Chapter 1: Elegant Eclipse
It was dark. It was dark and he was weightless and no this wasn't possible the portal was he’d been home this wasn't real it couldn't be real nonono-
And it wasn't a nightmare, couldn't be, because he’d never been self-aware enough in them to wonder if he was, and god, he’d raged against the nightmares, refused sleep and chugged coffee, he’d wished so hard that they’d go away but at that moment, weightless in the dark, the very real dark and choking on the lack of air, he’d do anything for him to wake up.
His lungs were still working, too-short gasps but it didn't matter because the suit didn’t have an oxygen supply and he was going to asphyxiate-
But, he was still breathing. He should’ve passed out from lack of oxygen by now.
Tony opened his eyes, and blinked.
He wasn't in the suit. Actually, now that he noticed it, he wasn't wearing anything except for underwear, but he wasn't cold.
Not like the other side of the portal had been. So, there was that.
It wasn't dark, either. Or, it was , but not entirely, thanks to the reactor, and a diffuse bluish light coming from somewhere else.
He jerked out of the ball he’d apparently been curled in, and grunted when his head hit something and sent him floating slowly towards the centre of the…
He was definitely in a room. Some kind of space station, maybe, a length of hallway, maybe the joining point between other sections of the station, but the lights he could see were dark. God, he hoped it wasn't going to run out of air.
That would be a horrible way to die.
His hand bumped into something cool and metallic, and he looked down. A small silver sphere covered in lines and small circles, about the size of a softball, was floating near his hand. Aside from him, the ball was the only thing in the room with him. There were doors on two opposite sides, and…
Stars cold space no no NO-
Tony spun away from the window, breathing harshly. Well, if there had been any uncertainty about his location, that was long gone. God damnit. He wanted to scream, to yell and rage and hit something. But, he had no idea how much oxygen this place had and he couldn't afford to use any more than necessary.
How had he even gotten here? He’d been sitting with the team, eating indian food and fighting over which movie they were going to watch.
He couldn't remember anything past that, even though he knew there had to be something. He looked back down at the sphere, the smooth shape that seemed to fit perfectly in his palm. He could see it. Where he could twist, press on the carved circular divots. His hands moved, pressing and twisting, the same motions he’d seen in his mind’s eye.
He dropped it as if it’d burned him, and it floated unassumingly in front of him. “Yeah, no thanks, Mr. strange alien Rubix cube. I am not opening you.” He snapped, but after a moment of hesitation, he snatched it out of the air.
The movement spun him, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the window, his heart beating too hard in his chest, his breaths coming too fast.
He turned, until he was not facing the window anymore, and opened his eyes.
He considered the door. Ok, ok. He could do this. He moved robotically, in small jerks, still clutching the sphere in his hand for some reason, he didn't know, but it was him and it and nothing else and something inside of him felt wrong thinking about leaving it behind. He stretched, as far as he could, and swore when his hand just missed the railing.
He flailed, kicking like he was swimming and waving his arms, and finally , when he stretched out, he managed to hook a couple fingers around the bar, and pulled himself close to the wall. He hunched there for a minute, almost hugging the bar and irrationally unwilling to let go in case he floated back into the center and couldn't get back out.
Tony took a deep breath, just to prove he could, and kicked off the wall, launching himself towards one of the doors, which had a wheel in the center, like a submarine hatch. He did not look back at the window.
It was a little tricky to open the door without the leverage that came from gravity, but eventually, the door opened with an ominous creaking noise, and he pushed himself out into the hallway. First things first, find the engine room, assess the air situation, try to get power back. Power meant water, hopefully, and water meant not dying from dehydration.
The place was freaking him out, silent and dark and still, and Tony couldn't stop himself from looking around corners and over his shoulder at every opportunity, even though he knew it was empty, which was a concern in itself.
It didn't help that Tony had watched Clint play a horror game that had a setting almost exactly like this, perched on the arm of the couch on his way down to the workshop. It’d been fun, in the light of day, watching as Clint mowed down alien after alien with exaggerated movements of the controller.
It didn't seem so fun now. He really hoped that whichever aliens had built this weren’t giant murderous spiders.
He was going to burn that game when he got home. When. It had to be when . He couldn't think about what would happen if he didn't, couldn't get back to earth. Back to Pepper and Rhodey and JARVIS and the bots and his team.
So, he locked that thought up in a tiny little box, and set it on fire. Sure, the smoke and fumes from it were probably toxic, but he couldn't deal with it any other way.
There were doors on the sides of the hallway he was in, automatic sliding doors, but without power, he had to force them open.
The room inside was little more than a closet, with drawers on the walls and bits of shelf that could fold out, but the most telling thing about it was that the entire far wall contained a sleeping bag, along with straps to keep the occupant from floating around. There were marks on the wall from pictures or callenders or just where random trinkets had been kept, and the fact that the place had been so obviously lived in gave him the creeps.
He’d been operating under the assumption that the station had been constructed by drones, and the aliens who would be living here were still in transit.
But they obviously had. They had , and they’d left, and the station was floating in space, abandoned and quiet.
Something had made them leave.
Tony hoped he wasn't going to run into whatever had forced them out.
He opened one of the drawers, searching for weapons or tools or rations, anything he could use , and instead found neatly-folded clothes.
He shrugged, and pulled them out. It wasn't like whoever they belonged to was going to miss them.
A couple minutes later, he left the room, and continued down the hall. The clothes were remarkably human-shaped, but the style was odd. Like someone had tried to combine pirate garb from the 1600’s with SHIELD's more futeristic attempts at body armor, but they were comfortable, and he kinda liked them.
He’d also found a hand-crank flashlight, the kind that made a really, really loud whirring sound when you cranked it to charge the battery, almost identical to one he was sure he had been trying to upgrade back home. Pretty shitty tech, really, but he was glad that he didn't have to go shirtless, or cut holes in his clothes to use the arc reactor as a light.
He’d gotten better at moving in zero gravity, launching himself along the hallways with pulls on the railings, using his momentum to spin around corners. It should have been fun, kicking off walls and shooting through the air, but it was just another reminder that he was trapped and alone and in space .
Something was wrong. He didn't know what , the fog of panic and fear too much, too thick for him to think properly, but something was wrong . He felt it in his bones, in his skin, like the rules of reality had shifted, a single number out of place, like the shape of the universe was different.
The further he got into the station, the more certain of that he became.
See, this place couldn't have been built by humans. Humans hadn't even made it to Mars yet, and from the glimpses out the windows that he couldn't quite avoid, he wasn't in the solar system. The station wasn't even near a star , which was concerning and exciting in equal measure.
Except, everywhere he went, things just felt human. The size of the doors, the placement of handrails, the layout and the beds , the clothes , hell, even the abundance of windows just screamed humanness at him. The temperature, the makeup of the air, the spacing and the type of the lights.
All of it was very, undeniably, human .
But that was impossible.
Humans didn't have the technology to do this, at least not yet, but-
He propelled himself into a large area, where multiple hallways joined up, and stopped dead.
There, on the wall across from him, was the familiar eagle of the SHIELD logo.
Tony tilted his head until the logo was upright. No, not SHIELD’s logo. This one was older, bronze instead of the light grey he was used to, and the eagle was less stylized, sharper, it’s wings extending past the circular border.
This was a SSR station, the same SSR that had ceased to exist a half a century ago, at the end of the war.
But what if, a voice whispered, insistent and terrifying, what if it was more than half a century? What if it was far more?
He was in a SSR space station, millions of miles from home, and he had no idea how any of it was possible.
Chapter 2: Voices of the Ghosts
Did you know that the coffee machine on the international space station is called the ISSpresso? Because I think that is awesome.
Needless to say, Tony was freaking the fuck out. Internally, because he couldn't afford to waste his possibly limited oxygen by screaming and shouting, but freaking out nonetheless.
Yelling was out, but he’d decided that hyperventilating was ok. Not that he had much choice in the matter, his lungs seemed hellbent on not doing their goddamn job , quick not-breaths that were definitely not getting his blood enough oxygen.
He wondered, distantly, if he was going to pass out. He kind of wanted that to happen, if only so that he could wake up .
Yeah, he was still hoping that this was all some sort of fucked up nightmare. Or a hallucination. Unfortunately, Tony was well-versed enough with hallucinations of all kinds, drug-induced, fever-dreams, and even, on a couple of magnificently shitty occasions, magical comas.
This was real. He was absolutely certain of that.
He was still working on how it was real, be it time-travel, or just teleportation to some secret war-time SSR base light years away from a star.
...The last one was a little far-fetched, but considering the abilities of the tesseract, they could have built a transport that let them build a base out here.
When his breathing finally calmed down enough that his vision stopped swimming, Tony pushed himself closer to the emblem, and squinted at the writing around it.
Unsurprisingly, Strategic Scientific Reserve was written in the border.
Except it wasn't written in English. It wasn't written in any language Tony knew.
That normally wouldn't be a problem. No one could know every language ever, and who’s to say English wouldn't eventually evolve to be unrecognisable? Tony certainly hadn't been expecting to understand anything on the station, considering he’d thought it was alien at first.
He could read it. Clear as day, he could understand it. It wasn't English, wasn't any language that he’d ever come across, and he could still read it .
Tony took the sphere out of his pocket, and glared at it. “I have the feeling that this is your fault.” He said, and wow. That was pathetic. He’d barely been alone for an hour, and he was already talking to a decorative paperweight. And a useless one, at that. The sphere didn't do anything, per se, but he felt that it was judging him, though that could just be him slowly going mad. He shoved it back in his pocket. “I’m still not opening you.” He muttered, and kicked off the wall further into the ship.
Engine room. He could find the engine room, or a lab, or honestly, he’d settle for some sort of mess hall, or command room, or hell, even an armory . Anywhere with something he could use .
And, knowing SHIELD, there was going be labs and workshops and armouries.
It was darker away from the exterior hallways, but if that was the only price to pay for being away from the goddamn windows, he’d take it.
The flashlight was pretty good anyways, so long as he stopped occasionally to crank it. Well, that certainly explained the presence of the flashlight. Honestly, he was almost leaning towards his more far-fetched theory. The tesseract had already been shown to be able to move people and objects through space, like him and a nuke and an alien army- and SHIELD, or the SSR, had plenty of time to experiment.
The fact that the station was out in the middle of nowhere only supported his theory. If they had been able to set the location, Tony had no doubt that SHIELD would’ve put it in Earth orbit. He chucked. Much easier to start world domination when you were, you know, actually near the world .
He wasn't going to jump to conclusions, though. It could still be time travel.
Tony tried to swallow, and it caught in his throat. If it was time travel, who knew how long it’d taken for human civilisation to get out here.
Who knew how long he’d be gone.
Who knew who else was still alive .
Pulling himself further along the handrails, he shook his head viciously. God, was this how Steve had felt? When - if, it was if, the maliciously pessimistic part of his brain whispered, it was always if and no amount of denial was going to change that- he got home, he was going to do better with Steve.
Oh, who was he kidding? When he got home, he was going to lock himself in his lab and drink . Maybe try to get Steve drunk. He knew Steve had said it was impossible, but he was Tony Stark. He would find a way.
There was a door on his right, larger than the other ones that had just signified the closet-like rooms, and he pushed over to it, curious.
It took a couple minutes, and nearly more strength than he possessed, but he got it open.
And when he saw the inside, he couldn't stop his face from breaking into a grin. Mess-hall. Sweet .
He pushed his way through the tables and chairs, that were on both the ceiling and the floor, towards the serving area he could see, which hopefully connected to a kitchen. Or anywhere with food.
His stomach rumbled as if to hurry him up, and he floated into the kitchen. At first glance, it seemed empty and food-less, but there were drawers and cabinets and they were all filled with food .
He opened a packet of what looked like beef jerky immediately, unconcerned about toxicity, considering this was a human station, and tore off a large piece with his teeth while he opened what looked like a freezer.
Nothing in it would be edible , but if there was ice in it at any point, he’d at least have water.
Imagine his surprise when he opened the door, and felt cold . “So, power in the goddamn freezer is more important that the lights.” He muttered, leaning further into the freezer to try to figure out how it was still operating. And why it was the only piece of tech that was .
The back panel had a quick-release latch, and he removed it, ignoring the container of ice, the tubes of yogurt, various meats, and what looked like little single-serve packets of frozen smoothies.
Well, that would explain it. Copper pipes, winding back and forth, coated in a layer of frost. That was… fairly clever, actually. Why waste energy on cooling things, if you could get the infinite void of space to do it for you?
Tony shrugged, and replaced the panel, before shoving a couple tubes of yogurt and smoothies in his pockets and closing the freezer and looking back around at the kitchen.
A couple minutes, he’d left with his haul, 3 bars of various composition, 2 smoothies, 4 tubes of yogurt, a pack of beef jerky, and a water bottle filled with ice. There had been a coffee maker in the dining room, and the first thing he was going to do once he found some tools was rig the thing up to get some sweet, sweet, caffeine. The labels were all written in not-english, which he was steadfastly not thinking about. Some sort of translation matrix, probably. Though SHIELD didn't have that kind of tech.
He was sticking with his “it’s all the sphere’s fault” theory. He did not trust the damn thing, but it was too important to leave behind.
All in all, he wasn't going to starve, he wasn't going to dehydrate, and was probably not going to freeze.
Jury was still out on the oxygen, but the areas of the station he was in now were seeming more and more like spaces people were using, not just the crew quarters. He opened storage closet after storage closet as he continued exploring the station, but unfortunately, most of them were empty.
So far, he had come to one conclusion. The place was massive , bigger than the helicarrier. He started forcing open another door, bracing himself on the railing and pushing. He wasn't really expecting much at that point, but he had to check. The door squeaked as it opened, a horrible grating sound, but Tony didn't even notice it. Instead, he let out a cheer at the large black box velcro to the wall. “ Hell yes!” He whooped, tugging himself towards the equivalent of the holy grail, and opened the latch to reveal dozens of tools, held into the box by magnets.
Tony just barely resisted kissing the damn thing. “You,” He said, flipping through the tools with glee, “Are mine now .”
One of the wall panels he’d removed bumped into his head, and Tony grumbled before shoving it away with the hand that wasn't elbow-deep in wires. There was a crash as it collided with the opposite wall, and he sighed, the swore as the flashlight, which he’d been holding in his mouth, floated away from him, sending the light dancing.
So, working in 0-g had some unique challenges. Not any he couldn't work around, of course, but still.
It was a little tricky to get used to.
...Not that he wanted to get used to it. Getting used to it would mean he would have to be here for longer, which meant not getting home as quick.
He finally found the cable that he’d been looking for, an absolute beast of a wire that probably carried the power for the whole ship through it’s walls. As he suspected, there was none. He’d still had to check, though, in case there was power, and it was the station systems preventing it from reaching it’s destination.
Wiring the reactor into it was an option, as in he could physically do it, but unless he knew the power draw of the station it was too risky. Unless he needed to use it to power whatever was keeping this place oxygenated, it was staying right where it belonged.
He dis-tangled himself from the wires, and pushed himself away, not bothering to re-attach the wall. He didn't really care if there was a mess of wire spaghetti and a wall panel floating around in a hallway, and it wasn't like anyone else was there to care.
So, he left the wall as-is, packed up his tools, and continued to where he was pretty sure this place had their labs, based on where the majority of the power was going. Lab first, see what they were doing here, and then to the engine room to try to get the place up and running again, maybe see what computer systems they had.
The wall above him was glass-paneled, allowing him to see into what looked like some sort of medical lab.
He floated over to the door, and tried to force it open. Unlike the others, which sometimes needed a little bit of elbow grease, but would eventually squeak into submission, this one didn't budge. He tried again, bracing on the railing and kicking with all his strength.
Tony swore. He really should’ve expected some of the doors to be locked. He looked for a keypad, any sort of access, and found nothing.
Well, there was one thing for it. He took the sphere out of his pocket, throwing it between his hands and gauging its mass. “Sorry, buddy.” He apologised, and wound up to throw. “But I really want to get in there.” He said, and hurled the sphere at the glass wall as hard as he could.
The wall shattered, and Tony covered his face with his arms to protect it from the spray of broken glass. After a minute, he looked up.
In hindsight, shattering a window in 0-g might not have been the best idea, he thought, brushing carefully past the tiny safety-glass shards and into the room, scooping up the sphere as he passed.
There was something glowing in the back, and he made a beeline to it.
Tony froze as soon as he saw the source of the light, stopped even more completely than when he’d saw the SSR logo.
Because there, in some sort of pod-bed thing , blue-lipped and pale as the dead, was Steve.
Chapter 3: Skeletons of Ships
You know what pisses me off? The fact that the apollo missions were named after the SUN god. Screw the pluto debated, the apollo program SHOULD have been named the Artemis Program and I will defend that to my dying day.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tony had no idea how long he’d been working.
Usually, he had JARVIS to remind him that he should really be sleeping, and if that failed, there was always a clock somewhere, or the sun, some repeating pattern that he could base the cycle of the day on.
Even if that cycle was guard switches and threats.
But, he had no one. For one of the first times since he’d built Dummy, so, so many years ago, he was completely, utterly alone.
Even back in the early days at MIT and boarding school, before he’d met Rhodey, he could always at least look out the window and see people.
Hell, even back in the cave there’d been people.
Well, technically, he wasn't alone, because Steve was there, but really? Tony wasn't counting Steve until he woke up.
So, he was alone. Which was probably why he was talking to the sphere.
Well, he was talking to himself , mostly, but if Tony could keep a shred of dignity by pretending he was taking to something , he’d do it.
After all, half the reason he’d built Dummy was so people stopped looking at him like he was crazy when he muttered to himself over his latest project, a textbook, or just a mug of too-strong coffee.
“You see, here, this is shit. Absolute shit .” Tony said, gesturing at the sphere with his wrench to make his point before digging back into the absolutely massive battery array that covered a good portion of the engine room. “What the hell is wrong with solid-state? Really, why are they still using lithium-ion?” He said, re-wiring the battery to the rest of the network and moving on to the next one. 15 down, about 10 dozen to go. Fun.
But, if the batteries still had juice in them, and he could hook them all up right, then he could get life support and the computer back online without having to mess with the RTG.
Even Tony wasn't enough of an idiot to open up a box of pure radiation without some serious precedence.
He said as much to the sphere, who, because it was not a paper-weight , did not respond. “I don’t get why everyone thinks I’m so irresponsible with these things.”
The sphere just kept floating, somehow managing to appear judgemental.
Tony glared at it, and rolled his eyes. “Fine, I might not have the best track record, here, but I’m still alive, and that counts for something , doesn't it?”
The sphere, because again , it was a fucking inanimate, did not respond. At least Tony hadn't stooped so low as to name it yet, but really, it was a matter of time before things went full Cast-Away, complete with drawing a face on the damn thing and calling it Wilson.
Tony snorted, before floating along to the next battery. Wilson was a stupid name anyway. His anthropomorphized ball of issues would have a much cooler name.
Not that it was going to have a name.
That would be one thing too many on the pile of crazy that currently made up Tony’s life.
So Tony continued working, replacing the damaged connections to the batteries one after another.
And if occasionally, if he’d stick out his hand like Dummy would be there with a tool he needed, or ask JARVIS to note some idea or another, if sometimes the creaking and groaning of the station’s hull sounded a little too much like the wind around the Tower or the crashing ocean in Malibu, if he forgot where he was, not for long, just a split second but even that was long enough for remembering to hurt...
No one was around to see it.
The lights flickered on, one after another, and Tony grinned before shoving off of the breaker panel and towards the nearest computer terminal.
Just two more things to fix, and then he could wake up Steve.
The computer took it’s sweet time booting up, well, not a long time, a couple seconds, maybe, but much longer than his computers. “Oh joy .” Tony said as the screen finally blinked to life, showing a login screen.
Tony ignored being able to read the not-english, and hacked into the computer with ease. Even if it was on a space-station an unknown number of years into the future, all tech bowed to Tony’s genius.
Even shitty space-windows computers with screens thicker than shit Tony had made in the 90’s . Seriously.
The computer was networked, presumably with others on the station, and Tony dove into them with glee. Getting life support back on was no trouble at all, a press of a button and the machinery around him hummed to life, and Tony hadn't realised how stale the air was until fresh, cool air flooded the room.
The next thing he did was try to find any information he could. About the date, about Steve, about what the hell this place was, but he didn't have much luck. Either all the important data was locked away in paper files somewhere, or on a different networked computer, but nothing on this one.
The time and date was a similar issue. The clocks had reset as during the power cut, and no other mentions of the date were made anywhere else.
There was one thing, though. All the computers on the station, because Tony checked them all, hacked into their webcam to make sure the lights were on everywhere , not just in the engine room, all their designations started with HE-005, which was presumably the name of the station.
There was one, though. Firewalled to holy hell and back, with the designation OL-01.
So, in between bites of jerky and mouthfuls of tubed yogurt, Tony started to hack his way in. The security on the thing was beefy , to say the least, way more than he’d expected. Really, even the system that controlled the life support was child’s play to hack.
This was anything but. Tony, of course, still managed to break in, first to the reasonably unsecured stuff, which he skimmed. Most of it was personnel files, inventories, stuff like that. Nothing interesting by itself, but the locations and names and items were very telling.
Station AR-008 - Suply Run Inventory
Viophus System - Ambassador Transport
Argos Fleet 16 - Crew Rotation Delayed - Solar Storm
Tony blew out a breath. Yeah, space. He was in space. He knew that, but it was different seeing it written out. It was different being the only one, than having humanity advance to be able to have fleets , and colonised systems , none of which he’d been there to see.
It was different to really see just how much he’d missed.
He allowed himself a moment, and dove back into the files. He was so preoccupied with breaking through the code, that he didn't notice the warning ping that was sent out.
In hindsight, Tony really should’ve noticed that ping, because less than 5 minutes later lines of code flickered over the computer’s screen, and the whole system went dead.
He swore, and punched at the on button.
Unsurprisingly, nothing happened.
The intercom system cracked, and Tony stared at it.
“This is the SS Adrasteia. Unregistered Station. Identify.” A vaguely female voice, distorted by the quality of the speaker ordered, and Tony wanted to rip his hair out because she was speaking not-english, and Tony had no idea if he could even respond.
Tony pressed the intercom button. “Uhhhhh, HE-005?” He said in English, wincing when it came out as a question. That probably shouldn't've been a question.
There was silence for a second. “You are under arrest. We will be boarding. Do not attempt to flee or resist. Adrasteia out.”
Tony groaned, running his hands through his hair. Quickly, he snatched the sphere and shoved it in his pocket. Some of the smaller tools went in better-hidden places, as did his makeshift lockpicks.
Tony pushed his way out of the engine room, down to the corridor, and to the exterior wall. He braced himself, and glanced out the window. Nothing. Tony swore to himself, and took off towards a different side of the station until he caught sight of the Adrasteia.
It was nothing like the station. Sleek and dangerous looking, bristling with well-hidden weapons, the engines burning a cool blue-purple.
The tech was only the second thing he noticed, however, because painted on the nose, there was a large A, enclosed in a partial circle.
Tony pushed away, breathing heavily, and rushed towards the row of airlocks it looked to be aiming to dock with. It had to be a coincidence. The name of the ship started with an A, after all, and circles were common design elements.
It had to be, or Tony was pretty sure he would scream .
He flew to a halt outside the airlock, and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. In no time at all, the airlock opened, and three people floated out gracefully.
And Tony had thought that he was pretty good at navigating in 0-g.
They were wearing full spacesuits, though they were so sleek, and the face masks so small, that Tony barely recognized them. “Hi.” Tony said.
They exchanged a glance, unreadable through their helmets. “Identify yourself.” One of them, the taller one, said. There was something familiar to his voice, but the helmet distorted it so much that Tony couldn't put his finger on it.
Tony resisted the urge to grimace. “My name’s Tony.” He said, because they were all carrying weapons and he very much did not want to be shot. Or tazed. “Who are you?”
None of them said anything, at least that Tony could hear, but one of them split, heading up the corridor, away from where Tony had come from. One of them was still staring at him, and the other was holding up a small flat device. “We are the crew of the SS Adrasteia, of SHIELD.” One of them, the woman, said.
Tony swore his heart stopped, and made his decision in a split second. “Steve. Steve Rogers. He’s in one of the labs, you have to wake him up.” Tony blurted.
The two SHIELD agents exchanged another look. “Captain Rogers is dead. He died nearly 150 standard years ago.” The woman said, and turned to her companion. “Arrest him.” She said, and Tony had no time to react before the other agent had his hands cuffed behind his back, and was giving him a pat down.
“Wait a fucking second! Hey-” Tony started, as the agent took the sphere, his tools, his lockpicks, and the knife he’d stolen from the kitchen and tucked them into his belt bag. “I’m not against SHIELD! And, Rogers is fine . Wake him up!” Tony called to the retreating woman, struggling as he was pushed into the other ship.
He touched something on a wall panel, and Tony was suddenly stuck to the ceiling and being dragged through the ship by his cuffs. They let him go just before a opaque glass wall, and Tony closed his eyes, bracing for the impact.
None came. Tony opened his eyes again, managing to somersault in mid-air just in time to kick off the back wall, back to the glass wall. He collided with a crash.
So, he was in space-jail now. Fan-fucking-tastic.
The cuffs unlocked with a click, and flew up to what Tony was comfortable calling the ceiling, despite the lack of up or down to differentiate, before zooming out of his cell.
Tony rubbed his wrists, which were a little sore from all the yanking around, and began inspecting his cell. There was… not much.
Nothing he could use, most certainly. Everything made of a smooth, dark-grey metal, the walls and floors nearly seamlessly connected.
There was nothing he could do , either, and so he waited.
Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long before the glass turned clear, showing two of the agents, still wearing masks, the woman who appeared to be in charge, and the man who’d cuffed him, floating outside his cell.
At the far end of the corridor, he could see the airlock closing, and panicked, he pushed towards the glass. “Steve, did you get Steve!?” He shouted.
The woman looked at him, and Tony could tell she thought he was crazy despite the fact that he couldn't see her face. “Again, Captain Rogers is dead .” Her head turned to the man, and she nodded. “Brace.” She said, and that was all the warning before a green light was running over the floor, a little like an aurora, and there was suddenly gravity again.
Tony, completely unprepared, fell flat on his ass with a grunt of pain.
That was nothing , however, to how unprepared he was when the woman took off her helmet.
Because staring back at him, absolutely no recognition on her face, just hostility and suspicion, was Natasha Romanoff.
So, can you guess who the other "agents" were? I bet you can. Fun fact, the name of the ship, Adrasteia, is another name for Nemesis, the Greek goddess of vengeance. I originally wanted to name the ship just Avenger, but that'd be too obvious. If there's one thing you should know about me, it's that anything I can name based on greek mythology, I will.
Chapter 4: Digging Deeper Down
We meet the crew of the Adrasteia, and Tony plots.
Sorry for the slow update, I was camping! Next one should be quicker.
Tony was pretty sure he was in an alternate reality, and he was absolutely certain of three things.
This was not his team.
These were not his friends.
And he could not trust them.
The only reason Tony wasn’t currently attempting to break out was the fact that the ship was moving through deep space and he had nowhere to go, and no ideas of how to get home.
If that was even possible. Well, obviously it was possible, he was here , that proved that it was physically possible.
What he didn't know was if he could fix this. If he could get home.
Not-Natasha's companions turned out to be Clint and Coulson, Coulson who was alive and unharmed and the relief of that nearly masked the hurt from all of them looking at him like a threat.
He wondered where Thor and Bruce were. He wondered if Thor or Bruce even existed here, in this world.
Right now, though, the force wall of his cell was back to its original opaque, and Tony was pacing, wearing a track into the cell as he lapped it. It wasn’t really big enough to lap comfortably, it was barely big enough for him to lie down lengthwise, but sue him, he’d missed gravity. Even though the gravity on the ship was slightly stronger than earth’s gravity, being firmly connected to the ground again, even if it was fake, made some of the lingering panic that he hadn't even noticed was there dissipate.
The solid connection between his feet and the floor, for lack of a better word, grounded him.
And, it wasn't like he had anything else to do besides think, and at the moment, his thoughts were not helpful.
At least there weren't any windows in his cell. That was a relief, but he would do anything for something to do.
Hell, he’d only been in here for… He didn't really know, no clocks or outside sounds apart from the near sub-audible humming coursing through the floor, nothing apart from him and the walls, and he was pretty sure at that point he’d sell his soul for a whiteboard marker.
He was debating trying to catch a nap on the protrusion from the wall passing as a bed when the force wall cleared, showing not-Natasha again.
He’d seen Natasha at work before. He’d seen her interrogate Loki, the master class in manipulation that made it very, very obvious that her work as Natalie Rushman was not the extent of her abilities. Having seen it, and therefore knowing what to expect, did not one bit prepare him for being stared down by the Natasha like he was an enemy. Like he was someone she had to break.
Back at the tower, when she took the last cup of coffee or destroyed someone sparring or even during a mission, Tony was wholly and entirely comfortable admitting that Natasha was fucking scary .
Here, with this Natasha that wore the face of his friend but was resolutely not , he was wholly capable of admitting that she was scary. He was a great deal less comfortable with it, though. So, he plastered on his fakest grin and tried to look relaxed, hoping to all of Thor’s buddies that the fact that this Natasha didn't know him meant that she couldn't read him as well. “I think there’s been a missun-”
“Full name.” She cut him off, brisk and to the point.
So, there obviously wasn’t another version of him, here, because if they had faster-than-light travel and not facial recognition, he’d eat his hat. Not that he had a hat. “Tony Stark. Again, I don’t-”
She cut him off with a tone so cold Tony was pretty sure the temperature in the room dropped. “Who do you work for.”
Yeah. He was not going to win this, but at least he knew how to play the game. Show some cards, some high cards, but keep his aces close to his chest. Despite the fact that nearly everything he’d learned from the past couple months after New York was that he could trust her, that she had his back on and off the battlefield.
Except this wasn't his Natasha. This wasn't his teammate and this wasn't his friend. “Nobody.” He said, and it wasn’t a lie, not really, but he wasn’t going to bring Pepper into this. If Pepper even existed here. That would be a sad universe, if Pepper didn’t exist.
Natasha’s expression didn’t change at all, like she’d expected his answer. “Funny.” She said, though her expression said that she didn’t think it was funny at all . “Hydra goons are usually more open about their allegiances.”
Tony blinked. “What the FUCK.” He said, too disbelieving to put any real heat into the words. “I am not fucking Hydra. Fuck no.” He said, shaking his head vigorously and waving his hands. “I would rather cut out my own liver with a rusty spork and eat it than join Hydra.” He said, and well, he didn’t need to be that graphic, but it was true.
Natasha arched an eyebrow, the first reaction she’d shown so far. “Ok. If you’re not Hydra, what are you?” She asked.
Shit. “Treasure hunter.” Tony blurted, the first thing that came to mind. Natasha said nothing, but her expression made it clear she didn’t believe him. “Saw the station, it looked old as hell but relatively intact, wasn’t registered so I went in to scout. As soon as I was in, my crew ditched me.” Tony said. As far as excuses went, it was pretty shitty, but also the only option he could see. He sure as hell wasn’t telling them he was from an alternate universe. That would only get him a one-way ticket to a lab somewhere deep in the bowels of SHIELD.
“And somehow that involved breaking into SHIELD’s secure server?” She asked, crossing her arms over her chest in disbelief.
“That’s what that was?” Tony blurted, and anytime his brain-to-mouth filter could start working, that’d be just great. He should’ve realised what it was sometime before this, but he’d kind of been more focused on, you know, not dying that it slipped his mind. At Natasha's stare, he continued. “I was just trying to get the life support online so I wouldn't, you know, die , and maybe find a way-” Home , his treacherous brain supplied, and he tripped over the words. “-off the station.” He finished lamely. Natasha opened her mouth to say something, but Coulson approached and the two began conversing in low tones.
Eventually, Coulson left, and Natasha looked at him, assessing. “Every second thing out of your mouth was a lie.” She said, matter of fact. “But not the important things. Last question,” She said, and pulled the sphere out from behind her. “What is this?”
“I don't know, paperweight, maybe.” He said, and it sounded bad, even to him.
The corner of Natasha's mouth pulled up in a grin. A small, sharp thing that meant she knew he was lying. “Can you open it?” She asked, and Tony couldn't stop himself from seeing, seeing where to push and where to twist, how easily he could do it.
“No.” He lied, the answer a fraction of a second too late, and if anything, Natasha’s grin got wider.
“Hm, thought so.” She said, spinning on her heel towards the far wall, and the ball disappeared as she tapped something into a wall panel. “A-shift, lights out. B-shift, we make port in 2.” She called, presumably to the rest of the crew, whoever they were. The lights in his cell darkened, though thankfully it was still light enough to see, the barrier blurring until it was opaque, and Tony was alone once more.
Tony resumed pacing, inconspicuous checking the cell for things he could exploit. There was a button on the side of the bench he hadn't noticed before, and curious, he pushed it. A thin blanket rolled out from the wall, and the surface softened, one end inflating to make a pillow.
Tony pushed the button again, and the blanket retracted, the pillow deflated, and the bed went back to a bench.
Sure, he could try to sleep, but after the day he'd had, it would only end in nightmares. As it was, the room was just a little too dark to be comfortable, the glow of the reactor trapped beneath his clothes.
So, he paced. Paced, and took note of things he could possibly exploit to get out of here, or at least to a computer so he could build himself a fake identity. Something he could use, to get a job or passage on a ship, to get tech and a workshop and everything he needed to get home. He’d get home eventually. He’d get home, or he’d die trying.
He paced, like a wild animal trapped in a too-small cage until even he couldn't deny that he was at his limits. His vision was blurring, his head was pounding, and he stumbled more than once in his steps.
He needed to sleep. So, he pressed the bed button, laid down, and closed his eyes.
He only hoped he’d exhausted himself enough to not dream.
Tony woke in a cold sweat, bolt upright in bed, breath coming too fast and too hard to really be breaths. He didn't remember the nightmare, but he could guess. “J- JARVIS, lights!” He stammered, barely managing to get the words out.
There was no response.
There was no response, and the bed was too hard and it was dark, too dark, and his hands were clawing at his chest before he knew what he was doing, and he was really, truly hyperventilating now, choking on each breath like it would be the one that killed him, the one that didn't have enough oxygen if it to sustain him, choking on the metallic, too-dry air that was going to run out soon, this had happened before and oh god he was going to die here, again, and-
His vision was swimming and so was his head, bouncing between the cave and space and was on the verge of passing out, water or old air or both stealing away his breath, both of his hands pressed against the reactor so hard it was painful, a sharp, jarring ache that barely managed to ground him.
And then there were hands, and a voice , and all of them were calming for some reason he couldn't quite place. “-breath, I need you to breath-” The voice said, a snippet of speech that Tony's brain barely managed to parse, and one of his hands was flat on someone else's chest as they mimed large, steady breaths that Tony struggled to mirror.
“L- lights, please-” He said, the words bitten-off fragments and they apparently made sense, because the person in front of him gestured, and the room filled with light.
Now that he could see , see the four walls and floor and ceiling, his breathing was coming easier, and he had the presence of mind to take his hand off Bruce's chest, it was Bruce, it was a friend and he was safe even though he didn't recognise the room. “Are you with me?” He asked, voice soft and calming and Tony would resent being spoken too like he was an easily-spooked animal if it didn't actually fit.
He nodded, barely a jerk of his head, because he didn't quite trust his voice to not shake yet. Bruce’s hand was still on his shoulder, and he was talking in low tones with someone else, his grip light and solid and grounding.
His hand was still flat against the reactor, hard and unyielding beneath his palm, and he could feel the sub-audible humming that meant it was working, that meant he was safe .
And then he remembered where he was. He jerked away from Bruce, shoving him away and scrabbling into the opposite corner of his cell, because he was a prisoner here and Clint was standing outside the cell, gun trained on Tony and Bruce looked worried, both his hands up in the multi-universal sign of surrender. “Stay away .” He spat, because these were not his friends and they'd just seen him have a fucking panic-attack because it got a little dark, and he couldn't afford to show any more weakness.
Not-Bruce apparently didn't get the message, because he inched closer. “Are you-”
“I’m fine . Just stay the hell away from me!” Tony snarled, cutting not-Bruce off with venom. He wanted them gone . He didn't want to be alone, but he wanted reminders of exactly where he stood even less.
He could deal with being alone. He had practice with that. He couldn't deal with forcing himself to distrust the people wearing the faces of his friends.
Slowly, Bruce backed away, out of the cell while Clint kept his gun trained on Tony until Bruce was out of the room.
Tony waited until the wall had clouded over, and shifted slightly, enough that he shielded his hands from any prying eyes, the movement innocuous enough that no one would guess that was what he was doing.
Tony looked down at the ballpoint pen he’d stolen from Bruce when he’d pushed him away. It was small, common, no label on the side and regular blue ink, and if this Bruce was at all similar to his Bruce, it wouldn't be missed.
Tony had made up his mind.
He was getting the hell off this ship, and that pen was his golden ticket.
Chapter 5: Crawling Out Above
It's Prison-break time!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They made port about two days later.
He didn't attempt to sleep again.
So, he waited, and planned, and counted. Counted the days, in seconds and minutes and the waxing and waning of quiet conversations above him, counted the footsteps overhead, the less-than-solid meals slid through the barrier, the pitch-shift in the almost sub-audible hum of the engines.
Every thirteen and a half hours, give or take a couple minutes, the lights changed, dimmer in the “morning” and darker at “night”. He was pathetically grateful for the fact that they didn't dim all that much, that they never left him in the dark.
Absently, he wondered how fast they were going, what the capabilities of the engine were, how far away the port was. Where the port even was, relative to earth.
There wasn’t much else to do, other than count and pace, but other than the boredom, he didn’t really have any complaints.
Except for the fact that he was still here. He had some complaints about that. Some very, very loud complaints.
But, if everything went to plan, that issue would be resolved shortly.
If anything, he was glad it’d taken them this long to get to port, because it gave him the chance to get more information. No one else had spoken to him, but his cell was not quite soundproofed, and he’d been able to make a rough map of the ship in his head, and how many people there were.
Not including himself, and Steve, because he was still a popsicle, there were four other people on the ship.
Natasha, Clint, Coulson, and Bruce.
And all but Clint had left when they’d docked. Coulson, to buy supplies and refuel, Bruce, to get the tech he needed to defrost Steve, and Natasha to deal with the port authorities and meet with contacts.
He hadn’t even needed to work to distinguish their footsteps, because he already knew them, knew them like he knew his own, knew how to move and dodge and hit, based only on his team’s footsteps around him.
And, as he worked, taking apart the pen and spare wires he’d managed to hide, twisting the pieces of tinfoil he’d torn off the meal packs, he only felt numb.
Because he knew how to fight them, too. He knew how they moved and how they hit, what they’d use to block a certain strike and how they’d retaliate.
And if he wanted to get out of this place, if he wanted to get back to where he belonged , back home , he might have to.
He might have to fight them.
He triggered the device, the tiny tube he’d cobbled together from bits he’d found in his pockets, scraps of tinfoil torn off his meal packets, and the pen, all wired under his shirt to the reactor, and the wall disappeared. He’d taken care of the camera beforehand, so all he was greeted with as he crept out and back, further into the ship, was silence.
He needed to get that sphere back. Something in him, something strong , rebelled at the thought of leaving it behind. Not that he wanted to leave it, either, if anything was responsible for him being here, it would be the sphere. A computer would be nice, too, though, at this point, Tony wasn’t exactly putting together a shopping list.
Really, his plan was mostly, ‘get the sphere, grab what you can, and get the fuck out.’ Short, solid, and adaptable.
Tony found the bridge easily, considering it was just up the stairs from the cargo bay/brig, and stopped dead.
He really should’ve expected the expansive windows. After all, he’d seen them, from the outside, but he wasn’t beyond admitting that he was compromised as fuck right now, between the strange air and the strange gravity that was a constant reminder that he was in space .
Fuck, he’d hoped port would be on a planet, where there was more than a fucking wall between him and nothing. Apparently, as he stood frozen, staring up at the pitch-black star-filled sky outside the windows, he was not that lucky.
A streak of blue signalling an incoming ship broke him out of his stupor, and he shook himself. Now was not the time to freak out.
The Captain's quarters, after he’d managed to locate them, right below the bridge, was unsurprisingly hard to break into, though he didn't really expect anything less from Natasha, alternate universe or otherwise.
The room was… almost exactly how his Natasha, the one who drank tea with Bruce and wore fuzzy socks and laughed silently at Clint’s jokes, would’ve decorated it, the shelves filled with books written in languages he didn’t recognise, but that he could still read , trinkets and other scraps of memories that she would’ve denied she’d kept, and the sight made something behind the arc reactor ache.
He pushed through it and made his way to the desk.
The sphere was in a hidden safe in the back panel, and Tony grabbed it. He moved quickly, taking the battery out of a laptop and taking them, too, packing them in a small backpack that’d been on one of the chairs in the common area.
He tried not to feel guilty about what he was taking, because these were not his friends and he needed the stuff, but he’d never been a thief, and the feeling was hard to shake.
Clint was facing slightly away from him, leaning against one of the walls in the airlock when Tony crept back into the cargo bay.
There wasn’t another exit from the ship, at least not one Tony could find. He knew there was something below him, something where the engines were kept, and the spaces he’d seen were too small to match the outside of the ship but he couldn’t find any way to get there.
He was going to have to fight Clint, and even though he was telling himself repeatedly that he’d fought Clint before, had sparred with all of them, his heart was beating so loudly that he was half-afraid Clint would hear it, because this was different. This wasn't sparring, neither of them could tap out or stop, there wouldn't be any friendly banter as they tried to kick eachother's asses.
He stepped forwards and swung the bag before he had time to think, had time to make a wrong move and give himself away or talk himself out of it, and it collided with Clint’s gut, the weight and momentum enough to bend him double.
Clint recovered in no time at all ,and Tony’s hand darted out and knocked the comm — no, not comm, too bulky for just a comm, a hearing aid, some things were the same — out of his ear before Clint had the chance to call anyone, twisted and threw it, already spinning back around to dodge a fist he didn’t have to see to know was coming.
There wasn’t any room to focus on who he was fighting beyond how to counter, how to win , and he ducked and dodged and hit back, fueled by fear and adrenaline and pure desperation, and the little voice in his head saying things like — keep your limbs close to his body. Keep moving. Not getting hit is more important than hitting back — sounded a little like all of them, Natasha pointing out weak spots, Steve warning him about incoming fists or kicks, and Clint, telling him how to shake off the ones he couldn’t dodge.
He knew the rhythm of this fight, knew it like an earworm, and when Clint took his gun out, Tony was ready, grabbing the barrel and twisting, pushing his whole body into the move and forcing the gun from his hands even as he locked the other end of the handcuffs he’d stolen around Clint’s wrist, jabbing his elbow down into Clint's neck, a move that ironically, Clint had taught him, leaping back out of range when he crumpled.
The gun was a solid weight in his hands as he moved, picking his bag up and slinging it over his shoulder. Clint was staring up at him, unmoving, slumped awkwardly with one of his hands chained high behind him, anger and fear and grim resignation and-
Tony felt bile rise in his throat, and he was dismantling the gun before he’d even thought to do it, because Clint thought that he was going to shoot him. That he was going to kill him.
He left the parts of the gun scattered on the floor, and he didn’t look back at Clint’s confused expression as he left.
Tony stepped out of the Adrastia into a narrow hallway. It was well lit, which was nice, but he couldn’t see either end and from there, and he really had no idea where to go. So, he picked a direction and started walking briskly. He had a head start, only barely, considering the speed Tony had seen Clint pick cuffs, but hopefully, it’d be enough to find a spot to hunker down, or better yet, leave altogether.
Sure, he didn’t know where he was going to go, other than away , but the thought of doing something, some bare-bones structure of a plan, helped his mind settle, at least a little bit. Or, the fact that he had a goal , something to work towards, something he had to do, was just keeping the panic at bay, like a dam.
A dam, that he was pretty sure was going to break as soon as he let his guard down.
Well, he thought, hitching the bag to try and stop the stuff in it from digging into his back, guess he couldn’t afford to let his guard down then.
The planet below thankfully nearly blocked any view of the stars out the windows, which were still way too abundant for his liking, huge and green with blinking cities, far too little water to be earth.
He kept walking, and eventually, his hallway joined with another, like branches of a tree, and became more and more crowded until Tony was all but forced to go with the flow.
Tony had been worried that he’d stand out on the station, considering his mismatched clothes that were more than a century out of date and the bag that did not look like it belonged to him. He was just glad he had shoes, but being arrested for looking like a space pirate was not on his agenda.
He shouldn’t have worried.
In total, he spotted maybe three humans, four if the woman with pointed ears and pink markings was just really big on the whole elf vibe and had gotten some interesting tattoos. No one was wearing the same style of clothes, some draped with bright fabrics and jewellery that flashed and rattled, some more reminiscent of army fatigues. Hell, he wasn't even sure some of them were wearing clothes at all, the armoured chest plates of the short insect-like aliens too similar to the exoskeleton on their face and hands for Tony to be really sure.
He bumped into a large alien with far too many teeth, lost his balance and fell to the floor, still trying to react to different gravity, different air, when it spun to look at him, heart pounding in his chest because teeth, seriously , and claws, and about 200 pounds out of his weight class and holy shit this thing was going to eat him.
There was something about being stared down by a predator, by something nature deemed worthy to continue living while others had failed, that was instinctually terrifying. Tony had faced giant robots and science experiments gone wrong and alien armies and terrorists, and he'd never been frozen in fear before. Maybe, it was that those times, he could do something, could fight and focus on the numbers. Though, it was just as likely that there weren't any instincts formed around doombots.
Though, with the number of times that asshole had attacked New York, he wouldn’t put it past the population to start developing them.
Obviously, his flight or fight response was badly, badly broken, not that he’d not already know that, because instead of running for his life like any sane, rational person would do when being stared down by the horror movie version of Chewbacca, Tony opened his mouth to say something, something scathing and witty that would probably get him killed and glared up at the creature.
And all the words got caught in his throat when it crouched and stuck a giant paw in his face.
He reached up, and took the offered hand, hoping he wasn't reading the gesture wrong.
He wasn't. The alien tugged him too his feet, and growled an apology. “Sorry. Still gettin’ used to the gravity?” It asked, in a strange, gruff accent, and still not entirely sure he wasn't hallucinating, Tony just nodded. “Well, good luck to ya then.” It said, and slipped back into the crowd.
First alien interaction, and it’d gone… well, not great , but he hadn't been eaten, so maybe things were going to be ok.
Things were not ok, because Tony was lost. For a given value of lost. He knew where he was relative to the Adrastia, despite the measures he’d taken to lose any tails he might’ve had, but other than that, he had nothing. He had no idea how big the station was, no idea where anything was, no idea what even was on the station, but considering he’d been walking for a good 30 minutes, and he was still in the dock area, it was big.
The corridor he was in connected with more, until it was easily the size of a street, the ceiling arching high, with a second row of airlocks lining the sides, and as he watched, an alien walked past him. On the ceiling .
He was itching to get his hands on some of this place’s tech, if they could control gravity that precisely.
He took right into a smaller hallway, ducking back and looping around, taking turns at random and getting himself even more lost than he was before, the idea being that if he didn’t know where he was, then anyone looking for him wouldn’t either.
“Hey, you.” Someone called, and Tony stopped and turned towards the only other person in the hallway, a human-looking woman with deep laugh lines etched around her eyes. She nodded when she caught his gaze. “You an engineer?”
Tony narrowed his eyes at her, shifting his bag higher on his shoulder and angling his feet away just in case he had to bolt. He wouldn’t put it past anyone to be a contact for SHIELD. “Maybe. How’d you know?”
The woman grinned, and pushed off the side of the airlock, where she’d been leaning. “You’ve got that feel about ya, like you’re taking apart everything you see in your head, and when you put it all back together there’s some pieces left over.” She said, and at his look of confusion, gestured vaguely to her head. “I’m half Verranal, got the empath genes from my mum.” Empath, and now that Tony looked, her skin looked shimmery, almost iridescent, like a dragonfly’s wings. She must’ve sensed his discomfort, at someone being inside his head, because her face tightened like she’d tasted something sour, and held her hands up. “Look, mate. It’s not exactly voluntary, on my part, and any secrets you’re keeping are yours to stay. Couldn’t steal ‘em if i wanted to, and I’m no thief.” She said vehemently.
Against his better judgement, he believed her. He shifted his balance, and took a step closer to be out of the way of people walking. “...So you want to hire me .” He said flatly. “For what, exactly?”
She nodded, still grinning. “Yep. My previous engineer up and quit on me. Internal dispute.”
Yeah. That could mean either they’d had a disagreement over which kind of scone to have for breakfast, the engineer had mutinied and tried to steal the ship, or the captain had taken offence to the pattern of shirt they were wearing and keelhauled her. He opened his mouth to say so, probably in less offensive wording, because he didn’t even know how keelhauling would work in space but he really, really didn’t want to find out.
“I don’t allow pets on my ship.” She elaborated, probably sensing his suspicion. “She’d somehow smuggled a raven in, which, gotta commend her sense of humor. Anyway, don’t know how she managed it, but there’s no hard feelings between the two of us. She’s always welcome back, but well,” She shrugged, one shoulder lifting in a half-shrug, “She likes the raven more than she likes workin’ for me.”
“O-kay.” Tony said, drawing the word out. “But why do you want me .”
She shrugged, again. “Honestly? Because I’m pretty sure you’ll accept.” She said, and then she was looking right at him, eyes like dark opals, catching the light and throwing it back, making him feel about an inch tall, scrutinized like an under a microscope. “You don’t want to be here. You want to be anywhere but here, and, it’s like- you have the opposite of wanderlust. Above all, you want to be home. ”
Tony just nodded, still feeling trapped, like he couldn’t look away.
There was the tap of footsteps in the corridor, and he turned, ready to bolt if needed, and nodded at the mottled green alien who was hurrying on their way, chirping into what was probably a phone.
He turned back to the woman. “...And what if I say yes?”
She beamed at him, wide and delighted and utterly at home on her face. “We’re leaving in the morning, or as close to it as we can get. Headin’ out to Yy’ven,” And the word seemed to fracture into different meanings, Library and Knowledge and Place of Learning, and Tony tried to shake his bag discreetly, hoping to get the sphere to understand that whatever that was, it was not ok. The woman continued. “It’s ‘bout a 5-sol travel from here, stopping at Port Fallow on the way. You’ll have your own bunk, in the engine room, as long as that’s not a problem,” She said, looking back at him, and he nodded. “Food and stuff’s covered, and you’re free to leave at whichever port we dock at.” She finished, and looked at him expectantly.
“I’ll… I’ll think about it.” He said eventually, and if possible, her grin got even wider. Tony couldn’t help but notice that her teeth weren't spaced quite right, and that they were a good deal sharper-looking than any human he’d seen. She dug in her pocket, nearly spinning around with the motion, and stuck out her hand to him.
Tony took a step closer, and she dropped a crow-shaped piece of black paper on his palm. “I know you will. If i’m not around when you come back, show this to whoever’s at the door. They’ll let you in and show you around.” She said, and seemed just short of slapping herself on the forehead. “Oh! Right, Name’s Julia. Captian Julia Crow.”
“Tony.” Tony said, and she beamed, again as Tony tucked the little crow in his pocket, and walked away.
So, crows, ravens, and presumably other corvids, other birds existed. Did that mean that earth existed too? Or was it just a massive case of convergent evolution, and the sphere translating things slightly wrong?
He didn’t know, and it pissed him off.
The corridor he was in opened into a massive room, what looked like a marketplace, crisscrossed by other corridors and bridges that looked like they’d once been the exterior of a much, much smaller station before more had been built around it. Granted, the smaller internal station was at least as big as the SSR station, but still.
The Meili dwarfed it. The entire thing fit in the single market-room.
There were no walls. The floors curved up, and the gravity kept his feet on the ground even now that he was perpendicular to the floor he’d started on.
He really, really wanted to find the engine room for this place, and thinking about how they manipulated the gravity here, what kind of tech it might be, helped calm the panicked part of his mind. At least until he passed another window.
The entire situation, the fact that he just couldn’t stay calm, the fact that he wanted to bolt whenever he caught sight of the stars out the window, made him irrationally angry.
Or, not so irrationally. Because, four years ago and any time before that, if this had happened, it would’ve been one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to him, alien life and alien tech and the stars close enough to touch, the power to cross half the galaxy in a week or less, even just the fact that no-one knew who he was, no one was chasing him with cameras or microphones, no one spared him a second glance, if it’d happened then, it would’ve been a dream .
Except, it wasn’t then. It wasn’t back when the only ties to earth had been the company and Rhodey, it wasn’t back when he’d wished, looked up at the sky and wished so hard that he could go there, could be the first pioneer into a new frontier, wished so much that some day, he would be able to fly.
It wasn’t back before he’d flown through a wormhole and knew that he was going to die, it wasn’t back before he’d somehow gained a family.
Be careful what you wish for, some part of the back of his mind whispered, and yeah, he should’ve been.
He’d wished to go to space and he’d wished to fly, and he’d gotten both of them.
But that was before he knew how cold space was, what it was like to fall.
He pushed through the marketplace a little more violently than was probably necessary, ignoring the multilingual heckling from the various shopkeepers as he took an exit hallway at random, turning off at the first chance he had, twisting and turning and walking until he was even more lost than before.
There was a huge space, as big as the market off the docks or bigger that seemed to be a park, filled with terraces and arching bridges, maze-like paths and meandering streams. There were larger grassy areas that Tony was reasonably sure backed onto a school or university, benches with people eating lunch or reading, and what looked like community gardens scattered around.
A couple kids were flying around on what looked like homemade surf boards, thrusters mounted to jagged scraps of metal, looping and shouting and twisting in between where the gravity shifted.
One of them swooped low, sending the water on a small lake flaring up, and they got close enough to where Tony was standing that he could see the hexagonal weave of the solar sail, the ecstatic grin on his face, both eyelids open as far as they could, purple skin flushed deep blue with excitement, how he stomped on a pedal when he nearly clipped a tree, spiralling back up to join his friends.
It looked… fun. Dangerous, certainly, but fun. Almost certianally illegal, or frowned upon, which was proven when an official of some sort ran up to them, and the kids scattered, leaving him once again alone in the middle of the park.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was back home, standing in central park, people calling out and laughing and birds chirping.
He didn’t stay there long.
Now, though, he’d found an unlocked maintenance tunnel entrance near one of the busier corridors, and had wedged himself far enough inside that no one could see him, but he could see out just fine. He was still a little too close to the docks, to the team than he was entirely comfortable with, but the place was at least as big as Manhattan, if not bigger, and he really needed the lay of the land before he wandered off again.
The laptop he’d taken was in pieces around him, and he was crushing bits that were almost certainly trackers and tossing them into a shaft a couple feet away from him, just in case. He’d move again as soon as they were gone, but right then he wanted the laptop untraceable and useful more than he wanted to move, more than he wanted information.
Especially information on Yy’ven, whether it was a planet or a system or a star, whether or not he wanted to take Crow’s offer and get away.
Away from his not-team, somewhere he could work on getting himself home .
Once all the bugs were removed and the hard drive wiped, he pieced the laptop back together, powering it on and building some firewalls before connecting to the wider station network. The code was unfamiliar, not a programing language he’d ever encountered before, but if Tony Stark ever met a piece of tech he couldn’t hack, he’d eat his socks.
The network was easy to connect too, considering it was public and didn’t even require a password, but he was stopped from doing anything else when a voice spoke out of the computer. “Welcome to Meili --” She said, and the word fractured again, home and sanctuary and traveller's rest , crossroads and port and market , and Tony glared at the sphere, which was sitting on top of his bag. “Station. Do you require assistance?”
Tony kicked the sphere, sending it rocking against the curved wall to land back by his foot, an utterly useless gesture that none the less made him feel a bit better. “Maybe. Who are you?” He asked, double-checking to make sure whoever this was, probably some customer service representative or something, couldn’t get anything out of the laptop. Not there was anything on it, but he didn’t want anyone finding him through it.
“I am named Adiona. I am the computer guide for Meili . Do you require assistance?” She asked, in the same exact tone as previously.
Computer guide, so limited AI, most likely. Probably not more than a couple translating algorithms and a databank of answers. Nothing like JARVIS, or Dummy, or Butterfingers or You or even his goddamn coffee machine . Nothing like his home.
...And, he was crying, poorly muffled sobs and stuttering inhales, and he was fucking pathetic , he didn’t have time for this, didn’t have time for bawling about what, homesickness , of all things, but god , he missed them, missed his bots and the team and Rhodey and Pepper and Happy, and he missed JARVIS, because this was the longest he’d gone without him since the fucking cave , and that was really not a thought he wanted to follow-up on right now, thank you very much-
“Sir, are you in medical distress?” The AI, Adiona, asked, not sounding worried or concerned, not sounding anything , just flat and empty and faintly accented like everyone else here was, like he wasn’t .
“Do not-” Tony snapped, furious for a single instant before all the fight drained out of him. “Don't call me that.” He repeated, softer because this AI might not be sentient, might not be able to understand anger or emotions beyond knowing their names, but he wasn't so cruel as to blame her for not being JARVIS.
“What do you prefer to be referred to as?” Adonia asked.
“Tony. Just- I'm just Tony.” He said, running one of his hands through his hair, allowing himself a moment to collect himself, and hunched over the computer. “Ok. Adonia, let's see what i’ve gotten myself into.”
Adonia, it turned out, wasn’t very helpful, at least for the info he wanted, aside from the basic map of the station. She did have a sister, though, Abeona, who seemed to be the station’s version of air-traffic control.
Turns out, his guess of the size earlier was pretty spot-on, and the Meili even had a rapid transit system not unlike New York running throughout the whole thing, which would’ve been helpful to know before he’d decided to take a hour-long treck on loose-fitting shoes.
For everything else he needed, though, hacking was required. Like the gravity and air composition, which had just a little more carbon, a little less oxygen than earth air. Well, if anything, it certainly explained why he wasn’t thinking right, why he constantly felt just a little out-of-breath, not enough to harm him, but enough to remind him of choking.
Enough to remind him of asphyxiating.
Yy’ven, too, he’d looked up, and that had cemented his decision to take Crow’s offer. It was a planet, slightly larger than earth but much more oxygen-dense, with oceans and forests and icecaps.
And cities . Cities, which, if his search hadn’t deceived him, were home to the largest collection of knowledge in the known universe , home to libraries that could each comfortably fit his tower at least 4 times over.
If anywhere had a record of how he could get home, that would be it.
Before he went back to Crow's ship, though, which he’d found out was named The Raven Congress, literally translated, of course, because the fucking sphere wouldn’t let him see it any other way, he wanted food . And a place to hole up that wasn’t a maintenance shaft.
He’d found just the place, too, an inn that looked surprisingly house-like, for all that it was wedged into a corner of a space station, wood-paneled and with an actual honest-to-god slanted roof, and offered complimentary food and board to anyone who was willing to work for it. Best of all, though, was that it was in the exact centre of the station, the furthest point from any exterior wall.
Yeah, it was a little pathetic, but he’d take any comfort he could as long as he could think , think properly and something other than the void of space.
He’d fixed the flickering lights and the broken wall screen, and had earned himself a bowl of stew with purple potato things that tasted a little like grapefruit, chunks of meat that he would’ve been comfortable calling pork, had he been on earth, and a flaky pastry folded around a sweet pink jam that tasted a little like currants and a little like maple syrup.
It was some of the best food he’d ever tasted. Though, he could’ve been biased due to the fact that it wasn’t faux-gurt.
Not that he had anything against meal replacement paste, it tasted alright, but seriously, he’d missed chewing .
One of the simple bugs he’d planted when repairing the lights blinked at him, and he turned on the audio. “- and you’re sure it was him?” He heard Natasha ask, tinny over the shitty microphone, and swore quietly.
“Yes. Is- Is he dangerous? ” Another woman, the owner of the inn asked, sounding scared. “I mean, he didn’t seem , but-”
“I assure you, ma’am, he is not dangerous,” Coulson replied, “He is someone that our organization is interested in, that is all.”
Tony scoffed quietly. Yeah. That was totally all, but he guessed that nobody wanted a panicked civilian on their hands. Quietly, he stood, keeping the laptop open as he slung the bag over his back. They’d have the stairs covered, and Clint was no doubt somewhere with a good view of his window.
He left the room with a pillow under the cover, and slipped across the hall, unlocking room number 7 with the key he’d picked from the actual tenant, who was still down in the bar. He left the key in the knob, crossed the room, and climbed out the window.
A couple of handholds on a pipe and a short drop later, Tony was on the ground, creeping past the inn away from any sightlines to Clint’s most likely perch.
He’d just turned into a side corridor leading back to Crow’s ship when he felt a pinch in his neck, and everything went dark.
Adonia: Roman goddess, the counterpart to Abeona. They are both guardians of travellers and watchers of a child's first footsteps. Abeona is the goddess of the outward journey, and Adonia is the goddess of safe return.
Chapter 6: Shifting of the Sands
Yeah. I have no excuse for how long it's been. Enjoy.
“What the fuck —” Tony said, upon waking up back in the cell of the Adrastia, rolled off the bed onto his feet and then turned to glare at the transparent wall, behind which Natasha was standing, looking at him with consideration, “—Is with you and stabbing me in the neck?” He asked, barely resisting the urge to throw his hands in the air.
Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “Feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken, Stark, but that’s only ever happened once.”
In this universe, he thought, and didn’t say. “Yeah, well once is still too many times , in my opinion.” Tony snapped, and crossed his arms over his chest, and finally noticed what he was wearing.
Which decidedly was not the cobbled-together bits of cloth that he had been wearing before.Instead, he was in some sort of thick, dark grey skintight suit, gloves covering his hands and tight around his ankle, something heavy around his neck and —
He was in a spacesuit. They’d put him in a spacesuit , and he had no idea why , because spacesuits were for going in space and-
He froze, realization dawning, and snuck a glance at Natasha, who was still standing, feet braced wide and arms crossed over her chest, the perfect picture of impatient indifference.
They wouldn’t, would they?
Except, he was the enemy, here, and he didn’t know this SHIELD. Sure, what he had managed to find on the organization looked similar to his world, similar in what they did and what lines they refused to cross, but he’d barely skimmed the surface.
Who knew what kind of lines this SHIELD would cross, especially when trying to get information out of a suspected Hydra operative.
And his breath was coming too short, too fast, because yes, they would , and that scared him for more reasons than the obvious.“Why,” He said, still staring downwards, and he couldn’t manage to get his voice any louder than a whisper, “Am I in a spacesuit.”
“No pockets.” Natasha said, and that was so far from what he’d expected, that his head snapped up to where Natasha was smirking at him.
“Harder to pull a jailbreak if you can’t hide away any supplies.” She said, and the explanation was enough that he could move past the initial confusion and think again. Natasha stood straighter. “And besides, I wasn’t the one who tranqued you.”
Tony frowned, at that, because Coulson had been watching the back exit and Clint had been somewhere high, he’d been sure of it, Bruce would not have wanted to get involved, so that left...
“Rogers.” He said, and Natasha nodded.
“Yes.” She said shortly, and she was still looking at him in a way that made him profoundly uncomfortable, like she was seeing through him, head tilted in thought. “You’re really not Hydra, are you.”
Tony rolled his eyes in an exaggerated motion. “What was your first clue?”
“You didn’t shoot Barton.” She said, and he barely held back a flinch at the reminder, the reminder that Clint had thought he would . “You didn’t even consider it. Any Hydra operative wouldn’t have thought twice. Even if they were going for infiltration.” She said, more thoughtful than anything else, still looking at him. “Which, if you were going for infiltration you wouldn’t have tried to escape. You wouldn’t have succeeded .”
“Didn’t think it was all that successful, to be honest.” Tony pointed out, gesturing around his cell.
Natasha gave a little half shrug of agreement. “Still more successful that someone who would’ve wanted to be caught would be. And, if someone with your capabilities was with Hydra for any length of time, we would've noticed.”
“I am going to take that as a compliment” Tony decided.
Natasha didn’t so much as roll her eyes. “Now, I would very much like to know why you were so certain that Rogers would wake up, and how you even got on the station.” She said, staring him down. She cut him off when he opened his mouth to defend his story. “And don’t give me that bullshit about “treasure hunting.” She said, and Tony could hear the air quotes around his lie. “None of the airlocks had been accessed in over a century. So tell me.”
Well, there was his admittedly shabby cover story blown. He flashed through possibilities, lies he might be able to pull off, because he was going to SHIELD. He could feel the hum of the engines, so they were moving, presumably to wherever the main base was. They wouldn’t give him a chance to leave like last time, so his best bet was to cooperate as much as he safely could, and hope they got bored of him and let him go.
And, really, even if he told the whole truth, what was the worst that could happen?
Well, for a start, this SHIELD being pretty similar to his own according to the quick search he’d done, the proof that other dimensions existed would probably end with them punching a hole in the universe to spy on his universe, and that was if they even believed him and didn’t just lock him up in a mental ward.
He regretted asking that question after a second of considering it.
In the end, he decided on the truth. Not the whole truth, but enough that Natasha wouldn’t detect it. Enough that he could probably get away with it, and was the one most likely to get him marked as a harmless bystander. “I don’t know.” He admitted, and her eyes narrowed at him.
“You, someone who according to all of the considerable number of databases we have access too, does not exist , have no idea how you got onto a century-old highly-classified station that had been assumed destroyed since the war.” She said flatly, staring at him.
“Nope.” Tony agreed, and sat down on the bed-bench, crossing his feet under him and scooting back until his back was at the wall.
Natasha considered him, for a second, eyes narrowed. “And Rogers?” She asked, still staring him down.
Tony shrugged. “Hunch. And too much exposure to bad sci-fi.” He said, and it wasn’t exactly a lie. This wasn’t his universe. The serum here might not have let this Steve survive. And… he wasn’t going to think about that. Steve was fine. Here, and in his universe.
Natasha did not look like she believed him. She hummed, a little bit, eyes still narrowed, and turned on her heel to leave.
Tony was inordinately glad that when they’d put him in the spacesuit, they’d left him his socks. Not that he could escape with them, not that they were all that useful but —
He caught the balled up pair from where he was laying on the bed, and tossed them above his head again.
— They were kinda the best entertainment he had, at this point. And, gave him something to do with his hands beside clawing at his chest, like he was afraid would happen since he’d noticed the quiet, almost unnoticeable tugging sensation in the reactor.
Which he couldn’t do any diagnostics on, for a couple reasons. The least of which was that he was in a spacesuit, and had no good way of getting out of it.
Turned out, instead of the actual spacesuit being near-impossible to get out of on its own, which would've been horrifically bad user design, they’d made it near impossible to get out of on his own.
By welding the zip-pull shut.
At least the material was thin enough that he could still see the light of the reactor, see that it was steady and bright and since he hadn’t gone into cardiac arrest yet, still doing it’s job.
Maybe if he faked a heart attack they’d let him have a look at it. Or maybe he’d actually have a heart attack and then he’d just die. To be fair, that would solve everything that was currently a problem, as long as you ignored the significant new problem of him, you know, not being alive anymore.
Oh, if only he’d had the foresight to make the reactor warp-drive compatible. Because obviously, his life was strange enough for that to be an actual concern that he should’ve foreseen. Some futurist he was.
You know, maybe next time he was thinking up failsafes he’d just think of the most unlikely possibility, and go with that. Or, even better, he’d get Clint to think it up. He’d get Clint drunk off Asgardian mead and then get him to think it up. He’d-
There was the sound of footsteps from down the hallway, and they stopped outside his cell, though the far wall remained opaque. “I can hear you, you know.” He said, still tossing his sock-ball in the air.
The wall cleared, and it was Steve, wearing clothes Tony was pretty sure were Clint’s, considering they were just a little too small. And that the shirt was patterned with tiny, tiny arrows. That was kinda a dead giveaway. Good to know that Clint in every universe apparently had the same horrible fashion sense.
Tony sat up, still tossing his sock-ball from hand to hand. “What can I do for you?” He said, and looked at Steve.
He looked… lost. And confused, and startled, just a little bit. Like he hadn't expected Tony to address him.
Steve shifted, a little, and opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. “I didn't expect you to-”
“Be this eager to talk, after the whole…” Tony interrupted, and mimed stabbing himself.
“-be this easy to talk to. I thought-” Steve said, and then glanced at the camera in the corner, then back down, so quickly Tony nearly missed it. “Never mind. I-”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “You thought I’d be under guard? Or-”
“‘Or’ it doesn't matter. They told me you found me.” Steve said. It wasn’t a question.
Tony answered anyway. “I did. And, I’m pretty sure I am under guard.” He said, and jerked his head at the camera. “Must be a pretty boring job. Really, don’t see why it’s necessary. It’s not like I can do anything.”
The intercom system clicked on. “Yeah, well, last time you escaped with a device made from the equivalent of the scrapings from an intern’s trash can wired up to an experimental and possibly homemade medical device. So forgive us if we keep a closer eye on you this time, Stark.” Clint said, and Tony grinned, half turning towards the camera.
“Awe, did the captain put you on watcher duty because you let me get away?” He said sweetly, pouring every drop of false sympathy he could into the words.
“The captain put me on watching duty because despite being one of SHIELD’s best, you very soundly kicked my ass, and she’s decided it was because I wasn't trying hard enough.” Clint sniped back, and the tone wasn't friendly, exactly, but it wasn't hostile, either.
Tony grinned at the camera. “That almost sounds like a compliment, Barton.”
Clint snorted. “In your dreams, Stark.”
Tony shrugged. “I’m up for a rematch anytime. Just say the word.”
And Clint laughed, loud and brash and familiar , so familiar that Tony couldn't have held back his answering grin even if he wanted too. “Yeah, not a chance. Have fun with your chat, Rogers.” He said, and Steve visibly jumped when he was addressed.
Steve took a breath. “Who are you, really. And what were you doing in that station.”
“Well,” Tony started, tossing his sock-ball from hand to hand. He could… he could lie, here. He knew enough about the serum, enough about Hydra, to be able to get Steve on his side.
“They told me you knew I’d wake up” Steve pressed, breaking Tony’s silence.
“Not- I didn’t know . I had a hunch. What else did they say about me?” Tony retorted.
Steve paused, for a second, looked away, brow furrowed. “They’re charging you with trespassing, destruction of SHIELD property, intent to steal SHIELD secrets, theft, and minor assault.” He listed, “They also said you could’ve done a lot worse, that doing worse would’ve been easier , but you didn’t. And that they still wanted you in custody.” Steve said, and all Tony heard was Did I do the right thing, did I trust the right people, did I hurt someone I shouldn’t’ve.
Tony opened his mouth to say something, in his defence or just agreement, he hadn’t decided yet, but Steve cut him off, a little more forcefully. “They said that you don’t exist.”
Tony blinked, caught a little off guard. “I’m pretty sure I do exist, actually.”
That was obviously the wrong thing to say. Or, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just time, just the tipping point that finally snapped something in Steve, because his eyes widened almost comically, and he took a step back, confusion morphing into anger. “You don’t exist. You’re not real . None of this is real.” He said, turning slightly, not too much, but he was staring at the camera now.
Steve took a step forward, and instinctively, Tony stood up off of the bench, but Steve didn’t notice him, hands clenched into fists at his side and visibly shaking with anger or grief or just… loss. “This was all a test . Just, what ,” Steve growled, and laughed, but it was wrong , cold and bitter and not really a laugh at all, “Wanted to know if I could still follow orders like a good little soldier? Wanted to know if I was still useful?!” He snarled, actually snarled , like a wild animal backed into a corner and Jesus this was going south quickly.
“Hey, now-” Tony began, hands up and non-threatening.
“Major Rogers.” Natasha snapped, swinging herself down the cargo bay stairs, and Steve spun around, falling automatically into a tense parade rest, though he still looked absolutely furious.
“Ma’am.” Steve said, cutting and sharp and mocking , and Natasha just… raised her eyebrow and mirrored his pose, hands held loosely behind her back as she waited for Steve to continue. “You’ve got whatever you needed from me. So-”
Natasha cut him off. “You’re right.” She said, levelling an unimpressed look at Steve. “This was a test. But not on what you thought it was.” She said, and Tony could see Clint, out of the corner of his eye, crouched near the top of the steps, watching. Just watching, for now. “I did not lie to you. I gave you all the necessary information to-”
“To what.” Steve snapped, “To justify whatever this is!? To-”
“For you to make whatever decision you deemed necessary.” Natasha snapped back, voice icy as she took a step forwards. “ That , Major, was the test. This was the test. You think I wanted you to do ask how high when I told you to jump? Blind obedience means nothing to me aside from doing a damn good job of telling me who’s expendable.” She snapped, taking another step forward.
Steve did not move an inch, and Tony wished he could quietly disappear into a wall because he’s seen Natasha on the warpath before, and he’d seen Steve on the warpath before, but never both of them at once. And never at each other.
Because there was going to be some collateral damage, some consequences to whatever game Natasha was playing at.
And, because he did not like being a pawn.
“The test was not to see if you would follow orders.” Natasha continued, “The test was to see if you would question them. And-” She said, gesturing around at the scene, at him , “Seeing as you’re here , you did. The moment you suspected something was wrong, you tried to get more information. But you did not panic, you did not do anything that would be considered inadvisable. Or something that wouldn’t, under the circumstances, be considered understandable.” She said.
“Unadvisable,” Steve said flatly. “What, exactly, does SHIELD think I am liable to do? Punch my way through the hull?”
“Something like that.” She said, and her voice was quiet, now, softer. Honestly softer, not just a mask, not just a front, not that Steve would be able to tell, but it was still real. “I needed to know how you would react to something like this. I needed to know if you were going to put my crew in danger.”
“As long as your crew is who you’ve said they are, as long as SHIELD is who you say they are, your people are in no danger from me.”
“I would hope not, considering that this is where you’ll be stationed. If you do join SHIELD, that is.” Natasha said, and took a step towards the wall, ignoring Steve’s rightfully shocked face. presumably to one of the screens. “Now, the Director would like to speak to you about a certain device the Red Skull used in the war. Away from any listening ears.” She said, skipping straight over the bombshell she’d just dropped and rolled her head in a way that was obviously meant to indicate Tony.
Steve didn't follow, but he did glance at Tony. “And, what happens to him, when we get to SHIELD?”
“Yeah, i'm curious about that, too.” Tony said, stepping forwards, but stopped when Natasha levelled a glare at him.
“That depends on how cooperative he is.” Natasha answered cooly. “Rogers, with me.” She said, tapping a screen before turning on her heel, and the wall between them and Tony clouded over before anyone else could say another word.
He heard Steve and Natasha leave, two pairs of footsteps walking away.
And Tony was alone again.
Just as Tony was beginning to seriously consider the merits of dislocating his own shoulder in order to try to squirm his way out of the suit, the wall cleared.
“I hope you weren’t looking forward to meeting the director,” Natasha snapped, tapped something into the control pad by the wall, and Tony could see both Steve and Bruce standing near the stairs behind her, “because there’s been a change of plans.”
Despite himself, Tony sat up, confused and curious in equal measure, especially considering Steve was standing in parade-rest behind her. “What—” Was all Tony managed to say before Natasha tossed something at him, a graceful underhand that Tony caught on instinct.
“Open it.” Natasha ordered, and Tony’s hands flexed around the orb.
He tossed it back to her with slightly more force than was really necessary. “No,” He told her, fairly redundantly, took a step backwards with his hands in the way. “No fucking way, I’m not—”
Natasha tossed it back at him, and again, it was like he was magnetized to the damn thing. “You will open it,” She said, in a tone that brooked no argument and simultaneously made Tony want to argue with her, “Or I let Barton load it into the railgun and play target practice with the nearest star. Your choice.”
Tony, who had been about to throw it back, stopped, took a full step back because he could not let that happen, he could not let the sphere be destroyed, the idea was physically repulsive to him and—
“You don’t even know what’s in it,” Tony argued, “It could be a weapon, it could be a bomb—”
“It’s not.” Natasha interrupted him. “Now open it.”
“You don’t even know I can ,” Tony tried, one last time, “I don’t even know what it is , why would I be able—”
“There’s a telepathic link,” Bruce spoke up, “It’s not strong, but it’s there. This thing, for lack of a better term, chose you.”
“Because I really, really wanted some strange orb living in my head. Great.” Tony muttered, but started twisting at the thing, pushing into the little divots that shifted with each movement, in a pattern that he knew, innate, in a way that felt like muscle memory — in that if he thought too hard about what he was doing, he’d lose track of it, but if he didn’t think, if he just let his hands do what they were doing, they flew — but was infinitely more terrifying, in that he had never done this before .
A half-dozen more twists, a combination that he didn’t doubt Natasha was memorizing, and the thing opened with a hiss, and Tony nearly dropped it as blue light flooded out from it, expanding to fill both rooms, forming shapes and lines and—
“It’s a map,” He breathed, looking around at what were clearly stars , and planets, and even some ships, tiny blue dots spinning through the mostly-static maze the rest of the map made. He squinted, and poked at one of the little dots — one of the stars — and it exploded outwards, the outline of a planet, there and gone as it focused on a satellite, massive inside and growing more complex as it expanded, into — “Meili Station,” Tony said, zoomed in even further , further than he would’ve expected to be able to go, into the docking area of the station, where smaller ships were coming and going, and —
“That’s the Mavourine, ” Clint said suddenly, gesturing at one of the larger ships floating into port, “It was set to dock at Meili —”
“Pretty much now,” Natasha finished for him, and when Tony glanced over at her, her eyes were wide.
“So that’s how he did it,” Steve muttered, and Tony didn't think he meant for anyone to hear him, “This is how—”
He cut himself off as Tony unthinkingly, reached out, zooming out from the station and pulling , dragging the map into a different location.
The hologram froze again after a couple of seconds, and Tony felt a distinct sense of vertigo, the feeling of stopping suddenly without actually stopping at all, a star system set right in front of his face, the even tinier planets spinning around it like a dance.
In the corner of his eye, he noted that the others were also looking around in awe, reaching out to try and touch the icons like he had with the Meili, yet unlike him, their hands passed right through.
Tony didn’t know why, aside from a sense that this is what he was supposed to be doing, but he pulled the focus closer, bypassing the star and it’s system completely, into a rogue planet hovering in empty space, close and closer until the map of the surface and it’s two massive sets of rings filled his cell.
Steve took a step back, and there was an audible inhale from Natasha. “What,” Tony asked, glanced at them, “Why are you—”
Natasha and Steve both exchanged a look . “That’s it,” Steve confirmed, “It’s— It’s exactly how I remember.”
“Good.” Natasha said, turned towards Clint, “You know the heading, get us close.”
Clint nodded, vaulted up the steps, and Tony still had no fucking clue what was happening when Natasha turned back to him, held out her hand. “The map, Mr. Stark.”
Tony clutched it to his chest for a second, shook himself, and tossed it back to her. It closed mid-flight, folding back up onto itself and drawing the hologram back inwards, and it was back to it’s original boring sphere-shape by the time it reached her hand. “Do I at least—”
“You really don’t know what this is, do you.” Natasha interrupted him, head cocked just barely.
“What was your first clue,” Tony said, and he was tired , tired of lying to his friends, tired of trying to force his guard up around them when he’d learned that they were safe, tired of not knowing anything . “No, I don’t, I found it in the station and that’s it. I don’t know what that planet is, I don’t know what any of this means , I don’t know why I’m here and I don’t know why I can’t go home .” Tony took a breath, “I’m really not the person you want. I just want to go home.”
“Little too late for that, Stark.” Natasha said, but there was sympathy in her eyes and in her tone, and in that moment she was so much like the Natasha Tony knew that he kinda wanted to cry. “There’s no harm in telling you. Either you’re an exceptionally good liar, and already know what it is, or you’re really just some poor guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That planet,” She said, “The one you found, is the last remaining Hydra stronghold in existence.”
Tony froze at that, pieces clicking into place — Steve’s reaction at seeing it, the secrecy and the suspicion that he was Hydra, and then — “Jesus fucking Christ that thing is Hydra tech?” Tony started, staring at the sphere, orb, thing with growing horror, because it was in his head , it was connected with him, somehow, and Tony barely resisted the urge to start clawing at his skull to get it the fuck out, “Telepathic link, Banner said— Jesus C hrist—”
“Stark,” Natasha said, warningly, but Tony did not, could not stop.
“How is it in my head,” Tony hissed, “How is that possible I don’t— I don’t— how do I get it out?” He asked, “ Can I get it out? Please tell me there’s a way—”
“It’s not Hydra’s tech.” Natasha snapped at him, “Hydra did not make this , so get yourself under control ,” She said, and Tony obeyed, if only because Natasha was, apparently, on the “Things Tony Stark Is Afraid Of” scale, smack dab in the middle of “unwanted telepathic bond with Hydra tech” and “unwanted telepathic bond with tech of unknown origin”.
Tony was not really on board with getting new data points for that particular scale, but if he had them, he had them, and he never said no to new data. “Then what is it,” Tony asked, frustrated and helpless and unable to get the niggling feeling in the back of his skull to stop , “If it’s not Hydra’s—”
“We don’t know.” Natasha said, “And we don’t know if we can stop… whatever it did to you.”
“Fantastic,” Tony muttered, curled his hands into fists, spread his fingers apart until the skin between his fingers hurt, repeated the gesture. Into a fist until the bones of his hand creaked and his nails bit into the skin of his palm, out to the limits of bone and muscle and skin. In, and out. Measure it to his breathing, try not to freak the fuck out. “That’s just fantastic .”
One more list he wanted to stop collecting data points for: how much various unwanted modifications to his body and mind sucked .
Oh, sure, this one was useful, this one didn't hurt, but it was changing him. It was in his head and it had already shown that it could change how he felt about it, and just because Tony could recognize that it was happening now didn't mean he would continue being able to, and if he couldn't trust his own mind in this strange, unfamiliar universe, then—
Then he couldn't trust anything.
Natasha tipped her head in understanding. “If it’s of any consolation,” she said, “Your ability to use this map might allow us to finally kill out Hydra for good. Burn the body—”
“And no more heads can grow,” Tony recited flatly, “Yeah, no that’s… not really helping as much as you might’ve hoped, sorry.”
“No,” Natasha said, looked at him oddly, and Tony realized that he was tapping a pattern into the face of the reactor, and hastily stopped. “No, I expect it’s not. But…” She hesitated, visibly calculating what she was going to say next, “If this goes to plan, and if you remain compliant enough—”
“Frankly surprised that I still qualify, despite—”
“As long as you do not put my crew in danger, ” Natasha cut him off, “When this is over, I’ll make sure we get it out of your head. That’s a promise.”
Tony tried not to show how surprised he was at that, at Natasha offering something like that without knowing the possible outcomes. He tried not to show that he really, really wasn't surprised at her offering, not for this. “You can’t promise that,” He said, softer than he meant to, “You don’t know what could happen. You don’t even know what the thing is doing to me.” He said, paused, “I don’t want to hurt your crew. I just want to go home, but…”
“Phrase that differently,” Natasha said, voice steely, “You do not want to try to hurt my crew. I will stop you if you try, even if it’s not really you doing it. That , Mr. Stark, is a promise I will keep.”
And that, in maybe a not-so-weird way, was a comfort, the promise that Natasha would kick his ass if he tried to hurt anyone. “That I believe,” Tony said, and Natasha turned to leave. “Hey,” He called out, “If you’re out to destroy Hydra, then I’m with you. Whatever I can do, I will.”
Natasha looked at him, considered this. “I believe you,” She said, and then, “I’m still not letting you out of your cell.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, sat down on the bunk, felt more himself than he had the rest of this entire goddamn experience, even let himself grin, a little bit. “That’s fair.”
Chapter 7: Falling out of Love
Things were… not better , not exactly, there was still the horrible feeling of something being inside his head that wasn’t part of him, and they still didn’t let him out of his cell, but Natasha and Clint came down every so often to check the map, and with them came conversation, and jokes, and the confinement (just because Tony understood their reasoning didn’t mean he liked it) was a little less panic-inducing with friendly faces around.
They brought him a blanket and a pillow to go with the cot, and once, Clint had showed up with a version of battleship that they played sitting on the floor in front of the force wall, the gameboard neatly in the center.
Natasha had even brought him a pad of paper and a pencil so that he didn’t go bored out of his mind with no one else around, a simple graphite stick he had to rub furiously against the side of the page to sharpen since they didn’t give him a sharpener.
Just because he wasn’t Hydra didn’t mean he wasn’t a threat, apparently, and just because he was useful didn’t mean that he was going to get a free pass to the rest of the ship.
Still, he wasn’t bored, and he wasn’t lonely, and he wasn’t quite terrified out of his skull, and even that had gotten better when Bruce had shown up in front of Tony’s room to discuss the strange shape of the ship’s warp field, and the enduring problem of the map. It had been… a stalemate with the warp field, mostly, because Bruce wasn’t discussing any of the specifics of the ship’s warp core with Tony, and Tony wasn’t discussing any details of the reactor with him , but they’d eventually figured out that although the two were affecting each other — which was a great thought — neither of them was likely to be actively disrupted to the point of causing problems.
The map, also, Bruce had good news about, in that he’d been scanning it, and Tony — Tony had rankled at that, had ranted at Bruce about how it was impolite to scan a guy before at least asking him out on dinner, first, to which Bruce had just pointed out that he had brought Tony dinner, and the banter and Bruce’s dry, deadpan humour was so familiar that Tony had laughed and let it go. The news he’d brought with him had helped, too, because Bruce had been more than 90% sure that once the sphere was destroyed, whatever the hell it was doing to Tony’s brain would reverse itself.
That had been such a relief that Tony had wanted to hug Bruce, but since that wasn’t possible, he’d given the man another, even better gift — the gift of math.
They’d gone back and forth with equations on the force wall of Tony’s cell for at least three hours — you could write on the surface like Tony did on his holo screens, which was neat, and god Tony wanted to know how this tech worked — until Clint had brought down dinner for the both of them, not even pretending to understand any of the symbols written up.
All of this meant that Tony had started to relax , almost, not to the point that he was relaxed — that was near impossible to achieve even under the most ideal of circumstances, and these circumstances were definitely not ideal in the least — but enough that he was actually able to calm himself a little, to lose some of the constant tension in his jaw, to sleep .
So, of course, it was when he was sleeping — dreamlessly, which was about the best he could ask for these days — that all hell broke loose.
Tony was knocked off his bed by the shock, going from asleep to awake somewhere in the air, was already scrambling to his feet by the time he hit the ground.
There was another shot, the ship’s alarms already blaring, and Tony nearly fell right back over, heart pounding in his chest.
They were under attack. There was absolutely no doubt about that, and stuck in this fucking room , Tony couldn’t do anything but brace himself and listen .
He could feel the ship straining beneath him, as whoever was piloting — Clint or Natasha, he’d bet — tried desperately to evade whoever — or whatever — was attacking them, spinning and diving and if not for the artificial gravity Tony was willing to bet he’d have a concussion and at least a few broken bones from being tossed around like a bingo ball in its cage.
There were a couple more hits, but they were less jarring than the previous two, and Tony was starting to think, foolishly, that they might be alright.
And then the lights went out.
Red backups came on quickly, but something was clearly very wrong, the feeling confirmed when Bruce bolted past Tony’s cell and deeper into the ship, presumably wherever the engine room was.
“What the fuck have they done to my ship,” Natasha shouted from the cockpit, voice slightly muffled by distance and the corners it had to round.
“I don’t—” Bruce shouted back, “They’re in the systems, somehow, they must’ve hijacked one of our incoming messages, I can’t—”
Bruce was cut off and Tony swore when he was thrown into the wall when the ship spun wildly and the artificial gravity cut for a split second before Tony’s feet were firmly connected to the floor once again.
Bruce shouted up again, “Natasha, I can’t get them out, they’ve cut off are communications so we can’t call for backup, we’ll have to warp out of here or else—” The ship hummed, low and groaning and clearly not a sound it was supposed to make, and the tugging in the reactor abruptly stopped, “-- We’ve just lost warp. Nat—”
“I can help,” Tony shouted, pressing himself at the wall, interrupting Bruce, because he didn’t exactly know the entirety of the situation, but he did know that they were essentially dead in the water and that if they didn’t get their attackers out of the ship’s systems they would be dead, and Bruce was possibly the smartest man Tony had ever met but he’d never been a hacker and this was something he could do . “Romanoff, you know I can help, get me to a computer—”
Tony hadn’t heard her, but Natasha was in front of his cell now, standing with her feet apart and hands over her chest, wary and angry and afraid , and Tony shut his mouth with a click.
“You said,” He continued, and not being able to see anything that was going on, “That if Hydra had someone like me would’ve noticed. I can do this. You just have to let me.”
“I never introduced myself to you.” Natasha just snarled, slammed a hand against the force-wall, “ And you didn’t make it that far into SHIELD’s files. How did you know my name? ”
“This— really?” Tony asked, incredulous, looking side-to-side with wild eyes, “You want to do this now, we’re— I will tell you,” Tony promised, at the look in Natasha’s eyes, “ After we’re safe . I want to help. I promise—”
Natasha looked at him, eyes piercing, typed in the code fast as anything and Tony nearly fell forwards when the wall in front of him disappeared. “If you take one step out of line I will not hesitate to put a bullet in you, understand me?” Natasha snapped, herding him up the ladder towards the cockpit and pushing him in front of a terminal.
Tony nodded, was already reaching toward the keyboard, sliding into that hyper-focused mindset, the need to do or die that was so, so much easier for him than sitting and waiting and doing nothing . “Yes.” He said, shortly, and started typing.
Immediately, it was clear that while whoever the other side had attacked them was good, but not good enough . Not to keep Tony from handily blocking their attacks, restoring the ship’s systems one by one, lights and engines and gravity.
Natasha noticed as soon as she had full capabilities again, moving from her evasive maneuvers to full-scale attacks, Clint, up in the gunner’s roost, nailing the others ships with quick, accurate shots. The break in the action — the fact that he was no longer critical to the ship’s survival — gave him the opportunity to actually look out the cockpit windows and see what was going on.
As usual, his breath caught in his chest at the sight of space , dark and empty and full of unfamiliar stars, but the smaller ships darting around the Adrastia in formation were enough to catch his attention instead, and —
He really wasn’t surprised by the familiar red emblem on the side of the ships.
“Son of a—” He started, was just refocusing on the screen when Bruce came hurtling up the stairs, tablet flashing in his hands.
“Captain,” He called, “It’s a trap, the star’s about to flip poles, if we don’t get out of here in about four minutes it won’t matter who wins this fight.”
Natasha swore, loud and in about six different languages, and Tony grit his teeth and dove into the coding as another shot hit and Coulson ran down the stairs, Natasha throwing out orders, the entire group moving like a well-oiled machine, and Tony let himself smile .
Hydra had tried to destroy the Adrastia from the inside out. The thing with that was that doors opened two ways, and just because Tony had pushed them out didn’t mean he couldn’t follow them back . Within a minute, Tony had wormed into the Hydra ship’s systems and was disabling each and every one. “Romanoff,” He called, and when he looked over there was a flicker of fear in her eyes before he continued, “I own them. Where can I send them to be taken care of?”
Natasha’s eyes widened in surprise, and then she matched his grin, rattled off a set of warp coordinates that Tony plugged in, and just before he hit enter the ship rocked with another hit, barely a wobble and clearly nothing major, and with seven simultaneous streaks of light, the Hydra ships were gone.
“Three minutes till stellar event,” Bruce called out, “Reading damage but nothing major, easy enough to repair.” He looked up, clear relief on his face, “We’re clear.”
“Excellent,” Natasha said, “Sound off, everyone.”
One by one, the entire crew compliment — Clint, from the gunner’s roost, Steve, where he was bucked into the co-pilot’s seat, Bruce, where he was standing beside Tony, and then —
“Where’s Phil,” Natasha said, after a moment of quiet.
“The stern airlock seal was pinging damage, he went down to seal it—” Bruce tried.
“I see him,” Clint cut him off, already jumping down and landing heavily, sprinting to the back of the ship, “He’s floating, I don't see a suit.”
And then Clint was gone, and after a moment of shock, a moment for the reality to settle in — Coulson was in space, alone, without a suit or a helmet or any way to breath — and Tony bolted after him, jumping down the stairs and stumbling, rolling his ankle on the landing but he kept going, past the cells and the crates of whatever cargo they were carrying, because there wasn’t enough time, Coulson was going to die again and this time, it would be his fault.
Clint was struggling into another suit, swearing as he tried to yank it up his leg, the material tight and bunching and he was not going to be fast enough .
There was a countdown running in his head. A countdown that he’d only used once, before. Once, and countless times in his own nightmares.
This was the first time he was using it for someone else.
He grabbed the helmet out of Clint’s hands, and Clint tried to grab it back for a split second, a split second before he understood, and dropped his own suit, leaving it in a pile on the floor, turning back to where the suits were stored and grabbing something, Tony didn’t see what because he was jamming the helmet on his head, and it locked with a hiss.
The fact that a HUD didn’t spring into life was disorienting, for a second, disorienting enough that he didn’t realize Clint was behind him until he was jamming something onto his back, hard , hard enough that Tony stumbled forwards a step.
“You’re gonna want to breathe, I’m assuming,” Clint said, voice tight and clipped as he hooked a tether to Tony’s waist.
He had a tether. He was doing this again but he had a tether. There was no portal. He would be fine . He- he was breathing, still, even with the helmet.
He was shaking.
He was going to do this. He had to do this. He was in the airlock now, and Clint was doing… something, sighting out the window and opening a wall panel and fiddling with something inside, setting levers and dials to the coordinates Bruce was shouting out, and then his hand was hovering over the final one.
Clint raised an eyebrow at him, through the door of the airlock. “You’re going to want to face the right way.” He said, nothing else, didn’t ask if he was ok, didn’t ask if he could do this, even though Tony could tell that he was still shaking.
There was no time. There was no time and the countdown was ticking down and he had to do this.
Of course, he was fucking terrified, but what else was new.
He turned around, to the tiny window in the outer door in the airlock, and Clint started counting down.
Tony didn’t even hear the last of it, because the airlock was depressurizing and then the door was open and he was being launched into space.
He could see Coulson, out in front and below and he was hurtling towards him with all the force of the vacuum sucking him out into space.
His breath was caught in his throat, holding it tightly in his chest because he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he did, if he let that air go, there wasn’t going to be any left. So he held his breath. He held his breath and hoped that he was heading true, because if he wasn’t, if he was only a fraction of a degree off...
Well, if anyone could make this shot, it was Clint.
His vision was starting to go black around the edges. He couldn’t force himself to breathe, even though he could hear Bruce on his comms, worried and a little bit frantic, going on about vitals, but Tony couldn’t pay any attention to that.
Because behind him, the tether was straightening out.
Coulson was still almost a good 30 meters in front of him. The tether wasn’t going to be long enough.
He disengaged the magnetic lock on it without a thought. He could still do this.
Tony was still going fast when he finally got within grabbing distance of Coulson, maybe 10 seconds after he’d left the airlock, and grab he did, clutching at his clothes and anything he could reach and sending them both spinning out towards into space, and he was holding on to Coulson’s arm so tightly he was probably leaving bruises.
He still wasn’t going to let go.
His heart was pounding in his ears and he breathed, finally, a rushed inhale as he got his hand on Coulson’s throat, fumbling for a pulse he wasn’t sure he would be able to find, uncomfortably aware of just what the vacuum of space could do to a person.
Coulson had a heartbeat, weak and feather-light, but it was there . “I’ve got a pulse. He’s alive.” He breathed, shaky and relieved, twisting until they weren't spinning anymore. Coulson’s eyes were closed, and his chest was smaller than it would be if he’d held his breath — which was good, risking low blood O2 was better than having your lungs pop from the pressure differential — and he was ok. He would be ok.
“You’re untethered,” Natasha snarled over the comms, “You fucking idiot . How by the gods do you expect to get back?!”
“Well,” Tony said, eying the distance between him and the end of the tether, where it was looping lazing in the space between him and the Adrastia, calculating the distance and the angle and the force he’d have to use, “I was thinking—”
“2 minutes to stellar event.” Bruce interrupted, strained and tinny over the comms. Tony swore.
And then kicked Coulson towards the looped end of the tether as hard as he could. “Like that.” He said, screwing up his eyes against the bright of the star as he spun back around, too bright even through the shielded helmet.
There was absolute silence over the comms, silence and darkened and stars, stars everywhere , the blue of the star almost the same colour of the portal, and for a moment, he did not know where he was.
He couldn't breath, instinct and fear telling him to hold onto his breath with everything he had, and reality was blurring into memory, the bright-dark flashes of the star as he continued to spin not helping in the least.
The reactor was still bright, though. Bright and blue and shining through the suit, and he hoped that he was right. That hunch he’d have ever since the ship had gone into warp the second time, ever since Bruce had come to talk to him, because if he wasn’t right he was going to die here, but if he wasn’t—
Well. Either he was right and he’d survive, or he was wrong and he’d be left to be consumed by the pulsar’s beam.
Or he was right and he’d die slowly and painfully.
Natasha swore, harsh and loud and vulgar , breaking him out of his thoughts. “Stark, do you have a death wish?! ” She snapped, and Tony was too busy watching Coulson’s trajectory, where he was tangling with the tether, caught in a loop as Clint pulled him back.
He watched, forced his eyes to stay open, until he was safely back in the ship. Closed his eyes against the deep brightness of the star and the blackness of everything else. “You need to go.” Tony said, voice barely above a whisper.
“You are going to die!” Natasha snapped back, and she sounded pissed . “And you are the only one who can-”
“I’ll be fine .” Tony interrupted. If he was right, he'd be fine. But they needed to warp in the next minute and a half. “Banner, irregularities in the warp, directed at me. I will be fine.”
Or he’d be torn apart. Better than falling into the star, though.
There was a beat of silence. And then, “Oh gods. ” Bruce whispered, cleared his throat. “You still might die, and if you didn't you- this hasn’t ever been done, the effects-”
“It's the best shot I have, at this point.” Tony snapped. “Romanoff, you don't trust me. I get that. But at least trust me when I say I do not want to die. Now fucking floor it.”
“You better be right.” Natasha snarled.
And then the world shattered. He didn’t know what else to call it, even though he couldn’t see the world break apart and reform. He could just tell that something was very, very broken, and that he was at the center of it, could feel the wrongness twisting through him like a living thing.
He was pretty sure he would’ve thrown up if his body had remembered which nerves actually did that.
It didn’t hurt, though. Only because of a technicality, only because the constant blinking signals trying to reach his brain were broken and twisted before they could get there, the scatter-shot firing of his nerves so much, too much, to be anything but constant noise.
So, no pain. Not really.
Even so, he might’ve been screaming. He really couldn’t tell. He really, really couldn’t, couldn’t tell his lungs from his stomach from his heart, couldn’t tell touch from taste from hearing, and when he opened his eyes the input rushed in with all the rest and proceed to very thoroughly scramble his brain.
If he was a computer, he was pretty sure he would’ve crashed, by this point. Overclocked and trying to work with too many variables, too many different equations at once. Too much everything at once. Sensory overload to the nth power, too much and too bright and too loud.
Even so, even though struggling to actually recognize what he was seeing, he did recognize a couple of things.
The first was that he could see the Adrastia, skimming out in front of him, leaving him to be caught in the riptide behind it. Though, from what he could see beside him, or above him, if he’d been anywhere but behind the ship, the forces would’ve torn him apart. So, good luck there.
The second was he was surrounded by a warp bubble, the fuzzy shimmering sphere of which he could see, centred around the reactor, connected back to the Adrastia’s like a thin, shimmering thread, and relief was like a shot of cool water right to his nerves. He’d been right.
The third was that the reactor was dangerously dim, and that as he watched, it flickered.
And the warp bubble, the meager protection between him and the maelstrom of two different planes of reality interacting, flickered with it.
That was pain. That was a lot of pain, like suddenly, all the confused signals in his head suddenly just switched , and-
He was definitely screaming now.
Definitely screaming, even as the reactor grew brighter again, even as the shield around him solidified again, even as the pain faded to noise which was somehow a relief , he was still screaming.
More an automated response than anything. After all, he was pretty sure any control he had over his own body had been left back at that pulsar. Input to output, no decisions from him required.
And he really, really didn't have the energy, or willpower, to stop himself.
Because the world was going grey, colour and vision leaching out at the edges, sensation becoming… less, somehow, like the background noise that was currently his brain had been blurred. Same intensity, less definition.
...He might be dying. That was… that was a possibility, and even that single thought, those four simple words strung together into a sentence, took far too long to collect. Far too long to reason out, even though it really should’ve been obvious, because for one, the reactor was failing, and that was never a good time, and for two, well, people probably didn’t go outside during FTL travel for a reason .
He was probably experiencing the reason right now.
And then the world around him solidified, and everything… stopped.
The sensation was like the afterimage of a flashbulb, like the ringing in your ears after a loud noise, like standing out in the cold and then shoving your hand into warm water that feels so much hotter than it actually is.
It felt like static. He felt like static, like his entire body had been filled to the brim with carbonation. It would’ve been unpleasant, but he was only half-conscious, at that point. Maybe less than that, because his eyes were open but he wasn’t processing anything he could see, he could see the stars, unfocused and blurry and spinning past his line of sight, moving quickly in an orbit around him, or he was moving, and one was more likely than the other but he wasn’t sure which one it was.
And then someone was tugging on him, and there were… arms? Probably arms, around his shoulders and he was being dragged back, and he couldn’t see the stars anymore and…
He was being crushed to the floor by gravity, and, it felt like too much. Even though somewhere, he knew the reason he couldn't lift his hands wasn't because of gravity, was because his nerves weren't firing right, it felt like he was being pinned to the floor.
There were things moving in front of him, above him, blurry spheres of tan and brown and, something was tugging at his head, and the stray thought of they’re gonna pull my head off floated through his mind before-
Too bright, white and light and he didn’t even wince, didn’t even blink at it. Couldn’t do anything other than stare.
Footsteps, pounding in his brain and through his teeth, and- that wasn’t right. Was it?
People were talking and he couldn’t recognize the words and there was a light in his eye and he wanted to flinch away because he hurt , but he couldn’t because his body was not attached to his mind and—
The world went dark, and it was a relief.
Chapter 8: Higher Than the Moon
After the dogfight at the pulsar, and some talks.
When Tony woke up, he couldn’t breathe. He was breathing , but when he tried to inhale there was nothing until a second later when he felt his lungs inflate, and then deflate, slowly and steadily, and there was something in his throat, and he didn’t know where he was and he jerked towards the flash of red he saw out of the corner of his eye, a panicked shout rising in his chest that doesn’t get anywhere close to escaping his throat, — red means blood and blood means pain and that combined with not knowing where he is is never, ever good, and—
He relaxed, slumping back against the bed. It was just Natasha, and she’s team , and so he must be alright, even if his head was full of fog and he still couldn’t recognize where he was. Even if he hurt, and had at least one tube shoved down his throat, if team was here that meant he was ok and that meant that he didn’t have to panic.
“Why,” Natasha asked, and she looked tired. “Why would you risk yourself like that?”
Tony, who had figured out that the thing in his throat was definitely a breathing tube after touching his face — parts of his body felt too small, especially his face, he had to check — pulled it out with the one hand that could move before Natasha could stop him, gagged and coughed, and blinked at Natasha.
“Couldn’t jus’ let ‘m die,” He muttered, because that was obvious, even though he could barely think , “No— not again.”
“Again,” Natasha said, “Stark, what does that mean?” She asked, but Tony was already out.
The next time he woke up, Tony was lucid, and clearheaded, and hurt like nothing else.
“Shit,” He said, plucking off the oxygen mask — thank fuck someone had removed the ventilator he knew he’d had in based on how wrecked his throat felt — and breathing in the slightly less stale air, squinting at the lights, “Please tell me someone got the number of the goddamn freight train that hit me.”
“Ah.” Bruce said, blinking, looking very much like he’d been caught in the middle of stealing cookies out of the jar, “You’re awake.”
“Unfortunately,” Tony responded, tried to push himself out of the bed, every muscle in his body screaming at him, before he noticed that his right hand was strapped to the rail. So was his torso, now that he was looking. At least his left hand was free. He could feel the reactor doing something it wasn’t supposed to be doing, different than the tug he’d noticed earlier on the ship, and that combined with being restrained was not doing his anxiety level any good. “Really?”
“You nearly seized yourself into a concussion,” Bruce told him, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but in this room, and he glanced at the door then back to Tony, who made a grabby hand at what he could only assume was his medical chart. “And the captain didn’t want you unrestrained just yet.”
Bruce did not give it to him, just frowned, brow furrowing. “Come on, I just wanna see why I feel like one gigantic bruise.” And figure out if anyone fucked with the reactor because it kinda feels like someone fucked with the reactor and that's never a good feeling.
“Essentially,” Bruce started, but did hand the tablet over after a moment of clear consideration, “You had a seizure, complete with random muscle spasms. It’s amazing that you don’t have brain damage. It’s amazing that you aren’t dead .”
“Mm.” Tony hummed, balancing the tablet on his knee so he could scroll through it one-handed, abandoning the pretence of looking into his own medical records and trying to dig into the others after he saw no mention of the reactor, “I’ve heard that before. Is Coulson…?”
“Agent Coulson was fine within the hour,” Bruce said, and with that, Tony slumped back against the bed.
“Good,” He said, “That’s… good.”
“And it’s all thanks to you, Mr. Stark,” Natasha said, and shit , Tony hadn’t even heard her come in. She nodded to Bruce, and after a glance at both of them, he left the room. Natasha didn’t say anything for a moment, just stared at him, and Tony felt the ridiculous urge to cover himself. He hadn’t felt like that around her after the first week, and as always, it was extremely disconcerting to find himself feeling that way again. He wished he had a shirt.
“Didn’t do it for the thanks.” Tony told her, keeping his voice level, folding both hands together in his lap.
“No, I suppose you didn’t.” Natasha said, tipped her head, “Now, you had something you wanted to tell me, yes?”
“Right.” Tony said. “Can you answer one of my questions first?”
“Depends on what you ask.” Natasha said, and to anyone else, she’d look pissed, disinterested, but Tony could see the little downturn of her lips that meant that she was forcing back amusement. He wasn’t entirely sure that that was better.
“Of course it does.” He muttered, then gestured to the reactor with his free hand, “Did anyone do anything to this while I was out?”
Natasha didn’t give any indication if she was surprised by the question or not. “Only because we had no idea what to do about it.” She said, and Tony relaxed, just slightly. “It is—”
At that moment, his chest constricted , and Tony was really, really sick of this universe’s sense of comedic timing, because when he looked down the reactor was flickering, dying, and it hurt like a sonofabitch , fuck—
It powered back on fully after a second, and Tony had to take a moment to catch his breath. “Fuck me,” He said, and from the looks of things, Natasha was echoing the sentiment.
“It’s been doing that since we hauled you in.” Natasha said, “So far, it’s always come back on, but… it’s happening more and more frequently, and we don’t know what the hell it is, so we can’t fix it. We were hoping, now that you’re awake—”
“I’ll need tools.” Tony interrupted, still staring at the reactor like if he looked away it would fail again, “Like, as soon as possible. Pliers, the smallest you can get, soldering gun, fuck , maybe screwdrivers. A mirror, or a screen, something so I can see what the fuck I'm doing, and I need this fucking cuff off—”
Tony waved his hand where it was attached to the bed, making it rattle loudly. He wasn’t panicking. He wasn’t , really, but—
Ok, he was restrained and he hurt and the reactor was very quickly giving out so maybe he was panicking a little bit, but give him a break . He’d give his entire fortune to someone who didn’t panic under those conditions. “Banner will help you.” Natasha said, “But I have something to say, first. No,” She said, seeing Tony open his mouth to protest, “You will get your tools, and you will get all the help and materials you need to fix yourself, but first I have something to say and you’re going to listen .”
Tony snapped his mouth shut, and glared, and pretended that he couldn’t feel his heart trying to beat out of his chest.
“You’re not from this universe.” Natasha said, and Tony jerked backwards, opened his mouth to deny it, or something , but— “Don’t deny it. You called me Romanoff, and you shouldn’t know my name. You knew that Rogers would wake up. You don’t exist in any SHIELD files, and that’s not possible . Just earlier, I asked you why you saved Agent Coulson, and you said that you couldn’t let him die. Again .”
Tony made a face, twisted his hands in the sheet. “Fine.” He said, “Fine. Yeah, I’m not from here. What the fuck does that have to do with anything? I’m not— I can’t get home, I’m still dying, and I’m still telepathically bonded to a sphere of dubious morality. Is that what you wanted me to say? Is that what you wanted to hear, Romanoff?”
Natasha didn’t meet his eyes, took a breath that even to Tony , looked a little shaky, and he immediately felt guilty for his outburst. “I just wanted to know. For sure.” She said. “You may be trying to get home. I have my home, here, and I am not going to let them get hurt.”
“I know,” Tony said, and Natasha looked at him wryly.
“I suppose you do, don’t you.” She said, hesitated, just for a moment, and then reached over with a key produced from somewhere and undos right hand from the bed. The strap around his torso goes next, and Tony took a breath, felt like he was getting more air than he had been, even though he knew he wasn’t. “You know me. In your universe. Don’t you.”
Tony stilled. “The people on this ship are your family.” He started, tried to decide what he was going to say next. He could lie, say that— he knew of her, but not personally, keep his distance, keep himself unattached but— God, he was tired of lying. “Aside— aside from me. And Steve, I guess. You don’t really know him yet. Well— I have a team, back home. They’re my family. They’re my home, and I miss them, and I’m flying through space with them and they don’t know me .”
“Everyone here.” She said, softly, and Tony nodded.
“All of you.” He said. “Bruce, and Clint, and you, and Steve. Coulson—” Tony swallowed, “I… didn’t really get to know him. He died about a year ago.”
“How.” Natasha said, voice flat, and if Tony didn’t know her as well as he did, he'd think that she didn’t care about the answer.
Tony smiled weakly. “Would you believe me if I told you he was stabbed by an evil god hell-bent on taking over the earth?”
Natasha blinked at him, like she couldn’t decide if he was joking or not. “Really.”
“Really,” Tony tells her, grits his teeth as his chest spasms as the reactor flickers. Just once, nothing bad, but— yeah. Natasha gives him a look that makes him think that that’ll definitely be a story for another time and stands.
“I’ll tell Doctor Banner to get the tools that you’ll need. He’ll help you.” She took a step, just about to the door, and—
“Wait,” Tony said, looked at her hands, and swallowed. “I… might actually need you to stay, too.”
Natasha looked at him, placed her hand flat against a panel on the wall. “Banner, I need you in the medical bay. Bring…” She pauses, and Tony speaks up.
“Needle-nose pliers, the smallest you have, bent and not. Wire-cutter, tin-lead solder, whatever you have that’s closest to sixty three-thirty seven and a suitable flux, not water-soluble. Copper wire, don’t care if it’s insulated but bring a wire stripper if it is. A set of screwdrivers, if you can swing it, and—” Tony made a face, “Electrical tape. Oh, and a mirror, I’m gonna need to see what I’m doing.”
“-- all of that, please.” Natasha finished. “Quick as you can.”
“Yes, Captain.” Bruce said over the intercom, and then the room was silent again. Natasha tapped at the panel in the wall, and — a hologram popped up, right in front of Tony, showing his chest at an angle that was much better than what he could get by craning his neck.
“Alright.” Tony said, took a breath, another. Fuck, but it was easier to do this at home, in his workshop. Weirdly, he thinks that it would be harder if Natasha wasn’t here, hindbrain seeing her face and form in his periphery and screaming safe at him. That’s good. It’s good that most of him is recognizing her as safe because— yeah, it’s gonna be tricky enough to do this as-is. Especially with what he might have to ask her to do.
One more breath — and Tony held it until he was just a little bit light-headed — and he twisted the reactor out of its socket, pulled it out in one mostly smooth motion, watching what he was doing in the video feed. He could feel Natasha’s eyes on him, but he didn’t look, he was not gonna look, he didn’t want to see what expression was on her face, seeing this thing that was his heart. A couple more practiced motions as he felt his breath get shorter — psychosomatic, even if reminding himself of that fact wasn’t at all helpful — and the reactor was now plugged into a longer cord that was kept spooled up under the reactor itself, on top of the electromagnet. That was hopefully staying in there, as was the pacemaker — fuck, he hoped that the pacemaker wasn’t damaged — but now, he could look at the reactor without worrying about going into cardiac arrest and/or having his heart shredded.
Or, at least theoretically he didn’t have to worry about those things. In reality? He was still very much worried. The reactor set to the side — balanced very, very carefully on the pillow between his neck and his shoulder — Tony stared into the video, squinting at the electromagnet, making sure that—
“Fuck.” He said, blew out a breath and squeezed his eyes shut tight. “Alright, Romanoff, gonna need you to get over here for a sec, if you would.”
Natasha was at his side when he opened his eyes, and Tony did not jump. “What do you need,” She said, face clear and gaze steady and Tony could’ve kissed her, just for that, not even counting what he was about to ask her to do.
“I.” Tony said, tried to keep his breathing steady but deep — he was gonna need to hold his breath in a second, here, keep still enough that Natasha could do this — “Am going to need you to reach into that hole and pull out the electromagnet. Don’t let it touch the sidewall, and don’t pull it all the way out. It’s suspended in a gel, it’s gonna be a little gross but it’s completely sanitary. I— my hands are too big, for this part. Gotta be you, unless someone here, fuck—”
The reactor flickered again, the change in light visible out of the corner of Tony’s eyes even as he froze up in an effort not to move. Fuck, fuck, fuck , that hurt .
“... has smaller hands than you.” Tony finished, trying not to sound like it felt like he’d just been kicked in the ribs, and not really succeeding. “Order of operations, gotta have the solenoid fixed before the reactor, otherwise— otherwise fixing the reactor’s gonna be for shit-all and I’m gonna die anyways, and—”
“Shut up,” Natasha said, not unkindly, which was good, because Tony had kinda been talking himself into a panic, there. There was a knock at the door, and a moment later Bruce walked in carrying an armful of tools which he nearly dropped once he saw Tony. “I take out the electromagnet, I don’t let it touch the side walls, I don’t pull it all the way out. Is that correct?”
“Yeah.” Tony said, blinked twice in rapid succession, could feel himself calming down, like— like Natasha was some sort of anchor, the calmness she was radiating managing to drag Tony back down from the peak of anxiety. Bruce put the tools down on a chair, brow furrowed, and Tony took a breath, another. “Gather round, kiddies,” Tony said, “You’re not gonna get to see anything like this again. Nat, on my count. One, two, three—”
And then he was holding his breath, watching, wide-eyed and unblinking as Natasha very, very carefully, extracted the electromagnet from his chest. Good hands , Tony thought, and then it was out and he could breath without worrying that the movement would cause the still-live electromagnet to shock the living daylights out of him. Natasha deposited it into his open palm, stepped back to wipe her hand off, still the epitome of cool professionalism.
“Thanks.” Tony said, turned the solenoid until he was staring at the part of it that had half-melted. Luckily, nothing much seemed damaged — just the one spot where something had jarred the wires into making contact and causing a short — so he’d probably be able to trim out the damaged segment of wire and replace it without much problem. “Copper wire, pliers, wire-cutter, and solder,” Tony said, held out a hand and laid the tools out on his stomach. Snip the damaged wire off, cut a new segment, and then for some delicate soldering, not the worst he’d ever had to do but damn close, and— “Done.” He said, took another shaky breath. “Romanoff, if you will—”
Natasha took the electromagnet gently, so goddamn gently, and Tony knew just how strong those hands were and they were being nothing but completely careful with the thing that kept him alive and—
Ok, fuck, Tony knew that he was most likely only reacting this way because of the situation, because he’s been here for a goddamn week, for one very shitty week, but it was still a lot , and he wasn’t going to fucking cry .
His eyes made liars out of him as he held his breath once again until Natasha had got the electromagnet settled, and she barely needed any direction to make sure it was properly suspended in the gel that prevented it from wiggling around and hitting the casing. “Thank you,” He said, again, and turned to the reactor proper, blew out a breath from between his teeth.
This could very well be the hard part. Until he cracked the reactor open, he didn’t know what could be wrong with it. He didn’t even know what FTL travel could be able to do to it, and… honestly, he kinda didn’t want to open it up. If he didn’t look, he wouldn’t know just how badly he was screwed.
So, he took one of the smaller screwdrivers Bruce had brought and started screwing off the crystal facing of the reactor, because— well, he’d never been the kind of person who would shun learning something because of fear.
And also because he didn’t want to die.
It came off smoothly, as narrow the gap between it and the metal rim holding it in place was, and then it could be slid out of the casing, and—
“Oh thank fuck ,” Tony said, slumping back into the bed, just a little bit. Natasha and Bruce both looked up at him, and Tony hurried to explain. “Nothing’s damaged, but whatever happened drained the power and without a certain amount of current already in it, it can’t self-perpetuate. So… I really just need a jump-start and I’ll be fine and dandy.”
“Oh.” Bruce said, “So, a battery? If you tell me the amperage—”
Tony made a face, thinking of the times he’d had to start the reactor up — back in the cave, they’d nearly blown out the gas generators the rings had been using for power, and the second time, in his house with the new element, when he’d nearly blown out LA’s entire power grid — and shook his head. “I’m… gonna need a bit more than that. This thing’s a cold-fusion reactor, it needs one hell of a jumpstart.”
Natasha narrowed her eyes at him. “Exactly how big are you talking?” She asked, and Tony grinned .
“You are going to kill yourself,” Bruce said, running a hand over his face. Natasha was standing next to him, holding the biggest power cable Tony had ever seen . “This is a bad idea.”
“If we don’t do it I’m gonna kick it anyways.” Tony pointed out, made grabby-hands at the cable. “Come on, let’s just do this already.”
Natasha didn’t give it to him, just raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve done this before?” Asked, and Tony nodded, then made a face.
“ Technically the other two times the reactor wasn’t connected to my body.” Tony said, wincing, and then, “But! I can’t actually disconnect it because my heart will just stop. So. Can I have the life-saving power cable now?”
“You are going to electrocute yourself.” Bruce told him, voice firm, “And if what you’ve said about your heart is true—”
“I will die if I don't do this.” Tony interrupted him, “That’s certain. I need the reactor to be functional, or either my heart gives out anyways or the shrapnel that’s in there will shred me like a cheese grater. If it’s that or maybe I get electrocuted? I know which one I’m choosing, and I am choosing it right the hell now . Plus, I’ve been electrocuted by stronger stuff than this before and I’m still kicking, so I’d say my odds are good.”
Bruce pinched the brow of his nose. “Is there any way to remove the reactor so that we can start it without you directly connected to it?”
“No.” Tony said, and if he was lying…
He was pretty sure neither of them could tell. Or call him out on it.
Sue him, he didn’t want to be detached to the thing that was keeping him alive, and if he did disconnect it the chances that he'd go into cardiac arrest before he could jumpstart and then rewire the reactor were... slim.
“There’s not. Now give me the damn cord .”
“Fine.” Natasha said, handed him the cord, “But you’re telling me about the other times you’ve gotten electrocuted.”
Tony smirked. “Better clear your afternoon, then.” He said, started wiring the cord into the adaptor he’d thrown together so that he wasn’t just touching bare wires to the reactor input, double-checked to be certain that it wouldn’t short, and then before he could second guess himself, plugged the reactor in.
“Ow ow fuck—” Tony swore, jerking upright and nearly headbutting Bruce, who was leaning over him looking concerned. “I always forget how much that sucks .”
Bruce looked relieved, and Natasha, beside him, quickly schooled her face into a blank mask. “We were beginning to think you weren’t going to wake up.” She told him, and Tony blinked.
“I was out?” He asked, craned his head to look at the digital clock on the wall. “Well, that’s a record for the longest time electricity’s ever dropped me. Cool.”
“You—” Bruce said, visibly had to calm himself down. “We thought you had died . Your heart stopped for five seconds. ”
“Damn,” Tony said, only barely failing to hold back a grin, “That one isn’t a record. Come on, I’m fine. I made it, we’re good, and I’m all powered up. Now I just need a shittonne of advill and I’ll be back to normal!”
“You’re already on painkillers,” Bruce told him, looking massively confused, and, yeah, that probably explained some things. “Mild, because we needed you able to do… this , and not ibuprofen, no one uses ibuprofen anymore, why—”
Tony glanced at Natasha. “You didn’t tell him?” He asked, and Natasha pursed her lips.
“I thought it might be best to wait until you weren’t clinically dead.” She said, voice cutting but… not in a mean way, Tony thought. More like a joke, even if it was very hard to hear, and Bruce was looking between the two of them with a deeply confused expression on his face when Natasha turned to him, and said, “He’s from a different universe.”
Bruce blinked, looked between Tony and Natasha once again. “Well.” He said, “That… would explain some things.”
Tony couldn’t help himself. He snorted, and both Bruce and Natasha turned to look at him as he tried to stop laughing. “That is,” He said, “The most diplomatic way you could’ve put that.”
Bruce pursed his lips, but it looked like he was trying to hold back a bit of a smile. “And the un-diplomatic way…?”
“I’m a fucking weirdo who has no business knowing the things I do?” Tony suggested, and the both of them rolled their eyes, but not in annoyance.
“I could think of something less diplomatic than that.” Natasha told him, expression flat but eyes crinkled just a little bit in the way that meant she was joking, and— this wasn’t his home, these were not his friends, but they weren’t strangers, either, and this had to be the best he’d felt all week , despite the lingering pain.
Bruce huffed out a quiet laugh at Natasha’s comment. “That explains why you called her Nat, earlier.” He said, tipped his head, “You… know us, in your universe, don’t you?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah. Everyone on this ship. You, Romanoff, Barton, Rogers, Coulson. We’re… on a team, back home.”
“Except for Coulson.” Natasha said, abruptly sobering the mood.
Tony tipped his head. “Yeah. Except for him. He died.” Tony continued, seeing Bruce looking at him, “Basically the first fight we ever had as… well, we weren't really a team but. Yeah.”
“Oh.” Is the only thing Bruce said to that, looked down at the tablet he was holding.
“Doctor,” Natasha said, voice back to that commanding tone that told everyone in the vicinity to sit up and listen ,“Can you confirm that Mr Stark is not in immediate danger of death or something equally horrible?”
“Not… as far as I can tell.” Bruce answered, brow furrowing, “But, his physiology is fairly unique, what with—”
Bruce gestured, basically just to… all of him, and Tony scowled at him. Not that Bruce saw.
“--all of the additions that have been made, and it would not be responsible to attempt to make a conclusive prognosis now—”
“That’s all I needed, Banner.” Natasha cut him off, “You are dismissed.”
“Yes, Captain.” Bruce said, looked between the two of them again, and left the room.
It was silent aside from the beeping of various monitors for a long, long moment. “So, could I maybe get a shirt, or—” Tony started, the quiet grating on his nerves, only to be interrupted by Natasha.
“I have an offer for you.” She said, voice very, very firm. “It’s up to you if you take it.”
“Alright,” Tony said, drawing the word out, stupidly nervous, once again. No, he didn’t get this anxious twisty feeling in his gut when he was repairing his literal heart, but put him in any sort of social situation that he doesn’t have a foothold in, and he’s back to butterflies. “What’s your offer?”
“Join my crew.” Natasha said, and Tony blinked at her, because… that hadn’t been anything that he’d been expecting. “If you can’t get home, join my crew. We could use someone like you.”
“I—” Tony said, snapped his mouth shut.
He was going to accept. He knew that. There… wasn’t another option, other than wandering the galaxy aimlessly, looking for something that he might not find. He just… didn’t want to think about it. He’d been banking on the sphere being able to get him home, whenever they’d made it to where it was leading them, whenever they’d done what it wanted them to do, but…
If they did all that, and he still couldn’t get home?
Tony hadn’t really been thinking about that. Had actively not been thinking about it, really. If he couldn’t get home, if he couldn’t see his family again, if he was stuck here, with people he knew but no history there, with no Rhodey, or Pepper, or JARVIS, or the bots—
He really, really didn’t want to think about that.
“Yeah.” He said, finally. “If… If I can’t get back.”
Natasha smiles at him, a little bit. “I figured that’s what you’d say. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though.”
“Let’s.” Tony said, pushes himself up to sitting as Natasha makes for the door. “So. Now what?”
“Now,” Natasha said, “Officially, you’re on probation. After your display, back at the pulsar, I can’t justify keeping you locked up. It’s clear that you’re not a danger to my crew, and—”
“If I become one you’ll shoot me dead.” Tony finished, quirking a smile.
“Exactly.” Natasha responded, “You have free roam over most of the ship, your own quarters. I’ll get you some clothes, Barton can show you around. Any questions?”
“Just one.” Tony said, held up the arm that was covered in various monitors, hooked into an IV. “Can I take these out?”