Steve woke with a shuddering gasp, breath billowing out in plumes like smoke. He was freezing, could feel the ice all through his skin, and panic welled in his chest. His arms were clumsy with cold but he wrenched them up anyway to slam against the frosted glass, looking all too much like ice.
The hatch popped open with a hydraulic hiss, and a puff of warm air swept over him. Steve immediately tried to stand, to get away from the cold chamber and the burning wreckage around him. His leg caught the side of the pod and he tripped, going down on one knee in the grass and trying desperately not to retch. He could feel the frost clinging to his hair was already beginning to melt, the water trickling down the nape of his neck.
He shuddered. The air was full with the acrid smell of smoke, too thick in his throat, and when Steve coughed his chest burned, lungs still raw from the cold.
Steve squeezed his eyes shut, tried to tune out the ice and the wreckage around him, focus on breathing, focus on the present, because this was all too much like his worst nightmares realized, waking up cold and alone all over again.
That was then. He wasn’t…he knew he wasn’t alone this time. Steve forced himself to remember.
The sun was in his eyes. It took Steve a very long moment of sleep-addled puzzling to realize that he’d overslept. He scrubbed a hand over his face blearily, and then let his arm flop down on the pillow next to him. Something crinkled, and Steve frowned. He scooted up on the bed and snatched the note that had been resting on the pillow. It was from Tony.
Steve was usually up long before Tony ever was, but every so often he had an early meeting. He must have come looking for Steve this morning, realized Steve was still asleep, and decided not to wake him. Still, Steve was a light sleeper, and it wasn’t often that he was tired enough to overcome that.
Of course, there was also the warm thought that Tony was familiar, that Steve was comfortable around him and trusted him, and that was probably more important.
Went to the Baxter Building. Come by later, and bring the team. PS You’re adorable when you’re sleeping
Steve frowned at the note, and turned the paper over to see if there was any further information. It couldn’t have been that important, otherwise Tony would have just woken Steve up rather than leave a note. Still, Steve had to wonder what there was at the Baxter Building that could possibly require him in person.
Then again, maybe Steve wasn’t the person they needed at all, and Tony just wanted some company. Steve dropped the note onto the nightstand on his way to the bathroom. He slipped into the shower, turning the water on full heat, and letting the pressure wash over his shoulders. He pressed his forehead to the tiles.
He felt a little bleary for having slept in so long, but he didn’t have anything to do today—supervillains permitting—other than going to see Tony. His entire being still ached from their confrontation with Ultron, and everything that had led up to it. That had been a rough week in general. Between Iron Man’s near death experience in the mansion and Vision’s apparent betrayal, Steve had barely had time to breathe.
Thankfully, things had been fairly quiet in the days following, but that didn’t seem to be making the bone-weary ache go away any faster. Steve wasn’t used to persistent aches any more—he could count on one hand the number of times his injuries had bothered him longer than a couple of days now that he had the serum. This ache, he knew, was at least partly in his head, but it didn’t make it any easier.
Steve sighed and finished washing, quickly shutting off the tap. The water in the mansion never ran cold—or at least, Steve hadn’t managed to exhaust its hot water supply yet—but that didn’t mean that Steve liked to waste.
He decided to skip the uniform today and grabbed a pair of comfortable civvies instead. Tony would have mentioned if he’d needed Captain America’s presence, and one of the benefits of having a public—if somewhat need-to-know—identity was that he didn’t have to spend every waking moment in the stars and stripes.
Steve paused at the nightstand to grab his dog tags. He grabbed his shield on the way downstairs as well, not because he thought he’d need it but because he felt completely naked without it.
Steve found Hawkeye in the living room, a bowl of cereal in his lap and the news playing on mute. None of the other Avengers were in sight, but most of them weren’t very early risers, so that didn’t concern Steve very much.
“Hawkeye—” Hawkeye shoved a piece of paper in his face, cutting Steve off before he could even begin.
“Yeah, we know,” Hawkeye said. He shoveled another spoonful of cereal into his mouth. “We all got our little notes. I’ll be by later, so let me eat my cereal in peace.”
“And the others?” Steve asked, just to be sure.
“Jan already left. Breakfast date with Hank.” He waved his spoon in the air. “Thor’s around here somewhere, but I’m pretty sure he knows, too. I mean there’s a giant fucking note on the fridge.”
“Okay,” Steve relented. “Have you seen Iron Man?”
Hawkeye shrugged. “I haven’t seen him in a few days. I just assumed he’s off licking his wounds in the Fortress of Solitude or something.”
Steve frowned, but chose not to comment. With Hawkeye, he had to pick his battles. “I’ll see you later, then. I’m heading to the Baxter building now.”
Steve heard him call something along the lines of have fun after him, but he couldn’t be certain considering it was spoken around another mouthful of cereal. Steve stopped by the kitchen to grab a banana and a slice of toast. Sure enough, taped to the fridge in enormous letters was the note that Tony had left Steve that morning, minus the endearments.
Steve ate on the way to the garage, and then made a beeline for his bike. The weather was beautiful if Steve’s glimpse out the window this morning was any indication. Steve intended to take advantage of it, if only on the short ride to the Baxter Building. Traffic was light (or as light as it ever was in Manhattan) and the ride pleasant.
Ben Grimm was just leaving when Steve pulled up at the curb. They exchanged greetings, and while Ben hadn’t seen Tony nor Reed that morning, he was happy to tell Steve where to find Sue on his way out the door.
Steve took the elevator up, pausing momentarily to peek inside the chemistry lab, just in case he found Tony there, before making his way to the kitchen. He knocked once on the doorframe to announce his arrival.
“Good morning Sue,” Steve said.
“Steve!” Sue beamed at him. “Coffee?”
“Not for me, thanks,” Steve said. “How are you?”
“Better, now that the Avengers are taking over for Reed on his little space project,” she said breezily. Upon seeing Steve’s curious expression, she paused. “Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
“No, I haven’t heard anything about it,” Steve said. “I just got a note from Tony this morning, saying where he’d gone.”
Sue rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be happy to tell you about it, even if you don’t want to know.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Steve laughed. “Do you know where they are now?”
“One of the labs,” Sue said. She shrugged. “I’m not really sure. Reed’s been talking about some kind of deep-space mission since Tuesday.” She sighed. “You know Reed offered to man a trip alone? Like that’s somehow better than the whole family going.”
“He can be pretty single minded,” Steve agreed. “I can relate.”
Sue smirked. “Well, all I have to do is mention Namor’s name, and suddenly Reed is very attentive. I can’t imagine how you handle Tony.”
“It helps that I can lift him with one arm,” he said seriously. Sue laughed, and pulled a couple of mugs from the cupboard. She set them on the counter and moved to grab the coffee pot. “Here...” She moved the mugs and what was left of the coffee pot onto a serving tray. “Lord knows they probably don’t deserve it, but why don’t you bring this down to the labs with you?”
“Sure,” Steve grabbed the tray with one hand, and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Thanks, Sue. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Maybe not, if Reed ever gets around to reviewing the security cameras,” she called after him. Sue wiped a hand over her cheek, teasing, and Steve rolled his eyes. The elevator opened for him immediately, and for lack of a better option, he picked the first floor of labs. By the third floor, Steve was having no more luck searching the labs, but he did stumble across the room with the Baxter Building’s security monitors. The coffee was already growing cold, but Steve didn’t think either Reed or Tony would care.
Steve found them in the hangar. Reed had wound himself around an impressive looking spacecraft and was currently half-buried in one of its thrusters. Tony was sitting on a desk chair in the center of the room typing away at the large terminal that Reed had set up.
“Tony?” Tony didn’t respond, completely engrossed in whatever he was typing out on the screen in front of him. When Steve repeated himself, he jumped.
“Steve,” he said. Almost immediately his surprise was replaced by excitement, and he waved the captain over. “Come look at this.”
Steve made his way to stand at the back of Tony’s chair. He couldn’t hide a smirk when Tony immediately grabbed a mug off the tray, ignoring the temperature of the pot, and poured himself a cup. He did his best not to jump when an arm stretched over his shoulder, taking the rest of the pot with it.
“Reed called me this morning, asking if the Avengers could man his ship,” Tony explained, already typing a mile a minute. “I said yes.”
“Great,” Steve said, the trace of a smile pulling at the corner of his lips. “Yes to what, exactly?”
Tony motioned to the screen. At first, it was nothing but a series of line charts, somewhat resembling the output of a seismograph. Tony switched the screens to a large star chart, and the bright red spot overlaying it.
“What am I looking at, exactly?” Steve asked.
“We have no idea,” Tony said, his excitement palpable. “Reed found it last week. Well, he’s been tracking it for a while, but nothing quantifiable until now. All we really know is that it’s a disruption, and that it doesn’t seem to exist in normal space.”
“Okay. So you have no idea what it is, or what caused it,” Steve said. Tony nodded furiously. “And why do we care?”
Tony looked scandalized, though he tried to hide it. “We need to get much closer to analyze it any further than Reed already has. High accuracy and high range are mutually exclusive, in this case.” Tony must have seen Steve’s unimpressed expression, so he carried right on, pulling up another screen on the monitor in front of him.
“Okay, so the pursuit of science isn’t enough for you. That’s fine. Look at this.” He pointed to the screen. “That is a planet, in orbit around its sun. This was taken roughly five years ago.”
“Okay,” Steve said at length.
“Our anomaly is in the exact place we projected that the planet would be,” Tony said. “Something happened to that planet, and we have no idea what.”
“Could this happen to us?” Steve asked. “Is that what you’re saying?” He honestly didn’t know, and judging by Tony’s expression, he wasn’t certain either.
“We don’t even know what happened. Maybe it’s a natural event. Maybe not. Maybe it would never happen to Earth. But,” Tony hesitated, and Steve finished for him.
“Maybe it will. I get your point.”
“Sue won’t let Reed man the trip to collect more data himself.” Tony spun around him in his chair. “I’m sending Iron Man, at least, although the more people we have manning the equipment the better.”
“Okay,” Steve said. “Show me the ship?”
“I need to finish this,” Tony said reluctantly. “Launch prep. And then I need to call Hank again, because I’m pretty sure he’s not going to call me back. I think Reed is just going through the checklist though, so you could ask him. If he tries to blow you off don’t let him, I know for a fact what he’s doing isn’t so important that it has to be done right now.” Tony paused. “Where are the others?”
“On their way,” Steve said. Tony nodded, but before he could turn completely back to his work, Steve caught him for a quick kiss. Tony rolled his eyes, but it was worth it for the stupid smile tugging at the edge of his lips.
Reed explained in detail the exact workings of the ship while Steve waited for the rest of the Avengers to arrive. Jan and Hank were the first to show, at which point waiting became at least less boring—Jan was always fun to talk to, and more than willing once Hank disappeared with Reed. Thor showed up mere minutes later. But when Ms. Marvel wandered into the hangar half an hour after even Hawkeye had arrived, Steve was surprised.
“I called her,” Tony explained. “Hank,” Tony shot him a look, which he steadfastly ignored, “is refusing to go, and Ms. Marvel agreed to take his place.”
Steve accepted the handshake she offered him. “Thanks for responding on such short notice.”
“Of course,” she said. “Besides, it can’t hurt to have the Avengers owe you one, and I’m due for a vacation anyway.”
“Well, I can’t say it’ll be much of a vacation,” Tony said, “but now that you’re here, we can bring the rest of you up to speed.”
Tony ran through the basics of the mission and the ship. He showed them the cryo chambers, where they would be put under for the duration of the trip. The explanation that Tony fed them as to how the ship worked was well over Steve’s head, and judging by the expressions on Jan’s face, and the blatant lack of interest from Hawkeye, it was beyond them as well.
Tony was thoroughly invested in the explanation, although Steve didn’t really understand much beyond dimensional folding. It was apparently an impressive accomplishment, based on Tony and Hank’s reaction to it, though to Steve it sounded like an average day when Reed was involved. Thor had also seemed to understand the concept, citing it as an, albeit very primitive, version of the Bifrost.
Reed hadn’t enjoyed being called primitive at anything.
“All in all, the trip will take about a month,” Reed said. Hank whistled, impressed. Steve gawked.
“A month?” he asked. That was… a long time to be away from home. The three scientists all turned to look at him, and Steve raised an eyebrow at the collectively expectant looks. “Isn’t that a bit long?”
“Steve, you’ll be traveling thousands of light years away. You’re spoiled.”
“Why can’t you just… fold space so it’ll drop us right where we need to be?”
Tony looked pained at the question, and it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was oversimplifying the concept when he said, “It’s not that accurate.”
“Not to mention,” Reed added, “that we are not actually folding space. It’s a vacuum not a paper towel—”
“Okay, Reed, we get it,” Hawkeye interrupted. “You’re smarter than us. Get your head out of your ass.”
Reed huffed. “In any case, I’ve already loaded my equipment. Once Tony and Hank have finished setting up their own instruments, she’ll be ready for launch.”
“The trip should take one month each direction,” Tony said, and Steve didn’t miss the way he glanced apologetically in his direction. “Plus, anywhere from a day to a week of data collection.”
“That’s a lot of travel time for so little research,” Hank said. “Is there any way they could stay longer?”
“You’re only asking that because you’re not coming,” Hawkeye grumbled.
“I work with model organisms. If I leave them unattended for over two months, I’ll lose years’ worth of research.”
“So get some ant sitters,” Hawkeye said. Ms. Marvel elbowed him gently.
“No one is forcing you to come,” she reminded him. Hawkeye shot her a look, and she gave him an utterly unimpressed one back.
“Hopefully, you won’t need to stay longer,” Reed interrupted. “I’ve constructed a couple of probes to be deployed when you get there.”
“Are we sure this is safe?” Jan asked, tapping the door to one of the cryo chambers with her boot. Reed stretched his head around the side of the hull, stopping next to her.
“I’ve included all the necessary precautions. The pods are also outfitted to be fully functional escape pods if they need to be. If they’re activated the ship will also send out a distress beacon to let us know back on Earth, and we’ll be out to pick you up.”
“You shouldn’t need them,” Tony added, “but it’s best to err on the side of caution. The ship can navigate itself, and in the event of any mechanical or electrical failure, the ship will activate Iron Man’s pod so he can take care of the issue.”
“And if it beyond his capabilities?” Thor said.
“He can handle anything,” Tony said. “I taught him everything he knows.” He gave Steve a little nudge on the shoulder, eyes swimming with mirth, and Steve couldn’t help the little laugh that escaped him.
“Well, he’s no you,” Steve said. Tony grinned.
“Right,” Hawkeye said, looking unimpressed. “So when are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Tony said, “and if you sleep through your alarm, I’m taking your seat.”
Hawkeye rolled his eyes. Steve frowned.
“So soon?” Steve asked.
Tony shrugged. “If we wait any longer, the anomaly will move behind its star, and that will make things a lot more difficult for all of us.”
“In that case,” Hawkeye interrupted, “I’m out of here. Gotta spend my last day on Earth in style.”
“Just make sure you’re back in time,” Steve warned. Hawkeye scoffed and waved him off, already on his way to the door.
“Okay, Mom,” he said.
“I’d like to go through your equipment,” Hank said, glancing at Reed. “I may not need anything of my own, depending on what you already have.” Reed wound back around the ship, and followed Hank inside. Steve glanced over the team, but hesitated when he saw the worried crease in Jan’s expression.
“Jan,” Steve said. “Are you all right?”
She jumped, obviously not realizing that she was staring. She went to nod, but hesitated. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just distracted.” Tony saw Steve pull his I’m interested and I’m here for you but so help me if you think you’re fooling anyone you are wrong face, and he couldn’t help but laugh. Jan picked up on the expectant look and sighed.
“Lately Hank’s been… Well, I wasn’t going to mention this until later—we haven’t decided on anything yet—but Hank and I have been thinking about taking some time away. After everything—”
“You mean with Ultron,” Tony said. Jan looked uncomfortable, but nodded.
“Yeah. It’s been...Hank blames himself,” she said. “I think that’s part of why he turned this mission down. He seems a little, well. Gun shy.”
“Do you think two months apart is the best course of action, then?” Ms. Marvel asked.
“I think—it’s probably better this way,” Jan said. “But don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” She waved them off, maybe a little too forcefully. Steve could take a hint, in any case. It wasn’t really their place to meddle in their personal lives.
“Okay, Avengers,” Steve said. “Go home. Get some rest.” Steve glanced between them all, watching them retreat one by one for the elevator.
“Hey, Steve.” Tony bumped shoulders with him. “Give me a hand with this?” Tony gestured to one of the two ridiculous-looking machines that Reed had rigged up sometime last week, when he wasn’t even certain that anyone would be making a manned trip into deep space or simply sending a probe. Steve grabbed one of them—it was lighter than it looked, but bulky to carry—and Tony climbed onto the raised platform so that Steve could hand it to him.
“So, what do you think?” Tony asked. Steve frowned. Tony had a question on his face, and that had obviously not been what he really wanted to ask.
“About what?” Steve prompted. He reached down to grab the second machine as soon as Tony had a firm hold on the first. Tony hesitated, and Steve was certain he could see the moment where he decided, to hell with it, beating around the bush just wasn’t his style.
“You don’t have to go,” Tony said. “It’s just a science expedition. They can probably handle it on their own.”
“I’m going,” Steve said immediately. “Why wouldn’t I be going?”
Tony scratched a hand over the back of his neck, not even noticing that Steve was standing there holding the second machine and waiting for him to take it. “I’m just saying, I don’t… I mean, I wouldn’t want to be frozen, and I didn’t spend twenty years frozen in the arctic.”
“I’m fine,” Steve said, refusing to acknowledge the part of him that wanted to agree. He bounced the machine in his arms so that Tony finally took notice and grabbed it. “Don’t worry about me. Besides, I’m more upset about being gone for two months than being frozen.”
“It’ll seem like the blink of an eye,” Tony pointed out. Steve grabbed his hand from mid-air, squeezing it.
“Not for you.”
“Me?” Tony smiled fondly. “I’ll be fine. Probably won’t even notice you’re gone.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Maybe I’ll find myself a hot date.” Steve knew he was joking, but he couldn’t help the pang of jealously at the thought. He gently tugged on Tony’s wrist until he crouched down in the shuttle door, and then leaned up to kiss him.
“I’ll miss you,” Steve said.
Tony grinned, almost shy, and Steve secretly thrilled at getting to see this Tony Stark, so different from the public persona that the newspapers and talk shows were privy to.
“You know I’ll miss you, too,” Tony said. Steve grinned, and kissed him again.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said. Tony moved to sit, looking instantly wary, and Steve laughed. “Relax, it’s not that—well, here.” Steve reached into his pocket, and pulled out the metal chain he’d stuck in there this morning—and yesterday morning, and the morning before that. He’d been thinking about it for a while, waiting for the right moment, and about to set out on a two month mission seemed like as good a time as any.
He tried not to be nervous, dropping the dog tags into Tony’s palm. Tony was a modern kind of guy, so he probably wouldn’t appreciate the sentiment in the same way Steve did, but he wasn’t heartless. He certainly wasn’t the kind of guy to turn down a gift so obviously sentimental. Still, Steve kept a careful eye on Tony’s expression.
He didn’t react at first, and Steve instantly had to tamp down the urge to take them back. But then Tony brushed a thumb over one of the tags, reverent, and looked up at Steve hopefully.
“You don’t want to hold on to them?” Tony asked, although Steve couldn’t help but notice the way his hand folded around the tags. Steve grinned.
“No,” Steve said, tugging the tags from Tony’s closed fist. “I want you to wear them,” He looped the chain over Tony’s head, and let his hands settle on the back of his neck. His fingers brushed through the short hairs there, and Tony settled a hand on either of Steve’s forearms, “and then, when you try and get yourself a hot date, hopefully they’ll think twice.” Tony huffed, rolling his eyes.
“Do you want to go out to lunch with me?” Steve asked suddenly.
Tony grimaced. “I have meetings,” he said, “but I can call Pepper—”
“No, that’s all right,” Steve said, pointedly ignoring the little seed of disappointment in his chest. “Go to your meeting.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “How about dinner?”
“Sure,” Steve said. “We can do dinner instead.” He paused, and then as an afterthought, “Hey, have you seen to Iron Man yet today?”
“I’ve talked to him,” Tony said, “but I’ll give him a call when I get to the office. Tell him you’re looking for him. Are you going to be here?”
“For another couple of hours, at least,” Steve said, “and then I’ll just be at the mansion. It’s not important, anyway. I just wanted to make sure he’s up to date, but if you’ve been talking to him—”
“I have,” Tony said, “but I’ll tell him you’re looking for him, anyway.”
Happy was waiting for Tony when he stepped outside, and he didn’t even wait for him to come around the car to open the door for him.
“Straight to the office, Hap,” he said. “I’ve got to talk to Pepper.”
Happy obligingly pulled away from the curb, but it didn’t keep him from peering at Tony through the rear view mirror. “Don’t you have a meeting at one?”
“Pepper first,” Tony said. “It’s important.”
The drive from the Baxter Building to Stark Industries was quick, despite lunch-time traffic. Happy dropped him at the front to save him the time it would take to park, but he was still running a little late. Tony wasn’t at all surprised to see Pepper waiting for him when he stepped onto the sidewalk.
She grabbed him by the elbow and started ushering him inside the second his foot touched the curb. There were a few people loitering in the lobby, and she navigated around them efficiently.
“You’re late,” she chastised, “but not that late. Thank you for actually bothering to show up, by the way.”
“Well, actually Pepper I need to talk to you,” Tony said. She pushed him into the private elevator, and he pulled her in with him.
“You have a meeting,” she said, pressing the elevator button with more force than necessary. “Talk to me after.”
“Well, Iron Man needs to make an appearance at the Baxter Building.” Tony hit the elevator stop, and then covered the button with his hand before she could reach it. “So we’ll talk now. I’m going to be gone for two months.”
“No, you’re not,” Pepper said. “You can’t just take a two month vacation.”
“It’s Avengers business,” Tony said. “I need you to get one of the LMDs ready. We’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow—Tony! I need more warning than this,” she hissed. “There’s a lot more to do than just dusting off a Life Model Decoy and tossing it into a board room.”
“I just found out this morning,” Tony said.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to use a LMD for so long?” Pepper asked.
“Well, you said it yourself. It’s not like I can go on a sudden, two month long vacation,” Tony said. “It would be too suspicious, anyway. Besides, if you think anything’s wrong you can just pull the plug on the LMD and come up with a cover story. I’ve heard I’m very unreliable.”
“Fine,” Pepper sighed. “I’ll pull one out of storage tonight.” Tony grinned and pressed the button for their floor again.
“Great,” Tony said. The door slid open, and Tony stepped half-way out, “just make sure it’s ready before eight am. I’ve got to be there for the launch, and to say goodbye to Steve.” Tony was already headed down the hallway when he heard Pepper calling after him.
“Launch?” she said. “What do you mean, launch?”
“Sorry Pep,” he said. “I’ve got a meeting, can’t stay to chat.”
Steve spent the rest of the afternoon in the hangar helping Hank load equipment and supplies into the ship. There were more machines than Steve could ever imagine them using, but he wasn’t going to question it. The most time consuming part of the process was strapping and bolting everything down so that they wouldn’t shift and damage the ship—or its crew—during takeoff.
Steve was glad that Reed humored him when he insisted on learning about the ship, even if Reed seemed to believe that it was too complicated for him and that he didn’t need to know. He was the team captain, and even if he didn’t need to fly the ship personally, he still felt better knowing that he at least understood what was happening.
Iron Man didn’t show up until nearly five o’ clock. Steve had been just about ready to leave, thinking that he wasn’t coming after all.
“Captain,” Iron Man greeted. Steve grinned at the familiar faceplate. “Mr. Stark said you were looking for me?”
“Well, I’d like to say it was because I wanted to talk about the mission tomorrow, but Tony tells me you’ve already talked to him.”
“So what did you need?” Iron Man asked.
“I haven’t seen you in a few days,” Steve said. “Not since Ultron nearly destroyed the suit, with you in it.” He tried not to sound accusatory, but Iron Man was, as always, much too good at reading him.
“I’m sorry if I worried you,” he said, and even with the carefully modulated voice, Steve could tell that he was being sincere. “I’ve just been distracted. It’s not something I want to repeat, if we ever face a foe like Ultron again.”
Steve nodded. “I understand, but I’d like if you kept me in the loop.” He put a hand on Iron Man’s armor plated shoulder. “You’re one of my best friends, Iron Man. If something’s wrong, I’d like to know.”
“I’ll be sure to keep you updated,” he said. Steve could tell that he was amused, maybe just appeasing him, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Instead, he motioned back to the ship, and the last of the equipment that had been too heavy for Steve to move, even with Reed’s or Hank’s assistance.
“Help me load up the rest of this junk, and we can get out of here,” Steve said.
“Do you have somewhere to be?” Iron Man asked.
Steve nodded. “Dinner with Tony,” he said. He felt a little guilty for not inviting Iron Man along, but he was looking forward to spending time with Tony tonight, especially since it would be their last time together for the next two months.
“What’s wrong?” Iron Man asked. Steve started, and quickly moved back to lacing the straps around the largest piece of equipment.
“Nothing, sorry,” Steve said. “I was just thinking about Tony. Two months is a long time.”
“You’re worried about what he’ll get up to?” Iron Man asked. Steve couldn’t tell if he was being teased or not, but it struck a chord with him anyway.
“Of course not,” he snapped. He realized how sharp that had sounded when Iron Man’s head snapped around to stare at him. The faceplate would be unsettling, if he had not been used to it. Now, it just seemed irritatingly unreadable. “I trust Tony,” he said, leaving no room for interpretation. “Completely. I just meant that it’s a long time, and we’re leaving tomorrow. It’s all very—sudden.”
“Why don’t you head home?” Iron Man said. He didn’t let Steve protest. “Go on. I’ll finish up here.”
“Are you sure?” Steve asked. He could hear the hydraulics locking into place when Iron Man leaned down to lift the equipment onto the loading platform. Once he’d set it back down, he waved a dismissive hand in Steve’s direction.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve got this covered.”
“All right,” Steve agreed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Shellhead.”
Steve wasted no time heading back to the mansion, though he did take a moment to let Reed know that he was going. Traffic wasn’t too terrible on his way back, and the weather from that morning was still holding. He’d have to take his bike tonight.
Steve left his shield in the garage, leaned up against Tony’s workbench, and took the stairs in lieu of the elevator. It was still a little earlier than their usual dinner dates, but considering the circumstances Steve wanted to at least try to get Tony to save his projects for tomorrow.
Steve decided to use the phone in Tony’s home office rather than the phone in the kitchen, for some semblance of privacy. He dialed Tony’s private line at Stark Industries, but when the phone stopped ringing it wasn’t Tony’s voice on the other line.
“Mr. Stark is out right now,” Pepper said. “Can I take a message?”
“Hi Pepper, it’s Steve,” he said. “I was just going to see if Tony was ready for dinner, but maybe he’s already left.”
“Oh, hi Steve,” she said. “I haven’t seen him in—hang on, here he is now.”
There was some shuffling as the phone was passed between them, and when Tony answered, he sounded slightly out of breath.
“Worried I’d forget our date, Steve?” he teased.
“Well, it wouldn't be the first time,” Steve laughed. “Why are you so out of breath?”
“I’m not out of breath,” Tony said crossly.
“Maybe we should start sparring more often,” Steve teased.
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” he said. Steve could practically picture the leer on his face, and he could do nothing to keep the little bubble of laughter from escaping. When Tony continued, he sounded absolutely pleased with himself. “So, what did you need?”
“I finished up early,” Steve said, “and I wondered if you wanted to get an early dinner, since we’re leaving tomorrow.”
Tony paused, and Steve was just about to retract the offer when he said, “You know what? Sure. Do you want to drive separate or—”
“I can come pick you up,” Steve said. “Give Happy a break.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “Give me ten minutes to finish up here.” Steve agreed, and they said their goodbyes. It would take Steve at least ten minutes to drive to Stark Tower anyway, especially at this time of day. There were many benefits to having a motorcycle, avoiding traffic jams being high on Steve’s list, but it wasn’t infallible.
Steve grabbed his jacket and a spare helmet on the way out the door. He paused momentarily to check that he had his wallet with him, despite the fact that Tony would no doubt insist on paying for dinner.
When he rode up to Stark Industries building, Tony was waiting for him on the curb. Steve kicked down the kickstand and let the engine die, eyeing the bouquet in Tony’s hand. Steve raised an eyebrow at him, but Tony just grinned like he knew that he’d done something right.
“Where’d you get those?” Steve asked, stepping off the bike. Tony leaned up the inch to kiss him, light and fleeting on the mouth, and then handed him the flowers.
“Picked them up on my way to my first meeting,” he said matter-of-factly.
“We’re not going to be able to take them with,” Steve pointed out. “You should have told me to bring the car.”
“Never,” Tony said emphatically. “Because then what excuse would I have to hold you?”
Steve snorted. “Like you need an excuse,” he said, and then, “What should I do with these?”
Tony shrugged. “Dump ‘em? It’s the thought that counts.”
“No, way,” Steve said. “I’ll give them to Pepper. Hang on. ” He kissed Tony on the temple, and then jogged up to the Stark Industries building. He could see Tony smirking at him as he explained to the secretary what to do with the flowers, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Frankly, Steve liked when Tony looked at him that way.
When he came back outside, Tony was already slipping on the spare helmet.
“Ready to go?” Tony asked.
“Where to?” Steve countered. He climbed onto the bike, and Tony climbed on behind him. Tony held on somewhat loosely—he always did, reckless as he was, and it always drove Steve mad—and leaned back in the seat casually. The way he sat, Steve could have believed that Tony was embarrassed to be seen riding passenger on his motorcycle (he couldn’t think of any other reason that Tony wouldn’t hold on tighter) if not for the way he pointedly wriggled his hips as close to Steve’s as he could.
Steve felt Tony shrug behind him. “Surprise me,” he said. Steve took that as permission to go anywhere, so he rode them out to the edge of the city, where one of their favorite diners was. It was just the kind of quaint that Tony pretended to dislike, even though the food was phenomenal and they both knew he enjoyed the friendly atmosphere as much as Steve did.
They spent most of the meal quietly making their way through a pepperoni pizza, laughing and joking like this wasn’t the last night they’d spend together in nearly two months. Steve tried not to think about it, but every time he did his thoughts inevitably came back around. Of course, Tony noticed.
“Steve, relax,” Tony said. “Two months is nothing.” Steve felt a foot press comfortingly into the side of his leg. He sighed.
“Sorry. I don’t want to bring down the mood,” he said. “A lot can happen in two months.”
“There are other superhero teams in New York,” Tony pointed out. “Not to mention Avengers reserves. And I already told you, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It’s just a science expedition. Let the scientists handle it.”
“You know as well as I do that I can’t stay here when the rest of my team is going,” Steve said. Tony didn’t bother to deny it. Instead, he pushed back from the table, reaching for his wallet.
“Let’s get dessert to go,” he said, dropping a more than generous tip into the center of the table.
“Sure,” Steve said. He was happy for any excuse to spend more time with Tony. If the gentle press up and down Steve’s leg was any indication, maybe Tony had more planned for the evening. Still, Steve didn’t want to seem like he expected anything.
For all that Tony had a strong reputation as a playboy, he was taking things surprisingly slow. Steve didn’t mind the lack of sex; in fact, Steve preferred not to rush things himself, but the pace they were moving seemed positively glacial, even to him. Tony had to have a reason for wanting to take things so slowly, but Steve couldn’t imagine what it was, and he was afraid to ask, in case it came across as him trying to pressure Tony. That was the last thing he wanted.
Steve waited with a hand on the small of Tony’s back while Tony paid the bill, and the waitress packed two pieces of apple cake into a carry out box. Steve made sure to open the door for him, too, if only to see the fond exasperation on his face at the action.
He stepped onto his bike, felt the too-light embrace around his torso as Tony climbed on after him. Tony balanced their desert between Steve’s knees and pressed his cheek into Steve’s shoulder, and Steve smiled. Even if the trip was going to seem short from his perspective, Steve was going to miss this.
They spent the rest of the evening curled up together on the sofa, listening the radio and trading stories between bites of cake. Although a small part of Steve was hoping that they would do more, he respectfully didn’t press when Tony simply kissed him goodnight and headed for the stairs. If anyone had told him when he’d first started this thing with Tony that Tony would be the one to take things (agonizingly) slowly, Steve probably would have laughed at them.
Now, Steve was beginning to wonder if maybe there wasn’t something more to Tony’s reluctance. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested; of that much, Steve was certain. For one thing, Tony wasn’t the kind of person to lead anyone on, regardless of what the tabloids might want people to believe, and for another, he’d had first-hand proof of how much Tony enjoyed his company, numerous times, pressed against his thigh in the middle of a particularly heavy make out session.
Steve did know that there were things that Tony wasn’t telling him. He’d managed to extract bits and pieces of the story—Tony, injured somehow overseas, and still dealing with the outcome of those injuries. He had begun to wonder if the reason that Tony wouldn’t sleep with him—wouldn’t even let him touch him—was that he was still hiding the scars from his past life.
“Tony,” Steve said. Tony paused at the base of the stairs, and Steve hurried from the couch to meet him. He kissed him, gratified that that, at least, was something that Tony would do. When he broke away, Tony was grinning at him.
“What, couldn’t save the goodbye for tomorrow?” he teased.
“Sorry,” Steve said, though he wasn’t really. Tony waved him off.
“No, I’d rather you say goodbye to me, anyway.”
Steve’s brow furrowed, slightly. “Aren’t you coming to see us off tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Tony said hastily. “I just meant… in private.”
“Oh,” Steve said. He leaned in to kiss Tony again, and when Steve rested a hand on his hip Tony immediately covered it with his own, keeping him from sliding up the few inches it would take to brush bare skin. He might have been disappointed, if Tony weren’t such an amazing kisser.
When Tony broke off, lips shining and flushed red in the low lighting, Steve felt a pang of want settle into his stomach.
“Do you want to…” Tony trailed off, a hand subconsciously rising to rest against his chest. Steve’s heart sank, just a little, when Tony shook himself lightly and said, “Never mind. I’ll see you tomorrow before you leave.”
Steve held back his sigh long enough for Tony to disappear up the stairs and down the hall to his own room. He wasted a few minutes collecting the empty dessert containers and forks and taking them to the kitchen. He washed their silverware, even though Jarvis would probably have taken care of it before even Steve had woken up, and then he stuck the containers in the trash.
Steve forced himself not to stop as he passed by Tony’s bedroom. He shucked his shirt the moment he stepped into his own room, not even bothering to turn on the light, and tossed it in the direction of the laundry basket. He shut the door with his foot, and then shucked his pants as well.
Most nights, Steve could crawl into bed and be asleep in an instant. Years of conditioning had made it so, when he barely had enough hours in the night to sleep, and wasting them lying awake was the last thing he wanted to do. Tonight, Steve found himself staring at the pattern the streetlamp cast through the curtains on his windows.
He wondered how that pattern would look against Tony’s skin, flushed and laid out beneath him. He wondered if Tony would let him fuck him, or if he would be the one who—
Steve groaned in frustration, rolling over onto his side. It wasn’t right to fantasize over Tony, no matter how close they were. It felt unfair to him, and even the fact that Steve wanted to was enough to bring a tiny kernel of guilt to the forefront of his mind.
Steve kicked at the twisted sheets, forcing them off the edge of the bed with an irritated huff. Of course, the more he tried to put his mind to other topics, the more they strayed back to Tony, lips thoroughly kissed and glistening.
How would they look, wrapped around his—Augh!
He considered, at first, coming up with a different fantasy to entertain. But that felt like a betrayal, too—like he was being unfaithful, even in his mind—and Steve knew from experience that any attempt at fabricating an imaginary person would just end in them transforming themselves back in to Tony by the end.
He could get up, of course. Go for a run or to the gym or even just go take a cold shower. But he had to be up early, tomorrow, and the last thing he wanted to do before a mission was push himself too hard. Steve huffed and hooked a thumb under the waistband of his underwear, yanking them down with a frustrated groan. He was already taking interest, resting lightly against his abdomen, and Steve took himself gently in hand.
A little thrill of pleasure rushed over him. With a few careful tugs, Steve stroked himself to full hardness, until his hips started coming up to meet him on every rough stroke. He pictured Tony’s hand, rough and calloused and scarred. A little burst of precome spilled over his cock, and Steve caught it with his thumb.
Tony would tease him, make him beg for it. Steve loosened his grip, until it just the barest brush of his fingertips over the underside of his cock. He could hear him chuckle, the kind of quiet, secret sound he reserved just for Steve. He would touch him, everywhere. Or maybe he would hold him down with a hand on his hip, effective only because Steve let him hold him there.
Steve bucked up into his hand, no phantom hand to hold him in place, and tightened his grip again, just around the head. It was perfect—simultaneously too much and not enough—and he couldn’t keep the little gasp from escaping his lips.
Tony would be loud, wanton and begging for it while Steve insisted on keeping the pace intimate, slow. He would beg for Steve to move, to go harder, faster, but secretly he would love it this way, best. Spread out beneath Steve, covered by him, and taking whatever he had to give however he wanted to give it.
He could feel the tension building low in his gut, and Steve increased the pace. He could imagine it, the hungry way that Tony would look at him. The way he would lean down, breath hot and wet against his thigh before he swallowed him whole—
Steve came with a grunt, hips canting up into his slick fist as he stroked himself through the aftershocks. He lay there in the dark, sweat and come cooling on his skin. Finally he pulled his underwear the rest of the way off, swiping up the worst of the mess before tossing it toward the hamper in the corner. He would take care of it in the morning.
Steve rolled over, pulling the pillow along with him, and forced down the little guilty part of him that thought he shouldn’t have done that, no matter how little he thought Tony would care, or how harmless a fantasy it had been.
Still, it had done his job. Steve already felt sluggish and stated, and even as his breath slowed to normal he could feel himself being pulled down into sleep.
The next morning Steve quickly showered and dressed in his uniform, wanting to head over to the Baxter Building early. He paused at Tony’s bedroom, poking his head in quietly. Tony was still curled up in the center of his bed, fast asleep. Seeing him lying there, with his face turned away from the window and the little strips of bare skin poking out from beneath the blanket brought the memories of last night back full force.
This time, the small itching sense of guilt that came over him was harder to shake away, and Steve was immediately grateful that there was no one to witness the color rising on his cheeks. Steve slipped back into the hall without a word, mostly because he didn’t feel like facing Tony right now, but also because he trusted him to make it to the launch in time to see the Avengers off. It was better to let him sleep.
Steve found the kitchen full of Avengers, a plate of eggs and toast already sitting out and ready for him.
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Steve said. He grabbed the empty chair between Jan and Hawkeye, pulling the plate closer to himself. Hawkeye was huddled over his plate—Steve wasn’t certain whether that was to protect it or because he was falling back asleep—but Jan turned to him brightly the moment he sat down.
“Morning, Steve,” Jan said. “Sleep well?”
Steve only managed to contain the flush rising on his cheeks because he knew that if Jan noticed, she wouldn’t let him live it down. Instead, he nodded briskly. “Fine,” he said, and when he saw her eyes narrowing in interest, he added, “Did you already say goodbye to Hank?”
“This morning,” she said, thankfully willing to change the topic. “He didn’t seem very torn up about it. Frankly, I’m a little worried that he’ll forget to feed himself, but…” she shrugged, “I’m preaching the the choir, here, aren’t I?”
Steve laughed. “At least Tony has Pepper and Rhodey to keep him in line.”
“True,” Jan said. “Maybe the ants will remind Hank to take care of himself.” She rolled her eyes, poking another bite of egg into her mouth. “Anyway, I was going to head over to the Baxter Building in a few minutes. Anyone want a ride?”
“Sure,” Steve said, at the same time Hawkeye said, “Pass”. Jan beamed at Steve, and then turned across the table to look at Thor. “What about you, Thor?”
“There is a matter I must attend to before we depart,” he said. “I will meet you there.”
“Looks like it’s you and me then,” she said. Jan drained her glass, and pushed away from the table. “No need to rush, I need to grab my bag anyway. I’ll meet you in the garage.”
“All right,” Steve said. He was mostly finished anyway, but he grabbed a slice of toast on his way out the kitchen regardless. He ended up waiting for Jan, and when she finally made her way into the garage, she had changed into her uniform. He was looking forward to the looks they were going to receive, with Captain America and Wasp in full costume, driving through New York in Jan’s fancy car.
There would no doubt be a tabloid article somewhere that Tony would get a kick out of—he always did, when the tabloids suspected that he was cheating on Tony with Thor or Iron Man. Too bad Steve wasn’t going to be around to laugh over it with Tony. Maybe he would hold on to the issue, until Steve got back.
The drive to the Baxter Building was a short one, and Steve did indeed see them get a number of strange looks, especially when they stopped at a traffic light a few blocks away from the mansion. Jan pulled into the Baxter Building’s underground parking. Her car looked strangely out of place amidst the jets and space shuttles that had been put into storage down here.
They made their way to the hangar immediately, hoping for a chance to relax before the mission. Instead, Reed pulled them over the moment he saw them to begin outfitting them with all of the necessary precautions that went along with the cryogenic chambers he would be using.
One by one the other Avengers showed up and were pulled aside as well, and Steve did his best not to fiddle nervously with the breathing apparatus Reed had strapped to his arm, or the cold tube he’d been dragged over to for testing. He could handle a little ice, regardless of what anyone else might think, but it didn’t mean he had to enjoy it.
Tony and Iron Man were the last to arrive, strolling calmly out of the elevator like they hadn’t shown up just a few minutes short of being late. Judging by the disheveled state of Tony’s suit and hair, Iron Man had probably flown them here. Steve smiled to himself as they paused to talk to Reed. Iron Man wouldn’t need the same breathing apparatus as the rest of them—his armor would account for that on its own—but they spent a good few minutes talking to Reed anyway, poking over the suit and making sure that everything was fine.
Steve heard Hawkeye grumble something about Tony’s tardiness, and he couldn’t help but smirk. Hawkeye had been one of the first to arrive after Steve and Jan, and had spent most of the morning in the kitchen with Sue picking off of her breakfast before it had even hit the plate. He had obviously taken Tony’s threat of being left behind seriously.
Finally, Iron Man made his way over to Steve. Even with the helmet Steve could tell that he was amused by the coil of tubes and wires that Reed had stuck on him while he was testing out the respirator. He hadn’t known which ones were important and which ones were just there for testing, so he’d simply left them all on.
“Looking good, Cap,” Iron Man teased. Steve rolled his eyes.
“Not all of us have a suit of armor to breathe for us,” Steve said. Iron Man chuckled, the sound modulated and even but still enough to bring a smile to Steve’s lips.
“True, but I know for a fact that you don’t need half of those wires.”
“I’m just waiting for Reed to—” Steve was cut short, when Reed turned to the team and shouted.
“Launch in five minutes,” Reed said. “Everyone into the cryo chambers.”
Steve caught Tony’s eye from across the room, and then pushed himself to his feet. He followed Iron Man inside the ship, Tony and Reed short on their heels. Reed went to the end of the row to start activating the furthest pod, but Tony went straight to Steve.
“You don’t need these,” he said, voice amused but, equally so, unhappy. Steve let Tony pull the excess wires away methodically, and then caught his hand before he could move to activating the tube.
“Two months is nothing,” Steve said. “You’ll barely know I’m gone.”
“You’re leaving?” Tony teased half-heartedly. Steve smiled, slightly, and leaned in to kiss him. After a moment, he brought up a hand to cup Tony’s face in his hands, guiding him closer, to deepen the kiss—
Iron Man cleared his throat, somewhat harshly, and Steve broke off. “Sorry,” he said, talking to Steve. And then, “Mr. Stark, Reed needs your help with the rest of the pods.”
Sure enough, Reed had disappeared, leaving half of the pods inactive. Still, Steve couldn’t help but feel, in some small part, that Iron Man had meant to break them apart. He’d gotten the impression more than once that Iron Man was interested in his employer, and it was only his trust in Tony and the respect he had for Iron Man—and that Iron Man no doubt had for him—that kept him from acting on that suspicion. The lingering look he was giving Steve, if nothing else, certainly made him think it was true.
Eventually, they were all ushered into their pods by Reed and Tony. Tony pulled his breather back under the guise of adjusting it on his face, and leaned in for one last quick kiss. He readjusted it on Steve’s face, and then the door was sliding shut and cold air was rushing into the pod. Already Steve was feeling sluggish, whether that was from the anesthesia or the cold he wasn’t certain. He could see Tony smiling at him from behind the rapidly fogging glass.
Steve blinked once, twice, and then the next moment he was opening his eyes with a frantic gasp, tearing himself out of the icy pod and into the sun.
The last thing Steve remembered was kissing Tony goodbye that morning, and the chill of stepping into one of the cryo tubes on the ship. He had no way of knowing how long ago that had been, or whether they’d even made it to their destination.
But he did know that when the ship went off course, or done whatever it was that had brought them to this planet, it would have dragged Iron Man out of the safety of his cryo chamber just in time for impact.
He needed to find him. He needed to find the rest of the Avengers.
Steve’s legs were numb. Reed had warned him, before he’d gone under, that a lack of coordination was normal after so long in cryo. He wasn’t sure if they’d support his weight, and wasn’t sure that he was up for trying quite yet.
He needed to get away from here, though, for more reasons than one.
He blinked the sweat from his eyes—or maybe it was ice water, he didn’t know anymore—and scanned the wreckage for any sign of where to go. The deep gouge in the ground told him the direction they’d been coming from, and from the pieces of the ship he could still make out, it was the rear. He climbed shakily to his feet, sucked in a deep breath and coughed.
If they’d broken up in reentry, he might be able to find the others if he kept moving forward. A white vapor trail in the sky tracked the ships path. Steve followed it.
Jan was used to waking to the sounds of insects. In fact, rarely did she get a day where she didn’t roll out of bed to crickets chirping or buzzing wings and clicking mandibles, so she wasn’t immediately alarmed to hear them now. And yet, as she came further from sleep and started to shake off the initial disorientation, it struck her that something was very wrong.
Her eyes snapped open, and she was met face to face with four, enormous eyes. The bug reared back on two legs as though surprised to see her, and Jan shrieked, kicking at whatever she could reach. It was something she’d never seen before, even in the Savage Land. It would resemble a cockroach, if not for the unnervingly humanoid shape. Its hands, especially, resembled a human hand, with four fingers instead of five and a copper metallic, chitin skin.
It raised a hand to point at her with a series of clicks and chirps that she couldn’t understand. Jan locked eyes on the end of its hand, and the strange pointed piece that adorned it. It snapped forward, and she immediately shrank and flew aside, away from the cryo tube she’d been lying in.
Where were the others? Ms. Marvel or Iron Man or—
Three more of the bugs were carrying his unopened pod toward a metal platform. She could clearly see Hawkeye sleeping inside, and two more pods already lined on the platform that must hold two of the other Avengers. From where she was she couldn’t see who was inside, but the countdown timer to their release still set at twenty minutes. Her gaze flicked back to her own pod, scanning over the timer frozen at twenty two minutes and the short rend in the side of the container. Jan’s pod must have breached accidentally on impact, and lucky for her, too, or else she would still be frozen with the rest.
She started to fly toward them, but whatever momentary advantage she’d gotten from shrinking had been lost. One of the bugs pointed her direction, and she wasn’t sure if he meant to attack her like the other had or was simply making her presence known to the others.
It dropped the tube entirely, bent over to grab a metal block from their platform, and whipped it in her direction. He missed by nearly a foot—Jan had no idea how it had expected to hit such a tiny, moving target. She was just beginning to charge her stingers—all she had to do was breach the pod—when everything went dark.
She knew better than to fly through darkness, but even putting on the breaks she managed to hit an unseen wall in front of her. She dropped to the ground and bounced once, slamming against the walls until finally rolled to a stop. The edges shimmered on every impact, letting in enough light to see that it was a spherical ball with a small orb affixed to the side.
She zapped it, and the ball instantly went clear as the little bobble attached to the side lit up. The bug picked her up, inspecting the case carefully. It almost looked like it was grinning.
“Oh, you’re laughing now.” Jan pressed up against the barrier between them. “You better hope they wake up before I get out.”
It blinked at her, shook the ball once, and tossed her over to his friends on the platform. They had finished moving Hawkeye to sit next to the other pods. Jan eyed the platform, and at first she thought maybe it was a landing pad of some kind. It was certainly large enough, and she couldn’t picture any other use for the plain sheet of metal.
The last of the aliens climbed onto the pad, and it jolted into the air. It hovered for a moment before shooting forward so quickly that Jan lost her footing. None of the bugs seemed to mind.
The one holding the ball set her in the groove between Hawkeye’s pod and a second one. They were still in cryo—eighteen minutes—and she still couldn’t see who was in the other pods. Jan zapped the wall again, a longer, more sustained blast. The light flared up again, and then dimmed back to its normal glow.
The bugs chittered.
“God, damn it!” She threw herself against the wall, and the ball rolled obligingly along the groove. The bug closest to her grabbed for her, and she hit the edge again to knock it just out of his grip.
It hissed at her (hissed!) and stepped around the tube. It obviously hadn’t been expecting the weight distribution might be important, and the craft tilted slightly to maintain balance. Jan wouldn’t have been able to prevent what happened next if she’d tried.
The ball, spurred suddenly on by the change in angle, rolled right over the edge. Jan had a moment to celebrate escaping, before she realized that now she was falling. It was disorienting—she couldn’t tell up from down or down from up, and how was she supposed to know which direction to fly—
By some grace of god, or sheer dumb luck, the ball caught on the branch of a tree strongly resembling a conifer. The sudden impact slowed her decent, but it threw her against the bottom of the orb. Her skull connected with the side of the orb with a dull crack, and her vision was quickly engulfed in white.
Steve walked for nearly a half an hour, each step gaining confidence as he grew more and more accustomed to the planet and regained his land legs, so to speak. Each step brought the faint red line in the distance a little bit closer. Steve was reluctant to call it a forest, because of the color, but it was the only thing that came to mind. He supposed that there could be stranger things to find on an alien planet than red leaves, especially considering the slightly red tint to the grass beneath him. He’d originally thought it was just dying, but now he wasn’t so sure.
All he knew was that if the rest of the ship, along with the other Avengers, had missed the plains and crashed in the forest, he had no idea how he was going to find it. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do if he didn’t find them (just keep looking, probably) or how he was going to get them off this planet when he did find them.
Most of all, Steve wanted severely to know what had gone wrong. Tony had said it himself: this was supposed to be a simple science expedition, and there had certainly been no mention of any planets within a hundred light years of their destination. Steve didn’t know how they could have gotten so far off course—then again, over the course of a month long trip, it probably wouldn’t take much of a miscalculation to put them on the wrong end of a solar system.
Steve had rarely known Reed to miscalculate, though, and he’d never seen Tony or Hank let him get away with it when he had. And that worried him.
A flash of light caught his eye, and for a moment Steve stopped to stare after the direction it had come from. When he realized that the light had come from a strip of metal poking out from the tall grass, he broke into a run. Now that he looked more closely, the tall grass surrounding it was still faintly smoking.
“Avengers?” Steve slowed just a few meters from the wreckage. No one answered, and Steve immediately realized that no one would be. This close, he could make out the randomly strewn scraps of metal and ceramic shielding that had shattered on impact. There were three grooves in the dirt that looked like they might have been occupied. It was just as likely that he was imagining that, because of the five occupied pods he’d hoped to find, there was only one pod, door standing open and empty.
The integrity of the pod had obviously been compromised. He told himself that it wouldn’t be empty if that had happened before the crash. Whoever it had been had obviously woken up and walked off in search of the others, just like he was now, but it still settled somewhat uneasily at the back of his mind.
Steve looked forward, in the direction that the rest of the ship had likely fallen, but at this distance, all he could see was a sea of red treetops.
The dust was still settling when Tony first tried to haul himself out of the tiny crater he’d created. It took him two seconds to realize that the suit was so warped from the impact that he could barely move any of the joints, let alone pick himself up and walk away from the crash. The helmet, at least, was still functioning. The readout said that the oxygen content was slightly above Earth’s, and the air pressure was just shy of 0.8 atmospheres—so a little thin, but breathable.
Thank god for small favors.
After about a minute of squirming, he managed to slip one of his hands back into the bracer of the suit and hit the emergency release on that arm. He pulled off the helmet next, nearly dropping it in the dirt when it burned his fingertips. The crater was still smoking faintly, so he probably should have expected the heat, but it still caught him off guard.
After that, the most difficult part of freeing his other arm and stripping away the remaining pieces of the suit while trying not to burn himself too badly. He was fairly certain that if he ever pursued a life of crime, he wouldn’t have to worry about leaving fingerprints.
The chest plate was more complicated. It had to stay on, but somewhere between the crash landing and the superheating on reentry, the plate had begun to fuse to the groin plate. To make things more uncomfortable, the plate itself had taken some pretty hard hits, and it was getting increasingly more difficult to breath with the warped metal constricting his lung capacity. The fresh air was nice, though, even if it wasn’t any easier to breathe it was still better than breathing the same recycled air. He always felt a little suffocated whenever the suit locked up on him.
Tony was just glad it had been the chest plate that had taken the hard hits and not the rest of him, because after a crash-landing from orbit, that would not have been a pretty sight.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. Tony wedged his fingers under the plate, feeling around for the last emergency release. He flipped it, and the armor gave a light hiss—too light, not at all the right sound—and he cursed again. When he tried to wrench the two pieces apart, the groin plate wiggled at little, creaking as it did, but didn’t budge.
“Come on, baby, work with me.” Tony grabbed a scrap piece of the suit, because he needed a lever to break these pieces off if he wanted any sort of freedom of movement. Of course, he could always use one of the repulsors to try and weld the pieces apart, but he wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of superheating metal that close to his dick.
With a final groan, the piece popped free. Tony sighed, and kicked the rest of the damaged armor away. He hesitated at the repulsors. The entire right side of the suit was in shambles. He couldn’t even find the jet boot, which must have been disengaged prematurely in the crash. The right gauntlet looked damaged beyond repair as well—it was a wonder his arm wasn’t broken—but the left was almost entirely intact. He stripped off the useless gauntlet and tossed it into the pile.
He stared at the mess, heaving for air in the thin atmosphere, and wondering how the hell he was going to fix his armor with nary a socket wrench. The all too familiar feeling of hopelessness settled heavily into his chest as he stared at the mangled pieces of armor. There was no way he was going to be able to salvage any more than a few pieces of the armor, and even then he would be working with limited functionality. Trying to cobble the broken pieces together and get them to function just seemed impractical.
And that was ignoring the fact that without the ship online to recharge, Tony couldn’t afford to waste energy from the chest plate running unnecessary features of the armor. He’d come a long way from having to recharge the chest plate daily, but even with a long-extended battery life, Tony was wary of the possibility of months stranded on an unknown planet. Still, he had to come up with some kind of solution, and his options looked so limited that they may as well be non-existent.
If he didn’t fix the armor quickly, one of the Avengers was bound to find him first. While Tony normally wouldn’t be object to reuniting the team, he certainly wasn’t looking forward to the “by the way, I’m Iron Man” conversation that would be sure to follow.
Tony glanced over the wreckage of the ship around him, wishing to god that there would have been room for even one of the emergency repair kits in the bridge like he had originally wanted. He sighed, and moved to start the long and arduous task of searching the crash site for a set of tools.
Steve was going to be pissed.
Steve came up on the final crash site before the forest quietly, not quite certain what to expect. It must have been lying long enough that it could have attracted attention, not necessarily of the savory kind. Still, a tiny, hopeful part in his chest told him that this was it. He had to find someone here, and if not that, then evidence to where they’d gone.
He didn’t know what he’d do if he found nothing again.
Something caught his eye in the wreckage, and Steve dropped on one knee to try and pull it free. Dread settled in his stomach when Steve finally managed to drag it out. Iron Man’s jet boot, so badly mangled that he wouldn’t have recognized it but for the ostentatious colors.
This crash site was a disaster zone compared to the other two. Where those had been mostly pieces of the ships shielding and ejected pods, this site was all of the equipment, cargo, and mechanics of the bridge—in some places quite literally—rolled into one big ball of smoking slag.
There wasn’t a crater so much as a pock marked drop zone where all of the fragments of the ship had broken up and exploded on impact. The wrecked hull groaned and creaked as it settled, and Steve could still make out the quiet hissing snap of the last of the fires dying out. The scene was chillingly similar to walking across a battlefield too late to make a difference, and Steve determinedly forced the comparison from his mind.
A sudden, sharp ringing noise cut through the quiet and Steve froze. The sound came again, followed shortly by what sounded like quiet murmuring.
“Avengers?” Steve called. The voice, and the striking ring, stopped abruptly. Steve circled around the crash site, heading toward the noise. He remembered the jet boot, and tried again. “Iron man?”
There was no reply, and unease settled over him at the lack of response. Steve slowly reached to pull his shield off his back, gripping it tightly in one hand.
“Iron Man—”Steve froze, the words dying on his lips. When Steve came around the nose of the ship, the last thing he expected was to see Tony—his Tony—sitting resigned in the sand, the Iron Man helmet cradled in his lap and a wrench balanced on one knee.
Tony’s hands tightened around the helmet reflexively when he saw Steve, shoulders hunched guiltily. Steve wasn’t stupid, but even if he had been, the situation was hard to misinterpret with Tony still wearing the chest plate. For a long moment, all Steve could do was stare in shock.
“Oh my god,” Steve heard himself say, “are you—”
“Just, yes, I’m Iron Man. Steve—”
“—okay?” Steve dropped to his knees in front of Tony, ignoring the mangled pieces of armor strewn about. Steve passed his hands over Tony’s head, down his arms and farther.
“I’m fine, Steve—” but Steve was already coming to that conclusion himself. He huffed, frustrated, betrayed, and smacked the helmet out of Tony’s lap. It bounced across the sand and rolled to a quick stop.
“Are you crazy?” It made sense, and the idea of it turned his stomach uncomfortably. Iron Man’s knowledge of the armor, inside and out. Tony casually referring to sensitive information and events he hadn’t even been present for, only to backpedal and say that Iron Man had told him.
The way that Tony would walk around the mansion like he was walking on eggshells and outright avoid Steve after a big mission. God, had he been hiding injuries? What else had he been hiding? Suddenly, Steve felt completely, inexcusably stupid for not making the connection sooner.
“I can explain—” Good one, Tony, very creative. Tony saw the second Steve’s expression shut down, and he jumped forward to stop him before he lost the chance completely.
“I was going to tell you,” Tony said quickly.
Steve sounded absolutely furious. “When, exactly?”
“I—almost did, plenty of times—” Tony was at a loss for what to say, but luckily Steve cut in before he had to.
“Oh, well, you almost told me, so no hard feelings, right? I can’t believe you.”
“I’ve never told anyone, Steve. Pepper and Happy only found out by accident and—”
“Pepper and Happy know?” Steve said. Tony winced at the tone, wondering if he should have kept that bit of information to himself.
“What happened to keeping our private lives separate from our Avengers Identities? We all agreed!” Tony said.
“This is different,” Steve said.
“It’s not different. You are overreacting,” Tony said. He tried to keep his tone from being accusatory—tried to keep his cool—because both of them being angry wasn’t going to help anything.
“I’m not—Tony, for months I’ve thought my best friend and my boyfriend were two different people. I—Christ, how many times have I talked about you with you?”
“Come on! I knew you’d be mad, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
“Who—” Steve stalled, and then the anger in his expression morphed to confusion, anguish. “If you were in the suit, then who kissed me?”
“On the hangar, Tony. Before the launch. How the hell were you in two places at once?”
“It… was a decoy, programed to act like me. Just a Life Model Decoy, not—a person or—”
“A robot?” Steve said. “You left a robot in charge of your life?”
“Pepper’s watching him,” Tony said crossly. “It’s just for when I need to be in two places at once, or when I’m supposed to be at a meeting that I don’t want to bother with... It’s not a big deal.”
“Have you used it on me before?” Steve asked, and Tony was obviously caught off guard. “How many times have you tricked me? Used it to get out of a date that you didn’t want to bother with.”
“Never,” Tony said.
“I don’t believe you,” Steve accused.
“You should,” Tony said.
“Why?” Steve shouted back. “Why should I, when you’ve been lying all this time? When the first time we ever went out, it was because Iron Man—you—encouraged me to ask you,” Steve said, “and you acted so surprised, like you never thought I’d—”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t!” Steve nearly shouted back, and Tony cut off mid-sentence. Steve deflated immediately, turning his eyes away. “Just. Don’t start, Tony. I can’t do this right now.” Steve pressed the heel of his palm to his eye, like he was sporting a migraine despite the serum.
“We need to find the others,” Steve said. “Just—” Steve took a step back and fisted a hand in his hair, tugging at the strands in frustration, and Tony let him take a moment. He wasn’t in the mood for arguing, in part because he still felt like he’d been hit by a truck, but mostly because he knew that this was an argument that he was going to lose, and that there would be plenty of time for that later, “—we’re going to talk about this.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, because there wasn’t anything else to do. Steve’s expression was pinched and unhappy.
Eventually, Steve sat down on one of the rocks unearthed by the crash. He sighed, dropping his head in his hands. “How did this happen?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I thought you said we were done with this—”
“Not that,” Steve snapped. “I know how that happened. I was talking about the crash.”
Tony hesitated, all his bluster gone in a rush. “I—I don’t know. Something went wrong.”
“But you don’t know what?”
“The ship should have stopped us a full day away from the anomaly. I would say that Reed got the calculations wrong—”
“But I double checked them myself. And so did Hank. Something went wrong here, but it wasn’t in the calculations. We’ll just have to hope that Reed’s distress signal sent out enough data to keep him from doing the same thing we did.” He paused. “They’ve probably sent a rescue team by now, but I don’t even know if we’re in the same galaxy anymore.”
Steve paused, lifting his head from his hands to fix Tony with a look. “Why would you say that?”
“I woke up and the Red Alert was already blaring. Half the instruments said we were already caught in a decaying orbit, the other half said there wasn’t anything within twenty light-years—not even what we came out here for. And then—” Tony flexed his fingers, like he was grasping for the words, “and then we were inside it—whatever it was—for just a second. It was like...it felt like we went from normal gravity to ten times that in an instant. I thought for sure it was going to crush the ship, and then just as fast we came out the other side, and suddenly I’m crash landing a ship on an alien planet where the fucking air pressure is less than point eight on the ground, let alone at eighty thousand fucking meters—”
“Tony,” Steve put a hand up, and Tony stopped so abruptly Steve could hear his teeth click. Steve seemed to remember himself—or more accurately, the fact that he was still angry at Tony—a moment later, and he pulled his hand back. “You did good.”
Tony laughed, and Steve wasn’t certain whether he disliked the breathless quality to it or the self-deprecation in his tone less. “I wake up, everyone is gone. And I’m sitting in a—” there it was again, the same breathless, gasp for air, “smoking crater with half my armor melted to slag.”
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked. Tony looked confused for a split second, before he gave a reluctant shrug.
“Other than everything?”
“No, you’re breathing funny.” When Steve stood up for a closer look, Tony instantly shied away. Steve just fixed him with a look, because he figured if ever there was a time to ignore boundaries, this would be it. A quick glance didn’t show anything—Tony was a little beat up, but it looked like the armor had taken the vast majority of the damage considering that he’d survived a crash landing from orbit.
“I’m fine, Cap,” Tony said, and he hated the way it came out light and breathless, but he couldn’t do anything to fix it. “The chest plate’s a little—tight.”
Steve eyed the warped plate.
“I’ll get it off you,” he offered, grabbing onto the plate just above his sternum with one hand, and the other on the back plate. Tony slapped his hands away.
“You’ll break it.”
“That’s the idea, Tony,” Steve said. “It’s already broken to hell, you may as well throw it out with the rest. It’s just going to weigh you down, anyway.”
“It’s—not that simple, Cap.” Steve reached out for the armor again, and Tony grabbed his hand before he could. “Steve.” The tone, if nothing else, would have stopped Steve in a heartbeat. He let his hand drop, suddenly worried.
“What?” Steve asked. Tony hesitated for a second. He looked hunted, tugging down on his cuffs nervously in anticipation of Steve’s reaction. Steve wasn’t sure whether what Tony had to say should make him angry or worried or both, so he just stuck Tony with a look that prompted him to continue.
“I have…a heart condition,” Tony said. Steve didn’t react right away, just narrowed his eyes as though to say continue, but Tony could see the stiff set of his shoulders, like he was bracing himself for a blow, “and I need the chest plate.”
Steve was quiet for a long moment, and then, “Or, what, exactly?”
“Or my heart stops?” he said. Tony was expecting any number of things. A shouting match to end all shouting matches, above all else. Tony certainly wasn’t looking forward to that, because he could barely draw a full breath and that really put him at a disadvantage for the shouting.
What he wasn’t expecting, was for Steve’s expression to drop carefully neutral, and even less so, for him to turn and walk away without so much as a word. Tony gaped at him for a second, before his mind finally caught up with him.
“Steve?” He jogged a few steps to catch up, and caught Steve on the bicep, “Hang on—”
“You’re dying and you didn’t tell me,” Steve whirled on him, jerking his arm from Tony’s grip, and if Tony hadn’t been half-expecting the anger, he probably would have fallen flat on his ass. Instead, he just pin wheeled, trying to catch his balance, “You’ve been lying to me about Iron Man. Fine. I can get over that. But this—”
“I thought we were going to talk about this later,” Tony cut in.
“You know what? It is later. How long has this been going on, Tony? I’m your—didn’t you trust me?”
“I do trust you,” Tony said feebly.
“But not enough to tell me you’re dying,” Steve shot back.
Tony threw his hands up. “For God’s sake, I’m not dying. News flash, Steve, I’ve been doing this a lot longer than I’ve known you. I don’t get why you’re so upset about this.”
“Tony, I just found out that you’re Iron Man. And I get it. I don’t like that you kept that from me, but I get it. But God—Tony this is your health, and you should have told me—”
“We’ve been dating for three months, Steve!”
“And we’ve been friends for years!” Steve shouted, “Or haven’t we?”
“Oh, come on. That’s not fair—”
“No, Tony. What isn’t fair is that you’ve been keeping this hidden. From me, and from the team. Not to mention putting us all in danger because you—” Tony growled, cutting Steve off before he could finish.
“What? Can’t handle myself? That’s exactly why I never told anyone. Iron Man can do anything, but the second it’s fragile little Tony Stark in the can, suddenly I’m a liability.” Tony spat the last word like venom, and it probably would have had a better effect if he wasn’t fighting to suck in air after the tirade. Steve looked stricken, and Tony felt himself deflate a little. He never wanted to make Steve look at him like that.
Steve sighed, pressing a hand over his eyes and dragging it through the sweat-damp hairs on his head. Tony pointedly ignored him, making his way over to a broken piece of the ship to sit. Just for a second, so he could get his breath back. He tried not to think about how pathetic he looked, and how everything Tony was trying to prove he wasn’t—vulnerable, weak—was being tossed out the window on every jagged breath. Steve was silent for a long time, pacing a short distance in the dirt. Finally he wandered closer, a little more composed.
“What if I try to bend it back?” Steve offered. Tony glared at the ground as Steve took up a spot next to him. This time, when Steve tried to take hold of the chest plate, Tony let him.
“You’ll break it,” Tony insisted.
“I’ll be careful,” Steve said, “the air on this planet is already thin, Tony. You’re not going to be any use to anyone if you can’t even draw a proper breath.”
“I—” He made an irritated noise, sucked in another breath, and blew it out. “Fine. Just be careful.”
Steve nodded, running a hand over the front of the plate lightly, along the groove in the metal. The paint had been mostly stripped off, leaving it gunmetal gray in places. The chest plate was much worse off on Tony’s right than his left. It was twisted, bent inward and sideways so that Steve could see the wires underneath.
He wrapped his fingers around the plate at the collar and gave an experimental tug. It didn’t give more than an inch before Tony was hissing in pain.
“Wait, just…” Tony gasped, and Steve quickly let go.
“Sorry,” he said. Tony grabbed onto Steve’s forearm to steady himself.
“That’s not going to work, it’s twisted,” Tony said. “You have to…there’s a catch, on the back of the neck, you need to open it to straighten it out.”
“I thought the chest plate wasn’t supposed to come off,” Steve said.
“It’s not,” Tony said. “I’ll hold it in place, just bend it back quickly.”
“Right,” Steve felt around for the release at the back of Tony’s neck. Tony crossed his arms over his chest, holding the plate securely against himself. It was a tight fit already, and there was barely room to move his fingers, but eventually Steve managed to find the switch.
It let out a soft hiss when Steve undid the catch. The seam between the front and the back of the chest plate eased apart. In some places, the armor stayed stubbornly stuck together, making it very apparent where the plate had warped.
Even Steve couldn’t bend metal with his fingers, and certainly not with the amount of precision that would be necessary to fix the chest plate’s alignment. Steve ignored Tony’s impatient huff while he searched out a piece of scrap useable as a crowbar and started resetting the warped plates little by little.
After about ten minutes of meticulous work, Tony waved him away.
“That’s good enough, Steve,” He said, motioning to the back of the plate, “Now zip me up and we can be on our way.”
“How’s that?” Steve had to use quite a bit of force to do it, but eventually he managed to snap the plates back together.
Tony twisted back and forth, testing the maneuverability of the suit, and then took an experimental breath. “Better,” he stood up, brushing an invisible layer of dust from his shoulders and pointedly avoiding Steve’s gaze, “We should find the others.”
Steve followed Tony’s gaze to the fading vapor trail, and then toward the looming forest. Steve tried peering through the trees, but they grew so thickly that he could barely see twenty feet ahead of them.
“No,” Steve eyed the forest with apprehension. It was already well into dusk, and any moment now the sun would vanish beneath the horizon completely. He didn’t like the idea of waiting the night, but he liked the idea of trekking through an alien forest at night even less. “It’s getting dark. We should make camp.”
Clint could feel the ship humming beneath him, only the slightest tremor reverberating through the floor.
His arm felt heavy, like he was still partially frozen. Clint wriggled around onto his side so that he had enough room to raise it up by his head. The little window to the pod was covered in frost, and he tried to scrape enough of it away that he could see outside. The hole wasn’t clear enough to see by, but someone was moving outside, so he tapped on the glass. The motions stopped.
The pod dinged cheerily (it sounded more like an Easy Bake Oven than a cryogenic chamber had any right to, if you asked him) and the timer ticked over to zero. When the door let out a hydraulic hiss, Clint pushed it open.
“Finally! For a minute I was worried I’d get…” he trailed off, taking in the four insect-like creatures, and quickly finished, “freezer burn. Uh, guys?”
The door ripped off the container to his left, and Ms. Marvel threw herself—door and all—at the closest bug. It shrieked angrily and the whole craft dipped a little to the side as the driver reacted. The cruiser was obviously not built to carry such a heavy load, and it wobbled as its passengers moved around. All three of the cryo chambers shifted to the right, overbalancing them even more.
Clint swore. He knew that something was going to go wrong. He was going to rub it in Stark’s face, too—that is, if they ever made it back to Earth.
The third pod slammed into the lip of the craft and started to tip, the door lolling open. Something rolled out—a stick, it looked like—and then Clint was scrambling over his own pod. He caught whoever was inside by the wrist just as chamber went over the edge, and the sudden shift in weight jerked them around violently.
The driver was screeching and clicking and spitting at them.
“Yeah, well, right back atcha,” Clint shouted, though he had no idea what it was saying. Clint planted one boot on the lip of the craft and hauled the body the rest of the way up. It was much too easy—no one but Jan or Ms. Marvel was this light—so who the hell…
Clint took one look at his face and nearly dropped him. “Doctor Blake?” he asked. Clint glanced around, dubious. They were flying over a lake now, and the water was tinged deep purple, and the alien landscape was swathed in red foliage—no, this was definitely not Earth.
Don just nodded, looking somewhat guilty, but didn’t actually respond. He was red in the face from the effort of trying to pull himself up, and Clint went back to helping with a jolt. He pulled Don up far enough that he could get a good grip, and Don levered himself back up onto the craft. He flopped down on the floor and breathed out a sigh of relief.
“Hawkeye!” Ms. Marvel shouted.
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint shouted back. “Give me a minute.” He reached back into his pod—and they’d called him crazy, for wanting to be frozen with his bow—and snapped it open with the flick of a wrist. He turned to Don at the same time that he nocked an arrow, loosing it over the startled doctor’s shoulder.
It ricocheted off the bug’s exoskeleton—mother fucker, this was going to be harder than he thought—but the bug jerked back in surprise anyway.
“Stay put,” he shouted at Don. By the bewildered expression on the doctor’s face, he didn’t really need to be told. Now certainly wasn’t the time, but Clint was really fucking curious how the doctor had managed to stow away on their ship. But more importantly—
“Where the hell are the others?” he asked.
Ms. Marvel didn’t even look in his direction at first, too preoccupied with trying to wrestle a screeching bug off of her. She was going for the pilot, it looked like, which was probably a good plan considering that Clint could see a tower rising out of the plains in the distance.
He had no idea what it was supposed to be, but he wasn’t about to let these things drag them back to their little termite mound. Clint nocked a net arrow and loosed it. The net wrapped around the bug just as it tried to unfold its wings. Ms. Marvel kicked the bug off of her and into the netted one, and they both fell into a heap, causing the whole craft to rock unsteadily beneath them.
She rolled to her feet. “I don’t know,” she answered, “but we need to—” Ms. Marvel hardly faltered when she caught sight of Don, but she hardly spared him a confused glance before she rounded on the closest alien. “Who the hell is this?” she shouted.
“Donald Blake,” Don said. Clint saw him searching through the pods, though god knew what he could be looking for. “What happened to my walking stick—”
“Not really the time, Doc,” Clint said. The glider jerked, and Clint glanced over in time to see Ms. Marvel toss the pilot over the edge of the craft. It shrieked as it fell, more out of anger than fear, judging by the wings that unfolded from its back.
All at once, the craft jerked to a halt. Clint wobbled but managed to keep his footing, and turned to glare at Ms. Marvel.
“What the hell are you doing—?” The question died on his lips, when he turned to follow her gaze. Ten gliders made a half moon around them, and yet more were rising out the holes in the ground beneath them, only just covered in grass.
“Shit,” Clint said. The bugs were chattering angrily at them, and even if they couldn’t understand the words, Clint understood the language of a gun pointed at him quite well. He dropped his bow, raising his hands slowly.
“No way we can fight that many,” Clint said. Ms. Marvel knew that, of course, but she hadn’t put her hands up yet and the bugs were starting to get nervous. “Marvel.” He said more forcefully.
For a moment, Clint thought she was going to listen. Her shoulders slumped, her arm’s dropping from the controls. And then, before he could even try to stop her, she’d launched herself off the glider and onto the nearest pilot.
It shrieked when she grabbed it, and she twisted, pulling the pilot around like a shield. Some of the bugs fired, though they only managed to hit their partner or the side of the craft. Ms. Marvel threw the first bug onto the next glider, sending a good many of them sprawling under the force of the throw.
“Ms. Marvel!” Don shouted the warning a moment too late, and a bug brought a large metal pole around to hit her in a baseball swing. Sparks flew and she seized, slumping to the ground immediately. They didn’t even try to catch her, and it took even ounce of Clint’s self-control not to go on a rampage himself.
“Jesus, is she—?” Clint asked, inching forward.
“Don’t,” Don warned, and Clint stopped. He looked up, and the bugs were tense, all watching him. “I think she’s okay,” Don said. “It looks like—a cattle prod. I think she’s—” One of the bugs picked her up, chattering angrily, and Clint made a point not to move or spook any of them. They would have to wait for a better moment—there was just no way they would be able to make an escape now.
The tower was close enough now that Clint could make it out for what it was. A fortress covered with dirt and plant matter but quite obviously constructed from metal. He couldn’t imagine how a better opportunity to escape could come when he thought of just how many of these things a tower that size could hold. It towered skyward, and Clint could easily imagine a city’s worth of soldiers waiting inside.
“Right,” Clint said reluctantly. “We’ll wait.”
When the bugs stepped up to him and pulled his arms behind his back, more forceful than necessary, and locked them in place with the sort of high-tech handcuffs that would probably make even Stark jealous, he didn’t even try to fight them off.
The two bugs from before—the one Clint had put in a net, and the one Ms. Marvel had put on top of it—scrambled over to the edge of the glider. They chattered excitedly, pointing back at the three of them with fervor. Clint couldn’t begin to imagine what they were saying, but a moment later one of the pilots from the glider replied, and one of the two flew over to retrieve Clint’s bow. It turned to Clint with a long look Clint couldn’t identify.
If he didn’t know any better, he would think that it was smiling at him.
It took Steve less than ten minutes to drag a few of the larger pieces of the scrap that had constituted the ships bridge together to make a lean to. There was no shortage of firewood, either. Tony wandered off briefly to pick through the wreckage. He hadn’t exactly been expecting to be out of the armor, so he hadn’t dressed the part. Now that it was getting dark, he was beginning to regret it. There was tons of cargo to sift through in the wreckage, from the storage as well as their quarters, and eventually Tony managed to turn up a button-down with relatively few holes burned in it. Not perfect, but better than nothing.
Finally he dragged the pilot’s chair over to the fire pit to sit on and set to lighting a fire. With the repulsor handy, it only took him a few seconds, and he didn’t get up to help again, even when Steve finished setting up camp and started breaking extra branches for firewood.
He could have asked Tony to help, but Steve was a superhuman and he’d been in a pod specifically designed for crash landings from space. He was still feeling sore, so he could only imagine that Tony was feeling worse. Not to mention that, even though it was exactly what Tony hadn’t wanted, Steve couldn’t help but worry about his heart, so he decided to let him sit. When Steve finished, he dropped down into the sand a good ways away from Tony, who was staring at the fire.
He looked… preoccupied. The way he always got when he got into a particularly difficult or unique puzzle, and Steve had to drag him out of his workshop with the promise of takeaway and good company.
“Tony,” Steve said, shaking away the thought. Tony started, and his eyes landed on Steve from across the fire. “Penny for your thoughts?”
“I’m just… thinking. About the crash,” Tony said. Steve could tell that there was more, but Tony was stubborn. He would either tell him, or not, and Steve wasn’t in the mood to drag it out of him. Tony kicked his feet up on the rock he’d dragged his chair over to, and settled lower in the seat. “I think I saw something. At first I thought it was a mountain. There were a couple of mountain ranges that I could see. But the more I think about it, the more I think that it was probably some kind of structure...a city, maybe, meant to look like a mountain.”
“You think this planet’s inhabited?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Tony said. “It was on the other side of this forest.” He was silent for a moment, “I think it was this forest,” and then: “Do you think the others are there?”
“I think the ship broke into three parts when we were crashing. I found the middle of the ship on my way here, but there was only one pod. I don’t know whose, but there was no one in sight. If they landed with the rest of the ship and woke up before I got there, there should have been four empty pods. I can’t imagine they would have taken their pods with them.”
“So they landed somewhere else—or—” Tony trailed off, and Steve shrugged. He didn’t want to speculate and make wild theories, but Tony’s city worried him. There was always the chance, however slight, that their crash hadn’t been an accident.
It didn’t make sense. Then again, when it came to Avenging, things rarely did.
“We should get some sleep, and tomorrow we can find the others.”
“If we’re lucky, they’ll find us the same way you found me,” Tony said. “We should keep watch, just in case. I’ll go first,” he interrupted, before Steve could try offering, “because I have a feeling that once I’m asleep I’m going to be out, and I know you wouldn’t wake me up if you thought I needed it.”
“I’m not going to coddle you.”
“You already coddle me, Steve,” Tony sighed, tipping his head back against the seat’s headrest. “Now you’ll just be coddling Iron Man, too.”
Steve wanted to put up a little bit of a fight, but eventually Tony would win out—he usually did, on the arguments that didn’t matter. Instead, he agreed that Tony would wake him in five hours so that they could switch. Steve fell asleep with his shield propped on his hip and within easy reach, looking like he was ready to jump into battle at a moment’s notice. When Tony realized he was staring, he decided to find something to do with his time.
Tony found his helmet from where it had fallen and started cannibalizing the useful parts. Most of the transistors were blown out—he suspected when they passed through the… whatever it was, but he couldn’t be sure. A couple of the scanners still worked. The communications, also, were still functional (which only worried him further, since he wasn’t picking up any signals at all) and some of the simple, useless functions (the clock, which he used to time his turn at keeping watch, the calendar, and the music player) were still working.
It took him a little over three hours to get all the functions that were still working broken down into something that he could carry with him easily without having to wear the helmet around sans armor. It was ugly, and looked more like a piece of scrap or bad modern art than anything functional, but it fit in his pocket, and that was all that mattered.
By four and a half hours, he could barely keep himself awake—either he was getting old, or that crash had taken more out of him than he’d thought—so he decided to wake Steve up a little early. He couldn’t help but be a little irritated at how easily Steve woke up. No one should be that bright eyed after four hours of sleep.
What Tony really wanted to do was go lie down next to Steve, but he’d taken the hint earlier when Steve sat about as far away from him as possible. He should probably give it some time.
So Tony was sleeping on the proverbial couch for the time being, but at this point he was almost too tired to care. He was asleep nearly the moment he was horizontal, lulled by the faint swish of Steve running his fingers over the edge of his shield.
Jan felt like she was floating, bobbing gently back into consciousness. There was a steady pain pressing behind her eyes, the kind she'd come to associate with alcohol and head injuries. She brought a hand up to gingerly rub against her temples, willing the headache away, and willing the ground to stop wobbling beneath her.
A few minutes of wakefulness helped to sooth the headache some, but her sense of balance refused to cooperate. Jan hesitantly cracked an eye open, shielding herself from the worst of the sun with her palm.
The orb was floating, carried gently downstream just along the edge of the riverbank. Jan blinked down through what was currently the floor of the orb and watched what looked like little minnows darting around the riverbed. Well, that would explain the bobbing. That would also explain why she wasn't currently resembling a bug on a windshield. She glanced up into the sky, to where the sunlight slotted through the trees and cast slightly pinkish shadows onto the water. The orb must have fallen perfectly to have her fall broken by one of the trees and then the water.
Jan would say she was born under a fortunate star, maybe, if she weren't currently floating down the river and feeling very much like a hamster in a ball.
She rapped her knuckles against the side of the orb, testing the material. It looked like glass, but it didn't feel like glass… it had more give to it, like plastic but stretchier. It wasn’t quite flexible enough that it would puncture or bend as opposed to crack, but it felt soft, as though with enough effort Jan may just be able to melt herself a hole.
Jan stood shakily and planted her feet, careful to keep the orb from spinning in the water. She aimed her stingers upward, where she would be least likely to start taking on water should she manage to score a hole in the orb. The last thing she needed right now was to accidentally drown herself trying to get out.
The first stinger blast didn't do much, but she hadn't really expected it to after her previous escape attempts. Instead she focused on pouring all of her energy into one spot in a steady stream, hoping that the constant barrage would generate enough heat to melt the walls. The bulb on the underside of the orb burned impossibly bright the longer she pushed herself, and the minnows beneath her scattered, startled by the light.
Jan stopped, blowing out a steady breath through her teeth, and inspected her work. The surface looked as smooth as ever. She flew up to touch it, cautiously with her fingertips and then with her whole palm. Nothing. The surface was just as cool as the rest of the orb.
Jan dropped back down to inspect the bulb. It had to be siphoning off the extra energy somehow and converting it into light. The whole process must pretty efficient for there to be no residual heat from her stings. Tony would love that. She could imagine him babbling about the possibilities, maybe even trying to incorporate the technology into Iron Man's armor (he was always finding new ways to shower Iron Man with upgrades).
Jan wasn't so impressed. She kicked the thing with the heel of her boot, then gave it an ineffectual zap for good measure. This would be a perfect time for an assist, Jan thought. Maybe from Iron Man himself...or whoever hadn't been in the other two pods she'd seen carried off by the bug creatures.
She stooped down to run her palms over the mechanism, but it was separated from her by the same glassy substance that the rest of the orb consisted of. To keep her from tampering with the device, maybe, or to keep the orb airtight.
That was an unpleasant thought. She hoped there was some way for the air to permeate the orb, if she was going to be stuck in here. She didn't think she wanted to find out the hard way.
Suddenly two hands closed around the orb, plucking her from the water, and the sudden shift threw her off balance. A split second of hope devolved into fear when she realized that those weren't her fellow Avenger's hands, but scaly clawed things that flexed against the glass in a tight grip.
Jan turned and came face to face with two rows of razor sharp teeth.
She shrieked, more on reflex than anything else. It was…a little embarrassing, actually, but she’d been caught off guard. Startled by the noise, the creature jumped, fumbling with the orb and nearly dropping it.
Jan recovered quickly. She put an arm out to either wall to steady herself, and pain flared behind her eyes at being jostled around. "Don't drop me!" she shouted. "I've had enough of that for one day."
The thing froze and stared at her with huge eyes, but the fumbling stopped.
It looked reptilian, but not necessarily lizard-like. At least it was much more human-looking than the Lizard she'd seen romping around with Spider-Man on the front page of the Daily Bugle. She looked—well, Jan thought it was a she, she really shouldn’t be assuming, and what did that say about her life, that in this situation, she was worried about misgendering it?—it looked very humanoid, if not for the claws and teeth. Its scales were dull red, and patchy with flecks of blue on the hands and face that could have been freckles on a human.
The alien cocked her head at her, and then gave the orb a little shake.
"Cut it out!" Jan snapped, and the shaking immediately stopped. The alien grinned, looking pleased with itself, and leaned in expectantly. Jan crossed her arms. "Do you want me to talk? Can you even understand me?"
It made a little chirping noise, which Jan was going to take as a no, and touched a hand lightly to its neck as though looking for something there.
It grinned again, baring two rows of sharp teeth at her, and then set the orb down in front of it carefully. There was a bag dangling from its shoulder, woven from rich red reeds and decorated with glittering stones. The bag was well made, and not the kind of thing that would be made out of necessity. It was more like a purse, made to look good, to act as an accessory (not Jan’s first choice, but to each their own). She wondered exactly how developed these aliens were, that it had something like that.
Hopefully not enough to trade goods with, say, a race of giant cockroaches.
The alien pulled her bag into her lap and began to root around. After a moment of searching it made a disappointed noise, looking up at Jan apologetically. She didn’t know why, so she just shrugged the look off and planted her hands on her hips.
"Ok, let's try this," she said, stepping up to the side of the orb with the bulb. It was miraculously intact (then again, she was miraculously intact too, so she couldn't be too surprised). Jan tapped on the glass, pointing to it. "Let me out," she said.
The alien's eyes flicked to the bulb, then back to her. Jan huffed and stabbed a finger at the bulb. "Open it. Ooopeeen," she said, miming opening the orb.
There was a moment of pause, and then it opened its mouth to say something that definitely sounded like a language, nodding happily. Its claws clicked against the glass as it traced scaly fingers over the surface of the orb. What was it doing? Looking for a seam, maybe? It nodded again, resolute, scooted over to one of the better sized rocks in the riverbed and raised the orb back over its head.
"No no no no, that's not what I meant!" Jan shouted, curling her arms over her head. She braced for the blow.
After a moment of stillness, she cracked an eye open. "Wow, did you actually listen to me?" Jan asked.
It shook the orb violently to silence her, and then looked almost apologetic. The alien crouched down, it was hiding, and suddenly Jan found herself straining to hear whatever it was it had heard. For a moment it stood poised in silence, and then all at once the ground began to shake violently underneath them, cracking and drawing a long fission in the earth.
It yelped and dove to the side as the ground splint open.
“Oh,” Jan said. “You really need to let me out now.”
The beast was covered head-to-toe in glistening scales that bristled and rattled as it moved. It prowled forward like a big cat, and its jaws opened laterally the screech at them, revealing rows upon rows of teeth like some Lovecraftian horror. The monster had six powerful legs that it used to climb from the burrow with ease.
Where mammals had taken the evolutionary advantage on Earth, clearly other forms of life had taken root here. Jan recoiled at the sight of it at the same time that her companion did.
It unsurprisingly didn’t take her advice, quickly shoving Jan into her bag.
The beast let out a deafening screech when it realized that its prey was attempting to run. Jan tried to get a look at the thing, but she couldn’t see anything but the alien’s scaly arm where it had thrown the bag over its shoulder.
Jan heard the ground splintering again, this time sounding even closer. Jan felt the their foot catch on the newly cracked earth, felt them begin to fall even before she heard the surprised cry.
For a moment Jan was weightless, and then the orb slammed into the ground, rolling away from the bag it was jammed in to settle in the grass a few feet away.
The alien made a little panicked noise.
"Hold on!" Jan shouted. It couldn't understand her, but the speaking was more for her own benefit than for its anyway. "Just..."
Jan trailed off, her gaze settling past the wall of her prison. A hairline crack had formed on the bulb, and Jan swiped a hand over the glass as she staggered to her feet. If it was broken, it probably wouldn't absorb energy like it was supposed to. Jan pointed both stingers at it. This would probably overload it. She probably wasn't going to blow herself up, or electrocute herself, or break the thing completely and get herself stuck in here for good.
Jan closed her eyes and loosed a stream of energy from her fingertips. The bulb lit up immediately, shining bright streaks behind her eyelids, and she pushed harder, forcing as much energy as she could through the thing. There was a pop, and she felt it the moment it happened, with the energy from her stingers no longer being absorbed. It flashed and then the bulb blew out completely.
Jan blinked the spots from her eyes and knocked the bulb out with one well-placed kick with her boot heel. The hole was just large enough for her to squeeze through.
The beast was almost on her by the time Jan wriggled free. She aimed for its eyes with her stingers, and it snarled and flinched back, shaking the attack off before turning back to look for the source. Its gaze immediately fell back on the person on the ground.
It couldn’t see her, Jan realized, and zapping it probably wouldn’t be enough to distract it, unless…
She flew around to the other side of it and zapped it again, then quickly regrew to her full size. The alien made little choked noise and gaped at her in shock. The beast whipped around, too, looking for the source of the attack, and it spotted her and snarled.
Jan chucked a rock at it.
(Okay, maybe not the most amazing offense, but she couldn’t use her stingers at this size and this was really not the time to be picky.)
It had the desired effect, anyway. She would never admit to the little squeak she made when it started charging at her, but that was what she’d been hoping for. She shrunk, not enough that she disappeared from sight, but enough to use her wings, and darted off.
The beast charged after her. She dodged to the left, away from where she could hear the creature's scales rattling noisily behind her, and shot another energy bolt at its shoulder. The sting splashed off the beast's shoulder like it was nothing. The hide was too thick to do any damage, so she aimed another smaller blast at the thing's eye before darting away. A full-on attack wouldn't work here—she just didn't have the firepower for it. She'd have to come up with something else.
Luckily, once it was out of the ground the thing wasn't very stealthy, and Jan used it to her advantage to keep track of its pursuit as she watched where she was flying.
Ahead she spotted an alcove in the rock face, and an idea formed as she darted toward it. Jan made a sharp corner and then immediately pulled up. The beast followed, pushing off the wall with two of its six legs and not losing a bit of momentum in the turn. Jan flew up as it sprung at her, teeth gnashing at her ankles. It missed by bare inches and dropped back down into the narrow pass.
It was a dead end. Jan darted over its head and back to the front of the alcove and aimed a carefully-placed stinger blast at the rock face. The dirt crumbled, spilling rock and dust into the air and collapsing the front of the pass effectively like a cage.
"Ha!" Jan watched the thing prowl back and forth along the cliff's edge, scratching ineffectually at the rock bed as it tried to dig its way out. Satisfied that it would be staying put for now, Jan flew back over to the other side of the wall.
She didn't see the lizard-person from earlier. Jan paused, setting herself lightly down on the ground. Should she go look for it? It had seemed friendly enough, trying to help her out of the ball trap, but...she still didn't know anything about this place, or what she could trust.
But she was an Avenger. It could have been injured, and for all she knew it could be the ticket to finding the rest of her team mates.
Mind made up, she made her way back to the side of the river.
As she drew closer, caution took over, and Jan shrunk down to several inches tall. She started by taking a look at the ground where the thing had come from in the first place. The earth around the hole was cracked, like the beast had forced its way through, but down deeper the burrow looked more uniform, as though the tunnel had been pre-made. Jan imagined that if she were to go down into the hole she would find a labyrinth of tunnels through which the creature traveled.
Claws scuffing against the ground was her only warning before two hands cupped around her, like a child catching a butterfly. Jan grit her teeth, jostled for a moment. She was mere seconds away from zapping the hands when they opened again, palms lying flat for her to rest on as she was brought up to eye level.
"Hello again," Jan said, only somewhat crossly for having her attention grabbed so rudely. She gave them a quick once-over, satisfied that they at least didn't look hurt (though she wasn't really sure that she would be able to tell if they were, it at least put her mind to rest somewhat).
It spoke again, perhaps a greeting or something else entirely, and cocked its head. The expression on their face looked utterly fascinated, and it didn't take Jan long to deduce why.
She stood up on their palm, lifted her wings and grew several inches. Growing seemed to delight it, and it babbled excitedly as Jan continued until she was at her full height. It made a little surprised noise, stalking around behind her to swipe a palm over her shoulder blades where her wings had vanished.
Jan chuckled. "They disappear when I'm at full height—hey!" It tried to pull her shirt up to look for the wings underneath, and she smacked the hand away. She wagged a finger at them. "None of that."
It made a sad sound but backed off, stalking back around to look at her quizzically. Jan waited, and after a moment it seemed to come to a decision. It grabbed her wrist and tugged her forward, urging her to follow.
"Where are we going?" she asked, despite knowing that it wouldn't understand her. True to form it didn't answer, continuing to lead her on, first further up the river and then deeper into the mountains.
After a while, Jan's guide paused and turned back to her.
It pressed a hand to her chest, signaling for her to stop, and looked her up and down appraisingly. It threw its arms wide and then brought its palms together until they were inches apart. Jan watched as it repeated the motion, and then cocked its head at her expectantly.
Jan nodded and shrunk down to about three inches tall. It nodded enthusiastically, clearly pleased with itself for successfully communicating what it wanted, and pointed inside the bag across its shoulder.
Clearly, wherever they were going it wanted Jan to stay hidden. The thought made her nervous. She wasn't sure what she was going to do if she came around the bend to find a village full of the bug-like aliens from earlier.
Anyway, if her companion wanted her hidden it was because it was on her side, otherwise why hide her at all? Yeah, that was probably right.
She didn't have much of a choice, anyway—without a guide she'd likely be wandering the planet aimlessly for days.
Once Jan was comfortably settled in the bag to where she could peek between two more loosely-woven reeds they started forward.
It was hard to see at first. If she hadn't been looking for it she could have flown right past, but looking closely she could spot the homes built into the rock face. Jan could see them more clearly as she got closer, but she was certain that whoever was approaching the village would certainly be spotted themselves first.
The homes looked like pueblos, tall square structures carved into the side of the mountain, stacked from mud that looked like blood and chalk in the brutal sun. They looked old and worn from the weather, and though there were dozens of the structures clinging to the rocky face of the mountain, tents still spilled out onto the ground around them, like maybe even the many homes weren't enough to house all of the inhabitants.
It looked strange, mashing together the immovable stone buildings with tents, like they weren't willing to commit to making more permanent housing.
There were a few people about, mostly moving from one tent to another, talking and carrying supplies. After looking, Jan could definitely see the same variety in them as in humans—what looked like male and female (or so she assumed— they could possibly just be with or without head ridges), young and old, and a myriad of different colored scales (as well as some that looked like fur, but passing closely by one revealed it to actually be closer to moss). It was spectacular and eerie at the same time, to see such a range in characteristics so similar to on Earth even with the basics—reptiles vs mammals—being so different.
Hank would love this. Even if herpetology wasn't his specialty, the opportunity to study alien life was a biologist's dream come true. He was going to be kicking himself for sure when she told him what she'd seen here. Maybe something like this would be just what he needed to get back in the game.
With their ship a streak on the ground, he might get to come in person anyway...assuming that distress signal got out, and that someone was coming at all.
A couple paused to greet Jan's companion, but no one stopped her. Jan watched with interest as they made a beeline between the tents; there were no bugs in sight.
They ducked inside one of the tents at the far edge of the village.
There was a mat on the floor that looked like the cushion of a futon. Jan emerged from the bag, confident when it didn't stop her, and flew to rest on the edge of it. The material was scratchy and unpleasant against her skin, but it probably didn't feel so rough against scales. Jan watched with mild interest as it tossed its bag into the corner and moved to draw the curtains over the windows.
There were several woven baskets along the wall, and it dropped to its knees in front of them to rifle through their contents. Jan couldn't see what it was doing from where she was sitting, but after a moment it made a triumphant sound and sprung up from where it was kneeling to grin at her.
It was clutching a large ring in either hand, looking proudly at Jan for a moment before it seemed to pick up on her confusion.
It looked at Jan, exasperated, and tossed itself down onto the mat next to her. It said something as it extended the ring toward her, and then quickly pulled back to mime growing before extending the ring again.
Jan grew and accepted the ring. It was made of sleek metal, stylistically very different than the rest of the room's possessions. Jan turned it over in her hands quizzically, not sure what to do with it.
Her companion reached over and pressed a claw against the raised edge on one side of the ring. It clicked open on an almost invisible hinge. It did the same to its own ring, then reached up to snap it around its neck like a collar. Jan looked skeptical, but she copied the motion. It was snug but not uncomfortable, and she couldn't feel any difference between where the hinge and the rest of the necklace.
It reached over and pressed something, and the necklace suddenly warmed.
Jan let out a little noise of surprise. "What did you do?" she asked, not expecting an answer.
"Turned it on," she said.
Jan jumped. She wasn't very proud of the squeak that came out of her mouth, and it quickly tried to shush her with a wary glance toward the windows.
"You speak English!" Jan said, and then she paused, because no, of course it didn't speak English. She touched a hand to her neck. "This...translates to English?"
"You do not have these where you come from?" it asked, cocking its head curiously. The voice it spoke with was distinctly feminine, and Jan wondered if the collar could translate into different voices for different people.
"Well, no. Where I come from you either learn a language yourself or find someone else who knows it."
"That sounds tedious," it—she—said simply. "How do you get anything done if you spend all of your time learning each other's words?"
"Mostly we don't know everyone's words. We just don't talk to them."
She made a little distressed noise at that and eyed her dubiously. "I have never seen a thing like you before. Is it because you do not talk to us?"
"Sort of. I've...come a long ways," Jan said. Should she explain? Well, it wasn't like she was given any Prime Directive. She pointed up at the ceiling. "I come from a different planet. Off in the sky, thousands of miles that way." Or at least she thought Earth was that way. It made her point, it any case.
She shied away from Jan, shooting her a wary look. "You come from the sky also?"
"Also?" Jan asked. It wasn't much of a stretch to guess. "Those bugs? Are they aliens...er, from the sky, too?"
She nodded at Jan, thoughtfully. "But you are not allied with them?"
"No, nope. I've never seen them before, and I don't know anything about them, which is—" Jan paused. "Actually, what can you tell me about them? Like, say, where I could find them, or where they would take prisoners—"
"Prisoners," she said slowly, but there was no surprise in her tone.
"Is that common?" Jan asked. "Because my friends were taken by those things and I need to know where. Please, uh…"
"I am called Ch’ari,” she said.
“Please, Ch’ari, they could be in trouble. They are in trouble.”
“How were they captured? Could they not just shrink and hide?" she asked.
“Not all humans can grow and shrink like I can. Actually, it’s just my husband and I, but he’s back on Earth, so I suppose right now it’s just me. Not that it mattered, since everyone was still unconscious when they found us...”
"Is that how you ended up in a fly trap?" she asked, an amused smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"I was caught off guard!" Jan said. "And anyway, that's getting off topic."
"I think...it is maybe not my place to decide, but I may be able to… I will help you if you are willing to do the same for us," she said. "Our goals are not so different."
“Your goals?” Jan asked.
“I think…yes, I think you should sit, and I will explain,” Ch’ari said.
Jan seated herself in the middle of the futon cushion on the floor, hands crossed carefully in her lap. Ch’ari stared thoughtfully out the window through the cracks in the curtain, perhaps deciding how best to begin.
“You know, we have not always lived here,” Ch’ari said. “This place, it is old. Older than I am. And for a very long time it has not been used.”
Jan jumped at the opportunity to speak. “What made you come back to it?”
“We had no choice,” Ch’ari said. “The invaders…you call them aliens. They are called the Kytin, and your friends are not the first that they have taken. We could not just let them, but our home—our real home—is not only warriors. There are others, too old or too young to fight, and we did not want to make a target of them. They are mostly safe in the forest, hidden, and it was best that they not be found.”
“So you do fight them?” Jan asked.
Ch’ari looked guiltily away. “Not as much as we should. We do our best, but…we are so outnumbered, it is slow. Too slow. We have not yet been able to go after the people they have taken—”
“Yet,” Jan said.
Ch’ari dropped to her knees in front of Jan, and her scales scraped loudly against the floor. She grabbed Jan’s hand in one of her own, looking her in the eye with a fierce determination. “Yet,” she agreed, “and this is where I think you can help us. Compared to them we are small in numbers. A frontal assault will not work. I know it won’t. But with you…you are so small and so strong. You can sneak inside and find our friends and then—”
A swish of fabric stopped Ch’ari mid-sentence, and Jan glanced up just in time to see the stunned look on the intruder’s face before they yelped in surprise and darted outside again.
“Oh boy,” Jan sighed. “Here we go.”
The tent flap ripped open again a moment later, revealing the same person now flanked by several soldiers. Ch’ari snapped something angrily—it didn’t translate, but Jan got the idea anyway—and pushed herself up from the floor. There were guards pouring into the tent, and Ch’ari moved to confront the first one to enter. The soldier’s scales were dark red, almost black, everywhere except for the shiny blue crest on his head. He spoke in—or rather, the translator spoke for him in—a deep, masculine voice, confirming Jan’s suspicions that the translator was assigning different people different voices.
“Calm down! I can explain,” Ch’ari hissed at him. He sighed and responded in a tone too low for Jan to overhear.
The rest of the group largely ignored her, instead moving toward Jan. She stood from the mat, preparing to shrink down and escape. In the last moment Ch’ari made a quick slicing motion, signaling her to stop, and Jan grudgingly obeyed.
Their hands were rough, one person on either arm preventing her escape. Jan cut a glance toward Ch’ari, who was being led away from the tent as well, although much less formally. She was still mouthing off to the one she’d set her sights on in the beginning, and he was giving her the long-suffering looks that made Jan suspect that they might be related.
She jerked her arm out of his grip and then gave him a flat look when he tried to get it back. Ch’ari strolled along casually for a moment, then walked up behind the person on Jan’s left, planted a palm flat on his face and pushed him out of the way.
“Oop, excuse me, sorry,” she said simply, taking a moment to swat him away until he realized that she was simply carrying on with his job and not actually trying to free Jan. After that he gave up and dropped back to the space she’d been occupying a moment earlier, grumbling.
The one on Jan’s right leaned back. “Please stop being stupid,” she said plainly—and hey, female voice, no head ridge, Jan was totally sensing a pattern here. Ch’ari just gave her an innocent look until she scoffed and turned her gaze forward again.
They were heading toward the largest of the mud buildings built into the cliff side, Jan realized. Ch’ari cleared her throat.
“Okay, so this is a good thing,” Ch’ari began, clearly trying to stress the point. Jan gave her a flat look. “It is! I promise. When I said we can help each other, I knew you would have to talk to the chief first, and so here we are going! Very convenient.”
“They don’t seem very happy to see me here,” Jan pointed out.
“That is because they do not know you. It’s…everyone is very careful. I’m sure you understand why.”
“Stop talking,” the woman on Jan’s right said.
“We’re not talking,” Ch’ari told her. She lowered her voice for Jan again. “You need to talk to the chief. Tell her what you told me, about your friends. She is...well, she is a kind woman, but you must prove yourself to be useful and able to hold your own in battle." Ch'ari looked her up and down, making a little face. "She will need some convincing, but I have seen you in action, so I can vouch for you. She will like you. I am sure of it."
“That’s nice,” Jan said, “but if she doesn’t?”
“Um, that would be…not so good. So. She will like you. But if not, maybe you run,” Ch’ari suggested.
“Perfect,” Jan said as they led her inside.
By the time Tony woke Steve, the fire had died down to a faint glow. Steve spent a few minutes stirring the embers and making sure that the fire wouldn’t die completely before he settled back. Tony was already fast asleep, and Steve resolved to let him be at least until the sun came up, which hopefully wouldn’t be in the next couple of hours. They’d made their agreement on the assumption that the night would be about as long as it was on Earth.
Now that he had time to think about it, it was just as likely that the sun wouldn’t rise for days or even months. They didn’t know anything about this planet, after all—they hadn’t even known it was here—so they really had nothing to go on.
Of course, now that he had time to think, it was inevitable that his mind would wander back to Tony. His eyes flicked over to the scrap pieces of armor. It looked like Tony had been fiddling with it while he was sleeping, though Steve couldn’t tell whether it was important or something to preoccupy a racing mind.
That had always been the trouble with Tony. He could never sit still, never stop and listen. And for as long as Steve had known him he’d accepted it as fact and moved on. Never once had it occurred to him that maybe Tony was always moving and always trying to prove himself because he was feeling the pressures of a biological countdown.
Steve stared at Tony’s back, straining his ears for the comforting rush of air over the crackling fire, and resisted the urge to touch. Although Steve was loathe to admit it, Tony was right about one thing: Steve did coddle him.
He’d never thought anything of it before. Tony had always been a normal guy, and it made sense to treat him that way. But what really bothered Steve was that never once had Tony expressed any issue with the way Steve treated him.
If he was so bothered by the way Steve acted around him, to the point where he blatantly withheld information just to keep their Avenger’s partnership the same, then why had he never once brought it up?
Steve rested his head in his hands and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. He could feel the beginnings of a tension headache building already, and the unhappy twinge in the center of his chest wasn’t helping matters.
Eventually Steve realized that sitting was only going to encourage him to grow increasingly irrational over the entire situation. Steve decided to go for a walk and stretch his legs, although he didn’t dare stray farther than the crash site lest he let something slip past him while Tony trusted him to keep watch.
He’d intended to let Tony wake up on his own, but after a few hours of meaningless exercise—Steve wasn’t sure exactly how many—a faint clicking caught his attention. At first he just wrote it off as the logs snapping in the fire. They were still fairly wet, since he’d pulled most of them straight from the trees nearby.
After a few minutes of listening, he’d changed his mind. The noise sounded almost…purposed, and Steve immediately stood up to follow the sound. He picked up the shield in one hand, scanning first the trees and then the open plain behind him for any sign of danger.
“Tony?” Steve leaned over him, and that was definitely where the sound was coming from. He grabbed his shoulder, and Tony jerked awake immediately. “You’re clicking.”
“I’m—what?” Tony was already sitting up, his mind still sluggish, and then he seemed to comprehend what Steve was saying. His hand went to his pocket, and he pulled out a piece of scrap metal.
“What is that?” Steve asked, but Tony ignored him.
“I know that sound,” Tony said. “I heard it just before we crashed.” He fiddled with the device in his hands. “This is Hawkeye’s channel. Maybe it’s some kind of static interference, or—”
“Do you hear that?” Steve interrupted.
“Of course I—” Steve put a hand over his mouth to silence him, and muffled the speaker of the communicator with his other palm. There was a faint hum, similar to the repulsor engine on the Quinjet, coming from the same direction Steve had walked from.
“Get up.” Steve kicked sand over the fire to douse the flames, and then knocked apart the fire pit with his boot. It wasn’t going to fool anything during the daytime—or anyone with a light source, for that matter—but someone who wasn’t looking very closely may not see that they’d made camp here.
Tony agonized over what to do with the armor, before deciding he would have to leave it. It was probably in such disrepair that nothing would come from it, but he hated to leave it behind all the same.
Tony picked a tree a couple yards into the forest to hide behind, and Steve disappeared into the trees to his left. They didn’t have to wait long to see what had caused the noise. Not even a full minute had passed before the quiet hum had crescendoed to a full on roar.
Tony watched the craft approaching the ship’s wreckage from between the branches he was hiding behind. He could see Steve motioning for him to step back, but his interest in whatever these people were far outweighed his desire to follow orders.
There were two flat ships, closer to glorified hover boards than actual aircrafts. He couldn’t make out anything beyond the vague forms of the passengers, but the ships themselves cast little beams of light in every direction. The ships looked as though they were designed to carry cargo, and the ridges around the edges of the crafts only supported his theory. They were probably designed to lock together to carry larger loads.
Immediately, Tony knew that they had come for the ship, and he couldn’t stop the pang of regret at not having time to hide his armor better.
All at once the floodlights came on and the engine noises dropped to a soft whirr, casting even the fauna in the trees into startled silence. Tony flinched away from the bright light on instinct. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision enough that he could make out the passengers of the craft. When Tony looked back, he nearly shouted in surprise.
He’d been expecting something more… human. It made sense—after all, insects were the most resilient and therefore the most likely candidate for an alien species. Still, although the aliens before them resembled as much man as cockroach, Tony couldn’t help be feel unsettled by them.
Each insect had four eyes that glowed iridescent in the moonlight. Some had feelers, twitching left and right, and those that didn’t had thickly plated exoskeletons around the face and neck. Tony glanced over at Steve to gauge his reaction, but the Captain’s eyes were fixed firmly on the aliens.
The moment they set down the workers began to load the smaller pieces of scrap from the wreckage onto their gliders, clicking loudly and unconcerned to each other. The clicking was obviously their language, and Tony wasn’t going to think about why the same clicking might be coming through Hawkeye’s channel.
Instead, Tony watched their hands, so humanoid and yet so distinctly different, and wondered what they would do if they noticed they were being watched. He realized that he didn’t want to find out. They were intelligent, which may mean that they would be intelligent enough to deem Steve and himself as friendly, but was just as likely that they would be intelligent enough to attack them on sight.
Tony started to ease himself back into the trees. It was dark, and they were preoccupied, so as long as they didn’t make too much of a ruckus they should be able to slip away unnoticed into the forest.
A sudden string of clicks came through the communicator, and Tony lunged to turn it off. All five pairs of heads turned in their direction, their eyes shining metallic in the low light. Tony stood absolutely still, praying that they wouldn’t spot him in the shadows if they didn’t see movement.
A second of silence passed where Tony thought they might actually pass him over. A collective hiss rose from the five of them, and two dropped down on six legs to dart forward like cockroaches. One actually took to the air—they can fucking fly Jesus Christ—and Tony threw the hand with the gauntlet up without hesitation.
The repulsor hit one of them, pulling an agonized, inhuman shriek from the thing and it was knocked back. The other one didn’t stop—didn’t even hesitate—and Tony tried to turn the repulsor on it.
It hit him at the same time he hit it, wrapping a jagged hand around his bicep to hold him. Even with the repulsor on it, it still managed to pin him, didn’t even look hurt and Tony bit back a scream of frustration and caught the pincer-like mouth with his gauntleted hand.
It was heavy, and stronger than him. Tony could hear its friends clicking out of view, and the beat of their wings as they hovered over him.
Suddenly the weight was gone, shoved bodily off of him. Steve grabbed him around the shoulders, pulling him to his feet. He pushed him forward, further into the trees, and pried his shield out of the tree it had wedged itself into with his free hand.
Steve didn’t need to tell him twice. Tony was already running, trying to pick the best path. He headed immediately deeper into the trees, where the plants already grew much closer together. If he could slow their pursuit—maybe just slow the flyers—he and Steve might be able to slip away.
If nothing else, they could even the odds.
Tony could hear Steve behind him, following in his path. Steve could run though, much faster than Tony could, and he knew that he was just keeping pace with Tony and probably trying to keep the bugs off of him as well.
The clicking and the buzzing wings was just as loud as it had been before, however, and Tony knew there was no way he could outrun these things if he didn’t at least slow them down. Tony ran a few more steps before he stopped short, turning his repulsor on Steve, and as soon as the shield came up in reflex, he fired.
It was one of their oldest tricks, and even if Tony hadn’t warned him ahead of time, Steve got the hint. The beam cut through the air in an arc, knocking all three of the fliers out of the air in one swoop. Tony didn’t stop to see where they fell, because the bugs that were on foot were much farther back—Tony wasn’t sure they were even trying to pursue them anymore—and he wasn’t going to lose any time worrying about them.
He was back to running immediately, pressing through the trees deeper and deeper into the forest until even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate the canopy and he was doing more stumbling than running. Tony half-turned,slowing long enough to glance back behind him.
He couldn’t hear any buzzing. The only sound was Steve running after him, annoyingly agile in the darkness. If Tony didn’t know any better, he’d think that the serum had given Steve some kind of dark vision as well.
“Tony.” Steve caught his forearm and tugged. “They stopped following.” Steve was peering into the trees, poised and ready to fight, but though they stood there, Tony panting for breath and Steve annoyingly okay, nothing came.
“Oh, thank god.” Tony leaned back against one of the trees. The trunk was completely smooth and almost waxy to the touch—like a flower stem would be at home. It was dark maroon, although Tony wasn’t sure if that was the actual color or the lighting.
The trees had begun to grow thicker and thicker together, and while the enormous moon was enough to see by on the plain, its light couldn’t begin to penetrate the leaves above them. He glanced over to Steve, but even in the darkness Tony could tell that he looked just as on guard as before. “What’s wrong, Cap?”
“I don’t like it,” Steve said. “Why didn’t they want to follow us here?”
Tony shrugged. “Maybe we just lost them.” Steve shook his head.
“They’re faster, they’re stronger. They outnumber us. Half of them didn’t even try to pursue.” Steve sounded thoughtful, and Tony had to agree that it had been strange. “They had a reason for giving up, but we weren’t it.”
Tony tried to scan the forest around him, tried to see what Steve was looking for, but he was still out of breath and not getting it back as quickly as he would have on earth, and he just didn’t have the energy. The forest looked alien, for sure—whatever their plants had for pigmentation, it wasn’t chlorophyll—but there was nothing that immediately stuck out to Tony as danger.
Steve obviously didn’t see anything either, because he eventually tore his eyes away from the tree line. Tony watched Steve check him over, and the way that his gaze lingered on the scratches on his bicep where the thing had grabbed him. It had bled a little—tiny pinpricks of red on the tanned skin—but it was obviously superficial. Tony shrugged, and Steve eventually looked away.
“That was Hawkeye’s channel,” Tony said eventually, to fill the silence. Steve’s lack of answer was all he needed to confirm that Steve also was beginning to believe the worst.
“We should keep moving,” Steve said finally. “How big was this forest?”
Tony tried to remember how big it had seemed from the brief look he’d gotten. He sighed. “Big. I couldn’t say for sure.”
“Can we walk it?”
“Do we have a choice?” Tony countered. Steve didn’t respond, but he had to concede the point. Their best bet would be to start walking toward civilization. They had a month before Reed or anyone would arrive for backup, and that was too long to wait. They needed to find the other Avengers, now.
Jan kept her fists balled at her sides, gazed fixed forward and unwavering. She held her head high even as she averted her gaze—upon Ch’ari’s request—away from the Chief’s. Now was not the time to be meek. There was little light inside the mud structures other than what little amount could stream in through the square windows fixed high on the walls. It all seemed to focus toward the back of the room, where a lone figure quietly watched the soldiers stream inside. She was tall and lithe, with rusty brown scales that glittered with gray along the edges. Her posture spoke of regality, and she didn’t appear the least bit concerned by Jan’s entrance.
"Chief Ch’el," the woman on Jan's right said, bowing her head slightly. Jan glanced around to see the others doing the same, so she followed suit out of respect.
The chief arched a brow at the gesture, but she looked approving anyway, if not wary. Jan watched her warily, careful to avoid eye contact.
The chief cut a glance toward Ch’ari. “Interesting, that an intruder would get this far.”
“She is not an intruder—”
“Well she is not one of ours,” Ch’el said curtly. Ch’ari shrugged, looking as though she was biting her tongue to keep from arguing. The chief’s attention went back to Jan. "I have never seen a thing like you before. What are you?" Ch'el demanded.
"I'm human," Jan said. "I know that doesn't mean much to you, but I'm not your enemy here—which, okay, that probably doesn’t mean much to you either.”
Jan frowned. Ch’ari had said she’d have to prove herself as a warrior, but Jan didn’t really see how that was supposed to happen without her appearing as a threat to them. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have time for this.
“Look,” Jan said. “I'm sure you can tell I'm not from around here, and I can understand why you would be wary of me. And that's fine. But three of my friends were taken by those overgrown cockroaches out on the plains, and I don't even know where the other two are, and if you and your people can't help me help them, then I need to move on."
Ch'el regarded her calmly, gaze sliding over to the side where Ch'ari stood at attention. "Two of my scouts returned to me this morning and reported seeing three strange creatures captured by the Kytin. Your friends?" Jan nodded. "They fight well, I hear. Not well enough, but..." She trailed off, and Jan swallowed thickly. They had been asleep when they were taken, but if the scouts had seen them fighting then they must have woken up.
How strong must they be—or how many soldiers must they have—to manage to overwhelm three Avengers?
"I need to know where they were taken," Jan said. She bit her lip. "Chief, please."
The chief pursed her lips. "You are very forward," she stated. She didn't sound insulted, simply stating the fact, and so Jan squared her shoulders.
"It's important," Jan said.
"And if you did know, if we showed you, what could you possibly hope to do?"
"You'd be surprised," Jan said matter-of-factly.
"She looks unimpressive, but she has charms that let her grow and shrink again. And fly! She is much stronger than she looks," Ch'ari assured.
“I know that we do not need your help,” the Chief assured. “But that does not mean we could not use it, and I am not so prideful that I cannot admit to it. Make sure she is prepared for today’s outing.” She turned to Ch’ari now, her expression grave. “And do not make me regret the decision.”
The corridors were dark, with lone lamps hanging from the walls that shone dully through a layer of dust. At first, they had been led through the corridors of the metal tower, and the interior of the building had been strikingly similar to that of a spaceship. As they traveled further down, the polished walls abruptly gave away to packed dirt and stone. The walls here sparkled with traces of some metallic mineral, and they smelled faintly of sulfur.
The bug that had taken Clint’s bow—and Don only recognized it because it still had it tucked haphazardly under one arm—stepped forward with three rings clenched in one hand. At first Don didn’t know what to make of them, but then its companion took hold of one and reached for Clint, and he realized what it was.
Clint jerked back, bumping into the wall, and their escorts chattered angrily at him, guns bobbing up from their resting place at their sides.
“Oh, hell no, you’re not putting a collar on me,” Clint snapped. They didn’t understand him, of course.
“You’re going to get yourself shot,” Don warned. The two bugs glanced at Ms. Marvel and Don, then back to Clint. They snapped one around Ms. Marvel’s neck instead, probably because unconscious targets couldn’t punch them in the face, and Don quietly allowed them to do the same to him.
When they turned back to Clint, all of the guns came up again. The bug pointed at Don and chattered something. Clint glared, but didn’t flinch back when they came forward.
“I’m going to kill you first,” he promised the bug instead. “Put an arrow right through your stupid eye...eyes. Whatever.”
It snapped the collar around his neck and stepped back. They pointed toward the open doorway, motioning for them to step inside. The room was barely five feet by five feet, but the bugs didn’t seem in the mood for games. They tossed Ms. Marvel in first and Don limped in after, dropping down beside her. Clint stepped in after them, and the door slammed shut.
The power cut off on the handcuffs a moment later, and Don pulled his arms free. Each cuff individually stayed fastened to his wrists, but without any power running between them he was able to move freely. Don ran his fingers over the collar on his neck, grimacing, but it was so tight that he could barely get his fingers beneath it, let alone break it away. He turned his attention back to Ms. Marvel, first checking that her breathing was normal. Her pulse was strong under his fingers, and Don relaxed a little.
Clint paused a moment at the doorway, fingers tightening into a fist as he stared at the door, before he turned back around and dropped to his knees in the dirt.
“Ms. Marvel?” Clint gave her shoulder a gentle shake. “Time to wake up now, there are guards that need punching…”
“I think she’s okay,” Don said, ignoring Clint. He stood up, stepping away from her. “She’ll come to on her own.” As though to prove his point, she groaned and rolled onto her back.
“Ms. Marvel,” Clint said again, because if patience was a virtue it certainly wasn’t his. He shook her again for good measure. Her hand shot up to grab him tightly around the wrist. Clint tried to shake her off, and when she cracked an eye to see him kneeling beside her, she let him go.
“Fuck,” she said after a long pause.
“Pretty much,” Clint agreed.
“How do you feel?” Don asked.
“I’m fine,” she said shortly. Don hummed in acknowledgement, but he still moved to check her for concussion. She swatted his hand away, but he let it go, satisfied that she was telling the truth. “Where are we?”
Clint shrugged. “I’m assuming it’s a cell,” he said. “A very tiny cell.”
It was small. Don didn’t even think he could lay out on the floor without having to bend his legs. “Do you think they’re coming back?” Don asked.
“Probably. They had to have a reason for bringing us here.”
“Well I’m not too interested in finding out,” Carol said. “I’m getting us out of here.” She reeled back a fist and aimed a frightening punch at the wall. It made a loud bang on impact, but nothing else, the wall not even giving a little under the force of her fist. She frowned at it, a quiet “huh” escaping her lips as she moved to try again.
“That was your big plan? Punch the wall?” Clint said.
“My punch can shatter solid concrete, so yeah, that was the plan,” she said. She folded her arms in front of her defensively.
“Great,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s going to be much help.”
The floor jerked, and there was a creaking groan as suddenly they were moving. “It’s… an elevator,” Don said, and the three fell silent as they rattled slowly downward.
The elevator opened to a wide, cavernous room, and Clint blinked, allowing his eyes to adjust. The walls were lined here with lanterns as well, and there was a large screen protruding from the back wall. All throughout the room, clusters of a different kind of alien sat in small groups. Some were scaly and furless, and other had varying amounts of patchy hair covering their scales.
When the door opened a good few heads turned disinterestedly toward the noise, but the second they saw Clint, Ms. Marvel, and Don in the doorway, they froze. The room broke into confused chatter, all of them looking at the newcomers like they had two heads. To be fair, Clint was doing the same to them.
One of the groups nearest them jumped up, and when they came toward the elevator Ms. Marvel stepped threateningly forward. It said something unintelligible to them, and the only thing Clint could tell for certain was that the language was different than the bugs.
He couldn’t help but notice the sharp claws and teeth all of the reptilian aliens were sporting, either, and wondered vaguely if the bugs were somehow feeding their pets.
“What the hell?” Clint said.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Ms. Marvel said tightly. They didn’t look immediately threatening—only extremely curious—but she looked ready to counter if that changed. When a voice cut through the crowd, decidedly human sounding, Clint flinched in surprise.
“Step aside, step aside.” One of them pushed his way to the front of the group.
Don frowned, perplexed. “You speak English?”
He laughed, and the noise was enough to make Clint’s skin crawl. He glanced back to the rest of the room, eyes landing on the large, scarred alien directly behind him.
“They think I speak their stupid language,” he sneered, turning back to Don. “No, you idiot. Universal translator.” He motioned to his neck, where a second collar sat above the first. His collar was different than theirs, and a quick scan of the room confirmed that while there were some matching sets, there were many different styles and colors of collar. Theirs were very plain in comparison, pale gray and not at all ornate, and the translator noticed.
“Oh, you poor things,” he said. He didn’t sound very sorry, and Clint had the sudden urge to wipe the sneer off his face. By Ms. Marvel’s expression, she was thinking the same thing. “I can’t believe you let them catch you.” He looked them up and down, eyes lingering on their their clawless hands, Don’s leg. “Well, actually, I can.”
“Your collars. Your owners are just terrible. Bad bets. They can’t hold on to a fighter for more than half a match, and, actually I don’t think they’ve won once,” he said, and then thoughtfully. “I guess that explains why they’d pick such weird creatures.” A couple of people chuckled, and it spurred him on. “I mean, how do you fight? You’re all pink and squishy. Where are your claws?”
He reached out to grab Marvel’s hand, and Clint smacked his away—although more for the alien’s protection that Marvel’s, that was certain. Clint shot her a warning look, just in case, but he knew that she wouldn’t be rash enough to attack the only person they could get any information from.
The large one in the back said something, and he half-turned to listen.
“Sure thing, Boss. I’ll ask ‘em,” he said in response.
Ms. Marvel wasn’t interested in any questions. She grabbed Clint by the shoulder and started steering him toward the back of the room, where none of the other groups were gathered.
“Hey, hang on,” the translator shouted after them, but Carol ignored him. “I said hang on.” He jogged around in front of them, and Clint almost laughed at how offended he sounded.
“You can’t just ignore me,” he said.
“Is that right?” Ms. Marvel said. She sat down on one of the protruding rocks, and kicked her feet out, “And why is that?”
He chuckled, condescending, and Clint wondered for the second time what the rest of the room would do if he punched the stupid sucker in the throat.
“You’re new, so I’m going to let you off this time,” he said. “See that guy?” He pointed to his boss. “He’s the strongest there is. He’s going to take the championship title this month, no question, and he doesn’t like it when the rest of his team doesn’t get the proper respect.” He popped the “p” on the last word for emphasis, and then scowled when Carol snorted.
“We’re not telling you shit,” she said, “so beat it.” He gaped, but before he could say anything, Don cut in.
“Championship?” Don asked. The translator cut him a glance.
“Yeah, for the tournament,” he said. At their blank looks, he added, “They didn’t tell you about the tournament?”
“We can’t understand them,” Don said patiently.
“That’s what translators are—you know what?” He smirked at them. “You’ll figure it out. And hey, if you find yourself needing to know anything, well,” he splayed his fingers, “I’m sure we can arrange a little info-for-info exchange.”
Carol watched him walk away with a grimace on her face. She surprised them both, however, when without turning around she asked, “Don, where did you come from?”
Clint nodded, because that was a question that he’d been toying with himself. He couldn’t even begin to pretend that he understood what was happening, or how they’d ended up on a planet when they were supposed to still be in a ship in space. Had these bug’s managed to get onto their ship and take the pods while they were in stasis? Or had they crashed?
And in both of these cases, where were the others?
“I—am Thor,” he said. Clint stared at him, waiting for the punch line.
After a couple long moments, he said, “Bull shit.”
Don sighed. “Without my hammer, I revert to this form. I couldn’t find it when I woke up, but I know I had it with me in the pod.”
A memory struck Clint, and he groaned, “I don’t suppose your hammer turns into a,” he made a vague gesture with his hands, “stick? When it’s not a hammer?” Don nodded. “I saw it. It fell off the glider while we were fighting, so it’s somewhere out there on the plain.”
“That is what I feared,” Don said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you my alternate identity sooner.”
“It’s fine,” Ms. Marvel said. “I’m sorry you were outed. It’s not fair you didn’t get to make that choice, but if it helps at all,” she reached up, and pulled away her mask. “Colonel Carol Danvers.”
“Colonel?” Clint asked.
“Air force,” she replied. She wasn’t even looking at him, even though she’s just revealed her identity in some weird sense of solidarity. It occurred to him then, that she didn’t expect anything of him, and that more than anything was what had him pulling off his own mask.
“Clint Barton,” he said.
Carol smirked at him. “Nice to meet you, Clint.” Clint replaced his mask, and Carol followed suit.
“We need a plan,” Clint said lowly. “It would be best if we could all get out of here,” he glanced at Don. He didn’t think it would be very easy for the man to run. “But I don’t know if that’ll be possible. Our second best option would be for Carol to escape on her own, go find your hammer, and bring it back here.”
Carol regarded him seriously. “If I left you here,” she said, “would you be able to handle yourselves?”
Clint rolled his eyes. “I may not be able to punch through concrete, but I can handle myself just fine. Even with a civilian to protect.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Either way, I would prefer we escape together.”
“We may not have a choice. If we can get the rest of the prisoners to fight with us, it would be easier,” Clint said.
“Right,” Carol said. “But how do we get them to fight with us? They aren’t very cooperative—”
She cut off abruptly when the manacles on hers wrists beeped. The two pieces snapped together.
Carol scowled. “What the hell is this?” she shouted. The room instantly burst into excited jeering. The translator laughed from across the room, and pointed to the screen that had lit up. It had a picture of Carol on one side, and on the other, the Boss.
“Well,” Don said lowly, “that could work.”
The elevator slid open, and the Boss stepped inside. Carol stood to follow.
Clint grinned at her, hoping to convey his confidence in her as much as reassurance. “Don’t hit the poor guy too hard.” He saw her answering smirk, just before the doors closed in front of her. The room fell to an excited buzz, watching the screen eagerly. Clint wondered if it was always this way, or if it was the novelty of seeing their boss fight against one of the new captives. A few minutes later, the screen switched to a brightly-lit arena, and Clint realized that they had actually taken her to the top of their little ant hill.
All around the arena the grandstands were filled with bugs. Rows of them jeered from the bottom of the stands, placing bets. Clint balked at the sheer number. Even if only a fraction of these were soldiers, and that was likely true, the Avengers would have their work cut out for them.
If the Avengers were even still in the picture. For now, Clint was going to have to operate on the assumption that the rest of the Avengers were still asleep in their pods somewhere in space, completely unaware of his, Carol’s, and Thor’s absence.
“This isn’t gladiatorial combat,” Don said. “This is cock fighting,”
“Entertainment for the working class,” Clint agreed.
The screen panned out and Clint grinned. The walls around the arena were a good twenty feet high, with jagged spikes protruding from the top. That’d be pretty tough to escape from—if not for the fact that Carol could fly.
For what had to be the millionth time that night, Steve watched Tony stumble on a branch too similar in color to the even layer of decaying leaves for Tony to see in the darkness. If not for Steve’s quick reflexes and a hand to steady him, Tony probably would have taken a header into the dirt.
He jerked his arm out of Steve’s grip hard enough to nearly overbalance himself. Steve scoffed, but let Tony stomp his way over to a fallen log and drop down onto it.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere until I can see my hand in front of my face.”
“Come on, Tony,” Steve said. “The sun will be up soon.”
“That’s what you said half an hour ago,” Tony mumbled, and then louder, “which is all the more reason, to wait until the sun comes up.”
“We don’t even know if enough light will make it through the canopy to make a difference,” Steve said.
“I’ll take my chances,” Tony said. He leaned back against the fallen tree, the decaying wood compressing slightly under his weight, and closed his eyes. Steve sighed, exasperated, and Tony added, “You can feel free to keep going. I’m sick of falling on my face.”
Steve wanted to argue further, but just then he noticed the way Tony’s chest was heaving under the chest plate, quiet as he was managing to be, and the completely relaxed expression on Tony’s face. If he couldn’t see the slight crack to one eye as Tony watched him, he might have thought that he was asleep.
Steve didn’t need as much sleep as a normal person did, and he also hadn’t survived a crash landing in nothing but a suit of armor. Tony was probably more exhausted than he let on, and even more reluctant to let Steve know than usual.
Steve barely had enough time to pick a stump to sit on before Tony was pushing himself up again.
Steve huffed. “That was the shortest tantrum you’ve thrown yet—”
“Shh,” Tony interrupted, shoving a hand in his direction. Instantly Steve fell quiet, on high alert for any sign of the insects returning. Steve heard what it was Tony was listening for a second later, and he was immediately kicking himself for having missed it. “I hear running water,” Tony said.
“Me too.” Steve hopped up, quickly following Tony through the brush in the direction of the sound. It was even slower going when they couldn’t pick and choose their path for the least resistance, but eventually they broke out of the trees into a little clearing.
The area was still completely hooded by the canopy of the trees around it, but the existence of a stream and a tiny pond where water had welled up into the uneven ground was enough to keep the trees from growing too closely together. Crumbled pieces of moonlight reflected on the pond where it managed to break through the trees.
Tony made his way right over to the pond’s edge, kicking off his shoes beside him, and dropped down into the sand. “My kingdom for a slice of French toast.” He sighed, folding up the cuffs on his pant legs and pulling off his dress socks. “Or eggs and bacon—”
Something hard collided with the side of Tony’s head, and he swore. The fist-sized rock bounced into the sand, and Tony growled. Steve was staring at him when he looked over, and Tony whipped the rock back at him. It smacked solidly into Steve’s thigh.
“What the hell was that for?” Tony shouted, at the same time Steve scowled.
“What’s wrong with you?” Steve snapped.
“How old are you?” Tony accused. “Because last time I checked there are better ways to say you’re angry than throwing rocks.”
“Are you crazy? You’re the one who—” Another rock came flying at Tony from the trees, and the resounding clang as it bounced off the chest plate shut Steve up before he could begin his accusation. “What the hell?”
A burst of chatter from above was all the warning Steve got to pull his shield up, before three more rocks came sailing out of the canopy to bounce off the shield. Tony saw a flurry of movement in the trees, and grabbed one of the rocks out of the sand, hurling it upward.
It ripped harmlessly through the trees, and all at once the movement stopped. Countless sets of eyes peered back at him, glowing luminescent in the moonlight. For a beat there was utter silence, and Tony had just enough time to regret throwing anything before the chattering started up again.
Tony pulled his arms up to cover his head, but the collision never came. The next barrage of rocks clanged loudly but harmlessly off Steve’s shield as Tony scrambled to his feet.
“What the hell are those things?” Steve asked.
“Don’t know,” Tony said. “but they’re not very friendly.” Tony raised his gauntlet, the repulsor whining as it charged, and Steve pulled his shield back to clear a shot. The blue beam shot up into the treetops, sending a scattering of scorched leaves fluttering down. The creatures, somewhat resembling an Earth lemur, scattered shrieking into the trees.
Rocks rained down from the trees, the last few thump-thumps the only noises in the night. A couple splashed into the pond and, interestingly enough, bobbed on the surface for a few seconds before the current swept them up and drew them into the stream.
Not rocks then. “What are these things?” Tony grabbed one, turning it over for inspection. “Coconuts?” He shook it, and something inside sloshed around.
“Breakfast,” Steve said, picking one up for himself. He turned it over, looking for a way to break them open.
Tony hummed in agreement. It was no bacon and eggs, but it was better than nothing. He leaned over, smashing the nut against one of the rocks on the bank as hard as he could. The solid clack it made echoed through their clearing, but the nut’s shell didn’t so much as chip. Tony winced.
“Sorry for throwing one at you.”
“It’s fine,” Steve groused. He pulled out his shield, balancing it in one hand edge-up, and brought the nut down on the edge of it. It split clean in two, the green juice spilling into the sand. Steve handed the two halves over to Tony, and reached for another.
It smelled strongly of vanilla, and when Tony scraped some of the meat out to taste, he grimaced. It tasted like vanilla, too, which would have been pleasant if it hadn’t been so concentrated as to be bitter.
“I can’t believe you thought I was throwing rocks at you,” Steve said after a moment. He split another nut, setting it aside to form a pile. Tony rolled his eyes. He knew that it seemed ridiculous—Captain America hardly seemed the type of person to resort to petty playground behavior—but he’d let himself get caught up in the heat of the moment. It seemed a lot like Steve was angry at him for everything when Tony knew he was only angry at him for one thing.
One very big, very important thing, but one thing none the less.
It was easy to let his temper get the better of him when Steve was doing his best to make Tony feel like the villain. Instead of answering, Tony just sighed, pulling a couple more nuts from the pile, and turned his back to Steve.
Tony subtly brought a hand up to brush over the growing lump on the side of his head. A headache was already forming behind his temple, and each movement of his jaw sent a sharp pain behind his eye. Either Steve didn’t notice, or he decided to let Tony lick his wounds in peace, because no more nagging followed.
Once Steve finished splitting the last of the nuts that had fallen within reach, he gathered his own up in the shield and went to sit off a good ten feet away, at the point where the stream met the lake.
Tony ate the rest of his in sullen silence, dropping each empty shell into the stream. When he got to the last shell he used it to scoop some of the water up. He used his portable-armor to scan it, not that the scanner would be able to detect anything but the most blatant of harmful chemicals. The scan came up clear, so Tony drank a few cups before he dropped that one into the water too.
When he glanced over at Steve, he was staring at him.
“How’s your head?” he asked.
“Fine,” Tony said. He sighed, leaning back into the sand and closing his eyes. He lay like that for a long time, listening to the sound of the water running, and lending half an ear to the trees, just in case any of the lemurs came back for round two.
He thought, at one point, that he felt a gentle hand on the side of his head, combing lightly through his hair, but it just as likely could have been a dream.
He woke a few hours later, without any memory of having fallen asleep in the first place, to the sun in his eyes. The light through the trees was more than enough to see by. All of the leaves were vaguely translucent, a fact that he hadn’t been able to tell in the darkness but that was easy to see in the daylight. There was another little pile of nuts beside him, all cleanly split. Steve was nowhere in sight.
That fact sent a little spike of panic through him, which he quickly clamped down. Steve could take care of himself—better than Tony could, a little treacherous part of his mind thought—and he didn’t need Tony there to protect him. He ate quickly, keeping an eye on the surroundings.
The sound of branches snapping drew his attention to the trees. Tony tensed, because it could be Steve returning or it could be something big that had come looking for a meal or a drink of water. Eventually, Steve came into view, and Tony let himself relax.
“Morning,” Steve said, cheerily. “I was starting to wonder if you were planning on waking up today.”
“You could have woken me,” Tony said. Steve shrugged, dropping into the sand beside him. Tony steadfastly ignored the little thrill of satisfaction at the fact that Steve wasn’t picking the farthest possible seat from Tony this time. He thought better on commenting. “Where’d you go?” he asked instead.
“Just scouting ahead,” Steve nodded down the river. “I got bored waiting. Come on.” He nudged Tony’s shoulder. “Let’s get moving.”
Steve started off into the trees, knowing that Tony would follow shortly. He’d made his way nearly a mile down the river while Tony was sleeping, and hadn’t seen any indication that the forest was going to break. If anything, the trees had grown thicker and thicker as he walked, and the noises of the forest more and more pronounced, before he eventually decided that going any further without Tony was unwise.
He’d had a lot of time to think last night and into this morning, and very little to distract him from it. He’d very quickly come to the conclusion that continuing to be angry with Tony was not only unfair to Tony, but quite possibly harmful to both of them, especially in such a hostile place.
It didn’t mean that he was ready to forgive him just yet, but he wasn’t going to dwell on everything that made himself angry about the situation.
“Tony, I’m sorry,” Steve said.
Tony hummed. “It’s fine. I wasn’t waiting long.”
“No,” Steve said. “For yesterday.” Tony grew very quiet behind him, but Steve wouldn’t let himself be discouraged. “I think I did overreact, a little.”
“You had good reason,” Tony said.
“Yeah, I did,” Steve said sternly, leaving no room for interpretation. He may have overreacted, and let his own emotions get in the way of his meaning, but he did believe that Tony keeping his identity, and more importantly his heart condition, from the team had been a stupid risk and a liability that was easily avoided with the proper preparation and above all, trust, “but I’m still sorry for it. I think that we—”
When Tony leaned in to kiss him, the frustration and betrayal that had been sitting heavily in his stomach since he’d first seen Tony, chest plate still on and bent over the Iron Man helmet, flared up into a spike of irritation.
Before he could think better of it, he turned his head away, so that the kiss landed just below his ear. Tony looked stricken, and Steve immediately regretted the action, but not enough to cover the roiling emotions in his own heart.
“Tony,” he said, grasping for a way to explain.
“You said—” Tony looked confused, and more than a little frustrated.
“That’s not what I meant. Or what I was trying to say. I can’t… just...” He sighed.
“Can’t what?” Tony demanded.
“I still care about you,” he said, and Tony’s expression instantly fell, bracing for a blow, “but I can’t just pretend you haven’t been lying to me for years.”
“We’re heroes, Steve. Secret identities are in the job description,” Tony said. Steve saw the defensive line of his shoulders and the challenge in his eye. “I don’t see you angry at Hawkeye for keeping secrets.”
“I’m not in a relationship with—please don’t make this harder than it needs to be,” Steve said, “because I can’t argue this with you right now. I’m tired of rehashing the same accusations over and over, and we have more important things to be worrying about.”
“So, what? You’re not even going to try to talk about this?”
“I didn’t say that. I just need time,” Steve said. Something like realization dawned on Tony’s face.
“You’re breaking up with me,” Tony said. “Oh my god, that was a break up speech.”
“No,” Steve corrected him quickly. “I’m not breaking up with you, Tony. But before we do any talking I need to figure out how I feel about this, and where I stand with you—”
“You’re everything to me!” Tony snapped. Steve squeezed his eyes shut, and finished levelly.
“—or we’re going to spend the rest of our lives on the same argument, pointing fingers and wondering what went wrong. I don’t want that.”
“Tony,” Steve interrupted. “If you care about me at all, you’ll give me the time that I need.” He tried to inject as much finality into the statement as possible. It was a low blow, maybe, but that seemed to be all that Tony responded to when he’d made up his mind about something. In that way, at least, he was very much the same as Steve.
“I—” He sighed harshly, obviously trying to contain his temper. “Okay.”
“Tony, I want you to understand. When I saw you sitting there, I was terrified. I’d seen what the crash did to Iron Man’s—your armor… I found out my best friend and my partner are the same person, and I thought you might be hurt. Do—God, do you have any idea what it’s like to lose everyone you’ve ever cared about?”
“Because I do,” Steve finished. He looked stricken, and Tony wished to god that he could take him in his arms, but he knew that the gesture wasn’t welcome. Steve took a deep breath, steeling himself. “I can’t do that again.”
“You don’t have to, Steve,” Tony said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You can’t promise that,” Steve said.
“And you can’t stick me in a box in your bedroom, just to keep me safe,” Tony shot back. “That’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not,” Steve conceded.
“So…” Tony trailed off, unsure.
“So we’re going to be adults about this. You’re going to give me some time to think, and I’m going to try not to treat you any differently that I always have. And in the meantime, we’re going to find the rest of the Avengers.”
Tony sighed. Steve was right, of course. They shouldn’t be having this conversation, anyway, with the rest of the team unaccounted for, even if they couldn’t seem to avoid the subject for more than a few hours at a time. Steve was offering a pretty fair deal, and Tony would be selfish not to give Steve the time he was asking for, at least.
“Did you find anything, scouting ahead?” he asked finally, and Tony could see the relief in Steve’s expression that he was willing to concede the point for now.
“No…well, maybe,” he said. “I might have found a few game trails, but they were pretty overgrown. It could have been natural, or maybe there was running water at some point.”
“Well, it’s not a huge stretch to think that a forest this size could have something more than a few bugs and rock-flinging rats.”
“I know it was dark, but I’m pretty sure those weren’t rats,” Steve said, faintly amused.
“They were rats,” Tony said, a hand rising subconsciously to his temple. The knot there had shrunk considerably during the night, but if the tight expression of Steve’s face was any indication, it had probably bruised remarkably.
“Well, either way,” Steve conceded, “it got a lot darker, the further I went. At first I thought that it was just getting cloudy, or I’d lost track of time, but the trees grow a lot closer together the further you go, and it didn’t look like it was going to change any time soon. We’ve probably got another full day ahead of us, most likely longer.”
“That much, I already knew,” Tony said. “No way we’re getting through any faster than we’re moving now, and it’s a pretty big place.”
“I do think we should stick to the river, though,” Steve said. “The path is a little more navigable near the water. Even if we follow the river, the trail is really overgrown. It’s going to be a hell of a walk.”
Tony eyed it. “Maybe we should make a raft?”
Steve hadn’t even considered it, but that actually wasn’t a bad idea. It would take some time to construct, but a raft would probably save them more time in the long run than it would waste. It might be a little shallow now, but the water was more than fast enough and certainly wide enough. It only got deeper and wider further into the forest, from what Steve could tell.
“That, is a really good idea,” Steve said. Tony gave him a tentative smile, which widened into its usual cock-sure grin when Steve added: “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, without any tools.”
“I am positive that we can figure something out.” He reached out and flicked Steve’s shield with the gauntlet, “Especially with these.” Tony was scanning the area around them, and it was pretty obvious that the challenge had been accepted. Not that it was probably much of a challenge, for the guy whose idea of a relaxing night in was upgrading the Iron Man armor.
“We’ll need something to build the body of the raft from, something to lash it all together and, preferably, something to steer the thing once we have it.”
“I can bring down a few trees, in that’s what you need,” Steve said.
“Sure, and I’ll find something to tie the whole thing together.” Tony considered the trees around them—some much too tall and thick to be workable—and then nodded toward the smaller ones growing by the edge of the river. “Start with maybe… five? And we’ll go from there.”
“Sure,” Steve said. He wandered over to the trees growing by the bank, leaving Tony to his own search. They didn’t look particularly difficult to bring down, but they weren’t anything like the trees on earth, either. The closest similarity was size—and it pretty much ended there.
He dug a fingernail into the tree, and Steve was surprised to see how easily the nail cut through the tree’s skin.
The shield sank easily into the trunk with hardly any pressure applied to it. It wasn’t hollow like a flower stem, but the trunk reminded him more of a giant green stem than hardwood. Steve stepped off to the side and pulled back his shield, slamming it into the tree at an angle. It sank nearly all the way through before he pulled it back again to chop out a wedge.
The snap that the tree made when it came free of its stump was nearly identical to the sound of breaking fresh celery. There were still little threads of fiber attaching the trunk to the stump, but they easily snapped away when Steve reached out to tug at them.
“Awesome,” Tony said, startling Steve out of his focus. He already had an armful of vines as thick as his thumb or larger, and Steve’s single tree seemed lacking in comparison. Tony eyed the broken end with satisfaction, and then put his heel against the trunk.
“Help me roll this over to the river,” Tony said.
Steve couldn’t resist teasing, “I think it takes more than one to make a raft, Tony.”
True to form, Tony scoffed. “Yeah, but if the logs don’t float then the raft’s a bust. Just because Earth trees float doesn’t mean these will.” He pointed to the broken edge of the tree, even though Steve couldn’t see it from where he was standing. “I’ve got high hopes, since this thing doesn’t seem very dense, but I want to test it before we spend the rest of the day building a glorified anchor.”
Steve bent to grab an end, and Tony hesitated. “Actually, why don’t you cut it down to size first? It’ll be easier that way.”
Steve was fairly certain, as he and Tony carried the log over to the water’s edge, that it was going to float. Tony probably could have carried the thing himself. When the tossed it over the edge of the bank, the log bobbed underwater once, and then immediately to the surface and began to drift.
“Perfect,” Steve said, as Tony moved to reach after the log and drag it back to shore, “a couple more of these and—”
Tony yelped in surprise, and Steve stopped mid-sentence at the splash that followed seconds later. If the fact that he’d managed to slip on nothing and fall in hadn’t been enough to pull a startled laugh from Steve, the waterlogged glare on Tony’s face would have been.
“Ha, ha,” Tony grumbled, climbing out of the water. The log was already floating away downstream, and Tony didn’t look particularly interested in going after it. Steve’s smile wavered when he remembered the chest plate.
“Is—” Steve hesitated, because he’d been about to ask Tony whether it was safe to swim with the chest plate, but Tony seemed to get unreasonably defensive when Steve brought it up, and they’d just called a tentative truce.
Tony glanced his way, and must have seen the hesitation there, because he took the decision away from Steve. “Is the chest plate waterproof? Of course it is. You don’t need to worry about me, Steve.” He knocked on the center of the chest plate with his knuckles. “I’m probably safer than you are. All your squishy parts are easily accessible.”
He didn’t sound offended, and Steve had to wonder if his defensiveness had less to do with the chest plate and more to do with being treated like he was fragile.
“There’s nothing squishy about me,” Steve said, because a joke was probably safe ground. Tony wagged his eyebrows at him, and grabbed a stick off the ground. He pointed at a tree with it.
“Go chop your trees,” he said. Tony sat down by the water with it, and after a little deliberation, chose a rock to use in sharpening it to a point. Steve huffed, but did what he was told, picking another tree to knock down. They may be able to get as many as two or three logs out of some of the taller trees, and hopefully the logs would not only float but hold their weight as well.
They worked quietly for the rest of the day, and what conversation they did have wasn’t awkward so much as careful. Tony started lashing logs together as soon as Steve gave him two to work with, and after only a couple of hours of work it was apparent to Steve that they would finish before nightfall.
Steve had just knocked down the last of the logs they estimated they would need when he realized that the sounds of Tony working had stopped.
“Hey,” Tony said, the tone of his voice meaning that something had obviously caught his interest. Steve followed his gaze, to the bottom of the river. At first, he didn’t see anything at all, but eventually a hint of movement caught his eye, and Steve finally saw the tiny fish swimming through the rocks. It was too small to be worth anything to them, if not for the fact that it was the first sign of life Steve had seen in the river yet.
As though sensing that it was being watched, the little fish darted out of its hiding place among the rocks. It disappeared a few feet away in one of the blobs of dead leaves and mud that had collected in clumps along the edge of the river.
Tony waded over to the edge and grabbed the bunch of weeds. Almost immediately there was an explosion of movement as what looked like an entire colony of fish burst out of the shade and darted in every direction. Tony yelped in surprise, and stumbled back into the water. Tony splashing around sent whatever stragglers there were darting off to new hiding places, but but Steve was already hatching a plan.
“Well,” Tony coughed, “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Steve offered a hand, and Tony took it. Even dripping wet Tony was a breeze to tug up onto shore, and he immediately pulled his sopping shirt off and rung out into the dirt. “Hungry?” Steve asked, already grabbing one of the sharpened sticks Tony had been using to punch holes into his leads of vine.
“Sure, if you think you can catch any,” Tony said. He shook out his shirt, and then after a short deliberation pulled it back over his head. Steve laughed.
“Tony, if you can build a raft, I’m positive that I can catch a fish.”
“Well, you’re gonna need more than one,” Tony said cheekily, but if the way he was tossing scraps of logs together into a fire pit was any indication, he didn’t doubt Steve’s ability.
“Why don’t you take a break on that and get a fire going?” Steve offered. “It’s about time to eat anyway.”
“Sure,” Tony said, sidestepping their near-complete raft. He grabbed a few of the scraps of plant material that was already lying on the ground. It wasn’t anything like wood, and it probably wouldn’t burn the same, but it was dry enough that it probably wouldn’t smoke too badly. They hadn’t had much trouble with their last fire, in any case.
By the time Tony had a tiny flame going, Steve was already waving a speared fish at him. “Told you I could catch one,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it’s still only one,” Tony teased. He accepted the stick from Steve, and set to messily gutting the fish. Steve had caught three more by the time Tony finished cleaning the first. He wrapped it in a few leaves from the tree Steve had cut down, and buried it under the coals.
“You’ve done this before?” Steve asked.
“I was a Boyscout, for all of two months,” he said.
“Why’d you quit?” Steve asked.
“Dad said it was a waste of time,” Tony said plainly. He buried two more fish beside the first, and Steve did the same. He glanced up. “Oh, don’t give me that look, Rogers. It’s not like I was deprived. ”
“I guess not,” Steve said, a little surprised that Tony had known what he was thinking. He pushed himself up, brushing the dirt off his knees from where he was kneeling. “Come on, the fire’s not very hot—I bet we can finish this raft before they’re done cooking.”
It wasn’t difficult to lash the remaining logs together with Steve there to lift and hold in all the right moments. They’d barely been working ten minutes before Tony had it wound together enough that it was worth a test run.
“Hang on,” Steve said. He trotted over to the fire, brushing the coals back with a stick.
“How are they?” Tony asked. Steve poked at the nearest one, and then covered it back up.
“Still a little raw,” he said.
“Then let’s put this thing in the water!” Tony called. “It’s gonna float like a dream, I can feel it.”
Steve helped him drag it over to the bank. He couldn’t help but be pleased when they pushed it into the water and it didn’t sink an inch. Even when Tony climbed on, with Steve holding the raft steady for him, it didn’t dip beneath the surface.
Tony whooped, extending to full height, and then wobbled. The raft didn’t tip, though, even when Tony inched closer to the edge and bounced up and down.
“See? That’s a quality raft.”
“Don’t lose it down the river this time,” Steve said. Tony scoffed, wobbling a little bit in his attempt to look offended.
“Don’t let my dinner burn,” he shot back, but he was grinning like a maniac, and despite everything, Steve couldn’t control the like skip his heart made at the sight.
They set out early the next morning—early enough, in fact, that Tony insisted it was still night time. He grumbled about it for what felt like hours before the sun came up, even though Steve was technically doing all the work in steering.
When they passed by a log with a sheer cut along one edge, Tony was sure to kick it as they passed.
The raft had been a great idea. It was a lot less work than walking, and they were moving much faster than they had been moving on foot. They took turns steering as the day wore on. Sometime in the afternoon the forest along either bank went from difficult to entirely unnavigable, resolving into steep banks that persisted for hours before sloping down into something a little more passable just as night began to fall. With the path they had been taking, they would have walked right into it, and been forced to detour up over the ridge to get around it. Steve took note of the spot—the raft wasn’t going to take them upstream, if they needed to go back. They’d need to remember the way.
Tony spotted the flickering before even Steve did, easier to pick out now that dusk was setting in. The light was coming from somewhere off in the forest, almost completely blocked by the trees. He wedged his pole into the riverbed, arresting their progress completely, and only then did Steve see what had caught his attention.
“Campfire?” Tony whispered, quiet enough that only Steve would be able to hear. Steve wasn’t sure about that, but it was certainly worth checking out. He urged the raft closer to the bank, and once he was within reach he stepped off and pulled them up onto it.
Tony veered off, following the faint orange glow through the leaves silently, both of them wary to believe that it was a campfire set by the fellow Avengers, but neither willing to drop the idea completely.
The buzzing caught his attention before anything else, and it was enough to give him pause. Because buzzing and bugs weren’t that much of a stretch, but… it didn’t sound anything like the bugs’ wings beating—for one thing, it was much too quiet.
Tony peered around the trees, trying to catch a glimpse of what was causing the strange light. For a moment he thought his eyes were tricking him—light from a fire playing off the trees, or something else entirely—because it looked a lot like the tree itself was glowing.
He stepped out into the open, fairly convinced that the caution was unnecessary, and—
“Wow,” Steve said behind him. “It’s beautiful.”
Tony came up on the tree slowly. It was beautiful, resembling an Earth willow tree. Every bit of the trunk and leaves all phosphoresced in bright orange and pink. There were strange little insects darting in and out of the leaves. Their abdomens glowed like fireflies, but their bodies more resembling that of a hornet.
Tony felt the hot sharp pain on his neck, and brought his hand up in time to swat away one of the insects. It buzzed angrily at him and a few of its friends joined in to hover menacingly in front of his face. As soon as Tony retreated a few steps, they returned to the tree.
“Don’t get too close,” Tony advised, rubbing a thumb over the angry mark. Steve nodded, already making a wide perimeter around the outer edge of the tree. This much light in the middle of the night must attract more than insects, and that was what worried Steve. There was a ring of vase-like plants, covered in vines, that circled the tree, and they grew close enough together that Steve wouldn’t be able to see anything that may be lurking just behind them. These plants didn’t luminesce themselves, but each vine was covered in a thin reflective layer of wax that shimmered from the light of the tree and insects.
“It looks like the tree uses luminescence to attract those bugs for pollination,” Tony said. He pointed to the plants that formed a makeshift hedge around the tree, “and these look like they mimic the willow. This is amazing. Hank’s going to be pissed if we don’t bring him a few samples.”
“We’re not bringing anything alien back to Earth with us,” Steve said. Tony wanted to argue. He knew the kind of repercussions an invasive species from another planet could have if anything they brought back managed to be introduced into the environment, but it didn’t make him want to leave this behind without so much as a sample to study, either. Maybe if—when—Reed got here, they would be able to at least take some photos and basic readings.
“What I’m more worried about is what else might be attracted to this light,” Steve said.
Tony snorted. “Yeah, or what might be eating what it attracts—Cap!”
Steve instinctively ducked at the warning shout, but it wasn’t enough to keep the vines that were coiling toward him from wrapping around his leg and winding up the ankle.
It yanked, hard, and Steve felt his legs come out from under him. Instinctively, he put a hand out to break his fall, and another vine wound up from the ground. Steve cursed when he felt the thing dragging him further toward the plant.
Tony aimed his repulsor for the base of the vine around his ankle. The plant singed and curled under the heat, releasing their hold, and, apparently, setting their sights on the source of the heat.
Steve swung his shield, slicing through the vine around his other arm, but already new ones were coming to take their place.
All at once he was lifted off the ground, dangling precariously with a mesh of vines coiled around his knees. The vase opened its lid, revealing a gaping maw filled with sappy fluid.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve cursed, and twisted to throw his shield at the plant’s lid. It was intercepted before it could even make contact, a vine winding around and around it. Steve gripped the vine around his legs, trying to yank them free.
“Tony,” he shouted.
“Li-ttle busy,” Tony grit out somewhere behind him. “Fuck, what is wrong with this forest?”
Steve cursed again, yanking harder, and it came a little loose, but not enough. Not even close—
He held his breath.
Tony glanced up at the splash, disoriented, because there shouldn’t have been any water to—
“Oh, shit,” he cursed. The plant took advantage of his distraction to wind an arm around his waist, trying to pull him toward the vase as well. Tony turned the repulsor on it, slicing an arc through the plant arm and all the vines surrounding it until they jerked back.
He landed, hard, on the ground, and quickly rolled to a crouching position. Tony hesitated, repulsor raised and ready to fire. There was no way he could hit this thing without running the risk of hitting Steve, too, and that wasn’t a risk that Tony was willing to take. Instead, he stooped to grab the shield Steve had dropped, wrenching it out of the plant’s grip, and swung it as hard as he could against one of the arms.
The edge sliced through the plant matter easier than Tony had been expecting, though not quite as cleanly as when Steve had been swinging it earlier, and the plant jerked. Although not apparently in pain, it was interested, and the distraction was enough for Tony to pull the shield out and back again. He dodged forward into the mess of vines, this time swinging directly at the large vase edge.
The plant split in the middle, clear liquid oozing out the split, and moment later a fist appeared through the crack. Steve grabbed both edges of the plant and pulled, tearing the hole wide. As soon as he was in sight and out of the line of fire, Tony raised the gauntleted hand and seared a hole in the remaining exposed plant. It stretched and burst, splattering sap all over the ground around them, and the plant recoiled and withered. The plants beside it quivered from the residual heat, but it was apparently not enough to attract their attention.
Tony tossed the shield aside and grabbed Steve, tugging him out of reach of any of the other plants. He pressed Steve back, one hand tight on his shoulder. Tony made a little noise as he was tugged forward instead, and then their lips came crashing together, fists tight in each other’s hair.
Eventually, they had to break for air, and Steve pushed him back to stand at arm’s length, body turned slightly away. Tony felt a pang of guilt, at having taken advantage of the moment, but more than that, a sharp, unpleasant hurt at being so obviously rejected. Steve had been the one to grab him, push their lips together, and he wouldn’t have even considered initiating the kiss if Steve hadn’t first (wouldn’t he?).
This was quite possibly the worst few days he’d ever had, the absurdity of it pushing him to the edge of his sanity, and a sharp, almost hysteric laugh bubbled up from his chest. Well, when in doubt, pretend that nothing is wrong—that was his motto.
“You were...by a plant,” Tony broke into little giggles, unable to help himself, and started over: “You know, Steve, if I had asked anyone which one of us was most likely to get eaten by the giant plant—”
Steve gasped sharply, and Tony’s laugh died on his lips.
“What’s wrong?” Tony asked. Steve had a hand over his eyes, his mouth pinched in a thin line.
“Stings,” Steve grit out, and now that he’d mentioned it, Tony’s lips were starting to tingle, just this side of burning. Tony grabbed Steve shoulder and tried to steer him to face him. Tony had barely laid his hand on Steve’s shoulder—still vaguely sticky from the plant residue—before it started to itch and burn.
“God damn it,” Tony said. He wrapped an arm around Steve’s back, steering him toward the willow and the stream behind it. “Walk with me, Steve. Keep your eyes closed.”
“And your mouth,” Tony ordered. He was half leading, half dragging Steve toward the stream, and the insects around the tree were less that excited about their proximity or their haste. They left them alone, though, probably because they were leaving the area as quickly as they approached.
When they reached the river Tony grabbed the back of Steve’s neck, even though the tingling on his hands was quickly turning to a stinging pain, and urged him down.
“I’m going to put you under. Hold your breath, and blink your eyes,” he said, just before he pushed him under. Tony passed a hand through Steve’s hair and over the exposed skin of his neck. The cool water was already soothing the sting on Tony’s hands, and the residue from the plants sloughed off easily in the water in little strings of sticky residue. He passed a cool hand over his lips, and the tingling ceased immediately. Tony had wiped most of the residue away before Steve finally came up for air.
Steve swiped a thumb over his eyelids. His eyes were angry red and bloodshot, and Tony instantly worried that they’d been damaged. Steve must have noticed his concern, because he paused in pulling his uniform shirt off.
“I’m fine, Tony. Thanks,” he said.
Tony frowned, “You don’t look fine.” It was true. His skin was blotchy and red where they hadn’t been protected by the uniform. The uniform itself seemed to have done a good job of protecting the skin beneath it, barring a few patched around the edges of the sleeve and neck.
When Steve pulled off his shirt completely and tossed it onto the shore, Tony caught his hand.
“I can do it,” Steve insisted. Tony quickly peeled the glove off, and then forced the other one into the water with his fingertips. Both hands were a bright, angry red and although Steve grimaced in pain when he flexed his fingers, the burns didn’t appear serious.
All that was left of Steve’s uniform was the pants, and Tony thought it was probably prudent to leave that to Steve, no matter how very much he would like to divest the captain of his pants. As it turned out Steve—ever the pragmatist—didn’t need the suggestion. He shucked the pants like he did the rest of the uniform, wrestling with the wet leather for a moment before tossing it up on shore with the rest, and Tony’s brain immediately stuttered to a halt when he realized that Steve wasn’t wearing anything underneath.
“So many jokes,” Tony said, when he’d recovered. Steve rolled his eyes.
“And you’re not going to make a single one of them,” Steve said seriously. Tony grinned, but complied, stooping to grab one of the gloves. He stopped to peel off his sopping shoes and socks and, after a moment of deliberation, his pants as well. He laid out all three of them to dry.
Steve was raising an eyebrow at him, but Tony just shrugged. “Solidarity, and all that,” he said. Steve sighed, grabbing the uniform pants, and went to find his own rock to sit on.
Tony sat down on a rock at the water’s edge, and set to rinsing the glove off as thoroughly as he could. Which was very, very thorough, when he was busy focusing as much of his attention on the task on hand as possible in an attempt to ignore Steve, sitting a few feet away and doing the same.
Tony had seen Steve naked before—always Avengers-related, unfortunately, and very rarely as Tony Stark—but it didn’t get any less distracting with experience. He tried to focus on the task at hand. He tried to count the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. He even tried to work his way through a particularly difficult engineering problem he’d been toying with his last few months on Earth.
Still, his mind always wandered back to more interesting topics, and it was only a matter of time before other parts of his anatomy became interested as well. Tony instantly regretted his little idea of solidarity, but he didn’t think it was that noticeable, and Steve probably wasn’t looking anyway. At least he had underwear.
Tony cleared his throat, holding out the glove. “Here’s your—”
Steve was smirking at him, obviously barely containing a laugh. Tony scoffed, and threw the glove at him.
“Shut up,” he said. Steve caught the glove easily.
“I didn’t say anything,” Steve assured. He stood up to pull the uniform pants on, despite the fact that they were still soaked through, and Tony had to drag his eyes away.
“You still got eaten by a plant,” Tony reminded him petulantly.
When Carol stepped out of the elevator and into the arena, she nearly laughed out loud. There was no ceiling. She couldn’t suppress the grin that took over her expression, and her opponent noticed immediately.
He snarled something at her, although she didn’t even pretend to understand him. It was probably something about wiping the smile off her face—possibly a threat as well—because that was what Carol would have done in his situation. Then again, she didn’t really care, because she wasn’t even going to bother fighting this guy.
When the bell struck and the power cut off on her handcuffs, Carol leapt into the air. The crowd cheered, even as she climbed higher toward freedom. She could hear the point where they audience realized she wouldn’t be stopping, the shift in their cheers from excited to confused to something else.
It was a moment too late, that she realized they were laughing at her.
She felt the charge a moment before she hit it. The dome shimmered and crackled with energy, tearing through her. It felt like fire, like dying. It felt like gaining her powers all over again, and she tried to bring her arms up, to block the pain.
It might have worked, or she might have lost consciousness, but when she woke up again, she was lying in the sand. There was a buzzing roar in her head, a pounding headache behind her eyes, and it took her a long moment to realize that the roar was actually the jeers from the audience.
Above that, she heard the solid thud of approaching footsteps. She tried to focus—to remember how to move her arms, and why she would want to do that when she could barely breathe without aching. A hand closed on her ankle, claws digging into the flesh and rolling her over, and her heart leapt.
All at once, she remembered where she was, and what was about to happen.
Her eyes snapped open and landed on the startled face of her opponent, his hand already raised to deal the death blow. She snarled and drew her leg back, striking him in the chin with all of her might. At this distance, and without any chance to prepare himself, the hit landed solidly where she’d intended to place it.
He staggered back, but didn’t go down like Carol had intended him to. She rolled to her feet, only swaying slightly. He snarled, spitting black blood into the sand, and Carol didn’t give him a chance to regain his footing. She charged forward, ducking low and using her speed to her advantage. He was big, and he had claws, but that was all he had going for him.
She struck again, aiming for the stomach because she didn’t know the alien’s anatomy well enough to try for anything more strategic, and he staggered again. The tail that whipped around caught her by surprise, but she hadn’t flown more than a few feet back before she’d gathered herself. This time, when Carol aimed for another well placed kick, she knew exactly where to put it.
He may have seen it coming, may have even expected her to do it, but when Carol’s solid round-house kick collided with his head, in the exact spot she’d hit him at the beginning of the fight, he went down with an immediate and solid thump, and he did not try to get up again.
For a single, stunned second, the only sound in the arena was her own harsh breathing. Then, the two bugs at the top of the gate—the ones who had caught them in the first place, she didn’t doubt—started a cheer that swept over the entirety of the stadium.
Carol growled, the noise lost in the cacophony of cheers. That had been too close, and all because she’d been too stupid to realize that they had some kind of field surrounding the arena, to prevent the fighters from escaping. Now that she was looking for them, she could see the orbs placed every ten feet around the ring. Her muscles still burned from the energy.
The crowd kept on screaming.
“This is the worst vacation ever,” Tony said. “When we get home, I’m taking you to Monaco.”
As soon as it left his mouth, Tony was getting ready to kick himself. Space—Steve had said he’d needed space, not Tony presuming that they would be all patched up and on good terms by the time they returned to Earth. Something twisted uncomfortably in Tony’s stomach at Steve’s silence, but although Tony was waiting for him to say something—to deny it, to get angry—he never did.
He didn’t say anything at all, and a small, contrary part of Tony’s brain couldn’t help but think that was worse.
“Steve—” Tony began, but before he could say anything further, Steve shushed him with a hand.
“Tony,” Steve whispered. When Tony glanced over, he was staring off into the trees above them, and for a second Tony wondered if those stupid lemurs had returned for round two. Steve looked tense though, subtly reaching over for his shield, and Tony couldn’t imagine that being the cause.
At first, he didn’t see anything at all. Tony was just beginning to wonder whether Steve had hit his head during their last skirmish when a flicker of movement caught his attention. He stared at the place he’d seen it, trying to discern the cause.
And then he saw it. The curve of a hand, a tail, all perfectly camouflaged against the wood of the trees. If not for the creature’s breathing, Tony never would have seen it at all. This was much larger than a lemur—just shy of a full grown human’s size.
It made a noise that sounded remarkably like—
“Did it—did you just speak?” Tony asked. It jumped, eyes going comically wide, and leapt from the tree. It bared its teeth at them, and Steve immediately stepped between him and Tony, drawing the shield up in front of him. Tony hadn’t missed the sharp, razor-like teeth or claws, or the way the spines on its head ridge stood just a little taller, but he didn’t get the impression that it was threatening them. It almost looked like...
“Steve, I think he’s smiling,” Tony said. Was this a sentient creature? He—and Tony was only assuming, he didn’t actually know—was without tools or clothes, but different didn’t necessarily mean unintelligent.
“That doesn’t look like a smile to me,” Steve said. Tony stepped up to Steve, putting a hand on his shoulder to keep him in place.
“Can you understand us?” Tony asked. He didn’t think it could—as far as he knew, no humans had ever been to this planet before, so it didn’t seem likely that it would understand English, but stranger things had happened.
It said something again, bounced once, and clambered back up the tree it had jumped from. Its claws dug deep into the tree’s trunk, leaving weeping puncture holes in its wake. A second later, a large bag dropped out of the trees into the dirt in front of them. He dropped down after it and began pulling things from the pack. Tony saw a few of the nuts they’d eaten earlier, as well as a number of random items he couldn’t fathom the purpose of. There was, also, a bouquet of flowers, which he set carefully aside.
“What do you think he’s doing?” Tony asked. Steve eyed him for a moment. He seemed, at least, to be relaxing slightly.
“Let’s find out,” Steve said. When its hands closed on a set of rings, it hesitated, glancing warily—and almost pointedly, Tony thought—at Steve’s shield. The second Steve lowered the shield, he stepped forward.
He snapped the first ring around his own neck, and then bounded up to Tony, arm outstretched. It grinned, and Tony saw Steve bring the shield up when it bared its teeth at them, although Tony was almost certain it was only smiling.
He stopped short, the rings falling from his hands when he flinched at Steve’s movement.
“No, no, don’t hit me!” He threw his hand up in front of his face, but it wasn’t necessary. Steve stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh my god,” Tony said, at the same time he said, “I was only trying to give you a translator.”
He cracked an eye when no blow came, and then warily bent down to grab the rings. He brushed them off, and offered them again, although Tony noticed that his time he didn’t try to step forward again.
“You have—give me that,” Tony grabbed the ring, running his fingers over it. The ring was smooth steel, an inch thick all around except for a single place in the center, where Tony assumed the interesting bits were kept. It looked like a giant wrist watch, and he immediately tried to get his fingernails between the parts to get a look inside.
“You’ll break it,” he warned, and made a little pained noise when Tony pulled the backing off, “Uh, that’s not mine, please don’t.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“I’m—I’m not a kid,” he said, pushing his shoulders back and extending to full height. Tony raised an eyebrow, but didn’t turn away from the translator. The inside was completely foreign to him, and all it did was make him want to strip the entire thing apart and try to reconstruct it. Instead, he snapped the cover back into place.
Tony snapped the translator around his neck. “How do I look?” he asked, turning to Steve. Steve frowned, but didn’t answer, and Tony didn’t really expect him to. Instead, he turned back to the alien, and insisted, “Name?”
“Captain America,” he said, pointing to Steve, and then himself, “Iron Man. But Steve and Tony are fine. I’m assuming there are more of you?”
Rork nodded. “Are—are there more of you?”
Steve grimaced. “I was hoping you already knew the answer to that.”
“There are six of us,” Tony said.
“What are you?” Rork asked, edging closer. He poked Tony’s forearm, mindful of his claws, and made an interested noise when the skin depressed under his finger. His body gave off no heat at the contact.
What Tony had originally taken for fine fur actually appeared to be a thin layer of red moss, most likely for camouflage, growing over scaled skin. He’d originally thought mammal, but reptile was looking more and more likely.
Tony held very still as he reached out and grabbed a lock of Tony’s hair between two talons. He tugged gently on the strand, twisting it between two fingers, and made a curious noise. When he grabbed onto Tony’s shirtsleeve and it came away from his skin a few inches before catching on the chest plate, he hummed again.
“What are these?”
“Clothes. They’re for protection.”
“Do you wear them because you are squishy?” Rork asked.
Tony chuckled. “Sometimes. Usually it’s so we don’t get cold, and also to cover ourselves. On our planet, only we only let people we have intimate relationships with see us without them. “
“Listen, Rork,” Steve said. “We’re looking for our friends. Have you not seen anyone else that looks similar to us?”
Rork shook his head. “If something as strange as you had been spotted, I certainly would have heard,” he said, without intent to offend. “You think that they are in the forest?”
“No… well, we don’t know,” Tony said. “We were separated when our ship broke apart.”
“Ship. So you are also from the sky,” Rork said. “Like the Kytin.”
“The Kytin?” Steve asked. “The bugs?” Rork nodded.
“We’re from another planet,” Tony said. Rork cocked his head at him, obviously not understanding. Tony sighed. “Yeah, we’re from the sky. And we’d like to get back, only our ship is ruined and I don’t know where any of our friends ended up. We didn’t find them on the plains, so the next place to look would be here.”
Rork immediately looked alarmed, “You were on the plains? And the Kytin did not capture you?”
“They tried,” Tony said. “We got away.”
“It is… possible that your friends did not,” Rork said, not unkindly.
“They’re strong. I’m sure they’re fine,” Tony said. “When I was landing… well, crashing the ship, I saw a city just past the forest. Is that where you’re from?”
“No,” Rork said. “That belongs to the Kytin. I was young when they arrived at our home, and drove my people into the forest. I cannot tell you much about them. I do not know.”
“Why would the Kytin want to capture us? Or our friends?” Steve asked.
Rork coked his head. “No one knows for sure why they capture anyone, but they haven’t always been this way.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asked. If they hadn’t always been hostile, something must have changed.
“Well, mother says that when the bugs first came from the sky they didn’t want anything to do with any of us. The only reason my people had to flee to the forest was because there wasn’t enough food, they never made contact, but they never harmed anyone, either. For five years it was that way.”
“And what changed?”
Rork shrugged. “I guess they ran out of food, because about a year ago people started disappearing. Whole hunting parties, children, and then one day one of the elders saw the Kytin carrying one of our warriors away. They’d been hunting us.” He dropped his voice, as though speaking of them too loudly would summon the creatures themselves. “I hear that they bring their prisoners back to feed to their young.”
“That’s… unsettling,” Tony said. He shared a look with Steve, silently asking his opinion. Of course, if there was any truth behind that rumor, and if there was even the slightest chance that one of the fellow Avengers had be captured, they would have to go after them.
All of the Avengers were more than capable of defending themselves, but they couldn’t risk leaving a fellow Avenger to their death. That, coupled with the fact that the bugs had probably finished taking the scraps of their ship away, meant that their best chance of finding their friends and escaping this planet was to find the city Tony had seen.
“Can you take us to the city?” Steve asked. When Rork hesitated, Steve added, “If you’re right, and they do have our friends, we have to go after them.”
“No one that is captured ever comes back,” Rork said, but the way he said it, hesitant, like he was holding something back, gave Steve pause. A glance at Tony confirmed that he had heard it as well.
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience, Son,” Steve said. “I’m not asking you to put yourself in any danger. Just pointing us in the right direction would be enough.”
“If you help us, maybe we can help you,” Tony added, after seeing the Rork was considering their request.
“Our warriors are already planning to raid the city,” Rork admitted. He eyed them up and down. “I’m not sure that you would be much help. Not to offend, but you have no claws or teeth and also you are very squishy. The Kytin would tear you apart.”
Tony looked ready to protest that, but Rork continued before he had the chance. “But I can bring you to my home. If your friends have been captured by the Kytin like you fear, the Chief will likely have already heard. I believe it would be very difficult for our scouts to have missed something as… unexpected as your friends. My village is not out of the way, if you choose to continue to the city. I wouldn’t stop you.”
“We might be more help that you think,” Steve said, “but we’ll take you up on that.” The chance to know for certain whether or not they would find the rest of the Avengers in the Kytin’s city, before they burst in without a plan, would not be something they could afford to pass up.
Rork looked skeptical, but politely didn’t comment.
“It’s not very far,” he said instead. He motioned for them to follow, and then only after making absolutely certain that they were following before he started to lead.
“Stay very close,” he advised. “The forest is very dangerous.”
“We can handle ourselves,” Tony said.
“You may believe that is true,” Rork said, “But even if it were, there is a reason the Kytin fear the forest. And even if there was not, our city is very difficult to find even for those of us that have lived there our entire lives. Before we were forced into the forest, my people lived in the open in the mountains. Our people created many charms to hide us from the predators that hunted through the mountains. When we moved, they brought their charms with them.”
“Charms?” Steve asked.
“Magic,” Tony muttered, making no attempt at hiding his distaste.
“No, not magic,” Rork said. He shook his head furiously, trying to grasp for a better explanation. “It is—there are many orbs that surround the village, and when they are together, they make a barrier and the village hides. No magic.”
“Not magic,” Steve said. “So technology? Like a force field?”
“Yes!” Rork said, “But the barrier only hides. It does not keep anything out.”
“That’s something I would like to see,” Tony said.
“Yes, it works very well,” Rork said. “This way.” He veered off abruptly to the right, and when Tony glanced ahead to see why their course had changed, he saw another line of the vase-like plants they’d encountered before.
Rork caught him looking, and shook his head. “The Dionea are beautiful, but do not get too close. They will—”
“Try to eat you. Yeah, we know,” Tony said, shooting Steve a teasing look.
“Oh! You have these on your… planet,” Rork said.
“No,” Tony said, “we just ran into one on our way here.”
“And you escaped?” Rork asked, incredulous.
“We’re not as helpless as you think,” Steve said, at the same time Tony said, “I did most of the hard work.”
“Tell this to our chief, when you meet her. It may help to convince her of your usefulness,” Rork said.
“Oh, good. We do want to be useful,” Tony said. His voice was laced with sarcasm which, judging by Rork’s enthusiastic nod, was beyond the translator’s capabilities to convey.
“Over here,” Rork said. He dropped down onto all fours to run forward and leap onto the nearest tree. He climbed easily up the trunk, and after another couple of feet, the air rippled like a mirage, and Rork vanished.
Tony blinked, surprised, and glanced back at Steve as though to confirm that he’d seen it as well.
Steve shrugged. “Charms,” he said simply.
When Steve approached the tree, scanning the area above, there was no indication that there was anything out of the ordinary. Steve reached up, but obviously not far enough to reach the barrier, because nothing happened.
A second later, the air rippled again, and Rork’s torso appeared. “You have to climb,” he said patiently, like they were children.
“That is amazing,” Tony said. “I can think of a million applications for stealth technology like that. Least of all a new armor.”
“Do you need help?” Rork asked impatiently, and Tony got the distinct impression that it was meant to be insulting, but—
“Yeah, actually. A ladder would be nice,” Tony eyed the lowest branch, just a bit too high to be a realistic handhold. Rork actually looked scandalized, and when he pulled himself back up the barrier, Tony was positive that it wasn’t so he could get them a ladder.
“Come on,” Steve said, making a foothold with his hands. Tony sighed dramatically but stepped into the hold and let Steve (effortlessly, of course) give him a boost. Tony wobbled a little bit initially, before he could put a hand out to steady himself against the trunk, but as soon as he was high enough to pull himself onto the lowest branch, climbing was a cakewalk.
He felt nothing as he passed through the barrier, though in the moment that he passed through the light around him grew so intense that he was forced to pinch his eyes shut. The barrier probably refracted light and nothing more, if that was any indication.
When Tony opened his eyes again, he was staring at a wooden platform, and behind it, a wide and winding village nestled in the trees. For a moment Tony was floored, and it wasn’t until he felt Steve nudge at his foot that he pulled himself up onto the platform.
“Wow,” Steve said behind him, and Tony jumped, shuffling over to make more room. The village was an enormous web of tree houses, huge and elegant in their design, and all interconnected with a series of winding platforms and stairs.
It looked like something Tony’s father might have had built for him when Tony was young, if he’d cared a little more and drank a little less. Rork looked pleased to see them staring, and he puffed himself up in pride.
“Come,” he said, nodding toward the houses, where curious heads were already peeking out their doors. “I will take you to the chief’s home.”
The elevator groaned in protest as the doors slid back open, and Carol stepped out of the lift into stunned silence. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smirking at them and went to go rejoin Clint and Don in the corner.
Carol sat down heavily in between them, her back turned to the rest of the room. “Enjoy the show, boys?”
“Sure did. You should have seen the looks on their faces,” Clint said.
“Are you all right?” Don asked. “You hit the ground pretty hard.”
Carol shrugged. “Fine. It takes a lot more than that to hurt me.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not see if they’ve got what it takes,” Clint said.
“Can’t help but agree,” Don said. “I think it's time for a jailbreak."
"How? Because as Ms. Marvel so kindly demonstrated, up is not the answer," Clint said.
"We need to get them to open the doors," Don said.
"Fake an injury?" Carol suggested.
"Start a riot," Clint said with a grin. "If we try to fake an injury, they might not care, and if we're too suspicious they might catch on."
Carol scanned the rest of the room. The other fighters were sitting in close circles, chatting quietly or ignoring each other completely. "I don't know how easy these guys are going to be to rile up," she said doubtfully.
"Oh, I don't know," Clint said, a mischievous grin playing on his lips, "it might be easier than you think. And anyway, how much these guys participate doesn't really matter. The second those assclowns think that their fighters are in danger of getting hurt, they're gonna want to put a stop to it before it affects their winnings."
"Okay," Carol said. "Assuming I get out of the cell, how am I supposed to get out of the compound? I don't know the way."
"You could always try punching the walls," Clint suggested. Carol smacked him on the arm. "Ow! Okay, so the plan's not perfect. We don't really have time to be picky."
"I'll be fine," Carol assured them, "but what about you?"
"I can handle myself in a fight," Clint said. "And by now they know about Don's leg, so as long as I'm in the ring he shouldn't have to fight. They'll put their best foot forward, and all that."
Carol frowned, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. Clint was a capable fighter, even unarmed, but the other fighters were equipped with vicious claws and teeth. But he could handle himself; she believed that. They didn't really have an alternative.
"So after I escape, how am I supposed to find Thor's hammer? You said it was disguised as a staff. I mean, it just looks like a stick, right? It could be anywhere."
"I lost it over the plains," Don said. "When my pod first opened, and I almost fell over the edge of the craft."
"There was a lake. A purple one," Clint added helpfully. "It was right below us when I was pulling Don back up. With how fast we were going, Thor’s hammer would have landed on shore nearby."
Carol nodded. "I think I remember seeing that, but...okay, so I know where to look. How will I know when I've found it?"
"You'll know," Don said.
"Well that's helpful," Carol said. Don shrugged. "This is a really risky plan." Carol tapped a staccato against her thigh. "There're a lot of what ifs here."
"You'll make it work," Clint said.
"Damn right I will," Carol agreed.
“There’s just one more thing,” Clint said. He gestured to the handcuffs.
“Yeah,” she said, bringing the cuff up to eye level to inspect it. She paused for a long moment, and then looked back up at the two of them. “Okay. Don, you might want to stand back for this. Clint?"
“Showtime,” Clint said, and she grabbed him roughly by the collar.
“Try not to land on your head,” she said with a smirk. Carol tightened her grip, screamed angrily and threw Clint across the dirt floor. He landed, slid a few feet and then rolled the rest of the way into one of the groups, bowling two of them over.
The reaction was instantaneous; the group shouted in surprise and sprung to their feet, ready for a fight, and Carol was across the room before they could throw a punch. She aimed an easy swing at Clint, and he ducked under it perfectly. Her fist connected with the jaw of the man behind him, who made an angry noise akin to a hiss and lunged at her. Carol sidestepped him smoothly and planted a boot in the stomach of the next one behind him, sending him skidding across the room.
The room broke into a cacophony of confused and angry cries, and Carol watched, satisfied, as the fight spread amongst them. The anger seemed contagious, from being cooped up so long as well as from the fierce rivalry between them in the ring following them downstairs. She imagined they had a lot to work out. Carol heard the elevator rattle to life at the same time at the handcuffs began to whine. Simultaneously, all of the cuffs in the room snapped together.
In one swift move she twisted her wrist around, planted one foot on the link between the cuffs, and kicked with all her strength.
Something in her wrist cracked. The pain was excruciating, but Carol grit her teeth through the pain, twisted her wrist, and yanked her right hand free. She breathed hard through her nose, ignoring for now the excitement of the fight behind her, and turned toward the elevator.
Six of them had crammed themselves into the lift, but only six—no more would have fit in a space so small. She launched herself at the first the moment the door slid open, wrenching the cattle prod from its hands and tossing it further into the room. It scrabbled in her grip for a moment, turning and managed to slam an elbow into her nose. She grunted in pain, and three of them shoved past her while she was distracted.
She snapped her head forward again, leveling him with a glare. "Okay, asshole." Carol gritted her teeth. "Now you're bugging me."
"Oh my god," Don shouted from further inside the room. "Did you just say that?"
"No." She head butted the one in her grip and then tossed him further inside. He landed at Don’s feet, and Don stepped around him casually, skirting around another guard as Clint shoved him forward. Don planted a hand on the back of his head and pushed, sending the already off-balance guard to the ground.
"Yes, you did. You totally just said that!" Clint said. "That was really lame." Clint had the cattle prod held in both hands now, wielding it like a baseball bat despite the handcuffs. He swung it at one of the bugs, and he went down in a twitching heap.
“Like you’re one to talk,” Carol accused. There were two more between her and the elevator. She gripped one by the back of the neck, spun him around and shoved him into the second. They went down, and she stepped quickly over them into the lift. “Clint!”
He shifted his grip on the poker and hurled it like a javelin. It hit the panel with a shower of sparks at the same time that Carol mashed the button. “Going up,” she said, smirking triumphantly at their stricken faces as the door shuddered closed.
Rork led them on a winding trail of bridges and beams. Thankfully, flying the armor had beaten any chance of a fear of heights out of him years ago, because Tony couldn’t help but notice the lack of railing and, more importantly, safety nets.
None of the residents seemed to take any issue with the precarious walkways, and they were making good use of it now to crowd around them, clinging to trees and railings by finely pointed claws. Even with the steadily growing crowd, Tony couldn’t help but notice that the village seemed surprisingly empty. There seemed to be more houses than people to fill them, and he couldn’t help but wonder where everyone had gone.
He wondered briefly if it would be rude for him to ask Rork why the village seemed so empty. He nearly jumped out of his skin with a tiny head dropped down in front of him. Tony shouted in surprise, wobbling, and only Steve’s hand on his back kept him from losing his balance entirely.
It burbled at him, either nonsense or something that the translator couldn’t pick up on, and flashed a row of sharp teeth.
“Hey,” Rork said, “get out of here. Leave him alone.”
“What is it?” the kid asked.
“A human,” he answered sagely, like he hadn’t asked the same question himself hours earlier.
The kid squinted at him, then turned back to regard Steve and Tony. After a long, drawn out pause, it seemed to lose some of its interest in them, pulling himself back up onto the branch he was hanging from.
“Well they’re ugly,” he said. Tony heard Steve chuckled behind him, and then he was being nudged forward again.
“Charming,” Tony muttered, and this time, Steve seemed to agree. Tony made sure to step around the spot directly below the kid, but he couldn’t shake the creeping feeling on the back of his neck as it blinked owlishly at him, tracking him with its eyes.
“Where’d you find them?” the kid eyed them warily, as though worried they would do something interesting if it looked away for too long. It reached out and poked Steve in the shoulder, scratching lightly at the scales on his armor, and Steve held still for the duration.
“Go away,” Rork hissed at him, and the kid blinked owlishly back. When it became apparent that the kid wasn’t going to listen, Rork sighed, “I found them in the forest, okay? Now why don’t you go tell all your friends you touched a human?”
That idea, at least, seemed to interest him, and after one more pointed glanced in their direction, he scurried off.
“Sorry,” Rork said, ushering them back along.
“It’s fine,” Steve answered. “Human children would do the same.”
“Probably with more running and screaming,” Tony added, “but yeah. Is that it?” He pointed the house ahead of them, just slightly larger than the others, and situated in such a way, that the rest of the village was centered around it. Rork nodded.
“Wait… here,” Rork said. He made a staying motion, like he was afraid that they would try to follow him inside, and then disappeared through the front door. If they were being noticed before they had practically become a sideshow now, with whole groups of people gathering and muttering to each other.
No one else approached them, though, and they weren’t speaking loudly enough for the translator to pick up their voices, so Tony ignored them. Before the wait could become uncomfortable, Rork poked his head out the door and waved them over.
“The chief is away with the warriors, so you will meet with her mate,” Rork said. “Do not… offend her.” He paused. “Or look her in the eye.” Tony scoffed, and Steve nudged him with an elbow, shooting a warning look.
They followed Rork inside. Steve wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but the strikingly modern little home was not it. It was still a strange sight, with many obvious differences. There were at least two doorways to other rooms that would be impossible to reach without the ability to scale walls.
There was a woman standing in the center of the room, who glared at them when they entered. She didn’t even wait for the door to shut behind her.
“Rork had no right bringing you here,” she said, immediately. She cut a sharp look his way, and he seemed to shrink slightly under her gaze.
“We asked him to,” Steve said. “It’s not his fault.”
“In this life, making contact with strange creatures is a sure way to get yourself killed,” she replied coldly.
“They’re not strange,” Rork said, exasperated and, if Steve were to say so, disrespectfully. “They are worried that their friends were taken by the Kytin. They want to help.”
“It seems they’ve been informed of our plans to raid the city,” she said, cutting another disapproving glance in Rork’s direction.
“I told them,” he said. “Like I said, they want to help.” He paused. “I also said, that you may know if their friends have been taken by the Kytin?” She sighed.
“There have been reports from the plains, of new prisoners being taken by the Kytin. I was informed that they are…strange.” She glanced between Steve and Tony. “At the very least, not any of our people. I think there is a chance it was your companions. We will know more when the warriors return.”
Steve glanced at Tony, grim, and it was apparent that he was thinking along similar lines to Steve. He’d been preparing, ever since their own close encounter, for the possibility that the other Avengers hadn’t made as clean an escape as he and Tony had. There was nothing for it.
“We’ll have to go after them,” Steve said.
She eyed the three of them, but didn’t comment on his tone. “Do you have a chief?”
“I guess that would be me,” Steve said, stepping forward.
“And what have you to offer us?” she asked, “We have many well-trained warriors. You are…” she hesitated, and for a moment Steve thought she was going to say squishy like Rork had done. “Unimpressive, in comparison.”
“I think you’ll find that we surprise you, ma’am,” Steve responded. He had to resist the urge to look her in the eye—the last thing he needed was to offend her—so he settled on her left shoulder. “And the truth is, we’ll be going to the city whether or not we’re accompanying you. If what you say is true, and our friends there, we’ll have to try.”
“Perhaps you will,” she said at length. “The warriors are due to return within the week. Until then, Rork will be responsible for you.” It was very obviously a warning, but Rork just looked pleased, and thanked her graciously. They were obviously dismissed, if the way Rork was trying to subtly nudge them out the door was any indication.
“And Rork,” she called after them, “you and I will have words, later.” He nodded solemnly, and pushed them the rest of the way out the door.
“That went well,” Rork said cheerfully.
“Really? Because it seems to me that she hates us,” Tony said. “I hope we didn’t get you in trouble,” he added, thinking of her parting words.
“It’s fine. She’s not as strict as she acts. Usually only with strangers.”
“You don’t seem very worried,” Tony said.
“She is my mother,” Rork said, shrugging. “This is far from the worst thing I have done.” Tony blinked.
“You’re the chief’s son?” Tony asked.
“She is not the chief. Only her mate,” Rork said. He shot Tony a look, part confusion but mostly, exasperation at having to repeat himself.
“Right,” Tony said, not particularly wanting to get into the specifics.
Rork shot him a suspicious look, as though worried that Tony was withholding the punch line to some joke. “You are strange,” he settled on, and then, “This is my cousin’s home.” He pointed to a house, a little down the path. “He is a great warrior, so he is away with the others. You can stay here until he returns.”
Rork paused in front of the house, turning to them both. “You are mates, yes? So you will be bedding together?” For a moment, Tony allowed himself to be hopeful, but then he caught sight of Steve’s expression, pinched and obviously wondering if Tony had been discussing their personal lives with the aliens (he hadn’t) or if Rork had drawn his own conclusions.
“No, I think we’ll be needing separate rooms, if you can spare them,” Steve said. Rork looked somewhat confused, but nodded slowly.
“Yes, that is no trouble,” He said, glancing at Tony. Tony shrugged, for lack of anything to say, and did his best to make it seem like he had no preference either way. “I’m sorry for assuming.”
“It’s fine,” Steve said shortly.
“There are many rooms,” Rork assured them. He pulled the front door open, and let Steve and Tony go in first. This house was very similar to the chief’s, at least in design, and there was at least one doorway that Tony could see that could only be reached by climbing.
Rork showed Steve to one of the rooms immediately, and then led Tony off to a separate part of the house. Thankfully, there were no acrobatics involved to get to the room Rork showed him. He pressed a button on the wall, and the lights came on.
“Where do you get your power?” Tony asked. Rork cocked his head at him, finger still hanging by the light switch. “Your power. Electricity.” Rork still look confused, so Tony pointed up. “The lights? In your house.”
“Oh! Yes,” Rork pointed out the window, to a building some fifty feet below them. “I will take you there.”
They left Steve behind momentarily, which was just as well for what Tony had in mind. He wanted to charge the chest plate while he still had the opportunity, and before its power dropped anywhere near critically low.
After Tony convinced Rork that he definitely couldn’t make that leap and he wasn’t going to try, Rork led him the long way around to the building that, Tony soon found, served not only as the power plant for the entire village, but also as the repository for any tech that was in need of repair.
Tony paused just inside the door. There was a large, see-through tank in the center of the room, and inside were thousands upon thousands of the hornets that they had come across in the forest.
“This is the main generator,” Rork said. “There are smaller ones in the other room.”
“Yeah, show me those,” Tony said. If this generator was enough to run the entire village, its output was probably too high for his purposes. The next room had a series of much smaller tanks, much better suited for Tony’s chest plate. He wondered what kind of output each generator would have, and even more briefly if it was safe to use. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice, with their ship out of commission.
“I can’t explain how they work,” he said apologetically, “I have no idea.”
Tony laughed. “I don’t need an explanation. You’re using bioelectric energy, converted from the insects’ stingers into these fuel cells.”
Rork looked surprised, “How do you know this?”
“I’m an engineer, it’s my business to know.” Tony tapped his temple. “It’s…not the highest output, even if the setup is fairly efficient, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Beggars? Who’s begging?” Steve asked. Tony jumped at the sudden appearance. Of course Steve would follow them when he realized they’d gone. It wasn’t like they’d be difficult to find.
Tony hesitated. He should have kept his mouth shut, because the last thing Steve needed was a reminder to start the same old pinwheel argument they’d been rehashing since he’d found Tony back on the plains.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said. It was the wrong thing to say, and Steve’s expression instantly shuttered. He crossed his arms over his chest, angry.
“More secrets, Tony? Really?” Steve asked. Tony sighed.
“It’s nothing, Steve, I just need to charge the plate—” Steve’s expression immediately dropped into a scowl, and Tony jabbed a finger in his direction, “and that’s exactly what I don’t need. Not a delicate flower. Not going to keel over on you. So knock it off with the worrying.”
“I’m sorry if I’m not happy that the thing that keeps your heart beating is running out of power!”
“It’s not running out of power! Christ, Steve, do you think I’d go on a one month-long trip into space if I didn’t have it handled? I would have to expend a ridiculous amount of energy to run out of power completely, but seeing as we’re stranded on an alien planet, I thought it was better safe than sorry!”
“Playing it safe would have been telling someone about your heart before coming on the mission,” Steve said.
Tony exploded, “No, I never should have let you find out. Why don’t you just go wait outside?” Tony glanced pointedly at the door, and tried to ignore the hurt expression on Steve’s face. He didn’t really want Steve looking over his shoulder while he did this, especially with him still angry at Tony, and frankly, Tony was a little angry at Steve.
Maybe he didn’t have any right to be and maybe being angry wasn’t rational, but it didn’t stop Tony’s blood from boiling every time he thought about how fragile he’d been treating Tony since he’d found out his identity. Steve had never treated Iron Man this way.
“Tony?” Tony jerked in surprise at the voice in his ear. He’d forgotten that Rork was there, with as little of a concept of personal space as he’d had when they’d first run into him. “Why are you yelling?”
Tony sighed, and started sorting through the tech that he had in front of him. Unless he was going to take the time to build himself an adapter, he was probably going to have to link the feed directly to the plate. It was probably good that he’d kicked Steve out—this was going to hurt.
“Just a little disagreement,” Tony said finally. Rork hummed, but didn’t seem convinced. “What, your people don’t ever fight?”
“We do…” Rork said, “However, there is usually less shouting, and more claws and teeth in our disputes.” A line appeared between his eyes, and he wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I believe that I would prefer the shouting.”
Tony chuckled, “Yeah, we try to save the biting and scratching for the make-up,” he said. Rork seemed confused at that answer, so Tony handed him one of the leads to keep him occupied. Tony set to fastening his own to the bug tank, and Rork did the same.
When Tony touched the two ends together, nothing happened. “Mother—”
Rork kicked the edge of the glass, and instantly the hornets inside flashed with light. The surge was enough that the leads jumped from Tony’s hands. Tony glanced over at Rork, who shrugged. Oh, yeah. This was going to hurt.
Once the bugs managed to settle the prisoners down again, the cuffs came undone. Clint resisted the urge to use that to his advantage, as several more reinforcements arrived through the lift.
Carol was nowhere in sight.
The bug grabbed Clint by the collar and shoved him roughly against the wall. It screeched angrily, little flecks of yellowed spittle flying from its mandibles. The sound echoed piercingly through the cell. It stared at him expectantly, and then gave him a little shake as though to shake an answer out of him. Clint just raised an eyebrow; he couldn't understand what it was saying.
The man with the translator cleared his throat, edging forward nervously. "He says he wants you to tell him where the one that escaped is going," he said, then after a pause added, "Um. Not that politely."
Clint gave the bug an unimpressed look, flicking his gaze over to the translator just a brief look. "Yeah, right. She's long gone by now."
The soldier listened while Clint's response was translated, and then snarled. "Sorry, don't know where she is, anyway." He cracked a grin. "But hey, if you let me out of here I'd be happy to go look for her for you—"
It spat something back at the door, and a moment later Clint's handcuffs snapped together. "Oh, okay, we're doing that. Fine." The bug shoved him toward the lift, and Clint only barely managed not to stumble. Another prisoner stepped smoothly up to him, her scales flashing dully in the lamplight. She eyed him warily, clearly unsure what to expect from him after witnessing Carol's fight.
Clint didn’t pay her any mind, staring at the wall as the lift shuddered and groaned its way upward.
The actual arena floor looked bigger from this perspective than it did from the cells. Clint turned a slow circle, taking a good look at the crowds and the wide open space of the fight pit. The cheers were much louder up here as well, a cacophony of terrible shrieking noises and a harsh clicking language he couldn’t understand, but could guess the meaning of well enough.
The bell rang.
His opponent's cuffs powered down, and she immediately sprung back into a defensive stance. Clint looked at her sharply, then down at his hands. He gave his cuffs a little experimental tug.
"Uh, okay my turn," Clint said. His opponent's gaze fell down to his hands, and she cocked her head with a predatory grin. He turned to shout to the guards. "Turn the cuffs off. Hey! The handcuffs!"
Clint’s opponent leapt at him, and he brought his arm up to block too late. Her claws dug into his side, and he cried out in pain. She gritted her teeth and dug them deeper, and they were sharp, fuck they punched through his vest like paper.
“Son of a bitch!” Clint growled and kicked her, hard, with enough force to dislodge her and push her away. He ignored the sickening crunch it made and focused on dodging her next swing. Her claws dragged hairline scratches up his arm, missing a more damaging hit to his face by mere inches. He swore enthusiastically.
She was fast, and this clearly wasn't her first time in the ring. She swiped at him again, and Clint ducked under her arm, hooking a foot around her ankle and pushing roughly against her stomach in an attempt to unbalance her. She didn't fall, but she did stumble slightly, trying to get a good fighting stance back, and Clint used the opportunity to put some distance between them.
Being an Avenger meant fighting supervillains. Clint was decidedly not super (at least, not a meta-human sort of way, because his archery was pretty fucking spectacular thank you very much), and he'd gone up against villains much, much stronger than him. He'd had practice with this kind of situation. He could handle this.
Admittedly, he'd had back-up then, but now was not really the time to be splitting hairs. He pressed a hand hard to the wound on his side, and the pain was bright in his mind but it helped to focus him, too.
His hands were in front of him, and that was a small blessing. He was probably flexible enough that he could have maneuvered them from behind his back, but it would have been awkward as hell to do while still trying skirt around his opponent’s attacks. It was sloppy of him to let her catch him off guard like that. He’d earned the wound, and she was definitely going to use it to her advantage.
Well he could use it to his advantage, too. Clint avoided her swings carefully, allowing her to back him around to ring without letting her get too close and pin him down. She was very clearly aiming for his wounded side, so Clint tried to subtly favor it more, acting as though she was wearing him down.
She was good, but she was cocky—probably too young to know any better, and Clint could relate to that, he knew that brand of recklessness all too well—and she took the bait.
Clint let her get within range, and then he was hooking his cuffed hands around her outstretched arm and jerking upward with all of his strength, pulling her arms up at the same time that he raised his leg. He brought the kick down with the full weight of his body behind it, just above her knee, and the bone made a sickening crunch.
She shrieked, and Clint didn’t give her the time to recover as he twisted his body around her to hook the handcuffs around her neck. She let out a choked growl, clawing at him over her shoulder, but Clint just leaned forward and tucked his head between his arms and her shoulder blades to keep her claws from getting anywhere near his face, his eyes. Her claws dug long lines down his arm, before coming up to tug at the chain.
He let her go as soon as she went still, not caring if she was actually out or just faking it. He’d won, the audience could honor that, at least. She might have killed him but he had absolutely no intention of doing the same. Since he wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for a pulse point, he stuck his hand beneath her mouth, just to be sure that she was still breathing easy.
The moment he’d lowered her to the ground his cuffs came unlinked, and he glared icily at the stands while they were carted back to the cell block, and the crowd cheered and cheered and cheered.
He kept his feet, standing straight and tall by sheer force of will when he was back in view of the other prisoners. Don started to push himself to his feet but Clint stopped him with a warning look. Clint could practically feel the fighters’ eyes on him, like vultures, and he did his best to keep up the calm façade as he made his way over to the corner where Don was sitting.
"You'd think they'd be a little more careful about keeping us alive, now that they're down to only two fighters," Clint grumbled. He sat gingerly, tucked away from the corner and half behind Don—away from prying eyes. He couldn’t say that it was going to do much good, trying to play the injury down, but it wasn’t going to hurt, either.
Well, not the wound—that hurt like a bitch—but the whole trying not to make a target of himself thing. Whatever. That was clearly going nicely.
"They're angry,” Don said, glancing up at the ceiling as though he could see through the earth and stone straight to their captors. “I also wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t know that you don't have the same powers as Ms. Marvel. We all look the same to them. They have no reason to think that some of us might have superpowers," Don said.
“Yeah, well, I sure showed them.”
Clint hissed through his teeth as Don peeled back his vest, the armor tacky with blood and sticking to his skin in places. It was just bleeding sluggishly now, but the long streak of blood down his side showed that it had just now started to slow. The edges of the wounds—four total—were raised and swollen, and Don prodded around them carefully.
"It's not actually that bad," Don said. "Not too deep. You were lucky."
"I feel lucky," Clint said, wincing slightly under Don's ministrations.
"You probably need stitches, though," Don continued, ignoring the comment, "but something tells me they don’t have a suture kit on hand. I’ll try to ask,” he promised. “As is, it’s likely going to scar. Scoot over a little, and turn more toward the light."
Clint did as he was told grudgingly. He could feel the rest of the room's eyes on him even with his back turned. They were probably all praying that he'd be their next opponent, injured as he is. Clint bit down the irritation at that. He couldn't blame them for wanting an easy win, though when the time came Clint sure as hell wasn't going to give it to them.
"I'm a little worried about infection," Don continued.
"Just rub some dirt on it, it'll be fine," Clint said. He rolled his shoulder, and the stinging pain of the scratches there was a welcome distraction from the wound on his side. “We can worry about it when Carol gets back.”
This felt like a waste of time.
Jan didn’t actually say as much, because she wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to question their tactics after being so graciously allowed to come along in the first place, but still. Partly she was just itching for something to do that would actually help her find the other Avengers.
Ch’el was testing her, Jan decided. The thought only wound her up more, that Jan was wasting time here at all, just because she still needed to prove her mettle to the rest of the group.
The scouting party wound quietly through the mountain pass. Jan kept to the back of the group, where she could watch the others pick their way gracefully across the rough terrain. She elected to fly herself and avoid the mess altogether, but the others looked no worse off being forced to walk.
They encountered a few stray creatures like the one Jan encountered when she first met Ch'ari, sulking panther-like through the bluffs, but they found no Kytin soldiers, even after picking their way almost entirely down the mountainside.
It was making Jan's skin prickle with anticipation. The way they'd made it sound, the scouting parties usually found at least a few errant invaders, but they'd found absolutely nothing.
The whole situation was making Ch'el suspicious as well, because they continued to press on well past the distance Ch'ari had described for their patrol. They continued, upward this time past the crest of one of the taller peaks that overlooked the surrounding landscape. The first of the group was just reaching the top.
A sharp inhale of breath cut through the silence, and Jan shrunk down just a little on reflex as she flew up for a look.
"Oh my god," Jan breathed.
She could see them in the distance, far enough away that each individual was just a tiny speck. It looked as though a roiling hole had appeared in the middle of the plains where their dark exoskeletons stood out against the grass. There must be hundreds of them. The Kytin appear to be traveling quickly, but they were moving. Jan watched for a moment, trying to follow their path with her eyes.
Her eyes widened. "Are they—"
"They're headed toward the village," Ch’el said. She bit out something that didn't translate. "Gods. We need to warn them. Quickly."
"Aren't they hidden?" Jan asked.
"If they are sending that many soldiers to search, it will not matter. Someone will stumble on them, and then they will be defenseless." Ch'el grabbed one of the scouts by the arm and barked out a sharp order to report back to the camp. She turned back to the group. "The rest of you are with me." The look she cast towards Jan was hard but not unkind. "You do not have to come."
Jan crossed her arms. Of course she was coming. "Will we be able to beat them there?"
She cast her gaze back to the plains, gauging the distance with her eyes. "Yes," she said finally. "By at least a day, at the rate they are going. More if they cannot find the village once they are there. We will need the time. We need to move."
Steve had mostly worked off his frustration within the hour, and then he was just caught between wanting to go back and talk to Tony, and wanting to give himself the space that he’d asked for. There were plenty of people around who were interested in talking to—and pulling and prodding at—him.
It wasn’t until it had turned dark and the village started to quiet down before Steve returned to the rooms Rork had lent them. He wasn’t surprised to find the house empty. It wasn’t very like Tony to be so surrounded by alien tech and not lose himself in it.
Steve found him in the same room he’d left him, though Rork was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t look any different than he had when Steve left him earlier that day and that, at least, helped to put his mind at ease.
“Did you charge your plate?” He asked.
“Yep,” Tony said, maybe just a bit too quickly, and Steve could understand why he wanted to avoid the topic, so he let it go without comment. Tony knocked on the plate with two knuckles, the sound somewhat dulled by the too-big gloves he was wearing, and then went back to trying to pry the plating on the machine in his lap. “All charged and ready to go.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Turns out these translators don’t work if I’m talking about something they don’t have an equivalent word for. It took me half an hour and what felt like a hundred synonyms to explain to Rork that I needed a deep space communicator.”
“And, unsurprisingly, they don’t have anything like that. Before those bugs showed up on this planet, I don’t think they even knew about life on other planets.”
“And where does that put us?”
“I’m working on it,” Tony said, patting the generator beside him. “It might take some time.”
“Give me until morning, I’ll have you a communicator. Problem is, without something to calibrate it, I’ll be shooting blind. It could take a few hours to make contact, or we may never get a signal. I might be better off if I could cannibalize pieces from the ship, but I have no idea where to look, and with those bugs out there, it probably isn’t an option anyway.”
“Do what you can,” Steve said, “and if we need to, we can try and go back for the ship, although I think it’s pretty likely that those bugs carted off all the important parts. We have to at least try to get in contact with earth. A month is too long to wait to realize that help isn’t coming.”
“And I want to warn Reed, so they don’t end up crashing like we did,” Tony agreed.
“Sure,” Steve said, “but it can wait. You should get some sleep.”
“I’m not tired,” Tony said, “and I want to finish this.”
“Finish it tomorrow,” Steve said pointedly. Tony looked about ready to argue, before all the fight went out of him. He must have been more tired that he though, or possibly he just wasn’t in the mood to start another argument.
“Give me ten minutes,” he said, and Steve was willing to compromise.
Rork caught him outside the door, nearly frantic. “Captain, the warriors have returned early,” he said. “There is a human with them!”
“Where?” Steve asked.
“My mother’s house, I can show you—”
“I know the way,” Steve said. “Go tell Tony.”
Steve side-stepped him, making a beeline for the path he needed. With a running start he managed easily to make it over the gap between the two trails, and then it was just a matter of tackling the stairs. The took them two at a time, trying to avoid the crowds of people already headed in the same direction. They were probably going to greet loved ones, say hello to friends.
When Steve arrived, at first he didn’t see anyone but the warriors that Rork had mentioned. The chief would be here somewhere, too. He probably shouldn’t shove his way through the group, but he didn’t care. He was getting his fair share of staring from the crowd of newcomers, but they didn’t look confused the way the others had when they’d first seen a human, just surprised.
A familiar voice cut through the crowd, and Steve stopped short.
"Cap!" Jan practically threw herself at him, grinning ear-to-ear. "Boy am I glad to see you here."
"Jan! You're okay," Steve said. "Are you—and the others?"
She shook her head. Jan quickly recounted what happened when she’d first woken from the cryo chamber, adding: "I saw three of them taken by the bugs, Hawkeye and two others, so that just leaves one—"
"Iron Man is with me," Steve said.
"Oh," she glanced around for him. "Well then. If Ms. Marvel and Thor are with them, they have to be all right." She looked determined to believe it. "So where’s..."
"Jan!" She turned at the sound of her name, confusion crossing her features when that was most certainly not Iron Man's voice.
"Tony?" Jan asked, incredulous.
"Iron Man," Steve corrected, looking none-too happy about it.
"You’re—” she threw her hands up, crying out in frustration. “Of course you are. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it already.”
“Well, you’re not the only one I had fooled,” Tony said somewhat uncomfortably. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
"What happened to your armor?" Jan asked.
"Torn apart on re-entry," Tony said. "Well...and impact. Mostly impact."
Steve scowled as Jan winced in sympathy, but Tony just shrugged and rapped the knuckles of his one gauntleted hand against the chest plate. "No big deal. Kept all of the important bits, anyway," he said.
Personally, Jan would have liked to keep the jet boots...or a missile or ten, actually, now that she thought about the army of insects she'd seen out on the plains. But she supposed Tony was the expert; if he was happy with a gauntlet and the chest plate she wasn't going to argue the point.
But thinking of the bugs... "Cap, we've got a problem. A big one,” she said. “There’s an army making their way here as we speak.”
“What?” Tony asked. “How do you know?”
“Saw them with my own eyes. I’m not sure what the plan is exactly, but the chief doesn’t seem optimistic.”
“So she knows?” Tony said. “That’s good, at least. We should go see if they need—”
"Tony,” Rork bounded up, looking panicked. “The Kytin are coming here. They're going to start evacuating the village," Rork said.
"Now. Immediately," he said. "They say that the Kytin are coming by the hundreds and we cannot be here when they arrive. It's...um. Oh. Hello." Rork gave Jan a polite nod, and then turned shot Tony a glance. "This one is even squishier than you are."
"Hey! Who you calling squishy, buddy?" Jan snapped.
"Rork, focus," Steve interrupted.
"Right, yes. Um. We are going to the mountains, it's pretty much, well it's exactly the opposite direction of where you want to go if you are trying to get to your friends. So I am sorry, but we cannot help you get there until the village is safe."
"We'll help you," Jan said firmly.
"You—wait," Rork hesitated. “What?”
"Of course we will. We're Avengers. It's what we do." She smiled winningly at them. "Well, technically I'm already helping—hence, you know, me being here—but Cap and Iron Man will too, won't you boys?"
“Right now we are trying to secure the supplies needed for the trip. The chief wished to meet with you,” he glanced to Jan, “but Mother said that she must meet with your chief instead.”
“I’m guessing that’s you, Steve,” Jan said.
“Jan and I can help you get ready while Steve goes to see what she wants,” Tony offered.
Rork nodded. “We could use the help.”
“I’ll catch up,” Steve said to Jan. “As soon as I’m done here.” He waited for them to go off, before making his way over to the chief’s front door. It was standing open, and he didn’t even get a chance to knock before he was ushered inside.
The chief and her mate were standing together in the middle of the room, flanked by a small group of warriors. Once Steve was ushered inside, she indicated that the rest should leave them, only her mate staying behind. She didn’t wait for him to introduce himself.
“Are you as strong as the warrior Jan?” she demanded.
“We’re Avengers. We all have training,” Steve said.
“Good. We have decided to divide the colony. The warriors will trail behind the rest of the colony and should the Kytin overtake us, we will at least be able to draw the fighting away.”
“And if they get around your warriors—”
“They will not,” the chief’s mater said.
“—there should at least be some warriors with the rest of the village to protect them.”
“Are you volunteering?” the chief asked.
“I’d rather be where the fighting is,” Steve admitted.
“The mark of a good chief,” she said. “A foolish one, perhaps, but good. I will choose a few men and women to stay behind, and your people can accompany them.”
“They can fight,” Steve said.
“Then they can protect as well,” she said, leaving no room for argument. “I trust you will see to it.”
The village started in opposite directions, the warriors moving swiftly toward the plains as the rest started toward the mountains. Steve hadn’t wanted to split up, not after just finding each other, but he was willing to admit that he felt better not leaving the villagers totally defenseless.
Tony had kindly ignored the way Steve (there really was no other way to describe it) pouted as he watched Tony helping prepare for the move. He was just being Steve. It didn’t necessarily have to mean anything…
Now he and Jan had settled into a leisurely pace, taking point to help field any obstacles they might encounter. Despite being forced to move their entire settlement, the villagers were surprisingly lighthearted as they walked. The atmosphere just made Tony feel worse for brooding.
"Tony, can I ask you a question?" Jan asked.
"Other than that one?"
"Oh, don't be a pill."
Tony shrugged. "Sure, anything."
"Why are you still wearing the chest plate? Isn’t it heavy?”
"Okay, anything but that," Tony said quickly. He glanced over at her, noting her put-out expression, and sighed. "I need it. It's a long story, I don't really want to talk about it right now." Or ever. Details.
"Have you told Steve why?"
"You know, that's two questions I'm not really up for," Tony said.
"Your definition of anything is a little different than mine," Jan teased. "But okay, when you're ready, if you ever do want to talk about it..."
"So...why are you and Steve fighting?"
"Jan," Tony sighed, exasperated.
"Okay, okay, I'm just saying. He's stubborn," Jan said slowly.
"Tell me about it."
"You can be just as bad," Jan added. Tony sniffed noncommittally, and she continued, "Don't you think the whole 'let's not talk about it at all' thing that you two tend to do when you're trying not to fight might not be the best way to handle things?"
"That was definitely more than one question. By my count that was four questions," Tony said.
"And you didn't answer a one," Jan confirmed. "But don't worry, I'll spare you. I've filled my prying quota for the day."
"Glad to hear it," Tony said. He peered back the way they came thoughtfully, as though straining hard enough to look would allow him to see through the trees clear to the forest. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed.
“What are you so upset about?” Jan asked. “They can hold their own in a fight. Steve most of all. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Maybe. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Tony said tersely, and okay, he didn’t want to talk about that. Jan could take a hint.
“We’re not moving very quickly,” Jan said.
“There’s a lot of people to move,” Tony pointed out. “But maybe we should try to pick up the pace some.” He glanced around, and almost instantly spotted who he was looking for. “Rork,” he said, jogging over with Jan in tow. “Jan thinks we’re moving too slowly, and I—” he paused, “Rork, are you listening?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yes. It is very quiet.”
Jan paused to listen, and true, now that it had been pointed out, the forest beside them did seem quieter. The more she focused, in fact, the more she realized that the only sound was the noise coming from their own party.
“The chattering stopped,” Jan agreed. “No insects, no animals.” Even as she said it, the rest of the group seemed to be taking notice of the change, nervous murmuring sweeping over the group.
Before she could even consider a plan of action, a shriek pierced the air from the middle of the group, followed by another. All at once the trees and ground exploded with insects, swarming out and around to surround the group.
“Shit,” Tony cursed, already charging his gauntlet to raise menacingly, but none of the insects advanced further. There were hundreds of them, maybe, that Tony could see, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t more still hiding. Or terrorizing those further back on their trail. “They planned this. It was all a set up.”
Either way, they were surrounded and outnumbered, at least in terms of trained soldiers. Tony’s hand itched for the communicator, but he kept his gaze steady as he stepped forward. The bugs were watching Tony and Jan with an unnerving intensity, and he cast a glance toward Jan to verify that she’d noticed as well. It prompted him to step forward again, just slightly. A few shifted around them, watching .
“Are they afraid of us?” Jan asked in a whisper.
Tony scraped his gaze over the group. “No,” he said slowly. There was no mistaking the hunger in their gazes—for whatever reason, the Kytin wanted them. “No, I don’t think so. I think—”
The ground shuddered and dipped beneath Tony, suddenly going soft, and then it was crumbling as dust poured down a fissure in the earth. He took a half step back as the ground began to crack. The bugs took one look at the ground and began to backpedal, chattering excitedly.
"Oh, no," Jan flew up, eyes following the crack in the ground.
"What is that?" Tony shouted. He could already hear the panic building in the villagers behind him as they recognized what was happening.
Jan shoved Tony out of the way, a full-body tackle (aided with her wings) sending them sprawling just outside of the gaping hole that opened in the ground. The panther-like creature that slunk out of the burrow turned one yellow eye on the Kytin and opened its mouth to hiss.
"What is that?" Tony repeated, "Jan what the hell is that thing?"
“Run!” she insisted, and the villagers hadn’t needed to be told twice.
“Don’t split up!” Tony shouted at them, but it was already too late. The panic that swept through the group had already driven them to scatter into the trees. The monster lunged at the Kytin, who shrieked and spit—and they were distracted for now.
Tony cursed. There were a lot more villagers to protect than there were people to do the protecting.
Jan glanced back at the large fissure in the ground, effectively splitting the group in half. There were a lot more villagers on the other side, and those that were on this side were already retreating into the trees.
“I’m going back to help them,” Jan shouted, already shrinking down so that she could hopefully avoid anyone’s notice. “Try to get everyone back together.”
“Be careful,” Tony said. She darted away, and Tony turned back to chase after the retreating backs of the villagers. There were only a few left in sight, and by the time Tony reached the forest, the only thing he had to go on was the frightened screams that seemed to come from every direction.
A dull buzzing caught his attention, and he had just enough time to duck behind a group of ferns before three Kytin flew into view. They hovered in the air, chattering loudly to each other, before darting off in three different directions.
Tony waited until the buzzing of their wings had lessened to a quiet hum before taking off after them. He pulled the communicator out of his pocket and flipped it open.
“Steve? It was an ambush, we need back up. Everyone’s scattered and—” There was a response, distinctly not English, and Tony clenched the communicator tighter. “Steve? Hey!” There was another response, equally unhelpful, and Tony cursed. Either his translator was broken, or something about the communicator was keeping them from working properly.
He tried the follow the sounds of people, but they were growing less and less frequent. He hoped that was because they were growing wise enough to hide and stay quiet rather than the alternative, that they were being captured or, god forbid, killed.
A shrill shriek, so close that it seemed like they were standing beside him, stopped Tony dead in his tracks.
“Hey,” he shouted, and a second later a tiny voice shouted back, “Help!”
Tony pushed through the trees, into a little patch of weeds and bushes. It made the area hard to walk through, but it was excellent cover, it seemed, for the kids that had tried to hide there. There were two Kytin that Tony could see, both hovering above a group of children who couldn’t be more than seven years old.
“Hey,” Tony shouted again, and both Kytin turned to stare at him, one of them with a squirming kid in its hands. Tony turned his repulsor on the other two, not wanting to hurt the kid, and fired. He’d only intended to scare them, but it seemed to work a little too well. The bug dropped the kid without preamble, letting him fall, and charged at Tony.
He fired another repulsor beam, winging it, and already he could tell that there was no way he’d be able to catch this kid in time—
She twisted in the air like a cat and landed lightly on her feet, disappearing into the bushes. A second later the other bug slammed into him, trying to pin him down, and Tony pressed his gauntleted hand against its face, pushing back. When the repulsor started to whine it let go, but not fast enough, and Tony managed to knock the Kytin back into its companion.
They both fell into the bushes, and then scattered into the trees, one dragging the other behind it.
Tony stood, panting, as he watched them disappear from sight. It wasn’t until he heard the quiet rustle of the bushes and—oh god—a soft sob, that he realized that the kids were still hiding nearby.
“Oh, great,” he muttered. He couldn’t see anyone in the bushes, so he started to pick his way over. A little hiccup caught his attention, and he pulled back a couple of ferns, the stems snapping under the stress, to reveal a whole group of kids crouched in the bushes.
They blinked at him wetly, and he pulled the fern further back.
“Come on out, it’s safe,” he said. There was a beat of silence, and then one hiccupped again, louder this time, and that was exactly the opposite of what he wanted, because Tony could not handle crying, especially not kids crying. “Ah, don’t do that—”
The hiccup devolved into quiet sobs and, yep, this was way beyond his expertise. Tony crouched down to pat her on the shoulder. Comfort—he could do comfort.
“Okay, don’t cry. We’re gonna be fine.” It didn’t help—if anything, the cried harder, and a few of the others joined in. “This is not the time to cry,” he tried instead. “The Kytin are gone, I’m gonna bring you back, it’s all going to be…” Tony resisted the urge to sigh, or shout, or walk away—and pulled the communicator out of his pocket. Jan was probably out there kicking ass, and here he was stuck babysitting.
“Okay, kids,” he said, trying to sound stern. “I need one of you to explain what’s happening here. They can’t understand me, and—”
“They took my mom!”
Tony didn’t think it would be very helpful to say that they were going to take them too if these kids didn’t shut up, so he just sighed.
“That’s enough,” he snapped, and they lapsed into shocked silence. Before they could start crying again, he pressed on, “You’re warriors, aren’t you? I need you to focus.” There were a few sniffles, but at least there were no more waterworks.
“Now who’s gonna call this in?” he asked. No one volunteered. They looked scared—frankly, Tony couldn’t blame them. They were too young for this. Tony sighed, and pulled out the communicator, “Come on, kids—”
“They’re coming back,” one whispered, and Tony turned to follow their gaze. Sure enough, he could see the Kytin darting through the trees—more than there’d been originally—and heading this way. Shit, he should have moved them. Should have known that the Kytin would bring back reinforcements, especially considering how interested they seemed to be in Jan and himself.
He could barely see them, which, at least, meant that they definitely couldn’t see him through the brush they were hiding in.
Tony scooped up the smallest child, still sobbing quietly, and took the next closest by hand. "This way, hurry!" Tony said. He glanced over his shoulder quickly, and then started into the trees.
The kids followed without protest, thankfully. He urged the group in front of him, five kids in all, plus the two he was guiding. They couldn't run as fast as him on their short legs, and Tony forced himself to slow down even though his every instinct told him that they weren't fast enough to outrun them once they were found, not like this.
Tony had no idea how old they were, but the biggest of them hardly came up to his waist in height. It didn’t really matter—they were too young, that was what was important. Too young to fight off the bugs, fight off the beasts clawing their way out of the ground on the plains.
He needed to find them somewhere safe for them, fast.
The child in his arms made a keening little noise and tightened her arms around Tony's neck, her claws scraping against his skin. Tony brought his hand up to steady her, refusing to break stride or look back and see what she'd seen.
Tony hurdled over a fallen tree while the kids clambered underneath. “Does anyone know where we are?” Tony asked. “Has anyone been here before?”
None answered, though a few shook their heads. Tony bit back a curse. There went the idea of a home advantage.
“Okay, that’s fine. Turn right, turn right,” he urged. Tony turned and aimed a repulsor beam behind them, aiming not for their pursuers but at the trees. The beam splintered the trunk of one, and with a shuddering crack it toppled in a hail of branches and nuts. With the path behind them partially closed, Tony steered them all forward again.
Tony missed a step, hitting empty air where there should have been ground, and Tony twisted even as he fell to avoid landing on the girl. He hit the dirt with a grunt, landed hard on his side in the dirt, and the girl let out a little surprised cry. The other kids stopped, staring at him, frozen.
Tony twisted around and looked back. They were being followed, after all, at least six of them coming up on them quickly through the trees. They needed to keep running. He'd...he could probably distract them long enough for, fuck, some of them at least to get away—
His gaze dropped to the ground where he'd lost his footing, and he saw the reason he'd tripped. It was a hole, narrow but surprisingly deep, not big enough for him to fit, but for a child...
God that landing had hurt. He was getting too old for this. "Fff-frick, okay, in here," Tony panted. He rolled up onto his knees, hissing through his teeth, and waved the kids over. "C'mon, hurry, hurry."
The child in his arms seemed happy to comply, making the hole appear plenty large in contrast to her tiny frame. Tony was moving to help the next down before she was even settled.
One boy tugged as his sleeve. “Is this gonna work?”
“Sure it will. Just go down as deep as you can, and be very quiet. You’ll be fine,” Tony promised.
“What about you?” he asked, eyes impossibly large and fearful of the answer.
Tony gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and helped him down, as well. “I wouldn’t want to get my shoes all muddy,” he said.
The boy sniffed quietly. “They’re already muddy,” he pointed out.
“So they are,” Tony said. “Be quiet now, and don’t come out until you’re absolutely sure it’s safe.”
Tony pushed himself to his feet and bit back a wince as he put more weight on his ankle. He’d rolled it, probably (hopefully) nothing worse, but he didn’t have the luxury to check. Instead he gritted his teeth and ignored the pain as he sprinted back through the trees.
A clamor of excited chittering told him he’d been spotted, so he changed directions, intending to lead them away.
Tony twisted around and shot at them, hoping to dissuade his pursuers from getting too close, and then ducked around another fallen tree. He almost tripped over another hole, but managed to side-step it without stumbling too badly. A moment later, a surprised yelp told him that one of the bugs hadn’t been so lucky. He tried not to think about how short the distance between them must be now, but he wasn’t sure if he could hazard a look.
Something hit him in the back of the leg, and Tony cussed as the thing swung forward to wrap around his legs. He stumbled, unable to keep his balance, and landed hard on his elbow.
The bola was made from a thick cable and the weights had gotten hopelessly tangled. Tony twisted to turn his repulsor on them, intent to fight them off, and was met with the sight of six strange looking weapons, whining quietly not unlike the repulsor.
He cursed, hesitation clear, and the weapons all lighted up. Tony dropped his arm and let his head fall back, before they descended on him.
It only took a few hours for Steve to realize that something was wrong. For as far behind the rest of the village as they marched, and as slowly as they went, the army behind them should have caught them long before now. Instead, it looked like they’d gained no ground.
Like they weren’t even trying.
There was definitely something else in the works here, and it set him on edge not knowing, especially when Jan and Tony were—
“Captain!” The girl Jan had introduced him to, Ch’ari, was calling him over, and his heart jumped in anticipation of a battle. When he ran over to meet her, and the shouting from the communicators in their hands finally resolved into words, it leapt another beat, the dread he’d been feeling all morning wrenching itself free.
"The translators only work in person. We cannot understand what she is saying."
"Cap!" Jan's voice came through the radio tinny and distorted. She sounded out of breath. "Steve, if you're there you need to answer now because—"
Steve snatched the radio from the man, fumbling slightly with the switch in his haste. "I'm here, Wasp, what is it?"
"Oh thank god, I thought maybe they'd caught you too." Jan breathed a sigh of relief, but it only made Steve more tense. "It was a setup. Somehow they knew we were coming, or tracked us, or something. I don’t know. We tried to keep the group together but everyone scattered in the chaos. I don't know how many people are hiding or how many have already been taken, but Steve, we need you here now."
"I understand. Just hold on, Jan," Steve responded. He paused for a long moment. "Is Tony..."
"Gone," she said, "or...not with me, at least." Before Steve could respond to that, she added, "I managed to get as many people to safety as I could. There are about a dozen of us here. I'm sure Tony's doing the same."
"Yeah," Steve agreed, but his voice sounded as far away as Jan's even to his own ears. He shook himself. Now was not the time. "We're on our way, Wasp. Stay where you are and stay hidden."
"Will do, Cap," she said.
Steve tried to stay focused as he relayed the conversation to the rest of the war party. If they did away with stealth they could make good time—after all they were all young and able-bodied warriors. They could outpace the villagers easily. They'd need to. The faster they arrived the fewer people were hurt, or captured. The Chieftain gave the order to turn back, and Steve ignored the treacherous part of him that acknowledged it was probably too late to do any real good.
Tony was probably fine. Jan seemed to think so, at least, and she'd seen firsthand what their odds were. But...as much as he trusted Tony, trusted Iron Man he was reckless in a lot of ways, and more importantly he seemed to always put his own safety after everyone else's. He may not have known how Tony Stark operated in a fight until recently, but Iron Man he knew. It wasn't a comforting thought.
They’d wasted no time snapping some kind of electronic handcuffs on him, and dragging him—none too kindly—through the forest. Eventually, they dragged Tony into a clearing, where a small fleet of the hovercrafts they’d used to haul away their ship were parked in a loose ring.
In the center, a small crowd of other civilians were kneeling, and those that weren’t too distracted with their own situation paused to turn mournful looks toward him. Tony had one fleeting moment of hope, when the bugs left him with the rest of the group, that they wouldn’t find his communicator, but then they were back again, stripping him of everything in his pockets—they crushed the communicator in front of him, staring him smugly down—and after emptying his pockets and patting him down, one wandered over with a collar.
He grabbed a fistful of Tony’s hair, like he was afraid he would try to jerk away, and snapped the collar around his neck. It hesitated then, and Tony felt something angry clench in his chest when its fingers closed around the dog tags on his neck and yanked.
“Fuck you,” Tony spat, but it ignored him, shoving him back into the crowd.
“Be quiet,” it replied, “Or I’ll snap your neck, next.”
“Do not cause trouble,” someone whispered behind him. “The warriors will come for us.”
If they even know what’s happened, Tony resisted the urge to say. Instead he stepped back to settle with the rest of them, his fingers absently tracing the new collar around his neck and wondering what it was for.
They waited for what felt like hours, and every once in a while a new person, some worse for wear, were dragged out of the forest and into the clearing, until finally the bugs deemed they had enough, and started ushering them onto one of the hovercrafts.
Janet, thankfully, didn’t make an appearance, and neither did Rork or any of the kids he’d stopped to hide. They must have had the good sense, at least, to stay hidden.
The towering fortress that the Kytin took him to was exactly the way he remembered it, as fleeting as his look had been. It was, however, much bigger than he’d originally thought. They were led through winding corridors, and Tony did his best of remember the path they took, despite their orders to keep eyes forward.
Eventually, they were herded into a tiny room, and no sooner had the door shut behind them than the room dropped down, opening into another, wider room, with many more prisoners inside.
“Stark?” Hawkeye said. Tony whirled to look at him, at the same time his handcuffs powered down. He rubbed absently at his wrists. “What the fuck?”
He sighed. So much for secret identity. Whatever. In for a penny. “I’m Iron Man,” Tony said, as though they hadn’t drawn that conclusion from the chest plate already.
“What the—does Steve know?” Hawkeye asked. Tony considered dodging the question, but there was really no point.
“We’re working it out,” he said simply. He hadn’t expected sympathy from Hawkeye, but interestingly enough, sympathy came in the form of a man Tony vaguely recognized as familiar. The doctor come around the mansion every now and again, on Thor’s request.
“He’ll come around, Tony,” Don said. Tony gaped at him.
“Doctor Blake?” he asked. “What are you…How are you—”
“It’s Thor,” Hawkeye said. “He can’t hold his form without the hammer.”
That...actually made sense. Now that he thought about it, Thor was never around when the doctor made his house calls, despite Don claiming Thor had called him. Tony hadn’t even thought it suspicious—what need did a god have for a doctor? Now the excuse seemed as paper thin as...well, as his bodyguard explanation. For a second, Tony’s hope sparked at not being the only one to reveal his identity. Maybe Steve would forgive him more quickly if he was one man in a crowd.
“What about you?” Tony asked Hawkeye, honestly curious. Almost instantly he thought better of it. It wasn’t his place to ask. “Sorry, you don’t have to—”
Hawkeye rolled his eyes. “You’re a little late for the dramatic reveals, Stark. We’ve already done this song and dance,” he said. When he pulled his mask off, Tony didn’t recognize the face. He stuck out a hand, and Tony accepted it.
“Clint Barton,” he said.
“I—don’t know you,” Tony admitted.
“Good. Then I’m doing my job,” Clint replied. He grinned, and pulled the mask back on.
Tony snorted. “Okay, so, how do we get out of here?” He scanned the room for any obvious weak points—although Clint or Don certainly would have found them by now if they existed at all.
“Well, prison riots are a tried-and-true method,” Clint said. “Ms. Marvel was in here with us. Was, being the operative word. She went to get Thor’s hammer.”
“How long?” Tony asked.
Clint shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know, but she’ll probably be back anytime now. And as soon as Thor has his hammer…”
“Escaping will be cake. Okay, so—” A high pitched whine interrupted his planning, and his wrists snapped together abruptly. When he glanced up, incredulous, he saw that Clint’s had done the same. “What the hell?”
“Shit,” Clint said. “Ah, shit.”
“What’s going on?” Tony asked. Half the room seemed as confused as he was, and the other half was a mix of emotions, excitement not lacking among them.
“They’ve been staging fights between the prisoners,” Don said. “You and Clint were chosen to fight.”
“What,” Tony demanded.
“Relax, Stark,” Clint said, “it’s not like the fight’s to the death or anything. I’ll just knock you around a little and you can play unconscious.” He could hear the elevator working, and in a gesture of goodwill, walked over to wait for it.
“Yeah, I hardly think you’ll be doing the knocking,” Tony said.
“Well, it’s not like you’ll have any of your toys,” Clint said. “No weapons or armor in the ring.” Tony froze, and when the doors slid open and Clint stepped inside, he stayed frozen. “Come on, Stark. I told you, they just want a good show. It’ll only hurt a little—”
“No armor, meaning what?” Tony demanded, and Clint heard the hesitation in his voice. He stepped out of the elevator, despite the obvious hissing protest from the speakers above the door.
“Meaning no armor?” Clint said. “Something you’re not telling me, Stark? Because if we don’t get up there pronto they’re gonna come down and get us.”
“I need the chest plate,” Tony said. “It’s—life support.”
“What kind of life support?” Don demanded.
“The pacemaker kind,” he said gravely. “Someone else has to go.”
“Doesn’t work that way,” Clint said. Another burst of chatter from the intercom, angry and insistent, reminded them that they were being waited on. “How long can you go without? We can try to make this quick.”
“I don’t know,” Tony snapped. “I haven’t exactly tested it.”
“You need to go,” one of the other prisoners reminded them. “They sound very angry.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Tony said. He stepped up to the elevator, squaring his shoulders, and Clint reluctantly followed. “Maybe we can reason with them,” he said,” and if not, let’s make this quick, huh?”
Tony hadn’t come back. At first, it hadn’t registered—there was a mounting list of missing persons, and even as more and more stragglers were picked up by rescue teams or simply stumbled their way into the mountain village on their own, just as many if not more were added to the list.
When a group of kids were brought in by a rescue team talking about the Earther who’d helped them escape, he’d nearly lost it. Jan found him fifteen minutes later, trying to find something to take out his frustration that wouldn’t be destructive, because he needed to keep his head.
“Steve, they caught one of the Kytin out on the plains,” she said, and that got Steve’s full attention. “The chief wants to know if you want to be present for the interrogation.”
“Yes,” Steve said immediately. He was already moving past her, thankful for something to do, some way to act that wouldn’t be wild and reckless and exactly what the irrational part of his mind was screaming at him to do.
“Nothing’s changed, Steve,” Jan said, with a careful hand on his arm. “We’re going to go in there and break our friends out, and they’re all going to be fine when we get there.”
Steve nodded tersely, and she reluctantly let him pass. She showed him to one of the mud and clay buildings where their prisoner was being kept, and Steve could hear it shrieking and cussing from outside.
The room was dim, and he blinked quickly to clear his vision. The Kytin didn’t seem to have the same problem, its shrieking renewing the moment Steve and Jan passed inside. Steve had no translator with him, but Steve was fairly confidant to take them as expletives.
It didn’t have a translator either, but the chief was standing off to the side with one at the ready, and she had one herself as well. Steve stepped up to the chief, intent to ask her what they’d already found out—or if they’d started at all—and what they planned to do if they didn’t get the information they wanted.
A familiar glint of aluminum caught his eye, and something dark and angry clenched in his chest. He surged to the front of the group, most of them obviously startled, and grabbed the chain around the bug’s neck. He jerked hard enough to pull the clasp apart, and the bug flinched when he shoved them into view, as though afraid of being struck.
“Where did you get these?” he said. The bug chittered nervously, glancing in every direction, and Steve saw red. He grabbed it by the front of its armor, hauling it half-way over the table. “Where did you get these?” he screamed. He was vaguely aware of the hands on his shoulders, his arms, trying to reel him in.
“Captain, it cannot understand you without a translator,” Rork warned.
“Get a hold of yourself, Steve,” Jan said coolly. Like a switch had been flipped Steve released him and jerked back. He flexed his hands uselessly at his side, ignoring the stares from around the room, before pushing past to step outside. He needed fresh air. He needed to clear his head.
(He needed to get himself together.)
A few minutes later Jan landed on his shoulder. He might have felt a hand on his neck, but the touch was light and he didn’t turn to confirm.
“Well, on the bright side,” she said cheerily, “I think you scared him so much that we won’t have any trouble getting what we need to know.” She must have felt him stiffen, because a moment later she’d left his shoulder and was growing to full size in from of him. Jan gave him an inquisitive stare, and pulled him into a hug.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I—” I’m fine. I’m sorry. I was out of line. Any of those would be appropriate. He turned his face into her hair, and brought his arms up stiffly around her. “I’m so mad at him.”
“He’s fine,” Jan insisted, like it wasn’t a non sequitur, and Steve resisted to urge to say you can’t know that.
“Tony did what he thought was necessary. That’s what he always does. If you hadn’t figured that out about him by now, I’d be worried for you.”
It was meant to be a joke but Steve didn’t find the comment, striking so close to home, to be amusing at all. Instead he sighed and pulled away.
“I’m sorry for losing it in there,” he mumbled, because it still needed to be said. She shrugged.
“It did more good than harm, I think. He’s going to give us the layout of the city, at least. I’m not sure how useful it will be, but it’s better than nothing.”
“And how are we getting in?” Steve asked. “There’s way too many for a frontal assault.”
“Distraction. The Chief draws their attention away from the base, and I slip inside, stay hidden…” she said,and upon Steve’s disapproving look, she added, “That’s been the plan, Steve. Since before they evacuated the village. It’s the only thing that stands a chance of working, and you know it. Besides, stealth is my forte.”
“I’m going with you,” Steve said.
“I knew you were going to say that. I already talked to Ch’el—she said that if you’ve made up your mind, she can’t stop you.”
“No, she can’t,” Steve agreed. “How soon can we mobilize?”
“Tonight,” Jan said. “The faster we get in, the more likely we’ll be able to get everyone out.”
The main entrance of the hive was a living thing, a roiling mass of insects traveling in and out with some unknown purpose. This close, Steve could practically feel the steady hum of beating wings as those who could took to the air, and it set his nerves on edge. There was no getting through that unnoticed; he'd need to find another way inside.
He picked his way carefully along the edge of the hive to put some distance between himself and the entrance. The occasional bug zipped by overhead, and Steve ducked down for each. The earth was soft and patchy with color, with the sort of variation found in canyons and beds of clay and sediment packed down beneath layers of rock until each color showed a different time or place.
Steve looked at the ground and he looked at the pillar of earth piled above the hive and he wondered how far down the winding caverns beneath him could go.
There were smaller entrances scattered every few hundred feet. They hardly looked large enough for the bugs to fit through—certainly not standing upright or with one of their crafts—but Steve wasn't as bulky, and that gave him an edge. Steve crouched and waited, but even after several minutes nothing traveled in or out of the small shaft. It would have to be good enough; he didn't have time to waste being overly cautious.
His shield was strapped to his back and Steve pulled it down to loop the straps around his arm. He didn't know what he might find inside, but he had to expect the worst and assume he would be fighting every step of the way once he was in. There were easily thousands of these things, and he had no way of knowing where in the compound he would find their prisoners short of a sketchy explanation from a prisoner under distress who may or may not have been lying to them.
Steve cast one glance at the sky to be sure nothing was overhead before darting out of his hiding place. He sprinted the several yards to the hole and without slowing dropped into a slide. Steve skidded across the loose soil and down into the hole with only a whisper of shifting earth. The shaft was angled slightly, more firmly packed on the bottom where something must have traveled—supplies maybe, or perhaps just running water over time—and he slid a good thirty feet before hitting a lip at the end and tumbling out into the open.
Steve sprung up to a crouch with his shield raised, but the corridor was empty.
Well...corridor was generous. Steve couldn't even stand fully upright, and the passage was maybe two or so feet wider than Steve's shoulders. There were supports jutting up from the ground every couple of feet, crisscrossing against the ceiling.
There was no way anything could reasonably be transported through here. The tunnel must have been cut out to let fresh air flow through the lower corridors, or perhaps it was used to aid construction and then abandoned. Whatever the reason, it served Steve's purpose well enough.
In one direction, the tunnel only ran a short distance before coming to a dead end. He could see where a little pool of light shone from where the next tunnel to the surface was, and even spread as far apart as they were, the light was enough to see by. Sliding past the support struts was a challenge—he had to press his back as close to the wall as he could to squeeze by them. It was slow going, edging his way along the wall, and even as quickly as he could maneuver it wasn’t fast enough for Steve.
He could feel the damp chill against the back of his neck where he was pressed to the wall. It was cold down here, especially so where the sun couldn’t reach, and surely the tunnels would only get colder the deeper he went.
Tony was down here, somewhere, and if Jan was right he would find Thor, Ms. Marvel, and Hawkeye as well. Thor would be fine. He wasn’t even sure that the Asgardian could feel cold, or if he did it certainly didn’t bother him. Ms. Marvel was superhuman as well. Hawkeye and Tony, though…they were just human. He had no way of telling how the bugs treated their prisoners, but he wasn’t optimistic. He needed to find them, and fast.
After almost ten minutes of picking his way through the supports, Steve stopped in front of a fork in the tunnel. The side tunnel was much darker, disappearing deeper into the hive. The path was wider already, with nothing obstructing the way. He broke into a run when he finally had the room, eyes and ears straining to notice any danger ahead.
Steve rounded a corner with a cautious glance in both directions. Instead of soft earth, his boot clanged loudly against the metal floor plate. He froze, and the sound echoed loudly in the stillness before seeming to be swallowed by the darkness, leaving behind only a ringing silence. Suddenly Steve could hear his heart pounding in his ears. He held his breath despite himself and slipped back around the corner.
He waited, but nothing came.
Steve let out a slow breath and peeked around the corner into the empty hallway. Then, cautiously, he stepped back out.
The dirt tunnel came to an abrupt end around the corner, immediately letting out into a paneled hallway. It looked as though construction had just suddenly stopped.
Steve flinched, the sharp sound of klaxons suddenly ringing through the hallways. He spun, looking for whoever had raised the alarm, and expecting soldiers to come pouring into the hallway at any moment. Other than the alarms, and rapid tattoo of Steve’s heart, the corridor remained silent.
Even if he wanted to stop, hide and reassess the situation, there was really nowhere for him to go but forward. He was never one to hide. Steve kept his shield at the ready and picked up the pace—whatever had set off the alarms, he was no doubt going to encounter some resistance now.
He headed further down the corridor, and it was only a few minutes before the sound of movement further down the hall forced him off to the side, where he crouched waiting for the danger to pass. A group of soldiers streamed through the hallway, heading in the direction Steve had been going himself.
It occurred to him that whatever it was that had set off the alarms was probably friendly to him—even if it wasn’t one of the other Avengers, the enemy of an enemy was still a friend. Steve started off after the insects, hoping that they knew where they were heading and what they were looking for.
If nothing else, it was a better lead than Steve had. When he came up on an L turn in the hallway, he slowed, not entirely certain what he would find on the other side. He could hear clearly the sound of fighting, even over the screaming alarms.
“—that all you’ve got?” someone shouted. Steve stalled, recognizing the voice immediately, and relief hit him in a wave. He took one more second to prepare himself, sliding up to the corner, and then he was stepping around it in one smooth movement.
Ms. Marvel had collected quite a crowd of soldiers, and she’d taken out quite a few more. It was nothing that she wouldn’t be able to handle. Steve noticed with a sinking sense of disappointment that she was alone. They couldn’t afford to waste any more time.
Steve threw his shield, and it slammed into the back of the nearest soldier’s head. It rang loudly against the wall as it ricocheted back to him.
Ms. Marvel whirled around. “Cap!”
“Thought you could use some help,” Steve said.
“I’m always willing to share,” she said, lips quirked into a smile. She was wielding a walking stick like a bat as she cracked the two soldiers in front of her across the face.
Steve’s appearance had drawn quite a bit of attention—enough, if fact, that Ms. Marvel managed to dispatch three more soldiers while their focus was elsewhere. Steve brought his shield up just as another insect threw itself at him. He rolled with the blow, letting the bug glance off his shield and believe it was overpowering him, just long enough that he could slam it back against the wall.
He turned and flung the shield down the hallway, taking another insect out of the air as it lifted off the ground, and just in time to see Ms. Marvel grab the last two soldiers by the back of their skulls, bashing them together. The folded in the middle of the hallway and she stepped around them, catching Steve’s shield on the rebound and then holding it out to him.
“Thanks for the assist. Didn’t need it, but it certainly hurried things along.”
“I imagine the alarms were for you. Excellent timing for a break out,” Steve commented.
“Breaking in, actually,” Ms. Marvel said. She grinned and hefted the staff up onto her shoulder. “I’ve got to get this to Thor, down with the rest of the prisoners.”
Steve nodded, though he didn’t see what Thor would need with the stick. She seemed to know more about this place than Steve. “Do you know where you’re headed? I’m looking for Iron Man. Would he be down with the rest of the prisoners?”
“Iron Man?” She shook her head thoughtfully. “There’s no armor allowed in the ring.”
The ring? “He wasn’t wearing armor.”
If she was surprised by that, she didn’t let it show. “If he’s not down where I’m going, then he’d have to be up in the arena,” she said. “We should split up…we can cover more ground that way. Hawkeye might be up there, too.”
“Just tell me where to go,” Steve said.
Carol hardly met any resistance after parting ways with Steve, and she wondered fleetingly if it was Wasp or someone else who was keeping the soldiers busy. She didn’t worry about it too much—it was to her advantage anyway.
She nearly ripped the door of its tracks when she reached the bottom of the elevator shaft. There were several dozen guards on her tail, at least. She ignored them.
Don was pushing himself to his feet, weight balanced on his one good leg. He smiled in relief when his eyes fell on the walking stick, and stretched out a hand to take it.
"You found it," he said unnecessarily.
Carol nodded anyway, turning a glance over her shoulder at the guards. "I brought company," she said. She grinned at them.
The one at the front paused, perhaps unnerved by her confidence, and motioned as though to stop the others. It didn't matter. Carol tossed Don the staff.
The moment it touched his palm the air pressure in the room dropped. He turned it over in his hand, before striking it once on the ground. A muffled thunderclap rolled overhead, accompanying the blinding flash of lightning that enveloped him. The other prisoners flinched, some shouting in surprise. It was blindingly bright in contrast to the dark cell, and for a moment Carol was blinking away spots. When her vision cleared, she grinned triumphantly at Thor.
"They are of no consequence," Thor replied.
“Great, then you take care of them,” she said.
“Aye,” he said. “I will. With great pleasure.”
“And I’ll help the rest of them out,” she turned to the rest of the group, all staring expectantly at them. It took her a moment to pick her friend the translator out of the crowd, but when she did, she waved him over. “You tell them that if they can climb, they’re free to go. Otherwise, I’m going to go get an elevator.”
When Carol reached an elevator she climbed inside through the maintenance hatch and hit the upward button. When it stopped at the prisoner’s level, she flew up through the open hatch and up to the floor where Thor was already waiting. The air smelled like rain, and a pile of insects were stacked by the door.
"Where's Hawkeye?" Carol asked. "And Iron Man? I ran into Cap on the way down, and he said we should be looking for Iron Man, too."
"Both above, in the arena," Thor replied. "And what of the Wasp?"
"With Cap, I think."
"Then we are all accounted for," Thor said.
Carol nodded. "I already sent Cap up to the arena. We need to get these people out of here," Carol said. She did a quick head count of those that hadn’t already run off to make their escape, noting that there were more people here now than when she left. For the most part they were sticking together, waiting patiently for the elevator to bring up those that hadn’t wanted to attempt the climb.
One of them turned to them and said something that Carol couldn’t understand. Thor nodded, and said something back.
“He says that they will be able to find their way from here,” Thor said to Carol, “so long as we are willing to leave the insects weapons behind.”
“If they’re sure. We certainly won’t need them,” Carol agreed. “Tell ‘em good luck, and then let’s go find the others.”
Carol wasn’t so certain that they should leave this group alone, but there were quite a few of them, and the fact that they were still here after countless tournament fights was a testament to the fact that they must be able to defend themselves. She put it from her mind. There was nothing to be done about it now.
"Aye. Lead on."
Carol led him off in a direction that she hadn’t yet been, not entirely certain where she was going but knowing, at least, that it was up. They came across a few scattered groups of soldiers, but none posed much of a threat and they were all quickly dispatched. When Carol came across a hole in the ceiling, obviously intended for their fliers, she went directly for it. A faster route up was exactly what they—
"Woah." Carol stopped, hovering in the archway as she spun in a slow circle. The room was huge, nearly the size of Ebbet’s field, and filled with what Carol thought resembled compact Kree warships. "Jackpot. Something tells me they were planning on expanding a bit."
“Indeed, as they no doubt have done before,” Thor said.
“Well,” Carol said, grinning. “We can’t let them get away with that, can we? Besides, I could use a little stress relief.”
Jan darted from orb to orb, hoping that even if one of the insects that were scuttling below saw her, it wouldn’t be looking closely enough to realize that she wasn’t anything more than an escaped lightning bug.
It might be a little harder to sell considering the fact that she was dragging a communicator along with her—it had been too valuable to leave behind, despite its awkward size and shape. Oh what she wouldn’t do for a few Pym particles right about now. She probably looked a strange sight, but again, that was why she was sticking to shadowy and inconspicuous corners as best as she could.
When she reached the point in the tunnels that gave way to a brightly lit corridor, she hesitated. It was one thing to hide in the shadows of a dark dirt tunnel, and another thing entirely to fly through the middle of a brightly lit hallway.
She scanned the area, gratified to see that there were few insects nearby and all of them seemed preoccupied in getting where ever they were going.
Her eyes fell on a series of slits in the wall, innocuous in design but, as Jan flew closer she realized that they were the grating to a vent. She wasn’t sure where it led but she didn’t have many better options, and she wanted to go unnoticed for as long as possible.
Jan shrank down further, and slipped through one of the cracks in the vent. It was wide enough inside that even Thor could probably fit, though not comfortably. There was a cool breeze running through the vent and directed down, probably pumping oxygen into the compound from outside.
It took a little more maneuvering and wriggling to pull the translator through with her, and as soon as she managed it Jan grew a few inches—just enough that the translator wouldn’t be awkward to carry—and then turned to inspect her options. It was fairly clear-cut: the vent leading up no doubt would bring her outside the compound, and she probably wouldn’t get anywhere from staying on this level, so the only option that left was down.
Jan dropped down into the dim light, shifting the translator into one hand so that she could light the way with the other.
There was only one path to take, so she followed it through a series of turns and crossroads, hoping that she was taking the right path to find the other Avengers, although she wasn’t convinced that there was a path that was more right than the others.
Eventually, she heard voices—or more accurate, clicking—and turned to follow the sound. She made her way up to another grate, little beams of light from the hallway momentarily blinding her.
Jan slipped the translator ever her neck and then grew to full size. The vent buckled under her added weight, but none of the group collected nearby seemed to hear it over the wailing alarms.
“—prisoners escaping?” she heard, when the translator kicked in.
“No, an intruder,” the other replied, “but I think it’s after the prisoners. It’s the same one that escaped.”
“It came back?”
“That’s what I heard—” Jan didn’t let it finish. She zapped the two nearest her, and they seized, crumpling to the floor. The grate jumped off the vent under the force of her stingers, and Jan followed it closely, grabbing the last remaining bug by the arm before it could draw its gun.
She wrenched the arm around, pinning the bug to the wall.
“Where are the prisoners?” she demanded.
The bug sputtered and hissed, but didn’t respond, so she pressed him harder against the wall with one arm, bringing the other beside it, and charged her stinger menacingly.
“I—I will take you,” it stuttered, eyes flicking between her face and her hand.
“If you’re lying—” She let the threat hang, not entirely certain what she would do. It shook itself emphatically, trying to pull away, so Jan let him go. After a moment of hesitation, it started down the hall.
Jan watched him like a hawk, though she was certain to take note of the path they were taking as well, if only so that she would be able to find her way back if she needed to. Eventually, he led her to a doorway that opened into a tiny room—and elevator.
“They’re below,” he said.
“Great,” Jan replied, “get in.” When he hesitated, she added, “You don’t think I’m letting you go until I’ve found my friends, do you?” Jan stepped closer, menacingly. “I told you, if you’re lying to me, you’re going to regret it.”
“I’m not,” he said immediately.
"Good, then get in,” Jan said. She allowed him to step inside ahead of her, and to press the button. The elevator made a short decent, and when the doors slid open, she scowled. The room was empty.
“Where are they?” she asked, low and threatening.
“They—I. They were here,” he sputtered. Jan didn't think he was lying; he was shaking like a leaf. She would have felt bad for him, if her friends weren’t missing and possibly hurt, and if she wasn’t entirely certain that nothing was going to happen to him by her hand. “I don’t know! They've been moved, or escaped, or—”
“Where else might they be? You'd better think quick, Mister,” she said.
"Well...there is one other place," he said.
They couldn’t reason with them.
They stripped him of the chest plate and sent it to be stored with the rest of the prisoners’ belongings. Tony had tried to protest that, because he wasn’t going to last long without the chest plate and he was not going to die here, not in a fucking cage match on some alien planet. They’d seemed unmoved, and Tony was already short of breath by the end of it.
If anything, they seemed more excited by the prospect of Tony keeling over mid-fight, and Tony got the distinct impression that bets were going to be made.
Tony was fading fast, and he was almost to the point where he wouldn’t have to pretend to lose to throw the fight. He was about two short breaths away from passing out, the blood rushing in his ears and drowning out the screams of the audience.
Clint was circling him as though he was a wounded animal, not showing any indication that he was on Tony’s side in case the guards tried to force him to fight seriously. Frankly, it was making Tony dizzy. He wobbled, and Clint tackled him from the side.
The landing was surprisingly soft, though it certainly didn’t look that way, and two hands closed lightly around his neck. Tony brought his own up on instinct, and the crowd screamed in excitement.
“Just stay down, Stark,” Clint said quietly, and yeah, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. He tried to nod, but the movement just made his head spin. Tony could already see the soldiers making their way to the middle of the arena, and Clint backed off immediately, putting his hands up above his head.
When they grabbed Clint, he didn’t look happy about it, and it took Tony longer than he’d like to admit to realize that this probably wasn’t standard operating procedure. The arena was evacuating at an astounding rate, some taking to the sky to fly directly out into the plains.
“What’s… going on?” he asked, when one of the bugs reached down to grab him. It shook him hard, and Tony forced back the wave of nausea that washed over him.
“You planned this?” It demanded, and Tony wasn’t sure if that was supposed to make sense or not. His head was swimming, like he wasn’t getting enough air, and the dull pain in his chest was just beginning to fade into the wrong side of numb.
“I don’t know,” Tony said, “what you’re talking about.” It hissed at him, and then with a jerk, its grip on his shoulders went slack. Tony’s knees gave out without anything to support him, and the bug wavered on its feet for a moment before it pitched forward with him, forcing the air from his lungs.
“Okay,” Tony wormed an arm free, and pushed. “Off. Get—” The weight lifted away, and Tony took in a shaky breath. “Thanks.”
“Tony,” Steve said. Tony blinked at him.
“Hello, beautiful,” he said.
“I can’t leave you alone for ten minutes, can I?” Steve teased, but he didn’t sound happy at all, and if that wasn’t enough to make Tony feel guilty, the look on his face certainly was. Tony averted his gaze, and his eyes dropped onto the dog tags around Steve’s neck instead.
“I want those tags back,” Tony mumbled. Steve slipped his shield onto his arm and picked him up cleanly. Steve didn’t know where Tony’s chest plate was, but Tony wasn’t getting anywhere on his own.
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “If you're just going to give them away to any alien with a nice pair of antennae that looks your way—” Tony’s hand tightened fractionally on his shoulder, and he could feel Tony’s full-body shudder in his arms.
“Don’t make me laugh,” he said. Steve smiled tightly at him.
“Where’s your chest plate?” He looked down to find Tony’s eyes half-lidded and unfocused, his head resting heavily against Steve’s chest. Steve jolted him lightly in his arms, and it worked enough to get Tony to lift his head.
“Stay with me, Tony. Which way?”
“Cap,” Steve jerked toward the caller. Hawkeye was at the end of the arena, standing over two of the Kytin soldiers. He gestured to one of the large wooden doors with a stolen gun and Steve felt a rush of relief. “This way. Hurry the hell up.”
“Hawkeye,” Steve said, “we need to get—”
“The chest plate, yeah,” he interrupted, yanking the door open. He aimed the gun down the hallway, and then turned back on the arena while Steve went through. Clint fired off a couple of shots, and then slammed the door shut behind him and shot the locking mechanism.
“Let’s go,” he said, sprinting down the hall. “Before they have time to go around. I don’t know where all the soldiers have gone, but I’m not gonna wait around until they show up.”
“The plains, probably,” Steve said. “We’ve got friendlies out there, making a distraction while we get the prisoners.”
“What about Do—Thor?” Hawkeye asked.
“I ran into Ms. Marvel on my way here,” he said, “She’ll have gotten there by now.”
“Did she have a stick?” Hawkeye asked.
“Yes,” Steve said, not really understanding the significance when Hawkeye barked out an emphatic good.
Hawkeye paused to pull a door open, cautious. A bright beam cut through the air above him, and he quickly swung the door shut. Half a beat later, he slammed the door back open, and fire off two shots rapid fire. Steve stayed pressed back, half-covering Tony from any stray fire.
“Sh—it,” he said, and when Steve glanced over, he could see Hawkeye crouched to the side of the doorway, pulling ineffectually on the trigger of the gun. Either it had jammed, or run out of juice, and Steve didn’t know enough about their weapons to guess. “Give me your shield,” he said, and then impatiently, “You’re not using it.”
Steve kneeled to pull the shield off his arm, trying not to jostle Tony too much (he didn’t mind, he didn’t even twitch) and tossed it across the doorway. Hawkeye caught it and stepped into the doorway. Three beams of light struck the shield in rapid succession, bouncing back down the hall.
Hawkeye straightened, a cocksure grin in place, and then handed the shield back. “Not even my gun, and I still don’t miss a shot.”
“Focus on the mission, Hawkeye,” Steve said shortly. He looked, surprisingly, unoffended at the order, and Steve had to wonder how he looked right now that Hawkeye was taking pity on him.
“We’re almost there,” Hawkeye said. “I think.”
They came on a four-way split in the hallway, and Hawkeye slowed to a hesitant stop. Steve stopped beside him, and Hawkeye cut him a glare, like he knew what Steve was going to say.
“Which way,” Steve demanded.
“Shut up, let me think,” he snapped, turning in a circle. He made a vague motion in the air, like he was tracing a mental map, and then pointed down the left hall.
“Over here,” he said, sounding confidant enough. Hawkeye led them further down the hall, past another split, and down the second right. The floor changed from metal to dirt, and that seemed to be what he was looking for. He took a sharp left, and then paused.
“Armor should be in the back room,” he said. He hooked a thumb in the opposite direction. "I need to get my bow. I'll meet you two back here."
"Be careful," Steve said without pausing so much as pausing.
"Who, me?" Hawkeye asked. He turned on his heel and sprinted down the hall, boot steps muted on the hard-packed dirt floor.
The door to the armory was unlocked, but the tracks it opened on were rusted. Steve wedged the edge of his shield into the crack in the door and wrenched it open hard. The door squealed in protest but stuttered open, revealing a dimly-lit storage room.
Some of what was in the room looked like what he'd seen the warriors wearing to battle. Most of it, however, Steve remembered seeing in the village, ranging from simple hunting tools to woven baskets to the fly-trap generators Tony had been so interested in.
The items were strewn about haphazardly, like it had been stripped from the prisoners and unceremoniously tossed aside, but Steve was immediately able to spot the familiar red and gold of Tony's armor.
"Tony?" Steve tried gently. He knelt and laid him down carefully, but Tony didn't so much as twitch, his head lolled feebly to the side. He was looking terribly pale in the dim light.
Something moved in the doorway, the already strained metal buckled, making a hollow sound, and Steve twisted around and flung his shield before he could even turn to look. It struck the first bug in the face just below the jaw, and the thing hissed and choked and fell to the ground.
Another stepped out from behind it, calmly as though it had expected the attack from Steve, weapon already raised.
Steve extended his arm to catch his shield, and he could already tell it wasn't going to be fast enough, he was going to get a shot off, and the least Steve could do was put himself between the gun and Tony. He would probably aim for him anyway. Tony wasn't even moving; Steve was the larger threat.
There was a flash from over Steve's shoulder, and the bug jerked and shrieked. Steve caught his shield and pulled it around in time to block, just as the he fired blindly his way. Steve stepped into the bolt, drawing his shield back as he did, and bashed the edge against the Kytin's chest. He folded under the blow, a fissure crack opening along the armor of his shoulder.
Steve turned fully to see Jan standing in the doorway, hands still raised and ready to fire another stinger blast.
"Not who I was looking for, but I'll take it," Jan said.
Steve couldn't believe the flood of relief he felt at seeing her, and not another enemy that he had to face. He pushed the feeling aside and leaped up to wrench Tony's armor free from the mess. They’d collected the rest of the mangled pieces from the crash site as well, but Steve shoved them all aside in favor of the chest plate.
He put the front piece into place first, just in case it would work even if the pieces weren’t locked together. Steve fumbled to attach the pieces around Tony’s back, the genius limp in his arms, and it was everything he could do to keep from screaming in frustration as he clumsily tried to fit the joints together. He eased him down, so that the metal of the chest plate was digging into Steve's knees, Tony's head pillowed in his lap.
He should thank Jan. He should go find Hawkeye, and then the other two Avengers. The armor was on, there wasn’t anything else Steve could do, but he couldn’t pull himself away. Tony was so pale, and he knew that it wasn't something that would change immediately. It didn't mean Tony was still dying, but for some reason the thought didn't make him feel any better.
Jan knelt down beside him, expression serious as he looked both him and then Tony over. She brushed a strand of hair out of Tony's face, and Steve had the irrational urge to bat her hand away.
"Steve. We need to go," Jan told him, not unkindly.
Steve nodded. "Tony's armor..." There were little pieces of red and gold strewn about the room. Most of them were probably no more than slag after the crash, but perhaps not. Steve wasn't sure that he would be able to tell the difference, but he did know that Tony would hate the idea of leaving his armor behind if there was even the slightest chance of it being abused.
"We can't carry it all. Maybe just the lighter stuff," Jan said. She picked up one gauntlet from the mess. "If he had in on him before, we'll take it. Otherwise it's going to have to stay behind."
A faint tremor rocked through the floor, and Steve glanced up.
"What was that?" he asked, cocking his head to listen.
There was a brief pause, and then another tremor much stronger than the first, followed by a resounding boom. The ceiling rocked uncertainly for a moment, showering them with a fine coating of dust as the earth shook loose, until slowly the shaking died off. Thunder rolled in the distance.
"Thor," Steve said decisively, at the same time that Jan said, "Wow. I wonder what they're up to?"
Steve glanced down at Tony. He wondered if he was just imagining the color returning to his cheeks.
"We need to go meet up with Hawkeye," Steve said. He hooked one arm under Tony's legs and the other behind his back, the metal scraping against the scales of his armor as he settled him comfortably. "Last I saw Ms. Marvel, she was heading down, and...do you hear that?"
Jan cocked her head to listen, and in the silence that followed Steve could much more easily hear what sounded like muffled bursts of static. Jan heard it too, because she immediately went to go pick through the mess.
The source of the noise was the communicator Tony had stripped out of the Iron Man suit. Jan fumbled with it for a moment before figuring out how to tune it to the proper channel.
"Wasp here," she answered, the question of who was calling clear in her voice.
"Oh, wow, it worked," Ms. Marvel's voice came through, somewhat garbled but understandable. It was clear she hadn't expected anything to come of the attempt, and she quickly slipped into a practiced professionalism that implied military training. "This is Ms. Marvel." Something exploded in the background. "I'm with Thor now. I was able to release the prisoners on the lower level, but I didn't find Hawkeye or Iron Man. Is Cap...?"
"I'm here," Steve jumped in. "Iron Man and Hawkeye are with us. We're on our way out now—where are you?"
"They've got a whole lot of weapons here, Cap," Ms. Marvel said. "Well...had." Another explosion. "Lucky for them, we've left them just enough ships to get home on."
There was a crackling on the other end. "All pacified, of course," Thor added from somewhere in the background.
"Of course," Ms. Marvel said. There was no mistaking the amusement in her voice. "We've got 'em on the run, Cap. I'm not sure how things are on your end, or outside, but here there aren't many left to put up a fight."
Steve nodded, more for his and Jan's benefit, since she couldn't see. The halls had gone almost entirely quiet. Other than the two that had snuck up on him, and the ones he and Hawkeye had faced on the way in, he hadn't met much resistance. Their numbers were definitely dwindling.
"Good. I want you to take care of as many of those weapons as you can, and then get out. And don't push it—we've done our share of rescue missions for the day," Steve added. "Regroup with the warriors outside when you're finished. If we're not out yet, ask for Ch'el."
"Can do, Cap," she said. "Marvel out."
Jan flicked the radio off and tossed it up in the air lightly. She turned to Steve questioningly. He shifted his grip on Tony, whose eyebrow ticked at being jostled around. He looked like he might be waking up soon.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Steve said.
Despite being down a majority of its population, the village was surprisingly lively when they returned. Clint led the Avengers through the catwalks despite not actually knowing the way, followed by Thor, surprisingly graceful despite how small the walkways were for him, and Jan and Carol, who both deigned to fly.
Tony woke just as they met up with Ms. Marvel on the plains and had immediately demanded that Steve let him walk. He’d grudgingly agreed, but stayed plastered by Tony’s side through the duration of the trip anyway. Tony had leaned on him heavily the whole time—the strain on his heart had clearly taken its toll.
Steve almost wished he was still unconscious, now. The slight wobble in Tony’s step was giving him gray hairs, especially with the walkways too narrow to offer him much support than a gentle hand at his back to steady him. At least if he was still asleep he wouldn’t have protested Steve carrying him.
There was a small congregation gathered around Rork’s house. Rork must have been waiting for them to arrive, because as soon as he saw them he was waving them frantically over.
“Your… telephone? It’s working.” Tony shook off Steve’s shoulder, not even bothering to correct Rork, and pushed up to the front of the crowd.
“Is that a language?” he heard Sue ask, and Tony looked like he wanted to cry.
“They cannot understand us,” Rork said, pointing to the translator, “but they have been asking for you, and they become very interested when we say your names.”
“Reed?” Tony asked. There was a beat of silence before three voices replied, all urgent and loud. He heard Reed and Sue, asking if it was him, and Hank’s voice as well, immediately asking after Jan. A moment later, Hank seemed to realize who he was talking to.
“Wait… Tony? What—”
“Explain later,” Steve said. “Reed, how long before you can come get us?”
“We’re already prepping the ship,” Sue said. “Four weeks. A little more.”
“Is Jan okay?” Hank asked again. “What happened?”
“Everyone’s fine,” Steve said, at the same time Tony said, “It was a planet. They were cloaking the planets they came across, not destroying them.”
“Well, I think Hank’s going to get a kick out of this—” Tony began.
“Steve,” Carol cut in quietly. She put a hand on his elbow and led Steve away from the radio, and Tony slipped into the spot he vacated seamlessly. “Why don’t you let me do this?” She nodded at Tony. He was leaning hard against the table in an attempt to stay upright. His enthusiasm over finally contacting the Fantastic Four was only doing so much, and he looked ready to drop.
Steve nodded. “I’ll leave it to you.” Steve stepped up behind Tony, and his hand closed over Tony’s where he held the receiver. He carefully removed it from Tony’s grip and then handed it off to Carol. “Come on, Tony.”
“Okay, but just let me—”
“Ms. Marvel can take it from here. Everything else can wait. Come on,” Steve said, tugging lightly on Tony’s hand.
Tony looked ready to protest again, but then he looked at Steve’s earnest expression and all of the fight left him in a rush. He nodded distractedly, looking around for Rork.
“Are those rooms you put us up in still available?” Tony asked.
“I believe yes. You remember the way?” Rork asked.
“We can manage,” Steve said.
Once they were out on the walkways Tony seemed to deflate even more, sagging like a marionette with cut strings. He’d been putting on a strong front, for the villagers’ benefit or maybe for the other Avengers, but it was clearly getting too tiring to keep up. Steve laid a hand on the small of Tony’s back, not supporting (he didn’t think Tony would appreciate the gesture) but steadying at least. He wanted nothing more than to pick him up and carry him the rest of the way, but he resisted the urge as they wound through the spider-web of walkways leading to their rooms.
The house was empty when they stepped inside, and the door to Steve’s room was hanging open invitingly. Tony hesitated for a brief moment. His gaze flicked between Steve’s room and the hall leading to his own, almost too quick for Steve to notice. He pushed past Steve as though on autopilot, starting down the hall to his own room.
Ton looked a little surprised when Steve caught him by the wrist and pulled him gently toward his room.
“I thought…” Tony trailed off as Steve pulled him inside. He shut the door with his hip, and then gave up all pretenses of patience and pressed Tony gently against the door. He kissed him long and slow, nipping gently at his bottom lip.
“Are you complaining?” Steve murmured against his lips.
“No,” Tony said automatically, “definitely no.”
“You could have died.” Steve hooked both hands under Tony’s thighs and lifted him easily, carrying him the last few feet over to the bed. Tony huffed a little noise in protest, but it was swallowed against Steve’s lips. He pulled back, tipping his head back as Steve dropped to his knees on the cushion. He laid Tony down gently and settled his weight over him just as carefully.
“I’m okay, Steve.”
“It was too close,” Steve said, “and it would have been—we didn’t even get to properly make it up to each other.” Steve nosed the hollow beneath Tony’s jaw, and Tony shivered, made a low throaty noise that was lost on a breathy exhale. “You could have died,” Steve repeated.
“You couldn’t have known that,” Tony said.
“Don’t say that. We’re Avengers. This kind of thing, it comes with the job. I knew it was a possibility, and I was being stubborn anyway.” Steve pressed a fierce kiss to Tony’s lips, his jaw, his neck. He paused, pressing his cheek to Tony’s skin, just above the chest plate. “I was so scared I was going to lose you,” he said quietly.
“Well, you didn’t,” Tony said uncomfortably. “I’m right here.”
Tony leaned in to kiss him, but when Tony lifted his hips to try to get some friction between them, Steve planted a hand on his waist and pushed them firmly down. “I need you to explain some things to me. Why you need the chest plate, how it works, what to do—what to do if—”
“Okay. Okay, Steve, I will, just not right now. Right now I want…"
“Promise me,” Steve said, because this was important, “that you’ll tell me everything.”
“I promise, fuck, don’t tease. Steve,” Tony whispered against his throat, enraptured.
Steve nodded, making a noise in the back of his throat as Tony sucked a bruise onto his neck. He kissed him hard, then paused, panting, “Tony, wait. I don’t have anything, lube, condoms—”
“I don’t care, I don’t Care. God, I wanted to do this forever.” Tony pressed another open mouthed kiss to his neck.
“You have?” Steve asked.
“Of course,” Tony said incredulously. “Jesus, have you seen yourself?”
Steve frowned. “Why didn’t you then? Why wait?”
Tony had the grace to look apologetic. “It would have been hard to explain why I was wearing Iron Man’s chest plate in the bedroom. I couldn’t exactly keep it hidden from you once the clothes started coming off.” Tony kissed him sweetly on the mouth. “And you were such a gentleman, too. It was torture.”
Steve could relate. To think they could have had more all this time, if not for… “I wish you wouldn’t hide things from me,” Steve said.
“That’s funny, I was just thinking the same thing,” Tony said, worming his fingers beneath the tight leather of Steve suit and tugging.
“Tony, I’m serious,” Steve said, but he lifted his hips obligingly anyway.
“I won’t, I’m sorry,” Tony said, pulling Steve’s uniform pants down roughly before squirming out of his own. Steve leaned up to peel off his mail shirt, Tony’s hands already roaming up his chest and down his flank.
Steve dropped the shirt to the floor, and Tony stilled underneath him. He turned back to give Tony a curious look. Tony’s eyes were on his neck, and Steve glanced down and understood. Tony reached out to grasp the dog tags, and Steve’s hand closed around his as he ducked his head to pull them off.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, “for losing them, before.” He really did look sorry, but it wasn’t an expression Steve wanted to see on him, especially when it wasn’t Tony’s fault.
Steve shook his head and looped them over Tony’s neck. They clinked against the chest plate, tugged down by gravity, and Tony pressed a hand over them there.
“Perfect,” Steve said.
Tony grinned. “You’re such a sap,” he said affectionately, and arched up to meet him, peppering his cheek and jaw with sloppy kisses as he moved downward.
Steve slid his hands up the smooth curve of the chest plate, eyes roaming. Tony’s shirt was still on. Tony shrugged a little self-consciously. “Not much point to taking it off,” Tony said, noticing Steve’s gaze. “God, you’re gorgeous.” He said it breathlessly, like he couldn’t believe that he was so lucky.
“Tony,” Steve said, trapping his hands against his side. He looked at him seriously. “So are you. You’re perfect.”
Tony blinked, and then laughed. “Okay,” he said. Tony squirmed underneath him and Steve let him go. His hand went straight to Steve’s cock, and Steve gasped. He rested his forehead against Tony’s as Tony tugged him to full hardness. “Tell me what you want, Steve.”
Steve’s throat clicked on a swallow. “Just, just like this. Here, let me—” He wrapped one hand over Tony’s, pinning both of their cocks between them, and rolled his hips slowly. Tony made a breathy noise that sent a shiver down Steve’s spine. He thrust again, a little more forcefully, and Tony moaned, moving his hips up to match Steve’s.
“God, Tony,” Steve breathed. He slid the other hand up Tony’s hip, trailing his fingertips over the sweat-damp skin and up to rest on the chest plate. The metal was cool under his palm even through the fabric of Tony’s shirt. Tony reached up as though to stop him, then realized that he didn’t have to anymore and let the hand drop back to Steve’s waist.
“Sorry, habit,” he said. Tony thrust up against him in earnest, his free hand digging into the muscle of Steve’s hip. He sucked a bruise on Steve’s neck, just above the collarbone, and then traced the spot with his tongue.
“It’s—fine,” Steve said, marveling at the way his voice managed not to break. Steve plucked Tony’s hand from where it rested against his hip, twined their fingers together and pressed it into the mattress.
Steve leaned down to kiss him, and Tony leaned up to meet him, trying to focus on the kiss and their hands and the motion of their hips all at once. Steve ground his hips down, leaning more of his weight into Tony, pinned him and rutted against him while Tony whined and writhed.
“I love you,” Steve said. Tony bucked and moaned and sobbed Steve’s name, and light sparked behind his eyelids as he came, Tony not far behind but surprisingly quiet, with only a soft little catch of breath before he shuddered and came.
Steve pressed a wet kiss to the hollow of Tony’s throat and shifted over so he wasn’t entirely on top of him. He flopped down, boneless, ignoring the way the hard edge of the chest plate pressed into his side. Tony pressed his cheek into Steve’s hair and exhaled softly.
The exhaustion of the day was beginning to catch up to him, and Tony hummed quietly when Steve traced a thumb across Tony’s cheek.
“I love you, too,” Tony mumbled. He wriggled over a little, trying to separate them so that the chest plate was no longer digging into Steve’s side, but Steve was having none of it. He tugged him back gently, and Tony didn’t really bother protesting. There was a moment’s pause, then, “We should clean up, or check on…check on the others...” He sighed, making no move to follow through with either suggestion.
“We should sleep,” Steve said. “It can wait.”
“And then we’ll talk,” Tony added, saying the words like they were sour on his tongue.
“That, too,” Steve agreed. They had a lot to talk about, and it wasn’t all personal. There was still so much that needed to be done in order to guarantee that the Kytin were going to leave, not to mention the matter of how they were going to get home, and what they were going to do in the meantime. Really, Steve should be out there, representing the Avengers, but all he wanted to do was lie here with Tony. He shifted his arms around Tony, settling, and breathed a little contented sigh when Tony leaned into the crook of his neck.
“Tomorrow,” Steve promised.