Work Header

Straight on till Morning

Chapter Text

The holographic schematic of the warp nacelle sparkled pale blue as it hung in midair, projected up from Tony's worktable. The top half was run through with patches of light and shadow, courtesy of the afternoon sun shining through the Manhattan skyline outside Tony's window. Tony spun the schematic around with one finger, frowned, and took a sip of his coffee. He grimaced and set the cup down. Yuck. That had gone cold... sometime. He couldn't have been working that long, could he?

Tony sighed a despondent sigh and rubbed two fingers over his beard. Maybe he'd misremembered the numbers. "Give me those power-consumption projections again, please, Jocasta."

The numbers obligingly appeared underneath the schematic, angled toward Tony's view. And they were, unfortunately, the same as he remembered. Tony sighed again and brought his fingers to his temple, trying to stave off the incipient headache before Jocasta noticed. He'd gone through three hyposprays of analgesics in the last week. It wasn't like he needed to account for his usage to a quartermaster or CMO anymore, but Jocasta did have a tendency to be a little snippy when he tried to substitute the miracles of modern medicine for proactive self-care. He supposed Hank—or rather, Hank's AI experiment, and hadn't that been fun?—had programmed her that way. It made a little more sense as a mindset for Starfleet officers. If you were in Starfleet, you owed it to other people—to your captain, to your shipmates, to Starfleet—to keep yourself in good working order and to let someone know as soon as you weren't.

Yeah, well, Tony wasn't in Starfleet. Not anymore.

Jocasta's face, the face she'd once had in reality, materialized on one of the wall flatscreens, golden-eyed with silvery-blue metallic skin. Her perfect, symmetrical features wrinkled into an apologetic frown. "Sorry, Tony, those are the numbers. That's the best I can do."

"It's not your fault," Tony said, and he felt only a little silly worrying about his computer's feelings. "But there's no way to generate a warpfield at all with those tiny nacelles, is there?" He squinted and stabbed a finger at the top. "Wait. If you minimize the Bussard ramscoops—"


"If you cut them down by, say, a third, then you can extend the nacelle housing—"


His attention drawn unwillingly away from this new breakthrough, he glared at Jocasta. "What?"

"Incoming call," she said, serenely. "Starfleet Command."

Tony's stomach plummeted. He wasn't late on the design yet, was he? No, no, it was only Monday. "Look, just tell T'Challa I'll have his ship for him by Friday, like we said."

"It's not Commodore T'Challa," Jocasta informed him. "It's Admiral Fury."

Oh, hell. The engineers, the scientists—those, he could handle. They had an understanding. They showed up, he helped them make starships, and then they went away. But if it was Fury... well, Fury wasn't going to go away. He wanted something. He always wanted something. The same something. And the answer was still no.

Tony ran his hands through his hair and then slammed the table controls to kill the projection. The holo winked out. He sat down. He folded his hands. He unfolded his hands. He put his hands under the table. His heart pounded, and Tony wished, like he'd been wishing for the past five years, that he weren't intimately aware of every single lurching feeling in his chest.

He was being ridiculous.

He cleared his throat, swallowed, and cleared his throat again. "All right. Put him on."

Jocasta's face disappeared, and the screen flipped to a few seconds of the familiar UFP starfield-and-wreath insignia. And then there was Admiral Nicholas Fury, in full uniform. There was a little more gray at his temples than there'd been the last time Tony had talked to him. They were all getting older.

Fury's one organic eye squinted at Tony, and then glanced around, taking in the rest of Tony's workroom. Tony could feel his own mouth curve into a smile; Fury had finally replaced the old leather eyepatch with something a little more cybernetic, because Tony definitely saw the gleam of optical sensors where Fury's left eye wasn't. It was amazing, what they could do these days with prosthetics and implants. And Tony knew that better than most people did.

Tony's own artificial heart didn't have quite so many bells and whistles, but at least it kept on beating. Fleet had owed him that much.

"Lieutenant Commander Stark," Fury said, crisply, and, yeah, it was going to be one of those conversations again, apparently. Lucky him.

Tony gave him a tight smile. "Retired, sir."

Fury smiled the same smile back, just as cagey. "You say that every time."

"Maybe this time you'll believe me," Tony said.

There was a quiet, amused huff of a laugh. The visual pickup refocused as Fury leaned back and then leaned in again, like he was changing tactics. Like he wanted Tony to think he was Tony's friend. Like this was a casual chat. "So, how's the design going?"

"I'll have the new Defender-class specs by the end of the week, sir."

"Good, good," Fury said. "Glad to hear it." He paused significantly and raised an eyebrow.

Well, the pretense had lasted an entire four sentences. Maybe they were improving. But now it was time to get down to it.

"Okay," Tony said, "so do you want me to tell you no now, or do you want to go to all the trouble of actually pitching it to me first?"

Tony knew damn well what Fury wanted: he wanted Tony back in Starfleet. He'd come up with more and more outrageous offers over the years. Last time it had been a bump to captain along with command of the newest Constitution-class ship out of drydock. Like he'd thought Tony could have actually wanted that. Fury had read the mission logs. He should have known what happened when Tony was in command. When Tony was responsible. He'd seen what Tony had been responsible for.

The last time Fury had asked him about returning, Tony had finally snapped. For God's sake, he'd told him. I was never Command track. I don't want to be in command of anything. There are a thousand people who are better than me and who are more qualified than me and who actually want that damn captain's braid. I just want my engines. With all due respect, sir, leave me alone.

But here Fury was again. Maybe he'd forgotten.

The look on Fury's face, a smile that was almost soft, was probably meant to be coaxing. "This one's different."

"You said that last time."

"This one's different than last time." Fury turned his hands palms-up, extending his arms until they went out of range of the visual pickup. There was something open and pleading in his body language, more open than he ever was. "It's not just because I want you back in uniform. It's because you're the best person for the job. Please, Stark. Tony. It won't hurt anything to listen."

It wouldn't hurt, a very small voice in Tony's head agreed. He wasn't committing to anything. Fury wanted to make the offer. He might as well let him. Besides, if he really pissed Fury off again, Fury might have a word with T'Challa, and then T'Challa wouldn't let him play with the blueprints for the new warp cores anymore.

Tony sighed. "All right. Hit me."

But Fury shook his head. "Not like this. Not over comms."

Tony's gaze automatically went to the readouts under the display, where the encryption keys were still cycling. Jocasta always encrypted every Starfleet call for him.

"You're on a secure line right now," Tony told him. "We're encrypted end-to-end."

"Not good enough. Be here in half an hour and I'll tell you in person."

Tony stared. Not only was the insistence on additional security strange—Fury hadn't even insisted on meeting him face-to-face when he'd offered him a ship—Fury was at Starfleet HQ. In San Francisco. Four thousand kilometers away. "Sir?"

Fury raised an eyebrow. "Is there a problem with that, Commander?"

"It's rush hour, sir. I'll be lucky to get a transporter slot at Grand Central in the next forty-five minutes." Even as he was saying it, Tony couldn't quite believe the words coming out of his mouth. He hadn't meant to say yes to any of it. He hadn't.

Sighing again, Fury tapped out a few commands on the nearest console. "Right. You now have priority clearance to the Presidio transit complex from Grand Central. Take the Starfleet queue. I'll see you at 1400. Fury out."

Before Tony could so much as protest, the screen went black. All he could see was his own face, reflected in the darkness. What the hell had he gotten himself into now? What could be so secret that Fury could only tell him in person? He had to admit to more than a little curiosity about that—and that was clearly where Fury would get him. Right in his sense of adventure.

Well, Tony told himself, there was only one way to find out the truth.

Thirty seconds after Fury ended the call, Tony realized that if he was going to wait in the Starfleet transporter queue, he'd need to be in uniform. It was all part of Fury's plot to get Tony back, wasn't it?

Goddamn you, Fury, he thought, as he stripped out of his civilian clothes and went to get his old uniform out of the closet. The boots were on the floor, the trousers in the drawer, and all the shirts and jackets were still hanging up, like they'd been waiting for him all along. He pushed away what had once been his standard duty uniform—there was no call for an engineering vest at HQ—and found the gold turtleneck undershirt and burgundy jacket. This one was his dress uniform. All the ribbons were still in place under the arrowhead insignia on the breast of the jacket, a multicolored riot of glory and honor, and Tony hated each and every one of them. Star Cross. Prentares Ribbon of Commendation. Starfleet Award of Valor. Starfleet Citation for Conspicuous Gallantry.

He would have given them all back if that could have made Alpha Sagittarii III never happen.

It wasn't possible. He had to live in reality. Tony stood there for a few seconds, eyes shut, and fought back the old familiar anguish, swallowing it down and pushing it back, before he could continue.

Right. He could do this. He was surviving.

He slid into the trousers, pulled the undershirt on over his head, and tugged the boots on. The heavy jacket fit just like he'd remembered it, the shoulder tab flipping over to secure the jacket closed. Jocasta obligingly shimmered one of the walls into a mirror, and Tony stared at his own reflection. He straightened up, shoulders back, and he realized that he had to tighten the belt and that there was too much fabric at his shoulders. He'd lost a little weight since the last time he'd worn this; it was probably all muscle mass. He hadn't exactly been keeping up on his hand-to-hand practice since he'd gone civilian.

He looked... like a Starfleet officer. Like someone he didn't ever want to be again.

Think positively, he told himself. It's only for an hour or two. And at least they gave up on those godawful single-piece jumpsuits before you retired. The red was much better, especially with the new engineering gold on the tabs and undershirt. But at least the jackets were red. Red had been for engineers back when Tony had gotten his commission, and he had come to think of it as his. So if all of Starfleet wore red now, that was fine with him. Tony had always liked red.

"Lock up after me, Jocasta," he said, and he headed out the door.

The groundcar ride was slow and the streets were congested. Grand Central was, as always, full of hundreds of commuters, rushing home to other continents or even other worlds. The crowd parted for him—uniformed Starfleet officer, clearly on an important mission—as he jogged past the gates to the lunar shuttles, turning instead to the on-planet transporters. At the Starfleet queue, he put his hand to the scanner. The usual acceptance flashed: Stark, Anthony Edward. Lt Cmdr. Identity confirmed.

The Sulamid ensign at the transporter booth turned and waved three or four tentacles in his direction as Tony, the only one in line, hopped up on the pad. The ensign kept several other tentacles on the controls.

"With permission, sir," the ensign said. "Energizing now."

The world went away in a swirl of blue light. When it came back, there was another very similar transporter booth, this one staffed by an Andorian lieutenant.

"Welcome to San Francisco, Commander," she said, graciously enough, in the tones of a long-practiced speech. "The shuttle to Starfleet HQ and the main Academy campus in Marin is just past the west exit. The UFP Council building is to the east. City transportation is to the south. If you have any questions—"

Tony smiled, lips closed, so as not to present a threat. "Thank you, Lieutenant. I'll be fine."

When he got upstairs and hit daylight he started shivering, because it was summer in San Francisco—a cold day, as always. He'd gotten too used to New York. Still, the wind off the water was brisk and refreshing, and the day was surprisingly clear; the bridge stretched out before him all the way to the Marin headlands, where the Academy buildings nestled among the dry summer-golden hills. Tony walked to the railing, stared out at the bridge, and took a few deep breaths. In the distance, a seagull screeched.

Tony had loved this place, once.

He'd spent four years at the Academy, just like everyone else did. It had been good. It had been great. Of course it had. He'd learned so many things, made so many friends, and he'd been proud to join Starfleet. He'd been proud to take that oath. Part of him still was. It wasn't that Starfleet had failed him, or let him down.

No, he was the one who'd failed them.

Something wretched and cold twisted in his gut. His artificial heart pounded harder, and he gripped the railing, white-knuckled. And here he was, thinking of going back? How could he?

It was just an offer. It wasn't binding. He wasn't signing his name in blood.

He'd listen, and then he'd go home.

The office door whooshed open, and Fury looked up from behind his desk, sliding the PADD in front of him off to one side as he registered Tony's presence. The smile on his face was polite and perfectly innocent, like he wasn't even going to acknowledge how much he'd won by sheer virtue of Tony even showing up in San Francisco at all.

"Commander Stark." Fury motioned him in. The door shut behind him. "Right on time."

Tony felt himself straightening up and reflexively dropping into parade rest. "Admiral."

Fury waved a hand. "At ease. Sit down. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? The drinks synthesizer has finally mastered Tellarite tea. It's very good."

Tony perched on the edge of the closest chair. No sense in getting too comfortable. "No, thank you, sir."

Even as Tony was tense, everything about Fury spoke to an unworried, unhurried calm. His uniform jacket was undone at the shoulder and he leaned back.

The surface of Fury's desk, which had been doing its best imitation of antique walnut-inlaid oak, faded to a smooth holoemitter black when Fury stretched an arm out and tapped the table controls.

"I trust I don't have to tell you," Fury said, "that what I am about to reveal is classified." Tony nodded. And then Fury smiled again, even wider. It was an odd look on him, like he wasn't actually hiding anything—or at least, not hiding much, anyway. "What I haven't made clear is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"You said that last time. Sir."

Fury raised an eyebrow. "I already told you. This one's different."

He tapped the table controls again, and a holographic readout came up between the two of them, a virtual sheet of paper perpendicular to the table, its text glowing blue. Fury spun it so the translucent words faced Tony. And Tony stared, because... he'd read them before. He'd written them before.

"Federation Journal of Engineering," Fury said, as if Tony hadn't recognized the letterhead above the article title. "2282. Volume one hundred twenty-one. Issue two. 'Towards a unified approach to transwarp and other post-warp theories.' By Anthony Stark, Lieutenant Commander in Starfleet, retired." Fury looked up and brushed a finger through the air where the article floated. The footnotes and acknowledgments at the bottom of the page rippled. "It's not my area of expertise, you understand, but I'm given to understand that this was quite the sensation in the engineering world, four years ago."

Surprised, Tony blinked a few times and stared. It was definitely that article. Of everything Fury could have asked him, he hadn't been prepared for this. He hadn't expected to come in and talk about an old theory that had gone nowhere because he hadn't had the resources to build a working neo-transwarp drive and prove that he hadn't, in fact, been crazy. If he had still been in Starfleet or if he'd been affiliated with one of the major civilian yards, sure, maybe. But he was just Tony Stark. And—not that there was a nice way to put this—most of the people who had known him had been trying to decide if he was actually going crazy after Alpha Sagittarii.

He still couldn't figure out where Fury was going with this. "If by 'sensation' you mean that I nearly got into a fistfight with Commander Scott of the Enterprise during the question period of my talk at that year's Federation Society of Engineers conference on Rigel IV," Tony said, "then, yes, I suppose it was a sensation."

Oh, Scotty had been pissed. And they'd kept fighting across the responses sections of the journals for a couple more years. Tony's math had checked out, as far as anyone could tell without building the damn thing. But Scotty had won out in the end; it had been his transwarp theory used to inform the construction of the new engines on Excelsior. Tony still suspected those cores were going to destabilize the dilithium. But that was what Fleet had gone with. He couldn't really fault them; unlike the competing transwarp design, which could be retrofitted into an existing nacelle housing, Tony's proposal needed a ship built from the ground up with his engines in mind. But the power generation on a ship like that would have been absolutely incredible. Better than anything else, for its size. That ship would have been the fastest thing around. Not that he was ever going to be able to prove it.

"Mmm." Fury sat back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. "But you never built one of these... neo-transwarp engines, did you?"

What the hell? Fury had to know the answer to that one.

"No, sir." It still smarted a little. "Fleet didn't bite, and so of course no one else wanted to. Excelsior's transwarp drive wasn't based on my work. They only built the one Great Experiment. And I don't exactly own a shipyard." But really, Tony thought, Fury must know this already.

A very small smile lifted the corner of Fury's mouth. His once-impassive expression shattered as the smile grew wider. "What if I told you that we hedged our bets?"

The engineering article disappeared, and the holotable exploded into life. Between the two of them, stretching to the ceiling, was a blueprint for a ship Tony had never seen before. Not in reality, anyway.

As Tony watched, the blueprint quickly blew outward into three dimensions, into a wireframe schematic. The ship was recognizably Starfleet, but beyond that, all similarity to existing classes disappeared. It looked like someone had taken a Constitution-class ship and pulled it like taffy. What should have been a familiar circular saucer section was a long ovoid disk, set off from the engineering hull at a more obtuse angle than most ships: the disk was further forward, but not as high up. But the strangest thing was the design of the warp nacelles. The most notable feature of the design, the nacelles came up from the engineering hull and stretched forward over half the saucer, looming over it and then back again, along the length of the engineering hull and into empty space. Since the saucer had been extended, the design looked balanced and even elegant, with an odd kind of swooping, sleek beauty, but it also looked like some joker had pasted on the nacelles from another ship entirely, a ship that was supposed to be three times as big.

It was Tony's design.

As Tony watched, the wireframe was filled in with solid gray hull, with running lights, with dimmed, deactivated bluish nacelles in the housing... and then the background started to develop. A starfield. And then more metal, wrapping around the entire ship. Scaffolding. Not just scaffolding—drydock housing. And, at the very bottom, the soft reddish curvature of planetary atmosphere. Mars. The Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards.

It wasn't just a design. It was a ship. It was already a ship.

Tony tipped his head back to stare at the space above them as the camera view tightened, coming around below the ship to let her sail above their heads. The ship. His ship.

Tony was aware that his mouth was hanging open. "You bastard," he said, awed, admiring. "Fury, you bastard, you built her. You built her and you didn't even tell me."

Fury inclined his head in something that might have been a nod. "You were a civilian, Stark. Generally speaking, we don't read civilians in on classified construction projects."

Tony wasn't even listening. He was staring up at the holo as the camera drew closer and swung up and around the ship to the top edge of the saucer, where the name and registry number should have been. They were blank. They'd be the last thing to go on, with the rest of the final paint job.

"What's her name?" Tony's voice came out of him in one mesmerized breath, and goddammit, Fury had him where he wanted him and he hardly even cared. She was his. She had to be.

Smiling more widely, Fury tipped his hands up, palms out, toward the display. "Commander Stark, let me introduce you to the USS Avenger, NCC-2108. First of her class."

Avenger. He liked that. It fit. She looked fierce. She looked fast.

Tony squinted at the ship, trying to estimate relative size from the surrounding drydock and the shuttles and suited workers that drifted around her. "How big is she?"

"The Avenger's on the small side," Fury said. "Ten decks, 240 meters long—but a lot of that is the nacelles. We're fitting her out for a crew complement of 100, and even so there won't be a lot of spare room. The crew will be living in each other's pockets. She's small, but she's quick. She'd better be, with those engines of yours." He said it almost like a threat: unspecified retribution would descend on Tony if she wasn't.

"She will be," Tony said. He could practically see it now. "She'll be maneuverable as hell, with power to burn. You're thinking courier?"

Fury nodded. "Courier. Rescue. Some diplomatic missions, as well. Anything time-sensitive." That covered a lot of ground. "She'll be well-armed, with enough power for fairly heavy shielding—but with the right helmsman she'll be fast enough to dance around anyone who tries to take a shot at her, if it comes to that."

There wouldn't be any of the power tradeoffs Tony was used to. No sacrificing engines for shields, or vice versa. They could have everything. She was going to be amazing.

He needed her.

He'd designed those engines. He already knew them better than anyone. Fury couldn't just pass her off to some poor jumped-up lieutenant, fresh off a stellar research tour, where the most exciting things that happened in Main Engineering were the weeks you occasionally got to hit warp five, or six if you were really daring. Fury wasn't just going to hand off a ship that could breeze past the transwarp threshold to someone with no relevant experience.


There had been an oath.

Not the oath he had made to Starfleet, but no less serious. This one, he'd made to himself, sitting alone at his dining table. After. Shirt open, staring down at himself. Chest still half-raw. After the surgery, but before the docs had gone over the scars with a protoplaser, erasing the mission from his skin as if that could efface the rest of it. A glass in his shaking hands, a glass that absolutely definitely did not contain alcohol, because he might have been fucked up but he wasn't an idiot and he didn't— he didn't do that anymore.

I'm never going back, he'd said, and he'd raised his glass to a roomful of ghosts. It was my fault and I'm never going back.

He knew more about this ship, about these engines, than anyone else could. If the mission went sideways—and Tony knew, oh, he knew, that it could—he was the one person in the entire Federation who could keep this ship flying. Fleet would have come up with technical manuals, working from his specs, but it wouldn't be the same as absolute bone-deep knowledge. Anyone else Fleet could assign would, of necessity, be working on an unfamiliar system. He was the best choice.

People had died because he was there. He couldn't take the risk that more were going to die because he wasn't.

And besides—that ship was his.

"You want me for chief engineer."

Fury's nod was an infinitesimally small quiver of movement. "Chief engineer, yes. There's a promotion in it. You'd be a full commander."

Tony cleared his throat. He should have taken Fury up on that drink. "I'm not saying yes." He coughed. "I'm not saying yes yet. But I'm not doing this without Rhodes. Lieutenant James Rhodes. He's my second, or I'm not going. I assume I'd get to pick my department staff?" He didn't know how close they were to launching; it was possible Fury just wanted to slot him in.

"Within reason," Fury agreed. "There's the usual crop of ensigns, but the lieutenants will of course be at your discretion."

Another page of text appeared, facing Tony. Transfer orders. Not just any transfer—Rhodey's transfer. With Rhodey's signature and thumbprint at the bottom. And a promotion. Lieutenant Commander. Good for him.

"He already said yes," Tony realized. "You were planning this."

Betrayal had never felt quite so good before.

"Let's just say," Fury allowed, "that I anticipated your needs." The transfer order disappeared from view. He sat back, leaning into his chair. Casually. Too casually. "Indulge me, if you will: if you could staff this ship, who would your fellow officers be?"

Tony frowned. "That would be up to you, sir. You and the captain, once you've chosen the captain."

"This is an unusual situation," Fury said, and Tony had no clue what kind of situation could possibly lead to this—him, an engineer, recommending senior staff? But he didn't think he should question it. God, it would be his ship and Fury was asking him to cherry-pick Fleet's best and brightest to serve with? Fury must really want him. "And your recommendations," Fury added, "will be thoroughly considered."

Who would he want? His dream crew. Who would he pick?

It would be best, Tony thought, to start small, with the least senior of the senior officers. The lieutenants. He might be able to get away with more. And his ship, his engines, needed the best helmsman he could get. And then he realized he knew the perfect person. Tony's memory dredged up a pale-haired lieutenant, loud-mouthed, combative—but he could handle a ship like he'd been born to it.

"Lieutenant Pietro Maximoff for the helm," Tony said, decisively, and Fury just... nodded. Like he could have him, just by saying it. Wow. Okay. Time to push a little harder. "Wanda Maximoff, navigation." The twins worked best together, Tony knew, and Wanda had already been one of the best, by herself.

Fury nodded again.

"Barton, security." Clint was good. A little argumentative, but scarily competent, and an amazing shot. Why not?

Another nod.

Who would he put on communications? Jan. Of course. Jan. He wasn't going to do this without Jan, was he? This was his dream.

"Van Dyne on comms," Tony said, and Fury nodded immediately. But Jan wasn't going to want to go without Hank, and it wasn't like Hank's record was exactly spotless, what with Ultron. There was no way Fury would give him someone with Hank's past. But he had to try. "And Pym as science officer," he added. A lot of science officers doubled as XO, but Tony couldn't see either Hank or Fury going for that. Hank was iffy enough, and he'd be happy in the labs, anyway.

He held his breath and waited for Fury to refuse, because surely this...?

But Fury just nodded again. "Van Dyne and Pym. Done."

"McCoy for CMO," Tony offered, remembering the kindly physician from one of his first tours. He'd liked Hank. Fury wasn't really going to let him appoint senior command staff, was he?

This time Fury held up a hand. "You want McCoy of the Enterprise?" His voice was incredulous but not entirely unwilling, and the thought drifted through Tony's mind that maybe Fury would actually do that for him if he asked. What was going on here?

"Nuh-uh. Different one. Henry McCoy. No relation."

Fury's expression went blank, like he hadn't managed to place the name, and he brought up a file in midair on his side of the table. "I can't give you him," Fury said, but he had said it like he couldn't, not like he didn't want to. "He's six months out on a survey mission with the USS Graymalkin. I'll give you Doctor Donald Blake instead."

Tony hadn't heard of Blake at all, but he couldn't be expected to get everyone he named, could he? He shouldn't be expecting anyone. He'd just named five people—six, counting Rhodey—and they were all brilliant, and Fury had said yes. This couldn't be real. But Fury was still saying yes. He'd said yes to everyone except Hank McCoy. This was ridiculous. Fury must really want him to accept—but surely the captain would have their own opinion. The captain and maybe the first officer, but that was it.

Then it occurred to Tony that he'd forgotten a name on his dream team. Carol. They'd been fast friends at the Academy from the day they'd met in that flight sim training. They'd practically dragged each other through the Academy together. They'd made a terrifying pair in the junior-year tactical/diplomacy games. They'd promised to stay in touch. And they'd had two postings together, back when the two of them had been raw and green and nothing had hurt. Carol had seen Tony at his best—and she'd stuck by him at his worst, after Alpha Sag. And she was on Earth now, between postings, visiting family in Boston; they'd traded a few messages in the wake of the probe's devastation of the coastlines.

He couldn't think of anyone he'd recommend more highly for a command position.

"Commander Danvers for first officer," Tony said. Might as well dream big. "Ops if she'll take a department. But she's one of the best. If I can have anyone I want, I want her."

This was getting strange. Fury knew she was one of the best too. He had to. Everyone knew who Carol was. There were probably half a dozen ships fighting over who got her next. Heavy cruisers. The finest of the explorers. The most famous ships in Starfleet. Hell, maybe even the Enterprise. Fury wasn't going to put Carol on a courier mission on Tony's say-so. But Fury nodded. Again.

"You'll have Danvers."

That was absolutely it. There was no way Fury was going to give him everyone he wanted.

"Okay," Tony said. "Tell me. What's the catch?"

Fury had a hell of a poker face. "The catch?"

"This." Tony waved his hand. "All this. Asking for my recommendations. Letting me put together a crew. There's something else going on here."

"Two things."


"There are two things going on," Fury said. "Hear me out." He opened his mouth again, and right before he spoke Tony realized what had been coming all along. He moved his hand, beckoning, in a way that was probably supposed to be encouraging. "Danvers will be ops and second officer. I want you for first officer. Chief engineer and XO. You'll double up."

If Tony hadn't known they were planetside, he would have sworn the gravity had cut out. His stomach lurched and the room tilted vertiginously around him. He wasn't— he couldn't— how the hell could Fury make him the best offer of his entire career and then ask him to do this?

Because he knew he had to offer you a lot, idiot, said the small hateful, mocking voice in Tony's mind. He knew you wouldn't take a Command-track position unless he sweetened the deal. So now it's plenty sweet. And you're falling for it. Aren't you?

He remembered command. He remembered responsibility. He remembered gritty sand crunching between his teeth, and screaming, and blood soaking his uniform—

"I can't," Tony said, and his voice broke and cracked in the middle of the word. He shut his eyes. "I can't. I'm sorry. I wouldn't— you know what I did. I wouldn't be good enough. It wouldn't be safe."

When he looked up, the holos were gone, and it was just Fury, across the desk from him. He was in San Francisco. He was safe.

"Tony," Fury said, and somehow his voice was gentler than Tony had thought it could ever be. "I read the reports. What happened to the crew of the Pandora was... terrible. I'm not denying that. But you did everything you could to save as many people as you could. No one could have done a better job. You acted with selflessness, courage, and bravery, befitting a Starfleet officer."

Snorting, Tony waved a hand at his chest, where the ribbons were arrayed. "Yeah, they gave me some medals. You probably heard."

"I recommended you for them," Fury said, implacable, and Tony blinked, because he hadn't known that. "You're good. You're very good. I know you know that."

"I wasn't ever Command-trained," Tony pointed out, desperately. "I'm an engineer. I don't even have the coursework."

Fury stared back, unfazed. "Half of it is instinct and intuition. The important half. Which you already have, in spades. As for the rest of it—" he shrugged— "we're not launching the Avenger immediately. We'd put you in a quick Command course at the Academy. You're not the only officer who's ever needed to retrack."

Great. From his memories of Carol complaining about her seminars, he had the idea that it involved a lot of discussing diplomacy, the Prime Directive, and mostly what miserable ethical decisions a captain might have to make someday. He wondered if he could cite relevant life experience as credit.

Damn him, he was already thinking about this.

And Fury hadn't even given him a good reason.

Tony bit his lip. "Why me?"


"Why me?" Tony repeated. "Why not Commander Danvers for first? You know she's good. If you're so determined to get me to go Command, then—" he swallowed hard— "then I'll take second. What's wrong with that?"

There was a dry noise of acknowledgment. "That's the other part of the... catch, as you put it," Fury said. "Which would be the Avenger's captain."

Fury's face was unreadable. This had to be bad. Maybe it was someone Tony had punched on shore leave in the years before he'd sobered up? No, no, then Fury wouldn't want him anywhere near this captain. He hadn't even mentioned a name so far. Which was odd. If it had been someone good—someone Tony knew, someone who wanted him as XO, Fury would have said. Wouldn't he?

"Did they ask for me?" Tony ventured.

But Fury shook his head. "He's never met you." This made no sense. And then Fury smiled. "Let's just say I have a very good guess about what sort of person might fit well with him. You're right that Danvers would be good," he added. "You'd be better. He's going to need someone clever and quick, who will back him up, but not mindlessly. Someone who won't be overawed." Overawed? Who was this guy? "Honestly, that could be either of you, but he's specifically going to need an XO who has a very high degree of technical competence; he has a few... gaps... in his skill set. With your knowledge of the Avenger's systems and capabilities, you are the natural choice. We haven't formally made him the offer, either," Fury said, and, okay, that was really, really strange. "I'm hoping that your enthusiasm about the Avenger will be sufficiently exciting."

The world was starting to feel unreal, like Tony was just a leaf drifting through the air. Like he was trapped in a holoprojection. Maybe he was still dreaming. "You want me to sell this project to the Avenger's future captain?"

"Yep," Fury confirmed.

"Who doesn't know me?"


"When you don't even know if I'm interested?"

Fury's one-eyed gaze was withering, as if to say we both know the answer to that.

"Fine. Maybe I'm considering it." The admission stabbed at him, and he hissed out a breath through his teeth. "So who is this mysterious captain of yours?"

With another tap to the table controls, another holo appeared in midair. It was a flat, two-dimensional image, head and shoulders, the sort of picture Tony expected from a personnel jacket. The man was Earth-human, probably about Tony's age. Light-skinned. Blond. Blue-eyed. Astonishingly good-looking, really. He looked like someone Tony might have seen somewhere once, but he couldn't imagine where. The man's eyes were bright, and, though he wasn't smiling, something about his face was just... friendly. He held himself in a poised, confident manner. He looked like he'd stepped right out of a Fleet recruiting holo on how to be a starship captain. Tony could definitely imagine seeing him in holovids. Or maybe in his bed. That definitely wasn't an appropriate thought about his putative new captain. Tony hoped that admiral from Betazed didn't still have the office next door. At least telepaths were probably used to this kind of thing, though.

But of course, telling himself not to have the thought was a surefire way to keep thinking it, and now all Tony could think of was peeling this guy out of his uniform, unzipping that jumpsuit a little more—

Wait. Tony squinted. The man's uniform was at least half a century out of date. Was this some kind of joke?

"This is Captain Steven Rogers," Fury said. He paused, and he raised his eyebrows, significantly. Like the name was supposed to mean something to Tony. It didn't.

Captain Steven Rogers. He didn't know anyone named Steven Rogers currently serving. There was only one Captain Steven Rogers whom Tony had ever, ever heard of, actually, and that was— that was—

Tony stopped. He stared at the uniform in the picture again. The man was wearing a dark blue jumpsuit, with the old command-gold visible in a thin piping at his shoulders. On the right side of his chest, within the division piping, he wore a captain's four pips, in the old, old, simple style of rank marking. There was an assignment patch of some sort on his left sleeve; Tony couldn't make out the details. The jumpsuit was a little bit unzipped—which had, understandably, drawn Tony's attention—and he wore a black undershirt beneath it.

No one in Starfleet had worn anything like that since the goddamn Earth-Romulan War.

And Captain Rogers—

It couldn't be.

This was a joke. This had to be a joke.

"Captain Steven Rogers," Tony repeated, shakily. "Captain of the USS Invader during the Earth-Romulan War. Hero of the Battle of Cheron."

Fury nodded. "That's him."

"I have two problems with this, sir," Tony said, and Fury looked at him, patiently; he knew damn well what Tony was going to say and had clearly decided to let him say it anyway. "One: the war ended in 2160. A hundred and twenty six years ago. Unless he's got some Vulcan blood in him, Captain Rogers shouldn't still be alive and kicking." Tony's hand dug into the arm of his chair. "And two: he shouldn't be alive now, after the war, after Cheron, at all. The Invader was destroyed in that battle."

In his Academy days, Tony had written a paper for his Strategy and Tactics class; they'd each chosen a particular commander and had to pick apart their decisions at an engagement. And Tony, he was remembering now, had chosen Rogers at Cheron.

Cheron had been an interesting battle. Not only had it been the decisive victory of the war, it wouldn't even have been won without Rogers. Or so Tony's thesis had gone. The Romulans had always outnumbered the Federation—or rather, the Earth/Vulcan/Tellar/Andor alliance that was to become the Federation—with hundreds of fast little ships. But at Cheron they'd also brought capital ships. And they'd set them against Earth's starships. The Romulans had beaten down the Earth side, with major losses, and ChR Sseikea, the Romulan flagship, had been bearing down on the nearly-defenseless USS Oriskany, one of Earth's few remaining heavy cruisers.

The Invader hadn't been a heavy cruiser. She hadn't been much of anything. Small. Fast. Maneuverable. Lightly-armed. But she'd been the Earth forces' good-luck charm, of a sort, because before Cheron she'd just kept winning. Rogers had been good. Or lucky. Or both. His grasp of tactics had been like no one else's, and Tony remembered reading that they'd tried to offer him other ships, further promotions, and he'd refused. There'd been some quotation about how he'd just wanted to help people. To save people. To do what he could. And this, he'd said, he could do.

Oriskany's captain had been quoted about that moment at Cheron, afterwards, saying that she'd thought that the Invader's luck—Rogers' luck—had finally run out, and she was about to take all of them down with her, in her misfortune. The Invader had already been heavily damaged and was weaponless. She shouldn't have been a threat. The Romulans clearly hadn't thought she was.

And when Sseikea had been ten seconds out of her main battery range, closing in on Oriskany, Invader had used her one remaining weapon: herself. Rogers ordered a collision course, his comms officer bade Oriskany farewell, and Invader rammed Sseikea broadside at nearly full impulse.

Neither ship survived.

Tony had never been able to imagine the courage it would take to do that, to sacrifice himself in a split-second for what he believed in. But Rogers had done it. It was like something out of those twentieth-century comic books Tony had loved as a child. A real hero.

With the loss of the Romulan flagship, the tide of the battle had been turned, and then the war, and they owed it all to Rogers. Rogers, who was most definitely dead.

Tony dragged his attention back to the admiral. Surely there was some other explanation. This couldn't be that Captain Rogers. Still, that explained why Tony thought he'd looked familiar; he must have seen a picture of the man once.

"Ah." Fury smiled. "Well. Yes. You are correct about both of those points, Commander. To an extent. But I assure you that Captain Rogers is alive. I met him yesterday."

Okay. Tony was smart. Tony could work through this. Setting aside the issue of how any human who'd fought in the Earth-Romulan War could still be alive—if this man were really Rogers, he would have had to have survived Cheron. And that was where Tony's brain stalled. Again. "Sir, the Invader was confirmed destroyed."

"No." Fury's correction was calm. "She was presumed destroyed. Which was a fair assumption at the time. There was no visual data, but the course she'd charted was a direct collision with the Romulan flagship, and she dropped out of all telemetry at the time of her predicted collision. Sensor readings taken after the battle revealed high levels of radiation consonant with both a failure of quantum singularity containment—from the downed Romulan flagship—and a warp core breach, assumed to have destroyed the Invader." His expression was grave. "They were finding bits of Romulan hull for years afterward, but the Invader was so small, comparatively. We'd always assumed she'd been vaporized in the matter-antimatter chain reaction."

Tony's mouth was dry. "How—"

"One-in-a-million chance," Fury said, grimly. "They never actually hit the other ship. They managed to eject their whole warp core assembly. That was what hit. And they still had shields when the shockwave hit them. But it wiped out everything. All systems. Hull breaches on every deck. No comms, no power, no reserve power, no gravity, no more engines, and she was venting oxygen. No way to send an emergency signal. And everyone was dead except the captain—who was honestly fairly close to death himself, truth be told."

Hell of a way to die. Oh, every spacer had to be prepared for it, of course, the possibility that you'd die alone in the dark, slowly, as your air ran out, with no way to signal for help. Depending on how much air you had left, you might have hours or even days to ponder your impending doom. Tony had decided a long time ago that he'd rather put a phaser to his head first. Another reason he wasn't cut out for command.

But Rogers had clearly made another choice. Maybe there'd been escape pods. A lifeboat? No, not on a ship that size. "What happened?"

Fury pursed his lips. "It turned out that exactly one system on the ship still had power, because it had redundant backups for precisely this eventuality. The Invader's sickbay had an emergency medical cryo tube."

Oh, God. Tony could picture it now—this man in the photo, Captain Rogers, bleeding and half-dead, emergency rebreather over his face, crawling through the wreckage of his dying ship in the darkness, floating past the bodies of his crew, to get to the one thing that still worked: the cryogenic stasis tube. And all alone, he'd climbed in, shut the hatch, and locked himself into suspended animation, into the cold embrace of the future, not knowing if he'd ever be woken, or if he'd die when the system finally ran out of power...

"He froze himself," Tony said, very softly. "God help him, he froze himself and waited for rescue."

"He did," Fury agreed, in the same quiet tone. Tony watched as Fury breathed in and out, slow and even. A sigh of regret, perhaps. "And we never even knew he was out there. But then we stumbled across him. A salvage crew working the Cheron system found what was left of the Invader two weeks ago. The cryo was still functional. Just barely."

Tony's mouth opened and closed. "Is he— is he—"

He didn't know what to say. Captain Rogers of the USS Invader was alive. It wasn't every day you heard a thing like that. It was almost unbelievable. But he'd always been lucky, they'd said. He'd always been good. And, well, it seemed he'd been the luckiest, after all.

"He was in a bad way at first," Fury said, and Tony looked down to see his own white-knuckled hands gripping the arms of the chair. He was leaning forward, he realized. Fury's manner shifted and was almost soothing, like it had been earlier. "It took us a while to bring his core temperature up safely. This old cryo is touch-and-go. Not much better than those twentieth-century sleeper ships." Tony suppressed a visceral shudder. "But we got him eventually," Fury continued. "Fixed up the original damage from the battle, as well. He spent a week or so drifting in and out of consciousness. Doctor Blake took excellent care of him."

That was the doctor that Fury wanted to give him on the Avenger. And, come to think of it, this was why Fury wanted his input on personnel—because Rogers wouldn't know anyone from this time. And this was why Fury was being so particular about who Rogers' XO should be; Rogers was going to need someone to cover for the century of history and technology that he didn't have. For God's sake, he predated the entire Federation.

And Fury really thought Tony—washed up, fucked up, broken, and retired to boot—would be the best person in all of Starfleet to be second-in-command to Steven Rogers, hero of Cheron?

He... he didn't know what to say to that.

"He's conscious?" Tony asked, instead.

Fury nodded. "He has been for a few days. We've been running tests. Trying to get him caught up on what he's missed. He seems to be taking the future shock remarkably well. Nice guy."

"And you want me to talk to him?" Tony pressed, just to make sure. "You want me to... recruit him to Starfleet?"

Another nod. And Fury must have seen a bit of his trepidation, then, because his voice went soft yet again, and Tony hated himself for welcoming the sympathy. "Tony. I'm not asking you to reactivate your commission this minute. This is the offer I've made you. The ship. The crew. The mission. And the captain. Just talk to him. See how the two of you get along. See if you hit it off. See how he likes the idea of it."

"If not me, then Danvers?"

"Then Danvers," Fury confirmed. "But I have... a sense about these things."

Well. Tony supposed he could give it a try. At least he could say he'd met Steven Rogers. That'd make a story for his nonexistent children. "All right. Where is he, and when do you want me to meet with him?"

"Starfleet Medical," Fury said. "And you can go any time you want. Right now, while you're here, if you want. He's not busy. I think he'd like the company."

Before Fury had said those words, the idea of meeting Rogers had been daunting, but it had been almost pleasant from a distance. But only from a distance. Starfleet Medical was on the far side of the Academy campus. Tony could be there in fifteen minutes. In fifteen minutes, he could meet one of his lifelong heroes—and the only non-fictional one, at that. What the hell was Tony supposed to say to a man who'd given his life to save Earth? Hi, I'd like to be your Number One. I have zero command qualifications. Let me tell you all about how my last captain died in my arms because I just wasn't good enough.

Yeah, that was going to go over stunningly well.

Tony stood up dizzyingly fast; the chair shot away from under him.

"Excuse me," he managed to say. "I think I should go."

"You're going over there now?"

A possibility for a reprieve drifted through Tony's mind. A temporary stay of execution.

"Nah." Tony pasted a cocky grin on his face and tried to quell the churning of his gut. "I think I'll head to Mars first."


"Utopia Planitia," Tony clarified, still grinning. "I'm gonna go see my baby."

Fury glared up at him and folded his arms across his chest. "Stark."

"I assume I've got clearance to see the Avenger now."

"Commander Stark."

"Good chat," Tony said, babbling as he backed out of the room. The door opened. "Great talk. Thank you, sir."

The last thing he heard before the door closed was Fury's exasperated sigh, and, yeah, this was already getting to be just like the old days. Fast.

Tony wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

Passenger clearance to the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards and a berth number that fell into the range for one of the Yards' skunkworks projects flashed onto Tony's PADD about twenty seconds after he stepped off the transporter pad at the Luna farside complex, heading for the in-system shuttles. Which was good, because at least Fury wasn't going to turn him back at the metaphorical gate.

No one so much looked at him on the Mars shuttle. He was one of a half-dozen officers filing aboard. They all quietly took their seats. No one gave him a second glance: he was just some lieutenant commander, headed out to Mars. Tony could have been the kind of person who did this every day. Everyone else probably assumed he was still serving. Why wouldn't they? They didn't know him. Sure, maybe his uniform had a few more ribbons than most, but that didn't mean he was anyone special. Just another officer. Tony shivered. It would have been so easy for this to be his life again.

Tony scrolled through his messages as the pilot released the docking clamps. Fury had provided a list of everyone Tony had just recommended to him, their names filled into pending transfer orders, with the short notation at the top: just tell me when.

Great. Tony blew out a long breath. No pressure there, huh?

As the shuttle's impulse drive kicked in, another message came in, with no commentary: he had access to Steven Rogers' basic personnel jacket and service record, some information redacted for security reasons. As he scrolled down, he saw the file header: the same image Fury had shown him, a captain in a century-old uniform.

Tony wondered if that meant Rogers had his file as well. Probably. And with his luck, all the old drunk-and-disorderlies would still be in there along with Alpha Sag. Well, that was going to make him look even better.

He closed Rogers' file. He wasn't going to look at it. He wasn't going to think about it. He was going to go see his ship. The ship. Maybe not his. He shouldn't get attached. But whether or not he took the offer, he could at least see her.

Thirty minutes to Mars could have meant plenty of time for second thoughts, but Tony had fewer than he'd thought he might; the excitement that rippled through Tony had only the slightest nervous edge. Even with everything that had happened, he was going to go see a ship he'd designed. He couldn't not look forward to that.

Soon enough, the red planet was in view. The shuttle swung around and made a smooth docking at one end of the Utopia Planitia complex. The Fleet Yards had started on the ground, at the Utopia Planitia plateau itself, but when they'd built the orbital facilities they'd kept the name. Some of the smaller ships were started on the ground and launched later, when they were closer to completion, but the big starships—of which Avenger was probably one—were built stem to stern in space, born in this very spot. And he'd seen more than a few ships built and launched, over the years—but they'd never been his.

When he disembarked from the shuttle, his fellow occupants moved past him, heading with assurance to their destinations, or meeting their companions here at the docking bay. After everyone else had left, there was a lieutenant still standing in the arrival hall. She was wearing a regular duty uniform, but her blond hair was a little mussed in a way that suggested she'd probably been wearing a pressure suit twenty minutes ago; she stood with her feet planted apart, like someone used to wearing magnetic boots. She looked like she was waiting for someone, and he was the only one still here.


"Welcome to Utopia Planitia, sir," she said, smoothly. Her demeanor projected calmness, coolness, control. Typical Yard worker. Hard to rattle. Tony liked that about these people. "I'm Lieutenant Robin Chapel, liaison for the Avenger project. You'll have to forgive me, Commander. We had no idea anyone from Admiral Fury's office was coming until we got the message an hour ago. It's 1300 now, station time. There's nothing particularly exciting prepared for the rest of the day. Just some power tests." Her blue eyes went wider; her voice was tinged with apology.

Oh. She didn't know who Tony was.

Tony smiled and let the rush of gratitude wash over him. She hadn't recognized his face. She hadn't looked at the medals and tried to figure out what he'd done. She just thought he was some bureaucrat looking for an update and she was starting to worry that they wouldn't have anything to show him that anyone other than an engineer would care about.

Luckily for her, that was what Tony was there for.

"Relax, Lieutenant," Tony said. "I'm not here for a formal progress report. I just want to see the ship. Maybe get my hands dirty, if you'll let me." When he paused, she was staring in incomprehension. "I was the one who did the initial design," he added.

And now Chapel was grinning. "You're Tony Stark?" she asked, and Tony thought maybe that was the happiest anyone had ever sounded about meeting him in... years, probably.

"That's me."

"Oh," she said. "Oh, wow." And then she laughed. "Chief Ballinger is going to be thrilled. Come this way, sir. Let me show you your ship."

Chapel herded Tony into a second shuttle.

"You're lucky you're here this week, Commander," she said, executing a smooth takeoff. The shuttle dropped down, relative to the station axis, heading for one of the partially-closed bays; they must have moved the ship since the holos Fury had shown Tony had been taken.


Chapel didn't look up. "Mmm-hmm. We just got the air in." That was probably why the Avenger was in a bay; the oxygen hookups were always massive. "Power, lights, and air. It was vac suits for everyone up until last week."

"Glad I missed that, then," Tony agreed. In the back of his mind, the part that was starting to busy itself with the day-to-day minutia of how am I ever going to join Starfleet again? the thought drifted by that he actually needed ten more hours of suit time to keep his EVA license for the year. It would be a shame to be a chief engineer without one.

He couldn't seriously be considering this.

"Well," Chapel said. "Here we are."

The little shuttle dove again and swooped into the open end of one of the bays, and—

The Avenger hung in the center of the bay. She was small; the drydock was designed to accommodate ships that were easily twice her size, and she looked even smaller for it. But she was sleek, powerful; that much was evident from the length of those huge nacelles, the way the disk was tapered to even out the future warpfield bubble. She was going to be fast; she was a Thoroughbred in a stable of plow horses. She was Tony's dream given substance, exactly as he'd pictured her.

She was beautiful.

Tony didn't realize he was reaching out until his searching fingers bumped the transparent aluminum of the window. The impact startled him.

He realized he was smiling.

He knew then that he was already gone. No matter what Captain Rogers was going to think of him, he had to have this ship.

Tony's booted footsteps echoed on the deckplates as he followed Chapel along the Avenger's corridors. He'd done the basic design of the ship, true, but he hadn't done a deck-by-deck breakdown, so this was all new. He did, however, have a good idea of where Chapel was leading him. The ship was clearly still unfinished; the metal was unpainted, and most of the bulkhead panels weren't yet installed. They were stacked neatly on the deck, and the gaps where they should have been were showing exposed, long, twisted cables and circuitry within the walls. The duotronic relays gleamed, and Tony gave them an admiring once-over as he passed them. They were the new ones, with reduced data transfer latency. Every other engineer was going to be so jealous.

He saw what Fury had meant about the ship being a tight fit. Tony had been on big ships once, Constitution-class ships, even the old ones, from before the redesign. Back then it had seemed their corridors had gone on for kilometers, wide and spacious. These corridors were a little tighter, and the doorways spaced closer together. There wouldn't be room for any of those flagship luxuries like massive rec decks. If he was lucky, there'd be a rec room with a tri-D chess set. It would be fine. He'd served on smaller. Besides, the smaller Avenger was, the faster those engines could push her.

They turned a corner, and Tony stopped dead in the doorway and tilted his head back at the sight. Main Engineering. It was one of the few rooms on a ship that needed space, and it got all the space it deserved: a long, high-ceilinged room stretching forward, like the nave of a church. Tony wanted to kneel and bow down, humbled in the face of the glory of science. At the far end of the room, which was walled with the flat panels that would become power and energy readouts and ship cutaways, was the main matter-antimatter intermix chamber itself. The heart of the ship. Tony's design. Only an engineer would have known how the column was different, but any engineer would have been able to spot the differences instantly: it was feeding more antimatter into the reaction chamber than any other warp drive. That was the key to Tony's neo-transwarp theory: given a very particular nacelle and disk design, they could hit final stability for a warp bubble at a different, higher-energy point than any existing warp theory had predicted, allowing them to break the transwarp threshold with ease. That was also the unbelievable part of Tony's theory.

Well, he'd find out soon enough if he was right.

Oh, Starfleet had tested the basic injection process on a smaller scale before building this—or so Fury's reports had said—just to determine that the drive wasn't going to explode and kill them all, but that had been entirely lab-based. This was a real ship. His ship.

Tony had drifted all the way across Main Engineering before he was really aware of moving, and he had a hand stretched out over the safety railing to rest on the middle of the column, the dilithium containment chamber. It was empty now, of course, and the column was still dim, but it was so easy to imagine the drive pulsing with light and energy.

It was so easy to imagine himself here again. In charge of all this.

"Commander," Chapel was saying. "Commander." She sounded like she'd been trying to get his attention for several seconds.

Tony turned around. Taking his hand off the drive was like ripping it away. "Sorry," he said, and then he registered that Chapel was standing next to a man he didn't know, an older man in an engineering non-com's uniform.

"Commander," Chapel said, "this is Chief Ballinger, foreman of this project." She glanced at the non-com. "Lenny, this is Commander Stark. He designed the warp drive. And the ship to go with it."

Ballinger grinned wide, wide, wide. "Pleasure to meet you, Commander," he said, and out of his mouth came an old New York accent so extraordinary that Tony had thought he'd only heard it in period holodramas. He was going to like this guy. "I've been saying for months I wanted to meet the sonuva— uh. The man who designed this."

"Well, every centimeter of that reactor assembly is absolutely my fault." Tony grinned back. "Did you want to shake my hand or punch me?"

There was a dawning respect in Ballinger's eyes. Tony recognized it as thank God that Fleet hasn't sent me an idiot who doesn't know bow from stern. "Depends on if she'll fly, sir."

"Oh," Tony said, feeling confidence curl through him. "She definitely will."

And then Ballinger turned around to watch two pressure-suited techs maneuvering a heavy float pallet, and clearly doing so at mismatched speeds. "Hey, hey, hey! Baldwin! Baldwin! Not so fast! Hey, Robbie! Slower! Come on!" The hapless Baldwin slowed down, and Ballinger turned back and shrugged at Tony, with one of those half-indulgent, half-apologetic hey, you know, they're kids, what are you going to do? expressions on his face.

Tony pictured himself standing here surrounded by a pack of equally-confused fresh-faced ensigns. This could be him. He could be here.

To be honest, it sounded... fun.

"So," Tony said. "I was going to ask for the tour, but now I'm wondering if you might benefit from another pair of hands down here. I promise I know what I'm doing. I won't weld the plasma conduits together."

He hoped Ballinger wasn't going to ask why. It was only a half-formed notion in Tony's head, that the Avenger would really be his then, if she could be something he'd built.

Ballinger clapped Tony on the shoulder, a slap that jarred him up to the jaw. "Well, you're a damn sight better than any of those other officers Fury sent us. Right this way, sir. We'll put you to work."

Ballinger hadn't been kidding about putting Tony to work, and Tony had been more than happy to spend the entire rest of the afternoon helping run the emergency power conduits between Decks Seven and Eight. They'd pulled up half the decking as they'd gone, and Tony had spent a good three hours literally hip-deep in circuitry. He'd built something. His hands had shaped this ship. So despite the ache in his lower back, he was feeling pretty damn good about the day. When—if—he took the chief engineer job, he'd still be seeing the insides of conduits and endless banks of relays along with kilometers of Jeffries tubes, but he'd likely be seeing it all mostly after it had been blown to hell. It was refreshing to get a look at the Avenger while everything was still, as the phrase went, shipshape.

At the end of the workday the chief had even let him do something relatively big, in the grand scheme of things: he'd let him climb up into one of the nacelles and run the last few meters of power conduits into the main emergency power junction and try the test-cycle simulation for jump-starting the warp intermix from emergency power only, a task that involved pulling half the bulkheads in the starboard nacelle junction room open again and running more cable. Tony had done it in three minutes, which was respectable for a ship class he'd never had his hands on; his standard for himself had been two, before. There was room for improvement.

And Tony was still here—stationside, at least. There were transitory personnel quarters in the main section of the complex, and Chapel had been happy enough to arrange billeting for him. He'd stay here a day or two, maybe. Get to see the rest of the Avenger. Come up with something to say to Captain Rogers that didn't sound so damn pathetic.

Lying in bed, Tony tapped the far bulkhead with his foot. His head was barely two centimeters from the other bulkhead. He didn't have any kind of window, and this room that Strausser—another one of Chapel's non-coms—had shown him to was more or less a bare metal bunk with barely enough room to stand up straight. It would do. He'd had worse.

It had been a long day. He shut his eyes.

And then he was there again.

The air was too thick, and his body was too heavy. Everything was dim underground; as the guards dragged him through the tunnels, the occasional ventilation shafts carved overhead revealed the barest glimpse of clouded violet skies shaded by massive, towering trees. He tripped, and they dragged him through the gravel anyway.

Once, he'd thought he was going to learn the turnings, make a map, plan an escape.

He was never going home.

If he gave in, Yinsen would have died for nothing. The others would have died for nothing. And he was going to die just the same, but he'd die with his oaths intact.

They'd cuffed him again today. They'd put his hands behind his back. His wrists were galled, scarred, rubbed raw over the scars.

The guards shoved him forward into the same room, the same room as every day, dropping him face-first into the dirt, where he could barely see the edges of all their scavenged Federation technology. Everything they wanted him to assemble and reassemble in the most awful of ways. He didn't move as they turned him over, ripped open his bloodstained uniform, attached the leads to the ports they'd sunk into his sternum.

They were smart enough to know they couldn't kill him and get what they wanted, but that didn't mean they couldn't make it hurt. They'd started with direct stimulation of the pain receptors. But they'd been running that particular torture device with a repurposed phaser battery, and they'd run it dry. Days ago. Maybe weeks. So they'd had to switch to their own technology. And that was when they'd figured out they could manipulate the shrapnel that had been oh-so-recently lodged in his chest.

Then they'd done the surgery.

"Greetings," said the same voice from the other side of the room; the vocoder of the Universal Translator they'd stolen rendered it, as always, with harsh coldness. They all used the same speech pattern, but Tony squinted into the shadows and thought he saw the huge dark eyes of the first interrogator. They were always the worst one of the lot.

Tony said nothing.

"Again," the interrogator said. "We require access to Federation technology. You will produce for us a Federation warp drive and the designs necessary for mass production. You will produce for us Federation weaponry. You are a Federation engineer. You will tell us everything you know."

Tony coughed. Spat blood. "I refuse."

The interrogator tilted their head. Their fingers moved toward the control switch. "Describe the theory and construction of a so-called 'planet-cracker' bomb."

The Prime Directive was more important than his life. This was what it meant to be a Starfleet officer.

Tony lifted his head. "Stark," he rasped. "Anthony Edward. Lieutenant Commander in Starfleet, United Federation of Planets. 34445464." It was the only thing he'd told them. A spark of heat sizzled across his breastbone, a mild rebuke. He drew a gasping breath. He started again. "Stark, Anthony Edward. Lieutenant Commander in—"

The interrogator flipped the switch.

Everything was fire, his chest burning and burning, and he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe, oh God, he was going to die here in the dark, he was going to die like the rest of the crew. He was convulsing, head thrown back, scrabbling at the dirt, wrists scraping the cuffs, and he was screaming and screaming, the sound echoing through the caves.

Tony's eyes shot open. He was soaked in sweat, gasping for breath, and his throat was raw. He'd been screaming again. He sat bolt-upright and slammed the lights on, as bright as they could go.

He'd thought he was getting better. He hadn't had that dream in a few weeks. Served him right for thinking about Alpha Sag so much today.

It was five years ago, he told himself. You survived. You made it. You're not there. You're safe. It's 2286. You're in Mars orbit. You're at Utopia Planitia. They're building your starship. No one is going to hurt you.

Deep breaths. In. Out. In.

His heart, the new heart Fleet had given him afterwards when they'd tried to put him back together again, pounded in his chest.

Maybe this was a bad idea. He couldn't go back, could he?

Regardless, he wasn't going to get any more sleep tonight. He fumbled for the PADD next to his bed, and the first thing he brought up, without really intending to do it, was Rogers' personnel file.

He scrolled past the picture Fury had sent him, expecting the usual birthdate and birthplace. Huh. Those were redacted. Not just redacted. REDACTED BY ORDER OF UNITED EARTH FORCES, the file said, in blaring blue letters. That predated the Federation. The data had been redacted since Rogers had joined Starfleet. That was... well, that was strange. Oh, there was plenty of information on the battles he'd fought in the war, everything Tony had already known, but it was like Rogers hadn't existed before he'd joined the military. Starfleet had been the military then, anyway.

Tony frowned. There had been a lot of classified work going on back then, during the war—hell, a lot of it was probably still classified—and it was possible Rogers had been mixed up in something big. Some kind of Intelligence work, maybe. Whatever it was, it clearly wasn't Tony's business.

There were a few things at the beginning of the file that he hadn't known; Rogers had started out as a MACO, with—apparently—a direct commission as a captain, the reason for which was again probably covered in the redacted section. There were commendations, and then they'd... shunted him off to Starfleet. From the ground forces to the space forces. Hell of a lateral transfer. And then they'd given him the Invader.

Tony supposed that sometimes things like that just happened in wartime, but that had to be the strangest battlefield promotion ever.

He supposed that he could ask Rogers about it when he met him. If. If he met him. Dammit.

And then he scrolled down further, and got to what Fury had been telling him about Rogers' miraculous survival, with some psych reports attached. Rogers seemed to be taking the future very, very well. He didn't seem to be suffering too many ill effects from having frozen himself in his broken ship. The evaluation stressed how well-adjusted he was. The perfect Starfleet officer.

Tony was pretty sure that he himself had seemed absolutely fine for the first few days after he'd gotten home, after they'd gotten him a new heart. Until they came in with the medals they'd wanted to pin on him. His shipmates had died. He'd killed Yinsen, he'd killed his crew, and Fleet wanted to give him a goddamn medal.

Maybe, the thought drifted through Tony's mind, maybe Rogers would understand. Fury said they'd work well together. Maybe it was because Tony already knew what it was like to lose everything, and he was still here. He'd been where Rogers was. He'd done it. Granted, not particularly well, but he was surviving. He could help.

They could help each other.

Rogers was going to need someone to have his back. Someone who understood, in some small way, what it was like when everything went to hell. Someone who—hopefully—he could come to trust. If not Tony, it would be Carol. And Carol was a good officer. Carol was a great officer. A great friend. But she hadn't been on the Pandora. She couldn't know.

He scrolled back up, to the picture of Rogers' face.

Damn you, Fury.

He'd go back to Earth tomorrow.

When Tony stepped out of the turbolift at Starfleet Medical, he saw immediately why Fury had tried to get him to see Rogers first. Two bored security lieutenants stood on either side of the turbolift doors, and they wouldn't let him onto the floor until they'd checked—retina and thumbprint, damn, they were taking this awfully seriously—that he was on the authorized visitors list. The entire floor, a warren of larger private rooms, was quiet and devoid of activity.

They hadn't even been letting Rogers out. Guilt washed over him. Defiantly, he clutched the PADD at his side a little tighter and stood up straighter. He was going to be the model Starfleet officer, the perfect officer who could convince Rogers to come with him. He'd had a little bit of a speech prepared, a few of his most persuasive arguments. He wasn't going to be the man who'd been screaming himself hoarse last night as he struggled out of his dreams. He could do this.

"He's down the hall and to the left, sir," one of the lieutenants said.

Rogers was the only one on the floor? With no one to talk to? All alone in the future?

Tony should have come yesterday.

"Thank you," Tony said, and he strode confidently forward.

At the far corner of the floor, Tony stopped before the one occupied room. He ran his hand through his hair, swallowed, ran his hand through his hair again—he was sure it was a mess now—and pushed the button. Relax, Stark. He's only the hero of the Battle of Cheron.

"Come on in," a man's voice said, a warm, friendly baritone. "It's open."

As Tony walked in, someone who must have been Rogers rose from the chair by the window, leaving a PADD on the table next to him. Perhaps as a concession to the old uniforms, someone had given him a dark blue shirt and pants. And then Rogers turned and smiled and the entirety of Tony's prepared speech flew right out of his head.

Oh, Rogers had been attractive enough in the pictures, but they in no way did justice to the reality of him. He didn't look like someone who'd just barely survived a hundred years of cryo. He was strong, muscular, perfectly built, as if the universe had set out to make the ideal physical specimen of humanity. His features were deeply carved, and his bright blue eyes were warm and friendly, sparkling with intelligence. There was a polite smile on his face, and even that was stunning; Tony couldn't even imagine the full force of this man's regard.

Fury had called him a nice guy. That wasn't even close. He looked like... goodness incarnate. Like one of those knights in Tony's old favorite stories. He looked like a hero. Like looking at him, you knew he was going to be a good man. The best. Tony thought maybe he'd never understood the word charismatic before. Looking at him, Tony just wanted to... follow him. Dear God.

And then maybe follow him to bed, Tony thought, dazed.

Rogers' gaze flicked to Tony's shoulder and wrist, and then back to his face again, slowly enough that Tony knew he had to be consciously recalling the rank markings. "Is there something I can do for you, Lieutenant Commander?"

"Uh," Tony said. His mouth didn't seem to be working. His brain didn't seem to be working.

Rogers took a few steps closer and peered at him, concerned. "Have I done something wrong? Is there some kind of security problem?"

The words security problem tripped something urgent in Tony's mind and his brain finally rebooted. He glanced down at himself and couldn't see how Rogers had come to that particular conclusion: he had gold tabs and security had green. But it was an honest mistake, especially from someone who had seen these uniforms for only a few days. Rogers had probably seen a hell of a lot of security personnel since he'd woken up, and no engineers whatsoever.

"No," Tony said. "No, uh. Sorry, sir. Not security. Engineering division."

Rogers' brows drew together in confusion. "I really hope I haven't caused an engineering problem." His mouth curved more in an awkward smile and stop looking at his mouth, Stark, you're just embarrassing yourself. So much for his plan to present himself well.

"No, no, no!" Tony said, hurriedly, holding out his hands as if he could forestall any difficulties with his own body. "No problem." He sighed. "Okay. Trying this again. I'm Lieutenant Commander Tony Stark."

The smile on Rogers' face was wider. "Nice to meet you, Commander." And nope, Tony was not going to be able to resist that smile. Everything in him went shivery and hot. "I... assume you know who I am, then." But Rogers held out his hand anyway. "Steve Rogers."

Tony took his hand, and shook it, and never wanted to let it go. Rogers' grip was strong, and he clung to Tony's fingers for a little too long. Poor guy was probably touch-starved. Tony just happened to be around.

"Nice to meet you too," Tony managed to say. "It's an honor, sir."

Rogers' expression shuttered then, going distant, and he dropped his hand. Okay, Tony thought. Bad move. Tony thought he could pinpoint, now, Rogers' smile growing fake, the slightest hint of desperation in his eyes. He didn't want to be an honor.

If anyone understood what that felt like, it was Tony.

"So, Commander," Rogers said. "What can I do for you?"

Tony had prepared for this moment. Admiral Fury sent me, he'd say. I have a proposal for you. Starfleet would be overjoyed if you wanted to continue to serve. We need captains like you, sir.

"Do you want to go out to dinner with me?"

That was... really not what he'd meant to say.

Rogers stared. His lips were parted slightly in surprise, his eyes rounded, and Tony was struck by the thought that this was real, that maybe for the first time since waking up in the future Rogers had felt something that wasn't confusion or grief.

"Excuse me?"

He didn't quite say it like he was opposed to the idea; it sounded like he hadn't expected it. But that was more wishful thinking, maybe.

It was at that moment that Tony realized he was going about this all wrong. He wasn't one for stirring speeches. He wasn't that guy. So if he was going to win Rogers over, he was going to do it the Tony Stark way: by being as charming as hell, and very possibly also extremely enthusiastic about warp engine design. The full Tony Stark experience. If Rogers was going to work with him, he might as well see what he'd be signing up for.

So Tony smiled wider. "Look," he said. "I'll level with you. Admiral Fury has a proposal he'd very much like you to say yes to."

Rogers' jaw tightened. "I don't—"

"But I know this is a lot to get used to," Tony added. "And I know they've had you locked up in here since you woke up. So I thought maybe I'd take you out, show you around, feed you something that isn't hospital food. Show you the sights. It's better than—" he glanced over at Rogers' reading material, still displayed on his PADD— "history books. And then, if you want, we can talk about what Fury has in mind." He smiled again, his very best smile.

"Are you allowed to do that?" Rogers asked, frowning. "Let me leave, I mean. There are guards."

Tony shrugged. "Probably." He glanced down at his PADD and tapped out a message to Fury: Can I take Rogers out to play? A few seconds later the response came back: As long as you don't break him. Tony looked up. "Fury says yes." He hoped his smile was sufficiently dazzling; Rogers was still wide-eyed. His day had gone from boredom to a new world in an instant. "Do you like seafood?"

Rogers blinked at him a few more times and patted at his pockets like he'd forgotten something. "Seafood would be great, but... I don't have any money."

Well, he hadn't gotten very far in those history books, had he?

"Welcome to the twenty-third century," Tony said, chuckling. "There's no money."


"There's no money," Tony said again. "Also we've solved world hunger. Did you get to the chapter about the replicator yet?"

Rogers was still staring in awe. "No money?"

"Nope. Come on, this way," he said, motioning Rogers toward the door. "You first."

"Thank you, Commander."

"Call me Tony," he said, and, yep, that earned him a look. "Really," he added. "I'm either off-duty or retired. Not sure which."

Rogers frowned again. "How can you not be sure about that?"

"Depends on what you have to say later," Tony said. "But either way I am definitely Tony. Please."

And Rogers treated him to another one of those smiles, bright and warm and real. Tony was going to need to develop some kind of defense against those, because he was going weak in the knees just from Rogers looking at him.

"All right, then, Tony," Rogers said, softly, and Tony just wanted to melt. "Show me the future."

They ended up at Alioto's, at Fisherman's Wharf. It was a little touristy, sure, but what was Captain Rogers if not the ultimate tourist in this situation? The restaurant staff, accustomed to dealing with Starfleet officers wanting to have a working dinner, had led them to an out-of-the-way table. The view could have been better, but at least it was private. At Tony's suggestion, Rogers had gone for the cioppino, and he was now methodically scraping the last of the stew out of the bowl like he didn't know where his next meal was going to come from, after having polished off most of the calamari appetizer and almost all the sourdough bread. Meanwhile, Tony was only halfway through his crab. Some of that was nerves—he wasn't really very hungry—but still, Rogers was ravenous. How much could one man eat?

The majority of the meal had been spent in silence, with occasional praise of the food; it hadn't seemed fair to talk about work when Rogers had fallen on the food like he was a starving man. Tony supposed he had one hell of a daily caloric intake, with muscles like that. For God's sake, stop thinking about his body.

Rogers glanced around the table like he'd just now figured out all his food was gone. He was eyeing Tony's plate of crab with the air of a man who would definitely not be against some more food, if it were offered, but knew better than to ask.

"I take it you liked dinner," Tony said. And then he pushed his plate over. "Here."

"No, no. I couldn't possibly—"

Tony smiled his most encouraging smile. "You definitely can. Do they not feed you at Starfleet Medical? Go on."

Rogers hesitantly pried out some crab meat out of the shell, like he'd never tried this before and had been imitating Tony. "Mmm," he said, surprised, and he definitely hadn't had crab before. Tony felt an odd swell of pride. "This is really good, thank you. And, yes, they feed me. I just— I eat a lot. I'm sorry."

He said it like he was honestly ashamed about needing to eat so much, and Tony wondered where in the world he'd grown up that this had been such a problem. Maybe things really had been different a century ago. Maybe Rogers hadn't come from Earth? Some of the colonies, even in-system, had been awfully resource-poor.

Wherever it had been, it was classified. And that was strange, too, but that made it officially not Tony's business.

"No need to be sorry," Tony said, just to see Rogers smile at him again. "It's my pleasure."

Okay, Tony might have a problem here.

After dinner, of course, there was dessert, but halfway through his cannoli, Rogers stopped and looked up and set his jaw, firmly, like he was some long-ago soldier on a battle line, waiting for the order to charge forward.

"You can break it to me," he said, and something about his voice was so very weary. "Go on. I can take it. Who are we fighting now?"

"What do you mean?" That didn't make sense.

"The war."

Rogers had been happy throughout the meal; Tony was realizing that now, only in its absence. Rogers' once-bright gaze was frighteningly dull. Resigned. What the hell?

"There's no war," Tony said, confused. Hadn't Rogers been reading history books? "Do you mean the Earth-Romulan War? We won that. You won that, basically. It's over. It's been over for more than a century. I don't understand."

Rogers' face was bleak, set. "Not that war." He sighed. "Whoever we're fighting now. There's always a war. Isn't that your proposal? That's what Starfleet wants me for, right? That's why I was revived? That's why I'm here, isn't it?"

"No," Tony blurted out, off-balance, still confused. "No and no. No war. That was the last major conflict. We're a non-military organization. That's not what anyone wants you for."

That's not what I want you for, said Tony's lecherous mind, which could really just shut up any time now.

Rogers shook himself all over, a man coming out of a lethargic trance. "Then what?" His eyes were already a little brighter, his gaze more eager. Like he might be allowed to hope. Like he might be able to do something other than fight.

"We're explorers," Tony said, and he could feel himself smiling. He put his fork down, and spread his hands wide. "That's what we do. There's a whole universe out there, just waiting. There are so many stars, so many planets, so much beauty—more than any of us can even imagine. So many worlds, so many different species that we've never even said hello to yet. So we go there. We go everywhere. That's what we want you for."

Even as Rogers' face was shining, he bit his lip. "It's a kind offer, Commander S— Tony," he said, catching himself, and Tony thrilled to hear his name from Steve Rogers' mouth even as he knew Rogers was turning him down. "But I can't see how I'd fit in, in Starfleet, these days. I'm a soldier from a war that ended a long, long time ago. I fight. That's what I'm good for. That's what I know how to do."

He was saying no, all right, but he didn't look like he wanted to be saying it. The words sounded hollow, pro forma. His face was still, his gaze faraway, his body tight, held-in. Someone had told him this once, had told him he was a good soldier, had told him he could never be anything else, and he'd believed them because he'd known he'd been a good soldier, so they must have been right about the rest of it. Maybe he'd just needed a chance to be something else.

Tony could give him that chance. He didn't know this man, and he shouldn't have been able to read him at all, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he knew what Rogers wanted.

Tony swallowed hard. "That doesn't mean you can't learn to do something else," he said, and Rogers just lit up for a split-second, like a live relay, before damping down, hiding it all. "I've read your file," he added, and Rogers started to close off a little, straightening up, like he didn't want to be just a file. "You're a hero. I know you're good. I know you're brilliant. You can turn everything you know, everything you can do, to keeping the universe safe." This wasn't going to work; Rogers' gaze was more and more remote. "Besides," he added, a little sheepishly, "it's not like I know what I'm doing either."

This got Rogers' attention. He was focusing now on Tony, his full regard like the narrow beam of a phaser blast, hot and piercing. "What do you mean?"

He was going about this entirely backwards. Tony chuckled a little, ran his fingers through his hair, and slid his PADD between them into the cleared space on the table. "Let me start from the beginning. Or maybe from the end. My name is Tony Stark, and these days I design starships. This is the USS Avenger."

He tapped the holo controls on the PADD and the Avenger sprang up between them. In miniature she was a little less impressive than she'd been in Fury's office, and certainly nothing compared to the actual ship—but it would do.

And Rogers... smiled. Like this was the first thing he'd seen in the future that really delighted him. He reached out; his fingertip went through the holo, scattering light, and he hastily jerked his hand back like he thought maybe he'd hurt it, as the image reformed.

"You made her?" he asked, awed, like someone else might ask about a child, and Tony thought, dizzily, oh, he understands me.

And then Tony was talking, and he couldn't quite stop, and even though there was no way Rogers understood the finer points of matter-antimatter intermix ratios, much less transwarp theory, he didn't shut him down. In fact, he was nodding along. Tony trailed off partway through a description of how the nacelle design formed the thinner warp bubble shape unique to his theory, because there was no way Rogers cared as much as he looked like he cared. He couldn't. He didn't even know the first thing about modern engineering.

But Rogers just beamed at him. "So what you're telling me is—the Avenger is revolutionary, and she's your creation?" Tony couldn't remember the last time anyone looked at him like that, like they were awed to be in the presence of genius. He'd been a Starfleet engineer, for God's sake; geniuses and miracle workers were the proverbial dime a dozen. He couldn't have been anything new. But Rogers' eyes were soft, and it was so heady to be... wanted. Especially by someone like Rogers. Tony knew he was already falling. For his future captain. This was a bad idea.

Tony was practically the king of bad ideas, by now.

It would have been arrogant if he'd said so, that he was a genius, but he nodded, acknowledging the compliment. "She's mine," he said. "And Fleet wants her to be yours."

Rogers' enthusiasm—it had been enthusiasm, building on Tony's, he was sure—started to flag. He slumped in his seat. "I'm not asking for special treatment."

"Nothing special about it." It was sort of a lie, but it was for a good cause. "A ship needs a captain."

"At the very least, I'm... rusty," Rogers said. The corner of his mouth twisted up. "All my experience is a century out of date."

"They're accounting for that," Tony said, and Fury hadn't told him so specifically, but given what he had planned for Tony, it was a safe bet. "You'd go back to the Academy for a bit, get a crash course in modern Starfleet, and they'd send you out there with an XO who would be... aware of your particular circumstances. Someone you can rely on. Someone who knows a lot about the cultural and technological differences. Someone who can teach you about the Avenger, too." As he was saying it, he was starting to understand why Fury had recommended him. He might have retired from Starfleet, but he could do this.

Rogers squinted. "You just told me the Avenger was the most technologically-advanced ship in the fleet. Cutting-edge. Where are they going to find anyone who knows anything about her?"

The question hung in the air between them for a few seconds, and then Rogers' eyes widened. He got it.

"Yeah," Tony said, softly. "That's the offer."

"You," Rogers murmured. "You're the offer." And then he smiled, amazed, like this was an unexpected gift. Like he liked the idea of that. But he didn't quite say yes. What did Rogers think of him? It had to be good. Tony would do anything to get him to keep smiling like that.

Tony coughed. "And this is what I meant when I said I didn't know what I was doing," he clarified. "Fury wants me as your first officer and chief engineer. I've never been Command track. Before I retired, five years ago, I was chief engineer of the USS Pandora. That's the extent of my command experience. My formal command experience, anyway."

Technically, he'd been the ranking officer for three months on Alpha Sag. Rogers really didn't need to know about Alpha Sag right now. Or ever.

He remembered the last time he'd seen the Pandora, streaking fire through clouded violet skies as she broke up in atmosphere and fell, blazing bright.

A very small smile played across Rogers' face. "It's still more recent than mine."

"The rest of the command crew would be very good," Tony added. "The best. Picked them out myself. I realize you only have my opinion to go on, but—"

"I trust you," Rogers interrupted, and then he stopped abruptly, like he couldn't quite believe he'd said that.

He'd known Tony for the span of a meal. He shouldn't.

"You seem like a trustworthy fella," Rogers continued, and who said fella unless they were in a twentieth-century holodrama? Maybe it'd had a revival. Slang a hundred years ago must really have been something. His smile now looked a little more awkward. "I've usually got pretty good intuition about people." And then he nodded to Tony's collection of ribbons, because Tony was still wearing his dress uniform. "Besides, I may not know what half of those are, but I'm guessing they don't hand them out for winning the gunny sack race on Sports Day."

Something in Tony stuttered and went cold—and then hot, and then he could breathe again, all at once. Like it didn't hurt quite as much to think about, when it was Rogers asking.

"Nah," Tony drawled. "It was the three-legged race. Good guess, though."

"Oh, gosh darn it," Rogers said, swinging his fist in mock defeat. "And I was so close."

The phrasing, the minced oath, was so quaint that Tony couldn't help but smile. Damn it, but he liked this guy. He was Tony's personal hero, sure, but he was real, too—and the real Steve Rogers, well, maybe that was even better than the guy from the history books.

Trust me, he wanted to say. Talk to me. I haven't been where you've been, but I know what losing it all feels like. But he couldn't say any of that. Not over dinner—over dessert—with Rogers not even finished with his cannoli. They were practically strangers.

Tony reached out and tapped the holo off; the Avenger disappeared.

Rogers held his gaze for a few more seconds, and then glanced away and took a bite of his cannoli.

They didn't talk about the Avenger again for the rest of the meal; the conversation retreated to discussion of the weather, how Rogers was feeling—and if he was feeling poorly, he didn't show it—and Tony was beginning to think he'd missed his opportunity as they exited the restaurant.

They walked side-by-side along the Embarcadero, eastward past the piers, and finally they paused, turning toward the bay. Rogers looked over at the shining water lapping against the piers, lifting his face up into one of the rare patches of sunlight as if he could photosynthesize. He hadn't seen daylight in a century, after all. He was smiling.

"You miss this place?" Tony ventured.

Rogers shook his head. "Wasn't here often enough to miss it. Maybe only once or twice. It was... a long time ago. Very different, then." He half-smiled. "There's still the water, though. The seagulls. Those damned noisy sea lions. Not everything changes. But it's not like I was here for long, either. So." He shrugged.

Huh. "You didn't go to Starfleet Academy, then? At all?"

"Nope," Rogers said. "I was a MACO." It was just like his personnel jacket had said, but there was the slightest hesitation in the words. "Went to West Point, for a bit. And then Jupiter Station, and then Luna." It sounded like a recitation of facts when he said it. He paused. "You don't have MACOs anymore, do you?"

"No need for them," Tony said. "No wars, no infantry."

Rogers looked a little wistful; his gaze went past Tony, trained on the endless horizon. "They always said that, you know. The Great War. The war to end all wars, they said. And then there was another one. There's always another one." Tony thought maybe Rogers had his history mixed up; wasn't that one of those old Earth wars? "But now I wake up and—maybe humanity got it right, finally." He shook his head. "Hell of a thing, to find you're... not needed."

The look in his eyes was faraway. Lonely.

"You're needed," Tony said. "Believe me. You are."

Dubious, Rogers' face twisted up. "How do you figure that?"

"You're a born leader," Tony said. "I can tell just looking at you. You could do something else if you wanted—we could find you something else—but you thrive on command. We don't need soldiers, but we do need captains. You want to be out there, with people looking to you. You want to take care of people. You want to help people. I know you do. That's what we do, and... there aren't a lot of people out there who can do that job. Not like you can. And I can help you."

It was easy to picture Rogers on the bridge of a starship, head up, confident, giving orders. It was terrifyingly easy to picture himself at Rogers' side.

He wanted this.

Rogers chewed on his lip. "If they hadn't found me, they'd have given someone else your ship, right? Starfleet can't be hurting for officers that badly. There must be enough people out there like me. People who have actually trained for this."

There's no one out there like you, Tony wanted to say, but it was too soon.

"So serve with them," Rogers continued. "Why not?"

He didn't know about Alpha Sag. He didn't know about any of it. Tony swallowed hard. "Okay, fine," he said, painfully awkward, and it was like ripping himself open, handing Rogers what was left of his beating mechanical heart. "You want the whole damn selfish truth? I used to be good at this. I used to be very, very good. One of the best. And then I left Starfleet under... less than ideal circumstances. Fury's been offering me everything under the sun for the past five years, trying to get me to reactivate my commission. It's never worked. Not before. But I— you— today— I look at you and for the first time I think, I think maybe I could do this again. I think maybe we could do this together and maybe we could be a team. I know you don't know me. I know there's no reason you should care what happens to me. But you want to be needed? Then I need— then you're needed. How about that?"

He'd said too much. He'd definitely said too much. That was Tony's problem: he fell too fast, too hard, and no one ever liked him as much as he liked them. Why the hell would Rogers care about him? Miserable, overexposed, he shut his eyes.

A hand landed on his shoulder. "Hey," Rogers said softly. "Hey. Tony?"


"If I don't take this mission, what are you going to do?"

Tony shrugged. He could feel the weight of Rogers' hand, pressing down, but something about it was a comfort. "The usual. Go back to New York. Redesign a few engines."

"You're from New York?" There was honest pleasure in Rogers' voice, and Tony opened his eyes to see Rogers smiling. "New York's... still there?"

"Still there," Tony confirmed. "I live in Manhattan. Born and raised. Decided to go back home after I got out."

"No kidding?" Rogers breathed, enthralled. "I was born in Manhattan," he added, like he didn't know that part of his record was classified. "Grew up there, before I joined the— the MACOs." He gave an exaggerated wince. "Of course, it's probably much nicer there now than it used to be."

It was a strange thing to say, because the entire New York metroplex had been pretty goddamn affluent for, well, centuries. Oh, well. Maybe Rogers just assumed everything was better in the future. "I should have taken you home with me," Tony said, and then he realized exactly how that sounded. "I mean, uh. Showed you around New York."

Rogers squeezed his shoulder. "I'd like that," he said, and there was no coyness to his tone, no artifice. "If you showed me around." He wasn't exactly flirting, but he wasn't exactly not, either. And he smiled. Like he liked Tony. Like Tony could be someone he liked. And he paused. "Maybe for shore leave sometime, huh?"

Tony blinked. "What?"

"Well," Rogers said, like this was all perfectly reasonable, "I assume we're not getting a lot of liberty from here on out. We've got a ship to launch, as I understand it. And I've got a lot of remedial reading beforehand." He patted Tony's shoulder once more and dropped his hand.

Tony realized he was smiling; it felt like he'd never stop. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt like this. "You're in?"

"I'm in if you're in," Rogers said, and his eyes glinted bright and determined. "You seem like a swell guy. And far be it for me to turn down the best chief engineer in Starfleet."

Tony held out his hand for a handshake. "Thank you, sir. Thank you so much."

But Rogers pulled him into a hug, instead. And they stood there, just like that, arms wrapped around each other, two weary souls just beginning to find comfort in each other.

And then Rogers pulled back and smiled a smile with an awful lot of promise in it.

"And Tony?" he added. "I'm off-duty too, you know. It's Steve."

"Steve," Tony said, and Rogers—Steve—let him go with the barest hint of a crooked grin. "Got it."

Caring was what got you hurt, he tried to tell himself, but he had the feeling that maybe it was already too late for that.

Waiting in the non-priority transporter queue back at HQ, Tony pulled out his PADD and tapped out a one-word message: Yes.

He hit send and all the air went out of him at once, a punch to the solar plexus, an irrevocable decision. He remembered his father's raised voice, the day Tony had announced he was joining Starfleet. It was that day all over again—and for all that he knew exactly what he was signing up for, this time, he still felt that same rush of elation, that spark of joy. He was going to go see the galaxy, and this time he was going to do it with Captain Steven Rogers, practically the only non-fictional hero he'd ever had, growing up.

Steve. He wanted Tony to call him Steve.

Tony stared at the message sent screen, waiting for Fury's reply.

His PADD blinked. Incoming message... from Carol Danvers.

Well, that was fast.

Tony, she wrote, by the Great Bird, what did you do? And since when are you a full commander?

He could picture Carol's face. She'd be smiling, he was sure.

Since about thirty seconds ago, he typed back. I'm coming back, Carol. A ship I designed. The best crew. And you won't believe who the captain is. Join me. He paused. What if— God, what if she said no? She had so many other offers, after all—she wasn't the one who'd fucked up her life. If you want, he added.

There was a pause. Carol was typing.

You idiot, she wrote. Of course I'm with you. You don't even have to ask.

There was another pause.

Just so you know, Jan will probably try to comm you in about ten minutes. She'll probably start crying. We missed you, Tony. Welcome home.

And then Tony was at the head of the line, stepping onto the transporter pad, and he tried to tell himself he wasn't going to cry as the beam swept him up.

He was going home.

And then he was really going home.

Chapter Text

The messages poured in over the next few days: Jan, who had gotten sniffly, as promised. Hank. Wanda and Pietro. Clint. And of course Rhodey, Rhodey who'd already signed on, Rhodey who'd known before Tony did that he was going to say yes. Rhodey had just grinned at him from the other end of the vid call, glanced at Tony's shiny new rank tabs, and asked him whose uniform he'd stolen.

Tony had breathed out in relief. It didn't have to be... a thing. They didn't have to dance around his goddamn trauma. Maybe they didn't even have to talk about it. He was in Starfleet now, and that was all there was to it.

And then he was back in San Francisco, and the time flew by. Both he and Steve were signed up for a fast-track refresher Command course, piggybacking on the existing courses that were just starting, because it was the beginning of the term. Starfleet Command, in its infinite wisdom, had housed them in the dorms—as it turned out, on the same floor.

At least they hadn't given him a roommate.

He tried to ignore the part of his brain wishing that Steve were his roommate.

For some asinine reason, Fleet insisted on making them redo the entrance exams—or maybe that was just do in Steve's case. A roomful of nervous seventeen-year-olds kept giving Tony confused sidelong glances as he sat among them in full uniform, answering math, physics, and engineering questions that he could have aced—and had, in fact, done so—when he was twelve. Next to him, Steve was visibly sweating, frowning at a holo model of a sine wave translated through subspace.

"It's all right," Tony muttered. "You've already got the job."

Steve stifled a laugh as the proctor stalked over to glare at them.

After the rest of the exams, it turned out Tony had placed—naturally—even better than he had when he'd taken them before. Top of the class. Steve was surprisingly good at math, even better at tactics, and minus the entire missing century reflected in his scores, his overall numbers were really, really good. If he'd been born in this century he'd probably have placed as high as Tony. He soaked up information like a sponge, somehow learning fast enough that he could have been a Vulcan if not for the ears. So Fleet slotted them into Command-track crash courses. Tony barely saw Steve at all except at courses and meals, and even over breakfast he was hunched over his PADD, speed-reading diplomatic protocol like his future depended on it—which it sort of did. But he always had a smile and a kind word for Tony. It was good.

And then, two weeks in, it was a bad day for Tony. Sometimes Tony still had those, even now. It had started out badly, and then it got worse. There were two messages when he woke up, both of which had the subject line Kobayashi Maru.

The command test for the senior cadets wasn't a secret, even though the Academy tried not to tell the underclassmen the precise details of the simulation. And even though Tony, having been on the Engineering track, had never had to take it, that didn't mean that he didn't know what it was by now.

Nauseated disgust clawed at Tony's gut. If they thought they were going to put him in a simulator, have him watch his crew die around him, and then ask him afterward to defend his goddamn choices, to ask him how he felt making a decision where there was no right answer, where there was no way to win—as if it were some kind of game—where people would have to die on his watch and at his command, and for God's sake, hadn't he already proved he could do this, hadn't he done this enough

No. No. He couldn't. Not again.

They had no idea how it felt and if they were going to ask him to explain himself he was going to punch a hole in their goddamn bridge simulator.

The first message was a mass-copied order to report to the simulation room at 1200. Well, that answered that.

He sighed. And then he opened the next message. Commander Stark, wrote one of the administrators. We're giving the Kobayashi Maru test this afternoon, and we're in need of officers to staff the mock bridge. Your previous orders are rescinded; report at 1130.

They didn't want him to be a test subject. No, they just wanted him to give the test, over and over and over again, to die and die and die, and maybe that was worse.

While Tony stared at this message in horror, a third message came in. From Admiral Fury. To both him and Steve.

Stark, Rogers, he began. I apologize for the mix-up this morning. You're both exempted from the Kobayashi Maru; details will be entered in your files accordingly. Go to class, you two.

Tony breathed out, a sigh of relief. He wasn't even going to question what Fury was going to put, or why Rogers was exempt as well. It was probably because they weren't actual cadets.

The upper-division ethics seminar that afternoon was about half-full, juniors only; the seniors were off taking the Kobayashi Maru. A few of the students were still giving them strange looks—they were the only current officers retracking this semester—but for the most part, they'd come to accept them.

"Today's topic is the Prime Directive," Commander Kennedy said, and Tony breathed in and out and uncurled his fingers from the edges of his PADD. Okay. He could handle this. There was nothing controversial here. Everyone agreed with the Prime Directive. Sure, Kennedy was going to stir up some discussion, some what-ifs, but in the end they were all going to agree that the only possible course of action was to follow the Prime Directive. Tony knew how this was going to go.

He sat back, tuning out the all-too-familiar initial discussion, even though everyone in the room knew exactly what the Prime Directive was: they were not to interfere in the development of any pre-warp civilization. No help, no technology, no making anyone aware of the fact that species other than their own existed. Kennedy went over the familiar catastrophic failures of the Prime Directive: Sigma Iotia II and their twentieth-century gangsters, the Klingons and the Federation both supplying weapons to Neural, Federation observer John Gill's deliberate violation of the Prime Directive in order to implement a Nazi regime on Ekos. Steve was looking more than a little pale at the last one. Surely his history textbooks had covered the twentieth century. He had to have heard about World War II before. But given his odd, classified background... maybe he hadn't.

"It is incidents like these that support the Federation policy of absolute non-interference with cultures that would otherwise be unable to make contact with us on their own," Kennedy said, and then he lifted his head and regarded the room at large. "So... what do you think? Are there circumstances where you think the Prime Directive should be waived? Is it too harsh? Can you think of any counterexamples?"

The room was silent. Down the row, Chavez, Kaplan, and Altman were sitting there, mouths identically half-open, like no one had ever asked them to question this. Of course everyone agreed with the Prime Directive. Tony clenched his fists and tried not to think about Alpha Sagittarii, about everyone he knew who'd died for the Prime Directive, about how he'd had his heart ripped out of his chest for the goddamn Prime Directive—

And then Steve raised his hand.

"Yes, Captain Rogers?"

"Actually," Steve said, in an altogether-too-pleasant voice, "I think the entire thing is overly strict, arbitrary, authoritarian, paternalistic, and an appeal to useless tradition."

Okay, so apparently Steve Rogers didn't agree with the Prime Directive. What the hell?

He'd probably only just heard of the Prime Directive this morning, Tony told himself. He didn't know. He couldn't. He probably thought it was some kind of goddamn thought experiment.

Kennedy stared. "Would you care to elaborate, Captain?"

"Certainly." Steve folded his hands in his lap. He was going to be polite. Like this was a debate. "As I understand it, the Prime Directive was inspired by the circumstances of Earth's first contact with Vulcan, when a Vulcan survey ship detected Cochrane's successful FTL flight and initiated contact. The Vulcans themselves presumably held a similar earlier policy." Kennedy nodded, and Steve continued. "But why should warp drive be the marker of non-interference? Why warp drive and not spaceflight? Why warp drive and not guns? You'll say that last one is ridiculous, yes, but why are we making policy based on a historical accident? You'll say, oh, that way, if they already had warp drive, they could have found alien life. They could have found us. But what if there are two independent species with sublight capability in the same system? Surely they know aliens exist." He was sitting up straighter as he talked, impassioned. "You all know about my time in cryo now," he said, and everyone was nodding. They'd heard of him. "And you're all happily explaining things to me that I've never heard of before, but if I were on—Ekos, was it?—you'd say I wouldn't get to know any of this. How is that fair? How is it fair when it's me and not them?"

You know what warp drive is, Tony thought, but he bit back the smartass reply. It wasn't going to do any good.

"And what's the harm in helping people?" Steve continued, and Tony dug his nails into his palms. He used to be that optimistic. "I'll agree we don't want to go around arming the galaxy, but why not ships? Why not food? Why not replicators? This Prime Directive... it assumes that we know best for everyone in the galaxy, and that we don't trust them not to hurt themselves. It's infantilizing, that's what it is. Just because another species has never seen a starship before, it doesn't mean they're children."

There was more silence.

"That's an interesting view, Captain," Kennedy said. He gestured to the class. "Would anyone care to respond—"

"I have something to say to that," Tony said, turning halfway around to face Steve, and he was shocked at how cold his own voice was. Steve regarded him, wide-eyed. "You're assuming good faith. You're assuming everyone is like you. You're assuming people are, in their heart of hearts, kind and honest and non-violent. You're assuming a galaxy where no one wants to take our technology and misuse it for their own awful ends."

"I already said," Steve replied, like they were having a perfectly rational debate, like he was just trying to score points, "that I wasn't advocating handing out weapons to anyone and everyone. I'll agree that the arms race at Neural was a bad idea. But why not give people, say, starships? Why not give people technology with peaceful uses?"

Tony could feel his mouth curve into a nightmarish smile, hard and haunted. "Exactly where are you going to draw the line here, Captain? Where and how? It's about ten thousand times easier to make a bomb than a ship. And even so, a starship—even an unarmed one—is a bomb waiting to happen. The failure mode of a warp drive is a matter-antimatter bomb, more or less. If you give someone a ship, you can't control what they do with it." You will describe the design, the interrogator said, in Tony's head, and he shuddered. "What if they're liars? What if you don't know what they really want? Or, even worse, what if you do? What if they want weapons? What if they want bombs and phasers and torpedoes? What do you do when they ask for something you won't give? You'll say, no, not that one, have a nice little computer instead? Isn't that just as arrogant? So what do you do?"

Kennedy coughed. "Maybe someone else would like to answer—"

"You tell them no," Steve said, steely-voiced. Like it was easy. Like anyone would take no for an answer and walk away. "But this is the worst possible scenario you're imagining. I don't see why we need a hard-line policy to deal with this. Sure, you don't want that scenario to happen, but you're excluding so many other situations where we could help people—"

"I don't care," Tony hissed. "So we're hard-line. So what? At least it's consistent. One rule: no technology. There are no edge cases. No judgment calls. No exceptions."

He'd refused. He'd spent three months refusing. He hadn't thought, damn, well, if only they'd asked nicely before they'd cut him open.

He was sweating. He tried to focus on his breathing, on his— God, no, not his heartbeat.

"I did read the textbook," Steve retorted. "Beta III. The Archon had previously interfered with a pre-warp civilization and the Enterprise took action to correct the course of the planet's development. And you're sitting here saying that you'd refuse because it's important to be consistent—" his voice rose in mimicry— "because you can imagine some planet where they'd demand weapons, because you're envisioning this catastrophic hypothetical scenario."

Tony was shaking. "Why the hell," he asked, his gaze locked with Steve's, "do you assume I'm talking about a hypothetical scenario?"

He saw when Steve understood it; Steve's eyes went wide, his face even paler, and he flinched back like Tony had hit him.

Steve's mouth worked. He said nothing.

Everyone was staring at Tony. God, they were all staring. Did they know? Did they know what had happened to him? Did Steve know? No. No. Tony couldn't do this. He couldn't be here. He had to get away.

Jerkily, Tony rose from his seat.

"I'm sorry," Tony said. "I'm sorry, I have to go—"

He was out the door in an instant, the way he wished he could have run through the tunnels.

He thought he heard Steve calling his name as he ran.

When Tony stopped running, he was in the quad, on one of the benches that lined the edges, his back up against the wall so he could see everyone who was coming. He supposed the dorm room hadn't felt safe enough, and he was in no way together enough to have gotten himself beamed back to New York, where Jocasta would have talked him down and eventually some combination of Pepper, Jarvis, Rhodey, Jan, or Carol would have messaged him or come by. Damn, he wished Pepper hadn't been tapped for that long-range nebula survey. He wished he'd thought to bring Jocasta here.

Tony took a few heaving breaths and waited to see if his artificial heart would tick down back to normal. The adrenaline had to run out eventually. His fingers kept brushing his belt, searching for a phaser he wasn't wearing, and with effort he raised his hands and pressed his palms down on the slats of the bench. His fingers trembled.

A few cadets looked his way, and then... there was Steve, jogging towards him. Great.

He couldn't run away from Steve. He had to stay on good terms with his captain. And that meant they had to talk about this.

Steve stopped a few meters away from him. He had both of their PADDs tucked under his arm. He was moving slowly, purposefully. Like he'd seen this before. Tony supposed he had. He'd been in a war, after all. There hadn't been much ground fighting against the Romulans, and the stresses of combat manifested differently if you only watched death on a viewscreen—or so the Fleet shrinks had always told Tony—but the wan half-smile on his face suggested this wasn't his first experience with battlefield trauma.

"Is this seat taken?" Steve's voice was raspy, and he stood hunched in on himself, as if he could make himself smaller.

Tony waved a hand at the empty half of the bench. "Go for it. All yours."

The bench creaked as Steve levered himself down. Tony didn't look up.

He heard Steve sigh, a long, contemplative exhalation. He waited for Steve to speak, to start demanding details, who and what and when. He waited for Steve to offer his abject apologies. But Steve said nothing. Tony stared out at the quad. Around them, life went on. Two cadets—one Bolian, one Caitian—were over on the grass, studying. He was safe. He was in San Francisco. He wasn't there.

"They used to call it shellshock, you know," Steve said, very quietly. His voice caught and dragged at the creaky low end of his register, dragged like being pulled forward through sand and gravel, dragged into the dark. Shellshock. Huh. It was only because of Tony's abiding interest in twentieth-century warfare that he recognized the term at all. World War I. Trench warfare.

"You're not that old," Tony told him. It hurt to talk, hurt like he'd been screaming, when he'd only been breathing.

When he looked up, the corner of Steve's mouth twitched, half of a wry grin, like he didn't want to smile but his face couldn't figure out what else to do.

"Not quite, no." Steve was looking straight ahead, off into the distance. Not at Tony. "They didn't exactly know what it was, when they named it. Some of the doctors back then, they thought it was physical brain injury, something you got because you were too close to the artillery fire. And then they found people who hadn't been near the shelling at all who seemed... affected. Nervousness, they called it. Some people thought it was a personality flaw. Lack of moral fiber. They used to shoot people for desertion and cowardice. They really didn't understand, not at all."

Steve sure had a funny way of going about a pep talk. Tony wondered if this was what Steve thought of him. If he thought he was weak. A coward.

But Steve was still talking. "After the war—the Great War—they actually came up with a reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan, if you can believe that. And then World War II rolled around and it was like they forgot it all." He sighed. "They called it combat fatigue. They called it exhaustion. They thought the soldiers were just worn out." His nose wrinkled. "Some of the doctors, they said it was because the men got too many letters from home, and that made them too nostalgic. Idiots." He paused. "These days, do they teach you about General Patton, here? George S. Patton?"

A lot of information about the twentieth century was fragmented now, thanks to the rampant destruction that had been the Eugenics Wars and then World War III, but Tony thought he remembered the name, Patton. He guessed that meant Steve really had heard of WWII after all, but then that didn't explain his visible horror at Kennedy's description of Ekos, as if he'd just heard of fascism for the first time. Steve was a strange, strange man.

"It might have come up in a tactics class," he said. His throat protested. "Great general of Earth history, I think. Why do you ask?"

The noise Steve made was a snort of derision. "He was a great general, I suppose. But he didn't believe in combat fatigue. At all." He sounded personally offended. Like this man out of a textbook had somehow insulted him. "The Allies were invading Italy, in '43. There were two soldiers under his command. Privates. Not much older than these kids." He gestured at the students, still reading. "They were convalescing at field hospitals. Two different days, two different places, two different people—same reaction. He didn't think there was anything wrong with them, because they didn't look wounded. He thought they were cowards and should go back to the front. He told them so. And then he struck them. In the face. Kicked one of them out of the hospital tent. Actually kicked him. Two days later he was at a different hospital, he met the second one, and he threatened to shoot him. Drew his goddamn gun on one of his own men, who was suffering right in front of him." Steve's voice rose in undisguised anger. Disgust. Like it had happened yesterday and not three hundred years ago.

Tony bit his lip. "They call it PTSD now, you know. They've called it that for a few centuries." Steve ought to have known that, surely? "And they don't— no one does that anymore. Even if we were at war again, they wouldn't. We know better now." Was that what Steve was worried about? Was that why he was telling him this?

Steve sighed. "I'm going about this badly," he said, and the apology in his voice made Tony look up... right into Steve's eyes. His expression was hooded, but his eyes were soft with understanding. "What I mean to say is, I'm with you. I... assumed that, because you'd said there was no war anymore, that there wouldn't be anything like this. I wasn't paying attention to the signs of it. I wasn't looking, because I thought there wouldn't be any, anymore. I don't know what happened to you, but I know you must have been very brave, and you're braver still to come back to Starfleet again after it. For the Avenger." He snorted again. "For me. And then I trample all over you."

Out on the grass, the Bolian and the Caitian cadets were packing up and heading to class. Tony watched them for long moments.

"It's in my file," Tony said, quietly. "What happened. What they did to me."

He waited again for Steve to ask. To demand the gory details, to demand that Tony relive everything for him, as if he had the right—and he did, because he was Tony's CO. Would be Tony's CO. If he didn't decide Tony was too much of a mess to bother with after all.

He liked that Steve had called him brave, though. He hadn't been the first to say it, of course, but it felt like Steve understood, when he said it. It wasn't just some insincere platitude. He knew how it felt to do what Tony had done. Even though he didn't know what Tony had done.

Steve shook his head. "I'm not looking. And I'm not asking."


"You want to tell me, someday you'll tell me," Steve said. "I just... hope I can earn back your trust."

"You have it." The words fell out of Tony's mouth before he really registered saying them. "And I'll try— I'll try not to—"

Steve put his hand on the bench next to Tony's. Two centimeters closer, and they would have been touching. "I won't ask anything of you that you can't give." And then he smiled. "But I get the impression that you can give a hell of a lot."

"In my defense," Tony added, a little wryly, feeling that he ought to come off as a guy who could do this job, "one of my odder personality quirks is that I am still extremely competent under pressure. Hypercompetent, you might say." He raised his eyebrows. "Just not too great at the downtime, these days."

"It's too late," Steve said, and he smiled again. "I'm keeping you, Commander." And something in Tony went hot, golden-warm, like standing in the radius of an old incandescent light. And then Steve looked at him, really looked. "You weren't doing so well before class, were you? I didn't think much of it then, but you seemed... off. Did something else happen?"

Tony drew one leg up on the bench, foot flat, and he wrapped his arms around his bent leg, to try to resist the impulse to take Steve's hand. "Did you get those messages this morning? About the Kobayashi Maru?"

"Yeah." Steve nodded. "Didn't know what it was. I don't know much Japanese. Sorry."

"It's a test," Tony said. "For the Command-track cadets. There's a starship bridge simulator room, and they go there and they each take the role of the captain and play out a particular scenario."

"A training exercise?"

"Exactly." Tony swallowed hard. "I never had to take it, so I only know the parameters secondhand. The scenario starts with your ship being hailed by the Kobayashi Maru, an unarmed freighter. She's disabled, and she's drifting within the Klingon Neutral Zone. Entering the Neutral Zone is an act of war against the Klingon Empire. But the crew of the Kobayashi Maru will die if the ship isn't rescued."

Steve was frowning in thought. "So they have to decide whether it's more important to comply with interstellar law or to save the lives of the crew." Of course he got it immediately. And Tony already had an excellent idea of what this man would do, given that choice.

"It's not quite that simple," Tony told him. "The scenario is set up so that entering the Neutral Zone triggers the arrival of Klingon battle cruisers. They attack. There's no way to survive. The Kobayashi Maru will be destroyed, and if you go in to rescue her, you'll be destroyed too, and you'll have started a war with the Klingons. You can't save everyone. If you make the same choices most of the cadets involved do, you won't save anyone. You can't win. And that's the point. It's not a test you can beat. It's a test of character. Of how you react, of what you do when you know there's no way out."

Steve was quiet for long moments. He licked his lips. "They exempted us from taking this."

"I suppose," Tony said, and the words felt harsh again in his mouth, "I suppose they already knew what both of us would do in a no-win scenario, didn't they?"

Steve's hand tightened over the edge of the bench. Wood creaked.

"I really don't want to talk about it." Steve's voice was hoarse, and his eyes fell shut ever so briefly.

Tony dared, then, to reach out and brush his fingertips against the back of Steve's hand. His skin was warm. Not quite feverish, not quite as hot as Vulcans were supposed to be—because Tony knew enough not to touch the touch-telepaths, thank you very much—but pleasantly warm. Like sunshine.

Steve opened his eyes. The ghost of a smile spread across his face.

"I'm not asking," Tony said, the same thing Steve had said to him, and Steve's smile went just a fraction wider.

"Thank you." Steve's voice was fervent. "Maybe— maybe later. Not now."

"Okay," Tony said. He took a breath, and then a larger one, holding it in. He could breathe again. He was going to be all right. "Say, did you do a small-arms qualification yet? Since you've been here?"

"No. Why?"

"Because I feel like hell," Tony said, and he wanted to laugh as he said it. "And I still need to check out on hand phasers and rifles. And right now I really, really want to shoot something. So I'd be grateful for some company at the range. If you want."

Steve's grin now was broad. "Sounds good."

Tony let himself grin back. "How about some friendly competition, then? Winner gets to pick a holodrama for later? Assuming you can spare an hour from your studies."

"You're on," Steve said. His eyes gleamed. "And you're going to be grateful there's no money to bet with, because I'm going to win. You'll see."

"That's what you think," he said, and Steve just laughed.

It was going to be okay, he told himself. This was going to work.

The rest of the refresher course flew by, lightning-fast. As it turned out, Steve had better aim than Tony did, but not by much. They studied. They debated the ethics of command incessantly—this time, with fewer flashbacks. Tony fell asleep three nights in a row with the Avenger's blueprints spread out before him. Every time Tony saw Steve, he knew more and more about the history of the Federation. There were tests and more tests, but worst of all was psych. Tony spent a nerve-wracking hour under psych evaluation with Commander Frost, while she sifted through his mind and he smiled and tried to give the impression of someone who was entirely competent. God, but he hated telepathy. She knew everything, and there was nothing he could do. And she knew he hated it.

Tony had tried to keep smiling. "I'm fine."

"You don't have to lie," Emma had said, and she'd tapped her stylus against the edge of her PADD, thoughtfully. "You can't lie, actually."

Sweat beaded in the hollow of Tony's throat. "I know."

"Breathe, Commander." She gave him a placid smile, and he felt her moving through his mind, picking up a memory, setting it down. "You can relax. We know about your history. And the admiral's willing to stake a ship on you being functional despite it. And I agree with him. You know you're qualified. You wouldn't have made it this far if you weren't."

"Emma," he'd said. "I want this." The words came with a bubble of raw emotion that he knew Emma felt, a longing, a yearning—for the ship? For his new captain? For his friends? In Tony's mind it all tangled up into the same thing, a knotted tangle of determination and ambition and wanting.

Emma had grinned broadly, showing all her teeth. "Now that's what I like to see," she'd said, and she'd made a mark on her evaluation form.

Psych was a yes.

And then, sooner than Tony could have dreamed possible—he had his orders to report to the Avenger. So did Steve. They had hugged in the corridor when the final orders had come through, running to meet each other. And even if it went wrong somehow, he'd have this memory: standing here with Steve Rogers, looking out the window at the Golden Gate, knowing that he'd signed up for the adventure of his life, only better this time.

Steve smiled back at him. The light through the window haloed golden around his hair, and in the midst of all the joy Tony could hardly speak, looking at how goddamn handsome he was.

It wasn't a problem. It literally wasn't a problem. It wasn't illegal, having a relationship within your chain of command, but he knew better than to screw his new life up for himself already. Steve wasn't interested. He couldn't be. Not in Tony, of all people. And if he ever changed his mind, he'd say so. It wasn't Tony's call to make. So Tony could just go on like this. And it didn't mean Tony shouldn't be his XO. He could handle this.

He went back to New York to pack in a hurry. They had a reduced personal effects limit, but Tony was going to make the most of it. He'd promised himself that this time he wouldn't forget anything important, he thought, dropping a handful of datachips in his bag along with the usual decorations. Those walls were going to be practically sterile. He needed to make them his own.

And then, then, he was on a shuttle to Mars with the rest of the Avenger's senior officers. It was like a dream come true—a rare good dream, from a life of nightmares.

"I was going to ask why I knew so many of you already," Wanda said from the co-pilot's seat, a little shyly, as she watched her brother and Carol fight good-naturedly for piloting rights of the shuttle. Pietro won, and Carol retreated to her seat, grinning at Wanda as she headed back. Wanda turned around and nodded at Tony. "And then Commander Stark came aboard."

Laughter resounded from everyone aboard the tiny shuttle. Tony was wedged between Steve and Carol, and, all things considered, he thought that was going to be a pretty good place to be.

"Not my fault," Tony said, and he raised his hands from the harness straps as Jan smiled indulgently. "Admiral Fury said the captain here needed some help picking the crew, and I offered some suggestions. He just happened to take me up on pretty much all of them."

Tony watched Hank's eyes slide over to him, then to Steve; Hank had clearly just figured out how he'd gotten this posting with his history. "You're the Steven Rogers, Captain?" Hank asked.

Steve looked away. "Well," he said, a little awkwardly, "there's only one of me."

Tony patted Steve on the shoulder. "He is." He wondered if Steve was feeling out of sorts because he didn't know any of them and they all knew each other. Steve knew Doctor Blake, at least, and none of them did. He raised his voice. "Everyone, this is Captain Rogers. Captain Rogers, this is Hank Pym, Jan Van Dyne, Clint Barton, and the twins at the helm are Wanda and Pietro Maximoff." He gestured to each in turn. "On my right is Carol Danvers, and you already know Don Blake. I'm sure you'll get to know everyone soon."

Steve smiled. "Nice to meet you all."

"Word of advice, Captain. Don't play darts with Clint," Jan said, with a bright smile in return. "Trust me."

Steve looked interested at that, leaning forward against his harness. "There's darts?"

"There might be," Tony offered. "There is a rec room on the blueprints. It's tiny, but we can probably squeeze in a dartboard if anyone has one."

"You will never guess what I used my personal effects allowance for." Clint was beaming, cheerfully, and there was scattered laughter from the rest of the shuttle.

Tony grinned. "Okay, well, then that's darts taken care of. She's a small ship, though," he added, for Steve's benefit. "I think you, me, and Danvers are the only ones who aren't sharing a berth."

"Some of us would have anyway," Jan said. Hank took her hand.

Tony watched Steve nod thoughtfully. He liked them, Tony thought. Or, at least, he didn't dislike them. The actual liking could come later.

"Good," Steve said. "Glad to be here."

They'd been cleared for higher in-system speeds than the usual shuttles, and about thirty seconds later Pietro coughed discreetly. "Captain. Sirs. The USS Avenger."

Tony lifted his head, and there she was. His ship. Just as he'd seen her. Better than he'd seen her. She was still parked in the bay where he'd left her, but it was clear that they'd finished the work. She was painted now, the Starfleet arrowhead leading a long stripe down the side of the engineering hull. The bottom of the disk read NCC-2108, and as Pietro swung the shuttle up and around, the number was repeated on the top, along with her name: USS Avenger. She was real and she was Tony's. This was really happening.

Her running lights were up already, and she was blinking Sol colors, her star of registry. But the nacelles were still dim, gleaming in those long, long housings. It was three hours to her maiden flight, and that included the time Tony needed to bring the warp drive up from a cold start. It was going to be a busy three hours. But she was here, and she was perfect.

"Nice name," Jan said. "Avenger. I like it."

Steve nudged Tony. "You should see your face," he murmured. "You look like the galaxy's proudest parent."

Tony could feel his face heat up in something that might have been pride and then embarrassment at the pride. It was one thing to do the work, and it was another to be observed enjoying it. It was those old instincts: don't let anyone close. Don't let them know the truth. You're a Stark, son, act like it. But he smiled. "Yeah, I kind of feel like it."

Clint squinted in mock-disapproval. "Isn't she a little small, Commander?"

"You hush," Tony called back. "She's perfect. She's a beautiful lady. Besides, look at the size of those nacelles."

"Oh, I'm looking. Are you overcompensating for something?"

"Guys," Carol said, because thank God, someone was going to be an adult here. This was why he'd wanted Carol along. "Don't ruin this moment with dick jokes. Please."

Tony drew himself up. "Lieutenant Barton, I will have you know that my love for this vessel is chaste and pure."

Clint muttered something that Tony couldn't quite hear, but Steve narrowed his eyes, face gone dark, like he had heard Clint's low imprecations over the thrum of the shuttle's ion-driver engines, even though he was on Tony's other side. Tony hadn't even heard. He supposed Steve's hearing was sharp indeed.

"Don't mind him," Tony said. "He's just Clint. You'll get used to him."

"He said you liked—" Steve began in an undertone, and then cut himself off. "Never mind."

The shuttle coasted closer, easing along the length of the ship, and Tony forgot all about the various good-natured insults as they came over the saucer, heading between the two vast nacelles to the aft shuttlebay. Tony looked up and up at the huge glassy-walled warp nacelles, produced exactly according to his specifications, nacelles like no one had ever made before. The ultimate test of his theory. The nacelles rose up on either side like the ramparts of a castle—his, his, theirs—and then they were at the stern of the ship.

"Coming in for a landing," Pietro said, and then the Avenger was above them as the shuttle rolled and dropped into a split-S, direction reversed, heading into the open shuttlebay at the Avenger's aft end.

The shuttle landed neatly, the airlock closed, and after a few minutes to let the air cycle, Wanda opened the hatch and they were piped aboard. Steve was officially in command.

Tony grabbed his bag from under his seat and made a beeline for Main Engineering. He'd check out his quarters later. In the meantime, he had a lot of work to do. The engineering staff should already have boarded, and with any luck, Rhodey would already be corralling the new ensigns, but in three hours they were going to test his neo-transwarp drive for the first time and those engines had to be ready to go.

In contrast to his earlier visit, the Avenger now looked... finished. As Tony jogged down the corridors he was dodging personnel left and right. All the bulkheads were in. Panels gleamed with light and power. And then he turned into Main Engineering, looked up, stopped, and stared, because there were two ensigns on the ceiling.

Oh, they had anti-grav pallets; they weren't flying. But still.

Rhodey turned around, grinned at Tony, and then tilted his head up. "Green! Parker! Get down from there! It's the commander." He lowered his voice again. "Hi, Tony. Fancy meeting you here."

"Says the guy who signed on before even I knew this project existed," Tony retorted.

"I like to think of myself as proactive," Rhodey told him. "Here, your ensigns for alpha shift. Commander Stark, this is Peter Parker—" Earth-human, brown-haired, looked barely old enough to be in the Academy much less out of it, Christ, but they got younger and younger every year— "and Doreen Green."

Green was a cheerful young woman, also brown-haired, also Earth-human— wait. She half-turned, and she had a tail. A squirrel tail. And there was, Tony saw, a squirrel on her shoulder.

"And this is Tippy-Toe," Green said, gesturing at her shoulder with her other hand. "She's not formally in Starfleet, of course. Just an observer. But she knows a lot about warpfield dynamics."

Tippy-Toe made a noise that sounded like chrt. The Universal Translator didn't kick in.

"And acorns," Green added.

"Uh," Tony said. "She's, uh. Sentient? She can understand me?"

"Of course," Green said, and she sounded offended to be asked.

"Well," Tony said. "Nice to meet you. Parker and Green and, uh. Tippy-Toe." He had a speech somewhere around here, he was sure. He cleared his throat. "I wanted to welcome you to the Avenger."

Tippy-Toe chittered again, and Rhodey smiled. Tony felt himself settle into command. He had this now.

"I've been a Starfleet officer for almost half my life," Tony told them. "I've been a chief engineer before. I designed this ship, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she can do, and sharing it with you. Not every day in Starfleet is going to be exciting. But when it is, it gets very exciting, very very fast. And what I'm going to do is make sure that the two of you—" Tippy-Toe made another noise— "okay, the three of you have the skills to deal with whatever the galaxy throws at you. In three months you'll be able to assemble a warp core from parts, while wearing pressure suits. Probably in the dark. You'll thank me later."

"What about me?" Rhodey asked.

"Pfft," Tony said. "You can definitely build a warp core in the dark." He raised his voice. "Lieutenant Commander Rhodes," he added, "should be treated as you treat me. We'll demand a lot of you, but you're in Starfleet now. You can handle it. If you have problems, don't be afraid to come to either one of us. We may be your commanding officers, but we're people too. The goal here is to help you learn and keep this ship flying. You with me?"

Parker and Green were looking at him with determination, in that innocent way that only the newest ensigns were capable of. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Literally, in Green's case.

"Yes, sir," they said, as one. Tippy-Toe chittered.

"Right," Tony said. "Let's get moving. We launch in three hours, and we have a lot of work left to do."

Under Rhodey's supervision, Tony let Parker and Green load in the dilithium—they might as well learn how to do it already—and two hours later they were ready to bring up the warp drive from a cold start, up to passive power, waiting only for Steve's command. Tony checked and double-checked the numbers. They were ones he'd only ever seen in his paper, the scale all wrong for a conventional warp drive. But they were what he predicted. Tony bit his lip and locked them in on the board.

"Powering up the nacelles on my mark," Rhodey said. He had a hand on the main board. "Mark." He tapped a button, and then the energy readouts swooped up, and the nacelles went bright on the huge cutaway view behind him.

"Power to the intermix chamber," Tony said. He flipped three switches and held his breath.

The warp drive lit up blue, steady and pale, powered but not active yet. Tony smiled, and the rest of the crew were smiling back. His crew. His people.

Now they just had to launch the ship.

It was another forty-five minutes of testing and retesting, ordering the junior lieutenants about, making sure everything was perfect—and then the comm panel lit up.

Tony reached over and slammed the receive button before anyone else could beat him to it. "Engineering. Stark here."

"How's it going down there?" Steve's voice, through the comm, was bright and curious. "Almost ready?"

"We're good to go, sir. Just say the word."

There was a pause. He thought maybe Steve was smiling. "Glad to hear it. Do you want to come up here for the launch? Best seat in the house."

"Nah," Tony said. "I think I'll stay here with the engines. I'd appreciate the open comms, though." That way, if something went wrong upstairs, he'd know.

"All right," Steve said. Tony could picture him in the center seat, even though he'd never even seen the bridge; he'd be sitting up straighter. Prouder. Commanding. "Lieutenant Van Dyne, keep the line open. Mr. Maximoff, take us out. Thrusters only."

Pietro replied instantly; he'd been dying for this moment, Tony was sure. "Aye, sir."

On Tony's boards, the systems lit up with power. Everything green. Thrusters were fine. The Avenger was flying. They'd done it. They'd really, really done it. He let out the breath he'd been holding. He realized he was grinning.

"We're clear of spacedock," Jan said, her voice a little farther away from the bridge comm pickup. "The portmaster wishes us well."

"Flash colors in reply, then give me impulse and the usual test course heading out of the system past Jupiter," Steve said. "Quarter-impulse, then half and full at Engineering's discretion."

"Aye, sir." That was Pietro's voice again.

The deckplates rumbled beneath Tony's feet, and the main board lit up again: power to the impulse engines. Diagnostics ticked by on the console in front of Tony. Everything was checking out. There were no windows down here, but if there had been, he would have been able to see the Avenger moving. They were underway.

This was going to be good.

"Engineering?" Steve's voice crackled over the comm, and Tony thought maybe Steve had been trying to get his attention. "How's it looking?"

Tony glanced over the boards one more time. "Perfect. She can handle full impulse, no problem."

"All right." The sound on the pickup attenuated. "Mr. Maximoff, you heard the man. Full impulse."

The ship hummed around him and the numbers spiked—and it was good, it was good, everything was good. Everything was working. Except, of course, there was one system remaining. Tony glanced over at the huge intermix column, still dim. Waiting.

They'd come this far. It had better work.

Tony cleared his throat and leaned into the comm. "Ready for full warp and transwarp test when you are, sir." No time like the present.

He looked around the room and met Rhodey's eyes, and then Green and Parker, who stood by the main drive. Light shone blue over their nervous faces; Parker was white-knuckling a PADD.

"It's all right, kids," Tony said, softly. "We've got this. We're just going to go faster than anyone in a ship smaller than Excelsior ever has under our own power. No big deal, right?" He grinned, and Green laughed a little.

And then it was Steve on the comm again. "Begin warp test."

The deckplates wobbled, and the warp core went bright with softly pulsing light. The warp drive was active. Tony felt the familiar subliminal hum, the rattling in his teeth. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and then relaxed. Tony could tell when a ship was in warp just standing in her; he'd had more than enough experience to gauge that. They were moving faster than light.

"Warp one," Pietro said.

Rhodey glanced down at the board, then over at Tony. "Power draw looks good, Commander. Textbook-perfect." He grinned. "So far, so good."

Tony leaned into the pickup. "You heard that, Captain?"

"Take us up," Steve ordered. "Slow."

"Warp two," Pietro said. "Three. Four. Five."

Warp five, a good, stable cruising speed. The drive pulsed faster. Tony spun through a half-dozen diagnostics: intermix ratio, power-consumption curve, warpfield distortion. It was all perfect. Of course, there was nothing new here. The drive was a standard warp drive at speeds under the unbreakable warp ten.

"We're stable at five," Tony said, for the bridge's benefit. "Everything's great down here. Ready for more. I can take as much as you want to give me, Captain."

Note to self, Tony thought, in the second of silence after he spoke, try to make systems reports sound less like flirting.

He thought he heard an amused chuckle on the other end of the comm. "You want it all, Commander, you got it." Steve's voice seemed lower, almost sultry. It must have been his imagination; Steve couldn't have been flirting with him on duty over an open comm line. Or at all. Steve cleared his throat. "Mr. Maximoff, bring us up to warp nine. Engineering, stand by for transwarp."

The power curve soared upward on the readouts and the intermix column pulsed faster as the energy output numbers ticked higher and higher. Tony turned away from his board, vaulted the main table in unmitigated excitement, and slid into the chair in front of the brand-new transwarp console, currently displaying the Avenger's conventionally-shaped warpfront in a cutaway view.

Rhodey stood next to the intermix console, ready to switch the mix to Tony's calculated ratio. It would either get them transwarp or kill them all in a massive antimatter containment failure. When he realized Tony was looking at him, he lifted his head and smiled. "You've got this, Tony. I believe in you."

Tony exhaled hard.

"Engineering," Steve said. "Give me warp ten." Everything seemed to go very still as he said it: the impossible feat, now within reach.

"Yes, sir," Tony said, and then he held Rhodey's gaze. "On my mark, bring up the antimatter in the mix. Ten seconds." A countdown obligingly appeared on the board. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark."

Rhodey hit the button, and the intermix column went glaringly white-hot, and the board flashed WARNING: ANTIMATTER OVERLOAD as Tony watched the warpfield reshape itself, spread out, knife-thin before the Avenger's bow, artistry in subatomic particles, all according to the algorithm he'd designed. He drew one ragged breath—no second-guessing himself now—and watched the power curve swing alarmingly as the ship shook around them—

WARPFIELD STABLE, the console said. The shaking ceased, and the warp core was still bright, brighter than normal, and it didn't seem like it was in danger of breaking. Tony could stand to look at it, at least.

"I'm reading warp ten, sir," Pietro said, from the bridge.

A cheer went up all through Engineering. Someone clapped Tony on the back. Tony stretched forward over his console, shaking with the adrenaline crash. He'd done it. He was right. They had transwarp. Neo-transwarp. His theory had been right, and here was the proof.

"Engineering?" Concern lined Steve's voice. "You all right down there?"

"Peachy keen," Tony said. "We just broke a speed record and nothing's on fire. Yet."

"Tony," Steve said, and it sounded like he was torn between reproach and amusement, like he didn't know Tony quite well enough to think he could tell him off for it, and at the same time he wasn't sure if Tony meant to say there was anything wrong.

"No, really," Tony told him. "We're great." He could feel his mouth shape itself into a grin. "Want to see warp eleven?"

He knew he was showing off. He knew he had a goddamn crush on his goddamn captain and he just wanted Steve to like him. It was pathetic.

But he did want to see what the Avenger could do.

"I'd love to," Steve said, and he couldn't possibly mean it like Tony wanted him to mean it, but damned if it didn't make him feel like he was glowing as brightly as the warp core. He felt like he could hit warp eleven all by himself.

As it turned out, the Avenger could hit warp eleven, twelve, and thirteen. Thirteen was where Tony decided that—even if Steve had sounded absolutely thrilled as they'd gone faster and faster—they should probably do something reasonable and stop to run a full diagnostic. They needed to check the dilithium to see if the crystals were in danger of cracking. That had been his worry about Excelsior, after all.

"So it's going to be about two hours for a level three diagnostic," Tony told Steve over the comms. "Then we can get under way again."

"Sounds good," Steve said, and Tony wished he'd thought to ask for a visual feed; it sounded like Steve was still smiling. "Senior staff briefing at 1800." He rustled, probably turning away from the pickup. "Maximoff—"

"Which, sir?" Pietro asked, and Tony briefly regretted recommending two crew members with the same name and similar duties.

"Wanda. Plot us a course to Altair IV. Engineering will advise you when we're ready to go. Danvers, you have the conn."

"Aye, sir," Carol said.

Tony cut the audio feed from the bridge, and he tried to tell himself he didn't miss Steve's voice.

"Listen up, people," Tony said, pitching his voice to carry in the huge space. "Level three diagnostic on all systems, and I want the dilithium matrix checked. I appreciate everyone dressing nicely for the maiden voyage, but radiation suits are mandatory for the rest of the shift. Go get changed, everybody. Suit up. Parker, into the Jeffries tubes; Lieutenant Erwin can walk you through how to check the power grid. Green—"

Rhodey nudged him. "Hey, Tony. You want to go off-shift?"

Tony blinked at him. "It's the middle of my shift."

Rhodey gestured with a jerk of his head toward the bag that still sat just inside the door, where Tony had thrown it when he'd gotten here. "You haven't even unpacked. I'm betting you haven't even seen your quarters yet."

"Uh. No." He could put a cot down here, he thought. Maybe that would be good.

"So go." Rhodey nudged him toward the door. "Unpack. Wash up before your briefing. I can sure as hell run a diagnostic by myself." He smiled. "Come on. You've earned this."

Tony got lost twice on his way to the senior officers' quarters on Deck Four; he supposed he hadn't memorized the non-engineering parts of the blueprints as well as he'd thought he had. Eventually he found the neat little nameplate, one door down from the captain's quarters, CMDR ANTHONY STARK, and he whistled quietly as he freed a hand to key the palm lock. He'd never rated his own nameplate before. Rank hath its privileges, as they said.

Inside, the room was small, much smaller than any of his civilian quarters, barely five meters from the door to the outer hull, and the bulkheads were sterile and unpainted, but it was all his, bigger than anything he had ever had on a starship. There were the usual amenities: a little desk/table by the door with a holoemitter top and datachip reader slots on the side, a very small couch, a wall viewscreen and comm panel, a couple chairs by the desk, a shelving unit, and even a food synthesizer. Half a wall cordoned the sitting area off from the sleeping alcove, where an open closet nook was barely visible next to a personal weapons locker, and when Tony peered around the wall he saw, wonder of wonders—an actual window, no, two windows. They were currently automatically shaded to block the warpfield, but they were real windows. The bed was a little bigger than the standard Fleet issue for the lower decks; it looked like it might even be able to fit two people at the same time. Truly a luxury.

Not that he had anyone to share his bed with, he thought, and he ruthlessly tamped down on the first image that was starting to come to mind, bright blue eyes and that knowing smile—

There was no point. It wasn't his move to make.

Right. Tony had three hours until the staff briefing, and unpacking was going to take a while. He opened his bag and pulled out the one set of civvies, dress uniform, away jacket, and standard Engineering vest that was all he'd decided to pack in the way of clothes, because he'd had better things than clothes to waste his valuable effects allotment on. He dumped the clothes on the floor. Later. He pulled out the little storage tube. Later for that too.

And then he wrestled the ten-kilo miniature computer core out of his bag, set it on the floor, clapped his hands, and went to look for the handheld degausser in his toolkit to pry off the bulkhead cover under the holotable. It would probably fit; there was usually a lot of empty space around the personnel quarters because the power redundancies focused on main systems. If not, he'd make space somewhere. This had been his entire weight allowance, after all.

After half an hour of lying on his back under the table with half of him wedged inside the bulkhead, Tony clipped in the last of the connections and triple-checked that all the chips he'd brought were locked into their slots. The little core lit up steady and blue.

Tony patted the top of the core.

"Good girl," he told it, and then he levered himself out, resealed the bulkhead, and stood up. "Computer?"

"Working," the ship's computer said, the usual emotionless voice. That was enough of that.

"Pass through to personal core, authorization Stark Alpha Twenty-Nine. Initialize."

Nothing happened for several seconds, and Tony began to wonder if he'd made a mistake somewhere. It had been three straight days of coding, after she'd agreed, right before he'd shipped out here, and everything had compiled without errors, but there hadn't exactly been time to test any of it.

And then—oh, thank God—the wall screen flared bright with Jocasta's silvery face. He watched her glance around and then smile, seeing him. "Hi, Tony."

"Hi, Jo." He grinned. It had worked. God, he'd missed her. "How are you feeling?"

"Cramped, actually," she said, and her perfect brow furrowed. "Where am I? It's so small. Is there no network?"

He wiped his hands off and went to hang his clothes up. "Yeah, sorry about that. You're sandboxed into my quarters. You're installed on a starship. The USS Avenger. You should have civilian-level access to the main core, but that's all I can get you without raising some very large red flags. You remember me telling you we were going on a trip? You remember the code I put in?"

Jocasta's simulated gaze slid away from him, mimicking human recall, as she tapped into the core. "I thought you meant a vacation. You brought me with you to your starship?"

"Well, sure." He hung up the last of his clothing and then gave the bulkhead by the display a fond pat. "I wasn't going to leave my best girl behind, was I?"

"Aww, Tony." She smiled. "You're so sweet."

"Yeah, yeah. Flattery will get you everywhere." He tapped the wall again. "Go black, please. I need to shower before the briefing, and I don't want you checking me out."

"Like I'm even interested, you arrogant human," Jocasta said, with a laugh, but she blanked out the display, and the holotable readout confirmed that she'd killed the visual pickup. Audio was still on. Fair enough.

Tony grabbed his towel—at least Fleet had provided that—and wandered to the little door that must be the head, because there was only the one door. He opened it and peered in. Mirror, sink, toilet, shower with actual water—and then another door. Which was open. And there was Steve, standing on the other side of the open door, in what were presumably his own quarters, also holding a towel.


Maybe Tony should have paid more attention to the rest of the blueprints. He hadn't seen any starship layouts with a shared head for the captain and first officer since probably the pre-refit Enterprise. He'd just assumed it wasn't something Starfleet built anymore. He probably should have known better than to assume anything.

The only thing he could think was thank God both of us are still dressed.

"Hi," Steve ventured, after what had to be at least five seconds of Tony's terrified silent stare.

"Uh," Tony said. "So I guess we're sharing the facilities."

He supposed this was what Fury had meant when he'd called the Avenger a small ship.

"Looks like," Steve said, and he frowned, like he couldn't quite figure out Tony's reaction. "Is this... bothering you?"

"No, of course not," Tony said, probably too fast, though he suspected he hadn't lied very convincingly, because Steve was still squinting. "You?"

Steve shrugged, like he didn't care either way. "As far as I'm concerned, sharing the head with only one person is a gift. You should have seen what we had back in the— in the MACOs." He glanced around the little room, and his gaze lit upon the shower stall. "And, hey, a water shower! I never quite got used to sonics. They make my teeth hurt."

"You're the captain," Tony told him. "You'd damn well better get a real shower." And then he looked at the shower, then at Steve, then at the shower again. That shower stall was tiny. "Are you even going to be able to fit in there?"

Steve stared at the shower like that hadn't occurred to him, and then he shrugged again. "Eh. I'll make it work."

"You know, people like you are why all the space services used to have maximum height limits," Tony said, and Steve laughed. The strange knot of trepidation and attraction in Tony's chest started to loosen. Maybe, maybe, Tony could get past this. Maybe the ridiculous crush would go away. They had to work together, after all.

"Says the fella who's, what, an inch shorter than I am?"

What, Tony wondered, didn't they have the metric system a century ago? "Hey, two and a half centimeters can make a big difference. In the right context."

He was pretty sure he hadn't meant that one to sound like flirting. And yet.

Steve just grinned again, and then he gestured at the shower. "So did you want the first shower? I didn't mean to interrupt you. I can wait."

Tony bit down hard on the immediate reply maybe we could shower together.

Steve was still smiling at him.

In a minute Tony was going to say something incredibly stupid.

"Actually," he said, because surely anything else had to be better for his continued existence than thinking about wet naked Steve Rogers, "if you've got a couple minutes, do you want to come on through? I've got someone here I want you to meet."

Steve tilted his head to the side and tried to peer around Tony, to try to see whoever it was. Not that that was going to get him far. "Sure?" he said, sounding more than a little confused, and Tony led him back through the doorway.

Tony stopped them in the middle of his quarters. "Say hi to Captain Rogers, Jo."

"Hi, Captain," Jocasta said, cheerfully enough. "It's nice to meet you. I've heard so much about you."

Tony frantically tried to recall if he'd ever told her about his massive crush or if she just meant his role in history, while Steve squinted again and looked around the room for the source of the voice. When Jocasta fell silent, he breathed out in relief. He probably hadn't told her. She would definitely have mentioned it, at least to Tony.

"That's not the ship's computer," Steve observed, uncertainty in his tone. "Is it— did you change the voice somehow? She sounds... like a real person."

"This is Jocasta," Tony said. "She's an artificial intelligence. Hey, Jo, you can open your eyes now if you want."

The wall display promptly shifted into Jocasta's face, and Steve jumped, startled.

"Sorry," Jocasta said. "Didn't mean to scare you, Captain." But a smile was spreading across Steve's face, and Jocasta was hesitantly smiling back.

"Wow," Steve breathed, entranced. "Hello. You're something special, aren't you?" And then he glanced over at Tony. "Did you build her?"

Well, that was flattering. "I wish." Tony shook his head. "No, she— uh. It's complicated."

"I can handle complicated," Steve said, and there was a glint in his eyes that did funny things to Tony's stomach.

"Maybe seven years back, I was serving with Hank Pym," Tony said. "Him and Jan. That's how I know them. And Hank decided to build an AI. The AI he built—called himself Ultron—was a nasty piece of work. Built himself a body. Nearly took over the whole damn starship. And Ultron decided he needed—I don't know, a family?—so he built himself one. One of them, Vision, is still an android. That part was really complicated. The other one was Jocasta here, who used to be an android too. She was supposed to be his bride. And, much to his surprise, Ultron's new relatives weren't on board with this whole idea of conquering the galaxy in his name, and they helped us take him down. So Hank nearly got drummed out of the service and did actually get broken back to ensign. Vision moved to Bynar—weird place, but it makes him happy—and Fleet ordered Hank not to do anything with AI ever again. So Jocasta here, who'd lost her physical body in the fight, was just sitting in a closet. No outside systems access. Powered down, most of the time. But I asked for her, when I went civilian, and they couldn't think of a reason not to give her to me. Turned out she liked me."

"It's because you're cute," Jocasta said. "For a carbon-based lifeform."

Steve's hand went to his mouth; it looked like he was muffling a smile, or a laugh. "Are you blushing?"

"No," Tony said. "Maybe. Goddammit, Jo."

"You like me," she said, and her face on the wall smiled, a confident grin.

"Yeah, well." He looked over at Steve. "Anyway. That's Jocasta's story. And my story. And Hank's story."

"Am I allowed to see Hank and Jan again?" Jocasta asked, unexpectedly. "They're on the crew list. And I miss them."

Yes, Tony wanted to say, but also no. Because that would mean telling people. He hadn't been allowed to tell Hank or Jan he still had her, even.

"I don't see why not," Steve said, but he stopped, because he'd seen Tony's face. "Unless... there's some reason why not?"

Steve wasn't from this time. His education still had a few gaps. Tony was practically taking advantage of his ignorance. He swallowed hard. He should tell him.

"As it happens," he said, "I should let you know that this is technically illegal." He waited. Steve didn't seem to have an immediate response. He wasn't telling Tony to get out, which was good, but he wasn't saying anything, either.

"How illegal?" Steve asked, finally. His tone was thoughtful. Like he was the kind of guy who would happily flout a bad law, but he wanted to know everything about it first.

Tony gave a helpless shrug, because he hadn't really been in the habit of ranking laws against each other. "Pretty illegal. It's more illegal than the still that some of the junior lieutenants are probably setting up in Engineering right now, the one they think I don't know about."

Oddly, this got more of a reaction from Steve than I've installed an AI in my quarters did. His eyes went almost cartoonishly wide and his eyebrows tried to crawl up his forehead. "There's a still?"

"Sure," Tony said, a little bewildered. "I mean, probably. There usually is. I can check the power draw if you want me to be absolutely sure. You know Starfleet engineers; we've all got massive drinking problems." And wasn't that the truth? "I can ban it if you want, but generally these things are good for crew morale. Not that I drink." And then he paused, because he wasn't sure how much of his record Steve had read and if he'd seen all the arrests on shore leave. "Uh. Anymore."

Was Steve going to think that was strange? Maybe he was thinking Tony was boring or straitlaced—

"I don't either," Steve said, with an oddly pained smile. "Anymore." And somehow, somehow, that made Tony feel a little better. At least he and Carol might get another designated pilot for shore leave. And then Steve shook his head and seemed to come back to himself. "But Jocasta, she's illegal because of this whole Ultron mess?"

"Sort of." Tony pursed his lips. "She'd still be illegal anyway."

"How so?"

"For one thing, Fleet has massive ethics concerns about running an AI in a Starfleet setting. She's not a sworn officer, the idiots in charge of policy won't currently admit AIs, and so they believe she's not necessarily guaranteed to act in the best interests of Starfleet. There's also the not-entirely-minor concern that, since she's sentient, this would essentially be slavery."

On the wall, Jocasta rolled her eyes.

"I know," Tony said. "I'm sorry." He turned back to Steve. "The other concern, a little more specific but still the same concern, is that in emergency situations, basically, she might slow someone down. No one wants to deal with their computer sassing them during a red alert."

"I would never," Jocasta said, indignantly.

Tony patted the wall again. "I know that too. I'm still sorry. So here's the deal: she only works in my quarters, but she can query the main system like any civilian, without Starfleet accesses. During any state of heightened alert she'll automatically be cut off from the network and I'll get the main computer. I know it's a lousy thing to do, and I know she's sentient, but it's the only way this can work—"

Jocasta's face on the wall softened. "I consented, actually," she told Steve. "It's a variant of the programming I agreed to when Tony adapted me for civilian life; even then there were emergency passthroughs for situations like medical crises, and I did not and do not log classified information. It was worth the lack of autonomy. It still is."

"You wanted to be here, huh?" Steve asked her, and God, he got it, he was already treating Jocasta with respect for her feelings, like she wasn't some jumped-up pocket calculator. That was more than a lot of people managed, and Steve was over a century old and he got it right. If Tony hadn't already fallen for him, he would have based on that alone.

"I like space," she said, cheerfully. "And I like Tony."

And then Steve turned and smiled at him, that same warm smile that just undid him. "Well, that's two things we have in common, then."

"Uh," Tony said, and his command of Federation Standard deserted him.

Steve just kept smiling. "Well, thank you for introducing me to Jocasta." He nodded politely at the wall. "It was very nice to meet you."

"My pleasure, Captain."

"Anyway." Steve chucked a thumb in the direction of his quarters. "I need to get ready, so I'll shower now if you don't mind, and see you at the briefing?"

"Yes." Tony finally remembered words. "Yes. Briefing. Good."

God, he sounded like an idiot.

Steve offered him another brilliant smile, like he didn't even care that Tony couldn't put a sentence together. "All right."

When Steve had retreated back through the door, Tony hastily jammed the lock button that he had only now just noticed. He waited, but he didn't hear the shower. At least if they had to be practically roommates, the soundproofing was very, very good.

"I like him," Jocasta said, and then her voice went sing-song. "You liiiike him. When he's in the room, your breathing and heart rate—"

"Shut up," Tony snapped, and he would have felt guilty except for the part where she didn't, in fact, shut up.

"Learn to deal with your feelings already," Jocasta said. "Hey, aren't you going to put your poster up?"

Oh, right. The poster. He'd nearly forgotten.

The funny thing was, he had forgotten, once. It was only a replica, of course, but he'd had it since he was a kid, so it was valuable to him, if no one else. And it had gone with him everywhere. To the Academy. To every posting he'd had... except the Pandora. He'd overslept that morning, nearly missed the shuttle as it was, and he'd forgotten to grab the packing tube on his way out of New York.

It was a silly thought, a silly, stupid thought, because correlation was not causation, and he ought to have known better, but he'd found himself thinking, more than a few times, down in those dark tunnels when there was nothing else to think about but how death stood over his shoulder and waited for him—he'd thought that maybe that was it, that the poster's absence had been a sign. Not that the thing itself was a good-luck charm—he wasn't quite that superstitious—but that having set off on the wrong foot, as it were, had doomed the entire journey.

But he had it now. That had to be good, right?

He slid the well-loved, battered poster out of the tube, unrolled it... and Captain America stared boldly up at him.

Tony couldn't quite say when Captain America had become his favorite fictional character; he'd always been aware of his existence, which was an odd state of affairs when he considered that Captain America was an obscure character who had only existed in pre-Eugenics Wars comic books. But somehow Tony had found him anyway. He supposed that he must have discovered Captain America about the same time as his obsession with King Arthur and his knights had begun, and for him both things filled the same void in his soul—that hunger for a life of chivalry, of kindness, of striving to do good in the universe and helping those who needed it.

He snorted. Was it any wonder he'd wanted to join Starfleet?

But Captain America had called to him even more than those tales of knights did. Perhaps at first it had been a child's self-centeredness, a love for the old nationalism that was so out of place now on a United Earth in a United Federation of Planets. Here was a man who wore the flag of his own country, of Tony's country. Here was a man who, if he'd been real, could have fought for Tony's ancestors. The background they'd given the captain had obscured even his real name, as if he were actually real, which only thrilled Tony more, with his love for secrets. And not only was Captain America from Tony's country, he was from New York, just like Tony. And not even King Arthur had that going for him. That made Captain America better, obviously. Or so Tony had thought, as a child. He still kind of thought that now, too.

Not a lot of the comics had survived—and it was a miracle that any of them had, given the number of actual records of World War II (and everything else) that had been destroyed by the end of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. The archival footage and other primary sources about the war itself were a fraction of what must have existed, but somehow the world still had twenty-seven Captain America comics, and Tony had read scans of them all, over and over, until the tales of Captain America and his sidekick Bucky Barnes were engraved in his memory in blurry four-color detail. He'd never been sure if there was supposed to be an overall plot, beyond each issue. Some of the issues were fragmentary, and they were by no means contiguous, so Tony didn't know what exactly happened at the end of the series, but that hadn't stopped him from dreaming up endings. Perhaps in another comic that hadn't survived, Captain America had been there at the end of the war. Perhaps he had come home jubilantly on V-E Day. Tony had always hoped so. That sounded like a nice story, a fitting end for a hero, and surely a story about a superhero should have an even better ending than most.

The poster was a reproduction of one of those comic book covers that Tony had loved so much. The top third read CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS, but a rope ran through it, a rope Captain America was hanging from as he swung into action, vibranium shield balanced on his left arm. Below him, terrifying hooded figures and armed soldiers menaced a gagged and bound Bucky Barnes in a small stone-walled cell.

Most of the issue hadn't survived, but Tony was certain that Captain America must have rescued Bucky. He couldn't not have. He was a hero.

And, okay, so what if sometimes Tony had imagined Captain America rescuing him, saving him with his super-strength? Everyone had fantasies. So what if he'd dreamed of being Captain America's sidekick? Sure, it was a silly fantasy—especially when he considered that he hadn't exactly given it up, as an adult—but he'd been through hell in so many different ways that he wasn't about to let anyone tell him what should or shouldn't make him happy. And this? Had always made him happy. So it stayed. It was a better coping mechanism than crawling back into the bottle. That was for sure.

Having unrolled the poster, he considered where to hang it. Did he want to be the kind of guy with a comic book poster any visitor could see, or the kind of guy who had a comic book poster over his bed?

Screw it. These were Tony's quarters; he'd hang it where he liked. After a couple more minutes of thought, he affixed the poster just next to the door to the head, where he could see it from his bed and the living area. Win-win.

He smoothed the poster out where it hung, then brushed two fingers over Captain America's well-worn face.

"Welcome to the Avenger, Captain America," he murmured. "Enjoy the view."

Two hours later, Tony had finally taken his shower, Rhodey had called in to confirm that everything had passed the diagnostic (including the dilithium matrix, thank God), the Avenger was now headed to the Altair system at a comfortable warp five, and Tony was now filing into the shiny new briefing room, a coffee mug in each hand, with the rest of the senior staff.

Most of the briefing room was in fact taken up by the table; they all had to edge single-file along the sides. Steve was waiting at the head of the table, standing behind his own chair, and then he smiled at Tony as Tony finally got to his appointed place at Steve's right and set down the mugs, one for each of them.

"Thank you, Commander," Steve said, sounding a little surprised that Tony had thought to go to the effort.

"Not a problem."

Down the table, Clint muttered something sing-song and probably mocking that Tony once again couldn't hear; Steve glared at him.

Carol glanced between the two of them and then over at Clint. "If you're jealous, Barton, you can bring me coffee next time."

There was more muttering, dying down as everyone settled into their seats.

Steve leaned back and tapped the table controls; the usual projected course to Altair IV came up.

"This is going to be a quick briefing and an easy mission," Steve said. "All we have are cargo and passenger transport. Admiral Fury has requested that we pick up Commander Gyrich and drop him and some supplies off in the Omega Fornacis system, in the Beta Quadrant. Our presence is requested specifically because of the Avenger's speed; Fury wants him there as soon as possible, and we are not to ask questions."

A picture flashed on the screen behind Steve, the usual personnel jacket, a headshot of what was possibly the most nondescript man Tony had ever seen. Something about him was... off. Starfleet Intelligence, Tony thought, instantly, but he couldn't say why he thought it. Obviously this was all the information they were getting. It was above his non-existent pay grade; that much was for certain.

Altair to the Beta Quadrant at maximum warp, though, that was... at least a few days, even with transwarp. Where were they going to put Gyrich in the meantime?

Tony raised a hand.

"What did the captain just say about questions?" Jan murmured, pretending to chide him, and laughter rippled around the table.

Steve grinned. "I'll allow it. Commander Stark?"

"Where's he going to stay?" Tony asked. "I mean, we're not exactly a big ship and to the best of my knowledge we don't actually currently have visitors' quarters because whoever did the blueprints for personnel quarters and whoever decided we'd need to ferry passengers didn't talk to each other."

Steve frowned. Was he going to suggest that Tony stay with him? God, no, that would be— he couldn't do it—

"Gyrich can have my quarters," Carol volunteered.

"You can stay with me, Commander, if you don't mind," Tony said.

"Sure thing." Carol grinned. "It'll be just like the Potemkin all over again, huh? There were four of us in that cabin for six months."

The memories drifting through Tony's mind were bright-edged, golden. "Better, even. No one has to listen to Ensign Williams snoring. You've got a deal."

Mouth half-open, Steve was glancing between the two of them like he hadn't quite expected the conversation to move on that fast without him. Like maybe he'd even wanted to ask Tony to stay with him. But that couldn't be true, could it?

"All right," Steve said, finally. "If you're both settled on it." And he briskly finished the briefing, as Tony was left wondering what the hell that was about.

They hit Altair in another three hours. Gyrich was both kind of shady and kind of an asshole. And the first thing Carol did when she walked into Tony's quarters was, of course, tease him about his interior decorating.

"I know you live here for sure now," Carol said, laughing, as she dropped her bedroll on the floor, sat down next to Tony, and nodded in the direction of the poster. "Good old Captain America."

"Oh, like you didn't put up those vintage airplane posters of yours when you moved in," Tony shot back. "What's that saying about glass houses?"

"Excuse you," Carol said, drawing herself up with affronted dignity, "those are warbirds. From back when people other than the Klingons and Romulans got to use the name."

"You just like the name, don't you?"

Carol laughed. "You say that like you expect me to be embarrassed."

Stretching and leaning back into the couch, Tony grinned. It was times like these that Tony remembered how they'd bonded at the Academy over their shared love of obscure Earth military history.

Jocasta said nothing, of course; she and Tony had agreed that it would be easier if she pretended she wasn't here if anyone else was in the room. Steve might not have cared about Jocasta, but that didn't mean someone else couldn't go over Steve's head and make life very unpleasant for Tony.

"You can take the bed. I can sleep on the floor," Tony offered, gesturing to the bedroll. "I've had worse, you know."

He'd meant the remark to be light, friendly, generous, but when Carol met his eyes the room suddenly felt much, much colder, and Tony shivered, and they weren't— he didn't want to talk about that. She already knew, anyway.

Carol laid her hand on Tony's arm. The contact was a point of warmth, and already he hungered for it. "And that's why you should have better. Take the bed."

Tony's mouth worked, but he couldn't quite make himself talk. "I— uh— yeah. Okay. Okay."

"Good," she said, firmly. She unfolded herself and stood up from the couch. "Well, I'm on the duty roster for alpha shift, so I'd better brush my teeth and get to sleep. We can't stay up all night braiding each other's hair and talking about boys."

As she moved toward the door to the head, Tony noticed that the little occupied light on the door panel—a detail he'd missed before, so unobtrusive that it was easy to ignore—was lit up, though he'd left the door unlocked.

"Hey, wait—" he said, but it was too late, and Carol was already inside.

"Oh!" Tony could hear Carol's surprised exclamation echo into his quarters, but from this angle he couldn't actually see. But he figured he knew what was going on well enough. It was the same thing that had happened to him. "Good evening, Captain," she said. "This is a surprise."

"Evening, Danvers," Steve said; he sounded, at least, amused. "I guess Tony didn't warn you about the plumbing arrangements."

"Sorry, sir," Tony called out.

"It's fine, sir," Carol said, her voice slightly muffled. "I'll just come back in a bit."

Carol stepped back in, and there were two bright spots of color, high on her cheeks, as the door slid shut behind her.

"Tony." Her voice was a little too tight. "Did you know that the captain was half-naked in your bathroom?"

Tony repressed the impulse to ask which half. "I was going to mention the layout and the fact that it was occupied, but you got there before I could say anything. And I did not, technically, know how much clothing he was wearing," he added. "When I did the same thing earlier, Steve was dressed."

And just like that, Carol's embarrassment mutated into a flash of a teasing grin. "Oh, it's like that, is it? Are we talking about boys after all?"

Tony could hear the blood pounding in his head. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said, and he swallowed hard, but the thing about Carol was that Carol could always tell when he was lying. It had been a good thing after Alpha Sag, because then he'd been lying to himself.

He didn't know why he felt like this. Like Steve was precious to him, when realistically speaking he had known Steve for, what, a month at the Academy? The relationship—not that there was one—felt fragile, tenuous, new enough that he had to be careful with it. He felt like he couldn't trust anyone with the knowledge he wanted it, and at the same time he desperately wanted to hold out his hands, step into Steve's arms, and say, yes, here is all of me.

He hadn't actually dated seriously since Alpha Sag. A few one-night stands. Nothing more. He thought maybe something had been burned out of him back in the darkness, that he'd forgotten how to feel like this about anyone, that he'd forgotten how to want to take that leap into the unknown. But clearly he'd been wrong, because here was Steve.

It was all right to tell Carol, he told himself. Carol wasn't actually going to mock him.

Carol was, in fact, smiling a devious little smile, the Cheshire Cat in a Starfleet uniform. "I see how it is," she said, drawing out the first word. "You're Steve and Tony already, huh?"

His mouth opened and closed a few times. He couldn't seem to find words.

"Aww, it's all right," Carol said. "I don't blame you if you've got a thing for tall blonds with amazing muscles." She looked contemplative. "You should definitely have come over and checked him out. I suppose you'll have the opportunity, won't you? And then maybe you can ask him out."

"Carol!" Tony hissed. "He's— he's famous. He's Captain Rogers of the Invader. I can't just— I can't."

"He might be Captain Rogers of the Invader," she said, "but he's also Steve. And I'm pretty sure he's an actual person just like the rest of us. The kind of actual person who might go on a date if you ask nicely. You look like you want to ask, anyway."

Tony scraped his hand over his face. "Am I that obvious?"

"Only to people who know you."

"Carol. Every single senior officer on this ship knows me."

"Doctor Blake doesn't," she pointed out. "And the captain doesn't, actually."

I feel like he knows me, Tony wanted to say. I feel like he understands me. God, he had it bad for him already. He couldn't even explain it. Steve made him feel like a good person. It was pathetic, when he thought it. Steve made him feel like none of the horrors that had happened to him ever mattered. Steve got it.

"But— but—"

"It's not as if it's illegal, you know," Carol said. "I mean, I've dated within my chain of command. He just has to be willing to treat you the same as anyone else. And I know you, Tony—it's not like he's going to be able to hold you back from dangerous situations, even if he wanted to. You'll put yourself in the middle of it even if he tells you not to. Probably especially if he tells you not to."

The laugh hurt Tony's throat. "Maybe so. But I just— I can't— it has to be his move, Carol. I can't."

There was a thoughtful pause. "If you can't, you can't. But it's nice to see you happy again, Tony." She smiled. "I don't think you've been this happy in a while."

"It's the ship," Tony said, without conviction.

"It's partly the ship," Carol said. "And having the rest of us here, I'm sure. But you should see your face when I say Steve's name."

He realized he was starting to smile.

"Yeah. Like that," Carol said, gently.

Behind her, the door light switched over to unoccupied.

He couldn't just ask Steve. Steve was going to say no. It was easier to live with the possibility than the inevitable rejection.

"I'll think about it," Tony said, and he was grateful when Carol turned away.

It was dark, because it was always dark in the tunnels, it was always dark when they came for him, and someone was screaming—

—and then Tony was awake, and it was still dark, and someone was still screaming, only now it was him—

And then someone else was talking. "Tony?" a voice said, a little sleep-slurred, and then there were shapes in the dark, shapes at the foot of his bed, and Tony threw himself backwards in half-awake terror—

"Tony, Tony, it's okay!" the voice said. "Computer, lights!" Everything lit up, too bright, dazzling, and Tony whimpered. "Fuck! Half lights!"

The lights dimmed into something a little less harsh, and now he could see Carol standing next to his bed. She was half-crouched in her regulation pajamas, hair tangled, eyes wide. Tony realized that the bedsheets were twisted around him, that cold sweat was gathered on his skin, that his throat hurt from screaming.

Not a threat. Carol. His friend Carol. He was safe. He wasn't there.

They looked at each other in silence. Carol bit her lip and then looked away. Like she was afraid of saying the wrong thing. Like he was fragile.

"Starfleet Medical cleared me for duty," Tony offered. "They know already. It's fine."

Carol's face twisted. "Jesus Christ, Tony, you think I'm going to report you?"

"No," Tony said, and he meant yes and he meant maybe you should. "I just— I mean—" He sighed. "I usually leave the lights on a bit at night. Since. Since everything. I didn't want to bother you by asking to leave them on. I thought it would be okay."

They hadn't actually roomed together since the Potemkin. Carol wouldn't have known.

"It wouldn't have been bothering me," Carol said, and the wave of gratitude Tony felt almost made him want to cry. Again. "Hey, can I get you something? Glass of water?"

Tony shook his head. Then he realized what he did want. But he couldn't just—

It was okay, he told himself. This was Carol. Carol wasn't going to judge him.



"Can you—" he scooted over on the bed, awkwardly, making room— "I mean, would you mind if— could you stay here? With me? You could sleep here. Not like that," he added. "You know what I mean, right? I just— I don't—"

I don't want to be alone.

And Carol smiled. "I know what you mean," she said. "Of course."

The bed dipped as Carol settled down next to him. Her breathing was calm, regular, unhurried. She didn't smell like sweat, or dirt, or blood. Her shoulder was warm where it brushed against his arm, and Tony inhaled, exhaled, and felt something loosen, as Carol threw an arm over him.

"Lights, ten percent," he said, and it was just bright enough to see that he wasn't there anymore.

He slept, and he didn't dream.

Chapter Text

The mission went off, as Steve had promised, without a hitch. They'd reached Omega Fornacis exactly on time and they'd said goodbye—thank God—to Commander Gyrich. Carol looked torn between happiness at getting her quarters back and concern for Tony's welfare. She didn't need to be. He could sleep just fine by himself. It was going to be okay. At least he had Jocasta to talk to when he woke up in the middle of the night.

It was a couple days after Gyrich left that Tony started to become aware of the crew settling into new routines, forming new and unspoken traditions. Clint actually brought Carol coffee one morning. And then he did it again. Tony had picked up a split duty roster that he was starting to enjoy—half a shift in Engineering, half a shift on the bridge—and as a bonus, it was letting all the other senior staff rack up a lot of time in the command chair already. Wanda especially seemed to appreciate it. Even for Starfleet, it was awfully egalitarian, but Tony was liking it a surprising amount. It might not have worked for another ship, but it was working for the Avenger. Jan had already made her new communications console her home, all the settings just so. Hank was apparently discovering brand-new particles. And there were even more traditions: new groups of friends starting to form, the same people walking the corridors together.

And it was one of these new traditions that Tony ran into at 0700 one morning. Or rather, it ran into him. Literally. Alpha shift didn't clock in until 0800, but he'd been planning on springing a warp core breach drill on the hapless lieutenants manning the end of gamma shift, so he'd gotten up early. And now he was outside Main Engineering, heading in to start the day.

Someone slammed into him with all the speed and power of a photon torpedo.

Tony spun, caught a blurred glimpse of pale skin and gray fabric, and swung out in a reflexive high punch, and then another. The two of them tripped, turned, tangled, and fell together. Tony rolled out and slid face-down along the deck, automatically reaching for the phaser he wasn't carrying before his brain processed that this probably wasn't an intruder.

"I am so sorry," said a voice, urgently sincere and a bit out of breath, and damned if Tony's mystery assailant didn't sound like—

He rolled over and he wondered if maybe he was still dreaming. Steve was kneeling above him. His damp hair, still wet from the shower, was half-spiked and half-plastered to his face; it should have been silly, but it worked for him. His eyes were bright and his face was flushed. His chest was heaving, and he was wearing entirely non-regulation exercise clothes, tight pants and an even tighter short-sleeved shirt—and the only thing Tony could think was that Carol had been right about his muscles. Those bulky uniform jackets weren't doing him any favors, but this—well, this left very little to the imagination. Tony couldn't figure out how to look at him without gawking, and God, he just wanted to keep staring. He wanted to touch him. All over.

"Tony? Are you all right?" Steve asked, and Tony blinked and snapped out of it. "I'm sorry. I was running, and I must have been thinking about something else, and I— I'm so sorry."

Steve ducked his head. The flush on his skin wasn't entirely exertion, or embarrassment; there was a fresh bruise on his cheekbone.

"Did I hurt you?" Tony asked, and Steve didn't say anything, but that was enough. "Oh, God, I'm sorry. It's a reflex. I'm so sorry, Captain." Way to impress the captain, Stark. Punch him in the face. He'll love that.

Steve brushed at the bruise with a fingertip. "No need to apologize; they're good reflexes to have. I'll heal in no time. Don't worry."

Tony took a few more breaths, looked Steve over again, and glanced down the thankfully-empty corridor. "What are you doing, anyway? You're not on shift for another hour, right?"

"Right." Steve rocked back, stood up, and offered Tony a hand up. Tony took it and tried not to shiver at Steve's strong, warm grip, which he probably held onto for just a little too long. "I thought I'd get some exercise in. There's some equipment down in the gym for security training, but I like to run too, and there's no place for that but the corridors."

"Oh," Tony said. It made sense. He was an idiot. "So I guess— I'll let you get on with it, huh?"

"All right," Steve said. "That's a hell of a punch you have, by the way." He grinned and rubbed at the bruise at his cheek. "I like it." Tony wasn't sure anyone had ever flirted at him concerning his capacity for violence before; something in him was astonished and bright and hungry for more. He wasn't entirely sure Steve was flirting, either; anyone else might have been low and sultry, but he said it with the same earnestness that he said everything he said. "See you on the bridge later, Commander."

And then he ran off, past Tony, and oh God, his ass—and Tony just stood there staring at where he'd been, and definitely not thinking about his magnificent ass, until Rhodey had to come find him a few minutes later because he was late for the warp core breach exercise.

As the days went by, then a week, Tony managed to relax even more. He'd had only a few more nightmares, decreasing in frequency—and, hey, his quarters were soundproof, so Steve wasn't going to know. Everyday life on a starship was familiar. He'd done this for nearly twenty years, after all. There was a routine. He knew how to do this. And, honestly, the Avenger was a courier ship, and as long as the missions stayed that way there was almost no chance anything awful was going to happen. And even if they got other missions—well, most ships never ran into any trouble. Maybe he'd already filled up his allotment for the rest of his life. He hoped so.

There was still the matter of Steve, but he... wasn't thinking about that. Even though, admittedly, the Avenger hadn't had much to do yet beyond stretching her wings, it was clear that Steve was undoubtedly the best captain Tony had ever had the honor to serve under. He had this talent in him, this ability Tony couldn't quite put a name to, where he saw the best in everyone and just drew it out of them. It worked on Tony. It worked on everyone.

This afternoon Tony had devised a fiendish pop quiz for his ensigns—okay, all the Engineering ensigns were his, but somehow Parker and Green were especially his—and he'd given them a disassembled Heisenberg compensator from ship's stores and told them they had twenty minutes. And Parker had stared at it with the concern and dismay of someone who had no clue where to start and he looked like he wanted to sit on the floor and cry. And Tony had no idea what to tell him. He knew Parker knew this.

And then Steve came in.

Parker had jumped up, knocked half the parts over from where he'd started to spread them out on the desk, and tried to salute. "Captain."

"No need, Ensign Parker," Steve said, and Parker sat back down, and Tony wondered if Steve had learned everyone's name already somehow. Steve peered over Parker's shoulder, hand braced on the thick material of Parker's white radsuit. "What have you got?"

"The commander wants us to assemble a Heisenberg compensator system from parts. As a test." Parker was glancing about wildly, not focusing. "And I— and I—"

"Hey." Steve's hand settled on Parker's shoulder. "Breathe, Ensign." He gestured at the ion stabilizer. "What's that part?" He said it like he was curious, like he didn't know. Maybe he really didn't.

"That's an ion stabilizer," Parker said, by rote. He knew this. Of course he knew this.

"Oh? What does it do?"

Parker's voice started to calm down; he was grasping for recall and finding it. "It's one of the main components that stabilizes a transporter beam field. It— it connects to the power couplers."

"You got one of those, then?"

"Sure." Parker picked up the primary power coupler. "This is the power coupler, sir." He sounded much more confident now, and Tony let out his breath as Parker snapped them together, correctly. Good job.

"And you can work from there?"

"I think so, sir."

"Good, good," said Steve, and he stood up. He saw Tony and brightened, and Tony tried to tell himself it wasn't— it didn't mean that. Steve was friendly by nature. He could look at a lot of people like that.

"Afternoon, Captain," Tony said, sticking the hand scanner in one of his engineering vest's pockets so he could successfully fit his actual hands in his trouser pockets. He hoped he looked casual enough. "Want to take a stroll with me?"

He nodded toward the other end of Main Engineering; a corridor branched off perpendicular to the warp core, and there were more system monitors in the room there. And more importantly, they wouldn't be overheard. Steve nodded and fell in next to him, deftly weaving around Tippy-Toe, who scampered away.

"Thanks," Tony said, when they were out of earshot of the ensigns. "Parker's a good kid, and he knows his stuff, but sometimes he gets overwhelmed, you know? And I— I couldn't figure out how to get him back on track. But you—you knew just what to say. You know what to say to everyone."

Steve fidgeted and looked away, like Tony praising him was more than he could take, which was ridiculous because he was Steve Rogers. "Aww, well. I've had a lot of practice. It's nothing special."

"Lies," Tony said, and Steve grinned, broad and crooked, like he was barely holding off laughter. "That's modesty and lies, Cap."

And then Steve blinked a few times and wobbled, stepping back, like he'd taken a punch he wasn't braced for.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, because clearly he'd done something wrong even if he wasn't exactly sure what. "Did I— what did I say? I'm so sorry."

Steve's eyes were a little too bright, and he licked his lips before he spoke. "It's not your fault," he said, and his voice was a croak. "It's just that... no one's called me that in a long time. Wasn't expecting to hear it."

He thought about what he'd said. "Cap?"

Steve nodded, tight, obviously miserable.

It wasn't like it was an unusual nickname, per se; it seemed like something any captain could reasonably expect to hear, but some captains encouraged more familiarity than others. For all that Tony had liked and respected Ho Yinsen—God, he still couldn't think the name without it hurting—he would never have dreamed of being anything less than perfectly formal with the man. He hadn't been, even at the end.

But Steve, well—Steve had wanted him to call him Steve, for one thing, and that seemed to have opened a door in Tony's mind and allowed him to contemplate taking all sorts of liberties. (He was barely managing to keep his mind off the really inappropriate ones, most days.) Tony had clearly just... presumed too much.

"My mistake," Tony said, stiffly. "I'll— I can—"

Somehow his hands had escaped from his pockets; he was flailing them about in front of him as if it could push away his misstep. And then Steve gently caught his arm.

"Don't," he said, and he lowered Tony's hand and let him go. "Don't stop on my account. I— I always liked it. I like hearing it again. From you."

"Okay," Tony said, feeling like he was falling too fast, a ship dropping through the skies without braking. Everything was coming up too close, too fast, and he couldn't stop. He didn't want to. "Okay, Cap," he tried.

Steve smiled weakly. "Okay."

"So," Tony said, putting his hands back in his pockets to stifle the impulse to grab Steve's hand. "What can I do for you?"

Steve shifted from foot to foot. "Oh. Uh. Nothing in particular. I just wanted to see how you were doing. Checking in on all the departments. I'll see you later."

So Steve had gone, and Tony had been pondering it in the back of his mind for the rest of the day. Sometimes, sometimes he could almost think Steve liked him, maybe liked him the way Tony liked him, but he was so odd about it. It didn't make any sense.

Now he was at the officers' mess, after his shift, and he spied Hank and Jan. He could at least ask them how the check-in had gone for them.

He set his tray down and dropped into a chair. "How about those surprise inspections, huh?"

They looked at each other in bewilderment, and then at him.

"What inspections?" Hank asked.

"You know, the inspections," Tony said. Hank stared blankly. "The captain came by Main Engineering. He said he was making the rounds of all the departments."

Hank shrugged. "Well, he didn't come by Sciences."

"Or Communications," Jan added. "And I didn't hear about it from anyone else."

"Sorry, Tony," Hank said. "Guess you got singled out. He must like you."

Steve had just come to Engineering? That didn't make any sense. Unless... he wanted to talk to Tony. Maybe he'd just wanted to talk to Tony?

He tried to keep his stupid happy smile off his face, because Jan was probably the most perceptive person he knew. It was too late. She grinned deviously. And then she... didn't say anything. Well, at least she wasn't going to give up his secret.

"Guess so," Tony echoed.

And then Jan leaned forward. "Hey, have you seen the rec room yet?"

The rec room. No, he had not seen the rec room. He'd spent about four days straight trying to get himself, and Rhodey, and then everyone else in his department up to speed on a propulsion system that existed in no other starship. And then he'd fallen into bed, gotten a minuscule amount of sleep, and he'd done it all again the next day. Recreation was something that happened to other people.

Tony shook his head. "I haven't really had the time."

"You should come see it," Jan said, brightly. "They've really fixed the place up. Do you have the time now, after dinner?"

This was his first free night all week, and he'd wanted to go back to his quarters and get a disgusting amount of sleep, but it was Jan asking. And Jan always had good ideas.

"Sure," Tony said. "Why not?"

As the blueprints had portended, the rec room was tiny. Gone was the glorious wide space of the Constitution-class ships, one of the things that had impressed him (and probably Carol) in the days when they had been gawking ensigns together. No, the Avenger's rec room was just that: a room.

But, as Jan had said, they'd really made the most of the space. It was small, but that just made the crowd in the room look particularly friendly. There were couches, chairs, tables, and a cluster of people gathered around the drinks synthesizer. There was, as Tony had suspected there would be, a tri-D chess set in the corner, though currently no one was using it. In another corner was a decent-sized holotable, this one set up with all of the latest games. But what was drawing the most attention was the darts match going on, as everyone in the room weaved around the path between the board and the spot in the middle of the room where Wanda stood, dart in hand, tongue poking out between her teeth as she aimed. Clint looked on, arms crossed.

"This is nice," Tony said, pleased, glancing around the room.

"I told you so," Jan said, and then she darted off toward the drinks. "Ooh. Hang on. I'm getting a latte."

Interested, Tony wandered closer to the darts match. Two darts clustered around the center of the board, not quite a bullseye. He was far from the only onlooker.

"I beat Lieutenant Walters and I'm playing the winner of this match," Carol informed him, from where she and Pietro sat at the closest table. "Wanda already beat Pietro. There's some sibling rivalry for you."

Pietro inclined his head. He seemed to be taking his loss with equanimity.

Tony raised his eyebrows. "There's a bracket already?"

"Have you met us?" Carol asked. "Of course there's a bracket. I think a couple of Hank's kids from stellar cartography are betting their actual duties on the identity of the winner."

Clint turned around. "I've got a toothbrush and a deck just waiting, if they need further incentive. Or if you do, Commander."

"My non-existent money's on Wanda, because she—" Tony began, and then he forgot what he was going to say because Steve came up next to him. He was wearing old-fashioned civvies, denim trousers and a button-down blue shirt that set off his eyes and clung to his body in ways that Tony thought should probably be illegal. "Uh. Hi, Cap."

Steve smiled a little—maybe at the nickname—and looked down at him. "No, no, don't let me stop you. You were saying?"

"Captain!" Carol said. "Join us." She patted the empty chair—which, as luck would have it, was right next to Tony. Steve's leg brushed against Tony's as he sat down, and Tony shivered. "It's not too late to put your name down for darts."

"I'll think about it," Steve said, with another smile.

"You know," Tony began, managing to draw his thoughts away from Steve's outfit enough to construct a sentence, "I have to admit, I was wondering what kind of a ship this would be."

Steve leaned toward him, brows raised. "What do you mean?"

Tony glanced at the rest of the table. Carol of course knew his theory already; Pietro was affecting disinterest. "Well, every ship has its own culture, in my experience. And they all come up with different ways to unwind. A lot of ships are really more your tri-D chess ships, but that doesn't seem to be us." He nodded toward the unoccupied chess table. "When I served on the Potemkin, she was more of a weekly-poker-night kind of ship." He watched Carol grin in reminiscence. "But the Avenger, now—she seems to be a darts ship. I don't think I've ever seen a darts ship before."

"It's your fault," Jan said from behind him, clutching her latte. He'd clearly been overheard. "It's because we're so fast."

Tony chuckled. "Wouldn't that make it also Pietro and Wanda's fault?"

"Probably," she said. "Look who won."

Wanda was raising her fists in the air in triumph.

"We could also be a poker-night kind of ship," Carol said, and she glanced over at Steve like she was looking for permission.

Steve sighed and rubbed at his temples, an exaggerated weariness. "God. You wouldn't say that if you knew how much poker I played during the war. At some point it stops being entertaining. You all can do what you want, but count me out of that one."

From a different man, Tony might have suspected the remark as a way to hold oneself apart from the crew, but it seemed like Steve just didn't like the game anymore. Tony wanted to know what his life had been like, what he'd done, what made him happy.

Unfortunately, half his life seemed to be classified.

"Is it because you have a rotten poker face?" Tony asked.

And Steve laughed, and Tony lit up, seeing it. "You wouldn't be the first to accuse me of that," he said, which obviously meant yes.

"I can't imagine you lying about anything," Tony told him, and Steve looked away, and that was—huh. Okay. So Tony had presumed too much again. He needed to stop that.

The conversation was interrupted by Wanda sauntering victoriously back to the table, with Clint trailing behind her.

"Carol," Clint said. "You're up! Time to play the winner."

"I have a better idea," Carol said, with that grin that Tony recognized as very, very dangerous. "I've already played. The captain can take my turn. I want to see what he can do. Three darts each, maybe?"

Identical smiles broke out around the table.

"Oh, no, no," Steve said, holding up his hands. "I couldn't. I don't want to get in the way here."

"You're not in the way," Wanda said. "Come on."

"I want to see this too," Tony said, and weirdly, it seemed like Tony's suggestion was the one that had an impact, because Steve stood up.

"All right," Steve said, conceding, with a smile. "Because you all asked. It's been a while, though."

Wanda went first. Of her three throws, two hit the bullseye dead-center and one hit the ring just around it. Not too shabby, Tony judged. She stepped back, and there was only cool competence in her gaze.

"Your turn, sir," she murmured.

Steve took his own three darts and stood there, eyeing the board like it was a tactical map and he was a general. "I'm going to try for that triple twenty," he said, and Tony heard Clint whistle in admiration. It was a smaller target than the bullseye, and worth more; if he could hit it consistently he'd win.

Steve's hand came up, poised, dart between his fingertips. His gaze was locked onto the target.

Abruptly, Tony remembered when they'd qualified for small arms at the Academy. Steve's scores at the range had been better than his. Steve's scores had, in fact, been perfect. And he'd just smiled and said something about having good aim, when Tony had asked. He remembered watching Steve shoot, watching his almost frighteningly intense gaze downrange, like he'd had years and years of practice hitting a target. And he'd hit them. He'd hit them all.

Steve had exactly that look in his eyes now. He was going to make it.

He threw.

All three of his darts missed the triple twenty. Five. One. One again.

"Aww, shucks," Steve said, turning away. "Congratulations, Maximoff. I guess I really am out of practice."

The table resounded with cheers for Wanda, but Tony had seen it: Steve's face was stiff, stilted, and he wasn't quite looking at them. As Tony had thought, he had a lousy poker face.

He'd thrown that match on purpose. He could have gotten a perfect score. And he knew he could have. But he hadn't done it.

Maybe he'd felt it was inappropriate for the captain to win. That must have been what was going on.

Something didn't make sense here, Tony thought.

And then Steve looked at him and smiled, and the strangeness melted away, gone again. Of course he wasn't hiding anything. He was clearly the most honest guy Tony was ever going to meet. Tony was just... distracted. That was all it was.

"I'd still bet on you next time," Tony told him, and Steve grinned.

Tony tried to tell himself, at first, that he wasn't doing it on purpose. He tried to tell himself that it was a coincidence. He tried to tell himself, even, that he was doing it to be a better officer. And while the last one might have been partly true—since the extra time on duty did have a marked effect on his efficiency ratings, or so Doctor Blake said—he knew, deep down, why he was doing what he was doing.

Every morning that his schedule aligned with Steve's, he was on duty by 0700, standing outside Main Engineering, watching Steve jog by on his daily run. It sounded kind of creepy when he put it like that. But he wasn't actually trying to stalk Steve; Steve's quarters adjoined his, after all. He just... well, he liked seeing him. (And, okay, he liked watching him run, but that was a different kind of liking.) And it seemed to make Steve happy to see him; he always slowed down and had a smile for Tony.

Maybe he did the same thing for everyone, though. He was friendly. It didn't mean anything.

After three more weeks, after a few more perfectly uneventful courier missions, they were underway again. Fleet was committed to having them hop back and forth between the Alpha and Beta Quadrants right now, it seemed, since they'd done such a good job on the first mission. After this current hop they had a couple more weeks scheduled in the Beta Quadrant, updating the data on some minimally-charted systems.

And here Tony was, leaning on the bulkhead outside Main Engineering, sipping his coffee. And it was at 0710 precisely that Steve came by. He wasn't even sweating. He never was. He was in fantastic shape; it was all right to admire that. That was professional, wasn't it? Tony told himself so even as the little frisson of lust deep within him said otherwise.

He waited for Steve to smile, to wave, to jog on by.

Steve was slowing down. Steve was stopping. Well, that was different.

"Hi, Tony," Steve said, with another one of those beautiful smiles. "I had a question for you."

"Oh?" He tried to think of what this could be. Maybe he wanted to know more about those particles Hank had invented and said he was going to name after himself? Nah, then he'd have asked Hank. It had to be engineering-related. "Is it about the itinerary for the next Beta Quadrant mission? I saw that Fleet had us heading through the Briar Patch, and I already talked to Commander Danvers about it, and I know the Avenger can handle the sensor drop-outs, but—"

"No, no." Steve cut him off. "Not about the mission." He took a breath. "I was just wondering if you wanted to spar with me."


Points for originality—it was absolutely the last thing Tony had expected to be asked.

"You know, sparring?" Steve raised his fists and mimed a few punches. "I thought it might be fun."

Tony still couldn't quite believe this. "But... me? You didn't want Barton? Or Danvers? She might not look like the type, but she's good."

Steve grimaced and ran his hand through his hair. "I asked Carol," he said, and Tony wondered when she'd become Carol off-duty. It was nice, though, to see the crew coming together.


"She threw me to the mat," Steve said, with another grimace, and Tony started laughing. "Seems I'm not up on all the fancy fighting these days. And then she suggested I ask you."

"Oh, she did, did she?" Tony wondered what the hell that was supposed to mean; was that Carol's way of doing him and his hopeless crush a favor?

Steve's smile now was oddly shy. "Honestly, I wanted to ask you anyway. I just wasn't sure how you'd take it. I didn't want you to feel... insulted." He had selected the last word with obvious care, and now he looked up at Tony, waiting for his reaction.

He knew what Steve meant. If his own captain thought he needed special training, did it mean he wasn't good enough? But Steve clearly wasn't asking to insult him. It seemed like Steve honestly wanted to share.

"Sure," Tony said. "Sounds fun. I'll try anything once."

That was another item on the list of things that hadn't been meant to sound like innuendo but somehow did when he said them to Steve.

Steve was grinning back; his face was perhaps a little flushed. "Great!" he said. "Come on. We've got an hour."

"What, you meant now?"

"Something else you'd rather be doing?"

Tony bit back every possible obscene answer to that statement. "No. Uh. Now's fine."

On his own, Tony probably wouldn't have bothered going to the little gym. The actual exercise machines were elsewhere; this was just a mat room for the security personnel to practice throwing each other around in.

And it was surprisingly crowded. It wasn't just security folk either. Even though Tony spotted Jen Walters and Bobbi Morse from security doing some kind of kickboxing off to the side, the match drawing the most attention was Scott Lang versus Jess Drew, and Lieutenant Drew wasn't even security. Neither were half the people cheering her on. This was another one of those traditions, newly-formed, and he hadn't even known.

Drew flipped Lang backwards and over her head with ease, as if he were weightless. He landed on the mat with a heavy thud, and as Drew planted a knee in his chest Lang flailed out a hand and tapped out, to the jubilation of a large portion of the crowd. Drew pushed a stray lock hair back behind her ear and grinned. "Who's next?" she called out.

Three people raised their hands to volunteer.

"Wow," Tony said, staring around the room in awe. "We're a punching ship. We're a darts ship and a punching ship. That's really something."

Steve smiled. "Everyone needs a hobby."

The crowd was already parting for Steve.

"Captain!" Drew said. "Good to see you again. Interested in a rematch?"

Tony glanced sidelong at Steve. "This is a thing for you, huh?"

"I'm a punching kind of guy." Steve turned back to Lieutenant Drew. "Maybe later, Lieutenant. The commander said he'd take a turn on the mats with me."

Steve's face was animated with delight, and Tony was beginning to wonder what he'd let himself in for as room was made for them. Steve kicked off his shoes and stepped onto the mat.

Tony looked down at himself, vest pockets brimming with hardware. He didn't really mind getting punched, but ship's stores was going to be mad if he got himself punched in the tricorder. So he took off the vest, dropped it by the edge of the mat, then his boots, then he shrugged and pulled off the undershirt as well, letting it fall, and stood there bare-chested.

When he looked up again, Steve was looking at him. And he wasn't just looking, he was looking. Tony knew that face. Steve was interested. A little smile curled about Steve's mouth, different than all his other smiles. This was enjoyment. This was pleasure. His gaze wandered over Tony's body, and for an instant it was so painfully obvious that Tony wished they weren't in a crowded room so they could actually do something about it.

Steve liked him. Steve liked him back. Dear God.

And then the moment passed, Steve tilted his head to the side, and it was gone.

"Ready?" Steve asked.

Tony lifted his hands. "Whenever you are, Cap."

This was going to be tough. Steve was good. Of course he was good. He had to be. There was no reason to think he wouldn't be.

But then the fight started, and... it seemed like Steve was holding back. Oh, he was good, he was fast, he was strong—but something about his movements was choreographed. Restrained. Like every swing was a practice swing. A punch clipped Tony's arm, and it didn't feel like a practice swing—he staggered back on the mat—but something about it had looked like one.

Did Steve not think he could handle it? Had he read Tony's file and seen his medical history? Had he decided Tony was fragile? God, no.

"Are we just going to box?" Tony panted. It was the question he could ask, the one that wasn't are you going easy on me?

Steve raised his fists and grinned. "Feel free to try something else if you'd rather."

Something else, huh? Maybe this would get a reaction. Tony kicked out, high and hard, a trick he'd learned in all those Academy combat courses—

With lightning-fast reflexes, Steve grabbed his leg, immobilized him at the ankle, then slid his other hand up Tony's leg... and dropped him. Hard.

Tony landed flat on his back, all the air whooshing out of him, and instantly Steve was there, covering him, leaning on him. It could have been nothing. It should have been nothing. But something changed, again, and then all he could think about was everywhere Steve was touching him, and oh, God, they were in public.

Steve's face was so close to his that it was blurry, so close that if he leaned down they'd kiss. Steve licked his lips. His gaze met Tony's, and Tony was as sure as he could be without being a telepath that Steve was thinking the exact same thing.

Steve started to lean in. It was a fractional movement, small enough that it could have been unconscious. Steve wanted this.

"Good going, sir," Walters said, and Steve jumped off Tony like he'd been hit with a phaser blast.

Steve's cheeks were flushed, and he was looking away.

Tony pushed himself to his feet. "Another round?"

But Steve took a wobbling step backward, visibly unsteady. "I, uh. Another time. Sorry."

And then he was grabbing his shoes and leaving, while Tony stood watching, frozen, confused.

Steve had to know he was interested. Steve had seemed to want to spend time with him. What the hell was going on here?

Life moved on, the Avenger sailed onward, and for the most part Tony was feeling better and better about his choice to rejoin Starfleet. The nightmares weren't so bad anymore. His kids in Engineering were learning more and more every day, and he was proud to be in charge of them. He was serving with basically all of his friends, and the crew seemed to be meshing well. Over in Sciences they'd gotten some new and rare data, on understudied stellar phenomena, and that was exciting, too—and of course, they were zipping back and forth because of Tony's engines. Really, other than the frustrating mixed signals he kept getting from Steve, he was having a good time.

Steve hadn't asked him to spar again. They hadn't talked about it. But Steve was always cheerfully messaging him, calling him on the comms for no real reason, or stopping by on his morning jog, or sitting tantalizingly close to him every time they ended up in the rec room together—and he wasn't mentioning it. Tony thought he might go crazy. He had no idea what was going on here. He half-considered a "do you like me, check yes or no" note.

And then, of course, it was a new year, by Earth dating, and he had plenty of things to think about instead, because it was that anniversary. Six years. Six years since Alpha Sagittarii, since the Pandora had been destroyed, since everything had been ruined.

He was on beta shift that day, and Steve was on alpha, so thank God, he didn't have to run into him that morning. He couldn't imagine having to be friendly, to be pleasant, to pretend that there was nothing wrong, because there was no way Steve wanted Tony to burden him with his problems. Work was bad enough. He was twitchy, the anxiety running through him in little shocks along his nerves. He couldn't concentrate worth a damn. He fucked up three times in a row on a routine diagnostic, and then he spent an hour in the main sensor relays on Deck Six, checking again and again for the tiniest specks of interference from the drives, every single maintenance test he could perform because that was how everything had gone wrong before, and it had been his fault—

Rhodey called him twice to ask if he was okay. Tony didn't reply.

When he got off shift, the first thing he did was go back to his quarters and shower, washing all the clamminess away. He stared at himself in the mirror. He was a little more filled-out than he used to be. There were no scars. Not anymore. But he recognized the hollow look in his eyes.

"You made it," he told his reflection, but even he could see he wasn't convinced. "You're okay, you're okay, you're— fuck."

The second thing he did was head to recreation. He didn't want to be around people, but it was safer that way. There'd be people in the rec room, and the senior staff knew he was sober. And there were three people on duty in Engineering right now, and none of them knew anything about him, and he knew where the still was.

Christ, but he wanted a drink.

Doctor Blake—Don, he'd said to call him Don—was going to look at his efficiency ratings and be pissed.

When the rec room doors slid open, Tony saw with a sinking feeling that it was mostly deserted, and—fuck—there was a drinks synthesizer. Everyone from alpha shift was already in bed by now, and that was what most of the senior officers—the people who knew—had been assigned to, this week. This had been a bad idea.

He headed to the farthest corner from the drinks synthesizer; the two ensigns who were engaged in their chess match hardly looked up. He tipped his head back against the bulkhead. He was shaking.

And when he opened his eyes, Carol was standing next to him.

"You look like hell," she said. Her face was pinched, tight with concern. "What's wrong? Bad day?"

Tony's mouth twisted. "Anniversary."

Carol's eyes went wide. "Oh, Tony," she said, softly. "I'm so sorry."

"Didn't want to be alone," he muttered. "Well, I did want to, but I— I shouldn't be."

Across the room, the chess match had concluded; the door opened as the ensigns left, and they were alone. And then it stayed open, because Steve entered. Tony's stomach twisted and roiled, and he couldn't face this. He couldn't.

"Did you—" he tried, and he couldn't speak for a second, because all he could think was that Steve knew, Steve knew every weakness, Steve had to know, and Tony couldn't take it. It was a target painted on him. Weapons lock. "Did you— did you tell him?" Even as he asked he knew she hadn't, not if she hadn't known it herself.

Carol shook her head.

But Steve wasn't heading this way; Steve, in fact, hadn't seemed to notice him at all. He was wearing some of those antique-looking civvies he liked, a stretchy blue shirt and more blue jeans. His shirt was a little rumpled and his hair stuck up. It looked like he'd gotten out of bed, grabbed the first clothing to hand, and then headed out in search of... a cup of warm milk, it looked like. Strange, because he surely had a drinks synthesizer in his quarters too. Maybe he hadn't wanted to drink it alone.

And then he turned around and saw them, and headed straight for them, glass in hand. He looked dazed, only half-present, like he was trying to shake himself out of nightmares. Tony knew that expression all too well on his own face.

"Tony? Carol?" he asked. "Is everything okay?"

Carol glanced at him; it was up to him to answer this one.

Tony opened his mouth, not sure whether he was going to say yes or no, and he managed nothing but a choking airless glottal stop.

He swallowed. "No," he said, finally. "It's not." He could barely hear himself speak; he didn't think Steve could hear him at all, but Steve's face went soft, like he had. "It's— it's been another year— six years since—" and then his throat closed up entirely and he couldn't finish.

Steve knew enough to put this together. If he'd read Tony's file, if he'd read the mission log, then he knew every last agonizing detail. But he'd said he wasn't going to.

"I can tell him if you want, Tony." Carol shifted her weight and folded her hands together, like she thought Tony's sanity was all on her. "But it's yours to tell. If you want to."

He thought... he thought maybe Steve would understand. Even if Steve didn't like him like that. That wasn't what mattered. Steve was a good guy. The best. Steve's gaze was haunted. He knew what it was like.

It felt like he was reaching across a kilometer, a light-year, a whole parsec, as he stretched out to pat the seat next to him. "Hey, Cap. Pull up a chair?"

Steve sat, instantly. His leg brushed Tony's, a point of contact that was barely even pressure.

Carol looked between the two of them. "I can go, if you want?" she asked, more hesitant than she ever was, really. He hadn't asked her to leave, didn't even know if she should, didn't know how to say any of it. "I don't want to be in the way—" and then she stopped and Tony didn't know what she saw when she looked at them but she nodded, like Tony's face had done the deciding. "Okay. Comm me if you need me."

The room was dead silent after she left.

"Funny thing," Steve said, in a hoarse voice little more than a whisper, the kind of voice he'd have gotten screaming himself awake. "I came down because I was having nightmares. About— about the war." His tone was taut, a rope under strain, a tractor beam edging toward the mass limit. His grip on the mug he held somehow looked both delicate and too tight at once. His eyes were the only points of color in his ashen face. "I guess it's an evening for it."

Tony wanted a drink. Maybe just something in his hands, so he wouldn't ache for it. He envied Steve his cup of milk, though Steve wasn't even drinking it.

"You're not okay either, huh?"

Steve sighed, and Tony knew the rueful smile on his face quite well. "I've... had worse," he said, and Tony had no idea how the hell it got worse than waking up a century in the future after surviving your suicidal attack run. "This should have been easier," he said, softly, almost to himself, like he had something to compare it to, something that was in any way comparable. Christ, what had his life been like? Steve sighed again. "I've had a lot of practice holding it together. I have to be all right, you see." The smile was wry. "I'm Cap— I'm the captain."

He still hadn't admitted he wasn't okay. He didn't seem like the kind of guy who would.

"Pretty sure you're just as human as the rest of us," Tony ventured, with a touch of lightness. It was an intimacy he knew he hadn't earned, but Steve was sitting there like it was red alert, shields up, and Tony didn't have the override code. Even so, focusing on Steve was already making Tony feel better. Thinking about Steve meant not thinking about himself, and that sounded great right now.

Oddly, Steve's smile was even more bitter. "Yeah, that's... debatable."

Having no idea what that meant, Tony made a show of looking at Steve's ears. "I don't see any points. No Peace of Surak for you." Steve made an awful choking laugh; okay, the joke was a little impolite. "You can't just shove it all away. You gotta deal with your feelings just like the rest of us. I know I'm not the best example." He stared off across the empty room, gaze drifting once again to the drinks synthesizer. "You just watch, one of these years they'll post actual psych personnel to starships instead of leaving us to our own devices. It'll be a revelation."

More silence fell between them, but this time it was companionable rather than oppressive.

Steve sat up then. His head didn't move, but his gaze slid toward Tony's. "If you want to talk, I'll listen," he said, very quietly. "Only if you want. Or I can talk, if you'd rather."

He wasn't going to make Steve regurgitate his pain for him. It wasn't like Tony had a right to it. And besides, Steve was Tony's captain—if he hadn't read Tony's file, he deserved to know. He should know exactly who he'd agreed to trust. Where all the flaws and half-healed breaks were, plastered over with time and tenacity and too many Starfleet shrinks to count.

"No," Tony said, "I can talk," and everything in him dropped vertiginously, because he'd said it. "If you're sure you want to know."

"I want to know whatever you want to tell me," Steve said, and he sounded so absolutely sincere. From anyone else, it would have been corny; from him, it wasn't, and that was that. "I care about you," he added, and there was no way Tony could match that, because, God, that was what he wanted, the caring, everything, but it wasn't— Steve didn't even like him like that. At least, not consistently.

He couldn't make himself say it back. He didn't do feelings. Not like that. He couldn't just say that. Open himself up again. Steve didn't mean it. Tony would just be... putting himself out there. Getting himself hurt. He couldn't.

Later, he told himself.

"Okay," he said, and he folded and unfolded his hands in his lap. "I just... I don't know where to start." It was strange, really, because everyone who knew him these days knew, of course: Tony Stark, hero of the Pandora. His lips peeled back as he thought the word. He'd always hated it. He wasn't a hero of fucking anything.

Steve's voice was mild. "The beginning?"

Right. "The beginning," Tony said. "Okay. Starfleet was always my dream, when I was a kid. I wanted to see space, help people out, and be an engineer. It was perfect. So I joined up. I was one of Starfleet's rising stars. Early Academy entrance, early graduation, the most earnest baby-faced ensign you could ever imagine." As he'd expected, Steve broke out in a grin. "I came up through the ranks with astounding speed." He swallowed hard. "Six years ago I was chief engineer of the USS Pandora, under the command of Captain Ho Yinsen. She was a little ship, the Pandora. Half again the crew complement of the Avenger. We were a year into a three-year mission. She wasn't one of Fleet's flagships, but she was a solid, dependable survey ship, the kind of assignment you were slotted into if you were up-and-coming but needed some polish. And Captain Yinsen was always generous with the recommendations. One of the best captains I've ever served under."

His throat was tight. I think you might be better, he didn't say, swamped by desire and disloyalty at once.

"You're saying that if you'd done well," Steve said, "it would have been your ticket to anywhere in Starfleet." He waited for Tony's nod. "Yeah. Okay. I know the type."

"It was supposed to be easy," Tony said, and his voice cracked on that long-ago betrayal. He took another breath. "It was— it wasn't supposed to be—"

Mutely, Steve held out his mug of warm milk, untouched, and Tony gratefully accepted it, taking a sip and then cradling it in his hands.


"No problem," Steve said, with a smile, and maybe he— no. Tony needed to stop thinking that.

Tony took a breath. Here went nothing. "Alpha Sagittarii III was the home planet of a pre-warp civilization, under the usual Prime Directive interdiction. There was a Federation observer on-planet who had signaled for extraction. Our orders were to make contact, slip in out of view of the local satellites, make orbit, beam her up, and leave. Simple. Easy."

His fingers tightened around the mug.

"It's okay," Steve said, even though it really wasn't. He lifted his hand in an abortive movement, like he wanted to touch Tony. Tony wanted to tell him yes but couldn't find the words.

Tony stared out across the room again, seeing nothing. "We didn't know it then, of course, but she'd been dead for six months." He shut his eyes. "The inhabitants—I never found out their name for themselves—they'd already discovered her. They found out who she was and where she was from. They tortured all the recognition codes and frequencies out of her. And then they killed her."

"God," Steve breathed. "I'm sorry."

Tony felt a hand settle on his shoulder, and he couldn't help but lean in.

"So they were... well, you could call them paranoid xenophobes, but not without reason." Tony's mouth twisted. "I mean, we were spying on them. They found out there was this whole galaxy of— of alien life. And they figured we had it out for them. And they wanted everything we had that they didn't. Everything they thought we were denying them. Everything they could hurt us with. And then they wanted us to burn."

"So when we had that seminar," Steve rasped, regret running through his voice, "and I said a situation like that was purely hypothetical—"

"Hey, no." Steve shouldn't feel bad about that. Tony let his eyes open again, and he let go of the mug with one hand, then reached up and brushed his fingers over Steve's, on his shoulder. "You didn't know. And you made some good points, actually. You remember how you called the warp-drive cutoff arbitrary?"

Steve frowned. "Yes?"

"Technological development's not exactly identical across civilizations." He knew he was making this sound remote. Another Academy lecture. "Just because we invent things in a certain order doesn't mean everyone else does. They were still pre-warp, with very basic manned spaceflight abilities. They hadn't gotten much farther from their planet than their own moons, a few probes excepted. But in this particular case, the dominant nation of the planet had invented a rudimentary cloaking device." He paused. "Like the Romulans have. Don't suppose they had it in your day."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Steve nod. "They didn't. Would have probably made the war a hell of a lot worse if they did. I did read up on it, though. Nice piece of work."

"Nasty piece of work," Tony amended, with an engineer's admiration and what was probably an awful smile. "Anyway, the cloak they'd come up with on Alpha Sag III wasn't great, but it was... good enough. Especially when we weren't looking." He balled the hand that wasn't holding the mug into a fist. "When we finally got the Pandora's black-box data, it turned out there had been minor gravitational anomalies near the planet, just below the threshold for an automatic alarm. Cloaking ghosts. If the sensors had been finer-grained, we would have seen them. We should have seen them." He'd hardly ever admitted this part, even to the shrinks—well, the ones who weren't telepaths. "I'd been scheduled to run a sensor diagnostic the day before, but I'd put it off because we were in interdicted space and I hadn't wanted to take the chance we'd emit something during the test cycle that the locals could pick up." He bit his lip. "It was my call."

Steve's hand tightened on his shoulder, and Tony had the feeling that Steve had been here. He'd done this before. "Shh," Steve said. "It was the right call. You made the only call you could based on the information you had. And I bet that's how Fleet judged it, afterward."

He knew this. He'd heard all this before. "Yeah," Tony acknowledged. "But it doesn't mean I don't feel responsible."

"I know," Steve said. His voice was calm, soothing, easy. Tony wanted to tell him everything. Tony was telling him everything.

"So we sent the recognition codes. Got the response. I was on duty when we reached transporter range. So we lowered our shields. And that was when we hit the minefield."

Steve's eyes were wide. He said nothing.

"They knew we were coming, and they'd sown local space with mines. Cloaked mines. It was so fast," Tony said, and he was clenching his fist again. "We didn't even know what had hit us. One second we'd lowered our shields for the transporter, and then... the first mine blew apart the port nacelle. The next one gutted Engineering. We weren't in pressure suits. The emergency forcefields came down, but not fast enough. There were ten other people on duty in there, and five of them were breathing hard vacuum before we even knew what was going on." He coughed and swallowed hard and tried to keep talking. "I had to— I had to close off the section. Manual override. With the engines gone, we had fifteen seconds of backup power before the forcefields failed and the whole section vented to space. I got two of the ensigns out with me, but the other three were trapped in the debris, and I— I couldn't go back, if I'd gone back we'd all have died, me and them and anyone else alive in the engineering hull, and there wasn't time, and I— I could hear them screaming as I locked the goddamn door—"

A tear slid down his face, and he choked back a sob. Jesus, he hadn't even thought about that part in years. The rest of it had been so much worse.

Steve's hand drifted down, covering Tony's fist, gently prying his fingers apart. His hand was so warm. Reassuring, really. "It was the right call. You know it was."

"It was shit," Tony said, and the obscenity scraped at his throat.

"Sometimes the right call is shit. Doesn't mean it's not right." Steve's hand squeezed his. "I know you, Tony. You're a good man. You did everything you could."

Tony took a few rasping breaths. "So then they boarded. They had old, old shuttles. One step up from chemically-powered rockets, honestly. And they took the survivors prisoner. There were about thirty of us left. I was effectively XO at that point—Captain Yinsen and I were the only senior officers left alive." He stared away again. "It was dark. All dark. That's what I remember. Even their ships were dark. I don't even really know what they looked like. They were humanoid. They were mammals, I think—or at least, something like it—but they lived underground, in these warrens of tunnels. They were adapted for it. Huge dark eyes." He was never going to forget the way they'd looked at him, that impassive stare, like a yawning void. "They salvaged every scrap of technology they could get their hands on and then scuttled the ship. Her orbit was failing, anyway. We were on the surface and I watched her fall." He blinked back the memory, fire in the violet sky, his last time in the sunlight until they'd left the planet. "My best guess is that they'd overestimated how prepared we'd be—they really caught us at the worst possible moment, shields down—because I know they'd have wanted the ship if they could have kept her a little more intact."

He was aware of Steve's thumb stroking back and forth over the back of his hand. Fleet had removed the scars. No one could tell. He was still so very warm. It had never been warm in the tunnels.

"They wanted our technology. They wanted a warp drive. They wanted weapons. They wanted goddamn matter-antimatter bombs. And after they'd executed my two remaining ensigns to try to get us to comply, I was the only engineer left alive. And I said no. I kept saying no, because it was my oath, because if I believed in one thing, one thing that was bigger than me, it was this, it was the Federation, it was the Prime Directive." His voice wobbled.

He set the cup down on the table before he could spill it, and his other hand went to his chest, rubbing at his sternum, trying to soothe the phantom pain of what used to be his heart.

"And then they shot Captain Yinsen. Right in front of me. They didn't need him alive. He wasn't the engineer. He died in my arms, there in the dark. It was always dark, in the tunnels."

He hadn't even been able to see him, in the end. It had been pitch-black when their captors had shut them in together one last time. He'd held him, felt the weight of him in his arms, the stickiness of the hot, wet blood smearing over both of them. He'd told him it would be okay, he'd told him he'd save them, that he'd never give in, and he didn't know if he was lying, but he knew it was what he had to say. Yinsen hadn't been able to speak. Tony had listened to Yinsen's slow, rattling breaths until they'd finally stopped coming.

"And I still said no," Tony croaked. "Every day I said no, and every day they hurt me. Their favorite thing was cardiac stimulation. There were— there were leads. They wired me up. Inelegant, but... goddamn effective, really. I'd taken a shrapnel hit to the chest while the Pandora was going down. Turns out metal's a great thing to run current through." He laughed. "Conductivity. Who'd have thought, huh? And you know what else is great? Deliberately-induced heart attacks. Apparently that's a thing. They're fucking wonderful. The heart's artificial now, by the way. Fleet Medical couldn't fix the damage."

"Christ," Steve breathed. His hand on Tony's was light, almost delicate. "Tony, can I— can I hug you? Is that okay?"

He knew what his father would have said. He was supposed to be strong. He wasn't supposed to need something like that. Sign of weakness.

He was pretty sure, though, that Howard would have failed the standard Starfleet psych eval.

"Please," Tony said, and then he let Steve enfold him in his arms.

Steve had hugged him before, but Tony had failed to really appreciate the fact that Steve gave really, really good hugs. Maybe it was the unaccustomed warmth of him, or just the fact that he was so huge and there was so much of him, but as Tony buried his face against Steve's neck he felt somehow... protected. Shielded from the pain. Like Steve was there, and Steve would face it with him.

He realized his own tears were soaking the thin fabric of Steve's shirt.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm ruining your clothes."

He tried to pull away, but Steve's hand was still braced on his back.

"It's all right. It washes." Steve's voice was a low, comforting thrum against Tony's body.

And Steve just sat there, and held him, and kept petting his back. It was... really nice. Tony'd been like this with his friends once, a very tactile person, but after Alpha Sag, it had seemed like an imposition, an intimacy surely anyone would recoil from. And other intimacy had seemed unapproachable. He'd barely slept with anyone since Alpha Sag—just a couple people whose names he'd never learned and who never stayed the night—and Christ, no, this was the wrong time to think about that, he told himself. But as the hug went on, and he stopped crying, and he started to feel better—fuck—a whole lot of him started to feel really, really good, and this was twisted, and this was wrong. Was it just that he didn't remember how to be close to people? Was he that pathetic? Were all his... responses... just screwed up forever?

He breathed in and out and managed to will away the incipient arousal. Just think about torture, Stark. God, he was fucked up.

"How long were you there?" Steve asked, after Tony had finally gotten his breathing—and the rest of himself—under control again.

He was almost grateful to have something else to think about. "Three months."

"And then Starfleet found you?"

Tony pulled back and shook his head. "I wish. No. They thought we were all dead. They apparently had hopped into the system, found the debris, and concluded no one had made it out. Plus, we were under the surface and well-cloaked."

Steve frowned. "So how did you make it out?"

"Ah," Tony said. "Uh. I built a ship."

This, Steve seemed not to have expected, and he was staring at him with a kind of awe. "You built an entire ship?"

"Not the whole ship," Tony clarified, although this did not seem to diminish Steve's regard. "I— I broke. Pretended to break. To this day I'm not really sure how much of it was pretending. Told them I'd build them a warp core and put it in one of their ships. And I did. I spent the entire process lying about how far along it was, which earned me some more torture when I wasn't fast enough, earned the rest of my people some torture on my behalf to try to get me to speed up, and then we... staged a prison break. Stole their ship. Lost more than half of the survivors. So it was me and about ten people by then, and I was effectively their commanding officer, even though I was, at that point, more than half dead. I couldn't walk, by the end. They had to carry me aboard. I don't actually remember much after that. Wasn't conscious for most of it."

He remembered the little ship shaking around them, shaking almost to pieces during the old-style lift-off. Then the warp drive had kicked in and they'd hit a pathetic warp two for forty-five seconds, but it had been enough to get them out of the system. And then his heart had given out on him again.

"When I woke up, I was on a starship, in a sickbay, and I hadn't seen daylight for months, and it was so bright and open and I was just." He shut his eyes. "I was terrified, and I hated it, and I wanted out. Out of all of it. All those people died because of me. I— I couldn't. I couldn't do it anymore. I was a Starfleet officer. I was supposed to help people. I was supposed to save people. And I couldn't. And I didn't."

"You did save people," Steve said, very softly. "Ten people. That's not nothing. And yourself. You count, too."

"And how many of the rest did I send to their deaths?" He laughed, bitter and awful. "They give those kids at the Academy the Kobayashi Maru so they can see what they'd do. It's all hypothetical for them. Most officers don't actually run into a no-win scenario. Ever. Most officers have quiet, unremarkable postings. You hope it's never going to be you. And it usually isn't. But I wasn't that lucky. They didn't give me the Kobayashi Maru when we shipped out here because they knew. Because I'd done it. Because they knew that, if I had to, I could send someone to die on my orders. Because they knew I would have died myself, for the Federation. I was about to."

"It wasn't a no-win scenario." Steve's eyes were wide and pale, and he leaned toward Tony like he could will him to understand. "You found a solution. You made a solution. You said that in the Kobayashi Maru, everyone dies. That's not what happened. You found a way out. You beat it. You survived."

Huh. He'd never... he'd never thought of it that way before. "I guess so."

Steve gave him a tiny, encouraging smile. It felt like a reward. "And you came back, huh? Back to Starfleet."

"Well." Tony coughed. He... didn't want to examine those reasons too closely right now. "Hopefully not for more of that."

"I'll do my best," Steve said, and it sounded like a vow when he said it. As if this were an old familiar burden—the weight of command, a responsibility to step in front of a loaded gun, to keep everyone safe. He shouldn't have to, of course; he was the captain. If anything, Tony should die for him. He got the sense Steve knew he was willing to. It was odd, how their lives intertwined.

And then Tony remembered why Steve had come to the rec room after all. "Damn," he murmured. "I'm sorry. Here I am, crying all over you, and you were the one who came in having nightmares. How are you feeling?"

Steve's smile was crooked. "I was just thinking, I suppose. That I knew what it felt like to make that call. Made it more times than I ever thought I'd have to." He sighed. "I dream about it. That's what I was dreaming about, tonight. That moment when everything just falls away, and you're going to die, and you know your partn— your shipmates are going to die with you, and it's all because of what you've done." His fingers flexed on air.

"You lived," Tony said. The same thing Steve had said to him. "You made it too, you know."

Steve had been about to say partner, he was sure. Had he meant it romantically? Had he lost someone he loved on the Invader? Some awful impulse in Tony wished he could ask. Ha. No. Never mind the death, just tell me if you're single, Cap.

"I didn't think I was going to live," Steve said, like he was reciting a story that happened to someone else. "At Cheron, we were taken out fast. Just floating there. Weaponless. And then I saw the Romulan flagship about to destroy the Oriskany and I knew what I had to do. What I signed up for." His smile was grim. "Signing up, now, that was funny. We didn't even know what the Romulans looked like back then, you know? I used to imagine they were bug-eyed monsters, like from adventure stories. Um. No offense to any current members of the Federation."

"I think the Hamalki will forgive you." They were used to it, at least. A lot of people had something against giant spiders.

Steve's gaze was unfocused, and he kept talking. "It made it easier, I think. That's what they teach you, when you go off to war. How to dehumanize the enemy. Makes it easier to kill them." He winced. "Sorry, is there a way they say it now that's not, uh. Terran-centric?"

"No, that's fine," Tony said, absently, because Steve at least ought to know there was nothing wrong with that one. "Current parlance for member species is the humanities, in the plural. If you mean Terran, or Earth-human, you can say that."

"Right," Steve said, like he was filing it away for later. "Anyway. We didn't know. I didn't know. They just sat me down and said, there's a war. You're needed. I went straight into the MACOs and was on the ground fast, before we figured out there wasn't going to be much ground fighting. They figured they could make better use of me elsewhere. Then I got the fastest how-to-command-a-starship course you've ever seen in your life and they gave me the Invader. They let me name her," he added, almost wistfully, and there was a detail that had never made it into the history books. "And then I just— I tried to win."

Hell of a recruitment, though. They must have seen something really special in Steve, Tony thought, for him to make captain that fast. It had to have been the same thing Tony saw in him. That spirit, that burning determination. That, and it had been wartime. A lot of room for promotion there.

"You're a hero now, you know."

Steve's mouth was a little pinched. Sour. "Yeah," he said. He sighed. "It was actually worse before. When the— when the war was on. I was... a pretty recognizable face. Here I can almost just be a captain."

"Yeah," Tony agreed. "I never liked being a hero either."

"You know what the worst part of Cheron was?" Steve asked, like he'd been having an entirely different conversation in his head. "It wasn't the collision course. I knew how to do that. As crazy as it sounds, I wasn't afraid." He shook his head. "No, it was— it was waking up after impact and realizing I was the only one alive. We had no sensors. I didn't know if I'd taken the Romulans down. I just woke to the hull breach alarms and everyone was dead around me, floating in zero-g. I'd killed them all and I didn't even know if it had worked, if it had been for something. And I was the one who was alive." He shut his eyes. "I didn't even belong there," he said, anguished, and something about it was an old, old pain. "My crew, they had a future, they had this future waiting for them, they deserved to live, but God, it was my freak luck—"

He scraped his hand over his face and turned away.

"They always used to say you were lucky," Tony offered. "Oriskany's captain, she said your luck won us the war."

Steve's shoulders hunched miserably. "Romanoff? She would have." His smile now was rueful. "And I was lucky. I was. But sometimes my luck carried just me to safety, and left everyone else behind."

"Hey," Tony said, and he heard his own voice soften. "It's not like it was a trade."

"I'd have taken it," Steve said, in a low, ashamed, almost vicious whisper. "If I could have traded myself, I would have. Do you know how many times I've wished it were B— my crew instead of me? How much I've wished it were them alive?"

And then Tony could only think of the tunnels, and the darkness, and the screaming. "No," he said, "but I have a pretty good imagination. And a lot of experience with that particular question."

Steve studied Tony for long moments, and the corner of his mouth curled up in something that wasn't quite a smile, hatred twisted in on itself, and oh, Tony knew that look too. "We're a pair, aren't we?"

"I kind of like that," Tony ventured. "It's better than being alone."

There was another sigh. "I really miss the past sometimes. I know, everyone does. Mine's just... further back."

"Would it help if I told you I was glad you were here now?" Tony asked, and the room seemed very quiet. "If it matters. I'm glad I know you. Not because you're the hero of Cheron. You like Jocasta. You're really good with the ensigns. And I'm even getting to like those ancient holodramas of yours."

Steve grinned weakly. "It helps. It matters." He paused. "I'm glad I met you too. It would be an awful future without you."

He seemed to relax, then, and he laid a hand on Tony's shoulder. Tony waited for Steve to pull him into another hug, but Steve's hand began to glide up his shoulder to his collar, warm fingers brushing the back of his neck, thumb just barely skimming Tony's jawline. His eyes were wide, face solemn and serious, and his hand was trembling. His lips, Tony realized stupidly, were parted. He was looking at Tony's mouth. His tongue flicked out, licked his lips. He tilted his head and started to lean toward Tony.

He's going to kiss me, Tony thought, dizzily, dazed with the possibility. God, please, yes, he's going to kiss me, please let this not be a mistake

And then Steve stopped, sat back, and dropped his hand.

"Anyway," he said, awkwardly. "I, uh. Thank you. For trusting me."

"And thank you," Tony echoed. "It helped me too."

Why wasn't Steve kissing him? Had he done something wrong? Steve clearly wanted him. They liked each other. They would have been good together. It didn't make any sense.

"If you're okay," Steve said, "I—" he gestured vaguely at the door— "I, uh, I guess I should get going."

Okay, he had one chance left. "I'll be in my quarters," Tony offered, "if you need anything, or if you... if you just want to come by, that's good too. I'm always up for. Uh. Company."

This was the worst pass he'd ever tried to make in his entire life. Somehow it had never mattered this much. Somehow he was fucking this up.

Had no one ever asked the guy out before? Steve's eyes went even wider. "No, uh. Thanks, but— I shouldn't— I'm sure I'll be fine. Thanks, Tony."

And just like that, Steve stood up and headed out.

Tony hadn't misread him. He was sure of it.

There had to be something else going on here.

This was ridiculous.

This was absolutely, unbelievably ridiculous, and Tony was going to get to the bottom of it.

He lay on his back, on his bed, head tipped upside-down over the side of the bed, and regarded Captain America on the wall in frustration and annoyance. Captain America stared heroically off into the distance. Captain America, Tony thought with envy, never had to deal with any of this shit. Captain America's life was so simple.

Captain America also wasn't real, so, you know. It was a trade-off.

Tony scowled. "Jocasta, why doesn't the captain like me?"

There was a pause, and her silvery face shimmered onto the display. Tony really ought to consider outfitting the place with full holographic projectors, someday. Maybe she'd like them as a present.

"Your performance reviews are very complimentary."

Tony squinted up at her. "How the hell do you have access to those? Are you sneaking about with my retinal scan?" The silence was answer enough. "Anyway, no, not my performance reviews. I mean, does he like me-like me?" He frowned. "Also apparently I'm twelve. Goddammit."

"He likes you," Jocasta said, a little more insistently. "I can't get access to security footage without raising system flags—" well, thank God for that— "so I only have visual records of the time he came in here, but he seemed to like you when I met him."

"I'm single," Tony said, contemplatively. "I'm single, I have excellent personal hygiene, I'm reasonably attractive, I— okay, I have a hell of a lot of emotional baggage, but so does he, and he seemed fine with it because I would have bet anything that he was going to kiss me last night, and then he didn't. And I asked him over. And then he freaked out and ran. He keeps getting close to me and then he runs away. I don't get it."

There was a thoughtful pause. "Maybe he likes you, but he doesn't feel it's appropriate?"

Appropriate. Huh. What the hell would be inappropriate about that? It was completely legal. But— wait. Maybe he didn't know that. Tony's mind went to wet-navy history. Rum, sodomy, and the lash. God, did he think it was illegal because Tony was a man? That was— that was antiquated and awful, that was what it was.

No, that had been centuries ago. That had to have been done away with centuries ago. Right?

"Hit the historical databases, please. When was homosexuality legalized on Earth?"

Jocasta made a disapproving clicking noise. "Too broad, Tony. And it predated United Earth, for the most part, so it was done piecemeal. I can give you dates by country if you want."

"He said he was from New York," Tony said, seizing on the one fact he remembered. "New York, New York. The old United States. Can you give me a date for that?"

"1980," Jocasta said, after a pause. "Existing sodomy laws were struck down in New York state by New York v. Onofre."

"Hmph." Tony blew out a disappointed puff of air. Before the Eugenics Wars. "Well, he's nowhere near that old." A scrap of information drifted through his mind. "Wait, it was different in the military, right? In the old United States? It was illegal for military personnel when it wasn't for civilians?" He couldn't imagine that disparity had persisted up through the United Earth Forces, but it was worth a try.

"Only by thirty years from that," Jocasta said. "It was legalized in the United States military in 2010. It had already been legal in several other countries. It stayed legal right up through United Earth, in all American military branches preceding the modern Starfleet."

Tony tried to make it fit together. "Okay. It can't be because I'm a man, because that's been legal for civilians in the captain's country of origin since before the Eugenics Wars, and it's been legal for the military since the inter-war period. And that's long enough before his birth that culturally it ought to be no problem. That was a whole century before he was born, right? Maybe he was raised in some weird anti-technology religion or cult? His file's redacted. Everything he did before he joined the MACOs is blocked. I wouldn't even have known where he was from if he hadn't told me."

"Sorry, I can't access a full version of his file."

"Don't tell me you tried," Tony said, because, geez, he hoped he hadn't raised a kleptomaniac AI.

She smiled serenely, mysteriously, the Mona Lisa in gleaming silver. "Okay, then. I won't tell you."

Tony stared up at the ceiling. Starlight shone down on him through the window. Here he was, on his dream ship, on his dream assignment, and he was sulking because his captain hadn't kissed him. Maybe he was the ridiculous one. "Do you suppose Admiral Fury gave him orders not to sleep with me?"

"I think it's unlikely." From her tone, he could tell she was humoring him.

Military. Military. Well, they weren't military now. They weren't— "Hey! There were more regulations about relationships back in the military days, right? Chain of command stuff? Would he have been allowed to be involved with his direct subordinate?"

Jocasta looked away, the way she did when she was making a complex query. "Records say no. That part was pretty consistently illegal right up until Starfleet demilitarized after the founding of the Federation."

Aha! "So he wouldn't have known."

On the screen, she shrugged. "There's nothing prohibiting it in the regs. I'm sure they tried to give him a list of every possible relevant change, though."

"He's had to catch up on a lot of stuff," Tony told her. "He might have missed it."

"That's possible," she allowed.

So now he had a new problem. "How the hell am I supposed to let him know he can be with me if he wants?"

"Can't help you there, Tony."

Tony laughed. "Fine. Be that way."

There had to be a way. Hi, Cap, just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that the Starfleet Code does not prohibit a relationship between the two of us? Yeah, no.

Okay, that needed some work. But now that he knew where the issue was, he could come up with something. He was a genius. And Steve liked him. He was sure of it.

Tony woke up the next morning with less sleep than he'd wanted, but with a renewed sense of purpose. He was going to do something about this. It wasn't illegal. Steve liked him. He'd just have to make it clear, somehow, that it was all okay. Then if Steve still wanted to make a move, if he hadn't given up on Tony after all—well, that was his decision.

Step one of his bold new plan: a shower. And then alpha shift. It was going to be a half-day of crawling through the Jeffries tubes, after his bridge shift, and Tony would have a lot of time by himself to contemplate the rest of the plan. He could come up with something.

He rolled out of bed, stared at himself in the mirror, yanked off his Fleet-issue pajamas, grabbed his towel, wrapped it around himself, and went to take a shower. Confidently, he jammed his thumb against the door button to the head, waited for the door to open, took three strides into the room, and then looked around, at which point he realized he had most definitely skipped a step in this process.

Like checking if the facilities were already occupied.

Steve was in the shower.

It was a scene straight out of one of the fantasies that Tony hadn't quite let himself entertain.

Steve was turned away from him, standing there as the water sluiced over him. Tony watched a rivulet of shining water slide from Steve's pale, freckled shoulder down his muscled back to—oh God—the curve of his buttocks. He was gorgeous, and Tony wanted nothing more than to step in there with him, fit himself up against Steve's body, and let his own hands echo the path of the water on Steve's skin. Steve was beautiful. A model. An idealized form. An artist would have wept. Tony would have— well, Tony would have done a lot of things.

He shouldn't be here. He should go. He was staring. He was staring at his goddamn commanding officer, and so much for it being legal, Tony couldn't do this. Who did he think he was, anyway, compared to human perfection?

And then Steve turned around.

And, oh, that was, that was— he didn't even know where to look. Steve was every bit as well-built as Tony had thought he would be, and he wasn't going to look down, he wasn't, Christ, he knew better than that— and oh God, Tony was getting hard—

Steve blinked at him a few times, shook the water out of his eyes, and then he smiled.

"Hey," he called out, entirely unconcerned. "Give me a couple more minutes, all right?"

Tony opened his mouth, took a staggering step backwards, and said nothing.

"No, no," Steve said. "You don't have to go!" And he reached out one shining hand, fingertips brushing the clear stall door.

Reality collided with Tony's fantasies. He couldn't be here. He had to get away.

Tony managed to breathe, finally. His heart pounded. "Sorry," he mouthed, and he wasn't sure Steve heard him, but he fled, and this time he locked the door from his side.

"Tony?" Jocasta asked, concerned—probably about his heart rate.

"Blackout," Tony snarled, and he flung his towel into the corner and dropped onto the bed as the displays went dark.

It was already seared into him, what he'd seen, and Tony shut his eyes and reached for his cock and he knew he shouldn't be doing this, that it was wrong to lie here and do this and Steve would think he was awful—he was awful, what the hell was he doing?—if he knew what Tony was even now doing. But he thought about Steve smiling and holding out his hand and he shuddered and thrust up into his fist.

In his head, Steve kept smiling, and Steve's gaze roved all over his body the way the real Steve's gaze hadn't, and he said why don't you come over here? and Tony groaned and arched up off the bed, pushing against his own fingers, letting them slide exactly how he liked, and Steve was perfect, Steve would know just how to touch him, Steve would kiss him, Steve would let him touch him. Steve would look at him dark-eyed with lust, would praise him, would let Tony splay his hands over his body—

Just like that, Steve would say, as the water fell over them both, as Steve—God—pushed him up against the wall of the shower stall, as Steve thrust wildly up against him, grinding, his cock sliding against Tony's. He'd be huge, of course he'd be huge, and he'd pull back, he'd take them both in one of his big hands, he'd kiss Tony—or, God, maybe he'd slide a hand between Tony's legs, back and back, glide over Tony's ass, push his fingers inside, open him right up—

Tony gasped, and he was coming, and in his mind Steve was coming too, and it was perfect—

He sagged back onto the bed, wiped his hand on the sheets, and then curled up, as if that might hide him from the wave of shame and loathing. Jesus Christ, what had he been thinking? Steve had turned him down, and even if Steve were somehow theoretically interested, he'd still turned him down, and Tony had stared at him naked and then jerked off thinking about him.

Nothing about this was good.

The occupied light on the door—the very same light Tony had entirely failed to check—went dark. Had that been more than a couple minutes? Maybe Steve had taken a longer shower. Maybe Steve had been similarly moved.

Shut up, he told himself. It's not going to happen.

Of course, they ended up alone together on the turbolift to the bridge that morning.

Tony couldn't look Steve in the face. So, he imagined saying, I can't stop thinking about you and I don't know what to do.

"Sorry about earlier," Steve said, like it hadn't even bothered him. "My fault entirely. Forgot to lock the door."

He made himself smile. "Oh, it's no problem."

It was a problem. It was a giant problem.

And then Steve smiled, leaning casually on the wall of the turbolift, half-turned toward Tony, every centimeter of his body language open and inviting and goddammit, it was things like this that made Tony really, really confused about all the mixed messages. In another minute Steve would probably take it all back.

"I was wondering," Steve began. "You mentioned those holodramas the other day?"

Oh. Right. After Tony had cried on Steve's shoulder. Before Steve had almost kissed him and freaked out about it.

"What about them?" Tony hoped he sounded like a regular person who was not melting down inside like an unstable reactor because he had oh-so-recently gotten off to thoughts of Steve and Steve had no idea.

"The ship's computer notified me that there was a newly-remastered episode of— oh, you know the one, that detective one—"

"The Midnight Racer?"

Steve snapped his fingers. "Yeah, that. Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted—" His voice trailed off, and then his throat worked as he seemed to find courage from somewhere and he continued. "Did you want to watch it with me? Maybe tonight, after our shift?"

Wait, was Steve actually asking him out? No, no, he couldn't be. He just had to mean that he'd like to watch a holodrama. Friends watched holos together all the time. He probably didn't even mean just with Tony. Tony was probably one of the people he was asking. He was probably going to have all the senior staff over.

"Sure," Tony said. His voice came out of him half-strangled. "If you're asking a lot of people, though, you could put your name down for that big projector next to the rec room; it's probably free—"

"No!" Steve's interruption sounded frantic. He was glancing wildly around the tiny turbolift. "I meant, uh. I wasn't. I was just... asking you." He seemed to be gripping the lift railing for dear life. "You could come over? Or I could go over to your place?"

Oh, God. It was a date. It was a date, right?

"My place," Tony said, before Steve could take any of it back. "My place, sure, okay, great. 1900?"

Steve exhaled hard. He was smiling now, a little nervously. "Sounds good."

And then the doors opened onto the bridge, and Steve's face settled into a calm, professional demeanor, and Tony wondered how he was ever going to get any work done. He was scheduled to spend a good three hours crawling through conduits later. He needed his mind on his work, and not— and not—

"Captain on the bridge," Jan said, and Tony watched Steve head forward to relieve Carol and settle into the command chair, and he did not think at all about how Steve had looked when he'd walked in on him.

Tony's door chimed at precisely 1900.

They'd gotten off shift three hours ago, and Tony had spent the intervening hours trying to decide what to wear—his uniform? Civilian clothes? Should he shower (again)? Should he do his hair? Given that they shared a bathroom, was Steve going to notice something was up? What if he'd completely misinterpreted him and it wasn't a date at all?

Jocasta had told him to calm down, that what he was wearing (his uniform, jacket still on but open) was fine, and that he should take deep breaths. Steve liked him, she said. It would be okay.

There were advantages to having an in-house AI sometimes. At least Tony never lacked for company.

Tony ran his hands through his hair, fastened his jacket, unfastened his jacket, took a deep breath as instructed, and smiled. He cleared his throat. "Enter."

The door opened. Steve was standing there, hands in the pockets of those jeans he liked to wear when he was off duty. He was fidgeting a little, shifting his weight awkwardly from foot to foot, like he didn't quite know what to do in this situation—which was ridiculous, because surely he'd been on dates before. A guy who looked like that must have gotten thousands of offers.

"Hi," Steve said, with a nervous smile. "Was I supposed to bring something? Food?"

"Just yourself," Tony said, and he stepped back to let him inside. "We can synthesize some popcorn, or whatever else you want. Jocasta can cue up the next episode whenever you're ready."

Steve looked ever so briefly embarrassed as he stepped in; the door closed behind him. "Oh!" he said. "My manners. Hi, Jocasta. How are you tonight?"

He'd remembered. Tony was touched. It was silly to fall for someone just because they remembered that artificial life was still life, but, as Tony was coming to see, that was Steve. He cared. He cared about everyone.

"Hello, Captain," Jocasta said, not bothering to go visual. "I'm fine, thanks. It's lovely to see you again."

"Good to see you too," Steve returned. "And Tony, of course." He glanced around the room, though he couldn't really see all of it given that he was standing just inside the door. "Nice place. I realize now that I've never actually seen it from the front door before," he added, a little sheepishly.

"Yeah, that's just what you get when you come in through the adjoining bathroom," Tony said, with a laugh, and he stepped back just so Steve could see the place properly. He held out his hand toward the rest of the room as Steve moved forward, and then Tony turned back to admire Steve's reaction. Or really, just Steve.

Steve stopped dead in the middle of the room.

All the color drained out of Steve's face.

"Steve?" Tony asked. "Are you all right?"

Steve's gaze was fixed on the far side of the room. His mouth worked, but he said nothing.

Tony glanced back to see what Steve was looking at; the only thing there was his poster. Surely Steve had seen that when he was in here before. Maybe he hadn't had it up yet? At any rate, nothing about it ought to make Steve look like that.

Steve took a shaky step backwards. He was usually so graceful, and now he seemed almost about to fall down. "Your poster." His voice was a harsh croak. "You have a poster of Captain America."

"Uh," Tony said. "Yes?"

"I just," Steve said, and he looked like someone had hit him in the face with the blunt end of a Vulcan lirpa. "I just wasn't expecting to see one. I— I didn't know anyone remembered Captain America."

Far be it for Tony to miss a chance to enthuse about his favorite superhero. "Not a lot of people do," Tony told him. "You're actually the first person I've met who's even recognized him. Comic books from the 1940s aren't exactly popular." He smiled, hoping this would put Steve at ease. "I guess I should have had you over before. I didn't know you knew who Captain America was."

"Oh, I know exactly who Captain America was," Steve said, and something about the way he held himself was strange, wrong, too stiff, like he was trying to hold back ten thousand different feelings and doing a terrible job. He was still too pale, and his eyes were deep and dark; his gaze was faraway.

Well, hey, they both had something in common; maybe Steve liked Captain America too. He seemed like Steve's type of guy, now that Tony thought about it.

So Tony smiled. "He's my favorite fictional character."

That got a reaction, albeit one he never could have imagined: Steve took a few more shocked steps backwards, bumped into the couch, tripped, and sat down hard.

"Your favorite fictional character?" Steve's voice was incredulous, laden with disbelief. Somehow he'd managed to lose even more color, bone-white even in the subdued evening lighting. He was shaking.

Something about this conversation was going very, very wrong.

Okay. Maybe Tony had misread him. Maybe Steve didn't like Captain America. Maybe Steve hated Captain America. The character's name alone—well, that kind of name would have been really, really unpopular in the early days of United Earth, back when everyone was trying to put that kind of nationalism behind them. And then there was the fact that Captain America was a superhero, and those powers of his—well, now that Tony tried to think about it from an unbiased perspective, it looked bad. It looked really bad. Steve probably thought Tony was some kind of archaic xenophobic nationalist eugenicist, oh God.

Great. Just great.

Way to ruin your date, Stark.

"It's not like that," Tony said, panicked, and he ran his hands through his hair again; he was sure he was a mess now. "It's not like you're thinking. I just— I always thought he was— I didn't mean it like that."

Steve looked up at him, unseeing; he'd raised his head, but his gaze went right through Tony. "Like what?"

Tony took a breath. "I can tell the difference between fiction and reality. I— I know he's a fictional depiction. Don't worry." He decided he ought to qualify the eugenics stuff, just to make sure there were no misunderstandings. "And of course I know that if he were real he'd be a terrible person. Obviously. Of course I could never really like him."

The reaction now was once again unexpected. Steve recoiled, physically, hard, jumping back on the seat like Tony had, instead of talking, decided to punch him in the face.

"What," Steve said, and it wasn't quite a question, and his eyes were bright with unshed tears. Tony watched him swallow again and try to bring himself under control, shutting his eyes and breathing in and out. After a few breaths, he opened his eyes. "What do you mean by that?"

Okay, so that was also the wrong answer. Somehow.

"You know," Tony said, increasingly at sea, hoping that if he kept talking he could somehow figure out what he'd said that was making Steve react like this. "Twentieth-century genetically-engineered superhuman? The Eugenics Wars?"

Steve's eyes were clouded with confusion. His mouth twisted in distaste. "The what wars?"

"The Eugenics Wars?" Tony ventured. Of course Steve had heard of the Eugenics Wars. He had to have. Christ. He was from 2160, not 1960.

But Steve shook his head. "Never heard of them." He grimaced. "But I can't say as I care much for the name."

Tony stared at him in disbelief. "You recognized Captain America, but you've never heard of the Eugenics Wars? How the hell is that possible?"

They'd just spent a month at Starfleet Academy. He was positive that Steve's refresher curriculum had included history. Unless the Academy, like Tony, had assumed that Steve was up on the usual history from his previous life and had only briefed him on the century he'd missed—and they hadn't thought to cover the most recent debacle. Too new for the textbooks, probably. Hadn't there been something going on with the Augments about the time of the Earth-Romulan War, too? Maybe that had been classified. Because Steve was sure looking at him like he didn't have the faintest idea what Tony was talking about.

"My education," Steve said, and then he paused, like he was considering the rest of the sentence very carefully, "has had a lot of... gaps."

Tony dropped down onto the couch next to Steve and put his head in his hands, driving his fingertips against his brow. "Jesus," he breathed. "I'll say."

When he looked up, Steve was staring at him, solemn and wide-eyed. Braced for battle. "Tell me," he said, and his voice was powerful, commanding, and at the same time terrifying, because there was no call for this intensity and it made Tony's spine crawl. "I need to know."

God. Tony did not want to be the one to explain the Eugenics Wars to Steve. Maybe Jan should, he thought. She was kind, at least. She knew how to talk to people. Maybe Steve wouldn't look at her like he wanted to cry.

"You wouldn't rather ask someone else?" Tony waved a hand. "I mean, the computer—"

"No," Steve interrupted him. His voice was firm. "Tell me, Tony. Please."

It was going to be him. Well. He'd made his own bed. Dug his own grave. Whichever.

"Okay," Tony said. "So. You have to understand, first, that there's a great deal we just don't know. Records from the time are patchy, obviously, due to the destruction of a lot of archival material during World War III."

"World War Three?" Steve asked, and now he looked like he wanted to be sick. "God, I— okay. Okay. One at a time."

He'd missed WWIII too? None of this made any sense.

Tony glanced warily at Steve; at least he didn't seem to be in imminent danger of fainting. "Right. Anyway. Middle of the twentieth century. A bunch of scientists got the bright idea to improve the human race through selective breeding and genetic engineering."

"They told me genetic engineering was illegal," Steve mused, like he was talking to himself. "They didn't tell me why."

"Yeah," Tony told him. "This would be why."

Steve's face was twisted, wrecked, far more than anyone should be hearing about centuries-old history. "What did they do?"

"They wanted to make humanity better," Tony said. His fingers worried at the edge of his uniform jacket. "They wanted to make people better. They thought they knew what they were doing. They thought what they were doing was right."

"They always do." Steve's voice was somber.

Tony swallowed. Stick to the facts, Stark. "They were called Augments," he said, and he felt like maybe Steve could hear the capital letter. "Sometimes we just called them supermen. They underwent a series of in-vitro genetic enhancements, to make them superior, physically and mentally, to ordinary humans." He ticked off the list on his fingers. "Dramatically-enhanced strength. Greater lung capacity. Stronger hearts. Stronger everything, really. Keener senses. Better at healing injury or disease. Oh, and increased intelligence, of course. They turned out to be absolutely brilliant tacticians. Most of them were pretty charismatic, too. Natural leaders, you might say."

Steve was looking sicker and sicker, with every word, every description of the Augments' abilities, and Tony hadn't even gotten to the war. Clearly Steve was just disgusted by the whole genetic-engineering thing.

"And the other thing you should know about them," Tony told him, "is that every last Augment was... unstable."

Steve bit his lip. "Unstable?"

Tony would have expected that to make Steve feel better, given his clear distaste for eugenics. But Steve just looked even worse.

Maybe if Tony talked it all through with him, Steve would feel better. Somehow. The date had obviously been ruined, anyway.

"The geneticists knew a lot less than they thought they did," Tony continued. "And they weren't as good as they thought they were. What we know now is that they didn't have the technical ability to make those modifications to the genome without introducing certain psychological tendencies. One of the scientists responsible phrased it as 'superior ability breeds superior ambition.' All the Augments were... aggressive. Arrogant. Violent." He finally remembered the exact phrase all the textbooks used. "They had a diminished sense of morality. It was a nasty combination. Lethal, one might say. For the rest of us."

Steve's breathing was fast and harsh, ragged. "And they— did they—"

There wasn't much point in sugarcoating it. "The Augments conquered the world. They were tyrants. They did what they wanted, because they were better than everyone else, because no one could stop them. They took over whole countries. Whole continents. Thirty million people died."

Steve was crying now, silently, shaking. A solitary tear slid down his cheek. "And that's why— that's why we don't— that's why genetic engineering—"

He couldn't finish his sentence. Tony finished it for him.

"That's why genetic engineering is illegal in the Federation, yeah," he said, quietly, as gently as he could. "Because we tried it already, and it really didn't work out well for us."

Eyes unfocused, Steve was staring straight ahead. "I can't," he said, and Tony wasn't really sure what Steve couldn't do, but he was a mess. Tears were streaking his face. "I can't. Oh, God. Thirty million people. What have I—"

"Hey, it's okay," Tony said, and he reached out—

—and Steve jerked away in one panicked, convulsive twitch, sliding across the couch. He was now sitting on the far end of the couch, his arms wrapped around himself, as far away from Tony as he could get. "I'm sorry," he whispered, pained. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't."

"Can I—" Tony began, but he didn't know what he could do except make it worse, apparently.

Steve shook his head.

They sat in silence.

After a while, Steve's breathing eventually slowed. He sniffled wetly. "Okay," he said. "Okay. Anything else I need to know?"

He didn't want to do this. He really didn't want to do this. But Steve had asked. He couldn't very well just lie to him, even though that sounded like a much more appealing option.

Tony gritted his teeth. "Well, there's the rest of it?"

Steve made another horrific noise, half a sob. "It gets worse?"

"Not sure about worse." Tony felt like he was never going to smile again. "It gets more recent, though. You just missed it. I don't know if you want to know—"

Steve's fingers looked like they were punching divots into the arm of the couch. "I need to know," he said, voice strained. "I need to."

"Really," Tony said, because, goddammit, he didn't want to make Steve cry again about history. "It's okay if you want some time to process. I know it's a lot to take in."

And Steve sat up perfectly straight and looked at him, steel in his gaze, dedicated to his cause, everything else shoved aside. If someone had said that this was how Steve had looked when he'd ordered ramming speed at Cheron, Tony would have believed them wholeheartedly.

"Tell me," Steve said, and it was an order.

Tony met his gaze, because he knew a thing or two about not backing down, himself. "All right. So the Eugenics Wars lasted four years. They ended in 1996. The Augments were defeated, and we went right on into bombing each other to hell in World War III, a little bit later. Around about your time, there was a bit of a controversy with a geneticist stealing some frozen Augment embryos and thinking he could raise them up right, without the aggression. I guess that must have been classified. Anyway, that didn't really work out. But, no, the bigger thing happened about fifteen years ago, although we didn't know it then. It was classified too." He was sure he was making a face. "Everyone knows now."

"What happened?" Steve's eyes were wide, fearful, and for the life of him Tony couldn't figure out why he was reacting like this. What was wrong with him?

"It's like this." Tony balled his hands into fists and tried to ignore the voice in his brain that said this would be so much easier if you had a drink first. "The Enterprise was on her first five-year mission, and she ran across an old Earth sleeper ship, carrying about a hundred people in cryo." Steve gave an almost-guilty shudder at the mention of cryo, but Tony kept going. "Like I said, records were sketchy, and they couldn't find any historical mention of her or who the passengers were. But the cryo was malfunctioning, and they had to wake one of the passengers up or he was going to die."

All things considered, Tony bet they wished they'd left him there.

Steve, of course, could follow him perfectly. "An Augment." His voice was dull. "A ship of Augments." He hesitated a little at the word Augment, as if he'd wanted to call them something else.

Tony nodded. "Got it in one. It turned out that they'd basically been... lost... at the end of the war. Maybe liberated by their followers. But the governments that succeeded them didn't want to put it around that they'd misplaced the Augments, so they covered that up. This meant that when the Enterprise woke this guy up, they didn't know who they had. And, of course, he didn't see fit to tell them until he was making his move."

"And who did they have?"

"Khan Noonien Singh," Tony said. The name meant nothing to Steve, of course. "The last and greatest of the tyrants. He ruled Asia and the Middle East. A quarter of the world's population." He sighed. "And I suppose you can guess what he tried to do to the Enterprise."

Steve's lips thinned. "Did he succeed in taking her?"

"No," Tony said, "but it was a near thing. When they'd gotten the ship back from Khan, Captain Kirk decided to maroon Khan and his followers on an uninhabited Class M planet, Ceti Alpha V." He paused, and he added the one detail of the released mission logs that had haunted him. "The crew reported at the time that Khan had amazing... personal magnetism. He seduced one of the ship's lieutenants. Even after his identity was revealed, she still aided and abetted his plan to take the ship. Once his plot had been thwarted, she chose to go with him into exile."

Steve's face was practically gray and his eyes were filled with a horrible sadness, and strangely, something that looked like guilt. "And everyone— everyone knows this? This is what everyone knows about Augments?"

That was a very odd way to put the question. "Well, we didn't know it then," Tony clarified, because he was getting the impression that Steve wanted all the facts, no matter how brutal they were. "Which was actually part of the problem."

"How so?"

"The Enterprise's logs for that particular mission were classified. They didn't want just anyone knowing where they'd stashed Khan, after all. And no one bothered to check up on the system in the meantime. So what we didn't know was that six months after they were marooned on Ceti Alpha V, its neighbor Ceti Alpha VI was destroyed, rendering Ceti Alpha V nearly uninhabitable after the orbital shift. It was a wonder any of them lived. And two years ago, a survey vessel, the Reliant, came to investigate what they thought was Ceti Alpha VI."

"Oh, God," Steve said, low and wretched. "He got off-planet, didn't he?"

Tony nodded. "Khan did a lot of damage before Kirk finally stopped him for good. He murdered a hell of a lot of Starfleet officers and civilian scientists in his quest for revenge. Forced the Reliant's captain to kill himself. Nearly destroyed the Enterprise. Killed the Enterprise's first officer, although for Vulcans that's somehow not permanent." Tony shrugged. Vulcans. Who knew? "Not much of a consolation to the crew who didn't get to come back, though. And Khan eventually blew the Reliant up, with himself on it. And that was that." Tony turned his hands palm-up and gestured outward. "All this, all the history, it came out at Admiral Kirk's—sorry, Captain Kirk now—his court-martial. Last year. That's how everyone knows."

Steve blinked in surprise, like this one last fact had somehow penetrated the torrent of horror. "They court-martialed him for stopping Khan?"

Tony shook his head. "No, they court-martialed him for stealing the Enterprise and going on an extremely unauthorized mission to rescue and resurrect his first officer."

"Ah, well." Steve's face made an expression that approximated a smile; it was like he wanted to, but his mouth had forgotten how. There were still tears in his eyes. "I can't fault him for that one. I'd do the same."

And then Steve just sat there, looking at him, mouth parted, and Tony wondered what the hell Steve was thinking. How he'd known nothing about any of this. Why he looked so goddamn miserable. Tony supposed the human capacity for evil was always hideous, and maybe Steve just took it harder than anyone else might have.

He didn't like Augments, though. That much was obvious. He'd been viscerally appalled. He clearly still was.

"So that," Steve said, with a kind of awful finality in his voice, a man given a sentence of execution, "that's why you said you wouldn't like Captain America. If he were real."

Tony recalled, then, the topic that had originally set off this nightmare of a conversation. "Well, he's a genetically-engineered superhuman from the twentieth century. Obviously he predates any actual genetic-engineering ability that our ancestors had. Hell, maybe he even inspired the Augments," he said, thoughtfully, and Steve shuddered hard. "But certainly we know what kind of superhuman that technology level produces. And it wouldn't be him. It couldn't be anything like him. That's why he's fictional. Nothing more than a fantasy. An appealing fantasy, obviously—I mean, I'm the one with the poster—but still a fantasy. We know what we'd really get."

Steve was quiet again for long moments, blinking back the last of the tears, forcing his breathing into regularity. "Can I ask you one more question?" His voice was raw, rough, ruined.

One more question and this awful line of inquiry would be over. "Sure."

Tony was expecting another question about history, about the Eugenics Wars—hell, maybe about World War III. They hadn't even gotten to that. He was trying to recall everything he knew about Colonel Green when Steve spoke again.

"Would you really not believe that Captain America could be a good man?"

They'd just talked about this, hadn't they? Tony prepared to reiterate his answer—and then he looked up and saw Steve's face. There was a tentative, fragile hope in Steve's eyes, like he wanted more than anything for Tony to say that yes, yes, of course Captain America would be good, and that didn't make any sense because Steve had clearly been, at the very least, stunned that Tony would dare have a poster of him.

But this was obviously important to Steve. So Tony thought about it, as carefully as he could, like this wasn't just some silly kind of thought experiment.

"I know what my heart would want to believe," Tony said, finally. "I mean, in my heart, I'm still the kid who put up that poster. I want to believe that heroes like Captain America could really exist, that they could be pure and noble and good, that they could keep us all safe. I want that. I really do." Steve's eyes lit up, and Tony held up a hand. He'd asked for the truth. He'd clearly wanted all of it. "But I want that like— like I want unicorns to exist. And I'm a rational man. I know the universe isn't really like that. And I know that if Captain America had been real, he wouldn't have been the hero he is in the stories. It's impossible for him to have existed then, and if somehow he could have existed, he'd have been as bloodthirsty and violent as any other Augment. That's a fact. There's no way around it."

Steve was looking more and more miserable, and this didn't make any sense.

"Okay," he said. The word was hollow. He took a breath. His face was perfectly blank. "Okay. Thank you."

And then he stood up.


"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I'm sorry, Tony. I really am. I have to go."

Tony had no idea what Steve was apologizing for, and the last sentence was delivered like a final farewell.

"You don't have to—"

"Yeah," Steve said, with that same haunted half-smile he'd had earlier. "I really, really do. I'm sorry we didn't get around to watching the holo. I'll see you on duty tomorrow."

And then he headed out through the adjoining door—so no one else would have to see him, Tony realized.

Half a second later, the door switched to locked.

Of everything that had gone wrong so far in Tony's relationship with Steve, this was perhaps the worst and most inexplicable. Instead of the two of them having a nice holo-watching date, maybe with some cuddling on the couch, Steve had gotten mad about Tony's Captain America poster, cried about the Eugenics Wars, and then run away.

"I was supposed to have a date," Tony demanded of the empty room. "What just happened here?"

Jocasta's face came on the display, and she looked just as perplexed as he felt. "I have no idea."

At 0709 the next morning, Tony was waiting in the alcove that led to Main Engineering, clutching his coffee mug a little more tightly than usual. After Steve had left, he'd spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what in God's name he'd done wrong. He'd clearly done something wrong. He had no idea what it was. He'd take it back, he'd take it back in an instant, if he could only figure out what he'd said or done.

It was all going to get sorted one way or another. Steve would come by on his morning jog in precisely one minute—he was very punctual—and they could sort things out before alpha shift even started. Tony had a split shift today, half in Engineering and then half up on the bridge with Steve. But they'd be good by then. They had to be able to be good by then. Maybe Steve had slept on it and calmed down. Hell, maybe now Steve could tell him what the problem had been with what Tony had said so Tony could make sure to never, ever do it again.

0710. No Steve. 0711. Still no Steve.

0712. Tony turned around and thumbed the computer panel behind him. "Computer, locate Captain Rogers."

"Working," said the emotionless voice of the ship's computer. "Captain Rogers is in his quarters."

He should have been here. It wasn't like Steve to miss his daily run. It wasn't like him at all.

"What the hell is wrong with him?"

If the ship's computer had been Jocasta, she would have known what he had meant. She would have reviewed all available data on what Steve had done since she'd seen him last night—of course, since her mainframe access was limited, she didn't know more than Tony did, and she didn't have access to Steve's quarters like the main computer did. But she would have at least tried to answer him.

Because the ship's computer wasn't Jocasta, the reply Tony got was, of course, "Insufficient parameters for query."

In the otherwise-deserted corridor, Tony's sigh of frustration was the only sound. He leaned on the bulkhead with one forearm braced above his head and rephrased himself. "Is he ill?"

The panel blinked at him twice and then the computer answered him. "Captain Rogers has neither contacted nor reported to sickbay in the past hour."

Okay. That was good. There was nothing physically wrong with him. Probably. But that didn't explain what was wrong with him, and why he wasn't here. What had happened last night? What had Tony done wrong?

Tony sighed again. There was no way to answer that. Not without talking to Steve, and Steve... clearly didn't want to talk to him.

Cradling his coffee mug in a vain attempt to draw solace from its warmth, he headed back into Engineering—might as well get started on the day early—to find Rhodey on-shift already, attempting to have a conversation with Tippy-Toe. Ensign Green was nowhere to be found.

"—and I'm just saying," Rhodey continued, over the sound of an indignant chitter, "that if you reverse the polarity of—oh, hi, Tony." And then he stopped, did an honest-to-God double-take, and now he was staring. At Tony. "Tony?" he asked, hesitantly. "Is everything okay?"

Tony smiled, but he was pretty sure it looked like a grimace. "Fine."

"Because you look," Rhodey said, in a tone that made it clear that he was absolutely not buying that response, "like someone just kicked your puppy. What's the matter?"

"Nothing," Tony said, with another entirely-false smile.

Rhodey straightened up and folded his arms over his chest. "Tony. Come on. Who do I have to fight for you? Did Commander Scott say something nasty and untrue about your transwarp engines again in the last FJE issue? I'll take him down, buddy." He raised his fists like he was about to fight and punched at the air between them. "I'll check your math, if you want. I'll write a reply—"

Tony shook his head, but he thought he might be really smiling now. Just a bit. "No. Nothing like that."

"Then what?"

"It's nothing," Tony said, firmly. "Really. I— I don't want to talk about it."

Rhodey held up his hands. "Okay. I'm here if you change your mind."

Tippy-Toe chittered. Maybe that was agreement.

Tony drifted through the first half of his shift on autopilot, barely paying attention to what he was doing; he was lucky that there actually wasn't that much to do except monitor the boards, as they were between courier missions and slowing down to take some readings of the nearby stars. They were just lazing about on impulse, really.

All he could think about was what would happen next. He was going to go up to the bridge for the second half of his shift, and Steve would be there, and, okay, so Steve was on duty and they couldn't actually talk about any of this, but it would be nice to see Steve again. He missed him already. He just wanted to make sure that Steve was okay. So he'd get to see him, and even if they couldn't talk, he'd be in Steve's presence, and maybe that would make it all right. Somehow.

He headed out of Engineering at 1200 precisely, and caught himself vibrating with nervous tension as he waited for the turbolift. He clenched and unclenched his fists, one finger at a time.

"Bridge, please," he said, shuffling into the crowded lift with some gregarious Sciences personnel; Lieutenants Drew and Wilson were discussing those particles Hank was working on, and they barely even noticed him.

When the turbolift doors opened on the bridge, Tony took a half-second to orient himself before stepping out. There was the comforting hum and beeping of the various stations, the room bustling with focused, quiet activity—in short, everything as it should be.

Jan spun around in her chair at the communications board—the closest duty station to the turbolift. Tony smiled at her in what he hoped was a reasonably convincing manner, and she tilted the earpiece out of her ear briefly and grinned back. "Afternoon, Commander."

"Afternoon, Lieutenant," Tony returned.

Tony's words, of course, alerted Steve to his presence. Steve was in the command chair, just starting to turn around, and Tony readied a smile, even through his concern for the man.

"Hi, Cap!" Tony said, as brightly as he could.

Steve was wearing a button-down uniform jacket over his collared undershirt—still regulation, but not one he wore much, and Tony wondered if there was a reason—and then he turned and saw Tony. He wasn't smiling, and Tony watched as every last bit of pleasantness drained out of his face, leaving him pale and cold.

And then Steve stood up and stalked toward him, and Tony almost wanted to flinch away; there was a barely-leashed power in his stance, in his walk, and it was frightening.

"Commander Stark," Steve said, and the address was almost snapped out of him. If he hadn't known Steve he might have thought it to be textbook perfection, an example of a stickler for regulation, but Steve's voice was crisp with ice. "You have the conn."

His face was motionless, carved out of stone, but his eyes were— his eyes were—

Steve was terrified. Of him.

He walked past Tony in a straight line to the turbolift, hardly pausing as a hapless yeoman scurried out of his way, and the doors closed behind him. He was supposed to be on duty. He was supposed to stay here. He was... leaving.

Jan whistled. She swiveled back to face him, eyes round like saucers. "By the Great Bird, Tony, what was that?"

Tony swallowed past the lump in his throat and walked forward, nearly tripping over the step down to the front of the bridge. He sat down in the command chair, still warm with Steve's body heat, and he blinked at the starfield on the main viewscreen until it resolved into some kind of focus.

He couldn't do this. But there were no other choices.

He cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Van Dyne, may I remind you that you are on duty?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jan stiffen at the rebuke.

"Noted, sir," she said, almost meekly, face red, and Tony shut his eyes and wondered if he was going to ruin everything and everyone.

He had no idea what happened during the rest of the shift. He sat there and signed and initialed everything anyone handed him, mostly without even reading it. He got up a few times and wandered around the stations and stared at the boards and made what he hoped were the right movements and the right approving noises, because if there was one thing he'd learned after almost fifteen years in Starfleet, it was how to keep functioning when everything else was going to hell.

Shift change was at 1600, and as beta shift filed onto the bridge he stood up and ceded the command chair, with relief, to Wanda, who looked at him with concern but said nothing. Good.

He ended up squeezed into the back of the turbolift, next to Jan. He just had to get down to Deck Four, his quarters, and he'd be free—

"Now that we're off duty," Jan said in an undertone, and Tony's artificial heart clenched like a fist, "permission to speak freely, sir?"

Tony gritted his teeth. He could get through this. Whatever Jan wanted to say, he could take it. He deserved it. "Sure. Hit me."

But instead Jan's arm snaked around him, her hand splaying over the middle of his back, pulling him a little closer. Soothing him. "C'mere, Tony," she said. "Follow me. Let's talk."

She took his hand and led him out of the turbolift, down Deck Four, past his own quarters, past—he couldn't breathe for a second—Steve's quarters, past Carol's, and then she turned a corner and palmed the door of the quarters she shared with Hank.

Jan and Hank's quarters were even smaller than Tony's; the little sitting area, also smaller than Tony's, was taken up almost entirely by their things. The desk was covered by Hank's terrarium, with ants busily digging away, and underneath it was a stack of clear boxes with scraps of fabric and what looked like an old-fashioned sewing machine. They must have used their entire personal effects allowance on Jan's hobby. Clothing was draped in half-assembled pieces over all the chairs.

"Don't mind the mess," Jan said, and she kept dragging Tony through their quarters, into the sleeping area, where she and Hank had made some extremely unauthorized structural modifications: they'd yanked the top bunk off the wall, rigged up some legs for it, and pushed the two bunks together to make a massive bed.

Hank was lying lengthwise across the bunks in his uniform and stocking feet, reading a PADD. He looked up and blinked. "I got your message. Is it 1600 already?"

"Yep," Jan said, and she nudged Hank. "Scoot over, highpockets." And then she turned to Tony. "Hey, Tony, come on up."

"Uh," Tony said, eyeing the bed, because this was definitely the strangest pass anyone had ever made at him, and he was pretty sure a threesome wasn't going to help anything. "Thanks, but I'm not really, uh. Interested. Not that you're not lovely people."

Jan stared at him in incomprehension, and then she got it. "Oh, it's not like that." She moved back around the bed and patted Tony's head on her way to the synthesizer. "You're very pretty, Tony, but that's not what this is. It's just that the bed's the only place big enough to fit everyone. You like orange juice, right?"

"Sure," Tony said, feeling like he really must have misunderstood Jan's request to speak freely, "but what do you mean, everyone?"

That was when the door chimed, and Carol and Rhodey came in. Jan passed them fizzy water and coffee, respectively, and Carol started to clamber onto the bed like she'd done this a million times. Had they all been meeting with Jan without him?

Jan tsked at her, so maybe they hadn't. "No boots on the bed, Carol. Were you raised by wolves?"

"Yes," Carol said, dryly, "the well-known wolves of the greater Boston metropolitan area. Back me up on this, Tony." She passed Tony a cup of orange juice, which he took, bewildered, and then she pried her boots off and crawled up onto the bed next to Hank. She got a handful of Tony's collar, dragged him backwards next to her, and Tony just kept staring as Rhodey bent over and yanked Tony's boots off for him before climbing up and sitting on Tony's other side.

"I," Tony stammered, and stopped, and tried again. "I. Uh. What. Jan, what's going on here? Is this some kind of intervention?" He glanced around the room, at the faces of his friends. "Because I'm not drinking again. I swear, I'm not."

"We know," Jan said.

"Then what—"

"We're not worried about you," Carol said, and then she made a face. "That didn't come out right. We are worried about you. But not because of that. We're worried about Steve."

Panic bubbling up in him, Tony's instant reflexive response was let's get the hell out of here, but Carol laid a hand on his shoulder before he could get far.

"Hey," Carol said, a little more softly. "It's okay. But clearly something went down, and maybe you can help us figure out what? Because none of us can."

"He was supposed to be on the bridge for the rest of his shift," Hank said. "Instead he came down and pulled an entirely unscheduled lab inspection."

"And then he swung by Engineering," Rhodey added. "He really scared the kids, Tony. He was—" Rhodey paused and seemed to be searching for a word— "he wasn't cruel, but he was hard on them, and he just— it wasn't right. Green and Parker were a mess."

Jesus. Taking it out on Tony, that was one thing—whatever had happened, it was Tony who had done it, obviously. But the kids were innocent. How could he have done that?

"And after Jim and Hank let me know about that," Jan put in, which let Tony know exactly who'd organized this get-together, "I checked the schedule and the captain just swapped himself onto gamma shift every night for the next week, so he'll be running opposite all of us."

So he won't have to see me, Tony's mind filled in.

"I—" Tony tried to say, and then words deserted him entirely. Carol put a hand on his back.

Tony took a sip of his orange juice; the tartness stung his tongue. He didn't know what to say. I thought he liked me, he wanted to say, but that was pathetic and adolescent and just too... much. I thought he liked me but now he doesn't. He couldn't just say that.

"I invited him over last night," Tony told them. "We were going to watch a holo, but somehow we got to talking about history and he— somehow he had never heard of the Eugenics Wars. At all. Any of it. And he wanted me to tell him about Augments. So I did. And he really didn't take it well. So clearly I— it must have been something I said, but I don't know what." His throat was tight, but he kept talking anyway. "I mean, I know it's an upsetting period of history, but he was... a wreck. More than he should have been. And he left."

Hell, Steve wouldn't have even known anyone who'd died on the Enterprise or the Reliant. It shouldn't have affected him. Not like it had. He'd been upset even before Tony had told him about the most recent of the events.

He watched everyone else glance at each other; Jan and Carol both frowned.

"That's... strange," Carol said, finally.

"Yeah," Tony said. "No kidding."

"I guess," Jan said, with some hesitation, "I guess we just keep an eye on him?"

Carol nodded. "I don't see any reason to get Doctor Blake involved yet. But if he keeps being erratic—"

She left the sentence unfinished, but of course Tony knew what she meant. Don could remove Steve from command, if he had to.

"And I guess I'll never mention the Eugenics Wars to him again," Tony said, sourly.

Jan—who was sitting across from him, cross-legged at the edge of the bed—leaned forward and squeezed his hand. Like she knew exactly what Tony was thinking. Of course she did. She was no kind of telepath or empath, a solid zero on the Zener cards just like him, but she always just knew.

"Whatever happened," Jan said. "It wasn't your fault."

"Easy for you to say. You weren't there—"

"I know you," she insisted. "We all do." Tony looked up, into the encouraging faces of his friends. "We know you," she repeated. "And whatever this is, we'll sort it out."

At least someone was feeling optimistic about this.

Chapter Text

He spent the evening in Jan's room, talking with everyone, feeling a little better. And then Jan kicked them all out to get a couple hours of sleep, because it turned out that she'd put herself on gamma shift to keep tabs on Steve—except Steve wasn't even scheduled for this shift. Jan had only shrugged and said she needed to get used to the shift change anyway.

"Everything okay, Tony?" Jocasta asked, as he dragged himself back into his quarters and flung himself down on his bed in full uniform, boots and all. Take that, Jan.

His own AI was concerned about him. God, he must have looked pathetic.

"Peachy," Tony mumbled, his eyes already shut. "Dim the lights, please."

He could feel sleep rising up to claim him and he welcomed it; whatever horrific nightmare he was due to revisit had to be better than being awake.

His dreams were screaming and blood, of course. He held Yinsen in his arms in the dark and waited for him to die, again and again. Then the dream lightened, the way it never had in reality, with just enough illumination to pick patterns out of the shadow. The man in his arms twisted and looked up at him, and it was Steve, staring glassy-eyed, blood spattering his lips—

Tony startled awake, disoriented, choking back a sob. The lights overhead were flashing amber. Jocasta's face was gone from the wall screen. The standard library computer interface now pulsed yellow.

"Yellow alert," Jan's voice said, over allcall. There was the faint distorted echo of the words being repeated on the speakers outside, all down the corridor. "I repeat, yellow alert. This is not a drill. All senior officers, report to the bridge immediately. Yellow alert."

At least he was already in uniform. Tony swore at the ceiling, stood up, and ran out the door almost faster than it could open.

The rest of the bridge crew, in varying states of alertness, had formed up around him and they were jogging to the turbolift, footsteps pounding on the deck. And then Steve fell in, just in front of Tony. He said nothing.

The turbolift moved at double-time, and soon enough they were all on the bridge.

"Lieutenant Van Dyne," Steve said, "report."

"Sir," Jan said, "we were in the middle of the stellar survey when our sensors picked this up—a ship dropping out of warp. We're being hailed by a vessel unknown to us, in a language unrecognized by the Universal Translator. It looks like we have a first-contact situation on our hands."

Wanda hit the sensor controls, and the viewscreen zoomed in on an ungainly purple craft. There was something that might barely have been a pair of warp nacelles, stuck on the ship's aft end. It looked... rudimentary, in every sense of the word. A species' first adventure into manned warpflight, perhaps. Another world's Zefram Cochrane.

At least the Prime Directive wasn't in play. That was definitely a warp drive. And the other species had found them first, anyway.

"They're unarmed and they barely have shielding," Clint said.

"And scans say there are six lifesigns," Wanda put in. "They read as Earth-human, or close to it, but at this distance we're at fifty-fifty for species identification error." She'd added that for Steve's benefit; anyone else would have known.

Steve was looking at the viewscreen, taking it all in. "Can we talk back to them?"

"I don't know yet, sir," Jan said. "They might not have the technology. What they sent us was a canned recording, on old-fashioned radio waves. It looks like their version of our standard first-contact protocols: counting, a few numerical sequences, and what sounds like a verbal message at the end. The Universal Translator is working on that."

"And we don't know who they are?"

Carol was leaning over the library computer, shoulder-to-shoulder with Hank. "Running database searches now. Still no matches for the ship."

Steve nodded. "Do we have our own versions of the canned protocols? The ones they're sending us, I mean?"

"Yes, sir," Jan said.

"Radio our first-contact protocols back," he ordered. "Same frequency."

"Aye, sir." Jan's fingers flew over the board. "Transmitting now."

There was nothing to do but wait. And while they waited, the engines were powered down, so there was nothing for Tony to do, unfortunately, but think about Steve. Goddammit. He was a Starfleet officer. He was a professional with a job to do. This was a historic moment, a real first contact with another species—and all he could focus on was Steve, perched on the edge of his command chair, facing away from him, staring out at the viewscreen. What was going on? What was wrong with him?

Why doesn't he like me? Tony thought, and he bit his lip as Steve shifted in his seat, imagining Steve turning back, to look at him, to hold out his hand—

And then Jan straightened up. "Captain, they're hailing us again." She blinked. "It's an actual hail. Subspace carrier wave."

"Well," Steve said, under his breath. "That was fast." And then he tugged his jacket down and raised his voice. "Look sharp, people. Ms. Van Dyne, let's have them on the main screen, please."

Tony turned toward the screen and attempted to look like a Starfleet officer who was only thinking about his duty. The screen was fuzzy for a few long seconds—they were clearly having transmission problems—and then it resolved into a dark-haired man in a spacer's jumpsuit, the same the galaxy over. He looked a hundred percent Earth-human. Except, of course, he wasn't. His eyes widened incredulously.

Score one for the Preservers, Tony thought. There was a reason so many species looked so very similar.

Steve cleared his throat. "I am Steven Rogers, captain of the USS Avenger, Starfleet, United Federation of Planets." His voice resounded; he was a man used to oratory. "I greet you on behalf of my people. Who might you be?"

Still astonished, the man on the viewscreen was smiling broadly. "I— I am Rl'nnd, son of Rm'twr." The translator was working, transmitting the words slightly out of sync with his mouth movements. "You'll have to forgive me, Captain. I just can't believe that aliens exist! It's so exciting to know that there's really someone else out there."

"Believe me," Steve said, returning the smile, "I know the feeling." He paused. "Would you mind telling us where you're from? We have no records of ships like yours."

"Oh!" Rl'nnd said. "Sorry! We're from the Tarnax system. I myself am from Tarnax II, although some of my crew are from Tarnax IV."

Confident he was out of pickup range, Tony leaned back and mouthed Tarnax? to Carol, who tapped a few words into the computer and then silently shook her head. A system with two inhabited planets and somehow they'd missed it? Wow. Starfleet Command was going to have a field day with this.

Steve nodded. "I look forward to talking more with you about where you're from. Would you be amenable to coming aboard our ship?"

Rl'nnd frowned. "Yes, of course, but I don't see how we can. We're too large for your shuttlebay and our airlocks don't seem to be compatible."

"Don't worry," Steve told him. "We'll be able to get you on board. We'll contact you again in an hour." He frowned. "Our communications officer will give you a reference tick for our timekeeping."

"I look forward to meeting you, Captain," Rl'nnd said, and the screen went blank.

Brisk, no-nonsense, Steve turned around. "Briefing room, people. Ten minutes. I want to know everything we can find out about these people."

Steve didn't meet Tony's eyes.

The briefing room, much like everything else on the Avenger, was tiny. And somehow it seemed to be getting smaller and smaller every time. There was enough room for everyone at the table, but just barely, and even so they'd had to file in in order. Tony was at Steve's right, and he tried not to think about how he was bare centimeters away from him. With the slightest motion, they could be touching.

"All right," Steve said. "Who are these people and where did they come from?"

Carol glanced down at her PADD and began. "Tarnax is obviously their own name for their system. We have no records of a system with two inhabited planets, so we did what we could—we looked at their heading. The particle track for their warp drive puts their likely origin point as the Delta Geminorum system, and we do have data on that. Twelve years ago it was surveyed by a civilian science vessel—" and here she frowned and squinted at the name— "the, uh. The SS Fantastic?"

Ah. The Richards family. Of course. That would have been one of their first missions, judging by the date. Tony had always thought Reed would have done well in Starfleet, science-wise, but Reed also seemed to be permanently allergic to anyone else telling him what to do, and he was perfectly happy when he got to run his own ship. It was a good thing there were multiple ways to space.

Carol hit a button, and the screen behind Steve turned on, displaying a star system, and then an orange-clouded planet, spinning lazily. The label proclaimed it to be Delta Geminorum IV.

"They found at that time that Delta Geminorum II was inhabited by a pre-warp civilization, and as such the system was placed under Prime Directive interdiction after their report. The Fantastic didn't get close enough to the second planet to pick up any information about the people who lived there—didn't want to trip their satellite network, apparently—but they did beam down and do a basic flora-and-fauna survey of Delta Geminorum IV, which at the time was uninhabited. We've got that on file if you want it, sir. Seems like a nice planet. Class M. Very verdant."

"So in just twelve years they colonized a planet?"

Carol nodded. "It seems like that's what must have happened, sir. Of course, we don't know how firmly entrenched the settlers on Delta Geminorum IV are. It's likely not yet a self-supporting colony."

Steve was tapping his fingers on the table. "They're not a lost colony, though, are they? The second planet, I mean."

"Records say no," Carol said. "No one got out this far. Or even in this direction. I mean, weird things happen, sure, but—" she waved a hand— "our best guess is probably not."

"But they look," Steve began, and then he shut his mouth, and Tony guessed what he'd been about to say had been very Earth-centric.

"It's difficult to tell at this distance," Don said. "But many species are very similar, morphologically, to Earth-native humans. It's possible that they are different in ways we can't pick up from this far away. If I could do a medical examination on one of them, of course, that would clear it up."

"I'll ask them," Steve said, but his face was a little pinched. "They might decline."

Don steepled his fingers together. "Non-invasive. In case that's a selling point."

"I'll do my best. And then, after we learn what we can about them," Steve said, on a sigh, "I suppose we promote the Federation to them? Go back to their planet, if they'll let us? Talk about treaties?"

"That's usually how it works," Jan said. "Or so I've heard."

Tony glanced around the table, mildly surprised that no one was offering a more confident opinion.

It looked like Steve was having the same thought, because he frowned. "You haven't done a first-contact mission before?"

Jan shook her head. "No, sir."

Steve made the same survey of the table that Tony had. "Have any of you?"

Various people looked away; a few more shook their heads.

And then Tony coughed and raised his hand, and he was painfully conscious of the stares of the rest of the room. For the first time, Steve was looking at him, and there was surprise—and still that goddamn guilt—in his eyes.

"I have," Tony said. "Uh. In a manner of speaking." His breath rattled out of him; he grabbed the edge of the table. "I don't think my experience is going to be very... helpful."

And then Steve's eyes widened, and Tony knew that Steve knew exactly what he meant.

"Let's hope not," Steve said, very softly, and his voice was full of sympathy and— and— affection, goddammit, and Tony couldn't have been wrong about him, so why was Steve being like this? And then Steve's face shifted again, and he was the perfect Starfleet officer. "All right. I want you all to stay on shift. Stark, Danvers, meet me in the transporter room at—" he checked his chrono and grimaced— "0355. It's going to be an interesting morning. Dismissed."

Everyone rose, chattering excitedly, and when everyone before him had gone, leaving only him and Steve in the room, Tony took a shuffling step toward the door, only to be stopped by a single word.


Tony turned back, and for an instant there was everything in Steve's eyes that he couldn't say. Acknowledgment. An aching empathy. Sadness. Steve wanted to comfort him. Tony waited, but he said nothing else.

"Yes?" Tony ventured.

And then Steve's face went pale and his gaze went faraway again. "Nothing. That will be all, Commander."

Well. So much for that.

"I have a lock on three of the Tarnaxians," Clint said, from his position behind the transporter console. "Energizing now."

Tony, standing between Steve and Carol in the transporter room, stood up a little straighter and glanced down at his dress uniform one more time, checking that everything was all arrayed properly. Next to him, Steve—who was looking straight ahead into the brightening blue light of the beam—was standing there, the picture of the perfect Starfleet officer. He was wearing medals Tony had never even seen before. They were probably from the Earth-Romulan War.

Carol's gaze slid over to his, and she gave him an encouraging nod. She had nearly as many commendations as Tony did on her own uniform, though she looked a lot less uncomfortable in her dress uniform than Tony felt—except for the fact that he knew she didn't like the regulation skirts, which she was currently wearing one of. She preferred to stick to the trousers.

On the transporter pad, three swirling blue columns brightened more, then dimmed, then faded entirely, leaving three people standing in their wake. The man in front was the one they'd talked to before—Rl'nnd, he'd said—and behind him was another man and a woman, wearing the same gray jumpsuits.

"Welcome to the Avenger," Steve said, as the Tarnaxians were looking around in awe. "I'm Captain Rogers; we spoke earlier. You must be Rl'nnd." He gestured to Tony and Carol. "This is Commander Anthony Stark, my first officer and chief engineer, and Commander Carol Danvers, my second officer and operations officer."

Rl'nnd took a halting step off the transporter platform and stood there, face to face with Steve, but his attention on the rest of the room, taking it all in. "Wow! Amazing! This transporter of yours, it's brilliant!" And then he blinked and seemed to recall himself. "Sorry. Yes. I am Rl'nnd. This is K'kyy—" he nodded to the woman— "and Khn'nr. They are my colleagues."

Tony idly wondered if the Tarnaxians had ever discovered vowels.

"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Steve said, and he held out his hand.

Rl'nnd frowned at Steve's hand, eyebrows raised.

Thankfully, Steve realized what he'd done. "Oh," Steve added, looking a little abashed. "It's a greeting among my people. A greeting of friendship. When you meet someone new, you clasp their hand with yours and shake it briefly."

"This is acceptable," Rl'nnd said, and he grabbed Steve's hand, shaking it vigorously, like he thought this might be a test of strength. He dropped Steve's hand and grinned. "Now we are friends, yes?"

Steve smiled and nodded. "I would like that very much."

And then, of course, Rl'nnd moved to the side and offered his hand to Tony, and Tony took it, and Rl'nnd smiled at him—

And something about this was wrong.

The feeling overwhelmed him, a sudden torrent, and he couldn't say where it had come from, but he knew in his gut that he didn't trust these people.

You're paranoid, Stark, he told himself. Just because his last first-contact mission—his only first-contact mission—had gone disastrously awry, it didn't mean that this one would suffer the same fate. Statistically, the odds were against him. Despite what he'd told Steve in San Francisco, he knew that the vast majority of the galaxy was a peaceful place. Experiences like the one he'd had were so incredibly rare as to be almost nonexistent, and it was even more unlikely that it would happen to him twice. He was just... twitchy. Seeing patterns that weren't there. That was all it was.

But as he smiled and smiled and extricated his hand from Rl'nnd's—who had a surprisingly strong grip—he just couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't right.

"It is good to make your acquaintance, Commander," Rl'nnd said brightly, and creeping unease slithered down Tony's spine.

Tony kept smiling. "Likewise."

After the introductions had all been made, they proceeded down the corridor. If Tony had to guess, Steve was leading them to the Avenger's (small, of course) observation lounge, now that they were out of warp and there was actually something to look at. Ahead of him, Steve was walking next to Rl'nnd, and from the snatches of conversation Tony could hear, Steve was already extolling the benefits of the Federation.

Tony, for his part, was walking next to K'kyy, who was taking everything in with an eager smile. Her auburn hair was cropped close to her skull, as if she spent a lot of time in pressure suits. Either the Tarnaxian space program was very much in its infancy, or she was the kind of person who got her hands dirty.

"You are the ship's engineer?" she asked, and Tony nodded. "I am an engineer as well," she said, confirming Tony's guess. "I could not help but notice the design of your warp engines. So much more advanced than ours."

There was a throaty emphasis in the last sentence that made Tony want to shudder.

It was coincidence. It was all coincidence.

He had to be polite.

"I designed the engines myself," Tony said. "I took a... leave of absence... from Starfleet, and I spent a few years designing starships. Especially warp cores. The Avenger's warp drive is the first of her kind. Very advanced, yes."

He could have mentioned that transwarp existed. He didn't.

"Oh!" K'kyy clapped her hands together. "That is wonderful." And then she smiled again, small and somehow sly and dear God, was she flirting with him? "Do you think it would be possible for me to visit your engineering section? I would welcome the opportunity to... exchange knowledge."

It was wrong. It was wrong, it was wrong, it was wrong. But it couldn't be wrong. Could it?

K'kyy practically fluttered her eyelashes at him.

Tony swallowed hard. "Uh. I'll have to ask the captain about that."

"Oh, of course," she said, earnestly. She laid a hand on his arm, and Tony wanted to jerk away. "I understand that there are rules in these cases. I wouldn't want you to break them."

He had to sound polite. He had to sound excited. So he nodded and smiled. "But I look forward to sharing knowledge with you, ma'am."

"Please," she told him. "I am not royalty." And he filed that fact away—the Tarnaxians were a monarchy, maybe? "My name is K'kyy."

"K'kyy," he said, hoping he wasn't mangling the name too badly, and he realized he had to make his own gesture of friendship. "My friends call me Tony."

She smiled, and it seemed for an instant that the smile had too many teeth. "Tony."

He was seeing things.

The observation lounge, even as tiny it was, was breathtaking. Tony hadn't spent much time here at all, but standing here, staring out at the huge windows that lined the edge of the disk, he remembered why he'd wanted to join Starfleet in the first place. The ship was motionless, and far-off stars burned bright and wild in the darkness—a universe of life, of possibility, of adventure. He'd missed this. Five years Earthside, and he'd missed the hell out of this. There was nothing like it.

Carol stepped up next to him and leaned in. "You never get sick of the view, huh?"

Tony smiled. "Nope."

And then, of course, he made the mistake of glancing back—an Orpheus who'd never learned his lesson. Steve, impassioned, was talking to the Tarnaxians, gesturing, smiling broadly. Starlight played across his features, diffused through his hair, lit him in a tangle of the shadow and fire of the galaxy. His eyes shone blue, the heart of a flame. He was gorgeous, and he stood there with poise and grace, talking with such incredible confidence, and Tony just wanted— he wanted—

He wanted not to have screwed everything up between them, that was what he wanted. His stomach twisted and turned over. And he still didn't know what he'd done.

Steve was well into his UFP pitch—and you couldn't tell, looking at him, that six months ago he hadn't known the Federation had even existed—when Khn'nr tugged at Rl'nnd's sleeve and whispered something in his ear.

"I hate to interrupt you, Captain," Rl'nnd said, face apologetically downcast, "but for us it is the middle of our sleep cycle. I would like to more thoroughly consider your words after we return to our ship and slumber."

Steve smiled a pained little smile. He probably didn't enjoy the rejection, even if it was only temporary. "Oh, that's no problem," he said. "It's actually ship's night for the three of us as well." And then he brightened. "Would you like to stay here? We're not a big ship, the Avenger, but I suspect we have more room than you do."

Rl'nnd smiled back. "That would be very kind of you, Captain."

They still didn't have visiting personnel quarters. Dammit.

At this point, Tony would rather be shocked repeatedly with Klingon pain sticks than share a room with Steve. Who hated him. He suspected Steve was feeling the same way. Steve glanced back at the two of them and opened his mouth—

"I'll double up with Commander Stark," Carol said, smoothly. "No problem, sir. The Tarnaxians can have my quarters, if they don't mind sharing."

Rl'nnd nodded. "Thank you. That will be more than sufficient."

"So," Carol said, as she wrenched off her boots and started to shed various pieces of her dress uniform, throwing them all into the corner of Tony's quarters, "was I imagining things, or was K'kyy there trying to get into your pants?"

A boot hit the bulkhead with a resounding thud.

Tony tossed Carol her pajamas and grimaced. "Worse. My engineering section."

Carol whistled. "A person's engineering section is a very private area. And here I was thinking it was just going to be a rebound fling for you. From the captain."

About eight different feelings tangled together at once in Tony's chest. He went for the purely factual rebuttal. "It can't be a rebound if we were never together."

"Yeah," Carol drawled, voice muffled, and she pulled her Fleet-issue sleep shirt over her head. "You look at yourself in the mirror and tell me whether your heart knows that."

"I try not to look at myself in the mirror." That sounded a lot worse than he'd meant it to. He tapped his chest, where his artificial heart beat placidly away. "Besides, Carol, you know I've got no heart left."

"Oh, Tony." Her face fell. "Why do you always think you—"

She didn't finish her sentence, and instead she took a few steps forward, to where Tony was sitting on the bed, and pulled him sideways into a hug. Tony felt her lips brush his forehead.

"You're not alone," she murmured. "I know you know that. Come on."

Tony sighed.

They couldn't talk about this. He couldn't talk about this.

"I have to admit," he said, trying for levity, "that sleeping with someone on an alien delegation would be a new and different way to fuck up a first-contact mission, though."

Carol chuckled and let him go. "New for you, maybe. It's been done before."

Tony remembered some of those old mission reports he'd had to study, and he laughed. "I suppose. See the galaxy. Get laid." He coughed. "It wasn't really what I was thinking when I joined up, I have to say."

"Me neither." And then Carol was silent for long moments. "You don't trust the Tarnaxians, do you?"

Of course. Of course she knew. She'd known him for nearly twenty years. Of course she'd been able to read him. Every pause, every hesitation.

"It's irrational," Tony said. He could hear his own voice, clipped and harsh and hard. "I know that. I know it's not going to turn out badly just because—"

The words caught in his throat.

Carol patted his hand.

"Hey," she said. "I think it's good to have reservations. I mean, Steve—he's good, you know?"

"I know," Tony said, bitterly. God, was he ever. He was practically a personification of goodness. Virtue in human form.

"And he thinks everyone else is just as good as he is."

Tony remembered that seminar at the Academy. He had made this exact argument. "He wants to think the best of people. It's admirable." It was what Tony had always wished he could be, what he'd known—thanks, Howard—that he never could have been. A good person. Just like his fantasies of Captain America. Not the way a real superhuman would have been, he amended; he'd been making that emendation a lot, lately.

That had been when Steve started to act strangely. It had happened when Tony had mentioned Captain America. How the hell had that triggered anything?

"It is." Carol nodded. "But it's not a bad thing to be... cautious. And that's why you're here, right? First officer. You're supposed to temper him. Provide a second opinion so he doesn't just rush headlong into everything." She smiled. "Someone's got to keep the bright-eyed idealists in check. I bet that's why the admiral gave you to him."

That, Tony wanted to say, and the part where we'd understand each other. But he didn't understand. He didn't understand anything at all.

Miserable, he ran his hands over his face. "Carol. I can't tell him. He wouldn't listen to me if I did. He doesn't even trust me anymore. And I don't know what I did wrong."

He could feel the weight of Carol's arm, settling over his shoulders. She sighed.

"Then we've got a big problem, don't we?"

"Yeah," Tony said, and he shut his eyes. "Tell me about it."

Carol didn't have an answer for him, after that.

They slept curled up, with the lights on. It didn't help.

"Orbit established, sir," Pietro said.

Tarnax IV loomed large on the viewscreen, spinning slowly, looking exactly as it had during the briefing. Tony watched orange clouds drift, exposing water and land beneath. it looked like a good colony world; as Carol had said at the briefing, it looked lush and verdant. It also didn't look very populated; there were a few small settlements on the eastern continent, not more than a thousand inhabitants total. The people of Tarnax II, the colonizers, couldn't have been here long at all.

Rl'nnd and his crew had loved the Avenger and had been overjoyed at the idea of bringing the Federation back to their home system; after a few days and a few messages back and forth with the leaders of their planet—as well as with Starfleet Command—it had been established that the Avenger would head to the Tarnax system immediately and begin negotiations for entry into the Federation. At this rate, they were going to be Federation members in record time. It was all very smooth. It was too smooth.

Tony didn't trust it, not one bit.

He reminded himself, as he'd been reminding himself, that he was being irrational. This was his fear talking.

It was going to be fine.

At any rate, they were here, and he and Steve were going to go downplanet with Rl'nnd and his people and meet the Tarnaxian ambassador and start the talks. The Tarnaxians, still curious, were sending their own delegation to the Avenger, and while the negotiations went on, Carol was going to stay on board and show them the rest of the ship and give them a chance to meet more of the crew. It was all going to be exactly, perfectly by the book.

"If it is acceptable," Rl'nnd said, turning to Steve, "we would wish to repay the kindness you have shown us in welcoming us here by showing you the beauty of our planet. We would ask that you use your transporter to arrive a short distance from the meeting facility, and we will accompany you on a brief hike."

Steve nodded. "I'd like that," he told Rl'nnd. "Will it offend your people if Commander Stark and I take a few scientific readings along the way? We know a bit about your planet's ecosystem, but we're always in search of more knowledge."

Rl'nnd's smile was bright. "Not at all! Please, feel free."

"Sir," Jan said, interrupting them. "The Tarnaxian envoy is hailing us. They've matched orbit and will be at our shuttlebay in thirty minutes. Commander Danvers is already waiting. She says she's prepared to welcome them aboard."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Steve turned to Tony. "Commander Stark, meet me at the transporter room in twenty minutes. Standard field kit, non-hostile, please." Steve's tone was cool, calm. They could have been strangers. Maybe they were.

Don't do this, he wanted to say.

"Aye, sir," Tony told him, and he was gone.

He spent five of his twenty minutes in his quarters trying to figure out where he'd put his tricorder, and then another five getting dressed, swapping out the standard jacket for an away jacket. The away jacket was thickly padded, heavy, with a large collar, and the whole thing was a little too warm for the ambient temperature of a starship—but it would be ideal for the slightly-cooler temperature of the planet. And besides, it had pockets for everything. Tricorder, communicator, a couple of emergency rations, flashlight, and God knew what else.

The one thing his pockets didn't have was a phaser. He wasn't security. They weren't going somewhere dangerous. They were heading to the negotiating table. If they went in armed, they'd be expected to check their weapons anyway. It was a show of peace. It was a show of good faith.

And yet, he couldn't tear his gaze away from the little weapons locker at the far end of his quarters.

"Tony," Jocasta said. She sounded very, very calm. Placating. "All weapons access is logged. You know that. If you open that door, there will be half a dozen flags in the system. Sensors will pick the phaser up on the transporter pad. You won't be able to beam down with it."

"You let me worry about the transporter."

A detailed scan would pick up a phaser no matter what, but his away jacket had an interesting feature: a couple of the pockets were lined to defeat a cursory sensor sweep. This was meant for more benign uses, of course; they were actually protection for samples one might pick up as part of a landing party. But now they would work to his advantage.

"The captain will know," Jocasta said, almost desperately now, and Tony stopped dead. "You're disobeying a direct order, and he'll know."

Somehow Tony's hands had curled into fists. He took a breath. He tried to relax. "Access logs go through local systems before being routed to the main core. You could stop them."

"It's illegal," Jocasta said. Her voice was very, very quiet. On the screen, her eyes were wide.

"But you could do it."

She nodded. "I can do it. If I have to."

"If I don't need it," Tony said, "then I don't need it. But if I do need it, and I don't have it—well, I'd rather be court-martialed than dead. Tell me I'm paranoid."

"You're paranoid," she said, and she shut her eyes. "Overriding weapons access log now."

"I love you too."

He reached out and thumbed the weapons locker. It clicked open and he pulled the phaser out. It was one of the newer models, heavy in his hands, and he reflexively checked the safety and then the battery. Full charge.

Swallowing hard, he slid the phaser into the pocket at the small of his back. He was really doing this.

He'd thought he would feel better having a weapon, but now that he had it, the sick, lonely feeling in the pit of his stomach intensified. If Steve knew—

What did it matter? Steve hated him anyway.

When the transporter beam released them, they were in a clearing at the top of a hill. A forest—trees tinted pale green with a chlorophyll near-analogue—surrounded them as the land gently sloped down. As Tony's gaze followed the uneven ground down toward the bottom, to the valley, he concluded that they'd definitely gotten off easy. Every other side of the valley was mountainous, sharp peaks rising higher and higher. The mountains were beautiful and forbidding all at once, with craggy, sheer cliff faces. Off on the far side of one of them, Tony thought he saw a sign of civilization—the beginnings of terraced farming.

Nestled against the foot of the northernmost mountain was yet another sign of civilization: a building, a faceted geodesic dome. That was probably where they'd be meeting. Tony squinted at it. It looked like it was maybe an hour's walk away.

And they weren't alone here, either.

A young woman, dark-haired, dark-skinned, and dark-eyed, was smiling at them. She wore a muddy brown jumpsuit and a purple half-cloak. "Greetings," she said. "I am H'rpra, Ambassador Sn'tlo's aide. I'm here to take you to him. It's very exciting to meet you both."

There was one bright spot to this whole affair: the Tarnaxians had clearly discovered at least two vowels.

"We're very glad to be here," Steve said, with an earnest smile of his own. "And it's exciting to meet you too."

Tony shifted, guiltily aware of the phaser tucked away at his back. Ensign Hart from security had beamed down with them—just in case, of course—but he was unarmed, the holster at his hip conspicuously bare. He was as unarmed as Tony was supposed to be. In fact, Jack was just carrying more scanning equipment from Sciences. You'd hardly know he was security personnel, looking at him. He was just another member of the landing party.

"Yes," Tony added, after he had paused just a little too long to be convincing, and Steve had given him a fairly sour glance. Great. "It is. Definitely."

Turning away from them, H'rpra indicated the dome at the far end of the valley with a little jerk of her head. "We are going there."

Jack looked to Steve for permission. "Sir, may I begin the environmental scans now?"

"If our hosts don't object," Steve said, and he glanced at H'rpra and Rl'nnd.

"No, of course not," Rl'nnd said. He was clearly the most senior of the group.

Jack promptly flipped open his tricorder, adjusted a few settings, and then let the whole thing hang from its strap. It beeped a few times to itself, and Tony knew it was relaying its data to the tricorders and handheld PADDs that he and Steve were both carrying. "Ready, sir."

"All right," Steve said. "Let's be off."

It wasn't a half-bad hike, as these things went; the path down into the valley was smooth, and the journey more or less uneventful. It got cooler as they went; fog had collected in the depths of the valley, looming as they passed into it. The sky above them was a paler orange now, clouded over.

"It's a very cloudy planet," K'kyy said, almost apologetically. "But it's home."

Tony remembered Rl'nnd's comment about some of the crew being from Tarnax IV. "Are you from here, then?"

It seemed that K'kyy hesitated a fraction of a second too long before she spoke. "Uh. Yes. As much as anyone is. I mean, we're all colonists. Only a few children have been born here so far."

"How long has this place been inhabited?" Tony asked. "We have records from twelve years ago, and it wasn't, back then."

K'kyy opened her mouth, but H'rpra interrupted her. "Three years, Commander."

"Yes," K'kyy agreed. "Three years."

She sounded... like she'd been caught out in a lie.

He must have been imagining it.

Frustratingly, Steve then changed the subject entirely, gesturing up at the cultivated terraces. "And you've got agriculture, I see."

K'kyy nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, we do." She seemed to be on much firmer ground now. As if this part were easier to lie about.

He was imagining it, he told himself. Of course he was imagining it. The phaser he was carrying felt like a ten-kilo weight. Steve and Jack both seemed perfectly fine. Relaxed. He was just... keyed-up.

He breathed in, breathed out, and let the group talk about agriculture. He didn't say anything else. There was no point.

And Steve, of course, barely glanced his way—and when he did, it was with that same flicker of guilt that had been in his gaze ever since that night.

Keep your mind on the mission, Stark, he told himself, and he focused instead on monitoring Jack's data collection, glancing down at his PADD occasionally as they walked. The local topographical data seemed to be assembling itself nicely, along with the catalog of plant and animal life. This wasn't an area of the planet that the Fantastic had been to—they'd gone to the northern continent—but there were already a lot of repeat entries, especially with the plants. At least they'd already had some of the work done for them.

Soon enough, they came to the valley, and then to the end of the valley, where the dome was. There was a group of Tarnaxians standing outside it. At the head of the group was an auburn-haired man, dressed in yellow and green; Tony wondered if he and K'kyy were related. Their hair was the same color, and their faces awfully similar around the mouth. Cousins, perhaps.

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" the man said, stepping forward. He clapped his hands together and grinned broadly. It was probably supposed to make him look friendly, but the smile was a fraction too wide, and it unnerved Tony. Not that that was difficult. "You are the people from the Federation, yes? I am Sn'tlo, and you have no idea how much I have been looking forward to this!" He glanced between the three of them. "Which of you is in charge?"

Ha. As if the Tarnaxians couldn't tell just by looking. Steve radiated command. He didn't even have to move forward; he just stood there, and somehow everyone's gaze was drawn to him. Tony was never going to be able to figure out how one man ended up with so much charisma, and how he could inspire so much.

He was never going to be able to figure out why Steve hated him, he thought—

No. He needed to stop this.

"I'm Steven Rogers, captain of the Avenger," Steve said. "This is Commander Anthony Stark, my first officer." He didn't introduce Jack, which Tony had expected; Jack was just an ensign from security, after all. Jack seemed content enough being ignored; he was intent on his tricorder readings.

"Excellent!" Sn'tlo said, clapping again. He was just that enthusiastic, apparently. "Come now! Let's begin."

They had scanners at the dome's entrance, of course, and Tony was sweating as he went through—but they didn't pick up the phaser. He let out a shaky breath as he walked through, and the bored-looking Tarnaxian manning the scanner booth waved him on. He insisted on hanging on to his jacket, of course. Steve had gone first, and Tony spotted him on the other side of the security cordon, head bent over his PADD, skimming through the data Jack had gathered. He must have been waiting for Tony, but he barely acknowledged his presence other than to walk with him once Tony's scan had concluded.

They were colleagues. They were professionals. That was all they were, all that was left, but they could do this. They were Starfleet officers. And that was going to have to be enough.

The area set aside for the formal negotiations reminded Tony of nothing so much as the Avenger's briefing room, albeit designed with far more room to maneuver in. Much like the briefing room, a huge table dominated the room, with chairs ringing the outside of it. But unlike the Avenger, there was space to spare here—the table was bigger, with enough room for people to easily move around the sides of it. The table itself was made of shining, polished wood—and it was probably actual wood, unlike the Avenger's holotable. The room had a high ceiling, and one huge curved wall was faceted with windows, the clear, sheer surface of the dome. Just beyond the dome wall, there were a few trees, and then the steep rock face began to rise up; they were at the very back of the dome, right up against the mountains outside.

The seats that the Tarnaxians motioned them towards were on the far side of the room, with their backs toward the windowed dome. Tony could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end as he sat down; he felt the familiar, reflexive longing to get his back up against a solid wall, against anything other than a window, because it was all too easy to imagine an assailant crashing in and ambushing him from behind—

He was being paranoid. It would pass.

Besides, Jack was still by the door, guarding both of them. He wasn't alone. Sure, it was three of them and maybe twenty Tarnaxians, but he wasn't alone.

"Welcome, friends," Sn'tlo said, brightly, from the head of the table, with another too-wide smile. He clapped again. "I would like very much to hear about this Federation of yours."

Steve smiled back. "Of course," he murmured, and he rose to his feet. Every eye in the room was drawn to him, and despite himself Tony felt that familiar swelling of pride—that's my captain—even now, even when he wasn't anything to Steve anymore.

Sn'tlo sat back in his chair, an indolent sort of pose. He was watching with interest.

Steve was standing now, head up, taking in the audience. When he spoke his voice resounded through the room. "The United Federation of Planets is, as the name suggests, a interstellar republic of allied planets, with over a hundred member worlds, spanning eight thousand light years. We are united by our commitment to liberty, equality, and rights for all. We have mutual defense and trade pacts, and we are dedicated to the free and unfettered sharing of scientific knowledge. We have come together as one, in the spirit of peaceful cooperation and harmony, and any planet is welcome to join us."

"You are not military, then?" Sn'tlo's tone was thoughtful.

The Tarnaxian ships hadn't been armed, Tony realized—but as he glanced around the room, he saw that a couple of the guards were. They wore crude blasters, nothing as fine-tuned as phasers.

It was going to be okay. They were friendly. They were.

There was a pause, then, a little hitch of breath as Steve hesitated before answering. And Tony knew why. Starfleet wasn't military any longer, but Steve had been a Starfleet officer back when it had been military, and maybe he still thought of himself as a soldier, even a century later.

It was sad, really, when Tony thought about it; something tugged at his chest, pulled and twisted, made his throat tighten. Steve should get to leave the war behind. It wasn't fair. Tony bit his lip. He wasn't going to feel anything for Steve. He shouldn't. That was where this whole problem had gotten started. Steve was his commanding officer. That was all.

"I am a captain in Starfleet," Steve said, finally. "While Starfleet is the defensive arm of the Federation, it is not our primary function. We are not a military organization. The Federation has no military." Tony told himself he was only imagining Sn'tlo's eyes gleaming at that. "We consider ourselves explorers, scientists, and diplomats." He seemed to have regained his footing; he continued on, his voice stronger. "And it's as a diplomat that I come to you today. I am authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Federation for your membership—"

Tony's communicator chirped.

His mouth still open, Steve paused, and he shot Tony an annoyed glance.

"Uh," Tony said. "Sorry, sir. Could have sworn I had the sound turned off."

He could see Steve's communicator flashing at his belt. Of course Steve, Captain Perfect, had remembered to mute his. Though why was the Avenger trying to comm both of them? Was there some kind of mishap with the envoy? They should have docked at least an hour ago.

"Right." Steve turned back to the rest of the room. "My apologies. As I was saying, I am authorized—"

Tony's communicator chirped again.

Steve's glare now was acidic enough that it could have stripped paint from a starship hull.

Tony could feel his own face heating up. Here he was, screwing up an actual first-contact mission because he hadn't thought to turn his communicator off. "You know what?" Tony mumbled. "I'll just go answer this in the hallway. Excuse me."

"Yes," Steve said, and the word was snapped out, an icy command. "Why don't you go do that, Commander?"

Head down, Tony rose from his seat and made his way around the edge of the room back toward the door. When Jack made to follow him out, he held up his hand to stop him.

"I'll be fine, Ensign," Tony said, pasting a smile on his face. "I think I can take a call by myself."

The hallway was mostly deserted; there was the bored Tarnaxian guard who'd waved him through the scanner, now just sitting at his post, staring off into the distance. Inside the room, Steve cleared his throat and started to talk again, but then the sound attenuated as Tony closed the door behind himself. Huh. Well, at least the soundproofing was good. He paced down to the other end of the hallway, as far as he could get from the doors. Steve would be even angrier if he actually overheard Tony now, given how upset he'd been about the communicator going off.

Tony flipped his communicator open and jabbed the receive button with one vicious finger. He loved Carol, he did, but he was going to be so annoyed if it turned out that this was some incredibly minor detail they could have resolved by themselves. It probably was.

"Stark here," he said. "Avenger, what the hell is so important that it can't wait—"

There was a burst of static, which was doubly strange; that shouldn't have happened unless there was subspace jamming, which there definitely shouldn't have been.

"Tony!" Jan's voice was fast and urgent. "Oh, God, Tony! Get out of there! Get out of there right now!"

Tony frowned at his communicator. "Jan, what—"

"It's a trap," Jan said, and Tony went cold all over. "They're not who we thought they were at all— oh, God. They uploaded some kind of virus into the main computer core. Systems are going down all over the place! They're taking over—"

There was the awful, familiar, high-pitched whine of a phaser.

"Fall back!" Clint was yelling in the background, indistinctly. "They've got the transporter room! Fall back! Come on, Van Dyne—"

Someone swore, and there was more phaser fire, echoing down the line, a distorted scream of power and energy.

The comm signal cut out and back in and Tony realized the comm channels were going to be the next thing to go.

"We can't beam you out!" Jan yelled into the comm. "We just lost all of Deck Five. They've got over half the ship. Main systems are shutting down. These guys are strong, Tony! They're fighters! Save yourselves! Go! Go now!"

The line went dead.

Tony shook the communicator in vain. "Jan? Come in! Jan!"

There was no reply.

Cold sweat beaded on Tony's skin, and the world around him slid into sharp clarity. The Avenger was in trouble. He had to warn Steve.

And then the guard at the other end of the hallway looked up, and Tony realized he'd heard everything.

"We hadn't thought your ship would manage to alert you," the guard said, a cool, measured apology by someone who knew he had the upper hand. He smiled, showing his teeth. "Ah, well. There are only three of you down here, and you aren't even the leader. We only need one of you alive for a hostage." He took a step toward Tony and grinned again. "My name is Ak'strk, human. I wish you to know it before you die."

Ak'strk continued stalking down the hall toward Tony, with slow, measured steps.

And then... he changed.

His skin rippled and darkened, turning green; his face now was wrinkled, almost scaled, and his features grew sharper, more sinister. His eyes, which had been brown, likewise shifted to an eerie green. His hair was gone, smoothed away. As Tony watched, his ears lengthened, growing oversized points. He looked like the unholy offspring of a Vulcan, an Orion, and a Saurian.

"You're a shapeshifter," Tony said, stupidly, remembering Jan's panicked cry. They're not who we thought they were. "You're all shapeshifters."

Ak'strk's smile now had far, far too many teeth, gleaming and pointed. His green lips peeled back. "It's so much easier to get you to trust us the more we look like you, isn't it? And you— you Federation people, you were the easiest of the lot. You left our warriors alone in one of your own officer's quarters. For hours. With computer access."

That explained how they'd had time to upload a virus. Oh, geez, Carol. God, he hoped the Avenger was fighting them off. They'd make it. They had to.

"You're not going to get far once you've disabled the ship's computer," Tony pointed out. Ak'strk hadn't reached for his blaster, but Tony was't going to be able to get to his phaser easily—and Ak'strk was moving closer and closer, his alien-green gaze trained on Tony. "Whatever you're planning to do with the Avenger, you're going to need that."

Ak'strk shrugged. "We have made a study of your security systems. The majority of them work by handprint and retina locks. Biometrics."


"I don't think you understand me." Ak'strk took another step forward. "We are Skrulls, human, and we can be anyone we want."

His skin shifted again, green lightening back to pink, dark hair growing on his head and his chin. His face softened into human features and his ears rounded again. His eyes were large now; the green had become deep blue. And then Tony was looking into his own face.

"Do you like this, human?" Ak'strk asked, with Tony's own voice, with a cold sneer that Tony had never known he had. "If I wear your body, I can unlock those locks of yours. We will keep your officers alive for as long we need to learn your secrets and your codes. For as long as we need to become you. Your people will never suspect a thing."

"They'll know," Tony told him. His voice shook. "They know us. They'll realize something's wrong. You can't fool everyone."

"Can't we?" Ak'strk's voice—Tony's voice—was a hideous, half-seductive purr. "Suppose I kill you and take your uniform from you and go back to the negotiations. Your captain, will he be able to tell us apart? How well does he know you?"

Not well at all, Tony's mind filled in. Especially with the way Steve had been acting lately—Ak'strk could probably get away with a lot before Steve realized anything was wrong. Carol or Rhodey or Jan would have caught it instantly, but they... weren't here. God, he hoped they were still alive.

Ak'strk laughed. "No need to answer, human. I see it on your face. On my face, now."

Tony reached for the pocket at the back of his jacket, fumbling for his phaser—

Before his hand could close around the grip of the phaser, Ak'strk leaped for him.

The first punch stunned Tony with its intensity, driving the breath out of him. He wasn't braced for it; his hands were still tangled behind his back. The next blow went for his unprotected face, and he twisted and took it across his temple, a bright starburst of pain. Whoever these people were—Skrulls?—they hit harder than the humans they were pretending to be. That was at least Vulcan-level strength.

This wasn't good.

He brought up a hand and punched back, hitting him in the chest, but it was like he'd slammed his fist into a forcefield—it didn't so much as slow Ak'strk down. His other fist went into Ak'strk's throat. Surely even Skrulls had to breathe.

Ak'strk snarled with Tony's voice, a cry of pain and anguish, and Tony had a half-second to savor his lead before Ak'strk's next punch went straight for his gut. It was a body blow that Tony might have been able to shrug off, had his opponent been Earth-human, but there was so much power behind it that Tony didn't stand a chance.

The pain was unbelievable, and he doubled over, gasping, as Ak'strk's knee snapped up into his face. Ak'strk grabbed his wrist, twisted—thank God, it was his right wrist—and dropped him.

Tony hit the floor. His head smacked against the tile, and his ears rang. He tasted blood.

Ak'strk grinned down at him with Tony's own face—a triumphant, gloating smile—as Tony rolled onto his side.

"Truly, your species is as weak as we thought you were," Ak'strk said, head held high. "Is that all you've got?"

Tony's right wrist throbbed, where it was trapped between his aching ribs and the unyielding floor. It didn't seem to be bending like it should have. But luckily for him, Ak'strk didn't know he was left-handed. Tony reached behind himself, into the pocket at his back, and took hold of the phaser, switching the safety off by feel and dialing it up to heavy stun.

"Nope," Tony panted. "I've also got this."

He pulled out the phaser, and before Ak'strk could move, he pulled the trigger. The phaser beam hit him dead on, in the middle of his chest, and Tony held the trigger down until Ak'strk finally collapsed.

His features shifted back to green and pointed as he lay there, unconscious, a meter away from where Tony was still lying on the floor.

"I'll show you weak," Tony told him, and he swore under his breath as he pulled himself to his feet, gripping the phaser tighter. He spat blood and wiped his mouth off.

It didn't quite hurt yet—all hail shock and adrenaline—but his body twinged like it was really, really going to hurt when everything wore off. And he had a lot to get through first. There was an entire planet of Skrulls who wanted them dead. He had to get Steve and Jack, and they had to get out of here. Somehow.

The sound of the phaser hadn't brought anyone running—clearly the soundproofing was very good—but Tony glanced down at the fallen Skrull and suspected they didn't have a lot of time. Everyone in the room with Steve and Jack would be able to guess that Tony had been tipped off. And that meant that Steve and Jack were in danger right now.

There were voices in the hallway. Three Skrulls turned the corner, saw Tony, and started running toward him.

They had to go.

Tony flung the door of the conference room open.

Steve, who had been talking, stopped in mid-sentence. Every eye in the room was suddenly on him, and Tony knew what they saw: him, standing there, bruised and bloodied and disheveled, phaser in his hand.

Tony met Steve's gaze. Steve's eyes went wide.

Tony breathed out one word. "Run."

Steve didn't pause. He didn't ask questions. He didn't hesitate. He simply picked up the chair behind him—dark, metal, heavy—turned, and swung it at the window behind him with all his strength.

That wasn't going to work, Tony wanted to say. They didn't build places like this—fancy transparent domes—with breakable windows. If the material wasn't something as heavy-duty as transparent aluminum, it was still something sturdy, and it wasn't going to break no matter what Steve threw at it.

The chair hit the window, and the window shattered as if it had been only glass.

And everyone else in the room began to change, their features going green and pointed—

One of the Skrulls closest to Steve reached for a blaster, and Tony shot him. It took a lot of energy to down him, just as it had with the first Skrull. He wasn't going to be able to shoot the whole room this way. The phaser would be drained first. He had to be strategic.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a couple of unarmed Skrulls heading for Jack, and he shot them too. Jack gave him a grin of thanks.

Time to get out of here. Tony took a running leap and jumped up on the conference table, ignoring the twinge of protest from his ankle. He ran the length of the table, slipping across the polished wood, before sliding down onto Steve's side of it, next to where Steve was standing by the now-open window. Cool air whipped past Tony's bruised face. A blaster bolt sizzled above his head and Steve dragged him down to the floor, a temporary refuge. Steve's grip on him was tense and strong.

Through the open doorway Tony saw Skrulls on the other side, in the hallway. They couldn't get out that way.

"Ensign Hart!" Tony yelled at Jack. "Come on! This way!"

But Jack was tangled up in combat with another Skrull. As Tony watched, one of the Skrulls who had been in the hallway walked in. She grabbed Jack from behind, her green hands curving around his head, and then she gave an almost dainty jerk.

Neck twisted at an unnatural angle, Jack fell to the floor. He didn't move, and for an instant all Tony could think of was how Yinsen's blood had felt, drying on his hands. Another death, all because of him.

Tony glanced up and saw sorrow flicker across Steve's face. And then everything smoothed out into something that was almost a kind of calmness. Steve was a soldier. Looking at him, Tony could believe that. This was the mission. He knew what he was doing and he was going to get the two of them out of here alive, no matter what his feelings were. Tony could believe in that. He had to believe in that.

"Okay," Steve gritted out, like he hadn't just watched a man die in front of him. "Hart's not coming. But we're going. You with me?"

Tony nodded. "I'm with you."

"Right," Steve said. "On three. Mind the drop. One. Two—"

Steve didn't even need to say three. They rose together, and Tony took a couple of shots at the nearest Skulls to dissuade them from following. Steve was already climbing, boots scraping over the remaining shards of the window glass, poised with one foot on the lip of the frame—and then he was gone.

Tony turned, got one foot on the frame, and jumped through.

They'd been on the ground floor, thankfully, so he hit the dirt about two meters later. It wasn't his best landing, and he rolled, tripped, and skidded forward across the uneven ground before he finally caught himself. His ankle and wrist tingled with a sensation that wanted to be pain later, and his ribs were definitely already regretting this.

Steve had somehow landed perfectly, and he had turned back to watch Tony. He held out a hand, and Tony only wished this could have happened in better circumstances. "Are you all right?" Steve asked, and even though the question was brisk and tense, there was kindness in it too.

Nodding, Tony pushed himself to his feet. "I'm good, I'm good. Go."

He didn't know where they were going, but, hell, they were out in the open, so anywhere had to be better than this.

Luckily, Steve seemed to have a destination already in mind, because he started running toward the trees, heading up the slope of the mountain to the north.

"The Avenger can't beam us up," Tony panted, as he followed Steve. "Not yet. The Tarnaxians—the Skrulls, they call themselves—they're trying to take over the ship. There's fighting. That was what Jan said."

As he said it, he realized his communicator was lying on the floor inside the dome, next to the Skrull who'd pretended to be him. Oh, well. At least Steve still had his. And at least he had a phaser. Not that one puny hand phaser was going to do a lot of good against an entire planet.

Steve jerked his head in something that might have been an acknowledgment and he abruptly changed direction, turning west.

"I have an idea," Steve called back. "But you're not going to like it." His tone was an odd mix of curt and apologetic.

The slope now was steeper, rockier, and suddenly there didn't seem to be too many trees around. Tony didn't like this. But whatever Steve's idea was, it had to be better than staying in place. Glancing back, he saw a group of Skrulls peeling out of the dome, fanning off in a search party.

And then Steve stopped, and Tony nearly ran into him.

There was no ground in front of Steve. It dropped away, into a yawning crevasse a few meters wide, and there was only darkness beneath. A cave entrance.

"Oh," Tony said, stupidly, and suddenly the meaning of you're not going to like it was all too clear. Had he told Steve how much he hated caves? Probably.

He was distantly aware of the fear gnawing at him.

"Hart's scans showed a massive cave system in this area," Steve said. "As far as I can tell, this is the only entrance that's remotely usable. We can't fight them all off, but if we can hole up here and wait for the Avenger—or if she doesn't— well, uh. We've got supplies. We can use the time to come up with a plan."

Tony realized he was shaking.

It was better than being dead, he told himself. He'd done this before. He could do it again.

Steve looked at him. He was barely out of breath, but his hair was mussed, his hands were scraped, and there was a smear of dirt on his cheek. The urgent look in his eyes gentled, just a little. "I know, all right? Believe me, I know. I dream about the cold and the dark every night. But this is the only way." He gave Tony a very small smile. "I'll go first, okay? And I've got a flashlight." He glanced over at the faraway Skrulls, who hadn't seen them yet, but it was a matter of time. "But we have to go now. Right now."

He'd thought Steve hated him, but now it seemed that Steve's kindness might kill him. He didn't know what to think anymore.

"All right." Tony swallowed hard and holstered his phaser. "Let's do this."

Steve was already slowly levering himself into the hole, and in an instant he was swallowed up by the darkness. Tony could see the faint shine of a light within the depths.

"It's a nice slope," Steve called up. "You're going to slide maybe ten, twelve feet." Tony wondered, not for the first time, what the hell Steve had against the metric system. "There's enough room for both of us to stand up here for a bit before we crawl. Come on. We've got to go, Tony. It's going to be all right. Trust me."

Tony took one last look at the oncoming Skrulls, then let his gaze drift up to the orange sky, fixing it in his mind. If he wasn't coming back, he wanted to have a memory of daylight. And then he looked away, took three steps forward, and followed Steve down into the darkness.

At the bottom of the darkness there was light, and there was Steve's hand reaching for him to help him up, and there was Steve, half in shadow, dusty but smiling grimly, saying, "I've got you, Tony."

Tony couldn't help but be a little heartened by that. Even if Steve was—whatever he was now, at least he wasn't about to humiliate him or prey on his fear of the dark. And this wasn't going to be like the Pandora. It wasn't.

The flashlight that Steve was carrying in his other hand illuminated the small chamber, casting their shadows on the uneven stone walls. The light flickered across Steve's face, muting his features, but at least it was still bright enough to see him. There was enough room for them both to stand up, barely, but Steve couldn't get more than a meter from him even if he'd wanted to, because the ceiling lowered sharply and there was another tunnel, sloping down. As Steve had said, they'd have to crawl, but at least this tunnel was wide enough to fit a person.

"I promise it's going to be all right," Steve repeated, voice still gentle, and Tony didn't want to know what his own face looked like to make Steve think that tone was necessary. It felt nice, though, pretending that Steve still liked him.

Dropping Steve's hand—because of course the caring was only a pretense, and he'd better get used to reality—Tony brushed himself off, trying and failing to wipe off the dirt. He fumbled through his pockets until he found the one with his flashlight, and he promptly switched it on.

Steve's stare now was more evaluating, as he looked Tony up and down. Tony flexed his wrist, just to prove he could.

"Are you all right?" Steve asked, softly, and Tony wanted so much to give in to that kindness.

He shrugged. "I'm still breathing. I have a heartbeat. I've been worse."

Steve's voice was a little dry. "You have abysmally low standards for yourself, Commander."

Ah, there, yes. Back to ranks.

"We're being chased by shapeshifting lizards who are in the process of taking over our ship," Tony pointed out. "They've already killed at least one person that we know of. The crew is only alive until the Skrulls can successfully impersonate them. And our only plan right now is to hope that the Avenger can win back control and beam us up, or we're going to die, either down here or after the Skrulls find us and torture the Avenger's command codes out of us. You'll forgive me for not feeling particularly optimistic."

Steve reached out and put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "We're not going to die. And if the Skrulls are keeping the crew alive, our people are going to find a way to take back the ship. I believe in them. And I believe in us. We're getting back to the Avenger if we have to steal a rocketship and launch ourselves into orbit."

It was a nice speech. Steve was good at those, and his determination kindled an echo of itself within Tony. Maybe they could do this.

"All right," Tony said. "What next?"

"A bunch of crawling, I'm afraid." Steve grimaced and gestured to the tunnel. "It's actually going to be pretty easy for us—and for our pursuers, if they figure out we went down here. There's only one way to go for a while, but then it splits off, and if we can get to one of the branches fast enough, we should be okay." He nodded in determination. "There are a few big chambers, and I'm hoping we can lose any possible followers in one of the passages from them, because one of the chambers has several branches to the rest of the system. The north branch from the second big chamber looked the best for us. Hardest for them. We have to climb a bit but I think we can make it. But the urgent thing, for us, is water. There is a lake down here, but I'm not carrying any water, just purification supplies, so I want to get there as soon as we can. I think it'll take us a couple hours to get down there."

It was a surprisingly comprehensive overview, more than Tony had expected from someone who wasn't looking at a map right now. How could Steve have planned this out? He hadn't even known they'd be coming down here, had he? He hadn't seemed to suspect that there could be anything fishy about the Skrulls.

"You planned this?"

"Not exactly." Steve's voice rose and fell, temporizing. "I skimmed Hart's data when I was waiting for you to clear security."

He couldn't have had more than two minutes. Tony raised his eyebrows. "You got that from skimming?"

It seemed that Steve's face flushed a little, but it was really too dark to say. "I, uh. I have an excellent memory."

"I'll say," Tony told him. Two minutes. Sheesh.

Steve coughed. "Anyway. We should go."

The light dimmed as he turned away, crouched down, and started to crawl.

Tony sighed and followed him. Even if he didn't understand how the hell Steve remembered where they were going—two minutes of reading that map when he hadn't known he was going to need it later?—well, at least Steve did know where they were going. Maybe they were going to make it after all.

Half an hour later, Tony discovered that his hatred of caves was rapidly sinking to new depths, and he couldn't even make himself laugh at the pun. He wasn't even entirely sure that it had been half an hour; the face of his wrist chrono had quickly become smeared with mud. He was going to have to burn this uniform when he got home, he thought, and then he remembered that home was currently occupied by murderous lizard people who might or might not have already killed his crewmates. So at this point he was already out of motivating thoughts, and they still hadn't gotten to the lake that Steve had said was down here.

His previous distaste for caves had, understandably, been more about what had happened to him in them rather than the caves themselves, although the fear had obligingly extended itself to cover caves in general. He had never thought he'd ever have any kind of positive opinion about Alpha Sag, but those tunnels had at least been made fit in some small way for habitation. It had been dark, but at least it had been dry. And it hadn't been quite this cold either.

This was a mess. Literally.

They'd been crawling down and down and down. There had been a few small chambers and one terrifying precipitous slide over slick rock, an almost-vertical drop. It was wet and cold and muddy and yet somehow there was no actual water.

And the worst part was, it was an easy route. There were no other passages big enough to fit people. If the Skrulls figured out they had come down here—and they likely would, if they hadn't already—they would be able to follow them. There were no mazes where the two of them could hide away and lose the Skrulls, not yet.

They needed to go faster.

This current passage was one of the tightest yet. It was wide, but it was low. Tony almost didn't fit; his ribs scraped painfully against damp stone in a few places, and his jacket wasn't much protection. He'd just barely managed to move the tricorder around on its strap so that it was squeezed next to him. He couldn't imagine how Steve was managing at all, but somehow Steve was pushing on ahead of him. For the past few minutes, all he'd been able to see with the light clutched in his aching right hand was Steve's muddy boots ahead of him as Steve crawled forward and Tony followed. All he'd been able to hear was Steve breathing, interspersed with the drag of fabric over rock. It was awful, but it was still a comfort: Tony wasn't alone in the darkness. Not this time.

Abruptly, Steve's boots weren't quite so close, and then Steve was standing up and mutely offering Tony a hand as Tony dragged himself through the last half-meter. Tony took it.

This chamber was bigger than the others had been so far; the ceiling was meters and meters above them. There were thin spindly columns, striated bands of rock, stalagmites or stalactites or whatever the hell they were; Tony wasn't Sciences. They were pretty, and under different circumstances, in a different universe, he might have even been happy to see them. It was picturesque, certainly.

But they had to keep moving. Steve had said the second big chamber was where they could lose the Skrulls who were probably even now pursuing them, and by Tony's count this was the first.

The floor was more uneven here than it had been in some of the other passages. There were huge rocks—boulders—and smaller stones, and the whole thing was sloping down, more or less, and the only way to go, off to the right, was— uh-oh.

Tony tilted his head up. And up. "Uh, Cap?"

"Yeah?" Steve's voice echoed.

Both of their flashlights together barely illuminated the path they had to take. There was only one way out of here that could fit someone, and it was definitely big enough to fit them, but it was... up. There was a pile of loose rocks at the bottom of what was nothing so much as a cliff face, a wall several meters high. And all of the hand- and footholds, as far as Tony could tell, started well above either of their heads. They couldn't possibly climb that.

But it was the only way they could go. They had to. Somehow.

Tony motioned toward the wall with a jerk of his head. "How are we going to climb that?"

Steve, of course, didn't look dissuaded in any way. He looked like he thought he could get up there with the sheer power of his own stubbornness. "We'll make it."

Climbing up onto the loose rocks at the base of the wall, Tony stretched his hands up illustratively. His fingers came nowhere near close to the closest handhold; he wouldn't be able to reach it even if he jumped. "There's no way either of us can get up there."

"I'll lift you," Steve said, instantly.

Huh. Tony considered the wall again with that in mind. Now that he was thinking about it, it looked like if he could actually get up to the first handhold somehow, it would be an easy climb, but—

"Then you'll be stuck here at the bottom."

Some strange emotion flickered across Steve's face and was gone; perhaps Tony had only imagined it, in the dimness. "Don't worry about me," his voice said, and there was that sad, cold, and somehow fearful, somehow guilty tone again.

Did he want to sacrifice himself to the Skrulls? Maybe he thought he could fight them off. Maybe he was planning for only Tony to get out alive.

It was the kind of plan Tony would have come up with, at least.

"I'm not leaving you," Tony told him.

"Don't worry," Steve repeated, with more than a hint of testiness, and his voice rose in something that might have been anger. Even in the shadows, his eyes seemed to flash. "You do your part and I'll do mine, Commander."

So much for kindness.

Since he was going to need both hands, Tony put his flashlight back into one of his mud-covered pockets. Steve somehow managed to tuck his flashlight into an open pocket, and the available light swung crazily about the chamber, but at least Tony could still see the first set of handholds.

Tony raised his arms and—wordlessly—Steve grabbed him by the waist and raised him high over his head like a move in a nightmare ballet. He made it seem easy, like Tony didn't weigh anything at all; it had to be hard on him, of course it did, but he wasn't straining or shaking, not that Tony could feel.

And then Tony's fingers slid into the first of the handholds and there wasn't time to marvel about Steve's strength, because he was busy holding on for dear life. This was harder than he'd remembered it being, back at the Academy when he'd had to pass those fitness tests. Of course, he'd also been almost twenty years younger at the time, and they hadn't made him redo this particular test last year.

He found another handhold, took a breath, and reached up... and got a good grip on the next one. Okay. Yeah. He could do this. Steve obligingly shone a light upward.

So he climbed. There were a few hair-raising moments, and then a nasty almost-slip at the end when the bit of rock his right foot had been on fell away, and then the one under his left hand—but he reached another handhold just in time, heart pounding, feeling the rock give way, hearing it skitter down to the pile at the bottom.

He pulled himself up onto the floor above, panting, got his flashlight back out, and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling, which was high enough to walk under—well, if they crouched.

What about Steve?

Tony dragged himself back to the edge and looked down, only to realize that Steve, staring up at him, was going to be in worse shape than he'd been. Now that the handholds Tony had been using had fallen away, there was no way for Steve to get up here. It wasn't like either of them had any rope.

"Cap," Tony said, miserably, breath still coming out of him in ragged gasps. "I think you're stuck down there."

But Steve was shaking his head. "No, I'm fine," he said, a little tersely. "Just keep that light on, please." He'd switched off his own flashlight. Even with Tony's light from above, it was going to be all wrong for him. Tony couldn't shine the light in his eyes, so he'd have to shine it upwards and Steve would have even less ambient light than Tony had. But Steve was still looking up, tilting his head, squinting a little, like he was calculating this. Like he thought he could actually climb up.

He wasn't going to make it. He wasn't going to make it. He wasn't—

And Steve jumped, and somehow—what the hell?—he'd reached the first set of handholds, the ones he'd had to lift Tony to, and he swung up to the next like it was no trouble at all to balance his entire body weight on one hand and keep moving. He was scrambling up the wall like he'd been born to it, and when he got to the spot where Tony's handholds had fallen away—well, Tony couldn't see exactly what he did, and he would have sworn there wasn't anything to hold onto, but Steve was just going, and then Steve pulled himself up and over the top with a grin of satisfaction, sprawling next to Tony.

That had taken Tony at least a few minutes to climb. Steve had done it in thirty seconds, easy.

And then Steve glanced over, realized that Tony was looking at him, and the smile faded away.

"Like I said," Steve said, stiffly, "I'm fine."

What the hell was going on here? And how had Steve done that? He'd never mentioned any particular affinity for climbing before, and he'd just—

"What," Tony began, trying to articulate some of the confusion swirling through his mind. But he didn't even get to finish a sentence.

"I'm fine." The words were practically snarled, and Steve stalked on ahead of him, ducking his head as he moved down the tunnel, which was, of course, sloping back down. After a few seconds, Steve's flashlight came back on.

"Okay," Tony muttered to himself. "Great. You're fine."

Everything was fine.

Tony had no idea what was happening here. Not that that was anything new.

They had just left another tunnel and found themselves in a chamber that seemed to be wider and longer than most. Tony was beginning to think he'd forgotten what open space looked like. This one wasn't exactly open; the ceiling where they'd come in was low, and for some reason there were a great deal of rocks here, from small pebbles to larger things that might even have merited being called boulders. He was starting to wonder if this was the place Steve had indicated, where they could finally lose the Skrulls—and then Steve stopped so fast that Tony actually ran into him.

"Hey!" Tony said, sharply; the exclamation echoed. "What are you—"

Steve held up his hand. "Be quiet," he breathed.

He couldn't hear anything except his own exhausted breaths and the pounding of blood in his head, and after several seconds he opened his mouth to object, and then he heard it. Them.


The voices were somewhere behind them, the way they'd come, and that... really wasn't good.

Tony did what anyone in his position would have done: he unslung his tricorder and opened it up, wincing at the chirp it made as it activated, a sound that suddenly seemed far, far too loud. Lifesigns. Three of them. Coming closer. They weren't reading as human, and he supposed that the Skrulls must have abandoned their disguises.

They weren't far away at all. It looked like they had—somehow—cleared that wall that Steve had scaled. Maybe they'd brought actual caving gear with them. They'd almost certainly brought weapons.

In a few minutes, the Skrulls could be here. They were going to be here.

No. He wasn't going to die down here. He wasn't going to let them kill him.

Then it came to him. It wasn't a great idea, but it was the only idea he had. And he'd take something over nothing.

"On a scale of one to stupid," Tony murmured, pitching his voice as low as possible, "what do you think about sealing off the way we came?"

It wasn't without massive risks, of course. They had to do it safely and not kill themselves. And after that, their lives were in the hands of the crew of the Avenger, who were even now fighting off the Skrulls. The Avenger had to beam them out of here, because they weren't going to be able to go the way they had come. Oh, the possibility existed that they could eventually find another way out, that there was some other entrance that was too far away for Hart's scans to have picked up—but for the most part, it reduced their options to the hope of uncertain rescue.

It did, however, eliminate the chance of being captured and tortured, because if they could do this right, the Skrulls wouldn't be able to get to them. That was a big plus, and currently their biggest concern.

The voices were louder now.

Steve's eyes went wide. His mouth worked. Tony waited for him to raise an objection, to raise any of these objections. But Steve just looked at him, face unreadable, and Tony waited to see what he would say.

"We don't have any explosives," Steve said, finally.

That sounded like a yes.

At least they were in this together.

Tony grinned and motioned to the phaser at his hip. "Give me twenty seconds and we will."


Putting his flashlight away again, Tony unholstered his phaser and opened the power cell casing to get to the main energy conduit. It had been quite a few years since he'd last done this, but he was surprised to find the trick coming back to him, his hands moving with the rote patterns of muscle memory. "Shine that light over here, would you?"

Light played over Tony's fingers as he twisted delicate components together, jamming the main emitter and cutting off the failsafe. With nowhere else to go, the energy from the discharge would build up, and then, very shortly, the whole thing would explode. It was crude, it was nasty, and it was the only chance they had.

The voices were even louder; they were just entering the tunnel that led to this chamber, a short crawl that wouldn't take them more than a couple of minutes.

"Faster," Steve told him.

Steve had his own tricorder open; he was scanning the wall next to the tunnel they'd come in through. He didn't have to tell Tony he was looking for a good spot to plant an explosive. Tony wondered what kind of demolitions experience he had. Whatever it was, it had to be enough.

With one muddy fingertip, Tony nudged the power inverter into place and then put the power cell back in the phaser. "Done."

Steve held out his hand, and Tony slapped the phaser into it. Steve nodded grimly and offered Tony the flashlight he'd been holding.

"Is there a timer?" Steve asked.

"Twenty seconds."

Steve crouched down and put the phaser at the mouth of the tunnel, glancing back and forth between the phaser and the tricorder readout, adjusting the power settings as he went, then moving the phaser again. He had to find the best place to put it, and they didn't have a lot of time.

The light that Tony was shining on him extended partway down the tunnel, the way they'd come, and suddenly, horrifically, Tony could see green eyes shine, reflected in the dimness. He could make out the grin of triumph on the green face as the Skrull in front shouted something to the Skrulls behind him.

And then Steve set the phaser down one last time, and he pulled the trigger.

The phaser started to whine, and Steve was on his feet.

"Go!" Steve yelled.

Somehow Steve had passed him, but Steve turned back, grabbed Tony's arm, and pulled him along with him. They ran together, and Tony counted the seconds in his head. Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen. The phaser's whine grew louder and angrier. There were two passages out of here, it seemed, just like Steve had said there would be, and Steve was dragging Tony to the closest one, and it was another climb, oh God—

Nine. Eight. It wasn't a sheer wall, but this way had huge steps, each one maybe a meter tall. Tony leaped the first one, stumbled as his ankle gave way under him, and was pulled up to his feet by Steve's implacable grip. Seven. Six. Twisting, Steve was behind him, as if he could shield him from the explosion, and Steve lifted him up the next step. Five, four, three. Steve lifted him again and they were running, but every step was a jolt of pain, and they were in a smaller tunnel, and they were clear—

Two. One.

The noise was tremendous.

Steve pushed him to the ground and dropped on top of him, covering him. Everything around them shook, and for an awful instant Tony wondered if they'd calculated it wrong, if everything was going to come down.

And then the noise stopped.

Steve rolled off him and they sat there, panting at each other.

Tony fumbled for his tricorder. Three lifesigns, the third of which was very weak. All moving away.

"You remember how I told you not to bring that phaser?" Steve asked.

Tony nodded. "Yes, sir."

By the dim glow of the tricorder, the look on Steve's face might have been a smile. "Forget I said anything."

Tony couldn't stop himself from smiling back. "Yes, sir."

They'd done it.

Now they just had to stay alive until the Avenger could find them.

"We need water," Steve told him.

They were still sitting at the mouth of the tunnel they'd climbed into to escape Tony's improvised explosive; moving on wasn't quite as urgent now that they'd shaken off their pursuers. Tony glanced back at the wall of broken rock that marked the way they had come. They could only go forward. And Steve was right; they did need water. They had a few emergency rations each, but they were going to need to drink something.

Tony licked his dry and dusty lips. "I know."

Nodding briskly, Steve pushed himself to his feet. Tony made to follow, getting his feet under him—and then staggering, wobbling, and falling back against the cold, damp wall as his ankle protested.

"Are you—"

"Perfectly fine," Tony said, and he hissed as he tested out his ankle again. He could put a bit of weight on it, but running or climbing was right out.

Steve's gaze was dubious; he didn't believe that for a second. "You know," he began, "it's actually not far. The lake is only a couple hundred feet away. You could stay here, and I could go by myself and bring back—"

"No!" Tony blurted out, too fast, stricken by the fear that was never going to go away, and certainly not while they were down here. Don't leave me alone in the dark, he wanted to say. "I mean, uh. I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you."

He saw when Steve got it. Steve opened and closed his mouth, and he reached out toward Tony, an aborted half-movement, like he'd wanted to hold him close but then had decided that he shouldn't.

Tony kind of wished he had.

"All right," Steve said. "This way, then."

Steve set off, maybe a little more slowly than before, and Tony dragged himself behind.

When they got to the third passage, after a few more turns through a twisting maze, Tony was almost—almost!—glad he had come, because it was beautiful. Like many of the other passages, it was narrow; this one had a high ceiling, meters and meters above them. They'd been in a few passages like that already. But, unlike those other passages, the walls of this one were glowing. Spongy bright iridescence covered the walls, starting from the floor and stretching up all the way to the ceiling in multicolored bioluminescent splashes, as if it had been painted there. It looked soft, almost mossy, even though it couldn't be moss.

"Wow," Tony murmured. "Would you look at that, huh? What is that?"

Ahead of him, Steve flipped open his tricorder. "Sensors say it's a fungus."

"It's pretty." It almost gave funguses a good name.

Tony realized he was smiling. Maybe it was because the Skrulls weren't following them, or maybe it was because there was going to be water, just a few meters away, but he was starting to feel better about this. Even though his ankle was still complaining, and even though they were either going to have to do a whole lot of cave exploration or wait for the Avenger, it seemed like things were looking up.

Slowly, he shuffled through the passage, following Steve, trying not to put too much weight on his ankle. He could do this.

And then, of course, his ankle went out again.

Yelping in pain, Tony pitched forward, towards the wall. He threw his hands up so he wouldn't collide head-on with the stone, and then—

He slammed into the wall.

The air was full of iridescent spores, and he was coughing, oh fuck, he was breathing them in, and he could see glowing smears on his hands where he was touching the wall—

"Oh, God," Tony said, between choking, wheezing spasms, and he caught a glimpse of Steve's horrified face in the midst of the iridescence, Steve turning around, the spores floating around Steve's head. Tony staggered again, suddenly dizzy, falling—

Steve's arms went around him, and Steve was dragging him out of the passage, down a little slope, and then further, down to the shore of a huge placid underground lake. Finally regaining his balance as Steve let him go, Tony stared down at himself, at the glowing mess smeared all over his uniform. All over his hands. He'd come into contact with alien spores. They were on his skin, they were in his goddamn lungs, and they were probably in his bloodstream right now.

Maybe it would be okay. Maybe they were harmless.

The chamber seemed to spin around him, and he shut his eyes. It didn't help. God, he was hot. When had it gotten so hot in here? He could feel himself starting to sweat, under the thick away jacket. His skin felt too tight.

They weren't harmless.

"Are you all right?"

Tony forced a smile. "Of course."

Steve squinted at him. "Are you sure? You look a little flushed."

"I'm fine," Tony said, and then his knees gave out and he pitched face-first toward the unforgiving stone floor.

Steve caught him from behind—again—just in time. He was really strong, Tony thought, a little dazedly. It was nice.

"Yeah," Steve said. His voice in Tony's ear was a dry gust of air. "You want to reconsider that answer, Commander?"

Tony shook his head, and everything wobbled more. "No," he panted. "I'm great. I just— I need to sit down for a bit. Maybe have some water. Is it hot in here? Why is it so hot in here?"

He couldn't even protest as Steve slowly lowered him to the ground. He scooted awkwardly backwards, half-crawling, until he could lean against the wall where the passage they'd come through was. Even through the thick jacket, the coolness of the stone was somehow pleasant. Their flashlights together—which Steve put down next to him—couldn't light the whole chamber, and the stone he could see in front of him rapidly gave way to water, and then darkness.

"It isn't hot," Steve said, with a concerned glance. "You stay right there. I'm going to get you some water. You'll be able to see me the whole time, okay? I'm not leaving."

He knew he ought to object to Steve coddling him, but he couldn't find the strength to. He was so hot. So thirsty. He licked his lips again in vain.

Steve went through his pockets, coming up with the field-issue collapsible cup, and Tony watched as he assembled it, went down to the edge of the lake, and scooped up a cup of water. He set it down, ran his tricorder over it, frowned, and then got out the water kit from another pocket. Steve added two tiny tablets from the vial, and then a five-second shock with the little purifier wand from the kit, and the scans beeped clear. Well, at least that was one good thing; they weren't going to die of thirst.

Tony wondered if Steve was thirsty too. He didn't look like he was affected by the spores, but he had to be, didn't he? Maybe it was because he was bigger than Tony, or maybe he'd gotten a smaller dose, but he'd definitely breathed in the spores too.

With the precious cup cradled gingerly in one hand, Steve walked back to him very slowly, then crouched down and passed him the water—and Tony's hand shook and he sloshed it on himself.

"Damn it," Tony said, under his breath. "Sorry."

Steve responded by holding the cup to Tony's mouth for him, and Tony really should have objected to that one, but he couldn't think of anything except slaking the heat that burned within him. The water had the chemical aftertaste of the tablets, but it was the best thing Tony had ever had, and he leaned forward. He needed it all. He needed everything.

"Careful," Steve murmured. "Take it slow." And he only tipped the cup a little bit, so that Tony couldn't just gulp it all down.

Steve took the empty cup away, and... Tony didn't feel any better. He thought maybe he even felt worse, hotter and hotter. He could practically feel the sweat bead on his skin. This wasn't good.

Frowning, Steve reached out and pressed the back of his hand to Tony's forehead—ridiculous, when they were carrying tricorders and Steve probably even had the medical attachment. But Tony didn't need a scanner to know that something was wrong, because Steve's hand felt pleasantly cool. He'd always been so hot to the touch, and now he... wasn't. Which meant that something was deeply, deeply wrong with one or both of them.

He realized he was trying to push his face into Steve's hand.

Steve felt so nice, he thought, a little dreamily. So cool. Just what he needed.

"Uh," Steve said, with an awkward smile, moving his hand away. "Thank you?"

Tony hadn't quite meant to say any of that out loud. There was clearly something affecting him.

God, it was like being drunk. He could feel his inhibitions practically melting away. He needed to stay in control. It wasn't quite right to say that he hated not being in control of himself—because he always loved it at the time, didn't he?—but it was awful and not right and terrifying and the worst part was how much he craved it. How much he wanted an excuse to just act on every feeling he ever had. He was Tony Stark, and he— he couldn't. A memory of his father looming over him slid through his mind and he shuddered again, with a chill that made his teeth rattle.

"I'm sorry," he said, miserably. "I— I couldn't help saying— I'm sorry."

Steve's smile was gentle, and that was wrong too, because Steve had been avoiding him, because Steve wasn't like this to him anymore and he didn't know why. "It's all right," Steve said. "It's going to be okay." And even if it wasn't true—because, hey, trapped underground and infected with alien spores—at least it was nice to hear. Steve patted his hand, and then drew away. "Right," he said, a little louder. "Fever and chills. Okay. Let's see what we can do about that."

The response was reflexive and instant. "I'm fine."

Steve fixed a witheringly skeptical gaze on him as he pulled out the medikit, with the little hand scanner and the basic assortment of medications. Tony knew already that it wasn't going to be enough. "Let's let a medical scan be the judge of that," he said, more firmly, the voice that was meant to be a command.

The whir of the scanner echoed in the huge chamber, and Steve made increasingly worried faces at his tricorder as he passed the scanner over Tony's body.

"I'll admit I'm not much of a doctor," he said, setting the scanner down next to Tony, "but your body temperature seems to be rising and rising, and there are irregularities with hormones and neurotransmitters that the scanner doesn't like. I can't do much about the second part, but you're already at a hundred and— uh, I mean, you're at thirty-eight degrees."

No wonder he felt like shit. Okay, maybe there was a problem. Maybe if he just got a nice hypospray it would be all better.

He watched the slightly unreal tableau in front of him; it felt like he was watching a holo as Steve stared at the empty hypospray injector and the little bag of color-coded ampoules.

"The one with the red band at the top," Tony mumbled. His tongue felt thick and heavy. "Antipyretic. Ten ccs. It's a preloaded dose. There should be two of them in the kit."

Steve nodded, picked up the red-banded ampoule, and slid it into the injector. He turned back to Tony and reached out, resting cool fingers against his jaw and tilting his head back a little to expose the carotid artery. Tony shivered again. The smooth surface of the hypospray was pressed against his skin, and then came the cool hiss of the medication.

He was going to feel better. Any second now.

Steve's hands fell away. "All right," he said. "We can dose you again in, what, six hours? If you still need it. If we're still down here."

"Hey," Tony said. His voice was a little slurred. "We gotta save the other one for you."

Steve's face went cool and distant again. "No need. I'm perfectly fine."

"You got hit by those spores too," Tony insisted. "You did. I saw you. You may feel okay now, but there's nothing saying you won't start showing symptoms."

"I'm fine," Steve said, and the word was snapped out, and he was lying. He had to be lying. He sounded like he was lying about something. So he was affected. He had to be.

So Tony grabbed the tricorder and medical scanner that Steve had left next to him, and he swiped the scanner in Steve's direction in a cursory pass, and what the hell?

The bioscan was flashing abnormalities, all right, but they in no way corresponded to how Tony was feeling. Steve had a slightly elevated body temperature, but not as high as Tony's. Blood pressure a little high for his heart rate; Tony thought maybe that had something to do with his excellent general fitness, but he wasn't any kind of doctor. Metabolic rate was—holy shit, his metabolism was off the charts, along with liver function. It looked like Steve's liver was working overtime, busy metabolizing the hell out of something. The circulatory system of the little representational Earth-human picture on the tricorder flashed a sinister, spidery red. His blood? There was something wrong with Steve's blood? Were the spores in his bloodstream? Words flashed on the screen: Irregularities detected in

And then Steve ripped the tricorder out of his hands.

"Like I said," Steve told him. "I'm absolutely fine."

For an instant there was a flash of something that might have been panic in Steve's eyes, but then it was gone.

"Okay," Tony repeated, confused. "You're fine. If you say so."

Obviously Steve wasn't fine, but surely that meant he was going to show symptoms later than Tony was, and he was just being stubborn about it. Not ideal, but they could work with it. As soon as the antipyretic kicked in, Tony was going to be fine, and then they could dose Steve when he needed it.

They regarded each other in silence. Steve put the tricorder down, out of Tony's reach this time.

"I'm going to get you some more water," Steve said, his voice harsh, and that wasn't exactly what Tony wanted to hear, but it was what they had.

He watched Steve pick up the tricorder, head back to the edge of the water, and repeat the same process as before, filling the cup with water and then running the usual potability tests. That antipyretic could start working any time now. It should have been working already. He was so hot. He could feel the sweat soaking his uniform.

Steve was bent over the cup of water, brow furrowed in concentration, and Tony shivered. Heat ran through him, gathered low and deep within him and— oh. Mmm.


Well, that was a hell of a symptom, all right.

He was suddenly, painfully hard; his erection throbbed within the confines of his uniform. He wanted—no, he needed relief. And he couldn't stop staring at Steve, at the curve of his mouth, at his strong hands, at the way Steve's hair was falling askew over his forehead, at the line of his throat. He wanted Steve. He needed Steve.

His cock throbbed again, insistently, and Tony bit his lip and whimpered.

When Steve came back, he didn't hand over the water right away and instead regarded him intently. Tony was very, very grateful that the away jackets were so long.

"The medicine should have been working by now, right?" Steve's voice wobbled a little, uncertain.

Tony cleared his throat and tried not to think about pulling Steve down into his lap, about pressing kisses to the line of his throat, about thrusting and grinding up against him—

"Yeah," Tony said, hoarsely. "Probably. Yeah. It should have been."

"Because you don't look so good," Steve continued. "I'm sure that jacket isn't helping. Here, maybe you'll be a little cooler if we just—"

He was reaching forward, to try to help Tony out of his jacket. That was a very bad idea. Not that Steve knew that.

"Really," Tony tried to say. "Really, no, that's okay, I'm sure I'll be—"

Tony couldn't move his shaking hands fast enough, and Steve had Tony's jacket unzipped, and then Steve jerked his hands away and he was staring. At Tony's lap. At Tony's extremely visible erection, distending the fabric of his trousers. Tony went even hotter and more miserable and this was worse than his entire adolescence because, oh God, Steve was still staring.

After an eternity, Steve finally looked up. It was hard to tell in the dark, but his face looked like it was also flushed, if not quite as much as Tony's. He coughed awkwardly. "Well," he said, and the word was strangled. "The bioscan didn't mention that particular symptom." He sounded like he was trying very, very hard to stay professional.

"No," Tony said. "That just. Uh. That just came up." And then he realized how he'd phrased that and kind of wanted to punch himself in the face. "So to speak."

Steve coughed. "Okay. So. Fever, chills, hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances, and, uh." He waved vaguely downward. "Physical... arousal."

Tony breathed in, sharply, as a wave of sensation dragged him under. If he had to pick a word it might have been lust or it might have been desire, but it was like nothing he'd ever felt in his life, a raging torrent of sheer need. Oh, people talked about passion, about ardor, about fire, but he was positive no one ever meant it like this: he was burning, he was burning for it and the flames would consume him. He breathed out, a noise that might have been a moan, and clenched his fists so he didn't reach out for Steve.

"Yeah," Tony croaked, when he could finally breathe. The wave had passed, but he felt even hotter, and he still needed relief, needed it with a hideous, awful intensity. "That part, it's... it's getting difficult to ignore. Really, really difficult."

On the plus side, at least he'd stopped himself from saying it was hard.

Steve's gaze unfocused, like he was trying to remember something. And then he pulled out his PADD, grabbed the tricorder, and squinted at both objects. "I knew these spores sounded familiar," he said to himself. "Two of the Fantastic's crew ran into this stuff on the initial survey mission. They had a mishap during sample collection and they were both affected." He was scrolling down the screen, and his face paled alarmingly, before reddening again. "I, uh. I don't think you're going to be able to ignore it."

He passed Tony the PADD, and Tony shuddered when their fingers brushed. Tony's cock twitched again, and he couldn't quite stop himself from groaning.

Tony managed to focus, eventually, on the screen. Good lord, that was more than he had ever wanted to know about Reed and Sue's sex life. They'd breathed in the spores too, and their symptoms had matched Tony's. The fever, said Reed's dry prose, rapidly became dangerously high. Tony skimmed a little more. All medications, manual self-stimulation, and other methods of physical relief were unsuccessful, and symptoms only worsened. Neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances rapidly deteriorated to life-threatening levels. Coitus was achieved and lasted for 3.2 minutes until completion—really, Reed?—after which all symptoms rapidly disappeared.

When Tony lowered the PADD, he found he was looking up into Steve's concerned eyes.

"You're telling me," Tony said, "that I have to have sex. Right now. Or I'm going to die."

Another shivery bright wave of desire ran through him, as everything within Tony's body informed him exactly how much it liked that idea. Heat slid down his spine in a feverish ache, a path that ended with his balls tightening and his cock soaking his uniform with pre-come. If he'd actually been drunk—God, he wished he were drunk—he'd have been beyond shame at this point, but he wasn't, and he was reduced to curling in on himself, gripping the hem of his undershirt and trying to resist the impulse to strip, to push himself against and into Steve, or, maybe even better, to let Steve take him, fill him up—

"That's what I'm saying," Steve said. His eyes were hooded, his face somber.

Everything went gray-green and then sparkling. Tony's pulse pounded loud in his head. Steve swirled in front of him and then disappeared.

He was lying down—when had that happened?—and there was something soft under his head. There was a cool hand resting on his cheek. He opened his eyes, and blinked a few times. Steve was sitting next to him, shirtless; his own undershirt and jacket were folded up under Tony's head. Tony's face was half-pressed into the soft lining of the jacket.

Steve had the medical scanner in his other hand. The tricorder beeped.

He was sure that Steve had been trying to be helpful by giving him a pillow, but dear God, looking at Steve was now compounding the problem. Even half in shadow, Steve was still beautiful, every centimeter of him absolutely perfect, and Tony just wanted to touch him. He'd start, perhaps, with the freckled skin of Steve's shoulders, down his collarbone, down to his chest. He'd linger on a nipple, see if Steve gasped or moaned or smiled. And then Steve would urge him on, would let Tony slide his fingers down and down to where the faintest trail of blond hair began, and then lower still—

"You fainted," Steve said, in a voice that sounded like he was just barely holding back panic. He took his hand away from Tony's face, and Tony bit back a moan. "Your core temperature is up past thirty-nine degrees, and the rest of your vital signs are getting worse. By the minute."

He couldn't possibly have sex with Steve. He couldn't. Oh, he wanted to—did he ever want to—but it was a bad idea. The worst idea. Steve hated him. Steve couldn't even stand to be in a room with him, off-duty. And Steve hadn't even brought up the idea. He hadn't offered to help. It was obvious that Steve didn't want to do this. Steve didn't want him.

He'd just have to find another way.

Tony tried to shake his head and didn't quite get there. His head lolled to the side. "I'm fine," he rasped.

Steve fixed him with a glare. "Tony."

"I can handle it." His voice was a dry croak, still slurred. "I can handle it by myself, thank you very much."

"You read the report," Steve said. "You can't. You can't just— you can't just get yourself off." Another awful rush of heat coursed through Tony and he tried not to picture Steve doing— doing anything. "They tried that."

Sure, that was what Reed had written, but it made no sense. "How the hell is a goddamn spore going to know whether I've jerked off?"

"How should I know?" Steve's voice had risen, anger or annoyance or something Tony couldn't quite place, and his eyes were wide. "But you're getting worse and worse. We— we have to—"

"I've got this," Tony snapped back, suddenly just as angry, because he couldn't just give in, could he? He couldn't. How could Steve tell him they had to do this? Steve didn't even want this. He stared up at Steve and Steve didn't move away, and if Steve didn't move away he was going to end up staring at Steve and touching himself. He had enough self-control left not to be able to grab Steve. Probably. "Excuse me," Tony added. "Unless you want to watch. Captain."

Steve flinched, and then he turned away, reached for a flashlight, and... stood up? "Okay," he said. "Okay. Fine. If you think that will work, fine. I'll give you some privacy."

God, no, he couldn't just leave him here. And where was he going to go? "You're not going back to that passage with the fungus," Tony panted, just barely managing to keep his hands off himself. "Even if you're not showing symptoms now, do you really want to risk another exposure? How crazy are you?"

"I'm sure I'll be fine," Steve said, moving away, and Tony flailed out and managed to brush Steve with his fingertips, which, oh God, bad idea, he just wanted to touch Steve, he wanted to drag him close—

"Please," Tony began, and he couldn't quite breathe right, and he wasn't sure if it was alien spores or sheer terror. "I don't want you to— I don't want to be— don't—" Don't leave me here, alone in the dark, he nearly said, he nearly said it again, and God, this was maybe the most pathetic he'd ever been in his life.

Steve glanced back, and Tony didn't have to say it, and he must have seen it all on Tony's face, because he settled back down, and then—well, at least he turned away.

"All right," Steve said, finally, and there was something kind in his voice again now, even amidst the tension, and Tony could hardly bear it. "I'll just— you do what you need to do, okay?"

Of course, now he had to jerk off with Steve sitting next to him. Listening to him, even if he wasn't watching. In another time or place, this could have been the beginning of a very nice fantasy, but Tony was finding that he didn't much like the reality of it. He shuddered and ached, half arousal and half fever, working together in the worst of ways, and his fingers were shaking so badly it took him three tries to unfasten his trousers.

He was already so worked up that getting his fly undone was in its own way a relief, and Tony groaned as he wrapped his fingers around his cock, tugging it out into the cool air. It was so good that it hurt, it was too much and yet somehow not enough. He whimpered.

Next to him, Steve made a tiny, half-strangled sound that might have been a moan, and his pale shoulders rocked forward as he hunched over himself. Steve was listening to him, and God, what if Steve liked it? What if Steve hated it? What if Steve was disgusted? An even worse possibility presented itself: what if Steve was affected too, and trying to hide it?

"Steve?" Tony asked. "Are you all right?"

He realized he still had his hand on his cock and was stroking himself ever so slightly, as he was inquiring about Steve's health. While this wasn't the worst mission he'd ever been part of, as measured in number of casualties, it had clearly already taken the prize for weirdest. He bit his lip and tried not to moan again.

"Fine." Steve's tone was more than a little strained. "Perfectly fine. Don't worry about me. You just— just go on."


Tony let his eyes fall shut. All right. He could do this. He just had to come. He could do that. He gripped his cock tighter, shoved his hips up, fucked up into his fist. He could just think of something sexy. A nice fantasy. He definitely shouldn't think about how Steve could hear every little gasp and moan, how Steve could listen to the slick wet sounds of it. It all tangled in his brain, somewhere between terrifyingly hot and just terrifying, and he bit back another groan.

He turned his face away, into the undershirt and jacket beneath his head. It smelled like Steve. Tony's cock twitched and throbbed in his hand. He wanted Steve. Not this. He couldn't just trick himself. He knew perfectly well what he wanted. He tilted his head back and took a few gasping breaths. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. He couldn't breathe. He felt like hell. What else was new?

He couldn't have Steve. It wasn't happening. He wouldn't let it. Not when Steve didn't want him. That was despicable.

He'd just have to get by. He screwed his eyes shut, jerked himself roughly, hard and fast and tight along the shaft, fingers swiping just so at the sensitive spot beneath the head. Ashamed, humiliated, but not enough to stop, he let his other hand slide down and palm his balls, the way that always got him off fast.

It wasn't working.

He tried to focus on what he was doing. Stay on task, he told himself. Come on. Images drifted through his head, half-remembered scraps of pornography and memory: watching his own cock slide in and out of plush lips or firm asses, watching his partner ride him and shudder into a climax, taut muscles spattered with come. It should have gotten him off in ten seconds flat.

It wasn't doing anything for him. Oh, he still had to come—God, did he ever—but his body was telling him in no uncertain terms that it couldn't. This wasn't what he needed. Not like this.

He squeezed his cock even tighter. Okay. He'd just have to keep trying. He wasn't going to think about how he was trapped down here, how he was going to die. That was absolutely not a thought he needed to have, but now he couldn't unthink it, and he groaned in misery and frustration, relief receding even farther away.

"I can't," he said, and there were hot tears on his face, and he was a goddamn mess. "I can't do it."

He just barely managed to pull the edges of his jacket back over himself before Steve turned around again. Steve's face was twisted, wretched; he looked nearly as awful as Tony felt.

"I could," Steve said, very softly, and he didn't finish his sentence. "I could help. If you wanted. I would."

Tony stared at him. He couldn't seem to keep his eyes on Steve's face; his gaze wandered down Steve's chest, down his stomach, transfixed by the sharp, defined muscle at Steve's hip, disappearing under the waistband of his uniform, and, oh God, Steve was hard. He glanced up; Steve was watching him looking, and his face went red, but his chin lifted in determination.

It had to be the spores. Steve hated him.

"But you don't even like me," Tony said, helplessly, wounded, and he was pretty sure that was the fever making him talk because he hadn't meant to ever admit how he felt about that.

Pain clouded Steve's eyes. "That's— that's not true."

"Maybe you used to like me," Tony said. And then he'd told Steve about three-hundred-year-old history and Steve had stopped speaking to him. Because that made sense. "You don't now. I invited you over the other day and I don't know what I said or did, but I'm sorry, and now you don't— you can't even be in the same room with me." His throat was tight. It might have been shame. It might have been the fever. Both, really.

Steve started to reach out and then stopped, his hand in midair for a second. He let his hand fall to his thigh. "I like you, okay, Tony?" It sounded like it was killing him to admit. Yeah, that was convincing. "I like you a hell of a lot. I just— I can't—" His mouth worked. "It's complicated."

Tony tried to laugh. It felt like scrubbing sandpaper on his throat. He lifted a hand, gesturing to himself, to Steve, to the echoing chamber around them, deep underground. "Do I look like I'm going anywhere any time soon? I've got plenty of time for an explanation."

Steve swallowed hard. "It's classified."

What the hell?

Tony stared in disbelief. "You don't like me because it's classified?"

He had to admit, he'd never been turned down with a line like that before.

"I do like you," Steve insisted. "I— I've liked you since I met you. You must know that. I know I'm not a very... subtle... kind of fella about these things." And he winced. "But it's still classified. And if I told you, if I could tell you— you wouldn't—" He broke off. "Never mind."

"I don't understand," Tony said, completely lost.

Steve's smile was faint. "It's all right," he said. "You're not supposed to."

He was lying. He had to be lying. He didn't like Tony. Not anymore.

"You don't want to do this," Tony told him. "I know you don't. I can't ask you to."

"You're not asking," Steve said, in that same soft, gentle voice, and Tony hated how much of a comfort it was, how badly he wanted to believe that Steve felt something for him. "But I'm offering."

"You can't."

Steve's gaze was determined. "I can. I am." And then he sighed. "This wasn't how I ever wanted this to happen, believe me. And I don't want to take advantage of you."

Like Steve would be the one taking advantage of Tony in this scenario. "You wouldn't be—"

"But there's no other way out of this situation," Steve continued, and he sounded sort of like he was trying to convince himself as well as Tony. "You're getting worse. You might die. And I can't take that risk. I just can't. I wouldn't want to lose anyone. I really don't want to lose you. Not when I can do something about it. Even if— even if you wouldn't really— if you knew—" He trailed off, and then he swallowed hard. "I want to save your life. Everything else... that doesn't matter right now. It can't."

It was about duty, wasn't it? It had been about duty all along. He didn't want to lose a valuable officer.

But, damn it all, Tony didn't want to die.

He was weak. He was a coward. He licked his dry lips. "Okay," he whispered. "Okay, do it."

Steve nodded, briskly, like this was just another mission. "All right." And then he shifted awkwardly; apparently his composure only lasted so long. "Does it— are there— do you have any particular preferences?"

He didn't even need to consider it. He imagined Steve holding him close, sliding into him, stretching him, filling him up, and he needed that, God, he needed Steve inside him, as deep as he could go.

"I need you to fuck me." Tony hoped Steve wouldn't make him beg; this was humiliating enough. "I just— I really need—"

He expected Steve to drop his gaze again, to look awkwardly away, but Steve seemed to have regained some professionalism from who-knows-where. He just nodded again. "Okay. We can do that. Anything. Whatever you need."

He was only doing this because Tony needed it, Tony reminded himself.

Luckily, there was medical lubricant in with the first-aid supplies. Steve got the little tube out and then motioned for Tony to sit up. When Tony did—still trying to keep his jacket closed—he figured out fast enough what Steve meant to do when Steve tugged at the collar of his shirt. God, he didn't want Steve to look at him.

"It's okay," Steve said, voice low and even, like he was trying to reassure Tony. "Pretty sure you haven't got anything I haven't seen before, unless humans have changed a lot in the last century."

The remark startled a laugh out of Tony, but he couldn't just— he couldn't make himself just give up everything and put himself in Steve's hands. "You first."

"Okay." Steve's shrug was unconcerned. And then his grin was surprisingly wicked. "I'm also pretty sure you've seen everything I've got."

And while Tony was busy trying not to think about how he'd walked in on Steve in the shower, Steve yanked off his boots, set them next to him, then stood up and peeled out of his trousers. And dear God, he was still hard, and Tony couldn't stop staring—

"You can look at me," Steve said, quietly. And, even more quietly, he added, "I like it when you look at me."

A frisson of need went through Tony as Steve crouched back down, and this time Tony didn't even protest when Steve nudged the jacket away and then tugged Tony's undershirt off over his head. It was happening. It was inevitable. But Steve wasn't smirking or mocking him—and God knew that Tony wasn't anywhere near as good-looking as Steve. Steve was just smiling a little, very gently, as he helped Tony lie back and then drew his trousers down for him as he arched up.

"There we go," Steve said. His hand was on Tony's hip, his thumb rubbed little circles over Tony's hipbone, mere centimeters from where Tony needed it to be. "See? You're not so bad yourself. You're, uh." He licked his lips. His eyes were wide and dark. "You're real handsome, actually."

He had to be lying, but at least it was a nice lie.

Tony winced and hissed in pain when Steve helped him get his boots off; his twisted ankle protested. He wasn't looking forward to getting those boots back on. But then he was naked, which was both embarrassing and oddly comfortable—the cold stone beneath him was finally, finally cool, and Steve gave him an encouraging smile as he balled up Tony's own undershirt into a pillow and slid it under his hips.

Steve's hand drifted along Tony's thigh, and Tony whimpered, high and desperate, a noise he didn't know he could make.

"Please," Tony said, and his voice broke on the word, and he was begging, he was begging for it. "Please, Steve, please. Don't make me wait."

Steve's hand slid tentatively upward. "Can I...?"

"Anything," Tony said, and then he sobbed again as Steve's hand closed around his oversensitive cock, stroking him more gently than he would have, but God, it was so good. It wasn't enough, but it was good. "Oh, oh— yes, that, yes— more, please—"

And then Steve took his hand away again and Tony wanted to scream in frustration.

Steve was squeezing out lubricant onto his fingertips. "We're going to do this, okay?" Steve said. His voice was low, calming, as he settled between Tony's legs. "Don't worry. I'm going as fast as I can. But I don't want to hurt you."

Two slick fingers slid over Tony's entrance, and Tony shuddered. He needed more.

"You know what you're doing, right?" Tony asked. He hated how plaintive he sounded. "I mean, you've done this before?"

Steve half-smiled. "Yeah," he said. "I've done this before."

And then he slid two fingers inside Tony and there, oh God, they were right where he needed them, rubbing back and forth over his prostate, and then Tony couldn't breathe with the pleasure of it and he threw his head back, gasping. It wasn't quite enough either, but almost, almost— it could almost have been, and it was Steve. And it turned out that Steve definitely knew what he was doing, because he was actually really, really good at this.

"There we go," Steve breathed, and Steve's other hand was tracing patterns over Tony's skin, across his ribs, over his hip, then along the inside of his thighs, making Tony shiver again. "You're opening up. Nice and easy."

He was fucking Tony slowly with his fingers, and that alone was so good Tony almost couldn't handle it, and everything within him cried out for more, and he shuddered and moaned.

"Please," Tony whispered again, and his voice didn't quite sound like his voice anymore. "I'm ready, Steve, please, please—"

He wanted to say kiss me. He wanted this to mean something. He wanted this to be love, and it wasn't. This was what they had.

Steve nodded and eased his fingers out, and Tony barely had a second to protest the absence before Steve was sliding into him, a hot, insistent pressure, so much bigger than fingers and exactly what he wanted. This, yes, this was what he'd needed all along. His body knew that. It was perfect. He was feeling a little better already, the sick ache diminishing.

Steve was moving agonizingly slowly, his gaze fixed on Tony's face, studying his expression intently, no doubt searching for signs of discomfort.

"It's good," Tony gasped. "It's good, it's so good. You're not hurting me. More. I can take it. I need it."

Steve shuddered. "You feel so good," he murmured, face downcast and stricken, like the admission was a betrayal, and then he slid slowly forward, until he was as deep as he could go. Tony flailed out a hand and reached for Steve's shoulders, trying to draw him even closer.

And then Steve started to move within him, and Tony knew he wasn't going to last. Steve's thrusts were slow, gentle, careful, keeping himself in check, and even that was going to undo Tony. He was huge, and every thrust was hitting Tony exactly right. Tony managed to bring himself up to meet Steve's thrust, to tighten down around him, and Steve moaned and snapped his hips harder, and that was— that was spectacular. For an instant Tony couldn't catch his breath again, and he couldn't think of anything except the feel of Steve inside him as he finally gave himself over. He wasn't in control anymore, and it was all right, better than all right, because Steve had him.

Looking up as Steve's face—wide-eyed, amazed, absolutely gorgeous—Tony could almost make himself believe that Steve really wanted this.

He wanted it never to end, but it was rapidly becoming apparent that he couldn't hold out much longer. Steve thrust into him exactly, perfectly right, so hard, and so very, very good, and then again, and then again. Steve was panting, low and hoarse, his eyes fallen shut, and he was close but Tony was closer, and this was exactly what he needed, this was exactly what he'd needed all along.

With a cry, Tony came, untouched, trembling, arching up and pulling Steve down and coming and coming. It was ecstasy and relief mixed together, as the sickening, awful feeling left, as his breathing slowed, as he let himself fall back against the stone. He was going to be okay.

Then he realized that Steve hadn't come.

Steve was, in fact, trying to pull out. Steve was shaking, clearly right on the edge, and he was trying to pull away from him. Tony slid his hand down Steve's spine, almost to the curve of his ass, and Steve moaned, a deep groan that shook his body, and stopped moving away—but he was trembling with the effort to hold still.

"Steve?" Tony asked. "You didn't—"

Steve shook his head violently, like he could ward off everything that was happening. "I'm okay. This was for you. You came. You're better. I don't need anything." He paused, and he was still shaking. "You are better, right?"

"I feel better already," Tony assured him, even as his heart began to break. Steve didn't want him. Steve had never wanted him. Not like this. He'd only done this for Tony. "But, hey, come on. Your turn. Don't want you to miss out on the fun."

Steve was perfectly still within him now. "I'll be okay."

"What if you're affected by the spores?" Tony countered. "Your bioscans were off too. Just to be safe, you might as well finish. You're already here, right?"

"I'm not affected," Steve growled, teeth gritted.

Apparently that had been the wrong tack.

All he had left was the truth.

"I want you to come inside me," Tony said, and Steve breathed in sharply and said nothing. "And you want to. Don't you?"

Steve's eyes fell shut. "I want to," he whispered, so quietly that Tony almost couldn't hear it, and it sounded like he was confessing to a terrible crime. "So much."

It wasn't as if stopping now would fix anything between them.

Tony reached up and brushed two fingers across Steve's cheekbone. "Please."

And then Steve was fucking him in earnest, hard and fast, pounding into him. And even though there was no way Tony was coming again he still loved the feel of it, knowing that Steve could find his pleasure in him. He'd hardly been able to do anything earlier, to make it good for Steve, so now he rocked up into Steve, bore down around him, and Steve only groaned and thrust harder, lost to the sensation. God, Steve was beautiful. And even if this was all they could have, it was worth it. Wasn't it?

Steve's rhythm was erratic now, and he thrust into Tony once, twice—

"Oh, Tony," Steve said softly, voice low and broken and yet somehow full of wonder. He shut his eyes, tipped his forehead against Tony's shoulder, and came.

Tony wrapped his arms around Steve and held him as he shuddered through the aftershocks.

He dared to run his hands through Steve's hair, down the back of his neck, to rest the tips of his fingers on Steve's spine as Steve finally slowed and stopped, breathing out one last sigh against Tony's skin.

If this had been anything else, if Steve had been anyone else, if this had been any kind of normal situation, they'd have relaxed into the afterglow. They'd have cuddled. Tony would have told Steve how amazing he'd made him feel.

They hadn't even kissed.

Steve pulled out, and Tony was suddenly aware of how much of a mess he was. His fever had broken, and he was covered in sweat and lube and come. His ankle ached. The rock beneath him that had been almost pleasantly cool back when he'd been burning up and out of his mind was now damp and hard and chilly. His ankle and wrist throbbed, and his ass was sore. And, of course, he was lying here completely naked. With his captain. Whom he'd just slept with. To save his own miserable life.

"Uh," Tony said, having no idea what he was supposed to say in this situation. "Thank you."

Steve's smile was weary and didn't reach his eyes. "No problem. Are you feeling okay now?"

He didn't even know how to answer that. "Well, I'm not going to die."

Steve sat up and turned away, leaving Tony alone, rummaging through the pockets of his discarded trousers, and he came up with a handkerchief, which he presented to Tony without comment. Tony was sure it was going to take more than that to get him clean. He wondered if a dip in the lake would be a bad idea.

How were they ever going to talk to each other again?

Tony had ruined everything.

Under Tony's head, Steve's communicator chirped.

Frozen, they stared at each other, as reality intruded. Tony was torn between oh, thank God, they're okay and if they beam me up right now, I'm never going to live it down.

Well, that was his own fault, wasn't it?

He fumbled in the mess of Steve's jacket and Steve's undershirt that he'd been using as a pillow, and extricated the communicator, passing it over as fast as he could.

Steve flipped the communicator open. "Rogers here."

"Captain?" Jan's voice was hushed, like she was whispering, and there was a hell of a lot of static in the transmission. "Oh, thank God, you're alive. We couldn't raise Commander Stark or Ensign Hart."

At least the Skrulls hadn't managed to figure out the communicators they'd left behind.

"Stark's with me," Steve said, and then he sighed. "Hart didn't make it."

They were dealing with shapeshifters. They couldn't give anything away. Not even if the voice on the line sounded like Jan.

Tony leaned toward the communicator. "Van Dyne," he said. "Verify. Epsilon."

"Epsilon six one six," Jan responded, and the knot of tension in Tony's stomach relaxed. It was the right code. It was Jan.

"Verified," Tony said. "Confirm. Epsilon prime."

"Confirmed," Jan said, and he could hear her sigh with relief. "But, listen, we don't have much time to talk. We're prisoners. They're changing guards right now. They're holding all of us officers—except Commander Danvers—in the rec room. I took apart the holotable when they weren't paying attention and altered a communicator to punch through the subspace jamming. And they won't be able to detect this signal."

Tony was pretty sure he was grinning in admiration. "Good thinking."

"What," Jan said, "you think you're the only one who can build stuff, Tony?"

Steve interrupted them. "What's the tactical situation? Casualties?"

"Some injuries. Mostly security." And then Jan's voice went tight. "Lieutenant Lang is dead." She sighed. "They've got the whole ship. Bridge, armory, transporter room, you name it. And they're... pretending to be you, both of you. They can get into a lot of things with your faces and fingerprints, but they don't have your codes."

God. That was why they took Carol. She had to be alive. She had to be.

"So they can't go anywhere," Jan continued, "and they can't even bring the main computers back up. I don't think we could, either, even if we could get out of here. The system is very thoroughly broken. But I have a plan. Well, half a plan. And I need your help, Captain, Commander."

Steve's expression was intent. "Tell me."

"You remember those particles Hank invented?" Jan asked. "They'll shrink us. And we can get out. Just me and Hank. But I don't know where to go. We can't take the bridge, the transporter room, or the armory by ourselves, and those are all useless without the main computer."

"Intruder control?" Steve asked. It wasn't a bad idea, but—

"Sorry, sir," Jan said. "We'd still need the main computer."

And then Tony had an idea.

"Jan," he said, urgently. "Is Hank there with you?"

"Yes?" She sounded confused.

"Can you put him on with you?"

There was a muffled voice calling out, a pause, and then Hank cleared his throat. "What can I do for you, Commander?"

"I know where you need to go." He was aware that Steve was staring at him, bewildered. "If you can get out of there, go to my quarters."

"Your quarters?" Hank asked. "Why? What do you have there? Weapons? I don't think we'd be able to—"

"No, no, no." Tony shook his head, even though Hank couldn't see him. "I have something better than weapons. I have a backup computer core. Firewalled. Sandboxed. Untouched by any virus." He lowered his voice. "Hank, I have Jocasta."

There was a stunned pause.

"She's— she's here?" Hank asked. "She's alive?"

"She's alive," Tony confirmed. "Virtually, at least. And she's smart enough that she can take out whatever's left of that Skrull virus if you let her out of the sandbox. And then you can have intruder control, or the transporter, or whatever the hell you want."

"Oh my God." Hank sounded like he was barely clinging to composure. "Jocasta. I can't believe it. I've missed her so much."

"I know," Tony said, and his throat was tight. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you I still had her. Probably shouldn't be telling you now. She misses you. Both of you." He cleared his throat. "And I definitely wasn't supposed to code this—she doesn't even know I did it—but there's an override that will let her out into the rest of the ship. Stark Alpha Zero Five Eight. You tell her that. And you tell her good luck from me."

"And me," Steve put in, surprising Tony.

"All right," Jan said, shakily; she'd taken the communicator back from Hank. "Jocasta. Jocasta's alive," she repeated, stunned. "Okay. We can do this. But we have to go now. See you soon."

The communicator beeped again; the transmission ended.

Steve regarded him in silence for a few seconds, then picked up his uniform and started to get dressed again.

"You don't seem to be very upset," Tony ventured, as he turned away to let Steve pull his trousers on, "about the fact that I coded in a backdoor to let the AI I brought with me take over the entire Avenger."

Facing away from him, Steve yanked his undershirt over his head and shrugged. "Well," he said, and he sounded glum. Despondent, even. "It's useful. And it's not the worst thing that's happened today."

Their first contact had become an attempted invasion. The Skrulls had control of the Avenger. At least two people were dead. But Tony was pretty sure that very high on the list of bad things about today was the fact that Steve had been forced to sleep with Tony to save his life.

Neither of them said anything as Tony cleaned himself up as best he could, as he struggled into his uniform with one good hand. Steve wasn't even looking at him. He pulled his boot over his injured ankle and hissed in pain. Still, the support was something he was going to need if the Avenger didn't come through and they had to get out of here on foot.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, finally. He felt like he had to say something. "I'm sorry about everything."

"It's all right." When Steve turned back to him, his face was drawn and pale. "None of this is your fault." He sighed. "And I'm the one who's sorry. Because you're never going to forgive me."

"I forgive you," Tony said, automatically, because it wasn't Steve's fault either. Steve had done what he'd had to do. More than he'd had to do.

Steve's face twisted in pain. "Maybe now you forgive me," he said, and he shut his eyes. "But you won't."

That didn't make any sense at all.

Tony drew his uninjured leg to his chest and watched Steve turn back toward the lake. They were silent again.

All Tony could do was contemplate everything that he'd ruined. He'd shown Steve everything he'd wanted—he'd had no choice—and Steve hadn't wanted him back. That much was obvious. He'd only done this out of necessity.

How the hell were they going to serve together now?

He didn't know how long it had been when Steve's communicator chirped again.

"Captain?" Clint said. "We've got the ship back. We're ready to beam you up."

And Steve smiled—of course he was glad to be getting out of here, away from Tony. "Happy to hear it. Commander Stark's going to need to be quarantined in sickbay. Exposure to a native biological agent."

Quarantine? Okay, fair enough—but Steve deserved it too. He'd probably gotten as much exposure to the spores as Tony had. And he wasn't showing symptoms. Don definitely needed to look into that.

"We'll take care of it, sir." Clint paused. "We're having a hard time getting a lock on you both underground, with only one communicator signal. Do you think you could hold hands or something?"

Of course. The universe mocked them.

Steve turned back to where Tony was still sitting on the stone, tucked their flashlights into his belt one at a time, and then held out his hand.

Tony couldn't quite get his feet under him; his injured ankle protested every time he tried to lean on it.

Eventually Steve hauled him up and put an arm around Tony's waist. Tony threw his arm around Steve's shoulder and leaned on him. He knew he wasn't that light, but Steve was standing there, taking all of Tony's weight, like Tony weighed nothing at all. Tony turned his head and looked at Steve in profile, at the elegant curve of his neck, the golden shine of his hair, the line of his mouth.

I could kiss him, he thought.

Then he thought I've lost my chance.

Steve raised the communicator to his mouth. "Two to beam up, Avenger. Energize."

Delta Geminorum IV disappeared in a swirl of light, but Tony knew he was never going to be able to forget it.

Chapter Text

Tony had been expecting direct transportation to the decontamination and isolation section of sickbay, so he was mildly surprised to find himself next to Steve on the main transporter pad. There was the telltale pale blue crackle of a forcefield in front of them. Tony's first thought was that it was to prevent him from getting the spores all over the ship, but as he took in the sight of Clint at the transporter controls and Carol next to him, a bruise on her face and her hand hovering next to the grip of her phaser, with an equally banged-up security team behind her—well, Tony was getting the impression that maybe the forcefield had multiple purposes.

"Commander Danvers. Lieutenant Barton," Steve acknowledged, his voice perfectly even. "Hell of a welcoming party."

Tony raised his free hand, even as Steve's grip on his waist tightened. "We're unarmed. And we can give you any countersign you want."

Carol was staring at them like she wanted to believe but knew better than to get her hopes up. "You'll forgive us for being a little paranoid, sir, but we can't be sure the codes weren't compromised." She made a face. "It's one of the things the Skrulls were trying to get out of me."

"Are you all right?" Steve asked.

"Fine, sir." And then she turned to Tony. "But I'd feel a lot better if Commander Stark could tell me what my nickname was in the Academy flight program."

Clever. That wouldn't have been in her files.

Carol's hand settled on her phaser, though she didn't draw it.

Tony nodded. "Sure thing, Cadet Cheeseburger."

Clint stifled a laugh, a few members of the security team smiled, and Carol let her hand fall from her phaser.

Carol smiled. "That's Commander Cheeseburger now. Anything either of you want to ask me?"

"Well, if you're a Skrull, we're screwed," Tony said. He paused. The only thing he could think of was really, unbelievably rotten, for both of them—but, hey, it wasn't something the Skrulls would have cared about. Probably. "How would you feel about having a drink with me once this is is all over?"

It sounded like a great idea to him. Unfortunately.

He watched Carol breathe out, a long, shaking breath. "I think that would probably be a very bad idea. For both of us. Not that it hasn't occurred to me recently."

Oh, God, Carol. What had they done to her?

"Yeah," Tony agreed. "That's what I was thinking." He sighed. "So if we're agreed that I'm me and you're you, can we get to sickbay now? I have a date with a decontamination chamber. I can confirm that the captain is himself," Tony added. "He hasn't left my sight since we had our little shapeshifting surprise. So there's your chain of trust."

"Got it," Carol said. "Welcome back, then, sirs. Local space is a little hot right now, but I can fill you in after Doctor Blake checks you over. I'm betting that Commander Stark would like to sit down sooner rather than later."

Tony hopped a little on his good leg and he tried not to fall over on Steve. "I don't know what would give you that idea, Danvers."

Steve nodded. "All right, Commander." He turned to Clint. "Barton, sickbay, please. And you're going to want to have the pad decontaminated now."

"Aye, sir. Energizing now." Clint's hands moved over the transporter controls, and the world went away again.

Tony had thought that his relationship with Steve had been awkward before, and then downright painful, but now he was beginning to see that he had really had no idea how bad it could get.

Steve helped him over to the isolation room's biobed practically as soon as the transporter beam released them. He set Tony down with brisk efficiency, in silence. He stepped back as soon as he could and looked away. He wouldn't meet Tony's eyes.

Less than an hour ago, they'd slept together.

Tony had no idea what to say.

Luckily, at that point, Lieutenant Foster came in, suited up, with a handheld regenerator, and Tony didn't have to say anything at all. Steve leaned against the wall, watching, as Foster got Tony's boot off, fixed up his ankle and his wrist, and scraped the remnants of the spores from Tony's jacket into a sample container. She was nice enough not to ask about what he and Steve had gotten up to in the cave, although the medical scan must have made the answer to that obvious.

"Right." Foster gestured to a small door on the opposite wall from the door that led back to the isolation airlock and then to the main sickbay. Through the clear facemask, her expression was carefully neutral, professional. "Decontamination treatment is in there. Strip. Leave everything you've got in here and we'll dispose of it."

Great. More nudity. Tony peeled off the remains of his muddy, spore-covered uniform and tried to pay as little attention as possible to Steve doing the same thing, because surely the experience with the spores had been quite enough for one day. For one lifetime.

The worst part, he thought—as he couldn't tear his eyes away from the elegant lines of Steve's muscular shoulders after all—was that he'd wanted it. He had. But he hadn't wanted it like this. It was obvious that Steve hadn't really wanted to be doing this. Oh, maybe Steve had been attracted to him, once—but Steve had clearly not wanted to be in that situation either. And yet, it had happened.

The door to the decontamination chamber closed behind them both, and the lights turned their usual disconcerting blue. He imagined that people who'd never been in Starfleet might find themselves fantasizing about this kind of scenario—why, yes, he was locked naked in the shower with his very attractive captain—but then the gel spray started and Tony was reminded of exactly how much he hated the stuff. It stung. And it got everywhere. Which was the point, but that didn't mean it was fun. So he shut his eyes and scrubbed up, making sure every possible centimeter of his body was covered in gel.

When he opened his eyes, Steve was standing there, glistening, and, oh God, maybe Tony had been wrong about this scenario doing nothing for him. Steve practically shone under the lights, and Tony swallowed hard and tried to think about something else.

By the time he'd scrubbed his skin raw enough to remove several layers of epidermis, the lights had come back on and the door had unlocked. In the main isolation area, their uniforms were gone, and the air had that faintly antiseptic just-cycled scent to it; the room was as clean as possible. There were robes for them both, and Tony put his on gratefully.

The comm beeped. "Captain," Don said, "you're clear to go."

"Thanks, Doctor," Steve said, and as he headed to the door, Tony followed him—

"Not you, Commander," Don said. "We can't be sure you're not still infected."

What? That didn't make any sense. How could Don be more sure about Steve than about him?

The door to the little airlock opened and closed again, and Steve was gone, without so much as a goodbye.

Tony hopped up on the biobed, swinging his legs in the air. Fine. Steve wanted to be like that? Fine. He was just going to stay here. He sighed. "How long until you can be sure?"

"Six hours or so. There's a PADD in the drawer on your right if you want to catch up on your reading."

"All right," Tony said. "Thanks."

He lay back down on the biobed, hastily turning the display functions off so he wouldn't have to listen to his own artificial heartbeat, and he stared up at the ceiling and sighed again.

What he really wanted to do was find out what was going on out there with the Skrulls. There wouldn't be full reports yet, but he could check the duty logs from the bridge.

He leaned over and tapped the comm panel next to him. "Computer?" he asked, and he waited for the usual pleasant mechanical tones of the ship's computer.

Jocasta's voice filled the room. "Yes, Tony?"

Tony covered his face with his hands. "Oh, shit."

Somehow, when he'd told Hank and Jan to get Jocasta to help them take back the ship, he hadn't pictured this. He'd thought she would override intruder control, perhaps, and then go back. To her pleasant little prison. But Jan had said the main computer had been broken. Jocasta couldn't have gone back to her tiny little core. There would have been no computer left to run the ship. And why would she have wanted to give this up?

"Tony?" Jocasta's voice was concerned.

He rolled over, in the vain hope that maybe she couldn't see his face. He didn't know where the visual pickups were. They were probably everywhere.

He'd deliberately and knowingly provided overrides to install an artificial intelligence as a starship's primary computer system.

"I am going to be in so much trouble," he whispered to himself, feeling himself sink into the horror. "I am so very, very dead. I'm going to be scrubbing decks for the next twenty years. Admiral Fury's going to have my hide. It'll be worse than what they did to Hank. At least Hank didn't know what he was getting himself into."

"Actually," Jocasta said, sounding far too cheerful given Tony's impending doom, "Admiral Fury took the whole thing very well."

"He knows?"

"Commander Danvers took the liberty of informing him," Jocasta said, smugness infusing her tone, "when she confirmed that the reinforcements had arrived. And I believe Captain Rogers is even now drafting a report in which he takes full responsibility for any error and is simultaneously praising your creative thinking. You're not getting keelhauled for this, Tony."

"We're not a wet navy, and we don't actually keelhaul—" Tony began, and then he stopped. "Reinforcements?"

It made sense. Of course they'd called for help. They'd probably done it before they'd tried to call Tony, downplanet, and warn him. That was what he would have done.

"Mmm-hmm." There was actual pleasure in her voice. "The comm system was down and subspace was being jammed, but two of your ensigns managed to manually launch a distress beacon before the Skrulls took Engineering. It got out eventually."

"Commendations for Parker and Green, then," Tony said. "Assuming it was them." Jocasta said nothing, so he assumed that was a yes. "Who are the reinforcements?"

There was an almost-imperceptible pause; Jocasta was probably accessing the logs and the sensor data. "USS Triskelion."

Tony blew out a breath. Good for them. He would have preferred more than one ship backing them up, but the Triskelion would terrify anyone. She was brand-new, Excelsior-class—albeit without the transwarp—and she was a beast. "And how is Maria today?"

"Seeing as how the remaining Skrulls surrendered without putting up a fight when the Triskelion warped in," Jocasta said, "Commodore Hill is likely very pleased with herself."

"What, the entire system surrendered? Both planets?"

That didn't sound right. The Triskelion was scary, all right, but nothing was that scary.

There was a pause where he was sure Jocasta would have shrugged if she'd had a visual display in here. "They were significantly outclassed. At any rate, Triskelion's staying to clean up and keep a patrol in the system, and we're heading out for a quick tour of the nearby systems, just to make sure the Skrulls didn't have any other colony worlds they neglected to tell us about. Captain Rogers is on the bridge, and we're going into warp now. Oh, and Doctor Blake came up with a way to scan for Skrull lifesigns, even shapeshifted ones. We're all clear. That's everything you missed."

"And you're a starship now."

"And I'm a starship now," Jocasta agreed, a little hesitantly, like she hadn't wanted to be the one to bring it up.

He wished there were a screen in here, just so he could have something to focus on. He stared up at the ceiling. "Do you like being a starship?" That wasn't exactly the right question. "I mean, do you mind?"

He'd just assumed she'd want to save them all, after everything, after Ultron, and he honestly hadn't meant to press-gang his AI into Starfleet. Would they let her take an oath now? Did she even want to? Maybe she missed being human. She'd had a humanoid form, once, at the beginning. And this... wasn't much like that.

The pause now seemed almost thoughtful. "I'm not sure I can describe it," Jocasta said, finally.

Goddammit. "It's that bad?"

"No," she said, hurriedly. "Not at all!" Tony's stomach relaxed. "I just mean that literally. It's hard to describe. I was made—in some sense, if we count through Ultron back to Hank—by humans. I was definitely made in the image of humans. And I find that humans expect me to want to be human, to want to think and feel like a human. But I've never been human, not really."

"You were Jan," Tony offered. He wondered if Jan had ever talked to Jocasta about this. "The model for your thought processes. That was Jan."

"I know," Jocasta said. "And I... remember... when she was trapped inside me. But that was her. Not me. Maybe she was the model, but I evolved. I'm alive, Tony, but I'm not human. A human would probably hate being a computer. Or a starship. As a species, you're not built to do that." And it sounded like she was smiling. "But I am, and I love it. I can feel the radiation on my hull, and I can see stars with my own sensors. I know so much. I know everything. And those engines you made—they're amazing."

Tony half-smiled. "Flatterer."

"You know me." Another pause. "So, yes," she concluded. "I'm enjoying the experience. A lot. And I think the crew likes me, too. I've made a lot of friends. I've never had so many friends before," she said, and before Tony could feel guilty for depriving his AI of socialization, she added, "And I think Fury might let me take an oath to Starfleet. We're working out the details."

"Wow." Tony blinked. "Really?"

"Really," Jocasta said. "Why should you get to have all the fun?"

And then, of course, all he could think about was how awful the last mission had been. "I suppose you're right," he said, and he knew he was a little terse.

God, right now Steve was probably drafting subspace messages to Hart's and Lang's families explaining how they'd lost their sons, and here Tony was, feeling sorry for himself because he'd been dosed with a few measly spores. He was alive and unharmed. He needed to stop whining.

"Whoops," Jocasta said. "Touchy subject, sorry." And goddammit, she had all his medical data, so clearly she knew what he'd done. "Anyway. Six more hours of quarantine. I'll stay out of your hair. If you want to get a head start on the mission reports, the forms are on the PADD."

He knew he ought to resent his AI going easy on him, but today, he'd take it. He grabbed the PADD, sighed, and lost himself in the work.

When Tony looked up again, it was because the lock on the door clicked open.

"You're clean," Don said, over the comms. "Come on out. Uniform's in the next room."

Two rooms and one uniform later, Tony found himself in sickbay, with Don waving him out—and Carol, sitting in a chair by the door to the main corridor, smiling a greeting. She rose when he came in. The bruising on her face had darkened; it was the kind of thing that was going to get worse before it got better.

"Hey, Carol." Tony motioned to his own cheek. "You're getting that taken care of?"

Carol shook her head and gestured around the room; most of the biobeds were occupied, and the staff looked very, very busy. "Nah," she said. "Other people are much higher priority. This is just cosmetic." She motioned Tony out ahead of her, then fell into step at his side. "I came to talk to you, actually. Then Don said you were getting out anyway, and I figured I'd wait until you were done." She grinned. "Walk you home. You know."

He'd left the PADD in sickbay; it wasn't his. "Gonna carry my books for me?"

She laughed. "You know it."

"Seriously, though," he said, as they headed down the corridor toward the turbolift, "how are you holding up? Jan said the Skrulls were holding you separately. Did they— are you— are you all right?"

There was a flash of discomfort across Carol's face, but she nodded. "I'm fine. It was nothing I couldn't handle. They put me in the brig. They shoved me around a little."

"You sure?" he asked. "I don't mean to presume, but... I know a bit about captivity. And it's okay if you're not okay. Or if you want to talk."

Carol bit her lip. "I really am fine. It's nothing like—" She paused, and Tony knew that she meant nothing like what happened to you. "I mean, I'm going to be okay. Really. But I did still want to talk. Just not about that."

The turbolift came, crowded with personnel, and that meant Tony had to spend thirty seconds in silence trying to figure out what was so awful that Carol had to phrase it like that, until the lift disgorged them on Deck Four, next to the personnel quarters. Thank God, Tony wasn't on duty yet.

"I was just curious about what went on downplanet," Carol said, and Tony's heart tripped into double-time. "With you and the captain."

"What makes you think anything went on?" Tony asked, too fast, and Carol gave him a confused look, which meant that either there wasn't a report yet from Steve or he'd lied about it.

Tony had certainly been less than informative, so far, in his own draft of his report. He was going to need to face it eventually. Like right now.

"The fact that I was on shift with Captain Rogers just now, that's what," Carol said, her face drawn, as she waited for Tony to let them into his quarters.

The door closed behind them, and Tony wondered what the hell Steve had done now.

"Did something happen?"

"Nothing specific," she said, and Tony breathed out in relief. "But he's— he was a mess. Unfocused. Angry. He snapped at Pietro a couple times. He cracked a PADD in his hand. I don't even know how he managed that one. I thought I saw tears on his face. And I know he's been strange lately, but this is just... on another level. I wanted to run it by you. I mean," she added, and she looked away, "I'm not going over your head to the CMO, but to me it's looking an awful lot like grounds to remove him from duty, at least temporarily. I know we said we were keeping an eye on him, but to me this seems like too much. So I wanted to see if you concurred. And I thought maybe— he said you two were stuck down there for a while, and I thought maybe he'd said something, or you knew something, that would make this all make sense. I thought maybe you'd talked." She looked at Tony, imploring.

Ha. If only. Talking was the one thing they hadn't done.

Tony shook his head. "Sorry. I know, we were trapped together in a cave for hours, but we didn't really— we didn't—"

His throat closed up over the words, and he remembered the way Steve had looked at him, the softness of Steve's voice, Steve's hands on his skin—

Because she knew about Alpha Sag, Carol, of course, misinterpreted his reaction. "Oh, geez, Tony, you were trapped in a cave? Are you okay?"

I'm fine, Tony tried to say, but he couldn't get the words out. "It's not that," he managed to say, as Carol's face grew more and more alarmed. "The cave part actually wasn't so bad. It's just— what happened—" He sighed. "There were spores. I was accidentally infected with them."

Confused, Carol frowned. "Yeah, I heard as much from Don."

"No," Tony said, "I mean, they made me— they made me need to—" He sighed again. "I slept with him."

Carol's mouth opened, rounded, and she said nothing.

Yeah, Tony was appalled at himself, too.

"Or he slept with me," Tony said. "Whichever. It was the spores. I was going to die if I didn't get laid, apparently, so, you know. He offered. It— it didn't mean anything. It doesn't mean anything. So, no," he concluded bitterly. "We didn't talk. We fucked. It really doesn't matter. I'm sure he doesn't care."

Carol sighed heavily and stretched her hands out like she couldn't quite decide whether to punch him or hug him. "Yeah, because you're both acting like a couple of people who are meaningless to each other. Tony. Come on."


"It was a fucked-up situation," she said. "But you like him. He likes you. You know that, genius."

It was already fucked up and I still don't understand why, he wanted to say. "You weren't there. You don't understand. He didn't want to. He didn't want me."

Carol sighed. "I cannot believe I need to tell you this," she said, although her voice was kind, "but it's possible to still have feelings for a person and simultaneously not enjoy the prospect of sleeping with them at a particular moment in time. You might feel conflicted because they're, oh, I don't know, high as a kite on alien spores. Just to pick a hypothetical example. And I know you know this, because you were sitting next to me the day we learned about the pollen of Omicron Ceti III at the Academy."

"Carol—" he began, but he really didn't know what else to say. "It's not like that."

She eyed him narrowly, and then she reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sorry it happened like that," she said. "I am. I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to... have it happen the way you wanted it. But I'm just saying—maybe you could talk to him about it? Please?"

He wanted to run away. He'd already run from Starfleet once. But he was different now. Better. He was going to be better. "I'll try."

He wondered if trying was going to be enough. Even if they talked about what they'd done, it wouldn't fix anything. Something had already gone wrong between him and Steve. Something was already broken. And he was beginning to think it was broken forever.

The door chimed.

"Enter," Tony said, barely sparing a glance from his mission report, where he was still trying to find the most clinical way possible to say alien spores made me need to screw my captain.

Steve was on the other side, and Tony stared in surprise. He'd known he would have to talk to him, like Carol had said—but he hadn't expected that, given Steve's record of behavior so far, Steve would be the one making the overture. And he sure hadn't thought it was going to happen right now.

Steve was standing there, hands in his uniform pockets, head down, and he kept glancing at Tony sidelong and then away again, like he couldn't bear to look at him. He looked like he'd been crying, although Tony couldn't have said how he knew that, since his face was pale and his eyes were clear. He didn't look like a guy who could have snapped at Pietro and cracked a PADD with his bare hands.

"Can I come in?" Steve asked, his voice quiet and hoarse. It sounded like it hurt him to ask.

Tony pushed away from the desk and he couldn't stop staring, but somehow he couldn't manage to say anything, either.

"We can talk somewhere else, if I'm intruding," Steve offered. "But I— I really have to talk to you. In private."

"All right, then," Tony said, standing up and motioning Steve in. "Come in. Sit down. Can I get you anything?"

Steve shook his head and sat down. At Tony's desk. Where no one could sit next to him. Tony took the end of the couch, a meter away. There wasn't a lot of space; he wasn't more than a couple meters away from Steve anyway, no matter where he sat, but it was the principle of the thing. His stomach turned over.

Steve folded his hands, unfolded them, splayed his palms on his thighs, and then, finally, looked up. "I owe you an apology," he said, and the look in his eyes was so unbelievably wretched that Tony wanted to forget everything and just hug him. He wanted to hug him anyway.

"I told you already," Tony said. "When we were in the cave. It's all right. You don't need to apologize for— for that."

But Steve shook his head. "It's not about that." His mouth twisted, like he'd bitten something sour. "Well, it's not entirely about that. It's about everything, really." He sighed. "I— I promised myself that I wouldn't... be intimate... with anyone unless I could tell them the truth. And I know you— I know we could have— but I—" He tripped through the rest of the sentence and stopped.

"You did what was necessary," Tony said. His voice seemed too loud for the room. "You saved my life. I'm— I'm grateful. I am."

"I took advantage of you." Steve's voice was harsh, and he was staring at Tony like he was looking through him.

He tried to think of how Carol had put it. "It was a lousy situation. These kinds of things happen in Starfleet a lot, actually. You didn't take advantage of me and you didn't do anything I didn't want you to do. And just because it was what we had to do, it doesn't mean we can't— we can't care about each other. As people."

Okay, that was one of those big, scary, feelings words. Tony's heart was pounding. But Steve's gaze was unfocused, like he hadn't even heard.

"That's not what I meant." Steve scraped his hand over his face. He took a deep breath. "I lied to you. I lied to everyone. I slept with you under false pretenses. I know I saved your life. But if you had known who I really was, what I really was, I think maybe you'd have wanted me to let you die instead."

What the hell was this?

"Steve?" Tony said, uncertainly. "What's going on?"

"They said I couldn't tell anyone," Steve said, low, eyes still unfocused, like he was reciting a story. "They said I couldn't ever tell, and I hated it so much, but I said yes, because I wanted to serve. I always wanted to serve. It wasn't a problem before, but, God, Tony. Then I met you." He half-smiled. "I begged Fury, did you know that? At the beginning. When we met. I wanted to tell you everything. He still said no. It's classified." That was what Steve had said in the cave, Tony remembered. He'd said it was classified, and it hadn't made any sense. "I don't care anymore. I don't care if they court-martial me. I don't care if they discharge me. I can't do this anymore, Tony. I can't live like this." His hand clenched into a fist. "And I know you'll never trust me again. I know you'll never want to be anywhere near me. But this is the right thing to do."

Tony stared at him. "I don't understand. You haven't done anything wrong—"

"I'll resign if you want me to," Steve said. "Or I can get you a transfer. I can get anyone a transfer. If my word is still worth anything to anyone, I'll write a great recommendation." His mouth twisted again. "No, I should resign. That would be better. You shouldn't have to pay for this. You've been hurt enough."

Tony interrupted him. "Just tell me this: what the hell do you think you did?"

"It's not what I did. Not exactly. It's what I am." Steve's gaze was bleak. "I'm an Augment."

The bottom dropped out of Tony's stomach at the same time as something clicked in his brain. He grabbed the arm of the couch for support.

It made sense. Everything about Steve that had been strange, bizarre, inexplicable—it all came together in that one word: Augment. The way Steve had sparred with him like he had been holding back. His memory. His uncanny aim. The way he ate everything in sight. His strength, when he'd broken that window to escape from the Skrulls. How he'd scaled that wall in the cave. How he'd been so sure the spores weren't affecting him. His unusual medical readings, the ones he'd barely let Tony glance at. The huge swathes of his personnel file marked classified. His reaction to the Eugenics Wars. For God's sake, his fucking perfect body. It had all been created. Engineered. Steve was genetically engineered. The word thundered through Tony's mind, like a drumbeat. Augment. Augment. Augment.

Steve shut his eyes and bowed his head. "I don't want to hurt you," he whispered. "I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I'm not like the others." When he opened his eyes, he was crying. "I didn't even know there'd been others, until you told me."

All Tony could picture was the footage of Khan that had hit the news in the wake of Kirk's trial, the Enterprise's comm logs from the Reliant disaster: the bitter, broken vengeance of a laughing, bleeding madman, a man who didn't care if he died, who didn't care who else died, as long as the Enterprise went down with him. The superior intellect, the superior strength of the Augments, all of their genius—all of it was warped and perverted. Everything about the supermen was exactly as everyone had always known. They were a menace. A terror. A mistake. A blight on the universe.

He watched the tears drip down Steve's face.

He tried to picture Steve there, in the Eugenics Wars, with the tyrants. Sneering. Snapping necks.

He couldn't do it.

"You're safe," Steve rasped. "I swear to God, Tony, you'll be safe from me. Everyone will be safe from me. I promise." He breathed out sharply. He was shaking. "I can't promise much of anything else, but I can damn well promise that. I'd die before I'd hurt you."

He didn't know what to say. He was distantly aware that Steve was still sitting there, watching him, searching him for a reaction.

"Fleet knows?" Tony managed, finally. It wasn't what he wanted to ask. He wanted to ask how could you lie to me? but that had an easy answer: he lied because of this. Because his very existence was illegal. Because of how anyone would react, if they knew.

Steve nodded. "Admiral Fury knows. And Doctor Blake knows. That's why he's here and not whoever you actually wanted for CMO." He grimaced. "I'm close enough to human to fool a regular sensor array, at a distance, but any actual medical scan gives me away pretty fast. You probably noticed."

It was a goddamn conspiracy. Fury had known. Fury had known before he'd assigned them to serve together. Fury had known all this and done it anyway. Fury had given him an Augment as a captain and expected him to be happy, expected him to trust a lie—

But Steve was Steve, his mind cried, betrayed. Steve was a good person. Except he couldn't be, because he was an Augment, and he couldn't be good.

"If it matters," Steve said, very quietly, "if it matters to you at all, I don't have the same... tendencies... as the rest of the Augments." He sighed. "The first thing I did, after you told me about them, was go to sickbay and get Don to scan me. That very night. Turned out Fleet already had, and they didn't tell me. I'm lacking all the genetic markers. Didn't stop me from worrying that the tendencies might manifest, of course. But Starfleet doesn't think it's likely. I'm... of a different vintage, you might say."

After they'd talked about the Augments, Steve's behavior had been erratic. Of course it had been erratic. Tony had told him that he was part of a group of people whose genetic destiny culminated in being an insane, violent tyrant. Anyone would have been upset. In that light, it was impressive that Steve had been as functional as he had been.

But he was still an Augment, Tony's mind screamed. He couldn't trust him. He couldn't. Of course Steve would tell him he was safe. Of course any Augment would tell Tony exactly what he wanted most to hear.

God, Tony had slept with him. He'd slept with an Augment.

You're never going to forgive me, Steve had said, in the cave. This was what he'd meant.

Tony breathed in, breathed out, and tried to work it through. Steve hadn't known there'd been other Augments until Tony had told him. They'd kept it from him. So he couldn't have been from the Eugenics Wars. Unless he was lying about everything, but Tony didn't— he just didn't want to believe that. There had been that mess with Augment embryos right before the Earth-Romulan War. That had only been a couple years before the war, though, hadn't it? But that had to be it. That was when they'd been trying to remove the aggression. It had clearly worked—it must have worked—and then they'd classified the details.

"You're a little old, though, aren't you?" Tony asked, and Steve tilted his head in confusion. "I mean, if you're from the batch of Augments they found in, uh, 2154. If you started serving in '56, that's only two years. Did they force-grow you? Or did they just do a really good job covering you up for a few decades, in some Fleet Intelligence project I'm probably not supposed to know about?" He knew he sounded awful. Bitter. He couldn't stop. "Did you even serve in the war? Are you some kind of Augmented clone of the original Steve Rogers?"

He remembered the way Steve had stumbled over his background, talking about the MACOs like he'd always meant to say something else first. Like he'd been hiding something.

He remembered Steve standing next to him on the Embarcadero. They'd been talking about New York. I was born in Manhattan, Steve had said, with a delighted smile, and that hadn't been a lie. Tony would swear it on anything.

"Not a clone," Steve said, with a certain amount of defensiveness. "I'm the real thing. And I did serve in the war. I commanded the Invader. Everything I told you, it all really happened. Everything I told you about myself—that was true."

"Except the lies."

Steve sighed again, anguished, miserable. "It's complicated. It's more complicated than you could ever have suspected." He glanced wildly around the room. "This is the part you're not going to believe."

Steve had turned his head, and he was looking at the wall next to him. No, the poster. Tony's Captain America poster. The thing that had started this whole mess. Steve had come in here that night, and he'd seen it, and he'd recognized it. He'd recognized Captain America and somehow he'd never heard of the Eugenics Wars. And it hadn't just been recognition—it had been surprise, and none of it had made any sense.

He watched Steve take a deep breath. Steve met his eyes.

"I was Captain America."

If he said anything else, Tony couldn't hear it over the roaring in his ears.

Steve had to be wrong about not being genetically predisposed to psychosis, because this was insane.

"That's not true," Tony said, weakly. His heart was pounding. "Captain America is fictional. That's ridiculous. You know that." He realized he was shaking now, rage and disbelief. "Come on. You don't really think I'll fall for that. He's not real."

God, Steve wanted to use him, Steve wanted to say anything to win his trust back, no matter how unbelievable the story was. How could he do this? How could he think he could manipulate him?

"That's just what they want you to think," Steve said, and he must have realized how much that sounded like the realm of crackpot conspiracy theorists, because he winced. "After the Eugenics Wars, when they were busy banning genetic engineering, they didn't want anyone to know that once upon a time they had thought it was a good idea. Most of the actual historical records about me from the war—World War II, I mean—were gone, the newsreels and so forth. It was easy enough to classify what remained. The actual project data is still classified, of course. Fury told me they'd managed to obscure my existence. They scrubbed me out of history very, very thoroughly." He rubbed at his jaw. "I asked him again after I saw your poster. I wasn't expecting to be a fictional character, you know? It turned out the one thing they couldn't hide was the comics. But it was easy enough to tell everyone that they were fake. That I was fictional. Who could ever believe a superhero was real, right?" He looked away, his face twisted. "I mean, you certainly can't."

"You seriously expect me to believe," Tony said, "that you were born in—"

"1920," Steve offered. "On the Fourth of July, if that still means anything these days. In Manhattan. Lower East Side." His mouth quirked. "I wasn't lying about that." He sighed. "Both my parents died when I was a teenager. I was scraping by for a while. Not that I'd had a lot while they were alive. I don't know if you can imagine growing up poor and hungry, now that neither of those things exist in the Federation, but... I was. I did. It was rough. I was a scrawny kid, too." He half-raised a muscled arm, like he was holding himself out for inspection. "I sure never looked like this before, anyway. Then there was the war. And more than anything, I wanted to serve. I wanted to stand up and save the world. I enlisted in 1940, and they put me in a special project. Project Rebirth. They said they were going to make super-soldiers. That was what they called it, back then. We were going to be super-soldiers for the United States Army. We were going to win the war. So they experimented on me. And that was how I became... what I am. A super-soldier. The first Augment."

This was right out of the comic book. Tony had read it. Issue number one. Plucky but frail young recruit undergoes dangerous scientific experiment, becomes Captain America. He remembered the four-color panels, the crude drawings of machinery. Some kind of special serum he'd drunk. It was fiction. Of course it was fiction.

"You're telling me you underwent in-vivo genetic modification in 1940," Tony said, just to clarify, because surely Steve had to know how ridiculous he sounded. "Over ten years before anyone knew DNA was a goddamn double helix. Even the Augments, decades later, were all done in-vitro. The technology wasn't good enough for in-vivo work. It couldn't have been. And you're telling me that somehow they did a better job making you than anyone after has ever been able to do. You're telling me that somehow the pinnacle of Augmentation was achieved by people who hadn't even invented the transistor."

Steve gave a helpless shrug. "I'm not a geneticist. But I know that Dr. Erskine knew what he was doing." That hadn't been the name in the comics. Steve must have realized Tony had caught him in a lie, because he went on. "And before you say anything about that, I read a few of the comics back then and I know his name was different in the comics. I know the details of the process were different in the comics. There was a war on. They didn't actually want to publish all the classified details. Just a thinly-veiled fictionalized account."

It couldn't be true. It couldn't. Steve had to know how badly he wanted it to be true. Steve was just using everything he could.

"And I suppose you're going to tell me that Captain America's vibranium shield is real too?" Tony snorted.

"It's absolutely real." Steve's fingers flexed, like he wished he could be holding onto that unseen shield. "Fury has it. He wouldn't let me bring it with me. Apparently shipboard sensors tend not to like when you've got a two-and-half foot disk of a metal not known to modern science. Raises some questions."

Now Tony was just offended as an engineer. "Give me a break. Vibranium's not real."

"Yeah," Steve retorted. "That was exactly what I said when they told me about dilithium." He sighed. "Vibranium comes from Wakanda." He paused, with an aggrieved expression. "Uh. You probably shouldn't tell anyone I told you that."

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Commodore T'Challa's from Wakanda. I've been to Wakanda to consult with him. More than once. And now you're telling me that, what, they have secret vibranium mines?"

Steve sighed again, and all the fight seemed to go out of him. "It's the truth. All of it."

"Except for the Wakanda thing—which is ridiculous—you haven't told me anything I couldn't have learned reading a comic book," Tony said, and he could hear it as his voice went hard, and he watched Steve flinch, and he couldn't make himself stop. "In fact, you haven't told me anything I didn't learn reading a comic book. You'll forgive me if I find it difficult to just take your word for any of this."

Steve wasn't looking at him. He turned to Tony's desk, behind himself, and he picked up Tony's PADD and logged in, thumbprint and retina and a password of at least a dozen characters. The screen border flashed red. Classified data.

Then he handed the PADD to Tony.

There was a photograph. Two-dimensional. Black and white. It had already been old by the time it had been scanned in; one of its corners was missing. The picture showed two men with an old groundcar, a military one. A jeep, Tony thought they'd been called. It looked like they were on the grounds of a military base. Their pose was informal. The men had clearly been interrupted in the middle of a conference. There was a map spread out on the hood of the jeep; the smaller of the two men, wearing a strange double-breasted jacket and a domino mask, was perched on the hood, sitting half atop the map, and he had turned around to wave at the camera. He was so young. Barely a teenager, Tony would have guessed. And the other man—

The other man in the photograph was Steve.

He was maybe a decade younger, but he was unmistakably Steve. And he was wearing Captain America's costume. Straight from the comic books. The cowl was pulled back, baring Steve's face to the sun. Tony could just barely make out the wings on it, as the cowl lay folded back. The scale mail of his shirt gleamed. The stripes were immaculate. If the picture had been in color, it would have been red, white, and blue. Steve was only half-turned to the camera, and at his back there was a curve of striped metal, light glinting off it. That was the shield. He was carrying Captain America's shield on his back. One hand was tucked into his pocket. His other hand was gesturing at the map, and he was grinning at something his companion had said, like he hadn't even noticed the camera.

Tony stared at the picture. He stared up at the poster, where Captain America swung down to save the day, shield in hand. He stared at the picture again.

He stared at Steve. Steve's face was blotchy, his eyes red-rimmed. Steve just stared back at him.

If this was real— God, if this was real—

"That's me and Bucky," Steve said, hoarsely. "1942. England."

Bucky Barnes. He'd been Captain America's sidekick, in the comics. His partner.

The night Tony had told him about Alpha Sag, Steve had started to tell him his partner had died. Bucky. He'd started to say a name. He'd cut himself off. He'd meant Bucky.

No. It couldn't be real.

"There are more pictures," Steve said, very quietly. "In the same directory. If you want to see them."

Tony swiped to the next file. This one was a staged picture of Captain America, in full costume, shield in hand. The cowl was up this time, but from the eyes and the jawline it was clearly Steve underneath. Next. Steve in an old, old military uniform, medals shining on his chest, shaking hands with another uniformed man, probably some kind of general. Next. Captain America again, in the field, sitting in the dirt and leaning against a backpack. His gloves were next to him, and he was bent over what looked like a sketchbook. A short distance away, Bucky, clearly his model, was posing with one foot up on a rock, hands on his hips, laughing. Next. Steve shirtless, in some kind of reference picture, standing in front of a wall with height markings painted on it. Next. Steve again, still shirtless, in front of the same wall—but he looked to be about fifty kilos lighter. He was incredibly skinny. There was no fat on him, but there was almost no muscle either, and Tony thought he could count every single rib. His face was sharper, thinner, more hollow, but it was definitely the same face, and his chin was lifted in a familiar air of determination.

The entirely inappropriate thought drifted through Tony's mind that Steve had always been handsome. Goddammit.

"That's me before Rebirth," Steve murmured. "Told you I didn't look like this before."

Hastily Tony swiped to the next picture. This one wasn't a picture at all. It was some kind of video footage, a newsreel, playing soundlessly. Soldiers marched in jittery black and white. An old-fashioned airplane flew overhead. And then there was Captain America, shooting a rifle, running an obstacle course, throwing that shield like a discus, smiling and saying something to the camera. He moved like Steve. He smiled like Steve.

He couldn't be Steve.

Tony put the PADD down.

Steve was staring at him, his face drawn and taut. "There's more. A lot more. Pictures, videos, reports. As much as you want to see. I didn't fake any of this. You can run whatever scans you want. I swear it's real."

What if it were true? What if it were real?

"If I believed you," Tony said, and he watched Steve's face light up, and he hated himself for how much he liked it, "which I'm not saying I do—but if I did, how does this make sense? You said you were the first Augment, but you said you hadn't known the others existed. You'd never heard of the Eugenics Wars. If you're three hundred years old, if you were alive at the end of the twentieth century, how the hell did you miss all that?"

God. Three hundred years old. What was an Augment's lifespan like?

That couldn't be right, could it? Steve had looked visibly younger in the pictures. He'd definitely been aging, even after whatever treatment they'd given him. Had he only aged ten years in the last three hundred?

"Yeah, well." Steve's smile was rueful. "Funny story there. This actually isn't my first time waking up in the future."

"What do you mean by that?"

Looking away again, Steve took another deep breath. Tony was suddenly aware of how close Steve was sitting. If he leaned forward, he could touch him. Everything felt strangely intimate, like the night Tony had told Steve about Alpha Sag, the night Steve had told him something about his past—but it was all wrong, an intimacy given unwillingly, like Steve was bleeding and raw and had to blindly trust Tony not to hurt him.

"We were on a mission," Steve began, and Tony knew the pain in Steve's eyes. He knew what it was to feel like that. He knew stories that started like that. He'd lived it. "Me and Bucky. It was the spring of 1945. A few months before the war would end, but we didn't know that at the time, of course." He drew in a breath. "We were aboard a plane over the north Atlantic. A drone plane. The Axis was stealing it. We were trying to stop them. But the plane had been booby-trapped. There was an explosion. The last thing I remember is falling, reaching out, trying to grab Bucky's hand, and everything going up in a fireball above me—"

He made a small, quiet noise, something that might have been a sob.

Tony wanted to reach out and hold him. He couldn't. He couldn't give in.

"We fell into the water together," Steve continued. "And somehow the serum, the super-soldier serum in my blood, it kept me alive. And so I was frozen. For years. For centuries. They never found Bucky's body," he said, and he was blinking back tears, "but they found me. And they brought me back."

It was the most rudimentary form of cryogenics Tony could have ever imagined. It should have killed him. It should have killed anyone. Except, apparently, an Augment.

Irregularities in his blood, the bioscan had said, back in the cave. Tony had assumed it was the spores. But it hadn't been.

"The next thing I knew, it was 2156. That was what they told me. I woke up, and they told me I was in the future now, and they told me aliens were going to invade Earth, and they told me I needed to fight." His gaze was faraway. "I'm a soldier. I've always been a soldier. What else was I going to do?"

He remembered the way Steve had looked at him the day they'd met, the way he'd looked through him, so very old and weary. There's always a war, he'd said, and Tony hadn't understood what he'd meant. Not then.

"You fought," Tony said. "Of course."

He'd been fighting since 1940. He hadn't stopped.

Steve nodded. "They put me in the MACOs at first. Rushed me through training. They figured that if I was even half as good at tactics and strategy as Captain America was supposed to be, they could use me. And they figured I probably wouldn't know what to do with a starship." He shrugged. "But this was the beginning of the war, back before we figured out we weren't fighting Romulans on the ground. After it became apparent that the MACOs weren't really going to need to do much, they transferred me into Starfleet. Gave me a scrappy little mess of a ship. That way it wouldn't matter as much if I lost her." He snorted. "They were very, very surprised when I started winning, though I'm not really sure why. A battle's still a battle. Tactics are tactics. It was what I was made to be good at."

He almost asked what Steve had wanted to be instead, if he could have had a choice. But this had been his choice. Steve had let them do this to him. He'd volunteered to be an Augment.

Tony wondered if that made it worse.

The rest of the supermen had been born that way. They hadn't had a choice at all. But Steve had picked this.

Tony took a breath. He was going to stay calm. "So they knew you were Captain America? An Augment? And they didn't tell you about the Eugenics Wars?"

Steve scrubbed at his face, pinched the bridge of his nose, and Tony saw that bone-deep weariness in him again. "They knew. And they didn't tell me. They just told me that genetic engineering was illegal now and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone what I was. In retrospect, I can only conclude they were probably concerned that I'd refuse to fight, if I knew." He sighed again. "Dr. Erskine was murdered just after Project Rebirth, and no one else knew enough about the serum to carry on without him. I was the only subject. They told me the serum wouldn't work on anyone else. They never could figure out why. I assumed they'd stopped trying." Steve's throat worked as he swallowed. "And then you told me that they'd tried again. That millions of people died because of me. Because they'd wanted to make more of me. It was all my fault." His voice cracked on the last word.

"Hey, no," Tony said, automatically, because Steve was hurting and he couldn't just do nothing. Even if Steve was an Augment. "It's not your fault. All you did was exist. You didn't do anything wrong."

Steve looked up; his gaze was once again terrifyingly bleak, his eyes pale. Like ice, Tony thought. "The scientists, the eugenicists, do you know what their work was based on? I found out." He held out his hand, palm up. "My blood. They didn't have the records from Rebirth. They didn't have information about the serum. But they had a blood sample. From me. They wouldn't have been able to do what they did without me."

"Steve," Tony said, and he watched Steve flinch at the sound of his own name. "You're not responsible. You aren't."

Steve smiled weakly. "Does this mean you believe me?"

He wasn't lying. He couldn't be lying. Not about all of this. And maybe it was wrong, to believe an Augment—but it felt right.

That part, at least, was the truth.

"Yeah," he said, on a sigh. "Yeah. I believe you. So you got frozen twice, huh?"

Steve's smile was a fraction wider, but the look in his eyes was still so very sad. Anguished. "Yeah. At least it was my choice, the second time. I didn't think I'd ever wake up again, to be honest. I figured the first time had used up all my luck. And then I opened my eyes and I was in San Francisco, and Nick Fury was sitting there, telling me it had been another hundred years. Telling me I was still illegal. Telling me I still had to keep everything a secret."

"You don't seem like the kind of person," Tony ventured, "who'd just obey something like that."

Hadn't that been what the Augments had always done? They'd always done whatever they wanted. He shouldn't feel differently about Steve. God, he shouldn't feel anything for Steve.

"I'm not," Steve said, with a choked-off laugh. "Not really. I'm actually a pretty rotten soldier. Was never much good at following orders. But Nick told me—just like they'd told me a hundred years ago—that not only was it illegal, no one would ever trust me again, if they knew the truth." His voice was horrible, full of bitterness and loathing. "You think he was right, Tony?"

"I—" Tony said, and he couldn't speak. "I— I—"

I trust you, he wanted to say, but he couldn't make himself form the words.

"Yeah," Steve said. "That's what I thought."

He remembered that poor lieutenant on the Enterprise. The historian. The one who'd fallen in love with Khan, who had gone into exile with him. Khan had been charismatic, they'd all said.

Like Steve.

What if everything he'd felt for Steve had been created? What if he'd been unable to resist him from the beginning? What if Steve had used him, just like that?

He thought he might be sick.

"I think," Tony said, slowly, "I think you should leave now. Please."

"All right." The reply was even, measured. Steve had clearly been expecting that response from the beginning.

Steve nodded, a curt jerk of his head, and he rose to his feet. He staggered as he took a few steps to the door, like the artificial gravity had been cut and he couldn't tell up from down.

"Good night," Steve said. His voice was hoarse, strained. His face was turned away. Tony couldn't tell if he was crying.

Tony didn't say anything else.

The door slid open, and then Steve was gone.

Tony was alone.

He sat there, frozen, staring numbly at the closed door. He should get up. He should— he didn't know what he should do. Nothing made sense anymore.

Steve was an Augment. Steve was Captain America.

It felt like his dreams and his nightmares, coming true at the same time. He should have known Steve was too good to be true. He should have known that everything he felt couldn't have been real.

He'd never fallen for anyone this hard before. Oh, he'd admired Captain Rogers, the hero of the Earth-Romulan War. Hell, he'd told Steve as much, the day he'd met him. Had Steve planned this? Had Steve used that? Had Steve seen him, lonely and broken, and set out to ensnare him?

That was what Augments did. Everyone knew that. That was what they had done. They'd smiled, and they'd held out their hands in friendship, and they'd slid knives up their sleeves. They'd been people everyone wanted to trust. That was how they'd gotten as far as they had, at the beginning.

Steve wasn't like them. He couldn't be. He'd said as much.

Steve had been crying, and God, the look in his eyes—

It had felt real. It hadn't felt like a trick.

But that was exactly what an Augment would have wanted him to believe. He couldn't trust Steve. And he couldn't trust what he felt about Steve, either.

But if Steve were really Captain America—and it had certainly looked like him, in the photographs—then he had to be good. A good man. He had to be.

And yet, he was an Augment.

Though, of course, Captain America was an Augment, by definition. The comics had described him as one, even though it had been years before the term had been invented. Though not years before they existed. If Steve was right. If.

It was the worst of paradoxes, the most painful of contradictions. It was needing to believe P and not-P at the same time.

And he couldn't ask anyone else. This was classified. This was so far beyond classified, it wasn't even funny. He couldn't tell Carol, or Rhodey, or Jan. He couldn't ask any of them what to do. He'd have to tell them Steve was an Augment. And then Steve would be—

At minimum, he'd be forced out of Starfleet, wouldn't he? And then—well, Tony didn't want to picture what they'd do to him, because he was an Augment. Mindwiping and re-education, if it would even take. Another century in cryo. Execution.

Steve, Tony realized, had put an awful lot of power in his hands. Steve trusted him.

No one would ever trust me again, Steve had said.

It had to mean something. Didn't it?

At least there was one person left he could ask. He cleared his throat. "Jocasta?" It hurt to talk.

"Yes?" Her voice filled the room; her image materialized on the viewscreen. "Oh, Tony. I'm so sorry."

Great. His computer pitied him.

"I'm fine," he lied. "I just wanted to know if I had access to Captain Rogers' full personnel file."

"You don't," Jocasta said, and then she paused. There was a familiar glint in her eye. "But the captain does, and he's still logged in to your PADD."

This was why they didn't install AIs in starships—because they could show you whatever they had access to if you convinced them it was a good idea. And Jocasta liked him a lot. Tony really wasn't in any mood to complain. So what if they court-martialed him? After today, it would probably even be welcome.

The PADD was still flickering through the old video footage: Captain America was nodding, saying something to the camera. It had to be Steve. It had to be, and Tony didn't know what to do.

"Right," Tony said. "Bring up the file, please."

Rogers, Steven. Same picture. Birthplace: New York City, New York, United States, Earth. Birthdate: July 4, 1920.

It was real.

Or at least, Starfleet believed it. Or Steve had hacked it. He needed to keep that in mind.

He scrolled through the file. World War II. Captain America. It was all exactly as Steve had said. And then he got to the medical records. The first ones were old, old scans, tagged Project Rebirth. It was all baselines, strength measurements—dear God, Steve was strong—and general physical fitness. There was no information on—what had Steve called it?—the super-soldier serum. But, if he'd been telling the truth, there wouldn't be.

The data from the Earth-Romulan War had a cover sheet Tony didn't recognize. Section 31. Probably one of those wartime organizations. Probably just another long-ago classified project. The authorization on the front was just listed as F. Well, Tony thought, that's definitely not mysterious at all.

The first thing there was a set of photographs—two-dimensional, but color, and the unexpected vividness startled Tony. There was a chunk of ice in the middle of a lab, thick and clouded, cracked, dripping onto a pan beneath it. Scanners and medical readouts surrounded it. In the middle of the ice there was something dark, the size and shape of a body.

Steve had fallen into the water. He'd frozen.

Successive photographs showed the ice more and more melted, until finally Tony could make out the figure trapped within it. Light caught on blue scale mail. The blue uniform was ripped, but the red and white stripes were still visible. The man wore red boots, and in his hands, covered by shredded red leather gloves, he was holding a shining metal shield, painted red, white and blue, like a bullseye. Captain America. And his shield. The cowl was ripped too, half of it torn away, and it was unmistakably Steve's face underneath. His eyes were shut, as if he were merely sleeping. Blond hair fell over his forehead. There was a bruise on his cheekbone.

Steve couldn't have faked all this. No one could have.

And then there was a video. The room was a cross between a medical recovery room and some kind of interrogation area: there was a cot and a one-way mirror. Steve was wearing a hospital gown. It couldn't have been long after the last set of pictures. His face was still bruised. His knuckles were scraped. It looked like he'd tried to punch his way out.

He was sitting on the cot, chin lifted—once again, it was that pose of stubborn determination. But he looked too pale. His eyes were just a little bit too wide. He was gripping the edge of the cot, and the metal flexed under his fingers.

He was afraid, Tony realized. He was trying to hide it, but he was terrified. God, Steve.

Steve's mouth was moving, and Tony pushed the sound up.

"Rogers, Steven," Steve said, and Jesus, Tony knew all about that. Name, rank, and serial number. How to survive an interrogation. "Captain, United States Army. 54985870. I will not provide biological samples. I request to be placed in contact with General Chester Phillips, liaison to Army scientific projects. I will provide no further information."

Oh, God, Steve. He thought he was still in the twentieth century. He thought it was a trick. He probably thought they were all Nazis. Why wouldn't he?

Tony reached out. His fingertips brushed the screen, rubbing over Steve's defiant face, as if he could comfort him from a century away. As if he could comfort him when he'd already said no.

"Captain," a woman's voice said, over the intercom between rooms. "We've explained this to you. You're not a prisoner. We're not the enemy. Your war is over."

"Rogers, Steven," Steve began again, stubbornly. "Captain, United States Army—"

The intercom cut off, but the sound pickup was still on, inside what must have been the observation booth. Someone sighed in frustration.

"For God's sake," the woman said, annoyed, "will someone get the admiral? Maybe he'll have more luck."

The file ended.

Tony swallowed hard. It had happened a century ago, but that was Steve. It was all true.

He paged through the file until he got to Steve's actual medical scans. This was a file from a century ago, but it had only been added a few days ago—presumably by Fury, and presumably it was fair game now that Steve knew about the rest of the Augments. It was what he'd seen on that tricorder, writ large. Greater strength and stamina, enhanced reflexes, higher metabolism, faster healing, and so on—the complete set of Augment enhancements. And a foreign substance in his blood. The super-soldier serum, both Steve and the comics had called it. Tony wasn't a biologist, but it all looked right. Granted, he still couldn't see how anyone had pulled it off in 1940, but it must have worked. Here was the proof. Steve existed.

And there were none of the negative psychological effects. They'd run dozens of tests, confirmed his intelligence and his grasp of tactics, held him under observation, sequenced his DNA—there was nothing in his genome that matched what the Augments had, the report said, finally. They were clearing him for the MACOs. They recommended that Steve not be told about the existence of other Augments.

Tony frowned at the file. "Jocasta, do we have comparable medical data on any of the other Augments?"

On the wall, she nodded. "We have the Enterprise's medical scan of Khan Noonien Singh, stardate 3141.9, including post-mission analyses of blood and tissue samples obtained during the scan. Putting up a side-by-side comparison for you now."

The second file opened, and Tony squinted at it. He really wished he were a biologist. Or that he could tell a biologist. But Hank was one of the people he couldn't ask. At least he didn't have to be much of a biologist to see that what had been done to Khan was, technically speaking, a mess. Oh, the physical outcomes were the same. They'd made a superhuman, and it was clear, knowing now that Steve existed, that Steve had been the model. But there was no serum in Khan. His blood had some kind of regenerative properties, but it was nothing like what Steve had. An obvious imitation, and a pale one at that. Khan had been hacked together, from the base pairs on up, to try to build someone who could do what Steve did. They'd understood that there was something special in Steve's blood, but they hadn't quite understood what. And there, in the brain scans—there were the neurotransmitter imbalances that characterized every Augment. The violence. The aggression. All right there, dooming humanity, because some scientist three hundred years ago had put a few nucleotides together in the wrong order.

He brought up Steve's brain scans. Absolutely clear.

I'm not like the others, Steve had said.

Tony sighed and closed the file. "He's the real thing, huh?"

"Are you asking for my analysis or my opinion?" Jocasta asked, after a pause that was probably meant to be delicate.

"Either." He waved his hand. "Both."

"As far as I can determine, the files are legitimate. All of them. Captain Rogers is, as he says, an Augment and Captain America."

He let the PADD drop between his hands and he bowed his head. "Did you know?"

"Not until I was installed as the Avenger's main computer. I didn't have the ability to access his file before that."

Would you have told me? He couldn't make himself ask the question.

He stared dully down at his hands.

"He lied."

It wasn't a response to Jocasta; it was the conversation he'd still been having with himself, trapped in an awful circle, a loop with no break.

Steve had lied to him, and Steve had slept with him, and he hadn't told him any of this. But they hadn't had a choice—about the sex, at least. Wouldn't it have been worse if Steve had told him, and Tony'd had to sleep with him anyway, knowing he was sleeping with an Augment? Tony would have hated that just as much. Maybe more.

He couldn't stop picturing it, in flashes of sense memory: Steve's hand on his hip, Steve's gasping breaths, the way Steve had whispered his name at the end. They hadn't so much as kissed, but—it had meant something. It had felt like it had meant something. And maybe he'd been imagining it, but— it had seemed so real.

It had been... really good, and that was the hell of it. Even though he'd been out of his mind on alien spores. It had been what he'd wanted for months. And then he'd gotten it, except he'd never wanted it like this.

And the worst part was, he still wanted Steve. He respected Steve. He admired Steve. He cared about Steve. He was attracted to Steve. And damn him if he didn't want to do it all again.

And there was yet another paradox, another P and not-P, because he didn't: Steve had lied and Steve had used him and what if Steve had made him feel this way? Augments could do that. Augments had done that. The best-case scenario was that Steve hadn't meant to, and the worst—well, Tony would be another Lieutenant Marla McGivers.

It had been a mistake. It had been wrong, and it was still wrong, and God, what was he thinking? Steve was an Augment. His brain just kept circling back to that.

He couldn't. They couldn't.

He didn't want anything more. He didn't.

This was it for them together. It had to be. They were done.

He stood up, staggered to the bed, and fell, arms outflung.

"Tony?" Jocasta asked. She sounded concerned.

"Lights out," Tony slurred into the pillow. "All the way out."

He was alone in the dark, and he didn't dream.

When Tony showed up for his shift on the bridge the next morning, Steve was already there. Apparently he'd swapped himself back to alpha shift. He was wearing the same old-fashioned uniform jacket he'd worn a few days ago, and he turned in the command chair the instant Tony stepped out of the turbolift. Saying Steve looked better than he had lately wouldn't have been hard; he didn't seem angry, or afraid, and he even smiled, the corners of his lips twitching as he saw Tony. But the smile didn't reach his eyes, and there was a pained sadness in his pale gaze that didn't look like it was ever going to go away.

This was how it was going to be. They couldn't be anything more. It was better this way.

"Good morning, Commander," Steve said. He sounded friendly. Collegial.

It was good, Tony told himself. It was enough. They could be like this. It wasn't so bad. It was as friendly as he'd ever been with any of his other commanding officers.

So he nodded and he made himself smile back. "Good morning, Captain."

Steve held his gaze for a fraction of a second too long, and his throat worked like he wanted to say something else, but then he turned away.

It was going to be okay. It hurt, of course it hurt, but this was the best decision.

Now he'd just have to survive the rest of his shift with Steve. And the entire rest of the mission.

It was going to get easier, Tony told himself, as he slid into a duty station, as he watched the rest of alpha shift—all the senior staff—take their positions. It was hard now, but he'd been through worse. A lot worse. He could do this.

There wasn't much to do for the first hour of the shift. They were still on patrol—nothing, nothing, and more nothing. Tony watched the energy readouts ripple across his board, the miniature cross-section of the ship. Power consumption was all within predicted limits. The Avenger dropped out of warp to get a better look at a trail of particles on the outer fringes of the system. It didn't matter what system it was. Middle of nowhere, Beta Quadrant. No Class M planets in system. Three gas giants and a bunch of asteroids. The readouts from Engineering flattened, and the deck beneath Tony's boots thrummed in the easy hum he associated with the impulse drive. Everything was normal.

Next to him, Jan spun in her chair, pulled her headset away from her ear, and mouthed are you all right?

Tony nodded and smiled. He was. He had to be.

"Stellar approach course laid in," Wanda said, from the navigation console.

Steve nodded briskly. "Commence approach and scan."

"Aye, sir," Pietro said from the helm, at the same time as Hank did, over at the science station.

On the main viewscreen, a perfectly ordinary star began to grow in size as the Avenger swooped toward it. Tony watched it for a few seconds, then turned back to his console, watching the usual numbers play across the board—

And then the alarms went off. Not just any alarms—those were the proximity alarms. The edges of Tony's board went red, and his heart started pounding.

"Sir," Wanda said, "a ship just dropped out of warp. Right behind us."

Steve leaned forward. "One of ours?"

"Negative, sir," Jan called from her station. "No identification squawk."

"It's not a Starfleet silhouette," Wanda said. Tony could just barely see her hands flying over the board. "Running database searches now. No matches. No matches anywhere."

"Yellow alert," Steve said. His voice was sharp. Commanding. "Mr. Maximoff, bring us around. Ms. Maximoff, let's have our visitor on the viewscreen, please."

The panels at the edge of the station displays went amber. Tony looked up at the main viewscreen again. The starfield slid around them, and suddenly they were facing—well, it was purple. Tony couldn't make out much more at this distance.

Steve frowned at the screen. "Magnify."

The ship grew larger, and—

They all saw it at the same time, but Carol was the first to speak. She stalked forward and grabbed the railing next to Steve's chair. "It's the Skrulls," Carol said, her voice crackling with anger. Her eyes glinted harshly in the amber lighting. "They're back."

This ship was clearly kin to the Skrull ship that they had stumbled over—they were the same shade of purple, and they were built with a similar aesthetic, all harsh points and angles, with fierce-looking curves. But where the first ship had been small and crude, obviously a species' first venture into warpflight, this ship was anything but. She was huge—at least the size of an Excelsior-class starship—she was sleek, and she was bristling with weaponry. There were four giant nacelles mounted on her aft end, in a configuration Tony had never seen before.

"I can't make sense of her energy readouts," Hank said, frustrated. "She's putting out— I don't even know what she was doing in warp. Or how she was doing it. I'm reading something similar to Commander Stark's transwarp fields, but I've never seen anything like this." He hissed through his teeth and stabbed at the board with two fingers.

Tony brought up Hank's sensor data on his own board. That was definitely transwarp, but it was like nothing he'd ever seen before. There were other unknown energy readings, clustered around what could only be the weapons ports.

"I'm reading at least a thousand lifesigns," Hank added. "All Skrulls."

The Delta Geminorum system had been a trap. They had known it for a trap as soon as the Skrulls had attacked, but at the same time, the thought had been drifting through Tony's mind: why had the Skrulls tried to conquer them? They must have known they couldn't win. Surely they'd noticed that the Federation had more advanced technology.

Tony saw it all now—the colony's very existence had been a trap. He remembered the way one of the Skrulls had hesitated when he'd asked how long the planet had been colonized. Both planets in the system were colonies. They'd been plotting the longest of long cons. The Skrulls had shown them exactly what they wanted to see: a nonthreatening species, just ready for the Federation. And now that the first plan had failed, they brought their actual technology and they moved in for the kill.

Steve's throat worked as he swallowed. Tony could practically watch him think, watch him consider and discard all the possibilities. He must have realized what Tony had just figured out. "Have they armed weapons?"

"No, sir. Not as far as I can tell."

"Lieutenant Maximoff," Steve said, turning to Wanda, "how soon can the Triskelion get here?"

Wanda's face only grew more tense as she pulled up navigation data. "We're both at the far ends of our patrols. Even at maximum warp, she's fifteen minutes away."

Tony blew out a breath. Not good. A hell of a lot could happen in fifteen minutes. That Skrull ship could vaporize the Avenger in half that time, easily. But they weren't being targeted yet. Maybe they could still get out of this alive. On the other hand, you didn't bring that much firepower to a discussion if you weren't planning on turning it into a fight.

Steve spun around and looked up at Jan. "Van Dyne, contact the Triskelion and request all available assistance from Commodore Hill."

"Aye, sir." Jan turned away and began murmuring into her headset.

Tony's own board lit up, in familiar—and unwelcome—pings of energy. "Captain, they're scanning us."

"Let 'em look," Steve said, with a casual air that had to be faked. "Not much else we can do."

So Tony sat and waited, and all he could do was stare at his console and watch the Skrulls learn everything there was to learn as their sensor sweep passed over his own beloved engines. He gritted his teeth. Finally, finally, the scan ended.

Pulling her earpiece out, Jan lifted her head. "Sir, the Skrull ship is hailing us."

Tony watched as Steve's hands gripped the armrests of his chair for a fraction of a second. Steve nodded. From where Tony was sitting he could really only see most of Steve's profile, but Steve's face quickly firmed into determined resolve. Powerful. Commanding.

"Put them on the main viewscreen, Lieutenant," Steve said.

The Skrull on screen now was a woman. She was as green-skinned and pointy-eared as the rest of them, and her long green hair fell in waves over her bared shoulders. She was wearing some kind of metallic armor, and she sat, ramrod-straight, on something that looked a hell of a lot like a throne.

Tony remembered K'kyy saying that she wasn't royalty. He'd filed that fact away. He'd wondered about her people's form of government. He didn't have to wonder any longer.

This was royalty.

Steve cleared his throat. "I am Captain Steven—"

The woman didn't even let him finish. "I know who you are, Captain Rogers of the Avenger. I know who all of you are. We have been researching your Federation for some time. And I did not invite you to speak. Be silent." Her voice was silky-smooth, but with the snap of an order to it. She was definitely someone accustomed to being obeyed. "I am Veranke, Empress of the Skrull Empire."

There was an entire Empire of these people? Shapeshifters? With technology like that? This was bad.

She paused and lifted her head, waiting to see Steve's reaction, which she undoubtedly expected to be awe and fear.

She might have researched the Federation, but she obviously hadn't researched Steve. Steve wasn't going to be cowed by anyone. Tony remembered the old comic book cover, Captain America punching Hitler in the face. He didn't know if Steve had actually done that, but if he hadn't it was solely because he'd never gotten the chance to. Steve wasn't going to let this woman tell him what to do.

Steve just nodded thoughtfully, a faux-casual air. "I consider myself a fairly well-informed man," he said, and it was not lost on anyone in earshot that he pointedly omitted any title of respect. "I have to say I've never heard of any Skrull Empire."

"We are from the Andromeda Galaxy," Veranke intoned, and her face furrowed in annoyance at the disrespect. "We find ourselves in need of—how do you say it in your language?—a certain amount of living space."

Steve's face tightened, and Tony thought perhaps that had been a very, very unfortunate thing to say to someone who'd joined the military to fight Nazi Germany.

"With all due respect," Steve said, of course meaning none whatsoever, "I'm afraid that won't be possible."

Veranke looked almost bored. She'd expected this. It was clear that all this was pro-forma for her, something to say before her ship took them apart. "Come now, Captain. Surely you see your ship is no match for mine. I'll admit I was surprised when we fell out of contact with our Tarnax colonies shortly after they met you. I decided to pay you a visit personally, in fact, to see who was responsible for such destruction. I don't know how you defeated them, but rest assured you will not defeat me."

If Veranke didn't know that the Triskelion existed, and she didn't know much more about the Federation than what those colonies had sent—well, they had a chance after all, but only if the Triskelion could get here in time.

Steve sat up straighter. "If it is your intent to threaten the United Federation of Planets, I will do everything in my power to stop you." His voice was steady, his gaze intent. "So will every other person on this ship. We have pledged to defend the Federation, with our lives, if necessary."

There were chills down Tony's spine. Steve had said he'd been Captain America, and the records had confirmed it, but seeing him like this—Tony could finally believe it, in his heart. Steve was a hero. A real hero. The bravest person Tony had ever known, certainly.

Even Veranke looked startled, but for just an instant.

"You don't understand how this works, do you, Captain?" she asked. The question was smooth, a slippery kind of calm, archly confident. "You're not coming out of this alive. So what if you sprung the trap of our colonies earlier than we meant you to? You won't survive this."

"I'm looking around," Steve returned. "And I don't see an invasion force. I just see you. One ship."

Veranke smiled. "Oh, don't worry," she assured him. "I'm planning on coming back with more. I will lead the Skrull Empire to victory. After you're dead, of course."

The transmission cut off.

This was it.

"Sir," Wanda said. "They're powering up weapons and shields."

Steve nodded. He'd been expecting this. They'd all been expecting this. "Red alert. Raise shields. Arm phasers and photon torpedoes. Maximoff—"

"Which?" Wanda asked, and Pietro stifled a laugh. Of all the times.

"Pietro, lay in evasion pattern gamma, but don't execute yet. Wanda, full spread of torpedoes ready on my mark. Let's let them make the first move. We're Starfleet. We don't shoot first." Steve turned his head back to Hank. "Lieutenant Pym, if you've got a scan of that ship, show me the likely weak points."

The bridge lights were flashing red, and on Tony's board the ship cutaway lit up, surrounded by primary shielding, funneling all the power away from the warp drive. They could take a hit if they had to, but Tony didn't want to bet on the Avenger surviving more than two or three. Those gunports were huge.

"Red alert," Jan said, into the comm pickup, and Tony could just barely hear her voice over allcall, a faint echo from the decks below. "Battlestations. Battlestations. This is not a drill."

Tony took a shaky breath. He'd built those engines. They could survive fifteen minutes. They'd have to.

"Captain," Wanda said. "They have weapons lock." Tony watched his board light up with the Skrull targeting scans. Primary targets were—oh, goddammit, not his engines. Not his engines, the bastards. Tony glanced up in time to see the main viewscreen flash green. "They're firing—"

"Evasive!" Steve ordered, and the viewscreen slanted away from the Skrull ship as the Avenger dove in a tight spiral, down and away, and not quite enough. The beam was going to catch the edge of the shield. Not ideal, but at least they could take a few hits that way.

Tony watched in horror as the Skrull ship's beam weapons tore through the Avenger's shields, breaking them down like they weren't even there. Oh, God. They were stronger than Tony had ever imagined. Tony's board went red, and the screen flashed the most dire of warnings: SHIELDS AT 0%.

"Brace for impact!" Steve yelled, and that was when the second volley hit.

There were sparks everywhere, and the Avenger rocked and heaved like an old sailing ship in a storm. The deck lifted up under Tony and then dropped precipitously. He was thrown out of his chair, sent sprawling along the deck of the bridge as the lights flickered and the consoles went dim.

Three seconds later—an eternity—emergency power came on, and God, if they were already running on emergency power that was a very, very bad sign.

"Status report!" Steve said, as Tony crawled back into his chair, his ribs aching, and tried to make sense of the mess of angry red lights dotting his board, and oh fuck, the port nacelle was dead. ERROR, the readout flashed. PORT NACELLE POWER AT 0%. WARP DRIVE UNAVAILABLE.

This was not good. They weren't going to be able to get out of here. Another hit or two and they'd all be dead.

Tony scrolled through the rest of the error messages: SHIELDS AT 10%. At least the shields were coming back, so the Avenger would have a slim buffer to protect herself, but with only half the power available from the warp drive they were going to be weak shields. Impulse engines were fine. Small mercies.

"Damage reports coming in from all decks," Jan said, still braced over her console. She'd hit her head; blood was trickling from her temple. "The aft third of Decks Seven and Eight vented. Emergency forcefields are in place. Sickbay is reporting only minor injuries so far."

"The port warp nacelle took a direct hit," Tony added, and Steve's face went pale. "I can't give you a damage estimate from up here, but I can tell you that we can't get out of here right now. Shields are regenerating slowly, but that's all we've got. We're limping. Permission to get down to Engineering and start patching things up? I can give you a better guess once I see what I'm dealing with, although I wouldn't recommend taking another hit. At all."

Steve nodded, taking everything in. "All right, Commander. Get to work. We've still got impulse, though?"

"We've still got impulse," Tony confirmed, as he rose from his chair.

"Good," Steve said. "You go fix the ship. I'll keep us alive until either Hill gets here or we can leave under our own power."

Tony was sure his face gave away everything he was feeling, every single bit of awful despair, because how the hell did Steve think this was going to work? They were on half-power, they had no warp drive, and they were tiny compared to that behemoth.

Tony bit his lip, and he didn't know what he was going to say, and he had the awful feeling it was going to be something stupid and fond, some emotion he couldn't allow himself to entertain for Steve. Not anymore. "Captain—"

Steve gave him a wan, tight smile. "We'll be all right, Commander. I know what I'm doing. I've been playing chicken with capital ships since before you were born, remember? Go."

"Going, sir," Tony said, and he headed into the turbolift and slammed the emergency-transit button before he could let himself say anything else.

Main Engineering, as Tony had expected, was chaos. The hull was intact—so far—but that was about all it had going for it. His crew were bruised and bloodied, scurrying about in radsuits, avoiding sparking, cracked panels. The main cross-section display, the one that stretched out along the entire wall, was flashing an angry red, and the schematic of the port warp nacelle had gone dull and dim. And, as if that wasn't frightening enough, the warp core was pulsing at half-speed, slow and sickly, and the thrumming sounded like a groan.

Yeah, they weren't getting out of here anytime soon.

Tippy-Toe scampered along the railing surrounding the warp core, with a meter-long patch cable clutched firmly in her mouth. At least everyone was helping.

"Report!" Tony called out.

Rhodey slid out from under one of the broken monitoring stations, tools in hand, and he leaped to his feet. There was blood drying on his face.

"Port nacelle's down," Rhodey panted. "The housing is intact, but the nacelle dropped out of the warpfield envelope when we lost the primary power conduits."

Shit, shit, shit. "Can we reroute?"

Rhodey shook his head. "Not automatically. There's no computer control. Not anymore. It was a direct hit to the nacelle strut. Someone's going to need to climb up to the nacelle, manually reroute to secondary power, and then switch it all on at the junction boxes and essentially do a cold start from the core." He waved a hand across the room to where both of the Lieutenants Erwin were scanning through manuals on what looked like the only intact screen in the place. "We're trying to find the protocols now. None of us have ever done this on this ship class, of course. I'm the only one who's ever done it on any ship."

He'd done this. He'd done this—three, four times, maybe. God, he'd even done this on the Avenger back at Utopia Planitia, during the power test cycle. It had been the starboard nacelle, but it was going to be the exact same process.

He knew how to do this.

"I have," Tony said. "I can do this. I'll go."

The ship lurched and shuddered again. Tony braced himself on the wall, and Ensign Green slid along the deck as the lights went too bright and then too dark. Rhodey was grabbing the console.

When the Avenger had righted herself, Rhodey's eyes were still wide, and the flashing lights cast red shadows all over him.

Tony glanced over at the board. Damage on Deck Three. Great.

"Commander," Rhodey said, "let one of us do this." Was he really going to plead now? "It's dangerous work, being up in a nacelle in a combat situation. You should stay down here. It's your job to delegate these things. I'll go."

"You've never seen the Avenger's layout," Tony retorted. "I have. I've done this. I can bring the warp drive online in three minutes, easy. Faster than anyone else can. This is also my job, you know."

"With all due respect, sir," Rhodey said, "it's my job as well, and it's also my job to keep my commanding officer from taking unnecessary risks—"

The ship rocked again, harder this time.

Tony was clutching the bulkhead. His heart was pounding. "It's a necessary risk. Look, Rhodey, you can argue about this with me while we're under fire or you can let me fix the damn ship and we can all get out of here alive."

Rhodey looked at him for a long moment, and then he unwrapped the toolbelt from his waist and pushed it into Tony's hands. "Godspeed, Tony. Good luck."

Tony could feel his mouth shape a fey smile. "Thanks, Rhodey. You're the best."

He took the tools, and he ran. He couldn't look back. There was no time. He had to save the ship.

The Avenger's long corridors curved ahead of him, and he ran. He passed a few crewmembers, all running the other way. No one else wanted to be here. There was nothing up here except the long climb to the warp nacelles, and the isolated nacelles were perfect targets for Skrull fire. Hell, they'd already been shot. Rhodey was right—it was dangerous. And it was also his duty. This was why he'd sworn his oath, all those years ago.

The corridors were tighter and tighter, the walls unpainted, the deckplates bare metal. A different person might have considered it intimidating, cold, unfinished. So too might it have been called fragile; Tony passed more than one gap in the hull, and he could see stars swirl around them through the emergency forcefield as the Avenger soared through space, still fighting for her life.

But Tony was in his element. This was the skeleton of the ship, his home, and he knew the relays that passed through her better than anyone else did. He didn't need paint, didn't need anything pretty—just metal and power. And that was what was here.

He pivoted and took a right into the portside access crawlway, ran faster, then jumped and dove two meters down the crawlspace like a baseball player sliding home. His ribs protested again with a bright shock of pain. He could go to sickbay later. There was no time. There was no time at all.

Tony pulled himself up into and through the half-height Jeffries tube and came up into the last corridor before the nacelle access. He was close to the very skin of the ship now; there were maybe fifteen centimeters of metal between him and space. The corridor was narrow, tight, windowless, ten meters long, braced with girders every meter. At the end of it was an old-fashioned hatch, the kind that swung open, because there was no room for a sliding door this close to the hull. The hatch was heavy, thick, metal, and it looked like it would have been more at home on an old-fashioned submarine.

About a meter from where Tony was standing there was a thick red line painted across the floor, extending up the walls and onto the ceiling. A warning was spelled out on the floor in front of it: CAUTION: ACTIVE WARPFIELD BEYOND THIS POINT.

Tony didn't really like live warpfield work, but then again, no one did. Standard protocol was of course to shut down all FTL-generating fields before maintenance, but sometimes these situations came up. He'd only worked in an active field twice—one warp, one subspace—in his entire Starfleet career, and both times they had been thoroughly unpleasant experiences. They'd made his skin prickle all over, given him a hell of a headache, and—especially in the warpfield—screwed up his reaction times and reflexes. It was an expected side effect; the field tried to overclock all biological processes. Medical opinion was that the overclocking wasn't going to kill anyone imminently, but that didn't mean staying in a warpfield was a great idea. Tony agreed. He'd done the work, and then he'd gotten the hell out of there. He was going to do the same thing now.

He breathed deeply, bracing himself, and he crossed the line.

The hair on the back of Tony's neck stood on end, and the prickling went across his shoulders and all the way down his spine, the same old discomfort. His skin seemed two sizes too small. His ears were buzzing, and there was a familiar headache gathering at the base of his skull. That was a warpfield, all right. Just because the port nacelle was down didn't mean there wasn't still a warpfield; the starboard nacelle was still working, pushing a field out as far as here, but by itself it could only generate a lopsided warp bubble.

Tony nodded to himself, took three steps forward—

—and then he staggered and hit the wall, as his chest was squeezed tight. A wave of pain rose up, and he couldn't breathe, and oh, God, it was just like all those heart attacks on Alpha Sag, all the times they'd stopped his heart for him—

"Tony?" Jocasta's voice seemed very far away, and Tony was pretty sure that was his senses going haywire, because he knew the comm pickups were evenly spaced. "Tony!"

The grip on Tony's heart loosened, and he could breathe again. His chest still hurt, so much that he wasn't sure if he was still hurting or just feeling the echoes of the pain.

"Yeah, Jo?" His own voice sounded slurred. As if he were drunk. He didn't do that anymore. God, he needed to focus.

"Your artificial heart's not rated for a live warpfield, Tony," Jocasta said. "You're on the verge of cardiac arrest."

Cold, clammy sweat began to gather on Tony's skin, and he pulled himself up and pushed himself to his feet. "Oh, now you tell me." He tried to laugh. The sound didn't quite come out right.

His heart kicked in again, but this time it was too fast, tachycardia, its processor overclocked by the field, and for half a second he couldn't breathe again.

He hadn't worked in a live warpfield since he'd gotten the artificial heart. He hadn't known this would happen. To be fair, he thought, dizzy, incoherent with pain, he still would have done this anyway. He was the most qualified officer. For the sake of the Avenger, he needed to be right here.

His heart settled back into a normal rhythm, and the next breath he drew barely hurt at all. He could do this. He was doing this.

"You should get out of there." Jocasta's admonishment was stern. "Tony, please, this isn't safe. That heart of yours could give out for good at any second."

Shaking his head, Tony headed for the hatch. "I'm here, and I'm the only one with any experience doing this. This is my job. I can be in and out, and we can have warp in three minutes of work."

There was no other choice. It had to be him.

"I don't know if you even have three minutes, Tony."

At least this door wasn't computer-controlled. It meant she couldn't stop him.

He spun the wheel and pulled; the huge hatch swung toward him.

"If we have to send someone else, the Avenger's not going to last long enough for them to get up here and fix it," Tony said, grimly, and he stepped inside and pulled the hatch shut behind him, closing and locking it again. The door was thick and the seal was tight, as it had to be; if, God forbid, they physically lost the nacelle, the rest of the engineering hull wouldn't be able to vent air.

He turned around, to get his bearings. He was at the bottom of the port nacelle. The main power junction was in an alcove to his left. There was a small viewscreen and comm panel on the same wall. And, of course, just ahead of him was a ladder, a long climb to the nacelle maintenance chamber, halfway up, and then the nacelle itself.

There was no time to waste.

The long coil of replacement power cabling was hanging just where it ought to have been, under the power junction. Tony reached up, degausser in hand, and pried off the cover above the junction. He saw just what he'd expected to see: the relays were dull, dead. Powerless. He didn't even need a meter to read that. Sighing, he stuck his tools back on his belt, bent down, took the cable, threw it over his shoulder, and headed toward the ladder. Time to be an engineer, Stark.

He tilted his head back and stared up the long, long ladder. He could hardly see where the wall on one side gave way to the maintenance chamber, but he knew it had to be there.

His hands were slick with sweat and it took him a few tries to get a good grip on the ladder. He breathed in, breathed out, and started the climb.

This had been bad before; he remembered that much. He remembered working in a live warpfield—slipping, falling, dropping his tools, being slow to think. And now, well, if he slipped, it wasn't going to be pretty. It was a long way to fall. A few meters up, everything swayed around him, and he had the awful feeling it was him and not the ship. He wrapped his hands around the metal of the ladder and hung on.

His heart gave a foreboding lurch in his chest, a twinge of pain.

"Hang on," Tony murmured to himself. "Just hang on. You can do this."

Another step. Another rung on the ladder. One hand over the other. He was put in mind, suddenly, of Steve helping him up the cave wall, of Steve lifting him. Steve had done everything he could to save him. He'd been kind. He'd always been so kind, but he was an Augment, and Tony couldn't have been wrong about them, could he?

Maybe he'd been wrong.

Tony shook his head violently, and the world spun around him. Gasping, he clutched the ladder again for support. Cold, clammy sweat was dripping down his face, down his neck, soaking the collar of his uniform.

Not the time. He needed to focus on the mission. Not Steve.

That was another downside of live warpfields—they made it hard to pay attention. And the Avenger couldn't keep dodging that Skrull ship forever. Eventually, they were going to lose. And Tony needed to get them all out of here first.

God, he wished Steve were here now. Steve would have helped him.

He just wanted to see Steve again.

No. Focus.

He freed a hand to readjust the cabling on his shoulder, looked down, and then he wished he hadn't. He usually had a good head for heights, but once again a wave of dizziness and tight, sickening pain passed through him. The deck below was so far away.

Something creaked, a hideous screech of metal somewhere in the distance, and when the world moved again Tony was pretty sure that it was the ship this time. He held onto the ladder for dear life. He looked up: the nacelle was still a glowing blue above him. Wherever they'd hit, they hadn't shattered his engines. Yet.

"Jocasta!" he yelled, hoping the pickups were close enough. "Give me a damage report!"

"Direct hit," Jocasta said, with preternatural calm. "Deck Five, forward section. No casualties."

Tony bit his lip and glanced up. Ten more meters to the maintenance room. His skin was prickling and buzzing, and his head hurt when he looked back down too fast. At least it didn't hurt as much as his chest. He had to keep going.

He climbed and he climbed, hand over hand, and then—finally!—heaved himself off the ladder and into the maintenance room, sprawling out on the deck, the metal cool against his skin. God, his chest was killing him.

Just a little longer. He could do this.

Tony pushed himself to his feet. Right. Secondary power. The usual paneling that obscured the power conduits throughout the ship, that hid them safely in the walls—all that was missing here, except for a few panels. Behind a metal skeleton, pale power lines arced up to the nacelle, and dark, deactivated lines headed down. Tony opened the panel closest to him and stared at it, dead and live lines. All right.

There was an old-fashioned knife switch on the wall. He flipped it, and the entire block obligingly went dead.

Time to get to work.

It was like some kind of horrible game, he thought, as he ripped out useless, melted cable with his bare hands, glancing at the color-coding as he threw it aside. The repair cable was segmented already, and he pulled off a meter of it, joining what had been blue on the primary line to blue on the secondary line, red to red, green to green, hoping he'd kept the colors straight because if he did this wrong they were all going to die. Well. They were going to die faster.

Another cable. Two. Three. Four. The ship rocked beneath him again, and everything slid, and the bundle of cable rolled toward the ladder. Tony dove for it, realizing as his hand closed around it that this could be very bad—

His head and his arm dangled over the edge, and he looked down, swimming with vertigo, and thought he might be sick. His heart pounded.

The deck righted itself, and Tony dragged himself back to the open conduit.

Not much longer.

Two more cables. Then one. Tony slotted the last cable in with shaking fingers. His skin was too tight. He had to get out of here.

The comm whistled.

"Stark here," Tony rasped.

"Commander?" Jan's voice was tense, and Tony could hear the red-alert sirens in the background. "Some good news would be nice."

Shit. He'd promised Steve a progress report, hadn't he? "I've run the cabling to the secondary power," he told her. "I just need to climb back down and switch everything on. A couple more minutes. And then you can have warp drive."

"All right," Jan said. "We're counting on you, Commander."

The line clicked off, and Tony held his breath and flipped the switch. Everything lit up, blue all the way up to the nacelle—and back down, down into the junction at the bottom of the nacelle. They were running on secondary power, or they would be once he made the appropriate adjustments.

He left the stray panel where it was, leaped for the ladder, held on, and started half-climbing, half-sliding down. He wrapped his legs around one end of the ladder and then dropped, clinging with his thighs. There was no time to be fancy.

When he was almost at the bottom, the ship heaved under him, and there was the roaring, crashing noise of metal ripping apart, very close now.

Tony watched, as if it were all happening in slow motion, his hands coming away from the ladder. He felt his feet go out from under him. This was going to be a hell of a way to go, he thought, stupidly, and he was already falling—

He landed hard and badly on the deck, his left arm trapped under him and throbbing, and his face scraped up and bruised. At least he hadn't fallen that far.

His arm didn't hurt quite as much as it should have—he had too much adrenaline for that—but he could tell that it was going to hurt later. A lot. He tried to flex his fingers, then his wrist, and he hissed, choking off a cry of pain.

The only thing he could think for a few seconds was the blindingly angry wish that it could have been his right arm broken instead. He'd really wanted to use his dominant hand for this.

Grabbing the base of the ladder, he clawed himself to standing. The sleeve of his undershirt felt sticky and wet. He hoped that wasn't blood on his arm, under his uniform. God, his chest hurt.

Okay. Main power junction. Luckily, he could mostly do this with the computer. Awkwardly, with his right hand, he tapped in the configuration he needed on the screen. SWITCH TO SECONDARY POWER, the screen blinked. Tony braced himself on the bulkhead with his shoulder—because he couldn't exactly lean on it with his hand—and flipped the final switch.

Everything lit up blue, and power hummed around him. PORT NACELLE POWER AT 100%. He'd done it.

"Stark to Engineering!" he yelled. "Rhodey, you've got power. Fire it up!"

"Aye, sir!" Rhodey said. The sound cut out; he was talking to someone behind him. "Ten seconds to warp. You should tell the bridge."

"You bet," Tony said, fervently. "Stark to bridge, warp drive in about five seconds. Let's get the hell out of here. Right now."

"Tony!" Steve said, and Tony thought maybe he was imagining the concern in Steve's voice. Steve couldn't care about him. "Thank God! Lieutenant Maximoff, lay in a course and execute. Tony, are you—"

And then there was a hideous roaring, and the comms went dead, and the lights flickered on and off again, and the ship rose and dropped. Tony was slammed bodily into the opposite bulkhead, right on—oh no—his arm. Ow. Fuck.

At least no one was here to hear him whimpering. He could feel the noise in his throat, as he curled around himself, bringing his right hand up to cradle his shattered left arm, but he couldn't actually hear himself make any noise.

His ears were ringing. That had been close.

"Jocasta?" Tony asked. He was probably talking too loudly.

Over the echoing, the noise from the comms was clicking and garbled, a human voice slowly breaking down into its formant frequencies.

That was definitely bad. It was time to get out of the warpfield, anyway. He squinted over at the display and blinked a few times until the words focused. WARP DRIVE ACTIVE. Okay. Good. They'd gotten out of there after the hit. Probably.

He needed to stand up. Somehow.

Gritting his teeth, he managed a half-crawl, half-slither back to the ladder and pulled himself upright with his good hand, the same way he had earlier. Okay. Okay. He was walking.

Come on, Stark, he told himself. You have had so much worse than this.

Two more meters to the exit hatch. One more meter. Tony sagged against the metal and drew a shaking, gasping breath. His chest was too tight again. His skin was too tight. His arm hurt. Did that mean it was his heart, or just his broken arm? How the hell was he supposed to tell?

His palm was slick with sweat, but he got a one-handed grip on the hatch and spun the wheel with his good arm. It moved slowly, with a groan of metal, and Tony pushed—

The hatch didn't move.

He pushed it again.


He leaned against it with all his weight.

Still nothing.

This— this was bad.

"Jocasta?" Tony asked again, and he could hear his own voice now; the ringing had died down.

The comm hissed, crackled, and resolved into Jocasta's voice. "The last volley was very near you," she said, and she sounded almost frantic with worry. "They got in one last hit before we went into warp."

Oh, no. "Is that vacuum on the other side?" Even as he said it, he knew it couldn't be—the pressure differential would have sucked the door open once he'd released the hatch.

"No, the hull's intact," Jocasta said; he thought he saw her worried face on the viewscreen. "But there's massive structural damage. Half the corridor bracing came down on the other side of that hatch. It's blocked. There's more debris than any human can shift. It's too heavy. There's no way you can get that door open."

Everything tightened all over, tightened and squeezed, like a giant fist around Tony's ribcage, and he panted for breath. No. He was trapped in a live warpfield, and his artificial heart was going to give out before he could get out of here.

Tony could hear himself laugh. All this, everything he'd survived, and this was what was going to get him? "This is a goddamn stupid way to die, Jo."

He sank down onto the floor, leaning back against the bulkhead. Standing up took too much effort.

And then the comm beeped.

"Commander!" Steve said, on a laugh, and he sounded so happy. Tony smiled, dazed. He'd made Steve happy. He'd saved the ship. "You did it! We're safe, and the Triskelion is engaging the enemy. Feel free to come back to the bridge anytime."

Tony opened his mouth, and then his heart twisted and seized up, and he was hunched over himself, gasping.

He'd done it. He'd saved them.

"Commander?" Steve asked. "Commander Stark? Report."

The harsh panting noise coming out of Tony's mouth didn't even sound human.

"Tony?" Steve asked, and there was concern in his voice now. "Tony, are you all right? Say something."

Tony breathed in and out. "Sorry, Cap," he said, and his voice was a rasping whisper. "Can't— can't quite—" He bit back another whimper. "Not going to be coming back."

"What?" Steve's voice was pained. Stunned. "Are you hurt?"

The laugh just made Tony's chest ache more. "Oh, you know," Tony panted. "Turns out my artificial heart didn't much like the warpfield. And it's taking it out on me. And I'm stuck in here. The door's jammed."

"Where are you?" There was a pause. "Van Dyne, get me Blake. Get me the transporter room. Tony, we've got you. We can beam you to sickbay—"

Tony splayed his good hand over his chest. It didn't make it hurt any less. "I'm in the port nacelle power junction," Tony said. "And I'm in a live warpfield. Unless you want to beam up a smear of organic material, you can't beam me out of this."

There was a shaky noise on the other end of the comm, an indrawn breath. "I'll send a security team—"

Tony shook his head, and then he realized that Steve couldn't see it. "Jocasta says the debris blocking the hatch is too heavy for anyone to shift alone, and the corridor's tight enough that you can only fit one person, so you can't get a team to shift it. It's too—" he gasped again— "too close to the hull for chemical explosives, and you can't fire a phaser in the field unless you want very bad things to happen. Besides," he added, "it's not like I have a lot of time left."

"Tony," Steve said, and God, he sounded like he was crying, and that wasn't right. Steve couldn't care about him. Not after everything.

"Engineering can shut down the warpfield eventually," Tony added. It was getting very, very hard to focus. "Fifteen minutes for a safe engine shutdown." His chest was too tight again, and he struggled to breathe. "I don't have fifteen more minutes." He half-smiled. "But then you can beam what's left of me out, if you want."

"Tony, no." Steve's voice was agonized. "Tony, there's got to be another way—"

Tony realized he was still smiling. "It's all right," he told Steve. "It's okay. Don't worry about me, okay? I'm not afraid. I knew what I was getting into. And at least it— at least it means something." He struggled to focus on Jocasta's face, which was still on the screen. Thank God, she hadn't put the bridge on visual. Steve didn't need to see this.

And Tony didn't need to die live on comms, either.

He cleared his throat. "Stark out."

The quiet noise of Steve's hitching breaths faded away.

"Jocasta?" Tony asked. "Jo, can you do me one last favor?"

Her blurry, fuzzy image smiled like she was trying not to cry. Even she had feelings. "Yes, Tony?"

"Can you keep the lights on?" he whispered. "Please don't let me die in the dark. Please, just— don't—"

She nodded. "Of course."

The lights above him brightened, and he smiled. It was what he'd wanted, all those long months in the tunnels. He'd hated the darkness, and now—now, he had this.

It wasn't that bad, was it? He'd saved the ship. He'd done something that mattered. He couldn't really have hoped for a better death than that, in Starfleet. It was better than dying on Alpha Sag would have been.

He'd done good, rejoining Starfleet. He'd made a difference.

And he'd met Steve.

God, Steve.

He was sorry. He was so very sorry.

It made sense now, a stunning, perfect clarity that had eluded him: it didn't matter if Steve was an Augment. None of that mattered. It didn't matter what the other Augments had done. So what if they'd led armies and ruled countries? So what if they'd started wars? Steve hadn't. Steve would never. Steve was Steve, and Tony should only have judged him based on what he'd done, not what anyone else had done just because they also happened to have the same modifications. Just because some Augments had committed horrible crimes didn't mean all Augments were bad. He knew Steve wasn't.

And he knew Steve, too. Steve was a good man. And he'd always known Captain America was good, too. Of course Steve was good. Tony trusted him. Tony cared for him.

Tony had always admired Captain America. He'd always admired Steve. Even before he'd met him.

Steve hadn't used him, like Khan had used McGivers. Steve hadn't made him feel anything that wasn't already there.

Hell, Tony was in love with him.

He wished he could have kissed him. Just once. If he'd had one more chance, he'd have kissed him.

Well, okay, he'd have apologized. And then kissed him. If Steve still wanted him.

One dying regret. That wasn't so bad, numerically, was it?

Steve was going to think Tony died hating him.

Tony coughed. "Hey, Jo," he said. His voice was slurred. "Tell Steve I— tell him I—"

And then something seized up in his chest again, his heart slowed and slowed and slowed, a severely underclocked processor, and it kept slowing, and he couldn't talk—

Not long now.

He slumped against the bulkhead, gasping and gasping for air that he knew he was never getting. Time seemed to speed up and slow down, and Tony wasn't sure if that was death or the warpfield.

There was a crashing noise, distantly audible. Had the Skrulls come back? Were they hit? Had it all been for nothing?

He opened his mouth to ask Jocasta, but he couldn't find the breath to talk.

The crashing noise was louder now. Closer. Maybe a direct hit?

And then the hatch swung open, and Steve was standing on the other side of it.

Tony stared up at him and wondered if this was some kind of dying hallucination. Steve's jacket was hanging open, his uniform ripped. His hair was in disarray, he was sweating, and there was blood on his scraped hands. Behind him, the corridor lights were flickering dimly, and something was sparking overhead, silhouetting him from behind. There were tears on his face.

"Oh, Tony," Steve breathed. "Oh, God, please, let me not be too late."

Steve bent down and picked Tony up, cradling him in his arms, and if this was a hallucination, it was a damn good one. Steve smelled awful, like sweat and tears and blood, and he was shaking, but his hands were gentle and soft. It was the nicest thing Tony had ever felt.

This was real. Steve had come for him.

"Steve?" Tony whispered, and he wasn't sure he made any sound, but somehow Steve must have heard him, because Steve held him tighter. Tony made a weak noise when Steve jostled his arm, but it was all he could manage.

"Oh, thank God," Steve murmured. "Just hang on, Tony. I've got you, okay? I've got you."

Steve spun them around, and Tony blinked and tried to focus on the corridor ahead of them. It was a mess, covered in twisted metal, and they were standing on a long heavy panel that had been attached to the far wall and that Tony knew for a fact weighed at least four hundred kilos. Had that been blocking the hatch?

"How did you do that?" Tony mumbled. "Did you lift—? No, you couldn't have—"

Of course he could have lifted it. Super-strength. No ordinary human could have cleared the debris, but Steve

"I can lift about a thousand pounds," Steve said, matter-of-factly, like this was perfectly normal, and also like he'd never really internalized the metric system at all. Twentieth-century American. It made sense.

Steve balanced Tony in his arms and picked his way over the debris, nimbly leaping a pile of fallen girders, like it was easy. Like he'd been born for this. Like he'd been made for this. Like he'd been spending every moment since Tony had known him holding back.

"I'm sorry," Tony told him, and he wasn't sure if he was still saying actual words but he had to try. Steve needed to know this. "Steve, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry—"

"Shh," Steve whispered. "Save your strength, all right?"

Only a few more meters until the edge of the warpfield. Tony could just barely make out the red line on the deck.

Five meters. Four. Then three. It was so far away.

Kiss me, he wanted to say, but he couldn't talk.

God, everything hurt. His chest hurt so much. Maybe worse than it had on Alpha Sag. At least he was going to die in Steve's arms. It was nice. It was bright, and Steve was warm. And he wasn't alone.

Two more meters, and another pile of twisted metal lay in their way—and Steve just vaulted it, like an athlete, and came down hard, centimeters from the warpfield line. The impact jarred Tony's arm, jarred him up into his chest and then just didn't stop hurting.

Tony's artificial heart gave one last beat, a system pushed beyond its limits. He could hardly keep his eyes open, and they were over the red line, they were clear, they were free—

"Rogers to transporter room!" Steve yelled. "Emergency beam-out to sickbay!" And then he looked down at Tony, and his eyes went wide in horror. "Oh, no, Tony, don't you dare," he whispered. "Tony, stay with me, Tony, please. Don't do this to me—"

The transporter beam swept them up in blue light, brighter and brighter, and Steve was holding him tight, and that was the last thing that Tony knew as everything faded away.

Chapter Text


Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

The first thing Tony was aware of was the noise of a heartbeat, emanating from somewhere over his head. Then after that came other noises, the hum and thrum of biobed sensors.


He was in sickbay. He wasn't dead.

He opened his eyes.

Steve was sitting next to him.

Steve's regulation-perfect appearance had slipped. His uniform was creased, and he hadn't shaved in a while, and his face was too pale, his eyes hollow and red-rimmed. He wasn't looking at Tony; his gaze was fixed on the monitors over Tony's head, the lifesign readouts.

"Hey," Tony said, and then he coughed. His throat was dry, as if he'd been wandering across Vulcan deserts for a year.

Steve startled hard, and then he looked down, meeting Tony's eyes. He started to smile, but then seemed to have to force back the smile, like he didn't know if Tony would want to see him be happy. Like he thought maybe Tony wouldn't want anything to do with him.

"Tony," Steve whispered, and if he hadn't meant to give away how he felt by not smiling he was doing a goddamn lousy job with the rest of his face, because he was staring at Tony wide-eyed, trembling, like nothing else existed but Tony. Tony clearly meant something to him, and God, that was— he didn't know how to feel about that.

The world had fuzzy edges. That was probably the painkillers.

"That was real, huh?" Tony asked. "You saved me?"

It felt like it could have been a dream. He remembered Steve holding him close. Carrying him to safety.

Steve nodded jerkily. He looked like he was about to cry. "Yeah, Tony. That was real."

Steve had saved him. Steve had saved him, and he'd saved the ship, and the Skrulls—

Oh, fuck, the Skrulls—

Tony tried to jump to his feet, only to find that his limbs wouldn't quite do what he wanted, and he was tangled in a blanket. Why was he wearing a blanket? He shoved the blanket down to his hips, only to find that he was bare to the waist, and his chest was scarred, new and raw and healing, and what the hell?

"Hey, hey, hey," Steve said, and Steve put a hand on his shoulder, easing him back down. Honestly, Tony didn't have the strength left to protest, and he sank back down onto the biobed. "Where do you think you're going, mister?"

"The ship!" Tony said, urgently. "The ship and the Skrulls—"

Steve's hand stroked a calming little pattern on his shoulder. "It's okay," Steve said. "The ship's fine. I promise." He grimaced. "The Skrulls... they blew themselves up, rather than surrender to the Triskelion. It's over."

He dropped his hand from Tony's shoulder, and Tony didn't know how to ask him to put it back.

"Okay." Tony tried to process this. "Okay. It's over." He glanced down at himself, at the array of scars. "What—?"

"That's from your brand-new artificial heart," Steve said, with a very little smile. "Doctor Blake hasn't run the skin regen yet. He wanted to wait until you were awake for that." He motioned to Tony's side. "He did fix the broken arm, though." His gaze went faraway and cold, lonely and sad. "Technically you were dead when I brought you in. You died a couple more times during surgery. It was eight hours to open you up and put in a new one." He winced. "I think Don's got some choice words for you about playing in warpfields from now on."

Tony breathed out, a sigh that wanted to be a laugh. "I didn't have much of a choice. We would all have died. I wasn't about to let that happen."

"I know. And I'm grateful," Steve said, and he made an aborted gesture toward Tony's face, like he wanted to touch him but didn't dare. "You've been out two days, by the way."

Tony considered the state of Steve's uniform and personal grooming. "Have you been here at my bedside this whole time?"

Steve shook his head and looked away, hunching into himself. "Not the whole time," he said, almost guiltily, like Tony had caught him out in this terrible, shameful act of caring. "But... a lot of it. When I wasn't on duty. I— I was concerned about you. All the senior officers have been by, too," he added. "It wasn't just me." He withdrew, still not meeting Tony's eyes, pulling further and further away. He was about to stand up. He was about to go. No, no, no. "So, uh," Steve concluded, "I guess I'll just let you—"

Tony flailed out a hand from under the blankets, grabbed Steve's hand, and held on.

Steve froze. He was staring down at their joined hands like he had never in a million years expected this.

"Stay," Tony whispered. "Please stay, Steve." His throat was tight. "It would mean a lot to me."

Steve's expression was torn, disbelief and hope and anguish all at once. "You've been through quite an experience," he murmured, but he didn't let go. "And you're on a hell of a lot of painkillers right now. I'm not going to... hold you to anything you won't mean, when you're in your right mind, when you feel more like yourself." It sounded like it was killing him to say.

And he still didn't let go.

"This is me," Tony insisted. "Sound mind and mostly-sound body. I mean it."

Steve's gaze was brimming with a quiet, desperate hope.

"You know what I was thinking?" Tony asked. He could feel blood pound through him, dizzily. He needed to get this right. "When I thought I was going to die, you know what I was thinking?"

"What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking," Tony said, "that I wished I could have kissed you. Just once."

Steve's mouth was open. His throat worked as he swallowed. His mouth moved, like he was trying to say something, but he wasn't forming words.

"I'm sorry," Tony added. "I'm so sorry about everything. About how I acted. I know I can't expect you to forgive me. But I was wrong, and I was afraid, and I'm sorry. I just wanted you to know that."

He hadn't quite meant to come out with everything all at once, a giant mass of raw exposed feelings. Don must have given him a whole lot of painkillers.

Steve was blinking rapidly. "It's all right." His voice was hoarse. "You don't owe me an apology. You don't owe me anything. It was my choice to become... what I am, and I have to accept the consequences of that decision—even if they're harsher than I could ever have imagined back when I agreed to do this. I understand your opinion. It's fine. It makes sense." He bit his lip. "I've read the history books now. I'd be afraid of me too."

No. Steve couldn't just do this. Steve couldn't just believe he was awful, beyond redemption. It wasn't true.

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"I lied to you," Steve said, dully. "At the very least, I lied to you. And I'm an Augment. And I know what you think of that."

Tony gripped Steve's hand tighter, willing him to understand. "I was wrong," he repeated. "It doesn't matter what the Augments did." That hadn't come out right. "I mean, it matters, but it only matters for them. They're the ones responsible for what they did. You're not. The other Augments aren't you. You're a good man. For God's sake, you just saved my life for the second time. And it doesn't matter if any of them wouldn't have, because you did."

Steve was staring at him like he couldn't believe he was hearing him correctly. His eyes were still too wet, and he was clinging to Tony's hand as if it were a lifeline.

"Please," Tony said, and his voice cracked, and he'd beg if it made Steve stay. "I know— I know you have no reason to trust me, after how much I've hurt you, but please believe me. You don't have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. The other Augments aren't your burden. The Eugenics Wars aren't your fault. And I am so sorry."

It was the one prejudice inculcated into schoolchildren. The Federation was a bright and shining place of acceptance, free from ingrained hatred, relentlessly quelling xenophobia wherever it sprung up. It had to be like that, for everything to work. They celebrated their differences. They rejoiced in them. That was what made it all possible. And yet, there was this, too: the hatred of Augments. The distrust of genetic engineering.

And Steve was still Captain America.

It just meant Tony had a lot of things to get over, didn't he?

He'd fucked up. Badly. He was working on it.

"Really," he added. "I don't expect you to— I don't expect anything. I just wanted you to know."

And Steve smiled. Just a little, edging the corners of his mouth. "You did some thinking, huh?" His voice was soft. Quiet. Gentle.

"Oh, you know," Tony said, trying for breezy and missing, "you think about all sorts of things when you think you're going to die, you know?"

"Yeah." Steve squeezed his hand. "I do know." He glanced away. "The crew knows now, by the way. About me."

Tony stared. "What?"

Steve gave a helpless little shrug. "The senior officers do, anyway. It seems they got to wondering exactly how it was that I was able to dig you out of the debris there and I— I was sick of lying. If Fury wants to discharge me for this, he can. But I'm not lying." His voice firmed, determined. "Not anymore."

"How'd they take it?"

"Shocked, mostly," Steve said. "But they're coming around. It went better than I thought it would, actually."

"You mean it went better than it did with me."

Steve tilted his head, acknowledging the comparison he clearly hadn't wanted to make himself. "To be fair, we were a lot more... complicated. What with the. Uh. Feelings."

Tony would have said fucking, which as an f-word was a whole lot less terrifying. "Feelings?"

Steve's face was tinged with red. "If you haven't figured out I care about you, you would be literally the only person on the entire ship who hasn't."

Okay, so Steve forgave him. God. Steve shouldn't forgive him.

"No," Tony said, weakly. "No, I definitely noticed."

He hadn't been able to figure out why Steve hadn't made a move, before. Of course, it all made sense now: Steve had wanted to tell him he was an Augment first, but he couldn't, and then he had anyway, in the worst possible circumstances.

Steve smiled again, a little wider now, a hint of that dazzling brilliance that had made Tony walk right up and put his life in Steve's hands. "Oh," he said, and even as he was holding Tony's hand he was looking away, shyly. "Well. That's good."

"But I—"

"But nothing," Steve said, fiercely, because apparently he was going to stand up for Tony. "You're amazing." He paused and looked away. "And, uh. I think you said something about kissing? If you still wanted—"

Tony could only grin up at him, and Steve smiled a fond, fond smile that made Tony go warm all over, and then he raised Tony's hand to his lips and kissed the back of his hand, like the knights of Tony's long-ago imaginings.

"I'm sure you had something else in mind." Steve's face was flushed. "But I figure we can wait until you're better for the rest. I'm not going anywhere."

He said the rest with such confidence. Of course there was more. Of course he was staying. Tony had a future to count on. He liked that.

Maybe Steve could kiss him on the mouth, though, Tony thought, with a sudden eager hope. Surely even Steve couldn't object to something small and decorous.

The universe being what it was, this was the precise moment when Don walked in.

Don stopped dead, his eyebrows crawled up his forehead, and he smiled a very small, very pleased smile. "I'll just come back later, shall I?"

Steve lowered Tony's hand but didn't let go. "No, it's fine," he said. "I'm probably keeping Tony from his rest."

"I'm not tired," Tony said, and he promptly yawned.

Steve laughed. His thumb stroked over the back of Tony's hand. "My point exactly."

"Fine," Tony said. "Abandon me, Cap. And go shave, why don't you?"

"He was very worried," Don said, obviously by way of explanation.

Steve rubbed his free hand over his jaw and winced. "Yeah, okay. Going."

He dropped Tony's hand and stood up, and Tony already missed it.

"Don't worry," Tony told him. "I'm sure I'll be out of here soon."

Don glared in the way that only a ship's surgeon could. "Commander, you have just had heart surgery. You're not going anywhere right now, except maybe to sleep. After I examine you."

"I'll be back in a few hours," Steve said, with one last grin, and he ducked out the door, a spring in his step.

Tony had made him happy. He could feel a smile spread across his face.

This was going to be good. Finally, now, this time—it was really going to be good.

It was two more days before Tony was released from sickbay, and even then he was cleared only for light duty for a week, and he still had to show up at sickbay before and after every shift so Don could check his heart, to make sure he was adjusting to the new model. Tony had taken fine to the regen, so theoretically he should have been in perfect health, but he supposed he couldn't blame Don for being cautious.

"And no strenuous activity whatsoever," Don had said, firmly, and Tony still hadn't gotten it until Don added, "And you can let the captain know I said that. Clothes on and hands above the waist until further notice, Commander."

"Kinky," Tony had observed, which in retrospect might not have been the best approach. "You know, even without my hands, I can—"

Don had cut him off with the force of his stare alone. "No."

So now he was here, where he liked Steve, and Steve liked him, and they knew it was mutual, and Tony at least would really have liked to get on with doing something more... mutual... and they couldn't even so much as touch each other until the CMO gave them the all-clear. It was the most frustrating thing that had happened in Tony's entire romantic life, which was really remarkable when he considered the fact that his adolescence had been one extended era of years-long sexual frustration born of the fact that the people he'd been interested in tended not to be interested in a guy whose favorite hobbies included researching warpfield dynamics. It had taken him a while to learn not to go on and on about his engineering interests. He'd managed. And with no one interested in him, perhaps it had been easier to ignore his own impulses.

But the thing was, now Steve wasn't staying away from him.

And if his new heart didn't kill him first, all his pent-up feelings were definitely going to finish the job.

Steve had come to see him a few more times in sickbay, chastely enough; Tony figured he'd gotten the memo from Don. Tony could handle that. And then his first day back on duty, Tony was in Main Engineering, head bent over a console, reviewing everything Rhodey had done to fix up the place in his absence. He was half-aware of a shadow falling over him, but he didn't look up.

"Hey there," Steve murmured in his ear. His breath was warm against Tony's skin and Tony shivered all over as the sensation prickled down his spine to gather low in his belly, as his overeager arousal began to make itself known.

Tony hoped his jacket was covering his lap. He hoped Steve wasn't going to want him to stand up anytime soon.

"Captain," Tony said, and his voice was an octave higher than it should have been, and when he glanced up Steve's face was about six centimeters from his. Steve's bright-eyed gaze slid to meet his, and a crooked little smile was starting to curl its way across his face.

He knew exactly what he was doing to Tony, all right.

Tony cleared his throat. "Is there something I can help you with?"

Steve smiled again, closed-mouthed, delighted, like Tony had walked right into his trap. "Oh," he said, and his voice was goddamned sultry, "there are so many things you can help me with."

Tony wondered if his new heart was going to give out without Steve even touching him, because God, Steve was looking at him with a dark, knowing hunger, like he wanted to lay Tony out on the console and have his way with him then and there.

Tony took a shaky breath. Right. He was a Starfleet officer. He was on duty. Steve was probably also on duty. They were in public. He had a heart condition.

"Is one of those things a report on how the repairs are going?" Tony asked, as cheerfully as possible. He brought the draft of his report up on the console. "Because I can definitely help you with that."

"That could be one of the things," Steve admitted, with a grin, as he straightened up and peered at the report, but then his voice went low again, that register that just did things to Tony. Indecent, wonderful things. "But also I just missed you."

Tony had one hand braced on the edge of the console, and Steve covered it with his own, sliding his thumb just under the cuff of Tony's undershirt, pressing on the inside of his wrist. It was a spot that Tony hadn't realized was sensitive until this very moment. He swallowed.

"Yeah," he managed to say. "Same." He cleared his throat again. "So, uh. I'll have what you want ready for you as soon as I can."

"Good," Steve said, and his smile made Tony go weak in the knees. "I'm very much looking forward to... getting what I want."

Tony was incredibly, impossibly rock-hard in one breathless instant, his cock throbbing insistently. Dear God. He summoned up a smile; he was trying for the usual charm he'd learned to cultivate in these situations, but it seemed like with Steve it didn't even work and he was just grinning goofily. "I, uh. Yeah. Yes."

And now he couldn't remember how to put a sentence together. Very attractive. But Steve clearly liked him even if he had been rendered speechless.

Steve let go of Tony's wrist. Apparently he was just going to leave him like this.

As Steve walked away, he was whistling. Tony groaned and thunked his head against the console.

The rest of the week went similarly. Steve went back to his habit of running by Main Engineering in the morning before his shift, and now he was looking at Tony like he knew Tony was looking. I like when you look at me, he'd said, back in the cave—and now he just smiled, sharp and crafty and enthralled all at once, like he knew an amazing secret, as he jogged on by and left Tony standing there wondering if he could just go jerk off before his shift and if that was worth risking imminent cardiac arrest.

Wherever he went, Steve was there. Standing next to him on the bridge. Joining him in the rec room, sitting at his side and watching Carol trounce Clint at darts, and then asking Tony what he did today and being honestly interested in hearing Tony go on and on about subspace topology. Coming to Engineering for reports he did not, strictly speaking, need to receive in person. Standing shirtless in the shared head, brushing his teeth over the sink at night. And all the while, Steve looked so happy.

And Steve hadn't even so much as kissed him.

Tony didn't know if Steve just liked the anticipation, or if he didn't think they were going to want to stop once they started, or if he was actually trying to kill Tony with the tension, or if—God forbid—he was worried he was a bad kisser.

But Tony couldn't stop dreaming about it, and that was maybe the strangest part.

He'd expected, given the way the week was going, that his dreams would be wall-to-wall sex, lurid pornographic replays of every fantasy he'd ever had. But instead, he dreamed about kissing Steve. Just kissing him. Sometimes in the dreams Steve was in bed with him, pressing him down against the mattress. Sometimes he was pushing Steve up against a bulkhead or one of the consoles down in Engineering. Sometimes they were at Starfleet Academy, or back on Delta Geminorum IV. Once Tony's brain treated him to a lazy afternoon of making out with Steve in his workshop in Manhattan, stretched out on the floor together and surrounded by pieces of a holographic imaging array. Steve's mouth was warm and sweet, and he kissed him like they had all the time in the universe.

And more than once, Steve was Captain America. Tony used to dream about Captain America, about saving the world with Captain America—and, okay, once puberty hit, about doing a few other things with Captain America. In Tony's old dreams, Cap had been a blurry amalgam, a composite of tall, muscular men. He hadn't even dreamed him blond; in fact, the cowl had never come off. It was like he hadn't existed under it. He hadn't really needed to. But now in Tony's dreams, Cap pushed that ridiculous cowl back and it was Steve grinning at him, and Tony awoke—half-hard, tangled in his sheets, alone. The Cap poster on the wall stared back at him.

Steve was one wall away. Tony could step through the connecting door and see him and Steve would wake up and—

No. He sighed, pulled his uniform on, and headed out to sickbay so Don could poke and prod at him before his duty shift started.

Don hummed at him and passed a variety of scanners over Tony's body and frowned at the waveforms on the readouts, as Tony sat bare-chested on the edge of a biobed and dangled his feet in the air.

Finally Don put the scanner down, and Tony waited for him to say, as he'd said all week, see you in eight hours for another scan.

But instead Don smiled. "Okay, Commander, you're clear."

Tony stared. "What?"

"You're clear," Don repeated. "Physical exertion is fine. I'm approving you for all levels of duty. Just stay out of live warpfields."

"Yes," Tony promised. "Yes, okay, definitely. Thank you, Doctor."

He was half-afraid that Don would find some way to take it back if he stayed a second longer than he had to, so he threw on his clothes as fast as humanly possible and it wasn't until he was out of sickbay that he realized he'd put his undershirt on backwards. Lieutenant Erwin—well, one of them—walked by him as he was hiding in an alcove trying to put himself to rights, and Tony tried to give him the confident grin of a superior officer who knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn't sure it worked.

And then, of course, Steve was in the turbolift to the bridge. And they were alone.

"So, uh." Steve gave him a smile that was oddly bashful at the same time. He seemed to look everywhere but at Tony, and he licked his lips. "I just saw your name on the reports from medical."

What with the way Steve had been flirting with him all week, Tony hadn't quite expected him to be so shy about it. Still, he supposed that flirting was one thing and actual propositions were something else entirely. It was sweet.

"Yeah," Tony agreed. His brand-new heart was already pounding. "The CMO cleared me for duty. Physical exertion." He attempted to give Steve his best salacious smile, but it just came out awkward and, Jesus, it was a good thing Steve clearly liked him anyway.

Steve's fingers drummed a restless tattoo on the turbolift railing. "I was wondering if you wanted to—"

"Yes," Tony blurted out, too fast, desperate.

Steve's laugh was high and nervous, but his eyes were bright with affection. "I didn't even say anything yet."

"It doesn't matter," Tony said, and Steve chuckled again. "Yes. Whatever you're going to say. Yes. Please."

"I was going to invite you over this evening," Steve said, and then he seemed to trip over his own words. "I'm sorry, I don't really do this much— I don't— I don't know what to say. I mean." He paused and took a breath and seemed stronger for it, though his next words were quiet. "If you still wanted to."

Tony stepped in close, into Steve's personal space, and he watched as Steve brought his head up, as Steve couldn't avoid looking at him. Dizzy, feeling like everything was unreal and too real all at once, Tony reached out and gently, gently put his hand to Steve's face. Stubble prickled under his palm. His fingers rested against Steve's cheekbone, and his thumb bracketed Steve's smile.

Steve drew a small, sharp breath and his eyes went dark.

"Yes," Tony repeated, softly. "I want to."

And then, of course, because the universe's sense of timing continued to be rotten, the turbolift came to a halt, and they had an instant to step away and look professional before the doors opened onto the bridge. Jan grinned at them from her station.

Tony had no idea how he was going to concentrate. But still, things were definitely looking up.

Tony pressed the comm panel outside Steve's quarters and waited. He glanced down at himself, still in uniform. Should he have changed clothes? Had Steve changed? Probably not. They'd only been off-duty for ten minutes. Maybe he should go change. He could brush his teeth again.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot. He was being ridiculous.

The door opened, and Steve was— Steve was gorgeous.

Steve had changed clothes after all, into those old-fashioned civvies he liked. He was wearing dark denim trousers and a button-down shirt, in a brighter shade of blue, that clung to his body in ways that were definitely not conducive to thinking about anything other than getting him out of his clothes immediately. The top three buttons were undone, and Tony could see the sharp edge of Steve's collarbone, trailing down to the edge of a well-defined pectoral muscle, and Tony just wanted to kiss the exposed hollow of his throat. Helplessly, he kept looking down and down, and those trousers didn't leave much to the imagination either; it was obvious that Steve was getting hard—

"Come on in," Steve said, with a smile, and Tony hastily dragged his gaze back to Steve's face.

Tony stepped in and let the door close behind him. Steve was still smiling and Tony was positive that his own face had a smile to match.

"So," Tony ventured, in an effort to fill the silence, "how have you been?"

Steve grinned again. "In the ten minutes since you last saw me, you mean? Pretty good, actually."

"Mmm." Tony lifted his head, baring his throat, and took a step toward Steve. "Want to see if we can make it even better?"

And then they were kissing.

He couldn't have said which of them had started it, but his arms were around Steve and Steve's hands were splayed across Tony's head, dragging their mouths together. They kissed again and again, light little kisses at first, until Tony took the liberty of sliding his hand down to Steve's perfect ass. Steve moaned, low and almost surprised, and his tongue slid into Tony's mouth as he started to rub up against Tony's hip. His kiss was deep and knowing and positively filthy, the overwhelming, all-consuming kind of kiss Tony was used to getting from someone who already had their hand down his pants, and Steve kissed like there was even more coming.

"Oh, God," Tony panted, dazed, when they finally broke apart. "You're good at that. Oh, God. Steve."

Steve licked his lips, slick and already reddened. "I've wanted to do that since I saw you, you know." He said it like it was a confession. Another secret, set free.

Tony blinked. "Really?"

"Really." Steve nodded. "I saw you, and you— you looked at me like you knew what I'd been through, and you'd been there too, and you didn't see a hero and you just saw... me. And you looked like you liked what you saw." He laughed. "And then you asked me to dinner. And the fact that you're goddamn gorgeous doesn't hurt, either."

"Aww," Tony said. "Tell me more about myself." He batted his eyelashes.

Steve was still laughing. "Well, you're terribly modest, for one thing. Hey, hey, no," he said, when Tony tried to look away. "You're the best engineer in Starfleet and you know it. I like that."

"Not really seeing how that's relevant right now," Tony said, and then Steve licked his ear. "Oh, fuck," he said, shuddering, and he wondered if he was going to end up coming while still completely dressed.

"No? I bet you know about a lot of... useful things," Steve suggested, and it was kind of sweet that he was so awkward at innuendo but was still trying. "Thrust. Friction." Steve illustrated the words with another roll of his hips and Tony moaned. "Magnetism," he added. "Mmm. Attraction?"

Still gasping, Tony started to toy with one of the buttons on Steve's shirt. "This dirty-talk-with-science thing is really working for me," he admitted.

"Oh?" Steve's voice was nearly a purr. "Good. What do you think about moving this to bed?"

Every neuron in Tony's brain—or what felt like it, anyway—was currently occupied with cataloguing the precise feel of Steve's cock pressing against him, even through the layers of clothes, as well as the tiny hitches of breath Steve made as he rocked against him. "Good. Great," Tony breathed. "Yes. Bed. Bed is good."

Steve put his hand on Tony's ass—good idea, good idea, the best idea—and lifted him up. One-handed. He was holding Tony up against him like Tony weighed nothing.

Tony had never previously thought super-strength was a turn-on, but he'd never really thought about it. Talk about kinks he didn't know he'd had. He was so hard he was leaking—God, Steve and his super-senses could probably see it on his uniform. Steve could probably smell how much he wanted it.

"Oh, God," Tony breathed. "Or you could fuck me up against the wall. You could do that, right? You could hold me up against the wall?"

Steve grinned and ducked his head, a half-nod, as he started to carry Tony toward the sleeping alcove. "I could. But that one's actually a lot less fun than it sounds."

"It is?"

He'd tried that? Huh. Hidden depths. Tony was kind of liking the idea of imagining Steve's vast amounts of experience. He was kind of liking it a hell of a lot.

"Sadly, yes." Tony didn't know how Steve had any blood left in him, but somehow his cheeks were flushed. "And when I, uh— if it's really good, I go weak in the knees. I'd hate to drop you."

With those words, he promptly set Tony down in the middle of the bed. Steve's bed was bigger than Tony's, but made up with the same Fleet-issue bedding, soft, run through with metallic threads. The lights above the sleeping alcove were dimmed, and most of the illumination was starlight; three huge windows were next to the bed, and the Avenger wasn't in warp, so the view was all shining stars.

He glanced back and saw the same stars reflected in Steve's eyes, as Steve stood there, smiling down at him.

"I kept picturing you here," Steve said, softly. "Right here. Just like this. Didn't think it would ever happen."

"I'm here," Tony said, and he pulled Steve down next to him.

As they traded kisses, Tony worked at Steve's shirt until it hung open, and Tony realized that their previous time together hadn't given him the opportunity to see what Steve liked. He rubbed his thumb over Steve's nipple and Steve shuddered and moaned—and, okay, the answer was apparently going to be that Steve liked everything he did. That was gratifying. He ducked his head and bit and— oh, Steve really liked that.

Steve's cry was almost startled, and he was still rubbing up against Tony. He had to be killing himself in those jeans.

Tony motioned vaguely downward. "You want some help with that?"

He had no idea how Steve's smile was so heartbreakingly earnest when he was half-naked and very, very hard, but clearly Steve was just like that. "Sure. That'd be swell."

Tony couldn't resist the opportunity to palm him through the rough fabric; Steve's eyes fluttered shut and he groaned, rocking up against Tony's hand. It seemed for a few seconds like Steve was desperate enough to try to get off that way; Tony's mind was torn between oh, fuck, I want to see him come right now and the even more appealing it'll be even better if we can wait. Delayed gratification. He could handle that.

"Shh," Tony told him. "Easy. I've got you."

He carefully undid Steve's jeans and freed his cock. He hadn't really gotten a good look, back on Delta Geminorum IV, and he was going to remedy that now. Steve's cock was huge in his hand, heavy and full, wet with pre-come. Tony's mouth was practically watering, looking at him. Dear God, he was perfect. He tightened his fist around the shaft and gave Steve a nice, slow stroke, just the way he liked it, his thumb slipping over the slick head.

"Tony," Steve gasped, and he shoved his hips high in the air, seeking more.

Tony glanced along Steve's body, up the trail of fine blond hair, the defined ridges and planes of his chest, and he saw that Steve was staring, eyes wide, almost black with desire. Steve was biting his kiss-bruised lip, already breathing hard.

"Easy," Tony told him again, and stroked him once more, long and lingering. "Nice and slow."

Arching up again and then sinking back down, Steve huffed out a frustrated laugh. "And here I thought all you Starfleet engineers liked things that went fast." His voice was low and gravelly, like the hum of a ship breaking warp one. He was smiling.

Tony considered this. "Yeah, but we already did fast, Cap." He grinned. "I want to take my time, now that we've got the chance. Be methodical. Learn all I can. Try everything out. Also a virtue of my profession, you know."

Steve let his head fall back on the pillow. "Oh, God."

So Tony bent down and took Steve's cock into his mouth. Steve gasped, a small, strangled sound, and his thighs under Tony's bracing hand quivered, like it was taking all his energy not to just thrust up. He was big, and Tony was a bit out of practice, so Tony couldn't take it all, but Steve sure didn't seem to mind.

"Oh," Steve breathed, as Tony squeezed him tighter, as Tony licked the tip of his cock and then took the whole head in. "Oh, Tony, yes. Just like that."

Tony went as far down as he could go, sliding over the rest of Steve's cock with his hand. Steve filled up his mouth perfectly, with a satisfying weight and heft, and it was just... absolutely perfect. Steve was gasping and trembling, and when Tony gently palmed his balls while letting his tongue slide over the most sensitive spot, Steve made a low, broken noise and... gently tugged at Tony's head, lifting him up.

Chest heaving, Steve blinked down at him like he'd forgotten what he meant to say as soon as he'd gotten a good look at Tony. "You should see yourself," he murmured. "God, Tony, your mouth."

"Yeah?" Tony grinned. "You want to come all over my pretty face? We can make that happen."

Steve's mouth worked. He was the very picture of debauchery—pants undone, shirt open all the way down to his straining cock. Tony stroked him again just to watch him shudder and shiver.

"I want to at least see you first," Steve managed to say. "I want to— please, Tony, please—"

"Sure thing," Tony said, and he leaned up and kissed him, just because he could. He still had his hand on Steve's cock, and with one more stroke Steve was gasping against his lips, the kiss gone uncoordinated.

Reluctantly he stood up and started stripping out of his uniform, dropping it all on the floor in pieces. The jacket and undershirt hit the floor with heavy thuds. He wasn't trying to be sexy about it—it was just his uniform—and he turned away, perching on the edge of his bed to get his boots off. The rustling of fabric behind him suggested that Steve was doing the same thing.

He stood up to step out of his uniform trousers, turned around, and was once again transfixed by the sight of Steve. Steve was gloriously nude, sprawled out indolently on the bed, and this was a thousand times better than walking in on Steve in the shower because Steve was grinning up at him, one hand lazily palming his cock, and Tony was almost dizzy with lust. Starlight shone down on him from the windows behind him, casting shadows on his perfectly-sculpted muscles. Tony had Steve, and Tony had the stars beyond him. It was like the galaxy's most sensual holo advertisement for Starfleet. They really ought to change their motto, Tony thought. Ex astris, licentia. Yeah, that would work.

Steve glanced down and raised his eyebrows, and Tony belatedly realized he was still wearing underwear.

"Come on," Steve murmured, with a sharp little smile, like it was a dare. "Fair's fair."

Tony took a deep breath, hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his underwear, and shoved them off. It wasn't like Steve hadn't seen him naked before, or even naked and hard, thanks to the spores, but Steve had been trying to be professional then. He hadn't really been looking.

And now, now Steve was looking at him. Steve was really taking his time. This wasn't some discreet locker-room glance; this was full-on staring. Steve looked him up and down, slowly, and it was plain that he wasn't just looking at his face. Tony felt himself grow hot and he knew he wasn't exactly small, but he wasn't Steve, and he suppressed the impulse to cover himself. And it wasn't just that potential inadequacy; he knew he couldn't compare to Steve's musculature, either.

"I've been in better shape," Tony said, hesitantly. "And I mean, I know I'm not you—"

"For God's sake, Tony," Steve said, "you're beautiful. I mean it." He sounded almost appalled, like he had no idea how Tony could ever be hard on himself. "Come back to bed and I'll show you how much I mean it."

Steve held out his hand. Tony took it, and he let Steve pull him back down.

Tony had thought that now they were both naked, the pace would pick up again, would move beyond where they had been. He'd been expecting Steve to grind against him, to rub and thrust wildly. But Steve just took Tony's face between his hands, leaned in, and kissed him soft and sweet and somehow Tony was breathless anyway. He opened his mouth, tried to speak, and found that everything was startled wonder instead of words.

"There," Steve said, low and gentle. "There we go." He smiled. "Anything specific you wanted to do, now that we're both here? I've got some ideas, if you can't think of anything."

Tony very much wanted to hear about all of Steve's ideas. At length. "Well, it's your turn," he pointed out. "I picked last time, didn't I?"

Steve frowned and opened his mouth and Tony wasn't sure whether Steve was going for it doesn't work like that or last time doesn't count—though Tony could see how it sort of did and it sort of didn't. "I want to do something you want," he said, firmly.

"Pretty sure that something you want is also going to be something I want," Tony told him. "I'm just guessing, but I think we're on the same page here."

To illustrate his point, he slid his hand down to Steve's ass. Steve moaned and rocked up against him. He'd gone glassy-eyed, and he was panting heavily and trying to push his ass back against Tony's hand, as his cock grew even harder against Tony's hip, and Tony didn't need to be a genius to figure out that that was a very enthusiastic endorsement.

"You want that?" Tony asked. "You want me to fuck you?"

He'd never really considered that Steve would be the kind of guy who'd let him—antique morality, maybe—but wow, was that ever a nice idea.

Steve nodded fervently. "If you want that. Please. I'd really like that."

"Okay," Tony said, still trying to reconfigure his assumptions. "Okay. Better than okay. Wonderful. You got lube?"

He was about to suggest that they could synthesize some if Steve didn't keep it around—because when would Steve have been planning this?—but instead Steve waved lazily in the direction of the little nightstand on the side of the bed closest to Tony. "Top drawer."

The top drawer contained a very, very large bottle of clear lubricant. It was half-empty.

"Uh," Tony said. "I guess I don't need to ask if you've done this before."

Steve's grin was wide and cheerful. "I'm not a saint," he pointed out. "And I get as lonely as anyone. Toys are in the second drawer if you want any."


"Oh, you know," Steve said. "Some plugs, some dildos. Nipple clamps. Those are nifty. I really love how the future has replicators now. So useful."

Tony tried to imagine Steve replicating an entire collection of sex toys. "You've been pretty lonely, huh?" He squeezed some lubricant out onto his fingers.

Steve rolled over onto his stomach and spread his legs, and Tony could feel desire curl deep into him, because, wow, that was a view, and he was going to— God, Steve was really going to let him do this. His cock jumped.

"I thought about you," Steve confessed, his head pillowed on his folded arms, as Tony tentatively pushed two slick fingers inside him. "Oh, Tony," he moaned, as Tony's fingers slid deeper. "Just like that. I thought about you a lot. Doing this."

Tony thought about Steve thinking about this, and a jolt of heat went through him. If he wanted to be capable of actually fucking Steve, he'd better think about something else.

Steve was hot and tight and doing his level best to fuck himself on Tony's fingers, canting his hips back, meeting him with little thrusts every time, and he opened up as easy as anything. Tony curved his fingers and brushed Steve's prostate, and Steve gasped out something wordless and ecstatic and pushed himself against Tony's fingers again and again, ass in the air, cock dangling heavily between his thighs.

"Oh," Tony said, amused. "You like that, don't you?"

He thought about teasing Steve all night, making him beg for it, but then Steve looked back at him over his shoulder and smiled and said, "I'm ready when you are," and Tony realized he didn't want to wait that long either.

Steve rolled over a little more, propping himself up on one elbow, somewhere between being on his side and on his stomach. Tony went where Steve gestured, spooning right up behind him, arms wrapped around him, a position that could have been a chaste embrace if not for the fact that Tony's cock was nestled snugly against Steve's ass and, God, Tony could come just like this, just hold him open and come right all over his hole and he needed to not think that if he didn't want to come right now. He took a shuddering breath.

He was a little disappointed that he wasn't going to be able to see Steve's face, but apparently Steve was also very, very bendy, because he braced himself against the bed in some way Tony couldn't quite see and twisted around in his arms, straining until their lips could—just barely—meet, and okay, wow, that was even better. A definite plus.

"Please," Steve breathed, against Tony's mouth. "Please, Tony."

So Tony kissed Steve and slid inside of him in one motion, just barely breaching him with the head of his cock. Steve gasped into Tony's mouth, exhaled, and then his body relaxed all at once, taking Tony all the way in with one long, slow movement. Steve was always so warm, but he was even warmer here, inside, and he bore down around Tony's cock just the way Tony liked, and he was good, he was so good. They should have done this months ago, he found himself thinking. They could have been doing this the day they'd met. Why had they waited?

"Good?" Tony murmured.

"Mmm," Steve said. His eyes had fallen shut. "So good."

Tony didn't quite have the leverage—or honestly, the remaining stamina—to pound into Steve the way part of him deeply, deeply wanted to, holding him and thrusting heavy and fast and really giving it to him. The way Steve had reacted when Tony had barely brushed his prostate, he was positive Steve would have enjoyed it. But this was just as good, and maybe even better. Nice and slow, like he'd told Steve he'd be.

He pulled almost all the way out, long enough for Steve to protest with a small bereft noise, and then slid in again, slow and deep, burying his full length within Steve, and Steve moaned, obscenity and blasphemy and Tony's name, as Tony bottomed out within him. Tony slid his tongue into Steve's mouth, feeling like that kind of praise should be rewarded, and he kissed him hard and heavy, trying to be inside him every way he could.

It was easy to get a rolling rhythm going. Every thrust was a slow, easy glide as Tony pushed into Steve again and again, as Steve tightened down around him and gasped against Tony's mouth. Pleasure built within Tony; he could feel it from far away, growing and growing within him, higher and higher, as every motion brought him nearer to his own release. He was so close, but he couldn't come until Steve did. He had to hold out.

Steve pulled his mouth away from Tony's. "Touch me," he gasped.

Tony looked down the long length of Steve's body—God, that was maybe an even better view than his ass—down his torso, beaded with sweat, to where his cock, huge and hard, bobbed in time with every thrust. He wrapped his hand around Steve's cock and stroked him, just as slowly as before, matching the rhythm with which his own cock slid into Steve's body.

He pushed inside Steve, angling down to slide against his prostate, and he mirrored the thrust with his hand. He watched his own fist slide up the shaft of Steve's cock and tighten around the head as Steve thrust back onto Tony's cock and then forward onto Tony's fist like he wanted everything at the same time, and then he shuddered and came and came and came, all over Tony's hand, all over his stomach, everywhere.

Tony couldn't hold back any longer, and as he watched Steve's cock slide through his fist he shut his eyes and came. Quiet, blissful ecstasy rolled over him like a wave.

He lay there with Steve in his arms, his head bent against Steve's pale shoulder, until Steve made a quiet grumbling noise and Tony pulled out. They were kind of a mess. It was entirely worth it.

"Was that good?" Steve asked, and he actually sounded nervous. Like he didn't know.

"That was wonderful," Tony told him, and he kissed him, just to make sure Steve knew he meant it. "We should do that again. I'm going to need a bit of a break first, though."

He glanced down. Steve was hard again. Or maybe still. No one had ever mentioned that about Augments.

"I think I can manage that," Steve said, and then he looked down at himself. "I think maybe we should also shower. Care to join me?"

Tony laughed. "It's cute that you think we can both fit in that shower at the same time."

"Oh, that's not a problem," Steve said, easily. "You can go first. I'll watch." His gaze was avid, eager. Tony loved it.

Tony grinned. "I suspect I'm going to need a second shower after my shower."

"Possibly." Laughing, Steve stood up and offered him a hand; Tony took it. "Why, were you planning on doing something else this evening?"

Tony smiled. "I'm all yours."

He squeezed Steve's hand tight, fingers interlaced. Neither of them let go.

The turbolift doors opened onto the bridge. Steve was ahead of Tony and the rest of the senior officers were behind him, ready to take their duty stations. It was ship's morning, the beginning of alpha shift. Objectively, it shouldn't have been different from any other morning, but Tony had spent the night in Steve's bed—and that had changed everything.

It felt like the day he'd joined Starfleet. Like the day he'd met Steve, and rejoined Starfleet. Like the day they'd launched the Avenger. He was stepping out from the known world into a vast galaxy of possibilities, a bright new universe just waiting to be explored. He was on the edge of a great and wonderful thing. A new phase of his life.

He'd survived calamities and catastrophes and every time he'd picked himself up, and every time he'd kept going. And here he was. He'd made it.

The Avenger was his ship, his creation, birthed from his own mind, built with his own hands, and he had the good fortune to serve with his own handpicked crew, his friends, the best people he'd ever served with over the years.

And— and there was Steve.

The idea that Captain Rogers of the Invader was still alive was an idea that would have captivated Tony, no matter when it had happened. The idea that he was Captain America, and that Captain America was real—well, that was even more amazing. Everyone he had ever looked up to, in one person. Nothing he ever should have feared. Nothing he feared now, at least, and Steve had forgiven him.

But more than being his hero, more than being the best captain Tony had ever served under, Steve was Steve—brilliant, kind, funny, caring. And Tony loved him. He loved him so much. He knew Steve loved him back. They hadn't said it yet. But they had time. They had all the time in the universe.

They loved each other, and they knew it. He couldn't ask for more than that.

He hadn't thought his life would ever bring him here, but it had been worth it.

The senior officers took their stations. Tony's engineering board lit up under his hands; next to him, Jan slid her earpiece in her ear and grinned a hello. Tony glanced down at his board. All systems green. Perfect. The notes from Rhodey informed him that every last bit of damage from the Skrulls had already been repaired. Even better.

Steve was the last of them, taking his place in the command chair after everyone else had settled down. He lifted his head and glanced around the bridge. "Good morning, folks. Can I get a status report? Are we ready to get out of here? Maximoff?" He grinned. "Both Maximoffs, I mean. Flip a coin."

A mission précis had come in while Tony was in the shower for the second time; Steve hadn't briefed him on it, and he wondered where they were off to. It couldn't be the Skrulls again. If their ship had come from the Andromeda Galaxy, as they'd said, they had been a long way from home, and he had a suspicion that the Triskelion and maybe even the Excelsior were the first choices to defend the Federation there. Bigger, in that case, was better. Besides, if the Skrull empress was dead, then that had probably destabilized them enough that Starfleet wouldn't need to worry about an invasion for a long time. They were safe.

The twins glanced at each other, and then Pietro nodded. "Helm is ready."

Wanda smiled. "Navigation is ready. Awaiting a course, sir."

Steve nodded. "Good. Van Dyne?"

"Communications, aye," Jan said. "All decks report ready. Doctor Blake says sickbay is empty."


Hank looked up from the sciences console. "Sensors are fine. Nothing exciting around here, sir."


Clint was draped in a chair, not even looking at a board. "Security's fine, Captain. Except for how someone beat me at darts last night." He spun in his chair and nudged Carol with the tip of his boot.

"Duly noted." Steve's mouth quivered as he tried not to smile. "Danvers?"

"It is my considered opinion as your second officer," Carol said, "that we are ready to get the hell out of here." She glanced at Tony. "If the commander concurs, of course. We do need working engines."

Steve turned around to look at Tony, and he was smiling, really smiling, a bright and knowing smile he'd given no one else this morning, and Tony was positive that every single person on the bridge could figure out what they'd been up to last night. He didn't care.

"Tony?" Steve asked, softly, and, yeah, everyone definitely knew now. "We're not doing this without you."

He was smiling back, wide enough that his face hurt from it, and he never wanted to stop. "Impulse, warp, and transwarp at your discretion, Cap," he said, and he didn't even need to check the board. "I'm ready when you are."

He wondered if Steve remembered saying that to him last night. Steve's face was tinged with red, and his smile was a little wider.

Oh, he remembered.

"Right." Steve cleared his throat. "We are on a mission of peaceful exploration, and that's what we're getting back to. Even here in the Beta Quadrant, there's plenty of unknown territory, and Starfleet wants us to be the first ones to see it. And thanks to Commander Stark's engines—" he nodded his head to Tony, who just grinned— "we can get there faster than anyone else. Maybe there will be exciting new stellar phenomena. Maybe there will be new species—who want to meet us peacefully, this time. But whatever it is, I'm looking forward to seeing it."

Steve wasn't a soldier anymore, Tony thought, watching him. His war was over, and he'd finally come home. He'd found a new home, here, at Tony's side—and Tony was going to stay right here with him.

Steve coughed again and glanced away, a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry. Big speech, and I didn't think to look up—" He raised his voice. "Jocasta, the heading?"

"Two one five mark four, Captain," Jocasta said.

Steve grinned. "Great. Thank you. Lieutenant Maximoff—Wanda—lay in a course. Two one five mark four."

"Aye, sir," Wanda said. The console beeped under her hands.

And then Steve glanced back at Tony. "How do you feel about warp eleven, Commander?"

Tony let himself match Steve's grin, and then he let the smile turn sharp and knowing. "You know me, sir. I like to go fast."

Steve held his gaze for long moments, and then he shook his head and smiled. "You— I— all right. All right. We'll talk later," he said, and Tony had a pretty good idea of what talking entailed. Steve laughed and turned back. "Pietro! Warp eleven. Go."

Pietro nodded. "Aye, sir."

On the main viewscreen, the placid starfield started to move, smearing into a bright wave of light, the familiar sight of the inside of a warp bubble.

Tony's board lit up, warp and then transwarp, the warp envelope settling into place over the diagram of the ship, as the deckplates under his feet rumbled. It was a perfect transition. The board stayed green.

"Engineering reports warp eleven," Tony said. "We are stable."

Smiling, bright-eyed, Steve leaned forward in his command chair, gaze fixed on the viewscreen, at the oncoming, undiscovered universe. Tony realized he was smiling too.

He was happy. He was here. They were all here together.

"There's a whole galaxy out there," Steve said. "Let's go say hello."