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Ad Astra per Aspera

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It’s hours later, dark in his quarters, when the door slides open and Tony comes in. Steve has showered and is sitting at the edge of his bed, in sweats and a t-shirt, almost debating taking a nap, because he hasn’t slept properly in weeks. You is cleaning the kitchen tiles, because You likes cleaning the already spotless kitchen tiles. You is a weird little creature.

Tony comes into the bedroom and doesn’t turn on the light.

“It’s pandemonium out there,” he says into the silence. “You sure gave them a piece of your mind.”

“I think I ended my career,” Steve says, surprisingly calmly.

“If they kick you out of telling the truth, it’s a shitty career.”

Steve sighs, bracing his elbows on his thighs. Tony comes closer, startles Steve by cupping his jaw and tilting his head up, nudging close enough that he stands between Steve’s spread thighs. Steve’s heart makes an odd thrilling motion, like a wash of quicksilver down his veins.

“You told Starfleet Academy Command to go fuck themselves,” he says quietly, seriously. “I’ve loved you for a long time, but I’ve never loved you more than now, or been more impressed.”

Steve’s breath catches unevenly in his throat. Tony lets go of his jaw to reach for his uniform jacket and slide it off his shoulders, lets it drop to pool on the floor at his feet.

“Do you want me to stop?” he murmurs, working on the sleeves of his shirt. His eyes are as dark as his carefully trimmed beard, cast into shadows by the angle of the dying daylight that falls through the blinders in Steve’s window.

Steve catches him by the hips and drags him forward against him. Tony shifts his weight to brace himself against Steve’s chest and then puts his knees on the bed and straddles Steve as he sheds his shirt. He fists his hands on the back of Steve’s t-shirt and starts pulling up, up, but Steve’s nose bumps against his and then they’re kissing.

Steve knows of nothing that tastes so sweet as Tony’s lips parting for him, as the wet slow glide of Tony’s tongue against his, the scratch of his stubble against Steve’s cleanly-shaven face. Tony’s hand fists in his hair and Steve’s hands slip and slide across the naked expanse of his back, the supple muscles of shoulders and waist, the firmness of thigh and buttocks.

Tony hums and rises up on his knees, bare chest dragging against Steve’s front, erection pressing against Steve’s sternum. He grabs the fabric of Steve’s shirt and tugs it up and throws it away. Steve arches up and catches his mouth again, snaking an arm around the small of his back to press him closer. He braces his other hand on the mattress but then changes his mind and lets himself fall back, dragging Tony with him. Tony curses breathlessly, bracing himself on the bed just in time to not collapse entirely on top of Steve, but it’s fine.

“Shit,” Tony breathes when Steve unfastens his uniform pants and pushes them down over his hips and ass to free his cock. “Are you serious? I didn’t think you’d be into this, I thought I would have to convince you—”

He cuts off with a broken moan when Steve swallows him, tugs on his bare hips to encourage him to relax on top of him. Tony’s hand threads through the hair at the back of his head and he’s panting wetly, murmuring filthy things into the dark. The only sounds are their pants and the wets slide of Tony’s cock into Steve’s mouth, the shifts of fabric as Tony thrusts down, his knees slipping on the bedding at the sides of Steve’s body.

“Fuck,” pants Tony. Steve looks up at him, nose bumping against Tony’s pelvis, and inhales the heady and rich scent nestled at the curls above Tony’s cock.

“Look at you,” Tony breathes, combing his fingers tenderly through Steve’s blond hair. “You’re a fucking sex dream.”

He pulls away, the drag of the delicate skin of his cock against Steve’s swollen lips erotic, and gets off the bed. He grasps the waistband of Steve’s sweats and strips them quickly down his thighs and calves to throw them on the floor.

“Get up for me,” he says, voice like gravel. Steve stands, a long drop of sweat rolling down the groove of his spine. Tony kisses him again, deep and slow and sinful. He grabs Steve’s cock and jerks him off slowly, too lightly. Steve grasps his arms, but though he squeezes, there’s no rushing Tony.

“Come here,” Tony mumbles against his lips, and Steve goes, until he’s standing at the foot of the bed and Tony clasps the back of his neck and encourages him to his hands and knees, sock and balls dangling heavily between his spread thighs. His hand slides slowly up between Steve’s shoulder blades and Steve collapses wordlessly onto his elbows, fisting the bedspread and struggling to breathe.

“I didn’t think I’d get to do this tonight,” Tony muses. “It’s what you want, right? You want me to fuck you?”

Steve tangles his own fingersin his sweat-damp hair, nodding quickly. “Yeah,” he gasps. “Tony, come on.”

But Tony takes his time, uses a lot more lube than Steve thinks he needs, and by the time he’s seating himself inside in one long thrust, confident and firm, hands gripping Steve’s hips hard enough to bruise, Steve aches.

It’s a blur of overwhelming sensations after that. It’s a hard fuck, nothing like gentle or slow, and Tony has no issue bracing his weight against Steve, pressing him down into the bed and biting his shoulders and neck, grasping his wrists and arms to pin him to the mattress. It’s startling and heady and just what Steve needs, what he wants. Tony’s body grounds him, keeps him in the present, in his body, so that his mind doesn’t get lost in the phantom pain of people he’ll never see again.

Orgasm creep up on him slowly and then break over him all at once like a flash of blinding light and adrenalin burning him from the inside out. It’s been a long time and it’s never been this intense. He’s still trembling, breathing shakily against the wet bedspread, when Tony braces his weight on his hands at either sides of his head and comes with several long, rich moans.

He lets himself collapse half on top of Steve afterwards, sated and limp and sweat-soaked, and mouths at Steve’s shoulder where he bit earlier.

“Who’d have thought it’d be me that said it first?” he muses eventually, drawing Steve out of a light doze.

Steve’s stomach constricts, anxiety blooming across his chest.

“It’s okay,” Tony smiles, stroking the backs of his fingers down Steve’s temple and cheek. “Take your time.”

 

X

 

They don’t kick him out of the Academy, which all at once does and does not surprise Steve.

“You’re too pretty,” Tony chooses to say as explanation as Steve bears him down onto the bed and unfastens his jeans. “Who’d replace your fine ass walking down these halls?”

“I’m so glad to be appreciated for my true value,” jokes Steve, and licks a stripe up Tony’s chest, across a nipple.

They don’t talk for a while after that.

 

X

 

Tony goes out with Logan and Scott sometimes and comes back drunk and stinking of the awful cigars Logan insists on smoking, presumably because they help his chest hair grow thicker. Sometimes, Logan and Scott crash on Steve’s couch, which despite being famously comfortable is not in fact big enough for two grown—well, calling them ‘men’ might be overambitious. Two grown bipedal mammals.

Steve usually just accommodates Tony’s clumsy climb into bed and falls back asleep, but sometimes Tony mumbles truths into the skin of his neck, things he can’t say to Steve unless he’s had a drink, like the honesty burns him unless he fuels it with alcohol.

“I want this to be our life together,” he mumbles tonight.

Steve kisses his temple tenderly. “It will be, Tony.”

“Don’t leave, okay?”

“I won’t,” Steve promises. “I’ll be here as long as you want me.”

Tony sighs contentedly and nuzzles closer to his neck, so his breath is warm and damp right under Steve’s ear.

 

X

 

On the break between the first and second semester of Steve’s senior year, he’s offered an internship aboard the Red Felix. The warship’s state-of-the-art star-charting sensors make it an enviable offer, and Steve is childishly thrilled about it, despite the fact Tony’s not offered a chance to tag along.

“It’s just three months,” says Tony, sitting on the bed with his back against the wall and his legs thrown over Steve’s waist, where he’s lying naked on his back. “I could take the chance to actually, you know, go visit my company and play nice with all my many investors.”

“That sounds responsible,” Steve says, awed. “Don’t pull anything.”

Tony smirks. “You want me to pull something of yours instead?”

“Oh wow,” Steve widens his eyes dramatically. “Oh my god, that is actually the worst come-on to date. That’s worse than Charles’ pick up lines, wow. Tony.”

“Charles’ pickup lines can afford to be horrible since he hits on every single last breathing organism except the one he actually wants to, but see if I suck your dick tonight,” Tony sniffs petulantly, driving the heel of a foot down on Steve’s stomach. Steve laughs and catches his ankle, and the situation evolves quickly into other activities in a way that ends up in exactly what Tony threatened not to do.

Steve leaves a week after that, with assurances from Charles and the psycho duo that are apparently now an actual couple, lord help the galaxy, of Logan and Scott, that they will make sure Tony feeds himself, remembers to sleep, and keeps drinking contained to one glass of scotch per day as absolute maximum.

He boards a shuttle from Third Earth to the deep-space speedship Nairobi Blue. It takes the speedship, one of the fastest ships in existence in human hands, a week to reach the far-off location of the massive warship.

The Red Felix is a colossal, glossy black heavy-duty war cruiser meant for deep space combat without support or backup. Independent, powerful, self-sufficient and highly maneuverable, the warship housed a crew of one thousand two hundred and seventy-three highly trained men and women, three hundred lethal Raptor-class battleships, one hundred Goliath-class heavy-duty laser bombers, and five Keflar-manufactured Dendarion-model autonomous space two-pilot battle suits.

It is a strategist’s wet dream, and Steve is absolutely fascinated.

The demands are many and the work is harsh and Steve pays the right of admission in all the ways that is necessary of a cadet in a season warship. He cleans space goo from the Dendarion’s armor plates, performs out-of-ship tasks like changing lead light bulbs from hull housings, though the robots in the rails along the hull are specifically meant to do that. He doesn’t mind being run to the ground in menial tasks so long as they teach him valuable things at the end of the day, and there isn’t a single day Steve doesn’t learn something enthralling.

From star-charting and black-hole beacon-guarding to basic lessons on Dendarion piloting and Raptor coordination, to war games in asteroid fields and rescue simulations in stranded ships hidden in the toxic, gas-choked atmosphere of planets the size of stars. Suddenly the love Steve has for the stars is real, it’s here at the tips of his fingers, he can feel it. It’s not just a far-away and vague dream anymore. He’s living it.

He misses Tony like a lung has been taken from him, but they talk regularly, three or four times a week. Tony has, in a surprising move, actually taken his own advice and gone to the Stark Industries R&D space station to make nice with investors and directors, and more importantly, Pepper Potts. He even talks about going on a trip with some of his fellow engineering track friends, and mockingly promises to send Steve a postcard.

Everything goes perfectly fine for the first two months.

And then something goes wrong.

Steve can tell from the shift in Tony’s attitude, by the way he seems nervous and anxious, by how restless he gets and how quickly he loses weight.

“Tony, talk to me,” he keeps begging through the comms, concern and anxiety rising in him like a tide, twisting his lungs and stomach into knots. “Let me help.”

But Tony deflects, dodges, demurs. He says ‘I can handle it’ and ‘It’s nothing’ and ‘It’ll be fine’ but it doesn’t see like he can handle it and it certainly is not nothing and the by the time Steve boards the Nairobi Blue back to the space dock and Third Earth, it’s also painfully clear that Tony has in fact not ‘handled it.’

Whatever it is.

 

X

 

“What?” he asks, cold with shock, dizzy with horror.

“Come on, come with me, please, say you will, you promised,” whispers Tony, face slack with a terror that runs bone-deep.

“Tony,” Steve’s voice breaks. “You resigned?”

“Yeah, I did, keep up, Steve, we don’t have time!”

“Why would you do that?”

“I have to go, Steve! You said you’d be with me as long as I wanted you, you said. Come with me. Please. Let’s go.”

Steve sits down on the couch, and feels like he’s breaking out into shards and splinters. He loves Tony, he loves Tony so much, he loves him desperately, but—but he thinks of the Red Felix and everything he lived and learned in the last three months and he can’t—just throw it away—

“Why?” he asks again, because he needs to know.

Tony’s face shutters. “Because I have to go!”

“Tony, I need to know why. Let me help you. Tell me what’s happened, we can work it out, we can find a way out of it together, if only you--”

“No,” snarls Tony, nearly throwing himself on the couch next to Steve and gripping his shirt in a tight fist, eyes fever-bright in his pale face. “There’s no fixing it, I have to disappear!”

“Tony, please, I can’t just go. I have duties, responsibilities—I’m a semester away from graduation—”

“None of that matters!”

It matters to me, thinks Steve, heartsick.

“You have to give me something,” he manages aloud. “Please. Talk to me.”

Tony shoves away from him and paces, then turns around to face him with bitterness written plainly across the lines of this face.

“So you’re not coming,” he says lowly. “It was all lies. All those things you said about never leaving me.”

“Tony,” starts Steve, and his voice dies in his throat. He can’t. He can’t. Not without a reason, a good one.

Tony’s eyes are flinty when he storms out of the room.

 

X

 

Six years pass before he sees Tony in person again.

 

X

 

Steve is a strategist by nature. He has eye for methodical processes and tactical decisions.

He watches the way Tony dismembers Stark Industries, selling each division like a severed limb hacked away from the main body, until nothing remains of the empire Howard Stark so painstakingly built.

Then Tony fades into anonymity and drops off the map completely.

 

X

 

 

They don’t give Steve the Triskelion off the bat, which is simultaneously a disappointment and a relief. Steve doesn’t feel ready for it.

Fury doesn’t recruit him right out of the Academy, though he does show up to offer a position in his secret police, for once an actual offer without any menace behind it.

“Kid,” he sighs when Steve declines him again. “Stark was a gamble. Some you win, some you lose. You can’t save everyone; you know that, soldier.” 

I failed, thinks Steve.

“Do you know where I’m going to be assigned?”

“The Red Felix wanted you back, but you’ve been assigned to the Vulpina, stationed at the age of the Andromeda Galaxy.”

“Why not the Red Felix?” asks Steve, already mourning the swift death of a hope he hadn’t realized he harbored—that he would be sent back to the Felix, to the crew he’d grown to like so much in those three months.

Fury shakes his head slowly. “The Vulpina is a relay station in a high-traffic spot. You’re a born strategist, but you need to polish up on politics.”

“I hate politics.” Steve frowns. “You know I hate politics.”

“Some things aren’t up to what you love or hate,” replies Fury, not unkindly. “The Fleet needs you, Rogers.”

“You mean the Fleet needs someone that can do what I can, and some things I can’t do, regardless of my feelings about any of it.”

“The Third Earth Fleet is clockwork machinery, Rogers, and we’re all just little parts of it.”

Steve says nothing, eyes narrowed in thought. He glances at Fury, eyes sharp and cold as any glacier.

“Tell me the truth,” he says quietly.

Fury inhales deeply and exhales in a long, drawn-out sigh, like he regrets Steve’s inability to let things lie, not only because it annoys him, but because it would make Steve’s life that much easier.

“The term volatile has been going around, attached to your name, with a nice little Kobayashi Maru ribbon around it.”

Steve exhales. “Ah.”

“That’s what I call shooting yourself in the foot,” nods Fury. “But I’m not complaining. What you did was good. That test was shit and don’t I know it. But you could have done it on the quiet.”

Steve frowns at him. “If they wanted quiet, they shouldn’t have called a public discipline board and hoped I’d be ashamed.”

“Yeah,” agrees Fury pensively. “People are fucking stupid.And one more thing, Rogers.”

He stops and looks at Steve straight on, allowing the usually stern lines of his scarred face to soften slightly.

“You’re fucked up, Rogers,” he says quietly. “And the thing about fucked up people like you is that you survive.”

Steve isn’t sure whether he’s supposed to be relieved by this, or find some sort of comfort in it. Steve does know how to survive; he knows Tony’s absence isn’t going to kill him.

He just wishes it did.

 

X

 

Vulpina is exactly as advertised.

But Steve tries to do his best, because there is nothing he can do but his best, even when his best is not enough.

His best is, however, still good enough to get him quickly climbing ranks and making both friends and enemies. Such is, he reckons, the intrinsic nature of politics; and although Steve always has and always will hate politics, he recognizes the benefit of throwing himself into a challenge.

Because Steve Rogers knows himself, knows his mind, and he knows when his mind is splintering into fractals and the shards are all pointing inwards and sinking in fast. He has to stop this downwards slide before it starts and the only way he can do that is to betray himself and Tony. Because he can’t pull forward if he keeps as he is, lingering on his mistakes, telling himself every day that he failed to do something that was required of him, something that was important to the man he loves.

So he stands in front of the mirror in his bathroom and stares himself in the eye and shuts that down, survives the only way he knows how—he locks all of it down tight in ice and leaves it there. So Tony and everything Tony is and everything Tony means are tied to weigh and sunk down to the bottom of a frozen ocean, and he won’t be lonely there. He’ll have good company; Bucky, Peggy, and Steve’s mother are there, frozen, conserved in time in the shape of the last image Steve saw of them.

“You’re a coward,” he tells the mirror, with a mild sense of surprise, because he thought he was not this man.

Well, there are a great many cowards in this universe. One more will hardly hurt.

 

X

 

He sighs and lowers the tablet in his hands, staring at the data scrolling down the front shielding in the prison cell.

Behind the force-field shielding, an athletic and solid-looking man is executing an impressively accurate rendition of a Taldeonian mating ritual. He’s a human and on his own, that’s why it’s impressive.

Steve rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly.

“Why ‘Deadpool’?” he asks.

“He’s deranged,” answers the guard emphatically. “Why he does anything at all is up for grabs. Sir.”

“What about her?” Steve wonders, glancing sidelong to the side cell where Deadpool’s companion is staring at him with an intensity that, where Steve a lesser man, would shrivel up his skin.

“Also deranged.”

Steve turns his head slowly to stare at the guard.

“She goes by Black Widow,” the man offers, sheepishly.

Steve shakes his head slightly. Of course she does.

“You want to talk to him?”

Steve looks back at Codename: Deadpool, who is currently executing an admirably flexible position that involves the back of his knee around the vicinity of the back of his head—it really is admirable—while at the same time singing an old First Earth tune that goes something along the lines of you’ve got blood on your face, you big disgrace and appears to need to be sung at the top of his lungs, conceivably to be done justice. 

Steve is impressed.

Deranged,” insists the guard ardently.

“He seems otherwise occupied,” he says flatly, and turns away to walk to Black Widow’s cell instead.

“Miss Romanov,” he greets, steeling himself.

“And you must be Steve Rogers,” she answers, face as mobile as any statue’s.

“I… must be,” says Steve doubtfully, growing swiftly warier.

“I’ve heard about you.”

“From who?” demands the guard, inexplicably outraged.

“Whom,” corrects Steve automatically. “Dismissed.”

“Are you dismissing me for my poor grammar?” he asks suspiciously.

Steve turns around to stare at him properly. Blond, average height, broad shoulders, trim hips. The insignia on his shoulder bears the silver bulls-eye of the master marksman. “What’s your name, Legionnaire?”

“Clint Barton.”

“Thank you, Legionnaire Barton. Dismissed.”

“He’s got character,” comments Natasha Romanov as the guard leaves. “I like him.”

You can keep him, thinks Steve, eyeing Romanov like one eyes a poisonous and hostile snake.

“I didn’t do it,” she says flatly.

Steve clarifies, “You mean you didn’t do it this time.

“That’s irrelevant.”

Steve doesn’t need to glance down at the tablet in his hands. “You’re wanted for no less than sixteen known murder charges. I think it’s quite relevant.”

“Alleged murder charges.”

“They couldn’t prove it,” admits Steve, tilting his head. “That doesn’t mean you didn’t do it.”

“In a court of law, not proving it absolutely means I didn’t do it.” She studies him for a long moment, blue eyes narrowed, head canted slightly to the side. “I wouldn’t have expected that argument from you.”

Steve lowers the tablet and resigns himself to a conversation that will most likely lead to a predictable yet regrettable attempt at manipulation. He really has no patience for smart criminals. “I don’t know why you should be expecting anything in particular from me.”

“You have a reputation.”

He stares at the ceiling. “Of course I do.”

But Romanov says nothing else, and Steve glances back at her as Deadpool switches tunes to I threw a wish in the well, don’t ask me I’ll never tell, I looked at you as it fell, and now you’re in my way at which point Steve tunes him out, for the sakes of his own sanity. Something must show on his face, though, because Romanov’s eyes flicker with something. Steve wouldn’t dare call it humor; it’s more like the embers of it, banked and glowing red.

“He’s deranged,” she says.

“Your choice,” replies Steve.

“You don’t choose Deadpool. He happens to you.”

Steve turns slightly to look over his shoulder at where Deadpool is singing at the top of his voice while at the same time performing a perfectly balanced handstand while splitting his legs in the air. He’s really flexible.

“I didn’t do it,” says Romanov quietly. Steve refocuses on her, turning all of his attention into studying her gestures, her expression, the way in which she moves. Natasha Romanov is a dangerous creature, even contained; and although the force field that acts as cell door is powerful and in a closed circuit, Steve would hardly be surprised to be hailed within the hour and informed that she’s broken out and escaped.

And, very likely, left Deadpool behind for them to deal with, because she looks like the kind of person who wouldn’t hesitate to inflict pain on others.

Steve is forced to accept that, reviewing the case being built against her, it reeks of set up. It’s a hard lump to swallow, something viscous and slimy that all the same does not easily go down his throat. Still—sixteen alleged accounts of murder, known, and god only knows how many more have fallen into the cracks and slipped the system. Natasha Romanov is a well-known bounty hunter now, but once upon a time, in a not so distant past, she was a mercenary, an assassin, dangerous and wanted and deft at escaping.

The problem is, she’s an assassin—a killer, certainly, but not a murderer. Everything they know about her indicates she kills for a living, for hire. Not for her own gain, and not out of some twisted whim or uncontrollable impulse. She’s not a serial killer.

So the idea that she’s suddenly had some sort of psychotic break and murdered and skinned twelve people seems like a stretch. Steve isn’t going to argue that she’s mentally stable—she certainly doesn’t look sane and any drugstore psych eval would check her down for psychopath in all boxes—but he can’t say he believes she’s a violent sociopath, either. Well, violent, yes, obviously.

Still. If they can get her off space and into a locked cell, isn’t that for the betterment of the world? Except…framing her for murders she didn’t commit—

“I can see your brain working,” she says suddenly. “You know the conclusion you’re going to arrive at. Why don’t you save yourself the conflict?”

He knows what she’s implying.

“You’re a known mercenary,” he says calmly. “I’m not about to let you go.”

Romanov’s lips purse. She moves closer to the force field, eyes intense and bright. “I didn’t do this.”

Steve wants to argue that she didn’t do this, but that’s the whole point. That the spot in which it all pivots, because yes, she is a killer, and yes, she should be stopped—but she should be stopped the right way, through proper and due process, following the laws she so cavalierly breaks.

‘I’m not about you let you go.’ What a joke.

Something must show on his face, because Romanov’s eyes flicker with something that might have been, once upon a time, soft and gentle.

“Men like you are bound to make these sort of decisions,” she says softly.

Steve chuckles. “I already made it twice. Every time I do it, it costs me something.”

Romanov shrugs slightly. “You’ll keep making it regardless. That’s what you do. And it’ll cost you something else. And then you’ll make it again.”

Steve arches his brows. “You’re a barrel of sunshine.”

“I wasn’t aware you preferred lies.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Steve rears back and turns his head, frowning slightly, to give her a mock speculative look. “It’s not part of my reputation.”

Romanov stares at him. Steve straightens. He feels tired, weighed down by the sensation that nothing he ever does makes any difference. Not where it matters.

But he can save this life, at least. Not an innocent life, not by any stretch, but a life not rightfully at its end.

He considers that for a moment, and then is jerked out of his thoughts by a surprisingly accurate rendition of Amazing Grace, when played with bagpipes.

“I’ve done a great deal of bad things,” mutters Romanov, “but as punishments go this one is cruel and unusual.”

Steve pulls a face and turns away. As he passes by Deadpool’s cell, the man drops back to his feet and comes up against the force field, pressing his palms to the shield.

“Hey Cap,” he says, beckoning like he wants Steve to come in close enough to whisper. Steve stares at him from exactly where he’s standing, a meter away. “What’s the tango in these here dungeons, man? Where can I get me some chocolate pudding?”

“I’m not a captain, and is that a euphemism for drugs?”

“What? No,” Deadpool reels back, appalled. “Who do you take me for, bro?”

Incredulous and speechless, Steve looks back over his shoulder at Romanov. She stands exactly where she was before, arms crossed, face completely expressionless, as she mouths at him, “Cruel and unusual.” Steve shakes his head and moves to the door, motioning for Legionnaire Barton to back in on his way out.

Behind him, Deadpool reiterates that he wants chocolate pudding, and Barton shouts back, “I’ll get right on that, psycho!”

 

X

 

“Explain to me exactly how this happened,” says Paladin Nicholas Fury.

“Incompetence seems to be the word of the day,” Steve says flatly. “Although I’ve also heard negligence and, in one memorable case, and at a frankly impressive volume, aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice, and accomplice—actually, that last one was in a written email. It was harshly written. A lot of caps lock.”

Fury stares at him.

“Where did this attitude come from, soldier?”

Steve twitches his head to the side, amused despite himself. This is not the worst case scenario but it’s also not the ideal situation. Steve had known the Fleet wanted Romanov off space. He hadn’t known Fury was after her personally and had spent valuable time interrogating Deadpool.

He feels sorry for the poor man. No wonder he’s on a warpath.

“Turns out,” says Steve, who knows better than to paint a target on his own forehead but the knowing rarely stops him, “there is no Legionnaire Clint Barton, which might not be surprising to you, who might never have heard of him previous to this conversation, but came as quite a surprise to me, considering I met him and left him guarding the two prisoners.”

“You’re telling me some man just swaggered into this high-security space station, pretended to be a Legionnaire, put himself in the guard duty roster, and then swanned right the fuck out with two prisoners?”

Yes, thinks Steve, and I let them. A heavy knot of guilt twists his stomach when he thinks about the injured guards, but they are only injured and will recover; Romanov would have been sentenced to death, most likely, had she remained in custody.

“I wouldn’t say swagger,” clarifies Steve, all in the name of honesty. “And I didn’t see him walk out, but he didn’t seem the swanning kind. I don’t think that’s a verb, by the way.”

If Fury’s face could accomplish the expression, Steve thinks he would be gaping.

“What is wrong with you, Rogers?”

“A great many things,” admits Steve.

“Do you have any idea of the amount of property damage she made on her way out? She knocked out a dozen guards, three of which have broken bones, she stole a battle speedship worth millions of credits, destroyed a hangar, incapacitated half of the cannons on this station, released two dozen prisoners—is any of this getting through to you at all?”

Steve, standing at ease with his hands behind his back, shrugs slightly. “I’m just thinking that if only three of the guards have broken bones, the rest got off easy.”

Fury stands from his chair and rounds the desk, his face thoughtful and speculative. He leans back against the desk, crosses his ankles, crosses his arms, and stares at Steve for a good long while, perfectly silent. Steve waits him out. If Fury is waiting him out, they’re going to be here a long time.

“You’re a smart guy, Rogers,” he says at length, and it feels more like a threat than praise. “You wouldn’t let Romanov walk just to sabotage your career so I can’t get my hands on you, would you?”

Steve starts, frankly startled. The idea hadn’t even occurred to him. Although unwisely twisted, it has merit. But Steve shakes his head.

“I’m not sabotaging my career,” he answers honestly. “And I thought you said I had turned out to be too volatile.”

“I don’t mind volatile if it comes with the perks of a big brain,” points out Fury. “What I do mind is a man who’s willing to bend, break and disregard the rules and laws, just because he feels they’re incorrect. This is the second time.”

“There should be no other reason to bend, disregard and break rules and laws than because they are incorrect, Paladin Fury. When I signed up for the Fleet, I didn’t sign away my conscience.”

Fury gives him a long look. “So you admit that you let her get away.”

“I didn’t stop her,” admits Steve, because Fury knows, and there will be no convincing him otherwise and only consequences will come from lying to him. He looks at Fury straight on, evenly, and says: “And I know you wouldn’t have, either, sir.”

“You’re a good man, Rogers,” Fury says quietly. “But if you keep at it like this, you’ll never be a great one.”

“I’d rather be what I am now, sir.”

 

X

 

Unsurprisingly, and to be fair rather justly, Fury pins it on Steve.

Steve is quite certain that, although allegedly allowing a wanted assassin to walk right out of the space station he is supposed to be supervising is bad enough, half of the demotion he receives that bumps him right back down to Legionnaire comes from the fact Fury wasted four hours in Deadpool’s interrogation and apparently learned nothing new.

Frankly, if anyone had asked Steve whether interrogating Deadpool would yield any dividends after he got a look at him through a cell force field, he could have saved Fury the time. If Wade Wilson knew anything of interest to anyone, it is buried so deep in tangled insanity and random outbursts of wholly inconsequential wisdom that asking him anything of any importance is a waste of brain activity.

Steve doesn’t mind the demotion, not really. It irritates him that people seem to act like he’s a fragile porcelain statue for a while, after—like they think he might fall apart for having been punished for something he did. That’s not a problem for Steve; although he thinks he did the right thing, he did still go against orders, against the law, so he does deserve the punishment, and he doesn’t resent his actions for their consequences.

Besides, being a Legionnaire again affords him a lot of manual, inconsequential work, and while Steve’s real brilliance is high-stake strategizing, he understand and appreciates the importance of these comparatively small tasks.  Any work is work, after all, and Steve doesn’t think himself above cleaning gutters, let alone charting basic star paths.

There’s only one thing that makes his stomach tighten with worry. Fury’s obvious and transparent manipulation of the whole thing. Well, transparent to Steve, anyway. When he brings it up with Scott, Logan, and Charles about a month later, in a rare visit back on Third Earth, he gets one mildly puzzled but concerned look and two identical blank stares. Go ahead and guess.

“But why?” asks Charles, frowning and expertly manipulating noodles around with his chopsticks. “What does he stand to gain?”

“I imagine the more people think I’m a volatile imbecile, the less prospects I’ll have for the future.”

“So what does he wants a loser for?” mumbles Logan, stabbing his fork into a sushi roll.

“Use your hands, dipshit,” snaps Scott.

“Suck my dick, princess.”

“If I don’t have any offers,” says Steve, ignoring both of them and addressing Charles. “Then I can’t exactly refuse when he offers me a place aboard the Ionstar.”

“You could always prostitute yourself,” suggests Logan.

“Of course you could refuse,” Charles says earnestly. “You’ll always have a spot aboard the Heartsteel, I’m sure.”

You don’t have a spot aboard the Heartsteel yet,” Steve points out, even though everyone at the table, at the entire Academy, knows it’s a moot point. There’s only one Deputy Commander that War-Prince Erik Lehnsherr will ever tolerate stepping onto his newly commissioned ship. “You shouldn’t be offering spots in Lehnsherr’s name.”

“I’m certain Erik would absolutely agree. I needn’t even ask him, a look at your charts would more than convince him.”

“Besides, he kind of fell in love with you over the Kobayashi Maru,” adds Scott. “Don’t even look at me like that, Charles, Erik’s emotion chip totally sparked up in the disciplinary hearing.”

“Emotion chip,” repeats Charles warily, frowning.

Steve shakes his head. “Fury won’t let Lehnsherr take on a strategist, not with his own test scores. He wouldn’t need me.”

Charles coughs, but shakes his head when Scott lifts a hand to pound him on the back. “We’ll figure it out,” he says gently when he’s recovered, laying a hand on Steve’s arm in support.

Steve nods like he believes him, because Charles is sweet and kind, but he knows Lehnsherr won’t try, even if Charles suggests it. Lehnsherr is a smart man, too smart to get in Fury’s way, and there is no reason for him to be concerned about Steve’s prospects. He’s already doing enough for Logan and Scott, making sure they stay in the Academy, maneuvering everything so he can get them aboard the Heartsteel. To the casual observer his interest in them may be casual, but Steve knows better. There is such a thing as staking a claim, and Lehnsherr’s claims are hard to miss.

He sighs. He supposes he’ll follow Tony’s advice.

Burn that bridge when you get to it.

 

X

 

Legionnaire to Prince to War-Prince in the record time of three years.

By the time he’s five years out of the Academy, they don’t have any choice but to make him a Paladin or stall him, so Steve Rogers becomes Paladin Steve Rogers and is given command of the distant Space Base Americium.

The Americium is out of the way enough that something exciting rarely happens. It is a form of stalling him, and Steve sees Fury’s heavy hand on it as easy as he sees his own eyes in the reflection of the mirror every morning.

The possibilities of achieving any sort of glory in a far off, out-of-the-way battle outpost are as abundant as Logan and Scott’s innate elegance, so Steve settles in for a quiet, uneventful five-year command in the ass-end of the galaxy.

 

X

 

One year in, Charles is accused of treason.

Steve will never forget the way the Prince’s face drains of all color, blue eyes wide with shock and incomprehension as he’s betrayed by the very organization he’s sworn to uphold and serve.

In a few months Steve will find himself comparing this Charles to the sleep-deprived but chipper Charles nestled on his couch on the very first day Steve met him, optimistic and hopeful about a promising Fleet career spread out before him with all the potential in the galaxy, and wonder to himself how things can all go so terribly, terribly wrong.

 

X

 

“Tony’s got a lock on where they’ve taken Charles,” Steve tells Erik Lehnsherr over the transmission, watching the way the rogue War-Prince’s expression goes blank like the flick of a switch, utterly expressionless yet all the more telling for it.

“They’re going to execute him,” Erik says with a calm so false that Steve wonders how the man hasn’t flown completely apart at the seams.

“No,” Steve answers, thinking of the grainy drone-taken images Loki had sent over at Tony’s request, “they’re going to slaughter him.”

Erik’s expression doesn’t break.

It shatters.

 

X

 

The Heartsteel explodes in the dead of space, right in front of Steve’s eyes, exactly where Bucky and Peggy died.

Tony storms out of the Ionstar’s bridge to deal with sorrow in the way Tony always deals with sorrow—impenetrable anger and the dwindling contents of a bottle.

Steve stays on the bridge because he doesn’t know how to deal with sorrow at all. He watches the single remaining Nyrulian ship of the five that hunted the Heartsteel down like hounds slide into warp and out of sight.

When it’s done, and the space around them is nothing but a field of debris strewn among the broken pieces of what used to be the Moon, Steve still can’t breathe.

 

X

 

Bucky. Peggy. Erik. Charles.

 

X

 

He envies people who experience the passing of days of mourning like a distant, buzzing blur, where people become faceless shadows and voices are murmurs, everything muted by a smoky screen of grief.

That isn’t how he experiences sorrow, although he admits there is a rather big chance he doesn’t deal with it at all. He hasn’t forgiven himself for losing Bucky and Peggy and he doesn’t know how to forgive himself for losing Charles and Erik, and although a rational and quiet part of his mind suggests the fault lies elsewhere—in a long and unfortunate string of actions, none of which were taken by him—he mostly blames himself.

Common knowledge sustains people go through stages of grief, five of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The old adage of every man is different has never held truer; Steve feels like he skips right to acceptance, dropping to the bottom of the ladder like a lead cube in water. Tony goes from denial to anger and stalls there indefinitely.

The rage consumes Tony like everything else that he feels deeply tends to do; he spends days in the Engineering subbasements, slithering unseen onto passages barely the size of his body to examine panels that no one remembers putting there, let alone what they’re for. He forgets to eat and replaces sustenance with alcohol, and god only knows how he even gets ahold of the stuff while trapped on a Fleet ship. He doesn’t sleep, or does so in restless snatches of time caught between one unnecessary task and the next. He unravels into a violent rampage of activity that Steve is helpless to stop, running himself to the ground.

Steve tries to control it, but Tony feeds off his own guilt and latches onto him like a target. That would be fine, for Steve—he wouldn’t mind, if it were only him. If what Tony needed was someone to stand still like a rock in the barrage of his anger and take the hits, Steve could do that for him no questions asked. But Tony isn’t so far gone in his grief that he can’t see what he does to Steve, and for whatever relief the rage affords him, the guilt of his crueltysinks him even lower.

Steve knows how this goes, now. Tony doesn’t know what he wants or how to get it, and eventually he’s going to come up against the worst idea and cling to it like salvation, and it’s not going to be the right one. It’s going to be Tony, purposefully failing self-defense, missing classes, forgetting to take exams. Walking away form the Academy.

Steve can’t stop it. He knows how, but he won’t. If Tony thinks he needs to walk away again—how could Steve stop him? How much more damage would it make to confront him?

No. Steve won’t stop it.

 

X

 

“You have to stop it,” says Logan decisively one afternoon, as he and Scott saunter into Steve’s temporary office granted to him by Fury like they own the place and then shutting and locking the door with Steve’s security override. The likelihood of them guessing a combination of seven numbers and letters with capitalization is so remote that Steve is already trying to figure out how Scott hacked into his accounts when Logan drops gracelessly into the chair across from him.

“Stop what?”he asks, somewhat belatedly. 

“You know what,”snaps Logan.

This conversation is going to happen now, then, Steve thinks with some resignation, and wipes the holograms and projections away from the air around him to sit back in his chair and settle in for what will certainly amount to a foul-worded diatribe on his emotional immaturity and inability to corral and contain wayward engineering geniuses.

He’s already gotten this talk from Fury. He was hoping his friends would spare him, but alright.

“You can’t go through this again,”says Scott, startling Steve. “If Tony wants to fuck off to dick around playing at being the smartest delinquent in the known universe, whatever. He can go burn himself on his own cross, watch me give a shit. But your doormat act is getting old.”

Ah. “I’m sorry I irritate you with my emotions, Scott,” Steve says calmly. “I’ll make sure to indulge them away from you in future.”

“Thank you so much,” Scott says fervently, and turns right back around to go out the door before Logan’s hand shoots out and catches his wrist, dragging him back. Steve is witness to some sort of exchange between them that might pass off as communication so long as one accounts for eyebrow wiggles, the widening of eyes, the down-turning of mouths into hostile scowls, one memorable snarl from Logan, and one rude gesture from Scott that requires both of his hands to be correctly executed.

The synchronicity with which they then turn to him is more than a little creepy.

Logan stares at him with a slight frown like Steve is a mild inconvenience he can’t quite figure out how to get rid of. Should he shoot it? Should he ignore it?

“Tell him to either go away or fucking put his money where his dick’s been.”

“That’s not how that expression goes,” Steve points out warily.

“Whatever!”explodes Scott, throwing up his hands. “Fucking grow a spine, Paladin Rogers! What are you going to do, follow him around like a puppy until his balls drop? Talk to him about his bullshit! Become a real fucking boy, you robot!”

The sheer lunacy of Scott and Logan going to his office to advice him to actually use his words with Tony hits Steve all at once, mirth rising to the surface like a bloom opening in the sun. The amusement cuts across what he only now realizes has been a steady thrum of grey-shaded dismay.

He sighs. “You guys know Tony.”

“You said you were working it out,” accuses Scott with unveiled hostility, like he resents that Steve hasn’t been able to fix all of Tony’s emotional traumas and arranges for a happy ending for them already. He’s had two weeks! What is Steve doing with his time, huh?

“I’m trying,” starts Steve, settling down for this conversation.

“Just tell him you love him already!”barks Logan, sitting up abruptly to slap both hands down on the desk screen. Holograms of half-thought strategic plans and start charts snap up around Steve in silver-blue light, spinning slowly.

“Just like that,” he says tiredly. “Exactly like that.”

“Yes!”

“I think there seems to be a communication barrier here,” suggests Steve. “Or maybe a misunderstanding. Have you guys met Tony? Are you maybe talking about another Tony? Because I understand given current events a lot of people might be in need of psychological help and I’d be glad to offer, but I hardly think me involving myself in the therapy of every crewmember will—”

“Tony’s an immature dick,” interrupts Logan shrewdly, “but you’re fucking scared of your own feelings, and we’ve waited for you, Steve, we really have. We’ve given you six years to work your shit out, but you haven’t. So yeah, you get to have a fucking intervention, and you can fucking choke on it. Cards on the table time, bub.”

Steve opens his mouth to argue, but Scott blindsides him with a curt: “You’ve gotta let Bucky and Peggy go.”

There’s a beat of silence in which white noise rises to Steve’s ears. A swell of something hot and ugly blooms in his chest, and he squashes it ruthlessly before he even knows he’s done it. Cold washes over him like a breath of mint in his veins.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says flatly.

“No, because you don’t fucking tell us about it,” rages Scott.

“It’s none of your business,” Steve says distantly, examining Logan and Scott with eyes as clear and cold as chips off a glacier.

“We spent a lot of time in a ship with two commanders who wanted to fuck each other’s brains out and one of them didn’t even fucking know it,” hisses Scott. It’s the closest either of them has come to mentioning Erik or Charles since—since. “At least both you guys are fucking aware of it, so explain to me why the fuck you’re not at it already?”

Steve laughs quietly, and even to him the sound is bitter and alien, like someone else is laughing in his voice.

“You two of all people want to give me advice on how to express my feelings,” he says incredulously.

“Look around, Steve,” Logan says lowly. “Scott and I have our issues but we’ve been together for years, and as much as it pains me to say, we’re good together.”

“Bucky and Peggy are dead,” Scott spits scathingly, stalking forward until he’s standing next to Logan. “They’ve been dead for years.”Get over it. Move on.

Frost begins to climb up Steve’s lungs. He feels as cold as though he were made of ice and twice as brittle. But something else is solidifying in his chest, something cold and dark and hideous, and his breath is catching thin on the exhale, pained on his dry throat.

“Get out,” he manages to say, voice like a blade.

“They’re dead!” roars Scott, coming around the table to grab Steve by the shoulder and shake him—

Steve surges out of his chair, deadly grace like a snake and his hand around Scott’s throat. Rage whites out his vision. Strategic thought remains. He curves his body around Scott’s and throws his weight upon the table with all his strength, sinking an elbow into his solar plexus with deliberate brutality. The touch screen fractures beneath Scott’s back with a loud snap. The holograms around them cascade down and disappear in a shortcut of backup systems firing up along several alarms.

Shut up,” he hisses into Scott’s panicked face, glaring down at him through narrowed eyes, breath perfectly even.

The hairs at the back of his hair rise. His left elbow flies back and collides against Logan’s chin just as the Legionnaire angles his face upwards to salvage his nose. Before the loud click of teeth snapping together fades in his ears Steve is slamming his back against the wall, punishingly harsh, a forearm shoved against his clavicle.

“Coming up on my six,” he muses in a voice he doesn’t recognize. “I taught you better.”

He gives him one last rattling shake and then throws him to the side to crumple on the floor. Scott slides off the table, a muffled sound of pain escaping him.

“Get out,” Steve says quietly, reeling back the instinct to continue. Scott and Logan are still mobile; by all rights he should subdue them, but it’s fine. They’re done.

Suddenly Logan is laughing, a low and rattling chuckle tinted heavy with bitterness as he climbs staggeringly to his feet. He grunts as he stands, shaking his shoulders free of tension and pain. Something wraps tight like a vice around Steve’s chest and compresses, so his next drawn breath is short and loud through his nostrils.

“Look at him,” Logan tells Scott conversationally, running his tongue across the inside of his mouth like he might be checking for damage. “Little toy soldier’s got feelings after all. Wouldn’t know it to look at him, would you?”

Steve sees through Logan to the core of him. He’s furious and tired and spoiling for a fight, but he’s hurt and worried too, and a considerable amount of that concern is for Steve. They’re taunting him, trying to draw him out, probing at his weaknesses to get a reaction out of him. They want him to react, and the only correct response to such intensions is always to back down and cool off, to think.

Steve draws a long breath, striving for calm.

Scott spits at him.

Steve checks out of his head for the first time in his life. Without a single rational command, his body surges forward and punches Scott so harshly in the jaw that he topples backwards like a puppet with its strings cut, silent and graceless. Logan moves in to engage. Steve blocks his punch to the solar plexus and leans back to kick him brutally in the chest, sending him flying backwards.

His back hits the doors and the sensors slide them open. Scott falls back on the floor of the Ionstar’s fourth strategic bridge, grunting. Steve moves in on him slowly, mind shooting forward to devise the best way to subdue Scott swiftly and efficiently. He’s vaguely aware of the people around them reeling back, shocked and confused. Steve’s eyes slide along the room, cataloguing threats; none make themselves evident, so he focuses back on Scott.

He’s managed to get on his hands and knees, struggling for breath.

“You couldn’t save them,” he wheezes, stumbling shakily to his feet, perverse to the bitter end. “You were just a weak kid and you couldn’t save them. And they’re dead. And it’s not your fucking fault, but they’re dead. They’re dead!”

“Stop talking,” Steve says curtly, advancing on him.

But Scott shoots his hands out and shoves at Steve’s chest—a pointless and strategically weak attack that does nothing to halt Steve’s forward motion at all, he barely registers it.

“But we’re alive, you dick!” he roars at Steve, and it surprises Steve enough that he hesitates, rage clearing for a heartbeat.

Scott takes the chance to twist and shove the jut of his shoulder against Steve’s sternum, but he’s too close and the attack, while clever, lacks momentum. Steve absorbs it with a step backwards, absently catching Scott’s elbow and shoving the shoulder out of the socket in one swift, economic motion. Scott howls and falls to the floor, curving protectively over the limb.

Steve glances up. He realizes suddenly that the people in the bridge are evacuating, an orderly and quiet operation overseen by Hank McCoy, who’s standing next to the bridge door with a full med kit at his shoulder. This speaks of strategic planning.

Steve’s been ambushed.

The shock of it clears enough of his rage that he’s perfectly aware when Logan comes up from behind him and attempts to put him in a chokehold. He sidesteps out of range nimbly, circling around Scott, and realizes suddenly that his breath is short and painful, like the muscles in his chest have forgotten how to expand around his lungs and allow air in.

“Steve, we need you,” Logan says evenly, gently, like Steve hasn’t just kicked him across a room, like he didn’t just hurt them, deliberately, on purpose.

Oh God, he thinks, watching a drop of blood roll down Logan’s chin from a cut lip. He feels sick.

“We need you, but you need to—come out the other side of this,” Logan continues. “You can’t keep going like this, like you’re just absorbing shockwaves. You need to get through this.”

“I have,” rasps Steve.

“Like shit,” groans Scott, lifting his head to glare at him. “My dislocated fucking shoulder says you haven’t gotten through shit, Steve.”

Steve’s eyes drag up to McCoy, standing immobile by the door.

“Help him.”

“Not until you’re done,” answers the medic, shaking his head. “This conversation isn’t over, and if you’re going to fly off the handle again, I’m not going to be in the way.”

“I would never—”

“Wouldn’t you?” challenges the CMO, and distantly, on some other quiet track of thought that Steve won’t examine until much later, he thinks he’s beginning to realize why no one wants to mess with the Heartsteel’s crew.

Steve reels back, staggering. His eyes slide back to Scott and then to Logan, who’s actually lighting a cigar with shaking hands streaked with his own blood. Logan inhales, a long drag of acrid smoke that makes the point of the cigar flare bright and hot.

“Steve,” he starts, but then the doors slide open, signaling the security code being overridden, and Tony storms in, looking somewhere in the territory between furious and horrified. His hazel eyes skip from Scott to Logan and finally find Steve, shocked.

Steve can’t breathe. His muscles lock tight around his chest, constricting on the exhale.

“Tony,” he gasps, helpless.

Tony’s face breaks into something painfully close to compassion, before he turns to the wall panel by the door.

“I’m making you a lap,” he says over his shoulder, fingers typing quickly. McCoy glances at Steve for a fraction of a second, eyes glittering hard and cold, and then swiftly crosses the room to assist Scott.

Steve heaves in a breath tight with gratitude and stumbles wordlessly to the door, already yanking off his tight uniform jacket, uncaring of the way the fabric stretches under his hands. By the time he’s staggering out into the hallway, colliding mindlessly against the wall opposite the door, his heart rate is already high enough that heat is rising under his skin.

He runs.

Tony’s blocked off all accesses to the main deck corridor, locked all doors with an emergency override.

Steve runs mindlessly, allowing the exercise to wipe his mind completely of anything but the necessary motions of his body. He focuses on the burn of muscles long unused, on the way his breath comes short long before it used to, on the warmth of his skin under his shirt, soaked with sweat. He can’t tell how long it goes on until he stumbles and falls and finds he can’t get up again. He can barely drag air into his lungs; his heart feels like it’s going to beat out of his chest.

And then, when he manages to drag in a full lungful of air, he screams, surprising himself by the action and by how good it feels. It feels so goddamn good that he does it again, and again, and the fourth time he tries what comes out of his throat is nothing but a choked sob, so he curls on his knees and presses his forehead to the floor.

Tony finds him eventually, lowering himself to the floor against a nearby wall and sighing.

“Logan and Scott are fine. They’re like cockroaches.”

Steve swallows and wraps his arms around his stomach, closing his eyes. The floor is cool against his heated forehead. It hums very, very lightly with the motion of the engines and systems keeping the Ionstar alive.

“You can’t go on like this, Steve,” Tony says quietly.

Steve rocks his head slowly and with a monumental effort manages to get up to his knees and crawl closer to Tony. He crumples against him, dropping his forehead to Tony’s shoulder. Tony makes a noise, startled, and presses his hands to Steve’s back.

“If you go,” he mumbles in a voice that feels like it’s been dragged through miles of broken glass. “Please take me with you.”

Tony exhales roughly against his ear, pressing his nose and lips to Steve’s temple. “Fuck, Steve.”

They stay on the floor in the main corridor until Steve stops shaking and can stand. For the first time in his life, Steve experiences the passage of time like a blank blur. Time passes and actions are taken between the floor of the corridor and when he becomes once more aware of himself in his own bed in his temporary quarters. His hair is damp but his clothes are dry and soft and he smells like exactly nothing.

He’s taken a sonic shower and gotten dressed and into bed. Or rather, Tony showered and dressed. The engineer is just now sitting at the edge of his bed, stroking the hair away from Steve’s forehead.

 “Hi, buddy,” he says gently, folding a leg under himself. Steve is lying on his side, curled up under the covers.

“Tony,” Steve rasps, voice breaking unevenly. He clear his throat, but it still aches like it’s raw when he starts talking again. “I love you. Take me with you.”

Tony sighs. “Logan and Scott keep saying they need you for something, which I think is just nefarious, and knowing them will end poorly at best, you know. They’re shit at keeping secrets though, so I guess we’ll know what they’re planning soon enough.”

Steve frowns vaguely. He feels exhausted, wrung out.

“I couldn’t save them,” he muses blankly, wondering what someone who fails at the more basic of duties could be needed for at all. Bucky. Peggy. Erik. Charles.

“No, we couldn’t,” agrees Tony softly. “But we can damn well avenge them.”

Steve’s eyes dart to him.

“You’re staying?”

“I can’t leave you alone with Scott and Logan,” Tony pulls a face. “Even I am not that much of a dick.”

Steve pulls a hand out from under the covers to wrap it around the back of Tony’s neck and drag him down to a kiss, long and languid. His relief could fill in all the spaces in between the stars.

Tony hums into his mouth and curls in over him, pulling his legs up to lie over the covers.

“Yeah,” he sighs eventually, pressing a chaste kiss to Steve’s left eyelid. “We don’t have any time to be stupid to each other, Steve. We’ve got shit to avenge. I’m not walking out on you again.”

Steve makes a small noise in agreement, and falls asleep with his face hidden against Tony’s throat.

 

X

 

“This too shall pass,” Charles tells him gently, their empty teacups perched on their saucers on the table between them and Steve’s bitterness at failing the test for the fifth time still hangs heavy in the air, “and one day eventually we’ll all be graduates, shipping out into the galaxy and seeing it firsthand because in the long run, sims can’t compare.” He smiles, soft but hopeful, Steve unable to help but smile a little in return. “And just think of all the things that we’ll accomplish.”

 

X

 

Paladin to the First Degree Steven Grant Rogers, Graduate with the Highest Honors of the Imperial Academy, genius tactician and strategist, solar-system-champion of the Intergalactic Olympics in speed running and hammer throwing, and Captain Commander of the TEF Ad Astra Per Aspera—because Fury thinks he’s funny—steps onto the bridge.

“All systems go, Cap,” Scott reports as Steve walks over to the captain’s chair, and of course he’s picked up on the nickname that’s spread like wildfire. “Tony sent up an all-clear from the Engineering deck too. And also something obscene that I refuse to read out loud, keep your goddamn bedroom life in the bedroom. Sir.”

“We’ve got the green light,” Logan adds, one hand resting on the warp drive in anticipation, “on your command, sir. And don’t forget—”

“Yes, I know,” Steve interrupts him, faintly amused, “you and Scott need to talk to me and Tony as soon as we’re, as you put earlier, five jillion light years away from the Ionstar. Let’s focus on making our first jump to warp as smooth as possible, shall we?”

“I said five fucking jillion light years,” Scott mutters, “get it right.”

Steve resists the urge to sigh. The Aspera’s name is more appropriate than Fury could have ever imagined—or maybe he did, and that’s the entire point. Think of all the things they’re going to accomplish, he muses, together as a team.

“For our friends,” he says, because while their ghosts may hover at his shoulders as a constant reminder of why he can’t stop and won’t stop, he doesn’t have to bear the burden alone, “punch it.”