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January, 2070.

NASA Headquarters—Washington, DC

0600 hours

 

The Future

 

Steve is the first one in the conference room.  He isn’t for long, but he makes a mental note of it as he stares at NASA’s tagline for its next expedition in the great space race.  Ever since Russia’s probe burst apart under the pressure of Jupiter’s gaseous clouds, America has been pressing forward, anxious.  Or, Steve thinks, that’s how President Foster is going to pitch it.  He’s had enough private conversations with her to know what her true motives are behind the Europa Expedition, and he wonders if that’s the reasoning behind the flimsy tagline.

 

He looks up as the door opens and nods as Bucky enters, looking like he’s had a few less hours of sleep than Steve has, which isn’t saying much.  He saw the sunrise and the deep dark of night, and, even after his run and despite this meeting, Steve is still wearing his exhaustion.

 

“This sucks,” Bucky says, dropping into the seat next to Steve, “I’m fucking sick of this.”

 

“I know,” Steve says, “It’ll be over soon.”

 

“And then we’ll be plummeting through space with a ragtag team of children, billionaires, and high school dropouts.  This is a fucking fantastic plan.  Director,” he adds as their boss comes through, holding a tray of coffees and preceding the president of NASA.

 

“Thank you,” Steve says as Reed hands him over a coffee.

 

“I thought it might be necessary,” Reed says, taking a seat opposite Steve, “Rough night?”

 

Bucky grumbles into his cup in response.

 

And then they wait.

 

Steve has half a mind to bring up the tagline, coerce Jane into changing it to something more realistic, but he knows that will just get him a stern look, and so he reaches for one of the files she’s placed on the table instead.

 

Without blinking, she swats his hand away.  “We’ll go through them together,” she says, and Steve sits back.

 

Though he arrives twenty minutes late, Tony is still dressed to the nines and doesn’t give a shit.  “Well, you’re a lively bunch,” he says as he comes in, sitting two seats away from Steve, “Shall we begin?”  Jane levels him with a glare that he almost shrinks under, but flips it into a grin at the last moment.  “Come on,” he says, tapping the table, “Time is money.”

 

Bucky kicks Steve’s shin when he opens his mouth, and so instead he turns his attention to Jane.  She opens her hands, and Reed starts tapping on the table, bringing up a hologram that remains, for the moment, blank.

 

“The three of you are here to discuss potential candidates for the Europa Expedition, as you will be leading it in your own right.  I know that there is some animosity between you, but I ask that you leave it behind while we select the most appropriate team.”

 

Steve nods, Bucky gives her a thumbs up, and Tony just quirks an eyebrow.

 

Steve’s never considered throwing someone, untethered, into space, but he’s starting to.

 

——

 

0700 hours

 

Bruce is reading when he receives the news.

 

His class, all third years, is currently in the midst of one of their most grueling morning tests when he hears his office door bang open across the hall.  He doesn’t look up, but he marks his place with his thumb and notes the students that do look up.  And then, the classroom door swings inward, is caught just before it crashes against the wall, and half of the class looks up.

 

“We’re testing,” Bruce says quietly, looking over at Betty.

 

We’re—” she pauses for effect, her grin wide and wild, “—going to Europa.”

 

The rest of the class looks up.


Bruce puts his book down.

 

——

 

0900 hours

 

Their lab is on fire.

 

Sam will later try to argue that there weren’t actually flames, that is was just enormous plumes of black smoke, but all he can see, right now, is a damaged flight simulator and Johnny Storm cackling as he scrambles out of it.

 

He might be willing to keep the doors locked, which is what Natasha recommended exactly 16 seconds before failure.

 

“The next time you think it’s a good idea to listen to Richards when he asks for his hopeless sack of ass brother-in-law to have some time in the simulator, I’m going to set you on fire,” she seethes before wrenching open the door and plunging in.

 

Wanda stares, wide-eyed, from the back of the room.

 

Sam sits down heavily in his chair and watches the disaster start to contain itself.  Really, Nat and Wanda shouldn’t be here, either, but Nat had come as a favor, and Wanda was never far behind her, so here they are.  Setting the lab on fire.

 

Johnny bursts into the observation room, smoking, and Sam doesn’t even bother glancing his way when he says, “You’re officially banned from the flight wing, effective as soon as I let Reed know he’s going to have to explain to Jane why we need simulator repairs.  Seriously, Johnny?” he adds for good measure.

 

“Dude,” Johnny says, grinning wickedly at him, “That was a stellar move, even you have to admit that.”

 

“Get the fuck out of my wing.”

 

To his credit, Johnny does, though he’s still laughing when he leaves.

 

“I’m going to help Natasha,” Wanda sighs before heading into the simulation room.  Sam waits until she’s got a mask on before he pulls some of the oxygen from the room, killing as much of the fire as he can.  To his left, his phone vibrates once, an alert coming up signaling an email.  He waits until he can see Natasha and Wanda’s outlines better before he checks it.

 

He’s barely gotten through the first line before he’s banging on the window, jumping from his seat.  Nat looks back, alarmed, her brow furrowing in confusion when Sam turns his phone to her.

 

He sees her mouth dumbass and point to the ceiling, so he quickly jabs the intercom and shouts, “I’m going to fucking Europa!  Check your email!”

 

Natasha tosses a glance Wanda’s way before digging out her phone.  It takes approximately six seconds before Natasha lifts both fists in the air, and then Wanda starts crying.  Sam and Nat both look at her, and she nods, her beam stretching her mask.

 

——

 

1230 hours

 

Peter is going to have a fit.

 

He’s been in class all day, and though he’s finally out, he left his phone and laptop in his room because he’s an idiot, and now there seems to be a mass breakout in the halls.  He looks down at his watch and groans.  His next class is in 30 minutes, and he’s not sure he can make it to his dorm and back on time.

 

“Fire!” someone screams suddenly.

 

“Oi, fuck off!” another voice responds, “Don’t cause a stampede.”

 

Peter rolls his eyes.  He’s already heard about Johnny’s soon to be infamous flight simulator crash, and so when he spots him stained with ash and still smoking a little, it’s really no surprise.  “Reed’s gonna kill you,” Peter says as he approaches, and then he sees what Johnny is holding out to him.  “You’re a saint, oh my god,” he says quickly, snatching his phone from Johnny’s hand and tapping through it until he reaches his email.  “Did you get one?” he asks as he waits for it to load.

 

“They finished sending out the emails at noon.”

 

“Johnny.”  Peter looks up at him, stricken.  “I don’t want to look at it.”

 

“Dude, come on,” Johnny says, taking his phone back, and opening up the email from Reed.  Peter’s about to start whining because Johnny’s taking longer than four seconds to read, and then Johnny throws Peter’s phone at him and starts jumping up and down.  “Europa, here we come!”

 

“What?” Peter says in disbelief, staring at him, and then it clicks, and he drops to a knee, scooping up his phone.

 

Dear Mister Parker, I would like to extend my congratulations on your successful application as the biophysicist for NASA’s

 

Peter falls over onto his ass, looking up at Johnny even as his best friend starts tugging at him.  “Dude, we’re gonna be fucking astronauts!”

 

Peter thinks he might throw up.

 

——

 

1300 hours

 

Steve looks down at the ten pictures in front of him, arms folded across his chest.  These are the faces that will be plastered across NASA’s Europa page for the next decade, probably.

 

“It’s not a bad group,” Bucky says from his right, knocking shoulders with him.

 

“Our biophysicist is twenty-four,” Steve says quietly.

 

“Be that as it may,” Bucky says, leaning forward to tap on Peter’s picture, pulling up his list of qualifications, “Look at those scores.  Kid’s a freaking genius in his field.”

 

“And then you’ve got Stark’s two best friends,” Steve says as flicks away the projection, nodding toward Bruce and Betty.

 

“Think of them as our doctor and microbiologist instead of Tony Stark’s friends.  Jesus, Steve.  Come on.  We’ve got Sam, Nat, and Wanda if you want to play that game.”

 

“We needed a pilot,” Steve argues.

 

“And a marine biologist and geologist, yes,” Bucky says, “Stop sizing up opposite teams, Steve.  This is us.  Even that shithead.”

 

They both look at Johnny’s picture.  Even with Tony, Jane had still wanted another engineer, even after the news about his flight simulator crash came in, fourteen minutes after they had sent him his email.

 

Steve inhales deeply and holds it.  “Your move, Cap,” Bucky says, looking over at him.  Steve nods slowly, exhaling.

 

Tony walks back into the room, hands in his pockets, grinning like he’s won some great battle.  He looks across the spread of pictures.  “So, when’s this shindig happening?”

 

Steve squares his shoulders.  “1700 sharp.  The Europa room.”

 

“Shit, we have a room?” Bucky says, his excitement starting to leak through, and Steve hates to admit that it’s infectious, but he’s smiling as he leaves.

 

——

 

1630 hours

 

Steve is not the first one in the Europa room.

 

As he and Bucky come down the hall, he frowns when he sees the lights on, but then they come inside, and Bucky just grins.  Steve clears his throat, and, surprisingly, Peter doesn’t move.  “Look at that,” Bucky says, slapping his arm with the back of his hand, “Kid’s already working.”

 

When Steve follows him in, he notices that Peter has a pair of earphones tucked in snugly, and he’s tapping away at some code on a screen.  Bucky taps his shoulder on his way by to the fridge, and Peter nearly vaults out of his seat.

 

“Jesus,” he says, plucking out one of his earphones, and then he sees Steve.  “Oh—I—oh my god, Mister—Captain—hi.”  Steve takes his offered hand, shaking, and then he smiles when Peter starts to babble, “I just—I’m really, really grateful, Captain—I can’t—I mean—I thought, but—well, Johnny—”

 

“Peter,” Bucky says, and Peter blinks at Steve, “Peter.”

 

“Yes,” Peter finally says, swiveling to face Bucky, “Sergeant Barnes.”

 

“Dude, come on.  It’s Bucky.  Did you make this guac?”

 

“I did.  Yes.  I was—hungry,” he settles on, and then he sits down again.  “Sorry, I’m just—”  His fingers make a buzzing motion around his head, and Steve nods, clapping a hand against his shoulder before he heads over to Bucky.

 

Twenty minutes later, Peter’s excitement level has gone down a few notches, mostly due to Steve’s questions about his research.  Sam arrives with pizza, Wanda and Nat trailing him with snacks, and Steve goes to greet them.  “I’m sorry about the simulator,” Steve says after he’s embraced Sam.

 

“Well, you did me one better by letting him in on this mission,” Sam teases, punching Steve’s arm before he ducks past him to knock knuckles with Bucky.  They explode their hands, and Sam drops down into the seat next to him, placing a smaller box on Bucky’s lap.

 

“You are my fucking hero,” Bucky says when he looks inside.

 

Five minutes before seven, Betty comes in with a bottle of whisky, and Natasha cheers.  Bruce is not long behind her, arguing with Tony as they approach.  “Stop being an asshole,” Bruce snaps before they come inside, and Tony makes a face at his back.

 

Johnny arrives three minutes late, shouting at Peter to stop texting him gun emojis just because he’s pissed at him for being late.  “You were an hour early,” he says, pointing an accusing finger at Peter.

 

“And you’re a twat waffle.”

 

There’s a chorus of noise until Steve stands up, and then they slowly filter quiet, turning toward him.  “Jane tried to convince me to deliver some rousing speech about the future of space exploration, but I can’t help thinking about Europa’s tagline—the future.  It’s a little pretentious of us, really.”

 

Bruce lifts a tumbler in agreement.  Betty smiles warmly at him, leaning against Tony so that he sighs.

 

Steve continues, “Here’s to not the future, but maybe ours.  We’re about to spend an intense two years in training before we embark on six years in total of flight for only four months of actual groundwork.”

 

“Moon work,” Sam mumbles, and Steve fights a grin.

 

“It may be a moon, yes, but it has Earth-like qualities that we’ve only dreamed about in other expeditions.  As a collective whole, we must pool our intellect and skills to take a step toward the betterment of humankind, toward a commitment of a future together.”

 

“This sounds like a rousing speech about space exploration,” Bucky quotes at him.

 

“Shut up,” Steve says, and the room breaks, laughter sneaking out amongst each other.  “To Europa,” Steve finally says, and everyone cheers in unison.

 

They waste the night away, Peter pestering Tony relentlessly, Steve avoiding Tony at all costs, Bruce dissolving into a fit of laughter at Johnny’s story until Sam threatens to “whoop yo ass”, so Bruce and he throw some half-assed punches, commenting on each other’s form until Bucky is tugging Steve over to show them how it’s really done, and it’s a better night than expected.

 

——

 

March, 2070

JSC—Houston, TX

1000 hours

 

They get flown out to Texas and dropped at the Johnson Space Center without much preamble, but somehow, the press finds out.  They’ve kept most of Europa’s mission under wraps, but now that they’ve selected the final crew, NASA has started talking.  And so, when they descend from the aircraft and make their way toward one of the many buildings, it’s to raucous applause.  Vans and people of all kinds are pressing in at the gates, trying to catch a glimpse of them.

 

Tony flashes them a brilliant smile and lifts a hand in a wave, but Steve herds the rest of them on.  “Tony,” he says sharply when he starts to lag behind.  He waits until Tony turns to him before he continues, “Inside.  Please.”

 

“You’re no fun, Rogers,” Tony says, his smile sliding into a grin before he walks past him.

 

Steve brings up the rear, and then they’re being escorted to their rooms and given the rest of the day off.  Steve is just knocking on Bucky’s door when his phone starts buzzing.  By the time he’s gotten it out of his pocket, he has 13 text messages, and Bucky is opening the door.

 

“What is this?” he asks, flashing his unlocked screen to Bucky.

 

“Peter made a group chat,” Bucky says, grabbing his jacket before he locks up, “He’s very excited.  Let him have this.”

 

“I told you too young might be bad,” Steve says, but Bucky ignores him in lieu of collecting Sam.

 

Steve starts reading through the messages flowing in, sighing.

 

Peter: Hey guys!  I thought this might be a good way for us all to keep in contact until we shoot for the skies.

 

Johnny: God, you’re actually the lamest person I have ever met.

 

Johnny: I want to punch you in the face.

 

Natasha: How did you get my number?  Fuck this group chat bullshit.

 

Peter: Um.

 

Peter: So it’s actually a locked group chat, and I hacked your phone earlier.

 

Peter: Sorry?

 

Sam: This is awesome.  Steve, good pick.

 

Natasha: This is absurd.  I’m going to kill you all.

 

Sam: In space?  Will you please cut my tether and let me float into the unknown?

 

Sam: It will be so cool!  I’ll go down in history!

 

Peter: I’m pretty sure you’re already doing that by entering Europa’s orbit?  Which no one’s ever done?  So dying seems futile?

 

Tony: Peter.  You deserve a gold star.

 

“I love this kid,” Sam says as he finally answers the door, typing, “We’re keeping him, right?”

 

“First test is an isolation month.  We’ll see,” Steve says, putting his phone back in his pocket.  It takes all of thirty seconds before he’s groaning.

 

Bucky starts cackling.  Steve looks over to find him reading through the new messages, and so he does the same while they head down the hall.

 

Sam: No, but think about it.  I’m not as hot as Sandra Bullock, but it would be awesome.

 

Wanda: Oh, please.  Don’t even try to compare yourself to her.

 

Peter: Wait, I haven’t seen Gravity yet!  Don’t spoil it.

 

Johnny: ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS

 

Johnny: PETER

 

Johnny: YOU’RE GOING TO BE A FUCKING ASTRONAUT AND YOU’VE NEVER SEEN GRAVITY

 

Peter: YOU HAVEN’T SEEN INTERSTELLAR ASSHOLE

 

Natasha: How old are you, four?  Lost in Space is where it’s at.

 

Betty: Movie night!

 

Bruce: I’m feeling Mexican snacks for that.

 

Tony: Man, I want to bone you all so hard right now.  Mexican and space, might as well talk dirty to me.

 

Johnny: Single and ready to mingle, ass man.

 

Steve: Meet in the Europa room in fifteen.

 

Steve tries to ignore the influx of “aye aye captains” he receives after that, but he’s starting to think that this might not be so bad after all.  Sure, he’d rather set Tony on fire than being in closed quarters with him, and Johnny blows shit up every other weekend while he’s at school, and Wanda’s been known to steal samples, but he thinks they might actually be able to pull this off, if these initial moments between them are any indication.

 

The chat has quieted down by the time they reach Houston’s version of the Europa room, which is mostly a copycat.  It contains standard equipment and technology, color coordinated to Jupiter, but it’s the ceiling that has always captured Steve’s attention.  He designed the one in Washington himself when he first found out Jane had selected him to lead the expedition to Europa, and she’d allowed him a week off to paint while they finished the rest of the selections.  Reed had become director of the program two days later, and Steve was halfway up the ceiling when he first met him.  The one in Houston was done by different hands, but it mirrors the original so much that Steve finds himself smiling up at it.

 

“You designed that, right?” Natasha asks as she drops into the seat next to him.  There are no conference tables in the Europa room, just sofas and armchairs.  It’s designed to be comfortable, a haven for them.

 

“I did,” Steve says, finally taking his eyes from it.  Everyone else is slowly starting to filter in, and when they’re all accounted for, Steve opens his arms and says, “So, a group chat.”

 

“Okay, in my defense,” Peter begins.

 

“It was a fucking middle school idea, you lame ass cracker,” Johnny says.

 

“Woah, we’re throwing race insults now?” Sam bristles.

 

“Calm it, wingman, you’ll be fine.  Listen, I’m all for taking down the group chat.”

 

“Turd burglar,” Peter mutters under his breath.

 

“I think it’s a great idea,” Steve says, and Peter gapes at him, “You’re right.  It will keep us in contact with each other.  Just—let’s try not to abuse it.  We do have actual work to do while we’re here.”

 

“You mean it’s not just kittens for the next twenty-four months?” Tony says.

 

“Can’t you just say two years like a normal person?” Bruce says, looking over at him, “What are you, a first time mom?”

 

“Kind of,” Tony says, straightening, “This is the first Stark Industries spacecraft to actually go into actual space.  I’m allowed.”

 

“Wait a minute,” Natasha says, her attention on Steve, “This is not a NASA designed craft?”

 

“It’s NASA approved,” Steve says, glancing at Tony and then around the room at everyone, “They will continue to test it for the next two years while we’re in training, but yes, Tony is responsible for it.”

 

“Built that shit with my own two hands.”

 

“Bull,” Bruce says, so Tony smacks him.

 

“Okay,” Steve says, “We have to discuss what’s coming up.  You are all to report at 0400 hours tomorrow morning for a briefing before we enter isolation, where we will spend the next month.  Immediately following that, we will undergo rigorous psychological evaluations before we enter solitary isolation, which will also be followed by psych evals.  However, solitary isolations will only be for a two week period.  Is there anyone that does not think they are prepared for this?”

 

The room remains quiet, though Steve sees Peter trying to fight an eager smile.

 

“Good,” Steve says, “After that, we jump straight into physical training and testing, as well as group activities.  You will be paired with people that you’re accustomed to, like Tony and Johnny, both engineers, and then people you are not, like Sam and Wanda, pilot and geologist.  You’ll be required to get out of emergency situations together, learn about each other’s duties, and then switch to someone new.  You are going to know each other better than you know your mother.”

 

“Oh man, throwing out the yo mama jokes,” Sam says under his breath, and Steve almost, almost, doesn’t break, but he can’t stop the laugh that comes, and the rest of the room quickly follows suit.

 

“Steve,” Wanda says when they’ve calmed, “We’ve got this.  We were all overwhelmed with joy when we found out we’d been selected, I’m sure.  We may have not painted a mural of Europa on a ceiling, but—” she shrugs, and Steve laughs again, quieter.

 

“Alright,” he says, “Let’s get rolling.”

 

——

 

Day One of Isolation Testing

0600 hours

 

The first hour and a half of isolation goes by flawlessly.  After a ten minute briefing, they head into the isolation wing, which has been restructured to mimic the design of their habitat that they’ll have on Europa, given a fifteen minute tour, and then the doors are shut.

 

For the next month, their duties will mimic actual ones performed on Europa, and so Steve pulls up day one’s scenario and sets each of them to different tasks.  He begins his own task, running a system report on the HAB to be sent back to NASA headquarters, along with a simulated log of Europa’s weather report, before he starts looping the HAB to check in on everyone.

 

Bucky and Sam are working together to monitor and decipher the wind patterns, as well as pitching various hypotheses of what the side facing Jupiter must be like.  He listens in for a bit, laughs when Sam brings up the probable differences in temperature for the water on each side, which results in Bucky getting loud in his excitement.  That leads him to Natasha, who is shouting over facts to disprove their theories.  She is currently working with liquid samples, watching how they react to different variables.  He spends more time with her than he should, but they’re all so fascinated by Europa’s deep and vast oceans that he can’t really convince himself to move on.

 

Wanda is not far from her, studying what will later be samples of Europa’s surface, though what is, for now, Mars’s surface.  She is excited, nonetheless, and Steve listens to her ramble on about some of its properties with a wide smile.  He finds Bruce running through a hardware check with Johnny, who is showing him how to appropriately respond to a particular warning.  One of Bruce’s med kits is open on a table near him, and though his task is currently inventory, Steve is happy to find them already coexisting well.

 

Peter is elbow deep in something Steve’s not really sure is meant to be taken apart, but when he starts to question him on why he’s not doing surface checks on the HAB and marking any potential breaches, Peter tells him that he found a near-ready-to-break one, and he’s come up with some brilliant idea to solve a massive loss of oxygen that they would encounter if a breach did happen, and Steve leaves him to it.

 

He finds Betty and Tony last, where Tony has completely disregarded his task of running a systems check on the engines and is instead poking at one of Betty’s samples while she attempts to aggravate the molecular makeup of something that looks suspiciously like a small chunk of the moon.  He wants to ask her how the hell she got her hands on that, but Tony’s glib contempt for protocol draws his shoulders in tight as he approaches.

 

“Stark,” he says sharply.

 

To his credit, Tony doesn’t flinch, barely even lifts his gaze before he finishes what he was saying to Betty.  When he does, he turns his attention on Steve, and says, “What?”

 

“What is your problem?” Steve says, hands coming up on his hips as he stops, keeping distance between them.

 

“With?” Tony says, quirking an eyebrow.

 

“You had a very specific task, one that required your full attention and did not allow you time to distract your teammates.”

 

“He’s not—” Betty begins, not looking up.

 

Steve cuts her off, “That’s not the point.  Get to your station, and complete your morning task.”

 

“Almost done, Rogers, calm your tits,” Tony says, reaching up a hand.

 

Steve doesn’t wait for whatever gesture to take form before he says, “Is this some kind of joke to you?”

 

“Funny things are,” Tony says, his hand stopping midair, “You’re not that funny, though.”

 

“Tony,” Betty sighs, still not looking up.

 

“Don’t force me to speak to President Foster before we even complete day one of training,” Steve says, “I will not tolerate insubordination.”

 

“Seriously, Steve,” Tony says, pushing away from the table, “Do you think I’m some kind of moron?  I built the fucking ship, I know what the status of the engines, and just in case I didn’t, I have Jarvis constantly monitoring it.  I’m sorry if you consider my task simply a morning one, but I am always in contact with the ship, so kindly fuck off.”

 

Steve bristles.  “Your undivided attention needs to be devoted to the proper maintenance of this craft,” Steve snaps, “You can’t just leave it up to some computer to read it for you.  Technological error—”

 

“Is not a thing with self-improving AIs, dipshit,” Tony interrupts him, “Do you actually know what you’re talking about, or do you just spew some words that you think sound big?”

 

“I am your captain.  I—”

 

You—” Tony cuts him off again, “—are nothing more than a military snob who landed this gig because he has some glorified shoulder patches from a war that is still fucking going on, so clearly you didn’t do your job right.”

 

“Oh, because buying your way into space is such a better position to be in?  Your place here is no better than a—”

 

“Children!”  They both turn to find Bruce approaching them, hands held out at his sides.  “What the hell is going on?” he asks, looking between them, “Are you trying to get yourselves removed from this mission?”

 

“He—”

 

Shut up,” Bruce says, turning on Tony, “He is your captain, Tony.  He is our leader, something none of us has the gall to even attempt.  He is going to get us successfully through this mission as a team.  And you,” he rounds on Steve, “He is a certified fricking genius.  He may not have built the entire ship with his hands, but you can damn well bet he did so with the engines.  He knows this mission and its equipment better than anyone.”  Bruce pauses, looking between the two, “So the both of you need to get your shit together and stop fighting.  I will be monumentally pissed off if I have to go into deep space without either of you.  Understood?”

 

“You’re right,” Steve says, nodding and looking away.

 

He’s about to continue when Tony says, “If we make it back home, drinks are on me, Rogers.”

 

Steve grins at him, and he says, “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

“Then let’s get there and back alive.”

 

He lifts a fist, and though Steve will never admit to anyone that he bumps knuckles with Tony, he does.

 

——

 

Day Fourteen of Isolation Testing

0700 hours

 

“There’s no way,” Peter says, shaking his head.

 

He’s perched on the edge of his chair in a way that endlessly aggravates Johnny, his bare feet pressed down firmly, toes stretching, knees spread wide as he leans through them, watching Wanda work.

 

“You’re lying,” Peter says as he lifts both hands to his hair, fisting in it, which only just makes it wilder.

 

“Mark Watney was kind of a genius in his field,” Wanda says, stroking one of the sprouting leaves.

 

“This is the absolute coolest shit I have ever witnessed,” Peter says, hands coming out of his hair to drag down his face, “I’m switching majors.  Space botany.”

 

Wanda laughs, looking over at him.  She gives one of the leaves a last loving stroke and then takes her hands out from the pod, moving over for Peter to try.  He nearly dissolves at the feel of the plant, and then he’s asking her six million questions.  “We can seriously grow shit on Mars,” he says for the fourth time, just staring at the plant in disbelief, “I honestly didn’t believe it when I heard the stories.”

 

“There were labs all over campus that were testing it.  Why didn’t you just attend one of them?”

 

Peter waves a hand.  “I’m always busy, it’s the worst.  This is the most downtime I’ve had in months, and I’m not any less busy.”

 

“But this is what you want to do,” Wanda says, smiling at him, “I get it.  My thesis was overwhelming me, I felt like I was going to drown, and then I found out they were accepting applications for a geologist or botanist for a new NASA mission, and everything else just slid into place.  My exams went great, my thesis started making sense, and I felt like I could do anything.  They hadn’t even disclosed what the mission was yet, and I knew—I just knew.”

 

“Yeah,” Peter says, nodding, “Me too.  I left my phone and freaking laptop in my room the day they sent out the emails, and I thought I was going to have a panic attack if I couldn’t get to my email soon.  I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a form rejection letter instead.”

 

“Seems like they made a good decision on both of us,” Wanda says with a smile before she starts collecting her things and adds, “Hi, Steve.”

 

Steve smiles in greeting before he asks, “You guys seen Tony?”

 

Wanda’s smile shifts into a grin as she ducks away from Steve’s gaze and says, “Thought I heard him harassing Johnny earlier.  Almost time for dinner?”

 

“Yeah, head on in.  I’ll round up the rest, and we’ll eat before our haflway discussion.”

 

After he’s out of earshot, Peter snorts, and Wanda smacks his arm.  “Don’t,” she says.

 

“They’re totally gonna space bone,” he mutters, and Wanda starts cackling.

 

——

 

January, 2072

Day Before Launch

1300 hours

 

Steve thinks one would consider the kind of laughing Bucky is doing right now as howling, though, to be fair, he’s very close to crying, and his ribs hurt, and he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a more ridiculous look on Bruce’s normally calm face ever.

 

“You can’t just—it’s not—there’s all kinds of—and the—what the fuck, Tony,” Bruce finally says, and Wanda’s laugh starts turning into something like a broken squeaky toy.

 

“You sound like—a freaking—” but Peter just breaks, forehead thumping against the table as his shoulders shake.

 

“Guys, really,” Steve manages as he gasps for breath, “We have to leave.”

 

Bruce finally, finally, gets his words out, “You can’t just do that, Tony!”  He sounds a little hysterical, and that just makes everything worse.  Natasha leans into Sam, hiding her face in his shoulder as he pounds the table with his fist, laughing loud enough that he and Bucky are starting to draw attention.

 

“Honestly, Watney isn’t a big deal anymore.”

 

“He grew potatoes on Mars!” Bruce exclaims, losing his last shred of disbelief, “I can’t believe you just flipped off Mark Watney!”

 

“If you had heard what he said—”

 

“Hello?” Reed’s voice cuts through them all, and Steve nudges Bucky hard in the ribs as he looks over at him.  Reed waits as Sam and Bucky swallow down their laughter, Natasha straightens, and Peter claps a hand over his giggles.  “We’re on in thirty for the press conference,” Reed says, “Please compose yourselves.”

 

He leaves them to make faces at his back, which Steve admonishes them for, and then they collect their things and head out of the cafeteria.  When they arrive backstage, a team of stylists swoop them up and get them stage ready.

 

“You’d think they were putting us across a runway,” Natasha grumbles.

 

Steve looks over, causing the man fixing his hair to sigh in frustration.  “We’re the first manned mission since Ares III.  It’s a big deal.”

 

“Yes, and we have an even more ridiculous name than Ares,” Tony says nastily from somewhere to Steve’s right, though the man tugs at his hair when he tries to turn again.

 

“It’s not that—”

 

“It’s ostentatious.”  And that’s where that discussion ends.

 

When they’re finally presentable, Reed comes to collect them, and then it begins.  Jane’s voice heralds them, “I am incredibly proud to introduce to you Reed Richards, Director of the Europa Expedition, and the Icarus team.”  She introduces them each by name and station, as well as purpose on the mission, and they wait to sit until Reed does, after several pictures have been snapped.

 

The first question is directed at Tony, “Mister Stark, rumor has it that Icarus is a Stark Industries craft, rather than a NASA one.”

 

“There’s no rumor about that,” Tony says smoothly, “If you had read any of NASA’s reports on Icarus, you would know that that’s public knowledge, and the ship itself is, yes, built by Stark Industries, but also NASA approved.”

 

His comment opens the floodgates.

 

“Captain Rogers, what kind of sway did you have over the selection of the Icarus team?”

 

“We all had equal sway.  The team selection was done by myself, Sergeant Barnes, Mister Stark, President Foster, and Director Richards.  We spent some time deliberating over who would be chosen.”

 

“And yet, the first invitation was sent out merely an hour after you had begun.”

 

“Forty minutes, actually,” Tony pipes up, “I was running late.”

 

“The first invitation was sent to Doctor Banner and Doctor Ross,” Steve quickly says before Tony can say anything else damaging, “There had been conversation about them joining the team long before the official selection began.”

 

“What was the reasoning behind someone like Parker, then?  He hadn’t yet completed his masters, and he will likely be one of the youngest astronauts to enter space,” another one stabs.

 

“Certainly the youngest,” Steve begins.

 

“But probably also the brightest,” Tony finishes, “Peter’s work stands far above his peers, and we knew, without a doubt, that he was the perfect candidate for the biophysics role.”

 

“What purpose does a marine biologist have on a mission like this?”

 

Natasha’s eye roll is lethal.  “You do realize Europa has oceans far deeper than our own, correct?”

 

“There’s nothing to say that there’s life there.”

 

“Well, it would be pretty dumb of NASA to just assume there wasn’t.  You also can’t grow anything on Mars.”

 

“Oh wait,” Tony says.

 

Peter starts giggling.

 

“And is that the reasoning behind bringing a botanist?”

 

“Wanda is primarily a geologist,” Steve answers, glancing at his team.  He’s going to murder them as soon as they get out of orbit.  “Her skills in geology will help us understand the landscape of Europa, but we also wanted to test the plausibility of growing life on other planets now that we have seen it happen on Mars.”

 

“Even though Europa isn’t a planet?”

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Tony mutters, and though Steve hopes it was only meant for their ears, he knows Tony says it loud enough for everyone to hear.  “What, do you want us to try to grow things on Jupiter?  Sorry, it’s made of gas, that would be silly.  Steve knows that Europa isn’t a planet, but seeing as how we can’t even land on its planet, one of its primary moons is the next best thing.”

 

“And will you be visiting any of the other moons while in Jupiter’s orbit?”

 

“We won’t be in Jupiter’s orbit, oh my god,” Tony says, eyes bugging wide.

 

“Tony,” Steve says pointedly, looking across Bucky at him, “Knock it off.”

 

Tony opens his mouth, but Bruce punches him in the leg, and Steve answer the questions, “Tony is correct.  We won’t be in Jupiter’s orbit—rather, Europa’s.  However, a flight out of Europa’s orbit and into another’s would take precise calculation and time that we do not have that deep in space.  We will be sending a probe out to both Jupiter and Io, but no, we will not be moon hopping.”

 

Peter hides his face, trying his best to giggle silently.

 

The press conference continues on similarly.  When they eventually wrap up, nearly two hours have passed, and Reed looks mutinous.  He starts to reprimand them once they’ve left the conference room, but Jane beats him to it, “Thank god we’re sending your pretentious asses far away,” before she clicks furiously out of the room.

 

Steve’s grateful that they’re leaving tomorrow morning so that he doesn’t have to see the headlines.

 

——

 

Day of Launch

0400 hours

 

It’s early, though Tony can’t remember if he went to sleep or not.  He’s been in space once, briefly, on the most terrifying two-man mission he thinks the world has ever witnessed.  They had barely left orbit before the craft was breaking apart around them, and all Tony can think of now is the way Rhodey’s scream had filtered out in a rush of air before he’d blacked out, free-falling toward Earth.  There was a split second before when he saw the incredible curve and a lingering layer of atmosphere, and then the zero gs consumed him.

 

When he’d asked Rhodey if he would consider applying for the Europa mission, his best friend had laughed and hung up on him.  They’ve talked since, but both refuse to bring up Tony’s current trip into space until right now, just before dawn.

 

I love you, man.  Please come home.

 

He doesn’t respond to the text, doesn’t really know how to, and then the door to the Europa room opens.  Steve’s halfway in before he notices him.  “Oh,” he says, stopping, “Sorry.”

 

“It’s fine,” Tony says, waving him in, “Couldn’t sleep?”

 

“Maybe an hour,” Steve mumbles, walking toward him slowly before he dumps onto one of the sofas, “I’m exhausted, but I can’t shut my brain off.”

 

“Peter’s been texting me different scenarios and formulas for the last three hours.”  He holds his phone up as proof as it starts buzzing.

 

He quickly disproves Peter’s latest scenario and catches the tail end of what Steve’s saying, “—at freaking one in the morning.”

 

“Sorry, who did what?” Tony asks, looking over at him.

 

Steve shakes his head, yawning.  “Wanda was crying.  She’s so nervous.”

 

“Do you think she’ll be okay?”

 

“She talked to her brother last night.”

 

“Pietro?”

 

“Yeah.  He’s trying so hard to be excited for her, but they did everything together at school, and even in training, he came out to visit almost every weekend.  She’s afraid to leave him.”

 

“Did he apply?” Tony asks.  He genuinely can’t remember.

 

“He has asthma,” Steve says, “Regardless, he’s studying neuroscience and doesn’t have an interest in space travel.”

 

“What a brilliant family,” Tony laughs, “Neurology, geology, and botany, jeez.”

 

“Heard he was majoring in a language, too.”

 

“That’s awesome.  Do you speak any?”

 

“Romanian.  Bucky and I spent a few months there on a military extraction.  It seemed as good a time as any,” Steve says, shrugging one shoulder.

 

“Man, I did not peg you for a weird language.  Maybe Spanish or French.  Good for you.”

 

Steve just smiles and tips his head back, letting his eyes shut.  He dozes to the sound of Tony tapping away on his phone until the door opens again, and he looks over to see Wanda coming in.  Steve holds out a hand, and she immediately curls up next to him, laying her head in her lap and drawing his arm around her.  She falls asleep like that, and Steve thinks he might sleep a little because the sun is up when he next opens his eyes.

 

Bruce has joined them, and is resting against Tony’s legs, one of Tony’s hands threaded through his hair, massaging his head lightly while he explains something quietly to Johnny with the other.  Eventually, the others start filtering in.  Bucky and Sam stumble in looking like they’ve slept a half hour between the two of them and collapse around Steve, Bucky tucking up under his other arm and resting against his shoulder while he sticks his toes under Sam’s thigh.  Natasha comes in already dressed in her black bodysuit, hair done in a neat braid.  When Betty comes in, she drops down in front of Natasha and murmurs her thanks when she starts braiding her hair.  Peter is the last to join them, and he’s talking so fast when he comes in that they all groan at him.

 

Guys,” he says eagerly, “We have to be at the launch site in one hour.”

 

Steve jumps upright.  “What time is it?”

 

“Seven o’clock!  Tony, I’ve texted you, like, twelve times to hurry up.”

 

“Dude, you texted me probably a thousand and sixteen times in total tonight, I stopped looking at them.”

 

“Well, come on,” Peter says, stepping back toward the door, “Reed is looking everywhere for you.”

 

“Alright,” Steve says, rubbing a hand over Wanda’s arm with one hand and shaking Bucky’s shoulder with the other.  They wake slowly, looking around blearily, but it gives Steve room to stand, and he stretches, twisting both ways until his spine pops.  “Guys, come on,” he says, clapping his hands together once.

 

“To boldly go where no man has gone before,” Tony and Bruce say at the same time, and then there’s a chorus of noise that rouses them all.

 

They stand, stretch, and then turn to face Steve, who blinks at them.  “Cap?” Bucky says, “Waiting on you.”

 

Steve nods, once, looking around at them.  He grins and says, “Excelsior.”