Medbay is almost completely empty, sans a young ensign receiving a booster hypo-spray and a nurse taking inventory of their chemical stock in the back.
Tony chooses to eat breakfast in here for this precise reason.
“Our new Captain is beaming on today,” Bruce says, through a large bite of toast.
Tony raises one eyebrow. “I know.” His own meal has been all but polished off. “I was on the memo, being senior staff and requested to work the transporter.”
“Oh, right, right,” Bruce says, through a mouth of half-chewed bread. If he wasn’t so good in times of crises, Tony would seriously consider worrying that his health was in the hands of someone so absentminded. However, in the three years that he has been serving on this ship, Tony has calculated a 7.1% decrease in his own sick leave, and has noted a 13.44% smaller degree of deaths during emergency situations in comparison with the average for federation ships. He has no reason to doubt his life in Bruce’s hands.
He does, occasionally, have to remind the man to eat breakfast.
“Well, are you excited?”
“Why would I be?” Tony asks. He’s cold in here. He’s always cold in here.
“I don’t know. It’s a change, something new.”
“Change, while inevitable, is not always wanted. Coulson understood me.”
“Understood that you want to be left alone in the engine rooms until you decompose, you mean.”
Tony huffs a laugh. “You understand me so well, dear.”
Jocular tone aside, he’s not kidding. He sometimes lets himself feel a wave of small regret about the ending result of their living arrangements. Traditionally, the CMO and Chief Engineer share a bathroom and outer living quarters. However, Bruce’s race requires a little more precaution than most, requiring specific room sizes, reinforcements, and assurances at lack of disruption during sleep due to a biological and physiological reaction to being provoked or angered.
Upon learning this, Tony had offered to build Bruce’s room from scratch with his own specs for free, so long as he was allowed to live alone in his own personal space in the engine rooms.
Health hazard, they had cried.
Unnecessary endangerment of an officer, they had cried.
Isolation from other crew members may have negative mental effect on an officer, they had cried.
In deep space, Tony had been able to intercept and change the transmissions before Captain Coulson had read them. He suspected Coulson had known, but with an ever-passive face, Coulson had agreed.
For the most part, Tony enjoys the seclusion. After a life of constant company, he has learned how to enjoy himself again.
Occasionally, though, he wishes he saw Bruce more often.
“I wonder what he’ll be like,” Bruce muses. He has a bit of jam still on his mouth.
Tony resists the urge to throw a napkin at him. He is not – will not be – that anal. “I’m sure they’re all the same.”
“According to the briefing, he’s a human. Earthling.”
“Well, for both our sakes, we better hope he’s not bigoted against other species.”
Bruce frowns. “Are there people still like that?”
Tony laughs, loud and unbridled.
(As a child, Tony had never understood his father’s aversion to Starfleet. It had seemed illogical. Starfleet was a harmless organization, focused on expedition and peaceful exploration of federation planets. Their concentration on scientific advancement interested Tony. But his father had taken Tony’s borrowed book on Starfleet history, and methodically and purposefully placed each page atop the fireplace in their home.
“I suppose,” Jarvis had said, when Tony had questioned him later. “He may feel cheated.”
“Cheated? Did they make a deal?”
Jarvis had looked down at Tony with kind eyes, and said, “No, young sir. They did not.”
(After all, as Tony later found out, it was his father’s choice to choose a human bride in an attempt to create better relations between Vulcan and Earth so Starfleet would choose Stark Industries as their photon torpedo contractor. The fact that it didn’t work wasn’t Starfleet’s fault.
It wasn’t Maria’s fault either.
Or Tony’s, for that matter.))
Tony stands behind the transporter console, fingers drumming. He isn’t usually requested to be on many away missions, which allows him a certain (large) number of hours to devote to his own personal projects, so long as they don’t interfere with his duties.
They never do.
Much as he tries to ignore it, to forget it, his genetics allow him comparatively little sleep, combined with comparatively large multi-tasking abilities.
He’s most of the way through the next iteration of his personal flying armor, his personal ship as he likes to joke with himself, but it needs better filtration – the suit is supposed to offer protection to anyone on any planetary atmosphere, and it’s not up to his own standards as of yet.
He’s caught up in his own thoughts, purposefully drowning out the extra input his senses constantly throw at him, that he almost misses the question.
“Are you excited, Commander Stark?”
Tony blinks, and turns to look at Natasha.
His face spasms, slightly – that is a verbal tic that he hasn’t been able to scalpel out of himself, even twenty years off his home planet.
“The new Captain. I know you’ve read the reports.” He hasn’t. His face must betray him, because she raises an eyebrow. “He was found on an old ship, carrying cryo-frozen experiments from the early 2000s eugenics war. He’s one of the supersoldiers.”
Tony vaguely remembers hearing about the ship being found several years ago, and one of the people causing a ruckus on another starship. “And they made him Captain?”
Romanoff shrugs. “Apparently he had military experience before, enough that they let him bypass a lot of Starfleet regulations and most of the academy.” Her smile turns a little wicked. “But Tony – he doesn’t know much beyond the 20th century.”
Tony can infer what she isn’t saying. Are you excited because:
He doesn’t know anything about Vulcans, and thus how you fail at being one.
He doesn’t know anything about who you are, or who you were.
He doesn’t know you’re not supposed to be here.
(His placement on any star-class ship was an unacceptable risk to Starfleet – a potential scandal, a media circus, a threat to their credibility as an institution.
Or so Tony was told six days after his release from capture.
“I’m sorry,” Admiral Fury had said, with very little pity lacing his tone. “If anyone catches wind that we have Tony Stark – that Tony Stark – as an officer, especially after what just happened, it’ll be a circus.”
Tony – spine of iron, emotionless Vulcan, the unshakeable rock of the board room – almost bursts into tears. Like a dumb, scared kid left alone in the world, with nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, no one who wants him.
“Please,” he can hear himself beg. He refuses to feel shame over it. There’re so many better things to feel ashamed of, in his life. “Please. We won’t tell the media. We won’t tell anyone. I just disappear and reappear in the engine room of whatever is your least important ship.”
Fury’s gaze is assessing, wondering.
Tony would wonder too, if the galaxy’s largest weapon distributor and multi-planet galaxy, billboard star was reduced to this. Asked for this.
“Or, whatever ship is most important.” Fury looks taken aback. “You know, I know, worlds know that there isn’t a better engineer in the galaxy.” Untrue, but Fury has never met Shuri of Wakanda, weeks away by warp 8, and Tony has no inclination to enlighten him. “Put me where it’s mission critical that the engines don’t fail. I’ll deliver.”
Fury deliberates. He laces his fingers together. “Why?”
“Why?” Tony repeats.
“Why. You’re you. And then the kidnapping. It hasn’t been a week, Stark. You shut down your weapons division, signed over the rest of the company, got that thing put in your chest, and then your first move is to come here? Why?”
Tony considers lying.
“I need to do something else.” Something good. “This is something else.”)
The light on the console brightens.
“Beaming him up now, ma’am,” Tony informs Commander Romanoff.
The whine of the transporter fills the room, and Tony shifts in place, watching the beams of light that precede the new Captain’s entrance.
The beams glow as the molecules coalesce into a person, a tall person, and – the beams disappear, the transporter powering down, and a humanoid remains.
Soft blue eyes scan the room, pausing slightly when he reaches Tony, gaze noticeably moving to his ears before back to his face, before he continues searching around the room. His arms are held behind his back, his posture so straight that Tony finds himself mirroring it without thinking. His clear blue eyes are sharp, attentive, hair a clear business cut, and he has a clear aura of power, of respect.
His gaze falls on Natasha.
“Captain,” she greets, walking forward. “I’m Natasha Romanoff, your first officer.”
It takes the new Captain a second, but then he smiles, and takes a step forward to meet Natasha in the middle.
“Commander.” He shakes Natasha’s hand and looks her in the eye. “I’ve heard you were promoted from security when Captain Coulson and First Officer Hill received their promotions.”
She nods, sharp and quick, like she always is. “Lieutenant Commander Clint Barton took over my job as chief security officer,” she says, gesturing towards Barton who is standing in the corner, sleeves ripped off his uniform. Tony wonders if it’s only for the aesthetics, or if there’s an actual reason.
“This is Dr. Bruce Banner.” Bruce offers a wane smile in place of his hand. “He’s your CMO.”
The Captain takes it in stride, simply nodding at Bruce in welcome.
“Your chief science officer will be Thor—”
“The Asgardian,” Captain Rogers supplies, and Romanoff smiles at him, just a little, which is a good sign for him.
“Yes. Their race is far superior to humans in scientific knowledge – just don’t ask him to explain what he knows. He is currently in the middle of a time sensitive project.”
Meaning he accidentally lit the entire science wing on fire experimenting with lightning and was currently attempting to minimize damages.
She must figure Rogers doesn’t need to know that.
Finally, Captain Rogers turns to Tony. The tiny curve to his lips is at odds with the strength of the rest of his features. “And that would make you Commander Stark, correct? My chief engineer?”
Tony nods, once, already ready to leave.
Captain Rogers raises his hand in a decent attempt of the ta’al. While it’s a polite attempt, and shows him as well researched, something about the gesture rankles Tony. He walks out from behind the console and up to Rogers, and holds out a hand to shake.
Rogers’s eyebrows raise and he looks at Tony in something like surprised interest, but takes his hand for a quick, strong shake.
“Good to meet you, Tony.” The Captain’s handshake is firm – and any plan to wow the new Captain with showmanship, to set an example of the Vulcan he is not, to charm and smarm his way into begrudging respect, evaporate as Tony’s mind explodes with light and warmth. “That doesn’t sound like a Vulcan name.”
Everything has halted. Distantly, he hears himself reply, “Stark is the Vulcan name. S and ends with K, fairly generic. Tony’s the human part.”
“I read about you. The second half Vulcan/half human in Starfleet’s history.” Rogers nods once, and Tony watches, secretly stunned. “Well, you have an excellent example to take from.”
“Sure, Cap,” Tony answers vaguely, and somewhat catalogues the odd looks he’s receiving from the crew, particularly Bruce and Natasha.
The t’hy’la bond complicates everything, as his other half/half counterpart knows full well.
(Here’s when Tony learned he wasn’t normal:
“My mother warned me not to converse with half-breeds.”
T’Prau raises one perfect eyebrow, looking down at him in a way that emphasizes her four inches over him. She says it matter of fact, dismissive, and Tony is only three, he doesn’t yet know what she’s saying, what she means, but even he knows an insult when it’s directed at him.
“I only asked if you knew where my father was,” Tony replies. To his dismay, at the time, his hand was shaking.
That was something he eventually trained out of himself.
(He still doesn’t know if it was from the Vulcan or human side.)
“I do not know.” T’Prau spun on her heel and moved away – only 3.23 meters, but far enough to isolate Tony. He knew it, she knew it.
He didn’t understand, but he would.)
Tony isolates himself in the engine room. It’s not difficult to do; the engines are wide and expansive, the room even more so, and there’s always something to tinker with, something to improve, and something to hide behind.
He makes it not even a day.
“Ah, Mister Stark,” Captain Rogers greets. “I have been looking for you. I asked about your quarters but couldn’t get a clear answer.”
Tony straightens from where he was bending over the warp drive. He flips his goggles up onto his head, and turns to look his new Captain in the face.
“Did you need something from me?”
The Captain looks taken aback. “No, nothing like that. I wanted to get to know my crew. I’ve been told you’re quite – gregarious, when you can be pulled from your work.”
Tony wonders who said that. He has been anything but since joining the ship, so it was most likely someone speaking from assumptions based on his media-heavy life before, instead of someone who knows him well now. Or there could be someone on the ship he knew from before. Or someone trying to sabotage his new relationship with the Captain.
Could be any.
“My work and I have monogamous relationship, I’m afraid, Captain.”
Rogers barks out a laugh, then almost immediately sobers, looking surprised at his own enthusiasm. “No time at all for me?”
Tony wonders what he can say that will make him leave without being unforgivably rude. “I suppose I could go and write a quick musical about the timeline of my life and sing it for you. It may contain nudity at the beginning, I warn you.”
He’s being looked at like he’s a puzzle, and Tony finds himself fiddling with some knob on the warp core. He hopes it isn’t important.
“You’re not what I expected. Just based on the reports I read about Vulcans,” the Captain admits, after a long moment.
He could be talking about Tony’s mannerisms, his brown hair, his curved eyebrows, his tone of voice, his way of speech, his jokes, his movement, his flippancy – any number of things that Tony carefully cultivated over years, but in the end, the answer is the same. “Good.”
He’s still standing there, even though that seems like a decent time for a change of subject or to bid adieu, but he’s not moving, just awkwardly in Tony’s space. The bond radiates discomfort, and Tony – recluse, rude Tony – cannot find it in himself to let him feel distress.
“You read about Vulcans, then?” he asks at last.
“They were in the debriefing I was given. Along with hundreds of other species,” he says, tone only a touch bitter. “But Vulcans were first contact, so they featured a lot. Your personal debrief mentioned you’d be a bit different, but—”
He abruptly cuts himself off. Curiosity is one of Tony’s only inherent traits that had been cultivated, encouraged.
“I, uh, I.” He looks uncomfortable, shifting his weight twice before continuing. “I suppose what with the human blood, I wasn’t expecting the ears.”
“What?” Tony snaps, defensively. He resists the urge to cover them with his hands. “What about them?”
“They’re…Do you know what elves are?”
A pause. “I beg your pardon?”
“Just this fantasy creature people wrote about back in my days. They had the—” He gestures at his ears and mimics points, and Tony watches, helpless. “Elves were always my favorite. I wasn’t expecting the pointy ears on a real alien.”
He has no idea how to reply.
“Most Vulcan thing about me, baby,” he eventually quips, untrue as that may be.
(Here’s a decision Tony makes in his 20s:
“Oh, starless night of the boundless black.”
The dirge for his father was long and pointless and, somehow, had made Tony feel even worse, which he didn’t think was actually possible.
He was standing near the back, swallowed in the crowds of those coming to pay respects to the great Stark’s life accomplishments. In the middle stood the funeral pillar, a 34-meter blank white pillar that they projected a bulleted list of life accomplishments. Slightly to the left and about 84 feet down, was a simple, half oval shaped rock, where only the words Maria Stark were engraved.
Obadiah had been standing by his side. Tony had ignored the perfunctory “I grieve with thee,” but found it hard to ignore the continuing stream of snide comments about when he’d take over the family’s weapon manufacturing business.
“I am not ready.”
“You are 21 years of age. You are Vulcan. Most Vulcans are completely independent and well into their chosen fields by this time.”
“I am half Vulcan,” Tony corrected. He knew the Vulcan way of blankness, passivity of expression, but he can’t help but desperately wanting to let his infuriation show. “You all like to remember that when convenient.”
“Tony – you must have realized by now that you can only truly be one.” Obadiah had turned towards him, and Tony remembers catching his eye, catching his body language.
No mourning visible. Hard eyes, straight back, hands clutched behind his back. There is no logic in sorrow, after all.
“I am aware you are not ready for the responsibility of the business—”
“You are aware?” Tony repeated. “How are you aware?”
“You have yet to learn how to suppress the disadvantages from your mother’s genes,” Obadiah had said blandly. Matter of fact. “You still show signs of humanism. The amount of times I have seen you show emotion—” Obadiah had shook his head, obviously remembering when Tony had yelled at his father for leaving him out in the desert to find his own way back as a strengthening exercise, or when he had smiled wide at his mother’s gift of an old, 21st century Earth computer, or when he had cried as a child when he was bullied into a broken arm. “If you have sense, you will perform kolinahr and purge yourself. You must take your father’s place, and it is not the business’s fault that you have human blood.”
It wasn’t Tony’s fault either, and it was his father’s fault, not that it seemed to matter to anyone.
“It is time for you to make a decision, Tony.”
Tony hadn’t been looking at Obadiah when he said that, he remembers.
He had been looking at the gravestone.
Singular, because it wasn’t the Vulcan way to bury the dead. There was no point, after all. It wasted land and fouled the soil. After the ceremony was completed out of respect for the dead’s achievements, bodies were donated to science and hospitals.
But Maria had been human, and thus her organs were mostly useless to Vulcan anatomy and interests. Tony, remembering old Earth literature that his mother had read to him after dark, had requested a grave, thoughtlessly, without even knowing why.
His father’s body was already gone, disappeared, completely absent from his life, not unlike his father’s body when it was still alive and pumping green blood. And there was his mother’s headstone, permanent, etched, constantly there for Tony to remember, a constant reminder of dark nights of comfort, of being held, of being allowed to shed tears, of being encouraged to laugh, of playing with toys instead of experiments, of feeling love and feeling someone else’s love, of feeling.
Make accomplishments, not connections, he was being told. Purge yourself of the ability to be happy so you can fit in, he was being told. Be your father, not your mother, is what Tony was being told.
“I can only be one?” Tony had said, still staring at the grave. “Human or Vulcan?”
Too human, they say, Tony had thought, hand balling into a fist. They think I’m too human now? I’ll show them human. I’ll show them all.)
Humans are psi-null, by default. They cannot feel telepathic influence or connections unless those with higher ratings force it. Captain Rogers would not be able to sense the bond, of Tony’s ability to feel the small pulses of emotion emanating from him, of his access to Tony’s own brain and state with just a little training.
If Tony were a better person, he would tell him.
It could be an invasion of privacy, easily. Tony could access the Captain’s thoughts with little nudging, completely unfelt by the other. He feels pulses of emotions without even trying. With effort, they easily could drift into one another’s minds, one another’s spaces.
Your mind to my mind, Tony thinks, unwittingly. My thoughts to your thoughts.
But he’s not a better person. He knows that. He made an oath to try, staring into the face of a terrified but resolute Andorian – “Don’t waste it, Stark. Don’t waste your life. Don’t waste it.” – but ever since stepping off the turbolift and into the arms of Rhodey, he knew, no matter what, it would never be enough.
What’s one more stain on his ledger?
And so, in the 7.3 minutes Captain Rogers spends in engineering, Tony stays mute on the subject.
He does consider – how can he not – that telling Rogers could, possibly, end in fulfillment of the bond instead of his dismissal from the ship.
Fulfillment of the bond is –
It’s almost unthinkable.
Despite recent history, t’hy’la bonds are not common. Centuries pass without one forming. In school, they were told of with a reverence and mythos usually reserved for stories of how the universe forms. A soulbond, so strong and untouchable, the irreversible bonding of two compatible minds, another’s mind a place so familiar you could walk it blindfolded, a refuge, a support. A friend. A brother. A lover.
It’s too much.
If partnership had been some great, untouchable dream of his, this was unfathomable. Unattainable. Or, apparently more accurately, unretainable.
The bond indicates two harmonious minds, but it cannot account for action, for choice. Steve has every choice to deny him. To logically make the decision that someone like Tony, compatible spirit or no, is not someone wise to have on your side. To make the informed decision that Tony has never been anyone’s first choice.
And Tony has every choice to say no.
To say – this could be great. But I won’t let it. This could be home. But I won’t let it. This could be comfort. But I won’t let it.
It has the ability to break him oh so easily.
Most days, he barely has a handle on his own state of mind and spirit. His physical state has been deteriorating since he came of age – refusal to bow to his physical need to meditate out of a stubborn conviction that not participating in the ritual would make him less Vulcan, self-medicating with off-brand medications and hard liquor from a number of planets, a broken and torn sternum that Obadiah permanently damaged from improper discharge of the arc reactor three days after he came back from the kidnapping.
Vulcans are known for strength of mind due to strong control and constant vigilance and resilience. However, that control and vigilance are only necessary because Vulcans have a weakness of overly strong emotions.
Even in his more mellow moments, Tony has thought it ironic that Vulcans disparage the human race for their emotionalism, when Vulcans are far worse – the control is necessary, because when they snap – from fear, from anger, from grief – they can and will level cities.
Emotions can be dulled. That – that is something Vulcans have whittled to a science. Isolation. Lack of friends. Focus on logic, math, numbers. Extreme dedication to tasks. Bond-mates chosen from logic instead of love.
It’s always been harder for Tony than others. His human side not only has him feeling so much more, it has him wanting to feel more, and worse, less able not to feel. He’s received more than one backhand to the face due to his inability to shut down excitement at a project, or grabbing a classmate’s shoulder in friendship, or gritting his teeth in frustration.
And worse – when he started letting himself feel, letting himself be human – even then, he couldn’t purge his genes. His Vulcanism had everything feeling so much stronger, so much more overwhelming, so much more.
And so the strongest of emotions – family, friendship, love – he still refused. Falling into the human traps of excitement, lust, curiosity, enthusiasm, passion – those were controllable.
Love – it’s too much.
To let himself feel, to fall head first into the Vulcan soulbond, to let himself have what he’s craved, it would become everything. If it went away, if it walked away, if it died. It would be too much. It could break too much.
Back in his private quarters, the silence is deafening. His breath is heavy, and eyes are moist. He feels like he’s being crushed under the weight of possibility, of the knowledge of what is somehow available to him, what he can’t let himself have.
He’s already broken. He doesn’t need to shatter.
When he rises, the first action Tony always takes is to check the mission log for the morning. He knows something must have come in overnight; he can never sleep through the singular orange blink his PADD always displays when one is logged.
He reads through the report:
Planet Classification: M.
Federation Name: Corons VI
Native Name: Flualli
Native Language: Flualldin – characterized by a variety of squawks
Standard Fluency: Reasonable to High – small communication errors possible
Principle Resource: Crops and Vegetation – sustainable for most carbon-based life forms
Tony skims the rest, uninterested, scrolling until he reaches the end summary:
Mission: The Flualli have noted a decrease in crop yield. It has yet to be a critical concern, but they have asked for immediate access to Federation resources in an attempt to identify the problem before it spreads. You are permitted to use every available Federation database to help the Flualli identify the concern.
Almost certainly not a mission that would require Tony.
He pulls on a hat his mother had given him to cover his ears, and heads to engineering.
(Here’s something he was told happened:
“Anthony. Tony. Let’s call him Tony.”
“That is not a Vulcan name,” his father replied, all steel.
“He is not a Vulcan,” his mother replied, all iron.)
“May I join you?”
Tony raises his head from where it was buried in an engineering manual – he only had so much long-term memory, it was pointless to fill it with information that could easily be accessed from a PADD – to see Captain Rogers standing in front of him, a tray of terran food in his hand, and a small grimace on his face.
Tony’s first instinct – why – is mostly rude, so he simply nods and moves over on his work bench.
“You’re most likely wondering why,” Captain Rogers says, which makes Tony bark an unexpected laugh. Rogers looks pleased.
“It did cross my mind.” He gestures around his humble station. “Why come eat in engineering, Cap?”
“Steve’s fine when we’re off duty. And I’m not eating in engineering; I’m eating with you, and that’s where you are.” Tony can feel a flush start to rise from within, which he wills down by force. “You’re the only senior staff member not on the bridge. I want to know my men.”
“I see,” Tony says.
“I am also worried about this mission.” Steve appears tired. Tony doesn’t know him, not really. He knows his mind is warm and gold like honey, his presence comforting and his mental state constant, but he does not know him. He doesn’t know what would make him tired, make him worry.
Tony swallows past the words rushing his throat. In the end, he just says an underwhelming, “And why is that?”
Steve picks at his food, swirling it with a fork, unseeing. “It’s my first mission as Captain.” Five days in and already on planet is damn good for any officer, but Tony keeps quiet, listening. “And I already don’t like where it’s headed. I’m sure you read the report, but we have to figure a cure for this fungus destroying their crop yield, but we don’t have an astromycologist on board. We’ve attempted to do a picture match, but not all the records in the system have photos.” Steve grimaces. “It’s like being back in my times; you’d think by now they’d have eliminated bureaucratic oversights. Anyway, they didn’t get an immediate match, and none of our science staff are specifically trained in fungi. This poor planet really could not survive waiting another few weeks waiting to get in touch with someone in Starfleet command with the recommended experience. If it spreads to the rest of their crops, their entire livelihood is going to be in jeopardy. It’s going to turn into a refugee situation.”
Steve takes a bite of his meal, some pasta dish, oblivious that part of Tony feels like it is unraveling.
“If it’s not trouble, I would like to beam down and take a look myself.”
He side-eyes Tony, then swallows. “I mean – sure. Do you know anything about exo-fungi?”
Tony can’t bring up the will to even pretend to smile. “We’ll see.”
(Tony built an empire.
(Or inherited one, if you wanted to be pedantic about it, which most of the original Vulcan investors certainly did.)
His father had explained the business long ago, before Tony could even build a warp drive from scratch.
“Vulcan is a peaceful planet of peaceful beings,” his father had told him. “We do not fight. We do not encourage fighting. However, we have enough sense to realize that our way is not the only way practiced in the galaxy. Many others engage in wars. These uncivilized planets will need weapons, and will ultimately obtain them from somewhere. It is only logical, given that they will obtain the weapons even without our intervention, that we capitalize on the need and supply them with our own. War may be profitable, even if it is not logical.”
Tony had not been sitting on his lap or knee, as it wasn’t the Vulcan way, but he remembers peering up at his father, the distance between them large. “But isn’t that still participating?” Tony had asked.
(Even then, he understood that those who swing the sword, order the sword, and supply the sword are all equally guilty.)
“No, it is not,” his father had replied. “We do not force anyone to purchase our products. We only fulfill where there is already a need.”
Tony hadn’t understood, but believed. And as he grew and gained and decided, he took the advice. He soon found that the Vulcan way of cold deliberation worked for hardline stances in the business room, but the human’s way of friendliness and showmanship gained more loyalty and friends.
He expanded and expanded and expanded – light years and planets and colonies and wars, media appearances and software, diplomacy and trade. The emotional, flamboyant Vulcan became a status symbol, someone you’d request to come to your planet to simply show your wealth, your prestige.
And even with the expansions, even with the divisions, even with the changes of pace – still, weapons sold.
War never does conclude, in the end. There’s no denouement. It goes on and on, a never-ending game of chess, king arming pawn versus king arming pawn.
Tony never would have been out of work, unless he chose to be.
(Swing, order, supply – maybe Tony just didn’t want to be involved in the execution at all anymore.))
A field with orange grass, a sky of bright green, air that smells of pulled sugar.
An alien – a Flualli, most likely – stands nearby to greet him. “Commander Stark,” they say, and then let out a loud squawk, along with raising and lowering their right foot. They have green-tinted skin, four arms, and are covered head-to-feet in a large tunic that looks like its sole purpose is to block the sun’s rays.
Tony understands why – he was born on Vulcan, an arid, hot planet to any Class M creature, and he can feel himself starting to sweat already. Bruce had forced him to take a hypo before beaming down – he’s glad for it now, as his breathing remains steady.
“I see you’ve been told of my arrival,” Tony greets, and sticks out his foot, mirroring the gesture. He isn’t entirely sure if it was the right move, having half-heard the debrief before transporting, but the Flualli looks pleased.
“We anticipated your arrival. Please, join me to the harvest.”
He follows the alien – and he should have asked for their name, he realizes, far too late – up a steep incline and through a large field of tall, un-chopped, orange grass. It is beautiful, Tony catalogues silently, as if the sun had melted.
He is led to a frankly astoundingly large crop of something or other – grass-like, tall, with a bulbous ending, and a clear pollination method in the middle of the stem. They sway in the sweet air, and, at first, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary.
The Flualli steps up to one of the first stalks, and, with their top left hand, pulls at the bulb. It detaches easily and begins to disintegrate in their palm. They offer their hand to Tony, who takes it gently.
Tony picks at the pieces.
“I know it,” Tony says.
One of the antennae on the alien twitches, noticeably. “Yes?”
Tony hits his Starfleet insignia. “Stark to Bridge.”
“Captain Rogers here,” he hears. “Any luck?”
Here’s what Tony says: “I can fix it.”
(When Tony’s eyes opened, the universe was one way.
He sputtered conscious.
A Romulan was kneeling in front of him, only inches away. “You’re awake, Stark.”
It felt like his hands did not unclench from holding the battery to his chest even when unconscious. “What do you want?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony had lied, stupidly.
“The weapon the Klingon’s purchased fifteen years ago. The biological weapon.” An infinite, infinitesimal pause. “The one that decimated Tarsus IV.”
Tony was dripping water from being pushed underneath until he was forced to go into a meditative state then yanked out, he was holding a battery attached to his chest that will electrocute him if it gets damp, he hadn’t had a meal in two days, for all the water his thirst was starting to weaken him, his foot was broken and blue, his right arm was ripped raw and green, and somehow, oh somehow, it was the words that strike something through him worse than anything he has ever endured.
“No, no,” Tony stammered weakly, blood and water and grime falling from his spit. “No – not Tarsus. I had nothing to do with Tarsus.”
The Romulan chuckled, with little humor. “You think your weapons stayed within the wars you sent them to?”
Tony’s eyes closed: and the universe looked different.
It’s the moment, the one that switches his axis, that fixes him with hatred and self-loathing and guilt so strong some days he suffocates with it –
But it’s not his worst memory.
He’d rather have his eyes wide open.)
The antidote to the fungus is fairly easy to create, and Tony has transported back down to the planet within a few hours. He’s addressed the grand council about the classification, given them the formula and quadruple the amount of antidote needed to control the plague, and instructed the entire Flualli farming and science division on proper dispersal methods.
In all, it takes near four hours.
When it is all said and done, and Tony is rendezvousing with Steve to beam back, he finds himself walking towards a smaller version of one of the aliens, one he saw gathered within the council when he first beamed down. They beckon him over with a curl of their bottom hand. Tony ambles over, silently remembering an enthusiastic drunken babble Bruce once gave about how gestures were so similar over different planets and galaxies and cultures and, it’s amazing Tony, what that says about convergent evolution. Or maybe a common creator? Tony, Tony, it’s amazing— and he squats down in front of them, purposefully making eye contact.
“Hi there,” Tony greets. He receives a raised right foot in response, which Tony mirrors.
The Flualli is holding something behind their back, which Tony only notices when they pull it from behind. It looks like some sort of food – berries, maybe, or some sort of equivalent to it.
“A gift,” the alien explains. “A thank you for stopping the plague from the grand council. Consider this an open invitation to come back whenever you please.”
Tony reaches forward and carefully takes the fruit from them. They’re firmer than expected, closer to a nut than a berry in texture, though the bright purple color still makes Tony think of blueberries.
“You only need to eat it to use it.”
He wonders distantly if ‘use’ is a mistranslation from standard, or if that’s the word they use to mean eat, which is culturally interesting.
“Thank you,” Tony says solemnly. He taps the watch on his right wrist, waiting for the iron man suit to move up his arm. He carefully stows the gift in a small compartment of his suit, made for excess parts but useful for circumstances such as these.
The Flualli raises their left foot this time, then makes a purposeful squawk, before turning and leaving.
Tony turns, ready to depart for the beaming station, when he comes face to face with the man himself.
“Oh fuck,” he blurts without thinking. “You scared me, Cap.”
“Fuck?” The Captain repeats. Tony wills himself not to have a reaction. “That’s a Vulcan word as well?”
“Can be an insult to Vulcans, just ask my mother.” Tony offers a strained smile. “Are you ready to leave?”
Steve ignores the question and nods to his wrist. “What is that?”
“The Iron Man suit,” Tony explains. “Nano-bit technology. I hit a button and it’ll disperse. Fancier than the original version. I always keep it on me, especially for away missions. You never know when you may need the protection.”
“I read something about that in your file. What does it do?”
He should know better than to ask Tony a question about his own technology, especially with his fair skin and the radiation of this sun – but apparently, he doesn’t, and thus is put through a near quarter of an hour explanation, all the while he looks more and more impressed.
“Wow,” he says, right as Tony as finishing the explanation of the stored data banks of languages and cultural norms that the HUD can display, helping fix diplomacy errors in real time. “It’s inventions like that that make me remember I really have time traveled to the future.”
It’s one of the best compliments Tony has ever received.
“Why are they not standard issue to all officers?”
Tony stares at him blankly. “Because it’s mine.”
“Couldn’t it help everyone?” Steve asks. “Your company – your Vulcan one, Stark Industries. Couldn’t they manufacture them?”
Steve looks like he would like to press, but he swallows his words.
He taps his insignia. “Two to energize.”
Moments later, they’re standing in the bay of The Avenger.
Tony makes to step off the platform, but Steve gestures for him to wait. Tony obliges. “Could you at least send me the database of cultural diplomacy? I still don’t know enough about all the types of aliens yet, and that could be a large help.”
Here’s what Tony says: “I can do that.”
(For all that Tony tries to be human, to be as human as possible, all his tormentors were, in the end, correct: he can’t outrun his genes.
The scientific mind, the ability to handle input, the bone-deep aversion to skin-to-skin contact, how every project is first put through a logic filter, the physical strength he forgets he carries, the desperate, clawing need for meditation every few days – they won’t disappear. Not with alcohol, not with chocolate, not with partying, not with revulsion-laden sex, not with pushing his body to days and weeks without calming. Nothing will make his blood turn red.
He remembers standing with Pepper, his half-betazoid/half-human personal assistant that he hired on an absolute whim (or so he said to those who asked – split second, thoughtless, gut reactions were human. Immediately calculating probability of success based on a quick glance at resumes wasn’t.
(Ever since, he had taken to pulling a resume out of a pile at random.)
(She worked out well. Of course she did)).
She had been mildly arguing with him, saying that his Vulcan heritage and predilection for logic had to help in his engineering efforts.
She didn’t know it, but that conversation was the birth of the robotics division of Stark Industries.
He was almost kicked out of the company for it, but it was worth it. By everything, it was worth it.
He couldn’t help being logical, of being able to compute math without thinking, of reasoning before thinking – but he could control what he did with that fact. He could twist the logic into something all his own – make math into art.
And Iron Man – the magnum opus of the intersection of math and art. It’s his. It’s his alone. It won’t be used as a weapon. It won’t be used for logical means. It’ll be used for his whims. His wants. His desires. His art. His help.
He didn’t have to be what they made him.)
Tony slides across the bench, gently bumping into Steve’s shoulder, who glances at him in warm surprise.
“Hey Cap,” Tony greets. He slides a drive across the table. “Got you those files on cultural diplomacy you ordered.”
“Requested,” Steve automatically corrects, a surprised but pleased expression in his face. “I didn’t mean for you to think you had to do it immediately. It’s only been a couple hours.”
Tony shrugs. “I had some time, I like to be helpful, must make my Captain happy, yada yada.”
On Steve’s other side, Natasha leans forward just slightly, clearly listening in with interest.
“Well, thank you. I appreciate it.”
Even without the verbal acknowledgment, Tony can feel the gratitude seep through the bond – gold and warm and tinged with surprise and appreciation, and a wave of aching desire to never feel disappointment or anger or frustration filter through hits Tony so hard that he must work to keep it off his face.
“As I said, no biggie.” He mindlessly bumps shoulders with Steve, but doesn’t miss the strange look that garners. “Sorry?”
“No, it’s fine.” Steve looks as if he’s reaching for the right words. He clears his throat softly. “I just read that Vulcans have an aversion to touch, but you…” He trails off. “I just want to do right by you, that’s all,” he finishes, awkwardly.
“Generally,” Natasha inputs, as Tony internally tries to put his thoughts in a numbered order so he can reply, “Tony can touch you, but don’t touch him back without permission or a long-standing relationship.”
Broadly true, but never verbalized. She is first officer for a reason – observational skills are a must.
“Not being held enough as a child can have devastating life-long effects,” Tony says conversationally.
“Someone should have told my father,” Steve replies, faux-thoughtfully, and Tony snorts. Steve grins at him, clearly relieved at their compatible senses of humor. “Doesn’t matter the planet or time period, does it, it’s just men all around?”
Tony knocks on the table twice with his knuckles before standing. “Maybe just fathers.”
(This is Tony’s worst memory:
“Is this Mr. Anthony Stark? I am calling about an Edwin Jarvis.”)
The next morning, Tony is eating breakfast – oatmeal and fruit. He went through a stage in his early 20s of eating meat (or, at least, replicated meat) as a fuck you to Vulcan – but, over the years, he’s learned he truly doesn’t care for the taste or the concept. Humans haven’t eaten actual animals for a century, but the thought still makes his stomach turn unpleasantly.
He supposes age has subdued him.
He’s almost through, only a spoonful or two left, when Steve appears in front of him.
He startles Tony, in all honesty. It’s difficult to sneak up on him, given his enhanced senses, but he was focused in his head on an equation, and he supposes Steve is enhanced as well – perhaps he can quiet his steps.
“Morning, Cap,” Tony greets.
“What’s this?” Steve is apparently not in the mood for pleasantries, though he doesn’t sound angry – just impatient. He hands him a PADD, which Tony takes idly. While he’s chewing, he glances down absentmindedly, quickly scanning the highlighted text.
He can feel his throat start to clam, but swallows around it. He glances up at Steve, just for a second, before pushing the PADD back in Steve’s hand.
“What of it?”
Steve stares at him a second, obviously not expecting the lack of reply. He pulls the PADD up to reading level, and reads: “The Tarsus IV fungus. First appearance: 2246. Planet of origin: Unknown, suspected Tarsus IV. Antidote: Available as of 2248. Created by A. Stark of planet Vulcan. Antidote formula released to public and made fully accessible.”
A long five seconds pass.
“And?” Tony prompts.
“And?” Steve repeats. “You didn’t tell me you created the antidote.”
“I also didn’t tell you I made the fungus in the first place.” Steve’s face blanks in surprise. “What of it? Do you need my full biography before we go on any mission?”
Steve glances back down at the PADD, quickly scrolling through. “It only said it was a natural fungus that destroyed food supplies.” Steve glances up. His confusion is seeping through the bond, and it makes something in Tony curl in self-loathing. “Why would you make a fungus?”
There’s no point to lying. Not to one’s t’hy’la.
“Eco-terrorism.” The bond blanks. “Biological warfare. You didn’t read my full background, did you?”
“You were a weapons manufacturer for galactic wars,” Steve answers promptly. He’s staring at Tony, unnervingly intent. “Your whole company was based on the idea of having an apolitical manufacturer. You would make anything for anyone, if the price was right. You inherited it from your father, but five years in, opened up other divisions. You personally spearheaded a robotics and computer software division with an exclusive contract to Starfleet, which angered your investors, and your company suffered revenue loss. Shortly after, you were taken hostage by a Romulan extremist group and tortured for an unspecified reason. When you were released, you shut down the weapon’s sector of the company permanently and quit, joining Starfleet less than a week after you built your own ship to escape from captivity, where you’ve now been serving for the past three years.”
Tony takes another spoonful of oatmeal.
“I do my research on my men, Tony.”
“It wasn’t a ship,” he says, because what else is there to say? “It was the Iron Man armor. I showed the latest version to you.”
Steve ignores this.
“Tarsus IV was a peaceful Earth colony. Was the plague purposeful?”
“I don’t know,” Tony answers honestly.
“You don’t know?” Steve repeats. A pulse of irritation filters through the bond. Tony breathes through an unsurprised sigh. “That plague killed thousands of innocent Earthlings. Children. Half a population almost starved to death, and the other half were slaughtered. They weren’t at war. And you knowingly sold a weapon to someone with that purpose?” His grip on the PADD is becoming increasingly tight. “There’s apolitical, and then there’s amoral.”
“It wasn’t knowingly.” Tony throws the spoon into the empty bowl. It clanks loudly in the most-empty mess hall.
And once again, the bond blanks.
“No. It was for the Klingons, supposedly supposed to be just a scare tactic against a Romulan army squadron stationed on a planet.” He never knew it would spread – he never knew it would leave that particular planet. He never thought it would be used, in reality – a scare tactic, and at worst a destroyer of soldiers, not civilians.
As if that’s any better.
He stands. “But it doesn’t matter. Once a design is out of your head and in the world, it ceases to matter what you meant it for. The only thing that matters is what it does. So please, continue to judge me.”
He blocks the bond, after that.
(One of Fury’s requirements for Tony assuming his position on The Avenger was that Tony have weekly counseling appointments. He hadn’t even argued, which said something about how he felt of his own mind, at the time.
Deanna, Tony’s counselor, was kind and patient, more so than he deserved, he was sure, given it took almost an entire year for them to have an honest conversation.
It came after Tony had offered himself up as a human sacrifice on a mission. In his defense, the leaders of that colony were requesting it be Peter, the young and bright science ensign intern, and like hell Tony would have allowed that to happen without protest.
“Do you value your own life?” she had asked.
“I’ve killed.” He picked at the cuticle of his thumb, a nervous tick he adopted from watching Jarvis interact with his father. “My life means little in wake of that.”
“Tony, if you don’t try to keep yourself alive, you won’t be. If you don’t accept your past, accept what you’ve done, and move forward, you’ll struggle making it through a five-year mission.”
“What a load of bullshit. Self-acceptance.” He can feel the self-loathing poisoning his tone. “What’s the point, if you do bad things and then just forgive yourself? I should just stop judging myself and accept it? No matter what I do, just make an itemized list of my wrong deeds in my head, and then accept it? There’s no line drawn? I make weapons that murder children, and I just let it go? You think their parents just accept that I realized there was a mistake? Do you think it’s justice that I am never held accountable for my sins because I realize they’re sins? No one in the galaxy holds me responsible but me. I’m not liable for what others did with what I created. Not liable in anyone’s eyes but my own, apparently. And that’s the line I have to hold.” Hating himself wasn’t absolution, but it was atonement. “So, no. I don’t. Is that a sufficient answer?”
There was a reason he refused to take the Kobayashi Maru, and it wasn’t because he didn’t know how to pass it.
He would not knowingly make that choice. Not even for a simulation.
He’s caused enough death inadvertently. He won’t do it on purpose.)
Tony knew Steve was different type of person, but he didn’t realize he was a different type of Captain until a week or two later, with a mission to Delta Worra.
The Worra sector was infamous for its brutality, constant warfare, and slave trade. The Federation had no jurisdiction in the quadrant, nor extradition, which spelled bad news for the unfortunate Orion Starfleet Officer, Maras, who had been extraordinarily unlucky with where her shuttle chose to make a crash landing.
“The Supreme Leader, Akorbar, refused to cooperate with Starfleet or the Federation,” says Rogers, standing at the head of the bridge. His eyes are grave. “Starfleet has given us permission to attempt a rescue mission, as long as it remains discreet and Delta Worra is never aware of our presence.”
Tony fights the urge to squirm. His red and gold uniform feels scratchy today, and he finds himself pulling at the collar, letting the debrief wash over him.
Tony had been well acquainted with Akorbar.
He has no interest in becoming re-acquainted.
Rogers droned on – or planned on – for well over an hour, outlining an infiltration plan, an undercover identity, reconnaissance trips, note taking on holo maps, the general works.
When the meeting is finally called to an end, most of what Tony took away was that he hadn’t been asked to join the mission planet-side. His orders were to personally oversee the cloaking device, as well as keep engineering on yellow-alert the entire day, waiting for a signal to jump to Warp 10 at a moment’s notice.
The orders forbid him leaving his post in engineering; while he has projects down there to tinker with, and the core could always use maintenance, he finds himself on a PADD, slowly re-designing the code of the map holos – their zoom really was something pitiful – when his insignia buzzes.
He slaps it. “Stark here.”
“Stark.” It’s Romanoff, and she does not sound thrilled. “Open a channel with transporter bay. The second the four of us are beamed up, we need to be out of here.”
“Four of you?” Tony’s feet hit the ground. “You found her?”
“Just do it,” she barks, and the line goes dead.
Eyebrows to his hairline, Tony does.
Twenty minutes later, in the debrief, he becomes all-too-aware of the source of her anger.
“I’m sorry, you did what now?”
“Saved her,” Steve answers promptly. “Bruce said she will make a full physical recovery, and with some counseling—”
“No, no, no, no, no,” Tony interrupts, waving a finger in midair. “No. That’s not what I meant. The other part.”
Steve shrugs, and Natasha rolls her eyes. “He caused a diplomatic incident at best.”
“Can you just,” Tony rolls his hand in the air, like he can magically rewind time. “Maybe start from when it went off plan?”
Steve is silent. Arms crossed, eyes defiant, and utterly silent.
Natasha rolls her eyes again. “He asked the gatekeeper for entrance to slaver’s bay, and when he was denied, he pretended to want shake the man’s hand in goodbye, then grasped his hand, bent his arm 180 degrees back, pushed him into a wall, cracking the man’s skull on the stone, then, through the man’s screams and disorientation, grabbed the key from his breast pocket. Then, when he noticed that there about 50 keys on the ring, he forcibly jerked the steel lock off the gate, then opened the gate—”
“Tore the gate off its hinges,” Clint corrects.
“Yes, thank you Clint, tore the gate off its hinges, sending it flying into three other guards. Then he stood in the middle of the bay and yelled, where’s Maras.”
“That’s when one of their lookout guards shot him in the back with a phaser,” Clint says. It sounds suspiciously like glee in his voice. “You should have seen it, Tony. He just turned around, looked the guy dead in the eye, walked forward, took the phaser out of the man’s hand, bent it, and then threw it away.”
“Don’t forget that he then punched the man unconscious.”
“We don’t need a play-by-play—” Steve weakly tries.
“Of course we do,” Tony interrupts smoothly. “For the record. And accurate paperwork. Please,” he flourishes with his hands. “Continue.”
Clint leans forward. “At this point, someone had pushed Maras out to him. He took her by the hand and looked her in the eye and said something. I couldn’t hear, probably something gentlemanly.”
“I just told her we were going to get her home,” Steve says.
“Yeah, see. Anyway, by this point, someone had alerted someone because like twenty-foot soldiers—”
“Slave guards,” Natasha corrects.
“—Guards of the slaves arrived. I was watching from my sniper spot and was not amused, and could see Natasha hiding behind the slaver’s house, looking like she didn’t know what to do—”
“Who would?” Natasha asks the air.
“Anyway, so I am sitting up on my perch on a rock, right, and Steve’s holding Maras’s hand, right, and looking down at these twenty some soldiers who are now surrounding him, and Natasha is too far to really get involved but at least her cover isn’t blown, and my palm is getting itchy, right—”
“Let him tell it, Tony,” Natasha admonishes.
“Okay, point being – Captain oh Captain here just wrenches a part of the fence off its connectors, and throws it like a goddamn frisbee, and it catches about six or seven of them right in the stomach, sending them flying, and then he immediately pushes Maras away and bolts at the guards. He did this like—” Clint karate-chops the air. “And then this like—” He kicks his leg up as far it can go, which is to say, table height. “And then, bam, pow—”
As not informative as it is, Tony’s getting the picture.
“And then, before I can blink, there’s no one left standing, and half of them look unconscious, and half are groaning, and one’s leg is halfway off—”
“He was a slave trader,” Steve spits. “I’m not going to apologize for that.”
“No one asked you to,” Clint says, and yes, that’s definitely glee. “And then he just grabs Maras’s hand, walks out with his head held high, nods his head at Natasha for her to follow, and we go to the beam up point. No one could see us with the chaos of all the slaves escaping.”
The quiet hum of the engines can be heard.
“It,” Clint says, with feeling. “Was awesome.”
“It,” Natasha says, “Was in direct violation of our orders, caused an inter-galactic incident, may have permanently destroyed diplomacy with Worran planets, probably caused hundreds of thousands of their currency in property damage, violated our no-interference treaty, and probably killed ten or more Worrian people.” Her eyes flit to Steve. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” he answers easily. He cocks his head, a small, sure smile on his face.
“And?” she prompts.
“And Maras is fine,” he says. A beat of silence, and then he follows that with, “If you’re waiting for an apology, keep waiting.”
Respect isn’t like Rome.
It can be built in a moment.
(Later, Tony will think: my admiration is built on his character.
Later, Tony will wonder: t’hy’la bonds indicate mental compatibility. How could a war profiteer be harmonious with someone like that?
Later, Tony will consider: maybe there’s something he’s missing, here. Within Steve.
And even later: Or within himself.)
Tony pauses outside the door to the main recreation room. He had been planning on his first live-test of a new program he was coding – a simulation, a holographic, 4D recreational experience that would let people create scenarios and act them out. He was considering a few different names – the Dreamatorium, the Holodeck, the Simulatornator – for when he pitched it to Starfleet, but there was bound to be bugs in the first several (hundred) versions.
However, he could hear a soft melody floating from the room. It wasn’t any music he was familiar with, though it was noticeably Terran, and if his history lessons had any merit, probably from the mid-20th century, what with its irregular beats and heavy use of saxophone and piano.
Tony stands still for almost a full minute, simply listening, letting the sounds mix through the air. The minors fall and the piano trickles off, final note a strong but quiet C, and Tony finds himself walking through the door, despite instinctively knowing what’s on the other side.
The automatic doors spring open with a rush of wind that almost makes him shiver. He catches sight of Steve, who’s sitting on one leg, almost curled into a sofa cushion, one hand holding open a real, antique paperback book, the other in his hair.
Steve glances up, and Tony finds himself wanting to smile.
“Commander Stark,” Steve greets, with a real touch of surprise in his voice. He places the book down by his knee. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
To Tony’s slight disappointment, Steve reaches over and taps the PADD on the table in front of him, and the song that was just beginning – more piano than brass this time – abruptly stops.
“Don’t you have an alpha shift tomorrow?” Tony takes the seat across from him, and mirrors Steve’s position, one leg under. “That’s only three hours from now.”
“I sustained minor injuries from the mission on Delta Worra.” Clint’s voice echoes in his mind – that’s when one of their lookout guards shot him in the back with a phaser. Tony is intimately aware of how phasers are made, each piece that’s constructed, of the damage they are made and planned and created to inflict. “With my healing factor from the eugenics project, I’m fine, but Starfleet regulation says I get the next day off.”
Tony finds himself snorting before he can think better of it. Steve’s eyebrows raise in clear question, and Tony shrugs, a little too dramatically. “Nothing.” Steve cocks his head 7 degrees to the right, and Tony folds. “Just – now you care about Starfleet regulations?”
Steve makes some noise in the back of his throat – half surprise, half confusion. “Have I broken some rule?”
Tony can’t help the sarcastic edge to his voice as he replies, “I’m sorry, I thought we were just talking about Delta Worra, or was that my previous Captain who was possibly dismissed for insubordination?”
Steve simply looks at him, blinking rapidly.
“I’m just saying.” Tony holds up his hands. “Just saying. You can’t do stuff like that.”
“Stuff like that? Like stop the bad guy?”
Tony laughs, once, in disbelief. “Stop the bad guy at the cost of the Starfleet mission parameters.”
“She’s safe. What more matters?”
“The means matters when you’re in Starfleet. You aren’t part of the resistance anymore. You’re part of the empire.”
A spike, a pounding, a spark of something white and hot burns through Tony’s brain, so sudden and so intense that he almost clutches his head in surprise and pain. He can’t control his wince, ducking his head to hide the ache, waiting the second until it passes and he can play it off with some quip and lie.
When gains control and looks up – 3.4 seconds later – he comes to the realization that the pain, the pulse, was Steve’s emotions leaking through the bond.
Disgust. Tinge of panic. Anger.
But mostly, repulsion.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Tony says immediately. “Steve – I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Steve’s been staring at a discolored spot on the fabric of the loveseat he’s using, intent and tense. He does look up, and catches Tony’s eye.
He holds it.
“I understand why rules exist. It’s just the way it is, and it’s never going change. 20th or 29th century – they’ll still be laws, and they’ll still be bureaucracy, and they’ll still be rules to follow.” He holds Tony’s eye through gritted breath. “But I will never put rules or organization above my morals. That may make me a bad Captain – so be it.”
There’s conviction, there, and stubbornness, and principle, and backbone, and Tony wonders how this man made it through Starfleet’s filters successful.
He asks as much.
Steve snorts. “I showed my strength instead of spoke my mind.” He laughs slightly to himself. “You know, even back then, people trusted me without knowing me. Gave me missions, gave me rank, made me a poster boy for the war effort. Truth is, I never was all that good of a soldier. Never really took orders. Just kinda did what I thought was right. It just so happened that what I thought was right aligned with their positions, at the time. I became a symbol I never really deserved.”
“It’s the hair and eyes,” Tony guesses. “Makes people trust you.”
“Maybe?” Steve half-shrugs, a small smile threatening to widen. “I wasn’t ever made to fall in line.”
“Might be a problem if you want to keep your Captaincy long-term.”
“I’m not all that concerned with the rank.” Steve gazes around the ship, fingers tapping on his knee, and Tony’s suddenly, viscerally aware that this is the first conversation he’s ever initiated with Steve. “I didn’t know what to do – after. This was something to do. Something good.”
Tony looks up at Steve, at the face that’s haunted his dreams since that first handshake. The blonde hair, the soft blue eyes, the slightly melancholy turn to his expression that never seems to fully leave. Like a phaser, all the little pieces that fit to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
He wants to touch – skin to skin – and find out if they were feeling the same emotion when they said yes to the official Starfleet offer.
He keeps his hands laced together.
“Is this something good?”
Steve’s eyes bore into his. “I’m starting to think so.”
It’s Steve who drops the gaze first, turning his head to look around the empty rec room. He breathes out, slow but heavy, and Tony can hear the exhaustion. “Well,” Steve starts. He raps his fingers up against the chair he’s sitting on, unrhythmic and nervous. “I suppose this is probably not an appropriate conversation to be having with a subordinate.” He smiles wanly. “Back way when, we were all close in arms, brothers. It wasn’t controlled like Starfleet. I guess I got to get used to how Starfleet runs things.”
“You’re talking to the wrong person. I have an illegal laboratory hiding behind the backup engines.”
Steve cracks a smile. “Should you be telling me that?”
“No. Who cares?”
Steve laughs this time, real if small. A smile plays across his lips. “Make anything fun in there?”
Tony’s mind dances to his workbench – a prototype of dinnerware that will disintegrate in open space, half-written/half-thought plans for the holographic simulator, one of his robot’s broken arms, a smaller communicator for the HUD, a sheet full of scribbles that represents an attempt at a formula to cure the Horatian flu.
“I doubt it.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Says the man with the flying suit of armor.”
“Is that an insult or compliment?”
Steve leans forward and pats him on the knee. “You’re a smart man – you figure it out.” He stands and stretches, and his back makes an audible pop. He lowers his arms, and the smile slowly trickles out of his face. “Well, I should probably head off to bed.”
Tony nods at him. He wants to say, stay. He wants to say, I have an invention with me. Want to see? He wants to say tell me – anything. Tell me anything about you.
He bites his tongue.
Steve nods back, a clear dismissal, and starts walking towards to the turbolift in the corner. He pauses as he passes Tony, and says, “I’d like to see that workshop, sometime, if you don’t mind.”
Here’s what Tony says: “I can agree to that.”
(Part of being an engineer is rebuilding.
He learned that young, before he has any memories that lasted. It comes with the territory – you make one prototype, and it explodes. So you make another. And another. And another. And another.
And then, if you’re lucky, and if you’re patient, and if you’re persistent, Mark LV works. And then Mark LVI improves upon a working design. And then Mark LVII. And, eventually, with enough refinement and time, you have a version that people accept without thought, that people assume came from your brain exactly as featured, that people can’t tell blew up only twenty attempts ago.
What separates a good engineer from a great engineer is simply that: willingness to rebuild. To try again. To refine. To accept what you have is bad, not stop, not get discouraged, and try, try again.
(That fact, that fact that Tony knows so, so well, did not cross his mind on a sunny day on Earth, with his arm in a sling, his foot wrapped, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking from dry sobs, Rhodey’s arm around his shoulder, a resignation and ownership transfer letter burning in his outbox, and a damning search for Vulcan toxins in his search history.))
“Now, this seems to be the kind of mission you would enjoy,” Steve says with a grin.
Tony looks away from where his toes are curled in the fuchsia sand, from the deep-green ocean waves that are currently heating his feet. “And why would you say that?” Tony teases. “Me spending 48 straight hours in an engineering lab indicates that I would enjoy a three-day, assignment-less, profiling examination of a pleasure planet?”
He was joking, of course – his early days of pleasure planets and love of tropical climates is well documented by the media, and it was bound to arise in any search of him. To his surprise, Steve colors.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest—”
“Calm yourself, Cap,” Tony dismisses with a hand. He in no way meant to embarrass him. “It’s great. I do love the stars, but there is nothing quite like a planet to rest your head on.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter much to me,” Steve muses, and Tony looks over to him in surprise, unable to hold his reaction. Steve volunteering personal information is fairly new.
“Why is that, Cap?” Tony asks. He pushes his big toe into the pink sand. To his surprise, it is fully dry underneath the surface. Fascinating.
“A star, a planet, a ship, space – it’s all the same, isn’t it? A bed is a bed.”
A logical statement, one that Tony wants to refute immediately. A bed in a cave is not the same as a bed at home. But, perhaps, to someone without a home, it may not matter.
Tony stays silent.
The Captain has a responsibility to oversee all of the departments, and Tony knows Thor made a special request to stop by this planet for a few days to be allowed to study the beach fauna. A request that Steve apparently granted.
Steve, for a captain, has shown remarkable curiosity in the proceedings of each division, and had asked the science department to allow him to join them on the expedition. He asked intelligent and enthusiastic – if reserved – questions, and diligently removed himself when the scientists had to focus.
Tony has joined the away team because the transporter had been malfunctioning – again – and so a shuttle had to be taken, despite the shuttles being in the middle of software upgrades. Tony is sure – positive – that the shuttle will still perform adequately to get the team back to the ship with no errors, but Steve had insisted he come along, just in case of malfunctions.
“Please, Tony,” Steve had asked, seemingly ignoring the fact that he could have simply ordered it. “It would make me feel more secure.”
And so Tony came, and agreed to join the Captain in his walk while the science team worked.
They stand quietly on the beach, watching the rolling waves, when Steve makes a surprised sound. Tony side-eyes him, then notices the tiny little creature that must have walked over Steve’s foot.
Steve crouches down and peers at the small blue creature, and Tony senses nothing but fascination.
“It’s a turtle.” Steve glances up, face scrunched in skepticism. “Or not a turtle,” Tony corrects. “Technically a tortonia. First found in 2147, named by a Mr. Randall Coveney, an explorer from Earth who thought it looked like a turtle.” Tony crouches down next to Steve, and points to it. “They have a similar structure, where their backbone is melded into their shell. However, tortonias aren’t reptiles. They have something similar to mammary glands on their underbelly, which puts them closer to the Earth mammalian classification. It’s not perfect, but I doubt you want me to get more into exo-zoology classifications. Anyway, they can’t be taken as pets, as Mr. Coveney found out, because they feed on a very specific airborne molecule, found only in this atmosphere.”
“How do you know all that?” Steve asks in wonder. The tortonia keeps walking on. “You’re an engineer.”
“I had a fascination with alien animals when I was a child,” Tony answers. He remembers his father buying him a sehlat in a vain attempt to squash his incessant rambling about different culture’s pets.
They watch as the tortonia walks, ambling, towards the ocean, leaving tiny little footprints in the sand. He isn’t even half the size of Tony’s shoe.
“Why do they have five legs?” Steve asks. “That doesn’t seem efficient.”
Tony frowns. “They have six legs.”
Steve points, and sure enough, the tortonia has lost the middle of its left legs. Tony stands from his crouch. “Please keep an eye on it. I’ll be back.”
Tony comes back in under a half hour. Steve is sitting on the sand, in silence. The wind is rustling through the tendrils of beach grass, sending small tufts of pollen spinning through the air. The wind here isn’t invisible – or, at least, has a somewhat shimmer to it that you can catch as long as you don’t blink.
Tony walks up, and Steve has created a little sand enclosure for the tortonia, and looks fully content to watch the little thing walking around.
His heart pounds. A perfectly engineered fighter, a eugenically formed soldier, a killer, a fully trained military Captain, a galaxy explorer – happy to watch something small for no reason at all, simply because Tony asked. The contradiction of it makes him feel soft.
“Hi, Cap.” Steve looks up and smiles. It brightens his eyes. “Thanks for keeping an eye on it.”
“Why’d you need me to?” he asks conversationally, only curiosity, no judgment.
Instead of answering, Tony kneels down in the sand. He takes the little pieces of metal that he was forming in his fingers on the way back, and continues to bend and shape. Within a few moments, he has a shapeable prosthetic leg.
He fits it on the little thing, though it squirms, and makes minor adjustments to the size. His eyes are good for immediate re-calculation, and he has some experience in prosthetics, which allows him to make the thing functional within five minutes.
He finishes attaching it onto the tortonia, its little legs moving in the air as he does so. When he places it down, it starts to waddle away, far faster than it was before the extra leg. Tony watches it, satisfied, as it makes its way into the ocean.
“Why would you do that?” Steve asks suddenly.
Tony glances over in surprise. Steve sounds light, but Tony can’t place his tone.
“Should I not have?”
“No, it’s just—” Steve looks pensive. “Galaxy famous playboy. You have all the riches you could ever need. Fame. Scientific prodigy. Engineering legend. And here you are—” He gestures at the creature. “Sweating the small stuff.”
Tony stands, wiping sand from his uniform pants.
“I doubt it is ‘small stuff’ to that tortonia,” he says.
(Tony remembers once when he was cornered after leaving his schooling for the day. Sterok, Stonack, and T’Prog had pulled him behind the building, pushed him against the wall, and had pulled out a small knife.
“Hey, half-breed,” one had sneered, pushing the knife to his throat.
“Are you more human or Vulcan?” Sterok had said. The knife glinted in the double sun. “Let’s see if you bleed red.”
Not that it mattered.
They weren’t looking for the color. They were looking for it to drip.)
Jarvis had found him several hours later, sitting in the middle of his room, shaving his eyebrows into a straight line.
He had taken the razor from Tony’s hand and replaced it with a small wooden Cardassian vole. “I found this in the market today,” Jarvis had said, pulling him to a standing position. "I thought you may like it."
Tony was made fun of horribly the next day in school for his poorly-Vulcanized eyebrows – Vulcan children are purely logical creatures his ass – but all the while, he had clutched the vole in his palm, and suddenly the insults didn’t cut quite as deep.)
Tony’s returning from the bathroom, mind only on trying to decide what to choose for lunch, when he feels a sudden, inexplicable alarm creep through him. He pauses in the hallway, just to catch a breath, hand on the wall for support, and tries to breathe and work through the confusion. His mental shielding and emotional control are wavering. He prods through the anxiety and stifling unease, and it’s several long, unfortunate seconds before he identifies that these emotions are not his own.
The unease shifts to panic, and he begins to sprint down the hallways to the bridge. His own anxiety is slowly being subsumed by rage, and by the time the doors open to the bridge, he’s almost shaking with anger and fear.
“Commander Romanoff,” he barks. She twists in the Captain’s chair, clearly slightly alarmed, but she frowns at his tone.
“What—” she goes to ask, but Tony cuts her off.
“Where’s the Captain?”
He’s dimly aware that the entire bridge crew is staring at him.
“On-planet,” she answers, slowly. “There was a diplomatic meeting down on Edor VIII.”
“Is he there alone?” he demands.
“Yes.” She must sense the urgency in his voice, because there’s no reprimand for his behavior. “They were very explicit that only the leader may attend the meeting, and anyone else of lower rank attending would be an insult.”
“He’s in danger. You need to beam him up, now.”
“How do you know that?”
Steve’s emotions – calmer, now, but still laced with anxiety and adrenaline – are clouding Tony’s mind, and he can’t cut through to think of a single excuse.
“Vulcan voodoo,” he snaps. “Just check on him, won’t you?”
Natasha stares at him for a few seconds, catching his eye and holding it, and he wonders what she sees. She knows him, has known him since his assignment to the Avenger – and even before, according to Fury, though he’s never been able to press for further details on the matter – and she knows that for all his posturing, all his rudeness, all his callousness, he respects her, and he respects the bridge. He hasn’t acted up – not in this way – ever.
She also knows Vulcans, having been stationed on Vulcan before her admission to Starfleet. They’re not what he would consider close friends, but if they’ve ever bonded, it’s over that. Vulcan voodoo may fool the rest, but she should know better.
She holds his eyes, but taps the insignia on her chest. “Captain Rogers, this is the Avenger. Request status.”
The air is still, the collective held breath of the crew quieting the room.
She taps it again. “Rogers, status update now.”
Natasha trades an uneasy glance with Janet, the science officer on duty, but it’s Vision who speaks.
“Commander Romanoff, it appears his communication channel is being blocked by some interference.”
Natasha snaps her head towards the communication desk. “Is it deliberate, and can you get it back online?”
“I would assume it was deliberate. I am not sure yet what is causing it, so I am not sure if I can get it back.”
“What about beaming?”
“We can’t establish a lock on his position with the interference, but I assume we could beam people down.”
“Okay,” Natasha nods. “Okay.”
Tony squares his shoulders. “Request permission to beam down.”
“Denied,” Natasha dismisses immediately. “If we’re assuming this is a deliberate cut off, then we have to assume Captain Rogers is in danger. You have no security experience and, despite your strength, no training. I’m sending Clint and Drax.”
“Natasha,” he pleads. “You wouldn’t know he was in danger without me. I can help. I can find him, I can – I can help.”
She hesitates, one hand on the ship comm, clearly slightly confused. Then, after a moment, the look shifts to something oddly soft, and Tony’s not sure, but it feels like sympathy.
She was stationed on Vulcan, after all, and is clearly intelligent.
She hits the comm. “Lieutenant Commander Barton and Lieutenant Drax, report to the transporter room immediately.” She lifts her hand from the button. “Stark, permission granted.”
Neither Clint nor Drax question his coming, though Tony suspects the former may because of intervention from Natasha, given the look Clint gave him when they arrived, and the latter may because he would never consider that there was something odd about it in the first place.
They transport down within ten minutes of Tony first feeling the distress, but upon appearing on the planet, it seems they may have been about eight minutes late to the fight.
“I will go, stop the fighting,” Drax says immediately, and then runs off before Clint, his commander in this situation, can get in a word.
“Okay, sure, that’ll help everything,” Clint mutters, watching as Drax runs head first at a large blue man wielding some sort of cane-type-thing. He slams into the man’s back, and Tony holds back a wince at the sound the collision makes, hearable even from their distance away.
“Okay,” Clint says, looking around. “The mission report said that Steve would beam down into the meeting chamber. That must be this.”
“Some meeting,” Tony mutters.
Tables are broken, glasses are shattered, the door has a large hole through the center, as if someone clawed their way through it, a window is blown out, and only around eleven of the twenty-nine people that were supposed to be in attendance are visible. Tony assumes – hopes – the others were able to escape.
Eight of the visible creatures are lying on the ground, either dead or unconscious. Tony scans the room, quickly assessing each body – pink, antennae, a Ferengi, a woman humanoid, a –
Tony grabs the bottom of Clint’s uniform, tugging it incessantly until Clint looks over, and then points.
“Oh no,” Clint mutters, and they both take off at a run to where the body is lying on the ground.
Tony skids to a halt by him, and, upon being closer, he can see a welt on his head and a gaping, bleeding flesh wound in his abdomen. Immediately, Tony covers the bleeding with one hand, pressing down hard.
“Shit,” Tony swears. His other hand’s fingers find Steve’s pulse, and after a heart-stopping moment, he feels the slow pump-pump-pump of a beat. He hands his head, almost light-headed in relief, before looking up at Clint. “We need to get him medical attention, now.”
Clint hits his insignia, hard enough to almost knock it off. “Barton to Bridge.” A second passes. “Barton to Bridge, do you copy?” Three seconds. “Barton to—”
“Communication must still be down. Merde, fuck, shit.” Steve’s still below him, and red, warm blood is still seeping out from underneath Tony’s palm. “Okay, look, Clint, I know this isn’t protocol, but I have an idea to save him.”
“Hey, comms are off – screw protocol, Steve was the one to break the mind-control device on Grenu, I owe him my life. What’s your idea?”
It speaks to their lives that Tony hadn’t even been aware that that had happened.
“The Iron Man suit. I have it here—” He lifts his wrist, showcasing where the nano-bites are held. “It has medical protocols. I have an override code where I can put it on another person – I can get it on Steve and send it up to the Avenger. It’s programmed to handle space conditions. It can get him up to the ship, and then I have the doors programmed to open for it—”
“That does not seem approved,” Clint interjects.
“And we can send him directly to med-bay,” Tony finishes, ignoring the interruption. “It should save his life.”
“And strand us down here, you with no protection,” Clint points out.
“It’s his life.”
“Okay, okay. I agree. We’ll be fine down here. There’s only—” Clint glances back over his shoulder quickly. “Drax and one person huddled in the corner still standing. Send Steve up.” Clint isn’t finished talking before Tony activates the bracelet, whispering, “Engage protocol Other, FN2187.”
The armor immediately starts to unravel from his wrist and spread, and, within seconds, fully encases Steve.
“JARVIS.” The Iron Man helmet eyes light. “Send him back to the Avenger – go through the south doors, and then head directly to med-bay. Once you’re there, deactivate and let Steve out. As soon as he’s taken care of, immediately head to the bridge and report on what you’ve recorded here. Go.”
The suit takes off.
(“No, no, it’s cool,” Pepper says. A hesitation, then, “I’m just not sure I understand how it differs from regular AIs.”
“I come from Sir’s imagination, ma’am, I am anything but ordinary,” JARVIS replies.
“He’s made for me. He’s specifically coded to my needs, my wants, to know exactly what I’m implying or wanting or needing, to anticipate my—”
“A lot of ‘my’s’ there, you narcissist.”
“He’s awesome. And I know his programming, so I know how to respond to him.”
Pepper reads between the lines. “You programmed a butler because you don’t want to order around or be rude to someone else’s AI?”
Extremely close, though ‘friend’ was more accurate than ‘butler.’)
Tony was not wholly unfamiliar with waking in med-bay. The monitors filled with lights he would never understand, the stale smell of disinfectant, the quiet beeps and non-stop murmurs, the aches and pains in his body, usually all paired with Bruce fretting in some corner.
True, usually he was stuck on the scratchy sheets and in the bed that made him feel shorter than even he was, rather than the guest chair.
He feels himself slowly surface, becoming slowly aware of the fact that his hand is being squeezed.
He blinks awake, raising his head from where it was resting uncomfortably on the chair arm, and sits straight up. Abruptly, a cold feeling trickles through his fingers, and he realizes whoever was holding his hand had dropped it immediately.
He looks forward, and there’s Steve – bruised and frowning, but awake.
Tony can’t help but steal a quick glance down – Steve’s hand is open on the mattress, facing upwards. Most likely noticing Tony’s glimpse, it quickly disappears under the sheet.
Tony looks back up to Steve’s face.
“You look rather rotten,” he says frankly.
Steve laughs, then groans. “Hey, don’t make me laugh. My ribs hurt.” He lets out a pained breath. “But yeah – they said they were concerned with how the dermal regenerator might interact with my healing factor. So while the spleen and concussion are taken care of, I got to live with the bruising.”
“But now that you’re fully awake—” Tony turns, and Bruce has appeared behind his chair, a medical tricorder and a hypo in hand. “I feel comfortable giving you a hypo for the pain.”
“I don’t really need—” Steve tries to object, but Bruce reaches around Tony and stabs him right in the bicep – rather hard, if Steve’s wince is any indication.
“You military types are all the same. Think it makes you macho to refuse medical help,” Bruce mutters under his breath, harshly typing something into the tricorder. Tony stifles a grin. “Coulson – there was a man who could take a hypo and be glad about it.”
Whatever the reason for the initial refusal, Steve’s noticeably relaxing against his pillow. “So, Tony,” he says, and Tony glances away from where Bruce is still tensely typing buttons. “What happened?”
“Communication went down between you and the planet,” Tony answers easily. “Natasha got worried, sent me, Clint, and Drax to find out what happened. Speaking of – what did happen?”
“Funnily enough, it wasn’t actually about Starfleet this time.” Steve shimmies slightly up the pillow to a sitting position. “Everything was fine during the dinner, but there was a lag-time in between eating and the meeting. One of the other Captains – Ronan, I believe, of Kree – was in the back corner, messing with some orb-device. Everyone was giving him space, but he was making everyone a little uncomfortable. I guess that was probably what took down communications. Anyway, one of the other leaders went to try to use the lavatory, she found all the doors locked. Then Ronan stood up and started loudly monologuing about his hatred of Xandarians and how killing their leader will be the first message in declaration of war, and then I threw my dinner plate at his head, and then I sort of lost track of things.”
“A dinner plate,” Tony repeats.
“A big one,” Steve tries to reassure him, holding his hands about a foot apart, like that was what worried Tony about that story. “He must have a hard head. It just shattered on impact.”
“Do you have any idea how strong and powerful the Kree race are?” And you took them on with a dinner plate, Tony wants to add. A dinner plate and 200 hundred pounds of righteous spite.
“Now I do,” Steve replies with little humor. Bruce has wandered off, which must mean Steve is fairly stable, but Tony’s hand’s itches to re-take his hand, take his wrist, feel his pulse, feel his warmth. “You know,” Steve says, and he sounds musing. “After he hit me with that – whatever was in his staff, and I was laying there, and I really thought I was going to die. And all I could think about was how much I wished I was back on the ship.”
“On the ship?”
“The ship, the Avenger,” Steve confirms. “Not that I spent a lot of time wondering about what I’d think in my final thoughts, but I guess I assumed it would be something back in the past.” He shrugs, or as best as he can. “Guess I’ve rebuilt more of my life here than I realized.”
“A good thing,” Tony states, and means it. He assesses Steve. “You seem – calm.”
“When you think you’re gonna die yesterday, today is sweet.”
On an unconsidered whim, Tony reaches forward and grasps Steve’s hand. When he takes it in his own, he can hear Steve’s soft intake of breath. He holds it loosely, but it’s clearly purposeful, and he gives a light squeeze.
“Well, I’m glad you made it out.”
“Me too,” Steve agrees. “I’m lucky the ship tried my communicator when they did.”
He rubs his thumb lightly over Steve’s knuckles. Steve gives no reaction, but doesn’t pull away.
“You know what’s rather dumb? When Ronan started his monologue, I got rather annoyed because – because before beaming back up, I had wanted to go back outside to their garden. It had started raining when I was inside, and I haven’t seen any rain since the 21st century.”
Here’s what Tony says: “I have a solution to that.”
(Before his first counseling appointment, they made him fill out a beginning questionnaire. The third question read, “Are you happy?” with two boxes: no and yes.
0 and 1.
From a scale of one to zero, are you happy?
Are you or aren’t you?
Even then, Tony resisted those choices.
(He still filled one box in full, black. A guess at which one.))
“Okay, careful, there’s a lot of shit on the ground.”
“They discharged me two days ago, Tony,” Steve points out, with some amusement, though Tony catalogues that he does look down at his feet as they continue through engineering.
Tony brings them to a stop. “Okay, look – you just have to promise me that you’re not going to like, dismiss me from the ship for this.”
“I really doubt I’d do that,” Steve says, which is a good enough confirmation for Tony.
He opens the door to the small room.
Originally, it was a maintenance closet for the warp core. In his first year, Tony had done a lot of unauthorized upgrades, and it rendered a lot of the equipment obsolete. He had emptied it in his own good time, and instead of reporting it, had used it for this and that, whatever he didn’t want to be out in the open. Recently, it’s become the place where he’s tested the holodeck.
Steve walks in behind him, coming to a stop when they’re shoulder to shoulder.
“And now we’re standing in a broom closet.”
“Shush,” Tony says, flapping a hand. “Okay, JARVIS – simulate Earth. How about an empty field, a couple of trees, apple or something. Make it summertime during a rainstorm. Engage, code TONY828828.”
Steve’s been intently staring at Tony, but jumps near a full foot in the air when the room starts to change and take shape. It’s not perfect yet, not by any means, but it’s still hyper-realistic, and to an untrained eye, probably near flawless.
Steve glances around in wonder, mouth slightly open. It smells of rain and grass, of wet, dark soil. The breeze is warm and slight, just enough to make the hair on Steve’s forehead gently sway. A crack of thunder, and their heads both snap up to the sky. It’s grey and dark, full and bleak, and the cold rain begins to fall.
Steve reaches a hand out towards the sky, slowly turning his palm up, and his face breaks out into an incredulous, beautiful smile as he feels the raindrops hit, hit, hit his hand.
“Oh my god,” he laughs, bright and wondrous and happy. He lifts his hand higher, and another crack of thunder echoes. The wind flows through the trees, making the leaves rustle. A bird tweets and chirps, disquieted by the rain, and Steve laughs again. “Oh my god.”
“It’s a recreational simulator I’ve been working on,” Tony explains. Steve looks over at him, and there’s so much raw, naked wonder on his face, that Tony has to look down.
The grass is green and long, enough to tickle his ankles.
“I want to pitch it to Starfleet,” he confesses. “As something to add to the ships, as a de-stresser for officers. If they’re feeling homesick, or whatever, they can come and simulate their home planet. I need to program more planets, and there’s some bugs when it comes to the AIs for other people, and I’ve yet to really figure out—”
“Tony,” Steve interrupts. He still sounds happy. “Stop thinking ahead for one second. This is – this is incredible.”
“Yeah?” Tony swallows. He wants to fidget.
“Yeah,” Steve says, totally sure and warm. He tilts his head back, and lets the rain fall on his face.
Tony can’t look at him, not like that, not without his affection and longing seeping through too obviously, so he spins himself in a circle, using the wetness of the grass and lack of friction to propel him, to spin him around, around, around. “Dance, Steve,” he calls. “Isn’t that a human thing? To dance in the rain?”
Tony spins and spins, growing dizzy and unbalanced. He stops facing Steve, his face flushed and socks completely wet. Steve’s smiling at him, something soft on his face.
“Not too much a dancer. I have a hard time – letting go, like that.”
“You got to have some poison.” Thunder rolls, and they both look up, smiling at the grey sky, rain falling into their eyes. “JARVIS, make a puddle.”
Near Steve’s feet, a puddle emerges, probably 6 inches deep, filled with muddy rainwater.
“Jump, Steve.” Steve hesitates, looking at it with more trepidation than a gallon of water deserves. “C’mon, Steve. When are you going to get the chance to jump into a rain puddle again? It’s not very Captain-like. But I won’t tell.”
Steve looks up and sends him a purposeful, happy grin, before laughing to himself, muttering something, and then jumping.
Water spurts out, near a foot from Steve’s foot, completely wetting his pant legs. Not that it incredibly matters – their shoulders are fully damp, by now, wet hair falling into both their eyes.
“Make another, JARVIS,” Tony requests. One pops up on the other end of the closet, and Steve jumps out of the hole, feet sopping wet, and runs – runs fast, too fast for a closet, and comes to a skidding halt in front of the puddle, before taking a leap, sending the water flying.
“Another,” Steve says.
Tony laughs, and starts spinning again, closing his eyes, and just feeling the cold rain on his skin, the warm breeze through his fingers, the clean air that smells of dirt and grass.
He thinks of a darkly filled box, and thinks, on a scale from one to a hundred, are you happy?
(Later, Tony will think about that moment: the cold, humid air of the room, the grey clouds slowly passing ahead, the minor glitch that was causing the soil to be dark red instead of brown, at how the rain programming worked the second time he tried it, and he’ll think about how he wasn’t thinking about any of that, any of his programming, about how the only thing he was thinking of was Steve’s bright, happy laughing, of his own pervasive contentment, and he will think, was that when?)
Steve begins spending his lunch breaks in engineering on a consistent basis.
He can’t manage it daily, not with a Captain’s schedule, but he’s there more often than he’s not. Tony, who tended before to skip the meal altogether more often than not – and when he had managed, often had it hours before or after when was socially acceptable – has started replicating his meals at 11 o’clock on the dot, just in case Steve drops by. Steve prefers when they eat together, Tony has silently noticed, because he doesn’t feel as if he’s taking up Tony’s time.
The lunches are usually fairly quiet affairs, minor conversation as Steve eats and Tony eats and works on whatever project is on his workbench that day. Their conversations vary, usually starting with ship gossip and meandering to something else. Sometimes it’s some aspect of the future, sometimes it’s something personal, sometimes it’s about nothing that Tony can remember.
These moments, no matter what else happens in the day, are always the highlight.
“In your quarters,” Steve starts one day, slowing chewing on a sandwich. Tony’s fiddling with wiring on the shields. “I saw a book. A Terran History.”
“Yeah,” Tony answers, distracted. “I try to read a – shit – a bit about each planet that’s important to the federation. That’s the recommended Earth volume.”
“Mmm,” Steve mummers. He’s tapping his fingers on the bench. “I’m in there.”
“You’re what?” Tony questions, preoccupied. He’s focused on the wiring and not paying as close of attention to the conversation than he should, but he did not follow that train of thought.
“I’m in the book,” Steve clarifies. Tony’s hand stills and he looks up, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “I am! I was Captain America.”
Tony places his soldering iron down on the bench, then turns it off. “You were Captain America?”
Steve nods. “It was my code name.”
“I had no idea.” Tony tries to recall the words on the page, the acts of Captain America. “My father wouldn’t let me read much about Earth. I relied on stories from my mom, and I don’t think she mentioned you to me.”
“Just as well,” Steve shrugs. “I’m kind of glad you didn’t get to know me from a textbook.”
“Me too,” Tony says, meaning it. He knows himself, and he knows how he was at that age. A man of Steve’s caliber, conviction, appearance, willpower. He would have fallen, hook line and sinker, and probably grown up either infatuated or with a chip on his shoulder. That’s one fewer emotional issue to have to work through when it comes to Steve. “You were a big name in the eugenics war, weren't you? Stormed camps, killed bad guys, made a lot of news? You and your other enhanced friend – the Winter Soldier.”
“Bucky,” Steve immediately corrects, tone cutting and sharp, and Tony almost reels back in surprise. “Sorry,” Steve apologies instantly. He rubs a hand on the back of his neck. “That’s kind of a – a sore spot.”
“Okay,” Tony says cautiously. “Didn’t mean to press buttons.”
“No, it’s fine, you didn’t know. He just – we were best friends. We joined the eugenics program together, to help the war effort, but it didn’t change us in the same way. He didn’t change all for the better. It wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time during the war regretting going through the process due to what it did to him. We saved a lot of people – but, at the time, I would have given it all up to just have him back to normal. Looking back – I’m not sure if I feel the same way or not.” Steve frowns. “There’s probably a lesson there.”
“War sucks? Love’s hard?”
“Yeah,” says Steve. “But it's probably more than that.”
(The first night Tony spent on the Avenger, he sat on his bunk, knees drawn to his chest, face buried, unable to banish the thought – Oh God, my father was right.
The loneliness of a child with the guilt of an old man.
There’s no ache like the ache loneliness churns in your soul. In that cold evening, he was a moment away – an agonizing moment – from taking his PADD, signing his resignation letter, sending it to Starfleet, and taking Stark Industries back under his wing, just to have Pepper back in his daily life, just to have Rhodey a call away, just to have people he knew in the halls and someone to nod to in the morning. He had placed the PADD down with unsure hands and fallen into a fitful sleep.
When he awoke the next morning, he deleted the letter.)
Shore leave comes three months into Steve’s tenure as Captain. They’re near an Earth colony – Star Base 2 – that was built in space. Ever since Tony learned about it for the academy exams, he’s been fascinated with its architecture. It was built entirely in space – a difficult feat for humans, who still have yet to come up with a cost-effective way to be out in space without constricting suits – and was designed to look like a honeycomb.
“Illogical,” he had muttered when he first read the words. And it was – there was no reason for it, except the final bee from Earth had died the year prior to its construction, and Earth had wanted to make something to commemorate the species that played such a vital, important role in Earth’s ecosystem.
Earth had contracted many different planets and species for inputs, and it did not go to waste – Star Base 2 was beautiful and impressive, with each cell containing a different recreational activity for traveling space explorers.
For all his traveling, Tony had never been, and he found himself almost excited to go. He wasn’t certain what cell he wanted to visit – he was highly considering the biological telemetry research lab, but there was also a quadrant that held a small zoo for crippled or healing Terran animals that he secretly had a bit of an interest in visiting.
He’s surprised when Steve stopped by his quarters, a half hour before his own beam time, though he’s not sure why. He supposes he figured Steve had his own plans.
“Tony,” he greets lightly. “I was wondering if you wanted to join me to see an art exhibit.”
“An art exhibit?” Tony repeats, doubtfully.
A shadow passes over Steve’s face, and it takes a moment for Tony to identify it as embarrassment. “You don’t have to. And it doesn’t have to be right now. It’s just an art exhibit featuring some of Earth’s famous art pieces. You had said a few weeks ago that you always wished you knew a little more Earth history.” He shrugs, clearly still a little uncomfortable. “It features restored paintings. There’s some chemistry involved. I thought it might interest you.”
Tony considers it.
And so he finds himself walking down halls, his footsteps echoing in the quiet, listening to Steve quietly chatter about the history he knows.
They stop at every painting, every sculpture, every drawing, taking their time, shoulder to shoulder.
Steve dressed slightly nicer in civvies than Tony had anticipated he would, with black slacks and a light blue shirt that matches his eyes. Tony attempts not to feel self-conscious about his own ripped shirt and old jeans; he supposes it may be better than his Vulcan robes, though he’s not sure.
“This one depicts an old Earth food – a soup can.”
Tony leans in, reading the information label. “It says the entire right-side was damaged in the War of 2101.” Tony inspects the painting, looking closely. “You couldn’t even tell.”
“Thank you,” a voice says behind them. They both turn, slightly startled, and there’s a young woman – probably Terran, though something in Tony’s psi-readings hints that there may be telepathic blood in her. “I did the restoration.”
“How?” Tony asks.
“Well, the most important part of the restoration is to stay true to the artist’s vision. We believe here that modern techniques – such as replications or regenerators – aren’t true to the original. So, we use old techniques.”
She goes on to explain an intricate, painstaking process that includes cleaning the painting with q-tips dipped in a chemical solution purposefully curated for this sole purpose, to only eliminate dirt and not interact with the paint. After the cleaning, the painting is removed from the frame, and all dirt from the back is brushed away. Any parts damaged are repaired by sewing strings of linen in, literally thread by thread, until the canvas is repaired. After, the painting is retouched with original paint, millimeter by painstaking millimeter.
“How do you know what type of paint was used in order to curate the cleaning solution?” Tony asks, fascinated.
“Well,” she starts, and it’s near twenty minutes later before he can feel Steve place a careful arm around his shoulders, and say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we have a dinner reservation, and we won’t finish the museum if we don’t get back to it now.”
She glances over to Steve with a strange expression. Tony’s not particularly talented in reading human emotions, but if he were to name it, he would say it was pity.
“Of course, sirs. I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit.”
“Thank you,” Tony says, before she walks off. “That was fascinating.”
“Of course.” She smiles at Tony, then at Steve, and turns to walk away.
They begin walking the halls in tandem, once again, roaming in mostly silence, surveying the art with quiet appreciation. Tony can respect the camaraderie, but he wonders what happened to Steve’s constant commentary.
They stop in front of a small painting, one with an old man in robes, sitting at a table with various instruments. “Did people really dress like that?”
Steve glances over at him. It seems to take a moment for the words to register. “Yes, but it was before my time.”
“All of this art was too,” Tony says, widening his arms to encompass the room. “It’s incredible to me that with all that there is in the galaxy, every single thing seems to have someone dedicated to its preservation. I don’t particularly understand any of this—” he points at a painting across the way, the one of a bush, that read a price that made him blink very rapidly. “But there’s people out there willing to have their life’s legacy boil down to creating a solution that will preserve paint but remove dirt. It’s amazing.”
“I never know what to expect from you,” Steve says suddenly.
Tony frowns. “I’m sorry?”
“No, no, I don’t mean—” Steve swallows. “I felt slightly bad asking you to accompany me here. I thought you’d be bored. But you find something good in anything.”
“There is something good in everything. Even if it’s just atoms. Atoms are fascinating.”
Steve laughs, but it doesn’t seem to be from humor. He rubs his eye, hard enough that it looks like it may hurt, and Tony watches, perplexed by Steve’s mood.
“It’s just—” Steve says suddenly, then stops. He groans lightly, and rubs a hand over his face, before muttering, “You have standards for yourself, Steve.”
Tony watches, uncomprehending.
Steve looks away, across the hall. Somehow, Tony gets the impression he’s not looking at anything in particular. “I’m – very glad I didn’t die before I met you.”
“…Thank you?” Tony says, uncertain.
Steve looks up to the ceiling and shakes his head. After a moment, he jerks his head around. He meets Tony’s confused gaze squarely.
And he then he smiles.
He places an arm around Tony’s shoulders. “Let’s eat.”
Here’s what Tony says: “We can do that.”
(Two weeks before the art exhibition, Tony received an alert from Starfleet that he should review his will and testament, just in case.
Not a particularly reassuring reminder, but Tony opens the document all the same. He pages through it quickly – all his money will go to various charities, his estates to Pepper, his science equipment dedicated to the federation, with Rhodey reserving the right for first grabs of any of his possessions.
He wonders, now, if he should add Peter, the young intern who shows incredible promise as a bio-tech engineer. Or Bruce, who deserves some of his medical research. Or Vision, an android who has hours of conversations with JARVIS. Or Natasha, who was kind to him one night when he didn’t deserve it and has shown interest in some of his older weaponry designs. Or Clint, whose apartment back on Earth isn’t big enough for him to own a dog. Or Thor, who was the first person Tony found himself able to converse with easily on the ship.
Or Wanda, or Pietro, or the other Peter, or Nebula, or Groot, or Drax, or Stephen, or Scott, or –
Or his t’hy’la, who has also become his best friend.
(After the capture, he had quickly contracted.
Contracted into himself, like a dying star, sucking in all light around him, pulling in and destroying anything that came into contact. The world was bright and large and terrifying, and he was small and insignificant and unhappy, and he wondered, wondered if it would be like that forever. And he had considered ending it, but he didn’t deserve to end that way, by his own hand – it should be someone he hurt. He should die with it. And if that’s true, then he had to live with it.
Other people managed to.
And so he tried. Oh, he tried.
And he woke each morning, sometimes feeling nothing, sometimes feeling ice in his veins. He crawled and clawed and cried and hated and reviled and swore.
And the days passed.
And slowly, he expands.))
“Commander Stark to bridge.”
“Coulson,” Tony greets when the turbolift opens, pleasantly surprised. “What brings you as a giant head on our tele-screen?”
“Director Coulson,” he corrects, and Tony makes a show of rolling his eyes. “Good to see you, Commander Stark. Now that all the senior officers are present, I need to debrief you about a problem in the Levonos system.”
Tony’s mind immediately sifts through thousands of files – Levonos system, currently 4.43 days away at Warp 5, inhabited system, first contact was made with Levonos II, who have been admitted into the federation as of 8.7 months ago.
Currently, the USS Farragut was 2.1 days closer to the planet. Why contact the Avenger?
“It seems a piece of ancient Earth space debris has been caught in Levonos’s system for quite some time. In an attempt to board the remains, it seems they have accidentally trigged the weaponry on the old ship to activate.”
“What kind of debris?” Steve asks.
Coulson looks pained as he answers, “It’s a piece from an old ship from the mid-21st century, during World War III, Space front.”
During World War III, or the Eugenics War, Earth had fallen into times of crises, Tony remembers. Poor leadership from a number of powerful governments resulted in the war, one that had several different fronts, one of which was in space, where nuclear warheads were sent into orbit and aimed at one another’s countries.
37 million people died.
None of the countries who won still existed.
“It seems that one of the ships containing the nuclear warheads somehow broke orbit and has been traveling around ever since – until, of course, it was caught in Levonos’s system.” It must have been travelling at some speed. Tony would guess that it had been hit at high impact out of Earth’s orbit. “They seemingly have accidentally activated the warhead, given our understanding of the video that was transmitted to us. They have no idea how to deactivate it, and, if their interpretation is correct, it will detonate in five days without intervention.”
“Captain Rogers,” Coulson says. “From what I have read, you have first-hand experience with these warheads.”
Everyone turns to stare at Steve, who nods with a clenched jaw.
That’s right – Tony always forgets, but Steve would have most likely had first-hand experience when those were still being used as ‘peacekeeping’ devices.
“We were hoping you may have some ideas about how to disarm one. The situation is delicate. It must not be allowed to blow. Not only will it destroy most of Levonos II, it will disrupt the gravitational pull in the system, changing the orbits around the sun, and thus killing all life in the system. Levonos is concerned that any movement – such as with a tractor beam – will set it off immediately.”
“I have experience with the warhead ships, Director,” Steve says. The concern is radiating off him. “But I don’t have hands-on experience with the warheads themselves.”
“But you know what’s on the ship?” Tony asks. They all turn to stare at him. He doesn’t meet their gazes, eyes only on Steve. “You know how to navigate it, how to work the technology on it, where items are?”
“Yes?” Steve replies, more a question than an answer.
Tony nods. “I know weapons of war.” He turns to Coulson. “I know weapons. He knows the ship. If he can get me around it, I can deactivate it.”
“You sure you can do it, Commander Stark?” Steve asks. He’s looking for the truth.
Tony gives it to him.
Here’s what Tony says: “I can do it.”
(This isn’t his worst memory, but it ranks:
“Tony.” Obadiah shook his head, almost imperceptibly. He pulls, and the arc reactor comes. “Don’t take this personally. It was only logical.”)
Three moons orbit Levonos II. Levonos II orbits a large, faraway sun. The sun has an asteroid belt. On the other side of the sun, there are fifteen planets, ranging in size from half the sun to .025x the sun. Each one has intelligent life. None of the life look similar to one another. Seven of the planets are warp-capable. One planet has yet to control fire. In total, they number about twice Earth’s population. There is infinite more amount of other life, life that is taken for granted by organizations like Starfleet – plants, animals, insects, oceans, vegetation.
Tony lies in bed, thinking about the Levonos solar system.
He thinks about how he has never made contact with any of them, how they are all probably ignorant of his existence.
He thinks about the nuclear warhead, sent by humans long ago, too stupid to understand that their actions may have consequences far beyond what they would live to see.
He thinks about how he, one solitary creature in a universe too big to count or fathom, has some control over who lives and who dies.
He thinks about Steve holding his hand.
(Staring at the stars, he thinks there are worse places to die.)
Tony buckles his seatbelt, the reaches to the console for where the earpiece is hanging. He fits it in his ear, idly cataloguing Steve and Clint both arriving behind him.
The shuttle hums to life.
The plan is fairly simple – Steve and he will dock on the shuttle in their bay, where Clint will wait as look out and for quick departure. Steve will lead Tony to the weapons bay and leave him there. Steve will find his own way to the bridge. When he arrives at the bridge, Tony would press the button on the weapon’s bay door, requesting access inside.
In these old ships, they required access to be approved by a senior bridge officer. After examining the code that the Avenger had scanned from their systems the day prior, Tony had determined it would be easier to simply code Steve’s biometrics into the ship as a bridge officer than code around the requirement, and safer to do it through code than to blast their way through the door.
After Steve approved access, Tony would head into the bay, dismantle the weapon, and meet Steve and Clint back in the shuttle.
Or so it read on record. Missions rarely played out like they were planned, Tony knew.
The first several steps went without a hitch, to everybody’s mild surprise. Clint was all but absent on the comms, Steve was curt, and Coulson was present but silent.
Tony found himself pacing in front of the weapons bay door. Steve knew his way around the ship, he hadn’t been lying, and the time he had been allotted wasn’t up yet – 3 minutes and counting down down – but still, Tony paced.
And then door slid open.
He hurried inside, and then – there it was.
Old and huge and hideous, Tony began inspecting it.
Tony’s expertise was in weaponry centuries more advanced than this – but binary is binary, wires are wires, and sometimes, no matter how much you wish it wouldn’t, the puzzle pieces still fit together, snug, in one unpromising picture.
“Report,” comes the immediate answer.
“The Levonoians were right. They did accidentally activate it. I’m not an expert on nuclear devices, but I’d wager my entire bank account that if we try to move it – tractor beam, transporter – it’ll blow from destabilization.”
“How long before it blows on its own?” Steve asks.
Tony shakes his head, even though they can’t see it. He hopes Steve cannot feel the mounting fear through the bond, and he struggles to keep his voice stable. “They lost a lot of time getting us here. We knew we’d be running up against the clock, but—” A swallow. “21.3 minutes.”
“How long will it take you to deactivate it?”
Tony takes a moment to breathe through it, to savor the moment before he says it, before it becomes reality, before he says what he guessed after reading over the 21st century warhead files last night.
“It can’t be deactivated.”
Silence on the comms.
“What are our options?” asks Coulson, but oh, but the blank calmness of his voice – he already knows, or has some idea idea. So carefully measured – always in control, but Coulson never likes to lose anyone. But he’s pragmatic. Always pragmatic before emotions. He’d make a decent Vulcan, not that Tony would ever tell him that.
“We can’t move it. We can’t disable it. We can’t leave it to just go off. We only have twenty minutes – we don’t have the luxury of time to try to discuss other options.”
Silence on the comms.
“But this ship – the Veneer – I checked its specs yesterday. I can reroute all the power to the shields. If the nuke goes off inside with the shields at full, the shields will contain the blast fully.” The quiet is thick, the seconds before what’s happening becomes clear sits heavy before them all. “But I have to do the rerouting work from the inside. And the shields can only be activated from the inside.”
Quiet, total quiet, as they each come to their own realization of what exactly Tony is driving at. Then, Steve, “No, Tony, don’t you dare. Don’t you dare.”
“Can we beam you back?” Coulson asks, ignoring Steve, ever practical in the face of hardship.
“Not with the shields up.” He closes his eyes and presses the comm button again. “It will work. I promise. It will contain the entire blast. It will work.”
“Tony—” Steve’s voice is tight and uncontrolled, and Tony’s never heard that tone from him before – not with the Kree, not when starting a dangerous mission, not in the video of him waking. Not scared. Never scared.
“Cap.” Tony hangs his head, wondering what he can even say beyond this is one more right against the wrongs. “It will save the planet. Millions.”
“There must be other options.”
“We don’t have time.”
“You have to be able to program – program something that lets us hack in from the outside.”
“I don’t have time.”
“Then you can make some sort of machine, some sort of contraption, Rube-Goldberg or something, that turns it on for you.”
“Too risky. I can’t let a solar system rest in the balance of something that might not work, might get knocked over. Half of engineering is failing the first twenty times. Even I can’t mess up pressing a button.”
“No,” Tony interrupts. “No. The risk is too great.”
“You’re right, you’re too great a risk. We haven’t even considered—”
“There is no other solution within our time frame.”
“Then find one,” Steve barks – a command, or close to one, if it wasn’t laced with panic. “You’re the king of plans on the fly, of cutting the wire—”
“Unless I need to lay down on it,” Tony says.
“We’re wasting time,” Coulson interjects. And he’s right – of course he’s right. “There’s billions of lives on the line. Can you do it, Tony?”
“I need to hear it from my superior officer.” He refuses to let tears cloud his vision – if he’s going to die, he’s going to die with clear eyes.
Silence on the comms.
“Steve,” Tony says, softly. “You’re my captain.”
Silence of the comms.
A shuffle. “Captain,” Coulson prompts, gently. “We need—”
“We’ll find a way to get you out.”
That’s as much of a yes as he’ll probably ever get.
Tony heads towards the control monitors.
He can hear Coulson begin barking orders of some sort at the crew, and he hears the tell-tale beep that tells him he was switched to a private channel. It’s Steve, and he’s resolute. “Tony – you will find a way out.”
Here’s what Tony doesn’t say: “I can’t.”
(Tony had turned off the PADD around 5AM ship-time, watching as the specs on the Veneer blinked out.
He looked at his hand, and its thin green veins, at his wrist and the ever-present concealed suit. He could feel his lungs, expand, contract. He could feel the golden throb of the t’hy’la bond, ever present, ever un-fulfilled.
Here he was, just molecules, just experiences. Here was the scarred center of him, ready and afraid. Here was his hand, shaking for the first time in decades.
Maybe he just didn’t want to die anymore.)
“I’m ready,” says Tony, hand hovering over the shields button. “I’ve rerouted all the power. Once Clint and Cap are in the shuttle and give me the clear, I’ll activate the shields. It’ll be just over ten minutes by that point. Page down to Levonos, let them know the plan – it should give them enough time to take cover, just in case.” And to give himself ten minutes to say goodbye to the stars, not that that matters. “It shouldn’t impact them at all, but we never know.”
There’s silence on the comms, a silence the speaks to being purposefully muted by the other side. Tony waits, and then waits, and after 33.2 excruciating seconds, he says, “Do you copy?”
“Copy, Stark, we’re having a bit of a disagreement,” says an extremely irritated Coulson.
“Disagreement? About what?”
“Nothing,” Steve interjects smoothly. “One moment.”
It’s many moments – almost three minutes – before Steve is back on the comms. “Okay, Tony. The shuttle is clear of the ship.”
“Raising shields now.”
He presses the button. The screen goes green – and they’re live.
With an internal grimace towards himself, Tony activates the Iron Man suit. Protection – not enough, not nearly enough – but it may make the final moments slightly more bearable. JARVIS is installed; he won’t have to die alone.
Mindlessly, he looks over the suit. Red and gold, his uniform colors. The control panels. The database that stores medical information. The repulsor beams. The storage container.
He reaches inside the last, disintegrating the suit up to his elbow for dexterity purposes. He fumbles through the container – a multi-purpose tool, a mini-tricorder, a picture of his first crew on a Starfleet vessel, the berries from one of his first missions with Steve.
He picks those out carefully. He had forgotten they existed. They still feel the same, so they may still be edible; he isn’t sure about shelf-life of alien fruit.
He turns them in his palm and feels a wave of nostalgia, for missions went and missions he’d never see.
With a sigh, he hides them in his fist. “JARVIS, disable communicators.” They don’t need to hear him die.
There’s a beep, and then silence.
He wonders if it’s a sweet, universe-given irony that he’s dying to hold the shields instead of the weapon.
He looks beyond the console, where the window to the outside is, but is stopped short by a small knock against the interior door.
He turns, baffled, and hears Steve’s voice coming through the metal of door, “Tony, let me in.”
“What—what are you doing here? Why aren’t you on the shuttle? Did you find a way to get me out?” Tony asks, bewildered. There was no way, there wasn’t, how—
“Open the door, Tony.”
Mystified and on his way to panicked, Tony runs over to the door and hits the open button with a shaking palm.
Steve walks in, hair in disarray, and eyes shining with something Tony can’t think enough to name. He stops in front of Tony and lets out a long, shaking breath.
“Good thing I know these halls – otherwise I would have been still searching for you during the blast.”
“What did you do,” Tony breathes. “Why weren’t you on the shuttle?”
“Clint tried to convince me to leave with him, but I insisted I stay.”
“Insisted,” Tony repeats, mindlessly.
“Strongly insisted.” Steve gives him a wry smile. “Or ordered. Or pushed him onto the ship and physically shut the door myself, insisted.” He shrugs. “It’s not like I have to worry about a court martial.”
“Why would you do that,” he finds himself asking, faintly. “You dumbass. You would have lived.”
“I was not going to let you die alone,” Steve says, completely calmly. He’s faced death before, no question, but he’s never walked so openly into its arms.
He has to figure a way out of this, a way around Steve’s stubbornness, a way around his original plan. His mind is whirling, working frantically, too frantically, and he takes a second of a deep breath, stabilizes his emotional shields, and starts mentally calculating possibilities.
He wonders if he can silently turn off the shields, comm Coulson, and have him beam back Steve without Steve noticing.
He wants to say, "Oh God. Oh no."
He wants to say, "This isn't doing either of us a kindness, no matter what you think."
He wants to say, "I'm a sacrifice I'm willing to make. You're not."
“I don’t know what to say to you,” Tony admits. Choices, possibilities, flip in front of his eyes, like a computer showing files, and Tony goes through, through, through them.
“You don’t have to say anything. Look, Tony, there’s some things I want to say to you. It’s about – why I didn’t want to put myself through this again.” Tony rubs a hand over his face, leaving his hand over his mouth. “And I just—”
Tony interrupts, eyes caught on his hand. “Wait.”
Steve stops mid-sentence, almost awkwardly, and simply looks over at Tony.
“Wait.” Tony lowers his hand from his face. “I think I have a plan.”
Steve can probably feel the wave of anxiousness leave Tony. Probably misinterprets it. Tony lets him.
Steve breathes a visible sigh of relief, body slumping. “Thank God,” he breathes.
Tony takes a second to take him in, to catalog him, to see him.
Tall – really tall. Blonde hair all pushed to one side. Wide, slumped shoulders. Gold uniform that fits just a little too snug. Eyes, kind eyes, wide in panic and fear. Perfect teeth. Spine as straight as his metaphorical one. Hands, calloused fingers. A world-weary smile.
“We should go, then.”
Tony stares at him a second, and then smiles, small, peaceful.
He, slowly, takes Steve’ hand, and leads him back towards the console, towards the window facing outside. Steve follows without comment.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” says Tony. He gestures out the window showing the large expanse of space – millions of stars are in this galaxy, dozens of planets, and it’s a tapestry of so much – so much life, so much potential, so much existence.
How calming to know that no matter what he’s done, no matter what’s happening to him, there’s millions and millions and billions and trillions of life, completely oblivious, completely undeterred.
“It is.” Steve’s watching him, anxious, confused.
Tony turns from the window. “Thanks, Steve. I don’t think I ever said that to you.”
“You have nothing to thank me for,” says Steve, slow, confused.
Tony barks out a laugh. He reaches forward and grasps Steve’s hand, squeezing it lightly. “Blatant lie. You’re right; you’re good at those.”
Steve laughs, like he doesn’t know what else to do, still staring at Tony with that restless confusion.
Tony can’t really blame him – they are standing in a ticking nuclear weapon, after all.
“Still,” Tony says, and doesn’t let his voice fall into his default flippancy. “Thank you.” A squeeze. “I know you won’t waste it.”
“JARVIS, engage protocol Other, code FN2187.”
The suit immediately starts to unravel from his wrist and spread, nano-bites coalescing, covering his arm, making its way up his body, until Steve is completely covered.
He can hear the click of the lock of the helmet, and the visor snaps down. Through the slits, Tony can see Steve’s eyes, panicked and horrified, both emotions filtering through the bond even as Tony shields. Steve’s scratching at the armor’s arm pieces, pulling and grabbing – but the suit was designed to sustain even Romulan strength – a super soldier’s pull does nothing.
Tony waits until the final piece of the armor has snapped into place, before catching Steve’s flailing hand.
Steve stills – probably yelling, possibly pleading – the armor blocks all noise unless instructed to open a channel.
Tony for a moment stares into the faceplate of his creation, his savior from captivity, the symbol of the new point to his life. For a moment, Tony stares past it, into the eyes of his t’hy’la, who will never know.
“It’s okay,” Tony says, calm. “It is only logical.”
He hits a button on the console, momentarily disabling the shields.
“JARVIS – take him back to the Avenger. Release only upon destruction of this ship. Go.”
The suit leaves, and, one minute later, without hesitation, he raises the shields.
(This ranks as one of Tony’s favorite memories:
It was morning, or at least by the ship’s standards. Tony wasn’t tired. He was fiddling with the AI code structure he was writing for a helper-bot, trying to make it slightly less sentient.
Steve was on the other end of the table, coming off an unexpected Beta shift, given a helmsman had come down with the Andorain flu. His head was resting on his folded arms, and he was quietly watching Tony work, silent but smiling.
Dummy was cleaning behind him.
And Tony had thought: this is what people wait for.
And Tony had thought: maybe I don’t deserve this, but maybe I could have it anyway.)
The Avenger isn’t visible from this vantage point, but Tony trusts JARVIS to bring Steve back safely. He doesn’t turn his communicator back on, and, instead, stares down at Levonos II, barely visible from the left side of the window.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
The berries are still in his hand.
He picks up one up and studies it. Purple, hard but still textured like a fruit. He had meant to look it up and see its chemical properties after leaving the planet, but had forgotten.
One last meal, Tony thinks.
The countdown is within a minute, now.
He remembers reading a book on Terran history, long ago, given to him by Jarvis on a birthday he’s now forgotten. It had spoken of old times, of the death penalty, and how some of the criminals had been given the option of a last meal before their final moments.
A human until the end, Tony thinks.
He can feel the bond pulse through his mental shield. A Vulcan bond, a mental bond, a bond he would not sacrifice for his life.
He thinks of playing in the Vulcans sands as a child, building castles and animals, his mother watching smiling from the window.
He thinks of Scorhak, one of his first teachers, who refused to give him easier work because of his lineage, and instead fought against the board of directors for Tony’s inclusion in all classwork and activities, a support that directly led to Tony having the energy and conviction to put effort into learning.
He thinks of playing with his pet sehlat, laughing and laughing.
He thinks about T’Long, the teacher that introduced him to robotics after school hours, and let him stay in her room, building nonsense while she graded, knowingly or not helping him avoid bullies for an entire year.
He thinks of the Vulcan Science Academy, the place that taught him all the knowledge that has led to anything good in life.
He thinks of the Vulcan Council Library, where he taught himself all that he knows about the soft-sciences of the world.
He thinks of Pepper standing on the foot of Mount Seleya, and her honest reverence when she said, “It’s beautiful.”
He thinks of the Vulcan-given computational skills that let him invent his life’s work.
He thinks of the Vulcan genes that have allowed him to skip sleep, skip meals, and invent life-saving devices.
He thinks of his blood, dripping green, that he was able to donate to save the life of the Ambassador who was shot on a routine mission, so nearby.
He thinks of his strength that allowed him to lift a boulder off Commander Wilson’s leg, that one mission to Nova III.
He thinks of his emotions, so strong, so all-encompassing, that have made life worth it.
Or half-human, Tony makes himself think.
He’s found his compromise.
He puts the berries in his mouth and begins to chew, staring out the large window to open space to where can see the very corner of the Avenger. The berries are hard through and through, and taste somewhat like a plomeek, though there is an odd acidity that Tony did not expect.
He swallows, and then is swallowed by a bright light.
He opens his eyes.
He spends a brief moment of disorientation – why can he still open his eyes – before he catalogues what he sees.
A field with orange grass, a sky of bright green, air that smells of pulled sugar.
For a moment, he wonders – have I been to hell before?
For a moment, he wonders – have I been to heaven before?
From behind him, he hears a noise.
“Friend Stark!” He has seen this alien before, though he cannot remember their name. They had greeted him, some months before. All four arms open to him. “I see you have chosen to come visit us now! Please, be welcome.” They stick out their foot in greeting.
“Visit?” Tony repeats dumbly.
The foot is lowered. “Well, yes. Did you not eat the fruit? Dddful confirmed it was given to you as a thank you gift for saving our colony. A free transportation to visit, whenever you chose.”
They say as if it should be obvious.
Small communication errors may be possible.
Consider this an open invitation to come visit.
You need only eat it to use it.
Tony sits down.
And then Tony laughs.
And then Tony cries.
And then Tony asks for a sub-space communicator.
Patching into the Avenger was more frustrating than anticipated. The Flualli government had initially made contact with the Avenger through Starfleet, and all in-range transmissions had been done over hailing frequencies rather than ship communicators. Point being, the Flualli didn't have a direct path to contact the Avenger.
Tony made do, contacting Starfleet. His death hadn't been recorded yet - unsurprising, given it had just supposedly happened moments ago and subspace communication is anything but perfectly reliable or instantaneous - and so starting his conversation with the communications ensign on-base with, "Hey, I'm not dead," hadn't been the most intelligent move in his lifetime. After a frankly astonishingly thorough check, including a DNA sample, his identity was verified, and he was allowed to contact the Avenger.
Even then, given the distance, it couldn't be in real-time, and instead was a sub-space communication, text-only for faster travel.
He did what he could think of to convince them it was really him - included his Starfleet number, personal passcode, a detailed explanation of events, as well as an inside joke he knew the communications officer would immediately recognize.
He could feel the blocked bond pulsating all the while. He refused to tap into it, refused to acknowledge it, refused to see what chord his supposed-death had struck (perhaps, too afraid to think it had been nothing), but one evening as he was watching the sun set, so large it took up nearly half the sky, he could feel the shift.
He hadn't even been aware he had been feeling grief - but knew once it lifted, once it was replaced with a light, astonished happiness. Across light years, across days of warp-travel, across galaxies, he could feel the tenor of relief, the restless anxiousness, the urgency.
It took nearly a week - around three days to reach them, around three days for a reply - but he was unsurprised when he was approached by a Fluallian council member, who he now knew as Fllula. They raised a leg then handed him a note, which read, simply, "Stay put. We're coming. - Captain Rogers."
("Leave, then," his father said, tone betraying no emotion, eyes as blank as ever. "Find your way on a pleasure planet, on a mining planet, on a Starfleet base.”
"I will," Tony had replied, meaning it in that moment.
"Know, that if you refuse your place in the Vulcan Science Academy, and leave, you are permanently separating yourself from Vulcan. You will be alone with your choices. No matter the trouble you get into, no matter what happens, I will not come for you. You will have to live with the consequences of your choice."
Tony could only too easily imagine himself sequestered on a planet, dying of some drug-related poison, begging his father for bail or for help and receiving silence in return.
That time, he had stayed.
The days on Flualli were hot and long, and, in his boredom, he found himself engineering a bio-hazard, ecological detector. It was handheld, much like a tri-corder, but had the sole purpose of scanning plants for any abnormalities. It could take a biological sample and run it for any concerns, such as fungus, water contamination, or any other abnormalities. The mock-up was slightly haphazard, thrown together with scraps from the Flualli junkyard, but he was pleased with the mechanics of it nonetheless. When the Avenger made orbit, he was finishing downloading the Fluallian database on botany with one of their younger science officers, who, for no reason Tony could really figure out, was the only one who was a light shade of blue.
"Friend-Stark." The interruption was made by the member who gave him a tour of the field, which felt like so long ago. "The Avenger is requesting permission to beam you up."
"Tell them I'll be ready in a few minutes. I have a couple of loose threads to tie up here."
Tony flapped his hand. "Standard-idiom. Don't worry about it, just say it."
He got a squawk in response, but no lifted leg, and he wondered what that meant in terms of their relationship.
He finished explaining the botany examiner - which he was dubbing ‘the aloe-lujiah’ simply for his own amusement - and handed it off, with a promise to forward specs, the Avenger's database, and keep in touch for questions. Several minutes later, he found himself standing underneath the bright, hot sun.
He tapped the Starfleet insignia still pinned to his breast.
"One to beam up."
The world dissolved.
("You didn't need to make this, Tony," Coulson had said, bemused, hands minutely stretching the fabric.
"It's a better uniform material, my own textile design, with my own artificial fibers. It's stronger, more durable, and more flexible than the current uniforms. Technically, yes, it will be a pain to manufacture new uniforms for the entire ship, and potentially expensive with what we'd have to stock the replicator with. I've designed it through all known elements, though, so it could be—"
"Tony," Coulson had interrupted. "I meant that it wasn't your responsibility to make a better uniform."
"It needed to be fixed." Tony shrugged. "I fixed it."
"It wasn't your fault that the spear went through my uniform, Tony."
Tony could still see the dinner-plate sized hole in Coulson's uniform. "No." He shrugged again. "But I could prevent it from happening again."
And if he could prevent it from happening again, and didn't, it would place Coulson's death on his shoulders.
Or so he had once thought.)
There are more people in transporter bay than is really required for the occasion.
Clint is at the helm, his hand still on the beaming button, and he’s the first person that Tony sees.
“Welcome back from the dead!” He slaps the transporter console. “That was quite a extravaganza, eh.”
“Indeed.” Tony nods. Someone on his right begins to immediately move, and, with a quick glance, he realizes its Bruce.
“I know you’re probably fine,” Bruce says, a medical tricorder already in hand. “Being that you didn’t actually die, but you did teleport a very long distance, and I just want to make sure all your molecules are where they are supposed to be.”
“Sure,” Tony laughs, patting him on the shoulder. Bruce looks up from the tricorder and catches his eye, real relief in his smile, and then continues his examination.
“Commander Stark,” says Romanoff, ever the consummate professional. “You’ll have three days of sick leave. I expect you back on duty for the alpha shift.”
“Okay,” he agrees.
He lifts his head from where he was staring at Bruce frown at the tricorder, and looks around the room.
Clint at the helm, Natasha in the corner, Bruce by his side, an ensign security officer, Peter the intern who is bouncing on his toes, and there, in the back, right corner, the Captain.
Tony quickly averts his gaze, and sends a quick grin to Peter. “Parker, you okay there?”
“Commander Romanoff let me lead engineering bay for the journey to Corons VI to pick you up!” He bounces again. “I didn’t break anything, I swear. Though I didn’t really understand the expansion you put on the warp drive—”
“The what?” Romanoff snaps.
“The nothing,” Tony interrupts. “Parker, we’ll talk later. I’ll meet you in the bay in a bit, okay?”
“Okay, Mister Stark,” he agrees. “I made an update to the—”
“Parker,” Tony interrupts. He tries to telepathically communicate not in front of the first officer, please, and it must work, because Peter’s eyes widen, and he nods rapidly.
“You’re fit as a whistle. Or I think you are, given we really don’t have enough data on Vulcan/Human anatomy to be sure.” A complaint that Bruce never once has failed to mention during Tony’s checkups. Bruce powers down the medical tricorder and gives him a hard slap on the shoulder. “Good to have you back.”
“Thanks. Can I step off the transporter, now?”
“Yeah,” Bruce allows. “You’re fine.”
Tony takes his time down the steps. Finally, with a calming breath, he side-eyes the corner, where Steve is still standing, stock still.
“What, Cap, no words of how much you missed me?”
Steve, passive as ever, simply looks at him. “I’m glad you’re back, Commander Stark.” Stark, ouch. “I actually have something to discuss with you. If everybody wouldn’t mind leaving the room, for just a moment?”
Minor grumbles, a couple of touches to Tony’s back, a few smiles, and the room clears.
(“Tony,” Deanna starts. Her hands are laced around her knee. “I am worried about your mental state.”
“Join the club, sister.” Tony winks at her. “Wasn’t assigned mandatory counseling because it’s Omicron Delta up in there.”
She does not look amused. “Tony, your guilt manifests in dangerous self-destructive tendencies. You show far too little regard for your own life.” He shrugs. “Let’s try an exercise. What do you enjoy about life? Why do want to keep going?”)
Steve all but collides with him. If Tony were anything other than a Vulcan, he’d be immediately tipped over with the force of it.
Steve places his arms underneath Tony’s, wrapped around his waist, like he’s a good two feet shorter than he actually is, with his face kind of smashed up against where Tony’s shoulder meets his neck. His hair is sort of getting in Tony’s mouth, but it feels so damn good – the strength of it, the concern of it, the emotion of it, that Tony just gripes back tighter, clutching with all the strength he can afford to give, twisting his fingers into the back of Steve’s uniform shirt. He’s solid and real and there and they’re both alive, and this, this right here.
“Don’t ever do that again.” His voice is muffled by Tony’s neck. The movement of his lips against skin has the hairs on the back of Tony’s neck standing at attention.
“Hope I never have to, Cap.”
In the end, and Tony is forever embarrassed by the fact, it's bureaucracy that outs him.
"Commander Stark,” the intercom crackles. “Would you please come to my quarters? I have business to discuss with you.”
Tony had thought nothing of it, assuming it was some paperwork to fill out regarding his quote unquote ‘death’. If only Steve had waited one more day to fill out the mission report, it would have saved them both hours of forms.
When he steps in the room, he pauses slightly in the doorway, just from the expression on Steve’s face.
“Hey,” Tony greets cautiously. He stops in front of Steve’s desk. “You rang?”
Steve nods, once. His face is somber, sober. “I was filling out the form to negate your death.”
“Not particularly comforting that’s so common they have a standardized form for it, is it?” Tony joked. The ends of Steve’s mouth curve, but he’s too sullen to let it permanently form.
“I was copying information from your personnel record. I came across something I’d like to ask you about.”
Steve hands him a PADD, where one section is highlighted. Quickly, Tony scans it, heart stuttering in his side when his eyes flitter past the words:
Relationship Status: Betrothal bond formed to T’Prynn of Vulcan, initiated at 8 years of age. Bond broken in year 2250, due to formation of t’hy’la bond. T’hy’la bond status unknown.
Tony reads it once, twice, three times, buying time for a response he’ll never be able to form properly.
When he found out about the t’hy’la bond, one of his first actions was contacting T’Prynn. The conversation had been 1 minute, 21 seconds long. When Tony had filled out the Starfleet forms for change of relationship status, he didn’t think twice about quickly jotting down a reason for status change section. If anything, he thought the admirals at Starfleet may get a kick out of it, a laugh for the breakroom.
“Childhood betrothal bonds are common on Vulcan,” he ends up saying, handing to PADD back. “I had never intended to fulfill it.”
“I figured that part out on my own,” Steve replies. “I did some research, because this all—” He stops and takes a visible short breath. When he continues, his voice is a touch harder. “It didn’t make sense. You never mentioned it. I found just what you had said – childhood betrothal bonds are common, then these half-formed bonds can be fulfilled or dissolved, later on in life. T’Prynn and your bond was announced in Vulcan media back when it happened, and it specifically mentioned the purpose was for political and economic ties. One of the first hits when I searched for T’Prynn was the announcement of her second engagement, to some Vulcan named T’Qaun.”
T’Quan was the only Vulcan that Tony could remember that regularly dyed her hair. Perhaps T’Prynn, for all she showed no interest in him, had something for the unconventional types.
“Clearly, that relationship didn’t mean much to either of you. I am more concerned with the second part, here. The t’hy’la bond.”
Tony shifts involuntarily, wildly uncomfortable.
“I did research into what the bond is, Tony. How could you—”
“That’s private,” Tony interrupts. His whole body feels strangely hot. “Please stop.”
“Tony,” Steve continues, ignoring him. He sounds strangely urgent. “If you have that – why are you here? Why are you alone?”
Tony opens his mouth, hoping the right words appear on his tongue. After several seconds of just air, he finally stutters out a hopefully believable lie, “I have a duty to this ship. I can’t just resign for some – some bond.”
Steve leans back in his chair. It creaks with his weight, bending slightly, and he can feel Steve’s strong, unwavering gaze on his face, even as Tony studiously stares at the wall behind him.
“You’re dismissed,” Steve says abruptly. Tony looks down at him despite himself, caught off guard. “Not from the room – from the ship. From the mission. I am relieving you from Starfleet duty.”
“No,” Tony rejects automatically, without meaning to. He can feel his breath starting to quicken. “No, you can’t do that.”
“I can. I’m Captain.”
“No, I mean you can’t do that. Steve,” Tony shifts forward, hands finding the table separating them. He knows his eyes are probably wide, crazed. The fast of an uptick in heartrate cannot be healthy. “Steve, you can’t take the ship from me. You can’t. Please don’t. Please.”
“How could you—” Steve breaths, two short breaths, eyes afire. “How could you have that and not have it be around?”
“It’s around,” Tony states immediately. “It’s around. Don’t send me off.” He can feel his control start to come back to him. “Please,” he says again, this time a request, not a beg.
“It’s around,” Steve repeats. His teeth grind together. “It’s around?”
“Around,” Tony confirms. “On ship. So, don’t dismiss me. Please.”
“Okay, okay.” A pause. “Okay, then.”
A muscle ticks in Steve’s jaw. His arms are crossed and he’s leaning far back in his chair, eyes blinking rapidly, and Tony finds himself at an unusual loss for words.
Abruptly, Steve stands, and turns to face the wall. “It’s unethical to command you to tell me who it is.” Steve laughs, once, bitter. “I want to, all the same.”
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Tony answers quietly, confused.
Steve spins. “How does it not matter?” he demands. “Someone on this ship is – is a friend, a brother, a lover to you, has a mind so perfect for yours that there are Vulcan fairytales about the strength of the love – and it doesn’t matter that they rejected you?”
“Who says they rejected me?” Tony responds without thinking, slightly hurt at the assumption. Steve straightens, eyes wide, and Tony realizes his mistake. “Wait, no—”
“You rejected the bond?”
Tony wishes he were braver.
He shuffles in place.
“Tony?” A pause, so pregnant, so hesitant, then, “You rejected the bond?”
Tony wants to think of the proper answer, the witty response that’ll smooth this over, the lie so perfected that there are no holes to poke, but his mind is blank.
He shakes his head.
“So you didn’t tell—” Steve cuts himself off, and runs a hand through his hair. It spikes slightly in the back. “Look, I may be wildly off base here, and if I am, please tell me, and I’ll never mention it again, I promise. I just, I can’t do this anymore, with you, it’s—”
He’s stuttering, tripping over words, falling in a way he never does. Steve’s smooth in times of trouble, collected in decision making, assured in his beliefs, but apparently, there’s a type of bravery that Steve struggles with.
“I told myself it was a passing thing, that it would go away. It usually does. Or I can ignore it. But I can’t. I can’t, and I never couldn’t understand why it just, it never alleviated, it only grew stronger. And if there’s any possibility that it’s – that it’s not just me, I can’t not take the chance. And you lied that one time – you lied about Natasha trying the communicator, and you never explained how you knew.”
Steve had never brought up that he had found that out.
Steve grabs his shoulder, and the bond sings for completion. “If it’s a possibility, I just have to – is it me?”
Tony closes his eyes. He breathes.
He opens his eyes, and there’s Steve, hovering over him with a bright, terrified look to his eyes, tight with worry and anticipation.
“Do you want it to be you?”
Steve blinks down at him. “What does that matter?”
“It’s all that matters,” Tony answers honestly. “I’m not going to force something like this on someone who doesn’t want it.”
They’re both close, so near the same end circle, but the risks are just so great they’re both toeing the line, unwilling to be the one to make the leap. Both would be better off dying alone than making that jump and missing the center.
Steve bites his lip, and looks down, losing Tony’s eye. “I feel like I’ve made that clear.”
“T’hy’la isn’t an option for me, Steve,” Tony explains. “It’s not something I can take a chance on, try out to see if it fits. It’s – it’s lifelong. It’s permanent. It’s not my choice to make. Who it is – who I want it to be – doesn’t matter. I’ll love them anyway. What matters is if you want it.”
Steve glances up. There is a moment of breathless silence, deliberation, and then he reaches out, curling a hand around Tony’s jaw. He leans in, then pauses, just long enough to hear Tony’s intake of breath, to meet his eyes, and then he leans in, and presses their mouths together.
Steve’s lips are dry against his own, but gentle, and his hand is so soft cradling the back of his neck. Tony’s careful with his response, following Steve’s lead and letting Steve have control, pressing back softly but noticeably. Tony can’t help but catalogue the sensations of the kiss: the small exhale of breath as Steve pulls back a fraction, the fullness of his bottom lip, the heat from his mouth, the slow trembling of his hand. Tony lifts his own hand and places it gently on Steve’s hip, fingers pressing in softly, and he can feel the stutter of breath as Steve feels his response.
Steve pulls back a fraction, just enough to catch Tony’s eyes, and he must be seeing something he’s feeling there – the hope, the disbelief, the affection – because he lets his head fall to Tony’s shoulder, and takes a step in closer, into the vee of Tony’s legs. His arms reach around Tony’s middle, like he’s small, and he holds on tight.
“Really?” His voice is muffled by Tony’s uniform.
“Really,” Tony confirms. He can feel Steve’s forehead press against his neck, and he raises a hand to cradle Steve’s, starting to play with the small hairs there. “Who else?”
Tony lifts his other arm and pulls Steve closer.
“I know the feeling.” He kisses Steve’s temple, just because he can. “But no. It’s you. And it’s only ever going to be you.”
When Tony was thirty-one, before he was captured, after he was a billionaire, after he was the top weapons distributor in the galaxy, after he made a media appearance that was broadcast to seventy-two different planets, after he had visited 661 planets, after being named the most successful man in the galaxy by Starrider media –
He had thought to himself, I am going to be alone forever.
That guy, Tony could – and would – kick in the shin.
But there was a little boy, six years old, with pointed ears but puffy brown hair, who had sat at the edge of his bed, refusing to feel his own tears, who had placed his head in his hands, and thought with a desperation verging on hysteria, I am going to be alone forever. I will never belong.
To that little boy, Tony wishes he could go back, kneel in front of him, take his hand, and say, “Just wait. You’ll never guess who you’re going to meet.”