a small frown until she was at his side. “We’ve talked about this Tony. Killing him isn’t going to get us the company back, it won’t solve anything.” She paused, as if debating her next words carefully before speaking. “You know that isn’t what Happy would have wanted.”

Tony looked briefly uncomfortable, shifting away from her. “Well he’s not around to have a say anymore is he?”

The slap rung out loud and Steve figured Tony probably deserved it, so he didn’t say anything, just watched Pepper stride out of the room, the air around her almost crackling with a righteous fury that echoed in her stomping gait. Steve sat awkwardly in the silence that followed her departure.

“I’m not a very good man, am I?” Tony asked finally when it got to be too much for him, tipping his head back against the wall and taking a deep, shuddery breath.

Steve reached out, letting his hand rest heavy on Tony’s nape, offering a little comfort. Tony pressed into it like a cat, eyes slipping closed.

“He died because I didn’t, I don’t think I will ever be able to make it up to her,” Tony said quietly, without opening his eyes to look at Steve.

He couldn’t, wouldn’t, offer anything of himself but he could let Tony press against his side for a long moment. Until he straightened up, pulled the gun from his holster and did a quick check over it.

“You really know what you’re doing with that,” Steve commented watching the way Tony’s fingers seemed so sure in their movements.

“I should, I built them, everything from sweet little pea-shooters like this to rail cannons on space-class ships.”

Steve frowned hard, “Stark as in--?”

“Stark Industries,” Tony nodded. Known across the stars as makers of only the best weaponry, high class guns for when someone needed to be killed dead-- twice over. Steve couldn’t see it, the scruffy, thin man sitting next to him covered in dust and dirt sitting on top of an empire of bullets. But then that dark focus was every bit the merchant of death he heard about. (Vaguely, he remembered that the company changed hands following the revealing that the CEO was double-dealing with pirates of the slave belt planets.) “The one and only.”

That made a twisted sort of sense actually. It was a bit of a wonder that no one had made the connection before, when he thought about it it was painfully obvious.

“I wasn’t hiding,” Tony said simply, shrugging Steve’s hand off his neck, “I was waiting.”

Steve didn’t let him go, instead using that hold to haul him closer, the gun cold between them. In for a penny, in for a pound and all that jazz. Hell if Steve wanted things to go back to the way they were before.

“You probably shouldn’t do that, a guy could get used to this.” Tony joked, squirming around until his face was pressed against the underside of Steve’s chin.

“Would it be so bad if you did?” Steve asked, shifting his grip so he was toying with the shorter hairs at Tony’s hairline instead of holding him in place. Tony actually looked startled, eyes gone wide and momentarily frantic. Steve had half expected a witty brush off, something that would fit in with Tony’s love ‘em and leave ‘em persona.

“You don’t mean that,” he finally said with that slick smile Steve had expected. Steve frowned.

“I don’t?”

“I’m about to go murder the man who raised me, I almost got you killed, twice so far. No one has timing that bad.” He said with a breathless little chuckle that Steve felt as a gust of wet air against the skin of his throat.

Steve frowned harder.

He was cut off by the whine of a laser pistol starting up, it was instinct to freeze on the spot, gun with an unknown target and twitchy trigger fingers flashing through his mind. “I stand corrected,” Tony laughed, raising his hands into the air palms open to show they were empty as the untangled from each other.

“You too, Commander Rogers.”

Steve swallowed hard at the sound of his own name and raised both hands into the air. Tony for what it was worth didn’t the least bit look shocked.

“I should have known you’d manage to stick your nose in this somehow Stark,” the voice continued.

Steve turned slowly, faced with the angular barrel of a military issue laser-enhanced pistol, much more prone to overheating then powder-based weapons, but no less dangerous and far more accurate at long distances. A long, well tanned arm and the low cut of Jessica’s dress casually attached to that gun. Her usually smiling painted lips were pressed in a flat emotionless line.

“You know me; I’m always where the party is,” Tony said blithely with a mocking smile.

“Wrong party this time, Stark. Hands behind your back Commander Rogers, you’re under arrest for treason against the Federation, desertion, and murder of your command, as well as the genocide of the Echo Cry colony.”

Tony whistled low under his breath, sounding impressed, Jessica didn’t flinch. Steve moved slowly, standing with his hands up, Jessica took his gun and pressed it against the flat of his chest, hers trained on Tony without wavering. He could see the military in her now all flirtation stripped away and back ramrod straight. He even felt a little betrayed, they had spoken a lot while working at the bar together; she had a nephew in Utopia and talked about him endlessly. “Under who’s authority?” The handcuffs clicked shut with a little snick that seemed too small for what they represented. “It’s Lukin isn’t it?”

She put one foot straight against his chest, dress shifting around her as she kicked, he rolled with the motion, falling to the ground and protecting his face by curling onto his side, knees up underneath him. “Does it matter?”

“It does.” Steve grunted. “Because I didn’t do it.” The floor was gritty where it dug into his cheek.

“You expect me to believe that? Darling, I wasn’t born yesterday,” she was a little more gentle with Tony, but only just, shoving him down in the corner hands tied behind his back and knees up to his chest and a vicious curl to his lips that was more a snarl than a smile. “Do girls fall for that face often?”

“Not as much as you’d imagine,” Steve replied, testing the strength of his bonds subtly, they were not going to break, not without the key or a plasma cutter, so there was plan A out.

“Let Stark go,” Steve tried again, “he’s innocent.”

Tony and Jessica both laughed, Tony disbelieving and Jessica meanly. “He’s far from that,” she said, in time with Tony’s ‘hardly’.

“He has nothing to do with this,” Steve continues, decided to ignore both of them.

“He knows my cover, I’ll let him go once you’re in custody,” she dropped the weapon and shook out her hair again, pulling it behind one of her shoulders and out of her face. Her dress was sliding down the soft curve of her shoulders in a way that was usually enticing but her eyes were sharp and deadly throwing the whole mirage off, there was no oasis here.

“Lukin isn’t going to just let him go, he’s not going to let you go either—“

Steve stuttered to a stop when a stick hit her in the back of the head and Jessica dropped like a sack wrapped in lace and silk, eyes rolling up into her head. Don stood behind her holding out one of Rhodes’ crutches while Rhodes himself hovered in the back ground.

“Pepper?” Tony asked, rolling out of the corner awkwardly, and walking on his knees forward.

“Gone. Must have took the bike.” Rhodes limped over, taking his crutch back from Don with a casual nod of thanks.

“Thank god.” Tony breathed, sagging.

“Jessica’s one of Stane’s men? Why didn’t she just poison you a long time ago? I mean you lived at the bar.” Rhodes asked, his tone somewhere between mocking and genuinely curious.

“Har har.” Tony said, wiggling his shoulders. “Get these off of me, apparently it’s ‘bring your secret to school day’, and it is Steve’s turn to share with the class. What I’m saying is for once in our long and illustrious relationship the pretty girl isn’t trying to kill me.”

“First time for everything,” Rhodes muttered but Steve wasn’t paying attention to their banter anymore.

Don was looking at him and Steve could only hold his chin steady, hands cuffed behind his back and the things he never wanted anyone to know exposed before Tony, and Don and everyone. Jessica was trying to shake herself out of it without being obvious. She was good but Steve was better.

Don stepped on one of her hands lightly keeping most of his weight off the small bones but the intent implicit, “I wouldn’t Jessica, you are a lovely woman and I would not want to hurt you,” Don rumbled low and more threatening than Steve had ever heard him.

Rhodes limped around, crouching carefully to drop the key into Tony’s bound hands. Tony arched his shoulder back and had the cuffs undone in a second. “Here, use these, they are nice, military grade.” Tony finished getting them off the other wrist and tossed them to Don.

He handcuffed her efficiently offering a small apology as he did so while she scowled at him.

“Tony.” Steve said quietly when the other man crouched down in front of him. Tony dangled the key between two fingers, using the other hand to tilt his chin up so that he had no choice but to look up and into Tony’s face.

“Did you really murder an entire colony?” Tony asked him, this close his eyes were huge and blue like the skies on earth right when you hit the barrier between space and planet, just a second before everything erupted into a blaze as the heat shield battered its way through the atmosphere.

Steve swallowed thickly. “No.”

“We’ll that’s good,” Tony reached around him, getting close as agile fingers toyed with the lock briefly, they opened with a small sound and Tony sat back on his heels regarding him with a small smile. “Genocide would have really put a dampener on things.”

Steve couldn’t help it, he laughed, stunned.

“You’re making a mistake,” Jessica spat. Without using her hands she pulled herself upright, hair falling over her face. “I’m the good guy here.”

“Sure you are, but I owe him one,” Tony said smoothly, “and I always pay my debts.”

“You’re an idiot,” She spat at him. Tony just smiled.

“So you’re a fugitive,” Tony squinted at him, “I guess you’re not too good for me after all.”

Sharon once told him the same thing, a wicked smile curling at the edges of her mouth. Steve shrugged, “I’m not perfect.”

“Tony, we need to act, Obadiah isn’t going to sit pretty and wait for you to come after him. If they find us here.” Rhodes said trailing off meaningfully and gesturing around the small house. Rhodes was leaning against the door frame heavily, he looked tired worn around the edges.

“I know, I know,” Tony looked at Jessica, “Did you think that fire was back up? Makes sense; why you would wait until now. Sorry honey, that wasn’t your dance card, it was mine.”

He stood and rolled his neck, reached absently up for a hat that wasn’t there before petting his hair down with the aborted movement. Steve watched him carefully, adrenaline beginning to thrum through his veins, heart pounding. Everything was changing around them.

“We need a plan,” Steve said, standing. Everyone looked at him, a rag tag bunch of dusty outlaws in a shabby little shack on the edge of a town that was the middle of nowhere. They were a far cry from the bright lights and military sterility of the bridge of the Liberty, but looking around the room he knew he was looking at soldiers each watching him with degrees trust or at the very least understanding. “If Lukin finds me here he will burn this place to the ground, no survivors,” The Pyms didn’t deserve that. Janet with her bubbly carefree personality and even Hank with his carefully guarded friendship and unwavering affection for his wife they had not done anything to warrant being erased off the surface of Utopia. Sarcastic Carol who was way too talented to be rotting away on this mud ball and taking none of anyone’s shit. Little old Williams with the roof that leaked when the rare rains came through.

“So what’s it going to be big man?” Rhodes asked him, standing a little straighter despite his injury. “I’m not letting civilians get hurt.”

“Me either,” Steve agreed.

“I’m going after Stane,” Tony said, “Finishing this once and for all.” Rhodes didn’t look happy about this but he didn’t protest, his mouth thinning into an angry line eyebrows drawing close together.

“Is this really the time Tony?” He asked.

“There’s never going to be a better time than now.”

“Then I’ll go with you. Watch your back,” Rhodes began, Tony shook his head.

“No, not with your bum leg,” Tony replied almost immediately as if he had been just waiting for that, Rhodes looked like he was getting ready to argue the point, face flushing with fury but Tony simply talked over him. “Someone needs to get Pepper out of here. He’s not going to stop chasing her, she’s just as involved in this as I am.”

“Pepper can take care of herself,” Rhodes spat, but he was on the fence and they could all see it on his face.

“You’d just slow me down,” Tony finished, cutting him down cold with a sharp tone.

Rhodes looked down at his feet. “You’re a bastard Stark,” he sighed. “You’d better be careful, because if you die when I’m all better I’m coming after you and I’ll kill your worthless hide twice over.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Tony didn’t smile but it looked like a close thing, something in his expression softening. “There, a plan.”

“He’s going to be expecting you,” Steve pointed out, having sat and watched them arguing the point with a sinking sense of doom.

“I’m expecting him to be expecting me,” Tony shrugged. “It’s complicated between us. You need to go on the lam again?”

“I’ll hitch to Shangri-La, use my real name to get out of here, it should be enough to have him follow me,” Steve said, looking down at the splay of his hands.

“What, just keep running?” Tony gave him a look.

“What choice do I have? It’s the best way to protect these people,” Steve would have loved to kamikaze right into Lukin’s face to end this but he wasn’t just living for himself anymore.

“I will procure us a vehicle,” Don spoke, after a long silence, watching them. Steve startled.

“Don?”

“You are not the only one hiding secrets Steven, you’re a good man and I will help you in any way I can,” he said softly. Steve nodded, a quick jerky motion, almost surprised but he shouldn’t have been. Don was a noble man. Steve wasn’t worth it but he wasn’t going to question the help.

His reply was cut off by a low, all too familiar whine. “Down.” Steve shouted, tackling Jessica to the floor and covering her body with his. Don grabbed Tony’s hand pulling him down and Rhodes hit the hardwood with years of training that had him dropping immediately.

The walls were solid, firm, and yet stood little to no chance against a gattling gun. The bullets tore through the walls and back out the other side. The sound was deafening, shattering, and making the floor under him vibrate with a steady thud-thud-thud of impact.

Steve could only breathe, eyes pressed closed against flying debris shards of wood, they stung as they rained down on his exposed skin. Jessica was half-squished under him, at least shielded from the worst of it. The pounding seemed to go on forever, hitting the house until he was sure that it was going to fall down around their heads, not enough of the walls left to hold up the roof.

The silence afterwards was punctuated by the ringing in his ears and little else.

Tony managed to roll out from under Don, sitting up on his knees and reaching for his gun. “Get her out of here, find Pepper, she’ll get you to Utopia.”

“Tony no,” Steve hissed at much the same time Rhodes did. Tony continued to talk over them as if they hadn’t spoken.

“Protect Rhodey,” Tony continued, speaking louder so his voice carried over Steve them with a grim sort of determination that terrified Steve.

“Then I will remain with Stark, do not worry,” Don pushed himself up. He let his shoulders rest straight, for once not trying to hide the sheer breadth of them, not even hunching a little. The fading light cast red dapples across the room and he looked great and terrible. “Go Steven, I will assist Stark.”

“Don, you don’t have to.”

“America was in the yard when I left, I need to find him,” He said and it sounded final.

Tony let out a startled laugh, outside someone was kicking at the door. “It’s a boy?” Tony asked.

Steve didn’t know that. He’d always just called it a girl in his head.

Steve hated leaving sneaking away out the other door, the sun was just dipping behind the horizon and the stars were spilling across the dusk sky, vivid and too close amplified by the atmosphere.

“I don’t like this,” Rhodes grumbled, Steve had a hand around Jessica’s forearm tugging her along behind him. She was unusually quiet, picking her way along behind him graceful despite not being able to use her hands to keep her balance.

They stuck to the lengthening shadows. There was only one small group of men that blocked their way, ill-prepared to deal with someone like Steve. He only wasted two bullets on them, sneaking up behind the one in the back and hooking an elbow around his neck and pulled backwards sharply. He let out a strangled sound as Steve brought his other arm up and shot one, two. They fell.

He choked out the third one, dropping him to the dirt floor. He was sweating lightly and it was getting cold now that the sun wasn’t baking them alive.

“I guess I can see what Tony sees in you,” Rhodes said. He had a gun carefully trained on Jessica (the one they had taken off her in fact), she just gave them a blank look, unimpressed.

Basic hired thugs, not Lukin’s style, he would remain on the ship and aerial strike the town. Stane then.

“I have no idea what Tony is thinking,” Steve admit. It was a lot easier than talking about him facing off against the private army of a man with a vendetta with nothing but his ‘sweet little pea shooter’ and Donald Blake at his back. He sent up a prayer for him.

“Right now or in general?” Rhodes managed a pretty quick clip with his crutch, using it to swing himself along just behind Jessica watching their six.

“In general, I guess.”

They were hitting the town proper, houses getting a little closer together. Pepper wouldn’t go far, not if Tony was going to be in real danger, he didn’t know her well, but it was a gut feeling. Gal like that wouldn’t leave her friends out to dry. “I guess you deserve the whole story. We’ve been on the run for almost a year now?” Rhodes explained slowly. “Tony’s been obsessed, hell bent on vengeance. We finally settled down here for a bit, began doing things to get attention,” Not hiding, waiting Tony had said. “Once Stane noticed he was always going to come after Tony. He can’t risk leaving Tony or Pepper alive.”

Steve hummed, he had guessed as much but it was nice to have the whole picture all laid out.

Rhodes continued after a small pause, drawing the words out carefully. “Lately you’re probably the only thing he talks about that isn’t death or mayhem – isn’t kind of sweet.”

“Special me,” Steve drawled and Jessica snorted, sounding mostly unimpressed with them. Rhodes just laughed, a deep honking sound of amusement.

When he got off this planet he was never going to see Tony again. Probably got Don killed too, everyone he cared for dying while he escaped again.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Rhodes said softly, “Tony is a stubborn bastard.”

“A shark,” Steve said softly.

“So they say,” Rhodes agreed.

Steve held one hand over Jessica’s mouth to keep her from screaming while snuck up the stairs to the empty apartment over the bar. Inside all the lights were on and music spilled out onto the street, looked like they pulled a good crowd that night.

“I’ll go out, find Pepper,” Rhodes said from the bottom of the steps, “sit tight.”

As if Steve could do anything else.

Steve had her stashed away in the corner, sitting under the window, he didn’t dare turn on the lights but both moons were out and it was more than enough light to see by. He sat near the door, holding his gun at ease. “Did you know that first night?” Steve asked, remembering Jessica sitting on top of the jukebox and singing. Back when he was wondering if this was all there ever was going to be to the rest of his life, or death.

“Going to interrogate me?” She asked, giving him a cocky look.

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Steve shrugged, “you found me. I’m sure once I’m gone if you holler and kick up enough of a fuss Janet will come up and see what’s going on. If I were you, I’d disappear-- if Lukin even thinks you know what happened he’s going to kill you. Make it look like an accident.”

“So then, what’s your version of the story then?” She arched an eyebrow—refusing to show fear or maybe she just didn’t feel any. Steve wasn’t going to hurt her, but she couldn’t know that.

Steve was quiet for a long time, he had never spoke the words out loud and if he said then they would be real in a way they hadn’t been before. “We got a distress call from Echo Cry, bandits attacking the colony, the Liberty was the only ship in range,” there was no harm in telling her, she knew who he was and it wasn’t like she was going to believe him anyways. “When we got there I went with a handful of crew to the surface since no one was answering our calls.” Echo Cry had been a tiny scientific community studying some sort of unique mineral compositions on the planet. What should have been a routine mission had turned into a one-sided massacre. Even Sharon with all her paranoia and boy-scout preparedness hadn’t been ready for what happened next. “When we were on the ground the emergency signal went up. I watched another ship, the Schädel, blow the Liberty clean outta the sky.”

Steve had to pause a moment, to breathe to fight the cold panic the memory brought back. He had known in that moment that everyone, fifty-three crew, that he knew by name each and every one of them, was dead. There hadn’t been a chance to evacuate. No one expected that kind of friendly fire.

“You seriously expect me to believe that Commander Lukin blew up the Liberty for no reason? That’s insane,” Jessica hissed at him.

“The planet,” Steve continued, physically unable to stop himself now, “they were using Echo Cry as a front for smuggling slaves and illegal weapons into the inner systems.”

Skinny doe-eyed girls dressed in rags, bruised around the eyes and docile in a way that made his blood boil, and boys with scraped knees and blistered fingers from gruelling work. How anyone could do this to living, breathing, human beings was beyond him.

Steve hadn’t meant to survive the attack. Chaos reigned; the Schädel had opened fire from low orbit on the small colony. Shells hit the ground with a boom that seemed to make the earth shake under his feet. Up from down, left from right, it was hard to tell as artillery rained. Bucky, next to him one moment, shoving him down as the ground rumbled, tugging each other along. In the end he couldn’t save Bucky either, Sharon already separated from them and long gone. No one answered his hails in the dead silence that followed when everything was still just the static fuzz of the short-wave. Finally, Lukin over the transmission taunting him: ‘Most impressive Commander Rogers, but what now?’ To this day it haunted him when he closed his eyes, when something was a little too loud, a little too close. “He opened fire on the colony from orbit, wipe out all the evidence completely, tell me did anyone else survive?”

“None,” Jessica replied easily, frowning up at him, “I think you’d now that best.”

“I’m not denying that I was there ma’am. Tell me, is the warrant for my arrest system-wide? I imagine if Lukin just wants to kill me he keeps it personal. Would you think that for crimes that severe the brass would want all hands on the job?”

“It’s not my place to question it,” Jessica hissed, all the answer that Steve needed.

“Lukin is a snake Jess, just be careful about it,” He didn’t doubt she was always careful. Jessica was a lot smarter than he had given her credit for; he always was a sucker for a pretty face and deadly aim-- easily fooled.

“He’s a snake with a lot of power,” She said, sagging a little. It could have been an act but she looked young again not quite as confident, “and more influence than you could imagine.”

“I know,” Steve said simply, “but he needs to pay for what he did.” Steve was going to have to be the one to do it. No one else was left.

“Let’s say I believed you, and I don’t, not really, but what then?”

The million dollar question. The weight of the dead, his debt, justice and anger all twisting like venomous snakes inside of him. “I lost my best friend and my girl with my command,” Steve held himself together, chin high. “I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but I’m going to stop him. The dead are dead, but he’s still out there selling children. I don’t need to kill him, I need to destroy his empire.”

Jessica was quiet for a long time, chin against her chest.

Time passed, Steve didn’t know what he was waiting for, maybe for the bar to burn down around his ears maybe for Jessica to say something. It had been a clear night, but a sound like thunder rolled across the landscape, the windows rattling for a moment without repeating. Nothing else happened.

“Are you cold?” Steve asked, after they had sat in heavy silence for what felt like hours, he found a thin blanket to drape around Jessica’s shoulders.

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem,” He was just about to sit down again when the bottom door banged open. Steve was on his feet, putting himself between Jessica and the danger before Pepper’s voice even carried up the stairs.

“He’s here?” She was asking.

“Yeah,” Rhodes replied.

“Let me help you.”

They clattered up the stairs together loudly. It was a comfort to see Pepper alive and well, looking none the worse for wear despite having missed most the action.

“Steve,” she said pleasantly enough flushed from the exertion of helping Rhodes. “Why did you tie Jessica up? Ms. Drew, it’s nice to see you again, I can’t say you look well.”

“She’s a spy for the federation military,” Steve said simply.

“Oh, well then,” Pepper said sarcastically hands on her hips, “that explains everything.”

“I told you it was complicated,” Rhodes said, shifting on his feet lightly.

No one felt the need to mention that there were tear tracks in the dust all over Pepper’s face or the way her eyes were rimmed in red. “From the top if you will, I trusted Tony but he’s not here right now, I will decide for myself if and how I will help you.”

“Fair enough,” Steve nodded smartly.

Pepper sat on the edge of the bed, legs crossed demurely, and sunburn beginning to pink the tips of her ears and her nose and a collected stare that betrayed the fact that she had helped Stark run his weapons empire for years.

Steve laid it out, sketching in rough terms what he was being framed for, why and how (he was probably going to die, and maybe he had this wrong all along and he didn’t need to do this all alone, the more people that know the truth the less power Lukin had, he couldn’t decide how to fight a one man war). He explained that Jessica was just trying to arrest him, and that she would be free to go once he had lured heat away from Landfall.

“Of course if you get on a commercial flight it’s just going to put everyone on it in danger,” Pepper said with a calm logical efficiency that would have made her a good officer.

“I know.”

“But if I can get you listed as the pilot in a small manned shuttle,” Pepper continued slowly, “Tony’s finished things one way or another with Stane.” Her smile was twisted, sad. “What do we need with money? No one else needs to get hurt. Can you think of anything better to do with our freedom Jim?”

“No ma’am,” Rhodes bowed his head, “although, when Tony gets back he’s going to be pissed you sent his boyfriend on a suicide mission.” Steve should probably object to being the boyfriend, but let it slide because it wasn’t a battle worth fighting at this point.

“When Tony gets back he can be as mad as he wants.”

“Anyone else hiding a huge secret in this town we should know about?” Rhodes asked the room at large.

Pepper snorted, “small down, edge of the galaxy, nothing around here but secrets. Most people don’t come to Landfall for the weather.” Town of misfits and miners, it all sort of fit in a weird sort of whole and Steve was going to miss it. He wasn’t going to miss the burning sun at all.

“How long will it take?” Steve asked instead.

“I’ll call in a few favours, have everything sorted by dawn. I assume you can pilot small spacecraft?”

“Not very well, but I can,” He agreed.

“Your full name for the space permit?”

“Steven Grant Rogers, Commander.”

Pepper nodded, getting to her feet. She stood there for a moment just looking at him before she sagged a little, shoulders dropping. “I’m sorry,” She said, “I wish we could have gotten to know each other better, doesn’t seem proper to be arranging your death when I hardly know you at all.”

“Me too,” Steve agreed. It seemed to be the right thing to say because she just laughed, a harsh little sound that scratched its way out of her throat.

Pepper left and the front door creaked shut. Janet had to know something was going on, but she was keeping to herself and he was impossibly thankful for it. He didn’t want to drag anyone else into this if he could avoid it.

“Lukin is going to try his hardest to kill me, but you will know the truth,” Steve said to Jessica in the silence that was left in Pepper’s wake.

“We all will,” Rhodes said, quiet but filled with conviction.

Sitting on the floor he could still hear the faint sound of music and movement downstairs. This hadn’t been a bad place to squat even if it was hell on his back, a very small part of him missed the simplicity of those first few days. Steve figured he should be a little more worried about flying into the abyss on a desperate chase but he had been running since Echo Cry, and he was so tired.

He was lucky Bucky wasn’t here, he’d have decked him for what he was about to do. Bucky would have never accepted that this was the only way.

They passed an hour that way, then two. Steve couldn’t sleep, just listening to the softly playing music and watching the stars out the dusty window. Jessica pulled her legs up, curled under her blanket, if not sleeping then simply quiet. Rhodes was sprawled across the bed massaging his leg in contemplative silence. There wasn’t anything to say.

If your story has any evidence,” Jessica began, so quiet for a moment he wasn’t sure if he heard her at all, “there might be someone here who can help you.”

“What changed your mind?” Steve asked, Jessica shifted around a little.

“Nothing, I’m just talking to myself here, so listen up. I wasn’t here looking for you, Lukin has been chasing down an anti-federation ring. As far as I can tell they are not run of the mill terrorists they seem to be targeting a few name generals. Someone here in Landfall is a member, we’d tracked a large number of transmissions to Utopia and I followed them here to Landfall.”

“What did I say about secrets?” Rhodes laughed from atop the bed, not sleeping either despite the late hour. “Enough is enough.”

“I can’t stay here, Lukin will burn this place to a pile of ashes if he catches me here,” Steve shook his head slowly. He couldn’t risk it.

“I’m not trying to stall you,” Jessica said, mouth twisting into a frown.

“Doesn’t matter either way,” Steve shrugged, “get some rest, you have my word that no harm will come to you from us, and you will be free to go as soon as I’m gone.”

Pepper came back some time just before dawn, looking harried. “There’s been an explosion just on the edge of town—Tony, a whole ship fell from the sky.”

Rhodes wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pat her on the back slowly she pressed her face against his chest and took a few shuddering breaths. “I’m sorry.”

Steve added Tony and Don to the tally of people he couldn’t save, two special marks different from the rest but no less important. He should have been there; could have helped somehow.

“The shuttle?” He asked, because there was nothing keeping him here anymore.

“Everything is arranged, there isn’t much food or water on board, there wasn’t enough time, but it should get you to the nearest orbital fuelling station.”

Shouldn’t be much of a problem if Lukin caught up. “Perfect. I should leave for Shangri-La immediately,” Steve stood up.

“We’ll all go. I deserve a vacation, I can’t stay here,” Pepper said sadly, looking past Steve at the bottom curve of the moon as it hung in the window. She shook her head, visibly pulling herself back together again as he shrugged off Rhodes’ arm. “I arranged a car, we should go before the sun comes up.”

Steve nodded. Helpfully everything he owned was probably gone now, lost with the house. He squatted down in front of Jessica. “Be careful around Lukin, I’ll call Janet from Shangri-La and she’ll come free you. Good bye.”

“Wait,” She kicked out, but Steve stepped back the heel of her boot hitting the wood right at his toes.

“No time.”

He left the key on a hook near the door where it would take Jessica time to get it herself, but would be easy for Janet to find.

The car was old, battered and dinged along the sides as if someone had been driving it too-fast through the desert. “I’ll drive,” Steve offered.

“I can do it,” Pepper rolled her eyes. Somewhere she had found a new hat, she pulled it out of the back and sat it on her head adjusting her hair under it. “Let’s go.”

Rhodes climbed into the back and Steve swung himself into the passenger side.

Pepper drove a lot like Tony did, but with a lot more focus. Too fast, corners neat and tight. Somewhere someone had obvious taught her defensive driving and she had took it to heart.

There were a few clicks outside of town when they were rammed hard in the side by another car. Pepper yelped, fighting for control of the vehicle as it spun wildly out of control, too much speed to stop, the shove had hit the back end in the sweet spot, there was no controlling it.

Their car hit a rock on the driver’s side with a screech, jerking Steve sideways against his harness and leaving them wedged against the boulder engine whining and spewing oily smoke. Pepper tried to restart the plasma with hands that shook. She swore low and slurred under her breath, there was no escape that way, it refused to catch.

“Get out of the car,” Jessica stood, wrists bruised and looking absolutely furious in the half-light of the dawn. She had two guns now trained on both Steve and Pepper, “I can’t let you leave.”

Steve held both his hands up to show that they were empty and slowly unbuckled himself opened the door and stepped out of the car. “On the ground,” she ordered. He knelt beside the car, hands on his head.

“How did you get away so fast?” Pepper asked, she had to crawl across the seats, the driver’s side was crushed inwards and stuck. She was pale freckles standing out along her cheeks bleeding from a cut at her hairline. Rhodes was struggling out of the car last, trying to move without aggravating his leg while still wiggling his way out.

If he could distract Jessica Steve could take her down, probabilities flicking through his mind quickly.

“Never have hand cuffs you don’t have two keys for,” She said simply. Meaning that she could have escaped at any time. A brilliant way to gather intel, Steve couldn’t help but be impressed even if he had walked right into that one. He’d underestimated her again.

“What are you going to do now?” Steve asked, “Lukin arrives, then he kills us both.”

“I’m going to use you as bait. Find out for myself what is really going on around here.”

She only looked away for a moment, Rhodes grunting as he stumbled out the back of the car crutch banging loudly on the roof. It was all the distraction that Steve needed, he surged forward. His shoulder met Jessica’s solar plexus and she made a cut-off surprised sound, all the air leaving her. They hit the ground together. Steve was big and had extensive hand to hand combat, but Jessica was fast and a little ruthless. One of her bony knees shoved up and into his side with bruising force nails digging into his forearms as he tried to pin her. Steve flinched away from it, protecting his ribs and she used that to wiggle out from under him.

She had one of his hands and just landed a vicious punch to his jaw, both of them ignoring the sound of her dress tearing, Pepper’s shouting fading to so much white noise. The guns had been dropped when he first hit her, landing off to the side but not close enough for Pepper to snatch.

They broke apart, wind buffeting around them and kicking up all the dirt until Steve could barely see through it, Pepper’s hat went flying, spinning through the air. Jessica’s hair whipped around her face the ends of it snapping like some medusa-creature.

A shuttle hovered just past them kicking up the air with its engines. From the quick glance Steve could spare it looked like a medium range vessel, jury-rigged to be able to access the hyper-stream-- probably illegally. He’d have bet money on it being a smuggling ship of some sort. It lowered slowly, struts sticking off the side and housing the squat, ugly engines, shaking and shuddering as it touched down.

Jessica crouched low, holding her dress together where it ripped during the fight eyes flicking between Steve and the new threat. Both of them were just waiting to make a grab for the guns. There was a barely-there click of the magnetic locks disengaging, the rear hatch was going to open. Whatever was on the other side was in a good position to rain hell on them. He could lunge for it, Rhodes had already tugged Pepper as far behind the car as he could, trying to get her to cover.

The back hatch opened, both Steve and Jessica lunged for the guns, impossible to tell which one of them had moved first. Instead of going straight for the gun like she had, he body checked her wrapping a hand around her waist and twisting so he could throw her over his back, she was off balance and a lot lighter than him. He didn’t give her enough time to drop her weight. She hit the ground hard and lay in a heap, dazed and gasping for breath.

In a one long smooth movement Steve tucked into a roll, pulling the gun against his chest and bringing it up as he straightened, covered in dust and squinting at the ship.

The sun just peeked over the horizon brightening the day and hitting all the dirt in the air, it was making his eyes water. Steve could barely breathe through it, it was like being frail again, before the gene therapy, before he signed his life to the military to make him the man he always knew he could be.

“If you’re going to point that at me, you’d better be ready to use it,” came the voice, someone leaning out of the cargo ramp with one arm wrapped around the hydraulic strut to hold himself steady looking deceptively casual. “I know you can do better than that.”

“Bucky?” Steve asked suddenly filled with an impossible hope. His stomach twisted violently, throat threatening to close entirely. But he knew that voice. Better than his own. Smooth like the crawl of expensive whiskey and just as sharp.

“You know any others?” The craft touched down with one last gust of air. Steve switched his aim to Jessica even as Bucky hopped down off the ramp looking mighty fine and alive.

“I’m pretty sure you broke the mould.” Steve replied, dazed. “Also, you’re dead.”

“No, you’re dead. I should sock you one, coming back to life and not telling me.”

Steve laughed, feeling almost faint. If this were a dime-store romance he would have swooned already. Bucky was giving him a look that said he was waiting for some sort of hysterics.

Rhodes and Pepper peeked out from behind the car, Jessica was bleeding from several scrapes and Steve could feel a bruise forming on his jaw where she hit him the scratches on his arm bleeding sluggishly. With his free hand he clapped Bucky on the shoulder, only half to make sure this wasn’t a psychotic break of some kind. He seemed solid enough.

“Not that I’m complaining. But what are you doing here, why now?”

“You were dead Steve-- listed as missing in action. All that stuff that Lukin did was put in your name. We’ve been trying to expose him ever since.”

“We? There were more survivors.”

“Yeah, Sharon’s okay,” Steve’s knees did feel weak then.

She was too restrained to run up and hug him the way that Steve wanted to do, but he looked up and there she was standing just inside the shadows of the cargo hold, beautiful and blonde and squinting against the morning light. “Oh thank god,” he breathed.

“We came here because an asset was in trouble, Lukin had tracked her to Landfall and we came to pick ‘em up,” Bucky continued.

“It’s Carol isn’t it?” Jessica said, watching them with shrewd eyes, having pulled herself out of the dirt, trying to look calm despite the way her eyes were darting around franticly.

Carol in her chaps and hat, moving down the ramp next as if summoned by her name. “Jessica,” She nodded, Steve rolled his shoulders. Behind him Rhodes muttered something about secrets to Pepper. “I should have known it was you.”

“Likewise,” Jessica did smile then, a tiny thing that despite the blood staining her teeth looked real. “Listen, you don’t have time for this.” She shifted her weight a little, lifting herself onto her knees, looking past Steve’s gun to his face, “Lukin is on his way.”

“Then someone needs to be on that shuttle.” Steve said, shaking his head. Sharon was still there, watching him with a hand pressed to her mouth, pale as a ghost, and Steve couldn’t go to her because the world wasn’t fair. “I need to draw him away, or Landfall burns.”

“I’ll do it,” Rhodes stepped forward, chin held high reflecting every ounce of military that ran in his blood.

“You need to stay with Pepper, this is my fight. It’s all I can do for Tony,” Steve wouldn’t let anyone else die.

“Steve, no,” Bucky frowned looking between them all with a sense of dawning dread writ badly all over his face, quickly putting the clues together. “Whatever you’re planning—no.”

“I was dead, I will be dead.”

“Everyone get inside. We can argue there. You’re letting all the cold in,” The blond man who spoke was short, military uniform with decidedly non-military tinted glasses on. Next to him stood a curvy red-head in a smart looking dress, bodice pushing her chest up and forward. “I didn’t come all this way to stand off at dawn.”

“Shut up Barton,” Bucky snarled and Barton just gave him a winning smile that was utterly faked.

Jessica was handcuffed again, she submitted to it willingly enough and Steve kept a close eye on her; he wasn’t going to be fooled a third time. Pepper took Bucky’s hand up gamely enough and if this were any other day in their entire lives Steve would have rolled his eyes. As it was he had and armful of Sharon, her blond hair smelled just the way he remembered when he pressed his face there breathing deeply like he’d been drowning.

“Set a course for Shangri-La,” Steve said without looking up, he kept his arms around Sharon, refusing to let go for a moment. She didn’t cry., Barton looked to his companion expression mostly hid by glasses, she nodded minutely at him and he ambled off, the whole ship rattling as the engines started up again.

“May I request we stop by the house? Just, fly over, please,” Pepper asked voice soft and polite.

“Yeah. Okay,” Barton nodded. Steve would have been hard pressed himself to deny her anything, bloodied and stained and looking impossibly weary.

There was almost nothing left of their house, the scorched and skeletal remains of the once-sturdy foundation stuck out of the ground almost comically, next to it was the gutted and blackened remains of a ship. Steve could only stare, leaning out the open cargo hatch as he was it was impossible to say what happened. He could make out numerous humps of flesh that could have been anyone.

“What are we looking for?” Bucky asked, sticking close to Pepper and Rhodes, either making sure they didn’t fall out of turn on them, it was hard to tell. The ship was moving slow enough and low enough that could hang out of the cargo ramp for a better view.

“Survivors,” Steve said, he meant a body.

They hatch was just about to close when he saw them.

The figures just outside of the blast radius. Two lying starfish in the sand, sun rise throwing them into dramatic relief, and a third dog-sized running circles around them. He whooped out-loud, leaning as far out as he could go. Pepper began to cry softly, pressing her hands to her face.

They landed not far from them, Barton grumbling about ETAs as they did.

“Don’t mind me if I don’t stand up,” Tony said as they approached. America jumped, turned on a dime and released a series of clicks and hisses, hopping from foot to foot excitedly.

“Oh my god, Tony, what happened?” Pepper gasped falling to her knees at his side.

“Don’t worry most of it isn’t mine,” Tony lied through his teeth. Steve could see several obvious puncture wounds. He was covered in blood, he looked like he had bathed in it, then rolled in the sand. The results were with swaths of streaky, muddy, mess painted all over his skin and clothes. Even his face was caked in it, two paler streaks where he had obviously wiped it away with his fingers. “We kicked ass.” he said with a sharp, shark-like smile his teeth startlingly white against the mess on his skin.

“A most trying of battles,” Don rumbled. He was only marginally cleaner than Tony, most of the blood didn’t seem to be his own at the very least.

“Steve, you never told me your friend was a monster,” Tony laughed, sounding delirious.

Don was the first to move, sitting up slowly. “You flatter me, Anthony Stark,” He said with a low huff, “is it time to go again?”

“You shouldn’t come with me this time,” Steve hugged him, awkwardly kneeling on the ground next to where Pepper was smoothing Tony’s hair back from a nasty cut along his hairline. “I’m sorry.”

“What? Why, where are you going?” Tony struggled to a sitting posture, hand coming to his side as he did so the words devolving into a pained hiss. There were some hastily wrapped bandages poking out of what was left of his shirt.

Don looked at him for a long moment before he nodded slowly, as if he understood something that Steve couldn’t put into words.

“Stop fussing, I survived,” Tony said, attempting to shake Pepper off so he could stand. It quickly became obvious that they had not been lying down for Don’s sake. Tony sagged against Pepper’s slim shoulders knees barely holding his own weight. Being the closest Steve leaned under his other arm mindful of the muted sounds of pain.

“Barely,” She hissed angrily.

“It’s not nearly as bad as it looks. What about Steve, where are you going? Why?”

“I have a ship. I’m going to draw off Lukin, make a run for it.”

Tony stumbled and Steve gathered him up against his chest, ignoring his protests as he pulled him into his arms, one hooked around his shoulders, the other around his knees. “No, put me down, wait, listen you don’t have to do this, there needs to be another way.”

“Steven,” Don said when he got them into the shade of the ship, just where the edge of the ramp met cracked earth. He carefully let Tony down, supported on one side by Pepper and Bucky on the other.

“We’ll talk in a minute,” He promised without specifying to whom he meant because Bucky was giving him the stink eye and Tony looked like he was ready to argue the point further. Instead he went towards where Don was hanging back watching them. “What?”

“Space is no place for him. America wanted to let you know he was thankful that you saved him that day,” Don said. Steve blinked, America was still darting around, excited by all the commotion, flat reptilian features showing a crude sort of intelligence as it gazed up at him. “The species doesn’t use words like that, but he’s aware that he should have died with his pack, that he too has been given a second chance.”

Steve wanted to ask how Don could possibly know that. Instead he said, “America hated me.”

“America is a wild animal and you do not speak his language.”

“And you do?”

“Rudimentarily, they do not use language the way you and I do.”

“How?” Steve was willing to hear him out before he wrote it off as impossible because Don was more often than not right about impossible things. The dead were coming back to life and dinosaurs could talk.

“There are more things in this universe than you and yours could possibly know,” Don ducked his head. “I would go with you as far as I could Steven, see our journey through. America will stay here, and he will survive.”

“Okay,” What else was there to say? He trusted Don, he didn’t understand Don, but he did trust him. The very least he could do was convince Bucky to take him as far as Utopia. “It’s not like our house burnt down or anything.”

Don threw back his head and laughed, a full, throaty sound that carried across the flat lands around them. By now the sun was coming up and it made his blond hair shine.

“Then let us be off. Could you do something for me first?”

“What is it?” Steve asked, and Don looked uncharacteristically unsure for a moment, frown forming between his eyebrows before it smoothed out.

“You may call me Thor, I am Thor.”

Steve smiled. “Sure thing, Thor.”

“It is nice to hear that again,” Don—Thor said, already holding his shoulders a little higher. There was power in a name. “I also grow weary of hiding, Anthony is a good man I believe that no matter what he says his adventure is not over, we should follow him.”

Steve nodded. “Tell America to be careful for me.”

“I believe he knows.”

The cargo-hold door closed behind them, sealing them in semi-darkness, seemed a lot darker than it was after the brightness of the morning.

The flight to Shangri-La would be all too short in coming, and there were so many things he wanted to say. Most he didn’t have the right to.

He wasn’t surprised when Sharon was the first to corner him, still mostly surrounded by boxes of cargo watching Don slip deeper into the ship. “Hey,” Steve said, fighting the urge to reach for her, make sure again that she was real and whole.

“You were dead,” She said pragmatically. She had never made the strict definition between her service life and her private life the way a lot of people did. She lived and breathed the military as had all her family before her and Steve had loved her fiercely for it. “You were dead for a long time Steve, I loved you but-- I grieved and I moved on.”

He wished he could have said he was angry or surprised, but he wasn’t. He would have never wanted her to suffer for him in any way, and she wasn’t the type of woman to dwell on pointless things. “I’m glad,” He said without lying.

“I figured you would be,” she said with a sad frown, “you make it real hard not to love you.”

“Does he make you happy?” Steve asked. Not really sure if he wanted to hear about it, he wanted to know she was happy.

“She,” Sharon corrected him, “we’re working things, out. You could meet her if you stick around. Natasha is an operative, second in command on this bird.”

“I want to, but you know I can’t.” Steve said, straightening up a little elephant in the room barging its way into their conversation.

“I know, I get you, but James isn’t going to accept this, not easily. He lost you once and meeting again like this is just cruel.”

“I’d have spared him if I’d known,” Steve said. While he could go now into that black abyss, happy knowing that he hadn’t failed Thor and Tony, and that two of the people he loved the most were alive and well and getting on with their lives.

“Somehow that’s worse,” she replied. She leaned against him, arms around his neck, lifting onto her toes to kiss his cheek. “Everyone is in the war-room, Ms. Potts is laying out the plan.”

Steve wanted to tell her that there was a chance he would survive, that Lukin hadn’t been fast enough. If he came back again Bucky really was going to lay him one.

“Stark?” Steve asked instead.

“Resting in medical, he’s been shot several times and lost a lot of blood, but seems in remarkably good shape for it.”

“Would take a lot more than that to stop him,” Steve said with a fond smile. Sharon just grinned at him.

“I know that look Steve.”

“It’s not like that,” Steve shrugged. Probably could have been if things had continued. They probably would have destroyed each other out of sheer boredom quickly enough, but it would have been a wild ride.

“I see,” Sharon left him there, promising to meet him in the war room once he checked on Tony.

“I never expected you to be everything she said you were,” Steve tensed when a voice spoke, he hadn’t even managed to get two steps further. She moved like a cat, quiet despite the heeled boots and the many layers of her dress. “Fury is not going to be pleased that I let an asset get away.”

“Ma’am,” Steve nodded, “that was a private conversation.”

“She knew I was there,” She shrugged, shock of red hair falling over one pale shoulder. “It’s my job to know what goes on. Follow me, we’ll drop by medical before going to the war room. I can only keep James on guard detail for so long before he comes to find you on his own.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Natasha,” She said over her shoulder, leading him through the halls of the ship at a quick clip. “My name is Natasha.”

Tony was lying in the bed in the cramped little medical bay, one arm over his face and shirtless, someone had patched up the worst of the damage, bandages brilliantly white against his skin. He was unusually still, left in nothing but a clinging pair of boxers. There was a thick purple bruise along his thigh in the obvious shape of a boot. His thighs were pale otherwise.

“Do you want to go inside?” Natasha asked.

“For a little bit.”

“I told you, I’m fine,” Tony mumbled when Steve slid the door open.

“You don’t look fine,” Steve said, and Tony peeked out at him from behind his hand. He looked tired, one black eye and the other just tired. “You look like you went a round with a brick shithouse.”

“I still won, you know we should make a club, you can join only if you’ve been falsely accused of treason,” Tony laughed, it looked painful. “Who gave you that?” Tony gestured at his face vaguely.

“Jessica,” Steve said with a rueful smile. Tony whistled softly, amused.

“Who are these people anyways?”

“Well, my girlfriend, ex I guess, she thought I was dead, and my best friend. They seem to be some sort of terrorists. I can’t say for sure.”

Tony laughed again, a soft wheezing sound. “Good for you. Just find somewhere quiet to drop us off.”

“Okay,” Steve leaned across the bed and kissed him. Tony’s lip was split and he was overly careful about it, trying to be, even if was difficult with Tony surging up to meet him turning the kiss hard. It was a little stale when their tongues touched, neither of them having slept much in the past 24 hours, but Steve revelled in the slick slide of Tony alive and perfect under him.

The angle was awkward, Steve bracing himself over Tony and Tony tilting himself up to reach him, but it still ended too soon.

He brushed his thumb over Tony’s mouth as he sat back, wet and warm. Tony touched the tip of his tongue to his thumb, corners of his mouth curling into a slick smile. Natasha was still watching but for a moment he didn’t really care. “Bed’s narrow but I bet it could fit two if we got real close,” Tony said with a wicked grin.

“Tempting,” Steve smiled, “but I need to talk to someone. It’s a lot of work coming back from the dead.”

He pressed the next kiss to Tony’s forehead and stood. “I’ll just wait here,” Tony grinned, sagging against the narrow bed, Steve laughed.

Steve left him like that, mouth wet and eyes slipping closed.

“Let’s go,” He told Natasha, and she nodded.

She dropped him off in the war room and left. Pepper was sitting at the head of a long table presiding over court, Rhodes was sitting next to her, Thor was at the other side, Barnes and Carter with them.

“This is a stupid plan,” Bucky said immediately as he stepped through the door. “No offence ma’am,” he nodded in deference to Pepper but didn’t take his eyes off of Steve.

“None taken,” Pepper said easily.

“Is everything still ready to go?” Steve asked instead.

“Yes,” She looked at him, blue eyes clear.

“Then it’s settled.”

“Like hell it is,” Bucky hissed, standing up, hands slammed down on the table top. “There has to be another way. We’ll take this ship, we can outrun him.”

“What, risk exposing all our work to Lukin? We’ve almost got him,” Sharon added with a frown, Bucky whirled on her.

“What, and just lose Steve all over again? I’ll go with you. You can’t stop me,” He crossed his arms over his chest glaring at them all.

“Bucky,” Steve shook his head.

“What if he doesn’t take the bait? What happens then? You’d be gone lost in space, and so would this god-awful place.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Carol said, striding into the room with a clank of her chunky heels. “Jessica and I have come to an agreement.”

“You trust her?” Steve asked. Carol rolled her shoulder a little tipping her hat back further on her head so it cast a few less shadows on her face.

“As much as I trust you Commander Rogers,” She replied staring at him easily. “The story is she chased you all the way to Shangri-La. But you took her out and escaped on the shuttle. There was no communication between the two of you. Jess is a good person, she was just doing her job.”

“You can’t believe her,” Steve continued. Jessica had proved to be a little too slippery one too many times for him to be comfortable in including her anywhere.

“We have our ways,” Sharon shrugged. “If she is willing to help we’ll take it.” That seemed to be the final word on that.

“Are you even really a novelist?” Steve had to ask her and Carol gave him a secretive smile. “Janet is going to be crushed.”

“Yes, actually,” Carol laughed. “Jessica knows how to contact me, maybe we can work something out later set up an information chain but for now she knows to keep to the story.” Carol looked so confident in this that Steve was inclined to trust her judgement. “She wants the truth just as much as the rest of us.”

There weren’t too many details to iron out, it was a pretty straightforward plan. Steve was thinking of non-violent ways of subduing Bucky. A selfish move, but Steve wanted to know he was out there somewhere, pissed off but alive. He could get his ass kicked in the afterlife and he would still be happy if he saved Bucky here and now.

They were just flying into Shangri-La airspace when Tony stumbled into the room, leaning heavily on the doorframe. Natasha was standing behind him, hovering without offering to help. “You’re all idiots,” he said scathingly. “Flying a ship on a suicide mission all very nice and noble and very dumb, this is what people build navigational AIs for.”

Which were both highly expensive, complicated, and controversial. “Well we don’t have one.”

“Sure you do. Rhodie, can you get this heap to exit and enter atmosphere without a navigational unit?” Tony asked, looking at him with the look of a man who already knew the answer to that question.

“I can if I have too,” he nodded.

“Excellent. I’ll make one. I’ll cannibalize parts from this ship, is there anything else with a big enough logic drive? Personal computers I’m going to need a lot of them, I can use the hyperdrive engines, but then we’re not going anywhere fast.”

“We’re smuggling some smart drones,” Natasha offered, small unmanned drones that could make base distinction between friend and foe and shoot, they operated under basic laws of hive mind and were also outlawed in most places.

“That will work,” Tony said, both his eyebrows jumping. “Starktech, I’m impressed.”

“Tony, you can barely stand and you haven’t slept in a day,” Steve protested. Tony gave him a nasty look.

“Do I look like I need to stand to be able to build a self piloting AI? Bring me to the parts.”

“You did this?” Steve asked, looking at Natasha while Bucky jumped from his seat to lead Tony to the bridge, offering him a shoulder to lean on eager to grasp at straws.

“Don’t you know who he is?” She asked with a blank look. “One of the foremost engineers before he fled charges of treason and murder.”

“I knew that,” when she put it like that it did seem a little more obvious.

“He probably can build one.”

Natasha waited until they were almost completely out of earshot of everyone else before she added. “They just got over you last time, I don’t want to have to deal with that. James is the worst when he sulks.”

Steve laughed. “Well I guess I need to thank you.”

“Don’t.” Natasha frowned at him, she shifted her weight uncomfortably. “Just don’t.” It would have been comical on anyone else.

Tony gave him a sour look when he walked into the cargo hold where Tony was sitting on the floor, watching Bucky pry open one of the large crates to get at the drones inside. “I’m just here to lift things,” Steve said, both palms up in a sign of offering. That startled the look right off his face, replacing it with a small amused smile.

“I can deal with that,” Tony nodded.

The next few hours were almost anti-climatic, Tony sitting on the floor in the tattered remains of his shirt, bandages and not a lot more. Pepper was beside him for most of it, hovering like a concerned parent while helping him keep track of parts, Steve couldn’t blame her. It was like a miracle he was even there, living, breathing, muttering to himself about parallel logic capacity.

“He’s worked through worse,” Pepper said with a soft, fond, smile. “Once he stayed awake on nothing but stimulants for a week.”

“Must have crashed hard.”

“I thought we were going to need to intervene medically,” She laughed. Tony looked up at them for a moment brow furrowed suspiciously.

“You’re talking about me, why are you talking about me?”

“Work, Tony,” Pepper scolded him and he nodded, hunching back down over in a way that must have been imprinted on his spine for how natural he looked like that. Between Bucky, Thor and Sharon they had dragged up what looked like half of the tools in the engine room.

They stopped at one point, everything shaking as they landed and Tony swore, reaching for his tools parts and hissing through his teeth as he aggravated his injuries. “Need more time,” Tony said, tossing a panicked look over his shoulder. “Just a little more.”

“We were dropping Drew off,” Natasha spoke in a low tone somewhere between soothing and menacing. “We’ve got a bit of time yet.”

“It isn’t going to be pretty,” Tony muttered, “not without space to test out any bugs.” Not to mention being cobbled together by the parts of various parts of scavenged stuff from around the ship. They might have well been out in the desert again, two men against the elements and Steve seeing Tony’s genius for the first time and not even beginning to understand the extent of it. “But it should be able to transition from ground to space without any problems. After that it’s all coding for gravity fields which, I should be able to cut corners by using some of the navigational programming already in use, I’m sure we won’t miss it.”

When he spoke he made it sound easy. Steve highly doubted that it was anywhere near that simple.

It was awhile yet, Pepper falling asleep where she sat, dozing with one hand on her cheek until both her palm and cheek were red with pressure.

“I need to go to the other ship now,” Tony said quietly, trying not to wake Pepper (futile, she blinked awake as soon as he spoke, straightening out with a wince). “Don’t you dare try to carry me again.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve replied indulgently.

The other ship was exactly what Pepper had promised, it wasn’t glamorous but it was space-worthy if a bit cramped. The hatch stuck a little and Steve had to put a bit of shoulder into it when it came to wrestling it open. Tony at least was walking and standing under his own power, he was wearing Pepper’s hat to protect him from the afternoon light.

“It’s all yours,” Steve stepped away from the open door and Tony nodded.

“Wont take too long,” Tony’s voice became muffled. “Just need to connect everything to the navigation nodes.”

The fact that it actually worked seemed to take everyone by surprise. Except for maybe Natasha, even Tony looked a little shocked when the signal from the shuttle broke free of the upper atmosphere keeping a steady course towards the nearest space station.

“That actually worked,” Tony said, he was leaning on the back of the pilot’s chair everyone gathered around to watch.

“You were worried?” Pepper gave him a sharp look.

“Well I’ve never done that before, so I was a little worried. Yeah,” Tony shrugged.

“We need to move, can’t be sure Drew actually believes us or not, best not to stick around. Don’t want to be caught with our pants around our ankles after all this unnecessary drama,” Barton said, he was leaning on the ship’s consol, squinting at the Shangri-La spaceport spread out below them, landing for small ships and the away ships for larger vessels. Port town for the whole planet.

“But the view isn’t half-bad,” Natasha replied and Barton glared at her.

“Funny,” Barton glared at her. “We can take you as far as Omega colony,” He continued as if Natasha hadn’t interrupted him.

“As good a place as any,” Pepper nodded. “Thank you.”

“Hey, wait,” Tony frowned pushing himself mostly upright.

“No Tony, you get some sleep, we can talk about it after.”

--

Steve hadn’t put a lot of thought into this part, the odd almost-painful lull now that everything was mostly said and done. He was beginning to tire, the last day beginning to take its toll on his body.

Everything was different now.

It would have been high noon in Landfall right now, everyone going about their day. Any other day Steve might have been sleeping off a shift at the bar while Don worked at the clinic. Now, Tony and Steve had been literally wiped off the map, homes burned to the ground in the middle of the night nothing left but a trail of destruction. Everything kept changing so fast and he had a horse in this race, but it still didn’t feel like he had won anything yet.

“I bet Janet is secretly a pirate,” Steve said, he couldn’t quite sleep yet, something unnamed keeping him awake even as it had to have been about 30 standard hours since he had last actually slept. Carol was sipping a cup of water across from him.

The mess was a cramped and claustrophobic little space. Carol had been helping Barton get the shuttle into space without the help of the navigation unit, Rhodes hovering over her shoulder. Too many pilots in too small a space squabbling over how best to steer the bird.

“Her family used to be influential and rich, descendants of the colonists that founded Shangri-La,” Carol said, “but her father lost it all and everyone turned on them. Hank was the only one who stayed by her, so they ran away together.”

“Oh,” Steve had been mostly joking.

“It’s not a secret or anything; she just doesn’t like to talk about it much.”

“Oh,” Steve repeated lamely, because he wasn’t sure what to say about that. Maybe Pepper had been right and everyone who was in Landfall had their secrets. “She seems happy?”

“For now,” Carol shrugged. “It’s not going to be enough for them for long. Dirty little mining town, nothing interesting happens.”

“I don’t know, that was plenty excitement.”

Carol looked surprised for a moment before laughing, “I suppose you’re right. What are you going to do now commander Rogers? While I’m sure Fury would love you, I doubt Barnes would make you go if you didn’t want to.”

“Lukin and I have unfinished business.”

“Then Fury would probably be a good bet, just watch out for him if you get too close he’s--”

“He’s a shark?” Steve asked and Carol grinned at him, wide and amused trying to hide it with her cup.

“I doubt you’re going to be able to charm this one into bed.”

Steve felt his ears go a little hot, but there was no point in denying it, not when Carol was giving him a too-knowing smirk.

“Go, get some rest. You look dead on your feet.”

He should go find Bucky, he was obviously angry, angry that Steve wasn’t dead, that Steve was willing to have died? He didn’t know but the thought of going a few rounds with him just seemed like too much right now. He should find Thor, explain a few things.

They had a few days before they hit Omega, if nothing else happened. There would be time before he was needed again (didn’t that feel weird, like putting on old clothes only to find they still fit) so he could rest for just a little bit.

“You know, that’s a really good idea,” Steve rolled his shoulders feeling the faint ache of lack of sleep in all his joints.

He probably wouldn’t sleep but a little bit of down time couldn’t hurt.

“I’ve been known to have them from time to time,” Carol laughed, “I’ll keep an eye on this boat, get some rest soldier.”

Steve made an unflattering face at her as he pushed up. She watched him go, sipping from her mug slowly.

He bumped into Tony in the hall that housed the personnel bunks which wasn’t really surprising it wasn’t a very big bird and it was only a minor miracle he hadn’t run into anyone else. Tony was leaning on the wall and shuffling from the bathroom back to his designated room. Some had to bunk up, the ship had been running on a skeleton crew before but was filling quickly, Steve couldn’t remember if Tony had to or not.

Sharon had given her room to Pepper and Carol. Steve was supposed to return to the room he was going to share with Don but Tony stopped him in his tracks with a filthy smile. Also the fact that he was standing brazenly in his boxers in the corridor and nothing else.

Tony’s bare feet looked oddly vulnerable. The rest of him was bruised and battered, cheeks and shoulders also red with the beginnings of what promised to be an amazing burn, bright lines of pale cut in where his shirt had been. At least he was mostly clean now and it was a lot more than Steve could say for himself.

“Space is cold and lonely, join me?” Tony asked utterly shameless.

“Does that line work for you often?” Steve had to ask, unable to keep the smile from his face.

“Tried and true, you wouldn’t want to break the winning streak would you now?”

Steve grinned, crowding Tony near the wall until they were nose to nose again and he’s distracted by just how blue Tony’s eyes were this close. “I guess we can’t have that,” Steve agreed easily enough.

There was a sort of insanity in following Tony back into his room, going in without a plan and guns blazing.

The feeling persisted in gathering him up against his chest and pressing their lips together in a soft kiss, reckless and perfect. It wasn’t hard and fast and desperate. It wasn’t a hello or a goodbye this time just a ‘how do you do?’, Steve didn’t know exactly what it felt like only that it fizzled slowly in his gut and he didn’t want to let go of Tony for a good long while.

They made it to the bed, still curled around each other, pressed tight from head to toe, Steve on his back trying to be a gentlemanly about Tony’s injuries. They moved lazily together, Steve was half hard, enjoying without any actual intent.

“Tired,” Steve breathed the words against Tony’s mouth. He could hear the pained sounds Tony muffled when he tried to move, the lassitude in his limbs that spoke more of exhaustion than arousal.

Tony went limp against his chest with a small huffing laugh, “I guess I will just have to rock your world later.”

There wasn’t a lot of room, Tony slithering off his chest and into the small space between the bed and the wall without moving more than he absolutely needed to. Steve had to be on his side, one hand under his head, the other over Tony’s stomach so that he wasn’t precariously close to the edge of the bed himself.

It wasn’t the most comfortable, but Steve was used to catching sleep where and when he could and sharing a narrow bunk with someone that seemed to have six sets of elbows, so it wasn’t all that difficult to drop off from a light dose into an actual deep sleep. He woke feeling groggy some time later because someone was poking him in the shoulder over and over.

“This is normally the part where I say something charming and witty, but I really need to piss and you’re really heavy.”

“Carol warned me you’d be a charmer,” Steve grunted, the words coming out raspy and thick with sleep. He rolled, dropping off the edge of the bed and into a loose crouch.

Tony moved a lot more stiffly, sitting up first with a low groan and moving slowly towards the bathroom. Steve stretched out the slightly tightness in his muscles. Going from planet to ship was always odd because artificial gravity was usually standardized against Earth independent of whatever planet you had just been on and he felt oddly light.

There was a small sink and a mirror recessed against one wall and Steve used it to freshen up while Tony was gone.

He was contemplating if there was the room for a stretch if he twisted just so. Each room was cramped as if they had only been added as an afterthought once the meat and gravy of the engines and ordinances were done with, when Tony returned. His hair was all flat on one side and his skin had turned bright pink all along his arms and face. Steve was only marginally better pale skin having flushed brightly. It was faintly painful to the touch and would probably take a few days to heal.

Tony’s skin was warm under his palms, still sleepy and willing when Steve caught him around the shoulder pulling him in for a kiss that tasted strongly of mint.

“M’morning to you too,” Tony said, tucking his face in Steve’s neck.

He was rested and clarity was there, just creeping up on him, but Steve could have this right now and Tony had saved his life and called him an idiot and changed everything by just being himself.

“Want to grab some food?”

“Nope,” Tony shook his head, the edges of his mouth twisting in a sly smile. “I want a do-over of this morning, you up for it? Get back in bed, pretend we’re waking up all over again.”

“I wasn’t aware you did morning afters,” Steve teased against his cheek, rubbing his chin against Tony’s facial hair and luxuriating in the tickling scratch.

Tony stilled under him for a moment. “Is this a talk we need to have?”

“What?” Steve asked, confused.

“Never mind, carpe diem,” Tony smiled, tugging them both back towards the bed.

Steve briefly flicked through the logistics, they were in a strange room there wasn’t anything slick enough to fuck with. Tony would hurt himself if he were on top, and Steve couldn’t rub off all over that flat stomach, not without hurting him somehow.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, Tony folding down into his lap, hands on his shoulders while Steve shoved his own hands down the back of those clingy little boxers. “Don’t hurt yourself,” he said, nuzzling the edge of Tony’s jaw, sucking on bits of skin as they caught his attention.

“I’m fine,” Tony replied, breathing steadily against Steve’s hair, hitching when Steve dug his fingers into the meat of his ass. “No need to be gentle on my account,” he said and Steve figured he had to be lying. Even if he had made a trip for more meds while he was gone, being shot three times and beaten hurt something fierce.

They spent a long time like that, giving into slick wet kisses, Tony’s tongue pushing into his mouth with a muted little hungry sound that Steve wanted to eat up like Sunday roast.

He could feel himself hardening, heartbeat echoing in his dick as it began to take interesting in the faint rocking heat of Tony’s ass against his thighs. Tony was warm and pleasantly heavy; Steve let one hand sweep up his back so he could thread his fingers in his hair, cupping the back of his head in his palm. He used the hold to tip Tony exactly where he wanted him, kissing him back, gentle only because he was aware of the healing split there even if Tony seemed intent on ignoring it himself.

When they finally broke apart Tony wasn’t breathing so steady any more, mouth open and panting softly, wet against Steve’s mouth, foreheads pressed together.

“Get these off, and I’ll show you stars,” Tony promised hot, tonguing at the corner of his mouth teasingly.

“Got a better plan,” Steve smiled.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, wrangling Tony off his lap and onto his back on the bed without jarring anything too badly.

“Liking where this is going,” Tony said with a breathless laugh, reaching for Steve and pulling him down between his legs.

“You’ll like this more,” Steve pressed the words against his collar bone. Steve stole one last wet kiss before shifting back on his legs a little slipping down Tony’s body. That got him a strangled groan, sounding surprised even if he shouldn’t have been.

Steve paused to toy with his nipples mouthing at it wetly until it caught against the edge of a tooth, firm and hard. Tony twisted his hands in Steve’s hair, holding him in place as Steve continued to play with him. Tony’s thighs gripped at his waist, pushing up and forward to try and remove the space between them.

Tony made a bitten off sound and stopped trying to move, sucking in a hard breath between his teeth. Without moving more than he needed to Steve rest his hand over the injury on his side that Tony must have jarred when he twisted.

“’M’ fine,” Tony repeated and Steve smiled at he bit at his nipple sharply; liar.

He cut off messing around and scooted down the bed until he was between the splayed V of Tony’s legs. His original plan had involved getting one knee over his shoulder forcing Tony’s legs to spread as wide as they could and getting him off with his fingers and mouth.

Tony was going to move around and he was going to hurt himself again, that much was obvious. There had to be a way to avoid hurting him. “How’s your multi-tasking?” Steve asked instead, rubbing his thumb over where the head of Tony’s dick was pressing against the material of his boxers a little damp already.

“How many times do you want me to prove I’m a genius?” Tony huffed, almost sounding affronted that Steve would doubt him.

“One more for now,” Steve sat back on his heels then up onto his knees so he could shove his own boxers down and out of the way. Tony propped himself up carefully on his elbows and watched. His mouth was wet and flushed from kissing and Steve desperately wanted to know what it would feel like wrapped tight and sweet around his cock.

He had to get off the bed to get this right, didn’t want to kneel on Tony by accident, the point here was to avoid hurting him more than Steve had too. Tony was indeed a genius, he caught on quickly, giving Steve one long lust-stunned look before Steve was kneeling across his chest and he couldn’t see Tony’s face anymore.

The bed barely fit them, it hadn’t been designed to fit two men of their size, chest to chest but inverted. This way Steve could keep most of his weight off of Tony, but pin him to the bed where he couldn’t hurt himself.

It also meant that with his on his hands and knees like this Tony’s dick was right in his face. They were almost the exact same height, Tony only being a little shorter than him meant that they would line up almost perfectly.

It took a bit of effort not to lean to heavily on Tony while Steve managed to get the clingy little briefs out of the way. He was almost there, underwear pushed down his thighs to catch around Tony’s bony knees when a warm mouth sealed against Steve’s thigh, strong hands digging into the skin of his lower back and pulling him until he was in a better position. Carefully Steve let his thighs splay until he was hovering just over Tony breathing sharp and fast, fingers curling into the bed spread.

“Except for that one notable exception, you have the best ideas,” Tony breathed and the words came with a shuddery rush of sensation, hot breath against the saliva on the inside of his thigh. “This one is amazing, your best work yet,” Tony laughed, a delirious little sound.

As if to show off his multi-tasking abilities Tony kicked off his underwear while sucking the head of Steve’s cock into his mouth.

The heat was a lot like the sun baking the skin on the back of his neck, sudden and blistering and completely impossible to ignore. Steve pressed his face to one thigh, mouthing at the coarse hairs there to muffle the short sound he made.

The position was all wrong, he should have all the leverage like this but with the obscene angle of his knees there wasn’t anything he could do, just stay where the hot weight of Tony’s hand on his tailbone kept him.

What he could do was brace himself on his left arm and use the right to toy with Tony’s balls. This had Tony bending one leg, shifting it out of the way to give Steve more room without upsetting the delicate balance. Steve put his hand there, holding Tony’s thigh out of the way, Tony’s skin warm against his palm to mouth wetly at the base of his dick.

Tony made a choked sound, the head of Steve’s cock hitting the back of his throat he jolted under Steve, shivering. There wasn’t a lot of room for Tony to use his hands, or probably to even to breathe. Still he sounded happy enough to be choking on Steve’s cock not letting Steve pull back. He dug his nails in when Steve did try to move, to give him a little more space.

Steve licked his way up the side of Tony’s dick, rubbing his mouth against hot skin and letting the thick flat of his tongue drag along. Tony’s thigh tensed and jerked under Steve’s palm but he was trapped under Steve’s larger weight and couldn’t shift or push up against him. Couldn’t hurt himself.

With both their mouths busy there wasn’t a lot of space for talking. The room filled with nothing but the wet sounds of Steve sloppily sucking Tony’s dick, he wasn’t very skilled at this, drooling all over Tony’s balls, leaking from the edges of his mouth where he couldn’t manage a good seal but Tony didn’t seem to care in the least.

Tony kept wiggling under him, muscles shifting and tensing like he wanted to writhe and was barely being contained. Steve tried harder, wrapping his fingers around what didn’t fit easily in his mouth. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Tony’s toes curl, and Steve was viciously satisfied. Not wanting to be outdone, the hand on his tailbone that had been holding him steady slid down. Teasing pressure against his hole, not enough to press inside, but enough to hint at what it would feel like to take a finger dry like that and Steve’s hips hitched a bit, wiggling to react somehow. To pull away, push up into it, he wasn’t sure. Just knew that it sparked like lightning, in his gut tightening something in his chest.

Still Tony was the first to break. Thigh tight where Steve’s fingers were digging into the muscle, he pulled off Steve’s dick leaving it cool and wet while he grunted, aborted little thrusts against Steve’s hold and almost shaking everywhere else their skin touched.

Keeping just the head in his mouth Steve jerked him off hard trying to shove Tony over that edge; he pressed his tongue to the sensitive head, toying with the slit with just the tip of his tongue until Tony bit off a harsh sound sucking a sharp breath between his teeth.

Steve pulled back at the last moment letting Tony get come all over his own stomach and a bit on Steve’s hands the drop that landed on his lip didn’t taste like much when he licked it away. In the aftermath Steve couldn’t move, Tony’s fingers were hooked around his knees aggressively keeping him right where he was. Not that Steve minded. Before Tony even got his breath back entirely, he was mouthing lazily at Steve’s cock, drawing it out syrup-slow and languid now that he was sated.

Steve groaned, pressing his face to Tony’s leg thigh, breathing in short sharp little bursts. He had been close before, and it snapped back like a rubber band, coiled tight and ready to go as soon as Tony gave him any more. Steve shuddered, Tony let his cock slip in and in, pressing so deep Tony wouldn’t be able to breathe around it. Steve made a startled whine, smearing Tony’s come all over Tony’s leg with his messy hand by accident.

He couldn’t help the little jerks of his hips, as if it were physically possible to stuff himself deeper into Tony’s throat.

So close, it was the bite of Tony’s short, ragged, nails into the soft skin on the back of his thigh that finally pushed him over. For a moment he was strung out, caught on just the edge, focus narrowing down to a flare of white heat, like staring at the sun. He shattered, pushed out from his core until his fingers and toes tingled and he was aware he was making a soft groaning sound and Tony was shoving up, pushing him out of the way so he could cough, making a mess of Steve’s thighs as he did so.

Tony was nuzzling Steve’s knee, his facial hair a tingling scrape against his skin which felt overly sensitive. Little shockwaves still shook Steve, thighs tightening and bunching as his nervous system did a merry waltz in time to his stuttering breath.

Eventually Steve groaned, rolled off of Tony and onto the floor. Tony remained in a completely boneless sprawl on the bed, face flecked with saliva and come and blood from where he’d reopened the split on his lip, dick wet against his thigh and looking incredibly satisfied. Steve shook his head and walked the two steps to the small sink. He wet his fingers and flicked them at Tony just to watch the face he pulled.

They cleaned up the best they could.

“This should be burned,” Tony frowned, and he had a point there wasn’t much left of his shirt, it had been fairly ragged before and now seemed to be more a thin stretch of cloth held together by nothing more than desperation and dirt.

“It’s a memento,” Steve smirked.

“I love remember every time I’ve been stabbed,” Tony sighed, pulling it on, and poking a finger curiously through the bloodstained hole on the side. Steve had assumed that one was a bullet hole from the look of it.

“What happened anyway?” Steve asked, shimmying into his old clothes. Bucky was smaller than him, but there might be something on board that would fit around his shoulders, at the very least Bucky’s clothes or Barton’s should fit Tony.

“There? Man with a knife,” Tony said easily, his smile turning cold. Steve nodded, didn’t want to talk about it, he understood that.

“Bucky might have some clothes for you,” Steve said instead. Tony’s face turned contemplative.

“Never worn a federation military uniform before,” Tony mused out loud, “didn’t think I ever would. Not really my thing.”

“I think you’d look good in it,” Pants fitted to slender thighs, Tony’s casual arrogance, broad shoulders and thin waist accented by the red stripes that ran down the sides. This caused Tony to huff out a laugh.

“Better than that god-awful poncho you had,” Tony agreed. Steve hadn’t been able to wear it after he’d bundled America up in it, the sharp little claws on his back feet had ripped little holes in the whole thing so Steve had laid it out in a corner of their living room so that he could sleep on it.

Probably so much ash now. He sent up a quick prayer for America wherever he was.

“Hey,” Steve protested half-heartedly, “I liked it.”

“I miss my hat,” Tony patted at his thick black hair, idly.

“We’ll find you something,” Steve murmured, he didn’t miss the hat at all, he threaded his fingers into Tony hair and used that as a grip to pull him in for a gentle kiss.

Tony gave him a long look that Steve wasn’t quite sure how to translate, but shrugged it off. “Come by later?”

“Okay,” Steve agreed.

Steve found Thor sitting in the room they were supposed to have shared last night. “Stark is an interesting man,” Thor said without prompting when Steve closed the door behind him. “Consumed with vengeance, I was worried about what would happen when he caught this Stane but he seems to be dealing remarkably well now.”

“What did happen?” Steve asked, the wanton destruction was hard to imagine, two men against an army. They should both be dead by all rights, that dawn should have seen the sun rising on their bullet-ridden corpses.

“Myself and Stark split up, I drew off most of the enemy force to give him time to deal with their leader. I do not know how he came by his injuries, Stane killed himself when Tony cornered him.” Thor paused, frowning and obviously troubled, “he was quite unwell.”

There had to have been a lot of men, but Thor seemed unharmed here were a few scrapes on his hands but they seemed to be healing rapidly. Steve couldn’t imagine it. Even with the power in his arms, and a stealthy grace that Steve had only ever seen in the most elite of fighters, it should have been no contest. He should stop letting Thor surprise him. He should stop letting all the people around him surprise him, spies and warriors alike.

“You didn’t have to come, you could have stayed on Utopia,” Steve said after the comfortable silence between them had begun to wane.

“Stayed for what? I have no more there than you did,” Thor replied with a careless shrug. Steve knew that. That was why they got on like a house on fire, two men on the run from things neither of them had been willing to talk about.

“Still doesn’t explain why you’re here,” Strange ship, strange people, risking his life for strangers. There were not a lot of people in the whole system who would have done what Thor did back there.

“Why did you save America?” Thor asked instead.

Because it had been the right thing to do. Because he would have died out there. Because he had survived when everyone else was dead? “Because he was alone,” Steve said at last and Thor graced him with a knowing smile and nodded.

“I was a leader among my people, a powerful warrior, but after a long conflict with my brother I was tricked and in my shame cast out, stripped of my titles while my brother began to destroy our home. For a long time I wandered, I felt I had lost my rightful place in this world and there was nothing I could do. I met you by chance, but it must have been fate-- you do good for the sake of being good.”

Steve felt his ears going hot again. Thor made it sound like it was something great.

“When you returned with America I taught him how to hunt, how to live, and I realized that I still have much more to offer this galaxy. I would travel with you as far as you let me and I would relearn more of what I have forgotten, and I would perhaps learn new things too.”

While he couldn’t be entirely sure what Thor meant Steve figured he understood basically what Thor was getting at. “I can’t promise you I can teach you anything, but I’d like you have you on my side.”

“At your side I will remain,” Thor said, breaking out into one of those heartbreakingly real smiles and Steve smiled back. “I am sure that if you asked, Stark would remain by your side as well.”

“If he wants to, I don’t think I could say no,” Steve shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t think he’d listen if I did.”

“Then our matters are settled for now.”

“Yeah.”

Steve spent some time with Thor, asking him small questions about his past, the people he left behind, and trying to understand how he communicated with America. It all seemed like insanity, but it was a sincere insanity from beyond the edge of the charted systems. Steve lacked the heart to question that.

--

On the second day the tracking signal from the shuttle cut off, going silent between one beep and the next as if it had never been there. Sharon told him the news, reaching out to touch his elbow with a small smile. I had never reached the space station.

--

The third day Bucky seemed to come to some sort of conclusion, forgiving or forgetting without ever actually telling Steve was he was so upset about. He approached Steve with a cup of coffee made just the way that Steve liked it held out like an offering.

“I’m really glad you’re not dead.” Bucky said simply.

“I missed you.” Steve replied and Bucky punched him on the shoulder but let Steve pull him into a hug all the same.

“Don’t get all weird on me Rogers.”

They spent the rest of the day going over stories they both knew by heart and remembering the people they lost.

Tony vanished on the third day, locking himself away in the communication’s room under Barton’s watch and didn’t come out even long after Steve fell asleep.

--

The fourth day they were approaching Omega, Tony was nowhere to be found, Rhodes didn’t look worried about it so Steve didn’t either. He was a bit confused when he discovered that Pepper and Thor had spent a good portion of the journey together discussing literature of all things. Carol had been a pilot, her and Rhodes swapped storied with the instant connection of shared experiences that involved going way too fast in a craft that wasn’t equipped to handle it.

“On paper you’re an unnamed informant under protective custody, it will allow us to get you into the inner systems without throwing up any flags,” Natasha explained to him. They were sitting outside of the communication room, and Natasha looked about ready to pry Tony and Barton out of there by force if she had to. She had changed again into civilian clothes again, low cut top exposing the creamy skin of her breasts and what looked like a faint bite mark on her collar bone that Steve was not looking too deep into. It would have been way too weird to stare, so Steve kept his gaze trained on her green eyes.

“We’ll stop, refuel the eezo, pick up some faked documents, shouldn’t take long,” she continued.

The door opened and there was Tony, looking tired and a little grimy, and already just as familiar that way as the sharp shooter with the shark’s grin was.

“This semi-terrorist plot of yours, does it have space for a genius inventor?” Tony asked, watching them with a stare too sharp for someone who wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep.

Barton looked over his shoulder at Natasha and for a long minute they seemed to have a completely silent conversation.

“You’re wanted for treason,” Natasha finally said, each word coming out slowly like she wasn’t sure of herself.

“So is Steve, I’m really only guilty of murder,” Tony shrugged, way to devil-may-care to be real. Thor had said Stane killed himself. “I’ve never even been charged with genocide. That’s not what you military types call it when it’s the ‘lawful’ manslaughter, highly efficient manslaughter.”

“Tony,” Steve frowned. Tony shrugged off the hand he tried to put on Steve’s shoulder.

“I’ve spent the last day looking over your classified records trying to find answers. Stane took my weapons and he made a pretty-penny selling them to all sorts of unscrupulous folks. It seems you’re after someone who has my weapons and I want them back. Those drones in your cargo bay didn’t make themselves.”

Tony’s grin faded into a look of grim determination. He wasn’t going to back down on this. He was going to go down swinging if he needed to it was written there in the tilt of his eyebrows and the tension in his shoulders.

Steve looked at Natasha, while Barton may have been the ranking officer of the pair he tended to defer decisions to her.

“We’ll take you with us, ask the General once we’re past Omega,” Where it would be too late to say no anyways, she was a sly one. “Your entourage?” She arched an eyebrow.

“Are completely free to make their own choices,” Tony responded. Steve figured he knew what they were going to say about that.

“Can I use the communication’s room now?”Natasha asked, not even bothering to hide her sarcasm. “I have things to do.”

“Ma’am,” Tony ducked his head, with a sharp grin. Barton rolled his eyes.

“You’re off, rest,” Natasha told Barton as she passed, the door closing behind her.

“That’s my exit cue,” Barton tossed over his shoulder already making his way down the hall.

Steve looked at Tony.

“I guess this means we’re sticking together a little longer,” Tony mused.

Steve caught him with a hand around the back of his neck, this time he came willingly. “Looks about that way,” He agreed. He’d never kissed Tony outside of the privacy of their little room, Tony stilled under him for a long moment before tentatively kissed back.

“Do you mind?” Tony asked, fitting himself under Steve’s chin. Standing easier on his own but still hunching over his injuries slightly.

Steve thought about it. Brilliant, ridiculous Tony, Thor had said Tony would stay at his side if he asked and Thor had yet to be wrong about anything. “Not at all.”

Steve fit his hands around the trim lines of Tony’s waist.

“You will,” Tony laughed but didn’t try to escape.

--

The first time Steve saw The Avenger he knew she was going to be his. Tony stood next to him rocking on his heels and Thor had one massive hand pressed against the glass.