Title: Exactly Under the Star (LJ | Comment)

Author: posyvanilla

Rating: R

Pairings/Characters: Steve/Tony, slight Carol Danvers/Jessica Drew, Luke Cage/Jessica Jones, Peter Parker/MJ, Logan

Universe: Complete AU, with ties to 616

Beta: jazzypom

Labels: AU

Warnings: Violence, Character Death (off screen)

Author's Note: Huge thanks to jazzypom, for her wonderful beta work. Title comes from a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, from The Little Prince: “Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.”

 

Summary: Complete AU; takes place in a future in which humans have begun to colonize planets, and borrows heavily from situations in current Marvel canon. New Avengers meets Dark Reign meets Firefly.

Norman Osborn is ruling the (not so free) world, Tony Stark is leading a motley crew of superheroes in an attempt to regain their freedoms, and Steve Rogers may not be as dead as everybody thought.

 

Art by Skyearth85 (1)

* * *

 

The first time Tony Stark had pulled Steve Rogers out of the ice, he'd been frozen inside a solid block of ice, deep in the frigid waters of the planet Tony was privately calling Hoth.

 

The second time Tony Stark pulled Steve Rogers out of the ice, Steve stuck around to return the favor.

 

* * *

 

Five Years Gone: A Retrospective, by Jessica Jones

 

Five years since the Superhuman Registration Act first reared its ugly head, the Daily Bugle presents this special report on the state of the galactic union. Four years since the SHRA first passed the Senate's muster, and three years to the day since the assassination of Steve Rogers: the superhuman community mourns their fallen son, and the circumstances which have driven them out of the hearts and minds of the galaxy.

 

However, while the times are dark, points of light can be found, if one knows where to look. The superhuman resistance against Norman Osborn has steadily grown these past three years, and as long as brave citizens continue to oppose him, the war has not truly been lost.

 

* * *

 

 

* * * * * * *

CHAPTER ONE

* * * * * * *

 

 

Peter was scrolling through the different viewscreens when suddenly his fingers stilled. “What the hell . . .”

 

“What is it?” Tony rushed over to find Peter staring, open-mouthed, at a view screen which was currently capturing a long, rectangular metal box in its lazy drift through the black crawl of space. Underneath the view screen was the life signs detector; Tony was pretty sure that boxes floating through space should be registering as inorganic matter, but the little detector kept beeping incessantly, and was glowing faintly green.

 

That's. . . weird,” Tony admitted, pressing a grimy finger to the console. Finding debris in space was rare, but not unheard of, but the possibility of finding life--the odds were infinitesimal. "Something is wrong here."

 

“Definitely,” Peter agreed. “Were you aware of any malfunctions in this part of the system?” he asked, almost hopefully; Tony shook his head.

 

“Should be working fine." Tony pressed a finger to his lips, thinking. “I was refining the catalytic converters earlier, should give us a bit more thrust, but none of that would have impacted this at all.”

 

Peter shrugged then, gesturing toward the still beeping monitor. “Tell that to the life signs detector.”

 

Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Something new to fix. Wonderful.” He inwardly added the life signs detector to his list of things to look at--a list that was growing longer by the hour, it seemed. Already that day he'd rewired the converters and replaced the drivers on the navigation system. Adding this to the list of things that needed to be fixed--not to mention the things that Peter wanted him to have a look at--would set him back even further.

 

At this rate, he thought, he'd be better off scrapping the whole thing and pulling the plug. Every time he managed to fix a leak, two or three more sprang up elsewhere.

 

“Might as well go ahead and reel it in,” Tony said over his shoulder, already heading down to engineering to grab the tools he'd need to dismantle the console.

 

“Anything salvageable, we can pawn it off for fuel.”

 

“Like you need the money,” he heard Peter mutter. Tony rolled his eyes, walking out of the room and down the hallway to the turbolift stationed at the end of the deck. The metal walkway underneath his feet clanged loudly; overhead, the cooling pipes hissed, providing relief to the Aegis's overworked systems.Tony pressed a hand to the bulkhead above him, listening to the whine of the labored core spanners; a project for another time, and he filed the thought away for later. He keyed in the turbolift controls to take him down two decks, to the engineering room. The lift whirred softly and shuttled him down, and then Tony was stepping into the heart of his ship, the big engine turning steadily before him.

 

By the time he'd gotten back--dirty shirtsleeves rolled up, a bag of miscellaneous tools slung over his shoulder--it appeared that Peter hadn't moved at all.

 

Tony sighed. “What, has the extraction arm gone on the fritz now, too?”

 

Peter shook his head slowly, and then pointed at the viewscreen. “You need to take a look at that.”

 

“I have the strangest feeling of déjà vu right now,” Tony joked, slinging the bag over his head and placing it on the floor. “Just a certain feeling--”

 

“Tony, I'm serious,” Peter interrupted urgently. “For once, I'm serious. Please just take a look at the screen, okay?”

 

Tony glanced at the viewscreen; the rectangular box was still there, but now it was clasped in the grip of the extraction arm. Peter had reeled it in, but for some reason, he'd stopped before actually bringing the box inside the shop; Tony looked over the box carefully, checking for loose wires, maybe an acid leak, when he found it.

 

Etched onto a corner of the box, about the size of the palm of his hand, was the round emblem of a shield, over which was a five-pointed star.

 

Tony dropped the wrench he'd been holding; it hit the deck with a loud clang, and Peter didn't so much as bat an eyelash. “Pull it in,” Tony said, voice gone curiously hoarse, and Peter just nodded. The moment that Tony saw the arm begin moving again, inching in toward the airlock, he turned and started walking steadily toward the bay area.

 

Steve--Steve was supposed to be buried in Arlington, he kept thinking to himself; he was reeling, head swimming with a hundred thoughts a minute, nearly all of them the same: Steve was dead. That was Steve's logo, the familiar design of his shield, on the front of the box. Tony had thought that it was space debris, and the size of the thing--it shouldn't logically exist, shouldn't be out there, and yet there was no other possible explanation for what it could logically be.

 

Tony barely managed not to walk into a low bulkhead after rounding the corner. Steve was dead. Steve was supposed to be buried in Arlington. Steve was dead, and he was supposed to be in Arlington, and some sick fuck had put his body into outer space, and . . . 

 

Tony rounded the last corner, coming face to face with the large windowed door leading into the cargo bay. He could see, beyond even that, the opened airlock; with a gentle hisswish of air, the forward airlock door glided open, and the mechanical arm guided the box (Coffin, he thought sickly) into the cargo bay. Tony watched as the arm retreated, and the airlock doors sealed firmly shut behind it; as soon as it was safe, he bolted into the cargo bay, waving the door behind him shut and locked with a firm thought. No one else should have to open Steve's coffin.

 

Tony dropped to his knees, running a hand around the smooth, hard edge of the coffin; it was a little taller than he was, and must have been at least four feet deep. It was freezing cold, so much so that his fingers tingled after touching it; Tony rubbed them absently on the rough fabric of his pants. As far as he could see, there was no release mechanism on that side of the box. On the far end, however, directly opposite the etched shield insignia, he found a keypad--electronic, and blinking steadily. Tony smiled darkly. The Extremis had been taken from him, but he had more tricks up his sleeve than that. Ripping the plate off of the keypad, he began running his fingers over the wires inside, tracing them back until he found the ones he needed. Ripping them from the keypad's motherboard, he pulled a pocketknife from his pants and stripped the plastic coating from the wires. Carefully, he wound the copper wires he'd revealed around each other, and then pressed the faceplate back onto the keypad.

 

After only a few seconds there was a sharp click, and then the top of the box disengaged, rising upward from the rest of the metal a couple of inches. It was just enough room for Tony to fit his fingers inside; wrapping them with a grease rag he hastily pulled from a back pocket, he grabbed the metal and pulled, hard.

 

It barely budged; Tony stood, putting his weight into pulling at the lid, and then all at once the entire piece flew open, nearly jerking Tony's hands away. It was hinged on the inside; Tony would have taken a moment to admire the craftsmanship of the invisible joins if he hadn't noticed the contents of the box, and nearly dropped his hold. Instead, he shoved the cover over, letting it hit the floor with a loud clang.

 

When he'd first seen the box through the viewscreen, having absolutely no idea of its origin, he'd imagined that it was just loose cargo. Food, maybe, or medicine; of course, once he'd seen that insignia, he'd known what the box had to be. He should have realized as soon as he'd seen the smooth, silver rectangle. He'd seen Steve buried in a box exactly like that, and now, seeing it again, he realized that the three years separating the occasions he'd had to stand in front of this box had not been long enough to dull the pain of Steve's death.

 

And then, once he'd known what the box--coffin--had to be, what other possibility could there have been of its contents?

 

Compressed air hissed as the top of the metal lid hit the floor, and for a moment Tony couldn't really see anything through the white clouds billowing out. He raised a hand, waving the gas from his face; it smelled faintly like rubbing alcohol and formaldehyde, and for a moment Tony thought he might be sick.

 

And then the smoke cleared, and Tony saw what was inside--what he'd figured all along--and he barely registered the clang against the deck and the pain in his legs as he dropped to his knees. 

 

Steve Rogers lay in the coffin, his face so much paler than Tony had remembered; he was dressed in thin cotton scrubs, and he was breathing.

 

Tony brought a shaky hand up to his face, wiping at his eyes, but when he looked again, vision cleared, the sight before him hadn't changed. Steve was lying there, nestled in among tubes and wires. There was a clear nasal cannula stuck in his nose, but otherwise, his face was not obscured. Long, thin tubes radiated from his elbows and wrists, alternating red and clear; Tony belatedly realized that they were I.V. lines.

 

And Steve was breathing. Tony couldn't explain it; the life signs detector had been right, and out of the billions upon billions of stars in the galaxy, they'd swung past this one and found. . .

 

An incessant beeping startled him, and Tony leaned over the metal box, eyes casting on a small, round data pad that was now flashing yellow, then green. Tony had enough time to wonder whether he should be calling someone in the bay to assist him before Steve's eyelashes began fluttering open.

 

Steve groaned, low and hoarse; Tony reached over to help remove the I.V. lines from his arms and halted, realizing belatedly that the tubes had already emptied and were now ejecting themselves from Steve's arms and coiling back into the sides of the box.

 

Only a few seconds had passed, but it felt to Tony like hours; and then Steve's fingers were moving, and his eyes opened and fixed dazedly on the ceiling above him before darting over to rest on Tony.

 

Steve opened his mouth to speak, but coughed instead, taking great, racking breaths. For a few moments it seemed that he wouldn't stop, couldn't catch his breath, and then before he knew it Tony was half-crawling across the floor to get to him. Tony put an arm around Steve's shoulders and pulled him into a sitting position; he was shockingly cold, and must have still been sedated, Tony decided, because he wasn't pulling away. For a moment, it was as though time slowed to a crawl; Tony closed his eyes, memorizing the feeling of Steve, whole and warm and alive, resting in his arms and only a little thinner than he remembered. Tony opened his eyes again and clutched tighter at Steve's broad shoulders.

 

Steve kept coughing, and Tony rubbed his hand awkwardly on Steve's back, moving in soothing circles, until finally the coughing fit subsided. Steve shook his head sharply, as though trying to clear it, and he then looked up at Tony again, the confusion evident upon his face.

 

“Don't try to talk,” Tony said desperately, waiting for Steve to catch his breath again. “We'll get you something to drink, some water, you've been gone--you've been gone for a while,” he finished lamely.

 

Steve shook his head, stubborn to the last, and Tony found himself smiling--only Steve, he thought fondly; Steve was real, lying there under his hands, and he would deal with whatever piper they had to pay later.

 

“Help,” Steve whispered, and Tony examined him again, concerned. He looked fine, although a little winded. There was no telling how long he'd been in stasis, however, and Tony had no clue how that would have affected his physiology; if Steve was having some kind of reaction to having been awakened, there was no way his crew could deal with it, and the nearest hospital was at least an hour away. . .

 

With a pained wince, Steve cleared his throat. “Help . . . me up."

 

Tony blinked, and then nodded, tightening his grip around Steve's shoulders and waist. He braced himself and then stood, slowly pulling Steve up along with him. He was reminded, fleetingly, of other times when he'd had to drag Steve's uncooperating body around--after a mission had gone bad, blood seeping from a cut on Steve's forehead--and despite the time that had passed between when he'd last seen him, Steve Rogers should never have been this weak. Not even if he had been dead for three years. 

 

Steve was unsteady on his feet, his body racked with light tremors; it was only then that Tony realized that it was a bit chilly in the loading bay. He was protected, in his coveralls and ratty old sweater, but Steve was wearing only the thin gray medical scrubs, and the skin on his arms and neck was covered in a cold sweat from the exertion of standing.

 

“All right, come on,” Tony said gruffly, helping Steve out of the box and onto the cold metal floor of the loading bay. “Explanations can wait until later; we've got to find you some clothes.”

 

“Tony—what,” Steve stammered, holding out a hand and staring at it. He was still shaking slightly.

 

“I don't know,” Tony answered helplessly. “But we'll figure it out. Come on.”

 

“Can walk by myself,” Steve insisted, pushing weakly at Tony's hands and stumbling, nearly toppling them both onto the floor.

 

“Not yet, you can't,” Tony said grimly, tightening his hold around Steve's waist. He took a tentative step forward, and found that Steve still wasn't following him; his face had taken on a greenish cast, and he was trembling more violently.

 

“I am not equipped to deal with this,” he heard Peter say somewhere outside the door, and then Steve leaned forward and vomited spectacularly all over the floor.

 

* * *

 

With Peter's help, Tony managed to half drag, half pull Steve down to the ship's makeshift infirmary. They sat Steve down on the examining table and then Tony grabbed Peter by the arm, pulling him out of the room.

 

“We'll be back in a minute,” he called, pausing at the doorway. “Don't touch anything.”

 

Steve scowled at him, and Tony darted out of the room, closing the door tightly.

 

“You,” he barked, pointing at Peter's chest, “are going to go and examine that metal box we just pulled in. I don't care what you have to do, pull the whole damn thing apart, but find out whatever you can about it.”

 

Peter nodded, his normally pale face gone white, and then Tony snapped his fingers, remembering something that had been bothering him.

 

“And if you find any kind of a tracking device, turn it the hell off,” he commanded.

 

As Peter turned to head back down to the loading bay, Tony pulled a communicator out of his pocket. “All personnel to the infirmary,” he said, and then, as Peter's footsteps stilled, he sighed.

 

“Not you, Peter,” he called out, and then crossed his arms over his chest, ready to wait impatiently until the rest of his crew appeared. It didn't take long; first Luke strode in, arms crossed over his chest. A minute later Jessica and Carol appeared, faces mirror images of worry; finally Logan lingered in the doorway, after ambling slowly down the corridor.

 

“Are you hurt?” Carol asked sharply, eyes raking over Tony's body; he shook his head. “Peter, then?” 

 

“No,” Tony said. “Look, it's complicated. Peter and I pulled in a big metal box a few minutes ago; it was giving off a life signs reading.”

 

“So what are we doin' at the med bay?” Logan asked, folding his arms and leaning against the doorway, his gravelly voice displaying obvious annoyance.

 

“The box is not the important thing,” Tony snapped. “The contents of the box—that's another story.”

 

With that, he moved slightly to his left, uncovering the small window into the room behind him. Carol, who was closest to him, took a step forward and then blanched. 

 

“Son of a bitch,” she swore. “What the hell is that?”

 

By then, the rest of them had crowded around her and were looking in the window, displaying various states of surprise. All of them, that is, except for Logan; after peeking through the window, he'd simply shrugged lightly and then backed up, leaning against the wall behind them, looking completely nonplussed.

 

“I don't have any answers,” Tony said, gesturing vaguely at the door. “We pulled in the cargo box, and he was in it. I've got Peter going over the box now, to search for anything that might make sense of this.”

 

“This is just. . .” Jessica trailed off, shaking her head. “What are we going to do with him? How are we even going to figure out if it is him? Am I the only person here paranoid enough to think that this might be some kind of trap?”

 

“No,” Luke said bluntly. “You're not.”

 

“I'm going to run tests,” Tony snapped hotly. “If that's not the real Steve Rogers, I'll find out.”

 

“If that's not the real Steve Rogers,” Carol broke in, “we're jetting him out into space. Sans the box, this time.”

 

“Carol--” Tony started, but Logan snorted, leaning forward out of the shadows.

 

“That's him,” he said gruffly, nodding his head at the door. “Smelled him when I first came around the corner here. You can run all the tests you want, but I'd bet my left arm that's him.”

 

Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. “We'll say it's him after I've run all of the tests--Logan--”

 

Tony trailed off, watching as Logan, apparently done with the impromptu meeting, turned and began walking away down the hall.

 

“Call me when your tests come back,” he called back, and then disappeared down a corridor.

 

“Don't worry about him.” Luke's eyes were still glued to the small round window. “You just figure out whether or not that's Rogers.”

 

The unspoken and don't fuck it up rang in Tony's head. He nodded.

 

“Will do,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Now you two should get back to the ship,” he said, glancing at Luke and Carol. “Jessica, Peter may need some help in the cargo bay.”

 

“On it.”

 

“Luke, I'll catch up with you in a few minutes,” Carol said firmly. “I want to sit in on a couple of these tests.”

 

“That's not necessary--” Tony began, but Carol cut him off with an impatient wave of her hand. 

 

“Even if that is Steve in there--and I'm not saying that I think it's anyone else--it may not be safe for you to be around him. You can't protect yourself very well right now,” Carol said. “I'm not taking a no on this, Tony.”

 

“Fine,” Tony snapped, and angrily pushed the door to the infirmary open. He'd been alternating between remembering the events surrounding Steve's death with chilling accuracy, and attempting to forget everything that had happened between them. In a normal world, Tony wouldn't need protection from Steve Rogers, and the very idea of it was grating.

 

Carol entered the room close behind him, toeing the door shut behind her. She had her arms crossed stiffly over her chest, and was examining Steve as though he were some sort of biology specimen to be dissected. He was lying stiffly on the hospital bed, looking small in his gray scrubs and bare arms, and glaring angrily at the white walls surrounding him. Tony stood near one of the numerous medical cabinets, leaning against it for support, but Carol marched right up to the edge of the bed, arms folded over her the front of her black uniform. 

 

“Carol,” Steve said warmly, or tried to; he burst into another coughing fit that left him hunched over the bed and gasping. Tony's hand darted out, and then stopped; had Carol not been there, he might have continued the motion. Instead, he turned jerkily, aware of Carol's gaze on his back, and filled up a glass with water before handing it over to Steve, making sure that their fingers did not brush.

 

“You'll forgive me if I'm a little skeptical about you,” Carol was saying. “I mean, we didn't exactly end things well. Not to mention the fact that you died.”

 

“Yes, well--I what?” Steve asked, mouth agape. His eyes darted quickly between Carol and Tony, and then he shook his head, as though to clear it. “I didn't--I didn't die. What are you talking about?”

 

“You were shot,” Tony said bluntly. “Outside the Senate. You were brought there for trial, remember?” Tony paused then, thoughtful. “Well, I suppose you might not. Maybe you repressed the memory.”

 

Steve was shaking his head. “No. The last thing I remember, I was in my cell, and a group of guards came to take me to trial. . .” He trailed off, absently rubbing at the side of his arm. “There was a doctor with them. He had a syringe, and he injected me with something. And then the next thing I know, I'm waking up in the belly of your ship.”

 

Steve turned a suspicious glare on Tony. “Where did you find me?” he demanded. “How long was I gone?”

 

“Long enough,” Tony said, mouth gone dry. He flashed back to the moment, three years ago, when he'd seen Steve's body jerking with the impact of rifle shots; the footage had been run on all of the major news feeds for weeks. If Steve hadn't been gunned down on the steps of the Senate, he wondered, then who had he watched die?

 

Carol cocked her head at him, resting her clenched fists on her hips. “Long enough to make us question whether or not you're really you,” she said, sticking out her chin aggressively. 

 

“So that's what this is,” Steve muttered grimly. “And here I thought it was concern. Go ahead, run your tests.”

 

He leaned back against the bed, resigned. Tony just shook his head, turning to pull open a drawer. He'd need a blood typing kit, and the Skrull detector, definitely; pulling more materials and kits out of the cabinets, he dumped them on the counter top and then pulled on a pair of latex gloves.

 

At Steve's incredulous look, he shrugged. “Just being thorough.”

 

“You know, you've always had a problem with paranoia,” Steve remarked, but he didn't flinch away from the first press of the needle as Tony began to draw blood.

 

In the corner, Carol snorted, folding her arms and leaning back against the wall. “Right, because you were never unduly worried before. Spare us.”

 

“At least I didn't completely betray everything that I stood for.” Steve raised his voice. “The police came after us with bullets, not words, Carol, and they were on your side.” 

 

“Put pressure on that,” Tony interrupted, guiding Steve's fingers over to the cotton ball he'd used to stopper the needle prick. He inserted one of the tubes of blood he'd drawn into a centrifuge; the rest would be subjected to various light wave tests.

 

“You wouldn't listen to us!” Carol was nearly shouting now; as Tony watched, she stamped a foot down on the floor. At one time, that blow would have cracked cleanly through the metal paneling.

 

“You're confusing disagreeing with not listening,” Steve said stubbornly. “We never muted your opinions, we just didn't think that you were right.” 

 

Tony's communicator buzzed, loud in the tense silence, and he started, slapping a hand to the transmitter. “Stark here.”

 

Jessica's voice came over the line, tinny and scratchy. “Tony, I need to talk to you. I'm making my way back to you now.”

 

The connection closed, and Tony pocketed the communicator. “I've got to go speak with Jessica." Carol and Steve were glaring at each other, and Carol still had her fists clenched, as though she were about to lash out. Inwardly, Tony groaned. “Try not to kill each other while I'm gone, please.”

 

He pulled off the gloves, tossing them into the trash before stepping hastily out into the hallway and leaning his back against the cool door. The communicator buzzed again, and Tony sighed, turning it on once again.

 

“Jessica, whatever it is, you can just tell me when you get here,” he said, only to be met on the other line with a very un-feminine snort.

 

Um. . . okay, whatever. Tony, I've gone over this thing with everything I could think of. There's no tracking device in here,” Peter said.

 

“That's good work, Peter. Now get back to engineering, we have more work to do.”

 

“Hey, wait, one more question,” Peter said breathlessly. “Who's going to clean up the vomit in the cargo bay?”

 

Tony sighed, remembering the mess that no doubt still sat right where they'd left it. “That would be you. Otherwise, I'll lock you out of the bathrooms.”

 

“Fine,” Peter groaned. “I shouldn't have even asked,” he muttered, and then abruptly closed the communication.

 

Jessica appeared around the corner then, her face set in a determined line, and Tony mentally steeled himself for what would follow. “Well, that was fast,” he said, and Jessica shrugged.

 

“Okay. What can you tell me?”

 

Jessica rummaged around in the front pocket of her jumpsuit, and then pulled out a tiny copper device—it looked like a computer's motherboard, but it was crawling with more pathways than Tony had ever seen on a device of that size. “I've seen these before—when I was working for Hydra,” she explained.

 

Tony swore. “So we're dealing with Hydra now, is that it? I thought they'd pretty much gone kaput.” 

 

“Pretty much,” Jessica agreed. “But Tony, when I saw these devices, they were nowhere near complete. This had to have been maybe five years ago, and their scientists were sure that it would take another couple of decades at least before this technology would be viable.”

 

“Looks like they made a breakthrough.”

 

“Yeah, it's pretty sophisticated stuff,” Jessica agreed. “They had him in stasis, obviously, and they knew that some sort of cellular degredation was possible. . .”

 

Jessica trailed off, flinching at the look on Tony's face. Clearing her throat, she continued. “Anyway, they knew what they were doing. This was a highly complicated stasis chamber; lots of money went into this thing. Lots.”

 

Tony nodded stiffly. “And if we hadn't found him?”

 

Jessica just blinked at him, and then shook her head. “You don't understand. When I said that this thing was sophisticated, I meant it,” she said, pointing at the copper device. “If we hadn't found him, he could have survived in that stasis chamber indefinitely. Tony, it draws power from thermonuclear energy, and it was set in orbit around a star. The only thing I'd be worried about right now is whether or not that thing has a tracking device on it—and I'd bet good money that it does. Whoever put him out here is going to want him back.”

 

Tony thought abruptly of the loneliness of it all: orbiting a star in the deep black of space, far from any habitable planet or shipping routes; only belatedly did he realize that his fingernails were digging a trench into his clenched palms.

 

“Peter didn't find any tracking devices in the stasis chamber,” Tony said absently. “I'll look over it again, though, just to be sure.”

 

Jessica shrugged. “If Pete didn't find anything, then I doubt you will, either. The next thing I'd check would be him. It's entirely possible that he's been implanted with some kind of subcutaneous tracking device.” 

 

Tony nodded. “Yeah, you're right; I trust Peter's work. And I'll do that. Good work, by the way,” he added. “And listen, if you remember anything else about that device, let me know. If you can find out who had the capability to manufacture something like that, it would be a big help.”

 

Jessica looked at him oddly. “Don't tell me that you haven't already jumped to the obvious conclusion. You and I both know exactly who did this. The only thing we can wonder about now is what he was going to do with Steve.”

 

“I'm not leaping to any conclusions,” Tony frowned sternly. Jessica just pursed her lips.

 

“Sure.” She shrugged her shoulders at him and began walking slowly down the corridor, her shoes thudding loudly on the walkway.

 

Contrary to what he'd just told Jessica, Tony had a pretty good idea about the person who had enough influence and money to engineer the device, the scenario--all of it. Not giving voice to his suspicions was simply the last line of defense he had against them.

 

Tony turned back to the infirmary, reaching for the door's controls when it flew open in front of him. Carol stalked out.

 

“He is impossible to deal with,” she fumed, waving a hand behind her to gesture at Steve. “So you've got my vote that he's the real thing.” With that, she ran a hand through her hair and stormed down the hallway in the direction Jessica had gone.

 

Tony shook his head, attempting to clear away the fatigue that had begun to gnaw at him, and walked in to find Steve standing next to the bed, leaning heavily on it for support. His formerly pale face was now blotchy and red with anger.

 

“Steve, I'd like to perform a bone density scan,” he lied.

 

Steve scowled. “You haven't run enough tests already? If this is some sort if thinly disguised way to check to see that I'm me, then you can just tell me, Tony.”

 

“I know it's you,” Tony snapped, feeling his face growing hot. “Why can't you just for once go along with what I tell you to do? Lie down on the bed, the scan will take less than a minute.”

 

Steve glared at him, but complied, laying down and crossing his arms over his chest. “That's because I know how to tell when you're lying, Tony,” he said smugly, right after the scanner in Tony's hand had begun to beep.

 

“If that's a bone density scan,” he continued, “then I'm--”

 

“Don't finish that sentence,” Tony interrupted. “It's a damned bone density scan, I'm telling the truth. It just has a few other special features.” That was mostly true, he mused; while he was in fact running a bone density scan, the particular scanner he'd picked up was designed for any number of complicated medical scans.

 

The machine had started beeping once he'd scanned the vicinity of Steve's chest; for a moment, his breathing stopped, and then Tony shook his head. “Move your arms down to your sides for a minute, I need to check your heart again.”

 

“Something's wrong with my heart?” Steve's brows knit together, and then he shrugged, moving his restless hands to his sides. “I suppose that's to be expected.”

 

Tony ignored him, moving the scanner once again to image the area around Steve's heart. The Aegis was outfitted with a number of complicated medical devices, capable of performing scans and even simple medical procedures--there was a dialysis machine tucked into a cabinet somewhere, and a robot that could quickly and efficiently perform blood transfusions and donations, among others. Anything as complicated as removing a tracking device from the heart, however, would be far beyond the capabilities of any of his machines, and none of the ship's crew had the intensive medical training that such a procedure would require.


The scanner hummed, signalling that its procedure was complete, and Tony had half a mind to shake the thing. Before, the machine had blipped at him, finding an analogous metal implant in Steve's body, and he'd been sure that it was on Steve's chest. Now, however, the machine was presenting him with a wonderful array of data--Steve's bone density was a little low, he noted, and his blood temperature was a bit off, as well--but there was no sign of the implant.

 

Steve crossed his arms over his chest again. “Look, I deserve to know what you're doing.”

 

The machine chirped happily, and Tony stared at it, perplexed. The implant was back, which made no sense, unless . . .

 

“Hold out your arms,” Tony coaxed, waving a hand when Steve hesitated. “Come on, hands out.”

 

Steve sighed and stared at him, and Tony turned his head away. The machine found nothing on Steve's left hand, but on his right, buried within his wrist, was a small metal disk.

 

“Gotcha,” he said quietly. Tony put the scanner down and grabbed Steve's hand, running a finger over the thin skin of his wrist, and there it was; a small, rounded bump, and barely even visible to the naked eye.

 

“Tony,” Steve was insistent, his hand flexing in Tony's grip. “Tony, damn it, tell me what you're doing before I--”

 

Punch you, Tony finished mentally. “It's a tracking device,” he interrupted, dropping Steve's hand abruptly. “We've got to get it out and turned off. And we're low on the local anesthetic, so this is going to hurt. Aside from that, you're in surprisingly good shape.”

 

“Would it have really been so difficult for you to just tell me that you were scanning for a tracking device?” Steve asked, exasperated. Obviously not in want of an answer, he continued. “This is why we had problems, Tony. You don't trust people. You run these calculations and you figure out what you're going to do thirteen steps ahead but you don't take other people into consideration.”

 

There was no heat in Steve's words, just quiet contemplation, and the resolute, resigned nature of it nearly made Tony flinch. “We had a lot more problems than that, Steve,” he retorted. Jerking one of the cabinets open, he grabbed for a suture kit and a basin, pulling out the last of their anesthetic as well. They'd have to make a supply run soon anyway, he reasoned, and he wasn't petty enough to cut into Steve's arm without it. Not yet, anyway.

 

Tony dropped the supplies onto the arm of the gurney and then hooked a leg around the rolling stool behind him, jerking it forward. Sitting heavily, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and then ripped into the suture kit, pulling out a swab and a vial of Betadine.

 

“Look,” Tony said, “I know this is difficult and it doesn't make any sense and I'm sorry, but I can't be the person to sit down and explain everything to you. You remember Jessica Jones, right?”

 

Steve just stared at him. “I may have been out of the loop for a while, Tony, but it doesn't feel like it to me. I haven't forgotten anybody.”

 

“Just checking,” Tony muttered. “She's been doing undercover work for the Bugle, reporting on the history of this whole thing, and she sends out regular reports to all the media centers all over the Rim. You can read those and get an unbiased account of what's been going on.” Tony swabbed at the area over Steve's wrist, his eyes downcast; memories surfaced, unbidden, of holding that wrist gently down on a soft mattress, and Tony moved his hand back, as though he'd been burned.

 

He threw the used swab in the trash, hoping to cover his erratic movement, but Steve was eying him carefully. Tony reached for the syringe of anesthetic, and then positioned it over Steve's wrist.

 

“This is going to sting,” he warned, and then emptied the syringe's contents into Steve's arm.

 

Steve didn't flinch, just stretched his fingers out and waited. “It's probably not going to help much, either,” he replied.

 

“You won't feel a thing,” Tony promised, ripping into the sterile scalpel enclosure. “It'll be quick.”

 

Tony took hold of Steve's wrist in one hand, and in the other he brought the scalpel to bear over the raised lump of the tracking device. With a flick of his wrist, he managed to open the skin; it took only a bit of pressure to pop out the tracking device. It was very small, nearly the size and shape of a grain of rice; Tony dropped it into the empty basin he'd brought over.

 

He then picked up a pad of gauze, placing it over the small cut on Steve's wrist. It was oozing blood, but sluggishly.

 

“Here,” Tony said, “put pressure on that.”

 

Steve pressed the bandage down, the knuckles on his hand white. “What is that?” He gestured with his chin at the basin.

 

“Tracking device,” Tony repeated. “You heard me the first time, right?” He swished the tracker around in the basin, and then scrubbed a couple of drops of blood off of its surface. “And I really hate to destroy the technology, but it has to be done,” he said, placing it on the floor. With that, he stamped his foot down, hard; the device was crushed into bits. Raising the scanner, he pointed it at the detritus and was pleased to find that the signal it had been emitting was no longer transmitting.

 

“I heard you,” Steve said, shaking his head in disbelief, “but I don't think I really processed it. Who the hell would put a tracking device in my arm?”

 

“Beats me. Hey, you probably have a better idea than we do," Tony lied. He gathered all of the used medical supplies into the trash, along with his latex gloves. “We're working on it, though,” he continued. “I'll let you know if we find anything out.” 

 

“After you analyze it and discuss it with everyone else, first,” Steve accused.

 

Tony turned around. “Probably,” he agreed. “Look, Steve, you've been gone a while--”

 

“How long?” Steve interrupted, demanding. “How long was I gone?”

 

Tony stopped, fumbling for words. “I'm not--I'm not sure that I should be the person to tell you,” he said finally, picking his words carefully.

 

“And just why is that?” Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest once again. “What have you been doing since I was gone?”

 

Tony sighed. “It's not me you should be worrying about,” he muttered.

 

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Things really have changed, then, haven't they?”

 

Tony's head snapped up, stunned; Steve's words cut him as deeply as if he'd been physically struck. “Look,” he said, practically fuming, “I know that you have no reason to trust me right now, and that's understandable. And yes, if I were in your situation, I'd probably feel the same way. But just try to trust me on this, okay? We'll going to set you up in a room with all of Jessica's dispatches and you can read it all for yourself.”

 

“And if I want you to drop me off at the nearest outpost, after I finish reading?” Steve asked.

 

Tony paused. “I really don't think you will,” he said softly.

 

“But if I do?” Steve pressed.

 

“You're not a prisoner here,” Tony sighed. “If you want off the ship, we'll drop you off somewhere, okay? Just at least read the reports first. And maybe talk to the rest of the crew.”

 

Peter chose that moment to burst into the room, thrusting the door open with perhaps more force than was necessary. “Cap!” he practically shouted, leaping over to give Steve an awkward pat on the shoulder. “Man, is it good to see you again. Alive, I mean.”

 

“It's good to see you, too, Peter,” Steve said; if his eyebrow went any higher, Tony thought, it would migrate into his hairline.

 

“The cargo bay is officially clean,” Peter said, practically skipping over to the counter. “And that was officially gross.”

 

Steve kept glancing back and forth between Tony and Peter, and Tony finally rolled his eyes.

 

“I told you things had changed,” he muttered.

 

“You're taking all of this pretty well, for a guy who's been locked up in a stasis chamber for three years,” Peter mused, hopping up to take a seat on one of the dull gray cabinets. “I mean, as far as I can tell, since you're not actually saying anything. Has he lost the power of speech?”

 

“I'm not sure how else to take it, Peter,” Steve said coolly; as soon as Peter had uttered the words "three years," Steve had begun staring at Tony, narrowing his eyes pointedly. “Since nobody will tell me what's been going on during my absence.”

 

Tony turned to glare at Peter and was unsurprised to find him carefully looking away. “Look,” he snarled, patience finally run thin, “I can't answer all of your questions. I just can't. You got to completely miss the last three years, which is wonderful for you, and I understand that you have questions but I can't answer them. Just trust me on this and sit down with Jessica's dispatches.”

 

“Fine,” Steve said, swinging his legs over the side of the table. “Then we're going right now.”

 

“Fine,” Tony shot back. “Peter, take Steve to the comm room and pull out Jessica's dispatches for him.”

 

Peter hopped down off the counter he'd been perched on, and walked to the door, gesturing for Steve to follow him.

 

“Sure,” he said, leaning against the door, “but where are you going?”

 

“To the kitchen. To get some food for our guest,” Tony muttered, and then stormed out of the infirmary and down the long, winding corridors toward the kitchen. He pushed the double doors open easily. The room was furnished only with a wooden table and chairs, which were bolted to the floor, and with a large steel refrigerator and several cabinets full of dried meal rations. The kitchen was dark, most of the lights extinguished. The sink, he noted with disgust, was filled with dirty dishes--most likely Peter's.

 

Tony was unsurprised to find Logan sitting at the ragged table, munching on a box of stale crackers. “Told you it was him,” he said, smirking, and Tony was hit with the sudden desire to throw something at him.

 

Instead, he made his way to the pantry, pulling out a couple of juice packs and two of the meal packs that formed the bulk of their diet. They wouldn't be very tasty, but their comparison to MREs was unavoidable, and Steve likely wouldn't mind.

 

"So," Logan began gruffly, interrupting his train of thought, "is he gonna be okay?"

 

"I--yeah, he's going to be fine, he just needs to eat," Tony said, flummoxed. Logan nodded at him and turned his attention back to the crackers: an obvious dismissal. 

 

When Tony got to the comm room, he found Steve already seated in front of the central display system. Peter was pointing at the screen, flipping from newspaper clippings to encyclopedia entries and back again. There was a box full of printouts beside them, the papers nearly overflowing.

 

“Peter, I remember how most of this stuff works,” Steve was saying, only the faintest hint of annoyance in his voice.

 

“You say that now,” Peter was saying, “and then in five minutes somebody's going to be yelling at me to come back down here and fix whatever you've broken.”

 

“I think he can handle a viewscreen, Peter." Tony nudged the door fully open with his foot. The desk holding the display system was clear, save for several hastily scrawled notes that Peter had apparently put there. Tony pushed them to the side, ignoring Peter's sigh, and placed the juices and meal packs down on the table.

 

“It's just juice, and MRE-like food packs,” he said, answering Steve's quizzical stare.

 

“More like food-like food packs,” Peter said snarkily. At a look from Tony, he slunk out of the room.

 

Steve's stomach grumbled, and he reached for one of the juice packs, pulling open the tab and draining nearly half the carton in one gulp. The muscles of his Adam's apple pulsed as he drank, and Tony tore his eyes away.

 

“If I'd known you were that thirsty, I would have brought more. I'll be right back,” he said, but Steve waved a hand at him, shaking his head.

 

“I probably need to take it easy anyway,” he explained. “But if I'm still hungry after this, I'll take you up on that offer.”

 

“Okay,” Tony said awkwardly. “Are you sure you remember how to work that thing?” he asked, pointing at the touch screen monitor.

 

Steve rolled his eyes, halfway smiling, and for a minute, it was like nothing had happened between them--and then his eyes flicked up to Tony, suddenly guarded. “I think I can handle it, Tony,” he said abruptly, and then turned around in his chair.

 

Tony walked out of the room slowly, listening as Steve ripped open the cardboard on one of the meal packs. He heard the faint clicks of the screen as Steve began to scroll through the documents therein, and Tony closed the door softly behind himself.

 

Tony reached for the communicator in his pocket. Turning it on, he selected the option to broadcast to all of the ship's communicators.

 

“I'm going to go get some work done in my quarters for the next few hours,” he lied. “Anyone who disturbs me better have a really good reason.” He flipped off the communicator before anyone had a chance to respond, and then trudged to his room, kicking his boots off once he'd shut the door behind him.

 

 

* * * * * * *

CHAPTER TWO

* * * * * * *

 

 

When Tony had decided to make a run for it on the ship, he hadn't had time to update the cabins at all. Mostly, the crew (he still couldn't call them Avengers, even with Steve on board) didn't seem to mind. After all, they had stable places to live now, and were as safe as they could be, on the run.

 

Still, Tony thought, looking around the tiny room, a few modifications might have been nice. The downside to a fast ship meant that his inertial dampeners had taken a bit of a hit, and as such he couldn't afford to have much furniture onboard that wasn't completely bolted down. The bed was small, its frame entirely metal, and it took up a large portion of the room. At the other end, a metal desk occupied the far wall. Apart from that, Tony just had random belongings scattered about his room; a small trunk held a couple of changes of clothes, and a few books that he hadn't wanted to part with. He had screwdrivers and bits of engine parts scattered on the floor.

 

Tony bolted the door behind himself and then walked wearily over to his bed, sinking down upon it. To his right, set into the ship, was a small, oval window. He could see nothing but the blur of black space outside, and he rested a finger upon the cool glass. The view was deceiving; his finger, resting upon the glass, appeared to be inches away from the void of space, but Tony knew (from his own design specifications) that two feet of plexi glass comprised the window.

 

Tony placed his communicator underneath his pillow, and then reached up to dim the light over his bed. Steve would finish reading the communications soon enough, and then he'd want to talk, no doubt, and Tony wasn't going to be able to have a serious conversation with him on the four hours of sleep he'd had in the last couple of days. He was going to take a nap—just a quick one, just long enough to get some energy—and then go wait outside Steve's door. 

 

* * *

 

"The Great Deception," Jessica Jones

--Daily Bugle

 

It was during this time that Norman Osborn first rose to political power. Riding high on the success of his weapons during the Third Skrull War (see Skrull: history and extermination), Osborn ran for, and won, office on Delta 7. During his tenure as governor of the planet, Osborn presented several bills to the galactic legislature, primarily dealing with the regulation and conscription of genetically advanced humans; he is perhaps most well known for his Superhero Registration bill (November 15, 2371). This bill, originally derided throughout much of the legislature, came to pass easily after an unfortunate incident concerning a young runaway mutant blowing up five city blocks (see Lee, Jubilation) caused public support of the bill to skyrocket. 

 

I told you it would pass,” Tony said wearily. He looked as though he hadn't shaved in days; the sheen of his armor had dulled, and his helmet, tucked underneath an arm, was stained with soot and ash.

 

Steve wanted to reach out and caress the strong curve of Tony's jaw, but he kept his hands to his sides. Reaching out at this point would do no good.

 

And I told you that I would fight it, no matter what,” Steve replied.

 

Tony sighed, and the sound echoed around the empty room Steve stood in.

 

So you're determined to resist, then,” he said, shaking his head. “You know I won't help you.”

 

Steve nodded. “I know. But I wanted to let you know that the option was still open, even if I knew you wouldn't take it.”

 

Look, Steve, I've got to go,” Tony said abruptly. “This bill—I know you don't believe in it, but it has the potential to do tremendous good. But that doesn't mean that it can't be warped. I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen.”

 

I'm sure you will,” Steve said easily. “I just feel more comfortable making sure that that's never a problem.”

 

Tony nodded jerkily, and for a few moments, they just stood there, looking at each other.

 

I don't know when I'll be able to speak with you again,” he said finally. “If this goes down the way I think it might, it could be a while.”

 

I'll be around,” Steve assured him.

 

And Steve? Tell Peter to up the security on your communicator. Another couple of minutes, and my security will cut right through the scrambler you've got up.”

 

I'll do that,” Steve said easily, and Tony nodded, his visage scratchy in the small wall-mounted communicator.

 

Goodbye, Steve,” he said, and then the image winked out.

 

For a few moments, Steve had been able to believe that Tony was in the room with him, and Steve flicked off his own communicator, cursing himself for how much he'd wanted it to be real.

 

Osborn's Registration bill essentially stripped all superheroes, genetically superior or otherwise, of several of their basic freedoms. Osborn had, by the time of the bill's passing, been elected to the position of Speaker of the Legislature, and while certain individuals did speak out against the tyrannic tendencies of the Registration bill, those dissenters were quickly and quietly silenced. In the beginning, the superhero community was divided upon the subject of registration, with several well-known and popular heroes supporting opposite sides of the bill (see Stark, Tony and Rogers, Steve). Osborn charged several of the pro-Registration superheroes with finding and incarcerating the superhero resistance. However, as anti-Registration forces held out, Osborn resorted to military action to force superheroes into compliance, and many eventually registered.

 

You'd better be right about this,” Steve growled into the communicator. “If anything happens to Peter--”

 

Relax, Steve,” Tony snapped. “Nothing's going to happen to him, except that he won't be hunted down anymore. You could stand to learn from his example, you know.”

 

Steve snorted, and then shook his head violently. “Remember when you mentioned how this thing had great potential, but it would be easy to corrupt it?”

 

Tony nodded slowly.

 

We don't have to worry about that scenario any more, do we?” Steve asked. “It's already happened.”

 

After the Third Skrull War, Osborn attempted to reform the registered Superheroes into a series of galactic patrols, with the plan of stationing teams of superheroes around rim planets and highly populated Allied worlds. Claiming that his plan was for protection, Osborn ordered all registered (and unregistered) superheroes to report to Echo II for orders and for the implementation of tracking chips (July 3, 2374). Several well-known superheroes attended the meeting, including Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, and others. The meeting was thwarted when, two hours after the beginning of the meeting, a series of precisely planted detonations collapsed the medical hospital which housed the gathering. Most of the attending superhumans escaped.

 

All that is known of the meeting is that it was there that Osborn chose to introduce a series of nanites, which would later be known as the omega strain. Administered to all superheroes in attendance, the nanites effectively shut down any and all superhuman characteristics within the host. In a press release, Osborn promised that all renegade superheroes would be injected with the nanites until such time as an agreement for their intergalactice services could be reached.

 

Osborn would later claim that the explosion had been engineered by Stark; however, conclusive evidence has never been found to corroborate Osborn's claims. After the incident, Osborn released a galaxy-wide warrant for the arrest of Tony Stark; soon afterward, Osborn would release a series of warrants for all superheroes who had not already turned themselves in to the government. To this date, since Stark's defection to the resistance, none of the heroes have been apprehended.

 

The door to his cell open, and Steve looked up, surprised. Tony had left only moments earlier, but if he'd come back--

 

Tony was nowhere to be seen. Instead, several guards entered the room, followed by a man in a white lab coat and the one man Steve had wanted to find since this whole nightmare had begun.

 

Osborn,” he growled, rising to his feet. The guards, all holding

 

Mr. Rogers,” Osborn said, smirking. “You're being moved to a new holding facility. The good doctor, here, is going to be kind enough to give you something to ease the travel.”

 

Nobody told me about a transfer,” Steve said.

 

You're being told now,” Osborn said curtly. He snapped his fingers, and one of the guards began unlocking his cell.

 

Try to resist, and you'll be shot,” Osborn warned. “Not that that wouldn't make my day, actually, but it won't do you any good.”

 

The cell door clanged open, and the doctor, a portly Asian man, stepped inside. He wouldn't meet Steve's eyes, and his fingers were trembling. He pulled a vial from his pocket, plunging a syringe inside.

 

If you wanted to kill me, you could have just waited until I was convicted at trial,” Steve said bitterly.

 

Osborn laughed. “Kill you? My, but you've been friends with Stark for too long,” he said, sneering. “Your paranoia is showing. I don't want to kill you.”

 

The doctor stepped up toward him, and for a moment Steve thought of how easy it would be to break the man's neck. He could do it before any of the guards even noticed that he was moving, for whatever good that would do him; there was no way he could get past all of them and out the door.

 

Just to make you sleep,” the doctor whispered, so that only Steve could hear. Steve didn't glance at him. “Not a poison. Just for sleep.”

 

Steve nodded, minutely, and the man plunged the syringe into his arm, emptying the yellow contents of the needle. Once it was done, the doctor placed the syringe back into his pocket and then hurriedly walked away, past Osborn and all of the guards.

 

Steve felt the effects of the drug almost immediately, and he had to wonder at the potency of a medicine that could affect his physiology so quickly. One moment, he was glaring at Osborn, and the next, the world was spinning around him. He fell to his knees, and then over onto his hands; none of the guards moved to help him. With gargantuan effort, Steve managed to raise his head, peering into Osborn's leering face, and then he could no longer hold his eyes open any longer.

 

* * *

 

Steve rifled through the remaining documents listlessly, cataloging their descent from bad to worse. He remembered Peter interrupting him, at some point, and telling him to go to bed; he'd lead him to an empty bedroom and left him there with the box of printouts and cuttings--Steve had refused to leave it behind. He lay on his bed, surrounded by documents and lit with only the small overhead light and a small string of twinkling lights in the shape of stars; Peter had pressed them into his hands. The ship around him was quiet, and Steve glanced out of the small window next to his bed and saw--black, just a formless void. Grabbing blindly for a newspaper printout, he scanned the paper, reading the title of its cover story with a raised eyebrow.

 

In the span of the last month, he read, a volcano eruption on Calderra III claimed the lives of nearly one thousand people, while a faulty bridge on Delta 7 collapsed, killing over seven hundred people. In the wake of such horrific--and highly preventable--accidents, the public must now wonder: who, if anyone, will step in to save them?

 

Steve placed the printout carefully on the desk, and then pulled for a press release--Jessica Jones's name was printed neatly underneath the headline.

 

In a statement released by acting head of the Superhuman Registration Committee, Norman Osborn made it clear today that the time for leniency with unregistered superheroes has come to an end. “Any unregistered superhuman caught resisting the will of the Legislature will be given the choice to surrender or to be brought back in a body bag,” he is quoted as saying.

 

Snarling, Steve tossed the paper aside. Press releases, newspaper clippings, and illicit documents Jessica had been pilfering for them--the deterioration of the Senate made no sense, and yet, with Osborn as its golden boy leader, all of the pieces fell eerily into place. Steve rifled through the printings before finding a thin, folded piece of newsprint, buried under the bulk of the other papers. He unfolded it carefully; it appeared as though someone had clipped it from an actual newspaper, and that was precious enough to make him cautious in opening the document.

 

Steve was shocked to see his own picture decorating the front of the clipping; above it, the title glared at him, its black ink grown spidery with age. It read The Death of Captain America, and Steve folded it carefully and placed it back inside the box of documents before denting his fist into the metal tabletop. "Damn it," he swore, running a hand roughly through his hair. He and Tony had a great many things to discuss, he decided, before sighing and turning back to the box of memories.

 

* * *

 

When Tony awoke, he knew, without checking his alarm, that he'd been sleeping for quite a while; the headache he'd been nursing (due partly to lack of sleep) had dissipated. Hoping that, for once, he'd been able to refresh with a nap, he rolled over and stared at the blinking clock digits set into the wall beside his bed.

 

“Shit,” he cursed, swinging himself out of bed. He'd been asleep for nearly twelve hours, plenty of time for Steve to finish reading Jessica's dispatches and then decide that he'd be happy to be put ashore at some backwoods outer rim planet.

 

Tony had barely put on his shoes and slipped out the door when he ran into Peter walking outside in the hallway.

 

“Peter,” he said, grabbing the other man's shirt sleeves. “Where is Steve?”

 

Peter warily eyed him up and down. “Are you feeling okay? Because if you're, I don't know, sleep walking, then you need to go back to bed, and if you finally have the space madness then I don't really know how to deal with that--”

 

“Peter,” Tony said wearily, running a hand through his hair, “I am not sleep walking. There is no such thing as space madness. Where is Steve?”

 

“Are you sure about the space madness?” Peter asked, almost hopefully, and Tony just glared at him.

 

“All right, all right,” Peter said hurriedly. “He's in the spare bedroom.” 

 

Tony blinked. There were two spare bedrooms, and surely Steve would have chosen the far one, but Peter looked vaguely guilty. “Okay, I'll bite. Which spare bedroom?”

 

Peter gaped at him. “Oh, like you think anybody would take the spare bedroom next to Logan. He's in that one, obviously,” Peter said, pointing at the door set only a few feet down from Tony's own.

 

“Of course he is,” Tony muttered. “Okay. Go back to whatever it was you were doing--”

 

“Fixing the catalyzer on the port compression coil,” Peter supplied helpfully.

 

“For the last time, that catalyzer is fine,” Tony snapped. “Just--go and finish running the scans on Echo IV.”

 

Peter held his hands up in front of him, palms out; a sign of contrition. “Consider me gone,” he said, and as he left, Tony turned away and to the door set into the wall, only a few feet away from his own.

 

Tony pressed the button for the door chime; after a moment, he heard Steve's voice, curiously gruff, bidding him to enter.

 

Steve was sitting on the bed, his elbows resting on his knees. He had printouts scattered all around him, on both the bed and floor. They were the dispatches, Tony realized. As Tony entered the room, Steve stood, the papers around him rustling softly. The door closed with a soft whoosh of air, and then the room was quiet.

 

Steve looked like he wanted to punch something; Tony was mentally bracing himself for it, but all Steve said was, “They cut your connection to the armor?”

 

Tony nodded slowly. “I've rigged it so that I can control it remotely, but whatever Osborn's nanites did to the Extremis has me out of commission physically, so to speak.”

 

Steve clenched his fist and looked away, shaking his head slowly.

 

“I suppose you read about Carol, and the rest of the ones they got to,” Tony ventured, and then shrugged. “It could have been a lot worse, I guess.”

 

“Worse--” Steve stopped, strangled. “You--all of you could have died, and you're telling me that it could have been worse?”

 

Tony shrugged. “We thought you had died,” he explained. “So, yeah. Could have been worse.”

 

Steve sighed, sinking back down to sit on the edge of the bed. “Tell me about the ship.”

 

“Gladly,” Tony said. He sat himself on the low bench lining the wall of the room. “You may remember the plans I was drawing for it; I was working on it for quite a while before I ever needed to use it. This is actually the prototype--”

 

“That's not what I meant,” Steve interrupted. “Tell me about why you can't leave this thing.”

 

Tony shrugged again, staring down at his hands. “No Extremis to regulate my system means that my bum ticker is back,” he said, rapping the knuckles of his left hand gently against his chest. “I've fixed the ship so that it generates a pulse that keeps everything in order, but it takes a lot of power and machinery that I haven't been able to condense into suit size yet. I'll figure it out eventually, though.”

 

“You and I both know that if you put your mind to it, you could fix the suit up in no time,” Steve said, almost gently.

 

Tony laughed. “Your faith in me is flattering. But things have changed.”

 

Steve raised an eyebrow at him. “Tony, you built your own spaceship, and if I know you, you did it by yourself. You made all of this,” he said, sweeping his hand around the room. “You could fix that suit.”

 

“I really couldn't,” Tony said, shaking his head. “Well, that's not true. Given the time and resources, sure, I could fix the damn thing. But Steve, really, things have changed. I don't have the time and resources, and there have been more important things to worry about, anyway.”

 

“You're effectively a prisoner on your own ship,” Steve said slowly. “How is that not an important thing?”

 

“I've dealt with that before, being confined to the suit.” Tony shrugged. “This is just a different kind of captivity.”

 

Steve shook his head at him. “I want you to get to work on fixing that suit,” he said firmly. “If something happens to this thing and we have to evacuate, you'll be stuck here. That's not acceptable.”

 

“You're giving out orders,” Tony observed, unable to contain a smile. “You must be feeling better.”

 

Steve colored at that, but he didn't say anything. “Does that mean,” Tony said, breaking the silence, “that you've decided to stay?”

 

Steve didn't answer immediately, and Tony took a shaking breath, already mentally quelling the hope that had begun to rise up within him.

 

“Yes,” Steve said finally. “Mostly because I can't think of any other reason for all of these people to be on a ship together than for you to have some kind of a plan to fix all of this.”

 

“That's fair,” Tony offered, stifling his sigh of relief. “And I do. I have a plan. And Steve, it's going to work.”

 

Steve nodded. “That's good. Because it's high time somebody paid for all of this,” he finished, gesturing violently with his hand.

 

“Hey, we agree on something,” Tony said, making a concerted effort to sound unconcerned. "That's noteworthy."

 

Steve snorted at that. "Now, explain to me how you managed to get Peter and Luke on this ship with you, because I've been reading these printouts for a while and things just aren't adding up."

 

"My makeshift crew." Tony grimaced. "Pretty simple, really. Osborn is trying to reel all of us in, but he has a most wanted list, and they're at the top of it. There's no safe place for them out there; their only defense is to be constantly on the move. Some of them were easier to convince of this than others." Tony grimaced. "And then some of Osborn's guys got a little too close to MJ for Peter's comfort, and he got her hidden away and hopped onboard."

 

"But why them?" Steve pressed. "I mean, Peter, I get that. But what's his connection to the rest of them?"

 

"We haven't been able to find out for sure, yet," Tony admitted. "But I'm pretty sure that he's been working on genetic modification--he has to want them for a reason, and I'm betting that he wants to slice them up to make his own set of superpowered lackeys. I'd bet that's got something to do with why he faked your death, too, although he obviously hasn't finished whatever he's working on, or we would have seen it." 

 

They fell into silence again, Steve peering at the papers scattered around him, and Tony using the opportunity to drink in the image in front of him: Steve sat deep in thought, his brow creased. He was tapping one finger against the papers, an absent metronome, and Tony's heart warmed at the sight.

 

“How many did they get?” Steve asked suddenly, looking up from the papers. “I didn't see an exact count anywhere.”

 

“That's because there isn't an exact count,” Tony answered. “Only Osborn knows, I guess, and he isn't telling. In terms of the people they've effectively neutered with those damn nanites--everyone who was at that meeting, as you read.” Tony grimaced, fingers once again resting over his heart. “On the ship? Other than myself, both Carol and Logan are neutralized.”

 

“But--they're both formidable fighters still, surely, ” Steve pushed.

 

“Sure,” Tony agreed. “But neither of them is invulnerable now, and they're not used to that. Made for pretty cocky warriors. And Logan is perpetually angry about his claws.”

 

“What about his claws?”

 

“They don't work.” Tony mimed flexing his wrists up and down. “Or, they could work, but he hasn't got the healing factor to survive the blood loss from popping them in and out all the time. And he's taking that about as well as you'd expect, all things considered.”

 

Tony sighed. “In terms of people that he's got locked away, I'm not entirely clear. But I know that they've got Reed and Hank, and I'm pretty sure that he's got Beast tucked away somewhere, too.”

 

“So he's got most, if not all, of the people who might have had some kind of chance of destroying those nanites,” Steve sighed. “Great.”

 

“We don't need to destroy them,” Tony answered back. “Osborn's already got the cure. We just have to get to it.”

 

“Well, set a course,” Steve retorted.

 

Tony reeled, slapping a hand against his forehead. “What do you mean, right now?"

 

Tony sighed. "Look, we have a plan to fix all of this, but it doesn't involve flying off half-cocked to get ourselves captured, okay?”

 

Steve sighed, slumping his shoulders. “I just feel useless,” he said. “Like I've been out of commission so long, I need to do something.” His hands clenched into fists suddenly, and then he relaxed.

 

“It's only been three years, Steve,” Tony said gently. “And we're close, I promise. If we had the arsenal right now to go in there and beat Osborn, I would have already turned the ship around, but we don't.”

 

“Well,” Steve said, glancing at Tony, “at least you've got another weapon now.”

 

“No, I don't.” Tony shook his head firmly. “Nobody can know that you're alive, Steve, or that you're with us. Whoever put you in that box--

 

“Stop it with the farce. You know exactly who put me in there,” Steve broke in harshly.

 

“Fine,” Tony acknowledged. “And so do you. But my point still stands. We have to keep you a secret for as long as possible. Any indication that we've got you, and he'll up the attempts to find us tenfold. And we're close, Steve--we're finally close. We just have to be careful for a little while longer.”

 

Steve considered Tony's words for a while, and then nodded his assent. “Fine. I'll sit quietly by, for now.” He stood, stretching, and speared Tony through with his gaze. “But when it comes down to the end, I'm fighting, and I won't take no for an answer.”

 

“I wouldn't expect you to,” Tony said. He stood, gesturing at the door. “Now, let's head over to the mess. You're probably hungry enough to eat Luke's cooking by now.”

 

* * *

 

Peter was in the kitchen when they arrived, after a short and completely silent walk from Steve's quarters.

 

“Hey, did you know that this juice that we picked up from Hestia Prime is composed of 1% apple juice, 99% artificial sweeteners? This stuff is tasty and nutritious,” he said enthusiastically.

 

Tony glared at him, and Peter shrugged. “Peter, go away and do something else for a while,” he said gruffly, mimicking Tony's voice. Picking up another juice box, he turned to leave. “Okay, Tony, you got it.”

 

Tony shook his head. Opening the pantry, he looked in, taking stock of their meager supplies. “Sorry, we're running a little low,” he called out. “You can choose between a meatloaf MRE or a chicken surprise one.”

 

“Meatloaf,” Steve said quickly; Tony tossed the packet into the microwave and then turned around, raising an eyebrow in question; Steve just shrugged.

 

“Voice of experience,” he said, and then blushed as his stomach growled loudly. “Didn't you mention something about Luke's cooking?”

 

Tony grimaced. “That was more of a joke than anything,” he admitted, and then glanced at the microwave. “But you've got a couple of minutes left on the MRE, so what the hell. Have a cupcake.”

 

Pulling a plastic container out of the pantry, he pealed off the lid to reveal a collection of foodstuffs that looked remarkably like cupcakes, if a little crumbly. Tony grabbed a napkin and then removed one from the box, replacing it in storage.

 

“Here,” Tony offered, “this was left over from Peter's birthday.” He placed the cupcake-like substance in Steve's hand, and shrugged at the wondering look he received.

 

“It doesn't actually taste like a cupcake, but Luke assured all of us that it has the nutrients for a complete daily vitamin requirement, so. . .”

 

Tony trailed off, smirking, as Steve carefully placed the cupcake on the table; not far down the hallway, he could hear Logan cursing, long and loud.

 

“In space,” they heard Peter intone, “nobody can hear you scream.”

 

Logan stalked into the room, rifling through the pantry, and then cocked his arm back, throwing a can of beans at Peter's head before taking off down the hallway after him.

 

“It certainly doesn't feel as though much as changed,” Steve deadpanned, settling himself into a chair and picking at the cupcake.

 

“If only,” Tony said, and then winced as bits of the cupcake fell onto the table.

 

“Oh, come on,” Steve pulled off a piece of the cupcake. “It can't be that bad.” He popped the bit of cupcake into his mouth, and then stopped, hand still poised in the air.

 

“Tony,” he said carefully, bits of crumbs clinging to his lips, “this tastes awful.”

 

Tony couldn't help it, then, and he stopped trying to smother a laugh. “Well, it's made of wheat germ, protein powder, and imitation eggs. What did you expect it to taste like?”

 

Steve spat the cupcake back out onto his napkin, wiping a hand hastily over his mouth. “The icing tasted like motor oil,” he admitted, making a face.

 

Tony shrugged. “Luke never did tell me what he made the icing out of, actually.”

 

Steve's eyes went wide. “I don't want to know,” he said, finally, and threw the remains of the cupcake into the garbage.

 

Tony laughed, and then turned away, rifling through the silverware drawer for a knife and fork, which he promptly passed over to Steve.

 

“So, where is everyone?” Steve asked, and Tony shrugged in response.

 

“Carol's probably screwing around with the autopilot settings again, and I'm sure that Peter is off 'fixing' something or other,” he said, rolling his eyes. The microwave dinged, finally, and he pulled Steve's dinner out, setting it on the table for him.

 

“As for the rest of them? I'm not sure. We're not exactly a happy family, Steve,” he said carefully, settling himself into the chair across from Steve. “We don't sit around and tell campfire stories.”

 

“Yes, arrangement of convenience, I get it,” Steve said, punctuating his words with his fork. “It's you that I'm failing to understand.”

 

“Me?” Tony swung a hand about to gesture at the space around him, uncomfortable under Steve's piercing gaze. “What's not to understand? Millionaire playboy spending his free time on a luxury liner in the exotic vestiges of space. Or something very like it.” He laughed hollowly. “There's nothing here to understand.”

 

Steve shook his head, chewing carefully as he thought about his next words. Finally, he shrugged, swallowing, and set his fork down on the table. “I just keep trying to figure out why you're doing this, because you're obviously not getting anything out of it.”

 

“Nothing other than revenge,” Tony said, steepling his fingers on the tabletop. He was developing a new callous underneath the thumb on his left hand, Steve noticed; likely from overworking himself, as he used to do.

 

“I'm a simple man. No need to look for any other motivation, I promise you.”

 

“You keep saying that, and I'm still not buying it,” Steve answered. “Not that I've forgiven you, because God knows I haven't. But I appreciate what you're doing for these people. I'm just wondering what you get out of it.”

 

“I get my life back,” Tony said sharply, meeting Steve's gaze and holding it. “That's it.”

 

“If you say so,” Steve said, stubborn as ever. “Far be it for me to think that maybe you're a decent person, after everything.”

 

Tony was saved from having to respond as Carol's boots clacked loudly down the hallway, signifying her imminent arrival. Sure enough, she turned the corner into the kitchen shortly thereafter, waving a piece of paper in her hand.

 

“Okay, Mr. High and Mighty,” Carol said, settling herself into the chair next to Steve. “Since you're going to be bunking with us for a while, you get to help out with the maintenance. Pick your chores.”

 

She spread the sheet of paper out on the table in front of him, and Steve stared at it, tracing the little boxes--dishes, laundry--with his finger. “Why isn't your name on here?” he asked suspiciously, tapping the paper. “Tony's, too.”

 

“Because we're pilots,” Carol snapped, “and pilots don't do housework.”

 

Steve scowled at her. “That doesn't sound fair, just because--”

 

“And that's my cue to leave,” Tony said, scraping his chair noisily over the floor in his haste to stand. “If either of you needs me, I'll be in the cockpit, and please don't murder each other while I'm working. And--” Tony hesitated, eying Steve's form, still clad in his gray scrubs. "I'll send some clothes over to your room. Maybe a book." 

 

"Fine!" Carol called out to Tony's swiftly retreating back, "go and run off." Turning back to Steve, she gestured at the list resting innocently on the table between them. "Pick."

 

"Why?" Steve asked, crossing his arms over his chest, and Carol's glare ratcheted up another notch.

 

"Fine," she said, pulling a pen from the pocket of her jumpsuit and scribbling a name in one of the boxes. "Washing out the CO2 scrubbers. Nice choice, nobody wants to do them." 

 

"But--" Steve started, and Carol silenced him with a look. "No buts. You decided to stay, which is dandy, so now you get to contribute. Tony already told me that he doesn't want you going out on missions. Consider the scrubbers your upkeep, and welcome to the Aegis."

 

"I imagine that went over really well with Logan and Peter, you throwing chore lists at them as soon as they carted their luggage onboard."

 

Carol stared at him, hard. "I keep forgetting that you weren't around the last couple of years," she said finally, looking away and leaning back heavily into her chair. "Steve, the ship wasn't even finished when Tony put it in the air. The crew consisted of me and him, and Tony practically worked himself to death in the first week trying to get the propulsion light speed-capable. We had Logan, sure, but he doesn't know the first damn thing about spaceships and he doesn't want to."

 

"He put an unfinished ship in the air? What was he thinking?" Steve demanded. He was racking his brains for the answer, but coming up blank; none of the news articles he'd read had gone into any specifics about how, or when, Tony had launched his little rebellion.

 

Carol sighed, and ran a hand through her hair, snaking through the tangles. "We went together to the meeting, Tony and I," she began. "Tony knew that Osborn was up to something, calling all of us there, but he wasn't able to figure out what was going on, exactly. So we went. Tony rented a transport ship on Eden Prime, a massive one, and he had them load us up and the Aegis, too; don't ask me how much money it cost, because he wouldn't tell me and it's probably better that you don't ask now, anyway. I thought he was just being paranoid."

 

She laughed bitterly. "We took the transport as far as Tony thought was safe, and then we set the ship in orbit around one of the moons of Echo II. We took a shuttle to the planet's surface, for the meeting." Carol looked away, swallowing, and it took a moment for her to continue. "When we got to the Senate, all these guys in white coats were there to meet us. They told us that Osborn had developed some new technology that would make the SHRA irrelevant, but that in order to see it, we had to be inoculated. They fed us some bullshit about radiation poisoning, and we let them inject us. They herded us all into a room and left us there for a while before Tony figured out what was going on."

 

"Extremis," she clarified, to Steve's questioning look. "The nanites didn't work right away; it took about a week or so for them to fully get going. Tony got the feed for all of it--what the nanites were, how long they'd been working on them, how Osborn was planning to disburse them. Who he was planning on injecting, and the people on the top of his list."

 

She trailed away, staring at the table, and Steve pieced together the rest of the events. "Then, there was the explosion," he ventured, and Carol nodded. "But how did Tony set that up?"

 

"That wasn't him," she said simply. "And before you ask, no, I don't know who it was. As far as Tony's told me, he doesn't know, either. It was well-timed, though; not ten minutes after Tony had finished explaining to everybody how everything was about to get a lot harder, all the doors blew and we all made a run for it."

 

"Back to the shuttle, back to the transport, and to the Aegis," Steve finished. Carol nodded at him.

 

"Tony has a theory that Osborn's trying to do something with our DNA, but he's not entirely sure what, yet. The information Jessica's been able to send to us seems to corroborate his theory, though. If we hadn't escaped, he would have just rounded us up, performed his little tests."

 

Carol gathered up the chore list suddenly, and stood. "I'm sure you can figure the rest out by yourself," she said, and then, studying Steve's face, "but if you have any questions, come find me. Don't bother Tony with this, if you can help it."

 

"I won't," he said, and Carol nodded at him sharply before turning to walk away.

 

"Carol, wait," he called out, and she turned back, eyebrows raised at him.

 

"The ship's name--Aegis," he said. "What does that mean?"

 

She looked at him, as though deciding whether or not to tell him; finally, she inclined her head. "It means shield," she said, staring at him as though daring him to say something. He sat there, silently thinking, and she turned and disappeared down the hallway.

 

The walk back to his room was slow, and Steve paused outside the door, unwilling to go in. He knew that the hour was late, and that he should sleep, but he could not fathom lying in his bed and gaining any sort of rest at the moment. He decided, instead, to walk, and simply lose himself in the twists and turns of the beating ship around him.

 

 

* * * * * * * *

CHAPTER THREE

* * * * * * * *

 

 

Staring out into the empty, bleak expanse of space, it was almost easy to forget why he was flying out there at all: traveling so far out into the rim that the stars, even, were few and far between, distant dots of color on the map of nothing.

 

That night, he dreamed that Steve was dead, his pale body careening through space, and after waking in a cold sweat Tony gave up all thoughts of sleeping. He set the controls to autopilot; it would be another day yet before they reached their destination, and Carol would be coming back on duty soon, anyway. At least this way, he mused, she wouldn't find him sleeping in the cockpit again.

 

Sleep would not come easy, and so Tony decided to go to the workout room instead. He was unsurprised to find the room occupied; usually it would be Logan or Carol, silently working through their anger at being so suddenly depowered. Tonight, however, was different. Tony looked through the window and found Steve inside, dancing around a large punching bag. He'd changed into a t-shirt and pair of sweat pants, and had worked up quite a sweat; he was just wailing away at the thing, jabbing out methodically until, with a great crashing sound, the bag fell away from the ceiling entirely and hit the floor with a crunch, spraying bits of sawdust everywhere.

 

Tony opened the door then, blinking his eyes in disbelief. Steve had apparently found the boxing gloves that Carol and Luke favored--thick, padded red things--and he was currently using them to wipe sawdust and sweat away from his face, dazedly.

 

“Do you feel better?” Tony asked sarcastically, eying the remains of the punching bag. “You know, that was the only one we had.”

 

“Sorry. And yes,” Steve admitted, toeing at the remains of the bag. “I do feel a little better.”

 

“Well,” Tony said, something inside him unclenching at the image in front of him: Steve, sweaty and dirty and whole, standing in front of him, wearing his ridiculous boxing gloves, his hair tousled and his eyes blue, so blue.

 

Tony cleared his throat. “I'll consider it money well spent, then.”

 

Silence fell between them, awkward. Tony cleared his throat. "How did you find this place, by the way? It's pretty far from your room, and I've been remiss in my duties as a host, not showing you around."

 

"I think I'd need a map to navigate around here," Steve admitted. "And I got lost," he added sheepishly. Tony nodded, smiling.

 

“So what are you doing here so early?” Steve asked. “It's barely six o'clock, you were never--”

He trailed off, and Tony finished the sentence mentally. You were never an early riser, sleepyhead.. He remembered waking up in Steve's bed, warm and sated, and he dismissed the thought immediately.

 

“Things change,” he said abruptly, no longer smiling. “I'm going to go check communications. I'd clean that up if I were you; you don't want Carol's wrath brought down upon you for leaving sawdust on the floor.”

 

That said, he turned to leave, disregarding whatever Steve was saying to his back. It was a long walk to the communications room; he'd made sure in his design specs to put it near the cockpit, so that he'd have easy access to both areas from his quarters. The room was deserted, as usual, and Tony closed the door carefully behind him as he made his way over to the array of computers. He hadn't really expected to find anything new this early in the morning, but the printer had spit out a new document sometime in the night, and the message indicator was blinking on the computer. He opened it with a push of his finger, and found a message from Jessica waiting.

 

Behind him, the door opened, and Tony glanced over; it was Steve. Of course. “The broom is in the hall closet, back that way,” he said, jerking his thumb toward the hall.

 

“I didn't come here to ask you where the cleaning supplies are,” Steve said, exasperated, before his eyes settled on the piece of paper in Tony's hand. “And I was following you the whole way over here, I can't believe you didn't hear me. What is that?”

 

Tony raised an eyebrow at the quick subject change, but let the matter drop. “It's a report of yesterday's action in the Senate; Jessica writes them up for us. And look at this,” he said, pointing at the communications screen. “N.O. ABSENT TODAY,” the message blinked. “MISSED VOTE ON SHRA HEARING. NO NEWS, DISPATCH LATER IN WEEK. TELL LUKE HI.”

 

Tony whistled. “That's weird,” he said, passing the paper over to Steve, who immediately began scanning it.

 

“This was an important vote, then?” he asked, still staring at the paper, and Tony nodded.

 

“Jessica's been stirring up some resentment towards Osborn, with all of her exposés. She's been getting them out on the Net, as you've read. Osborn's got warrants out for her arrest but she's smart, and nobody in their right mind thinks she's a threat, anyway,” Tony explained. “But the First Amendment doesn't mean much these days, so she has to keep her head down.”

 

“Anyway, yes, you could say that the vote was fairly important. The vote was on whether or not to open up discussions on the legality of the SHRA. So, yes,” Tony said, shaking his head as though he couldn't believe what he was saying. “The vote was important, and Osborn missed.”

 

“And that's weird,” Steve supplied.

 

“Very weird,” Tony agreed. “We have to find out what this means, what he's up to. Osborn wouldn't miss that meeting to just sit at home and do whatever psychopaths do. He's up to something.”

 

“And you have some kind of idea?” Steve guessed. Tony looked at him guiltily then, and Steve realized: Ah, of course he knows--he just doesn't want to tell me.

 

“Maybe,” Tony said finally. “But I can't be sure, and there's no sense in speculating on it. We've got a mission scheduled for tomorrow, and yes, I will tell you all about it later,” he said, overriding Steve's interjection after he'd opened his mouth. “But for now, I'm going to bed.”

 

With that, Tony left, the door to the communications room closing with a soft click behind him, and Steve was left alone. He looked down at the piece of paper still in his hands; the black ink was like a beacon, showing him exactly how much he'd missed--how much had changed--and he put the paper down on top of the printer carefully.

 

Sighing, he remembered the mess he'd left in the exercise room. He walked blindly back to the closet stationed on the other side of the hall, and retrieved a decidedly non-technologically advanced dustpan. In the exercise room, he made quick work of the mess of sawdust on the floor--the punching bag had lost nearly half its stuffing.

 

Steve picked up the bag, inspecting the mess he'd made, and was surprised to find that he'd broken the bag in two points--the chain tethering the bag to the ceiling had bent, dislodging the links, and there was a long tear in the seam of the bag's side. Tony had meant for him to throw the whole mess away, he knew, but the workout room had meager enough supplies as it was, and he didn't want to take one more thing away from them. Fixing the chain would be easy enough, he decided; the links were large, and he could probably bend them back into place with a pair of pliers. And he'd darned enough socks in his life to know how to repair a tear, if he could just find a needle and a bit of thread.

 

Having decided on his plan of action, Steve opened a cabinet on the wall--empty, to his surprise--and placed the bag and the dustpan full of sawdust inside. He headed out the door and found Peter walking down the hallway, whistling softly.

 

“Peter!” he called out, and ahead of him, Peter stopped suddenly and turned, confused.

 

“If Tony's looking for me, you didn't see me, and I wasn't doing anything to the catalyzers,” he said quickly.

 

Steve just smiled at him. “Peter, I have no clue what that is, so you're off the hook. And Tony isn't looking for you. I actually need a favor. Do you know where I could find a sewing kit?”

 

Peter looked at him as though he'd grown a second head. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Fine, Peter,” Steve said, forcing himself to remain patient. “I'd just like to repair something that I tore. Surely there's a sewing kit on board somewhere.”

 

“Ah, Tony Stark designed and populated this ship with furnishings,” Peter said dryly. “Would you like to guess again?”

 

Steve sighed. “So I guess that means no needle and thread.”

 

“No,” Peter clarified quickly, “there's a sewing kit in my room, in case I need to fix my costume. I'm just pointing out the logic in thinking that Tony Stark would remember to include something as basic as a sewing kit.”

 

“You have a point there,” Steve admitted.

 

“Totally,” Peter agreed, and then he turned left at the intersection and motioned for Steve to follow him. “Come on, I'll get it for you.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve said sincerely. And then, as they turned right down an unfamiliar corridor, he pointed to the walls--drab gray, and shot through with wiring conduits. “This is a section of the ship I haven't seen yet,” he remarked.

 

“Really?” Peter asked, cocking his head to the side. “So you haven't had an actual tour yet, have you?”

 

“Not really. Tony's been busy, and I haven't seen a whole lot of everybody else.” As Steve shook his head, Peter's eyes lit up.

 

"Well, you've come to the right person for a tour of this hunk of metal; I think I know her better than Tony does, by now. You have to hand it to him, I guess. He built a great ship."

 

They turned down another hall, this one lined on either side with thick metal doors; it was fashioned in exactly the same way as the hallway with his own makeshift room. Peter threw one of the doors open, darting inside to rummage around in a dresser drawer. There were clothes sprawled over the entire room--coveralls and work shirts mostly, but Steve could see a flash of vibrant red and blue under the bed--and books and papers littered the floor.

 

"Found it," Peter said triumphantly, pressing a small metal container into Steve's hand. "Needles, thread, scissors, the basics," he assured him. "What are you going to do with that, anyway?"

 

"Just a simple fix," Steve said, flushing a bit as he remembered the shredded punching bag. "But you promised me a tour, didn't you?" he prompted, and Peter nodded eagerly, ushering them out of his room.

 

"The easiest way to show you everything would be to just take a look at the blueprints," he decided, and then set off back down the way they'd come. "He's got all these stations set up around the ship--engineering, communications, the works." Abruptly, Peter stopped outside of an imposing looking steel door--this one equipped with a keypad. He pressed a few buttons, and then the door opened with a hiss of compressed air. Inside the long, rectangular room, several monitors and computer displays had been set into the walls, and below the monitors, a low counter ran the length of the room.

 

Peter reached across Steve, poking at the menus on the large monitor until he'd pulled up what looked like a set of blueprints. "Now, watch this," he said slyly, and after keying through several access codes on the bottom of the screen, the monitor began to emit a low, pulsing thrum, and suddenly the diagram was shimmering out in front of them; a hologram, full of slick, glittery blue edges.

 

"That looks complicated," Steve noted, and Peter snorted.

 

"That's not even the half of it," he said, once again punching buttons on the monitor. "Watch this."

 

Under Peter's clever prodding, the monitor's display of the ship grew--from an image that had been little larger than the size of Steve's fist, the hologram had grown hugely; Steve imagined that it must have been nearly five feet in length. He had to back up several feet to move out of the spreading blue lines. Ahead of him, leaning against the computer console, Peter nodded.

 

"That's better."

 

"This is the whole ship?" Steve asked, walking slowly around the outline of the hologram. "But where are the shuttles?"

 

Peter raised his eyebrows. "They're on the bottom of the ship. And how do you even know about the shuttles?"

 

Steve's mind flashed back to Tony, years before: Look! he had crowed, waving a hand wildly at his monitor. The plans are almost done. Just need to make a few more corrections, and she'll be perfect. There had been smudges of graphite all over his fingers. 

 

"Tony showed me," he said curtly, and Peter wisely said nothing.

 

"He must have made some upgrades, though," Steve continued, eyes tracing the curves of the ship. "This is a little different."

 

It was, roughly, shaped like a long oval, tapering to a rounded point at one end. The cockpit's wide windows capped off the tip of the vessel; on the sides of the ship, rounded fins protruded, studded with tiny windows. The ship grew in girth in the middle, and tapered again, slightly, toward the back, before angling abruptly away: the docking area, Steve thought. Underneath the ship, barely visible under its size, sat the two shuttles; they were located closer to the cockpit than the docking bay, and angled toward the edges of the ship, like two pointed feet.

 

"Can I assume that you've familiarized yourself with the outside of the ship?" Peter asked, finally; he appeared to be a couple of steps short of tapping his foot on the floor in impatience. At Steve's nod, he grinned, reaching over once again to key information into the monitor.

 

"Great," he said, excited, "now watch this." With a clack of keys, the hull of the ship dissolved, and Steve was able to see the ship's innards, each deck and lift.

 

"Okay, there are four decks," Peter explained, pointing to the side of the ship, and Steve could see them, stacked neatly on top of each other. "The top deck is mostly wiring, coolant, all kinds of boring miscellaneous tubes that keep the ship running. There's a little bit of storage room there, but mostly, boring."

 

That said, Peter reached a hand into the hologram and grabbed the top deck, pulling it up and over the ship. The second deck, full of long corridors and tiny rooms, swam into view. "This is where we are now," Peter said, pointing to a small window on the left side of the ship. "Second deck, home to most of the important stuff. The quarters are divided on either side, equally." He pointed to the curved ridge shadowing the edge of the ship, and Steve nodded.

 

"The cockpit is on the second deck," Peter continued, gesturing, "as well as most of the other places you'll be visiting. From the front of the ship back, you've got the cockpit and then the quarters; on the port side, after that, there's the communications center, lab, and workout room, and on the starboard side there's the computer room that we're in now, the kitchen, and the infirmary. The docking bay is way back at the back of the ship. And here's the reason why all of the rooms are clustered around the hull: the engine's sitting pretty in the middle of the ship."

 

Steve raised an eyebrow: the engine was massive, taking up most of the length of the ship and nearly two decks' worth of space in height. "Isn't that a little dangerous, to have it in the middle like that?"

 

"Not really," Peter assured him. "The shielding on this thing is light years ahead of the standard stuff, and there's five feet of solid titanium between the walls and the outer hull."

 

Steve whistled under his breath. "Yeah," Peter said, grimacing, "I don't want to think about how much he spent on that, or I'll have nightmares. But anyway, the engine, all cooped up in the middle, here, is completely protected. There's practically no way to disable it from the outside."

 

"Moving on," he continued, pulling the second deck up and out of the way. "Deck three: the place you will probably never go. Engine room's here, directly under the cockpit, and most of the rest of the deck is full of the engine and wiring and electronics. The weapon stations are at the back, on either side of the ship. Below deck three is deck four, which is really boring and is mostly just a big blank area to store cattle or people we don't like or the theoretical food that we never seem to have."

 

"And that's the ship," Peter finished. He hopped back onto the counter behind him, legs swinging back and forth. "It's all connected with walkways and turbolifts, but once you know the general layout, it's not that hard to navigate."

 

Steve nodded, although privately he disagreed with Peter's assessment. The ship was by no means a dreadnought class, or anything close to it, but it was almost as big as Tony's last penthouse; large enough to be confusing. "I guess I'll just have to go exploring until I get comfortable," he ventured.

 

"Yeah, well, good luck. There are computer terminals at every turbolift, but he didn't program in the schematics of the ship, so all you can really do is find out what deck you want to be on, and go from there." Peter shook his head, and Steve sighed.

 

"Trust Tony Stark to build a spaceship without a map in it," he said, bemused. "Are you really surprised, though?"

 

Peter snorted, rolling his eyes, but didn't answer the question.

 

"What?"

 

Shrugging, Peter looked away, eyes trailing over the rounded walls. "It's just that notion of trusting Tony Stark. I find it funny, in a maniacal, crazy sort of way."

 

Steve frowned. He'd noticed that something had been off with Peter as soon as he'd seen him; he was trying to project that high-energy eagerness that Steve remembered about him, but it was a facade, and his bitterness had been peeking through, in bits and pieces. The look on Peter's face now was weary, tired. 

 

"You're going to have to explain what you're talking about, Peter," Steve said finally, resisting the urge to rub at the headache building behind his eyes. "I've been out of the loop too long to decipher whatever it is you're trying to think at me."

 

Peter shrugged. “I just never said that I trusted him. That's a pretty important distinction.”

 

“You're on a ship with him in the middle of nowhere, and apparently he has some kind of plan to overthrow Osborn,” Steve said, exasperated. “What do you mean, you don't trust him?”

 

Peter raised his eyebrows, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don't remember? Tony Stark convinced me to trust him, and then he hung me out to dry. He used my friendship for his own personal gain, and it's going to take a lot more than a shiny new spaceship to make me trust him.” He hopped down from the counter, eying the consoles hungrily. “Although it is a pretty cool spaceship.”

 

Peter thrust his hands into his pockets, and began edging toward the door. "Anyway, if we're done here, I have some upgrades that I need to take care of. Keep the sewing kit, I have another one. And take a shower." Peter wrinkled his nose, gesturing at Steve's sweaty clothing.

 

Steve nodded, and Peter walked hurriedly toward the door, pausing in front of the doorway. "It's good to have you back, Cap," he said, and then Peter waved his hand in front of the sensor and disappeared out into the hallway, the door swooshing shut behind him. Steve thought, for a moment, about going after him; Peter had been living on the Aegis for three years, and Steve had just assumed that he and Tony would have patched things up. Obviously, he'd been wrong.

 

Steve waited a few moments and then followed Peter's path out of the room. If they were on the port side of the ship, then the exercise room should be down the hall, without needing to cross over to the other side of the ship. And if the rest of the living quarters were to his left, then that left the only logical place for the exercise room to be to his right. Steve squared his shoulders and took off down the walkway, and was somehow completely surprised when, only a minute later, he was standing outside the room he'd meant to find. He waved a hand at the door and, once inside, was pleased to find that the bag--and dustpan full of sawdust--were still sitting in the cabinet, exactly where he'd left them. If he hurried, Steve decided, settling down onto the bench press, he could have the thing hung before too much longer, with only himself and Tony the wiser.

 

He'd just finished sewing up the seam on the punching bag when, behind him, Steve heard the soft hiss of air that meant that the door had opened. He looked behind him and was surprised to find Tony standing there, looking at him oddly.

 

"Are you--" he started, and then cleared his throat. "Are you sewing something?"

 

Steve held up the punching bag, full and firm as ever, and then hung it on the chain it had previously occupied. Tony shook his head.

 

“I thought I told you to clean that up,” he said, bemused, and Steve simply shrugged his shoulders.

 

“It would have been a waste to throw it away,” he explained. “And it wasn't hard to fix, anyway.”

 

"If you say so." Tony shrugged, and then started, remembering something. He dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out a small, triangular piece of plastic, which he then tossed to Steve.

 

"It's a communicator," he explained. "You can clip it to your shirt, or belt, or whatever, you know how they work. Just try to keep an eye on the clock, okay?"

 

Steve turned the communicator around in his hands, noting the tiny display and buttons, and clipped the bit of plastic to his collar, shrugging. "Sure, but why?"

 

Tony pursed his lips, as though he were trying to find the right words. "It's just. . . time doesn't mean a whole lot in space, you know?" he said finally. "It's easy to forget about regular sleep cycles when you don't have a sunrise or sunset to cue you in. But all your body knows is that you're not getting enough rest, and soon enough you're getting a little bit crazy and passing out into your breakfast."

 

"You did that?" Steve asked, eyebrows climbing, and Tony shook his head hastily.

 

"Peter," he clarified, and then, at Steve's dubious look added, "I passed out respectably in the engine room, where nobody could see. But seriously, keep an eye on it, alright? It'll be hard enough for you to get back up to strength out here on this hunk of metal, anyway. Don't add anything else to the list."

 

"I'll take it easy," Steve assured him. "In fact, I am starting to feel a little bit tired. I'll go take a shower, get to bed." It was true; weariness had begun to pull at him, and his eyelids had become a little heavier, even if just a little bit. If Steve was being honest with himself, though, it wasn't so much that he wanted to go and sleep as much as he wanted to quell the worry lines on Tony's face.

 

"That's good," Tony said, nodding and smiling just a bit. "I should probably go and get some sleep myself."

 

Tony turned to leave, and Steve watched the stiff line of his back. His hands were steady, but he looked, for all intents and purposes, to be exhausted.

 

"Tony?" he called, just before the other man had left the room. "Thank you. For the communicator," he clarified, tapping at the thing, and Tony just nodded at him.

 

"You're welcome."

 

Steve waited for a few minutes in the gym after Tony had left. It wasn't home, he decided finally, patting the empty cabinet beside him, but it could be a fair approximation. 

 

He walked the hallways back to his quarters, aware that he was retracing Tony's steps, and barely paused outside the other man's door before slipping into his own. Steve shrugged out of his shoes and fell onto the bed, fully clothed, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

 

 

* * * * * * * *

CHAPTER FOUR

* * * * * * * *

 

 

Steve awoke to the low thrum of the ship's engines around him. Checking the communicator, he saw that it was nearly noon; he'd been asleep for only five hours.

 

"That'll have to do." He showered and changed into some of the clothes that Tony had left for him--a simple pair of pants and t-shirt. Tony had left a bundle of clothing on his desk, but he'd been too tired to investigate last night; there were several shirts and pairs of pants, in addition to underwear and socks. There was also a handsome leather overcoat folded up on the bottom of the pile, and under it, a couple of books. He thought about flipping through them, but before he could reach for the books his stomach growled its displeasure, and the urge to eat won out over his curiosity. The kitchen, if he remembered correctly, should be just down the hall; Steve ignored the computer set at the lift at the end of the corridor. It should be the second door, he thought.

 

"Found it," he whispered, and entered--only to find that he'd been completely wrong. He was in the communications room, and around him, all of the monitors were silent, save one station. Luke was wearing a headset and talking lowly at one of the screens, and Steve started as he realized that Jessica Jones's face was staring out from the monitor.

 

"Yeah, I love you too," Luke said gruffly, resting his fingers gently against the monitor. If he'd heard Steve enter the room, he made no motion to acknowledge him.

 

On the monitor, Jessica smiled wearily. "I'll be in touch when I can. Keep fighting the good fight, okay?"

 

"You know I will," he answered. "You just stay safe. This'll be over soon, I promise."

 

Jessica's smile hardened, and she nodded once before waving, a quick flash of her fingers on the screen. The monitor went black.

 

"Nobody ever taught you how to knock, Rogers?" Luke asked, swiveling around in the chair. There was no heat in his voice, just tired acceptance, and Steve felt suddenly guilty.

 

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know you were in here."

 

"Well, now you know," Luke said shortly. "You know, the windows are there for a reason. Maybe check next time."

 

Steve nodded, and Luke reached behind him to switch off the console.

 

"How is she doing?" Steve asked, finally, hoping to finally reconnect with Luke; he'd been suspiciously quiet, the few times they'd been in a room together. This was apparently the wrong thing to ask, because Luke stood up quickly, an angry look on his face.

 

"She's out there risking her life," he said, voice quiet and dangerous, "and I'm stuck on this ship, doing nothing. Do you know what my daughter looks like now, Steve?" Luke asked, all venom. "Because I sure as hell don't, because it's too damn dangerous for her to be on this ship, and it's too dangerous for Jessica to have her while she's out there trying not to get herself killed."

 

"Luke, I'm sorry," Steve said. Luke shook his head.

 

"'Sorry' doesn't make anything better," Luke said, tired. "Things are just complicated." He walked slowly out of the room.

 

"Damn it," Steve whispered, louder in the empty room than he'd anticipated. He walked out into the hall and wandered, thinking idly of the weariness on Luke's face and the resigned pain on Jessica's until, surprised, he ended up standing in front of a short flight of steps to a pair of closed double doors. He jogged up, curious, and looked into the doors' short, round windows to find Tony leaning back in a padded swivel chair, surrounded by monitors and switchboards and beyond that, huge windows and the blackness of space.

 

Steve rapped his knuckles on the door and Tony jerked up, surprised, before breaking into a grin.

 

"Come on in," he called, beckoning, and Steve pushed the doors open and stepped into the cockpit. "What are you doing wandering around here?" Tony asked, and Steve shrugged. Annoying every single member of this crew, systematically.

 

"I just thought I'd come up and have a look around."

 

"Well, your timing is fortuitous." Tony smiled up at him. "I was just about to call everybody into a meeting. Hey, have a seat." He gestured to the empty copilot's seat beside him, and Steve sank down onto it. "We picked up a distress signal from Mission Falls. We need supplies and they're in no position to refuse us payment, so we've got some work to do."

 

Steve waited for Tony to elaborate, but he began keying in codes to the navigation computer. "You're kidding, right?" he asked, finally, and something in the tone of his voice must have carried over, because the smile disappeared from Tony's face immediately. "Tony, that's unconscionable."

 

“We need supplies. I'm not sure what's confusing about that, but I'm sure that you'll point it out for me,"” Tony said, his voice short and clipped. He was keying in codes to the computer's navigational system, and Steve had the sudden, irrational urge to pull him away and push him up against the nearest wall.

 

“So what, you're just going to go down there and steal medical supplies from these people?” he asked instead; Tony looked at him, incredulous.

 

“Are you serious? We're not thieves,” he said tightly, eyes wide. “We just don't have a lot of money to offer right now. We find a planet that's got a distress signal out, see what we can do for them. And we'll graciously allow them to pay us in food and medical supplies.”

 

“Something about that just doesn't feel right,” Steve said, sullen. "You should be helping these people because they need help, not because you want to swoop in their and take their stuff afterward."

 

“Yeah, well, you won't be feeling any better when you're starving to death,” Tony retorted. "And with our food stores as low as they are, I can guarantee you that starvation is going to be a problem soon. Jesus, I can't believe that you thought we were just going to go down there and steal their stuff."

 

"You weren't clear!" Steve protested, and Tony rolled his eyes.

 

"That's not the point." Tony cleared his throat and then stabbed at a small green button. "This is your wonderful captain speaking," he said, and then glanced at Steve. "It's that time again, boys and girls; we're going to go steal some morphine from little old ladies. Meet me in the comm room."

 

Steve glared at him, exasperated, but Tony just shrugged his shoulders, widening his eyes in an innocent 'What, me?' sort of way, and hopped downstairs out of the cockpit before Steve could even get to his feet.

 

Carol, Luke, and Jessica were already waiting for them when they entered the communications room. Steve settled himself into a chair next to Carol as Logan shouldered his way in through the door in front of Peter.

 

"All right," Tony called them to attention. Pressing a series of buttons on the monitor closest to him, he pulled up a document and then projected it out into the room; it was the scanned image of a map, with handwritten names printed neatly over it. "We're going to Mission Falls; it's a little settlement on the outskirts of Echo III. They got hit hard in the monsoon season, and everything's flooded. We're going to go down there and put everything back into place for them, and then we're going to collect our payment and be on our way. That's it."

"Echo III?" Peter asked curiously. "I didn't know they had monsoons on Echo III."

"Apparently, neither did they, until monsoon season hit," Tony said dryly.

"So what are we going to be doing?" Carol asked. "We can't exactly cart fifteen tons of water out of their town square.”

 

“They've moved the settlement to higher ground,” Tony explained, pointing at a spot on the map a bit north of where the town's name had been scrawled. “We're going to go in and help them move a few things--farm equipment, mostly, I'll take care of that--and relocate any people that we find trapped in their houses. Peter, you and Jessica are tapped for that. They've also requested help with clearing some of the land on the new area they've designated as their town square, so the rest of you can grab axes and get to chopping.”

"Oh, but I've always wanted to learn how to be a lumberjack!" Peter said, pumping a fist in the air until Logan shot him a dirty look.

"Too bad, bub," he growled. "You can learn some other time. I'm on tree duty."

"Hey, that's not fair!" Peter protested, looking around the room for an advocate. "Somebody tell him that's not fair."

"You tell him it's not fair, or you get quiet and go out there and pull people out of flooded houses," Luke retorted. "Go out there and do some good and stop complaining, man." Luke took off down the hall and Steve watched as Peter followed him, still muttering plaintively.

"It's not fair!" he was saying. "No powers and he's still more intimidating than me. It's just not right." 

 

The rest of the team disbursed as quickly as they'd arrived, and soon Steve was standing alone with Tony.

 

"Well," Tony said, "it's time for me to head up to the cockpit. You're welcome to watch the proceedings in here, the ship cameras have extensive zoom capabilities." 

 

He turned to leave, bounding down the hallway with long strides, and Steve had to jog a few steps to keep up with him.

 

"What? I can help down there," Steve called out. "It's ridiculous for me to stay pent up in here when all they need us to do down there is cut down trees. I could help," he repeated.

 

Tony stopped, but didn't turn around. "No," he said, gritting his teeth, "we talked about this. You are going to stay hidden onboard." He began walking toward the cockpit, and Steve followed him doggedly.

 

"We are not done having this conversation," he said, as Tony darted up the stairs to the pilot's seat and out of sight. Sighing, Steve followed him up the short flight of stairs; Tony had taken up his seat at the controls, and judging from his viewscreen, was bringing the armor up from storage and into the docking bay.

 

“I could wear a hat,” Steve offered. “I don't think people are going to be looking too closely, anyway.” 

 

"No," Tony said, short and final, and Steve swallowed back the pointed--and loud--protest he wanted to make.

 

"I am going out there," he said, slowly and clearly, "whether you give me the okay or not. So you might as well get used to the idea right now."

 

Tony sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "Steve, we had this conversation--"

 

"Mostly, you had that conversation, and I listened," Steve pointed out. "Look, I'm not asking to go on some dangerous mission into enemy territory. I'm going to go chop down a few trees, that's it. And I'm not asking your permission, but I would prefer it if you understood."

 

"I understand," Tony said, finally, slumping in his chair. His fingers stilled on the controls. "Fine. Go. Just be careful, okay?"

 

"When am I not careful?" Steve asked, aiming for flippant and missing by a mile. Tony grimaced.

 

"I'm not answering that," he said. "There are a couple of hats hanging up in the kitchen; Peter keeps putting them there, I think. You can grab one on your way out."

 

"Thank you," Steve said sincerely, and Tony just waved a hand at him, turning back to the armor.

 

"Why not just land?" Steve lingered in the doorway, his hand resting on the wall. "It seems like that would be easier."

 

"Landing and taking off take a lot more fuel than just staying in orbit. The shuttles recharge from the ship's power, but their needs are negligible."

 

"That does make sense," Steve admitted.

 

"Of course it makes sense, I designed it," Tony waved a hand at him. "Now, you may want to head over to the shuttle before they leave without you. Starboard side, take the turbolift down."

 

"Yes sir, captain," Steve murmured, and with a mock salute he was gone, tearing down the hallways into the kitchen and plucking a wide-brimmed hat from a peg in the closet. 

 

Peter was waiting for him at the door of the turbolift, practically gleaming in his bright costume. "There you are!" he crowed, tugging Steve inside the cramped little shuttle. "Now, buckle up, because Carol's driving--"

 

"Say that again," Carol dared him, and Peter wisely quieted and sat himself down, pulling the x-shaped belt over his shoulders and buckling it into his seat. Steve seated himself across from Peter; Jessica and Luke were sitting one row in front of them, and Logan one row behind. In the cockpit, Carol was flipping switches confidently, her fingers racing over the tiny gauges.

 

"Ready for takeoff, Tony," she said, and after a burst of static, Tony's voice crackled to life on the radio.

 

"Right beside you, Carol." 

 

Steve was startled as a flash of red and gold darted by the window to his right. It was the armor, he realized, making a beeline for the tiny planet below. With a gentle tug, the shuttle dislodged from the ship, and after a couple of minutes Carol had flown them into the planet's atmosphere. The little shuttle skimmed over the planet's surface, and Steve watched the patchwork of trees and streams grow larger and larger. Carol set them down atop a large hill; around them, densely packed red earth made home to a few scrub bushes and sickly-looking trees. In a clearing to the north, Steve could see a large grouping of people milling about a grouping of tents and wooden crates. Beyond them, a large green forest loomed.

 

"Everybody out, except Peter and Jessica," Carol called, as the back of the shuttle opened and extended into a walkway onto the planet's surface. "I'll be ferrying them to and from town. Have fun, lumberjacks." They walked out onto the hard earth and Steve stopped for a moment, taking stock of his surroundings; the world, firm beneath his feet, felt strangely alien after the short amount of time he'd spent on the Aegis. How Luke and Logan felt, he had no clue.

 

Then Tony's red and gold form flitted past them, settling down gracefully, and Steve felt suddenly guilty for the red dirt lining his boots. Confined to the ship, it would have been at least three years since Tony had been able to get out into fresh air.

 

A tall, stocky figure was winding its way toward them. As the figure drew closer, Steve realized that it was a woman. She wore simple clothing, covered with red mud, and she smiled at them as she drew closer.

 

"Constance Brandon, mayor of this little hole in the world," she said, sticking out her hand. It was calloused and dusty, and her handshake was firm; Steve liked her immediately.

 

"Pleased to meet you," he said, and if she raised an eyebrow at him after he'd failed to introduce himself, he pretended not to notice.

 

"Well, here we are," she said, looking them over. "We'll get the three of you kitted up with axes and I daresay you'll have a lot more of that forest cleared than the rest of us could do in a week. Head on over to camp, they'll get you situated. You come with me," she pointed at Tony. "We've got a good amount of machinery for you to move."

 

"My pleasure." Tony's voice filled the air, staticky, and Steve started before realizing that Tony's voice was simply being relayed from the ship. He followed Logan and Luke over to the makeshift camp of settlers, and was provided with an ax and a finger pointed in the direction of the treeline. Steve hefted the ax in his hand and then, following Logan's lead, swung at a tall pine, ripping chunks of bark out with each stroke.

 

"Satisfying," Logan grunted, rolling up the sleeves of his flannel shirt, and Steve was forced to agree with him.

 

"You know, it is," he nodded. "Timber!"

 

* * *

 

They worked until the sun beat down on them directly overhead, and sweat was running in rivulets down all of their backs. Steve stopped for a moment, wiping the sweat from his brow, when he saw Constance jogging over to them, waving her arms.

 

"Come on," she called, "it's about time you all had a break. Come and have a drink of water, get out of the sun for a minute."

 

"Thank you," Luke told her, as they made their way back over to the camp. Steve looked over his shoulder as they walked, examining their handiwork; a good portion of the forest leveled, tree trunks laying over themselves in every direction.

 

"Here, take a minute and drink up," Constance told them. "I've got to go talk with Mr. Stark, but I'll be right back." She walked to the edge of the clearing, where the armor was hovering, waiting for her. Steve followed Logan and Luke over to a small, shabby tent, which was presided over by a stooped old woman. She had set up a small table outside her tent, upon which was perched a pitcher of cold water and three thick ceramic cups. She began pouring water for them, and as she moved, her skirts jingled with little bells.

 

"Thank you," Steve said, wrapping his hands around one of the mugs. The woman looked at him and started.

 

"How are you here?" she asked, bewildered, and Steve just smiled at her, pointing at the Aegis.

 

"We came by spaceship, ma'am," he said politely, but the woman shook her head.

 

"No, how are you here?" she repeated. "We all saw you in the news vids, you were dea--"

 

"You've mistaken me for someone else, I'm sorry," he said quickly, cutting her off. Worry gnawed at him, and Steve pulled the brim of his hat lower before draining the cup of its water and replacing it on the rickety table. Steve turned away, heaving the ax again.

 

"Ah, why don't we start breaking down these trees?" Constance interrupted Steve's retreat. "I think you've felled enough." Overhead, the armor flew gracefully back over the forest and out of sight.

 

Steve nodded at her, and then lead Luke and a grumbling Logan back to work, resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder at the woman who had given them water. He could feel her eyes following him for the rest of the afternoon.

 

They finished their work, finally, with the sun determinedly holding onto the horizon. The sunset on Mission Falls was beautiful, the sun's rays echoing the deep red earth that formed the settlement; while Steve was not reluctant to leave, he did heave a wistful sigh as they boarded the tiny shuttle, boxes of medical supplies and food packs in tow. The armor flew past them, a blur of red and gold, and a couple of minutes later Carol had docked their shuttle and Steve was stepping his tired body back onto the cold spaceship. His communicator buzzed to life a few moments after they'd gone their separate ways into the ship, and Steve pressed the button for reception.

 

"Steve," Tony's clipped voice shattered the silence in the hallway. "Could I see you, please? I'm in the cockpit."

"Sure," Steve answered back, but the buzz of empty air told him that Tony had already ended the transmission.

 

Steve didn't bother knocking once he'd jogged over to the cockpit; he pressed the door open and slid inside the room, seating himself opposite Tony. "You wanted to see me?"

 

Tony, adjusting switches on the console in front of him, didn't look up. "Yes, I just wanted to find out if you had fun today."

 

"I chopped down some trees," Steve said, after hesitating; Tony's voice was clipped, angry, and he was still looking away from Steve.

 

"Make any friends?"

 

Warning bells went off in Steve's head. "I'm not sure--"

 

"Meet any nice old ladies?"

 

Steve sighed, caught. "Tony, she was a very old woman, she didn't find out anything and even if she did, she's not going to say anything."

 

"Steve, that woman asked me who you were at least five times. She accosted me every time I landed," Tony hissed, finally turning to glare at Steve. "She recognized you. I knew that I should never have let you go down there--"

 

"So next time I'll keep quiet and stay away from everyone," Steve cut in, but Tony shook his head, determined.

 

"No," he said, "there is no next time. You're done, and that's it."

 

"Tony--"

 

"No. This is not just about you. I know you want to help, and that's great, but you could be jeopardizing our entire mission. Steve, if somebody recognizes you and word gets back to Osborn--we can't take that chance. We just can't."

 

Tony turned back to his console, clearly dismissing Steve. Steve stood slowly, his aching body unfolding clumsily.

 

"Fine," he bit out, and then left, the door swinging shut softly behind him.

 

 

* * * * * * *

CHAPTER FIVE

* * * * * * *

 

 

Steve had assumed that it would be fairly difficult to avoid Tony, but as the days slowly compiled, he found himself running into every member of the crew except for Tony Stark. Peter was continually walking the ship's halls, wrench in hand, looking to "upgrade" whatever technology would annoy Tony the most; Steve would occasionally find Jessica wandering the halls with a notebook computer, making notes about fuel levels and pantry needs. Carol practically lived in the cockpit, and on the occasion that she wasn't there, Steve would find her eating hurriedly in the kitchen, talking to Tony on her communicator about optimal flight speeds. Luke and Logan mostly kept to themselves, although Steve did see Luke leaving and entering the communications room at odd hours. 

 

Steve returned to his room after working out one morning to find a cobalt blue glass vase resting on his desk. There was a note underneath, written in Tony's hasty scrawl. Constance sent this back for you, it read. Tony hadn't even signed it.

 

It had been nearly a week since that last stilted conversation in the cockpit when Steve wandered into the communications room late at night and found Tony poring over a number of papers scattered on the counter around him. Steve had intended to access the computers to research whatever he could get his hands on; without Tony to talk to, he'd been bored out of his head for the last few days. And now, with Tony standing in front of him, Steve had no inkling of what to say. He thought, briefly, of simply turning around and leaving, and then Tony glanced up at him.

 

"Thanks for the vase," Steve said lamely, and Tony shrugged his comment away.

 

"Constance sent it. She said you looked like somebody who could use some cheering up. It took me a day to remember to put it in your quarters; I'm sorry."

 

"Thanks just the same." Steve took a few more steps into the room before stopping, awkwardly, in the middle of the floor. Tony turned to look at him then, and gestured at the monitor he'd been reading.

 

"How do you do that?" he asked absently, grinning tiredly, and despite the strained, awkward tension between them, Steve found himself wanting to smile back.

 

"What?"

 

Tony waved the piece of paper he'd been reading. "This is the second time you've managed to barge in here right after I got an important piece of information. I just think it's sort of strange. We got another dispatch from Jessica." He waved a hand at the printouts.

 

“We're getting so close, Steve,” Tony continued. "This is like--I don't know, like a giant chess game, and we've got most of our pieces into position. We won't have to wait much longer to strike, especially not after this. Remember that vote that I told you about, the one that Osborn missed?"

 

Steve nodded, and Tony glanced back at the screen behind him. "It passed, and Jessica's saying that the committee has reported that in light of new evidence, they're going to start holding hearings on the legality of the legislation and decide whether or not to let the laws stand."

 

"So they could overturn it? Just like that? After having the laws in place for so long, it doesn't make sense for them to suddenly decide to fix everything now," Steve said, perplexed.

 

"Ah, but that's the thing," Tony said, holding up a finger for emphasis. "I was never really convinced that all of those senators were siding with Norman Osborn because they thought that he had the good of the galaxy in mind. I think it's more likely that he had something on them and now, I guess he doesn't."

 

Tony sighed. "No, I think that if anything, we need to be ready more than ever. If the legislation is repealed, I don't think that Osborn is going to take that lying down."

 

"You think he'll fight them."

 

"I know he'll fight them. See these papers?" Tony pointed at a set of schematics, still lying in the cradle of the printer. "These are blueprints for a planet-wide defense system. Jessica sent these to me a while ago but wouldn't tell me how she got them; she just wanted me to start figuring out a workaround, in case they ever became a problem. Now, apparently Osborn is close to getting this thing operational. If he loses control of the Senate, he could easily take the whole planet hostage with this technology."

 

Tony pressed a button on his communicator. "Everyone meet me in the communication room, please."

 

Steve took a seat at the terminal next to Tony and waited; the rest of the crew filed in, in stops and starts, with Logan bringing up the rear.

 

"News from Jessica," Tony announced, passing a printout to Luke. "And we've got some more work to do..."

 

Peter whistled then and Tony stopped, glancing at him. "Yes, Peter?"

 

"Just--wow. Wow." Peter passed the paper to Carol. "Wow."


"Yes, well. In other news," Tony said, clearing his throat, "we're going to go pick up Storm and drop her off at Delta IV."

"Why?" Steve asked. "What's on Delta IV?"

"
Jean Grey is on Delta IV, along with a whole host of mutants, and they've got a ship," Carol volunteered.

"Okay, so why is Jean Grey on Delta IV?" Steve asked; Tony glanced at him, narrowing his eyes slightly, and then gestured to the printouts surrounding him.

"Because that was the easiest meeting place we could think of at the time, Steve. May we move on, now?"

 

Steve leaned back into his chair and nodded, sufficiently rebuked.

 

"All right. I'm going to go lay in a course for Beta III; that's where Storm's been hiding out. We'll swoop in, pick her up, and head for Delta IV. We're not too far from Storm's location now, so I'd estimate that we'll be there in about six hours. Any questions?"

 

The room remained silent, save for the rustling of paper, and Tony nodded. "Okay. I'll be in touch in six hours, then."

 

Slowly, the room emptied. Steve started as he watched Tony limp out; Tony hadn't mentioned an injury, but Steve knew (from significant past experience, he thought bitterly) that this didn't mean that the other man was fine. Still, Tony had made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't need Steve's help. Steve sat there, wondering what in the world he was going to do while the rest of them prepared for the mission, and was startled, after a moment, to notice that Carol had walked over to him.

 

"Hey," Carol said, almost reluctantly, "Tony fell earlier while he was futzing around in the engine room, and he won't let me take a look to see how badly he's hurt himself. I'm going to go and try to get him to go to the infirmary, but if I can't... Keep an eye on him, okay?"

 

"I--yeah," he said, "I can do that."

 

"Good." Carol looked him up and down. "But first, you can go and clean the damn CO2 scrubbers. Don't think I didn't notice that you haven't gone near them. Head to the airlift, the computer will tell you where to go from there."

 

Five and a half hours later found Steve very tired--and dirty--and in desperate need of a shower. Carol had withheld information about the job; Steve had made his way into engineering and pried off the cover of the CO2 scrubbers only to be instantly covered with exhaust, and then task of cleaning the area hadn't improved his mood much past that. Steve looked down at his communicator, and then swore under his breath; if Tony's math was right, they'd be at Delta IV soon, and Steve had wanted to investigate the extent of his injury before then. He definitely couldn't go barging into the cockpit while covered in exhaust, though, so Steve reluctantly headed back to his room to shower.

 

He'd just finished showering and was toweling dry when his communicator buzzed to life.

 

"We're entering orbit around Delta IV now," Tony said. "Away team to the shuttles, please."

 

Great, Steve thought, and dressed hurriedly before walking swiftly down the hall to the cockpit. He glanced through the small round windows set into the double doors; sure enough, Tony was there, hands flying over the Iron Man controls. He had his back turned to the door, and the softly blinking lights from the overhead sensors shimmered down around him. He was seated in the middle of the room, monitors and keyboards all around him. Steve pushed through the doors, and Tony waved a hand at him as soon as he entered, cutting him off.

 

"You're not going down there, and they already left, anyway," Tony said absently.

 

"That's not what I came here to ask," Steve barked. Suddenly, his communicator spit out a hail of static. Steve cringed away from it, fumbling at the buttons until finally, it was silenced.


"What the hell was that?" Tony asked, breathless. He turned around in his seat, glaring at Steve, just as then the feed from the suit became pitted with gray lines.

"Interference," he muttered, glancing back at the monitor, and began typing frantically at the station to his left. After only a few moments, he stopped and watched, horrified, at the lines of code that were scrolling across the monitor.


“Damn it,” Tony swore, and his fingers became a blur on the keyboard again. “It's a trap.”

 

Steve stood automatically, hands reaching for a shield that wasn't there. “What?”

 

“Just what I said,” Tony snapped, and then he reached over, fumbling with his communicator.

 

“Carol, come in,” he said desperately, and the line spit back only static. “Damn it, damn it, damn it...”

"I could go out there and help--" Steve started, but Tony whirled around in his chair, shaking his head vehemently.

"No," he practically snarled, "you could not, because you'll just end up getting in the way and getting yourself shot along with them. They'll make it back." He turned around in the seat, hands clenching the joystick controlling his armor, and stared at the screen, refusing to acknowledge Steve's presence.

“You know I could help them--”


“The most helpful thing you could do right now would be to shut up,” Tony interrupted, fingers now racing over his keyboard. “I need to concentrate right now, and you're a distraction. Go wait near the cargo bay, that's where they'll be coming in,” he finished, preempting another outburst. “You can do more help there than in here.”

Steve didn't bother to reply; he took off at a run for the cargo bay, stopping up short outside the doors and peering inside. Carol was bringing the shuttle in to dock already, and the outer doors--and the vacuum of space--were both visible behind her. She pulled the shuttle into the ship and, as the outer doors closed, the doors to the cargo bay opened, and the shuttle flew in and landed heavily. Carbon scoring was evident all along the little ship; parts of the hull appeared to have been so super-heated that they'd simply melted. The back door of the shuttle began to open, slowly, and then jammed. Steve could hear shouts from inside the shuttle, and he raced into the bay and gripped the top edge of the shuttle door, pulling with all his might until at last, with a sharp wrenching sound, the door pulled free and dropped heavily to the floor.

 

"Go," Carol shouted, and then Luke was racing past him, carrying a very still--and very bloody--Peter, Jessica right on his heels.

 

Logan climbed out of the shuttle; he had a large gash across his forehead, dripping blood. He took one look at Steve and had started for the door when Carol raced out of the shuttle after him.

 

"Hey!" she barked. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Get your ass over to sick bay right now, Logan."

 

"Carol, what happened?" Steve reached out a hand to grasp Carol's arm, but she shook him off, impatient.

 

"I don't have time to explain," she said bitterly. "I've got to catch up with Logan before he disappears so that I can stitch up that knock he took. Look, we'll fill you in later, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, Carol raced off down the hall after Logan, and Steve was left in the empty cargo bay alone. Looking down, he saw the thick trail of blood droplets that lead from the shuttle and out the door the way Luke had gone. Whatever had happened to Peter had been serious indeed, and Steve's stomach clenched with worry.

 

Steve stalked out into the hall, intending to go and check on Peter, and was prevented almost immediately when the ship lurched, faltering before resuming its course. Steve, having hit the side of the wall heavily, steadied himself with one hand while reaching for his communicator with the other. Before he could activate it, however, it flared to life.

 

"Taking evasive maneuvers." Tony's voice was grim. "Everybody hold onto something, if you can."

 

The ship rolled then, and Steve tried to brace himself against the wall, keeping both hands wrapped tightly around the railway that ran the length of the hall. The ship banked sharply, and Steve heard a crash inside the infirmary. Several low thuds reverberated throughout the ship, and then the lighting system overhead fizzled out in a hail of sparks and Steve threw a hand up over his head, catching the bits of charred nu-glass with his arm.

 

With a low whine, the sublight engines came on, and then the ship rocketed forward. The power fizzled once or twice, and then came back fully, and then Steve's communicator activated again, broadcasting Tony's weary voice.

 

"Evasive maneuvers over, and it looks like we're out of danger. The ship took a few hits while we were getting away; Carol, I need you to come take the controls. I'm going to head down to the engine room, try to put some of this stuff back together. Nobody bother me until I'm finished."

 

To the infirmary, then Steve thought. He jogged off down the hallway and rounded the corner to find Logan standing guard outside the door of the medical room. The door behind him contained a small window, but curtains blocked all view of the room.

 

"I want to go in and see how he's doing," Steve started, commanding, but Logan shook his head resolutely.

 

"No can do," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "The kid's in surgery. You go in there now and you'll bother the people working on him and probably contaminate the whole damn room, too."

 

Steve took a deep breath to keep from putting his fist through the nearest wall. He couldn't help with the surgery, couldn't do anything to aid Tony in the engine repairs--he felt, at the moment, damn near useless.

 

"What the hell am I supposed to do, then?"

 

"Whatever you want." Logan shrugged. "But you're not getting in here, and you're not getting into engineering. Stark locks all the doors when he goes to work down there."

 

Steve swore under his breath, and Logan raised an eyebrow. "Don't say it," Steve muttered, and then he strode purposefully down the hall back toward the cargo bay. The trail of Peter's blood glistened in the fluorescent lights. Reaching the turbolift outside the cargo bay, Steve keyed up the computer at the terminal next to the lift. There was a command there for engaging a small 'bot for cleaning up biohazard situations; Steve keyed in the controls: engage, Start: Level 2, Cargo Bay, End: Level 2, Infirmary. The machine whirred at the input of data, and Steve took off; he couldn't stand the thought of being present while the tiny machine cleaned up the evidence of Peter's blood.

 

Steve would go to his bedroom, then, although he couldn't sleep; he spent a few minutes refolding his meager collection of clothes, and tidying up the few papers that had fallen onto the floor while the ship had been fired upon. Steve sank down onto the bed, and then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. The room was too quiet, and all Steve could think about was the trail of blood leading down the hallway. If Peter died...

 

Shaking off the thought, Steve stood and ambled over to the desk sitting in the corner. Tony had promised him books, and had placed a few in the desk's bottom drawer; Steve grabbed the first one that his hands reached and then stretched out on the bed with it, cracking the spine gratefully. He hadn't held a real book in years; they'd long ago gone out of fashion in favor of portable reading devices, but Steve still remembered, and loved, the feeling of pages turning underneath his fingers, and the smell of the paper. It was odd that Tony had any real books at all, and Steve wondered at that until he flipped past the title page and caught a glimpse of handwriting on the upper right-hand corner of the paper.

 

To Steven, it said, in his mother's graceful handwriting, and Steve blew out a deep breath. For Tony to have taken this from his things, and kept it onboard the ship--

 

He couldn't think about it, not then. Flipping ahead, he stared at the opening lines of the book for quite a while.

 

""When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magni-ficence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton."

 

* * *

 

Steve read whole pages without paying attention to them; when, finally, he couldn't stand looking at the book any longer, he realized that he'd only read twenty pages or so, and yet he'd been sprawled out on his bed for hours. He closed the book, not bothering to mark the page, and began walking the halls of the ship. His legs were restless with nervous anxiety, and sitting still was no longer an option. He didn't see anyone else, and the halls remained quiet until he walked by the kitchen. There was a clinking noise within, and Steve looked in the window to see Tony sitting at the table, drinking coffee from a garishly colored mug. Steve pushed the door open and unceremoniously stalked over to stand next to Tony.

 

"What are you doing here?" he asked, so furious that his voice came out barely louder than a whisper. Tony didn't even look up.

 

"Drinking coffee," he said, gesturing at his mug, and the casual way that he said it, like it was so easy, made Steve see red. He slammed his hand down on the table.


"What the hell happened?" he demanded, nearly shouting. "For five hours I've been waiting on any kind of word and I haven't heard a thing. What happened out there?"

"Peter was shot," Tony said thickly, looking up from his cup. Steve could see the shadows under his eyes, dark smudges, until Tony turned his head again down into shadows. "It took a while to get him stabilized, but Jessica thinks that he's going to be okay."

Legs suddenly boneless, Steve sank down into the chair across from Tony, shaking his head; it didn't make any sense. "But Peter's spider sense--how in the world did he get shot? Is it the nanites?"

"No, it's not the damned nanites," Tony snapped, "as much as you mean that Peter might have them. He doesn't. But he has to compensate a lot more for the rest of them now--Logan and Carol are too used to being unbreakable, and they still keep forgetting that they can't take a hit like they used to. He was trying to keep all of them safe, and a bullet caught him in the stomach."

Steve exhaled loudly. "Damn. And he's going to be okay?"

Tony looked away again, clenching his jaw. "Jessica thinks so. He lost a lot of blood, but we have the medical supplies that we stocked up on at Mission Falls," he said finally, and then sipped his coffee slowly, wrapping his hands firmly around the mug.

 

The knot of worry he'd been nursing loosened a bit, and Steve thought for a minute. "So that means that I can go visit him?"

 

"There's no point." Tony waved his hand dismissively. "He's been in surgery for hours, he won't wake up for a while yet. Tomorrow, though. Go visit him tomorrow."

 

"I'll do that," Steve lied, before walking out of the kitchen and making a beeline for the infirmary.

 

Logan had left his post as impromptu guard, but Steve looked in the window anyway. The curtains had been pushed back; in the far corner of the room he could see a bed, partly curtained off, and Jessica sitting in a chair close to the station, yawning widely. As Steve entered the room, Jessica started, relaxing slightly when she saw that Steve stood before her.

 

"How is he?" Steve whispered, gesturing at the bed; from here, he could see Peter lying there, pale and still, wrapped up in blankets and studded with monitors and IV lines. "He already looks better than the last time I saw him."

 

"Anything would have been better than that." Jessica laughed bitterly. "At least he has a heartbeat now."

 

"He--what?" Steve stood there, shocked. Jessica's eyes narrowed as she took in Steve's horrified expression.

 

"What did Tony tell you?" she asked shrewdly.

 

"Tony said that he'd be fine," Steve stuttered; Jessica looked away, shrugging.

"With Pete's luck, he will be," she said, glancing affectionately at Peter's still form. "But he's not out of the woods yet, and his recovery is going to take time. I can't make any promises yet. He was coding when we brought him in; he's lucky he's not dead. My medical skills are intermediate at best, and what Peter needs is a hospital." Jessica shook her head. "I hope--I think he'll make it, though."

"I understand," Steve told her. He leaned over, resting a hand on Peter's cold, still fingers, and then he walked swiftly out of the room, not trusting himself to look back. Without thinking, he reached over, flipping on his communicator.

"Tony, I'd like to speak with you in my quarters, please," he snapped, and then ended the transmission without waiting for a response.

Steve paced his room, spine tingling with adrenaline. Tony had lied to him about Peter's condition, and why? Because he didn't trust him enough to tell him the actual extent of his injuries? Because he wanted to spare Steve's feelings, because he knew that Peter was going to d--

He was standing over the small desk when he looked down, eyes catching on the tall blue vase that Tony had left in his room and, underneath it, the little handwritten note. Peter was probably dying, likely because Steve hadn't been there to help him protect the others, and the vase was glinting in the fluorescent lights, so breakable and blue--

 

Steve threw the vase across the room; Tony entered just in time to watch as it arced, catching the edge of the desk and shattering bits of blue glass all over the floor.

"There are easier ways of getting my attention," he remarked, crossing his arms over his chest. "Like saying something, for example."

Steve stalked over, grabbing Tony by the shoulder and ushering him into his room, hastily waving a hand at the sensor to close the door.

"There are also easier ways of--"

"You could have gotten Peter killed today!" Steve exploded, tightening his hand on Tony's shoulder before releasing him.

Tony stumbled away, and his face colored; Steve could see that his hands were clenched into tight fists. "You're blaming this on me, now?"

"Not the circumstances," Steve interjected quickly, shaking his head, "but the results, yes. I've been here for weeks, Tony, and this whole time I've just been sitting on the ship, doing nothing--"

"Steve, you know it's too risky--" Tony interrupted, but Steve kept going, raising his voice until Tony was forced to give up his argument.

"I could be doing some good out there!" he ground out, practically shouting. "You've got to see that by now. I don't care if people find out that I'm alive, if it's to the benefit of what we're doing. I'm not going to keep sitting back while the rest of the team is risking their lives."

"This has got to stop," he continued, voice gone raspy with the exertion of shouting. Pointing a finger at Tony's face, he said, "You can't just keep me on a short leash because you're worried that I'm going to get hurt. Somebody is going to die, Tony."

Tony pursed his lips and looked away, and Steve closed his eyes, sighing. "You know I'm right."

"Nobody is going to die," Tony said, but his voice, Steve noted, was not entirely steady. "I told him to be careful; if he'd just listened to me earlier--"

"That's not going to work, and you know it," Steve interrupted, more gently this time. "You don't get to make all the rules, Tony, and you don't get to decide what's best for everyone else. We've had this discussion before, and you're never going to agree with me, I know that, but this is how you get yourself dug into these holes. You don't get to decide the course of action and go at it without consulting other people."

"And you do?" Tony asked defensively.

Steve shook his head, sighing. "No," he said tiredly. Taking a deep breath, he thought, again, of the news reports he'd reread earlier--how petty their squabbles had seemed, in the light of a journalist's even hand. Had they known what they were really facing--and who had been pulling the strings--Steve would have liked to say that they'd never have let things deteriorate as much as they did, but he couldn't say the words out loud without calling himself a liar.

"And maybe it's taken me this long to finally get that, but that's not how it works. We didn't try hard enough before, did we?" he asked suddenly, glancing at the desk on the far side of the room, littered, still, with Jessica's dispatches. "I mean, we don't always have to agree, and I doubt we ever will, anyway. But--we didn't try hard enough before," he finished lamely.

Tony was silent for a long while, and then he finally turned, resting one shaking hand on the doorknob. "If you're just now realizing that--I don't even know how to respond," he trailed off, broken. "I've had three years to dwell on it, Steve, to think about what I would have done better, should have done better, and I'm not making those mistakes again. Nobody is dying on my watch, and I'm not going to put you in unnecessary danger." Tony stopped then, and pursed his lips; Steve thought for a moment that he was going to continue, but he simply let himself out of the room, closing the door softly behind himself.

Steve stood in the middle of the room, watching as the string of star lights Peter had given him twinkled down on the glass shards. Raking a hand over his face, he cursed softly, and then bent down to examine the shards--none of them, he found, bigger than a half dollar. He'd completely destroyed the vase, and whatever fledgling friendship he'd managed to revive with Tony, as well.

Steve picked up the biggest shard--a long, jagged triangle, edge glinting wickedly--and placed it on his desk as a keepsake. He'd been about to sweep the rest of the shards into a sheet of paper when a knock at the door caught his attention.

Steve pulled the door open, expecting to see Luke on the other side, delivering another dispatch, or perhaps even Carol. Instead, Tony stood across from him, hands clutching a small round vacuum.

"I thought you might need this." He shrugged, placing the vacuum into Steve's waiting hands.

"What are you--" he began, but Tony shook his head, interrupting.

"You wanted to talk, we're going to talk," he said, sliding quietly through the door and locking it behind him. "I just thought you might want to go ahead and take care of that mess."

Before you hurt yourself, Steve added mentally, and frowned. "Thank you, I think," he replied, eying the vacuum--and its impressive number of buttons--with a wary look.

"It's really quite easy to use," Tony offered, and Steve nodded half-heartedly, placing the vacuum down on his empty chair.

"Seriously," Tony continued, "I'll show you how to use the thing, you might as well go ahead and get it started--"

"I'll do it later," Steve said, more sternly than he'd meant to, but Tony just shrugged.

"Fine, but it's your floor," he said waspishly, and they lapsed again into silence, Steve looking at the vacuum and surreptitiously keeping an eye on Tony, who pretended to be looking around at the decor on Steve's walls.

"That's an interesting choice," Tony said suddenly, tapping a finger at the dispatch Steve had hung on the wall next to his bed; all at once, he seemed to trip over his own feet, and had to lean on the wall to support himself. Steve remembered, then, that Carol had told him that Tony had fallen in the engineering room earlier; silently cursing himself, he crossed the room in three quick strides, and then wrapped an arm around Tony's waist, hauling him down to sit on the bed.

"All right, show me," he said, waving a hand at Tony.

For his part, Tony just stared at him, eyes gone wide, and one eyebrow raised in disbelief.

"Where you fell," Steve clarified, his cheeks growing hot. Having just realized what he'd done--practically throwing Tony down on his bed--he was finding it very hard to meet the other man's eyes.

"I fell on my leg, Steve," Tony said, and then smirked. "I could take off my pants and show you, but I think that would be more awkward than helpful. And anyway, if you wanted me half-naked on your bed, all you had to do was ask."

Steve stared incredulously at Tony, and then felt his face break out into a sheepish grin. Tony shrugged his shoulders, still smirking, and for the briefest moment, Steve could have believed that he was back at Stark Tower after a battle, and that the world around them hadn't gone to pieces.

Then, the grin disappeared from Tony's face as he sobered, far too quickly. As the hum of the engines caught up to him, Steve found himself studying the lines around Tony's eyes--so much more furrowed than the last time Steve had had a reason to be close to him.

"I'm not taking orders from you. You know that, right?" Steve said softly, more of a statement than a question; Tony's smirk faded, and after a while, he nodded.

"I'm not saying that I'll be delivering all the orders," Steve continued, "but I'm not going to be benched any longer."

Tony nodded, teeth worrying at the edge of his lower lip. Steve's hand, he realized, was brushing the edge of Tony's knee; he moved it awkwardly, and then cleared his throat.

"You suck at giving orders anyway," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

"Not to mention that half the people on this ship think I'm crazy, and none of you follow my orders, anyway," Tony groused. He sighed, and then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his legs, hands clasped in front of him.

"I'm still going to call you on your bullshit when you're wrong," he said firmly; Steve shrugged at him.

"I'd expect you to do that anyway," he said. "And I'll be doing the same thing to you."

"Fine," Tony said. "I made you a new shield," he said suddenly, incorrectly interpreting the look of surprise on Steve's face. "And I know that it's not going to have the same balance and it won't feel the same, but you're going to need something to protect your thick skull."

"Tony, that's..." Steve trailed off, speechless.

"It's just a stopgap, until we get yours back from Osborn," Tony assured him, eyes fixed on the far wall. "I stashed it in your closet yesterday; I'm surprised that you didn't find it already."

He moved to stand, but Steve reached out a hand and grasped his arm, holding tight. "Tony, that's--thank you," he said awkwardly. "I appreciate it."

"It's nothing," he said, and then disentangled himself from Steve's grasp. "Just don't make me regret it."

Steve followed behind him to the door, where Tony stopped, a hand resting on the doorknob. "I'll get the prospective mission list to you later, and you can let me know what you think we should hit next," he said. And then he turned, hand still toying with the handle of the door, his body now angled toward Steve. Tony was looking his face over, Steve realized; scrutinizing it as though he were etching it into his memory.

Tony shook his head, and let go of the door suddenly. "You're going to ask me later why I did this, and I'm going to tell you right now: it's complicated. And if you want to punch me tomorrow, I can live with that."

That said, Tony reached up a hand, knotting it in the fabric of Steve's shirt and pulling him closer. Before Steve even had a chance to ask Tony what he was doing, Tony's lips were on his, pressing a chaste kiss to his mouth. Steve stilled, barely pulling himself together enough to kiss back beefore Tony pulled away, finally, opening his eyes to find Steve watching him.

"Do you know how long it's been since we kissed?" Steve asked hoarsely, feeling suddenly very sober and slightly cold and very, very much in need. "Since this whole damned schism came up between us?"

"This isn't about that," Tony murmured, running a hand down Steve's shoulders and placing it, warm, in the hollow of his back. "This isn't about convincing you of something, or trying to change your mind, or anything like that. I want you. You can go on hating me in the morning."

"Tony, wait," Steve said, stilling Tony's other hand in his own. "I don't hate you. I never hated you."

Tony just stared at him, as though he were waiting for some sort of clarification to be tacked on at the end; as Steve kept staring earnestly back at him, the knot of tension above his eyebrows loosened a bit, and then Tony pushed off hard, knocking Steve back into the wall.

"Suit yourself," he said, leaning so close to Steve's lips that he could feel the heat from the other man's mouth, the stubble on his jaw as Tony moved his head. "I hear it's a delightful pasttime."

"God, you never shut up," Steve said harshly. He brought a hand up to cup the side of Tony's face, fitting it into the delicate cup of space around his jaw and ear. The space between them was slowly, slowly shortening, and Steve couldn't look at anything but the line of Tony's mouth.


"This is not what I wanted to talk to you about," Steve whispered, and then moved a quarter of an inch to close the gap. It was everything he'd remembered and nothing like it; this Tony was full of harder lines, and Steve was convinced that if he pushed the wrong way, they would both come down: a house of cards. 

 

Steve pulled back, studying the blooming flush on Tony's face. "At some point, we're going to have to talk about this," Steve said, and then gasped; Tony's fingers had found the waistband of his pants and dipped under, caressing the thin skin over his hipbones.

Tony paused from kissing a line up the stubble on Steve's jaw, and muttered, "Yes, dear," stifling Steve's half-hearted protests afterward with the press of his mouth on Steve's lips. Somehow, they stumbled over to the bed; Steve was sure that he'd pulled Tony over, and then he was lying spread out on his mattress, Tony resting comfortably on top of him, and Steve couldn't find anything in him that cared to reverse his position. They moved slowly, fingers pulling and caressing with familiarity, and Steve gasped as memories flooded back to him. Tony's skin pressed against his own was hot, was burning, and Steve moaned as Tony whispered his name into his ear. He wouldn't be able to separate their splayed fingers, later; he couldn't concentrate enough to think about where his body ended and Tony's began. They moved together, practiced and shockingly tentative, and Steve groaned in pleasure as Tony's litany continued: "Steve, Steve, Steve." 

 

 

* * * * * * *

CHAPTER SIX

* * * * * * *

 

 

Steve awoke the next morning to a set of oddly tight muscles; rolling over, he groaned and then stopped short as his arm collided with Tony's back. Steve woke up fully as everything that had happened rushed back to him and Tony, grumbling slow with sleep, turned over to face him.

 

"It's morning, isn't it?" he asked, squeezing his eyes shut and then blinking into the semidarkness.

 

"Ah--I'm not sure, actually," Steve admitted. "I think my communicator is still pinned to my shirt, and I'm not, ah, entirely sure where that is."

 

"Neither am I." Tony smirked.

 

Steve rolled his eyes, exasperated. "Of course you aren't."

 

"I'd be surprised," Tony continued, obviously pretending not to have heard, "to find that shirt still in one piece, actually."

 

Steve lay back down onto the bed, absently tracing the line of Tony's shoulder with his fingers. The room was quiet and dark, lit only with the glow from the hall lights seeping under the door.

 

"Tony--" Steve started, finally, but Tony rolled over, staring at him intently, and Steve couldn't continue.

 

"You want to talk about this," Tony stated, and as Steve nodded, Tony sighed.

 

"This used to be so easy between us," he said. "And I don't honestly think I can handle not having that again, now that I've had another taste of it. Do you know how badly I wanted to kiss you, right from the beginning? And you didn't want anything to do with me, not really."

 

“Well, in the beginning I thought that I'd like to punch you in the mouth,” Steve said frankly, and Tony raised an eyebrow at him.

 

“And now?” Tony prodded, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. “You know, I'm right here. And yeah, maybe I deserve to be punched in the mouth. I wouldn't hold it against you if you--”

 

“I'm not going to hit you,” Steve said, exasperated. He shook his head slowly. "I never stopped... caring about you," he said awkwardly. "Even when things were at their worst. And now..." 

 

“Tony,” Steve said seriously, placing a hand on Tony's cheek. “I forgive you.”

 

“Do you?” Tony asked, tracing a finger up the line of Steve's back. “You'll forgive me, but I thought that was implicit--”

 

“Cut it out,” Steve interrupted, catching Tony's hand in his own. “I'm serious. I forgive you.”

 

“I'm honored,” Tony said dryly. "Well, if we're both done sharing here--"

 

Steve raised a hand: All done here, continue, and Tony nodded. "All right. My internal clock is telling me that it's still nighttime, and I don't really care if it's right or not. I'm going to get some more sleep, time be damned. Move over."

 

Steve leaned back and Tony rolled into him, his back pressed against Steve's stomach. They were altogether too crowded on Steve's tiny bed, and it was uncomfortably hot under the thick blanket, but Steve wrapped a hand around Tony's waist and held on, letting his eyelids drift shut as they shared the same pillow.

 

Tony was gone in the morning; Steve woke to find his hand curled around nothing, the sheets and blanket smoothed flat beside him. Steve lurched around the room, picking up his discarded clothing. The communicator, still pinned in place to his shirt, was beeping; Steve prodded at it, curiously, and a voice message began playing.

 

"Morning, sleepyhead," Tony said. "Sorry to love you and leave you, but I had to get up early to go and do some more work on the ship repairs. I'll be in the engine room all day, if you want to drop by."

 

Steve grinned stupidly before heading into the shower. He'd get cleaned up, get some food, check up on Peter, and then go and bother Tony until he came back to bed. 

 

* * *

 

Peter was awake when Steve entered the infirmary an hour later; awake, and arguing.

 

"But I'm bored," he was saying, wheedling at Jessica. Eying Steve desperately, he said, "And Steve agrees with me, right, Steve?"

 

"Steve agrees with what?" Steve asked, at the same time that Jessica said, "Steve does not agree with you because Steve does not want you to wear yourself out and die."

 

After the silence that ensued, Steve nodded at Jessica. "Steve has no clue what you are talking about," he said, "but he agrees with Jessica anyway."

 

"Oh, Pete's just awake now and bored, and he wants to go help Tony work on the repairs," she explained tiredly.

 

"Well, he does look a lot better..." Steve ventured, and Jessica waved a hand at him, shaking her head sharply.

 

"It's his healing factor. Nowhere near as good as Logan's was, you know, but good enough. Getting him stabilized was the hard part; he'll be back to himself in a few days, if he'll only be still and let himself heal." Jessica glared at Peter before glancing up at Steve, her eyes narrowed, calculating. "Listen, Steve, do you mind keeping him company for a few minutes? I need to run out and get something to drink; I'm beat."

 

"Sure," Steve agreed, and after Jessica stood and headed toward the door, he sank down into her chair.

 

"He is in the room and can hear you," Peter called out petulantly to Jessica's retreating form. As the door swung shut, he turned his attention back to Steve.

 

"Come on. Tony needs help with the repairs, and I'm the only person on this ship capable of helping him with those repairs, so obviously I could be doing more good down there than in here--"

 

"Peter, you were practically dead last night. You're not going to be working on the ship any time soon."

 

"I know." Peter drummed his fingers idly on the sheets. "I just... want to help."

 

"I know you do. But you can't, not right now. And anyway, why are you so concerned with helping Tony, anyway? I thought that you and he were still working out some trust issues," Steve teased him half-heartedly.

 

"Tony saved my life," Peter said, suddenly serious. "After I got hit, he flew the armor in to cover me. They made Swiss cheese out of it, Steve. And part of me--you know, the part that wasn't freaked out over bleeding out on the floor--part of me thought that he only did that because he wasn't in the armor." Peter sighed, twisting his fingers in the bedsheets. "And the rest of me knew that wasn't true. He would have done it, no matter what."

 

The door burst open, startling both of them, and Jessica entered, clutching at a mug of coffee. Steve turned back to Peter, smiling warmly at him.

 

"I'll be sure to tell Tony that you're appreciative," he said. He stood, nodding at Jessica, and walked swiftly into the hall, heading for the turbolift. He'd almost reached it when the ship shuddered violently, and then lurched to a stop. Overhead, a blue emergency light began blinking, and a siren pierced the air.

 

Steve's communicator buzzed to life. "Everybody get to the shuttle, now," Tony shouted; in the background, Steve could hear an echo of the emergency siren. "Launch as soon as everybody gets on board, that is an order."

 

Steve grew cold: he knew that when Tony Stark said "everybody," what he really meant was "everybody minus myself." Racing into the turbolift, Steve punched the designation for the engineering room. The lift whirred and deposited him on the engineering floor, but Steve was brought up short only a few feet outside the lift: the barrier that Logan had told him about was up, and thick plexiglass walls shielded the entirety of the engineering section. Steve could hear a banging noise, and then a muffled shout; a wrench flew backwards out of a curving section of the engine's innards.

 

Tony shouted something else, but the ship gave a wrenching motion, then, and sparks flew everywhere. The blasted alarm klaxon had never wavered. Steve raised a hand and brought it down with all of his might on the plexiglass shield Tony had erected around the engineering room, and he watched in frustration as the glass didn't so much as dent.

 

“Come on!” he shouted, banging his hands ineffectually on the wall. “We have to get you out of here, come on . . .”

 

Tony staggered into view then, and Steve's heart gave a desperate lurch: Tony was in his engineer's coveralls, spattered with engine grease and oil, little cuts on his arm standing out brightly against the soot that nearly covered him; the look on his face was resigned, and Steve knew then, although he wouldn't admit it to himself, exactly where this was going.

 

Tony shook his head sharply, and then reached down, rummaging through a large metal bin before pulling out a large socket wrench.

 

“No!” Steve shouted, desperately banging his fist repeatedly on the glass. He looked around. Surely there had to be some way to break the glass--something he could throw at it, batter it down--

 

“Steve,” Tony's voice, although muffled, came through the glass, and Steve looked up to find Tony staring at him, still wearing that closed off, resigned expression.

 

“Come on, Tony,” Steve said, placing both of his hands, palm face up, on the wall. “We have to go, you need to open the door and get out of there. Come on.”

 

Tony closed his eyes, breathing deeply, and for a moment Steve thought he might actually do it. Tony then shook his head, slowly, and Steve felt himself go numb.

 

“You know I can't leave the ship,” Tony said sadly, opening his eyes. “I'm as good as dead outside these walls. There's no way you could get me anywhere suitable fast enough for--it won't work,” he finished awkwardly, turning back to the engine.

 

No, Steve inwardly shouted. To have come this far. . .

 

“Steve.”

 

Tony was calling his name, but Steve couldn't meet his eyes. There had to be some way to fix this, and if he only had the time, he could figure it out--

 

“Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve . . .” Steve looked up, finally, and Tony's litany stopped.

 

“You have to get off the ship,” he said, and despite Steve shaking his head, no, Tony continued. “Look, the ship that's attacking us, it's a Correllian class, that's a smuggling ship. They're not after people, that's why they don't care if people escape. They're going to search us for salable cargo, and when they don't find anything they'll leave.”

 

“They'll scuttle the ship,” Steve protested. “And you'll be on it.”

 

“They can't do anything to the mainframe if they can't get in here. I'll keep them out.”

 

“Tony, you can't--”

 

“I can accomplish more in here than I can dying on a shuttle outside this ship,” Tony said vehemently.

 

“And just what the hell are you going to accomplish down here?” Steve asked quietly. “Other than get yourself killed.”

 

Tony looked away then, shifting his gaze downward. He weighed the heft of the wrench in one capable hand. “I've been working on some experimental technology. I'm cloaking the escape shuttle. I can divert power from here long enough to cloak you until you get out of range.”

 

Steve shook his head, resolute to the last, and Tony looked as though wanted to break something. He settled for angrily throwing his wrench to the floor.

 

“You're wasting my time,” he gritted out, pressing a hand to the glass shield. “Every second you stand here arguing with me is another second that you're delaying the little window of escape I can buy you. You know I can't get off this ship. I need you to go and get the others out of here, Steve,” he said. “I'll be here when you get back.”

 

No, you won't, Steve wanted to argue. He looked again at Tony, at the clear blue of his eyes; he was unafraid for his own life, but desperate to save the rest of them, and Steve could not deny him that.

 

“Be here,” Steve said hollowly, resting his hand on the glass. Tony nodded, raising a hand to mirror Steve's.

 

“I will be,” he said, voice warm and assured, and Steve wanted so badly to believe him. Steve pressed his hands to the glass one last time and then turned, taking the turbolift back to the shuttle area. He darted into the shuttle door and then pressed the button near the hatch, sealing it tight. The others were already in the ship, Carol in the pilot's seat and Luke and Logan strapped in as passengers. Peter lay on the floor, covered with a blanket, and Jessica sat near him, supporting him and keeping a hand on the rolling IV unit which he was still strapped into.

 

“Where's Tony?” Peter asked, frantic, and Steve, momentarily lost for words, shook his head.

 

“He's not coming,” he said, finally, and then strapped himself into the copilot's seat. “Carol, get us out of here.”

 

"He wouldn't come." Carol's voice was bitter, mournful; Steve couldn't look at her. She sat there, tightening her hands on the controls, and Steve nodded. Carol looked away, taking a deep breath, her jaw clenched.

 

"I'd love to fly us out, but I fail to see the point of disengaging," Carol said sharply. Her hands were shaking. "As soon as we leave the ship those bastards are going to blast us into very small pieces."

 

"Tony's taking care of that. Just go."

 

"Going." Carol disengaged from the ship, easing the throttle out to zip away from the floundering Aegis. "Holy shit," she murmured, as they flew away unchecked. "That actually worked."

 

"Keep going," Steve prompted her. "We need to be long gone before they think to check for life signs."

 

"And the ship?" she pressed, but the shuttle kept moving, the Aegis growing smaller and smaller in the small shuttle windows.

 

"Four hours," Steve decided. "We'll give them four hours to steal whatever it is they can, and then we'll come back. They should be gone by then, that's plenty of time to search the ship."

 

"Aye, aye," Carol said, and pushed the shuttle's engine's to move even faster. Steve turned around in his chair, watching through the side window as they moved farther away. There was nothing to block his view; the vastness of space was such that they'd have to put a significant amount of space between the shuttle and the Aegis before it finally winked out of sight. Steve couldn't help the worry gnawing at him, or the heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach as, behind them, the Aegis remained.

 

* * *

 

Nobody spoke during the ride; Jessica stayed at Peter's side, adjusting IV bags, and Carol fiddled halfheartedly with the controls on the dashboard. At the two hour mark, Steve watched as she input new coordinates and then leaned back heavily in her chair. Carol had the scanners running, and as they closed the distance back between themselves and the Aegis, she breathed out a sigh of relief. "The other ship is gone."

 

As soon as he stepped back onto the ship, Steve knew that something was wrong. "Tony?" he called, leaving the communicator open; there was no answer.

 

Breaking out into a cold sweat, Steve darted into the turbolift, Carol hot on his heels. They rode down to engineering in silence, and when Steve stepped out of the lift and saw the state of the engine room--a massive hole blasted in the plexiglass shield, bits of it glittering on the floor, and a single smudge of blood, level with Steve's face, on this side of the barrier--he knew that the fears he'd had all along had been realized. They could look all day to try and find out what the bounty hunters had taken, but it would be no use. They'd come for Tony, and they'd gotten him. Steve felt lost, directionless, and he didn't know any way to right himself.

 

"Damn it, Tony," Carol whispered, pressing a hand to the glass.

 

"Come on," Steve said gruffly. "We need to go tell the others." He took a deep breath before activating his communicator. "Everybody to the infirmary. We need to have a meeting."

 

They were all there waiting when he and Carol entered. Peter watched them keenly as they walked through the doorway.

 

"He's not here, is he?"

 

"No," Steve said, voice breaking, "he's not. But we're going to get him back." And that said, Steve felt himself regain his footing, just a bit.

 

"We'll need... we'll need to check the security cameras, find out who took him," Steve continued, snapping his fingers. "Jessica, I want you on that."

 

"I can help," Peter spoke up.

 

"No," Steve said firmly. "You are staying in bed. If Jessica finds anything promising she can bring you a datapad and let you work on it from here, but you are not going to get out of bed until you've healed up. We need you at one hundred percent as soon as possible, no setbacks because you pushed yourself too hard at the beginning. Understand?"

 

"Understood." Peter's voice was sullen, but he nodded.

 

"Carol, I'll need you to start running diagnostics on the ship, find out what needs fixing, give us the priority lists. Luke, Logan, start cleaning out some of the debris. Anything you know how to fix, fix it."

 

Carol was smiling softly at him, although she still looked pained. "What?" Steve asked, bewildered.

 

She simply said, "You," and then nodded at him before heading back toward engineering. The rest of them scattered, and Steve walked quickly back to his room, slamming the door once he'd ducked inside. He leaned back against the cool metal, closing his eyes. Peter and Jessica would find something, he was sure of it, and then Carol would fly them over, and he could mount a rescue team--

 

The datapad on his desk flickered to life, beeping softly. Steve looked at it curiously; the light that indicated new messages was blinking red, and the machine was beeping softly.

 

Steve slowly made his way over to the desk, trepidation causing him to linger at the desk for a few moments before sitting down. He could think of no reason that he'd have a new message; he'd just seen the crew, and surely if they'd needed to relay any messages to him they would have just called him on his communicator.

 

Shaking his head, Steve pressed at the inbox on his screen. Likely, it was just a glitch in the system--

 

Tony's face appeared on the screen. He was standing in the engineering room, sparks flying all around him. “I need you to stick with the plan, Steve,” he said, and Steve's heart clenched.

 

"Don't go looking for me," Tony continued. "This raid--it's not what you think it is. Get the ship back in order and get the hell out of here. I've uploaded all of my files to your computer; go through them. We're close, Steve, and you can't jeopardize everything we've worked for for some petty revenge. I've got everything outlined for you; all you have to do is lead them. I know you can do it, Steve, and I'm counting on you."

 

Tony turned his head suddenly, listening to some unknown commotion before turning hurriedly back to the camera. "Shit, Steve, they're coming. If I don't--if I don't make it, I wanted to tell you--"

 

The message turned into static for a moment, loud and harsh, and then closed entirely. "Damn it, Tony," Steve whispered, placing a hand over his mouth as document after document opened on his screen. He read them all, of course; every dispatch from Jessica, the ones he'd seen and quite a few that were new to him. There were blueprints of Osborn's planetary defense system, schematics of the Senate building, time sheets for Osborn's personal guard. Outlines Tony had scrawled on coffee-stained papers and then scanned into the computer, and precisely typed documents accompanying them--in short, everything they'd need to bring down Osborn, gift wrapped and waiting on Steve's computer.

 

He'd been at it for hours when Carol's voice finally came over his communicator.

 

"Steve, you there?"

 

"Here, Carol." He cleared his throat, blinking away from the monitor. "Report."

 

He heard her sigh wearily. "Not as bad as I thought it would be, but bad enough. It's mostly external, although the catalyzer's busted, which is limiting the work the engine can do at the moment. We're mobile, but not by much. A good bit of damage to the hull, weapons are gone entirely, and shielding is low. In terms of priorities, I'd put the shielding and the catalyzer at the top of the chart."

 

"So we can have mobility or we can have shields," Steve mused. "Let's go for mobility first. We can fix the shields once we're up and moving."

 

"On it." The transmission cut out, and Steve resumed scanning Tony's documents for a few minutes before there was a chime at his door.

 

"Come in," he called, not bothering to turn around.

 

"I finished scanning the cameras," Jessica called, and Steve whirled about in his chair. "And?"

 

"And, nothing," she said, defeated. "The tapes are useless, they've all been erased. I already had Peter take a look at them, and neither of us can figure out any way to uncover any video from them. They're useless," she repeated, spreading her hands open.

 

"That's good work, Jessica," Steve forced out. Jessica just rolled her eyes.

 

"Not really," she muttered, "but it's all I've got. I'm going to go down to engineering, see if I can help Carol."

 

 

* * * * * * * *

CHAPTER SEVEN

* * * * * * * *

 

 

It took them three full days to repair the catalyzer; three days during which Steve barely slept or ate.

 

Peter joined the repair efforts on the third day. He'd recovered quite a bit--enough to work on the engines, at least--but was still moving slowly, cradling his stomach protectively, and the stitches hadn't yet come out. Peter called Steve on the communicator when they'd finished, breathless and excited, and the slow, sick stuttering of the engine ceased and was replaced with the strong drive of Tony's creation at full power.

 

"That's great work," Steve told him, pressing a warm hand to the wall. "Now get to work on the shielding, okay?"

 

He flipped channels before speaking again. "Carol, I think it's safe to start moving us, now. Plot a course and let's go."

 

"I think we need to have a talk first," Carol said, and her voice was strange--haunted, Steve thought. "You, me, everybody."

 

"Okay," Steve said, confused. "I'll meet you." He changed the communicator to ship-wide transmission. "We need to have a meeting. Everybody to communications, please."

 

Steve arrived first, and when he entered, was startled at the look on Carol's face; she was holding a piece of paper, and glaring murderously at it. Seeing him enter, she stalked over, thrusting the paper into his hands, and Steve read over it hastily. The others were filing in behind him, but Steve paid them no attention, jaw dropping open when he'd finished the first line.

 

Crash Landing: Fall of an Icon

 

Earlier today, Oscorp International sent out a press release claiming to have apprehended Tony Stark.

 

If this is true, then a serious blow against the resistance has been struck. One can only wonder who might be able to fill the shoes of the man who has been so central in the resistance--who, indeed, if any. The article continued with the history of Tony's role in the resistance against Osborn, and down at the bottom, Jessica Jones's name signed the piece.

 

“Bounty hunters,” Steve snarled, flinging the printout across the room. Carol bent down, picking up the paper. “They weren't scavengers, they were bounty hunters. They got exactly what they came after.”

 

“They sold him to Osborn,” Carol said furiously, clutching the printout in her hands. She clenched it tightly, wrinkling the thin pages, and then handed it off to Luke.

 

“Well, we have to do something,” Peter said loudly, craning his neck around to look at all of them. "Right? I mean, we have to get him out of there. We have to."

 

Steve sighed, rubbing wearily at his temples, where the start of a headache had formed. “Tony made me promise that we would continue with his plan, and that's what we're going to do. We have no way of finding him.”

 

"Or of verifying that he's even alive," Carol cut in. "For all we know, he's already dead and this is just a ruse to make us come out of hiding."

 

“Osborn could be killing him, for all we know!” Peter protested, and Steve despised him in that moment for voicing the fears that he hadn't wanted to give words. “It's not right, he wouldn't just abandon one of us like that--”

 

“He would,” Logan cut in suddenly. “Ends justify the means. He'd do it.” 

 

"Logan is right," Steve said tiredly. "And even if he weren't, for all we know, Tony could already be dead."

 

Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair nervously. "Tony sent me a document before he was taken, detailing his plan and the steps we have left to take. He has schematics of everything, he even built a program to counter Osborn's defense system, if it ever gets operational. Tony only listed a few more groups of mutants to pick up and redistribute; I think we should start out with that." He looked up at them, scanning each of their faces. "If anyone has a better suggestion, I'm listening."

 

"As though anybody's going to argue with you," Carol snorted. "You're back in command, and I'm pretty sure I speak for everybody when I say that nobody's got a problem with that."

 

Across the room, Peter saluted him. "Knock it off," Steve said, only half serious.

 

"There's something that's been bothering me, though," Carol said slowly. "Why not just blow up the ship? It doesn't make any sense. Why give us the ship back at all?"

 

The room grew quiet, and then Jessica looked up, glancing at Carol. "They'd only give it back to us if they had something to gain," she mused, and then she snapped her fingers. "A tracking device. Damn them."

 

"They're tracking us?" Steve interrupted. "You know that for sure?"

 

"Well, I'm not completely positive," Jessica admitted. "But it sounds like something they'd do."

 

"Run a scan," Steve said. "Let me know as soon as you find anything." Jessica nodded, seating herself at one of the terminals and getting to work.

 

"In the meantime, we're closest to Goshen, I think, so let's chart a course there. We'll be picking up Nightcrawler and Gambit and dropping them off at Gamma Tau; it's a little moon orbiting Echo II. It'll take us a couple of days to get there, and a couple of days to drop them off." Echo II. Where the Senate is, Steve added mentally. Where Osborn is.

 

"All right!" Peter pumped a fist in the air. "Nightcrawler is awesome!"

 

"Oh, that's just wonderful," Logan growled.

 

* * *

 

Only two hours later, Peter found it: a tracking device, concealed down in engineering. It was the same make as the one they'd found on Steve's stasis unit, and Steve crushed it under his boot, thinking bitterly of Tony.

 

Their next mission went off without a hitch, other than Logan's continual muttered complaints, less so after Gambit had finally left the ship. They deposited the two mutants on Gamma Tau; they were to rendezvous with Rogue, and if Steve saw a brief flash of regret on Logan's face as Kurt and Gambit left to go and meet with her, he didn't say anything about it.

 

Carol was on her way back in the shuttle, and the Aegis was, for the moment, quiet, set in orbit around Gamma Tau. Steve strolled by the communications room, intending to check for news from Jessica. It had been a while since they'd heard anything personal from her, and Steve knew that Luke was beginning to worry.

 

There was a paper waiting in the printer tray when Steve entered, and he heaved a sigh of relief. However, once he'd read the printout, he sank down into the nearest chair, floored and simply staring at the printout for a minute.

"Hey, I'm back," Carol called out from the doorway. "I figured you'd be in here. I'll go ahead and take us out of orbit and we can get a move on--"

"No, don't do that," Steve said hurriedly. "Call everybody together, tell them we need to have a talk right now."


Carol looked at him oddly, but did as he asked, and within a few minutes the others had drifted into the room.

“It's Osborn,” Steve said without preamble, scanning over the printout again to make sure that he'd read it correctly. “He's taken the entire Senate hostage. The National Guard is considering sending troops if Osborn doesn't surrender within the next twenty-four hours.”

 

“What?” Peter yelped, at the same time that Carol snatched the printout from Steve's hands.

 

Luke whistled under his breath. “Gutsy move.”

 

“The move we needed,” Jessica corrected, turning to glance at Steve. “This is the perfect opportunity to strike—we've got most of our people into position." She leaned down, keying up a map and displaying it as a glowing hologram.

 

“But not all of them,” Logan said suddenly. He was leaning against a dark corner of the room, hands crossed firmly over his chest.

 

“Since when are you concerned about numbers?” Carol asked, hands perched on her hips.

 

Peter shook his head. “I would just like to point out that I agree with Jessica. I mean, who do we have left to get into position? That guy who throws radiation at people and some girl who can make fireworks, which should prove super useful, only not--”

 

“Watch your mouth, bub,” Logan snarled, stepping forward aggressively as Peter took a step back, cradling his stomach with one hand.

 

“Get it together,” Steve snapped, stepping between the two of them. “This is not about either of you, so get your egos in check, right now.”

 

“Jessica sent this dispatch in five minutes ago,” Luke said, breaking the silence after Steve had spoken. “If we get a jump on this, we can finish up everything that needs to happen. My wife risks her life to send these things out,” he muttered, fingers crumpling the paper in his hand. “The least we could do is act on it.”

 

Steve nodded; he'd already made his mind up, and Luke's speech only served to reinforce him. “Put the word out to all of the underground groups,” he said, pointing at Peter. “Send out the schematics that Jessica sent us, and let them know that we're going to strike exactly two hours from now--that'll be 11:45 pm. Tell them we'll meet here,” Steve said, pointing at a spot on the map two blocks away from the Senate proper.

 

“In the meantime, Jessica, you come with me. We need to input Tony's program for disabling the interplanetary weapons over the building, and I'm going to need your help getting that started up. If we're lucky Osborn won't have finished it yet, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.”

 

Jessica nodded, and Steve drew in a deep breath and then turned to Logan, Peter, and Carol. Now for the hard part. “None of you are coming,” he said, and then raised his hand to silence the immediate cacophony of voices that followed.

 

“I'm not arguing this with you,” he said loudly, and finally, they began to quiet. “Carol, Logan, I don't doubt your combat abilities, but Osborn's guards are going to be playing for keeps. And Peter, you're injured, so don't even start with me,” he added.

 

“I want you to stay on the ship, stay armed, and keep an eye out on the other aircraft,” he said, suddenly mindful of the words Tony had spoken to him. It felt like ages ago that he'd been arguing with the other man about his viability as a soldier, and he shrugged the memories away. “I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to send people at us out here, so it's your job to make sure they don't get to the ships. If we do need to evacuate quickly, we can't be worried about Osborn's people sabotaging our getaway. Peter, I'll need you to scan the surrounding area, see if you can get a lock on where Osborn has the senators stashed.”

 

“This is bullshit, and you know it,” Carol snarled, pointing a finger at him angrily. “No, I'm not going to argue with you, but it's bullshit.”

 

“What she said,” Logan growled, and Peter, standing beside the two of them, just nodded.

 

"You can hate me later," Steve snapped. "But right now, we have work to do. Jessica, go ahead and get started on that program; I'll meet up with you in a minute."

 

Steve dismissed them and headed to his quarters, throwing the closet door open when he'd arrived. Tony had told him--

 

There it was, gleaming, on top of a package wrapped in plain brown paper. Steve set the shield aside gently, tearing into the package, and gasped as the brilliant colors of his uniform spilled out. Tony must have kept it, bundling it away into the closet along with his shield, and Steve had never checked, never even thanked him. He took a moment to run his fingers over the smooth leather of his gloves, tracing the worn spot between thumb and forefinger. It was like coming home, finding this, and Steve took a shaking breath, clutching the package a little tighter to his chest.

 

He had to blink away the moisture behind his eyes for a moment, and then Steve pulled out the shield Tony had made for him--round and silver, instead of the usual colors. It was different; nothing would ever feel the same as his old shield, but it felt good to be holding one again at all. He changed into his suit quickly, and the familiar feel of his costume was like a physical assurance: he could do this. They would win. Steve threw on the dark overcoat that Tony had given him, slinging the shield onto his back.

 

* * *

 

Two hours later, he and Jessica (mostly Jessica, he admitted to himself) were putting the finishing touches on Tony's computer virus.

 

"It's done," Jessica said finally, pushing her chair away from the console. She cracked her knuckles and stretched; she'd changed into her Spiderwoman costume earlier, and the red and yellow colors were glaring in the drab gray room. "Now all we have left to do is activate it and hope that it works."

 

"It'll work," Steve assured her, hoping desperately that it would. "Activate it."

 

"Steve, we're in position over the planet." Carol's voice flared to life on the communicator. "And we've got several friends with us."

 

"Explain several," he prompted.

 

"We've got five friendly ships around us right now; Jean Grey, Storm, Rogue, Johnny Storm, and Clint, and they all have several friends with them. And... another one."

 

"Hostile?" Steve asked quickly. "We'll have to get one of the others to deal with it, our weapons are still malfunctioning--"

 

"Not--not exactly hostile, no," Carol interrupted. "It's Magneto. He says he's on our side. Professor X is on Jean Grey's ship, and he's vouching for him."

 

"No," Logan's angry voice came over the communicator, and Steve realized with a start that it was the first time that he'd heard him use it.

 

"Logan, it's not like we can turn him down," Steve said tiredly. "Let's just stay out of his way. Keep an eye on him, but stay out of his way."

 

"Get ready for the landing, everybody. We'll touch down in about a minute," Carol said. Steve shared a silent look with Jessica, and later, after the whine of the engine had subsided and the ship touched solid ground, the two of them stood and started for the hatch. They met Luke there, and Peter; he didn't say anything, just opened the hatch for them and stood there, silently watching, as they walked over to join the other heroes emerging from their ships.

 

They had a good number; Jean Grey, Xavier, and Cyclops walked out of the hatch of a small, fast transport ship as Rogue, Gambit, Nightcrawler, and Maya Lopez, clad in her Ronin suit, descended from another ship. Storm and T'Challa were stepping lightly out of a sleek silver ship, while beside them, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm, and Susan Storm Richards walked warily into the clearing, moonlight shimmering all around them. And then--

 

"Clint!" Steve called out happily, and then he stopped in his tracks as he saw the figure walking behind him: Deadpool.

 

"None of this is real," he was saying. "There is a woman. With a typewriter. This is all part of her crazy imagination." Beside him, Clint pressed a hand to his forehead.

 

Deadpool rambled on, oblivious to--or simply uncaring of--Clint's obvious annoyance. "What did you say, yellow box? Seriously?"

 

"Oh, Jesus," Luke muttered. "Can you imagine being stuck in a ship with the two of them?"

 

"I'd rather keep my sanity, thanks," Jessica retorted, and then they'd closed the gap and were standing warily in a loose circle with the other superheroes. They were oddly muted; save for the bright reds that Deadpool and Spiderwoman wore, the rest of them had mostly chosen to wear darker clothing; a far cry from the rainbow of colors that should have been present. Steve let the front of his leather coat fall open a bit.

 

He glanced around the circle, counting quickly; "Seventeen of us," he noted, nodding. "Not bad."

 

"Make that eighteen," Magneto's imperial voice called out, and then he was striding over to stand beside Xavier. "Chai. An auspicious number, wouldn't you say, Charles?"

 

"Life," Xavier said, and then inclined his head. "I agree, Eric, especially given the inexplicable presence of the man standing before us."

 

With a start, Steve realized that they were talking about him. "Osborn captured me," he said, stumbling over the best explanation to give them. "The crew of the Aegis found me, not too long ago." The rest of them started murmuring to each other; Steve could hear Clint whispering furiously at Deadpool.

 

"We don't really have time to explain the whole thing," Steve said, exasperated, and the rest of the heroes grew quiet. "I want the heavy hitters up front--Luke, myself, Rogue, Maya, T'Challa, Deadpool, and Ben."

 

"The people who're about to punch some of Osborn's flunkies in the mouth," Rogue translated, flexing a gloved fist, and Steve nodded. "Yes, actually."

 

"I'm expecting that we'll encounter heavy resistance," he continued. "Magneto, we'll need you to disarm any guards we meet. Jean, Professor X, I'd like you to try to persuade as many of Osborn's soldiers to leave as you can. Storm, Johnny, Jessica, take to the air--make things difficult for them and keep an eye out for reinforcements. The rest of you, spread out, try not to interfere with each other too much. Our goal is to take down Osborn; let's try to avoid any unnecessary violence." This was directed at Magneto, who raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing.

 

"You know you have Deadpool here," Luke mouthed to him, and Steve withheld a groan. I'm just not going to look at what he's doing, he thought, and hoped that Luke got the message.

 

The people before him, his comrades-in-arms, nodded at him, all grimly determined, and Steve's heart fluttered momentarily as he realized that they'd all looked to him to lead them, and asked no questions.

 

"Let's go, then," he said, and on either side of him, Storm and Johnny took flight. Jessica hugged him briefly and then followed suit as the rest of them began walking determinedly toward the Senate. Behind him, Steve heard Deadpool, still chattering away to himself.

 

"How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" He was asking. "Not enough, that's for sure, white box, never enough." 

 

Clint finally snapped. "For the love of Pete, you never shut up, do you?" he practically snarled, and then he'd shouldered his way past Deadpool to walk next to Steve and Luke.

 

"Not a word," he said, and Steve clapped him on the back.

 

The Senate building was huge, a modern marvel of marble columns and heavy concrete, windows studding the whole thing. It was round, and from the outside appeared to be three stories high, but Steve knew from reading Tony's blueprints that the building had an extensive underground facility. The streets were deserted, hovercars lying abandoned near the roads and not a person to be seen, until they came within view of the Senate steps. There were guards all over the steps; Steve estimated nearly a hundred of them, all armed with blaster rifles, and who knew how many in the building behind.

 

"Magneto," he called, looking back at him. They were all concealed behind a large building; any more movement, and the guards would find their shadows and be able to pick them off, one by one.

 

"Go ahead and do your thing," he told him. "And Sue, be ready; you'll need to shield him the moment he steps out there." She nodded at him, bringing her hands up in front, at the ready.

 

Steve watched from the corner of the building they were hiding beside as Magneto stepped boldly out from concealment. Sue's shield shimmered around him, and he walked fearlessly toward the Senate.

 

"Halt!" one of the guards called to him, and they all raised their guns. Magneto froze.

 

Then he smiled.

 

"Ah, ah, ah," he said, waving a disapproving finger in the air, and then the guards were crying out in terror as their weapons were wrenched away. They floated in the air, high above, and then as Magneto closed a fist, they dissolved into powder, sprinkling all over the ground.

 

"Jean, Xavier, go," Steve called out. Jean darted out to stand behind Magneto and Xavier wheeled his chair slowly behind her, and then one by one the soldiers began to straighten, stiffening, before walking slowly down the stairs.

 

The building next to them, an empty storefront, gave Steve an idea. "Put them in here!" he called out, and then kicked in the door. Jean nodded slightly, tiny beads of sweat rolling down the side of her face, and the line of soldiers changed course, heading for the building.

 

"Get as many as you can," he instructed her. "The rest of you, go get the ones that are left. Make sure you seal the door shut when this is full," Steve said, directing the last bit at Magneto. Slinging his shield off of his back, he ran into the fray, Luke at his side.

 

The fifty or so guards left after Jean and Xavier's trick were fighting bravely, but giving up ground at a fast clip. Rogue and Gambit were fighting side by side; Steve watched as Rogue swung both of her hands into the stomach of one of the guards, bowling him over. Then, with a dazzling purple explosion, Gambit flung a card at a guard who'd been attempting to sneak up behind Rogue; the man cried out, blinded, and Rogue turned and kicked out at him before taking to the sky. They were cutting a wide swath into the guards--Gambit picking them off from the ground, and Rogue flitting up and out of reach before flying back down to take guards down at her leisure.

 

Off to the left, Deadpool fought by himself, swords wheeling in a riot of motion. Steve could see T'Challa moving gracefully through the ranks of soldiers; Steve ran past him, to the right, and dropped the first guard to offer any resistance, clipping the man on the side of the head with an uppcercut. Beside him, Luke shook off two struggling shoulders, moving forward with grim determination. The atmosphere around them was chaos, which only amplified when the doors to the Senate were flung open. More soldiers poured out of them, pushing the wave of fighting back. "Damn it," Luke swore.

 

Nearly a hundred more soldiers ran out into the fray, armed not with guns but armored with thick plating. These were the elite guards, Steve realized; they'd be much harder to take down. Having resorted to them, however, probably meant that Osborn was running out of options--they'd disabled his defense system and taken out half of his first team with barely any work. Osborn had to be running scared.

 

"We have to get in there," Steve called, desperate, and Luke nodded back at him. The new guards were more concerned with subduing the attackers than with guarding the doors, but they were armed as well, tossing flash bang grenades and tear gas left and right. Steve dove out of the way of a well-placed grenade, covering his eyes with his hands as the flash bang exploded with a loud boom. His ears were ringing, and then the gas was clearing in front of him as Steve looked ahead to see the guards in front of him fleeing wildly. A shadow obscured the moonlight momentarily, and Steve looked up, heart lurching for a moment as he saw a familiar form flying above him. It couldn't be, he thought, and then the shape flew nearer, and the colors of the armor resolved: not red and gold but clean black and silver.

 

Not the Iron Man armor, he realized, but War Machine. It was Rhodes.

 

"I'm covering you," he called down, voice tinny, and laid down another barrage of firepower. Steve rolled up to stand, Luke straightening behind him. They began fighting less to take down as many guards as possible, and more to keep pressing forward. There was no time to think; Steve moved fluidly, barely registering his movement: bring the shield up to block, kick the next soldier's legs out from under him, surrounded--spinning in a wide circle, shield out, dropping the closest soldiers and pushing the rest of them back. The soldiers were uncoordinated, unused to such well-trained opponents, and finally, Steve and Luke pressed through the crowd. Only two of the elite guards stood between them and the door, each armed with automatic rifles.

 

"Okay, what now?" Luke asked, at the same moment that Steve saw something moving swiftly out of the corner of his eye. He turned in time to see Jessica fly down, legs extended in front of her. She kicked into the first guard, knocking him down and into his companion.

 

Luke raised his eyebrows. "Never mind."

 

"I want to be there," Jessica said breathlessly. "To take down Osborn. I'm going in with you."

 

"Come on, then," Steve said. "I'm not going to argue." The three of them rushed into the building, closing the door behind them.

 

"There's no way to hold it!" Jessica was staring at the door in consternation.

 

"Leave it," Luke told her. "If we run into another legion of guards, we'll need to make a swift exit."

 

"If I were Osborn, where would I be?" Steve asked, looking around. The hallway ran in a circle around the building, and wide, paneled wood doors dotted the walls.

 

"I can see you."

 

The three of them started as Osborn's voice filtered around them. "I can see you," he said again, and Steve realized that he was broadcasting over the sound system.

 

"Straight ahead, double doors," Osborn said. "I've been waiting." Hefting his shield, Steve lead Luke and Jessica into the two double doors and into the Senate chambers.

 

Whatever Steve had been expecting, it hadn't been this: Osborn, in full Goblin regalia, circling above them on his glider and smiling crazily. The large, round room was otherwise empty; desks were overturned, and papers lay all over the floor. It looked, Steve thought, as though the senators had simply run off during the middle of court, and he supposed that he probably wasn't too far off from the truth.

 

“Osborn, you so much as twitch your little finger and I will kill you myself, I swear,” Luke snarled.

 

"Saw your ships on the readouts, ha," Osborn was sing-songing. "Thought you'd catch me sleeping, but you flew right into the web, didn't you?"

 

"Is this guy serious?" Steve muttered, and Jessica rolled her eyes at him.

 

"God, yes, unfortunately. I don't know if the man has ever been sane."

 

Suddenly, Osborn's manic smile faded. "Enough talking," he barked out, and then reached into his bag, pulling out two orange balls.

 

"More running."

 

"Move!" Jessica shouted, as Osborn began flying over them, dropping the pumpkin bombs and cackling madly. Jessica and Steve dove to the right, taking shelter under an overturned desk, and Luke rolled to the left, avoiding most of the blast. The explosions rocked the chamber, and from above, a huge piece of concrete detached from the ceiling, falling to the floor only a fwe feet away from Luke. Several of the columns in the room fell over, flinging dust and bits of mortar everywhere, and Steve winced as a bit of debris clipped him on the side of the head. He could feel a bit of wetness at his left temple, and he raised a hand, wiping the smear of blood and dust away.

 

"It's over, Osborn!" Steve yelled, rolling to his knees. "Your defense system is disabled, your guards are going down. Don't make this any harder on yourself than it has to be." 

 

"Foolish," Osborn snarled, and then Steve heard a metallic whirring before the glider began spitting bullets at them. He ducked lower under the desk, raising his shield to cover himself and Jessica.

 

"You shouldn't have come here," Osborn shouted. "But I'm happy to see you nonetheless. Did you know, we've been trying to perfect the Super Soldier serum for, oh, three years now?" He leered down at them, steering the glider in looping patterns high above the room.

 

"I know Stark found you in my hiding place, and just think: if he hadn't done that, I couldn't have tracked him, couldn't have found you, couldn't have gathered you all together like this any better myself. I owe him a thank you card."

 

"Where is he?" Steve demanded; Osborn just leered down at him, wagging a finger.

 

"Ah, not telling, not telling." He zoomed overhead, cackling madly. "And you will never find him."

 

Steve gritted his teeth, tightening his hold on his shield when suddenly there was a loud popping sound and a thud, and then Osborn began shrieking. Smoke poured out from the back of the glider, and it began flying erratically. "What have you done?"

 

Steve peeked around the corner of the desk to see Luke standing in the middle of the room, wiping dust off of his hands. His shirt and pants were riddled with bullets, but the glider had stopped firing; Luke must have thrown something, disabled it.

 

"It's over," Steve repeated firmly, standing with his shield protectively in front of him. "Give it up."

 

"It isn't over until I say so!" Osborn snarled, leading the glider higher as he reached into his bag, drawing out another pumpkin bomb.

 

"Okay," Steve decided, "that's enough of that. Jessica, can you distract him for a minute?"

 

"Sure thing." Jessica took to the air, darting around Osborn and flinging venom blasts at him as he tossed a bomb at her: wide, and she easily dodged. He screamed in fury, reaching into his bag to retrieve more bombs, and Steve flung his shield up, hitting the glider squarely; the glider split in two in a shower of sparks and then Osborn was hurtling toward the ground. He hit, hard, but rolled up to his feet, more slowly than he should have.

 

"You thought that would be enough?" he crowed, panting. He turned, facing Steve; behind Osborn, Steve could see Luke springing into action. "It'll take more than that to bring me down--"

 

Luke hurled a slab of concrete at him.

 

Steve reached his arm out, protest on his lips--he'd seen Luke reaching for the concrete, the look of fire in his eyes--but the words froze in his throat; this was the man, he remembered, who'd faked his death, kept him captive for three years. This was the man who had taken Tony.

 

Osborn crumpled, buried under the weight of the rubble, and Jessica landed lightly on top of him, grinding her boots into the concrete. Steve bent down, examining Osborn's still form. He was unconscious, but breathing shallowly, and Steve sighed, both relieved and resigned--he'd get his chance at trial, then. "Let's get those toys away from him," he suggested, and Jessica nodded.

 

"Already on it," she said, dropping down to rip the purple bag away from Osborn's shoulder.

 

"Good." Steve took a deep breath; Osborn lay unmoving underneath the slab of concrete, and Jessica and Luke were both glaring down at him. "You two stay with him; I'm going to go check on the situation outside."

 

The situation outside, as Steve found, was relatively calm. Most of the superheroes were standing around the guards--the ones left standing, anyway. They'd been herded into a circle, and Storm and Susan Storm were leading groups of them into the adjacent vacant buildings, having Magneto lock the doors securely after them.

 

"This looks like a success," Steve remarked, to nobody, and then Rogue flew down, landing next to him.

 

"Just peachy, sugar," she drawled. "Most of 'em calmed right on down when they figured out we were here to depose Mr. Osborn."

 

"We were just doing our jobs," one of the guards stammered; he was a thin man, face dotted with freckles. "He--he knew we used to work for Hydra. He found us, threatened to kill our families if we didn't fight, we had to--"

 

"It's okay, soldier," Steve assured him. He then palmed his communicator.

 

"Steve to Carol. Osborn is down, guards subdued. Go ahead and park the Aegis closer so that Peter can get started scanning the area."

 

"Yes!" he head Peter's delighted whoop, and then a few seconds later the Aegis--still looking a little worse for wear--was landing gracefully in front of the Senate steps.

 

Steve turned back to Rogue. "Go and round up some people to start hunting through the building, see if we can't find the hostages. And try to cut power, if you can."

 

"On it," she said, and then flew away, relaying Steve's orders to the assembled mutants.

 

The back hatch of the Aegis descended, and after a few moments Logan appeared, nodding at Steve. "The kid's working on scanning the building now," he called out.

 

Steve let out a sigh of relief. He could have sagged to his knees; they had taken down Osborn, and they were going to free the hostages, and then Steve was going to leave the negotiations with the mutant community in better hands than his own and take off for a while. They'd accomplished everything because of Tony's work, and now Steve wasn't even sure whether the other man was alive.

 

"Steve!" Jessica's voice, insistent, came over the communicator and jogged him out of his thoughts. "Steve, they found Reed, he has an antidote, I'm taking him out to the Aegis now--"

 

Steve could see Logan stiffening, the hand he'd wrapped around the hatch extender going white. And then, almost in a blur, Jessica came running out of the door, one hand latched onto Reed's arm. He was carrying a black case; Steve followed them into the ship, nearly running into Carol and Logan, who had joined together. Carol looked nervous; Logan was glaring, as usual, but there was an edge to it. Reed opened the case, and inside were several hypodermic vials of silvery liquid.

 

"Arms out," Reed said, and then pulled out the first of the injectors.

 

Steve waited impatiently as Reed injected both of them in turn. "Now, the efficacy of the antidote won't be visible for a while yet, and there's a slight possibility that it might not work at all. Rest here for a while, and I'll come back out to check on you in an hour or so. For now, I'd like to go and take care of some other business."

 

"We'll be waiting," Carol murmured, and Reed strode quickly out of the ship and over to a patiently waiting Susan.

 

"Well?" Peter prompted. "Feel anything yet?"

 

"He said that it would take time, Peter," Steve chided, but he turned to look at Carol anyway, hopeful. She shook her head, rolling her sleeve down over her arm.

 

"I'm gonna go make a call," Logan said gruffly. "Lemme know if anything changes."

 

"Who in the world is he calling?" Peter mouthed, staring incredulously at Logan's retreating back. Steve and Carol both shrugged.

 

"Hey, what's the news?" Luke called out suddenly, from behind them. "I heard about the antidote, is it working yet?"

 

"They're still waiting to find out," Steve explained. "And if you're here, then who's watching Osborn?"

 

"Ah, I left Johnny in there, he'll be fine." Luke waved a hand dismissively, and then stiffened, staring out into the distance.

 

"Who is that?" Peter asked, and then Steve turned to look. A woman was walking toward them, striding quickly; Steve recognized her immediately, although her brown hair was longer than he'd seen it in a while.

 

Luke simply stared, and then he rubbed at his eyes, viciously. "Jessica," he whispered, and his stunned face broke into a smile  before he ran at her full tilt, swinging her into an embrace. Steve heard them laughing, joyous, and then Jessica's hands came up, framing Luke's face, and she simply stared at him.

 

"Wow," Peter said, tilting his head to get a better look. Steve nudged him.

 

"Stop staring."

 

Peter nodded guiltily. "I need to get back to work scanning, anyway." He shook his head, stepping lightly back into the ship.

 

The next half an hour seemed to take a lifetime. At Rogue's instruction, the rest of the guards had been rounded up, and Peter had quickly found the coordinates in the building where Osborn had stashed the senators. Half of the heroes were on their way to rescue them; some of the others, like Magneto, were standing around, eying the proceedings warily. Xavier, Scott, and Jean were waiting on the promised National Guard troops to show up, having volunteered to do negotiation duty. And Steve was staring out the back of the ship, pretending to listen to Peter as he prattled on about the results of his scans. Twice now he'd excitedly called Steve over to point out design flaws in Osborn's complex.

 

"Steve!" Peter called out excitedly. Steve pretended not to hear.

 

“Tony should have been here to see this,” Steve muttered forlornly, running a tired hand over the smooth hull of the ship.

 

 

* * * * * * * *

CHAPTER EIGHT

* * * * * * * *

 

 

“Steve,” Peter called, insistent. Steve folded his arms more tightly about himself, staring out into the horizon. Dawn would break in a few hours, and then they'd start cleaning up this mess. . .

 

"Steve, seriously," Peter shouted, and Steve finally turned around.

 

“That's just what I've been trying to tell you,” Peter exclaimed, out of breath. “He's here. Osborn has him stashed away underground, I found the schematics, we just have to get to him--”

 

“Show me where,” Steve demanded, suddenly breathless, and Peter pointed at a small dot blinking on the map. "I'll take you there, let's go."

 

"I'm going with you," Carol said, and her tone brooked no disagreement. "Fine," Steve relented. "Let's go."

 

Johnny saluted them as they ran by the opening to the Senate chamber, and then Peter was leading them into an elevator and down several levels. They stepped out into a darkened floor; there was a single hallway leading outward, thick metal doors lining the walls. Peter jogged forward confidently, bypassing all of them, until they'd come to the end of the hallway. A particularly thick door barred their way; one blow from Steve's shield and the door's complicated electronic lock fell to the floor, useless. Steve held his breath and pushed the door open, Carol and Peter clamoring at his heels.

 

The room was lit only with the soft glow of fluorescent emergency lights. It was a very large room, cast mostly into shadow. Generators, softly humming, lined most of the walls, and Steve traced their cords deeper and deeper into the room, barely daring to hope.

 

With a shout, Carol pressed past him, jogging quickly down to the back of the room. “Oh God, Tony,” she whispered, raising one hand to cover her mouth. Hesitantly, Steve looked up, and then gasped. A long glass container occupied the back wall, into which the generators' wires were running. Several of the emergency lights illuminated the contraption, and inside, floating within a vat of viscous liquid, was Tony Stark.

 

Next to him, Peter said, “Damn,” his hands hanging limply by his sides, useless. Steve placed a hand on the exterior of the container; it felt icy cold to the touch. Inside, Tony was floating, tethered to the machine by restraints around his arms and legs. Wires ran from the machine and onto electrodes placed onto his body. He swayed up and down, ever so softly; whether it was an effect of the machine or vibrations they'd caused by running into the room, Steve couldn't tell. Tony's hair—a little longer and unruly, he noted—was swaying softly in the liquid, and his eyes remained utterly closed.

 

Peter crouched down, inspecting some sort of monitor on the side of the machine.

 

“What does it say?” Steve asked tightly, his eyes never wavering from Tony's body.

 

“It's going to take me a minute to figure that out,” Peter admitted, running his fingers over the colorful display. “This thing is complicated.”

 

“Complicated,” Carol said bitterly. “That's what he said about the box we found you in.” Raising a hand, she placed it gently onto the surface of the machine, near Steve's.

 

Steve said nothing, but continued his silent watch over Tony. Outside, there was a loud rumble, and the lights around them flickered.

 

"What was that?" Steve asked, and Peter shrugged.

 

"You told them to cut the power, so they're cutting the power. Except I don't think any of them knew how to do that, so they just started blowing up the transformers."

 

“Peter,” Steve said, suddenly anxious, "is the power outage hurting him?” Steve had a brief thought of the whole machine suddenly darkening and shutting down, with Tony dead--dying--inside of it. 

 

“No,” Peter said finally, and Steve and Carol both exhaled sharply.

 

“So he is alive, then?” Carol asked softly, finally turning to glance at Peter.

 

He nodded. “As far as I can tell, yes.”

 

“What is this thing doing to him?” Steve demanded, fingers rapping on the glass, and Peter shook his head wearily.

 

“I. . . I don't know.”

 

“This doesn't make any sense,” Steve said angrily. "How the hell did they get him off the ship without killing him?”

 

“Obviously, they'd been planning it for a while,” Carol said sharply. “This is Osborn's ultimate prize--”

 

“Oh, god,” Peter broke in. Steve glanced at him; his face had gone ashen.

 

“I think I know how they got him off the ship. And why.” Peter pointed to the monitor, which was now scrolling through line after line of information.

 

“What did you do?” Steve asked, tense, and Peter quickly raised his hands, defensive.

 

“I just asked it what was going on!” he protested. “And anyway, you're asking the wrong questions. You remember that global defense system Osborn was hiding?” Peter asked, insistent, and Steve nodded sharply.

 

“It was functional,” Peter whispered, eyes glued to the monitor. “And you're looking at its battery.”

 

“What the hell?” Carol broke in, face flushed in anger, at the same time that Steve demanded, “How is that even possible?”

 

“Extremis,” Peter answered simply. “Osborn figured out a way to rig a power supply through the program. You see all these generators? They're not powering him. He's powering them.”

 

“Jesus,” Carol murmured, and Steve's hand tightened on the glassy exterior of Tony's cage.

 

“And we can't take him out of here, can we?” he asked, voice even. “With those nanites, he'll die as soon as we unplug him--”

 

“No,” Peter interrupted, and Steve glanced over at him and the feverish hope in his eyes. “You don't get it. That's just it, that's how Osborn was able to use the Extremis this way. The nanites are gone.”

 

“Then we have to get him out of there,” Steve decided, as a small thrill of hope flared up inside him. Beside him, Carol nodded.

 

“Now.”

 

“But I don't know how!” Peter protested, although he was already poking determinedly at the control box. “And I don't know what this is going to do to him if I do manage to turn it off--wait, there,” he said, triumphantly. “I can override it, this thing isn't programmed to avoid that. Ha, Osborn,” he finished.

 

“And Tony will be okay?” Steve prodded.

 

Peter shook his head. “I'm not sure. This thing is going to discharge a lot of energy when it blows. Normally Extremis would compensate for an injury like that, but under the stress of powering this stuff. . .” Peter trailed off, uncertain.

 

Carol nodded then, bringing her hands, locked into tight fists, up in front of her. “I can absorb it. Peter can set this thing to blow and I'll take the blast while you two go out to a safe distance.”

 

“No,” Steve protested, whirling away from the case to glare at Carol. “Absolutely not. You were only injected with the cure a half an hour ago, there's no way of knowing how long it'll take for you to get back to normal, assuming that antidote even works--”

 

Steve broke off, stunned, as Carol's fist collided with the side of his jaw, snapping his head around.

 

“Son of a bitch,” he swore, floored, and rubbed at his aching jaw.

 

"Sorry,” Carol said simply, flexing her right fist.

 

“Yeah, you sound really repentant,” Peter said, clearly awed.

 

“Well, I figured it was the only way I'd get him to listen to me,” Carol explained, but there was a glimmer in her eyes that hadn't been there before. “Satisfied now?”

 

“Satisfied you're back to normal all right,” Steve said feelingly, moving his jaw gingerly. “As long as you're positive that you can handle the blast and keep it away from Tony.”

 

“I can do this,” Carol assured him, and her voice had grown strong and determined.

 

“All right,” Peter said, I think I've got this. I'm going to rig it so that the generators overload; that should disrupt the flow of energy into here,” he said, pointing to the box,” which should definitely turn off the shielding and the force field.”

 

“I'm hearing an awful lot of 'shoulds' here, Peter,” Steve observed hotly.

 

Peter shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “It's that or leave him in here.”

 

Steve looked at Tony, floating helplessly in the cold void. “Do it,” he decided, and Peter nodded.

 

“Okay, after I set this, we'll have about thirty seconds to get out of the room or we're toast,” he warned. After Steve nodded at him, he began work, ripping the cover off of the back of the monitor and crossing wires.

 

“Okay,” he said finally, holding a pair of yellow and green wires carefully. “Once I key in the rest of the sequence and touch these wires, we have to run for it.”

 

“I understand,” Steve said, and Peter deftly keyed in a series of strokes on the keypad, one-handed.

 

“On the count of three," he breathed, inching the wires closer and closer together. Beside him, Carol moved to stand directly in front of the tank, her arms spread wide, fingers lightly touching the surface.

 

One. . . two. . . three!” Peter shouted the last, pressing the thin copper wires together firmly. He let go of them quickly and turned to run, tripping in the process, and Steve reached out a hand and grabbed him, throwing him bodily out of the room and running flat out to follow. He rounded the corner, slinging his shield over in front of himself and Peter, who had scrambled into a crouch, when a loud sizzling noise burst from the room. With a crackle, the noise faded away, and then all of the emergency lights in the complex suddenly winked out.

 

Something, however, was still glowing in the room. Steve stumbled to his feet and darted back inside, Peter close at his heels, and saw Carol, standing in front of Tony, her body glowing with an eerie white radiance. She was holding her hands out, fingertips splayed, and staring at them.

 

“So I guess it worked,” Peter said, breathless, and Carol choked out a laugh.

 

“Help me find the door,” Steve said, stepping nimbly back over to the machine and tracing his fingers up its sides. “Peter, I can't find the door.”

 

“I don't think there is one,” Peter admitted. “I don't think he was meant to leave this thing.”

 

“Well, we have to get him out, he's not breathing--the life support isn't working any more,” Carol said, and Steve nodded. In one fast motion, he slung his shield up and into the thick plexiglass casing, splintering it, and the viscous gel inside the container began draining onto the floor.

 

“You could have mentioned that you were going to do that,” Peter said, hopping away from the quickly spreading pool, but Steve paid him no mind. He began pulling at the plexiglass shards, prying them roughly away and dropping them onto the floor, and beside him, Carol mimicked his motions, flinging bits of plexiglass everywhere.

 

The liquid had drained, enough that Tony's head and upper chest were in the open air, and with a few well placed kicks, Steve and Carol were able to dislodge the rest of the glass covering. The gel drained out onto the floor, pooling around Steve's feet, and Tony sagged, listless, in his restraints.

 

Steve and Carol ripped at the restraints, pulling them easily out of the back of the machine, until Tony's body was free. Steve laid Tony gently down on the floor and began wiping the gel away from his mouth and nose. “Come on,” he said, frantic, pinching Tony's nose shut and leaning down, “come on, come on.”

 

He took a deep breath and was leaning toward Tony's mouth, tipping his head back, when Tony's entire body spasmed, his back arching up off the floor. Tony inhaled deeply, coughing, and then dropped back to the floor, breathing shallowly. As Steve held his breath, Tony's eyelids fluttered and then opened.

 

In his periphery, he could see Carol dragging Peter out of the room, and hear his protests. In front of him, however, Tony lay there, cold and dirty but alive, blinking up at him with huge blue eyes.

 

“What--” he said, or tried to; his words dissolved into a fit of coughing, and Steve rolled him over onto his side, rubbing circles onto his back.

 

“Take it easy,” he said, his voice suspiciously rough. “You've been out of it for a while.”

 

But Tony was stubbornly shaking his head and his fingers scrabbled on the cold floor, attempting to push himself up. Steve propped an arm up behind him, steadying the thin body--it had only been a week, but Tony looked as though he'd lost a considerable amount of weight.

 

“What happened?” Tony rasped, coughing, and Steve shook his head, completely at a loss as to an answer to his question.

 

“Osborn got you,” he said lamely, and Tony rolled his eyes.

 

“How long?” he asked, and Steve remembered the words Tony had spoken to him, after pulling him out of his own makeshift coffin.

 

“Long enough,” he answered gruffly. Leaving one arm around Tony's back, he clumsily shrugged out of the overcoat he'd been wearing and wrapped it around Tony's shoulders.

 

“We need to get out of here.” Steve glanced around; in the darkened room, the only light came from Carol's radiance, hovering right outside the door. Steve crouched down, wrapping an arm around Tony's legs.

 

“Tony,” he said gently, “you can't stand. I'll carry you.”

 

* * *

 

A few steps into the hallway, Tony's head lolled against Steve's shoulders. He started, fearing the worst, but the gentle rise and fall of Tony's chest was a comfort. He was probably exhausted, Steve decided. With the Extremis working again, he'd be fine in no time.

 

They took the elevator up, and Steve started as they exited on the ground floor--he could hear shouting coming from the direction of the Senate room. Ahead of him, Peter and Carol broke into a run, and Steve followed them, clutching Tony tighter to his body.

 

"His fate was not for you to decide." Storm's angry voice carried over the floor, and Steve felt the bottom of his stomach plummet. He turned the corner, following Peter and Carol into the Senate room, and then looked in horror at Osborn's body--no longer buried under the slab of concrete--but bleeding from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears onto the floor. The pool of blood was enormous; Osborn's sightless eyes stared up at the ceiling.

 

"I'm sorry, I couldn't stop him," Johnny bit out. He was addressing Steve, but glaring at Magneto furiously.

 

"You did this?" Steve demanded, turning to Magneto. He simply raised an eyebrow, shrugging.

 

"If you truly believe that what I did was wrong, then you are a bigger fool than I had previously imagined." The disdain in his voice made Steve grit his teeth.

 

"What about a trial?" Carol asked, stepping right up to Magneto. "The only reason Osborn was able to get momentum for his legislation in the first place was people like you, taking the law into their own hands! How are we supposed to get them to trust us when you make it so damn hard?"

 

"Trials are human conventions," Magneto sneered. "Norman Osborn was too dangerous to remain alive. While apparently none of you were comfortable with facing that truth, I would not allow this man to wreak such havoc upon us again."

 

"Just--get out of here," Steve said tiredly, and Magneto waved a hand at the floor and then flew from the room, cape swirling behind him. Steve stared at Osborn's broken body and then turned away; the damage had been done, and Steve would be lying to himself if he didn't acknowlege the sliver of relief he'd felt upon learning of Osborn's death.

 

 

* * * * * * *

CHAPTER NINE

* * * * * * *

 

 

Steve laid Tony down gently onto his bed. There were so many things still to oversee, so many agendas to decipher, but he couldn't do any work with Tony still cradled in his arms. He pulled a blanket over the sleeping man; he looked ridiculous, clad only in Steve's brown overcoat, but he was whole and alive. Steve brushed a piece of hair out of Tony's face. How much time would they have together, inbetween piecing back together the Senate, the laws governing the mutant community?

 

There was a polite cough from the doorway, and Steve turned around to see Carol standing there.

 

"I guess you didn't hear me come in," she said slyly. Steve blushed.

 

"We just got a call from Constance, over on Mission Falls," Carol continued, pointedly not looking at Steve's flushed cheeks. "Apparently their planet is not only blessed with freak monsoons, but with freak hailstorms, too. They had some pretty bad damage on several of their farming machines, and she was wondering if we could come over and help, if we get a chance. Apparently she liked you."

 

"Apparently," Steve muttered, looking back at Tony's sleeping form. "What did you tell her?"

 

"I told her maybe," Carol said simply. "She said there's no rush." She raised an eyebrow at him. "Think it over. Tell me when you decide."

 

"Carol, I don't think we can just up and go--" he began, but Carol waved a hand at him, cutting him off.

 

"Think it over," she repeated, and then she walked down the hall, leaving Steve alone with Tony and his thoughts. At a sharp rap at the door, he looked up again to see Jessica standing there, a troubled look on her face.

 

"I know more about duty than most people, apart from you, I suppose," Jessica said slowly. "Hydra--listen, it doesn't matter. Just, one soldier to another, why don't you consider letting somebody else handle it this time? They're going to be embroiled in the politics for months. There are plenty of other capable people down there, Steve."

 

Steve stared at her, flabbergasted. Down the hall, through the open door, Steve could see Carol standing on her toes, fitting a metal plate over a section of exposed wiring; Jessica's eyes were fixed solely on Carol. "You don't have to say anything. Just consider doing something for yourself this time," she finished, and realization washed over Steve. Oh, he thought, and respectfully averted his eyes.

 

Steve pulled the blankets up a little higher around Tony's shoulders and then reluctantly walked away. He had to find out what was happening outside; watching Tony sleep would have to wait.

 

Most of the chaos outside had calmed; superheroes were standing around idly, chatting. Steve saw Xavier hovering in his chair at the top of the stairs, watching the doors of the building expectantly; Scott and Jean stood behind him. After a few moments the doors opened and Storm and Johnny walked out, leading a group of people dressed in deep red uniforms: the Senators. Steve strode down the hatch and up the stairs, stopping next to Xavier. In front of him, the fifty or so senators had stopped moving and were staring out in front of them, eying the superheroes with a mixture of worried concern and appreciation.

 

Xavier ignored them for a moment, turning in his chair to smile up at Steve. He extended his hand, and Steve shook it. "What do you need me to do?" Steve asked, and Xavier shook his head at him.

 

"I know what's troubling you," he confided. "And I know that you will make your own decisions. But as for this, you need not worry. If you wish to speak to the senators, then I will not deny you that right, but I would like a chance to address them first."

 

"Good day," Xavier called out pleasantly, turning back to the mass of people assembled before him, and several of the senators started.

 

"We are going to have a talk," Xavier said firmly, and around him, Scott and Jean nodded. "A very long talk. If you would follow me, please, senators," he said politely, maneuvering his chair over to the side of the stairs. "I believe that the National Guard will be here in a few hours, and we've got quite a bit of information to cover before then."

 

Okay, then, Steve thought, turning back to the ruined courtyard before him. There was dust everywhere, and smoke trailing into the sky from the ruined transformers. The entire block was out of electricity, there were hundreds of HYDRA soldiers to deal with, and the interior of the Senate chamber was ruined.

 

"Why the long face, handsome?" Rogue's sultry voice interrupted his thoughts, and Steve turned to her, embarrassed.

 

"That obvious, huh?" he asked, and she nodded at him. "I was just thinking about all the work we have left to do--the repairs on the building, the soldiers--"

 

"All the work?" she asked playfully, hands on her hips. "Are you crazy? The Guard'll be here sooner or later to round up those soldiers, and we have Jean's telekinesis, my brawn, and Gambit's good looks to put everything back together again." She smiled at Gambit, standing off in the distance and manipulating a deck of cards for a very impressed Deadpool, who kept clapping and hopping from one foot to the other. "And, we got Beast, Reed, and all the other brains to tell us what we're doin' wrong, on top of that."

 

"I guess you do," Steve said finally, and Rogue slapped him on the back playfully. Steve stumbled forward.

 

"Don't look at it like we still have the war to fight," she said warmly. "Look at it like we're finally almost done."

 

"I'll do that," Steve promised her, and she flashed a grin at him before flying over to Gambit, startling him into dropping the cards all over the ground. He didn't seem to mind, however, but reached over, wrapping a hand around her waist. In front of him, Deadpool clapped again.

 

"They seem pretty happy." Steve turned to see Luke and Jessica standing next to him. Jessica held her arms out and Steve gathered her into a hug.

 

"I'll have you know I'm stealing my husband back for a while," she said once he'd released her. Her eyes were gleaming.

 

"I'm not turning my back on this life," Luke assured him, hand wrapped firmly around one of Jessica's. "I just need a little bit of time before I get back to it, you know?"

 

"I understand perfectly." Steve smiled at him, clapping him on the shoulder. "You know how to contact us when you're ready."

 

They both nodded at him, and then Steve took the last few steps to the Aegis, mind made up. He strode toward the hatch and then stopped short as War Machine ambled out of the back of the ship and onto the ground in front of him.

 

"Steve," he said easily, his voice relaying strangely through the armor's helm. Steve nodded at him.

 

"I wanted to go in and check on him. Man gets himself into so much trouble," Rhodes continued. "He's still out of it, though. I'll let you take care of him, for a while. Just tell him that I'll find him later, okay?"

 

"Of course," Steve offered, and Rhodes nodded at him slightly before raising his arms and bringing the armor up to hover over the ground.

 

"Rhodes, wait," Steve called, and Rhodes hovered there, inclining his head.

 

"It was you, wasn't it?" Steve asked slowly, as the pieces of the puzzle--one of the parts that they'd never really explained--fell into place. "With the explosion that let Tony and Carol escape Logan, three years ago. You caused that, didn't you?"

 

"That was me." Rhodes waved his hand at him, a small wave. "Tell Tony to take care of himself. He owes me dinner." With that, he took off, rocketing upward, and Steve shook his head before jogging up the ship's ramp to find Carol, Logan, and Peter--his crew, he thought--waiting for him.

 

"What are you standing around for?" he ribbed Carol. "Don't we have some farm equipment to rescue?"

 

"Hey, we're just waiting on you," she ribbed him, and then raised an eyebrow. "And him, too, apparently."

 

"Hey," Clint stood awkwardly on the hatch, swinging a duffel bag in his hand. "I, ah, I wanted to ask--"

 

"Welcome aboard," Steve said warmly, and Clint smiled at him gratefully.

 

"You're not bringing Deadpool with you, right?" Peter asked nervously. "Right?"

 

"Nah, I gave him the keys to the cruiser, he was happy as a clam."

 

"You gave Deadpool a ship?" Peter asked, horrified. "Does he even know how to fly?"

 

"God, I hope not." Clint smiled broadly. "Somebody show me where to stow my stuff."

 

Peter shrugged. "Oh, you can take Logan's room, I'm sure he won't--"

 

"Nobody's takin' my room," Logan growled, and Peter started.

 

"Wait, you're staying?"

 

Logan nodded, obviously annoyed. "I am as long as you shut up," he muttered, and then turned to Steve. "Listen, I got--a friend, needs to be picked up. Jubilation--she--" He stopped, obviously flustered, and Steve interrupted him.

 

"We can do that."

 

"Wait, you have friends?" Peter asked, and Logan smiled crazily.

 

"Keep it up, bub," he said, flexing his wrists. The adamantium claws slid out easily. "I got somethin' for ya, this time." 

 

"Peter!" Jessica Drew's voice came over the communicator, frantic. "Does Peter have his communicator on? Somebody tell me!"

 

"Here," Peter said into his communicator, obviously puzzled. "What is it?"

 

"You have a call," Jessica said, breathless. "I'm patching it through to you now."

 

"What--" Peter began, and then he stopped, color draining out of his face. He listened for a few seconds, speechless, before running a shaky hand through his hair.

 

"MJ?" he asked, finally, so softly that Steve could barely hear it. He looked up suddenly, eyes frantically searching Steve's face.

 

"It's MJ," he said, breathless, "she's on a planet called Ithaca, we have to--Steve, it's MJ--"

 

"We'll go and pick her up," Steve assured him, and Peter nodded dumbly before walking down the hall in a daze, still speaking into his communicator.

 

"Well." Steve cleared his throat. "Clint, the rooms are on deck 2, take the turbolift up and find an empty one." Steve hit the button by the back hatch, watching in satisfaction as it sealed away the scene outside.

 

"Carol, I think we're ready for takeoff. We're going to a planet called Ithaca first, and then Logan can give you coordinates to his friend. Let Constance know we'll be there in a few days, okay?"

 

"Affirmative," Carol practically chirped over the communicator. "Preparing for takeoff."

 

Steve followed Clint into the turbolift, showing him to a set of empty quarters on the second deck. He helped him get settled and then excused himself. Around him, he could feel the engine thrumming as the Aegis took flight; Steve jogged down the corridor to Tony's room, letting himself in and locking the door behind him. He slung off his shield, resting it in the corner, and then headed over to Tony's bed, perching on the edge of it.

 

"Time to wake up, Sleeping Beauty," he murmured, and then leaned down, pressing a chaste kiss to Tony's warm lips--and was momentarily surprised when Tony hungrily kissed him back.

 

Steve pulled back after a minute, opening his eyes to see Tony watching him and smirking slightly. "I've been awake for a couple of minutes," he said, raising up on his elbows, and Steve pretended to glare at him.

 

"I should have guessed," he said, and then Tony's arms were coming up and wrapping around his shoulders with surprising strength.

 

"I guess you're feeling better," Steve said huskily, and Tony looked up at him, a wicked gleam in his eyes before sighing. He glanced away, a rueful smile on his face, and released Steve.

 

"Where do they need us for cleanup?" Tony asked, sitting up slowly to rest on his elbows. "We should try to coordinate efforts with the Guard, work something out--" 

 

"Not this time," Steve admonished him. He moved his arms suddenly and pinned Tony to the bed, straddling him. "We're letting somebody else handle it this time."

 

"We are, are we?" Tony mused. His face relaxed into an easy smile. "I suppose I can live with that."

 

Steve leaned down, brushing his lips over Tony's. "Good," he said, before pressing downward and into a deep kiss. The Aegis lifted higher and higher, and around them, the stars turned into tiny pinpricks of light.