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By Guidance of the Stars

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By Guidance of the Stars, fic by Guardian Mira, art by Lore and Natowe

When celebrated naval officer Captain Steve Rogers woke from his 700-year-long nap, the first thing they did was grow him a new body.

He had gone willingly into cryo. For his service in the First Extraterrestrial War; for how he’d led a fleet of ships in impossible, hopeless combat against a skyful of alien crafts; for how he’d helmed the final infiltration into the baseship that had been hovering over Seoul, South Korea like a very angry, glowing, heavily armed cloud – he was rewarded with a medal and immortality.

He hadn’t been the only one offered a chance at a second life, after the dust had settled and the extent of the damage was assessed. Governments had joined together across national and cultural boundaries. On behalf of the Earth, they’d signed a peace treaty with their alien opponents; they got their hands on alien tech, too, scavenged from fallen ships and shared by their tentative new allies in exchange for samples of various plant and animal species native to Earth. Hope spread far and wide, across a ravaged planet united at last by external threat, that diplomacy would solve all their problems.

This diplomacy, though, did not set the military or the government at ease. And so they had made their appeals to Steve. Not only to Steve. Those who’d made the best soldiers, those who’d made the greatest difference to humanity’s – not quite victory, but to its survival— they were the ones asked to pack themselves into glorified freezers and be Earth’s secret weapons.

Fleet Admiral Nick Fury himself had sat him down and made Steve the offer. “We need people like you,” he’d said. “People who won’t forget.”

“Maybe we should forget,” Steve had said, tiredly.

“Children are being born, right now, who will never know a world where aliens only existed in stories,” Fury had said. “One day, there won’t be anyone left alive from a time when humans were the only intelligent lifeform in the known galaxy.”

So? Steve wanted to say. He sighed. “Admiral, I don’t—”

“You think everyone out there in that wide universe is friendly? You think there aren’t bullies out there, with resources and tech that Earth doesn’t and might never have?”

Steve stared at him. “Why did you really call me in here, sir? You said you wanted me to take a break.”

“I do,” said Fury. “Believe me, I do.”

And then he’d told Steve the rest of it. It was a long, long break he was asking Steve to take.

“When the time comes,” he said, “we’ll need our best soldiers. Soldiers from a harder time. Soldiers who know they’re citizens of Earth before they’re citizens of the Intergalactic Federation.”

Many of Steve’s peers refused the offer. But Steve hadn’t been cured of it yet: the longing that had driven him to the seas, and then to the warfront. The longing to be part of something bigger than himself. To do good and to help others and to contribute to a cause he believed in. That was his reason for existing. If he was needed one day, could he refuse the call? He’d never been able to before.

And then there was that name on his arm.

He kept the name hidden not only because that was the custom, but because it was so strange: Prince Antoni’il Edvar of Stark, Third of His Lineage. As a kid, he’d thought it had to be a made-up name his soulmate had somehow tricked fate into placing on Steve’s arm instead of whatever his real name was. As an adult who’d lived through an extraterrestrial war, he thought… that sounded a lot like an alien name.

He held out for as long as he could, to see whether human integration into the Intergalactic Federation would happen fast enough for his people to start mingling with other species, but humans were, unsurprisingly, isolationists. And Stark, he found out from a Martian ambassador, was billions of light years away from here. It would be a while before humans made their way to that neck of the stars.

He held out… too long, maybe. He went to sleep old and he woke old, and he found out if he wanted to captain a ship again instead of staying on the ground and barking commands from behind a console, he’d have to start from scratch: go to school, endure physical examinations and training, learn the history he’d missed. Spacecrafts were different from the ships he used to sail. It took decades before he had the training he needed. They cloned him a new body, and when it was twenty years old and his own was nearing ninety, they switched his consciousness from the latter and into the former, like uploading a file from a crashing computer to a back-up disk, though he didn’t say that out loud. Talk about outdated tech.

His second body was nearly sixty before he’d been trained to their satisfaction, and once he had earned back all his stripes, they had the third body ready and waiting for him.

He couldn’t pretend he missed being old, but he did miss being able to see his experience in the mirror. His Mark had stayed, luckily. He’d been nervous about that; his sleeping, uninhabited vessel was identical to his original body in every way except its lack of scars and blemishes, and its lack of a Mark. But as soon as his consciousness woke in the new body, the Mark appeared in the same spot where it’d always been.

He did not fail to notice the enhancements: the body looked right, but his strength was abnormal, his healing rate was absurd, and his senses were almost overwhelmingly sharp until he got used to it all. They’d turned him into their perfect soldier.

“You’re lucky,” said one of the doctors. “Most humans, we don’t have Soul Marks anymore.”

Others in the lab were glancing furtively at Steve’s Mark. He saw the flicker of revulsion in their eyes when they processed its alien assortment of letters and sounds; some of them even frowned at him before he tugged on a shirt that covered it up. Steve focused his attention on the first doctor.

“You don’t?” he asked.

“Well, it’s tricky,” said the doctor. “We think a lot of people have alien soulmates, but of course aliens don’t get Marks. Most of them don’t experience love or romance or sexuality in the same ways that we do, or in ways that would even be compatible with ours. Adding on to that, most humans rarely, if ever, interact with aliens. We still mostly keep to ourselves, our colonies, or stay on Earth. So we think the Marks don’t appear if the individual in question just has absolutely no chance of meeting their soulmate.”

“Oh,” said Steve. “Do any aliens get Soul Marks? We can’t be the only species who has them.”

“As far as we know, we are the only ones,” said the doctor. “When humans have an alien name on their arm, usually that alien’s part of a species that’s at least humanoid and has some of the same mating inclinations. A species that can love you back, basically. Doesn’t change the fact most of them never meet their matches, even if the Mark appears.”

“Wow,” he said, and probably sounded as dismayed as he felt. The doctor shrugged.

“It’s a big universe, Captain,” he said.

But then they put him back on a ship, and everything he’d endured up to that point had been worth it. What did it matter that he’d only ever sailed the sea? A ship was a ship. A horizon was a horizon. When he looked up, on the sea or in the skies, he could count on the sight of stars.

When at last the time came for him to fight, when at last the Fifth Extraterrestrial War was upon them, he fought. But times had changed even more than he’d anticipated: humans weren’t defending anymore. They were attacking. They were colonizing.

He took his ship and a crew and he left.

He’d done enough. He’d fought. He’d died and been reborn. He’d let them regrow his body twice over. All this he had accepted, even embraced. He had done his duty. Now… now he didn’t know who he was or what he was fighting for anymore. And so he left, to figure that out.

He left to go looking for a place called Stark, and for its prince.

#

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Peatra whispered.

“It’s already done,” he said.

The droid, which resembled Antoni’il down to the last detail, lay motionless on his bed. Its skin had paled to a sickly blue-green, its blank eyes were open to the ceiling, and a hand lay curled in the cloth of its tunic, as if it had been clutching its chest in pain. Toni’il’s heart had been threatening to give out all his life; only a handful of people knew he’d long ago replaced it with the vibrantly glowing artificial one implanted in his chest now. None of those confidants – least of all his wife and queen Peatra; her lover Hapi; or his best friend, Rodos, one of the royal engineers and air force commander – would be giving away that particular secret of his.

Peatra’s job now was to implement his will against (what he was certain would be) the vociferous protests of the Stark High Council. His will ordered the cremation of Toni’il’s body, immediately and without examination. It was not so odd for royalty to make such a request; his own parents and grandparents had insisted on the same hands-off approach to their post-mortem arrangements. It also instated Peatra as Queen Regent until her and Toni’il’s heir was of age. The heir, of course, was the child of Peatra and Hapi, a bright little three-year-old girl with dark enough hair and brown enough eyes to pass as Toni’il’s even though she had inherited her mother’s pink skin and her father’s dimpled smile.

Toni’il had always known he was made for the skies; it was only a matter of time before he left Stark for good. But he wouldn’t leave his home in the hands of anyone other than the most capable and trustworthy person he knew. His long-time friend Peatra (who was a wife to him in name alone) was made to rule; but he’d had to wait for her to get pregnant, and then they’d had to make sure the pregnancy came to term, the child survived her first couple of years, and any rumors of her illegitimacy were squashed before they could balloon into a challenge of her status as heir.

Now, at last, it was time. Jo was old enough, Peatra was pregnant again – and pregnant enough it would be easy for her to claim Toni’il as the father even after his ‘death’ – and Toni’il had made all the necessary arrangements.

“I expect you to put on a big show, P,” said Toni’il. “I want to hear you wailing about your poor, beloved husband all the way from the spaceport.”

To his horror, Peatra sniffled. “Jo will miss you so much.”

“Jo’s a baby. She won’t… uh, she won’t even remember me,” Toni’il said, wilting, but he rallied. He pulled Peatra close for one last hug, and pressed a kiss into her hair, the pale orange color of the third sunrise on the planet Mannata, which Stark orbited. It was uninhabitable, but Toni’il had been there once or twice, back before his parents had died and he’d still been allowed to go on research excursions. That had been years ago.

Toni’il wasn’t meant for this life, cloistered away in a palace. He needed to be part of the world, really part of it: creating things, helping people, making the universe a better place. Peatra would take good care of Stark – the best care, in fact. But Toni’il had exhausted what challenges this tiny moon could offer him. He’d learned all he could learn here. It was time to move on.

“Just give me an hour. Wake up at the usual time,” he said.

“I know what to do.” She sighed. “I’m as ready as I can be. Go now, before I come to my senses.”

He did. He crept out under the cover of darkness through the network of underground tunnels that ran from the palace to the city. He kept the hood of his cloak pulled up. He had no kohl around his eyes, or the painted, swirling marks over his cheeks and arms that would have marked him as royalty; his lack of embellishment would be disguise enough, he hoped. Especially since most citizens were used to seeing him on a raised platform or carriage, not up close, walking among them.

He rented a solar bike and headed for the spaceport as the city woke around him. The mourning flags were fluttering in the air by the time he came within sight of the docks, a thrilling landscape of gleaming metal hulls and the ceaseless bustle of tens of dozens of alien races all coming and going. News spread quickly, from the palace through the cybernet, that the King had died in his sleep – but here in the spaceport, no one would look twice at him. He was effectively invisible.

It was going to be a sad day in Stark, but Toni’il had never felt better. He was free.

#

By midday, Steve had racked up a number of accomplishments.

He’d docked the Nomad on Stark. He’d done the requisite restocking, maintenance checks, and fueling up the ship had needed. He’d made sure his crew was fed and watered and gave them free rein to go roaming about the city for a few hours. And he’d learned that his soulmate was dead.

The Starks were a humanoid race and spoke the shared language of the Intergalactic Federation as fluently as they did their native tongue. It was easy to find a merchant at the port who could tell him about the royal family.

“I’ve never been here before,” Steve had said. “Don’t want to cause offense by saying something ignorant.”

The merchant shrugged. “There’s no law against ignorance. Besides, Queen Peatra has bigger things on her mind today. We all do.”

“Oh?” Steve had asked. “Trouble at the palace?”

“You could say that.” The merchant had sighed. “The King is dead. He passed in his sleep.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Steve had said, truthfully. “I hope the queen and her children are alright.”

“Child. They have a little daughter.”

Steve bit his lip. Perhaps Steve’s soulmate wasn’t born yet, and he’d have to come back in a few decades. He hoped that wasn’t the case.

“What was the king’s name?” he asked.

“Antoni’il,” said the man.

Steve’s heart thudded hard against his ribs.

Please, no, he thought.

“Antoni’il Edvar?” he asked, his voice reduced to a croak. “The… second?”

“Third of his line,” the merchant corrected.

Steve shut his eyes, briefly. “When… when did he…?”

If the merchant noticed his abrupt change in tone, he did not comment. “Before dawn this morning. His heart gave out, they say.”

It can’t be true , something in Steve howled. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not.

It was true, of course.

He was too late. He’d missed his soulmate by a day.

#

The ship of his dreams was all black and gold with a big white star on the side and NOMAD painted on in tall white letters. Toni’il knew, instantly, he belonged on that ship. It was practically calling to him. Nomad. Wasn’t that what he was, now?

He lurked nearby and watched people come and go through the main exit hatch; he counted just six of them. The crew seemed to consist entirely of humans, which cemented his decision. Humans were different enough from Starks that Toni’il would have plenty to learn from them – but similar enough that they could get along. Once they figured out he was there, anyway, which didn’t need to happen until they were well into deep space.

Based on the makeup of the ship, he could guess at where the cargo hold would be. He pulled a miniature cutting laser from his pocket, and smiled.

#

Someone tapped on his door. Steve pretended to be asleep, but Natasha opened it a crack and slipped inside anyway.

Steve barely remembered returning to the ship, collapsing onto his bed, and putting his head in his hands. He’d sat like that for far too long, spine curled in an arc of pure misery, before he made himself lie down and take a nap. He’d woken perhaps an hour later, feeling no better, and hadn’t moved.

Natasha padded to his side and sat on the edge of the mattress. He heard her footsteps and felt the bed dip, but she stayed behind him, for which he was grateful; he did not know what she’d read on his face right now.

“I heard what happened,” she said, her voice a low murmur. “I want you to know I’m here.”

“I know,” Steve croaked. They were silent for minutes, until Steve said, “I’m acting ridiculous. I’ll get over it, I swear. I just—”

He cut himself off. Natasha touched her fingers to his shoulder and then let her hand drop.

“You don’t need to justify yourself to me, of all people,” she said. Natasha was the only other member of the crew with a Mark, and she covered hers with a black armband. Steve wore white. White was for a soulmate not found, still being searched for. Black was for a soulmate found and lost.

“You know your situation is different, Nat,” Steve said, fingers clenching into his pillow. He screwed his eyes shut.

He had no right to be acting this way, no matter what Natasha said. No right to be mourning this man as if Steve had some kind of a claim on him, when he had a real family out there grieving. He had never even known Steve’s name.  

Nat, though. Natasha had had a soulmate. She’d spoken his name to Steve only once: James. They’d worked together, lived together, loved each other, and then he had died. That was loss.

But Natasha said, “Who cares if it’s different? No one’s keeping score. You can feel however you feel.”

Steve snorted.

“Fine,” Nat said wryly. He could hear the hint of a smile in her voice. “I’ll leave the therapy to Sam. But you come to me if you need anything. You will, won’t you?”

Steve nodded into his pillow, which he was certain would end up with permanent dents from his fingers.

“Rest, Steve,” Natasha said. “I’ll take care of the ship today.”

She left, and the door clicked shut unobtrusively behind her. It only made a noise because she let it. She wanted Steve to know he was alone; at the sound, Steve relaxed. He breathed out, released his death grip on his pillow, turned onto his back.

Most people nowadays, they didn’t put much stock in Soul Marks unless the mate was also human, like Nat’s had been. It took more than destiny to make a good match – that had always been true, but it was truer than ever now. Hell, Prince— King Antoni’il had a wife and daughter. Nothing would have ever happened between him and Steve. Steve didn’t know what he’d thought he was doing, coming here in the first place to demand attention from a man who was literal royalty and probably had enough on his plate trying to run a whole moon . The fact his Mark was inaccurate – there was quite a bit of difference between a prince and a king, Steve thought – really said it all. Nothing would have ever come of this foolhardy escapade of his, and maybe Antoni’il’s death had just spared Steve a great deal of embarrassment.

This was a wake-up call. It was time to put his childish fantasies to rest.

But for just a few hours – for the rest of the day, perhaps – he would grieve. Steve had carried this man’s name on his arm for the better part of a millenium and would carry it for the rest of his life. He could cut himself a little slack.

His crew knew what had happened. He didn’t keep secrets from them. Natasha, as his second-in-command, took the lead and got them off Stark as soon as she could. Normally, they’d have taken their time, spent the night in a place as nice as this one. The ivory-and-glass spires of the palace in the distance, the sand-colored planet that filled half the sky, the lithe people like walking poetry with skin in just about every color imaginable – it was practically a fantasyland, and far more pleasant than a lot of the other places they’d been. But Steve knew he wouldn’t be able to look in any direction without a hot wave of mingled embarrassment and grief flooding him. He couldn’t bear to stay and have to make a choice about the mourning rites that would be overtaking the city as soon as the fourth (and final) sun set. To join them as an anonymous member of the crowd, or to pretend they weren’t happening and keep his distance – both options felt either painful or disrespectful.

So Natasha took command, and Steve breathed and slept and got his head back on straight. By dinner time, they were light-years away from Stark, and Steve was feeling something like normal. Close enough to fake it, anyway.

He’d taken losses before. Lost people he’d actually known and had the chance to love. He hadn’t lost anything this time, not really. He’d lost an idea. He’d lost a hope. That was all.

He had a weary smile ready for his crew when he joined them in the kitchen. Surveying their faces, his heart eased a little bit. These were his family:

Janet, their pilot, who patted his shoulder and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Bruce, their medic and botanist, who returned his smile with a tired one of his own and offered him a sleep tonic for later. Steve declined.

Peter, their mechanic, who was maybe a shade too young to be out in deep space on his own, consorting with outlaws – but Steve wasn’t his dad and wasn’t about to send him home if he didn’t want to go. He cracked a joke or three in the span of time it took Steve to walk from the doorway to one of the open seats at the table.

And Sam, their navigator and ex-army counselor, who clapped Steve on the shoulder and loaded up a plate for him.

His crew was safe, healthy, and happy. Their ship was in excellent condition. They had food and an open sky. They could go anywhere and do anything.

He breathed deep and slow, and tried to be okay.

“Anyone seen Natasha?” he asked with a frown.

“She heard something weird in the engine room and went to check,” said Jan, spooning pasta onto her plate. “I bet it’s just a rat, but you know how she is.”

“It’s a rat, alright,” came Natasha’s smooth voice from the doorway. She was dragging, by the arm, a Stark with hands cuffed before him. She shoved him into the room so he fell on his knees, where he grinned up at them.

“Rat? That’s harsh,” he said. “Just think of me as… a souvenir. A very shiny, very pretty souvenir from the greatest moon in the galaxy.”

Natasha silenced him with a look.

“This person somehow managed to stow away in the cargo hold – yes, I found the patched-up hole in the hull, thanks for that – and then found his way into the engine room,” Natasha reported. “He’s been messing around in there for— I don’t know how long. Too long.”

“I wasn’t messing around— I was fixing it!” he said, defensively. “I increased your fuel efficiency by fifteen percent, and I was going to work on updating your onboard systems tonight—”

Steve rose to his feet, slowly, and crossed his arms in that way he knew made his biceps bulge.

“You. Tampered. With. My. Ship?” he asked, in his deadliest tone of voice.

The Stark gave him exactly the sort of arrogant smirk that was guaranteed to make Steve’s blood boil.

“Gorgeous, there are people who’d sell a limb for the chance to have me tamper with their anything,” he drawled. “Where’s your mechanic? Go on. Let them give the engine room a once-over. They’ll tell you I just did you a huge favor, free of charge. I’ll even allow you to continue taking advantage of my services for no payment whatsoever besides room and board.”

Steve almost lost it. The nerve of this guy—

Peter raised a hand.

“Uh, Cap?” he said. “Starks are, like, centuries ahead of us technologically. Maybe I should go take a look. He could be really helpful… you know I’ve had to scrounge for parts, I can’t always find the best stuff, and this is an old ship….”

Steve sighed. His ship was his weak spot and everyone knew it.

“Fine, Pete,” he said. “Go look. But even if you have made improvements,” he added, to the Stark, “that doesn’t change the fact that you snuck onto my ship and modified it without permission. I could have you thrown in prison.”

“Just give me a chance, Cap ,” he said, as Peter scurried away. Steve scowled at him in warning – only his crew got to call him that – but the Stark fixed him with another smile. A real one, lacking in the artifice and flashiness of everything else he’d done and said so far.

Apparently he was destined to spend the whole day acting like a dramatic teenager, because Steve… blushed.  

As a rule, Starks were stunning, but his stowaway was beautiful even by the lofty standards of his people. His complexion was the blue of a deep sea. He wore – over a simple tunic and rough work pants – a cloak of moonlight, liquid silver that accentuated his broad shoulders and radiant skin. He had a sweep of black hair, tousled and rich, with a faint curl to it. His eyes were the most human thing about him: huge and brown and clever, with the longest lashes Steve had ever seen on a man. Goatee, rakish smirk, full lips. The big calloused hands of a man who knew hard work.

God.

  art by natowe

Steve wasn’t one of those humans who made a point of lusting after aliens just because they were different, but he felt the low, pulsing heat of desire in his stomach now, unmistakable. He hadn’t felt that in so long – since before he was defrosted, if he was being honest. He’d had casual flings since then, sure, but those dalliances had always been more about scratching an itch than any real attraction. He’d never wanted it like he wanted this man.

Your soulmate just died, he scolded himself. Get a grip.

But not even the shame was enough to deter his libido.

“Why would you stow away, though?” Janet asked curiously, leaning over the table. “Why us? Why this ship?”

Even Steve had to admit her skepticism was warranted. The spaceport had been filled with more attractive options.

The Stark grinned a little self-consciously. “I wanted to see the stars,” he admitted, “and what seems more appropriate for an adventurer than a ship called the Nomad? Besides, I like humans. They’re cute.”

He winked salaciously at her, and Jan laughed.

“Starks are probably our closest extraterrestrial cousins in terms of biological makeup,” said Bruce. The Stark lit up.

“Right!” he said. “Which is fascinating when you consider the vastly different environmental conditions under which our two species evolved—”

And after that, Bruce and the stowaway became engrossed in a back and forth that grew increasingly befuddling to Steve. After a minute of this, he started to feel bad for the man, sitting there on his knees with his hands cuffed while they waited on Peter to return. He wasn’t that much older than Peter, in fact; he looked to be somewhere in his mid- or late-twenties, and he clearly wasn’t armed….

Steve sighed, hauled him to his feet, and guided him into an empty chair. The Stark looked around at him with a startled grin that swiftly turned into an appreciative once-over.

“I bet you could pick me right up and pin me against a wall, huh?” he said.

“Sure,” said Steve, agreeably. “Pin you against a wall… throw you out the airlock… all sorts of things I could do.”

The man made a noise that sounded suspiciously similar to a purr, and Steve snorted as he turned away.

Natasha, leaning against the doorway with her arms crossed, frowned at him. Sam raised a brow and shot him the sort of unimpressed look that told Steve he had at least an inkling of what Steve was thinking.

Steve tried, consciously, not to blush again.

At least, he thought, there was one person other than Steve who liked the name of the ship. Most people thought it was too sentimental or too on-the-nose or too whatever. But this man had liked it enough to choose it out of all the other ships – hundreds of them – docked in the spaceport. There were flashier ships, newer ships, ships with so many people a stranger would’ve been able to blend right in, ships with things worth stealing. Ships with engines that were probably so fuel efficient they didn’t need any improvement. But he’d picked the Nomad.

“What’s your name?” he asked, when Bruce and the stranger paused for breath.

“Toni’il,” said the man, and then clamped his lips shut as if he regretted having said that.

“Tony?” Steve repeated, frowning. That didn’t sound very alien to him.

“Close enough. I like that that, I’ll keep it,” said Tony, imperiously. Steve opened his mouth to push the issue, but Peter burst into the room nearly vibrating with excitement.

“How did you do all that?” he asked breathlessly as soon as his eyes landed on Tony.

“Well, the first thing you have to do is be brilliant,” said Tony. Peter was already uncuffing him.

“Hey,” Steve protested half-heartedly.

“You’ve gotta let him stay, Cap! Please!” Peter said, whirling around and begging like a kid who’d brought a puppy home to his mom. “He can obviously earn his keep, and I know you don’t want to turn back.”

“We could drop him off on Annoval 14,” said Steve darkly, though he didn’t really mean it.

“C’mon. We both know he doesn’t deserve jail just because he wanted a new life,” said Peter. His light brown hair fell into his eyes, and his shoulders hunched defensively; his fists were clenched. Steve had to sigh. This kid.

Most of their stories had started the same way as Tony’s: they’d all been idealistic young idiots who’d set out with nothing but a dream. Well, except for maybe Natasha, who Steve had to assume had always been as focused, efficient, and lacking in sentimentality as she was now.

He looked around at the rest of his crew.

“It’s not only my decision,” he said grudgingly. “Are the rest of you comfortable with this?”

Bruce nodded almost as enthusiastically as Peter.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a Stark. I bet he could help me with some of my research.”

“There’s a lab in here?” Tony asked, leaning forward.

“It’s not much,” said Bruce, “but I’ve been able to keep a few different experiments going.”

“A lot of ships don’t even have labs,” Steve reminded him. Not much! If Bruce had cared so much about having a fancy workshop he’d have stayed at the university, wouldn’t he?

“I don’t mind extra company, Cap,” Janet put in.

The look Sam and Natasha exchanged, brief and silent, seemed to encompass an entire conversation. They turned to Steve as one.

“We could give him a chance,” said Sam. “I guess. Ship needs to run, and if he can help with that….”

“Run? My friend, I’ll make sure the Nomad does a lot better than just run,” Tony promised. He helped himself to a plate and filled it from the spread on the table. He had the votes. He knew he was in.

“Nat?” Steve tried.

“It’s fine,” she said. “For now.”

Be glad it didn’t come down to a tie-breaker, said a stern voice in Steve’s head that reminded him of Fury. You know damn well you weren’t sending that man away.

Steve said, “You’ll have to abide by the rules of this ship, same as any member of the crew. I don’t give many orders, but when I do, it’s for everyone’s safety and I’ll expect you to fall in line. Understand?”

Tony saluted. “I hear you loud and clear, Cap.”

Steve took his seat back at the table, feeling very much like he’d had enough surprises for the day.

Tony cleared his throat.

Uh oh, Steve thought.

“Now that I’ve got the all clear,” Tony said, “wake up, JARVIS!”

Yes, sir, ” said the Nomad, in a polished, lightly accented voice emanating from the ceiling.

Steve jumped. His fork slipped from his grasp and onto the table with a clatter.

“Tony!” he snapped. “What the hell?”

“It’s my AI,” said Tony. “I used to have him at the— um, at home, but now that I’m leaving…. Well, he goes everywhere with me. He’ll make sure all the onboard systems are running smoothly, help your navigator chart flight routes, and he’s got all sorts of security mechanisms. Tell him, J.”

My primary function is to ensure the safety and comfort of all in my care,” said JARVIS. “ Including and especially the vessel.

“If you’d had him before,” Tony said cheerfully, “you definitely wouldn’t have had to worry about any stowaways.”

Steve frowned, thoughtfully this time. He had always wanted an onboard AI. Most of the modern ships had one, and it took a lot of the stress out of commanding. AIs caught things people couldn’t, noticed problems early on before they ballooned into disasters, and – should they encounter other ships – made it easy to interface with other crews. Tony had donated his own personal system to the Nomad, which was… pretty kind of him, actually.

“What would you have done if we’d kicked you out?” Steve asked, in genuine curiosity.

Tony shrugged. “JARVIS would’ve deactivated himself and you’d never have been any wiser. He’s harmless, I swear,” Tony said. “Unless I want him not to be.”

He smiled again.

Steve’s crew peppered Tony with questions and had the time of their lives getting snarked at by his AI, who seemed to have about as much of an attitude problem as his creator.

Things on the Nomad, Steve suspected, were going to be a lot more interesting from now on.

#

Tony had never been anyone’s “teammate” before. Even at school; in the hand-to-hand combat courses he’d taken; during research projects he’d participated in or led when his scientific endeavors had been allowed to take up more of his time than his royal responsibilities— he’d always been the prince, and that had set him apart. But here, on the Nomad, he was a member of the crew just like any other. It was a fascinating experience. He was constantly discovering all the astonishing ways humans differed from Starks, despite their similarities in appearance.

For example, prosthetics were common amongst their kind, but they found Tony’s artificial heart deeply troubling. Humans, Bruce later explained, attached cultural significant to the heart as a kind of moral and emotional center, even though that made absolutely no sense .

(“No, we’re aware that the brain is the source of those things, but we place a… a symbolic and sentimental value on the heart.”

“Sentimental value is for junk you need to make excuses to keep around. Not for body parts.”)

The first morning after he’d arrived, he wandered into the kitchen shirtless. He slumped over the kitchen counter while his coffee brewed, fumbled a mug out of the cabinet, and dragged himself to the table with his eyes half-closed. Coffee was hands-down the best thing humans had contributed to the Intergalactic Federation.  

Most of the crew had woken before him and were assembled at the table already. He managed to mumble something resembling a good morning and did not register whether or not they responded. It wasn’t until he’d drained half the mug that he noticed the looks on their faces.

He squinted at them.

“What?”

They were about halfway through breakfast, Steve with his mostly demolished plate of eggs and bacon, Peter with his bowl of sugary cereal, Bruce with his tea that smelled like bitter grass – which he reserved for mornings – and the others with fruit, toast, yogurt. No one ever seemed to eat the same thing except for dinner, but they still congregated here. He’d read that dining together was a sort of pack-bonding custom for humans, which Tony found charming.

Peter pointed at his chest. “What is that?”

Those are nipples, and I’m pretty sure you have them, too, Tony almost said, but then he realized Peter’s eyes were fixed on the shining circle of light emanating from Tony’s chest, where the outer casing of his artificial heart protruded slightly from his body.

“Oh, that?” Tony said. “My heart wasn’t working right, so I built a better one. It’s powered by arc reactor technology.”

“You replaced your heart with a machine?” Steve said, brows furrowed.

“You managed to make an arc reactor that small, and body-safe?” Peter asked, thrilled. The boy had his priorities in order, Tony thought.

“The heart is a machine, Cap,” he said. “Doesn’t matter what it’s made of as long as it runs.” He turned to Peter. “You have something to write with? I can show you how I did it—”

Peter produced a handheld screen and Bruce yanked a stylus out of his pocket, and the three of them huddled together while Tony sketched out some diagrams and wrote out a few equations.

Sam and Natasha went back to their conversation, heads bent and shoulders brushing. Janet nudged Steve, who had been staring at Tony, and grinned. Tony looked up in time to catch Steve’s answering smile – a little exasperated, but fond. He’d been grumpy when they’d met, sure, but Tony was quickly learning how soft Steve was when it came to his crew. Even Tony, it seemed.

Though… Steve certainly didn’t sneak glances at anyone else’s bare chest during mealtimes. Did he think he was being subtle, raking his eyes over Tony’s biceps, dropping his gaze to Tony’s abs as soon as he stood to get a coffee refill? Or did he want Tony to see him looking?

Tony would certainly be investigating that later.

The other thing Tony found out about humans was that some of them – Steve and Natasha, but not the others – wore black bands around their arms, and addressing their existence in any way was taboo. If you asked why they wore them, Steve went pale and muttered an excuse to get away from you, and Natasha kicked your ass twice as hard next time you sparred with her.

(“Are they in mourning? Is that what the bands symbolize?” Tony asked Bruce. Humans were great fans of symbolism.

Bruce sighed. “Sort of, yes, but that’s not the whole—”

And then one of the experiments they’d had simmering in a corner blew up, JARVIS sounded an alarm that sent Steve and Sam barreling into the lab, and Tony forgot all about the black armbands. In his mind, it was already filed away: grieving custom, sensitive topic, not to be prodded.)

But of all the useful things he’d picked up on, he found the most practical value in the mundane. He’d even memorized his crewmates’ habits and schedules, and this knowledge frequently came in handy. For instance, it allowed him to time his next shower so that he would walk out into the hallway, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel slung precariously low on his hips, precisely when Steve was on his way past the bathroom door.

Their paths crossed. Steve’s stride faltered. Tony came to a halt, delighted, and watched Steve watch a bead of water roll down Tony’s abs and slide into the V of his hips.

Tony knew he should probably say something and wake Steve from his apparent trance before the moment stretched any longer, but he preferred to bask in the attention. His smile had become a shade predatory by the time Steve jolted, realized what he was doing, and finally looked Tony in the eye with a guilty expression.

Tony stepped up into Steve’s space. Those shockingly blue eyes met his, and a shiver swept down Tony’s body. Back on Stark, Tony had had a few discreet lovers of his own while Peatra had spent her nights with Hapi. But his last fling had been a long time ago – before Jo was born – and he was more than ready to break his dry streak.

“Going somewhere, Cap?” His voice came out low and rumbling.

Steve’s jaw clenched. He turned pink all over his face and ears and neck, the color disappearing under the collar of his shirt. Tony wanted to lick him.

“Just to the gym,” he said. “And it’s Steve.”

Steve,” said Tony, breathless. Steve’s throat moved as he swallowed. “I bet I could give you a better workout.”

Steve’s lips parted, but no sound came out. Tony rested a hand on his chest and felt the pumping of Steve’s racing heart.

But Steve quickly jerked him out of his visions of stripping that shirt off and hiding it someplace far, far away.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.

Oh.

“Sorry about that, Captain,” said Tony, abashed. “I misread the situation.”

He started to withdraw his hand, but Steve wrapped it up in his and kept it pressed to his chest. Tony stared at his fingers clasped in Steve’s, and then up at Steve’s eyes, a flicker of hope awakening within him.

“You didn’t misread anything, and… I meant that as more of a ‘not yet’ than a ‘no,’” Steve admitted. “I’m— I’m getting over someone.”

The armband, Tony realized. Steve wasn’t mourning just anyone. He was mourning a lover, a partner, a mate of some kind. A pang of sympathy struck him as he made the connection – and the warmth of admiration, too. He’d never have guessed if Steve hadn’t told him outright. Steve had to be strong, even stronger than Tony had suspected, to be able to stand tall and support his crew even under the weight of his loss.

Tony squeezed Steve’s fingers. “I see. Well, I don’t plan on going anywhere, so when that not yet turns into a yes? You know where to find me.”

He didn’t look over his shoulder to see if Steve was watching his ass as he walked away, but Tony was a believer. He chose to believe that Steve was.

#

The way they got by on the Nomad, ever since Steve cut ties with the military, was by traveling the galaxies and bartering services in exchange for whatever they needed: food, supplies, cash if they could get it and had time to spend it. Cash had limited use, as there was no system of physical currency that was shared across the Intergalactic Federation; each world had its own. But using Links – the digital currency that could be spent on any Federation planet – was out of the question. Links could be traced. And Steve did not want to be found.

The Nomad typically skirted around the edges of wherever the Kree were currently operating, even though humans were Kree allies. The relationship worked like this: Kree got human cannon fodder whenever they decided to wage war, and humans got to establish their own, smaller colonies alongside the Kree, with the help of their tech and resources. It was shameful, and had been one of the biggest factors leading to Steve’s decision to leave.

Steve was a soldier, but half his crew were civilians; they were not a troop and they would not be going to war. There were other things they could do instead. When they weren’t focused on basic survival and keeping the ship intact, they trailed along in the Kree’s wake, helping where they could. Humans were Kree allies. Steve and his crew were not.

So when Jan asked, “Where to, Cap?” a month or so after their crew gained an extra member, Steve hardly had to think about his answer. It had been gnawing at the back of his mind for too long.

“Xandar,” he said.

She glanced at him dubiously. “You sure?”

“We’ve waited long enough.”

Up until about a year ago, Xandar had been one of the Federation’s largest and most populated planets, a leader in both science and the arts, and a pillar of peace. Their Nova Corps enforced the law, promoted diplomacy, and protected not only Xandar but all of their allies from threats. They had been the first to stand up against the Kree when the Kree had started to act on their long-held aggression and ambition.

But when the Kree retaliated, they did not hold back.

The Kree didn’t just attack Xandar. They annihilated it. They blew the planet to pieces. It was only the Nova Corps’ quick, unhesitating evacuation measures that saved the Xandarians from total extinction.

Xandarians were resilient. The Nova Corps were able to join the biggest, most stable pieces of the one-time planet into a network of domed cities. They’d stepped up their offensive and defensive mechanisms, too, and while they wouldn’t be going after the Kree… if the Kree ever came back, Xandar would be ready.

Steve once took it for granted that humans were more like Xandarians than Kree. Humans even looked like Xandarians. But humanity had proved him wrong.

The Nomad met no trouble from the Nova Corps as they neared the capital city, which hovered at the center of the planetary web that Xandar had become. Steve’s ship was designated as a personal vessel, and scanned in any control system – onboard or planetside – as nondescript unarmed civilian transport with license to travel freely within the Federation. JARVIS confirmed they had permission to dock. A gap in the dome let them into Xandar; this opening glowed with a forcefield that maintained the city’s artificial atmosphere, so that the dome could part temporarily without disturbing Xandar’s fragile equilibrium.

For takeoff and landing, the crew strapped into crash-safe seats lined up behind the pilot’s chair. This meant Steve, in the Captain’s chair overlooking the rest, got to watch Tony gasp and lean forward, wide-eyed, as they breached the dome and saw all of Xandar spread out before them.

“Wow,” Tony breathed.

Steve smiled. “Amazing, right?”

“They rebuilt all this in a year?” Tony shook his head in astonishment. “You’d never know it. It looks… almost pristine.”

He wasn’t wrong. The capital was a city of clean, pale stone and graceful arches, wide swathes of green spaces and tranquil man-made lakes. As they descended, its details grew clearer and sharper. Public squares boasted mosaic-tiled walls and floors, and the spaceport was bedecked with the Xandarian colors of blue and gold. There was ruin, too. Broken and crumbling buildings created a jagged, unhappy skyline. Panels in the dome that needed reinforcing showed dark against the clear sky, almost like spots of peeling paint in a ceiling. Big tents sheltered those who’d lost their homes and hadn’t been able to find space in newly erected public housing. Memorials for those who hadn’t lived to see the new Xandar could be spotted on nearly every street corner.

They docked in Xandar’s spaceport without issue. As they unstrapped their seatbelts and headed to the open hatch, JARVIS deployed the ramp that would allow them to step off to the ground.

But they didn’t. Set foot on the ground, that is. Because as soon as Steve and his crew appeared in the threshold, they were greeted by a phalanx of Nova warriors, blasters charged and humming and pointed right in Steve’s face, a host of their golden, cross-shaped sky fighters looming over the Nomad.

Steve put his hands in the air, palms out. Around him, he felt his crew move to do the same.

Well. This answered the question of whether or not humans were still welcome on Xandar after the mess they’d made with the Kree.

“We’re unarmed,” Steve called, in the common language of the Federation. “We don’t want any trouble. We’ll leave if you want.”

Tony shuffled forward. Steve twitched to stop him, but he was out of reach before Steve could decide whether to try moving and risk getting blasted by some trigger-happy recruit.

“Good morning!” Tony called in flawless Xandarian. “Please don’t shoot my humans. They’re harmless, I promise.”

The Commander of the Nova troop lifted her mask. “You look like a Stark,” she said, squinting, “but I’ve never known a Stark to keep such poor company.”

“Harsh,” Peter complained under his breath. Sam elbowed him.

Steve knew enough Xandarian to get by, and while he only understood about half of Tony’s response, he got the gist. Tony was vouching for his crew and offering their assistance to Xandar as friends and allies. Defectors, Tony called them. Peaceful, and help, Steve recognized in his speech, too.

Tony was convincing. The guns were lowered, and Steve’s crew were allowed to come down, and from then on, they were welcomed on Xandar as any other visitor would be.

“You might have just saved us from getting killed,” Steve muttered gratefully to Tony, as the crowd dispersed and after a few of the Nova warriors had pointed out several places where a few extra pairs of hands would be useful.

“What can I say?” Tony grinned. “Starks are universally adored.”

That wasn’t quite true, but under the full force of that smile, Steve could only bring himself to grin helplessly in turn.

#

They spent about a week on Xandar, going wherever they were told to go. By day they worked hard, repairing inner panels of the dome or replanting community gardens or shifting debris.

By night, they explored the city. Tony knew Xandarian so well Steve had assumed he’d been there before, but he hadn’t: every sight had him breathless with awe; every discovery delighted him. Steve spent a lot of time with Tony, that week. Usually the whole crew set out together, but they’d split off into smaller groups as the night went on – Sam and Nat going one way, Janet arm-in-arm with Bruce and Peter. Sometimes, Tony would wander off early without telling anyone, so Steve kept an eye on him in case Tony got distracted and made a detour.

“Checking up on me, Captain?” Tony said, teasingly, as Steve fell into step with him down a winding alley. The narrow road was lit with paper lanterns folded into elegant organic designs.

“This isn’t our world, Tony,” Steve said. “You need someone watching your back. That’s what a crew is for.”

Tony didn’t mind; in fact, his eyes lit up in a way that made Steve feel jittery inside whenever he turned and realized Steve was there with him. Tony took him to the observatory and told him all about the constellations that could only be seen from Xandar; he took him to the labyrinthine greenhouses so they could watch the nocturnal plants bloom, their bioluminescent glow turning Tony’s skin radiant; he took him to late night music performances and art exhibits, to street carts selling fantastically strange food and into hole-in-the-wall bars where Tony tried whatever the bartender’s favorite drink was.

He was charming and brilliant and fearless. And Steve… he loved being allowed to come along for the ride, but god, Tony probably thought he was painfully dull. He hated to think that, but it was true. Steve was from another time, another world – one that was small and slow and limited compared to this one. He didn’t have the kind of wit that played well at rowdy bars and his modified body couldn’t actually get drunk. He thought Tony would tire of him, would come up with an excuse to slip away from him and find better company.

Tony never did. When Steve started to disengage, he wound an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into his conversations. Or he’d take him and Steve someplace else, someplace they could be alone and sit under the shimmering dome and talk for hours. He listened avidly when Steve talked about his past in the military, the wars and going into cryo – but he seemed no less attentive when Steve described his favorite bits of human art history, the movements and painters he’d loved best, and the pieces he wished he could have seen in person. He told Tony about The School of Athens; he thought Tony would have liked that one. He told Tony about the Earth of his time, but mostly about sailing, and the smell of the ocean, and the rocking of the waves, which he still dreamt about.

Unless Tony was a monumentally talented faker, Tony wasn’t bored. He was generous with his smiles and never made Steve feel like he didn’t belong in this place or time.

Their last night on Xandar, Steve’s crew all had dinner together at a local place, sharing a massive pot of stew full of seafood and vegetables that cooked on the table right in front of them. Well, “seafood” wasn’t quite right. “Tank food” would be the more accurate term, as Xandar had small lakes and fish farms but no oceans or seas, not anymore. Steve tried to shut that thought out and enjoy the meal.

When Steve doled a helping out into his bowl, something suspiciously purple bobbed to the surface, but Tony gave him a nudge and a reassuring wink and Steve shrugged and took a bite.

He winced.

“No to the three-headed sand eel?” Tony said, swapping their bowls. “Here. I put mostly fish in mine.”

That’s what that was?” Steve wrinkled his nose. “Are you sure you don’t want—”

“It’s for you, Cap,” said Tony. “I know you’re well-traveled – to say the least – but Xandarian sea life is still a pretty challenging culinary experience to the uninitiated. Thought I’d have a backup ready for you, just in case.”

Steve bit down on a grin. Tony made these casually thoughtful gestures all the time. For everyone, but especially Steve. Not that he’d do anything but deflect if Steve mentioned it. So he said, “Thanks, Tony,” trying not to sound too fond, and showed his appreciation by draining his bowl.

Natasha smirked at him. Steve glanced significantly at where her hand brushed Sam’s on the table, and raised his brows.

She stopped smirking.

After their plates were cleared and they’d paid, they split off. Janet and Nat were having one of their “girls’ nights,” the exact nature of which was a mystery to Steve. Sam was dragging Bruce and Peter to a sports game.

Steve and Tony stood on the distractingly clean sidewalk, watching their friends depart.

Tony bumped his shoulder against Steve’s. “Where to?”

“Like you haven’t already got the whole evening planned out,” Steve shot back knowingly.

“I wanted to at least give you the illusion of free will,” Tony said, “but if you’re resigned to your fate—”

“I trust you,” said Steve. An expression of surprise crossed Tony’s face before he got his features under control. “Where do you want to go for your last night on Xandar?”

Tony’s answer would surely be more interesting than anything Steve could’ve come up with. He expected extravagance – someplace loud and crowded and strange, someplace that would get their hearts beating fast and their blood pumping. Someplace they’d be able to bid Xandar farewell with a bang. Steve would probably be a bit uncomfortable, as he’d been at the clubs and the bars and the parties they’d made brief pit stops in on other nights, but he was guaranteed an unforgettable experience at least.

But Steve had it all wrong. What Tony wanted was so much better.

He took them back to the ship to pick up an overnight bag he’d packed for the occasion, refusing to let Steve peek inside. From there, they flagged down a self-piloting trolley, and Tony keyed in the coordinates of their destination, but Steve almost had a heart attack when Tony scanned an ID card and used Links to pay.

“Relax,” Tony said. “It’s fake. Coded it myself.”

“You coded— never mind, of course you did.” Steve shook his head, exasperated. “Sorry,” he added, the tension leaving his muscles.

“Wait, can you say that again? I wasn’t recording.”

Steve’s response was lost to the wind as their ride launched into motion.

The trolley went zipping down Xandar’s broad lanes; the lantern lights started to come on as they flew past, and pedestrians drained out of the roads back into their homes. The world got quieter and quieter as the trolley took them to the outskirts of the city and beyond. The paved road turned to dirt and stone, more like a hiking path than a street, and the grey-skinned, bushy-crowned trees native to Xandar rose up around them. The ground sloped, and they went up and up, the trolley’s nose pointed skyward. They weren’t on a mountain, exactly; by any other planet’s standards, it was a hill, but it was also one of the highest peaks that remained to Xandar, one of the few that had managed to stay intact when the planet was shredded. It was too rocky for construction, but the Xandarians valued green spaces and nature. Steve suspected they’d leave it alone, one of the few places where Xandar’s rich natural life was still preserved.

“What,” Steve asked, when the trolley slowed enough for Steve to speak over the wind, “are we doing in the woods, up a mountain, in the middle of the night?”

“I thought you were going to sit back and let someone else make the decisions for once,” said Tony, with a roll of his eyes. “That means no questioning me.”

“Oh, that’s what it means?” Steve retorted. “So how come it doesn’t work that way when I’m the one in charge?”

The trolley stopped. Tony pulled out flashlights and pointed his beam at a sign posted at the start of a much narrower trail. It bore an arrow and the words: OBSERVATION POINT 500 KEPS.

Tony led them down the path, which wound around the side of the mountain and then spiraled up to its modest peak. The forest dropped away, and the path took them out to a cliff that jutted from the peak and overlooked the city.

“Wow,” Steve breathed, taking in the sight of Xandar’s lights, the golden ant-trails of street lanterns and moving laser-points of trolleys and pods.

Tony pointed straight ahead of them. “See the spaceport down there?”

“Yeah.” The Nomad was too small to make out, but the curves of the bigger ships, the gleam of their hulls, and the shapes of the docks were all evident.

Tony’s finger drew a straight line up, at the area of the dome directly over the spaceport. “Watch.”

The dome opened, just as it had when they’d steered the Nomad down into Xandar for the first time. It was automatic, set to part every few minutes and remain open for several more, unless the control center went into lockdown. The view from this side of the dome, though— it was something else.

The dome pulled apart and made room for a great circular gap, outlined in the pale blue glow of the energy field that kept the atmosphere intact. Although the dome was transparent, Steve realized now just how muted the sky outside appeared through its thick, protective barrier. The opening to the stars was crystal clear. Xandar’s moon – closer than it had been, before the apocalypse – spilled vibrant white light onto the spaceport. The stars twinkled merrily at them, one of the constellations Tony had taught him – the Philosopher – visible at the outer edge.

The dome sealed shut, sending the city back into – what now seemed to Steve – a dramatic darkness.

“Cool, right?” said Tony. “I know we literally live in outer space and we get to see the stars all the time, but it’s different on-planet, isn’t it? It’s different everywhere we go.”

Steve turned. Tony had unearthed the contents of his bag, which included several blankets, an assortment of snacks and water bottles, Steve’s sketchbook and pencils, and a small toolbox alongside one of Tony’s miniature robot projects.

A sleepover, Steve thought, as an irrepressible grin spread over his face. My genius alien stowaway just wants to have a sleepover and look at the stars.

Steve sat down on the blanket next to him, perhaps closer than necessary. “You planned all this out?”

For me? he did not say.

Tony shrugged, suddenly looking nervous. “We don’t get many breaks. We spent most of the week working, and once we’re back in space we’ll have more work, and our next stop will be work, too. I love what we do, but I thought we could both use a quiet night.”

“It’s perfect,” Steve said, meaning every word. “Thank you, Tony.”

They leaned against each other as the dome opened again, filling the world with starlight. Every place where Steve’s skin touched Tony’s was buzzing with warmth, was alive with joy. Steve left his sketchbook alone for a while, and rested his head on Tony’s shoulder to watch his hands pick deftly at the innards of his project. His palms were a paler blue than the rest of his skin, the lines as fine as silk thread. The tiny scars he’d accumulated from years of hard work were whiteish and slightly raised. Other than that, the deep-sea blue of his complexion was unbroken: from his carefully maintained nails, up the ridges of his knuckles, under the smattering of dark hair on his forearms, and over the muscles of his upper arms disappearing into his sleeves. Steve reached out absently, when Tony paused for a moment, to stroke a finger over one of those little scars. Tony held his breath. Steve’s finger rubbed at the scar until he thought he had it memorized— until he’d have been able to recognize that precise scar even with his eyes closed just by the way it felt. Then he used his other hand to turn Tony’s over. His fingers continued their exploration, tracing the lines of his palm and the veins on the back and finding all his other scars, mapping out the geography of Tony’s right hand as diligently as any cartographer.

“Tell me about these,” Steve murmured into Tony’s shoulder, tapping lightly at the biggest of the scars, a long thin gash that bisected Tony’s thumb. He needed to talk, otherwise he’d do something insane, like press his lips against it.

His mouth tingled with want.

Tony took a deep, slow breath. “Okay,” he said. His voice was a little shaky. Steve’s heart thudded frantically in his chest.

Not now, he told it sternly. Not yet.

Tony began to talk, describing experiments and lab accidents and a best friend who’d always patched him up. Eventually, the tension drained from both of them, and though they didn’t move away from each other, the heat of touching became softer, less overwhelming, less likely to make Steve rush into things he shouldn’t. Steve didn’t notice when his eyes began to droop, but he fell asleep like that: curled up against Tony, their fingers intertwined, Tony’s voice following him into his dreams.

Tony must have fallen asleep, too, because they woke at dawn utterly tangled together.

What drew Steve to the brink of wakefulness was the lightening of the sky. What finished the job was the feeling of Tony’s artificial heart pressed into his chest, likely leaving a circular indent there. Then came the realization that the rest of Tony was also pressed up against him, and, yes, Steve was awake. All of Steve was awake.

He shifted Tony over so he was lying next to Steve instead of draped on top of him. The dull sky flashed vibrant orange, abruptly, and Steve looked up expecting to see something on fire. Then he figured out what it was.

“Tony.” He shook Tony awake as gently as possible. His eyes traveled down Tony’s body, to his loose pants, which— yes, sported a sizable tent at the crotch. Very sizable.

Steve tore his gaze away in time to watch Tony’s big brown eyes flicker open.

“Mmf?” Tony grunted.

“Look,” he said, helping Tony sit up, propped against him. He pointed out at the opening in the dome, through which the Xandarian sunrise was visible, a swirl of pink and gold and fierce orange which Xandar wore like a crown.

It had been a very long time since Steve had seen a sunrise.

Tony wrapped an arm around his waist, and leaned into Steve’s hold. Steve watched his face take in the sight. The rosy glow painted Tony’s skin violet, and his dark eyes glinted with reflected sunlight. His lips curved in a tired smile.

“Good night?” Tony croaked, eyes fixed on the sunrise. Steve didn’t look away from him. Not once. Not for a second.

“Yeah,” he breathed. “Real good night.”

#

Steve missed Xandar as soon as they left it behind – not because he’d loved Xandar itself, but because that meant goodbye to all those beautiful evenings spent with Tony. They were back on the ship, in close quarters with the crew. Peter, Bruce, and JARVIS kept Tony occupied with work; Steve had the responsibilities of leadership and Sam, Nat, and Jan to spend time with. He loved his friends, he did. But he missed having Tony to himself.

Except Tony still made time for him. He was always late to breakfast and begged off joining the cooking roster because he didn’t know how to cook – but whenever it was Steve’s turn to make dinner, he showed up an hour early and helped Steve around the kitchen. Eventually Steve coaxed him into learning a little bit of this and that – passing him some vegetables to chop, having him stir a pot of pasta sauce, encouraging him to pick ingredients to toss into a salad or a batch of cookie batter.

“Cooking’s not so different from chemistry,” Steve told him, as Tony debated between extra cinnamon and extra vanilla before apparently opting for both.

Tony fixed him with a highly skeptical look. “If that were true, I would’ve been born knowing how to do it,” he said, and coughed as a puff of cinnamon wafted into his mouth. Steve plucked the jar from his hand. The cookies turned out far too sweet, but Tony smelled like cinnamon for the rest of the evening and smiled very widely when the crew cleared the whole platter in one go. Steve marked it down as a success.

(He would add Tony to the cooking roster eventually. It was only fair. But Tony needed more lessons first. Many, many more. From Steve only.)  

But cooking wasn’t the end of it. He sat with Steve during most movie nights, on the small couch squeezed against Steve’s side or on the ground leaning against Steve’s leg. He let Steve sit and sketch near him while he worked in the lab, and in the evenings when everyone else was getting ready to go to sleep, he and Steve spent hours sitting around and talking or just resting comfortably in each other’s company. He asked Steve to spar, and they passed hours like that – many long, wonderful, torturous hours for Steve, spending all that time with his hands on Tony, watching his muscles ripple, watching him sweat and pant, feeling their bodies connect—

But Steve kept himself under control. He wasn’t ready yet. Tony was his crewmate now, not just some rebound. Tony was his friend. Steve wasn’t going to do anything if there was a chance he might get it wrong, and lose this.

He could not – could not – lose this.

It swiftly became clear to Steve that he was no good at hiding his feelings. Natasha wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. But she was the one to confront him about it.

He and Natasha had a tradition: if you were distracted enough to get your ass kicked three times in a row during one sparring session, it meant you had something to talk about and would not be leaving the ring until you did. That was how Steve had learned about Natasha’s “James” – it had been the five-year anniversary of his death. Steve had invoked the Three Strikes Protocol, and Natasha had confessed, and Steve had felt awful about pushing her. But it had helped. She insisted on going another round and put Steve on the ground in five seconds flat.

Now, Natasha pinned him to the mat with both his arms behind his back.

“That was three,” she informed him, as she let him up. He rolled over with a groan, rubbing at his sore muscles. “Talk to me, Steve.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, sitting up, and then the guilt made him add, “Okay, so I have this stupid crush on Tony that I’m sure you’ve noticed. That’s it. Nothing’s wrong.”

Natasha looked at him flatly. “If nothing was wrong, you would have made a move by now. This— pining. It’s not like you.”

“I’m not pining,” Steve said, sullenly.

“Is there another word for what you’re doing?” Natasha asked. “With all the— longing looks, and cuddling on the couch, and flirting at mealtimes, and—”

“Nat, please,” Steve groaned. “Please tell me I haven’t been that obvious.”

“More obvious than all that, even,” Natasha said pitilessly. “Don’t worry. Stark is even more blatant than you are. But he hasn’t made a move, either. Tell me why.”

“Maybe because he did make a move,” Steve admitted, “and I shot him down.”

“You did what?”

“I didn’t reject him, exactly, but I told him to wait. Because I….”

“Because of your soulmate.”

Steve was silent.

“Are you still mourning?” Natasha asked. There was no judgment in her tone.

“No,” Steve said. “I don’t know. I just….”

He flopped onto his back and glared at the ceiling. Natasha waited in silence while Steve worked through his thoughts. At last, he said, “I spent so many years with this person fixed in my mind. I know things don’t always work out with your soulmate, but part of me always believed that it would work out for me. And now I have to let go of that. And I want to let go. I want to move on. But it feels like… like it’s a betrayal if I do that. He just died, I don’t— I don’t know. We never met. But shouldn’t I still be more… more upset?”

“Those kinds of thoughts are useless,” Natasha told him. “You are allowed to want someone else. You’re allowed to be happy.”

Steve tilted his head toward her. “You are, too,” he said.

“I know that.”

“Then are you and Sam—?”

“Maybe,” she said. “We’re working on it.”

“It’s none of my business,” Steve said, “but you’d be good together. I hope it works out right for both of you. No matter what you decide.”

Natasha lay down on her side, facing him across the mat. “I hope so, too.”

#

“No, I’m sure,” Tony was saying. “The Nomad needs to land. Whatever the closest planet is, we have to go there.”

They were all gathered in the kitchen, though no one was eating. Steve was the only one who hadn’t taken a seat at the table for this discussion. He stood, leaning against the wall, arms folded as he considered all the facts.

There had been an issue with the air filtration system. Tony and Peter had fixed it, temporarily, but they needed to land and clear everyone out of the ship so they could solve the root problem that had caused the mishap. They’d need to switch out a part, most likely; it seemed all those months keeping the Nomad together with used parts scavenged from junkyards or bartered for favors had finally caught up with them.

So they had to land, and they couldn’t put it off for too long. Next time, Tony and Peter’s emergency fix might not work, and then they’d all suffocate in deep space.

“The nearest planet advanced enough to have what you’d need,” Steve said, “is Centuri-Six.”

Sam groaned in dismay. Natasha was blank-faced, but the stiffness of her hands on the table betrayed her thoughts – to Steve, at least. Bruce folded his arms and hunched into himself.

Seriously?” Peter said.

Jan reached over the table and patted his shoulder comfortingly. “You signed up for this, Petey.”

Tony looked around with an expression of complete bewilderment.

“Why do all of you hate Centuri-Six?” he asked.

“The Kree,” Steve said simply.

Centuri-Six was a world not all that different from the Earth of Steve’s time, and the Centurii were a peaceful, democratic people whose culture revolved around the arts. Unfortunately, their planet was rich with resources they did not have the means to defend, and so the Kree conducted regular raids. They hadn’t planted a colony there yet, but it was only a matter of time.

“But they’re human allies. Not your allies, I know, but….” Tony looked from guilty face to guilty face. “There’s more to your retirement stories than you were telling me, isn’t there,” he said slowly.

“I didn’t… technically retire,” said Steve. “I just left.”

“With one of their ships and some of their best agents,” Peter added.

“They weren’t using the ship,” Steve said.

“But they were using you, me, Nat, Jan, and Bruce,” said Sam. “And Peter is this big-shot politician’s kid, and, uh, he’s not happy his son is missing.”

“Son? More like show pony,” said Peter bitterly. “He’ll get over it.”

Tony shot him a sympathetic glance. “And if they find you all… they turn you in to the military?”

“We can usually get them off our trail if we need to,” Steve said, “but it’s tricky. Dangerous.”

“And the next nearest planet is—”

“At least a few days away,” said Jan.

Tony met Steve’s eyes. “We need to land.”

The rest of the crew looked to Steve as well. This decision would not be put up to a vote; it was Steve’s call.

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll land. We get what we need and we get off the planet as fast as we can. Tony, Peter – how long do you think it’ll take to make the repairs you need to make?”

“If we can find the parts we need right away, a few hours,” Peter said.

Tony flashed the false ID he’d used on Xandar. “We won’t need to ‘find’ anything,” he said. “We have the Links to get any part we need, as fast as we need it. We’ll be off Centuri-Six before dinnertime.”

So Steve gave the go-ahead, Sam and JARVIS charted a course to Centuri-Six, Jan followed their instructions, and before long they were landing. Tony and Peter ran into town to pick up what they needed. They returned as fast as promised and set about fixing the ship.

Steve and his crew stuck close to the spaceport, but they did what they always did when they found themselves planetside: helped. They found quick, quiet work and brought supplies, non-perishable foods, and extra clothing back to the ship. They could’ve used Tony’s false ID to buy everything they needed, but that felt too much like theft to Steve, and they did need something to do while they waited.

Steve did make one stop that wasn’t strictly necessary. He’d managed to sell one of his sketches to a young couple passing through the port. They paid him in cash, which he then blew, on a whim, to buy a trinket from one of the vendors who set up shop on the edges of the spaceport, catering to tourists who came through. He picked out a 3D puzzle toy. When solved, it unfolded to several times its original size and revealed an interior made up of a mosaic of panels that depicted famous tales from across Centuri-Six’s history.

It was silly. But Steve thought Tony would get a kick out of it, even if he solved it in a minute flat. He’d probably give Steve that wide open smile he reserved for moments of genuine delight, the one that made his eyes crinkle at the corners. Steve could sit close to him and tell him what the vendor had said about all the different panels and the story behind them. Tony would lean into him, and Steve would be able to smell him – not just the engine oil on his clothes, but past that, to the natural scent of Tony’s skin, which had haunted Steve in his dreams ever since they fell asleep tangled together on Xandar. Maybe their arms would brush—

Steve shook himself out of that train of thought, embarrassed even in the privacy of his own head.

If you want him so bad, he told himself, sternly, you should act like an adult and say something to him.

It wasn’t like he had to worry about rejection. Tony had made it perfectly clear where he stood. He’d made it as easy as he could’ve for Steve: letting Steve decide, at his own pace, what he wanted and when. All Steve had to do was say the word.

But what if he’s changed his mind? said a treacherous voice in his head, but Steve remembered the lingering looks Tony had given him as recently as yesterday, remembered cooking together and exploring Xandar, and the way Tony would reach for him when it was early and he hadn’t had his coffee yet and he was too tired for restraint. These early morning touches were small and sweet. Steve would sit down next to Tony with a screen in hand to check the news, and Tony – eyes half-closed – would mumble his name, and he’d brush his fingers over Steve’s wrist or shoulder in greeting, or even, once, run them affectionately through Steve’s hair. And then his hand would drop and his head would droop and he’d return all his attention to his coffee mug, and Steve would be warm wherever Tony had touched him for the next hour.

He hasn’t changed his mind, Steve thought. Tony had given him a gift far better than anything Steve could’ve bought: certainty. He knew how Tony felt. How they both felt. It was long past time he acted on it.

#

Tony and Peter were finishing up the last of their repairs when the Kree arrived. Their massive golden ships filled the sky, all swoops and points and sharp edges, like flying fleur de lises. Steve held out hope until the very last moment that they wouldn’t be seen, but then fully armed Kree soldiers spilled from the ships, spread out to surround the Nomad, and swarmed them.

“They must have put a bounty on us,” Natasha said, as they took up battle stances outside the ship. They had to defend it long enough for Tony and Peter to finish working, and for Jan to prep the ship for takeoff. “Someone saw us and reported our whereabouts.”

Steve yanked his shield – an old-fashioned silver disc – off his back. Sam steered Bruce into place before them. Bruce sighed, and closed his eyes, and began to transform.

And then the Kree were upon them.

The Kree were incredible soldiers, with super-strength that even Steve’s enhanced body could not match. But they could not breathe Centuri-Six’s atmosphere, and had to wear heavy masks that obscured their vision and affected their balance. Their weapons and fighting style were more reliant on brute force than skill; in the face of soldiers like Natasha, Steve, and Sam, this put them at a significant disadvantage, and the Hulk – green and roaring and already trampling anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way – was more than a match for their physical strength. They were blue-skinned, but not in the vibrant way of Tony’s skin tone. Kree skin had a sickly tint that reminded Steve of a bruise.

He didn’t know how long he was lost in the blur of battle, muscle memory taking over as his training kicked in and he took down one opponent after another. His mind was fully absorbed, his every sense alert, his strategic nature working out ways to get himself and his crew out of this situation.

Then a voice behind him called, “Need a little help?”

“Tony?” he said, whipping around. Without looking, he flung out an arm and bashed someone’s head in with his shield. Tony was in fact hopping down from the ship – they hadn’t dared put the ramp down – dressed in that moonlight-colored cape they’d found him in and fiddling with something on his hands. It was a metal brace, Steve realized; he had one on each wrist, and a pair of ankle braces showing under the hem of his pants.

“Get back on the ship, Stark,” Natasha grit out. She swung herself up onto a Kree opponent’s shoulders, knocked him out, then leapt from his collapsing form in a complicated flip that took out two more soldiers.

“Pete’s taking care of the ship. He’ll get it fixed up. But we need more time, and you need help,” Tony said. “That’s why I’m here.”

He pressed his thumb to his left wrist brace and twisted the clasp of his cloak. The cloak molded to his body, stretching and flowing to cover him like molten silver, until he was wearing what looked like a second skin. Then, from the braces and his artificial heart, what looked to Steve like nano-bots flooded out and wrapped Tony in even more gleaming silver. But what the bots produced wasn’t slim and flexible like the undersuit – Tony now wore a suit of armor, complete with a helmet.

The faceplate clicked into place. Its eyes glowed the same fierce blue as Tony’s artificial heart, matching the energy nodes along the armor’s limbs and torso; its interlocking plates were flawlessly crafted, polished to a shine, and – as the first Kree soldier who tried to blast Tony with a photon gun discovered – strong enough to withstand incredible force.

My stowaway, Steve thought, with a mixture of hysteria and awe, is a knight in shining armor.

“STEVE!” Tony shouted, his voice coming out mechanized. He shot into the air and swooped down to grab Steve, just in time to stop Steve from getting his head blown away. They soared into the sky, hovering above the battle.  

“Who’s the big green guy?” Tony asked, gesturing with one elegant gauntlet at where the Hulk was smashing a path through the Kree’s ranks.

“Bruce,” said Steve, absently. “You can fly?

“Why would I make a suit of armor that couldn’t fly?” Tony shot back. “Wait, that’s Bruce? Wow. Just when I thought I couldn’t like him any more.”

Steve scanned the battle and pointed. “Over there. Sam needs back-up.”

Tony dove to where Steve had directed him, making Steve’s stomach swoop. He was grinning by the time Tony released him, letting Steve leap down to the ground at Sam’s side and pick up the battle where he’d left off.

In the heat of battle, with an endless stream of enemies coming at him, there was no way for Steve to keep track of Tony. But he caught glimpses of him. Tony with his arms extended, palms out, sending incredible energy blasts into his opponents’ chests and making them go flying. Tony shielding a cowering Centurii family with his body. Tony disabling a Kree soldier’s gun with a laser in his right wrist, and breaking both the Kree’s arms in hand-to-hand combat – the way he could move despite the armor’s bulk was incredible – before hustling nearby civilians off to safety. Tony soaring into the air back to Steve’s side.

Steve blinked sweat out of his eyes. He tossed the shield away, not bothering to watch as its spinning progress decimated a row of Kree, kicked the nearest soldier’s legs out from under him, and caught the shield in time to knock his opponent out with it. When Tony reached him, he was ready. He held out an arm and caught Tony’s gauntlet, and Tony lifted him up into his arms while Steve got a foothold on the top of Tony’s boot.

God. The armor was amazing.

Maybe a little too amazing. It was starting to be an issue for Steve.

There’s no way he can tell how hard I am through that suit, Steve told himself, and wound his arms around the armor’s neck, pressing himself tightly to Tony’s side so he could survey the battle scene without falling off.

“JARVIS says the ship’s ready for take-off,” Tony told him.

“JARVIS?”

Tony tapped at his helmet. “That’s right. He’s in the suit. Helps me pilot, keeps an eye on life support, scans my surroundings for approaching threats. You know. Usual AI stuff.” Steve couldn’t see his smirk through the expressionless faceplate, but he knew it was there.

“If you’re waiting for me to tell you you’re brilliant,” said Steve, “well… you absolutely are.”

“Um,” said Tony. His grip on Steve’s waist tightened minutely. Steve grinned at him, alight with adrenaline. Still doesn’t know how to take a compliment, he thought, affectionately. Well, Tony would just have to learn.

“Drop me off by the Hulk,” said Steve. “I’ll calm him down enough to change back into Bruce. You make sure the others get into the ship.”

“Got it, Cap.” The next moment, Steve was touching down at the Hulk’s side. The Kree forces had thinned considerably, and a wide berth surrounded the Hulk as he tried to snatch at fleeing Kree.

“Hey, buddy,” said Steve. “We’re going home now. Going back to the ship. Can we have Bruce back?”

“Home?” the Hulk grunted.

“That’s right,” said Steve.

He looked over his shoulder. There was Natasha, making a running jump into the ship. Behind her was Sam, Tony gripping him by the hand and helping him swing inside.

The Hulk shrank in on himself. Steve looked away politely until he heard Bruce groan. The Kree hadn’t come at them yet – fearing the Hulk’s return, no doubt – but he was sure that caution wouldn’t last long. He whipped off his armored top and then his undershirt, handed the shirt to Bruce to tie around his waist, and replaced his armor.

Tony came back to scoop Bruce up and ferry him to the ship, Steve at his heels, knocking away anyone who dared set foot in his path. A few soldiers tried to shoot Tony out of the air, but he was quick and clever, and not a single blow landed.

Tony dropped Bruce off inside; Steve leapt onto the ship, grabbing the rim of the doorway effortlessly and heaving himself in. He turned and extended a hand to Tony. “HURRY!” he called, over the roar of the engines as they powered up.

“The ships!” Tony said. “They’re going to come after us!”

He was right. The Kree soldiers were all piling back into their warships, which were humming to life. There was no way the Nomad could outfly them.

“We’ll figure it out together,” said Steve. “Get inside, Tony! That’s an order!”

“Go without me. I’ll catch up,” Tony said, backing away from the door.

Steve leaned out, frantic, reaching for him. “NO!” he shouted. “We stick together!”

“GO!” Tony said. “I’ll come back. I’ll come back, I swear!”

His boots and gauntlets erupted with light, and he launched away from Steve.

“TONY!”

Natasha hauled Steve inside and yanked the hatch closed.

“He said he would come back,” she said fiercely. “Stand up, Captain Rogers. You are needed right now.”

Numb with fury and fear, he followed Natasha to the bridge. She strapped into one of the seats; Bruce and Peter and Sam were all in place, too, and Janet was in the pilot’s chair, carefully urging the ship up and up into the sky. The Nomad had no weapons systems; they could do nothing but run.

“What’s he doing?” she breathed. She meant Tony. As they ascended, they left the Kree ships behind; they were too distracted trying to shoot Tony out of the air to follow. The higher they went, the more Tony looked like an insect doing its best to provoke a pack of lions. He whirled and zipped around the enormous ships, touching down briefly to press something – something Steve couldn’t see – into their hulls, and then zooming away again before anyone could blast him.

One of the three ships seemed to decide Tony wasn’t worth letting Steve and his crew get away. It rose up, astonishingly fast for something that size, its nose pointed at the Nomad.

“Come on, come on,” Jan chanted. They had almost breached the atmosphere. From there, they’d be able to activate the warp drive and at least have a chance at getting away.

“We can’t go without Tony,” Steve said, urgently. Tony spun like a corkscrew in mid-air to avoid a blast that nearly caught him in the chest. Steve’s heart lurched. Tony was going for the one ship that had elected to follow them. He landed on the window, gave the pilot a jaunty wave, and planted one of his little devices right on the glass.

They were in the outer reaches of Centuri-Six’s atmosphere; he felt the shift as JARVIS adjusted the ship’s internal gravity to make up for the difference.

“Is that suit space-safe?” Sam asked nervously, as Tony jetted up to fly by their side.

“Um, we’re talking about Tony,” Peter reminded them. “Obviously it’s space-safe.”

He was right. Tony kept pace with the Nomad as they finally cleared Centuri-Six’s atmosphere and entered orbit. Steve felt simultaneously better and worse as he watched Tony. At least Tony wasn’t provoking the Kree army anymore, and he was staying where Steve could see him. But, even in the suit, Tony looked incredibly small and vulnerable out there in the void of space.

Tony pointed in the direction of the airlock. Steve nodded.

They heard the whoosh of the airlock releasing and closing again, and then the clanking of heavy metallic boots on the floor. Tony pulled off his helmet and beamed at them as he came in. Steve could’ve wrung his perfect neck.

“Hey guys,” said Tony. “Give me a sec.”

“Strap in,” Jan said.

“Not yet. Wait until the Kree are off Centuri-Six.”

What?” said Jan, her voice going up several octaves. “We’re trying to get away from them!”

“We don’t want the debris to fall on Centuri-Six,” Tony said, firmly.

“Debris?” Steve repeated. The last of the ships breached Centuri-Six’s atmosphere. They surrounded the Nomad in seconds, missiles out and aimed.

Tony tapped a code into his palm.

The Kree ships exploded.

#

Tony had taken a few hits, and while nothing had been serious enough to make it through the armor, he had a fair number of bruises, including bruised ribs. Bruce was tending him; Peter pretended to help while quizzing Tony about every detail of the armor.

Really, Tony thought, preening, the kid’s the only one around here who makes any sense.

The door to the infirmary slammed open.

“Here we go,” Tony muttered; Bruce shot him a disapproving look and Peter stared at him in horrified awe.

Steve loomed in the doorway. He hadn’t showered. His hair was streaked with dirt and sweat, standing up in dark blond spikes. He’d stripped off his armor and replaced the undershirt he’d given Bruce with a new one, a white tank top which might as well have been a layer of paint for all it concealed. Tony could almost make out the color of Steve’s nipples.

Not yet, Tony’s conscience reminded him. The man said ‘not yet.’

But lord. Did he ever have the most kissable throat, the most perfectly touchable jawline – which was clenched in fury as he stormed into the room and got right up into Tony’s face. Those clear azure eyes bored into him.

“You reckless idiot,” Steve snarled. “I gave you a direct order, and you disobeyed. You nearly got yourself killed."

Tony stiffened. He was many things, but an idiot? In his growing anger, he barely noticed Peter and Bruce sidle out of the room, leaving them alone.

“I saved us,” he reminded Steve.

“It was a risk you shouldn’t have taken!”

“Just because my plan didn’t have your express approval doesn’t mean it was wrong!”

Steve’s nostrils flared. Tony imagined steam coming from them.

“When I let you on this crew,” Steve said, “you swore you’d follow our rules, that you’d act like part of a team and not like the hot-headed, self-absorbed stowaway we found in the engine room. Was I wrong to believe you?”

“You’re not in the army anymore, Captain,” Tony reminded him, with just enough mockery in the title to get under Steve’s skin. “In the rest of the universe, free will is something of value. I did what I had to do to protect the crew. Your crew. And my crew, too.”

The words escaped Tony with more possessiveness than he’d realized he felt. But he did feel it. This was his crew. And something about his putting a claim on the Nomad and their team— it made something dark and wild flash in Steve’s eyes.

Steve lifted Tony up by the collar and pushed him against a wall, and Tony – acting entirely on an instinct he didn’t even know he had – wrapped his legs around Steve’s waist and wove his fingers into Steve’s hair, grabbing it tight enough to pull.

They both froze, startled. Tony genuinely didn’t know if Steve had intended to kick his ass and was now thrown off by Tony’s obvious arousal pressing into his stomach, or if he’d been acting on the same lust-addled instincts as Tony, the ones that had processed “potential physical threat” and then presented “shameless sexual submission” as the appropriate response.

For a moment they said nothing, only breathed harshly into the scant space between their bodies.

Tony started to loosen his grip. Steve had said ‘not yet,’ and regardless of what they might feel now, in this moment of high emotion, Tony would respect his—

Steve pressed him more firmly into the wall, keeping him pinned; he moved one large hand to Tony’s ass and used the other to turn his jaw so that he could catch Tony’s mouth with his own.

Tony couldn’t help it; he moaned, wantonly, and arched into Steve’s chest. He didn’t normally melt like this, but stars above, being kissed by Steve was like getting fucked. He kept Tony suspended exactly where he wanted him, kept his jaw open with his unyielding grip, pushed his tongue teasingly in and out of Tony’s mouth, stroking inside of Tony as confidently as if Tony belonged to him. It was all Tony could do to kiss back, to pull Steve’s hair and roll his hips into his body, to remind Steve that he could damn well give as good as he got— he wasn’t going to go limp and let Steve have his way with him—

(Although, if he was being honest, that didn’t sound half bad. Didn’t sound bad at all.)

And then— Tony didn’t know if he’d thrust a little too enthusiastically, or if Steve had pressed in a little too hard, but a hot lash of agony broke across his side where he’d taken that hit earlier. His next gasp was unmistakably one of pain, not pleasure.

Steve pulled away from him like he’d been electrocuted. He didn’t drop Tony, but everything about his demeanor changed. His grip went loose, more supportive than forceful; the hand cupping Tony’s face slipped down to his shoulder, and then to his back, and he lifted Tony away from the wall to set him gently back on the table.

“Did— did I hurt you?” he asked, stepping back from Tony as if nervous his very presence might cause Tony pain. “I’m so sorry—”

“You didn’t!” said Tony. He patted gingerly at his ribs, which Bruce had wrapped with compression bandages. “I stretched the wrong way, that’s all. I’m fine.”

Steve still looked far too tense. “I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have sprung that on you,” he said, in a tone of voice about as stiff as his back.

“Sprung it on me?” Tony repeated, incredulous. “Steve. I took you star-gazing. I willingly help you cook just so I have an excuse to be around you. I— I used to skulk around half-naked and dripping wet just waiting for you to walk by so I could flirt with you!”

Steve’s eyes snapped back up to his. His lips were still red from their kisses, vivid against his pale skin.

“That was on purpose?” he said. His brow furrowed, as if he couldn’t decide whether he approved or not. Tony reached up and smoothed out the wrinkle with the pad of his thumb, and Steve’s glance at him then was different, softer.

“Obviously,” said Tony.

“I’m sorry,” Steve mumbled again. He swallowed hard. “You scared me. You wouldn’t get back in the ship, and you were getting shot at and I couldn’t do anything to help you. I— I hated it.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Tony. He took Steve’s wrist gently in his and tugged him close, to stand between Tony’s legs. “I knew what I was doing. If I had told you about the armor sooner, you would’ve probably known, too. I’m the one who’s sorry.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Steve asked. His hands landed on Tony’s thighs; his thumbs rubbed absent circles into the muscle there.

“You just got away from a war,” said Tony. “And the suit is a weapon. I thought it wouldn’t be welcome.”

“It’s beautiful,” Steve admitted.

Tony beamed. “You think so?”

Steve nodded.

“Good. I agree.”

Steve laughed, and Tony couldn’t help it. He reached up to cup Steve’s jaw in his hand, trace the curve of his smile with the pad of his thumb. No one had ever looked at him so softly. No one had ever touched him so carefully, as Steve ran his hands up Tony’s thighs, over his waist and back, until they rested flat against his spine. His hands felt as big and warm as Tony had imagined they would. Steve was so close, now, he blurred in Tony’s vision, so Tony had to shut his eyes, and his hands slid into Steve’s soft golden hair, and no one had ever kissed him with such reverence.

Tony tugged at Steve’s hair, wanting more. He lapped at Steve’s plush bottom lip, and Steve opened his mouth, letting Tony deepen the kiss. “Mm,” Tony hummed, as Steve’s tongue slid over his. Steve’s taste made him delirious with want. Their mouths parted with a wet sound and met again; Tony sucked at Steve’s lips, at his tongue, urging Steve to take his mouth in whatever way he wanted. His legs spread even wider and Steve pressed against him, his chest to Tony’s chest, Tony’s thighs draped over his hips, Tony’s cock nudging against Steve’s stomach.

“Tony,” Steve said, pressing his forehead to Tony’s and looking down between their bodies. “Can I—?”

His fingers dipped under Tony’s waistband.

“Yeah,” Tony said, breathless. “Please.”

Steve unlaced the front of Tony’s pants and pulled the flaps apart, revealing Tony’s cock. It was a darker blue than the rest of his body, flushed purple at the tip.

Steve groaned and licked his lips. “Gorgeous,” he mumbled. Tony had to hold his breath. Steve explored him with both hands: one to wrap around the shaft, and one to play with his balls. If Steve’s hands had felt big on Tony’s back, that was nothing to how they felt now. Steve gave his cock a long, slow, firm stroke from root to tip. He squeezed the head, and when a bead of precum welled up in the slit, he wiped it onto his fingertip, which he immediately sucked clean.

Steve,” Tony groaned. His other hand was still busy with Tony’s balls, weighing them in his palm, squeezing them, pulling back to stroke the soft, wrinkled skin with the pads of his fingers.

“I want you in my mouth,” Steve told him.

Tony leaned back, propping his elbows on the examining table and spreading his legs as wide as they would go. His cock jutted up obscenely between them.

“No objections here,” he said.

But Steve was tucking Tony back into his pants and redoing the laces.

“My room,” Steve said. “Now.”

And that was an order Tony was more than happy to comply with.

#

In the end, Tony’s room was closer, so that was where they went. They were lucky no one saw them on the way there. Neither of them had a hope of hiding how hard they were, or how flushed, and Steve couldn’t help but stop Tony just to pin him against a wall and grind their cocks together while he took Tony’s mouth in a slow, filthy, open-mouthed kiss. Right there in the middle of the damn hall.

Steve was out of his mind. He didn’t care.

He practically shoved Tony into his room and locked the door behind them without looking. Tony fell onto the bed and began wriggling out of his clothes, shoving his pants down and swearing when they got stuck on his shoes.

“Slow down,” Steve said. “You’re injured.”

He was still very conscious of Tony’s wrapped ribs, the bruises just starting to show on his arms and legs. He pushed lightly at Tony’s shoulder, urging him to lie down, and removed Tony’s shoes and pants himself. He touched the delicate bones of Tony’s ankles as he set each leg back down, and ran his fingers up to his kneecaps, up to his strong thighs, which Steve parted.

Tony leaned on his elbow and watched Steve look. Steve drank in the sight of him, wanting to memorize it all. The soft dark hair falling over his eyes, which were heavy-lashed and clever and fixed on Steve with that dizzyingly intense focus Tony had. The curve of his neck and the dip of his collarbone, the dark hair on his chest – around the glow of his artificial heart – and trailing down his stomach. His hard cock, twitching under Steve’s gaze, ready and waiting for Steve to enjoy.

Tony nudged Steve’s hip with the heel of his foot. “You. Clothes. Off,” he said.

Steve complied. He wished he’d showered first; he probably smelled rank. But Tony’s hand was stretched out to him; Tony was pulling him down, urging Steve on top of him, wrapping his legs around Steve’s body so their cocks rubbed together again, this time with nothing at all between them. Steve got lost in kissing Tony. He could’ve spent hours doing just that, but Tony – in a complicated move Steve did not think he’d be able to replicate – hooked his leg around Steve and flipped them over gracefully, so that he was on top of Steve, straddling him with his hands pressed against Steve’s chest.

“I’m going to ride you,” he informed Steve. “Right now.”

He opened the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a bottle of lube. Steve squinted at it.

“When did you get that?” Steve asked.

“Back on Xandar,” Tony said. “We went on all those dates – I was optimistic.”

“Those were dates?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tony said. He tugged Steve’s hand off his hip and poured lube onto it, slathering it over Steve’s fingers before guiding them between his legs.

Steve groaned as his slippery fingers found Tony’s hole.

“I wanna look,” he begged.

“Okay,” Tony said, “okay, anything you want,” and he leaned back, propping one hand behind him on Steve’s thigh. He tilted his hips up, and his other hand lifted his balls out of the way so he could present his hole to Steve’s needy gaze.

“Oh,” Steve mumbled. His thumb rubbed at Tony’s tight hole until the muscle relaxed enough for Steve to slip it inside to the first knuckle. “Your ass is perfect.”

“My best attribute, I’d say.” Tony sounded very pleased with himself.

Steve bit down on a grin. “Not your best,” Steve said, glancing up at Tony’s sweaty, flushed, absurdly handsome face. “But maybe top 5.”

“What are the other—?” Tony started, but the words died into a groan as Steve replaced his thumb with his index finger and buried it all the way to the knuckle. Tony’s ass clenched around the intrusion, and Steve’s cock gave a jealous throb. He gave Tony a moment to recover, thrusting his finger shallowly in and out so he could stroke Tony’s inner walls. Then he added a second finger, and a third, watching avidly as Tony’s hole stretched tight around the digits.

“Good?” Steve asked. “Ribs hurting?”

“No. I mean, yes. Good. I’m good,” Tony said. Steve gave his fingers an experimental twist, and Tony’s head tipped back, his lips parting around a languid moan.

He kept his fingers occupied, loosening Tony up and learning what he liked. With his free hand, he tended to every part of Tony he planned to kiss later. He reached up as much as he could to stroke his chest, touching the scars around his artificial heart and rubbing soothingly at Tony’s stiff, dark nipples. He was careful around Tony’s bandaged ribs, skimming over them lightly, but he rested a palm flat on Tony’s stomach – which tensed and jumped under his touch – and petted down the line of his hair to the wiry curls at the base of his cock. He traced the thick vein on the underside of Tony’s erection, imagining how it would feel to follow that path with his tongue. But there would be time for that later. For now, he pressed down on the spot between Tony’s balls and his hole, making Tony swear and his hips jerk, thrusting at the air. So he lingered there, rubbing firmly at Tony’s perineum while his fingers did the same from inside him, and Tony rode his fingers beautifully, his hips gyrating desperately atop Steve and his moans filling Steve’s head like music.

Tony grabbed Steve’s hand and pulled it up, and stilled on Steve’s fingers, clenching hard. “T-too much,” he stuttered. “Gonna come.”

Steve turned his hand to wrap his fingers around Tony’s. “You can come if you want,” he said softly. “Go on, darling. Don’t hold back.”

“No way,” said Tony. “If I wait any longer for you to fuck me I might actually die.”

“Okay, Tony,” he said. He kept his fingers perfectly still inside Tony while Tony took deep breaths and staved off his orgasm. His other hand explored Tony’s ass, because how could he not, when Tony was splayed open for him the way he was? He stroked lightly at the skin around Tony’s hole, touching the place where his fingers disappeared into Tony’s body and then investigating his crack, following the curve of his ass up to the base of his spine. He cupped Tony’s ass cheek and gave it a firm squeeze.

Tony’s arm was shaking by now. With Steve’s help, he sat up, leaning over Steve so they were face-to-face again.

Steve steadied his lover with a hand on his hip, and used his other to hold the base of his cock. He’d sort of forgotten that he, too, had a hard-on in desperate need of attention, and touching it now sent a wave of heat all up his body. By the time its blunt tip bumped up against Tony’s wet hole, Steve was breathing hard, barely stopping himself from yanking Tony down and seating himself all the way to the hilt. His muscles shook with the strain of holding back as the head of his cock popped past Tony’s rim and was enveloped in his tight, silky heat.

Stars, Steve,” Tony mumbled. He wriggled a bit and sank down an inch. “Oh! Wow. That’s a lot.”

“Stop?” Steve managed to ask.

No,” Tony said. “This cock is mine, Captain.” As if to prove a point, he rocked his hips in a slow, shallow rhythm, gradually taking more and more of Steve’s cock, until Steve was buried all the way inside him. Once he’d taken all there was to take, Tony paused. His head tilted back, exposing the length of his throat, and his back arched as his body adjusted to the intrusion.

“Tell me how you feel,” Steve said.

Tony laughed. “Like I decided to shove an oxygen tank up my ass. Like one of those— in those old pictures of human astronauts, how you used to wear those bulky canisters on your backs. Yeah. Like I found one of those and sat on it.”

“Hmm,” Steve said. “So, good, then?”

“The best. Oh— fuck,” Tony said. He gave a little bounce, making Steve hiss and an expression of ecstasy cross Tony’s face. “Best oxygen tank ever.”

There was very little talking after that. Tony rocked his hips again, barely moving at first, but gaining speed until he found a rhythm that suited him. He’d rock forward, letting Steve slip out of him almost to the tip, and then drop back down fast so their bodies slapped together and Steve’s cock speared into him with force. He went on like that until sweat matted down the hair on the nape of his neck and beaded on his temples. Steve matched his every move, thrusting up when Tony sank down on him and holding Tony’s hips as he writhed atop him.

His hand found Tony’s cock again, and he jerked Tony in time with the rhythm of their bodies. He watched, rapt, as Tony’s eyes fluttered shut and his breathing stuttered and his bouncing atop Steve grew less controlled and more frantic.

“That’s it, handsome,” he said, rubbing over Tony’s slit on the upstroke, squeezing firmly on his way down. “You’re so close. Gonna come all over me, yeah? Gonna come getting your ass fucked good and hard, just like you wanted.”

Steve,” Tony gasped.

“I’ve got you, Tony,” he said, and Tony was gone, his mouth open in a soundless moan, his cock pulsing in Steve’s hand as he spilled over Steve’s chest.

Steve swiped up some of Tony’s come and sucked it off his fingers. It wasn’t discernibly different from a human man’s. Absently, Steve had another taste while Tony slipped off his cock and fell to the mattress beside Steve.

“Just— just give me a second,” he said. He blinked dazedly at the ceiling, and then his eyes slid over to Steve – who still had a pair of fingers in his mouth, tasting of lube and Tony’s ass and Tony’s semen. “Damn, Steve.”

He put a hand to the back of Steve’s head and squirmed close enough for them to kiss. Then he pulled away, got on hands and knees with his ass up.

“I’m still loose,” he said. “C’mon. Fuck me.”

Steve lay on his side and stroked a hand through Tony’s mussed hair. He petted up the curve of Tony’s back. He did need to come, but—

“You don’t have to, sweetheart,” he said. “I can get myself off. God, just looking at you like this—”

“I’m not sore,” Tony said. “I want you to fuck me. Come on, Captain. Show me what you’ve got.”

He rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to dare me, Tony, it’s not like I need that much convincing.”

He got to his knees and lined himself up behind Tony. And there was that lovely view again, Tony’s ass cheeks spread open and his slick hole ready for Steve to take. He bent down, hands pulling Tony’s cheeks apart, and licked it.

“Steve!” Tony gasped, twisting his head around to try and look at him.

Steve hummed contentedly. His tongue traced the rim of Tony’s hole and dipped inside. He tasted mostly like lube, but a bit like Steve, too, which gave him an irrational, possessive thrill. He withdrew with a farewell kiss planted directly to Tony’s opening, and replaced his mouth with his cock. “You tell me if it hurts, alright?”

“Yes, Steve, would you just—”

With one smooth thrust, Steve pushed himself inside Tony, burying himself halfway. He slowed but kept going until his balls met Tony’s skin.

Tony panted encouragement, so Steve finally let go. He fucked Tony hard and fast and selfishly. Tony collapsed to his elbows, cheek pressed into the pillow, mouth open in a shocked “O” of pleasure. The bed rocked with the force of Steve’s thrusts and creaked dangerously beneath them. Steve didn’t care. The only sound that would stop Steve from taking Tony’s ass right now would be Tony’s voice telling him to stop. But when Tony spoke, it was only to beg Steve for more. So Steve gave him more. Soon Tony’s knees gave out, too, and Steve followed him down, fucking him flat into the mattress. Steve came draped atop Tony – holding himself up to avoid putting weight on Tony’s ribs, but letting his skin stick to Tony’s back as his thrusts devolved into frantic grinding. His cock jerked and emptied deep inside of him, filling that perfect ass up with Steve’s seed, while his mouth sucked bruises into the place where Tony’s neck and shoulder met.

Steve rolled off and fell to the mattress, utterly spent.

“Tony?” he checked, looking over at him. Tony lifted his head from the pillow and smirked. There was a line on his face from a crease in the pillowcase. Steve would’ve kissed him if he’d had the energy to move so much as an inch.

“Make room, Cap,” Tony croaked.

He squirmed across the scant space between them and squeezed himself under Steve’s arm, so their bodies were pressed together and his head was resting on Steve’s shoulder. That was perfect, because now Steve could kiss the top of his head without hardly having to move. He left his face there with his nose in Tony’s hair, so he could breathe in that scent he loved so much, and tucked Tony closer into his side. Tony’s breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep.

He dropped off mere moments after Tony did.

#

When they woke, they were sticky and disgusting and the sheets beneath them were drying stiff and crusty from their earlier activities. The time on Tony’s clock told him they’d slept through the evening and into the very early morning. Tony would’ve been happy to strip the sheets off and sleep on the bare mattress until a more reasonable hour, but Steve dragged them both into the bathroom to shower.

They were rested enough that Tony perked up at the sight of Steve’s bare ass, his soft cock swinging between his legs. Then there were those broad shoulders, those thick arms and trim waist. And Tony knew exactly how that big blond slice of perfection felt on top of him, drilling him into the bed.

He grinned in pure contentment.

His ass twinged in complaint, and his ribs were starting to feel the effects of last night’s activities, too, but Tony’s mouth watered as his eyes dropped to Steve’s cock again. No amount of soreness would stop him from appreciating a man that beautiful.

Steve had turned on the shower and paused outside it to remove the one article of clothing he’d left on last night: his black armband. Tony was so used to the sight of it he had forgotten it was there.

But then Steve finished taking it off, revealing the skin underneath it.

Tony froze.

“What is that?” Tony choked out.

The band had dropped to the floor and, there, bare to Tony’s eyes, were words written in vivid black ink across Steve’s inner forearm. Not just any words. A name. A name Steve shouldn’t know.

Steve brushed his fingertips over the letters with a sad little smile.

“He was my soulmate. That’s why I went to Stark. I wanted to…” Steve laughed, sounding a bit embarrassed. “I don’t know. He had a family, and besides that he was the king— which, of course, you know. But I guess I just wanted to meet him.”

Tony’s heartbeat calmed the slightest bit. Steve didn’t know who he was, he hadn’t put those words on his arm as some kind of… bizarre way of confronting Tony about it. But Tony still didn’t understand, and he did not like things he didn’t understand.

“What is a soulmate?” he asked, voice rising in pitch.

Steve told him, even as he finished adjusting the water temperature and started crowding Tony into the shower.

“But it doesn’t matter,” Steve said into Tony’s neck as the water ran over them. “I can be with whoever I want, and he’s gone anyway.” He looked up at Tony from under his lashes, one of his hands stroking Tony’s jaw. “I would still want you. Either way. I can’t imagine not wanting you.”

He kissed Tony in that soft, slow, thorough way he had. Tony kissed him back, moaned into his mouth and savored the taste of him. His heart had kicked back into double time. Humans had soulmates, and while Tony didn’t believe in fate, something in him crowed with triumphant delight at the thought that he was Steve’s. It was a bit like winning a lottery he hadn’t even known he’d entered.

He had to tell him—

“Steve,” he said, detaching himself from Steve’s mouth. Steve kissed a trail down Tony’s throat, not missing a beat. “Steve. I need to tell you something.”

“Can it wait?” he said. His fingers stroked down the trail of hair on Tony’s belly and wrapped around his rapidly hardening cock, his skin dramatically pale against Tony’s blue complexion.

“Ohh, yes,” Tony said, and then his eyes flew open. “I mean, well, I really think you’d rather hear it sooner than later.”

Steve’s hand slid down the base of Tony’s cock to cup his balls, the tip of his middle finger burrowing between Tony’s cheeks to rub at his hole. Tony had to part his legs wider to accommodate Steve’s large hand, and then his head fell back and bumped against the wall and Steve was licking his nipples and Steve’s muscular back was rippling under Tony’s palms, and Tony had no idea what it was he’d been about to say.

Later, after Steve had sucked him to yet another miraculous orgasm, Tony’s mouth was too busy reciprocating to pick up the conversation where they’d left off, and then he had his arms full of wet, sleepy, sated Steve, and—

It could wait. Everything that wasn’t Steve could wait.

#

After the best night of Steve’s life, which had been followed by the best shower of Steve’s life, Steve changed the sheets and bundled Tony back into bed. They could skip breakfast; Tony did most of the time, and Steve didn’t need to eat yet, not if waiting til lunch gave him a few more hours to be alone with Tony.

They’d settled in under the sheets, which were pulled up almost to their ears. He had his leg hooked over Tony’s, their chests flush, his arms around Tony’s back to hold him close while they traded soft, tired kisses. Each kiss was a revelation, bringing to Steve’s attention something new or something Steve had been too desperate to notice last night. Like the way Tony tasted when he’d just brushed his teeth, and how the longer Steve kissed him the more the minty coolness faded, until it was just Tony’s hot, sweet mouth again and his natural flavor. The stubble that had grown overnight, scratching Steve’s lips pleasantly. The breathy little noises Tony kept making, not quite the whines and moans of last night— just tiny sounds of contentment that filled Steve’s chest with warmth. His hand slid into Tony’s hair as their lips met, clung, and parted, over and over again. Steve would never get tired of this. He could stay here in this warm place, drinking Tony in, forever and ever, and be perfectly happy.

Of course, that was when someone knocked on the door.

“Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away,” Tony whispered. His hand smoothed up Steve’s back and hooked around his shoulder. He nuzzled close to kiss at the corner of Steve’s mouth, teasingly, until Steve turned his face and caught Tony’s lips with his. When he pulled away, the sight that greeted him was breathtaking: Tony’s long lashes fluttering open, the dark pools of his eyes looking up at Steve trustingly, his full lips parted and awaiting more kisses, his still-damp hair starting to curl. Steve traced a finger over his eyebrow, his cheekbone, his bottom lip. His hand found its way into Tony’s hair and he drew him in, already missing his taste. Steve had wasted months not kissing Tony. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of kisses to make up for.

The knock came again, urgent, and then Natasha’s voice: “Steve!” she called. “I’m sorry, believe me, but we need you out here. Now.”

Steve sat up and looked to the door, alarm bells going off in his head.

“I’m coming, Nat,” he called.

Tony slid out of bed, stretched, and began throwing on his clothes. “So here’s the game plan,” he told Steve. “We go out there, we deal with whatever’s wrong as fast as we possibly can, and then we come straight back to bed. Deal?”

Steve finished yanking his pants up and pulling on his undershirt. He paused to grab Tony by the front of his shirt and plant a firm kiss on his pouting lips.

“Deal,” said Steve.

#

Overnight, Jan and JARVIS had gotten them far away from Centuri-Six. By the time he and Tony made it to the bridge, the rest of the team was already gathered there. The crew was so tense no one even bothered to waggle an eyebrow or make a cheesy innuendo when Steve and Tony walked in, disheveled and wearing bruises in the shape of each other’s mouths. That, more than anything else, told Steve something was wrong.

Tony paled when he read their coordinates over Jan’s shoulder.

“Why did you bring us back to Andromeda?” he asked, a tremor in his voice. Andromeda was Tony’s home galaxy; it was where Stark was located.

“That was my call,” Natasha said. They turned to her. “Tony, you destroyed three Kree warships. You think they were going to take that lying down?”

“Not exactly,” said Tony, “but I thought it wouldn’t matter as long as we got away.”

“They saw you,” she said. “We’ve been listening in on chatter across the Federation’s airwaves, and the Kree are sending a battalion toward Andromeda. They’re coming for Stark. We have to warn—”

“Peatra,” Tony breathed, his eyes going wide. “Fuck. Fuck. I didn’t think— how could I—”

Steve found it odd that he called the queen by her first name, but he shook off the feeling of disquiet and laid a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “You made the right call, Nat,” he said. “Once we’re close enough, we can send out a transmission. Give them a warning.”

“And then what?” Tony said, turning to him with something like despair in his eyes. “Then we get out of the way and hope Stark doesn’t get blown up like Xandar?”

“If they’re warned, they’ll be prepared to deescalate the situation,” he told Tony, gently. “They’ll explain that you were working alone and that you don’t represent them.”

Tony shook his head slowly. “The Kree have been looking for an excuse to come for Stark, and I just gave it to them.”

“You really think they’ll blow it up?” Peter asked. Sam and Bruce watched in uncomfortable silence.

“No,” said Tony, “but we’ve been hanging on to our sovereignty by a thread. This could destroy us.”

“What do you want to do, then?” Steve asked. He touched his fingers to the back of Tony’s hand. “Any way we can help, we will. Just tell us what you need.”

Tony looked up at him, startled, and then around at the rest of the crew as if for a minute he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone.

He took a deep breath. “I want to stay and fight. I can’t leave them unprotected.” He cast his eyes around the room again, taking in each of their faces. “I don’t expect you to stay. I know you don’t want to go to war again, and we just escaped the Kree. You can drop me off and get clear. I’d understand.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Natasha said, and – to Steve’s immense relief – the others chimed in to agree. He certainly wasn’t leaving Tony behind, but for a split second there he thought he’d have to choose between Tony and his crew.

“Okay. Okay,” Tony said. Resolve made his back straighten and his eyes harden. He held himself like a born leader; Steve wondered how he hadn’t seen that quality in Tony before, even as pride surged within him. “This is what we need to do.”

#

Tony directed them to orbit Stark until he could tap into a friend’s comm line and find a safe, hidden place for them to land. This “friend,” whom Steve discerned was a high-ranking officer in Stark’s air force, helped Tony conceal the Nomad’s signal so that it could touch down without anyone noticing.

“Tony,” Steve said, very slowly. “What is going on?”

“The plan—” Tony started.

“Not the plan. Helping Stark, I get. I’m talking about the secrecy.”

“And the fact you’re insisting on landing outside a spaceport?” Jan added nervously. “Behind some rocks in an empty field? With no landing pad or dock or anything?”

“I can land the ship if you—” said Tony.

I can land it!” Jan snapped. “I just don’t understand why we’re doing this!”

“Tony’s running from the law, just like the rest of us,” Peter said confidently, sounding pleased. “I knew it.”

“Um, not exactly,” said Tony.

“But he’s keeping secrets,” said Natasha, eyeing him dangerously.

“Listen, the only reason I don’t talk about some things is because I thought I’d left this part of my life behind for good,” said Tony. “And then— Steve, I— there’s something I need to tell you— I tried to tell you before, but—”

But. Yeah, Steve remembered that conversation very well. The back of his neck went warm at the memory; he could only hope the blush didn’t show on his face.

“Tell me,” he said.

“It’s… it’s really more of a private conversation,” said Tony.

Tony ,” Steve began, ready to launch into a furious tirade, but Tony turned those eyes on him, all soft and pleading, and Steve’s voice caught in his throat.

“Please just trust me,” he said. “You know I’d never keep something from you that would hurt you, or endanger you. Any of you.”

“We do know that,” Steve said.

“You should tell us what you’re hiding now,” Natasha said, all steely-eyed disapproval, “so we know what we’re getting into.”

“It has nothing to do with this,” Tony argued.

“If it affects how we enter Stark, how we land, how we proceed from here,” said Natasha, “then it has everything to do with this.”

“She’s right,” said Sam. He shot a sharp look at Steve. “Isn’t she, Steve?”

“Oh, fine!” said Tony, throwing his hands in the air. “I was kind of an important person on Stark. I used lies and deceit to get out of doing my job because I wanted to go planet-hopping. Happy?”

Steve frowned. “That doesn’t sound like the whole story.”

“It’s not. But it’s what you’re getting now,” said Tony. “All you need to know is that I can’t be seen. People can’t know I’m back. That’s why we’re doing all this.”

“This” seemed to encompass all of what came next: Jan landing the ship in the middle of nowhere, as Tony had insisted. Tony putting on the armor before exiting the ship, and then leaving it on as he hustled them into a secret tunnel that opened up by the cluster of rocks Jan had pointed out earlier. Tony shushing them as he led them through a complex network of passages he apparently knew by heart, until at last they came to a set of stairs, which led them into—

The palace. The very same palace Steve had gazed at with both admiration and grief, all those months ago.

“Tony,” said Sam quietly, as they looked around at the glittering halls. “When you told us you were an ‘important person,’ how important did you mean, exactly?”

But Tony’s only response, in the armor’s robotic voice, was: “Follow me.”

#

Everything moved very fast after that. Tony’s mysterious friend met them in one of the empty halls. The man was a violet-skinned Stark with a shaved head, a strong jaw, and a black combat uniform. His eyes roved over Steve and his crew before he beelined to Tony and threw his arms around his shoulders, bulky suit and all.

He pulled away, gripped Tony’s shoulders with both his hands, and gave him a light shake. A wide grin split his features. “Something’s different. Wait, let me guess. You lost weight?”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Tony said flatly. But Steve detected the smile in his voice, mask or no.

The man was called Rodos, and he and Tony spoke with the ease of those who knew each other intimately well, finishing each other’s thoughts and shifting effortlessly from topic to topic. Their heads tilted together as they led Steve and his crew through the palace’s winding halls and out front, to where a sizable army was starting to assemble, spilling over the expansive palace grounds and out into the edges of the city beyond. It was nighttime on Stark, and the darkness rendered the hurried preparations ominous and confusing. The lantern light made the grounds look as though they were on fire.

“The queen and the princess are in the safe room, with their favorite guard,” Rodos murmured to Tony, but Steve heard him loud and clear. “The palace has been evacuated, and as much of the city as we could clear, too.”

“Good,” Tony said. It was disconcerting, the way Rodos seemed to almost be reporting to Tony. “And the celestial defense system—”

“You told us to keep it ready, and we did. What, you think you leave for five minutes and we all turn into buffoons? Is that it?”

Tony laughed quietly, which the armor translated as a staticky noise. “If you hadn’t been here, I don’t think I could have left. I knew I could count on you.”

Rodos was a commander of some kind; Steve didn’t know how rankings worked in the Stark military. But he barked orders, directed his subordinates into proper formation, and made it clear to all that the armored stranger and his human companions were allies.

He was impressive. And handsome. And Tony hovered near him and traded quips and seemed more relaxed than he had since he and Steve had been forced out of bed. The night he and Tony had spent together seemed so far away now in comparison to the immediate reality of battle prep and Tony resting his hand on another man’s shoulder.

Steve wasn’t jealous, or anything.

Okay. There was a tiny bit of jealousy.

But mostly he was trying to wrap his mind around this whole new version of Tony he was seeing, this secretive, authoritative Tony who’d had a life filled with people and experiences before he’d ever found his way to Steve’s ship. Steve was aching, suddenly, with the desire to know all the things he didn’t. To know Tony inside and out; to know things no one else knew about him.

Tony broke away from Rodos and a knot of strategists, pilots, and generals to make his way to Steve’s side.

“The Kree are closing in,” Tony said. “They’re not even trying to conceal their signals.”

“We’re ready,” Steve assured him. “You gave your people plenty of warning. I don’t know how things will turn out, but you’ve still made a difference.”

Tony sighed. “I’m going to be in the air most of the time. I might lose track of you.”

“I didn’t get to be over seven hundred years old by accident,” Steve reminded him wryly. “I know what I’m doing, and I can take care of myself.”

“I know, I know. But still.” His gauntlet brushed Steve’s hand, so lightly it could have been mistaken for an accident. The burning blue-white eyes of his mask bored into Steve’s. “Be safe, Steve.”

They stood so close that, had Tony taken off the helmet, they would have been breathing each other’s air.

“I will,” Steve said. “You, too.”

  art by natowe

Tony did not say anything else, and before long, they had both been pulled in opposite directions – Steve to wrangle his crew, and Tony back to Rodos and a host of Stark tacticians. And Steve did not have a chance to speak with him again before their enemies were upon them.

#

The “defense system” Tony and Rodos had discussed took out half the Kree battalion, right off the bat. The sky was a riot of fire and smoke as the golden warships were blown to pieces; the palace grounds reverberated with the cheers and battle cries of the Stark soldiers as they watched their enemies decimated.

But it wasn’t enough. For the remaining half of the Kree contingent still outnumbered them.

The Kree leapt out of the ships before they ever touched down, jumping from incredible heights and pouring to the ground, grayish-greenish blue like a stream of contaminated water.

Even when the ships must have been empty of all but whoever was needed to pilot them, they did not land. The Kree warriors assembled themselves below the ships and spread out to surround the palace grounds, so that their ranks seemed to go on and on in either direction. The Stark forces watched them warily, waiting to see what this meant. The Kree were notoriously aggressive; they always attacked first. But now, they were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.

Then the ships started to move again, and this, Steve realized with mounting horror, this was what they’d been waiting for.

The warships were joining together in the air, reshaping themselves into something new. The process was incredibly, painfully loud, with metal grinding and creaking, and engines roaring, and pieces slamming into place.

“Woah,” said Sam.

“Oh, I really don’t like that,” said Bruce, huddling in on himself even as his eyes glinted green.

“I know they’re trying to kill us,” said Tony, “but you have to give them points for style.”

Hovering massively in the pale sky, the dawn light bouncing off its gleaming plates, was a golden dragon. It had three heads atop long, coiling necks, with searing blue lights for eyes and a sleek body. Steve could almost detect the Kree warships’ curves and angles in its hide and claws and wings and lashing tail, but if he hadn’t seen the transformation himself, he wouldn’t have believed it was a creature of metal and machinery. It looked like a living thing.

“The Hydra,” he said. “I thought it was just a rumor the Kree used to scare people.”

The Hydra roared. As though responding to a signal, the Kree army raised their weapons and attacked as one. While the Kree surged up against Stark’s assembled ranks, the Hydra swooped heavenward and was met with an air force composed of individual fighter pods, not so different from those used by the Nova Corps.

Steve and his crew dove into battle, and the Stark army was more than a match for the Kree in terms of skill and strength. But, even more so than Steve’s crew had been on Xandar, they were all hopelessly overwhelmed by the Kree; the presence of the Hydra made things infinitely worse, not only in that it created chaos and terror in Stark soldiers who had never been trained for something like this, but also because it batted flight pods out of the air and sent them crashing into the people on the ground. Everywhere Steve looked was fire, and chaos, and death. A pod landed yards away from him, and exploded, sending a solid wall of heat rolling over him. He wiped ash from his face and moved closer, trying to see if there were survivors underneath the mess of twisted metal, but the smoke blinded him and he heard nothing in the rubble, not even silence, only the crackle of flame. He turned back into the battle; his job was to worry about the living.

Among all this, the only beacon of hope was the silver-armored warrior who streaked across the battlefield. He mowed the Kree down like grass; he barreled into falling pods in mid-air and yanked pilots out of their seats before they could crash to a fiery death on the ground. And when it became clear the air force could do nothing against the Hydra, Tony swooped around and hovered in front of its three heads, meeting it straight on.

“Having fun?” he called. Steve, with his enhanced hearing, could pick out his mechanized voice even from the tumult of battle, and could read the fury in it. “Why don’t you try going a round with me?”

The Hydra snapped its jaws at Tony. Tony darted out of the way and blasted it in the face with a repulsor beam. The Hydra shook it off, but gasps of amazement rose up from the Stark soldiers who had seen. Tony pressed his advantage, spiraling around and around the Hydra’s center head, aiming shots at its eyes and into its mouth; the Hydra wobbled in the air, unable to fly and fight and defend itself at the same time, and finally landed on all fours on the ground.

“Come on!” Steve called. “We have to help him!”

He rallied the soldiers and his crew, directing some of them to attack the Hydra’s far right head while he took the other half with him to the left. Across the Hydra’s massive golden body, he watched the Stark troop attempt to saw across the Hydra’s twisting neck with lasers. The Hulk helped: he threw himself at the Hydra’s neck, denting it, and then again, smashing with all his might, weakening the metal.

For his part, Steve made a running jump, clung to the Hydra’s side, and shimmied his way up to the base of its leftmost neck. With the sharp edge of his shield, he bashed at it from behind while his allies gave its front the same laser treatment. Whenever the Hydra tried to crane any of its heads down to stop their progress, Tony was there, defending them with repulsor blasts and, once or twice, a small missile. His efforts weakened and slowed the Hydra, but it always rallied, and so did Tony.

The first neck severed at last. It fell to deafening cheers and the Hulk’s distinctive, victorious roar. The second neck toppled, and Steve leapt from its falling trunk to safety. Before he could return and climb to the middle neck, though, the Hydra spread its massive wings – which were translucent and ribbed, like those of a colossal golden bat – and took off into the air, its wings beating furiously and the engines of the Kree warships roaring from within it.  

Tony followed. Of course he did.

The battle slowed as almost all turned their faces skyward. The Kree jeered, but the triumphant shouts of the Stark soldiers drowned them out. Iron Man, they called him, in tones of amazement and hope. But all Steve felt was despair as he watched the slim silver figure zip around the Hydra’s remaining head, like a fly circling a horse. Tony wasn’t like Steve or the Hulk, with their heightened strength and healing abilities; he wasn’t like Sam or Nat, professional fighters trained for war. He was just a man. A brave, brilliant man, but a man nonetheless.

Iron Man dodged snapping jaws, dove to avoid the lashing tail, and alighted at last on the Hydra’s head. He planted one of his miniature bombs on its crown and then launched himself away. He was up among the clouds when the device exploded; the Hydra’s head jolted to the side, its long neck swaying, and it made a wobbly spiral to land, hard, on the ground. Its two severed necks dragged in the dirt. But it kept on its feet. It took a step toward the palace. The bomb had weakened it, but had not stopped it.

It shook its remaining head once, twice; its gleaming eyes tracked Iron Man high above—

And then it – or rather, its Kree pilots – decided to go for the easier target. It found Steve and his crew at the front lines of the Stark army. Its head dropped almost level with the ground, and its massive jaws opened so wide it was like looking into a black hole. Hot air spewed from its throat as though from a furnace.

Steve put up his shield and tugged Natasha close into his side. Beside him, the Stark soldiers held up their own defenses, and he saw Sam take cover with them.

The Hydra roared, and with the earsplitting, thunderous sound came a jet of explosive energy. At the last minute, Iron Man collided with the side of the Hydra’s head, throwing off its aim and sending the bulk of its shot into the air. Still, Steve was blown backward, as were a good number of soldiers. His armor held, and his shield held, and he managed to control his fall so that Natasha stayed protected and he didn’t land on her. But if Tony hadn’t sabotaged that shot, Steve didn’t know what sort of shape he’d be in.

He got unsteadily to his feet. The battlefield was scorched and scarred; groaning, injured bodies lay scattered about. Sam was unconscious from the blast but appeared to be breathing; the Hulk plucked him off the ground and cradled him, roaring indignantly at the Hydra, which grappled with Iron Man. It stretched its head as high into the air as it could reach, but it did not attempt to take flight.

Iron Man’s gauntlet had reshaped itself so that a long, narrow blade came out of it, starting at the base of his wrist and extending out about three feet, like a sword. His other gauntlet threw out a forcefield. He held it up like a shield against the Hydra’s energy blasts as, high above the ground, his blade pierced the roof of its mouth.

The Hydra managed to clamp its damaged jaws around the sword and Iron Man’s gauntlet; it whipped him around like a rag doll and tossed him aside before turning back to the battlefield.

Steve was one of few soldiers left standing. The Hulk was tending to Sam, and now to Nat, as well, as she had staggered to her feet only to slump against the Hulk’s side.

As the Hydra approached, Steve ran to meet it. No one else was ready— he had to at least buy the Starks and his crew some time—

But as the Hydra loomed over him, as its jaws unlocked and stretched wide, as the hum of energy from deep within its bowels filled the air, a figure landed between him and the beast. It was Iron Man, shielding Steve from the coming attack.

“Tony—” he started. Tony was going to do something.

Something Steve probably wouldn’t like.

Tony flipped up the faceplate long enough to meet Steve’s eyes over his shoulder.

“I’m going to end this,” he said, his voice ragged with exhaustion. “Steve—”

But whatever he had been about to say was interrupted by the rumble that marked the beginning of the Hydra’s roar. A light appeared in the back of its throat, growing brighter— it was about to attack, and this time, Steve would be burned to a crisp—

The faceplate flipped closed; Iron Man spread his arms out wide, exposing his chestplate with his artificial heart burning brightly in the middle.

And before the Hydra could make another move, a massive beam of light and heat and power burst from Iron Man’s heart. It pulsed into the Hydra’s open maw and blew its head to pieces.

Its severed neck fell to the ground, limp, and Iron Man collapsed.

Steve did not register the surviving Kree pilots spilling out of the Hydra and being promptly arrested by Stark soldiers. He did not register his crew coming to surround him. There was no room for anything in his mind except for the sight of Iron Man lying prone on the ruined lawn, the light at the center of his scorched chestplate flickering weakly.

Steve’s heart rioted against the cage of his chest. His shield slipped out of his grasp, but by the time it hit the ground he was already racing to Iron Man’s side.

His gloved fingers slipped on the edges of the faceplate. He tore them off so that he could dig his nails into the seam of the helmet and force it open.  His own breathing was so loud he could hardly think over it; blood pounded in his ears, and he had to blink sweat out of his eyes.

Tony’s eyes were closed.

“Tony?” he croaked. His fingers found Tony’s cheek. Cold. “Tony, please.”

“He’s breathing,” Natasha said, kneeling beside him – gingerly, so as not to jostle her injured leg too much.

He leaned in close to the helmet. “JARVIS?” he said. “Tell me he’s okay. Are you there?”

I am here, Captain Rogers,” said JARVIS, his voice small and tinny where it came out of the helmet. “Sir needs immediate medical attention. His heart was severely drained by the unibeam. You must take him to the palace.

A shadow fell over him. Behind him, the Hulk shifted threateningly, a growl starting at the back of his throat. But it was only Rodos.

He looked down at Tony and sighed.

“Reckless fool,” he muttered. He crouched down before Steve, across from Tony’s unconscious form. “Do you think you can pick him up in that thing?” he asked Steve, briskly.

“I— probably,” said Steve. “If not, the Hulk can. Why?”

“We’re taking him to the palace to be treated,” said Rodos. “But we must be quiet about it.”

Why?” Steve asked, having reached his breaking point with the secrecy.

Rodos gave him a pained look. “If he didn’t say, then I can’t. Just trust me.”

Why should I? he thought. Of course, the answer to that question presented itself immediately, bobbing to the surface of his mind, impossible to ignore: Because Tony does.

“Alright,” he told Rodos, grudgingly. “Lead the way.”

The Hydra’s “death” tipped the scales in Stark’s favor, and as Steve’s procession picked their way across the battlefield – Rodos clearing a path, the Hulk cradling Tony very gently in his gargantuan arms, Steve and his crew straggling along after – their allies were mopping up the last of the Kree. They’d won.

But it didn’t feel like a victory.

Rodos took them into what he said – in clipped tones that warned them not to ask questions – was the Queen’s own private infirmary. Peter and Jan, who’d sat out the fight, were brought in to wait with them. Steve didn’t have a chance to even touch Tony again before he was swept away into an operating room, where no one was allowed except for the head doctor, Yiein, and Rodos.

Before he’d joined the military, Rodos had been an engineer. He knew the specs to Tony’s artificial heart inside and out. Yiein had been the surgeon who’d implanted the thing in Tony’s chest. On why a palace engineer and the royal family’s personal doctor were so invested in Tony’s health, Rodos would only say: “Ask him yourself.”

His crew had collapsed into chairs in the waiting room. Steve couldn’t sit down.

“You can’t help him if you pass out,” Natasha said. She and Sam sat tilted toward each other, Natasha patching up a cut on his arm. They’d all been offered treatment, but as their injuries were mostly minor, they’d elected to stick together and wait out Tony’s operation. Bruce could take a look at them once he came back.

“I’m fine,” Steve said.

“Are… are we going to talk about this?” Peter asked, raising his hand like a schoolkid.

“Which part?” Sam said, darkly. “The dragon, the fact they let us into an honest-to-god palace, or how our crewmate has a secret identity he forgot to tell us about?”

“The last one,” said Peter.

“At least we know he’s not hiding something dangerous,” Jan said, cuddling the toddler princess, Jo. The Queen had made a brief appearance to drop her daughter off with them, claiming she’d rather leave the girl with friends of Tony’s than with nursemaids or guards she didn’t know. Then she’d vanished before any of them could respond to that.

“Metal man banged up,” Hulk supplied. He poked very gingerly at Jo’s stomach, making her giggle.

“Yup,” said Sam.

“Steve,” said Natasha. “You know what this means, right?”

“I’m starting to,” he said tightly.

“Mind filling us in?” said Sam. Natasha had finished with his cut, so now he was helping her assemble a brace for her leg.

At that moment, Queen Peatra swept into the room again. She was a tall, graceful woman with bubblegum-pink skin; an elaborate dress made of luminous, flowing, pastel-colored cloth in varying hues; orange hair; and swirls of white paint covering every piece of exposed skin, making her look like some otherworldly being. She was also very pregnant.

“Sorry about that,” she said, taking her daughter out of Jan’s arms. “I had to make sure the Council was occupied elsewhere. They can’t know he’s here.”

“She was no trouble at all,” Jan said. “I’m very sorry to hear about your husband, but it looks like Jo’s holding up well.”

Peatra froze, and then she seemed to remember something and relaxed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Thank you. Yes. We were all devastated, of course.”

“No, you weren’t,” Natasha said.

Peatra looked at her coolly. “That’s a cruel thing to say.”

“You weren’t devastated because your husband isn’t dead,” Natasha said, giving voice to the suspicions that had been growing in the recesses of Steve’s mind.

“It’s Tony,” he said quietly. “Isn’t it? Tony is the king.”

“I’m not going to answer that,” said Peatra, which of course was answer enough.

His soulmate. He’d been right there, right in front of Steve all this time. It had always just been Tony.

“So, what— he decides he wants to quit being a royal, and his bright idea is to stow away on a strange ship and get dragged all over the universe?” Sam asked.

“I can’t— I can’t imagine Tony abandoning his child,” Steve said stiffly. This had been bothering him ever since he’d set eyes on Jo. The thought made him sick to his stomach – that he’d slept with a man who had a wife and child he’d simply given up on. That his soulmate was capable of that.

But Peatra said, fiercely, “No. He would never.”

Steve stared at her. She gave a soft, frustrated sigh.

“I guess he can’t blame me for telling you if you’ve already figured it out yourselves,” she said. “He was the king, and my husband, but we were only ever friends. Jo is not his. I have— someone else.”

“Oh,” said Steve. The cold lump of unhappiness that had settled in his chest seemed to dissolve. “And you knew that he wanted to leave?”

“He was stifled,” said Peatra. “He’s not a king; he’s a scientist, an explorer. He loves his people, and me, and Jo – but I could just see him wasting away here. So when he told me what he wanted, of course I said yes. I helped him plan everything.”

“Why fake his death?” Natasha asked.

“If he abdicated without a grown heir, it would be chaos; the Council would rip itself and Stark apart fighting over who had the right to rule,” said Peatra. “In the case of a ruler’s death, though, their spouse has the right to rule as regent until the heir is of age. It was the simplest, smoothest way to get him off the throne while keeping me on it.”

Steve folded his arms. “Could he come back if he wanted?”

Life on a ship was hard; life in transit, never anchored to anything, was hard. Tony had never complained, but looking around at all Tony had given up – from the material luxuries to the friends who were clearly worried sick about him – Steve could not imagine what his run-down little ship had to offer a man who could have all this. And if, after what had just happened, Tony decided that Stark needed him….

“If he wanted to, we would find a way,” said Peatra. “He couldn’t be king again, but we could invent a new identity for him. But, Captain? I think you should talk to him before you start jumping to conclusions about what he wants.”

#

Waking up was unpleasant. Tony felt the way he imagined being buried alive might: too cold; his chest aching and heavy as if several feet of dirt were pressing down on it; his senses muffled; the gnawing anxiety of being all alone. But as he swam closer and closer to consciousness, most of those terrible sensations faded. Oh, the pain was still there. Yeah. His already-abused ribs had not enjoyed the unibeam, that was for sure.

But he wasn’t cold: he was in a real bed with nice clean sheets in a temperature-controlled room.

And he could hear the soft beeping of medical equipment and the sound of his own breathing, and could taste the staleness of his mouth.

And he wasn’t alone. Someone was holding his hand. Someone whose skin was warm and whose touch was solid and reassuring, but not restrictive. Someone who had laced his fingers intimately with Tony’s, and whose thumb stroked over Tony’s knuckles again and again.

Tony twitched his fingers. The hand holding his tightened, and the owner of the hand breathed in sharply.

“Tony?” Steve said, urgently. The mattress dipped as Steve moved to sit down at Tony’s side, without releasing his hand.

The sound of Steve’s voice made every cell within him light up. It was as if Tony had woken up just for this, just for the chance to hear Steve say his name.

He peeled his eyes open and tilted his head in the direction of that beloved voice, and was rewarded with the sight of Steve’s face. He squinted against the too-bright lights of the infirmary, but he could still make out Steve’s wobbly smile, his reddened eyes, the mess of his hair. He looked like he hadn’t even showered since the battle—

That was right. There had been a battle, and Tony had no idea how long he’d been sleeping since then.

“Did we win?” he croaked.

Steve lifted the hand that wasn’t clutching Tony’s and stroked it down the side of Tony’s face, from his hairline to his jaw, before resting it against his cheek. Tony sighed, his eyes fluttering shut for just a moment. All traces of cold had fled: warmth flooded his body from every place Steve’s skin touched his.

Tony released Steve’s hand and managed to bring his arms up to wrap around Steve’s neck. Steve didn’t resist as Tony pulled him close, and closer still, until their foreheads pressed together and they’d both shut their eyes and Tony could feel the heat radiating off Steve’s body – which he took care to hold well above Tony’s damaged chest. Steve’s arms bracketed him, and Tony stroked the back of Steve’s neck, from his soft hair to the top of his spine.  

Tony could not have said which of them shifted first to press their lips together. He didn’t care. He didn’t care, either, that they both reeked or that they both probably could’ve used some mouthwash or that every move threatened to send pain shooting through Tony’s chest. He was careful, and so was Steve, and for many moments they traded soft kisses back and forth, Tony’s arms winding more tightly around Steve’s neck, as if daring him to try moving away, Steve’s hands slipping under Tony’s shoulder and the back of his head to hold them together more snugly. Tony was perfectly safe and secure, and he had everything he could ever want or need, and he was never moving again, ever.

The sound of a door swinging open and footsteps on tile made Steve break the kiss, which Tony found deeply unfair. Steve hastily disentangled himself from Tony – injustice after injustice as Tony’s fingers lost contact with Steve’s hair and skin, and his body lost the warmth of Steve’s, and his cheek lost the flutter of Steve’s eyelashes, and really, where did Steve think he was going – as he got up off of Tony’s bed and sat down, much too far away, on a chair beside his cot.

“Hey,” Tony protested weakly.

“I— I was just about to call you,” said Steve to the newcomer, guiltily.

“I’m certain you were,” said a kind, familiar voice at the other side of Tony’s bed.

“Yiein?” said Tony, starting to pull himself up into a sitting position – only to fall right back onto the pillow, grimacing.

“Hey, careful,” Steve murmured, smoothing out the furrow in Tony’s brow and brushing back his hair. That shouldn’t have done anything to make him feel better, but Tony swore the pain abated as soon as Steve touched him.

“It’s good to see you,” said Yiein, smiling at Tony over his wire-rimmed spectacles, his moss-green skin crinkling around the eyes. Was Tony imagining it, or had he aged in the months since Tony had seen him last? Were there more lines around his mouth? Was his hair grayer?

Moving gingerly and with Steve supporting him, Tony managed to prop himself up.

“Does anyone know I’m back?”

“Peatra, Rodos, and Hapi,” said Yiein. “And myself. Nobody else.”

Tony’s eyes flicked to Steve. Steve raised an eyebrow.

“We’ll talk later,” Steve told him. Those words would have normally sent him into a spiral of anxiety and doubt. But right now— well. You didn’t kiss someone the way Steve had just kissed him if you were really angry with them.

So he said, “Okay,” with a sheepish smile, and relaxed against his pillows. Steve sat back as Yiein examined him, and Tony peppered his old friend with questions about everything that had happened in his absence.

Steve was there, and he wasn’t going anywhere. They could figure out the rest later.

#

Later came after Tony’s tearful reunions with Peatra, Jo, Rodos, and Hapi. Later came after Peatra initiated diplomatic contact with Kree leadership but told them, in no uncertain terms, that the identity of Iron Man would not be handed over for any price. Later came after a very strange dinner on the floor of Tony’s old workshop, the only place where they were certain not to be seen; Tony sat there, surrounded by his old family and his new one, and felt just about happier than he’d ever felt in his life. Later came after he’d loaded some of the things he’d had to leave behind when he’d first fled Stark onto the Nomad – his bots, some specialized tools, a few keepsakes, as many photos as he could get his hands on.

None of the crew seemed particularly impressed by the fact that he’d been a king, which was a relief. The only time anyone had come close to bringing it up was when, the night before they were due to take off, Steve had said: “You know, Tony, if, um, if you decided you wanted to stay behind, we’d understand.”

And Tony had said: “Do you want me to stay behind?”

And Steve had said: “Of course not! I just wondered if you wanted—”

And Natasha had broken in at last: “Steve, Tony is coming with us. Tony, Steve is trying to be noble and failing miserably. Both of you, please, relax. For once.”

Sam, sitting next to her with an arm draped over her shoulders, disguised his laugh as a cough. The rest of the crew averted their eyes as Tony had sighed and turned to Steve.

“I made this decision a long time ago,” he said. “I’m not changing my mind.”

That reminded Steve of a question he still had. “Do you think that’s why my Mark— on my Mark, your title is prince. Is it because you never wanted to be king?”

Tony shrugged. “Maybe. More likely it’s because, legally, my status as king isn’t solidified until I’ve produced an heir. As far as the public knows, I did, but since Jo isn’t mine… I technically don’t have an heir. So I’m technically not king.”

“And you never intended to be.”

“Right.”

Steve nodded slowly. It was that, more than anything, that convinced him Tony meant what he said about sticking with his choice. Even his Mark had known it. It was… he wouldn’t call it fate. Tony wouldn’t like that. But it was enough to reassure Steve.

Although the palace had endless guest quarters, the servants tended those. Most of them would recognize Tony and couldn’t be counted on to keep his secret. So Tony kept out of sight; he slept on the old cot in his workshop.

There were no such restrictions on Steve. He could have slept in the lavish room Peatra had opened up for him. The room contained a plush bed with a mountain of pillows, his own bathroom made up of flawless white marble and featuring a shower big enough for five Steves to share, and a massive window that looked out on the city.

The room did not, however, contain Tony. So Steve spent his nights squeezed into the little cot next to his soulmate and thanked every deity he’d ever even heard of for granting him the privilege.

Knowing Tony was his soulmate didn’t make Steve adore him any more or less. But Steve had thought his soulmate was gone, and he’d been given a second chance. He didn’t take that lightly.

Tony tried to stay up so they could talk, but he was still healing, and by the time they were finished with dinner he was halfway asleep. Steve never pushed.

“We’ll have plenty of time later,” he whispered into Tony’s hair. He could feel Tony’s warm breaths puff against his neck. His arm, draped over Tony’s body, rose and fell in time. He tucked his hand under Tony’s shirt and found in the recesses of his mind the name of some long-dead pagan goddess and thought, thank you, thank you, thank you.

“We’re gonna be okay, though. Right?” Tony mumbled.

“We are.”

#

Tony stood alone in the bridge and watched the stars through the Nomad’s great forward-facing windows. Jan had gone to bed and the Nomad – with JARVIS’ aid – was on autopilot. They’d left Stark behind earlier that day, with promises to visit when they could, and Tony was finally feeling well enough not to pass out right after dinner. Steve was getting in a workout before bed, and the others were scattered about the ship. But this was his favorite place on the Nomad, here where he could look out into the infinite space and see what he’d sacrificed everything for: freedom.

Space wasn’t infinite, of course. Not really. Still, Tony could – and would – spend his whole life exploring it and still not see everything there was to see, or learn everything there was to learn.

But he sure was looking forward to trying.

Footsteps made their way across the room, and then Steve’s chest pressed against his back and his arms draped over Tony’s shoulder. He’d just come out of the shower; Tony could smell his soap and feel the slight dampness of the hair that brushed against his cheek. He turned his face to kiss the corner of Steve’s mouth.

  art by natowe

“Aren’t you tired?” Steve asked.

“No,” said Tony. “I thought— well, I wanted to say something to you.”

Steve pulled away just enough to turn Tony in his arms. “I’m listening,” he said, when they were face to face.

“As soon as I found out about your… your Mark,” said Tony, “I was going to tell you who I was. I didn’t know about soulmates. But I knew that— that I wanted to be yours. I just didn’t have time. Everything happened so fast. But I swear I never meant to hide it from you.”

“I know,” said Steve. “I don’t blame you for not knowing about soulmates. But why would you hide who you were in the first place?”

Tony swallowed. “I was afraid you’d send me back,” he said.

“Tony, we’re a crew full of outlaws and traitors. We’re all running from something. Why would we judge you for that?”

“You left the military behind because their ideals didn’t match yours anymore. You were doing what you felt was the right thing, for noble reasons. I— I’m selfish. I abandoned my people and all my responsibilities because I was bored. I don’t have noble reasons. I’m just indulging a dream of mine; I just want to be an explorer, like some kid who never grew out of his childish fantasies.” Tony swallowed hard; his jaw clenched. “And I can know all that and still not regret my decision. I would do it all over again. If I wasn’t your soulmate, how could you have any respect for me?”

Steve used his grip on Tony’s shoulders to give him a gentle shake. “You have the right to live the life you want,” he said. “I’ve seen the things you build and how hard you work. Everywhere you go, you help people. You made sure Stark was taken care of, and when they needed you, you went straight back even though it was risky. I’m proud of you, Tony.”

“You are?” Tony said, in a small voice.

“You’re one of the best men I’ve ever met. Even if you weren’t my soulmate, this crew would be lucky to have you. I would be lucky to have you. But I need to know. Are there any more secrets? The suit, the… royalty… is there anything else?”

“No,” said Tony hastily. “That’s, uh. That’s about all of it.”

“What about your heart?”

Tony’s brows furrowed. “My heart?”

Steve frowned at him. “When you used the unibeam, it seemed to come out of the reactor. Tony… is the armor linked to your heart?”

“Oh. Well, obviously,” said Tony. “How else am I supposed to power the thing?”

“Tony!” said Steve. “That’s incredibly dangerous!”

Tony gave him a wry look. “Very bold of you to lecture me on what’s dangerous when you tried to go up against the Hydra with nothing but a shield that protects maybe a third of your body. Very bold indeed, Captain.”

Steve fixed him with his sternest glare. “There has to be another way.”

“I mean….” Tony sighed. “I suppose I could work on an alternative. Would that make you happy?”

“It would.”

“That settles it for me.” Tony grinned. “I’m so easy for you, Cap. Better not take advantage of that.”

“I’d never.” Steve shuffled closer and then added, more seriously, “I don’t want to control you. But I don’t want to lose you, either.”

“I can’t make promises,” said Tony, “but I’ll always try to be there for you. Always.”

“I know.” He secured his arms around Tony’s waist and pressed his cold nose into Tony’s cheek, startling a laugh out of him.

Tony closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Steve’s. “You probably hate the armor now,” he said ruefully.

“I don’t hate it,” Steve said quickly. There was something odd about his tone, something that made Tony pull away and peer at his face, which was unusually flushed.

Tony knew Steve’s blushes very well by now. He had made a point of becoming an expert in Steve Rogers’ blushes, in fact, and so he knew exactly what this one meant.

“Oh my god,” Tony said. “You’re horny for the armor.”

Steve flushed harder. Tony watched in delight as the color spread down his neck.

“It’s an impressive piece of machinery,” Steve said, diplomatically. “I admire it from— from a scientific perspective—”

“Did you like when I picked you up and flew you around?” Tony asked slyly. “I bet you’re not used to being carried.”

“I—”

“You know I can put the armor on in pieces, right? I could, for example, wear the gauntlets and nothing else.”

Steve stared at him. “You could?”

“Yes.”

“You would?”

Tony smiled. He didn’t know it, but his eyes glittered brighter than any stars Steve had ever seen.

“Darling, for you?” said Tony. “Anything.”

I would not creep along but steer out to mid-sea by guidance of the stars, quote from Middlemarch by George Eliot