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Steve comes up spitting sand.

It’s dense, and heavy, weighing on his chest where it’s piled over him, and Steve has to struggle to flail his way free of the dune. For a moment, he doesn’t remember anything, and he lays there in confusion, blinking out at the magenta landscape of the desert. Then, in a flash, it comes back to him - the argument, and the impact on the spacecraft, and the sharp tenor of Tony’s voice as he’d said, “ Steve, we’re coming down hard, hold on to -” before everything went dark.

Steve scrambles to his feet, looking around wildly. There’s nothing around him, nothing for miles, just pink sand and green sky and -

There, in the distance, a plume of black smoke. Steve doesn’t think; he starts running.

-

five hours earlier:

Today is the day Steve Rogers is going to ask Tony Stark out.

No more waiting. No more delays, no more denial, no more almost-kisses that Steve chickens out of at the last minute. This is it. He’s actually going to do it, for better or for worse - although, no, that’s not a good phrase to be thinking right now.

Steve takes a deep breath. It’ll be fine, he tells himself. Just remember what Jan told you.

Jan had been surprisingly - or maybe unsurprisingly, considering she was in a long-term committed relationship - helpful with the issue. Just ask him, she’d said. That way you’ll know either way, right? No more torturing yourself like this. And, Steve? If he’s got half the brain he claims to, he’ll say yes.

Steve is - less sure about that. After all, what would someone like Tony Stark see in him? Tony is brilliant, successful, and generous, not to mention handsome. He could get anyone he wanted in his bed: why would he choose Steve?

It was those doubts that had kept Steve silent for so many years. He’d actually worked up the courage to do it once before, not long after the Molecule Man stripped Tony down to nothing but a little red thong and Steve had realized that not only was Tony an incredible, attractive man, he was Steve’s best friend. So he’d asked, and Tony had said yes, and Steve had really thought - but afterwards, they’d come back to the Tower, and Tony hadn’t tried to kiss Steve, or do anything at all untoward. I had a great time tonight, Steve had said, and Tony had looked at him strangely and said, Yeah, so did I - it’s always fun hanging out with you, Cap, and Steve’s heart sank in his chest.

No, Steve tells himself firmly, forcing the memory out of his mind. You are not chickening out of this. Not again.

He makes himself relax his shoulders, and takes another deep breath, before he pushes the door open and steps into the kitchen.

“Hey, Tony,” he says, trying to appear casual, even though his heart is beating staccato against his ribcage.

Tony makes a noncommittal noise into his cereal, but doesn’t look up. He looks exhausted, sleep-mussed and glazed over, his hands uncharacteristically still. As Steve pulls a glass out of the cabinet, he wonders how many hours of sleep Tony’s gotten this week. Knowing Tony, probably in the single digits. He’s never slept much, but recently,  since the whole fiasco with Mallen, he’s seemed to avoid it entirely, holing up in his lab for days on end, letting Jarvis bring him food and emerging only for world-threatening catastrophes. He’s never told Steve much about the technovirus he injected in himself, other than the basic, it saved my life, and, oh yeah, I can interface with technology now, and Steve’s tried to be patient. He had thought Tony would come to him when he was ready, but by now, it’s been weeks, and Steve is less and less sure. Despite himself, it’s starting to bother him.

“You finish the upgrades to the armor, yet?”

“Mmm,” Tony hums. “Yep, I got it.”

Weird response. Steve squints at him, checking for a bluetooth headset or a phone tucked between his shoulder and his ear, but there’s nothing. No excuses, Steve, he reminds himself, and, taking a deep breath, turns away from Tony to rummage through the fridge.

“Well, if you’re done, maybe we could do something tonight?” Silence. Steve continues, “Dinner and a movie, maybe? Like a - uh -” Steve takes a breath. “Like a date? There’s a film I’ve been wanting to see that I think you’d like - it’s about this guy giving an artificial intelligence the Turing test? If nothing else, I’m sure you’d have plenty of things to nitpick.”

Steve’s heart hammers in his ears as he waits, frozen, for a response. His limbs feel suddenly weak and all he can focus on is the air rushing in and out of his lungs. He hasn’t been this terrified in - ages.

Why’d you have to be stupid and ask this, he thinks. Why’d you have to say the word date? You could have passed it off as something else otherwise. Fuck.

Because this is Tony. Tony, Steve’s best friend; Tony, Steve’s teammate and partner; Tony, the person who gave Steve a home, who made him laugh during the worst period of his life, who gave him a family. If he doesn’t want anything with Steve, then that’s okay, Steve can and will deal - but, God, Steve hopes he does.

Behind Steve, Tony starts speaking. “Yeah - yeah, Pep, I’ll be in tomorrow, don’t worry, it’s - yeah. See you then.” There’s the sound of metal clattering against porcelain, and then Tony yawning. “Hey, Steve. When’d you get up?”

The hope in Steve’s chest curdles and dies. Suddenly, Steve feels small and unimportant, like his body’s shrunk in on itself and he’s not Captain America anymore, just Steve Rogers, the scrawny nobody who girl’s eyes slid right over. Something sharp and hot rises in his chest that he can’t quite push back - something insecure and defensive, something that makes him not just frustrated, but angry. Steve is angry at Tony for some reason he can’t even articulate to himself. He tries to bite it back.

“Were you on the phone the whole time?” he asks tightly, turning away from the fridge to find Tony blinking at him with wide, dark eyes. “You don’t even have a bluetooth in.”

“Well - yeah,” Tony says, confused. “I don’t need it anymore. Not with Extremis.”

“Right,” Steve says, unable to keep the scorn from his voice. “ Extremis.” The barely-tested computer virus Tony injected into his body to keep himself alive. The computer virus Steve still didn’t understand, or could ever hope to understand - the virus Tony had told Steve practically nothing about, let alone that he could take phone calls in his head without anyone even knowing.

“Steve?” Tony asks. “What has gotten into you?”

Steve takes a deep breath, then another. He knows - he knows - his reaction is out of proportion. And yet -

“I think the better question is what has gotten into you,” Steve says. “You know. What with the technovirus you’ve told me nothing about.”

For a long moment, Tony just stares at him. When he speaks, his voice is cold. “Wow. Because that’s not hypocritical at all, Mr. ‘Got Injected with a Mysterious Serum for a Military Experiment’.”

Steve grits his teeth, but ploughs on. “This is different,” he says. “You know everything I do about Erskine’s serum. It’s been weeks, and you’ve told me next to nothing about this major life change that, for all I know, could be dangerous -”

“I’ve told you plenty,” Tony retorts. “I told you what it is, I told you why I did it. What else do you want from me? The computer code? The biological sequencing?”

Tony doesn’t say it, but Steve hears it anyway: why would I tell you that? It’s not like you’d understand it.

It makes something tighten in Steve’s chest, and there are hurtful words on the tip of his tongue he’s ready to let loose -

Tony and Steve’s comms go off simultaneously. Four long beeps, a moment of silence, and then it repeats; a distress call.

Steve turns away from Tony and picks up the comm. “Captain Rogers,” he says. For a moment, there is nothing but static - unusual, almost impossible, for comms of the quality Tony built for them.

“- Sue, Johnny, and - irregularities, in the Epsilon - do you read, we’re trying to - Epsilon Indi -”

Then the transmission cuts out entirely.

“Reed?” Steve asked. “Fantastic Four, does anyone read?”

Static.

“I’ll get the space quinjet prepped,” Tony says from behind him. “Spiderman’s in Florida, and Cage and Spiderwoman are on loan to the UK. It’ll be just us.”

Steve swallows hard, and steels himself. He’s Captain America, now. He can put this fight behind them, at least until they figure out what’s going on with the Fantastic Four.

“Get suited up,” he orders. “I’ll meet you there in ten.”

When he turns around, Tony is gone.

-

“What do you know about Epsilon Indi?” Steve asks, once they’ve escaped Earth’s orbit and are headed towards Epsilon at top speed. He’s leaning next to the pilot’s seat, Tony at the helm. In front of them, space soars by, white streaks against a pitch black background. It looks something like an abstract painting, and Steve thinks he should try to replicate it, sometime, when there isn’t a fight to be fought.

Tony shrugs, turning in his chair away from the viewport. “There hasn’t been a ton of research on it. The star’s a bit smaller than our sun, but it’s got two brown-dwarf companions. Radial-velocity measurements indicate there should be a pretty big planet orbiting it - around 1.6 times the size of Jupiter - but we haven’t confirmed yet. There might be terrestrial planets orbiting it, or asteroids, or moons, but it’s difficult to say without visiting. If the Fantastic Four are stuck somewhere in the system, my best bet would be on a terrestrial planet a few light-minutes from Indi A.”

Steve nods, crossing his arms over his chest. “Have any ideas about what they might have run into there?”

Tony shrugs again. “Like I said, we don’t know much about it. It’s pretty high up on the list of nearby stars with possible life, so some sort of alien attack seems likely, but it could be any number of things. A solar event damaged their spacecraft, an engineering malfunction on their part - hell, it could be a dark matter interaction. We really don’t know anything.” He turns back to face forward. “Which is why it was idiotic of Reed to take them out there in the first place. Remind me to yell at him once we find them.”

Normally, that’d make Steve laugh, but somewhere in him, the anger is still simmering, so all he says is a terse, “Noted.” Tony’s lips quirk down like he knows what’s wrong, and he doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the trip.

“Approaching Epsilon Indi A,” Tony says finally. “Nothing strange on the scanners.”

“Just be careful,” Steve says, grip tightening on the back of Tony’s chair.

Tony stiffens. “I’m not incompetent, you know,” he says tersely.

Steve sighs. How is it that he and Tony are so skilled at speaking around each other? “That’s not what I meant.”

Tony turns to face him, glaring now. “Oh, isn’t it? You don’t trust me. You think I’m reckless, and dangerous, and put myself and others at risk unnecessarily. Well, newsflash, Steve -”

“Tony -”

“- as dangerous as it may look from the outside, I’m perfectly capable of deciding for myself what needs to be done -”

“Tony -”

“- and as much as I may put myself at risk, I would never, never put any of my friends in danger unless -”

“Tony, look out!”

Tony turns around, finally, but it’s too late; the white light blazing towards them is too close, filling their field of vision.

“Hold on,” Tony says, even as his fingers fly over the control board. Just before impact, the spacecraft judders and turns, and Steve thinks he sees something coming up on the side of his vision - something large and round and red.

“Steve, we’re coming down hard, hold on to -”

Then it all goes dark.

-

It takes twenty minutes of full-out sprinting for Steve to reach the crash-site. The quinjet, like Steve, is half-buried in sand and sinking lower. Breathlessly, Steve jogs around it, looking for footprints or any sign of movement. Finally, he catches a glimpse of something red glinting from inside the wreckage, and he darts forward, falling to his knees. There he is - completely enclosed in the Iron Man armor, curled up on his side, almost in the fetal position. Steve grabs him by the hands and pulls.

He drags Tony fifteen meters from the wreck before he finally stops and flips him over. “Faceplate,” he orders, and the mask obligingly rises, revealing Tony’s bloodied face. Heart in his throat, Steve reaches forward to check his pulse, and - there it is. Weak, but there, and getting stronger by the moment.

“Tony,” Steve says, patting Tony on the cheek. “Tony, wake up. Come on, Avenger, just open your eyes.”

Steve’s not sure if it’s speaking to him or slapping him that does it, but Tony starts to rouse, shifting a bit in the armor. “Ugh,” he groans, squeezing his eyes shut. “What the hell, why is it so bright?”

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Tony blinks his eyes open enough to squint at Steve. “I’m fine. Ugh, aside from the massive headache, Jesus, it’s like New Year’s 2003 all over again.”

He starts to prop himself up on his elbows, but Steve pushes him down with a hand to the center of the chestplate. “Maybe you should stay laying down for a minute,” he says. “A headache could mean a concussion.”

“I’m fine,” Tony insists. “Seriously, Captain Overbearing, just chill.”

Steve bristles. He leans back on his heels and lets Tony push himself up into a seated position, glancing around them all the while. “Why are we in a -”

It seems to come back to him, because he cuts himself off suddenly. “Oh,” he says. “Right. Um. Where’s the quinjet?”

Steve shifts so Tony can see the ruins of the ship smoking behind him. “Ah,” Tony says weakly. “That looks bad.”

Steve raises an eyebrow.

“We should try to salvage some of it before it all goes down,” Tony says, climbing to his feet. He sways a bit, a trickle of blood running down from his temple to his chin. Steve steps forward, reaching forward to steady him, but Tony bats his hands away.

“Seriously, I’m fine. Extremis, remember?”

Right , Steve thinks. Extremis.

“Distress signal,” Tony says after a moment of silence. “We should try to get the first aid kit, too, and some rations, and the emergency survival -”

There’s a great belching bubble of sand, and all but the very tip of the quinjet sinks under the surface of the dune.

“Um,” Tony says. “We could try to dig for it?”

Another rumble and none of the craft is visible.

“Must have been the weight imbalance,” Tony says into the silence. “Me moving probably upset it.”

“So, what, I should have left you there?” Steve snaps.

Tony frowns at him. “No,” he says. “That wasn’t what I meant at all.”

Steve sighs, suddenly tired. “Sorry, I’m just - sorry.” He glances around them, but just like where Steve fell, there’s nothing in any direction but pink desert. “You want to maybe do a flyover, see if you can find anything?”

But Tony’s already shaking his head. “No dice, unfortunately,” he says. “Some of my circuits got pretty banged up in the landing, and now I can’t access my main power source, just my back-up. I could try to get airborne, but I’d run the risk of running dry, and then I’d be stuck in this tin can until someone came for a rescue.”

“So, you’re saying our only option is to start walking?”

Tony makes a face.

Steve stares out at the vastness of the desert, and has to bite back a groan.

-

“I feel like we should play a game or something,” Tony says, thirty minutes and a dozen sand dunes later. From glancing around, you’d never even know they moved away from the crash site; the desert is monotonous and unchanging, just an overwhelming sea of pink sand and lime green sky, like they’d landed in some gigantic version of an eleven year old girl’s room. It’s certainly not the most beautiful of environments, but the sand is relatively porous, and the gravity’s relatively weak enough that there’s a spring in Steve’s step. Steve’s not sure if he’s imagining it, but the air feels slightly thicker, too, almost denser as it sits in his lungs. Both things should make hiking through the desert easier for Tony, so as offensive as the color palette of the planet is to Steve’s eyes, he supposes it has its advantages.

“iSpy?” Tony continues when Steve doesn’t respond. “Twenty questions? A hundred bottles of beer on the wall?”

“Don’t start singing,” Steve says.

“Are you sure?” Tony asks. “I’ve got a beautiful tenor.”

“I don’t doubt it.” After all, is there anything Tony Stark can’t do?

“You pick a game, then,” Tony says. “If you don’t like my choices.”

Steve clenches his jaw. “I -” he starts, then forces himself to stop before he says something he’ll regret.

“No,” Tony says. “No, say what you were going to say. I want to hear it.”

The sun is beating down on them, and it’s starting to make Steve hot and flustered. Tony’s got the Iron Man suit, with its heat regulating capabilities, but all Steve’s got is a half-face cowl and a shield to protect him. Already, his jaw is growing red with sunburn.

“Would you rather,” Steve says.

Tony hums. “Interesting choice. “Not ‘fuck, marry, kill’?”

Steve barely bites back a too-mean retort. “You know what, never mind,” he says. “I should have known you’d - never mind.”

He picks up the pace, forcing Tony to speed up beside him. The whining of the servos of the armor takes up a higher-pitched drone.

“Would you rather,” Tony says after a long moment, “have Jan’s powers for a day or Peter’s powers for a day?”

Steve considers snapping back something just to be contrary, but he recognizes an olive branch when he sees one. “Jan, I suppose,” he says after a brief deliberation. “I’ve always wanted to be able to fly.”

“Yeah?” Tony says, looking surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

Steve shrugs. “I mean, part of it is the practicality. Battles would be a lot easier if I could fly. But it also seems like it would be so freeing.”

When Steve glances over at Tony, he’s got a quiet, almost wistful look on his face. “Yeah.”

Steve swallows, looking away. “Um. Would you rather - never use Twitter again or never watch Star Trek again?”

“Damn, Steve, starting hard right out of the gate, aren’t we? Shit.” Tony sighs. “Never use Twitter. It breaks my heart to say it, but I can’t give up Star Trek. It’s my baby.”

Steve huffs, rolling his eyes. “I never got why you loved that show so much,” he says.

“You - what? Wait. You’re not serious.” Steve just raises an eyebrow as Tony gapes. “Steven. It’s Star Trek. It’s like - the most incredible possible future, humans exploring the galaxy, a peaceful federation - Space! The final frontier! These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise - no?”

Steve shrugs. “I mean, yeah, it’s incredible. But it’s nothing you couldn’t do.”

Tony is silent for a moment too long, and when Steve looks over he finds Tony staring at him with wide eyes, his throat working.

“I guess,” he says finally. “Um, would you rather, uh - live without the internet or live without AC?”

“Oh, boy,” Steve says. “Normally I’d keep the internet, but right now, some air conditioning sounds really great.”

Tony snorts. “Ditto. I’m sweating like a whore in church.”

Steve can’t help the burst of laughter that bubbles up. “What? Where the hell did you -”

“You ever watch Honey Boo Boo? Oh, man, you’d hate it. It’s reality TV, this family in the South - daughter’s a beauty pageant competitor, family is - interesting, to say the least.”

“I’ll have to watch it sometime,” Steve says.

“Really, don’t,” Tony says. “Not even if Peter tries to get you to watch it. God, the number of stupid reality TV shows that kid has impressed on me - he make you watch Jersey Shore yet?”

Steve groans. “Unfortunately,” he says. “I didn’t realize so much had changed down there. I mean, no one ever liked New Jersey, but in my time, it was known for salt water taffy and gambling, not orange women.”

Tony laughs. “Well, it’s nice to know some things don’t change.”

“Yeah, I’m with you there.” Steve has to make himself focus - what are they talking about again? “Okay, um, would you rather go on a date with Widow or Sharon?”

Tony snorts. “Oh boy. Like either of them would glance my way. Well, Widow and I didn’t exactly end up well the first time, but I don’t want to steal your girl, so - Widow, I guess.”

Steve frowns. “Sharon’s not my girl,” he says. Tony gives him a skeptical look. “No, I’m serious. We haven’t dated in - a while. Don’t you remember last time, the explosive breakup? Have you thought I was dating Sharon this whole time?”

“Not dating her, per say,” Tony says, “Just interested. I mean, you guys have broken up before, it’s never lasted. You’ve really got nothing going on?”

“No,” Steve says. “Nothing at all.”

All this time, Steve’s been interested in Tony, and Tony thinks he’s been dating someone else. It makes Steve’s heart sink a bit in his chest; he knew Tony probably didn’t think of him that way, but, God, he didn’t realize he was that invisible. Not only is Tony not interested in him, he’s someone Tony hasn’t thought about at all. Might as well be the Virgin Mary.

It could make him angry. But instead it just makes him sad.

Steve’s pulled back to reality by Tony’s voice. “Okay, then,” Tony says, “Datings on the table -” Steve’s breath stutters - “for this game, then. Would you rather, um… ooh! Fuck Sam or… Thor?”

“Thor’s taken,” Steve points out, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat.

“So? This is theoretical!” Steve gives him an unimpressed look, and Tony rolls his eyes. “Fine, Captain Monogamy. Sam or… damn, who’s left that’s not taken or inappropriately young? I guess Wolverine, but even a theoretical romp in the sheets with him seems dangerous… Oh! Duh. Would you rather fuck me or Sam?”

Steve - well, admittedly his brain stops working for a minute there.

All he can hear, on repeat, is fuck me, in Tony’s voice. Yes, this is a question - a hypothetical question, get it together, Steve - but this is also probably the closest Steve will ever get to Tony coming on to him, and, well. It kind of makes him choke on the air as he tries to jumpstart his speech system into working again. It occurs to Steve that Tony’s probably going to think Steve’s offended by this, some kind of prude or - oh, God, what if he figured it out? Tony’s a smart guy, maybe he’ll realize, he’ll realize Steve’s interested and then Steve is going to be stuck with his stupidly sincere pity, why won’t his brain start functioning again -

“Steve?” Tony asks. “You still in there? Have I offended your delicate sensibilities -”

“Tony,” Steve interrupts, not sure what he’s going to say but needing Tony to stop talking, now.

And just then, he spots it. Something small and red, curled up on the sand, almost like fabric; it’s close enough to the hue of the sand that Steve wouldn’t have spotted it if he hadn’t been desperately looking for a distraction.

“Hello? Steve? You in there?” Steve looks back to Tony to find him looking about a second away from rapping his knuckles on Steve’s forehead.

“There’s something over there,” Steve says, starting towards the bundle of fabric.

“Woah, okay, maybe let’s not fuck with the alien object -” Tony suggests, even as he follows Steve at a half-jog.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Steve says, falling to his knees beside the material. It’s bunched and bundled in weird ways, almost like -

“Oh, no,” Tony says, as Steve reaches out to turn the material - or, rather, the thing beneath the material - over. “Is that -”

“A kid?” Steve asks, looking down at the child beneath the blanket. She’s got dark red skin a similar hue to her covering and shiny scales over her forearms and shins. Her huge eyes are closed, Steve hopes simply in sleep. He’d look for a pulse point but he doesn’t even know if aliens on this planet have a pulse.

“Could be an adult,” Tony points out. “We don’t know what adults of her species look like.”

Steve sighs. “Could we just -”

Before he can finish his sentence, the girl under his hands blinks open her eyes.

“Tava?” she asks, voice scratchy and thin. She licks her lips - she has a green tongue - and, with seeming effort, rolls her head to the side. “Ta’la.”

“Um,” Tony says, “We don’t speak - alien. Uh. You speak English, by any chance?”

“Ta’la,” the girl says again, voice growing stronger.

“I’m going to take that as a no.”

“Ta’ la, ” the girl says, more insistently this time, and then licks her lips in a deliberate movement. Steve knows he shouldn’t make generalizations about human facial expressions being applicable to this distant planet, but he could swear she’s about to cry.

“Um, maybe she wants water?” Steve offers hesitantly. “Or whatever their liquid equivalent of water is?”

“They probably do have liquid water, that’s a good point,” Tony says. “Suit says she’s a carbon-based lifeform, anyway. Hey, uh - whatever your name is, want water?”

The girl says something Steve can’t understand.

“You’d think I’d learn to stop asking you questions,” Tony says. “Well, I’m taking it as a yes anyway. Hold up, I have some reserves -”

Steve watches as Tony removes the gauntlet, revealing a hole in the arm of his suit. Tony kneels on the sand beside the girl, opposite Steve, and reaches out to hold his arm over her mouth.

“This is water,” he tells her, “Try to drink some, okay?”

“I don’t think she understands you,” Steve says.

“Well, the policy of any good doctor is to assume the patient can always hear and understand you, even when all evidence is to the contrary,” Tony says. Water starts dribbling out of his suit, falling onto the girl’s lips, and she laps at it greedily. “Learned that from the Beast. And my own many stays in hospital. Okay, that’s all I have for now, we need to conserve our water so we can get out of this goddamn desert.” He pulls back from the girl, pulling his gauntlet back on, and Steve doesn’t think he’s mistaking the disappointment in the girl’s gaze. Or maybe, like people who see Jesus on their grilled cheese, he’s just finding what he wants to be there.

“Okay, let’s try sitting up,” Tony suggests, and to Steve’s surprise, the girl actually starts propping herself up on her elbows before Tony even reaches towards her. “Nice job,” Tony says, once she’s propped upright, blinking around her with her huge, dark eyes in the bright sunlight. “Hey, weird question: can you understand us? Blink twice for yes, once for no. Well, I guess if it’s no it doesn’t matter. But twice for yes.”

The girl cocks her head, looks at Tony, and blinks twice in rapid succession.

“Uh, okay, not sure if that’s a fluke or not - wanna nod your head if you can understand us?”

The girl nods her head.

“Okay,” Tony says. “Okay, so, she can’t speak English but she can understand it?”

“Maybe it’s something like Thor,” Steve says, “Some kind of Allspeak, or Universal Translator?”

“Maybe,” Tony agrees. “Guess it doesn’t much matter right now. Hey, what’s your name?”

The girl makes a sort of guttural, stopping sound.

“Sheba?” Tony tries, and she shakes her head, correcting him. “Shi’ba?” he tries again, and she almost seems to consider it a moment before relenting - like she can’t decide whether it’s worth trying to educate them further.

“Well, nice to meet you, Shi’ba,” Tony says. “I’m Tony, this is Steve. Can you say Tony?”

“T’ny,” Shi’ba says. “Se’teve.”

“Close enough,” Tony agrees. “So what are you doing out here, Shi’ba? Get separated from your parents?”

Shi’ba cocks her head at him, doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t know if she can answer that for you,” Steve points out after a long moment.

Tony huffs. “Well I was obviously hoping it would be a yes or no question. Shi’ba, are you supposed to be out here? Shake your head for no, nod for yes.”

After another long moment of Shi’ba squinting at them like she’s not sure if they’re here to get her in trouble, she shakes her head.

“You lost?” Tony asks, and she shakes her head, then changes her mind mid way through, and nods. “Not sure?” he prompts, and she nods. “Okay. You want to come with us, then? We got stuck here when our spaceship crashed, and we’re trying to find some people to help us out. Maybe we can help you at the same time.”

Shi’ba nods again, and then, without waiting for Steve or Tony’s instructions, starts pushing herself to her feet.

“Woah, wait a second -” Steve says, reaching out to steady her as she wobbles, clearly not strong enough yet to be walking by herself. “How about one of us carries you, okay? The desert can’t be good for you, and we’d like to get out of here ourselves.

Shi’ba turns to point towards the general direction Steve and Tony were walking when they found her.

“That’s the way out?” Tony asks, and Shi’ba nods. “That’s very helpful, thank you. Hey, Steve, looks like we got our own little navigator here!”

Steve smiles down at Shi’ba, a gesture she returns a moment later, almost hesitantly. “It’s good to have you here,” Steve tells her. “Neither of us is very good at navigation. We get lost a lot.”

Shi’ba’s grin softens, becoming just the slightest bit more genuine.

“Oh, Steve’s just being dramatic,” Tony says interrupts. “I’m a genius. I know exactly where everything is all times! See, we - oh, shoot. Shi’ba?”

Shi’ba has wrapped her little red blanket back around her shoulders, leaving her looking less like a person and more like a bundle of cloth. “Oh, no,” Tony says, shaking his head in faux-dismay. “I think we lost Shi’ba, Steve!”

Shi’ba giggles, poking her hand out from the fabric to jab Tony in the thigh. He startles, blinking down at her with surprise.

“Oh, Shi’ba! Thank god, I was worried. Better make sure we don’t lose you again. Wanna hop up?”

He waits until she nods before he hoists her in the air, settling her on his hip. “I doubt you have it here, but where we’re from - Earth, it’s called - we have this game called Twenty Questions. I ask you something, and then you nod for yes or shake your head for no. So we can get to know each other, right? That sound good to you?”

Shi’ba nods enthusiastically, kicking her little feet.

“Great,” Tony says, as they start walking. “Okay, first things first, and I’ll need you to tell it to me straight, here, this is very important: am I prettier than Steve?”

Shi’ba giggles.

--

They find out rather early in their Way-More-Than-Twenty-Questions game that Shi’ba is a child, and is female. Moreover, she’s utterly fascinated by Tony’s armor. At first, she clings to Tony, her arms wrapped tight around his neck as if she’s afraid he’s going to drop her. Over time, though, and many more questions, she loosens up, and her hands wander to play with the joints of the armor, the edges of the arc reactor, staring in awe at the golden faceplate when Tony pulls it down to cover his face.

She’s around the size of a human four-year old, and acts around that age, but she says she’s eight. She likes sweet things better than salty, likes science and sports, and has three parents back home. But any time they try to figure out more details why she’s in the desert, she won’t respond, opting instead to mess with the seams of Tony’s armor as she waits for them to change the subject.

Tony and Shi’ba chatter away all afternoon with only minimal input from Steve. They don’t seem to need it; Tony’s motormouth skills are perfect for holding a one-sided conversation, and after a while Shi’ba warms up to them enough to respond in her own language, even though she knows they don’t understand her.

Steve could probably inject himself into the conversation if he wanted to, but he finds himself content to simply walk along, taking Shi’ba into his arms occasionally when it looks like Tony’s starting to flag. Shi’ba is a lovely girl, that much becomes obvious very quickly; she easily picks up Tony’s mannerisms, and starts mimicking the way he shakes his head, rolls his eyes, even, once, tries to mimic his deep laugh: a rich sound that, in her little voice, comes out more like a rasping hiccup.

They’ve been walking for several hours before the landscape starts to change. At first, Steve thinks it’s just getting dark, before he realizes that the color of the sand is actually changing - deepening from a magenta pink to a more purply red. The dunes start flattening out too, and eventually Steve is able to make out something bumpy and uneven on the horizon. As they get closer, Steve realizes they’re boulders.

The next time Tony glances over, Steve catches his eye, nodding deliberately towards the horizon line. Tony squints, a bit, his vision clearly not as good as Steve’s, but he nods anyway. Shi’ba has fallen asleep and is dozing on Tony’s shoulder, mouth hanging open.

“I can take her,” Steve murmurs. He’s fully expecting Tony to decline, so he’s surprised when Tony passes Shi’ba over without fuss; Steve makes a note to watch him more carefully.

Shi’ba shifts when she’s passed over, muttering something in her sleep, but she quiets again once Steve settles her.

“Where do you think her parents are?” Tony asks, and Steve sighs, shaking his head. “I mean, she can’t have just run off, can she? If we’ve been walking for hours. How would she even -”

Steve shakes his head, looking down at the small girl in his arms. “I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t imagine they don’t know she’s missing. Someone must be looking for her.”

“Yeah,” Tony says after a long moment. When Steve glances over at him, he’s got a strange glint in his eye, something almost like unshed tears. Steve wonders what it is that’s triggered it: the desert? The exhaustion? The girl? Not for the first time, Steve wishes he could see what was going on inside of Tony’s head.

“How far out do you think it is?” Tony asks. The change in subject is sudden enough that it leaves Steve blinking, momentarily confused, until Tony clarifies, “The horizon. Sunset’s coming soon.”

“Uh, hopefully not too far,” Steve says. Honestly, he has no idea. In another situation, he’d offer to stop so Tony can get some rest, but there’s no shelter here, and they might not need a five-star hotel but they need something to keep from freezing to death in the middle of the night.

“God, this is why I hate hiking,” Tony mutters.

“Well, it’s not like we have any other choices,” Steve says. His voice comes out harsher than is necessary, harsher than he intended, and it quiets Tony immediately. Some part of Steve wants to apologize, but another, louder part of him remembers the exact situation of the crash that got them here. In the end, Steve strokes Shi’ba’s back and stays silent.

By the time they make it to the rock formations, it’s well past dark. They’re not as large as Steve had hoped from a distance, but after a bit of wandering he manages to find a little, cave-like shelter, almost large enough for them to huddle together.

“You go in first,” Steve says, eyeing up the cave. He’ll take the entrance, and try to block out any wind coming in so he can keep Tony and Shi’ba as warm as possible.

Tony seems to have the same idea, because he raises an eyebrow in Steve’s direction. “You’re wearing Spandex,” he says. “I’m in a metal suit with thermoregulating capabilities. I’ll head in last.”

“Damaged thermoregulating capabilities,” Steve points out, but Tony doesn’t move, resolute with his hands on his hips.

“Fine,” Steve relents. “Just - let me know if you get cold.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Okay, Mom,” he says, and Steve turns and crawls into the cave just so he doesn’t have to look Tony in the eye.

Steve curls up as small as he can, but it’s hard, with the bulk of a super-soldier and a little girl nestled in his lap. Tony shoulders in after them a moment later, blocking all but the smallest bit of light from the inside of the cave.

In the absolute darkness and stillness, Steve feels his eyelids start to droop. His brain seems to have sent the signal to his body that it’s time to sleep, now, and it’s setting in fast.

Tony must notice, because Steve feels the drifting of a metal gauntlet across his shins, feather light. “Sleep, Steve,” Tony says softly, and Steve lets his eyes close.

-

The next morning dawns bright and early, slats of sun peeking around Tony’s silhouette to dance on Steve’s face.

“Se’teve,” Shi’ba chatters, tugging at the neck of Steve’s uniform. “Se’ teve.”

“I’m awake,” Steve groans, stretching his shoulders as much as he’s able. Sleeping sitting up isn’t exactly an ideal situation, but at least he’s warm.

“T’ny,” Shi’ba says, twisting in Steve’s arms to smack at the armor.

Tony doesn’t respond. He’s in the exact same position he was the night before, his faceplate snapped closed, and for a brief moment, Steve feels a pang of worry.

“Tony?” he asks, to no reply. “Hey, Shellhead, you in there?”

Finally, the faceplate creaks open, revealing Tony’s exhausted face. “Hey, Winghead,” he says. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Steve smiles, even though the knot of worry in his chest has yet to fully dissipate. “You okay?” he asks. “You look -”

“Like shit?” Tony supplies. “Yeah, don’t get the best sleep in this thing.”

But Steve thinks it must be more than that. After all, he knows what Tony looks like tired - he’s seen him after long battles and sleepless nights and three-day-long workshop binges, and he’s never seen him quite as pale as this. Something is clearly wrong, but if Tony doesn’t want to tell him, Steve can’t force him to.

Besides, whatever it is, it’s probably unlikely Steve can really understand it, let alone help. All he can do is make it worse.

So he doesn’t push. Instead, he redirects his focus to Shi’ba. Tony unfolds himself from the cave entrance, washing the little enclave in light, and Steve blinks against the onslaught even as he prods Shi’ba out of his lap. He crawls out after her a moment later, dusting the sand off him as he stands.

“So, Shi’ba,” Steve says. “Which way?”

Shi’ba points, and Steve goes to hoist her back onto his hip, but she wriggles out of his grasp.

“You want Tony to hold you?” Steve guesses, and she shakes her head. “You want to walk yourself?” and she nods.

“You gotta keep up with us, okay?” Tony says, and Shi’ba nods vigorously. “If you’re feeling tired, just let us know, and we can carry you.”

She nods again, and then takes off at an ambitious pace, practically skipping. “Woah,” Tony laughs, grabbing for her hand. “Slow down. We’re not all young and nimble.”

Shi’ba rolls her eyes but slows obediently. She doesn’t quite manage to restrain the bounce to her step; the light glimmers off of her scales with every hop, creating an incandescent glow like a rainbow.

“Want to play a game?” Tony asks after a few minutes of leaping about.

Shi’ba nods immediately and enthusiastically, swinging Tony’s hand in hers. Tony laughs, smiling down at her with a soft expression Steve doesn’t get to see on him often.

“Okay,” he says. “It’s called Iron, Cap, Spidey. Okay? And it’s a competition, we can do with all three of us. I say one, two, three, and then we each pick a person, right? So Iron Man is a flat hand, like this,” he mimes blasting the repulsor, “And Cap is a hidey hand, like this,” and he pulls his hand up to cover his face, so he’s peeking out from behind his fingers, “And for Spidey you stick your fingers out like this,” and he splays his hand as though he were shooting webs.

Shi’ba nods, intently studying Tony’s hand movements. “Want to practice?” he suggests, and she nods. Steve watches as he carefully walks her through the hand gestures, never reaching out to correct the positioning of her hands himself but instead explaining to her how to do them right. He’s educational without being condescending, a feat Steve has never quite managed with children, at least not so effortlessly as Tony seems to.

“Okay,” Tony says finally. “Let’s play. Steve, you in?”

Steve almost jolts, so drawn up in the role of spectator, but he manages a smile instead of surprise. “Of course,” he says. “Need to defend the role of Cap, don’t I?”

Tony rolls his eyes, glancing down at Shi’ba. “Steve’s a sore loser,” he says, almost conspiratorial, and Shi’ba gasps dramatically. “I know. Supposed to be a role model but he’s just too stubborn.” Tony says, shaking his head with faux-disappointment. “Don’t know what we’re going to do with him. Guess we’ll just have to get him practicing losing, right?”

Shi’ba giggles, and nods.

For such a simple game, Iron Cap Spidey keeps Shi’ba entertained for a long time. It’s just more evidence in the bank that, whatever species Shi’ba is, they develop more slowly than humans; for an eight year old, she seems remarkably easily entertained.

Tony and Steve both let Shi’ba win the first few rounds, but then she cottons on to what they’re doing, and demands they both stop it. Of course, she can’t speak English, so for her, demanding turns out to be smacking them every time they lose until they start winning again. For such a small person, her slaps really sting.

As they walk, Steve watches the terrain get rockier, the sand drier and more packed down until it’s almost a soil. Eventually, they have to stop for a brief rest, so Shi’ba can rest her legs and drink some water from Tony’s reserves.

“Steve?” Tony offers, but despite his dry lips, Steve shakes his head. He doesn’t know how much they have left, and Shi’ba and Tony need it more than him.

“You should drink,” Steve says, and Tony rolls his eyes.

“I’m not weak you know, Steve.”

“No,” Steve argues. “You’re human.”

Tony’s mouth twists, but he looks away before Steve can see his face. “Not anymore,” he mutters.

Steve doesn’t reply.

About halfway through the morning, Shi’ba gives up on walking and their game, so Steve hoists her up onto his back. “Ever had a piggyback ride?” he asks, and when she shakes her head no, he starts bouncing her around, bounding in circles as she shrieks with delight.

“You better hold on tight or he’s going to shake you right off,” Tony says, and Shi’ba giggles and clings to Steve’s neck.

“Is there something on my back?” Steve asks Tony with a frown. “What’s it look like?”

Tony frowns at Steve in mock thought. “Small,” he says, as Shi’ba giggles away. “Pink. Smiley. Squishable, like one of those little bunny Peeps -”

“T’ny!” Shi’ba squeals, kicking her feet.

“Sorry,” Tony corrects himself. “One of those little chick Peeps.”

Shi’ba harrumphs, but she’s grinning. “T’ny,” she says to Steve, almost exasperated, and he nods at her in agreement.

“Tony’s kinda silly, isn’t he?” Steve says, and Shi’ba nods.

“Well, now you’re just ganging up on me,” Tony declares. “No, no need to apologize, I’ll just be over here, by my lonesome. All by myself! I knew this would happen someday, but I didn’t know that day would come so soon -”

“T’ny,” Shi’ba interrupts, rolling her eyes.

“What,” Tony says. “Are you saying I’m being dramatic? That hurts, Shi’ba. That hurts deep. Deep in my soul.”

“Oh, shush,” Steve says.

Tony just looks over at him for a long, long moment. “Excuse me?” he says. “Did Captain Rogers, paragon of virtue and small children, just tell me to shut up?”

Steve smirks. “What do you think?”

There’s a long moment where nobody says anything. Then there’s a sudden movement in Steve’s peripheral vision and a small thunk of pain on his chest. Steve glances down.

“Did you - did you throw a rock at me?”

Tony sets his jaw in a stubborn line. “Well, what do you think?”

Steve gapes at him. Shi’ba vibrates with giggles on his back.

“I can’t believe -” Steve starts, then swoops down, picks up a rock, and tosses it.

It clangs off the side of Tony’s helmet.

“Oh, that’s how it’s gonna be?” Tony demands.

Steve smirks. “That’s how it’s gonna be.”

“Well,” Tony says, a gleam in his eye, “I guess I’ll just -”

The next stone hits Steve on the arm, and he retaliates with a pebble to Tony’s hand. After that, it quickly devolves into a storm of rock bits and sand spraying through the air, a mess of fun the likes of which Steve hasn’t had in a while.

Tony gets a rock straight to Steve’s forehead, making Steve blink.

“Come on,” Tony taunts. “Scared?”

Steve suppresses his smile, and passes Shi’ba a stone.

-

They spend the afternoon trying to come up with something to entertain Shi’ba. They try games, first, but everything else seems to require at least a rudimentary ability to speak English, and despite Shi’ba’s obvious intelligence, she struggles to learn. Tony spends a whole two hours on it, patiently sounding out consonants and syllables, but she never gets more than a few words into it before she loses the strain of it. Vaguely, it reminds Steve of one of the veterans he’d met, last year at a military hospital. He’d taken a hit to the head in combat, and damaged one of the speech centers in his brain, so he’d been able to understand other’s speech perfectly, but struggled to replicate it. Steve’s no biologist, but he wonders if it might be the same, some part of her brain that’s not quite as advanced as the rest of it just yet.

He points this out to Tony, and Tony makes a considering expression, looking down at Shi’ba traipsing by his feet. “You might be right,” he says. “Hey, Shi’ba, wanna learn how to juggle?”

It’s almost nightfall by the time they hit the forest. The change in landscape is sudden: one minute, they’re skirting around boulders, keeping an eye out for snakes or lizards or some other type of animal that can kill them, and the next, they’re stepping out from behind a rock to find a sea of trees spread out in front of them.

They’re not quite like Earth trees - their leaves are more blue than green, and their trunks are a twisted black rather than a warm brown - but they’re familiar enough that Steve suspects they must contain water. It’s just in time, too; they ran out of water only a few hours previously, and though Steve could keep going for another day or so, neither Tony nor Shi’ba would have lasted much longer.

“Ah!” Shi’ba shouts, wriggling in Tony’s grip. Tony lets her down, and she darts for the trees, immediately grabbing one and clambering up it.

“Shi’ba!” Steve calls, but she pays him no mind, reaching for the leaves and ripping a handful off.

“Shi’ba,” Tony starts, “What -” But he cuts off when Shi’ba raises the leaves above her head, with their thick stems, and squeezes tight. A faint stream of water trickles out, when she catches in her mouth.

“T’ny,” she says, waving at the trees. “Se’teve.”

“Is it safe for us to drink?” Steve asks Tony, and Tony only pauses a moment before he nods.

“Suit says it’s water,” he says. “Bit of a different mineral composition than ours on Earth, but it shouldn’t have us frothing at the mouth or anything.”

Shi’ba hangs around in the treetop, darting from limb to limb to pull big handfuls of leaves from the branches and wringing out the precious water. Steve and Tony follow suit, though both stay on the ground, pulling the lowest-hanging leaves from the trees around them.

Steve’s turns to ask Tony a question and pauses. Tony’s standing on his tip-toes in the armor, grasping for a leaf just out of his reach. He’s got an intense look of concentration on his face, and the way he’s craning his neck, he looks almost like a kid trying to reach the cookie jar hidden out of reach on the top of the refrigerator.

It’s such an absurd image that Steve can’t help it: he starts laughing.

Tony startles and turns at the sound, squinting in Steve’s direction. His look of outrage just makes it funnier, and Steve finds himself bending at the waist, hands on his knees. “Steve Rogers,” he says sternly, though there’s a smile in his voice. “Are you laughing at me?”

“You look - like a - giraffe,” Steve wheezes.

“Well, we can’t all be super soldiers,” Tony says. He’s clearly trying for a stern tone, but to Steve, it just sounds amused.

Steve finds himself grinning up at him. The dappled sunlight dances over his face, making his eyes shine. There’s a brief moment where the curve of Tony’s mouth softens, and he takes a step closer to Steve. Despite him, Steve feels himself swaying forward, eyes flickering shut, and -

“T’ny!” Shi’ba shouts, and Steve startles backwards. Tony looks equally surprised, eyes wide and cheeks flushed pink.

Shi’ba bounces up to Tony like nothing’s wrong, grabbing his hand and stuffing something small and black and shiny into it.

Steve isn’t quite sure what it is until Tony raises it to eye level, dangling it from his fingers. It’s kind of like a frog, except it’s got six legs and scales covering its body.

Tony raises an eyebrow in Steve’s direction. “Guess someone found dinner.”

Shi’ba bounds off to find some more frogs, and, moment sufficiently broken, Steve and Tony decide to start setting up camp. Steve uses his shield to chop down a tree and discovers that, much like Earth wood, it’s flammable. He starts chipping off kindling to start a fire while Tony builds a little mat out of moss.

“I didn’t realize you were so crafty,” Steve comments, and Tony raises an eyebrow.

“I build things, Steve,” Tony points out. “Whether it’s made of metal or fuzzy plant shit is irrelevant. Besides, you and Shi’ba need somewhere to sleep.”

Which makes sense. But it’s also very considerate of him, so when Steve goes for a branch to make a spit, he makes sure to pat Tony on the shoulder.

Tony doesn’t look up, but he does stiffen a bit under his touch. Steve steps away.

Shi’ba’s having so much fun that they have to call her back for dinner. When she finally scampers back, she’s got two more dark frogs and one blue and black chipmunk clenched in her tiny fists.

She chatters to them excitedly, waving the dead animals in the air.

“Like a little Jeffery Dahmer,” Tony murmurs. Steve stifles a laugh as Shi’ba stamps her foot indignantly.

“Wait, how do you understand that reference?” Tony demands, and Shi’ba just huffs, tossing the animals beside the fire and coming to curl up at Steve’s side.

“I think you’ve offended her,” Steve says dryly, and Shi’ba nods, her little chubby cheeks jiggling with the force of the movement.

“Oh, come on,” Tony says. “I didn’t mean it.”

Shi’ba sticks her tongue out. For the first time, Steve notices it’s forked.

Steve ends up using the knife he keeps in his utility belt to skin the animals. The frogs have a little blue stripe of skin on their bellies that are easily punctured, and the chipmunk is skinned easily enough, though it’s fur ends up being much longer than Steve had expected, so it ends up being only a couple mouthfuls of food.

Still, once it’s cooked it’s good and fatty and warm, and more than any of them have eaten in days. Steve plans to avoid eating anything, saving the food for Tony and Shi’ba, but Tony presses a frog into his hands with a significant look.

“Eat or I don’t,” he says, so of course Steve does, licking the fatty juices off his fingers.

Shi’ba passes out only a couple minutes after she finishes her dinner, sprawled across the little mat Tony had made for them. Despite the fact that Tony agreed to take first watch, he follows not long after, dozing off where he sits, leaning against the tree trunk.

Steve settles in to wait.

-

Tony finally wakes up in the middle of the night, just as the last flames of the fire are flickering out.

“Fuck,” he groans, pushing himself up onto his elbows. He rubs a hand over his eyes, and Steve’s not sure if it’s just the dim lighting, but Tony looks pale and exhausted. He needs to sleep more, Steve thinks.

“There’s firewood a few feet to your left,” Steve whispers, and Tony startles when he glances over at him.

Steve smiles a bit when he sees Tony’s expression, a quicksilver flicker. “Behind you,” he prompts, and Tony turns to find the solid little pile of kindling and logs Steve had made after Tony fell asleep, the one he was going to pull from in a couple minutes if Tony didn’t wake.

“When did you make this?” Tony murmurs, turning back to Steve.

Steve smiles again. “After you dozed off,” he says. “You might want to toss something on before it goes out completely,” he adds, when Tony doesn’t move, and Tony hurries to do just that, carefully adding to the pile in the way Steve showed him.

It takes a minute for the fresh wood to catch fire, but once it does, the difference in heat is palpable. Tony rearranges and tweaks for a few more moments before leaning back against the tree trunk with a sigh.

“Sorry I fell asleep,” Tony says after a moment.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve says. “I don’t need that much sleep anyway.”

“Still,” Tony sighs, “I didn’t mean to -”

He cuts himself off suddenly, and Steve realizes he’s looking at him strangely. He glances down at himself, wondering what Tony could be looking at, but there’s nothing strange. He’s just laying here, with Shi’ba admittedly quite sprawled across him, curled up in his lap with her little head pillowed on his chest. But nothing strange enough to warrant Tony’s attention.

“Tony?” Steve prompts after a moment, when Tony doesn’t continue.

“Sorry,” Tony rasps. “I just, uh - don’t want to wake her.”

Steve glances down at Shi’ba again, watching the way the firelight flickers over her little face. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “She’s pretty cute, huh?”

Tony hums.

“I always wanted one of these,” Steve continues. “Before - well. Before. Don’t know how realistic it is now, though.”

“I think it’s realistic,” Tony says, after a long beat of silence.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Tony confirms. “You’re good with her. Any kid would be lucky to have you as their dad.”

Steve feels his face heat, and tries to shove the feeling down. “Thanks, Tony,” he says. “You too, you know.”

Tony chuckles, but it’s a dark sound. “I don’t know about that. I don’t really trust myself with a kid.”

Steve frowns at Tony, but he’s not looking at him, staring out into the darkness of the forest as though he’s deliberately avoiding Steve’s gaze.

“You’re great with her, though,” Steve says. “No, really,” he continues, when Tony just shakes his head, “I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit. You’re not half as destructive as you think you are.

Tony snorts. “Right,” he says. “That’s why we’re here.”

Steve bites his lip and stays quiet.

“Anyway,” Tony says finally, breaking the crackling silence. “It’s not like having a kid is really compatible with a superhero lifestyle.”

“You’re right there,” Steve admits. “I mean, I know Luke and Jess make it work, but that’s only because Jess is a retired superhero. Imagine having a kid with someone who was actively working. Or someone without powers. Just seems dangerous, you know?”

Tony turns to look at him finally, the firelight glinting strangely in his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “Dangerous.”

They sit in front of the fire for a long while.

-

“Well, then Granny coughed and Red saw her big, fat canines and she said, ‘Wow, Granny, your teeth are HUGE!’ And Grammy gnashed her teeth and said, ‘Well, I need them sharp for crunching bones -’

Shi’ba shrieks joyfully, darting away from Tony’s clawed hands. Steve can’t help his smile, reaching out to steady Shi’ba as she almost trips over a rock in her haste to get away.

The morning sun had woken them bright and early, and after gathering enough leaves for a healthy drink, they’d been on their way. Halfway through the morning, they stumbling upon a thicket of berry bushes, which they’d ravaged before continuing on their way.

Tony has been entertaining Shi’ba all morning by telling her outlandish stories, deviating farther and farther from tradition as the morning went on. In one, Dr. Doom blew down the X-Men and Fantastic Four’s houses before landing on the Avengers’, which Iron Man had fortified enough to stand up to his weak imitation-repulsor blasts. Steve knows he should still be angry at Tony, but it’s hard to hold a grudge when the guy you’re mad at is making a fool of himself to make a little girl laugh.

“Well, you’ve got the right idea. Like you, Little Red tried to run, but she wasn’t fast, and Granny Wolf snatched her right up and swallowed her -”

Suddenly, Steve hears the faint crackling of branches somewhere nearby in the forest. He pauses, holding out a hand to signal Tony to still, too.

“Did you hear that?” he asks.

Tony cocks his head, even as he pulls Shi’ba closer to his side. “I’m not sure -” he starts, and then it pounces.

It’s a bear, but not really a bear; it’s more like a hulking, red-furred behemoth, with sharp claws and long teeth and a long tail like a Golden Retriever’s, that whips back and forth with enough force to uproot saplings.

“Run,” Steve says, reaching for his shield as the bear swipes for his side.

It’s sharp claws catch him in the ribs, just a moment too late in blocking it, and he smacks down hard. For a moment, his vision washes black, and all he registers is the sharp, hot pain in his side.

Tony, he thinks, Shi’ba, and he forces himself to his feet, staggering for a moment. Fuck, that hurts. The bear is moving past Steve, presumably towards where Tony’s run off with Shi’ba, and Steve flings his shield at the back of its head to get it’s attention.

“Hey!” he yells, quite redundantly, because the bear is already turning, baring its teeth, and Steve catches the shield from its rebound and throws again, knocking the bear right in the mouth.

After that it’s quick work. The bear is strong, and fast, but it’s a bear, and Steve is a super soldier; he batters it around a bit before snapping its foreleg. That’s the final straw, and the bear roars, turns around, and lumbers away to go lick its wounds.

Steve waits a few moments to be sure the bear is gone before he allows himself to sink to his knees, one hand coming up to cradle his side. It’s slippery and hot with blood, and he thinks vaguely that some of his ribs might be broken.

“Oh, shit,” he hears behind him, and manages to turn enough to see Tony’s concerned face, Shi’ba in his arms.

“Hey,” Steve says, managing a tight-lipped smile. “Bear’s gone.”

Tony sets Shi’ba down without taking his eyes off Steve. “Shi’ba, go get some leaves,” he says, and she scambers off into the woods.

“Tony, don’t -” Steve starts, before he’s wracked by a coughing fit that has him bending clean over at the waist. When he straightens, the ground is bloody.

“Fuck,” Tony says, falling to his knees beside Steve, “Fuck, okay, you’re going to be okay, lay back, will you?”

Steve hums and lets Tony tip him back so he’s lying flat on the ground. The wound isn’t even that bad, really - he’s had worse in battles before - but compounded with the lack of sleep he’s been getting, and the sub-par nutrition of the desert, it feels much more dire.

“Think I need to sleep,” Steve manages. “Think I need -”

“No,” Tony orders, “No, Steve, you can’t sleep, you hear me? No sleeping.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees, but his eyelids are already flickering shut. Everything is so warm, and the ground is so comfortable, and Tony’s hands are so soft and reassuring where they rest over Steve’s. Steve sighs, leaning into the touch as much as he can.

“Steve, stop that, wake up. Steve? Steve!”

“Sorry,” is all Steve manages, and then he’s out.

-

He wakes up again to the sound of running water.

It takes him a moment to register he’s surroundings; he’s lying on his back, on soil so damp it’s almost mud, right beside a little stream. Steve props himself up on his elbows, groaning when the movement jostles his side and his wound makes itself known.

“Se’teve!”

Steve turns his head, smiling when he finds Shi’ba, darting towards him out from the trees. “Hey, Shi’ba,” he says, reaching for her to pull her into a hug when she pauses just out of his reach. “You okay?”

She nods.

“Where’s Tony?”

She points to the woods in the opposite direction of the stream. “T’ny,” she says, then wriggles out of Steve’s grip so she can pick up a little stick from the riverbank, waving it in Steve’s face.

“Tony went to get firewood?” Steve guesses, and Shi’ba beams, nodding enthusiastically. “Well, that’s good, it looks like it’s going to get dark soon. How long has Tony been gone?”

Shi’ba stretches out her hands until they’re spread wide.

“Long time?” Steve asks, wincing.

Shi’ba nods seriously. “Lon’,” she says.

Steve sighs. “Great.” His side still aches, but he forces himself to his feet, leaning against a nearby tree when he sways. “Which way did he go? I should probably -”

“What are you doing?”

Steve turns, hands on his ribs, to find Tony standing behind him. He’s got his arms full of firewood and his eyebrow raised.

“Was going to find you,” Steve says, sagging back against the tree trunk. “Was worried.”

You were worried?” Tony asks incredulously, dropping the firewood at his feet. “Jesus, Steve, sit the hell down, what is wrong with you?”

“I’m fine,” Steve protests, even as he lets Tony manhandle him back to the ground. “Seriously, it’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad? Not that bad ! You idiot, you passed out from blood loss! I thought you were dying!”

“I’m fine,” Steve repeats. “I can take a hit.”

Tony huffs, shaking his head. “You need to be more careful,” he says. “I - we can’t lose you. We need you.”

“Right,” Steve says flatly, unexpectedly and suddenly bitter. “Because you need the muscle.”

Tony frowns at him. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“Do I?”

Tony’s still frowning at him like he’s said something entirely confusing. “Of course you do,” he says. “What the fuck, Steve?”

Steve is tired. “I don’t want to fight,” he says.

“Okay, I don’t either,” Tony says. “Now tell me what you mean.”

Steve closes his eyes. “We both know what I’m useful for,” he says. “You don’t have to say it.”

“Okay,” Tony says slowly, “We both know what you’re useful for. Why is that a bad thing?”

“It’s not,” Steve says. “It’s - good. You know. That you know.”

“I’m getting really confused here,” Tony says finally, after a long moment of silence. “Which is not something I say often. Did you hit your head?”

Steve sighs. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just - let’s not do this right now, okay? Please.”

“Okay,” Tony says. “I didn’t mean to -”

“Please,” Steve says again, and Tony quiets.

“Let me know if you need anything,” he says finally. He rests his hand on Steve’s knee for just a moment, and Steve swears he can feel Tony’s thumb rubbing circles - but then it’s gone, as Tony heads over to where Shi’ba is playing in the mud.

It’s fine, Steve tells himself, You’ll be fine.

He tries to ignore the ache in his chest.

-

It takes Steve a day and a half to recover enough to walk, a day and a half that he spends arguing with Tony that he’s perfectly fine, thank you, they can head out whenever.

“Steve,” Tony finally snaps, the first night, “You got your side torn open. You passed out in front of me, I thought you were dead. We are waiting until you’re recovered. Capiche?”

So they’d waited. Tony and Shi’ba had hunted for game and forged for berries, and Steve had laid on his ass and tried to convince Tony he was fit enough to swing his shield. Tony started running out of fairy tales, so Steve stepped in, telling Shi’ba the stories his Ma used to tell him when he was sick and couldn’t get out of bed, stories she’d been told herself as a child in Ireland. Sometimes, Steve found himself slipping into Gaelic, unsure about the exact translations into English, but Shi’ba seemed to understand nonetheless.

Finally, halfway through the second day, Tony examined Steve’s side and, upon finding it fully scabbed over, declared him sufficiently healed. Even then, they moved at a significantly slower pace than before, with Steve’s stamina damaged and Tony slowed by taking the burden of Shi’ba’s weight solely on himself.

As they continue on, the woods get darker and more twisted. The steady singing of birdcalls starts to fade out until it disappears completely, leaving only the sound of their footsteps and the rustling of leaves as small animals move in the shadows. It’s unsettling enough that, when the sun begins to set, they don’t slow, continuing onward at a steady pace, Shi’ba alternating resting in Tony’s arms, and traipsing along at their sides.

They’re walking through what seems like the tenth identical clearing in a row when there’s a ruffle of leaves in front of them, and someone drops out of the trees.

“Steve -” Tony starts, but Steve is already pulling his shield off his back and reaching for Shi’ba beside him.

The alien who jumped out of the tree is shouting and advancing towards them. They’ve got something large and metallic in their hand, something vaguely like a mechanized crossbow. They heft it over their shoulder, and Steve spares a moment to hope that alien metals aren’t stronger than vibranium as he curls himself into a ball behind his shield -

Shi’ba wiggles free from Steve’s grip and runs towards the alien.

“No!” Steve shouts, reaching for her, but she’s talking, yelling something at the alien, and he’s -

Setting down his bow?

Shi’ba says something else and the alien drops the weapon entirely. He replies, then ducks his head towards the ground in something like a bow.

Shi’ba turns back towards Steve and Tony, then, and gives them an enthusiastic wave. Steve, not quite believing his eyes, turns and raises an eyebrow in Tony’s direction. Tony looks just as surprised as Steve, but shrugs in a gesture that seems to say, What you gonna do?

“T’ny,” Shi’ba says impatiently, scampering back to grab Tony by the wrist and tug him forward. “Se’teve,” and she reaches out to grab Steve too.

She chatters to the alien, waving Tony and Steve’s hands in hers. “Eva,” she says, dropping Steve’s hand to point to the new alien. “T’ny,” and she points at Tony, “Eva.”

“His name’s Eva?” Tony asks, and Shi’ba nods. “Will he be able to understand us, too?” She nods again.

“In that case,” Steve says, stepping forward. “My name is Steve Rogers, this is Tony Stark. We’re from a solar system a few light years from here. We crashed here a few days ago, and found Shi’ba in the desert. We’ve been trying to bring her back home.”

Eva bows his head. “Se’teve,” he says. “T’ny.” Then he turns towards the forest and starts hiking away.

For a moment, Steve isn’t sure if they’re expected to follow - do they wait here? Do they go looking for someone else? But then Shi’ba is grabbing them by the hands again and dragging, and they follow behind her, like an owner being dragged by its overeager pup.

Eva leads them through a meandering path through the woods. He stays a few steps in front of them at all times, his weapon hoisted into his shoulder. As they follow, the path gets less and less worn, until it’s knotted with tree roots and chunks of rock. Shi’ba only has to stumble once before Steve takes the initiative and scoops her into his arms. She goes willingly, sagging against Steve’s shoulder, and it reminds Steve that they’ve been up for over a day by now- she must be exhausted.

“You’re almost home,” he murmurs to her. She snuggles a bit more into his shoulder.

Eventually, Steve starts hearing voices in the distance, getting louder and louder as they go on. Then, they step out from behind a huge clump of trees, and they’re in a clearing.

‘Clearing’ seems like a misnomer; there’s nothing clear about it. Every square inch of the space is packed full of spindly tree houses, lopsided stalls, and bright aliens. Most of them are dusky red or dark pink, same as Shi’ba, but others are different, taller and thicker, their skin a deep, midnight blue.

Eva calls something out, and suddenly everyone is looking at them. There are gasps; Steve thinks some of them might be crying.

“Shi’ba,” one of them calls, and then others are doing it, until the clearing is a cacophony of voices. Steve glances down at the little girl in his arms. She’s staring out at her people, smiling.

“Shi’ba,” one voice declares, louder than the others, and everyone goes silent. “Oh, my precious girl, where have you been?”

It takes Steve a moment to process the fact that, no, he’s not hallucinating, that was English that alien just spoke. By the time he does, though, Shi’ba is already squirming out of his arms, rushing forward to the source of the voice - a towering blue-skinned alien standing with their hands on their hips in the middle of the crowd, looking all the part of a concerned parent.

Probably because they are, Steve thinks, as he watches Shi’ba leap into their arms. They scoop her up, swinging her around, as Shi’ba chatters what Steve imagines are explanations into her parent’s ear.

“You foolish, reckless child,” the parent says, even as they squeeze Shi’ba to their chest. “You are never allowed to do that again. Ever.”

Steve remembers the last time he’d said that to Tony: it’d been a little over a month ago. They’d been fighting Doom, and a bomb had been about to go off, something most of the team was in range of, and Tony, in his already banged-up metal suit, had thrown himself on the grenade.

When he woke up in the hospital, Steve was waiting by his bedside. Don’t do that, he’d said, don’t you ever do that again, and Tony’s smile had flickered and hardened and he’d said, What, don’t trust me?

And Steve had wanted to take it all back, rephrase it in a way Tony would understand, but it was too late, too -

And this week, in the kitchen, Steve had been doing it all over again, hadn’t he? Trying to say don’t do that again without saying it, trying to say protect yourself without saying it, trying to say I love you, you’re important to me, and he thought that Tony would be able to read into what he was saying because - well, it was so clear to him.

But maybe that wasn’t what Tony was hearing at all. Steve didn’t mean to treat Tony as child but - was he? Was that what was happening? Steve, feeling bitter and inferior; and Tony, feeling exactly the same way.

Steve glances over at Tony to find him looking at Shi’ba with a soft expression. His hair is sticking to his forehead with sweat, and his cheeks are sunburned, and Steve wants to take care of him. Wants to run a cool cloth over his face, wants to spread aloe on his burns, wants to kiss the little knicks and bruises that have built up on his hands from when he takes the armor off. He wants to do all this, and then he wants to take Tony to bed, and afterwards, he wants to lie with him under cool sheets, stroking his hand up and down Tony’s back, until they both slip off to sleep.

It’s not about patronization, it’s about care; Steve doesn’t know why he didn’t see that before.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. Tony’s eyes are wide when he glances over at him. “About our fight,” Steve clarifies. “I wasn’t being fair to you. I trust you. I just care about you, Tony, and I want to make sure you’re okay. Sometimes, when you don’t tell me things, it makes me feel - well, it makes me feel like you think I’m stupid. But that’s not fair to you, and I’m sorry.”

Tony blinks at him, stunned, for several long moments. “Why on Earth would I think you’re stupid?” is what he finally blurts out.

Steve’s opening his mouth to reply when they’re interrupted. “Steve and Tony,” Shi’ba’s parent says, suddenly right in front of them. “My name is Mr’na. I represent my community. It is good to meet you.”

“Um, yes,” Steve says, trying to screw his head back on straight - where were they again? “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Is Shi’ba okay?

“She will be fine,” Mr’na assures them. “She says you have taken quite good care of her. It is evident that is the case.”

“Well, she’s very self-sufficient,” Tony says. “She found her way back all by herself. We were just along for the ride.”

“Regardless, you have returned my daughter to me, and I am grateful,” Mr’na says.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Steve says carefully, “What happened? She didn’t want to explain to us why she was out in the desert alone.”

Mr’na nods. “Shi’ba is an inquisitive girl, I’m sure you’ve noticed. She wandered off a few days ago during a diplomatic trip to the border. Our relationship with our neighbors is - tenuous, at best, and for quite a few days we worried that she had been taken by one of the radical terrorist groups that oppose the coming peace. But Shi’ba says she merely wandered off and became disoriented. We only returned home in the hopes that she might have found her way back to us.”

Steve smiles over at Shi’ba, who’s chattering away with another child, hands clasped around each other’s elbows.

“Well, I can’t say that’s exactly surprising.”

Mr’na’s lips quirk. “She is quite a spitfire, isn’t she? She tells us you are looking for a way to contact your family. Of course, our resources are yours - anything you need, you are welcome to use, although I confess we have yet to successfully make it to space, so I’m not sure what help we would be.”

“I’m sure we’ll be able to figure something out,” Tony tells her. “Besides, your technology seems quite advanced - how is it that you’re able to understand us? Is it some sort of translator?”

“Yes and no,” Mr’na says. “We are a - telepathic species, I think would be the best phrase to use. We are able to understand the general trends and emotions of other’s minds, as well as their intent when they speak. This is a skill we have when we are born, something Shi’ba, as a child, has as well. As we get older, our skills become more sophisticated, until eventually we are able to speak in a way that mimics other’s minds. A sort of mirror, if you will.”

“So, you’re - you’re reading my mind, right now?” Steve asks, vaguely discomfited.

“Yes,” Mr’na says. “I cannot help it, much in the way you can’t help but understand what someone speaking your language is saying. It is just - there. Unconscious.”

Steve glances over at Tony, only to find him with his curious scientist expression on his face, the one Steve knows means he’s going over a million possible explanations and applications of the skill in his head at once. “Interesting. That must - hmm.”

“I am glad you think so,” Mr’na says. “Because we are grateful to you for returning Shi’ba safely, and we would like to give you a gift to express our thanks.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you,” Steve says, “But it’s not necessary. Shi’ba is a lovely girl, it was our pleasure to help.”

Mr’na makes a strange sort of grimacing face that Steve thinks might be their equivalent of a smile. “I’m sure her guardians will be thrilled to hear that,” they say, “But we would like to give you something nevertheless. On our planet, we hold pair-bonds to be valuable above all else, and we can’t help but notice that your bond has yet to be solidified.”

What, like marriage? Steve’s heart leaps in his chest and he has to force himself to relax his fingers where they’ve curled against his side. “We appreciate the thought, but I’m not sure that that would be appropriate -”

“Are you refusing our gift?” Mr’na interrupts. Steve really wishes he could read their facial expressions.

“No,” he rushes to say, “No, of course not, it’s just -”

“We’re just not quite sure what you mean,” Tony interrupts from beside him, and, yes, Tony will know what to say, he’s always been the more diplomatic one.

“Does your planet not do that?” Mr’na asks. “Well, that will make it all the better. I could explain, but perhaps it will be easier to just -”

Mr’na reaches out with their long, spindly fingers. Before Steve can duck out of the way, it taps them both on the forehead, and something red-hot and burning explodes behind his eyelids.

What the fuck? Steve thinks, and a moment later, hears it echoed back to him - What the fuck?

It’s not his voice, though, not the one that’s usually in his head. It’s different: rougher, unsteady, almost like -

Steve? The voice asks, tentative and scared. Is that you?

Tony? Steve asks back, disbelieving. What are you doing in my head?

You’re in my head, Tony thinks back. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. They’re a telepathic species, solidifying a pair-bond means creating a telepathic bond. Oh, shit shit shit.

It’ll be okay, Steve thinks, trying to project calm. Tony, take a breath, we’ll ask them to take it away, I’m sure it’s not permanent -

Fuck, fuck, fuck, Tony thinks, with a panic Steve thinks is disproportionate for the situation. He’s starting to get a little offended - Jeez, is being in my brain for a few minutes really that bad - when he hears Tony think, Fuck, don’t think about how you’re in love with him.

Steve’s heart - stops.

Then it picks up double, triple pace in his chest, and suddenly all Steve can feel is the thundering in his ears, the shaking of his hands. Holy shit, he thinks, holy shit -

“You’re in love with me?” Steve chokes out, his eyes finally flying open, as he turns to where Tony is standing by his side.

Tony, who’s gone completely pale, and is jerking away from the alien’s hands so desperately you’d think he’d been burned. Oh, fuck, he thinks, practically hysterical in his own mind, oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, you fucking fuck-up -

And Steve wants to stay in his mind, wants to be able to hear all the wrong things he’s thinking so he can correct them, wants to convey to him the tremendous joy thundering through his chest; but then it finally registers to him that this is a gross invasion of Tony’s privacy. Tony clearly doesn’t want this connection to exist, and every moment it does, Steve is learning more things about Tony, things Tony doesn’t want to share.

So Steve forces himself to turn away from Tony and towards the alien who’d created the bridge. “Stop, can you stop this? Turn it off, please.”

Steve still can’t read the alien’s face but he’s sure he’s not imagining the surprised flinch. “Are you sure?” they ask. “The bridge cannot be rebuilt once it is broken.”

Steve swallows hard, trying to ignore the increasingly panicked tone of Tony in his mind. “I’m sure,” he says. “Please, just - get rid of it.”

“As you wish,” the alien says. It reaches out, settling it’s fingers back on Steve’s forehead; and then Tony’s voice is gone.

“Your minds have been separated,” the alien says, “permanently.” It probably should sound ominous, but anything Steve could possibly feel is being overwhelmed by joy. Tony loves him. Tony is in love with him. He’d hoped that maybe, over time and many dates, they could get there - but he’d never imagined this, Tony in love with him and not saying anything. Why wouldn’t he say anything?

The same reason you didn’t, some part of Steve’s mind supplies. Because he thought you wouldn’t love him back.

The idea is so ridiculous that Steve almost brushes it away. But then he looks at Tony, again, who’s facing away from Steve and babbling away like he always does when he gets nervous, and Steve realizes it’s true. It must be. Tony didn’t think I’d love him, Steve thinks. It makes something ache in his chest, and he reaches for Tony’s shoulder, opening his mouth to say something - what, he doesn’t know, but something - when something explodes off to the side.

Steve lunges for Tony, shielding his body from the shrapnel even as they go tumbling to the ground.

“What the fuck -” Tony cries from under Steve.

“People of this planet,” someone says over a loudspeaker. “We mean you no harm. But if you don’t return our leaders to us, we’ll fucking take you out, Kingsman-style.”

And that’s when Steve realizes the Avengers have arrived.

-

“Really, I’m so sorry for the confusion,” Steve says, for what feels like the fifteenth time in half as many minutes. “We’ll be happy to stay and repair anything that was damaged in the blast -”

The head alien waves a hand. “It is fine,” they say. “Your friends have good aim, and nobody was injured in the explosion. Besides, we have not been able to pay you back for returning our princess. This will have to be our good deed.”

“We appreciate that very much,” Steve says gratefully. “Really, thank you so much for your hospitality and your understanding. We best be on our way before we cause any more trouble.”

The alien inclines their head slightly. “Safe travels,” they say. Steve’s just turning to go when he feels something tugging on his leg.

When he looks down, he finds Shi’ba grasping his pant leg. She says something in her native language that Steve can’t understand.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m still a boring old monolingual.”

Shi’ba rolls her eyes, a move Steve is pretty sure she picked up from Tony.

“It was a pleasure getting to know you,” Steve says seriously. “If you’re ever by Earth, let us know, okay?”

Shi’ba grins and nods, grabbing Steve around the waist and squeezing. After a moment’s hesitation, Steve lets his hands settle on her shoulders and hugs her back.

Eventually, she steps back. “‘T’ny?” she asks, and Steve sighs.

“He’s avoiding me,” he says, and Shi’ba pouts disapprovingly. “I know. Pretty dumb for a genius, right? But we’ll figure it out.”

Shi’ba nods, patting his hand. With her sympathetic expression and human gestures, she suddenly seems far older than her years. It makes something in Steve’s chest tighten, even as Shi’ba takes his hand and presses something into his palm.

“What is this?” he asks, uncurling his fingers. In his hand is a small, clear flask, almost like glass but much harder, somewhat foggier, and a bit rough around the edges. Inside it is dark magenta sand.

“T’ny,” she says, tapping the bottle.

“This is for Tony?” Steve confirms, and she nods. “Okay. I’ll make sure it gets to him.”

Shi’ba inclines her head and pats her chest in the way Steve has come to associate with ‘thank you’.

“You’re welcome,” Steve says. “I’m glad I got to meet you, Shi’ba - you’re a special little girl.”

“She is, isn’t she?” Mr’na pipes up. “Of course, as her parent, I would believe that, but even outside of that, it is true. Shi’ba is the first mixed species in our planet’s history. She represents a bridge between our peoples: a physical representation of the bond between myself and her other parent. That is why we believe she was targeted by the radicals.”

“Well,” Steve says, after a long moment of silence. “I always knew she was important.”

Shi’ba giggles, tucking her face into her parent’s skirt.

“Thank you again for your help, Captain,” the alien says, and Steve takes that as his cue to go.

“Thank you,” Steve says. “Sorry again. Shi’ba, it was lovely to meet you - I wish you the best of luck. I hope I can see you soon.”

He takes a step back and inclines his head. Then he turns around and starts heading for the quinjet, a fast walk that quickly turns into a jog. As glad as he is to see Shi’ba safe, he wants to get home and talk to Tony. It seems there’s some things they need to figure out.

-

The ride home is long and tense, much longer than the ride here. Tony won’t look at Steve, and keeps moving away any time Steve gets too close, occupying his time talking to Reed in the corner about the magnetic asteroids that had impaired the Fantastic Four’s communications and wrecked Steve and Tony’s ship. Steve figures Tony’s about thirty seconds away from locking himself in the cockpit and not emerging until their back on Earth, so Steve resolves himself to wait until he can get Tony alone, though the anticipation - and excitement - are killing him.

“You okay there, Cap?” someone asks, and Steve turns to find Sue Storm headed towards him, eyebrow raised expectantly.

Steve manages a smile he hopes looks somewhat normal. “I’m great,” he says, and means it. “Why wouldn’t I be? I met some great people, learned a lot of new things, got rescued by my friends from an alien planet - hey.”

“Yeah?”

“How did you find us, anyway? We were going to make a tracking beacon, but we hadn’t yet, and the ship’s systems got destroyed in the crash.”

“Oh, that.” Sue shrugs. “We followed your tracker.

Steve raises an eyebrow. “My what?”

She squints at him. “Your tracker? The one in your suit, right here?” She gestures to her own collar. “Did you - did you not know that was there?”

“No,” Steve says slowly. “I did not.”

Sue widens her eyes. “Wow,” she says. “And I thought Reed was an overprotective husband.”

“What?” Steve says again, feeling like he’s losing track of this conversation entirely.

“Well, Tony put it there,” Sue says. “A while ago, I think. You’ve had it for as long as I’ve known you, anyway. He always said he wanted to make sure you never got lost again.”

And Steve, despite himself, melts into a puddle of goo. Because, yeah, this is kind of an invasion of privacy, and maybe he and Tony will be talking about this later, but it did just save them a bunch of time and effort. And also -

He always said he wanted to make sure you never got lost again.

For all that Tony doesn’t tell him, he does what matters. He takes care of Steve. Protects him. Shields him. Loves him. Tony loves him. How could Steve have ever thought that he’d leave him behind?

By the time the quinjet lands, Steve’s keyed up and jittery. His heart pounding and his hands are shaking in excited anticipation of what he’s about to do. But, of course, Tony is Tony -  which means he disappears the second the doors open, darting off before Steve can grab him and ask him to talk. Honestly, Steve should have expected it. Any other time, it would make him cautious - make him rethink what he thought he’d discovered, make him question - but it was so clear, the thought in Tony’s mind: I love him. Bright and loud and aching, and Steve could see his own face as Tony said it, could see himself through Tony’s eyes, his laugh lines and the hair hanging over his forehead and the way it made Tony think, beautiful.

He hangs around the kitchen long enough to schedule a team meeting for the next morning. “9 am sharp,” he says, and Peter groans and slumps back in his chair, whining about ungodly early hours and torture as a team-building device. Then Steve makes his excuses and ducks away for the workshop, pace picking up as he goes until he’s half-jogging.

“Requesting access: Captain Handsome,” he says, and the door beeps and slides open.

Really, Steve thinks, self-deprecating, how did I not see this before. ‘Captain Handsome’! Heck, he calls me ‘beloved’!

Tony’s bent over his workbench, his music blaring at deafening levels. He’s fiddling with something - the insides of a phone, Steve thinks - but he’s clearly not paying too much attention. There’s a glass of sparkling water sitting next to his shaking hands.

“You know,” Steve says, stepping into the workshop, “One day, you’re going to learn that running from me never works.”

Tony’s hands still. For a moment, Steve thinks he might ignore him, but then he sighs, shoulders slumping, and turns in his seat. His expression is pinched, and he won’t look Steve in the eye. “Steve,” he starts, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Steve asks.

Tony huffs, rueful. “What am I not sorry for?”

“Tony -”

“Look, you have to know that I never meant to tell you. If this changes anything, if it - disgusts you, or -”

Tony’s got his hands knotted in his lap and he’s twisting them like he wants something to hold. “I’m not disgusted, Tony.”

Tony glances up, then, his expression almost hopeful. “You’re - not?”

“No. I mean, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to be disgusted,” Steve points out.

Tony pauses. He looks like someone in a video that’s been stuck buffering. “What?”

“I’m bisexual,” Steve says.

“I - I did not know that,” Tony says, sounding stunned. “I did not know that about you. Um, okay, I have to - reevaluate all of my assumptions about you now, God, what’s next, you don’t like apple pie -”

“I do like apple pie,” Steve interrupts. “So does the fella I’ve had my eye on, actually.”

Tony’s face does a complicated spasm-twitch thing that Steve would worry was the sign of an aneurysm on anyone else. “Is that so?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, finally giving in to the grin tugging at his lips. “It’s his favorite. He hates cherry, though. He’s really smart - a genius, actually. And he’s generous and kind and stubborn and infuriating and the best man I’ve ever known.”

Tony’s eyes are wide, his pupils blown. His mouth is hanging open, just slightly, making Steve wonder what it’d be like, to touch those lips. He doesn’t wait to find out; he steps forward, until he’s crowded into Tony’s space, his hands coming up to cup Tony’s jaw.

“You’re in love with me,” he tells Tony, the words soaring in his chest. “Which is good, because I’m in love with you, too.”

Tony blinks up at him. “Yeah?” he asks finally, voice cracking.

“Yeah,” Steve confirms, and presses forward the last bit to kiss him.

He tastes - warm. There’s no coffee or cologne or, God forbid, alcohol, just the smoothness of Tony’s mouth, the scratchy stubble of Tony’s beard under Steve’s fingertips. For a moment, Tony doesn’t respond, and Steve feels very small, almost empty; but then Tony’s pushing back into the kiss, hands coming up to splay over the small of Steve’s back, and everything is sharp and bright and singing.

When Tony finally pulls back, he’s out of breath, almost panting. He leans his forehead against Steve’s and closes his eyes, and Steve watches the way his eyelashes fan against his cheeks.

“Wow,” Tony says, without opening his eyes. “Wow, okay. That’s - that’s something.”

Steve smiles.

“Maybe we could - try it again? A few more times?” Tony swallows, hard, almost like he’s not sure Steve’ll say yes. “Just to - make sure we’ve got it down?”

“I don’t see why not,” Steve says, thumb stroking over the hinge of Tony’s jaw. “Just a few more -”

He kisses Tony once, twice, three more times before Tony’s moaning into his mouth, rubbing himself against Steve’s thigh.

“You don’t have a three date rule, do you?” Tony asks breathlessly when he finally pulls back. “Because, you know, I could wait. If you needed me to. But I’d really rather not.”

“Well, my ma always said that if you respected God, you’d wait until marriage,” Steve says, biting back a smile when Tony stiffens in his arms. “But telepathic bonds are marriage for the Tava, right? So, in a way, it’s kind of after marriage for me, don’t you think?”

For a second, Steve worries that he’s gone too far - making parallels to marriage thirty seconds after they kissed for the first time? - but then Tony laughs, relieved, in his arms.

“100%,” he says, “Solid logic, I fully agree, now let’s get those pants off you.”

Steve laughs, feeling joy bubbling in his chest, and lets Tony shove him back towards the stairs.

-

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Steve says afterwards, when they’re lying, boneless, on top of the sheets. He forces himself to roll over, away from Tony, so he can lean over to grab his pants from the floor.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got a ring hiding in there,” Tony jokes, but there’s something genuinely trepidatious in his voice.

“Not quite yet,” Steve laughs, pulling out the flask. “Shi’ba gave me something before we left. She wanted to give it to you herself but you were already hiding on the quinjet.” He rolls over and raises an eyebrow in Tony’s direction.

Tony rolls his eyes, cheeks tingeing pink. “Okay, so it wasn’t my finest moment, whatever, are you going to give it me or not?”

“There are so many jokes there that I am choosing not to make,” Steve informs Tony as he tucks himself around Tony, chin hooked over Tony’s shoulder, arm around Tony’s waist. He offers him his open palm, the bottle resting on it.

Tony takes it from him carefully, raising it to the light. “I’m pretty sure it’s just a little token,” Steve comments as Tony examines it. “You know, like a remember me kind of thing? But it’s cute, right?”

Beneath Steve, Tony’s chest starts to rumble; after a moment, Steve realizes he’s laughing. “Steve,” Tony says. “This is uncut diamond.”

“What?” Steve asks, curling closer to squint at the bottle. Now that he thinks about it, it does look an awful lot like the gaudy jewels rich women sport at the charity balls the Avengers are so often guilted into attending.

“Uncut diamond filled with alien sand,” Tony says. “You know how much this could get at auction?”

“You’re not going to sell it,” Steve says confidently.

“Yeah? And how do you know that, pray tell?”

“Because I know you,” Steve says, settling back against the pillows. “ I know what you care about. And you care more about people than money.”

For a long moment, Tony doesn’t say anything. Steve doesn’t push, just rubs circles around the rim of the arc reactor and waits. Finally, Tony raises his hand to settle over Steve’s.

“Yeah, well. We better both hope you’re not wrong.”

Steve hums, squeezing Tony just a little bit closer. “I won’t be,” he promises. “Trust me.”

“I do.”

When Steve glances at Tony again, his eyes are looking red and watery. Steve wishes - vague and unformed in the back of his mind - that they could share thoughts for just a little bit longer. Not forever: just long enough that Steve could show Tony how he sees him.

But, Steve reminds himself, it doesn’t matter either way. Eventually, Steve has faith that his stubbornness and tenacity will break through Tony’s thick skull. He just needs to give it time.

And time, Steve reminds himself, as he presses a kiss to Tony’s jaw, is something they have plenty of.